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“I do not have to subject myself to this.” He knew that protesting was moot at this point, but still felt like he needed to give it a symbolic try. It was, of course, moot. “Yes you do -or did you think I was bluffing? Trough was always full of fur last year, so this one--” His mother dramatically picked up the brush and gave it to... “--your sister gets to help you.” He knew from experience that the tone in her voice ment that it really was useless to argue. Still, as he watched his sister’s grin grow more and more evil, he couldn’t help but give it one last try. “I’m not exactly a colt anymore, Ma. Last year was just a fluke, it happens. One more chance--” he cut himself off before adding a ‘please’. He knew it would be a whine, and that wouldn’t exactly help his case. “Oh, I know you’re not just a little colt. And that’s why you’re going to be nice to your sister now! Unless you want your friends to know you still need help brushing?” Alright, that was dirty. But effective, he’d give her that. He shot his mother a glare, but swallowed further protests as she gave him a sweet smile in return, ruffled his sister’s mane, and left the barn. And thus, he was trapped. His sister stood in front of the doorway, blocking his one exit. The bright spring sunlight streamed in from behind her, hiding her face in shadows. Still, he could feel the malicious grin on her face. He swallowed, and took a step back, bumping into the almost empty shed basket. There was nowhere to run. She walked closer and closer, raising the brush as she did. He closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable... He let out an undignified OOF-sound as she jumped and landed, hard, on his back. “What the --what are you doing!?” “Brushing you, duh” she happily replied, as she took a step to steady herself. Her tiny, sharp hooves dug painfully into his back. “Ow! Why? There’s no reason you have to be up there!” “Of course I have to! How am I supposed to see if there’s any shed left up here otherwise?” He flinched again as one of her hooves jabbed into his ribs. And then his spine. When one banged against his shoulder he turned his head around and glared at her with one eye. “Well, what are you even doing? Dancing? Stop moving so much!” “Oh, you think I’m moving too much? Maybe I should dance! Why don’t I do a nice jig up here, would that be better? Or maybe a tap dance on your spine?” They glared at each other for a few seconds. Then a ‘THUD’ echoed around the barn as his sister fell off his shaking back when they both burst out laughing. After catching their breath (every time they stopped laughing they saw each other and started again), checking his sister over for damages (nothing but what is sure to be a nice-looking bruise in a few hours) and her climbing on top of him again (and him complaining over how unnecessary it was again) she actually started with the brushing. While he would admit that finally getting the itchy shed out of his fur felt nice, but his sister wasn’t exactly the gentlest with it. He winced every time the brush went through a slightly matted part, as she tugged and forced the brush to pull the fur apart. At least his sister seemed to be having fun, the handle in her mouth not stopping her from teasing him and babbling on. “...and this is gonna make me a nice hat.” She shifted and shook the brush off over the basket next to him. She turned back to him, and dragged the brush through the fur on the side of his back leg. Shifting the resulting clump of fur over to the basket and shaking it off again. “And that’s gonna be my next scarf!” “Okay, one; that’s my fur. Why should you get the stuff made from it? And two, I think you underestimate how much yarn stuff needs.” He saw her sticking out her tongue at him through the corner of his eye. “It’s my helping-you-emolument. An’ Papa said he’s buying sheep wool at the next caravan, so we’ll just need a little of your butt-scratchy shed” “...what’s an elmomument?” “‘Emolument’. ....and I dunno, but Master Swiftword uses it sometimes. I think it’s like a fee?” He nodded and metally filed the word away under ‘probably not quite that’. “So, you gonna start acting like Papa then?” That made her pause her pulling and he saw her give him a confused look. “...uh, what? Papa takes fees for stuff?” “...Oh!” Ha laughed, making her face grow even more bewildered. “You haven’t noticed??” “Noticed what?” “When Papa’s just speaking normally he’s just... you know... ‘Oh, hello, what a pretty day we’re havin’, perfect for some fishing’ --like, normal people speak. But whenever Master Swiftword’s around he goes all-- “At this, he put on, what he himself at least, interpreted as a posh accent. “‘Oh, greetings. What lovely weather we’re having, wouldn’t you say?’ Y’know. All fancy and stuff” She stared out into nothing for a few seconds at this revelation. Before scowling at him, and giving his side a sharp rap with the brush. “Don’t make fun of Papa! He’s just trying to be polite.. and- and, you can’t tell me you didn’t speak differently in school than at home!” He blew a raspberry at her. “It’s not making fun if Pa’s the one who joked about it to be first! And, of course, but not so much as Papa does!” She blew a raspberry back at him. After that intelligent conversation stopper, they sulked in silence for a little while. Finally, he scoffed, breaking the quiet. “Whatever. We wouldn’t have to buy wool anyway if you and Papa actually grew some winter fur --and we wouldn’t need so many clothes to keep you warm if that was the case anyway! You and Papa use all the cloth, but it’s me and Ma who’s making the stuff! I think I’m the one who should be getting an emolumathing.” He’d barely finished the sentence when he helt a hard hoof stomp down onto his head. Ouch. “Mama maybe! But your itsy bitsy butt barely makes enough fur for a single sock!” “Itsy! You’re smaller than me!” “Nu-uh!” She leaned down next to his face, and the next words came out in a taunting sing-song voice. “~I~checked~the~height~marks~! I’m taller than you were when you were my age! Get ready, soon I’m gonna be the big sibling” Well, that was depressing knowledge. He was already the shortest out of his friends by far, and now even his sister was going to be taller than him? Why did he have to get the short genes, that just wasn’t fair. She’d grown silent and he saw her looking at him with a slightly worried expression. “... um. Hey don’t worry about it. You’re still taller than Papa right? And--” her worried face shifted to a slightly evil grin. She wouldn’t dare. “--I think your coltfriend likes shorter stallions” This time he walked over to the pile of straw before purposefully bucking her off. “You know I was just joking, right?” “Yeah, yeah” “...and really, I think he would say yes if you asked to court him” “Can we not talk about this? I don’t want Ma or Pa to overhear” “Why? They really like him, I think he’s handsome, they’d probably be happy for you” “Yes I know. That’s the problem --can you imagine how much they’d never leave me alone about it if they knew? Endless teasing whenever I’ll go to meet my friends, stupid suggestions for gifts, and old advice that’s not gonna work anymore.” “Hmm, yeah, I see that” She took a step back, having decided that the rest of the brushing could be done from the floor. She gave him a critical once-over, and walked over to work on his other side. She brushed --or rather, yanked-- the shedding fur out in silence for a while. “So...” he felt like now was as good a time as any to bring it up. “How’s it going in school? Is Master Swiftword teaching you all the ...spirit...stuff you’ll need?” He practically felt in the air the way her previously high spirits instantly subdued. “Oh, yeah. It’s going great” Yeah, no, that definitely didn’t sound great. “Awesome! So I can expect you to be a full fledged Listener soon then?” His sister snorted. “No, Swiftword says I have a lot of years of study left. ...and then I probably have to leave for a long while to get more ‘practical experience’.” As she spoke, her voice got duller and duller. He glanced at her, and found her just staring intently at his side with a furrowed brow. He knew that there would be no use in trying to just push her further once she got like this. She’d just keep saying how great it was, while it was clear to anyone listening that something was wrong. “...well, great! Just remember your family back home when you get all big and famous” “Uh-uh, definitely. That’s gonna happen” “But really, it might be fun, right? Just imagine -you’ll be traveling to faraway lands, meeting all kinds of creatures.” “Yeah, I guess” “Seeing new landscapes.... maybe meeting some famous spirits like, uh, Yggdrasil? Or Venus?” “...” “Dining with Royalty... maybe even get hired to translate for them to the spirits?” “Sure” It seemed like he wasn’t getting anywhere. Time to pull out the big stuff. “It’s a plan then! So when I get married in the future, you can invite Celestia and Luna to attend, right?” That caught her attention. “Wh- what? That’s not---” she spit out the brush and turned to stare at him incredulously. “That’s not how this works! How do you expect them to... why... how do you even expect that to happen?” Bingo. “What do you mean ‘how’? They’ll fly here, I’ll add two chairs, we’ll make some more food, it’ll be great! I mean, they can fly can’t they?” “I-- yes! I guess, technically, but that’s not--!” she trailed off and stared at him with a confused and slightly horrified look. He grinned innocently back at her. She burst out laughing and hit his side with a hoof, some shedded fur forming a cloud from the impact. “Literally nothing you’ve been saying has been remotely right! Yggdrasil is a tree -- and it isn’t even in the physical world! Venus is a star! Wh-- stop acting so dumb, I know you know that!” He laughed back, and reached over with a leg. Grabbing her around the neck while she was busy berating him, and --ignoring her outraged protests-- proceeded to ruffle her mane into something resembling the contents of the basket of shedded fur next to them. She managed to push his leg away, and shoved him with all her might into the nearest straw-pile, jumping in after him. After that, the battle was on. Straw rubbed and tangled into manes and tails, sides ticked and