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A Generous Heart

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A Generous Heart

* * *

“A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.” – Buddha

 

Prologue – Celestial Mission

“Spike!” Rarity called out. “Could you be a dear and bring me my pin cushion?”

The young dragon, eager to please, ran over with the pin cushion, extra pins and scissors just in case. “Here you are, Rarity. Who are you making a wedding dress for anyway?”

Rarity carefully began pinning lace to the neckline of the dress. “It’s for Miss Cheerilee, of course. Her wedding to Big Macintosh is coming up soon.”

“Oh, right. You know who would look beautiful in a wedding gown…you, Rarity.” Spike sighed heavily imagining himself standing next to her saying their vows.

Rarity gave a hearty laugh. “Why, Spike. With as much business as I’ve been doing, I haven’t even had time to think about romance.” That was a lie; actually, she thought about it WAY too much and dove into more romance novels than she cared to admit. She had her whole wedding planned out from where in Canterlot it would be, to the dress she would make, to what cake she wanted Pinkie Pie to bake for her.

Spike started to speak but instead released a belch of fire that contained a scroll. He opened it and surveyed its contents carefully.

“A letter for Twilight, I presume,” Rarity said. “Now that things are so peaceful, she tells me she doesn’t receive nearly as many letters.”

“No, actually, the letter is for you.”

The unicorn’s magic faltered and the fabric, pins, thread and scissors she was levitating crashed to the floor. “For me?! Oooh, perhaps she wants me to design a new gown for her!”

“She doesn’t say why, but she wants you in Canterlot as soon as possible.”

Rarity considered all the work she had to do and if she would be able to finish in time. However, a letter from Princess Celestia could not be ignored. “I suppose I should pack for our journey at once.”

* * *

As the train sped forward, Rarity couldn’t help but wonder what the princess wanted. She had planned to bring dress-making supplies, but then Spike told her the letter indicated she was only to bring what could fit in her saddle bag. She watched the forests and mountains fly by before they were finally replaced by the polished marble buildings of Canterlot.

Her heart pounded nervously as she exited the train and walked through the station. The letter gave no indication if the news was good or bad or if there was a task she was to complete. On the way, she caught sight of herself in a shop window. At least she’d remembered to dress in style with her burgundy beret and black turtleneck.

She trotted toward the castle hoping it was a new gown the princess wanted. Even though she couldn’t bring fabric or any big things, she had slipped her measuring tape into her saddle bag at the last minute. The stallions of the royal guard greeted her warmly and one of them led her through the maze of hallways.

Her favorite part of the castle was the throne room where the stained glass windows painted rainbows of color across the floor. She confidently walked across the lush red carpet and bowed before the Sun Princess. “Your Majesty, I’ve come as quickly as I could.”

 

Princess Celestia gave a kind smile, as she always did when one of the Mane Six showed up. “Rarity, thank for you answering my letter. I have a task for you – one I feel is best suited for the Element of Generosity.”

Rarity felt her cheeks flush. She could be generous when she wanted to be, but she also had a problem with selfishness. In fact, of all her friends she felt she had the hardest time living up to her element. “I will do my best.”

Princess Celestia walked with her back through the throne room and into the hall. “This will be a difficult task and you may be gone for a long time. Do you remember when Princess Twilight went through the mirror into another land?”

Did she ever! She was absolutely enchanted every time Twilight talked about her adventures on the other side. Well, two legged flesh creatures sounded sort of weird, but Twilight always seemed to have a great time, even meeting someone on the other side. With Rarity’s previous disappointments in romance it might be nice to connect with someone better than Prince Blueblood or Trenderhoof. But… “I would be gone a long time?”

“The portal to this world only stays open from sunrise to sunset for one day – the winter solstice - every twenty-four moon cycles.”

 

Two years…that was two years. She wouldn’t see Equestria, her family or friends for two years. Whatever mission this was must be ridiculously important for the princess to want her gone that long. Not only that, sunset was soon. She wouldn’t have time to say goodbye to anypony.

As she followed the princess into another room, she noticed an ornate mirror with silver trim and next to the mirror was a small, orange creature with a mustache she’d never seen before.

Princess Celestia stood by him. “Rarity, this is the Lorax. He’s from a world in trouble and when he came to me for help I knew you were the pony we needed.”

He was like nothing she’d ever seen before. So she wasn’t going to be human like in the world Twilight got to go to? Was she going to look like him? “Hello. How can I help you?”

 

“You’re the Element of Generosity?” He asked in a gruff-sounding voice. When she nodded, he continued. “I am the Lorax – guardian of the forest. I speak for the trees. And the trees need your help. There is one so possessed by greed I fear he’ll destroy everything. As much as I try, he refuses to listen.”

“And why would he listen to me?” Rarity wondered.

 

Princess Celestia gently answered. “Because he needs his heart to be touched by generosity. That’s the only thing that might change him – the power of your element. That’s why it will take a while – the heart is not easily changed, particularly one so twisted by greed and pride.”

The Lorax took a few steps forward. “Please, Rarity, will you do this for the trees?”

 

“Wait…what will I look like?” She didn’t want to be some small, ugly, furry creature.

 

“I expect you’ll be human, like him.”

So this greedy individual was a human as she would be if she accepted this mission. Thoughts swirled in her mind about her family, particularly Sweetie Belle, her friends and all of Equestria she’d leave behind for two years. However, she knew if someone were destroying the forests of her land – the life-giving plants that produced air and food – she wouldn’t hesitate to help Equestria. She took a deep breath. “I’ll do it. I’ll go.”

The Lorax bowed his head humbly. “Thank you.”

“A word of caution, Rarity,” Princess Celestia said. “You are a unicorn and it’s not uncommon when unicorns become human to forget what you are and where you came from. Do not forget and whatever you do, do not let his greed infect your generous heart.” She produced a hair clip with jewels that looked like the unicorn’s cutie mark and using magic, gently put it in her mane. “Wear this. It might help. Now, it’s almost time for me to lower the sun. I’ll let your family and friends know you’ve gone, but you’d better hurry before it’s too late.”

Rarity looked at her reflection in the mirror and almost faltered, but the Lorax put a hand on her leg. She smiled at him. No, she couldn’t back down from this. In any world, it was her job to spread the spirit of generosity. So, she galloped full force through the mirror.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1 – The First Day

She felt the vortex swirling around, changing her, pulling her further and further into it and toward a strange new world. Finally, she stepped out on the other side and into a large office. She looked around and saw no one. Good, what would they think if she just popped out of a mirror? Oh, right, she was on her hands and knees too. Remembering what Twilight said about her adventures, Rarity stood up on two legs for the first time and turned back as the Lorax tumbled through the mirror.

“Listen, sweetheart, I don’t have much time. He catches me here, he’s not gonna be happy. I worked my magic on him so he’ll think you’re his personal assistant. Everything you need as far as paperwork is in your bag and keys to your room at the Greenville Boarding House.”

Personal assistant? Rarity was used to being assisted, not helping others. But if that was the way to get close enough to this guy to change his mind, then she’d have to go along with it. She studied herself in the mirror and supposed she was beautiful enough for a human. She still had long purple curls and was dressed in her black turtleneck paired with a purple skirt and matching ankle boots. Her deep blue eyes hadn’t changed in color or shape. It was disappointing that her horn and cutie mark were gone, but then her eyes looked up at the hair clip Princess Celestia had given her. No, she still had it.

“For Pete’s sake, stop primping. Grab some files and act like you’re doing something.” The Lorax hissed before he took off out of a large glass door that led outside.

She could hear footsteps coming closer, so she quickly crossed the red carpeted floor and picked up a folder from the large mahogany desk. Her heart pounded as she heard the handle turn on the door. In her mind she tried to prepare herself to meet her new boss, her new mission. He was probably older, maybe a bit paunchy with graying hair. She imagined he’d wear some kind of bland suit.

However, Rarity hadn’t prepared for six feet of boyishly handsome perfection to walk through the door. Maybe she hadn’t been human very long, but he was certainly attractive. He surveyed her with eyes hidden behind glittery blue shades as he removed the top hat from his ebony hair. His suit with its green tailcoat was certainly far from bland, but Rarity didn’t care much for it either. On his lapel he wore some kind of strange pink flower or some kind of plant Rarity had never seen that clashed with the green hue. The entire garish coat was complimented (or maybe not – Rarity couldn’t decide) by gold buttons and a chain hanging down from his pocket on one side. He held out his hand, which was covered in a green glove that extended above his elbow and she gave him the folder.

Behind him trailed a woman with painted red lips and big, blonde hair who spoke in an accent similar to Applejack’s. “And who are you?”

“She’s my new assistant,” the young man said as he sat behind the desk in a tall plush chair that matched the carpet. He removed his shades, ice blue eyes reflecting confusion as he tapped the glasses on his desk. “They didn’t tell me your name.”

“I’m Rarity.”

“Just Rarity?” the woman drawled.

Great. Princess Celestia would send one of the few ponies in Equestria with just a first name. Her sister popped into her mind…Sweetie… “Belle. Rarity Belle.”

“Well, Miss. Belle, did they explain your duties to you in HR?”

“No. They popped a folder in my hand and told me bring it here.”

“What do I pay those idiots for?” The man asked not looking up from the paper on which he was quickly writing something.

Is he really the boss? Rarity wondered. He was so young. Perhaps humans aged differently. She’d have to look at the paperwork the Lorax mentioned and see how old she was supposed to be here.

The woman looked at her with disbelief and put her hands on her hips. “Well, go on up to HR and they’ll get you settled. Then come back in here. You stay until Mr. Onceler has finished his work day or until he gives you the go-ahead to leave.”

So that was his name. “Got it. And may I ask your name?”

“You may address me as Mrs. Onceler.”

And there it was – he was married. Of course he was married. No stallion…er…man that attractive would be single. And if he were single, then he’d probably be a colt-cuddler…or whatever they called that here. Yes…his flamboyant suit definitely screamed that he liked guys.

Leaving the office, she wondered how she would ever get away with this. She supposed she would just have to trust that Princess Celestia and the Lorax knew what they were doing. Rarity started down the long hallway, unsure of where to go.

“You need help?” A kind voice asked. It belonged to a girl with long, brown tied up in a ponytail.

“I’m supposed to go to HR.”

“Oh, I’ll walk with you. I’m Lisa.”

“Rarity.”

“Rarity,” Lisa repeated thoughtfully. “That’s not a name you hear very often, but it’s pretty.”

“Thank you.”

“So are you working in the office with the rest of us?”

“I’m Mr. Onceler’s personal assistant.”

Lisa gave a short laugh. “Good luck with that! You couldn’t get most of the girls here to take that job. Long hours, boring meetings, not to mention the guy isn’t exactly a peach.” She opened a door leading into another office. “Plus, there’s his…uh…reputation with the ladies.”

“Whose?” Asked another young lady with short, straight black hair.

“The boss. Rarity, this is Abby.”

Abby crossed her arms and looked Rarity up and down. “Oh, so she’s going to be the new notch in his belt.”

“I most certainly will not!” Rarity protested. “I have no intention of falling in love with him.”

Both Lisa and Abby laughed, but it was Abby who spoke first. “Love has nothing to do with it. In fact, unless you’re green and made of paper, he’s not going to love you.”

“I would hope not. I’m sure his wife wouldn’t be happy about that.”

“His wife?” Lisa asked.

“That tacky woman with the big hair, glasses and uncouth accent.”

Abby snickered. “Oh, Rarity, no! That’s his mother. Mr. Onceler isn’t married, in fact, according to recent magazines, he’s quite the eligible bachelor.”

“If you could find a woman crazy enough to put up with him,” Lisa said.

This conversation was not making Rarity feel any more confident about her job. The paperwork at HR didn’t take too long and then she was shown to a small office adjacent to her boss’.

The head of HR explained what she’d primarily be responsible for. “You’ll answer his calls – if it’s important, and by that, I mean someone better be dying, put it through, if not take a message. If he’s unable to attend a meeting, you’ll go in his place – make sure you take detailed notes. Look over his schedule the day before and make sure he has everything he needs for whatever meetings or appointments he’ll be attending. He’ll leave his briefcase on his desk – put the papers in there. He’ll also leave his silver cigarette case on there – make sure it’s full of his favorite cigarettes. I’ve listed them here.”

He smokes. Great, Rarity thought sarcastically.

“He sends out dry cleaning every night so before you come in for the day, stop by the dry cleaners in Greenville, pick it up and you’ll put it on the hook outside the locked door in his office. Then make sure by eight there’s hot, black coffee on his desk.”

“What’s behind the locked door?”

“He almost never leaves the factory grounds. He felt it better to have a private apartment built right next to his office. Only he knows the code and if, for whatever reason, he doesn’t close the door all the way, you are never to go in there – ever.”

Yes, because after what the other girls told her about his ‘reputation’ going into his private living space was just what she was going to do. At this point, it was very hard to trust in this plan.

The other woman left her alone and she skimmed the schedule for the next day. In neat handwriting were lists of all the papers needed and, thankfully, the filing cabinet was well-organized making it easy to find everything. She gathered from the papers that the company made thneeds – whatever the hell those were! And it looked like the materials for it were produced by a specific tree. These must be the trees I’m supposed to help save, she realized.

Unfortunately, some of the papers were blueprints for what appeared to be a machine with three axes on it that would rotate in order to chop down three trees at once. In red lettering, the same neat handwriting – Mr. Onceler’s, she guessed – made two suggestions: “Four axe heads maybe?” And: “It needs to be about 20% BIGGER!”

Well, much more specific than 20% cooler, Rarity thought and smiled at the memory of making Rainbow Dash’s dress for the gala. She separated the papers based on which meeting they were needed for and then walked into the adjacent office.

She was relieved to see her boss’ mother had left, but Mr. Onceler was at his desk reading something concealed inside a folder intently. “Just leave the papers on the corner there, Amity.” He gestured with his gloved hand.

She wondered why he wore those garish green gloves that didn’t even match the shade of his green coat. Maybe he had a thing about germs. “It’s Rarity.”

Finally, he those ice blue eyes looked up at her. “Excuse me?”

“My name – it’s Rarity, not Amity.”

He smiled and not in a friendly way. “Ra-ri-ty. I don’t pay you to correct me.” He opened the silver case she’d been told about and extracted the last cigarette from it. “Just make sure those get in my briefcase tomorrow morning.” He lit the cigarette and took a long drag before holding out the papers he’d just been reading. “And forward those to my lawyers so they can take care of it. Damn environmentalists…”

She coughed lightly as smoke hit her face. “Yes, sir.”

“Does this bother you?”

“Yes, actually. I think smoking is repulsive.”

He stood and leaned in toward her over the desk. “Ra-ri-ty, the correct answer is: ‘no, sir, it doesn’t.’ I also don’t pay you for your opinion.” He tapped the silver case. “Make sure that’s filled tomorrow. You may go.”

She was certain by the time he finished speaking she’d been giving a death glare, but she managed a small smile and walked out hoping she could quell the urge to say or do anything that might cost her this job or jeopardize the mission.

* * *

He watched her leave. There was something different about this one. First of all, Onceler couldn’t clearly remember meeting her or interviewing her – those memories seemed strangely fuzzy and disjointed. Perhaps for others this wouldn’t be a problem, but the thing was, his memory was very good. Even as busy as he was, he certainly wouldn’t have forgotten someone with purple hair, flawless features and porcelain skin. She almost seemed otherworldly.

Then there was her paperwork. He pulled it from the back of the folder in front of him. Rarity Belle was twenty-two years old, only a year younger than him. She had a high school listed that he’d never heard of, no college experience (of course, neither did he), and had been a fashion designer for a place called Carousel Boutique – wherever the hell that was. Why on earth would a fashion designer want a job as his personal assistant? Even though thneeds could be used in fashionable ways – after all, they did have a million uses – it was a stretch to think she’d give that up to work for him.

The thing that intrigued him most was he could tell she was from humble beginnings just like he’d been. Her polished manner was learned, not something she’d been brought up with. He’d been around enough people like that to tell. “Humble beginnings” that’s what they called it to be polite, but one look at his family would clue anyone in on the fact that he was nothing more than a country bumpkin with a tailored suit and confidence.

Well, Miss. Rarity, he thought. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

* * *

Rarity wanted a while to look around Greenville the next morning, but as it was, she almost missed the bus to the factory and she didn’t want to be late on her first full day of work. Perhaps during the weekend, but from what she could tell, Friday was some kind of holiday, so the shops would probably be closed. Looking at the decorations on the houses, she gathered it was similar to Hearth’s Warming Eve. This was her first Hearth’s Warming Eve outside of Equestria. She thought of the gift she’d sewn for Sweetie Belle, still waiting to be torn open by the little filly. Rarity would miss her sister’s look of excitement as she put on the dress and pranced around.

Staring out the window on the ride there, she got a good idea of the valley. There still seemed to be quite enough trees, so she wasn’t entirely sure what the Lorax was so afraid of. But then her mind wandered back to those blueprints. If they could chop down the trees three or four times as fast, then it might be possible to decimate the entire forest in no time. As the factory loomed closer, it was obvious some of the employees were already at work as smoke rose into the air. The bus rumbled over a bridge and she thought she saw a hint of something dark in the stream under it, but it wasn’t entirely light out yet and she couldn’t be sure.

Rarity rushed into the building upon arriving and clocked in. First, she ran to the office and hung up the dry cleaning to avoid lugging that around. She picked up the files she’d left the night before and made sure they were neatly laid in her boss’ briefcase. Cringing at the thought of being exposed to it all day, she filled the silver cigarette case. Maybe I should just hide the lighter, she considered.

It took her a minute to figure out how to use his fancy coffee machine, but once she did, it made a perfect, steaming cup of coffee that she placed on his desk moments before he entered through the supposedly sacred ‘locked door’.

“Good morning, Ra-ri-ty,” he drawled.

She forced a smile. “Good morning, sir.”

He was dressed in the same kind of coat and gloves he’d worn the day before. His hair was slightly damp and when he walked close to her she caught the scent of something spicy like cinnamon or cloves. It reminded her of crisp autumn days when she could be found in Sugarcube Corner having a chai tea latte with Pinkie Pie. “Do you have a copy of my schedule for me?”

“Yes, sir.” She handed it to him.

He sat down and immediately lit up a cigarette. She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. He comes out smelling absolutely delicious and now he’s doing that…gross.

“Is there anything else?” she asked.

He shook his head and dismissed her with a wave of his hand. Rarity retreated to the sanctuary of her own little office. She looked at her copy of his schedule. Two meetings overlapped and in that neat, red handwriting he’d written: “Attend this one and take detailed notes.”

Did he always write in red ink? It was kind of angry-looking.

There was a knock on the door frame and she didn’t want to look up worried it was him, but to her surprise it was Lisa. “Hey, girl. Someone brought in muffins so I thought you might like one.” She set a chocolate muffin on Rarity’s desk.

“Thanks.”

“How are you getting along?” Her voice dropped. “You know, with him?”

“Is he always a jerk or is it just me?” Rarity whispered.

“It’s not just you. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great place to work, but he’s no gem. I heard one of his personal assistants is still in a mental hospital.”

I should have never left Equestria, she realized. She reminded herself to strangle the Lorax next time she saw him.

Lisa leaned against the edge of Rarity’s desk. “I’ve actually heard rumors he was a decent human being once, but I’ve only been here a year, so I didn’t know him then. Not that I’m excusing his actions or attitude, but I guess it must be hard to know who really likes you when you’re that rich. I mean, of all the girls he’s…well, you know…I’m pretty sure all of them have only gone to bed with him hoping to get something in return. Maybe that’s why he loves money so much – it’ll never love him back, but it’ll never hurt him either.”

“For him to be hurt would require him to have feelings,” Rarity said. “And why does he wear gloves all the time? It’s a little weird.”

Lisa shrugged. “The tabloids like to say he sharpens his nails into claws or paints them hot pink, but no one else really questions it. I guess when you’re rich it’s a ‘personal fashion statement.’”

“Well, I worked in fashion and I’m not sure what statement that’s supposed to be,” Rarity laughed.

“What’s really odd is that he comes from a family of hicks – you’ve met his mother, Isabella. Anyway, a suggestion from mama is like a commandment to him. He has two idiot brothers, Brett and Chet, who work in the factory – twins, I think a couple of years younger than him. Nice guys, actually, but pretty dumb. Then there’s an aunt and uncle I haven’t had too much interaction with, but who don’t seem to do anything except feed off his success.”

This definitely gave her some insight into not only the situation, but Mr. Onceler as a person. He wanted to separate himself from being the same as his family. So had she. Now, her parents were very loving and supportive, whether she succeeded or not, but from their mannerisms to their accents, they would never be accepted into the elite of Canterlot as she’d wanted to do. She could see someone surrounded by the elite lose themselves, as she’d almost done a time or two. That’s probably what was happening to him. If she could somehow uncover pieces of who he used to be, maybe that would be the key to changing his heart. That is, if he still had a heart.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 – Rarity’s Simple Question

“Ra-ri-ty, could you not use little hearts as dots in your handwriting?”

“Ra-ri-ty, where is that folder I had in my hand yesterday?”

“Ra-ri-ty, make sure the guys in engineering got those new blueprints.”

“Ra-ri-ty.”

“Ra-ri-ty.”

“Ra-ri-ty.”

Rarity was about to bucking kill him. Almost two months into her new job and he would not stop drawing out her name like that. “I get it!” She wanted to shout. “Don’t correct you! Now stop!”

Of course, she couldn’t. There wasn’t anything she could do to get back at him without risking her job, which could in turn spoil the entire mission. He was a tough one to crack though and being kind wasn’t really doing it. It seemed the more she did what he asked without complaint, the more he took advantage of her. Maybe she should stick up for herself.

The intercom at her desk beeped. “Ra-ri-ty!”

Damn it. She walked into his office. “Yes, sir.”

“If you would like to leave early today you can. I’ll be leaving at four.”

She quickly checked her copy of the schedule – today was Friday, right before a Monday holiday, which meant a three-day weekend. She remembered a couple of weeks ago he’d had her block that time, but she gathered it was for something personal because he wouldn’t say why. She could guess though – today was Hearts and Hooves…er, Valentine’s Day, so he probably had a hot date with some sexy young thing. “Thank you, sir. That’s very generous of you.”

“Generosity,” he spat the word out, “has nothing to do with it. You’re simply not needed after that time. If you’d rather not leave early, I can certainly make a list of things for you to do.”

“It’s not as if I have any fun plans. Do you need me to arrange a car to take you somewhere?”

“I did it myself. This is a personal matter and I don’t pay you to pry into my private life.”

“Sorry. I was just trying to be helpful.” She turned to leave.

“Oh and Ra-ri-ty.” She heard the flick of his lighter. “You don’t have to supply any cigarettes for me this weekend. In fact, I’d prefer not to have any around so I’m not tempted.”

She turned. “With pleasure, sir!”

“Try to dull your enthusiasm. This is a temporary thing. I expect them on my desk Tuesday morning.” He grinned, took a long drag and then waved his hand in that dismissing way. “You may go.”

Oh, so whoever she was, she had a problem with smoking too. Why didn’t he just quit? And all weekend? Were he and whoever this lady was going to be together all weekend?

It was nearing three-thirty when there was a knock on her door frame. It was one of Mr. Onceler’s brothers whom she still had trouble telling them apart. She had a fifty-fifty chance here. “Can I help you, Chet?”

“Brett,” he corrected.

Of course. “Sorry, Brett.”

“Is my brother in?”

“I haven’t seen him leave.” Lisa might have been right that the twins didn’t seem very bright, but they were at least nice. “But he’s probably busy. Is it important?”

“I’m supposed to be going with him today. We leave at four.”

What the hell? “You’re going with him?”

“Yeah. Apparently Dr. Perry said for something like this he should have someone there in case anything happens.”

“Dr. Perry?”

“His dentist. He’s getting his wisdom teeth yanked.” Brett laughed. “I mean, they usually do that when you’re, like, eighteen, but…well, he didn’t. Now it has to be done.”

So that’s what was going on. He wasn’t going to be having any fun this weekend either. “I’d pay big money to see him go through that.”

“I told him I was going to bring a video camera, but of course, I’m not actually allowed in the room while it’s happening.”

Rarity wondered where the office was and if she could sneak over and peek in through the window. Probably not. Besides, in all likelihood they’d be putting him under anyway. Maybe come Tuesday he’d still be sore and she could ‘accidently’ hit him in the jaw with something. She wasn’t going to leave early – she definitely had things she could do and she wanted to see him when he returned.

This is why you have trouble living up to your element, Rarity, she told herself. Getting glee out of someone else’s pain wasn’t exactly nice, but after everything he’d put her through maybe this was karma’s way of getting him.

She made sure to be in his office when he returned – she hadn’t been sure what excuse she’d use but as luck would have it there were actually some messages she was putting on his desk when he and Brett returned.

One look at him, however, and she immediately felt horrible for wishing him harm. It was obvious it had been quite an ordeal with the way he was holding his left cheek. Both gloves had blood on them as did his shirt and coat. He kept his eyes down as he walked to the locked apartment door and pressed the code.

His brother didn’t ask him anything. Not how he was doing or if he needed anything. Brett simply turned and walked out.

Way to be supportive, Rarity thought. “Do you need help?”

Mr. Onceler spoke through clenched teeth. “I thought I told you to go home early.”

“You suggested it. Turns out I had work to do. Can I do anything for you before I go?”

He shook his head and disappeared behind the door, but she realized he wasn’t careful in closing it because it was still left slightly open. Not much, just a crack. It was enough, however, that she peeked in before she left. The light was off, but with the moon shining through the window, she could see his figure in the large bed. She wasn’t sure why, but something drew her into the room. If he woke up and saw her, she could lose her job and then…well, she didn’t know what she’d do. But, a glance at the orange prescription bottle on his nightstand told her he probably wasn’t waking up soon.

It was so different seeing him like this. His normally neat hair was tousled and fell over his forehead. He wore a white cotton shirt and his ungloved hand was still up near his left cheek as though he’d fallen asleep holding it. Did he only have the left side done, all four or was one simply worse than the others? He looked younger than he was and somehow vulnerable.

There were a couple of boxes near the pill bottle that contained ice packs. Wanting to help in some way, she grabbed one and followed the instructions, squeezing it to pop whatever was inside and shook it to start the chemical reaction that made it cold. Then she gently pressed it to his left cheek, since that was the side that seemed to bother him the most.

Despite being drugged into sleep, he must’ve felt it because he took a deep breath and let it out as a sigh of relief. Using her free hand, she brushed his hair away from his forehead. Why was he going through this alone? Why not stay with his family who might be able to help him? Rarity knew if she was ever in a situation like that, her parents would make sure she was taken care of. And, of course, Sweetie Belle would ‘help’…somehow. “I’m gonna get my cutie mark in nursing!” Rarity could hear her sister saying.

She took the opportunity to look around. It was a nice apartment consisting of a spacious main room, an entrance to a kitchen and a closed door she was pretty sure led to a bathroom. He had three guitars leaned up against the wall near a soft looking couch underneath a rather tall window. So, he was a musician. That was unexpected.

The warmth of a hand covering hers startled her. Oh no, those blue eyes were open just slightly. He knew she was there. She prepared for him to yell or tell her she was fired. But no, apparently he was just confused. “Ra-ri-ty?” he asked, speech slurred from the medication. Then his hand relaxed and his head rolled to the side as he fell asleep again.

She wanted to go, but something was telling her to stay. Whatever the risk, she knew he shouldn’t be alone and she was determined to stay through the night.

* * *

Onceler woke slowly surrounded by darkness. His mouth still ached even with the medication making his mind a bit fuzzy. He hated that. He hated anything that altered his consciousness, but in rare instances, such as this, it was somewhat welcome. If only he’d just put his stubbornness aside then today may have gone much smoother. Instead, he’d gone through one of the worst experiences of his life.

Pain, whether physical or emotional, was to be dealt with as quickly and privately as possible. This was the way it had been since the day his father had left. His mother had locked herself in the bedroom for an entire day and when she emerged, she told him and his brothers what was going on, then said: “One tear. If you’re going to cry, you get one tear. That’s it. Otherwise, deal with it on your own.”

That was an incredibly heavy thing to be told at seven, but it stuck and hiding emotion and pain had become natural. So on the way to the dentist, he’d kept his hands from shaking as he smoked his last cigarette for the next three days.

“Man, you need to quit that,” Brett had told him opening the car window. “Don’t you know it’s bad for you?”

“No, I’ve never heard that before,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Didn’t you want to wear something more comfortable?”

“Who said this outfit isn’t comfortable?” He slid his glittery blue shades over his eyes as if to block any fear anyone might see in them.

It was unspoken – they both knew small talk was fine, but not discussing whether he was nervous. He would deal with that on his own.

He didn’t have to wait long after arriving before an assistant called him back. He kept his breathing steady and tried to calm his pounding heart. He hesitated for a moment when he entered the room and lifted his shades to look at the tray. Shiny, sterile instruments, forceps and pristine white gauze lay waiting to be used. A blue-capped syringe was set off to the side of the tray with a carpule labeled ‘Novocain’ already inserted. He lowered his shades and sat down. He shouldn’t have looked.

The assistant draped a paper bib around his neck. “Are you nervous?”

Terrified. “No.”

“It’s okay if you are. We can use some laughing gas.”

Absolutely not. “No.”

He watched seconds tick by on the clock as she took his blood pressure and they waited for Dr. Perry to come in.

The assistant handed him a consent form on a clipboard and a pen. “This is giving the dentist permission to take those teeth out. Sign at the bottom, please.”

He scribbled his signature on the line and leaned back. He hoped the waiting would be the worst part. He hoped this wouldn’t take long. He hoped the anesthetic would work. That’s what he was most worried about. He’d never needed a lot of dental work, but the two times he had, the anesthetic hardly had any numbing effect whatsoever.

“Good afternoon,” Dr. Perry said, entering the room. “Ready for this?”

Never. “Yes.”

“You know, looking at your x-rays these might not be the easiest teeth to take out. Are you sure you don’t want to go to an oral surgeon?”

“I’d rather not be put under.”

“And you want all four done today or just one side?”

“Let’s get it over with.”

He concentrated on the ceiling and listened to the soothing music they had playing in the background as Dr. Perry swabbed something on his gums that tasted a little like bubble gum but with a definite medicinal quality. He was able to control his breathing and keep his hands relaxed through the sharp pinch of the syringe.

Why didn’t he have this done two years ago when he’d started seeing Dr. Perry? It had been suggested then. Apparently, like most of the population, the teeth were so far in the back they weren’t of much use and they were hard to keep clean leaving them prone to decay. However, he’d been too busy – always his excuse – too busy to have the procedure done. So, of course, in December one of them started aching, because, just as Dr. Perry had predicted, a cavity had formed. Now, it was inevitable. And why didn’t he just put away his pride and agree to be knocked out? No…that was a definite no…horrible things could happen when one was unconscious.

“No matter how much anesthetic I give you’re still going to feel pressure and squeezing when I start here,” Dr. Perry said.

Despite being given however many injections it was and only a small area of his lip feeling any tingling, he knew he’d feel way more than that. Concentrate on the music, he told himself. Look at the ceiling. Don’t feel. Don’t let it show.

It took everything he had to keep his hands relaxed as Dr. Perry went to work. The first tooth to go was on his lower right and it became difficult to hear the music over the cracking noises as it was loosened from the bone. There was a strong tug and he feared his jaw would break, but instead there was one final pop and it was gone. And if he thought that was horrible, the sounds were even worse coming from the top tooth as they echoed in his head. There was a deep pain that shot up by his temple and he couldn’t help but grip the armrests of the chair.

“Does that hurt?” Dr. Perry asked.

Yes. Stop. Please, stop. But instead of being truthful, he shook his head. It would hurt less to just endure the pain rather than say ‘stop’ and have it be ignored.

One final pull accompanied by that shooting pain and he knew he was halfway done. But, if he thought it was going to get easier, he was proven wrong when the lower left tooth wasn’t coming out easily. He kept his eyes on the clock.

“That one’s in there. I’m going to use a drill to cut it in half and take the roots out individually.”

He figured that had to be some kind of cruel joke, but it quickly became a reality when the high pitched whine of a drill drowned out the soothing music. It was hot, searing pain that went through his tooth and radiated down his jaw. Aside from his clenched hands, outside, he was picture of calm. Inside, however, he was screaming and pleading with them to stop.

One tear. If you’re going to cry, you get one tear. That’s it. There was only one time he could ever remember shedding that single tear in physical pain and that was when he’d broken his wrist as a child. But as it felt like fire was racing through the lower left side of his face, he allowed a tear pool in the corner of his eye and slide down his cheek. Dr. Perry and his assistant didn’t seem to notice.

Finally the fiery sensation stopped only to be replaced by the same sharp, digging, squeezing pain as the other teeth and the feeling that his jaw was going to break at any second. His eyes were on the clock again realizing this single tooth had taken almost half an hour before it finally came out.

“You’re doing good. Almost there.”

He could feel his heart pounding and blood whooshing in his ears. This is the last one. You can do it. Conceal the pain.

No, he couldn’t. His eyes widened at the familiar popping, cracking, squeezing, digging and it all affected him at once. He felt his forehead break out in a cold sweat and the room began to spin. His hands relaxed falling from the armrests and the last thing he remembered was a shooting pain going up into his head before darkness closed in.

Coming around was like being underwater and hearing muffled sounds and bits of conversation.

“…sure…a lot of blood…”

Brett’s voice. “No…doesn’t work…”

“…marked ‘no’ on…sure?”

“…probably felt everything…”

Something cold was being pressed to his forehead and as his eyes opened he realized his shades were gone. The light was too bright, almost assaulting, and he closed his eyes against it. Something was squeezing his arm. They were taking his blood pressure again. His mouth felt strange, aside from hurting, something was in there. Gauze, he figured. To stop the bleeding.

Slowly so the light didn’t bother him as much, he opened his eyes and looked over. The once shiny instruments were now tipped with red and gobs of crimson stained gauze littered the tray. In the midst of all this chaos were the teeth they’d forcibly ripped from his skull, long roots still covered with blood and bits of tissue. Why the hell did he look? He opened his mouth to tell them to cover it up or something but before he could speak warm liquid ran down his face. Instinctively, he put a hand to his mouth.

“Doc, he’s awake!” the assistant called out.

Dr. Perry appeared to the right of him. “Don’t try to talk. Keep closed. Your brother tells me you don’t respond well to the anesthetic. Had I known that, I would have insisted you see an oral surgeon.”

I’m going to kill Brett, was his first coherent thought through the fuzziness that was still present. He felt queasy after seeing the state of the tray – all that blood, his blood – and took a deep breath.

“Bro, you look like hell,” Brett said.

He wanted to tell his brother to shut up or worse. His hand was still at his mouth and he took another breath through his nose. This was not working.

“Are you going to be sick?” the assistant asked.

Not the time to lie, he nodded. As if she’d done this several times before she produced a plastic bag for him. He retched, but since he hadn’t eaten all that came out was blood and bile and the gauze, which tumbled from his mouth when he opened. This had not only been torture, but the aftermath was humiliating. At least the assistant acted as if this happened on a regular basis, which it probably did. But this was him and he didn’t like anyone seeing him in a weakened state. He caught his breath and put a hand to his mouth. The room was spinning again and he leaned back in the chair.

Dr. Perry had pulled on a fresh pair of gloves. “Open, please.”

Reluctantly he did and felt more cool, wet gauze being placed in his mouth. It tasted like salt water. The assistant was wiping his face with something, likely removing any blood.

“Bite down. When you come in next time, please be truthful on your health history. That’s important – I don’t have you fill that out for fun. I also suggested you eat before your appointment, but you didn’t follow that instruction. That’s probably part of the reason this happened.”

He’d been too busy – yes, too busy again – to eat lunch, but right now he was too weak to argue. He just wanted to go home. It took a few more minutes before he felt recovered enough to walk and Brett helped him to the car.

“Dude, you could have just told them.”

No, he couldn’t have. “Shut up, Brett.”

It wasn’t that he wanted to be unpleasant, or push people away; it was that circumstances made him this way and after so long, despite wanting to connect with people, he couldn’t. And that’s why he was now laying alone in the dark to deal with his pain – as always – as quickly and privately as possible.

But he wasn’t alone. He sensed someone else’s presence in the room. Impossible, I know I locked the door, he thought. At least, he was pretty sure he had. Now he realized in his still-dazed state from the trauma of the day, perhaps he hadn’t. He had been in such a hurry to get those blood-stained clothes off and go to bed. The thought that someone was intruding on his private space, was in his apartment and could do anything to him in his drugged state was terrifying.

Even the medication could not stop a flash of memory rising to his mind of crisp white fabric stained red with blood…his blood. Something awful…an altered state of mind…a voice: “Finally awake?”

There were only a few weak beams of moonlight piercing the darkness, but he knew from the shape of that wavy hair it was Rarity. He seemed to recall groggily opening his eyes and seeing her before. With his mind still struggling between consciousness and the lull of sleep he couldn’t even be sure she was really there. He couldn’t be sure this was real. “Ra-ri-ty…is this a dream?”

He felt her grasp his hand. “Yes. It’s just a dream.”

“Oh, okay then.” If it was a dream, he was still in control. If it was a dream, he was still safe in his apartment behind a locked door where nothing could get to him…where no one could hurt him.

“Are you still in pain?”

“Yes.” Otherworldly, that’s what he always thought when he looked at her. She was more than just a human. She was… “So beautiful.”

“Sir?”

“Are you an angel?”

“I…uh…”

“Of course you are.” She stood and turned but he grabbed her sleeve. “Don’t…please don’t…don’t go…”

After he’d been so awful to her, he wouldn’t have blamed her for leaving even in a dream. Instead, she sat back down and gently took his hand. A small rush of panic shot through his heart as he realized he did not have his gloves on, but her hands were cool and soft and he felt safe. It was a dream, after all, and even if it was only his imagination, just her presence was comforting. It didn’t take the pain away, but made it bearable.

“I could feel everything.” Why did he just tell her that? Because the medication was making him ramble and he wanted to tell someone. Even if it was a dream and she wasn’t really there, he desperately wanted to connect with someone. “It was torture. I just wanted them to stop. Why couldn’t I tell them to stop?”

“I don’t know,” Rarity said gently. “I do know that admitting you feel pain and feeling scared are human emotions. They’re not pleasant, but it’s also nothing to be ashamed of. I think you put up this wall around your heart, so afraid of getting hurt you’d rather deny yourself any emotions. You’d rather not let people see you as ‘weak’ – but it’s not that you’re weak; it’s that you’re human.”

“You get me.” Tendrils of sleep were closing around his mind again, pulling him down. But instead of fighting it, instead of hating this sensation of fuzziness clouding his thoughts, he held on to Rarity’s hand…making a basic connection…and drifted off into darkness.

* * *

Rarity wasn’t sure exactly what do expect when she walked into work on Tuesday. An angel…he called me an angel, she reflected. Stop it, Rarity, he was heavily medicated and thought it was a dream and you should be grateful he did.

So she went in and did everything as usual, even putting the full cigarette case on his desk. As if on cue, like he did every morning, he stepped into the office as she was setting a cup of coffee on his desk. At first everything about him looked the same, but then she noticed a slight bluish shadow by the left side of his jaw – a bruise. She saw the area may have even been slightly swollen. She also noticed a softness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before as though some of his icy stare had melted. “Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, Rarity.”

What? No drawling or disjointing of her name? Even his tone of voice seemed sincere. So, she asked him a question – a simple question – one she knew he wasn’t likely to hear from anyone else. “How are you doing today?”

The question caught Onceler completely off guard. She never asked how he was doing. I don’t pay you to ask personal questions, he wanted to say, but that retort stayed lodged in his throat. Instead he thought about the last three days spent in solitude healing. His mouth still hurt and he couldn’t open very wide, but it was significantly better. Even some of the emotional trauma seemed to be fading. And he almost legitimately felt it – a crack, a small crumbling – in the wall around his heart. He couldn’t believe he was answering her truthfully in a gentle tone. “I’m fine, Rarity. Thank you for asking.” With that, he took a cigarette from the case, thankful he could smoke again and lit it. “Now, do you have my schedule for me?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 – Biggering

Spring was Rarity’s favorite time of year and in this new land she couldn’t wait to see how it transformed the valley. Rays of sunshine fought through the smog and won giving life to the trees, making them seem brighter. Bees buzzed in their tufts, spreading pollen to help the Truffula fruit grow. The Bar-ba-loots came out of hibernation and it hurt to see the look on their faces as they stared at the landscape. Rarity realized it must look different from the valley they knew before they’d gone to sleep.

She mentioned it to Lisa at lunch that day.

“Of course they’re sad,” her friend said. “Their home is being destroyed at an alarming rate.”

“And Mr. Onceler is still pushing forward with his Super Axe Hackers. He wants them done and rolling out by the end of April.”

Lisa rolled her eyes. “Oh goodie – so the trees can disappear four times as fast.”

“I wonder when he’s going to realize his entire company relies on these trees.”

“Well, he’s a greedy idiot, so probably when they’re all gone.” Lisa took a sip of her juice. “You should come to a meeting of my environmental group. We’re planning a project for Earth Day to plant some more Truffulas. Maybe you’d like to help.”

“I’d love to.”

“Great. We meet tonight at Brad’s place.”

She accepted a slip of paper with the address on it. She had never met Brad but had heard Lisa mention him a couple of times. Actually, she was looking forward to meeting more people her age – it seemed as though Lisa was the only friend she had here. And Abby…well, she could tolerate Abby anyway.

Rarity returned from lunch and jotted down the messages that had gone to the machine in her absence. She walked into her boss’ office just as he entered from the door the leading to his apartment. She realized quickly he retreated there during lunch and she’d never actually seen him eat anything, but of course, he must at some point. No one subsisted on black coffee and cigarettes alone.

She went to the put the messages on his desk, but as she did she saw something move – something small and brown with eight legs. Papers flew in the air as she jumped back with a yelp, terror filling the pit of her stomach.

“What is it, Rarity?” Mr. Onceler did not sound amused.

“Spider…” she managed weakly.

“You have got to be kidding me. All that over a little spider?”

“It’s huge!”

He walked over to interpret the situation and was so close that she could smell something sweet…spearmint. He must’ve brushed his teeth after lunch. “That thing is no bigger than a quarter. Honestly, you women.” She expected him to squish it, but instead he put his hand nearby letting it crawl onto his fingers.

“Ew! It could bite you!”

“Firstly, I’m wearing gloves, so I’d like to see it try. Secondly, this is a common field spider – harmless and non-aggressive.”

“Kill it already!”

“I’m not killing it just because it lost its way.” He opened the glass door leading from the office to outside and carefully set the spider on the railing of the stairs. She had never seen this gentle side of him. As much as she hated that spider – and spiders in general – the way he treated something lower than him surprised her. He came back inside and closed the door. “Happy now?”

“Spiders can be very dangerous.”

“There are no poisonous spiders in this area, Rarity, and your fears are irrational.”

“It’s still gross and don’t tell me you’re not afraid of anything.”

He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “No, I’m not. However, if it makes you feel better, I get a little squeamish around blood...especially if it’s mine.” He gestured to the papers that had scattered when Rarity jumped. “Pick those up.”

On one hand, Rarity felt perhaps she had overreacted a little, but on the other hand, it was a gross, creepy spider! A voice in her head sang out telling her to ‘giggle at the ghosty’ and laugh at whatever scared her. She imagined Pinkie Pie bouncing along the roads of Ponyville, her raspberry pink hair moving up and down with her. Rarity wondered if she had thrown another Spring Has Sprung Party. She sighed; she had missed Winter Wrap Up.

His voice broke into her thoughts. “If you have finished, you may go.”

Rarity plopped the messages on his desk in a neat pile as he dismissed her with that hand wave she’d come to expect. She knew he was busy, but would it kill him to show even the tiniest bit of kindness or smile just a little? And not his diplomatic smile he put on for photos or events or the cruel smirk he sometimes gave when he knew he was about to be a jerk and didn’t care, but an actual, genuine grin. The way he’d handled that spider situation, though, that gave her an insight she hadn’t expected and she realized something – his polished mannerisms were learned – like hers. He didn’t grow up this way. Most of his family had accents like Applejack’s, but he spoke carefully and in an elegant manner. All his movements seemed deliberately graceful as if he were worried he’d slip and let part of his true nature show. Somewhere inside, maybe deep inside, but somewhere was a person different from the one she’d come to know.

*

That night, she arrived at the address Lisa had given her and found Brad’s apartment with no trouble. A young man with dark blonde hair tipped with platinum answered and surveyed her with green eyes. “You must be Rarity. I’m Brad.”

“Hello,” she said, extending her hand.

There were quite a few young people already inside and after a bit of conversation she gathered most of them had gone to college together. She wondered what college was like since education in Equestria worked quite differently. She’d had her basic education, of course, and then worked hard at perfecting her special talents of gem finding and fashion design. She ended up taking a seat next to a girl with chestnut brown hair and hazel eyes who gave her a warm smile, but said nothing at first.

The meeting was very informal with talking, laughing and joking in between planning to plant a hundred Truffula seedlings in an area that had been deforested. This was so different from the stifling formal meetings she was used to attending with her boss. What would he say if he knew she was here? She was essentially plotting against him. No one seemed to have much of anything nice to say about the man.

“All this air pollution is making my sister’s asthma worse,” one of the girls said. “If it doesn’t clear up, we might have to leave Greenville.”

“And that factory is dumping all kinds of gunk in the rivers and lakes,” Brad told them. “How much longer before it ends up in our water supply?”

Another guy chimed in. “Maybe we can arrange a meeting with him – argue our position and make him see what he’s doing.”

Good luck, Rarity thought. There was no way Mr. Onceler could look out those glass doors every day and not see the damage he was causing. He simply did not care.

Lisa spoke up. “We already tried protesting and he just had us removed from the premises.” She turned to Rarity. “Do you think maybe you could help us arrange a meeting?”

“I…well, I can try, but I pretty much know what his reaction would be to that.”

“You’re his assistant – don’t you have any pull with him?”

“Oh, please. He’s told me already he doesn’t pay me to hear my opinion. Unless what I’m saying agrees with his point of view, he doesn’t listen. I guess I can ask though. The worst he can say – and what he’ll probably say – is no.”

“It’s worth a try,” Brad said. “Myself, Steve, Maggie and Norma can go.”

The girl sitting next to Rarity shook her head. “I won’t meet with him.”

“But you know him.”

Norma sighed. “No. I knew the person he used to be. I don’t care to know him now.”

Rarity waited until the meeting was over and they were all scattered about eating and talking before approaching Norma and introducing himself. “So…you used to know Mr. Onceler?”

“We went to school together. I guess you could say we were high school sweethearts.”

This was surprising. “What was he like back then? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“He was sweeter than most of the guys I knew and he was very talented, very smart and very gentle.”

She couldn’t argue with the talented and smart part – that she knew, and after the way he’d set the spider free instead of killing it, well, she could believe some of that gentleness still resided in him. “What happened that changed him?”

“I wish I knew. He was still that same guy when I left for college and then a couple of years later, thneeds hit the market and this factory rose from the ground and last I saw him was when we were protesting his entire company. The cold look he gave all of us…gave me…made my heart shatter. I want to believe there’s still some good in him.”

Rarity needed to confirm what she suspected – that like her, he was also from humble beginnings. “So, his wealth had no effect on him when he was a teenager?”

“Wealth? Honey, he was dirt poor – I mean his family didn’t even have running water and were practically starving. They had to work on this cooperate farm for less than minimum wage – practically slave labor.” Norma suddenly laughed. “My mom saw him in a magazine about a year ago and calls me up. Says: ‘you remember that nice boy you used to date? You should get in touch with him again.’ And I reminded her of how she kicked him off our porch and called him trash when she caught us kissing.”

That was the revelation she’d been waiting for. “You think his getting rich changed him?”

“For some people maybe it would…but I find it hard to believe that alone would change his spirit so much. I think it’s something deeper. I mean, some of the things I hear it’s hard for me to see him doing that. Like his reputation with the ladies, forgive me, but I don’t buy that at all.”

Rarity considered perhaps that may not be true. After all, she had never actually seen him around any women unless they worked for him or were related to him. When women called they were always secretaries or reps for male-run companies. There was always another possibility that entered her mind. After all, the man was a bit flamboyant. “He couldn’t possibly be…you know…batting for the other team?”

“Definitely not – Once is totally straight,” Norma told her without hesitation.

She called him ‘Once’ – so informally? Did that mean he’d always gone by his last name? “Hey, what’s his first name anyway?”

Norma smiled knowingly. “Sorry, but I promised him I’d never tell anyone that. We may not be friends anymore, but I keep my promises.”

It annoyed her sometimes how he never talked about himself. Still, armed with what she now knew, Rarity felt certain she could crack him once and for all.

*

She waited until Friday – actual Earth Day – before she decided to talk to him. It was afternoon when she’d brought in yet another few messages. She knew he wasn’t big on small talk, but still she tried. “Are you doing anything fun this weekend, sir?”

“Rarity, if I were, what on this great, green earth makes you think I’d discuss such matters with my assistant?”

“Sorry, sir, I just thought…”

“No, you didn’t think because if you had, you’d remember I value my privacy and whatever I do when you’re not in the office is no concern of yours.”

She felt her cheeks flush and bit back a retort. Instead, she’d have to switch to a subject she knew he would discuss with her, but before she could the door opened and her boss’ mother walked in. She was one of the few people who could casually stroll in as she did and he would say nothing. Rarity had since learned she was only forty, meaning she must’ve been pretty young – not even grown – when Mr. Onceler was born. Isabella glared at Rarity through her glasses. “You still work here?”

“Not for long if she can’t learn to mind her own business,” Mr. Onceler said. “What did you need, Mom?”

“Just thought you’d like to know the first of the Super Axe Hackers is ready for a test run.”

Mr. Onceler’s eyes lit up like a foal on Hearth’s Warming Eve and he gleefully clapped his hands together before he returned to his normally calm self. Rarity swore she saw the slightest bit of color come to his cheeks as he was probably inwardly cursing himself for betraying his elegant ways. “Let’s go down and test it out.”

“It’s okay for you to be excited, son. After all, this must come as a welcome birthday gift.”

Rarity looked up, shocked. “It’s your birthday?”

He gave her a cold look. “My mother seems to have forgotten there was someone else in the room, someone who is not privy to such information. However, since it’s been said, yes, today is my birthday.” And with that, he left before Rarity could say anything else.

This was probably good, because Rarity could find nothing to say. She was still in a bit of shock. This man who was tearing down trees left and right, who was on his way to test out a machine that would cause the deforestation to happen sooner, whose factory poisoned the air and water around the valley, who was killing off an entire ecosystem and didn’t even seem to care…he was born on Earth Day?

She walked over to the window where she saw the yellow machine he’d been working on making a reality. Rarity watched as he climbed inside and the axe blades started rotating. It was like a train wreck, actually as they sliced through four, then eight, then twelve and sixteen Truffula Trees before he finally turned it off. The environmental group was only planting one hundred saplings tomorrow, but this machine would be able to take out those trees in twenty-five swipes. It practically made her heart break thinking that once the saplings were full grown, after all the hard work they’d be doing, Mr. Onceler would simply chop them down to make thneeds.

She retreated to her desk and began jotting down Monday’s schedule, only briefly looking up as she heard her boss and his mother talking as they walked toward his office.

“It works like a dream.”

“Two more will be done by the end of the month and engineering ensured me the last three by the middle of May, but this presents us with a problem,” Isabella said. “See, if we’re chopping down trees faster, then we’re going to be making a lot more thneeds. How are we going to keep up with production in such a small factory?”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. Small? Was she serious?

Mr. Onceler put his hands on Isabella’s shoulders. “Don’t worry about it. I had thought the same thing and I’m already figgering on biggering the factory – an expansion. Until then, we’ll have the machines running longer hours, so we’ll need to look into hiring more factory workers willing to work early morning and late night shifts.”

Isabella extended her arms and pulled her son into a hug. “I’m so proud of you.”

Rarity was beginning to understand. It wasn’t necessarily just Mr. Onceler’s greed, but his mother’s. She was at least a partial driving force behind his decisions. She could see he wanted to please her and gain her approval and the only way it seemed he could do that was by being successful, no matter the cost.

*

The next day was bright and sunny as Rarity and the other volunteers made their way to an area of the valley where the trees had been gone for quite some time. They got to work digging in the soil between stumps where full-grown trees once stood. As she gently placed a small sapling into the ground and covering its roots with dirt, she felt like she truly was making a difference.

“It’s a beautiful sight,” Brad said, standing next to her.

“It sure is. These trees grow very fast, right?”

“These little guys were seeds a month ago – now they’re almost a foot tall. Their growth slows in about a year and it can take up to ten years before they reach their full height and start bearing fruit. They’re resistant to all kinds of diseases that affect other trees and very sturdy – bend easily, but hardly ever break.”

“But susceptible to axes.”

“Yeah, unfortunately, an axe can bring one down. I’m kind of surprised you work so directly with the guy trying to destroy all this.”

Rarity’s fingers gently touched the tuft of the tree. She could never get enough of that soft material. “I guess I took the job figgering…” dang it, his influence. “…figuring, I could change him. I don’t know though. I think there has to be some point, something significant, that made him the way he is. I talked to Norma and she said he used to actually…”

“Have a soul? Yeah, I think he sold it to the forces of evil.”

Rarity couldn’t help but laugh a little. “I don’t think he’s evil. Definitely misguided and greedy, but not evil.” She thought again about how he wouldn’t kill that spider. But then she thought about those Super Axe Hackers that would be rolling out soon and his plans to expand the factory. “Okay, maybe he’s a little evil.”

“So…are you seeing anyone?”

She shook her head. “No. I don’t get a chance to meet a lot of guys.”

“Would you maybe want to grab a coffee or lunch sometime?”

He was asking her out? She had come here hoping to meet someone…well, primarily to save the trees, of course, but dating certainly couldn’t be out of the question. “I’d love to.”

Brad flashed her a smile of perfect teeth and handed her a piece of paper. “Great. Here’s my number.”

Rarity quickly dug a pen and paper from her purse and jotted down her phone number for him. She knew she came here for an important mission, but she had also hoped to find the one. Of course, it would present quite a problem when it came time for her to return home, but she still had plenty of time to figure that out.

At the end of the day, she stood with the other volunteers in front of a beautiful sight - one hundred newly planted saplings with their tufts blowing gently in the wind. She was tired and sweaty and she dusted some dirt from her jeans, but it gave her a sense of accomplishment and hope. She said goodbye to the others and headed through the grown trees to make her way home.

“Pssst, Rarity,” a familiar voice said.

She turned to see the Lorax at the base of a tree. “Oh, what is it?”

“How are you coming along getting him to stop chopping down the trees?”

Rarity sighed. “He won’t listen to anyone unless they agree with him. But, we did plant some saplings. Hopefully that will help.”

“It’s definitely appreciated, but unless you stop Onceler by imparting some generosity to him, he’ll still destroy this whole valley. Already the Bar-ba-loots are having a hard time finding food and there isn’t a lot of clean water left for the Humming-Fish.”

“I’m working on it, but he’s a tough one.”

“I have complete faith in you. I know Princess Celestia wouldn’t have sent you if you couldn’t do the job.”

Rarity smiled at him. “Thank for saying that. I was beginning to lose confidence. Maybe it’s not much, but I’ve seen signs that he’s changing for the better, so there’s hope yet.”

*

There were rumors Onceler never slept, that he was always working. Of course, there were other rumors and stories too…ones the tabloids loved to print that made him roll his eyes. In this week’s news, he apparently had a secret love child with some movie star he had never met. It was an absurd story, really; he was a businessman, not a celebrity – well, he sort of was; he was well-known anyway, but not in the same way a movie star was. He hardly ever met movie stars; in fact, he never watched movies, so when he did meet them, it meant little to him. At least they’d decided to pair him with a beautiful woman, but if she had children, they weren’t his. “Why do I even read this trash?” he asked to the empty apartment before tossing the magazine in the wastebasket. “I should fire my PR people…”

The truth was sleep was sometimes his favorite thing to do. At the end of a stressful, busy day, all he wanted was to cast off his restricting suit and the pressures and responsibilities it came with, wrap his body in a soft pair of pajamas and fall into his large, comfortable bed. Growing up, the family only had one bed that he’d shared with his siblings, but now he got to stretch out in the dimness of his room, lit only a little by the moon glowing through the window. He’d think about closing the curtains, but it was sort of peaceful as though the moon was watching over him. During the day, he’d say it was silly to think a hunk of rock floating in space was watching over anything, but at night, it seemed possible and a little soothing. He’d let out a sigh of relief, releasing all the stress built up from the day before closing his eyes…then the dreams could begin.

He enjoyed the happy dreams, ones about good times in his life usually involving his past with Norma. That was when he’d been happiest, though upon waking, it would make him a bit sad they hadn’t stayed in touch. Not only hadn’t they remained friends, but they were too different with her being part of the environmental group wanting to bring down his company. There was a time long ago when she’d thought the thneed was a great idea; but then she’d gone off to college, and their brief romance, like a good story had come to a close. Still, in his dreams they were together, talking, laughing, holding hands or kissing…sometimes doing things they hadn’t done in real life…things that made him wake up smiling.

There were fanciful dreams too that had no basis in reality where he interacted with creatures like fairies and unicorns and went places that only existed in books he’d read from the school library as a child…not that he had much time for reading books now. He’d go on adventures across deserts or lands dotted with volcanoes. He’d sail the seas and sometimes…when he was lucky…he’d fly like a bird across the world and see everything…both places he knew existed somewhere and others he’d only dreamt up. He’d wake up from these slowly, aching to return and wishing he kept some kind of journal to write down everything before reality erased it from his mind.

Rarely, he’d have nighttime visions of a more adult sort…the woman was never the same. Sometimes they were secretaries he’d seen around the office or whoever his current assistant was; other times she was a celebrity he’d only glimpsed pictures of in magazines or newspapers. It was always quick and dirty and kind of sloppy, but enjoyable. He’d wake up and for a brief second wished it had really happened. Of course, the cobwebs of sleep would be cleared away by reason and he knew he’d never actually do that. Despite what he knew people said about him, he was waiting for someone special and would never enter physical intimacy casually.

Then came the not-so-good dreams. He couldn’t really call them ‘bad’ per se, but he’d have those night experiences most everyone did of thinking he’d woken up late for a very important meeting, not being able to find a glove or his tie, then realizing his two front teeth had fallen out during the night for some reason. There were ones where he’d feel like he was falling and his eyes would open with a start, hands clenched around his sheets as though he really was going to fall off the bed. A couple of times recently, he’d had dreams where Rarity had gotten angry at him and doused him in hot coffee or straight up hit him with some random object from his desk. He had been slightly nicer to her the days following those dreams. He’d reflect back to that wild medication-induced night when she’d been there with him. He’d wondered time and time again whether that had been real or not. It had not been; Rarity did not know the combination to his apartment and when he’d woken up, the door was firmly closed. It was always firmly closed…and locked.

Nothing could get to him…nothing could hurt him…this was his sanctuary, his space, his private domain. Nothing could penetrate that door.

Except the darkness…that darkness that had followed him since the darkest night of his life. In those dreams he couldn’t control anything or tell himself it would be okay. It wasn’t okay – it was never okay. He’d fight it, but he was dragged down like he was sinking in thick mud…something disgusting and repulsive – so much so that maybe it wasn’t all just mud. He’d open his mouth to cry out, to tell the darkness to stop, but his mouth simply filled with brown gunk. It got stuck in his throat and stung and he couldn’t breathe. Panic would run through his mind and body. He’d grope helplessly in the dark for someone or something to help him, but there was no help. The one person he should have been able to trust was not there. His blood would turn to ice and his lungs burn for air. Something was pressing down on him – he was drowning, suffocating…unable to beg for help. He wanted out of this torture; he didn’t want to remember this helplessness.

Crisp white cotton.

Blood stains.

Guess what?

Piercing light.

Morning.

Finally awake?

And it would stop; inevitably, a shrill noise would pierce through the mud and find his ears. He’d move his hand and – SMACK! As the alarm shut off, he’d open his eyes and take the deep breath he’d been longing for. He’d lay there for a moment waiting for the darkness to dissipate completely before getting up and taking a shower.

That was his dream last night. It didn’t happen often…but it had been happening more in the past few months. Why couldn’t that just stay buried? Of course, he’d been receiving more cards lately on beautiful stationary full of words he’d rather not read. The gurgling of water in pipes before it rained on his body made him feel no better. That’s how it ended…and this would affect him all day until he could go to sleep again and hope for a good or fanciful dream.

So, he returned once again to his suit…a full suit…like armor…and all the responsibilities that came with it. He covered his hands with gloves to conceal trembling fingers and slid shades over his eyes to hide any hint of fear that might linger in them. He’d look at himself briefly in the full length mirror, reminding himself to stand up straight and fake confidence, then turn and head out the door where his nicotine and caffeine fix waited for him.

“Good morning, Rarity.”

*

Before Rarity knew it, May had arrived and it wasn’t only the trees and flowers that were blossoming. She and Brad had gone out twice and she had to admit, he seemed to be a great guy. Their first date was romantic – dinner and a movie before he walked her home and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. The second date was much more simplistic. They went to check on the saplings, which were already almost their height, growing fast and strong.

Brad held her hand on the walk back to Greenville and took her to a little hole-in-the-wall bookstore where they browsed through the selection. “What do you like to read?” Brad asked.

Rarity flipped through the pages of a romance novel. “Stories about love, mostly, or books on fashion. I sew and design clothes.”

“Did you make what you’re wearing?”

She looked down at her pale lilac dress. “Yes, actually.”

“I like it.”

She noticed his eyes were lowered, staring right at her chest. As a human, her breasts nicely filled out her D-cup bra and this dress hugged her frame and caused a small bit of cleavage to show from the v-neck. She felt color come to her cheeks as she realized she should have put a cardigan or something on. “Um…my eyes are up here.”

“Sorry, babe,” he laughed. “I am a guy, you know.”

Well, she worked with tons of guys and never caught them staring like that. However, she really wanted Brad to like her, so she said nothing. Plus, she guessed it was a little flattering that he was checking her out like that. In the end, she chose a romance novel entitled Gone with the Wind, which Brad told her was a classic. And when he walked her home after a stop at café where he had coffee and she drank hot cocoa, he left her heart fluttering with a soft kiss on her lips.

The next Monday, she felt a peaceful happiness as she walked into the office. The book was in her bag so she could keep reading it during lunch. She was thoroughly engrossed in this other era and the story kept her intrigued as to what would happen to these characters.

“Good morning, Rarity.”

She couldn’t help but smile at Mr. Onceler. She was certain even he couldn’t bring down her mood today. “Good morning, sir. How was your weekend?”

He paused before he sat down as though thinking if he really wanted to say something about her being personal. However, her good mood must’ve rubbed off on him even a little. “It was fine, Rarity, thank you for asking.” Then, a shock even for her. “And yours?”

What? He never asked about her personal life! “It was good. I had a date Saturday. We went to a bookstore and I started reading Gone with the Wind – it’s really good so far.”

