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Buying a Bookhorse (Complete)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 03:06:18 AM

  1. Originally posted November 2015
  2.  
  3. > The market isn't exactly overflowing with joyfulness.
  4. > More like a main course of misery with two sides of hopelessness, all slow cooked over the flame of grim acceptance in the minds of those sold there.
  5. > Even so, however, this one looks even worse than the rest.
  6. > Most of the ponies had varying degrees of reaction to the hell around them - some shook with fear, while others tried to catch the eyes of passing humans.
  7. > A few dared to hold hushed conversations or comfort each other with legs and wings across withers when they didn't think anyone would notice.
  8. > This one, though...
  9. > She was dead - internally, at least.
  10. > Purple eyes were wide open, but weren't seeing anything - nothing real, anyhow.
  11. > A mane that might have been once straight-cut was now beginning to show roughness, tangles and stray locks sticking out here and there.
  12. > No movement, either - not even when the next pony shackled down the line from her, a little filly with a pink-and-purple mane, was dragged to her knees by a foot on her chain.
  13. > The unicorn simply leaned to the side to relieve the pressure on her own collar, then went right back as soon as the chain went slack again.
  14. > Her gaze didn't even shift to acknowledge the filly's departure when she was lifted squealing and screaming to be sold.
  15. > Watching the first buyer depart, you wander up to the attendant and motion to the unicorn.
  16. "What's with her? She injured or something?"
  17. > "Oh, her?"
  18. > A glare was shot in the pony's direction, but yet again ignored by her utter unawareness of the world around her.
  19. > "The first that owned her pumped her full of the anti-magic drugs they give 'em. Too much at once - withdrawal messed with her bad."
  20. > Huh.
  21. > You knew the drugs could have... side effects if given in too high a dose, but that bad?
  22. > Pausing, you consider the pricetag clipped to the floor in front of her.
  23.  
  24. > Low already, probably on account of that 'damage'.
  25. "You willing to go down on this price?"
  26. > The attendant's eyebrows rise, seemingly surprised you'd even consider the near-comatose unicorn.
  27. > "Wait, you actually buying?"
  28. "If you can drop it at least fifteen percent, yeah."
  29. > "Fifteen? Listen, she's already near twenty below the normal rate for a pony her age."
  30. > Chewing his cheek, the attendant pauses - then sighs.
  31. > "Ten percent off the price. No more, okay?"
  32. "Done."
  33. > Paperwork is signed and the card swiped - the lead-chain placed into your hands.
  34. > This finally snaps the unicorn out of her trance; she rises at the tug, seeming realize what you're doing.
  35. > Thankfully she does not fight you - or give you any reason to find one of the tables selling a bridle and bit.
  36. > But neither does she do anything more than gamely follow at your heels as you leave the market.
  37. > Similarly, opening your car door gets her to climb unsteadily into the rear seats; only when you start the engine, however, does she finally seem to wake up.
  38. > Eyes focus at last, sweeping around in awe as if seeing the world for the first time.
  39. > Lips work a few silent words, and you can see the gears turning in her brain - but a moment later it is gone.
  40. > Once again her head falls to the seat, gaze dully settled on the door.
  41. "So, uh..."
  42. > You glance in the mirror, trying to see if she was responding to your voice at all.
  43. "...you have a name?"
  44. > No response.
  45. > Grimacing, you try and think of something else to add.
  46. "I saw your mark is a, uh, star. Is that your name or something - star?"
  47. > Still nothing - not even an ear raised to signal she could hear you.
  48. "Well, if it's okay with you I'm just going to call you that, alright?"
  49. > Evidently not even being named was enough to gain her attention.
  50. > Maybe she was deaf too?
  51. > No, she'd seemed aware enough for a few moments there.
  52.  
  53. > She'd recover soon enough, you suppose.
  54. > ...right?
  55. > Even if not, she deserved some place that would look after her.
  56. > Pulling up to your home some time later, you switch the engine off and lean back in your seat with a sigh.
  57. "Well, Star, here's home."
  58. > Of course she doesn't answer, but that doesn't stop you from trying.
  59. > Opening the door to your apartment yields the inside - messy as ever, the limited floor space severely shrunken by the chaos.
  60. > Now it is your own thoughts' turn to drift as you wander about setting things down.
  61. > So far so, in fact, that you jump in surprise when words abruptly meet your ears.
  62. > "He lied."
  63. > Twisting in your seat, you find the mare's eyes locked on you at last.
  64. > She flinches back when your own gaze settles on her.
  65. "So you can talk. What'd you say?"
  66. > "He lied."
  67. > Hesitating, she takes another breath before continuing:
  68. > "My magic isn't coming back. I don't - I don't know what the drugs did to me. I can't reach my magic anymore; it's all gone and I..."
  69. > Now the words are coming ever faster, a torrent spilling forth once the dam was broken.
  70. > "It's all gone, everypony's gone and I don't know what to do and I want to go back. Please take me back!"
  71. > The stream of words is soon joined by twin streams of tears tracing down her cheeks.
  72. > Shit.
  73. > She'd been easier to manage before she was talking; you hadn't been prepared for this.
  74. > Most of the ponies you'd seen were stable, if often submissive.
  75. > Moving to kneel facing her, you cross your arms on one knee.
  76. "Let me get this straight... you want to go back there?"
  77. > Her head twitches in a furious nod, then an equally driven negative shake.
  78. > "I - friends - they were there - gone now. I... you don't want me. I'm... damaged."
  79. > Eyes again fall to the floor in front of her, unwilling to stay on you.
  80. > "You should take me back."
  81. "...how do you figure that?"
  82. > Several moments pass while the mare visibly gathers herself to respond.
  83.  
  84. > When she does, however, you can't help but feel your eyebrows rise as she speaks:
  85. > "You're not wealthy. Apartment, not a separate home. No mate here, only things for you. Bargained the price down when you... bought me. Not spending for a luxury; you'll want me to work. Help you somehow. Saw you looking at other unicorns. No magic, though. You can't afford to keep a broken pony."
  86. > Her tone had been growing steadily more confident as she laid her reasoning out, but now that drains away faster than air from a popped balloon.
  87. > "You should send me back. You don't want me."
  88. "...do you want to go back?"
  89. > This time her hesitation is longer, deeper - forcing you to repeat the question.
  90. > "I... friends. Friends were there. Gone now. Sold. Don't know where."
  91. > Ah.
  92. > That made sense, but...
  93. "That wasn't an answer, Star. Do you want to go back?"
  94. > Her head droops even further, practically falling to the floor.
  95. > "Better now. Before I disappoint you. Before I make you angry. Before..."
  96. > Any attempt to go any further is forestalled by her finally breaking down entirely, words dissolving into silent, heaving sobs.
  97. > That's all the answer you need.
  98. > No - no, she doesn't need to go back.
  99. > She was making excuses to not stay, not giving reasons to want to be somewhere else.
  100. > Leaning in, you slip your arms around her neck and pull tight.
  101. > A second later you realize your mistakes:
  102. > First, she stiffens sharply at the touch - clearly unhappy with it.
  103. > Second, you hadn't quite realized how filthy she was.
  104. > Though the color of the coat and mane clearly showed through oil, sweat, grime and other unidentifiable gunk had worked its way into her hair.
  105. > They said it was best to be dominant around ponies, right?
  106. > Like showing a dog who's boss - giving them some kind of orders to follow.
  107. > Herd instinct, or something like that.
  108. "Come on. Let's get you washed off for starters."
  109. ----
  110. > She'd kept herself quiet during the shower.
  111.  
  112. > It had taken several latherings and rinses before her coat was approaching clean again, each time turning the water some varying shade of grey-brown with soap and lather.
  113. > But it had been well worth it.
  114. > Not just for the carefully stifled noises of pleasure she'd made when you dug your fingers in and scrubbed deeply, but to see the actual deeper-lavenders of her coat and mane come into full display.
  115. > Shutting off the water at last, you promptly begin toweling off the immense volumes of water still clinging to her coat.
  116. "Now come on. You should be feeling a bit better now, no? Let's go have a real talk?"
  117. > Not two steps have been taken towards the door before a soft, uncertain voice speaks up behind you.
  118. > "Um..."
  119. > Looking back, you find her nudging the collar - tossed aside with its heavy chain to give you access to her mane - with one nervous hoof.
  120. > Seeing your uncertain look, she adds:
  121. > "I'm... not supposed to have it off. Except for when the vet comes."
  122. > You're ready to object, but something in her tone catches you.
  123. > She sounds... lost.
  124. > Looking for something steadying.
  125. > A way to know where she stands.
  126. > You hadn't offered an answer to her situation, after all.
  127. > With a sigh, you kneel to replace the collar.
  128. > For now, anyhow.
  129. > A moment later, your pony issues a sudden squeak as you lift her with a grunt, staggering upright.
  130. > The sofa creaks ominously when the two of you settle onto it, but that barely seems to matter.
  131. > You're focused on her eyes, peering up at you with wide confusion.
  132. "So, now that you're cleaned up a bit, let me ask again: Do you have a name?"
  133. > For a moment, it seems as though she was about to clam up again.
  134. > Just for a moment, though.
  135. > "Twilight... Sparkle."
  136. > Well, that explained her mark.
  137. "Huh. Well, Twilight, I don't think I'm sending you back."
  138. > "But-"
  139.  
  140. "You don't have magic. I get it. We'll figure out some other way to help; from the way you picked up on my situation that fast, you're bright enough to figure something out."
  141. > The slightest tinge of color touches her cheeks.
  142. "But most importantly - no way I'm sending you back to that. I don't know how many owners you've been through, but you were dead in there. We'll figure something out, okay?"
  143. > "I... I want to be useful. I want to... do something. If I don't do good enough-"
  144. "Then you'll try to do better. But I'm not sending you back to get tossed off to some other random, okay?"
  145. > Once more her eyes fall from your own - but before you can draw them back up again, Twilight dives against you and buries her muzzle against your shirt.
  146. > She's murmuring something repetitive, and even if you can't quite hear it you have a fair guess as to what it is.
  147. "You're welcome, Twilight."
  148.  
  149. --------
  150.  
  151. "Alright, Twilight. I'm not going to be home until much later, so there's some food in the fridge for you. When I get home we can talk again, okay?"
  152. > The unicorn's only response is a low bob of her head, her eyes locked on the window she was curled in front of.
  153. > Well, maybe open conversation all the time was a bit much to hope for?
  154. "...so, uh... just... feel free to catch some sleep or whatever until I get back."
  155. > No response at all this time.
  156. > Shutting the door, you begin your daily trudge.
  157. > Gotta eat somehow, even if the work did leave you feeling like biting someone's head off to help with frustration and hunger all at once..
  158. > Fucking late shift.
  159. > In between dealing with moronic coworkers and even more moronic customers, however, you do find a few spare moments in which to do some research.
  160. > Your google-fu does not fail you.
  161. > As you scroll through the reports, however, a part of your mind wishes it had.
  162. > Much of it is in technical jargon that makes only slightly more sense to you than Klingon pushed through a Swahili translator.
  163. > Enough of it is, though.
  164. > 'Agent operates by binding on the Neuroprine-3 and -4 sites, forming inhibiting blockages preventing potassium channels...'
  165. > '...permanent accretion of agent buildup on sites even after bloodstream concentration drops below active threshold has been detected in cases of doses exceeding...'
  166. > '...may lead to ongoing disconnection of the magic-aligned neural structures, although permanent damage does not occur until single-time dosage exceeds...'
  167. > '...long-term implications of enduring blockages and probability of recovery are unclear, pending study of paraequine neurological development...'
  168. > The gist is easy enough to understand.
  169. > Whoever had owned Twilight first had dumped mountains of the drug used to suppress pony magic into her system.
  170. > So much that her body had never been able to flush the effects entirely.
  171.  
  172. > And you had no way of knowing if it would even clear out in time.
  173. > A few experimental counter-drugs seemed to exist, but the price tag probably sits somewhere in the vicinity of the entire business you work at.
  174. > ...which meant it was entirely up to chance if Twilight would ever get her magic back.
  175. > Great.
  176. > As if you needed another thing weighing on your mind.
  177. > Keeping your own anger suppressed long enough to get away from your boss or any other potential targets, you somehow manage to make it through the workday un-arrested.
  178. > Yet all through it and the following slog back home, a single question lingers in your mind.
  179. > Should you tell Twilight?
  180. > Which was better, the weight of total uncertainty or knowing how you had been...
  181. > Damaged.
  182. > Would she even understand it if you told her?
  183. > Twisting the key and sliding the door open, an apartment unlit except by the filtered glow of distant streetlights greets you.
  184. "Twilight?"
  185. > No response comes.
  186. > A quick check of the fridge reveals that at least she had eaten.
  187. > She wasn't neglectful of herself, then...
  188. > Except...
  189. > She'd completely ignored the couch and blankets there, despite snoozing briefly on it the day before after your little talk.
  190. > Instead, you found her sleeping curled by the foot of your bed - legs wound tightly beneath herself and tail wrapped in a desperate attempt to cover her nose.
  191. > Even so she was trembling - her natural coat utterly insufficient to ward against the cold seeping up through the floor.
  192. > How the hell she actually got to sleep you have no idea, given how hard she was shaking; if not for that they were already pinned down against the sides of her head, her ears would probably be fluttering wildly.
  193. "God damn it, Twilight..."
  194. > Dropping your bag, you quickly reach down and without a moment's hesitation slip your arms around the pony again, lifting with a grunt to deposit her on the bottom of your bed.
  195.  
  196. > Halfway through she wakes up, bursting into sudden struggle as she realizes that she is airborne.
  197. > "Wait, wait! I-"
  198. "Twilight. Easy! Easy, it's just me."
  199. > Your voice seems to shock her, the mare goes utterly still while you move her the rest of the way onto the bed.
  200. > Her body felt cold too, except around the belly; her limbs were downright icy.
  201. > Somehow you doubted that was good.
  202. > Collapsing onto the bed beside her with a heavy sigh, you shake your head.
  203. > From her spot sprawled just as you'd set her down, Twilight peers up at you with eyes wide.
  204. > Even in the darkness you could see them glittering in what little light filtered in from outside.
  205. > Her breaths come short and shallow - not just from the chill, you think.
  206. > Not at all.
  207. > Groaning, you collapse onto your back - arms outspread on the bed's welcoming softness.
  208. > A moment later, your vision is filled with Twilight's worried visage.
  209. > "Um... are you..."
  210. "Fine, Twilight. I'm more worried about you."
  211. > That drives her to jerk back; you prop yourself up on one elbow with a frown.
  212. "...no, I'm not angry. But - what the hell convinced you it was a good idea to sleep on the freezing floor without a blanket?"
  213. > "I..."
  214. > Confusion more than anything else passes over her face.
  215. > "But - ponies don't..."
  216. "Not everyone has the same rules, Twilight."
  217. > Even your mild scolding seems to strike her as hard as a physical blow, Twilight's head drooping even further.
  218. > "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to do it wrong."
  219. "No, I-"
  220. > Groaning, you rub your face with one hand.
  221. "-that's not what I meant. At all. I'm not angry with you, Twilight. But, I am worried about you. Being that cold can't be good for you, let alone comfortable."
  222. > Despite the tiny amount of light leaking into the room, Twilight's hesitation at answering is clearly visible.
  223. "Go on. I can tell you want to say something."
  224. > "Do you... really care?"
  225.  
  226. > Her tone is one of someone who doesn't really want to say what they are, but feels no choice but to:
  227. > "You agreed not to send me back. But, you also bought me to work for you in the first place. You bought a sapient creature just to have it work for you. You pity me, but do you care for me, not just for your worker?"
  228. > The point of her words drives home just hard enough for you to hesitate.
  229. > That second is all she needs; Twilight's head falls to the bed with a thud and a sigh.
  230. "I'm sorry."
  231. > "Why? Because you bought a useless pony?"
  232. > A denial sits on the tip of your tongue, but again you hesitate.
  233. > Why had you apologized?
  234. > Rising from the bed with a grumble, you glance back.
  235. "Look - point is, don't be afraid to get yourself a proper bed. And blankets. Really."
  236. > She's gone when you come back - presumably departed for the couch.
