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The Recruiter

By pentapony
Created: 22nd October 2020 10:26:45 PM
Modified: 20th February 2021 01:25:30 AM

  1. Plot Summary: As the first man to arrive in Equestria, Anon has become its recruiter, equipped with the skills to track down the perfect man for any mare and bring him back from Earth. However, he remains haunted by his previous life, and perpetually chases salvation in the form of the one running the matchmaker initiative, Princess Celestia. With every mare, he comes to discover a little more about who he is and who he really wants to be.
  2.  
  3. Archive: desuarchive.org/mlp/thread/35285058/#35285255
  4.  
  5. * * * Act I * * *
  6.  
  7. 1
  8. >Here you sit, resting in an armchair, surrounded by darkness, for something going on six hours now.
  9. >You know he won't be home till late, by way of his lifestyle.
  10. >There was one very narrow window of opportunity to get inside. Now that you're here, there's nothing to do but wait.
  11. >You would keep the light on, but he'd surely see it through the window. Then you'd be exposed.
  12. >That's not how you do things.
  13. >So instead, you sit there in the darkness, helping yourself to a glass of the scotch he has in his liquor cabinet.
  14. >He won't be needing it where he's going.
  15. >After some time, you hear his car pull up outside.
  16. >3:36 AM. Right on schedule.
  17. >You throw back the last sip and set the empty glass on the table beside you.
  18. >On the other side of the door, you hear him fumbling with his keys.
  19. >Then the doorknob turns, and the door opens. He flips on the light, stumbles inside,
  20. >And freezes.
  21. >There you are, sitting in the center of his living room, with a gun in your hand.
  22. "Come on. Sit down."
  23. >You motion towards the sofa with your pistol.
  24. "I don't want to be here all night. I don't know why you stay up till this ungodly hour."
  25. >Slowly, he complies, going over to the sofa. "W-Who the fuck are you?"
  26. "Good God, man, you reek. Do you always get plastered at work?"
  27. >He sits. "Hey, man, I don't know what the fuck you want—"
  28. >You interrupt him.
  29. "I'm going to make this very simple. I'm going to talk. You're going to listen. And then I'm going to leave. Sound good?"
  30. >He nods apprehensively.
  31. "Good."
  32. >You set the gun down.
  33. "Let me start by saying this is not normally how I approach things. I'm not one for a dramatic entrance, I find them ostentatious. I usually employ a more utilitarian approach. But you're a special case. I've never been one for electronic music myself, but even I can appreciate you're a bit of a public figure. So we need to handle this delicately. Behind closed doors."
  34. >You pick up the empty glass beside you, admiring it.
  35. "As an aside, excellent, excellent scotch. I guess that's just the trappings of wealth for you, right? You get the good stuff and you don't even appreciate it. No, you'd rather pound that Grey Goose up on stage."
  36. >"How did you kn—"
  37. >You put the glass back down.
  38. "It's my job to know, Jeremy. Oh— I'm sorry, would you prefer DiscHorse? I'd go by a pseudonym, too, if I had a name like Jeremy. What is that supposed to be, a play on words? A cross between disc jockey and discourse? It's clever, I'll give you that. And a nice subtle nod to your roots, too, though you've done much to cover up that part of your past."
  39. >You smile at him.
  40. "That's where you got your start, isn't it? Making pony music?"
  41. >He leans forward. "Is that what this is about? You—"
  42. >You pick your gun back up.
  43. "Have you forgotten already, Jeremy? I talk. You listen."
  44. >He leans back against the sofa cushion once again.
  45. "Good. Now, as I was saying, your whole career came about because of pony. That, to me, truly is incredible. To make music, build up a following, get some industry connections, and immediately cut yourself off from the fandom? Then, to rebrand yourself? To use those connections to break into mainstream music? It's the scam of the century!"
  46. >You reach down to your bag on the floor and pull out your laptop.
  47. "But it wasn't a scam, was it? You genuinely do love those ponies. Always have. You just couldn't stand being a 'fandom artist.' You had to set your sights on something higher. I admire the ambition, and I can see the logic behind that decision. You kept it secret for your career's sake, sure, but you never stopped loving those little horses."
  48. >You set the laptop down on the coffee table, flip it open, and spin it around for him.
  49. >A video plays. Through the speakers, a raspy feminine voice speaks. "Uh, hi. What do I do, exactly?"
  50. >"What the shit is this?" he asks, his eyes fixed on the screen.
  51. "That one's your favorite, isn't she?"
  52. >The video continues. "Yeah, okay. What's up? I'm, uh, Vinyl Scratch. Stage name, DJ Pon-3. And I'm, uh," she laughs, "I'm looking for my man."
  53. >All the while, he can't stop watching. Right on cue, his eyes go wide. When you show up on screen.
  54. >"What the fuck's going on?" he asks. "This some kind of sick joke? Editing yourself into a video with ponies? What, you want me to make a track for your little project?"
  55. "Just watch."
  56. >In the video, you sit down beside Vinyl, who's smiling awkwardly. "I know you're likely confused," you say, "but you were chosen for a very specific reason. You're the soul mate of this lovely little mare here. And I think you ought to meet her." You pat her head amicably.
  57. >The video goes on, with her talking a bit about herself nervously.
  58. >When it finally ends, he looks back to you, too stunned to even speak.
  59. "She's actually a little dorky. Kind of shy, kind of awkward. I'm no shrink, but I think she wears the glasses to escape her true self, so she can lose herself in the party. Remind you of anyone?"
  60. >You tilt your head towards the elaborate horse helmet sitting inside a display case in the corner.
  61. "She's a great gal, that Vinyl. Spent some time with her myself, to get the full picture. Obviously, you've liked her for a long, long time. And I'm here to tell you, this is your shot at getting her."
  62. >Slowly, his stunned expression turns to one of ire.
  63. >"Get the fuck out of my house."
  64. "Yep."
  65. >You get up, retrieving your laptop and handgun, and stow them in your messenger bag. As you sling it over your shoulder, you lay a business card on the coffee table and tap it twice.
  66. >With that, you leave.
  67. >He'll call.
  68. >You've got a good feeling about this one.
  69.  
  70. >The following week, you find yourself back in Equestria. Princess Celestia cleared her schedule upon hearing of your return, apparently very eager to hear your update.
  71. >It's nice to know where her priorities are at.
  72. >As you enter the throne room, she seems positively delighted by your arrival.
  73. >"Anonymous! Please, do tell how the latest excursion went."
  74. >Stepping up, you address her respectfully.
  75. "Well, Princess, it went over smoothly, more or less. This one was a little tricky, being somewhat famous, he proved to be less accessible than the usual picks, but I managed just fine."
  76. >She smiles. "You always do."
  77. "Just dropped him off with his match. He was a tough sell, but I got him. They're nervous, but I can tell they're both excited."
  78. >"It never gets old, does it? Witnessing the thrill of meeting one's soul mate."
  79. "I had to take a different— unconventional— approach during recruitment. It came across a little hostile. I hope you can excuse that."
  80. >"You didn't hurt anyone, did you?"
  81. "No, no. Nothing like that. Just a couple... light... felonies."
  82. >"What you do in your world is beyond my jurisdiction," she chuckles. "I have faith in your judgment."
  83. "I appreciate that greatly, Princess."
  84. >She steps over the side of the room. "Come. Let's talk out on the balcony, shall we? It's a beautiful day."
  85. >You follow her outside, met by a gorgeous view of Canterlot below. There, she looks down fondly on her subjects, out and about.
  86. >Mares with their men.
  87. >"It is that same judgment that has brought pure bliss to many. I must say, you have been nothing short of the perfect matchmaker. Not a single complaint across all your pairs."
  88. >You know what she's leading into. You've been over this before.
  89. "The only way I've managed that is by dedication. It takes time to vet the perfect match for every mare."
  90. >"I can respect that you opt for quality over quantity. Your commitment has served us well thus far."
  91. "Why do I feel like there's a 'but' coming on?"
  92. >She sighs. "With every day, as more mares see their friends matched up perfectly with men, the waitlist grows longer and longer. I used to receive letters about infrastructure and public health, but now all anypony wants to know is if I can procure them a man. Mares from all over are calling in favors to bump themselves up the list. It seems to be the only thing anypony can think about."
  93. >You lean over the stone railing.
  94. "I know you must be in a bind. But the only way I've been able to do it thus far is taking one contract at a time. I need time to get to know each mare well enough. And Earth is such a massive place, it takes a while to narrow down the perfect candidate, and even longer to track them down and arrange recruitment."
  95. >"Perhaps if you took multiple contracts at a time, you could—"
  96. "It wouldn't help, Princess. I'm one man, I can only be in one place at any given time. What you need to consider is finding more recruiters."
  97. >"Out of the question," she says, firmly. "Love is such a delicate matter. I won't entrust it to a stranger. It took me so much to give you a chance."
  98. "What if I find someone competent? That I vouch for?"
  99. >"Humans make good mates, Anonymous. But only the best of you. The problem with your kind is the innate deception in your nature. If ever, heaven forbid, you were wrong about a match? Romantic partners can be replaced. But your position is one of authority. It was not a light decision, giving you power to travel so freely between our worlds. If ever I were to give that power to another, and he abused it? Understand, I must place Equestria's safety above all other matters. Even matters of the heart."
  100. >You turn back to the landscape in front of you. She has a point. You've never been wrong, ever the perfect judge of character. But give a man a little power, and you run the risk of getting him drunk on it. There's no telling what he'd do.
  101. >"Please, Anonymous," she insists. "Consider taking multiple contracts."
  102. >She pauses. "As a personal favor to me."
  103. >You can't help but smile at her.
  104. "Okay, Princess. You got me. I can't promise it will speed up the timelines, but I'll trial run THREE picks per trip. Any more than that and you're spreading me too thin. Don't want me making a mistake, do you?"
  105. >She chuckles. "Of course not."
  106. >The two of you gaze out at the pristine city below for a minute.
  107. >"Anonymous?"
  108. >You turn to her.
  109. >"Why haven't you sought out your own match?"
  110. >Oh, geez. Like you haven't grappled with that enough already.
  111. "I'm sure she's on the list by now. I'm sure I could take a few weeks off to interview all these mares and set myself up with the best one for me. But then what?"
  112. >"What do you mean? Then, happiness. Love."
  113. "My job takes precedence. I have to spend weeks, sometimes months at a time back on Earth. That wouldn't be fair to my potential mate. We'd just miss each other constantly. No, recruiting is more important. Better to make dozens of other mares happy than just one."
  114. >"That's very noble, and an endearing sentiment, but what if she were to go with you? Accompany you on each excursion? I would be willing to permit that, for your sake. She could even assist you in recruiting, perhaps it would accelerate the process."
  115. "It's a generous offer, but you don't want to send a mare to Earth. It's a terrible place, not fit for such a pure creature. Besides, I'd have to keep her hidden out of the public eye to uphold the covenant of secrecy, and it'd just end up slowing me down. I can work faster alone."
  116. >"I can see you've given this some thought."
  117. "I would love to be loved. It's just not in the cards right now. Besides, I'm happy with what I've got. I am eternally grateful you gave me this job. I feel like I can finally put these skills towards a good purpose. I don't like who I was back on Earth. What I did."
  118. >"I know, more than most," she says, sympathetically, "but you can put all that behind you, and look forward to the life that lays ahead. You need not worry. There are but two things that matter now."
  119. >You glance over to her, meeting her eyes.
  120. >"Men... and mares."
  121.  
  122. 2
  123. >As you step off the train in Ponyville, you double-check your dossier.
  124. >Now that you've promised the Princess to take multiple contracts per trip, the interviews have to be conducted in batches.
  125. >You spent the previous week familiarizing yourself with a pegasus named Cloudchaser.
  126. >The week before that, you were with a mare by the name of Amethyst Star.
  127. >Now it's time to interview one "Roseluck."
  128. >You recognize the name. She's been on the waitlist a long time.
  129. >A lot of time you have to interview the well-connected elite who schmoozed their way to the top of the list. Usually in Canterlot or Manehattan.
  130. >They're always polite young debutantes, sure, but it's nice when you finally draw a down-to-earth mare who's just waiting patiently for her love.
  131. >And Ponyville is the perfect place for mares like that. Quaint, humble. Though there are some more unconventional mares that reside h—
  132. >"Hey! Anon!"
  133. >You haven't been standing here two minutes before running into that all-too-familiar pegasus.
  134. "Hey, Rainbow Dash. How's kicks?"
  135. >She lands in front of you. "Awesome, as always. You in town on business?"
  136. "Why else? Never a day off from matchmaking."
  137. >"Who you got this time?"
  138. "Roseluck. You know her?"
  139. >"Yeah, I've seen her around. She's the florist here. I never had much use for flowers, so some of the others might know her better."
  140. >You smile and start walking into town.
  141. "I think I'll just meet her for myself."
  142. >She follows after you. "Hey, Anon?"
  143. "Yeah?"
  144. >"I wanted to thank you."
  145. "Oh?"
  146. >"For, uh, introducing me to my husband."
  147. >You stop walking and turn back to her. This will be worth losing a few minutes.
  148. "That's nice. How's he treating you?"
  149. >She grins. "Great! Real tough, just the right amount of edge, and, uh..." She pauses sheepishly. "He's... really sweet too."
  150. >God, look at her blushing like that.
  151. "I'm glad to hear that."
  152. >"I mean, he's no flier, but he's cooler than any stallion I've ever met, so I kinda lucked out."
  153. "I think it was less 'luck' and more 'me scouring Earth for six weeks'."
  154. >"Yeah, I guess you would know him pretty well, after all the trouble you went through."
  155. >Dash was a real challenge. But you like challenges. She's a... complicated mare.
  156. >She puts up a tough front. Very competitive, very independent.
  157. >But during your interview, you had to work to peel beyond that exterior to get to know the mare within. That's the job.
  158. >Her interview took three times longer than they usually take. You didn't quit until you felt confident you knew her.
  159. >She may be independent, but she likes being wanted. She walks a fine line between craving individualism and vulnerability. Finding someone with that perfect balance took a lot of time. It's not the kind of personal information that's easily accessible.
  160. >Rainbow Dash was one of your earliest contracts. It was the first real test of your skills.
  161. >Not to mention, the competition was stiff. A lot of men loved her.
  162. >But only one could have her.
  163. >It was hard to narrow down the perfect candidate, but you got him. Oh, how excited he was when you recruited him. Made his whole dream come true over the course of one conversation.
  164. "Where is he, anyway?"
  165. >"At home. I was just heading back when I saw you."
  166. "You adjusting well to a house on the ground?"
  167. >"Hey, for him, I'd live in a cave if I had to."
  168. >That's love, alright.
  169. >"I'm glad I ran into you, though. I've been having trouble with something lately, and maybe you could help me out."
  170. >You're used to being asked favors. You provided a uniquely sought-after service. The waitlist meant you'd always have to turn them down.
  171. >But she already has a man.
  172. "What is it?"
  173. >"Well, our five year anniversary is coming up..."
  174. >Have you really been doing this for over five years now?
  175. >"...and obviously that's a big one, so I want to do something really special for him."
  176. "Dash, I spent a few weeks getting to know him. You've had five years, I'm sure by now you know his tastes better than me."
  177. >"No, that's just it. He swears he loves it here, but I know sometimes he gets homesick, and I KNOW humans aren't allowed to go back 'cause of the whole 'secrecy agreement' thing, but—"
  178. >You don't like where this is going.
  179. >"I was hoping you could take me with you to Earth, so I can see where he came from and bring him back the perfect gift."
  180. >You stare at her blankly.
  181. "No. Absolutely not."
  182. >You start walking once again.
  183. >She flies after you. "Please, Anon! I promise I won't get in your way or anything, you'll barely know I'm there!"
  184. "No way. There hasn't been a pony on Earth in years, for good reason. Something happens, I lose my job, or worse."
  185. >"Nothing's gonna happen, I swear! I have to go, he got me the most amazing present last year, and I have to top it!"
  186. >She flies beside you, desperately pleading, but you defiantly continue down the street, not meeting her eyes. There's no room for negotiation here.
  187. "Sorry. It can't happen."
  188. >Dejected, she lands on the ground behind you.
  189. >"Please," she utters in a defeated tone, "I... I need this. I have no idea what to get him and— I—"
  190. >"I'm scared that I'm not good enough for him."
  191. >You stop in your tracks.
  192. >There it is.
  193. >It's been a while, but you haven't forgotten her dossier. Under 'insecurities', there was the big one.
  194. >Fear of abandonment.
  195. >You sigh and turn back to her. This sort of humbling act of desperation would usually be beneath her.
  196. >That's how you know she's serious.
  197. "I guess I could talk to the Princess about it."
  198. >"Really?" She flaps her wings in excitement.
  199. "Don't get your hopes up, okay? Even if I agree to it, it's still up to her."
  200. >"Thanks, Anon!" She charges at you and gives you a quick hug before breaking away. "I got to get home, poor guy's probably wondering where I am!"
  201. "See you."
  202. >As she flies away, you continue making your way through Ponyville.
  203. >This is certainly unorthodox.
  204. >Though, the Princess was the one who suggested you take a mare with you in the first place.
  205. >But her intentions were to pair you up, to find you love. This is most certainly not the case. She may not allow it.
  206. >Still, the request was born out of Dash's love for her husband. If she would permit it for the sake of love, she may well agree.
  207. >You push it from your mind. That's not what matters right now.
  208. >You have a lovely little florist to interview.
  209.  
  210. 3
  211. >You soon arrive at her shop. The large hand-painted sign hanging over the bay windows is a nice touch.
  212. >Through the glass, you can see a beautiful assortment of flowers. And past them, behind the counter, a cream-colored mare, trimming stems.
  213. >You pull open the door, ringing the little bell that alerts her to your presence.
  214. >As you step up to the counter, a visible wave of anticipation washes over her. She knows what you're here for.
  215. >You quickly glance at your dossier.
  216. "Hi, Roseluck, right?"
  217. >"Yes, sir, that's me!"
  218. >You flash her an amiable smile.
  219. "My name's Anonymous, and I'm here to find your match."
  220. >She's positively giddy. It's adorable. Mares are so cute.
  221. >You return your dossier to your bag and withdraw from it a binder. Laying it flat on the counter, you open it to the first page.
  222. "Do you have a moment now to walk through the steps?"
  223. >She nods eagerly, taking off her apron. "I'll close the store!"
  224. "That won't be necessary. I'd hate to take away any of your business."
  225. >"O-Of course," she stammers, donning her apron once again. The excitement's making her all tense.
  226. "There's no hurry at all. I'll work around your schedule. Just relax, and let me take you through the process."
  227. >"Sure. I can do that. I’m just— so happy you’re finally here."
  228. >They're usually giddy to start with (who wouldn't be?), but you've learned to quickly move past it.
  229. >She settles down a bit, and you slide the binder over to her.
  230. "So, the first step is the interview. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings, I'll be by your side as you go about your routine, getting to know you every step of the way. I know it seems intensive, but the method's proven. Usually, the process takes a week, but there's no shame if it takes longer. I'm going to ask you a long, winding series of questions. They'll be mundane at first, like making small talk, but they'll quickly get personal— I'm warning you now. You're welcome to refuse to answer anything, how much you're willing to share is up to you. I only ask that you please don't lie to me; if I'm working with false information, it just makes it harder to find your perfect match. Ultimately, the more I know, the better I can do my job. Does that sound good?"
  231. >Still enthusiastic, she nods approvingly.
  232. "Great."
  233. >You pull out a page from the binder.
  234. "I'll need you to sign this."
  235. >She takes your pencil and signs her name in the same beautiful cursive that adorns her shop sign.
  236. "Any questions?"
  237. >"Just one." She sets the pencil back down.
  238. >"Is he really out there?"
  239. >You fold up the form and return it to your bag, enamored with the wonderment in her eyes. It never gets old.
  240. "He is. And he can't wait to meet you."
  241. >You spend the day chatting her up. She was kind enough to bring in an armchair for you to sit in. You make sure to note that. You note every little detail. There's no telling when any of it will be useful.
  242. >From the corner of her storefront, you watch her go about her day, putting together arrangements, watering the plants, dethorning the roses, all the while gleaning insight into her life.
  243. "What are you looking for in a man?"
  244. >"Nothing special," she replies, while packing soil down into a pot. "I just want what everypony wants. A man to love me, hold me, reassure me on dark days."
  245. "Do dark days come often?"
  246. >"No. But everypony has them, right? You know what they say, some days it rains, some days it shines. That's how the flowers grow."
  247. >You jot that adage down into your notebook.
  248. "You're a prolific businessmare. Do you see the store becoming a family business?"
  249. >She wipes a bead of sweat from her brow. "You mean, my husband?"
  250. "Would you like him to work here, too?"
  251. >She pauses a moment before answering. "Yes. Yes, I think that would be nice. Spending all day with him, minding the shop together."
  252. >You record her answer.
  253. >Sometimes, people aren't even aware that they have a particular fantasy until someone else comes along and asks them about it.
  254. "What about in the future? Would you want to pass the business along to your children?"
  255. >She turns to you. "Is that... possible?"
  256. >You nod.
  257. >"I've always wanted a pair of fillies. It would be nice if they took after their mother, but whatever their special talents might be, I'd encourage them to pursue it."
  258. >She goes over to the closet and starts digging through it. "My mother was a seamstress, you know. Worked for the royal tailor before retiring here."
  259. >While you're writing that down, she emerges from the closet, dragging a heavy bag of soil with her mouth.
  260. >You shut your book and go over to help her.
  261. >"No, no, please," she says, through clenched teeth.
  262. >Waving her away, you kneel down, hoist the bag over your shoulder, and carry it over to the counter.
  263. >"Thank you," she mumbles, flustered by the gesture.
  264. >You set the bag down beside the row of pots and return to your chair.
  265. "No problem at all."
  266. >As she returns to potting, you gloss over the list of questions before setting it down and going off-book.
  267. "Do you grow the flowers yourself?"
  268. >"Oh, heavens, no. Growing them is a whole other job. I'm busy enough cleaning, cutting, and arranging them." She scoops out the soil with her spade. "I have a garden out back, but it's just a small vegetable patch. A nice change of pace, and it's great for cooking."
  269. "Do you cook much?"
  270. >"Every meal, it's become something of a hobby of mine. There are even some flowers you can cook with, just a bit of it can make the dish very aromatic!"
  271. >The bell rings and you both turn to the entrance, where a light green mare is walking in.
  272. >Roseluck beams at her. "Welcome! What can I help you with today?"
  273. >The mare comes up to the counter. "I'm looking for a bouquet for my husband. It's his birthday next week."
  274. >"Sure, I can help you assemble one! Is he a stallion or man?"
  275. >The mare stares at her uncertainly, slightly taken aback. "Uh..." She glances quickly between Roseluck and you sitting in the corner.
  276. >"I only ask because stallions and men have very different noses," she assures her. "My only concern is getting the right scent profile, I promise."
  277. >"He's... a stallion," she mumbles.
  278. >"Great! Do you know what he likes?"
  279. >"No, he says he doesn't care for flowers... but I caught him nose-deep in my vase last Mother's Day."
  280. >"That's boys for you. Always trying to act the tough one, when really, they're just as soft as us. Heaven forbid they're forced to admit it!"
  281. >The mare chuckles in response. "That sure sounds like my Lucky. Last week, he went candle shopping! Said it was a gift for me, but he knows I don't like cherry."
  282. >"Really? I have some fresh cherry blossoms here," Roseluck says, stepping around the counter. "That might be a fun way to tease him playfully. Of course, you can never go wrong with roses..."
  283. >She leads her customer around the store, making recommendations, picking out samples, generally being cordial. As you watch, you write down a passage in your notebook.
  284. >Roseluck is nothing short of hospitable. She treats her customers more like friends, and does everything to give her shop an inviting atmosphere. She pays no mind to stigma or personal choices, and seems genuinely curious about their lives. In a way, her job is no different from mine. When a pony comes to her, she delves into their mind. She makes a connection to find out what they want, even if they don't know it themselves. And through that process, she picks out the perfect arrangement to their tastes. It's not about flowers. It's about ponies. Her match ought to be a people person, someone well-liked, reputable.
  285. >After her customer walks out with the perfect bouquet, you tell Roseluck you're heading out as well.
  286. >"So soon?" she asks, a little disappointed. "The evening's young, maybe you could stay for dinner!"
  287. "Don't worry. I've got plenty of time to get to know you. We're just getting started, you and I."
  288. >"Wait!" She stops you on your way out, then plucks a small geranium bloom and drops it into your hand. "For you. A small token of my thanks."
  289. >You roll it around in your fingers.
  290. "H-How did you—"
  291. >She smiles up at you. "It's my job to know!"
  292. >You tuck the bloom into the strap of your bag and smile back at her.
  293. "Thanks, Rose. I'll be back tomorrow morning."
  294. >As you leave her store, you look forward to finding her the perfect man.
  295. >She deserves it.
  296.  
  297. 4
  298. >"C'mon, Anon, lemme out already!"
  299. >As soon as you step through the threshold into your home, you throw down your suitcase and sling the large, violently-wriggling backpack off your shoulders.
  300. >The moment you set the bag on the ground, Rainbow Dash bursts her head through the flap.
  301. >"Finally! You kept me in there forever!"
  302. "Hey, you wanted to come to Earth, that's the price you pay."
  303. >"Getting shoved in a potato sack for an hour?" she asks sarcastically, climbing out and stretching her wings. "You're messing with me, right?"
  304. "You know what my number one responsibility is?"
  305. >"Never washing your luggage? Seriously, it smells like a barn in there."
  306. >You frown, unamused.
  307. "It smells like that because I had to cram an unwashed pony in there. That's not the bag, it's you."
  308. >She rolls her eyes, lamenting the back-and-forth riff she inadvertently started. "Fine, what's this big important responsibility of yours?"
  309. "My job, above all else, is to prevent leaks. No one is allowed to know about Equestria."
  310. >You head to the kitchen, and she follows after you.
  311. >"But you told me before that some of the men say no after you invite them to Equestria, and then you just leave them alone. What about them? Aren't they leaks?"
  312. >It's rare, but it does happen.
  313. "Plausible deniability."
  314. >"Huh?"
  315. "I don't give them any concrete evidence. I try to show enough to convince them, but never anything that can be used to expose us. Usually those guys think I'm crazy. But even if they believe me, nobody will ever believe them."
  316. >You put on a pot of coffee.
  317. "You being here is completely different from that. You're living, breathing proof of Equestria's existence. Hence, the potato sack. A human catches a glimpse of you out in public, and it could ruin everything Celestia built."
  318. >Digging through the cabinets, you search for something to sate your appetite. In spending weeks at a time between worlds, you tend not to stock up on perishables.
  319. >You pull out a packet from the back and hold it up to Rainbow Dash.
  320. "You in the mood for oatmeal?"
  321. >She nods and you get to work boiling some water.
  322. >"Speaking of Celestia, how'd you convince her to let me come with?"
  323. "I called in a favor."
  324. >"The Princess owed you a favor?" she asks, clearly amused by the idea of her monarch being beholden to another creature.
  325. "She owes me lots of favors."
  326. >"Really? And she just lets herself be in debt to you?" There's a hint of doubt in her tone.
  327. "Yeah, she does..."
  328. >You dump the contents of the packet into the water and turn back to face her.
  329. "...because I use my favors to help others. Friends who come to me, asking for help."
  330. >Now embarrassed, she blushes a bit. "Well... thanks," she mumbles.
  331. "It's fine. You can repay me by taking my suitcase to my room upstairs."
  332. >She gallantly accepts and heads back to the front door.
  333. >You lean back against the counter and wait for the inevitable question.
  334. >"Wha— Hey, what's in this thing, rocks?" she calls out from the other room, grunting heavily as she drags the luggage along.
  335. >Stirring the oatmeal mix into the water, you state the answer plainly.
  336. "Gold."
  337. >"GOLD? As in, bars?"
  338. "Yeah. Not just gold, though, personal stuff too, so be careful."
  339. >"Why do you have gold?"
  340. "It's a stable currency in both our worlds, and it beats fiat money any day, so Celestia gives me a stipend from the treasury."
  341. >After a minute, she returns to the kitchen, trying to stifle her panting. "Why does she pay you that much? That doesn't seem fair, it's Equestria's money."
  342. "Pay me? Look around you."
  343. >You motion around your modest home.
  344. "I'm not living lavishly here. It doesn't go to me, I have to put it all toward expenses."
  345. >"Expenses? How much does it cost to find a guy, that you need gold?"
  346. >You remove the coffee pot and pour some into your mug.
  347. "You know how many men are out there? Your mind would boggle. Then there's flights around the world, lodging in big cities, surveillance equipment, deep background checks, bribes, fines, legal fees, all sorts of insane circumstances at every corner that I have no choice but to pay my way through. For the Princess' sake, I try to keep expenses low, but so much goes into making sure every man is the perfect match."
  348. >"Sounds like a lot."
  349. "It is a lot, but otherwise the whole thing falls apart. As long as Celestia thinks it's worth the cost, she'll keep sending me out on contracts. Besides, are you really telling me you could put a price tag on your marriage?"
  350. >Rainbow Dash bites her lip and smiles, fondly reminded of the man she loves. "Guess not."
  351. >It's cute, actually. The way she treasures him. How far she'd go to make him happy.
  352. >You take a sip of coffee.
  353. "I convinced Celestia to let you come just fine, but how'd you convince him?"
  354. >She looks away hesitantly. "He, uh— He doesn't know I'm here."
  355. >You raise an eyebrow. You weren't expecting that.
  356. >"He thinks I'm in Cloudsdale for a flight conference. It was the only place I could think of that he couldn't come along."
  357. >She lied to him? Rainbow Dash, perhaps the most loyal wife in Equestria, deceived her husband?
  358. "Still, why not just tell the truth?"
  359. >"I didn't like lying to him, okay?" she says defensively, recognizing the judgment in your eyes. "First time in five years, it doesn't exactly feel good to start now. It's just— he would've wanted to come, and Celestia would never let him, and I'm supposed to be finding him an anniversary present, and— ugh, one little white lie won't hurt our relationship."
  360. "I don't think it's that little, Dash. You're stuck here, in another world, for a month at the least. If you were my wife, I'd want to know where you were."
  361. >"Well, it's a good thing you're not married, then," she replies sharply.
  362. >As soon as the words leave her mouth, she grimaces in instant remorse.
  363. >Expressionless, you set your mug down and take the oatmeal off the stove.
  364. "Your food's ready."
  365. >You leave the kitchen to go unpack in your room.
  366. >"Anon, wait!" she calls after you. "I didn't mean it like that!"
  367. >You don't stop. She said her piece.
  368. >And she wasn't wrong.
  369.  
  370. 5
  371. >It's been something of a rough two weeks.
  372. >You've been pulling twelve-hour shifts, working your ass off to comb the world for candidates. Hour after hour, sitting at your desk, your face illuminated by the pale light of your computer screen.
  373. >This is the first time you've taken on three contracts at once. Three men, for three mares.
  374. >Cloudchaser, Amethyst Star, and Roseluck.
  375. >You're overworked, stressed, and barely holding it together. But you're doing it for Princess Celestia.
  376. >For her, you'd do anything. It was the humility behind her plea that did you in. All she sought was the happiness of her subjects. What could be a more noble endeavor than that?
  377. >The workload isn't all that's different this time around.
  378. >Rainbow Dash is with you.
  379. >Her off-the-cuff remark that first day here wounded you more than you cared to reveal.
  380. >Even so, maybe she could tell. She was awfully insistent that she didn't mean it, even after you ensured her you're fine.
  381. >It just didn't sit particularly well with you.
  382. >Was she right? Is there a mare out there, who's better off for not having married you?
  383. >You've pondered on it for so long. The nature of your job, gone for long swaths of time, never knowing when you'll be back...
  384. >Maybe it is a good thing you never married. You'd hate to put your love through that.
  385. >Still, it was something else altogether to hear it from another, to have your dreaded internal monologue parroted back to you. It wasn't pleasant.
  386. >After all, what prompted that comment was you telling her that her spouse deserved to know where she was.
  387. >She couldn't have possibly considered it through that lens, but she was more right than she knew.
  388. >You marrying would mean putting a mare through the daily anguish of not knowing where, in some distant world, you were.
  389. >You manage okay, but the volatile nature of recruitment puts you in dangerous situations from time to time.
  390. >Putting her through that kind of worry...
  391. >Fuck. You don't even know who she is and already you're struck with such deep empathy.
  392. >That's your job, isn't it? To understand, better than anyone, the kind of love shared between a man and a mare.
  393. >So hypothetical as she may be, you just want her to be happy.
  394. >That's why you haven't tried to find her.
  395. >After a moment, you catch yourself sitting lost in thought, fingers resting aimlessly on the keyboard.
  396. >This is the third time today your mind has wandered off.
  397. >You're supposed to be finding someone for Cloudchaser.
  398. >Rubbing your tired eyes, you get up and decide to make some coffee. It's going to be another long night before you let yourself rest.
  399. >Descending the stairs, you look over at Rainbow Dash sprawled out lazily on your couch. Two weeks here and she's lost any semblance of being a polite guest.
  400. >"Anoooon," she bemoans, "how much longer do we have to stay here? Earth TV was cool at first, but now I think it's all the same."
  401. >You lean over the banister and stare down at her.
  402. "I'm surprised it took you this long to figure that out. I'm pulling long hours to move us to the next phase, but I can't give you a reliable estimate. It happens when it happens."
  403. >"But I need to fly!" She rolls over onto her back and extends her wings longingly. "I can't spend weeks cooped up in a house like this, and you won't let me out unless it's shoved in that backpack!"
  404. >You start down the stairs again.
  405. "Hey, you asked for this. This is the best you could hope for under the circumstances. Celestia would kill me if I let you risk the covenant of secrecy."
  406. >She scampers off the couch and follows you to the kitchen. "But I'm supposed to be finding an anniversary present! How am I supposed to do that when the only way I can learn about Earth is from those stupid reality shows?"
  407. >Your migraine starts to kick in again as you put on a pot of coffee. Groaning, you press your temples.
  408. "Ugh, I don't know, okay? This was your idea, not mine. I have enough on my plate as it is, trying to find husbands for three mares at once. This might be a vacation for you, but I'm still on the clock, I can't deal with this right now. You don't get the position I'm in."
  409. >You slink into the counter chair and bury your head in your arms.
  410. >She climbs into the chair across from you. "Fine. Then tell me."
  411. >You raise your head a bit to meet her eyes.
  412. "Dash, I—"
  413. >"Just share, okay? Geez, you're like Applejack, always focused on work, can't ever take a break to talk."
  414. "Talk to you about what, exactly?"
  415. >"Work, if that's all you think about. Sometimes Twilight makes me come over so she can explain some egghead problem she's having until it makes sense to her. Calls me her rubber duck, whatever that means. So shut up, and just talk."
  416. >You balk at her phrasing, but comply.
  417. "It's three mares this time. I don't like it. I feel spread too thin, like I have to do three times the work in the same timeframe."
  418. >"Do you?"
  419. "No! That's the worst of it, I don't! There's no deadline, no schedule to follow, nothing. I have free reign, I could stay here a year if that's what it takes. Nothing is stopping me but an anxiety that's built up over the years. I dug myself into a routine. Interview a mare, narrow down candidates, confirm the best match, and recruit him. The timelines vary, but it takes roughly six weeks each cycle. And I know I'm free to take three times as long for this one, but there's just this gnawing feeling that I'm falling behind if I take any longer than I usually do. The whole reason I'm doing this is to improve efficiency, and I don't want to fail the Princess."
  420. >"Why put all that pressure on yourself?"
  421. "Because it's love. My whole job is to give people a lifetime of happiness. Every week that I delay is a week less that a perfect couple gets to spend their lives together. Would you have liked it if I spent an extra month bumming around when I was finding your husband?"
  422. >She stares at you blankly. "Yeah. I would've."
  423. >Curious, you pick your head back up. That wasn't the answer you expected.
  424. >"Look, Anon, I love the guy more than anything, but it's a MONTH. Nopony's gonna die if they lose a few extra weeks with their soul mate. I mean, look at me now, I'm still spending a month away from him, so it's not like you actually changed anything by working yourself to death."
  425. "But, Celestia's feeling the political pressure—"
  426. >"Princess Celestia will be fine. Seriously, she doesn't need you collapsing from exhaustion just to bring her more men."
  427. >You pause, still feeling guilty.
  428. >"Why are you so hard on yourself?" she asks. "You don't owe Equestria anything. You didn't do anything to deserve this."
  429. "That's not true."
  430. >"What?"
  431. >You sigh and run your hand through your hair.
  432. "I— The skills it takes to be a good recruiter, you don't get them naturally. Before Equestria, I had a different job. One that caused a lot of pain."
  433. >"What kind of job causes pain?"
  434. >Of course the concept would be foreign to her.
  435. "The illegal kind. I don't know how to explain it to a pony like you. Nor do I want to. Sure, it was dangerous, but I was good at it. Didn't want to admit it, but it was eating away at me. Equestria changed all that. Celestia gave me an out. So, I do what I do now, to atone for the damage I wrought."
  436. >"You ever talk to anypony about it?"
  437. "The Princess knows. Too ashamed to tell anyone else."
  438. >"Well, at least somepony knows. You might not be married yet, but maybe one day you'll have a wife to tell it to."
  439. >The realization causes you to sink your head back to your arms.
  440. "No mare who knows the things I did would ever love me."
  441. >She sits there awkwardly, not knowing how to respond. She couldn't wrap her head around what this job was.
  442. >So she resigns to silence.
  443. >Soon, the coffee is ready, and you get up to pour yourself a cup.
  444. >"How far along are you in finding men for those three?" she asks, changing the subject.
  445. >You set the mug on the counter and return to your chair.
  446. "I've got candidates for Amethyst Star and Roseluck. Neighboring countries, so that's a plus. Stuck on Cloudchaser, I have a few men in mind, but none of them fit quite right."
  447. >"Cloudchaser? Ugh, I went to junior flight camp with her. She and her sister are total—"
  448. >You glance up at her expectantly.
  449. >"—llly awesome. Totally awesome fliers. Yeah, that's it."
  450. >Rolling your eyes, you take a sip.
  451. "Regardless, she's a sweet mare and deserves a man to match. Athletic for sure, but a little dainty. I'm having trouble finding a personality that suits her. If it takes any longer, I don't know what I'll do."
  452. >"So... why not take a break from it?"
  453. >You scoff at the idea of it.
  454. "The problem will still be there when I get back, I'll just be a week behind."
  455. >"No, I mean, move on to the next part and come back to it. Nopony's saying you have to do it in order, right? You have two other men just waiting for you. Go recruit 'em."
  456. >Taking another sip, you consider her advice. You want to poke holes in it, but you can't find a fault. Instinctively, you defaulted to batching, because the routine was all you knew. You never considered staggering them out.
  457. >But it makes sense. You've been stuck for a few days now. There's always some free time during the observation phase, long periods where nothing happens.
  458. >It seems so obvious now. Why didn't you think of it?
  459. >You really have been overworking yourself.
  460. "You're right."
  461. >She boasts a grin. "'Course I am!"
  462. "I have to go to Italy."
  463. >"Alright!" She stands up in her chair. "When are we leaving?"
  464. "Dash..."
  465. >"Oh, no, you're not leaving me here. It was my idea, I get to come."
  466. "It's not as simple as that. I was hoping to bring you along on a domestic recruitment. Traveling overseas is so much more complicated."
  467. >"No way! You can't ditch me just like that!"
  468. "Dash, you don't understand. I'd have to charter a private flight to get around security, and then I'd have to smuggle you through customs, it'd take so much money just to keep you a secret."
  469. >She slumps back, disappointed. "Figures. It was stupid of me to even come."
  470. "Hey, I promise I'll try to find a match for Cloudchaser here in the country. That way when I come back, I can bring you along."
  471. >She climbs down from her chair. "Thanks, Anon," she says softly, trying to mask her dejection. "Think I'm gonna go to bed now. Goodnight."
  472. >As she leaves, you look down at your coffee.
  473. >You know what this means to her. This isn't a vacation. She's here for her husband.
  474. >You hate seeing her like this. You just want to make her happy.
  475. >But it's not feasible, right? She's asking too much. You brought her to Earth. She should be grateful.
  476. >And she is. She's already expressed it plenty, she's just... eager to carry out her mission. Finding the perfect anniversary gift.
  477. >She's not doing this for herself. It's a goal in pursuit of someone else's happiness.
  478. >"The thing that lies at the foundation of positive change is service to a fellow human being."
  479. >It's a quote you use to mark the transition from your old life to new.
  480. >Maybe tweak it from humans to ponies, but the principle holds.
  481. >You still struggle on a daily basis to convince yourself that you've really changed, that you can put all the suffering you caused behind you.
  482. >This is an opportunity to add another to the list of reassuring acts of kindness that help you to sleep at night.
  483. >Finishing the last of your coffee, you grab your phone.
  484. >You have to make some calls.
  485.  
  486. 6
  487. >It wasn't easy.
  488. >Princess Celestia had provided only so much gold for this trip. International charter flights and bribing customs would eat up most of that budget, leaving little for the other two men you still need to recruit.
  489. >So you dipped into a stash left behind from your old life. It took some legwork, getting ahold of that money, but it was just sitting there otherwise.
  490. >Truthfully, you'd rather have left it forgotten. You don't like thinking about what you did to earn it. It was blood money.
  491. >But Rainbow Dash needed this. She came to see the world, and you relegated her to the interior of your home for the sake of secrecy.
  492. >So you made a few calls, put the squeeze on a few former associates, and managed to liquidate some long-buried assets.
  493. >Dash was elated to hear your change of heart. Italy sounded like some distant, exotic land.
  494. >And perhaps it was, but she'd have felt no different if you told her you were going to Pittsburgh.
  495. >You chartered the jet, packed up your luggage (Rainbow Dash included), and set off for Florence.
  496. >During the flight, you gave her some time to mill about the cabin, when the crew wouldn't see her.
  497. >She'd flown fast and high before, but this was an entirely different experience.
  498. >You enjoyed watching her reactions. There's something profound to be said about witnessing someone's captivation with something you take for granted. Spending time with her allowed to you see the world through a new lens.
  499. >For the first time in a while, if only for a brief moment, you stopped feeling so jaded.
  500. >Upon landing, you stowed her once again, and met up with the customs agent as prearranged.
  501. >Though your anxiety was mounting, it went off without a hitch. The bag that contained Dash went conveniently ignored.
  502. >From Florence, it was a short drive to San Gimignano, a small historic town in Tuscany.
  503. >Twelve days you spent shadowing the candidate. Observing, noting behavior, gleaning insight into his reputation.
  504. >Rainbow Dash, to her chagrin, was cordoned off inside the hotel room. Every day it was the same protest, how you took her halfway around the world just to lock her in an even smaller room.
  505. >You had your reasons. Sure, it was a small town, but an unknown nonetheless, and nothing would be worse than exposure.
  506. >But the whining was unceasing, and on your thirteenth night there, you relented.
  507. >You allowed her to accompany you while you observed one of his evenings out.
  508. >For the occasion, you'd procured a children's Halloween costume for her to disguise herself in. That alone was hard enough to obtain.
  509. >It would be harder still to explain the child in the ill-fitting, off-season costume with you, but far easier than explaining the truth, at least.
  510. >You hoped it wouldn't come to that.
  511. >Now, you're sitting in your rental car, spying on the man in the trattoria across the street, with Rainbow Dash, dressed as a T-Rex, in the passenger seat.
  512. >What has your life become?
  513. >"What are we doing here, anyway?"
  514. >You nod over to the establishment. Dark outside, bright interior clear through the glass storefront; you had the perfect line of sight.
  515. "He's in there. So we're out here. Watching."
  516. >She looks over to you. Or at least you think she does. It's hard to tell in that ridiculous outfit.
  517. >"This is kinda creepy, Anon."
  518. "It gets creepier."
  519. >You state that ever-so-plainly as you reach for the binoculars.
  520. >"So who is this guy?"
  521. "Lorenzo Farnese. A match for Roseluck, I'm hoping."
  522. >Dash squirms around in her seat. "Which one is he? Gah, I can barely see out of this thing."
  523. "Dark hair, trimmed mustache, sitting by the wall."
  524. >"And you're just... following him around? That's what you've been doing since we got here?"
  525. >Without pulling away from the binoculars, you answer her.
  526. "It's not good to approach blindly. You have to watch a while, observe them in their element. Note all their little behaviors."
  527. >"Can't you just interview them, like with the mares?"
  528. "You don't know humans very well. And before you go on about your husband, know that the men I send over are the very best of us. Most of them, here on Earth, are selfish and deceitful. Talking won't give you the whole picture. People are their true selves when they think no one's watching. I need to know them fully before I let them anywhere near Equestria. It's what Celestia would want."
  529. >Lorenzo's sitting at the table on the far right, with four friends. Their bottle of wine arrives, and he pours everyone a glass. There's lots of merriment going around, with pleasant conversation and hearty laughs.
  530. >You set the binoculars down and start writing in your black book.
  531. >"What are you writing?"
  532. "I keep track of the tabs he runs. On average, he treats more than Fabio or Luca."
  533. >"You know all his friends?"
  534. "He goes out with those two regularly. It helps to know the company the candidates keep."
  535. >You finish writing and set the pen down.
  536. "I can hear the judgment in your voice, even if I can't see it on your face."
  537. >"No!" she protests. "Well... maybe a little. Heck, this is all so new to me. But, I mean, you bring over some really cool guys, so it must be worth it. It's just kinda weird, that's all."
  538. "It's odd work, that's not lost on me. But this is what it takes to find every mare the best possible match."
  539. >Inside the trattoria, a man comes over to greet Lorenzo, who happily rises to meet him. Firm handshake, a hand placed amicably on his shoulder, engaged in delighted conversation...
  540. >It's all going down in your book.
  541. >"Who's that tall guy?"
  542. "A minister, going by the clothes."
  543. >"I can tell the men from the women, Anon. Mister who?"
  544. "Mi-NIS-ter. A catholic priest."
  545. >"Ha, you humans and your wacky religions."
  546. "I'm sure it'd be easier if we had a giant deity who controlled the sun living among u—"
  547. >A knock on the passenger window interrupts you, causing Rainbow Dash to jolt in surprise. You both quickly turn toward the figure standing outside.
  548. >You have an instant to decide whether to engage or get the hell out of here, with you leaning towards the latter.
  549. >But this man looks innocuous enough, and you can't peel out without risking exposure.
  550. "Don't say a word."
  551. >Slowly, you roll down the side window, lamenting the decision to leave your gun behind for Dash's sake.
  552. >He leans in and smiles. "Scusa, signore, mi dispiace disturbarti, ma sai dov'è la piazza?"
  553. >You hesitate before answering him.
  554. "No, non abito qua."
  555. >He glances down at the little dinosaur and grins. "Che carino! È tuo bambino?"
  556. "È mia figlia. Lei ama il costume, non vuole uscire senza di esso."
  557. >"E come ti chiami?" he asks Rainbow Dash.
  558. >You're starting to get very tense. This stranger is uncomfortably close to her.
  559. "Eh, scusami, dobbiamo partire ora."
  560. >He nods and taps the door. "Ah, grazie comunque. Ciao!"
  561. >You immediately roll the window back up and start the car.
  562. >"What was that?" Dash asks.
  563. "Nothing. Let's get out of here."
  564.  
  565. >When you get back to the hotel, you flip through the night's notes at the desk while Rainbow Dash yanks off her costume.
  566. >"Finally!" she exclaims, taking a deep breath. "I'm never wearing that thing again. I'm sweating like a pig over here."
  567. >You don't reply, instead focused on cross-referencing your notes against previous nights.
  568. >She climbs up onto her bed and collapses, sprawling her limbs out. "C'mon, Anon, don't you ever take a night off?"
  569. >You mutter to yourself as you work.
  570. "That man tonight..."
  571. >"Huh?"
  572. >You glance up and turn in your chair to face her.
  573. "The guy who came up to the car. I know I've seen him before, but I don't have his description anywhere."
  574. >"You probably just forgot to write it down," she says, reaching for her book on the nightstand.
  575. >You spin back around and return to your notes.
  576. "Not possible. I write everything down."
  577. >She snickers to herself. "Now that I believe."
  578. >After a few minutes, you shut your black book defeatedly, causing Dash to look up from her book.
  579. >"Maybe you saw him out walking one day? There's loads of people in this town."
  580. "Yeah. Maybe."
  581. >You're still not convinced. You're good with faces, and his just seemed to linger...
  582. >"Anon?"
  583. >You abandon your train of thought and return your attention to Rainbow Dash.
  584. >"When you were recruiting my husband, did you follow him around? The way you did tonight?"
  585. >You don't want to lie to her.
  586. "I did."
  587. >"Did you ever see him do anything... weird?"
  588. >That's a loaded question.
  589. "Everyone does weird stuff when they're alone."
  590. >"That doesn't really answer me."
  591. >You get out of the desk chair and kick your shoes off before sitting on your bed, across from hers.
  592. "Honestly, I don't remember. It's been a while since then."
  593. >"You still have the notes, don't you?"
  594. "Sure, but—"
  595. >"Can I read them?"
  596. >You're a little confused by the request.
  597. "Why do you want to know? I shadowed him for two weeks five years ago."
  598. >She moves to the edge of her bed, facing you. "Sometimes I just don't get him. He doesn't talk about his life on Earth that much. There's something he misses about this place, but he won't admit it. I've been here a month and I still have no idea how to figure out what it is. Maybe if I could see what his life back here was like, then... I don't know."
  599. "You're not going to find your answers here. He's the only one who can give you the truth."
  600. >She pauses before responding. "Do you think he's changed? I mean, you knew him even before I did. Sometimes, I feel like he's not the same person, and I— I don't know who else I could ask."
  601. >Her desperation is growing. You can hear it in her tone, her voice breaking slightly, see the concern in her expression.
  602. "Dash, I'm really not the person to ask. I don't know anything about marriage. I just find people, that's all I'm good for."
  603. >"But you study behavior, and you know him, and—"
  604. >She pauses again, her eyes watering.
  605. >"Please, Anon," she whispers. "Please."
  606. >You just want her to be happy.
  607. >With a sigh, you get up from the bed, grab your black book off the desk, and toss it in front of her.
  608. "Everything I have on him is somewhere in there. That's all I can do for you. I'm going out of for a drink."
  609. >You throw on your jacket and head out the door.
  610. >On your way out, though, you're put off by your own callousness. Not wanting to leave on such a cold note, you catch the door before it shuts and lean back inside.
  611. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
  612. >You journey down the cobblestone streets to a quaint little bar. It's not like you to spend unnecessary time out in public during a recruitment, but Lorenzo went home an hour ago, and you've a lot on your mind.
  613. >Taking a seat at the counter, you find this place to be livelier than you expected. You concern yourself with the risk of discovery for all of six seconds before resigning and ordering a drink.
  614. >You shouldn't have let Rainbow Dash come. It was a mistake. You should have just told her it wasn't a good idea the day she asked, instead of entertaining her little crusade.
  615. >But that's your problem, right? You're a people pleaser. You make them like you, so you can... what? Know them? What's the point of knowing them when they're not a contract? You default to it because it's the only life you know.
  616. >You have no life, no personality, outside of work. Everything that you are is wrapped up in this job.
  617. >You don't even know who you are anymore.
  618. >Second drink.
  619. >All you know is how to make people open up. Even when you don't want them to. You don't want to be involved in Dash's problem, you don't want to think about that guy she's married to.
  620. >You had to get out of there. Because if she's having these doubts, it'd mean you were wrong. If her marriage fails, then who's to say the rest of them won't all fall apart at the five-year mark?
