Disclaimer: Hey Josh, now that you've thrown Marissa away after three years of thoroughly smashing her character to pieces, can I have her? I'll fix her up and make her all better! No? Fine. Then she and the other Coopers are still property of Josh Schwartz and Fox Broadcasting, and all I can do is thank you for letting me write my own stories about them.

Notes: This whole thing is inspired by one throwaway line near the end of season 3, where Marissa says, "I used to show my sister's pony when I was younger. Even won a few blue ribbons." I don't know if that's the exact quote and I may have messed up all kinds of canon; I don't know because this show often makes me want to rip my hair out and I've skipped at least 30 episodes all told. But, um, don't let that stop you from reading this story, because I really did work hard on it…

China Blue

She found it while she was pushing things around in the back of her closet, trying to find the space to hide a pair of shoes that had long since been retired but which she couldn't quite throw out. Under a layer of clothes she'd never worn and a pile of old schoolwork, there laid a handmade cloth-and-yarn construction, its cover bearing glitter glue and patterns of sequins. Buried an eternity ago – the scrapbook she started at age 10 and stopped updating at 12 and hadn't looked at since 13.

Suddenly curious, she unceremoniously tossed the box aside. One shoe jumped out, its exterior throwing colored shadows, but she took no notice as she retreated a few steps and sat down on the bed. Thoughtfully she turned construction paper pages, still brightly hued, if a bit warped by aging Elmer's glue. It was full of photographs and printed banners: star stickers from grade school, "best backhand" award from a junior tennis camp, she and Summer in matching tutus, certificates of achievement from swim class instructors. The center fell open to a crumpled rainbow of ribbons and four pages dedicated to what made her pause – pictures of a pony in the days before a dollar sign appeared over her head, marking her for sale at six hundred (or best offer).

PW China Blue, registered section B Welsh pony – the initials stood for a stable Marissa had never known – whose eyes had inspired first her name and later the adoration of a little girl named Kaitlin Cooper, enchanted at first sight of the jet black coat, the four white socks and the diamond star offset by two eyes of startlingly clear blue. Her mother tried to dissuade her at first, sure that blue eyes meant blindness, but Kaitlin had wanted her pony to be different, prettier than all her friends'. She was adamant about it, and already versed in the art of parental persuasion, so two days later the mare traded hands.

China had always belonged to her sister, really. Marissa hadn't been quite interested enough in horses to beg for one herself, but after she started watching her sister get dropped off every day, she ended up asking for lessons too. Julie had immediately offered to get her a horse of her own; Marissa refused. She was just happy to tag along once or twice a week.

She took to riding just like she'd taken to everything else, and before long was persuaded to enter a show on the chestnut gelding she used for riding lessons. She won the pleasure class she entered; Kaitlin did the same in hers. The instructor commended the former's poise and scolded the latter for letting the pony do all the work. Thereafter, Kaitlin decided she was done not only with shows but lessons altogether; she only wanted to ride for fun. But she wanted to China to be a star, so Marissa had taken up new reins and slid permanently into the show circuit.

She might have kept at it forever, if her legs hadn't officially outgrown too long for her preferred mount, and her friends hadn't started throwing parties, and she hadn't found her weekends suddenly too busy to make time at the stable.

And now she wouldn't have a reason to go there at all.

She'd had no part in the decision, but Marissa felt, for the first time, a sudden twinge of guilt. Innocent pony kicked out when she got a little threadbare. Just like everything else in the lives of the rich and self-absorbed.

A knock at her door and her mother's voice promptly directed her attention elsewhere.

"Okay, we're going down." Down to the stable, of course, because China would be at another barn as soon as the signatures and papers were exchanged today.

"Can I go with you?"

Her mother looked confused. "Why? We're not going to be gone long."

Marissa shrugged as if she simply had nothing better to do. "Just thought I'd say goodbye."

Julie had already turned away. "Sure, if you want. Kaitlin already claimed the front seat, though."

She didn't mind. She wasn't in a mood for conversation anyway, remaining silent until they arrived.

