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Lunar Entanglement, Act I (/moon/day story, WIP)

By ReggieSomething
Created: 18th December 2020 02:19:18 AM
Modified: 15th February 2021 07:37:41 AM

  1. Lunar Entanglement
  2. By: ReggieSomething
  3. foreheadsweat(at)protonmail(dot)com
  4. A /moon/day Story
  5.  
  6. Latest Update: 15 FEB 2021
  7.  
  8. Synopsis: This story starts shortly before the fifth anniversary of Luna's return to Equestria. It follows the adventures of Princess Luna and Lord Counselor Anonymous as they navigate everyday life, politics, romance, and existential threats, with their actions irrevocably entangling their fates with those of others. A work in progress.
  9.  
  10. Note: Sections contained by /.../ denote a flashback/memory/backstory. Two periods (..) on a new line denote a perspective shift within a scene. Scene changes are marked with an ellipsis (...) on a new line.
  11.  
  12. Chapter 1
  13.  
  14. >A breeze flowed gently through Canterlot. It blew through the open doors of a balcony protruding from Canterlot Castle's highest tower.
  15. >Dark blue curtains depicting phases of the moon and constellations had been the only partition separating the outside world from the room connected to that balcony.
  16. >Inhaling deeply through her nose, Princess Luna closed her eyes and smiled. The scent of the castle garden's lilacs after a rain shower always relaxed her.
  17. >The pleasing scent combined with sounds of her curtains undulating in the late spring breeze was enough to make Luna yearn for her bed's comfort once more.
  18. >Nevertheless, the day grew late, and the princess would need to begin fulfilling her daily obligations. A blue aura enveloped the balcony door curtains before pulling them open, allowing the late afternoon sun in.
  19. >The sunlight reflected off the black peytral and crown that sat atop a vanity positioned against the wall opposite her large four poster bed.
  20. >Luna stepped in front of the vanity mirror before brushing her mane. The magically-controlled brush's reflection moving through her mane in long smooth strokes was almost hypnotic.
  21. >While absentmindedly brushing out the last tangles in her billowing starry blue mane, Luna reflected on the past few years.
  22. >It had been nearly five years since her escape from the moon and return to Equestria. The prophesied return of Nightmare Moon.
  23. >Thankfully she had been purged of that vile entity by the Elements of Harmony.
  24. >Luna eventually befriended every Element, each one helping her adjust to modern life after her thousand year absence.
  25. >Celestia was instrumental in easing Luna back into the royal spotlight. She relinquished control of the moon to Luna within weeks of her return.
  26. >She had Luna observe daily court sessions after three months. Eight months after her return, Luna actively participated in court, and frequently relieved Celestia of court duties.
  27. >Luna established the Night Court shortly after the first anniversary of her return.
  28. >Ah, the Night Court. Many citizens were excited to have another option for bringing their petitions before a princess.
  29. >Setting her brush down, Luna donned her crown, peytral, and slippers. She smiled as the recalled her first petitioners; the genuine smiles, their nearly-palpable gratitude.
  30. >For better or for worse, the novelty of the Night Court had worn off within six months. Luna's enthusiasm for her court faded proportionately with the dwindling number of subjects that attended.
  31. >As it turned out, attending court held long after dark was rather inconvenient, especially for the common folk.
  32. 'At least there were not many entitled nobles that attended the original Night Court,' Luna thought.
  33. >She inspected her appearance in the mirror one last time, ensuring her crown was aligned with her horn and that the crescent moon on her peytral was centered on her chest.
  34. >The regalia may have been ornamental, but it felt like armor in a sense to Luna. It helped maintain her public appearance; the poised, graceful, and enigmatic moon princess.
  35. >Those royal ornaments hid Luna, the mare, from the outside world. The mare with hopes, dreams, and selfish desires. The mare that struggled with regret and insecurities. A mare that loved to have fun, but rarely got to enjoy herself.
  36. >She departed from her chambers and set out for the dining hall. Her starry blue mane and tail flowed on their own volition; perpetually moved by an unseen ethereal breeze.
  37. >Save for a guard and some of the kitchen staff, the dining hall was unusually empty. Luna sat at the table and looked around, searching for any sign of her usual "breakfast" companion.
  38. >"The usual, Princess?" asked a server.
  39. "Yes please," Luna replied. "Tell me, have you seen Counselor Anonymous recently?"
  40. >"Yes, your highness. He stopped by earlier today with a note for you. I'll go fetch it."
  41. >The server returned with a steaming mug of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal, and an scroll.
  42. >Luna took the scroll and inspected the wax seal that kept it closed.
  43. >A laurel wreath adorned the circumference of the embossed design.
  44. >In the center of the stamp was the left half of Celestia's sun cutie mark, which gave way to the crescent moon from Luna's cutie mark. The points of the crescent met the terminus of Celestia's sun at the seal's centerline.
  45. >The seal of the royal advisor, Counselor Anonymous.
  46. >Anonymous had designed the seal after being appointed to his position. Publicly, the seal symbolized his position. He advised both princesses, and acted as an arbitrator when the sisters disagreed on policy issues.
  47. >Privately, the diarchs had come to associate the seal with Anonymous the man. Someone with whom they could forego the formalities of their stations. He was a patient ear to vent to, a shoulder to cry on, a comforting embrace.
  48. >Anon was one of the few beings in existence that the sisters could be their true selves around, if only in private.
  49. >Luna broke the scroll's seal and read the message it contained:
  50.  
  51. >Moona,
  52.  
  53. >I'm sorry I'm not there to join you for your breakfast.
  54. >Tia is cancelling tomorrow's court session in order to accommodate meeting with the Griffonstone emissaries.
  55. >She held court longer than usual today to compensate, and had us both addressing separate petitioners simultaneously.
  56. >There are several items that need my attention before the griffons arrive. Tia also wants me accompany her in welcoming the catbirds to the palace.
  57. >I will be late to court, if I can attend at all.
  58. >Let's reconnect at our usual rendezvous.
  59.  
  60. >A
  61.  
  62. >Despite initially smiling at Anon using one of the many pet names he created for her, Luna finished reading with a slight frown.
  63. 'Damned griffons. What do they want this time?' she pondered.
  64. >Regime change was fairly common in Griffonstone, making for unstable relations between the griffon nation and Equestria.
  65. >The new griffon king had been in power a mere four months and had already gained a reputation for ruling with an iron claw and spreading anti-Equestrian sentiment.
  66. "Hopefully they're just coming to complain about the existing trade agreement and nothing more," Luna murmured to herself. She magically destroyed the note in a flash of blue light accompanied by a small, audible 'pop'.
  67. >Regardless, tomorrow would likely be a long day that tried the patience of both diarchs.
  68.  
  69. ...
  70.  
  71. "...and the announcement regarding tomorrow's court session?"
  72. >"Made and distributed hours ago, your highness."
  73. "Thank you, Raven. Please get some rest. I'll see you in the morning."
  74. >The unicorn mare bowed to Celestia and trotted away through the main castle gate. Of all the assistants Celestia had employed over the centuries, Raven Inkwell was a gem.
  75. >Celestia looked around the courtyard. Notwithstanding her guards, there was nopony else in the vicinity.
  76. >She hoofed at the ground impatiently. The griffon diplomats would be arriving soon and her advisor was missing. With a sigh, she turned to her left to address a guard stallion.
  77. "Find Counselor Anonymous. Remind him that the griffons will be arriving shortly and I explicitly requested that he be with me to greet them."
  78. >"That won't be necessary, Princess. I'm here," a baritone voice called out behind her.
  79. >The man quickly closed the distance between himself and Celestia. The worried expression on Celestia's face gave way to one of relief, and then to confusion.
  80. "Anonymous, why are you armed? Why are you wearing your armor instead of your usual attire for that matter?"
  81. >The human stopped before Celestia and bowed. "It seems appropriate, given the appearance of our... 'diplomats'," Anon replied, sarcastically stressing the final word.
  82. >Celestia raised an eyebrow at her advisor, who took that as a cue to elaborate.
  83. >"Considering the aggressive rhetoric and posturing of the new griffon king, I wanted to be prepared to set the tone of our meeting starting with their arrival."
  84. >Anonymous adjusted the circular shield that hung on his back and continued.
  85. >"To that end, I had pegasi scouts observe their approach. They briefed me twenty minutes ago."
  86. "For all our concerns about the griffons' 'aggressive posturing', having our soldiers shadow their diplomats' approach seems hypocritical..."
  87. >"Agreed, Princess. I didn't have our troops observe them. I asked a favor of the Wonderbolts. I explained what I required and asked them to 'practice' near the airspace the griffons would enter. A squad from the 'bolts got a good look at them and reported to me, no creature the wiser."
  88. "I see..." Celestia kept her eyebrow raised. "Tell me, Counselor... why have the Wonderbolts carry out this task? You could have easily had one of our own pegasi soldiers fly without armor. Surely those stunt flyers, impressive as they are, aren't THAT much faster than Her Majesty's finest, no?"
  89. >The man stood stood ramrod-straight and stone-faced as the Princess walked towards him. Her steps were slow and deliberate. Celestia couldn't help but smirk as she circled behind her armored advisor.
  90. "In the three years you've served me, Anonymous, I've never known you to act frivolously. You've always been cold, calculated, and efficient in carrying out your duties."
  91. >Celestia stopped, stood broadside before Anon, and stared off towards the courtyard wall. She slowly turned her neck and head towards him.
  92. >To the untrained eye, Anon's stoic demeanor betrayed nothing of his thoughts. Celestia, however, could see through her friend's facade.
  93. "Perhaps this is another case of 'killing two birds with one stone', as you like to say," Celestia stated coyly. She turned to face Anonymous head on.
  94. "Especially considering you could have easily ordered one of our battle mages to perform a simple scrying spell," the princess stated while raising a hoof to her chin in mock contemplation.
  95. >Celestia took one step forward.
  96. "It would be wholly becoming of my efficient Counselor..."
  97. >another step
  98. "...to not only find a way to surreptitiously observe the approaching emissaries..."
  99. >Step. Step.
  100. "...but to simultaneously address a certain..."
  101. >Step.
  102. "...fiery-maned..."
  103. >Celestia placed her lips by Anon's right ear and whispered slowly
  104. "...Wonderbolts captain who has not been shy about expressing her... ahem... 'admiration' of said Counselor."
  105. >She took a step back, a grin plastered on her face.
  106. >Anonymous cleared his throat and reestablished eye contact with the solar princess, her face not even a meter from his own.
  107. >"Princess, the Wonderbolts reported that-"
  108. "The entire practicing squad reported to you?" Celestia interrupted. "That wouldn't be necessary. Which Wonderbolt, pray tell, briefed you?"
  109. >Celestia didn't need to ask, but enjoyed flippantly interrogating her advisor. 'Busting his balls,' as Anon would say.
  110. >"Captain Spitfire..." Anonymous reluctantly replied.
  111. "Oh ho ho! And what did the lovely Captain report to my trusted Counselor?"
  112. >"She said that five griffons approached from the east. None were dressed in the attire we've come to expect from the griffon diplomats. The leader was wearing armor and a saber typical of a high-ranking military officer. His retinue was equipped with slightly less ornate arms and armor."
  113. "That is rather... unconventional," Celestia noted, her tone becoming more serious.
  114. >"Indeed," Anonymous agreed. "It's more troubling when considered in the context of reports we've been receiving from Trottingham and other villages along our northeastern border. Livestock going missing, rumors of troops massing across the border and so on."
  115. "Hmm. I suppose it's fortunate they've sent an envoy. We'll need to address this. Now, let's address your appearance. Why are you in your armor?"
  116. >"I had only finished sparring with the Master-at-Arms when Spitfire arrived to relay her observations-"
  117. >Celestia couldn't help but interrupt.  
  118. "How convenient that she arrived right after you had finished. What a sight you must have been to the mare! Standing tall, sword in hand, armor gleaming, sun-bronzed skin glistening with sweat after such invigorating exercise-"
  119. >"As I was saying-"
  120. "Tell me, Counselor," Celestia continued, talking over the man. "Was the poor filly able to retain her composure this time, or were her wings flared shamelessly against her will as she beheld your physique?"
  121. >A muffled snort and the quiet rattling of armor broke Celestia's train of thought. The guards, professional as they were, were struggling to stifle their laughter and maintain their military bearing.
  122. >The palace guard was all too familiar with the Wonderbolt captain's interest in Anonymous.
  123. /.../
  124. >It had started innocently enough. Anon had accompanied the princesses to a Wonderbolts airshow a month prior. A VIP meet and greet event was held immediately after the show.
  125. >The sisters had tasked Anon to attend the social in their stead, as both had other obligations to attend to.
  126. >Anon had done his duty in representing the Princesses, mingling with the nobility and flyers alike. Having his fill of interactions with sycophantic nobles, Anonymous had literally bumped into Spitfire as he attempted to extricate himself from the event.
  127. >The two made small talk as Anon gradually made his way towards the exit. He congratulated Spitfire on a great performance and bid her farewell, thinking nothing of the conversation after he left.
  128. >Three days later, Spitfire appeared before the Day Court.
  129. >She thanked Celestia for the sisters' continued support of the team and for their attendance at the prior show. She then asked Anonymous if he'd like to observe one of their training sessions in the near future.
  130. >The Counselor graciously accepted, thinking he was shouldering a burden that Celestia would normally have to bear. Part of him was also excited to have a break in the monotony of his daily schedule.
  131. >Anon had actually enjoyed watching the Wonderbolts practice. He had thanked Spitfire for the invitation and for 'making things exciting for a change.'
  132. >The cocksure pegasus grinned at the comment and had replied, "You can come to me for all the excitement you'd ever want, Stud," before walking past him, playfully whipping his buttocks with her tail.
  133. >Anon was flabbergasted by the mare's audacity.
  134. >Spitfire saw him looking over his shoulder at her, mouth agape in disbelief. She responded by winking at him before she sashayed away.
  135. >Anon relayed his account of what happened with Spitfire to the sisters that evening in the dining hall. Celestia had nearly snorted cake up her snout in a fit of laughter. Luna just scowled.
  136. >From that day, Spitfire only grew bolder.
  137. >Sometimes she would attend court to invite Anon to observe another practice, to Celestia's amusement and Anon's chagrin.
  138. >She would occasionally be seen hovering over the guard training fields. She had learned from some of her guardsmare friends that Anon usually sparred three times a day, be it with the Master-at-Arms or regular guards.
  139. >On a few occasions, Spitfire would approach Anon after he concluded a training session. When she did, she struggled fruitlessly to keep her wings pinned to her side as she attempted to engage Anon in small talk.
  140. >To make matters worse, on several of these occasions, Anon would see Celestia standing at the opposite end of the training field, struggling to breathe as she laughed at Anon's predicament.
  141. >The last time Spitfire went to confront Anon after his training, she took things too far. Fortunately Celestia had intervened before either the pegasus or her advisor did something they would later regret.
  142. /.../
  143. >"Is there something amusing, guards?" Anonymous asked indignantly.
  144. >"No, nothing Sir," the senior guard of the detachment quickly replied.
  145. >"As. I. Was. Saying. After hearing that the griffons were traveling armed and armored, I thought it would be prudent to greet them similarly equipped."
  146. "Why is that?" Celestia inquired.
  147. >"We both know the griffons value strength over all other qualities. Seeing that the advisor to the Princesses leads a militaristic lifestyle will reflect well on you in their eyes."
  148. "Very astute, Anon. I'm glad to see you understand our neighbors' customs."
  149. >"You DID appoint me Counselor. It's my job."
  150. "Indeed. It pleases Luna and I that you take your position seriously. Now, about Spitfire..."
  151. >"This again? The griffons will be arriving any minute."
  152. "Yes, and we'll handle them just fine. I've dealt with scores of upstart griffon kings over the past millennium. The process is always the same: pleasantries and formalities on both sides, then the talks. It always boils down to the griffons complaining about trade deals or squawking about 'ancestral griffon territory' that's been under pony control since the pre-Discordian era. The end result is always the same. We give them token concessions in a revised trade agreement if necessary. For the more aggressive regimes, we threaten annexation."
  153. >It was Anon's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Annexation? Really?"
  154. "Oh yes, it was part of a good diarch, bad diarch routine that Luna and I would use before her banishment. While she was banished, I continued the practice with whomever the ranking officer of our military was at the time."
  155. >"And did the griffons ever call your bluff?"
  156. "A few times. The most recent one occurred around two hundred years ago."
  157. >"What happened, Princess?"
  158. "To make a long story short, after the griffons called my bluff, I created a portal between the my throne room and the throne room in Griffonstone Castle. I dragged the emissaries through it with my magic. Appearing suddenly before the griffon king, I threw his emissaries at his claws and told him that next time he threatened Equestria, I'd be returning through a larger portal with an army at my back. Oh, the look on his face was priceless!"
  159. >Anon smirked. "Wow, and here I was thinking you were Miss Diplomacy!"
  160. "Princess Diplomacy," Celestia corrected. "And yes, I am. I've never had to take military action against the griffons. In fact, our relations with Griffonstone warmed considerably after that little stunt I pulled. Perhaps I'll need to show this new king who he's dealing with."
  161. >Celestia giggled at the thought.
  162. "Now, Counselor. What did this favor from Spitfire cost you?"
  163.  
  164. ...
  165.  
  166. "A date!?" Luna scoffed. "You complain about this mare's antics and inappropriate behavior, yet you fan the flames of her desire by agreeing to a date?"
  167. >"Yes," Anon sighed.
  168. "What were you thinking? Rather, why weren't you thinking?" Luna pressed.
  169. >Anon rose from the bench nestled in between two lilac bushes in the castle gardens. He would frequently meet Luna in this isolated corner of the gardens at night to discuss the day's events. Tonight was no exception. He turned to face the moon princess again.
  170. >"I was thinking that asking her to use the Wonderbolts to watch for the griffons would keep her out of my hair for a few hours!"
  171. "So you weren't thinking then," Luna retorted. "Just admit it. Ever since Tia had to explain to you what a so-called 'wing-boner' is, you get flustered every time a pegasus mare presents her plumage to you!"
  172. >"I do not! And can we please not discuss this?" Anon groaned.
  173. "Not discuss what? Spitfire's infatuation with you, or your frustrating inability to keep your head in the face of pegasi courtship displays?"
  174. >Anonymous facepalmed with a loud 'thwack'. "A wing boner is not a courtship display. It's an involuntary reaction, just like human males getting erections to visual stimuli!"
  175. "On the contrary, it certainly is," Luna huffed. "Need I remind you of my age? I know the origins of such displays far better than you, my young human."
  176. >"Do tell, oh Ancient One."
  177. >Luna shot the man a nasty glare.
  178. "As you know, the wings of pegasi mares and stallions will flare out when sufficiently aroused. The origins of this behavior predates any known pony civilization. Pegasi stallions would typically flare their wings when challenging a rival stallion for control of a herd. Mares would flare their wings to males during estrus to signal their desire to mate. However, mares would also use this display to assert their dominance within a herd."
  179. >Anon pulled his hand away from his face and glanced at Luna. "But that was for prehistoric Pegasi, predating even you and Celestia. How is that relevant here?"
  180. "While ponies today may be much more civilized than their ancient counterparts," Luna explained, "these behaviors are still ingrained in pony instincts, which affects some ponies more strongly than others."
  181. >"So you're saying that when Spitfire pops a-"
  182. "Yes. She's signalling to you her desire to mate. That, or she's asserting her position as an alpha mare to any other mares present. All subconsciously, of course."
  183. >"I'm really done talking about this, Luna."
  184. "So be it. Will you at least tell me what you plan to do on this date?"
  185. >"I don't have a plan yet," Anon admitted. "Any suggestions?"
  186. "Dinner at a nice restaurant is always a safe bet, even if it is lacking creativity." Luna replied dispassionately.
  187. >Anonymous turned away from Luna and looked up towards the moon.
  188. >Luna loved it when Anonymous would look at the moon. Even if they were apart, she could sense when he would gaze upon it. The same could be said for her sister. When Celestia viewed the moon, Luna could feel it.
  189. >This intuition was a great source of comfort to Luna. It made her feel more deeply connected to them, a quality of connection that transcended blood relation or friendship.
  190. >Though she never investigated the cause of this intuition, she knew it was the result of being so close to her sister and her advisor.
  191. >When either would watch the moon for more than a few seconds, not only could she identify who was watching, but the feelings they were experiencing while doing it.
  192. >The eyes were said to be a window to the soul, after all. And Luna's connection to the moon was much more than her ability to move it. It was part of her.
  193. >This ability was a precious secret only Luna was privy to.
  194. >As Anon continued to stare at the moon, Luna could feel the apprehension and doubt that dominated his mood.
  195. "Anonymous..." Luna said quietly, breaking the silence.
  196. >"Yes?"
  197. "I know you've been struggling with doubt. You haven't felt as certain about yourself as you normally do. If you would open up to me regarding your inner turmoil, it would mean a great deal."
  198. >Anonymous found that he was unable to look away from the moon as he responded. It was as if keeping his eyes focused on it brought him a newfound sense of clarity.
  199. >"Ever since I was a child, I always knew what I wanted to do with my life. My ambitions always kept me centered as I matured. They were my guiding light in life."
  200. >Luna walked up next to him and nuzzled his arm, wanting him to continue.
  201. >"I was well on my way to obtaining the life I had always wanted. I had earned my college degree. I had a stable, well-paying job, family and friends that loved and supported me... I had everything a man could want in life."
  202. >Hearing more emotion seep into Anon's voice, she leaned against him and wrapped her right wing around his lower back, pulling him close to her.
  203. >Anon stood silently for a moment before speaking again. "Did you know I was in love?"
  204. >Luna gasped. Anon had never shared this information with her before.
  205. "Anon, if this is too painful for you to-"
  206. >"No, no. I need to get this out."
  207. >Luna nodded her head and began to rub his back with her wing in slow circular motions.
  208. >Anon took a deep breath. After exhaling loudly, he resumed his tale.
  209. >"Nicole was everything I wanted in a woman. Smart, sweet, funny, kind, gorgeous... she was the complete package. I knew that she was the woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life. My last memory from my life on Earth was kissing her goodbye. I told her that I was going to visit an old college buddy. In truth, I was going to buy an engagement ring."
  210. >Upon hearing this, Luna froze. She tucked her wing back against her side. Fortunately, Anon didn't seem to notice and carried on.
  211. >"The rest, as they say, is history," Anon muttered bitterly.
  212. >Luna looked up at Anonymous. She caught a glimpse of tears welling up in his eyes before he quickly looked away.
  213. >She recalled the afternoon Anon appeared in Ponyville, finding it hard to believe he had arrived in Equestria only four years ago. In many ways, Luna felt like she'd known him for decades.
  214. >"Don't get me wrong, I'm deeply grateful for everything I have here," Anon said as he turned to face Luna once more. "I'm so thankful to have you, Celestia, my job, the Apples..."
  215. >The Apples. They had taken Anon in after his sudden arrival and played a critical role in helping the human accept his new reality. Not only did they take him in under their roof, they grew to love Anon as a member of their family.
  216. >Likewise, Anonymous loved each member of the Apply family like they were his own blood. He was fiercely protective of his adopted little sister, Apple Bloom, whom he adored.
  217. >Anon's voice faded to silence as he thought about his adopted family. His job kept him away from them more than he liked, but he seized every opportunity he had to visit them.
  218. "Anon?" Luna asked, nudging the man's arm with her muzzle.
  219. >"Hmm? Oh, right. I don't want to sound ungrateful for the wonderful things I have here, it's just-"
  220. "It's just that you can't help but think of what was taken away from you when you were brought here," Luna finished. "The life that might have been. The life that can never be."
  221. >Anonymous sighed. "Exactly." He moved back towards the bench and sat down once more. Luna chose to remain standing, now needing to look down instead of up to make eye contact with Anon.
  222. >"Luna, I don't know what to do about Spitfire. Frankly, I don't know what to think about dating in general."
  223. "What's the problem? I do not for a second believe that you find mares unattractive, Anon."
  224. >Anon had made a something of a reputation for himself amongst the mares of Ponyville before working for the Princesses. This reputation followed him to Canterlot.
  225. >"I got over the different species issue fairly quickly," Anon admitted. He looked down at the ground. "I whored around for months, trying to fill the void in my heart. Eventually Applejack took it upon herself to knock some sense into my head. Literally and figuratively."
  226. "This was after your tryst with the Element of Kindness, yes?"
  227. >Anon laughed, clearly embarrassed. "Fluttershy was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back."
  228. "Her account of your... prowess... reached Canterlot," Luna stated absentmindedly. "Perhaps that's why you continue to attract pegasi mares, despite you forsaking your promiscuous lifestyle. They're known to appreciate wild lovers..."
  229. >Anonymous looked up at Luna with an expression that said, 'Did-you-really-just-say-that-out-loud?"
  230. >The princess gasped and raised a hoof to her mouth, mortified that she had actually voiced her inner monologue.
  231. >An awkward silence followed. Neither Luna nor Anon dared to look up from the ground. Finally, Anonymous spoke again.
  232. >"Anyways... I guess I refused to come to terms with being ripped away from the love of my life. Losing the chance to become a father. I tried to bury those thoughts by seeking the affections of loose mares, but the acts were hollow, and the escape from reality, fleeting."
  233. >Luna joined Anonymous on the bench. She sat silently, looking straight ahead. Her expression was one that Anon couldn't decipher.
  234. >The two sat there, side by side, neither knowing what to say.
  235. "Anonymous... are you still haunted by the loss of your beloved?" Luna asked, her voice almost a whisper. "Do you think you would ever be able to love another in that way again? To love her so deeply that you would take her to be your wife?"
  236. The man sat hunched over with his elbows resting on his thighs. He stared at the ground as he stroked his beard in contemplation, oblivious to the large cyan eyes that watched him intently.
  237. >"It's been four years, Luna. I've accepted that I'll never return to Earth or see Nicole again. The thought doesn't bother me the way it used to. As for your other questions, I don't see why I couldn't fall madly in love again, assuming the right lady came around."
  238. "Truly?" Luna replied. The cadence of her speech increased slightly. "You would be willing to commit yourself to one mare for the rest of your days?"
  239. >"Anything's possible," Anon chuckled, "but let's not buy the cart before the horse."
  240. >The Earth expression earned Anon a playful wing slap to the back of his head.
  241. "You never told me what you think of Spitfire, Anon. Do you see her as a potential spouse?"
  242. >Anon threw his head back and laughed. "I barely know her, Luna! At least let me get to know the girl before asking me if I think she's wife material!"
  243. >With that, Anonymous stood to leave, but Luna tugged on his tunic with her magic.
  244. "And if she isn't 'wife material'? Will you seek out other eligible bachelorettes to court?"
  245. >"I'm a busy man Luna, I don't exactly have a lot of time to devote to dating. All of the eligible bachelorettes in Equestria are welcome to pursue me. God knows the pegasi mares will."
  246. >Anon laughed at his own wisecrack. Luna joined him, even if her own laughter was forced.
  247. >"It's getting late and I need to get at least some sleep before our meeting with the catbirds tomorrow. Don't burn down the kingdom while I'm out, Woona," Anon quipped with a smile.
  248. >Luna smiled back at Anonymous, stood, and walked over to him. She reared up on her hind legs and pulled him into a tight embrace with her forelegs and wings. Anon returned the hug without hesitation.
  249. >The alicorn princess breathed in deeply through her snout, taking in the human's unique scent. She held him for a moment before pulling away and returning to all four hooves.
  250. "Goodnight, Luna," Anon said sleepily before turning and walking towards the castle.
  251. >Luna silently watched him walk away until he disappeared from view.
  252. "Goodnight... my dearest Anonymous," she whispered as she hung her head. A single tear fell from her right eye.
  253.  
  254. ...
  255.  
  256. >Luna had taken two steps before a familiar voice called out from behind her, stopping her in her tracks.
  257. >"Oh my dear sister, I don't know what's more depressing... that you could be so painfully obvious, or that my Counselor could be so oblivious."
  258. >Luna whirled around to face the voice's source.
  259. "TIA!?" Luna screamed. "What are you DOING here!? When did you get here?"
  260. >Celestia giggled at her sister before responding. "I arrived before you and Anon did."
  261. >Luna's eyes grew wide at the implication of Celestia's statement.
  262. >The elder princess continued, "I know how much you value your nightly meetings with Anon, and I'm happy that you enjoy spending so much of your free time with him."
  263. >Tia closed the distance with her sister and gave her a comforting smile.
  264. >Luna looked up at Celestia, her face contorted with a mixture of emotions. Part of her was thankful for her sister's comforting presence. Another part of her was angry that Celestia had violated her privacy.
  265. "Why were you spying on Anonymous and I, sister?" Luna asked with a glare.
  266. >"Spying? I wasn't spying," Celestia replied, feigning innocence. "I was merely being a fly-sized pony on the garden wall, anxious to see first-hoof how you would receive the news of our Counselor's date!"
  267. >Unfazed by the glare Luna gave her, Tia smiled widely at her sister and fluttered her eyes.
  268. >Luna's glare devolved into a scowl.
  269. "Celestia. Why would you concern yourself over something so trivial?" Luna growled. "Surely you have better things to do than eavesdrop on my conversations!"
  270. >"Ahh, but this wasn't a trivial conversation, was it, dear sister?"
  271. "I don't know what you're talking about, Tia. Twas nothing but idle gossip."
  272. >Luna was unable to meet Celestia's gaze as she lied through her teeth.
  273. >Celestia responded to Luna's lie with a snigger. "Your body language suggested it was anything but gossip, Lulu," she retorted. "Still, even I was unaware of the circumstances that influenced Anon's... behavior... during his first year in Equestria."
  274. >Luna's eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared. She lowered her head, pointing her horn at Celestia's face.
  275. "Careful, Celestia," Luna warned. "Be very careful in how you speak of Anonymous before me."
  276. >As Anonymous had an overprotective streak when it came to his sister, so too did Luna when her advisor was involved.
  277. >Celestia stepped back from her sister. The initial alarmed expression on her face gave way to amusement.
  278. >"Pssh! Oh, PLEASE, Luna! Must you be so melodramatic? You know I would never insult our dear friend! Sure, I love to tease him, but it's all in good fun!"
  279. "And what of you ordering the guard to allow Spitfire unrestricted access to the castle training grounds? Was that 'all in good fun' as well?"
  280. >"It absolutely was, at least for me!" Celestia guffawed.
  281. >Luna's deadpan expression went unnoticed as Celestia laughed herself to tears.
  282. >Celestia wiped the tears from her eyes with her wings and jumped into the air. She spread her wings and began to lazily circle above Luna.
  283. >"Come, sister. Fly with me."
  284. >Luna rolled her eyes, sighed, and leapt. She quickly passed over the spire of her tower with a few powerful flaps of her massive wings.
  285. >Celestia continued to fly in a slow circular path overhead, gaining altitude with each revolution.
  286. >The night air was drastically colder where Luna crested over Canterlot Peak. She spread her wings to their fullest extent and began to glide to the southwest, watching the moon all the while.
  287. >A familiar multichromatic pastel mane slowly lowered before Luna's eyes. She looked up to find Celestia flying inverted above her.
  288. >Their eyes met. Celestia stuck her tongue out at Luna, who giggled in spite of herself.
  289. >Satisfied she had sufficiently improved Luna's mood, Celestia righted herself and began her own glide off her sister's right side.
  290. >"It's so peaceful up here. Enough to make you forget about your troubles for moment, eh, Lulu?"
  291. "Not peaceful enough to forget that my sister sometimes seems to take after the Spirit of Chaos," Luna retorted. "Really, why do still allow that incorrigible yellow tart to harass our Counselor around the castle?"
  292. >"Because it's amusing, dear sister! Anon is always so serious, so stoic! He needs to lighten up once in a while; get pushed out of his comfort zone!" Celestia answered playfully.
  293. "Well done, Tia," Luna huffed. "Spitfire appears uniquely capable of making Anon uncomfortable."
  294. >"If only you knew how uncomfortable things really are," Celestia replied cryptically.
  295. >Luna turned her head towards her sister.
  296. "What do you mean?"
  297. >Celestia grinned. "Nothing. Forget I said anything."
  298. >The elder sister abruptly dived and sped off towards the castle.
  299. "TIA, COME BACK HERE THIS INSTANT!" Luna roared in her Royal Canterlot Voice.
  300. >Luna chased Celestia as she spiraled down around Canterlot Peak towards the city.
  301. >Citizens who still happened to be awake were treated to a rare spectacle. Their normally-dignified solar princess giggled uncontrollably while weaving between the taller buildings of Canterlot. A dark blue blur followed close on her tail, shouting threats and obscenities.
  302. >The chase ended in the center of the guard training field that Anon frequented. Celestia projected a large golden shield bubble around herself so she could land without being tackled by Luna.
  303. >Luna swerved to avoid the shield and flew past Celestia's landing zone. She tucked in her left wing, flared out her right wing and rolled, turning on a bit and landing directly in front of Celestia. The maneuver would have impressed any Wonderbolt.
  304. >"Very graceful," Tia remarked, genuinely impressed.
  305. "No," Luna replied indifferently, "but very efficient."
  306. >Christ, Interstellar is such a great movie.
  307. >"I will explain what I referred to a moment ago, Lulu, then I'm going to bed."
  308. "Spit it out, then."
  309. >Celestia dropped her shield and walked past Luna, who fell in behind her.
  310. >"I was watching from the North entrance." Celestia gestured toward a gap in the wall that surrounded the dirt field. "I should mention that as I approached the field, I saw Spitfire watching Anon from atop a cloud. I cast an invisibility spell before arriving."
  311. >"Anonymous was standing right about...here." Tia pointed a hoof at the ground. "Master Sergeant Sabre had taken his leave of the field. Anon had sheathed his sword and set down his shield to his left, the business end touching the ground."
  312. >Luna nodded and motioned for Celestia to continue.
  313. >"Anon had worked up quite a sweat from his training. By the way, he's become quite skilled over the years, Lulu. You should watch him spar sometime. Anyway, he had doffed his helm, gauntlets, greaves, breastplate, sword belt, then decided to remove his tunic since it was drenched in sweat..."
  314. >Luna made a mental note to begin observing Anon's sparring sessions. At least the ends of them.
  315. >"... which would leave him wearing only his sandals and his lower undergarment," Celestia noted excitedly.
  316. >Luna smiled and blushed.
  317. >"While Anon was pulling his tunic over his head, Spitfire pounced from her cloud and flew down to him. The first thing Anon saw once his head was free of his clothing was Spitfire hovering a meter in front of him at eye level."
  318. >Celestia began to laugh at the memory of Anon's shocked expression and Spitfire's satisfied smirk.
  319. /.../
  320. >Anonymous threw up his hands reflexively before shouting, "Oh, fuck me!"
  321. >Spitfire smirked. "That can be arranged, big colt," she said with half-lidded eyes and a sultry voice. "Just tell me when and where."
  322. >The fiery pegasus landed. Anonymous cleared his throat.
  323. >"What can I do for you, Captain?" Anon asked.  
  324. >Spitfire didn't miss a beat. "Plenty...Counselor. You can start by inviting me out on a date. I'd like to spend more time with you besides the brief interactions we have after our respective practices."
  325. >"You know," Anon replied, "I don't recall ever inviting you to observe any of my sparring practices."
  326. >The cocky pegasus mare briefly fluttered her wings; he had her there.
  327. >"Yeah, well... you came up during a conversation with some of my guardsmare friends. They told me about what a great fighter you are, that you've started to get the better of Quick Sabre every five duels or so!"
  328. >Master Sergeant Quick Sabre, the palace Master-at-Arms, was a renowned swordspony. He oversaw the weapons training of the royal guards and had done so for twenty years.
  329. >"What can I say, Anon? I had to see for myself if the rumors were true." Her wings fluttered again as her eyes took in the Counselor's mostly-exposed body.
  330. >Sweat rolled down his sun-kissed skin. Spitfire's eyes followed a bead of sweat as it rolled over Anon's abdominal muscles. Her gaze traveled lower, beholding a bulge covered by white cloth.
  331. >Unable to contain herself any longer, Spitfire took a step forward, thrusting her chest towards the man. She lifted her chin to reestablish eye contact and flared her wings out fully with an audible 'pomf'.
  332. >Anonymous watched wide-eyed as the pegasus surrendered to some ancient instinctual drive. She rotated her wings up to maximize the cross-sectional area that faced forward towards Anon.
  333. >A sudden flash of gold behind Spitfire caught Anon's attention. Celestia was standing in the field's northern entrance, holding a golden-shod hoof to her mouth in a desperate attempt to stifle a laugh.
  334. >Anon shot her a pleading look before the pegasus reared up on her hind legs and placed her front hooves on Anon's chest.
  335. >"You know, Anon, I like a stallion that can handle himself in a scrap," Spitfire purred, bringing her face closer to his. Anon remained rigid as he looked into her orange eyes. The mare knew she had him flustered.
  336. >She traced over a well-defined pectoral muscle with her hoof and brought her lips to his left ear before whispering, "Watching you fight makes me wonder what else you can do..."
  337. >Anonymous gasped as Spitfire slowly dragged her tongue across his collarbone and up his neck.
  338. >"Spitfire, please..." he whispered.
  339. >"Please, what?" she replied, her voice dripping with desire.
  340. >"Please, don't tempt me like this..." Anon shuddered, struggling to keep his composure.
  341. >It had been years since Anon had been with a mare. The effects of going so many months without that kind of release hit him in an instant. He felt his resolve melt away as the throbbing heat between his legs grew larger.
  342. >Fortunately for him, a new female voice called out indignantly behind Spitfire. "What do you think you're doing with my human!?"
  343. >Spitfire grimaced, pulled her face away from Anon's neck, and snorted angrily. "Back off, he's mine!" she shouted before returning to all four hooves and spinning around. Spitfire continued to snort loudly, throwing her head from side to side whilst stomping the ground violently with her right front hoof.
  344. >It was at this time the hotheaded mare actually bothered to look at whom she was challenging.
  345. >Princess Celestia towered before Spitfire wearing only a stern expression; her crown, shoes, and peytral cast off in a pile on the ground behind her. Celestia stomped the ground in response to Spitfire's challenge and began to strut towards her.
  346. >"I'll ask again," Celestia said coldly. "What are you doing with MY human?"
  347. >The princess threw her massive ivory wings out in an impressive display that Spitfire could never hope to match. Celestia lowered her head with a snort of her own, pointing her horn at the terrified pegasus. The alicorn dug at the ground with her front right hoof as if to charge.
  348. >Anonymous had never seen Celestia act so aggressively. He was used to the calm motherly presence Celestia exuded, not this savage behavior she was now displaying. He looked into her eyes, which glowed with rage, and felt his blood run cold.
  349. >There's nothing quite like a shot of fear to kill an erection.
  350. >Spitfire retracted her wings and threw herself on the ground in front of Celestia. "I'm SO sorry, Princess! I don't know what came over me! If I had known that it was you, that Counselor Anonymous was YOUR STALLION-"
  351. >The pegasus continued to issue apologies at a frantic pace, never daring to look up from the ground.
  352. >Anon looked at Celestia. Her furious facade was beginning to crack.
  353. >"OH, HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAA! I really had you going for a moment there, didn't I, Captain?" Celestia laughed, tears forming in her eyes.
  354. >Spitfire tentatively raised her head to look at the Princess. "Your Highness?"
  355. >"Rise, Spitfire! Rise! I was just playing with you! I'll admit, I am flattered to see that my performance was so convincing!"
  356. >Spitfire stood slowly and chuckled nervously. "Yeah, I honestly thought I was done for!"
  357. >"No need to worry, my little pony," Celestia replied with her normal motherly tone. She closed the distance with Spitfire and whispered in her ear, "A bit of advice, dear? In the future, be certain you know whom you're facing before you cave to your base instincts and try to assert your dominance. It's a bit of a moot point, though. The ancient courtship rituals are horribly obsolete. We live in a society..."
  358. >Spitfire's ears flattened against her head while she blushed, clearly embarrassed.
  359. >Celestia stood upright once more. "Well, Counselor! It seems you've got quite the wild alpha mare on your hands! I'd watch out for this one if I were you!" Celestia proclaimed bombastically. "Captain, if you would excuse us, I need to speak with my Counselor privately before we attend Court."
  360. >"Of course, Princess! I'll get out of your mane!" Spitfire replied with a salute. When Celestia acknowledged her salute with a nod, the pegasus jumped up and took to the sky.
  361. >However, she returned as quick as she had departed to flutter behind Anonymous. She placed a hoof on each of his shoulders. "Until next time, my big, fierce, fighting stallion," Spitfire moaned into his left ear. She planted a kiss on his cheek, giggled, and rocketed into the sky while whooping with exhilaration.
  362. >Celestia and Anonymous watched the orange blur generate a shock wave while speeding away.
  363. >"By. The. Sun. By my burning sun, Anon! In the thousands of years I've existed, I have NEVER met a mare as brazen as her. What sort of time-traveling dark magic summoned that feral pony to my realm?"
  364. >Celestia telekinetically summoned her regalia, donning it quickly. "And you, Anon... you nearly succumbed to her advances!"
  365. >"Hey!" Anon barked defensively. "I've been good! I really have! I haven't been with a mare in years!"
  366. >The princess shook her head. "Perhaps that's part of the problem. I know you've disavowed your past gallivanting, but that doesn't mean you can't respectfully court Cantelot's eligible mares. Elysium knows there's one enthusiastic suitress waiting for you!"
  367. >Anonymous shook his head. "Fucking crazy pegasi mares," he muttered to himself.
  368. /.../
  369. >Luna shook her head in disbelief.
  370. "You. CANNOT. Be. Serious! Surely, you jest!", she exclaimed.
  371. >Celestia looked away, choosing to gaze at the stars instead of her incredulous sister.
  372. "You're just as bad as Spitfire!" Luna pressed. "Joking or not, I cannot believe you actually answered that... that... WHORSE'S challenge like some sort of barbarian! What has gotten into you! You've been acting like a filly lately!"
  373. >The older sister scoffed. "Forgive me for wanting to feel young again. I hadn't felt free to enjoy myself for one thousand years!"
  374. >Celestia turned her head and sniffed. Luna watched her wipe away fresh tears with her wings.
  375. "Sister, I-"
  376. >"No, Lulu, you're right. I still need to act becoming of my age and station. Please understand that your return lifted a terrible burden from my soul. Having you back makes me feel like I did long before I banished you. With you back in Equestria, I feel like I'm finally allowed to be myself again; not the boring, motherly figure country expects me to be!"
  377. >Luna threw her wings around her sister and pulled her close.
  378. "Shh, I understand. I apologize for my harsh judgment."
  379. >Celestia chuckled. "Still, can you believe that pegasus?"
  380. "No, I cannot. I cannot believe that Anon never told me about this encounter."
  381. >"Luna, please understand that he was rather embarrassed by it all. I'm sure that's why he didn't bring it up..."
  382. "Furthermore, I was shocked this evening to learn that Anonymous has agreed to take her out on a date. It's even more troubling, knowing what I do now."
  383. >"You're taking this rather well, Lulu. Much better than I had expected."
  384. "Anonymous is a grown man, Tia. He's free to do as he pleases. Besides, after what you've told me, I'm not worried. I sincerely doubt that he will tolerate such a brash, arrogant mare for long."
  385. >Celestia nodded in agreement and sighed. "I have to raise the sun in four hours. I really need to sleep."
  386.  
  387. Chapter 2
  388.  
  389. >Luna stood rigidly on her balcony with her head tilted and tongue stuck out. A blue aura surrounded her horn.
  390. >The sun rose slowly under her unsteady influence. Luna was unaccustomed to raising her sister's sun, which was much heavier than and more stubborn to move than her own moon.
  391. "Almost...there!" Luna exhaled.
  392. >The moon princess stretched out her neck and shook the tension out of her legs and wings. While moving the sun was entirely within her abilities, she had only done it on a few occasions as a favor to Celestia.
  393. >Only after completing her task did Luna remember the nuanced approach needed to move the sun without wasting magical effort.
  394. >Celestia's sun did not respond well to the magical "brute force" approach Luna had taken. It's connection with and preference for Celestia and her sweet, gentle coaxing became more obvious as a dull throb began to radiate throughout Luna's skull.
  395. >Luna groaned as she stumbled over to her bed, kicking her lavender metal slippers off as she went. Her crown and peytral were telekinetically cast onto her vanity with similar indifference.
  396. >With a sigh, she threw herself on her bed and buried her aching head under a stack of pillows.
  397. >She gasped as the pillows were lifted off her head by an unknown force. Her attempt to raise her head was met with immediate resistance in the form of a gentle pressure applied to the back of her head. Her instinct to fight was immediately quelled by the sensation of fingers scratching behind her ears.
  398. >"It's been a while since you've covered down for Tia," a deep voice stated softly.
  399. >Luna's eyes closed with contentment as another set of fingers began caressing her mane. She smiled and lowered her head back down to the mattress, eyes still closed.
  400. "It's been even longer since you've spoiled me with a massage," Luna cooed. "A mare could get used to such pampering every day..."
  401. >"True, but then it wouldn't be nearly as special," Anonymous replied. He began to dig his fingers into the muscles that ran along the back of Luna's neck.
  402. "Ah! Also true, but my sentiment remains- OH! Right there! Harder, Anon!" Luna moaned loudly.
  403. >Luna internally marveled at how the human always seemed to intuit exactly where and when to apply pressure with his wondrous fingers.
  404. >Anonymous blushed and smirked, wondering how Luna's audible reactions might sound to passersby. 'God forbid Celestia walk past her door right now,' he thought.
  405. >"Moona?"
  406. "Hmmmmmm?"
  407. >"Why did you raise the sun today?"
  408. >Luna raised her head and turned it to the side before lowering it back down onto her bed.
  409. "Tia stayed up very late with me. I offered to take care of the sun so she could sleep in. She'll need the rest before we begin our meeting with the griffons."
  410. >Anonymous raised an eyebrow. "Tia never stays up late. What were you two up to?"
  411. "We talked, flew around Canterlot, talked some more..."
  412. >"Anything interesting come up in conversation?"
  413. >Luna considered confronting Anon about the story Celestia shared with her a few hours ago, but decided against it.
  414. "Nothing worth mentioning here and now," Luna deflected.
  415. >Anon gave Luna a puzzled look that went unnoticed. He worked his hands toward her withers. A moan of satisfaction informed him that his efforts were appreciated.
  416. >The man continued massaging Luna, who was loving the attention. After five minutes, her headache had subsided. After ten minutes, Luna fell asleep.
  417. >Anonymous ceased his massage when Luna began to snore softly. He smiled and absentmindedly ran his fingers through Luna's flowing mane.
  418. >He reflected on his time serving as the sisters' advisor, and how his relationships with each princess had changed over time.
  419. /.../
  420. >Celestia was warm and welcoming from the start. She gradually revealed her playful and mischievous side as she got to know Anon more.
  421. >Luna had been a much tougher nut to crack.
  422. >She was always pleasant with Anonymous, but kept her distance.
  423. >Attending both Day and Night Court was part of Anon's duties. He noticed after a few weeks in his new role that Luna appeared to dread attending her own court, and discussed his observations privately with Celestia.
  424. >Celestia explained that while the citizenry was initially enthusiastic about having another daily opportunity to voice their concerns to a Princess, the inconvenient time the court was held led to rapidly declining participation.
  425. >She mentioned to Anon that he was appointed to his position exactly one year after Luna established her court, and in that time, average nightly attendance had dwindled to one dozen petitioners.
  426. >With this knowledge, Anonymous saw his first opportunity to make an impact as Counselor. The solution was obvious, at least to him. He posed his idea to both sisters that evening.
  427. >Anon proposed that Celestia only hold court for three hours instead of four. Furthermore, he advised that the Night Court be moved to the late afternoon, and only be held for three hours as well.
  428. >Celestia was delighted at the prospect of only holding court for three hours. Luna was more hesitant.
  429. >Luna was concerned about the change making citizens resentful. If the princesses were to cut the total time they would address petitioners, a backlog of unaddressed issues might develop, she argued.
  430. >She also complained that her court would be the "Night" court in name only.
  431. >Anonymous assured Luna that the shorter court hours would be sufficient, and suggested that the Celestia and Luna rename their courts to the Sun and Moon Courts, respectively.
  432. >Anon's suggestions were implemented before the week's end.
  433. >Celestia was thrilled to be dealing with fewer issues each day. Luna was flattered by the sudden swell in her court's participants. Canterlot's small business owners enjoyed the extra business the Moon Court attracted.
  434. >A month after Anon's changes were enacted, Moon Court attendance continued to match that of its counterpart. The trend continued to present day.
  435. >Thanks to Anonymous, Luna now truly felt needed. She was a crucial half of the Equestrian diarchy and not some useless figurehead. She recognized the role Anon played in solidifying her relevance in Equestrian politics and began finally to open up to him.
  436. >Luna then quickly grew close to her advisor. She would frequently seek out Anon's "guidance" long after he had completed his duties for the day.
  437. >Anon didn't mind. He enjoyed Luna's company as much as she enjoyed his.
  438. >Months passed. They were rarely seen apart, save for when Luna was asleep during the day.
  439. >A year into his job, Anon considered Luna to be his closest friend, and was sure the feeling was mutual.
  440. /.../
  441. >Anonymous looked up as the castle bells began to toll six o'clock. He had been sitting on Luna's bed and stroking her mane for the past twenty minutes.
  442. >Luna laid at his side fast asleep, apparently oblivious to the world around her.
  443. >Anon leaned down and gave Luna a soft, chaste kiss on her cheek. "Sweet dreams, Luna," he whispered.
  444. >As he rose from the bed, Luna murmured in her sleep.
  445. "Love you, Anon."
  446.  
  447. ...
  448.  
  449. >"...and my answer is the same one I've given so many griffon kings for over one thousand years. Your so-called "ancestral griffon territory" has been under pony control for over fifteen hundred years. Furthermore, the area has been formally belonged to Equestria for well over a millennium," Celestia stated matter-of-factually. "Your King Gregor has absolutely no legitimate claim to the land, and he knows it."
  450. >Celestia was growing impatient. She, her sister, and her advisor might as well have been talking to a spoiled little foal who refused to accept 'no' for an answer.
  451. >The meeting with the griffon diplomats started at 10 AM. In the five hours that had passed, absolutely nothing had been accomplished. That the present griffons were diplomats in name only doomed the outcome of the meeting before it even began.
  452. >Gareth was a griffon male of only twenty four years. He was directly commissioned as a general into the recently-ascended king's army by virtue of being the king's cousin. While boldness and arrogance had served him well during the recent griffon civil war, those characteristics did not help him at all when it came to diplomatic relations. His strong-arm approach with Celestia during the meeting only highlighted his incompetence.
  453. >He tried his best to uphold a confident facade before the alicorn princesses and their strange advisor. Despite being flanked on both sides by the members of his quaternion, he couldn't feel more alone at the long conference table. The hours were taking their toll on his composure.
  454. >The elder princess sat directly opposite from him. She had, to her credit, maintained an aura of poise and professionalism throughout the meeting. A meter to her left sat the royal advisor, a tall, muscular, bipedal creature that no member of the envoy had ever seen before. He rarely spoke, and would frequently fix his beady eyes on the sorry excuse for an ambassador with an almost hungry stare.
  455. >The younger princess sat to the immediate left of her advisor, so close that their chairs nearly touched. Unlike her sister, she came into the meeting with a look of indifference. Thirty minutes into the meeting, her indifferent expression had given way to a slight frown, before ultimately becoming a scowl.
  456. >The hopeless general fidgeted in his seat. "Princess, you should consider the implications of your position. My people need space. They need-"
  457. >"What your people need," Anonymous interrupted, "is to let go of the petty tribal disputes that have kept griffon society in a state of arrested development for two thousand years."
  458. >Ignoring the glare the lead griffon gave him, Anonymous continued. "The fact of the matter is that your people are weary of perpetual civil unrest. They know your new regime will bring more of the same, if not worse. The ever-increasing number of griffon refugees Equestria grants asylum to is proof of this."
  459. >"Enough! Who are you to speak to me this way, ape!?"
  460. >Luna slammed her front hooves on the table and leaned towards the indignant young griffon.
  461. "Silence, chick," she growled. "The Lord Counselor not only speaks for my sister and I, he is answerable only to us as well. You would do well to contemplate his words, which I contend are too lenient. Your country's incessant greed-fueled squabbles are a blight on this entire hemisphere. The rational members of your species are wise to flee to our shores, knowing they can expect law, order, and a dignified life under pony rule."
  462. >While the moon princess spoke, her eyes began to glow with a faint silver sheen. Her mane and tail, once gently flowing, raged chaotically as her anger grew.
  463. >Celestia knew her sister was losing control. She gave Anonymous a worried glance. The human reached out and placed his left hand on Luna's withers. The touch had an immediate effect. Luna's mane and tail calmed to their original undulations. Her eyes dimmed.
  464. >Anonymous retracted his hand to his lap once Luna sat down. This time, she left no distance between herself and her advisor. Luna's right side was pressed firmly against Anon's left.
  465. >"General Gareth, as we have reiterated several times today, Equestria will not yield an acre to Griffonstone," Celestia said curtly. "Frankly, you should have known that to be the case before you left Griffonstone."
  466. >Gareth's tried to sputter out a response. "But... we need-"
  467. >"Furthermore," Celestia interrupted, "It is most disappointing that you were not willing to accept our revised trade propositions. A one-year suspension on tariffs would have been a most welcome economic boon to your struggling economy. To their credit, the members of your retinue tried to explain this to you. It's regrettable that your pride prevented you from heeding their advice."
  468. "In other words, you're going home empty-clawed," Luna stated flatly.
  469. >The young griffon looked like he might explode from the effort required to contain his anger. "Fine," he muttered, unable to meet either diarch's gaze. "We will go pack our things and leave shortly."
  470. >With that, the general rose from the table, gave the slightest hint of a bow to the sisters, and walked briskly out of the conference hall. The members of his quaternion were quick to follow him. Before exiting the room, the last griffon turned and gave the Equestrian rulers an apologetic glance, then bowed deeply. The sisters and their advisor all gave him a respectful nod in response.
  471.  
  472. ...
  473.  
  474. >Luna, Celestia, and Anonymous stood silently, waiting to see the griffons off. The afternoon sun gave the stones of the courtyard they occupied a slight pink hue. Royal guard soldiers silently patrolled the ramparts overlooking the courtyard, golden armor gleaming with their movements.