  237. > You'd really have to look into finding a proper bed for her sooner or later.
  238. > With thoughts still whirling in your head, you change yourself before heading to bed.
  239.  
  240. -------
  241.  
  242. "Okay, look."
  243. > Swallowing the last of your breakfast, you jab the spoon in Twilight's direction.
  244. "I realize you're kind of at a disadvantage without your magic, but I think getting you some serious work help with your mood and everything."
  245. > Across the table, Twilight continues digging into her own breakfast with gusto.
  246. > Seriously, you don't think you've ever seen someone devour a hash so fast.
  247. > She glances up at your words, but otherwise doesn't seem to be paying much attention.
  248. "I know, I know - you're not just a worker. But, I think it would be honestly good for you. You ponies are pretty good with your still mouths, right?"
  249. > The way she flinches at that phrase leaves you confused - if only for a second.
  250. "...fucksake, no. I mean, you can pick things up safely, right?"
  251. > "Oh... yes. I can."
  252.  
  253. "Okay. See all those piles of magazines and shit over there? I've been meaning to reorganize those for like... ages. Get them into piles by the years and set everything over a year to the side; I'll take the rest from there.
  254. > "Where are you going?"
  255. "To the store. I need to get a bunch of things for you."
  256. > A proper collar, for one.
  257. > If she was going to insist on wearing one, you'd have to get rid of the heavy, filthy thing the market had on her.
  258. > In the end, you settle for about half of what you need.
  259. > Maybe after the next paycheck...
  260. > Ironically the cashier was a pony herself, a well-groomed thing that didn't bat an eye at your purchases.
  261. > Even made a few recommendations.
  262. > Returning home finds the magazines neatly stacked in squared-off piles.
  263. > How Twilight had managed to get them that perfectly aligned, you aren't quite sure.
  264. > Good that she had an eye for detail, anyhow.
  265. > Amazingly, Twilight still isn't done - you find her propped up on her hind legs at the table, several papers spread out before her.
  266. > She peers up as you enter, a pencil falling from her lips.
  267. > "Oh! You're home!"
  268. "Yeah. Whatcha got there?"
  269. > Almost instinctively, Twilight jumps back - shoving the papers away.
  270. > "Um... just, some papers that were in the pile. I didn't know what to do with them, so I was going to ask you... but, then... I kind of started looking at them, and..."
  271. > She's shifting nervously in her seat as you move behind her, resting a hand on her mane as you look over what she'd gotten her hands on.
  272. "Oh. Shit, yeah. This is some old work stuff. Whoever did the requisitions on all the materials here screwed it up; we ran short a week ago."
  273. > "I know."
  274. > That catches you by surprise; once more Twilight flinches back at your look.
  275. "...huh?"
  276. > "I, uh... I know. Look, here and here - they got the rates of usage wrong. Too low - they didn't derive this right."
  277.  
  278. > Another paper, covered in messy pencil-writing you don't recognize, is pulled forward.
  279. > "So, I corrected it but then noticed there was another material that you could buy and skip a whole step if I'm right about the process you're using. But if it's already-"
  280. "Woah, woah, woah. Hold up one second, Sparkle."
  281. > "Did I... should I not have looked at these? I'm sorry, they were out and I-"
  282. > Halting her panic with a raised hand, you point at the writing scrawled across the page.
  283. "Twilight... this is fucking calculus."
  284. > "...yes?"
  285. "And it's right. The correction is right. And the ordering change - that's some pretty hefty chemistry."
  286. > Another uncomfortable shift.
  287. "Twilight, who the hell taught you to this?"
  288. > "I... back home, before..."
  289. > Slumping into a nearby seat in shock, you can't help but stare.
  290. > How the hell had this been missed?
  291. > You draw in a breath to explain to her just how big this was, but at the sight of your lips opening she bolts.
  292. > A purple blur shoots from the room in a clatter of hooves on wood, the panicked look on her face barely glimpsed before she is gone.
  293. "Twilight, wait!"
  294.  
  295. --------
  296.  
  297. "Twilight!"
  298. > It isn't hard to follow her; the thudding hooves are easy enough to locate.
  299. > And in any case there are only so many rooms in your meager apartment.
  300. "Twilight, come back. I want to talk to you!"
  301. > Locating her within your bedroom is even easier.
  302. > Having taken your suggestion she make use of a blanket to heart, Twilight had hastily wrapped herself in one.
  303. > Most of one leg, several sections of mane, and a good bit of belly had been left uncovered, but it was evidently enough to - combined with wedging herself into a corner - convince Twilight to feel safe.
  304. > Kneeling reveals that she'd begun to to tremble once more, a situation that grows even worse when you rest a gentle hand across her withers.
  305. "Hey. Twilight."
  306. > "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I forgot - I just wanted to help!"
  307. "Come out from beneath there. I want to talk."
  308. > She doesn't, though - only a few muted sniffles emerge from the swathe of blankets surrounding her head.
  309. > With a groan, you slip your arms around the pony.
  310. > Twilight gives a dejected little noise as she is rolled over to face you, her limbs bunching protectively beneath her.
  311. > Twin purple eyes stare up at you with a mix of fear and anticipation before squeezing shut.
  312. "Hey, listen. I get you're upset, but you've got to tell me why."
  313. > "I'm forgot; I know I'm not supposed to do that..."
  314. "What? Be smart?"
  315. > A tentative little bob of her head gives the answer to your question, and your mind all but flips the metaphorical table over and quits the room.
  316. > That's some serious tall poppy shit right there.
  317. "Okay, you're seriously going to have to explain that to me, because I really don't get it."
  318. > Finally Twilight's eyes crack open again.
  319. > Evidently the declaration that you didn't understand whatever was responsible for her fear had allayed that somewhat.
  320.  
  321. > "My other - the other two who had me, after the first one broke my magic... I wasn't supposed to try and improve things. He always hated that."
  322. "The fuck did they even want you for, then?"
  323. > "Simple work. 'A pony is quiet. A pony is still. A pony lets herself be pet. A pony does not correct her owner. A pony is quiet...' "
  324. > The mantra is repeated with the closest thing to madness you'd ever heard in person.
  325. > No doubt a sign of how many times it had rung in her ears - in her voice and, you suspect, others' in a dizzying repetition meant to fix it in her mind.
  326. > If that was the intention, it had certainly worked out correctly.
  327. "Fucksake. They actually told you to shut up and stop trying to help?"
  328. > With her eyes squeezed shut, Twilight nods.
  329. > "No magic. Not useful. Just a worker pony. 'Improving' is just a distraction from getting work done..."
  330. > Your mind boggles - not just with fury at the damage done to her, but at the indescribable stupidity of someone who had decided to completely ignore the mind still churning between her ears.
  331. > Had they been embarrassed that a 'broken' pony had been smarter than they were?
  332. > Whatever the reason, the result was still the same.
  333. "Right - look, Twilight. Look up at me for a moment?"
  334. > Your tone is gentle, reassuring, and somehow manages to convince Twilight to raise her eyes to you again.
  335. > "I... I just wanted to be useful..."
  336. "I'm not angry at you. Not for trying to help."
  337. > Several moments pass before the message seems to work its way through her mind.
  338. > "You... aren't? Even though - but, you got me to just help you with the little jobs right?"
  339. "I don't care why I got you. I'm not going to ignore what you can do, and-"
  340. > Dropping a finger to the bridge of her muzzle just between her enormous, watery eyes makes Twilight go slightly crosseyed.
  341. "-I'm certainly not going to punish you or anything for being as smart as you are."
  342. > "You promise?"
  343.  
  344. "I promise. There might be times when we just need to get things done and can make them better later, but I'm not going to be angry with you about anything like this."
  345. > Retreating a bit to give her some room, you extend a hand.
  346. "Now, why don't you come up here? I need to go to work a bit later, but we've got plenty of time to talk until then."
  347. > Rolling herself onto her belly, Twilight cautiously extends a hoof to meet you hand.
  348. > Keeping a warm and comforting smile on your face, you take it - not squeezing or pulling, but just supporting her hoof.
  349. > In due time Twilight gathers the courage to lift herself up the rest of the way.
  350. > Retreating to your bed, you pat a spot beside you.
  351. "Come on up. You're welcome here."
  352. > After a second's hesitation, Twilight does so - neatly tucking all four legs beneath herself and even wrapping her tail around her hooves.
  353. > Her eyes have begun to dry, though her nose still twitches with occasional sniffles.
  354. "So. That was some pretty fancy stuff you did back there - where'd you say you learned that?"
  355. > "Back home..."
  356. > Another pause for a sniffle.
  357. > "...went to the school for gifted unicorns. In Canterlot. Taught us there."
  358. > What, was that like horse-college or something?
  359. "You went there for what - chemistry or something?"
  360. > "Magic. Mostly."
  361. > Twilight shudders again, eyes focusing upward in what you imagine is an attempt to look at her horn.
  362. > "Not that it's much use now. But chemistry was a big part of it."
  363. "Well, still. I'd like to hear about the rest - if you want."
  364. > "...really?"
  365. > Her tone suggests she can't quite believe your honesty, but even so you nod.
  366. "Really, really."
  367. > And so Twilight talks.
  368. > And talks.
  369. > And talks.
  370. > It would've been tedious, even annoying in most circumstances - like that inevitable drunk guy that exists at every party who's convinced that every bit of his life is the most amazing thing ever.
  371.  
  372. > More than once - or even ten times - Twilight diverges on insane tangents that you barely comprehend.
  373. > Except for two things:
  374. > One, her life was in fact genuinely interesting.
  375. > If Twilight could be believed - and you suspect that there are some parts she is pointedly leaving out - then she'd been a unicorn of immense power and attended one of the highest institutions in her land.
  376. > Second was how talking about it had affected her.
  377. > As the words spill forth and Twilight recounts her life, you see her come to life again.
  378. > Some of the tells are obvious - her increasingly animated tone, the way she gestures with her forehooves.
  379. > Others are less so - a flick of her tail here, a twitch of an ear there.
  380. > Her eyes lighting up, really lighting up entirely, for the first time since you bought her.
  381. > It's...
  382. > Amazing.
  383. > Twilight's not just happy - she's downright thrilled, even by something so small as a chance to educate you on her experiences.
  384. > It's not hard to see why.
  385. > She was clearly an academic of sorts, a pony who was proud of her knowledge.
  386. > Well, that and her magic, with which she'd apparently been quite powerful.
  387. > Alongside a series of friends she mentioned in passing, it seemed like everything she'd treasured in life had been successively ripped from her.
  388. > Magic, by an overzealous application of drugs meant to take that from her.
  389. > Knowledge, by the owners who'd been convinced that 'ruined' as she was without her magic, she wasn't anything more than a simple worker.
  390. > No wonder she leaped at the chance when you showed some potential interest.
  391. > And that's more than enough to convince you not to halt her.
  392. > How could you deny her that?
  393. > But all good things must come to an end, and the looming late shift for that day beckons.
  394. > Pausing Twilight with a light hand on her shoulder, you offer an apologetic smile.
  395. "I wish I could hear more, but I do have to go now. I need to get ready for work."
  396. > "You'll be back soon...?"
  397.  
  398. "Later tonight. I'll leave some dinner in a container for you in the fridge... and this time, I don't want to come home and find you sleeping on the floor, understand?"
  399. > Twilight actually manages to flush slightly, bu nods.
  400. > "Yes, I understand."
  401. "Good. Uh, feel free to use the bathroom to wash up if you need to as well."
  402. > You're two steps from the door when a cautious voice speaks up behind you.
  403. > "Um... is there any work you want me to do while you're out?"
  404. > Turning back, you meet her equally uncertain gaze.
  405. > Is she offering because she doesn't want you to be upset if anything was forgotten, or is that an honest offer of help...?
  406. > Either way...
  407. "No, no this time. I'll bring home some things in the future for you to take a look at, but for now I'll leave the time for you."
  408. > "Okay. Um... thank you."
  409. > Shooting her a small smile, you depart.
  410. > The workday isn't anything special, but neither is it particularly worse than normal.
  411. > So, merely generically soul-sucking.
  412. > At leas this time you aren't so terribly distracted by Twilight's situation.
  413. > Not constantly, anyhow - you still manage to find the time to print out several more recent order sheets for her, just to see if she could work the same mathematical wizardry she'd done with first one.
  414. > And you do admit that you rush a bit to get back home and see her again.
  415. > In fact, so rushed are you that on unlocking and opening the door to rush in, you nearly trip over the pony curled up just behind the doorway.
  416. "Twilight?!"
  417. > "Hey..."
  418. > You're about to scold her, but immediately realize something is wrong when twin tear-filled eyes rise to focus on you with a sniffle.
  419. > "I made a mess."
  420. > Oh, shit.
  421. "What happened, Twilight."
  422. > "Well, you said I should wash up, so I went in and tried to get cleaned up, but I didn't know if you had any shampoos for me so I went looking in the closet, and I couldn't reach some of them without my magic so I reared up put my hooves on a shelf and-"
  423.  
  424. > Turning the corner, you're greeted by the results of her actions:
  425. > Two levels of your toiletries closet have completely collapsed, spilling their contents out across the floor.
  426. > One, maybe two or even three bottles had burst - spilling glass cleaner fluid and possibly detergent across the floor.
  427. > Scattered among the mess were mounds of semi-sodden paper towels soaked with the liquid.
  428. > And all the while, Twilight talking behind you in a semi-coherent ramble as she tries to explain herself:
  429. > "...and then I wanted to clean up the spill, but I could only grab the paper towels in my mouth again and I didn't think you would want me to make myself sick, and-"
  430. "Twilight."
  431. > She freezes stock-still, her mouth paused mid-statement and both ears flattened to either side of her head.
  432. "I'm not mad at you, Twilight."
  433. > "...I can hear you are..."
  434. > Okay, she had you there.
  435. > Turning around, you kneel in front of her again; Twilight's head droops.
  436. > "I'm so useless without my magic. I was just trying to do what you told me to."
  437. "Okay, I'll admit it. I am mad, but not really with you."
  438. > "Why? I did that."
  439. "Because you didn't mean to. And because you tried your best to clean it up, I can see. So, look. Here's what we're going to do: We're going to get these spills cleaned up for real, and just put the rest to the side and work on it tomorrow. Okay?"
  440. > "I... guess."
  441. > Her heart isn't really in it, though.
  442. > Even when you have her help you deal with the worst of the mess, her actions are sluggish and unmotivated.
  443. > This truly had hit her hard - especially after her positive upswing earlier that day.
  444. > It's too late to be performing horse psychology, though, so in the end you settle for quickly washing up yourself before turning in.
  445. "Alright. Goodnight, Twilight. We can talk again come the morning."
  446. > She acknowledges you with a head bob but says nothing, so you follow her to the living room and wait until you see her curl up beneath a blanket on the sofa.
  447.  
  448. > Just in case she would try and sleep on the floor to punish herself or something again.
  449. > Only then do you slip beneath the covers and drift off into the peaceful realm of dreams.
  450. > A peace that holds until somewhere short of five o'clock in the morning, when you awaken to Twilight screaming at the top of her little lungs.
  451.  
  452. --------
  453.  
  454. > There's a certain instinctual response to screams like that, left over from innumberable generations of needing to sleep lightly for fear of predators or invaders.
  455. > It ensures that you're wide awake even as you tumble from your bed, extracting your legs from the sheets and scrambling upright again.
  456. > Feet pound on the floor as you sprint for the source of the noise, hooking your hand on a doorpost to rapidly swing yourself about a corner even as your socks skid on the smooth wood.
  457. > Even in the tiny amount of light dribbling in from the windows outside, it's easy to spot Twilight.
  458. > She's thrashing wildly on the couch, a mess of flailing limb, horn and tail all wrapped up in the blanket she'd tried to cover herself in.
  459. > Her eyes are wide open, but even so she does not acknowledge you as you approach - not even when you drop to one knee by the side of the couch.
  460. "Twilight? I'm here now, it's okay!"
  461. > No answer but another sharp, keening scream comes from her lips.
  462. > Working furiously to untangle the blanket from her legs, you're quickly given a lesson on why that may not have been the best course of action.
  463. > Now freed from their confines, one of Twilight's hooves is firmly planted in your chest with a solid kick that sends you flying.
