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Choose Your Own Slaveventure Part 3 (Complete) (CYOA)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 04:24:53 AM

  1. Originally posted June 2017
  2.  
  3. > ...actually confronting her, interrogating her like some kind of criminal, would do no good.
  4. > At the most you could tell her what you've found - maybe the next time you're sharing a quiet moment together, to make it clear you're not angry with her.
  5. > Because, in truth, you aren't.
  6. > Concerned, perhaps even scared, yes - but not angry.
  7. > She was a mare who'd been quite clear about her desire not to bring a new life into this miserable existence; was it any surprise the resistance would start courting her?
  8. > But that didn't mean you couldn't start gathering the metaphorical clouds so they would be there and ready when it came time to act.
  9. > Leaping from the roof, you glide around to the front entrance of the kitchen.
  10. > It's nothing special, but the moment you step through the front door you're hit by a veritable wall of scents assaulting your nose.
  11. > What little had leaked outside was nothing compared to the veritable hurricane of flavors that hung suspended in the air here.
  12. > Truly, the camp's cooks were miracle workers - providing excellent food even with the modest means Anonymous provided.
  13. > Only second later do you realize you'd paused in the doorway with your nose lifted and nostrils flared, looking like a fool.
  14. > An embarrassed grin plastered to your face, you're only a few steps further in when a familiar voice calls out:
  15. > "Thunderlane, hey!"
  16. "Hey, Vapor!"
  17. > Waving from her position perched over the massive pot she stirs, Vapor Trail beckons you over.
  18. > "I'm sorry; I can't step away from this right now or it'll stick."
  19. "It's fine, it's fine."
  20. > You, instead, move to her - dodging other ponies and sacks of supplies alike to come to her side, peering over the edge of the pot to the bubbling stew within.
  21. "This smells - fantastic."
  22. > "I know!"
  23. > She giggles softly, and your heart softens - this mare...
  24. > "It's not my recipe, but it's fantastic. I just hope I can keep working here when... it gets bigger."
  25. > There's no need for her to even glance to her swollen midsection for you to know what she means.
  26. "Bah, you'll be fine."
  27. > You hope.
  28. > Vapor Trail laughs softly again though, so she apparently doesn't share your concerns.
  29. > "Anyway, what's brought you in here, Thunderlane?"
  30. "Just needed a break from things, you know? I've had a lot on my mind, so I decided I'd come in and steal a little bit of the scent of tonight's dinner."
  31. > A hearty roll of her eyes tells you all that you need to about what Vapor thinks of that response.
  32. > Even so she is still grinning, though.
  33. > "Well, you'd better complete your theft and get out of here before Focacia gets back. He's head in here, and if you're standing around when he spots you then you're going to get conscripted into cooking too. Now, why are you /actually/ here?"
  34. > Was it that transparent?
  35. > Sinking a little bit, you sigh and drop your voice.
  36. "Just... thinking about those ponies I brought in. Some of them are being treated pretty hard still, you know? Especially the young ones like Crescent Moon. And some ponies are saying even more were involved and might get taken down too..."
  37. > Thankfully Vapor's turned her attention back to the stew.
  38. > It lets you watch her reactions carefully when you speak, and the results are revealing.
  39. > There's no sign of a reaction when Crescent Moon is mentioned - not beyond a mild lowering of her ears that you think has more to do with the thought of what had happened to the poor filly.
  40. > But when you mention other ponies being taken down, though...
  41. > Was that flick of her tail just nervousness with the topic, or something more?
  42. > The sudden stiffening of her neck a reaction to the thought of you having to do another raid, or of who might be caught by that...?
  43. > "Will they have to be whipped too...?"
  44. > Her voice is soft and fearful.
  45. "Not unless they fight back. I think - I hope - that we gave that message: Even for running, they won't be flogged."
  46. > "I..."
  47. > Head dipping, Vapor, sets aside the stirrer she'd been using and looks at you.
  48. > "I don't want it to get to that point..."
  49. "Then - then the best thing you can do is ask them not to. Beg them not to. It does help, I think... especially coming from a mare as good as you."
  50. > "Y-Yes. We can't - can't let another raid like that happen. Once was bad, twice..."
  51. > The tremble entering her voice, the lack of a grip on the stirrer... she's scared, you realize.
  52. > Not just for you.
  53. > You'd suffered from seeing the results of your work, but not from the raid itself.
  54. > She's scared of another raid period.
  55. > Why...?
  56. > What - or who - is she worried about?
  57. > If only you could ask her directly...
  58. "It'll be okay, Vapor. We'll all be okay in the end. And-"
  59. > Your muzzle dips towards her belly.
  60. "-I mean all of us."
  61. > And she does smile again, a weak smile but a smile nonetheless.
  62. > "Yes... but you should go, Thunderlane. Before Focacia comes looking."