  475. >Celestia was positioned between Anonymous and Luna. Six thestral mares of the Night Guard stood at attention in two rows of three behind them. The ears of all eight ponies in formation swiveled rearwards at the approaching sounds of claws on stone.
  476. >The griffons walked single-file to the left of the Equestrian formation, led by the general. The last griffon in line strayed to his right momentarily. The primary feathers of his right wing lightly brushed across Anon's lower back, by his sword belt.
  477. >After all griffons had passed the ponies, the general buttonhooked to his right. He stopped three meters away from Celestia. His retinue arranged themselves in a single row behind him, standing abreast of each other.
  478. >"Thank you for your hospitality and your time, Princess," the general said with a slight bow.
  479. >"Of course, General. We will always make time for our neighbors. I sincerely hope that our next meeting will end on a more positive note," Celestia replied. Luna noticed that her sister's voice was devoid of its usual warmth.
  480. >"Likewise," Gareth replied. He turned to his left and leaped into the air, his quaternion following suit. The Equestrians held their ground and watched the griffons grow smaller in the eastern sky. The remaining meeting participants reflected on the futility of the day. Only when the griffons were out of sight did anyone bother to speak.
  481. >"Well, that was pointless," Anon remarked. "If you'll excuse me, I'm itching to get out of my armor and into something more comfortable. I'll meet you ladies for supper." He turned on his heel and walked briskly towards the castle.
  482. >Luna moved to address the two thestrals that had stood behind Anon.
  483. "My children, I release you. Resume your normal duties for the Lord Counselor, and ensure that nopony disturbs him or prevents him from attending supper on time."
  484. >The thestral mares smiled at Luna's implied message: 'Keep a certain pony away from Anon, should she appear'. They bowed to their princess and flew to Counselor as he traversed the courtyard.
  485. >Seeing the guards suddenly land on either side of him, Anonymous laughed. "Afternoon, ladies! Did the thought of me changing my clothes remind you of who you're supposed to be protecting?" He reached down with both hands and tousled the manes of his bodyguards. Both mares smiled at him and they each patted his back with a wing in response.
  486. >Anon's rapport with the thestrals was a source of joy for Luna.
  487. /.../
  488. >Anonymous had established strong ties with her thestrals during his tenure. He had never encountered a bat pony before his time in Canterlot, but immediately acquainted himself with them after his appointment.
  489. >Anon was delighted to learn that thestrals were omnivorous like him. He admired the Night Guard soldiers for their discipline and fighting skill, especially considering the unit had only been activated months after Luna's return to Equestria.
  490. >The thestrals were flattered that someone of Anon's status would willingly spend his free time with them. The Night Guard soldiers loved to see Anon eating in their mess hall. Anon honored them whenever he picked a member of their ranks to be his sparring partner.
  491. >Luna was ecstatic to learn that Anon was building relationships with her 'Children of the Night' on his own accord. Soon after the Night Court was reestablished into the Moon Court, Luna decreed that her Children would always guard the Lord Counselor, day and night.
  492. >With that, the Night Guard's ranks swelled. Thestrals had already flocked to Canterlot for a chance to personally guard their 'Mother of Stars'. The new opportunity to also guard her advisor provided more incentive to enlist in the Night Guard.
  493. /.../
  494. >"Luna? Equestria to Luna!"
  495. "Hmm?"
  496. >Celestia wrapped a massive wing around her sister. "Oh, what am I going to do with you, dearest sister? You know, sometimes I wonder if-"
  497. >The white alicorn abruptly ceased her banter when she looked back towards the castle. Anonymous was sprinting back towards them, concern etched over his face. His guardsmares flew swiftly beside him at shoulder level.
  498. >"Anonymous? What's wrong?" Celestia asked, her voice full of apprehension.
  499. >Anon held up a folded sheet of parchment. "My guards noticed that this was tucked into my sword belt." He held the parchment out to the sisters. Celestia secured it in her aura and opened it for both her and Luna to read.
  500. >The alicorns began to read the hastily-written message it contained:
  501.  
  502. >To the Wise Princesses and Honorable Counselor:
  503. >I apologize for today's disastrous meeting. It was doomed to fail from the start.
  504. >Our King Gregor is mad. He lusts for power, wealth, and glory above all else. He is obsessed with expanding the Kingdom, no matter the cost to our people. By surrounding himself with sycophants like his cousin, the General, he lives in an ideological echo chamber.
  505. >I write to you because I fear for my people. We have lost thousands to the recent civil war. Gregor's hold on the throne is tenuous at best. There are several leaders from rival tribes that would challenge him for the throne should they perceive "weakness" in his actions.
  506. >This is the reason for the King's anti-Equestrian sentiments and military posturing near your border. He is trying to unite the tribes behind his desire to expand our territory.
  507. >Do not underestimate the King. He would sacrifice anyone for his gain.
  508. >You must be prepared to defend your ponies from Gregor's forces. It doesn't matter that an invasion of your land would be disastrous for him. Gregor is long past the point of reasoning.
  509. >I pray that by some miracle, the results of our summit will dissuade the king from further pursuing his plans, but I fear it will be too late.
  510. >Princesses, I know I speak for the majority of my kind when I say we are tired of war. I lost my son in our recent civil war. I don't want to lose my grandsons and granddaughters to another war, especially an unjustifiable one.
  511. >With utmost sincerity,
  512. >Giles
  513.  
  514. >Celestia and Luna looked up at Anonymous, their faces grim.
  515. >"Lord Counselor Anonymous." Celestia said coldly. Her use of his formal title in that tone of voice sent a chill down Anon's spine. The princess took a breath and continued, "You will summon Generals Ironhead and Thunderwing. You will personally escort them to your study, where we will hold a war council in thirty minutes. Dismissed."
  516. >Anonymous bowed, performed an about face, and sprinted away. His guards once again flew silently next to him at shoulder level.
  517. "I shall collect Nebula," Luna said, referring to the Night Guard commander. "Girls, assist my sister with whatever she needs," she added before teleporting away with a 'crack'.
  518. >The remaining four thestrals looked up Celestia. "Orders, Your Highness?"
  519. >Celestia looked at the guard that addressed her. "Are you familiar with Major Sparks, my senior battle mage?"
  520. >The thestral nodded.
  521. >"Good," Celestia replied. "Find him, and escort him to the Counselor's study."
  522. >The guard saluted. She and her wingmare flew away. The remaining two guards looked at Celestia expectantly.
  523. >Celestia began to trot towards the castle. "Come, my little ponies," she called before taking to the air. "I find a quick flight around the capital helps settle my nerves."
  524.  
  525. ...
  526.  
  527. >Canterlot Castle was a triumph of engineering, and the wing that housed Anon's study was a marvel of the world. This section of the castle was known as the Counselor's Wing. Historically, the Wing housed the Lords Counselor that had served Celestia over the centuries, as well as any assistants they would employ.
  528. >This structure was essentially a section of bridge that cantilevered one hundred meters away from the the rest of the castle. Its underside was supported by an elegantly-designed stone half-arch. Vertical granite cliff walls met the arch's bottom twelve-hundred meters above the foot of Canterlot Peak.
  529. >At the end of this 'bridge to nowhere' stood a lone tower whose bottom level housed the study. The second level held modest living quarters intended for the assistants and/or guests of the Counselor. The third level contained the Counselor's suite.
  530. >The study had a high domed ceiling which was quartered by two intersecting ornate wooden arches. A chandelier hung from this intersection. Instead of candles, the chandelier held luminescent crystals that automatically increased or attenuated their output for the chamber occupants' comfort.
  531. >Over the course of the castle's thousand-year history, Celestia had commissioned some of the most highly-renowned artists in Equestrian history to paint a quarter of the domed ceiling.
  532. >Meter-wide windows reached from the floor to the bottom of the domed ceiling some fifteen meters overhead. Viewed from above, the windows were placed at the two, four, six, eight, and ten o'clock positions of the study's perimeter, with the beam-like structure that supported the tower being at twelve o'clock.
  533. >Looking from the two and ten o'clock windows Canterlot's many waterfalls could be seen, their crystalline flows perpetually falling unimpeded to the plains below. The view was simultaneously breathtaking and terrifying to the uninitiated. As Anon once said, "The view both inspires and reminds me of my own mortality."
  534. >Though never acknowledged by Celestia, the placement and design of the Wing was intended to be a constant reminder to every soul who held the position of Lord Counselor: 'You exist in a precarious position.'
  535. >A mezzanine was added to the chamber five hundred years prior. It ran along the entire circumference of the room, five meters above the main floor. The mezzanine was accessible by stair in two places. The first set of stairs were built along the curved chamber wall, starting and ending at the tower's two and four o'clock positions, respectively. The second flight of stairs protruded from the mezzanine at the tower's nine o'clock position and pointed towards the center of the room.
  536. >Bookshelves lined the walls on both the main and mezzanine floors. Marble busts of historically significant ponies, including all of Anon's predecessors, were on display between every bookcase. A large circular table occupied the center of the main floor.
  537. >It around this table the War Council convened.
  538. >Luna watched as the four summoned officers crowded around the note that had been discreetly tucked into Anon's belt.
  539. >The unicorn, General Lucky "Rusty" Ironhead, was the first to return to his seat. He was a lanky cream-colored stallion with a rust-colored mane and tail that were accented with several streaks of grey. Ironhead had served in the Royal Guard for twenty-nine years, and was its highest-ranking soldier.
  540. >Major General Monty Thunderwing was next to finish reading the note. He commanded all of the airborne forces in the Royal Guard. The short, orange pegasus stallion wore his brown mane longer than regulations permitted, though nobody bothered to call him out for it. Monty was known for his hot temper and bombastic personality. He was the yin to Ironhead's calm and reserved yang.
  541. >"If those godsdamn, I mean, dang, catbirds want a fight, I'll be more than happy to hoof fuh-"
  542. >Ironhead magically shut Monty's mouth before he could use his favorite word in front of the princesses.
  543. >Colonel Nebula bowed deeply to Luna. "Your Children await your command, Mother."
  544. >Luna smiled warmly at her Night Guard commander and occasional confidant. Nebula was among less than three hundred thestrals that had served in the Royal Guard before Luna's return. She immediately requested a transfer to the Night Guard upon learning of its impending creation. Only a Major at the time, she was nevertheless put in command of the newly-established regiment, and was instrumental in growing their ranks.
  545. >The hauntingly-beautiful thestral mare flapped to her seat at Anon’s right side. Anonymous reached out and tousled her medium-length violet mane, a show of affection he reserved for thestral guards and his youngest sister.
  546. >Nebula winked a purple eye at the man and patted him on the back with a leathery grey wing. Notwithstanding Luna and Celestia, she was arguably one of Anon's best friends.
  547. >The final officer to remain standing lifted the note up with his magic. While he walked to his seat, the parchment underwent a series of folds. The unicorn took his seat and inspected his handiwork. The note was now an origami crane.
  548. >Major Sparks not only commanded the battalion of battle mages in the Royal Guard, he held the distinction of being its preeminent wizard. Being an exceptional alumnus of Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, a plethora of career opportunities were available to Sparks. However, a strong sense of patriotism drove the laconic unicorn to pursue a career in the Guard.
  549. >Celestia cleared her throat and addressed the officers.
  550. >"I don't need to inform anypony here of Griffonstone's political and military activities since Gregor took the throne. This note gives credence to the reports we've received from the Trottingham region. The threat of a griffon incursion on Equestrian soil is something we cannot ignore. Luna and I will hear your thoughts on this matter.”
  551. >Sparks raised a hoof and Celestia gave him a nod. "For the past month I've had my battalion on a continuous scrying duty cycle. Granted, there's only five mages watching the border at any given time, but we haven't detected anything unusual yet."
  552. >Celestia turned to Sparks, "Which specific areas have your unicorns been surveilling?"
  553. >"The area surrounding the rail line that crosses the channel between Griffonstone and Equestria, and the city of Trottingham," the red unicorn answered.
  554. >"Our routine airspace patrols have noticed an uptick in griffon aerial activity," Thunderwing added. "However, this isn't unusual. Summer's almost here and the griffons tend to follow the migratory species they hunt as they return to the north."
  555. >"I want you to expand your scrying operations to observe all of the Griffish Isles, not just Trottingham proper," Celestia ordered Sparks. "I don't care how many mages you need to do it, or how much mana replenishing potion you need from the healers to sustain the operations indefinitely. If the griffons are going to invade, they'll strike our islands that regrettably still bears their name."
  556. >Sparks nodded and conjured quills, ink, and parchment. After distributing them to his fellow officers, he wrote furiously.
  557. "The pressing issue at hoof is what we do with our forces," Luna said to the group. "General Ironhead, how many soldiers do we have stationed in Trottingham?"
  558. >"We only keep the forces necessary to maintain the peace in our major metropolitan areas," Ironhead replied. His Appleloosan accent had faded over the decades spent in Canterlot, but was still perceptible.
  559. >"Equestria has been blessed by hundreds of years of continuous peace," the senior officer stated. He glanced briefly at Celestia before fixing his gaze back to Luna. "As such, we haven't maintained a true defensive posture along our borders for centuries."
  560. >Luna furrowed her brow.
  561. "How long would it take to mobilize enough troops to soundly defeat a griffon expeditionary force capable of capturing Trottingham?"
  562. >"The problem ain't speed, Yer Highness, it's logistics. Sure, we could have Sparks's entire battalion rip open enough portals to send an entire division to the Isles, but the effort required to hold the portals open long enough to get everypony through would deplete their mana reserves. Then comes the problem of feeding the force. It takes mountain of chow to feed twenty thousand ponies. That's only the tip of the iceberg of issues to address."
  563. >Celestia turned to her sister. "Logistics issues aside, such a large, rapid mobilization of troops would undoubtedly be seen as an act of aggression by the griffons."
  564. "Then what do we do, Sister? We can't just keep our forces garrisoned until the griffons attack!"
  565. >Anonymous stood, gaining the attention of everypony present. "When I served in my native country's army, we had something known as a Global Reaction Force. At any given time, a battalion in the army would be on standby status, ready to deploy anywhere on the planet within eighteen hours. Do the Royal and Night Guards have something similar?"
  566. >All four officers shook their heads.
  567. >The counselor turned and walked around the table, passing Nebula, then stopping between Sparks and Thunderwing. He looked up at the princesses and continued. "I propose we create a quick reaction force, or QRF for short, to be ready to respond to foreign threats at a moment's notice."
  568. >"How many troops would be in this QRF, mah Lord?" Ironhead inquired. "How do we handle logistics?"
  569. >"The unit would have to be large enough to pose a substantial threat to an invading force, but not so unwieldy that our mages couldn't fight after holding portals open. As for the other issue, we'd be limited by what we could reasonably carry without a dedicated logistics train."
  570. >"And what of the unit's makeup?" Thunderwing added. "What fraction of the unit is pegasi, earth pony, and unicorn?"
  571. >"Don't forget the thestrals," Luna, Anon, and Nebula said in unison.
  572. >"Right. My apologies," Thunderwing replied with an embarrassed smile.
  573. >Anon stepped back from his position between Sparks and Thunderwing. He resumed his counterclockwise course around the table and stopped next to Celestia. "Major Sparks, how long can your mages sustain a portal before being unable to use their magic for offensive or defensive purposes?"
  574. >Sparks scratched his salt-and-pepper mane with his left hoof. "Depends on the size of the portal. If it's big enough for two ponies walking abreast, I'd say an average mage can hold it open for two minutes, tops."
  575. >"If a unicorn were to hold open a portal for himself and four other ponies, how much would it affect the mage's mana levels, provided everypony sprinted through the portal?" Anon asked Sparks.
  576. >The Major scribbled calculations on his parchment. "If the hole's only big enough for one pony to enter at a time... and if it only needs to be maintained for a maximum of fifteen seconds... I'd say it'd burn around ten percent of the mana a unicorn has on tap. You must understand, Counselor, that while portals spells are much more efficient than teleportation for long distance travel, they still consume mana at a rate orders of magnitude higher than a heavy telekinetic burst."
  577. >"Correct me if ah'm wrong, Sparks," Ironhead added, "but ah'm pretty sure a small vial of mana replenisher the field healers carry would cover that magic expenditure for a single mage."
  578. >"That is correct, sir. The only drawback is the potion takes about fifteen minutes to take effect."
  579. >Celestia tapped Anon's arm with her left hoof. "Anon? What are you thinking, dear?"
  580. >"I'm thinking that we have our quick reaction force consist of one thousand ponies," Anon replied. "We can break the unit up into two hundred groups of five. A mage opens the portal, then four ponies sprint through. The mage then passes through the portal and closes it behind him."
  581. >Celestia nodded. "That sounds like a rather efficient way of quickly moving troops to the battlefield."
  582. >"That's the intent. Two hundred unicorns take the force to the fight. They utilize their magic after arrival to support the other ponies with shields or offensive spells," Anon stated. "We need to be smart about how we allocate the remaining eight-hundred troops."
  583. >"I think it would be wise to send at least one thestral for every unicorn," Nebula opined. "Preferably two, since we'd be fighting a flying opponent."
  584. >"And leave the remaining four-hundred slots to be split between pegasi and earth ponies?" Thunderwing balked. "I think not! No offense, Colonel, but pegasi are typically better flyers than thestrals."
  585. >"None taken," Nebula replied with a sweet smile. "No disrespect to you and your hot-blooded race, General, but thestrals are typically better fighters than pegasi."
  586. >Thunderwing clenched his jaw and glared at Nebula. He took a deep breath. His face contorted as if to yell, but Anonymous cut him off.
  587. >"She's not wrong, Monty. Don't forget that thestrals are the only predatory pony species. Pegasi may be the best fliers, earth ponies the strongest, and unicorns have the magic advantage. However, none of them can match a thestral's natural viciousness or killer instinct. Those qualities notwithstanding, my Nebula has done an exceptional job in shaping the Night Guard into the premier fighting force it is today."
  588. >Nebula beamed at Anon. Her long fangs glistened in the light. Celestia cleared her throat loudly before saying, "Getting back on topic..."
  589. >Ironhead took control of the conversation. "Ah think having a fairly balanced force would be prudent. Two-hundred unicorns, two-hundred thestrals, three-hundred earth pony heavy infantry, an’ three-hundred pegasi for air superiority, which includes weather manipulation. The catbirds can land on an' hide among clouds, but that's about all they can do with 'em."
  590. >Thunderwing nodded in agreement.
  591. >Ironhead continued, "The pegasi will use whatever clouds are in the airspace to generate lightning. Twisters too, if possible. Tartarus, between lightning and tornadoes, we could theoretically push the griffons to fight on the ground. The thestrals can play the field as needed. They can help the pegasi, provide close air support for the unicorns, or crack skulls with the earth ponies. Any objections?"
  592. >The other three officers shook their heads.
  593. >"Then that's settled," Celestia said. "Rusty, Monty, Nebula, Sparks... I want the details of this quick reaction force settled by sunset."
  594. >"Another thing, Yer Highness," Ironhead added. "We need to put the entire Equestrian military on high alert, including the Crystal Empire's forces. We need to make preparations to mobilize for total war and stage our forces along our eastern border."
  595. >Celestia frowned. "I agree with putting the military on high alert, but we need to be discreet. Again, if Griffonstone hears Equestria is preparing for war, that may be the impetus to unite all of the griffon tribes against us."
  596. "Stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place," Luna sighed. "If there's nothing else needed from me, I have to hold court soon. Come, Anon. We will not allow the threat of war to prevent us from hearing our ponies' concerns."
  597. >"One moment please, Princess," Anon said as he quickly wrote on a sheet of parchment. He signed the note, then rolled it into a scroll and sealed it. "Sparks, present this to the Chief Healer. I'm authorizing you to bypass the normal supply chain so you may acquire mana replenishing potion directly from the source. Get as much as you need to maintain expanded scrying operations per Her Majesty's order, as well as equip the unicorns of the QRF."
  598. >Sparks secured the scroll in his aura. "Thank you, m'lord. It will be done."
  599. >Celestia stood and spread her wings. "Rusty, I'm going to alert Cadence of the day's revelations. Report to me when you have finalized the QRF plans. Everypony, we are facing a real threat, but fear not! Trust in yourselves, and each other."
  600. >Celestia teleported away. Anon and Luna made for the door. "Luna, I would REALLY like to get out of my armor before going to court," Anon groaned.
  601. "Very well, Anon. Don't take too long," Luna said with a chuckle.
  602. >Luna teleported from the study with a 'snap'.
  603. >Nebula cantered to Anon and tapped on his back plate before he crossed the study threshold. "May I have a moment of your time?"
  604. >"You already know that I'll always have time for you, Neb. I'm heading up to my quarters. Walk with me."
  605. >Nebula followed Anon through the study doors and up the stairs that spiraled along the inside face of the circular tower's outer wall . The two thestral guardmares that had accompanied Anon from the courtyard fell in behind them. Anon looked over at his friend. "So what's on your-"
  606. >"I'll tell you in the privacy of your room," Nebula interrupted.
  607. >They climbed in silence, passing the entrance to the second level's guest quarters where the stairs made a full revolution around the tower. Another full revolution of stairs later, the group reached the entrance to Anon's suite.
  608. >Anon unlocked the door and opened it for Nebula. The guardmares took up positions on either side of the door when Anon pulled it closed.
  609. >"I hope you don't mind me changing while we talk," Anonymous said as he unfastened the straps on his greaves.
  610. >"Not at all," Nebula replied. "First, I want to thank you for speaking so highly of my soldiers before the council."
  611. >"I was only speaking the truth," Anon responded. He removed his gauntlets and unfastened his sword belt. "I've sparred with hundreds of ponies from all the tribes. Your thestrals really are the most savage and relentless fighters our military has to offer. Besides, what good would I be if I didn't advocate for my adopted tribe?"
  612. >Nebula smiled once more. "Regardless, it meant a lot to me. Anyway, that's not what I wanted to talk to you about. I have a concern, and I'm not sure how to bring it up."
  613. >Anon removed his breastplate and set it on a wooden stand with the rest of his armor. He then unsheathed his sword and hung it on the wall behind the armor stand. "Just speak freely."
  614. >The thestral averted her gaze from her friend as he removed his tunic. "I'm concerned about the QRF. Not the concept, I think that's quite clever. I'm concerned about the lack of combat experience across the entire Equestrian military."
  615. >Anon pulled on a clean white tunic, then pulled an extremely large semicircular blue woolen cloth from his closet. Anon wore the blue toga to Moon Court. It matched Luna's mane. Conversely, he wore a white toga over an orange tunic that complemented Tia's cutie mark to Sun Court.
  616. >Draping an end of the massive cloth over his left arm, Anon looked up at Nebula. "That's the price we pay for centuries of peace. Nobody has combat experience. The griffons have the advantage in that regard. Would you mind helping me with this?"
  617. >The thestral rolled her eyes and hovered behind the human, carefully draping the toga over his left shoulder before wrapping it around his back and pulling it under his right arm. "I don't understand why you wear this ridiculous thing," Nebula murmured.
  618. >"Aw, c'mon, togas were the pinnacle of fashion back on earth! Well, they were... two thousand years ago... in the Roman Empire. When Celestia made me counselor, she said I needed 'formal court attire'. She made the mistake of not specifying requirements for what such attire consisted of, so I decided I was going to dress as Marcus Aurelius would have. I told Tia that the toga was a common garment worn by powerful humans... I just neglected to tell her it became obsolete nearly two millennia ago."
  619. >Anon threw the free end of the garment over his left shoulder and secured it to the wrap’s first layer with a small spring steel clip. "Anyways, back to your concern. Yes, the entire force has yet to get its collective combat cherry popped. However, we're better trained, better equipped, and are more disciplined than the griffons. That discipline goes a long way."
  620. >Nebula sighed. "Yes, but..."
  621. >"But what?"
  622. >"How do I put this?" Nebula said. "This QRF will need something... extra. Something to boost their morale, to embolden them to meet a battle-hardened enemy head-on."
  623. >"What are you getting at, Neb? Spit it out already."
  624. >"Anonymous... you know you are my dearest friend and I care for you deeply, right?"
  625. >"Neb! Of course I do! What kind of question is that?"
  626. >"Then please don't take this the wrong way. You may be the only Equestrian who has fought in a war before. It doesn't matter that it was on your native world, you have experienced the brutality of war first-hoof and survived it!"
  627. >Anon raised an eyebrow. "So you want me to fight with QRF?"
  628. >"Yes! I mean... no! I mean... I don't know. Look Anon, you were at war for how long?"
  629. >"You mean cumulatively, between my deployments? Two years," Anon replied.
  630. >"You see?" Nebula hissed. "You are the 'something extra' that this force needs! That's not to mention you're easily one of the most skilled fighters we have, and you're not even in our military!"
  631. >"I'm not disagreeing with you, Neb," Anon replied. "However, I'm not a soldier anymore! I train with the sword so much because it's fun for me. It helps keep me in shape and out of the kind of trouble I used to get into. I'm the advisor to the princesses! How can I advise the princesses if I'm away fighting in a battle?"
  632. >Nebula shook her head. "I know, I know. It sounds so stupid when you put it that way. I didn't mean to upset you. I just needed voice my thoughts and you're the only pony, er... person I feel comfortable discussing this with."
  633. >Anonymous dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around Nebula's neck. "I'm not upset with you. I hate to admit you do make a point, but at the end of the day, I'm just an advisor."
  634. >The thestral mare pulled away from Anon's embrace. "You are so much more than an advisor," she said forcefully. "You are my best friend. You are the strongest advocate of the thestrals, save for our Mother of Stars. You do more than counsel the princesses, you are their executor. You embody their will."
  635. >Nebula pulled Anon into a new embrace with her forelegs.
  636. >"Thank you, Nebula." Anon whispered.
  637. >"No, thank you," Nebula replied, "for being the man you are." She released Anonymous and retrieved the laurel wreath and badge of office that Anon wore when 'on duty'. Like the seal he designed, the wreath was another symbol of his position.
  638. >Nebula gingerly placed the wreath on Anon's head, then pinned his badge to the toga, below his left collarbone. The circular badge was made from solid silver and displayed Anon's trademark emblem.
  639. >"There," Nebula said with a smile. "You're finally presentable."
  640. >Anon chuckled and stood up. "I'm glad you think so. Oh! Before I forget, did you get a chance to-"
  641. >"Yes," Nebula interjected. "Took care of it as soon as you asked me this morning. I picked 'Indulgence'. I figured you'd appreciate it because they serve meat. Saturday evening at six-thirty."
  642. >Anon moved to his desk and included the reservation details within a short note on his stationery. He placed the card in an envelope and sealed it. "I should probably get something new to wear..."
  643. >Nebula puffed her chest out proudly. "I took care of that as well, Anon. Rarity is working at the Canterlot Boutique all of this week, and was thrilled to hear you needed a new suit. I'll deliver it when it's finished."
  644. >"You're the best, Neb."
  645. >The thestral walked to the door, turned her head back to Anon, and smiled warmly. "I know," she said as she left, "and don't you forget it."
  646. >Anon walked over to the mirror that hung on the wall next to his armor stand. He inspected his appearance before glancing at his armor. His eyes found his shield. Like his badge of office, it proudly displayed the familiar design of a laurel wreath surrounding the half-sun and crescent moon motif.
  647. >As he stared at his shield, Nebula's words echoed in his head. "You are the 'something extra' that this force needs!"
  648. >Anon sighed, retrieved the envelope from his desk, and left the room.
  649. >"Well, girls," he said to his guards while he locked his door, "I'm late for court."
  650.  
  651. ...
  652.  
  653. >All things considered, Luna was addressing her petitioners quite efficiently.
  654. >Not everypony could leave the first Equestrian war council to be held in centuries and still have the presence of mind to be able to listen to court petitioners.
  655. >The thought that she and Celestia would potentially be sending hundreds, if not thousands of ponies to die fighting on their behalf made her feel like a weight was in her stomach.
  656. >That Luna was able to exude an aura of patient, genuine interest for the [spoiler]often petty[/spoiler] concerns of her subjects in spite of her worries was commendable.
  657. >It didn't help that her Counselor, whose presence always made her feel better when she was worried, was TWENTY MINUTES LATE.
  658. >Nevertheless, Luna had already rendered her judgment on the requests of five petitioners. She looked at the line of ponies that remained.
  659. >Luna was less than thrilled to see that a certain fiery-maned pegasus was next in line to be seen, though she didn't let her irritation show on her face.
  660. >Before Luna could motion for Spitfire to approach the throne, the court herald called out.
  661. >"ATTENTION! ANNOUNCING THE ARRIVAL OF THE ADVISOR TO THEIR MAJESTIES LUNA AND CELESTIA, HIS EXCELLENCY, THE LORD COUNSELOR ANONYMOUS!"
  662. >The court petitioners all turned to their right to observe the Counselor's approach. Luna noticed an excited smile had replaced Spitfire's formerly stern expression.
  663. >Like his superior, Anon's dignified exterior revealed nothing of the concerns that boiled within him.
  664. >Flanked by his guard mares, he walked with long smooth strides. His bodyguards trotted half a pace behind him, their wings slightly unfurled as if ready to pounce at would-be assailants.
  665. >The petitioners bowed their heads in respect as the counselor strode past them. Finally reaching the stairs to Luna's throne, Anonymous dropped to a knee. The thestrals stood at attention and rendered a salute.
  666. >Luna nodded to Anon's guards, who dropped their salutes and performed an about face. They would remain posted at the foot of the throne stairs for the remainder of court.
  667. "Rise, Counselor. Your timing is impeccable," Luna said dryly.
  668. >Anon stood and mouthed 'sorry I'm late' to Luna as he climbed the stairs. Luna rolled her eyes, but only long enough for Anon to notice. Anon took his seat on the right side of Luna's throne.
  669. >Anon looked up at the line of petitioners and his heart skipped a beat. Standing before the throne was the mare who had very nearly succeeded in making him break his self-imposed celibacy.
  670. >Spitfire looked at Anon. She wore her blue service uniform and a faint blush that betrayed her otherwise neutral expression. At her side was a light brown earth pony stallion who held a small rectangular box with his right foreleg.
  671. "The next petitioner will approach the throne," Luna called out.
  672. >Spitfire and the stallion walked forward and stopped two meters from the thestral guards. Spitfire gave Luna a salute and the stallion bowed.
  673. "At ease," Luna said. "What business brings you and your companion to the Moon Court, Captain?"
  674. >Spitfire dropped her salute before speaking. "Your Highness, I come to present a request on behalf of the Wonderbolts."
  675. >Anon looked at the stallion. He recognized the hourglass cutie mark and realized he was looking at Time Turner, a resident of Ponyville.
  676. "Proceed, Captain."
  677. >"Princess, while the Wonderbolts are typically associated with its stunt fliers and flight academy, we are still part of the Equestrian military. As such, one of the lesser-known missions of our unit is to constantly seek out and test new technologies that can augment the flight capabilities of our airborne forces."
  678. >Time Turner placed his box on the ground in front of Spitfire and opened it.
  679. >"To my right is Ponyville resident Time Turner, an inventor," Spitfire said as she reached into the box. From it, she pulled out a pair of goggles with green crystalline lenses.
  680. >Spitfire continued, "Time Turner has developed a new variant of flight goggles that allows its wearer to see perfectly in total darkness. The military applications for such a device are obvious. I'd like to acquire a dozen sets for field testing, but the team doesn't have the funding for any more acquisitions until the new fiscal year."
  681. >Luna wondered why Spitfire was bringing this request directly to a princess, when she should have been sending it to the Guard quartermaster.
  682. >Anonymous wondered the same thing aloud. "Captain, as the Wonderbolts belong to the Guard's Airborne Corps, why not submit a requisition request with the quartermaster?"
  683. >"I did, m'lord," Spitfire replied, "but it was denied. I was told, 'We have spells for seeing in the dark.' However, those spells are temporary, and obviously require a unicorn to perform them."
  684. >"These goggles must be quite impressive to compel you to circumvent the chain of command," Anon remarked.
  685. >"They sure are!" Spitfire answered excitedly. "The crystals that the lenses are made from naturally amplify ambient light, and their properties are permanent, unlike night vision spells."
  686. >She pointed to the earth pony with a hoof. "Time Turner here discovered this property, which is unique to this particular type of crystal. He has developed a reactive coating that automatically adjusts how much light is allowed through the lenses, so they can even be worn in broad daylight without harming the user's eyes!"
  687. >"You're saying that the user can walk from a bright area to a completely dark one and the goggles will automatically adjust?" Anon asked.
  688. >"That's correct," Spitfire said with a smile. "You'd have to ask Time Turner for the technical details, but they'll even allow the user to see in areas where there's no light at all!"
  689. >Luna leaned over to Anon and whispered, "While this invention is interesting, Anon, this is hardly the time or place for it. The quartermaster denied the request, and so will I."
  690. >Anon looked at Luna with a shocked expression. "Are you serious?" he whispered back. "Do you know what we have here? Assuming they work as advertised, we have real night vision goggles on our hands! I was issued similar devices in my former country's army, and can say from experience that these things are a legitimate force multiplier! If we're truly about to go to war with Griffonstone, wouldn't you want all of our troops to be able to see in the dark as well as our thestrals do?"
  691. >The princess frowned, but couldn't think of a rebuttal.
  692. >Anonymous rose from his seat and walked down the steps towards Spitfire and Time Turner. He reached out his right hand to Spitfire and asked, "May I?"
  693. >Spitfire nodded and placed the goggles in Anon's hand.
  694. >Anonymous removed the wreath from his head and donned the goggles. He heard Spitfire stifle a giggle, and he smiled. As the lenses that were made for enormous pony eyes, Anon knew the goggles looked ridiculous on him.
  695. >"Princess, would you mind killing the lights for a moment?" Anon called out.
  696. >Luna's horn glowed blue, and the room went dark.
  697. >Anon looked around the room, which appeared in a green glow. As promised, the goggles had immediately reacted to the changing light levels and allowed Anon to see perfectly. "These are better than the PVS-14s I was issued," he said loudly.
  698. >Thinking that nopony could see what he was doing, he knelt next to Spitfire and whispered into her ear. "I was going to have a courier bring this to you, but you saved me the trouble by coming here."
  699. >Anon pulled an envelope from the folds of his toga and gently tucked it under Spitfire's left wing. She shuddered at his touch and then quickly rubbed her head against Anon's.
  700. >The affectionate rub from the mare surprised Anon, but he found that he enjoyed the gesture. A surge of heat flowed through his body at the contact. It had been so long since...
  701. >'Gotta stop this now before I rut her in the middle of court,' Anon thought. He forced himself to back away from the pegasus. Through the ill-fitting goggles he saw that Spitfire’s eyes were closed and a longing smile lingered on her face.
  702. >Returning to his full height, Anon called to Luna, "I've seen enough. Thank you, Princess."
  703. >The light in the throne room returned to normal. The goggles reacted instantaneously and Anon was still able to see perfectly. He doffed the goggles and returned them to Spitfire, and then turned to face the stallion.
  704. >"I'm very impressed with your creation, Mister Turner," Anon said. Time Turner smiled warmly at Anon and said, "Thank you, my lord. You flatter me."
  705. >The human spun on his heel and reset the laurel wreath on his head. Both thestral mares made eye contact with him. They diverted their gaze momentarily to Spitfire, and reestablished eye contact with Anon.
  706. >The guards raised their eyebrows at Anon and tilted their heads slightly at him, as if to ask, 'Really?'
  707. >Anon blushed, realizing that his guard mares had been able to see his brief interaction with the Wonderbolt captain. Fortunately, Luna didn't seem to notice, or at least didn't care, if her neutral expression was any indication.
  708. "Well, Counselor? What do you think?" she asked quietly once Anon had returned to his seat.
  709. >"They're even better than I anticipated. Better than what I used on Earth," Anon whispered. "We MUST get these for the QRF, at the very least."
  710. >Luna considered her advisor’s words for a moment. She looked at Anon, and then at Spitfire.
  711. "Captain, your request is granted. Mister Turner, the Counselor and I wish to speak with you privately. Please remain in the throne room until court is adjourned."
  712. >Time Turner bowed to the Princess. Spitfire returned the box and goggles to the stallion, and then gave Luna an enthusiastic salute. "You're the best, Princess Luna!" she exclaimed.
  713. >Luna couldn't help but smile at the pegasus. She gave Spitfire a small wave with her hoof.
  714. >Anon called out, "Next petitioner, step forward!"
  715.  
  716. ...
  717.  
  718. >It took all of Spitfire's willpower to keep a smile off her face as she trotted out of the throne room.
  719. >Thestral guard stallions snapped to attention and saluted her as she passed through the chamber doors. She returned the salute with her right wing and continued her brisk pace through the massive castle halls.
  720. >She stopped in a desolate section of the hall and allowed herself to look at the envelope Anon had tucked in her wing.
  721. >Her heart had beat frantically when Anon had whispered in her ear. It took all of her restraint to prevent a moan from escaping her lips when he touched her wing. Even then, she couldn't help but rub her head affectionately against the human’s, if only for a second.
  722. >At least she had gotten better about keeping her wings pinned against her barrel.
  723. >What was it about the man that drove her crazy? Why did she act like a feral mare in heat when she was near him? No stallion had ever made her feel the way he did, and she barely knew him!
  724. >Spitfire opened the envelope and pulled out the card it contained.
  725. >Centered at the top of the card was Anon's emblem. Underneath it was a message written in well-practiced cursive script.
  726.  
  727. >Spitfire,
  728.  
  729. >I haven't been able to stop thinking about you since our penultimate encounter at the training field.
  730. >I must admit, you intrigue me, and I would like to get to know you better too.
  731. >How does dinner sound? I have made reservations at Indulgence for this Saturday at 6:30 PM.
  732. >Let me know if you can join me.
  733.  
  734. >Anon
  735.  
  736. >Spitfire's jaw dropped as she read the note. She read it again. And again. By the time she had read it a fourth time, Spitfire felt as if she could fly without ever flapping her wings.
  737. >The pegasus carefully placed the note back in its envelope and tucked it firmly into her service uniform jacket.
  738. >She galloped out of the castle and launched herself into the air as soon as she exited the main doors.
  739. >Thoughts raced through Spitfires mind. 'Indulgence? I've never heard of that restaurant before. What should I wear? Dress uniform, or an actual dress? How should I do my mane?'
  740. >The yellow mare landed on a cloud above Canterlot Peak to collect her thoughts and calm down. She wondered who she could ask for advice to prepare for her date.
  741. >She sat deep in thought on the cloud for some time. During that time, a stiff breeze had blown her cloud over the city. A brilliant spot of white below caught Spitfire's eye: Rarity.
  742. >'If anypony can help me prepare for this date, it's her,' Spitfire thought. She leapt off the cloud and swooped down to the shops below.
  743. >Spitfire entered Canterlot Boutique cautiously optimistic.
  744. >"Welcome to Canterlot Boutique, where everything is sleek, chic, and-"
  745. >Rarity then recognized the pony who had entered her shop. "Ooh, magnifique! Spitfire! You're JUST the pony I had hoped to see!"
  746. >The pegasus cocked an eyebrow. "Really?"
  747. >"But of course, darling!" Rarity said with a smile. "You're here to find a dress for your date with Anon, yes?"
  748. >"Umm... maybe, but... how did you-"
  749. >"Nebula paid me a visit this morning and told me all about it!" Rarity exclaimed. "It was she that came to order a new ensemble for the event on Anon's behalf! To think that he's taking you to Indulgence! Oh, I'm so excited for you!" she squealed.
  750. >Spitfire blinked several times. "Wait, who did you say told you about this?"
  751. >"Nebula, darling. Don't you know her? Bat pony mare, tall, brilliant violet mane, criminally GORGEOUS, and such a sweetheart!"
  752. >The pegasus's jaw dropped. "Nebula, as in COLONEL Nebula? As in Smiling Death herself!?"
  753. >Rarity scowled at the nickname. "Oh, come now dear, is that really necessary? I can't believe anypony would call her such a dreadful name! Nebula is an absolute gem. She and the Counselor are very close friends, you know. One of these days I'll finally convince her to model one of my latest designs..."
  754. >Spitfire chuckled apologetically. "Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it. That's just what a lot of ponies in the Royal Guard call her."
  755. >"Hmmpf!" Rarity said with a frown. "Well I would appreciate it if you didn't refer to her as that here. Anyway, be a dear and remove your uniform so I may take your measurements."
  756. >"About that... I'm not so sure what to get, or if I should even go with a dress. Perhaps my dress uniform would be-"
  757. >Rarity gasped.
  758. >"Anon is taking you to INDULGENCE, darling! THE premier dining establishment in Canterlot! You simply MUST allow me do make you a dress for the occasion."
  759. >Spitfire reluctantly unbuttoned and removed her jacket, tie, and shirt. Anon's note fell to the ground, but she quickly recovered it.
  760. >Having neatly folded her garments, Spitfire subjected herself to Rarity's tape measure. "I dunno, Rarity. I don't really know much about fashion or what I should look for..."
  761. >"Ah, ah, ah! Leave everything to me! I already have something in mind that you will look ravishing in! And... done! You may get dressed now, dear."
  762. >Spitfire watched Rarity while she put her uniform back on. The unicorn levitated a sketch pad and pencil in her sapphire aura and hummed while she pranced towards the rear of the boutique.
  763. >Once she fastened her last jacket button, the pegagus tucked her note back into her jacket once more. She looked around the shop, but found no sign of its owner. "Rarity?" she called out.
  764. >"Back here, darling!" Rarity's muffled voice responded. Spitfire followed the voice to a back room where she found Rarity behind a sewing machine.
  765. >"Hey Rarity, you never said anything about how much this dress would cost."
  766. >"Don't worry about it dear," the fashionista replied with a smile. "I'm simply thrilled that Anon is doing something other than working or fighting the castle guards!"
  767. >Spitfire was taken aback. "Wow, I mean, thank you Rarity! You truly embody your Element!"
  768. >Rarity blushed at the compliment. "Thank you, Spitfire. I'll have your outfit ready to try on Friday night. Sound good?"
  769.  
  770. ...
  771.  
  772. >Time Turner looked at Princess Luna in disbelief. "One... one-thousand pairs?" he asked, flabbergasted.
  773. "Yes. My Counselor has vouched for their quality and informed me of the advantages they would bring to our troops. How quickly can you make them?"
  774. >The stallion scratched his mane nervously. "It would take me months, if not years, Your Highness! I made the set you see before you by myself. It was a painstaking endeavor. That's why a dozen pairs of goggles are going to cost the Wonderbolts three-thousand bits a pair."
  775. >"Which part of the manufacturing operation took the longest?" Anon asked.
  776. >"Grinding and polishing the lenses. I didn't have the machinery to complete that task properly, so I had to improvise and experiment. Developing the lens coatings also took quite a bit of time, but it won't be an issue any longer, as I've perfected the formula."
  777. >Anon scratched his beard in contemplation. "Mister Turner, suppose you had the machinery needed to cut, grind, and polish the lenses tomorrow. How many ponies would you need to hire in order to fulfill the order within...say...one month?"
  778. >The inventor scrunched his muzzle as the considered the question. "I don't know, my lord. I'm not a formally-trained lapidary, or lens maker for that matter."
  779. >"How about this," Anon replied. "Consider my question assuming you already had formally-trained lapidaries and lens makers."
  780. >"Hmm..." Time Turner thought aloud, "...I'd mix the raw coatings myself, probably need ten ponies dedicated to sewing the lens holders..."
  781. >The stallion muttered to himself for a while. Luna and Anon waited patiently in silence.
  782. >Finally, the inventor looked up at Anon. "If I had twenty employees, we could probably complete the order within a month. That's not counting one week for training everypony. But I don't have the bits to get this kind of operation off the ground..."
  783. >"The crown will subsidize your start-up costs," Anon interrupted, "which will include the time you need to train your employees. We will provide you with the equipment you need to begin production immediately. We can find you trained lapidaries to ensure the entire production effort remains in-house."
  784. >Time Turner looked at Anon in shock. Luna gave Anon a look that said, 'Oh, really?"
  785. >"In exchange, I hope you'll charge the crown at a discounted rate for buying the goggles in bulk. After all, we plan to eventually issue a pair to every soldier in the Royal Guard," Anon added.
  786. >The earth pony looked like he was about to faint. Despite this, Anon continued to dictate the terms of the contract. His tone became more stern.
  787. >"Understand, Mister Turner, that the goggles you developed will provide Their Majesties' troops with a tactical advantage that no other nation has, to my knowledge. This technology cannot fall into foreign hands... hooves... claws... whatever. As such, you will be bound by a royal edict to never disclose any details of the goggles design; the crystal type, lens coating formulae, nothing. You will only sell and deliver this technology directly to the Crown. Failure to comply will result in you being prosecuted for subversion, or even treason, if applicable. Am I understood?"
  788. >Time Turner gulped at the gravity of the situation. "Y-yes, my lord."
  789. "Congratulations, Time Turner," Luna said with a smile. "Your ingenuity has made you a VERY rich pony."
  790. >Tears began to well in the stallion's eyes.
  791. >Luna gave the inventor a comforting pat on the withers and turned to Anon.
  792. "I will speak with you later, the normal time and place."
  793. >Luna walked to the door of the small chamber the meeting had taken place in. She addressed Time Turner once more.
  794. "I take my leave. Farewell, Time Turner. Equestria thanks you for your unique contribution to its national security."
  795. >Time Turner wiped the tears from his eyes and bowed so deeply that his muzzle touched the floor.
  796. >Once Luna had shut he door behind her, Anon removed his wreath and spoke. "Hey man. Congratulations! I bet you didn't wake up his morning thinking your trip to Canterlot would end up making you the richest stallion in Ponyville!"
  797. >The earth pony chuckled. "The thought never crossed my mind. I was just hoping Luna would approve the acquisition for the Wonderbolts."
  798. >"About that," Anon replied, "you can't tell anypony about this deal you've made with us... becoming the sole supplier of night vision goggles to the Guard and all. At least for the time being. As far as anypony knows, you're making the dozen sets for the Wonderbolts and that's it."
  799. >"What about the ponies I'm going to hire?" Time Turner asked.
  800. >"They'll have to sign non-disclosure agreements about your operation. We'll need to hash it out with the castle's legal team, but they may be subject to the same edict you will. Which reminds me, you will only be able to hire Equestrian citizens to make the goggles. Again, the legal ponies will visit you in a few days to go over everything."
  801. >Anon scratched his head and spoke again in a hushed voice. "Oh, and another thing... I need you to make a set for me, and I want it ASAP. Before the week's end, if at all possible. Keep it off the books, I'll pay you whatever you want for them."
  802. >The stallion gave Anon a puzzled look. "Umm... sure, but, may I ask why you want a set so soon?"
  803. >"I want to have them... just in case," Anon responded. "Can you get them done by Sunday?"
  804. >"I dunno, that'll be pushing it, my lord."
  805. >"Call me Anon when the wreath is off. I'm still the same guy that would bump into you at the Ponyville bars while I was chasing tail. Well, mostly the same guy."
  806. >Time Turner rummaged through the saddlebags he had carried throughout the day. He pulled out a notepad, pencil, a set of calipers, and a tailor's tape measure from their depths.
  807. >"Here, let me get your measurements," the pony said. "I'll work as fast as I can, but I can't guarantee anything. Would you mind sitting on the floor so I may reach your head easier?"
  808. >"Fair enough," Anon said as he sat.
  809. >The inventor measured the distance between Anon's eyes with his calipers. While he measured the circumference of Anon's head with the tape measure, Anon spoke again.
  810. >"Will you promise me something?"
  811. >"Promise you what, Anon?"
  812. >"Promise me you won't let your newly-attained wealth and accompanying status change who you are. Promise me that you'll continue to treat everypony with kindness and respect as you always have. Well, everypony except for that cocksucker Filthy Rich. Fuck that guy."
  813. >Time Turner and Anon shared a hearty laugh at Anon's last remark. "I promise, Anon," the stallion replied.
  814. >After using the calipers to take more measurements around Anon's eyes, Time Turner began to sketch in his notepad. "Since your lenses will be much smaller than a pair made for pony goggles, this may be easier than I originally anticipated."
  815. >Excellent!" Anon said excitedly. "Now about the price. How does five-thousand bits sound for an expedited custom job like this?"
  816. >"Anon, no, I couldn't in good conscience charge you that m-"
  817. >"Oh, come on! I rarely spend my obscene salary on anything. Let me do this, please?"
  818. >"Fine, twist my leg, why dontcha!" the pony said, chuckling. "Again, thank you so much for doing all of this for me, Anon."
  819. >Anon placed his wreath back on his head. "Don't thank me, Mister Turner. The credit belongs to Her Majesty, Princess Luna. Without her approval, your new enterprise wouldn't be possible."
  820.  
  821. ...
  822.  
  823. >Specialist Dusk and Sergeant Tide stood guard outside of the door to the Counselor's suite.
  824. >It had been a long, interesting day.
  825. >It was Tide who had noticed the parchment sticking out from behind Anon's belt.
  826. >While Anon had later praised her for finding the note, she was ashamed that the griffon had been able to place it there without anypony noticing in the first place.
  827. >Tide expected better from herself. This was no mere VIP she was assigned to guard. This was the Lord Counselor of Equestria.
  828. >Anon was the first to hold the office in over two-hundred years.  He was arguably the third most powerful being in the land, depending on who you asked.
  829. >The thestral sergeant pondered the Equestrian power structure. 'Who actually is the most powerful being after the Mother and Celestia?'
  830. >If you asked the thestrals, they would have immediately answered, 'Anonymous'. After all, the human had endeared himself to the entire race of misunderstood bat ponies by befriending them and becoming their most outspoken advocate after Luna.
  831. >There was Princess Cadence, who ruled Equestria's vassal state, the Crystal Empire. Would Cadence's status of being the Princesses' adopted niece make her word supersede Anon's?
  832. >Then there was the newly-ascended alicorn Twilight Sparkle. Anon called her 'Purple Smart' in private, to the amusement of his retinue. Sure, she was Celestia's protege, but how much authority did the 'Princess of Friendship' really have over Equestria?
  833. >Tide's musings were interrupted by the clanging of metal and a muffled shout which emanated from within the suite she was guarding.
  834. >Without hesitation, Tide and her wingmare burst into Anon's room.  They held their short spears at the ready in their left wings.
  835. >As it turned out, Anon had got the free end of his toga caught on his armor stand as he undressed. It subsequently pulled the stand to the floor, causing the clanging sound his guards had heard.
  836. >The thestral mares posted outside Anon's balcony doors also heard the commotion and had immediately entered Anon's quarters like their counterparts.
  837. >Anon gave his four guards an embarrassed smile.
  838. "Sorry for the false alarm, ladies. Your boy can be clumsy every now and then."
  839. >Tide smiled at the man. "It's fine, my lord. We-"
  840. "Ah, ah, ah," Anon said as he waved a finger at Tide. He pointed to his head. "What's my rule?"
  841. >"When the wreath is off, or when you're alone, you're just 'Anon'," the four mares replied in unison.
  842. "Very good," Anon said as he beamed at his guards. "We've had quite the interesting day, haven't we girls?"
  843. >The four thestrals nodded their heads.
  844. >Things got REALLY interesting after Mother made the throne room completely dark, huh Anon?" Specialist Dusk asked smugly as she fluttered her eyelids at the man.
  845. >"Oooohhh...." the other three mares replied.
  846. "I don't know what you're talking about, Dusky," Anon quickly responded. "As far as I know, Luna extinguished ALL the light in the throne room. I don't think even you and Tide could have seen anything."
  847. >"Good thing we're blessed with echolocation," Tide retorted. "Cuz the picture our bio sonar painted us was VERY clear."
  848. >Anon covered his face with his hands as he blushed.
  849. >Emboldened, Tide continued to pry. "So what is actually going on between you and Spitfire? What was in that envelope you tucked into her wing?"
  850. >Tide's comrades giggled and covered their mouths with their leathery wings.
  851. >Anonymous rolled his toga into a large ball and threw it onto his bed before sitting on the floor. The thestrals gathered closely around the human and sat with him.
  852. >Such informality was common between Anon and his guard mares. He would frequently chat with his on-duty bodyguards to get to know them better, as well as to get their opinions on various issues.
  853. >Anon appreciated their candor. His guards loved that he treated them as his equal.
  854. "I dunno, Tide. I don't know what prompted Spitfire to pursue me so aggressively. I only met her a month ago; at that meet-and-greet held after the airshow the sisters and I attended."
  855. >"I remember that," Dusk said. "Tide and I were on duty that day. You probably didn't notice, but Spitfire was checking you out most of the time you were there."
  856. >The third thestral guard, Corporal Glow, piped up. "Well, Anon, do you like her? She clearly likes you."
  857. >Anon sighed.
  858. "I hardly know her. I admire her professionally, for her talents as a flier and a leader. I think she's really pretty. I guess what sets her apart is she's just... exciting. I've never had a mare pursue me the way she has."
  859. >The mares stared at Anon, wanting him to keep talking. The fourth member of the quaternion, Private First Class Breeze, tapped Anon's shoulder with her hoof. "Well, don't stop there. What's this note Sergeant Tide asked about?"
  860. "That was a card inviting Spitfire to dinner this Saturday."
  861. >"We'll be on duty Saturday evening," Dusk noted. "So where are you taking us?"
  862. >Tide smacked her wingmare in the foreleg and shot her a glare.
  863. "It's alright, Tide. If you're on duty that evening, you will be accompanying me. We're going to Indulgence. Nebula set up the reservation for me."
  864. >The mares gasped. "No. Way." Glow said in disbelief. "We're going THERE?"
  865. "Sure are! I'll speak with Nebula about the regulations, but hopefully you girls can accompany us in civilian attire instead of your usual armor. I trust you'll be able to conceal some sort of weapon in a dress?"
  866. >The thestrals smiled widely while they nodded their heads enthusiastically.
  867. >"Wow, Anon," Breeze said flippantly, "If I were Spitfire, I'd let you pound my flanks until I couldn't walk after a date like that! I mean, not that I wouldn't already..."
  868. >"BREEZE!" Tide barked at her subordinate while Anon facepalmed.
  869. "As I've told you girls before, I'm trying to hold myself to a higher standard when it comes to how I treat mares. That means no fucking on the first date."