  464. > As you fall, the incongruous thought floats through you mind that at least she wasn't wearing horseshoes.
  465. > Landing with a thud and rush of air from your lungs, however temporarily shoot a brief burst of anger through you.
  466. > Only briefly, however - soon overwhelmed by concern for what Twilight is going through.
  467. > Approaching more cautiously this time, you circle about behind her on the couch and slip you arms about her midsection.
  468. > Still Twilight does not seem to realize you are there - her gaze locked on some imaginary foe as tears run in twin streams down her cheeks.
  469. > So you tighten your grip and wait for her to ride the terror out, as you've seen this before.
  470. > In children, yes, and human children at that.
  471.  
  472. > But the affects are the same, and with it the painful but certain knowledge that there simply was nothing you could do for Twilight except keep her safe until the episode passed.
  473. > And it does, in time.
  474. > Slowly her cries die down and tears dry, her breathing steadying and eyes fluttering closed once more.
  475. > Even then, you wait a while longer - feeling the soft warmth of her coat against your arms as you hold her there.
  476. > You swear quietly to yourself; if your neighbors got on your ass about waking them up...
  477. > At last you judge it long enough, and nudge Twilight gently.
  478. "Hey. Twilight. Can you wake up?"
  479. > " 'nonymous?"
  480. > She squirms in your arms; gently you return her to the couch.
  481. > With some wriggling, Twilight manages to twist herself about and face you - eyes blinking owlishly as they clear the last of the tears away.
  482. > "What happened?"
  483. "You had a night terror."
  484. > "Night... terror?"
  485. "Like a nightmare. But I couldn't wake you up - not until it passed."
  486. > "I know. I just-"
  487. > She struggles for the words for several long moments - moments during which you patiently wait for her.
  488. > No point in pressing - not while she was in a state like this.
  489. > "-I just remember being afraid. Really, really afraid."
  490. > Ducking her head ashamedly, Twilight's voice also drops to a mumble.
  491. > "I woke you up."
  492. > It's not a question.
  493. "Well, yes-"
  494. > "I'm sorry."
  495. > Groaning, you lean back in the couch and rub your forehead.
  496. "Twilight - I'm pretty sure you didn't mean to wake up screaming. So - don't worry too much about it, okay? I'm not mad."
  497. > That's not an entirely truthful answer.
  498. > Your neighbors would probably complain to apartment management if she kept that up, and that'd be real fun.
  499. > "I - guess."
  500. > Again her head dips, a fresh tear running down her cheek.
  501. > "This is why I stopped thinking about everything. It always lead to pain."
  502. > The next words are barely audible; in fact, you're not certain you're meant to hear them.
  503. > They make sense, in a way.
  504.  
  505. > Certainly, she'd seemed so dulled to the outside world when you first bought her that you rather doubted she could have remembered enough to have nightmares about.
  506. > It was, you suppose, a valid survival tactic.
  507. > But not one you could allow to happen right now.
  508. "...alright, Twilight. Why don't you see if you can get back to sleep. We can talk again in the morning."
  509. > Numbly she nods, collapsing back down to the couch.
  510. > Reaching down for the abandoned blanket, you pull it back up - slipping it over her pulling it up until just her head is exposed.
  511. > Even then, it doesn't hide the haunted look in her eyes.
  512. > There is, you are certain, a furious battle raging between those ears.
  513. > Her mouth falls half open, part of a word escaping from it.
  514. > "Anon-"
  515. "Hmm?"
  516. > "Nevermind."
  517. > Laying her head down at last, Twilight fixes you with her eyes.
  518. > Impulsively you reach out, running your fingers through her mane.
  519. "Hey. I'll stick around for a bit, okay? Just in case."
  520. > "Thank you..."
  521. > Her voice is still low, but not because of her state of mind alone this time.
  522. > Sleep had begun to creep up on Twilight again, and the light rubbing of your hand is aiding her mind in settling as well.
  523. > Both ears droop, followed soon by her eyes.
  524. > Then her breathing slows, and at last she's at peace once more.
  525. > Sighing softly, you fold your own arms across your chest and watch Twilight sleep.
  526. > Yeah, the how-to-handle-your-pony guides hadn't ever mentioned anything like this when you'd gone through them before going to the market that day.
  527. > In a way, maybe you brought this on by buying the obviously broken pony.
  528. > But in another, you can't help but think there was an opportunity here.
  529. > If you could fix her - help her - you got the feeling she'd be capable of incredible things.
  530. > ...first you had to do that teensy little first bit, though, and you were operating on common sense and internet psychology at best.
  531. > Only a little better than sheer guesswork, if even that.
  532.  
  533. > Rising with a groan, you return to your own bed - and pray it won't happen again.
  534.  
  535. --------
  536.  
  537. "...I understand. No, she's not done it before."
  538. ...
  539. "Yes, I realize I will have to do something if it keeps happening. Thank you. Goodbye."
  540. > Ending the call even though you can hear another sentence being formed by the apartment's super, you settle for resting your forehead against the cool wall before you.
  541. > "It was about me, wasn't it?"
  542. > At your feet and peering up was Twilight - her mane and tail still a jumbled mess of varying hues of purple after the previous night
  543. "Yeah. Neighbors got woken up too."
  544. > Twilight's eyes fall, and you groan internally.
  545. "For the fifth time - it's not your fault. None of this is. We can't control what happens in our sleep."
  546. > "But I might get you thrown out..."
  547. > You wish you could tell her it's not likely.
  548. > But she seems to know what you're lying.
  549. "No. We're just going to make sure you're not going to get anymore nightmares like that, okay?"
  550. > Nevermind that first on your list of things to do today was research 'how to stop night terrors'.
  551. "In the meantime - I brought some things home from work. More recent stuff. Why don't you have a look at those, see if you can work that same magic you did before?"
  552. > Twilight winces at the use of 'magic', and you mentally slap yourself.
  553. > Yeah, being reminded of that would definitely help her state of mind.
  554. "Alright. I'm going to go get the rest of that closet cleaned up; you go ahead and get started on the work. I've left it out on the table."
  555. > Working alone on the ruins of the closet's shelves gives you time to think.
  556. > How much did you really understand about this pony?
  557. > Certainly, she'd given you a good education (and a bit more) yesterday regarding her past.
  558. > But there'd been huge sections left out of that, you were certain.
  559. > And even if she did open up in time, could you really say you -knew- what that pony was like?
  560. > What she'd been through?
  561. > Probably not.
  562.  
  563. > But you damn well were going to try.
  564. > Returning to the living room, you find Twilight had moved work on the papers you'd left her beneath a window.
  565. > Seated in the pool of sunlight filtering in through it, she seemed utterly oblivious to your studious gaze.
  566. > Her tail seemed to fan out behind her, twitching ever so slightly with each shift of the pencil clutched in her lips.
  567. > Even if you couldn't help her at night, there was no doubt this was helping her during the waking hours.
  568. > She was focused, attentive - her mind at work.
  569. > It wasn't really a fix, of course; more of a bandage.
  570. > But that was enough.
  571. "Hey, Twilight. How're you doing?"
  572. > Dropping the pencil and peering up over her shoulder, Twilight offers an uncertain look.
  573. > "I'm... doing okay, I think. Some of these are materials I don't know, but the ones I do know..."
  574. > Her eyes are sunken and red from lack of sleep, but they're also showing the barest spark of liveliness.
  575. > Squatting beside her, you peer at the calculations.
  576. "...a couple of things that you've done wrong. Here - and here too. But, I think they're because you don't know the details of how this works; your ideas aren't all that bad."
  577. > "Could you teach me?"
  578. > Even if you didn't have plans for the intelligence that lurked just out of sight in her mind, you don't think you could refuse that gently pleading tone.
  579. "Of course. Uh, let me go get my computer, I'll show you how we do things."
  580.  
  581. --------
  582.  
  583. > The morning comes, and with it you force yourself to rise from the blessed relief of sleep once more.
  584. > This had been a good night.
  585. > No screams.
  586. > Rising from your bed, you cautiously proceed into the living room - hoping to find Twilight safely and peacefully wrapped in her blanket.
  587. > No such luck is granted to you; instead your pony is tightly curled in front of a still-running laptop - desperately attempting to leech heat from it in lieu of a proper covering.
  588. > Chuckling softly, you shake your head - concern for her well-being competing with relief that at least staying up late to continue learning seemed to limit Twilight's night-terrors.
  589. > You can absolutely say this about Twilight.
  590. > That little pony ate knowledge like a six-year-old ate sugary cereals.
  591. > Once she started, she just could not stop until sleep forced itself on her entirely.
  592. > Crouching by her side, you close the computer down and lay a hand on Twilight's side.
  593. "Hey. Wakey, wakey."
  594. > A long, low and drawn out groan issues from her throat, prompting a gentle shake.
  595. "C'mon. Earth to Twilight, morning's here... and if you don't get up, I'm going to tickle your ears again."
  596. > One purple eye languidly slides open to fix you with a withering look.
  597. > "I have hooves, you know. They're hard."
  598. "And trust me, I know."
  599. > Twilight winces and you internally curse yourself for letting the quip slip out.
  600. > She'd accidentally spotted the hoof-shaped bruise on your chest the day after her first night-terror, and you got the feeling she'd never forgiven herself for that.
  601. > Ruffling her mane lightly (and getting a scrunched-up muzzle in response), you rise to your feet again.
  602. "C'mon, Twilight. Breakfast, and then we can talk a bit."
  603. > A few minutes later, you're sitting at opposite ends of the breakfast table - Twilight perched on her hind legs and devouring the toast you'd thrown in.
  604. > Between bites, she sneaks worried glances in your direction.
  605.  
  606. > "So... um... what did your boss think about the suggestions you brought in?"
  607. > Ah.
  608. > So, that's what it was about.
  609. > It had been obvious that Twilight had begun to take the idea of having her improvements submitted by you as some kind of test of her skill.
  610. "Well-"
  611. > Immediately her ears droop as your tone reaches them, tail flicking against the chair.
  612. > Shaking your head sharply, you sigh.
  613. "No, Twilight. It's not like that - he's okay with some of them. It's just..."
  614. > "...they're bad. I get it..."
  615. > Pushing your plate forward, you fold your arms to rest them on the table.
  616. "Not at all. Some of the things you suggested, though - they're big. Major changes to our processes. A business like this can't turn on a dime."
  617. > Her head bobs once in response, but still her gaze is on the half-eaten toast in front of her.
  618. "So, he doesn't want to do those just yet. Things are running smoothly now, and if things don't work out."
  619. > " 'Improvements' are just a distraction from working."
  620. "Huh?"
  621. > "It's what one of my owners told us. Told me, really. 'Improvements' are just a distraction - they stop you from working. You're not smarter than us."
  622. > Groaning, you squeeze your forehead.
  623. "No, Twilight - it's not like that. He's not saying they aren't smart, but we don't want to try any new changes until we can afford to."
  624. > Even as the words leave your lips, you can tell exactly how limp the excuse sounds.
  625. > As much as you hated to admit it, Twilight's parallel to her past situation was not wholly inaccurate.
  626. > And she knows this, too.
  627. > Rising from your seat, you circle around the table to stand beside her seat.
  628. "Look. You can't let a single failure get you down, okay? It's - it's rough, yeah. I get that. But, I'm still really going to push to get the bossman to test some of the simpler things, and then we can see about the others."
  629. > The little nod Twilight gives isn't particularly reassuring, but one ear has risen to listen to you.
  630.  
  631. "In the meantime, there's something else we need to take care of. You need to see a doctor."
  632. > A vet, actually.
  633. > A very specialized vet, but even so reminding Twilight that she's considered livestock at best didn't seem like a good idea here.
  634. > "Oh. We'll, uh, have to go out then, huh?"
  635. "Yeah. They don't do house calls."
  636. > Not the ones you could afford, anyhow.
  637. "It should be simple stuff. They'll want to do a bit of blood drawing, some basic physical stuff. Just so I know how to care for you."
  638. > "When?"
  639. "A couple of wee."
  640. > "I'll have to be on a chain, won't I?
  641. > The note of placid acceptance the question is delivered in somehow hurts more than if she'd been upset by it.
  642. "Yes. Is that going to be an issue?"
  643. > She hadn't exactly been in reasonable spirits he last time she'd been leashed like that, after all.
  644. > Twilight manages a wobbling shake of her head, though.
  645. > "No. Um, maybe."
  646. > Raising her eyes at last, Twilight gives you a haunted look.
  647. > "Is the doctor... are they going to be a human or, uh, a pony?"
  648. "Human. Ponies don't get jobs like that a lot."
  649. > Or any particularly complicated job, for that matter, let alone ones handling pony treatment.
  650. "That an issue?"
  651. > "I.."
  652. > Again her gaze drops, and with it your heart.
  653. > "Sorry. Just... some bad memories."
  654. > Yeah, you probably should have forseen that.
  655. "Hey. Look at the upside: I have to be with you there the whole time, so I'm not just going to be tossing you to some stranger, okay?"
  656. > The relief that floods through Twilight is obvious, her entire body seeming to relax and breath that had been long since held in rushing from her lungs.
  657. > "That would be... nice."
  658. "Good. Now, let's get some work on, then."
  659.  
  660. --------
  661.  
  662. > All doctors' offices have a certain inevitable aura of unhappiness about them.
  663. > A heavy, invisible fog of helplessness and misery.
  664. > This place, however.
  665.  
  666. > It seemed to have made a breakthrough in refining the latent emotions, distilling them down into their raw components, and then pumping the result back in to form some kind of awful feedback loop.
  667. > A handful of flourescent bulbs seemed to be doing their best to buzz in utter disharmony, while the few chairs present were duct-taped to hold their shape and so stained it had blended together like some kind of hipster paint scheme.
  668. > The handful of plastic plants scattered about did nothing to alleviate the oppressive atmosphere either.
  669. > Mostly because they totally failed to hide the forty-some ponies scattered about the lounge, each a nexus of the same discomfort that was flooding the room.
  670. > Cheap services attract cheap clients, and while none of the ponies showed any signs of particularly vicious treatment, neither were any of them comfortable.
  671. > Frankly, nobody here could afford to pamper their charges.
  672. > But it's what you've got, so you fill out the paperwork and find a less-grimy corner to lurk in while you wait for your turn.
  673. > Most of the ponies were taking quick glances at each other - trying to spot familiar faces or butt-marks among their captive kin, you presume.
  674. > A few carry on whispered conversations if their owners aren't paying particular attention.
  675. > Twilight, receptive as ever of the atmosphere around her, had planted herself close to your legs to try and block out the worst of the office's environment.
  676. > She was doing some sort of breathing exercise, you thought - eyes half-closed and sucking deep breaths to keep her emotions under control.
  677. > Stooping to put a reassuring hand on her head, you rise and try to count those in line ahead of you.
  678. > Hopefully, it wouldn't be too long now, and-
  679. > "I know you."
  680. > For a moment you glance about in confusion - not sure who had spoken.
  681. > Then you look down, and realize that speaker was not human but a young-looking unicorn mare with a yellow coat and light green mane.
  682.  
  683. > Neither were you the intended recipient; her eyes were locked on Twilight alone.
  684. > Following her leash back, you find it held by a heavyset woman consumed by her smartphone - utterly unaware that her pony had strayed from her side.
  685. > "I know you. You - you're Twilight Sparkle, aren't you?"
  686. > Cautiously Twilight nods once, shuffling uncertainly.
  687. > "Yes - I am. I'm sorry - I don't remember you. If we were... owned together one time, I might have-"
  688. > "Why didn't you stop this?"
  689. > Time seems to come to a grinding crawl - for you and Twilight both.
  690. > You can see her pupils shrink, even as the unicorn's eyes grow narrow and angry.
  691. > "I remember you. In Canterlot - at the Academy, remember? And then you were one of those elements - I remember, at the wedding, you stopped them all! Why didn't you stop this?"
  692. > Twilight's even, steady breathing had been totally forgotten; her breaths coming rapid and shallow now.
  693. > A certain sense of impending danger begins to tickle in the back of your head as the unicorn stalks ever closer, her owner still oblivious to what was occurring.
  694. > Others have begun to watch as well, but nobody is making a move to intercede.