  63. "Alright. I'll see you later, okay?"
  64. > "Yeah - oh, wait. Here!"
  65. > A spoon is dipped to the stew and presented to you.
  66. > "Thasthe!"
  67. > You do, grinning, and it is indeed delicious.
  68. > Stepping out from the kitchen to resume your patrol, you've barely gotten more than a few blocks when a pony charges around the corner.
  69. > Skidding to a halt, the mare points back from where she came with a hoof and explains between panted breaths:
  70. > "Go - guards - need guards - hurt - go now!"
  71. > You don't wait.
  72. > On pounding hooves you take off following the direction she'd pointed; soon enough the sound of raised voices meet your ears and guide you the rest of the way to a small knot of ponies gathered around the mouth of an alleyway.
  73. > Seismic Shift and another guard were already there, and open a path for you to join them.
  74. > At first you don't even recognize the collapsed, filthy form behind them.
  75. > The maid's uniform is shredded and caked with dirt and blood as to be unrecognizable, and her coat is no better:
  76. > Then she moans gently, and your heart stops.
  77. "Oh, no no NO!"
  78. > Instantly you're at her side, nuzzling her desperately.
  79. "No, no - hey!"
  80. > Lifting your head, you bellow into the crowd:
  81. "Somepony to the clinic, now! Have them bring a stretcher!"
  82. > "Lacquer already went!"
  83. > You barely hear the reaction, leaning back down to tend to the beaten and broken body.
  84. "It's going to be okay, Mocha. Do you understand me? It's going to be okay."
  85.  
  86. > The clinic's room is little silent but for the distant rumbling of central air and regular beep-beep of the heart monitor.
  87. > A nursemare had been in there when your arrived - puttering needlessly around the bed.
  88. > But she had fled the room immediately after confirming the state of the pony within, to fearful to be around her owner in such a temper.
  89. > Not that you blamed her.
  90. > And so you'd sat in the room's sole proper chair, shifted over to be beside the bed, with elbows on your knees and hands cupping your face.
  91. > Mocha had been cleaned, wounds stitched and bandaged, and was now ensconced in her sheets - still but for the slow rise and fall of her chest.
  92. > Two legs were swathed in casts; another held the IV line entering her bloodstream.
  93. > Even after being cleaned, her coat was still mottled with blue-black bruises.
  94. > Why?
  95. > What had she done?
  96. > Fingernails dig in as your hands form tight fists.
  97. > When you found who-
  98. > "Masterr?"
  99. "Mocha?!"
  100. > Voice weak and scratchy, she is still somehow awake and watching you through dim brown eyes half-open.
  101. > "M-Master..."
  102. > One hoof - her one good remaining one - rises to reach for you.
  103. > All remaining defenses fall; you leave your chair to seat yourself on the bed and draw her into your lap.
  104. > Mocha goes limp as you do, snuggling down against you once your grip is certain.
  105. > "I-It hurts, Master..."
  106. "What hurts, Mocha?"
  107. > "Everything..."
  108. > Your eyes squeeze shut, and your arms tenderly encircle her.
  109. "I'm sorry, Mocha... this is my fault."
  110. > "N-No-"
  111. "Yes. This isn't yours. You did exactly what I'd asked of you; I - failed."
  112. > For a few seconds Mocha is still, a bundle of tan coat and brown-and-cream mane in your arms.
  113. > "Th-they kept saying I deserved it. B-Because I was just y-your b-b-bitch taking things away b-because you were too s-scared to come. I t-tried to tell them, I just b-brought it a-all back but they just kept k-kicking..."
  114. > What?!
  115. > The papers!
  116. > They must have seen her take the papers from Cadance...
  117. "Shh. You're safe now, Mocha. Don't talk."
  118. > Shivering, she instead continues:
  119. > "I t-tried s-screaming f-for y-you and they s-stuffed something in m-my mouth and l-l-laughed."
  120. > You're thankful Mocha cannot see the way your hands are balling into fists, so tight you're half expecting blood to run where nails dig into palms.
  121. > But neither do you scold her for disobeying; if she needed to say this, you would be there to hear how you'd failed.
  122. > Instead you remain there, holding her and forcing your hands to uncurl from fists so they could stroke through what parts of her mane were not bandaged over.
  123. > "P-Please don't l-leave, Master... not yet. Everything hurts so much..."
  124. > Tears stream from her eyes as she struggles to speak - from pain both emotional and physical, you guess.
  125. "I'm not going anywhere, Mocha."
  126. > "T-Thank you, Master..."
  127. > Stirring, Mocha Cream laboriously raises her head to look up at you, then aside.
  128. > "M-Master, I..."
  129. "Don't strain yourself. You need to rest now."
  130. > "I lo-lo-"
  131. > Shudders wrack her body.