  621. >The only thing you're good for, and now, it's called into question whether you were ever good at all.
  622. >It's because of her you're sitting here, instead of finding Cloudchaser's match, like you should be.
  623. >Third drink.
  624. >Poor Cloudchaser. That stupid jock in Nashville doesn't deserve her, you're taking him off the candidate list. And all those other guys too, just a bunch of assholes who don't deserve a mare like her. You could make her so much happier than any of them.
  625. >Wait, you? No. Of course not. Your job is to match mares with other men. Like Roseluck and Lorenzo. He's a good man. Honest. Hardworking. He'll treat her right. Better than you ever could. Thinking about how he'll get to wake up every day with her...
  626. >Fourth drink.
  627. >Him, and not you. Living life with Roseluck. Opening the shop every day beside her, tending to her vegetable patch, helping her cook dinner...
  628. >"Some days it rains, some days it shines. That's how the flowers grow."
  629. >You can still hear her voice in your head. You can make it say whatever you want.
  630. >"I found the little note you left for me in the hydrangeas, Anon. You're just lucky I stumbled across it before a customer did! In any case, it certainly made my day a little brighter. I love you, too."
  631. >Fuck.
  632. >She deserves better than him.
  633. >Fifth drink.
  634. >You'll never be better.
  635. >Sixth(?) drink.
  636. >You're not good enough for a mare. You've done horrible things.
  637. >No. Don't go there. Not now.
  638. >Look at where you're sitting now. Dash is back in the room, struggling to find out what her man desires most in the world. All because he won't tell her. That prick.
  639. >Seriously, she came to another world in search of the perfect gift, and he can't fucking open up to her? He's a coward. He doesn't deserve her.
  640. >Another drink... don't bother keeping count anymore. Just put it on Celestia's tab, right? You haven't cut yourself a paycheck in five years. You've earned one night of binging.
  641. >...it's your fault Dash is with him. She was an emotional vault, so you got her one to match. But given enough time, her safe can be cracked. You knew that. You could tell. You're good with her. Him, on the other hand...
  642. >He doesn't know how good he's got it. He doesn't know that someone else would appreciate her more.
  643. >...
  644. >She's married, Anon.
  645. >Drink after drink after drink after drink
  646. >You could make her so much happier than he ever could.
  647. >And why the fuck not? She deserves better than that asshole. Should have set her up with yourself when you had the chance. Then maybe this would be YOUR five year anniversary with her.
  648. >You'd let her in. She'd never worry about the perfect gift with you. She'd just know.
  649. >All you ever want is her happiness. And she's living with you, and you have a hotel room, and she likes you, and she trusts you, and you just want to be loved, and she needs to feel appreciated, and the timing feels right, and
  650. >You settle up and stumble back to the hotel room.
  651. >The world feels hazy but there's only one thing on your mind.
  652. >Her.
  653. >You push open the door and stagger inside.
  654. "Rainbow Dash? I—"
  655. >And you freeze.
  656. >Because she's not here.
  657.  
  658. 7
  659. >Panic mode engaged.
  660. >You run to the bathroom to check for Dash (wouldn't that be a satisfying resolution), only to find it empty.
  661. >Her bed is still made. The only thing lying atop it is your black book.
  662. >You check the door and windows for any indication of forced entry, but no such luck.
  663. >Around the room you stumble, still drunk, scouring for any sign as to where she might have gone.
  664. >This is the worst possible timing. The one reprieve you permit yourself, after finally taking her out in public, and you return to find everything gloriously fucked.
  665. >You piece everything together, albeit at a far slower rate than you'd expect outside your current inebriated state.
  666. >The vaguely familiar man who approached your car tonight. He seemed particularly taken with Rainbow Dash in her costume.
  667. >This disappearance was no coincidence; it had to be a full-on premeditated kidnapping.
  668. >And you handed him the opportunity on a silver platter, like the fucking moron you are.
  669. >Your knees give out beneath you, and you fall back onto the bed.
  670. >Celestia's going to have your head for this. The covenant of secrecy has been blown wide open. Someone has living, breathing evidence of Equestria's existence.
  671. >The initiative is over. Equestria is over. Because from Dash, they'll trace back to the portal. Once this gets out, there'll be no controlling it.
  672. >Humanity cannot be trusted with the keys to the kingdom.
  673. >Celestia knew this from the start. You were the only one she ever trusted, and that faith took years to cultivate.
  674. >She placed the security of her world from yours squarely on your shoulders, and you blew it.
  675. >You lost one of her fucking subjects! And not just an ordinary civilian, but one of their national heroes. How do you even begin to cover that up?
  676. >...a cover-up?
  677. >Why are you immediately defaulting to that? Have you no empathy?
  678. >She's supposed to be your friend. She trusted you to keep her safe, and you lost her.
  679. >You spend the next few minutes turning the room upside down, desperately searching for anything to go on.
  680. >But you find nothing.
  681. >The panic doesn't subside. Pacing back and forth, the world feels like a blur. You're not sober enough to handle this rationally.
  682. >There's only one course of action. Go out and look for her.
  683. >It's a goddamn stupid plan and you know it, but in your fervor, you're having a difficult time coming up with anything else.
  684. >Back out you go, patrolling the streets in a vain effort to track her. You don't even have the luxury of using your car right now.
  685. >With the way things are going, you'd only dig yourself deeper into this hole by getting a DUI in a foreign country.
  686. >You're out for hours. You swing by the trattoria from your stakeout earlier, but as expected, there's nothing to be found but empty streets and closed shops.
  687. >When you're finally on the verge of passing out, you trudge back to the hotel and collapse onto the bed.
  688. >The time and adrenaline have sobered you up a bit, but you nearly drank yourself blind tonight.
  689. >You hate feeling so powerless. All your life you've worked your procedures and contingencies down to a fine art. Even when the unexpected arose, you managed well on the fly. You were equipped for anything.
  690. >But this...
  691. >You were at a loss.
  692. >You slipped up tonight. You never get drunk on the job. And you've been on the job for the last five years. Your habits had become so routine you forgot why you even had them in the first place.
  693. >But tonight was an exception. All this business with Dash had left you feeling some type of way. An extenuating circumstance disrupted your routine like a grain of sand in a microchip.
  694. >Well, now you know. You're not good at this. You're just pathological.
  695. >...
  696. >Dash is still out there.
  697. >And you have no clue what you can do for her.
  698. >You don't sleep. There's no way you can. You're dead tired, and you can barely feel your limbs, but your migraine's returned and the anxiety is pervasive.
  699. >Dash might be in danger, but for some reason, you can't seem to shake Celestia from your mind.
  700. >Somewhere along the way in your thought process, this became more about the Princess than her.
  701. >She represents your salvation. If you lose her, you lose everything you've built up thus far. You need her, to know you've really changed. That you're capable of repentance.
  702. >And all you can think about is how you let her down.
  703.  
  704. >Sometime around midday, you hear the door open.
  705. >Still on the bed, you snap upright to see Rainbow Dash strutting back inside like nothing happened.
  706. "Dash! What the hell? Where were you?"
  707. >"I went out."
  708. >She states it so plainly that you'd think you were the crazy one for asking.
  709. >You get up off the bed.
  710. "What do you mean, 'you went out'? Where? Why?"
  711. >"Relax, Anon," she says, brushing past you to get to her bed. "Nopony saw me. I just had to check something."
  712. "Check what? You're not supposed to go out in public without me! What the hell were you thinking?"
  713. >She struggles to stifle an excited grin. "Okay, I'll tell you. I wanted him to be the first to know, but I just can't keep it a secret."
  714. >Proudly, she hops up onto the bed. "I did it. I figured out the perfect gift for my husband."
  715. >You can't believe it.
  716. >That's what this is about?
  717. >You hold yourself back, growling your reply through gritted teeth.
  718. "Are you insane?"
  719. >Your infuriated expression wipes any trace of confidence from her face.
  720. "I thought you were taken from me. I thought Equestria was doomed, that Celestia was going to kill me, and you're telling me it was all for a stupid fucking present?"
  721. >She gets frightened by your tone. "Anon... I..."
  722. >Slowly, you step toward her.
  723. "Do you even care? Is this all just a game to you? I put my job on the line bringing you here, I try to do the right thing to help you, and you— you just— AGH!"
  724. >You swipe your black book off the bed in front of her and hurl it at the mirror, cracking it deeply.
  725. >She's trembling, mortified by your outburst. "I-I'm sorry!" she cries out. "I didn't think it mattered that much!"
  726. >You fall back onto your bed and bury your face in your hands.
  727. >What the fuck are you doing?
  728. >You take the next minute to collect yourself.
  729. "Rainbow Dash?"
  730. >"Yeah?"
  731. >You don't dare look at her, but her voice is still shaky.
  732. "I'm sorry."
  733. >She doesn't reply.
  734. >That hurts. But you deserve it.
  735. >You crossed a line with her, and that wasn't okay.
  736. >With a sigh, you sit back up solemnly.
  737. "We have to go back to Equestria."
  738. >"No!" she protests.
  739. >Confused, you look over to her.
  740. >"Look, I'm sorry for being stupid, but don't punish those mares waiting back home. We can't go now, without any men to show Celestia. At least recruit that Lorenzo guy. You came here and did all this work. I don't want to ruin it for you."
  741. "It can wait. Everything can wait. I lost my cool back there, and I'm sorry. I'm not mad. I'm just not letting you out of my sight until we get back."
  742. >"Then bring me along on the recruitment! You can stick me in the backpack, I won't say a word, I swear!"
  743. >You're reluctant to accept. You don't care about sunken cost right now, you just want this stressful nightmare to be over.
  744. >"Please, Anon. For Roseluck."
  745. >For Roseluck.
  746.  
  747. >You pull up to the villa and shut off the engine.
  748. >Dash, once again in the passenger seat, is brimming with anticipation to witness an actual recruitment.
  749. "You promise you'll stay in the bag?"
  750. >"Totally. You won't hear a peep out of me."
  751. "I better not."
  752. >You get out of the car while she climbs into the backpack, and circle around to the passenger door.
  753. >Once she's secure, you sling it over your shoulder and step up to the house.
  754. >You set a meeting yesterday, to meet him here at his home. A beautiful stone villa amongst the rolling hills, it was a far more private option than his shop in town.
  755. >As you approach, you see a figure waving to you behind the side gate.
  756. >"Signor Anonimo, benvenuto! Vieni qua!"
  757. >He opens the gate for you and leads you around back, to a beautiful terrace overlooking the Tuscan countryside.
  758. >He motions to a chair. "Siediti, siediti. Vorresti qualcosa da bere?"
  759. >You set the bag down beside you and sit.
  760. "Un caffè, per favore."
  761. >"Certo! Latte e zucchero?"
  762. "Un po', grazie."
  763. >After a bit, he returns with two cups in hand, and sets them down, before taking his seat across from you.
  764. >"Allora, Signor Anonimo, perché hai voluto incontrare qua, a mia casa?"
  765. >You raise your cup genially.
  766. "Ho una proposta."
  767. >"Oh?"
  768. >He takes a sip of his coffee and pauses, smiling.
  769. >"Di dove sei?"
  770. >You falter a bit before answering earnestly.
  771. "Sono americano."
  772. >He chuckles. "Your accent is very good. You could have said Milano and you would have fooled me."
  773. "Yes, well, it's my job to convincing."
  774. >"Not like me, eh? I can speak your language, but I still sound like my countrymen."
  775. >He laughs and gazes out at the hills on the horizon.
  776. >You watch him curiously. He is everything you knew he was. Welcoming, handsome, charming accent. But he's different somehow.
  777. >"So what is this proposal? I hope you have not come to buy my business, because I would hate to send you away with bad news."
  778. >Recruitment can wait a few minutes.
  779. "This business of yours..."
  780. >He listens intently.
  781. "You're very popular. Everyone loves you. Everyone knows you. You have this beautiful villa. But you're just a..."
  782. >You trail off.
  783. >"You can say it, amico mio. I am just a florist."
  784. >He looks you up and down before continuing.
  785. >"You are not from here. Everyone touts Roma, Firenze, Venezia as our centers of culture and history. But the life of all Italia? It is found here, in the small towns and countrysides. The people here are family. We have all lived here, in these homes, for generations, centuries and centuries spent among one another. San Gimignano is a special place."
  786. >He pauses. "Maybe, I am just a florist to you. But everyone needs flowers. Otherwise the world is a much darker place."
  787. >You don't know what to make of it. You know this man in and out, but he still eludes your full understanding.
  788. >He seems perfect. But no one is perfect.
  789. >There's some missing piece, and you can't recruit him until you have it. You have to be sure.
  790. >So you press on.
  791. "Florence is just up the road. You could make so much more opening a shop there, but you stay here. You don't want to ever leave."
  792. >"It is peaceful here. I know the people, they know me. I have a wonderful home. Maybe I am set in my ways, but I would rather take my meager shop here than a fortune in Firenze."
  793. >You begin to worry that this might be a waste of time.
  794. >People need a certain disposition to be receptive to recruitment. If you don't see it in them, there's no point.
  795. "You said San Gimignano is special. But there's towns just like it all over the world."
  796. >"You misunderstand, amico. It is special because it is my home. A home is something built, it must be made, not taken. I have no reason to leave."
  797. "What about love?"
  798. >You finally snag him, if only for a brief moment, as he squints curiously at you.
  799. >"Why have you come here?"
  800. >With that, the power dynamic has shifted.
  801. "I've met so many men in my travels. Good men, with a good head on their shoulders. And they were single, but not for want of trying. They'd been in relationships before, just ones that didn't work out. But not you. Near as I can tell, you haven't even tried. You have everything you need here. Everything except someone to share it with."
  802. >He continues to sip his coffee, listening to you go on, not letting you rattle him.
  803. "You don't want to leave because of what it would mean. Because it would shine a light on that one failing, that gnawing desperation that keeps you up every night, the thing that forces you to surround yourself with friends late into the evenings at the trattoria because you HATE the fact that you have no one to come home to."
  804. >You tap your finger against the table.
  805. "You're not happy. You're afraid."
  806. >He takes a deep breath, leaving a tense silence between you.
  807. >"So you have me all figured out. I do not know who you are, signore, but surely you did not come here to berate me."
  808. "I know I picked you for a reason. You want the life you have now, and you truly believe that you'll never find love without sacrificing that. But what if there was another town out there, a village just like this one, only with someone perfect for you? Would you take the leap?"
  809. >He sets his cup back down and looks out at the countryside pensively. "There is always a catch."
  810. "She's a pony from another world."
  811. >And so it outs.
  812. >You watch for his reaction, because these are the moments that are most telling, the ones where you gauge their willingness to accept.
  813. >But he continues to gaze over the landscape, seemingly unfazed by the bombshell.
  814. >And straight away, you know this one is different.
  815. "You believe me."
  816. >After a few seconds, he turns back to you. "In italiano, we have a saying. Se son rose, fioriranno."
  817. >If they're roses, they will bloom.
  818. >It’s a message of hope, of cautious, wistful optimism. If it’s meant to be, it will be.
  819. >He bites his lip, avoiding your eyes. "I have been waiting for my rose for a very, very long time."
  820. >Jesus.
  821. >He's the one, alright.
  822. >Suddenly, you reach down to the backpack and open it up.
  823. >You don't care anymore.
  824. >In light of his genuine display of vulnerability, you're made just a little more human.
  825. "Dash, come on out."
  826. >Slowly, she climbs out of the bag, puzzled by your instruction.
  827. >You nod over to him.
  828. "Lorenzo, this is Rainbow Dash. She comes from that town I mentioned."
  829. >After quickly looking to you to make sure it's okay, she walks over to him. "Hey. What's up?"
  830. >"Che bella," he says affectionately, reaching down and stroking her mane.
  831. >Immediately, she recoils. "Hey, watch it! I already have a man, thanks."
  832. >"Oh, of course," he chuckles, amused by her vehement fidelity. "Please forgive me. You are just such a lovely cavallino, I can only hope my mate is half as pretty as you."
  833. >Watching them interact, it's cute.
  834. >This was a good thing you did for once. It's time you stopped worrying and started caring more.
  835. >Still, easier said than done. You have a long way to go, Anon.
  836. >This is just the first stop.
  837. "So what do you say, il signore fiore? Ready to meet the love of your life?"
  838.  
  839. 8
  840. "All set?"
  841. >Rainbow Dash drags her luggage down the stairs. "Why do we have to leave so soon? You said the next guy was pretty close to the last, we could've gone there instead of coming home."
  842. "He can wait. The florist needs a few days to get his estate in order, and it doesn't make to start the next recruitment if I have to go right back to pick him up."
  843. >She drops her bag on the floor in front of you. "Be honest, Anon. You just want to be rid of me."
  844. >A little irritated, you stare down at her.
  845. "Why do you even want to stay? You got what you came for, and you said you were bored out of your mind here."
  846. >"That was before you took me out in public and let me recruit a man! Besides, I know you don't like having me up in your business, but... I like hanging out with you."
  847. >She drops that last confession in a rather reserved tone.
  848. >You don't really know how to respond.
  849. >Instead, you sling your bag over your shoulder. With the gold laundered, there's considerably less weight for the return trip.
  850. "Come on."
  851. >You open the door and step aside for her to exit.
  852. "Let's get out of here."
  853. >She balks at your instruction. "Really? No backpack?"
  854. "No backpack."
  855. >She picks up her bag between her teeth and trots out the door.
  856. >You follow her out and lock up the house. Meeting her at the car, you open the passenger door for her to climb in, and head around to your side.
  857. >The journey home begins in silence.
  858. >It's a bit of a drive to where the portal lets out. Nice and remote, nestled deep in an unincorporated area.
  859. >Behind the wheel, you spend some time thinking about what Dash said.
  860. >You hate that you didn't say anything in the moment. Other than "let's go."
  861. >But the truth was, this has been a long and messy excursion. You're still not sure what you would've done if you got back to the hotel room and Dash had been there.
  862. >...you don't want to think about that.
  863. >This trip wasn't bad, though. Just... complicated. Especially toward the end.
  864. >But there were a lot of good moments to counter it.
  865. >Like those first days at home.
  866.  
  867. >"Ugh, Anon, give the computer a rest. Don't you ever take a night off?"
  868. >You spin around in your chair to see her standing in the bedroom doorway.
  869. "Not in the last five years."
  870. >She walks up to your desk. "Who are you working on?"
  871. "I'm taking care of Roseluck first, while she's still fresh in my mind."
  872. >"You can find anyone on that internet, huh?"
  873. "Sometimes, the best matches don't have an internet presence at all. I go out-of-network for them."
  874. >As she stands beside you, you can feel her eyes locked intently on your work.
  875. >Maybe it's a little unnerving, but it's genuine interest.
  876. >You're just not used to having company.
  877. >"How about him?" She points to a guy on your screen. "What's his story?"
  878. >You read through your candidacy notes.
  879. "A writer from New Hampshire. Well-educated, compassionate, and already has a fondness for mares."
  880. >"Sounds awesome! Why not him?"
  881. >With a few clicks, you pull up a satellite view of his home.
  882. "He doesn't have a garden."
  883. >Dash raises an eyebrow. "Is that a requirement?"
  884. >Restlessly, you tap your finger against your desk.
  885. >Roseluck. Fresh in your mind.
  886. "I was interviewing her one day. She was out back, tending to her vegetables. She was having trouble with this one patch, pulling out the weeds, so I took my blazer off, rolled up my sleeves, and I did it for her. And when she looked up at me, I could see it her eyes. That this was what she wanted, more than anything else. She wanted someone who'd be there, who was willing to get down in the dirt, to help her when she needed it.
  887. >You slump back in your chair.
  888. "He needs to have a garden. She deserves that."
  889. >Dash stands there silently. She can tell when you're lost in thought.
  890. >You're not making it very difficult. It's plain on your face; this has been weighing on you for a while.
  891. >Because Roseluck was different, in that she was normal. She wasn't like the usual high-society contracts, who had everything in life going for them. She was just an average mare, with a tiny flower shop, and a garden out back.
  892. >She didn't have much. She didn't need much.
  893. >But she needed this.
  894. >Dash pats your leg. "You need a break. Come downstairs and find something for us on TV. I'm getting the ice cream out of the freezer."
  895. >A respite does sound tempting, if only to stop that red-headed enigma from plaguing your thoughts.
  896. >You shut the laptop and follow her downstairs.
  897. >As she goes into the kitchen, you flop down onto the sofa and grab the remote.
  898. >SNL is on. The cast isn't what it used to be, but it's better than the usual crap, so you kick your feet up onto the coffee table and pull the blanket over yourself.
  899. >Dash comes flying over the back of the couch and lands beside you, dropping two bowls of ice cream on the table next to your legs.
  900. >"What are we watching?"
  901. "Saturday Night Live."
  902. >"Cool." Dash nestles under the blanket, right at your side.
  903. >You're about to say something, but you hold your tongue.
  904. >Just shut up and watch.
  905. >Adam Driver's hosting.
  906. >You grab your bowl and hand Dash hers.
  907. "You know he was Julliard-trained and in the Marines?"
  908. >Dash looks over at you. "What?"
  909. >Oh, wait, she's— she wouldn't—
  910. "Never mind."
  911. >As the show goes on, you have to explain most of the sketches to her. But the few that she gets, she laughs pretty hard at.
  912. >Like most episodes, most sketches are forgettable, but there's one really good one.
  913. >Dash takes a bite of her dessert. "Who's that guy?"
  914. "Pete Davidson."
  915. >"He's funny. You should bring him to Equestria."
  916. >Yeah, right. Maybe if Stoney Pony was real.
  917. "See, I would, but I have a personal rule."
  918. >"What is it?"
  919. "Nobody who lives in their mom's basement gets to go to Equestria."
  920. >Dash spits out her ice cream.
  921.  
  922. >You shake your head.
  923. >You've been driving on autopilot for... a while now.
  924. >You glance over to the passenger seat. Dash is leaning her head against the door, staring mindlessly out the window.
  925. >You haven't said a word to each other since you left the house.
  926. >There is a certain guilt behind the tension in the air. You did her a favor bringing her to Earth, but you haven't been a very gracious host.
  927. >She was grateful, in her own way. She showed concern for your health, and took an interest in your work, every step of the way.
  928. >She spent this past month being a friend to you, and you treated her like a responsibility.
  929. >Now you're going home. Off to your separate ways.
  930. >...but it's not too late.
  931. >It takes great resolve, but you finally speak up.
  932. "I did like having you here, for what it's worth."
  933. >Dash picks her head up off the windowsill.
  934. "I've been so focused on work, I never stopped to show it. But that doesn't mean I didn't want you here."
  935. >"Then why are you taking me home early?"
  936. >You grip the steering wheel a little tighter.
  937. "After you disappeared on me like that, I panicked. I don't want to worry about you, I want to know you're safe."
  938. >"So I'll stay with you, I won't go anywhere without your permission, I promise I'll listen to you—"
  939. >She keeps going on, but you interrupt her.
  940. "Dash, your anniversary is in a few weeks, you—"
  941. >"—and there's so much I still haven't seen and I'm—" Her cadence slowly speeds up, and her asking turns into pleading.
  942. "—r husband's waiting for you—"
  943. >"—not ready, I'm not ready, please don't make go back."
  944. >You stop talking over her, and tear your eyes away from the road to briefly glance at her.
  945. "You didn't find him an anniversary present."
  946. >She doesn't respond.
  947. "When you got back to the hotel room, you didn't have anything with you."
  948. >She gives a choked exhale, struggling not to cry.
  949. >Not wanting to do this on the road, you pull over and put the car in park.
  950. >Now that you have a good look at her, you can see the fear on her face.
  951. "Dash, what's going on?"
  952. >"My present isn't a thing, it's a gesture. That night I went out, I figured it'd mean more to him than any stupid trinket would. It made sense, I thought it's what he wanted, and I was so happy I figured it out. But now that we're actually going home, I'm starting to think I lied to myself, that it's not a good idea, and I just forced it so I could have an excuse to stop worrying."
  953. "Well, what is it?"
  954. >She turns away, too ashamed to face you. "I don't want to say," she mumbles. "It's stupid. He won't like it."
  955. >You stare out at the endless stretch of road ahead, lined by a vast expanse of trees on either side.
  956. "Five fucking years."
  957. >Curious, she looks back at you.
  958. "I spent all that time on the road. Alone with my thoughts, no one to share them with. It became my default state, all closed-off, because it was the only thing that was familiar. But you? You spent every single day of those five years with him. Eating dinner together. Going out for walks. Falling asleep next to each other."
  959. >"What's your point?" she asks, half-heartedly.
  960. "You know him more than you know. The only reason you're doubting yourself now is because you've been away from him this past month. I've seen the way you act around him, and you're happy. You have faith in yourself. You love him so much, he's become a part of who you are. And losing him... is like losing a part of yourself."
  961. >She gazes up at you. "How do you know all this?"
  962. "That night we stayed up watching TV, you fell asleep on the couch. I... heard you talking to him in your sleep."
  963. >"...what did I say?"
  964. "'I wish you were here.'"
  965. >Dash sniffles, thinking about the things you said.
  966. >"Thanks."
  967. >You take a few seconds, and then start the car.
  968. >"Anon?"
  969. "Yeah?"
  970. >"...I lied to you."
  971. >You take your hands off the wheel and look back at her.
  972. "What?"
  973. >She hesitates. "I lied when I told you no one saw me that night."
  974. >You stare at her incredulously.
  975. "Someone saw you?"
  976. >"I didn't mean to get caught, he just said hi, and—"
  977. "You TALKED to him?"
  978. >You can't believe it. The panic slowly begins to set in. Your greatest fears, confirmed.
  979. >"Anon, please don't get mad, I—"
  980. "I need you to tell me everything that happened. The full truth. Now."
  981. >Just like that, she's on the verge of tears again.
  982. >But, obediently, she suppresses her emotions and spills out a confession.
  983. >"I managed to sneak out without getting spotted, and I wanted to go someplace private, so I flew to the top of one of those stone towers. I— I thought I was alone up there, how was I supposed to know anyone could take the stairs?"
  984. "What happened?"
  985. >"I was sitting on the ledge when I heard someone behind me, I thought it was you, it was really dark, and he sounded just like you, so I got closer, but once I saw it wasn't you, I flew right out of there, I swear!"
  986. "Dash, I'm going to ask you something important, and I need you to think very hard about the answer, okay?"
  987. >She nods tearfully.
  988. "When he spoke to you, did he use English or Italian?"
  989. >She bites her lip and pauses before answering.
  990. >"He said 'hello there, little pony.'"
  991.  
  992. * * * Act II * * *
  993.  
  994. 9
  995. >You're not going to freak out.
  996. >Believe me, you want to.
  997. >But lashing out at Rainbow Dash over a mistake you've already made peace with won't change anything.
  998. >So, you shut up and resolve to deal with it later, because this trip has already become so irrevocably fucked that you just want it to be over.
  999. >The drive to the portal is mostly silent.
  1000. >After the initial shock, you asked for more details, but quickly let it go when it became clear she didn't see much beyond what she already told you.
  1001. >She knew what she did was wrong. That's why she got out of there so fast. That's why she kept it from you at first.
  1002. >As you drove on, your mind was bombarded by intrusive thoughts. You wanted to know who he was, how he ended up there, and why he spoke so casually.
  1003. >Yet there was nothing you could do about it in this instant. The gripping anxiety would only suffocate you. You needed a clear head if you wanted to accomplish anything.
  1004. >You will follow this up, that much is certain.
  1005. >But right now, you just wanted to go home.
  1006. >Upon your arrival in Equestria, you rest just a bit easier, knowing you brought Rainbow Dash home safely. You made certain you weren't followed, and you could relax for the time being.
  1007. >The portal emptied out in a large marble chamber within the royal palace. Though the door was guarded on the opposite side, the room was empty, save for the two of you.
  1008. >Instead of leaving straight away, you take a moment to yourself, dropping your bags and rubbing your eyes. Rainbow Dash looks up to you.
  1009. >"Anon?"
  1010. >You lower your hand from your face and meet her gaze.
  1011. >She glances away hesitantly.
  1012. >"You're not... mad, are you?"
  1013. >You take a deep breath. Everything just keeps getting harder.
  1014. "No. I'm not."
  1015. >"Oh," she whispers.
  1016. "I'm scared."
  1017. >She hangs her head slightly, weighed down by pangs of guilt.
  1018. "If you got hurt out there, Dash... I—"
  1019. >You sit on your suitcase, leaning forward with your arms on your legs.
  1020. "I don't know what I would do. I don't think I would've come home without you."
  1021. >She steps up to you. "Don't say that. Don't punish yourself for what I did. You're so important to Equestria, they need—"
  1022. "And you're not?"
  1023. >She opens her mouth to respond, but fails to come up with a rebuttal.
  1024. "I was responsible for you out there. No matter what you did, it was on me to keep you safe."
  1025. >"I am safe," she says, placing a hoof on your lap. "We're home now, and everything's fine."
  1026. >You wish it were that simple.
  1027. "It's not over. I have to tell Celestia what happened. I have to face her and admit that, not only am I back with an incomplete contract for the first time, but I actually risked your life and the covenant of secrecy along with it."
  1028. >You bury your head in your hands.
  1029. >For years you've built yourself up to be this infallibly competent recruiter. You had an unimaginably perfect record, and you kept Equestria safe from exposure while doing it.
  1030. >Rainbow Dash brought the truth to light.
  1031. >You can do all that just fine, but when it came to something as simple as keeping a mare safe, you were a miserable failure.
  1032. >It wasn't about that night she was gone. It was about what it meant.
  1033. >You wanted to believe that if you had a mare of your own, you could be good to her, and be everything she needed.
  1034. >It was only by your own volition that you never had to put that to the test.
  1035. >But this past month has made it painfully clear. You're a damn good recruiter, but you'll never be a good lover.
  1036. >You were a shit friend to Rainbow Dash, getting frustrated way too quickly and treating her needs with contempt.
  1037. >Perhaps deep down, some part of you knew you were temperamental and insensitive. You pretended it was the job keeping you from your mate, but you knew everything about perfect matches.
  1038. >Maybe the truth was, you knew that you couldn't be a good husband to any mare.
  1039. >It's one thing to deny yourself your biggest dream.
  1040. >But to realize it was never possible to begin with?
  1041. >It hurt.
  1042. >There wasn't any other way to put it.
  1043. >It just fucking hurt.
  1044. >"I'll tell her."
  1045. >You look up at Rainbow Dash.
  1046. >"Seriously. I screwed up, I should be the one the Princess gets mad at. You go back. Finish the other two jobs, and don't see her until you have some good news."
  1047. "I have to meet her, we've always debriefed after every trip, she'll want to know why I didn't—"
  1048. >"I'll tell her everything. She'll understand. I just hate seeing you like this, I wish I never bothered you with my stupid anniversary. If I could take everything back, I would."
  1049. >You pause, looking back at her.
  1050. "I wouldn't."
  1051. >You wouldn't?
  1052. >Why not?
  1053. >That definitely slipped out of your mouth.
  1054. >You were living in blissful ignorance before. You were good at your job, and you kept this world hidden from yours. So there was no reason that...
  1055. >...but you did all those things alone. With no one by your side.
  1056. >Maybe you have bigger issues with denial than you realize.
  1057. "It got messy towards the end. But we were out there for a month. Doing surveillance together, staying up late watching TV. I was having fun with you, and I don't think I even realized it until we came back. But as fucked as things got..."
  1058. >You rest your palm on her wither.
  1059. "I'm glad that it happened."
  1060. >Suddenly, she stands upright and hugs you.
  1061. >Her hooves wrap around your neck, pulling you in towards her. Your arms find their way around her frame in reciprocation.
  1062. >You don't remember the last time you hugged a mare. You'd forgotten how good it felt.
  1063. >"You get back out there," she whispers into your ear, "and you bring home the best damn guys Equestria's ever seen."
  1064. >With that, she releases her grip around you and playfully shoves you back towards the portal.
  1065. >Feeling a little more assuaged, you get up off your suitcase and collect your bags.
  1066. "Tell Celestia I'm sorry."
  1067. >She smiles up at you faintly. "I'm not gonna do that."
  1068. >Luggage in hand, you turn back around to face the portal.
  1069. >Before you step through, you glance back at her one last time.
  1070. "I'll see you soon, Dash. I promise."
  1071.  
  1072. 10
  1073. >France.
  1074. >You're staying in a little town in Alsace, quite like San Gimignano, but more suburban.
  1075. >Observing one Guillaume Barteaux.
  1076. >He's a 21 year old baker's apprentice and a prospective match for Amethyst Star.
  1077. >You go through the motions, performing daily surveillance, building a profile.
  1078. >He doesn't have much of a social life outside of work, but he gets along well with his coworkers. Almost too well.
  1079. >It seems he has a sort of half-flirty thing with one of the girls he works with.
  1080. >You knew he was single, but you couldn't have known about this. These are the kind of minutiae that crop up during the observation phase.
  1081. >It's unclear how long it's been going on. He doesn't seem to be acting on it.
  1082. >So you don't particularly like it, but as it stands, it's harmless enough to warrant giving him a chance.
  1083. >The days go by, and you keep meticulous notes. Every so often, though, you stop looking at him, and start watching your surroundings.
  1084. >Because you're afraid.
  1085. >Going back to working solo left you with a fair amount of private time to reflect on what happened with Dash.
  1086. >There was very little to go on, but her encounter with that stranger was so unnerving.
  1087. >What was he doing up on that tower at night? Why did his greeting sound so sinister?
  1088. >And why wasn't he Italian?
  1089. >Everywhere you go, you're looking over your shoulder. Before all this, you were cautious. Now you're paranoid.
  1090. >Because either it was an extraordinarily peculiar set of innocuous circumstances, or he had prior of knowledge of her.
  1091. >And that would mean he knew you.
  1092. >So it was no stretch to imagine you were being followed.
  1093. >By whom, you hadn't the faintest clue. Wherever you went, your tracks were twice-covered.
  1094. >While following Guillaume, though, you never saw anything to give you pause.
  1095. >No familiar faces, no one behaving suspiciously, and nothing that made you double-take.
  1096. >Life around you was, by all accounts, natural.
  1097. >You still didn't let your guard down. If the job's taught you anything, it's that anything can happen at any time.
  1098. >Eventually, you get the call from Lorenzo. His estate has been taken care of, and he's ready for transport.
  1099. >By now, you've been in Alsace for eight days. It's standard operating procedure to wait a little longer to see if deviations from everyday life occur, but his routine has been so mundane, you're comfortable enough to approach.
  1100. >You stop by the grocery on your way there to purchase something. You find that oftentimes the best recruitments have props. It's not really a comedy routine, but a little object has the potential to make a world of a difference.
  1101. >Tilt the natural course of a conversation just a little off-kilter, and the details of how they respond gives you a great deal of insight into their minds.
  1102. >It is easy to come across irreproachable in a trivial discussion. People spend their lives practicing everyday exchanges, and duplicity becomes all too effortless for many men.
  1103. >Make things a just a tiny bit uncanny, however— just insignificant enough to preclude them from addressing it— and suddenly you can gauge the nuance of their reactions like a conversational parry.
  1104. >But the prop serves a dual purpose. It's a utility for the Ben Franklin effect.
  1105. >Ask them to do something simple for you, and they like you more for it.
  1106. >Because at the end of the day, you're trying to charm them. You seek them out because you want to recruit them.
  1107. >With how many men there are in the world, though, no one is irreplaceable, but the fact of the matter is you're trying to convince them to do something.
  1108. >Even if you're offering them their wildest dream, they'll stop and ponder about the strings attached. No one ever accepts unflinchingly. It takes a smooth operator.
  1109. >All this is to say there's a lot that goes into the process. There are two sides to each affair: you determining if you can trust them, and them determining if they'll trust you.
  1110. >You walk out of the grocery, shopping bag in hand, and make your way over to the boulangerie.
  1111. >As soon as you walk in, he smiles at you from behind the counter.
  1112. >"Bonjour! What can I get you for you today?"
  1113. >You stop and set the bag down on the table beside you.
  1114. "You know I'm American."
  1115. >He smiles innocently. "We get a lot of tourists spilling in from Strasbourg. You learn to tell them apart."
  1116. >It doesn't sit entirely right with you, but he's not lying about the tourism.
  1117. "I'd like to discuss something with you. Maybe we could talk over your break."
  1118. >"With me?" he asks, surprised. "Discuss what?"
  1119. "Let's call it a job offer."
  1120. >He leans forward on the counter. "That is generous, but I'm not really looking for work."
  1121. "You're going to want to hear me out. When you're ready, meet me at, let's say, the café on the corner?"
  1122. >You pick up your bag and begin to head out.
  1123. "Oh, and one more thing."
  1124. >You return to the counter and lay ten euros in front of him.
  1125. "Bring me something you baked yourself."
  1126.  
  1127. >Around midday, he walks in.
  1128. >The café was a cozy little spot, not very busy this at time of day.
  1129. >It couldn't have worked out better; you were the only two customers present.
  1130. >Public recruitment was often limiting. This gave you the freedom to experiment a little.
  1131. >He comes up to your table, a small box tucked under his arm.
  1132. >You motion to the seat across from you, and he obliges, setting the box down between you.
  1133. >Taking a sip of your coffee, you undo the string and open it up to see three appetizing raspberry tarts.
  1134. "I have to say, this isn't what I expected."
  1135. >He grows concerned. "Is something wrong?"
  1136. "Not at all. I just expected a simple loaf from an apprentice. This is the kind of thing you'd get from a pâtisserie."
  1137. >"You know your stuff for a tourist."
  1138. >You take a bite from one of the pastries.
  1139. "Oh, but I didn't say I was a tourist."
  1140. >He watches you intently as you savor the raspberry tart.
  1141. >Satisfied, you set it down.
  1142. "It's very good. Crumbly. I'm no expert, but it's awfully skilled for an apprentice."
  1143. >"Is that why you are wanting to offer me a job?"
  1144. >You wash it down with another sip of coffee.
  1145. "I'm not sure I want you yet. This meeting is to see if you'd be a good fit."
  1146. >He stares at you curiously.
  1147. >"This is the strangest interview I've ever had."
  1148. >You extend your hand over the table.
  1149. "I'm Anonymous."
  1150. >He reaches over and gives you a firm handshake. "Guillaume."
  1151. >You retrieve your black book from your coat pocket and begin to thumb through it, taking your time.
  1152. >"What is this job?" he asks, carefully watching you. "I know all the bakeries in town. You are not from any of them."
  1153. "Well, Guillaume..."
  1154. >You respond without looking up from your notes.
  1155. "You already know I'm not from here. I come from a distant land, and I'm interested in recruiting good men."
  1156. >"You speak of America like it's Neverland. I have been to New York."
  1157. "Not America, I'm afraid. Just a bit further away than that."
  1158. >"Still, I am not sure I'm willing to move so far for another job."
  1159. "Who's the girl you work with?"
  1160. >Immediately, he tenses up. "Sorry?"
  1161. "The girl. What's her name?"
  1162. >"Jeanne..."
  1163. "Do you like her?"
  1164. >He doesn't bother masking his confusion anymore.
  1165. >"What kind of question is that?"
  1166. "A pretty important one, I'd say. Can't exactly meet the love of your life if you're fixated on another girl."
  1167. >"The love of my life?"
  1168. "She likes bread, Guillaume. I was hoping you'd bring bread."
  1169. >"What is this? What are you talking about?"
  1170. "Jeanne has a pink streak in her hair. Is that why you like her?"
  1171. >Slowly, your voice grows louder and more imposing.
  1172. "Would you like her more if it were all pink? If she had pink irises and pink skin, would you love her to no end? Would you bake her pink pastries? Would you paint the world just to reflect the color of her eyes?"
  1173. >"Stop!" he yells. "What do you think you're doing?"
  1174. >That's enough for you. You sit back and cross your arms.
  1175. "Testing your patience."
  1176. >He stares at you incredulously. "Why?"
  1177. "She has a bit of a temper. Sometimes she gets irritated by little things. I need to know you'll be patient with her."
  1178. >"Who on Earth are you talking about?"
  1179. "No one."
  1180. >You pick up the grocery bag from the floor, and withdraw from it a single glass jar of peanut butter.
  1181. >Dramatically, you set it down in front of him.
  1182. "Can you open that for me?"
  1183. >He pauses a moment before taking it in his hands, looking at you like you're insane.
  1184. >It takes him a few seconds to get a solid grip, but he manages to twist it open.
  1185. >Satisfied, you take it back from him, scoop some out on your finger, and lick it off.
  1186. "She also needs help opening jars."
  1187.  
  1188. >It was a gambit, but it worked.
  1189. >Sometimes you have to toy with them a little to coax out the characteristics you want to measure.
  1190. >You'd been worried about coming across manic, scaring him off before you even had your chance to make your case, but he took the bait, and stayed with you through it. He could've gotten up and left at any point. He didn't.
  1191. >Maybe you had your doubts about him before, but if he was willing to sit through that, he was either a complete moron, or, more likely, just a sweet kid.
  1192. >He'll treat Amethyst nice.
  1193. >With Lorenzo and Guillaume signed on, there was just one contract left. Cloudchaser.
  1194. >You ended up going with the minor league baseball player from Nashville. He was a bit light in the head, but he was a gentle soul.
  1195. >He even asked if he could bring his pet bunny to Equestria.
  1196. >Throughout your time in Nashville, you watched your back. The fear hadn't left you.
  1197. >Nothing was amiss. Even in your paranoia, nothing stood out to you as suspicious.
  1198. >That should have been relieving, but it wasn't.
  1199. >You wanted to focus on the job. You just couldn't stop seeing Dash in your head. That guilty expression, those eyes looking remorsefully up at you, tugging at your heartstrings.
  1200. >(Heartstrings. Now that was a weird contract.)
  1201. >But that's the thing about pony eyes, isn't it? They're so huge, so much bigger than your own, that the expression behind them is exponentially heavier.
  1202. >Try as you might, you can't seem to get those eyes off your mind.
  1203. >She slipped up. She had an error in judgment.
  1204. >But you were the one who left her alone to begin with, and for what? So you could get drunk?
  1205. >No matter what she did, you were the one responsible for her. You had to answer for her actions.
  1206. >And though you'd been loathing it, there was no more putting it off.
  1207. >The three contracts were complete. Three men, recruited and ready to go to Equestria.
  1208. >Now, you had to face Princess Celestia.
  1209.  
  1210. 11
  1211. "I'm sorry."
  1212. >You heart sinks as you stand face-to-face with the Princess.
  1213. >She sits upon her throne, completely expressionless.
  1214. >It's clear she already knows. Rainbow Dash must have followed through on her promise to break the news.
  1215. >But it doesn't make the weight of your guilt any lighter.
  1216. >"What happened out there?" she asks, almost disbelieving, questioning how you could have let something like this occur.
  1217. "I—"
  1218. >Fuck.
  1219. >What the hell is wrong with you? This isn't who you are.
  1220. >You've never been at a loss for words with her. Smoothing things over is what you do for a living.
  1221. >Hell, you've talked your way out of an interrogation chair before.
  1222. >But with her, right now, the stakes feel so much different.
  1223. >Not higher, necessarily. Just... more meaningful.
  1224. >You bite your tongue and stare at the floor, leaving a tense silence between the two of you.
  1225. >"When did you last eat?"
  1226. >You glance back up at her, taken by surprise.
  1227. "What?"
  1228. >"You're thinner," she says solemnly, eyeing you up and down. "And paler. I haven't seen you in months."
  1229. >That's not possible. You meet with her between each cycle, every six weeks.
  1230. >When did this cycle begin? Three mares this time...
  1231. >Roseluck's interview felt like ages ago. Cloudchaser and Amethyst even earlier than that.
  1232. >Before that, you spoke with Celestia on the balcony. That was...
  1233. >Three months ago?
  1234. >"Anonymous?"
  1235. >Your eyes shift back into focus.
  1236. >"Let's take this to the dining room," she says, rising from her throne. "You need to eat."
  1237. >Silently, you follow her through the halls of the palace.
  1238. >You don't need dinner, you just had lunch in... Italy...
  1239. >Jesus, you picked Lorenzo up two days ago.
  1240. >Why aren't you hungry?
  1241. >You enter the grand dining room, and she pulls out a seat for you adjacent to hers at the head of the table.
  1242. "I brought the three recruits with me. Guillaume, Lorenzo, and..."
  1243. >What was that third guy's name again?
  1244. >"We can discuss that later." She nods towards the variety of prepared meals on the table. "Eat up first."
  1245. >You take some vegetables and bread from the platter in front of you, making a small portion for yourself on your plate.
  1246. >Your heart isn't in it. There's just too much penance to be made with Celestia.
  1247. >But, as you look to her, she seems adamant in her instruction, so you break bread with her in dignified silence.
  1248. >You've had dinner with her before. On happier days, many an evening spent sitting where you are right now.
  1249. >You would speak well into the night. There was no shortage of topics. She listened to your stories, and she never had to feign interest. She was just that kind of mare.
  1250. >Now, in contrast, the quiet air hanging between you feels like a punishment in of itself.
  1251. >But you know the real punishment is yet to come.
  1252. >Once she finishes her meal, she looks over to you.
  1253. >"Are you alright?" she inquires, with genuine concern lingering in her tone.
  1254. >You set your fork down.
  1255. "I am truly sorry for the—"
  1256. >"Drop the courtroom manner," she interrupts you. "After everything, I think our relationship warrants a little more candor than that. I can tell when something's wrong with you. Now tell me what's going on."
  1257. >You hang your head and rub your temples.
  1258. "It's just stress headaches. I've been anxious about this meeting for a while now."
  1259. >"This is my fault, then."
  1260. >Immediately, you pick your head up.
  1261. "What? No—"
  1262. >"I asked you take on a greater workload, and you're suffering for it. I went against my better judgment."
  1263. "This is because I screwed up and put Rainbow Dash at risk. If I feel shitty, it's because I did something wrong."
  1264. >"And why do you think slipped up?" she charges. "Five years of impeccable work, and suddenly this? You don't think the pressure I placed on you had anything to do with it?"
  1265. "We had agreed on multiple contracts without an accelerated timeline. I was handling it. What happened with Dash was entirely independent of that. There are pieces to this you don't s—"
  1266. >"She already told me her account. You confided in her about the implicit expectation to work faster. She came to me, asking that I not push the limits of your capabilities. It was my request that put you on edge and caused your lapse in judgment."
  1267. >Growing exasperated, you stand up forcefully, sliding your chair back.
  1268. "'Lapse in judgment?' I was drunk! You want to try to spin that as your fault, too?"
  1269. >She stares up at you, stunned by the admission.
  1270. >"You haven't drank in years," she whispers.
  1271. >Oh no.
  1272. >You sit back down, slammed with immediate regret.
  1273. "Well, then I guess I fell off the wagon. How noble of me."
  1274. >"I... didn't...?" she trails off, too afraid to ask. "Did I...?"
  1275. "It wasn't you. Don't worry, Princess, my moral failings are not a reflection of your immaculate character. You can sleep easy knowing it's not your demands that drive me to drink, I'm just that weak-willed."
  1276. >"You know that's not what I'm worried about. I only want the full truth, not this admonishment veiled in sarcasm. Can't you at least give me that?"
  1277. >You wince at your own callousness.
  1278. >Your defensive instinct is always to go cold. She deserves better than that.
  1279. "It was back during that old recruitment. Vinyl Scratch. The guy had some single malt scotch, and I was waiting for hours. It was just sitting there across from me. I don't even remember the decision to have some."
  1280. >"We spoke right after that. Why didn't you tell me?"
  1281. >You shrug irritably.
  1282. "I don't know, it was one drink. Why would I, after you gave me that big speech about redemption years ago, when I quit specifically for you?"
  1283. >She looks at you incredulously. "You did that for yourself. You wanted to be better."
  1284. "I /wanted/ to make you happy. You don't remember this, but when we met, you didn't like humans. You thought we were all heartless and bitter. You thought I was insane for slowly poisoning myself, and you looked down on me for it. You sure as hell never said it, but you made your contempt very clear."
  1285. >"Don't tell me I don't remember. I have lived a thousand years before I ever met you; none of them have taught me more than these last five. What I remember is that you proved me wrong. You showed me there is a goodness inside you, and other men like you, one that's unrivaled in this world. A goodness that is not innate and taken freely as it is here, but one that's worked for, and earned."
  1286. "Yeah? If that's true..."
  1287. >You drop your fist onto the table despondently.
  1288. "Then what are we doing here?"
  1289. >She sighs and takes a sip of water, a poor attempt at masking her inability to answer.
  1290. >You find it hard to meet each other's eyes.
  1291. >"Why did you get drunk?" she finally asks, a fearful curiosity in her tone. "If not for work?"
  1292. >You respond with frankness.
  1293. "I didn't want to be around Dash that night."
  1294. >"Yes," she replies softly, staring down at the table. "She's strong-willed, that one."
  1295. "It was my choice, my fault. She reminded me of things I didn't want to think about. I needed an out."
  1296. >She takes a moment before replying.
  1297. "You think I don't understand why humans would drink, but I do. There are things that I, too, would prefer to simply forget. Moments in history where I failed to show compassion. But with the weight of each burden, I carry with me a lesson learned. I may not have understood you at first, but I gave you a chance because I often doubted my past decisions to not offer the greater redemption."
  1298. >You whisper to yourself, swirling the water around your glass absentmindedly.
  1299. "The quality of mercy is not strained."
  1300. >"It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven."
  1301. >You look up to her, mildly surprised, and she smiles, revealing a tiny glimpse of that smug self-satisfaction she has whenever she gets you.
  1302. >It's small, but it brightens the room just a smidge.
  1303. >"I've listened to you recite countless lines from your world over the years."
  1304. >She remembers more than you thought.
  1305. >It's not that you think she has a bad memory.
  1306. >It's just that you see yourself as that forgettable.
  1307. >Honestly, that wasn't something you ever explicitly realized until this moment. But you find that kind of thing happening a lot when you talk to Celestia.
  1308. >Conversations with a close confidant can be like a sort of therapy, and there's no one you've ever come close to sharing as much as you have with her.
  1309. >It's because of that she's the only one whose validation you ever care to seek.
  1310. >The only opinions that really matter are the ones of those who truly know you.
  1311. >And she's the only one who knows you.
  1312. "So what does it say to you, to know I haven't changed, that this bitterness is still inside me?"
  1313. >She scoffs disapprovingly. "Because you made a mistake, you want to believe you're evil?"
  1314. >You hesitate, the conversation finally having circled around to your most existential fear.
  1315. >Though this is something you often wondered, it wasn't something you wanted to say aloud.
  1316. >Speaking it into the air would make it that much more real, like engraving it into stone.
  1317. >So long as it stayed a thought, you had some small sliver of abstraction to take shelter in.
  1318. >But a question never asked can't be answered.
  1319. "When I thought I lost Dash, my mind wasn't focused on her. All I could think about in that moment was how I let you down, what you'd think of me. She could have been in grave danger, and it didn't concern me nearly as much as my standing with you. I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't tell if it's narcissism, or if I'm just broken, but it's like everything I do just reinforces the idea that I can't be fixed. That all my thoughtfulness and kindness of spirit is an empty self-serving mechanism to win over hearts and minds. And when I think I've lost that, then that's all I really care about. Not the well-being of those I supposedly care for, but rather what they think of me. That night shined a light on my true self. It forced me to see who I really am, at odds with who I thought I could be, and proved that I can never hold up to that kind of scrutiny. Because change is a lie we tell ourselves to feel better about the shitty things we do to each other."
  1320. >Celestia sits there across from you, nearly speechless.
  1321. >"Anonymous..."