  695. > And all the while, Twilight is growing ever-more panicked.
  696. > "You're Twilight Sparkle. You were the best! You were supposed to protect us all - why didn't you stop it? WHY?!"
  697. > Twilight continues to backpedal, drifting increasingly behind you.
  698. > That tickle has become a screaming siren, a warning that this situation was about to run out of control.
  699. > Not in the least because several other pairs of eyes - equine and human alike - are on the confrontation.
  700. "...hey, listen. She's in a pretty shitty situation too, so how about you don't rub it in any further for her, okay?"
  701. > Please, please let her owner hear...
  702. > Giving you the briefest dismissive glance, the unicorn mare huffs sharply.
  703. > "And now you've got your own human to back you up. You're doing well for yourself, then."
  704. > "Please - no, I didn't mean to-"
  705.  
  706. > "Shut up. Celestia would be sick if she could see you now. Your brother would spit on you if he saw you with your coltfriend holding your leash."
  707. > Instantly Twilight goes utterly rigid.
  708. > A new emotion washes over her face:
  709. > Complete and total fury.
  710. > "Don't - don't you ever dare say anything about my brother. He was the best, and-"
  711. > With a cry, the mare leaps.
  712. > And all descends into chaos, screams, and a whirling ball of hooves, horns, and tails as the two ponies roll across the floor locked together.
  713. > Ponies go scrambling backwards to avoid being drawn into the tussle; one stallion goes down with a cry as his leash is hooked by a passing purple-coated leg.
  714. > Worse yet is the unicorn's owner, who'd finally been drawn back to reality - by no less than the sudden pull of her own pony's leash dragging her from the seat, her smartphone flying across the room as she goes down.
  715. > Rather than help, she seemed content to writhe on the floor and scream something about assault.
  716. > Great.
  717. > With a snort from your nostrils, you roll up your sleeves and wade into the tussle.
  718. > One way or another, you were getting out of here.
  719. > Thirty minutes and a lot of arguing later, the two of you sit in your car heading back home.
  720. > "I'm sorry..."
  721. > Twilight hadn't said anything for the first ten minutes of the ride.
  722. > Even now, her head hung low as the seatbelt harness would allow it, and she still couldn't bring herself to look at you.
  723. "...yeah, well. I've only got four real nice bruises coming on, my wrist is only sprained, and we've only been thrown out of one of the few clinics I can afford."
  724. > Wincing heavily, Twilight somehow manages to droop her ears even lower.
  725. > "I... didn't know she was going to..."
  726. "Yeah, I know. But still - fucksake, Twilight. You can't do that kind of thing, okay? We're lucky everyone saw her pony started it, or that bitch probably would have called the police or something."
  727. > The rest of the ride is taken in silence.
  728.  
  729. > You take the opportunity to mull the options over in your head.
  730. > One of the other clinics would certainly take her still.
  731. > And probably have a less insane waiting room, for that matter.
  732. > But they'd also have a waiting period, not to mention that you'd need to put aside some of your next paychecks.
  733. > Of course, that still left one last question in your mind...
  734. > Pulling into the apartments' parking lot, you cut the engine and turn to Twilight.
  735. > ...oh, shit.
  736. > She was crying.
  737. > How hadn't you heard that?
  738. > Reaching over, you put a gentle hand on her withers - rubbing ever-so-lightly in what you hope is a calming gesture.
  739. "Hey. Hey, look, Twilight. It's not all your fault. You couldn't have known, okay? Not that she was doing it, or about anything."
  740. > "I know."
  741. > The words are choked out between sniffs and hiccups.
  742. > "I know, but it hurt. I just wanted her to stop, but then I got you in trouble and hurt again. I'm a failure at everything."
  743. "No - Twilight - urgh."
  744. > Pausing, you try and collect your own thoughts before going on.
  745. "Look. You didn't provoke her, and that means you did right. But, if someone ever comes at you like that - don't try and fight them, okay? The police won't always see you as defending yourself."
  746. > "O-Okay."
  747. "Good."
  748. > Opening your seatbelt and leaning over entirely, you lift Twilight upright into your lap.
  749. > She wriggles for a moment before settling in, limbs curling between her belly and your chest.
  750. > "I'm just... she's right. My brother would hate to see me like this.. But I won't know that for sure, because I'll never see him again. Or my parents, or my friends, or anyone from Ponyville, or..."
  751. > Trailing off, Twilight shudders softly and mutters a few words so softly even you can't hear them.
  752. "Or who, Twilight?"
  753. > "Can we not? Just - right now, please. I don't want to think about her anymore."
  754. > Sighing gently, you nod.
  755. > You'd not be getting any more out of her today.
  756. "Come on, then. Let's go back inside."
  757.  
  758. --------
  759.  
  760. > With heavy feet you trudge up the steps, pausing before the door to fumble for the keys in your pocket and wipe any semblance of emotion from your face.
  761. > As soon as the lock clicks you hear the tap-tap of hooves on wooden flooring; Twilight's evidently stayed up late enough to greet you.
  762. > On most nights you'd be upset with her - after all, you came home from your evening shift well into the night.
  763. > This night, though?
  764. > You could deal with her being awake for this.
  765. > Shoes thud heavily as you make your way in - dropping your bag by the apartment's door with an equally heavy thunk.
  766. > Just in time for Twilight's face to appear, curiously peering around a doorframe.
  767. > "Welcome home! I hope you don't mind, I reorganized your bookshelves and - are you alright?"
  768. > A noncommittal grunt issues from your lips - certainly not what Twilight had been hoping to hear.
  769. > When she doesn't respond further, you issue a small sigh.
  770. "Long day. Let's go sit down."
  771. > "Did something happen? Did I do something wrong?"
  772. "No. Come on, let's both sit down."
  773. > With slow steps you move past her, ominous footsteps ringing through the apartment.
  774. > Even the noise of the chair against the hard wood floor seems thunderous in the otherwise near-silence.
  775. > Dragging out a chair at the dining table, Twilight quickly hops up in the seat facing you.
  776. > Her hooves rest cautiously on the table's edge and tail has adopted a nervous twitch, lashing against the chair she sits in.
  777. > On your end, you fold your arms - leaning forward to sit hunched forward.
  778. "So, the results came back from the first round of your suggestions they trialed today..."
  779. > "Oh."
  780. > Twilight flinches back, ears drooping.
  781. > "Oh. Did they-?"
  782. > She halts, as if unable to speak the rest.
  783. "Well, based on the results from this first round I've been..."
  784. > You draw in a sharp breath, and Twilight visibly tenses - her own lungs halting as the tension builds.
  785.  
  786. "...I have been promoted."
  787. > It takes several long seconds for the statement to make its way through Twilight's head.
  788. > When it does, though, it hits her head.
  789. > Leaping directly into the air, Twilight forgets herself completely - landing on the thankfully cleared table to prance about in a wild display of exultation.
  790. > "Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes!"
  791. > Quickly leaning back to dodge the wildly-flailing tale and her dancing hooves, you allow a laugh to bubble up from your own throat as well.
  792. > "I knew it would work! I knew it, I knew it!"
  793. > Your own face is now split by a wide smile as well.
  794. "Damn right they did. Didn't I tell you not to worry about it too mu- oof!"
  795. > Speaking up had pulled her attention to you, and Twilight had decided to express that attention with a leap from the table that nearly flipped you back.
  796. > Her forehooves landed around your shoulders and you quickly locked your arms about her barrel, grunting as the pony's full weight comes to rest on you.
  797. > "Thank you! Thank you, thank you!"
  798. > Velvety hairs tickled your cheek as she stretched her head out to rest against your neck.
  799. > Somehow you manage to free a hand enough to reach up and scratch along the base of her mane.
  800. "Not that I'm complaining, but - you did this, Twilight. You don't have to thank me."
  801. > "No."
  802. > Her voice is suddenly quite serious, absolutely certain.
  803. > Twisting around, Twilight sinks down to rest her head against your chest.
  804. > "No; you could have sent me back when you found out I was... broken. That my magic was gone. You'd have been entirely in your right to. But you didn't, and now - you can't imagine how good this feels."
  805. > The warm feeling rising in your heart is not just, you think, the result of Twilight's head resting over it.
  806. "I guess so - but, you shouldn't forget, you were the one who came up with these altogether."
  807. > Finally reaching the limit of your already-tired muscles, you lean forward and gently lower Twilight to the floor.
  808.  
  809. "Now, not all of them came through perfectly, but they aren't unsalvagable. Just some quirks relating to our specific situation that aren't in the general theory."
  810. > "Iterate!"
  811. "Huh?"
  812. > Smiling right back up at you, she nods sharply.
  813. > "We'll iterate on them. Improve, and try again."
  814. > Huh.
  815. > Twilight certainly seems to be taking this better than she had in the past.
  816. > And here you'd had a speech all ready and prepared to head off any fallout from that.
  817. > Of course, the idea that her hard work was actually paying off at all may have had something to do with the reaction..
  818. "Yeah. I'll have to teach you a lot about our specific site, but that shouldn't be too hard. We'll get to try some new things yet, Twilight."
  819. > "Will I get to go see it?"
  820. "Probably not immediately. Certainly not everything - access to the main site's pretty heavily controlled; not even I can get down to the work floor that easily."
  821. > That, and it probably wouldn't be good for Twilight to see the handful of ponies who all but lived down there.
  822. > They might not be physically abused, but they didn't seem to have much of a life outside their daily work shifts.
  823. "Come on, though. All of that, we can do in the morning; for tonight, we both need to get some rest."
  824. > Twilight pouts, looking to the laptop you'd been using as a learning tool.
  825. "...no. I'm serious, Twilight. It's late, I'm tired, you're tired - I don't want to come in and find you've fallen asleep on top of that thing again."
  826. > "..alright."
  827. > The word is dragged out, and for a moment you're reminded of a child who's just been told he can't stay up playing games any later.
  828. > "Um - I was going to mention it earlier, but I think you missed it. I hope you don't mind that I reorganized the bookshelves?"
  829. > Following her pointing hoof, you find that she had indeed done so - completely rearranging the two enormous floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
  830. > Looked like... first by subject then title alphabet, if you had to guess.
  831.  
  832. > Poor thing must have been bored; work was all good and fine, but she was clearly looking for new things.
  833. "Yeah. No problem; good night, Twilight."
  834. > Unfortunately, any attempt at ensuring she actually sleeps through the night is thoroughly undone by the simple fact that Twilight rises before you the next morning.
  835. > And, in fact, chooses to wake you up with the ear-wrenching squeak of your bedroom door opening, a cheerful tone, and a pair of hooves on the side of your bed.
  836. > "C'mon, Anon! It's morning, and we've got a ton of things to do!"
  837. > Peering at your clock through bleary eyes, you hiss softly and engage in the time-honed tactic of all men woken before they are ready:
  838. > That is, pulling up the sheets over your head and rolling away from the offensively chipper pony.
  839. "Twenty more minutes, Twilight. You're early."
  840. > "Oh, you'll be fine! And we've got so much to talk about!"
  841. > Apparently the persistence with which she applied herself to her work carried over to other things as well...
  842. "Alright, alright. I'm coming."
  843. > "Okay! I'll go get what I can for breakfast started up!"
  844. > Dragging yourself up moments later, you utter several choice curses against workaholics of all species.
  845. > Breakfast, however, greatly improves your mood.
  846. > As you munch through most of the toast, you start to speak around it.
  847. "Right, first things first. It's going to be about two weeks until we have a lull in the orders and can try your more complex suggestions. But, that gives us plenty of time to work over your simpler ones and come up with second versions of them."
  848. > Downing another bite, you go on:
  849. "Before then, even, we've also got a couple of things to do. Like, schedule another doctor's appointment."
  850. > Twilight's face falls at those terrifying words.
  851. > "Is that absolutely necessary?"
  852. "Yes. Absolutely yes - besides that I have to get you checked out sooner or later, I also want to see if they can do anything for your magic."
  853.  
  854. > Or, at least, to see how bad the damage might have been in the first place.
  855. "With the raise that came with that promotion, I'll be able to afford a somewhat better place - so they might actually have the right equipment to do the tests on you."
  856. > "They won't have to... peer inside my head, will they?"
  857. "What, like, surgery?"
  858. > Twilight bobs her head once, ears falling protectively to the sides of her head.
  859. > "Back home we had magic to help with some of that, but..."
  860. "No. Absolutely no cutting - they'll have to draw some blood, but everything else will be done with machines they'll put you in."
  861. > "That's... a little bit better."
  862. "We don't have to cut at all, really."
  863. > Raising your fingers, you wiggle them in a mockingly ominous fashion.
  864. "We do something much, much worse..."
  865. > Twilight doesn't quite seem to know whether to be afraid or bemused, judging by the look on her face.
  866. > "...yeah...?"
  867. "Uh-huh."
  868. > Rising, you slip around to the other side of the table; peering up at you, she fixes you with a look of half-expectation, half fear.
  869. "Something so awful, so miserable, so terrible we've banned using it as an interrogation tactic..."
  870. > And than, in a flash, you're on her:
  871. > Arms wrapped around her sides, fingers running lightly over her silky coat, tracing along her chest and the underside of her barrel.
  872. "...the tickle!"
  873. > "No!"
  874. > Twilight shrieks, but it's already too late:
  875. > She writhes under your dancing fingers, desperately trying to escape their feathery touch.
  876. > "Eeek! Aaagh! No fair! Not fair at all!"
  877. "Nuh-uh. No way I'm giving up yet - not while I've got you trapped here!"
  878. > "Monster!"
  879. > Despite the words, you're well aware she doesn't mean it.
  880. > This isn't the first time you've had to do this to cheer her up, and she's far from actually upset about what you're doing.
  881. "Yes! Evil, awful, terrible monster and you're all mine!"
  882. > Even beneath her lavender coat you can see Twilight's face turning red.
  883.  
  884. > Laughing and shrieking still, she tries to kick herself free.
  885. > "Lemmego! Quit it!"
  886. "Make me!"
  887. > "Quit it, Pinkie!"
  888. > Pinkie?
  889. > For a fraction of a second you hesitate, and in that instant Twilight realizes what she's said as well.
  890. > She, too, goes still.
  891. > A moment later, the first tear rolls down her cheek.
  892. "Pinkie?"
  893. > Despite the pain that has obviously flooded her, you feel this is not something that can be just... set aside.
  894. > For all the time you'd been with Twilight, you knew so little of her past.
  895. > Perhaps this would give you a chance to dig out the wounds that still pained her, instead of merely bandaging them over.
  896. > "Pinkie Pie. She was a friend. A good one."
  897. > Tears are flowing freely now, and without hesitation you pull a chair over to sit next to Twilight.
  898. > She doesn't hesitate, leaning over to rest her head against your side.
  899. "Can you tell me, or...?"
  900. > Instead of answering directly, Twilight sniffles and begins to speak in a long, low monotone:
  901. > "There were six of us, originally. Back home. Equestria. We were split up here; Pinkie and Rainbow stayed the longest, but they were there the day you bought me."
  902. > Then, in a softer voice:
  903. > "I miss them."
  904. > A horrible thought strikes through your heart.
  905. "I didn't-"
  906. > "No. Pinkie was gone already when you bought me, and Rainbow Dash is a fighter to her heart. Nobody who took her would have wanted me anyway."
  907. > The pain dulls a little bit, but you still can't shake the feeling something horribly wrong might have happened that day.
  908. "I'm not even going to pretend I know what that feels like - that I have any idea I understand what you went through. I'm not stupid enough to think I'll ever replace them either."
  909. > Tucking a hand beneath her chin, you tilt Twilight's head back; with the other, a napkin is brought over to dab at the corners of her eyes.
  910.  
  911. "But here's what we are going to do. We're going to take one step, one little thing at a time. One small boost. And then we're going to be moving, which is already one big boost to making things better. Got it?"
  912. > To this Twilight nods, and you continue:
  913. "Then we're going to take another step, and then another. Even if they're small they'll add up, and eventually we'll look back and realize how much better things are. Not perfect, but better."
  914. > Another small sniffle, another blink of her still tear-laden eyes - but then Twilight nods.
  915. > "Thank you so much. You're right - you won't ever be Rarity, or Fluttershy, or any of the others. But, you have made things better here. You're a good friend too, Anon."