  870. >"Are you sure you'll be able to hold yourself to that?" Glow asked skeptically. "Because I saw the incident on the training field early last week. From where I was watching, you looked like you were about to rut Spitfire on the spot after she licked your neck. You were lucky Celestia stepped in when she did."
  871. >"Anon, don't take this the wrong way, but maybe you should consider, you know... making sure you're not so... pent up... before you go on your date?" Breeze asked with deep red blush.
  872. >Anonymous facepalmed once more. Breeze's peers gawked at her.
  873. >"What!? Let's face it, you need to get laid, Anon. I don't care what you say, nopony spars and exercises as much as you do because they think it's fun."
  874. >Sergeant Tide took the initiative to redirect the conversation.
  875. >"Personally, Anon, I don't think you and Spitfire would work out in the long run. Sure, she's something new and exciting, but how long will it be before her novelty wears off?"
  876. "Oh? Well I'm going to give her a chance and find out for myself. It's not like any other mares are interested."
  877. >"I wouldn't say that, Anon." Breeze said as she put on her best bedroom eyes.
  878. "Breezy, you couldn't handle this."
  879. >The thestral mare stared at Anonymous. She smiled and lightly drew her tongue across her upper fangs. "I like a challenge. Girls? I want you to watch me as I rut this stallion into a coma."
  880. >The group erupted into laughter. Anon held out a fist to Breeze, who bumped it with a hoof.
  881. >Tide spoke up once more. "Well, Anon, get this fling with Spitfire out of your system if you must. Just don't be surprised if Luna banishes her to the moon."
  882. >Anon laughed at the thought.
  883. "Why would she do that?" he said, still chuckling.
  884. >His laughter faded quickly when he saw Tide's ears flatten and her expression turn somber.
  885. "What's wrong, Tide?"
  886. >"I, uh... just realized we've been away from our posts too long!" Tide replied nervously. "We'd be in big trouble if the Sergeant of the Guard caught us? C'mon girls, we need to return to our posts!"
  887. >The other three thestrals groaned and trotted to their respective positions. Breeze moved much slower than the other three guards.
  888. >Anon began to contemplate Tide's words when a voice broke his train of thought. "Hey, Anon." Breeze said.
  889. "Hmm?"
  890. >"We had a good laugh back there, but I wasn't joking. Anytime, anyplace you want, I'll gladly make you eat your words." Breeze said as she licked her lips. "At the very least, I'm willing to help you shake off the rust."
  891. >Anon watched the mare turn and flick her azure tail to the side, granting him a brief glimpse of her glistening nethers.
  892. >Breeze looked back over her shoulder before opening the balcony door. She made made eye contact with Anon and raised her tail once more. "Anytime, Anon..."
  893. >When Breeze closed the balcony door behind her, Anon let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.
  894. >Anonymous stood up. He quickly undressed, strode into his shower and turned on the cold water.
  895. "Jesus Christ."
  896.  
  897. ...
  898.  
  899. "...if it wasn't enough that Anon slipped a note under her wing and whispered in her ear, that yellow tart had the audacity to rub her head all over Anon's face!"
  900. >Celestia listened silently as her sister vented. Her expression was one of genuine sympathy and understanding.
  901. >Luna had sought her out following the meeting with Time Turner.
  902. >Though Luna had intended to inform her older sister about the deal Anonymous had brokered, the conversation had drifted to the events that preceded it.
  903. >The conversation had started in Celestia's chambers. After they had moved their respective heavenly bodies to mark the end of the day, the sisters moved to the garden.
  904. >It was on the bench between the lilac bushes Luna adored that the alicorns found themselves. Luna's favorite place in the gardens. The secluded corner where she and Anon had spent countless hours enjoying each other's company.
  905. >Celestia wrapped a wing around Luna. "Did Anon realize that you saw everything?"
  906. "No. I didn't let on that I did. I could smell HER scent all over his beard after the exchange. I'll have you know that I remained cool and collected, despite everything. After all, we still had two-and-a-half hours of court to get through after that."
  907. >"I'm glad to hear that, Lulu."
  908. >Celestia turned to face her sister. She sighed, and hoped her advice would be well-received.
  909. >"Luna... last night you said you didn't think that Anon would tolerate a brash, arrogant mare like Spitfire. I think you may be wrong."
  910. >Luna huffed that the suggestion.
  911. >"Nopony knows Anonymous like you, Luna, but I'd like to think that after you, I'm his closest friend. Additionally, as I have no romantic inclinations towards the man, I feel I am better-qualified to objectively comment on this particular matter."
  912. "I would agree sister, though my lovely Nebula may take exception to that." Luna said with a snort. "But that's besides the point. What makes you think I'm wrong?"
  913. >Celestia raised a hoof, then lowered it. She knew what she wanted to say but was unsure how to best present it to her sister.
  914. >If a millennium of ruling had taught Celestia anything, it was that the delivery of a suggestion was oftentimes more important than the implications of the suggestion itself.
  915. >"Anonymous and you have much in common," Celestia began slowly, "including your affinity for structure and routine. There's nothing wrong with that. Such predictable, disciplined lifestyles enable both of you to be highly productive."
  916. >Luna nodded in agreement. The positive response encouraged Celestia.
  917. >"However," Celestia said with an exaggerated pause, "Humans are finite. Mortal. And if Discord is to be believed, intrinsically chaotic."
  918. >Luna scoffed at the draconequus's name.
  919. "You should know better than to accept any of Discord's claims at face value."
  920. >"Yes, Lulu, but don't deny what Anon is. He's young, in the prime of his life! He craves excitement... why else would he train to fight so much? Still, I believe the sparring and frequent exercise have become dull to him. Spitfire is exciting to him. She's unpredictable, bold, and let's be honest, beautiful. She could realistically have any stallion she wants."
  921. "Any stallion except MINE!" Luna replied with a frown.
  922. >Celestia raised her eyebrows at Luna.
  923. >"Oh? Anonymous is YOUR stallion, is he, sister? Does he know this?"
  924. >Luna looked at the ground.
  925. >Celestia knew she had a limited window to drive the point home.
  926. >"Tell me, Luna. When was the last time you asked Anonymous on a date?"
  927. "I never have, but I-"
  928. >Celestia cut her off. "Have you ever made your feelings explicitly clear to Anonymous, as Spitfire has?"
  929. >Luna grimaced.
  930. "Please, Tia. Behaving like a primitive mare is beneath me."
  931. >"Perhaps," Celestia replied, "but there's no doubting the efficacy of the mare's methods. She knows what she wants, and she's going after him wholeheartedly. Can the same be said about you?"
  932. "I didn't realize you had usurped Cadence's role." Luna snidely remarked.
  933. >"I'll have you know I'm no stranger to playing matchmaker! While it was never my calling like it is hers, I have picked up a few things over the centuries. Now that you mention her, I'm sure Cadence would be thrilled to help you win Anon's heart."
  934. >Luna found she was unable to resist smiling at the comment.
  935. "Well, sister. I know what I want, and I want Anonymous."
  936. >"Then you had better confess your feelings to him soon sister, because you already have competition in the form of a legitimate alpha mare. You need to be ready to fight- OOF!"
  937. >Luna cut Celestia off with swift jab to her barrel. Celestia turned to retaliate, but soon realized the motivation behind Luna's jab.
  938. >Celestia followed Luna's gaze and saw two figures approximately seventy-five meters away, approaching slowly.
  939. >Though the newcomers were intermittently obscured by the garden foliage, there was no mistaking who they were, thanks to the light of Luna's moon.
  940. >Anonymous moseyed on the well-trodden path to his nightly rendezvous with Nebula pinned to his side. The thestral maintained contact with him by keeping a wing tightly wrapped around his waist as they walked.
  941. >Four thestral guard mares flew silently in a slow circular pattern forty meters above the Counselor and Night Guard commander, keeping an ever-vigilant watch.
  942. >The two friends stopped some fifty meters away from the princesses. Their voices were audible, but their words unintelligible at that distance.
  943. >Nebula stepped away from Anon and faced him directly. She smiled at something Anonymous said to her, then gracefully stood on her hind legs.
  944. >The mare placed her forelegs on Anon's shoulders and nipped at his neck with her canine teeth, eliciting a gasp of disbelief from the elder sister.
  945. >"You have got to be kidding me." Celestia hissed at her sister. "Now she's vying for Anon's affections too?"
  946. >Luna chuckled at Celestia's ignorance of the Children's customs.
  947. "Nay, sister." Luna whispered. "In thestral culture, mares will nip at the necks of those dearest to them. Though the gesture is purely platonic, it symbolizes a very strong bond between the giver and recipient."
  948. >Celestia gave her sister a slightly incredulous look, prompting Luna to elaborate.
  949. "The bite represents the mutual trust they have in each other. The recipient shows this trust by willingly exposing his or her vulnerable neck to the potentially-lethal bite of the giver. The giver, in turn, affirms that the recipient's trust was well-placed in her by gently, and painlessly, nipping at the neck, over the artery."
  950. >"And only the mares do this?" Celestia asked, clearly fascinated.
  951. "Yes. If a thestral mare nips another mare, the recipient mare will return the 'bite'. Thestral stallions, on the other hoof, will lower their head and hold it under the mare's chin. Watch Anon do this with Nebula."
  952. >As Luna predicted, Anonymous moved his head around and under Nebula's chin. Nebula kept her front hooves on Anon's shoulders and rested her chin on the back of his neck. They remained in that position for five seconds before Nebula backed away from Anon, returning to all four hooves.
  953. "You see, Tia, in lowering his head beneath the mare's, the stallion makes himself vulnerable in two ways. First, he exposes his spinal cord to the mare. Second, he makes himself completely reliant on the mare to protect him while he is in such a compromised position." Luna whispered excitedly.
  954. >Celestia was captivated at what she had just witnessed and learned.
  955. >"Luna... I had no idea the Children were so... symbolically affectionate with each other. Knowing what I do now, I find what I witnessed take place between Anon and Nebula to be quite touching."
  956. >The moon princess smiled as she watched Celestia wipe tears from her eyes with her primary feathers.
  957. "Yes, Tia. You would be amazed at what you would learn about my dear Children if you immersed yourself in their culture as Anon has."
  958. >'Another reason Luna adores you.' Celestia thought as she watched Anon speak with Nebula.
  959. >They watched Anon and Nebula share a long embrace before the mare flew off into the night.
  960. >Anon turned to resume his course to the bench. His destination came into his full, unobstructed view after he rounded a corner and passed a statue of Starswirl the Bearded.
  961. >A brief look of surprise suggested that Anonymous was unaware of the sisters' presence during his final moments with Nebula.
  962. >"Good evening, ladies," he said with a wide smile, "and what a beautiful evening it is! Luna, your artistry with the stars never disappoints."
  963. >Luna blushed slightly and turned her head away from the man.
  964. "Oh, stop it, you." she said with a smile and a wave of her hoof.
  965. >Celestia returned Anon's smile with her own. "Good to see you Anon. Luna tells me you've gone and made quite the substantial purchase with the Crown's money."
  966. >"I merely facilitated the purchase, Tia." Anon replied, not missing a beat. "As I told Time Turner, the deal wouldn't have been possible without Luna's approval."
  967. >"Oh really?" Celestia asked smugly as she turned to her sister.
  968. >Luna refused to let herself become flustered in front of her sister.
  969. "Why wouldn't I approve, Tia? I trusted Anon's judgment regarding the quality of the device. This acquisition will give our troops a tactical advantage over the griffons or any future aggressors we may face."
  970. >"Not only that," Anonymous added, "but this deal will help a new small business get off the ground. Dozens of ponies will be get well-paying jobs from this enterprise-"
  971. >"And Luna will be credited for making everything possible." Celestia finished. "Oh Anonymous, you're so good to my sister. If I were her, I'd have asked you to marry me by now!"
  972. >The group shared a laugh. Celestia noticed that Luna wasn't the only one to blush at her comment.
  973. >They talked for an hour, catching up on the details of each other's days.
  974. >Celestia informed Luna and Anon that General Ironhead had delivered the War Council's finalized plans to her an hour before sunset.
  975. >A QRF battalion of one-thousand ponies had been assembled and briefed on their new mission. Two additional battalions would be assembled by the the end of the next week.
  976. >Celestia had also received a response from Cadence. At her husband's urging, the Princess of Love had mobilized a legion of the Crystal Empire's soldiers. They would travel to the outskirts of Rainbow Falls in three days, where they would establish a permanent garrison.
  977. >Luna briefly summarized the more important requests of that day's Moon Court attendees for Celestia. Grand Galloping Gala preparations, requests from farmers for crop subsidies, and reports of increasing Timberwolf activity outside of Dodge City were among the more pressing issues she and Anon had resolved that evening.
  978. >An hour into the conversation, Luna decided to confront Anon about Spitfire in front of her sister.
  979. "How fortunate that Spitfire attended court this evening, hmm?" Luna asked Anon.
  980. >"Yeah, those goggles are going to give the troops a huge boost." Anon replied quickly. Too quickly.
  981. "And how fortunate was it that a demonstration of those goggles required that I extinguish all light in the throne room! What a convenient moment it was for you to surreptitiously place personal correspondence under Spitfire's wing, no?"
  982. >Celestia raised an eyebrow and anxiously awaited Anon's response. Luna maintained a deadpan stare at the man.
  983. >Anonymous idly kicked a pebble and avoided eye contact with both mares. "You saw that too, huh?"
  984. "Anonymous, I am the night." Luna replied flatly. "I mean that quite literally. I may not share in the Children's specific abilities, but nothing that transpires in the darkness escapes my notice if I so choose."
  985. >"Wow, I didn't know you could do that. Even after four years, I still learn something new about you, Lulu." Anon remarked.
  986. "Oh, there's plenty more you have to learn about me, lover boy." Luna replied coyly.
  987. >"What's the big deal anyway?" Anon asked defensively. "I was planning on sending the card to Spitfire via courier after we finished with court. I was as surprised as you were to see her there, so I figured why not-"
  988. "Kill two birds with one stone?" the sisters interrupted in unison.
  989. >"Yeah... exactly."
  990. >Luna saw that Anon was surprisingly uncomfortable discussing the issue. He'd normally be spilling all the details by this point without Luna having to pry.
  991. 'Perhaps he doesn't want to discuss it in front of Tia.' Luna thought. 'Or maybe the problem is me? Am I embarrassing him?'
  992. >"Come now, Luna, don't bust his balls." Celestia interjected playfully. Hearing the princess use one of his colloquialisms made Anon laugh.
  993. >"I was just giving Spitfire an invitation to dinner." Anon offered. "Following through on my end of the deal I made with her yesterday."
  994. "Ah, well, that's very honorable of you, dearest Anon." Luna responded with some relief present in her voice. "I hope for her sake that she will behave herself while with you in public."
  995. >"And if she doesn't? You gonna banish her to the moon?" Anon asked with a playful grin.
  996. "Don't tempt me." the moon princess answered with a mischievous smile.
  997. >The three friends talked for a while longer until Anon yawned loudly.
  998. >"Well, ladies, it's been real, but I should go to bed and let Luna get on with her duties."
  999. >Celestia stood from the bench and joined Anonymous. "I too need to retire for the night, sister. Anon? Might I walk you to your room?"
  1000. >"Sure thing, Tia." Anon said as he scratched behind Celestia's ears. "Let's just hope my girls don't get too jealous that you've decided to escort me yourself!"
  1001. >"We wont, Anon!" four female voices called out simultaneously from above. The unexpected response made the sisters giggle.
  1002. >Luna hugged her sister with her wings. She did the same for Anon, but stood on her hind legs to do so.
  1003. >Pulling away from the embrace, she planted a quick kiss on Anon's cheek.
  1004. "Sweet dreams, dearest Anon."
  1005. >"Night-night, Woona." the man replied, unable to prevent the heat from rising to his cheeks as he smiled broadly.
  1006. >Luna watched them walk out of the garden, the four thestral guards still circling silently overhead.
  1007. >The night princess spread her impressive wings and leaped.
  1008. >She hovered lazily, high above the gardens for a several minutes.
  1009. >From her new vantage point, she could see the moonlight reflecting off Celestia's golden peytral as she and Anonymous walked along the uppermost level of the bridge that supported the Counselor's Wing.
  1010. >Luna observed two of Anon's guards follow him and Celestia into the tower. The other two guards flew to their posts on Anon's balcony.
  1011. >Satisfied that Anonymous had reached his quarters safely, Luna flew to her own tower balcony. She surveyed the castle, watching the soldiers of the Night guard patrol the castle grounds on hoof and from the air.
  1012. >The balcony was one of Luna's favorite places to fulfill her dream duties.
  1013. >She efficiently scoured the dream realm, but found no ponies that required her intervention at that moment.
  1014. >Knowing that all of Equestria slept peacefully, at least for the time being, Luna's thoughts turned to the seemingly inevitable conflict with Griffonstone.
  1015. >Luna wondered if Sparks's battle mages had discovered anything during their scrying operations.
  1016. >For a moment, she considered visiting the mages currently on scrying duty, but decided against it. Instead, she decided support the on-duty mages' efforts by employing her own unique scrying ability.
  1017. >As the moon was a part of Luna, she had the ability to observe Equestria from its perspective.
  1018. >Luna closed her eyes. Her blue magical aura ignited around her horn. Keeping her eyes closed she felt the moon. She tracked its position, felt its speed, let it become her third eye.
  1019. >With her hooves still firmly planted on her balcony, Luna viewed all of Equestria through the moon. Her gaze traveled to her country's northeastern shores, then to the Griffish Isles.
  1020. >Scrunching her muzzle, the princess began to focus on the outskirts of Trottingham. She saw carriages move through its well-lit streets, ponies returning home from pubs, a mare standing in a doorway, asking a stallion if he wanted to come inside.
  1021. >Her gaze shifted further south, past the sleepy villages that remained kilometers away from Trottingham's ever-expanding city limits.
  1022. >She focused on the forests that began some fifty kilometers south of Trottingham and dominated the majority of the island. She scoured the forests from above, looking for any sign of unusual activity.
  1023. >Luna's otherworldly gaze fell upon a small clearing in the middle of the forest. A figure darted from the clearing's edge into the cover of the forest, moving too quickly for Luna to identify.
  1024. >The dutiful princess continued to use her moon to observe the Griffish Isles for another thirty minutes until she sensed that a pony was having a nightmare.
  1025.  
  1026. ...
  1027.  
  1028. >An overcast sky hung over the farm. The sun never seemed to shine anymore.
  1029. >In fact, Sweet Apple Acres hadn't seen blue skies since Apple Bloom went missing.
  1030. >She had set out to Zecora's hut one Saturday morning. During her free time the filly was often wont to study potion making under the zebra's tutelage. This time, however, she never arrived.
  1031. >Zecora searched her corner of the Everfree forest for Apple Bloom once she was twenty minutes late. After an hour of fruitless searching, the zebra galloped to Sweet Apple Acres to alert the rest of Apple family.
  1032. >All of Ponyville had been mustered to search for the missing filly. The town continued to search in full force for a week.
  1033. >With each passing day, the townsfolk abandoned their hope for finding Apple Bloom. After three weeks, they had assumed the worst. Only Big Macintosh and Applejack continued to search for their little sister.
  1034. >Months of neglect had taken its toll on the farm.
  1035. >The non-apple crops had withered and died.
  1036. >All of the apple trees had likewise succumbed.
  1037. >Four months after Apple Bloom disappeared, Big Mac left the farm and entered the Everfree, consumed by his desperate hope to find his sister.
  1038. >He had yet to return two months after his departure.
  1039. >Applejack stood on the front porch of her family's house and surveyed the farm with tears filling her brilliant emerald eyes.
  1040. >The rolling hills that were once covered in apple trees stood bare. With Apple Bloom's disappearance came the onset of harsh winds that eventually wore down all of the family's crops to dust.
  1041. >Applejack wiped her eyes and returned indoors. She slowly made her way up to Granny Smith's room.
  1042. >The tragedy had brutally affected the once-spry old mare. Granny Smith's strength had given out in the months following Apple Bloom's disappearance. She had remained bedridden since.
  1043. >Applejack kissed her grandmother’s forehead. She knew it was only a matter of days before she would lose Granny as well. Granny looked at Applejack with unfocused eyes.
  1044. >"AJ, come quick!" Granny said in a frail voice. "It's Big Mac! He's come home, and he's got our sweet Bloom with 'im!"
  1045. >Clutching Granny's left forehoof with both of her own, Applejack began to weep bitterly. "No, Granny, not you too! Ah caint lose you now too! Please don't leave me all alone like this!"
  1046. >"APPLEJACK!" a deep, booming voice called from outside. "APPLEJACK, WHERE ARE YOU?"
  1047. >"A-Anon!" the orange mare called out between sobs. "Ah'm a c-comin' Big Brother!"
  1048. >She turned to her grandmother. "Ya hear that, Granny! Anon's come home! We're gonna be okay! He'll fix everythin', you'll see! Just hold on a bit longer!"
  1049. >Applejack flew down the stairs and burst through the front door. She looked around for her brother. "Anon! Where are ya, sugarcube?" she called out over the wind.
  1050. >In the distance she saw a silhouette emerge from the incessantly-blowing dust. Applejack recognized the figure and galloped towards him. As she drew near Anonymous, the wind ceased to blow.
  1051. >Anon held out his hands and smiled at his sister, who jumped into his arms.
  1052. >"Oh, Anon, ya, got to come quick!" Applejack pleaded with fresh tears in her eyes. "It's Granny, she's fadin' fast and ah need you to see her 'fore she passes!"
  1053. >Anonymous set the mare down on the ground. He looked at her with a distant expression. "AJ," he said sadly, "I'm so sorry."
  1054. >The mare looked up at Anonymous. "What in tarnation do ya mean, yer so- *gasp!*"
  1055. >The wind had returned. As it blew with renewed vigor, Applejack could only watch in horror as Anonymous slowly crumbled into dust and was scattered away by the wind.
  1056. >Applejack collapsed and wept, consumed by despair.
  1057. >After some time her sobs subsided.
  1058. >She wiped her eyes and took in her surroundings.
  1059. >The sky was dark with an approaching thunderstorm.
  1060. >Applejack sat on a barren hill topped with a tall, rectangular, vertical granite stone.
  1061. >At the top of the stone's polished face was an engraving of Anon's symbol of office. Below his emblem was an engraving of an apple. Beneath that was an inscription that read:
  1062.  
  1063. >HERE LIES ANONYMOUS
  1064. >BELOVED BROTHER, GRANDSON, AND FRIEND
  1065. >TAKEN TOO SOON FROM HIS FAMILY
  1066.  
  1067. >Applejack stared blankly at the headstone, her eyes brimming with tears. She was numb from all the grief. A voice from behind her broke the silence.
  1068. "I apologize for not intervening sooner, fair Applejack. In rare cases I must allow a nightmare to run its course before I can truly help the dreamer.”
  1069. >The earth pony mare whirled around to confront the voice's source.
  1070. >Before her stood Princess Luna, as beautiful and radiant as the moon and stars she controlled. Like Applejack, Luna's eyes were also tear-filled.
  1071. >"Nightmare?" Applejack asked. "Ya mean, I'm dreamin'? None of this is real?"
  1072. >Luna nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes.
  1073. "Indeed, you are dreaming, though the fears you struggle with, the fears that spawned this nightmare are very real."
  1074. >Applejack wiped her own eyes before asking, "What fears are you talkin' about, Princess?"
  1075. >Luna looked at the mare for a moment before replying.
  1076. "Your family is your foundation, your source of stability. Your family brought Anonymous into the fold as one of its own, and a year later, he moves to Canterlot. Your adopted brother's departure from the farm left you unsettled, and you have never reconciled those feelings."
  1077. >Applejack nodded in affirmation. "We all love Anon somethin' fierce. We didn't expect his little trip to Canterlot those years ago would turn into a permanent affair, ya see? Don't get me wrong, Princess, we're all mighty proud of him, becoming your advisor and all. We know how important his job is, to him, to you, to Equestria. It's just that it's hard havin' someone ya love so dearly be gone so much."
  1078. "And what of young Apple Bloom? What fears inspired her disappearance in this nightmare?"
  1079. >"Apple Bloom is still a filly, but she's gettin' older and wants to do her own thing more often than not. Keepin' the farm going and our family together is so important to me, I get upset when Bloom doesn't  act like it's as important ta her. I just wish she could've stayed a blank-flanked filly for a few more years. That I could hold onto and cherish that a bit longer."
  1080. >Luna shook her head.
  1081. "Dear Applejack, as your sister matures, she must be free to make her own choices that dictate the outcome of her life. You must allow her to spread her wings, and fly on her own, so to speak. If you don't, your desire to hold her close may end up driving her away."
  1082. >Applejack contemplated Luna's words in silence.
  1083. "As for Anonymous," Luna continued, "I can say with absolute certainty that you and your family are on his mind throughout the day. I apologize that his responsibilities keep him away from your home so much. However, know that you and your family are always welcome to stay with him in the castle, whenever you want, for as long as you want."
  1084. >This offer made Applejack smile brightly. "Thank you kindly, Princess. You've made me feel a bit better about all this."
  1085. >Luna smiled warmly at Applejack. She gave the orange pony a hug, then tapped her hoof on the barren hilltop they stood on. Their surroundings changed at once.
  1086. >Applejack found herself sitting at her family's dining room table
  1087. >Anon was seated next to her. Granny sat at the head of the table. Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh sat across from Applejack.
  1088. >As Applejack took in her new surroundings, the feelings of despair she had recently experienced dissipated. She soon forgot that Luna was present, or that she was still dreaming.
  1089. >Luna continued to change AJ's dream. She decorated the Apple household with Hearth's Warming decorations. She materialized a feast on the table. She smiled as Applejack beamed at her grandmother, brothers, and little sister.
  1090. >The princess sighed, content that she had left Anon's sister in a much better dream than the one she found her in.
  1091.  
  1092. ...
  1093.  
  1094. >With the aura that had enveloped her horn extinguished, Luna shook her head violently. It was a reflexive, yet futile, attempt to shake the imagery of Applejack's nightmare from her mind.
  1095. >Equestria's Princess of the Night was no stranger to nightmares, but seeing Anon's 'death' and grave in a dream disturbed Luna more than she cared to admit.
  1096. 'He's fine,' Luna thought to herself, 'and it was just a dream. Absolutely nothing has happened to him.'
  1097. >And yet, things didn't FEEL fine to Luna. Before she could talk herself out of it, Luna was airborne, gliding directly to Anon's balcony.
  1098. >Before her hooves made contact with the balcony floor, the two thestral guard mares posted there lowered their spears, and pointed them directly at the princess.
  1099. "Do not be alarmed, my children." Luna said softly. "I have come to personally check on my Counselor. Please step aside."
  1100. >The mare to Luna's right bared her fangs at the princess and crouched as if to pounce. "A likely story... changeling." the guard growled.
  1101. >Upon hearing the word 'changeling' the other guard jumped to the right and fluttered in a semicircular path around the princess until she was directly behind her. She held her spear in both forehooves, ready to strike from the air.
  1102. >Luna smiled at the guard, whose spearhead was mere centimeters from the princess's neck.
  1103. "Behold, would a changeling be capable of this?"
  1104. >Luna's horn glowed blue, and the moon began to move in a small circle overhead. The stars danced around Luna's namesake in a beautifully choreographed astral ballet that only the Mother of Stars could create.
  1105. >Hearing the guards gasp, Luna ceased her display. Both guard mares threw themselves on the ground at Luna's front hooves.
  1106. >"Forgive your servants, Blessed Mother!" the lead guard said with her muzzle pressed into the balcony floor."We did not mean to blaspheme-"
  1107. "And you did not, dear child." Luna interrupted. "You honor me by protecting your charge, my dearest friend, with a zeal and devotion that is a testament to the Night Guard's quality. Rise, both of you."
  1108. >The guards retrieved their recently-discarded spears from the floor with their wing hooks and retook their positions on either side of the balcony door.
  1109. >Luna removed the mares' helmets with her magic and suspended them in the air.
  1110. >With the helmets secured in her aura, Luna walked up to the mare on the door's right side. She raised the mare's chin with a blue wing, then kissed her on both cheeks.
  1111. "My blessings are with you, Daughter." Luna said gently to the mare.
  1112. >The princess repeated the ritual with the other guard.
  1113. >Luna focused her attention to the helmets he had been holding in her telekinetic grasp. She returned them to their respective owner's heads.
  1114. >The alicorn raised a hoof to knock on the balcony door, but paused. She felt Anon's presence in the dream realm.
  1115. >Not wanting to wake her friend, Luna quietly opened the door with her magic and cautiously entered the room.
  1116. >After the door had closed, the only thing that could be heard outside was the soft pitter-patter of tears hitting the balcony floor.
  1117. >Anon's room was dimly lit by a single candle that sat upon his nightstand.
  1118. >The room's owner was fast asleep on his bed.
  1119. >He wore naught but his underwear. The bed sheets were piled up around Anon's feet.
  1120. >A large scrapbook laid on the man's chest. Luna gently lifted it off Anon with her magic and inspected its contents.
  1121. >Secured to the book's first page was a proclamation Luna and Celestia had signed four years prior. The document formally made Anonymous an Equestrian citizen.
  1122. >The following pages contained pictures from Anon's first year in Equestria. It contained several pictures of Anon with the Elements of Harmony. Most of the pictures were of his adopted family.
  1123. >Flipping through the pages, the pictures gave way to letters from his friends and family. Anonymous had saved every single letter he had received from the Apples.
  1124. >Occasional letters from Granny Smith were pasted in various pages. Several pages contained pictures drawn by Apple Bloom, or short notes from Applejack. To Luna's surprise, most of the letters were from Big Macintosh.
  1125. >If the volume of pages were anything to go by, it seemed the otherwise laconic stallion had a lot to say whenever he wrote to his human brother. Luna was impressed by the stallion's neat, flowing script. Had she not known better, Luna would have guessed that a member of Canterlot's nobility had written Big Mac's letters, given the impressive calligraphy and the extensive vocabulary he utilized.
  1126. >Luna closed the scrapbook and set it on the nightstand next to the candle. She watched Anon sleep and wondered what he dreamt of. It didn't seem too pleasant, as Anon kept twitching and mumbling.
  1127. >When Anon came into her service, Luna made a secret, personal rule that she vowed to follow.
  1128. >She promised herself that she would respect Anon's privacy and never venture into his dreams. As she watched Anon's restless sleeping, she wondered if it would be worth breaking her own rule, just this one time.
  1129. >She often felt tempted to peer into the subconscious of the man she loved and tonight, Anon's repeated mumbling of 'No' and 'not again' shattered her resolve.
  1130. >A quick peek wouldn't hurt anything, right?
  1131. >The alicorn removed her shoes, gently climbed into Anon's bed, and laid beside him. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and entered the dream realm once more.
  1132.  
  1133. /.../
  1134.  
  1135. >Anonymous cautiously climbed up the draw. He was about halfway to the ridgeline. A group of men followed his lead up the rocky terrain.
  1136. >They all wore matching uniforms and armor that Luna had never seen before. Luna was fascinated by the objects the men carried. She assumed they were weapons of some sort.
  1137. >The alicorn flew to Anon's side and inspected his appearance. He was clean shaven, and looked noticeably younger than Luna was used to.
  1138. >Anon held up a fist and signaled to his comrades by repeatedly pushing his left palm downwards. The other men took defensive positions behind the larger rocks and depressions they could find on the mountainside.
  1139. >Luna flew in front of Anon to see what had triggered his actions. As the ruler of the dream realm, she could make her presence known if she wished. In this case, it was imperative that she remain a silent, invisible observer.
  1140. >Tracking Anon's eyes, Luna spotted a cave further up the mountainside. A shimmering bluish-white light emanated from its depths.
  1141. >The young soldier no longer seemed to care about any danger that he might be facing. He stood and ambled up the draw in a trance. His fellow soldiers had disappeared.
  1142. >Luna knew from experience that the light in the cave was a transition to a deeper level of Anon's subconscious. Giving into her insatiable curiosity, Luna followed Anon as he traveled deeper into his mind.
  1143. >The princess kept a few paces behind Anon as he ventured into the cave.
  1144. >The cave walls, appearing as natural rock at first, morphed into artificial man made walls the deeper they went.
  1145. >A large door waited at the terminus of the cavern's reach.
  1146. >Anon opened the door, allowing a flood of light into the cave. Luna followed closely on Anon's heels as he stepped through the portal. She was temporarily blinded by the light.
  1147. >Luna's vision returned as quickly as it had left.
  1148. >She was in a white room devoid of any furniture, save a couch.
  1149. >On the couch sat Anonymous and another human.
  1150. >Anon now appeared as Luna was accustomed to seeing him, for the most part. Anonymous was not as well-built in this dream as he was in the waking world. His hair was no longer cut short to the point of appearing bald, and his thick beard had returned.
  1151. >He held the hands of what was clearly a human female.
  1152. >Luna was taken aback by the woman's beauty. Her long brown hair cascaded over her shoulders and rested on her ample bosom. She smiled at Anon lovingly, her brilliant green eyes sparkling in the light.
  1153. >The princess felt a strong pang of jealousy when she saw that Anonymous looked at the woman with the same loving expression she had given him.
  1154. "This must be your beloved from Earth." Luna whispered to herself.
  1155. >Anonymous leaned towards the woman to kiss her. "I can't tell you how much I've missed you. How much my heart ached with loneliness. I love you." he said as he closed the distance.
  1156. >It alarmed Luna to see the beautiful woman's features were becoming blurry. Anon noticed as well and began to panic.
  1157. >"Nicole!" he yelled. "Don't go! I can't lose you again!"
  1158. >The woman smiled apologetically at Anonymous. "You have to let me go, Anon," she said before fading to nothingness.
  1159. >"No! Please, not this again!" Anon cried out to the empty room. "I'm tired of being alone! I d-don't w-want to be alone anymore..."
  1160. >The man buried his face in his hands and wept.
  1161. >Luna wanted nothing more than to comfort her friend, but knew she could not.
  1162. >After some time Anonymous regained his composure. Drying his eyes, he noticed a hallway that was connected to the room.
  1163. 'Looks like we haven't finished delving into your mind.' Luna thought.
  1164. >She followed Anon down the impossibly-long hallway.
  1165. >The hallway contained dozens of doors. No two doors were alike.
  1166. >Anonymous stopped in front of a red door and opened it. A maroon earth pony mare stood behind the door and looked up at Anon with half-lidded eyes.
  1167. >"We've got the schoolhouse all to ourselves now, handsome." she said excitedly.
  1168. >Strange, aggressive music came from the room. Luna heard an unfamiliar male voice sing, "I'VE GOT IT BAAAAD, SOOOOO BAAAAADDD.... I'M HOT FOR TEA-CHER!"
  1169. >Anon shut the door and moved to the next one. Behind this door was yellow pegasus mare with a curly red mane and tail. Three strawberries and a rising sun made up her cutie mark.
  1170. >"Back for more, huh?" the mare asked smugly. "I knew you couldn't resist this strawberry flavored-"
  1171. >Anon slammed the door in her face.
  1172. >Behind the next door a mint-colored unicorn looked around nervously before making eye contact with Anon.
  1173. >"I know, I know. We shouldn't be doing this, but I... I had to see you again." the mare said quickly. "Bon Bon can never find out about us, okay? Celestia help me, this is so wrong..."
  1174. >Slam.
  1175. >The next door revealed a grey earth pony mare with a pink treble clef cutie mark. She was accompanied by a white unicorn mare who had a two-toned electric blue mane. "Think you can handle us both?" the grey mare asked.
  1176. >Slam.
  1177. >Door after door revealed a different mare that clearly had a 'history' with Anonymous.
  1178. >Earth ponies, an occasional unicorn, and a lot of pegasi.
  1179. 'Stars above, Anon! Did you rut ALL of Ponyville's mares?' Luna thought incredulously.
  1180. >Anon came to the last door in the hallway. This time, when he opened it, he disappeared in a flash of light. Startled, Luna rushed to the doorway.
  1181. >Looking inside the room, Luna saw Anon standing rigidly, his hands pinned to his sides. A butter-colored pegasus mare with a long pink mane rubbed against his legs.
  1182. >Fluttershy.
  1183. >Luna's eyes narrowed.
  1184. 'What did you do to Kindness, Anon? Or what did she do to you?'
  1185. >Fluttershy floated up in front of Anon's face.
  1186. >"Oh, Anon," Fluttershy cooed, "I can't stop thinking about the other night! Nopony has EVER made me feel the things you made me feel..."
  1187. >Anon crossed his arms. "They're called 'orgasms', Fluttershy. Don't look too much into it. You've just never been with a stallion that knew how to please a mare." he said flatly.
  1188. >Fluttershy giggled and shook her head. "I don't think it's that simple, my wonderful lover. I haven't been able to stop thinking about you... how you make me feel... I think... I think I love you, Anon."
  1189. >Anonymous kept his arms crossed and said nothing.
  1190. >The mare searched Anon's blank expression for some form of validation.
  1191. >"Well Anon?" she asked, desperation creeping into her voice. "Don't you love me too? Do you feel the same way?"
  1192. >Anon's blank expression devolved into a thousand-yard stare. "I'm sorry, Fluttershy, I don't."
  1193. >Fluttershy gasped. Tears shimmered in her big blue eyes.
  1194. >"I don't... I can't... I can't feel anything anymore." Anon said quietly. "I loved somebody once. I lost her. I've been trying to fill the void she left in my heart. Nopony has been able to replace her."
  1195. >"No!" Fluttershy replied angrily. "I won't accept that!"
  1196. >"Too bad." Anon replied coldly. He turned to leave but was tackled to the ground by the pegasus.
  1197. >"Where do you think you're going, mister!?" the enraged mare screamed as she struggled to pin the man to the ground. "YOU'RE GOING TO LOVE MEEE!"
  1198. >Strong winds began to blow in the room. Fluttershy dematerialized, as did the room. The floor that Anon was laying on became a large, smooth rock. He and the rock he laid on floated in a dimly-lit void.
  1199. >A faint clip-clop of hooves could be heard.
  1200. >Applejack emerged from the void. She walked up to Anonymous, held out a foreleg, and helped him to his feet.
  1201. >A faster, lighter set of hoofsteps were now audible. Their owner seemed to be approaching at a gallop. Apple Bloom burst into view and launched herself into Anon's arms. Anonymous squeezed his little sister tightly and peppered her face with kisses.
  1202. >Big Macintosh and Granny Smith were next to appear. All four ponies wrapped up Anon in a warm group hug.
  1203. >Luna was overjoyed to see Anon finally experience a comforting moment in his dream.
  1204. >The feeling was short lived, however.
  1205. >The domain that Anon and his family were in expanded. The rock they stood on became one half of an enormous beam balance. While he was gently removed from his family's embrace by an unseen force, he noticed the other end of the balance and what it held.
  1206. >Luna and Celestia.
  1207. >The beam balance tittered back and forth, never settling.
  1208. >Luna noticed a new pony approach Anonymous from the void.
  1209. >Nebula strode with purpose to the man. Her brilliant violet mane and tail were braided. She wore the armor of a Night Guard officer, sans helmet.
  1210. >The beautiful mare stopped a meter from Anonymous, then extended her wings towards the man. Her left wing hook held Anon's shield; in her right, his sword. "Will you protect your home? Will you defend the ones you love?" she asked. "Will you make the right decision when it matters the most?"
  1211. >Nebula raised her voice. "Are you worthy?"
  1212. 'Worthy of what?' Luna wondered.
  1213. >The balance beam and the ponies that stood upon it had vanished, leaving Anonymous alone with Nebula.
  1214. >He looked at his shield, which was still secured in Nebula's grasp. Anonymous studied the details engraved into the metal. His gaze lingered on the half-sun that dominated the center left of the shield.
  1215. >A giggle from behind reached Anon's ears. A large white wing playfully batted Anon's head forward. The man smiled and lightly smacked the back of Celestia's head as she strolled past him. Celestia giggled again and cantered off into the void.
  1216. >Nebula held the shield closer to Anonymous, who looked at it again. He focused on the crescent moon on the shield's right half. Nebula faded from view, along with Anon's sword and shield.
  1217. >Luna stifled a gasp when she saw a copy of herself approach Anonymous.
  1218. >This Luna, born of Anon's dream, looked stunning. She wore an elegant white gown, an onyx crescent moon pendant that hung from a silver filigree chain, and a silver bracelet on her right foreleg. Her unshod hooves made no sound as she trotted to the man.
  1219. >The real princess felt that her dream copy was much more beautiful than she was in real life, and was flattered. After all, this doppelganger was a projection of Anon's subconscious.
  1220. >Dream Copy Luna brushed a wisp of mane away from her eyes with her hoof and smiled at Anon, her eyes full of love.
  1221. >Luna's doppelganger took a step closer to Anon. Anon reached out to her with his right hand. The sound of galloping hooves made him freeze.
  1222. >From the void burst Spitfire. Her normally-windswept orange mane was down, contrasting beautifully against the black dress she wore. Spitfire gave Anonymous a smirk and sauntered to him, stopping beside Luna's copy.
  1223. >"Hey there, stud," the pegasus said in a sultry tone. She reared up and planted both forelegs on Anon's right shoulder. "Want to spice things up for a change?"
  1224. >Luna's doppelganger reared up and placed her front hooves on Anon's left shoulder. "What is it that you want, Anon? What do you truly want?" she asked.
  1225. >Anonymous looked at Luna, then to Spitfire. "I..."
  1226. >"Who's it gonna be, Anon?" Spitfire asked.
  1227. >"Which one, Anon?" the mares asked in unison. "Who do you really want?"
  1228. >Anon looked from Spitfire, to Dream Luna, and back to Spitfire again. "I... I don't..."
  1229. >"Who do you want? What do you want? Who do you want? WHAT. DO. YOU. WANT?" the mares chanted.
  1230. "Enough of this!" the real Luna hissed.
  1231. >The true princess's horn glowed. Her doppelganger and Spitfire vanished. Before Anonymous could register what had happened, he heard the giggling of his sister and the splashing of water.
  1232. >Anon was sitting under an apple tree. Before him, Apple Bloom, Granny Smith, and Big Macintosh swam in the pond that was located behind the barn in Sweet Apple Acres. Applejack laid next to him, resting her head on his right thigh.
  1233. >The man looked around and sighed contentedly. "Hey, AJ?" he asked as he scratched behind the orange pony's ears.
  1234. >"What's up, sugarcube?" his sister replied.
  1235. >"It's good to be home."
  1236.  
  1237. /.../
  1238.  
  1239. Recommended background/interlude music- The Romantics: Talking in Your Sleep
  1240.  
  1241. >Luna opened her eyes and returned to the physical world. Anon slept soundly beside her. A slight smile had formed on his lips.
  1242. >The alicorn reflected on what had transpired in Anon's dream.
  1243. >It was clear to Luna that there was much Anon withheld from her. The revelation hurt her a little. She felt conflicted on whether to confront Anon about it later.
  1244. >Such a conversation may be cathartic, but maybe not. Luna's intrusion into Anon's dream may be viewed by the man as a breach of privacy, and by extension, trust.
  1245. "Problems for another day." Luna murmured.
  1246. >Luna craned her neck down and brought her face to Anon's. Her soft lips brushed up against his. Her kiss was gentle, but full of emotion.
  1247. "Good night, my love." Luna whispered after breaking the kiss.
  1248. >With slow, deliberate motions Luna climbed off Anon's bed. Her blue aura enveloped his sheets. She pulled them over Anon and blew out the still-burning candle on his nightstand.
  1249. >The princess stepped back into her metal slippers and quietly exited the room the way she came.
  1250. "Good night to you, my children." Luna said to the guards on the balcony.
  1251. >"Good night, Mother." they replied softly.
  1252. >With a leap and a few flaps of her wings, Luna took to sky again. She sailed over the castle. Her tranquil gliding contrasted starkly against the storm of emotions within.
  1253. >The princess set out to a new tower. As she approached this tower's balcony, Luna lit her horn and moved the moon and stars some before landing. The thestrals on Celestia's balcony bowed to her.
  1254. >Luna made her way through Celestia's balcony door unchallenged. Once insider her sister's room, she removed her shoes and walked to Celestia's large bed.
  1255. >Luna pulled the sheets away from her sleeping sister and joined her under the covers. She laid beside Celestia with her legs tucked underneath her barrel. She spread her left wing out and wrapped it around Celestia.
  1256. >The Night Princess was far from completing her tasks for the night, but that didn't mean she couldn't finish them in the comforting presence of her older sister.
  1257.  
  1258. Chapter 3
  1259.  
  1260. >Celestia began to stir. She tried to roll over but could not. It seemed she wasn't alone in her bed.
  1261. >Opening her eyes, the white alicorn saw her sister laying next to her. Luna's eyes were closed, but her horn glowed with her distinct blue aura. A large blue wing was still draped over Celestia.
  1262. >"Good morning, Lulu! To what do I owe this wonderful surprise?"
  1263. "I dealt with a few rather disturbing dreams last night. After getting through them, I wanted to be near you, Tia. I trust you slept well?"
  1264. >"Oh yes! I didn't wake up once! Was the dream about us going on a vacation your doing?"
  1265. >Luna horn ceased to glow. The moon princess opened her eyes and looked down at her sister.
  1266. "I figured you'd enjoy that."
  1267. >The sisters laid silently next to each other for a few minutes, content to enjoy each other's presence and warmth.
  1268. >"Lulu? I need to raise the sun."
  1269. >Luna sighed and slowly climbed out of Celestia's bed. The sisters made their way to the balcony.
  1270. >With the moon set and the sun rising, Luna hugged her sister and teleported away.
  1271. >Celestia smiled. Waking up next to her younger sister reminded her of when she and Luna were fillies, thousands of years ago. Luna would often crawl into Celestia's bed after she had a bad dream.
  1272. >The more that things change, the more they stay the same.
  1273. >The sun princess took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She surveyed the castle grounds from her balcony and saw a familiar human already working up a sweat.
  1274.  
  1275. ...
  1276.                
  1277. >Deep breath.
  1278. >Hold it.
  1279. >Squat down below parallel.
  1280. >Pause.
  1281. >HIP DRAHVE!
  1282. >Return to standing.
  1283. >Exhale.
  1284. >Rinse and repeat.
  1285. >His last rep complete, Anon racked the barbell.
  1286. >He took a moment to shake out his legs and began to remove the plates from the bar.
  1287. >Being friends with Princess Purple Smart had its perks. Twilight wanted to study human biomechanics. Anon wanted to get back into lifting.
  1288. >Anon gave the descriptions and specifications of what he wanted to Twilight, who then literally worked her magic.
  1289. >The human stayed /fit/, and the bookworm got to observe and write to her heart's content. Everybody won.
  1290. >It was also awfully convenient that Equestria and Earth somehow had the metric system in common.
  1291. >Anon's on-duty guards patrolled the small yard that held the Counselor's equipment. Two watched from the air, the other two walked around the yard.
  1292. >Though every one of the sixteen thestral mares assigned to protect Anon had watched him exercise, they still were astounded by the human's strength.
  1293. >The man was now performing Turkish get ups with a kettlebell.
  1294. >"How much does that ball thing weigh?" an airborne thestral asked her wingmare.
  1295. >"Forty-six kilograms. Almost as much as a full-grown earth pony stallion."
  1296. >"Sweet Luna..."
  1297. >Magic might not have worked directly on Anonymous, but there was no doubting that his stay in Equestria had been a boon to his health.
  1298. >When he appeared in Ponyville at age twenty-six, Anon had more than a few grey hairs accenting his thick 'mane'.
  1299. >A few years in the army had earned him a bad back, bad knees, and shrapnel from a Taliban RPG.
  1300. >And yet, at age thirty, Anon was bigger, faster, and stronger than he ever dreamed of being back on Earth. His back no longer hurt, his knees no longer bothered him, and he no longer suffered the effects of the nerve damage the shrapnel had caused.
  1301. >Even his grey hairs had disappeared.
  1302. >It wasn't until his second year in Equestria that Anon fully realized he no longer suffered from his old injuries. Twilight had several theories, but was unable to identify the mechanism for Anon's miraculous physical regeneration.
  1303. >Anonymous wasn't complaining. He was in peak physical condition, and had the energy of a teenager.
  1304. >Not to mention the libido of one too.
  1305. >Thirty minutes later, Anon had finished a workout that would've destroyed an exceptional athlete back on Earth. He walked back to his tower with a grin on his face and a spring in his step, apparently no worse for wear.
  1306.  
  1307. ...
  1308.  
  1309. >Celestia had spent the first part of her morning watching Anonymous train. While Anonymous completed his various exercises, Celestia thought about Luna's predicament. Celestia knew that Luna would need to act quickly and boldly if she wanted to compete with Spitfire for Anon's affection.
  1310. 'Knowing Luna, she'll overthink everything and inadvertently self-sabotage.' Celestia worried.
  1311. >The princess took to the sky. Not only did flying help clear her mind, it often inspired her to think unconventionally. Celestia had a feeling that such unconventional thinking would be needed to help her sister in her endeavor.
  1312. >Several laps around Canterlot Peak later, Celestia had an idea: intervention.
  1313. >Acknowledging that Luna would likely take too long to 'get off the ground', Celestia decided she would need to 'nudge' things along to help.
  1314. >But what kind of nudge would work best?
  1315. >If it was too subtle, Anon might remain oblivious.
  1316. >If she told Luna of her intentions, Luna may not cooperate with whatever scheme her sister cooked up.
  1317. >Celestia would need to create a scenario that Luna couldn't back out of.
  1318. >She needed a situation that would make Luna's feelings for Anon obvious, and she needed to act soon.
  1319. >The alicorn flew back to the castle. She saw Anonymous enter his tower with his guards in tow.
  1320. >Celestia flew by Luna's tower, hoping to see what her sister was up to. Unfortunately, the balcony doors were closed and the curtains obscured her view inside.
  1321. >Celestia's mind raced. Maybe if Luna was still awake...
  1322. >The sun princess gracefully touched down on her balcony and hurried into her room. Shutting the door, Tia internally debated spying on her sister. Curiosity getting the better of her, Celestia's horn glowed with golden energy.
  1323. >Celestia felt bad for using a scrying spell on Luna, but she had to know if there was still a chance to put something in motion before Luna fell asleep.
  1324. >From the image the spell projected, Celestia watched Luna magically light candles around her bed. Next, Luna summoned a garment from her top dresser drawer. It was a t-shirt. Anon's shirt.
  1325. >Celestia blushed when Luna held the shirt to her muzzle and inhaled deeply. Realizing what her sister was about to do, she immediately terminated the spell.
  1326. >Wait. She could work with this. It seemed the opportunity for a nudge had just presented itself to Celestia.
  1327. "Delightfully devilish, Tia." Celestia said with a smirk. She teleported with a 'snap'.
  1328.  
  1329. ...
  1330.  
  1331. >Anonymous peeled off his sweat-soaked shirt and pulled off his shorts. He strode out onto his balcony in his underwear with a smile plastered on his face.
  1332. >"Having a good morning, Anon?"
  1333. >The man stretched his arms over his head and looked around at the breathtaking view before him. "I sure am, Blaze. I slept great, crushed my workout, and feel like I could fight all of Tartarus without even breaking a sweat. GOD DAMN, I feel great today!"
  1334. >Staff Sergeant Blaze and her wingmare, Specialist Stellar Wind, gave the human toothy grins in response.
  1335. >Blaze's smile turned into a frown as she looked up at Anon. She saw an orange fireball zip overhead. A second later a loud 'BOOM' reached their ears.
  1336. >The fireball sped away from the tower, then made a wide, arcing turn back towards the castle.
  1337. >"Wind! It's coming straight for us! Get ready to intercept on my mark! Sir! You need to get inside!"
  1338. "Like hell I will." Anon growled in response.
  1339. >Blaze whipped around and tried to push Anonymous back into his room, to no avail. The man remained rooted to the spot.
  1340. >"Anon, please! If anything happened to you on my watch, I'd never forgive myself!"
  1341. >Anonymous ignored his guard and continued to track the fireball, which had decelerated considerably. When the fireball came within one-hundred meters of the tower, Anon smiled.
  1342. "Stand down, girls. It's a friend."
  1343. >Spitfire halted in the air above the edge of the balcony. She removed her flight goggles and fluttered at eye level with Anon.
  1344. >"Morning, handsome."
  1345. "Good morning, beautiful! Um, I have to ask, were you just on fire?"
  1346. ['Did I really just call her 'beautiful'? I mean, she totally is, but, wow... Freudian slip much?']
  1347. >"Yeah, I'll have to explain that and the story behind my cutie mark another time. How are you?"
  1348. "I'm doing great! I trust you read my note... what do you say? Will you be joining me Saturday night?"
  1349. >The pegasus gave Anon a quick kiss. "Does that answer your question?"
  1350. >Spitfire's sudden affection ignited a chain reaction within Anon.
  1351. >The mare's lips had sent a surge of energy into his gut. He trembled as adrenaline began to rush through his veins. His pulse quickened when Spitfire pulled her face back to look in his eyes again.
  1352. "I, uh... d-d-d, I mean..."
  1353. >Blaze watched in disbelief as Anon struggled to form a response. He was the Lord Counselor Anonymous, for Luna's sake! The third most powerful being in Equestria! How could a simple kiss unravel the normally cool and confident human?
  1354. >Spitfire smirked. That she was able to fluster the strong, exotic stallion so much only bolstered her confidence. She stared deeply into his eyes.
  1355. >Anonymous was lost in the amber eyes before him. He stared back for a moment, and yet, a lifetime. Everything faded away. He felt a spark within him, but couldn't place the feeling. Suddenly, the words 'What do you want?' raced through his mind.
  1356. >The thought jolted Anon back to reality.
  1357. >Spitfire crossed her forelegs expectantly. "Well, Anon?"
  1358. >Anonymous desperately wished he had more time to identify the feeling in his gut.
  1359. >Spitfire's expression was becoming one of concern with a hint of irritation mixed in.
  1360. >Anon needed to act fast and regain control of the conversation. A little flirting could shift the power balance back in his favor...
  1361. >Anonymous placed his hands on his hips and raised an eyebrow.
  1362. "I dunno, honey... I'm not really convinced that you want-"
  1363. >Spitfire threw her forelegs around Anon's neck and wrapped her hind legs around his torso. Pulling Anon's face to hers, she cut him off with a series of eager kisses.
  1364. >The man wasn't prepared for this. He stood still, hands remaining at his sides while Spitfire continued to attack his lips with hers, each kiss becoming longer and more passionate than the last.