“My mother likes that book,” he responded and swiveled around in his chair to look out the window as he sipped his coffee. He removed his sparkly shades and squinted as though trying to see something in the distance.

“Something wrong, sir?”

“I could have sworn we already harvested that area.”

She walked up beside him and gulped as she saw what he was looking at. The saplings they’d planted were tall enough to see from his office. Their multicolor tufts swayed in the breeze. “Well, I think there are some groups trying to plant more trees…you know, to replace the ones that you’ve cut down.”

Mr. Onceler took a long drink of coffee before replying. “How nice of them to supply me with more material.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“Why not?” He turned back toward his desk and lit a cigarette.

“Because we…they…worked so hard and planted them to grow, not be chopped down.”

“Oh, Rarity, business is business and business must grow, too.”

“You’re unbelievable, sir.”

He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. She walked back to her office, seething. How dare he destroy all their hard work and for what? To make more thneeds, which despite what their advertising told everyone, was not something people needed. She felt like calling Brad, or trying to do something to stop this, but what could she really do? What could any of them do? Handcuff themselves to the trees so the Super Axe Hackers couldn’t chop them down? That would just be dangerous.

It was mid-morning when Lisa rushed into Rarity’s office. “Rarity! It’s horrible! The trees we planted…they’re…”

Shock surged through her. She didn’t think he’d act this fast. She thought maybe the trees would have a little more time to grow. She ran with her friend to a hallway window where they saw one of the yellow Super Axe Hackers making its way through the trees they’d just planted weeks ago, taking them down quickly.

“He’s a monster,” Lisa said quietly.

Rarity felt tears well in her eyes as all of their efforts were quickly hacked to the ground. No, she’d been wrong about him. There was no gentleness or kindness left. He lacked any trace of compassion or understanding. Lisa was right, in many ways, Mr. Onceler was a monster.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 – Summer Gala Girls

 

The rain of April and May evaporated into mild warmth as June came. There were no more plans to plant anymore trees – now the energy of the group seemed to be about getting a meeting with Mr. Onceler to discuss changes that could be made to benefit with environment. Rarity knew even setting up that meeting would be difficult, especially since she was keeping her answers short and to the point now when he spoke to her, but for him to actually listen would take an extreme miracle.

She looked up as someone knocked on her door and inwardly groaned when she saw it was Isabella. “How can I help you, ma’am?”

The tacky blonde lay a paper on Rarity’s desk. “This is the list of acceptable ladies for my son to escort to the galas this season.”

“Galas?”

“High class parties, usually for charities.”

She knew what they were, of course. After all, she had been to the Grand Galloping Gala in Canterlot.

“I also have here the dates of the galas.” Isabella put another piece of paper in front of Rarity.

“And who are these women?” Rarity wasn’t certain they were really ‘ladies’ – perhaps ‘ladies of the night’.

“Most of them are daughters, nieces or granddaughters of powerful businessmen or high society families. You never contact the ladies directly, but speak to the person listed, who is their mother or a guardian of some sort. A marriage to one of them would ensure our status in the world.”

Marriage? No wonder Isabella was the one in charge of finding these women. Rarity really couldn’t imagine Mr. Onceler married though – he was too private, too independent to let a woman just come into his life and take over. Actually, no, if he got married, he was likely one of those guys who would maintain control in the relationship and whoever his wife was would have to be content to stay in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. Oh Celestia, if her boss became a father…she pitied that kid and the structured life he or she would lead.

“What does he look for in a woman?”

“Who cares?” Isabella drawled. “In this society marriages are hardly ever about love.”

“Maybe they should be.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business, sweetheart, and start doing your job. That’s what my son pays you for.” With that, she walked off, her blue boots clacking across the wooden floor.

Gala season, it appeared, was from mid-June through October mainly with a few around the holidays in November and December. However, there was a note that for any galas after the end of October, no arrangements were to be made – that for the winter galas, he would decide who to take. It took Rarity all day to arrange a schedule between her regular duties and she placed it on Mr. Onceler’s desk for final approval shortly before the end of her shift. “Are these arrangements okay, sir?”

Mr. Onceler picked up the paper and skimmed it carefully. “I’ve taken some of these women before. I told my mother I didn’t like them.” He took a long drag of his cigarette. “But I suppose if I must be in their company for one night, I will make the best of it.”

‘In their company’ – is that what he was calling it? There were many galas and many ladies assigned to go with him. Was he going to sleep with all of them? What if one of them ever got pregnant? As much as he got around, Rarity hoped he used protection.

He handed the paper back to her. “This is fine. Thank you, Rarity. You will accompany me, of course. Make sure you have something modest and black to wear.”

“I’m…I’m supposed to go with you on your dates?”

“It’s mostly to deter these women from thinking anything is going to happen that night beyond a kiss on their hand…if they’re lucky. However, you will also study up on the guest lists, including pictures of the regular attendees. Make sure I know who everyone is.”

“Of course, sir.”

“I will have the car pick you up first, then the young lady I’ll be escorting that evening. When the gala is finished, she will be dropped off first, then you.”

Rarity nodded in understanding. “And what if…if you wanted to bring her back here?”

“Back here? Why would I…oh, Rarity. You need to learn not to believe in all that tabloid gossip.” Mr. Onceler stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. “I do not sleep with every woman I take to a party. I do not have any sort of mistress, nor do I hire prostitutes. And as that one particularly trashy magazine reported, I certainly do not have a clone of myself I keep captive in my ‘playroom’.”

“Oh…I’m sorry, sir, I just…”

“No, I know what people say about me. You want the truth? I’ve been with one person in my entire life. I take physical intimacy very seriously and it’s not something to be given casually or entered into lightly. Despite what others say, I am waiting for the right woman to come along. That’s where you come in, because unfortunately, those women I date, they think these rumors are true and often think more is going to happen than what is actually going to happen. If you’re there, they generally won’t push it.”

This was somewhat shocking considering his reputation, but then, like he’d said, she needed to stop believing gossip. As she knew from that little incident with Sweetie Belle’s newspaper article that had published Rarity’s private diary, gossip could be very hurtful and it was obvious that this playboy status he’d somehow acquired bothered him.

The first gala was that weekend so Rarity hadn’t much time, but she bought a light silk fabric from the store and made herself a dress. It was black, as requested, but with a floral pattern that offered a pop of color in white, yellow and pink. She made it with a mandarin collar, pearl buttons instead of Chinese clips and short sleeves. The hem reached perfectly to her ankles, but she had a modest slit up the side that ended just below her knee. She pulled her hair up in a ponytail, leaving a few loose waves around her face and, as always, wore her blue barrette.

Mr. Onceler gave her a nod of approval when she got in the limo. “You look nice.”

“Thank you, sir.” She didn’t return the compliment. She still wasn’t happy about the saplings and besides, he was wearing his standard green suit that he always wore, so he looked no different.

“You’re smart, so you’ve probably figured this out, but you are here for work, so there will be no drinking.”

“I’m not big on alcohol anyway, sir.”

He gave an amused smile. “Neither am I.”

Good, so she’d only have to put up with him smoking, as usual, but not drunk. Actually, it might be fun to see him drunk, but she knew he’d never allow himself to consume too much in public. He had standards to maintain, after all, everything he did reflected on his company.

His date turned out to be some young girl – no, Rarity couldn’t even call this giggly eighteen-year-old bimbo a woman. She wore a gold sequin dress with a slit up to…well, too high, in Rarity’s opinion and so tight up top that her surgically-enhanced breasts seemed like they could pop out if she sneezed too hard. Her name was Weehawken or something…some city Rarity had never been to. Also, she must’ve bathed in perfume because as soon as she sat in the backseat with them the entire car reeked.

The gala was boring and Rarity did nothing except tag along a few steps behind Mr. Onceler and What’s-Her-Face while they mingled. She noticed he held a glass of champagne in his hand, to be polite, but never so much as took a sip.

As promised, when the evening was over, his date was dropped off first. He shook her hand, thanked her for a good time and then got back in the car. He rolled down the window as they drove away. “Can you believe what she was wearing?”

“The perfume or the dress?”

“Take your pick.” He extracted a cigarette and lit it up.

“Oh, good, that’ll make things smell a whole lot better,” Rarity said sarcastically.

“Tell me this, Rarity, why can’t women leave some things to the imagination?”

“I’ve never understood that saying. What do you imagine I have under here? A garden gnome? A wildlife preserve? Anyway, she was young and stupid.”

And then, he smiled. Not diplomatically or amusingly or in a cruel manner, but she realized this was an actual, genuine, sort of boyish smile. “Well, at least you bought a dress that is modest, but still makes you look beautiful.”

“I made this dress.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I sew and design clothes.”

“Oh, that’s right. You said something about that on your application. Why would you give that up?”

She, of course, couldn’t tell him the whole story, or even part of the story. He’d have her committed if she said she was a unicorn from another world. “I haven’t given up on it. I just…needed a change.”

“You should definitely pursue it. That dress turned out fantastic. How did you find time to hand stitch the hem instead of using a machine?”

“You…you know about sewing?”

“Yes, I knit too. I learned both in high school.”

She would have never guessed that about him, especially since he seemed so sure about traditional roles regarding men and women. At least, traditional for this world; in Equestria, mares and stallions were pretty equal.

The car pulled up in front of her boarding house and she was almost sad. Now that he had finally opened up to her a little, she sort of wanted to carry on the conversation. He opened the door and extended his hand to help her out of the car.

“You don’t have to…”

“It wouldn’t be very polite of me if I didn’t walk you to your door.”

“Thank you, sir. It was a nice evening.”

“Don’t lie, it was boring as hell and you know it.”

Rarity laughed. “Yes, it kind of was.”

He gave her another genuine smile. She hoped he would kiss her hand or something but he simply gave a polite nod of his head. “Have a good night, Rarity.”

* * *

Onceler could still smell the stink of perfume as he stepped into his apartment. Why did women insist on spraying that stuff all over their bodies? Well, not all women, of course. His mother never reeked of anything artificial and Rarity always smelled of something delicate like baby powder or sweet like vanilla. He stripped off his coat and pants and hung them up on a hook so Rarity could take them for dry cleaning on Monday – they sorely needed it. Normally, he’d shower in the morning, but that smell clung to his skin and hair and he didn’t want to inhale it all night. What kind of perfume had that girl been doused in anyway?

The rest of his clothes he could wash tomorrow and he threw them in the hamper before making his way into the bathroom. His eyes had circles under them; he was dead tired, but would not be able to sleep if this stench kept him up all night.

As he let the hot water relax his muscles, he thought about his date. She was flighty, too giggly, too young. The man she was related to was not likely to be any important business partner or investor and wasn’t as high up in society as others. No, he would not see…whatever her name was…again. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t for him. And that dress…that damn distracting dress that forced him to try and consciously keep his eyes from wandering below her neck.

Despite rumors of playing around, there were also those who thought he was gay. How laughable! Just the thought of masculine hands touching him or some guy’s sweaty, hairy body pressed against his was disgusting! Some had even speculated he was asexual. No, not even close. He was a man – a straight man – who loved women and all the femininity they brought to the world and just like any other he had needs and desires. Like now…

He took a deep breath and placed one hand on the tile wall to steady himself.

Rarity’s voice filled his mind. What do you imagine I have under here?

Oh, Rarity…that dress was clearly covering something amazing. He imagined the silky skin of her shoulders, her round, full breasts and what those might feel like under his hands - soft, probably squishy like jumbo marshmallows. He thought about the feminine curve of her waist, the indent of her belly button, the feminine triangle below, which he imagined would look like that of an ancient goddess so beautiful someone preserved the image in marble. His breath, ever increasing in speed echoed off the walls. Yes….that’s what Rarity had under there. She was…ahh…so beautiful…mmm…so sexy. His hand slid from the tile to his mouth in an attempt to keep quiet despite being alone and he bit down on his finger. Yes!

As his breathing slowed, he wondered if it was weird he’d thought of Rarity like that. Of course not, any man could see she was beautiful. She wasn’t the first of his assistants he’d fantasized about either. He reminded himself that maybe she was attractive, but she also had a mind of her own and she often spoke it. He hated that…and he found it intriguing.

* * *

July came as sun heated up the village to almost unbearable. Rarity noticed her boss, however, always dressed the same, bearable for him because he kept the chill in his office slightly above polar temperature. Rarity kept a jacket in her own office just for when she had to go in there. Mr. Onceler was very busy with blueprints and plans for the expansion, wanting to break ground by the end of August.

Today they were walking through the factory taking notes about how to improve on things once the expansion was built. She walked behind him taking notes on what he wanted for the new building, noticing all the workers pretty much avoiding his gaze. Not surprising – it wasn’t often the CEO himself even came down to the factory area and when he walked around with authority in his step she understood it would make anyone nervous.

“You know,” he said at one point, thoughtfully looking around. “With a bigger factory, maybe I’ll make improvements to the Super Axe Hackers themselves. Perhaps I’ll design one with five axe heads.”

“Five, sir?”

“Why not?”

“It’s just you’ve already chopped down quite a few trees.”

“Oh, Rarity. You worry too much.”

A yelp from across the factory caused them to turn their heads in alarm. Rushing over, they saw a worker crumpled to his knees on the floor holding his hand. Blood seeped through his fingers and dripped on the floor.

“What happened?” Mr. Onceler asked, his tone sounding more demanding than concerned.

Another man answered. “He was fixing something in the machine and someone else turned it on. He lost a couple of fingers.”

“Who was guarding the controls?”

Rarity noticed Mr. Onceler looking pale as he took his handkerchief from his pocket and held it over his nose and mouth. She remembered him saying he got queasy around blood and hoped he would be okay.

“Well…we were all pretty busy.”

Her boss stared them down. “So you all ignored the first rule of the safety protocols?”

“We didn’t think…”

“No, you didn’t.”

The man on the ground finally spoke. “What am I going to do? I’m right handed.”

“That is not my problem. You were the one who didn’t follow the rules and who was stupid enough to use your preferred hand to reach in there.”

“You’re a cold-hearted bastard!”

Mr. Onceler leaned in, staring at him with ice in his eyes. “And you’re fired.”

Rarity couldn’t help but look back with sympathy as she followed her boss out of the factory. She waited until they were back in Mr. Onceler’s freezing office before speaking. “You couldn’t have been a bit more compassionate? That man just got maimed in your factory.”

“Because he was an idiot who didn’t follow the first rule they’re told the first day they step in there. And saying what he did – he deserved to be fired.”

“Saying what you did, you deserved…”

“Go ahead, Rarity – try me!”

She simply shook her head and retreated to her own desk. Getting her own butt fired would only jeopardize the mission and now that he was planning his expansion and ordering improvements on the machines to chop down trees faster, well, the mission was more important than yelling at him right now.

* * *

“I heard some rumor that Mr. Onceler chopped off some guy’s fingers for cursing him out,” Lisa reported when she, Abby and Rarity got together for lunch that day.

“I worry about how news circulates at this office.” Rarity filled them in on what really happened. “I mean, he was total jerk about it. I think he’s worried the guy will sue.”

Abby shook her head. “Yeah, no, I work in legal and if he really disregarded the safety rules, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Plus, Mr. Onceler has some of the best lawyers working for him so I’d like to see a no-account factory worker go up against him. Most likely the company will pay his medical bills and that’s it.”

“I can see how being called that would affect him though,” Lisa said.

“How so?” Rarity asked.

“Well, look at his family structure – no father figure. For all anyone knows he is a you-know-what in the actual sense of the word.” Lisa shrugged. “That particular word may have hit him on a personal level.”

Rarity hadn’t thought of that, but Lisa was right. She had never even heard anyone mention Mr. Onceler’s father. She had always assumed he was dead, but perhaps that wasn’t the case. It was entirely possible that this incident had stirred up bad memories for him. Perhaps his father had been a drunk or abusive. Maybe he had never known his father at all. What if Mr. Onceler had been the product of some unspeakable crime against his mother?

Rarity had so much paperwork to do that it was nearly seven before she strode into her boss’ office and placed the papers on his desk. Mr. Onceler removed his shades and looked at her. “Rarity, please sit down.”

She did so in one of the seats across from his desk, but said nothing. Her heart beat quickly and she felt color come to her cheeks. Was he actually going to fire her?

He took a deep breath and folded his hands on the desk. Silence filled the room for a few moments as though he was trying to think of what to say. He lowered his eyes to stare at the dark mahogany as he finally spoke. “I’m sorry, Rarity. I should not have spoken to you so harshly earlier. You are one of the best assistants I’ve ever had and I assure you, your job is safe.”

He was actually apologizing? She didn’t think she’d ever heard him apologize to anyone. It actually touched her a bit – he was trying, legitimately trying, to be a better person. Even if he didn’t see it himself, she did. Slowly, but surely, the wall around his heart was cracking and breaking away to reveal glimpses of the person he’d once been. “Don’t worry about it, sir. After what he said, I can understand you were upset.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what he called you…considering…your father isn’t in the picture…” Mother of Celestia, she could see in his eyes already that had nothing to do with it.

“Oh, Rarity, it didn’t bother me, not in that way. It was disrespectful, though, highly disrespectful.”

He had opened up to her a little in the car before. Maybe, just maybe, he would answer a more personal question. “I just thought perhaps it struck a chord. If I may ask, did your father pass away?”

Mr. Onceler lit a cigarette as Rarity noticed he tended to do when he was nervous or uncomfortable. It was possible she had overstepped her bounds here. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” she said quickly. “I was just curious.”

He took a few drags of his cigarette before answering. “He left when I was seven and none of us ever heard from him again. Mom got word that he died a few years ago. Brett and Chet hardly remember him, but I have good memories. He taught me how to play guitar; he was the one member of my family who always believed I could make it in this world.”

It was a relief to hear at least his memories of his father were good ones and he hadn’t been abusive to them. “So, you play guitar?” Rarity knew this, of course, but he was unaware she had actually been in his apartment.

“Yes. Would you like me to play something for you?”

He was full of surprises tonight and Rarity was not one to pass that up. As soon as she nodded, he placed the cigarette in the ashtray then retreated to his apartment for a moment and returned with a red guitar. Instead of taking his seat behind the desk, he occupied the chair next to her and began strumming the strings. A melody emerged from the instrument and she heard in it his passion for this musical art and all positive emotions of joy and maybe even love. She hoped there were words to this song, but if there were he didn’t sing them.

“That was beautiful,” she told him when he was done. “You’re quite talented.”

“Thank you, Rarity.”

“Do you sing, too? Or play other instruments?”

“Yes and no, though I would like to learn how to play the piano.”

“You should; I think you’d be good at it.”

One of those rare genuine smiles crossed his lips. “I don’t have a lot of time these days for such pursuits.” Awkward silence filled the air and she could almost see in his eyes that he was retreating back into his formal, well-mannered shell. “You may go home if you need to, Rarity.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll see you tomorrow.” As she left his office and made her way down the hall, she found herself humming the tune he had just played for her. It stayed in her mind the rest of the evening, still there playing her to sleep as she lay in bed that night.

* * *

Rarity wasn’t sure what to wear when she went out with Brad that night. The August sun beat down on Greenville and the surrounding valley and even though it was Saturday, she longed for the air conditioned comfort of work. If only there were a gala or something but it turned out this was a free weekend. She wondered if Mr. Onceler kept his apartment as chilly as his office and what he was up to. She often thought about the guitars she’d seen on his wall and imagined he dabbled in his music when he wasn’t working. She wondered what he might be wearing…

Never mind what he’s wearing, she scolded herself. Worry about what you’re wearing!

She pulled a violet lightweight skirt from the closet and paired it with a lavender tank top embellished with silver beading at the collar. She slipped her feet into white sandals and headed out the door to meet Brad. She considered the relationship to be going well, but she wasn’t head-over-heels in love with him like she thought she should be. He was nice enough, but he almost cared too much about the environment and the group’s cause. She cared too – she really did – but that seemed to be almost all he talked about. She’d found out early on if she dared to bring up her boss or the factory, well, that guaranteed at least a two hour lecture about how he was destroying everything. Lately, Brad had been pestering her to get him a meeting with Mr. Onceler to discuss the factory’s effects on the valley.

“I can tell you right now, he is not going to listen to you,” she’d told Brad. Oh, Mr. Onceler would act like he was listening, leaned slightly forward in his chair, chin resting on his folded, gloved hands. However, she knew as soon as Brad was done speaking, her boss would take a deep breath and explain how the Truffula Trees were essential to keep his business running and how he was helping the economy grow. He would throw in that his lawyers absolutely assured him there were plenty of Truffulas left and that his factory was no more an environmental hazard than any other. Brad would counter that, no, in fact, an entire ecosystem was being destroyed and instead of pouring money into biggering his factory, he might consider planting two trees for every one he chopped down. And she knew in the end, Mr. Onceler would simply smile diplomatically and dismiss Brad with a wave of his hand before lighting a cigarette. No, that meeting would go nowhere.

She arrived at the café just before six and found Brad sitting at one of the round tables. “Hi.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Rarity, you look beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

He didn’t look too bad himself with his dark blonde hair tousled a bit like he’d woken up with that style. “I ordered an iced coffee for you.”

“Oh, thanks.” He kept forgetting she really didn’t like the taste of coffee, but this one was mixed with milk and sugar so it wasn’t too horrible. She did enjoy the smell of coffee and thought about the warm steam of the coffee she made every morning for her boss. Why was she thinking about him again? Stop it, Rarity!

“How was that party you went to last weekend?” Brad asked after they’d ordered dinner.

“It went fine; kind of boring, actually.”

“And what kind of ten-a-penny girl did he have on his arm this time?”

“Some blonde bimbo who couldn’t stop giggling the whole evening – Tiffany or Tasha or Tamara – I forget.”

“So, he just takes these girls out, then to his bed, then never sees them again?”

She knew how he valued his privacy, but also how he hated his player reputation. “No, actually, he always drops them off at wherever they’re staying before he drops me off. He politely thanks them for a nice evening and if he enjoyed their company he kisses their hand, if he didn’t then a handshake is all they get. This last girl got a handshake.”

“And has he ever kissed your hand?” Brad asked, his voice tinged with jealousy.

“Please, I’m his assistant. The only time our hands touch is when I’m giving him papers or something. Otherwise, the car just stops in front of the boarding house, he says ‘have a good night, Rarity’ and I go inside.”

“Have you asked him about a possible meeting yet with myself and a few members of the group?”

“I haven’t had a chance. Besides, I keep telling you, he will not listen. You have better odds of driving to the moon in a car than you do of changing his mind.”

“I just worry about how this expansion of the factory will affect the valley.”

Oh great, here he went again. Thankfully, Rarity didn’t have to listen to his rant very long because the poetry reading they’d come to see began. She tried to be interested, but poetry wasn’t really her thing and, honestly, most of them weren’t very good. One guy wrote a poem about belly button lint – gross!

It was still warm and light out by eight-thirty when they walked down the street together toward Brad’s place. “I got this new record you should hear. It’s pretty groovy.”

“Okay.” Rarity held his hand, which was slightly sweaty and calloused from the carpentry work he did. She tried to keep her mind on Brad and him alone, but at one point during the walk it wandered to the feeling of Mr. Onceler’s soft gloves whenever they happened to brush hands. Did he always wear those gloves even in the privacy of his own apartment? Wait, no, he didn’t because she’d been there that one night and held his ungloved hand in hers. His hands were calloused too. Made sense now that she knew he’d grown up doing farm work, but at the time she’d wondered about that.

Upon arriving at Brad’s, they went upstairs and she sat on his ugly white couch with the yellow flowers. Where had he even gotten this thing from? He put on the record, which was the latest from a hot rock and roll band and she tapped her fingers against her knees. She leaned into him as he sat next to her. “I like it…the music, I mean.”

“Yeah, they’re far out.” He kissed her gently.

Butterflies danced in Rarity’s stomach as she returned the kiss and her arms slid around him. He held her close and coaxed her to open her mouth so their tongues played together. He was kind of a sloppy kisser, though, he was the only human Rarity had ever kissed, so she had nothing to compare it to. She shivered as he ran his hands down her back and lifted the edge of her shirt. Wait…no…she wasn’t sure she was okay with this at all. She liked Brad, but realized as his hand ran over the padded cup of her bra that this was definitely not alright. She pushed the offending hand down and broke the kiss. “Brad, no.”

He leaned on her and kissed her neck. “C’mon, baby, just relax.”

His hand tried once again to snake into her shirt and she grabbed his wrist. “I said no.”

She put her hands on his chest, trying to push him away as he leaned against her pressing her to the couch. He tried kissing her again, but she turned her head. She wasn’t even okay with him kissing her at this point. She just wanted to go! “Brad, stop it! Let me up!”

“Shh.” He kissed her again and his hands pushed her skirt up over her hips.

Rarity heard the whoosh of blood in her ears as her heart raced. This was almost unheard of in Equestria, but it really seemed as though Brad was intent on forcing her to mate with him. No, not mate, what did they call it here…sex, that’s what he wanted. Rarity didn’t…she didn’t want this at all. Her stomach felt like ice as his fingers looped around her lace panties and a burning sensation behind her eyes told her she was about to cry. She’d never had sex with anyone and she didn’t want her first time to be with Brad pinning her down on a couch. She pulled her mouth away from his. “Please stop!”

“Babe, no one wears lace panties unless they want someone to take them off. I’ll be gentle, don’t worry.”

A rush of air told her the panties were now gone and she heard something unzip. Fury built up in her to the point where it felt it blazing white hot. She wanted Brad off of her – she wanted to run away – she wanted this to stop – NOW! She jerked her knee up so it forcefully connected with his nether-regions. “I SAID NO!”

Brad howled in pain and rolled off of her onto the carpeted floor with a thud. Seizing the moment, she jumped up and ran out stopping only to grab her purse as Brad yelled obscenities and called her vulgar names. It wasn’t until she was outside in the warm and dusky evening, halfway to her boarding house that she stopped running. She leaned against a building, heart pounding, gasping for breath and unable to hold the tears back any longer. She hoped no one she knew came by; she didn’t want anyone knowing about this. Even after every scary thing she’d faced in Equestria, nothing had made her this terrified. What if she hadn’t been able to fight him off? What if he’d actually succeeded?

He didn’t, Rarity, she told herself. He didn’t.

Somehow though, even that brought little comfort.

*

Sunday kind of passed in a blur. Rarity stayed in her room at the boarding house sewing to keep her mind off of the previous night. There was supposed to be a group meeting that afternoon, but she didn’t go – she couldn’t go. The thought of facing Brad was overwhelming. She managed to make herself a long black skirt and a pink blouse that she wore to work the next day. As she entered Mr. Onceler’s air conditioned office, she wished she’d made the blouse with long sleeves. She rubbed the goosebumps off her arms. If he’d take off that stupid coat he wouldn’t have to keep it freezing in here, she thought, but then another part of her brain chimed in. He looks really good in that coat…

What if he saw it in her face? What if he knew just by looking at her that something was off? Great, she could just imagine his reaction – “Oh Rarity, men are men and if you insist on parading around in those short skirts, some guys won’t be able to control themselves.”

Even the smell of coffee was off-putting this morning as it only reminded her of being at the café with Brad. She wanted to forget Brad – not just Brad – she wanted nothing to do with men at all. Maybe she should try being a fillyfooler…or, wait, what did they call that here? A lesbian, yes, Rarity seriously was considering being a lesbian. Knock it off, Rarity, she told herself. That’s not exactly something you choose!

“Good morning, Rarity.”

He looks really good in that coat…yes; she was going to have to forget that whole lesbian idea. “Good morning, sir.” She placed the coffee on his desk. “Did you need anything else?”

Mr. Onceler shook his head and waved his hand in that dismissing way. At least he didn’t notice she wasn’t her chipper self. Of course he didn’t. He was so busy finalizing blueprints for the expansion. She heard the flick of his lighter as she walked out of the office. Good, at least she wouldn’t have to be around that. Sitting at her own desk, she was glad to be busy because it meant she could take her mind off Brad. That was, until Lisa and Abby walked into her office.

“What happened with you and Brad this weekend?” Lisa asked. “He said you broke it off with him and after he treated you to a nice dinner too.”

“He wanted something I wasn’t going to give him.”

“Yeah, he said you turned him on and then left,” Lisa told her.

Abby gave a short laugh. “I thought maybe he found about her rattling Mr. Onceler’s desk drawers.”

Rarity slammed down her pen. “First of all, Brad is a liar! I told him no and he kept pushing! Second, Mr. Onceler and I have no such relationship!”

“Brad told some of the guys you were wearing a short skirt and lace underwear,” Abby said. “If you do that, you know they’re going to think you want something.”

It took everything in Rarity not to jump over the desk and punch Abby in the face. Instead, she kept her composure and gathered the phone messages she’d taken. “If you’ll excuse me.”

She really didn’t want to go into her boss’ office, but it was the only place she knew Lisa and Abby wouldn’t dare follow her. Trying to be invisible, she quietly opened the door and made her way across the plush carpet.

“Rarity, just in time. Please rush these down to the engineering department.” Mr. Onceler handed her the rolled up blueprints.

She simply nodded and placed the messages on his desk.

“You’re awfully quiet today,” he observed.

Rarity took a deep breath. “I broke up with my boyfriend.”

“Oh.”

He was wearing those sparkly blue shades of his and with his controlled tone it was hard for her to gauge exactly what kind of response that was or how he felt about it. She knew how she felt about it though and how she felt about what her supposed friends were now saying and unbidden tears came to her eyes. She couldn’t even stop herself from blurting it out. “He tried forcing himself on me!”

Great, now he could just say it, starting with “Oh, Rarity…” – he could talk about how she dressed and how pretty she was and how men were hormonal idiots who couldn’t help themselves.

Instead, he removed his shades and stood, speaking with a sincerity she’d never heard in his voice before. “Oh, Rarity…I’m so sorry. Have a seat.”

She set the blueprints down and wiping her tears, she sat in one of the leather chairs across from his desk and he took a seat in the one next to her. “Did he hurt you?”

Rarity shook her head. “Not really. I kicked him…you know, down there…and ran off.”

“Good, he deserves that.”

“And people are saying that I should have just done it with him because he bought me dinner and that I wanted him to and teased him because of the skirt and lace panties I wore…” Oh Celestia, why did I just tell my boss I own lace panties?!

Mr. Onceler held something out to her. It was a clean, freshly pressed handkerchief and she took it gratefully to dab at her eyes, which would not stop watering. He took her free hand in his. “Listen to me, Rarity; it should happen to no one. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing. It doesn’t matter if he bought you dinner. You could walk around in your underwear if you wanted – no one has the right to do anything to you without your consent. You said you weren’t comfortable in that situation; you told him no and he should have listened. A decent man – a real man – respects a woman when she says no.”

“I told him no. I told him to stop. I was so scared…to think that could have been my first time and he didn’t even care…he would have just done it.” Inwardly, she scolded herself again – now he knew not only about her lace panties, but also that she was a virgin.

He sighed and squeezed her hand. “No one’s first time should be so terrifying. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t I run the blueprints down to engineering myself? You stay here and take a break for as long as you need.”

Rarity finally had the nerve to look him in the eyes and saw a kindness there she’d never noticed before. Those blue eyes weren’t like ice at all, but like the sky, vast enough to carry in them concern and gentleness and compassion for another person. She honestly didn’t think he could be this caring. He gave her a reassuring smile and picked up the blueprints before shielding those eyes with his shades.

“Sir,” she said before he could step out of the office. “Thank you, and, I hope this isn’t weird of me to say, but you…you really are a gentleman.”

“Of course, Rarity. What else would I be?” With that, he put his top hat on his head and strode from the room.

Rarity sniffled, but then felt her lips curve into a small smile. He could put on a fancy suit and hat, talk in a refined manner and walk with grace and confidence, but inside…somewhere inside…was that gentle farm boy Norma had told her about.

* * *

Rarity’s story had unnerved him. As usual, though, Onceler managed to not let his feelings show and hiding behind his shades made it easy. However, once work was done for the day and he slipped into the solitude of his apartment, he was able to turn his mind over to what she had told him. Someone had tried to force himself on Rarity. The thought of her going through that made him ill. The thought of anyone going through that was sickening. And if this jerk had actually succeeded in hurting Rarity, well, he wouldn’t mind going to jail for murder…if they found the body…which they wouldn’t.

Crying women were a weakness of his and when one was crying for a reason like Rarity, well, of course he was going to console her. He’d never seen her cry and he’d been plenty mean to her to the point where some of his other assistants would have burst into tears. But then…she was definitely different than all the other assistants who hung on his every word, never questioning, always batting their eyelashes at him hoping maybe he’d take an interest. No, Rarity had a mind of her own and wasn’t afraid to speak it. That amused him at times. She was strong, but something like this, well, it took a lot out of even the strongest of people. He took little comfort in the fact that at least this man hadn’t succeeded…at least she’d been spared the worst. The worst changed people…bent and broke hearts…it made them do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done…yes, the worst crept in and filled one’s life with darkness.

Stepping in front of the dresser he removed his shades and gloves. His reflection stared back at him – neat hair, youthful complexion, but also dark circles under his eyes. He was working too hard. Didn’t he used to have light freckles on his cheeks? Where did those go? I’m indoors too much, he concluded. Sliding a hand in his pocket, he pulled out the handkerchief he’d let Rarity use. It had mascara from her eyelashes on it and he wasn’t certain if that would come out in the wash. He was okay with this though – he had several and she’d needed it.

Some jerk had tried to force himself on Rarity.

Darkness crawled into his mind and he heard a voice from the past. “How old are you?”

Nineteen,” his own voice answered.

No, he told that darkness, we are not going there. I do not have the strength for that right now.

He unbuttoned his coat and heard his own voice talking to Rarity. “It doesn’t matter what you were wearing.”

A flash of memory – standing in front of a mirror, perfectly combed ebony hair…fancier clothes than he’d ever worn.

He shook his head trying to dispel the darkness as it invaded.

It doesn’t matter if he bought you dinner.”

Shiny silverware. Elegant china. Delicious food he’d only dreamed of eating. The burn of whiskey in his throat.

Onceler loosened his tie. He couldn’t breathe as other memories…darker memories…surfaced.

Buttons and zippers being undone. The soft crinkle of fabric as it hit the floor.

His blood felt like ice water rushing through his veins.

Unwelcome kisses. Unwelcome hands. That same voice from the past. “Does that feel good?”

Rarity’s voice. “I told him no.”

He hadn’t.

I told him to stop.”

He couldn’t.

Plied with alcohol. Unable to move and unable to speak.

You’re so pretty.” That voice again.

He was gone at this point, hand on his chest in a futile attempt to calm his pounding heart, hardly breathing as the memories came back all too vivid, too real.

You like this, don’t you?”

His mind had screamed the entire time, trapped in a drunk body that would not respond.

Come back to bed, pretty boy.”

Not forced by threats or physical violence, but by circumstances. A business deal. A verbal contract. A sacrificial virgin.

I love you.” That voice perverting words that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

His own voice, finally found. “You don’t even know my name.”

Morning. Sunlight. Another mirror. Disheveled ebony hair…wearing nothing but shame and disgrace.

Broken. Ruined. Shattered beyond repair.

His own voice speaking once again to Rarity. “No one’s first time should be so terrifying.”

“No,” he said aloud when he could finally breathe again and it felt like some warmth had returned to his veins. “No…it shouldn’t…”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 – Autumn Falling

Fall hadn’t even officially started yet, but come September, with temperatures still high and rain nowhere in sight, stores began hanging up fall décor while all the coffee shops started advertising pumpkin spice drinks. Rarity was able to be around coffee again. In fact, she had talked with a counselor a couple of times about the incident and actually felt much better between those sessions and time. She was grateful at least that she had been able to fight Brad off and she could save herself for when she was actually ready. She was also grateful to find a female counselor in a world where so many professionals seemed to be men. She was able to talk about things she wouldn’t have been able to tell a guy. After a few sessions, she felt ready to move on, but the counselor gave Rarity her own private number and told her to call if she ever needed to talk.

However, she hadn’t been back to the environmental group. He was still there and even though she was okay away from him, she honestly didn’t know what her reaction would be upon seeing him. Besides, between work, which now included galas and parties almost every weekend, sewing clothes and regular boring things like shopping for food and cleaning up her room at the boarding house, she didn’t have time.

Work on the expansion had begun and Mr. Onceler had also drawn up plans for his updated Super Axe Hacker. She knew she had to stop it, but now that she was separated from the environmental group, it seemed much harder. Not only that, she had no more desire to hurt him or his business. He was opening up to her and their conversations weren’t always strictly work related anymore. She was simply going to have to figure out a way to keep business moving without harming the trees.

“Before I go, I have some messages from Amos Carter’s office again. It sounds like he’s really intent on setting up a meeting with you.” Rarity handed the yellow message papers to her boss.

Mr. Onceler gave them a glance before dropping them into the wastebasket. “I have no idea why this guy is even interested in meeting with me. He’s a banker and my company doesn’t do any business at all with First Country Bank.”

“Maybe that’s the reason why. He could be trying to get you to open up an account or something.”

“If he wanted that he could send me junk mail and I could just throw it away.”

“Speaking of mail…” Rarity plopped a pile of bound letters on the desk.

His hand briefly touched the elegant gold envelope on the top. Rarity had seen him receive these cards, but didn’t know who they were from or what they said. He’d never open them in front of her. She heard him sigh and lifted her eyes to see him press his gloved fingers to the area below his eyes.

Rarity had noticed he seemed under the weather. She had heard a hint of congestion in his voice and his cheeks appeared pink as though he might have a fever. “Are you feeling okay, sir?”

“I’m fine, Rarity. It’s just a cold.”

“Because if you don’t want to go, I can always call your date and cancel.”

“Why would I do that? I never want to go. I have to go. Some cold medicine an hour before and I’ll be just fine. Tomorrow is Saturday and I’ll have two days to recover before work on Monday. What’s my date’s name again?”

Rarity checked her paperwork. “Stephanie.”

“Well, at least that’s a normal name. The last girl I took to a gala was named Chartreuse. Who gives their child a name like that? I mean, I hear some of these names people give their kids today and I can’t imagine looking into a small reflection of yourself nine months in the making, all innocent and beautiful and then name it something like Optimus Meadowlark.”

“One might argue that Rarity is an unusual name.”

“Unusual, yes, but it’s pretty and easily pronounced.”

Rarity smiled and then she wondered…would he open up to her about that? “Can I ask what your first name is?”

Mr. Onceler looked away and cleared his throat. “That is too personal.”

Okay, no, they were still not that close.

The gala went much as Rarity expected. Mr. Onceler seemed very quiet, but whatever cold medicine he’d taken apparently alleviated his symptoms long enough to get him through the evening. Rarity was surprised at all the books his date said she’d read and that she was currently in law school at a nearby university. No one asked her how old she was – that would be rude, of course – but Rarity guessed she was probably about the same as herself and her boss. She wore a modest, formal dress in deep blue that matched a pair of sapphire earrings she wore. Her blonde hair, highlighted by the chandeliers in the room, reached her shoulders. And her figure…Rarity wished she could look like that – Stephanie was maybe a size four – thin, but healthy-looking. She and Mr. Onceler looked like an ideal couple walking around. She was smart, refined, mature…yes, Stephanie was a welcome change from the giggly eighteen and nineteen-year-olds he usually was paired with. So, it surprised Rarity at the end of the evening when Mr. Onceler didn’t kiss her hand.

“She seemed nice,” Rarity said when he returned to the car.

“She was. Put her on the Keep List – I might ask her to one of the winter galas when I have a say in who I take.” He leaned his head against the back of the seat and sighed in relief. “Send out flowers to her on Monday – she’s the best of the ladies I’ve gone out with this season.”

“But, you didn’t kiss her hand.”

“Of course not, I’m sick. It wouldn’t be very nice of me pass it on to her. I told her I would if I didn’t have a cold and she said she hoped I felt better.”

Rarity noticed how flushed his cheeks looked and the way his eyes were shut as though he were in pain. Obviously the medicine was wearing off. “Do you want the driver to drop you off first?”

“That wouldn’t be very chivalrous of me, Rarity, to make you go home by yourself.” His voice was soft and sleepy.

“Are you sure? I can walk you up to your apartment and make sure you’re alright.” He didn’t answer. “Sir?” She moved into the seat next to him and shook his shoulder. “Mr. Onceler?”

His eyes opened slightly. “Rarity, why are you next to me?”

She could feel heat radiating off his body. Not caring what he thought about it or what he’d say, she placed a hand on his forehead.

He jerked away. “Your hand is freezing.”

“No, you’re burning up! You’ve been fighting this thing for days and now you need to rest and I’m not going to let you go home by yourself when you’re this sick!”

As if admitting defeat, he put his head in his hands and didn’t say anything. Rarity instructed the driver to head to the factory instead of her boarding house. When they arrived, she walked with him up the outside steps and into his office where he punched in the code to open his apartment door.

“Thank you, Rarity. I’ll be fine from here.” But, he didn’t move, he just kept leaning against the door frame.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

Mr. Onceler closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. She let him put an arm around her and helped him over to the bed where he promptly passed out. Rarity rushed into the bathroom and searched the medicine cabinet, finally locating a thermometer. He was just fluttering his eyes open when Rarity sat next to him on the bed and stuck the thermometer in his mouth before he could protest. “Don’t talk. Where do you keep your pajamas?” Dear Celestia, please don’t tell me he sleeps in the nude, she thought. She was relieved when he pointed to the nearby bureau. Rummaging through one of the drawers, she found a pair of green, cotton pajamas that seemed like they’d be comfortable. What was it with him and green?

Unceremoniously, she practically threw the pajamas at him, while taking out the thermometer at the same time. She had to squint to see where the mercury stopped. “A hundred and three?! I’m surprised you’re even walking around!”

“It’s just a cold, relax.”

“It is not and you know it. Put those on.”

“What makes you think you can boss me around?”

“If you don’t, I will forcibly remove your clothes and dress you myself.”

He paused and looked at the pajamas thoughtfully. “That’s…actually a bit kinky…but I am not changing in front of you.”

“Don’t worry about it – I’ll get some stuff from the bathroom so I won’t see.” She went in the bathroom and closed the door. She hoped she didn’t lose her job come Monday, but somehow she could tell he was grateful. He just still had trouble expressing gratitude. She got the feeling not many people showed him kindness. She went through the medicine cabinet again, grabbing a night time medicine that promised to relieve most of his symptoms and running a couple of small washcloths under near freezing water. Looking around she noticed how pristine the bathroom was and wondered if he hired maids to help him clean or if he did it himself.

“Okay, Rarity, you can come out.”

Mr. Onceler was already in bed, his eyes covered with his hand and he was still wearing those ridiculous gloves. What were they – his security gloves or something? It reminded her of a foal with a favorite blanket or toy they couldn’t part with. She set the items down on the nightstand. “Take those gloves off.”

“You know, you’re awfully demanding and I can’t figure out whether I like it or not.” He peeled the gloves from his arms and handed them to her.

“Why do you wear gloves all the time anyway?”

“I don’t have to explain my fashion choices to you.”

“Drink this.” She shoved a medicine cup full of green, sticky syrup into his hand.

He made a face, but chugged it down before closing his eyes. Rarity placed one of the cold washcloths on his forehead and the other behind his neck. To think he probably would have just come into his apartment and collapsed somewhere and no one would have checked on him. A memory stirred in her mind – pink and purple hair, her mind consumed with worry, things moving on their own with a delicate blue glow. That’s right, she remembered. I have a sister. I used to take care of her when she was sick. Sweetie Belle…

How could she have, even for a moment, forgotten her own sister?

The apartment was fairly silent and dark as Rarity had turned off the light. She listened as Mr. Onceler’s breathing went from struggling to almost normal. She had nothing to do and very little to think about, except her sister. She remembered the Sisterhooves Social, how Sweetie Belle had been a flower filly in the same wedding where Rarity had been a bridesmaid, camping with Applejack and Rainbow Dash, how Sweetie Belle always tried so hard to please Rarity. I won’t ever forget you again, Sweetie Belle, I promise…

He stirred and said something so quietly she couldn’t make it out exactly, but it sounded like a name. She leaned in. “Are you okay?”

“Airabella…”

Who was Airabella?

“Am I going to die?”

He wasn’t even awake at all; he was dreaming. Even so, she wanted to remove any fear from his mind. “No, of course you’re not going to die.”

His mouth was open slightly and she seized the opportunity to take his temperature again. It had dropped to one hundred point four. Not perfect, of course, but much better. She placed the washcloths in the bathroom and yawned. She had nothing to change into and realized crawling into his bed was probably not going to go over well in the morning. There was a comfortable couch near the window though, so she curled up on it and finally let her own fatigue carry her to sleep.

* * *

When Onceler woke up the next morning the first thing he noticed was that he no longer felt like death. He definitely wasn’t at one hundred percent, but knew he could at least function that day. Had Rarity gone home? No, as he got out of bed, he noticed her on the couch, still wearing the dress she’d worn the night before. She was the first woman who had ever been in his apartment who wasn’t related to him. He wasn’t sure how he felt about this. It was definitely an intrusion on his privacy.

If you don’t, I will forcibly remove your clothes…

Her comment was innocent enough, but even so, it stirred memories of fingers dancing along his ribs as though they were piano keys, sliding down his bare stomach and popping the button on his pants. She couldn’t have known this though…no one did…that certain comments, sounds or smells could bring back such dark memories for him. Though, maybe if it was Rarity…no, no, he’d still mind it. He did not know her well enough to be anything less than fully dressed around her and she’d seen him in his pajamas of all things. He suddenly felt very self-conscious and threw on a robe after pulling his gloves up past his elbows. But still, she’d stayed with him. No one else would have done that, not even his family members.

For some reason he couldn’t stop thinking about her gentleness and femininity and how he had welcomed those qualities into the dark solitude of his life, even for one night. She’d been forceful because she’d had to be with him. He knew he was stubborn; he wouldn’t have listened if she hadn’t spoken so firmly to him. He checked his temperature and found it was just below a hundred degrees – much better than last night. Being so sick had brought dreams of his past, of his mother in her rare caring moments when all she has was water to try and keep her children cool when they were burning with fever. Memories of another cold winter, a very serious illness, two weeks of his life that had passed in a blur, fear of death, profound grief, devastating loss…Airabella. And, as always, he had been allowed only one tear about the entire situation. Concealing emotions and not letting any weakness show had become second nature to him. Interestingly enough, he clearly remembered waking up in the middle of the night sometime during those two weeks and seeing his mother sobbing her eyes out in the corner. But, he supposed when someone thinks they’re about to lose all of their children, well, that would be their natural reaction. However, he’d heard her praying…praying for all of them to die to end their lives of suffering. Desperate times…desperate situations…there had been too many of those in his life.

Glancing back at Rarity, those feelings of gratitude returned. He wanted to do something for her. It had been a long time since he’d wanted to do something for anyone, least of all out of thankfulness. Usually, he’d only do anyone a favor if there was something in it for him, but Rarity had been genuinely kind, expecting nothing in return. What could he do for her though? It was morning, and she’d probably be hungry when she woke up. He could make her breakfast. It wasn’t much, but he was certain she’d appreciate that.

Meanwhile, on the couch, Rarity was absorbed in a dream about Ponyville – specifically, at her home with her sister. The little filly was so proud of the breakfast she’d…um…cooked…overcooked, really…no, burned to a crisp, actually.

“I didn’t know you could burn juice,” she’d said to Sweetie Belle before the filly plopped a bowl on the table with bubbling black goop in it. “Let me guess, apple sauce?”

“Nope, toast!” Sweetie Belle proclaimed proudly.

Sweetie Belle meant well, she did, and Rarity didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but the goop in the bowl looked awful. However, it seemed to smell okay like cinnamon…like some kind of nuts…why, it wasn’t black goop at all. It was oatmeal. There was a hint of chocolate in the air.

“Sweetie Belle, did you…” Rarity scanned the kitchen. Her sister was gone. Sweetie Belle hadn’t been the only other pony in the room but Rarity couldn’t for the life of her remember who had been there. So…who had put the oatmeal, which was now accompanied by a steaming mug of hot chocolate, on the table?

Rarity’s eyes fluttered open and her mind was prepared to see the wall of her bedroom in Carousel Boutique. Instead, there was a large open space with an oversized bed covered in green sheets, plush white carpeting and a tall window behind the green couch where she was laying. She wasn’t a pony; she was human, she realized as she rubbed her eyes with her hands. Then the memories of the night before came back to her and she realized she was in her boss’ apartment – his private apartment – where no one except him was allowed to go. She remembered how she’d spoken to him, but also how he’d listened to her. She sat up and stretched, taking a moment to look around before readjusting her bra. Those things were not meant to be slept in and the under wires and straps were digging into her flesh. She was going to have to remove that particular uncomfortable item as soon as she got home. Being a human woman was hard sometimes. Ponies didn’t deal with things like this.

The smell of cinnamon and chocolate had somehow transcended her dream and made their way into the apartment. Her stomach growled with hunger. She’d only had a quick bite the night before and, because attending the gala was her job, was not allowed to partake of any hors d'oeuvres at the party. She’d better get out of here before Mr. Onceler said anything about her spending the night. However, she’d hardly touched the floor with her foot before he came out of the kitchen.

“Rarity, you’re awake. Come on in here.”

He wasn’t kicking her out or yelling at her? He was actually inviting her to stay in his private space? Nervously she walked into the bright kitchen. “Sir, I’m sorry I stayed…it’s just you were so sick that I…”

“It’s fine, Rarity. I thought you might be hungry so I made breakfast.” He pulled a chair out from the small kitchen table and gestured for her to sit down.

The bowls of oatmeal and mugs of hot chocolate looked absolutely inviting and more than welcome to her famished stomach. “Thank you, sir.”

Mr. Onceler sat across from her. “I put cinnamon in it, but I didn’t know what else you liked or if you had any food allergies, so I didn’t add anything else.”

She looked at the small bowls of walnuts, blueberries and dried fruit on the table. There was also a tiny bowl of marshmallows for the hot chocolate. “I’m surprised you’re not drinking coffee.”

“I drink that during the week because it’s…I don’t know, it’s expected or something. I’m not very fond of coffee, actually. I prefer hot chocolate with marshmallows.” There was color creeping into his cheeks and Rarity wasn’t sure if it was from shyness or fever. “I really like marshmallows.”

“How are you feeling this morning?”

“Much better, thank you.”

There was something strange and intimate about sitting across from him over the breakfast table with him in pajamas and a robe…and those gloves…those absolutely ridiculous gloves! What the hell was with those gloves, she wondered as he took a sip of his hot chocolate.

“I appreciate this…you making breakfast. Thank you, sir.”

“It was nothing. You were a great help to me last night. I hope you slept well.”

“I did. I had this dream about the time my sister tried to cook breakfast. It was a disaster. She burned everything and I mean everything. I didn’t know burning juice was possible, but she found a way.”

He covered his mouth as he chuckled at her memory, as though trying to suppress his laughter, as though maybe laughter was improper or inappropriate. “So, you have a sister? How old?”

Rarity scanned her mind, but try as she might, she honesty couldn’t remember how old Sweetie Belle was. She was just going to have to guess based on what she could remember. “She’s ten. She keeps trying to find her special talent in life. Cooking wasn’t it.”

Mr. Onceler stirred his oatmeal a bit before speaking softly. “I had a sister.”

“You did?” Rarity had only met his brothers, then she remembered the night before…the name he had spoken.

“Airabella,” he said. “She died when she was seven. I was fifteen.”

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugged a little. “Mom thought she was going to lose all of us. We all got very sick. Mom pawned her wedding ring to have coffins made, but only Airabella died. She always did want a daughter.”

“Losing any child would be terrible.”

“You don’t know my mother. If she could have kept Airabella alive I’m sure she would have sacrificed one of her sons. I know she figured I was gone for sure. I remember waking up and she told me I could go whenever I was ready. I wasn’t ready, obviously.”

“Why didn’t she take you to the hospital?”

“We couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t afford a lot of things. In fact, the first time I saw a doctor for an actual exam I was almost twenty-one because it was only after I started selling thneeds that I could afford to go. They couldn’t believe that. They were shocked I’d had no vaccinations and no medical treatment to speak of my entire life, with the exception of seeing a doctor once for a broken wrist. We didn’t have money for that either; Mom pawned my father’s guitar to pay the bill.”

Rarity remembered what Norma had said about him growing up poor, but she hadn’t imagined they wouldn’t have had money for medical care. Of course, in Equestria, medical care was just a given – paid for by the government. That obviously wasn’t the case here. She couldn’t imagine having to pawn such valuable items for things that should be basic rights such as seeing a doctor. “I never would have guessed you grew up so poor.”

“No one ever does. I trained myself to be well-mannered and found out how other rich people conduct themselves to fit in.” Mr. Onceler smiled a little as he looked out the small kitchen window. “I’m really just a country bumpkin under all these polished ways and fancy clothes.”

“I didn’t grow up rich or fancy either,” Rarity told him. “My accent is practiced and learned. My parents definitely sound like they’re from the country.” She tried to remember what her parents looked like, but it was hard. Did she have her mother’s hair? Her father’s eyes? She didn’t know. She scraped her spoon across the bottom of the empty bowl. “This was really good. Thank you again. I should get going though.”

“I’ll call a driver to take you back home.”

“And you rest up this weekend; take it easy.”

“Yes, Nurse Rarity,” he said teasingly.

She liked this side of him and thought about it as she walked out of the office a short time later and down the steps to meet the car that was waiting. She smiled as she was about to reach for the handle of the limo door, but a tight hand grasped her wrist, sharp manicured nails digging into her flesh.

“What are you doing leaving my son’s apartment in the morning?”

Isabella. Rarity rolled her eyes and wrenched herself out of the other woman’s grasp. “First of all, he is twenty-four years old; don’t you think it’s time you stop inserting yourself into every aspect of his life? Second, if you must insist on inserting yourself, he came home from the gala with a hundred-and-three fever, so I stayed to make sure he was okay.”

Isabella’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “Right, a fever…I’m sure things did get quite hot in his bed last night, didn’t they?”

“Excuse me?”

“Listen to me, missy, you are not the first assistant he’s gone after and if you want to keep your job, I suggest you keep your legs closed.”

“We haven’t…”

“Please, he’s a guy and you’re beautiful, so don’t tell me nothing’s going on. And if you end up in a family way, don’t come after him for all he’s worth and think you can keep him hooked.”

“Well, I won’t because I spent the night on his couch. Maybe you should be more concerned with his health and less concerned about his sex life, or lack thereof, because he told me he’s only been with one person!”

Isabella’s face drained of color and her eyes widened. “He told you about that?”

What was this reaction? Who the hell did he sleep with? Did he have some sort of love child out there that was hidden away from society and the press? He said he was a country bumpkin…did he have a relationship with a family member or something? “He only told me he’d been with one person. I assume she was his last girlfriend.”

His mother sighed and nodded. “Of course, well, of course it was.”

Rarity opened the car door and got in. Something wasn’t right. Isabella was hiding something. Mr. Onceler was keeping a secret…well, several, actually, but one in particular he didn’t want brought to light. She could tell and she wasn’t really sure if she was prepared to find out.

* * *

Rarity was thankful not to get the same illness and saw that the following week, Mr. Onceler seemed to be his normal self. Not only healthy, but normal in his way of keeping conversation polite and to-the-point. He wasn’t going to open up to Rarity at work the way he did in the privacy of his apartment. Work wasn’t the place for a casual chat about one’s past – it was a place to push papers, attend meetings, give orders, and make sure the factory kept churning out thneeds and making him rich.

Come Thursday, it was time to confirm his date for that Friday night’s gala and she paused when she saw the name – Norma Pacey. Great…how was that evening going to go? There were two options: stark, awkward silence or arguing over the environmental impact, or not, of his factory. She hadn’t seen or spoken to Norma in months, but recalled her saying that her mother wanted her and Mr. Onceler to reconnect. She waited until that evening to call when she knew Norma would be home.

“Hello, is this Norma Pacey?” When she got an affirmative answer, Rarity continued. “I’m calling on behalf of your date for tomorrow night’s charity gala to confirm.”

“I told my mother not to set me up for any of these things. I’m not even interested in going. Who did she set me up with anyway?”

“Mr. Onceler, the CEO of…”

“Oh, well, now I’m really not interested in going! No, you may tell Mr. Onceler I respectfully decline and make up whatever excuse you want, although if you tell him who his date was, because I’m sure he doesn’t know either, he will know why.”

Rarity heard a loud dial tone in her ear before she could even say good-bye. Great. She hadn’t honestly thought Norma wouldn’t go. Now he had no date for the gala. She understood Norma’s reasoning a little, but it was very odd that someone who used to be so close to him wouldn’t even consider spending one evening with the guy. She went into his office to deliver the news.

“Who did my mother agree to set me up with?” Mr. Onceler asked when Rarity told him.

“Norma Pacey.”

He sighed in defeat and closed his eyes. “That would be a problem.”

“Look, I don’t mean to pry, I really don’t, but I knew Norma in a group I used to go to…”

“The environmental activists you mean. Don’t think I don’t know about that, Rarity.”

She felt her cheeks grow warm. So, he had known all along. “She said you guys used to be together.”

“That was a long time ago. I don’t hate her if that’s what you think and I doubt she actually hates me. She just hates what those liberal activists tell her I’m doing to the environment. They should focus more on what I do for the economy.”

“I could try to call one of the ladies on the ‘keep’ list.”

“They would already have dates. We don’t choose our own dates until the masquerade around Halloween.”

“I guess you’re going solo then.”

“No, that won’t do at all.” He folded his hands and rested his chin on them. His eyes scanned her and he smiled. “Rarity, would you go with me?”

“I kind of have to. It’s my job.”

“I don’t mean as my assistant. I mean as my date.”

She knew that’s what he meant but she’d wanted to hear him say it. “Do I have to wear black?”

“You may wear whatever color you like as long as it’s not too loud and the dress is a modest style. Wear comfortable shoes, too because you’ll have to dance in them.”

Oh no, she forgot about dancing. “I don’t know how to dance.” At least, she assumed she didn’t in this world. In Equestria she was a divine dancer, but on two legs, she knew she’d feel uneasy.

He stood and gestured to her to follow him. He opened the door to his apartment. The last two times, she’d kind of intruded, but today she was being invited in.

“I’ll teach you some simple steps,” he explained as he walked over a record player that was in the corner. “Enough to get you through the evening.” He chose an album to play and classical music filled the room. “We’ll start with a box step, which is very easy.”

At least she had seen enough TV and movies here to know to curtsy before they started dancing. She placed her bare hand in his and inwardly liked the feeling of the material his gloves were made of. It was so soft and his other hand felt warm against her mid-back as she placed her right hand on his shoulder. She had never been this close to him before and he smelled like cigarette smoke, though instead of bothering her, she found it oddly comforting especially when she got that spicy underlying hint of whatever body wash or shampoo he used. She looked away, feeling self-conscious.

“Don’t look around. Keep your eyes on your partner and focus,” he instructed her. “I’m sure you know, but men traditionally lead while dancing and I’m old fashioned, so that’s the way I prefer to do it.”

“Considering I’m just learning, no argument there.”

“You’re a natural, Rarity,” he said as they twirled around the floor to the music.

Rarity was rather surprised herself at how easily this came to her. “Where did you learn to dance?”

“I took lessons soon after my business starting gaining success.”

“And you were about twenty when you started the company?”

“Exactly.”

“All these society women must see you as quite eligible.”

“My mother gets a lot of contact from other families trying to set me up with women, but I don’t want to get married for the sake of improving our status or anything like that. I’m not certain I want to get married at all, not unless I find the right woman.”

“You seem very independent and private. Those qualities don’t really go hand in hand with sharing your life. At what age would your mother insist on you getting married?”

“Most men choose someone by thirty. Women are pretty much expected to be married once they’re done with college, if they choose to go. That’s why many of my dates are so young.”

“Because the majority of the women your age are already married?”

“Yes. Last lesson for the night – trust your partner.” With that, he spun her out dramatically like she’d seen in the movies and then pulled her back in close to him. She thought…hoped, really…that he might kiss her, but he simply smiled. “Think you can remember that tomorrow?”

“I think so.”

And then, his hands were gone from her body. She didn’t know why, but just his touch made her tingle with excitement. And those gloves, those amazing, but still ridiculous gloves, were so soft. She wanted to hold his hand again. She knew she’d get her chance, though, and waited eagerly for tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 – Confidential

He’d allowed her to leave early on Friday to get ready and she was glad he did because a quick scan of her closet the night before revealed she had nothing to wear except the dress she wore as his assistant. With no time to make anything, she went to a boutique in town and selected a navy blue floor-length dress that would match her black pumps. She loved the way it hugged her body and then just past her hips, the skirt flared out in layers of chiffon and silk that would look graceful as she danced. Tiny beads gave a hint of elegance to the modest neckline and light chiffon had been attached to the straps so it fell over her shoulders and covered them.

Once back at the boarding house, she took a shower and even shaved her legs though she knew nothing was going to happen between them. It wasn’t, was it? No, Mr. Onceler was an absolute gentleman and would never think of ending their night with physical activity. The most she could expect was a kiss on the hand. Standing naked in front of her full length mirror, she surveyed her human body. Her skin was pale, of course, she was indoors most of the time. She was what many would consider attractive. She placed her hands on her stomach, which was rounding out a bit. No one else could probably tell, but she needed to start exercising and laying off the baked goods at work or she’d be fat in no time. Some models she’d seen in magazines were stick thin, but she had the body of a woman with curves – size ten, so her clothes said. Her thighs, while not too fat, did not have a gap between them, her breasts were still perky, but full and round like grapefruits and her hips, well, if she ever got pregnant her child would have enough room in there.

Child? Pregnant? No, she was going back to Equestria someday. She wasn’t here forever. She kept forgetting that. She kept forgetting a lot of things.

Still…her mind wandered to Mr. Onceler. What was he hiding under those fine clothes…under that complete suit with gloves he wore all the time? He was so thin and lanky she could probably snap him in two if she hugged him too hard. She imagined running her hands across the barely-there muscles of his chest and stomach. Maybe he worked out, actually, maybe he was ripped under that green coat of his. Not likely. No, if she put her arms around him, she knew she’d be able to feel the outline of his shoulder blades, maybe even the vertebrae of his back. She’d read up on human anatomy so she knew what men were supposed to look like, but had never actually seen one naked. How big was…

Stop it, Rarity, she scolded herself feeling heat blaze in her cheeks. Certainly it was not normal to be thinking about one’s boss naked. She applied makeup and slipped into her dress and shoes. Tonight, since she was not working, she wore her hair down, but still put the barrette in. Her cutie mark…generosity…her element. That’s what she was doing here.

Princess Celestia’s voice entered her head. You are a unicorn and it’s not uncommon when unicorns become human to forget what you are and where you came from. Do not forget.

She was trying so hard to remember, but bits and pieces of Equestria were leaving her mind day by day. A knock at the door snapped her back into reality and she slung her small purse over her shoulder before answering it. Mr. Onceler looked handsome as always in his green tailcoat and top hat. Green…the color of money, of greed, of fine jewels – emerald and jade, of grass, of nature…there was still hope, right. Hope of what? Why was she here? He looked so amazing.

“Good evening, Rarity.” He extended his arm and she looped her own around it. “You’re quite beautiful tonight.”