  916. > Her head falls from your side to rest on your chin, and this time you don't bother lifting her up again.
  917. > Instead a hand falls gently atop Twilight's head, stroking back her mane gently - soothingly.
  918. > Eyes steadily fall shut, and breathing slows.
  919. > When the humming begins, it takes you a few moments to realize that it's Twilight doing so.
  920. > The tune is soft, slow, and soothing - a lullaby, maybe?
  921. > Whatever it is, the effect is obvious upon her.
  922. > So calm is she that if not for the fact she'd only just woken up, you rather suspect sleep would quickly have returned to her.
  923. > When the tune finally trails off, you speak up gently:
  924. "Now. I know it won't be fun - a doctor's visit never is. But, how about we go take that first step?"
  925.  
  926. --------
  927.  
  928. "Come on, come on..."
  929. > Glass crunches under your feet with each step you take through the ruined office, a circle worn through the rubble-littered floor floor from the pacing.
  930. > Gritting your teeth, you dial the number again.
  931. "Pick up, Twilight. Come on pick up!"
  932. > You'd taught her to use the phone, answering and dialing with a stylus on the screen.
  933. > So why wouldn't she be-
  934. > "Hello?"
  935. > Relief brings your pacing to a halt.
  936. "Twilight? Hey, listen. I might be home a bit late tonight. Something's come up at work."
  937. > "A bit late?"
  938. > The skepticism in her voice is obvious, and you wince.
  939. > Twilight had become quite good at guessing when you weren't telling the whole truth.
  940. "Okay, pretty late. Look, I just wanted to tell you I'm alright, and you don't have to worry."
  941. > "Worry? I'm not that needy, Anon."
  942. > Ah, good.
  943. > She hadn't watched the news, then...
  944. "Well, uh - good. Uh, so I will probably be home by the time you get up in the morning. Feel free to raid the fridge, or take anything else you need."
  945. > Pausing, you try to think of anything else she might need.
  946. "If I'm not... I'll call in the morning. Anyone knocks on the door looking for me, tell them I'm still at work."
  947. > "Did something happen, Anon?"
  948. > Now the worry was tinging her voice, and not without reason.
  949. > You tug lightly at the bandage wrapped around one forearm; it'd begun to itch again.
  950. "Yeah. Something... happened."
  951. > "How bad?"
  952. > Shit, she must've heard the tone of your voice.
  953. > Glancing out the window, your gaze falls through shattered windows on dark buildings illuminated only by the multihued flickerings of a dozen fire trucks' lights.
  954. > And beyond them, a dull-red smoke still reaching to the sky.
  955. "Bad."
  956.  
  957. --------
  958.  
  959. > Twilight isn't sleeping on the couch when you do finally arrive home.
  960. > She isn't waiting at the door either, which considering that it is four in the morning is a good thing.
  961.  
  962. > Endearing it may have been, that pony's neuroticisms left you seriously wondering at her health sometimes.
  963. > At least the vet had cleared her - as clear as someone who'd been through her experience could be cleared, anyhow.
  964. > Losing your bag and gaining a drink, you wander to your room - and promptly discover where Twilight had hidden herself.
  965. > Well - not hidden, really.
  966. > She was stretched out across your bed fast asleep, legs curled as tightly against her barrel as tightly as she could.
  967. > A book rested just in front of her, it's page now slightly twisted.
  968. > Chuckling softly, you reach out to snag the book and properly shut it; unfortunately, you are rather exhausted and your ninja skills are not quite up to snuff.
  969. > Twilight shifts as the books is removed, one eye creeping open.
  970. > "'non?"
  971. "Hey, Twilight."
  972. > Reaching out, you gently ruffle her mane.
  973. "Sorry it took so long. Things were... messy."
  974. > "I know. I watched the news after you called. I know you said you're safe, but-"
  975. "Twilight. Come on. Not now, okay?"
  976. > Grinning apologetically, you collapse on the edge of the bed and put an arm across her back.
  977. "I'm home, I'm safe, and I really need to crash for a bit."
  978. > Please, please don't let he keep ask-
  979. > "What happened? They just said it was an accident, but they aren't reporting on any details..."
  980. > Freezing, you hesitate for just a second - a second too long for Twilight not to notice.
  981. "In the morning, Twilight."
  982. > ...at least let her get this last night's peaceful rest before you have to drop this on her.
  983. > Briefly Twilight fixes you with an accusatory stare, but levers herself upright in the end.
  984. > "Okay. In the morning, but then I want to know everything aboooohsweetCelestiayourarm!"
  985. > Wincing heavily at the sudden pitch of her voice, you sigh heavily.
  986. "They're just bandages, Twilight. It's not broken."
  987. > Holding up the offending limb, you show her the dressing wrapped around your arm.
  988. "See? Not that bad. There was just some glass, but it's all out now."
  989.  
  990. > "Did you get the cuts looked at?!"
  991. "Yes, Twilight. I did. The paramedics patched me up and sent me home."
  992. > One more lie can't hurt tonight, right?
  993. > After all, you're going to hit her with enough things later on.
  994. > No reason to lay another thing on her mind.
  995. "I'm fine, Twilight. Go to sleep."
  996. > When morning comes, you're surprised to find that Twilight doesn't wake you up.
  997. > Ever since things had taken a turn for the better, she'd become something of a walking alarm clock in the morning.
  998. > Any hope of mercy dissolves like smoke on the wind when you enter the living room to find Twilight already up herself - browsing away on her computer.
  999. > When she looks up, a jolt runs through you.
  1000. > Her eyes are already wide and shaky; you should've forbidden her from looking up more about it.
  1001. > But, knowing Twilight, that would only have driven her thirst for knowledge...
  1002. > "H-Hey, Anon. I thought you might want to sleep in."
  1003. > Nodding silently, you move to take a seat next to her on the couch.
  1004. "I... appreciate it."
  1005. > "They're saying someone died now."
  1006. > Another wince runs through you - this one very physical as well as mental.
  1007. > Twilight sees it, too.
  1008. > "How many?"
  1009. "Six. Four humans, two ponies. At least, when I left last night - they were taking some others away to the hospital."
  1010. > Pausing, you steel yourself for the inevitable question.
  1011. > She was a smart girl, but didn't always notice your little cues.
  1012. > "What happened?"
  1013. > Sucking a deep breath in, you let go - and allow the words to flow.
  1014. "We were firing up a new system. Something entirely new, not tested before. It was coming up slowly, but some feedpipes ruptured and that knocked a gas line free; it was all down from there."
  1015. > "New..."
  1016. > The gears are turning in her head, mind circling ever closer to an inescapable question.
  1017. > "It wasn't..."
  1018. > Now it's Twilight's turn to drawn an unsteady breath.
  1019. > "One of mine?"
  1020.  
  1021. > No avoiding it now.
  1022. "It's not your fault, Twilight. Even in that configuration, the pipes were barely under three-quarters load when they went. We knew there'd be additional pressure but it was within tolerances. They shouldn't have-"
  1023. > "That's not the answer!"
  1024. > A hoof beats against the sofa; her eyes have narrowed to slits and ears slammed down to either side of her head.
  1025. > "It was, wasn't it? It was a change I designed that you were testing!"
  1026. "...yes."
  1027. > Bobbing your head once, you let the last of the air rush from your lungs.
  1028. "Yes, it was one of your suggested designs. But Twilight, the entire thing shouldn't have-"
  1029. > It's too late.
  1030. > The stylus she uses falls to the floor; her eyes fill with tears as a barely-comprehending look fills her face.
  1031. > "I - I killed..."
  1032. "No."
  1033. > "Your arm - I hurt you too..."
  1034. > Reaching down,you cup your hands over both her cheeks, lifting Twilight's eyes to focus back on you.
  1035. "You didn't, do you understand? This isn't something you did. You couldn't have known - I couldn't even have known, and I was there."
  1036. > "No!"
  1037. > The next thing you know you're falling from the couch; you hadn't even felt Twilight touch you, but tumbling away you were all the same.
  1038. > "You don't - I - aaaargh!"
  1039. > A shrill scream echoes through the apartment as she knocks the computer away with a hoof, leaving you scrambling to catch it before it can crash to the floor.
  1040. > "This - this is why - I shouldn't."
  1041. > Drawing another shaky breath, Twilight lays her head down and lets her tears begin to flow for real.
  1042. > "I shouldn't be doing this. I shouldn't be... helping. I just get ponies - people - hurt. It's just like..."
  1043. > A little shake of her head, a sniffle, and she goes on:
  1044. > "I told you I was broken. Why didn't you listen?!"
  1045. "Because you aren't, Twilight. You're fine. This isn't your fault; we all looked at the designs-"
  1046. > "But I thought them up! It's my responsibility!"
  1047. > Now something new fills her eyes, bitter anger stabbing out at you.
  1048.  
  1049. > "You... you pushed me into this. Why didn't you listen to me?! I told you I was-"
  1050. "I heard you! But I don't think it's right!"
  1051. > "And look at where that got us! Six are dead because of that!"
  1052. "Six are dead because a pipe wasn't built right. That's not your fault!"
  1053. > "It is! Every time - every time I..."
  1054. > There's no way she can go on; just as quickly as the anger had filled her it departs, leaving the empty, shaking shell of a pony in its place.
  1055. > "Please - don't make me do this anymore. I don't - I don't want this again. Not a third time; I've already failed twice so badly now."
  1056. > Again your mouth opens, but nothing comes to it.
  1057. > What can you say in a situation like this?
  1058. > Instead, you reach out to place an arm around Twilight; after a second's hesitation, she leans in against it and lets the tears run.
  1059. > Shifting closer, you simply remain silent - hand stroking back her mane and waiting for the worst of it to pass.
  1060. > Eventually her sobs fall to something less raw, sheer exhaustion despite the early hour silencing her cries.
  1061. "Now, Twilight. Listen to me. This - this wasn't your fault. You had no way of knowing-"
  1062. > "Not an excuse."
  1063. > Her voice is hoarse, but that doesn't mask the bitter pain in it.
  1064. > "I shouldn't have done that. Shouldn't have gone back to doing that."
  1065. > Outwardly you merely wrap an arm about her and squeeze gently, but inwardly you're wincing heavily.
  1066. > The blood-work results from Twilight's vet visit were due any day now; you'd been hoping to have some good news to buoy her over any bad news that came with them.
  1067. > But after this one-two punch...
  1068. > If you weren't careful, this could set her back a long, long ways.
  1069. "I know - I know this isn't easy, Twilight. Trust me, it's hitting me hard too - but, I still don't think you should give up. You didn't build it; you didn't damage the pipes."
  1070. > "If you order me...."
  1071. > Her head doesn't even rise, the words mumbled down towards the couch.
  1072. "Order you?"
  1073.  
  1074. > "Did you forget? You bought me. I'm still yours."
  1075. > A hoof rises to touch the collar on her throat.
  1076. > "If you order me to make more of these designs, I.. will."
  1077. > If you order her.
  1078. > Racking your brains, you realize that you can't ever remember ordering Twilight to do any of this.
  1079. > Told her that work would be good for her, yes.
  1080. > Sometimes asked her to take a look at your job's details, and suggested the try to improve on them.
  1081. > Maybe even informally told her to get to work.
  1082. > But never given an explicit order to begin making the designs.
  1083. > Never indicated that was her duty to you as your property.
  1084. > If you made it an order now...
  1085. "No. I still don't think this is your fault, but I'm not going to force you to do more until you're ready."
  1086. > Mental issues aside, you'd seen before what happened when people in a bad mental state were pushed to work.
  1087. > Ponies didn't seem to be that different; if she produced the errors and mistakes you normally saw from distracted, unhappy workers then it'd only feed back into her.
  1088. > Laying her head back down, Twilight lets her eyes fall shut.
  1089. > "Thank you, sir. I should - you should keep me doing simple things. Basic things nopony can ruin. It'd be better that way."
  1090. > Sir.
  1091. > You shudder softly.
  1092. > Sure, you'd known what you were getting into when you bought a pony.
  1093. > But hearing her say it, hearing the word so totally ruled by pain and misery -
  1094. > That wasn't something you were quite ready for yet.
  1095. "Look, Twilight. I'm going to go get breakfast started. You just stay here, okay?"
  1096. > "Yes, sir."
  1097. > Wincing again, you rise and head for the kitchen.
  1098. > Something fancy today, you think.
  1099. > As you work, periodic glances are taken out into the living room.
  1100. > What you see isn't reassuring.
  1101. > Twilight was still splayed out on the couch, eyes staring off into nothingness.
  1102. > Well...
  1103. > It was only a few minutes since the shock had hit.
  1104. > Maybe it'd get better in time?
  1105. > Maybe.
  1106.  
  1107. --------
  1108.  
  1109. > Twilight screamed that night.
  1110. > There was no mistaking it, a horribly familiar high-keening left you scrambling from bed to try and silence her before the neighbors complained again.
  1111. > The following evenings, merely 'mundane' nightmares take the place of her typical night-terror.
  1112. > Neither did the waking hours offer any respite for her; more than once.
  1113. > Having taken up semi-permanent residence on the sofa seat nearest a window, you often caught Twilight staring wordlessly through the glass.
  1114. > It wasn't just that she was watching something across the street, or anything like that; that look in her wasn't an unfamiliar one.
  1115. > You were losing her again.
  1116. > Or, more accurately, Twilight was losing herself.
  1117. > Allowing whatever shell she'd built to protect herself during the worst times to close up again.
  1118. > And no matter what you did, you couldn't pull her back out of it.
  1119. > Not with force, anyhow.
  1120. > No suggestion, no idea alone would drag her up from the clutches of despair.
  1121. > Instead, you fell back on simply making her as comfortable as possible.
  1122. > The first time you thought of that, it shook you how much that sounded like caring for a terminal patient.
  1123. > But, you supposed, Twilight was dying.
  1124. > Not of a physical illness, but the insidious mental claws of depression.
  1125. > And much like caring for a patient, it settled into a routine.
  1126. > Wake in the morning.
  1127. > Make some breakfast in the meager hope that Twilight would show some sign of appreciating it.
  1128. > Build a list of simple jobs for her to handle throughout the day to keep her from stewing ceaselessly in her own misery.
  1129. > Go to work, and deal with the lingering results of the disaster.
  1130. > Come home in the evening, and find Twilight again lost in herself.
  1131. > Go to bed.
  1132. > Wake up in the middle of the night to deal with her near-inevitable nightmare.
  1133. > Get up again in the morning, and repeat.
  1134. > Of those, only one did Twilight seem to take any real pleasure in.
  1135.  
  1136. > No matter how the task, she always seemed to put in extra effort to make sure it was done absolutely right.
  1137. > That alone is enough to keep your hope from guttering out completely.
  1138. > Pained and guilt-ridden she may be, but Twilight still seemed to care for your approval of her work.
  1139. > The soft jingle of an incoming email draws your attention.
  1140. > 'HAPPY HOOVES PARAEQUINE VETERINARIANS: Your report is now available!'
  1141. > May as well take a look.
  1142. > The medical report, is largely what you'd expected.
  1143. > 'minor musculature decay associated with long periods of inactivity and/or malnutrition'
  1144. > 'signs of past use of physical discipline'
  1145. > 'reflexes slightly below average, probably from birth'
  1146. > 'overall health trends are positive since previous medical records'
  1147. > The last time being long before you'd found her.
  1148. > In other words, Twilight had been through a lot - but was doing well now.
  1149. > Scrolling through the rest of the report, you chuckle at the absurdity that you were going to have to find a horse psychologist soon at this ra-
  1150. > Wait.
  1151. > Shifting back up, you read the few lines carefully again - knitting your eyebrows in surprise.
  1152. > That... wasn't possible.
  1153. > Or -
  1154. > After a second's hesitation, you look about to make sure Twilight is busy, then dial the office's number.
  1155. "Yeah. Hey, listen, I just got the official documentation from my last scheduled visit with you - yeah, no, it came through fine."
  1156. > ...
  1157. "No, listen - uh, section 5-B. Yeah, that - listen, that result is wrong. Can you have the lab re-run the test or something? There's no way she could be - yeah, I know you're the doctors, and I know it will cost me. Still."