  132. > "I love y-y-"
  133. "Shh..."
  134. > A finger is place before her lips, and you lean over to place a soft kiss on her forehead just below the base of her horn.
  135. "I know."
  136. > Not that the signs could have been missed.
  137. > You might've not have encouraged them, but the feelings she held for you were unmistakable.
  138. > At your reply Mocha sinks back down, a tiny happy mewling noise replacing any coherent response.
  139. "Rest now, Mocha. You need rest."
  140. > And so she does, eyes falling shut and breathing eventually falling to a softer, lower level.
  141. > Only then do you let your teeth grit to hold back the moisture gathering at the corners of your own eyes.
  142. > You couldn't bring yourself to tell her the full extent of what the nurse had passed on to you.
  143. > The full extent of the damage on her little body, the danger she was still in.
  144. > Instead you just stay there, hands gently stroking and providing the only reassurance you could now.
  145. > This - this was your fault.
  146. > Cadance had been right; you should have been the one engaging with the camp rather than sending emissaries.
  147. > That mistake had now born its bloody fruit.
  148. > And-
  149. > Your head whips up as the door slams open, almost crashing into the wall if not for the doorstopper.
  150. > Unexpectedly, however, your eyes meet a familiar grey colt standing in the portal.
  151. > Rumble's eyes snap between yourself and Mocha for a few moments before he awkwardly speaks:
  152. > "I'll, uh... I'll try later."
  153. "No. Come in..."
  154. > After a second, you think to add:
  155. "...please."
  156. > Rumble flinches, looks between yourself and the filly in your lap, and then does - much more carefully shutting the door behind him and climbing into the seat you'd recently vacated.
  157. > But he does not speak, and the awkwardness of the standoff soon begins to fill the room thick as smoke.
  158. "Rumble, I - I just want to say... I didn't want this. I know you don't like me, but however much that is... I wanted her to be safe. Please believe-"
  159. > "Yeah, I know."
  160. > It sounds like it hurts him to admit it, but Rumble does anyhow.
  161. > "I can tell. You like her, and she likes you."
  162. "I wanted her to have a proper home, with people - or ponies - that would care about her."
  163. > Maybe that was why you hadn't acted on the obvious crush she held for you.
  164. > Immature as she was, a relationship like that would only ever be between a master and slave.
  165. > "Yeah. How is she...?"
  166. > Looking down at the sleeping filly, you speak the words you could not tell her:
  167. "Bad. One leg broken, one leg badly twisted, ribs cracked, and they don't know how bad the damage is inside her. Head trauma, major organ trauma... they're looking for a doctor who has the tech to do a full examination."
  168. > You can feel your fists squeezing again as you speak.
  169. > When you found out who was responsible for this...
  170. > Slipping from his chair, Rumble moves to the side of the bed, nuzzles Mocha's side, and sighs.
  171. > "I didn't want any of this either... I - I don't like you, but Mocha Cream always tried her best..."
  172. "She wanted the best for you, too."
  173. > "Yeah."
  174. > He's quiet a moment longer, then abruptly looks up.
  175. > "She's going to be... out of things for a while, isn't she? No matter how hard it is."
  176. "Yes."
  177. > Seeming to nod in affirmation of his point, Rumble draws a deep breath.
  178. > "Sir-"
  179. > And it's the first time you think he's called you that in recent memory.
  180. > "-somepony has to keep being a messenger between the camp and yourself. Taking the suggestions up, bringing information down... I know you kinda don't trust me, and I don't really like you, but Mocha would want to know it's being taken care of."
  181. "...what's your point?"
  182. > "Let me be the messenger. Let me take over her duties. I - want to do it. For her. Nopony'll question me doing it. And Mocha Cream would want to know that somepony is still doing it."
  183. > For the briefest second the idea that he might have been involved - might have had Mocha beaten by his rebel friends just so he could take over - passes through your mind.
  184. > It is violently thrown aside; the two of them by all reports had become actual friends, and whatever Rumble had done in the passed he deserved too be fairly judged now.
  185. > But Cadance was also right; you should be the one getting involved more directly.
  186. > No more messengers.
  187. > Or maybe it would be good to have a former rebel leader take over this; after all, there wasn't much damage he could do even if he did try.
  188. [Choice]
  189. "Rumble... I'm sorry, but I can't say yes. Not because I don't want you to, or trust you to. Hell, you're the kind of pony I want to hear from. But Cadance has been trying to tell me that I should've been more directly involved; I've been brushing her off, but now..."
  190. > You draw a deep, breath, looking down at the beaten body still curled in your arms.
  191. > Mocha is sleeping soundly now, the bandages covering her little ribs rising and falling regularly.
  192. "...God, I should've listened to her. Then it wouldn't have fucking cost Mocha-"
  193. > You cut off, and Rumble only shrugs.