“Thank you, sir. You’re handsome yourself.”

When they got in the car, she sat next to him instead of across from him. She was his date tonight, not his assistant and the idea thrilled her. She didn’t have to follow two steps behind and whisper to him who someone was if he forgot, which actually rarely happened. He had a good memory. She noticed how he had his hands clasped together and how he looked away quickly when their eyes met. He was nervous. But why, she wondered. We work together all the time. If anything, he should be more at ease with me than with the other girls he’s gone with.

“I wanted to thank you for agreeing to be my date tonight and for all your hard work. You go above and beyond, Rarity, and that’s hard to find in any employee.” He produced a small velvet box from his pocket and held it out to her. “These are for you.”

She opened the box and just stared at the diamond earrings inside. Each was a trail of three progressively smaller diamonds, and the way they caught the light, the clarity of them, she could tell they were real. A name popped into her head – Tom – but she couldn’t figure out why or remember who Tom was. She picked one up and discovered it was a clip on. “You noticed I didn’t have pierced ears?”

“Of course.”

It was too much…she should give them back. She should say she appreciated the gesture but…but she was already looking in the mirror of her compact and clipping them on her earlobes. She loved the way they dangled and sparkled. They were so beautiful! And they’re MINE, she thought. “Thank you very much, sir. They’re gorgeous.”

“It’s nothing.”

Really? Diamonds of this cut and clarity were nothing? How rich was he exactly? Very…very rich, she knew. So rich that most women were only interested in him for his money. Rarity was grateful she’d gotten to know him…the real Onceler most people didn’t have a chance of even getting close to much less talking deeply with about his past and his interests. For all she knew, she was the only woman outside his family who knew he played guitar, knew how to sew and knit, liked marshmallows and got queasy around blood. She felt lucky to know the actual man behind the glittery shades and cool attitude. She found herself much preferring the kind-of-shy country bumpkin with the boyish grin.

When they entered the gala, she stayed by his side watching the other couples either dancing or talking. Older couples – parents, she realized – stood by the wall watching, hoping that maybe the person their son or daughter was with would be the one. Thankfully, Isabella was not there. She probably would grill Mr. Onceler about it tomorrow though. Well, of course she would, he was here with Rarity after all and for whatever reason Isabella despised her.

She wasn’t ordinarily allowed to touch the food when she was assisting him, but he must’ve noticed her look of longing as a server walked by with a platter of hors d'oeuvres.

“Go ahead, if you want one, Rarity,” he told her.

Rarity hadn’t had a chance to eat anything and savored the flavor as her teeth sank into the cracker topped with apple, soft cheese and honey. She showed restraint, of course, but definitely nibbled on the delicious food that was offered. As usual, she noticed he touched nothing. She figured it was perhaps because he would have to remove his gloves to eat, or maybe he’d already eaten. Whatever the reason, as she surveyed his slender frame, she thought he could definitely stand to eat more and told him so.

“Rarity, I eat a lot. I mean, I love food and I eat more than I probably should. I had like twenty flipping pancakes this morning. I don’t know where it all goes.”

She looked down at her own body with its curves and put her hands on her lower abdomen as she thought about her reaction to her stomach getting a bit pudgy. “I hate you.”

He simply gave an amused laugh. “Oh, Rarity, don’t worry. A lot of men appreciate a lady with a feminine frame. Those twiggy models do nothing for me, at least.”

She was rather glad to hear this.

It seemed they hadn’t been there long when a young man, maybe thirty, with brown hair came up to them and extended his hand. “Mr. Onceler. It’s nice to finally meet you in person. I’m Amos Carter.”

Her boss gave his diplomatic smile, but she knew he was wondering what the hell this Carter guy wanted with him anyway.

“You are a hard person to get a hold of, you know that?” Mr. Carter continued.

“I realize it and I apologize, but I don’t discuss business at these events.”

“I had hoped to arrange a meeting.”

“Yes, but I understand you are hesitant to leave word as to the purpose of that meeting. I don’t set up meetings unless I know what they are regarding.”

Mr. Carter leaned in close and whispered something into Mr. Onceler’s ear. Rarity saw her boss’ eyes widen a bit just before the other man pulled away. “Do you think a meeting could be arranged now?”

“I will have my assistant call you first thing Monday morning and we will set something up while you are here in town.”

“Thank you, Mr. Onceler.”

Her boss simply gave him a polite nod and smile and then walked off with Rarity on his arm.

“What was that about, sir?”

“Don’t worry about it, Rarity. Don’t worry about work at all tonight. We’ll deal with it Monday morning. Also, if you like, while we’re here, you may call me ‘Once’.”

“Once…” she repeated cautiously. She liked that – it felt intimate and connected them on another level. Sure, it wasn’t his first name, but it was progress in the right direction.

This gala ended up being much better than the one she’d attended in Canterlot...of course, it wasn’t hard considering at that function her date was a total jerk. He had refused to open doors for her, expected her to pay for their apple treats and then turned his nose up at the baked goods Applejack had worked so hard on. She still remembered the way that stallion had treated her, though she couldn’t remember his name to save her life. She only remembered he wasn’t very chivalrous at all. Was this the Tom that had flashed through her mind earlier?

Mr. Onceler…Once, rather…treated her like a lady at all times and she enjoyed dancing most of all when she got to be held by him and feel the softness of his gloved hand in hers. Being so close she inhaled that cinnamon-clove scent she’d come to love about him, but something was missing. It took her a moment to realize there was not one hint of cigarette smoke clinging to him. She was touched; he knew it bothered her, so he must’ve changed clothes and maybe even showered before leaving for the gala.

By the time they left and he opened the car door for her, she wasn’t ready for the evening to end. She slid into the seat and folded her hands in her lap as he sat beside her. Now that there wasn’t the chatter and music and tinkling of champagne glasses around things were quiet and a little awkward. She noticed his fingers and hands weren’t staying still.

Finally, he broke the silence. “Rarity, I wanted to ask…”

“Yes,” she replied hopefully. Maybe he wanted to spend more time together.

“Would you mind terribly if I smoked? I haven’t had a cigarette all evening and I’m about to go crazy.”

Okay…not exactly what she was hoping for. “If you must, but please crack open the window at least.”

“Thank you.” He rolled down the window a bit and took his silver case from his pocket, dropping a piece of paper on the floor in the process...no, it wasn’t a paper, it was a card in a fancy gold envelope. His hands started shaking so much she was surprised he could open it and his eyes grew wide as he read whatever message was inside.

“What is it, Once?” She still used the name cautiously as though he might change his mind about letting her call him that.

He quickly crumpled up the paper and shook his head. “It’s not important.” He shoved it back in his pocket and lit a cigarette, though his hands were still so jittery she was amazed he could do so. What on earth did the card say?

Smoking, however, did seem to calm his nerves a bit, though as they arrived at her place and he stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray, he sighed. “I really need to stop that. Mom’s always on my case about it. You know what my father died of?” He waited until Rarity shook her head to continue. “Lung cancer…and I picked up this habit that is absolutely horrible and disgusting and I should really quit.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Because people wouldn’t like me very much during the quitting process. I can be a rather difficult person when I haven’t had a cigarette in a while.”

“You’re already a rather difficult person sometimes.”

She couldn’t believe she said that, but to her surprise Mr. Onceler laughed as he slid out of the car before she did and offered his hand to help her out. They walked into the complex and up the stairs to her door.

“I had a wonderful time tonight, sir…I mean, Once. Thank you for inviting me.”

“And I thank you for the pleasure of your company, Rarity.” He extended his hand and when she placed hers against the soft material of his glove, he kissed it gently. She felt a zing run through her body. That was his sign he had enjoyed the evening and she’d noticed very few of his dates got a kiss on the hand. She hoped for more, maybe a kiss on the cheek or even the lips, but he didn’t give her that. He simply bid her good night and just like that her perfect evening was over. On Monday she’d be getting coffee for Mr. Onceler at the office again.

* * *

Onceler should have been ecstatic as he entered his apartment – forget Stephanie or any of the others, Rarity was the best lady he’d taken to a party all season. He wished he could spend every gala in her company, but there were still prearranged dates ahead he had to keep. However, as he reached a trembling hand in his pocket and pulled out the wadded up card, his only thoughts were of the one thing that had put a damper on the whole evening. Slowly he opened it and read the flowing handwriting: Join me for a glass of whiskey, pretty boy? Following that was the name of a hotel and a room number.

He had been so enamored by Rarity, so enjoying their time together he hadn’t even noticed That Person was there. If he had, he probably would have left early to avoid having a panic attack at the sight of them. Why was That Person even at this particular gala? Onceler had traveled far away from his hometown and all that had happened there. He figured he was done with his past, even if fancy envelopes could be sent via mail, he never thought he'd have to see That Person again. And to think That Person had been close enough to slip a note in his pocket and he’d never even felt a presence near him. He wouldn’t want to feel their presence near him.

Memories came of That Person’s hands on his skin, that body pressed up against his, lips near his ear, hot breath, words he’d rather forget. You like that, pretty boy?

He collapsed onto the couch, barely able to breathe, that icy feeling flowing through him. Even though his throat felt tight, he refused to cry. He was only allowed one tear and with something like this, well, if even one tear escaped, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop. He simply sat there trembling at the memories and hating That Person for taking such advantage of him in a time of need…and hating himself for letting it happen.

* * *

Rarity was a bit disappointed when the first thing Mr. Onceler said to her on Monday was to call up Mr. Carter’s office and arrange that meeting, but she understood that, yes, she was back at work. She still wondered what the meeting was regarding because upon finding out his schedule was booked, he seemed more than willing to let her attend a different meeting to make space for him and Mr. Carter to discuss whatever business they had together.

And during that time, she was not allowed in his office. Before the two men could even begin speaking, he dismissed her with a wave of his hand. Of course, she had somewhere to be herself, but even afterward, he told her it was none of her concern. Clearly, there were still even aspects of his business life she was not privy to.

Mr. Onceler did not bring up the gala and did not ask her again. She was back to trailing behind him for the next few weekends as he was paired up with other young ladies. At work, he was busy overseeing the expansion, meetings and other duties she often helped him with. However, this was occasionally punctuated by calls from Mr. Carter, which he always took immediately if he could and seemed mysterious. Her fingers itched to pick up the phone and tap into the extension to listen, but she wasn’t dishonest like that. Whatever it was, her boss didn’t want her to know – he didn’t want anyone to know. Any mailed correspondence between them was always labeled ‘confidential’ and she ached to know whatever this secrecy was hiding.

It was two weeks into October when Isabella clacked her way into Rarity’s office. “Miss. Belle, I need the Keep List.”

“May I ask why?”

“So I can decide who my son is taking to the masquerade at the end of the month.”

“I thought that was his decision.”

Isabella held out her hand. “He is far too busy with actual work to worry about who he is taking to a dance, so I will decide for him from the list of acceptable candidates.”

Rarity fished the paper she wanted out of its folder even though she knew the three names on it – Cindy, Meredith and Stephanie. No, wait…there were now four names. In his handwriting and signature red ink at the bottom a single name stood out and was even circled: Rarity. He was choosing her? That was not going to go over well with his mother.

Isabella made an irritated sound in her throat and snatched the paper away when Rarity held it out. “Cindy’s out – her family is rich, but no status. And how cute, you added yourself to the list.”

“Perhaps you want to check the handwriting again, ma’am. It’s not mine. I think he’s made his decision.”

“We’ll see about that.” She turned and walked off. At least she had the decency not to interrupt Mr. Onceler about personal things at work, but Rarity had no doubt she would certainly put her two cents in later on.

It was almost time for Rarity to leave when she went into her boss’ office to deliver more phone messages and mail, including a confidential package from Mr. Carter.

“Thank you, Rarity,” he said wearily. He placed his hand on the large envelope with the red lettering, but would not open it in front of her. He stretched his neck to either side popping the joints and rolled his shoulders. “I’m so tired.”

“You should treat yourself to a massage or something.”

“I don’t think so. The idea of undressing and having some guy rub his hands all over me is highly unappealing.”

“You could see a female masseuse.”

“That prospect is slightly better, but I’ll be fine.” He folded his hands in front of him and gazed directly at her. “Rarity, I wanted to ask you something. A masquerade gala is coming up in two weeks, right around Halloween. Would you like to accompany me as my date?”

Yes! His mother hadn’t gotten to him, or if she had, he wasn’t listening to her. “I would love to.”

“A formal mask is required, of course, but that shouldn’t be too hard to find this time of year.” Mr. Onceler gave her a small smile. “I enjoyed our time at the gala together. That’s all. Have a good evening, Rarity.”

“You too, sir.” She left the office with her heart fluttering in her chest. He had asked her again. He didn’t want any of the high society ladies; he wanted her.

* * *

Onceler was finally able to relax upon entering his apartment and sitting on the couch. He loosened his tie and leaned back against the plush furniture. The past few weeks had just been so hectic. It wasn’t fair to ask Rarity to work overtime so much and he’d been doing more work than he really should. He needed a vacation. Actually, he’d never had one of those, but a week or so away from the pressures of running the company sounded welcome. Of course, that would never happen. He needed to be here. No one else could do what he did. Not only was there his regular work, there was this whole business with Mr. Carter that he had somehow found himself deeply involved in. There was something great in it for him though when it was over. He wanted to tell Rarity what was going on, but it would require digging up pieces of his past he’d rather leave buried. Rarity did not need to know about that…no one needed to know about that.

He was inwardly debating whether he wanted something to eat or if he just simply wanted to go to sleep when there was a knock at the door. It had to be someone in his family this late at night. He didn’t want to move, but somehow found the strength to get up and open the door. It was his mother. “Mom, what is it?”

She breezed in without even asking if she could enter his apartment. “I’ve narrowed your possible dates for the masquerade down to two ladies. Meredith Pendleton has status and wealth, but she’s not much too look at. Stephanie Deckler has status and beauty, but her family isn’t all that rich. Which of those two did you like better?”

“Stephanie…I mean, neither.” He rubbed his temples, so exhausted his mind could hardly function. “I already asked someone.”

“Don’t tell me…”

“I asked Rarity. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about her…”

“She’s a gold digger, that’s what it is.”

Onceler sat on the couch again and sighed. “Oh, come on. She’s not like that at all.”

“You know nothing about her and nothing about her family. No one does. It’s like she popped up out of nowhere and now she’s using her charm to get you to fall for her so she can mooch off your money.”

“Rarity has never said one word about money and you have room to talk. I’m the one working my damn butt off while you and rest of the family just enjoy the fruits of my success after telling me repeatedly I’d never amount to anything. Anyway, I was under the impression I got to choose who I take to the masquerade – not you. I choose Rarity and I’m taking her.”

“And mark my words, she’ll take you for everything she can get. I saw her leaving your apartment one Saturday morning last month and don’t try to tell me nothing happened.”

“Would it even matter if I told you the truth? Because the truth is I’m not prepared for physical intimacy and we both know why.”

“Are you really bringing that up again? It was five years ago and happened one time…”

“Twice! Two times in one night!” He shifted uncomfortably as he tried to banish those dark memories from his mind. “And I will never forgive you for putting me in that position.”

“You need to get over that already.”

He nodded slowly, not agreeing with her, but understanding what she meant. “As quickly and privately as possible, right? Just don’t talk about it and it’s like it never happened, right?”

“Everything I did, everything I sacrificed was for the betterment of this family. How quickly children forget all the things their parents did to make sure you had what you needed.”

“If I recall correctly we never had what we needed. And after what I sacrificed, we got nothing. It was all for nothing…”

Isabella released an annoyed huff. “I won’t apologize for doing what I thought was best for all of us at the time. You know how desperate our situation was. You were the only…commodity…That Person wanted. What else was I supposed to do?”

Onceler could have told her that any real parent wouldn’t have just put their own child in that situation. He could have said that she should have seen they would get nothing out of it. It would be no use though. His mother said these things to convince herself, not him, that she had been in the right. He wanted to believe part of her suffered too when all this happened. He remembered the look of devastation on her face when he came home the next morning…without what they were promised. How she had given him space to ‘get over it’. How days passed before he even spoke to anyone. How weeks went by before he could smile again. How ever since, he had been filled with hatred and bitterness toward That Person, but also the self-loathing that persisted in his heart. Because there was part of this story even she didn’t know. He had been given a choice that morning…he had chosen for the first time in his life not to be selfless and not to think of the family. He had chosen greed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 – Dangerous Machinery

 

Rarity had been a bit disappointed after the masquerade that he only gave her a kiss on the hand again. She had been secretly hoping for a little more, maybe even him asking her to be an exclusive couple. However, she knew he preferred not to rush these things, so even though they’d had another spectacular evening together, at the office, things were back to normal.

“Rarity, where are the papers for…”

She held them out for him.

“You read my mind.” He smiled at her.

It made Rarity’s stomach flutter as it reminded her of the way he’d smiled at her and kissed her hand after the gala. “How is the expansion coming?”

“We’re making excellent progress. I hope to have it up and running by spring.” He took a cigarette from the silver case and lit it. “Rarity, may I ask you something?”

“Of course, sir.”

“There are three more events before the end of the year and I wondered if you would consider…” he nervously put the cigarette to his lips. “Well, I enjoyed our time together and wanted to know if…”

Now her heart was pounding – this was it. He was going to ask her to be exclusive. She found his nervousness kind of cute, however before he could continue, his sentence was interrupted by the office door opening and Brett striding in. “Hey bro, one of the machines is jammed in the factory and we can’t figure out what’s going on.”

Mr. Onceler stood and glared at his brother. “How many times do I have to tell you to knock before entering my office?!”

“Sorry, bro, but I thought this was kind of important.”

“Did you take a look at it?”

“You’re the one who built it.”

“I didn’t think it would take a genius to figure out the problem but apparently it does.” He took a long drag of his cigarette then stubbed it out in the ashtray. “What a waste. Come on, Rarity.”

“Bro, you seriously need to stop that,” Brett told him.

“You know what you need to stop? Addressing me so informally at work and telling me what to do.”

“Mom hates it.”

“Good for her.”

She followed the brothers out of the office area and into the factory where a humming noise filled the air as belts ran over turning gears. It was lunchtime for the workers so the machinery was going by itself with only a couple of people wandering around to check on it. She’d hardly ever been to the factory where the industrial machines took Truffula trees, separated the tufts and churned out thneeds, which were in such high demand that a factory expansion seemed a necessity at this point. It turned out that the machine in question was the one separating the tufts. Rarity wondered if they couldn’t have just saved money and the environment by building a machine that could harvest the tufts in the field and leave the rest of the tree alone to grow anew. After all, it didn’t appear they used the trunks for anything – not even wood or paper –they were simply burned. Also, she knew the tufts grew back rather quickly and any tree that was pruned tended to grow back better.

She watched as Mr. Onceler checked the controls on the machine.

“At least you turned it off,” he said to his brother before they made their way up the stairs. Mr. Onceler removed his gloves and coat, hanging them over the railing before kneeling down and removing the safety panel.

“Hey, bro, should I go down and…”

“Shut up, Brett.”

Rarity had hardly ever seen him without his coat and gloves. Somehow, he wasn’t as intimidating in his simple white shirt and striped tie. She climbed up the stairs halfway and watched as he inspected the inner workings of the machine with a flashlight.

“There’s something stuck in the gears,” he said as he reached his arm in. “You know, Brett, this is kind of an easy solution and not one I think you needed me for.”

“Yeah, well, my manly muscle arm isn’t going to fit in there, so we need someone skinny.”

Mr. Onceler sucked in a quick breath. “Damn blades…almost…got it.”

A voice similar to Brett’s came from the control area. “Who turned this off?”

It was Chet. Wait…he wasn’t talking about the same machine was he? Something came to the forefront of her mind…the factory worker who had been injured in July…because no one was guarding the controls.

“He’s going to have a conniption if these machines aren’t working at all times.”

Rarity whirled around. “Chet, no!”

It was too late. As he flipped the switch, the machine whirred for only a moment before a sickening crunch brought it to a halt. She heard Mr. Onceler give a terrified yelp. Rarity practically leapt up the rest of the stairs and froze at the sight of her boss with his arm still jammed in the machine. Something dark was from dripping from the metal. Oil? No, it was red. Blood. He was pasty white and breathing heavily. He pulled away and just stared with a horrified look in his eyes as though he couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing. Neither could she because he was now on his knees in front of the machine, completely separated from it with blood flowing down his side, but his arm was still in the gears.

It wasn’t until he passed out that they all snapped out of it.

“What the hell, Chet?!” Brett yelled. “Didn’t you see him up here?”

Chet quickly shut off the controls. “No, or I wouldn’t have turned the damn thing on, would I?!”

Rarity, thinking quickly, grabbed one of the gloves hanging on the railing. “Arguing isn’t going to help him, is it? Brett, try to get the arm out and for pony’s sake, be gentle. Chet, call an ambulance.” She wrapped the glove tightly around the remaining stump and tied it restricting the blood flow to a slow trickle. Privacy…his privacy was very important to him. She yelled down to one of the workers still on the floor. “Keep everyone out of here until this situation is under control, got it?!”

Time passed much too slowly, but in reality, it wasn’t that long before she heard faint sirens getting louder as they approached the factory. “How are you coming with that, Brett?”

Brett had been working feverishly loosening gears and finally extracted the arm from them. “Got it. Can they put it back on, you think?”

Rarity didn’t want to look, but she did. It was obvious bones were broken and the skin had multiple lacerations, but the place where it had come detached looked fairly clean, at least to her. Of course, she was no doctor. “I don’t know. “

She had to look away from the blood and the mangled limb separated from its owner or she feared she’d be sick. It was all she could do to stay calm when she wanted to panic just like the twins had done. The sirens drew closer until they were right outside. She stood and moved aside as two paramedics rushed up the stairs. She watched as they worked, trying to keep her gaze away from Mr. Onceler’s gruesome injury.

“Do you happen to know his blood type?” One of them asked.

She didn’t exactly, but she did recall a couple of months ago his annoyance at receiving a letter from the local blood bank. “Rarity,” he’d said. “Please write them back and tell them for the thousandth time – no – I’m not interested in donating. I swear my doctor contacted them because I have that damn universal blood type.”

“He said something once about it being the universal type – whatever that means,” she told them.

“O-neg,” the same paramedic said. “Red gold – it can be safely given to anyone no matter their type. I hope he’s a donor.”

Well, no, but she figured maybe he’d reconsider when he heard that some unselfish person had given their blood to save his life. He was the priority for the paramedics, but once they’d secured him on a backboard, she saw one of them pick up the arm and slide it into a bag. As he did, the fingers uncurled and something fell out, rolling across the floor and right next to Rarity’s boot. She picked it up and inspected this brown orb with swirls on it, then realized what it was – a Truffula seed! It must’ve fallen off one of the trees and gotten stuck in the gears.

“Miss, are you family?” One of the asked.

Brett didn’t hesitate to lie for her. “She’s his sister.”

The paramedic looked between them skeptically, but then either decided she must be adopted or to ignore the fact they looked nothing alike. “You want to go with him?”

“Yes.” For some reason, she felt like she should though she couldn’t understand why. She turned to Brett. “Tell…um…Mom…okay?” Ugh, she just called Isabella ‘mom’.

“Take care of him,” Brett said, squeezing her arm.

She wasn’t exactly sure how she was going to do that, but at least she figured she could be there for him as she climbed in the back of the ambulance and sat down. She stayed out of the paramedics’ way while they went about their job.

“Was it your idea to tie this around his arm?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“Smart thinking, otherwise, he may have bled to death before we got there.”

It had just seemed the obvious thing to do. She looked at the Truffula seed in her hand. This is what had possibly just cost him an arm. She slid it into the pocket of her skirt. It seemed to be taking a long time to even reach the hospital, even though she knew the ambulance was speeding to get there. Part of her wanted him to wake up so she’d know he was okay, but then she also hoped he didn’t. He didn’t need to be conscious for all this.

“Found an I.C.E. card in his wallet.”

“Perfect.”

“Ice?” Rarity asked.

“In Case of Emergency – lists a person’s emergency contacts, meds, allergies, if they’re DNR or an organ donor – things like that.”

Rarity was grateful they found it because if they’d asked her it would become apparent she wasn’t his sister. It dawned on her that she still didn’t even know his first name. They finally arrived at the hospital and she just sort of followed them into the trauma room of the ER. She stood back, observing, trying to remain invisible lest they see her and ask her to leave. She watched as they hooked up IVs giving him blood and medicine and as one of the nurses put the bag with the arm in it on a basin of ice.

Rarity turned her gaze on the floor – probably best anyway as one of the nurses was cutting his pants. He was such a stickler about his privacy that if he ever found out she’d seen him getting his clothes cut off, well, she didn’t want to think about his reaction. She thought about how he was always impeccably and fully dressed, not to mention how expensive those clothes probably were. She thought about how fortunate he was that he was right handed and thankful for whatever force had told him to reach into that machine with the left hand. Still, she knew there were many tasks that required both hands such as buttoning a shirt or tying a tie or cutting food. If he were a unicorn, he could use his magic. She raised an eyebrow – where had that come from? Oh, that’s right – she’d nearly forgotten again. She was a unicorn…no…she was human…but she was from Equestria. There was something about a mirror. There was something about the way he’d kissed her hand.

“Is the replantation team on their way?”

“I called them down.”

It took a few more minutes before a doctor in a white coat breezed through the doors. He was older – maybe fifty – with salt-and-pepper hair. Two younger men in white coats followed him. Strange, Rarity thought. How all the doctors here are men and the nurses are women. Where I come from stallions and mares…men and women…do these jobs interchangeably.

She watched the older doctor examine the arm carefully then he looked at where it had been attached less than an hour ago. He surveyed the x-rays hanging on the light box attached to the wall. “The replantation site is favorable. I can operate, but the other injuries mean he may not regain as much function as we hope. He’ll need further surgeries to address those. At least he has youth on his side.”

Rarity wanted to ask questions, but figured she’d be asked to leave if she did. However, when the doctor asked if any family was with Mr. Onceler, the nurse pointed to her. “She’s his sister.”

He smiled and introduced himself as Dr. Granger. “Why don’t we walk up to the surgical waiting area and I’ll explain the procedure.”

“He’ll be okay, though?” Rarity asked as they walked through the doors.

“He’s in no danger of dying if that’s what you mean. Whoever thought to tourniquet his arm saved his life. When we get him upstairs, we’ll use pins and rods to connect the bone then reattach veins, arteries and nerves to restore blood flow and feeling. In an ideal situation, regaining sixty to eighty percent of feeling and functionality is considered successful.”

“I get the feeling this is not an ideal situation.”

“No. The lower arm bones – the radius and ulna are broken and he has torn ligaments in his elbow, not to mention other soft tissue damage. It may end up that we reattach the arm and it takes, but has very little function. The good thing is, he’s young and young people tend to heal faster than us old folks. I can tell you that family support is going to be important, as is his attitude toward healing and the physical therapy he’ll need after.”

Rarity followed Dr. Granger into the elevator. “And knowing him, I can tell you his attitude is going to be very poor when he finds out what happened.”

“I expect it. For anyone, a trauma like this is a shock.”

She recalled the horrified look on Mr. Onceler’s face right after the accident. She considered how unsupportive his family seemed. But then she also thought about how ambitious he was, how he rose up to found a multi-billion dollar company from nothing and how when he wanted something, he went after it. “But I can also tell you, if he wants to get better, he’ll be determined to do so and work hard at it.”

“Is he right or left handed?” Dr. Granger asked.

“I think he uses both hands interchangeably, but…no, he writes with his right hand.”

“Unfortunately, his days of using them both almost equally are over.”

The elevator dinged as they reached an upper floor. “How long will the surgery take?”

“Several hours. Our main focus in this surgery will be to reestablish blood flow and nerve connections to the arm, reattach tendons and set the humerus – that’s his upper arm bone – with screws and plates. He’ll need another operation to set the lower arm bones and repair the ligaments in his elbow.”

“And you’ll make sure he’s not in pain?”

“For the first few days we’ll likely keep him in a drug-induced coma. After that, heavy pain meds for another few days. He’ll likely be here about two weeks.”

“Oh, he’ll take that well.”

“During the last week we’ll start physical therapy to help him regain function in that arm and occupational therapy to teach him how to do things one-handed that usually take two.”

“So soon?”

“The sooner the better. You can wait in the surgical waiting room just down the hall there and I’ll come out and talk to you when we’re done. Are there other family members coming?”

“Yeah, they should be here soon.” At least she hoped they would, but then she didn’t because she couldn’t stand Mr. Onceler’s mother.

However, not too long after she’d sat in the waiting room, Isabella came in with the twins close behind. She eyed Rarity suspiciously. “What are you doing here?”

“He asked me to stay.”

“Brett said he was unconscious.”

“He woke up in the ER and asked me to stay, so I’m going to stay.” A lie, but Isabella wouldn’t dare contradict her if she said it was Mr. Onceler’s request.

“Did the doctor talk to you?”

Rarity nodded and told Isabella everything she knew. “It’ll be at least two weeks if not three before he’s back at work and even then he’ll be recovering.”

“In his absence, you realize you go to the meetings. You can’t make any executive decisions, of course, but the company goes on business as usual.” Isabella surveyed her and made a face. “If you think you’re up to it.”

Rarity hadn’t really thought of that, but Isabella was right. Starting tomorrow she’d have to take over as much of his responsibilities as possible. She remembered him talking about this particular “what if” but never expected it to happen. Knowing that he worked whether he was sick or in pain, it would take something like this to put him out of the office for any extended period of time. He said she could make small decisions, but she knew what a control freak he was about things, so what she might consider a “small” decision, he might consider “executive”. Basically, no decisions about anything until he was off the pain meds and she could talk to him.

Waiting was torture. No one said anything. She flipped through every magazine in that room and was annoyed by the clicking of Isabella’s boots on the floor and her presence in general. Brett and Chet sat together and she could see their worried expressions. Chet, especially, seemed disturbed by the whole thing. Of course, Rarity figured, he must be since he was the one who turned on the machine.

True to his word, it was several hours before Dr. Granger came into the waiting room to talk to them. “The surgery went well. We’ve moved him into ICU for monitoring and you can go in to see him one at a time.”

Naturally, Rarity’s turn was last and she was silently grateful Isabella didn’t open her big mouth and tell them that, no, actually she wasn’t a family member even though she spent more time with him than anyone in his actual family. Isabella, did, however, pull her to the side and hissed at her. “I will let you see him once because he asked you to stay, but your job is at the office. You will not visit him here again.”

Wordlessly, Rarity wrenched herself from Isabella’s grasp and followed the nurse into the room, which was surprisingly warm. Mr. Onceler was surrounded by machines and his left arm was wrapped in bandages and a hard splint and resting elevated on a pillow. All she could see were his fingernails poking out from the bandages and glowing pink with blood finally being delivered to the arm. She took his right hand in hers being careful not to touch the place where the IV went in. Should she say anything? What was she going to say?

“Can he hear me if I talk to him?” she asked.

The nurse shook her head. “No, he’s a medically induced coma.”

“Is that why he’s on the breathing machine?”

“Yes. The less his body has to do, the more he can focus his energy on healing. So, we have the respirator breathing for him.”

It all seemed a bit much, but they must know what they were doing. What are you doing here, Isabella’s voice rang in her head. Good question. Rarity thought back to almost a year ago when she’d arrived and how much she’d despised Mr. Onceler. How he’d drawn out her name for nearly two months just to tease her for correcting him. How he’d thought she was an angel. How his super axe-hackers had destroyed the seedlings she, Lisa and the other volunteers had worked so hard to plant. How she’d witnessed the way he treated his dates contrary to what the tabloids liked to report about his playboy status. How he was the only one to show sympathy when Brad had nearly raped her. How she’d then been asked to accompany him, not as his assistant, but as his date to a gala…and then another. And ever since that night she thought a lot about the gentle way he’d kissed her hand. Oh no…that’s why she was here…she liked him. If this had just been work, she would have simply confirmed he was going to be okay then gone back to the office. She wouldn’t have asked questions, she wouldn’t have waited hours for news and she wouldn’t be here in his hospital room holding his hand.

She liked him…she actually cared about him.

The nurse interrupted her thoughts. “Sorry, dear, time’s up.”

Rarity felt a tear slide down her cheek at all these mixed emotions. She had come here for a purpose – something to do with him – but she could hardly remember what that was anymore. All she knew was that she wanted to stay beside him, but being that she couldn’t, she simply gave his hand a gentle kiss before departing.

*

Hey, bro, one of the machines is jammed…

Brett’s voice.

Snippets of memory bubbling to the surface of his weighed-down mind.

What a waste.

His own voice.

Rarity’s high heel boots clicking on the factory floor.

At least you turned it off.

Metal stairs leading up to a machine – the tufter.

Gears and belts and blades to sheer Truffula tufts off before they were prepared.

Blue eyes peering in and seeing…something.

Hey, bro, should I go down and…

Dangerous machinery.

Shut up, Brett.

Safety protocols.

Something stuck in the gears…

Always use the left hand. Never the right.

He was reaching for something.

Almost…got it.

Fingers closing around something round and smooth.

Who turned this off?

Chet’s voice.

He’s going to have a conniption if these machines aren’t working at all times.

Dangerous machinery.

Chet, no!

Rarity’s voice.

He had been reaching for something.

Chet, no!

Reaching for something.

Chet, no!

Reaching…

Darkness was replaced with light as his eyes finally opened to a white ceiling. This wasn’t the factory…or the office…nor was it his apartment. There was a rhythmic beeping sound coming from somewhere and another hissing sound like that of a compressor, only at regular intervals. He raised both hands to rub his eyes, but only the right one actually obeyed. No, his mind was telling him both hands were at his eyes, but the left one was not there. However, his still-fuzzy mind said it was. He tried to swallow, but he couldn’t. There was something in his mouth snaking its way down his throat. Logic told him he shouldn’t be able to breathe, but he didn’t seem to be struggling for air. Where was he anyway?

He raised his hands – only the right one – he still didn’t know why the left refused to obey. There was some kind of tube in the back of his hand. His eyes followed it to a bag of liquid hanging from a silver pole. An IV. The tube in his throat, the hissing sound – a respirator. The beeping – heart monitor. He was in the hospital. What had happened?

He wished his mind was clear so he could more easily piece things together.

Dangerous machinery.

Reaching for something.

Rarity’s voice.

The roaring to life of dangerous machinery in his ears.

Pain. Terror. Crimson.

No…

He closed his eyes briefly to gather courage before glancing over. His arm was still there – bandaged and splinted – but there at least. It didn’t seem to hurt, but from the floaty way his mind felt, he figured he was on pain medication. No, something was still wrong. He tried to move his fingers and his brain told him he was, but they stayed motionless. Was it because of the pain meds? Was it temporary? Permanent? Were there scars? Broken bones? What exactly had happened?

The heart rate monitor beeped slightly faster as panic rose in his mind, but then dipped down again as he felt something whoosh into his hand from the IV. No, he didn’t want to sleep again. He wanted to talk to someone. He wanted answers. He wanted…sleep…

*

When he came around again, a nurse was in the room checking the monitors and writing something in a chart – his, he assumed. He just watched her for a moment while he waited for his head to clear. He knew it wouldn’t completely – the controls on the IV were probably giving him some kind of powerful pain medicine at regular intervals. The respirator was gone and his throat was sore. He tried wiggling the fingers on his left hand. His brain said they were moving, but a quick look confirmed that, no, they were still.

“You’re awake. How are you feeling?” The nurse put the chart back in a box on the wall.

“What happened?” His voice sounded raspy and tired.

“From what I understand, an accident at your factory. I’ll get the doctor to talk to you.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost ten.”

It was lunchtime when the accident happened. So, was it still the same day or morning the day after? “AM or PM?”

“AM.”

So he’d been here a day. Not bad at all, but hopefully whatever was wrong, he’d be back at work tomorrow. Rarity could handle things for a day and a half. Somewhere along the line, he’d come to trust her. He couldn’t pinpoint exactly when, but it seemed to be everything about her. She was confident and poised and unlike so many before her, she didn’t worship the ground he walked on and he found it sort of refreshing. He looked around for a phone, but there wasn’t one. He hoped she could come in after work and catch him up on the day’s meetings so he’d be prepared for tomorrow.

It took a few moments before the nurse returned with a doctor whose ID badge said ‘Dr. Granger’. The older man smiled at him. “Finally awake, are you?”

“I’m still drowsy. Can we stop the pain meds?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it. I don’t think you’d like us very much if we did.”

“When Rarity comes by with her notes, I need to be clear headed so I know what to expect when I go back to work tomorrow.”

“Who told you that you were leaving tomorrow?”

“I just assumed.”

Dr. Granger pulled a chair over and sat down. Then he shook his head slowly. “You’re going to be here at least another week.”

“I can’t miss a week of work. I’ve already missed a day.” Yes, he trusted Rarity…to a point, but he felt much better when the company was in his control.

“No, you’ve been here six days.”

It wasn’t Thursday? “So, today is…Monday?”

“Yes. We had you in a medicated coma for four days and heavy pain meds yesterday. We’re just reducing them today. What do you remember about the accident?”

“I was getting something out of a machine that had jammed up. Rarity yelled at Chet and then I remember it hurt and after that nothing. But I shouldn’t have to be in the hospital this long because of a broken arm.”

“Your arm wasn’t just broken; it was severed.”

Something came back to his mind…blood dripping out of the bottom of the machine, flowing down his side, and he was staring at something…something stuck in the machine that was white and red…something so unbelievably horrible his brain must’ve simply blocked it out until now. “But…you saved it?”

“It took three operations and you have a long recovery ahead of you, but yes, you have your arm.”

“What about feeling? I can’t feel it. I can’t move it.”

“We’ve reconnected nerves, but it can take a while to regain feeling and function.”

Onceler wanted to ask what would happen if he never did, but was too afraid of the answer. Not only that, but the medicine was attempting to drag him into sleep again. “Can you please stop the pain meds? I don’t want to spend my time sleeping.”

Dr. Granger stood. “No. You need to sleep – you need to rest so your body can heal. Not only that, it keeps you from hurting. I’ll check on you later.”

He had no choice but to allow himself to be dragged back into darkness.

*

Onceler hated this. This constant waking up for only minutes at a time and often someone was in the room he didn’t recognize. Where was Rarity? Hell, he’d even settle for having his family around. This time, however, he was alone again. There was no clock and no window. He had no idea what time it was, but when he listened closely things seemed quiet. Probably nighttime. As far as he knew, Dr. Granger had never returned. Actually, he probably had and Onceler just wasn’t conscious. That unnerved him greatly…they could to anything to him and he wouldn’t know it. At some point, they’d undressed him, touched him, seen him at his most vulnerable and he was not okay with that. Logic told him this was a safe place, that everything they did was to help heal him and that he likely had been treated with dignity every step of the way. However, that ice cold feeling in his veins that caused him to tremble at the thought of what had once happened when his mind was in an altered state…well…it scared him.

He looked up at the IV bag and his eyes traced the line running to the back of his hand. Yeah, this thing is annoying and needs to go, he thought. But how? The doctors and nurses weren’t going to remove it. In his mind his left hand easily reached over, peeled the tape back and took it out, but in reality, the arm just lay there dead and useless. He put his right hand up to his mouth. It took some work but using his teeth, he was able to strip the tape away and carefully slide the needle out. Then, he threw it on the floor. He couldn’t wait for his mind to clear.

And it did some – he felt the drowsiness leave him. He felt pain in his upper arm too, but that he could deal with, at least for now. He tried to sit up, but moving only sent a shock of pain from the injury into his shoulder. So, he was still confined to bed, but at least he could think better. He touched his cheek and found it was smooth. While his facial hair had always grown rather slow, after six days, he should have some serious stubble going on. When he ran his fingers through his hair it felt clean, maybe even a little damp as if it had been washed recently. Who was doing these things for him? Likely hospital staff…that would be part of their job. He was certain they were used to it, but the thought of someone doing something so personal for him was embarrassing. Damn…what else did they have to…no, he wasn’t even going to think about that. That was too personal.

His eyes found the chart on the wall. It was a bit of a stretch, but he was able to reach it. Despite the pain, he managed to sit up, shutting his eyes against the fiery sensation shooting up into his shoulder as his brain tried to find a connection below the point of injury. The chart had his first name on it – they knew that about him too? There was really no privacy in this place. He flipped through the pages, not understanding all of what he read. Most of it contained notes of his vital stats and records of medication given. There were writings about surgical procedures – amounts and types of anesthetic given so he didn’t feel it, plates, screws and pins to secure the broken bones, repairs done to muscles, ligaments and tendons, sutures to close skin after treating “extensive soft tissue damage” – and written and signed by Dr. Granger a note that at best, he could expect probably a thirty percent recovery of function. At worst: “Pt. may still lose extremity.”

That was unacceptable. He remembered back to the accident in which he’d broken his wrist as a child – the right one. He’d had to learn to do everything with his left hand – everything except write – it happened to be summer vacation and he wasn’t in school. In the six weeks it took him to heal, he’d become darn near ambidextrous and this was something he prided himself on. To have only thirty percent or less back – or worse, no arm at all – was a daunting thought. How would he play guitar if his left hand couldn’t hold it? How would he be able to use a fork and knife? How would he tie his shoes? And why all of a sudden did his arm hurt so badly?

Right…no pain medication. He shut his eyes against the pain and lay back down. Taking the chart in his good hand, he reached to put it back in the box on the wall, but it fell to the floor. He cursed. Then he noticed blood still oozing from where the IV had been. It had trailed down onto his arm and across a couple of fingers. He was no medical professional, but he knew it should have clotted by now.

“What have you done?!” A voice asked from the doorway. It was a nurse.

So, he was busted. No shame. “I requested several times to be taken off the pain meds and no one listened.”

“You do not dictate your medical care. You weren’t just getting pain meds. You’re also on a blood thinner, antibiotics and nutritional fluids.”

Blood thinner. That’s why the wound wasn’t clotting. “Why? Why am I on these? No one is explaining anything. I just want my mind clear long enough for someone to answer my questions. I just want to understand what’s happening to me.”

She pulled on a pair of gloves and went to work replacing the IV needle with a sterile one. “The blood thinner is to allow blood to flow better to the replanted limb – better flow means better healing – it also helps prevent clots in patients who aren’t moving much. The antibiotics are to prevent infection and the nutritional fluids are because you haven’t eaten anything in days and vitamins and minerals help your body heal. The morphine, of course, is for the pain. Now, give me your arm.”

Reluctantly, he did. He still planned to talk to Dr. Granger about the amount of morphine he was receiving – it seemed like too much. And he needed someone to call Rarity and tell her to come see him.

“I can’t put it where it was before,” she told him, placing a bandage over the wound. “Turn your hand palm up.”

When he did, she found a vein a few inches above his wrist, swabbed it with alcohol and slid the needle in. As if for good measure, she taped it down using several pieces of tape, including one that went all the way around his arm.

“I will talk with Dr. Granger about reducing your morphine,” she said. “If you take this out, I will put you in restraints. I don’t care who you are.”

After she left, all he could do was lay there waiting for the morphine to take effect. He felt a stinging sensation, a prickling in his eyes. This was all too much.

One tear. If you’re going to cry, you get one tear. That’s it.

His mother’s voice.

A tear rolled from his eye and he wiped it away. There, that was one good one. Except…the pressure behind his eyes wasn’t letting up.

Another tear.

In this situation, I suppose two tears are okay, he thought.

A third.

Get a hold of yourself. Stop it!

But they wouldn’t stop.

Thirty percent.

Four.

Why did this happen to me?

Long recovery.

Five.

Why me?

He could still lose his arm.

Six.

Why?

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 – Like a Boss

Rarity was glad to hear from Brett on Tuesday that Mr. Onceler wanted to see her after work. She couldn’t stop thinking about him and felt a need to make sure he was okay. Well, as okay as anyone in his situation could be. “How is he doing?”

Brett laughed. “Ornery as ever. Apparently he ripped his IV out last night and his doctor chewed him out about it this morning. I was there and heard the whole thing. Took everything in me not to laugh.”

“Not surprised – he likes being in control and now he’s not.”

So, once she was done for the day, she gathered up all her notes, questions and materials from the meetings he’d missed and headed to Greenville Hospital. Brett had given her Mr. Onceler’s room number now that he’d been moved from the ICU. Upon arriving, she knocked on his door.

“Rarity?” his voice asked.

She slipped into the room. “How did you know it was me?”

“Because no one knocks around here, so I figured it had to be someone with decent manners.” He was sitting up in bed wearing a green robe over a hospital gown. It wasn’t closed, however since his left arm was still bandaged and splinted. “I swear, these people have no respect for the privacy of others.”

“How are you?”

“It hurts, but apparently I’ll live. I don’t suppose you brought me any cigarettes, did you?”

“Of course not. I’m pretty sure smoking is frowned up on in this particular establishment.”

He nodded. “They like to say it’ll kill you.”

“I did bring something you might like though.” She pulled out a small package of marshmallows from her bag and saw his eyes light up. “Want them?”

“I knew there was a reason I liked you.” He accepted them and bit into one, savoring it. “The food here is terrible.”

She laughed and then retrieved the folder containing all the paperwork. “The meetings are pretty short since you’re not there. All I can do is write down suggestions or questions so you can make the decisions.”

He accepted the papers and a red pen from her and began to flip through them. “That’s pretty much what I expect.”

“The guys at the meetings don’t really take anything I say too seriously. Especially at the board meetings – they call me names like ‘sweetie’ or ‘doll’ or ‘cupcake’. I mean, they can use my first name if they want, but I’m nobody’s ‘cupcake’. I figured going in your place, they’d show me the same respect.”

He laughed softly and shook his head. “Oh, Rarity, of course they won’t. The world of business belongs to men. And, yes, you may be smart and refined and a little intimidating at times, but in the end, you’re just a woman. You’re a stand-in, but the thought of a woman actually running a company is preposterous.”

Her face felt warm as anger rose in her. “Interesting, because where I’m from lots of women run their own businesses.” Herself, included. “In fact, our mayor is a lady and so is our pr-president.” Yikes, she almost said ‘princess’.

“We come from very different worlds then. Here, your venusian utopia is just a pipe dream of all those bra-burning, fanatical spinsters who are just upset because they never got what every young woman like yourself wants.”

“And what is that?” Rarity asked.

“A husband to take care of them.”

She rolled her eyes. “I can take care of myself.”

“So, you don’t want to get married. That’s a relief – most of my assistants were just biding their time until they earned their MRS.”

“That’s funny – I heard you drove them insane and I believe that’s entirely possible.”

“You were misinformed.”

“And it’s not that I don’t want to get married. Of course, if the right person comes along, I’d love that someday, but it’s not my priority in life.”

He finished with his notes and handed her the stack of papers. “Unfortunately, if you want the board members, investors and other important men in the business world to take you seriously, I’m afraid you’d have to wear pants and act like a boss.”

Rarity gave a polite, but annoyed smile. He’d told her before the galas that he was ‘old fashioned’ so she’d let him lead while dancing, open doors for her and allowed him to speak for her when introductions were made and she’d found it sweet and a bit charming. However, there appeared to be fine line between old fashioned and misogyny and it made her second-guess if she really wanted a relationship with him. “Have a good night, sir.”

On the way home, she reflected on what he’d said and knew that she had to get the board members to actually listen to her and stop treating her like she was below them just because their body parts weren’t the same. She stopped at the fabric store just before it closed and bought a powder blue suiting material. She stayed up later than she should have sewing, but in the end she had a pair of pants.

Walking into the office the next morning, the new pants coupled with a matching silk scarf and white blouse gave her confidence. Her high heels clicked across the floor with a rhythm that told others she was on a mission. Some of the other women just stared in awe as if they didn’t realize wearing pants was allowed. No one had ever told her it wasn’t – after all, the employee handbook stated that ‘proper business attire’ was expected. Besides, she was more covered up than some of them. Upon reaching Mr. Onceler’s office, she did something she wouldn’t dare do if he were there – she sat in his plush chair behind the curved mahogany desk. If he wanted her to act like a boss, then she would. She reviewed his notes and her own before heading off to the board meeting. She walked in holding her head high and stood at the head of the table with an authoritative stance.

“Joining us again, cupcake?” One of the men asked.

Another laughed. “And where’s your short skirt, sweetheart? I looked forward to that.” He nudged the man next to them who also started laughing.

She leaned forward, both hands on the table and stared them down the same way Mr. Onceler did when he was dead serious and would tolerate no nonsense. “Gentlemen, I am here as a representative of the CEO, and as such, I demand and deserve the same respect and courtesy you would show him. From now on, you will address me as ‘Ms. Belle’ or ‘ma’am’. Got that?”

They all appeared shocked and skeptical as though this was not going to happen. She hated to do it, but in this male-driven world, she was going to have to drop his name. “And I want to you to know I have Mr. Onceler’s full, total, one hundred percent support on this. Understood?”

Unable to say no to that, there was a round of nods and she heard a few murmurs of “yes, ma’am”.

“Good,” Rarity said, as she sat in her boss’ place at the head of the table. “Now, down to business…”

*

Rarity had a great time pretending to be the boss, within reason, but the Monday before Thanksgiving, Mr. Onceler was back at work and she was back to schedule/coffee/cigarette duty.

“How is your arm doing?” Rarity asked when he walked in the office.

“It’s fine,” he lied.

He could tell her the truth – that it hurt at times to a certain point and beyond that he could still feel nothing. He could let her know how frustrating it was that his brain, desperate to make a connection tried to convince him that the arm was working when actually he couldn’t move it. The bandages were gone, but now he had to wear a very serious looking brace for the next several weeks. He’d had to rearrange things on his schedule to take time out for physical therapy, which didn’t seem to be helping anything. Dr. Granger had suggested he even see a shrink – that was not happening – ever. He couldn’t properly wear his coat, having to leave it open, the left sleeve dangling and unused and, of course, he couldn’t put his gloves on. He hadn’t figured out how to do up a tie with one hand either, but no one would suspect he was wearing a clip on. However, he had to admit that his right hand was finding ways of doing things he didn’t think were possible without the left hand to help. That didn’t matter – it was still a miserable situation.

When Dr. Granger had taken the bandages off, there was another terrible surprise – his once flawless skin was covered with angry lacerations and incisions that were stitched up and healing. The doctor told him with time – years, most likely – they’d thin out and whiten, but he would always have scars. The worst was the particularly jagged-looking separation where feeling ceased – the place where his arm had actually been severed. He wore a sleeve under the brace to hide everything and once he could take that off, he’d cover up like he always did. However, everyone knew what had happened and he felt self-conscious as though they could see it with x-ray vision or something. What woman was ever going to want to be with him if she saw that? How would Rarity react? To think he had been about to ask her to be his girlfriend. Now she would never agree to be with him. The way his arm looked repulsed him; he couldn’t imagine what a lady would think of it.

“You’re unspeakably vain, bro,” Brett had told him after he’d voiced his concerns.

Of course he was – he was the best looking out of the three of them, after all.

Chet had not spoken to him, had hardly looked at him. Onceler knew his brother blamed himself for the accident, but really it wasn’t entirely his fault. Yes, he could have looked up to see the green coat hanging over the railing or called out to check if anyone was up there, but Onceler himself had neglected the first rule of the safety protocol – someone should have been guarding the controls to make sure the machine stayed off. No, it was his own carelessness that had caused this. Chet had been right – if any of the machines had been off for any reason other than someone sticking a body part in there, Onceler would have been upset. The more the machines worked, the more thneeds were produced and the more money he earned.

He thought back to the factory worker who had lost his fingers to a machine in July – same deal, didn’t follow protocol. But did Onceler even offer any sympathy? No. He’d simply chastised his employee for not following rules. He’d called him an idiot. Now he knew it didn’t matter if you built the machine, if you made the rules, if you ran the company – such a disaster could happen to anyone. It took but a moment of carelessness and then your whole life could change in an instant.

Meanwhile, Rarity ached to do something to cheer him up, but this entire experience had sent him completely back into his shell. He didn’t open up to her; he didn’t communicate unless it was about work and he didn’t smile anymore. At least he was nice to her, whereas she had seen him snap at others for things he might have overlooked a month ago. She wanted him to ask her the question she knew had been on his mind the day of the accident. Perhaps she should bring it up, but then she remembered how old fashioned he was about such things and if she did it might bruise his ego.

She was deep in thought about what she could possibly do to help when she bumped into one of the twins in the hallway while on an errand. “Chet?”

“Oh, hey, Rarity.”

She actually got it right? “If you’re on your way to see your brother, he’s in a meeting right now.”

“No, no, he wouldn’t want to see me.”

“Look, you shouldn’t blame yourself. Just talk to him about it. Maybe he’s not even upset with you, just that it happened.”

Chet shuffled his feet nervously. “It’s not that…we don’t talk about feelings and stuff. If I went to him and started telling him what I think of this whole thing or even apologized, he’d wonder what kind of drugs I was on.”

“I know it might be stepping outside your comfort zone, but actually acknowledging and talking about the problem might help you guys move on from it.”

“I’m not sure I could even face him without…you know, crying…and we don’t do that in our family. It’s always been that way – we call it the One Tear Rule.”

“One Tear Rule?” Rarity asked.

“Yeah, after Dad split, Mom said if anything bothered us we were allowed one tear and then we had to get over it. I think the last time I even cried was probably when Airabella died.”

“Well, I think that rule is ridiculous and stifling your emotions only makes the problem worse. What are you going to do at Thanksgiving? Just ignore each other and pretend it didn’t happen?”

Chet shrugged. “Probably.”

“That’s stupid. Go talk to your brother, for heaven’s sake! Maybe it’ll help get him out of this depression he’s gotten himself into.”

“I’ll think about it,” Chet mumbled unconvincingly.

*

The end of the day was Onceler’s favorite time because it meant he didn’t have to face people and their scrutiny or worse, pity. Over the past three days he had seen it in their eyes – wondering what his arm might look like now under all the coverings and the brace, wondering if he’d ever be able to use it again. He had always prided himself on not letting any weakness show – now everyone knew that this strong, once-complete man was a person just like them and just as capable of being injured, ripped apart, broken.

If he drank, it would be times like this he would need a martini or something. He’d actually never had one…he’d never had any alcohol besides whiskey and that had been enough to last him a lifetime. That sensation of warm alcohol sliding through him, settling in his stomach and spreading out making his legs and arms weak was not one he would forget. What was worse, That Person had sent him a bottle of whiskey as a Christmas gift every year for the past three years as if to torment him. All three sat up in a cabinet in his kitchen unopened because he knew that even the smallest amount – possibly even the smell – would probably make him feel sick as dark, buried memories were unlocked in his mind. And now, working with Mr. Carter, meant eventually he may have to face That Person and those memories seemed to haunt him even more.

At least it only took one hand to light a cigarette. Here he had told Rarity he should be quitting, and hadn’t been allowed to smoke at all while in the hospital, but now that he was back at work, the stress was causing him to light up again. It was a horrible habit, one he knew could eventually kill him, and while part of him worried about that, another part savored the sense of peace that came over him when he got his nicotine fix.

He was in his apartment, relaxing on the couch after removing his coat and thoroughly enjoying his last smoke of the evening when there was a knock at the door. At least, he thought there was but it was so quiet it could be his mind playing tricks on him. He was so exhausted he wanted to continue sitting there, but doing so and nodding off with a lit cigarette was a very bad idea, so he forced himself up and answered the door. It was Chet. “What is it? Problem at the factory?”

“No, not that I know of. Can I come in?”

“Yes, but whatever it is, make it quick. I’m dead tired.” He noticed his brother staring at his arm. “Don’t do that. It’s rude.”

Chet waved a hand in front of his face. “Bro, I thought you quit that.”

“If you came in here to complain about my lifestyle, then you can just go!”

“No, I wanted to…uh…say I’m sorry…”

“For what?” Annoyance rose in him and he wanted nothing more than to be left alone.

“I was the one who turned the machine on. I should have called out to see if anyone was up there. I should have double checked. I never meant to hurt anyone…least of all you.”

“What the hell? That’s what you came up here to tell me? I already knew that. I already knew it wasn’t your fault.” The next part was the hardest to admit to anyone, even himself. “I should have followed the safety protocols. I wrote the damn safety protocols. Brett even started asking if he should go down and guard the controls and I told him to shut up. It’s my own damn fault.”

“So, you’re not mad?”

“Not at you.”

And then Chet did something unexpected. He wrapped his arms around his brother in a hug. Onceler almost dropped his cigarette in shock and squirmed. What the hell was this? Their family didn’t hug. “Um…what are you doing?”

“Dude, I thought…when it happened I thought you were going to die. Then I thought maybe you’d lose your arm. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared.”

“I appreciate your concern, but do you think you could get off me now?” And then, another something unexpected, instinctively he tried to push Chet away with his left arm and it moved ever so slightly sending a tingling sensation all the way down to his fingertips. “Seriously, Chet, get off.”

After his brother pulled away, Onceler set his cigarette down in the ashtray and removed the brace and sleeve covering his arm. He lightly ran the fingers of his good hand across the skin and still couldn’t feel anything. He had to be careful because the ligaments and tendons in his elbow were still healing and even though the bones were held in place with steel it was possible to re-injure those too. But he had felt something...surely this was not his imagination.

“You okay, bro?”

He looked at his hand and concentrated, willing himself to feel something, anything. It happened again, like an electric impulse running the full length of his arm from his shoulder to his fingers. A connection had finally been made. And if the nerves were connecting then maybe…

He took a breath and sent one simple command from his brain to his fingers – move. Nothing happened at first; the connection was still very weak, but then ever so slightly, his pinky finger twitched. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah. Do it again.”

He wasn’t able to make the finger curl completely, but he could bend it a little and after a few times he realized he was definitely controlling it as opposed to it being some weird twitch. Just that small movement gave him hope and despite what he’d previously thought, he now had something to be thankful for.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 – Onceler’s Simple Question

As the calendar wound down toward a close, Rarity noticed everyone in the office seemed in high spirits with the holidays coming up. Almost daily in the secretarial lounge there were platters of cookies or other goodies brought in by employees or sent from other companies that Rarity had to try hard to resist. She knew galas were coming up and wanted to look her best in a formal gown if Mr. Onceler asked her again. They had missed one around Thanksgiving due to his accident and she wasn’t certain if he would go to the Christmas and New Years galas. And then what? If he didn’t ask her to be his girlfriend, was that just it then? She’d continue working for him and he’d fall in love with someone else…maybe get married someday. The way Isabella had talked about it previously, Rarity knew she wanted nothing more than to see her son settled down and giving her grandchildren with the “right” woman.

“Do you know who Once has asked to the Christmas gala yet?” Isabella asked her one day.

Rarity shook her head. “No ma’am. He hasn’t even mentioned if he’s going.”

“I might need to arrange a date for him. In fact, I may need to arrange a meeting of another kind for him if he doesn’t find someone soon.” She took off, her tacky blue boots annoying Rarity with their clicking.

Arranged marriage, Rarity knew. That’s what was on Isabella’s mind. She recalled him saying most men settled down by age thirty and he wasn’t even twenty-five yet. It seemed unfair to force anyone to spend their life with someone they didn’t love, or may not even know. How awkward would that wedding night be? Rarity knew she’d be nervous enough when that time came with someone she knew and couldn’t imagine having to expose her body and go to bed with someone who was practically a stranger. She figured Mr. Onceler would think the same way as well since he’d told her he took physical intimacy very seriously. She wondered who this mystery woman was he had been with.

All signs seemed to point to Norma. She imagined it would have been a quick kind of tryst somewhere secret where no one would catch them…where no one would know. Like some old-fashioned romance novel, she being the high-society girl and he the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks. She imagined herself in Norma’s position, smiling as thoughts of him softly kissing her rose in her mind. He would tell her she was beautiful, run his ungloved fingers through her hair and gradually make the kisses more aggressive. He would touch her in ways that made her tingle with excitement and sigh his name. Wait…what name exactly would she use? It had been almost a year and his first name remained a complete mystery. She certainly wouldn’t cry out ‘sir’ or ‘Mr. Onceler’ as he ran his hands along her most sensitive areas.

Why the hell was she thinking about this anyway?! He was her boss! The last thing she needed were those rumors about her ‘rattling his desk drawers’ to become accurate. Still, she thought about how sexy that might be if he swiped his hand across his desk clearing it of everything and just took her right there.

“Excuse me, ma’am? Can you sign for this?”

It was then Rarity even noticed the delivery man standing there with a gift basket. “Sorry about that. I was focused on work.”

“Looked like you were daydreaming to me, ma’am and from the grin on your face it must’ve been about something real nice.”

She felt color creep into her cheeks as she signed for the basket and he set it on her desk with a cheerful: “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas,” she replied back. Why did those words feel wrong somehow? She remembered Christmas…snow and lights in the trees and gifts. She recalled singing with friends and that warm feeling settling in her spirit this time of year. But it almost seemed she’d called it by a different name. She was certain she’d been in a pageant of some kind, but she had been a princess. There wasn’t anything about a princess in any Christmas story she knew. Maybe she was thinking of another holiday.

She inspected the basket, which wasn’t like the ones filled with candies, meats or cheeses that he usually told her to bring down to the secretaries’ lounge. Mr. Onceler received many gifts this time of year and it was Rarity’s job to note down who sent it and reply with a thank-you card and a small token of appreciation. Usually, though, he didn’t keep any of the gifts. Maybe her generosity was rubbing off on him. Wait…what? Generosity? There was something important about that…something important she was forgetting again. There was no time to wonder though as she turned her attention back to the gift basket.

Nestled inside among that shredded paper packing was a fancy bottle of expensive whiskey and a few mini bottles of other spirits. Well, that obviously was not something they could consume during working hours. However, she knew Mr. Onceler didn’t drink so he’d have no use for this either. He’d likely give it to his family or something, she figured. She plucked the gold card from the basket and found it wasn’t sealed. She’d normally never snoop – never – it would not go over well if her boss got wind of it. Before she knew it though, her fingers were extracting the card and her eyes scanning the handwritten note.

Merry Christmas, Pretty Boy. I will be visiting your area for the holidays and would love to arrange a meeting to discuss something of importance with you pertaining to business. I’ll be staying at a hotel in town and will have my assistant contact you with further details. Perhaps you’d like to join me in my room for a glass of whiskey and we can mix business with pleasure for old time’s sake. – J.S.

Who the hell was J.S.? Whoever she was, she had a lot of nerve addressing him as ‘Pretty Boy’ and asking him to meet in a hotel room for ‘pleasure’. Wait…this was her! The mystery woman! The one he had slept with! Did they meet up every year? Were they secret lovers? No, it couldn’t be. He’d been planning to ask Rarity out; she was sure of this and he wouldn’t do that if he had some secret lady on the side. She was dying to ask him, but she knew he probably wouldn’t divulge the truth to her. Talking about his past sexual encounters would be “too personal”.

She slid the note back in the envelope and went to deliver the basket. Upon entering the office, she saw Mr. Onceler standing by the window smoking a cigarette. It was dark outside, being late, and she knew he was probably savoring the first few moments of free time he’d had all day.

“Another basket for you, sir.”

“Just take it down for the secretaries whatever it is.”

“I don’t think that would be an appropriate idea,” she told him, setting the basket on his desk. “I know you probably don’t have any use for it, but perhaps your family might like it.”