  1322. "I don't think you can save me. I don't think reality works like that. Maybe the lesson is that simple here, in this magical fantasy land, but when my world met yours, I think the truth of it just got messy and complicated. Like my reality reached out and got intertwined with yours, and now it's impossible to untangle. Here, life is simple, but I'm not. I don't think I can ever belong here as long as that's true."
  1323. >You slump back in your chair.
  1324. "Cel, I don't think I'm a good person."
  1325. >She gets out of her seat and walks around to you. "I don't want to hear that. I won't accept any of this talk."
  1326. "Every day of my life I bear the guilt of my past, weighed down by unimaginable pain I've inflicted. I look back at it and think I don't deserve everything I have now, the life you've given me. That I don't suffer enough to atone for my crimes. I have it good, and that just makes me feel even shittier. But you want to know the worst of it? Everyone with trauma talks about the past haunting them, nightmares that keep them up at night. I don't even have that. The abominable, inhuman things I've done haven't scarred me, and that terrifies me so much more than any nightmare ever could. I walk around unaffected by the darkness, as if it's an effortless part of me. It means I'm broken. Incapable of empathy. Unworthy of this world. And the longer this goes on, the more I'm afraid that some pony's going to get hurt because of something I did. I got drunk and Dash could've been killed. That's what happened. I don't know what to do anymore. I'm broken, and deep inside I can feel the countdown to something bad. It's coming. I haven't left that pain behind me. It's just a matter of time before one more death is on my hands."
  1327. >She places a hoof around you and pulls you in.
  1328. >"You are not broken. There is no such thing when it comes to people. This is just your paranoia talking. Do not let it consume you. Nothing lies for you down that road but madness."
  1329. >Your instinct is to resist, to pull away from her embrace. You don't deserve the warmth of her breast.
  1330. >But the alternative would be hurting her.
  1331. >And you never want to hurt her.
  1332. >"If you're having trouble with your dreams, I could refer you to my sister. Sometimes these issues are somatic."
  1333. "No. I don't want to bring her into this. It's complicated enough without her getting involved."
  1334. >"It's your decision," she says, releasing you, "but there's only so much I can think to do but be here for you."
  1335. "Why?" You pause, realizing the situation. "Why are you here, now? When you carry the weight of the world on your back, what are you doing here with me?"
  1336. >"Oh, Anon," she sighs, turning away from you. "You just don't see, do you? For all the introspection within that mind of yours, you still can't see the forest for the trees. Every pony in Equestria falls under my rule. No matter how close they might be, there will forever be that distance between us. But with you, I have something different. I have a friend. I'm not some mindless autocrat, and I don't want to spend my entire life masquerading as one. So, I'll stay here with you, because you let me be something more."
  1337. >It wasn't what you were expecting. But deep down, a part of you already knew how she felt.
  1338. "Thank you."
  1339. >It's all you can think to say.
  1340. >She returns to her seat, regaining her auspicious composure. "Do you at least feel better with some food in you?"
  1341. "I do. I think I was just the nerves of having to confess."
  1342. >"Good. I'd like you to take a sabbatical."
  1343. >What?
  1344. >Her request came out of nowhere and hit you like a train.
  1345. "Absolutely not."
  1346. >"You need time off," she insists. "No matter what you say, I've been working you too hard, and you're going to burn out. I cannot allow that."
  1347. "I'm fine. I can make this up to you, I promise."
  1348. >"This isn't a punishment."
  1349. "You're making it sound like one."
  1350. >She doesn't respond, anxiously avoiding your gaze, pushing around the bits of food left on her plate mindlessly.
  1351. "I need my work. You don't understand. I— I don't know who I am without it."
  1352. >"Please don't do this..." She sets her fork down and looks to you, her voice growing shaky. "I'm afraid for your health."
  1353. "Hey, hey, nothing's happening to me."
  1354. >You reach across the table and place a hand on her trembling hoof. Now you're the one consoling her.
  1355. >"The things you said tonight worry me," she says, choking up. "Showing up here, starved and in a daze... how do you think that makes me feel, forced to watch you neglect yourself? I don't want you to get hurt out there. What would I do without you?"
  1356. "The waitlist won't stop growing if I take time off. Equestria desperately needs men. Your job will only get harder if I stop doing mine. That won't help anybody."
  1357. >"I don't care anymore. I'd rather lose my recruiter than lose my friend."
  1358. "You won't lose me, Princess. I'm always going to come back to you. You know that. I'm your little boomerang."
  1359. >She chuckles through the tears. She called you that once, an offhand nickname, and though you thought it a little immature at first, it didn't take very long to grow on you.
  1360. >It just felt good knowing she always wanted you to come back to her.
  1361. >"Just one contract this time, okay?"
  1362. "Okay."
  1363. >One mare. One man.
  1364. >You can do that.
  1365. >She takes a deep breath, steadying herself once more. "Good. Now, have some cake with me, won't you? It's been far too long since we shared a dessert."
  1366.  
  1367. 12
  1368. >You step out onto the palace steps, greeted by the warm summer's air, and start heading home.
  1369. >Celestia lowered the sun a couple of hours ago.
  1370. >The rest of your evening with her was... ambivalent.
  1371. >You hadn't planned on sharing that part of you with her. You were just supposed to own up to your mistake, and accept admonishment.
  1372. >Somewhere along the way, though, things got muddied. It got real personal out of nowhere.
  1373. >The Princess always had a thing for being able to read you. But the way she blamed herself didn't sit right with you. It wasn't the reaction you anticipated.
  1374. >You were at fault here. You're a man. A sloppy, impulsive megalomaniac.
  1375. >Ponies are pure of heart. They could practically do no harm, at least by your standards. So it follows that the deity that walks among them must be truly infallible.
  1376. >Yet, she unflinchingly took your shortcomings upon herself, in a mystifying display of humility.
  1377. >In the same way you held yourself accountable for Rainbow Dash's actions, Celestia held herself accountable for yours.
  1378. >But the buck stops here.
  1379. >As you approach the stoop to your building, you nod politely at your elderly landlord, sitting in his rocking chair by the door.
  1380. "Evening, Morris."
  1381. >"Oh, good to see you finally back."
  1382. >You ascend the steps to meet him.
  1383. "How's your grandson? He get his cutie mark yet?"
  1384. >He beams up at you. "Sure did. Tiny lil' hammer popped up on his flank a month back. He was making a birdhouse for a school project."
  1385. "That's great. You been getting the rent checks while I was out?"
  1386. >"First of every month in the mail, straight from the treasury. Easiest tenant I ever had."
  1387. "Alright, I'll see you later. I haven't been home in forever, I'm about ready to pass out."
  1388. >You push open the door to the building, but stop short when you hear him call after you.
  1389. >"Er, Mister 'Nonymous?"
  1390. >You lean back out the door to see him suddenly much more apprehensive.
  1391. >"Wasn't sure when you'd be back," he says. "A couple nights ago, those nasty kids came back. I called the painter straight away, but it being the weekend and all..."
  1392. "It's alright, Morris. Whenever you get around to it is fine."
  1393. >You give him a reassuring nod to allay his worry before going back inside and up the creaky staircase.
  1394. >It's a run-down tenement building in Lower Canterlot. Celestia pays the rent directly.
  1395. >The financial backend of your job is somewhat convoluted. You don't get a paycheck. Some archaic decree about non-ponies on the imperial payroll, you're not entirely sure.
  1396. >It doesn't really make all that much of a difference in the end. You take any necessary expenses out of the recruiting stipend, and housing's handled by the treasury so you don't have to worry about sending rent checks while you're on Earth.
  1397. >You've lived here for years now. Way back when, before you were a recruiter, you stayed in the palace; there was no shortage of guest rooms.
  1398. >During the negotiations over the terms of your job, though, you pushed for your own personal dwelling. Even though you didn't mean it in that way, Celestia took it a little too personally.
  1399. >She tried to suppress it, and pretend it didn't mean anything, but she was never one for deception. Her emotions were always on the surface.
  1400. >Truthfully, you liked staying in her palace. It was lavish.
  1401. >You just didn't like having a dependence on her.
  1402. >In reality, though, it's not like your own apartment changes that.
  1403. >Your career, your whole life, is subject to her whims. If she ever saw fit, she could take it all away. She probably wouldn't, but the possibility remained, a gnawing reminder of life's fragility.
  1404. >The lifestyle you've built for yourself rests wholly upon her.
  1405. >You didn't like being reminded of that fact.
  1406. >You reach the top of the staircase, and set your bags down in front of your apartment at the end of the hall.
  1407. >Blankly, you gaze at the spray-painted message on your door.
  1408. MARE IS NOT FOR MONKEY
  1409. >Ape. It's ape, you little shits. If you're going to be xenophobic, at least get it right.
  1410. >You unlock the door and throw your bags inside, too exhausted to deal with this right now.
  1411. >Instead, you simply kick your shoes off and fall forward onto the bed.
  1412. >This is the third such act of vandalism this year. It's those stupid colts.
  1413. >At a certain point, you'd recruited a critical mass, where enough mares had men that all the other mares got to see a perfect couple and want what they had.
  1414. >You could never have predicted such an upshot. You thought it'd take hundreds of men, or even thousands, to make any noticeable impact on deeply-ingrained Equestrian culture.
  1415. >But it only took a few dozen. Six degrees of separation and all that. Though here, it's probably like four.
  1416. >Now, it feels like every mare wants a man for herself. The waitlist is growing exponentially.
  1417. >Mares don't want to settle for stallions anymore. They've all heard about a friend of a friend living the perfect life with a human, and decided they'd rather wait for that than try to find a stallion who can be just as good.
  1418. >The change has been embraced by most. Mares outnumber stallions by a wide margin, and the older generation is indifferent since they've already settled down.
  1419. >The only demographic to push back are colts.
  1420. >Those stupid pubescent morons, hormonal cocktails full of testosterone. They were raised in a world with the understanding that they could take mares for granted, and in a few short years, had it ripped away from them.
  1421. >Stallions went from having their pick of the litter to being completely undesirable.
  1422. >And it was all your doing.
  1423. >It didn't matter what they wanted, though. They were a loud minority. It was Celestia's call. In her wisdom, she saw worthy men outperform stallions as romantic partners.
  1424. >It took the first few mares to get past the ponies' cultural xenophobia.
  1425. >Word spreading of a few high-profile mares taking human lovers was all it took to get that ball rolling. Rainbow Dash was one of those early adopters.
  1426. >Pretty quickly, you stopped needing to recruit mares, and the waitlist became self-sustaining, until it eventually grew into what it is today.
  1427. >So colts can go shove it for all you care. Graffiti's a nuisance at most. It's not going to kill you.
  1428. >The mares have spoken, and they chose men.
  1429. >Mares, and men.
  1430. >...
  1431. >You awake the next morning, groggy and chaffed. You fell asleep in your suit, on top of the sheets.
  1432. >Feeling rather stiff, you get up and trod over to the bathroom to clean yourself up. You haven't had the chance to do so since you were on Earth.
  1433. >After a shower and shave, you make yourself a cup of coffee.
  1434. >You're going back to work today. No rest for the wicked.
  1435. >And you've done some particularly wicked things.
  1436. >Ugh.
  1437. >You push it from your mind. That's not what you want to think about right now.
  1438. >Taking a sip of coffee, you open the folder on your counter to look over the next dossier.
  1439. >The next mare is here in Canterlot. Yet another high-society debutante who schmoozed her way to the top of the list.
  1440. >Can't wait to see what kind fancy manor this one ha—
  1441. >Wait. This is your address.
  1442. >It's probably a mix-up, you'll have to double check with the royal registry—
  1443. >No, hang on, this is your street address, but it's a different apartment number. She's...
  1444. >Your downstairs neighbor.
  1445. >You hear a knock at your door.
  1446. >Quickly, you throw on a dress shirt. It's probably the painter Morris sent by.
  1447. >As you open the door and poke your head out, you see a delivery mare disappear down the stairs.
  1448. >Sitting on your doormat is a magnificent, elaborate bouquet.
  1449. >In the center of the arrangement, nestled among the geraniums, is a note card.
  1450. >You pick it up and unfold it.
  1451. He's perfect.
  1452. Thank you.
  1453. -R
  1454. >You trace your finger over that last letter. She signed her initial so ornately, in flourishing cursive.
  1455. >It's so beautiful that it almost hurts.
  1456. >Because yes, this gift is nice. It's meaningful. And personal.
  1457. >But it's just this once.
  1458. >He gets to have her for the rest of his life.
  1459.  
  1460. >You knock on apartment 3F.
  1461. >No answer.
  1462. >It's still afternoon. She's at work.
  1463. >You don't particularly want to show up at her work. You don't know much about their world, but you know it's not good form to interrupt a practice.
  1464. >Still, this doesn't have to be a waste of time.
  1465. >You make your way downstairs and outside.
  1466. >Morris is there, rocking in his chair, watching the street, just as always.
  1467. "Hey, Morry."
  1468. >"You catch the painter on your way down?" he asks. "I just sent her up."
  1469. "She's working right now. Figured I'd give her some privacy."
  1470. >You sit down on the stoop.
  1471. "I wanted to talk to you, though."
  1472. >"Oh?" He perks up, intrigued. "What about?"
  1473. "The mare that lives in 3F."
  1474. >He gives you a toothy grin. "What, Little Miss Melody? You looking to fix yourself up with her? About time, I'd say. You and her would be kismet. She's all alone in 3F, you alone in 4F, why, you could move in together and make it a duplex! 'Course, I'd miss the separate incomes, but to see the smiles on your faces, it'd be wor—"
  1475. "Morris..."
  1476. >He stops his rambling and looks over to you, confused.
  1477. "It's for work. She's on the list."
  1478. >"Oh, I see," he says. "Didn't even know she signed up. Seems like every young lady's doing it these days, it's a fad to get yourself a man. Nothing against you or your kind, o' course, change just takes some getting used to is all. Going on eighty years and I ain't never seen a change quite like this."
  1479. >You groan internally.
  1480. >He's a sweet old fellow. He means well, it's just hard getting him focused on one subject.
  1481. "Do you know her well?"
  1482. >"Eh, not really sure if I can help you there. I don't like to gossip about my tenants, and couldn't even if I wanted to. She's a private gal. No complaints, keeps to herself and pays her rent on time, 'cept for a couple times early on, but she was nice enough to keep promising me she didn't forget and she'd pay up just as soon as she had the mon—uhh, whoops, prolly' shouldn't've said that..."
  1483. >You get up and pat him on the wither.
  1484. "I'll get out of your mane before you let any more slip."
  1485. >As you return inside and ascend the stairs, you don't feel like going back to your apartment. It doesn't feel like home right now. You haven't lived there in months.
  1486. >But if that's not home, then what is?
  1487. >Your house on Earth?
  1488. >With Rainbow Dash there? Living with you, reminding you you're not alone? That's what you want?
  1489. >No.
  1490. >No, this is home. It has to be. In time, it will feel like home again.
  1491. >Just not at the moment.
  1492. >Besides, the painter's still up there. It's always awkward hanging around when someone's working on your home.
  1493. >What was her name again? Fresh something?
  1494. >She was kind of cute. Maybe you should check if she's on the waitlist.
  1495. >...
  1496. >...so you can do what, exactly?
  1497. >This still isn't getting through to you, is it?
  1498. >You don't get a mare, Anon.
  1499. >Only worthy men get mares. You decide who's worthy.
  1500. >And you're not.
  1501. >You're standing idly on the landing of the third floor now, reluctant to take those final steps up to your floor.
  1502. >So instead, you return to 3F, and slump down against the hallway wall.
  1503. >Nothing better to do but wait.
  1504. >You pull her dossier out of your bag and flip through it again to pass the time.
  1505. >There isn't much personal information. That's what the interview's for.
  1506. >But it helps to know as much as possible before going in.
  1507. >Some time passes. At some point, you notice the painter descending the staircase at the other end of the hall.
  1508. >You want to stop and thank her. But you don't.
  1509. >It's clear why you don't.
  1510. >After a couple hours, you hear some grunting down the hall, and you catch the top of a dark mane emerging up the stairs.
  1511. >It's her.
  1512. >She's lugging a black case as big as her body behind her.
  1513. >You put the folder away and meet her at the top of the landing.
  1514. "Your day of reckoning has come."
  1515. >Out of breath, she looks up fearfully at your foreboding figure standing over her.
  1516. >"Please, if this is about the hospice bill—"
  1517. "What? No, no, I'm Anonymous. From the matchmaker initiative?"
  1518. >Immediately, you backpedal, tripping over your words, scolding yourself for freaking her out.
  1519. "Sorry. That was a bad attempt at humor. I see now why that was a terrible line to lead with."
  1520. >You step aside for her and extend a hand.
  1521. "Please, let me take your case for you."
  1522. >Hesitantly, she obliges, and trots past you, digging her keys out of her saddle bag.
  1523. >"You're the matchmaker," she says, unlocking her door. "So does that mean...?"
  1524. "Yes, I'm here to pair you up with someone."
  1525. >She pushes the door open. "In that case, please do come in."
  1526. >You follow her into the apartment, and set her case down by the door.
  1527. >It's the same layout as your place, but furnished completely different. It felt uncanny, like stepping into a bizarro world.
  1528. >"I suppose I should introduce myself." She hangs up her bag on the wall and returns to you. "That's why you're here, isn't it?"
  1529. >You nod, and she clears her throat.
  1530. >"My name is Octavia Melody, and there's nothing I'd like more than a kindred spirit to share my life with."
  1531. >Oh, this one is going to be interesting.
  1532.  
  1533. 13
  1534. "You certainly have interesting way of speaking."
  1535. >"You should've seen me when I was just a filly."
  1536. >She leads you around to a small sofa. "Woi, I tocked loik dis," she says, emphatically stressing the accent. "Sounds roight bloody awful, innit?"
  1537. >You elicit a short chuckle as you sit down.
  1538. >She shifts back to her normal silky voice. "Tea?"
  1539. "That'd be lovely."
  1540. >As she goes off into the kitchen, you pull your black book out of your bag and begin writing.
  1541. >After a few minutes, she returns with a small tray. Carefully, she sets it down upon the table and pours out two cups.
  1542. "So why change?"
  1543. >"The accent, you mean?" she asks, climbing up into an armchair in the corner. "I moved from Trottingham years back. You don't get far here sounding like you crawled out of a parish gutter. Took a great deal of practice, as with all things. Sometimes it still bleeds through, if you care to listen for it."
  1544. >You scribble that down.
  1545. >She watches you write attentively. "Can I ask, how's this going to work?"
  1546. >You set your pen down.
  1547. "It's simple, really. I spend some time shadowing you, asking personal questions, building a profile. You share as much detail as you're comfortable with, and I use that to find you a mate. My only rule is that you don't lie to me."
  1548. >"Sounds fair," she says, taking a sip of her tea.
  1549. >You observe her poise mindfully.
  1550. "You seem very well-composed."
  1551. >She smiles at you, visibly entertained by your comment.
  1552. "I— That wasn't a pun, I promise. I just mean most mares struggle to contain their enthusiasm at first."
  1553. >"It's quite alright. I'll freely admit to being positively giddy on the inside."
  1554. >You want to dig a little more into that, but it's too early to get personal. You'll circle back.
  1555. >Instead, you flip through the dossier.
  1556. "You have an awfully impressive career, I see."
  1557. >"The orchestra? Have you heard us play?"
  1558. "Them, not so much. I've heard you, though. You're very good."
  1559. >She gazes at you, puzzled. "You must have me confused. I don't play solo concertos."
  1560. >You point your pen up to the ceiling.
  1561. "I live up there. The walls are thin."
  1562. >She turns red with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. They don't let me practice in the studio after hours."
  1563. "Truly, I don't mind. I'm not home very often."
  1564. >You hold up your book, indicating what you mean.
  1565. >She pauses and looks over you curiously. "How did somepony like you come to live in a place like this, anyway?"
  1566. "You know, I was going to ask you the same thing."
  1567. >"Whatever do you mean?" she asks, genuine modesty held in her tone.
  1568. "I've never had a contract in Lower Canterlot before. All the socialites live uptown. What's a talented musician, who plays in Equestria's foremost orchestra, doing in a tenement?"
  1569. >She scoffs, amused by your naivete. "You really don't know the arts, do you?"
  1570. "I suppose I don't."
  1571. >"I make a meager salary. We're meant to be paid primarily in prestige, as if that'd cover any of my bills. It's not a problem for my colleagues because they live off family wealth. There aren't many who make it to this level without growing up with classically-trained private tutors bought with daddy's money."
  1572. >You make a note.
  1573. "You being here, that must be a testament to your dedication to the craft."
  1574. >"You could call it that. I'd call it busting my arse, but same thing, really."
  1575. >Again, you laugh, and take a sip of tea before continuing.
  1576. "When we met, you said something about a hospice bill."
  1577. >Immediately, she clams up.
  1578. >"I thought you might be a debt collector," she mumbles. "I wouldn't put it past them to start using humans as an intimidation tactic."
  1579. >She's not far off, is she? You've collected some debts in your time.
  1580. >But that's supposed to be behind you.
  1581. "You owe some money, then?"
  1582. >She sighs and grabs the cushion from behind her, anxiously squeezing it beneath her hooves.
  1583. >"It's partly the reason for my living situation. My mother's very ill. She requires round-the-clock care."
  1584. "I'm sorry to hear that."
  1585. >"Almost all the money I make goes to her. Lately, I've been falling behind on payments, and I'm running out of ways to make up the difference."
  1586. "What ways would that be?"
  1587. >"I took a second job recently, but then I had to choose between sleep or practice, and my performance suffered either way. The music director eventually pulled me aside and told me if it continued, he wouldn't renew my contract."
  1588. >Her calm demeanor was slowly slipping, the desperation in her tone beginning to mount.
  1589. >As she speaks, you struggle to write while giving her your full attention and the proper appearance of sympathy.
  1590. >"I took this job for her. I can't afford to lose it. I've no discernable skills beyond the cello. That's the curse of the cutie mark, isn't it? This is the highest-paying job across all of Equestria available to me, and it's still scarcely enough to keep her alive."
  1591. "I can tell she's very important to you."
  1592. >"She raised me by herself. She was the one who taught me how to play. Everything I have in life, I owe to her."
  1593. >Tears begin to well in her eyes.
  1594. >"I want to make her final days comfortable, but I can't even be there to see her."
  1595. >Oh, no.
  1596. "Hey, it's okay. Come here."
  1597. >She shakes her head, wiping away her tears. "No, I'm fine. I apologize."
  1598. >It's against procedure to cross intimate boundaries during an interview. You're meant to make a personal connection, but not get attached to them, or let them imprint on you.
  1599. >Ten minutes in, though, and it's not about the interview anymore.
  1600. >She needs this right now.
  1601. >So you're going to forget your job for a minute.
  1602. >Silently, you get up, and come around to her chair.
  1603. >You scooch her gently to the side, and sit down next to her, pulling her head against your shoulder.
  1604. >She's resistant at first, only for a brief second, but then...
  1605. >She loses it.
  1606. >She releases all that pain at once. The floodgates open, and she simply weeps, burying her face into the crook of your shoulder to drown out her cries.
  1607. >Inexperienced as you may be, you sit there with her, holding her, comforting her.
  1608. >You don't know what to possibly say. Instead, you opt for silence.
  1609. >Because for once, nothing you say can make it any better.
  1610. >This isn't a situation you can or want to talk your way out of.
  1611. >This is just something that needs to happen.
  1612. >It takes some time, but her cries eventually fade to whimpers.
  1613. >"I'm so sorry," she mutters, sniffling between sentences. "I don't know what came over me. I... don't have any friends here. I haven't opened up to anypony in a very long time."
  1614. >"I know how difficult vulnerability can be."
  1615. >Quite fittingly, being that honest about yourself leaves you uncomfortable, so you hastily follow it up with the next sentence.
  1616. "So many ponies I've met with have struggled to speak about themselves so openly."
  1617. >It's a thinly-veiled cover, but she's in no state to see through it.
  1618. >"I imagine it's quite hard," she whispers, "having to deal with our insecurities like that."
  1619. >You gaze down at her, those bright, massive eyes locked into a deep stare with yours.
  1620. "It's not so bad."
  1621. >A tense silence follows.
  1622. >Suddenly, you get out of the chair, going back around to retrieve your book.
  1623. "We should... probably... get back to the interview."
  1624. >"Yes, right—"
  1625. >Was that a hint of longing disappointment and subsequent self-reprimand in her tone?
  1626. >You may be good at reading people, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
  1627. >"—I'll do my best to not burst into tears this time," she jokes. "Please, do go on."
  1628. "Something that stuck out at me was your introduction. You said, 'there's nothing I'd like more than a kindred spirit to share my life with.'"
  1629. >"It's true."
  1630. "It's not what you said, actually, it's the words you chose. They felt very deliberate. It sounded almost... rehearsed."
  1631. >She hesitates, and straight away, you can tell you've ensnared her.
  1632. >But in what?
  1633. >Slowly, you fit the pieces together.
  1634. "You said you've been covering your expenses thus far, but only in the past few months have your payments lapsed. Your income hasn't changed, and neither has your budget. Unless, another expense arose..."
  1635. >She averts her eyes.
  1636. "Your name wasn't high on the waitlist until recently."
  1637. >Finally, she breaks.
  1638. >"I bribed the registry, okay? Is that what you want to hear?"
  1639. "No, hey, I'm only—"
  1640. >She throws her hooves up, exasperated.
  1641. >"I took the bits out of the mouth of my dying mother so I could have a husband. I'm a conniving monster. You got me."
  1642. >You reach a hand out toward her.
  1643. "I'm not judging you. Sometimes it helps to consider why we do the things we do."
  1644. >She still seems reluctant.
  1645. "You're not a monster, Octavia. Trust me when I say I know monsters. That doesn't even begin to describe you."
  1646. >"You don't know me," she mutters.
  1647. "I want to."
  1648. >You can see some small glint of intrigue in her eyes, and she gives in.
  1649. >"I'm not happy," she sighs. "This is supposed to be my dream, the culmination of everything I've worked for. After each performance, everypony pats me on the back and tells me oh-so-insincerely, 'you're so talented', but I'm not. I got to where I am by dedicating my entire life to this instrument. I practice for six hours every day, until my hooves are blistered and bloody, just so I can sit with the world's most skilled symphony musicians. It's grueling, and I hate it, but I'm trapped, and I can't get out. I don't have any friends here. I try desperately to fit in with all the old money types. Sycophants and megalomaniacs, the lot of them. I change everything about myself to be like them, even adopting their stupid posh accent, and still, they make me feel like I stick out. I've heard them crack jokes about the 'donkey in the fourth chair.'"
  1650. >She goes on, heartbroken. "I am hopelessly, irretrievably alone. I go on dates with young bachelors and they look at me like a commodity, like I'm a trophy to be won just because of my vocation. I just want one single soul in this world who understands what I'm going through, and when I heard what you do— find that one perfect soul mate for every pony out there— I knew that's what I was waiting for. Not the orchestra chair, but the one I come home to. I know I'm not like those other mares, and I don't deserve to have him handed to me on a silver platter, but I was weak and desperate. I got tunnel vision and something dark and greedy took over me. It took three whole paychecks to get me to the top of that bloody list. Now my mother's on the verge of getting thrown out into the street, because, in the end, I'm no less self-absorbed than any of the ponies around me."
  1651. >She buries her head in her hooves despondently.
  1652. >"So now that you know the truth, try and tell me I'm not a monster."
  1653. >You don't respond.
  1654. >"That's what I thought."
  1655. >You stare back at her for a few moments.
  1656. "I'll find him."
  1657. >Curious, she lifts her head back up. "Excuse me?"
  1658. "You need him. I get that now."
  1659. >"I don't think you heard me. You don't want to help somepony like me."
  1660. >Anon, what a fool you've been.
  1661. "You did the selfish, inexplicable things you did because you need to be loved. You look at those things and say, 'that's why I don't deserve to be happy,' but you lashed out at yourself precisely because you're suffering to begin with. Our lives are empty and unfulfilled, and we do these self-destructive things because it gives us some small sense of control. In the chaos of everything, we start to lose ourselves. It's so much easier to wreak our own havoc than to resist it, that we'll do anything just to feel like we're in charge, even if we can't justify it. All the other mares I've met with wanted a man to love, but you're the first I've come across who really, truly needed it, to the point where you're doubting whether you even deserve it. I'm telling you now that you deserve to be happy. I want help you be happy."
  1662. >There's a small hopefulness in her expression.
  1663. >"Do you really believe all that?"
  1664. "When you can't stop the pain, it's easier just to hurt yourself. Because then, you at least have someone you can blame."
  1665.  
  1666. >When you finally leave for the day, the air around you feels much heavier.
  1667. >Walking up the steps to your floor, a thought flashes through your mind.
  1668. >It's not enough to match her up with someone. Love's not going to solve her problems. Love can't pay the bills.
  1669. >If she's forced to carry on like this, her relationship is going to be strained. What if it fails? You'll have a mark on your perfect record.
  1670. >But it's so much more than that. Walking out of there, you're frightened by how miserable she is. It's too familiar to you.
  1671. >All this time, there's been a mare suffering beneath the floor you stand upon.
  1672. >Now that you know it, you can't un-know it.
  1673. >So there's only one thing you can do.
  1674. >You dig through the suitcase in your apartment. From it, you pull out a gold bar.
  1675. >Half of your stipend for this cycle.
  1676. >Clutching it in your arm, you hurry down the steps.
  1677. >Down and down you go, until you step out the front door into the night.
  1678. >Beside you sits Morris.
  1679. >"Oh, hey, boy, did you catch Miss Melody? She got home 'bout an hour back."
  1680. >You shove the bullion into his hooves.
  1681. "Morris, listen carefully. I need you to offer her rent relief for the next few months. At least six. More, if you can spare it."
  1682. >"What?" he asks, utterly shocked, looking back and forth between you and the treasure you dropped in his lap.
  1683. "You can't tell her I'm doing this. Under no circumstance is she allowed to know the order came from me. Make an excuse up. Say you got a tax break and you're granting her a temporary reprieve for being such a loyal tenant or something."
  1684. >"Are you sure? Why?"
  1685. "It doesn't matter. Just do it. And this is coming directly from the Court of Celestia, so don't let me down on this one."
  1686. >"That's a lot of pressure," he stammers. "I- I dunno if I can lie to—"
  1687. "Hey."
  1688. >You snap a finger in his face.
  1689. "I'm trusting you here, Morry. It CANNOT get out that I did this, understand?"
  1690. >Anxiously, he nods.
  1691. "Good. Now get that thing inside and out of sight. Hold it for a few weeks before liquidating. Anyone asks, it was an inheritance."
  1692. >He climbs down out of his chair, bullion tucked in one hoof, standing on shaky legs. Obediently, he goes inside and into his ground-floor apartment.
  1693. >Taking a deep breath, you sit on the stoop a while before going back up to your place.
  1694. >It's not often that you take time to enjoy the Equestrian night. You're always burnt out after a long day of interviews.
  1695. >Further up the mountain, you can see the top of the royal palace. There's a light on in the tower.
  1696. >After a bit, you get up and head back inside. You shut the door behind you and lay your black book on the table.
  1697. >The bouquet is still sitting on your counter, by the window.
  1698. >It's been such a long day. Emotional baggage seems to show up whenever you least expect it.
  1699. >You learned something new about yourself. It just took seeing it in someone else for it finally click.
  1700. >Empathy's funny like that.
  1701. >But it's hard, keeping this charade up.
  1702. >You don't know if it's going to get better.
  1703. >For now, though, you'll just keep doing your job. That's all you know to do.
  1704. >That night, as you fall asleep, you can hear the soft sound of music playing beneath you.
  1705.  
  1706. 14
  1707. >London. It's been years, hasn't it?
  1708. >You have a ticket to view one Vasily Kostrov, the man you've been tailing for two weeks, in solo concerto.
  1709. >As you take your seat in the rear of the auditorium, you gloss through the program.
  1710. >This has been a decision you lamented for the past several weeks.
  1711. >The one question that continues to plague your mind.
  1712. >Ought he be a cellist?
  1713. >An affinity for the classics is a given.
  1714. >Like it or not, Octavia Melody had chosen a life in pursuit of music.
  1715. >And as you spent that week interviewing her, you gleaned a certain craving for validation within her.
  1716. >She played her music for you. She was hesitant, of course, but since the interviews lasted several hours, they necessarily coincided with her practice times.
  1717. >She looked to you for your impression. And, with all honesty, you were impressed by her performance.
  1718. >But your sensibilities were plebeian. A palette unrefined.
  1719. >She went on about the various mistakes she made. With your untrained ear, you had no chance of picking them out.
  1720. >Certainly, she was humbled by your praise, but you could tell it didn't mean enough to inspire confidence.
  1721. >Validation is a finicky thing, isn't it?
  1722. >So it is only fitting that the man who will spend the rest of his days listening to her play should properly appreciate her technical proficiency and sheer mastery of the craft.
  1723. >See, when it comes to matchmaking, shared interests are one of the most powerful tools for a prosperous relationship.
  1724. >They're by no means a requirement, but in a world of special talents, the concept carries significantly more weight.
  1725. >For the ponies who've built their entire identities around one niche, having someone to indulge in endless discussions about its intricacies meant the world.
  1726. >Birds of a feather flock together.
  1727. >Many ponies, though, value breadth over depth. In those cases, dynamic pairings often flourished.
  1728. >Amethyst Star was a jeweler by trade, but she looked forward to her weekend picnics more than anything else. Now she's living happily with a baker's apprentice.
  1729. >Octavia was different. Music was her language. If he couldn't speak it, he could never fully understand her.
  1730. >All she wanted was to be understood.
  1731. >Back to the million-dollar question, though.
  1732. >Ought he be a cellist?
  1733. >Even in spite of your pedestrian tastes, you can recognize that there are certain advantages to complementary musicians. Accompaniment is the first to come to mind. Wouldn't that be romantic, performing together?
  1734. >But as your research into the scene pressed on, you soon realized just how formidable a beast any one instrument can be. It takes a lifetime of learning.
  1735. >From what you learned, Octavia has a particular attachment to her instrument.
  1736. >She's one of the most skilled cellists in her world, and yet she still treats herself like an amateur.
  1737. >She may never be happy with her work.
  1738. >But if there were someone who could not only understand the rigor of the discipline, but also lend insight into proficiency?
  1739. >They could learn from each other.
  1740. >That's what this mare wants. A partner on equal footing. Not to be relegated solely as student or teacher, but to find freedom in fluidity, as a peer.
  1741. >So, ought he be a cellist?
  1742. >You're about to find out.
  1743. >Kostrov takes the stage. The audience applauds, and the performance begins.
  1744. >The first piece is Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. You've heard it before, though you wouldn't know it by name.
  1745. >As he plays, you watch over his technique carefully. Every fluid motion, every flick of the wrist, noting any given tell.
  1746. >You don't claim to understand the intricacies of the instrument, but watching Octavia for a week has taught you a great deal about the subtle mannerisms of musicians.
  1747. >Performance is a difficult, slavish toil. It takes from each an immense dexterity, and then demands unflinching poise in the face of absolute judgment.
  1748. >All eyes upon him.
  1749. >The stakes for the artist are simply too high. Perfect composure under such circumstances is impossible.
  1750. >And you, well, you've made a career out picking out the cracks in a man's composure.
  1751. >So maybe you don't know art.
  1752. >But you sure as hell know people.
  1753. >After nearly an hour, the concerto concludes, giving way to a standing ovation.
  1754. >If there was any doubt before, Vasily has passed muster.
  1755. >But this was only the observation phase.
  1756. >You tuck your black book into your breast pocket and step out into the aisle as the audience begins to spill out.
  1757. >Slowly, you push through the crowd, making your way to the stage door.
  1758. >As you weave through the tide of people, you're suddenly struck by a blinding pain in your temples.
  1759. >Immediately, you clutch your head and slump down into the seat beside you.
  1760. >A couple people lean in to check if you're alright, but you wave them off brashly, feeling vulnerably exposed in your daze.
  1761. >The pain lasts only for a few seconds before subsiding enough for you to look up again.
  1762. >The crowd has mostly filtered out. The last few people walking up the aisle stare at you as they pass. As someone who shelters in going unnoticed, you're visibly discomforted by it.
  1763. >You return to your feet once more. The headache has reduced to a dull throbbing.
  1764. >Whatever this passing sensation was, it left you reeling. The moment has passed, and you no longer feel secure enough in your senses to approach.
  1765. >Instead, you follow the last of the stragglers out the exit door, into the harsh light of day outside.
  1766. >You're unnaturally sensitive to the sunlight. It takes a bit longer than usual for your eyes to adjust.
  1767. >You hail a cab in front of the concert hall steps.
  1768. >Back to your hotel you go, rubbing your forehead to numb the pain.
  1769. >Whatever this stumbling block may be, it shall pass. And you'll be ready for another recruitment.
  1770. >You return to your room and sleep for the next sixteen hours.
  1771.  
  1772. >The following day, you feel more well-rested. The headache has left and you're prepared to make your approach.
  1773. >Looking through your notes, Vasily is likely to be having his breakfast at his favorite spot. That might be your most definitive opportunity to find him, short of showing up at his home.
  1774. >The restaurant is a bit public for your liking. Not as appealing as backstage post-show.
  1775. >But flipping through the schedule you've assembled, you're not quite sure when you'll get another opportunity like that. He won't have another performance for another two weeks, and even then he'll be with the entire orchestra.
  1776. >If only that damned migraine hadn't thrown you.
  1777. >Resigning to the circumstances, you pack your book, files, and laptop into your messenger bag and head out.
  1778. >London is such a strange city. A mishmash of history and modernity, with culture thrust into the oddest places seemingly at random, it's always felt like a garish city full of peculiar people.
  1779. >You've been here before. In another life.
  1780. >As you approach the restaurant, you spot your target through the glass storefront, eating his breakfast.
  1781. >The place is a little busy, so you take a moment to mentally adjust your approach before entering.
  1782. >He's a trusting man. Doesn't show it, but he is. So you can get by the preliminary round without divulging too much. Being in earshot of so many civilians means that insinuations will have to suffice.
  1783. >Once you establish trust, set up a meeting at more secure location for the actual recruitment, and get out.
  1784. >Simple enough. You've done it this way before.
  1785. >Now mentally prepared, you push open the door, and walk over to his table.
  1786. "Mr. Kostrov."
  1787. >He looks up from the newspaper lying beside his plate. "Yes?"
  1788. >You pull out the chair across from him.
  1789. "May I sit?"
  1790. >He doesn't respond, watching you curiously, still holding a bite of food in his mouth.
  1791. >You take your seat.
  1792. "Vasily Kostrov. It's an interesting name for a born Londoner, isn't it?"
  1793. >He swallows his food and wipes his mouth. "I'm sorry, who are you?"
  1794. >You extend a hand over the table.
  1795. "Anonymous. I'm a recruiter."
  1796. >Slowly, he obliges your handshake. "I'm not sure what you could offer me. Any ensemble worth its salt doesn't recruit."
  1797. "Oh, I know. Yesterday was quite the performance. I don't think there's any audition you wouldn't ace."
  1798. >You reach over and grab a biscuit off his plate.
  1799. "Actually, this is kind of like an audition, in its own little way."
  1800. >"American," he says. "Where are you from? New York Philharmonic? Chicago Symphony?"
  1801. "A bit further than that, I'm afraid."
  1802. >You smile and take a bite.
  1803. "But how about I pay for this meal, and you just listen to what I have to say?"
  1804. >"I don't suppose I have much of a choice."
  1805. >It's interesting.
  1806. >He puts out this aura of indifference, but his tells say otherwise.
  1807. >He's actually enjoying this.
  1808. >And that's your way in.
  1809. "Back to the name, then. Care to explain?"
  1810. >He takes a sip of his tea. "My father fled the Eastern Bloc in the 70's. Though Russian in name, I assure you, I'm English through and through."
  1811. "He must have assimilated well, then."
  1812. >"Hardly. He returned after the Iron Curtain fell. Left me behind with mum."
  1813. "Ah, so she raised you. Was she the one who taught you to play?"
  1814. >"She paid for my lessons. Mother instilled in me the importance of music from a very early age."
  1815. >He smiles fondly, looking off into the distance. "She was a pianist. Every evening I'd hear her playing in the parlor, as I played with my toys."
  1816. "She's not around anymore?"
  1817. >He looks back down at his plate. "Passed a few years back."
  1818. >Anon, you devious bastard, what are you getting at?
  1819. "I take it she didn't get to hear you perform professionally."
  1820. >"I suppose not," he whispers.
  1821. >He's trying to act unfazed. As if it hadn't occurred to him before.
  1822. >You pour yourself a cup of tea.
  1823. "Mothers have a powerful influence over us. They shape our formative years. They each have a hand in our destinies, whether we like it or not."
  1824. >You watch his body language very carefully as you speak.
  1825. "It must have been difficult for her, investing all this effort into your skill and never getting to see the payoff."
  1826. >"She saw me perform before. She was proud of me."
  1827. "Oh, I don't doubt it. But there's a certain... anticipation... isn't there? That accompanies a chair on one of the world's foremost stages, the culmination of everything you've spent your life working for. This chair was her dream, wasn't it?"
  1828. >He doesn't answer.
  1829. >So you continue.
  1830. "She achieved her goal through you. She set you down this path. I wonder, did you ever look back?"
  1831. >He clears his throat and straightens his posture. "We all do, from time to time."
  1832. "Yes, but it comforts us to feel in control. If we know we can change things, it's easier to sleep without regrets."
  1833. >Hmmm. He's stopped eating.
  1834. "You never did have that choice, did you? You couldn't dare fail her. And after her death, the only way to properly honor her spirit was to continue down this path, to get to where you are now."
  1835. >You can see him growing visibly tense.
  1836. "And now that you're here, in the upper echelon, you don't know where else you can possibly go, do you? You did what she wanted, you lived out your mother's fantasy, but now that you're trapped at the end of the road, you're left wondering— what would it be like to be father? To fuck off to a faraway land and start life anew, just to feel something different from the same monotonous hell, day in, day out? You loathe this life. It's safe. It's predictable. It's boring. You knew everything that was going to happen to you."
  1837. >You lean back in your chair.
  1838. "That is, until I sat down."
  1839. >He stares at you a moment.
  1840. >Then, he finally breaks, and his excitement pours out.
  1841. >"I thought you might kill me..."
  1842. >He nods to your waist and leans in to whisper. "You have a gun. I caught a glimpse when you sat down."
  1843. >Instinctively, you pull your jacket in, surprised by his response.
  1844. "And you just let me go off like that?"
  1845. >He sits back and laughs at himself. "I guess you're right. In some sick way, I was just relieved that something interesting was happening to me for once."
  1846. "God, you need what I'm offering more than I realized."
  1847. >He returns to his breakfast, in much lighter spirits than before.
  1848. >"So what is it, then, that you're offering me? A taste of adventure? You an African missionary who needs a cellist for some odd reason?"
  1849. "We can discuss specifics later. This meeting is just to establish interest."
  1850. >Relieved, he takes a bite of omelette. "Well, mission accomplished then. I don't know what it is you're peddling, but you've got me on the hook..."
  1851. >You stop listening. Someone passing the table catches your eye.
  1852. >"...I tell you, I'm so sick of these crowds. I love the music, mind you, but some of these people, God! You should see—"
  1853. "That man..."
  1854. >You whisper faintly, watching him leave with his coffee.
  1855. "He's familiar."
  1856. >"Who?" Vasily asks, leaning over to look.
  1857. >He exits the restaurant and begins walking past the glass storefront, giving you another glimpse of his face.
  1858. >And right then, without a second thought, you get out of your chair to hastily follow after him.
  1859. >Making your way to the exit, your eyes are locked on him as he passes the window.
  1860. >You push the door open, step out into the street, turn to face him, and...
  1861. >He's gone.
  1862. >Vanished.
  1863. >Which... shouldn't be possible.
  1864. >You walk in the direction he was headed, looking around the street for him.
  1865. >There's no alley, no door he could've dipped into that quickly. The townhouse next door is fifty feet away.
  1866. >You saw him through the glass. Your eyes were only off him for a split-second.
  1867. >None of these people on the street look anything like him. No one took off running.
  1868. >So what the hell just happened?
  1869. >You stand around doubting yourself for a few seconds before going back inside and approaching the table.
  1870. "Did you see him?"
  1871. >"See what?" Vasily asks, utterly confused.
  1872. "That man that just left."
  1873. >"I, uh, I think so? I'm not sure, I don't watch for people leaving."
  1874. >Confused, he leans forward. "Is this another mind game? Because I don't get this one."
  1875. >You tap your finger against the table absentmindedly, looking around, lost in thought.
  1876. >Again, you're left feeling insecure. You know what you saw.
  1877. >...right?
  1878. >Okay.
  1879. >Get it together.
  1880. >The preliminary is over. You have nothing more to do here.
  1881. >Without a word, you remove a card from your jacket, lay it flat in front of Vasily, and leave.
  1882.  
  1883. 15
  1884. >You rap your knuckles upon the ornately-carved door to Celestia's chambers, that distinctive rat-a-tat-tat that no hoof could ever replicate indicating your presence.
  1885. >Her voice calls out to you from within. "Enter."
  1886. >Slowly, you swing the door open and shut it behind you. The Princess sits at her desk at the far side of the room.
  1887. "Is there a reason you wanted to meet here?"
  1888. >She looks up from her scrolls. "I have something of importance I'd like to discuss with you."
  1889. "I suppose I do, too."
  1890. >"I'm almost done here," she says. "Wait for me out on the balcony, won't you?"
  1891. >As she returns to her work, you follow her instruction, and step through the terrace doors onto the Princess' private balcony.
  1892. >Attached to the grand bedroom at the palace's topmost level, it granted a panoramic view over the edge of the mountain.
  1893. >It's quite the sight compared to the throne room's balcony, which overlooked only the rest of Canterlot.
  1894. >From here, you can see off into the far reaches of Equestria, to remote lands a long ways away.
  1895. >But what grabs you most isn't on the distant horizon. It's a place much more close to home.
  1896. >Nestled among the hills below sits the town of Ponyville.
  1897. >You can see in great detail from your vantage point. It's such a simple place compared to here, a conglomerate of wooden homes and sprawling farms.
  1898. >Only now does it hit you, the realization of how close it truly is, just barely within reach.
  1899. >In your heart, it feels so much farther. In your heart...
  1900. >It may as well be a world away.
  1901. >This is going to be a difficult conversation. For more reasons than one.
  1902. >You answer to Celestia. Ordinarily, your work justifies itself.
  1903. >But these past few weeks have left you doubting the efficacy of matchmaking. You seem to be stumbling increasingly these days.
  1904. >Your sense of job security has never felt so frail. If you were to lose it, what would become of you?
  1905. >If you know yourself only as The Recruiter, then who is left to be Anon?
  1906. >After a couple minutes, Celestia strolls out onto the balcony and joins you in admiring the landscape.
  1907. >"It's something else, isn't it?" she asks, ruminating upon the scenery.
  1908. "Hard to believe it's all your domain."
  1909. >"The land mostly rules itself."
  1910. >She only speaks in proverbs when she's ramping up to something.
  1911. "I wouldn't diminish the importance of your role."
  1912. >"From what you've told me, America is largely the same, isn't it?"
  1913. "By what metric?"
  1914. >She motions across the landscape. "Standing atop the highest landmark for hundreds of miles, take a look around. How many cities do you count?"
  1915. "Three, maybe a glimpse of four."
  1916. >"My dominion is not over the lands, but the hearts that inhabit them. Nature is self-correcting; it needs no hoof to guide it. Nearly all that you see before you would hardly change in my absence."
  1917. "Well, what about the sun?"
  1918. >"Yes," she smiles knowingly, "what of it? Tell me, would there be no weather without weather ponies?"
  1919. >You hadn't really considered the nature of her abilities.
  1920. >It was something she generally kept to herself, and there was never any occasion to pry.
  1921. >"The world is perfectly capable of carrying on without us. It has been here before us, and it will remain long after we are gone. We intervene in nature because it suits our needs, and at times, simply because we can."
  1922. "In that respect, humanity is the same. At the same time, I can't deny our differences. I used to believe in the natural order of things, that resisting it was the source of our problems. But if it can be accomplished here without disrupting harmony, then what does that say about mankind? Do we just have an intrinsic drive to do harm? Is altruism dead?"
  1923. >"You already know my feelings on such nihilism," she says. "You are but one man. Limit your purview as such. Perhaps chaos is in your nature; does that make it law? You have a choice in the matter, and that makes it all the more meaningful when you rise above your baser urges. There are good men, Anon. You mustn't forget that."
  1924. >You ponder on it. You trust her.
  1925. >You just don't trust yourself.
  1926. >Yet isn't that the exact pitfall she's telling you to avoid?
  1927. >Is it just an inescapable self-fulfilling prophecy?
  1928. >What does it mean to be better? Will you ever reach that place, or is it a never-ending process?
  1929. >And why the hell does it have to be so hard?
  1930. >"Speaking of good men, how goes our new recruit?"
  1931. >The change of subject saves you from your thoughts.
  1932. "I just left him at Processing. He's positively overjoyed."
  1933. >"I was surprised to hear of your return so soon. This one took under a month."
  1934. "I got lucky. He was an easy find and an easy recruit."
  1935. >But it wasn't really easy, was it?
  1936. >You don't tell her about the migraine. That's just the kind of the kind of thing she'd use to force you into a sabbatical.
  1937. >Moreover, you don't want to worry her. It was a one-off.
  1938. >This next part, though, is something you can't in good conscience hide from her.
  1939. >It needs to come out.
  1940. "Out there, I saw... someone."
  1941. >"Oh?" She turns to you, intrigued. "Who?"
  1942. "To be honest, I don't know. He disappeared before I could get a good look."
  1943. >"What do you mean, 'disappeared'?"
  1944. "I followed after him, and he just vanished."
  1945. >"Is this cause for concern?"
  1946. >Dejected, you lean back against the castle exterior and rub your head.
  1947. "Cel, I don't know what to tell you. I saw that face somewhere before, but I can't for the life of me remember where. Maybe it's the man that followed Rainbow Dash or just one random face out of many that I've passed before. Worst of all, though, I can't help but think— what if it's the face of someone I killed?"
  1948. >She watches you solemnly as you go on.
  1949. "I mean, he was there one second and gone the next. I keep playing it over and over in my head and I can't even be sure anyone was really there. I'm not saying I saw a ghost, but still, if I'm catching glimpses of my past, then... that can only mean one thing."
  1950. >She comes over to you. "Don't do this. Not again."
  1951. >You lower your hand from your face and look up at her, puzzled by her response.
  1952. "Do what?"
  1953. >"You do these things, you know. You preemptively punish yourself and spin the narrative to justify it afterward. No. I won't have it anymore. Don't make this about how you're a bad person, too."
  1954. >Stunned, you step forward.
  1955. "Real or not, I saw something out there."
  1956. >"I don't doubt that for one moment," she says, holding steadfast. "But I know you, and you'll latch onto anything just to ascribe it meaning. You're spiraling, Anon. Whatever this event was, it's not your fault. You need to admit that some things are simply beyond the scope of your actions."
  1957. "But—"
  1958. >"It's not your fault," she says again firmly.
  1959. >You rub your eyes. Sleep's been erratic lately and this whole situation isn't helping.
  1960. "I don't even know what's real anymore."
  1961. >She takes your hand in her hoof. "This is real."
  1962. >You stare down at her golden slipper. In its reflection, you see yourself.
  1963. >Whether that was her intention or not, you can't say.
  1964. >But still, it's something.
  1965. >In her, you see yourself.
  1966. >Yeah.