Julie immediately headed for the office to meet the soon-to-be new owners; Marissa trailed after her sister, who made a beeline for her soon-to-be-former pet. She hung back a short distance to avoid intruding. Kaitlin's voice was steady and her chin was set while China was told all about how soon she'd be living on a real farm and make lots of new friends…and then a whiskery black muzzle protruded over the door and nuzzled her hand. Probably just looking for treats, but at the affectionate gesture her sister promptly burst into sobs, recoiled, and bolted out of sight.

Knowing she didn't want to be comforted, at least not by her, Marissa wandered up to the stall instead.

"Hey, China," she whispered, touching the end of her nose. The pony stamped her hoof and snorted, yanking her head back out of reach.

"Right. You don't like that. I forgot." She looked around for something to sit on, found a plastic chair and dragged it up in front of the door. Poor old pony. True, Marissa could understand why Kaitlin had been convinced to get a new one. China wasn't a very pretty sight – to be honest, she was a little gross. With large patches of hair missing to expose pale, scaly skin, she looked as though someone had taken a pellet gun and opened fire. Nobody shopping for a new pony would look twice at this one.

It just seemed such a shame that after years of being beloved and hand-fed, years of being ridden bareback down trails and shown off to friends and spectators, that she was being written off. The price you had to pay for growing old in a place where showing your age was an unconscionable sin, even if you were only a pony.

The satin-smooth hair on her face was unbroken, so Marissa focused her attention there, moving her hand to stroke the firm cheek. With her other hand, she fished out the baby carrots she'd brought, and offered them up. China crunched them up agreeably; jaw flexing and relaxing beneath Marissa's palm and nostrils promptly seeking out a second helping. "Nope, that's all, I don't have any more. Quit looking," she chided, when the nose moved to check her other hand.

Across the aisle, a much younger girl, barely seven years old, broke the quiet in the barn. Decked out in hard hat and jodhpurs, she tramped across the cement floor carrying a saddle that nearly dwarfed her. "Hi Willow! Time for lessons!" she called cheerfully, and Marissa followed her progress until she stopped in front of a shiny bay mare's stall. China's ears pricked forward as the other horse's head came into view, and she let out a cheerful greeting. The girl turned and smiled. Marissa smiled back, almost waved before she realized that the girl only had eyes for ponies today, and hadn't even looked at her. She wasn't being deliberately rude; she was simply more interested in animals than people. Kaitlin had been that way for a while, too. Marissa had never understood that ability to tune out the rest of the world.

When the bay moved back out of sight, China's head drooped, and she leaned against Marissa. Abruptly and unexpectedly, she felt a lump rising in her throat. She should have visited more, she should have taken an interest, she should have researched, or something, to see if there was a way to treat alopecia in equines…

She should have been born an animal lover.

Marissa turned as the sound of her mother's voice approached again, leading Kaitlin back into view and reminding her that she was getting a manicure in half an hour, and she didn't want to arrive with puffy eyes from crying, now, did she?

Shaking her head, she wiped her eyes and slipped into the stall to hug her pony goodbye. Two rogue tears escaped as she did so, whispering an apology in China's ears, and a minute later she stroked the firm shoulder for the last time. A patch of black hairs came away in her hand, and Julie grimaced. Kaitlin, not noticing, looked at them wordlessly and then shook them off, wiping her palm numbly on designer jeans before closing the stall door and heading back to the car. The black strands vanished among the stalks of straw bedding, and just like that, the goodbyes were done.

Marissa lingered a minute longer, inexplicably feeling like she owed the pony an apology of her own. "Sorry," she repeated, hoping the word hadn't really come out as flat and meaningless as it had sounded to her ears. China looked back at her impassively, seeing nothing unusual about the moment, blissfully oblivious to what might happen to her tomorrow. And in those china-blue eyes, for just a minute, Marissa Cooper and her life and its mistakes were all reflected at once in a dizzying swirl.

The next minute they were gone, and there were only the blank pupils of a dumb animal and a suddenly apathetic teenager turning her back on imagined nostalgia. Sawdust and leather and sweet grain were already fading scents as she followed her family back to the real world, in which ponies had about as much place as those old light-up sneakers.