It was then he turned and his eyes grew wide for a second upon seeing it. Not with joy, she realized, almost with an emotion approaching fear. Then his cool blue eyes narrowed and he took a long drag of his cigarette before sitting down. “That Person knows I detest whiskey and alcohol in general and yet, every year there’s a lapse in memory about that.” He removed the card from its envelope with a little bit of effort since he had to do it one-handed and his face reflected disgust as his eyes took in the words.

Rarity was worried he might actually be sick. “Sir, is everything alright?”

“I’ll be fine, Rarity.” He slid the elegant card in his desk drawer. “It’s just he does this every year and it’s getting old.”

Wait, had she heard that right? HE? “Who, sir?”

Mr. Onceler picked up his cigarette from the ashtray. “John Salas. He’s the head of National Bank. The headquarters are in my hometown and we…crossed paths because of a…business deal about five years ago.”

He…John…mixing business with pleasure…for old time’s sake.

You want the truth? I’ve been with one person in my entire life.

He had told her this before. He had said ‘one PERSON’ not ‘one woman’, not specifying gender. But…she was certain…yes, Mr. Onceler was straight…absolutely, undeniably attracted to women. There were two possibilities. Either his dealings with this John Salas character were completely unrelated to his sex life, or something…perhaps unmentionable…had happened between them that he wasn’t willing to talk about.

“Rarity,” he said, breaking into her thoughts, “please sit down. While I have you here, I had planned to go to the Christmas gala next weekend and I was hoping for the pleasure of your company again.”

“I would love to go, sir.”

He stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray and covered his left hand with the right. “I know I should have asked you earlier, but I…”

“It’s okay. I understand.”

“I don’t know what you look for in someone, Rarity, but I wonder if you would think of me as a romantic partner.”

It was a cute attempt, it really was, but far too formal. “I’m sorry, sir, but could you ask in simpler terms please?”

His lips curved into a shy smile. There was the farm boy again. He was still there. He moved from behind the desk and took a seat in the chair next to her. Taking her hand, he paused for a moment before asking her a simple question: “Rarity, would you consider being my girlfriend?”

Rarity wanted to shout ‘yes’ immediately, but there was one more thing he needed to tell her. One piece of information she needed to know. “I have a policy about the men I become involved with.”

“It’s the smoking thing, isn’t it?”

“That is quite a disgusting habit, sir, but that isn’t the issue. I don’t date men whose first names I don’t know.”

He broke into a grin and chuckled a bit. It was a low, deep sound in his chest and Rarity found herself smiling knowing he wasn’t lost to her after his accident. He motioned for her to lean in and when she did he whispered a single word – his name – in her ear. One syllable, five letters – the first being the same letter her name started with – it conjured up images in her mind of times long ago, of women dancing in full gowns and of romance because it was definitely a romantic name.

"Why would you hide a name like that? It’s beautiful. I-I mean…it’s manly and tough.”

Laughter vibrated in him again. “No it’s not. It’s old-fashioned and hardly used anymore. It was my father’s name, too.”

That explained why he went by ‘Once’ instead of his first name. At first it was likely to avoid confusion, but she imagined after his father left, it probably became painful for his mother to even say that name.

“How about I keep it a secret and call you ‘Once’?”

“I would appreciate that. On the clock and around other employees, however, you still must address me as ‘Mr. Onceler’ or ‘sir’ – we need to keep a certain level of professionalism.”

“Of course.” But in her thoughts, she’d already dropped that formality from his name. He was simply Onceler now…her Once.

“Rarity, would you mind if I kissed you?”

Wahaha! He wanted to… “Yes! I mean no…I mean, go ahead.”

It wasn’t quite as passionate as the scenarios her overactive imagination had conjured up earlier, but it was definitely nice as he pressed his lips softly against hers in a chaste manner. She only had one other guy to compare to and Brad was definitely a sloppy kisser, sucking her lips into his mouth and sticking his slimy tongue everywhere. It had hardly been romantic and hadn’t sent gentle tingles down her spine exactly as Onceler’s kiss did for her now.

*

Rarity wanted to wear something in green to match his suit, but the fabric store had no shades of green that didn’t clash with her indigo hair. Green was a beautiful color, but it wasn’t her color. Her friend…why couldn’t she remember her friend’s name...well, she remembered she’d made a green dress for her who had pulled it off flawlessly. She could hardly picture this bashful friend of hers whom she was sure had been a model. There was a flash of pale pink hair in her mind, whispers of a soft voice in her ear, the tickle of bubbly spa water around her hooves. Hooves? When did she ever have hooves? Maybe it had all been some weird dream, even though these flashes of memory seemed so real.

Don’t forget…

But she was forgetting. She was forgetting a lot. It was as if her memories swirled around her, teasing her mind but when she tried to grasp them and hold on they swam away and scattered like fish pursued by a hook.

Finally, after shrugging off her forgetfulness, she bought a cool, blue chiffon and a matching silk, which would compliment his eyes. She hoped he didn’t wear those gaudy shades of his. She wanted to shake those glittery glasses at him and tell him that might be part of the reason guys were contacting him wanting to “mix business with pleasure”.

By the evening of the gala, she’d made herself a Grecian style gown that brought to mind all things winter – ice and snowflakes and lights – and she was certain she’d be the best dressed girl at the gala.

Beg pardon, Rarity, but we don’t normally wear clothes…

Whose voice was that in her head and why did it sound so familiar? And why wouldn’t they have been wearing clothes? Had she come from some kind of nudist colony? Well, of course she hadn’t – she’d designed dresses – beautiful dresses! Once again, small things flashed in her memory – a shiny dance floor, elegantly dressed people…no, they weren’t people; they were ponies. Ponies! She was a pony – a unicorn, to be exact! Why was that so hard to remember? She wanted to sit and try to pull further memories from her mind, but there was a knock at the door and immediately her only thoughts were of him.

His eyes lit up at the sight of her in the new gown. “Rarity, you look amazing.”

No matter how many times she saw him, he always looked amazing to her too even in the same green tailcoat and ridiculous gloves. Something was different about him too…the gloves, both were on. “You got your brace off?”

“Dr. Granger said I can take it off for short periods of time, but he’d still prefer I wear it more often than not, at least for a few more weeks,” he explained as they headed outside toward the car. “Otherwise, the bones are healed and the tendons and ligaments seem to be healing well.”

She waited until they were in the limo to ask further questions, hoping now that they were a couple, he’d answer. “And how is physical therapy?”

“Slow and tiring. They want me to regain strength, but I want to work on skill. It doesn’t help that I still don’t have much feeling, but I’m able to at least bend my fingers a little. I know it takes time, but I just want to regain what I lost. I have to be careful with it, so I hope you don’t mind if we don’t dance much this evening.”

“That’s okay. I just want to spend time with you.” It was a little awkward, thinking back to a year ago when she arrived. She’d never imagined she’d be sitting in a limo with him as, not only his date, but his girlfriend. She couldn’t stand him a year ago, but now she was slowly accepting every part of him, down to the scent of tobacco that clung to his clothes, including those gloves she used to hate. She wanted to take his hand, but she was sitting on his left and he had that hand covered with his right. She hoped he would kiss her again tonight and that it would be spontaneous. He always asked as though he weren’t sure, but it was always okay with her. Perhaps it would be a more passionate kiss than the previously innocent ones he usually gave her. However, she had to admit, there was something refreshing about a guy willing to take things slowly, especially after her experience with Brad. Onceler knew about that, of course, and she figured perhaps that’s why he always asked and why he wasn’t pushing anything physical. Actually, she was perfectly okay with that, but feeling bold, she reached over and covered his hands with hers. Though his body twitched at first in surprise, he moved his right hand, allowing her to intertwine her fingers with his left. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, unsure if he could even feel it, but then as she looked, she saw his fingers bend inward ever so slightly. She caught his eye and he gave her one of his genuine smiles.

“Rarity, may I kiss you?”

“Yes, but you don’t need to ask.”

Rarity’s toes curled in her shoes as she got the more passionate kiss she wanted. Their lips parted slightly and his tongue slid gently against hers as though unsure at first, then deepening so she could taste him. And she hated it…bitter tobacco and cigarette ash assaulting her taste buds. She pulled away.

“I’m sorry, Rarity. I thought…”

“Don’t apologize. It wasn’t that. I liked it, except…”

“What is it, Rarity?”

“If you’re going to kiss me like that again, you have got to stop smoking.”

Even in the dimly lit car, she could see color rise in his cheeks. “I actually was going to wait to tell you, but since the New Year is less than two weeks away, I’ve made that my resolution.”

“Really?” Rarity felt her eyes widen as she couldn’t hide her excitement.

“Well, between you and my family and my doctor asking – or rather, begging – me to quit, I decided I probably should. Besides, apparently it’s bad for one’s health.”

She laughed. “You think? So, will it be my job to keep you from biting off heads while you’re in the process?”

“I do that anyway, but, no, I’m going to cut down gradually. Starting the first week of January, only put nine in the case per day, the second week – eight, and so on. By mid-March, I should be done.”

Rarity squeezed his hand again. “I know you can do it and you’ll be much healthier in the long run.”

Upon arriving, Rarity’s eyes drank in the glittering chandeliers and silver platters carried around by servers offering tasty-looking treats. Gentle music of a string quartet filled the hall and already a few couples were on the dance floor. She hoped perhaps Onceler would at least dance with her a few times, but she knew it wasn’t likely. They’d looped arms in such a way that it looked like he was leading her, but really, she was supporting his left arm and would have to make sure no one jostled either one of them so he didn’t reinjure it. She saw familiar faces from previous galas and then noticed older people standing near the walls, some of them wearing pink or blue ribbons on their clothes. She caught the judgmental eye of Isabella standing there with a champagne glass in her hand. At least she had the decency to wear a black dress to this event instead of her usual tacky clothes. She was did, however, have that ridiculous bow in her hair and on her dress was pinned a blue ribbon.

“What’s with the ribbons?” Rarity asked.

“The parents wear them to indicate they have a child they want to marry off. It’s an invitation for others to talk about possible meetings between their single kids.”

She got it, as she saw Isabella talking to another woman with a pink ribbon. Isabella had a son – blue ribbon – and the other woman must have a daughter she wanted to match up with someone. Arranged marriage, she knew as the other woman looked over in Onceler’s direction and gave an approving nod. Rarity didn’t approve. He, and every other single person in that room, had the right to choose someone they loved to spend the rest of their lives with. Also, the nerve of whoever this woman was – he was Rarity’s boyfriend!

“Mr. Onceler?” A familiar voice asked. “And Rarity, right?”

What? No one ever asked about Rarity. She turned to see friendly blue eyes and short blonde hair. She did remember this woman.

Onceler shook her hand. “Stephanie, how are you?”

“I’m doing well and you? I heard there was an accident at your factory.”

“I’m healing, thank you.”

Somehow, Rarity didn’t feel threatened by Stephanie’s presence, especially when she asked how Rarity herself was doing and talked with them equally. Something told her this woman was not interested in Onceler, at least not as anything more than a friend.

“I graduate from university this year, then I’ll be looking for a career in law,” she told them.

“That’s great,” Onceler said.

“So, once your factory expands, will your legal team be looking to grow?”

“I hadn’t thought much about that. Likely not; I don’t see the need to expand the legal department. However, we are always looking for secretaries and there would be opportunities for advancement.”

Stephanie laughed. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not putting myself through seven years of school to work as a secretary. And forgive me, but I bet all the women who work in your company are secretaries or assistants of some kind.”

“We have a few female factory workers also.”

“But no lawyers or investors or board members?”

“Well, the truth is…”

“The world of business belongs to men,” Rarity interjected, remembering what he’d told her. She turned to Stephanie. “I’m afraid if you want to be taken seriously, you’ll have to wear pants and act like a boss.”

Stephanie laughed. “I figured as much. Don’t worry, Rarity, we’ve got a long way to go, but we’ll get there someday. Equality is just around the corner.”

“Is it such a crime to be traditional about some things?” Onceler asked. “Is it so wrong to appreciate women in all their feminine beauty and want to take care of them?”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Stephanie told him. “But we now want more than just a man to ‘take care’ of us. We want to be equal partners in the workplace and in society. We want to be recognized, not just for our beauty, but our intelligence and individuality.”

“I’m not saying women aren’t intelligent, but men are more logical, whereas women let emotions get in the way too much to really make rational decisions, which doesn’t work well in business.”

“But women see things differently than men, which may open up ideas that the men running businesses haven’t thought of before. Our minds might work differently, but if we have equal skills, shouldn’t we have equal opportunities in the workplace?”

“If you women are working all the time who will take care of a household and children?”

Stephanie crossed her arms. “Most of us hope it would be collaborative effort with, you know, the person who helps provide for that household and fill it with children. We’re trying to get away from this old-fashioned notion of ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ and make relationships equal as well.”

“What else? You want us to have the children, too?”

The blonde laughed. “No, we’ll take care of that, but now we can decide how many children and when to have them.”

“We can?” Rarity asked.

“Absolutely, there’s a pill for that now,” Stephanie told her.

“I think science is getting just a little too involved in this process,” Onceler said. “Next thing you know, women will be deciding they don’t even want kids.”

Stephanie shrugged and gave him a challenging look. “I don’t.”

The way he looked at her was a though she’d said she was going to dye her skin green or that she wanted to grow an extra arm. As though, to him, the thought of a woman not having children of her own free will, was absolutely unheard of and somehow unnatural. “And I suppose you’d keep your name when you got married?”

“Why should I change it?”

“Because it’s tradition.”

“Exactly – the tradition of a patriarchal society. However, I wouldn’t be opposed to my husband and I hyphenating our names.”

“It would be a cold day in hell before I’d agree to that.”

“Well, thankfully, we’re not getting married,” Stephanie said before walking off.

“Thankfully…” he repeated. He turned to Rarity. “What do you think?”

“I think a woman should be paid equally as a man if their skills are the same. Think it’s a great idea to control family size. I want to get married and have children someday and I would take my husband’s name. I may choose to work outside the home, however, if it were that important to my husband, I’d let him be the primary breadwinner.”

“I think I could live with that. So, if you did work, you’d choose fashion design again, I’m assuming.”

Rarity nodded. “I would like to do that. I love making art people can wear.”

She noticed throughout the evening, he didn’t carry on long conversations with any of the ladies, except his interaction with Stephanie, and made a point to introduce Rarity as his girlfriend. So, he was trying to avoid being matched up, she realized.

“Are you of the North Nitch Belles?” One of the ladies asked.

She had no idea where North Nitch even was. “The Canterlot Belles.”

And this other lady had no idea where that was…no one did. Even Rarity was a bit fuzzy as to where exactly she was from, but she held onto that accented voice in her head and the image of colorful ponies dancing on a shiny floor.

Another familiar voice – a male one, this time – came from behind them. “Ah, the beautiful Rarity.” It belonged to a man likely in his sixties whose hair and goatee had already turned white. He surveyed Rarity with eyes that were slightly different sizes and smirked at her. When she looked at him, the first name that popped into her head was ‘Tom’, however he introduced himself to Onceler as John Q. Criddos. “Do you mind if I steal her away for a dance, sir?”

“Not at all, if she wants to, of course.”

Rarity would have preferred to dance with her boyfriend, but she followed Mr. Criddos onto the dance floor and curtsied before allowing him to lead her in a waltz. “You seem familiar, sir. Have we met?”

“Little Miss Sunshine was afraid this would happen. Rarity, I hope you haven’t forgotten the reason you were sent here.”

“Sent here?” Sunshine…Princess Celestia. Criddos…wait…that was anagram. Flashes of a diamond, no a giant boulder that for some reason she’d wanted more than anything crossed her mind along with her mane in a grayish, tangled mess. Discord. “How are you here?”

“Remember when Princess Celestia told you my magic could be used to serve Equestria? Well, one of my powers happens to be the ability to cross the boundaries between universes. It’s incredibly tiring and doesn’t give me much time, but Rarity, Princess Celestia sent me here to make sure you’re doing what’s expected of you.”

“Of course I am.”

“Really? Because it seems you’re putting more effort into falling in love than you are into saving this land. Have you even looked outside lately? What would Applejack say to all these trees being carelessly cut down?”

Applejack…that accent, apple trees, sharing warm apple cider during Hearth’s Warming Eve.

“And dear, sweet Fluttershy would be appalled at how the animals here have to struggle for survival. They may even have to leave the area soon.”

Fluttershy…the green dress, spa trips, pet play dates with Angel and Opal.

“In fact, I doubt even Rainbow Dash could clear all the smog from the sky.”

Rainbow Dash...who saved her from falling to her death. How could she have forgotten her friends?

“You were sent here to stop him, not fall in love with him, Rarity.”

“But don’t you see; maybe love can change him.”

“No, it won’t. Loving another person so much that you want to keep them to yourself is the most selfish act one can commit. Beautiful, but terribly selfish and this will not help his greedy spirit. Worst of all, it may affect your generous heart.”

“Of course it won’t, I…”

“Where did you get the earrings, Rarity?”

She was wearing the diamond drop earrings she’s gotten from… “Once, of course.”

“You’re letting yourself be swayed by glittering jewels and fancy parties and it won’t last, Rarity, it won’t unless you do what you were sent here to do.”

“It will. His business is expanding.”

“His business will fail if you don’t complete your mission.”

“It’s too big to fail.”

“Then it’s too big to exist. His company relies on those trees. What happens when they’re gone?”

“They won’t be – there’s simply too many. It’s impossible.”

Discord spun her around as the music reached its crescendo. “At the rate he’s going, it’s not only possible, it will happen. If you love him as you say, you’ll help him realize that and think of a solution to both save his company and the environment.”

They parted as the music ended and she made her way back to her boyfriend.

“So, how do you know Mr. Criddos?” Onceler asked.

“He used to frequent my dress shop.” If by ‘frequent’ she meant turn things upside down for her and all of Equestria. “He’s sort of a strange guy. I think he wore the dresses himself.”

“That…is very strange.”

Rarity took a glance around the spacious room and noticed a man watching them. He was tall, maybe in his fifties with dark brown hair and a thin mustache. He smirked at her in a way that she didn’t like. Turning to Onceler she whispered. “Who is that man over there?”

Onceler slyly glanced in the other man’s direction for a split second, only long enough for those cool blue eyes to open in shock and then looked away. He, too, spoke in hushed tones. “John Salas.”

“He’s the one who sent you the whiskey.”

“Yes and he knows I detest whiskey.”

“I still sent him a thank you card.”

“That’s fine. It’s the polite thing to do after all. I haven’t any idea what he’s doing here.”

Rarity couldn’t dare tell him she had seen what was written in the card. Of course, he just said he was going to be in the area, not at this particular event. She saw Mr. Salas start in their direction and was shocked to hear a particularly vulgar word quietly come out of Onceler’s usually well-spoken lips. However, when the other man reached them, Onceler gave his diplomatic smile and extended his hand. “Mr. Salas, how are you?”

“Mr. Onceler, I had hoped to see you here. How long has it been – four, five years since you left?”

“Something like that.” He was practically talking through his teeth.

“And who is this charming young lady with you tonight? Please don’t tell me she’s just one of the many.”

“This is my girlfriend, Rarity. Rarity, this is Mr. Salas.”

She knew she was his girlfriend, but to hear him actually say it, well, she felt her heart skip a beat.

Mr. Salas took Rarity’s hand and kissed it. “A rarity indeed. You are beautiful, my darling.”

“Thank you,” she said, only to be polite. She distrusted this man and felt he had some hidden agenda behind coming here tonight.

“Is there some place private we could talk?” Mr. Salas asked.

“There is an outdoor courtyard.”

“Any place more private?” The older man was practically leering at her boyfriend.

“I’m afraid that’s as private as it’s going to get. I could use a cigarette and if I remember
correctly, you smoke as well.”

“I would be more than happy to join you.”

Onceler turned to Rarity. “Please excuse us.”

“Of course. I need to powder my nose anyway.” She started off in the direction of the ladies’ room. She should be irked with him for smoking, but he would be quitting in two weeks and she’d definitely be on him about that. Am I nagging him, she wondered as she stood in front of the mirror inside the restroom. No, of course not. I want him to be healthy – nothing wrong with that.

I’m quitting soon, she could imagine Onceler telling Mr. Salas. My girlfriend has been on my case about it since day one.

The sounds of someone throwing up in a nearby stall caught her attention. She wondered if it was one of those giggly little eighteen-year-olds having had too much to drink or maybe one of the models throwing up one of the hundred calorie hors d'oeuvres she’d had thinking it would make her fat. Rarity put a hand on her stomach as it growled. Onceler never ate in public – no, he’d have to remove his gloves for that, but he hadn’t told her she couldn’t. As soon as she returned to the main ballroom she was going to treat herself to one of the marzipan fruits, a couple of tea sandwiches and a glass of sparkling cider…oh, one of the petit fours would taste divine! Maybe she should check out that chocolate fountain they had… Rarity, stop it, she scolded herself. You’re getting kind of pudgy.

She started touching up her lipstick when in the mirror she saw Norma emerge from the stall. That was one of the last people she expected to see here and something told her Norma was not getting drunk or trying to lose weight. “Are you alright, darling?”

Her friend…or maybe former friend…acquaintance, perhaps…looked pale as she rinsed her mouth out. “I’ll be fine. I told my mother I didn’t want to come tonight but she’s desperate to get me married off.”

“You should marry for love.”

Norma smoothed the front of her pink dress, her hands lingering on her stomach for a moment. “I don’t have time to fall in love anymore.”

Rarity took a deep breath understanding and let out a soft, “Oh…”

“He said he loved me. Said even if I found myself in this predicament he’d marry me. Then when it happens, he splits. The only hope now is to get married quick and have an early, but healthy, honeymoon baby.”

“Why not raise the child yourself?”

“I would get no help from my family.”

“Shut your fool mouth. You don’t need help, honey,” another familiar voice drawled from the entrance. Rarity cringed as the voice continued accompanied by a clacking walk that filled her with dread. “Lots of women do it every day and our children turn out just fine.”

Rarity finally made eye contact with Isabella. “Good evening, ma’am.”

Her boyfriend’s mother simply looked her up and down and gave a judgmental, “Hm.” Then she turned her attention back to Norma. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but you can’t always rely on a man even if you’re married to him. You need to rely on yourself. Just know, however, your ship has sailed with my son.” The tacky blonde turned to Rarity. “And I’m surprised yours is in his harbor…”

Rarity flashed a fake smile and answered, her voice dripping with honey. “Thank you for your opinion, Mrs. Onceler. See you next Tuesday.”

Norma stifled a laugh by covering her mouth and pretending to cough while Isabella just seemed confused as Rarity briskly walked out of the ladies’ room. She hated Isabella – hated her! What if she and Onceler ever did get married? Isabella would be her mother-in-law. Ugh! She made her way to the courtyard where the cool night air was refreshing after being in such a stuffy environment for so long. She saw Onceler and Mr. Salas off to one area of the courtyard. Of course, she couldn’t tell what they were talking about, but her boyfriend was shaking his head a lot and avoiding eye contact. She walked up and gently took his left arm again.

Mr. Salas glanced at Rarity and then whispered something she couldn’t quite make out in Onceler’s ear. Her boyfriend closed his eyes as if disgusted and turned his head away.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t,” Onceler said in reply. “As you can clearly see, I don’t require any favors from you, nor do I owe you any in return.”

The older man leaned in again, whispered and then kissed Onceler on the cheek.

Onceler’s tone was controlled even though Rarity could feel him shaking with anger. “You will maintain your distance, sir.”

Whatever had happened between her boyfriend and Mr. Salas was obviously affecting him. She looked over and even in the dim light she could swear she saw color in his cheeks. She couldn’t tell if it was from anger, embarrassment or a little of both.

“Enjoy the rest of your evening then, Mr. Onceler.” The older man gave a curt nod and walked back toward the direction of the ballroom.

Onceler gave a sigh of relief. “I hate that man.”

“May I ask why?”

“That’s…that is too personal.”

Rarity could see it in his eyes – he was shutting her out of this one. He wasn’t ready to let her in completely yet and so he was retreating once again into his shell, despite having opened up to her so much recently. She was pretty certain of it now – Mr. Salas was the ‘person’ Onceler had admitted to sleeping with. Sadly, she sensed perhaps something unspeakable had, in fact, happened but…wait…he had mentioned something about a ‘business deal’ and ‘favors’. Such a thing was not unheard of in Equestria, but rare because it was deeply frowned upon. She knew from being in this world, however, that it happened here more often than people would care to admit. He wasn’t going to tell her – not now – and all she could do was intertwine her fingers with his and squeeze and give him something to hold onto because she sensed that, mentally at least, he was falling.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 – Arrangements

He should have known his mother wouldn’t leave him alone. She was waiting in his office when he returned from the gala. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts. What should have been a beautiful evening with Rarity had been marred between Stephanie’s feminist rant and then unexpectedly seeing…he shuddered…That Person there. He was considering just skipping the New Year’s gala, but knew he couldn’t. He’d already answered the RSVP and no doubt Rarity was making a new dress for it.

“How dare you show up with that woman,” Isabella said from where she sat in his chair behind his desk. Anyone else he would have yelled at, but she had brought him into the world, so he decided to let it go.

“Could we possibly do this some other time?” He tried flexing his stiff and aching left arm and actually found himself longing for the support of the brace he planned to put on as soon as he was in his apartment.

“I am trying to ensure your future and find you a suitable wife and you show up with your assistant as your girlfriend.”

“I don’t believe I ever said I wanted to get married.”

“Well, a few families are interested – in particular, the Decklers would like to see their daughter settled down with you.”

“Stephanie? Not likely.”

“I thought you liked her. She was on your list before you added that purple-haired tramp.”

“Don’t talk about Rarity like that! Besides, from the way Stephanie talked tonight it sounds like she never plans on marrying or having children.”

“Sometimes our plans change when people who know better than us help them along.” She stood and crossed the room. She hugged him gently. “I just want what’s best for my favorite son. By the way, do I have some kind of meeting with Rarity on Tuesday?”

He wanted her to shut up so he could retreat to his apartment. “What are you talking about?”

“When I last saw her at the gala, she said ‘see you next Tuesday’.”

It was everything Onceler could do not to laugh, but even so he couldn’t stop the corners of his mouth twitching up toward a smile. “Oh, Rarity! She did not.”

“I get there is some hidden meaning behind this.”

He grabbed a piece of paper, quickly scrawling it written differently, underlining the capital letters – C U Next Tuesday. When he saw the look on his mother’s face and realized she’d been stunned into silence, he couldn’t help but laugh. “She has some gumption, I’ll give her that!”

It took Isabella a moment to find her voice again. “You will fire that…that…bitch!”

“Not a chance.”

Isabella huffed and stormed out of the office. Onceler felt a small sense of satisfaction as the door finally closed and he was able to lean against the desk, still chuckling. “See you next Tuesday.”

*

Christmas passed peacefully. Rarity stayed at her boarding house where the lady who ran it prepared a large dinner for those boarders who were not going home for the holidays. She kind of wished Onceler would have invited her to celebrate with his family, but really, she wasn’t sure she wanted to be around them. She was pretty sure even he didn’t want to be around them. He had given her a bonus in her paycheck (though she suspected he did this for every employee) and a necklace of pearls for the holiday. She’d bought him a pocket watch even though he already had one, but she had been at a loss as to what to get the man who had everything. Still, he’d thanked her graciously and she noticed in the following days that he was using the one she had given him instead of the one he’d previously had.

He worked late most nights doing paperwork and on those nights, she ordered dinner for him and he would stop working for about half an hour to share a meal and conversation. He liked Indian food for the vast array of spices they used, but wasn’t impressed when she ordered Thai food.

“Peanut sauce,” he said. “I ate so much peanut butter growing up I can’t stand the taste.”

They always retreated to his apartment for that as he refused to take his gloves off in the office. Actually, he didn’t take the left one off at all. She knew from conversation that he wore the brace at night and on the weekends, but during the workday he was back to being completely covered. She was pretty sure she knew why – after seeing the way Mr. Salas had practically been undressing him with his eyes, she realized this way of covering himself was like armor. Onceler would not let anyone think any inch of his flesh was for the taking…or possibly for sale. She hoped someday he would tell her what had happened, but they were not there in their relationship yet. If it was anything like what she suspected – either an unspeakable horror or prostitution – she fully understood why.

She enjoyed their time together since they could drop their formal working relationship and just be two people who were happy in the other’s company. Before opening the apartment door to resume those boundaries, he would kiss her softly and tell her she was beautiful. Kissing was as far as it went, despite rumors still flying around the office that more was going on, but Rarity ignored it. All those other girls were probably just jealous they hadn’t attracted his attention.

It was only a couple of days before the New Year when Isabella once again clacked her way into Rarity’s office. “Is my son busy?”

“He’s in a meeting right now. Can I do something for you, ma’am?” She hated addressing Isabella as ‘ma’am’ – she could think of a few other choice words to call her.

“When he returns to his office, tell him I’ve arranged a meeting for him at six in the small conference room. Let him know I want him to be presentable.” She turned on her heel and clacked off.

Rarity glanced at his schedule – luckily he didn’t have anything going on, being that it was after hours, but he’d probably have loads of paperwork to catch up on. As soon as he returned to his office, Rarity updated him on the seemingly mandatory schedule change.

“Did my mother say what kind of meeting or why?”

“Yes, she explained every minute detail. Then we went to have our nails done and engage in girl talk.”

“Very funny, Rarity.”

“She did say to look presentable.”

“Do I ever not look presentable?”

“No, sir, you always look great.”

Five minutes before six, she went into his office to remind him of his meeting and gave him a sharp look as he was in the middle of smoking.

“Oh, Rarity, stop it. I’ll be cutting back starting Monday.”

She helped him straighten his tie (in fact, he’d gone back to wearing regular ties after she offered to tie them every morning), made sure his gloves were pulled up and ran her fingers through his hair, which was already neat enough; she just wanted to touch it. “You want me to come with you?”

“Of course. You’ll need to take notes most likely.”

Rarity grabbed a pen and pad of paper from her desk before following him down the hall to the small conference room. As soon as they entered she realized what was going on. Isabella sat on one side of the table and on the other side were Stephanie and her parents. Stephanie had her arms crossed and gave Onceler a frosty look. There was another – older – woman in the room who Rarity didn’t recognize.

Onceler took a step back, but a threatening look from Isabella forced him to sit next to her. Rarity simply stood off to the side.

“I can’t see your eyes with those glasses on,” the older woman said. “Please remove them.”

He did as he was told and the woman immediately was next to him, studying him intensely. “Fine features, blue eyes – that’s good, no thinning of the hair…you haven’t had any procedures done, have you?”

“No.”

“Smile for me.”

He gave her his diplomatic smile.

“Are your straight teeth natural?”

“Yes.”

“Good. You’re awfully skinny though. What’s your sign?”

“I don’t believe in such things.”

“He’s a Taurus,” Isabella interjected.

The woman looked over at Stephanie. “A suitable match for a Virgo.”

Stephanie simply rolled her eyes and turned away from the whole conversation. The woman, whom Rarity now realized must be a matchmaker, returned to the head of the table. “They would make a compatible couple with a high chance of producing beautiful children. She is a virgin, I take it?”

Before her parents could answer, Stephanie finally opened her mouth. “No, I’ve slept with loads of men – wow – probably hundreds! Sailors and sportsmen and random hookups in bars and I haven’t used protection with any of them!”

“Stephanie!” her mother hissed.

Onceler, however, simply joined this conversation in a desperate effort to put a stop to this. “I don’t use protection with any of the men I sleep with either!”

Isabella simply gave him a death glare. “I assure you my son is a virgin as well.”

“Perfect,” the matchmaker said jotting down a note. “So we don’t have to worry about children from other relationships surfacing or diseases. Speaking of which, no hereditary conditions that could be passed on?”

“You want to talk about health?” Stephanie asked. “He came in here reeking of cigarettes.”

“He’s in the process of quitting,” Isabella assured her.

“Actually, I’m going up to a pack a day,” Onceler lied. “In fact, I could use one right about now.”

The matchmaker pulled out an official-looking piece of paper. “We need to settle on the bride price, of course.”

“I hope you know what you do is sick!” Stephanie exclaimed. “I am a person and I will not be sold!”

Onceler gestured in her direction. “I’m with her. I’m not in the market for a wife anyway. Particularly not that one.”

“Unfortunately, this is decided by your parents, not you two,” the matchmaker told them. “However, there is a clause in the contract that if one of you should love someone else enough to marry them before the date of your wedding, you may do so. Otherwise, next January first, about a year from now, you two will be married.”

Stephanie slouched a little in her chair, crossing her arms again. “So, basically, you’re not giving us enough time to fall in love.”

Her father gave her a warning look. “You’re getting old, Stephanie. You need to get married and this young man will make a fine husband for you.”

Isabella slid a black jewelry box in front of her son. “You probably should ask her a question.”

Onceler didn’t even look inside. He knew what was in there and didn’t care what exactly the ring looked like. He unceremoniously slid it in Stephanie’s direction. “If she wants to wear it, she can, but I’m already in a relationship, so I won’t be asking her anything.”

“Like it or not, your parents have entrusted me to find good matches for you and I believe this is the best one, so they have consented to it,” the older lady said. “The engagement will be announced at the New Year’s Gala a few days from now.”

“That will be very awkward when I’m standing there with my girlfriend,” Onceler said.

Isabella shrugged. “Maybe it’s time to kick that tramp to the curb.”

Rarity wanted to throw her paper pad at the woman. Onceler opened his mouth to say something, but Stephanie spoke before he could.

“We’re adults – what about our consent? Do you really think I want to marry this guy? Have kids with him? That means we’d have to…” She blushed bright crimson.

Onceler gave an amused smirk. “What? You could talk about pills to prevent having babies, but suddenly you’re too shy to mention sex. Don’t worry – the thought of going to bed with you doesn’t exactly thrill me either.”

“Don’t worry, most couples start out this way, but then they get to know one another and see that they are compatible, and love grows,” the matchmaker assured them. “If not love, then they at least become friends.”

For the first time, Rarity noticed fear in Stephanie’s eyes and they were bright like she were about to cry. Onceler simply put a hand up to his eyes and shook his head as though maybe this were some bad dream he’d wake up from. This wasn’t just arranged, this was forced marriage and Rarity had just stood idly by while these two families had decided that she wasn’t good enough to marry him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 – Darkest Night

Rarity did not attend the New Year’s gala – not even as Onceler’s assistant. It was decided it would, in fact, be too awkward to have her standing there. She focused her mind on that one clause, however, she’d heard them mention – if he loved her enough to marry her within a year, then his arranged engagement could be broken. Come the Monday after the gala, she asked how it went.

“Stephanie and I hardly spoke and pretty much left right after the announcement. I didn’t even kiss her hand.” He opened up his cigarette case. “Rarity, why are there only nine in here?”

“Because you said you were going to start quitting, unless you were serious about going up to a pack a day.”

He dropped a curse word before lighting one up. “I did say that, didn’t I? What a week to start.”

“Do you want to hear something else that’s going to make you want to smoke before I go back to my desk?”

“Dare I ask?”

Rarity held out an envelope made of fancy gold paper. “It’s from Mr. Salas.”

It was hard to read his expression behind the glittery shades he wore but he didn’t seem thrilled as he accepted it and pulled out the note inside. “Of course he wants to set up a meeting. I know what he wants and he’s not getting it. I’m not going to any ‘meeting’ in his damn hotel room.”

“Why not insist you have it here? I mean, if he does actually want something business related then your office would be the place to discuss it and if it turns out he only wants one thing, well, then you can tell him directly you’re not interested.”

Onceler was silent for several moments while he pondered what she’d said. Finally, he spoke. “Okay, call him and tell him we will set up something for six in the evening on Friday – most everyone will have left for the day. Tell him that is the only time available and it will be in my office – nowhere else. You will stay in the room the entire time. I don’t trust that man.”

“May I ask why?”

“No, that is too personal. Thank you, Rarity, you may go.”

Great, why had he set it for Friday? Now he’d have to worry about this all week. To keep the looming meeting off his mind, he threw himself into keeping busy, which wasn’t difficult. They’d just finished with the holiday season but people wanted thneeds. The expansion was coming along faster than expected since there hadn’t been any snow yet to halt production and he hoped they would have the new parts of the factory running now in March instead of April. And when he wasn’t busy with work for his company, he was drafting plans of his own for another project he couldn’t tell anyone about yet…not yet...though he wished he could because it was exciting. Once his business with Mr. Carter was done, then he could reveal what he knew would be his greatest accomplishment thus far and something this area of the country sorely needed.

However, at night it was harder to keep his mind off of it. He’d do his arm exercises the physical therapist insisted he work on at home. While he was pleased with the progress, he felt things could move a bit faster. His therapist seemed to want him regain strength, but he wanted skill. He still had little feeling and limited motion, but he focused on his fingers, on retraining them to do things they’d once known how to do without thinking about it like curling properly around eating utensils and helping him put on a tie. It was little things though he hadn’t thought about until he lost the use of his arm – like flossing or winding his pocket watch – that were now difficult. If he had to type any of his own letters that would go much slower as well, but he usually had Rarity to deal with that. On the off chance he had to have private correspondence, such as with Mr. Carter, it was always handwritten.

It was after all his daily activities though, when he was in bed that the darkness, the worry, the memories found him. He couldn’t escape it in his sleep night after night when he’d feel those unwelcome hands on his skin.

Pretty boy…

That body pressed against his.

You like this?

That voice and hot breath in his ear.

Do I have to hurt you?

And there was pain…deep, searing pain that threatened to rip him in half.

Onceler would wake up trembling, his hair damp with sweat and his lungs shuddering with gasping breaths. It would take a moment for everything in his mind to melt away as he realized he was in his own apartment – his domain – behind a locked door where no one could hurt him. Rarity kept asking what had happened and he wanted to tell her…sort of…part of him didn’t. What would she say if she knew he’d allowed something so disgusting to happen to him?

Friday came anyway and he struggled all day to keep his nerves in check. Shortly before six, he checked himself in the mirror to make sure his gloves were still pulled up all the way and his collar was completely buttoned and his tie secured in front of it before slipping on his blue shades. No, Mr. Salas was not going to be treated to seeing any more of his flesh than absolutely necessary. In fact, if he could have had a phone meeting, that would have been preferred.

Rarity came up behind him after making sure there was water available on the desk and smoothed out the green material over his shoulders. “Nervous?”

Absolutely terrified! “What’s there to be nervous about?” He opened his cigarette case finding it empty. “Are you sure there were nine in here?”

“Yes, you’ve already smoked them all.”

That same four-letter word slipped off his tongue again.

“You know, that’s really an unattractive word for a gentleman to use, Once.”

He rolled his eyes and returned to his desk. Rarity stood in front of the mirror and ran her fingers through her hair. Her stomach screeched at her and she mentally told it to shut up. She wouldn’t be eating for a while. As she put her hands on her stomach, she told herself she probably shouldn’t be eating as much as she did. Her skirt felt a bit tight, but her gift from Mother Nature was due soon so that could be part of it. She made a face…ponies didn’t deal with that either. Rarity sighed and patted her stomach. “Once, do you think I need to lose weight?”

“You look fine, Rarity,” he said without even looking up from his paperwork. “Go back to your office and let me know when he gets here.”

It wasn’t long before the intercom beeped and Rarity’s voice came across it. “Mr. Salas is here to see you.”

He took deep breaths to calm his pounding heart and prayed that he wouldn’t have a panic attack. This is my domain – I am in control here, he told himself as Rarity walked in with the one person he’d rather not see again. Still, he gave his diplomatic smile and extended his hand. “Mr. Salas, welcome.”

“It’s good to see you again, pretty boy.”

Damn it. “Please don’t address me in such a way.” Onceler sat down again as his guest took a seat across from the desk and Rarity next to him. “What can I do for you?”

Mr. Salas’ eyes flickered over to Rarity. “I had hoped this meeting would be private.”

“This is as private as it’s going to get.”

“Perhaps I could persuade you to relocate the meeting to my hotel room.”

It took everything in Onceler to keep his tone even. “Mr. Salas, I thought I had made myself perfectly clear at the gala, but apparently not. I am not interested in having sex with you or any man. I prefer women and am in a relationship with one. So, no, I’m not going to your hotel room to ‘have a drink’ with you. If you’ve come here to actually discuss something relating to business then please get to it, otherwise, you’re wasting your time and mine.”

Rarity’s stomach growling loudly punctuated the moment of silence that fell in the room. She felt her face flush. “Sorry.”

Mr. Salas produced a small box and held it out to Rarity. He opened the lid revealing divine chocolates. “Would you like one?”

She wasn’t even going to ask Onceler’s permission. This was chocolate and if it would stop her stomach from being so annoying, then fine. She took one and savored it. “Thank you, sir.”

The older man offered one to Onceler who declined. Mr. Salas then continued speaking. “Do you happen to know Amos Carter?”

Onceler kept his poker face on, but inwardly cursed knowing where this conversation was going. Despite his efforts to keep everything under wraps, Rarity was not stupid and would put two and two together. “I have spoken with him briefly at an event or two, but nothing beyond polite conversation.”

“I’ve gotten word that he intends to try and take over my bank. You may have gathered from my cards that I’ve been traveling here overseeing the new branch we’ve opened in Greenville. You see, where you and I are from is such a small area and with the success of your business bringing more people and a booming economy here, it’s a move I felt we should make. Later on this year, if all goes well, our headquarters will move here. I’m sure you know First Country’s main office is also in Greenville. Naturally, he feels threatened. Not only that, but rumor has it he’s working with a mysterious partner whom I haven’t been able to identify who is helping him strategically plot against me. I need to strike back at him and I figured with your sharp mind, you’d be a great ally in this cause.”

“I’m an entrepreneur, not a banker. I know little about the banking system and don’t know how much help I would actually be to you.”

“After helping you create all this from nothing,” Mr. Salas gestured around the office, “you wouldn’t even consider it?”

“You were but an investor and a minor one at that. I created all this from nothing.”

“I would, of course, offer you something for your help.”

“I don’t think you have anything I would need or want.”

Mr. Salas took a sip of his water. “Do you have anything stronger to drink?”

“I’m afraid I don’t drink alcohol.”

“But you do get gifts of spirits, certainly.”

Rarity wouldn’t have to go far to get it and he would be able to call to her if needed. Onceler turned to her. “Please bring a glass of whiskey for Mr. Salas. Here is the combination.” He passed her a piece of paper.

It seemed to take Rarity quite some effort to get up from the chair and her legs wobbled a bit as though unstable, but he brushed it off as too much time on those ridiculous high heels or fatigue. She disappeared into his apartment. He considered Mr. Salas’ proposal. Actually, if he agreed to this, it would help him complete his dealings with Mr. Carter as well then he’d be done with both of them and could turn all his attention to the thneed company once again. He knew what to ask for now as well. “Okay, I will help you and the only thing I want in return is for you to leave me alone. No calls, no gifts, no letters or personal visits. When we’re done with this, we’re dead to each other. You will not so much as look at me if our paths happen to cross again.”

“May I have one night with you?”

“Absolutely not. I do not give that away casually and I’m pretty sure Rarity would not be okay with it.”

A crash from inside his apartment caught his attention and he stood. “Excuse me.” He rushed inside and saw Rarity sprawled on the floor between the kitchen and main area. Glass had shattered on the floor spilling golden liquid, though despite the glass, she seemed unharmed. “Rarity!” He felt her neck for a pulse and breathed a sigh of relief upon finding one. What had…the chocolate. Mr. Salas had put something in the chocolate; he was certain of it. No wonder he’d been offered one. The sharp scent of whiskey hit his nose making him feel sick. The sound of a door – his apartment door closing – found his ears. I left the door open…he realized.

“She’ll be fine,” Mr. Salas’ voice came from behind him. “She’ll just sleep for several hours is all.”

“What are you doing in my apartment?”

“I thought maybe you’d want help moving her. After all, your arm is still healing, isn’t it?” Without waiting for a response, the older man scooped Rarity up and lay her down on the couch.

“Thank you for your help. Now, if you would please leave. Our meeting is done.” Onceler stood and turned toward the door. Before he could move away, he felt a tug on the back of his coat and was pulled back against Mr. Salas.

“Don’t make me go just yet, pretty boy. I didn’t come here only for business.” The older man turned him, pushed him up against the wall, hands firm on his shoulders.

“You will let me go, sir – now.” It was becoming hard not to panic and too keep his voice level as his shades were taken and carelessly tossed across the room. “I will not sleep with you.”

“You wouldn’t have invited me here otherwise.” Mr. Salas kissed him hard on the mouth.

He can’t do this…this is my domain…I’m in control…but even these thoughts were weak because he was quickly losing control of the situation as the other man’s hands traveled down his body. He pushed Mr. Salas away as hard as he could with his good arm. “Get out!”

“I’ve waited a long time for this, pretty boy.”

“Don’t call me that.” The familiar icy feeling settled in his stomach again as he felt Mr. Salas kiss his neck.

“You smell good.”

His eyes darted around for a way out, but Mr. Salas’ body was pinning him to the wall. The
door was closed…it was too far away. Maybe there was something close by he could use as a weapon, but he knew there wasn’t. He struggled, trying to free himself.

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t want to do this!” Onceler tried to sound authoritative but his voice was tinged with fright. “You need to leave!”

Hot breath tickled his ear. “Stop resisting me…just give in and I’ll go easy on you.”

His body was pressed so hard against the wall he thought he might meld right into it and his eyes moved in a panicked frenzy searching for a way out. Mr. Salas’ voice found its way into his head from that time five years ago: You have no right to tell me to stop. It nearly paralyzed him with fear, until he realized what his eyes were taking in. This was his apartment, his domain…where HE was in control…and he had every right to tell Mr. Salas: “Stop! Get your hands off me and get out now or I’ll call the police!”

Mr. Salas chuckled as his fingers undid the gold buttons on Onceler’s coat. “No you won’t. You’re too high profile – you want everyone to know about this?”

Damn it. He was right. Rage boiled in him as cool air hit his hand and he realized one of his gloves was now gone. He had to stop this. Somehow, he had to regain control of this situation. Those lips were against his again, Mr. Salas’ facial hair scratching his skin as a slimy, unwelcome tongue invaded his mouth. Before he knew it, Onceler’s teeth bit down on that tongue causing his assailant to pull away. Seizing the opportunity the younger man got one good punch to Mr. Salas’ cheek. “Get out of here!”

Immediately, he knew that was a mistake as he saw anger flash in the other man’s eyes. Before he could turn to run pain exploded against his face as he was punched and fell to the ground. Blood spurted from his nose and ran down his face. Dazed, Onceler wasn’t even able to think about getting up before Mr. Salas straddled his legs making escape impossible. Another blow hit his eye and two more followed and Onceler couldn’t believe he’d forgotten that this man had a tendency to be so violent. He knew his lip was split…he hoped his cheek wasn’t broken.

“I always get what I want, pretty boy.”

Strong hands grabbed his waistband and tugged breaking the button and zipper. His mind, unable to comprehend the unspeakable things that were about to happen, mercifully, shut down. He would later recall details of how violent and painful it was, but in those terrifying moments, his mind went blank shielding him from the horror until it clicked to a state of consciousness again when he felt Mr. Salas breathing heavily into his hair. They had somehow ended up on the bed…the material of his pants was gathered around his knees.

“Are…are you done with me?” Onceler whispered.

The only response he was granted was a kiss on his temple before Mr. Salas rolled off of him and held him close as though that would somehow ease the trauma of what he’d just endured. Onceler didn’t move for the longest time. His face ached, the blood from his nose dried and it was getting hard to see out of his right eye as it swelled. His throat felt raw and sore…he had been screaming and no one had heard…no one could hear. His hands were bound together under his chin with his tie…the left one hardly feeling anything, but his right wrist throbbed under the fabric. When had that happened?

“Was that really so bad, pretty boy? I didn’t want to hurt you, but you left me no choice.”

Onceler didn’t look at his attacker; he didn’t say anything. He couldn’t say anything. The shock and disbelief had left him numb…emotionally anyway. He had been violated in the worst way…the security he got from the locked door was gone and his bed had been defiled. Physically, he felt everything…those hands on him, the hot breath against his neck, the presence of this person he hated next to him. And pain…it still hurt so badly he didn’t want to think about moving.

“Next time, just tell me yes and I can make it much better for you.”

Next time? No! There would not – could not – be a next time! Mr. Salas’ hands were already creeping into his shirt, sliding along his skin.

“You’ve filled out a bit in the last five years.”

Hardly. Enough so his ribs didn’t show, but he could still fit in the clothes he wore back then. He curled up more hoping Mr. Salas would leave. Instead, he was turned onto his back and briefly came eye to eye with the other man before turning his head. There was a tug on the fabric of his shirt and the buttons popped off.

I was stupid…I left the door open. I should have closed the door. I should be stronger…we’re the same height…why am I so weak? If I had two good arms maybe…maybe…I could have…I should have closed the door. I left the door open. I brought this on myself. This is my fault.

He focused on the wall as he heard the soft thump of his fine leather shoes against the floor and his pants were pulled completely off and he knew…knew it would happen again and there was nothing he could do to stop it. That same suffocating feeling filled him like it did in his dreams and he was buried under thick, murky water…choking on mouthfuls of mud. He tried to tell himself this was a dream…that he was not here…that he would wake up safe behind the locked door. He was asleep and his alarm was going to go off at any moment to stop this.

I left the door open.

It was over now…his assailant’s weight was heavy on him and he felt crushed. He couldn’t breathe…he prayed for death. He was dead inside anyway. He didn’t look at the clock, didn’t know how long they lay there intertwined. He couldn’t be sure of how many minutes pooled into hours as he was assaulted again. He knew it was late – very late – and he should be tired, but sleep surely would not come tonight. His attacker seemed unremorseful as he dozed off for minutes at a time between these periods of violation.

Onceler tried to imagine himself away from this place as the unspeakable was done to him. He was called nothing and in his mind made himself disappear until he envisioned himself as nothing more than a pair of gloves on the bed. But he wasn’t even that. He only had one glove on…he tried to free his hands again, but as he pulled on the fabric, it only tightened the tie around his neck. Mr. Salas had wanted one night with him…was that how long they were going to be together? All night?

Fear consumed him. He would later curse himself for not trying to get up while his assailant slept, but in the moment, he felt paralyzed. He couldn’t move as the throbbing of his cheek reminded him of how violent Mr. Salas could be. His wrists ached…both hands were numb, yet his voice would not work to ask to be untied. Would it have been easier – less painful – if he’d just given in and agreed to sleep with this man? At least that would have felt like a choice, but would it really have lessened the disgrace these hands brought to him? Would it have caused him less shame when the sun rose in the morning?

An icy chill overtook his body even though his arms were still pretty much covered. He thought back to how he’d carefully dressed that morning and how he’d checked to make sure Mr. Salas would not see too much of his skin. That full suit had not deterred him at all and now he lay there with more skin showing than covered. He wished he could just take off the coat and remaining glove. Maybe when Mr. Salas saw the scars on his arm he’d be less desirable…if only he’d seen it before…maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

His eyes fell on the door…the closed and locked door preventing anyone from coming in…the one that was supposed to stop anyone from hurting him. Now no one could help him. Who would though? No one would come to his apartment this late at night. And he didn’t want them here. No one needed to see him in such a state. No one needed to know about this.

Eventually Mr. Salas gently kissed him. “My pretty boy.” He untied Onceler’s hands, slid out of bed and zipped his pants up. “We should arrange another ‘meeting’ again soon.”

Onceler refused to look at him, to answer or even acknowledge his presence. He lay there long after he’d heard retreating footsteps and the closing of the door. Feeling returned to his right hand and a slight tingling in the fingers of his left. He waited in silence as the sheets cooled down. It was dark outside and mostly dark in the apartment except for some light coming from the kitchen. And it was quiet, so quiet he could only hear the breathing of another person in the room.

Rarity…

He turned his head finally and looked over at the couch where his girlfriend still lay sleeping. Her hair and clothes appeared neat and intact. He tried to be thankful nothing had happened to her, but the enormous weight of his own experience was still on him. Eventually, he took a deep breath as though he’d been suffocating for a while and grew curious about the time. A glance at his pocket watch told him it was now past midnight. The initial ‘meeting’ had taken maybe ten or fifteen minutes, trying to ward off the attack took very little time at all and with no idea how long he’d been there after, it wasn’t easy to pinpoint, but he figured Mr. Salas had assaulted him on and off for around five hours.

Finally – and slowly because it hurt – he got out of bed. His shades had landed over by the couch and a crumpled glove still lay on the carpet. He found his pants by the bed and thought about putting them on, but with the fastenings broken there was no way they’d stay. He wanted to burn them – all the clothes he was wearing needed to go! Also, he needed a shower – desperately – to wash away the scent of musk and sweat that clung to him. He cast off his clothes like they were on fire and threw them in the trash. Red blood stained the white lining of his coat. Shock and disbelief still ruled his mind, rendering him emotionally numb.

It wasn’t until he was in the shower and looked down to see pink water flowing toward the drain after running down his legs that panic set in. Flashes of that night exploded in his mind committing this horrific experience to memory.

He touched his face and crusted blood from under his nose came off on his fingers. He’d been beaten…pinned to the wall and then the bed…hands had grabbed him…undid and ripped his clothes, tugged at the tails of his coat. He heard his voice in his head, pleading, sounding weak and pathetic: Please…don’t. Mr. Salas hadn’t listened. Those hands found their way onto the skin of his legs, his hips…and more personal places. He had been forced to have sex.

It was a little different from last time.

Last time he’d made a choice.

Desperate circumstances.

A ‘business deal’.

You have no right to tell me to stop.

Consensual violation.

How could Mr. Salas even think after last time Onceler would do this again? What possessed him to believe this through the point blank words ‘I do not want to have sex with you’ and the fighting and pleading…and had he even begged at one point? His throat was still sore; his screams echoed in his mind.

I always get what I want, pretty boy.

Actual violation.

Forced sex.

There was a word for that, but he wouldn’t let it come to mind. He took deep breaths allowing the warm steam to fill his lungs. That didn’t happen to him last time. That didn’t happen to him this time. That…that word…that thing…that crime…didn’t happen to him. It didn’t happen to men.

He scrubbed until he was pretty sure a layer of skin had come off and the water started cooling down. Even this did not make him feel better. He could still feel those hands on him. I left the door open

He tried to avoid looking in the mirror, even though it was fogged over. He didn’t want to see himself. He was too ashamed. How could he have been so stupid? I left the door open

Even so, the mirror above the counter was large and eventually his eyes flickered over and he caught sight of himself in a clearance in the steam. Sighing, he wiped the glass and examined his face. His right eye was swollen shut and bruising. He tried opening it but it hurt too much. His nose didn’t seem broken; his lip was split and swollen and he had bruises appearing on both cheeks and his neck which were likely to get worse as the night wore on. How was he going to explain this to everyone?

Pretty boy

Everyone was going to know.

Pretty boy

Everyone would be able to see it.

Pretty boy

The shame and disgrace brought on him.

Pretty boy

He’d let it happen again.

Pretty boy

He’d left the door open.

My pretty boy

Now panic and shame were replaced by anger…no, rage…rage that boiled up in him. Rage he wished he could use against Mr. Salas. “I am not your pretty boy!”

He grabbed the closest item to him, not caring what it was and hurled it at the mirror, which shattered and came crashing down with a loud crescendo. He was still shaking when he heard a knock on the bathroom door. Someone was here…and panic filled him again. It couldn’t be – the apartment door was closed. No one could get to him…no one could hurt him.

“Once? Are you okay?”

Rarity. Great, she was awake and he was wrapped in nothing but a towel. His eyes traveled to the ugly state of his scarred and mostly useless left arm. “I’m…” He wanted to say ‘fine’ but that lie died on his lips. He wasn’t fine…he was FAR from fine. “Could you get me something to wear, Rarity?”

“Of course.”

It took a few minutes before she knocked on the door again. He opened it only enough to slide his hand out and grab the fabric she placed in it. When he looked down he saw she’d brought him pajamas…not just any pajamas, those awful, old blue ones with the yellow bunnies on them. Where had she even found them? “This was all you could find?”

“They looked comfortable.”

Well, they were that, he decided as he slid them on. They were soft and warm and even after years of sitting unused in his drawer had a faint smell of butterfly milk from the Truffula tuft he used to knit into thneeds by hand. The collar came up high enough to cover most of the marks on his neck and they had long sleeves that hid his grotesque arm. Actually, they were more than comfortable…they were familiar and took his mind back to happier times when he lived in a small cottage, when his business was just getting started and he lived in tune with the forest and the creatures he’d befriended.

It was short lived as there was another knock at the door. Her voice dripped with pity. “Once, is there anything I can do? Anything you need?”

She knew. He knew she knew. How? She must’ve seen it…the blood…the stains on the sheets and pillowcase. He couldn’t turn her away and send her home at…what time was it now anyway? How long had he been in the shower? He sighed. He was going to have to face her sometime.

Slowly, he opened the door and stepped out, keeping his eyes – well, eye – cast down, unwilling and unable to look at her. She held out something in her hand…gloves…a fresh pair of long, green gloves. “I thought you might need these.”

He slid one onto his left hand and up his arm, then needed her help with the right one. These were comfortable too…familiar…and he briefly looked up into her eyes before turning away. And then all emotion simply flooded him at once so great he thought he might break…that his mind was not strong enough to handle fear and rage and shame all at once as it converged together into something deeper…sorrow and guilt. It built up there behind his eyes and constricted his throat…no…not in front of Rarity…but the tears welled up and fell anyway. Not just one…several and his throat hurt so much from keeping it in that he had no choice but to crumple to the floor and sob. “I left the door open…”

Rarity had never seen him like this, but then, nothing quite this bad had happened to him since she’d known him. Okay, almost losing his arm was up there, but that was not a personal attack. That was simply an accident from a machine that only did what it was supposed to when a switch was flipped. And Chet had meant no harm to anyone – least of all his brother – when he’d turned the machine on. Mr. Salas, however, had made a conscious choice to hurt Onceler. Not only hurt him, but to do so in the one place he should be safe. Even Rarity felt guilty about eating the stupid chocolate she now knew must’ve been drugged. If only she’d refused, she would have stayed conscious and Mr. Salas wouldn’t have had this opportunity. She didn’t know if he wanted to be touched, so she sat beside him and was silent while contemplating what to say. She reflected on her own experience with Brad…that seemed so long ago now and most days she felt completely healed from it. She remembered wondering if she’d done something wrong – worn the wrong thing, sent the wrong signal – to make Brad want to attack her. Of course not, but it took her a while to accept that. She knew now what she needed to tell him, what he needed to hear, even if he didn’t or couldn’t believe it yet. “This was not your fault.”

And then, he stopped sobbing for a moment and let out something that sounded like a short laugh. “You just don’t know, Rarity.”

“I know something happened between you two…something that’s catching up to you now. Once, I want to understand…please let me in.”

Silence again filled the room for several moments before he took a shaky breath and shifted his position, leaning against the wall and drawing his knees up to his chest. In this pose, wearing those pajamas, he looked younger and more vulnerable than ever. “Please don’t judge me when you hear this…we were so poor and in a desperate situation…please don’t judge me…”

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 – Onceler’s Confession
(March – Five Years Earlier)

“We’re in some big trouble, Oncie,” Mom said as she sat at the table with a paper of numbers in front of her as though trying to solve something impossible.

Weren’t we always? Even with both of us working full time and my brothers on the weekends, it had been not only a miserable summer as we struggled to keep some of the crops alive during the most horrible drought the area had seen in years, but a disappointing fall as we picked the meager harvest we’d been able to grow. We finally got rain in October, but it was too late. Now we were in winter – another cold, starving winter. “What kind of trouble?”

Wordlessly, she slid a piece of paper over to me.

My eyes widened as I read the notice from the bank that if we didn’t start making house payments they would foreclose. “Mom, this is serious. We have to have a place to live.”

“I’m considering writing to your aunt and uncle and seeing if they can help somehow.”

I hardly ever heard her talk about Uncle Ubb and Aunt Grizelda. They lived far away and were related on my father’s side, but I knew, while they were far from rich, they were better off than we were. The last time I’d heard from them was when they sent a card congratulating me on my graduation. That seemed like a long time ago. “Well, Bret and Chet will be eighteen in a month – I know they don’t plan to finish school, so having them work full time will help.”

I scanned the letter again and realized they weren’t giving us a month. My eyes found the signature at the bottom – John Salas. “Why don’t we talk to this guy and explain the situation? Maybe he can give us more time.”

“They’re not going to give us a break on this. He’s rich and you know they don’t care.”

“Yeah and he’s never going to find a buyer for this house. If he does, it’ll be someone who wants to tear it down and use the property for something else. It can’t hurt to just try – the worst he can say is no and then we’ll hope Uncle Ubb and Aunt Grizelda are willing to help.”

We managed to make an appointment with Mr. Salas for that Friday to discuss the situation. I had to go with Mom, because no man was going to listen to anything a woman had to say about business. The office we were shown into was larger than our house and we sat in leather, plush chairs across from a dark wood desk from behind which Mr. Salas smiled at us. “And what brings you here today?”

“We received a notice from you that if we don’t come up with our house payment, we’ll be evicted,” I started. “Sir, we’ve paid faithfully up until this year. Because of the drought we weren’t able to make as much money.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t control the weather.”

“I understand that, but neither do we. We can hardly afford to eat right now, but my brothers are turning eighteen in a month right when farm work will pick up again. With four full-time incomes, we can pay this, but not in two weeks.”

“I appreciate your situation, but I’m a businessman, not a philanthropist. You have two weeks.”

Mom interjected. “Please, Mr. Salas, we’re…we’re desperate. I’ll do anything for this…anything.”

The way she emphasized that last ‘anything’ I knew what was on her mind. To think my mother was that terribly desperate to stay in our shack. But, we hadn’t yet heard from my aunt and uncle. We didn’t know if help was coming. We didn’t know if we were going to be, not only starving and cold, but homeless in two weeks.

“Anything?” Mr. Salas repeated, raising an eyebrow.

Yes, it was a desperate situation, but inwardly, I begged my mom not do it. Come on, I wanted to tell her. Have some decency and respect for yourself.

“Yes,” Mom said, her hands clenching together tightly. “I would do anything for my children.”

“Surely you know I’m a married man, Mrs. Onceler.” His eyes flickered over to me. “How old are you?”

“Nineteen, why?”

Mr. Salas smiled again and put his pen down. “As I said, I’m married, but sometimes I like to enjoy the company of young men.”

Mom didn’t hesitate in her response. “Done.”

It took a second to dawn on me – it wasn’t my mother he wanted. “Hell no!”

“I thought you were willing to do anything to save your house.”

“Not that!” It wasn’t openly talked about, but I’d heard people whisper and tell stories about what some men did together. The thought of doing that with him – with any man – repulsed me.

“Then I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

My mother leaned in, taking a hold of my sleeve and whispered. “Oncie, you need to think about the family right now. I know it’s asking a lot, but do you want us out on the streets?”

I put a hand to the side of my mouth so he couldn’t tell what we were saying. “Do you understand what he wants with me?” Just the thought made me feel ill.