  194. > "Yes, you should have."
  195. > In another time you might've punished him for that kind of insolence.
  196. > But right now your rage is reserved for others - including yourself, who you figure he is right to criticize.
  197. "Whatever it is, they've damn well got my direct involvement now."
  198. > Another hefty sigh as you stroke Mocha's mane back.
  199. "Thank you, Rumble - and I mean it. You're welcome to continue working with Cadance sorting the responses, and if you want I'll find you something to do - something to give you all a voice, because I can tell that matters to you. But this, now - I'm going to deal with this personally."
  200. > "What do you mean?"
  201. > Looking back up at him, you finally finally let him catch a full look at your face - at the ready rage boiling just behind your eyes, only barely held in check.
  202. > Rumble physically recoils back, his pupils shrinking and ears falling.
  203. "First, I'm going to let everyone know this isn't going to go unavenged. Then - we can see about then."
  204. > That expression is held for a moment, before you return your gaze back down to Mocha.
  205. "Besides, she needs you with her. I know you're close, and she doesn't have many... be there for her, Rumble. I'm asking you, not ordering."
  206. > And you had promised her you would stay.
  207. > A necessary lie, but still a lie.
  208. > "I will."
  209. "Thank you."
  210. > Gently depositing Mocha back on the bed, you brush one last strand of mane back - provoking a little sleepy flick of an ear from her - before turning and striding from the room.
  211. > When you'd entered, it had been in a desperate rush - ponies and the odd human doctor barely having a chance to scatter.
  212. > This time, they preemptively opened a path before you.
  213. > As though your fury had manifested an invisible troop of guards to walk before you, physically driving them out of the way.
  214. > You only just pause at the front desk to point back in the direction you'd come.
  215. "I want someone watching the door to her room at all times. Even if there's no guests in there, someone is watching."
  216. > Barely does the stallion holding the front desk squeak an affirmative reply before you're off again - marching from the clinic back up to your office.
  217. > There you pick up the phone, fingers stabbing down into the keys to dial the correct sequence.
  218. > As soon as the PA system clicks on, you're already speaking.
  219. "I have just come back up from the medical building. As some of you may have heard, a pony - Mocha Cream - was just severely beaten. Some ponies took it upon themselves to 'punish' her for faithfully carrying out my orders - retrieving things I asked her to, an act they felt was theft punishable by savagely clubbing her."
  220. > Your hand starts to ball into a fist again - squeezing the handset in a fierce grip.
  221. "I've been attempting to give you all the space you desired, to let you govern yourselves with minimal interference. I let you manage yourselves - deal with your own troublemakers yourselves - to try and avoid exactly this kind of situation. Apparently, that is no longer possible - if an innocent pony who was giving her time to help you is going to be attacked for 'stealing', then I cannot stand back. From now on, I'm directly involved."
  222. > The grip you hold the headset with is so fierce that is beginning to creak in warning.
  223. "That pony you just beat for 'stealing'? Do you even know what she was doing in the camp? I'll bet you don't, because if you'd even listened to her then you would know she was coming back from returning the very things you said she 'stole'. But now - now it's too late. Now she's floating between life and death because of you. So I hope you're ready to reap what you've sown."
  224. > Voice steadily rising at the tirade had finished, you finish by slamming the handset down into its cradle with a thunderous crack.
  225. > It doesn't take long for there to be a timid knock at the door.
  226. > When Cadance nudges her muzzle around the doorway, you wordlessly beckon her in.
  227. > Only a few paces in, she drops into a deep bow - the kind of thing you'd come to expect from her when she's about to make some massive plea from you.
  228. > "Master-"
  229. "Wait."
  230. > A hand is raised, and after a moment you let out a hefty sigh.
  231. "...first and foremost, I think I owe you an apology - you, and everyone else who's going to be hurt as a result of this. You tried to tell me I should be getting more involved, and I balked. I thought I knew better... knew what was working, and what wasn't."
  232. > Cadance had drawn closer as you spoke, until she stood practically face-to-face with you.
  233. "That was my mistake, not yours. I won't hold you responsible for it.
  234. > Or punish her as a result of what may come.
  235. > Nodding, she murmurs softly:
  236. > "Thank you."
  237. "And like I said: It might be too late to correct my mistake, but not to fix it going forward. From now on, I'm going to be directly involved."
  238. > "That is good, Anonymous, but-"
  239. "For starters, I'll be-"
  240. > "Anonymous!"
  241. > Cadance's bark snaps you out of the babbling you'd been doing.
  242. > "Forgive me, but... how is she?"
  243. "...you didn't see her?"
  244. > "No. I came up here as soon as I heard."
  245. > Images of the bludegoned, broken body float before your eyes.
  246. > Your voice drops to a subdued, hollow whisper.