  1365. >It had been ages since Anon had received this kind of attention, and it left him in a temporary shock. He had forgotten how much he missed it. Craved it. Yearned for it. Why did he feel conflicted?
  1366. >Anon WANTED to reciprocate the mare's affection, and yet, a small voice in the back of his mind made him hesistate. Was this how Eros felt? He couldn't remember. The revelation terrified him.
  1367. >He tentatively raised his hands and placed them on either side of Spitfire's barrel, ready to push her away or pull her closer.
  1368. >Time began to dilate. Anon could hear his racing pulse slow down, each successive beat seeming to last for several seconds.
  1369. >Is this what he truly wanted? Wasn't he trying to 'be better'?
  1370. ..
  1371. [LaForge to bridge!]
  1372. [Picard here. Go ahead, Commander.]
  1373. [Anon's brain is currently offline! The pegasus kisses triggered a conscience cascade in the brain's warp core! Moral shields are down to ten percent and fading fast!]
  1374. [How long until the brain is back online?]
  1375. [Captain, his brain WON'T be able to restart until the attack has ceased!]
  1376. [We can't just stand here, LaForge! The man's psyche and self-confidence will be torn to shreds! Don't we have any way to fight back?]
  1377. [Well sir, Anon's libido impulse engines are fully functional. If we were to fire them-]
  1378. [MAKE IT SO!]
  1379. ..
  1380. >Anon dug his fingers into the mare's body.
  1381. 'I can't stand being alone anymore.' he admitted to himself. 'Please, let things turn out differently this time.'
  1382. >Penis, take the wheel.
  1383. >Anonymous wrapped his arms around the mare and returned her affections with equal vigor.
  1384. >Spitfire's tongue wrestled with Anon's while he carried her into his room.
  1385. >Flapping her wings violently, Spitfire pushed Anon backwards until his back was pinned against the wall opposite his bed. Anonymous moved his hands down Spitfire's back. He squeezed her firm flanks in his hands, earning a moan from the mare.
  1386. >Emboldened, Anon's right index and middle fingers traveled beneath Spitfire's rapidly-swishing tail. He traced over her lower lips, which were soaked from her arousal. Spitfire broke her kiss with a gasp when the fingers entered her swollen marehood.
  1387. >"I can't wait any longer. Please, take me now!" she begged the human.
  1388. >Anonymous grinned and threw the pegasus away from him, towards his bed. No sooner had Spitfire landed on the edge of the bed, Anon was behind her. Spitfire pressed her face into the mattress. She raised her flank into the air, her tail shifted to the right as far as it would go.
  1389. >Anon dug his fingers into Spitfire's back and dragged them down over her plot. He lined up the mare's glistening mound with his bulge and hooked his thumbs into his waistband. He pressed against her and began to pull the fabric down.
  1390. >"Only thirty seconds of foreplay!? Anon! After all the stories I've heard, I expected better from you!" a new, but very familiar voice exclaimed.
  1391. >Anon froze. Spitfire tensed up. Slowly, the man and mare turned their heads to face the voice's owner.
  1392. >Celestia stood just within the room's threshold wearing nothing but a shit-eating grin. A bag of popcorn floated in her golden aura.
  1393. >Anonymous stepped back from Spitfire and turned to face the princess. His massive erection strained against the soaked cloth that contained it.
  1394. "Celestia... WHAT. THE. FUCK!? What are you doing here? How long have you been here?"
  1395. >Celestia floated a few pieces of popcorn into her mouth before answering. "I entered your room right before you did. I actually cleared my throat once to get your attention, but apparently not loud enough."
  1396. >Spitfire slunk backwards off the bed and stood next to Anon, her face beet red. She pressed a hoof to her face and sighed. "No disrespect, Princess, but can't you let Anon and I have even a few minutes alone?"
  1397. >"Unfortunately, not today, Spitfire. There is an urgent matter that requires Anon's immediate attention. I'm so sorry, dear, but this can't wait."
  1398. "Oh, for fuck's sake!" Anon yelled in frustration. He turned to the pegasus. "Spits, honey... I'm so sorry about this..."
  1399. >The pegasus smiled and rubbed her head against Anon's hip. "It's fine, really. I need to get back to headquarters before-"
  1400. >The mare made the mistake of looking up at Anon as she replied. She wasn't prepared for what she saw.
  1401. >Anonymous was licking clean the fingers that had been inside her. He was pleased to discover Spitfire's essence tasted of cinnamon and honey. Celestia's jaw dropped, along with her popcorn.
  1402. >"I, um... I should get going." Spitfire said with a blush. She jumped and hovered in front of Anon's face. "I'll see you Saturday, okay?"
  1403. >After giving Anon a parting kiss on the cheek, Spitfire sped through the still-open balcony doors and into the sky. Blaze and Wind stared into the room with shocked expressions that matched Celestia's. A few seconds later, a sonic boom passed through the tower.
  1404. >Anon walked up to the dumbfounded Celestia and snapped his fingers in front of her face.
  1405. "Hey. Sunny Buns. What's so damn important that you had to cock block me a second time?"
  1406. >Celestia smirked and enveloped Anonymous in her aura. "I'm sure you'll figure it out when you get there."
  1407. "Tia? What the hell are you doing?"
  1408. >"I can't have you smelling like a stray mare when you arrive, Anon. I'm simply removing Spitfire's scent and drying you off."
  1409. "What, I don't even have time to shower and get dressed?"
  1410. >"I'm afraid not. Time is of the essence." Celestia said matter-of-factually. She glanced down at the man's still-erect member. "Plus, I need you to arrive with 'your blood still up'. And how much blood you have!"
  1411. "Why would you-"
  1412. >Before Anonymous could pose his question, Celestia opened a portal behind him. She turned the man around with her wings and shoved him headfirst through it.
  1413. >"Don't say I never do anything nice for you, sister," she said, closing the portal.
  1414.  
  1415. ...
  1416.        
  1417. >Luna ran through her mental checklist one last time.
  1418. >Regalia off and set on her vanity? Check.
  1419. >Soundproofing spell cast on her room? Check.
  1420. >Dozens of scented candles lit to help set the mood? Check.
  1421. >Workout shirt stolen from Anon? You bet your flank that's a check.
  1422. >Luna sank into her soft cloud mattress. She rolled onto her back and spread her wings. Her left foreleg brought Anon's shirt to her muzzle while her right foreleg traveled low.
  1423. >The princess closed her eyes and took in the intoxicating scent that Anon had left on his shirt. She let her mind wander to her favorite fantasy.
  1424. >She and Anon would be walking on the bridge of the Counselor's Wing when they would get caught in a sudden downpour.
  1425. >They would rush into Anon's tower and hurry up the stairs to his suite. She would magically light a roaring fire in the suite's fireplace. Turning around, she would see Anon peeling off his rain-soaked clothing, exposing his exotic, chiseled body.
  1426. >Luna would stand on her hind legs and trace over Anon's collarbone with a bare hoof before he gently brought her closer to him.
  1427. >Wrapped in his embrace, she would kiss him with all the passion she could muster before he guided her to his bed.
  1428. >Luna's right hoof moved faster as she fantasized about the things Anon would do with his fingers. She was already getting close. Absorbed in her fantasy, she didn't notice the golden-rimmed portal open in her room, nor the subject of her desire stumble through it, his momentum beyond his control.
  1429. "Oooh, harder Anon!" she moaned loudly. "I'm so close! I want to feel you pulsing inside me... I want you to fill me up with your potent seed! I want to-"
  1430. >"OOF!"
  1431. >The voice, coupled with the impact on her bed jarred Luna back to reality. She looked around in a panic.
  1432. >Anon rose from the floor, wearing nothing but his underwear, which struggled to contain his throbbing manhood.
  1433. >Luna looked at the erection, then slowly raised her eyes to Anon's face. Anon stole a glance at Luna's teats before making eye contact with the princess.
  1434. >Luna screamed.
  1435. >Anon screamed.
  1436. >After overcoming her initial panic, Luna finally regained her ability to speak in complete sentences.
  1437. "Anonymous! What in the name of the moon are you DOING here!? Why are you practically naked?" she asked, unable to tear her eyes away from Anon's bulge.
  1438. >Likewise, Anonymous was unable to keep himself from staring at Luna's most intimate areas. "I... uh... Celestia happened."
  1439. "What do you mean, 'Celestia happened'?"
  1440. >The man finally forced himself to meet Luna's eyes. "She barged into my room and said there was an urgent matter than required my attention. She opened a portal and shoved me through it before I even knew what was happening."
  1441. >In his mind, Anon heard Jean-Luc Picard say, "You told the truth, up to a point...but a lie of omission is still a lie."
  1442. "How much did you see and hear?"
  1443. >"Enough to make me figure out why Tia sent me here, in the state I was, and still am, in."
  1444. >Luna sat up and covered her face with her wings.
  1445. "So she caught you during your...personal time... as you have caught me?"
  1446. >"Yeah... you could say that."
  1447. "So..."
  1448. >"So..."
  1449. >Luna remained hidden behind her wings.
  1450. >Anonymous cautiously approached the bed and sat next to Luna. A tense, awkward silence persisted for several minutes. Anon looked around the room. Dozens of candles burned in the room. They smelled of lavender but Anon also detected a hint of... vanilla?
  1451. >Gathering his courage, Anon broke the silence. "For what it's worth, I'm incredibly flattered that you were thinking of me while, you know..."
  1452. >Luna peered out from behind her wings. Her eyes were wide open. Her pupils had shrunk to an impossibly small diameter.
  1453. >Anonymous gently placed a hand on Luna's withers and continued. "Look, I..."
  1454. >He exhaled loudly and swallowed nervously.
  1455. >"Please don't take this the wrong way, but... seeing as we're both 'hot to trot' and you WERE just fantasizing about us rutting, if you wanted, maybe we could... you know... help each other out?"
  1456. >Luna stared at Anon in disbelief before her eyes rolled back into her head. Anon could do nothing but stare as the poor mare fainted onto her bed.
  1457. >'Jesus Tittyfucking Christ, Anon. You had to let your dick do the talking. You done fucked it up!' Anon thought as he began to panic.
  1458. >"Yeah... I'm just gonna see myself out..."
  1459. >Anonymous rose from the bed and quickly made for the door, leaving the unconscious mare on her bed.
  1460. >He walked through the castle halls with his head hung. His persistent erection wasn't helping anything. Anon continued his walk of shame until he literally ran into the cause of his problems.
  1461. >Celestia backed away from Anon, surprised. "Anon? Why are you here and not-"
  1462. >Anonymous looked up from the floor and glared at Celestia. "Oh, hello, Tia! Well, you weren't wrong, I figured out pretty quickly what the 'urgent matter' was, what with you pushing me straight into Luna's clop session! Did you know she was thinking of me while she was getting off?"
  1463. >The angry man stomped up to the alicorn and continued to glare down at her. "After we got through the screaming and awkward silence, my horny ass thought it'd be a good idea to suggest that we relieve each other's tension."
  1464. >"How did Luna respond?" Celestia asked nervously.
  1465. >"She passed out. Her eyes literally rolled back into her head and she fainted."
  1466. >Celestia's jaw dropped. "Oh my... Anon, I didn't mean for it to... you see, I hoped that-"
  1467. >"Whatever. The damage is done. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to beat my dick like it owes me money, then shower until I no longer smell of shame. I'll see you at Sun Court."
  1468. >Celestia watched Anonymous stomp away and turn a corner into an adjacent hallway, erection swinging with each step. She would've laughed at the sight if she didn't feel so awful for the problems she had caused her friend and her sister.
  1469. >"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU BOYS LOOKING AT!?" Anon's enraged voice boomed through the halls. "YOU SEE SOMETHING YOU LIKE, CORPORAL!?"
  1470. >The princess bowed her head in regret. "I guess the road to Tartarus IS paved with good intentions."
  1471.  
  1472. ...
  1473.  
  1474. >Two soldiers cantered around the track that surrounded the largest Guard training field. Both ponies had worked up a decent sweat over the past ten kilometers. The elder pony, a unicorn with a rust-colored mane felt his age catching up with him. His protege started to pull ahead, her mind wishing for the moon's cool light.          
  1475. >The thestrals' preference for a nocturnal lifestyle was well-known to most Equestrians. They were the "Children of the Night", after all. Still, some members of the Night Guard, such as those assigned to VIP bodyguard details, had to adopt unconventional sleep schedules to fulfill their obligations.
  1476. >Nebula was one such bat pony that had to adapt to the lifestyles of her day-loving counterparts. As the commander of the Night Guard, she had to interface and coordinate many of her force's activities with the Royal Guard's general staff.
  1477. >That the all-thestral force operated autonomously from the Royal Guard's chain of command was no excuse for neglecting to ensure a synergy existed between the two military branches. Despite reporting directly to Princess Luna (and by extension, sometimes Anonymous), she still had to tolerate the bullshit that came with interacting with the Royal Guard generals.
  1478. >Thunderwing meant well most of the time, but his hot temper and bombastic personality led to Nebula only being able to tolerate him in small, infrequent-as-possible doses.
  1479. >Nebula didn't interact with much of the other two and three-stars.
  1480. >Though only a battalion commander, Major Sparks worked closely with Nebula and the two enjoyed a strong professional rapport. The gifted unicorn ensured that the Night Guard had any and all battle mage attaches they needed for their operations. The stoic mage commander deeply admired Nebula for her leadership abilities and had informally sought out her mentorship as a newly-commissioned lieutenant.
  1481. >More often than not, Nebula worked directly with General Ironhead, as each were the senior officers of their respective branches. As soldiers went, nopony knew Nebula, or her history, like Rusty Ironhead.
  1482. >Nebula slowed her canter to remain in lockstep with the general, her long graceful legs propelling her effortlessly forward. She reflected on her relationship with her longtime mentor.
  1483. /.../
  1484. >A lieutenant colonel at the time, Rusty had taken Neb under his proverbial wing after her controversial commissioning into the Royal Guard. His peers and superiors had strongly objected to Celestia's offer of clemency that had led to Nebula serving alongside them; her reputation freshly-forged, yet, quickly spread throughout the Guard.
  1485. >'How could the princess allow such a monster, nay- a demon, into our ranks?' they griped among themselves. During her early months in the Guard, several enlisted ponies refused to render the appropriate customs and courtesies to the young officer, further adding to her emotional turmoil.
  1486. >More trouble found the struggling lieutenant in the form of a pegasus captain wanting to provoke her. Ironhead was there to intervene. The good ol' Appleloosan country boy had Nebula transferred to his battalion and he became her mentor.
  1487. >Fortunately for Nebula, Ironhead didn't see a monster in Nebula. He saw a girl who had been dealt an awful hand. He privately thought he might have acted similarly to the thestral, had he been in her horseshoes.
  1488. >"Yer recent past don't have to be yer present, nor yer future." he had told her. "Ah judge mah soldiers by the fruits of their labors, LT, and will treat you no diff'rent. The princess saw something in ya, and ah'm not one to question her judgment. Don't squander this opportunity now, ya hear?"
  1489. >Under Ironhead's guidance, Nebula flourished. She lived and breathed the Guard, throwing herself at every challenge and opportunity it had to offer. Nine years later, Rusty pinned golden oak leaves on her uniform with tears welling in his eyes; one of the proudest moments of his life. Princess Luna had later pinned on both her silver oak leaves, and a year ago, her eagles.
  1490. /.../
  1491. >With another five kilometers completed at a near-gallop and sweat foam starting to form on his coat, Ironhead slowed to a trot. "Ah think that's plenty fer morning PT, Colonel. Yer fixin' to break me off for the rest of the week if ah keep this up."
  1492. >Nebula slowed in step with the unicorn and began to stretch. Save for her cutie mark, currently hidden under black leggings, her incredible flexibility was one of the few things that hinted at her special talent and original profession.
  1493. "Thanks for running with me, Sir."
  1494. >"Don't mention it. Thank you fer still pushin' yerself so hard, even after all these years. Ah miss havin' you in the Royal Guard. Mah field-grades don't have you around all the time to look up to anymore."
  1495. >Nebula chuckled.
  1496. "Some of them still seek my guidance... well, at least Sparks still does."
  1497. >"Heh, Sparks... good stallion. Good officer. Reminds me of you. Lives and breathes the Guard like you, still pushin' hisself to be the best at what he does, like you. He's due fer a promotion soon. Rumor is he might reject it."
  1498. "I know. He told me he's worried that the increased responsibilities will prevent him from perfecting his craft."
  1499. >"Ha! One of the most powerful sorcerers in Equestria, and he still thinks he ain't good enough. Don't that beat all! So what'd you tell 'im?"
  1500. "That he can still hone his craft without sacrificing his career for it. Tartarus, Luna practically had me build the Night Guard from the ground up and I still found time to improve my fighting."
  1501. >"That you did, and ah couldn't be more proud. Fury trusts you, Neb. Keep 'im on the straight and narrow, will ya?"
  1502. "I intend to."
  1503. >"Atta girl."
  1504.  
  1505. ...
  1506.  
  1507. >"Luna? Luna, it's me."
  1508. >Silence.
  1509. >"I... what happened just now... it wasn't... I owe you an explanation. And an apology. May I come in?"
  1510. >Celestia waited silently for any hint of noise to escape from behind the large doors that separated her from Luna. She anxiously studied the doors' ornate silver inlays which depicted waxing and waning crescent moons.
  1511. >With a sigh, she turned and began to walk away, completing three steps before her vision turned blue. Celestia was forcefully accelerated backwards through the now-open doors to Luna's chambers, then violently turned around so quickly that she became nauseous.
  1512. >Luna's horn was alight with her distinctive aura. Her eyes were glowing with a silvery light. Celestia noticed with a sense of dread that she appeared taller.
  1513. >"Lulu, I want you to know how sorry-"
  1514. "NOT. ANOTHER. WORD!" Luna bellowed. "Or I will send you to the sun!"
  1515. >Celestia wisely became silent.
  1516. "Words cannot describe how embarrassed and ashamed I feel, Sister! How disappointed I am in you, in Anonymous... in myself." she finished quietly.
  1517. >Celestia nodded sadly. Looking into Luna's eyes made the regret and guilt she felt intensify.
  1518. >Luna began to calm. Her eyes ceased their glow, her body shrank back to its normal size.
  1519. "I will hear your explanation and your apology, sister, but I am not in a state to hear it now. Instead of resting, I will be paying our niece, the ONLY pony who has any business playing matchmaker, a visit. When I return, I will have what will likely be a very difficult conversation with the man I love. After that, you and I will have our own difficult conversation."
  1520. >Celestia hung her head. Closing her eyes didn't prevent the flow of tears. Had she not been suspended in Luna's aura, she would have collapsed onto the floor.
  1521. "Until then, I hope you think about what you've done. Goodbye for now, Tia. I love you."
  1522. >Celestia was momentarily blinded by a brilliant blue-white light, then felt herself fall onto something soft. When her vision returned, she saw that she had been teleported to her own room and deposited gently on her bed.
  1523. >"I love you too, Lulu." Celestia murmured to her empty room.
  1524. >The princess held a pillow to her face to muffle her sobs.
  1525.  
  1526. ...
  1527.  
  1528. >Another perk of being the Night Guard commander was the living accommodations. Nebula had been granted generous quarters in the castle near the thestral barracks.
  1529. >The bat pony had occupied the chambers since the founding of the Night Guard. Before that, like most other field grade officers, she had lived in the city of Canterlot, outside the castle grounds. Unlike her peers, Nebula preferred to live where she worked. The Guard was her life.
  1530. >Hanging her towel to dry, Nebula emerged from her bathroom. Steam from her recent shower followed in her wake and diffused into the dryer air of the bedroom. The mare wasted no time in brushing her mane and tail before donning all of her armor, save her helmet.
  1531. >Besides the obvious species difference between herself and her counterpart senior officers in the Royal Guard, Nebula spent her days in her armor, instead of her service uniform. The mare cared little for the frivolity of ribbons and medals. Her armor felt like a part of her, her weapons, an extension of herself; her will given form.
  1532. >Major General Thunderwing once asked Nebula why she insisted on spending her days "literally dressed to kill". Nebula replied that staying armed and armored kept her mind in the right place, and it set a good example for her troops. She was a soldier to the core, not some quasi-politician that most generals ultimately became.
  1533. "Besides," she had added, "I have a reputation to uphold."
  1534. >Privately, Nebula viewed her armor as a security blanket. Her armor hid her cutie mark from the outside world, as well as herself. Fifteen years later, catching glimpses of its reflection in a mirror was still a painful reminder of what she'd lost. What had been ripped away from her. A wound that she had not allowed time to heal.
  1535. >After her armor came her necklace. It was nothing more than a plain leather cord that held twelve unique pendants, each one separated by a knot in the cord. Each organic pendant had been painstakingly polished, undoubtedly better cared for by Nebula than the pendants' original owners.
  1536. >Nebula's necklace was the stuff of Royal Guard legend; the only physical proof of her macabre "Smiling Death" origin story. Nebula wore it everyday under her armor, but few had ever seen it.
  1537. >The necklace reminded her to be grateful for her new life, but it also kept a part of her heart burning with hate.
  1538. >Rather than be consumed by the hate she harbored, Nebula learned to channel it, to harness it into a productive energy. She embraced the derogatory nickname her peers had bestowed upon her, and further perpetuated the reputation it carried by developing her own brutal, viscous fighting style.
  1539. >The physical abilities cultivated in her previous career helped Nebula become the Guard's premier hoof-to-hoof/close quarters fighter. While up-close and 'intimate' fighting came naturally to the predatory thestrals, Nebula elevated it into an art form.
  1540. >Nebula spent countless hours studying the anatomies of all the world's known sapient creatures, memorizing the locations of pressure points, major veins and arteries, how joints were and were not supposed to articulate.
  1541. >As she studied, Nebula experimented with how to best employ her speed and skillful acrobatic maneuvers in combat. Not content to rely on just her hooves, wing hooks, and fangs to inflict damage, she became skilled with short bladed weapons.
  1542. >It was Nebula who developed the distinctive hoof guards that all Night Guard soldiers wore. A derivative of the hoof guards issued to the Royal Guard troops, these variants came with two spring-loaded curved blades that rested along the either side of the fetlock when not in use.
  1543. >Clean and prepared for the day, Nebula stepped through the door that partitioned her living quarters from her office. A mountain of paperwork awaited her on the desk. The Colonel looked through the stacks and began to prioritize her work.
  1544. >Reviewing her subordinate officers' recommendations for troop reassignments to the soon-to-be-established second and third QRF battalions would have to be completed first. She set the stack of recommendations neatly on a far corner of her desk.
  1545. >Finalizing the joint training schedule with the Royal Guard would come next. Nebula never looked forward to those meetings.
  1546. >Checking her calendar, the commander realized that quarterly performance reviews of Anon's personal security detail (PSD) would be submitted to her soon.
  1547. >Only exceptional enlisted thestrals were invited to try out for Night Guard VIP protection duty. Program applicants had to pass a grueling selection process that tested their physical, mental, and emotional limits. If selected, they would undergo advanced weapon and CQB training before being assigned to a Very Important Pony.
  1548. >In keeping with ancient tradition, the thestrals provided their adult VIPs guards of the opposite sex. [spoiler]Hat tip to the exceptional author, The Man From Another Time.[/spoiler]
  1549. >Nebula flipped through the service records of the sixteen mares assigned to Anon's PSD. Six of them were already halfway through their two-year assignment. Assuming they continued to serve as exceptional soldiers, a plethora of opportunities would be made available to them within the Night Guard.
  1550. >A successful tour of PSD duty ensured that the pony would be fast-tracked through enlisted promotions, or even offered a chance to commission directly to First Lieutenant in some cases. The cream of the PSD crop would be invited to try out for the Wraiths.
  1551. >Anonymous had noticed during his first year as Counselor that the Equestrian military had no units dedicated to covert action. He proposed to Celestia that such a unit, dedicated to diplomatically-sensitive missions be established. She refused, claiming that Equestria had no need for such a force.
  1552. >The human had mentioned the idea in passing to Nebula, who loved it. She suggested that Luna might be more receptive to his proposal. They spent a few days tweaking Anon's idea before presenting it to Luna.
  1553. >Luna was curious to why Nebula and Anon had asked for a private audience with her. Her eyes grew wide as the two asked for her blessing to create a unit within the Night Guard dedicated to conducting everything from espionage to assassinations. Luna initially rejected the proposal as Celestia had done.
  1554. >Her Counselor, however, would not drop the issue. He argued that it'd be better to have such a force at her disposal and not need it, than to need it and not have it. Luna ultimately capitulated, telling Nebula, "I trust you, Daughter, to allocate and train your forces as you see fit."
  1555. >Two years after Luna's ambiguous blessing, Nebula had personally cultivated a detachment of two-hundred Wraiths. They were the most versatile, highly-skilled, and lethal troops Equestria had to offer, and the group didn't even exist on paper.
  1556. >Nebula paused to further scrutinize the file of one of Anon's guards, one PFC Summer Breeze. The Colonel remembered this mare. She was the youngest thestral to pass the PSD selection process in the Night Guard's short history.
  1557. >Breeze's commanding officer noted in previous performance reviews that the young mare consistently displayed quick, creative thinking during field training exercises, she had mastered the use of every weapon in the Guard's arsenal, and showed strong leadership potential.
  1558. >Reading on, Nebula was delighted to see that Breeze displayed a natural talent for hoof-to-hoof combat. The guard's lieutenant had used the phrases, "obsessive", "strong-willed", and "propensity for violence" to describe her.
  1559. 'A mare after my own heart.' Neb thought.
  1560. >This mare had 'Wraith potential' written all over her. Nebula made a note in the file to personally involve herself in Breeze’s upcoming review.
  1561.  
  1562. ...
  1563.  
  1564. >She shouldn't have been there to begin with.
  1565. >She shouldn't have followed. No, not followed. Stalked.
  1566. >She had sown the seed, but never dreamed the opportunity to reap would come so soon.
  1567. >But she was curious. The desire to know, to experience, to understand, ate at her like a hunger.
  1568. >She nearly crossed paths with the subject of her interest, but her presence remained unnoticed.
  1569. >She waited in silent observation for the perfect opportunity to strike.
  1570. >With each step, her prey became more exposed, its distress and weakened resolve becoming more obvious.
  1571. >She navigated every obstacle with precision and skill. It would've made her superiors proud.
  1572. >Finally, the moment she had been waiting for!
  1573. >She had hesitated, conscience getting the best of her. What she was attempting felt wrong, unethical. Was there a precedent? Yes, but the practice was all but obsolete.
  1574. >What would the others think if they learned of her actions?
  1575. >Her quarry had lingered longer than she expected. It was as if fate itself was tempting her with the extended window to strike.
  1576. >She decided to attack, consequences be damned.
  1577. >The encounter had left her battered and sore. She had underestimated her prey.
  1578. >She could've been seriously injured in her ambush, but she wasn't. She could've been caught, but she escaped.
  1579. >She should have let the ferocious encounter sate her hunger. It wasn't worth the risk.
  1580. >Yet she already craved more.
  1581.  
  1582. ...
  1583.  
  1584. >Cadence watched from the balcony as Shining, Flurry, and her in-laws made their way from the spire and to the shops.
  1585. >It had been a taxing time. Thank goodness for Shining, arranging for his parents to come and help watch their foal for a few days.
  1586. >She loved her daughter, but Flurry required more 'user input' than the average foal. Between her responsibilities as a parent and as the ruler of the Crystal Empire, Cadence rarely had time for herself.
  1587. >When was the last time she got to use her unique talent?
  1588. >Sure, the Crystal Heart spread light and love throughout the Empire, and all over Equestria, but that was different.
  1589. >Cadence yearned for satisfaction of bringing two ponies together, to see their love flourish. She longed for the challenge of helping a wayward heart find its match.
  1590. >The pink alicorn returned inside the spire. She passed several crystal pony guards on her way to the throne room. A crystal mare waited for her there with a thick roll of parchment and a quill.
  1591. >With a sigh, Cadence clambered onto her throne. She looked at her assistant. "Let's get this over with, shall we?"
  1592. >The mare approached Cadence but stopped in her tracks. A blue-rimmed black oval materialized at the foot of the throne. A starry-maned, dark blue alicorn emerged from it.
  1593. >Cadence leapt off her throne and flew to Luna, greeting her with a hug. "Auntie Luna! What a surprise! What brings you here?"
  1594. "Dear Cadence, I must speak with you privately about an important issue."
  1595. >The princesses relocated to Cadence and Shining's quarters.
  1596. >"Auntie? What's wrong? Is this about the griffons? Are we under attack?"
  1597. >Luna placed a hoof on Cadence's withers to calm her.
  1598. "No. There was an... incident... this morning. Something that would not have happened had I been more proactive."
  1599. >Cadence responded with a quizzical look. Luna sighed, and continued.
  1600. "Cadence, I am in love with Anonymous..."
  1601. >The Princess of Love's confused look turned into a massive, excited smile.
  1602. "... and there has been a 'setback' in my quest to win his heart...."
  1603. >Cadence began to hyperventilate. She pranced in place and nodded rapidly, smiling all the while.
  1604. "Dearest niece, I need your help, your special talent. Another mare competes for Anon's affections, and she has been relentless in her pursuit of him. Will you aid me in my quest to win Anon's heart and make him my stallion forever?
  1605. ..
  1606. >Near the center of the Empire, the crystal ponies went about their lives as usual. All of a sudden, the ground began to rumble. Birds flew away in a panic.
  1607. >Crystal ponies everywhere looked around nervously, preparing for the worst. A few of them worried aloud if Sombra had returned.
  1608. >Their concern turned into confusion as a loud, excited, "SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!" erupted from the the palace.
  1609.  
  1610. ...
  1611.  
  1612. >Nebula set Breeze's file down with the others. She looked at the mountain of yet-to-be-addressed paperwork with disdain. A grey pegasus mailmare delivered a letter, providing a most welcome distraction.
  1613. >Shutting the door behind the mailmare, Nebula inspected the envelope. She recognized the writing; Apple Bloom's.
  1614. /.../
  1615. >Before the friendship between Luna and Anon had blossomed, Nebula was Anon's closest friend in Canterlot. As Anon came to trust Nebula, he introduced her to Apple Bloom, who would visit him often.
  1616. >Apple Bloom and Nebula hit it off instantly. Whenever the filly came to visit, she would hang out with Nebula while Anon attended court. The Night Guard thestrals grew accustomed to seeing their commander accompanied by the small, sweet earth pony filly.
  1617. >An innocent child free of prejudice, Apple Bloom came to understand the thestrals and their customs, as her brother had. In time, the Night Guard ponies treated Apple Bloom as they would a thestral filly, teaching her the subtleties of their ways whenever possible.
  1618. >After Luna's decree established that the Children would protect Anonymous, he requested that an additional protective detail be assigned to his family at Sweet Apple Acres. Luna understood that he was mainly concerned for the safety of his youngest sister.
  1619. >Luna approved the request, and Apple Bloom was assigned a PSD of eight guards, with two being on-duty at any given time. Nebula had personally selected the thestrals that would guard Apple Bloom.
  1620. /.../
  1621. >Nebula excitedly tore open the envelope and removed the letter it contained.
  1622.  
  1623. >       Hey Auntie Neb!
  1624.  
  1625. >       How are you?? Whatcha been up to lately? Have you been taking good care of Anon for me??
  1626. >       Don't tell Anon (it's a surprise!), but AJ is going to let me to visit Canterlot on my own! Well, my guard buddies will be with me, but still! Isn't that so cool??
  1627. >       We haven't decided when we're coming yet, but it'll be soon. I can't wait to see you! Maybe you can have a sleepover in my guest room again?
  1628. >       I'm going to bring a few samples of the potions I've been working on with Zecora. I finally was able to brew a zebra healing potion on my own!
  1629. >       Gotta go for now. Write back soon, k?
  1630.  
  1631. >       Love you!
  1632. >       Apple Bloom
  1633.  
  1634. >Nebula smiled widely at the letter. She pulled out a fresh sheet of parchment and immediately began writing a reply. A knock at the door interrupted her writing. She hid Apple Bloom's letter and her own response in her desk drawer.
  1635. "Enter!"
  1636. >Anonymous entered the room. He was dressed for Sun Court, but something was wrong. He looked disturbed. Nebula noticed a faint, peculiar scent follow him into the room. It wasn’t unpleasant, just… different.
  1637. >It was almost as if... No. Focus, Nebula.
  1638. "Anon! What's wrong? Don't you have to attend court soon?"
  1639. >The man shuffled inside and closed the door. Nebula could see his inner conflict manifest on his face. "Neb, I fucked up this morning. Several times now. I fucked up so hard."
  1640. >Nebula hurried over to the man and wrapped him in a tight wing hug.
  1641. "Come sit down and tell your Nebula all about it."
  1642.  
  1643. ...
  1644.  
  1645. "When I came to, he was gone, thank goodness."
  1646. >"Oh my."
  1647. "Indeed."
  1648. >Cadence reflected on Luna's recounting of her morning's events. "You've told me what happened, but I want to know exactly how it made you feel. For starters, how did you feel when you saw him standing next to your bed?"
  1649. "You mean besides panicked and embarrassed?"
  1650. >Cadence nodded.
  1651. "Now that I've calmed down and thought about it again, I realize that part of me was excited that he was there, that he discovered me in that state."
  1652. >Cadence struggled to suppress a grin. She looked away, not wanting to make the older princess feel uncomfortable. "Really? How so?"
  1653. >The Princess of Love already knew the answer, she merely wanted Luna to admit it on her own.
  1654. >Luna sighed, struggling to find the right phrasing.
  1655. "It was almost as if I was living my fantasy, in a sense. He towered above me as a laid before him, every part of me exposed. His engorged stallionhood was ready to ravage me, barely covered by that small cloth. I could smell his desire as much as I could see it in his eyes. I knew without a doubt he wanted me. It was validating, in a way. To know that the one you love so dearly desires you, yes?"
  1656. >"Is he... is he big?" Cadence asked, covering her mouth as she giggled.
  1657. >Luna gasped and covered her open mouth.
  1658. "Cadence!"
  1659. >"What? Just between us girls, what did you think?"
  1660. "Twas hard to tell, with him still covered up. Nevertheless, what I could perceive was far more generous than I had expected." Luna murmured, her face turning red.
  1661. >Cadence giggled in spite of herself. "Ooh, how exciting! Suppose that you hadn't fainted... do you think there's a chance you might have accepted his, *ahem*, proposal?"
  1662. >Luna pondered the question for a moment.
  1663. "Of course, a part of me wanted to claim him, right then and there! For the briefest moment, I thought about how satisfying it would be to parade him around the palace after consummating our relationship, his body still smelling of my essence, so that every mare would know that he belonged to me!" Luna replied passionately.
  1664. >Cadence's eyes widened. She had never seen this side of Luna before, but was happy that her adopted aunt had found somepony that she felt so strongly about. "So what stopped you from doing just that?"
  1665. "I remembered what I had seen in his dreams just hours before." Luna said with a disappointed sigh. "I viewed Anon's dreams for the first time ever last night. Remembering what I saw, I knew in my heart that if I gave in to my desires, it would not be a pure exchange on his behalf."
  1666. >The pink alicorn raised her eyebrows. The plot had just thickened.
  1667. "You see, Cadence, I delved into Anon's subconscious last night and saw a brief history of his... romantic life. I was surprised to learn that-"
  1668. >"Don't tell me!" Cadence interrupted. Luna replied with a puzzled look, prompting Cadence to elaborate. "I may need to search his heart someday, and I wouldn't want to risk biasing my perceptions with your account."
  1669. "You can do that?" Luna asked with genuine curiosity.
  1670. >"Of course I can!" Cadence replied proudly. "Who do you think you're talking to? Heck, I could even do it here and now if I wanted!"
  1671. >Luna grabbed Cadence with her forehooves, causing the younger princess to flinch.
  1672. "Dearest niece, would you search Anon's heart for me?" Luna asked eagerly. "I want your expert perspective, to know if he truly loves me, or could love me someday!"
  1673. >"I don't know, Auntie. I feel conflicted about doing that without his consent..."
  1674. "Would this... 'search'... affect him in any way? Would he be aware of it?"
  1675. >"No, he'd be completely oblivious, but I still-"
  1676. "Please, Cadence... Please... just do this for me."
  1677. >Cadence couldn't help but frown. "I must warn you, chances are you won't like what I uncover. Everypony keeps secrets for a reason, Auntie."
  1678. "I understand."
  1679. >Cadence stared into Luna's eyes. The love princess could read Luna's heart like an open book. She could feel no malicious intent in the older princess, only a sincere yearning to understand Anonymous better.
  1680. >"Okay, I'll do it, but I'll need your help to get started."
  1681. "Of course! What do you need, and how will it work?"
  1682. >Cadence cleared her throat. "All I need you to do is focus on your love for Anonymous. When you focus on your love for him, it projects outwards to him, in a sense. I can lock onto that love and track him, no matter the distance."
  1683. "You'll forgive me, dear niece, for saying that this ability sounds awfully close to that of a changeling's."
  1684. >Cadence giggled. "I know how it sounds, and the methods are somewhat similar. There are distinct differences, however. Changelings are only able to sense love in a general sense. They seek it based on intensity, but can't differentiate between types of love, or specifically identify a pony from afar based on the love they give or receive."
  1685. >Memories of Chrysalis caused Cadence to scowl. She shook her head and continued. "I can follow unique love connections between ponies, differentiate between philia, pragma, storge, eros, and so on. I don't completely understand how it works yet, but by analyzing these love connections, I can identify who is giving that love, and to whom it is projected."
  1686. "And thus, you are able to read Anon's heart despite the vast distance separating you two?"
  1687. >"Mmhmm! I can even physically track him down that way! Isn't that neat?"
  1688. >Before Luna could respond, Cadence spoke again. "Now, Auntie, I need you to focus on Anon. Focus on your feelings for him, your favorite memories of him, what you find attractive about him. Anything about him, really. I'll take care of the rest."
  1689. >Luna closed her eyes and complied with Cadence's instructions.
  1690. >The moon princess pictured Anon's smiling face in her mind's eye. She recalled how her heart always fluttered at his touch, how she yearned for his presence whenever he was absent, her physical attraction to the man.
  1691. >Feeling the surge of emotions emanating from Luna, Cadence closed her eyes. Her horn was enveloped by her distinct sky blue aura.
  1692. >Cadence focused her magic on Luna's love for Anonymous. She felt Luna's deep, honest love for the man, and in an instant, felt the presence of another heart. She saw the human in real time, sitting next to a bat pony.
  1693. >"I've got him!"
  1694. "Are you sure?"
  1695. >"Yes! I can feel his ties to you, Auntie Tia, a bat pony mare... hmm, what's going on there?"
  1696. "What do you mean? Are you referring to his friend Neb-"
  1697. >"WHOA!" Cadence lurched backwards, eyes still shut tightly.
  1698. "What? What is it?"
  1699. >"It's fine, just a surge of love for a little earth pony filly... Apple... Apple Bloom! She's his sister! Aww, he loves her so much! More than anypony in this world, in fact."
  1700. >Cadence's discovery wasn't news to Luna, who smiled at her niece's reaction.
  1701. >"Okay, I can see his love connections to Applejack, Big... Macintosh! Granny Smith... yes, the ties are becoming very clear now..."
  1702. "What do you do now?"
  1703. >"I focus on the feelings of Eros, or romantic love, that are directed towards him, and likewise, those same feelings that he projects out. Put simply, I'm filtering out the familial and platonic love in his heart from my vision."
  1704. >Luna watched Cadence in earnest.
  1705. >The pink alicorn had been silent for two minutes before she began to frown.
  1706. >Luna grew anxious from Cadence's change in expression.
  1707. "Well, what do you see?"
  1708. >"I'm sorry, I really need to focus." Cadence replied quickly. Her horn grew brighter.
  1709. ..
  1710. >Cadence worked quickly to dispel from her magical vision the white, green, and blue strands of philia, storge, and pragma that permeated Anon's 'heart'.
  1711. >Finally, she found what she was looking for.
  1712. >A pink strand of eros was connected to him, clearly from Luna. Curiously, another equally-strong pink strand was being sent to Anon. Before she thought to identify the source of this eros, she noticed something new.
  1713. >Two neon-yellow strands from outside sources were tied to Anon's heart. Mania, fueled primarily by lust. Cadence noticed that these feelings were reciprocated by Anon, being clearly projected out.
  1714. >She shifted her focus to Anon's other projections. She caught several fleeting glimpses of pink strands being projected, but they flickered out, or shifted to mania's distinct yellow hue. The longer-lasting pink strands were intertwined with strands of philia and pragma.
  1715. >These braided strands were interesting to the Princess of Love. While every romantic relationship had these different types of love involved, she could always separate them when viewing a heart. Anon's projections were braided with each other at best, chaotically tangled at the worst.
  1716. >'Ill-defined strands, interference with love projection... that's serious emotional trauma.' Cadence thought to herself.
  1717. ..
  1718. >Cadence broke the spell and opened her eyes. Luna's face greeted her, a mix of excitement and anxiety.
  1719. "What can you tell me?"
  1720. >"There is some romantic love projecting out from Anon, but... it's not well-defined. There's a lot of 'interference' for a lack of a better term. Auntie, Anonymous has significant emotional trauma that's distorting my surface-level view of his heart."
  1721. >Disappointment getting the better of her, Luna scoffed before she could stop herself.
  1722. "That's it then? Well, if that's all you can do, I suppose I-"
  1723. >"I didn't say that was all I can do!" Cadence snapped back. "For me to break through the trauma, to fully understand what Anon is feeling, I'm going to have to dive into his soul."
  1724. "That sounds rather complex, and quite frankly, dangerous-"
  1725. >"Luna, PLEASE!" Cadence yelled, her voice saturated with frustration. "Everypony thinks I'm just some second-rate alicorn, like being the “Princess of Love" is some kind of joke. Do I possess the raw magical capacity of you and Celestia? No! How could I, when I only ascended fifteen years ago?! You two have been alicorns for millennia!"
  1726. >Cadence began to pace around her room angrily and continued her diatribe.
  1727. >"However, I don't care how powerful you two are, or how gifted Twilight is at magic, I'LL BE DAMNED if there's anypony alive that can read hearts and souls like I can! Not you, not Celestia, not Twilight, NOPONY! Understand!? I'm not some cheap matchmaker! Bringing hearts together in love is only a portion of my special talent. To be able to match one heart to another, one must be able to understand the heart, to listen to the soul at a fundamental level. Then, and only then, can you begin to find what, or who, the heart needs!"
  1728. >Cadence ceased her pacing and stopped with her face centimeters away from Luna's. The pink princess's eyes burned with indignation. Luna leaned backwards, shocked by the outburst.
  1729. "I- I am truly sorry Cadence. I did not mean to imply that you were incapable."
  1730. >Cadence backed away from Luna, but her eyes still burned.
  1731. >"It... it... it just gets so FRUSTRATING for me sometimes! Ponies all over Equestria, even my own subjects, they don't understand my abilities. They think I'm just a gimmicky matchmaker that got put in charge of the Empire. That, or they think that everything I'm capable of is dependent on the Crystal Heart, despite my ascension occurring over a decade prior to the damn thing's recovery!"
  1732. >The young princess began to pace angrily again.
  1733. >"Princess Cadence! Can you use the Crystal Heart to find me a wife? Princess Cadence, can you use the Crystal Heart to find me a stallion? Princess Cadence, the Crystal Heart! Can the Crystal Heart-"
  1734. "Cadence, I also want to clarify that I never thought your abilities to be trivial-" Luna interjected cautiously.
  1735. >"I AM NOT. THE. CRYSTAL. HEART!" Cadence roared in her own Royal Canterlot Voice. Her eyes glowed with an intense blue light. "I am Mi Amore Cadenza, Princess of Love, shepherd to lost souls and wayward hearts, and ruler of the Crystal Empire! I became all of that... WITHOUT THE FUCKING CRYSTAL HEART!"
  1736. >Luna's ears were ringing. Undoubtedly everypony in the spire, possibly many beyond its walls, heard Cadence's furious tirade.
  1737. >Cadence's eyes ceased their magical glow, and the princess gave an embarrassed laugh.
  1738. >"Heh, heh... sorry about that, Auntie Luna! I had been holding that in for so long... I didn't realize how badly I needed to let it out!"
  1739. >Luna couldn't help but give her niece a quizzical stare. Cadence blushed, covered her face with a hoof, and took a few slow, deep breaths.
  1740. >"*Ahem*, now, about deep soul-searching. The most effective way for me to understand Anon is to immerse myself in his soul."
  1741. "What do you mean, 'immerse'?"
  1742. >"The mechanisms of the spell are incredibly complex and would take hours to explain. Suffice to say that my magic naturally directs me to the memories, thoughts, feelings... really anything that is relevant for me to understand an aspect of him. In this case, I'm trying to understand his romantic love history."
  1743. "I understand so far, at least superficially."
  1744. >"You need to be warned, that while this process is the most effective way for me to read his soul, it's also the most extreme. I will be experiencing his raw, unfiltered memories and emotions on an amplified level. If I commit to this procedure, it has to run its course. Stopping it prematurely might actually harm me. Don't worry, the spell will end when it needs to, when I've discovered everything relevant."
  1745. "What must you do to prepare?"
  1746. >Cadence removed her shoes and regalia, then climbed onto her bed. After tucking her legs beneath her barrel, she replied, "I'll need you to magically soundproof and lock the room."
  1747. >Luna's horn glowed momentarily.
  1748. "Anything else?"
  1749. >The pink princess stared intensely at Luna.
  1750. >"Keep me from hurting myself while I'm in Anon's soul."
  1751.  
  1752. ...
  1753.  
  1754. >Anonymous sat next to Nebula on her couch; his steadfast friend rubbing small circles on his back with a bare hoof.
  1755. >Exhaling loudly, the human finished recounting the events of his fateful morning.
  1756. "So yeah, that happened after everything went down with Luna."
  1757. >Nebula gave Anon an amused stare. "Wow, Anon."
  1758. "I know..."
  1759. >"I'm going to say it..."
  1760. "You're going to say what?"
  1761. >Nebula removed her hoof from Anon's back and used it to turn his face towards her.
  1762. >"How long have I been telling you that your commitment to celibacy was a bad idea? That it kept you from working through your issues with sex and emotional intimacy? How many times have I suggested that you casually date the mares that I knew were interested in you? Did I not tell you that this would all come back to bite you in the flank?"
  1763. "Neb, don't you-"
  1764. >"*AHEM*... I. Told. You. So."
  1765. "God damn it!"
  1766. >Nebula giggled and wrapped a wing around Anon's back. "It sounds like Spitfire will be fine. Luna, on the other hoof..."
  1767. >Anon felt a wave of dread pass through him.
  1768. "How mad do you think she is?"
  1769. >"I dare not speculate on her feelings. That's something you'll have to discuss with her, you poor soul."
  1770. >Anon groaned loudly and rolled his eyes.
  1771. "As for the last thing-"
  1772. >Nebula waved a hoof dismissively. "What about it? I'm surprised it took this long for you to utilize. It's been at your disposal since day one."
  1773. "That's... one way to put it. And you're not upset?"
  1774. >"Why would I be? What, are you expecting me to issue a reprimand? It literally comes with the territory; explicitly stated as a possibility in the scope of work. I thought I explained that to you when you were originally assigned-"
  1775. "I remember, but I didn't think, you know... that it was actually still a thing."
  1776. >"It's mostly obsolete, but nevertheless, we observe tradition for a reason. Tell me, how's your head after the ordeal?"
  1777. >Anon chuckled softly and rubbed his palm over his forehead.
  1778. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's surprisingly the most clear it's been in a while."
  1779. >"I told you so!" the mare replied in a sing-song voice.
  1780. "Honestly, I could stand to-"
  1781. >"I know," Nebula interrupted, "and I won't stop you."
  1782. >Anonymous gave her a skeptical glance.
  1783. "You really shouldn't tell me that..."
  1784. >Nebula squeezed Anon tightly with her wing and released him. "You're a big colt. You'll be fine, as long as you don't overdo it."
  1785.  
  1786. ...
  1787.  
  1788. >Cadence took a deep breath and held it.
  1789. >She exhaled loudly and inhaled deeply once more. Luna stood at the side of Cadence's bed, looking on with trepidation.
  1790. "You've got this, Cadenza." the pink princess whispered to herself. "Here we go..."
  1791. >Cadence closed her eyes and lit her horn. She quickly locked on to Anon's heart.
  1792. ..
  1793. >She could see the bonds of love that tied Anon's heart to others rushing past her as she throttled straight into his soul.
  1794. >She saw a new human. A female with brilliant green eyes and long brown hair.
  1795. >Cadence felt an intense, nearly overwhelming surge of love coming from Anon when the woman appeared before her.
  1796. >The princess felt the pure love the humans had shared for each other. Her heart fluttered with joy as she basked in the woman's presence.
  1797. >Suddenly, the woman disappeared in a flash of light. Cadence felt cold. She was disoriented and afraid. Unfamiliar voices crept into her mind. Pony faces came into focus.
  1798. >"What is that thing? Oh Celestia help us, it's moving! Quick, get Twilight!"
  1799. >Blurs of light and sound.
  1800. >"Well howdy, pardner! The name's Applejack. I hear ya need a place to stay for the night!"
  1801. >Trees, a barn, blue skies. Fear. A single large tree.
  1802. >"I've got several theories, but I need to perform more experiments. It could take a while to figure this out."
  1803. >Anxiety. Apple trees. Sunrises and sunsets. A red stallion. An old, green mare.
  1804. >"Don't worry about it, mah boy! Yer welcome to stay as long as you need... You work as hard as Big Mac and Applejack combined, and Apple Bloom sure has taken a likin’ to ya!"
  1805. >A tiny filly appears. Cadence feels drawn to her.
  1806. >"Mister Anon? Would you mind walkin' me to school today?"
  1807. >More blurs.
  1808. >A pink mare with curly hair holds up a cake to Cadence's face. Icing letters spell out, "Happy second month in Ponyville, Anon!"
  1809. >Cadence loses more of her sense of self. Anonymous is dominating her identity.
  1810. ..
  1811. >Cadence began to groan on her bed, causing Luna to feel a twinge of panic.
  1812. "Dear niece, are you alright?"
  1813. >Cadence grit her teeth and groaned in response.
  1814. ..
  1815. >Twilight gives Cadence a sad look.
  1816. >"Anonymous, I've run every test, every experiment imaginable. I've consulted exhaustively with the princesses. I even reached out to Discord, the Lord of Chaos. Nopony knows how you got here. I'm sorry Anonymous... we can't send you back to Earth."
  1817. >Cadence cries out in despair.
  1818. "What!? But what about my family, my friends? What about Nicole? She's gonna think I abandoned her! I was going to marry her! I can't lose her too!"
  1819. >PAIN. Unrelenting waves of pain crash onto the beach of Cadence’s heart.
  1820. ..
  1821. >Cadence wailed in agony, causing Luna to jump. The pink alicorn's eyes were still tightly closed, her horn blazing brighter than before.
  1822. >Luna climbed onto the bed next to Cadence and began to gently stroke her mane with a hoof. "Shh, dear one. You're doing fine. You're strong, so strong..."
  1823. >Cadence began to clutch her chest with her forehooves.
  1824. "Nicole, I'm so sorry! Ohhh, God... why!?" she cried out before weeping bitter tears.
  1825. >Luna placed her forehooves on Cadence's withers and shook her. "Cadence, can you hear me? You need to end this right now! It's not worth it!"
  1826. >Cadence roared out in an unnaturally-deep voice, her eyes still sealed shut.
  1827. "DO. NOT. INTERFERE! THIS IS MY DUTY, MY CALLING IN LIFE!"
  1828. >Luna pulled her hooves away from her niece.
  1829. "I can't go back!"
  1830. >Cadence flailed wildly on her bed.
  1831. "I'll never see her again!"
  1832. >Luna looked on in horror as Cadence began pulling at her chest with her hooves, as if to remove a spear that pierced her heart.
  1833. "IT HURTS! It hurts s-so b-b-baaaaadddd!"
  1834. ..
  1835. >Emptiness. It dominates Cadence. She's missing a part of herself.
  1836. >The Apples are the only light in her dark existence.
  1837. >Days become weeks, bleeding into months.
  1838. >"Welcome to the Apple Family Reunion, y'all! Now, some of you may be wondrin who this tall feller is. He came to Equestria one day from another world, if ya can believe that, and has bunked with us ever since. Over the months, Granny, Big Mac, Apple Bloom and I have come to see him as one of our own. Ah'm so happy to introduce the newest addition to the Apple clan, our adopted Big Brother, Anonymous!"
  1839. >It's good to have a family again, but the emptiness persists. It consumes Cadence. She needs a distraction.
  1840. >Cadence is at a bar. A maroon earth pony mare smiles at her from across the bar and make her way to Cadence. She presses a cold mug of cider into her... hand?
  1841. >"Hi, I've seen you taking Apple Bloom to school so many times, but I've never formally introduced myself. I'm Cheerilee."
  1842. >Cadence smiles at the mare. It's genuine and full of hope.
  1843. >More sunrises and sunsets. Many of them pass in the company of Cheerilee.
  1844. >Cadence is sitting on a park bench next to the school teacher, who gives her a somber look.
  1845. >"Anon... the past few weeks have been great, but... this isn't going to work out. I'm sorry, I think we should see other ponies. Let's still be friends, okay?"
  1846. >Cadence feels more alone than ever. She's desperate to rid herself of the feeling.
  1847. >Cadence sees the faces of dozens of mares flash before her eyes. A thought accompanies each new face.
  1848. ‘Please, please let this one be different.’
  1849. >She feels more empty and hopeless as more faces pass by.
  1850. >Cadence is numb. She's going through the motions with each new mare. Sex briefly provides a connection, but it’s fleeting. She doesn't know what else to do.
  1851. >Fluttershy stares into her eyes.
  1852. "I can't feel anything anymore." Cadence admits to her.
  1853. >Applejack is glaring at Cadence now. An orange hoof strikes Cadence's face.
  1854. >"This has gone far enough, Big Brother! Fluttershy is a sobbin' wreck right now! Ah can't even get her to leave her cottage! Ah know you miss yer woman, but yer only makin' things worse!"
  1855. >Cadence glares at Applejack.
  1856. >"Do you know what you're doing to yerself? What you're doing to these mares?"