“Yes, and if we end up homeless, there’s probably a lot more of that kind of thing in your future.”

“No.”

She squeezed my shoulder. “Son, please, for once in your life, stop being so selfish and greedy.”

“Do you realize what you’re asking me to do?” I loved my mother, I really did, but sometimes she was such a manipulative bitch.

She pressed her lips together in thin line and nodded, tears shimmering in her eyes. “Please. If you love this family, you will do this.”

Damn it. I sat upright in the chair and took a deep breath before looking at Mr. Salas. “Okay. I’ll…I’ll do it.”

Mr. Salas picked up his pen and wrote something on a piece of paper. “You’re a good son. Meet me tonight at six and we’ll arrange a deal.”

I accepted the paper, which had the name of a hotel and a room number written on it. What would his wife think if she knew? I silently followed my mother as we walked home in the bitter cold. As soon as we were inside, she handed me the water bucket. “Go get some water from the well.”

It seemed no matter how cold it got, the well never froze at least. This was good, because we didn’t have running water inside the house. As I pumped the water, I thought about what I’d be doing that night. What on this great, green earth had I agreed to?

When I brought the water in, my mother put it in a big pot on the stove – she had different sized pots on every burner. Then she tried to turn it on. No gas…we couldn’t pay the bill. “You’re just going to have to take a cold bath then, I guess.”

Oh, that’s what the water was for? She pulled the metal tub out to the middle of the bedroom and bucket by bucket we filled it with cold water. “I don’t have any shampoo, so you’re just going to have to wash your hair with soap.”

What else was new? After she left, I dipped myself in the freezing water and scrubbed my skin and hair clean. Too bad, maybe if I wasn’t clean, Mr. Salas would change his mind and I’d get out of it. Shivering as I climbed out, I wrapped myself in a blanket that we used as a towel…and a blanket. I was tired of being so poor. I thought again about my idea for a thneed. It could be used as a towel, too, if I ever found the right material for it. I’d made a couple of prototypes, but nothing seemed to work perfectly yet.

There was a knock at the door. “You decent?”

I sat on the bed, wrapped up and huddled in the blanket. “Yes.”

Mom came in and placed a folded outfit next to me on the bed and a shiny pair of shoes on the floor.

“Where did you get those?”

“They were your father’s. I was saving them for something special – maybe your wedding day. I won’t have you going there looking shabby, so put them on.”

What did it matter? He wouldn’t care what I looked like. I put on the clothes much fancier than anything I’d ever worn – a white shirt, gray vest and two-toned gray pants. Even the polished shoes fit perfectly. I looked at myself in the mirror and while I was definitely handsome in the clothes, my only thought was of how I’d wear them for all of two seconds in that hotel room before they ended up on the floor. As Mom combed my hair and trimmed it a bit, all I could think about was how tousled and mussed it would get rubbing against a pillow. I felt sick at the thoughts. What if he hurt me? What if he were into more twisted things than just sleeping with another man? What if he went back on his deal afterward?

“There,” Mom said, putting the comb down. “You look great.”

I was being prepared like a sacrificial lamb to the slau…no, like a virgin to a ritual sacrifice and I much would have preferred being thrown into a volcano. This was going to be my first time ever and it was with a man more than twice my age. It wasn’t as if I was saving myself for marriage necessarily, but I did always think it would happen with the right person at the right time…with someone I loved…with someone female! Prostituting myself to a man to save our rickety old shack was not the scenario I had envisioned. No, this was not even in my realm of possibilities, but nonetheless, it was happening.

“I really appreciate you doing this, Oncie,” Mom told me.

I had no reply. My own mother had sold me and I had nothing to say to her. I left before my brothers came home to make the long, cold walk back into town. I really didn’t want them asking questions. It would be best if they never knew about this. I found the fancy hotel with no problem – I’d passed by it several times before, but had never been inside.

I didn’t stop by the front desk. I just tried to be invisible as I took the elevator to the top floor and found the room number of the suite where he was staying. With a trembling hand I knocked. What was I doing here? There was still time to turn around. I could still…

The door opened.

Damn.

Mr. Salas stood there still dressed in his business suit, cocktail in hand and gave me a smug smile. His eyes scanned up and down my body. “Come in, young man.”

It took a moment for my legs to work as I wanted nothing more than to run in the other direction. I jumped and my heart pounded as the door closed behind me and the lock clicked like a crack of doom. I gazed around the hotel suite, which seemed almost bigger than our entire house. So this was how rich people could live – able to stay in a place away from home. I wondered how big his house was.

He slid an arm around my shoulders. “I honestly didn’t know if you would show up.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t look at him.

“You’re shaking. Is it too cold in here?” When I shook my head, he continued. “You’re scared. Don’t worry, that doesn’t come until later. I figured you’d be hungry, so I had some food brought up for us. I’m not the kind of person to simply push you into bed as soon as you get here. I know how to treat my guests.”

Rich people could do that? I had never eaten anything that my mother didn’t make or that I didn’t cook myself, except at the picnics I sometimes shared with Norma. He led me to a table where two plates were waiting expectantly for us to devour the steak, vegetables and potatoes on them. You might think I was so nervous I wouldn’t be able to eat anything. Maybe for someone else that would be true, but hunger is powerful. After months of having pretty much just enough to survive, a whole meal was more than welcome.

It was definitely awkward sitting with him, having dinner with this guy who at some point was going to go to bed with me. I didn’t look at him; I just kept my eyes on my plate as I cut the steak into bite sized pieces.

“You certainly do clean up nicely,” he said to me.

“Thank you.”

“And I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but your manners are quite polished. You could almost pass for a gentleman.”

“Just because one is poor, Mr. Salas, doesn’t mean they can’t be well-mannered.” Despite the ravenous hunger, I ate slowly, savoring every delicious bite. It was my first time ever having steak and it was juicy and heavenly, the marbled fat lending it flavor as it practically melted on my tongue. Besides, the longer I took to eat hopefully meant the longer it would be before I had to do what I’d come here for.

“So, why are you working on a farm?”

I sipped my water before answering. “Because it puts food on the table…usually.”

“My nephew went to the same high school you did and graduated with you. If I remember correctly, you graduated with honors, so why aren’t you in college? No ambition?”

“No money, Mr. Salas. That’s what makes the world go around, right? Well, when you don’t have any, your world is stuck exactly where it is. The truth is, I got accepted; I had a scholarship and then reality set in. I couldn’t leave my family for four years, looking ahead to a time when a degree might be of use. I had to work so we didn’t starve. We’re starving anyway and now we’re about to be homeless. And you’re able to afford a hotel room bigger than our house and food I’ve only ever dreamed of eating and…” Dread settled in my mind again. “...and something else you’ll get tonight that should never be sold.”

“So, you hate the rich?”

“Yes. We’re looked down upon as if we can’t do anything right and the wealthy are exalted and praised while they’re far more corrupt than poor people.” I sighed as I rested my fork and knife on the now empty plate. “The worst part is…I wish I had all this, too. I’m smart, I really am. I have great ideas I could make into reality – one in particular I just know is going to take off. But I’m stuck here because I have no means to travel, no means to find the perfect material to make my invention a reality and actually sell it. If I only had the opportunity, I know I could go out there and make something of myself. The problem is, when you’re poor, no one believes in you. I just want a chance to prove them wrong.”

“What kind of invention?” He must’ve seen my reluctance to tell him. “I’m a banker, pretty boy, not an inventor. You don’t have to tell me the specific details, just an overview will do and I’ll let you know if it’s worth pursuing.”

So, I gave him a quick explanation of the thneed and what I hoped it could do and how it might be able to change the world. “I just need to find the perfect material for it.”

Mr. Salas gave an approving nod. “That sounds like one hell of a product. Between you and me, especially if you’re looking for something natural, Truffula tuft is very versatile.”

I had heard of Truffula Trees, but they didn’t grow where I lived, so I’d never even considered that option. I made a mental note to research more into it.

He reached out and put a hand on my arm. “I’ll tell you what, you be a good sport about this tonight and might be persuaded to believe.” He leaned in, inches from me. “I can be a very generous man when I want to be.”

I looked away, furious at my mother and our circumstances for putting me in this situation.

“If you’re difficult, I may not be so giving. I hope you realize that when you sell something, it no longer belongs to you, which means tonight, your body belongs to me. I can and will do whatever I want with you and you have no right to tell me to stop. If you do as I say and agree with me and don’t argue, then we won’t have a problem. If you tell me ‘no’ or push me away or try to fight me off, then you risk going home with nothing. Do you understand?”

My heart was racing and I tried to keep my voice from breaking by whispering. “Is there anything else I can do? Please…I’ll do anything else.”

Mr. Salas rubbed my arm and covered my trembling hand with his. “Is this your first time with a man?” After I nodded, he continued cautiously as though he wasn’t sure. “This isn’t your first time ever, is it?”

“Yes.” I hoped he would be merciful and understanding. Maybe he’d let me out of this.

“I’m honored. Just remember what I said about being good for me and I’ll be as gentle as possible with you.”

No…no, I wasn’t getting out of this. I jerked my hand away. “Stop touching me.”

Instead, he slid his chair over and put an arm around me, pulling me close. “If that’s your reaction to having your hand held, I don’t know how you’re going to get through this night, pretty boy. So, tell me, when you say this is your first time, how far have you gone?”

I tried to wiggle away from him, but he simply held me tighter. My family was not big on physical contact – rarely had we ever hugged or anything. Even with Norma, it had been awkward at first because I was not that comfortable with it. I definitely wasn’t okay with a stranger touching me. “That’s very personal, sir.”

He leaned in, whispering. “Trust me, in a little while, nothing will be very personal. Tell me – I want to know if you’re actually a virgin or if you’ve done everything but.”

“What possible difference could…”

He squeezed my shoulder too hard, his fingers pressing against the bone. “Answer the question.”

“Nothing…I’ve done nothing except kissing.” When I felt his fingers relax I attempted to push him away. “Please…stop.”

“You’re not allowed to tell me to stop, but I can make this easier for you. Would you like something to drink to calm your nerves?”

I nodded. I’d never even tasted alcohol, but something told me I wanted to be drunk for this. No, I needed to be drunk for this.

He got up and returned with a glass full of ice and gold liquid. He set it on the table. “Whiskey, but before you even take a sip, I want one kiss while you’re still sober.”

Even that request sickened me and I’d later find out that actual prostitutes never kissed their clients. It was considered too intimate. And sex wasn’t? He had me sit on his lap and my heart pounded nervously as he pressed his lips against mine. I clenched my hands to keep from pushing him away and struggled as his arms slid around me, thinking only of how I was doing this to ensure my family had a place to live. One tear…I was allowed one and let it slide down my cheek as his tongue invaded my mouth. I didn’t know him. I didn’t like him. I didn’t want him so close.

After what seemed like forever, he pulled away. “You really do need a drink, don’t you?”

It took everything in me not to walk out of the room right then. “That is the only way this will happen.”

Mr. Salas picked up the glass and handed it to me. “Cheers, then.”

It smelled strong like turpentine and burned as it went down. After that first sip, I simply gulped it just to get it done and over with. It settled in me, melting my insides and I waited for it to take effect. Mr. Salas’ hands never left me…always he was stroking my back or arms, holding me and eventually moved his hand to my thigh, his fingers trailing along the inseam of my pants. He kissed me again, told me to put my arms around him, so I did while he deepened the kisses as the warm feeling in my stomach spread to my legs, arms, hands and finally my head.

Mr. Salas stroked my cheek and ran his thumb along my lips. “You have such a pretty mouth. Drunk enough yet?”

I wasn’t really sure how to respond because I had no other experience to compare it to, but I definitely wasn’t feeling normal. “I’m okay.”

“Undo my pants for me.”

My hands trembled so much I was surprised I was able to. I was definitely not drunk enough yet for this. I averted my gaze. Who was I kidding? I’d have to be drunk to the point of unconsciousness to be drunk enough for this!

“See what you do to me?” He gave me a shove. “Get on your knees, pretty boy.”

I tumbled from the chair, hitting the floor hard. My stomach churned and I wasn’t sure if it was from the alcohol or what I was being made to do. His fingers were intertwined in my hair as he let out low moans. Finally, he tugged hard on the back of my hair as he sucked in a deep breath. I’ll spare you the details of what happened next…it was rather disgusting and very disrespectful. I wanted to spit in his face, but that might have cost us the house, so instead I choked down what was in my mouth.

“Lick your lips, pretty boy.”

I hated him calling me that. I suppose to him, despite being of legal age, I was just a boy – a kid – whom he’d bought for one night. Worst of all, I had to listen to him as he stripped me of my dignity.

“How does it taste? Good?”

“It tastes like humiliation.” I had used my one tear on a damn kiss and even more terrifying things were coming.

His grip tightened in my hair. “That was not the answer I wanted, pretty boy.”

“Yes,” I lied, “it tastes good.”

“Go wash your face.” He pushed me away roughly.

Somehow, I got to my feet and made it to the bathroom. If I hadn’t been so drunk and hadn’t just been through something awful, I might have been more in awe of everything so readily provided. I scrubbed my face with a washcloth until my skin was pink and rinsed the sour taste from my mouth. When I returned to the table, I found he had poured me another glass of whiskey and I devoured it, wanting to remember nothing of this night.

This is why I would never drink again.

In retrospect, two glasses of whiskey was a bad idea. He had to help me to the bed since I could hardly walk. He lay me back against the pillows and kissed me. I was too drunk to lift my arms and stop him. I tried to mentally put myself elsewhere, but as he undid the buttons on my vest and my mind said ‘no’, that was hard. I tried to imagine it was a girl – maybe Norma – kissing me, but his facial hair scratching my skin made that impossible.

“There’s not much to you, is there?” Mr. Salas asked as his hands slid into my now open shirt, fingers dancing along my ribs like they were piano keys.

I shook my head, which still swam with whiskey. My tongue felt heavy and I couldn’t say anything.

“I should have never given you that second glass. You’re quite the lightweight.”

My eyes blinked closed and my head fell to the side. I felt his hands, his lips, heard his words. “Does that feel good?”

My mind was screaming. Inwardly, I was cussing him out and telling him to stop – that I did not want to do this. In my ideal scenario of how this played out, I hauled off and punched him violently before leaving the room. Outwardly, the drink made me unable to fight it, unable to even speak and my hands felt strangely numb.

“How about that?”

Stop!

“You’re so pretty.”

Don’t!

“You like this, don’t you?”

No! I couldn’t even vocalize anything and only a sigh of defeat escaped my lips. I honestly don’t remember anything after that. The next thing I do remember was waking up in the middle of the night with his arm draped over me. I moved it and slid out of bed. I staggered to the bathroom where the light was so bright it hurt my eyes as I turned it on. Closing the door and leaning against the cool wood, I sighed. There was a mirror to the side of me up above the sink, but I couldn’t look at myself. I felt sick and made it to the toilet just in time.

A knock at the door. “You okay in there?”

“Fine…” I managed to say weakly.

“Come back to bed, pretty boy.”

No…I couldn’t…not again. But I had to. What did it matter at this point? He had already taken…wait...no, I should be in a considerable amount of pain if that happened and I wasn’t. Had we…? I hated not remembering. I rinsed my mouth out before making my way back to the rumpled sheets and sliding between them. He pulled me close to him and it took an unbelievable amount of willpower not to push him away.

“You shouldn’t drink so much. You’re probably going to have one hell of a hangover tomorrow.”

That was the least of my concerns as he started kissing me again. My head was still fuzzy, but I was able to speak when he pulled away. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

“I haven’t done that to you yet. I wasn’t about to take your virginity while you were unconscious.” He got really close and whispered in my ear. “You enjoyed what I did do to you though.”

I could have gone my entire life without knowing that. I had wasted my one damn tear on a kiss. If I started crying now, I would never stop, so I fought back the stinging sensation behind my eyes. I raised my hands up as he started kissing my neck.

“You’d better be doing that because you plan to put your arms around me. You know what might happen if you push me away.”

What else could I do? We were going to lose the house if I didn’t, so I hugged him reluctantly and he held me closer. “Aren’t you the affectionate one?”

Affection was not what I was feeling for this man right now. “Is this going to hurt?”

“I’ll be gentle with you and I’ll use something to ease the pain, but yes, it’s going to hurt some. Are you scared?”

I looked away, refusing to answer.

Mr. Salas pressed his fingers against my cheek, turning my head so I had no choice to look in his uncaring eyes. “I asked you a question.”

I only managed to nod as my resolve shattered to pieces and hot tears filled my eyes. I’m usually much stronger…I think the alcohol had something to do with it. It was the first time I’d ever broken the One Tear Rule. “Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t do this.”

“I think I misheard you, pretty boy. It almost sounded like you were telling me stop, but if you recall, you don’t have that right.” His fingers dug into my shoulders as he pressed his body closer. “Now, stop crying and relax.”

“But…I…”

“You need to stop talking now, got it?”

“Please…I’ll do anything else, anything! Just…not this…please…”

I saw the rage in his eyes as his hand left my shoulder and covered my mouth. “Stop talking and stop crying. You agreed to this. Do you want to lose your house, huh? You want to see your family on the streets? Do I have to hurt you?”

I shook my head. He was right – I had agreed to it. I was his for the night…this was the bargain my mother – and I – had made with him. He removed his hand from my mouth and kissed me again. I hated that especially when his mouth found my neck because he liked to bite for some reason. But then, I hated the whole thing. As his hands slid down my body, I thought about the time when I was still dating Norma. We had wanted so badly to give into our passions, but knew it could be disastrous if she ended up pregnant. I didn’t have the money for us to be safe about it, so we never did anything beyond kissing. I regretted that now as Mr. Salas pressed his hands against the back of my thighs. Why didn’t Norma and I just throw caution to the wind and hope like crazy the worst didn’t happen? Because the truth was, getting a girl pregnant was not the worst thing that could happen. THIS was – right here. My eyes still stung with tears and my lungs shuddered with deep, scared breaths.

It didn’t matter that he used whatever it was that was supposed to make it easier, if he even did, or that he was gentle, which he really wasn’t, it hurt. I mean, it really hurt and I clenched my teeth together to keep from crying out. My hands tightly grabbed the sheets on the bed as I waited – as I silently pleaded – for it to be over. When it finally was, I lay there seething in the dark. He had taken something from me…something I could never get back. I detested this whole situation, but especially hated the way he curled his sweaty, hairy body around mine as if cuddling me and kissing me was going to make it better.

“You’re so good. I love you, pretty boy.”

That was not okay. Those were not words to be spoken lightly. To him I was nothing – nothing – except a whore…someone he could use to dump his filthy seed in and then push away in the morning. He had said something similar in a much vulgar way as he’d been screwing me. I had been called many things, but ‘nothing’ was a first. It was like I didn’t exist…like I was invisible. He certainly did not love me. “You don’t even know my name.”

“Guess what?” Mr. Salas whispered in my ear. “You’re not a virgin anymore.”

I wanted to punch him in the face. As if this physical torture hadn’t been enough now he was toying with me mentally and emotionally. Gone was any chance that my first time would be special when it was absolutely right. No, my first time would be forever remembered with pain and blood. It would be intertwined with the moment I was broken beyond repair. I felt like my soul had shattered into a million pieces and in this act he’d left me a shadow of my former self.

I honestly don’t know how I fell asleep – I suppose the alcohol had something to do with it.
However, I got only a couple more hours of sleep before he woke me for a second round. Disoriented from being jolted back to reality and still sore, I pushed him away and moaned something that sounded like “no” but even I couldn’t be sure.

My head whipped to the side and pain exploded against my cheek as I was backhanded. “That better have been a momentary lapse in judgment, pretty boy!”

Now wide awake, I simply nodded, stunned. My voice failed me and I was forced to endure it again. I buried my face in the pillow for minutes at a time, only turning my head when I couldn’t breathe, when the room began to spin and I thought I might pass out. Just finish…please, just finish and be done with me, I begged silently. After an eternity I finally felt his muscles go rigid behind me as he quivered, grabbing my arms too tightly, pressed up to me too close and let out a low groan. I kept my face in the pillow. Maybe I would stop breathing. Maybe I would die. Death couldn’t be as bad as this.

I’ve spent years trying to forget and when I do remember, I try and convince myself that I consented to it. ‘Consensual violation’ I call it…as if that even makes sense. Consent is a funny thing. Is it consent if at first you say yes, but then you’re so drunk you can’t move? Is it consent when your mind is continuously screaming for it to stop, but you’re too scared to say anything? Is it consent when the only reason you’re there is stop another terrible something from happening? Was it consent when circumstances had forced me into a corner and there was nothing – NOTHING – I could do, but sleep with him in hopes that he’d forgive our debt. The legality of it was pretty black and white – I had agreed to it. I didn’t fight; I didn’t intentionally push him away. Legally, it wasn’t a crime against me. In my mind though, I knew what it was and I couldn’t bring myself to even think of the word...I still can’t. A woman would have a tough time getting sympathy…a man, well, THAT doesn’t happen to men.

The next morning, the sunlight hurt my eyes and my head was pounding. My mouth felt so dry and I didn’t want to move. So this was a hangover…why did people choose to drink, again? Mr. Salas was in front of the mirror, fully dressed, adjusting his tie. Where the hell were my clothes?

“Finally awake, pretty boy?” He crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed. Reaching out, he stroked my hair gently. “I was very pleased with you last night.”

This meant I’d earned my family the house, but it did nothing to ease the trauma. “Thank you, sir.”

“I would gladly pay to do this again. Would you like that? Earn a little extra for your family?”

Anger stirred in my mind again and I pulled away from his touch. He’d bought me for a night – it was now day. “I am not a common prostitute, Mr. Salas! I have morals and I would never do that!”

He chuckled, clearly amused. “If you’re going to enter the world of business, pretty boy, you’d better get rid of those morals.” Mr. Salas squeezed my shoulder. “You can use the shower if you want.”

Good idea. The thought of going home and taking a cold bath was unappealing. As I finally gathered the courage to look in the mirror, I saw my once neat hair was messed up and I had marks all over my neck where his mouth had been. I touched my cheek where he had hit me, wincing as my fingers probed the bruised flesh. I was disgraced…shamed…and turned away from the mirror in disgust wanting nothing more than to wash away his scent and touch.

It was my first time ever using a shower and the hot water felt like heaven. The shampoo and soap they provided smelled divine. I knew I could get used to something like this if ever given the chance. I scrubbed my skin hard as though trying to wash away the shame though I wondered if anything could truly erase the stench of the sinful ways he’d played with me. When I was done, I dried myself off with the fluffiest towel I had ever felt. It was unnerving having Mr. Salas watch me pick my clothes up off the floor and get dressed as he sat at the table, smoking a cigarette. I tried to avoid looking at the bed with its rumpled white cotton sheets stained with spots of blood…my blood.

When I was finished, he beckoned me over with his hand. “Sit down, pretty boy.”

I did so, in the same seat where I had eaten the night before. I kept my hands in my lap, refusing to look at him. My eyes flickered over to papers, neatly folded and laying on the table.

“I want to thank you for your company last night. I’ve brought with me the deed to your family’s house and it’s yours if you want. However, as I said, I can be very generous when I want to be, so I’m prepared to make you a new deal.” He slid another piece of paper onto the table. It was a check for more money than I had ever seen at one time. It was a drop in the bucket to him and within a year’s time, it would be to me too. At the time though, it was enough that we probably could have caught up on at least some of the house payment, or maybe found another place to rent, perhaps even with some left over for food or warmer clothes. “Though I was mostly pleased, I had a few disappointments with you as well, so you may take one. Either the house so you can go back to your family and your life on the farm. Or, you can take the check and have your chance to prove me and all the other rich bastards out there wrong.”

I knew what I should do, after all, my family needed the house – we required shelter. But…but that money…oh, that money! What I could do with all that. My mother’s voice resounded in my head – “think of the family”, “selfish”, “sacrifice for the family”, “greedy”, “greedy”, “greedy”. Those things I’d constantly been told – to not think of myself, but of the family. I felt it, an actual snap in my mind as colors of green danced across my eyes. If I was going to be greedy, I was going to be the greediest bastard my mom had ever seen. I reached out my hand and pointed to the check.

“I thought as much.” Mr. Salas scribbled my name on the check when I told him what it was and handed it to me. “Don’t disappoint me. Work on that ‘morals’ thing. And whatever you do, don’t think this will buy you happiness.”

I’d just cost my family our house, but I’d gained my future. Later I would go home and tell my mother Mr. Salas had gone back on his deal. Her look of devastation would almost make me want to share the money with them…almost…but no. It was MINE. She asked if he had hurt me. I simply nodded my head yes. She pressed me for details.

“I’m really not up for giving you a play-by-play of everything that happened,” I told her. Those were the last words I’d speak to anyone for four days. My brothers thought the marks on my neck were from some woman and tried to congratulate me or make fun of me in a playful way. I never told them, so unless Mom did, they still don’t know what happened.

I wouldn’t smile for weeks, even when my aunt and uncle showed up in response to my mother’s letter and invited us to stay with them. On the rare occasions I was alone, I’d take the check out and look at it, count the zeros…I didn’t smile again until that money had bought a wagon and mule for me to leave and find my future.

However, that decision I made…to betray my family…that haunted me even more the events of that night. If I hadn’t done it, I’d still be stuck there probably. All of this – everything I have now – I pretty much owe to that decision. Sometimes I think it would be better to just be poor again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 – Kintsugi

It was long after things had gone quiet for the night and she had nothing to do that she was able to reflect on his story. Afterwards, she’d simply been in shock at what he’d had to go through and finally understood the root of his greed. He didn’t just want money – he felt he was owed it. He had missed out on a happy childhood, chances to better himself and finally had to do something no one ever wanted to do just to survive. The world had taken so much from him in his first twenty years that he felt the world should pay him back for everything he’d lost and perhaps that would help fill the void inside him caused by the sins and greed of the rich…except, now he had become just like them. She couldn’t completely blame him though – if her parents had ever sold her to someone, even if she’d ‘consented’ to it – she’d probably have made the same decision. The element of generosity…she thought sarcastically.

She’d sat with him for the longest time, just letting him cry, finally gathering the courage to put an arm around him. He didn’t protest this and she figured he wasn’t opposed to a soft, feminine touch. She got him a bag of ice for his face, but the damage seemed already done. “Do you want to go to the hospital? Or at least set up a doctor’s appointment tomorrow?”

“No,” he answered softly.

“You should go to the police. You should report this and have him arrested.”

“No. No one is to know about this.” He was still shaking and crying as if all those tears he hadn’t been allowed to shed before were breaking free. Finally, he told her he wanted to sleep and asked her to bring some pills from his medicine cabinet. When she located them she realized they were the powerful pain killers still left over from when he’d had his wisdom teeth removed.

Rarity brought him one along with a glass of water. “One tonight, none tomorrow. Tonight you need this, but I don’t want you dependent on them.”

For good measure, she’d later hide them deep in one of his kitchen cabinets under a large, ornate bowl she figured never got used considering the dust on it. She didn’t want to risk him getting addicted – or worse, taking them all at once and never waking up.

Onceler would not sleep in his bed. “It smells like him…”

Not only that, but considering the stains from blood and…other things…well, Rarity didn’t blame him. To her surprise, the couch actually folded out into a bed. She wished she’d known that the night she’d spent curled up on it. She made sure he had pillows and a blanket taken from extras in the closet – not from the bed – then sat there stroking his hair until he was finally dragged down into a deep sleep.

What a night.

After putting the sheets in the washer, she cleaned up the glass and whiskey from the kitchen floor, then the glass from the bathroom. It was late – or early – nearly four in the morning when she finally was too tired to do anything else. She noticed a dark stain on the bare mattress and thought about turning it over but she didn’t have the strength.

Not wanting to sleep in her clothes and needing to get her annoying bra off of her, Rarity searched through his pajama drawer, finally finding a pair of pants stretchy enough to fit over her cursed child-bearing hips though they were still snug and a t-shirt that was probably too big for him but fit her aside from the chest where it was strained. Why did he have the luxury of being so skinny and she was ridiculously curvy?

The couch bed was big enough for her to sleep on the other side without touching him. His breathing was slow and steady – that of someone in a deep slumber devoid of dreams. This was good because his dreams likely would not be pleasant tonight. In any other circumstances, she might feel bad about sleeping in the same bed with an engaged man. However, he and Stephanie didn’t care about each other, he was Rarity’s boyfriend and nothing was going to happen between them besides literal sleeping together.

As she drifted off, she thought about the counselor she had seen and how she still had the card in her purse. She had been told to call any time if she needed help dealing with her own trauma. Rarity made a mental note to call in the morning to see if this lady would talk to Onceler. She wasn’t sure how her boyfriend would take it – actually, no she did – he’d be very resistant, but he needed more help than she could give.

A woman would have a tough time getting sympathy…a man, well, THAT doesn’t happen to men.

How wrong he obviously was. It had happened to him and he refused to even acknowledge it…to call this crime what it was. He needed – and deserved – compassion, understanding and sympathy, but expected judgment and ridicule instead. He needed someone to confide in who wouldn’t – couldn’t, actually – betray his trust and would keep everything private. He desperately needed therapy and not just because of his interactions with Mr. Salas. She sensed there were family issues he needed to talk about, for instance, why they had a need for a One Tear Rule, which, in her opinion, was asinine. And his mother – ugh – well, he could probably take up a year of weekly counseling sessions discussing Isabella.

She didn’t remember falling asleep but when she woke up, sunlight was streaming through the window above the couch and she stretched. Looking around, she saw Onceler standing near his bed, just gazing at it, his expression stoic. As she got out of the fold away bed, she made sure the shirt she was wearing was pulled down. She was certain her hair was a mess, but she didn’t care. She walked over to her boyfriend and gently took his arm. “I’m sorry; I should have flipped the mattress.”

“I need a new bed anyway.” His eyes broke away from the mattress with its dark stain and he looked around the apartment. “In fact, I think this apartment is too small for two people and I’m tired of living in the factory. I should have my own house built.”

Perhaps he’d been thinking about this for a while, and the events of the previous night were simply the final push, but Rarity also knew that staying in the place where he’d been hurt could very well be the entire reason for this plan.

Then, Onceler turned his attention to her and her too-small choice of pajamas.

“Sorry, but I needed something to sleep in. I know they’re a bit clingy.”

“Why didn’t you wear a thneed?”

“They can be pajamas?”

“Rarity, you’ve worked here a year. They have a million uses.” He rummaged through the closet and pulled one out. “I need to smoke. You can take a shower and put that on. I’d…I’d like it if you’d stay a while.”

She did as he asked, quickly showering, covering herself in that spicy scent she’d come to love on him and then remembering that thneeds were also super absorbent, dried her hair with it, letting the natural fibers soak up the moisture until her indigo locks were soft and curly again. Then, she wrung it out until the thneed itself was dry. Honestly, she’d never used one before, but now saw its appeal as she wrapped it around her body in such a way as to form a cute sleeveless dress that reached to her mid-thigh. Okay, she thought, he deserves his money for thinking of this. This is fabulous.

At least, she thought it was cute, but there was no mirror in the bathroom anymore. There was a full length mirror in his office. She opened the door to leave, but only a crack before she heard Isabella’s voice. That damn woman. Could Rarity use a thneed to strangle her?

“Don’t blame me for your choices, son. You’re the one who set up a meeting with him knowing what he was like and why did you leave the damn door open anyway? I thought you were smarter than that…or maybe you wanted it to happen. You having unnatural thoughts about men, Oncie?”

“I didn’t. I told him to stop.”

“Well, then, you should have closed the door. This is your own damn fault. If you need to cry, one tear, that’s it.”

“There aren’t any left.”

“Well, then I don’t want to hear anymore about it. It’s in the past – time to get over it and move on.”

This bitch was unbelievable. First she agrees to sell her own child to a sadist, then when he’s attacked, she blames him. Yes, Rarity was about to take off the thneed, run out there naked and strangle Isabella with it.

Not caring anymore about how she looked, she closed the door quietly. Isabella did not need to know she was there. She didn’t want his mother getting on his case about that too. She only had to wait moments before he came back inside, shivering and smelling like cigarettes. “It’s freezing outside.”

“It’s January. And I doubt it’s freezing because it’s not been cold enough to snow.” She knew why too – all the smog from the factory trapped heat in the valley. It was cold, but couldn’t get to freezing.

“You look cute.”

“Do you want something to eat?”

“No.”

Rarity didn’t understand people who didn’t eat when they were depressed. Whenever she was having a hard time – even after Brad – she wanted ice cream and cookies and all things fattening and delicious to soothe the pain. But for her boyfriend, who boasted he could eat ‘twenty flipping pancakes’ on any given morning, not eating was unusual. “Not even pancakes?”

His stomach betrayed him with a weak growl. “Maybe I could eat a pancake or two.”

Or twenty.

In half an hour they were sitting down to a breakfast of pancakes and eggs and hot chocolate – with marshmallows, of course. She let him eat a bit before speaking. “I heard what your mother said to you. Don’t believe her. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I just want to forget it happened.”

“That doesn’t work and you know that because you haven’t been able to forget what he did to you before. What are you going do when you have to meet with him again?”

“I don’t know…” he replied softly.

“I’m going to suggest something; please be open-minded. After Brad tried to rape me…”

“Please don’t use that word.”

“No, I will, because that’s almost what happened to me.” She wanted to tell him plainly that, despite his pretending and skirting around the issue, that’s what had happened to him, too, but that could cause more harm than good right now. “Anyway, I knew I couldn’t move on by myself, so I talked with a counselor who helped me.”

He didn’t respond, but the way he averted his gaze from her told her his mind was probably closing to this idea.

“Counselors have to keep things private – they can’t tell anyone and they’re very non-judgmental. They have training to help you move on – really move on, not just cover it up or pretend it didn’t happen – and I think it would be a good idea if you saw one.”

“Rarity, I’m not telling a complete stranger what happened to me. Men don’t discuss their feelings with people.”

“Maybe that needs to change.”

“I’m not crazy.”

“I know that. People who seek therapy often aren’t, but they do need someone to help them and there’s no shame in asking for help. It doesn’t make you weak or any less of man or any old-fashioned idea that might be going through your head right now.”

“Rarity…”

“Once, I care about you and I want to help, but I don’t know how, other than to suggest that you see a counselor for one session. Just go one time and if you really don’t like it and you don’t think it’ll help, you don’t have to go again. I can set the appointment for you.”

“Fine, do it.”

To her surprise, when she later called, the counselor not only remembered her, but when she explained the circumstances, agreed to meet with them later that afternoon. Reluctantly, he got dressed in a full suit like he always wore, complete with his security gloves and a different pair of sparkly blue shades than he’d worn the night before. Onceler and Rarity spent the car ride in silence on the way to the counselor’s office. In fact, it wasn’t until they were in the office, face to face with the counselor who introduced herself as Diane that Onceler finally said something as he turned to Rarity. “You didn’t tell me she was a woman.”

Rarity sighed. “What possible difference could it make? Besides, women are generally more compassionate than men, so please, just go.”

He’d hated this whole idea, but now he wanted nothing more than to get out of there. However, he’d promised Rarity, so he followed Diane into a room within the office. There was a red couch with multiple throw pillows. What was it with women and throw pillows?

“Please, sit down.” She sat in a plush chair as he perched on the edge of the couch as though he were about to leave at any moment. “I like my patients to be comfortable when they talk to me. Keeping with comfort, I like to be on a first name basis, so may I ask you yours?”

That wasn’t comfortable – that was too personal to divulge to a stranger. He stared at his folded hands, saying nothing, making it so quiet in the office that he could hear the gentle ticking of his pocket watch through the fabric of his coat.

“You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but it would be a better use of our time if you said something.”

“I told my girlfriend I would meet with you and, to shut her up, I came. Sharing was not part of the deal.”

“Rarity told me what happened to you last night.”

Anger boiled in him. “She had no right to do that.”

“She cares about you and is concerned. I want you to know you don’t have to talk to me about that if you don’t want to. You should know this is a safe place and anything said here stays between the two of us. Because you’re an adult, I don’t even have to report this to the police – that’s your decision. I know because of your status you must be very worried, but you have my assurance that no one will ever know what we discuss except you and me.”

“But you want me to talk about that. Rarity wants me to talk about that.”

“What do you want?”

“To forget, maybe. To turn back time and lock the damn door so he couldn’t get in.”

“You know it wasn’t your fault, right?”

“Yes, it was. I left the door open. I knew what he was like…I knew what he wanted…and I left the door open.”

“And he should have never entered. He should have respected your space; he should have respected you and I’m so sorry he didn’t. However, even if you had invited him in, it would not have given him the right to do what he did. No one has any right to do anything to you that you don’t want and when you told him – I’m assuming you told him no…” she paused so he could nod, “he should have listened and stopped. I know it’s hard to believe right now, but I promise if you let me help you, you will begin the healing process, you will be able to move on and eventually you will realize that it was not your fault.”

Damn it…Rarity was right. As much as he hated to admit it, just hearing those words helped in some small amount. He didn’t give much thought to female professionals, but in this instance, it felt right since he’d always known most women had much more compassion and empathy than a lot of men he knew. Slowly, he removed his glasses as a sign that she had in fact gained some of his trust and, though it was difficult, he told her about what had happened…not everything, not every detail…but just what he felt he could manage to get out at the time. Even though most of what she did was listen, it honestly felt nice to be able to just express what he was feeling and when she did speak, she had good advice.

“Before you go, I want you to take a good look at this.” She handed him a porcelain bowl with gold lines running across it. “What do you notice about it?”

He turned it over in his gloved hand. “Well, it’s nice.” What did she want? What was he supposed to notice? He traced one of the lines with his thumb then realized something. “It’s been broken.”

“It’s called kintsugi. It’s a technique of fixing pottery. Porcelain is valuable and people wouldn’t want to just throw that away, so they came up with the solution of putting the pieces back together with gold. The bowl isn’t the same as it once was, but it’s whole again and it’s still beautiful…perhaps more beautiful than it was before.”

“So being broken didn’t end the usefulness of the bowl – it’s just something that happened to it.”

“You’re beginning to see where I’m going with this. You told me you felt like he shattered your soul. I want to help put you back together again with kintsugi. Some damage leaves scars, but it doesn’t have to destroy you. You won’t be the same – ever – that’s the truth, but you will go on and you will be stronger for it and this experience will be something that happened in your life instead of something that rules it and defines you. That’s the beauty of therapy.”

Just go one time and if you really don’t like it and you don’t think it’ll help, you don’t have to go again.

Oh, Rarity…when was he going to stop fighting her when obviously she knew best sometimes? He turned to the counselor. “So, when would you like to see me again?”

*

Come the following week, there were whispered questions he heard around the office wondering what had happened to him, although no one would come right out and ask directly. Not that he would offer up any information that personal. Even Rarity would deny knowing anything when busybodies asked her. “He won’t tell me either and it’s not related to the company so it’s none of my business,” she’d tell them. While he felt bad that she had to lie, he was grateful for her discretion.

He kept his shades on to cover most of the damage to his face and was thankful only he’d seen the bruises on his arms and hips. Eventually, his physical injuries would heal, but he knew he had a lot of therapy ahead of him to deal with the emotional trauma of not only that night, but five years ago. He sighed as he opened his cigarette case to find only eight laying in there now. What a time to stop smoking.

Actually, with how busy he was, he didn’t notice at first the hours between cigarettes growing longer when there were only eight left and then seven. By the week there were only six, however, he’d find himself stressed and desperate to have something in his hands and between his teeth to distract him from the pressures crushing him. Not only was he running the factory, but now he had to juggle between calls and official letters from both Mr. Carter and Mr. Salas. He’d divulged to Carter what was going on – that he had agreed to help Mr. Salas only to further their original plans and they’d shared a quick laugh over it. No, when they were done, this man who had tried to destroy him would never screw with anyone’s lives again.

He’d had plans drafted for a house adjacent to the factory and work began the end of January. Rarity commented the three-story design didn’t seem possible, but actually, he knew he’d made it structurally sound. He hoped Stephanie would like it, but actually, he hadn’t even heard from his fiancée in a while…not since the New Year’s gala. He wanted a way out of this engagement. Not only that, even with therapy, he wasn’t sure he was ready for sexual contact…he wasn’t sure he’d even be ready in a year. Would Stephanie even expect that on their wedding night or would she push him away and make him sleep on the couch or something? He was oddly okay with that.

At least he found the presence of women in his life comforting. He had no problem when Rarity touched his shoulder or hugged him. Her softness and the delicate, candy-like smell of whatever shampoo or perfume she used were more than welcome around him. He’d even kissed her again, pushing aside the memory of forced kisses with delicious ones of mutual affection.

Finally, on the fifth week of the year, he heard from Stephanie. Rarity came into his office after six to tell him she was here. He was dead tired and while his right hand was occupied with a pen, his left hand ached for something to hold…something he could slide between his teeth and inhale to get his nicotine fix. His fingers twitched, tapped on the desk slowly…the nerve connections and feeling coming back little by little each day…he curled them inward – he still couldn’t make a fist, but the hand was getting better…better enough to hold a cigarette, but he only had one left and, damn it, he wanted to hold off to smoke it until just before he retreated to his apartment for the night.

“Your fiancée is here,” Rarity told him.

“Did she say what she wanted?”

“No, but it looks like she brought food.”

He tapped his fingers on the desk to no particular rhythm. “I guess I could see her for a bit.”

“Is your hand okay?”

“Yes.” His right hand had a death grip on his pen, but he couldn’t write anymore. He flung it on the desk and spit out that un-gentlemanly word that made Rarity roll her eyes. “I want a cigarette, damn it!”

Rarity, who always seemed to be more understanding with him than he deserved, took his hand and kissed it before squeezing reassuringly. “I know you’re stressed and it’s hard, but you’re doing a good job and I’m proud of you for quitting.”

And his hand stopped twitching and shaking. Almost without thinking about it, he bent his fingers inward gently squeezing her fingers. Suddenly, that cigarette didn’t seem so important anymore. He wished he could eat with Rarity, but apparently Stephanie wanted some kind of dinner date…or something…she was a strange woman. “Thank you, Rarity. Show Stephanie in, please.”

A minute or so later, his fiancée walked in, her shoulder-length blonde hair gleaming under the office lights. She had a bag in her hand and her clothes were a casual blue sweater and denim bell-bottoms. “Hello,” she said simply as she stood in front of the desk.

“Good evening, Stephanie. Please, sit. To what do I owe the pleasure of…”

“Okay, we’re the same age, so can the whole ‘gentleman’ talk. I came to bring you a peace offering and apologize for that meeting we had. I said some things that were mean and untrue. I still don’t want to marry you, but considering we’re stuck, maybe we could have dinner and work on that ‘friends’ thing.”

He had been so busy he hadn’t eaten lunch and his stomach rumbled reminding him of that fact. “I could take a break from my work.” He used the intercom to tell Rarity she could take a break to eat as well if she wanted.

“I never eat at my desk – too many important papers,” he explained. “Follow me.”

Part of him was nervous about inviting a stranger into his apartment, but Stephanie was a woman, after all, so he pushed that small amount of nerves aside as he let her in then made sure the door was securely shut.

“Why the hell am I here?” Stephanie’s gaze was on the bed. “What do you think is going to happen?”

“This is where I live. The kitchen is this way. What did you think was going to happen?”

“Considering your reputation, I wasn’t sure.”

“None of that stuff is true.”

“So I’m not going to bump into the clone you have hidden away tied up to a stripper pole?”

“Oh, so now my clone-slash-sex slave is confined to a stripper pole? What the hell kind of freak makes up these tabloid stories? I don’t have a clone – I don’t so much as have a twin – and I’ve never even been with a woman.” He felt his cheeks grow warm. Why had he offered up that information?

“Really?” Stephanie went to work setting out take out containers of Chinese food on the counter. “Well, I kind of lied about sleeping with hundreds of men.”

“I figured that probably wasn’t true.”

“I’ve never been with a man.”

Onceler set plates and silverware on the table. “I think we’ve just realized our wedding night will be sufficiently awkward.”

“You don’t have any food allergies, do you?”

“No, but I hate peanut butter or anything that tastes like it.”

“Good, I’m allergic to peanuts.” She sat down across from him and broke her wooden chopsticks apart.

Onceler removed his gloves before he started eating. He’d only had Chinese food once when Rarity had ordered it for them. He should have invited Rarity to eat with them.

“Why do you wear gloves all the time?”

“Why do you ask so many questions?”

“It’s just a little strange.” She caught sight of his left hand with its red and still-healing scar running across the back of it and another by his wrist that went up to disappear under the sleeve of his coat.

“Does that disgust you? I promise it gets worse.”

“No, it’s fine. I knew there was an accident; I just hadn’t heard how serious it was. “

“No one outside the family has seen it…not even Rarity.”

“Speaking of Rarity, you two are still dating?”

“Yes, but now it’s complicated because I find myself engaged.”

Stephanie sat back in her chair with a thoughtful look on her face. “And you like her a lot?”

“I would say so, yes.”

“And you don’t want to marry me?”

“I believe I’ve made that clear.”

She smirked. “Do you remember what the matchmaker said about the contract? If you or I find someone within a year that we love and want to marry, then our contact can be broken.”

Onceler did recall hearing that, but hadn’t given much thought to it. “Rarity and I are not even close to talking about getting married much less actually going through with it.”

“But you have the rest of the year and you have my total permission and support to keep dating her.”

“What about you? You must have your pick of eligible young men.”

Stephanie shrugged. “They don’t interest me. Unfortunately, anyone I fell in love with I would not be allowed to marry.”

“Why wouldn’t you be allowed to marry them?”

“Because I prefer girls.”

It took Onceler a moment to process that. “I’m sorry; I’m confused.”

Stephanie leaned in and spoke slowly. “I. Like. Girls.”

“That’s…kind of unnatural…so wait, when you said you’ve never been with a man…have you…” his eyebrows raised at that possibility. “Hmm…how would that even work?”

“Use your imagination. Anyway, I’m not at all interested in marrying a guy, sleeping with him or having his children. I’d prefer to marry and go to bed with a woman.”

“You and me both.”

“So I take it then your comment about sleeping with men was a lie.”

I left the door open…

Damn it!

He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t lie; besides, he might still end up married to this woman. “I…um…”

“Nothing to be ashamed of – we’ve all experimented.”

“I didn’t…” Onceler took a deep breath as he scraped his fork across his plate nervously. “I’ve…it was…I was…” No, he still couldn’t bring himself to say that word. “It wasn’t consensual.”

Stephanie gasped quietly in surprise. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of…that.”

“You didn’t know…not a lot of people know. It’s not exactly something I broadcast.”

“I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thank you and I appreciate dinner tonight. I do need to get back to work though.”

Stephanie began helping him box up the leftovers. “So, are you going to be one of those work-a-holic husbands I never see?”

“I don’t know. Are you going to be one of those wives who has my dinner on the table by six? Because, if so, then I’ll be home. Otherwise I’ll be here carrying on with my hot personal assistant.”

“Considering you live like twenty steps away from your desk, it shouldn’t be hard to have dinner together every night.”

“We won’t be living here. I’m having a house built next to the factory. It should be ready sometime in the spring if everything goes according to plan.”

Stephanie nodded. “A house. That’s nice.”

“With several bedrooms for those ten kids I want.”

She laughed. “I hope you plan on having those ten kids yourself, so good luck with that.”

He almost hated to admit it, but that ‘friends’ thing might work out between them after all.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 – The Last Good Day

Onceler went out to dinner with Stephanie on Valentine’s Day to keep up appearances as an engaged couple, but then the two of them met up with Rarity for dessert and sparkling cider in his apartment.

“No champagne?” Stephanie asked.

“I don’t drink,” he said.

“You have like four things of whiskey up there.”

“Those were gifts,” Rarity explained. “Gifts from someone I’m sure he’d like to return them to by lubing them up well and shoving them up that person’s butt.”

“Rarity, please!” Onceler exclaimed as though shocked, but then added: “What makes you think I’d use lube?”

It was later on when they were alone that Rarity sat with him on the couch and leaned against him. “How are you doing? How are your visits with Diane going?”

He intertwined his fingers with hers and ran his thumb along the skin of her hand. “She’s helping me, but I have a long way to go. I replaced my bed and all, but even being in my apartment is hard. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have to see him again. I should have never gotten involved with this whole thing.”

“So, you are the one helping Mr. Carter take over National Bank?”

“By giving him advice, yes. The man would not be smart enough to do this on his own. He hasn’t told me, but I’m pretty sure he has a similar past with Salas and there are rumors that National Bank is doing a lot of shady business practices. Carter has someone from First Country working in National to try and get information, but they’ve never been able to get close enough to Salas to even try.”

“And that’s why you agreed to help Mr. Salas.”

Onceler nodded. “Because I can get close enough to him to find out most likely. The problem is I want nothing to do with him…especially not after what happened last month.”

“Will he leave you alone after this?”

“That is what I asked for in return for helping him, so he had better and he better not try anything while we are working together. I plan for most of our communication to be through phone and mail, but I’m sure at some point, I’ll have to face him. Hopefully it’ll be when Carter and I tell him he’s done and he has no choice but to let First Country take over.”

“So…what has Mr. Carter offered you in exchange for your help?”

“He’s helping me fund the groundbreaking of a new project I hope to get started this year. Not that I couldn’t fund it myself, of course, but…” he paused unsure if he should tell Rarity. No, it was fine. She knew how to keep a secret. “I want to start the development of a new city – a more modern one than Greenville – with paved roads instead of cobblestone and more updated houses.”

“Tree-lined streets?”

“Why would they need trees in a modern city?”

“Because they not only look nice but help produce fresh air, which will be kind of important if you have a bunch of people living there with their cars and other vehicles. Not to mention the smog from the factory has made the air quality fairly poor outside.”

“Oh, Rarity, you worry too much. I’ve been thinking it should have one of those shopping malls instead of a bunch of little independent shops.”

“But then what would happen to the smaller shops in Greenville?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it…I guess I don’t really care. It’s not like Greenville would cease to exist – they’d still be there. Or, they could relocate to Thneedville.”

Was he actually serious right now? “Thneedville?”

“Great name, isn’t it?”

“I am so glad I’m dating a guy who doesn’t have a huge ego,” Rarity said sarcastically.

“Very funny, Rarity, but seriously, this is a great idea. I mean, think about it – helping this area catch up with the modernization of the rest of the world.”

“It might be nice to have a modern city around…I guess…”

“Of course it would.”

Rarity actually thought it was horrible idea and would ruin the quaint charm of nearby Greenville, but she had no desire to argue with her boyfriend especially not on Valentine’s Day.
She knew she couldn’t possibly talk him out of the idea, but maybe she could gently encourage him to consider combining modernization with past charm. Wait? Why did she even care so much? She was forgetting something again…what was it? She felt him gently kiss the top of her head, his gloved thumb still stroking the skin of her hand and suddenly didn’t even care what it was she had forgotten.

* * *

“Rarity, why is there only one cigarette in my case?”

“Because this is the last week,” she told him matter-of-factly. “Next week there will be none.”

Onceler bit his tongue to keep from saying that four-letter word and turned the cigarette over in his fingers. “I’m not sure whether to smoke this now or at the end of the day…”

“Well, you’re usually more stressed by the end of the day. Besides, if you wait, then I might let you kiss me before I give you your schedule…”

“Later it is. Come here, you.”

Rarity walked behind the desk and put her arms around him. She deeply inhaled the spicy smell of the body wash he’d used that morning, which seemed to mingle perfectly with the coffee she’d placed on his desk. The way he kissed her, deeply and passionately made her tingle as his gloved hands slid across her back. His fingers stopped momentarily at the band of her bra feeling it through her blouse before continuing down to the small of her back so he could pull her closer. Gosh, she was so glad he hadn’t chosen to smoke that cigarette so she could enjoy the taste of spearmint on him. She allowed her fingers to travel upwards into his soft hair and twist themselves among his ebony strands. She trailed her manicured fingernails down his neck causing him to shudder.

“I’m sorry…”

“For what?”

“Did that bring back bad memories?”

“No it…it actually felt good.”

That shudder was from pleasure, she realized. Boldly, Rarity kissed him again and used her nails to circle patterns into the back of his neck. His fingers squeezed the fabric of her blouse as waves of delight shot through him. She grinned a little wickedly as she felt something pressing against her.

“We’d better stop or I’m going to have to clear my desk,” he whispered in her ear.

Rarity tipped her head back and laughed. “You wish you were that lucky.”

As he sat down again and she pulled out his schedule to go over with him, she couldn’t help but notice he was smiling. It wasn’t a particularly large grin or anything, but she realized this was the first time since that night in January when she’d seen a genuine smile on his face and some light returning to his eyes indicating that healing truly was beginning.

* * *

By the end of the tenth week, there was one cigarette left in Onceler’s silver case and it wasn’t until that night when he was already in bed that he realized he’d never even thought about it…it still lay there, a small temptation, but one he was too tired to worry about. It stayed there a few more weeks in the case, on his desk…just in case…before finally, on a Monday in April, he took it out, broke it and tossed it in the trash. He’d noticed over the past few weeks how much better his office smelled. Food definitely tasted better. He hadn’t even considered, due to his youth, that a mere few years of smoking had any effect on his body, but he even seemed able to breathe better. If he’d continued, he wondered what would happen in twenty-five or fifty years. Honestly, as much trouble as he’d given Rarity about her constantly pestering him over his habit and needing to quit, he had to admit she was right. When she came in for work that day, he handed her the empty cigarette case. “For you, Rarity. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For being annoying enough to help me change.”

Rarity would keep it in her desk and eventually something told her to bring in the seed she’d plucked up off the floor that day of the accident and put it in there for safe keeping. It barely fit, but still, it was a safe place to keep it. She wasn’t sure why, but that seed seemed important.

Glancing at her calendar and reflecting on the gift, she realized his birthday was approaching soon. Had it really been a year ago he’d sneered at her for dare questioning when it was? This year it fell on a Saturday and she made sure his schedule stayed clear. However, she still wasn’t sure what she could possibly get him.

“Celebrate by giving him sexual favors,” Stephanie suggested when Rarity asked her.

“You’re not helping.”

“Well, I’m getting him one of those electric keyboards. He mentioned wanting to learn how to play piano, so I figured that was a start. You could get him some music books.”

That suggestion was practical, but impersonal. She wanted to get him something meaningful. He would be twenty-five and at least where anniversaries were concerned, that was the silver year. She could get him something silver, but as she thought about the cigarette case, she realized he could afford anything silver without a problem.

As days passed, she hadn’t even decided what to buy him until she was passing by the pawn shop in town one day after work. There in the window was an acoustic guitar made of fine wood, probably years old and just begging to be bought. She called to mind the guitars on his wall – all electric – one white and black, one red and another red one, which was a double guitar. Despite his arm healing well and him being able to do more with it, she didn’t think he’d so much as touched one since the accident. She entered the store, picked it up and ran her fingers along the smooth wood. Using her thumb, she delicately strummed the strings. She didn’t know anything about musical instruments but they sounded okay to her. It wasn’t until she turned it over, however and looked at the engraving in the back that she gasped and knew she HAD to buy this guitar for him. There toward the edge was a simple brand identifying the previous owner: R. Onceler.

Mom pawned my father’s guitar to pay the bill.

It had to be – he didn’t exactly have a common last name. Somehow, through magic or coincidence or divine intervention, his father’s guitar had made it from that pawn shop far away, perhaps passed through owners to this pawn shop here where it was just waiting…waiting for her to return it to the person it should belong to.

“Interested in that, miss?” The shopkeeper asked as he came up to her.

“Very interested.”

Then he told her the price and her heart sank. She had almost enough, but not quite the right amount. It was expensive. She could tell him about it and she knew he’d run down as fast as he could and buy it no problem. She could ask him for the money, but she didn’t want to be one of those girls. Besides, the thought of him shelling out money for her to buy him a gift somehow didn’t seem right. She could pawn the diamond earrings he…no, that was practically the same thing. Besides, how would she explain why she didn’t wear them anymore? Sadly, she put the guitar back and left the shop dejected.

She’d have to just tell him…she knew he’d buy it for himself, but she really wanted to be the one to give it to him…to see his face and eyes light up when he saw it. If anything could get him playing guitar again, it would be that. Sighing, she entered the beauty salon to buy more shampoo before heading home.

“What’s got you down, Rarity?” Sally, her regular stylist asked as she purchased the shampoo.

Rarity went into the whole story, practically tearing up by the time she finished. “It would be the perfect gift if I only had that last little amount.”

“Well, there is one way you can earn the money…”

The way Sally had said it put Rarity on guard. “I have morals, gosh – I would never do that!”

Sally snickered. “Rarity, you’re too much. I meant you could sell that hair of yours. We buy it, you know. I’d give you that amount for virgin hair of that quality.”

Taking a deep breath, Rarity reached behind her and stroked a lock of her long, indigo hair that now reached past her rear. She seemed to remember cutting her hair for a generous act before but she couldn’t remember what it was. All she remembered was that whoever she did it for had been so genuinely grateful that losing her hair didn’t seem all that bad. When she thought of how much this gift would mean to Onceler, well, it was a minor sacrifice. Besides, it would grow back.

Half an hour later, she was walking out of the salon with much shorter hair and enough money between the cash she’d just earned and the amount in her bank account to buy her boyfriend what she knew would be the best gift he could possibly receive. She got to the pawn shop just before it closed and with a sense of satisfaction, headed down the street toward home, guitar case in her hand and wavy indigo hair bouncing just above her shoulders.

*

When he saw her hair the next day, his face not only registered shock, but she could tell he didn’t like it. He was old-fashioned and liked women with long hair and when he was married his wife would probably have to ask permission to do anything drastically different about it. That would go over well with Stephanie. “You don’t like it?”

“It’s your hair, Rarity, and you can do what you want with it, but I liked it long.”

“It’ll grow.” She reminded herself that she only had to wait until Saturday before he’d forget all about her hair. “It was getting too hard to manage and I told the lady I just wanted a trim.”

“That’s…definitely more than a trim.”

“Yeah, last time I go to that stylist.”

Although…as he watched her head away from his desk, he had to admit that with the shorter hair, he got a pretty nice view of her walking toward the door. In fact, he considered that he may have to drop more things on the floor to have her pick up.

* * *

Saturday dawned bright and seemingly perfect. It was as if the sun was intent on chasing the smog away from the valley to shine down on everyone below. Rarity hadn’t told Onceler where they were going or what they were doing – just to wear casual clothes and be ready by noon. He didn’t have a lot of casual clothes, he realized as he sifted through this closet full of green suits. How many of those did he have anyway?! Then at the back of his closet hanging up neatly and forgotten about were the gray and white clothes his mother had given him. Under any other circumstances he might have burned them, but they’d belonged to his father and he had nothing to remember him by. As years passed it became harder to recall those memories, but every so often something would remind him.

Instead of remembering that fateful night in his life, he imagined his father buttoning up the clothes as he prepared to get married. His parents must have loved each other in some approximation. Even though he knew he was the reason they’d gotten married. Isabella always joked that they should have named him ‘whoops’ – hopefully that was a joke.

He had always hoped to see his father again, but if what his mother had said was true then it would never happen. He had every reason to believe her. After all, Isabella may have been cold-hearted, but she wasn’t a complete monster. She would not have just made up a story about their father dying out of the blue. They’d had no contact for years, but legally, she was still his wife and would be the first person notified. No, there was definite sincerity in her voice when she’d told him and his brothers three years ago. He needed to give up this childish hope that somehow his father would come back to them.

Onceler used to wear his sleeves rolled up, but the scars on his left arm glared at him so he secured the cuffs at his wrists before sliding on a pair of gloves. Things were definitely becoming easier now – so easy that his left hand sometimes did things without him having to think about it. However, he was still far from better. He hadn’t tried to pick up a guitar or knitting needles. Stephanie had surprised him the day before with a musical keyboard. How he would ever learn to play that he didn’t know.

Shortly before noon he stepped out into his office to leave through the glass doors. It was then he really noticed what a beautiful day it was. It was usually so gray and overcast he’d almost forgotten how blue the sky could be and how vibrant the tufts of the Truffula Trees were as the sun hit them.

He opened the doors and stood at the railing of the stairs that led down to the ground. It wasn’t often he enjoyed the outdoors. He usually stayed cooped up inside, but now those memories surfaced of times spent in this valley. In the distance he saw the Bar-ba-loots walking in a strange line, almost like they were migrating or something. No, Bar-ba-loots lived in the valley…only in the valley…they didn’t migrate anywhere.

“Hey, Beanpole.”

Oh no, not this guy again. “What do you want?”

The Lorax hoisted himself up onto the railing and stood there for a moment before speaking in a huffy voice. “You know, you’re a really hard guy to get a hold of.”

“There’s a reason for that, especially where you’re concerned.”

“Just thought you’d like to know, I had to send the Bar-ba-loots away. They live off the Truffula Fruit and due to you and your broken promises…”

“I did not break my promise. I promised I would not chop down any more trees and I, personally, have not.” His employees did…his machines did…but HE hadn’t actually picked up an axe and chopped them down by hand.

“Keep deluding yourself there, Beanpole. Anyway, because of the number of trees that you ‘haven’t personally’ chopped down, there isn’t enough fruit for them to eat. They’re starving, so I’m sending them off to find a place where there’s plenty of food to keep them alive. I hope they all make it. Some of them are pretty weak.”

Onceler felt a small twinge of guilt and sadness as he watched the Bar-ba-loots march over a hill and disappear. He remembered days spent treating them with marshmallows and pancakes. He recalled the way Pipsqueak liked to curl his tiny self up next to Onceler while he slept. He smiled sadly remembering the fat one…couldn’t for the life of him remember what he’d named him…eating all his butter and enthusiastically always wanting more pancakes. He did feel sorry for them – truly he did – he knew what it was like to starve. His entire childhood had been spent not knowing when or if he’d eat again.

Then he glanced over to the expanded factory with its gleaming new smoke stacks and machines inside all ready to be turned on Monday morning…to turn more Truffula Trees into thneeds. It should have been last month, but February’s heavy rains had halted progress. He’d hired more workers – now over one hundred thousand employees – to keep the factory and office running. They were so close to selling one million thneeds. It was insane really…and the money…the money just kept pouring in! No business HAD to keep growing…expanding…BIGGERING…regardless if the Bar-ba-bloots were starving or not.

“This changes nothing,” he told the Lorax. “Get out of here!”

“Remember what I told you about a tree falling the way it leans.”

Onceler caught sight of Rarity walking toward the factory with a basket and what looked like a guitar case in her hands. His heart leapt at the thought of spending a relaxing day with her.

“Hey, idiot, I’m talking to you!” The Lorax shouted.

Onceler held up his hand to silence the annoying, orange creature. “I’m busy today, shut up and leave me alone.” He quickly ran down the steps and embraced Rarity when she was close enough.

She set her things down gently and returned the hug. “Happy birthday.”

“You got me a guitar?”

“How did you know?” She feigned innocence.

“I mean, I don’t because I’m stupid and I have NO idea what could possibly be in that case with the bow on it that looks suspiciously like it would fit a guitar inside…”

“Sarcasm noted. You can open it when we get to where we’re going.”