  247. "Bad. She's still hovering close to the end; we're going to be transferring her out to a more capable facility as soon as one can be found. Even if she pulls through, it'll be a long road back."
  248. > "Oh..."
  249. > Sucking a deep breath, she nods.
  250. > "As soon as things are stable again, I'll go see her."
  251. "Yes. In the meantime - you and Thunderlane are on point now. Find me who did this - press anyone who might know. Make it clear this isn't about slavery or obedience or anything like that; it's about a pony who was beaten half to death for nothing she did herself."
  252. > "I - don't think it needs repeating, but-"
  253. > You've a fair guess at what she's going to say, but you're already waving a hand.
  254. "I know, I know. I need to be involved. And I will be - I'll be down there, telling everyone just what happened, showing them the products of this kind of idiocy. But I can't do it alone, Cadance; I need you and everyone you can muster to help with this."
  255. > "We will. What happens then, though?"
  256. > The furious stare you send in Cadance's direction tells her exactly what you think of that question.
  257. > She should, after all, have a good idea of that answer already.
  258. "Then we show them exactly what happens to a pony that betrays my good will like this."
  259. > Shaking gently, Cadance grits her teeth and glares through narrowed eyes.
  260. > Trying to find a way to disagree with you - but not this time.
  261. "This isn't a question of how bad what they did or didn't do. This isn't them taking responsibility for a group. This isn't - another Corona! This is their fault, and I'm going to damn well show them what happens when they start something like this."
  262. > At some point during this whole thing you'd ended up standing, jabbing a finger down into her face.
  263. > Teeth gritted fiercely, the alicorn bows her head.
  264. > "...I understand your reasons, Anonymous, and I don't deny that the punishment for this will have to be significant. But you taking it upon yourself to torture them..."
  265. "If they didn't want to be subject to my punishments, then maybe they shouldn't have beaten her like that!"
  266. > Cadance growls softly in her throat, but doesn't argue any further.
  267. > "Is there anything else?"
  268. "No. I'll be coming down in - a little while, to get started on this. To help you. Just... go."
  269. > She does, trotting from the room on soft hooves.
  270. > As soon as the last strands of her trail vanish around the door, however, you sink back down - not just into your seat, but against the wall, your knees practically up against your chest - and do the only thing that seems logical.
  271. > You cry.
  272. > Gone was the anger you'd channeled into the lecture over the PA system.
  273. > Gone was even the acceptance of your error that you'd shown to Cadance.
  274. > Now all that was left was red hot fury - at the ponies who'd done this, but also at yourself.
  275. > Cadance was the one who was supposed to know about all these things - why hadn't you listened to her?
  276. > Why did you have to be so damn proud?
  277. > Weren't you supposed to be the smart one, the one in control?
  278. > Yes, you'd admitted to Cadance that you didn't couldn't totally manage everything in the camp - but wasn't that why you'd stayed out of things?!
  279. > ...your vision is blurry, but you can still see your liquor cabinet.
  280. > It's certainly looking tempting right now.
  281. > "Master, I-"
  282. > Your eyes snap for the door.
  283. > Cadance had returned, peering around the door with eyes wide.
  284. "Sometimes I wonder..."
  285. > Your voice is low, but from the way her ears cock forward towards you it's obvious she can still hear.
  286. "...why the hell I bother. Why shouldn't I just it go. Every time we get somewhere, it just turns right back around on us... and this time I can't even blame it on someone else."
  287. > For just a moment your gaze drops down to your lap, and when you look back up she is gone.
  288. > Figures.
  289. > ...but that's really it, isn't it?
  290. > Why you were so keen to find the ones responsible for this.
  291. > To punish them.
  292. > Because then you didn't have to think about how much of this fuckup was your fault.
  293. > How Mocha was close to dying because of your mistake.
  294. > No abusive guards or anyone else who could take the blame.
  295. > This was your mistake.
  296. > ...you don't remember standing up, or walking to the liquor cabinet.
  297. > But you do have to admit the bottles are looking very appealing.
  298. > Their glass is cool and smooth against your palm.
  299. > And-
  300. > "Daddy? What's going on?"
  301. > Cadance was back.
  302. > And she'd brought your daughter - and hers - too.
  303. "Sweetheart?"
  304. > You drop to your knees and extend your arms; both Megan and Flurry Heart run to them.
  305. > Each pulls into an opposite arm, Flurry rearing up to nuzzle into your neck as Megan throws her arms around your shoulders.
  306. > Cadance follows at a more reasonable pace behind them, circling about to place her muzzle against your ear and whispering in:
  307. > "This is why you bother, isn't it? For your daughter's future? For her happiness? It's why I keep going - what I think about when it's too much weighing on my wings. For my little crystal."
  308. > ...yes.
  309. > It is.
  310. > You run a hand through Megan's golden-blond strands.