  1857. >Cadence's resentful silence further angers Applejack. "You may not care what it's doin' ta you or them, but have you thought about us? Have you thought about what yer puttin’ yer family through?"
  1858. "You didn't have your life ripped away-"
  1859. >"WHAT ABOUT APPLE BLOOM, ANON? WHAT'S SHE GONNA THINK ABOUT HER BIG BROTHER WHEN SHE GETS OLD ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND WHAT YER DOING? HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THAT!?"
  1860. >Cadence's jaw drops. She never once considered the legacy she was leaving for her little sister. She starts to shake and holds her hands to her face.
  1861. >Cadence sobs uncontrollably. Applejack holds her head to her chest and rocks her back and forth.
  1862. >Cadence promises Applejack that she'll be a better man.
  1863. >Cadence is putting a cart away in the barn. Applejack walks in, accompanied by Twilight.
  1864. >"Hey, Big Brother... Twilight here would like to talk to ya about somethin'."
  1865. >There's apprehension in AJ's face. Cadence doesn't like it.
  1866. >Apple Bloom looks at Cadence with tears in her eyes. "Do ya have to go, Anon?"
  1867. >Applejack hugs the filly. "Aw, shucks, sugarcube. He's only goin' for a short while, then he'll be a comin' right back home to us!"
  1868. >Apple Bloom looks back to Cadence. "But why do ya have to go in the first place, Big Brother? Don't ya love us anymore?"
  1869. >Cadence wipes tears from her eyes and hugs the filly.
  1870. "I'm just going to get away, to clear my head for a bit. Think of it like a vacation. I'll be back before you know it!" she says reassuringly.
  1871. >Canterlot.
  1872. >Amazing views, a breathtaking castle. Unicorns eye Cadence with suspicion.
  1873. >Cadence walks on a bridge that hangs off the castle. It doesn't lead to anywhere, but holds a large tower over a terrifyingly-long fall to the base of Canterlot Peak. She's nervous. Why was she summoned here?
  1874. >Cadence takes in the high domed ceiling of the room. The crystal chandelier, the large windows, the vista before her. Celestia and Luna are there.
  1875. "What's this about, Your Majesties?"
  1876. >Celestia and Luna are talking to her.
  1877. >"-us quite impressed-"
  1878. >"-unconventional thinking, even your cynicism provides a fresh perspective-"
  1879. >Celestia looks up into Cadence's eyes.
  1880. >"-judgment unlike anypony I've met in a very long time. Over two centuries in fact."
  1881. >Luna looks at Cadence. "Well, Anonymous? Do you accept? Will you become the Lord Counselor of Equestria?"
  1882. >Landscapes pass by in a blur, as do many sunsets.
  1883. >Cadence feels a new sense of purpose. She has her job, her family, and new friends.
  1884. >She sees Nebula, who makes her feel comforted.
  1885. >Celestia is warm and playful with her.
  1886. >But the loneliness never leaves her heart.
  1887. >Luna. She keeps herself at an emotional arm's length. Cadence is intrigued by her.
  1888. >Months pass in a heartbeat. Cadence sees Luna's face and now feels strong philia. She's becoming attracted to Luna, but feels unworthy of her.
  1889. >Luna's a princess. She deserves better than a manwhore like Cadence.
  1890. >Spitfire appears.
  1891. >Cadence is drawn to her. She's so bold, so new and exciting. She makes Cadence feel things she hasn't felt in so long, but she doesn't know what those feelings are.
  1892. >She's attracted to both Luna and Spitfire, unable to choose between the two.
  1893. >Something's different. New. Cadence feels guilty about something that happened this morning. Another face comes into view, but never into focus.
  1894. >Cadence is being pulled away. She's no longer Anon, and becoming aware of her own identity again. She flies backwards, out of the blue-white cloud that is Anon's soul, past the cords of love that bind his heart to others
  1895. >The distance between Canterlot and the Empire is crossed in an instant.
  1896. >She's so tired...
  1897. ..
  1898. >Luna sat on the bed with Cadence, holding the young alicorn in her strong forelegs.
  1899. >Cadence had stopped screaming in agony some time ago, but had cut herself in several places with her hooves while she thrashed around.
  1900. >Thankfully Luna had the presence of mind to magically restrain Cadence's body, then made quick work of the wounds with healing spells.
  1901. >The moon princess had held Cadence for an hour, rocking her back and forth gently as if trying to soothe a newborn foal to sleep.
  1902. >She almost panicked when Cadence's horn ceased its glow and her body went limp. Fortunately, Cadence was still breathing.
  1903. >'Exhaustion from magical overexertion.' Luna thought.
  1904. >Luna touched her horn to Cadence's, then began to channel raw magical energy into her. Being a young Alicorn, Cadence had not built up the mana reserves that Luna and Celestia had developed over the millennia.
  1905. >The transfer had an immediate effect. Cadence began to stir.
  1906. >Cadence opened her eyes and the world slowly came into focus. Luna was holding her close, rocking her back and forth while softly humming a tune she didn't recognize.
  1907. "Auntie Luna?" Cadence whispered, exhaustion still present in her voice.
  1908. >"Cadence! My dear, sweet, devoted niece, thank the stars! What happened?"
  1909. >Cadence looked up at Luna with a thousand-yard stare that shook Luna to her core.
  1910. "I did it. I saw into the depths of Anon's soul, Auntie. I saw it all. I FELT it. I experienced every major event in Anon's life since he arrived in Equestria. I understand his heart now."
  1911.  
  1912. ...
  1913.  
  1914. >Nebula glanced at the grandfather clock.
  1915. >Its brass pendulum oscillated silently, diligently sweeping the seconds away.
  1916. >Partially-obscured gears moved hidden ratchets over pawls, each click sounding off as part of a mechanical cadence; consistent, unyielding, marching towards the inevitable.
  1917. /.../
  1918. >It was the finest timepiece money could buy. When he learned of Nebula's upcoming promotion to Colonel, Anonymous wanted to give her something to commemorate the occasion. Thirty-thousand bits and a promotion ceremony later, he surprised Nebula with the two meter tall masterpiece.
  1919. >Inlaid in the wood beneath the clock's face was a golden plaque engraved with a message that had caused her composed exterior to shatter, if only for a few moments.
  1920.  
  1921. >To my Nebula
  1922. >The finest soldier Equestria has ever known
  1923. >Whenever you look at this clock, remember that I'll always have time for you
  1924. >In my world of uncertainty and doubt, you've been my constant, my touchstone, my compass
  1925. >I'd be lost without you
  1926. >Anonymous
  1927.  
  1928. >Nebula was moved to tears by the inscription. Nopony had ever seen her sob like that before, or since.
  1929. /.../
  1930. >The thestral mare raised her head from Anon's shoulder and turned to him.
  1931. "Sun Court started thirty minutes ago."
  1932. >Anon didn't bother to look at the clock. He was fixated on a hairline crack in a floor tile between his feet. "I know."
  1933. "You can't avoid Celestia forever."
  1934. >"I wasn't planning on it. Unfortunately, now that I'm thinking with my brain and not my balls, my sense of shame has returned."
  1935. "I can tell. It's made you uncharacteristically hesitant. But you know what?"
  1936. >"What?"
  1937. "I can assure you that Celestia is every bit as ashamed as you."
  1938. >"Heh, yeah. Knowing Tia, she probably tried to apologize to Luna, who most likely chewed her out. It'll be Luna that cuts straight through Celestia's emotional walls and brings out her shame."
  1939. "Of that I have do doubt. An angry Mother is not somepony I'd want to face." Nebula replied, shooting Anon a sympathetic look.
  1940. >"Ugh, don't remind me."
  1941. "I wouldn't be looking out for you if I didn't. You will make up with Celestia just fine, but you must steel yourself for the inevitable reckoning with Luna."
  1942. >"Don't I know it. Just thinking about that makes me nervous for even simple things like going to court."
  1943. "Fear not. I will stay by your side until you've regained your confidence."
  1944. >"Neb, no. I know you've got so much on your plate, with the-"
  1945. >Nebula gently pressed a hoof to Anon's lips.
  1946. "Anonymous. Remember what that clock is supposed to remind me of? It works both ways. I'll ALWAYS have time for you, too."
  1947. >The mare removed her hoof from Anon's face, revealing a rapidly-growing smile.
  1948. >"You're the best, Neb."
  1949. "I know, but don't you ever stop saying it."
  1950. >"You're always so good to me, I don't deserve you."
  1951. >Nebula turned her face away before a blush could betray her poised expression.
  1952. "The feeling is mutual."
  1953. >Nebula rose from her couch and slowly walked to the door.
  1954. >Anon likewise rose from the couch. His wreath fell from his head and landed softly on the floor. "Why haven't I asked you to marry me a hundred times already?" he asked with a chuckle while reaching to the ground.
  1955. >The normally-graceful mare tripped over nothing but quickly recovered her posture and gait before Anon could look up.
  1956. "Come, Anonymous. We should hurry to the throne room."
  1957. >"Right, but I just had an idea. There's somepony I want to visit on the way to court."
  1958. "Who?"
  1959. >"Sparks. I'll explain on the way."
  1960.  
  1961. ...
  1962.  
  1963. >Over the course of one-thousand years of ruling Equestria alone, Celestia had cultivated an unparalleled ability to keep her emotions hidden, her expression serene.
  1964. >She had "a bitchin' poker face", as Anon would say.
  1965. >Nevertheless, Celestia had grown accustomed over the past three years to conducting most of her royal business with her human advisor by her side.
  1966. >A human that had yet to show his face in court, despite it starting forty-five minutes ago.
  1967. >She suppressed an urge to sigh. She couldn't be mad at Anonymous, or even disappointed in him if he neglected to attend Sun Court today.
  1968. 'I've done this to myself.' She thought as she appeared to be listening intently to a unicorn drone on about Elysium-knows-what.
  1969. >Claiming responsibility for the morning's fiasco didn't ease the emotional kick-in-the-gut that the sight of Anon's empty chair brought her.
  1970. >She would make things right, starting with apologizing to Anonymous.
  1971. >As soon as court had adjourned.
  1972. >Only two hours and fifteen minutes to go.
  1973.  
  1974. ...
  1975.  
  1976. Recommended viewing: Spanish trot (AKA "Maretonian trot" in this story) (start at 1:29): www.youtube.com/watch?v=srFv-8MAW2A
  1977.  
  1978. >Nebula and Anonymous walked up to the throne room doors, flanked on both sides by two of Anon's bodyguards.
  1979. >Anonymous stopped several paces away from the sealed entrance and adjusted his wreath.
  1980. >"Let's get this over with," he said with a sigh.
  1981. >His guards tightened their box formation around the Counselor and Colonel. The four mares simultaneously adopted intimidating glares and a more rigid posture.
  1982. >Nebula looked around, surveying the new demeanor her young soldiers had taken. She was not pleased with what she saw.
  1983. "No. No, no, no. We're not going anywhere until I fix you four." Nebula said with a scowl.
  1984. >The Colonel covered the distance between her group and the unicorn guards posted at the throne room doors with a single leap and silent glide. The unicorns snapped to attention. Nebula folded her wings and looked at the guards to identify the ranking soldier.
  1985. "Corporal, you will wait for my command to open the doors for the Lord Counselor and his entourage."
  1986. >"Yes ma'am."
  1987. >Nebula performed an about-face and gracefully trotted to Anon.
  1988. "Forgive me, Anon, but I've identified an issue among these young soldiers that I must correct."
  1989. >Anonymous stepped out from the center of the protective box formation. "By all means, go right ahead."
  1990. >Nebula turned to address the senior member of the quaternion.
  1991. "Staff Sergeant Blaze. This rigid posture you and your comrades have adopted... the glares, by the Moon, partially-bared fangs! THIS is how you carry yourselves before the courts and nobility?"
  1992. >The non-commissioned officer stood at attention. "Yes, Colonel."
  1993. >"Is there a problem with that?" Anon interjected. "I don't have any issues with the intimidating demeanor."
  1994. >Nebula sighed while rolling her eyes at the human. She began to slowly pace before the mares.
  1995. "Girls, there are contexts in which you should escort the Lord Counselor with an intimidating posture. Navigating through an agitated crowd would be an appropriate scenario for this demeanor."
  1996. >Reaching the end of the box formation, she performed a pirouette on her left rear hoof and continued.
  1997. "Likewise, there are events that require you to carry yourselves with poise and dignity, such as the Sun and Moon Courts. You're not only escorting the most powerful thestral stallion in Equestria, you're representing our tribe before the Canterlot nobles."
  1998. >Stopping front and center of the formation, Nebula turned to face the mares directly.
  1999. "Do any of you know how to do the Maretonian Trot?"
  2000. >The enlisted guards looked at each other with puzzled expressions.
  2001. >One of them raised a hoof.
  2002. >"Ma'am, I think I've seen it done before. Isn't it like a prance?" Specialist Wind asked hesitantly.
  2003. "Somewhat, in that both gaits utilize short, quick steps," Nebula answered. "However, the Maretonian Trot is more refined, more dignified than a joy-fueled prance. Show me how you think it's performed."
  2004. >Wind fell out of the formation to comply with Nebula's command. She trotted forward with a two-beat cadence, her front and rear opposite legs moving in asynchronous, exaggerated steps. The display caused Nebula to cringe, which made Anon grin.
  2005. "That's quite enough, Specialist."
  2006. >"Did I do it alright, ma'am?"
  2007. "Specialist, I think Big Macintosh could be more graceful than that."
  2008. >Stellar Wind scrunched up her muzzle and tilted her head. "Umm, who, Colonel?"
  2009. >"My brother," Anon said with a laugh. "Big red earth pony stallion, orange mane, green eyes? Surely you've been on duty when he's visited me before?"
  2010. >"Ooh!" Corporal Chance exclaimed. "You HAVE seen him before, Wind! He's the one that always wears the work collar... you called him, and I quote, 'that massive, gorgeous hunk of a stallion'."
  2011. >"Oh, reeeeaaaaly?" Anon replied with a smirk. "You know, Wind, he IS single. Perhaps I could introduce you to him... provided the Colonel doesn't kill me for continuing to interrupt her lesson."
  2012. >Wind covered her face with her wings. Anon winked at Nebula, who allowed herself a coy smile in response.
  2013. >The Colonel tapped a hoof on the ground twice to regain the mares' attention.
  2014. "The Maretonian Trot should be graceful, not jerky. Your left foreleg will be synchronized with your right rear leg, and your right foreleg with the left rear. Your forelegs will reach out smoothly and extend until parallel with the stage, but it shouldn't look exaggerated. Your steps must be light, as quiet as possible, and synchronized in a two-beat cadence. Observe."
  2015. >Nebula performed with movement with flawless precision. Her steps were light, her forelegs reached out effortlessly and in time with their rear counterparts. She almost seemed to float as she went; the tips of her hooves ever-so-gently touching the floor between quick steps.
  2016. >She couldn't help but flash a satisfied grin as she surveyed the flabbergasted, wide-eyed looks of the guards. Anon's jaw hung open.
  2017. "THAT is how it should look and sound. Your pace should match the Counselor's, but your cadence should be double of his. Keep your steps short so you don't overtake him."
  2018. >"Ma'am," Wind replied, "I'm not trying to kiss your flank or anything, but I've only ever seen this trot done by the ballerinas of the Canterlot Grand Ballet, and even they didn't move like you just did, wearing armor, no less! Respectfully, Colonel, I doubt us soldiers could do this trot justice."
  2019. >Nebula scoffed and waved a hoof at the young soldier.
  2020. "Nonsense! All it takes is practice and the right mindset. Now, Specialist, I want you to try again. Keep your head proud. Not high! You need to see everything around you. PROUD. Stay on the tips of your hooves! You are fluid like water, light as a feather caught on a gentle breeze."
  2021. >Stellar Wind attempted the trot again, traveling around the group with noticeably improved technique.
  2022. "Better," Nebula commented. "Remember, your pride is conveyed in how you hold your head. Confidence is reflected in your gaze. Grace is displayed in your steps."
  2023. >Following ten minutes of coaching, Nebula was satisfied with the group's progress. She had the guards resume their protective box formation around Anonymous.
  2024. "You're ready." Nebula remarked. "Not Grand Ballet-ready, but acceptable for escorting your VIP to court."
  2025. >She walked in a clockwise path around the group.
  2026. "You will stay in this formation around the Counselor. I will be the lead mare, and keep the cadence with a sonar chirp so only us Children will hear."
  2027. >"Ready, Neb?" Anon asked over his shoulder.
  2028. "Almost." she replied.
  2029. >As Nebula moved past her, Blaze noticed that the Colonel was talking solely on her hoof tips, her pasterns aligned with her cannons. How was she walking like that? Didn't it hurt?
  2030. >The lead mare took another slow tippy-hoof lap around the group and addressed the guards a final time.
  2031. "Mindset, girls. You are proud, yet alert. You represent the Mother of Stars. Let her beauty and grace shine through you. You are the cream of our tribe's crop, which is why you escort and guard our beloved Advocate. Ensure everypony in there sees exactly that."
  2032. >Her final remarks complete, Nebula took her position at the head of the formation. She began to count off a cadence internally.
  2033. 'One-two, one-two, one-two, one-two...'
  2034. >Having settled into her cadence, Nebula began to chirp her sonar in time, causing the other thestrals' ears to perk up. Nebula set off towards the throne room doors and gave the unicorn guards a nod.
  2035. >A few steps from the opening doors, Nebula's vision momentarily faded.
  2036. >She saw a spotlight illuminating a curtain before her. She heard music building up in a crescendo. Her entrance was a few short measures away...
  2037. >The flashback left Nebula as quickly as it arrived. She couldn't help but grin.
  2038. "Showtime."
  2039.  
  2040. ...
  2041.  
  2042. >Being a mother, Cadence was used to holding her daughter close to her chest when the little foal was upset. However, being held like a foal despite being an adult mare was a new experience.
  2043. >Despite the unconventional position she found herself in, Cadence couldn't deny how comforting it was to be held in such a manner by Luna.
  2044. >Her aunt had been holding her this way for at least half an hour after Cadence had regained consciousness, humming long-forgotten pre-unification lullabies all the while. Every few minutes, Luna would touch her horn to Cadence's and transfer raw magic to the young alicorn.
  2045. "Auntie? I'm feeling much better now."
  2046. >Cadence attempted to roll out of her aunt's grasp but was pulled back to Luna's chest with considerable force.
  2047. >The younger princess attempted to deliver a strategic pout to Luna, but the attempt was aborted when she realized that Luna's eyes were closed.
  2048. >Luna hummed louder and touched her horn to Cadence's again. Cadence tried to speak, but her world faded to black as she opened her mouth.
  2049. >When she awoke, Cadence was laying on her bed, legs tucked neatly under her barrel. Luna laid next to her in a similar pose, save for a large dark blue wing she had wrapped tightly over her niece.
  2050. >They laid in silence, their eyes open, for several minutes. At last Cadence broke the silence.
  2051. "How long was I out? The second time, I mean."
  2052. >"Five minutes."
  2053. "Five minutes!?" Cadence asked, clearly astounded. "I feel like I've slept for hours! I haven't felt this refreshed and energized since... since... well, I can't remember!"
  2054. >Luna allowed a slight smirk to flash across her muzzle. "Your aunt has a 'slight' interest in sleep-related magic," she replied with a soft chuckle, "but I've done more than apply that to you."
  2055. "Thank you for taking care of me." Cadence said as she nuzzled Luna's neck.
  2056. >"It was the least I could do, my dear. I had no idea that this 'soul dive' would be so physically violent or magically draining on you. Had I fully understood the ramifications of the spell, I would have objected more strongly to you performing it."
  2057. >Cadence pulled away, her expression growing more serious.
  2058. "To be fair, Anon's soul was much more... volatile... than the pony souls I've dived into. The negative emotions were more extreme than anything I've experienced to date. I'm not sure if it's an intrinsic human quality, or a product of his past. Regardless, I told you I could handle it, and I did."
  2059. >Luna retracted her wing. "Indeed. If what I observed from my perspective was any clue, it seems my beloved human is more troubled than I realized. To explore a subconscious via the dream realm, as I explored Anon's, is a precarious endeavor. I must tread carefully, never allowing my presence to be known, lest I influence the dreamer's mind. Even performed with the utmost caution, such explorations rarely yield reproducible results. That is, I could explore Anon's subconscious via the dream realm one-hundred times, and be shown the same sequence of events each iteration, yet his mind would present those events in a different way each time, leaving much to interpretation."
  2060. >'My beloved human is more troubled than I realized.' Those words stood out in Cadence's mind. She knew what she had to say. The young alicorn opened her mouth to reply, but quickly shut it, deciding to present her findings with the utmost care.
  2061. >Cadence's hesitation was obvious to Luna, who silently studied her niece's pensive face.
  2062. "I won't tell you the exact things that I saw." Cadence said with a sigh. "Though I did this for you, I still feel guilty about reading Anon's heart and diving into his soul without his knowledge or consent. However, with my newly-acquired knowledge on Anon, I will speak to how he feels about you, and give you the best advice you can hope to get on this topic."
  2063. >Cadence inhaled deeply and exhaled forcefully before meeting Luna's gaze. Her aunt looked at her with excitement, yet her expression was tempered with apprehension.
  2064. "Anonymous does love you, Auntie Luna. He would make a wonderful match for you... someday. That much is clear to me."
  2065. >A soft gasp escaped Luna. A small smile began to form on her face, but she froze when Cadence held up a hoof and closed her eyes.
  2066. >The pink alicorn grasped Luna's forehooves with her own.
  2067. >Cadence vanquished the anxiety that had begun to fester in her mind. She silently reminded herself who she was and knew to trust in her abilities.
  2068. "Auntie Luna, this won't be easy for you to hear, but it's my duty as the Princess of Love to give you my honest advice..."
  2069.  
  2070. ...
  2071.  
  2072. "Of course, my little pony. Have a wonderful day."
  2073. >Celestia dismissed the bowing unicorn with a nod and a warm smile.
  2074. >Only two hours to go.
  2075. >The princess looked down from her perch atop the dais and surveyed the line of remaining petitioners. There were only fifteen ponies left, to her delight. Well, fifteen ponies and a large blue minotaur who had four goats in tow.
  2076. >Said minotaur carried something against his back that was hidden from Celestia's vantage point due to the creature's massive torso. A canvas strap ran diagonally across his muscular frame, securing whatever it was in place.
  2077. >The bull was apparently oblivious that it was his turn, evidenced by the fact that he was flexing and kissing his massive biceps instead of paying attention to the princess.
  2078. >Celestia turned to her left, shooting her assistant Raven a look that said, 'Are you seeing this as well?'
  2079. >The white unicorn, fluent in all of Celestia's nonverbal cues, simply closed her eyes and nodded.
  2080. 'This ought to be interesting.' Celestia thought.
  2081. >Raven cleared her throat in preparation to call the minotaur forward, but the court herald's voice suddenly rang out, gaining the attention of everyone present.
  2082. >"ANNOUNCING HIS EXCELLENCY, ANONYMOUS, LORD COUNSELOR OF EQUESTRIA, AND COLONEL NEBULA, COMMANDER OF THE EQUESTRIAN NIGHT GUARD!"
  2083. >Celestia's cool facade faltered momentarily. Thankfully, everypony was too focused on Anonymous and his entourage to notice her relieved smile or the tears that momentarily welled up in her eyes.
  2084. >He came after all.
  2085. >The princess could care less that he arrived an hour late.  
  2086. >Despite what she'd put him through earlier, the trouble she had caused him, her friend was striding towards her with no anger in his eyes.
  2087. >Celestia surveyed Anon's entourage and noticed that his guards were... performing the Maretonian Trot? They advanced quietly with quick synchronized steps, their pretty faces all sporting demure smiles. In the lead position was Nebula.
  2088. >Nebula sported a lovely smile that oozed confidence. She was the epitome of finesse and beauty, proudly leading her best friend to the throne.
  2089. >As Celestia focused on the Colonel's face, memories began to rise to the surface of her mind.
  2090. /.../
  2091. >She had been sitting in this room when a pegasus soldier rushed to her throne. Sweat foam was dripping from his exposed fur.
  2092. >"Your Highness! Something terrible has happened...”
  2093. >He had been unable to finish his sentence or look her in the eyes.
  2094. "What is it?" she responded as the rose to her hooves.
  2095. >The pegasus stared off into the distance with a hollow expression that disturbed the princess.
  2096. >"My squad was flying a patrol northwest of Rainbow Falls... there was smoke rising from a small village in the lower Yaket Range..."
  2097. >The stallion began to shake, prompting Celestia to descend from her throne so she could place a comforting hoof on his withers.
  2098. "Take your time, my little pony."
  2099. >After a few moments, the pegasus stallion looked up at Celestia with a thousand-yard stare.
  2100. >"There was only one survivor. Very aggressive. Refuses to leave. When reinforcements arrived, the Captain sent me to inform you personally."
  2101. >He began to shake again and closed his eyes, fruitlessly trying to block out the flashbacks.
  2102. >"There was so much blood... so much death... the smell! I can't get the smell out of my nose. Princess... you're going to need to see this for yourself to believe it."
  2103. /.../
  2104. >Celestia forced the memory out of her mind. She continued to watch Nebula lead Anonymous and his guards down the long path to the throne.
  2105. >The thestral mare's movements seemed to defy gravity. That she was able to move so lightly despite wearing armor, four bladed hoof guards, and two long daggers on her back was a testament to her athleticism.
  2106. 'I haven't seen you perform the Maretonian Trot in well over fifteen years, Nebula" Celestia thought to herself. 'Last time, you wore that lovely sky-blue outfit...'
  2107. >Remembering who Nebula used to be brought on a strong pang of remorse in Celestia's heart.
  2108. 'Last time, you didn't hide who you were from everypony, including Anonymous.'
  2109. >Shifting her gaze to Anonymous, Celestia was concerned to see that the man's movements seemed stiff, almost uncertain. He didn't radiate his normal confidence, as Nebula did, nor was he maintaining eye contact with the princess as he advanced to the throne.
  2110. >Nebula halted the entourage four meters short of the dais steps, brought herself and Anon's guards to attention, and rendered a salute. Celestia responded with a nod, allowing Nebula to drop her salute.
  2111. >Anonymous strode out from the cover of his guards and advanced one pace past Nebula before dropping to a knee and bowing his head. "Princess, by your burning sun, I offer my counsel and will execute your will for the benefit of Equestria."
  2112. >Celestia wanted nothing more than to rush up to the man and grip him in a crushing hug. Unfortunately, she had to maintain her formal court decorum, as Anonymous had done.
  2113. "Rise Counselor. Walk by my side and help me guide our ponies on the path to prosperity."
  2114. >The ritualistic greeting was rarely used as the princess and advisor typically arrived at court together, but it was appropriate in this context.
  2115. >Anonymous stood and made his way to the steps with Nebula accompanying him on his left flank. His guards took their positions around the dais. Before Nebula could ascend the stairs with Anonymous, a Royal Guard stallion posted at the steps moved to stop her.
  2116. >"Uh, ma'am? What are you doing? I can't allow you to accompany the Lord Counselor onto the throne." the stallion whispered.
  2117. >The exceptionally-tall mare looked down at the unicorn stallion and gave him her trademark smile. THE smile; the one associated with her nickname.
  2118. >"You will not take him from me. Not you, nor anypony here." Nebula hissed in response, her slit-pupils narrowing.
  2119. >Anonymous placed a hand on the mare's withers. "It's okay, Sergeant. I need her by my side today."
  2120. >Nebula extended her right wing, wrapped it around Anon's waist, and pulled him close to her as they climbed the steps together. Celestia watched them approach with a bemused look.
  2121. >After Anon took his seat by Celestia's right side, the princess's bemused expression gave way to a slight frown. Nebula had moved to place herself directly between the alicorn and human. The thestral painlessly nipped Anon's left ear with her fangs before sitting on her haunches.
  2122. >Anonymous leaned forward in his seat, turning to face Celestia. He gave her an honest smile, which was returned immediately. The man shifted his gaze to Celestia's left side and gave Raven a wink and a smirk, earning him a blush and stifled giggle in response. Celestia rolled her eyes.
  2123. >"So, where were we, princess?" Anonymous asked Celestia.
  2124. >The princess nodded to Raven, who called out, "Next petitioner, step forward!"
  2125. >The blue minotaur who had been next in line adjusted a headset he wore, placing its microphone in front of his mouth. He walked forward and unslung a guitar from his back. Four tie-wearing goats followed him, two of which carried speakers on their backs.
  2126. >The bull's amplified voice echoed throughout the throne room. "Ladies and Gentlestallions... ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?"
  2127. >An energetic and well-rehearsed metal guitar solo blasted through the goats' speakers. The minotaur strutted up and down the line of remaining petitioners as he played, getting more lost in his solo with every passing second.
  2128. >Raven looked over at her princess. Celestia met the unicorn's wide-eyed look with her own expression of incredulity. Turning to her right, Celestia gave Anonymous the same expression. The man replied with a shrug and apologetic smile, earning him another royal roll of the eyes. The princess looked down to gauge Nebula's reaction and was slightly disturbed to find the thestral mare staring intently at the minotaur's goats, her tongue flicking across her fangs.
  2129. >The minotaur had made his way back to the throne, stopping short of Anon's guards. He let out a bull roar and dropped to a knee, ending the solo.
  2130. >Celestia and Raven applauded politely.
  2131. >Nebula continued to stare hungrily at the goats, nearly on the verge of drooling. Anon's guards were acting similar to their colonel, causing the goats to slowly back away.
  2132. >Anonymous stuck his index finger and thumb in his mouth and whistled loudly before clapping enthusiastically. "Play 'Hot for Teacher' next!" he yelled.
  2133. >After giving Anonymous his third eye roll in as many minutes, Celestia spoke.
  2134. "My, my, that was... exciting! What is this all about, Mister...?"
  2135. >The minotaur stood to address the princess. "Iron Will's my name, rocking out is my game!"
  2136. >"I heard that 'training ponies' was your game." Anonymous said dryly.
  2137. >"Iron Will is a bull of many talents," the minotaur replied while re-slinging his guitar, "and he is here to ask YOU to consider letting Iron Will perform at this year's Grand Galloping Gala! CAN YOU DIG IT, Your Highness!?"
  2138. >Celestia was tactful as ever in letting the bull down gently.
  2139. "That was quite the performance Mister Will. I'm sorry to say that the Gala planning committee has already finalized the entertainment arrangements for this year. I commend you on your musical ability, and encourage you to petition again next year, before April ends. Preferably to the Gala planning committee, next time?"
  2140. >Iron Will scratched his head. "Are you sure Iron Will can't convince you to make an exception? Perhaps another sample of Iron Will might change your mind?"
  2141. >Anonymous turned and whispered to the mares at his left. "As long as that 'sample' comes seared, seasoned with rosemary and thyme, served medium rare..."
  2142. >The man was on course to set a new record for faux-exasperated looks he could earn from Celestia. Raven gasped. Nebula on the other hand, covered her face and giggled softly.
  2143. "Anonymous, really!"
  2144. >"What? I know I wasn't the only one thinking it... right, Neb?"               
  2145. >Nebula nipped Anon's ear again. "You're a stallion after my own heart, Anon, though I think his pets look much more appetizing..."
  2146. "Omnivores!" Celestia huffed quietly.
  2147. >Iron Will had watched the exchange that occurred on the throne, but was oblivious to the conversation's topic. "So... what do you say, Your Highness? Lord Counselor?"
  2148. >Celestia cleared her throat and reestablished her regal posture.
  2149. "I'm afraid I can't make any exceptions, Iron Will. If I make an exception for one pony, or minotaur, I'd have to make them for everypony."
  2150. >The stubborn bull wouldn't drop the issue. He continued to plead his case to the princess, who admirably remained remarkably patient. Finally, Anonymous decided to intervene.
  2151. >"Hey Iron Will," the man said, standing up, "how much for one of your pet goats?"
  2152. >The question had the desired effect, getting the minotaur to cease his argument.
  2153. >"Huh? What would you want them for?" the bull asked, scratching his head in confusion.
  2154. >Anonymous reached down to scratch Nebula behind her ears. The mare closed her eyes in satisfaction and leaned into Anon's touch.
  2155. >"My friend, the Colonel, is hungry. I'd be willing to bet my girls are too," Anon stated coyly, gesturing towards his guards. A mischievous grin crept across his face. "Come to think of it, I'm feeling rather peckish, though I'm in the mood for something..."
  2156. >Anon dropped his voice down an octave.
  2157. >"...beefier."
  2158. >Anonymous watched Iron Will and studied his expression. The minotaur's confused look slowly gave way to one of concern. It seemed he finally caught the hint.
  2159. >"Iron Will sees now that Iron Will shouldn't question the decisions of the Princess. Iron Will will quit while he's still ahead and will be going now!"
  2160. >Acknowledging his defeat, the minotaur snapped his clawed fingers, causing his goats to assemble in a row facing the door. The goats unburdened by the speakers stood in the center of the row, allowing the minotaur to jump up and stand on their backs.
  2161. >With a hoof on each goat's back and facing the throne, Iron Will snapped his fingers and unslung his guitar. The goats took off at a frantic pace.
  2162. >Iron will pointed at his eyes with two fingers, then pointed at Anonymous. The human returned the gesture and chuckled. The minotaur began to shred on his guitar again whilst being frantically carried away by his pets.
  2163. >Still laughing in amusement, Anon returned to his seat and wrapped an arm around Nebula, who wrapped a leathery wing around his back. The pair turned to face a frowning princess.
  2164. >"What? He was going to become belligerent. I could've sicked my girls on him and those tasty morsels instead..." Anon said with a smirk.
  2165. >Celestia's irritated facade cracked. Only Luna and Anonymous could make her smile in spite of herself.
  2166. >You're doing Harmony's work, Anon.
  2167. >Raven called the next petitioner forward. Celestia extended an enormous white wing and knocked the wreath off Anon's head, maintaining an innocent look on her face all the while.
  2168. 'I trust this means everything is going to be alright between us?' Celestia though to herself.
  2169. >Perhaps this day could be salvaged after all.
  2170.  
  2171. ...
  2172.  
  2173. >Luna and Cadence stood on the spire balcony that overlooked the center of the Crystal Empire. Crystal ponies milled about below, going through the motions of their lives.
  2174. >[spoiler]How many of us simply go through the motions day after day? How many of us truly live?[/spoiler]
  2175. "You're awfully quiet."
  2176. >"My apologies, sweet Cadence. You've given me much to consider."
  2177. >Cadence looked at Luna with concern in her eyes.
  2178. "What will you do?"
  2179. >Luna sighed. "I will heed your advice, as much as I don't want to."
  2180. "I'm glad to hear it. You're playing the long game, even if it's not what you had hoped I would-"
  2181. >Cadence's horn started to crackle with arcs of raw magical energy. Her eyes glowed with various hues of blue light. Her mane flickered and floated in the air as if it was flame.
  2182. "Auntie! W-what's happening to me?" Cadence asked in a panicked voice.
  2183. >Luna wrapped a wing around her niece. "Do not worry, I was expecting this. Control your breathing. Clear your mind of any anxiety. You will be fine."
  2184. >Cadence complied with Luna's suggestions and her physical changes ceased, leaving her body looking as it normally did. She looked at the older alicorn for additional guidance.
  2185. >"Upon completing your soul dive spell, you were unconscious and displayed all the classic symptoms of magical overexertion." Luna explained. "I revived you by channeling some of my own raw magic from my horn into yours. After you came to, I continued to give you more."
  2186. "I think you gave me too much!" Cadence exclaimed. "I feel like I could do a hundred more soul dives and not even be phased by the effort!"
  2187. >The Princess of the Night chuckled to herself. "Yes, I did overcharge you with magic. Had I done that to a normal unicorn, she would have to immediately discharge that energy or suffer irreparable damage to her horn. However, since you are an alicorn, overcharging your current reserves serves as a catalyst to shorten your mana replenishing times, as well as increase your capacity."
  2188. "But won't that affect you?"
  2189. >"Twas a drop in the bucket of my own reserves, and I have already recovered it. Normally, you would have to wait another hundred years to grow into the levels I have elevated you to. Consider this a long-overdue ascension gift from your aunt. Be careful when using telekinesis, however. You will find that to gain the desired effect, you must use a drastically-reduced amount of magic than what you're accustomed to. The same applies for offensive and defensive spells, should the need arise. I cannot speak for your love magic, but at the very least, your work capacity will be greatly increased."
  2190. >Cadence threw her forelegs around Luna and squeezed her in a tight embrace.
  2191. "Thank you so much, Auntie Luna." she whispered. "I'll be able to do so much more for my subjects."
  2192. >"That was the intent, dear one." Luna whispered back as she hugged Cadence just as tightly.
  2193. >After a few moments, Luna pulled away.
  2194. >"I must be off. There is more I wish to do and see before I face Anonymous tonight. Give my regards to Shining Armor, and give your adorable little foal a kiss for me, will you?"
  2195. "Of course."
  2196. >"I can't express how grateful I am for what you did for me today. What you suffered through for my own benefit. Furthermore, I am so deeply impressed with your unique abilities. I am so proud of you, Cadence, both for your mastery of your talents, and for being the mare you are. The Empire could not be in better hooves. I love you."
  2197. >Cadence beamed at her aunt with fresh tears forming in her eyes.
  2198. "I love you too!"
  2199. >Luna leapt from the balcony and took flight to the east. Cadence watched her fly away until she was a faint dark speck in the sky.
  2200. >With her aunt out of sight, Cadence returned indoors and made her way to her throne room. Her steps were slow and methodical; heavy with contemplation.
  2201. >Despite performing a soul dive on Anonymous, there were questions raised by Cadence’s initial reading of his heart that remained unanswered.
  2202. >As she reflected on what she had seen, her horn crackled again with magical energy.
  2203. >Cadence decided to put some of her excess magic to use and teleported back to her room.
  2204. >Climbing back onto her bed, Cadence briefly questioned herself. Why was she doing this again? She had already broken her own rules twice today for Luna.
  2205. >Yet, her own curiosity ate at her.
  2206. "Might as well break my own rules once more and sate my curiosity." Cadence said to an empty room.
  2207. >Luna and Spitfire were not the only mares that had feelings for Anonymous.
  2208. "Time to find out who those two other strands came from."
  2209.  
  2210. ...
  2211.  
  2212. >Sun court had concluded, leaving Anonymous, Celestia, Nebula, Raven, Anon's quaternion, and Celestia's two unicorn guards remaining in the throne room.
  2213. >The castle bells rang out eleven times. Celestia's sun was nearing its zenith, it's ever-changing position constantly altering the light the stained glass windows let in.
  2214. >Celestia dismissed Raven for an extended lunch. The grateful unicorn mare bowed to Celestia and waved goodbye to Anonymous and Nebula before trotting happily away.
  2215. >Anonymous and Celestia left the room at a slower pace. Nebula and Anon's guards fell in behind the pair at a distance to respect their privacy. Celestia's guards brought up the rear.
  2216. >They all walked in silence for a while. Celestia stole several glances at her Counselor as they walked, trying to surreptitiously study his expression.
  2217. "Anonymous?"
  2218. >"Yes, Princess?"
  2219. >Celestia closed her eyes and sighed.
  2220. "I want you to know how truly and deeply sorry I am for my actions this morning. Despite how... well-intentioned my plan seemed when I conceived it, I clearly acted on impulse and didn't stop to consider the possible consequences. That was very out of character for me and you deserve better, my dearest friend."
  2221. >Anon's continued silence prompted the princess to turn and look up at him. The man continued to gaze straight ahead, but conflicting emotions were now clearly visible on his face.
  2222. "Anon? Please... don't hold anything in for my sake. I can take it. I'm a big girl."
  2223. >"For me..." Anonymous murmured, his words loud enough to only be intelligible to him.
  2224. "What was that, dear?"
  2225. >"Nothing, nothing." Anon replied with a loud sigh. "I'm not mad at you, Tia. I'm disappointed in myself. Today has highlighted just how much I am a slave to my lust. If it wasn't for you 'interfering', my budding relationship with Spitfire would've absolutely been doomed to be based on sex. At least I still have a chance to slow things down and try to get to know the mare. As for Luna..."
  2226. "How bad was it?"
  2227. >"Bad. I'm genuinely ashamed. She deserves so much better than how I was this morning. I can't express how awful I feel. Luna's friendship means so much to me, and I was willing to jeopardize everything we've built over the past three years because I was thinking with the wrong head. There's... a lot I need to get out of my system, to say the least."
  2228. >Celestia wrapped an ivory wing around the man and nuzzled him.
  2229. "Anon, dear, it's not the end of the world. You two will reconcile, I'm sure of it! Things may be awkward for a short time, but it won't harm the beautiful friendship you two have built, as long as you don't let it."
  2230. >Anonymous ran his fingers through his beard and pulled gently at the hair on his chin.
  2231. >"You're right, I'm just not looking forward to our next conversation. It's going to be rough."
  2232. >Celestia stopped, causing Anonymous to halt as well.
  2233. "Again, I'm so, so sorry for the trouble I caused you."
  2234. >"It's okay. Besides, it wasn't ALL bad..." Anon replied with a devilish smirk.
  2235. "What do you mean?"
  2236. >Anonymous leaned down, cupped his hands over Celestia's right ear and whispered, "Your sister has the best teats I've ever seen in my fucking life. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought she was pregnant, as big as they are."
  2237. >This revelation made Celestia gasp.
  2238. "Anonymous!"
  2239. >The man laughed as he dodged a slap from Celestia's forehoof. He jogged a few paces ahead of the princess, cackling all the while.
  2240. >Celestia resumed her walk.
  2241. "Are you willing to put this fiasco behind us? At least any issues between you and I?"
  2242. >Anonymous turned around to face Celestia and walked backwards while he replied. "I mean, I forgive you Tia, but I don't know if we're even. I'm gonna have to at least get you back for the stunt you pulled today."
  2243. "You wouldn't dare!" Celestia exclaimed with false indignation.
  2244. >"Oh, but I would," Anon replied as he turned back around. Looking over his shoulder, he continued, "Don't be surprised if I- UGH!"
  2245. >The man jolted to a halt before grunting, "UGH!" again and bringing his hands to his chest.
  2246. >An earsplitting high-pitched screech erupted from behind Celestia, making her ears ring.
  2247. >"GRIFFONS!" Nebula roared after her alarmed screech. "ELEVEN AND ONE O'CLOCK HIGH! DON'T LET THEM GET AWAY!"
  2248. >Nebula and Anon's guard's zipped past Celestia and down the castle hall as if they were shot from a cannon. Celestia's unicorn guard stallions followed just as quickly on hoof.
  2249. >Anonymous fell to his knees. Celestia galloped to him.
  2250. "Anon! What-"
  2251. >Celestia initially failed to comprehend what she was seeing. Something was very, very wrong... so much so that she missed the obvious cause of Anon's distress.
  2252. >It was the color of Anon's toga...he always wore white to sun court. When did he change into a red one?
  2253. >Comprehension hit Celestia like a charging yak when she saw two crossbow bolts protruding from Anon’s chest. She gasped in horror and Anonymous collapsed onto his back, blood pooling all around him.
  2254. "ANONYMOUS!"
  2255. >Celestia pulled the bolts from Anon's chest with her telekinesis.
  2256. "Don't worry, dear, I'll have you patched up in a second!" she shouted while charging her horn.
  2257. >A massive column of golden energy shot from Celestia's horn into Anon's chest.
  2258. >This wasn't right.
  2259. >Anon's face had grown pale. He began to shake and cough up blood. Celestia panicked.
  2260. "I don't understand! That was the most powerful regeneration spell I could muster!"
  2261. >Anonymous struggled to speak, coughing out more blood between words.
  2262. >"T-t-t-tia... magic...doesn't work... on me...I'm sorry..."
  2263. >Of course. She knew that. How could she be so foolish?
  2264. >Celestia collapsed into the pool of Anon's blood and pulled the human to her chest with her forelegs.
  2265. "NOOO!" she wailed. "Don't you leave me! I forbid it! I can't stand to lose you like this!"
  2266. >The alicorn wept as she held her friend close.
  2267. >Anon looked up at his princess, his expression growing more distant. His breathing grew more rapid and shallow. "Tia... there isn't... much t-time. I need. To... tell you ssss-something."
  2268. "W-w-what i-is it, d-dear?"
  2269. >"I... I... I..." he struggled to whisper. Weak shaking arms reached out for Celetia's head.
  2270. >Celestia craned her head down, placing her left ear by Anon's mouth. His arms gently wrapped around her neck.
  2271. >"I told you I'd get you back for the stunt you pulled this morning. Payback's a bitch, babe."
  2272. >With that, Anon's arms squeezed Celestia's head and neck in a powerful grip, allowing him to shove his tongue into the alicorn's ear.
  2273. >Celestia continued to lay on the ground in shock while Anonymous extricated himself from her grasp.
  2274. >"Alright, everypony! Mission accomplished, I got her!"
  2275. >The princess looked up at Anonymous with wide, unbelieving eyes and an open mouth.
  2276. >Anon's guards returned and took up positions around Celestia and Anon. When Nebula returned, she hovered in front of Anon so she could nuzzle his face and nip both of his ears. Her displays of affection complete, Nebula withdrew to the perimeter the other thestrals had established.
  2277. >The flabbergasted princess slowly stood and stared at Anonymous in disbelief.
  2278. "It... It was all... fake?"
  2279. >"Yup!" Anonymous replied. He struggled to contain a shit-eating grin.
  2280. "But... the blood, the crossbow bolts... my magic!"
  2281. >"I'm afraid I played a substantial role in this performance, Your Highness." a new masculine voice called out.
  2282. >Major Sparks appeared before the princess and bowed.
  2283. >"You see, Tia," Anon began, "I was pretty damn pissed at you this morning and wanted to repay your stunt with one of my own. I knew I'd need powerful illusory magic to pull it off, so I sought the help of Major Sparks here."
  2284. >The red unicorn mage spoke up again. "As much as it pained me to make you so distraught, I am rather pleased that my conjuring fooled even you, dearest Teacher. And the Counselor wasn't lying, conventional magic doesn't seem to affect him at all. M'lord, at some point I'd like to schedule a time to meet with you and explore this quality of yours further. It could act as both a blessing and a curse, so it would be wise for us to understand the extent of your magical immunity."
  2285. >Celestia shook with anger.
  2286. "Fury Sparks! How- how DARE you!? This is how you treat your Mentor, Protege? What's next... will my dearest Twilight Sparkle launch a fake insurrection?"
  2287. >Anonymous moved to stand between Celestia and Sparks. "Easy, Tia. If you're gonna be pissed at anyone, be pissed at me. Sparks initially refused to be party to my plan, so I had to formally order him to participate."
  2288. "It doesn't matter!" Celestia spat. "This crosses the line, LORD COUNSELOR! Do you have any idea of what you put me through just now!?"
  2289. >Anonymous crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow at the princess. "Sorry, what was that last part about crossing the line and putting you through something?" he replied flippantly.
  2290. >Celestia looked into Anon's eyes and saw a brief flash of anger in them.
  2291. "Oh," was all she could muster in response.
  2292. >Anon turned around to address the mage. "Major? Would you mind cleaning up the mess?"
  2293. >"Right," Sparks replied. A ball of red light spread from Fury's horn, expanding until it enveloped everyone present, then collapsed to nothing.
  2294. >The blood that had coated the floor, Anon, and Celestia was gone. The crossbow bolts had disappeared, as had the holes in Anon's clothing.
  2295. >"Thank you for your cooperation, Major. I'll be sure to pay you a visit later this week so we can both sate our curiosity on my magical resistance."
  2296. >Major Sparks saluted Anonymous, who returned the gesture. The unicorn then cautiously approached Celestia.
  2297. >"Teacher?" he asked timidly. "I'm truly sorry for upsetting you. I want you to know that I did not-"
  2298. >A white foreleg hooked around the unicorn's neck, pulling him to the princess. Celestia hugged her former protege tightly.
  2299. "I forgive you, Fury. However, for your punishment, you will discover the full extent of Anon's magical resistance and report your findings to me. A formal report, just like you'd write when you still attended my school."
  2300. >"Yes, Teacher."
  2301. >Celestia released Sparks from her embrace, allowing the unicorn to teleport away.
  2302. >Anonymous walked up to the teary-eyed Celestia and held his arms out wide. Celestia scowled at the human and turned her head away from him with a huff.
  2303. >With slow steps, Anon closed the distance between himself and the princess. "I'm sorry," he whispered after wrapping her in a tight hug.
  2304. "I'm sorry too." she replied softly. "Please don't ever scare me like that again."
  2305. >"I promise to never scare you like that again... intentionally. Are we good now?"
  2306. >Celestia wiped her eyes with her primary feathers and chuckled.
  2307. "Oh, we're 'good', Anon, but we're far from 'even'."
  2308. >"Oh yeah?"
  2309. "Yes. Your retaliation, while justified in concept, was excessive in execution. I will just have to retaliate in kind, my big human."
  2310. >Anon grinned at the alicorn. "Bring it on, Sunny Buns!"
  2311. >Celestia replied by sharply whipping Anon's buttocks with her ethereal tail.
  2312. >"Ow! What the hell, Tia?"
  2313. >The princess gave Anonymous a sweet smile and spoke in her best motherly tone.
  2314. "Be glad I didn't send you to the sun, dear."
  2315.  
  2316. ...
  2317.  
  2318. >Luna sailed below the clouds on an eastern heading, en route to Rainbow Falls.
  2319. >She planned to link up the the legion of crystal pony soldiers sent there by Cadence and survey the site they had chosen to establish their new garrison.
  2320. >The Empire's vassal status allowed it to act on behalf of the Equestrian government. Nevertheless, the final details of this yet-to-be-established garrison would normally need to be approved by the Equestrian military senior command and the princesses.
  2321. >By surveying and approving the details of the garrison herself, Luna could expedite the process.
  2322. >It was difficult to focus on anything other than flying. Cadence's advice weighed heavily on Luna's mind.
  2323. >"You don't want to be his next mare, you want to be his LAST mare," Cadence had stated with conviction.
  2324. >Committing to Cadence's plan was easier said than done.
  2325. >Why did matters of the heart have to be so complex?
  2326. >Luna's heart had longed for another, and she had found a kindred spirit in Anonymous.
  2327. >Of course her chosen stallion had to be an exotic specimen who attracted the attention and affection of another. It would’ve been too easy otherwise.
  2328. 'Spitfire wouldn't be a problem anymore if she mysteriously found herself stranded on the moon...' the princess mused. 'No. Bad Woona.'
  2329. >Luna tried to push her romantic problems out of her mind. There were bigger fish to fry. After all, her country was on the brink of war with a nation of predatory catbirds that was led by a psychopath.
  2330. >A strange new feeling crept into Luna's gut as she continued to fly.
  2331. >She felt compelled to change course and veer to the northeast, towards the Yaket mountain range.
  2332. >The sensation grew stronger the more Luna tried to ignore it. Luna felt an ethereal pull in her abdomen that urged her to follow it. Finally, she complied.
  2333. >Luna changed her course until her new heading aligned with the mysterious pulling sensation. The metallic-blue sheen of the Crystal Mountains gave way to the dull green and grey of the Yakets. Further northeast, the terrain became dominated by snow-capped peaks and glaciers.
  2334. >The princess beat her wings strongly, propelling herself above the clouds. She aggressively gained altitude while following her internal compass.
  2335. >To Luna's left stood Mount Everhoof, the tallest mountain in the known world. Luna briefly considered deviating from her new course to summit the peak, but decided against it. She resolved to set hoof on the summit another day. For now, the princess was content to fly higher than Everhoof's highest reach.
  2336. >Flying ever higher, a new ocean appeared to the north, beyond the Yakets. Luna didn't know this ocean's name. The frozen coastline gave way to water littered with enormous icebergs that were mountains in their own right.
  2337. >Higher. Luna had to fly higher. There was no reason for it, other than some primal compulsion that had taken hold of her.
  2338. >The air was getting so thin that Luna was having trouble staying aloft. Additionally, the princess was starting to feel lightheaded from the lack of oxygen.
  2339. >From her extreme altitude, Luna could see massive ice-covered peaks on the far side of the unnamed northern ocean. The sight left her with a sense of wonder and amazement.
  2340. 'There might as well be another world out there. What exists beyond the reaches of Outposts Alpha and Machina? How far does the Great Ice Plateau extend?'
  2341. >A new thought flickered into her mind.
  2342. 'We've existed in our pleasant little bubble of light for millennia, oblivious to the darkness of unknowns that surround us. I pray our little ponies do not pay the price for our myopia, Sister.'
  2343. >The idea chilled Luna more deeply than the altitude had.
  2344. >Interestingly enough, Luna no longer felt compelled to travel any further. The pull had dissipated. For whatever reason, she was meant to be there, so see the world from this nigh-otherworldly perspective.
  2345. >The princess took one last look at the vast expanse of uncharted territory and began her descent.
  2346. >Luna's eyes grew increasingly uncomfortable as her velocity increased, so she conjured a set of flight goggles and rapidly donned them.
  2347. >Discomfort now vanquished, adrenaline coursed through Luna's veins. She desired to push herself. Just how fast could she go?
  2348. >Air resistance increased. Luna could almost see a dome of air forming ahead of her leading hooves. Just a little faster...
  2349. >BOOM
  2350. >Luna whooped with exhilaration after breaking the sound barrier. She flapped her wings harder, pushing herself ever faster, descending all the while.
  2351. >Rainbow Falls came into view. Luna could see masses of ponies gathered to the south of the Falls and corrected her approach to head straight towards them.
  2352. >The alicorn's altitude was a mere one-hundred meters above the ground and she was still supersonic. The legion's camp was coming up fast.
  2353. >Luna considered slowing down but her mischievous side won out. She had a need. A need for speed.
  2354. >A dark blue blur shot over the camp, followed by a boom that rattled the entire camp.
  2355. >In another universe, Lieutenant Pete Mitchell smiled, knowing that somewhere, another flier took pleasure in buzzing the tower, or camp, as it was.
  2356. >Luna had wanted to make an entrance, and so far, she was off to a good start. She slowed to subsonic speeds and took a wide arcing path back to the camp, which had been whipped into a frenzy of activity following Luna's flyby.
  2357. >The princess spotted the legion's guidon. On it, the snowflake from the Empire's flag was superimposed onto a shield. Crossed swords, designating the legion as a light infantry unit, sat below the shield, completing the guidon's design.