ears tugged. It was an intense battle that waged across the barn --that still kept itself far away from the hay-bales, tools and other supplies stored there. Fun and games were one thing, but it had been permanently imprinted into both of the siblings’ minds since diapers to never ever fool around with the family’s livelihood. But no war can wage forever, and after a while a truce had to be called. The two siblings found themselves laying down on the sun-warmed stone floor just inside the open doorway, trying to both catch their breaths and picking straws out from their manes. From the inner shadows of the barn, a scraggly shade stalked out into the light. Old Barncat came up and gave them a disgusted look and a few angry meowls at their loud tomfoolery and for stealing the best sunspot. After they were properly chastised, she settled down into a loaf in the second best place, still grumbling a bit to herself. The siblings giggled as the unmistakable purrs of a contented cat filled the air --she wasn’t very good at acting annoyed. “...But really...” he decided to try again, now that his sister seemed to be in a bit of a better mood. “...If you don’t want to leave, or you even want to stop being Swiftword’s apprentice... that’s alright, okay?” His sister startled, rolled over, and gave him a surprised look. “I...” “I know you always say it’s fine and great an’ all... but it, uh, it doesn’t sound fine?” He quickly continued before she could insist, again, that no, she really was fine, she promises. “If it really is great, then that’s awesome! But if it’s not, then I just wanted to let you know that it’s okay. Mama and Papa would understand if it’s not your calling --they always say that they just want you to be happy, right?” He watched her ears and eyes twitch around, as she chewed on her bottom lip. He waited, hoping that she’d finally talk to him about it. To his surprise, she did, though her voice was very small. “...they, um. They say that but...” She looked away. “They’re also always so proud of it? When Auntie comes to visit it’s all ‘did you hear, your niece’s apprenticing to be a Listener’ and at the market ‘we’re gonna have to find someone to help with the farm, our daughter’s so busy learning to be a Listener’. ...an’ Master Swiftword’s always talking ‘bout how important it is, an’ how the village needs a listeners to survive an’ how he’s getting older and we’ll gotta pay a lot for someone far away if I don’ wanna an’...” She ran out of breath, and had to pause to gulp down some air. Her eyes were a bit shiny, and her breathing was wobbly. Before she could take the next deep half-sob, her brother was suddenly next to her, pressing up against her side. Barncat startled at the movement, and shot them a squinted look. Before also moving a smidge closer and starting her purring up again, even louder this time. He felt his sister’s smaller body slightly shake, and gave her a worried look and tried some comforting whickers. “...he says I’m soon ready to learn to meditate an’ contact the stars n’ other Heavenly, but it sounds so scary, an’ I dunno if I wanna. But I don’t wanna make the village pay a lot, and Mama and Papa’ll say it’s okay, but they’re gonna be so disappointed!” He continued the soft whickers as she swallowed and took several deep breaths. He waited a little while until she’d calmed down a bit, before he spoke again. “...Ma and Pa also say how proud they are of me, and I’m just learning stupid masonry. They’re proud of both of us ‘cause they think we’ve found what we wanted to do in life. And I know that if you wanted to do something else, they’d be happy with that. I mean... Mama was supposed to be a midwife before she left to be a farmer instead. They’ll get it, I promise.” He gave the sunny day outside the door a glare. “And if Swiftword’s getting so old, he should have thought about who'd take over after him a long time ago. And taken on more than one apprentice. That’s not on you, that’s all on him.” “...what ‘bout the village? We don’t have that much money to pay someone.” “We’ll manage. We look out for each other, yeah? Everyone will understand that we can’t put everything on you, we’ll all shoulder a small part together.” She still seemed nervous, not looking at him. Resting her head on her forelegs and staring into the darkness of the barn. So he tried a new tactic. “And if anyone says anything else, I’ll kick their tails” At this he saw her finally crack a small smile. “You think you can even reach up to kick someone? Maybe you can bite their fetlocks.” He looked down at her, feeling his face form a bit of an evil grin. “Why always the short jokes? But I’ll have you know, I can beat anyone taller than me. I have a secret weapon.” “..Oh?” She sniffed, and glanced up at him. “What?” “Perfect height to bite them in the groin” It took a second for her to process what he’d said. Then she put all four hooves against his side and shoved, only managing to push herself away from him. “Ew! You can’t say that!” she laughed, giving him a very exaggerated disgusted face. “It’s true!” “Yeah, but you can’t say it!” Once the laughter had died down again, his sister spoke up again. “...but you