  1967. >Maybe it's trite and inconsequential, but it's comforting nonetheless.
  1968. >"I know it's easy to lose yourself out there, when you're gone for long stretches at a time. But you always come back. If for nothing else, hold onto me."
  1969. >You gaze at her silently. She keeps her hoof in your palm for a few lingering seconds before setting it down.
  1970. >"It's time for the sunset," she says, walking back over to the stone railing. "Come stay with me."
  1971. >You stand at her side and look on as her horn shimmers its golden aura.
  1972. "It's a lot less theatrical now that I know the truth."
  1973. >She nudges you playfully.
  1974. >Far off on the horizon, the blazing sun slowly dips, tinging the sky a gorgeous gradient of pink and blue.
  1975. >As you watch, something about the scene looks especially captivating tonight, standing unique among the thousands of others you've seen in Equestria.
  1976. >You turn to her and lean your elbow on the railing. With a sly grin, you nod your head toward the vibrant sky.
  1977. "You're doing that manually, aren't you?"
  1978. >She glances away to conceal a blush. "Just atmospheric conditions," she whispers dismissively.
  1979. "Well, it's beautiful, Cel. I swear the sun's never felt so close."
  1980. >Even with her head so obliviously turned away, you can sense her flattered expression.
  1981. >It feels good to make her happy. Those moments don't seem to come around much anymore.
  1982. >The two of you watch as the sun slowly slips beneath the horizon, quietly reflecting together with each dwindling minute of daylight, as the evening gives way to dusk, and dusk to twilight.
  1983. >You and Celestia, now alone in the night.
  1984. "What did you want to talk to me about?"
  1985. >"Oh, nothing. After that reality check, what once felt important now seems almost trivial."
  1986. >Carefully, you look over her. Head hung just a bit, shifting posture. Even in the low light, her unease is clear to you.
  1987. >Pressing won't goad it out of her, she'd just clam up. But your curiosity's piqued, and maybe she can be coaxed.
  1988. "A distraction would be welcome right now."
  1989. >"Believe me when I say it would only add to our ever-growing list of troubles."
  1990. >You watch her quietly.
  1991. >It's steadily becoming clear that the only way to make her open up is by addressing the uncomfortable truth you've both been avoiding all night.
  1992. "You were building up the nerve to ask me something. Before I told you what I saw."
  1993. >"You're too clever a detective for your own good, Anonymous."
  1994. "But what am I onto, Cel? It's something big. Something deeply personal. You know how I know?"
  1995. >She looks down guiltily.
  1996. "Because you haven't asked me up here since you first accepted my offer all those years ago."
  1997. >With the bitter truth— the implication of your being here— now spoken aloud, there is no more skirting around it.
  1998. >She releases a deep sigh, and relents to your prodding.
  1999. >"I was hesitant about men at first," she says. "Centuries of tradition is a long way to turn one's back on. But you convinced me. It was by no means an easy battle, but you won me over. Some nights I wonder, why did you push so hard?"
  2000. "I... I wanted..."
  2001. >You trail off, unconvinced of your own motives.
  2002. >"Mare and man pairs had never been proven. You had not a shred of evidence that it would work. But you argued so zealously in defense of the idea, that even my patience was worn thin."
  2003. "What are you saying?"
  2004. >"I was curious. After a long lifetime, you appeared, with such an unnatural suggestion. I did not want to trust you. I was so unsure about your kind, but you didn't relent. You stayed with me until I believed in you. And once I acquiesced, you continued to stay, even when the obligation was long gone. Time and time again, you came back to me, not out of duty nor deference, but for something more: companionship. I kept waiting for the day you'd stop coming back, but it never came. You see, I may have agreed, but I cannot say that I didn't continue to have doubts."
  2005. "Doubts about what, exactly?"
  2006. >"All these years have been a sort of trial phase. An initiative not just for those involved, but to prove to me it was possible to find, for any mare, a soul mate in a man. Now, after all that we've been through, I'm finally ready to trust you enough to put my fate in your hands."
  2007. >Baffled, you stare back at her.
  2008. "You don't mean...?"
  2009. >"I don't want to be alone anymore."
  2010. >Alarm bells are going off in your head.
  2011. "W-Why ask me now? When I'm starting to slip up, and— and—"
  2012. >"You trust me enough to confide in me about what's going on. You do more than explain your behavior, you tell me what's wrong, even when it's difficult. That is the mark of a close relationship. For five years now I've waited you to show some semblance of fallibility, a match that ended poorly or a recruit that proved unstable. It is not our weaknesses that define us, but how we respond to them."
  2013. "All this time, you never gave me any indication of having romantic desires, or a craving for something more. I didn't think you had that in you."
  2014. >Exasperated, she grabs your hand, and presses your palm into her breast.
  2015. >"In here is a heart, Anon! It beats just as deeply as those of the mares on your list! Why must I be any different?"
  2016. >She releases your hand, letting it fall back to your side.
  2017. >"The last time we met, I told you that I did not want to be a mindless autocrat. I have always had the option to take a consort, but refused, because it wasn't in line with the world's image of me. Equestria has but only two princesses, and for a thousand years, they had only me. Who was I to deny them satisfaction over the pursuit of fool-hearted trifles? I had no choice; I spent innumerable years denying myself for the sake of my kingdom. But more than that, Anon, I have loved, and I have lost. For the longest time, I didn't believe I could ever love again. Then here you come crashing into my life, bringing with you all these men who give their mares everything they've ever wanted, and I ask myself, /why can't I have that?/"
  2018. >Her question rings out through the night air, the desperation in her voice weighted by years of heartache.
  2019. >You struggle to come up with a response equivocal to her passion.
  2020. "I don't know what to say. I never knew you felt this way."
  2021. >A tear rolls down her cheek.
  2022. >"How could you, when I couldn't even admit it to myself?"
  2023. >Tenderly, you wrap your arms around her neck.
  2024. >So many nights you've spent together, and now she's entrusting you with that most precious of things: her heart.
  2025. >In light of everything, you don't know if you can do right by her.
  2026. >Love is such daunting task. For a contract, it's one thing, but for a friend, and a princess, no less?
  2027. >She deserves the most incredible man in existence. All this pressure hangs over a single relationship.
  2028. >Just thinking about it brings the stress back. You can't help it.
  2029. >The anxiety begins to bubble.
  2030. >And then it tops off.
  2031. >The blinding sensation strikes. Your neck jerks a bit and you instinctively recoil from her embrace, bringing your hand up to your head.
  2032. >"Anon?" she asks, frightened by your sudden withdrawal.
  2033. "Yeah, I'm fine. I have to go."
  2034. >Through the terrace doors, you retreat back into her room.
  2035. >"Really?"
  2036. >You can sense the disappointment in her voice. But it's hard to pick out over all that ringing.
  2037. >Wait, ringing?
  2038. >"I was hoping you could stay a bit longer."
  2039. "I actually have somewhere I need to be."
  2040. >You walk backwards to the door, fighting and clawing internally to contain your anguish.
  2041. >Why does it hurt so much worse this time?
  2042. "Don't worry, I'll look for your match. I promise."
  2043. >"Oh," she says, a slight inflection in her tone, "but— I—"
  2044. >Standing in the doorway, you wait to let her finish.
  2045. >With your hand clenching your temples, you can't really see her face from here.
  2046. >"Never mind," she whispers. "Go. I'll see you soon."
  2047. >You bow out and exit her chambers.
  2048.  
  2049. >The migraine has subsided by the time you reach home.
  2050. >You want to just collapse onto your bed, pass out, and forget tonight ever happened.
  2051. >But that wouldn't be fair to anyone, would it?
  2052. >Besides, you weren't lying when you told Celestia you had plans. And though it would be so easy to not go, there's this tiny bit of uncertainty lingering inside you.
  2053. >It's been there for a while. After that night a month back, you were left wondering.
  2054. >And the weird thing is, you're not entirely sure what about.
  2055. >It's a morbid curiosity that may not be worth uncovering. But something deep within you is driving you to go.
  2056. >So you dig through your closet and retrieve an outfit that hasn't seen much use in recent years.
  2057. >Your tuxedo.
  2058. >When was the last time you put this thing on? The Vanderholm Society?
  2059. >Yeah.
  2060. >Six men died that night.
  2061. >Immediately, you cut that train of thought off. This is not a spiral you want to go down tonight.
  2062. >You put the suit on. It's still well-tailored to your proportions.
  2063. >Right before you depart, you stop yourself, and question if this is worth it.
  2064. >But, see, that's a hard question to answer when you're still not exactly sure what you're doing.
  2065. >Maybe...
  2066. >This is just something that needs to happen.
  2067. >You lock your door behind you, and head out into the Canterlot streets.
  2068. >It's a solemn walk to your destination. Normally, you'd be very reflective, but it's difficult to think when everything in your life feels so hazy.
  2069. >Who was that man, and was he really there?
  2070. >Can you possibly find someone properly-suited to a mare of such divinity?
  2071. >And why are you defying your self-imposed boundaries to come here tonight?
  2072. >None of these have answers. At least not for now. In time, maybe.
  2073. >One can only hope.
  2074. >Your journey brings you back to Upper Canterlot. To the Performing Arts Center.
  2075. >You hand the attendant your ticket, purchased well ahead of time, and head inside.
  2076. >The house lights are already off and the first song underway. Your seat is beside the aisle, in the back row of the mezzanine. You wanted to arrive without drawing attention.
  2077. >This performance is alleged to be the show of the of the decade. But you wouldn't know about that, would you?
  2078. >You don't know art.
  2079. >Yet you're well-aware of how tirelessly the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra has been preparing for this night. You've shadowed one of its most talented musicians.
  2080. >Up on the stage, you can scarcely catch a glimpse of the cellist in the fourth chair. The entire time, your eyes are locked upon that one single spot.
  2081. >And though your ear is untrained, you still manage to pick out her part amongst all others.
  2082. >Because it's the same song you fell asleep listening to.
  2083. >The piece she's spent countless weeks practicing, the one she played for you personally, the very same one that made her feel so dreadfully inadequate.
  2084. >The sounds we hear as we drift off into slumber have a profound influence on us. Sleep is us at our most vulnerable, a phantasmic state where imagination and reality blur, often defined by the subliminal sensations we experience leading up to it.
  2085. >It's why people learn languages just by listening to tapes while they sleep. It's so painfully easy to imprint on something just because it's there when the unconscious mind is exposed.
  2086. >Ultimately, these stimuli end up having a hypnotic effect on you, because they're embedded so deeply. So much so, that they have the power to influence conscious decisions in minor ways, so slightly that you may never even realize it.
  2087. >At least not until you put the pieces together, that is.
  2088. >As you listen to the crescendoing music, it becomes a little more clear why you came.
  2089. >Performed on the stage, in this grand auditorium, this song is something else altogether. In spite of the packed audience, you feel like it's for you.
  2090. >You, specifically, because it's attached itself to you. Surely no one else here spent the preceding nights falling asleep to the sound of this music.
  2091. >Even if someone did, they are not connected in the same way you are. They didn't become entangled in this confusing, nebulous emotional attachment to one of the musicians, until they inexplicably showed up to watch the performance of her lifetime for no discernible reas—
  2092. >Oh.
  2093. >Is that what this is?
  2094. >You sit there in your velvet seat, unnaturally fixated on Octavia for the rest of the performance.
  2095. >You're completely enamored by her music.
  2096. >Before all this, it was just the noise coming from your downstairs neighbor.
  2097. >But context changes everything.
  2098. >The allegro finally concludes, and the audience rises up in a standing ovation.
  2099. >As you rise along with them, the house lights come on, and it becomes clear just how many ponies are present. Hundreds of others there with you, stamping their hooves in fierce applause.
  2100. >And then, just like that, it's over. You leave your seat and head home.
  2101. >You were never going to talk to her.
  2102. >Pushing open the door to your apartment, you trudge inside, undo your bow tie, and sling your jacket over your shoulder.
  2103. >It's been such a long day. The flight home from London, bringing your recruit over, meeting with Celestia, the show...
  2104. >You get a glass of water and stare at the counter beside the fridge.
  2105. >Your bouquet has long since wilted, the fallen petals shriveled up, scattered on the counter around the vase.
  2106. >You're still not sure why you went tonight. Maybe something clicked midway through the show, but it still doesn't feel like enough of an explanation for the impulse.
  2107. >Never before have you allowed yourself to get attached to a contract.
  2108. >After that first day with her, though, who could blame you? Her breakdown came out of left field, and she didn't have anyone but you to pick up the pieces.
  2109. >...she does now, though.
  2110. >Vasily is likely done with processing. He'll be meeting her now, and she'll never have to be alone again.
  2111. >Five years on the job and it doesn't get any less lonely. It's a painful cliché of tragic irony when your job is to fix their loneliness.
  2112. >What you do is unlike anything else. You get so deeply intimate with these mares in such a short amount of time, and promptly drop out of their lives when the contract is up.
  2113. >No wonder you have such strict protocols about boundaries.
  2114. >You can police your behavior, certainly, but you can never police your thoughts.
  2115. >Constantly, you wonder. Do any of these mares think about you after it's over?
  2116. >Because the nature of your job has them examining themselves so thoroughly, revealing things they'd never think to say aloud. Sharing that part of yourself takes an enormous amount of trust.
  2117. >But you, you don't share much about yourself during the interview. The emotional intimacy only goes one way.
  2118. >So if you feel this way, it stands to reason that they probably don't.
  2119. >Hell, right after you, they all meet their soul mates. You can't exactly fault them for forgetting you so easily. You provide a service. Your relationship begins and ends at that line.
  2120. >It's on you to let them be and not get attached. You have these rules for a reason.
  2121. >So even if it was harmless, what you did tonight can't happen again.
  2122. >You set the glass down and retire to bed.
  2123. >With your head still throbbing, it takes some time, but slowly, you drift off to sleep.
  2124. >There is no music tonight.
  2125.  
  2126. >A knock at your door awakes you from your slumber.
  2127. >The clock says it's only been an hour.
  2128. >You get up, still wearing your dress shirt and slacks, and open the door.
  2129. "Octavia?"
  2130. >There she stands, out in the flickering light of the hall.
  2131. >She's been crying.
  2132. >The sight takes you by such great surprise that your first thought is how this is most certainly a fever dream.
  2133. >But looking over her, it becomes clear that this is frightfully real.
  2134. >"My mother is dead," she says, her voice choked up.
  2135. >Oh no.
  2136. "I'm so sorry."
  2137. >Condolences can never be enough.
  2138. >She brushes past you, inviting herself inside. You say nothing of it.
  2139. >The grief's put her in a precarious state. It has her acting bold and indifferent, nothing like her normal self.
  2140. >She looks around your home, its layout identical to hers.
  2141. >Your instinct is to read her, to open her mind up and look inside, to take comfort in knowing her. But you can't.
  2142. >When it comes to shock, there is no telling what's running through one's mind. Body language is stiff and jilted, and all behavior loses any semblance of predictability.
  2143. >That's when we're susceptible to our innermost impulses.
  2144. >"It was you, wasn't it?" she asks, turning back to you. "You paid my rent."
  2145. >You sigh and shut the door.
  2146. "Morris told you?"
  2147. >"He didn't have to. A rent reprieve? He's sweet, but he's not a philanthropist. And I'm certainly not a charity case."
  2148. "I didn't mean to imply you were."
  2149. >She climbs up onto your couch. "Just... sit with me, Anon," she says coldly. "My mother is dead, and everything is worse now."
  2150. >You sit down beside her, and she leans her head upon your shoulder. Much like that first night.
  2151. "When did she pass?"
  2152. >"Earlier today," she whispers, staring off into the distance. "I got the message right after I got off stage tonight. They didn't think it was worth stopping the show."
  2153. >She pauses, her face harrowingly blank. "I played for 40 minutes as her body grew cold."
  2154. "I know what loss can do to you. You'll blame yourself for anything you could have done differently. It's going to hurt for a while before it gets better."
  2155. >"I don't want it to hurt."
  2156. "At least now you have someone to help you get through it."
  2157. >"Yes, him," she sighs. "Such shameful circumstances to meet one's mate."
  2158. >She gazes up at you. "Almost as if... it shouldn't have happened at all..."
  2159. >Gently, she raises her head up to yours.
  2160. >You see her coming.
  2161. >You do nothing to stop it.
  2162. >And then...
  2163. >Then, she kisses you.
  2164. >You shut your eyes.
  2165. >Letting it happen.
  2166. >Because why turn down everything you've ever wanted?
  2167. >It feels right. In the back of your mind, you know it shouldn't, but it does. You can't help but want this.
  2168. >Returning her kiss, you slowly bring a hand to her face, and as the back of your hand meets her tear-stained cheek...
  2169. >You realize what you're doing.
  2170. >Suddenly, you pull back, forcing a tiny whimper out of her mouth.
  2171. "I- I can't. Your match is right beneath us. You're meant to be with him."
  2172. >She stares back at you, inconsolable, the want clear in her eyes.
  2173. >"He didn't come to see me play tonight. You did."
  2174. >You pause, stunned by her acknowledgment.
  2175. >It takes you a few seconds to speak. You trip over your words.
  2176. "I— didn't—"
  2177. >"For Celestia's sake, Anon, you're still in your suit! Did you think I wouldn't notice the only human in the audience? You stuck out above the crowd even in the back row. You knew I'd see you, didn't you? That's why you came, and he didn't."
  2178. >You're completely taken aback.
  2179. "He only just arrived, he would've come if he had known. He's going to be at all your performances from now on."
  2180. >"I don't want him there," she protests. "I want you."
  2181. >She takes your hand in her hooves.
  2182. >"Don't tell me you came for no reason. Seats have been sold out for weeks. You bought that ticket right after meeting me. You felt it straight away, just like I did. Your heart went out for me. You didn't want me to struggle the way I was, so you paid my rent in secret. You didn't want me to feel invisible, so you came to see me play."
  2183. >As you look into her violet eyes, the desperation in them pains you.
  2184. >She wants nothing more than to be seen, to be heard, to be loved.
  2185. >And you want to give it to her.
  2186. >"I know you want to be with me, Anon, because you had one ticket tonight... and you didn't give it to him."
  2187. >You stare back at the impassioned mare before you, questioning your every decision.
  2188. >Truth is such a hard thing to accept.
  2189. >We lie to ourselves because it's easier to pretend things aren't the way they are.
  2190. >That way, we never have to take responsibility for our faults.
  2191. >Even for those of us that hate ourselves for them, there will always be one truth that we struggle to accept.
  2192. >For you, that truth is the dark-haired cellist sitting on your sofa.
  2193. >So tonight, you do one of the hardest things you've ever had to do.
  2194. >You get off the couch, open the door, and say one thing.
  2195. "Goodnight, Octavia."
  2196.  
  2197. >Sitting out on the stoop to your building, you take a nip from your flask.
  2198. >You're not supposed to have this shit in Equestria.
  2199. >But if there was ever a night you needed it, it was tonight.
  2200. >All the lights in Canterlot are off. Even the little one up in the royal palace that's always on.
  2201. >The only light glinting off your steel flask is the light of the moon.
  2202. >Shivering from the cold, you take another nip to warm your blood.
  2203. >"Yikes. Remember the last time you had that stuff?"
  2204. >You look over to see a familiar figure standing on the sidewalk a few feet away.
  2205. >It's Rainbow Dash.
  2206. >She trots over to your stoop. "What the heck are you doing outside?"
  2207. "What am I—? What are you doing in Canterlot?"
  2208. >Casually, she hops up the steps and plops down beside you. "I came to see you, duh! I had to take the last train in, it was a whole thing. I was worried you'd be asleep, but hey, here you are."
  2209. >You take a nip.
  2210. "Your timing is pretty awful."
  2211. >"Lay off," she says, punching your arm softly. "I've been up to a lot with my man lately. You're just lucky I found the time to come see your ugly mug."
  2212. >That's not what you meant, but you don't bother correcting her.
  2213. >You offer up the flask, and she looks down at it curiously.
  2214. >"Ah, what the heck," she says, taking it. "We're not on Earth anymore, so what's the harm?"
  2215. >You scoff.
  2216. "You'd be surprised."
  2217. >She throws a sip back and winces immediately. "Agh, this stuff's bitter! Why do you like it?"
  2218. >You take it back from her.
  2219. "It's not for the taste."
  2220. >"What's got you so down in the dumps, anyway?"
  2221. >Honestly, you don't even care anymore. Privacy went out the door when you did.
  2222. "A mare I paired up fell for me."
  2223. >"Whoa-hoa-hoa!" she laughs. "Look at Anon over here, what a stud! You feel the same way for her?"
  2224. "I don't know how I feel."
  2225. >"Well, if you like her, I say go for it."
  2226. >You look at her dubiously.
  2227. "It's not that easy. I already found her soul mate."
  2228. >"Yeah? Who's to say YOU'RE not her soul mate?"
  2229. >After putting yourself through this self-imposed loneliness, her innocuous question feels incredibly grating.
  2230. "Love doesn't work like that. It's not just caring about each other and expecting that to be enough. That's fine for friendship, but a lifelong relationship takes effort, compatibility, the ability to intuit each other's feelings."
  2231. >"And you two don't have that stuff?"
  2232. "She thinks she loves me, but she doesn't. She's going through grief right now. She lost the most familiar thing in her life, so she's grabbing onto the second most familiar thing. It's not real. It's not earned. If I had said yes, I'd be taking advantage of her vulnerability, and sooner or later, she'd come to resent me because I can't understand her as well as he could have. She needs more than what I can offer. She'll see that, and then she'll get over it."
  2233. >"Sounds like you're just making excuses to not be with her."
  2234. >You bury your head in your hands.
  2235. "Even if I was ready for a relationship, it shouldn't be with her. I'm gone for so long, I can't be there reliably. She needs that more than anything. Especially now."
  2236. >Dash sits back against the steps. "Well, if not her, then who?"
  2237. >Picking your head back up, you don't answer.
  2238. >Together, the two of you stare up at the night sky for a few minutes, in silent contemplation.
  2239. "Your first night on Earth, you said it was a good thing that I wasn't married."
  2240. >She groans. "Seriously? I said I was sorry and that I didn't mean it. I was just mad at you for judging me. That's it."
  2241. "Yeah, but you were right, you know? With my job, and the way I am, sooner or later, I'd leave her wanting more. Whoever she might be."
  2242. >"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard."
  2243. >You frown at her.
  2244. >"How do you know if you never even try?"
  2245. "Because I know relationships."
  2246. >"Yeah, you know relationships, not the future. If anything, that stuff's supposed to make you a better husband, but you don't even want to THINK about the mare who's out there waiting for you. You'd rather mope and keep her lonely."
  2247. "It's complicated, okay? It's risk assessment. I'm playing the odds and trying to minimize potential pain."
  2248. >She rolls her eyes. "That's just egghead-talk for 'I'm too scared to make a move.'"
  2249. >How did you last over a month living with her?
  2250. >...but she's right, isn't she? Sure, she's oversimplifying an absurdly convoluted situation, but at its core, she's not wrong.
  2251. >Fuck it. Call a spade a spade. You're afraid.
  2252. >You don't want to find out, because losing her would hurt so much worse than this.
  2253. >You take another nip, and feel your inhibitions loose just a little more.
  2254. >Might as well ask.
  2255. "You know that guy who saw you on Earth? You remember what he looked like?"
  2256. >She hesitates. "Oh, uh, I didn't really get a good look. It was late, and I flew off straight away, because I know that's what you would've wanted me t—"
  2257. "It's alright. Forget it."
  2258. >You return to stargazing, trying to forget the ordeal your life has turned into.
  2259. >"I never told you what I got my husband for our anniversary, did I?" she asks. "You asked me on the drive home, but I didn't want to say."
  2260. >Oh, great. This again.
  2261. >...
  2262. >Why is your first instinct to be an ass?
  2263. >She's really rubbing off on you.
  2264. "Well, what was it?"
  2265. >"Like I said then, it's a gesture. When I was sitting on top of that big old stone tower in San-Whatever, I got to see the whole village from up high. And I thought to myself, holy cow, this place looks just like Ponyville. I didn't think Earth had places like that."
  2266. "There's more in common than you think. It ranges, just like it does here."
  2267. >"Exactly," she says. "Remember that night, I asked to see your notes from when you were recruiting him? You wrote about all the stuff he did living in the city, and how interesting his life was. That's how I realized what he missed about his old life."
  2268. >She goes on, staring up at the stars. "'Cause, he moved to Ponyville, and gave that life up, just for me. He went from a fun, crazy place where stuff was always happening, out to the middle of nowhere. I never really thought about it, but it's a lot more boring when you can't even fly."
  2269. >"So there I was, sitting on that tower in another world, looking at a place just like home, and I realized, he wasn't happy there. He never complained once because even after all that, he'd rather have me. And you know what I thought?"
  2270. "What?"
  2271. >"I said, how lucky am I, that Anon found a man who loves me so much, that he'd move to my dumb little town without a second thought?"
  2272. >That cheers you up a bit.
  2273. >That's why you do it. That's love. The way it should be.
  2274. >Not like whatever mess you're in.
  2275. >"And that's when that weirdo snuck up on me."
  2276. >You snort in amusement.
  2277. "Wait, so what was the gift?"
  2278. >"I told him we're packing our stuff up and moving to Manehattan."
  2279. "Wow."
  2280. >"Yeah. It won't be exactly the same as his old home, but he's already looking forward to it, talking about the cool stuff we can do there. I know the girls will miss us, but we'll still visit."
  2281. "Sounds like you made the right call for your marriage."
  2282. >"It's weird, isn't it? I was so sure it was a dumb idea. You saw how nervous I was. I mean, I begged you not to send me home because I was too afraid to face him."
  2283. "I think we know ourselves more than we realize. When I matched you two up, I never doubted that he was the one for you. He just had this spark in him that screamed 'I'll love her forever,' and I trusted it."
  2284. >She smiles. "I can't thank you enough, Anon. Seriously. For everything."
  2285. >At least there's one ray of sunshine in this screwed-up day.
  2286. >It's not much, but it's closure. She'll be happy.
  2287. >They both will.
  2288. "So you're finding a new home, huh?"
  2289. >"Yep. Gonna stay with friends till we choose a place we like. Never liked that dumb ground house anyway, I miss my old place. I hear they have duplexes there that are part cloud, which sounds perfect for us."
  2290. "You tell your friends yet?"
  2291. >"It wasn't easy, but yeah. They've mostly accepted it. Except Pinkie, she's having a tough time letting go, but you know her."
  2292. "When do you leave?"
  2293. >"Next week. We've been packing this whole time. That's why it took me forever to come visit." She rubs her neck anxiously. "I just figured... after the way we left things..."
  2294. >You lean back against the steps.
  2295. "I'm glad you came, Dash."
  2296. >Above you, the stars twinkle faintly.
  2297. "I'm glad everything worked out."
  2298. >If only the same could be said for you.
  2299.  
  2300. 16
  2301. >You take the following day off.
  2302. >It feels like a year's worth of events was crammed into yesterday.
  2303. >After shooting the breeze with Dash late into the night, you finally crashed around 3:00.
  2304. >You spent a good few hours sitting outside with her. Once you managed to get a good buzz going, it was easier to loosen up.
  2305. >She was stuck in town until she could take the next train back to Ponyville, so you let her crash on your couch for the night.
  2306. >This morning, she got up, hugged you goodbye, and left for the train station.
  2307. >You wanted to offer to walk her there. But upon waking up today, you found your disposition much more glum than when you went to bed.
  2308. >Saying goodbye to Dash, things didn't feel as fun and casual as they did last night.
  2309. >She's starting a new chapter of her life. Moving to a new city, leaving her friends behind. It's all so daunting, but she's doing it for love. She's maturing, in her own way.
  2310. >Hell, for all you know, she might even be thinking about kids pretty soon. Wouldn't that be something?
  2311. >Point is, during that hug goodbye, it hit you that this isn't the same mare you brought to Earth crammed in a backpack. She's moving on.
  2312. >And you don't know if you'll ever see her again.
  2313. >People enter and depart from your life seemingly at random. It's a fact of life. You have no control over it.
  2314. >You've made your peace with that. You're not a young man anymore. That's not what's scary about this.
  2315. >It's that she's moving forward in life, and you're still stuck in place.
  2316. >People think of marriage as the endgame, that once you've settled and put down roots, there's nowhere left to go. But that's not true, is it?
  2317. >Maybe it's a platitude, but marriage really is an adventure. There's so many experiences left to be had.
  2318. >Now that you're getting older, it feels like that clock is ticking. Every second you stagnate is another second of romantic adventure lost to time.
  2319. >But of course, there's a reason for your hesitation. What if you can't provide what your mare needs?
  2320. >How much longer are you willing to go on like this, Anon? Look at the things happening around you. You're unraveling, becoming a focal point of conflict, a storm that kicks up dust in the lives of everyone around you.
  2321. >Someone is going to get hurt. Physically or emotionally. You... or someone you care about.
  2322. >Yet you have come this far because you have a sense of personal responsibility in your job.
  2323. >There are so many mares who need what only you can provide.
  2324. >...ironic, isn't it?
  2325. >And now, Celestia has asked you to provide.
  2326. >If these past five years have been her interview, then it's only fitting that the recruitment takes several more.
  2327. >Because this is not a contract you can hope to knock out in six weeks. She is no ordinary mare.
  2328. >Her match needs to be downright perfect.
  2329. >And though there are billions of men out there...
  2330. >You already know that not a single one of them will ever feel good enough for her.
  2331. >The morning is fraught with anxiety. Over your fears. Over Celestia. Over... Octavia.
  2332. >You don't know what happened after she left your apartment last night. You don't want to go find out.
  2333. >Because you are not what she needs right now. You represent doubt and instability, two things she can't afford to take a chance on.
  2334. >She's better off with her soul mate.
  2335. >Cycling through every problem in your life while lying in bed is a fruitless start to your day. You can slowly feel another stress headache coming on.
  2336. >So you decide to do something different. Today, you do some laundry. Restock on food. Clean up your place.
  2337. >You toss the dead bouquet and sweep its dead petals into the trash. As you're walking away, however, you stop and come back.
  2338. >Looking down in the trash bin, you see the note still nestled in the center of the arrangement. You reach down and pick it up, pulling shriveled leaves out of the card.
  2339. He's perfect.
  2340. Thank you.
  2341. -R
  2342. >Note in hand, you go into the bedroom and pull out an old briefcase from under the bed.
  2343. >You flip the latches, open the case, and lay the note atop all the others.
  2344. >Sitting on your knees, you stare down at the small pile of cards silently.
  2345. >And, when the moment passes, you shut the case and slide it back under the bed.
  2346.  
  2347.         Day 1
  2348. >The morning train to Ponyville. You thumb through the dossier.
  2349. >Last night, after a thorough day of chores, you decided to take on the next contract. Now, more than ever, you need to feel productive. Even if it's imprudent.
  2350. >This train ride is your first opportunity to familiarize yourself with the next mare.
  2351. >There's not much in her file. Not even a picture. Just an address, a signature, and a date. She signed up a year and a half ago, before skyrocketing demand caused the registry to require more detailed applications.
  2352. >She's not one of those mares who got themselves bumped up the waitlist.
  2353. >You check your watch. Still a good half hour before you arrive.
  2354. >So, to kill time, you reach into your bag and pull out a blank dossier.
  2355. >At the top, you write out a name.
  2356. Princess Celestia
  2357. >Again, you dig through your bag and retrieve something you've kept for yourself.
  2358. >Your only picture of her, worn with age.
  2359. >It was something you squirreled away years ago, back before you had this job, when you were living in the palace.
  2360. >Ever since then, it's stayed in your messenger bag.
  2361. >Celestia doesn't know you have it. You're aware of the optics on this particular decision.
  2362. >But it wasn't in your bag so you could pull it out and look at it whenever. Most of the time, you forgot it was even there, buried among your files and folders.
  2363. >It just felt nice to have some small part of her there, at your side, through every recruitment.
  2364. >You smooth out the wrinkles with your thumb and clip it to the corner of the dossier.
  2365.  
  2366. >"Walk-in or appointment?"
  2367. >You look around the empty waiting room until your eyes land on the mare standing in the doorway.
  2368. "Neither."
  2369. >She looks up at you, puzzled, as you pull the dossier out of your bag.
  2370. >You hand it to her.
  2371. "This wouldn't be you, would it?"
  2372. >Her eyes go wide, and you glance down to see the edge of a photograph clipped to the folder.
  2373. >Instantly, you snatch it away and shove it back into your bag before fumbling for the correct one.
  2374. >Fantastic. Already off to a great start.
  2375. >She leans in to read the new file.
  2376. >"That's me. But it's my legal name, I don't really use it outside forms and stuff."
  2377. >She flashes a killer smile up at you.
  2378. >"Just call me Colgate."
  2379.  
  2380.         Day 2
  2381. >You tap your pen against the folder absentmindedly.
  2382. >The new dossier is still blank, save for her name and photograph.
  2383. >You gaze out the window at the landscape speeding past. You'd much rather zone out and watch the changing scenery.
  2384. >This is something that needs doing. Starting is just the hardest part.
  2385. >You lament the decision to not keep notes on everything you've learned. It would help immensely right now.
  2386. >But people don't take notes on their friends, do they? That's just operating procedure for contracts.
  2387. >So what the hell do you do for a friend-turned-contract?
  2388. >Forcing yourself to begin, you press the tip of the pen against the page.
  2389. Celestia has one of the most complicated pasts in all of Equestria. It reaches far back into antiquity, and it would take a team of historical scholars to piece together a reliable account of her life.
  2390. I have no such luxury.
  2391. In the years that I've known her, I have found only minuscule fragments of the tapestry that comprises her life.
  2392. Battles with ancient evils. A tumultuous ascension to the throne. An estranged sister only recently reunited.
  2393. Of these events, I know only bits and pieces, and the larger story that links them eludes me.
  2394. >You set the pen down. Your recollection isn't exactly inspiring confidence to continue.
  2395.  
  2396. >"Sorry I don't have, like, an office where we can talk."
  2397. >You look up from your book.
  2398. >Sitting in her rolling stool, Colgate nods at the dental chair you're seated in. "I hope it's okay. I know it wasn't made for humans."
  2399. >You adjust your sitting position to get more comfortable.
  2400. "Why not do this in the waiting room?"
  2401. >"Well, uh," she begins nervously, "you said yesterday you're gonna ask personal questions, right?"
  2402. >You cut her off, sparing her from an explanation.
  2403. "I get it."
  2404. >You return to your notes.
  2405. "Do you get many clients?"
  2406. >"Not really. Small town, you know? Pinkie Pie stops by for frequent cleanings, but everypony else only comes in once or twice a year."
  2407. >Suddenly, a grin appears on her face, and an idea takes hold. "Hey, want me to take a look at those pearly whites? On the house!"
  2408. >Let her stick her hooves in your mouth?
  2409. >That's got to violate like six or seven different boundaries.
  2410. "No thanks."
  2411. >"You sure?" she asks. "I know what I'm doing, I promise. I've worked on humans before."
  2412. "Maybe another time."
  2413.  
  2414.         Day 3
  2415. >You reread the notes you wrote into the dossier yesterday. It's a pitiful start.
  2416. >How soon does she expect you to do this?
  2417. >Surely, she understands the magnitude of what she's asking. She is not so naive to think of her request as any ordinary contract.
  2418. >Picking up where you left off, you continue writing.
  2419. The last such fragment I have uncovered was one deeply buried. It was the revelation of her romantic desires, poured unto me with such fervor that I could scarcely believe my ears.
  2420. >You pause to remember her exact phrasing.
  2421. 'I have loved, and I have lost. For the longest time, I didn't believe I could ever love again.'
  2422. Who was this love? How did they come to pass? Was it a death forever mourned, or an embittered split left unresolved?
  2423. 'For the longest time.'
  2424. This was in the distant past. Given her comparatively long history, for her to imply so is no understatement. And for her heartache to persist so lastingly, it was no small anguish.
  2425. What hellish torture, that she might doom herself to love a mortal, whose flame of life extinguishes ages before her passion.
  2426. >Okay, Thoreau, dial it back. This is a reference tool, not a manuscript.
  2427. >Yet beneath the flowery prose lies a greater truth.
  2428. >She's setting herself up for another heartbreak.
  2429.  
  2430. "That's insane. Not even once?"
  2431. >She beams proudly. "Nope. Never been late to anything."
  2432. "I don't believe you."
  2433. >With a lively spin, she flaunts her cutie mark. "Anywhere I have to be, I can time it so I show up right on the dot."
  2434. >You lean your head against your fist as you watch her.
  2435. "Still, things come up. Traffic— or whatever its equivalent is here— maybe someone stops you on the way and asks for help. How do you account for that?"
  2436. >She climbs back up into her chair. "I usually get a sense before something comes up. Then I just plan for it and give myself a little extra time."
  2437. "No way. You can't predict the future."
  2438. >"Can too!" she boasts. "Besides, it's not like I have a spooky vision or anything, I just get the feeling something's coming. I don't know what it is, but I know how long it'll take."
  2439. >Amused by her pageantry, you chuckle and shake your head.
  2440. "Every time I think I have you ponies figured out, you throw some new little trivia my way."
  2441. >She shrugs. "Us unicorns just have magic that relates to our special talents. Little stuff that makes it easier, that's all it is. If I climb into bed and my horn sparks, I know to set my alarm early."
  2442. >You glance down at your watch.
  2443. "Speaking of, I should be going."
  2444. >"So early? It's not even dinnertime yet, I was gonna make you something."
  2445. >You collect your things and sling your bag over your shoulder.
  2446. "The last train back to Canterlot leaves early on Sundays."
  2447. >She accompanies you as you walk to the door. "You mean you haven't been staying in town?"
  2448. "First train in every morning, last train out at night."
  2449. >You exit her home, into the streets.
  2450. "See you tomorrow, Colgate."
  2451. >"See you," she replies softly.
  2452.  
  2453.         Day 4
  2454. >The folder in your lap vibrates with every bump of the rolling train. As you write, it hampers your penmanship.
  2455. Why now?
  2456. If she has spent centuries convinced of the fact that she will never love again, what changed her mind?
  2457. From her reasoning, it would seem that I ignited a spark of belief within her. What I've done here in Equestria is fulfill the fantasies of every hopelessly romantic mare I came across, and by extension, her as well.
  2458. In doing so, I may have built up an unreasonable expectation in her head. Because though she claims to be no different from the mares I match up, the fact remains that she is utterly exceptional.
  2459. It is so harrowing to know for a certainty that she will have to watch this man die.
  2460. He needs to be ever-present, unconditionally supportive, and most importantly, he will have to guard her heart until he draws his very last breath.
  2461. I think that is why I am afraid to admit this truth.
  2462.  
  2463. >As the train grinds to a halt, you glance out the window to see Colgate walking up to the station.
  2464. >You meet her out on the platform.
  2465. "What are you doing here?"
  2466. >"I thought I'd meet you here today. Is that not okay?"
  2467. "No, no, it is."
  2468. >"Good," she replies, "because last night, I thought of a bunch of stuff I haven't told you about yet. You ready?"
  2469. "Sure am. Sorry I'm late, though. The train got delayed twenty minutes."
  2470. >"Oh, I know," she smirks. With a flick of her tail, she turns and leads the way back to her office.
  2471. >You make a quick note in your black book before following after her.
  2472.  
  2473.         Day 5
  2474. >Your pen rests below the last line on the dossier.
  2475. >For the past several minutes, you've grappled with what should follow.
  2476. >Coming up short, you suddenly realize that, if nothing else, the struggle itself may be worthy of discussion.
  2477. It is difficult to establish a profile for her. A traditional interview may help some, but I suspect methodology is not the root of this issue.
  2478. Celestia is a selective sharer. There is a great deal of her life that she does not care to elucidate on. Whether it is born out of humility or sheer inadequacy, one cannot say.
  2479. She is different, in that understanding her must largely come from observing not the content of her words, but her delivery of them.
  2480. >Growing frustrated with yourself, you clench your fist, turning your knuckles white.
  2481. >This detached, formulaic analysis isn't going to help. You're wasting your time on this. She doesn't need to be broken down into discrete pieces like the strangers in your book.
  2482. >You already know her.
  2483. >So write about that.
  2484. She awakes before dawn every day, to raise the sun.
  2485. I recently found out that she doesn't have to. She just likes feeling connected to it. It's a source of strength for her.
  2486. She craves purpose in life. She works herself to the bone every day just to feel useful.
  2487. Day in, day out, attending to the needs of every pony in her kingdom, no matter how mundane or trivial. She'll entertain any request, because in her eyes, no problem is too small.
  2488. One night, while we were having dinner, she got the message that a pony was standing outside her palace, seeking her help.
  2489. It was after hours. Those dinners with me were the only time she had to unwind. She could've easily turned them away.
  2490. For a moment, I saw in her eyes that she wanted to. And though she agreed, I think that brief hesitation meant more than the acceptance itself.
  2491. Because it proved that she was fallible.
  2492. She is no god, but a living, breathing mare. Giving up that respite she so desperately needed was a difficult decision. Compassion isn't automatic. It's a conscious choice. A sacrifice.
  2493. She excused herself from the table, and assured me that she'd rejoin me just as soon as she finished assisting her subject.
  2494. She didn't come back that night.
  2495.  
  2496. >"Hey, Anonymous? Can I ask you something?"
  2497. "Go ahead."
  2498. >"Do you, like, work with different mares at once?"
  2499. >You set your black book down on the tray beside your chair.
  2500. "I tried that once. Didn't much care for it."
  2501. >"So, uh," she responds uncertainly, "you're not matching up any other mares right now?"
  2502. >You squint at her.
  2503. "What are you getting at?"
  2504. >"When we met, you showed me a file, and it had a pict—"
  2505. "No. We're not going into that."
  2506. >"Aw, come on," she prods. "It's been a long day, and I've already told you literally everything about myself. Entertain me a little."
  2507. >You remain completely deadpan.
  2508. "I can't discuss other contracts."
  2509. >"So it's true!" she yells excitedly.
  2510. "No— I didn't s—"
  2511. >She unloads a barrage of questions. "Is the Princess really looking for a man? Are there human princes? Is Princess Luna looking, too?"
  2512. >Clenching your temples, you can feel the pounding in your head intensify with every query.
  2513. "Enough!"
  2514. >You bark at her through gritted teeth, and she cowers at the sound of your outburst.
  2515. >"I'm sorry," she whispers frightfully.
  2516. >You slowly process the glaring fear on her face. Realizing what you just did, your expression goes blank and you slump back into the dental chair.
  2517. "I'm sorry."
  2518. >Thinking aloud, you stare at the ceiling and whisper to yourself.
  2519. "I'm losing it. Christ, I'm really losing it. I can't do this."
  2520. >You hear a soft response. "Hey..."
  2521. >Looking over the arm of the chair, you find Colgate standing sympathetically at your side.
  2522. >"You want to talk?"
  2523.  
  2524.         Day 6
  2525. She doesn't feel understood.
  2526. I say that in the most compassionate way possible. Even around me, she masquerades as someone else. This I know.
  2527. She tells me that I am the only one who truly knows her. But I don't think she knows herself.
  2528. We're alike in that way. At some point, we conflated our positions with our identities, and now that we have these pangs of our true selves pleading to come out, we're unequipped to handle them.
  2529. Me much more so than her. At least she's coping. I don't know if I can keep this up. I do it because it's the only life I've ever known. This is the only outlet for my skills that won't come back to haunt me.
  2530. What about her, though?
  2531. Beneath the crown jewels of it all, there is a mare that yearns and aches no less than I. But take away the tiara, and who are you left with?
  2532. I have spent these years getting to know the Princess. Yet this isn't a profile on the Princess. I'm not looking for the man who best befits the throne. I'm looking for Celestia's soul mate.
  2533. One is a match for the country, and the other is a match for the mare that inhabits it. There's an important distinction between the two.
  2534. She taught me that.
  2535. If she wants to be understood, he has to know her more than she knows herself. He has to see not just the surface traits, but the intimate truths hidden behind them.
  2536. Like how she loves cake, but agonizes internally over every little change in her figure.
  2537. Or that she relishes in every opportunity to be maternal toward her students and subjects, but is terrified by the prospect of actual motherhood.
  2538. He has to hear her words, but also the message that she leaves unsaid. The one she prays he'll implicitly understand.
  2539. He has to know everything I know. He has to put in the time I've put in. He has to make her feel the way I make her feel.
  2540. But as I write this, I know in my heart.
  2541. He can't be me.
  2542.  
  2543. "Ugh, it's such an overplayed tragic irony. 'The only lonely heart I can't fix is my own.' This is the stupidest hole anyone's ever dug themselves into. I shouldn't want it so damn much, but I do, and I hate it."
  2544. >"Easy there, fella." Colgate tugs off her scrubs from the last appointment while you slump back into the chair. "Pick up where you left off yesterday."
  2545. "Over five years. That's how long I've been at this game. And I was perfectly fine being single until recently."
  2546. >"Were you, though?" she asks, taking her place on the stool. "From what you told me, it seems like you always had a thing for mares."
  2547. "Of course I do. Look at all the matches I made. Who could look at them and not want that for themselves?"
  2548. >"No, man, I mean even before that. This whole matchmaking thing was your idea, right? Well, where'd it come from?"
  2549. >You gaze back at her uneasily.
  2550. >"Really, you did it for yourself. 'Cause you had a feeling from the start that you should be with a mare."
  2551. "Oh, God."
  2552. >You rub your forehead. Just another way your supposed acts of kindess have really been self-serving schemes.
  2553. >She smiles earnestly. "It's okay. I mean, you were right. It's done a lot a of good in the world. Don't you think it's time you got yours?"
  2554. "It's not that easy."
  2555. >"Don't give me that! We all start somewhere. Come on, the first part's the easiest. You just ask yourself one thing."
  2556. >You look up at her.
  2557. "What is it?"
  2558. >"When you picture her, what comes to mind?"
  2559.  
  2560.         Day 7
  2561. Is this how it ends, Cel?
  2562. All for naught?
  2563. >You return the dossier to your bag.
  2564. >It isn't helping anymore.
  2565.  
  2566. >"You still got time before your train?"
  2567. >You check your watch.
  2568. "An hour or so."
  2569. >"C'mon," she says, opening the door. "Let's go for a walk."
  2570. >You follow her outside and wait while she locks up her office for the day.
  2571. >The evening breeze is cool, and off on the horizon, you can see the enormous sun beginning to set.
  2572. >During your week in Ponyville, you decided not to visit Rainbow Dash before she left.
  2573. >Seeing her didn't feel appropriate anymore. You were only brought together by circumstance in the first place. She's moving on now, and you don't really fit into her new life.
  2574. >For all you know, she's already gone.
  2575. >Colgate takes you down the street. "I told you before, after the rare busy day, I like to talk a walk to cool off. I think it might help you, too."
  2576. >You follow her silently, treading the streets of Ponyville, contemplating the future.
  2577. >It's your last day here. Truthfully, you could've stopped coming a few days ago. Colgate was surprisingly forthcoming about her life.
  2578. >Something just drove you to see this week through.
  2579. >You have all the information you need now, and tomorrow you'll return to Earth to find her match.
  2580. >Tonight, though, you'll walk with her.
  2581. >Eventually, you come upon a park. Lots of ponies are out enjoying the evening. There are a few fillies running around, getting into trouble.
  2582. >Colgate turns back to face you. "I like it here. Sometimes the fireflies come out and light the whole place up."
  2583. >You instinctively reach for your black book, but stop yourself.
  2584. >Not tonight.
  2585. >"Signor Anonimo!"
  2586. >You spin around, startled by that familiar voice. Walking up to you is another man-mare pair.
  2587. >Lorenzo and Roseluck.
  2588. >He comes up to you with a gigantic grin and immediately pulls you in for a hug, rubbing and patting your back. "So good to see you again, amico!"
  2589. >Roseluck tugs at his pant leg. "Easy, dear. Look at the poor thing, you're freaking him out."
  2590. >"Ah, he knows me," he replies earnestly, releasing you. He turns to Colgate. "Allora, chi è questa giumenta bellissima? Your wife?"
  2591. "What? No— no, this is Colgate, I'm here interviewing her."
  2592. >"Ma certo, the dentist, no?" he asks. "So nice to meet you. I should make an appointment sometime!"
  2593. >"Please do," she says. "Human teeth are always a fascinating change of pace. The canines are so sharp."
  2594. >"Did you get the bouquet I sent you?" Roseluck asks you.
  2595. "I did. It was absolutely beautiful, thanks so much."
  2596. >"Of course. It was the least I could do," she leans her head against Lorenzo, "after what you did for me."
  2597. >"Go on without me, mia rosa?" Lorenzo asks. "I will chat a bit with Anonimo. I have been dying for a chance to use my italiano with someone."
  2598. >"What do you say, Colgate? Ladies' trip around the park?"
  2599. >"Of course!" she beams. As they head off down the path, Colgate waves at you. "I'll be back in a few!"
  2600. >Lorenzo takes you by the shoulder and leads you to a park bench. "Come, come, siediti."
  2601. >You sit together and watch the girls walk off, chatting away happily.
  2602. >"It is wonderful to see you again. I did not think I would. My Rose tells me you live up there." He points up at Canterlot, the gleaming city in the distance.
  2603. "I've been recruiting nonstop. Haven't been to Ponyville since I interviewed her."
  2604. >You stare at the red-haired mare trotting off into the distance.
  2605. "How are you two? Getting along well?"
  2606. >"It is absolutely perfect. We are engaged to be wed. You performed a miracle, bringing us together."
  2607. "That's a relief."
  2608. >"Why? Did you not have faith in us?"
  2609. >You sit back and cross your arms.
  2610. "I knew you'd be good for her. I've just been doubting myself lately."
  2611. >"You do good work. I have seen the couples you made. Like your friend, Rainbow Dash."
  2612. "You met her husband?"
  2613. >"Of course! He is the one who helped me get used to this new land. Did you know they are moving?"
  2614. "Yeah. Yeah, I heard something about that."
  2615. >"I am happy here, amico. The beautiful countryside, the wonderful people, it is just like home. You were right."
  2616. "I hope you have a long, happy marriage, Lorenzo. Truly."
  2617. >"And what of you? Do you have someone waiting for you at home?"
  2618. >You look back up at Canterlot.
  2619. "No. I don't."
  2620. >You're getting tired of explaining this to people.
  2621. >"I know this pain of yours well."
  2622. >You look over at him. That wasn't the patronizing response you expected.
  2623. >"When we first met, you told me, very plainly, that I was alone because I was afraid. Afraid to give up the life I had in search of love. Looking back, you figured that out rather quickly. You knew the answer straight away, because it is the same for you, no?"
  2624. >You forgot what a natural he is at reading people. He might not know the techniques and terminology the way you do, but during his recruitment, he was unnaturally confident under the circumstances.
  2625. >"We are only human," he continues. "Love is such a scary thing. Even when it is in your hand, you are worried it will be snatched away from you. It is not easy to trust in love. But if you are still afraid, then look at me, amico. Because of you, I have everything I could have ever dreamed of. I still run a flower shop, but now I do it with the one I love. You gave me this life, and for that, I am forever grateful. You have this power of love within you. Trust in it."
  2626. >You bite your lip, struggling to contain your heartache.
  2627. "I just want to be good enough for her."
  2628. >"I know," he says reassuringly, putting an arm around you. "You are a good man, Anonimo. You find love in the world, and so your love shall find you. This I swear."
  2629. >You wipe your eyes.
  2630. >He smiles gently. "Do you remember the saying I taught you?"
  2631. "Se son rose, fioriranno."
  2632. >"Good memory. Your love, like mine, is a rose. And as you know, all roses must bloom."