  2358. >From her knowledge of military practices, Luna knew that the unit guidon would be posted outside the command tent, so that was where she headed.
  2359. >Crystal pony soldiers organized themselves into platoon formations and waited for further orders with their weapons at the ready.
  2360. >A nearly-blinding ball of blue light impacted the ground before the assembled troops, shaking the ground. The soldiers shielded their eyes with their forelegs and winced at the impact.
  2361. >The light faded, revealing a tall, dark blue alicorn. Her hair flowed wildly in a non-existent breeze and her eyes shone with an intense white light.
  2362. >Princess Luna stood before the Crystal Empire legion in black armor. Her cuirass was decorated on either flank with a silver-inlaid crescent moon.  Her lavender slippers had been replaced with the same black bladed hoof guards her Night Guard thestrals wore. A sheathed sword was secured to her back.
  2363. >Realizing who she was, the entire legion wordlessly prostrated themselves before Luna.
  2364. 'THAT is how you make an entrance,' Luna thought, satisfied with her reception.
  2365.  
  2366. ...
  2367.  
  2368. >Spitfire stood on the landing strip at Wonderbolt headquarters and watched her teammates trot off towards the locker rooms.
  2369. >She had pushed herself and her team particularly hard during morning practice.
  2370. >The exertion was a welcome respite from the emotional uncertainty and sexual frustration she had endured since leaving Canterlot Castle that morning.
  2371. >Though she wanted to keep training until at least 1600, the Captain had the morale, physical well-being, and longevity of her subordinates to consider. They were thrilled when Spitfire released them for the day at noon.
  2372. >Spitfire sighed and slowly made her way to the mares' locker room. Memories of the morning's encounter with Anonymous weighed heavily on her mind and seemed to weigh down her hooves as well.
  2373. >It wasn't supposed to go as far as it did. Then again, she never meant to take things as far as the went… at least most of the time. She only wanted to see him again. To look into his intense, captivating  eyes and hear his voice.
  2374. >Anonymous was known for being cool under pressure, admired for his public stoicism. That Spitfire was able to fluster him so thoroughly with a single kiss made her heart flutter.
  2375. >She knew that she had been too aggressive, but the man had a reputation. Anon's affinity for pegasi mares was well-known. Spitfire had hoped to use that to her advantage, if only to capture the man's interest in pursuing a genuine relationship with her, as ill-conceived as her plan might have been.
  2376. >Yes, the yellow pegasus was flattered that the exotic male so strongly desired her. Now that she had his interest, Spitfire grew increasingly worried about gaining it the way she had.
  2377. >No matter how innocent her intentions were this morning, being near Anon was intoxicating to Spitfire. His every reaction poured oil on the dancing flames of her desire. It was no wonder the situation got out of hoof so quickly.
  2378. >As such, when his fingers entered her in the heat of the moment, Spitfire was ready to surrender herself to her carnal cravings.
  2379. >And once again, Celestia inserted herself into the scenario, disrupting any chance for Spitfire to sate her lustful hunger.
  2380. >Following extensive reflection, Spitfire was grateful for Celestia's intervention.
  2381. >Spitfire realized that had they continued unimpeded along their previous trajectory, the relationship she hoped to establish would be nothing more than a series of hookups, devoid of the substance she truly craved.                
  2382. >Further complicating the issue was Anon's inexplicable ability to bring out a side of Spitfire she didn't know she had.
  2383. >A side of her that contemplated life after the Wonderbolts. A side of her that yearned for stability, a sense of security. An environment to possibly start a family in.
  2384. 'What is it that I see in him?' Spitfire mused silently.
  2385. >First, there was her initial curiosity of the exotic male, but that novelty had long since worn off.
  2386. >The man was undoubtedly attractive by standards that could be applied to any sapient species.
  2387. >Physically, he was tall, incredibly well-built, had bright eyes, thick hair, and clear skin. His confidence and obvious intelligence were also attractive qualities to Spitfire.
  2388. >Not only that, Anonymous deeply intrigued Spitfire.
  2389. >How was it that an alien being could ascend to the third highest-ranking position in the Equestrian government after only a year in country? It seemed preposterous, even in a land where the outrageous was commonplace.
  2390. >Nevertheless, the human seemed to genuinely put his heart and soul into his work, ensuring his every action as the Lord Counselor was for the benefit of Equestria and her citizens.
  2391. >His controversial love life notwithstanding, Spitfire admired Anon's dedication to fitness and to the mastery of armed combat. The human's extremely disciplined lifestyle resonated deeply with the military mare.
  2392. >A scant few paces from the locker room doors, a revelation struck Spitfire.
  2393. >She and Anonymous were alike in the sense that their responsibilities and commitments required them to constantly be in the presence of other ponies, often from dawn until dusk. Despite that...
  2394. "I'm lonely," Spitfire admitted, "and he is too."
  2395. >Like Anonymous, Spitfire had also gone through a promiscuous phase, but nowhere near the extent of Anon's gallivanting.
  2396. >The phase was short-lived. The mare's exceptional performance in the Wonderbolts led to fast promotions that culminated in her becoming the youngest Captain in the Wonderbolts' illustrious history.
  2397. >With increased rank came ever-increasing duties coupled with perpetually-diminishing free time. Dating wasn't a possibility in the early days of her command.
  2398. >However, having been Captain for a few years, Spitfire had become efficient in fulfilling her responsibilities, reclaiming time for herself.
  2399. >Despite being at the top of her game, Spitfire felt as if her life had become stuck in a rut, and not the kind she had been repeatedly denied.
  2400. >It would be nice to have somepony, or somehuman, to come home to. A mate to share her most intimate dreams and desires with. A partner to love, to make the tedium of daily life worthwhile.
  2401. "I'm tired of being alone," she mumbled to herself.
  2402. >Spitfire couldn't allow the morning's encounter to be her last meeting with Anon until their date.
  2403. >She needed to clear the air with him, and have an honest-to-goodness conversation that wasn't dripping with innuendo or would lead to them almost rutting for a third time.
  2404. >The thought of grounding a potentially-fulfilling relationship before it could take flight terrified the mare. She would make things right.
  2405. >An about-face and a short gallop later, Spitfire was airborne, en route to Canterlot.
  2406. >Having firmly sealed her goggles against her flight suit's eye holes, Spitfire toyed with the idea of going supersonic, but quickly dismissed the notion. After all, the day's practice had been taxing, and she knew from experience to always "leave something in the tank, just in case".
  2407. >Instead of pushing the limits of her speed, the mare decided to fly up to her service ceiling. Following several minutes of aggressive climbing, Spits began to glide in a long, gentle descent towards Canterlot Peak.
  2408. >With the breathtaking architecture of the castle coming into view, Spitfire contemplated where to search for Anonymous.
  2409. >Sun court had concluded, but Moon Court wouldn't begin for a few hours.
  2410. 'Maybe he's sparring?' the mare wondered.
  2411. >A small cloud sat low in the sky, providing an exceptional vantage point above the castle’s largest training field. It was there Spitfire landed and searched for her would-be lover.
  2412. >The field was alive with activity. Unicorns practiced offensive and defensive spells. Earth ponies drilled with spears. Pegasi and even a few bat ponies practiced making tornadoes in the skies away from Canterlot.
  2413. >In a corner of the field, a unicorn mage had animated a griffon-shaped training dummy. A pair of thestrals hovered closely together seventy-five meters away, watching the dummy's movements.
  2414. >The mage launched the dummy into the air. The thestral pair reacted with synchronized movements. They wrapped their legs around each other's barrels in a tight embrace and flew linked in that position towards the dummy, with one thestral inverted.
  2415. >When the distance had been reduced to thirty-five meters, the thestrals pushed away from each other and began to fly in a double-helix path towards the charging dummy. At that speed, the mage controlling the dummy was unable to react quickly enough to counter the two ponies that spiraled around the dummy's torso.
  2416. >The double-helix maneuver was a standard thestral air-to-air interception technique. The idea was to engage the enemy at a distance linked together, then surprise the target by splitting into two separate attackers. By doing this and corkscrewing around the enemy, the enemy hesitates, providing the thestrals the opportunity to strike. As the thestrals pass by their target, they reverse their orientation, facing the same way as the enemy, before driving their curved shoe blades into the attacker's flesh. Momentum would take care of the rest.
  2417. >In this instance, the pair executing the move managed to sever a dummy wing and make several large gashes down the length of the dummy's body with their bladed shoes before linking back together in the airborne hug they had started out in.
  2418. >Had that been a real griffon, it would have died from blood loss before hitting the ground. The precision of the ponies' maneuver left Spitfire deeply impressed. The bat ponies might not be as fast as pegasi, but they sure as Tartarus were agile in the air.
  2419. >Something white in the corner of Spitfire's vision drew her attention away from the exercise. Anonymous strode out onto the field in his brilliant white toga, his orange tunic peeking out from underneath it.
  2420. >Flanked by Princess Celestia and Colonel Nebula, and surrounded by four thestral guard mares, Anon slowly paced the length of the field, surveying the soldiers' activities.
  2421. >Nebula directed Anon's attention to a group of thestrals engaged in hoof-to-hoof sparring. Spitfire watched with interest as Anon said something to Celestia before a leathery wing wrapped around his waist, pulling him away.
  2422. >While Anon and Nebula made their way to the other thestrals, a unicorn officer approached Celestia and rendered a salute before engaging the princess in conversation. The unicorn gestured to the different groups of ponies on the field and in the sky.
  2423. >As Anonymous was clearly occupied, Spitfire resigned herself to watching him from afar, hoping that an opportunity to approach him might present itself later.
  2424. >She watched Nebula face off against a large bat pony stallion. Dozens of thestrals surrounded the pair, studying the Colonel’s every move.
  2425. >The stallion had a clear weight advantage, but Nebula stood taller.
  2426. "She has to be almost as tall as Princess Luna…" Spitfire mumbled.
  2427. >Nebula and the stallion circled each other, their wings slightly unfurled. Spitfire noticed that Nebula was slowly closing the distance as she circled around the stallion, bearing her fangs all the while.
  2428. >It happened so quickly, Spitfire might have missed what transpired had she not been paying close attention.
  2429. >Nebula feinted a lunge to her left, prompting the stallion to counterattack to his right, leaving his left side momentarily exposed.
  2430. >A blur of grey, violet, black, and brown later, Nebula had pinned the stallion on his side and held his wings at clearly-uncomfortable angles. Her mouth was around his neck, fangs ready to pierce flesh.
  2431. >The stallion tapped the ground three times with a hoof. Nebula released the soldier and helped him to his hooves before brushing him off.
  2432. >Satisfied that the stallion suffered no physical damage, the Colonel turned to address the onlooking group. She demonstrated her takedown in slow motion with the same stallion, explaining each step as she went.
  2433. >After repeating her slowed-down instruction two more times, Nebula instructed the bats to pair up and practice the technique for themselves. With that, she released control of the group back to the NCO that had been leading the practice.
  2434. >Upon returning to Anonymous, the man said something that made Nebula laugh.
  2435. >The mare extended her wings up and grabbed onto Anon's shoulders with her wing hooks, pulling him down to her height.
  2436. >Nebula bit at both of Anon's ears, and seemed to gnaw on his right one for a moment.
  2437. >Spitfire's jaw dropped.
  2438. >When Anon pulled Nebula's head towards him so he could bite her ears in kind, Spitfire's shock had turned to anger.
  2439. >She wasn't going to lose her chance with Anonymous. Princess Celestia wasn't going to stop her, and neither would Smiling Death.
  2440. >With fire in her veins and a grimace dominating her face, the hot-headed mare flared her wings and prepared to dive down to confront her competition. An unfamiliar voice stopped her before she was able to carry out her foolhardy plan.
  2441. >"I know what you're thinking, but you're mistaken. They're not together, you know."
  2442. >Spits whirled around on her cloud. A red-maned chocolate brown bat pony stood before her, wearing sunglasses.
  2443. >The new mare held out her right hoof to Spitfire. "Hello, Captain, I'm Sergeant Spring Tide. I'm part of the Lord Counselor's guard retinue. I lead his Delta quaternion."
  2444. >Spits touched the mare's hoof and shook it.
  2445. "Nice to meet you, Sergeant. I take it you're off duty?"
  2446. >"That's correct, so if you don't mind, I'd like to forego the customs and courtesies that would be required if I was in uniform."
  2447. "That's fine, Sergeant. I'm technically off duty myself."
  2448. >"Great. I hope you don't mind the shades," Tide said, motioning to her sunglasses. "Thestrals on daylight duty are administered a potion that desensitizes the eyes to make sunlight tolerable, but we only take it during our shifts. Oh, and please, call me Tide."
  2449. "Spitfire," the Wonderbolt replied as she doffed her flight goggles, "and I understand. Do what you need to do. So, Tide... what are you doing here?"
  2450. >The thestral mare grinned mischievously. "Same as you, watching my stallion."
  2451. "You've got a coltfriend down there?"
  2452. >"I was referring to Anonymous."
  2453. >Spitfire's anger returned instantly. Her furious glare earned a giggle from Tide, who moved to stand beside her.
  2454. >"Anon affectionately refers to his sixteen guards as 'his girls'," Tide stated as she gesticulated towards the human below, "so we call him 'our stallion'."
  2455. "Oh." Spitfire replied. "But if you're off duty, why watch him?"
  2456. >"Because I love him."
  2457. "Are you messing with me!?"
  2458. >"Not at all! I love Anonymous, as do my fifteen counterparts!"
  2459. >[Spitfire glare intensifies]
  2460. "Why are you telling me this if you're not trying to piss me off?"
  2461. >"To give you a much-needed crash-course on thestral culture."
  2462. "No offense, but why do I need to learn about your culture? It's not like I"m trying to court a thestral... I'm after a human!"
  2463. >"Oh, but you are! Anonymous may belong to the human species, but culturally, he is a Thestral."
  2464. >Tide interpreted Spitfire's cocked eyebrow as permission to elaborate.
  2465. >"When he was first appointed to his position," Tide continued, "Anonymous had no friends in Canterlot. His friends and adopted family remained in Ponyville, and there he was, friendless in a strange city, unexpectedly put into a position of power only superseded by the Princesses. The nobility resented him for it, and many of the royal guard viewed him with suspicion. 'How did this alien trick the Princesses into installing him into a station that had been vacant for two centuries?' they asked..."
  2466. "That is a good question... how DID he convince the Princesses to hire him?" Spitfire asked with interest.
  2467. >"He didn't. The Princesses asked him. You should ask him about it on your date!"
  2468. >Spits gave Tide another exaggerated eyebrow raise that would've make The Rock proud.
  2469. >"Oh! I should mention, my quaternion will be on duty Saturday evening, so we will be accompanying you two on your date! Don't worry, we're only there for security, and to ensure you two are undisturbed... to preserve your privacy as much as possible."
  2470. "Okay..."
  2471. >Tide fluttered her wings slightly. "Going back to my story... Anonymous was without friends in his new home and set out to change that. Being a former soldier, Anon found it easier to talk to the guards stationed around the palace. Then he discovered us. The Night Guard. Thestrals."
  2472. >Tide smiled widely. Her fangs glistened in the afternoon sun.
  2473. >"We thestrals know what it feels like to be looked at with suspicion. To be viewed as an outsider in your own home. Anon saw himself in us and began to seek out our company. He dined with us in our mess hall, he sparred with our troops, and he spent his free time with us, trying to understand our culture better. That is how he met Colonel Nebula.”
  2474. >Spitfire took the opportunity to interject her concern.
  2475. "What in Equestria is going on between them?"
  2476. >"Colonel Nebula was drawn to Anonymous like a moth is drawn to a flame. They had both lost loved ones, in a sense, and they both made new lives for themselves in service to Equestria. Nebula became his first true friend in Canterlot. She took him under her wing and educated him in our ways. When Anonymous expressed a desire to formally join our tribe, Nebula was overjoyed. It was she who prepared him for the Trials, our rites of passage into adulthood. After Anon passed the Trials, it was she who marked him as one of us."
  2477. "What do you mean, 'marked' him?”
  2478. >Tide tilted her head to the side. "Haven't you noticed the hole in middle of his right ear?"
  2479. "Yeah, I figured that was from a sparring accident or something." Spitfire replied.
  2480. >"No," Tide responded with a giggle. "When a thestral successfully completes the Trials, he or she is 'marked' as a fully-fledged adult by the mentor who helped them prepare. The mentor bites the initiate's right ear with his or her fangs, piercing it. Mares traditionally keep a ring in their piercing to keep the hole from closing over time."
  2481. >Tide turned her head to show Spitfire the thick golden hoop in her ear.
  2482. >"Stallions, on the other hoof, do not wear earrings, so it is up to the mares in his life to ensure his piercing stays open, by biting through it from time to time."
  2483. >Spitfire released a sigh of relief.
  2484. "So when Nebula was kinda chewing on his right ear, she wasn't being affectionate with him?"
  2485. >Tide shook her head. "No, she absolutely was being affectionate with him! Not just anypony can maintain a stallion's ear! That duty may only performed by his closest loved ones. Understand, Spitfire, that we thestrals are a very touchy-feely, affectionate bunch. Nebula is especially affectionate with Anonymous, even by our standards."
  2486. >Spitfire huffed in frustration.
  2487. "So are they dating or not!? I'm getting mixed messages here."
  2488. >The thestral's face grew serious.
  2489. >"Spitfire... Anonymous is the closest thing to family Nebula has. Well, Anon and his youngest sister, Apple Bloom. Nebula adopted her as a niece. I suspect the Colonel hopes to initiate Apple Bloom into our tribe someday as well. Hmm… by tradition, Apple Bloom would have to be formally recognized as a thestral to qualify as Nebula’s sole heiress… but I have my concerns about what her earth pony family would think of that...”
  2490. >A confused look from Spitfire caused the thestral to cease narrating her inner monologue.
  2491. >“Sorry for rambling! My point is, Nebula ADORES Anonymous. She would do ANYTHING to make him happy."
  2492. "I see..." Spitfire replied with a frown.
  2493. >"Do you though? Do you understand why my peers and I will often watch over him from afar, even when we're off duty? We love him. Before our Blessed Mother of Stars Princess Luna returned to us, we had nopony in a position of power dedicated to advocate for our cause. Our numbers dwindled slowly, but steadily, during our Mother's banishment. Luna's return brought her Children of the Night back into mainstream society and our culture has experienced a renaissance. Then Anonymous came."
  2494. >Tide took off her sunglasses. Her slit pupils shrank down to a hair's breadth. Her eyes watered, but not from exposure to the sun.
  2495. >"Luna had a duty to her Children, but Anon didn't owe us anything. Anonymous sought us out. He befriended us. He CHOSE US! He joined OUR tribe! He honors us all and keeps our interests in the forefront of his mind, which is why we call him 'Advocate'. That is why I love him. That is why all the Children love him."
  2496. >The bat mare's emotional exposition moved the pegasus.
  2497. "Wow, Tide... I had no idea..."
  2498. >"That is why you need to learn our ways," Tide replied. She sniffed and wiped her eyes before donning her sunglasses again. "If you're serious about courting Anonymous, you must understand who he is as a member of Equestrian society, outside of his position of authority. To do that, you need to understand us."
  2499. >Spring Tide suddenly grew restless. She shifted uneasily from side to side on her hooves and looked around at the adjacent clouds, scanning for any potential eavesdroppers.
  2500. >"I confess that I am conflicted about helping you in this matter."
  2501. "Why?" Spitfire asked, clearly concerned.
  2502. >"You're not the only mare that has a romantic interest in Anonymous. By helping you, I feel as if I betray my own kind. No, worse than that. It feels like a sin against the M-"
  2503. >Tide cut herself off, prompting Spitfire to place a hoof on her withers.
  2504. >"A sin against the what? Who else has feelings for him?"
  2505. >The thestral shook her head. "Please, forget I said anything. I'm doing this for Anon. He is a lonely stallion, and like Nebula, I want to see him happy."
  2506. >Spitfire removed her hoof from Tide's withers and smiled with gratitude.
  2507. "What else can you teach me?"
  2508.  
  2509. ...
  2510.  
  2511. >Luna strode back to the Crystal Legion camp flanked by the legion's commander and command sergeant major.
  2512. >Establishing a garrison at Rainbow Falls promised to be a challenging endeavor due to its unique terraced terrain.
  2513. >Not only would the terrain prohibit construction of a centralized fort that could contain an entire legion, the Crystal Legion faced another constraint. Celestia was adamant that the new garrison could not encroach on any civilian property or interfere with events held in the area. Luna privately agreed with her sister’s sentiment, but was content to let Tia be the champion of that particular requirement.
  2514. >As such, the legion would be forced to set up a series of decentralized company and platoon-sized outposts on the terraces above, below, and around Rainbow Falls proper, as well as build strongholds directly into the mountains adjacent to the town. Until permanent structures could be carved out within the surrounding mountains, the legion’s hoofprint in the area would be massive.
  2515. >Rainbow Falls would unfortunately become a civilian island in a sea of military activity.
  2516. >So much for Celestia’s good intentions.
  2517. >Colonel Geode, the legion commander, explained to Luna the challenges he and his soldiers faced as they surveyed the potential outpost locations.
  2518. >Luna stayed silent for the majority of the tour, speaking up only for clarifications from the colonel or his enlisted counterpart.
  2519. >Rainbow Falls' breathtaking scenery captivated the imagination of the princess. She regretted not being able to simply enjoy the views the locale offered.
  2520. >Nevertheless, Luna's affinity for strategic thinking made her task more enjoyable than an average royal chore. She enjoyed planning where to place defensive positions to protect the area. The princess and the colonel seemed to be of one mind when it came to choosing outpost locations, which allowed Luna to approve Geode's plans immediately.
  2521. >"Is there anything else you'll be needing from us, Your Majesty?" the Colonel asked.
  2522. "Yes. I wish to address the entire legion."
  2523. >"Of course, Princess." Geode replied. He turned to his counterpart, a grizzled, burly, middle-aged stallion. "Sergeant Major Fracture, if you would be so kind?"
  2524. >"On it, sir." the senior enlisted pony growled. Fracture trotted into the center of the camp and bellowed out, "Battalion sergeants major, to the command tent! Double time, gods damn it!"
  2525. >CSM Fracture disseminated instructions to the six ponies that had galloped in to respond to his summons. Within minutes, five thousand crystal pony soldiers stood at attention in a horseshoe formation around the legion command tent where Luna and the legion's senior leaders had gathered.
  2526. >"We are yours to command, Princess." Colonel Geode stated to Luna.
  2527. "Thank you Colonel."
  2528. >Luna lit her horn. An egg-sized ball of blue energy floated off it and contacted her throat. The Royal Canterlot Voice, while appropriate in this scenario, precluded the effective conveyance of emotion.
  2529. >A voice amplification spell would ensure her words were heard at equal loudness throughout the formation. It would also preserve the emotions she delivered her words with.
  2530. >All that was left to do was take the stage, or rather, a terrace that stood three meters above the one the legion had assembled on. With an athletic leap and a single powerful flap of her wings, Luna took the natural earthen platform.
  2531. >The princess surveyed the field. The jet-black armor she wore contrasted sharply against the clear blue sky. Her eyes shined from within her helmet with an intermittent silver-white glow.
  2532. >Luna looked like the legendary warrior princess she used to be during Equestria's nascent days. The days when the world was young and wild, when she and her sister fought tooth and hoof for their own survival against the monsters of antiquity.
  2533. >It was a welcome change, replacing her regalia with her old armor, if only for a short while.
  2534. >Thousands of eyes were fixed on her in anticipation.
  2535. >Now or never...
  2536. "Legionnaires! Who are you?"
  2537. >"THE FIRST CRYSTAL LEGION! 'CADENZA'S SHIELD!'" five thousand voices thundered in response.
  2538. "I could not think of a better group of soldiers to bear the name of my beloved niece!" Luna exclaimed. "You were not supposed to arrive here for another TWO DAYS! That you completed a forced march from the Empire to Rainbow Falls AND completed a full area reconnaissance within twenty-four hours speaks volumes to the quality of ponies that stand before me!"
  2539. >The legion stomped their hooves in agreement.
  2540. "It is not surprising that you, devoted guardians of the north, are made of sterner stuff than most ponies. After all, like me, you hail from a bygone era! Like me, you were lost for a thousand years, only to find yourselves in a world that had forgotten you... but you did not forget who you were! Yours was a time of trials and tribulations, forced under the yoke of that miserable wretch Sombra...”
  2541. >"BOOO!"
  2542. "Yes! You know better than anypony in Equestria what life is like under the rule of a tyrant."
  2543. >Luna paced back and forth on her terrace, scanning the expressions of the soldiers. What started out as excited faces had quickly devolved into a sea of scowls. Perfect.
  2544. "That is why you are the perfect group of ponies to be sent forth to protect our borders. Griffonstone's new king, Gregor, is a power-hungry tyrant that would threaten our brethren, disrupt our peace and prosperity, and destroy our very way of life... solely to stoke his ego! He is cut from the same cloth as Sombra, and he threatens OUR HOME!"
  2545. >The angry expressions that Sombra's name had elicited from the legionnaires had been replaced by a different one. Resolve. Luna could see it burning brightly in the eyes of every pony in attendance.
  2546. "War with Griffonstone is imminent, legionnaires. Of that I have no doubt. Will you let another would-be despot threaten your loved ones?"
  2547. >"NOOOO!"
  2548. "Can I count on you to keep the proverbial wolves from the door?"
  2549. >"YES, PRINCESS!"
  2550. >Luna allowed herself a wide smile. Her mane flailed wildly as her emotions ran high.
  2551. "GOOD!" Luna bellowed. "REMEMBER WHO YOU FIGHT FOR! FOR YOUR LOVELY AND JUST PRINCESS, MI AMORE CADENZA, SHEPHERD TO LOST SOULS AND WAYWARD HEARTS..."
  2552. >"FOR OUR PRINCESS!"
  2553. "... FOR YOUR LOVED ONES..."
  2554. >"FOR OUR LOVED ONES!"
  2555. "FOR THE CRYSTAL EMPIRE, AND FOR EQUESTRIA!" Luna roared.
  2556. >"FOR OUR HOME!"
  2557. >The soldiers began to rhythmically stomp their hooves and chant, "FOR OUR PRINCESS! FOR OUR LOVED ONES! FOR OUR HOME! FOR OUR PRINCESS! FOR OUR LOVED ONES! FOR OUR HOME!"
  2558. >Luna looked over the legion, holding her head high with pride. It had been eons since she had delivered such a rousing speech. The princess raised an armored hoof and waited for the legion to regain its collective military bearing. When their chants had subsided, she called out again.
  2559. "I've heard that the soldiers of the First Crystal Legion are quite skilled with a sword. Is this true?"
  2560. >The ponies stomped their hooves in affirmation.
  2561. >Luna used her telekinesis to draw the sword from the scabbard on her back.
  2562. "Then show me!"
  2563.  
  2564. ...
  2565.  
  2566. >Cadence wept.
  2567. >She had quickly found the other source of romantic love that was projected to Anonymous.
  2568. >This new heart was unlike anything she had sensed before. It was broken, but beautiful. There was so much pure love radiating from it, and there was so much pain.
  2569. >Cadence saw that like Anon, this heart carried significant emotional trauma. However, unlike the human, this trauma was old. Instead of creating a tangled chaotic mess around the mare's heart, it was orderly and structured, allowing for Cadence to peer directly into its depths. It intrigued the Princess of Love.
  2570. >With careful attention, Cadence had read the layers of the mystery mare's heart and was distraught over what she discovered.
  2571. >She cried bitterly, clutching a pillow to her face with her forelegs to muffle the sounds of her emotional distress.
  2572. >At last, the princess was able to get control of herself, and not a moment too soon. The sounds of Shining Armor chasing Flurry Heart down the hallway reached her ears.
  2573. >Cadence made herself presentable again with a burst of magic and prepared to reunite with her family.
  2574. >The princess contemplated what to do with her recently-acquired knowledge.
  2575. >The mare whose heart she read had been through so much, it was a miracle she was even capable of loving, let alone with the intensity that she did.
  2576. >Cadence resolved to help the mare. She felt compelled to. It was her calling.
  2577. >It would be tricky. It would be messy. Her intervention would likely cause trouble, but Cadence didn’t care. She was in too deep to back out now.
  2578. >In the name of Love, Cadence would heal that broken heart.
  2579. >No matter the consequences, no matter the cost.
  2580.  
  2581. ...
  2582.  
  2583. >They walked abreast in the early afternoon sun, each wrestling with their respective worries. No words were exchanged, no glances shared, no acknowledgments offered on the path en route to the Counselor's Wing. Sandstone slabs paved the way along the castle grounds' perimeter, their smooth, hoof-worn faces a dull, lifeless pinkish-red that seemed out of place juxtaposed with the castle's brilliant white walls.
  2584. >Watching the QRF soldiers train made the possibility of war feel much more tangible to Celestia. The anxiety it brought left her feeling smothered, as if her head was tightly wrapped in a heavy blanket, offering no possibility to breathe fresh, carefree air. She had ruled in peace for over a millennium. The solar princess knew better than anypony that nothing lasted forever, but it didn't quell her wishful longing for the status quo to which she'd been long accustomed.
  2585. >Nebula's uneasiness centered around the stallion on whom she had been doting all day. Anon's shaken confidence may have been imperceptible to the lay observer, but was obvious as Celestia's large, shapely rump to the thestral. Nebula knew she couldn't coddle the man indefinitely, as much as she would have enjoyed it, and furiously brainstormed ways to snap her precious friend out of his funk.
  2586. >A sense of emptiness seeped into the beautiful mare, prompting her to extend an wing around her tall companion's waist. The act was all but involuntary at this point. Digging her prehensile wing hook into Anon's torso, Nebula firmly pulled the man against her side, sustaining that pressure as they walked.
  2587. >Physical contact with Anonymous never failed to dispel the mare's personal insecurities: those uninvited, constantly-unwelcome, parasitic visitors that called on her whenever she lay awake in her bed, painfully aware of her solitude.
  2588. >Feeling settled once more, Nebula returned to her urgent contemplation.
  2589. >Anonymous needed to reclaim his bold, confident persona and be the man Equestria needed him to be. The man the princesses had grown to depend on. The stallion the Children knew they could always turn to...
  2590. >The Children! Of course!
  2591. >An excited smile danced across Nebula's lips as she looked up to study her initiate's features.
  2592. >Anonymous, to his credit, preserved his stoic demeanor on the training field.
  2593. >Now in the company of mares he trusted more than anypony (notwithstanding Luna and Applejack), Anon let his shoulders slump. His feet dragged ever-so-slightly as he let anxiety consume his mind.
  2594. >His weakness controlled him that morning, and the repercussions had yet to materialize. The first time might have cost him a relationship, and the second, his most valued friend. As for the fateful encounter following his penultimate fuck-up, well, that was something else he would have to reconcile later. At least Nebula had given her blessing, for what it was worth.
  2595. >Nebula's forceful grasp on his torso barely registered in Anon's mind as he stared into the distance. He was fortunate to have an adoring thestral pinned to his side, half-guiding his absent-minded steps at this point, lest he walk straight off the curved path and into a wall.
  2596. >The tower Anon had called home for three years grew ever-larger as the trio approached the Wing. It stood tall in defiance of everything Anon had come to intuit from his post-military education. Shear and bending moment diagrams? Pshh, nigga please! The ponies that designed this thing had obviously never done one, and clearly didn't give two fucks about putting stone in tension. Fuck beam theory!
  2597. >Luna. Spitfire. Who did he want? What did he want?
  2598. >Perhaps the what disturbed Anonymous the most was the realization that he missed his old lifestyle. At least, he missed the excitement, the adrenaline, the thrill of the chase... not so much the emotional and social consequences.
  2599. 'Was Neb right all along? Have I been doing more harm than good in the long run?' he worried internally. 'And what the hell am I gonna do about S-'
  2600. >*POOF*
  2601. >A scroll bearing Twilight Sparkle's seal materialized before Anonymous in a flash of green flame, disrupting his meditations.
  2602. >Muscle memory coupled with impressive reflexes ensured the scroll was secured within Anon's grasp before gravity could take over.
  2603. >It may have borne Twilight's seal, but the writing left no doubt in Anon's mind as to who wrote the letter. He tore it open eagerly as a smile broke out on his face.
  2604.  
  2605. >       Hey Big Brother!!!
  2606.  
  2607. >       How are you?? Whatcha been up to?? Have you missed me???
  2608. >       So... I know you're really busy running the country and keeping those princesses in line, but... I was hopin' you might be able to visit my school tomorrow? All the colts and fillies are having a family member come to school to talk about what they do for a living. I've always had AJ, Big Mac, or Granny come for this in the past, but I'd love it if you'd be able to this time!! Or, if you can't, do you think maybe Auntie Neb would be able to? Applejack said not to get my hopes up since I'm asking you last minute, but I had to ask! That's why I'm over at Princess Twilight's castle! I knew Spike could get you the letter faster than anypony!
  2609. >       I'll be hanging out with Spike waiting for your reply!
  2610. >       Give Auntie Neb a big hug for me!
  2611. >       I love you! I love you!! I LOOOOVVVVEE YOOOOOUUUU!!!!
  2612.  
  2613. >       Apple Bloom
  2614.  
  2615. >"Anonymous?" Celestia asked with a smile that mirrored the man's. "What is it?"
  2616. "Tia, I'm afraid you're going to have to hold court without me tomorrow."
  2617. >"Why's that dear? What's come up?"
  2618. "Well, Apple Bloom-"
  2619. >Celestia cut Anonymous off with a raised hoof and a chortle.
  2620. >"Say no more, Anonymous. I know where your priorities lie."
  2621. >"Apple Bloom first, Equestria second," Celestia and Nebula said together.
  2622. /.../
  2623. >A few months into his tenure as Lord Counselor, Anonymous received a letter from his beloved sister whilst dining with the princesses.
  2624. >In the letter, Apple Bloom implored Anon to take her to the Appleoosan State Fair that coming Friday, as AJ, Big Mac, and Granny had other obligations preventing them from being a chaperone.
  2625. >Accompanying Apple Bloom would mean Anon would have to be away from Canterlot, and thus, his responsibilities for an entire day.
  2626. >He hadn't taken a single day off, and at that point, spent his free time studying Equestrian jurisprudence and policies in order to better serve the sisters.
  2627. >Celestia listened to Anon's request for a personal day with her trademark neutral face.
  2628. >The elder diarch had no qualms with her Counselor taking a day to be with his sister, but she wanted to test him first.
  2629. >"I'm sorry, Anonymous, we can't afford to have you absent on Friday," she stated to Anon. "Perhaps you could accompany your sister another day?"
  2630. "It's only being held on Friday." Anonymous sighed, disappointed. "Oh well-"
  2631. >"It seems you'll have to choose, Counselor." Celestia loudly interrupted in a stern voice the man was not used to hearing.
  2632. "Princess?"
  2633. >"If you're going to serve me, I need to know where your loyalties lie. I'm telling you to choose, Anonymous, here and now. Equestria, or your sister?"
  2634. >Celestia waited excitedly for Anon's response as a myriad of expressions quickly flashed across his face. Surprise, confusion, anger, and finally, resolve.
  2635. >Anonymous stood up, pushed in his chair and walked slowly over to Celestia. Luna watched on nervously, knowing her sister's ploy, but uncertain of the man's thoughts.
  2636. >The man took off his wreath, and then his badge of office, placing them gently on the table in front of Celestia.
  2637. "Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your Counselor." Anonymous stated softly. "I'll be packed and moved out of my suite by sunset."
  2638. >Anon turned and walked away from the table, content to leave the sisters speechless.
  2639. >"Anonymous, wait!" Celestia called after him.
  2640. "Sorry, Princess," Anon replied angrily as he spun around, "but if you force me to choose between my sister and anything else, I'm picking my sister! Every! Single! Time! Apple Bloom first, Equestria second!"
  2641. >He turned and was surprised to see the dining room doors sealed shut with blue and gold auras.
  2642. >Celestia and Luna teleported in front of him, further damning his chances to leave. Anonymous braced himself for whatever wrath the sisters would unleash upon him.
  2643. >To his surprise, it wasn't retribution he received, but apologies.
  2644. >Celestia explained that she never had an issue with him taking the day off. In fact, she encouraged it, as Anon had been working tirelessly, and the princesses didn't want their Counselor to burn himself out.
  2645. >She did, however, want to test Anon's boundaries. He had been so eager to please, Celestia feared she might have a "yes stallion" on her hooves.
  2646. >Both sisters vehemently denied that they would ever seriously force Anon to choose between his loved ones and his job. It was merely an act, a test to see if the man would stand up for the things he held dear to his heart.
  2647. >Anon passed.
  2648. >"Will you stay?" Celestia asked with shimmering eyes. "While I would be disappointed to lose such a devoted Counselor, I would be absolutely DEVASTATED to lose someone I consider to be a close friend."
  2649. >Anonymous grabbed both sisters, wrapping them in a tight hug.
  2650. >The sisters commemorated the first anniversary of Anon's appointment by presenting him with a tapestry.
  2651. >The tapestry was adorned with the words, "APPLE BLOOM FIRST," and "EQUESTRIA SECOND!" at the top and bottom regions, respectively. In the center was a full color embroidery of Anon's trademark emblem.
  2652. >Anonymous laughed when he inspected the gift.
  2653. >Apple Bloom visited her brother shortly thereafter and inquired about the tapestry's significance upon seeing it. She was tickled pink to hear the story behind its creation from Princess Celestia herself, no less.
  2654. /.../
  2655. "Tia, think you could magic up a quill and parchment for me?" Anon asked with a grin. "A.B. is hanging out with Spike at Twilight's, waiting on my reply."
  2656. >"Yes, Anon, I suppose I could..."
  2657. >Celestia's horn glowed gold, bringing a roll of parchment, a quill, and inkwell into existence.
  2658. "Thanks!" Anon said, reaching for the quill.
  2659. >A white wing slapped his hand away from the writing instrument, which was still secured in a golden telekinetic aura. Celestia brought the parchment closer to herself and dipped the quill in ink.
  2660. >"*Ahem!* 'Dearest Apple Bloom, I hope this note finds you well. You will be pleased to learn that I have commanded your brother Anonymous, the Lord Counselor of Equestria, to take tomorrow off so that he may spend it with you and your family. Expect to see him at Sweet Apple Acres at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. Please send my regards to Applejack, Big Macintosh, and Granny Smith. Yours sincerely, Princess Celestia.'"
  2661. >The parchment rolled up and sealed itself within Celestia's golden glow before disappearing with a *pop*.
  2662. >Anonymous gently scratched behind Celestia's left ear before nuzzling her face.
  2663. "Thank you, Tia." he whispered.
  2664. >"Of course, dear."
  2665. >Anonymous turned to face down the path and strode forward with a slight spring in his step and Nebula still pressed firmly against him. His guards hovered at a respectful seven meters above the trio.
  2666. >They made a right turn off the sandstone path, onto the granite stones that made the bridge section of the Counselor's Wing. The group had walked a scant five meters onto the cantilevered bridge when a pegasus in a blue Wonderbolts flight suit touched down at the opposite end, near the tower's entrance. Anonymous stopped in his tracks, causing his companions to follow suit.
  2667. >Spitfire removed her goggles and pulled the hood section of her flight suit off her head. Even though ninety-five meters separated him from the mare, Anonymous could see the apprehension on her face.
  2668. >Nebula felt Anon tense up in her wing's grasp. She couldn't, nay, she WOULD NOT have him freeze up now.
  2669. >The thestral retracted her wing, moved behind Anonymous, and reared up to place her front hooves on his shoulders.
  2670. >"Confidence, Anonymous!" Nebula said in a low, intense growl. "Remember who you are! You are the Lord Counselor of Equestria, subordinate only to Blessed Princess Luna and Princess Celestia! You are the champion of thestrals, Advocate of the entire tribe! You are an incredible stallion that any, and I mean ANY, mare would be blessed to claim as her own! Remember that, and let your natural charisma take care of the rest! Now, GO!"
  2671. >Nebula planted her hooves into Anon's back and gave him a heavy shove towards the waiting Spitfire.
  2672. ..     
  2673. >Celestia listened intently as Nebula delivered her passionate pep talk to Anonymous. The thestral's words left the princess with many questions.
  2674. 'Your beauty is matched by your boldness.' Celestia thought when Nebula roughly shoved Anonymous forward.
  2675. >Anon's guards split off from Celestia and Nebula to escort their stallion across the bridge. They kept their distance, floating randomly like feathers caught in a breeze, but synchronized with each other.
  2676. >The alicorn stepped next to Nebula.
  2677. "That was quite the pep talk."
  2678. >"Thank you, Princess, he needed it."
  2679. "Colonel, are you aware of my sister's feelings towards Anonymous?" Celestia asked while turning her head to study the mare's body language.
  2680. >"But of course I do, Your Highness."
  2681. >Celestia furrowed her brow slightly.
  2682. "Nebula, dear, let us drop the formalities and speak freely, shall we? Why encourage Anonymous to pursue Spitfire, knowing full well of Luna's romantic interest in him?"
  2683. >Nebula turned her body to look at Celestia directly. "Spitfire is what Anonymous needs right now. He's not ready for Luna, and deep down, he knows it. He's not the stallion Luna deserves to have as her lover... yet."
  2684. "I see..." Celestia replied, her face pensive. "Had I not known better, I would have figured you to be Anon's lover, with your constant showering of affection on the man... in public, no less. I know thestrals are affectionate, but today, you've seemed excessively so, even by bat pony standards."
  2685. >"I will not apologize for doing what needs to be done." Nebula stated firmly.
  2686. "I wasn't expecting you to. I am curious, why have you been so affectionate with him today?"
  2687. >"The events of this morning, particularly his encounter with Princess Luna, rattled Anon's confidence." Nebula stated. "He's been second-guessing himself all morning, not only about his actions, but his lifestyle choices of the past three years. Have you ever dealt with a stallion who suddenly begins to doubt himself?"
  2688. "Once or twice over the millennia..."
  2689. >"Then you know that when a stallion's self-confidence is shaken, it must be restored quickly, lest doubt and insecurity take root in his psyche. In displaying my affection towards Anonymous, I am reminding him that he is valued, he is treasured, he is adored, because he is somepony WORTH adoring. I am building him back up the best way I know how."
  2690. "That is very sweet of you, Nebula." Celestia replied. "However, aren't you worried about what other ponies might think when they see you doting on him so freely?"
  2691. >Nebula scoffed. "I stopped caring about what 'other ponies' thought of me after Rusty Ironhead became my mentor. 'Ah judge mah ponies by the fruits of their labors,' he told me. If anypony cares to cast judgment on me, they can look at how I've cared for Anonymous. I'm being who he needs me to be, and today, he needs a trusted mare to help reestablish his self-confidence. To Tartarus with anypony who can't understand that!"
  2692. >Celestia was intrigued.
  2693. "What if tomorrow... Anonymous was in a supremely foul mood and felt the need to project his anger onto somepony that didn't deserve it?"
  2694. >"I would willingly bear his wrath." Nebula stated confidently.
  2695. "Say I banished him to Tartarus..."
  2696. >"You would have to banish me with him!" the thestral exclaimed with fire in her purple eyes. "I would not leave his side! We would face the horrors of Tartarus together, and what's more, conquer them!"
  2697. >The princess felt the need to push the thestral, to discover the extent of her commitment to the human.
  2698. "Suppose Anonymous propositioned you to share his bed for the night. How would you respond?"
  2699. >"I would be the most enthusiastic and passionate lover he's ever had. I would gladly slake his carnal desires, should he ever ask it of me!" Nebula retorted proudly. She puffed out her chest and spread her impressive wings. "Don't you understand, Celestia? I'm not just 'Nebula' to Anonymous, I am '*His* Nebula'! I am his right-hoof mare just as he is your right-hoof stallion!"
  2700. >Nebula's fiery replies did not deter Celestia's interrogation.
  2701. "What if he needs a wife? Somepony to grow old with?"
  2702. >Nebula deftly retracted her wings, having become aware of the aggressive posture she was taking with the princess.
  2703.  >"I would find him one! Mother only knows that any eligible thestral bachelorette would leap at the chance to marry-"
  2704. "What if he wanted to marry YOU?" Celestia interrupted.
  2705. >Nebula opened her mouth, but hesitated to reply. She averted her intense gaze away from the alicorn, choosing instead to stare at a distant cloud.
  2706. >"I... It... wouldn't be fair to Anonymous. I can be a lot of things for Anon, but I can't be that mare. As much as I want to, I can't."
  2707. >The mare's breathing hitched.
  2708. >"Anonymous deserves so much b-better than this d-damaged... p-pony..."
  2709. >Nebula shut her eyes as tightly as she could, desperately struggling to contain her emotions and control her breathing. She wouldn't let herself cry in front of Celestia. She wouldn't.
  2710. >The massive white wings that extended to envelop Nebula in a sympathetic hug shattered that resolve.
  2711. ..
  2712. >Anonymous stumbled forward after an unusually rough shove from Nebula.
  2713. >The mare's impassioned words apparently had their desired effect, as Anonymous did feel a bit more like his normal self. He could do this.
  2714. >The ninety-five meters between Anon and Spitfire became seventy-five, then fifty.
  2715. >Twenty-five meters.
  2716. >Spitfire fluttered her wings briefly in a subconscious attempt to flap away her own apprehension.
  2717. >Anonymous stopped one meter away from the lovely yellow mare. He looked down and studied her face, searching for the right words to break the ice. Anon's eyes traveled lower and beheld an impressive chest tuft poking out from Spitfire's partially-removed flight suit.
  2718. "Hey."
  2719. >"Hey."
  2720. >They stared at each other silently, neither sure about how to proceed.
  2721. >Anon frantically tried to think of something to say, but found himself unable to think clearly as he became lost in the gorgeous amber eyes that looked up at him.
  2722. >The awkward silence persisted until Anonymous realized that his speech module was functioning again.
  2723. "I've never told you before, but blue looks really good on you."
  2724. >"Hey, thanks." Spitfire replied with a slight blush. "I like your toga... you've got some strong ancient Pegasopolis vibes going on with it. You pull it off well."
  2725. >The man and mare shared an awkward laugh before speaking simultaneously.
  2726. "Look about this morning-"
  2727. >"Yeah... I, uh-"
  2728. "You see... I wasn't-"
  2729. >"Sorry, go ahead." they said in unison.
  2730. >Another tense chuckle.
  2731. >Anonymous removed his wreath and scratched his hair nervously. He didn't bother to reset his headpiece.
  2732. >Spitfire held up a hoof, then hovered up to eye level with the man. She sighed before meeting his gaze.
  2733. >"Anonymous, I know I've been really, really aggressive with you, and I apologize for making you uncomfortable at times. It's just that... well, I'm really..."
  2734. >Lonely. She's really lonely.
  2735. >Spitfire sighed again and continued. "What I mean to say is, you're really unique, Anon. There's something about you that just captivates me. I noticed it when we first met after the air show last month. When you talk to me, you make me feel... different. Good different! It's something I haven't experienced with a stallion before and I, I don't want to lose that."
  2736. >With her words flowing, Spitfire felt more in control of the situation. It became easier to articulate her feelings.
  2737. >"I've always got stallions trying to get with me because of my Wonderbolt status." Spitfire continued. "They don't care about Spitfire. They don't care about who I am or what I want. They just see a celebrity, a fit mare in a skin-tight flight suit. Most stallions want to "claim" me for their ego's sake. Let's be honest, Anon... you have needs just like any other stallion, and you kinda have a reputation..."
  2738. >Anonymous cringed at Spitfire's mention of the reputation he had desperately tried to shed over the years, but it didn't discourage the mare.
  2739. >"… and I know you've got a thing for pegasi mares. I thought that maybe, I could use that to my advantage. I thought that if I captured your interest and imagination, as you captured mine, you'd want to get to know the mare underneath the flight suit."
  2740. >It was Anon's turn to sigh. He rubbed his temples with his fingertips. Spitfire awaited his response with trepidation.
  2741. "You make me feel 'good different' too, Spitfire. And I get it, having ponies only be interested in you for your power or position. Ever since I was appointed to my office, the only mares that dared to call on me were your typical sycophantic nobles. The kind who were only interested in acquiring the power and influence the 'brooding ape' had over them. Combine that with my desire to leave my 'reputation' behind, and you get the situation I've been in for three years; voluntarily celibate, and lonely."
  2742. >Spitfire gasped at the man's admission of loneliness, and nodded in heartfelt understanding.
  2743. "You are right, I have needs. It just so happens that those needs are my greatest weakness. I fucked up today, Spitfire. I let my weakness cloud my judgment and influence my actions."
  2744. >The mare scoffed. "Jeez, what a way to make a mare feel special, Anon."
  2745. "Hear me out! I feel a certain... spark... when I'm around you, and not just when things have gotten physical. I could tell since day one that you were interested in me for me, not for my power. You have to understand that I have a terrible knack for starting relationships with mares that are purely physical, and I almost doomed whatever potential we may have to the same fate this morning."
  2746. >"So it was a good thing the princess interrupted us again?"
  2747. "Ha! I guess." Anonymous replied with a snort. "Don't get me wrong, I really, REALLY wanted you this morning... and I still do! However, if I'm going to have you, I want it to be because we have a true connection between us. I want to be certain that we really have feelings for each other."
  2748. >"Likewise, Anon!" Spitfire replied with a smile.
  2749. "So! Can we start over? Are you willing to give me another shot to court you properly?"
  2750. >"I am... so long as it ends up with a mind-blowing rutting that you totally owe me." Spitfire said with a smirk.
  2751. >The brash statement made Anonymous blush.
  2752. >"Kidding! Kidding! I mean, sort of." The pegasus added before clearing her throat. "*Ahem* Yes, Anon, I would be flattered if you treated me like a proper lady. Honestly, it'll be new experience for me!"
  2753. "Great!" Anon said with relief. "That said, I have to ask... what does this make us?"
  2754. >Spitfire raised an eyebrow. "What, you want to put a label on us or something?"
  2755. "Not necessarily, I just want to know where we stand. I want to make sure we both have the same expectations, you know?"
  2756. >"Since we're 'starting over', let's keep this casual for now and see what happens between us. Keep it low pressure to start with!"
  2757. >Anonymous clutched his chest in mock pain.
  2758. "Oh, you don't want to be my special somepony? Spitfire, you wound me!"
  2759. >The playful banter made the mare giggle. "It seems kinda silly to commit ourselves to each other this early, wouldn't you say?"
  2760. "Yeah, that's honestly what I was thinking as well. Keep it casual and-"
  2761. >A set of hooves came to rest on the man's shoulders, breaking his train of thought. The enchanting amber eyes that Anon was powerless against stared deeply into his own. Spitfire brought her face within centimeters of Anon's.
  2762. >"If I do become your marefriend, I'll ensure you smell so strongly of me that no mare would dare to make a pass at you." The mare said firmly. "And I'll make sure Celestia is the first one to find out."
  2763. >Anonymous stared at Spitfire with his mouth hanging open. Spitfire returned the stare with the most serious face she could muster, but it was short lived. She snorted and held a hoof to her mouth before bursting into laughter, in which Anonymous joined.
  2764. "I'm glad you came back." Anonymous said whilst wiping a mirthful tear from his eye.
  2765. >"Yeah, me too."
  2766. >The mare fluttered forward and wrapped her forelegs around the man's neck. Anonymous eagerly returned the hug.
  2767. >Spitfire nuzzled Anon's face before proceeding to wrap her hind legs around the man's torso. Satisfied with her rear leg lock, Spitfire grasped Anonymous's face with her front hooves and looked into his eyes. Her hot breath smelled of cinnamon.
  2768. "Spits, I thought we weren't gonna-"
  2769. >"Hey, I know you thestrals are an affectionate bunch..." Spitfire began.
  2770. >Anonymous smirked.
  2771. >"... but don't forget that pegasi are too. You may not be my coltfriend yet, but I can still kiss my crush, can't I?"
  2772. "I suppose you can..." Anon whispered with a smile. He brought a hand behind Spitfire's head and gently pulled her face to his.
  2773. >The kiss lasted a few seconds. It was modest, but full of emotion. Both parties felt waves of relief wash over them as they shared in the moment.
  2774. >They pulled away from each other, exchanged smiles, and kissed again, this time more gently.
  2775. "Until Saturday?" Anonymous asked as he released the mare.
  2776. >"Well... how are you going to pick me up? I never told you where I live," she replied thoughtfully.
  2777. "Hmm. True."
  2778. >"So I guess I'll have to stop by tomorrow and give you my address."
  2779. "I'd be okay with that."
  2780. >"Good, because I'd still come see you tomorrow even if you weren't okay with it."
  2781. "Oh! I'll be in Ponyville all day tomorrow."
  2782. >Spitfire planted a wet kiss on Anon's cheek. "Then I'll see you in Ponyville."
  2783. >The Wonderbolt pulled the hood portion of her flight suit back over her head and reset her goggles, then sped away.
  2784. >Anonymous watched Spitfire do corkscrews in the air and even heard a "SQUEEEE!" come from her direction before she disappeared above the clouds.
  2785. >"My, my. Somepony certainly seemed happy when she left." A familiar, motherly voice said from behind.
  2786. >The man turned around to find his two friends closing the distance with him, both of them smiling.
  2787. >"Do you officially have a new marefriend, Anon?" Nebula asked.
  2788. "No, we're 'starting fresh' and gonna take it slow. See where things go between us."
  2789. >Celestia smiled. "That seems like a wise plan dear."
  2790. >Anon's stomach growled.
  2791. "I don't know about you girls, but I'm so hungry I could eat a horse. Well, at least a pony."
  2792. >The remark earned a scoff from Celestia, as well as a playful slap to the head from a large white wing.
  2793. "I need to get changed for Moon Court, but afterwards, lets have lunch, yes?"
  2794. >"Very well." Tia replied. "I will wait for you in your study."
  2795. >"And yes, I will assist you with your ridiculous togas." Nebula added.
  2796. >Anonymous recapped his conversation with Spitfire to Nebula as they ascended the spiral staircase to his suite. He unlocked his door and held it open for Nebula, who trotted through after a nod of gratitude.
  2797. "... which led to our kissing. Then she asked-"
  2798. >Anon spotted a note taped to his mirror. Nebula followed his gaze to see what prompted her friend to become silent. They approached the mirror and read the note together.
  2799.  