  1158. > Setting the phone down, you stare at the few lines of text - mind furiously working through the implications of what they mean.
  1159. > Rising, you pad near-silently to the next room.
  1160. > Twilight was there, using a penknife gripped in her jaws to carefully cut away a coupon from the flyer it had come in.
  1161. > The lab had to be wrong...
  1162. > Right?
  1163.  
  1164. --------
  1165.  
  1166. > Even as you wait to hear from the vet again, the routine grows ever more familiar.
  1167. > Now, however, you look on it with a new eye.
  1168. > If what the vet's report had said was right...
  1169. > This changed everything about Twilight's behavior.
  1170. > Before the new test results could come back again, however, you awaken one night to find the routine was broken.
  1171. > Normally Twilight's distant wailing from her near-nightly terrors would have risen you at this time of the night.
  1172. > This time, however, you could hear nothing.
  1173. > It was chilly in your bedroom, but the nights had been growing so for a while now; that alone was not unusual.
  1174. > Some moments pass before you notice the heavy, warm weight resting atop the blanket next to one of your legs.
  1175. > As if to drive home the certainty, a gentle sniffling and hiccup fills in the darkened room and you know exactly what has happened.
  1176. "Twilight?"
  1177. > Still half-asleep as you are, the word comes out half-mumbled and horribly garbled.
  1178. > But still recognizable enough for Twilight to go stock-still, even the sound of her breathing seeming to halt.
  1179. > When you do not speak again, she does:
  1180. > "A-Anon, I'm sorry-"
  1181. > You know that scratchy, raw voice from her.
  1182. "You been crying again, Twilight."
  1183. > "I-I'm sorry. Nightmare; I... I thought you'd prefer if you didn't scream again, I thought maybe I could stay-"
  1184. > She halts, desperately trying to gather her obviously scrambled thoughts.
  1185. > "-just, stay long enough to calm down, and I-"
  1186. > Fumbling in the dark, you finally manage to reach down and touch her.
  1187. > Where you'd expected a cotton blanket, however, sleek fur instead brushes across your fingers.
  1188. > Cold, sleek fur.
  1189. "Damn it, Twilight! You're freezing!"
  1190. > "I - I must've left the blanket behind when I came in."
  1191. > You open your mouth to tell her that it's alright, she should go back and get warm herself.
  1192. > But you pause.
  1193. > Would that really be for the best?
  1194.  
  1195. > She'd come in here - nevermind how she'd gotten in without waking you; the door usually wailed with the distinct screech of wood on ill-fitted wood - but she'd come on her own, to try and save you the trouble of waking up for her.
  1196. > That kind of independent thinking was the sort of thing you'd been trying to get from her for days now.
  1197. > And if you just sent her back now - what message would that send?
  1198. > Just the same one she'd been told by others over and over again now.
  1199. > 'Don't bother trying to think. They'll just want you to do things the same old way anyhow.'
  1200. > No.
  1201. > That wasn't something you could afford to teach her.
  1202. > Not when you were finally seeing progress.
  1203. "C'mere, Twilight."
  1204. > There's barely any light in the room, but still enough to see the fuzzy outline of Twilight rise as she cautiously gets to her hooves.
  1205. > Unsteadily she makes her way up to the head of the bed; you squirm to occupy one far end of the bed and lift the covers on the opposite side.
  1206. > She hesitates, though.
  1207. > "No - no funny business?"
  1208. "Nothing. I just don't want you to freeze yourself to death."
  1209. > After seeming to think for a few moments, Twilight finally acquiesces.
  1210. > A burst of icy air accompanies her pulling beneath the covers, diving in facefirst until she is completely vanished beneath only to lift her head and neck back out.
  1211. "I don't have another pillow here, so I hope you don't mind just resting your head on the sheet."
  1212. > "It'll be fine."
  1213. > A moment later:
  1214. > "I'm sorry."
  1215. "What for?"
  1216. > "Doubting you. Thinking that you'd do something bad to me. I was - afraid. I know I'm disappointing you lately..."
  1217. > Little shudders run through her frame as Twilight trails off.
  1218. > Surprise flickers through you at how startlingly pained she sounds at admitting that 'failing'.
  1219. "You thought I'd try to get something... more out of this? To make up or something?"
  1220. > "Yeah."
  1221. "No. Never."
  1222.  
  1223. > Reaching out just far enough to lightly touch her leg just above the hoof, you give what is hopefully a reassuring squeeze.
  1224. > Twilight doesn't shy away, so you take that as a good thing; instead, she speaks up hesitantly:
  1225. > "It was about them again. The nightmare - about my friends."
  1226. "Mmmm?"
  1227. > "I was - back home. Equestria, I mean. But I knew what was happening. I knew we were going to be taken. I kept trying to stop it, trying to keep them safe.
  1228. But, everything I did just made it worse."
  1229. > Listening silently, you hiss softly through your teeth as she speaks.
  1230. > "Just like... real life. Except, nobody knew then. Nopony knew to blame me until afterwards."
  1231. "Like that one pony did, at the first vet?"
  1232. > "She was right. We should've stopped it. We could've. But-"
  1233. > Words stick in her throat, and your mind wonders:
  1234. > Clearly, Twilight took the disaster that had brought the ponies to Earth and against humanity personally.
  1235. > But why...?
  1236. "Twilight."
  1237. > Propping yourself up on one elbow seems right to lecture like this, even if there's not nearly enough light for either of you to see each other.
  1238. "Listen... I've not really pried into you past, because I can tell it hurts you. But, if I'm going to be able to help, you, I'll need to know."
  1239. > "There's nothing to help."
  1240. "Of course there is. I won't order you to tell me - I'll never force anything like that - but, they always say that talking about something that hurts is the first step to healing it."
  1241. > And then, you go silent.
  1242. > You hadn't been lying.
  1243. > Ordering Twilight to tell you was something you'd never do.
  1244. > She doesn't reply immediately; instead, for several long minutes the only sound in the room is her soft sniffling.
  1245. > Only then do the first words emerge in a small, scared voice.
  1246. > "I... I was Princess Celestia's most faithful student, her protege. I was - I was an element of harmony, who sealed away Discord and saved Princess Luna. You know what the elements of harmony are?"
  1247.  
  1248. "Yes. Sort of. Heard rumors - a bunch of stories on the internet."
  1249. > "Probably wrong. But they are real, and - my friends and I, we were supposed to use them to help Equestria."
  1250. > Another hiccup, and the sound of Twilight gently rubbing her snout against one leg.
  1251. > "My parents - they were still in Canterlot when it fell. And my friends - Ponyville - I knew everyone. I saw them get ripped from each other, taken away one by one, because we failed."
  1252. > "They relied on us, and I - I screwed up. My mistake, brought this down on us."
  1253. > You're not quite sure what to say.
  1254. > Of course, you'd imagined she'd been a - a part of the pony government, maybe?
  1255. > Some sort of low-level administrator?
  1256. > But not the personal acolyte of their former ruler.
  1257. > And certainly not part of the legendary weapon that whose final use had ultimately brought the Equestrians to serve on Earth.
  1258. "Did your - 'elements' cause all of this? From the beginning?"
  1259. > "No. It was - our worlds were already beginning to intersect. We tried to stop it, to keep both safe. Instead, it..."
  1260. "...yeah."
  1261. > Pictures of the aftermath of the first magically-driven blasts that had rocked the globe flicker through your head.
  1262. > After those, it hadn't been hard to convince people that the 'Equestrian threat' had to be culled.
  1263. "But - you didn't cause that, did you? That was... whatever you called it, happening."
  1264. > "The magical fallout from dimensional intersection occurring, yes."
  1265. > Shifting in place, Twilight, lowers her head to the mattress.
  1266. > "We failed, though. I failed - myself, my friends, and Princess Celestia. Magic was supposed to be my talent - my element."
  1267. > Despite your promise of 'no funny business', you extend an arm out to rest reassuringly on the back of her neck.
  1268. > To your surprise, Twilight doesn't shy away.
  1269. > Instead, in fact, she scoots a little closer.
  1270. > "I don't deserve what you're doing for me. All I do now is ruin things."
  1271.  
  1272. > You'd dispute that, but right now doesn't seem to be the best time for arguing with her.
  1273. > You're busy turning over the situation in your head - working it through again and again.
  1274. > Something about what Twilight had said was clicking in your head, fitting together into a growing suspicion.
  1275. "You liked working for her, huh? Your Princess, I mean."
  1276. > "Yes. You can't imagine how nice she was, Anonymous. Being with her - it was like having everything covered in a warm, comfortable, reassuring blanket, and when she'd smile at you and say you'd done well-"
  1277. > Suspicion swells into a rising current of certainty.
  1278. "I can't, no. She guided you then?"
  1279. > "Yes. Every day I'd go and learn from her, or even just accompany her on her duties. At least, until she sent me to go make some friends..."
  1280. > Trailing off, Twilight's tone falls; if you could see her face, it'd certainly be fallen too.
  1281. > "And then I lost them too."
  1282. "And when you messed up - before all this, I mean - did she ever abandon you? Decide you 'weren't worthy'?"
  1283. > "I see what you're trying to do, Anonymous. It's not the same - I never destroyed a whole civilization before."
  1284. > There's a certain wry sarcasm in her voice that you can't help but crack a grin at.
  1285. "What about your other princess? Didn't she go all 'grr, argh, I'm gonna freeze the planet' once?"
  1286. > "Nightmare Moon was stopped before she could do any permanent harm - and that's irrelevant. You're using unrelated points to try and change my mind."
  1287. > Groaning gently, you flop back down on your back.
  1288. > You suppose that's what you get for trying to argue with a pony as smart as Twilight was.
  1289. "What I'm trying to say is, you need to stop thinking of all this being your fault."
  1290. > "How am I supposed to stop thinking about it?! I've no idea what happened to anypony from Ponyville, my brother, my parents - what if they took mom and dad apart?!"
  1291. > Wincing gently in the darkness, you stay your tongue from admitting they probably had.
  1292.  
  1293. > Original relationships didn't seem to matter much to the labor authorities.
  1294. "What about your friends, then? They were part of the 'elements' too, right? Do you think your friends would blame you, if they were here now?"
  1295. > "I - yes. I messed things up, and they'd be right. They'd be right to-"
  1296. "Are you serious, Twilight? When an earthquake happens without warning, we don't blame the street paver for not making the ground hard enough."
  1297. > "That - that's not-"
  1298. "Yes it is. It's exactly what you're doing - just like with the accident at work; you insisted it was your fault when you had now way of predicting those pipes were bad."
  1299. > It probably isn't a good idea to go on, but you're fired up now and the words are coming faster than you can think them through.
  1300. "I can see it all the time. You're so caught up in your guilt, so insistent that you're at fault, that you just want to crawl back into your shell and let someone else think and issue orders for you."
  1301. > Hooves beat against the bed, but even in this state Twilight isn't so foolish to as to touch you.
  1302. > "I - no! No, that's wrong! I don't want to be a slave!"
  1303. "Yes you do. Because as long as someone else is issuing the orders - as long as you don't need to think for yourself - you can keep telling yourself anything bad that happens isn't your fault."
  1304. > "I -"
  1305. > That's as far as she gets.
  1306. > No more words come, any further statements becoming lodged in her throat.
  1307. > If you were able to see her, you're quite sure her eyes would be boggling as well.
  1308. > Considering for a moment, you try to think of something that she'd want - really, really want.
  1309. > It comes quickly.
  1310. "If you could figure out a way to go back to Equestria, to reset everything, would you?"
  1311. > "Why are you even asking me? Of course I would!"
  1312. "And if there was a chance of it going wrong?"
  1313. > "I'd still have to!"
  1314. "Bullshit, Twilight. You wouldn't lift a hoof."
  1315.  
  1316. > "I - what are you saying?! Of course I want to! I want - I want to just being happy! To watching Rainbow Dash race, seeing Rarity's newest creation, listening
  1317. to Fluttershy sing. I want-"
  1318. "Tell me then, Twilight. Why haven't you busted out? Tried to go back to Equestria, tried to set this right?"
  1319. > "Oh, like I'd get more than a few blocks before somebody ran me down and dragged me back to you."
  1320. "Why run? You're an element of harmony, right? I bet you can do some funky stuff - teleporting, shields, invisibility?"
  1321. > "Don't taunt me with what I've lost, Anonymous!"
  1322. > A low, feral rawness has entered her voice.
  1323. > "I might have screwed up first, but invading, enslaving, and stealing my magic is something you and your species chose to-"
  1324. "Your magic is fine, Twilight. It always has been."
  1325.  
  1326. > Silence reigns in the air for what seems like an eternity.
  1327. > Nothing but the distant gusts of wind brushing against the windows.
  1328. > "D-Don't be ridiculous, Anon. You know what the drugs did to me; I saw you researching them."
  1329. > Fuck.
  1330. > You thought you were better at hiding it than that.
  1331. > Even so, though.
  1332. "No. I'm not being ridiculous and you know it, Twilight."
  1333. > "But I can't. They did something to me-"
  1334. "Maybe they did for a while, but after that? No."
  1335. > "...prove it."
  1336. > Ah, there it was.
  1337. > The final recourse of children and those unwilling to face the truth, of all species delivered with the appropriate degree of self-assurance.
  1338. > 'Prove it.'
  1339. > In the expectation, of course, secure in the conceit that you could not possibly do so.
  1340. > But you can.
  1341. "The doctor I took you too. They sent back the medical reports from the tests they did: There's no permanent buildup, Twilight. You don't have brain damage."
  1342. > "It's entirely possible for one test to be wrong, Anonymous."
  1343. "I know. So I asked them to re-do, but then I started thinking ."
  1344. > Your hand is still resting on the back of her neck, allowing you to feel the slight tremble building in her body as you start listing off your points.
  1345. "The first day I got you, I asked you to organize those magazines. When I came back, they were in nice, neat, squared-off piles. Very good job - how'd you pull that off?"
  1346. > "Well, ponies are quite able to manipulate objects with our mouths when we have to, and our hooves-"
  1347. "I know that - but lining them up perfectly like that? What about the bookcases, then?"
  1348. > "Bookcases?"
  1349. "Uh-huh. When you reorganized them. Those go floor to ceiling, twice your height when you're reared up. How'd you get to the top ones? Not even pushing a chair over is enough."
  1350. > "I - I must've-"
  1351. "When you were angry the other day, and pushed me off the sofa - at first I thought I missed your hoof touching me, but thinking back - you didn't actually touch me, did you?"
  1352.  
  1353. > It's not just her body that's shaking now.
  1354. > A quivering tone has slipped into her voice, the first streams of uncertainty undermining the dam her mind had built.
  1355. > Leaning in, you deliver the final point - the coup de grace to this argument.
  1356. "How'd you get in this room, Twilight?"
  1357. > "Get - get in -"
  1358. "That door screeches like a banshee when it's just pushed, Twilight. We both know I can't sleep through that. So, how'd you get in?"
  1359. > This time, there is no immediate answer.
  1360. > Twilight is shaking like a leaf, her breath coming in short and rapid bursts.
  1361. "I understand you're afraid, Twilight. Terrified if I knew I'd put you back on the drugs and take away the last thing you really have."
  1362. > "But..."
  1363. > Her voice has taken on a twisted, tortured intensity.
  1364. > "But, I didn't. I swear - I swear I didn't use any magic!"
  1365. "Then how'd you do all those things?"
  1366. > "I - I don't know. I don't remember!"
  1367. > As you listen to her rising tone, you realize your error.
  1368. > Maybe her magic was functioning, but Twilight's denial ran deeper than you had thought.
  1369. > It wasn't you she was trying to convince her magic was broken.
  1370. > A hand on her muzzle halts her spluttered excuses.
  1371. "You've sealed your own magic away - convinced yourself that it's dangerous, so it needs to be sealed away. As long as it's gone, you don't have to worry, right?
  1372. So maybe they did give you a bigger dose of the drugs, and you decided that was it. You were 'damaged', and so you didn't have to try and fight anymore."
  1373. > Keeping your voice as low and calming as possible, you keep going.
  1374. > Fortunately Twilight hadn't tried to push your hand from her muzzle, apparently having her attention fixed on your words.