They started walking and Onceler offered to hold the basket, but Rarity refused. She told him he was going to relax on his birthday and do no work whatsoever. It didn’t take long to reach an area where the axes hadn’t been yet and the grass was still green and soft. Rarity produced a blanket from the basket and lay it down under a Truffula Tree.

In no time she had pulled out a picnic lunch for them of fruit, bread, cheese and sparkling cider. They ate first while they talked and Rarity was careful not to bring up his therapy visits or anything sensitive. She always steered the conversation toward happy topics. Just as he thought that was all, she produced a large cupcake she’d bought at a local bakery for them to share. “I didn’t bring a candle or anything, but you should make a wish anyway.”

“What would I wish for? I have everything I want right here.” He gently touched her cheek and kissed her.

“Ready for your present?”

“Oh my, I wonder what it could possibly be,” he said with as much sarcasm as before when she set it on his lap. Carefully he flipped up the clasps and opened the case, then he stopped and was silent for several moments. He didn’t even have to look at the back of the guitar with its engraving. He knew. “Oh, Rarity…”

“I found it in the pawn shop. I thought it should belong to you.” She covered his hand with hers. “Happy birthday.”

As he ran his good hand along the wood and the strings, a single tear welled up in his eye and fell. But this one was different from all the other ‘one tears’ he’d shed in his life. This was one of enormous joy and gratitude. He realized not only had she done this, but that’s why she must’ve cut her hair. The guitar was an antique – passed down from his grandfather to his father and now to him – it was old and still in good condition. It must’ve cost her more money than she had. He would have never asked her to do such a thing and the fact that she sacrificed something she considered one of her greatest beauty traits, it touched him in a way no gift had ever done before. “Thank you, Rarity.”

“Just promise you’ll start playing again.”

“How about now?” His arm felt strong enough to hold it, but he secured it on his leg just in case. It took a little tuning, but finally he started playing a sweet ballad that used only good, happy notes. It reminded him of when his father would come home from the farm smelling like the deep soil of the earth and cigarette smoke. He’d never let on how tired he must’ve been, but always found time to spend with his boys – roughhousing with Brett and Chet and teaching Onceler how to play guitar. He’d gather them around and tell stories to get them good and sleepy before he tucked them into bed and gave them each a gentle kiss on the cheek. He recalled the last words his father had spoken to him; Onceler had pretended to be asleep but his parents’ final argument had woken him up.

I just know you’re destined for greatness. I’m sorry I won’t be here to see it.

Onceler was certain there was an afterlife – hopefully containing a place of peace and tranquility where his father could sometimes part the veil between dimensions and see the greatness his son had attained. Perhaps he was there with Airabella, getting to know the daughter he’d never known while he was alive, having left before she was born. As he strummed the strings of the guitar, he imagined perhaps some of those notes transcended this plane of existence to the next and his father could also hear how happy he was in this perfect moment.

Because if it wasn’t perfect…it was at least good. The sun, the grass, the trees and the air that didn’t seem quite so thick with smog today. But Monday…Monday the expansion would be operational. When something is dying there’s always what’s referred to as ‘the last good day’ and the trouble is, no one knows when it is as it’s happening. To most, it just seems like a better-than-normal day. It isn’t until later when whatever it is starts to slip away slowly that others realize which day was the last good one.

His twenty-fifth birthday was the valley’s last good day.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 – Moves and Counter-Moves

May rolled in and the expansion was an absolute success – at least to those who worshipped the ground Onceler walked on. Rarity had more to do than ever as business picked up and honestly wished she could spend more time with her boyfriend. She felt like they saw each other at work and by the end of the day were too exhausted to spend time together.

To those who opposed him, the ever darkening sky and sickly-looking Truffula trees gave them more reason to speak out against the factory and he had asked Rarity on a few occasions to call security to take care of the protestors outside.

And aside from the environmentalists, there were also those pesky tabloids…

“Look at this, Rarity, now I apparently file my teeth into points and eat my meat raw.” Onceler threw the magazine on his desk. “I should fire my PR people.”

“I saw one in the store the other day saying you had a robotic arm now.”

“Why?” he practically groaned.

“Because apparently you’re not enough of a freak for these people.”

He slowly flexed the fingers of his left hand. “Actually, a robot arm might be kind of cool.”

“So, I shouldn’t send your PR staff pink slips?”

“No, they can stay, but do send them a memo and tell them to try and keep these trash stories to a minimum. Did you make arrangements for that business trip in a couple of weeks?”

“Yes, and the renovations to your office will be done during that time.” She knew he planned to remove the wall between the office and his old apartment now that he’d moved into the new house. So, of course, he needed a bigger office…well, actually, he didn’t, but Rarity knew that in his mind, it was the natural next step. “I booked you a suite at the best hotel in that town and two plane tickets.” Her tone was hopeful since she assumed she’d go with him.

“Thank you, Rarity. I’ve asked Stephanie to accompany me.”

For the first time, she felt a twinge of jealousy. “Stephanie?”

“Oh, Rarity, I need you here to help run the company. I trust no one else to do it. However, some of my meetings are with Mr. Salas and I refuse to be alone with him.”

“Good idea. I assume when this is over he won’t know what hit him?”

“That’s the plan.”

“And, if as you suspect, National Bank is engaged in illegal activities, Stephanie can give you advice.”

“Advice?”

“Well, she is a lawyer…or will be soon.”

“Yes, but…”

“Oh, right, I forgot. She wears a skirt so her skills are somehow less valuable than those of a man who has the same schooling.”

“I never said…”

“But you were thinking it. I suppose I should wear pants while I’m filling in for you again.”

“You may wear whatever you feel is appropriate. I don’t hate women if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“And we don’t want to remove men from the picture; we just want the opportunity to contribute to this world equally.”

Onceler was silent for a long while before he finally spoke. “I’ll tell you what, I will bring Stephanie along as my legal counsel. If she proves herself, then when she graduates, she’ll have a job here if she wants it.”

“And if she doesn’t prove herself?”

“I have a feeling she will.”

* * *

Of course the best hotel in town was the one where some of Onceler’s darkest memories had been made. It wasn’t the same room, but was very similar, though the bedding was different and the furniture wasn’t in the same arrangement. He hadn’t anticipated travel would make him tired but the sun was already dipping down below the horizon and the bed definitely looked inviting.

Stephanie sprawled out on it and laughed, her youth betraying her usually serious demeanor. “It’s so soft!”

“Why did Rarity book a room with only one bed?”

“Probably thought she would be traveling with you. Besides, are you really shy about sleeping side-by-side with your future wife?”

“I’m just not sure it’s appropriate before we’re married.”

“It’s fine by me.”

“What if I like to sleep in the nude?”

“Go for it. The human body is nothing to be ashamed of.” She got up and kicked her shoes off before making her way to the bathroom. “Once! There’s the hugest tub ever in here – with jets! Jets!”

“So?” Why hadn’t he invited Rarity to come along? How was he going to get along with Stephanie for the next few days? She was a nice enough person, but he’d honestly spent little time with her since the engagement.

“I’m taking a bath – I’m freaking exhausted after flying. You should join me – there’s room for two.”

“You do realize I’m not actually undressing in front of you, right?”

The sound of running water came from the bathroom. “Why? Got something to be ashamed of? Is all this ‘biggering’ compensating for something?”

He felt his cheeks blaze with heat. “Of course not. It just simply isn’t appropriate.”

“Too bad – I’ll enjoy this bubble bath – with jets – all by myself.”

“You do that then!” He sat at a small table with a folder that contained all his correspondence from both Mr. Carter and Mr. Salas so he could go over some of it and be prepared for his meetings. It was hard to concentrate, however, as his mind kept going to dark places and past events that made him fearful of having a panic attack. For all he knew, Mr. Salas could be in this very hotel right now a few rooms down the hall. He checked to make sure the door was locked. Of course it was and only he and Stephanie had keys.

“Whew, I feel better,” Stephanie said as she walked into the main room wearing a fluffy robe. “It’s free if you want to use it.”

“I prefer to take my shower in the morning. Please tell me you have something on underneath that.”

“I’ve never known someone to be so squeamish about nudity.” She sat on the bed with a bounce and picked up the room service menu. “I’m starving – you want me to order something for you too?”

“Sure.” He didn’t look up from his paperwork.

“Do you want to take a glance at this or…”

“Just order whatever you think I’d like.”

“Something with gobs of peanut butter, got it.”

“Do it and I’ll be sure to make out with you later.”

“Rude,” she said with a hint of sarcasm. “I’m getting steak. You like steak?”

Eating steak in this hotel…again? Not likely. “I’d rather not.”

“Is fish okay?”

“That’s fine.”

She sat across from him after she ordered their dinner. “What’s going on?”

“I’m just looking over this for tomorrow.”

“No, you’re staring blankly at it. Your mind is somewhere else.” She picked up some of the papers and studied them. “You want to talk about what’s got you distracted?”

“Not particularly.”

Stephanie flipped through the papers she held. “This isn’t right.”

“What isn’t?”

“Well, it’s a loan agreement, but if I’ve done the math right…” She grabbed a pad and pen from the nearby desk and started working out numbers. “With the original amount loaned plus the interest, it should be paid off in three years, so why is it a five-year loan?”

“You probably didn’t do it right.”

“Yeah, please go ahead and look it over because you know us women are so bad at math. After all, we only need to know enough to find our way around a measuring cup in the kitchen.”

“Don’t forget a measuring tape for when you’re doing your sewing.”

She wadded up a piece of paper from the pad and threw it at him. “I don’t even know how to
sew.”

Onceler moved his chair so he was sitting beside her. She had, in fact, done the math correctly
and he couldn’t believe he’d missed such a thing. “So, these people paid an extra two years worth on a loan unnecessarily…and I bet I know where the extra money went.”

Stephanie nodded. “Into Salas’ pocket, no doubt. The guy is such a sleeze ball. He could go to jail for a long time for this.”

“I believe Carter’s plan is likely to blackmail him with this, but we need more info…more evidence before First Country can move in and take National.”

“Try to get more types of these documents from Salas. The more we have the better.”

“You’re going to that meeting tomorrow, right?”

“Of course.”

“And I assume you brought something appropriate to wear. You’re not going to show up like that,” he gestured to her robe, “or, God-forbid, naked.”

“I don’t know – might distract Salas into giving us what we need.”

“Highly doubtful. It appears he goes after guys.”

Stephanie stood as there was a knock at the door. “I think I heard something about that, in fact, if I was told correctly, that’s why his wife divorced him last year. It was quite scandalous.”

“Wait, you’re not answering the door like that, are you?”

“Why not?”

“Sit down and have some propriety, for heaven’s sake.”

Stephanie tidied up the table while Onceler answered the door. Soon enough they were seated and she was digging into the large steak she’d ordered. Just the smell of it was off-putting and Onceler felt a shiver run up his spine as his insides clenched. Somehow he managed to choke down his food without really tasting it. He wasn’t sure why this was all of a sudden bothering him so much and didn’t know how he’d manage to face Mr. Salas the next day. Some days he felt almost like he could imagine the past didn’t bother him, though he couldn’t think of a single day where it hadn’t at least flashed in his mind even for the briefest moment. Sometimes he thought he might actually be getting better. However, now, with the prospect of facing this man again, he definitely wasn’t better. After all, the last time he’d seen Mr. Salas…well…he’d left the door open. He glanced over at the door to make sure it was in fact closed and bolted, which it was.

“Hello…Once, you there?”

He looked up as Stephanie spoke. “Sorry…I’m just tired.”

“No, you’re not. What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I’m exhausted from traveling and need some sleep before tomorrow.” He retreated to the bathroom to change into pajamas and brush his teeth. Stephanie knew only one very basic fact…that thing he still couldn’t bring himself to name had happened to him…she didn’t know the details and he wasn’t willing to drag them up. He wondered for the thousandth time why he hadn’t invited Rarity as he slid into bed beside Stephanie and surveyed her outfit of a cotton tank top and sleeping shorts. “You stay on your side.”

“No worries there.”

It didn’t seem long after his tired eyes closed that he felt weight on him and a hand covering his mouth.

You have no right to tell me to stop.

He couldn’t move…couldn’t even breathe as terror filled him.

Pretty boy…

The weight increased and he was suffocating…absolutely helpless and unable to cry for help. His heart raced and thudded almost violently as his head spun. He was going to die like this…panicking and in pain. He was pinned…dominated…humiliated…

Diane had told him when flashbacks happened to focus on something – an item close by he could grasp and hold in his hands and concentrate only on that one thing – how it felt, smelled, looked – and this seemed to work well when he had a flashback during the day to remind himself that he was here in the present and was safe. When they came in the night, however…there was nothing he could do but live in terror remembering until he woke up. It was so real as that body was pressed so close to his…he couldn’t breathe…he was suffocating. There was no help…no one was coming and despair overwhelmed him.

Then, out of nowhere, another hand touched his arm and shook him. This was different and it made the weight pushing him into the mattress let up a little. He felt this hand…a slender, feminine one…balled up rubbing against the middle of his chest causing everything to melt away as his eyes flew open with the pain it had caused. It took a moment to realize where he was…a horrifying moment in which he was paralyzed with fear and still unable to breathe. He felt something warm running from his eyes.

“Once, you’re okay.”

Stephanie’s voice.

“Just breathe…deep breath.”

Yes…that’s what his body wanted…air to remind him this attack had not killed him. He gasped, sucking in air greedily, almost hyperventilating.

“Slow down…deep breaths…slow breaths. You’re okay; you’re safe.”

Beads of sweat had collected on his forehead even though his blood felt chilled to an icy level. Why did he think he could do this? He wasn’t strong enough. That’s why he needed someone…no, not just someone…a woman with him. He was thankful for Stephanie’s presence, but at the same time, he wanted her far away. As his mind seemed to clear a bit, he realized she was now holding his hand…his left hand and he quickly pulled it away. She had to have seen them…the scars…and he tugged his sleeve down as far as it would go. Why hadn’t he put gloves on before bed?

“Once, what’s going on?”

It took him a moment before his paralyzed lips could move and even more time before he could form words. He sat up and looked around. “He was here…on top of me…he…”

“No one was here. It was a dream.”

“Flashback,” he corrected her and furiously swiped at his eyes as he inwardly cursed himself for crying. “Of that…that thing I said happened…”

“I’m sorry, what thing?”

“The non-consensual…it happened…”

Stephanie nodded with understanding and rubbed his back. “It’s a horrible experience you had to go through. I don’t blame you for having flashbacks.”

“It happened here…in this hotel…”

“What? No wonder you’ve been on edge.”

“And he did it in my apartment five months ago…that’s why I moved out…”

“Wait…I’m conf…”

“I couldn’t move…I couldn’t breathe…I said no and he didn’t listen…I left the door open.”

“Who did this to you?”

He took a deep, shaky breath still trying to calm down from the flashback that led to this panic attack. “Mr. Salas.”

“WHAT?!” Stephanie immediately covered her mouth having not intended to be so loud. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…but…he did this to you twice – once in this hotel – and you have to meet with him tomorrow? No wonder you were so absentminded tonight.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Stephanie sat close to him and kept rubbing his back soothingly. How did women just know what to do? How did they have this innate compassion about them lacking in so many men he knew? “I’ll be with you the entire time. I promise I won’t leave you alone with him.”

“Thank you. Oh…don’t eat anything provided by him. He drugged Rarity with chocolate.”

“Wait, he did this to Rarity too?”

“No, he didn’t hurt her. He just wanted her out so he could get at me.”

“What a scumbag. Try not to worry. I know it’s hard, but I’ll be there and I won’t let him hurt you.” She pulled him into a hug and he didn’t protest. He knew society told him he should be the protector, the strong one, but really, and he hated to admit it, women were pretty strong themselves. Somehow, just this once in the dead of night hours away from facing the person he feared most, he didn’t mind taking strength from Stephanie.

* * *

The following day after he’d showered and dressed, he was surprised when Stephanie handed him a small black object that looked very much like a gun. “What…”

“It’s a taser,” she explained. “If for whatever reason he comes after you because…I don’t know, I’ve been knocked unconscious or something…point it at him, release the safety here and pull the trigger. It’ll shoot out at him and shock him, leaving him on the floor twitching while you get away.”

“And you just carry this around with you?”

“A person has to protect themselves somehow. I also take a self-defense class. I’ve never been attacked, but if I ever am, that person will find out very quickly I don’t dick around with my safety.”

“You’re a little scary,” he said, slipping the taser into his coat pocket. “But right now, I’m grateful for that.”

He was also grateful she’d chosen a tasteful skirt and blazer combination with a modest blouse underneath. He had thought she’d wear pants because whenever he saw her in casual clothes she was wearing bell bottoms. This was a welcome change because although she looked feminine, she also walked with purpose, which made her seem empowered. He could easily imagine her doing a good job in his legal department, but first he had to see how skilled she really was at business law.

They were escorted into Mr. Salas’ office soon after arriving at the bank’s headquarters. Not much had changed since he’d last sat in this office. He had to remind himself to breathe and put on his poker face as he shook this other man’s hand. After all, business was a game just like poker. You couldn’t let your opponent read your thoughts.

“And who is this charming young woman?”

“I believe you remember Miss. Deckler. She’s about to graduate law school and came with me to help with any legal counsel this might require.”

Mr. Salas smiled at Stephanie. “Nice of you to join us, sweetheart. Why don’t you run and get us some coffee, okay?”

“Perhaps Mr. Onceler wasn’t clear enough,” she said. “I’m here to help with legal counsel – I don’t get coffee; that’s a personal assistant’s job. However, if you’re sending your assistant out to bring some, then I’d love a cup. I take it with creamer and sugar. Also, I prefer to be addressed as Miss. Deckler or ma’am – not ‘sweetheart’.”

“Are you going to let her get away with that?” Mr. Salas asked.

“Yes,” Onceler answered without hesitation. “She is right. She’s here to help legally, not get coffee, and she should be shown the same respect any male professional would receive.”

“Would you care for a chocolate, Miss. Deckler?”

Onceler wished he could use the taser right then and there. This guy was already trying to get her out of the room.

“No, thank you, Mr. Salas. I’m allergic to Rohypnol…I mean, chocolate.”

They spent the hours of the morning pouring over the paperwork and, aside from Mr. Salas’ presence, work pushed fear a little further back in Onceler’s mind. Of course, it helped having Stephanie beside him and the taser in his pocket.

“I still need to figure out who it is Carter is working with,” Mr. Salas told them. “It seems no matter what I do to try and stop him, he knows my moves and counters it. I need to go on the offensive and shut him down.”

“Like a game of chess,” Onceler commented as he ran his hand along an elegant chessboard sitting in the office. “Except we can’t see the moves he’s making.”

“Do you play?”

“Yes.”

“Care for a match?”

He really didn’t, but it was up to him to gain Mr. Salas’ trust. “I’m up for that.” Part way through the game, Onceler ran his fingers along one of the white pieces in front of him. “Are these real ivory?”

“They are. From an elephant I hunted when I was vacationing down near Whoville some years ago.”

“That’s barbaric,” Stephanie said.

“Your fiancée is very opinionated,” Mr. Salas observed.

“One of her many good qualities.”

“Forgive me, sweetheart, but back in my day, women were silent when men were discussing important things such as business.”

Stephanie gave an annoyed smile. “Yes and that’s why we’re trying to gain our equality now. And, in case you’re wondering, these loan papers aren’t going to help you if Carter gets a hold of them. But, if you give me the loans you’ve written like this, I could easily alter them to cover your tracks.”

“You?”

“Give me a little credit. I’m graduating law school next month – I’m sure there are men in your company you’d trust who haven’t even finished college.”

“I don’t know you well enough, Miss. Deckler, to put that kind of trust in you. However, I will gather the papers and have them ready by tonight to hand to Mr. Onceler.” He turned to the younger man. “If that’s okay with you.”

“That’s fine.”

“It will be on my terms, however. You’ll meet me to pick them up in my hotel suite…”

“Mr. Salas, I…”

“Alone.”

“No, I can’t…”

“Those are my terms.”

“Who’s helping who here? I could refuse and let your bank sink.”

“And I could keep pursuing you. Remember how I always get what I want, pretty boy?”

He glanced over at Stephanie who quickly flicked her eyes to his coat pocket. If worse came to worse, he could just tase Mr. Salas and take the papers. “Fine, your hotel room tonight, but I want to make it perfectly clear that I am going there only to retrieve what I need and go.”

“Of course,” his enemy said with a smile that told Onceler he had much more on his mind than a brief meeting. He moved a piece on the board. “Checkmate.”

Onceler knew he was definitely playing a game, a complicated one like chess, a secret one like poker…and a dangerous one like Russian roulette.

* * *

“So, I’ll call ten minutes after you leave to distract him in case there’s a reason you need him distracted. Got your taser?”

“Yes. And if I’m not back in half an hour?”

“I’ll go knock on the door and if there’s no answer or I hear anything suspicious, I’ll call the police immediately. Ready?”

“No, but here I go anyway.”

Stephanie hugged him and he lightly put his arms around her. He was used to this from Rarity, but he hadn’t grown up in a very touchy-feely environment so hugging Stephanie was different. “You’ll do fine,” she told him. “Get the papers and get the hell out of there.”

Onceler headed out the door and down the hall toward the same suite he’d been in before. His insides were so twisted that if he’d eaten anything that day he probably would have been sick. Before he knocked on the door, he touched the pocket where the taser lay ready to be used if necessary then waited nervously for an answer.

The door opened and Mr. Salas smiled at him. “Come in.”

“I only came to pick up papers, surely you could hand them to me here.”

“No, I said in my hotel room, so come on in.” He continued speaking after the door had closed. “Perhaps you’d like to take your clothes off…forgive me, I mean your coat.”

“I think I’ll be keeping my coat on, thank you – along with the rest of my clothes.”

“At least take the glasses off so I can see your eyes.”

Onceler did so in order to seem somewhat compliant but when he went to slip them into his left pocket, his hand faltered and they fell to the ground. He bit back the word Rarity hated and he’d heard Stephanie use a couple of times recently.

“That’s the arm you injured isn’t it?” Mr. Salas asked as he picked up the blue shades from the carpet. “Still not very strong?”

“It’s getting better. Thank you, sir.” He tried putting the shades into his right pocket, but of course they wouldn’t fit.

“Do you need help?” Before Onceler could respond, Mr. Salas had reached into his pocket and grabbed the taser. “You won’t be needing this.” He flung it across the room. “And I suppose since that’s gone, you can take that pretty coat off now.”

His heart raced as his blood became ice again. If he made a move to grab the taser, no doubt Mr. Salas would simply overpower him. His eyes darted around the room and he realized the bed had already been turned down, which made him feel even more ready to run out of there whether he got the files he needed or not. Well, Mr. Salas could hope all he wanted, but Onceler was not going to take his coat off.

“Come on. I ordered dinner for us so we could go over the papers together.”

Onceler had no doubt the food was drugged. “That’s a very kind invitation, but I already ate.”

Mr. Salas slid an arm around him causing every muscle in his body to stiffen at the unwelcome touch. “What do I have to do to get you into my bed? If I have to stop pursuing you at least let me have one night.”

“That will not happen. You’ve already stolen two of my nights…”

“I believe you sold me the first one and invited me to your place on the second.”

“Not to mention many others when I’ve been sleepless after thinking about those encounters.”

“At least sit down to dinner with me, alright? We’ll see where that takes us.”

Onceler knew his stomach wouldn’t let him actually eat anything, so he sat at the table and stared down at the same unappetizing meal they’d shared before. Not that he would even touch it, knowing it would probably knock him unconscious giving Mr. Salas an opportunity to do anything to him.

Mr. Salas ran his fingers along Onceler’s arm. “You know it isn’t proper to eat while wearing gloves.”

“I told you, I’m not eating anything.”

“Still, why don’t you take them off – your coat, too – just get comfortable.”

Considering the situation, he was far from comfortable. “I don’t know what you see in me or why you want me so badly or why you can’t accept that I’m not interested.”

“I told you a long time ago that I enjoy the company of young men, particularly beautiful ones.”

“I won’t deny that I’m attractive, but I’m not so certain I’m young anymore.”

“You don’t look like you’ve aged much since you were nineteen. Of all those I helped, you’ve gone the furthest, gained the most power and I like that. I would be most grateful if after this was over you’d reconsider and be my lover.”

“Lover,” Onceler repeated. “In order to love someone, you first have to know them. You know nothing about me and you’re not interested in finding out. You like me for my looks and those won’t last. What happens when I get older? When my hair starts to turn gray? When my face becomes lined? Then you’ll just toss me aside, all those trysts meaning nothing as you replace me with another ‘pretty boy’. As I said months ago, I don’t give sex away casually and the answer is still no.”

“I would give you anything you wanted.”

“You have nothing I want; in fact, I believe I’m worth more than you, so that’s not even tempting.”

“Just tonight then…come on…”

“I’m quite surprised a man of your intelligence doesn’t comprehend the word ‘no’.”

“You’ll find if you take a sip of that wine there, it’ll help remove that word from your vocabulary.” That hand was on his leg now gently caressing his inner thigh and he prayed for something – anything – to happen – to stop this. Then the phone rang in another part of the suite and he knew it was Stephanie, just as she’d promised.

“Who is calling at this time?” Mr. Salas asked. “Excuse me while I take this.”

As soon as he was around the corner in the adjacent area and Onceler could hear him talking on the phone, he got to work carefully and quietly switching the place settings. After all, Mr. Salas wouldn’t dare poison his own food.

“Young lady, I can’t understand your accent…no, I don’t speak Whovian…how did you get this number?”

Stephanie was a genius…pure genius and Onceler couldn’t help but smile as he lay the silverware perfectly straight as they had been.

“I most certainly do not need natural male enhancement products!”

Onceler clapped a gloved hand over his mouth to keep from laughing out loud as the sound of the phone slamming down on the receiver found his ears. He took a deep breath and sat straight in the chair, eyes on the table, refusing to look as Mr. Salas entered the room again. “You could have started eating without me.”

“That would have been rude, sir.”

The older man ran his finger along the underside of the plate. “Clever boy. You see, I gave you the plate that was chipped.”

“So in case I switched them, you’d know the food was drugged. Moves and counter moves. Cheers to playing the game.” Onceler raised his water glass before taking a sip. “I’m afraid I’m not that gullible farm boy anymore.”

“Yes.” Mr. Salas took a long drink of his own water. “And your pretty little fiancée was correct – my drug of choice is Rohypnol. Do you know why? Because it’s odorless, colorless, tasteless…completely undetectable…even in water. But, my clever pretty boy, you didn’t think to switch the water glasses, did you?”

Onceler had no options. The taser was across the room…he was not strong enough to fight Mr. Salas directly. All he could do was wait for the drug to work. The water glass hit the floor and Onceler went completely limp in his chair, eyes closing. He felt fingers in his hair and it took everything in him not to move at the touch.

“You’re not going to tell me no tonight, pretty boy.”

He was lifted and moved to the bed, keeping his body limp as possible and hoping the drugs worked soon. He felt hands arranging his clothes and figured Mr. Salas wanted him looking perfect at least for a while…at least until his clothes were removed. He felt lips pressed against his own and willed himself to stay still.

“I’m going to eat first, pretty boy.” Mr. Salas chuckled. “Don’t go anywhere.”

It seemed to take forever…the time in which he could not move…listening to sounds in the room and the whoosh of blood in his ears as his heart pounded nervously. Then he heard it, the sound of metal against a plate and the soft scraping of a chair against the carpet. There were a few footsteps, then a thud. Finally, the other man spoke. “You…you did switch the water glasses!”

Onceler’s eyes flew open, his mind conscious and clear as ever. He smirked as he got off the bed and strode over to the man laying on the floor. “Yes, yes I did. Figuring it’s what you would use, I did my own research on Rohypnol and if you had, then you would have realized it takes at least ten minutes to start working…I wouldn’t have been knocked out that quickly. I wasn’t about to let you do that to me again.”

“And what are you going to do to me?” His voice was weak as he was losing the battle to stay awake.

“Nothing. I’m going to take the files I came for and leave you on the floor. Have a good night, Mr. Salas.” With that, he picked up the folders from the table, retrieved the taser and quickly exited the room. However, he didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until he was safely inside his own hotel suite with Stephanie.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16 – Checkmate

His fiancée rushed over and hugged him. “I was about to come down there. What happened?”

Onceler filled her in on the events of that evening. “I’m meeting with Carter early tomorrow morning to give him these, then he’ll put everything into action. Tomorrow afternoon, Salas is going to get the shock of his life. Speaking of which, here’s the taser.”

“Thanks. Too bad you didn’t get a chance to use it.”

“Trust me, I would have loved to see him twitching.”

“People usually pee their pants too when you tase them.”

“That’s disgusting.” He plopped the files on the table and started sifting through papers with Stephanie. It was all the same type of thing – car, house and personal loans – all for a standard, set period, but with payments so high they were often paid off three-to-five years early. “I recognize a lot of these names. I worked on the farm with these families; he’s going after those who are poor and uneducated because they’re not going to figure it out.”

“I recognize one of these names too.” Stephanie held out one the files. “Feel free to cuss if you have to.”

Onceler looked down at the paperwork with his parents’ names on it – the mortgage agreement for the house – and wasn’t even sure he wanted to do the math. However, he wrote down the numbers – the loan amount, the outrageous interest, the payment amounts, then the money his mother – and his father – had given the bank to pay it. Even after his father had left, he’d sent in regular payments, likely to help the family he must’ve have felt sorry for abandoning. Onceler had no idea if his mother even knew about this. When all was said and done, he stared at the columns of numbers and only one stood out in his mind – fourteen. He was fourteen when they’d given the bank enough money to pay off the house. It should have been theirs, but instead, his parents had been told the loan was for twenty years, then his mother had been told they’d fallen behind on payments…on a house they already should have owned!

He felt sicker than ever realizing what could have been – they could have afforded medical care and Airabella might have lived; he could have stopped working on the farm; they could have had better food, better clothes – nothing fancy – but they wouldn’t have been starving and freezing during the winters. He could have gone to college…it was like being hit with a bucket of freezing water realizing he’d given up a full scholarship because he felt it was his duty to help the family survive. But the worst…the one that really made him see red…was realizing he never had to sell himself to Mr. Salas. And that money…the money he thought he’d betrayed his family by taking…was all the money they’d overpaid on the loan. And Mr. Salas had the nerve to say he’d helped Onceler start his business. If only he’d looked at this – if only he’d asked his mother when she said they were in trouble to tell him exactly what the numbers where, he would have figured it out. Instead, Mr. Salas made his desperate mother a deal that they’d both accepted and had no problem leaving them homeless the morning after.

Part of him wanted to let the rage out, but he didn’t feel he had the energy. Besides, what would it change? Nothing. He closed the folder and rested his chin on his hands.

Stephanie scooted her chair closer and put an arm around him. “I’m so sorry.”

“I hope he dies…and gets somehow punished in the afterlife. It takes a real monster to screw people over like this and I am so glad I’m helping bring him down.”

“No one deserves this, especially not those who already have so little and never had the opportunity to be educated enough to realize they’re being taken advantage of.”

However, as Onceler later thought about it, perhaps in a way Mr. Salas had contributed to the start of his business. After all, it was out of necessity – out of a desire to have one item that could be many – due to being too poor to afford things, that the idea for the thneed was born. He had been walking in the rain, actually, the day Norma’s mother had kicked him off their porch afraid he would corrupt her daughter somehow. He didn’t have an umbrella and she’d been wearing a pink sweater and inspiration struck making him stop on the side of the road. If they’d had money to buy an umbrella, towels, better bedding, sweaters and other items, he might not have seen a need for such a thing and then he wouldn’t have the life he had now. And he loved his life now…

Well, it was okay anyway…

He loved the money…the money kept pouring in…

But his last thoughts that night before he drifted off were of a gnawing ache inside him that never seemed to go away, at least, not until recently. He felt it now as he looked over at the sleeping blonde beside him and wished there were indigo curls spread across that pillow.

* * *

The next morning, he and Stephanie met with Mr. Carter and turned over the files – all except one, which Onceler planned to talk about with Mr. Salas personally.

“You have proven to be a most valuable partner in this endeavor and I thank you for your help,” Mr. Carter said as he flipped through the files. “There’s a board meeting this afternoon at National. I think I’ll drop in and ask him about all this.”

“I plan to have a meeting with Mr. Salas myself. There are some things I need to discuss with him in private. My motives for helping you were purely because of my desire to get back at him for past sins. I trust this ends our partnership.”

“Yes.” Mr. Carter held out an envelope to him. “Good luck on your project. I expect I’ll be seeing great things from you.”

Wordlessly, Onceler put the envelope in his pocket after checking the contents and walked off with Stephanie. He didn’t need the money – that wasn’t even what he’d been after – but, at least Mr. Carter had held up his end of the bargain and soon Thneedville would become a reality.

It would be quite a wait until that afternoon, so he and Stephanie spent a quiet day in the hotel room. He looked over some important papers he’d brought from the factory and jotted some ideas and revisions he’d had for Thneedville, but finally mid-afternoon, she stopped him and pulled out a deck of playing cards. “Come on, let’s do something fun. You play, right?”

“Of course. We may have been poor, but we had a pack of playing cards around the house.”

Stephanie dealt out the cards for a game of poker. “Strip poker?”

“No, I think regular poker would be fine.”

“I figured as much.” She poured out a bag of wrapped candies on the table. “We can bet with these.”

They got so lost in card games that by the time someone knocked on the door breaking their concentration it was after five.

“Who could that be?” Stephanie asked.

“Give you one guess. You’ll stay in the room, of course.” He cleaned up the cards and sat at the table with the file he’d kept while his fiancée answered the door.

“Where is he?” Mr. Salas’ tone was demanding, not asking.

Onceler sat calmly in the chair – except for his heart pounding – as Mr. Salas strode across the room. “I was wondering when you’d come by.”

“You! You’re the one who was helping Carter! You gave him the files and now I’ve lost everything!”

“I’m surprised it took you this long to figure that out. And after you screwed me over in more ways than one what made you ever think I would really be your ally?”

“You…”

“No! I speak; you listen!” Onceler stood. “I gave him all but one file – one I’m not sure if you included to be cruel or because you were careless or if you’re really just that stupid. You see, you like to pull this kind of crap with poor people because you assume they won’t find out, except, not all poor people are dumb and they’re not incapable of learning. You gave me my chance to better my life and I took it. What you neglected to tell me was that ‘investment’ was rightfully my money all along – or at least, my family’s. What you further didn’t tell me was that we had essentially owned the house since I was fourteen years old, but that must’ve slipped your mind when you decided you wanted to get in my pants. Maybe that night is a very gray area seeing as how I agreed to it, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had to deal with the aftermath all these years. However, on the night you asked for my help five months ago, I said no – I told you plainly to stop and you didn’t listen.”

“You invited me to meet with you and the way you reacted when I touched you…”

“I never asked you to my office for that reason; I never told you to come into my apartment and when you touched me, my reaction was telling you no! Regardless of what lies your deluded mind has come up with to convince yourself otherwise, the truth is you raped me that night and then just last night you tried to drug me so you could do it again. Having had my revenge, once you leave here, I will never think of you after this, but I’m certain you’ll think of me the rest of your life. You gave me a chance five years ago and I damn well took it. It’s like you said – like a game – moves and countermoves. Checkmate, Mr. Salas.”

“Clearly, I underestimated you when I gave you that chance. Continue enjoying it…while you can.” With that, Mr. Salas walked out of the room and Onceler hoped, out of his life, as well.

“What did he mean by that?” Stephanie asked.

“Who knows?” Onceler checked the door and made sure it was bolted shut. Despite what he said, he really hoped he could leave this whole mess in the past, but he was certain he would think about it from time to time.

“You know what? You need a night to just relax.”

“I still didn’t get my paperwork done and should really…”

“No.” Stephanie grabbed the papers off the table. “No work tonight – not even talking about work or Carter or Salas. You should take a bath while I go grab dinner somewhere and we’re just going to take it easy tonight.”

“I already took a shower this morning. Why would I need a bath?”

“It’s not to get clean – it’s to relax. You can’t just work all the time. You need to learn to take time for yourself. From what I understand your entire life has been about busting your ass to earn money for either yourself or other people. So, I’m asking for one night where we just kick back and watch TV.”

“I don’t watch TV; I don’t even own a TV.”

“There’s a first time for everything. You take a bath and I’ll be back with food.” She grabbed her purse and headed out of the room.

The first thing Onceler did was make sure the door was locked and bolted. For all he knew, Mr. Salas could still be in the same hotel; he seemed to practically own a suite there. Taking Stephanie’s advice, he retreated to the bathroom where he turned on the faucet for the tub before shedding his clothes. It was a pretty big tub and would take several minutes to fill, so he looked over the small bottles of scented bubble bath the hotel had provided to put in the water. Did he have to add this stuff? It seemed kind of girly and the scents had ridiculous names like ‘sparkling snow’ – what did sparkling snow smell like anyway? There was one that was scented like ‘sugar cookie’ – who wanted to smell like baked goods? He looked at a green one that was supposed to smell like pine, but when he sniffed it the scent was so strong it made his eyes water. Finally, he settled on a yellow one that claimed it was green tea and some flower he’d never heard of, but smelled like roses. Fine, so he was going to smell like roses.

As he got into the tub and allowed the warm – almost hot – water to relax his muscles he reflected on his childhood. They took baths – usually cold ones – once a week in that metal tub that seemed to have been around since he could remember. Not only that, everyone used the same water – his mother and Airabella, when she was alive, since the boys tended to get much dirtier. They kept as clean as possible throughout the week using washcloths for quick rubdowns every night, but all of them were the dirty, stinky kids in school and it was often embarrassing to go to school very clean on Monday and look like a mess by Friday. They always had soap because it was a necessity. Growing up, he learned very quickly the difference between necessities, nice-to-have things, luxuries and don’t-even-think-about-it items. Soap was a necessity, shampoo was nice to have, conditioner would have been a luxury, though he couldn’t ever remember actually seeing it around the house; bubble bath would have been a don’t-even-think-about-it item. They always had bread and ate a lot of peanut butter because it was high in protein and cheap to get, but jelly would have been a luxury item, though he seemed to remember them having it from time to time. They always had toothbrushes – dental care was expensive; prevention was cheaper. Floss was a nice thing to have, but didn’t always happen. Toothpaste was a luxury; they didn’t even know what mouthwash was. Seeing a dentist…they wouldn’t even think of it.

Never in his wildest dreams did he think he’d be able to afford to stay in a hotel where he could take a bubble bath just to relax. Stephanie had mentioned the tub had jets, but he honestly didn’t really know what those were. He thought a jet was the airplane they’d taken to get here. He’d never imagined he’d fly in an airplane either or ride in a limo or have his own company. He remembered working on the farm year after year thinking ahead to when he would still be there in his mid-twenties, covered in dirt and poor as ever. He had figured he’d marry young and pop out more kids than they could afford, thus perpetuating the cycle. He never imagined he’d have a beautiful, sophisticated, not to mention smart, fiancée…who was arranged to be married to him and was also a lesbian…well, life wasn’t perfect. Of course, he also had a gorgeous girlfriend he loved very much. The problem was that in about seven months – or sooner if he chose – he’d have to get married and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that with either of them.

“Once! You in there?” Stephanie asked as she knocked on the door.

“I’m almost done.” He stepped out of the tub and dried off with one of the towels. Even though it had been a bath and not a shower, the feel of that towel in this hotel still brought his mind to that night. Only – what had it been – an hour since he’d told Mr. Salas he’d never think about it again, it came to his mind. He remembered talking with Diane about it and her saying that a deeply personal attack like this was something that would take time to come to terms with. “No, not ‘this’,” she’d say, “use the word.”

For months he hadn’t been able to, but as he reflected on what he’d told Mr. Salas, he realized that without thinking, he had finally named this crime committed against him.

You raped me.

His own voice…saying those words…making true what he’d denied for months now. This was part of his reluctance to get married – he’d have to let someone touch him in the same places he’d been violated…he definitely wasn’t ready for that…even with a woman. Sometimes he thought he was. He’d have fantasies or dreams about Rarity, but sometimes even about Stephanie…sometimes about them together, though he was still unsure of exactly what two women would do with each other.

Onceler usually avoided the mirror…ever since that night he’d broken his own mirror in a rage, he just couldn’t face his reflection. He couldn’t stand looking at his own shattered self. But then he remembered the bowl Diane had shown him. He ran his fingers along the pink scars of his left arm – kintsugi – healing, but never the same…new skin growing and making his arm whole again. Inside nerves were connecting and each day he got more feeling, more strength, more skill. He supposed it was the same with his soul…after all, being able to finally admit he’d been raped was a huge step and if he could face it then, then certainly he could heal from it. Perhaps those shattered pieces were being put back together, fused with gold and starting to look whole again.

Slowly, he looked in the mirror, only catching his own eye for a brief moment before turning away. He took a deep breath before raising his eyes again. The first thing he noticed was that he had, in fact, lost weight. He’d suspected as much, having had his clothes taken in recently, but the small layer of fat over his ribs had shrunk to the point where he could start to see the shape of his bones. He ran his fingers along them, shuddering only slightly as the touch reminded him of his past. No, he was safe – it was his own hand touching his own body – that was okay; in fact, it was as though he was reclaiming it. He put his hand to his neck that had been bruised with unwelcome kisses. His skin had healed – no one would be able to tell he’d been beaten…and no one could tell he’d been raped either. He’d been wrong to think such a thing…as if for months it had been visibly stamped somehow on his forehead. No, no one could see his shame. It wasn’t even his shame…he had nothing to feel ashamed about. He had done nothing to encourage Mr. Salas. In fact, he’d done absolutely everything in his power to try and stop him.

“I left the door open…” he said aloud. He had to swallow and take a deep breath before continuing…still not completely believing the words that came next, but saying them anyway. “But, it was not my fault.”

A sharp knock at the door broke his concentration. “Come on, Once, I’m starving!”

Starving…yes, he was too and from the look of his ribs, he could definitely stand to eat something. He pulled one of the hotel robes from a peg and wrapped himself in it. It only came to his knees and several inches of each arm were showing…including his scars. He was always fully dressed around people he didn’t know very well, but Stephanie was his friend and may even be his wife someday. Besides, he’d seen plenty of her skin in those shorts and tank top, which he saw she’d changed into when he came out of the bathroom. He looked at her awkwardly and then turned his gaze to the floor. He wanted his gloves and full suit on.

“I got tacos. I figured that was something we’d both enjoy.”

He had heard of tacos – seen pictures of them – but never actually eaten them. However, he knew it wasn’t something he could eat with a fork and knife, so gloves were not an option. Nervously, he sat at the table and kept both hands in his lap while Stephanie unwrapped her food. He simply stared at the yellow wrapping and then at his hands.

He only glanced over when he heard a crunch and Stephanie gave a satisfied “mmm.” He used his right hand to eat, keeping the left one on his leg even though he was certain she could still see the scars from where she sat.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Stephanie said, as though she knew what he was thinking.

“You wouldn’t understand. Your skin is perfect.”

Stephanie placed the taco back on its wrapper. “I was going to wait until…if…we got married.” She reached behind her and started pulling up the back of her shirt.

“What are you…” Onceler stopped when he saw it – deformed white skin covering most of her back and going up to the area her shirt still covered. Burn scars, he knew.

“It was the summer I turned fourteen,” she started as she lowered her shirt. “I was camping with my family and I went off with some other kids to set off fireworks. I was talking to another girl when I heard one go off. It hit the back of my shirt and caught it on fire. I ran to the dock and jumped in the lake to put it out and the other girl pulled my shirt off…but my skin came with it. I have scars on my hips and rear from where they took skin for grafting. I used to be a really good swimmer, but I don’t go anymore because they show even in a one piece.”

“I’m sorry. Just so you know, yours don’t bother me either.”

“Can I see the rest of your arm?”

He was still a bit hesitant but she’d shown him her scars so he pulled the sleeve of his robe up to his shoulder and let her run her hands along his skin. “As you know, factory accident – I was reaching into one of the machines when someone – when my brother – turned it on.”

“I didn’t know it was completely severed.” Her fingers traced the scar encircling his upper arm. “How much feeling do you have?”

“Some places I don’t have any and it’s strange, like if I scratch my elbow I might feel it a couple inches over. My fingers have a tingling sensation that hasn’t gone away and the tips are still completely numb. I go to physical therapy a few times a week.”

“Okay…so, you do feel comfortable enough around me to use both hands to eat now?”

He did…he felt ‘comfortable’ around Stephanie. She was a good friend. She accepted his scars where he wasn’t sure if Rarity could. However, he knew Stephanie could never really love him…perhaps they could love each other as best friends, but she’d never be in love with him and he doubted he’d feel that way for her. He knew from whispers and rumors that a lot of cheating went on because of arranged marriages and that was no way to live. He had such a short amount of time to decide on a ‘comfortable’ life with Stephanie or if he loved Rarity enough to break the contract.

* * *

It was past six when Rarity went into her boss’ newly remodeled office to drop off yet more messages and confidential mail. He was going to have a ton of work to catch up on when he got back, which would mean plenty of late nights for both of them. She took in the freshly painted green walls, white carpet and white desk with a green design on the front of it. The apartment was no more, but they had left the bathroom and a small kitchen area intact. She was just making sure everything was separated into neat piles when she heard the glass doors open. Her heart skipped a beat as she whirled around and saw Onceler standing there. “I didn’t think you’d be back in the office until tomorrow.”

He didn’t answer; he didn’t take time to look around; he simply strode across the room and hugged her tightly before kissing her passionately. “I missed you,” he breathed when he finally pulled away.

“I missed you too.” She leaned her head toward the soft gloved hand cupping her cheek. “How was the trip?”

“Well, I did what I set out to do, so I’d say it was a success. It’s good to be back.” He sighed when he saw his desk. “That’s a lot of paperwork.”

“Yeah. So, how was your time with Stephanie?”

He shrugged. “It was okay. She helped legally, like she said she would.”

“You’ll be offering her a job then?”

“I discussed that with her on the way back, but she’s already accepted a position after graduation with the law firm she did an internship with over the summer. She asked if some of her friends could submit resumes, however, and I said they could. I have a suspicion they’ll all be women.”

“But you’re not opposed to hiring a female lawyer now?”

“I guess not. This whole thing with Stephanie…and you…has made me realize that maybe society doesn’t give women the credit they deserve.”

“You think?”

He sat behind the desk and rested his chin on his hand while he looked at her outfit of dark purple pants, a cream colored blouse and lilac silk scarf. “The truth is, in some ways, women are stronger than men and you have skills and capabilities we don’t. We go to school for years to try and learn everything, but women have this deep wisdom about them – they know things you can’t learn from a book. I understand why society has tried to keep them in the home – they’re the perfect caretakers, but I also see where these qualities could be beneficial in other areas too. Any male lawyer will be able to go out there and take a client’s case and win it for them without an emotion shown, but Stephanie is going to care about her clients and try not just to win but to do the best possible job at it.”

“There are definitely some men, I’m sure, who are just as caring.”

“I’m not saying there aren’t. There are probably women who are also uncaring, but when I had to face Salas, Stephanie was with me the entire time. She lent me her strength and without that, I don’t know if I could have even spoken to him. She’s a very good friend; I can only imagine the strength of a woman who loves someone. I mean, you love babies enough to bring them into the world and I’ve heard that’s more painful than breaking every bone in your body. Yet, all the women I know who have children say it’s not so bad and they forget the pain afterwards.”

“I’ve never had kids, so I wouldn’t know.”

“The truth is growing up with a mother who mostly raised us on her own and made a ridiculous amount of sacrifices to do so...I guess I’ve always known this. Not that her methods were always right, but I know she must care about us to do what she does. That’s why I’m not sure why women want to settle for equality when in some areas, you’re superior.”

“I don’t know. I mean, equality sounds nice, though I’m not pushing for it as much as Stephanie or some of the others. Still, I like how even when I’m not wearing pants, the board members show me respect now.”

“As they should and I apologize if I haven’t always been respectful.”

To hear him say that had to have been some kind of breakthrough. Seven months ago he was telling her she’d never be taken seriously in business and that women belonged in the home. That conversation was the reason she’d worn pants the last few days. She’d even noticed some of the other women wearing pants and overheard some of the men complaining about it. “So…you wouldn’t want me to wear a skirt tomorrow.”

“Well, it’s up to you, but…uh…I do like your skirts.”

“Stephanie once told me feminism is about choice…we’ll see what choice I make tomorrow,” Rarity said with a wink.

* * *

Rarity, did in fact, mix in some skirts with work pants during the week. The day after he’d returned, she wore an appropriate, yet semi-sexy skirt she’d seen him admiring her in from time to time. It was on that day Stephanie called him and Rarity put her right through. “Please don’t tell me this is about wedding planning or some such nonsense.”

“As if I would call you at work about that. Besides, my mother is pretty much deciding everything, right down to the pink champagne wedding cake.”

“Let your mother know I am not having pink cake at my wedding. So, if it’s not about cake or invitations or some such thing, what is this about?”

“Well, I was reading the paper this morning and there was an article about National Bank merging with First Country. They left out certain details that would make National look bad, but an article on the next page says that Mr. Salas shot himself yesterday.”

“I’m going to assume he died.”

“Yes. Apparently, when he said he liked to play games, Russian roulette was one of them and he lost.”

“Am I a bad person for being happy about this?”

“Not at all. In fact, after what he did to you, I give you full permission to be as happy as you want to about his demise.”

“Thank you.”

Onceler realized he may never be able to drink whiskey again, though, he didn’t really consider that a loss. However, that night, he invited Stephanie to join him for a steak dinner. It was only his second time ever eating it and it was delicious and oddly satisfying. Afterwards, they returned to his house where they poured all the whiskey down the sink – also, very gratifying.

It was later the next week upon returning to his office from a meeting that he saw a package wrapped in brown paper sitting on his desk. The return address made it clear who the sender had been and he figured Mr. Salas must’ve either sent it before he killed himself, or arranged for it to be sent. Carefully he opened it, unsure of what might be inside. Laying on top of an elegant wooden box he knew contained the chess set from the office was the last of these fancy, gold cards he’d ever receive. He considered ripping it up, but instead he opened it and read the short message.

Pretty Boy – be careful how you play the game.

Folded inside was an article from an environmental magazine stating that Truffula Trees had been classified as a threatened species.

“Maybe you should consider replanting some areas,” Rarity suggested when he showed her. “I mean, you could easily modify the Super Axe Hackers to plant seeds as they’re chopping the trees down. Or build greenhouses to raise saplings.”

“Oh, Rarity, these hippies only want to turn the public against this company and the good we’re doing for the economy. Look out the window; there are plenty of trees left and furthermore…”

A loud thud against the glass caused them both to jump. Rushing outside they saw a Swomee Swan laying on the stair landing, wings spread and neck bent unnaturally.

“Is it…”

Onceler knelt down beside it. He reflected on how he used to hear their song from the trees, ringing through the sky. It was oddly quiet now in the valley. No, it wasn’t quiet; their melodies had been replaced by the chugging of factory machines spewing smog into the sky. He realized the bird might have been seeking cleaner air inside the building. He took a deep breath and tried to think of what to do, but he covered his nose and mouth with his hand as he coughed. The air was thick and smelled horrible. Besides, there was nothing to be done – the bird was clearly dead. He heard Rarity give a small cough from behind him.

“Come on, let’s go inside. I’ll get someone to clean that up.” Upon entering the office he inhaled the fresh, filtered air in the building.

“I’ve never seen one of them do that before.”

“What are you talking about? Birds do that all the time”

“Not Swomee Swans.”

Could it be the air quality affecting them? Could it be the creature was seeking cleaner air? Could it possibly even be that the bird had killed itself? No, of course not – birds didn’t do that; they weren’t even smart enough to think of it. Maybe there was a way to slow down production and allow things to come back a little bit. Perhaps slow it while he worked on ideas to help his business be more environmentally friendly. These hippies might actually have some valid points.

He glanced down to where his hand rested on top of a stack of papers and picked them up. It was a report showing a twenty-seven percent increase in sales, which had earned him several million dollars. More people wanted thneeds and the more they sold, the more money poured in. He picked up the article he’d been sent. He had been assured by several board members, lawyers and other members of his team that his factory was as environmentally sound as any other and there was no danger to the Truffula Trees or anything else. Onceler crumpled up the glossy paper and threw it in the trash. He considered he may need to hire more staff. He now wanted the factory working twenty-four hours a day.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17 – Groundbreaking

The groundbreaking ceremony for Thneedville was set for the end of June. It had been decided that the town center would be near the housing development already built to accommodate all the families who had moved to the area for job opportunities at the factory.

As Rarity helped plan the ceremony and celebration gala to follow, she wondered if Onceler had any idea her birthday was the same day. She was certain she had told him when it was, but he hadn’t brought it up.

“You’d better tell him,” Stephanie said one day as they got manicures together. “You know men; he probably forgot.”

“Maybe he’s planning a surprise.”

“As busy as he is, I doubt it. We should go out for a girls night.”

Even that would be better than last year when Brad ‘treated’ her to lunch – said he picked a romantic place. “We ended up at a teriyaki restaurant and he got me the two-ninety-nine chicken special. Totally forgot I don’t eat meat, so I ended up giving him my chicken. Ultra-romantic lunch of salad and rice for me.”

“Wow, what a cheap move. Is that why you broke up?”

“No – he tried to push things too far one night, so I kicked him…you know…down there…then ran like a bat out of hell.”

“‘Down there?’ What are you – five? It’s called a penis.”

Rarity watched as the technician painted her nails a sparkly purple. “It’s okay if Once forgets…he’s pretty busy after all.”

* * *

“I have five messages here from Stephanie. I think she wants you to call her back.”

Onceler snatched them from Rarity and looked at them. “I swear, if this is about flower arrangements or dresses or some other wedding nonsense…”

He didn’t even know if he was going through with the wedding anyway. If he had his way, he’d take things nice and slow with Rarity until he was sure he was ready. However, time was not a luxury any of them had. He picked up the phone and dialed Stephanie’s number. “What is it? I’m very busy today.”

“I love you, too, darling,” Stephanie said sarcastically. “I just had a quick question…”

“If it’s about bridesmaid dresses or something like that, it’s going to have to wait because, honestly, I don’t care.”

“No, I was getting Rarity a gift for her birthday and I know it’s toward the end of the month but I can’t remember…”

“June thirtieth…is there anything else.”

“You’re sure it’s the thirtieth?”

“Yes. I have a very good memory and before you ask, yours is September tenth.”

“Do we have anything else going on the thirtieth? That’s a Friday, right? At the end of the month…”

As it dawned on him, he nearly dropped the phone and spat out that same word Rarity despised. “I set the groundbreaking for the same day…”

“Bingo. You better do something really special the day after to make up for this and get her one hell of a gift. And I don’t mean just chocolates or jewelry, but something from the heart that shows you care. Don’t forget she’s a vegetarian and whatever you do, don’t give her a thneed.”

“Are you sure? Because…everybody needs a thneed.”

“Sometimes I think you need a swift kick in the pants.”

The dial tone rang in it ear and he shook his head, matching Stephanie’s sarcasm when she’d first picked up. “Love you, too, dear.”

He had to push it to the back of his mind during the day, but when he was alone in his house that night he thought a lot about what to do for her. It really had been a serious oversight to schedule a major event on his girlfriend’s birthday. The ceremony and gala could not be moved at this late date, so he’d likely have to do something for her the day after her birthday. Maybe Rarity didn’t even care…no, of course she did. Women cared about stuff like that. Now, honestly, she could have just gotten him a card and that would have sufficed, but she really went above and beyond on his birthday making it very special. If he got her something small or messed up in any way, well, he knew women had a way of remembering that and bringing it up later.

He entered his hobby room on the second floor and ran his fingers along the guitar Rarity had found. He’d been playing every night again since his birthday, except the few nights he’d spent away from home, but he was improving every day. He hadn’t even touched his electric guitars. Holding this one made him feel connected to his father…to his family…to those who came before him. If he had a son someday, he’d pass the guitar on and teach him how to play.

Why did he just think of children? He wasn’t sure he wanted children…not with Stephanie. She didn’t want children either…well, there was something they agreed on. Besides, with both of them working, when would they ever see their kids? It would mean sleeping together and, while he thought she was absolutely lovely in a physical sense, the knowledge that she preferred other women was a turn off for him. How could he possibly sleep with her knowing she wouldn’t really be into it?

He could imagine having children with Rarity – pretty children with her dark blue eyes and his black hair with just a hint of indigo highlights. They would make amazing children together and he definitely wouldn’t mind going to bed with her…eventually…when he was ready. He wasn’t. Despite the progress in his healing, he wasn’t prepared yet for such intimacy. Rarity hadn’t even seen his arm and if she did, well, she’d never want him.

Onceler removed his gloves and flexed his left hand as best he could. His physical therapist had really pushed him today to the point that it hurt, but he’d worked through the pain. He wanted full use back. He was fine at playing guitar now – his hand seemed to remember almost instantly what it had to do. He’d even worked on learning how to play piano and his fingers seemed okay holding down the keys need to play the chords while his stronger hand carried the melody. However, he needed finer movement and reached for a pair of knitting needles and some Truffula tuft he had laying around. His right hand remembered this and his fingers curled around the needle without a problem. His left hand, however, cramped painfully when he tried to put it in that position and he had to massage it for several moments before trying again. Work, damn it, he told the hand.

It took several tries and a great deal of discomfort, but he finally started winding the tuft around the needles and forming something…no, not something…there was only one thing he’d be knitting with Truffula tuft. All thneeds now were produced by machine – hardly touched by human hands until they were opened by the consumer. It had been a long time since he’d picked up his knitting needles and the familiar motion and gentle clacking was comforting and relaxing after a busy day. People even said that the material lost its scent after being processed, but this one would retain that sweet smell of butterfly milk. This thneed would be softer and have small imperfections perhaps. Stephanie had said not to, but he could only think of one person to give this one to and he hoped she would appreciate the hard work put into it.

* * *

When Rarity arrived at work on her birthday, what greeted her was a large bouquet of flowers and a wrapped gift on her desk. She plucked the note written on fancy green stationary from the box and opened it. His handwriting in that signature red ink greeted her. She used to think it looked angry and severe, but now she thought it was sort of passionate.

Dear Rarity – I hope you did not think I forgot your birthday. We are going to be awfully busy today, which won’t give us much time together, but please know I will make it up to you tomorrow night. I’ve arranged a car to pick you up at six. Knowing that you will be running around all day and we may not see much of each other until the ceremony and gala, I want to start out your day with all the best wishes for your birthday.

She’d kind of been hoping for some kind of declaration of love, but there was none. He had, however, signed his first name and she traced the letters with her fingers. She inhaled the scent of the flowers on her desk. They were all different flowers in various shade of pink. Purple was her favorite color, but pink was a close second and the blossoms smelled divine. However, when she pulled the ribbon off the package and lifted the lid her smile faded. A thneed? Really? True, she didn’t have one, but what an impersonal gift.

She picked it up and the material slid against her fingers, feeling softer than the ones she’d handled around the factory. Not only that, but it smelled good – butterfly milk, she knew. This thneed was different…the process of going through a machine usually produced thneeds that were less soft and didn’t smell like anything. Then she noticed it…small, imperfect stitches in the knitting…it had been done by hand. He had made this thneed himself and it was likely the first one he’d done in years. All of a sudden that disbelief and annoyance melted away as she imagined him going home at night dead tired from the day and still spending some time to work on her gift. With his arm and hand still healing it couldn’t have been easy either and suddenly it was one of the most touching things anyone had ever done for her. She wrapped the thneed around her neck and went about her day. She wanted to thank him, but as soon as they saw each other it was all about business. She wanted to ask what she should wear the next day, but she knew if she brought up anything not related to the events at hand he wouldn’t be happy about it. He already seemed stressed enough. In fact, Mr. Carter had sent a congratulatory gift of a dozen expensive cigars that Rarity hadn’t even told him about because, though he had never smoked cigars, he probably would today given the chance.

He let her leave around four so she could run home and change into her gala dress. Rarity wondered what Stephanie would be wearing as she pulled out her tired old black dress from last season. She hadn’t even attended any galas this season; now that Onceler was engaged, he didn’t need another woman there deterring any inappropriate behavior. She slid the dress on and started zipping it up, but the zipper went only halfway before the fabric would not meet. Oh no.

Rushing to the mirror, she saw that the dress clung unattractively to her hips and belly making her look pregnant. Great, the last thing she needed was a rumor she was carrying Onceler’s child in addition to having an illicit affair with him. She tried to pull the fabric together in the back, but it was no use; her boobs had gotten bigger. There was no time to make a new dress or to let this one out, though the seam allowance wouldn’t really let her do that.

Rarity rummaged through her closet, finally finding the dark blue dress she’d worn the first time she’d attended a gala as his date. Sliding it on, she found it felt a bit snug, but the material had more give than the black dress and looking at it, no one would be able to tell she’d gained weight. She took a deep breath and let it out as she stood in front of the mirror. She was probably close to a size twelve now. “You are going on a diet tomorrow, Rarity,” she told herself. “No more baked goods; no more pasta…and exercise every day.”

When she got in the limo with Onceler and Stephanie, he surveyed her outfit judgingly and spoke in that tone that told her he was trying to keep his voice level, but was not happy. “Rarity, may I ask why you’re not wearing black as requested?”

“I’ve gained weight,” she had to tell him. “My dress didn’t fit anymore…especially in the tatas.”

“Breasts,” Stephanie corrected. “You’re an adult; speak like one. I think you look lovely, Rarity.”

Onceler said nothing, but Rarity noticed his eyes subtly shift toward her chest for a moment before he slid his glittery shades on. Stephanie had worn a dark green gown with a black lace bolero jacket for modesty. With her blonde hair, green looked perfect on her and she matched her fiancé’s suit. “Green looks so pretty on you, Stephanie. I wish I could pull it off.”

“Thank you. I actually prefer blue, but I thought tonight green would be more appropriate.” She turned to her fiancé who was fiddling with his pocket watch. “Nervous?”

“I’m not much for public speaking,” he explained. “Or much for the public.”

“So I guess you won’t be running for mayor of Thneedville.”

“Hell no.”

Rarity was so tired from the day’s work it was all she could do to keep awake during the ceremony. His speech was so boring and one glance at Stephanie told her the other woman thought so too. “Who wrote that for you?” Stephanie asked him when they were in the limo on the way to the gala.

“Well, I wrote a speech that, first of all, was much shorter and second, I thought was great. PR had other ideas and this is what I got stuck with.”

“It wasn’t very captivating.”

“I should fire my PR people.”

Rarity sighed and rolled her eyes. “This is the fifth time you’ve threatened to do that.”

Stephanie reached over and squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Enjoy the gala tonight. I know you don’t like these events, but you’ve earned a celebration.”

Rarity had never felt jealousy, but she sensed something had changed in Onceler and Stephanie’s relationship ever since they took that trip together. She wondered if they’d slept together…of course, they had literally, but what if they’d actually…no, that was too painful to think about. However, there was something strangely intimate about the way she’d casually touched his hand and Rarity had to convince herself that they were only friends. She followed a few steps behind them as they entered the elegant hall and wished he’d dance with her just once like he used to, but that wouldn’t happen. It would not be appropriate.