  2800. >       Anonymous,
  2801.  
  2802. >       You will hold Moon Court alone this afternoon, for I have business to attend to that will keep me outside of Canterlot for most of the day.
  2803. >       I will speak with you in your chambers tonight.
  2804.  
  2805. >       Yours,
  2806. >       Luna
  2807.  
  2808. "What do you make of that?" Anon asked as he gestured towards the note.
  2809. >"I think you better be in your room by sunset and wait for her to arrive." Nebula replied solemnly.
  2810. "Christ..."
  2811. >Anonymous unwrapped his white toga and exchanged his orange tunic for a white one. Nebula worked quickly to wrap and secure the blue Moon Court toga around the man. Satisfied with her efforts, she re-placed the silver badge of office under Anon's left collarbone and reset the laurel wreath on his head. Anon retrieved Luna's note from his mirror before Nebula shooed him out the door with her wings.
  2812. >They found Celestia standing in front of one of the study's massive windows, enjoying a view of Canterlot's waterfalls. "All set?" she asked.
  2813. >The man and thestral mare nodded.
  2814. >"Splendid! To the dining hall, then?"
  2815. >Nebula remembered her idea from earlier. "Actually, would you mind eating with us in the Night Guard mess hall, Princess? Anon, I've been craving goat since court, and I'm certain they're serving it there today."
  2816. "Ooh, that does sound good!" Anonymous answered enthusiastically. "Tia, have you ever dined in the Night Guard chow hall?"
  2817. >"I can't say that I have."
  2818. "Great! Let's fix that!"
  2819. >Nebula smiled. So far, so good.
  2820. >On the way to the mess hall, Anon passed Luna's note to Celestia.
  2821. "Thoughts, Tia?"
  2822. >"She was clearly upset when she wrote this," Celestia stated as she looked over the note, "but if I know my sister, she won't approach you until she's had time to think and get her emotions in check."
  2823. "Fair enough." Anon replied with a sigh.
  2824. >The trio completed the remainder of their trek in silence. Upon reaching the mess hall, Nebula trotted ahead to open the door for her superiors, as military customs required.
  2825. >Celestia entered the hall first.
  2826. >Somepony roared, "NIGHT GUARD, ATTEN-TION!" Hundreds of thestrals scrambled to their hooves and stood at attention, facing Celestia and Anonymous.
  2827. >"As you were." Celestia said with a nod.
  2828. >To her confusion, the thestral soldiers remained at attention.
  2829. >Celestia moved to speak again, but was stopped by Nebula, who tapped the princess on the withers with a leathery wing and shook her head.
  2830. >The princess titled her head to the side in confusion, to which Nebula responded by gesturing to Anonymous with her own head.
  2831. >When the Colonel took her place at Celestia's side, the princess asked in a whisper, "What's wrong? Whey are they still at attention after my acknowledgment?"
  2832. >Nebula whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "They're waiting for Anon's response."
  2833. >Anonymous walked slowly out in front of Celestia, further into the chow hall. He stopped and looked around at the hundreds of bat ponies staring expectantly at him.
  2834. >"Why?" Celestia hissed softly to Nebula. "I would like to think I'm rather familiar with our military customs and courtesies. I am the highest-ranking pony in the room, and I told them to carry on, yet they're still at attention!"
  2835. >Anonymous took a deep breath.
  2836. "My brothers and sisters, may the beautiful Moon's light guide you!" he said, projecting his voice clearly throughout the hall.
  2837. >"MOTHER'S FAVOR BE WITH YOU, ADVOCATE!" Hundreds of voices bellowed in a unified reply.
  2838. >Nebula pressed her lips to Celestia's left ear. "Technically, Princess, Anon outranks you in the Night Guard chain of command, as thestral soldiers view him as an extension of Princess Luna herself. Luna is at the top, followed by Anon, then you, and finally me, the lowly Night Guard commander."
  2839. >Celestia turned to Nebula with a frown. A shrug and an apologetic smile was all she received from the mare.
  2840. >Nebula focused her attention back to the human, who was beginning to smile.
  2841. "Who holds the night?" he called out loudly.
  2842. >"WE DO!"
  2843. "Who protects Equestria?"
  2844. >"WE DO!"
  2845. >Anonymous jumped onto a table and yelled,
  2846. "WHO ARE THE MOST VICIOUS AND RUTHLESS FIGHTERS EQUESTRIA HAS TO OFFER?"
  2847. >"WE ARE!!!"
  2848. >Anonymous beat his chest with his fist in agreement.
  2849. "YOU'RE GODDAMNED RIGHT YOU ARE!" He roared at the top of his lungs. "CARRY ON!"
  2850. >Every thestral in attendance cheered with honest enthusiasm.
  2851. >Nebula positively beamed at the man.
  2852. >Her Anonymous had regained his confidence.
  2853.  
  2854. ...
  2855.  
  2856. >Unmistakable sounds of hardened steel impacting hardened steel rang out over the sounds of stomping hooves and cheers of encouragement.
  2857. >"Come on Princess! You've got this!"
  2858. >"Better be lighter on those hooves, Sergeant Major!"
  2859. >"Twenty bits says the princess sweeps all the Legion's field grades and sergeants major!"
  2860. >"You're on, Private!"
  2861. >Luna parried a thrust from Command Sergeant Major Fracture. The burly crystal stallion was her toughest opponent so far in the impromptu sparring tournament she started an hour ago.
  2862. >Despite having to shake off over one thousand years' worth of rust, Luna quickly remembered the basics of swordplay, though she had to learn how to fight differently against the crystal ponies.
  2863. >Not having the advantage of telekinesis, the crystal ponies (who wielded their swords with their mouths) preferred to strike and sweep with their forelegs in between thrusts and slashes from their swords.
  2864. >This up-close-and-very-personal style of fighting was much more savage than what Luna had come to expect from unicorn swordsponies, but every hoof blow she sustained made her feel alive.
  2865. >Now three minutes into the duel, Luna had started to learn the sergeant major's tells. He would snort before following up a right slash with a left hook, he always delivered straight thrusts after a combination of two upward slashes, and the stallion was wont to use stop-thrusts before a leg sweep to counter Luna's more aggressive advances.
  2866. >That Luna had magically dulled her blade to the match the condition of the crystal ponies' sparring swords did not preclude the possibility of injury. A dull sword could still break bones, as could well-placed kicks.
  2867. >The night princess had told the legionnaires to "not hold back" in the ferocity of their attacks for her sake.
  2868. >Some of the officers she had faced clearly wanted to duel the princess as gentlestallions, and refrained from engaging in hoof strikes, to Luna's frustration.
  2869. >The bold Fracture changed the tone of the tournament immediately by landing a heavy left hook into Luna's armored barrel that sent her tumbling into a roll before she recovered. The princess smiled gleefully at the NCO when she righted herself, having finally found an opponent that wasn't afraid to show her what he was made of.
  2870. >Four minutes in. Luna shifted her tactics, preferring to utilize her sword less in favor of her own hoof strikes. She utilized her front shoe blades to deflect her opponent's sword strokes.
  2871. >Five minutes in. Fracture was beginning to tire, and Luna was only building steam thanks to her alicorn nature.
  2872. >She attacked with a wide arcing slash that started from her lower left side, traveling up and over Fracture's head. Fracture met Luna's blade high, leaving his right side exposed. Continuing her telekinetic slash to the right, Luna rolled forward and to the left. Her back was now facing Fracture, with her tail a mere forty centimeters from the right side of her opponent's barrel, but it didn't matter. The stallion was still trying to ward off Luna's blade when she planted her front hooves into the dirt and bucked her rear hooves out.
  2873. >*THUD*
  2874. >"OOOOOHHHHH!" the spectating soldiers yelled as their senior enlisted leader went airborne.
  2875. >To his credit, CSM Fracture's sword was still secured in his bite when he hit the ground. He immediately sprang up to his hooves, apparently uninjured.
  2876. >Luna had already closed the distance when Fracture recovered his stance. She wanted to end the match here and now. The princess increased the tempo of her strikes-
  2877. >[-in our time of need-]
  2878. >The voice startled Luna so thoroughly that she extinguished her magic. Her sword fell to the ground with a thud. Fracture attempted to seize the opportunity, lunging forward with a thrust, but was repelled by a blue hemispherical dome that shielded the princess.
  2879. >Fracture spit out his sword, incensed. "I thought we agreed to no magical shields!" he barked.
  2880. "Shh! Quiet!" Luna snapped. "Did anypony hear that!?"
  2881. >"Uh, hear what, Princess?" The sergeant major asked, tilting his head in confusion.
  2882. >Luna dropped her shield and swung her head to and fro, her ears swiveling wildly. It was like a whisper, but she thought she heard it everywhere-
  2883. >[Blessed Mother, hear our prayer in our time of need-]
  2884. "Who said that!?" Luna shouted to the legion, her eyes wide with concern.
  2885. >Colonel Geode approached the princess cautiously. "Princess? Respectfully, Your Highness, nopony has said anything. What are you hearing?"
  2886. >[-do not allow her to return to the Stars. Please, spare your daughter-]
  2887. "There!" Luna exclaimed, pointing to the south.
  2888. >Hundreds of heads turned to face the direction Luna's armored hoof was pointing at. They saw nothing, save for the Crystal Mountains to the south. One by one, the soldiers gradually turned back to face the princess, who grew more agitated by the second.
  2889. "Something is wrong. Very wrong." Luna stated to Fracture and Geode. She began to pace back and forth, swishing her tail violently. "Somepony is in grave danger. I can hear it. Sense it."
  2890. >"Then don't linger on our account, Princess!" Fracture replied. "Oh, and thanks for the duel. I hope I wasn't too rough with you."
  2891. >Luna smiled.
  2892. "Not at all, Command Sergeant Major. Thank you for the spirited contest. I trust that 'tap' I delivered at the end-"
  2893. >[PLEASE, PRINCESS LUNA, I CAN'T LOSE MY SISTER!]
  2894. >Luna flinched at the voice that echoed in her head.
  2895. "There is no time. I must make haste!" she stated to nopony in particular.
  2896. >"No problem, Your Highness." CSM Fracture replied. "And don't worry about me, I'm fine."
  2897. >Luna sheathed her sword and took the sky. She hovered for a moment above the legion and called out in her Royal Canterlot Voice.
  2898. "FAREWELL, CADENZA'S SHIELD! NEVER FORGET WHO YOU FIGHT FOR!”
  2899. >The distance between Luna and the legion increased steadily, but she could still hear the echoes of "FOR OUR PRINCESS! FOR OUR LOVED ONES! FOR OUR HOME!" in the air.
  2900. >Luna dematerialized her armor, no longer having a need for it. Her usual attire took its place, along with her flight goggles from earlier. She could hear frantic snippets of urgent whispered prayers on the wind and in her head simultaneously.
  2901. >Goggles fastened securely over her eyes, Luna lunged forward with her most aggressive acceleration yet, generating a shock wave within seconds.
  2902. >Luna felt she needed to fly south. It was unlike before; no ethereal tugging in her gut. The princess let the voices guide her. The urgent whispers found her, adjusting her heading slightly southwest.
  2903. >The Crystal Mountains gave way to a valley that held a small village consisting of two row houses and a third smaller house. It was lost instantly in a blur of hills and new mountains.
  2904. >Luna crested over a peak and saw Foal Mountain looming in the distance. Nestled between the mountains fore and aft of her lay a massive, heavily-forested area that contained Hollow Shades, home to the largest thestral population in Equestria. She knew from this town originated the desperate pleas that had reached her.
  2905. >The alicorn slowed considerably a few kilometers away from the edge of the wooded expanse. Most of Hollow Shades's residents would be sleeping this early in the afternoon, and the thick forest canopies that hid the town would only muffle a sonic boom so much. Nevertheless, Luna pushed the limits of her subsonic velocity whilst intently searching for a break in the forest roof.
  2906. >Luna felt more confident of where she was needed the closer she flew to the center of the forest. Finally, she spotted a larger clearing in the trees. The princess reared back and flared her wings, maximizing the cross-sectional area she projected in her direction of travel. The increased drag made short work of decelerating her, allowing Luna to easily reorient herself into a head-first dive into the clearing.
  2907. >In the center of the clearing was a large marble water fountain that featured a statue of a serene Princess Luna walking with her wings outstretched. Statues of a thestral colt and filly flanked the centerpiece on either side, looking up at the stone princess from the shadow of her wings, their faces forever adoring.
  2908. >This fountain went unnoticed by the inspiration of its centerpiece, who hit the ground at full gallop.
  2909. >The timing of Luna's arrival was fortunate. The town's streets were mostly empty during that time of day, allowing the princess few obstacles as she weaved between buildings with her eyes glowing white. The few thestrals that were out gasped and threw themselves out of their goddess's way when she raced by.
  2910. >Now on the ground, the whispers she heard grew louder, and more desperate, their origin more clear.
  2911. >Standing alone near the northwestern edge of town was a two-story house with several lights shining through the windows. Fear and hopelessness seemed to pool out of the cracked windows. A pony inside was suffering and in mortal danger, Luna was sure of it.
  2912. >Luna used her wings to slow out of her gallop in front of the house's azure door. She reared up on her hind legs and let out a bellow that could be heard throughout the town as her front hooves slammed into the entrance. The remnants of the door that didn't splinter from the powerful impact were knocked down into the home's threshold.
  2913. >The princess burst through the battered entryway, unsure of what to expect. She was greeted by the sight of candlelit living room. Two thestral mares had been standing before a statuette bearing the lunar princess's likeness, their heads bowed in reverence as they repeated their rushed prayers. With the explosive entrance of the real moon princess, the mares screamed in terror. They soon realized just who had made the destructive entrance into their home, and threw themselves on the ground at Luna's hooves.
  2914. "My children! What is wrong?"
  2915. >"Blessed Mother! You have heard our prayers!" the mare on Luna's right exclaimed in awe.
  2916. "Indeed I did, all the way in Rainbow Falls. Tell me, child, what troubles you? There is somepony in danger here! Who is it?"
  2917. >The mare to Luna's left jumped to her hooves. She was clearly younger than her middle-aged counterpart.
  2918. >"It's my sister, Tulip Field! She is with foal, and has been in labor for since last night. Father set out late last night for Fillydelphia to retrieve a unicorn doctor, but he hasn't returned. The midwife is doing what she can, but the foal isn't out yet, and Tulip has lost so much blood..."
  2919. >The older mare also returned to her hooves. "Please Princess, help her! I can't lose my daughter and grandfoal!"
  2920. "Where is she?"
  2921. >"Up the stairs, first door on the right!"
  2922. >The alicorn ascended the stairs in a leap and quickly entered the room. The smell hit her first.
  2923. >Blood. Sweat. Precious bodily fluids. The air was rank with it.
  2924. >A middle-aged mare sat at the foot of the bed, her hooves and wing hooks busy attending to the lower reaches of the sweat-soaked mare that lay upon the blood-stained sheets.
  2925. >A young bat pony stallion sat by the pregnant mare's side, clutching one of her forehooves with his own. He lethargically turned to face the source of the new hoofsteps with a tear-streaked face. "Midnight Whisper, did you bring the- *gasp!*"
  2926. >Luna gave the stallion and the midwife the most composed expression she could muster. It didn't matter how unsettled she was by this situation, she was worshipped as a deity by these ponies. These ponies that had placed all of their faith in her, their Mother of Stars. Luna silently vowed to affirm that their faith in her was well-placed.
  2927. "Greetings, my children. Might I be of assistance?"
  2928. >The stallion looked up at Luna with utter desperation contorting his face. "Please... please... don't let my dearest love return to the Stars, Mother. I don't know what I'd do without her."
  2929. "What is your name, my child?"
  2930. >"Smoky. Smoky Sky, Your Highness."
  2931. >Luna extended a wing, raising Smoky's chin with a dark blue primary feather.
  2932. "Fear not, Smoky Sky, I did not come all this distance to let your beloved slip away so easily."
  2933. >The Mother of Stars removed her right forehoof from its slipper and gently touched Tulip's forehead. She was clammy.
  2934. "Tulip, sweet child, can you hear me?"
  2935. >There was no response, no acknowledgement of Luna's words whatsoever.
  2936. "Step aside." Luna commanded the flustered midwife.
  2937. >The mare complied. Luna lit her horn and enveloped Tulip Field in her aura.
  2938. >With closed eyes, Luna scanned Tulips body and energetic fields. She felt the new life stirring within the mother which reassured the princess, but it was short-lived. Tulip's tether to the mortal coil was diminishing, her life's flame a mere candle dancing in the wind.
  2939. >Luna touched her horn to Tulip's side and channeled a regeneration spell into her. The princess was treading a very fine line. For several minutes Luna worked, alternating between applying small, precise flows of regenerative magic and gently repositioning the life within her, orienting it for entrance into the world.
  2940. >Almost there. Almost there. Almost... there!
  2941. "Get ready," Luna said suddenly to the midwife, "they're about to come out!"
  2942. >Smoky was astounded. "They?"
  2943. "Yes," Luna replied with a joyful smile, "'they'."
  2944. >A filly came first, gently pulled by Luna's blue aura. The colt came shortly after. The foals' first breaths of life brought weak, tiny cries that soon intensified.
  2945. >Smoky Sky wept with joy.
  2946. "Would you like to cut the cords, dad?" Luna asked Smoky.
  2947. >Smoky wiped his eyes with his charcoal wings and sniffed. "Normally, I would, but I think the foals would be proud someday to learn that you did, Princess."
  2948. >Luna smiled and nodded.
  2949. "Very well."
  2950. >She cut and sealed the cords quickly with her magic, and then aided the midwife in cleaning the foals. The newborns were soon clean and wrapped in receiving blankets.
  2951. >Smoky held the twins while Luna directed more regenerative spells into Tulip. The new mother stirred, and gradually opened her eyes. Tulip's groans initiated a new wave of tears from her husband.
  2952. >Luna gently eased Tulip up into a sitting position.
  2953. "Welcome back, my child."
  2954. >"Princess... Luna?"
  2955. "Indeed. You've been through quite the ordeal, sweet Tulip. There are some ponies that would like to meet you..."
  2956. >Tulip Field beheld her foals with a demure smile. "Twins. I knew. I just knew it!"
  2957. >The mother held out her forelegs. Luna and Smoky gently deposited the foals in Tulip’s loving embrace.
  2958. "Only a one in one hundred-thousand chance of occurring in thestrals. The odds of a thestral mare surviving foalbirth with twins are very, very slim. You were closer to joining your ancestors than I would like to admit. Truly, you are blessed, Tulip Field."
  2959. >Tulip began to sob weakly. "Thank you, Princess. Thank you for saving my babies... and me."
  2960. >Sounds of a throat being cleared directed everypony's attention to the foot of the bed. "If it's alright with everypony," the midwife began, "I need to finish my duties with Tulip before she nurses her foals. Things are going to be messy, and I-"
  2961. "Say no more." Luna interrupted. "Come, Smoky. Let the mare work."
  2962. >Smoky nuzzled his wife's face and kissed his foals' foreheads before following Luna downstairs.
  2963. >Tulip's mother was prancing nervously in place where Luna had left her.
  2964. >"Were those the cries of my grandfoal I heard? And Tulip, how is she?"
  2965. "My warmest congratulations! Tulip Fields is recovering, and has given birth to twins. A filly and a colt."
  2966. >Tulip's mother and sister burst into tears. Luna gathered them both into her feathery grasp and held the mares until they could collect themselves.
  2967. >Luna wiped the mares' eyes with her feathers.
  2968. "My children, there is much yet to do. The midwife has quite a mess on her hooves to clean up. Tulip's condition is much improved but she is weak. Have you any fresh meat?"
  2969. >Everypony shook their head.
  2970. >"We've all been so occupied with Tulip, we've all neglected to hunt, let alone eat, the past two days." Midnight Whisper, Tulip's mother, replied.
  2971. >"I'll go hunting right now." Smoky added.
  2972. >The weariness on the young stallion's face has obvious.
  2973. "No! You will not!" Luna commanded with a stomp of her hoof.
  2974. >Smoky's ears flattened in submission. Luna placed a hoof on his withers.
  2975. "You are in no condition to hunt." Luna explained gently. "Besides, your place today is here, with your wife and foals. I will provide for you, my children."
  2976. >Smoky bowed. His in-laws followed suit.
  2977. >"Smoky?" Midnight Whisper asked. "We're going to need clean sheets and towels. Jet Stream, dear? Cleaning supplies. We can't expect the midwife to do everything herself!"
  2978. >The three bat ponies scurried upstairs. Luna set to repair the door she destroyed. She swung the door on its hinges and was convinced it was repaired, good as new.
  2979. >A small crowd greeted her outside the residence. They bowed when Luna stepped outside the house.
  2980. >"Rise, my children. I have the most joyous news! Tulip Field has given birth to twin foals, a filly and colt. The mother and children are healthy. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to hunt for this family's next meal!"
  2981. >The ponies in the crowd cheered and stomped their hooves. Screeches of celebration filled the air. Luna spread her wings and leapt into the air. A small break in the foliage above provided her an egress route through the forest canopy.
  2982. >Foal Mountain towered above its neighbors south of Hollow Shades. It was there Luna had first discovered her Children of the Night so many lifetimes ago, and it was there she decided to hunt.
  2983. >The sky above the small mountain range was littered with a few clouds. Luna set down on one of them and pushed it to lower altitudes. With the cloud obscuring her silhouette, Luna was able to bring herself within one hundred meters of a mountain goat herd than on the mountain's northern face, immediately below the ridgeline.
  2984. >The herd ambled about the rocky terrain, ears constantly swiveling, scanning the air for sounds of danger. Luna watched the goats intently. A large ram had deviated away from the main body of the herd. He would do nicely.
  2985. >With raised hindquarters and a swishing tail, Luna crept to the edge of her foggy platform. She dove off the cloud, bearing directly towards the unsuspecting ungulate.
  2986. >Turning back towards the northeast, the ram raised its head just in time to notice a large dark silhouette hurtling towards itself. His awareness came far too late.
  2987. >Two hooves encapsulated by lavender-colored metal impacted the ram's head, just below the right eye socket. Luna's momentum drove the ram's head into the short vertical rock face he had been grazing next to, thoroughly crushing his skull with a sickening meaty crunch. The goat collapsed under its own weight, dead before it hit the ground. Its herd mates fled the scene, deftly navigating boulders, crevasses, and slick rock faces in a frantic race to safety.
  2988. >Luna raised the dead ram in her aura and prepared to return to Hollow Shades.
  2989. >The princess stopped. This was not how thestrals dealt with their kills. Mother of Stars or not, Luna could not simply return to Tulip's family with a fresh kill in this condition, lest the thestrals get the wrong impression. The ram would have to be bled before gutting, transport, and butchering, as tradition demanded.
  2990. >Wanting to respect the Children's traditions, Luna decided against using her magic to cut the ram's throat. A few moments of focused magic bore the princess fangs similar to the ones Nightmare Moon had. With an aching mouth, Luna clamped down onto the rams neck and tore at its flesh with a forceful pull of her own neck. This was how a thestral would have finished off a goat to begin with.
  2991. >The savage act complete, Luna telekinetically suspended the goat, its head pointing down and its rear hooves facing the sky. Blood flowed and splattered over the rocks, painting them crimson.
  2992. >Luna looked away from her kill and beheld the mottled green, grey, and brown landscape around her. The mid afternoon sun kissed Luna's fur, making the alicorn long for the comforting embrace of her older sister. Gentle intermittent breezes coupled with the pitter-patter of dripping blood brought Luna into a quasi-meditative state.
  2993. >Celestia. Anonymous. The two souls she cherished most in this world were the same two souls with whom she was still very upset.
  2994. >If there was any silver lining to the morning's fiasco, it was Luna's visit with Cadence. Yes, the Princess of Love's soul dive was a disturbing experience, and it was not the ideal context for Luna's first one-on-one visit with her niece. Nevertheless, Cadence's devotion to her calling moved Luna. The sweet, bubbly young alicorn had further endeared herself to Luna with her actions, causing Luna to yearn to be more involved in the mare's life.
  2995. >Memories of the ethereal gut-tugging soured Luna's mood. Just what had caused that feeling? Why was she summoned to the furthest reaches of sky and realm? What was the purpose?
  2996. >Her speech and subsequent duels with the Crystal legionnaires bolstered the princess's self-confidence as a leader of ponies. Luna didn't feel like she had been one-thousand years out of ruling practice, especially after today's meeting with the legion.
  2997. >The prayers. Delivering foals.
  2998. >Luna frowned.
  2999. >That ponies across Equestria had long worshipped the princesses as deities was no news to the royal sisters. What disturbed Luna was the realization that today was the first time she had actually heard prayers. Furthermore, in coming to the aid of Tulip Field, Luna had interfered with the natural order of life, something she had only done before as Nightmare Moon.
  3000. >But that was different. As Nightmare Moon, Luna upset the natural balance of harmony and sought to vanquish her own blood to gain total dominion over her subjects. Today, the princess only wanted to spare innocent lives from a tragic fate.
  3001. >If only there were unicorn doctors that lived in the large thestral community…
  3002. 'Surely, this one good deed may go unpunished... right?'
  3003. >Drip, drip, drip.
  3004. >Drip... drip...
  3005. >Luna's reflections had afforded enough time to sufficiently drain the ram. She moved it over a dry boulder and set it down gently. Straddling the body, Luna secured the back of the ram's neck in her powerful bite and took to the skies once more.
  3006. >The princess flew slowly, her movements much more labored as she flew with her encumbrance.
  3007. >Luna was relieved to see the crowd that she addressed earlier had long since dispersed. She let herself into the family's home with the ram hanging limply in her mouth.
  3008. >"Oh my, what a kill!" Midnight Whisper exclaimed. "You spoil us, Princess! I'll show you to the kitchen!"
  3009. >Luna followed the new grandmother out of the living room, through the dining area, and into the kitchen. The princess gently deposited the body upon the large kitchen island butcher block.
  3010. "I have bled it per tradition," Luna explained, "but refrained from gutting, as I did not know how much organ meat your family preferred to keep."
  3011. >Midnight whisper waved a wing. "This is perfect, Your Highness! I'll start butchering it right away. Would you mind sending Jet Stream to help me?"
  3012. "Of course, then I must bid the new parents farewell. Congratulations again on the birth of your grandfoals, my little pony."
  3013. >Luna excused herself and returned to the living room, only to find it empty. She quietly walked upstairs and entered Tulip's bedroom after a soft, respectful knock.
  3014. >Tulip Field lay upon clean sheets, nursing her twins. Jet Stream was engaged in quiet conversation with her brother-in-law. The midwife was gone.
  3015. "Jet Stream? Your mother requires your assistance in butchering."
  3016. >Jet Stream bowed to the princess. "Yes, Your Highness. What did you get?"
  3017. >Luna licked the sticky blood from around her mouth.
  3018. "Mountain goat. A large ram from the slopes of Foal Mountain."
  3019. >Jet Stream and Smoky Sky gasped.
  3020. "You harvested a ram from the sacred mountain?" Smoky asked incredulously. "But we are forbidden from setting hoof there, save for the Anniversary of Emergence... and the Winter Moon Jubilee..."
  3021. >Luna smiled.
  3022. "I am aware. Surely, the Mother of Stars is allowed an exception to tread upon the ground where she first discovered your progenitors, is she not?"
  3023. >Smoky bowed in apology. "Forgive me, Mother."
  3024. "There is nothing to forgive."
  3025. >Jet Stream bowed to Luna in turn and hurried out of the room, leaving Luna with the parents and their newborns.
  3026. >Smoky broke the silence. "I can't thank you enough for what you've done for us, Mother."
  3027. >Luna shook her head slowly, a smile upon her lips.
  3028. "No thanks is necessary, my child. I was brought here for a reason. I did my duty. Now it is up to you to do yours."
  3029. >The princess leaned forward and whispered hurriedly into the stallion's ear.
  3030. "Your wife was on the brink of death, and I pulled her back. Yes, my regeneration spell stopped her internal hemorrhage and stabilized her, and yes, I assisted in the delivery of your foals, but that was all I could do. Understand, Smoky Sky, that the effects of alicorn regeneration spells are not understood the way their unicorn counterparts are. I regret to say that I performed the magical bare minimum to save Tulip's life, for fear of unintended side effects from exposure to my unconventional magic. She will have to endure a natural recovery from here out. Fear not, for I will dispatch one of my castle’s healers to your village upon my return to Canterlot. I have just the mare in mind. She will oversee Tulip's recovery, as well as mind the health of your little ones during this delicate stage."
  3031. >The gravity of Luna's words brought Smoky to tears once more. Luna pulled the young father into a tight wing hug and held his shaking body whilst he rode out his sobs.
  3032. >Smoky composed himself. Luna released him and addressed both parents.
  3033. "Nopony can ever learn the true nature of what I did here today. If anypony asks, I sensed the arrival of rare thestral twins and felt compelled to be present for their birth. Ensure your mother, sister, and the midwife understand this."
  3034. >Luna paused and looked intensely into Smoky and Tulip's eyes.
  3035. "Swear to me that you will keep all details of my intervention secret. Swear it to me now."
  3036. >"By the light of the Moon, by our guiding Stars, I swear this to you, Blessed Mother." Smoky and Tulip vowed together.
  3037. "Good."
  3038. >Luna walked up to Tulip, kissed both of her cheeks, and then her forehead.
  3039. "My blessings are with you, Daughter."
  3040. >The princess turned and made her way to the door. An important question came to mind, forcing her to stop and turn around.
  3041. "Have you thought of names for the little ones?"
  3042. >"The colt is Starry Surprise." Smoky answered. "He was the one we didn't expect."
  3043. >"The one YOU didn't expect." Tulip corrected. "I told you all along we were having twins."
  3044. >Luna smiled.
  3045. "And your firstborn? What will you name your daughter?"
  3046. >"Moon Grace." Tulip replied. "To honor what you did for us, Princess."
  3047.  
  3048. ...
  3049.                
  3050. >Anonymous scrubbed his scalp with his fingers, coaxing the last slippery vestiges of conditioner out of his thick hair.
  3051. >It had been a tiring day, mentally and emotionally.
  3052. >Anon turned the shower knob and waited for the water's temperature to increase. With the water heated to the threshold of discomfort, he reflected on the events of the afternoon and evening.
  3053. /.../
  3054. >It amused Anonymous to no end, watching Celestia eat goat meat for the first time. The princess had tried to avoid it, claiming that alicorns couldn't metabolize meat.
  3055. >Anon called her out immediately, citing the many times he saw Luna partake in the thestral staple food.
  3056. >To her credit, Celestia maintained her poised, regal nature as she took dainty bites of the tender meat. Her poker face was set to eleven, her diplomatic acting on full display. The elder princess gave a demure smile, and even an occasional, soft, "mmm" as she chewed the morsels a bit too long.
  3057. >Nebula and Anon attacked their plates ravenously, sparing the bare minimum decorum required of their stations and distinguished guest.
  3058. >Celestia watched Nebula's every action closely. It helped keep her mind off of what she was ingesting.
  3059. >The soldiers barely reacted when Nebula draped her wing over Anon's back as they dined. Such displays towards their Advocate were typical of their senior officer.
  3060. >A few heads discreetly turned after the Colonel finished her meal and began to tug (somewhat painfully) at Anon's ear piercing with her fangs.
  3061. >It wasn't until Nebula excused herself from the table that the Night Guard thestrals openly stared.
  3062. >After tending to Anon's ear, Nebula stated that she needed to catch up on her daily tasks. She stood and made to leave, but not before planting a soft kiss on Anon's forehead. To everyone's surpise, including Nebula's, Anonymous pulled her head to his. He bit Nebula's large, tufty ear with his own diminutive canines, following that up with a loud kiss to the mare's snout.
  3063. >Celestia let her eyebrows remain elevated as Nebula strutted pink-faced out of the mess hall, head held high, her large wings spread in an involuntary display of dominance.
  3064. >Through it all, Anon was oblivious to the reactions of all around him. Anticipation of the imminent meeting with Luna consumed his attention.
  3065. >Moon Court was uneventful. The three hours passed by without a hitch.
  3066. >Anonymous shared a quiet dinner alone with Celestia that evening. To his chagrin, the chicken salad he had ordered was suspiciously devoid of any chicken. He looked up from his freshly-delivered meal to see a devilishly-grinning solar princess.
  3067. >Anonymous returned Celestia’s grin with one of his own, opting to refrain from retaliation until dessert.
  3068. >As he sat close to the alicorn, Anon was able to swiftly swoop in and abscond with a large forkful of Celestia's chocolate velvet cake, wolfing down the massive bite before the princess could stop him.
  3069. >Tia pouted silently at the man until he capitulated. Anonymous apologized and asked how he could make up for stealing Tia's dessert. The princess smiled excitedly and simply held out an enormous ivory wing, wiggling her primary feathers expectantly.
  3070. >Anonymous sighed, stood up, and spent the remainder of his time with Celestia skillfully preening her massive wings.
  3071. /.../
  3072.  
  3073. [Recommended background music: 10cc- "I'm Not in Love"]
  3074.  
  3075. >Anon emerged from his shower clean and slightly less anxious. He dried himself off quickly and strode out of his bathroom with a towel tied around his waist.
  3076. >The man rounded the corner into his room to see Luna waiting for him. She sat on his bed unshod and devoid of any regalia.
  3077. >Anonymous's eyes met Luna's. He froze mid-step and exchanged faint blushes with the princess as memories of the morning's events rushed back into both their minds.
  3078. >Luna broke the awkward silence. "'Tis only fitting that I catch you in a compromised state, wouldn't you agree?"
  3079. >The man opened his mouth to retort with a smart-ass reply, but refrained.
  3080. "I'll give you that." he offered with a sheepish grin.
  3081. >"How... how was your day?"
  3082. "Unforgettable. Yours?"
  3083. >"That would be a most-appropriate description of my day as well. I set off for- *gasp!* Anonymous! By the Stars, what happened to you?"
  3084. >Luna pointed at the wounds on Anon's shoulder before rushing up to inspect them.
  3085. >Anonymous waived a hand dismissively.
  3086. "Oh, that? That's nothing. Don't worry about it."
  3087. >"This certainly doesn't LOOK like 'nothing'." Luna answered with a frown. "This looks like... these are fang wounds! Anon, did one of my Night Guard attack you?"
  3088. >The human scratched at his head nervously.
  3089. "Yeah, I mean, no! It was a... uh... well, an impromptu sparring session! I needed to blow off some steam this morning after I left your chambers and got into a little tussle with a guard."
  3090. >"You picked a fight with a guard?" Luna asked with a head tilt.
  3091. "I didn't 'pick a fight'. It was a mutual arrangement made in good faith, just a bit... unexpected."
  3092. >"Made in good faith, yet this thestral sank his fangs into your shoulder. A bit excessive for sparring, no?"
  3093. "Hey, I gave her as good as I got, and then some. Don't worry, she's fine. No worse for wear, honest!"
  3094. >Luna cocked an eyebrow. "I see... and who was this mysteri-"
  3095. "Luna, really, it's not a big deal," Anon interrupted with a smile. "and this is healing much, much faster... than it... should? Huh, weird. Anyways, you were about to tell me about your day?"
  3096. >The princess narrowed her eyes at the man. A tense stare was all she offered before returning to sit on the bed with a huff.
  3097. >"I traveled to the Crystal Empire, flew around the northern reaches of the realm and up to such extreme altitudes that I observed uncharted continents on the other side of the planet, surveyed the new garrison location with the legion dispatched by Cadence, dueled with several crystal legionnaires, helped deliver twin foals in Hollow Shades, then killed a ram on Foal Mountain to feed the newborn foals' family. What about you?"
  3098. "Well damn, that's quite the day! Hunting on the sacred mountain, huh? Well, that would explain the fangs-"
  3099. >Luna gasped and lit her horn. "Oh! I had forgotten-"
  3100. "Oh, no, no, no, no!!! Damn it!" Anonymous cried as Luna returned her teeth back to normal.
  3101. >"What? What's wrong?"
  3102. >Anonymous turned his head and mumbled something unintelligible.
  3103. >"Pardon, Anon? What was that?"
  3104. "You look... you look really cute with fangs." Anonymous admitted quietly as he stared at the ground.
  3105. >Luna rolled her eyes and suppressed a giggle. "You were going to tell me about your day?"
  3106. "It was nowhere near as action-packed as yours." Anonymous sighed. "I uh, threatened to eat a minotaur that came to Sun Court, staged an elaborate ruse in which Celestia thought I had been killed by griffons, observed the QRF train-"
  3107. >Luna leapt off the bed.
  3108. >"You did WHAT!?"
  3109. >Anonymous held up his hands defensively.
  3110. "I wasn't going to actually eat him, it was just playful banter!"
  3111. >"No, not that. What in the name of the Moon motivated you to fake your own death? Do you have any idea of how that must have traumatized Celes- Oh. Ohhhh." Luna chuckled. "Justified, yet excessive in execution. How typical of you."
  3112. "Tia said almost the exact same thing." the man replied with a laugh. "You can get blow-by-blow account from Tia, but I will say, I got her good. Oh! Tia ate lunch with Neb and me in the Night Guard mess hall, and we even got her to try goat!"
  3113. >"Truly? How did she take it?" Luna asked while she sat down once more on the bed.
  3114. >Anonymous smirked.
  3115. "In typical Celestia fashion. Poised, regal... she had that certain neutral expression she does when she's in an unpleasant situation." he said with another laugh.
  3116. >Luna began to laugh so hard that she snorted. "Yes, I know that face! I know it well! Oh, Anonymous, I wish I had been there to see that!"
  3117. >Anon ceased laughing and his face grew somber.
  3118. "Yeah, me too... I missed you, Luna."
  3119. >Luna stopped laughing instantly. "I missed you too," she said softly.
  3120. >They stared at each other silently for a while.
  3121. "Mind if I sit down?"
  3122. >"It's your bed..." the princess stated, patting the spot next to her with a hoof.
  3123. "Yeah..."
  3124. >Anonymous sat down next to Luna. The man and mare stole glances at each other, but neither party had found the nerve to look directly at the other.
  3125. "So."
  3126. >"So, indeed... I suppose we should address the dragon in the room?"
  3127. >Silence settled in the room again, and this time, it lasted for several minutes.
  3128. >'Confidence, Luna!' the princess thought. 'You're the princess here. Tell him that you've been thinking about- no! Stop thinking about his member!'
  3129. 'Alright man, keep it cool. Disarm her with a compliment, then slowly work into the issue. Hmm, what to compliment... Eyes? No, I always comment on how pretty they are. Mane? Nah... Teats? Oh Jesus Fucking Christ. Yeah, that'll go over REAL well...'
  3130. >'Stupid, sexy Anon! Why must you fluster me so? Agh! Get it together, Luna! 'Anon, I've been thinking about what happened today, and I want you to know that despite being initially embarrassed and upset by what happened, I can't stop thinking about your massive-' Damn it! Just spit it out, Luna!'
  3131. 'Don't think about her teats. Don't think about her teats. Don't think about her teats. Don't think about her teats...'
  3132. >Luna cleared her throat, bringing the reign of silence to an end.
  3133. >"Anonymous... I've been thinking about what happened today, and I want you to know that despite being initially embarrassed and upset by what occurred, I can't stop thinking about how things might have turned out had I let you ravage me senseless."
  3134. >Luna closed her eyes and exhaled. 'Well done, Luna. You broke the ice without attacking him-'
  3135. >Luna opened her eyes and found that Anonymous staring at her with his mouth hanging open.
  3136. >'-why is he staring at me like that? It's not like I said anything...'
  3137. >It was at this moment Luna became painfully aware of her Freudian slip.
  3138. >'Ohhhh. Oh. My. Stars...'
  3139. >With a gasp and a furious blush, Luna shielded herself from Anon's view with her wings. Fortunately for Luna, there was no sea wall that could withstand Anon's spaghetti tsunami.
  3140. "You've got the best teats I've ever seen on a mare!" Anon blurted out loudly before silencing himself with a painful facepalm.
  3141. >But there weren't no brakes on this train. Luna peered out from behind her wings, revealing a beet red face.
  3142. >"You are better endowed in real life than you are in my wildest fantasies!" Luna replied before she could stop herself. "Oh, why couldn't I have simply accepted your proposition instead of-"
  3143. >Anonymous jumped up and ran into his bathroom.
  3144. "I'll be right back!" he called over his shoulder before ripping off his towel and jumping back into the shower.
  3145. >The man stood underneath the cold spray until he shivered.
  3146. 'You can do this. Don't fuck this up. Just tell her the truth!'
  3147. >Satisfied that he had regained full control over himself, Anon tentatively emerged from his shower. He neglected to dry himself off as thoroughly as before, as evidenced by the water that dripped onto his chest from his hair and beard. The man cautiously returned to his bedroom and rejoined Luna on the bed.
  3148. "Luna?"
  3149. >"Yes, Anonymous?"
  3150. >Anon sighed and steeled himself for the difficult words to come.
  3151. "I want you to know how terribly sorry I am for my behavior this morning. You are my best friend, and you deserved better than how I reacted to the situation we found ourselves in. I would never in my right mind presume to put you in the situation that I did."
  3152. >"I accept your apology, Anon." Luna replied with her own sigh. "I regret that you had to discover my feelings for you the way that you did. I regret that I became overwhelmed by your proposition. Perhaps it was for the best that these events unfolded as they did."
  3153. "Your feelings?"
  3154. >Luna stared intensely at Anonymous, having regained her own courage.
  3155. >"I have had feelings for you for some time, Anon. You're my dearest friend, we spend so much time together, we have great chemistry... can you blame me for wanting something more? It seems like a natural progression to me."
  3156. "No. I can't." Anon sighed. "Truth is, Luna, I've had feelings for you too, but I haven't acted on them."
  3157. >"Why haven't you acted on them?" Luna asked breathlessly.
  3158. >Anonymous grabbed Luna's bare forehooves and pressed them to his chest.
  3159. "Luna, you're the best friend I've ever had. Words can't describe how precious our friendship is to me. Don't forget my regrettable track record with romantic relationships in Equestria- I never wanted to jeopardize what we have by trying to pursue you romantically.  I would never forgive myself if I drove you away because things didn't work out between us."
  3160. >Luna allowed herself to hope.
  3161. >"Anonymous... I didn't know you felt the same way... Does this mean...?"
  3162. >The man looked away, unable to witness the expression he knew his answer would cause.
  3163. "I, I can't Luna. Not now, at least."
  3164. >Luna gasped and shut her eyes tightly. She sat silently for a moment, then opened them again.
  3165. >"Why not?" she asked with shimmering eyes and a shaky voice.
  3166. >The human forced himself to meet Luna's pained expression.
  3167. "I'm not the man you need me to be in that context. Not as I am right now. There's... there's a lot I need to work through. A lot of things I need to figure out. I have my own demons I have to fight, and I don't want you getting caught in the crossfire. I'm damaged goods, Luna. Too easily controlled by lust. I don't deserve you."
  3168. >A brief vision of his shield, held by his stalwart companion Nebula, flashed through his mind.
  3169. "I'm... I'm not worthy." he said with sudden clarity.
  3170. >A single tear ran down his face. Luna brushed it away with a primary feather.
  3171. >"I'm 'damaged goods' too, you know." she replied softly.
  3172. "I don't think you are."
  3173. >"Well, I don't think you are either."
  3174. >Anonymous looked at the princess with earnest eyes.
  3175. "Luna, please. I can't lose you. I can't lose what we've built over the past three years. Someday, perhaps, we can be together. Just not right now. I have to become more than what I am, something better."
  3176. 'And I'm not sure I'm ready to be better right now,' he neglected to add.
  3177. >Luna nodded slowly. She gathered her thoughts and chose her words carefully.
  3178. >"I can respect your position, my dearest Anonymous. Besides, one thousand years on the Moon has made me a patient mare."
  3179. "I don't want things to become awkward or resentful between us!" Anon replied quickly, his voice saturated with concern.
  3180. >"You're still my right-hoof stallion, and my best friend." Luna responded. She pulled a hoof away from Anon and gently stroked his face. "I don't want to lose that either. The only difference is now, now there are no secrets between us. And perhaps, on one fateful night, stars willing, we can become more than best friends."
  3181. "I would love that." Anon whispered under his breath, his reply almost inaudible to the princess.
  3182. >Almost inaudible.
  3183. >Luna slowly clambered off Anon's bed and onto her hooves. She moved for the chamber doors, but stopped and turned around. "Should I expect to dine with you before Moon Court tomorrow afternoon?"
  3184. >Anonymous stood and moved to accompany the princess to the door.
  3185. "Yes. No, wait! I'll be in Ponyville all day tomorrow. I haven't decided yet if I'll return late in the evening or just spend the night at home."
  3186. >"Ponyville? What for?"
  3187. "Oh. Apple Bloom sent me a note this afternoon asking-"
  3188. >"Ah-ah-ah" Luna interrupted, pointing at the tapestry that hung on the wall over Anon's bed. "Say no more."
  3189. "So... do you have to head out already? We haven't spent much time together tonight..."
  3190. >"Unfortunately, I must go now. There are a few important items that I must attend to before I begin my nightly tasks. However, before I go..."
  3191. >Luna walked with slow, deliberate steps to Anonymous. She reared up, placing her forehooves on Anon's shoulders and stared into his eyes.
  3192. "Luna, what are you doing?" Anonymous asked quietly. His hands reached up on their own volition and grasped Luna's barrel, which began to swell and contract with excited breaths.
  3193. >The princess slowly wrapped her forelegs behind Anon's neck. "I need to see something," she whispered.
  3194. >Anonymous was lost in the large, beautiful aquamarine eyes that moved ever-closer to his.
  3195. "Need to see what?" he whispered back.
  3196. >"This..."
  3197. >Luna closed her eyes and gently pulled Anon's head towards hers.
  3198. >Anonymous instinctually closed his eyes and began to lean forward, but stopped himself when his lips were a hair's breadth from Luna's. He opened his eyes and gently pulled back from the softly puckered lips that anxiously awaited his.
  3199. "Luna, honey... I can't."
  3200. >The princess sighed and opened her eyes. "Is a kiss too much to ask for?"
  3201. >Anon cupped Luna's cheek with an open palm. She leaned into his touch with closed eyes.
  3202. "I want to kiss you. Believe me, I do... more than you know. But I can't kiss you like that with a clean conscience. I have to do things the right way with you."
  3203. >Luna gave the man a genuine smile, one full of hope and understanding.
  3204. >"I'm proud of you, Anonymous. Thank you for your honesty."
  3205. >With that, the princess planted a kiss on Anon's cheek, returned to all four hooves, and walked to the door. Before leaving, she turned back to look at the man one last time. What started as a wistful glance quickly turned into a blush, accompanied by furious giggling. Luna covered her mouth with a wing and departed, her tail swishing wildly. Her giggles were still audible as she descended the tower stairs.
  3206. >Anonymous stood where Luna had left him, head tilted in confusion. One of his guard mares looked back through the open door, her eyes meeting Anon's with equal confusion. The mare glanced down, mouthed the words, "Oh my Stars," and immediately shut the door to the suite.
  3207. >Anonymous looked down, finally noticing the large tent that had formed in his towel.
  3208. "Oh, fuck me!"
  3209.  
  3210. ...
  3211.  
  3212. [Recommended background/interlude music- The Fixx: "One Thing leads to Another"]
  3213.  
  3214. >She returned to the scene.
  3215. >It was a mistake, yet here she stood, all the same.
  3216. >The curtains had been drawn this time, thankfully, allowing her to drop her guard somewhat.
  3217. >She swished her tail in agitation. Why did she come back? She was lucky enough to have escaped the first time.
  3218. >Her brilliant blue eyes glinted in the dim crystal light, moving left and right, scanning for nothing and nopony in particular.
  3219. 'Just leave. It's not too late. Nopony will ever find out if you cut your losses now.' she thought. 'Besides, I'd be surprised if he-'
  3220. >Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.
  3221. >His eyes met hers. They widened with genuine surprise, then narrowed slightly in recognition.
  3222. >He looked back the way he came, and then to her.
  3223. >She stood her ground, chest out, ears high.
  3224. >He closed the door behind him, and made his way to her, moving as a predator stalks his prey.
  3225. >Five meters away, he paused, turned to the side, and gestured to the door, offering her a final chance for egress.
  3226. >She glanced at him, to the door, and back to him again. Her tail swished nervously. She slowly unfurled her wings, bared her fangs, and gave the lowest growl she could muster.  
  3227. >He smirked and squared himself to her, accepting the challenge.
  3228. >Among books and busts they engaged in the furious dance.
  3229. >Three times she pressed her attack, wrestling for dominance, for an advantage.
  3230. >Three times she was met head-on and overpowered. Near the end, all she could do was sink her fangs into flesh and ride out the waves that coursed through her body.
  3231. >Unbeknownst to both parties, there was a witness.
  3232. >Intense purple eyes watched from high above with surprise, fascination, and no small amount of envy.
  3233.  
  3234. End of Day 3
  3235.  
  3236. ...
  3237.  
  3238. Chapter 4 (Thursday)
  3239.  
  3240. [Recommended background music: Sammy Hagar- Heavy Metal (Soundtrack Version)]
  3241.  
  3242. >Equestrian clouds never ceased to fascinate Anonymous.
  3243. >Perhaps it was the intrinsic magical qualities that granted them an ethereal vibrancy in the pollution-free sky of his adopted homeland. Maybe his perception of them was biased, knowing that certain pony species could land on and manipulate them.
  3244. >Regardless, if the man could only use one word to describe the high-altitude vista before him, it would be "breathtaking".
  3245. >The last time he had been above any clouds was back on Earth, flying to Nashville. To say a commercial airline ride was a far cry from riding atop a flying alicorn at eleven thousand meters altitude was a severe understatement.
  3246. >Anon's heart leapt at the beauty around him. The afternoon sun enabled the cotton-shaped condensation to sparkle with a radiance that brought a tear to his eye.
  3247. >Despite cruising at such extreme heights and velocities, Anonymous was strangely comfortable. He suffered no symptoms of altitude sickness. The air he sped through was nothing more than a gentle breeze that didn't even threaten to unseat Applejack's trademark hat from his head.
  3248. >Tartarus, he wasn't even cold. In fact, he was comfortably warm, though much of that heat could be attributed to the mare that his legs were wrapped around.
  3249. >Celestia cut through the air, her multichromatic pastel mane flowing in her wake, yet somehow not obstructing her passenger's field of view.
  3250. >Despite carrying one-hundred-and-ten kilograms of human on her back, she flew effortlessly; a paragon of aerial prowess.
  3251. >Sheer black stockings contrasted sharply against her alabaster fur and the sparkling white clouds of her heavenly environment. Red silk panties covered luscious lower lips, among other things. Anon leaned back, his fingers reaching behind him to wrap around the black lace garter belt that suspended Celestia's rear stockings.
  3252. >Releasing his grasp on Celestia's lingerie, Anonymous unfastened several snaps on his orange plaid western-styled shirt, allowing the wind to kiss his chiseled chest. Said well-tailored shirt complemented his blue denim jeans and cowboy boots perfectly; his silhouette reminiscent of a sheriff or cowboy from the American Old West.
  3253. >If only he had a single-action revolver hanging from his belt to complete the ensemble.
  3254. >Riding through the sky on a magical flying pony sun-goddess had to count for something.
  3255. >Especially when that princess appeared hot to trot, in more ways than one.
  3256. "Faster, Tia!" the man shouted. "I can't be late!"
  3257. >Celestia turned her head to face her rider. "What if I'm not the the mood to hurry?" she asked playfully.
  3258. >Her eyes spotted a riding crop in Anon's hand. The man waved it in a lazy windshield-wiper motion.
  3259. "I could always provide some motivation..."
  3260. >"Anonnnnn," she replied with an overplayed pout, "not the crop!"
  3261. >Anonymous threw the crop over his shoulder and wiggled his fingers in view of the princess, grinning all the while.
  3262. >Celestia's pout gave way to a coy smile and half-lidded eyes. "That's more like it..."
  3263. >Flesh hit flesh with a meaty slap, though it left much to be desired.
  3264. >"Is that all you've got?"
  3265. >Anonymous grinned again and slammed his open palm onto Celestia's rump with as much force as he could muster. His hand squeezed a generous handful of pony princess plot, causing her panties to bunch and ride up in his powerful grip.
  3266. >"Mmmmmm, I knew you had it in you."
  3267. >A break in the clouds revealed a bleak landscape, a high desert plateau; brown, barren, desolate.
  3268. >The rider scanned the scenery for his destination.
  3269. "There it is," he said pointing with his right index finger, "one o'clock low, south of that butte."
  3270. >"Roger."
  3271. >Celestia maintained her heading and attitude.
  3272. "Tia? We need to get down there."
  3273. >"What's that, Anon?"
  3274. "I need you to go down!"
  3275. >The mare turned her head back instantly and shot the man a hungry stare. "Likewise, but wait until we land!"
  3276. >Anonymous pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his brow with a loud, forceful exhalation, much to the princess's delight.
  3277. >Celestia began her descent, approaching her target in a spiraling aerial path. In what felt like a moment later, she touched down on the hot desert ground in a lope, slowing to a walk shortly thereafter.
  3278. >She stopped some fifty meters away from a saloon. It stood in the shadow of the butte that dominated the local terrain. A blue neon light reading "Moonshine Junction" glowed brightly against the dull wooden architecture.
  3279. "Thanks, babe," Anon said whilst dismounting the mare and straightening his hat.
  3280. >He moved for the saloon. A massive white wing and faux-indignant voice stopped him immediately.
  3281. >"Where do you think you're going?"
  3282. >A sun-bronzed finger pointed to the structure.
  3283. "There."
  3284. >"I believe you owe me for that ride."
  3285. >Anonymous reached into his jean pockets.
  3286. "Oh? Hang on, I'm not sure how many bits I brought."
  3287. >"I don't want your money."
  3288. "Then what do you want?"
  3289. >"Normally, I'd say giving me a 'bareback ride' would repay the one I gave you," Celestia stated with a hoof stoking her chin. "However, since you're somewhat pressed for time..."
  3290. >The princess turned her back to Anon, her long tail swishing to and fro with excitement. She turned her head rearwards, revealing a sultry smile.
  3291. >"Praise the sun, big boy."
  3292. >Anonymous removed his hat, placing it on Celestia's back. Magenta eyes watched his every move intently.