  311. > "What's going on, daddy? Everyone's looking scared, and nobody'll tell us... I'm scared too."
  312. > Another hand strokes through Flurry Heart's thicker purple-and-blue mane.
  313. > She needs no words to communicate her terror.
  314. > The little tremble, the lowered ears, the one wing is curled protectively around herself while the other reaches for Megan.
  315. > It all says enough.
  316. > And Cadance was right.
  317. > This is your cause.
  318. > Both of them.
  319. > And you could go on.
  320. > But first... you'd have to answer your daughter.
  321. [Choice]
  322. "I made... a very, very bad mistake."
  323. > You drop back to sit down instead of kneeling, then open your arms to let them join you again.
  324. > Both girl and filly do, retaking their places with you.
  325. "Mocha Cream is... she's been hurt. Very, very badly. Some very, very bad ponies here hurt her, and now she's going to have to be away for a while."
  326. > Both of them gasp softly, each squeezing you in turn.
  327. > "H-How-"
  328. "They - they hit her. A lot. Very hard."
  329. > Flurry whimpers softly.
  330. > Of course; she'd never been beaten herself, but she'd probably seen the savagery endured by other ponies.
  331. > A glance up lets you see Cadance watching you all closely.
  332. > You hadn't thought about it before, but seeing her daughter come running to you for comfort in a moment of uncertainty must have been...
  333. > Hard.
  334. > But she brought them in anyhow; you'll have to show her your appreciation for that gesture.
  335. > It takes a few moments before your daughter's voice cracks with the inevitable, yet unanswerable question of children everywhere:
  336. > "Why?"
  337. "Because... because not every pony is a good pony, sweetheart. Some of them... are very bad, and we have to be wary of them because they'll hurt others if they're given the chance."
  338. > You sigh gently, again running your hand through her hair.
  339. "And because I made a mistake - a terrible mistake. I thought I was helping with something, but I wasn't and now Mocha's paid the price for my mistake."
  340. > "No!"
  341. > Flurry Heart squeaks as she realizes what she's done - shrinking back away from you, but finding herself held in place by the arm you'd put around her.
  342. > "I-I mean... I didn't mean to argue, Master. But you're a good Master, and a good father? Y-You couldn't hurt somepony-"
  343. > Oh, how little she knows.
  344. > Would the little alicorn's faith be so ironclad, you wonder, if she's seen Corona broken and pleading on that cell floor?
  345. "Unfortunately, I'm not infallible-"
  346. > "Infalili-"
  347. > Meghan screws up her nose in concentration.
  348. "Infallible. It means I don't make mistakes - but I do sometimes, and I did now. Cadance - tried to give me some advice, to tell me what she thought I should do. I didn't listen to her, though, because - like I said, I thought I knew better."
  349. > "And they hurt Mocha 'cause you didn't listen to her?"
  350. "No - and yes. There will always be some ponies out there who are ready to hurt, even though we're good to them. I thought I would help stop them, but I didn't. So... a two lessons, sweetheart. Lessons you'll have to learn too; first, if anyone, especially Flurry, gives you advice... listen. Really, listen."
  351. > Nodding, Megan reaches out to the alicorn filly; in response an oversized wing again stretches out to cover her back protectively.
  352. "Second - and this applies to you as much to Megan, Flurry - you have to remember just because ponies give themselves labels like 'rebels' or 'resistance', that doesn't mean they're nice and good like what you might see in a book or movie or on TV. They can be hurtful... you can be kind to them, but don't ever forget that."
  353. > Both bury their heads into opposite sides of your neck, and your lean your head in to feel the brush of young hair on the left and silken mane on your right.
  354. > "W-When will Mocha be coming back?"
  355. "I don't know. We have to send her to a hospital for ponies, and then she'll have to heal. It might be..."
  356. > Forever.
  357. "...a while."
  358. > "Oh..."
  359. > Oh indeed.
  360. > What more was there to say?
  361. > It occurs to you that you'd be needing a new maid for the time being.
  362. > Have to find out who else on the house staff has relevant skills.
  363. > "Can we see her?"
  364. "I'll - have to see. Like I said, she's going to going to a real hospital pretty soon."
  365. > And truth be told, it would probably be better for her not to see Mocha.
  366. > Not like this.
  367. > Especially if she doesn't make it.
  368. "But hey - listen -"
  369. > And they do, each cocking an ear in to listen to your lowered voice.
  370. "- you know who I think could also use a hug right now? Cadance. She's feeling down because of this too, and we shouldn't forget about her."
  371. > Barely have you finishes speaking when both of them have torn away from your arms, running with a little squeal to Cadance's side.
  372. > She has just enough time to shoot a thankful look at you before she is overwhelmed in turn by their soft assault:
  373. > Megan throwing her arms up around the alicorn's neck, while Flurry raises her head to nuzzle in to her mother's shoulder.