  2633.  
  2634. >The trip back to the train station is a sober one.
  2635. >Colgate walks at your side, squeezing out these last moments of companionship before you're forced to part indefinitely.
  2636. >After a few minutes, she breaks the silence.
  2637. >"This might be a stupid question, but do you believe in soul mates?"
  2638. "I don't know what to believe."
  2639. >"Huh. I thought you'd say yes. Y'know, since that's kinda what you do and all."
  2640. "Honestly, you'd be more of an expert on it than me. When you say 'soul mates,' it conjures up images of magical destiny. That's your world, sure, but it's not mine."
  2641. >"So then how does it work? How do you find all these perfect matches, if they're not soul mates?"
  2642. "Maybe they are soul mates, Colgate, I don't know. I just look for someone with the most compatible traits, and I trust my judgment. Like you with your timing, that's all that I have."
  2643. >She ponders on it a moment. "What traits are you gonna look for in my match?"
  2644. >You hesitate.
  2645. "I don't usually share that information."
  2646. >"Why not?" she asks.
  2647. "Because a lot of the time, people don't like to hear their most intimate needs laid out so bluntly."
  2648. >"Well, I'm asking. I think it'd be interesting."
  2649. "It won't be very reassuring."
  2650. >"Go on," she prods. "I can take it."
  2651. >Put off by her goading, you take a deep breath, and capitulate.
  2652. "You want someone fun-loving, who fits your casual, laid-back personality. He's got to be pleasant company, to fill your long periods of downtime. It's important that he's a good listener, because you absolutely loved having my complete attention this week."
  2653. >"So far, so good."
  2654. "He has to be patient, since you're definitely going to use him as a guinea pig to study human oral anatomy. He'll need impeccable time management. You can't stand to be slowed down, and you'll get frustrated with him easily if he makes you late for something."
  2655. >You can see the enthusiasm in her eyes falter slightly.
  2656. "You're going to push him to talk, even when he doesn't want to. You're going to say things that you think are harmless, and you won't understand why they aren't. You'll find yourself getting into fights about things that don't really make sense."
  2657. >With every addition to the list, the hope in her expression dwindles a little more.
  2658. "Some nights are going to be hard. You'll say things you don't mean. You'll wonder why you even said them. You'll feel bad about them. And then you'll go to bed with him. And he'll still hold you like nothing's wrong. And you'll remember why you do this."
  2659. >Your tone shifts. She watches you keenly as you go on.
  2660. "You won't be in tune with him right away. You can be reckless sometimes. That's okay. It's going to be bumpy and awkward while you find your footing together. There's going to be friction, but then he'll do something tiny and insignificant that captures your heart."
  2661. >Steadily, she grows more and more enchanted, losing herself in the vivid world you're building in her head.
  2662. "You're going to love him through and through, even when you're impulsive. You'll make less mistakes as you start to sync up with each other. You'll learn all his little tells and mannerisms and you'll anticipate his needs. He will be your life, and you will be happy.
  2663. >You reach the train station and she almost doesn't notice, lost in her little fantasy.
  2664. "I know you're here with me because it's hard for you to let go, Colgate. You had fun this week and you don't want to say goodbye. But if you can hang on just a little longer, I promise you I'll find him, and you'll never have to be alone again."
  2665. >Suddenly, she stands upright and throws her hooves around you, clinging to you in deep gratitude.
  2666. >"Thank you," she whispers, her words choked by overwhelming emotion.
  2667. >You rest your hand against her soft mane and wait patiently until she releases you. Then, you say your final farewells, and you board the train.
  2668. >Tomorrow you'll journey to Earth and begin the search for this man.
  2669. >But tonight...
  2670. >Tonight's not over yet.
  2671.  
  2672. 17
  2673. >You slump down into your seat and drop your bag beside you.
  2674. >The train lurches forward and begins the journey back to Canterlot.
  2675. >As the week draws to a close, you can't help but notice a pattern forming. With each successive mare, you unravel just a little more.
  2676. >You used to be good at your job. You were objective. You held yourself to your boundaries. You didn't dump your personal life onto anyone.
  2677. >It's not Rainbow Dash's stupid mistakes. It's not the pressure Celestia put on you.
  2678. >It's you, Anon.
  2679. >You're not a victim of circumstance. Every shitty thing that's happened to you has been set into motion by your hand.
  2680. >You set yourself down this path, and there's no way to turn back anymore. You're headed for something big.
  2681. >And even though you know it's your fault, it doesn't help your situation one bit.
  2682. >Because it's so fucking hard to face the truth.
  2683. >As the train steadily winds up the mountain, you lean your head against the window and stare up at the night sky.
  2684. >It's going to be a long time before you find happiness.
  2685. >After an hour, you reach the end of the line at Canterlot. You pick up your bag and head home.
  2686. >You have one last night off before you return to Earth.
  2687. >You considered seeing Celestia before leaving, but decided against it.
  2688. >Everything you wrote in her file points to the fact that you're not ready to face her.
  2689. >You'll look for her match, and you'll debrief her after every contract, but being vulnerable with her is off the table. At least for now.
  2690. >Because you can't control yourself. You spiral out and end up hurting the people you care about.
  2691. >You saw the disdain she had when you told her about seeing things that aren't there. She's sick of you doing this to yourself, attributing every unanswered question to your sins.
  2692. >And the worst part is, she's completely right.
  2693. >But that doesn't make the pain go away. The guilt hangs over you every waking moment. You fix these lonely hearts as penance.
  2694. >It won't last. The path you're headed down is clear. Sooner rather than later, there's going to come a day when you can't do this anymore.
  2695. >A day where you'll have to answer for your transgressions. If there can be talking pastel ponies, there can be karma in the universe.
  2696. >The signs are all there. Your day of judgment is approaching.
  2697. >The moment you stop being able to do good in this world, your actions will be weighed against you, and you already know which direction the scales will tip.
  2698. >You've clung to your job thus far in a desperate bid to stave it off. You used to see Celestia as a chance at salvation. But looking back, you know that was just a pipe dream.
  2699. >There is no redemption. Not after what you've done.
  2700. >You will get what's coming to you.
  2701. >And there's no way in hell you're dragging your loved ones down with you.
  2702. >Relieved to be nearly home, you round the corner to your building.
  2703. >And you stop dead in your tracks.
  2704. >Beneath the dim lamplight, you can see three figures standing on your stoop. Morris in his rocking chair, talking to Octavia and Vasily.
  2705. >You stay there at the end of the block, too apprehensive to approach them. You'd rather just wait for them to go inside.
  2706. >But you're ever the unlucky one. Instead, they wave goodbye to Morris and head down the steps onto the sidewalk. Towards you.
  2707. >As they get closer, they notice your figure, standing in the dark.
  2708. >You've been spotted. What are you to do? Turn and run?
  2709. >Of course not.
  2710. >There is no fight or flight. In your panic, you lock up completely.
  2711. >The moment they draw near enough to recognize you, you catch a glimpse of that same panic on Octavia's face.
  2712. >Yet it disappears quick enough, and as she walks up to you, she's nothing short of perfectly cordial, if a little distant.
  2713. >"Hello, Anon."
  2714. >You mask the discomfort in your voice.
  2715. "Octavia. Vasily. Nice to see you again."
  2716. >Vasily extends a hand. "Tavi told me you're our neighbor, entirely by coincidence. That's incredible. We'd love to have you for dinner sometime."
  2717. >You oblige his handshake.
  2718. >Looking into his eyes, all you can think about is that kiss you shared with her.
  2719. "Yes, well..."
  2720. >Octavia interjects as you trail off. "I'll meet you at the restaurant, dear. I'm worried they won't hold our reservation if we're late."
  2721. >"Certainly, my love." He kneels down to give her a quick kiss. "I'll see you around, Anonymous. And, once again, I thank you for introducing us."
  2722. >You give him a curt nod as he walks past, leaving you and Octavia alone on the street corner.
  2723. >It takes several seconds for either of you to speak up.
  2724. >"I really do like him, you know," she says abruptly. "I thought I wouldn't."
  2725. "Oh."
  2726. >You shift your weight tensely.
  2727. "That's good."
  2728. >She's avoiding your eyes, failing to feign nonchalance, looking around obliviously at nothing in particular.
  2729. >It's obvious how much you're both dreading this. You don't even know why she's standing here.
  2730. "Octavia..."
  2731. >She doesn't let you finish. "I gave myself to you, Anon. Every part of me."
  2732. >Your heart sinks.
  2733. "I— I couldn't."
  2734. >"I know."
  2735. >The silence lingers again. The only sound between you is her scarf billowing in the gentle wind.
  2736. >"I was so sure you were sent to save me. I thought only you could do it, because nopony ever looked at me quite like you did. When you denied me, I was utterly devastated."
  2737. >You look over her wistfully.
  2738. "But not anymore."
  2739. >"No," she answers. "Not anymore. You see, I knew two things about you. The first was that you knew me. The second was that you were willing to make sacrifices for my happiness. But I spent days thinking it over, and if both those things were true, then there had to be a reason why you would push me into the arms of another."
  2740. "Yeah."
  2741. >And you hate yourself for it.
  2742. >"He's such an incredible man. I refused to see it at first, but when he listened to me play, I swear he heard every little detail."
  2743. >The way you never could.
  2744. >"It was premature of me to choose you. I understand that now."
  2745. >Finally, she gazes up at you, and speaks aloud the sentence that kills you.
  2746. >"I thought you were my soul mate, Anon."
  2747. >You don't say anything in response.
  2748. >There's nothing you could say that would make this better.
  2749. >The two of you stand out on the street corner in the chilly night. Two lives collided together by happenstance in a blaze of emotional intensity and momentum, now steadily drifting apart from the impact, bits and pieces of each other still mangled together like shards from a car crash.
  2750. >The same mare that once broke down in your arms, the one you shared with a kiss that held nothing but the utmost want and passion, now feels like a total stranger.
  2751. >She is everything that could have been, but never was.
  2752. >"Do you think..." she begins timidly, "that perhaps in another life, we might have...?"
  2753. "No."
  2754. >She stares up at you. "Why not?"
  2755. "Because if I let myself go down that road, I'll never come back."
  2756. >She pauses, her expression strained, pale cheeks reddened by the bitter wind nipping against them.
  2757. >"I look at you, and I know instinctively that you feel just as deeply as I do."
  2758. >You sigh.
  2759. "When I love, I love truly and wholly, with all the want in my heart. I betray myself and my health for love. I lose myself in it so willingly that I go blind to everything else. All my life, I've been fighting to not let that happen. If I let myself wonder what could have been, then days, months, or years from now, I just know I'll knock on your door and beg you to run away with me."
  2760. >"Would that be so bad?" she whispers, some small part of her enamored by the possibility.
  2761. "I'm not your soul mate, Octavia. I'm just a hopeless romantic."
  2762. >Your eyes locked with hers, you see the yearning within her. A week ago, that desperation was in every fiber of her being. Tonight, all that remains is that last dwindling ember of hope.
  2763. >And as much as it kills you, you have to extinguish it.
  2764. >She was never yours.
  2765. >"You may not wonder what could have been, Anon," she says quietly, "but I always will."
  2766. >She brushes past you somberly, leaving you there standing alone.
  2767. >Hopelessly, irretrievably alone.
  2768. >Those were the words she used to describe herself the day you met.
  2769. >Memories are all you have left of her.
  2770. >Heart aching, you trudge to the building's entrance. Morris is still there, sitting beside the door, bundled up from the cold. Nothing ever stops him from sitting out here.
  2771. >He looks up at you, and straight away, he sees what's going on.
  2772. >You don't bother hiding it anymore.
  2773. "She's with someone else."
  2774. >He nods sympathetically. "Yeah, I figured you had a thing for her, ever since you went and dropped that gold on me."
  2775. "This is what I wanted. I should be happy, but I'm not."
  2776. >"You like her."
  2777. "No. I like what she represents. The kind of love that comes with needing someone. She needed me, and I liked being needed. That part of me fell in love with that part of her. She's the truth I didn't want to lose."
  2778. >You sit down on the top step.
  2779. "Why do we get attached to things that shouldn't mean anything to us?"
  2780. >"Dunno a thing about that, boy," he replies. "But you're a good fella, so I'll give you the same advice I always give: if things are hard, it's only 'cause there's a lesson to be learned in all of it."
  2781. "I don't know. It's been getting harder for a while, and I don't think I'm any better for it. I'm having problems with work, all my relationships are strained, and I can't stop doubting myself. If anything, I'm doing so much worse."
  2782. >"You sure about that?"
  2783. >You look over your shoulder up at him, rocking steadily in his chair.
  2784. >"Six months ago, you wouldn't've said a word o' what you just told me."
  2785. >You realize what you're doing. Confiding in Morris, of all people.
  2786. >But it hasn't been just him, has it? These past few weeks, you bared your soul to Celestia, and Rainbow Dash, too.
  2787. >When you first brought Dash to Earth, you wouldn't say a word of your insecurities to her. Her off-the-cuff remark gnawed at you for days on end, and you refused to tell her why it cut so deep.
  2788. >Until a week ago. Right where you're sitting now, you confessed that you didn't feel like you could be enough for your love.
  2789. >The old Anon would never have done that.
  2790. >"Progress is progress, even if you don't notice it. Way I see it, you're being tested. World's got to beat you down 'fore you can be a better person. You're gettin' there, boy. Just got to trust in the light at the end of the tunnel."
  2791. "Yeah, well, sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of a train."
  2792. >"Even so, we all got to go sometime. Me, I'd rather go out in a wild way like that than the way I am now. Maybe it'll work out for you, maybe it'll all blow up. That don't make my words any less true."
  2793. >You rise to your feet.
  2794. "Does wisdom come with the age, or is it a "sprinting at the finish" scenario? Because I've seen you get lost in the hallway before."
  2795. >"All the dang doors look the same!" he yells grumpily. "Oh, you'll be old, too, one day."
  2796. >Chuckling, you pat him on the back.
  2797. "Just hope I'm half as spry as you, old man."
  2798. >"Hey! Hey, monkey!" a squeaky voice calls out.
  2799. >You look across the street to see a teenage colt standing on the sidewalk.
  2800. >"Steal any mares lately?" he jeers.
  2801. >You shake your head and turn away from him as he starts to walk off.
  2802. >Morris, however, gets out of his chair. "Hey, kid! Get over here."
  2803. >You lay a hand in front of him.
  2804. "Morry, don't."
  2805. >The colt freezes and looks around anxiously, quickly debating whether to run.
  2806. >Morris holds firm, eyes burning with fury. "You heard me. Don't think I won't chase you home. Get over here now."
  2807. >Now painfully regretting his decision, the colt crosses the street, half his embarrassment from getting called out by an old stallion, the other half at himself for actually listening to him.
  2808. >He comes up to the stoop, head hung in shame.
  2809. >"Look at this man," Morris says, using his cane to tilt the colt's chin up.
  2810. >He obeys and meets your gaze.
  2811. >"This fella's done more for Equestria in the last year alone than the deadbeat who raised a sorry sack like you's accomplished in his entire life."
  2812. >This is awkward.
  2813. >"If you're so scared o' him taking all the mares," he continues, "maybe you ought to concern yourself with being the kinda boy a lady can actually stand. 'Cause from looking at you, I can't think of a single one that wouldn't pick him over you any day."
  2814. >"Sorry, sir," the colt mumbles.
  2815. "Uh... it's cool."
  2816. >Morris frowns at him and wags his cane. "Now go on home before I beat you over the head. Don't let me catch you coming 'round here again."
  2817. >The colt scampers off and disappears around the corner.
  2818. "That really wasn't necessary. He was just being dumb."
  2819. >"Agh, your generation don't know the right way to raise kids," he groans. "You don't knock some sense into 'em when they're young, they grow up thinking that's the right way to act. Does no good for anypony."
  2820. "Look at you, spouting wisdom like crazy tonight. You eat a bunch of fortune cookies or something?"
  2821. >"'Course not!" he yells. "Now get upstairs. You best not dally any longer."
  2822. "What?"
  2823. >"Oh, uh, you— you just had a long day, be good to get some rest."
  2824. >You push open the door and walk inside.
  2825. "You're a terrible liar, Morry."
  2826. >"Aw, heck." As the door slowly shuts, he leans over his chair and calls out after you. "Forget I said anything!"
  2827. "Already did!"
  2828. >Hurriedly, you ascend the stairs two at a time, praying your gut instinct is right.
  2829. >Up each floor, your palm tracing the bannister. Past the landing. Down the hall.
  2830. >You throw your door open, and your heart nearly stops.
  2831. >Celestia awaits you inside your apartment, surrounded by dozens of candles.
  2832. >As you stand before the threshold to your home, your eyes meet hers, completely taken by the warm smile on her face.
  2833. >In this moment, no words need be shared.
  2834. >You are content to just exist with her, here, forever.
  2835. >Tentatively, you step inside, struggling to fight back an enraptured grin. You set your keys down on the counter, and finally speak.
  2836. "How did you get in?"
  2837. >"Your landlord unlocked the door for me," she answers, in that gracious, sincere tone of hers.
  2838. >Your smile finally breaks.
  2839. "Don't you think that's an overreach of your power?"
  2840. >"Maybe so," she says coyly, "but what I have to say simply couldn't wait another night."
  2841. "Then I think you better say it."
  2842. >"Oh, we'll have plenty of time to talk over dinner."
  2843. >She brings you to the table, where an exquisite dinner for two is laid out, on par with the quality of food you'd find in the palace.
  2844. >Rice pilaf, roasted vegetables, flatbread, minestrone, chickpea salad, and of course, her absolute favorite, angel food cake.
  2845. >You look back and forth between her and the feast.
  2846. "When did you find the time to do all this?"
  2847. >"I took a much-needed day off," she responds. "It's overdue, frankly. I can't quite remember the last time I cooked for you."
  2848. >As you sit down, you think back to that night. The memory of it is still vividly impressed upon your mind.
  2849. "It was over a year ago. We stayed up all night on the throne room balcony, and you made me breakfast before dawn. I said I was hungry, and the cook hadn't come yet, so you insisted on making me something. Pancakes and eggs, I think."
  2850. >"Goodness, yes," she laughs. "I was so tired the next day, I nearly dozed off while hearing petitions."
  2851. >She watches over you fondly as you make your plate. "You make me feel young again, Anon. Before you, I would never have dreamed of talking through the night. Not at my age."
  2852. "Oh, come on. Age has nothing to do with it. All these years, and you're still just as vibrant as the day I met you. I think I could spend a lifetime knowing you and never see you lose that lively spirit."
  2853. >She stares at you, lost in thought. "The day we met, yes... Do you remember it well?"
  2854. "I should hope so. It was the day my life changed."
  2855. >"I looked at you, not knowing what you were, and I saw a potential threat. But then, I looked into your eyes, and from the way you looked back at me, I knew intuitively you didn't see me in the same way."
  2856. "Everything was so strange and alien. It was a lot to take in."
  2857. >"Yes, but you looked at me like I was something out of a dream. You didn't fear or revere me the way every pony in Equestria does. That day, you looked past the tiara, past the throne, and you saw /me/."
  2858. >She takes a bite of her food. "I was afraid of you early on. The more I learned of your world and your kind, the less I was willing to trust you. There was just one thing that gave me pause, one little detail that continued to mystify me."
  2859. "What was it?"
  2860. >"A whole new world out there for you to explore, and yet... you were more curious about me."
  2861. >You hesitate before responding.
  2862. "What if it was self-preservation? What if I wanted to learn about you because my first instinct is to profile people? How can you be certain that it wasn't just a scheme to earn your trust?"
  2863. >"Because if it was, you wouldn't be telling me any of this."
  2864. >You look down at your plate. You can't even trust your own motives with the one you care about the most.
  2865. >It feels terrible to think you may not have her best interests at heart. Because you want her to be happy. Truly, you do.
  2866. >But the way you're programmed, you're not sure you'd do that unconditionally. Every decision you've made getting here was for your own sake. You became the Recruiter by pushing an agenda.
  2867. >You talked your way into getting this job. You talked her into letting you keep it, against her better judgment.
  2868. >At a certain point, you have to worry whether you care more about her or this identity you've built for yourself.
  2869. >Because lately, it would seem like you've only been fighting for the latter.
  2870. >So knowing what you know now, if ever there came a time where you had to sacrifice all that for her, would you do it?
  2871. "I don't know if I can trust myself to make the right choice anymore."
  2872. >"I know you grapple with the concept of innate goodness," she replies. "You told me months ago that you felt as if your benevolence was deceitfully self-serving, and how you're afraid you lack empathy. But I am here to tell you that the mere fact that you're asking these questions is evidence to the contrary. It takes a good heart to weigh your own actions and continually scrutinize your intentions. You're trying to be better, Anon. I know it can't be easy, but don't ever blame yourself for trying. You did your duty. You paid your dues. You brought the light of love into our world. You redeemed yourself, and now, you have nothing more to prove."
  2873. >In just a few sentences, she managed to distill the insecurity that's been haunting you for months, and promptly smashed it to smithereens with a sledgehammer named 'validation.'
  2874. >You had all the pieces in you, but you lacked the wherewithal to assemble them in any meaningful way.
  2875. >But here she is, enlightening your life for every moment you spend with her. You trust her, and time and time again, she trusts you implicitly, even when you give her reasons not to.
  2876. >She's not being patronizing or simply protecting an asset. You can see right through her, and in this moment, the only thing that matters to her is you.
  2877. >She cares for you so deeply to not let you do this to yourself. To the point where she'd arrange all this just for you, when she has so many more important things going on.
  2878. >Deep down, you wanted to believe there was hope for you.
  2879. >You just couldn't accept it until it came from her.
  2880. >Taking a deep breath, you set your utensils down and look up at her.
  2881. "I know what you came here to say. I think I'm finally ready to hear it now."
  2882. >Here it comes.
  2883. >She clears her throat.
  2884. >And she begins.
  2885. >"You may be a matchmaker, Anon, but seeing love and experiencing it are two very different things. Love isn't limited to the parts you observed in playing your role. Certainly, that first night together is incredible, but then there's the night after, and every night after that one. The love doesn't always feel the same, and as you change, the love changes with it. You were able to witness all these people meet the loves of their life knowing that from the start, but you never had that luxury for yourself. Most love does not happen that way. It comes together completely by chance, two like-minded souls finding each other amongst a sea of chaos driving them apart. Sometimes, it unfolds so slowly, you don't even realize it's happening. You could be a matchmaker your whole life, and never see the love blooming beneath your own nose."
  2886. >She gazes deeply, breathlessly, longingly, into your eyes.
  2887. >"I love you, Anon, and you love me. I think you always have."
  2888. >Through her speech, your heartbeat crescendos, and upon hearing her delivery of that last line, it nearly stops in your chest.
  2889. >This dream of yours has always been an abstraction, something intangible that you yearned for in the depths of your mind, but never permitted yourself to consciously desire.
  2890. >From the very beginning, Celestia has represented your salvation. She made you want to be a better person.
  2891. >Everything you are, and all that you ever will be, is incorrigibly tied up into your feelings for her. You do it for her.
  2892. >As your world began to unravel, so too did your hopes for redemption. You were convinced her faith in you was based upon the fruits of your labor.
  2893. >When those fruits started to wither, you thought her support would wither along with it. Once you outlived your usefulness, she'd see you haven't changed at all, that you were beyond saving.
  2894. >But if anything, her faith in you has been bolstered by your struggles. You stumble, and she does not judge you. She simply helps you back up. Because you are not her recruiter.
  2895. >You are her love.
  2896. >And now, after months of insecurity and years of loneliness, you can finally confess the words that have weighed heavy in your heart for so long.
  2897. "I do love you, Princess."
  2898. >After internally agonizing over every millisecond between her words and yours, her eyelids flutter at the sound of your reciprocation. A soft, silent gasp, and her breast stills as she holds her breath.
  2899. >You reach out and take her hoof, resting gently upon the table. She trembles at your touch, eyes watering, overcome with emotion.
  2900. >She bites her lip and wipes her eyes, laughing gingerly at her inability to remain composed. "I'm sorry, it's just— I've felt this way for a very long time."
  2901. >You rub your thumb against her hoof affectionately.
  2902. "You were right. We fell in love gradually, through the little moments. Watching sunsets and making breakfast. I was so used to seeing love as this sudden, ceremonious reveal that I didn't believe it could be us."
  2903. >She beams that hopeful, sacred smile of hers. "It can. It will. We'll do it right this time. No more denying our feelings for one another. We can finally stop living for our work and instead live for one another. We can retire together, a fresh start, where those little moments we shared together will be every mom—"
  2904. >You withdraw your hand suddenly, and she stops short, looking back to you worriedly.
  2905. "Cel, we can't do that."
  2906. >"W-What?" she asks, her voice swelling with fear.
  2907. "We can't abandon our roles just to be together."
  2908. >"Why on Earth not?"
  2909. "Because— Earth, that's exactly why. I still have to bring men, and Equestria still needs you."
  2910. >Despair overtakes her. "The last time we met, I told you I didn't want to be alone anymore. Those were my precise words. I'm alone, Anon, and so very tired of it. Every night you're back on Earth, I dine by myself and rehearse conversation for your eventual return to me. I can't do it any longer. I must be with you. Not just romantically, but physically."
  2911. "What am I supposed to do, Cel? Either one of us quitting to be with the other would have drastic consequences for Equestria."
  2912. >"Suppose there was a chance that we could work through all that, and finally have something real together, then tell me, wouldn't you want that? Wouldn't you do everything in your power to make that happen?"
  2913. "Of course I would!"
  2914. >Exasperated, you rap your knuckles anxiously against the table.
  2915. "We'd retire someplace remote, where no pony would ever find us. We'd tend to the plants in the garden; I'd water them, you'd give them plenty of light. We'd listen to music by the hearth every night. We'd raise a collie named Sunspot, and we'd be happy. But it's not going to happen, because dreams are exactly that: dreams."
  2916. >She stares at you in disbelief. "You DO have those thoughts!"
  2917. "It doesn't matter what I want, because we have responsibilities."
  2918. >"I'm sick of responsibilities," she groans. "The whole world bearing down on me, every hour of every day, with no one to care for my happiness but you. I want what you described. The idyllic life in the countryside, where my whole world is you."
  2919. "What would Twilight say? She looks up to you like you're this well of ancient knowledge. How's she supposed to react to the news that you're leaving her behind to chase some schoolfilly dream?"
  2920. >"It should come as no surprise," she replies callously. "I've been grooming her since she was a filly. On some level, she already knows that. Besides, she needn't know the details of my departure. It's nopony's business but ours."
  2921. "She's just a kid. She's still so absorbed in her studies. You know she's not ready to be Princess."
  2922. >"Then I can leave the throne to my sister! She's perfectly capable, and heaven knows she's wanted it for ages. Equestria will be fine without me, Anon. It's time."
  2923. "I don't like this talk. This isn't the Princess I know."
  2924. >She leans forward on the table. "This is exactly who I am. All my life, I've been everything the world wanted me to be. No more."
  2925. >You shake your head and sigh.
  2926. "I can't believe what I'm hearing."
  2927. >"Then perhaps you don't know me after all," she says solemnly.
  2928. >Irritated by her response, you glare at her.
  2929. "Whose fault is that? Five years, and I barely know what your life was like before you met me. I didn't even find out you had romantic desires until a few days ago. All this week, I've been trying to build a profile on you, and you know how much I got?"
  2930. >She stares down at her half-eaten meal tensely, avoiding your gaze.
  2931. "Half a page. Half a page before I ran out of things to say. But you, you know everything about me. I confided in you about my deepest fears. I told you how I doubted my intentions, about all the awful things I've seen, about how I fucking killed a man with my bare ha—"
  2932. >"Stop it!" she screams, her voice breaking. "Just stop, please! Don't you think I know all that? You don't have a monopoly on self-loathing, okay? I feel just as awful about myself as you do. I have done cruel things in the name of good, and they keep me up at night. I already told you I gave you a chance because I failed to offer redemption in the past. I keep my mistakes to myself because I can't bring myself to speak my guilt aloud. I'm not as strong as you, is that what you want to hear? You got me. I'm weak. I hate thinking about the past because it will not stop haunting me. You may not have nightmares, Anon, but I do. All I want in life is someone who will sleep at my side and hold me through them. After everything I've suffered through, tell me, why must that be too much to ask?"
  2933. "I'm sorry."
  2934. >You answer in a muted whisper.
  2935. "I knew you were reluctant to share, but I didn't know it was this bad. Maybe I should've asked more. I didn't want to pry."
  2936. >"If you want me to share so badly, I will," she declares. "You'll know more than most, at least. Equestria doesn't know the half of what I've done. The stories they do know, they recite watered-down versions from storybooks like they're fairytales. Things are happy and peaceful now, but for centuries, they weren't. I have maimed, killed, and tortured in defense of my world. Looking back, it was not always a justified use of force. I retaliated unequivocally out of fear. My enemies were not always evil incarnate. I could have helped them. It was my sacred duty to show them the light, and instead I condemned them to darkness. Sometimes, all it achieved was bringing them back more wicked and spiteful than before. There comes a point when you realize cruelty only begets cruelty. That lesson has haunted me all my life."
  2937. "You know I'll never judge you, right? How could I, after everything I've done?"
  2938. >"Why do you think I grew so attached to you?" she asks. "Everypony looks up to me as their exalted ruler, and not one of them knows the things I did to get here. Then you arrive, burdened by a shame akin to mine, and prove to me that it is possible to reform oneself. You've given me hope again, Anon."
  2939. >Growing weary, you lean your head against your hand.
  2940. "We do this because the world still needs us. We sacrifice our happiness for Equestria, and in that way, we make amends. You understand what that means. I have seen you make those sacrifices yourself, even when it was difficult."
  2941. >"It's getting more difficult by the day," she replies. "The closer we become, the more I find myself wanting to leave it all behind to be with you. That part of me grows for every night I spend with you."
  2942. "But what about the part of you that loves your subjects?"
  2943. >"Such love no longer feels as fulfilling as it once did. I put so much in and it is never enough. The letters pile up and the paperwork never ends. If I could be anypony else, Anon, I would in an instant. The weight of the world is slowly crushing me. I'm sure you feel the same, in your own way."
  2944. >You sigh and push your food around with your fork absentmindedly.
  2945. "It doesn't matter how I feel."
  2946. >"You keep saying that, but it isn't true. It matters a great deal. It matters to me."
  2947. >You look at her, and the desperation on her face breaks your heart. You hate that she needs you. She deserves better than needing you.
  2948. >Because you keep letting her down.
  2949. "Maybe you've righted your wrongs, but I've only been doing this a few years. I still have amends to make. I think you know that."
  2950. >"I absolutely do not," she protests, growing frustrated. "I've already absolved you of your sins. I look at you, and I see nothing more than a good man with a kind soul. In my eyes, you've already succeeded. You won me over."
  2951. "Equestria needs me, Cel."
  2952. >"Still, maybe they could— perhaps—" she stammers, struggling to come up with a solution.
  2953. "Months ago, you pushed me to start taking multiple contracts, because you knew how important this was. You were under pressure, and I agreed to take some of that load because I hated seeing you bear it."
  2954. >"Then let us leave that load behind," she pleads. "We'll forge a new path for ourselves. We won't have to think of anything but each other."
  2955. "I can't do that. I'd always be thinking about the world I abandoned, and I couldn't live with that guilt. That same day, you asked why I was alone, and the answer still hasn't changed. 'Better to make dozens of mares happy than just one.'"
  2956. >"But that one is me!" she cries, slamming her hoof down against the table, breaking out into plaintive tears.
  2957. >Stunned, you stare back at her, entirely speechless.
  2958. >"I need you more than they do," she whispers. "Don't make me do this anymore. Please. I'm not strong enough. I– I can't go on this way. I feel as though I'm losing myself and you're the only one I can hold onto. If I lose you, I'll... I'll..."
  2959. >Getting out of your chair, you come around the table to her and pull her close.
  2960. "Shhh..."
  2961. >She rests her muzzle upon your shoulder, and her sparkling mane envelops you. Tenderly, you stroke her back and soothe her. Her breast presses into yours with each unsteady breath as she unleashes a flood of tears.
  2962. >In all your time together, she has never sobbed in such a desperate manner. You've caught glimpses of misty eyes here and there, but never before has she broken down so completely.
  2963. >She was weak, but she never allowed herself to be weak around you. You see that now.
  2964. >For every night you've spent alone paralyzed by your thoughts, she was as well, in another world, equally crippled, equally afraid, equally alone.
  2965. >This whole time, these drawn out months and violent nights, you've been preoccupied with yourself. How you feel, who you are, what you've done... it's always been you.
  2966. >And all along, through every self-indulgent monologue, every diatribe against yourself, she was out there, struggling just to hold herself together until you came back to her.
  2967. >For all the abnegation, all the heartache, all the misery, the only thing you accomplished was hurting her.
  2968. >For every mare you paired up, you broke her heart a little more by delaying her happiness.
  2969. >And after everything you've been through...
  2970. >Her heart is the only thing matters.
  2971. >Steadily, she pulls her head back off your shoulder.
  2972. >You don't hesitate. You don't stop to think. You don't weigh the consequences.
  2973. >You just kiss her.
  2974. >Her lips meeting yours is the culmination of everything you've sought, the vindication of your affections for her.
  2975. >Your heart skips a beat, and your fingers find their way up her face, into her hair, through the streaks of pink and blue, eventually landing where her mane meets her head.
  2976. >The kiss quickly grows more forceful, impassioned, restless. She presses into you longingly, fighting to contain her desire. Giving in completely, you indulge her fervor in equal measure.
  2977. >Her horn parts your hair, and her magic gleams slightly, leaving a faint tingling sensation against your scalp.
  2978. >She rises up from her chair, and, still locked in your kiss, you pull her out of the room to your bed.
  2979. >Together, you fall down upon it, swaddled in an embrace, and finally break free from the kiss.
  2980. >With her head resting upon your arm, she gazes lovingly into your eyes, as the flickering candlelight casts dancing shadows upon your faces. You can't help but smile down at her.
  2981. >Because this is what you both want. In spite of all the self-deprecation and onerous duty, what you really desired was to be together.
  2982. >And now that you have it, it will take the force of the universe to rip it away from you. There is no going back from this.
  2983. >It's clear now that after all the shit the world has thrown at you, none of it is enough to keep you from her.
  2984. >It won't be easy, but holding her now, her supple legs draped across your bed, her warmth blending with yours...
  2985. >You know it'll be worth it.
  2986. >You're finally ready to take the leap.
  2987. "Let's do it."
  2988. >Her eyes light up with the luminance of the sun itself. Excitedly, she squeezes her hooves around you and buries her head against your chest, careful not to jab you with her horn.
  2989. >You've never seen her so unabashed.
  2990. >You could get used to this.
  2991. >"Are you certain, my love?" she asks, the anticipation in her voice mounting.
  2992. >You stroke her hair gently, brushing it away from her face.
  2993. "You're all I want, Cel. You're all I've wanted for a while now. I'm not going to let you down. Not anymore. You make the necessary preparations for retirement while I finish up my last contract, and then we're out for good. We'll start our new lives. Together."
  2994. >She raises her head and kisses you once more.
  2995. >Tonight is the first night that you didn't have to spend alone.
  2996. >Tonight is the first kiss that wasn't burdened by guilt.
  2997. >Tonight is the first time that you're ready to love.
  2998. >To love, to honor, to cherish.
  2999. >Tonight, the weight of the world is lifted off you both, and you can finally breathe easy.
  3000. >Tonight, the only thing on your mind is the mare in your arms.
  3001. >Tonight, there is only each other.
  3002. >The night passes without fear or doubt.
  3003. >You lose yourself in her, and she, in you.
  3004. >You are happy, and she is safe.
  3005. >For once, nothing else matters.
  3006. >At dawn, she doesn't get up to raise the sun.
  3007. >She sleeps in with you.
  3008.  
  3009. 18
  3010. >What is it this week with random mares showing up at your home unannounced?
  3011. >It's been a lot to process, that much is obvious. But it's okay.
  3012. >Everything's okay now.
  3013. >Last night, you and Celestia unpacked a whole mess of unresolved feelings.
  3014. >You fought all night, clashing against each other in erratic flurry of anguish and trepidation, until something just... clicked.
  3015. >All your life, you've chained your heart for fear of hurting the one you love. Now you finally see.
  3016. >Not being with you was killing her. The heartache was hurting her more than you ever could.
  3017. >Let's be clear, this was no epiphany. Things hardly work out that way. Your love doesn't change the bitter truth about you.
  3018. >You're still not convinced you deserve this. You're not sure you ever will be.
  3019. >But she ought to be happy for once in her lonely, godforsaken life. So you're going to let go of that anxiety, and you're going to do right by her.
  3020. >Because she deserves it.
  3021. >This morning, she almost didn't want to let you go. You, yourself, were reluctant.
  3022. >After getting the thing you wanted most in the world, promptly having to tear yourself away was not an easy choice to make.
  3023. >But both your lives have been, and forever will be, fraught with difficult choices.
  3024. >So you each steel yourself, and elect to return to your jobs.
  3025. >For the time being.
  3026. >See, this is the end.
  3027. >One last contract, and you're out of the game.
  3028. >On the surface, it's strange how much you're okay with that. For the better half of a year, you've been clawing to keep your position, terrified by the prospect of losing it, and yourself along with it.
  3029. >But after laboring over the issue last night, you came to the conclusion that the decision is a perfectly rational one, not incompatible with what you've been fighting for.
  3030. >Your job, your whole identity, is to bring mares love. And you're not giving that up.
  3031. >You're going to be loving this mare for the rest of your life.
  3032. >Love brings with it such a sense of security. Right now, it feels like together, you can weather all storms.
  3033. >Life has never felt so safe as with her.
  3034. >You just hope it lasts.
  3035. >After stalling all morning, you finally walk back to the palace together. You're headed there anyway.
  3036. >You know she'll have to face some form of fallout from deciding to spend the night at your place. It's extremely unorthodox for a Princess to behave in such a manner.
  3037. >Even if the proper people were notified that she'd be away... do they know what she was doing? Who she was with? To what extent are they aware of your relationship to her?
  3038. >You don't dare to ask and find out. Any answer would probably hurt.
  3039. >Perhaps it would be fun being her little secret. Yet where there is secrecy, there is shame.
  3040. >Maybe she's embarrassed to be with a human beneath her station. You're not exactly of noble blood, and there hasn't been much in the way of courtship. Given her royal status, people might be expecting that.
  3041. >Wait, should you be courting her? Is that what you're supposed to do?
  3042. >There's no precedent for this, you've never fixed up a Princess before.
  3043. >It's too much to think about right now.
  3044. >She'll deal with everything how she sees fit. Her judgment has always been impeccable. If she has to face any consequences for spending the night with you, she'll handle them with grace and aplomb as she always does.
  3045. >Maybe she'll get a dressing-down from her sister. You kind of wish you could stick around to see that.
  3046. >But there's no time. Every minute you dawdle is another minute delaying your retirement with her.
  3047. >So, once away from prying eyes, you give her a quick kiss farewell and depart through the portal.
  3048. >All you can think about is how this is the last time you'll have to say goodbye.
  3049.  
  3050. >Home has never felt much a home.
  3051. >You've lived here for years, since long before you ever found Equestria.
  3052. >Most of your life has been spent within these walls, and now, as you look around, you can't say you'll miss it much.
  3053. >You drop your bags and collapse onto the couch.
  3054. >Not much has changed since Rainbow Dash was here. The blanket she slept with is still lying beside you.
  3055. >Lorenzo once said to you "a home is something built, it must be made."
  3056. >And looking around, it's clear that you never invested much into this place. It was always a stopping point, a means to something greater.
  3057. >This is just the place you killed time until you could come back to Celestia.
  3058. >It's weird how different everything feels now that you know you want to be with her. But at the same time, it makes sense.
  3059. >She single-handedly shifted the expectation of everything you wanted out of life. It's her fault you love her.
  3060. >She spent so long learning the things you wish you had, and then she dangled them in front your face, offering you your wildest dreams, knowing you'd give up everything just to seize that chance at happiness.
  3061. >And it's so fucking ironic, because that's how you recruited every single man in Equestria.
  3062. >It's good to be happy, sure. It just feels strange. Like it was always going to work out this way.
  3063. >You never knew much about soul mates, or destiny, or anything in that vein. You just did your job and let the rest work itself out.
  3064. >But Celestia gives you hope. You look at her, and she makes you want to believe there's something greater out there for every last person, that makes all the pain and suffering worth it.
  3065. >Because for you, you see that something in her.
  3066. >God, you really are head-over-heels for her.
  3067. >Assuming you don't rush this out of sheer impatience, you'll be here a month.
  3068. >This might be your last month on Earth. That's something to think about.
  3069. >What's she going to be doing this whole time while you're gone? The retirement of a Princess is completely unheard of.
  3070. >Clearly, the big thing is going to be naming her successor. Maybe Luna.
  3071. >Celestia did say she was grooming Twilight for the throne. That means this has been on her mind for a while now.
  3072. >But Twilight is far from ready for that level of responsibility, which suggests the absence of premeditation regarding last night.
  3073. >The answer is almost always somewhere in between. Her discontent has been mulling in the back of her mind for a while, but her intensifying feelings for you made her impetuously accelerate the timeline.
  3074. >This display of impulsivity on her part may indicate a lack of forethought. She's acting based on feelings alone, without giving this matter the rational consideration it merits.
  3075. >It's a huge leap to make on faith alone.
  3076. >...
  3077. >What if this isn't the right choice?
  3078. >The question lingers in your head without answer a few seconds before you get up abruptly.
  3079. >No. You're not doing this again. You won't drag yourself down this hole.
  3080. >You don't get to go all psychoanalytical on her anymore. She's not a contract, or a test subject for you to study. Even if it goes against your instincts, there are more important factors at play. Love isn't a science.
  3081. >You're going to stand by her.
  3082. >You'll do everything possible to preserve her happiness.
  3083. >And as long as you do that, she will be okay.
  3084. >In that sweeping declaration, you find comfort. The anxiety subsides, and is replaced by endearment.
  3085. >Time to get to work.
  3086. >You head upstairs, lay your black book upon your desk, and turn on your computer.
  3087. >Okay. Let's begin.
  3088. >Her name is Minuette. She goes by Colgate. That alone tells you something.
  3089. >She doesn't take herself very seriously. She's a fan of flexibility.
  3090. >But at the same time, she's contradictorily stubborn. She's emotionally ill-equipped to handle things not going her way.
  3091. >She needs to feel like she anticipates everything. That's how she derives her sense of security in life.
  3092. >She's externally insightful. She knows a lot, but she doesn't know herself very well. You think she's afraid to.
  3093. >Is it because she doesn't like herself?
  3094. >No, she does. She's too content for that to be true. It's something else.
  3095. >She's never been in love. Never had a coltfriend, not so much as a kiss.
  3096. >She wonders a lot what that might be like. Not out loud, of course. Not to you.
  3097. >But you noticed it anyway. You always notice it.
  3098. >Maybe she thinks she'd be a different mare in love. Maybe she's scared of losing her independence.
  3099. >No matter how hard she falls, she doesn't want to have to rely on him.
  3100. >But she also doesn't want to ever let go. She walked you to the train because she loathes goodbyes.
  3101. >Why are our insecurities always paradoxical?
  3102. >Like the big one. Simultaneously craving and fearing intimacy. You've seen that too many times to count.
  3103. >It makes your job that much harder. There's always some fine line you have to straddle, always some guy who's nearly perfect, but just leans an inch too far in either direction.
  3104. >Speaking of...
  3105. >You pull up your spreadsheet of near-matches: men who, for one reason or another, were almost perfect candidates for various contracts, but just narrowly missed the cut.
  3106. >After all, you don't settle for 'almost perfect.' You keep at it until you find the best possible match. For one particularly grueling contract, that took almost three months of intense searching.
  3107. >But you always kept their info on hand. It was a trivial task to do so. After all, you'd already gone through the trouble of collecting the data in the first place, and one contract's near-match may be another contract's match.
  3108. >It never worked out that way, though. Not once have you ended up using this file. Each mare was simply too unique to warrant a recycled match.
  3109. >Scrolling through the hundreds of names now, though, it seems like such a waste. They're good men, who deserve mares.
  3110. >And now that it ends with Colgate, you won't be doing this again.
  3111. >Disheartened, you lean back in your chair.
  3112. >It's sad to think the initiative ends here. You do feel guilty about that.
  3113. >But last night made it clear that Celestia needs you, and you owe a greater responsibility to her than to your career.
  3114. >At least you can go out knowing you did some good for Equestria. Yet there will always be that lingering thought that perhaps you could have done more.
  3115. >There's just no point in postponing happiness.
  3116.  
  3117. >"$1? You're serious?"
  3118. >You stare at the man standing in front of your door blankly.
  3119. "Yeah."
  3120. >"What's the catch?"
  3121. "There's no catch."
  3122. >"Nah nah nah, don't give me that. No man goes and sells his house for a fuckin' buck without a catch."
  3123. "If I wanted to stand on my porch and answer stupid questions, I'd be charging more. It's a goddamn dollar. You don't want it, then piss off."
  3124. >As you go to close the door, he leans his hand against it, stopping you.
  3125. >He glances to the side and taps his foot restlessly. "You own the place? No mortgage, no LLC, no refinancing bullshit?"
  3126. "No. It's mine."
  3127. >He pauses a moment, then returns his gaze to you. "Alright. I'll take it."
  3128. "I'll draw up the papers in a few weeks. Sign 'em and it's yours."
  3129. >You shut the door on him.
  3130. >So long, home.
  3131. >Sure, you could sell it for more. Hell, you could get a nice little nest egg out of this place.
  3132. >But that would mean the hassle of realtors, or at the very least, letting in a bunch of people for showings, and then the eventual hassle of escrow.
  3133. >All that would take time. Time that could be better spent with the mare you actually want to be with.
  3134. >And for what? Money?
  3135. >You won't have much use for money. Not for the lifestyle you're planning on.
  3136. >Better to just be done with it, so you can focus on what truly matters.
  3137. >Heading up the stairs, you stop to look back down at the couch.
  3138. >You can almost hear what Dash would say.
  3139. >"Seriously? You've been here for ten years, and you're getting rid of it just like that?"
  3140. "What do you want me to do? Ask the Princess to move in here?"
  3141. >"No! You know what I mean. You lived here so long, I thought you might at least care what happens to it."
  3142. "I don't."
  3143. >"Well, why the heck not?"
  3144. "It's not home."
  3145. >"Then what is? That lousy apartment of yours?"
  3146. "It's not a place."
  3147. >"What's that supposed to mean?"
  3148. "It's her."
  3149. >"That's corny, Anon."
  3150. "I don't even care anymore. I'm getting old, I'm not the kid I once was. I'm tired, and so is she. I'm so sick of waiting, of pretending she doesn't mean a thing to me. Because she does. She's everything, and she has been from the start."
  3151. >"You... you really love her?"
  3152. "I do."
  3153. >"Then how come it took you this long to figure it out?"
  3154. "Because I'm an idiot, Dash. That's all there is to it."
  3155. >You pull your hand off the banister.
  3156. >Having conversations in your head isn't crazy, is it?
  3157. >You push it from your mind and go up to your room. It's been a productive week, and you're ready to wrap up the background check.
  3158. >Target's an amateur freerunner from Brooklyn by the name of Alex. You say that because he's barely scraping by through the occasional odd job. Doesn't seem particularly interested in securing gainful employment, which is interesting.
  3159. >Normally, you don't go for those types. Most mares on the list lean towards a steady, responsible man.
  3160. >But Colgate's a little eccentric. She's practically begging for a wild, adventurous spirit to come and rescue her from the tedium of everyday life.
  3161. >She couldn't care less what he does for a living. She just wants someone to have fun with.
  3162. >And to be honest, there's one thing about this man that draws you to him.
  3163. >He's got an uncanny sense of time.
  3164. >Not in the same way she does, but similar enough to strike you as meaningful.
  3165. >You almost didn't catch it. That sort of stuff crops up in the observation phase, not the background check. Especially since he doesn't have much of an internet presence to begin with.
  3166. >As you were digging through a couple of unlisted videos you managed to trace back to him, you found some old GoPro footage.
  3167. >He's a quick kid, but his moves weren't what caught you. It was the ending.
  3168. >He started on a roof a few blocks away from St. Patrick's Cathedral and ran through the usual gimmick for the next few minutes, dropping down parking garages and crossing over awnings.
  3169. >Then came the clincher: he leapt off a roof onto the cathedral tower. His feet hit the ledge at the very moment the bell struck midnight.
  3170. >Colgate would never have to worry about him slowing her down.
  3171.  
  3172. >The trip to New York was rather meditative.
  3173. >You'd liquidated the last of your gold to fund the journey. The whole way there, all you could do was stare down at your photo of Celestia.
  3174. >Your heart ached to be so far from her this time. The truth was out there now, and it filled the space between you. You'd both confessed to each other, and yourselves, how much you longed to be together.
  3175. >It was a difficult thing to admit. Until now, life was easy to compartmentalize, though you still found yourself thinking of her often.
  3176. >Now there was no aspect of your life she didn't infect, no corner of your mind free from her visage.
  3177. >You knew from the very beginning that you were someone who loved truly and wholly, with all the want in your heart.
  3178. >To think you could ever fall in love effortlessly would be naive. Conscious or not, ever since you first came to Equestria, this had been your dream.
  3179. >If Celestia was salvation, then her love was absolution.
  3180. >That one brief night with her made you stronger, bolder, more resolute. It'd quieted your nerves and steadied your hand.
  3181. >When you met her, she made you want to be a better person.
  3182. >And with her, you feel like you are.
  3183. >The first few days of observation go by like any other contract. You take your time and keep your distance.
  3184. >His schedule is erratic and unpredictable at first glance, but eventually, a bizarrely convoluted pattern emerges. Certain near-imperceptible factors in his routine remain rigidly constant, like the gaps between meals, or how he always sleeps for a prime number of hours.
  3185. >But... it works. Somehow, he operates on a 28-hour day, unaligned with the solar cycle, which translates to six days in a standard 168-hour week.
  3186. >He works gigs on alternating days, which, functionally speaking, are sometimes nights.
  3187. >It's a byzantine sort of lifestyle, but it all falls together methodically. It's pure, algorithmic time management.
  3188. >He operates like clockwork. It's fascinating.
  3189. >But it's also maddening. Your notes on his schedule alone span several pages. You struggle more with anticipating his movements than studying his behaviors.
  3190. >Still, you remain undeterred in tracking him. You don't let your impatience to reunite with Celestia impair your diligence. If this is to be your final contract, then the importance of its success is doubly so.
  3191. >So you sit back and watch him go on his little escapades, all the while daydreaming about the one who's waiting for your return.
  3192. >Before you know it, the two weeks have come and gone with no complications arising. Your profile on him is sufficiently comprehensive, and you're confident enough to conduct a preliminary interview.
  3193. >In the dead of night, you leave a letter at his door, addressed to him, detailing a time and place. You worded it carefully to ensure it captures his interest, and just for a dash of added intrigue, you stamp it with the royal seal, the insignia of Celestia.
  3194. >When the day finally comes, you find yourself feeling restless. All this fantasy has left you a bit on the capricious side. It's senior spring, might as well have a little fun with it.
  3195. >So you decide to employ an unconventional observation tactic you haven't made use of in years: intervention.
  3196. >The premise is simple. If there's a facet of personality you're concerned about, you contrive a scenario which provokes it. Actions can be deliberated, reactions much less so.
  3197. >And you really want to see how he handles being late.
  3198. >Ninety minutes before the scheduled meeting time, you watch him depart from his building. He's allotting enough time for any potential delay.