  3293. >Strong fingers raked down along the mare's spine. They stopped after hooking under red silk.
  3294. >Anon looked up. Celestia nodded her affirmation. He responded with his best Will Riker smirk, kneeled, and peeled down the silk barrier.
  3295. >When his lips met hers, he tasted a delightfully sweet citrus.
  3296. >It seemed he would be late after all.
  3297. ..
  3298. >Inside the saloon a jukebox filled the air with sounds of country music. It was loud enough to identify the genre, but not so much to identify the songs. Steel guitar notes carried throughout the dimly-lit cavernous room which was empty, save for a single circular table in the center of the floor.
  3299. >At one end of the table sat Anonymous, dressed in naught but his underwear. His hat, shirt, pants, boots, and socks were carelessly discarded in a pile on the floor to his right.
  3300. >Across from him sat a smirking Princess Luna, who was in a related state of undress. Her crown, shoes, peytral, and a pair of white silk panties were similarly cast onto the floor beside her. The only garments that remained on her body were white silk stockings, one on each leg.
  3301. >For a brief moment, she appeared to flicker in and out of existence.
  3302. "Whoa, you okay there?"
  3303. >The alicorn's appearance solidified. Her chest began to rise and fall faster with noticeably excited breaths.
  3304. >Luna glanced down at the cards she had suspended in midair with her magic.  A fresh, triumphant smile grew across her face before she laid them on the table.
  3305. >"Four of a kind."
  3306. >Anonymous saw the four aces and a four of hearts facing upwards and whistled.
  3307. >"It seems you only have one article of clothing left to part with, dearest Anonymous..."
  3308. >Anonymous chuckled and returned Luna's cocky expression with one of his own.
  3309. "Hold on, honey! You haven't seen my hand yet!"
  3310. >"Come now, my love," Luna scoffed, "the odds of you beating this-"
  3311. >Slam
  3312. "Whatchoo know about a straight flush, babe?"
  3313. >Luna stared down at the nine, ten, jack, queen, and king of hearts in disbelief. Scowling, she slowly raised her gaze to behold a victoriously-smirking Anonymous.
  3314. "Start with the stocking on your forelegs."
  3315. >"No," she replied with an intense glare.
  3316. "Luna, baby, you lost fair and-"
  3317. >The mare's horn glowed blue, as did the table they sat at. It was violently hurled at the wall to her right, shattering into hundreds of splintered pieces upon impact. The jukebox was somehow silenced as well.
  3318. >She walked with a slow, deliberate strut to the man, whose face displayed a mixture of amusement and incredulity. Luna reared up to place her front hooves on Anon's shoulders.
  3319. >Bringing her lips to his right ear, she whispered, "Take them off yourself."
  3320. >Anonymous caressed Luna's silk-covered hooves, then slid them up her forelegs.
  3321. >"Not with those."
  3322. >The man cocked an eyebrow in confusion.
  3323. >"Use your teeth."
  3324. >She received a wide, excited smile in response.
  3325. >Luna stretched her left foreleg out in front of the man's face. He nibbled at the toned limb, earning a quiet moan.
  3326. >Anonymous took larger, firmer bites into Luna's leg, who threw her head back in satisfaction, her mane billowing more wildly as her arousal increased.
  3327. >With a stocking finally secured with his front teeth, Anonymous took his time in pulling the silk down and exposing the blue fur underneath.
  3328. >He repeated the same teasing process with Luna's right foreleg.
  3329. "Now, let's free those amazing thighs of yours."
  3330. >Bare blue hooves pushed Anon back into his chair. "Not so fast," Luna purred.
  3331. >The princess climbed onto Anon's lap, her hind legs straddling his hips. She brought her naked forelegs into a loose embrace around his neck.
  3332. >"You seem uncomfortable, my darling. Allow your princess to rectify this."
  3333. >Luna's horn glowed yet again. This time, Anonymous felt the waistband of his drawers sliding down, freeing his engorged member. It bounced off Luna's belly with an audible slap.
  3334. >"Oh stars, Anon," Luna gasped, "you flatter me!"
  3335. "I can't begin to describe how long I've wanted to do this."
  3336. >Anonymous slid his hands down Luna's barrel, pausing momentarily to caress her cutie marks, then continued their journey towards her rump.
  3337. >Luna moaned when he squeezed her. Fingers teased her dock, then slid further down and to the sides, just out of reach of her puffy glistening lips.
  3338. >She bit down on his ear and moaned again. "Don't TEASE me like that!"
  3339. >Strong hands pulled the princess closer, then cupped her generous teats, eliciting another round of gasps and throaty moans.
  3340. >The human played with Luna's large, soft, pillowy mounds; gently pinching the nipples between his index fingers and thumbs.
  3341. >Content with the reactions his caressing had earned, Anonymous positioned his throbbing manhood between Luna's teats. He pushed them around his shaft and began to slide up and down between them.
  3342. >"ANONYMOUS!" Luna exclaimed with a furious blush and bedroom eyes. "How... DELICIOUSLY llllllewwwwd..."
  3343. >Luna roughly pulled Anon's face to hers and engaged the man in passionate lip lock.
  3344. >While they kissed, Anon continued to slide his rod between Luna's teats, prompting her to grind her marehood on his bare legs. In a matter of seconds, his legs were dripping with Luna's arousal.
  3345. >"Enough games, my love." Luna moaned upon breaking the kiss. "Take me. Make me yours. Rut me like your life depends on it."
  3346. >Her rear hooves made contact with the floor, allowing her to stand and reposition herself. Anon's hands cupped her plot, simultaneously stimulating and aligning her dripping sex with his.
  3347. >At the instant his head touched her lips, and angry voice rang out, causing them both to freeze.
  3348. >"Is this why you wanted to take things slow, Anon? You wanted to start off casual so you could fool around with other mares and not feel guilty!?"
  3349. >Luna raised her rear quickly in alarm, killing any hope for penetration. She and Anonymous slowly turned their heads to Anon's left. A very pissed off Spitfire stomped towards them.
  3350. >"It's one thing for you to casually date a few mares, it's another matter entirely to be rutting them on the side! I thought you understood that! I- I expected better from you!"
  3351. >Shock and disbelief had taken control of Anonymous, leaving him at a loss for words. He looked around wildly, hoping for salvation, some divine grace that could deliver him.
  3352. >To his relief, Nebula strode into the room in Spitfire's wake. She wore a burgundy gown and carried Anon's shield with her right wing.
  3353. >"Even I can't save you from the consequences if you continue to tread down this path... as much as I wish I could."
  3354. >The thestral mare transferred the shield from her wing hook to Anon's left hand.
  3355. >Luna's right forehoof raised the man's chin in an effort to reestablish eye contact. "Anonymous? Is there something I should know about, my dearest love?"
  3356. >"Anon? Are you in there?" A fourth female voice called out from behind the human. "I really want to talk about yesterday..."
  3357. >Anon's blood ran cold and his body grew rigid.
  3358. >"Who in Tartarus are you?" Spitfire spat angrily at the newcomer.
  3359. >Princess Luna broke eye contact with her man and attempted to look behind him to identify the source of the newest voice. Fortunately for Anonymous, Nebula was now positioned behind him and blocked the princess's view with her massive wings.
  3360. >Luna jumped off Anon's lap and onto her hooves. Nebula was muzzle-to-muzzle with her immediately in an effort to obstruct her field of view.
  3361. >"Nebula! Step aside this instant!" Luna commanded indignantly.
  3362. >The thestral shook her head.
  3363. >"Forgive me, Mother," she said before baring her fangs. "He's all I have. I will always protect him... even from you."
  3364. >Nebula launched herself at the princess, who screamed as wing hooks and fangs and hooves tore at her in a blur of burgundy, grey, and violet.
  3365.  
  3366. ...
  3367.  
  3368. >Two thestral mares stood silently outside the entrance to Lord Counselor Anonymous's suite.
  3369. >0415, just over two hours until shift change.
  3370. >With the exception of inadvertently beholding her stallion's arousal earlier that evening, Cheerful Song was grateful for an uneventful shift.
  3371. >Uneventful, until a loud, panicked, "NOOOOOOO!" erupted from within the human's quarters.
  3372. >The two mares exchanged alarmed glances and burst inside, weapons at the ready.
  3373. >Anonymous was flailing in his bed, his legs and arms tangled in his sheets. The remaining two guards of the quaternion rushed inside from the balcony entrance.
  3374. >"Nightmare! A bad one from the looks of it!" Song barked. "Come on, girls! You know the drill!"
  3375. >The guards discarded their weapons, each one grabbing onto one of the man's limbs. They held on for dear life, trying to weigh down and prevent the powerful arms and legs from injuring their owner.
  3376. >Anonymous continued to spasm wildly. He looked around the dark room with wild, unfocused eyes.
  3377. >Song released Anon's left arm and hugged his head. "Anon! It's just us! It's your girls!"
  3378. "NEB! HELP!"
  3379. >The man's panicked screams for his trusted right-hand mare gave Song an idea. She bit down onto Anon's right ear hard enough to hurt, but not hard enough to draw blood.
  3380. >It's super effective.
  3381. >Anonymous immediately ceased to struggle against the mares' restraints, then gasped for air.
  3382. >Song released her bite. She removed her hoof from it's armored guard and stroked his hair. "Shhh... It was only a nightmare... Shhh..."
  3383. >The man relaxed completely and looked up at the mare who was comforting him. Even in the faint moonlight, he recognized her.
  3384. "Ch- Cheerie?"
  3385. >She giggled. "Sergeant First Class Cheerful Song, at your service, Anon! Let him go, girls."
  3386. >The other guards complied with their quaternion leader's command, each one hopping off the bed to retrieve their recently-discarded weapons. With his girls gathered around his bed, Anonymous sat up slowly.
  3387. >"That must've been one intense dream, Anon!" Song exclaimed. "Are you good?"
  3388. >Anonymous shook his head.
  3389. "No, Cheerie, I am not good."
  3390. >The mares looked at each other with concern whilst the man groaned and rubbed his temples with his fingertips.
  3391. "I am so fucked."
  3392.  
  3393. ...
  3394.  
  3395. >It was nearly time to lower the moon.
  3396. >Luna extinguished her dreamwalking spell, returning to the physical plane once more. It had been a busy night in the dream realm.
  3397. >The princess walked onto her balcony and surveyed the castle grounds. In the moonlight she could make out the form of Nebula galloping around a track with a unicorn. She turned to the south to see Anonymous lifting weights in the company of his guards in a separate, secluded yard.
  3398. >Luna reflected back to everything she had witnessed upon entering Anon's dream.
  3399. >The princess was unsure which shocked her more: seeing the man she loved engage in EXTREMELY enthusiastic cunnilingus with her sister, or realizing that she was thoroughly aroused by the spectacle.
  3400. >The dream nearly collapsed when Luna took the place of her dream doppelganger, right before revealing the four of a kind. Fortunately Anon's subconscious was deeply invested in the dream, which stabilized it in spite of Luna's interference.
  3401. >As she had hoped, Anonymous knew exactly how to bring her to full arousal. He was better than her own fantasies.
  3402. >And of course, the passionate encounter had been interrupted before either of them could achieve a much-needed release.
  3403. >Curse Anon's guilty subconscious.
  3404. >It had been a while since Luna had been attacked by a dream projection. It was abundantly clear to the princess that Anon considered Nebula to be his protector and a source of security.
  3405. >As for the other mares that appeared in the dream, Luna was too mentally drained and sexually frustrated to care, at least presently. Perhaps that was the reason she had been uncharacteristically unencumbered by the typical moral concerns that would normally prevent her from doing what she did in Anon's dream.
  3406. >Being awake and extremely active for over thirty-six hours was obviously taking its toll.
  3407. >The princess glanced at her clock. 4:47 AM. Just enough time.
  3408. >She retrieved her favorite stolen shirt from her dresser, removed her shoes, and plopped onto her massive bed. Inhaling deeply from the shirt, she took in the remnants of Anon's intoxicating scent and sighed.
  3409. >Luna tried to use her hooves and magic to replicate the feeling of Anon cupping her teats, but it just wasn't the same.
  3410. >Undeterred, the alicorn focused intently on the best parts of Anon's dream. It started to have the desired effect.
  3411. >Unexpected bell tolls and distant yelling ripped Luna away from her fantasy and ministrations. She let loose a loud, frustrated whinny, then rolled off the bed.
  3412. >Stomping angrily onto her balcony once more, the princess was surprised to see the air filling with hundreds of Night Guard thestrals, all of whom were screeching in alarm. Unicorns and earth ponies began to flow out of the Royal Guard barracks.
  3413. >Something wasn't right. The Royal Guard's first call wasn't until 0630. What was all the commotion about?
  3414. >Luna grew more confused when she realized that the offensive bells weren't from the clock tower, but the guard headquarters.
  3415. >She looked back to where she had initially spotted Nebula, who was now airborne. The unicorn she had been running with teleported from sight a moment later.
  3416. >Anxiety growing by the second, Luna immediately shifted her gaze to Anon's position. His guards were clearly urging him to leave, but the man was stubborn. Nebula landed among them, and after a short exchange, Anonymous was sprinting off the field, en route to his tower. Nebula galloped by his side while his guards flew around him at eye level, weapons drawn and at the ready.
  3417. >Everything finally made sense to the fatigued princess.
  3418. "By the Moon, we're under attack!"
  3419.  
  3420. ...
  3421.  
  3422. >"...seventy minutes. Seventy FUCKING minutes!"
  3423. >Some of the soldiers assembled on the training field flinched at the Major General's furious tirade.
  3424. >Anonymous surveyed the faces of the QRF battalion soldiers. Too many faces displayed fear. Not of the Major General's wrath, but of the very real prospect of combat.
  3425. >That wasn't to say that the experience was completely foreign to the Guard. Many of the soldiers assembled had fought the changelings at the wedding of Princess Cadence and Captain Armor.
  3426. >However, changelings only fought to subdue their prey for feeding; rarely, if ever, to kill.
  3427. >Of the thousands of soldiers present on the training field, only one had ever faced an enemy that fought with the intent to kill, and she wasn't part of the QRF.
  3428. >Even then, Nebula's infamous combat experiences occurred weeks prior to her controversial commissioning into the Guard.
  3429. >It dawned on Anonymous, just how much the average Equestrian took his country's centuries of uninterrupted peace for granted. Many who enlisted in the military naively believed that war was an impossibility.
  3430. >Major General Thunderwing neglected to inform anypony of his intention to initiate a full combat recall of the QRF battalion, much to the chagrin of the princesses.
  3431. >It wasn't until the entire battalion had been accounted for, "seventy FUCKING minutes" later, that the bombastic pegasus revealed that it was all a drill to judge the new force's readiness.
  3432. >Celestia was not amused at the revelation. Luna was beyond incensed. Despite disagreeing with the stallion's execution, Anonymous understood Thunderwing's intent and convinced the sisters to spare him their wrath.
  3433. >General Ironhead profusely apologized to both princesses for his subordinate's "well-intentioned but poorly-executed initiative", and promised to deal with Thunderwing personally. After Thunderwing had finished chewing out the battalion, that was.
  3434. >Anonymous stepped between Luna and Celestia, who were huddled in a circle with Nebula and Ironhead.
  3435. >"... understand Thunderwing's anger at the slow recall time," he heard Luna say, "but this tirade is doing nothing to inspire the troops."
  3436. >Anon glanced at his superiors, then turned his gaze to Nebula's intense purple eyes.
  3437. "This isn't good. The majority of those QRF soldiers are terrified. They're wearing their fear openly on their muzzles."
  3438. >"Do you recall my concern after the war council?"
  3439. "I do. You were right. Stars help me, you were right... and we both know what this means."
  3440. >Large white feathers wrapped around the man's cuirass.
  3441. >"Anon? What was Nebula right about? What does "this" mean?"
  3442. >The Lord Counselor looked into Celestia's concerned magenta irises and felt regret. His head turned back towards his right-hand mare.
  3443. >Nebula's solemn expression and slow nod was the justification Anon silently sought but dared not request aloud. He looked back towards Celestia, but couldn't meet her gaze.
  3444. "I'm going to have to do something you're not going to like."
  3445. >Celestia and Luna shared a concerned glance, prompting Luna to speak up again. "What do you mean, my dearest-"
  3446. >"... AND DON'T GET ME STARTED on you pegasi assigned to this task force!" Thunderwing raged with increased vigor, regaining the attention of the Equestrian rulers. "While you three-hundred featherbrains were flapping around like you didn't know the difference between your shit-holes and a gap in the clouds, your bat counterparts in the Night Guard-"
  3447. >Anonymous looked over at his tribal mentor and beamed. Nebula's helmet couldn't obscure the pride in her eyes, nor her satisfied smile.
  3448. >"-assembled TWO BATTALIONS, fully kitted up and ITCHING for a fight, Luna bless 'em, in TWENTY FUCKING MINUTES!"
  3449. >Anonymous held out his shield before Nebula. She struck it loudly three times with an armored hoof, interrupting Thunderwing's profanity-riddled rant.
  3450. >"WHO HOLDS THE NIGHT?" she screamed to the thousands of bat ponies that hovered silently above the field.
  3451. >"WE DO!" they thundered in reply.
  3452. >Thunderwing turned around in time to see the Colonel bump Anon's fist with her hoof.
  3453. >"And another thing!" he roared while turning back to the battalion. "Can somepony explain to me why in the name of Celestia that Colonel Nebula and the MOTHERFUCKING LORD COUNSELOR were among the first to reach the rendezvous point, ready for battle, despite not being part of this 'Quick' Reaction Force!?"
  3454. >General Ironhead decided he'd had enough.
  3455. >"Alright, then," his calm, magically-amplified voice rang out over the field, "Ah'm gonna stop the Major General before he shouts himself into an early grave."
  3456. >Anonymous and Nebula laughed, as did many of the hovering thestrals.
  3457. >"Ah don't need to rehash anything that was already said," Ironhead continued. "Y'all know you done messed up somethin' fierce. Now we take accountability, from the individual soldier, all the way up to the CO and CSM. Identify where things went haywire, and come up with solutions to prevent it from reoccurring. We will have more recall drills in the future-"
  3458. >Rusty briefly glanced at Thunderwing.
  3459. >"-though next time, Their Majesties, His Excellency, the good Colonel, and mahself will know about it beforehoof."
  3460. >Thunderwing grew uncharacteristically rigid and expressionless.
  3461. >Ironhead looked back at the princesses and mouthed, "Anything else?" The sisters shook their heads.
  3462. >"That's all ah got. Back to business as usual. First formation ain't for another fifteen minutes. Dismissed."
  3463. >The QRF battalion dispersed. Nebula flew up to speak with the two Night Guard battalion commanders that hovered over the field with their troops. She dismissed the airborne thestrals and rejoined Anon and the sisters.
  3464. >Rusty extinguished his voice amplification spell and moved before the statue formerly known as Monty Thunderwing. The lanky unicorn craned his neck down to bring his muzzle centimeters from the pegasus's and glared.
  3465. >"Do you have any idea the trouble yer little stunt caused?"
  3466. >"No, sir."
  3467. >"In case you didn't notice, Big Mama raised the sun early, and by more than just a few minutes."
  3468. >The pegasus gulped.
  3469. >"Oh, you think that's bad. Blue Moon was so keyed up that her appearance changed... eyes a-glowin', mane 'n' tail lookin' like star-studded flames... the mare grew fangs, Monty. Ah thought she was turnin' inta you-know-who."
  3470. >"Sir, I-"
  3471. >"Quiet," Ironhead growled. "Lucky for you, the Lord Counselor jumped in front of the sisters' line of fire and is keeping them off yer flank. You owe that stallion quite a lot."
  3472. >Rusty pulled his muzzle away from Thunderwing's and continued.
  3473. >"Ah've always encouraged mah soldiers to be bold... so long as they always applied common sense when making decisions. Ah let you git away with a lot over the years... perhaps Ah need to tighten your leash-"
  3474. >The four-star general looked behind the pegasus and noticed that the princesses were leaving.
  3475. >"We'll finish this later. Report to mah office at oh-nine-hundred."
  3476. >"Yes, sir," Thunderwing answered with a salute.
  3477. >"Now, git," Rusty said, returning the salute. He turned and ambled towards the princesses.
  3478. >"Ah apologize again, Yer Majesties. Even Ah didn't know he was planning on doin' this."
  3479. >The sisters nodded.
  3480. >"Ah don't suppose ah could talk you into returning to the Royal Guard?" Ironhead asked his protege. "Ah'd see what ah could do about gettin' you yer first star, time in grade and time in service be damned."
  3481. >Nebula smiled. "I'm flattered, but I must decline, sir. I actually wanted to speak with you about Sparks. We had been discussing his career plans before this "drill" occurred."
  3482. >"Oh?" Ironhead asked with sincere interest. He turned to Luna. "Princess, if it's alright with you, Ah'd like to speak with Colonel Nebula privately."
  3483. >"Of course," Luna replied. She acknowledged Ironhead's salute, allowing him and Nebula to leave.
  3484. >"Lulu?" Celestia asked with some apprehension.
  3485. >Luna turned back to her sister.
  3486. >"Would you like to talk about-"
  3487. >"No, dearest sister," Luna interrupted. "Not now, at least. It has been a very long thirty-six hours, and I no longer have the energy or desire to retain my anger."
  3488. >Celestia sighed. "I understand. We'll have much to discuss once you've rested. I heard you traveled to the Empire?"
  3489. >"And Rainbow Falls, among other places, but those stories can wait until later. Good morning, Tia. I love you."
  3490. >The sisters shared a feathery hug.
  3491. >"I love you too, Lulu."
  3492. >Luna spun around to leave, but was immediately stopped by a voice dripping with false indignation.
  3493. "Oh, so it's like that, Woona? Not gonna tell me goodbye?"
  3494. >The moon princess paused, then shuffled back to Anonymous with a sway in her hips.
  3495. >"I plan on seeing you shortly," she stated with half-lidded eyes.
  3496. "I'm heading to Ponyville soon, remember?"
  3497. >"I meant in the dream realm. I intend to finish what you started."
  3498. "Huh?"
  3499. >"Does the name 'Moonshine Junction' mean anything to you?"
  3500. "Moonshine-"
  3501. >Anon's face grew pale.
  3502. "Wait. Waitwaitwaitwaitwait. Was... was that-"
  3503. >Celestia tilted her head and frowned.
  3504. >Luna jumped up to wrap her forelegs around Anon's neck. "Whatchoo know about a straight flush, babe?" she moaned into his ear.
  3505. >The lunar princess surveyed her love's flabbergasted face with satisfaction, then began to flutter away with slow, rhythmic wing beats.
  3506. >Anonymous continued to stare at Luna, mouth agape.
  3507. "Luna, wait!"
  3508. >"Yes?" she replied with a sultry smile.
  3509. "If you were actually... oh. Oh, SHIT. Does that mean Tia was also-"
  3510. >"Enjoy your day off, Anonymous!" Luna interrupted cheerfully before teleporting from sight.
  3511. >With Luna's departure, only Anonymous and Celestia remained standing on the training field. Anon's guards flew high overhead to afford their stallion privacy.
  3512. >They walked in silence towards the Counselor's Wing; Celestia deep in thought, Anonymous frantically searching for the best way to break the ice.
  3513. >Upon reaching the bridge of the Wing, Celestia sighed. She held out her wing to stop Anon. White feathers wrapped around his cuirass once again and turned the man to face their owner.
  3514. >"So."
  3515. "So."
  3516. >"About what Luna was referring to..."
  3517. >Anonymous cleared his throat.
  3518. "I want you to know this won't affect my work at all."
  3519. >Celestia raised an eyebrow.
  3520. "I didn't realize... you know what? It doesn't matter. What's done is done."
  3521. >"Anon... what exactly-"
  3522. "Please, Tia, there's no need to play coy. We're both adults."
  3523. >"Anonymous, I'm at a loss for words, and that doesn't happen often."
  3524. "What can I say?" Anon shrugged. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been dreaming of doing that since the day we met."
  3525. >The princess tilted her head.
  3526. "Look," Anon continued, throwing his arms out to his sides, "I don't know why Luna decided to bring the three of us together in a shared dream. I don't know why it seems like fate itself is throwing everything it can at me to tread old paths. Honestly, if Spitfire didn't return yesterday, I'm not sure I would have..."
  3527. >The man walked up to the princess, stopping when her muzzle was centimeters from his chest. He gently ran his hands down her neck, then brought them up to cup her cheeks.
  3528. >Celestia looked up at Anonymous with a faint blush.
  3529. "Gods help me if things crash and burn with Spitfire," Anon said in a soft voice. "By the Moon and Stars, I will let loose. If that happens, I'd LOVE to 'praise the sun' again, but in the waking world."
  3530. >"Anonymous, I really don't-"
  3531. "Oh, come now, Tia. Don't act like you didn't love every second of it," Anonymous interrupted with a smirk. "And that's with me being three years out of practice. I don't know about you, but I'd be curious to see how well I could do in the flesh!"
  3532. >He began to walk backwards, away from the princess and onto the bridge. His four guards touched down around him, eager to escort their stallion to his tower.
  3533. "I'll see you later, Tia. Thanks again for giving me the day off!"
  3534. >Celestia waved a wing, her head remaining cocked to the side, her eyebrow still raised.
  3535. >Anonymous whirled around and strutted to his tower.
  3536. "IT'S YOUR... one way ticket to mid-night!" he sang loudly.
  3537. >"CALL IT... HEA-VY ME-TAL!" his girls sang back whilst marching in time and throwing their heads side-to-side with the beat.
  3538. "Higher than high, feelin' just right!"
  3539. >"CALL IT... HEA-VY ME-TAL!"
  3540. "Desperation on a red line!"
  3541. >CALL IT... HEA-VY ME-TAL NOIIIIISE!"
  3542. >Cheerful Song took over. The mare had an incredible voice.
  3543. >"Tight pants and lip-stick!" her voice rang out, clear and beautiful.
  3544. >Anon began to vocalize the lead guitar riffs.
  3545. >"She's riding on a razor's EDGE!"
  3546. >"She holds her own against the boys!"
  3547. >"Yeah, cuts through the crowd just like a WEDGE..."
  3548. >Celestia watched the man and his entourage disappear inside the tower. Cheerful Song's voice could still be heard until the tower door closed.
  3549. >"What in the name of the Sun was he talking about?"
  3550.  
  3551. ...
  3552.  
  3553. >Despite having a few above-ground barracks, the majority of the Night Guard's thestrals resided deep within the heart of Canterlot Peak itself. Vast natural caverns provided the ideal space to house the nocturnal bat ponies. Additional entrances to the cave system had been carved into the mountain's granite faces to allow better ventilation and additional points of ingress and egress. The main entry to the caves was partially obscured by the row houses reserved for thestrals assigned to "daylight duty", such as the mares that held the honor of being part of the Lord Counselor's PSD.
  3554. >Behind one such row house three thestral mares stood abreast, opposite their quaternion leader. All four soldiers looked ready for battle, as each mare was fully equipped with immaculately-maintained weapons and armor, including saddlebags filled with extra gear and provisions to support operations beyond a standard twelve-hour shift.
  3555. >Sergeant Spring Tide inspected her soldiers with an attention to detail expected of a non-commissioned officer. She started with her wingmare, Specialist Tranquil Dusk, scrutinizing her armor, her spear, her dagger, bladed shoes, even going through everything packed in Dusk's saddlebags. Tide repeated the process with Corporal Crystal Glow, then a final time with Private First Class Summer Breeze.
  3556. >Satisfied that her quaternion was prepared for the day's unique mission, Tide concluded her Pre-Combat Checks and Pre-Combat Inspections (PCCs/PCIs) with a mission briefing.
  3557. >"Alright Delta, despite Anon going to the QRF recall drill with his Alpha quaternion, we're still on-schedule to relieve Alpha at zero-seven-thirty. We will portal through to Ponyville at zero-eight-hundred. Last I heard, Princess Celestia will be opening the portal for us, but we all know that could change at any time. Anon hasn't discussed his plans with me, save for his trip to the schoolhouse later in the morning. When we arrive, we will link up with Apple Bloom's on-duty guard pair to coordinate our activities."
  3558. >Summer Breeze remained motionless, save for her sapphire eyes that tracked Tide's deliberate steps. Normally a disciplined and attentive soldier, the young mare's mind was elsewhere. She struggled to focus on Tide's words and instead found herself fixated on how the Sergeant's red mane seemed to (slightly) clash with her armor. Unlike the polished bronze-colored armor of their Royal Guard counterparts, the standard-issue black and purple armor of the Night Guard sported matte finishes; the advantages of a subdued color scheme being obvious.
  3559. >Breeze allowed herself a slight head shake to help clear lingering thoughts of last night's extracurricular activities from her mind.
  3560. >"...chances are Anon will want to stay the night at his home, so Bravo quaternion will relieve us in Ponyville at nineteen-thirty."
  3561. 'He's staying in Ponyville tonight? That flight isn't too bad-'
  3562. >Tide looked to her left. "Glow, Breeze..."
  3563. >Breeze ceased her inner musings.
  3564. >"...I know you haven't done a long-distance shift change, so listen up. A mage will open up a portal at nineteen-fifteen, follow Bravo through it, then close it behind him. I'll brief Sergeant Fortuna on the day's events, then take her on a quick flyover of the farm to ensure she knows where she'll need to have her team patrol during the night. The mage will portal us back to-"
  3565. >"GROUP, ATTENTION!" Specialist Dusk interrupted while saluting an approaching mare.
  3566. >"As you were," an unknown thestral Lieutenant replied after returning Dusk's salute. "Sergeant," she said, looking to Tide, "I need to borrow Private Breeze."
  3567. >Tide's professionalism prevented her expression from betraying her curiosity.
  3568. >"Of course, ma'am. Breeze, leave your spear and saddlebags with your wingmare. Fall out."
  3569. >Taking a rearward step out of the formation, Breeze planted the butt spike of her spear in the ground to the immediate right of Corporal Glow. Her saddlebags slid off with ease, coming to a rest once their straps made contact with the spear's shaft.
  3570. >A short gallop and leap later, Summer Breeze was airborne. She caught up with the Lieutenant after a few hard wing flaps, then settled into a position to the left and slightly behind her superior, as military custom demanded.
  3571. >The Lieutenant veered to the west, towards the castle proper.
  3572. "Ma'am? What's this about?"
  3573. >"Colonel Nebula wishes to speak with you privately in the Lord Counselor's study," the Lieutenant replied with indifference. "I am to escort you there. That's all I know."
  3574. >Had the Lieutenant bothered to look away from their destination, she might have noticed the Private's charcoal-colored face turn a shade lighter.
  3575. >They landed two paces away from the tower's entrance. Breeze held the door for her superior, who then returned the courtesy upon reaching the study's heavy wooden doors. Breeze's rump had barely cleared the threshold when the LT sealed the entrance behind her.
  3576. >Silence, sunlight, and a lemony scent filled the cavernous room. Slow, uncertain steps carried Summer towards the study's center table, her head swiveling to and fro in search of the enigmatic Colonel.
  3577. >Carpet-muffled hoof steps ceased their rhythmic beat upon reaching the table around which a war council had been convened two days prior.
  3578. >Perhaps she was early?
  3579. >"Up here, Private," a sensuous voice called.
  3580. >Summer looked to the domed ceiling and suppressed a gasp.
  3581. >Paper-thin pupils, encompassed by sparkling purple irises, peered down at the startled young mare.
  3582. >Colonel Nebula wore full armor, save for her helmet, and an amused expression. Her two-toned violet tail was securely wrapped around one of the two wooden beams that quadrisected the base of the domed ceiling.
  3583. >Breeze regained her wits and flew up to the inverted mare.
  3584. "You wanted to see me, ma'am?" she asked having settled into a silent hover.
  3585. >"Yes. Join me."
  3586. "Umm..."
  3587. >"Stars, child! We don't maintain long tails for beauty's sake! Are you a bat pony or a pegasus playing dress-up?"
  3588. "Oh! Right."
  3589. >Breeze spun and flipped her rump towards the ceiling. Her long azure tail made two full turns around the rafter; sufficient to hold her weight. With her tail fully supporting her inverted suspension, Breeze used her wings to rotate herself enough to face Nebula. Once in position, her dark wings came to rest in the same manner as Nebula's; wrapped around her torso, as if hugging herself.
  3590. >She studied Nebula's closed eyelids, hoping the Colonel couldn't hear her ever-increasing heart rate.
  3591. >"I love coming here to meditate," Nebula stated after several minutes of silence. Her eyes remained shut. "It's so peaceful, wouldn't you say?"
  3592. "Y-yeah. It sure is."
  3593. >"This study has it all; breathtaking views, great aesthetics, a peaceful ambiance. Did you know it's not unusual for me to sleep here some nights, suspended from this very rafter?"
  3594. "Really?" Summer managed to choke out in response.
  3595. >Nebula gave the mare a closed-eye grin. "Oh, yes. There are times I wish to be close to my Initiate while he sleeps, if only for my own peace of mind. Though I have no doubt he would allow me to share his bed on occasion- so I could hold him and watch over him, mind you- I refrain from putting that... pressure on him. Thus, on such nights, I opt to sleep here, content to know that I'm only two floors below him should he need me."
  3596. >Breeze's quickened breaths made Nebula's grin widen.
  3597. >"Last night was one such night. My Anonymous had a uniquely challenging day, thus I felt compelled to rest here. No sooner had I made myself comfortable hanging from this rafter, the most curious thing happened," she stated with a honeyed voice.
  3598. "W-what h-happened, ma'am?"
  3599. >"With the Moon as my witness, somepony entered the study, causing the crystal chandelier to glow! I looked below to see a beautiful young thestral mare enter the study. She seemed quite flustered, very unsure of herself, if her nervous pacing around the center conference table was anything to judge by."
  3600. >Nebula paused when her mane was tousled from air disturbed by Breeze's nervous wing flutters. She continued once the Private grew still again.
  3601. >"As I advise the stallion who advises the Mother and her sister, I considered making my presence known to the mare and offering my counsel. However, another thestral arrived before I could do that."
  3602. "Colonel, I-"
  3603. >"I was surprised to see him," Nebula interrupted, "but not as surprised as he seemed to see this mare. I could see the conflict in his face, Miss Breeze... should he stay, or should he leave? It was as if he was pondering the same thing the mare was prior to his arrival."
  3604. >The Colonel paused again to listen to Summer's quiet, rapid, and shallow breaths.
  3605. >"You can imagine my shock when the mare looked to attack this stallion. Truth be told, I had unfurled my wings and made to intervene, but stopped once I understood what was happening. I don't care to recount the details, but this mare bit off more than she could chew, literally and figuratively. So much for me getting any sleep with that stallion rutting the mare- three times, I might add!- for everything she was worth, all over the study. It's not like I could leave, either... lest my presence be noticed. Talk about an awkward situation..."
  3606. >Nebula finally opened her eyes. Fear had taken hold of Breeze's face.
  3607. >"After an hour, the stallion was either finally satisfied, or he felt sorry for his young lover. Regardless, after they departed, I finally had a chance to leave. So much for staying close to my Initiate... I didn't care to sleep in a chamber reeking of somepony else's sex."
  3608. "I... don't blame you, ma'am," was Breeze's breathless reply.
  3609. >"The maids did an admirable job getting the smell out. But enough about me, let's talk about you!" Nebula exclaimed with a smile. "Private First Class Summer Breeze, youngest thestral to ever pass PSD selection! For such a young soldier, you've built a flattering reputation for yourself, enough to gain my attention. You see, PSD soldier performance reviews are due soon, and your commanding officer has written a glowing report about you. She reports that you're a decisive and creative thinker, you've mastered all of our standard weapons, and even have a natural talent for hoof-to-hoof combat, something I have a *slight* interest in."
  3610. >Summer released a breath she was unaware of holding.
  3611. "Y-yeah... I like getting up-close and personal when I fight."
  3612. >"Your lieutenant described you as being 'strong-willed' and having a 'propensity for violence'. Quite frankly, you sound like a mare after my own heart."
  3613. >The Colonel's statement was received with an honest smile.
  3614. >"However," Nebula continued, "there was another adjective your commanding officer used to describe you. Can you guess what it was?"
  3615. >Breeze shook her head.
  3616. >"'Obsessive'."
  3617. >The young thestral's smile faded with a heartbeat.
  3618. >Nebula waved an armored hoof near her face. "There's nothing wrong with that. Tartarus, I am obsessive as well. The trick is to ensure you obsess over the right things. You have INCREDIBLE potential, Private Breeze. If you continue to perform at this high level, I guarantee that there will be opportunities available to you that are not afforded to most Night Guard soldiers that complete a PSD rotation."
  3619. "Really? What kind of opportunities, ma'am?"
  3620. >"A chance to earn a commission, but that's not what I have in mind for you."
  3621. "What do you have-"
  3622. >"Let's just say that Anonymous and I have a pet project that only accepts the Night Guard's absolute best. You could be serving among the best of the best, Summer Breeze, but you mustn't allow yourself to become... distracted."
  3623. >Breeze's desire to nod in understanding was overpowered by her desire to ask a question of the Night Guard commander.
  3624. "Uh, Colonel? About that mare you told me about... suppose she wanted to 'visit' that stallion again-"
  3625. >"That mare should think long and hard about what she's doing," Nebula replied sharply. "You see, Miss Breeze, I know for a fact that mare had a similar encounter with that same stallion earlier that day..."
  3626. >Breeze couldn't help but cover her muzzle with a hoof when she gasped.
  3627. >"...and while I could overlook the first encounter as the mare 'doing her duty'- he needed it, after all- the second encounter is much more worrisome."
  3628. "W-why is that?" Breeze asked in a whisper.
  3629. >Nebula's neutral expression became stern. "She overstepped her bounds by seeking him out a second time. Furthermore, this mare is playing a VERY dangerous game. I don't think she's stopped to consider her 'competition'."
  3630. "Competition?"
  3631. >"Oh, yesssss. The first mare is rather famous and has been quite taken with this stallion of late. As for the second, well... let's just say that she's the very last mare that I, or any thestral for that matter, would ever dare to cross."
  3632. >Summer Breeze tightened her wings' grip around herself in a futile attempt to mitigate her shaking, which did not go unnoticed by her superior.
  3633. >Nebula unfurled her right wing and inspected the terminus of its hook whilst sporting a faux-bored countenance.
  3634. >"I don't think this young mare understands the potential crossfire she would be exposing herself to if she continues down this path."
  3635. >The Colonel's blase tone was unsettling, but it wasn't enough to deter Breeze from asking another question.
  3636. "What if... this stallion wanted to... 'visit'... her again?"
  3637. >Nebula's eyes narrowed. Her upper lip curled back to expose glistening fangs.
  3638. >"Then she should refuse and redirect him to me," Nebula growled. "I dare say I'm much more *capable*."
  3639. "You!?" Breeze blurted out in spite of herself. "But you're-"
  3640. >Nebula's enormous wings exploded out to their fullest extent. Her infamous sadistic smile crept across her visage.
  3641. >"You would do well to heed my advice, Private Breeze," Nebula stated sweetly. She reached forward with a wing hook, tracing the back of its dangerously-sharp claw along Summer's jawline with such care that she barely felt it. "Don't obsess over the wrong things, or certain thestrals, for that matter. Dismissed."
  3642. >The Private was free from the rafter and hurtling towards the study door before Nebula closed her mouth. She galloped out of the tower as if Death herself was in pursuit.
  3643. >Summer Breeze leapt onto the stone railing of the Wing's bridge, extending her face past its edge to vomit.
  3644.  
  3645. ...
  3646.  
  3647. >Luna unwrapped the towel from her head, freeing her damp mane. It fell about her face and neck, stars ever present in her long blue locks, but lacking its typical ethereal breeze effect.
  3648. >*knock* *knock* *knock*
  3649. >She looked over to her chamber door, knowing full well who awaited on the other side. There was no mistaking that massive magical presence for anypony else.
  3650. >"Lulu, it's me!" Celestia's muffled voice called to her.
  3651. >The moon princess smirked.
  3652. >Luna made for the door with a mischievous smile. Her quick, high-stepping trot betrayed her physical exhaustion.
  3653. >Prior to opening the door, Luna adopted a neutral expression.
  3654. >Luna opened the door.
  3655. "Oh hello, sister mine!"
  3656. >"Hello, Lulu. I'm sorry to bother you at this hour. I know you're exhausted, but I need to speak with you about something that just happened with Anonymous."
  3657. >Dark blue feathers curled lightly behind Celestia's neck, ushering the elder sister into the room.
  3658. "Oh?" Luna asked with a convincingly-surprised tone. "Pray tell, what did our beautiful, virile human do this time?"
  3659. >Celestia stopped just past the threshold and shut the door behind her. Luna took care to study her sister's face whilst appearing slightly aloof. Celestia, to her credit, already had her poker face engaged.
  3660. >"He seemed to be under the impression that he and I were placed in a shared dream with you," Celestia began. "Furthermore, he heavily implied that the nature of the dream was quite, *ahem*, intimate."
  3661. >Raised eyebrows and a semi-shocked voice delivered Luna's response.
  3662. "Did he now?"
  3663. >"Indeed. I don't recall dreaming of any such scenarios last night. Perhaps I did, but forgot? Not that I would accuse you of-"
  3664. >Luna gasped, cutting her sister off. She held a bare blue hoof to her mouth.
  3665. "Oh, stars. I KNEW I had forgotten something!"
  3666. >"You mean you DID in fact create a shared dream between us?"
  3667. "I entered Anon's dream, but I did not bring you into it."
  3668. >"Go on," Celestia replied, narrowing her eyes. "What was he so concerned about prior to your departure from the training field?"
  3669. >Memories of the sexually-charged dream encounter brought an involuntary blush to Luna's muzzle.
  3670. "To say his dream was 'intimate' would be a gross understatement. Before returning to my chambers, I admitted to taking a more 'active' role in his dream, at least the part in which he dreamed of me. I must have neglected to explain your subconscious was not actually involved. How careless of me!"
  3671. >"Luna!" Celestia exclaimed with her own blush, "He dreamt of you you in that way? How exciting!"
  3672. "It was rather exciting. Unfortunately, the dream ended before it could reach its 'climax'. Rather, before I could reach MY climax. You, on the other hoof..."
  3673. >It was Celestia's turn to gasp. Hers was genuine. White primary feathers obscured all but her eyes from Luna's view. "Luna! Did he and I...?"
  3674. >A slight smile appeared on Luna's lips. Her horn glowed with blue magical energy, coalescing into a three-centimeter sphere on its tip.
  3675. >"Luna?"
  3676. >The blue magical sphere flickered at the tip of Luna's horn, as if it were a weak candle flame threatened to be blown out of existence.
  3677. "I could tell you what happened," Luna said as she walked to Celestia, "but you'll *appreciate* it more if you see for yourself."
  3678. >Celestia took a step back. "What do you-"
  3679. >Luna brought the tip of her horn in contact with the tip of Celestia's. The blue magical sphere collapsed and flowed down Celestia's horn by way of its spiral grooves. Upon reaching the base of the horn, the energy disappeared.
  3680. >Celestia jolted from the surge of Luna's magic. "What did you just do?"
  3681. "I just gave you a sleeping spell, but with a twist. In less than two minutes, you will fall into a very deep sleep and wake up fifteen minutes later."
  3682. >"And what of this 'twist' you mentioned?"
  3683. >Luna could no longer contain her shit-eating grin.
  3684. "While asleep, you will experience the portion of Anon's dream that involved you, from the perspective of his subconscious projection of you. In other words, anything he did to you, you will feel as if it is occurring in the flesh."
  3685. >Celestia's jaw dropped.
  3686. "You have about ninety seconds before the spell takes hold, so I suggest you get in your bed immediately."
  3687. >"Sister!" Celestia emphasized with a stomp of her hoof, "I-I didn't ask for this!"
  3688. >Luna continued to grin while she crawled under the sheets of her four poster bed.
  3689. "Don't say I never do anything nice for you, sister," Luna chuckled.
  3690. >"Luna!"
  3691. "Clock is ticking, sister! You had best return to your quarters!"
  3692. >Celestia turned back towards the chamber door with a huff. "Unbelievable!"
  3693. "And Tia?" Luna's sarcastically-sweet voice called to her.
  3694. >"WHAT."
  3695. >Luna was grateful that Celestia chose to look back to her once more. She wanted to witness her older sister's reaction to what she had to say next.
  3696. "I would soundproof your room and lay your big rump on some towels if I were you."
  3697.  
  3698. ...
  3699.  
  3700. >Following a quick trip to her barracks room to freshen up, Summer Breeze was reunited with her quaternion. They stood at the end of the Counselor's Wing with Anonymous, just outside the tower.
  3701. >SFC Song chose to call a cadence while leading her recently-relieved team away.
  3702. >"Way up north where the cold wind blows!" Cheerful Song called out.
  3703. >"Way up north where the cold wind blows!" the girls of Alpha quaternion echoed.
  3704. >Anonymous perked his head up and tracked the team's movement. Were they actually...?
  3705. >"We're running out of whiskey and were running out of gold!"
  3706. >"We're running out of whiskey and were running out of gold!"
  3707. >A shit-eating grin broke out on Anon's face. They were absolutely singing it.
  3708. >"So now I make my living..."
  3709. >"So now I make my living..."
  3710. >"Killing the baby seals!" Song exclaimed.
  3711. >Cue the seal noises.
  3712. >"Arh-Arh-Arh! Killing the baby seals!"
  3713. >Anonymous cackled like a madman and followed the girls of Delta quaternion into his tower. He continued to laugh as they climbed the spiraling steps up to his suite.
  3714. >"Holy shit," Anon chuckled while wiping a tear from his eye, "I'm so glad I taught you girls cadences from my army days."
  3715. >Sergeant Tide looked over her withers to grin at the man. "We love when you share pieces of your human culture with us, Anon."
  3716. >"Yeah!" Specialist Dusk added, "I love when you teach us songs from your world!"
  3717. >"I like the stories you tell," Corporal Glow said. "Like the tales of Bat Human!"
  3718. >"Batman," Anon corrected.
  3719. "Was getting caught part of your master plan?" Summer Breeze asked while rubbing against Anon's leg.
  3720. >"Do you FEEL in charge?" Tide replied.
  3721. >Specialist Dusk tapped Anon's back with a wing. "I prefer your funny Carl stories to the serious ones."
  3722. >Crystal Glow could barely contain a squeal of excitement. "OOH! Anon! Will you do your Carl voice for us? Please?"
  3723. >"Carl! Carl! Carl! Carl!" The girls chanted in unison.
  3724. >Anonymous help up his hands and laughed.
  3725. >"Not today, girls. I've got to be in the right mood and mindset to do Carl justice."
  3726. >Four sets of pouty pony eyes and a chorus of "Awww"s almost changed his mind. Almost.
  3727. >Having reached the entrance to his suite, Anon addressed his guards.
  3728. >"I'm going to finish packing. Y'all don't have to wait out here. Why don't you wait for me in the study?"
  3729. >"Okay, Anon." Sergeant Tide replied. "Glow and Breeze, stand watch at the door and escort Anon to the study when he's ready."
  3730. >Glow opened the door for Anonymous, shut it behind him, and took up a position on its right side, opposite from Breeze.
  3731. >Several minutes passed in peace.
  3732. "Corporal?"
  3733. >"Yeah?"
  3734. "Is it alright if I talk to Anon privately for a few minutes? I need to ask him about some things Colonel Nebula told me."
  3735. >Glow shrugged. "I don't have a problem with it, and I doubt he'll mind."
  3736. "Thanks," Breeze replied before knocking three times on the heavy door.
  3737. >A muffled "Enter!" reached Breeze's ears. Opening the door, she trotted inside and shut it behind her.
  3738. >Anon's back was turned to Breeze as he carefully folded clothes and placed them into a rucksack that sat upon his bed.
  3739. >Breeze gathered her courage. She hopped up and glided silently to close the distance with the man.
  3740. "Hey, Anon."
  3741. >The man froze, if only for a moment, then turned to face the voice's owner.
  3742. >"Hey, Summer."
  3743. >The mare blushed. She loved when he addressed her by her first name.
  3744. >Breeze removed her helmet, setting it down on the floor to her right. She looked up at the human, her large sapphire eyes weakening his mental defenses.
  3745. "Can we talk about yesterday? Please?"
  3746. >Anonymous sat on the edge of his bed, then patted a spot to his left. "Of course."
  3747. >Summer removed her bladed shoes, then hopped up to join him.
  3748. >"How are you feeling?" he asked after a pregnant pause.
  3749. "Sore."
  3750. >"Sorry about that," was his immediate reply.
  3751. >She placed a bare hoof on his hand.
  3752. "It was worth it."
  3753. >"Heh. I'm glad you think so, I guess," he replied with a chuckle.
  3754. >Summer reached out with her wing and wrapped it around Anon's back.
  3755. "Nebula knows."
  3756. >Anon sighed.
  3757. >"Yeah, I spilled the beans yesterday morning."
  3758. >Summer grimaced.
  3759. >"Sorry," Anon added upon noticing her reaction, "I usually don't kiss and tell, but I wasn't really thinking when I went to see her."
  3760. >The mare echoed the man's earlier sigh.
  3761. "She knows about last night as well, Anon."
  3762. >"What!? How!?"
  3763. "She said she was there before I arrived. She was trying to sleep hanging from a rafter.
  3764. >Anon facepalmed. The meaty *slap* of flesh hitting flesh made Summer flinch.
  3765. >"Wow. She is a thestral's thestral, after all... Hang on, when did she speak to you? And WHY was she speaking to you?"
  3766. >The mare tightened her wing's grip around Anon's back and scooted closer to him.
  3767. "About half an hour ago. She summoned me to your study and had me hang with her on the very rafter she watched us from before telling me."
  3768. >"Is that all she said?"
  3769. "She commended my performance in the Night Guard and said that if I kept it up, I might have a chance to be a part of a 'pet project' that she started with you?"
  3770. >"No kidding?" Anon asked excitedly. He reached out with his left arm and pulled Summer into a one-armed hug. "That's awesome, Breezy!"
  3771. >Summer took the opportunity to nuzzle Anon's chest. She breathed in deeply through her snout, taking in as much of his scent as possible.
  3772. >She wished he could hold her like that forever.
  3773. "Um, thanks? What was she referring to?"
  3774. >"I can't tell you about it."
  3775. >Summer Breeze frowned.
  3776. >Anon chose his next words carefully. "Only she and I know the full scope of the unit's makeup and mission. But it says a lot about you if she thinks you've got what it takes!"
  3777. "Yeah, I guess..."
  3778. >"C'mon, Summer... why so glum? I would think you'd be thrilled to get that kind of news!"
  3779. "I am, but..."
  3780. >"But what?"
  3781. >She sighed again and placed her right forehoof on his thigh.
  3782. "Anon, did you... did you enjoy what we did yesterday?"
  3783. >Her sparkling eyes studied his face while he searched for the right words.
  3784. >"I wasn't expecting either encounter, but... yes, I did. More than I care to admit. Do you know you're the first thestral I've ever had?"
  3785. "Really!?" she asked, puffing her chest out. "Was I good?"
  3786. >He grinned and placed a hand on her withers.
  3787. >"Yes, you were. You were were more spirited than the wildest pegasus I've ever been with. And the biting... ooh boy... I think I discovered a new fetish thanks to you. In all, it was a helluva way to break a three-year dry spell."
  3788. >Her composure started to falter. Her breathing hitched.
  3789. >"Summer?" Anon asked with concern. He cupped her cheek with his right hand. "Honey, what's wrong?"
  3790. "We can't do this anymore," she replied, her voice full of emotion.
  3791. >"You're right." Anon replied with a sigh. "But I thought this was a one-time thing anyway, that you were only trying to help me 'shake off the rust' as you put it on Tuesday."
  3792. "It's not like that anymore," she answered whilst wiping her eyes with her free wing.
  3793. >"What do you mean?"
  3794. >She stood on the bed and reached out with her left foreleg. Her bare hoof caressed his hair, then traveled to his jaw to turn his face towards hers.
  3795. "It may have started out that way. I was initially curious about what it would be like to have you. Once I had a taste, I wanted more."
  3796. >Anonymous tensed up. Unwanted memories of Fluttershy bubbled up to the surface of his mind.
  3797. "I don't want this to be a one-time fling anymore," Summer Breeze continued, "but you've got Spitfire and the Mother herself after you. Nebula... that's why she really wanted to talk to me. She told me to back off, unless I wanted to face the combined wrath of the Captain and the Princess."
  3798. >The man exhaled forcefully through clenched teeth.
  3799. "I know about the old tradition- why VIPs are assigned guards of the opposite sex. The Royal Guard doesn't observe it anymore, but we still do. All of us girls were told on day one that we needed to be prepared to help you in *any* way you desired."
  3800. >Breeze crawled into Anon's lap and placed her forelegs on his shoulders.
  3801. "I wasn't 'doing my duty' yesterday. I wanted you. I saw an opportunity yesterday morning and I took it. We were lucky enough to cross paths again in your study last night. I still want you, but- but I'm being told that I c-can't have y-you anymore, whether it be part of my j-job or not."
  3802. >Anonymous placed one hand on her withers. The other stroked her mane.
  3803. >"Summer... I'm so sorry, I... I don't know what to say."
  3804. >The mare buried her face into the man's neck. He felt the soft touch of her lips on several places along his collarbone, as well as the warm wetness of her tears.
  3805. "You could say you want me too," she whispered into his chest.
  3806. >He held her shaking body tightly while she muffled her sobs with his tunic.
  3807. >Looking away from the quivering mare in his arms, his eyes met his own reflection in the mirror on the wall opposite him. He looked away in disgust.
  3808. >Anon's gaze then traveled to his shield, which hung on his armor stand.
  3809. >'Are you worthy?' Nebula's words echoed in his mind.
  3810. >'Was one day of weakness worth this?' he thought as he hung his head.
  3811. "This sucks, Anon." Summer Breeze said between sobs.
  3812. >"Yeah. It does."
  3813.  
  3814. ...
Luna Anonymous Celestia thestrals romance NSFW adventure Apple Bloom Applejack Cadence

Lunar Entanglement: What-if? (Anon x Nebula)

by ReggieSomething

Letters of Admiration (/sun/day oneshot)

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Lunar Entanglement, Act I (/moon/day story, WIP)

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Carl's Hardened Heart (/nmp/ story, WIP)

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Insomnia (/moon/day oneshot)

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