  374. > Eventually you stand, scattering them from her side.
  375. "Now, why don't both of you run along downstairs. I'll be back after dinner, so I'll see you then, okay?"
  376. > "Okay, daddy."
  377. > "Yes, Master!"
  378. > As they troop off side-by-side, you just manage to catch Megan putting a protective arm around Flurry Heart.
  379. > Cadance moves to your side, dipping her head in a slight gesture you've come to recognize as an expression of gratitude.
  380. > "I wasn't expecting you to do that for me..."
  381. "Neither was I expecting you to bring them here for me. But you knew just what I needed to see, and I appreciate that... especially since I imagine it must be hard for you to send Flurry Heart to me when you see so little of her."
  382. > "True."
  383. > It's such a different exchange from the one you'd had moments ago - Cadance growling angrily then, but now seeming to be quietly pondering the impact of the situation on you as well.
  384. "But you're right. There's hope in what they share - for some kind of a future."
  385. > If Cadance shares your thoughts, she doesn't show it.
  386. > Fair enough; there's certainly plenty on her mind right now.
  387. "Anyhow - what did you come back here for originally?"
  388. > "I was going to warn you: I am going to offer some of the ponies involved in the raid clemency from further punishment if they're willing to assist on this."
  389. "I trust your judgement; anything up to removing their magic limiters. Even my hands are bound by the law on that."
  390. > "I understand..."
  391. "Then get to it. I'll be down to dinner, so I can speak again then."
  392. > What remains of the day passes in a blur - a whirlwind of meeting with fellow slaves and guards.
  393. > Most were public.
  394. > Some were not; only a few of your known and trusted rebels could be contacted on such short notice, but those that you could were and your message made clear:
  395. > This was not to be tolerated.
  396. > Not rebellion, but brutality.
  397. > Anypony who was involved was to be turned over, now.
  398. > And then there was being stopped on the street every five paces by ponies wanting to know what would happen.
  399. > You wish you could tell them with any honesty.
  400. > The speech you'd given at dinner had offered rewards - even amnesty - for ponies who came forward too.
  401. > Anonymous had spoken too, come down to the largest dining hall and spoken from there without guards, as if daring any pony to strike him.
  402. > None had.
  403. > But neither had there been an outpouring of information; a few tidbits given to the guards here and there, but not enough for a breakthrough.
  404. > Seated back at your desk, you are now all too aware of the weight you now bore.
  405. > And the one pony you feared worst was still missing.
  406. > Haute Glamour had not made an appearance to you since the first announcement; given her alleged role as your liason, that carries a message to you.
  407. > When she did emerge again, you are certain she will bring Tirek's own trouble with her.
  408. > The portrait of Shining Armor - having found a place on your desk at some point - seems to mock you.
  409. > 'Is this the safety you were hoping for,' he seems to ask, 'is this what you wanted for your ponies?'
  410. > Shuddering softly, you shake your head and murmur back:
  411. "...I wish you could be here, Shining. I need your strength."
  412. > "Your Highness?"
  413. > Thunderlane sticks his muzzle through the door, peering carefully in.
  414. "Come in, Thunderlane."
  415. > Your voice could not sound more exhausted if you tried.
  416. > The only consolation is that Thunderlane looks just as spent as you feel.
  417. "How is she doing?"
  418. > "Rumble says she was unconscious, even when they took her out to put her in the truck to the hospital. I think it's the drugs."
  419. > Unconscious - but at least alive.
  420. > For now.
  421. > "We're in a tough place, Your Highness."
  422. "You don't need to tell me, Thunderlane."
  423. > Instantly you regret your snapping, but he raises a wing to stop you before an apology can come.
  424. > "It's okay, Your Highness. You're allowed a bit of frustration."
  425. > You check the door is shut and secured, then allow a few more words to slip out.
  426. "...the ponies from my resistance groups are looking. But it'll take time."
  427. > "We could question the ponies from the cell we broke up. Some of them were dedicated, but others... they might see this as different. Different enough they'd turn."
  428. "You're thinking of Crescent Moon."
  429. > "Yes. She was scared, but this was cruelty. She's already wavering."
  430. "Anonymous himself might even want to talk to her. He's serious about taking a more active role."
  431. > "To the ones who weren't flogged, maybe. But the ones who were punished, you're going to have to really convince them."
  432. "Delightful. Negotiating with ponies who I've whipped... if I'm going to do that, I suppose I could go find Bon Bon again-"
  433. > "You haven't already? She isn't part of your resistance?"
  434. > Thunderlane sounds surprised, but you just shake your head.
  435. "She's vanished since - after the escape. I don't think she ever forgave me for separating her from her marefriend."
  436. > "That's... odd. She's spoken to me a couple of times, and I really don't think she likes me. Do you want me to approach her? You were her leader in the first ring."