  1375. "Magic's too much a part of who you are, though. Best guess, you get lost in your work and go back to using it without even thinking about it. Or it comes out when you're in an emotional state."
  1376. > Low, pained keening issues from her throat, but you aren't done.
  1377.  
  1378. "We can't deny our talents, Twilight. If we just give up them because things went wrong once - we'd never really get anywhere. It's time to open that dam and try again."
  1379. > Only now does your hand withdraw to allow her to say her piece.
  1380. > Instead, however, she only manages to eke out a few sputtered noises.
  1381. > Some part of you had expected her to be angry with you for uncovering her secret, or maybe to cry.
  1382. > But Twilight simply lays there until at last, with a small voice, she speaks up:
  1383. > "I don't understand."
  1384. "How so?"
  1385. > "All of it. I didn't mean to - I didn't even want to - give up my magic. But you're right, damn you; everything you say makes sense."
  1386. > You can feel she's begun to tremble again, both in body and voice.
  1387. > "I've somehow - sweet Celestia, I don't know. I thought it really was gone, and I don't understand how to get it back."
  1388. "It's not about getting it back. It's about choosing to have it again. I can help you, but only you can make that decision."
  1389. > Stretching out a hand, you offer it palm-up to her.
  1390. "It's about not being afraid to take a risk, even for someone who's been through what you have."
  1391. > Twilight doesn't take it your offered hand.
  1392. > Rising instead from the bed she shifts herself until she is resting directly beside you, head coming to rest laying across your chest.
  1393. > "That offer of help - I think I could use that right now."
  1394. > Smiling gently, you let your arm instead curl around her neck to rub lightly at the strands of mane draping down from her spine.
  1395. > After a few moments, a thought comes to you.
  1396. > The tune is hazy in your mind, and some bars are certainly wrong.
  1397. > But the little, gentle song Twilight had hummed to comfort herself once before is still recognizably there, even if your effort is atrociously off-tune.
  1398. > When you're done, Twilight gives a pained laugh - the kind of laugh that tells of tears barely held back.
  1399. > "If I'm allowed to say this, your humming is awful."
  1400.  
  1401. > Chuckles bubble up from your throat as tension in the room drains away.
  1402. "You're forgiven, of course."
  1403. > "But... thank you."
  1404. "Welcome. Where does it come from?"
  1405. > "One of my friends used to sing it. She had-"
  1406. > Memories choke her voice, but Twilight forges on.
  1407. > "-she had so many animals in her home, she'd sing that to soothe them and help them sleep."
  1408. > For a moment you're struck by the accidental cruelty of what you'd done.
  1409. > Using a song that had once belonged to a friend Twilight had little hope of ever seeing again.
  1410. > But she didn't seem upset; he head still stayed resting against your chest - one ear flat against your sweatshirt presumably listening to your heart.
  1411. "I'm... glad to help. I know I won't ever replace the friends you had, or your princess as a mentor."
  1412. > "Well, for one Celestia didn't own me."
  1413. > Silently you wince.
  1414. > Yeah, there was still the little matter of Twilight being a slave.
  1415. "Like I said... not the same. But maybe as something else? It'll be the first time trying to help someone like that, I have to admit."
  1416. > "I think so. It's the first time I've ever trusted a master, so we'll both be learning."
  1417. "Is that going to be a problem? My, uh... owning you?"
  1418. > There's just the tiniest second of hesitation before she answers, but Twilight's tone tells of her certainty when she does.
  1419. > "No; I trust you. I can't forget that I'm a slave, but that doesn't mean I have to hate you."
  1420. "Good."
  1421. > Under the dual temptations of the warmth beneath the covers and your fingers lightly rubbing along her spine, her voice has also begun to dip and fade.
  1422. > Sleep, creeping back in from the darkened room around you to lay claim to her.
  1423. "Then get some rest. We'll have a lot to talk about in the morning, and I want you to be ready."
  1424. > No retort comes, Twilight's breathing falling to regular, soft rushes of air brushing against your skin.
  1425. > Long after she's certainly passed into the realm of dreams you lay awake - your hand still enmeshed in her mane.
  1426.  
  1427. > At some point a rainstorm had drifted in, fat droplets pinging against the windows like tiny battering rams driven by gusts of wind.
  1428. > Peace has settled in the room, though, and neither chill nor rain could breach it.
  1429. > If anything, it adds a certain additional depth to the serenity now holding firm between the two of you.
  1430. > ...this was, admittedly, not what you'd expected when you'd gone out to buy a pony that day.
  1431. > But Twilight was your responsibility as well as your boon now; you might own her, but you also owed it to her to help.
  1432. > So you'd do your damn best.
  1433.  
  1434. > Twilight is still there come morning.
  1435. > Though she'd ceased waking you up every morning, she still often rose before you to dwell in her pit of mental misery.
  1436. > This day, however, she remained fast asleep - the blankets rising and falling softly as she breathed softly.
  1437. > Observing her, you wonder if this was the most peacefully she'd slept in a very long time.
  1438. > If not for the interruption in her sleep the previous night, you'd certainly think so.
  1439. > A few strands of mane had fallen over her face, which you softy brush away.
  1440. > Mumbling something in her sleep, Twilight shifts and settles - but doesn't wake yet.
  1441. > Poor thing was probably exhausted; who knew how long she'd been up and curled on the top of the bed.
  1442. > Slipping from beneath the covers, you manage to leave the room with a minimum of squealing from the crappy floorboards.
  1443. > Twilight doesn't emerge for nearly twenty minutes more, rubbing one eye to clear the last bleary remnants of sleep from it.
  1444. > Despite the sounds of breakfast preparation clearly being audible from the kitchen, she still freezes when your eyes meet.
  1445. > She speaks first.
  1446. > "So - um - about last night, and all that..."
  1447. > Holding a single finger up, you silence her so you can speak.
  1448. "Not here. At the table. We've got a lot to think about."
  1449. > Nodding briefly, Twilight allows you to finish up the two plates and bring them to the table.
  1450. > Any remnants of the storm had long since blown away, allowing fresh, clear sunlight to spill into the room and fill it with a warm glow.
  1451. > Settling in at the small table, you fold your arms.
  1452. "So."
  1453. > "So..."
  1454. > Shifting nervously in her seat, Twilight gathers a breath and plunges headfirst in.
  1455. > "I'm sorry. I broke into your room, and-"
  1456. "Shh. Hey, Twilight, remember what we just talked about? Blaming yourself? Don't ever apologize for seeking my help if you need it."
  1457. > Color touches her cheeks, and she nods.
  1458.  
  1459. > "And you're right about that. I've been... holding myself back. I don't know how, but I must have been."
  1460. > Twilight's head falls, hanging in something halfway between an embarrassed pose and a bow.
  1461. > "I still don't think I deserve the kindness you've shown me, especially if I've been holding myself back from repaying you. But - I won't refuse it, either."
  1462. "Sometimes we need someone else to give us a little push and show how much we're holding ourselves back, Twilight. I promise, if you really put some effort into this, things will get better."
  1463. > "I'll hold you to that."
  1464. > There's a touch of the old surety in her voice that brings a small grin to your lips.
  1465. "You'd better. For starters - once we eat, let's sit down and have a look at the last project you were working on."
  1466. > Immediately she stiffens, but again you raise a finger and preempt any objection:
  1467. "And the first thing we're going to do, is look at what the risk of testing your ideas are and how we can keep everyone safe despite them."
  1468. > That puts a smile back on Twilight's face.
  1469. > "That... I think I can do."
  1470. "Then come on. Eat up - we've got a lot to work on."
  1471.  
  1472. --------
  1473.  
  1474. "Okay, that's last check. Anyone else report?"
  1475. > "Looks good over here."
  1476. > "Ready on station two."
  1477. > "Station three, clear."
  1478. > "Fourth, go ahead."
  1479. "Twilight?"
  1480. > Beside you, Twilight stares intently at the computer screen intently.
  1481. > "One second, sir. There's an abnormal temperature gradient on C-8, I want to see if it smooths out."
  1482. > A soft groan issues from somewhere in the control room, but you hold up a hand to halt any further questioning.
  1483. "She knows this system as well as any of us do, people. She says we wait, we wait."
  1484. > In truth, Twilight probably knew it better than most of them.
  1485. > But it had already been enough trouble to convince management to allow Twilight into the control room for the test.
  1486. > No need to antagonize anyone by pointing out that she could have replaced any of half the people in the room.
  1487.  
  1488. > Being there was the only way you'd gotten her consent to use her ideas, though.
  1489. > The only way you could settle her mind.
  1490. > Even that had only been after weeks of gently building Twilight's confidence up.
  1491. > Though you'd gotten back to work that day, she'd hardly leapt into it with immediate gusto.
  1492. > Starting with safety measures first helped.
  1493. > As had repeatedly checking each step; while Twilight did so with a neurotic intensity that worried you, her relief at finding no errors seems worth the cost.
  1494. > Step by step, she had crawled back.
  1495. > Faltering sometimes - more than once you'd found her nearly in tears, paralyzed with fear over how to proceed.
  1496. > Terrified she'd fail you somehow.
  1497. > But those times were overcome; with each step forward, the next became easier.
  1498. > Soon she's forging her own path again.
  1499. > Not waiting for your suggestions but inventing her own.
  1500. > Thinking for herself.
  1501. > No, you might not ever be able to fill the place in her heart Twilight held for her original mentor.
  1502. > You allowed the little hope that you might be becoming another kind of mentor to her, though.
  1503. > One thing, however, you'd been unable to shift the mare on:
  1504. > If her ideas were to be tested again, she would be there this time.
  1505. > She would take responsibility, for better or for worse.
  1506. > And so here you find yourself.
  1507. "Twilight?"
  1508. > "Yeah, hold on. It's just - a second longer..."
  1509. > With a whoosh of breath she nods, turning up to peer at you.
  1510. > "It's ready, sir."
  1511. "And you?"'
  1512. > Hesitation flickers across her face, but Twilight swallows heavily and forces a nod.
  1513. > "Ready."
  1514. "Okay! Begin dumping from the 2nd tank. Keep it slow for now, wait for the pressure to come up before we push it."
  1515. > The words are barely needed.
  1516. > Every man and woman in the control room this night has already rehearsed the process four times over.
  1517. > So had you and Twilight - no less than a dozen times.
  1518. > Still, though, the reminder did its duty.
  1519. "Fifteen percent. Twilight, how's it looking?"
  1520.  
  1521. > "Good here, sir."
  1522. "Carol, Rich, what's your readings?
  1523. > "One-ninety and rising."
  1524. > "Okay here too."
  1525. > Everything seemed to be running fine on your screen too.
  1526. > No one speaks if they do not need to, the tension rising in the room as surely as it was in the miles of pipes and machinery spread out before you.
  1527. "Twilight?"
  1528. > "Nothing bad so far. I think it's just - oooh. Uh-oh."
  1529. "Talk to me, Twilight."
  1530. > "Temperature's dropping in the third pressure vessel."
  1531. > Your stomach falls out.
  1532. > A leak?
  1533. > More bad piping?
  1534. > This time, anyone down there should already be in a safe area, but still...
  1535. "How fast?"
  1536. > "Two-point-five a minute, sir."
  1537. "Not too fast; we have some time. Find out what it is; everyone else, keep going."
  1538. > No hesitation in her actions, Twilight leaps to work - pouring through screen after screen of plans and calculations to figure out what might be wrong.
  1539. > Behind you, another voice also laden with concern speaks up:
  1540. > "Another pressure drop, circuit twenty-four."
  1541. > "Twenty-four, that's linked to the same pressure vessel. It's the same."
  1542. > Twilight hasn't even looked up from her work but her answer comes in a moment, without any hesitation.
  1543. "Agreed. Keep an eye on it."
  1544. > While her voice might be steady, you see the familiar signs building up.
  1545. > Tail flicking in something beyond mere nervousness.
  1546. > Nostrils flared wide to support her rapid breathing.
  1547. > Ears, fallen to the sides of her head - not folded straight forward as they did when she was focused on something, but flattened in an attempt to tune out the world.
  1548. > To force out the weight on her mind.
  1549. > "...I don't get it. If it were leaking from the vessel, it should be much slower - or all at once."
  1550. > "Do we shut down?"
  1551. > "No, I - I just need a second-"
  1552. > Still Twilight doesn't look up your co-worker's question.
  1553. > Mostly, you think, because she couldn't force herself to look him in the eye right now.
  1554. > Suddenly she stiffens - tail shooting straight out in shock.
  1555.  
  1556. > "Of course! Shut the emergency vent on circuit twenty-four."
  1557. > "Close the emergency vent?! When there's something wrong?"
  1558. > Ignoring her aggrieved tone, Twilight goes on:
  1559. > "That's the input feed on the reactor. It's got a back-flow preventer; it shouldn't flow out of the pressure vessel. But if the preventer breaks and it flows back and out the emergency release, the reaction slows in the vessel and the temperature drops."
  1560. > "But there's no sign of anything wrong with the back-flow preventer!"
  1561. > "It's got to be that - trust me!"
  1562. > Twisting about, Twilight peers up at you - her eyes wide and fearful, begging you to do something.
  1563. "You're the one with the data, Twilight. If we close that emergency release, will the pipes hold the pressure?"
  1564. > Her throat catches; she hadn't thought of that possibility.
  1565. > And she knows all too well - especially after demanding to see the security footage of the accident - what could happen if the pipes did not.
  1566. > Eye flick back to her screens, pouring through data and trying to pull a judgement together.
  1567. > "...yes, sir."
  1568. "How sure are you?"
  1569. > "Absolutely, sir."
  1570. > No, say her eyes.
  1571. > She isn't sure at all.
  1572. > But she knows they will despite that personal uncertainty.
  1573. > Responsibility was the reason she was here, after all.
  1574. "Then do it. Shut off the pipes to the emergency release; route around it if you have to. Raise the input circuit pressure until it matches the pressure vessel's."
  1575. > A second later, you add:
  1576. "If it goes bad, it's on my head."
  1577. > Twilight had dared to put her neck on the line.
  1578. > You could do the same.
  1579. > For the briefest second no one replies, but then comes a sullen voice:
  1580. > "Valve closed, and pressure rising."
  1581. > Silence makes itself felt again now, the dull hum of computer cooling fans seeming deafening.
  1582. > If it did go wrong, and the entire pressure vessel vented, then-
  1583. > From somewhere behind you echoes a loud bang, followed by the bubbling hiss of escaping liquid under pressure.
  1584.  
  1585. > Ducking, you twist to-
  1586. > "Sorry! Sorry! I dropped my soda can, it just burst. It's okay, everyone."
  1587. "...fucking hell, Rich. You give me a heart attack like that, you're paying for the bill. Clean it up later - what's the pressure doing?"
  1588. > "Approaching normal with the reactor vessel, and... temperature is rising again. Approaching normal!"
  1589. "Keep adjusting the input pressure to keep that temperature within tolerances. We'll have to get the backflow valve fixed later."
  1590. > "Understood."
  1591. > Leaning back in your seat, you rest a hand on your chest and feel the thud-thud of your heart beating beneath it.
  1592. > A soft touch to your thigh drags your attention down to where Twilight looks up.
  1593. > Silently she mouths a small 'thank you'.
  1594. > Then she is fallen back into her focus, her professional demeanor returning - confidently calling out orders.
  1595. > No one questions her now.
  1596. > The facade holds until you step back into the apartment hours later, sleep tugging at the corners of your eyes but mind riding high on success.
  1597. > Bent over to drop your bags, you stagger as Twilight all but crashes into your ribs, latching all four limbs about your torso in a hug that sends you reeling.
  1598. > Laughter echoes from both of you as you stagger, collapsing after a few steps into the couch.
  1599. > Air whooshes from your lungs as Twilight ends up falling on top of you, giggles bubbling up from her throat.
  1600. > "I-I'm sorry, sir."
  1601. > She's barely holding herself together.
  1602. > In a stark reversal of how it had been before, rather than being near tears she now simply didn't seem to know what to do with the wave of happiness she was riding on.
  1603. "Sorry? The hell are you sorry for?"
  1604. > "K-Knocking you over, s-"
  1605. "Twilight."
  1606. > Lightly you tap her on the nose with a single finger.