  3199. >Any, except yours.
  3200. >Keeping a cautious distance, you follow him down the street, weaving through the clusters of pedestrians.
  3201. >Four blocks north, he descends the stairs into the subway station, as planned. You hang back for a minute before following him down.
  3202. >As you pass through the turnstile, he re-enters your line of sight. He's leaning against a pillar, facing the rails, awaiting the F train.
  3203. >You approach, careful not to let him catch a glimpse of your face. This can't work if he spots you; it'd only complicate the eventual recruitment.
  3204. >Walking down the platform with your head turned away, you pass right behind him.
  3205. >You continue down to the opposite end, to the entrance of a service tunnel.
  3206. >Resourceful as you are, you took care of the padlock ahead of time. You duck your head and step through the gate, then trace the winding tunnel until you reach the substation interlock.
  3207. >It's a cramped little space, with a series of joint switches managing the adjacent west and eastbound tunnels. You have to crane your neck here just to keep from hitting the ceiling.
  3208. >One carefully-timed switch is all it will take. The train will come to a grinding halt after it leaves the platform, but before it picks up too much speed.
  3209. >The switched tracks will be jammed against the wheels, and the MTA will have to come in and manually reset them. That should take thirty minutes at the least.
  3210. >By then, you'll be long gone, surreptitiously awaiting Alex at the rendezvous in Central Park.
  3211. >Best case scenario, he's twenty minutes late. Or maybe he'll surprise you and break out of the subway car just to be on time.
  3212. >Your letter picked at his vulnerabilities enough to pique his curiosity, so that's not entirely out of the question. You've seen more dedicated men do stranger things.
  3213. >It's all about his reaction.
  3214. >You can feel the rumbling of the train as it reaches the station, blowing wind down the narrow service tunnel. The brakes squeal as it crawls to a stop. As soon as it departs with your target in tow, you'll make your move.
  3215. >The beeping of the doors signals their close, and the train lurches forward. You get ready to flip the switch.
  3216. >But you don't get that far.
  3217. >Before you can move, everything goes dark.
  3218.  
  3219. 19
  3220. >Well, not everything. There's still the light at the end of the tunnel, pouring in from the station.
  3221. >But in your cramped little substation, the power's been cut, leaving you blind to your immediate surroundings.
  3222. >Then comes the unmistakable, chilling sensation of a gun being pressed into your back, followed by two gruff words.
  3223. >"Don't move."
  3224. >Your heart sinks and you bow your head, knowing instantly this is no mere mugger.
  3225. >You've been made.
  3226. >"Arms up, come on."
  3227. >You slowly raise your hands up and lay your palms against the low ceiling, taking time to size up your ambusher.
  3228. >From the angle of his breath, he stands a good four inches shorter than you. He's throwing his voice to sound deeper. The gun is held in his left hand. Its barrel jabbing into your spine feels compact, possibly a Sig Sauer.
  3229. >One solid rear elbow strike is all it would take to flip the situation to your advantage. With him stunned, you can reach for your own sidearm and take him out cleanly.
  3230. >But if his trigger finger reacts even a fraction of a second faster than you, you could get a bullet lodged in your back. Then it would all be over. Dead and done.
  3231. >Weighing the risk, you ready yourself to hook him.
  3232. >But the strangest thing happens.
  3233. >You hear Celestia's voice in your head.
  3234. >"Don't," she whispers. It is that kind of pained, almost pleading 'don't' that makes you reconsider acting.
  3235. >You want to ask why, but you know there isn't anyone actually there to respond.
  3236. >Before you can think twice, he reaches around your side with his free hand and pulls your own gun out from your belt.
  3237. >The barrel leaves your back briefly as he removes the clip from your weapon and empties the chamber, offering you a brief opening.
  3238. >You clench your fists and plan your strike, but Celestia's voice halts you once again.
  3239. >"Don't." This time, she says it more firmly.
  3240. >You can't ignore her this time. You ask.
  3241. >Why not?
  3242. >"Be patient, my love. You always come back to me."
  3243. >He tosses your unloaded gun aside, letting it clang against the stone floor.
  3244. >"Good," he says. "Now we can talk all civil-like."
  3245. >You reel at the sound of his voice.
  3246. "Who are you? CIA?"
  3247. >He chuckles in response. "No, no."
  3248. "MI6? Mossad? Tell me if I'm getting warmer."
  3249. >He taps the gun against your upper back tauntingly. "Don't flatter yourself, boyo. I'm not black ops. Not anymore, at least. But you should know all about that."
  3250. "How about you put the gun down so we can talk?"
  3251. >"While I'd love to go hand-to-hand with you, I think you might want to hold off on that for now. For your own sake." He says that last part with such loathsome smugness.
  3252. >Steadily, he pats you down. You count a dozen different opportunities to attack, but that gentle pleading in your head tenses up your every muscle.
  3253. >You can't bring yourself to fight with her voice whispering in your ear.
  3254. >He pulls the black book from your breast pocket. "Oh, I don't even need to see, I already know what this is."
  3255. "Quit jerking me around. What do you want? Money?"
  3256. >"Oh, we'll get to that, but we're gonna do it right. How's a face-to-face chat sound?"
  3257. "Anything that gets your fucking piece out of my back."
  3258. >"Well then, you're not very pleasant company, are you? What do those boys see in you?"
  3259. >The moment he steps back, you drop your arms and turn around. It's still too dark to see him. Your spatial memory gives your mind's eye a cobbled-together layout of the substation, but he could be anywhere in front of you.
  3260. >"Sit down," he instructs loudly.
  3261. >That clears it up for you some. Less than ten paces away.
  3262. >You don't comply with his order, instead staying where you are.
  3263. >"I don't hear ass hitting the floor. Remember, I've still got my gun on you."
  3264. >You take a couple steps forward. Slowly. Silently.
  3265. "I don't think you'll shoot."
  3266. >Another hushed footstep.
  3267. "I'm still alive, so I must have something you want."
  3268. >Very gradually reducing your volume with each pace, so he can't tell you're drawing nearer.
  3269. "If I die, you walk away with nothing."
  3270. >He's just a few feet away now.
  3271. "An awful lot of work you went through, tracking me down. All for nothing."
  3272. >Suddenly, you feel cold steel press against your forehead, stopping you dead in your tracks.
  3273. >"I'd reconsider that move if I were you," he says. "If I pull this trigger, you stand to lose a whole lot more than your life."
  3274. >You shut your eyes and map the scene out in front of you.
  3275. >His outstretched arm angled up, the position of his head, the distance between your body and his.
  3276. >You take a deep breath.
  3277. >Celestia's voice grows more insistent. "Don't do it, Anon."
  3278. >Uh oh. You feel a migraine coming on.
  3279. >Better move.
  3280. >In an instant, you wrap your hands around his arm and force it to the side, slamming it into the concrete wall.
  3281. >He fires just as the barrel leaves your forehead, leaving a painful ringing in your ears. The muzzle flash illuminates the room momentarily, and a glimpse of his outline is all you need.
  3282. >Still holding his arm against the wall, you hook his leg with yours and throw him off his gait. He fires once more, struggling to push the gun back towards you, and you slide your grip up to his wrist. Another slam into the wall shatters his knuckles and he releases his grip around the weapon.
  3283. >You don't waste a moment. You throw your elbow into his face and follow with a punch from your off-hand, knocking him backward. Far enough back that you lose track of him.
  3284. >Your eyes dart around aimlessly, trying to get a lock on his position.
  3285. >But he comes right back, in the form of a forward tackle.
  3286. >You're knocked onto your back as he comes down on your legs. You throw punches blindly while he struggles to block and keep his balance on his knees.
  3287. >One punch just barely grazes his cheek. Before he can evade, you seize your chance and come down on his face with your open palm, clawing into his eye.
  3288. >He grabs at your arm, pulling desperately to get your sinking nails out of his flesh. With your other hand, you lay into his side, throwing him off his balance momentarily.
  3289. >You immediately follow through and swing him onto the floor beside you, which repositions your grip on his face enough for him to bite your thumb.
  3290. >Crying out, you withdraw your hand and wrap your legs around his in an attempt to pin him, wrestling to gain the upper hand. He reacts surprisingly quickly as you climb onto him, and kicks you off in an abrupt display of strength.
  3291. >You're sent flying several feet back, and you roll to land on your feet.
  3292. >This guy's no greenhorn.
  3293. >He scrambles to stand up. The only sensation available to either of you is the sound of labored panting. Hurriedly, you try to gauge the gap between you before he can charge you again.
  3294. >Then the lights come back on, and you see him for the first time.
  3295. >Actually, not the first time.
  3296. >Teeth gritted, eyes burning with rancor, you glare at the man standing a few yards away.
  3297. "You."
  3298. >He glances at the floor between you, and you follow his gaze to his gun lying on the floor.
  3299. >Both of you make a dash for it.
  3300. >You get there first, but just barely. He grabs ahold of your arms and forces them up. You fight for control of the gun, your narrow height advantage mitigated by the dangerously low ceiling.
  3301. >Holding your arms up, he pushes against you, and you fire off the gun three times into the ceiling, shattering a light. It rains dust and chips of concrete down on you.
  3302. >One grain gets in his eye, causing him to clench it and wince. Immediately, you plant a foot into his kneecap and twist him around. A second kick to the calf forces him onto his knees, and he releases his hold on your arms.
  3303. >As you bring down the gun to shoot, he drops to the ground. Before you can aim, he kicks your feet out from under you.
  3304. >You come down on him haphazardly and he rolls out of the way. Reacting quickly, you roll onto your side and fire two bullets. Into the wall. He's nimble, already getting up out of the way.
  3305. >You roll again onto your back and fire as he's rising to his feet. He catches himself in time, staying hunched over halfway. The bullet flies straight over him while he delivers a kick to your hands and then brings his foot down square on your chest.
  3306. >You narrowly manage to keep a hold on the pistol. Now, with the wind knocked out of you, you crawl backwards on your elbow and take aim again.
  3307. >Click, click. Empty clip.
  3308. >Grinning maniacally, he bends down to grab onto your legs. You hurl the gun into his face and kick him off.
  3309. >He stumbles back, and you hastily get onto your feet.
  3310. >The two of you charge at each other once again, going hand-to-hand, trading blows. You stave off most of his attacks, but he manages to get ahold of your wrist and promptly twists your arm, cracking your shoulder and turning you around.
  3311. >You yell out in pain, but hold stalwart. Before he can incapacitate you, you stomp your foot onto his and jab your free elbow into his gut.
  3312. >Spinning back around, you latch onto his neck and squeeze with all your might while pushing forward. He initially tries to get your hands off his throat, but soon abandons that avenue, cocking his arm to punch.
  3313. >With a tight hold on him, you continue driving him down the service tunnel, forcing him to stumble backwards, withdrawing one hand every so often to block his punches with your forearm.
  3314. >The light is draining from his eyes. His blows are getting softer. You can see it all in his expression.
  3315. >Now he's really fearing for his life.
  3316. >In moment of luck, he finds his footing and performs a last-ditch high kick, knocking one of your arms off his neck. Finally free from your death grip, he grabs ahold of your suit collar and falls back, hurling you over his head.
  3317. >You flip over and crash through the gate. Your back slams flat onto ground, sending dire shocks through your whole body.
  3318. >Groaning in pain, you turn your head listlessly to the side, and see a crowd of people several yards away, staring at you.
  3319. >You're back on the subway platform.
  3320. >Snapping out of your daze, you look back to the service tunnel to see your attacker staggering to his feet once more, grabbing onto the gate with one hand to steady himself.
  3321. >You prop yourself up on your elbow and struggle to support your aching body.
  3322. >Celestia's voice returns. "Stop this," she begs you. "You cannot win this. Not now. Not yet."
  3323. >Her words accomplish nothing but egging you on more.
  3324. "Fuck that."
  3325. >You refuse to accept that you can't defend yourself.
  3326. >Roaring over the pain, you pull yourself back up and charge through the gate at your target. His eyes go wide before impact; your shoulder collides with him and you unleash a flurry of blows up and down his frame. Stumbling back to keep from falling, he flails his arms to counter your attacks.
  3327. >Still charging forward relentlessly, utilizing every breath of your second wind, you grab ahold of his shirt and swing him from wall to wall. You slam his shoulders into the concrete in the hopes that he'll bash his head.
  3328. >More and more disoriented with every collision, he hooks his leg around yours to stop your charge, but you simply knee his groin to unhook it and continue pushing down the tunnel.
  3329. >Finally, he succumbs and trips himself, taking you down with him. You fight to keep advantage by landing square on top of him, but he lands a well-timed strike to your clavicle, sending you back onto your ass.
  3330. >He scampers back, regaining his breath. You quickly push off your palms, flying up onto your feet. As you approach in a frenzy, he tries to get up, and you promptly kick his chest, sliding him further back.
  3331. >He attempts to get up again, and you respond in equal measure, but he catches on. He swiftly grabs onto your ankle and yanks it hard.
  3332. >As you collapse onto your side, he twists your leg, and in the same fluid motion, he spins on his knee to position himself over you.
  3333. >Looking up, all you see is his stupid fucking smirk.
  3334. >You send blow after blow up at him, but he absorbs the first two and blocks the rest. From there, your every attack is met with an equally devastating parry.
  3335. >You try to hook his side, he catches you with his forearm and counters.
  3336. >You trash your legs to kick him, but he's got you helplessly on your back.
  3337. >You make a frantic attempt to headbutt his leg. All you get in return is a fist to the forehead.
  3338. >Every maneuver you try is met with punishment. He refuses to relent, laying into your chest with a barrage of rapid punches, bruising you up and down, until finally, he tops it off by paralyzing you altogether with an excruciating throat punch.
  3339. >You choke and gasp for air, stunned by the blinding pain in your trachea.
  3340. >He grabs you by your blood-stained tie and pulls you up to his face. His pompous arrogance has given way to unbridled fury.
  3341. >He takes one last look at you, pulls his fist back, and unleashes a slow series of heavy punches onto your head, punctuating every nauseating squelch with another thunderous word.
  3342. >"WHY!"
  3343. >"DON'T!"
  3344. >"YOU!"
  3345. >"FUCKING!"
  3346. >"LISTEN!"
  3347. >He issues one final blow, bashing his bleeding knuckles straight into the bridge of your nose, and lets go of your tie.
  3348. >You fall back impotently, and your head hits the floor with a resounding thud.
  3349. >As you cough up blood, he slumps down off your legs and leans his back against the wall.
  3350. >Clinging to consciousness, you squeeze your eyes shut, grimacing from the sheer agony.
  3351. >"Goddamn MTA," he mutters, catching his breath. "It was supposed to take them longer to get the power back on."
  3352. >His words cut through the shrill ringing in your ears.
  3353. "Fuck you."
  3354. >You answer him between coughs, your voice rendered a hoarse growl from your bruised windpipe.
  3355. >Too weak to continue, you summon what little strength you have left to save yourself from choking on your blood. You sit up and prop yourself against the wall across from him to breathe easier.
  3356. >"You just had to go and fuck it all up, didn't you?"
  3357. >You spit out the accrued blood to the side.
  3358. "I don't take orders very well."
  3359. >He lights up a cigarette. "Well, you're fucking gonna."
  3360. >You take a deep, shaky breath, drawing air into your aching lungs, and respond mercilessly.
  3361. "The only thing I'm gonna do is put a bullet in your goddamn skull."
  3362. >The man just laughs and shakes his head.
  3363. >"You're a real piece of work, you know that?"
  3364. >Though your vision is hazy, you have the chance to see him more clearly now.
  3365. "You've been following me. London. Italy."
  3366. >"Oh, I've been at it for a long time before that," he replies, taking a drag. "You don't remember me, do you?"
  3367. >You stare at him blankly.
  3368. >"No, of course you don't. Three years back, you followed me for four-and-a-half days."
  3369. >And suddenly, you remember. You put the face to a name, one of many from the spreadsheet on your computer.
  3370. >"I caught on pretty fuckin' quick. I know when I'm being tailed."
  3371. "Cyril."
  3372. >He tips his cigarette toward you affirmatively. "Ding ding ding, we have a winner."
  3373. >"I was used to tails," he continues. "But you dropped off the map quick as you came, and I couldn't figure who you were with. It was a while before I found you. So I'm thinking, what's a rogue agent doing following me? Took me even longer to find out what you were up to. And boy," he chuckles to himself, "was it worth it."
  3374. >Wheezing with your head slumped forward, you stare up at him disdainfully.
  3375. "I was right not to pick you."
  3376. >He slams his palms on the floor and leans in threateningly. "Wrong, motherfucker! 'Special Agent Sweetie Drops?' I was goddamn perfect for her, and you had the balls to go with a beat cop over ME?"
  3377. >You turn your head away callously.
  3378. "You didn't even know her."
  3379. >"Ah, but I found out," he says, regaining his composure. "In time, I figured out everything. Your whole little game, these little pussies you recruit so you can stay top dog in pony land."
  3380. "That's not what it is."
  3381. >"Like hell it isn't! You didn't want me because I was a threat. You knew I'd do a better job than you."
  3382. >You begin rattling off the various reasons for your rejection.
  3383. "A dishonorable discharge, obvious narcissistic personality disorder, years spent in deep cover. Your own agency buried you because you were a liability."
  3384. >"Yeah?" he asks. "I can name shit you did, too. You want go there, boyo? I know everything there is to know about you."
  3385. >You remain unflinching in the face of his barbs.
  3386. >"You want to tell me what happened in Libya? How much collateral damage did you do there, huh? That poor kid was—"
  3387. >Incensed by his provocation, you cut him off decisively.
  3388. "That's not me anymore. I changed."
  3389. >He throws his head back and howls in ridicule. "You seriously think that?" He pulls the side of his shirt up. "Look at this, I think you cracked a rib. You came pretty fuckin' close to killing me back there, but thank God you're years out of practice. This love shit has ruined you. You remember real work, don't you? Getting your hands dirty? No, all you do now is play Cupid. You lost your edge."
  3390. >"All this time, you never even knew I was there, 'cept when I wanted you to. Hell, I walked right up to your fuckin' car in Italy and talked to your pony pal like it was nothing. And you just let me. Look at you. You got soft, but after our little brawl, you want to tell me that you really changed? Nah. You're a killing machine, and that's all you'll ever be. You and I signed up to be part of a complex that chewed us up until we turned into monsters, and then they spit us out. We were made this way, and we'll die this way. There is no 'change.'"
  3391. >He slumps back against the wall and takes another drag off his cigarette.
  3392. >He's wrong. He has to be.
  3393. >If you can't change, then there was never any meaning to it. You never got better.
  3394. >And there's no way you could live with that. You pushed this far because you wanted to be better than this.
  3395. >She made you want to be better.
  3396. >But, God...
  3397. >Looking down at your bloody knuckles, you feel sick.
  3398. >If he's right, and this is who you really are...
  3399. >There's no way you could face Celestia again.
  3400. >The two of you sit in silence a moment. Then, he pulls your black book out of his pocket.
  3401. "Put it down."
  3402. >"Or what?" he asks brashly, shooting you a glare. He turns back to the book and opens the front cover. Your photograph of Celestia falls out into his lap.
  3403. >"Ohohoho," he chortles mockingly. "That's your Princess, isn't it? Ain't she your boss? Why do you have this?"
  3404. >You don't meet his eyes, doing your best to stay stone-faced, praying he doesn't concoct some way to use her against you.
  3405. >He flips through your notes to the end. "Jesus, you write down the weirdest shit about people. Who's Colgate?"
  3406. >Unable to take his mind games any longer, you turn to him and ask sharply.
  3407. "What do you want?"
  3408. >The smirk falls from his face and he sets your book down calmly. "See, we'd already be past this part if you hadn't decided to go all Jason Bourne on me." He takes one last drag off his cigarette and flicks it away. "I feel like shit, and you look like shit, so I'll make this quick. I want the pony you had with you. The rainbow bitch."
  3409. >Your heart sinks.
  3410. "Why? What are you going to do with her?"
  3411. >"That don't matter much to you, does it? Maybe I'll sell her off to a Saudi prince, maybe I'll keep her around for myself, or maybe I'll just kill for her kicks. Not your problem. As long as I get her, you get to keep dicking around, recruiting men for your little love crusade."
  3412. >You snort in contempt at his offer.
  3413. "What makes you think I'll hand her over to a degenerate like you?"
  3414. >He shakes his head. "How long you think I've been following you, dumbass? I've got everything. Info on all the missing men you 'recruited', hard evidence of Little Miss Loudmouth, and best of all, the location of the portal."
  3415. >Your poker face falters, and you clench your jaw.
  3416. >"Oh, yeah. I'm sure the CIA would love to know there's a gate to another world, ripe for exploitation, nestled away on American soil. Be honest, what do you think they'll do first? Install a puppet state, or just straight-up assassinate your Princess?" He holds up your photograph between two fingers before tearing it apart.
  3417. "Enough!"
  3418. >"Ooh, I touch a nerve?"
  3419. "Listen to me very carefully, you son of a bitch. I'm not playing your fucking game. Count your breaths. You don't have many left."
  3420. >"Like I was trying to say before," he continues, undeterred, "you decide you're too good for this, or choose to be a hero again, you're screwed. I don't get home safe and sound, everything gets leaked. Automatically. Game over."
  3421. >You scoff.
  3422. "You built a fucking whistleblower failsafe."
  3423. >"You're a professional," he concedes, motioning to his injuries. "Anything less would be negligence on my part. I need some way to keep your hot head in line, and this works out rather nice, I'd say."
  3424. "So I bring her to you, then what? You'd keep quiet? Why would I trust you?"
  3425. >"Because," he answers ever-so-candidly, "you're buying my continued silence. You bring me a couple of them mares a month, and that gives me incentive to keep my mouth shut. It's mutually beneficial."
  3426. >You stare back at him frigidly.
  3427. "You're kidding me."
  3428. >"Makes sense, doesn't it? You have access. No one's going to miss them. You just disappear a few loners every so often and nobody's the wiser. Easy."
  3429. >He means it. He's actually extorting you.
  3430. >This can't be happening. There has to be another way.
  3431. >Think. What does he want? Deeply, truly want? A need that's going unfulfilled?
  3432. >Validation. He's irate you paired Bon Bon with someone else over him.
  3433. >That was years ago, and he still hasn't gotten over it. He really wanted to be with her.
  3434. >Holy shit, that's it. Men are shaped by circumstance. This is the man you would have become if you didn't have love in your life. He's who you'd be without Celestia.
  3435. >He needs to find that love to change. To be better.
  3436. >Instinctively, you try to bargain with him, extending an offer you're not sure you'd even uphold, in a desperate bid to contrive any possible way out of this situation.
  3437. "Cyril, listen. I can get you your own mare. A pony that would want to be with you. Your soul mate."
  3438. >You try your absolute hardest to earnestly reason with him, and all he does in response is just... laugh.
  3439. >He laughs.
  3440. >Like it wasn't even the thing he cared about from the start.
  3441. >"You think this shit's about love? Get your head out of your ass."
  3442. >Jesus fucking Christ.
  3443. >He didn't actually want Bon Bon.
  3444. >He just loathed the fact that someone out there decided he wasn't good enough.
  3445. >All this fucking time, this shitstorm brought to your door that ruined your life, was all for the sake of one prick's hopelessly inflated ego.
  3446. >That maddens you more than any other part of this situation ever could.
  3447. >This man, this jackass, this certifiably insane psychopath, who's been following you for years, has got you cornered. He took his sweet time, covered his tracks, and thought of everything necessary to outwit you.
  3448. >Through sheer force of will alone, this inhuman, unworthy, sadistic fuck holds all the leverage, and you have no recourse left.
  3449. >Your epiphany was utter bullshit. Love can't fix this. He's not going to change. He's beyond helping.
  3450. >The purest love in the universe couldn't save this wretch.
  3451. >And that?
  3452. >That's what kills the spark in your heart.
  3453. >All this time, you wanted to believe love could save lost souls. You dedicated your life to the cause of love because you truly believed it meant something greater. In your eyes, no cause was more noble than that. If it couldn't save you, then nothing ever could.
  3454. >You brought together lonely souls separated by entire worlds. Love was what bridged that gap. Not you, not the portal, but love. In a very literal sense, love was the only thing that ever crossed your world to theirs.
  3455. >Every time you stepped through that portal, it was for love. The same holds true for Rainbow Dash.
  3456. >You came to Equestria knowing it was your purpose. You pleaded with Celestia to establish the initiative because you believed in the purity of this love when you couldn't even believe in yourself.
  3457. >The only reason you let yourself fall in love with her was because of that belief. That your love would be enough for her, even if you couldn't be.
  3458. >So if love isn't this transcendental force that overcomes everything, then...
  3459. >What is it?
  3460. >Cyril stares back at you, bemused by your expression. "Oh, geez, don't tell me they really have you believing that soul mate shit? You think the whole world's sunshine and rainbows, don't you?"
  3461. >You glance up at him curiously.
  3462. >Sunshine and rainbows.
  3463. >Those two things mean a hell of a lot to you.
  3464. >More than he could possibly understand.
  3465. >The anger fades from your eyes, and for the first time, you simply look back at the man sitting across from you with genuine, heartfelt pity.
  3466. >He leans forward and tosses your book back to you. "Let me tell you something, boyo. Love don't mean shit in the real world."
  3467. >Breathing deeply, you gaze down at the book in your hand.
  3468. >He's right. It doesn't.
  3469. >Not in this world.
  3470.  
  3471. * * * Act III * * *
  3472.  
  3473. 20
  3474. >You kick open your front door and stumble inside.
  3475. >You left the car parked halfway up your long, winding driveway. At a certain point, you decided it wasn't worth the effort and walked the rest of the way home, leaving the keys in the ignition.
  3476. >Following your first instinct mindlessly, you go straight for the liquor cabinet, and pour some cognac into a tumbler.
  3477. >Glass in hand, you stagger over to the couch and collapse down on it. The world around you is slurred and hazy and filled with savage violence.
  3478. >But you?
  3479. >You're just fine.
  3480. >You always make out fine.
  3481. >Lying back, you take a sip. The odd angle causes a bit to dribble down your chin, onto your shirt.
  3482. >You throw your head back and groan irritably before setting the glass down and sitting up.
  3483. >All throughout tonight, you'd managed to get through without so much as a scuff. That was saying something, between the gunshots, the chokeholds, and all those people screaming.
  3484. >The bloodspray got practically everywhere, but you, deft as you are, managed to stay spotless.
  3485. >Now, after all that... you spilled brandy on your tuxedo.
  3486. >That's it, isn't it? Painfully apt.
  3487. >God can't lay a finger on you. No one's ever made you bleed. The better part of a decade spent refining these skills, and you always slip through unharmed.
  3488. >The only way shitty things ever happen to you is when they're set in motion by your hand alone.
  3489. >...you did this to yourself, Anon.
  3490. >This is who you are.
  3491. >A fucking monster.
  3492. >That's why you didn't even wait till you got home to get plastered.
  3493. >You just needed those screams to stop.
  3494. >They never fucking stop.
  3495. >You loosen your bow tie, kick your feet up on the coffee table, and turn the TV on.
  3496. >Oh, great, SNL is playing. Something to turn your brain off to. Studio laughter will drown out your sorrows.
  3497. >That and a bottle of brandy.
  3498. >You only make it through two sketches before the phone rings.
  3499. >Staring down at it, you dread the expectation on you to answer. It's a good fifteen seconds before you summon the courage.
  3500. >Slowly, you raise the phone up to your ear.
  3501. "V."
  3502. >"Good work tonight," he says, sounding only half-present. "Next contract is slated. Needs us both. 220, you and I split the take."
  3503. >You stay silent.
  3504. >"You there?"
  3505. "I'm done."
  3506. >"What?" he asks, his tone shifting. Clearly, that got his attention.
  3507. >You respond in the most calm, calculated manner possible.
  3508. "I'm not doing it anymore. I'm out."
  3509. >"What are you saying? You don't 'get out.' There is no 'getting out' of this life."
  3510. "I don't care. Tell them I'm done, they can get someone else to join you. If it's a problem, they can have the six mil sitting in my account."
  3511. >"Are you fucking insane? You're worth more to them than your money. They won't let you do this."
  3512. "That's too bad."
  3513. >"Jesus, I don't even want to be doing this over the phone," he stresses. "Listen to me. They will kill you. The only way out is in a casket. You don't get to walk away. The enemies you've made will hunt you to the ends of the earth."
  3514. "Then let 'em know I'll be waiting."
  3515. >Completely exasperated, he scoffs at you. "You're really doing this to me? Years running ops together, and you think you can fuck off into the wind just like that? What, you grow a conscience? A few bad nightmares keep you up and you decide you're out?"
  3516. "See, that's the thing, V."
  3517. >You throw back the last sip of brandy and stare into the empty glass.
  3518. "I don't have nightmares."
  3519.  
  3520. >Six days.
  3521. >That's how long you spend holed up in your house.
  3522. >V was right on one thing. They'll be coming for you.
  3523. >It'll likely be the men you work for. If not them, they'll just sell you out to another faction who will.
  3524. >Either way, they're out for your blood. And frankly, you're ready to go.
  3525. >But you're taking them down with you.
  3526. >After that phone call, you'd rigged your house with a couple dozen pounds of C4, a fortuitous holdover from your days in the Arab Spring. You'd just been sitting on it till now.
  3527. >So when they do come knocking on your door, you'll have something that knocks right back.
  3528. >Six days.
  3529. >That's how long you spend bumming around your house, detonator constantly in hand, before someone shows up.
  3530. >In the dead of night, you go to your kitchen for a glass of water. You flip the light on, and there, sitting at your kitchen island, is the only man on earth who could make you hesitate to press that button.
  3531. "Hey, V."
  3532. >He doesn't greet you back. He just gazes silently, unamused by your casual demeanor.
  3533. "You tell them I'm out?"
  3534. >He sighs, obviously frustrated with you. "I had to, didn't I? Couldn't take the job without you, couldn't say no without selling you out."
  3535. "And they put a bounty on me?"
  3536. >"They did."
  3537. >You stare at him tensely.
  3538. >"I'm not here to collect," he assures you, albeit indignantly. "Though maybe I should. In our tenure together, you learned a lot about me. The kind of things I can't risk getting out."
  3539. >Still feeling uneasy, you stand there awkwardly, holding the detonator. He motions for you to join him.
  3540. >You come over and take the seat across from him.
  3541. >"You planning on blowing us up?" he asks, nodding to the detonator.
  3542. "Haven't decided yet."
  3543. >He shakes his head in disappointment. "I don't know why the hell you'd do this. We had a great thing going."
  3544. "'Great' is subjective."
  3545. >"I just don't get it. No one forced you into this. You got yourself into wet work and did a damn good job at it. There is no reason for you to drop out now, nothing to be gained."
  3546. "Maybe not."
  3547. >Looking down at the counter, you pause.
  3548. "Maybe there's nothing to gain, but at least this way I can stop losing."
  3549. >"And you think blowing yourself to hell's gonna take care of that?"
  3550. "It's too late to go back. There's nothing to be done but accept what's coming to me."
  3551. >He sits back in his chair and runs his hand over his face, exhausted by your obstinacy.
  3552. "How did you find this place?"
  3553. >"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," he replies, leaning forward again. "I've known for a few months now."
  3554. >He taps his foot restlessly. "Years I've known you. You covered all your tracks, sanitized everything. Burner phones, aliases that go nowhere. Your car's registered under a bogus address and the house is scrubbed from property records. You did everything right, and I still found this place. It just took a few extra years."
  3555. "What's your point?"
  3556. >"They'll do the same thing. As long as you breathe, you're a liability, a loose end. Let's say you can barricade yourself in here for five, ten, twenty years. Doesn't matter. Sooner or later, they'll show up. That's how you want to live out your life? A prisoner in your own home?"
  3557. "What's the alternative? Run off with my tail between my legs, constantly looking over my shoulder?"
  3558. >"No," he answers plainly. "Different option, same ending. I told you on the phone, the enemies you made will hunt you to the ends of the earth. That leaves you only one solution. Do you get what I'm saying?"
  3559. >You stare back at him blankly.
  3560. >He accentuates the next sentence deliberately. "There is nowhere on earth you'll be safe."
  3561. >Whispering to yourself, you repeat his words slowly.
  3562. "Nowhere on earth."
  3563.  
  3564. >That was six years ago to the very day. In that time, you did what you never thought possible.
  3565. >You changed.
  3566. >And then, you had it all ripped away from you, leaving you right where you began.
  3567. >So it's only fitting that this chaotic chapter of your life ends in the same way it began: with you kicking open your front door and stumbling inside.
  3568. >The action is the same, but the circumstances are not.
  3569. >You were blind stinking drunk then. You're a sober man now.
  3570. >That night, you got out of a bloody fight unscathed. Today, you came out of a scathing fight bloody.
  3571. >Forwards or backwards makes no difference when you're going in a circle.
  3572. >Staggering into your living room, you can barely hold yourself up. Shooting pains run up and down your body.
  3573. >Your shoulder stings like hell, your ribs are battered, and your nose is definitely broken.
  3574. >But there's no time to lose. The fate of everything you've built is at stake now, and that's a lot of pressure.
  3575. >So if you're paying no mind to your beaten body, you especially don't have time to address V sitting in your armchair, wearing a blood-stained jacket much like yours.
  3576. >"You weren't supposed to come back, Anon," he says gravely.
  3577. >Not wanting to hear it, you ignore him and stagger to the stairs.
  3578. "You don't know my name. You never knew my name."
  3579. >"You were supposed to stay there. That was the deal."
  3580. >Leaning on the banister, you pull yourself up the staircase.
  3581. "I was being careful."
  3582. >"Evidently not," he says, watching you ascend.
  3583. >Heading into the bedroom, you grab your suitcase and hoist it onto the bed.
  3584. >V stands in the doorway.
  3585. >"You're lucky they haven't found you yet."
  3586. "Yeah, well, someone much worse has."
  3587. >You start packing everything you can think of. Not clothes. Files. Your computer. Gold. Everything you have that can tie you back to Equestria.
  3588. >"Look at yourself. When we were together, I kept you safe. I watched your back."
  3589. >Still packing, you reply sharply.
  3590. "I didn't ask you to. I masked everything. I kept myself secure. The fact that they haven't gotten to me proves that."
  3591. >In a rush, you throw the last of the belongings into the suitcase and zip it up.
  3592. >"I was trying to protect you."
  3593. >You pause just a moment to answer him solemnly.
  3594. "I know what I did."
  3595. >Returning to your task, you drag your suitcase off the bed and walk up the doorway he stands in, staring directly into his cold eyes.
  3596. "Get out of my way."
  3597. >He just looks back at you and shakes his head softly. "I'm not in your way, Anon."
  3598. >Slowly, he steps aside, and you march out into the hall, dragging your luggage behind you.
  3599. >Back down the stairs you go, out the door, to the driveway.
  3600. >You heave the suitcase into the trunk of your car, all the while grimacing from the pain, and shut it. Then you climb into the driver's seat and start the car.
  3601. >Looking into the rearview mirror, you lock eyes with V, now sitting in the back seat. He just won't leave.
  3602. >"There's no such thing as friends in this business, I know that. I just expected a little more from you."
  3603. "That was a mistake."
  3604. >"You know what this is, then?" he asks.
  3605. >Taking a deep breath, you grip the steering wheel.
  3606. "I'm not stupid. I'm anxious, I'm reckless, I'm fucking insane, but I'm not stupid."
  3607. >You turn the car around and make your way down the driveway.
  3608. >"You don't seem particularly scared."
  3609. "Sorry, but I've got real shit to worry about right now."
  3610. >Near the end of your driveway, you stop the car and get out, walking off into the tree line.
  3611. >You reach your arm into a hollowed-out tree trunk and withdraw a lockbox from it before returning to the car.
  3612. >You shut the door and open the box.
  3613. >"You still have that?" he asks, glancing nonchalantly over your seat. "All this time, you never got rid of it?"
  3614. "I was right not to, wasn't I?"
  3615. >You shift the car into drive and head out once again.
  3616. >"You know," he says quietly, looking out the window, "that night, I was so sure you were going to blow us both up. When I saw you, I didn't recognize the face that looked back. You looked like you were out of your mind. I thought you were going to kill me, and when I left, I was so relieved you didn't."
  3617. "Funny how that works out."
  3618. >As you turn onto the main road, you pick up the detonator, and without so much as a glance back, you press the button.
  3619.  
  3620. 21
  3621. >She is my love.
  3622. >Those words you had once been so terrified to admit now ring true in your mind.
  3623. >An affair of the heart is something that begins meekly, without announcing itself. It instills in not much but a whimper, a stolen glance, the accidental brush of her mane against your skin.
  3624. >Innocuous things you'd never notice were there unless you were looking for them.
  3625. >Some fall in love hard and fast, and fall out in equal measure. Perhaps you should count yourself lucky that your love blossomed so gradually.
  3626. >That first night you spent with her, it felt right. It was the culmination of every second you shared together.
  3627. >It was like pieces of completely different puzzles fitting together in a way you'd never anticipated.
  3628. >You gave in to her wishes because you thought she deserved to be happy for once.
  3629. >But what if she deserves happiness, and you don't? How can you be together and not be together?
  3630. >It took just one night with her to change your outlook on everything.
  3631. >It took one more to undo all that progress. If there even was any to begin with.
  3632. >God doesn't play dice. Everything happening now is the result of the decisions you made. This uncanny feeling— that the universe is driving you apart so quickly after bringing you together— has been wrought by your hands alone.
  3633. >Every time you come back, you loathe having to face her for one reason or another. That's not how it should be. It should be a relief, not a terror.
  3634. >In some bitter way, your fears were confirmed. You cannot be enough for her.
  3635. >She needs to be happy, yes, but more than that, she needs to be safe. You can't be the one to do that.
  3636. >Right now, she lives in blissful ignorance, unaware of the misery you're bringing to her palace. The damage you'll do far outweighs any semblance of tranquility you can offer her.
  3637. >Maybe it's best to keep her in the dark, even if means not ending up together. She'd never have to know what a mistake it would have been.
  3638. >You've been outwitted, owed in part to your sheer ineptitude. The man was right, crass as he was. Equestria has softened your edge.
  3639. >For five years, you saw that as a good thing. Ponies were, ironically, making you more human. You had pangs of empathy where none were before. You doubted your motives sometimes, but the impulses were there.
  3640. >Yet you neglected to consider what that softening did to your skills. Recruiting made you more a man of insight and less a man of action.
  3641. >It's been ages since you've fought a man, let alone killed one. Though the muscle memory remained, your combat proficiency has withered.
  3642. >Now, it's too late. He has you over a barrel.
  3643. >What are you to do? Hand Rainbow Dash over to your extorter?
  3644. >Truthfully, it's a solution. A morbid one, but a solution nonetheless. His reasoning was sound; give him a mare every so often and he has no incentive to stir trouble.
  3645. >Even if he demands more, you could refuse. He's arrogant, but not so much so that he'd shoot himself in the foot. He'd rather have something than blow it all out of spite.
  3646. >He has one card, and once he plays it, he's left with nothing. He knows that.
  3647. >Equestria trusts you implicitly. It would not be hard to lure a mare to Earth under false pretenses. Most of them would do anything to meet their match.
  3648. >The trouble, then, comes in the cover-up. You can't be implicated in their disappearance.
  3649. >It's feasible. It's all in your skill set.
  3650. >And if that's the price of keeping Equestria safe...
  3651. >...
  3652. >Anon, you can't do this.
  3653. >You can hardly believe yourself. Why are you even entertaining it? Is your self-serving impulse really that ingrained?
  3654. >Fuck, is he right? Is this who you are?
  3655. >No. It doesn't matter what your instinct is. You know this is wrong, and that's enough.
  3656. >You couldn't possibly sacrifice your friend to that brute. Who knows what he'd do to her?
  3657. >So... what option does that leave you with?
  3658. >As you stand before the portal, you're met with the same queasy feeling you had six years ago.
  3659. >Here you are, in the great American wilderness, dozens of miles from the nearest living soul.
  3660. >Though you wouldn't know if you were wrong, would you? Seems like anybody could be following you these days, and you'd scarcely know the difference.
  3661. >But the dead leaves of winter crunch beneath your shifting feet, and as you shut your eyes and breathe in the crisp air, you truly feel alone.
  3662. >Because there's no one coming to save you.
  3663. >So you do the only thing you can do.
  3664. >You step through the portal.
  3665. >The world shimmers around you, and you emerge in the marble chamber, the single most austere room of the royal palace.
  3666. >You sling your weighty bag over your shoulder and walk to the door.
  3667. >As you step out into the hall, the guard stationed outside promptly motions to salute. When your bruised face enters his line of sight, he does a concerned double take, but quickly returns to his stoic demeanor, facing straight ahead.
  3668. >You don't bother making eye contact as you pass him by. But halfway down the hall, you stop yourself and slowly turn around.
  3669. "Hey, guard."
  3670. >He turns his head to you. "Yes, sir?"
  3671. >You take a few steps closer.
  3672. "What's your name?"
  3673. >"Blazing Shield, sir."
  3674. "You ever been in combat before?"
  3675. >He pauses briefly. "In the academy, w—"
  3676. "No, I don't mean training. I want to know if you've ever had to fight for your life."
  3677. >"No, sir," he answers frankly. "There hasn't been much occasion to fight since Princess Luna's return."
  3678. >One hand clutching your rib, you nod absentmindedly.
  3679. "You have a wife, Blazing?"
  3680. >"Yes, sir. One I love very much."
  3681. "Would you die for her?"
  3682. >His gallant expression breaks. "W-What?"
  3683. "If you had to sacrifice your life for her safety, would you do so?"
  3684. >"I would."
  3685. "And for Equestria? Are you willing to die to protect the throne?"
  3686. >"For Queen and country," he declares gallantly.
  3687. >Staring off into the distance, you repeat his words to yourself.
  3688. "For Queen and country."
  3689. >"Are you alright, sir?"
  3690. >You return your gaze back to him.
  3691. "I'll be fine."
  3692. >Turning back around, you set off down the hall once again.
  3693. "Everything will be fine."
  3694. >You ascend the grand staircase to Celestia's chamber at the top. The various servants you pass all look at you with concern, but no one dares to say a word.
  3695. >Once you finally reach the ornate doors that mark the entrance to her chamber, you stop. On the other side, you hear something you've never heard before.
  3696. >The faint sound of the Princess humming.
  3697. >It's a bright and cheerful melody, in that unmistakably soothing cadence of hers.
  3698. >Ever so quietly, you lay one hand upon the intricate wood carving.
  3699. >You shut your eyes and simply listen to her hum her pleasant tune.
  3700. >Beyond this door, she's doing something mundane like packing up her belongings or signing away her final decrees, fully believing her happy ending lies just around the corner.
  3701. >You lean your forehead against the woodwork, careful not to make a sound.
  3702. >You love this mare to no end. The sound of her being unable to quietly contain her sunny disposition swells your heart. Her innocence in this moment is nothing short of enthralling.
  3703. >We are our true selves when no one is watching. There's something so hauntingly beautiful in seeing someone behave so freely, without having to fear judgment or uphold appearances.
  3704. >In this moment, Celestia is happy. Once you open this door, you strip that away from her.
  3705. >You don't want to be the one to hurt her.
  3706. >Gently, you withdraw your head and hand from the door.
  3707. >Just let her hum.
  3708. >Let her have one last peaceful night.
  3709. >She's earned that much.
  3710. >Without a sound, you march down the stairs, exit the palace, and make your way home.
  3711.  
  3712. >As you open the door to your apartment, you flick the light on.
  3713. >All around your home, on every counter, every shelf, sit dozens of extinguished candles.
  3714. >You'd forgotten your last night here was the night you spent with her.
  3715. >You set your bag down and take a look around. The flowers from dinner still sit on your table, now wilted. Through your bedroom door, you see your sheets still rumpled from your slumber beside her.
  3716. >It was like walking into a snapshot of that night perpetually frozen in time.
  3717. >With a sigh, you head back out the door. It hurts far too much to be there right now.
  3718. >Slowly, you trudge back down the stairs. If you can't face her, and you can't stay home, then you have nowhere left to go.
  3719. >You push open the building's front door and step out into the chilly night.
  3720. >There's no place for you in the world.
  3721. >Nowhere except this stoop.
  3722. >You sit down on the steps and gaze out at the Canterlot skyline, where the top of the palace is just barely visible over the rooftops.
  3723. >Up there, the love of your life is fantasizing about being with you, about the life you promised to build with her.
  3724. >Staring at the light in the tower is heart-rending. Either there is no justice in the world, or this is the justice you deserve.
  3725. >Either way, you're left to pick up the pieces.
  3726. >You don't have the energy to continually mull it over in your head like you always do. Self-deprecation is so draining.
  3727. >Instead, you empty your mind and stare out into the night, oblivious to the bitter cold slowly blanketing you. Nothing matters anymore.
  3728. >You don't know how much time passes before something snaps you out of it.
  3729. >You hear the creak of a window sliding above you, and a faint voice coming from it.
  3730. >"Anon?"
  3731. >You look up to see a small head poking out from the third floor, and a dark mane hanging over the windowsill, your own personal Rapunzel.
  3732. >It's dark, but you recognize the glint in her violet eyes.
  3733. >"What are you doing out there?"
  3734. >You answer her emotionlessly.
  3735. "Sitting."
  3736. >"You're going to get sick out there," she says worriedly. "Come inside."
  3737. >Without a thought, you rise up and go back into the building. As you come up the landing to the third floor, you see her waiting outside her door at the end of the hall.
  3738. >Upon your approach, the concern on her face grows much more severe. "Heavens, what happened to you?" she gasps.
  3739. "I've been wondering that myself lately."
  3740. >"Get in here," she says, ushering you into her apartment.
  3741. >You stand stiffly in her living room while she runs into the kitchen.
  3742. >"Oh, where is it?" she mutters to herself anxiously, while rummaging around. After a moment, she returns, pulling you to the door by the pant leg once again. "I thought for certain I had a first aid kit. We need to get you to the hospital. Though, I doubt the overnight attending physician is qualified for human injuries, perhaps if I call Dr. Har—"
  3743. >You pull yourself from her grasp before reaching the door.
  3744. "Octavia, I'm fine. I can walk, can't I?"
  3745. >"Hardly!" she exclaims fearfully. "Oh, Anon, who did this to you?"
  3746. "No one you know. You don't need to worry, it's over now, and I'm perfectly safe."
  3747. >Not exactly the truth, but true enough.
  3748. >"Are you certain?"
  3749. "It's alright. I promise."
  3750. >"What were you even doing sitting out there?"
  3751. "I—"
  3752. >You hesitate.
  3753. "I didn't want to be home."
  3754. >"Well," she says, shutting the door and circling back around you, "you can stay here a bit."
  3755. "Oh, no, I don't want to impose on you, and—"
  3756. >"He's not here, Anon," she cuts you off. "You needn't be so afraid."
  3757. >You glance away guiltily.
  3758. "Where is he?"
  3759. >"Trottingham, packing up my mother's things. I'd be with him, but they wouldn't let me out of practice. The heartless clods wouldn't know the meaning of bereavement leave if it hit them on the head."
  3760. "I'm sorry."
  3761. >"Just as well. I wouldn't have found you if I hadn't stayed behind."
  3762. "I'm not some wounded puppy."
  3763. >"You wouldn't know it from looking," she says quietly. "Have you eaten?"
  3764. "I'm not hungry."
  3765. >"Come now, I won't have any of that." She leads you over to the sofa. "Sit, and I'll make you something."
  3766. >You comply without objection. There isn't any fight left in you, anyway. You are water, rolling with the waves.
  3767. >The world feels fuzzy, as if you're not really here. It's likely mild dissociation.
  3768. >It feels strange to be lucid enough to realize that while still experiencing it.
  3769. >Still, you don't care enough anymore to do anything but sit there quietly.
  3770. >After a few minutes, she returns with a bowl of soup. Carefully, she sets it down on the table in front of you and instructs you to eat up.
  3771. >While you eat, she climbs up onto her armchair. She watches you pensively.
  3772. >"I can't believe anypony would want to hurt you."
  3773. "You don't know Earth."
  3774. >"But the men you bring are—"
  3775. "—are the very best. Most of us aren't like that."
  3776. >"Most of them, you mean?" she corrects you, slightly puzzled.
  3777. "No."
  3778. >She says nothing further until you finish the bowl.
  3779. >As you set the spoon down, she asks "Shall I get you some more?"
  3780. >You shake your head.
  3781. >She takes the bowl to the sink. When she comes back, you summon the strength to meet her eyes.
  3782. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when you lost your mother."
  3783. >"It's alright," she whispers, taking her place on the armchair. "I'd just thrown myself at you, and it's not like you didn't leave me in compassionate hands."
  3784. "Still, I... I didn't know how to face you. I told myself it was for your own good, but really, I think was just a coward."
  3785. >"Who's to say what would have happened? Maybe I'd never have given him a chance if you'd stayed around."
  3786. "Maybe we'd have ended up together."
  3787. >There's a hint of surprise in her expression. "I thought you said you'd never let yourself go down that road."
  3788. "Yeah, well, seems like I got there anyway."
  3789. >The two of you struggle to meet each other's eyes.
  3790. "I try to think everything through, but I never understand why things work out the way they do."
  3791. >"What do you mean?"
  3792. "I tell myself that everything that happens is my fault, but there are just some things I can't imagine happening any other way than they did."
  3793. >"Like what?"
  3794. "You and me."
  3795. >She shifts uneasily in her chair.
  3796. >"I need you in my life, Anon. Regardless of what could have been, the fact remains that we're here now. Whether you stay or not, I'll always wonder. At least this way, you're still in my life."
  3797. "No matter what we did, I don't think we would have fallen in love. We both fill a hole in each other's hearts that no one else quite fits, but at the same time, it falls just short of being enough. The way I feel for you isn't love, but it also isn't not love. You loom so large in my heart that I don't think I'll ever get you out."
  3798. >The silence lingers for a few seconds.
  3799. >"When I buried my mother," she whispers solemnly, "I didn't cry. Vasily held me close and told me it was okay, but I just couldn't do it."
  3800. >She looks into your eyes.
  3801. >"The only time I let myself cry for her was with you. Right here, in this chair. You held me, and you told me the words I hang onto every single day."
  3802. "What were they?"
  3803. >"'I want to help you be happy.'"
  3804. >You lean back against the cushions.
  3805. "I don't think I'm capable of that anymore."
  3806. >"You know me, Anon. You picked the right man. Vasily makes me want to be somepony more social, more friendly. He's helping me become the kind of pony I want to be, but you, you let me be who I really am. And sometimes, I need to be able to stop trying so hard to improve, and just be myself, even if I hate that version of me."
  3807. "It's not a good thing to know what that's like. It's dark, and it's lonely. It feels like I might never get out."
  3808. >"I know," she says reassuringly. "Believe me, I know more than most. Love alone will never change who we are. But we can still hope, can't we? That one day, things will improve."
  3809. "And if it doesn't? If it slowly eats alive not just us, but the ones that we love?"
  3810. >"Perhaps it will. All my life, I've never felt good enough. I worked and worked to get my dream career and still I feel inferior to those around me. They look down on me with such contempt that it's ingrained deep in the way I see myself. I'm not from Canterlot, and I'll never be one of them. I hate my job, I hate my life, I hate who I am, but there's one thing I'll never hate: the man I come home to."
  3811. >You hang your head.
  3812. >"You gave that to me," she says. "And no matter what, I will always love you for that."
  3813. "I just don't know what to make of my life anymore. I don't think there's going to be a happy ending."