The evening was much like all the other galas she’d attended – bright lights, soft music, tinkling crystal and hors d'oeuvres she was once again not allowed to touch. Considering she didn’t fit into her dress earlier, though, this was probably a good thing, but she looked with longing as Stephanie bit into one of the divine chocolate petit fours being served.

“Once, you have to try this. It’s amazing.”

“I never eat at social functions.”

Stephanie shrugged. “More for me.” And she popped the remainder of the tiny cake in her mouth.

How did she stay so skinny, Rarity wondered. Stephanie had to be a size four at most. Rarity hung back and watched as people came up to congratulate Onceler on his success. An older lady also shook Stephanie’s hand at one point. “You must be looking forward to the day you become Mrs. Onceler. A million girls would love to be on his arm.”

“I am happy about getting married,” Stephanie told her. “But, I’ll be keeping my family’s name.”

“No, she won’t,” Onceler interjected.

The older woman laughed nervously. “Well, I hear hyphenating is very fashionable these days.”

“That won’t be happening,” Stephanie said.

“Because she’ll be taking my name.”

“No, I won’t.”

Onceler looped his arm with his fiancée’s, gently, but pulled her closer to him. “Perhaps we should discuss this later.”

“Yes, perhaps we should. Excuse me a moment.”

Stephanie turned and headed in the direction of the ladies’ room at the same time that Onceler walked off toward the courtyard leaving Rarity standing there wondering exactly what to do. Well, since he wasn’t watching her, she took the opportunity to pluck one of the petit fours off a silver tray. She had decided to start dieting tomorrow, after all, and the sugar would give her energy to deal with those two the rest of the night.

Outside in the warm night air, Onceler leaned against a wall, grateful to be out of the crowded hall and let himself think. He didn’t imagine he’d ever be here. He thought he’d sell a few thousand thneeds and live comfortably, but modestly. Now there was a whole town named after his invention; he had more money than he’d ever dreamed and here he was, outside wanting to escape the whole thing. The clicking of a lighter found his ears and soon after his nose caught the familiar and welcome scent of cigarette smoke. Weeks had gone by and very rarely had he had a craving, but right now the stress made him inhale deeply hoping even the second hand smoke would help him get a fix. He opened his eyes and looked over at the young man who was probably close to his age smoking near him. He recognized the dark brown hair and eyes hidden behind smart-looking glasses. Jack Blythe – youngest son of an oil tycoon who worked for the family business, but not very hard, so Onceler had heard. Most of these men who had grown up in society simply enjoyed their youth and wealth as much as they could before settling down.

Jack smiled and extended his hand. “Good evening, Mr. Onceler and congratulations on your success.”

Onceler gave his diplomatic smile and accepted the handshake. “Thank you.”

“Came out here to escape?”

That was a bit personal. “I just needed some fresh air.”

The other man laughed. “And here I am smoking.”

“I don’t mind. I used to smoke myself.”

“It’s not a cigar, but you should definitely have one to celebrate.” Jack held out a cigarette case filled with what Onceler realized was his favorite brand.

Yes, he deserved this – just this once, he deserved and needed to give into his old vice. Before he knew it, he had accepted a cigarette and lit it. The taste on his tongue and smoke traveling smoothly into his lungs completely sufficed his craving. “Thank you, sir.”

“Call me Jack. Must’ve been a stressful time planning all this.”

Onceler smiled. “You have no idea.”

“And I hear you’re planning a wedding too. You’re engaged to the Decklers’ daughter, right?” When he nodded, Jack continued. “She’s awfully pretty, but she’s not my type.”

“She…she has her redeeming qualities.” With Stephanie being so difficult this evening though it was hard to think of them at the moment. He took a long drag of his cigarette. No, she didn’t have ‘redeeming qualities’ – she was a right pain the ass and he didn’t want to marry her! He didn’t know why he offered up the information that came next. “It’s an arranged marriage. I don’t love her.”

“I think we deserve to be happy and be able to marry the people we love.” Jack stubbed out his cigarette. “I want to find someone with dark hair and pale skin.”

“There are lots of eligible women in there who fit that description.”

Jack stepped a bit closer and spoke in hushed tones. “I wasn’t thinking of a woman. I was actually hoping maybe you’d…”

“No.” Onceler removed the glittery blue shades from his face – the ones Rarity said made others wonder about his sexuality. He almost apologized, but he wasn’t going to say ‘sorry’ for being straight. His heart pounded; the last time he’d rejected another man, well, that had ended badly. “I’m not interested. I prefer women, actually.”

“My apologies.” Jack took a step back and cleared his throat. “I’m usually never wrong and with the way you dressed, I assumed…”

Onceler finished his cigarette and put it out. “There’s always a first time to be mistaken.”

“Mr. Onceler, sir…I would appreciate your discretion in this matter,” Jack said nervously.

“I won’t say anything to anyone.” He slid the shades back over his eyes.

“Thank you and just so you know…you deserve happiness too…and love. I hope you find it.”

Onceler gave a polite nod before heading back into the ballroom where he felt much more calm after having a cigarette. Stephanie wrinkled her nose when he stood next to her. “Have you been smoking?”

“You know full well there are many people who go out there to do that. The smell must’ve gotten on my clothes.”

“So this is how our marriage is going to be, is it? Lying to each other?”

“I’d rather lie to you than with you, darling.”

“Let’s continue our conversation later, dear.”

“Of course.”

Later happened in the limo on the way back and Rarity sat quietly just watching and wondering why it was such a big deal to Stephanie anyway. She wasn’t sure why, but she got the feeling she didn’t really have a last name. Supposedly it was Belle, but that didn’t sound right and she would gladly take his if he asked.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Stephanie. You are joining yourself to my family, not the other way around. You will take my name; our children will have my name and there will be no talk of hyphenation or any such nonsense. I don’t care how fashionable it is.”

“It’ll be interesting to see you try and have those children on your own.”

“Well, then, maybe we shouldn’t have children.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t get married.”

“I would absolutely love it if we had a say in that, but considering we don’t, you will take my name. In fact, I believe that’s part of the contract.”

“Because my identity doesn’t matter, right? I’m just a woman, so it doesn’t matter if I want to keep my family name and all the history it represents.”

“What? The history of being wealthy socialites until the money ran out and now their only chance of being rich again is to marry off their daughter and hope for something in return.”

“And what history does your name carry? Digging in farm dirt and wearing rags?”

“Stephanie!” Rarity exclaimed, shocked.

“That’s right, my name represents a family who knows the value of hard work and you’re marrying someone who rose up above all the discrimination and hardship to have what you’ll eventually share. You should feel grateful to be taking such a name.”

“But I don’t. It’s crazy; I’m supposed to marry you in six months and I don’t even know your first name.”

“That’s too personal to tell you yet.”

“Why is it something embarrassing like Milton or Preston? Oh, wait, it starts with R, right? Richard? Ryan? Raymond? Ralph? Raoul? Randy? Rufus?”

“Stephanie, just stop trying. It’s none of those and it’s not embarrassing, however, it’s old-fashioned and hardly used anymore. Not a name I would give my son. And regardless of their first names, I know what their last name will be,” he told her seriously as the car pulled up in front of Stephanie’s house.

“Well, I’d like to say I had a great time, but you opened your mouth,” she said as she opened the car door. “Don’t get out; I can walk myself. I’ll see you later, darling.”

He matched her sarcasm. “Until next time, precious.”

Rarity waited until they had pulled away from Stephanie’s home to talk to him. “You haven’t even told her your name?”

“I don’t know her well enough yet. It’s bad enough she knows certain things about my past, which I only told her because she went on that trip with me. I don’t have conversations with her like I do with you. We’re too different. I don’t know how I’m going to marry her in January.”

“There’s a way out of it,” Rarity said softy.

“I know…but I’m not ready. I was thinking in two or three years maybe…not six months. Trust me, certain chapters of my life feel resolved in a way, but I’m not ready for that step or that kind of relationship. I like Stephanie for the most part; I’m comfortable with her, but when I’m with you I feel different…peaceful and happy.”

“I would never want to put pressure on you, but the pressure is on. You have six months to decide if you’re going to be comfortable or happy. I’m sorry, but you will need to step out of your comfort zone on this one. The time for concealing facts about yourself because they’re ‘too personal’ is over. Whether it ends up being me, Stephanie or someone else, you need to open up more and trust others. I know this opens you up to being hurt, but it also opens a door to one of the greatest experiences in life. I don’t think you want to miss out on that.”

Onceler slowly nodded as the car rolled up to Rarity’s boarding house. “I’ll take that into consideration.”

“You won’t tell me where you’re taking me tomorrow?” Rarity asked as he walked her to the door.

“No, it’s a surprise.”

“How should I dress?”

“Something nice, but casual and comfortable. I prefer women in skirts, but if you’d like to wear pants, you may. That’s your decision. Prepare for a relaxing evening.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow then.”

He responded by kissing her gently and warmly removing any jealousy or doubts she’d felt that evening.

* * *

It was past midnight when Onceler finally arrived home and he couldn’t wait to crawl into bed. All the weeks of planning were over and he might actually be able to rest now. Although, there really was never rest for him – running the factory kept him busy enough. He removed his glittery shades and stared at them for a moment. Damn shades. Maybe he should change the way he dressed. Perhaps he should wear boring gray and black suits instead of sticking with his ‘personal fashion statement’ as some magazines called it. They only said that because he was rich; if he were still poor and dressed like he did then he’d be labeled as crazy.

He ran his thumb along the rim of his glasses. No, he liked the way he dressed; it set him apart…even if people did think he was gay. He was thankful Jack had humbly accepted that Onceler was, in fact, straight and hadn’t been pushy or, worse, tried anything. A dark hand reached into his mind and pulled a memory forward of those very glasses being plucked from his face and flung across the room.

He knew what this likely meant and shook his head. No, the last flashback had been in the hotel almost two months ago and, while the attack still came to his mind at least once every day – though, usually, briefly – he was definitely healing. Diane had even said he was making excellent progress. Why now?

It was getting hard to breathe and he loosened his tie, which only made him think of how he was bound with that fine silk. He had to get a hold of himself. He couldn’t let the darkness overtake him.

Diane had told him to pick an object and focus on it and with little else in reach, he plucked the small Truffula tuft from his lapel. It was such a bright pink, so different from the dark in his mind and the fibers moved gently when he breathed on it. He was to focus on that – and only that – until the memories that tried to surface were buried again. He squeezed the tender trunk tightly in his hand and held the small tree under his nose almost smiling at the way the soft tuft tickled and regaining his ability to breathe by inhaling slowly and deeply the scent of butterfly milk. He was safe. He was in his house – he was not in the apartment that no longer existed with a rapist who was now dead.

When he opened his eyes he saw his fingers had bent the fragile tree, fibers had fallen off the tuft and what was left looked limp and sickly. This tuft had lasted him a while – while it would never grow, putting it in water every night kept it from dying – but he knew in his haste to end the torment of his mind, he’d killed the tiny tree before its time.

He dropped to his knees, his breath causing what little was left of the tuft to detach and fall silently to the carpet. Why did he feel so horrible about this little tree? After all, didn’t his machines chop down several in a day? What was it about this one that made his soul fill with guilt?

What was left of the little tree squiggled and warped in one of eyes.

He couldn’t help it.

One tear…

* * *

The next evening Rarity dressed in a black blouse and a knee-length white skirt with purple sandals and her barrette for a pop of color. Finally, she wrapped the thneed he’d given her around her neck. As he’d arranged, the car picked her up at six and she was whisked away to parts unknown. However, the more she watched from the window the more the wondered exactly where they were going. She knew they were now in Thneedville, but it was a residential area and the car finally stopped in front of a standard, two-story house with a fake plastic lawn. The door was slightly open when she climbed up to the porch, but she knocked anyway.

“Rarity, come in!” he called.

This wasn’t his house, so who lived here? Cautiously, she stepped into the large open living room with its cream colored carpet. A large window let in light and made the place seem light and cheery. This was a new house – something told her no one lived here and never had. She wandered into the dining room where a table had been set for two and could smell something delicious from the kitchen. A chilled bottle of sparkling cider was on the table next to a small, wrapped box. Salads had been set out along with water glasses and there were candles on the table, even though they wouldn’t need them.

Onceler finally emerged from the kitchen carrying two plates of pasta containing colorful vegetables in a creamy sauce. “I’m not a professional chef or anything, but I hope you like dinner tonight.”

“Yeah…it looks good…” even though she’d sworn off pasta just last night. “Whose house is this?”

“Here, open.” He plucked the present from the table and she realized it was sitting on some folded-up papers.

Rarity shook the package, which rattled before she opened it and dumped two shiny keys into her hand. “I…I don’t…”

“The house is for you, Rarity. No more boarding house. I care deeply for you, and I want you to know you have somewhere and are secure.”

It was too much. She should say she appreciated it, but…well, he’d already paid for it, obviously, she realized as she unfolded the papers, which were the deed and other necessary documents listing her as the owner. Yes, she might as well keep it…it would hurt him, after all, if she refused. “I don’t know what to say…thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, Rarity.” He kissed her in that way that made her toes curl and a warm sensation settle deep in her.

A brand new house, which must’ve cost him thousands, was a ‘don’t mention it’ item. She was grateful, and happy, especially with the way he was kissing her now. However, she found herself still most impressed with the thneed wrapped around her neck…a gift that had cost him nothing but time, which was far more valuable than mere money.

She also appreciated the dinner he’d made. While simple, it was delicious and she figured she could always start her diet again tomorrow. She tried to peek into the kitchen from where she sat at the table in the dining nook, but couldn’t see much.

“I’ll give you a tour later, don’t worry,” he said smiling. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Could I get a cat?” Rarity wasn’t sure why, but she felt that it would really be home if she had a fluffy white cat padding around.

“It’s your house. You can do what you want.”

She noticed the table and chairs they were using were the dark, wood ones from his old apartment and now that she glanced back into the living room she definitely recognized the green couch under the window. It was only natural that he’d want to get rid of some of the furniture from the apartment, she realized. He didn’t want any reminders in his new house of what had happened to him. “Did you have an appointment with Diane today?”

“Yes. It’s going well. Some days I think I can stop going to therapy altogether. When I get really busy, my mind doesn’t have time to wander to the past, but then I’ll think about it and I’ll try to remember that it wasn’t my fault. Usually I believe it. I feel like there was closure when Salas died, but I’m still not one hundred percent past all this.”

“Perhaps you should get rid of that chess set he sent you.”

“Somehow that actually doesn’t bother me. It’s more a reminder that I won the game he tried to play. Besides, the chess pieces are real ivory; I’m not getting rid of that.”

Rarity felt that before she would have told him the practice of hunting for ivory was horrible, but somehow she stayed silent. He’d gone through a lot of trouble to make sure this night went well and she wasn’t about to ruin it. After dinner, as promised, he took her around the house. Much of it was furnished – some pieces were ones from his apartment, but others were new. The best part was the master bedroom with its walk-in closet. There was already a comfortable-looking bed covered in purple bedding, which matched the lilac walls. Her bare toes sank into the plush white carpet as she ran a hand along the white vanity that matched the nightstand. “You thought of me when you picked this out.”

He laughed a little, almost nervously. “Actually, Stephanie picked a lot of it out, I just…”

“Paid for it?”

“Yes, although she bought the bedding and curtains. I told her you liked purple.”

“Well, Stephanie has very good taste,” Rarity said as she sat on the bed with a bounce. It was indeed comfortable and she lay back on it letting her body sink into it. “You need to try this. It’s great.”

Tentatively, she sensed, he lay beside her. Both their legs dangled off the edge and she could feel the warmth of his gloved hand next to hers. Gently, she took it in hers and wondered what it would be like to sleep next to him…maybe even with him holding her. She felt a twinge of jealousy realizing Stephanie had slept in the same bed as her boyfriend when they were traveling together, even though she knew nothing had happened. They’d slept on the sofa bed together after that horrific night, but that wasn’t a normal situation. She rolled onto her side and slid her arms around him. “Thank you so much.”

He responded by kissing her and she savored those deep, passionate kisses that awakened feelings in her she didn’t even know she had. His hand was on her ribcage, just below her breast and she hoped he’d slide it up…no, she didn’t just hope – she yearned for his touch, but he didn’t grant her that. The hand reached around, rubbing her back gently, stopping at the band of her bra just near the clasp. Yes, he could if he wanted – she’d let him unhook it, take it off and do whatever he wanted to her! She rolled onto her back and felt his weight on her. This wasn’t like that time with Brad – she didn’t feel pinned or forced, but instead Onceler’s weight was gentle and warm covering her like a blanket. His knee was between her legs; she felt something pressing against her and she would not have stopped him if he tried lifting her skirt.

Instead, he stopped and pulled away, breathing heavily, cheeks pink with what Rarity didn’t know – desire or embarrassment? “I’m sorry, Rarity, I should have shown more restraint.”

More restraint? He didn’t even do anything! “I’m not sorry. We could if you…”

“No, Rarity, we can’t. I want to, believe me, but as far as I understand, you’re not on birth control and I don’t have a condom on me. It would not be a smart idea to let this go further.”

As much as she felt a slight disappointment, logic and reason erased the passion brought to her mind by hormones and desire. He was right; they were adults and with that came responsibility. She definitely didn’t want a child, although knowing him he would likely then do the honorable thing and marry her instead of Stephanie. That wasn’t a good reason to have a baby though. Neither of them were ready for that responsibility!

She lay her head against his chest, listening to the sound of his heart…she liked this too, just cuddling. She watched as her breath made the Truffula tuft on his lapel quiver a bit and she reached up to stroke it. Then she froze. Her fingers touched it again. It wasn’t an actual Truffula. It was fake. “What happened to your real tuft?”

Onceler cleared his throat. “It finally died. I tried to find another this morning, but I couldn’t.”

“What do you mean you couldn’t?”

He shrugged. “There just weren’t any. I didn’t find any seeds either to plant one. I made this from some feather stuff I had lying around.”

“Once, this is serious.”

“I just didn’t look far enough into the valley. I’m sure some little trees will turn up. Seeds too. Everything will be fine.”

Rarity bit her lip. Why couldn’t she speak up to him anymore? Why was she just believing what he said when her eyes showed her something different? The valley seemed perpetually dark. The trees no longer looked healthy. The Bar-Ba-Loots were gone. The Swomee-Swans and Humming Fish had gone silent. The price of Truffula fruit had increased significantly.

But it was okay, so Onceler told her – so he told everyone. Everything was just fine.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18 – Jitters

The hot, unbearable summer seemed to stretch long that year. The days of August crawled by and the heat didn’t let up once September rolled around either.

“…and I was supposed to also remind you that Stephanie’s birthday is on Sunday and I made reservations for you two at her favorite restaurant,” Rarity told him, finally finishing up his reminders for the day.

“Oh, joy, an evening with Stephanie. I suppose I should get her something nice.”

“Most girls prefer chocolates, flowers or jewelry.” Rarity looked up from her notepad. “Don’t give her a thneed.”

“You know, with the amount I’m selling, you’d think someone would be grateful to get one as a gift.”

“I’m sure many people are, but coming from you, it’s a bit impersonal, unless you make it yourself…because I love mine.”

“Of course you do, Rarity. Everyone loves thneeds.” He looked up from his paperwork to see her taking a deep breath. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Sorry, sir,” it felt weird calling him that at work and then using more familiar terms after when they would hold each other and kiss. “I started a new medication.”

“Are you sick?”

“No, it’s birth control. Since it makes your body think you’re pregnant, it can cause light morning sickness when you first take it.”

Birth control…his mind flew back to that evening in July and the make-out sessions that followed, which were almost as hot as the unbearable heat. She wanted to have sex someday…and he, well, he was definitely coming around to the idea, especially if it was with her. In fact, after that night, he’d put a condom in his wallet, just in case, though they still weren’t at that point. Over the summer, he’d had no further flashbacks, no further dreams and he and Diane had agreed to therapy sessions every other week instead of weekly. The thought of a woman – especially Rarity – touching him, going to bed with him, no longer scared him. He certainly knew he’d probably be a little nervous his first time with a woman, but that was normal for anyone. The only thing holding him back was the one thing Rarity still hadn’t seen concealed under his left glove.

After she’d retreated to her office, he slid the glove off and flexed the fingers of his hand. He was finally able to make a fist, though his nerve connections were still wired wrong in some areas causing parts of his arm to still be numb. The scars glared at him, pink and ugly. He shouldn’t be so vain – it was obvious Rarity loved him, so why should it matter to her what his arm looked like? It mattered to him though. He’d regained skill, being able to do most of the things he’d been able to do before the accident. Dr. Granger seemed pleased enough, but he, like the physical therapist, was focused so much on the arm getting stronger that he seemed to dismiss any skill Onceler had regained. However, that night after finishing his physical therapy exercises at home, he wondered what Dr. Granger would say if in about two months – one year after the accident – he was able to do something with his left hand he hadn’t been able to do before. He sat down at the small desk in his hobby room and picked up a pen in his right hand, twirling it a few times, tapping it against a blank sheet of paper before finally allowing the fingers of his left hand to close around it.

* * *

“It’s not really hard, you know, you just arrive when I’ve scheduled you to,” Onceler told the driver who had come to pick him up to head off to Stephanie’s.

“So sorry, sir.”

Why am I such a jerk sometimes, Onceler thought. After all, the guy was only five minutes late. “Pop the trunk for me.”

He circled around to the back of the car and lifted the trunk lid up so he could put Stephanie’s gifts inside.

“Hey, Beanpole!”

No…not now! Not when he was already running late. “I don’t have time, mustache.”

“Oh, you’ll have time for this. I had to send the Swomee Swans away. There’s too much smog in the sky from your factory. They can’t breathe and they can’t sing.”

He realized he hadn’t seen a single bird around for days, but that was hardly his fault. “My factory runs by burning tree trunks for energy. I’ve been assured it burns clean. If there’s a problem with the air quality, it’s not from my factory.”

“That’s another thing – you’re still hacking the trees to the ground. The Swans didn’t have enough places to nest.”

“Well, pity the poor birds.” Onceler turned his attention back to the trunk.

“Do you even care anymore? What happened to the man you used to be?”

“Who are you to lecture me about my life or judge me?”

“It seems someone has to get through to you. What are you looking for in there anyway?”

Annoyance rose in him. He was already late; he didn’t have time for this nonsense! “I’m looking for a damn to give, but, frankly, I’m not finding one.” With that, he picked the Lorax up and unceremoniously tossed him in the trunk. “There, maybe you can help.” With a slam, the trunk was closed and he sighed. He hoped the gifts, which he now picked up off the ground would soothe any anger Stephanie had at him being late to pick her up.

Thankfully, she lived not too far away in a modest townhouse. He was kind of surprised he’d never been there, though, while they were friends, they weren’t terribly close and, just like him, she valued her privacy. It was a shock however, when he knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman almost as tall as he was who surveyed him with soft brown eyes. “I know you.”

Onceler wondered for a moment if he had the wrong house…had Stephanie tricked him or something? “I’m here to pick up Stephanie.”

The Amazon stepped aside. “She’s still getting ready.” She must’ve noticed his annoyance and laughed lightly. “I know, women, right? Come in. I’m sure she won’t be long.”

He stepped into the foyer. Here he’d been so worried she’d be angry at him and she wasn’t even ready. The other woman called up the stairs for her and he heard his fiancée answer that she’d be down in a minute.

The tall woman ran fingers through her dark brown hair, which complimented her olive skin. Onceler noticed she wore ruby earrings that sparkled when the light hit them. “I’m Gloria, by the way. It’s so nice to finally meet you. Steph talks about you all the time – good things, of course.”

He doubted that. “Funny, she never mentioned you.” She was rather beautiful, but looked nothing like Onceler’s fiancée. “I didn’t even know she had a sister.”

Gloria laughed. “I’m not her sister.”

“Sorry, you’re her roommate, of course. That makes more sense.”

“You’re really cute, but I suppose you could put it that way.”

“Well, what else would…” I like girls, he heard Stephanie say in his mind. I’m an idiot, he realized. Of course Stephanie wouldn’t mention Gloria. She knew how he felt about relationships like…well…like that. Two women living together in a relationship…sleeping together…doing more in bed than just sleeping…while it was a bit hot to think about, well, to him, it was also unnatural. No, not just unnatural, it was downright wrong. He’d known for months Stephanie was a lesbian – she hadn’t exactly hidden it, but when he was around her, he could almost forget that. He’d even thought perhaps the idea of having a husband had grown on her – that maybe she’d seen this was how nature had intended things to be and accepted it. However, now facing the truth standing there in the foyer with him, obviously, this was not the case.

The clicking of shoes on the stairs caused him to turn as Stephanie quickly descended wearing a blue cocktail dress. Her makeup seemed simple; her hair was no different than usual; her shoes were slip on heels, so what had taken her so long? “Oh, good, you’ve met. Once, this is Gloria and, Gloria, this is the guy who invented that overrated scarf thing you love so much.”

“Thanks for that, Stephanie…I appreciate my ingenious invention being referred to in such a way.”

“Ignore her,” Gloria said. “I do love mine. It’s amazing. You, sir, are amazing for thinking of it.”

“Thank you.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Don’t encourage him.”

“We should get going. We don’t want to miss our reservation. It was nice to meet you, Gloria.”

“Likewise. No hanky-panky, you two.” Gloria winked at him and playfully punched his shoulder.

Stephanie laughed. “Right, because that’s going to happen.”

Onceler turned his head as his fiancée kissed her girlfriend goodbye. It dawned on him that in their nine months of being engaged, they’d never even come close to kissing. In fact, if he ended up marrying her, their first – and likely awkward – kiss would be on their wedding day. He knew how she felt and, though he liked women, he had no desire to kiss her, or hold her, or go to bed with her. In fact, they very rarely touched each other, only occasionally looping arms or holding hands mostly for appearances sake.

“Are those for me?” Stephanie asked, once they were in the limo. Her eyes were on the pink gift bags.

“Of course. Happy birthday. Open this one first.”

Stephanie eagerly tore into the tissue paper and then annoyance crossed her face before she pulled out a thneed. She ran her thumb along the perfect stitching. It wasn’t even handmade…it was one he’d plucked off the line in his own factory.

“Something wrong, darling?”

“I’m attempting to find some measure of gratefulness in my heart for this glorified scarf you have so generously…no, no, I can’t. Really? A thneed?”

“You don’t like it? Your girlfriend seemed impressed.”

“Why don’t you form it into a dildo and use it to go screw yourself?”

“Haven’t you read the tabloids, darling? Apparently, I already do.”

Stephanie threw the thneed at him.

“Hm, my fiancée is displeased. Perhaps you’d appreciate this gift more,” he told her, handing her the other bag.

“I swear if this is some kind of thneed accessory…” However, her face softened when she pulled out the velvet jewelry box and lit up when her eyes took in the sapphire necklace and earrings inside. “These are gorgeous. Okay, I like you again.”

“Good to know. Every time I mess up, I’ll just buy you jewelry.”

“Works on most girls, though it depends on the size of the mess-up,” she said pulling out the fake jewel earrings she had worn and putting in the real gems. “How did you know sapphires were my favorite?”

“I didn’t exactly, but I knew you liked blue and it’s your birth stone.”

She clipped the necklace on and observed how it looked in the mirror of her compact. “These are lovely. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” He noticed she wore her engagement ring, as she usually did when they went out and she was twisting it nervously around her finger. He knew it wasn’t that she wanted to, but if she didn’t and photographs were taken, well, the press would have a field day. If only they knew. “How long have you and Gloria been together?”

“Four years. We were roommates together our senior year of college and one thing led to another.”

“What does she do?”

“She’s in her last year of veterinary school. She loves animals. We have a cat, but eventually she’d like a dog.”

“I never knew you had a pet.”

“Just like you, I guess I like my privacy.”

“Speaking of Gloria, you realize that if we end up married, I expect fidelity from my wife.”

“I don’t know if I can promise you that…and I don’t know if you can uphold those vows either.”

“I have every intention of remaining faithful.”

“So, if we get married, you’ll fire Rarity?”

“Of course not. She’s the best assistant I’ve ever had.”

“She’s also your girlfriend and if you expect me to be faithful, it’s not an extraordinary request for me to expect the same thing.”

The limo stopped and there was a thud from inside the trunk followed by an annoyed pounding. “What was that?” Stephanie asked.

Oh, right, that little orange nuisance was still in there. “Nothing. That was weird.” Onceler opened the door and stepped out before offering his hand to help her.

Stephanie turned, opened her own door and got out. “I know the rules of chivalry say to help me, but I can get out of the car myself.”

Onceler considered perhaps he should put her in the trunk as well.

* * *

The crisp chill of October came faster than anyone expected. One day it was sunny and seventy degrees and the very next everyone needed jackets for the forty-degree weather. Something seemed missing from autumn though, but Rarity couldn’t remember exactly what it was until she passed by a shop in town to see someone had painted multicolor leaves on the window. She ran her gloved fingers along the glass, her breath visible in the air as the pounding of hooves filled her head. It was like something out of a dream…horses running…leaves falling. There was something…something she was supposed to remember…or do…there was a hot air balloon…there were rainbows…apples…

“Hey, Rarity!” A familiar voice called.

She turned to see a face she often saw at work but hadn’t considered a true friend in over a year. “Hi, Lisa.”

“Shopping for new winter clothes?”

Rarity smoothed out her purple suede jacket. “I make most of my clothes, actually. I might hit the fabric store later. They’re having a pretty big sale.”

“I know. They’re going out of business because everyone is shopping at the new, bigger fabric store in Thneedville.” Lisa sighed. “He just keeps expanding and building and…what’s that word he uses?”

“Biggering.”

“Yeah…and things just get worse.”

“This new city and all the attraction it holds will bring more people to the Truffula valley.”

“Wake up, Rarity…there is no Truffula valley anymore. The animals are leaving or dying. The trees that are left look sick. Most of our old friends have left the area. Brad went south down near Whoville because the Bar-ba-loots have shown up there and he’s trying to help a group get them acclimated to their new home.”

Honestly, she’d almost forgotten about Brad, but having been reminded, she didn’t want to hear about anything he was doing. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

“Maybe, but they’re out of their element and their primary food source was Truffula fruit. Have you seen how expensive it’s gotten?”

“I never really cared for the taste.”

“Then you’ll be one of the few who will miss them when they’re gone.”

“They’re not going anywhere. There are plenty of trees left.”

Lisa reached over and ran her hand along the painted leaves on the window. “It’s not just the Truffulas. Haven’t you noticed that nothing is crunching under your feet this year? This whole area is dying. I put in my notice yesterday. I’m not going to stick around to watch. I’ve already watched you go from someone who cared to someone who hangs on Mr. Onceler’s every word like most of the people around here.”

“He’s not trying to hurt anyone…he’s just trying to keep his business running.”

“He could do a better job, but either he doesn’t care or he doesn’t see the problem. I had hoped you’d be the one to help him see that problem, but you’re more interested in being romantically involved with him.”

“Just for the record, we are not sleeping together.”

“If you say so. I should go.”

“Lisa…”

“Bye, Rarity.”

Rarity watched her former friend disappear into the crowd and realized that was one big thing missing from her life. She had romance, but very few friends. She had the feeling she did once…she was loved once…needed…important…now her closest friend was Stephanie, but even she was distant at times. She’d been even more distant lately with the wedding coming up fast. Rarity had been invited to her bridal shower and wasn’t sure exactly what to get her. She felt a twinge of jealousy thinking about buying lacy under things for this woman who might go to bed with her boyfriend. Rarity’s boyfriend…Stephanie’s fiancé…the same man. That’s why being friends with Stephanie was so complicated. The thought that he might honor the contract, marry Stephanie and keep Rarity on the side for fun times was unbearable. The thought of him sliding silk and lace from her body – which was so much nicer than Rarity’s own – made her sick. The idea of sharing the same man…Rarity’s heart couldn’t handle it.

They had discussed being intimate…thought about it. She’d planned for it and she’d seen the foil wrapper in his wallet indicating he had the same idea. Now, though…as much as she wanted him…he would only get her one way. She made up her mind then and there that if he wanted her that way, he’d have to make a promise to be with her and only her. And she’d tell him this Monday morning: the first man to be with her would have to be her husband.

* * *

Rarity knew her boss would be less than thrilled when she saw on his schedule that his mother had scheduled a meeting that evening with the matchmaker and Stephanie’s family. The wedding was now a little over a month away and she could tell every time Onceler and Stephanie were together that tension was rising between them. In fact, at the bridal shower the previous weekend, Stephanie had seemed less than thrilled at receiving all the silky nightgowns and lacy panties. The ladies who were there – most of them married already – had giggled as they gave her advice on what do with her husband.

“I never knew all this,” Stephanie had said after one lady told her it was very important to pee after sex. “I figured I’d like kiss him and put him in a corner or something. I guess I’d have to feed him, too…”

“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” another woman told her. “You better ask your job for shorter hours so you can get dinner on the table in time.”

A visibly pregnant woman laughed. “Forget working once you start having babies!”

So, as Rarity walked into the smaller conference room with Onceler that evening, she wasn’t surprised to see Stephanie staring at her hands clenched nervously on the tabletop, seated between her parents. Onceler took a seat next to Isabella. The matchmaker stood at the head of the table. “This is just a check-in before the wedding to make sure everything is going well.”

Isabella nodded. “We’ve taken care of the wedding certificate, the rings and honeymoon arrangements.”

Stephanie’s mother slid over a piece of paper. “We’re receiving the RSVPs back, Stephanie’s dress came in last week and all other arrangements for the ceremony and reception have been taken care of.”

Isabella picked up the invitation and scrutinized it. “Perfect.”

The matchmaker turned to Stephanie. “Now that you have your dress make sure you don’t gain weight – we don’t want a fat bride at the wedding.”

Stephanie leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “I’m going to start eating so much chocolate.”

“Also, young lady, it’s been brought to my attention that you’re refusing to change your last name.” The matchmaker shook her head and clicked her tongue in disapproval. “The contract states you take your husband’s name.”

“You know, times are changing,” Stephanie told her. “Most people today, they fall in love and get married – they don’t need a matchmaker. And a lot of women keep their name.”

“We could just not get married,” Onceler suggested. He jumped slightly as Isabella kicked his leg under the table.

Stephanie nodded. “I like his idea. This marriage is never going to work.”

“I agree with her. We could be good friends, but we’d be miserable as husband and wife.”

The matchmaker must’ve noticed their parents looking nervous. “Don’t worry. These are just normal jitters before the wedding. All couples go through a period of adjustment. Eventually, you’ll learn to get along.”

“We shouldn’t have to learn to get along,” Stephanie said. “We should be in love and we’re not and this feels wrong. Besides, he’s in love with Rarity!”

“I thought you were going to break up with her!” Isabella snapped.

Onceler folded his hands and spoke in an even tone. “I don’t believe I ever said that and discussing my romantic life is rather personal.”

That’s when Rarity realized something…his actions showed he loved her – she was certain he did…but he had never once said it. What if he did intend to honor the contract? What if he really did marry her? After the meeting, she followed him back to his office silently and watched as he paced around his desk a few times before sitting in his chair and flinging his glasses on top of a stack of papers. “What am I going to do?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’ right now, Rarity.”

“I would use more familiar terms, but that meeting leads me to believe perhaps we’re not as familiar as I thought.”

“Excuse me?”

“Stephanie says you’re in love with me and instead of agreeing, you dodged the entire comment.”

“Oh, Rarity, you know how I feel.”

“I like to think I do, but I’ve never heard it. You call her ‘dear’ and ‘darling’ sarcastically, but you always use my name. You have no term of endearment for me and you’ve never once told me you love me.”

“I thought it was obvious.” He was silent for a moment. “Rarity, my family was never big on expression, you know that. I didn’t grow up telling anyone how much I loved them or using any name that wasn’t their own. Even when I was with Norma, I can’t ever remember saying those things. It just wasn’t natural to me. I know you said I had to step out of my comfort zone and I have, but it’s not that easy for me.”

“You’re getting married in about a month. I love you, Once, I do, but I can’t just keep on waiting and wondering what your decision is going to be. Let me know when you’ve decided.”

“Rarity…”

“If there’s nothing else, sir, I’ll be leaving now.” She turned and made her way across the plush carpet before he could respond.

* * *

It ached…it was like a gnawing feeling in his gut and heart. Rarity was ready to reject him. It had been a week since the meeting and she hadn’t even given him the opportunity to apologize. Though, he felt he hadn’t exactly done anything wrong. Hadn’t he proven his love for her? Still, she wouldn’t let him hold her hand or hug her. He knew how he felt; she must’ve felt it too, but once he said those words, he knew what she’d be expecting. He still valued his privacy…to share his home, his life, his soul with someone…it was terrifying. And yet, he knew if he didn’t, he’d always wonder what his life could have been like.

A knock at the exam room door stirred him from his thoughts and he managed a nod of greeting as Dr. Granger entered.

“Sorry about the wait. How are you today? How’s the arm doing?”

“It’s fine.” Onceler sat in a chair, his grotesque arm bare to the one person he didn’t mind seeing it. Rarity would find it repulsive. “When will the scars heal?”

“They look to be healing fine for the time that’s passed, but it could take years for them to whiten.” The doctor held his hand up against Onceler’s palm. “Press against my hand. Good, any pain?”

“A little, but not much. It’ll never really be the same, will it?”

“With an injury like this, no.”

“Did I exceed your expectation of getting thirty percent function back?”

“It’s definitely weaker than your other arm, but I think we can start working on more skills. What have you tried so far?”

“Everything, even playing piano and knitting.”

“With the injuries sustained, you must be pulling my leg. That’s quite impossible. Your physical therapist reports that your fingers can’t possibly have that dexterity yet.”

Impossible. From what he had heard, reattaching a severed limb had been ‘impossible’ ten years ago and here he was with his left arm intact…not perfect…never the same…but there. His eyes traced the scars. Kintsugi. “I’m sorry, but I forgot to write something important down earlier. Do you have a pen and paper?”

“Of course.”

He took the items from Dr. Granger, the pad in his right hand and the pen in his left. Then, slowly, but just as neatly as if he’d written with his right, he penned two simple words onto the paper. “I have to remind myself of this. I forget it sometimes.”

“That’s impossible,” the shocked doctor said.

Onceler lay the pad and pen down on the counter. “I’d keep that note if I were you.” He slid his arm into his coat sleeve and pulled his left glove on. “I think I’m done with my therapy. Thank you.” And with that, he left the room leaving behind a simple message on a blank sheet of paper: Nothing’s Impossible.

* * *

Sleep would not find him that night. He watched minutes tick by until close to midnight when he could stand his restlessness no longer. Convinced a walk might help, he threw on a suit and stepped out into the cold darkness of night.

Onceler was a person of business – contracts were drawn up and honored and if they weren’t it ruined reputations and made others want nothing to do with you. Sound business reason told him fulfilling the requirements of the marriage contract was the right thing to do. Being his mother’s son told him if he didn’t, he faced her wrath and disapproval. Even with the clause about love, no doubt if he chose Rarity, they’d attempt everything to stop him.

Surely it wasn’t right to force he and Stephanie into an unhappy life together. It would be great if Gloria were a guy so Stephanie could break the arrangement. But, no, the universe wouldn’t make it that easy for him. He would either lose some of his honorable status or his chance at happiness.

A sound caught his attention – a thump followed by a rustling. It happened again and he quickly walked over to where it was coming from. At first he thought it was a child, being so short, but no, with those curves, it had to be a grown woman. She was kicking the tree, no doubt trying to get the fruit to fall. He didn’t legally own the land, but folks in the area knew these were essentially his trees and respected his authority. “What are you doing?”

The woman gasped and turned to run, but his long legs had carried him over to her in about three strides. He grabbed the hood of her coat and she screamed. “Don’t hurt me!”

“I’m not going to do anything to you except ask you why you think you can steal what’s mine!”

Slowly she turned and gazed at him with chestnut brown eyes he hadn’t seen in years. Strapped to the front of her was a small baby. Neither spoke for moments while they simply stared, taking in what was still the same and trying to figure out what had changed. His voice was the first to work. “Norma?”

“I…I just wanted to see the trees again…and for my baby to see them.” She rested a pudgy hand on her baby’s head. “She fell asleep though.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you.” His mind flew back to years ago when they were together. Babies and marriage had been the furthest thing from their minds – in fact, they hadn’t wanted that back then. He had heard through the social grapevine that she’d married some wealthy mogul who owned a chain of hotels back in February. Her baby had been born in late August. Society tip-toed around it saying the baby was an ‘early honeymoon child’ but everyone was smart enough to do the math. He wanted to ask who the father was, but as far apart as they’d drifted, it would not be an appropriate question. “If you wanted to see them, why didn’t you come during the day?”

“Because of exactly this. You threw us off your property when we protested…”

“It looked bad to have all of you outside my factory.”

“I figured that might happen again.”

“Technically, this area is still public land, but it is dangerous during the day when the Super Axe Hackers are out.” He glanced again at the baby. “Boy or girl?”

“Girl. I named her Helen.”

“That’s a good name.” They were so close once. Why was this so awkward? The way she looked in the dim moonlight reminded him of their date after prom. She’d gone to prom; he hadn’t – prom was a ‘don’t-even-think-about-it’ experience. She’d ditched her date and met him by the trees near the school. They’d talked for hours, held hands, kissed...fell asleep on the blanket and woke up around dawn. Rumors would fly around town and school until they graduated.

“I hear you’re getting married soon. Congratulations.”

“It’s arranged.”

“I’m surprised you would agree to that. You always said you’d find someone you loved.”

“I also never figured I’d be in the position I am. Her parents aren’t as rich as they once were and my family wants higher status in society.”

Norma gave a sad smile. “My marriage was arranged too. It’s not ideal. He’s nice enough – treats me well; adores Helen, but I don’t love him. That makes it hard. If I think about the future – about spending the rest of my life with him – it gets a little depressing. I almost wish I’d just toughed it out as a single mom and waited for love.”

“I could break my engagement if I wanted to marry for love.”

“Is that a possibility?”

“It is.”

“No one should tell you what to do – not society, or your family, or me – but if it were me, I’d follow my heart and if I found love there for someone, I’d let it lead me to them and that’s who I’d chose.”

“Thank you, Norma. You did always know what to say.”

“Once, I’m sorry I never stayed in touch. I don’t know what happened to make you change so much…maybe we both did…but…”

“Norma, every story ends. It doesn’t matter how good of a story it is. Ours started junior year when I refused to let you give me charity.”

“It was an apple I didn’t want. You were starving.” She laughed. “You insisted on giving me whatever you had in your pocket and pulled out this rusty nail and some snail shell you had…and what, like ten cents?”

“Pretty sure it was at least fifteen. Anyway, our story ended when you got on that train to go to college. It was hard, but you had to live your life and I didn’t know where mine was going. We ended in two different places. It happens. I hope you and Helen find happiness in life. You deserve it.”

“I want the same for you…and love. It can’t be all about money and business…find love and happiness. Everyone deserves that.” She made a small step forward like she might hug him, but in the end, she whispered goodbye and walked off through the scarce trees.

He’d heard the same thing that evening he’d talked to Jack. His heart wasn’t something he listened to much anymore, but he knew where it would lead him…and he hoped he wasn’t too late.

* * *

“This had better be important,” Onceler said as Rarity followed him toward engineering.

“I doubt they’d call you down if it wasn’t.”

“Yes, well, my idea of important may be very different from theirs.” He pushed through the double doors with authority. “Gentlemen, there had better be a very good reason you’ve asked me here.”

“Mr. Onceler, sir, the workers have reported a slight backup of run off.” The chief engineer rolled out a blueprint. “It isn’t much yet, but if it continues it will back up into the factory and could halt production for a while during the time it would take to clean. The issue is that it’s gumming up the valves that allow it to run out, however, we noticed that they’re not open all the way. What I’d suggest is opening them to allow maximum run off.”

“The problem with that is they’ll dump right out near the river,” Onceler pointed out. “It’s already getting in the river, but if we open the valves completely it’ll completely poison the water. Couldn’t we build more pipes to carry it away from the river?”

“That would take at least a week and we’d have to shut the factory down while we do it.”

“Other options?”

“Those are it unless you want to do nothing and have to shut down for who knows how long once the run off completely backs up into the factory, which could cause major damage to the machines.”

The door opened and Rarity couldn’t help but make a face at the familiar clacking of tacky blue boots. “I just heard about the trouble.” Isabella glanced at Rarity. “You still work here?”

Rarity plastered an empty smile on her face. “Yes, ma’am.”

Onceler went over the options with his mother who seemed to think opening the valves was the best idea. “The problem is it’ll dump more sludge in the river,” he told her.

“It doesn’t supply any water used by human populations,” one of the engineers pointed out.

“What about the fish?” Onceler asked.

His mother gave an exasperated sigh. “You won’t care about fish when you have to shut down the factory and you’re not making any money!”

Onceler nodded. “Shutting down for a week would cost us millions.”

“Exactly,” Isabella said. “Plus, while you’re not bringing any money in, I’m sure the factory workers would expect some kind of compensation for wages lost.”

“If we open them up all the way, we can keep functioning as usual and then during the late night shifts when we’re less productive, we can shut down the pipes one at a time and clean the valves,” the chief engineer explained.

Onceler ran his fingers over the blueprint right where the river was. Rarity knew he was aware – as was she – the damage would already be done. He was worth billions – a few million dollars would not even be missed.

Isabella reached over and squeezed her son’s shoulder. “You know the right decision. Do what’s best for the company.”

He sighed heavily, tapping his fingers against the paper. “Open the valves all the way and release the run off into the river, but clean them as fast as you can and get them back to how they were.”

“Yes, sir.”

Rarity followed him out the doors and back to his office. He fell into his chair, tossed his shades on the desk and buried his face in his hands. “Great, now I guess I’ll have to deal with that annoying orange meatloaf again…”

“Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to close for a week.”

“Rarity, you heard it – it would cost me millions.”

“Which, you can easily afford. I’m sorry if you won’t be able to buy that private island you’ve been wanting that you’ll never visit because you’re always here working, but for every dollar you save, a fish will probably die.”

“Does everyone think I don’t know that this factory has an impact on the environment? Of course I do – I doubt it’s as bad as people say, but I honestly don’t know the solution. The Lorax would rather I just shut everything down, but I can’t do that. That would ruin the livelihoods of thousands of people. Sometimes I sit by myself and ask myself if it’s really so wrong, but mine is not the first factory like this and if I didn’t do it, someone else just would, so how bad can it possibly be?”

As much as Rarity wanted to argue with him, it actually made some amount of sense. The factory could not continue – this type of consumption and pollution was not sustainable. However, he had given thousands of people jobs and built a town to help with the growing population. There had to be some type of compromise, but thus far, no one had found one. She tried to think of it while she worked, but there were meetings and mail to sort through and his schedule to make for the following day. It was well past seven by the time she walked into the office – high heels off because her feet hurt – and placed a folder on his desk. “Is there anything else you need before I leave, sir?”

Onceler put down his pen and checked his pocket watch. “I didn’t realize it was that late. Yes, sit down, Rarity; I have something to ask you.”

She relaxed in one of the chairs across from his desk and he took a seat in the other. He wasn’t wearing his shades and she could see nervousness in his eyes. He clenched his gloved hands and glanced at her before returning his gaze to the floor. “Rarity, you’re the best assistant I’ve ever had, but considering I plan to get married, it’s time to start training a new assistant. It wouldn’t be appropriate for you to continue working so closely with me.”

Rarity felt her heart speed up and her face flush. You still work here, Isabella’s voice asked in her head. “You’re…you’re firing me?”

“Not exactly. I’m giving you an opportunity for a special position I’m only offering to you.” He took a deep breath. “These last couple of weeks have, frankly, been torture. I didn’t mean to push you away, but I understand your reasons for treating me so formally. You’ve always been giving and, as far as far as our personal relationship goes, I’ve never asked you for anything. It’s hard for me because I’ve never been accustomed to sharing my feelings or asking for things, but you told me you loved me and I wanted you to know that…I love you, too, so much. I thought perhaps my actions were enough, but it is nice to hear it, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, still wondering what kind of position he’d have created just for her at the company and unsure she’d even accept it. Even if she wasn’t working directly with him anymore, she’d still have to see him; she’d still love him and he was getting married. They weren’t going to be together and she’d still have the heartache of imagining him going home to Stephanie every night.

“I wanted to ask for one thing…and I hope you’ll grant it to me.” He slid from the chair onto one knee. “I can’t…and don’t…want to live without you, Rarity. Will you, please, give me your hand in marriage?”

She’d honestly imagined this moment for a long time and it left her speechless at first, especially when he pulled a jewelry box out of his pocket that contained a diamond ring. He was doing it…he was breaking his engagement to Stephanie for her. It had been torture for her too not to be near him and she did…she wanted this…she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Oh, for heaven’s sake, she told herself she wouldn’t cry but her eyes were watering. “Yes…yes, I will.”

Rarity couldn’t remember seeing him this excited. He was usually so calm and collected, but he grinned widely as he slid the ring on her finger and then hugged her and gave her their first sweet kiss in about two weeks. “I’m sorry I’ve been so frigid,” Rarity said.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you how I felt sooner…but now that I’ve said it, I think I can tell you more often.” He kissed her forehead. “I love you so much.”

“I love you more.”

“I love you most.”

“I love you more than most.”

He held her close so she could feel the laughter vibrating through his chest. “You win, Rarity.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 – The Way You Lean

Their upcoming wedding demanded discretion. Only Stephanie and Gloria knew so far and Onceler’s former fiancé couldn’t have been happier when they told her. She had hugged him so tight Rarity wondered if he could breathe, all the while shouting: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

However, they knew until they were actually married, they needed to be careful or they’d be stopped somehow from going through with it. Rarity asked Stephanie and Gloria to be her attendants.

“I didn’t know you had so few friends,” Gloria said.

Rarity laughed. “I have a feeling I once did, but I don’t remember much about before I came here. There must’ve been an accident or something because I can’t recall my friends, family, where I’m from…”

Onceler squeezed her hand. “We’ll make our own family and new friends.”

He told her later he would ask his brothers to be his witnesses, but not until the day before or the day of to keep his mother in the dark. As far as anyone else was concerned, he was still marrying Stephanie on January first, but in reality, he and Rarity would exchange vows in a few weeks on December sixteenth. She hadn’t expected how restricted it would be. Even when she talked to him about picking out material for her wedding dress, he shook his head. “Rarity, if anyone sees you buying that stuff or suspects you’re working on a wedding gown, they’ll know. Right up until then, we have to be careful. You have many beautiful dresses from the galas we attended – choose one.”

It was a bit disappointing that she wouldn’t design and make her own dress…that they wouldn’t have a fancy wedding with lots of people, thousands of flowers and a huge cake. She couldn’t even wear her engagement ring, but when it came down to the important things, well, they had the basics. They would be together; they were in love; they would have a few close people with them. And after…she smiled at the thought of sleeping next to him, of him holding her gently. She at least did buy a white lace bra and matching panties along with a white silk slip trimmed with more lace to wear under her dress. In the end, she chose the ice blue dress she’d worn to the Christmas gala the year before. Due in part to cutting out pastries and most pasta and walking further to the bus stop every day, she had dropped enough weight that it once again fit her perfectly. It was close enough to white and she did look beautiful in it.

“Are you nervous?” She asked him one night in the office when they were together savoring a few moments just to themselves.

“About getting married? No, I’m certain I want to spend my life with you.” He kissed her forehead, then her nose, then her mouth. “It’s hard to resist doing that all day.”

“Well, soon I’ll be your wife and we won’t be working together anymore and you can kiss me whenever you want.” She sighed as his lips found her neck. “Yes, and wherever you want.”

His teeth nibbled at her skin sending shivers down her spine. She was backed up against something and as she reached down her hand slid against a smooth surface – his desk.

He was kissing her again hungrily and his hand grasped her thigh. As she tasted the sweetness of spearmint on his breath she was so glad he’d given up smoking so she could enjoy this. She could tell his need was growing as he leaned her back as though he was going to have his way with her right then and there. Oh no…she feared that was exactly what would happen if she didn’t stop him. But the warmth of his hand trailing up her thigh felt so good she didn’t want him to stop. Yes she did. No she didn’t. Yes. No…yes, as she thought about it, she realized this was a great way to spice things up during marriage or a kinky scenario for an adult film, but was not the situation in which she wanted to lose her virginity. She put her hands on his chest and gently pushed him away.

“Are you okay, Rarity?”

“I want to, I do, but not like this…not sprawled out on your desk…not before we’re married.”

Onceler gave her a soft kiss on her forehead. “I had not planned to do anything like that. I’m sorry if my actions made you uncomfortable.”

“No, they didn’t really…actually, I liked it…but I just want to stick to my principles of having my first time be on my wedding night.”

“I respect your wishes.” He kissed her cheek and whispered in her ear. “And I promise you, I’ll make it special when that time comes.”

Wow, even in the heat of the moment, excited as she could tell he was, he not only listened, but apologized. A man like that was hard to find. Rarity smiled. A man like that deserved something special. She put her hands on his shoulders. “You know, there is something I could do for you…” she steered him backwards, “…something I think you’ll really like…” with a push she had him sitting in that plush burgundy chair of his, “…something that will also let me keep those principles…” she lowered to her knees in front of him her fingers ready to undo the fastenings of his pants, “…if that’s okay with you.”

His eyes widened for a second before giving her a knowing and accepting smirk.

Rarity had always assumed doing such a thing might make her feel dirty or cheap or even humiliated. What she hadn’t expected as she ran her hands along the fine material covering his thighs was a feeling of seductiveness. As his breathing went from controlled to increased, she realized the power this gave her over him and she rather liked it. When out of her peripheral vision she saw his gloved fingers curl tightly around the armrests and heard him, hard as he tried to stay silent, let out a deep moan, she felt the power she had grow and rise up in her. For the first time in their relationship, she was the one in control…in control of his pleasure. She looked up as he gasped loudly – “Oh, Rarity!” – and felt a sense of enjoyment for herself at seeing him lean his head back and close his eyes.

And Onceler would later admit that sometimes – not often, but sometimes – it was rather satisfying to give up control to someone else once in a while.

* * *

The doors of the factory were now closed at all times to keep out the putrid smell of rotting fish from the nearby river. Rarity stood near the double glass doors, looking out at the gray landscape, the overcast sky and the few bits of color from the remaining – though sickly – Truffula trees.

“Can you make sure I did this right?” asked Cindy, the new assistant she was training.

“It shouldn’t take a genius to brew a cup of coffee.” Damn it – she sounded like him. Well, he hadn’t exactly been as mean to Cindy as he’d been with Rarity at first, but he definitely wasn’t nice. This innocent-faced nineteen-year-old would just have to get used to being snapped at from time to time.

“Cream or sugar?”

“He takes it black.”

A gasp came from near the desk along with the sloshing of hot coffee hitting fine wood. “Oh, horse apples!”

Rarity rolled her eyes and walked over. The coffee had not only spilled on the desk but all over the papers he would need for the board meeting that morning.

Cindy’s breathing was rapid as though she might hyperventilate at any moment. “What do I do? He’s going to kill me!”

“He’s not going to kill you. These are copies – look in the file on my desk with today’s date and make new copies. Put these in the shred bin and…” it was hopeless; Cindy looked like she was two seconds away from crying. Rarity could hear her fiancé’s voice in her head: what do I pay these idiots for? “You know what. I’ll take care of the papers. You clean that up and brew more coffee.”

“What do I clean it up with?”

“Napkins, tissues, your skirt, a thneed – just take care of it!” Rarity rushed to her office, grabbed the necessary files, copied them and hurried back to Onceler’s office in time to see him push open the glass door quickly and slip in.

“It stinks out there,” he commented, then turned his attention to the stack of papers in Rarity’s hand. His eyes knowingly flickered over to Cindy. “Why weren’t those on my desk before I came into the office?”

“T-they actually were, but what happened…well, I was…”

“Just be quiet. I’m not really interested in hearing tales of your incompetence.” He accepted the papers from Rarity and flipped through them. “Do you have my schedule?”

“Of course.” Cindy pulled it out and rambled off all his meetings and events for the day, then stopped. “And then there’s something on here at five about a therapy appointment. Is that a mistake?”

“No, it is not. Thank you.”

“You’re in therapy?”

He gave her that patronizing smile Rarity remembered so well from when she started working. “Cindy, I don’t pay you to ask about my personal life. Your job is to make sure I have what I need to do my job, not pry into things that are none of your damn business. Now, if you have finished, you may go.”

She started to leave as Onceler took a sip of his coffee. He made a face then set it down. “Cindy, get back here!” When she approached his desk, he continued. “Did Rarity explain to you that I take my coffee black?”

“Oh no…I was…I put sugar in it like I normally do at home.”

“I know; I can taste it. Do you want me to get cavities? Make it again and do it right this time. It shouldn’t take a genius to brew a cup of – black – coffee. Are you going to cry because if you are, just get out of here. I don’t have time for that. Either learn to do your job and do it right or I can find another young woman willing to take your spot in about two seconds.”

Rarity watched Cindy blink a couple of times to keep tears from falling while she made a cup of coffee for a third time and set it on his desk just as he checked his pocket watch. “I don’t have time to drink that. I have a meeting in five minutes. Cindy, stay and answer the phone or something. Rarity, come with me.”

It was as they were walking down the hall that she finally spoke to him. “Could you be a little nicer to her?”

“And start a rumor that I’m going soft?”

“It’s still her first week.”

“Yes and she screwed up making a cup of coffee. It’s not brain surgery.” He caught her blue eyes with his and noticed the ‘please’ carried in them. “Fine, I’ll try to be a little nicer, but she needs to learn to do her job right.”

“Thank you and I’ll work on her training.”

“I’m going to return to my office to find coffee spilled all over my desk and ‘screw you’ written in lipstick on the glass door, aren’t I?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised; I had considered doing that myself from time to time.”

* * *

“When does a person know they’re done with therapy?” Onceler asked Diane that afternoon as he sat on the now-familiar red couch.

“Usually when they feel they’ve moved on from their trauma. I know our sessions haven’t been as frequent, and our discussions haven’t involved you talking about it so much, so my guess is either you feel ready to stop completely or you’re close.”

“I had this dream the other night and even in the dream I knew it wasn’t real. I was in my old apartment being pinned to the wall by Mr. Salas, but the thing is, I wasn’t scared at all. I pushed him away and told him plainly that he couldn’t hurt me anymore. I felt so strong being able to do that and he sort of disappeared. When I woke up, I didn’t feel like I had been struggling for air or anything. At first it was kind of strange because I haven’t had any kind of dream or flashback for months, but I think it was a sign that I’ve accepted my past and really healed from it. I don’t like thinking about it, but the truth is, it’s not something that comes to mind every day anymore and when it does it’s not pleasant to think about but it doesn’t hurt as much. It…makes me feel like I’m strong because it didn’t destroy me.”

Diane smiled and nodded. “I think this could be our last session. You can always call if something comes up, but you’ve made excellent progress and you’re a far cry from the person I met in January. I bet you’re glad now you came to therapy to shut your girlfriend up.”

Onceler laughed lightly at the memory. “It’s definitely helped. Since everything here is confidential, I should tell you that Rarity and I are getting married next week.”

“Congratulations. That means you won’t be marrying Stephanie then, I take it.”

“Nope, but Rarity and I are keeping it on the down low because our families would not take this well.”

“I understand. So, are you feeling comfortable at the prospect of your wedding night?”

He nodded. “I’m definitely ready and looking forward to it. She wants to wait until then and I respect that, though, we’ve been a bit intimate already and that went great. My only thing is she seems so pure and I worry I’d be destroying some of that.”

“Not at all. When you come together intimately in love – and especially being married – you’re going to find purity and beauty in that.”

“I suppose I am a little nervous. It’ll be my first time with a woman after all, but I bet she’s probably nervous too.”

“And that’s perfectly normal. Everyone is their first time. Take things slow, talk to each other, hold each other, just let things happen naturally. Remember communication is very important – sometimes you have to tell your partner what you’d like or what does nothing for you. Also, expect a little awkwardness the very first time; that’s not unusual, even if you know each other well, even if you’re married.” A timer went off. “Well, that’s it then. You have my number if you ever need it, but I think you’ll be just fine.”

“Thank you for everything. You put me back together again when I thought broken beyond repair.”

Diane picked up the porcelain bowl with its golden scars. “Take this with you; consider it a wedding present. Keep it somewhere so you’ll always remember how far you’ve come.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Extend my congratulations to Rarity.”

“I will. Thank you again.” He shook her hand and left the office. Upon arriving home, he placed the bowl on a table near the door to remind him that nothing could shatter him completely.

* * *

Finally, the day came they had secretly planned for. Rarity wished her family could be there…she wished she could remember who they were, but the accident or whatever happenings had cleared her memory of everything before the day she set foot in the factory had wiped them out. She must’ve had a mother and father, perhaps even brothers and sisters. She might have had friends she considered family, but right now, hard as she tried, she simply couldn’t remember.

She would, by the end of the day, have a husband who loved her dearly and brothers-in-law who had always been nice to her. Her other in-laws…well, maybe they’d warm up to her someday and in the meantime, she could learn to tolerate them.

Rarity left work early to prepare herself. She showered and made sure her legs were shaved. Her hands trembled as she pulled on her new pair of lacy white panties and clasped the matching bra behind her. She wouldn’t be the one taking them off tonight…he would. She was ready – more than ready, actually – she wanted to be with him, to give herself completely to him, but it still made her nervous thinking about it.

She left her indigo hair down letting it air dry into soft curly waves as it always did and clipped in the blue barrette she’d had since she could remember. Running her fingers over the three diamonds she realized they represented something about her past…something she’d forgotten…something important. Standing in front of her full length mirror, she was pleased with how she looked. She wished she had a veil, but the blue barrette was regal enough.

Rarity looked around. Was she forgetting anything? She swore she was as she maybe got the tiniest glimmer of memory in the way a crystal piece painted a rainbow on her wall, as she saw an apple sitting on the dresser, as a pink butterfly charm glistened on her jewelry box and as through the window, under the sparkling stars she saw a child walk by with a bunch of balloons. It felt as though these things were important somehow, but she couldn’t remember why.

She knew she’d come back for her things at some point, but she wouldn’t be back tonight. Tonight she’d be in her new home with her new husband and a new chapter of their lives would begin. With those thoughts, she left and made her way toward the chapel, stopping only for a moment to buy a bouquet of white roses.

“Rarity?” A familiar voice asked as she turned away from the register, the roses now wrapped in white lace with a ribbon that matched her dress.

She looked up to see Norma in front of her, a basket of flowers in her hand. She felt guilty for leaving the environmental group and pain over the friends she’d lost when she’d chosen Onceler over them, but not enough to regret her decision. “Hi, Norma.”

“Off to a gala?”

They had been friends once…him and Norma…if things had turned out differently, it might be her choosing a wedding bouquet. The store was deserted except for the two of them – even the cashier had gone in the back, so she might as well tell the truth. “We’re getting married tonight…Once and I.”

Norma gave her a smile and reached out, squeezing her hand. “Congratulations.”