really think it’s alright if I... if I wanna do something else?” “Yeah! Of course it is --and anyone who says otherwise is just being a selfish underdock” “...will, um...” she hesitated, but continued. “Could you help me talk to Mama and Papa ‘bout it?” He nodded quickly. “Of course, if you want me to.” She smiled, and shuffled closer again so they were resting side by side. “Thanks” “Anytime” After a few seconds of silence, she spoke up again. “...do you think I’ll ever get a mark?” He blinked at the change in topic, and fumbled to answer. “I, uh, sure? Maybe? I mean, Papa says it’s fifty-fifty? I’m probably not gonna get one, Pa said I’m getting on the older side an’ should have gotten one by now, but you still can” She nodded. “I know. I just.... I dunno if I want one” “Why?” he asked, a bit worried. “Doesn’t it sound nice to know what you’re supposed to do?” “Well, yeah, but... what if you get one you don’t like?” “I.. don’t think that’s possible? Papa says it’s supposed to be ‘a reflection of yourself’, so you’d have to like it to get it? Sorta? ...but it’s still not guaranteed you’d get one or not, that’s not up to us to decide. ...I think.” She just sighed and nodded. “Why do you ask?” He tried again. Worried at this line of questions. “No reason, was just thinking ‘bout stuff people had said” He was about to ask exactly who had said what to her, when their conversation was interrupted by a faraway ringing. It was just barely within hearing range, but they’d both spend enough of their lives guided by the sound that it caused their ears to perk and listen carefully. The bell rang once, twice, thrice -- it was midday. “Oh!” his sister jumped up. “I forgot the time, I didn’t think it would take this long!” “You’ve got something to do?” He got up as well, and shook the dirt out of his coat. “My friends and I were supposed to meet for midday-meal and then go explore the abandoned old house. But I haven’t finished anything yet! I still need to go get the eggs and sweep the floors, and--!” He gave her a shove. “Run, take the back trail, you’ll make it in time. I’ll do your chores today if you’ll help me wash the hog pen tomorrow” She gave him a face at the mentions of the dirty enclosure, but nodded. “Deal!” She sprinted to the other side of the barn, threw the small back door open and was off. He just heard a faint “thank you!” and saw her tail disappear as she sprinted down the forest path, before the door swung shut again with a bang. He watched her go, sighed, stretched, and opted to use the already open front door instead. Barncat grumbled as he walked past, but hurried to slide over to their abandoned spot in the sun, stretching out on the warm cobblestones. He walked out into the clear spring air and sunlight, and turned, intent on walking alongside the barn to the chicken coop. Only to nearly jump out of his skin as he instead was faced with his mother, standing in complete silence just outside the doorway. She stared at him, her face expressionless. He was suddenly very aware of the fact that he still hadn’t brushed out all his shed. Crud. “Oh, uh, hi! Okay, I know I’m not completely brushed, but uh.. I can ex--” He stopped speaking and squeaked instead as he was pulled into a bone-crushing hug. “Ma! You’re squishing me!” She dropped him and he stumbled for a little bit, trying to catch his breath. “Sorry, sorry, love.” She sighed, and pressed a kiss on his head before stepping back, giving him a once over. He just grumbled back and raised a hoof to rub it off. Gross. She smiled at him, but he was concerned to see the wetness in her eyes. But before he could ask her what was wrong, she spoke up. “I’ll let you get back to it, but I just wanted to say--” she leaned down and placed her head on his back, giving him a slight neck-hug. “You’re not just learning ‘stupid masonry’, alright? You’re building homes and keeping ponies safe and warm. You’re always helpful and kind, and me and your Pa are so proud of what you are doing and the stallion you are becoming.” He felt his face and ears grow hot and was thankful that his fur was dark enough to hide it. And that she couldn’t see his face. “Oh, uh, you’ve been listening, huh?” He felt her nod. “Yes --I know, I’m sorry, I always say that’s wrong, yet here I go, doing it myself.” She leaned up again, giving him a slightly sheepish look. “Oh, uh, it’s alright. But, um, about... Swiftword an’--” She pressed their noses together. “It’s alright. We’ll speak tonight at evening meal, when your Pa’s here too -but you were right. We will always be proud of both of you, and we’ll make sure your sister knows that too.” He pressed back. “Yeah, I know ...love you, Ma” She gave his nose a kiss --gross-- and stepped back. “Love you too.” Shaking her mane out, she buffed his side gently with her head. “Now back inside and brush the rest off, before you do the chores I heard you promise you’d take care of. And don’t forget the back of your neck.” He snorted at her, but obediently turned and trotted in again, carefully stepping over Barncat on the way. Ma was right after all --no matter how emotional the last ten minutes had been, work always still needed to be done.