  1607. "I told you about that 'sir'."
  1608. > "Sorry. I - I guess I still can't quite believe we're home and safe and everything went right and-"
  1609. > Again your finger taps her face - this time to her lips.
  1610.  
  1611. "I know. Your first time out really leading something since it all came down, huh?"
  1612. > Wordlessly Twilight nods, folding her limbs beneath her and settling on the sofa.
  1613. > "Some part of me still thinks its all going to go wrong, even though we finished and came home."
  1614. "Even if it hadn't gone perfectly - you did well there, Twilight. Thinking on the fly, realizing something unexpected might have happened. That's good - I'm proud of you."
  1615. > Crimson colors her cheeks and she ducks her head, mumbling something softly.
  1616. > Guessing what was said is relatively easy; she always did react well to praise.
  1617. "Now, I know it's going to be hard, but we really should try and get some sleep. Tomorrow's going to come, no matter how hard we want it not to."
  1618. > Running up her muzzle into a frustrated scrunch, Twilight still gives a small nod.
  1619. > "Yeah. You're right."
  1620. "Come on. I'll flip you for first rights to the bathroom."
  1621. > A few minutes later she finishes her turn in the bathroom and slips into your room - landing on the bed with a small jump.
  1622. > That'd been another change; after that first incident, Twilight had begun to stay in your room every night.
  1623. > First because you'd not thought to stop it, and then because an unspoken agreement had developed between the two of you.
  1624. > No 'funny stuff' as she'd put it, but the mutual comfort that came with having another presence beside you at night.
  1625. > No longer was every night interrupted by her nightmares; now the terrors came every few days at most.
  1626. > Tonight, however, you can see something is troubling her as you slip beneath the covers.
  1627. "...you know, they say not to go to sleep in a bad mood, Twilight. So - penny for your thoughts?"
  1628. > "It's nothing."
  1629. > It isn't.
  1630. > She's been here too long for you to believe that.
  1631. > She's also been here long enough for you to know when not to push.
  1632. > Sighing softly, you reach over to scratch lightly beneath her chin.
  1633.  
  1634. > A small gesture of intimacy that had come to be used when you wanted to reassure Twilight.
  1635. > To remind her that you were there.
  1636. > Only then is the light switched off, and you slide down beneath the covers to-
  1637. > "Anon?"
  1638. "Yes, Twilight?"
  1639. > "If things are finally going right again... does this mean my magic will be coming back soon?"
  1640. > Ah.
  1641. > No wonder she'd been in such a mood.
  1642. "I don't know, Twilight. I'd think so - now that you see that you don't have to be afraid of using your brains or your magic."
  1643. > "But you can't be sure."
  1644. > Sighing gently, you nod.
  1645. "Yes. I can't be sure."
  1646. > Scooting down the rest of the way, you reach up to scratch Twilight lightly beneath the chin again.
  1647. > Legs close around your arm, tugging it close against her chest and belly, head tilting up to give you access to her jaw and throat.
  1648. "Even if it doesn't come back real soon, you're still you. I'm still proud of what you're doing, and you should be to."
  1649. > Only then do you flip the light off, leaving you to fall asleep with the warm, plush sensation of Twilight's coat against your arm.
  1650.  
  1651. --------
  1652.  
  1653. "...and I think that covers our next major step for the second site. Everyone knows what they need to get done before our meeting Thursday?"
  1654. > "Yes."
  1655. > "Absolutely."
  1656. > "Got it."
  1657. "Excellent. Twilight, anything to add?"
  1658. > "No, I think that covers it, sir!"
  1659. "Then I'll see you all in the office tomorrow."
  1660. > One by one the video chats go black, leaving the room silent.
  1661. > Beside you, Twilight rises from her seat and stretches heavily - several vertebra popping appreciatively.
  1662. > Chuckling softly, you rise and try to get your own blood moving again.
  1663. "I told you meetings suck, Twilight. Teleconference or not."
  1664. > "I know."
  1665. > She shoots a grin up at you, eyes twinkling.
  1666. > "Still, if they're still going to make a fuss about me being around the business every day I'm glad we've found a way to work around it."
  1667. > There's not a hint of pain in her voice, but you know that rejection had stung.
  1668. "Mmm-hmm. Now, come on. Dinner's nearly ready, and we both of us need to eat."
  1669. > "But there's still the planning to do on the fourth section-"
  1670. > To think your dominant problem would ever become that it was hard to get Twilight to -stop- working.
  1671. > Even years into her recovery it sometimes surprised you.
  1672. > Still vastly better than the alternative, however.
  1673. "Nope. And no taking your dinner to your workstation either."
  1674. > "Awww."
  1675. > Ruffling the pouting pony's mane, you shoot her a small grin.
  1676. "Life exists outside of work, girl. Now come on - if you were going in with me every day, you'd have left your work at... work."
  1677. > Rising, you wander into the kitchen of your house.
  1678. > Sometimes it still surprised you too; even now you somehow expected to wake up and find yourself in that dingy, cramped apartment again.
  1679. > Sure, this one wasn't exactly a luxury home - but it was nearly three times larger than your previous residence.
  1680. > Throughout dinner, however, you could see something was on her mind.
  1681. "Pickle for your thoughts, Twilight?"
  1682. > "It's penny, and-"
  1683.  
  1684. > She blinks as you fork over a pickle slice, then gives you a sly look.
  1685. > "I guess I have to give my thoughts now, huh?"
  1686. "Absolutely."
  1687. > Fidgeting with the custom hoof-fit flatware, Twilight abruptly looks down.
  1688. > "I... do you think you could get me into your job just once again?"
  1689. "You really want to be part of it directly again, huh?"
  1690. > "Well, yes. But - not why I wanted. Um, actually..."
  1691. > Fork and knife fall to her plate, leaving forehooves free to be rubbed together.
  1692. > "...I wanted to see where they died."
  1693. > Seeing the stiffness that had settled over you, she violently shakes her head:
  1694. > "No, no. Not that. I know it wasn't my fault. I just... I want to see. To put it entirely behind me."
  1695. "You promise, no more bouts of depression if I let you do this?"
  1696. > It's a promise she can't possibly hope to honestly make - no one, pony or human, could say what seeing something like that would do.
  1697. > But even so, when Twilight nods an affirmative you know she meant to keep it.
  1698. > "No depressed unicorns - I promise. Pinkie promise."
  1699. > Definitely meant to keep it.
  1700. > As Twilight had opened up, you'd learned little tidbits about her world.
  1701. > Like that kind of promise being a serious deal to her.
  1702. "There won't be anything really there, you know. They cleaned up everything, scrubbed the floors and damn near rebuilt the building."
  1703. > "I know. It's hard to explain, I..."
  1704. > She hesitates, staring at the half-downed plate of food before her.
  1705. > "Somehow, even if it isn't really my fault, I need to put it behind me. Seeing that... what's the phrase you use? It'd put my demons to rest?"
  1706. "That's understandable, I suppose. I'll give it a shot - they can't afford to avoid offending their golden goose, so they'll probably agree to a brief visit."
  1707. > "Thank you."
  1708.  
  1709. --------
  1710.  
  1711. "Okay, just keep all hands, legs, hooves, horns, and other assorted limbs away from operating machinery, and we should be good."
  1712.  
  1713. > The joke falls flat, but Twilight at least seems to have caught the gist of the warning.
  1714. > As if she needed the reminder.
  1715. > "I'm ready."
  1716. "Let's go, then."
  1717. > Harsh buzzing grates on human and pony ears alike as a door is unlocked.
  1718. > Beyond sits the production floor: A tangled mass of machinery and piping that was barely understandable in theory, let alone in person.
  1719. > Both of your wore safety glasses and earguards - in Twilight's case, borrowed from the business' cache of equipment for other company-owned ponies.
  1720. > They only barely served to muffle the indescribable cacophony that greeted you as you stepped out onto the work floor.
  1721. > Mane and tail were also tied back too, each formed into a small bun that could not catch on anything in passing.
  1722. "This way, Twilight. Careful now."
  1723. > Easing your way between lines of humming pumps and conveyor belts pushing components through the maze of machinery, you finally come upon a relatively open square.
  1724. > It's a fragment of serenity in the maelstrom of industry surrounding it; even the noise seems to have dipped somewhat.
  1725. > Even so, Twilight is forced to raise her voice.
  1726. > "This is the place?"
  1727. "Yes. The hot intake line ruptured there-"
  1728. > You point to where a pipe is strung across the ceiling, clad in a thick thermal sleeve.
  1729. "-and broke the gas lines there, and there. The explosion blew out everything here; what wasn't pulverized, burned."
  1730. > Twilight doesn't reply; her eyes are sweeping over fresh, gleaming metal and newly-painted surfaces.
  1731. > Trying, you think, to envision it as her accident had made it.
  1732. > Imagining the pools of blood spreading amid the rubble, paint charring to black under the flames' heat, groaning of metal strained beyond-
  1733. > "What's that?"
  1734. > Interrupting your thoughts, Twilight points you towards something you'd not noticed yet.
  1735. > Seated on the wall was a small, silvery plaque - fixed at chest height to a column with several screws.
  1736.  
  1737. > The perfect height, you realize when approaching it, for both humans and ponies to be able to read it.
  1738. > Time and chemicals had tarnished the plate, but if anything it had only made the letters more legible:
  1739. > 'ALAN IRVING - RAUL ALASQUEZ - BRIAN DUFONT - HERMANN GELLER - FRED GINGHAM - MERRIWEATHER - CRESCENT SPANNER - FAIRWEATHER: 7/24 NEVER FORGOTTEN'
  1740. > The last three names were accompanied by stamps of what you presumed were the ponies' cutie marks.
  1741. > Dimly you become aware that Twilight was reading the plaque aloud; when she finishes, nothing more is said for a long time.
  1742. > Her lips move in regular but silent patterns, though; it takes you a while to realize she is committing the names to memory.
  1743. > Perhaps several minutes later Twilight rears up, one hoof on the column and another tapping the plate lightly.
  1744. > Her voice is soft, but even so audible.
  1745. > "I won't forget you either."
  1746. > Dropping back down, Twilight looks up to you with eyes wide and shimmering with contained tears.
  1747. > "I'm ready to go now, I think."
  1748. > Turning for the exit, you've taken perhaps the first few steps when a voice interrupts:
  1749. > "Hey! I know you!"
  1750. > An earth pony stallion had emerged from between two machines, his sandy coat mottled with accumulated grime that came with working in such an environment.
  1751. > "You're Twilight Sparkle, aren't you? You were Princess Celestia's student back home."
  1752. > Familiar dread settles over your mind; Twilight, too, had gone stock-still.
  1753. > If this one chose to pick a fight in here, it could go bad very badly.
  1754. > Not explosively so, but there were plenty of hot, sharp, heavy or otherwise hazardous things to knock into.
  1755. > And frankly, an earth pony would have strength to surpass you or-
  1756. > "Uh, listen. I just wanted to say, thanks. You've done a lot for us down here."
  1757. > Yours and Twilight's minds come screeching to a halt at the same moment.
  1758. > She recovers first, although not with her full eloquence:
  1759. > "Huh?"
  1760.  
  1761. > "I'd heard a bunch of rumors you were coming up with these new changes, but didn't quite believe it - but, wow. It's really you."
  1762. > At last the rest of Twilight's brain catches up with her lips, and a more coherent reply emerges.
  1763. > "But, I - it was my design -"
  1764. > "Oh, that?"
  1765. > The stallion points to the plaque; Twilight nods dimly.
  1766. > "Horsefeathers. I was there for that; I wasn't your fault. Stuff like that - it used to happen all the time."
  1767. "Used to?"
  1768. > At last the stallion notices you; he dips his head slightly in greeting and replies:
  1769. > "Used to. Since the new changes started coming in, it's been a lot safer down here. Even for us 'property'."
  1770. > Mouthing the words 'new changes' to herself, Twilight stutters out a response.
  1771. > "New - you don't mean my-"
  1772. > "Damn right I do. If you're the one that's been suggesting them, I mean. All that pre-testing and step-by-step checks has really cut down on the accidents and made our lives easier."
  1773. "...hey, Twilight. I guess your insistence about checking everything a million times is actually paying off."
  1774. > At last a wide smile splits Twilight's face.
  1775. > "You really mean it?"
  1776. > "You bet it. You've been a gift from Celestia herself for us."
  1777. > Now it is Twilight's turn to dip her head, furiously blinking back tears of happiness.
  1778. > "I - I'm really glad to hear that. I didn't - I wanted to think it was helping, but-"
  1779. > "Really has. Good to know that someone's caring for us up there. Human or pony, we down here weren't exactly high on their priorities before."
  1780. > With a little stomp of her hoof, Twilight nods once more - this time, a sharp and determined.
  1781. > "Then - then I'll do all I can. I promise - we won't give up. Either of us."
  1782. > Her tail - balled up as it is, twitches to flick against your leg.
  1783. > "He's helped me a lot too."
  1784. > "Well, then I'll thank you as well."
  1785. > Once more the pony's head dips in greeting, and you smile back.
  1786. "She's been a help for everyone, honestly."
  1787.  
  1788. > The high Twilight rides from that encounter lasts for hours.
  1789. > She seems to be coasting on clouds, newly reinvigorated and determined.
  1790. > Even as you climb in the car, she practically dances her way into the passenger's seat.
  1791. > On arriving home, her first instinct is to all but leap into your lap - head coming to rest across your thighs as she happily rests her eyes.
  1792. "So, that everything you were hoping for?"
  1793. > "Do you even need to ask?"
  1794. > Chuckling, you assent to the wordless request embodied in her position and start to scratch lightly at the back of her neck.
  1795. "Want to place bets on whether I can get you to let go of your work for a bit and take a vacation, then?"
  1796. > "After finding out THAT?"
  1797. > Smirking at you, Twilight shakes her head.
  1798. > "I know you say I should let go more often, but you'd have to pull a miracle off."
  1799. "Okay. Miracle it is, then."
  1800. > Grinning down, you let the final twist you'd been holding back to drop:
  1801. "One of your friends - her name was Pinkie Pie, right?"
  1802. > "Uh-huh?"
  1803. > Rooting in your pocket, you retrieve your smartphone and scroll until you find the right file.
  1804. "This her?"
  1805. > Twilight carefully clutches the phone between two hooves, but immediately drops it (thankfully into your lap) when she lays eyes on the image.
  1806. > "OhsweetCelestia - Pinkie! Her hair - why's it all straight?! Is she okay? Have you-"
  1807. "One thing at a time, Twilight."
  1808. > Pulling herself back together, Twilight settles on the couch cushion beside you.
  1809. "So - as best as I can tell, she's fine. Maybe not perfectly happy, yes, but safe; her keeper-"
  1810. > Twilight may have come to terms with your position with her, but you still felt ill at ease with the word 'owner'.
  1811. "-seems to be a good type. I don't think he's been hurting her, and he's agreed to let the two of you meet."
  1812. > All is still for several moments.
  1813. > And then-
  1814. > "Yes! Yesyesyes! OhmysweetCelestiayes! Yeeeessss!"
  1815.  
  1816. > Leaping from cushion to cushion, Twilight twirls about in a joyful, prancing dance as exclamations pour from her.
  1817. > "I can't believe we're finally going to see each other-"
  1818. "Twilight."
  1819. > "-after all this time and I'm sure I'll be able to get her back to normal and maybe even find the others-"
  1820. "Twilight!"
  1821. > "-and then we can all get back together for-"
  1822. "TWILIGHT!"
  1823. > Pausing, the mare peers up at you with some confusion.
  1824. > From your spot curled into a ball several feet up, you crack an eye open.
  1825. "...you're levitating things again, Twilight. Put me down, please."
  1826. > "Oh!"
  1827. > Blushing until she appears positively crimson, Twilight focuses long enough to settle you and the half-dozen other objects she'd lifted back before her horn extinguishes.
  1828. > "I'm sorry - I'm getting better at controlling it, but the magic is coming back so unevenly-"
  1829. "It's alright, Twilight. "
  1830. > Beckoning her over, you run your fingers along her chin and throat.
  1831. "Focus, though. After all, we've got a bit of a trip to plan."
/spg/ Twilight Sparkle

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