  3814. >"It doesn't matter what you think. The future will always come, whether you believe in it or not. There is no ending, not in any real sense. The sun will always rise again. And I have to hope that you'll be alright, because if you're not, I don't know what I'd do. I want you to love, and I want you to feel loved."
  3815. >For a few seconds, you fall silent, building up the courage to confess to her.
  3816. >And then, you speak.
  3817. "Celestia's the one I love."
  3818. >Her eyes grow just a bit wider.
  3819. >"Does... does she...?"
  3820. "Yeah."
  3821. >"That's good," she whispers sincerely. "You deserve to be happy together."
  3822. "I don't think we can be."
  3823. >"That's absurd. If you truly love one another, then you should be together."
  3824. "Sometimes love can be doomed."
  3825. >"You don't know for certain that's the case."
  3826. >You pause before responding.
  3827. "When I got back tonight, I couldn't bring myself to face her. It doesn't even feel right staying in my own home. I couldn't find shelter in her love, but I had no problem letting myself feel safe with you. She's the light, and I'm the darkness."
  3828. >"I'm sure she understands sadness," she says sympathetically.
  3829. "It's more than that. She is to me as he is to you. She makes me want to be better. But I can't always be better. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I doubt whether I can be good enough, and you know what it's like to not feel good enough. When I'm with you, I don't ever have to worry about that, because it doesn't hurt you the way it hurts her."
  3830. >She thinks on it a moment before getting out of her chair. Wordlessly, she comes around the coffee table and stops in front of you, extending her hoof for you take.
  3831. >"I promise that I'll only ever let you down," she says confidently.
  3832. >You smile down at her before tenderly grabbing her hoof and giving it a shake.
  3833. >"Now promise me that you would do the same."
  3834. "I promise."
  3835. >She beams at you before releasing her hoof. "Good. Now we'll never have to worry about not being good enough. We'll be miserable, but we'll be miserable together."
  3836. "I got to say, it feels kind of nice."
  3837. >Her cheeks turn flush.
  3838. >"It certainly does."
  3839.  
  3840. >The desert sun above beats down on your tired body. Your mount steadily gallops across the vast expanse of terrain, the rhythmic thumping of its hooves reverberating in your ears.
  3841. >You've been journeying for the past few days, the trek across the sand dunes comprising the last two of them.
  3842. >Up ahead, you finally see the red cliffs flanked by two arch formations on either side. It looks too precise to be anything but your target.
  3843. >With your destination in sight, you spur your mount with your heels and charge forward through the final stretch.
  3844. >Upon drawing up to the massive cliffs, you dismount and approach the rocky face. The entrance to the cave is obscure from afar, only apparent from a tight angle.
  3845. >You reach a hand out to your horse.
  3846. "Wait for me here, girl."
  3847. >Pulling a flashlight from your pack, you head inside.
  3848. >For the first few hundred meters, it seems like any ordinary cave. It gets narrow down to a passage you have to squeeze through, then opens up into a larger cavern.
  3849. >Eventually, though, the natural, jagged rock faces start to look more deliberate.
  3850. >The cavern slowly becomes a hall, with carved, smooth walls standing flush with the ground.
  3851. >Along these walls are a series of faint engravings from floor to ceiling, caked with ages of sand. You pause to wipe the dust off one section.
  3852. >It's the crude shape of a horse. You brush away more dust around it.
  3853. >Horses. Plural. All arranged in some kind of ritualistic herd.
  3854. >You continue down the tunnel, wiping away more sand as you go.
  3855. >More horses.
  3856. >You move faster now, rubbing off random spots along the walls, desperate to see if it ever changes.
  3857. >It doesn't.
  3858. >All the way down, it's just horses, arranged in the same pattern. This whole hallway, decorated with nothing but identical shapes going on and on boundlessly.
  3859. >Who would expend such immense effort carving thousands of identical horses, and for what possible reason?
  3860. >You wonder how far this tunnel could possibly go. You shine your light ahead to see no end in sight.
  3861. >For a moment, you debate turning back and cutting your losses. But something deep within you is pulling you further in.
  3862. >It's a peculiar feeling deep in your core, like there's something meaningful you need to see down there.
  3863. >So on you go, periodically stopping to check if the engravings ever take another form, yet they never do.
  3864. >Eventually, the tunnel begins to widen.
  3865. >The walls and ceiling get further apart the deeper you go, until they're so distant that they can longer be seen with your light.
  3866. >The sheer enormity of this chamber fills you with dread. Anything could be lurking here.
  3867. >But fortunately, you don't have to endure much longer, because you soon come face-to-face with a wall larger than anything you've seen, stretching out infinitely.
  3868. >This wall, too, is spanned by etches of horses in every direction.
  3869. >But sitting square in the center, surrounded by them, something else is carved.
  3870. >The unmistakable figure of a man.
  3871.  
  3872. >You sit up suddenly, thrashing under your blanket and gasping for air.
  3873. >It's alright. You're alright.
  3874. >"Bad dreams?"
  3875. >You look over to see Octavia, curled up in her chair.
  3876. >You woke her up.
  3877. "No, I— I don't have nightmares."
  3878. >"Sorry," she says, yawning. "Just sounded like you were scared."
  3879. >That can't have been a nightmare. It's not possible.
  3880. >What just happened?
  3881. >She shuts her eyes. "Try to get some rest."
  3882. >You lie back on the couch, readjusting your blanket. Feeling disconcerted, you stare up at her ceiling.
  3883. >Most nights, that ceiling is the only thing standing between you and her.
  3884. "You don't have to stay with me. You can sleep in your bed."
  3885. >"It's fine," she murmurs. "I don't like being alone, anyway."
  3886. >You're wide awake now. You can't imagine going back to whatever that was.
  3887. >"Anon?" she asks gently.
  3888. >You roll your head over to face her.
  3889. "What is it?"
  3890. >She looks across the table at you, her tired eyes clearly visible in the dark of night.
  3891. >"You know how I said tonight that I need you in my life?"
  3892. "Yeah."
  3893. >"I was wrong. It's not that I need you. I just need you to be happy."
  3894. >After hearing that, you don't have as much trouble falling back asleep.
  3895.  
  3896. 22
  3897. >In the morning, you get up before Octavia.
  3898. >It feels strangely intimate to see her sleeping, looking so at peace, curled up in her armchair.
  3899. >Because though nothing actually happened between you, she is still technically in a relationship with another man.
  3900. >So talking about your nebulous feelings for one another, and then spending the night together...
  3901. >It reeks of infidelity far more than it should.
  3902. >Neither Vasily nor Celestia know anything about this. Not that there's anything to know about.
  3903. >But you can't honestly say it's purely platonic. You'd just be lying to yourself.
  3904. >This much is clear, though: you don't love her, and she doesn't love you. You just care too deeply about each other to let go. And given everything, that's understandable.
  3905. >She understands you in ways Celestia may never know. You're not soul mates in any sense of the word, but with her, you feel a little less alone.
  3906. >Succinctly put, misery loves company.
  3907. >That's why you committed to the partners you have now. Because deep down, you both know every soul's best match is the one that makes you want to be a better person.
  3908. >Sometimes, that's hard. Some days, it's all you can do just to keep yourself going.
  3909. >Those are the days when you need someone like Octavia in your life.
  3910. >Part of you wishes you could just hole up in her apartment forever. Pretend the world outside simply doesn't exist, and here, you're free to stay your stagnant, miserable self. Free from guilt. Free from judgment.
  3911. >But that's just wishful thinking.
  3912. >The reality is, you're responsible for your actions. You let Equestria down, and it's up to you to set things right.
  3913. >Because if you don't, terrible things could happen.
  3914. >You fold up your blanket neatly, and set it down on her coffee table. Then you take one last look at the sleeping mare, and quietly slip out of her apartment.
  3915. >She'll be okay.
  3916. >Upstairs, you strip off your worn suit and run a hot shower for yourself. Your body feels less tender, though not by much. Your nose is still painfully swollen.
  3917. >During your shower, you clean up some of the worse cuts.
  3918. >Facing Celestia in this state is going to be difficult. You know the emotional stress this is going to inflict on her.
  3919. >Perhaps worse will be confessing that you failed her. You wish you could say you've gotten used to it after all the disappointments you've caused her recently, but this is unequivocally a new low.
  3920. >The blood rinses off with the water and circles the drain.
  3921. >Celestia's entire world is under an unprecedented threat. Even if Equestria's magic can somehow overcome Earth's massive technological advantage, it will be a long and debilitating siege, one that will invariably weigh on her psyche.
  3922. >It's your utmost imperative that it does not come to that. This problem must begin and end with Cyril.
  3923. >You lather soap onto your aching body.
  3924. >But should that fail... you know perfectly well what shadow governments are capable of. You've had contracts working both for and against them. It never mattered. Both sides were equally heinous.
  3925. >Equestria has faced great evil, but not this breed of evil. Car bombs. Mutilations. Mass graves. The sort of things ponies couldn't even begin to fathom.
  3926. >There is no telling what lengths the government would go to to occupy Equestria. It will be a grueling burden that hemorrhages  this world's purity.
  3927. >It's too stressful to even think about.
  3928. >Ponies are too wholesome to be exposed to the debasement of the average man, let alone the cruelest among them. Celestia knew that from the very beginning. Mankind, as a collective, has lost its innocence.
  3929. >To stay unadulterated, Equestria needs to be shielded from that. From you.
  3930. >This headache is killing you.
  3931. >If you're the one who brought this upon Equestria, then that same corruption is still within you.
  3932. >Yes, you. You miserable wretch, you vicious devil, you ticking time bomb.
  3933. >This was you from the start.
  3934. >This is retribution for what you did to get here.
  3935. >You sold your soul to cross over, Anon.
  3936. >And now it's come back to haunt you.
  3937. >You reach out and steady yourself against the shower wall. The pain in your temples is blinding now.
  3938. >It's so much worse than it's ever been before. You can't imagine why.
  3939. >You can't think, you only see white, the ringing in your ears is growing louder and louder until you can finally bear it no more.
  3940. >And you collapse.
  3941.  
  3942. >When you awake, the first sensation that returns is the stream of water coming down on your face.
  3943. >With a groan, you pick yourself up and turn off the shower. The headache is gone, replaced by a vague throbbing.
  3944. >You climb out of the shower and examine yourself in the mirror. Some of the cuts reopened when you fell.
  3945. >You open the medicine cabinet and pull out some bandages.
  3946. >When you shut it, you see V standing behind you in the mirror.
  3947. >His sudden appearance startles you, causing you to drop the bandages in the sink.
  3948. "Jesus Christ."
  3949. >"You remember now," he says. "Why it is you did what you did."
  3950. >You pick the bandages up.
  3951. "I do."
  3952. >"Does it feel better?" he asks. "Knowing your reasons?"
  3953. "Honestly?"
  3954. >You clutch the gauze tightly.
  3955. "No."
  3956. >"I thought it would."
  3957. "Admitting to myself is nothing compared to admitting to her."
  3958. >Slowly, you begin to dress your wounds.
  3959. "I don't know how I could have forgot in the first place."
  3960. >"You didn't," he says calmly. "Not really. I remembered for you."
  3961. "I don't think that counts."
  3962. >"I guess you could say I've been reminding you. Piece by piece. You just had to think the right thoughts first. Plant the seeds so they could sprout."
  3963. >Tearing the bandage from the roll, you set it down.
  3964. "Why now?"
  3965. >"Because you're going to need it."
  3966. "For what?"
  3967. >"You were right. Your day of reckoning has come. How you proceed will define who you are, and you need to remember who you are to know how to proceed."
  3968. >Gripping the edges of the sink, you lean in.
  3969. "I didn't change, did I?"
  3970. >"I can't answer that. It doesn't work that way. I only knew you before, not after."
  3971. "Then at least tell me it wasn't all for nothing. Give me that much."
  3972. >"Of course it wasn't," he reassures you. "So many lives, marked by your hand. That counts for something."
  3973. "And what if I fail? Undo all the good I've done?"
  3974. >"One way or another, you will leave your mark on this world."
  3975. >You pick your head up and stare at him through the mirror.
  3976. "I don't understand."
  3977. >"You're thinking about it all wrong. There is no points total. There are no angels on your shoulders, weighing the good against the bad. Your actions are just that: actions. Pure or evil, we shape each other's lives. No one's keeping track but us. The good aren't rewarded, and the wicked aren't punished. Not in this life, and not in the next."
  3978. "There is no justice."
  3979. >He shakes his head.
  3980. >"Man becomes his own justice."
  3981.  
  3982. >You rap your knuckles wearily upon Celestia's chamber door.
  3983. >"Anon?" she calls out blithely. "Come in!"
  3984. >Very slowly, you push open the heavy wooden door and walk inside.
  3985. >"Oh, my love, I've been so euphoric to finally s—"
  3986. >She falls silent when you finally step past the door into view.
  3987. >A tense air comes between you as you stare expressionlessly into her eyes, and she into yours.
  3988. >"Who did this?" she asks faintly, her voice trembling.
  3989. >Your gaze unwavering, you don't respond.
  3990. >She bridges the gap between you, her strained visage now staring you up close.
  3991. >"Tell me who," she chokes out. Her breaths are shaky, her eyes tear up.
  3992. >Still, you remain silent.
  3993. >"Answer me," she orders you, her tone growing fiercer in a mix of grief and anger. "I'll smite them!" She stamps her hoof down, cracking the tile beneath her, and her mane bursts into flames.
  3994. >The fireball nearly scalds you, and you can't help but wince in fear and back away.
  3995. >Just as quick as it came, the fire dissipates, returning her mane to her normal lustrous sheen, save for a light wisp of smoke trailing off it.
  3996. >When she realizes what she's done, her fury immediately melts away. She rushes up to you and pulls you in, cradling your head against her breast. "I'm sorry," she whispers.
  3997. >Only then do you finally find the courage to speak up.
  3998. "The covenant of secrecy is broken."
  3999. >Her hoof falls from your side.
  4000. "I failed you, Princess."
  4001. >Steadily, she pulls away, bringing her face back into view. "That's not true."
  4002. >Your voice trembles as you continue.
  4003. "I can't leave with you."
  4004. >"No," she murmurs. "Don't do this."
  4005. "I'm sorry, Cel. I have to go."
  4006. >You turn to leave, but her hoof grabs ahold of you.
  4007. >She looks you in the eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks. "You don't get to do this. Not anymore. Not when we love each other."
  4008. >For some reason, you don't hesitate anymore. She is here, and the raw emotion is welling within you. You need to feel something.
  4009. >So you pull her in for a kiss.
  4010. >Your hand finds its way up to her jaw. With your thumb, you wipe a tear away from her cheek.
  4011. >The kiss lasts for several seconds before either of you can find the will to break away.
  4012. >"Sit down," she says softly. "Let me take a look at you."
  4013. >You don't argue. Removing your jacket, you step over to her chaise longue and drape the garment over the armrest. As you sit and undo your shirt, she kneels on the floor before you.
  4014. >It's a pose unbecoming of a Princess, yet for you, she doesn't even think twice.
  4015. >"How bad is it?" she asks.
  4016. "Bad."
  4017. >She looks up at you. "The injuries, I mean."
  4018. "Oh, I'm— I'm fine. Don't worry about that."
  4019. >Celestia peels away your bandages gently and leans in to examine the wounds on your arms and chest.
  4020. >"Stay still."
  4021. >Her horn shimmers a radiant golden hue, and you gaze down at your body to see the cuts gradually shrinking. The wonders of her magic truly know no bounds.
  4022. "I didn't know you could do this."
  4023. >"You never had cause to find out," she replies solemnly.
  4024. >You stay quiet while she works. She spends about a minute on each wound before moving to the next.
  4025. >Eventually, she speaks up. "Why won't you tell me what happened?"
  4026. "Because it doesn't matter. I need to handle this myself."
  4027. >"And your idea of handling it is breaking off our arrangement?"
  4028. >You grimace once she gets to your nose. Having magic coursing through your head is an unsettling feeling.
  4029. "I don't think you understand the gravity of this situation."
  4030. >"I understand. What I don't understand is your insistence on never allowing anyone to help you. If we're to be honest with each other, I'd suggest beginning there."
  4031. "This whole thing is my fault. No one else should have to risk their life for my mistakes."
  4032. >"It's always 'fault' with you. Never allowing yourself to lean on anyone because of all the blame to be had. I can help you, why can't you accept that? It's naive to deny I'm a great deal more powerful than you, and to stubbornly refuse—"
  4033. "It doesn't matter how strong you are!"
  4034. >She falls silent, and you rest a hand on her side to rectify your sudden outburst.
  4035. "I love you too much to put you in harm's way. Don't for a moment think I underestimate your strength. I've heard all the stories, the evils you stared down for hundreds of years. But this evil is not of your world. If you're going to love a man, then you need to accept that there are men out there who are wicked and corrupt in ways you've never seen before. What makes this threat so insidious isn't his strength. It's the terrible things he's capable of. Things that are simply beyond your scope of understanding."
  4036. >"I don't accept that," she protests. "You told me, in such vivid detail, the horrors you once faced. After all this time, why do you refuse to believe I'm capable of understanding?"
  4037. >You withdraw your hand.
  4038. "My world has monsters, too. Some of them do crueler things than anything I've told you. But what makes them so frightening is that they look just like us. They could walk past you and you'd never know the difference. Evil incarnate in human form."
  4039. >She gazes back at you.
  4040. "You once told me that the greatest weight on your conscience was your refusal to offer redemption to those who might have earned it. It's why you gave me a chance to begin with. It has been a source of great suffering, but you're a gentler soul for it. It's why I love you."
  4041. >Tenderly, you take her hoof in your hand.
  4042. "And it's why I can't let you do this."
  4043. >She opens her mouth to object, but you tighten your grip on her hoof and continue.
  4044. "You'll go out there, to a world you don't know, and you'll find a man who wants terrible things. You'll want to kill him for what he did to me, and you'll try to. But then, for a moment, you'll look at this man, and you'll see all the monsters you didn't spare before. For just a moment, you'll see a man who's done awful things, and you'll see me. One moment is all it will take. One moment of hesitation to look into his eyes, and wonder if he can be saved the way you saved me."
  4045. >Unwinding your fingers, you allow her hoof to slide off your palm.
  4046. "One moment, and I lose you."
  4047. >Though she fights to stay still, you can see her faintly trembling, struggling to keep herself composed.
  4048. "He can't be saved, Cel. I tried. That part of you— that need to show mercy— somewhere along the way, I got that impulse from you. But some of us are just too far gone. Some evil can't be cured. I know you could kill him. I'm scared that you won't."
  4049. >She pulls you into an embrace and finally allows herself to cry, every shaky breath quivering her breast against yours.
  4050. >All you do in response is hold her. The way she needs to be held. The way she needed you this past month, and you weren't there.
  4051. >There's no such thing as making up for lost time. Not really.
  4052. >Once it's gone, it's gone. There's no taking it back.
  4053. >Part of you wishes you never went back to Earth after that night with her. If you hadn't returned, none of this would have come to pass.
  4054. >Maybe you'd be somewhere remote, living a tranquil life with her, free from the knowledge of the awful fate that so nearly awaited you. The very fate you're faced with now.
  4055. >But the world doesn't work that way. There's no making up for lost time.
  4056. >This month, you could have chosen to be happy with her.
  4057. >Now, you might never be.
  4058. >Still clinging to you, she takes a deep, deliberate breath to steady her nerves. "I don't know who I am anymore."
  4059. "That's okay. I know you. You're my whole world."
  4060. >"All my life, I've stayed strong for my subjects. I kept them safe at all costs, no matter how great a toll it took on me, because I loved them. Now, my love for you eclipses all else, but you know me like no other, and you say that I may never know that strength again. That is perhaps my greatest fear in life."
  4061. >Finally, she pulls back to look you in the eye. "If I can't keep you safe..."
  4062. >You can't help but chuckle morbidly as you wipe away her tears.
  4063. "Sweetheart, what do you think's been going through my mind these past two days? I feel like I let you down just saying this to you."
  4064. >You manage to get a faint glimmer of a smile from her. "We deserve each other, then."
  4065. >It's just about the only semblance of happiness you'll see today. It is a little moment, but it contains magnitudes.
  4066. >And that's enough to hold you over.
  4067. "It's okay to get soft. I've seen it in every match I've made. Affection does strange things to us. It makes us slow to anger and quick to forgive. It gives us a more gracious view of the world. Before we met, we'd steeled our hearts to protect ourselves. Five years we spent letting each other in, and neither of us are the same for it. Walls will keep you safe, but they also keep everyone out."
  4068. >She leans in to feel the side of your face against hers. "I think I'd rather be weak with you than strong without."
  4069. "I would, too."
  4070. >You shut your eyes to take in the warmth of her coat against your skin. It doesn't take long for a dark thought to interrupt your moment of peace.
  4071. "But that doesn't change the situation we're in."
  4072. >The warmth departs as she sits upright again. She goes back to looking over your injuries, carefully concentrating to treat every spot.
  4073. >You don't press the matter. You just let her work in silence until she finishes.
  4074. >"That's it," she says. "I repaired the harm to the furthest extent possible. The rest must take its natural course."
  4075. >You examine your arms and torso. She managed to perform a miracle on you. The bruises had largely faded and the cuts were now faint scars. Your ribs were no longer sore, and the swelling in your nose had subsided.
  4076. "Thank you."
  4077. >To your surprise, she doesn't permit much respite before addressing the topic once again. "I still don't see why this situation needs dealing with at all. Let us seal the portal and be done with it; you'd planned on retiring regardless, so what difference would it make?"
  4078. >Staring down at the ground, you take a few seconds to respond.
  4079. "I thought of that."
  4080. >"And?" she asks.
  4081. "I— I can't."
  4082. >"Why not?"
  4083. >You don't answer.
  4084. >"Dear?"
  4085. "Because—"
  4086. >You raise your head to meet her gaze.
  4087. "Because I can't leave him. I can't live knowing he's still out there."
  4088. >Your response leaves her taken aback. "What are you talking about? What does it matter if the man lives? If we simply close the portal, he'll be in another world, quite literally the furthest thing from your mi—"
  4089. >Growing anxious, you suddenly blurt out the truth.
  4090. "I can't close the portal because I'm scared he'll open another one."
  4091. >A stunned silence overtakes her.
  4092. >"What?" she asks softly, wearing a look of betrayal.
  4093. >You run your hand down your face and confess with a sigh.
  4094. "The day we met, I lied to you. I didn't find the portal. I was the one who opened it."
  4095. >The consternation in her expression is a knife through your heart.
  4096. >Panic starts to gnaw at you, and a migraine comes on.
  4097. >"Why— How?" she stammers. "What drove you to—"
  4098. "I didn't know!"
  4099. >"How could you not have known?" she challenges you.
  4100. >You slap your palm against your head.
  4101. "I... It's all... I didn't want to..."
  4102. >The memories are all disjointed. The past feels more like a dream than reality.
  4103. >"For heaven's sake, Anon, tell me what's going on!"
  4104. >Suddenly, you grab ahold of her hoof and thrust it against your heart.
  4105. "See for yourself. Go in and remember for me."
  4106. >"A memory spell?" she charges, completely bewildered by the suggestion. "No, I couldn't possibly— the lasting effects aren't fully understood, only Twilight has done any significant research into it, and even she knows considerably little on the subject..."
  4107. >She tries to pull her hoof away, but you hold firm.
  4108. "Cel, you have to do this. All the pieces are in there. I remember what, I remember when, I remember how, but somehow my head just can't put them together. You need to go in and see for yourself what happened that day."
  4109. >"I can't," she insists.
  4110. >Gingerly, you raise a hand up to her face to allay her fears.
  4111. "I can't let you love me until you see what I did to get to you."
  4112. >She finds herself breaking down into a nervous husk before you again, clenching her eyes shut as she presses into your hand lovingly.
  4113. >Then, she relents.
  4114. >"Sit back," she whispers.
  4115. >You follow her instruction, leaning against the chaise. Lying back halfway, you put your legs up on the chair, and she moves closer to sit at your side, as any devoted lover would.
  4116. >Looking up, your view is filled by her radiant visage watching over you.
  4117. >"Are you certain?" she asks.
  4118. >Staying as unemotional as possible to mollify her, you nod in response.
  4119. >She leans in and presses her forehead against yours. Her slender horn parts your hair down the middle, the same way it did when you first kissed her.
  4120. >Her vivid pink eyes stare deep into yours from mere inches away with all the longing in the world. Her horn begins to glow, illuminating her stoic expression, and the magic leaves a tingling against your scalp.
  4121. >That tingling transforms into an electrifying sensation that soon reverberates through the entirety of your head. Quickly, your every sense begins to slip away, with sight being the last to go.
  4122. >Knowing you can't hear her, she mouths those ever-reassuring words, "I love you."
  4123. >As the sun sets on your consciousness, your last thought is how you hope that's still true when you awake.
  4124.  
  4125. >You pull up beside the pickup truck and shut off the engine.
  4126. >He led you out to the middle of nowhere, and fool that you are, you just went along with it.
  4127. >Not that you had much of a choice, after all. It's either this or waiting around for your fiery death.
  4128. >Still, it's yet to be said which of those would be the preferable option.
  4129. >You exit your car, messenger bag in hand, and head east into the dense woods.
  4130. >After about ten minutes of navigating unremarkable landmarks, you catch a glimpse of a figure a few hundred yards away. It is he who you've come so far to meet.
  4131. >It's time you saw what this was about.
  4132. >Hiking over the logs and fallen branches, you approach your colleague, who's standing patiently beside a long panel that lays flat on the ground.
  4133. >"Enjoy the Levant?" he asks.
  4134. >You entertain none of his shit, getting straight to the point.
  4135. "Why am I here, V?"
  4136. >"I'm trying to save your skin," he answers earnestly. "You made a stupid choice— a series of stupid choices, really— and I hate seeing you do this to yourself."
  4137. "Do what, exactly? Grow a spine? Know when to cut my losses?"
  4138. >"Losses? You made six million in as many years, and you call that a loss?"
  4139. >You're not going over this again. You have nothing left to prove. No explanation will sate him.
  4140. "Will you quit the theatrics and tell me what the hell it is we're doing out here?"
  4141. >He nods at your bag. "You get what I asked?"
  4142. >You unfold your bag and withdraw a clay tablet, holding it up for him to see.
  4143. "Yeah, I got it. What's this supposed to be? Is this some drawn-out charade of yours, getting me to play Indiana Jones for you before you off me?"
  4144. >He shrugs. "Indulge me, will you? It's not like you have anything else going on, rotting in your house the way you were."
  4145. >Out of the corner of your eye, you see a white figure traipse into view.
  4146. >You see her, but you don't notice her. She wasn't there that day.
  4147. >"If I wanted you dead," he continues, "I'd have done it a while ago. We're standing out here because after all the shit we went through, I still have half a heart for your sorry ass."
  4148. "I'm not your responsibility."
  4149. >"Just shut up, man. Just—" With a grunt, he picks the heavy panel off the ground and props it upright next to him. "—shut the fuck up."
  4150. >Celestia draws nearer, intently watching the scene unfold. Neither of you pay her any mind.
  4151. >Instead, you stare across at yourself in the mirror V holds.
  4152. >"Read the tablet," he orders.
  4153. >You glance down at it and tap it flippantly with the back of your hand before looking back up at him.
  4154. "It's in Aramaic. I don't speak any dead languages."
  4155. >"Run your hand over it," he replies matter-of-factly, as if that were the plainly obvious course of action.
  4156. >Begrudgingly, you oblige him, and nearly drop it when you do.
  4157. >The carved lines of indecipherable text gradually rearrange themselves into plain English, and you trace your fingers over the words in disbelief of your own eyes.
  4158. "What is this?"
  4159. >"It's your lifeline," he answers woodenly. "Read it."
  4160. >When you look back up, Celestia now stands a few feet away.
  4161. >After a moment of hesitation, you read aloud the words held in your hands.
  4162. "Look inward to find a chain unbroken,
  4163. Of fathers familiar and mothers new.
  4164. A bond that tethers spirits from afar,
  4165. And bears a face so different from your own.
  4166. Within lies deep a mind so dark, distraught,
  4167. Of age consumes the ocean of the soul.
  4168. Its blood you spilt both past and yet to come,
  4169. Each drop once held by hearts while yours still beats.
  4170. Yet even calm waters seek out a tide,
  4171. And should you find the soul that mirrors yours,
  4172. Speak this blessing raised of bone and sinew,
  4173. To bridge not only worlds but love forlorn."
  4174. >The instant the final syllable leaves your mouth, the mirror bursts into shimmering light, forcing you and V to shield your eyes and stagger backward.
  4175. >The mirror stands upright without his support, and a series of thorny vines emerge from the ground beneath it, steadily climbing up the edges, interlocking to form a tight lattice around its perimeter.
  4176. >Slowly, the light dims, and you stare in awe at the inexplicable phenomenon before you.
  4177. >The mirror no longer reflects your image. Instead, the plane seems to contain some sort of suspended shimmering liquid.
  4178. "What did you do?"
  4179. >V comes around to your side. "Go through it and find out."
  4180. >You shoot him a look of incredulity.
  4181. "Are you insane? What the hell is this thing? Why did you send me halfway around the world to get it?"
  4182. >"Listen to me," he says, placing a hand on your shoulder. "There's no life for you on Earth. You were the one who wanted out, and this is the only way you can have it both ways."
  4183. "But this isn't—"
  4184. >"You don't get to walk away, idiot. They're not the only ones who have a vested interest in your death, okay? You know way too much about me, but I don't want to see you die because you were stupid enough to grow a goddamn conscience. Either you go through that portal and never come back, or this is it. There's only one way you're walking out of here."
  4185. >Feeling completely torn, you gaze off at the mirror.
  4186. >"You'll like it there," he assures you. "It's nice."
  4187. >As the macabre irony sets in, you acknowledge it in a quiet whisper.
  4188. "Tell me about the rabbits, George."
  4189. >He sighs and takes his hand off your shoulder. "Don't fuck with me, okay? It's not like that. You'll be happy for once." He pauses tensely. "I know you haven't been happy, but— but—"
  4190. >He grimaces in stirring frustration at himself. "Why'd you have to go and fuck it all up, man?"
  4191. >You don't answer. It takes you a minute to say anything at all. All the while, your curious gaze toward the mirror remains unbroken.
  4192. "How do you know I'll be happy there?"
  4193. >"It's... set up to work like that. I don't know the specifics, but I know that."
  4194. "Then how come you don't go?"
  4195. >You hold up the tablet in front of him.
  4196. "If you knew you about this, why'd you send me? Why not seek out happiness for yourself?"
  4197. >He shifts his stance. "I don't have a satisfying answer for you. I know parts of it, but there are gaps I'm too afraid to fill in. Happiness comes at a cost, it always does. That kind of thing changes a person. I'm safe here, I have everything I need, and I don't want risk it just to find out."
  4198. >He drags his heel through the dirt casually. "I've been sitting on this knowledge for a long time. It was my escape plan in case I ever needed an out. But I'd rather see it go to you than go on knowing you got yourself killed for nothing. Go ahead, call me sentimental, I don't give a shit."
  4199. >You approach the mirror. Watching attentively, Celestia follows and comes up beside you.
  4200. >"And hey," he says in a hopeful tone, "I hear there are more out there somewhere. Maybe ten years from now, I'll finally catch up to you."
  4201. >You hear a soft gasp at your side. One you don't remember hearing.
  4202. >With the hand holding the tablet, you reach out and touch the shimmering mirror. Your hand slips through without resistance, and the moment you dip your knuckles beyond the threshold, you're struck by a blinding sensation.
  4203. >It's a difficult thing to describe; it was like each of your five senses being bombarded with raw static noise all at once.
  4204. >Your knees give out beneath you, but Celestia promptly swoops in and holds you up.
  4205. "Cel..."
  4206. >"I'm here, Anon," she consoles you. Her voice cuts through the noise clear as day, and this time you're finally cognizant of her presence. You're able to look straight at her, and see her fully in your mind's eye.
  4207. >She's beautiful.
  4208. >"I'm here." Those were her words.
  4209. >But she's not. The whole point of this is that you don't know her yet.
  4210. >And you don't know that you don't know her yet, so you can't possibly be thinking these thoughts in this moment.
  4211. >Yet here you are.
  4212. >Gradually, the images in your mind begin to resolve into a clearer picture, like reliving trillions upon trillions of memories contained within a single instant.
  4213. >As the noise dissipates, you regain enough control to support yourself once more and drag your clenched fist out of the portal. Celestia steps back to give you space.
  4214. >Your senses slowly return to you, enough for you to become aware of the searing pain in your head. Keeling over, you clasp your hands against your temples in a feeble attempt to drown it out.
  4215. >After what feels like an eternity, the pain finally subsides enough for you to drop your hands.
  4216. >Opening your eyes, you see V's legs in front of you. You look down at your hands to see your right palm smeared with clay ash.
  4217. >"You alright?"
  4218. "Yeah."
  4219. >Without a single thought, you take a deep breath, get back up on your feet, and pull your gun on him.
  4220. >He stares back at you, stunned by your abrupt treachery.
  4221. >You say nothing at all.
  4222. >"You're not going to shoot me," he says calmly, raising his hands. "I don't know what the fuck you're doing, but you're not going to shoot me. I know you, and that's not you."
  4223. >You keep the barrel trained square on his chest. The ash stains the grip as your shaky fingers cling to it.
  4224. >You remember why you're doing this. You didn't know then, but this time around, you do.
  4225. >Then, a soft, frightened voice on your right.
  4226. >"Anon?"
  4227. >Familiar and new all at once, it pulls you from your focus. You turn your head to look at her.
  4228. >The distraught in her eyes wounds your soul.
  4229. >But you never saw her. You looked at something that wasn't there.
  4230. >The blinding pain strikes again and you force yourself to snap your head back, just in time to see V reaching for his hip.
  4231. >And then, you shoot him.
  4232. >A lot of things follow. Too many to count. The flash of the muzzle, a smidge of blood landing on your cuff, the thud of his body hitting the ground, and the cry of a mare who wasn't really there.
  4233. >It doesn't take long for the world to go dark. You feel yourself turn upside down in the void and sink upward, falling faster and faster, until you crash into your body.
  4234. >Hyperventilating, you shoot upright and look around the room in shock.
  4235. >You're back in Celestia's chambers.
  4236. >The Princess herself is sitting a short distance away, staring down at the floor with a vacant expression.
  4237. >You lean back against the chair and try to steady your nerves.
  4238. >In a frigid tone, she repeats your final words before you went under. "'I can't let you love me until you see what I did to get to you.'"
  4239. >You wish you had something more to offer, some incorrigible string of words that could somehow right this wrong. All you have now is honesty.
  4240. "The day I came to you, I couldn't bear to admit the truth of how I got here, so I told you I found the portal."
  4241. >"You confided in me of so many deaths... so many, except this one."
  4242. "I opened up slowly, but it was a while before the whole truth came back to me. Something happened that day. The portal changed me. It was like dunking my head into a million different timelines at once. Most of them were dark. But among the bright few that stood out to me... I remember seeing you. Us, together."
  4243. >"How could you not tell me any of this?" she asks, heartbroken.
  4244. "I didn't remember, not consciously. My brain... couldn't hold all those memories at once. I lost so many bits and pieces in the process, like his face or what I was thinking when I shot him. All I clung to was the guilt. In my darkest hour, that's all I remembered, and I held onto it even when it killed me because it was the only real thing I had."
  4245. >She picks herself up and moves closer to be by your side.
  4246. "All this time, ponies have been asking me how I thought to match men with mares in the first place. And I didn't have a better answer than 'a gut feeling, some unknown force driving me to see it through.' Well, now I know."
  4247. >She gazes across at you with those big, picturesque eyes. The memories returning felt like pages of a flip book falling together in sequence.
  4248. "To fall in love with me, you had to believe in soul mates. To make you believe in soul mates, I had to empirically prove the merit of men and mares. To prove that merit, I had to convince you to start the initiative. To make the initiative work, I had to be able to travel to and from Earth safely. And to do that, I killed the only man who ever showed me any clemency. From the beginning I saw the end, and every calculated choice in a long line of cascading dominos was all to end up here, with you. That portal was an unseen hand, a blight on my life, guiding my every decision without ever knowing it. I thought it was fate that brought me to you, but no."
  4249. >"Fate is not something so easily defined," she says. "The parts of life we think are ours to control are actually predestined, and the things we think were meant to be are really just the fruits of our own handiwork."
  4250. "I look back, and I remember every single choice. I just couldn't remember why."
  4251. >"Until it started coming back to you."
  4252. "These migraines..."
  4253. >You sink your head.
  4254. "I thought it was just stress. All these memories started bleeding into my conscious mind as the future gradually became the present. And back there, I... I saw you. I remember you being there when it happened, even though you weren't."
  4255. >"I warned you about the memory spell, Anon. The present affects the past just as the past affects the present. They are irrevocably linked."
  4256. "But it was just a memory, wasn't it? We didn't actually go back to that day."
  4257. >"It's not so simple. It's not entirely one or the other. No pony in Equestria has a knowledgeable grasp on the spell's ramifications, but when I watched the past unfold, I know some echo of me stayed behind, and that's what you saw. I was there with you that day, but not until just now."
  4258. >You're getting a temporal-onset headache again, this one much more clearly stress-induced. Every step of the way, it's only getting more complicated. You summon the focus to trace one thread, only to find it leads to ten more.
  4259. "I don't want to think about this anymore. The past doesn't matter, I need to handle the present. I have to be the one to deal with this. I have to do something, because if I just close the portal..."
  4260. >"You fear he'll find the means to open his own."
  4261. >You sit forward in your chair, pulling yourself closer to her.
  4262. "You saw what happened to me. I opened the portal and it showed me all possible paths to everything I ever wanted. All these years, I've been doubting whether I'm acting out of self-interest, and now I know why. Everything had been laid out for me the moment I reached beyond the threshold. I can't risk him abusing that. He ousted me through sheer force of will, solely because he had managed to want it enough. If that drive finds its way inside him, then it's only a matter of time until he accomplishes unspeakable things before he can be stopped. Anything else would be preferable to that."
  4263. >"You don't know that will happen," she insists adamantly. "Regardless of what's still out there, closing the portal is the safest course of action, and you know that!"
  4264. "You're not listening!"
  4265. >You shout back at her in a authoritative tone.
  4266. "It's not 'if,' it's 'when!'"
  4267. >She doesn't back down, and instead raises her voice to match yours. "Risking your life on chance, blood begetting blood, look at yourself! This isn't who you are!"
  4268. >Impetuously, you throw the Princess' own words back at her.
  4269. "This is EXACTLY who I am."
  4270. >"When you have someone who loves you, you forfeit the right to play dice with your life. For heaven's sake, Anon, can't you think for one moment how your choices affect me?"
  4271. "I'm doing this FOR you!"
  4272. >"No, you're not!" she argues. "You're doing this for you! All this self-pity, born out of your own inadequacy, all because you refuse to ever believe you can be enough for me! I don't need you getting yourself killed, I need you HERE with ME! I saw your past, and I still love you because IT REMAINS THE PAST. But if you mean to tell me you haven't changed, if you're still the killer you once were, then tell me, Anon, what are you still doing here?"
  4273. >She is crying now, clamoring desperately to drill her point into your head.
  4274. >You slump back into your chair, bombarded with emotional grief.
  4275. "What am I doing here?"
  4276. >You have no answer.
  4277. >What the hell are you doing here?
  4278. >"I need to know you're still a good person," she whispers tearfully.
  4279. >Yeah.
  4280. >You need to know, too.
  4281. >And there's only one way to know for sure.
  4282. >You get out of your chair and endearingly stroke her muzzle with the back of your hand.
  4283. "I love you more than life itself, Princess."
  4284. >A single tear rolls down onto your finger, and you brush it away.
  4285. "Whatever happens next, just remember that."
  4286. >It takes all your strength to tear yourself away from her. As you walk off, you don't allow yourself to look back, because if you do, you fear you might never leave.
  4287. >You're not sure if she says something as you go. Your mind is disconnected from your body.
  4288. >There is but one thing standing between you and the life you dream of. One last hurdle to cross before you can bask in the safety of her light.
  4289. >You exit the palace.
  4290. >It took you this long to realize that you'll go to any length just to be with her. No matter the price, you'll pay it. She's worth it. She has to be. She's become everything to you.
  4291. >The streets of Canterlot are deathly bare.
  4292. >No cost is too high. Because you're a killer. You sacrifice the lives of others for your own personal gain. This is who you are, the only life you've ever known, and all you'll ever be.
  4293. >At the edge of the city, you board the next outbound train.
  4294. >You can pretend you've changed, and pursue whatever altruistic fancies you choose, but that won't change who you are at your core. You didn't get here by living a traditional life.
  4295. >As the train winds down the mountain, you clutch the page of your book where an unexpected overnight guest had scrawled an address so many weeks ago.
  4296. >Now that you remember everything, there's no more wondering. You know exactly what brought you down this path, and all that's left is the illusion of choice, an illusion you can dispel if you so choose. That fact is your absolution.
  4297. >The end of the tracks take you to a city you've never been to.
  4298. >It was Celestia from the start. It was her. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the one who makes all that suffering worth something. Even the suffering you inflicted.
  4299. >Page in hand, you navigate the foreign streets in search of the address.
  4300. >There's no real justice. You make your own. Celestia is all you ever wanted, and the only way to get what you want is to seize it. You used to be a man of action. All you've done lately is think. But it's not too late to go back to the way things were.
  4301. >You find the apartment building. You climb up the stairs, and knock on the door.
  4302. >If someone stands in the way, then you cut them down. No sacrifice is too great.
  4303. >There was only ever one way this was going to go down.
  4304. >When the door opens, you speak aloud the words you never thought you'd say.
  4305. "Rainbow Dash, we have to go back to Earth."
  4306. >Full fucking circle.
  4307.  
  4308. 23
  4309. I love you.
  4310. I always have. It's not even a question.
  4311. I think, from the very start, we were fated to be together. That's what we saw in the past.
  4312. See, I never knew much about destiny or soul mates. Ponies would ask, and I didn't have an answer for any of them. You included.
  4313. All I knew was compatibility. That was my language. It governed my career, my life, my whole way of thinking. I processed information as sets of varyingly compatible truths.
  4314. I paired men with mares on the basis of their characters. I saw past each of them in ways no one had ever cared to look before, to glean a sense of what love meant to them.
  4315. For most, I was satisfied with what I saw. To make their soul mates happy, these men were willing to go to hell and back.
  4316. So I took them to paradise.
  4317. I ferried these souls to another world. I was the bridge between the two, never truly belonging to one or the other, perpetually feeling as if I had one foot out the door.
  4318. I find myself asking if Charon loathed his job in the same way I have come to.
  4319. In the grand scheme of the universe, the work I do is perhaps the most profoundly consequential. Knowing that should bring with it a sense of affirmation.
  4320. But it doesn't. It's not fulfilling. Not in the ways I'd hoped when I began.
  4321. Maybe it was never meant to be. If all there was in life was self-actualization, I'd have found peace long ago.
  4322. But there is more. There is belonging.
  4323. Never have I felt safer than I have with you, in moments of quiet reflection and halcyon memories.
  4324. We were meant to be, Princess. I don't doubt that for a second. Not anymore.
  4325. Because I want you to be happy. But more than that, I want to be the one who makes you happy. I wish to be the realization of all your dreams and more.
  4326. In you, I have what most men would kill for, and what I have already killed for: fidelity and undying affection.
  4327. Should I pass from this world and yours, I wonder if you would ever let go. I keep coming back to those words you once imparted upon me.
  4328. 'I have loved, and I have lost. For the longest time, I didn't believe I could ever love again.'
  4329. Today, you said you loved me more than you ever thought possible. So if you should lose me...
  4330. My greatest fear is that you might never recover.
  4331. It's a sick thing, to appreciate the power of holding one's heart in your hand. To feel its beat in your palm, to know with absolute certainty that if it breaks, it was crushed by your hand alone.
  4332. This knowledge has dampened my haste to act. It has left me dawdling, pondering on the potential ramifications while I accomplish nothing.
  4333. So I ask myself one final question.
  4334. Is it better to be together in a crumbling world, or alone in a safe one?
  4335. I ask, but the answer does not come so easily. Not when you hold yourself accountable for the state of the world.
  4336. I know my faults, Cel. The anxieties I've caused you are not lost on me.
  4337. I have wallowed in self-pity longer than I've known you. I've closed myself off for fear of wreaking havoc upon the lives of those I hold dear.
  4338. But acknowledging this and confronting it are two very different things.
  4339. When you feel like the world has crushed you, that you're nothing more than a miserable failure, it is the most painful feeling in the world to see someone you love clean up the mess you've made.
  4340. I have felt like a burden on you since the day we met.
  4341. I have done everything I can to carry my weight and make myself worthy of your lofty status, but I hold you so high in my heart that I, myself, can never reach the pedestal I put you on.
  4342. I will always feel unworthy.
  4343. But whatever happens, Cel, know that it's because I love you more than I could ever love myself.
  4344. That's one conflict I can't shoot or recruit my way out of.
  4345. I have done terrible things. My conscience caught up to me, but not before I spilled blood to get to you.
  4346. I saw the timelines. It was the only way you'd come to love me. Such sick irony in that.
  4347. Maybe I am self-centered. Maybe my motivations are corrupt. Maybe God is dead, and I killed him.
  4348. Is that so bad? If all we have is the life we make for ourselves, what good is good?
  4349. If all this time, I could have been happy, then what have I been doing?
  4350. Chasing some contrived version of me that was incompatible with who I was?
  4351. I was trying to be the kind of man you could love. And when you fell in love with me, I was scared that meant you'd fallen for a disguise.
  4352. But I see now. This whole time, I was petrified about the mask on my face, but you saw through it from the start.
  4353. You fell in love with me.
  4354. Even if it was all a ploy to get to you, you were content that I was putting in the effort to improve.
  4355. We're all selfish. We want to be happy. There's no escaping it.
  4356. Everything we do is, directly or not, in pursuit of that goal.
  4357. So if you love me for me, then maybe I can finally drop the facade.
  4358. I can stop trying to think what the good version of me would do, and just trust in my instincts.
  4359. Because dwelling on this nightmare has done me no good. Once upon a time, I was a man of action.
  4360. It's not too late to go back to that. It's never too late to change.
  4361. Yet it still feels wrong. Even now, I could never dare to speak these words to you aloud. No matter how much you might love me, this is a shameful truth, and will forever remain so.
  4362. We do what we have to, no matter the cost. Even if it means sacrificing a life.
  4363. Because that day, I saw the end, and I knew it was always meant to be this way.
  4364. Do we deserve what we get?
  4365. Do we get what we deserve?
  4366. Goodnight, my Princess. I'll see you on the other side.
  4367.  
  4368. >The world shimmers and materializes around you as you emerge from the portal. It's always a dizzying trip to cross through.
  4369. >It is daytime on Earth, and the sun filters easily through the bare branches of the dead forest.
  4370. >Cyril is waiting a scant twenty yards away. He's come prepared, gun in hand. His truck sits at the edge of the path behind him.
  4371. >You walk forward from the portal, backpack in hand, and stop halfway across the clearing. With an empty gaze, you toss the bag at his feet.
  4372. >The bag wobbles around as a pony visibly struggles to escape from within. "Hey! Let me out, this isn't funny anymore!"
  4373. >Cyril looks back up at you and smiles. "Came to your senses, eh?"
  4374. >You don't answer.
  4375. >"This is good for both of us, believe me. You're free to hang on to your stupid little job, and I get little miss rainbow bitch. You're smart to listen now, even if you did give me hell early on."
  4376. "You didn't leave me much of a choice."
  4377. >"No, I suppose not," he replies candidly. "I thought everything through. There's no other way this can end smoothly for you."
  4378. >You watch him across the clearing.
  4379. "You're right about that."
  4380. >The bag thrashes around violently at Cyril's feet. "Anon, whatever stupid prank you're pulling, quit it right now! I'm really freaking out here!"
  4381. >Cyril keenly watches you refuse to look down at the panicking pony. He circles around the bag to come closer, relishing in the moment.
  4382. >"She's your friend, isn't she? That's why you brought her on your little trip to Italy."
  4383. >Don't let him break you.
  4384. >"You feel guilty about this? Handing her off to some random asshole?"
  4385. >You stare straight ahead, stone-faced.
  4386. >Undeterred, he cocks his pistol and points it straight at the bag while looking to you for a reaction.
  4387. >"What if I shot her, right here?"
  4388. "You won't."
  4389. >Without taking his eyes off you, he fires.
  4390. >You don't so much as flinch.
  4391. >He grins as a cloud of dirt settles on the patch of ground where the bullet struck. The backpack trembles, and you can hear Rainbow Dash whimpering inside.
  4392. >"Guess you're right about that," he says smugly.
  4393. >Without turning his back on you, he returns to the bag and slings it over his shoulder.
  4394. >"Be here in exactly two weeks with the next pony. Dealer's choice this time. Now go on." He wags his gun at you, motioning you to retreat.
  4395. >Slowly, you comply. As you take each step backward, he stands there patiently, his gaze fixed on you.
  4396. >Your heart sinks when you realize he wants to watch you leave. The sick bastard's not leaving a single loose end for you to grab onto.
  4397. >With the last pace, your heel finds the base of the mirror.
  4398. >This is it. You go through this portal, he'll drive away, and you'll never see Rainbow Dash again.
  4399. >This is who you are, Anon.
  4400. >You turn to face the mirror,
  4401. >Pause to take a deep breath,
  4402. >And pull the gun from your jacket.
  4403. >In an single instant, you whip your arm around, look over your shoulder, and train your gun square on his chest.
  4404. >A single shot rings out through the vast wilderness, the echo reverberating in every direction for miles.
  4405. >But it wasn't you who fired.
  4406. >A sense of dread slowly sets in as a blinding pain shoots up your spine. Dropping the gun, you fall to your knees and double over.
  4407. >Lying on your side, you hear a thud as Cyril drops the backpack. "Oh, you idiot," he groans.
  4408. >Rainbow Dash cries out in fear, "NO!"
  4409. >Weakened and hazy, you reach for your pistol, but any attempt to twist your back results in searing pain.
  4410. >Cyril saunters over and takes your gun before unloading it and hurling it into the woods.
  4411. >"This could have been such a good thing for the both of us, but you had to go and fuck it all up. See what you made me do?"
  4412. >Curled up on the ground, you clutch your side to dull the pain.
  4413. >He shakes his head and raises his gun at you. "Now I'll have to go in there and fetch my little ponies myself."
  4414. >You look up at the man pointing a gun at your head.
  4415. >"I hope you die knowing this is your own fault," he growls.
  4416. >Drawing in a shaky breath, you spit out a caustic reply.
  4417. "Karma's a bitch."
  4418. >Right as his finger wraps around the trigger, a frenzied war cry interrupts him. Cyril glances back, only to have Rainbow Dash collide with his face full force.
  4419. >He lurches forward and just narrowly manages to catch his footing. His gun, however, goes flying.
  4420. >Dash hooks her legs around his neck and clings to his head, pummeling him and flapping her wings erratically.
  4421. >"I'll kill you!" she shrieks.
  4422. >Cyril raises his arms and claws at the pony on his head, fighting desperately to yank her off, but her furious flapping keeps her steady while he stumbles around blindly.
  4423. >Looking over to your right, you see the glint of metal lying among the dead leaves. You surmount the agonizing pain in your back and drag yourself in that direction.
  4424. >"Get the fuck off me, you crazy bitch!" he shouts.
  4425. >Rainbow Dash clobbers him with her hooves. "You're gonna take me prisoner? You're gonna shoot my friend? I don't think so!"