“Norma, I’m not sorry I’m marrying him, in fact, I’m happy…we’re really happy, but I am sorry for hurting the group…for the friendships it caused me. You have to understand, though, I know I didn’t know him when you did, but he really is the same sweet guy at heart. He’s just had such a rough life and has had to make decisions and choices that weren’t easy.”

“He made his decisions, all right…and I made mine to distance myself from that. I believe he’s capable of the same kindness I saw in him, but he’s not the same guy. Maybe your influence has brought some of that back in him, but no one is ever the same again. But if you say he’s gotten in touch with the person he used to be, I believe you. So, give him your love, your kindness, your generous heart and giving nature and maybe he’ll see the error of his ways before it’s too late. I sincerely wish you a lifetime of happiness together. Please give him my congrats as well.”

“Thank you, Norma.”

It was a short walk to the chapel where she met up with Stephanie and Gloria. Stephanie hugged her and touched her hair. “Rarity, you look lovely.”

“You look beautiful too.”

Stephanie also wore blue, but in a deeper shade and a much simpler design. Her neck and ears sparkled with sapphires. Gloria had chosen a deep red dress that matched her ruby earrings. “I know it doesn’t match, but we got something for you,” Gloria told her, handing her a small box.

The bride opened it and saw a simple necklace with a few purple gems on it. It seemed appropriate coming from them – Stephanie, cool and refined, blue being her signature color and Gloria loving red expressing her fire and passion. It would be a reminder of their friendship – red and blue mixed together. “I’ve never seen gems like this.”

“Those are garnets,” Stephanie explained. “We thought they’d go well with your hair.” She clasped the necklace behind Rarity’s neck.

Rarity looped her arm with her friend and entered the chapel. When she saw him standing there in his green suit like he always wore, any fears in her heart melted away. There was no music, so she simply walked slowly down the aisle even though she wanted nothing more than to run to him. He was so much her goal that she hardly noticed his brothers standing nearby. And when they were finally together and he held her hand, he looked at her with such love and sincerity in his eyes that she felt overwhelmed like she might burst into tears at the joy she felt.

“You look beautiful,” he said, placing his free hand on her cheek.

He wasn’t wearing his gloves for once and she savored the feeling of his bare fingers against her skin. They turned to face the pastor, both ready for this step that felt like a giant leap they could only make together.

“Friendship is one of the most powerful and magical of elements,” the pastor began. “But when that friendship becomes something more, something deeper, we call it love. It is a force that brings us the strength to endure anything. With that special person by our side, we can brave the fiercest of storms and find joy in the most peaceful of times. If you’re ready, please face each other and join your right hands.”

When they had done so, the pastor said aloud the vows they would repeat to each other. And when Onceler said them, she could hear the pure love in his voice. “I take you, Rarity, to be my wife. Before these witnesses, I vow that I will cherish and respect you as we journey together. I will be with you in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer and I pledge all my love and fidelity to you until death do us part.”

Rarity couldn’t stop the tears as she repeated similar vows to him, making the same solemn promises.

Onceler slid the band on her finger first, settling it in front of her engagement ring. She had never actually taken a close look at his left hand before and while there were still scars from his accident, she didn’t mind. She accepted him, flaws and all, to be hers. “I give you this ring, an unbroken circle made of precious gold as a symbol of my unending love and a reminder of the promises we made today.”

The pastor placed his hands over theirs. “May the powers that created this universe bless you and watch over you all your days. I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

They sealed their union with a soft, gentle kiss.

* * *

Rarity hardly noticed the journey back to his house – no their house, now. This weird, tall house with its many hidden secrets he had built in was theirs to share. It would be a place for them to grow together as a family. She let her mind fly to years ahead and wondered what their children would look like. She wondered what it would feel like to sit on that porch fifty years from now as their silver hair shined in the sun. They had a lifetime ahead of them, she realized as he carried her into the house.

He held her hand, leading her through their home and ran her thumb against the soft material of his glove, almost glad he’d put them back on after the ceremony. She had only been inside one time – right after it was built and only on the first level. He’d done a fantastic job designing it with hardwood floors and antique furniture in their living room with windows that looked out on the valley. She saw a door that led to a kitchen but she could check that out later. She hurried up the stairs and at the second landing discovered he’d made a small room already set up for sewing.

She felt him nuzzle the back of her neck. “I thought maybe you could try your hand at fashion designing again.”

That’s right, Rarity remembered. I’m a fashion designer.

There was another room on that level which was empty and as if reading her mind, he said: “It might be appropriate for a little person or two…later on.”

Children…he wanted children with her. Rarity smiled. She wanted to have his children.

“Come on,” he purred in her ear. “Best room’s at the top.”

As they ascended the stairs and entered the bedroom, the first thing she noticed was the large bed covered in dark green sheets. A lighter green comforter had already been turned down. It looked like a very comfortable place to sleep. Of course, she realized they wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight…maybe not for the next couple of nights…and that thought made her tingle with excitement. And when they did sleep, it would be next to each other…every night…for the rest of their lives. The thought was comforting that she’d fall asleep and wake up with the same person.

Onceler ran his gloved hands along her arms as he gazed into her eyes. “I love you so much, Rarity.”

Before she could respond he was kissing her with more passion than he ever had and she realized he was just as excited for this night as she was. His arms slid around her and in one fluid motion he unzipped her dress and pushed the fabric down so it pooled like water at her feet. She shivered now only clad in the silky slip with lace she’d put on underneath. Her hands found the buttons of his coat and undid them. He kissed her neck, gently nibbling the skin causing her to gasp in surprise. She took advantage of this to undo his tie and fling it away somewhere…she didn’t care…they’d find it later. He flawlessly lifted the slip up over her head and tossed that into oblivion with the tie. It was only when she grabbed the top of his glove to take it off that he stopped and pulled back.

“Can…can I leave the gloves on?”

“Are you serious right now? No, you are not wearing your security gloves on our wedding night.” It was then she realized: he was just concerned about the left glove. She had only seen his hand, not the rest of the arm. No, she had – when that accident happened. Nothing could be worse than that and whatever his arm looked like now; he had nothing to fear from her. “Listen, I accepted you as my husband…flaws and all. I promise I will not stop loving you because of a few scars.”

She started with the right glove, sliding it off and dropping it to the floor before slowly removing the left one. As she gently removed his coat and shirt letting them fall with a soft whisper to the carpet, she allowed her eyes to examine the arm he thought was unfit for anyone to see. There were scars that were still pink starting from the one that encircled his arm where it had been severed and others, some jagged caused by the machinery and others straight and fine from a surgeon’s scalpel. She ran her fingers along the imperfect skin and in it found beauty. She had married a strong man – one who overcame seemingly impossible odds in his life. She knew she’d been there with him in dark times and he’d be there to be her strength and comfort when sorrow touched their lives. She placed a soft kiss on the back of his hand right over the scar that ran across his flesh. “You’re beautiful to me.”

His mouth hungrily found hers again and his deep kisses made her moan with pleasure. She felt a sudden pop of release as he unhooked her bra and that also was flung away to places unknown. His touch on the sensitive areas on her chest was not like when Brad had done it without her permission. This was welcome – more than welcome – and caused a sensational tingling just below her navel.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to do that…” he whispered as he broke the kiss.

She laughed as he lifted her up, though she could tell he struggled with his left arm still somewhat weak. It was only a few steps to the bed where he gently lay her down on the cool sheets made of some kind of fine fabric. His fingers traced the waistband of her panties before he slowly slid them off. “You’re stunning…”

Rarity reached up and ran her fingers through his ebony hair. “I love you.”

She thought she’d prepared for it with all the romance novels she’d read, but it hurt – not just one little burst of pain followed by ecstasy unmatched by anything else – no, the entire time she was convinced something was being bruised inside her. She tried to ignore the sound of her head banging against the wooden headboard. Onceler seemed to be enjoying himself, so she said nothing and waited for it to be over. Why did people do this? What exactly was the big deal? Was every time going to be like this? She hoped not.

She lay there afterwards wondering exactly what had just happened.

“Are you okay, Rarity?”

It should have been the greatest experience of her life and somehow, it wasn’t. It hadn’t been bad, it had just been sort of quick and painful and weird. She almost couldn’t believe she’d done it. She’d felt far more seductive and sexy that day in his office. Not wanting to disappoint him, she plastered a smile on her face and nodded. “Of course I am.”

He kissed her gently and she savored that tenderness she’d hoped would accompany her first time. She recalled being told it would be awkward, but she figured that was the case if people did it when they were teenagers or something, not on her wedding night.

Rarity waited until her husband had fallen asleep before getting out of bed. She avoided the mirror as she went into the bathroom to clean up. Unsure what to think, she remembered something else she’d been told – pee after sex. She wasn’t sure why, but she did it anyway and then sat on the toilet for a long time recounting what she’d just done. She didn’t exactly regret it – after all, she loved her husband and had been more than prepared to be with him – but she was a bit disappointed. Was her only purpose in the relationship to be there for his pleasure? Wasn’t it supposed to be good for her too?

Eventually, she returned to those green sheets and slid between them huddling as close to Onceler as possible – mostly for warmth, but also hoping he’d wake up and hold her or something. No, his physical activity had apparently exhausted him.

Sleep must’ve found her because she woke up sometime in the early hours of the morning having gotten her wish of tenderness. Onceler was stroking her hair and gazing at her as though she were the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Without a word, his hand brushed over her ear, neck, shoulder, lower…oh no, was she going to have to do that again? The answer was apparently yes as he rolled on top her and she braced herself for the pain.

Except…it didn’t hurt. This time was completely different…this time was the experience she’d read about in books. It was a grand thing that ensnared the senses…a symphony…it was like the most beautiful symphony ever conducted as hands explored and breath mingled. As instruments began to play tender, delicate notes that left the listener wondering exactly where this was going and how it would end. It conjured up all thoughts of love and beauty. The music began to build and swell toward something they both knew was exciting and wonderful, and on another level, deliciously terrifying. Fingers played faster sending frenzied notes into the air. Finally, the symphony exploded with a crescendo encompassing every kind of ecstasy and joy and unbridled passion known to man. Then just as soon as that seemed like the end of this musical journey, a few small notes, the last bits of pleasure and love floated up into the air hovering there for a moment or two before dissipating and leaving two people laying close to each other, trembling fingers intertwined, still reeling at this intense, intimate joining of their bodies and souls.

Rarity lay her head against his chest, not wanting this moment to end. She felt him kiss the top of her head.

“I love you, Rarity…so, so much.”

“I love you more.”

“I love you most.”

“I love you more than most.”

He chuckled, a deep sexy sound she could hear well laying as she was. “You win this round.”

And then, perfectly content, she sighed and listened to the beat of his heart until it lulled her to sleep.

* * *

Rarity woke up before he did and upon lifting her head realized her barrette had left a perfect indent of those three diamonds over his heart. She couldn’t remember where she got the barrette but felt it had significant meaning. As she got out of bed, she stood in front of a full length mirror in the bedroom. It wasn’t nearly as fancy as the one in his office, but it worked just the same. She wondered if other girls did this after losing their virginity. Why did they have that saying anyway? ‘Lost it’ – no, it wasn’t something she’d haphazardly misplaced…she’d given it to him…it was the greatest gift she’d given to anyone. She swiped her fingers across her lips where he’d kissed her and let her eyes survey the areas where he’d touched her. A smile crossed her face as she recalled that wonderful, beautiful, perfect night.

She hadn’t brought clothes to change into, but knowing him, he had a thneed somewhere around. She located one in the closet and shimmied into it forming it around her into a dress. Her stomach growled at her and she was certain her husband…she felt giddy when that word crossed her mind…would appreciate waking up to a hot breakfast.

* * *

The smell of something delicious roused Onceler from a sound sleep and as his hand slid across the sheets next to him he wondered for a worried moment if all of this had been some amazing dream. However, one look at the band on his left hand and the indent of Rarity’s barrette on his skin caused him to smile as the previous night came to his mind.

He walked over to the mirror, remembering how he had once stood before a mirror after another encounter too. He almost didn’t want to look at first, but eventually took in his reflection. He felt different…he was different…in an absolutely fantastic way. Rarity had accepted him, imperfections and all. This time, as he gazed on his messed up hair and a mark on his neck, he felt covered in love and acceptance. He had once been so independent and private, but he’d found the one person he loved more than himself and had shared with her everything. It hadn’t been just physical, but he’d given her his whole self – heart, soul and mind…he was hers and he knew she was his…forever…and he saw his reflection smile back at him.

He turned to see she had clawed the heck out of his back…well, that second time was pretty intense…he was okay with this.

Onceler quickly threw on a robe and headed downstairs where he found his wife…wow, he got to call her that now…in the kitchen wearing nothing but a thneed and cooking. He always thought this was what he wanted, but now, leaning against the door frame and watching her for a moment, he sort of wanted to help her. She was juggling making eggs, potatoes and bacon. Rarity didn’t eat bacon…in fact, he knew she was vegetarian…she had made the bacon just for him. Touched, he walked over and embraced her from behind. “Good morning, my love.”

Rarity sighed happily. “I thought we could use this after last night. It was incredible.”

“Mmm-hm.”

“Can we do that again?”

“I think it’s a good possibility we can do that every night for the rest of our lives if we want to.”

And they spent many blissful hours over their first weekend as a married couple. They both imagined staying in this house forever as his empire expanded further, of having children and watching them grow, of aging together to someday sit as an old couple by the fire drinking hot chocolate and reminiscing about their early days as a new bride and groom.

Neither of them knew what was coming.

They should have seen the signs…or they did and ignored them. Perhaps the glitter of diamonds blinded Rarity and the soft blue lenses of Onceler’s shades made invisible what he didn’t wish to see.

A tree falls the way it leans. Smaller trees – saplings – fall delicately, almost whispering to the ground and landing with a soft plop. Large trees fall with a mighty crack echoing through the forest with enough force to take out branches and even other trees as it comes to the earth with a thunderous roar.

Empires fall the same way.

Onceler’s empire was great.

Great would be its fall.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 – The Final Day

Peace could not last forever and it was broken on Sunday with a phone call, which Onceler answered. Rarity tried not to eavesdrop, but she was in the same room and…well…she wanted to know what was going on.

“Uh-huh…thank you…no, I will not…that’s pers…shut up, Brett.”

Upon realizing it was his brother, she tuned out and the conversation didn’t last long anyway. He returned the phone to its resting place and sighed. “My family…well, some of them aren’t happy. Uncle Ubb sends his congrats, my brothers wanted to know about my wedding night…”

“And I thank you for keeping that private.”

“Of course. Aunt Grizelda thinks I must’ve gotten you pregnant and Mom…um…Mom’s on her way here.”

“Oh, geez…”

“My thoughts exactly. She’s apparently pretty ticked.”

“When isn’t she?”

It didn’t take long, minutes actually before the doorbell rang and both of them just took a collective breath before Onceler opened it.

Isabella stormed right in, pointing a finger at Rarity. “You little tramp! You unbelievable gold digger! How dare you!”

Onceler shut the door. His eyes flashed with anger even though he kept his tone level. “You will not speak that way to my wife.”

His mother whirled around to face him. “You were engaged to someone else! The Decklers are furious – they were counting on Stephanie marrying you…”

“Because I’m rich – well, I’m not going to marry someone just to help keep her parents in the lifestyle they were once accustomed to.”

“And you think that’s not what this…this…bitch is after?!”

Rarity pushed her way past her husband. “Like it or not, Isabella, I’m married to him now! And for your information, I don’t care about his money! I would love him if he were still working on a farm! I don’t understand this need you have to shred every bit of happiness he might have in his life, but you, nor any force in this world, will tear us apart!”

“You can accept that I love Rarity and she’s a part of this family now, or I could cut you off without a penny. You seem to forget that I’m the reason you have everything you do and I can decide what kind of lifestyle you should get accustomed to, so choose wisely.”

Isabella looked between them for several moments as if wondering whether there was a way she could possibly win this. In the end she must’ve decided she couldn’t, though her face and tone reflected she still wasn’t happy. “Then, welcome to the family, Rarity.” She huffed, turned on her heel and left with a slam of the door.

* * *

Rarity sort of missed work. When she was home on Monday, after Onceler had gone to the office, she wasn’t sure what to do. She thought about cleaning, but to be honest, the place was clean and picked up. Eventually, she went into town, back to her house and put what she could of her possessions into a bag to take home – including some clothes! That way, by the time her husband came home for dinner – at six-thirty like he promised – she was wearing a cute purple top and jeans.

“How was work?” Rarity asked.

“It’s going well, though we’re still trying to get some last minute shipments out before Christmas. We have almost more orders than we can fill. Honestly, when I invented the thneed, I knew it would be popular, but this is crazy.”

“How is your new assistant working out?”

“She seems to finally be getting the hang of things, but she’s not you.”

“I can always work for you again.”

“I think that would be too distracting. What did you do today?”

She filled him in on her pretty boring day. “I should buy some fabric tomorrow and try working on fashion design, but I don’t have that much in my bank account and since I’m not working…I should find a job.”

“Rarity, you’re married to me and what’s mine is yours. I’ll give you money to go shopping tomorrow, don’t worry.”

“I didn’t marry you for your money.”

He gave her one of those genuine smiles. “I know and, trust me, I’m grateful because a lot of women would. You go and buy your fabric and whatever else your heart desires tomorrow.”

The next day, she hadn’t expected him to leave her so much, but a small pile of bills amounting to more than she usually earned in a paycheck was waiting for her on the nightstand with a note saying he didn’t have the heart to wake her, he’d be home in time for dinner and that he loved her.

She felt nervous carrying that cash in her purse so the first place she went was the bank to deposit it so she could write checks if necessary. Why did he think she’d need so much? Upon arriving at the fabric store, she sorted through bolts to see what might inspire her. As she ran a hand along a red satin, a small voice rang in her head: That’s not red, that’s cherry!

It really wasn’t, actually it was more like…

No, that’s not red, that’s cinnamon…for Pete’s sake, it’s all red!

She knew that voice, but couldn’t pinpoint who it was. She shook it out of her head and put the red satin back. It didn’t inspire her. She picked out some white, pink and purple cotton. She wasn’t sure why but she had the urge to make something for a little girl. Maybe they should have a baby sooner than they’d originally planned. No, they shouldn’t – she wanted him all to herself for a while. But still, that voice belonged to a young girl. Was it her when she was younger? She wished she could remember more.

On the way through town, she stopped to look in the window of a knick-knack shop and gazed at a small musical carousel. The six brightly colored horses seemed to call to her and she smiled as though she were remembering a time from long ago. Perhaps she had ridden on a carousel as a child. Maybe she took riding lessons.

Carousel Boutique…where every garment is chic, unique, and magnifique!

Why did her mind conjure up that name? Why was it so familiar? She had to have the carousel. Perhaps she’d put it in the spare room for the ‘little people’ who might come later.

“Children will break that,” Onceler said when he saw it. “It’s very pretty, though. I’ll put some shelves up this weekend so we can keep it out of their reach.”

“They’re magnificent.”

“What is it with women and horses?”

“I don’t know.” Rarity gently spun the carousel with her finger causing a few notes to ring out. “But I have a feeling horses played a very important part in my life.”

* * *

Rarity opened her eyes to darkness even though the alarm was going off. She heard her husband stop it with an annoyed smack and sigh. “I can’t wait until summer. Going to the office in the dark and coming home in the dark is kind of depressing.”

She reached over and hugged his arm. “I’m not letting you go. Stay in bed with me where it’s warm and we can do things.”

“That is incredibly tempting, Rarity, but…ahhh…” She had moved her hand. “Well...we have a little time….”

It was seven thirty by the time she let him get out of bed after he left her panting and whimpering on the sheets. He’d been holding back – perhaps afraid to be too rough for fear of hurting her – but this had to have been the most passionate time in their five days of marriage. It could only get better, she thought smiling contently as she heard him turn on the shower. He’d probably be a few minutes late to work for the first time in five years, but he’d have to admit it was for a pretty good reason.

She got up, wrapping a robe around her and made sure there was toast and fruit waiting for him when he came downstairs. “Sorry it isn’t much, but I don’t want you to be too late.”

“This is fine, Rarity, thank you.” He looked out the window at the sky which was just starting to show the first signs of lightening, though it rarely got very light in the valley anymore. “Shortest day of the year.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, the winter solstice.”

Rarity

There was something about that date.

Rarity

Something so important.

Rarity

She struggled to remember.

Rarity

That voice….that little voice of a child.

“Rarity, are you okay?”

She felt like maybe she could remember if he hadn’t interrupted, but she smiled at him. “I think there’s something important about today. Am I forgetting an anniversary or something?”

He chuckled softly. “You’re too much. Two years ago today, you started working for me…Ra-ri-ty.”

She laughed. Of course, that’s what it was. How could she have forgotten? She’d hated him so much back then, but now she was his wife and deeply loved him. Two years certainly made a lot of difference. When he’d finished eating, she kissed him goodbye and started to make breakfast for herself. As she got the eggs out, she felt a little guilty she hadn’t been able to make him a proper breakfast. Oh well, she’d think of something great for dinner.

Rarity

There it was again. That voice was calling to her…no, that voice was annoyed with her and impatient. She cracked an egg and let it drop into the pan with a sizzle.

Rarity! You ruined the surprise!

“What surprise?” she asked no one as she added a second egg.

I was gonna serve you breakfast in bed!

The translucency of the egg whites was being cooked away. Two eggs, a plate, a sprig of parsley.

You mean this parsley?

“Oh, that Sweetie Belle, she’d picked up the parsley in her mouth because the little filly couldn’t use magic yet…” and Rarity stopped. She stood completely still in the almost quiet of the kitchen as the eggs sizzled on almost angrily now needing to be turned.

She was a unicorn.

A unicorn from Equestria.

She had a mission.

Two years ago on the winter solstice she was sent here.

The portal was open again.

As if having something to do with the opening of that mirror portal, memories flooded back to her mind from the time she first met Twilight Sparkle and had to give her a makeover because her mane was simply a mess! Her hair…she’d cut her tail to complete a sea serpent’s mustache…that’s how she became the element of generosity. And because of this she was sent here to…oh, Celestia…the trees. She was supposed to try and dispel the greed from Onceler’s heart. Instead, she’d gone and married the guy!

The scent of something burning caught her attention and she shut the stove off, dumping the burnt eggs into the trash. “Well, Sweetie Belle, I’m not getting my cutie mark in fancy cooking either.”

The portal was open…she could see her family and friends and update Princess Celestia on her progress, or lack thereof…then be back in time to make dinner – after all, the sun would set around 4:30. How would she explain to her husband though why she was even in his office? What would he think if he just saw her disappear through the mirror?

Either way, she had to try. She wasted no time with the dishes – those could be done later. She got dressed in a black skirt and plum colored top, then wrapped a thneed around her neck. It wasn’t just any thneed – it was the one he’d given her for her birthday…the one he’d knitted by hand. She absolutely must show the other ponies what a fabulous invention her husband had come up with. They would think it was amazing. As she closed the door and turned toward the factory though, a few sickly-looking Truffula trees caught her attention. She thought about that…a few. There were hardly any left! And a Super Axe Hacker was out chopping five a time. Oh no…

She ran into the building, not even stopping at the reception desk. She went to her old office where Cindy was sitting at what used to be her desk. “Mrs. Onceler – your husband just went into his office, but he has another meeting scheduled in about thirty minutes.”

“That’s fine, but can you look in the second drawer and hand me the cigarette case I left, please?”

The assistant did and Rarity opened it letting the Truffula seed roll into her hand. She shoved it into her pocket and then entered her husband’s office. At first she didn’t see him, but then she heard his voice coming from over near the glass doors and it rose.

“You know what; you can just shut your mustache!”

That’s when she noticed the Lorax before he disappeared down a step.

“My conscience is clear…I have done nothing illegal; I have my rights!”

Now her husband had descended the steps leading toward the ground. She ran over to the window and her breath caught in her throat as she saw one lone Truffula Tree standing in the distance…and a Super Axe Hacker chugging up toward it. Oh no…

“And I intend to keep on biggering and BIGGERING – and turning more Truffula Trees into thneeds…”

Rarity banged on the window, but it was no use, neither Onceler nor the Lorax could hear her. Her heart thudded as she saw one of the axes on the machine draw back. “Oh no…please no…”

“AND NOTHING IS GOING TO STOP ME!”

This was the path greed had lead to…this was the price, she realized as the axe quickly cut through the trunk and the tuft stirred up dust as it fell to the ground. She leaned her forehead against the cool glass, her breath fogging it up as if maybe she stared hard enough the tree would reattach itself back to the stump and live again.

“Well, that’s it,” the Lorax said sadly. “The very last one. That may stop you.”

She had failed.

The Lorax had failed.

All the environmentalists and everyone else who had cried out to Onceler trying to make him hear had failed.

No one would remember them though. She knew time would come when people would want to point fingers and there would be one person they’d come after…the one they’d blame everything on when weeks, even days, earlier those same people were falling all over themselves trying to please him…Onceler. Now, his last name…their last name…would forever be tied with industry, corruption, greed…greed had won; generosity had failed.

She made her way over to the mirror and stared at her reflection. She couldn’t leave him…despite what others might think or say…she knew him and loved him. She couldn’t just go and let him deal with the downfall of his actions alone. In joy and in sorrow, she remembered, in wealth and in poverty. She would stick by her husband. Perhaps time would pass and she’d completely forget Equestria so she wouldn’t have to deal with this gnawing hurt at not seeing her friends, her family, her sister ever again…

Rarity

“Rarity, what are you doing here?” she heard her husband ask sadly.

She said nothing; she simply ran over and hugged him tightly. He was about to lose everything, but not her…she would be here for him.

He wrapped his arms around her. “It’s over, Rarity…it’s done. I’m going to have to tell everyone…the factory has to close…”

The Lorax’s bossy voice interrupted. “A lot of help you were! Princess Celestia should have sent the honest one. At least if she couldn’t talk some sense into him, she could have given him a swift kick in the rear!”

“I’m so sorry. I tried…”

“You didn’t try – not at all. You forgot and you fell in love with him, and he with you – so much that in his greed, he wanted to have you all to himself.”

She recalled Discord saying something similar, but how could love possibly be bad? It was powerful – even more powerful than friendship sometimes.

Onceler broke the silence. “Who is Princess Celestia?”

“She’s the ruler where I’m from,” Rarity explained. “It’s a long way away from here and…”

“Why don’t you tell him the truth?” the Lorax asked.

“I am! It’s hard to explain is all and I don’t want him to think I’m crazy.”

“She’s from another world – the portal to which is open through that mirror once every two years,” the Lorax told him. “Why do you think you can’t remember interviewing her? Because she popped through your mirror and I altered your memories so you’d think she was just another employee, but the fact is, she was sent here to stop you and a lot of good it did.”

Onceler paused for several moments taking in this information. “So, you aren’t of this world. I thought so. Are you an angel?”

Rarity!

“It’s sweet you think so, but no,” Rarity answered. “I’m a unicorn…from Equestria and we have magic there…I know this sounds crazy and a little unbelievable…”

“No, I’ve seen some things.”

“But there, I harness magic that has to do with generosity…charity…giving to others. That’s why Princess Celestia thought I’d be the best person…no, pony…for the job, which was to bring generosity to your heart, to change it. I failed.”

Rarity!

That voice was louder now.

He cupped her face in his gloved hands. “No, Rarity, you didn’t. Remember back two years ago to how I was? How can you say you didn’t change my heart?”

Rarity!

It was clear and she heard it distinctly as though it were coming from somewhere behind her.

Rarity!

“What was that?” Onceler asked.

He could hear it too. She wasn’t going crazy. Whirling around she saw a pair of pale hands coming through the portal slowly followed by a mop of curly purple and pink hair that could only belong to… “Sweetie Belle!”

Her sister crawled the rest of the way out wearing a plain white dress and stood on wobbly legs before rushing over and embracing her. “Rarity! I came to bring you back. We missed you so much.”

Rarity planted a kiss in those soft curls. Even as a human, she could tell Sweetie Belle was older. Why, she might even have her cutie mark. This made staying so much harder. “Sweetie Belle, this is my husband. Once, my sister, Sweetie Belle.”

He gave his diplomatic smile, probably all he was up to at the moment. “Hello, Sweetie Belle. Rarity’s told me about you.”

“You got married?!” Her sister’s tone was accusatory. “And I wasn’t your flower filly?!”

“We didn’t have flower fillies. We had a very small wedding,” Rarity explained.

“But you always said you’d have a grand wedding in Canterlot with all your friends as bridesmaids and flower fillies and a dress you designed yourself with a long train and cake – at least tell me you had cake!”

“I’m afraid we didn’t have any of those things. Sometimes, your ideal wedding changes when you fall in love, Sweetie Belle”

“Pinkie Pie got married. They had it at Sugarcube Corner. She was so sad you missed it, but said she loved him so much she couldn’t wait. It was fun and now she’s going to have a foal.”

Pinkie Pie…married and soon to be a mother? “I’m not…”

“And Rainbow Dash is in the Wonderbolts. You should see her, big sis, she’s amazing!”

So Dashie’s dream came true…this made it even harder, but she was determined to keep her resolve. “Sweetie Belle, I’m not returning to Equestria.”

Her sister’s voice squeaked with surprise. “What?!”

“I need to stay here.” She looped her arm with Onceler’s. “I’d never leave him to face this on his own.”

“Oh, Rarity…I can’t let you do that,” he told her. “You have a life back there – family and friends and everyone waiting for you to return. What is there for you here? A life lived in this wasteland I created never seeing your loved ones again?”

“I love you and I’ll be there regardless…”

“Why should you pay for what I’ve done? You mentioned you worked at a dress shop, but that was your business, wasn’t it?”

“I designed dresses…beautiful ones for celebrities and regular ponies alike…I always hoped maybe royalty would seek my talent.”

“They will.” He turned her so he could look in her eyes. “If you go back, all your dreams can still come true.”

“But what about you?” Her eyes were filling with tears. “What if I can’t come back? What if I forget you?”

“The Lorax said I’d be cursed if I continued…perhaps that’s part of my curse…to be alone and forgotten.”

The orange creature near their feet gave a huff. “That was part of it, the other part is: you’ll live a very long, healthy life. But, there is a way to right the wrongs you’ve done. Rarity, what’s in your pocket?”

Rarity reached in and pulled out the smooth brown orb with its swirls. Greed had destroyed the valley – sucked it dry of any life until only a husk of its former glory remained. This was her act of generosity…this seed with life contained in it. One seed could grow a mighty forest. “This is what you were after the day of the accident.” She grabbed his left hand and gently placed the seed into it. “Plant it…”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way,” the Lorax said. “It won’t grow if he plants it. In a selfless act, he needs to give it to someone and he’ll know when the right person comes along.” His gaze shifted to Onceler. “And if she’s changed your heart like you say, you’ll be generous with that seed when the time is right.”

Onceler’s green fingers closed around the seed and he nodded, accepting that this was his fate.

“As for you, Rarity, you won’t forget,” the Lorax told her. “Unicorns become forgetful as humans, but when you return to Equestria, you’ll remember all this. The portal will open again, but it may be a long time before you have an opportunity to cross.”

Then, she had an idea – it was brilliant and she grabbed her husband’s hands. “You can come with me! We can live together in Equestria as unicorns…or well, I’m not sure what magic would be worked on you – you might be a different kind of pony, but that doesn’t matter; we can be together.”

He sighed and moved his right hand to cup her cheek again. “Then what will people say when I’ve abandoned all this. I already know what they’ll say now, but if I left without a trace or killed myself…”

Rarity gasped, but the Lorax interjected before she could completely go off on him. “With the curse, that’s not possible. You’ll live many more years despite anyone’s efforts to kill you – that includes yourself.”

“Well, anyway, leaving would be cowardly and I’m not a coward, Rarity.”

She knew this about him. He would stay and face whatever backlash resulted from his poor decisions. She would return to Equestria…for how long she didn’t know. “Don’t let anything happen to the mirror.”

“I’ll put it in the house.” A single tear fell from his eye. “I love you, Rarity.”

“I love you.” She hugged him tightly…never wanting to let go…if she stalled until sunset she’d be stuck here at least another two years, but so would Sweetie Belle and besides, it didn’t sound like the Lorax would let that happen.

He walked with her the few steps to the mirror. He held her hand, squeezing it as they watched Sweetie Belle disappear through the glass. She turned and kissed him deeply, passionately, savoring this bitter moment that was their last kiss for she didn’t know how long…maybe forever. She inhaled that scent that had become so familiar to her. Her eyes lingered on him for a few moments taking in the blue of his eyes, his pale skin spattered with only a few light freckles on his cheeks, that ebony hair she loved to run her fingers through. She kissed him again as tears invaded her eyes. It was ripping her heart in two just thinking about leaving him. She didn’t know what she’d feel when she got to Equestria. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“I’ll wait for you…however long it takes.”

“I love you.”

“I love you more.”

“Most.”

“You win.”

He watched as she stepped into the glass and even though it pained him, even though part of him wanted to keep her forever, he pushed those thoughts away. Her happiness…her future…took priority. It no longer seemed to matter that very soon the factory workers would realize no more Truffula tuft was coming in. He didn’t care that he’d have to shut down the machines and send out memos to all his employees – one hundred thousand people – right before Christmas of all times, saying that they were now out of jobs. He lost everything that day…that remained true…except one…the one he valued above anything else in the world. He hadn’t lost her…he’d given her up…he’d let her go.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21 – You Win

The first thing Rarity noticed when she stepped out on the other side of the mirror was how shaky her four legs seemed. No more fingers…she’d have to use magic again and she hoped it would come back to her easily. She turned around and saw herself – naked as most ponies were – except for her wedding ring on her horn and the thneed still wrapped around her neck. It was the one he’d knitted for her by hand…not one of the mass-produced ones from the factory. Her mane seemed to have grown to its original glory, but she didn’t care. She had thoughts of galloping back through that mirror…back to him.

“Rarity, it’s good you’ve come back,” said a familiar and regal voice.

She turned and bowed to Princess Celestia and briefly to Princess Cadance who was also there…she didn’t question why…she didn’t care. The last pony she wanted to see after leaving her husband was the princess of love. “I’m sorry, Your Highness…I’ve failed in my mission.” She filled them in on everything that had happened over the past two years. “I didn’t change his heart. He learned nothing of generosity and the trees are all gone.”

“When I sent you, I knew there was a possibility this could happen,” Princess Celestia told her gently. “Don’t worry, Rarity, some hearts cannot be changed.”

“I beg to differ,” Princess Cadance said. “You told us you married him…”

“Yes, and Discord said that to love another person enough to want to keep them to yourself was one of the most selfish acts someone could commit.”

Princess Cadance smiled gently. “But he didn’t keep you. You wanted to stay and he told you to return to Equestria…not because he didn’t care, Rarity, but because he put your well-being and happiness before his own. To love someone enough to let them go…I can’t think of a more generous and selfless act. Maybe you didn’t save the trees, but you did succeed in one part of your mission.”

That brought little comfort as she and Sweetie Belle walked down the marble hall and toward the castle exit. She imagined him drafting up the memo that would ruin the holidays for so many people. She thought of him going through the factory and turning off the machines one by one that he’d always insisted stay on no matter what. What would happen to Thneedville? Perhaps that would go on, but he’d have no part of it.

The streets of Canterlot were bustling and all the ponies seemed in high spirits. Right, Hearth’s Warming Eve was coming up. She thought she’d be spending her first Christmas with her husband; instead it would likely be overly browned cookies and warm cider at her parents’ house. Stop being bitter, Rarity, she told herself. You should happy to see your family again.

“Miss. Rarity – I dare say I haven’t seen you around much for a while.”

It was Fancy Pants and his girlfriend Fleur-de-Lis. She flashed a ‘diplomatic smile’ as her husband would have done. “How are you?”

“Very well, my dear. What is this exquisite thing you’re wearing around your neck?” he asked.

Fleur-de-Lis leaned in to take a closer look. “It looks amazingly soft. Did you make it? Will you be selling more?”

“I’m afraid it’s made from a very rare tree and there is nothing else like it in this world.” Rare? Extinct was more like it. Besides, the last thing they would need was a product like the thneed in Equestria.

She bid them goodbye and hurried as fast as she could with her sister to the train station. She wanted to get home…really, she wanted to go back to that weird, tall house – that home with her husband…but that was not possible. She’d settle for Carousel Boutique. It would be familiar and inviting.

“How many passengers?” the cashier at ticket sales asked.

“An adult and one foal.”

“Names?”

“Sweetie Belle and Rarity.”

“Just Rarity?”

Isabella had asked her the same question the day she’d started working for him and she’d had no proper last name. Now she did. “Onceler. Rarity Onceler.”

* * *

She saw no one that day except her parents who wanted to hear all about it when she dropped Sweetie Belle off, but she told them she was tired from the day’s journey and she’d catch up with them later. She walked slowly to Carousel Boutique and let herself in. Someone – likely her mother or friends – had kept the place neat and clean. There wasn’t a speck of dust or any cobwebs in the corner. Her dress forms and sewing machine sat untouched for two years and someone – Sweetie Belle, probably, like last time – had put away and cleaned everything in her Inspiration Room.

“Opal?” Rarity called out to her cat. There was no response. What if…no, of course not. Opal wasn’t old and Rarity was certain she was still alive. She was probably at Fluttershy’s cottage.

Her bed was inviting and she curled up on it, not wanting to move or think or feel. But she did feel…a crushing sadness that stirred up in her and brought tears to her eyes. She buried her face in the thneed inhaling the scent of butterfly milk and his body wash. The super absorbent fibers pulled her tears into it. She cried long and hard, not caring about her business or making dresses. She didn’t care about her looks or seeing her friends. She wanted him back…her husband with his boyish grin and sparkling eyes and even those ridiculous gloves, which were the last thing her hand felt before she went through the mirror. Heck, she’d even take him back if he smoked again – she wouldn’t complain, ever, not once! The only thing she wanted was to feel his arms around her again.

As she tried to fall asleep that night in her cold sheets…alone…she imagined him laying in their green bed, his scarred left arm reaching out for her and finding nothing. She was pretty sure his heart had broken also. The sun had long since set. It would be at least two years…but, no…it would probably be longer, much longer before they saw each other again…if they ever did.

“I love you,” she whispered out into the air, letting the words bubble there and dissipate into thin air or maybe to another world where perhaps he’d hear…perhaps he’d know she was thinking about him and longing for his touch.

I love you more…

“Most.”

You win…Rarity…

* * *

She should have known word would get around that she was back, but she wasn’t expecting it to travel so fast. The very next day, she got a letter that exploded with confetti when opened. Oh, Celestia…she really didn’t want to be around so many other ponies for one of Pinkie Pie’s parties. Partying was the last thing she wanted to do. She wanted to lie in her bed and wallow in pity or sorrow or whatever it was ponies were supposed to wallow in…she never did figure that out.

However, she considered that perhaps seeing her friends would lift her spirits slightly, so she wrapped the thneed around her like a dress and brushed her mane and tail until they were wavy and shiny. She wished she had time for a spa treatment, but there was none. Before she left, she carefully slipped the ring from her horn – most married ponies used the rings at their ceremony and never did wear them after. She was glad magic had, in fact, come back to her easily – almost second nature.

When she arrived at Sugarcube Corner the first one to greet her was Pinkie Pie who blew confetti in her face before giving her a big hug. “We missed you, Rarity!”

She inhaled deeply the delicious scent of cupcakes and other baked goods in the warm sweet shop. Pinkie Pie smelled of cotton candy and the familiar hug was definitely welcome. “Thank you, Pinkie.” She stepped back to survey her friend who, at first, looked no different, then she saw it…her stomach was bulging a bit more than normal.

Maybe Rarity had gotten pregnant…maybe her birth control pills had not worked and she was carrying her husband’s child. Then she’d have a little piece of him. How would that even work though? Would it be some ugly pony-human hybrid? Would the magic of the portal have changed their genetics so the baby would be born a foal? Or would she give birth to a fully human baby and have to explain THAT? Deep down, though, she knew she was not pregnant. The pills were super effective and even though she had spent five amazing nights and a morning with him, her stomach would not expand with a foal as Pinkie Pie’s was.

“Are you hoping for a filly or a colt?” Rarity asked her friend.

“Well, I like pink, so I kind of hope it’s a filly, but as long as it’s healthy, that’s the important part.”

It seemed odd that Pinkie Pie, of all of them, would be the first to be a mother. She thought for sure it would probably be Applejack, who already had a maternal instinct, practically having to raise Apple Bloom. Or perhaps Fluttershy, who took care of animals so well that being a parent would probably come naturally. Of course, Fluttershy would probably faint when she saw her husband’s…

“Well, hey there, Rarity,” Applejack said as though it had only been a day or so and not two years since they last saw each other. “How was your journey?”

“It was scary and difficult and ended absolutely divinely…”

Once they were all inside and seated at a table enjoying treats and some of Pinkie Pie’s punch, Rarity filled them in on all the details of her two years in the Truffula Valley. By the end, she was more than grateful she had the support of her friends. It was almost like she’d never left.

And at the same time, things were different. Twilight had gotten a bit taller and her mane was longer with maybe a bit of a wave to it. Rainbow Dash’s mane was a bit shorter, probably to help keep it out of her face while flying and she seemed leaner as though she’d been working out more. Fluttershy and Applejack hadn’t changed much. Despite her expanding stomach, Pinkie Pie was very much the same crazy pony she’d always been.

Fluttershy had brought Opal with her. “I took good care of her while you were gone. I even groomed her this morning so she’d be all soft when you saw her again.”

Rarity reached out for her cat. “Oh Opal-wopal!”

Opal hissed, clawed at her and ran off somewhere. Why did she even have that cat?

She got caught up on the Ponyville gossip from her friends, such as Big Macintosh and Miss Cheerilee having a foal and Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo still not having their cutie marks, but trying everything under the sun to obtain them.

It would be wrong, she knew, to keep wallowing, but her heart still ached. She allowed herself a week after that to mourn what she’d lost, then got back to work designing dresses. Carousel Boutique was back in business.

However, every night before she slept, Rarity wrapped herself in the thneed, allowing it to take her back to him. She’d focus on one memory she had – be it good or bad – just to keep him in her mind. She’d recall every strand of dark hair, every freckle, the whiteness of his teeth, the vibrant green color of those ridiculous gloves as his fingers played guitar for her, his sky blue eyes, the deep chuckle of his laughter, the sound of his voice and he’d cease for a moment to be a memory as she was transported back to that time and place, wherever it had been. They were together for a brief moment before she had to curl up alone and fall asleep.

Time passed…life went on. Pinkie Pie had a daughter, then a son, then twins – a filly and a colt…then her husband got snipped. Her figure resembled Mrs. Cake’s by then, but she said she didn’t care – she was chubby and jolly and she was fine with that. Applejack, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash in turn all married and had foals. Fluttershy who had always been thin, grew a bit pudgy after having hers, but she said she didn’t mind at all. Applejack was so hard working that after each one, she got her figure back within a couple of months. Rainbow Dash, however, must’ve hit the genetic jackpot – she was one of those lucky mares who got a cute little tummy and looked amazing again two days after giving birth.

And Rarity ended up being very unlucky indeed as the years passed. She didn’t even have a foal, but her figure rounded out too until eventually she was pudgy like her mother and no matter what she did, the weight didn’t seem to want to come off. Sweetie Belle, on the other hand grew up, which included getting her cutie mark, and was always lean with shiny, long hair. She, too, would marry and have foals, whom Aunt Rarity spoiled whenever they visited.

Eventually, one of her dreams came true and all the princesses attended the Grand Galloping Gala in dresses she’d designed. She’d even been asked to make a suit for Shining Armor.

Time flowed and one day she looked in the mirror to see a pudgy, gray-maned mare staring back at her. Perhaps it was time to retire. Sweetie Belle’s foals were grown and had foals of their own. Her friends who had foals…all grandparents…Applejack several times over! Between her and Big Macintosh, the Apple Family had grown a lot. It was likely because of this that Apple Bloom had decided not to have any foals and instead enjoyed the company of her large family.

Rarity kept remembering nightly and wanted nothing more than to see him for real. It took years…many years when she was already gray before she found herself in the dream landscape of the valley, still dark and gloomy. The factory and office were gone – crumbled to the ground over years. And their house…their beautiful, three story, impossibly built house…loomed ominously in the distance, all boarded up and she feared the worst.

“This is what you wanted to see, isn’t it?” a familiar voice asked.

She turned to see a human she didn’t at first recognize, but with that dark skin, blue dress and black crown on her head, she could be no other. “Princess Luna…nothing’s changed.”

“Sometimes we have to be patient before change can happen, but look over there.”

Standing off to the side of the house, in front of an odd looking pile of stones was a young boy in a striped shirt. He was talking up to someone she couldn’t see, but she knew…knew…it was him.

“It’s okay, they can’t see us,” Princess Luna told her.

Being a dream, she felt no aching joints or fatigue as she ran toward the kid. Among the pile of stones was a large one with a single word: UNLESS. She looked up at the window, aching to see him, but she didn’t. She could hardly make out his shadow from the dim light shining through the boarded up window. Only a pair of arms clad in green gloves gave her the identity of the one now talking.

“…because unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better – it’s not.”

The gloved hands and shadow retreated for a moment and the kid next to her stood there expectantly leaning forward. There was something definitely familiar about the boy’s face and eyes but Rarity couldn’t put her finger on why. Finally, a gloved hand reached out the window, fingers uncurling and something fell into the boy’s waiting hands. It was the seed!

Princess Luna gently took Rarity’s arm.

“But, I’m not ready,” Rarity protested. “I have to know what happens. I never even saw his face!”

“You’ve seen enough, be content with that.”

She woke in her own bed back in Ponyville, alone, wrapped in the thneed and one again feeling that gnawing ache to see her husband after so many years.

Of her friends, only Twilight Sparkle had remained unmarried. Though, being a princess and still looking youthful, she obviously had time for a husband and foals down the road. She’d grown tall, her mane now shimmering and waving like that of Princess Celestia. However, even being a princess could not end her humble nature and she always had time for her friends. So, when Rarity was summoned to Twilight’s castle one winter day a few years later after her dream, she went early in the morning as asked. She wrapped herself in her thneed to keep the chill out. “What is it, Twilight?”

“A few months ago, Princess Celestia asked to move a few things from the castle at Canterlot to my castle. Well, I thought you’d want to see one of them.”

Rarity followed her into a room and gasped. There, by the window, just catching the first weak rays of the sunrise was the mirror. “Twilight…”

“Go on…and if it’s not what you expect…if he’s changed or…or he’s passed away…or if he simply got rid of the mirror and you find yourself in some strange place, you can come back.”

A tear escaped Rarity’s eye and she hugged her friend. Slowly, she walked over to the mirror and gazed at her reflection for a moment before stepping through to whatever waited on the other side.

Twilight Sparkle waited for her…she’d wait a long time…she’d go back every two years and see if Rarity would return. Even after her other friends had passed, even after she knew Rarity was likely gone, too, she waited. She never knew the end to this story. She never knew if Rarity had been reunited with the man she’d loved or if disappointment or perhaps some calamity had waited on the other side. She thought of going through the mirror herself, but when she tried, it was simply glass, even on the days it was supposed to open.

The only thing Twilight Sparkle knew with absolute certainty – the only thing anypony knew – was that Rarity never returned to Equestria.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 – The Other Side

Rarity observed her reflection in the mirror with disbelief. She thought the magic might work differently and she’d be young again. She’d imagined stepping out into his elegant office. Instead, she was in the living room of the house they’d shared for five glorious days of marriage. She’d hoped they’d get back all the years they’d lost. However, her once beautiful hair was gray with only a touch of the indigo hue it had once held. The skin around her eyes and mouth had wrinkles. She was wearing a simple purple dress and the thneed was now around her neck. Not only that, but her curves had filled out even more – she was a pudgy human too! No, she should go – she should run back through the mirror and never let her husband see how old she was.

A creak on the stairs caught her attention. Her heart still longed to see him, but what if he rejected her? What if he’d fallen out of love waiting so long for her to return? What if he was angry she hadn’t left Equestria sooner? What if she wasn’t beautiful enough for him?

She heard him approach her, but kept her eyes cast down so she couldn’t see him in the mirror. Instead, she closed her eyes and waited for whatever might come.

Rarity felt his gentle hands on her shoulders and when he spoke she realized his voice was slightly deeper and huskier than she remembered. “Rarity…I always knew you’d come back to me.”

So, he had aged too, she realized. She recalled imagining this when they’d first been married. They’d both grown old…just not together and she wished they hadn’t lost so many years. Slowly she turned around and gazed up into those same blue eyes of the man she’d fallen in love with. They held in them as much adoration for her as they ever had. Yes, there were lines around them and the freckles were mixed now with a few light age spots. His once dark hair was white and not only that, he’d grown quite the mustache since she’d last seen him, which surprised her, because when he was young he’d always been clean shaven. His long green coat dragged on the ground a bit because he walked slightly stooped over now and he, too, had a thneed wrapped around his neck.

“You’re still as beautiful as the last time I saw you,” he told her before kissing her tenderly.

Rarity’s eyes closed and she felt tears roll from them. His kiss sent a zing through her body. She wrapped her arms around him and loved how he still tasted like spearmint and used the same spicy scented body wash. Not being able to see, she could almost believe they were in their twenties again…if it hadn’t been for his soft whiskers tickling her face. Breaking away, he whispered: “I love you so much.”

“I love you more.”

“I love you most.”

“I love you more than most.”

“You win.” He held onto her tightly. “Don’t leave me again, Rarity, please…”

She knew, inevitably, the time would come when she would have no choice in that matter. After all, they were both old, but she would not intentionally leave him. She would not return to Equestria. She would make each day count and would make sure their golden years made up for the youthful and middle-aged ones they’d lost. “I’ll stay as long as I can.”

She wanted to stay in his arms forever, but eventually, he took her hand in his. He still wore those ridiculous gloves and she smiled remembering how she used to call them his ‘security gloves’. “Come on, Rarity, I want to show you something.”

As they walked toward the door and she realized they were going outside, she prepared to see the gloomy and dead valley he’d destroyed. To her surprise, however, when the door was opened a burst of clean, fresh air came to her and she inhaled deeply. The grass had returned and among it, so small and fragile, but full of hope and potential were tiny Truffula saplings. Their small tufts danced in a gentle breeze. The sun struggled to shine through the clouds…yes, they were clouds – not smog – but proper clouds that could bring rain and maybe even snow to the valley. “You…you did it.”

“I only…generously…passed on the seed. Ted did the rest.”

Returning to the warmth of the house, he recalled the story to her of a young kid who had shown up one day wanting to know how to get a real live tree. At first, Onceler had been quite skeptical of his motives, especially when it came out that he wanted to do it to impress a girl, but apparently he had some sincerity in there because he got the entire town of Thneedville to accept nature. – “I can’t believe they kept the name,” he told her. “What foolish ideas young men dream up…” It took a few years, but the city Onceler had envisioned and started had the tree-lined streets Rarity originally suggested and the trees had quickly spread outside to the valley that had once been full of them.

“This past summer, the Swomee-Swans started to return,” he said. “Even the Lorax came back. He’s still around, mostly leaves me alone, but sometimes he likes to come by and visit.”

“So, he’s your friend now?”

“No, still a very good acquaintance.”

“Does Ted ever visit?”

Onceler nodded. “About once or twice a week. His father passed away when he was young and he had no real role model to look up to. I guess I’ve become like a grandfather to him. Although I’m not sure how good a role model I am, I’m okay with this. He needed someone to come to for advice about girls and such.”

“Does he need a grandmother, too?”

“No, he has one of those. Didn’t I mention? Norma is his grandmother.”

That’s why the kid in her dream had looked so familiar. As she recalled his face, she could definitely see traces of Norma in him…especially in his eyes. “Have you ever seen her again?”

He shook his head. “She has no reason to come out here and I never go into town.”

“What happened to Stephanie?”

“She lives in Thneedville, too. I’m still in touch with her. She had a successful law career and retired some years ago. The laws changed and she married Gloria about five years ago.”

“You didn’t go to the wedding?”

“No, I was still boarded up in my house. Besides, the wall was still around the town at that point. I had to be careful to send in the flying drone I invented at night. That’s how we communicate even now. I haven’t actually seen her except in pictures since…since our wedding day.”

“You stayed in your house this long?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I went out from time to time, but never into town. I never interacted with people. At first, everyone blamed me – and they had every right to – but eventually I was forgotten. An entire town named Thneedville and only three people even remembered what a thneed was and who invented it.”

“What about your family?”

“Well, they left after the company collapsed. My mother told me how much I’d let her down and drove off. That’s the last I saw of them. Surely my mother, aunt and uncle are deceased; I’m not sure if my brothers are still around. I’m surprised you didn’t forget me. You seemed to have forgotten all of your life before you became human.”

“Unicorns forget when they become human, but it doesn’t work the other way around. I remembered everything, but I suppose I will forget them again. I’m okay with this though because for so many years all I’ve wanted was to be with you. In my world, we have a saying that friendship is magic and I never thought anything would cause me to leave my friends. I suppose, though, love is more powerful, more magic than even friendship.”

“Sounds like it is.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

“Anything.”

“How are you still so skinny?!”

Onceler didn’t answer in words, but simply laughed and hugged her.

That night, after the sun set, she asked her husband if he still had his axe. He handed it to her – the same axe he’d used to chop down that first tree, the same that had broken through the boards over his window after Ted had succeeded in planting the seed. Rarity held it in her hands, feeling the weight of it, running her fingers along the wood.

“What do you need it for?” Onceler asked.

She had to gather all of her strength to do it, knowing once she did, there was no turning back. She’d never swung an axe before, but she lifted it up and hit the mirror hard causing the glass to shatter. She hit it again for good measure causing all the glass to come crashing to the floor. The portal was destroyed…she was staying.

* * *

It was easy to remember Equestria and her friends at first, but little by little, the memories did fade from Rarity’s mind as days stretched into weeks, weeks to months and finally years. She retained only her memories of her past days with Onceler and their time now that was so precious, knowing it wouldn’t last. She knew eventually she’d pass away and she hoped he wouldn’t despair too much.

They strived to make each day count, to spend time together and before bed was the same exchange of words they’d had since they were young.

“I love you.”

“I love you more.”

“I love you more than more.”

“I love you most.”

“You win, Rarity.”

It was a peaceful life, especially once the trees grew larger and the Swomee Swans began nesting in them to have their young. Two summers after she’d returned, she noticed Humming-Fish in the waters again. “I have yet to see any Bar-ba-loots,” she told Onceler.

“It takes the trees ten years to produce fruit. They won’t come back until there’s food for them.”

Rarity never went into town either, though Ted often rode out to their house on his strange…well, Rarity wasn’t really sure if it was some kind of bike or what. In fact, Ted had lots of new technical contraptions he brought around like airplanes that flew by remote control and a small phone he could hold in his hand and even take pictures on! He brought them news about the happenings in Thneedville and the world in general. Rarity found out that Greenville had been incorporated and was now part of Thneedville itself. Part of her wanted to see it, but mostly she was content to stay at home. Then, the weekly visits stopped, though Ted had told them why – like so many of the kids in Thneedville, after spending most of their lives behind a wall, he wanted to see the world. He had grown up and headed off to college. He’d come by when he visited during breaks and often during the summer.

“The trees are getting so tall,” he remarked upon visiting just as his summer vacation was winding to an end.

“I’m glad to see the forest returning,” Onceler said, his voice sounding tired. “It’s starting to look a lot like it did when I first arrived here.”

“Is this your last year of college, Ted?” Rarity asked. “Or will you be going to graduate school?”

“No, I’ll graduate in June and then get a job. Hopefully something that allows me to travel – I’d like to see more of the world.”

Onceler nodded as he leaned back in his chair on the porch. “Just remember while you’re seeing the world to do some good in it, too.”

“I will. Are you okay?”

“I’m just slowing down in my old age is all, Ted. Enjoy your youth because it goes by faster than you think.”

Ted left soon after, giving both Rarity and Onceler a hug before going. Rarity had noticed her husband slowing down, but then so was she. Honestly, she tried to remember exactly how old they were – in their eighties, she supposed. That night, she lay in bed beside him, holding his hand and running her thumb along the white scar extending across the back of it.

“I love you,” he whispered as he turned out the light.

“I love you more.”

“I love you more than more.”

“I love you most.”

“I love you more than most.”

Rarity laughed softly. “Alright, this time, you win.”

She drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a time when they were young, when her hair was still indigo and his still dark and full. They were dancing in a hall of mirrors and he spun around until she was dizzy. His words seemed to echo off the glass. “I love you.”

Rarity clung to him as they whirled around to music he’d played for her on the guitar. This was perfect…why couldn’t it be this way in reality? The music slowed and finally drifted to a halt. He stood there holding her hands so she could feel the softness of his gloves. He leaned in and kissed her passionately and she forgot it was a dream. It was so real…the perfect moment that nothing could tear away from her.

“I love you…Rarity…”

He spun her again so her blue dress fanned out around her. Then, his hand was gone and she caught only a glimpse of it as he disappeared into one of the mirrors. She tried to follow, but hit the glass and sank to her knees. “Once?”

Glass shattered all around her, like the mirror in their living room did when she broke it. Why had she done that anyway? Then she remembered; it was a portal to another world…another dimension.

Rarity opened her eyes slowly. It was still mostly dark, but through the window she could just see the sun peeking up over the horizon. She turned and looked at her husband, still sleeping beside her. Of course he was there, she realized as cobwebs of the dream state still clung to her mind. He’d never leave her. She hoped he was having good dreams as he seemed to be sleeping rather deeply. She couldn’t even see his chest rise and fall.

She couldn’t see him breathing.

Now she was wide awake. “Once.” She shook him and called him by his first name. No…the Lorax said he’d live a long life. She was supposed to go first. It couldn’t be… “No,” she said aloud, her eyes filling with tears. “No, please, no.”

Rarity lay her head on his chest, aching to hear that heart that had beat just for her, but silence met her. This wasn’t right…this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. She clung to him and sobbed bitterly. She stayed there as the sun rose high, not wanting to move from him. Why did he have to go first?

She didn’t move until she heard a familiar voice from the open window. “Hey, Beanpole. You’re usually out watering the Truffulas by now. What gives?”

Rarity turned to face the Lorax. “He’s gone. You said he’d live a long life – you cursed him to live a long life – and now he’s gone. Explain how that’s possible.”

“The curse was lifted the moment that seed was planted. I’m truly sorry for your loss, Rarity, but curse or not, he did live a long life.”

“Not long enough. I thought I’d go first.”

“You have no control over that any more than I do.”

Rarity knew that was true. She tried to focus on the few positives – at least Onceler had passed peacefully in his sleep. He was still sharp of mind and had no excruciating illness that caused him to spend his final days in pain. No, he’d been happy and, though old, he’d been healthy. She realized it must’ve been something like a stroke or heart attack that took him, but she’d never know. While she cleaned him and dressed him in his green coat and gloves and lovingly wrapped a thneed around his neck, the Lorax used his magic to set a grave in the ground and place a stone at its head. Just as the sun was setting on the valley, as the light retreated from the Truffula tufts and the Swomee Swans settled in their nests for the night, Rarity gently lay her husband in the ground.

“Will you do this for me?” Rarity asked. “When my time comes?”

“Of course I will, sweetheart,” the Lorax answered, using his powers to fill the grave with dirt and grow grass on top of it.

Rarity retreated to the house where she’d spend the next week mourning her loss. Somehow the place didn’t seem the same without him. She couldn’t help the feeling that she’d given up something big for him, but all the memories of what that might have been had faded.

No one remembered him…except for Ted and his family. Stephanie had already passed on about a year ago and Gloria before her. Rarity remembered so much. She focused on those memories to keep him alive in her heart. She eventually found the strength to start going through his things. She hoped to find some kind of love letter he’d written for her and forgotten about, but there was none. No, he’d been more the type to kiss her and tell her directly. She found an old photo of him in a frame and when she wiped the dust away she realized it was from his high school graduation. Being so old, it was black and white, but he was flashing that genuine smile of his and she could just imagine how much his blue eyes must’ve shone with pride that day. Next to him was Norma in her cap and gown. She set it aside to give to Norma later. She figured her old friend might like to have it. Most of what she sifted through she had no idea what to do with – completed and half-completed inventions he’d made or started on over the years, old newspapers, and in one drawer she found a bent nail, loose change and a snail shell. Her husband definitely had some hoarding tendencies.

Almost two weeks after he’d passed, she made the long walk into town, finally seeing his vision turned into reality. There were different types of vehicles on the paved roads, modern houses, tall buildings and trees – real Truffula trees lining the streets. She wished he could have seen this. With a little investigating, she found Norma’s house and rang the bell.

His old friend answered and immediately upon seeing Rarity, her face fell with knowledge. She didn’t have to be told. “When?”

“About two weeks ago. He went in his sleep…peacefully…”

Norma invited her in and as soon as Rarity stepped inside she received a warm hug. “I’m so sorry, Rarity.”

As soon as the other woman let go, Rarity handed her the photo. “I thought maybe he’d want you to have this.”

Norma smiled down as the picture. “I remember this day. He was so excited. You know, he was the first one in his family to graduate high school.”

“I brought his guitar, too…for Ted. I know Ted doesn’t play and he’s away at college, but perhaps you can get the message to him and give this to him when he returns home on break. Onceler wanted to pass it on to a son if he had one, but we never did and Ted is the closest he has to family.”

“Of course. You take care, Rarity.”

Rarity retraced her steps back to her house, which she would never leave again. She’d be content there to sit and watch the trees grow, watch the Swomee-Swans build their families and the fish play and hum in the river. There she would stay, waiting, unafraid, for the day when she’d once again dream of mirrors and, overjoyed, she’d pass through one to the other side, where a handsome young man in a green coat and gloves would be waiting for her.

Chapter Text

Epilogue – The Forest

There are many legends now surrounding the Truffula forest. Chief among them, the tale of a bossy little guardian spirit and an innocent soul corrupted by greed. Different versions have been told, but never is there a mention of a unicorn named Rarity, because after so many years, the real story has been boiled down to little more than a children’s fable.

I know the truth because the story, like the guitar I now hold in my hands was passed down in my family from my great-great-grandfather who heard the story from his adopted grandfather, who was, of course, the Onceler in the tale.

Newcomers doubt the story’s authenticity, but those who have lived in Thneedville and the surrounding areas long enough know that if you wander deep into the forest, you’ll not only see dense areas of Truffulas with animals playing among them, if you know where to look you may even see the moss-covered remains of an old building, occasionally come across a pipe and then something will catch your attention. If you know where to go, you’ll find an old pile of stones that still seems to be cared for with a single word written on it: UNLESS.

On either side of this stone pile are two other stones, both inscribed with the name: R. Onceler. One of them has three Truffula trees carved into it and the other three diamonds. Because the legend got it wrong – there were two Oncelers – one who turned the other’s heart from greed with the element of generosity. That is the truth of the story. Want more proof? Look no further than this valley, this oasis of tranquility and beauty a stone’s throw away from the modern city.

A tree falls the way it leans…and grows with whatever it’s given to start out with. The seed, the tree that started it all was given with one thing and one thing only, a valuable something that still seems evident in the amount of trees in the forest, which I hear numbers more than they used to. And that, my friends, is generosity.

~Fin~