  4426. >Heaving yourself across the cold ground, you bring yourself within reach of the gun and grab ahold of it.
  4427. >As you roll onto your back and sit up halfway, the bullet lodged in your back digs into your spine. You nearly pass out from the pain.
  4428. >The adrenaline rush is enough to keep you conscious. Steadily, you manage to prop yourself up on your elbow high enough to see the fight unwinding in front of you.
  4429. >With a shaky hand, you raise the gun at Cyril.
  4430. >Rainbow Dash sees you and grabs his head, whirling him around to face you. She beats her wings frantically to stay upright on his shoulders.
  4431. >"Shoot him!" she cries.
  4432. >Your vision is blurring more and more by the second. You can feel the blood loss draining your senses.
  4433. >Struggling to steady your hand, you hastily aim and fire.
  4434. >Rainbow Dash yelps out in pain. A burst of feathers scatters into the air, then drifts down slowly.
  4435. >You clipped her wing.
  4436. >But she remains stalwart, punching away at his skull as hard as she can to keep him disoriented.
  4437. >As you line up your second shot, Cyril manages to secure a grip around one of Dash's legs. Her eyes go wide when she fails to kick him free, realizing he has a hold on her.
  4438. >The whole world has gone cloudy now, and your vision's getting darker. You can feel your elbow giving out beneath you.
  4439. >You know you can't keep yourself upright much longer, let alone stay conscious.
  4440. >This is it.
  4441. >With all his strength, Cyril yanks Dash's leg, forcefully slamming her down into the ground.
  4442. >Then, just one moment as his eyes meet yours.
  4443. >A moment where you point the barrel right between his eyes, and squeeze the trigger.
  4444. >Panting heavily, you collapse onto the ground, and so does he. His body topples over with a resounding thud.
  4445. >Staring at the sky up above, you can just barely make out the clouds drifting along in the blue sky. And in the center of it all, at its zenith, the sun shines its light down upon you.
  4446. >Rainbow Dash rushes up to your side, bruised from her impact with the ground. She shakes it off easily, instead much more concerned with you.
  4447. >"No, no, no, Anon!" she pleads. "You can't die, this wasn't the plan!"
  4448. >You take her hoof in your hand, gripping it with what little strength you have left.
  4449. "It's alright, Dash."
  4450. >"Stay here, I'll go get help. You're gonna be okay, you're gonna be okay..."
  4451. >She tries to pull away, but you hold onto her, keeping her at your side. She looks back at you with utter confusion.
  4452. >You just shake your head.
  4453. >Celestia is not going to watch you die. You won't allow that. You know what it would do to her.
  4454. >But it's okay. You've made your peace. You did what you had to. She can seal the portal without fear of Cyril seeking out the means to open another.
  4455. >She will be safe, and so will her world. Not a single pony will come to harm because of you.
  4456. >Teary-eyed, Rainbow Dash sniffles as she looks over you. "You swore you could shoot first. I never would've gotten into that backpack if I knew this would happen."
  4457. >You smile up at her.
  4458. "You always did hate being crammed into that thing."
  4459. >She chuckles morbidly through the tears, and lays a hoof on your chest. "Don't go, Anon. Just hang on. Please, don't die."
  4460. >You pat her hoof and reassure her between labored breaths.
  4461. "It's alright, Dash. Ever since I got into this life, I knew it'd end this way. At least it was for something bigger than myself. I used to wonder if I could be a good person, but I have my answer now. I can rest easy knowing I'll die before I let anything happen to my princess."
  4462. >You can feel it coming now. It's accompanied by a deep sense of peace. You are not afraid like you thought you'd be. You will go easy.
  4463. >Your eyes slip away from Dash and drift up to the boundless sky above you. The air is chilly, but the sun's radiance bathes you in warmth.
  4464. >Somewhere, far away, she's still connected to you. She always will be.
  4465. >And that's enough for you.
  4466. >The world slips away, and all sensations numb to nothingness.
  4467. >You feel dissociated from your body, nothing more than an essence in the blank void.
  4468. >And who is standing there, at the threshold, to meet you?
  4469. >Your old buddy, V.
  4470. >As you look at him, calm but weary, you breathe a deep sigh.
  4471. "This might be the only context I shouldn't be surprised to see you in."
  4472. >"Do you know why I'm here?" he asks. "This is the place where you shot me six years ago. Today, you've come full circle. Blood is spilled in opening the portal, and blood is spilled in shutting it."
  4473. "I thought I left that life behind. Violence was supposed to be my past, but my complacency invited it back into my life."
  4474. >"Life IS violence. I told you the day you quit: there is no getting out of this life."
  4475. "Then this is my penance."
  4476. >He circles around you. "You've been paying your penance all your life. This is nothing more than where that path inevitably leads."
  4477. "I have to believe I got better. I need to know that this world was better off for having me in it."
  4478. >"But the world is so very big," he replies. "And there are, after all, two of them. In one, you've inflicted unimaginable pain, and in another, inconceivable joy. But it all amounts to nothing. Look around you. There is no Anubis here, waiting to weigh your heart on a scale."
  4479. "Still, I have to be the kind of man Celestia deserves. If I'm not, then... the universe is wrong, and we never belonged together."
  4480. >"Do you have to belong together? You've been treating destiny as an axiom, but is it necessarily true?"
  4481. >You pause a moment before answering.
  4482. "I saw the timelines, it set me down a path to her. We fell in love for a reason. I killed you just to make that happen."
  4483. >"You murdered the one man who was trying to save you."
  4484. >Then, it dawns on you.
  4485. "I'll never be absolved."
  4486. >"Exactly. Not because there is some judge on high weighing your actions, but because no amount of good you could ever do would make you forgive yourself for killing me."
  4487. >Man becomes his own justice.
  4488. "Then there was no point to any of it."
  4489. >"Wrong."
  4490. >You look up at him.
  4491. >"You changed."
  4492. "But my motivations were corrup—"
  4493. >"Your decisions were not just in the pursuit of love. You didn't want to deceive her into loving you, even when the opportunity arose. She made you WANT to be better."
  4494. "Still, if it was all for her love..."
  4495. >"Was it?" he asks.
  4496. >He stares straight ahead, and you follow his gaze to see a scene materializing in front of you.
  4497. "What is this?"
  4498. >"It's nighttime in Equestria, remember? Ponies all across the land are tucked into bed, dreaming through their peaceful slumber."
  4499. >You find yourself a flower shop. In Ponyville.
  4500. >And in front of you, real as can be, stands Roseluck.
  4501. >"Hi, Anon," she greets you softly.
  4502. >You turn back to V, only to find he's disappeared.
  4503. "Roseluck, what am I...?"
  4504. >"Do you remember the day we met?" she asks, oblivious to the circumstances.
  4505. >You look down at her curiously.
  4506. "Of course I do."
  4507. >It was here, or at least the real version of here. You asked her questions about her relationship goals, and wrote down every last detail in your black book.
  4508. >"I think about that day a lot," she says. "It was the day my life changed."
  4509. "Are you happy with Lorenzo?"
  4510. >"Of course. But him, I don't have to have wonder about. He's always there, with me, free to answer any question I might have. I don't have that with you."
  4511. >She leaves you mystified.
  4512. "What's there to wonder about?"
  4513. >"With him, I expect him to care about me. Our whole relationship we've known we were soul mates. But then I think about you, and how you had no reason to care."
  4514. "Rose..."
  4515. >"I wasn't a job to you. You saw me struggling with a bag of soil and picked it up. You got down in the dirt with me when I was pulling out weeds. And when I gave you that geranium bloom, I saw in your eyes how much it meant to you that I knew your favorite flower."
  4516. "I wish I still had your bouquet."
  4517. >"Flowers die, Anon. That's what makes them special. They're only around for a little while. You remember that saying I told you?"
  4518. "Some days it rains, some days it shines. That's how the flowers grow."
  4519. >"You didn't have to care as much as you did. You didn't have to remember all these little details about me, or hang onto the memory of our time together. But you did, even though you had no reason to, and that's why I still think about you. Because I like knowing the world has people who care for the sake of caring."
  4520. >She gives your leg a gentle hug before leaving. Halfway through the door, she stops and looks back.
  4521. >"Goodnight, Anon."
  4522. "Goodnight, Roseluck."
  4523. >When the door shuts, you're somewhere else altogether. It takes you a few seconds to piece together where.
  4524. >A voice interrupts you just as you realize.
  4525. >"I'm still waiting, y'know."
  4526. >You turn around to see a mare standing the far corner of the room.
  4527. "Colgate."
  4528. >"I mean, you promised, didn't you? You promised me you'd find him."
  4529. "I— Something came up."
  4530. >She chuckles and comes up to you. "Ah, I'm just teasing you. How you doing, Anon?"
  4531. "Not great."
  4532. >"What's wrong?" she asks.
  4533. "I don't know what I'm doing here."
  4534. >"Well, if you ask me, you came to talk."
  4535. "Yeah, that sounds like me, doesn't it?"
  4536. >"Last time you were here, I was basically your therapist. Not that I mind, of course, it was just surprising."
  4537. "Surprising that I was going through something?"
  4538. >"I guess," she says. "It's weird. You don't really think about how everyone around you has a life just as complicated as yours. Just think, if you hadn't broke down in front of me, I'd have never known what you were going through."
  4539. "You shouldn't, though. I shouldn't have put that on you."
  4540. >"From the way it came spilling out, you obviously didn't have anyone else to talk it through with. What would've happened if we never had that conversation?"
  4541. >You probably wouldn't have allowed yourself to be with Celestia.
  4542. "When we said goodbye, I told you I didn't know if soul mates were real."
  4543. >"Yeah, I always thought that was weird. Someone like you should believe in them more than anyone out there."
  4544. "The truth is, I didn't want to believe in soul mates until I found mine."
  4545. >She smiles. "That's sweet, Anon."
  4546. >You slump down into her dental chair.
  4547. "I'm sorry I didn't bring your match. I found the perfect guy, but... I don't know. Somewhere along the way, things got messy."
  4548. >"It's alright, you don't need to explain yourself. I trust you. After what you told me, about how I can be impulsive and argumentative, and how I'll still be okay in spite of that because I'll have someone who understands me and grows with me..."
  4549. >She laughs as she climbs up onto her stool. "You were right. I probably shouldn't have heard that stuff. But I'm glad I did, 'cause it shows you know me. You know what I want and what I need. So, at the end of the day, I'm just glad someone out there knows me, even if I don't have my soul mate. I know it was just a week, but I'm grateful for our time together. That one week meant the world to me."
  4550. "Thanks, Colgate."
  4551. >Feeling at peace, you lean your head back and shut your eyes.
  4552. "Thanks for listening."
  4553. >She doesn't reply, though. Silence is all your words are met with.
  4554. >You open your eyes, and you're not in the dental chair anymore.
  4555. >You're in an armchair, in apartment that looks like yours, but isn't yours.
  4556. >And sitting on the couch is Octavia, with her cello laying beside her.
  4557. >"You left this morning without saying goodbye," she whispers.
  4558. "I'm sorry. I had a lot on my mind."
  4559. >"I don't know where you are or what's going on. You showed up yesterday all bruised and beaten and told me not to worry, but how could I not?"
  4560. "It's alright. I'm okay. I'm here now, aren't I?"
  4561. >"Are you?" she asks.
  4562. >Staying silent, you look down at the floor.
  4563. >"I need you to be happy, Anon. You don't have to stay in my life if you don't want, but I can't be at peace knowing you're out there suffering."
  4564. "You have someone who loves you, you should be happy. Your life—"
  4565. >"I don't care about my life!" she exclaims. "I care about you, and I can't let myself be happy when you're not!"
  4566. >You bury your head in your hands and groan in frustration.
  4567. "You can't do this. You can't make me be responsible for your happiness. We promised we'd only ever let each other down."
  4568. >"The world isn't that simple," she scoffs. "I can't have you dropping into my life at a moment's notice and then slinking out the door the morning after. It was a nice sentiment, but I can't go on and pretend I'm fine with not knowing what's happening to you, whether you're safe, or— or—"
  4569. >Trembling, she gets down off the couch and comes up to your legs.
  4570. >"I cried my eyes out with you in this chair. I felt like my life meant nothing and you told me you wanted to help me be happy. When you came into my life and got close to me, you accepted that responsibility, and so did I. We have to take care of each other. I have to know you're okay. I need you to be okay, because if you're not... then, it's... it's my..."
  4571. >You pull her up into the chair and wrap your arms around her, letting her head rest against you.
  4572. "I'm okay, Octavia. I promise. I'll be okay. I love someone, and she loves me. It's hard, it's really hard, and I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm happy. I promise you I'm happy. Please believe me."
  4573. >She cries into your arm. Tears fall from your eyes in equal measure.
  4574. >You hate that your meetings always end in tears. You hate that she needs you so much. You hate that you have that power over her.
  4575. >You'd give it up in an instant if you could. She deserves happiness that isn't dependent on yours.
  4576. >You don't want her to lose you. You don't want her to mourn you.
  4577. >You just want her to be okay.
  4578. >Eventually, the crying stops.
  4579. >You open your eyes, but she's not in your arms anymore.
  4580. >And you're not in her apartment. You're just sitting in armchair in the void.
  4581. >V stands in front of you.
  4582. >You wipe your tears away and question him angrily.
  4583. "What... what is this? Why are you doing this to me?"
  4584. >He looks at you with a knowing look in his expression.
  4585. >"You say you acted out of self-interest, and every maneuver was a calculated move to earn Celestia's love. But all these mares... Celestia had nothing to do with any of them."
  4586. >Feeling completely lost, you listen as he goes on.
  4587. >"You came into their lives and imprinted upon each of them, connected with them beyond the scope of your work. With each contract, you left behind a different part of yourself for each of them to hold onto. You cared about them. Your job was to find them love, and yet you took it upon yourself to fulfill a deeper need in each of them, a need they hadn't even realized until you came along. And Celestia never knew."
  4588. >You get out of the chair and approach him.
  4589. "Where is she? I want to see her."
  4590. >V shakes his head. "She's not dreaming, Anon. She couldn't sleep. Right now, she's pacing in her room, worried sick about where you are."
  4591. "No..."
  4592. >You back away.
  4593. "No, it's not fair. You can't show me all that and not her. I have to say goodbye. I have to tell her how much she means to me, and how I was happy with her, and how... AGH!"
  4594. >You grab him by the jacket and yell in frustration.
  4595. "Let me see her!"
  4596. >"It doesn't work that way," he says.
  4597. >Up close, the calm in his voice speaks volumes. This isn't something you can negotiate.
  4598. >Releasing your anger, you slump back into the armchair and sigh.
  4599. "I cared about those girls because they meant something to me. I wanted them to be happy because I couldn't make myself happy."
  4600. >"And that's it, isn't it? You help others because it's the only thing you can do. But no matter how many lives you fix, it won't fix yours. All you get is a convoluted, messy web of relationships."
  4601. "It's easy for you to judge. You never had to deal with this shit."
  4602. >"And whose fault is that?" he asks.
  4603. >You fall silent.
  4604. >"You can meddle all you want, but it's true what they say. Change has to come from within."
  4605. "I tried changing. This is where it got me."
  4606. >"It's a process. It's never done. You don't wake up one day and decide you're satisfied with who you are. You just drag yourself out of bed and try to do better than you did yesterday. That's what life is."
  4607. >It takes you a few seconds before you can speak up again.
  4608. "I'm sorry. About everything."
  4609. >"I know you are," he says. "It's not going to change anything, but I know."
  4610. >You prop your elbow up on the armrest and lean your head against your fist.
  4611. "I've been haunted by your memory for a while. I forgot so many things after I touched the portal, like your face. But that didn't stop me from seeing it everywhere. It was just glimpses at first. That café in London. I didn't know who you were, but I knew I'd seen your face. My migraines were the memories coming back. The more I remembered, the more I saw you."
  4612. >You pause.
  4613. "It's funny, actually. Back then, I thought I was seeing your ghost. Now I really am."
  4614. >"No, you're not."
  4615. >You look up at him.
  4616. >"It's still me, Anon. I never knew Celestia or any of the ponies you met. I never knew your real name, just your aliases. I didn't live to see you go through any of this. This is just you, talking to your memory of him. That's all it ever was."
  4617. >Staring back, your expression grows strained.
  4618. "But... if it's not really you, then... I'm not...?"
  4619. >He shakes his head. "No, Anon. You're very much alive. And this is far from the end of the line."
  4620. >Bewildered, you get up out of your chair, but he disappears as soon as you stand.
  4621. >You turn around, and the chair is gone, too. It's just you, alone in a vast expanse of emptiness.
  4622. >But you are not senseless for long. Soon, coming from nowhere in particular, a strangely familiar sound fades in.
  4623. >It is whisper quiet, but still unmistakable.
  4624. >It's the sound of a voice speaking to you.
  4625. >A voice you could never forget.
  4626.  
  4627. 24
  4628. >Your eyes snap open as you awake suddenly. The sun is filtering in through the window.
  4629. >You shield your eyes from the unrelenting sunbeams. You must've forgotten to draw the curtains last night.
  4630. >Getting up out of bed, it takes you two tries to sit upright. Your back aches with a dull, but ever-present throbbing.
  4631. >You don your slippers sitting at the bedside and reach for the cane leaning against your nightstand.
  4632. >Today is another day.
  4633. >You shuffle out of the bedroom and look around the cabin. Stacks of books are still strewn about from last night's bout at reorganizing the shelves. The place needs tidying.
  4634. >But you'll get to that later. First, you need your morning tea.
  4635. >Can't do without it. It's just one of many new habits you've picked up.
  4636. >You go to the kitchen and begin brewing a pot of your favorite blend.
  4637. >Some simple luxuries are hard to get all the way out here, but that's never stopped you, has it?
  4638. >As you wait for the kettle, you stare out the window at the pristine landscape stretching out endlessly ahead.
  4639. >You've woken up to it hundreds of times before, and yet today, it feels different.
  4640. >You don't know why, but you're feeling particularly meditative. Something about it's leaving you keen to reflect on the path that led you here.
  4641. >Most days, you wonder about the past, but never quite like this. It's a gnawing sensation, one that's been building for a few days now.
  4642. >You thought it'd subside. It hasn't. It's only getting worse.
  4643. >You can't stop thinking about what happened. To Rainbow Dash, to Celestia. But most of all, you can't seem to stop asking yourself what the hell happened to you.
  4644. >Because over the course of this painstaking journey, no one's transformed nearly as much as you have. Dash will still be Dash. Celestia's always worn her heart on her sleeve.
  4645. >But all this shit you put yourself through, and you still have no idea who the hell you're meant to be.
  4646. >Are you the good guy?
  4647. >You'd think so, wouldn't you? After all, you've been fighting for a greater good. Or trying to, at least.
  4648. >But all the trouble you've stirred in the lives of those close to you is evidence to the contrary.
  4649. >Is Octavia better off for having known you? Is Rainbow Dash, after your stunt nearly got her killed?
  4650. >It's not so cut-and-dry, discerning who you are to them. What role did you end up playing?
  4651. >Here, you were hoping it'd come to you. You didn't think it'd come in the form of an epiphany, of course. It's a process, right?
  4652. >But hundreds of days waking up to the same sight, and still you're no closer to self-assurance than you were when you left.
  4653. >Maybe it's time you stopped hoping for it to come.
  4654. >You rest your palms against the oak countertops, tracing the fine grains of wood with your fingertips. This whole place, meticulously hand-carved, for a very special purpose.
  4655. >Your exile.
  4656. >The cabin is nestled amongst a vast wilderness of rolling hills, unfathomably isolated from the civilization you used to navigate.
  4657. >It's strange living out here. No unfamiliar faces to read. No shadows to watch for. No crowds to disappear into.
  4658. >You don't even have any neighbors. (Not that you were a particularly social person before this.)
  4659. >But there's reasons for the isolation. Every day, you're forced to remind yourself what this is all for.
  4660. >This self-imposed exile was the only way you could still do good in the world.
  4661. >After everything, you still felt the need to prove to yourself you'd changed.
  4662. >You realize, of course, it doesn't matter in the slightest. You know now that no one is judging you. Not God, not Celestia, not Santa freakin' Claus.
  4663. >And yet that knowledge is not enough. Because even though they're not watching...
  4664. >You always will be.
  4665. >You'll never absolve yourself for the things you did. The lives you've taken. The ponies your brashness has thrust into harm's way. Your conscience leaves you disquieted each time you look back on them.
  4666. >The only way you can live with yourself is by continuing the work, the only way you can.
  4667. >You tap your cane against the floorboards and breathe a deep sigh. Gone are your days of recruiting. You weren't happy in that life, but somehow, you still find yourself longing for it from time to time.
  4668. >It was a pain, it was endlessly stressful, but it made you feel capable, charismatic, respected. There was no greater high than playing the part of the mysterious stranger, forever composed and seemingly omniscient.
  4669. >In the thick of it, those peaks never felt worth the trouble. Now you miss it.
  4670. >The grass will forever be greener.
  4671. >Yet as you stare out the window at the untouched world before you, the grass is pretty green here.
  4672. >So, in the end, you're not upset with the way things turned out. You have to remind yourself that you're not useless. Not yet.
  4673. >If all goes well, you'll bring love to the world again. All will be right in the world.
  4674. >And you can finally rest easy knowing you did everything you possibly could.
  4675. >The kettle whistles, and you remove it from the stove. As you pour yourself a cup, the steam rises steadily into the air, wisping and trailing away, filling the small kitchen with the pleasant scent of chamomile.
  4676. >You take your seat at the head of the table and enjoy your morning beverage while looking out at the landscape.
  4677. >Nothing seems to placate you quite like your morning routine.
  4678. >With your first refreshing sip, you continue thinking to yourself.
  4679. >You often feel guilt about not doing enough, but at the same time, you recognize not everything has to be about utilitarian productivity. Pursuit of virtue wasn't even your main reason for coming here.
  4680. >All that crap about self-improvement and feeling inadequate actually ended up taking a back seat in your life. The accident changed you in that manner.
  4681. >In a morbid way, you suppose you have Cyril to thank for that.
  4682. >You dreamed of this life in form before it had function. Even before Equestria, when your conscience had been weighing on you, when you just wanted out of the violent profession you'd dug yourself into, all you really yearned for was a quiet, idyllic life.
  4683. >A life... with someone like her.
  4684. >Your eyes meet Celestia's when she passes by the window. Seeing you now awake, she smiles at you warmly as she circles around the cabin to the door.
  4685. >Once inside, she kicks off her gardening shoes.
  4686. >"Good morning, my love."
  4687. >You were wrong. Those sweet words uttered in her gracious voice put you at ease more than the tea ever could.
  4688. >She comes around to give you a quick kiss on the head before getting started on breakfast.
  4689. "I missed you this morning. What's got you tending the garden so early?"
  4690. >"I could hardly sleep," she replies while cracking eggs into a bowl. "I'm worried the tomatoes aren't getting enough light."
  4691. >She says it with such emphatic, unabashed concern that you can't help but chuckle to yourself softly.
  4692. >Your levity brings her to glance over her shoulder, smiling. "What?"
  4693. "It's nothing."
  4694. >You straighten your face and take a sip of tea to wipe the grin away.
  4695. >"Go on," she prods. "Tell me what's so humorous about that."
  4696. "Well, if you must know..."
  4697. >Amused, she feigns indignation. "I must."
  4698. "I find it cute that the well-being of tomatoes now sit square among the duties that keep you up at night, when it used to be royal decrees and court proceedings."
  4699. >She holds her head high as she cooks. "Those tomatoes are just about the most demanding thing in my life right now. I'd say that warrants my full attention, wouldn't you agree?"
  4700. "Of course. Just as long as they don't steal any of that attention away from me."
  4701. >"Oh, I wouldn't dream of it."
  4702. >Though you tease, you're content with the way she occupies her time. The innumerable sources of anxiety in her past life only served to impart a strain on your relationship.
  4703. >It's probably what kept you from being together for so long, coupled with a stubborn refusal to admit those feelings on both your parts.
  4704. >Perhaps it's silly that she takes these mundane things so seriously. You don't particularly mind. Her domain has shrunk from all of Equestria to this little plot of land, but she'll never change the way she carries herself.
  4705. >You're thankful for that.
  4706. >Taking another sip, you pause.
  4707. "Do you ever worry about those things anymore?"
  4708. >"What things?" she asks, the subject having escaped her mind.
  4709. "The life you left behind. Royal duties. The state of the kingdom. It's... it's been a while."
  4710. >"I do wonder sometimes," she admits. "But never for very long. I'm certain my sister has a handle on things. She's matured so much in such a short time, and I don't think I would have deigned her my successor had there been any doubt in my mind that she wasn't ready for this."
  4711. "Do you think about visiting her? Checking up, just to be sure? I mean, suppose we cou—"
  4712. >She cuts you off before you can finish. "We're out here for a reason, Anon. You and I both, for different reasons, but to the same end nonetheless. It does me no good to dwell on the life behind me, and heaven knows there's even less good in you dwelling on it for me. For all intents and purposes, there is only the here and now, so let's make the most of it, shall we?"
  4713. >You stare down at the heat rising off your tea.
  4714. "Sure."
  4715. >Responding in a hollow tone, you concede without objection, but you know the bitter truth.
  4716. >You're always going to worry.
  4717. >She sets two plates down on the table and seats herself beside you.
  4718. >Out here, her life's been transformed into something unrecognizable. Her time is devoted to such radically different things. Cooking, gardening, reading with you. And it hasn't changed her.
  4719. >You think back to that night, on the throne room balcony years prior, when you stayed up till dawn, just... talking.
  4720. >Then she made you pancakes and eggs, simply because you said you were hungry.
  4721. >And so it seems this trivially domestic element was always lying dormant somewhere inside her, yearning for its expression.
  4722. >She had become your best friend, your confidante. You knew her, and you knew what she wanted, even though sometimes you didn't want to admit it.
  4723. >Like the night she bared her heart to you.
  4724. >You didn't want to see the message between the lines. You didn't want to believe someone like her could love someone like you, because that would mean you were wrong about one of two things.
  4725. >Either you were wrong about her, or you were wrong about yourself.
  4726. >The reality of it, as is so often the case, ended up being some incomprehensible amalgam of both.
  4727. >But past all that, you were destined to end up together. You refuse to believe anything to the contrary.
  4728. >There was something about what the two of you saw in each other that made you belong together. Perhaps you could call it "irreconcilable similarities."
  4729. >All she wanted was this quiet life, and so did you. Years of emotional turmoil and mounting responsibility will do that to you.
  4730. >So as you eat up your pancakes and eggs, you're happy you ended up here.
  4731. >Because all paths led you to her.
  4732. >You don't know if this is the life you deserve. You still ask yourself what you could have possibly done to earn her.
  4733. >The necessity of the question has always been self-evident. Something so incredible as her love could not possibly be effortlessly attained, right? It must be earned.
  4734. >So it's only natural to question what you did to make her love you.
  4735. >But as you spend more time with her, you start to realize it just doesn't work that way.
  4736. >Maybe you ought to stop treating her as some ethereal exception to the rule. Maybe, beneath the royal tiara and deific stature, she is, at her base, a mare.
  4737. >And you know more than anyone else how deeply a mare longs to be loved.
  4738. >She isn't God. Loosely analogous to it, perhaps, but fallible still. Her judgment isn't preeminent. Like anyone else, she can't help who she loves.
  4739. >The one she loves just happens to be you. It can't be taken as an objective reflection of your character, because no such thing exists.
  4740. >For too long, you treated her perception of you as such. In failure, betraying her faith felt like condemning yourself to hell.
  4741. >But your fall from grace was only ever in your head.
  4742. >If no one's out there keeping track of good and bad, then what's the point of punishing yourself?
  4743. >Why imprison your soul when you know the sentence will never be served?
  4744. >She loves you. She trusts you.
  4745. >That ought to be enough.
  4746. >But you know better than anyone what it feels like to not be enough, don't you, Anon?
  4747. >It sucks, not getting that sense of closure. Deep down, you were secretly hoping there really was a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
  4748. >But slowly, you've come to learn the lesson that the tunnel never really ends.
  4749. >Sometimes you think you're out, when really it's just an exit into a bigger tunnel. Sometimes it feels like the light is right there with you. Some days you can't see the light at all.
  4750. >Life's messy. Nothing wraps up in a neat bow the way you want it to. And no story ever really ends.
  4751. >The sun will always rise again.
  4752. >And you know, all too well, that this story won't end here. You won't let it.
  4753. >As you finish your plate, you glance out the window, suddenly noticing the peculiar absence of a certain companion.
  4754. "Did you let Sunspot out?"
  4755. >Celestia nods as she takes a sip of her coffee. "He's out there somewhere, chasing after the birds. He wasn't quite ready to come in when I finished, so I'm letting him roam for a bit."
  4756. "You're too sweet on him. Get too lenient and he won't listen when you need him to."
  4757. >"Or maybe you're just too strict," she replies candidly.
  4758. >You raise an eyebrow.
  4759. >"Oh, don't give me that look. I've seen you work."
  4760. >You're a little surprised by her boldly addressing the subject. Usually she prefers to pretend as though it's not there.
  4761. "That's different. They're not dogs. You know the stakes. If I'm not hard on them..."
  4762. >"I know, honey, I know," she says, sparing herself the lecture. "Far be it from me to question your rigor. I've faith in your judgment. I always have."
  4763. >Avoiding her eyes, you take a sip of your tea quietly.
  4764. >Her voice grows quiet. "But it's time."
  4765. >You set your cup down firmly.
  4766. >So that's her motive for bringing it up.
  4767. "No, I still—"
  4768. >"It's time," she repeats, a little more insistent.
  4769. "They're not ready."
  4770. >"They're ready, sweetheart. Baby birds have got to fly the nest sometime."
  4771. >You wince at her analogy, but you know she has a point.
  4772. >"I know it's rather difficult, placing all this pressure on yourself. Neither of us planned for this. This isn't the dream we cooked up that night in your apartment. We were going to retire together, but you brought me here because you're not done with this world. You joke of my concern for my tomatoes, but what of your time for me? How much longer must I be forced to share it?"
  4773. >You fail to come up with a satisfactory answer.
  4774. >"That dream of ours is right around the corner," she continues. "Just look around you, for heaven's sakes, it's already set up for us. The only piece that's missing is you."
  4775. "I'm right here."
  4776. >You say it as if you're not entirely convinced of the fact.
  4777. >She shakes her head, trying to clarify her point. "You may come back to me each day, but it's painfully obvious your mind does not. At least not as much as it should. Your attention is another place altogether, and for once I simply wish it'd come back to me, truly and wholly."
  4778. >Weighed down by guilt, you fidget with the handle of the teacup.
  4779. >She rests her hoof upon your hand, ceasing your fretful movements. Her warm touch always allays your anxiety, conscious or otherwise.
  4780. >"I know you're ready. I want only for you to trust in yourself the way I trust in you."
  4781. >It takes you a few seconds to respond.
  4782. "I'm worried."
  4783. >"I know you are, my love. I'm here for you."
  4784. >She gets out of her chair. "Come. Let's talk about it on the way there."
  4785. >You're not convinced you're ready. You don't trust yourself.
  4786. >But you trust her.
  4787. >Grabbing your cane, you switch out your slippers for your hiking boots and follow Celestia out the door.
  4788. >It's a gorgeous day in the valley. You never quite get used to it, walking out your front to door to be greeted by miles and miles of rolling hills in every direction.
  4789. >You whistle loudly for Sunspot, and he comes bounding down the hillside to join you.
  4790. >Leaning down at an odd angle to spare your back, you pat his head lovingly.
  4791. "Good morning, buddy. It's going to be a long walk, maybe even the last, and I want you by my side."
  4792. >"Ready?" Celestia asks you.
  4793. "As much as I'll ever be."
  4794. >Together, you set off towards the east. You hobble along the fields, leaning against your cane with every other step.
  4795. >"I'll be sure to keep a slow pace for you," she taunts.
  4796. "Oh, hush. This thing already makes me feel like I'm a thousand years old."
  4797. >The words escape your mouth before you catch the implication.
  4798. >She tuts. "Is that supposed to be a bad thing?"
  4799. "Please. Eternal youthfulness? I'd trade places with you in a heartbeat. Hell, I'd gladly be the old one if it meant not having to lug around this bullet in my back."
  4800. >She smiles softly and shakes her head, strolling alongside you through the verdant landscape.
  4801. >"So, care to tell me what's been on your mind these past few days?"
  4802. >You don't respond.
  4803. >"Come now, Anon, I know it's been bothering you. You can hardly hide these things when we share a bed. You haven't been sleeping well lately."
  4804. "It's not nightmares, if that's what you're thinking."
  4805. >"Then what is it?"
  4806. "I don't know. Just thinking about the past, I guess."
  4807. >Undeterred by your ambiguity, she works through her thought process aloud. "Still feeling haunted? No, it can't be that, the headaches are long gone, and you would've said something sooner. It's got to be something else. Something new."
  4808. >You find it better to confess now before she deduces the answer and pries it out of you.
  4809. "I don't get how you do it, how you can just be okay not having any idea what's going on back home."
  4810. >You grimace as soon as you say it, praying she won't take it as a personal slight, but knowing she will.
  4811. >How could she not? You've essentially called her heartless for not being as distraught as you.
  4812. >And though that wasn't your intention, you can't help but remain hung up on her apparent aloofness.
  4813. >Looking straight ahead, she pauses soberly before responding. "The portal's been closed for a long while now. There's nothing to worry about."
  4814. "I realize logically I should feel safe knowing that. Whatever evidence Cyril might have leaked is useless with the portal gone, and with him dead there's no risk of him seeking out the means to open another. But my life's always been plagued by what-ifs. What if I overlooked something? What if Equestria needs you right now, and I not only caused the problem, but also stole you away from them?"
  4815. >"Equestria's fine, Anon," she states calmly.
  4816. >You don't understand. Insinuations be damned, you need to know.
  4817. "You keep saying that like it's a fact! How are you not even a little bit worried? How can you be so sure?"
  4818. >"Because you never would have left if you truly believed any danger remained."
  4819. >Your frustration instantly disintegrates.
  4820. >That's...
  4821. >That's true, actually.
  4822. >All your life, you've made decisions based on risk. It was a consequence of the life you'd made for yourself. There was no way to survive the occupational hazards otherwise. At the deepest level, it was a habit ingrained into you.
  4823. >But when you came to Equestria, something flipped. It was still there, it couldn't ever really disappear, but that risk aversion became less about you and more about those you cared about.
  4824. >Not wanting to jeopardize your relationship with Celestia. Trying to protect Rainbow Dash from Earth's perils. Risking your life just to keep Equestria safe.
  4825. >That last one in particular highlights just how much your priorities reversed. And you never asked why. It was always a given.
  4826. >"All this doubt you've created in your mind is little else than baseless anxiety," Celestia reassures you. "You trust your instincts more often than you realize."
  4827. >Whenever you need it, she has this habit of finding the most succinct words to put your mind at ease. Wisdom and profundity are the richest wells of her mind. It must come with age.
  4828. >That, and the knowledge of how to make the perfect pancake.
  4829. "Thanks, Cel."
  4830. >"Just watch. When we get there, you'll speak from the heart, and you'll see you're ready for this."
  4831. "I don't know what I did to deserve you."
  4832. >At this point, you say that reflexively.
  4833. >She just smiles, and gives you the same response she always does.
  4834. >"Don't ask questions that have no answer."
  4835. >After a few miles, you raise a hand feebly, motioning to Celestia a need to stop.
  4836. >"What's wrong?" she asks, putting a hoof around your side with deep concern.
  4837. >You wave her off, showing her you're perfectly fine.
  4838. "I just a need a rest. My back's acting up."
  4839. >Relieved, she reverts back to her lighthearted self. "Oh, you poor thing," she teases. "Want to ride me like a horse the rest of the way?"
  4840. >You chuckle and gently seat yourself on the grass.
  4841. "Somehow, I think that'd be more demeaning to me than it would to you."
  4842. >She sits beside you while Sunspot runs circles around you two excitedly.
  4843. >Her eyes follow him around, thoroughly entertained by his antics. "I think he wants to play."
  4844. >You grab a nearby stick and toss it for him to fetch.
  4845. >He'll grab it, but you can bet your bottom dollar he won't be returning it anytime soon.
  4846. "That'll keep him occupied while I catch my breath."
  4847. >Sitting atop the hill, you gaze out at the sun shining as it climbs higher in the sky.
  4848. >Celestia's eyes naturally follow yours. Now given a moment of respite to reflect, she stares up longingly at that resplendent source of life.
  4849. >You look over to her. Lost in the moment, she makes no effort to mask her pained expression.
  4850. >Certainly, there have been some downsides to retirement for you both.
  4851. "It's hard, isn't it?"
  4852. >She looks back at you and nods silently. Her eyes tell all.
  4853. "You okay?"
  4854. >"I am," she breathes, steadying herself. "In a way, it's a relief, being free from that burden. It's just— when it's been my power all my life, when I derive my sense of purpose from it... It feels odd, not being connected to it in the way I once was. If it weren't for you, I— I might feel empty because of it."
  4855. >You rest a hand on her wither and pull her closer.
  4856. "There's other things that give you purpose now. Little things, but important things nonetheless, that won't bear down on you with the weight of the world. Like your vegetable patch, for one..."
  4857. >Sunspot comes running up to you, clutching the stick in his mouth.
  4858. "Or this little guy."
  4859. >You reach out to take the stick, but he promptly sprints off with it, dashing back down the hill like mad. Shaking your head, you nudge Celestia.
  4860. "Look what you've done to him."
  4861. >She just smiles and rolls her eyes before leaning her head on your shoulder.
  4862. >You're happy.
  4863. >Most days, you're happy.
  4864. >It's hard not to forget that. It's so easy to take it for granted. You went through so much to get to where you sit today: up on a hill, far off in the untouched highlands, right next to the love of your life.
  4865. >It was a series of decisions that brought you here. Not one thing in particular, but lots of little things. You believe part of that driving force was fate, but mostly, you just wanted it enough. She's everything in the world that you need.
  4866. >Everything except one.
  4867. >And after today, you'll finally be able to accept you did everything you could, and you can spend the rest of your days at peace with her. At least, you hope that's what this will bring.
  4868. >Closure. Not for everything, mind you (you've come to terms with that), but for this exhausting journey towards purpose.
  4869. >You'll rest easy knowing you didn't abandon Equestria while it still needed you.
  4870. >You'll be okay with who you are.
  4871. >Reaching for your cane, you start to get back up. Celestia helps you to stand.
  4872. >With a loud whistle, you signal for Sunspot to follow you once more.
  4873. >And so you head off again.
  4874. "I'm not going to miss these long hikes. Every time I leave, I just end up missing you."
  4875. >"They're not so bad," she replies. "Lots of time to think, to meditate, to reflect on all life's blessings."
  4876. >She looks out appreciatively at the mountains on the horizon. "This is the perfect place for that."
  4877. "Some good it does me. Every time I just end up thinking in circles."
  4878. >"I'd expect nothing less. Life's mysteries are not so easily unlocked. If they were, there'd be nothing left to wonder about, don't you think? Some existence that would be."
  4879. "I don't know, I might like it. Not for eternity, but a day, maybe a week. It'd be a welcome respite from the usual anxiety."
  4880. >"Tell me something, dear," she says, looking over at you curiously. "On these walks, have you ever tried turning your brain off, enjoying the world around you, and simply taking things as they are? Or do you constantly see the need to occupy your mind, torturing yourself with endless worries?"
  4881. "No, I've tried before. I'm not stupid."
  4882. >"And?" she asks.
  4883. "Every time, I just end up thinking 'damn it, this is taking forever. I wish I was with Cel right now.'"
  4884. >She chuckles to herself, satisfied with your answer.
  4885. >In her steady voice, she says, "Be patient, my love. You always come back to me."
  4886. >Suddenly, you're hit with a strange sensation. Not quite déjà vu, but not unlike it, either.
  4887. >You turn to her, an uncertain look on your face.
  4888. "What did you say?"
  4889. >"Patience," she answers plainly. "You could do with a little more of it."
  4890. "No, I mean I've heard that before."
  4891. >"When?"
  4892. >You reach back in your mind to that vivid memory.
  4893. "The day I got hurt. In the subway tunnel, I heard your voice in my head. You said those exact words to me. You pleaded with me not to fight."
  4894. >"Oh?"
  4895. >As you look to her, she seems curiously surprised, which is to be expected. After all, you'd since told her everything that'd happened, but never thought to mention that part. It was inconsequential. Nothing came of it.
  4896. >Yet you can't seem to shake the queer suspicion that she's not being entirely forthright.
  4897. >That she knows something you don't.
  4898. "You can't really send messages back in time, can you?"
  4899. >The way you phrase the question makes you feel foolish for even suggesting it.
  4900. >Wearing a stoic expression, she breathes deeply. "Time is a tricky thing, Anon."
  4901. >That wasn't the immediate dismissal you were expecting.
  4902. >"In your memory, we saw just how complicated causality can be. When one deigns to look back, the present affects the past. Not even I can fully understand its machinations. So, knowing what I know today, did I somehow reach back to impart those words upon you along the way? Perhaps I did, perhaps not. If I could, one would have to ask why I did not do more."
  4903. >"On the other hand," she continues, "you could reason that the sequence of events that ultimately unfolded is precisely what allowed us to arrive here, right now. I am but a single lens just as you are; I cannot see the future, nor the past that has not transpired in front of me. There is no way of knowing how or why things work out the way they do, no way of divining what alternate realities might have been. All there is, and ever will be, is what has been. All we can do then is take each day in stride, and hope that our love will suffice to keep us together. I am at peace with that. I hope you can be, too."
  4904. >Her answer is a rather unsatisfying one. But you've always prided yourself on being able to read her, and as you look to her now, you think not even she knows, in her infinite wisdom, the full story of how you got here.
  4905. >And if she's incapable of visualizing the intricate tapestry that is the universe, then you have no chance.
  4906. >You say as much.
  4907. "I don't think I'll ever understand the road that brought us together."
  4908. >"For a love this powerful, one that burns so brightly, I would expect nothing less than the incomprehensible entropy that collided my life with yours."
  4909. "Truth be told, I don't need to know how. I'm just glad it happened. We were always meant to be. I won't ever doubt that again."
  4910. >If she, of all people, doesn't have the answer, then it's probably time you stopped asking.
  4911. >Constantly questioning, picking it apart... a struggle for naught. This whole time, you couldn't see the forest for the trees.
  4912. >She's right in that way. She's made her peace and so should you. Constantly questioning where the love came from, and never just taking the time to be grateful it's there.
  4913. >Silently, you make a promise to yourself. That's going to change.
  4914. >You'll soon have plenty of time to relish the moment. After today, it's just going to be the three of you. You, her, and the pup scampering at your side.
  4915. >"All this talk of past and present," she smiles, "when what we should really be concerned with is the future."
  4916. "Yeah? Any plans how we should spend it?"
  4917. >"Well, seeing as how I'll soon have you all to myself..."
  4918. "Yes?"
  4919. >She bites her lip excitedly. "How would you feel about having a few extra hooves pattering around the cabin?"
  4920. >You stop dead in your tracks.
  4921. >Make that four of you.
  4922. "Foals?"
  4923. >She holds back a smile.
  4924. "You really mean it?"
  4925. >Earnestly, she nods.
  4926. >You can scarcely believe the suggestion came from her.
  4927. "You're... you're not scared?"
  4928. >She laughs, as if the decision were as mundane as a dinner choice. "Why would I be scared?"
  4929. "Because it's a huge responsibility!"
  4930. >"Bigger than ruling a nation?"
  4931. "A nation won't wake you up in the middle of the night screaming its lungs out."
  4932. >She nuzzles the side of your head with great affection. "I'm ready, Anon. With you, I feel like maybe I can be a good mother. I know when it comes to having children, the timing's never going to be right, but... the timing feels right."
  4933. >Looking into her eyes, you reach out and rest your hand against the side of her face.
  4934. "Okay. Let's do it."
  4935. >Walking on once more, you can see her spirits visibly lifted by your acceptance.
  4936. "This isn't a decision you'd make in the spur of the moment. I take it you've been thinking about the prospect of foals for a while now."
  4937. >"Ever the observer," she lauds you. "In a way, yes. This whole business has got me thinking about Equestria's legacy. It might be wise to leave behind an heir. Luna is a worthy monarch, there is no question on that, but suppose, however unlikely, she one day longs for the same path I chose? Without an heir, she might feel entombed in her role, the same way I once felt. I wouldn't wish that on her."
  4938. "Is that all you're after? A line of succession?"
  4939. >"That, and the cute widdle hoofsie-woofsies, so-scrumptious-I-could-just-eat-them-up!" she giggles. "Oh, Anon, who could possibly say no to that?"
  4940. >You smile warmly and stroke her mane.
  4941. "I certainly couldn't."
  4942. >Fatherhood.
  4943. >Not so many words strike you with apprehension as much as that one.
  4944. >Really, it's not something you'd ever expected for yourself. You got into the game in your early twenties. You knew what it meant. Giving up the prospect of a family, kids, any semblance of normalcy.
  4945. >Back then, you didn't care. You were a jaded kid.
  4946. >But time makes fools of us all.
  4947. >Maybe now you'll get that normal life, after all.
  4948. >Though maybe not. You can hardly qualify marriage to an ungulate sun-goddess within the realm of normalcy.
  4949. >But we just want to belong. When you were young, you thought that violent life was where you belonged, simply because you were good at it.
  4950. >Instead, it just scooped out your insides till you were a hollow, rotted-out shell of yourself. Till you physically couldn't bring yourself to do it anymore.
  4951. >You were naïve. It was never going to be enough.
  4952. >For as long as you stayed there, you were never going to be enough.
  4953. >Maybe that's where your complex stemmed. It doesn't really matter, though.
  4954. >Celestia loves you because the past remains the past. Who you were doesn't matter.
  4955. >She loves who you are now.
  4956. >So much so that she's willing to make the foray into parenthood with you.
  4957. >Are you ready to be a father?
  4958. >No.
  4959. >But no one's ever ready.
  4960. >So you may as well take this leap with her, because you cling safely to the one truth you can forever depend on.
  4961. >She's always going to be by your side.
  4962. >The journey lasts only a short while longer. By midday, you summit the last hill overlooking your destination.
  4963. >You stare down at the commune in the center of the valley, dotted with figures walking to and from.
  4964. >"There it is," Celestia says, walking up alongside you. "Feeling prepared?"
  4965. "Not particularly."
  4966. >You glance over at her.
  4967. "But a bird's got to fly the nest sometime."
  4968. >You set off down the hillside together. Sunspot barks excitedly and bounds off ahead of you, descending into the valley.
  4969. >As you approach the commune, Celestia's shimmering mane reflects the radiant sun, glaringly signaling your arrival.
  4970. >Immediately, people begin congregating in the central courtyard, emerging from their barracks.
  4971. >Many of them wave and greet you hello as you wait for them to gather up.
  4972. >In under a minute, all thirty-three of them are standing in front of you attentively. Sunspot darts around the camp, playing gleefully with the other dogs.
  4973. >You open your mouth to address the group, but fail to find the right words to speak.
  4974. >Countless times before, it was never an issue.
  4975. >But today is different.
  4976. >You look to Celestia for one final glimpse of reassurance. When you meet her luminescent eyes, the emotion that fills you tells you exactly what you need to say.
  4977. >It's not hard at all to summon the words when they're about her.
  4978. >And so, you turn back to the men, and you begin.
  4979. "I started my initiative with a dream. A dream, once unimaginably out of reach, but a dream I'm now living out with the mare that stands behind me. For the longest time, I was unhappy. Unhappy with myself. Unhappy with the world. I did inexcusable things, things I can't possibly justify. I couldn't forgive myself."
  4980. >You point back at Celestia.
  4981. "But she forgave me. She was not the absolution I thought she was, but she refused to allow herself to believe I was beyond saving. She had seen evil before, and she didn't see it in me. Instead, she saw something even I couldn't. She saw someone who wanted to be better. Someone with selfish, twisted motivations, yes, but someone who looked back at her and felt something strangely real. I'm human. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that fact, that I'm not too far gone. For us, goodness isn't a state of mind. It does not come naturally. It's an action, a concerted effort. I have to try every day. When I fail, I have to do better. It's on me. Because I have to do everything I possibly can to make myself worthy of that mare back there. She deserves the best in the world, so I have to be the best in order to give that to her."
  4982. >You start to pace back and forth.
  4983. "I'm not saying it's easy. You look at ponies, these bastions of unrivaled purity, and you think, 'I'm not on the same level as them.' You feel selfish, debased, inferior compared to them. But then, something happens. You look at the one pony who makes it all worth it, and that thought of 'I'm not good enough' turns into 'I WANT to be good enough.' Nothing I say to you can achieve that. That's the kind of determination that only comes with love. The purest love in the universe."
  4984. >Stamping your cane against the ground, you stare down at the dirt pensively.
  4985. "I haven't been easy on you. I have pushed you to your limits because I myself can no longer reach them. My days of recruiting are over. But you have been training endlessly because the initiative shall not die with me. Instead, it lives on through you. I have imparted upon you everything I know for you to flourish in this role. It will take a great deal of adjusting to, but I have done all I can to prepare you for the transition. At a certain point, there is only so much I can tell you. Some things you just need to experience for yourself. I wouldn't be sending you over if I didn't wholeheartedly believe every last one of you has earned a place in Equestria. But you won't stay there long. From there, you will go back out into the world. You will find men capable of that pure love, just as I have found you. And the only you can find love is by knowing love. Outside, and in."
  4986. >You glance back at Celestia before continuing. The admiration with which she watches you fills you with determination.
  4987. >Still looking back at her, you continue your speech.
  4988. "Love is such a fickle thing. No force on Earth motivates a man quite like it. You cannot play matchmaker if you do not know the meaning of love. I could never have dreamed of making soul mates out of mares and men had I not all the while been discovering my own in Princess Celestia. Though your skill set may grow vast, you should always cherish that most paramount of them all: that understanding of love which blossoms from your own. Whatever trials you may come to face, remember who you do it for. Not for me. Not even for Equestria. No, you hold your chin high, and you do it for her: that mare waiting back home who needs more than anything for you to come home safe and sound."
  4989. >Tears begin to well in Celestia's eyes. You may be speaking to your men, but you're saying it to her.
  4990. >She knows exactly what you're talking about. For six long years, she played the part.
  4991. >And this is where she reaps the reward.
  4992. >All this time, you've been fighting to hold onto her, but there's two sides to every story. Her own battle. The one that went unspoken.
  4993. >The one she fought just to hang onto you.
  4994. >Now, you stand here today, looking her in the eyes, and you tell her with all the love in the world that it's over.
  4995. >She's won.
  4996. >You can't help but feel vindicated. I mean, hell, she's everything to you.
  4997. >She's all that ever was, and especially now, all that ever will be.
  4998. >You take a deep breath, eternally thankful for the arduous, baffling journey that brought you to her.
  4999. >Because it was all worth it.
  5000. >It was all for her.
  5001. >Turning back to your men, you quietly gaze off at the towering mountains behind them a few seconds before speaking up again.
  5002. >Having now become the salvation you yourself once needed, you, with great conviction, deliver unto them the moment they've been long anticipating.
  5003. "Today, here, I open the first portal to Equestria since I sealed the last one so long ago. Soon, each of you will travel through, to this brave new world, for the very first time. There, you will receive your assignments and begin the gradual process of interviewing every mare out there that needs a match. But before we get to that..."
  5004. >You glance back at Celestia and flash her smile.
  5005. "...I have a feeling you're gonna want to meet your soul mates first."
/nmp/ Safe Anon Celestia Rainbow Dash Octavia Romance

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