  437. "I'll think on it. What other options?"
  438. > "Nurse Mellowheart, I suppose. There is still the third pony from her little triad... or we could set a trap."
  439. "How?"
  440. > "Expend a little bit of our preparaions. Use Sunburst's group to try and lure in ponies who're ready to attack, catch evidence in motion."
  441. > It's a tempting thought.
  442. > Especially if Haute Glamour could be persuaded to take part in attempts to undermine you.
  443. "But who would run it?"
  444. > "Damn good question - pardon my language, Your Highness."
  445. [Choice]
  446. "I don't see how we could set up a trap without there being an unreasonable amount of risk to it. If we use Sunburst and what he's really doing is uncovered, it would be the end of us all. Using one of the other house slaves, or somepony else vulnerable... I don't see how we could keep them under watch without exposing our trap as well."
  447. > Besides, Sunburst had other matters to focus on.
  448. > If Haute Glamour really was behind this attack, then you needed to find her vulnerability and take her out now more than ever before.
  449. > And Posey would be the way in to that, if Sunburst could reach her.
  450. > ...the darkest option in your mind, you don't even want to speak of.
  451. > Using Megan as a target would be oh-so-tempting, but she was one of the few you were absolutely loathe to draw into this.
  452. > As innocent as any pony in the camp, far too young to truly understand how cruel and wrong the world she was being brought up in was yet everything you could've hoped for regarding Flurry Heart.
  453. > You could no more use her as a bait in this than you could use your own daughter.
  454. "No - we'll have to lean on what contacts we do have. I'll speak to Bon Bon; she was my subordinate, and it was my mistake to let her go. I have to take direct responsibility for her."
  455. > "In that case, I'd like to go talk to Nurse Mellowheart again. We were already getting somewhere with her before, and she works at the clinic - she might've seen exactly how bad Mocha Cream was when she was brought in."
  456. "Don't take too long. When I'm done with Bon Bon, we should both see Crescent Moon."
  457. > "You think she'll listen to either of us?"
  458. "I don't know. But like Mellowheart, she was wavering before. This might have been the final straw."
  459. > Standing, Thunderlane nods curtly.
  460. > "Got it. I'll be off, then."
  461. "On other thing: If you see Haute Glamour, send her to my office here. Tell your other guards as well."
  462. > "You really think she might be behind this?"
  463. "I don't know. But even if she isn't, I have to start working on her before she draws the wrong lessons from it."
  464. > Or, perhaps, the right lessons:
  465. > That things here were spinning out of your control.
  466. > Just not the lesson you wanted her to see.
  467. > Once Thunderlane shuts the door behind him as he goes, you're once again alone.
  468. > Truly alone.
  469. > Standing from your own seat with a hefty sigh, you open a cabinet and drawn a rolled-up paper from within it.
  470. > One of the ones Mocha had delivered mere minutes before she was so savagely beaten.
  471. > Unrolling it, you stare at the image of your aunt with weary eyes.
  472. > She, of course, gazed back with her typically warm and welcoming expression.
  473. > You could never remember, despite what some rumors said, feeling overshadowed by Celestia's presence.
  474. > Perhaps it was that she had taken you in after your ascension - a mere filly, all gangly legs and a horn you barely understood how to use - and raised you as much as any other pony had.
  475. > Or perhaps it was simply that your domain - love - never collided with hers, unlike that of her sister's.
  476. > ...or worst of all, that the familial intimacy with which you'd been welcomed had also revealed to you how much pain and loneliness her longevity and power had filled her with.
  477. > Regardless, you wished for nothing more right now than to be able to speak with her again.
  478. "Oh, Aunt 'Tia..."
  479. > A hoof rises to brush the image held in your magical grasp, as if beckoning the pony of ink and paper to come to life and fill your tiny office with her presence.
  480. "What would you do? What do I do...? I don't want this to go on, but I don't know how to stop it..."
  481. > The image, of course, neither answers nor provides any sudden bursts of inspiration.
  482. > Shining Armor - whose portrait graced your desk now - was a known factor.
  483. > He would, of course, have filled you with the strength you needed to forge ahead.
  484. > But Celestia, despite all that had been revealed to you, was still an enigma - her choices only fully making sense once the moment was passed.
  485. > You do not have the benefit of whatever foresight it is that she benefited from.
  486. > And so you can only hope - and pray - that your half-blind guesses are the right ones.
  487. > ...
  488. > Bon Bon was despite her cream coat and two-tone mane, a surprisingly adept pony at making herself scarce to observers.
  489. > It was, you suspected, alongside her undying drive one of the reasons she had done so well as a ringleader.
  490. > Now, unfortunately, it means you have to fly over the fields where she works several times before the mare finally makes herself apparent to your airborne eyes.
  491. > Touching down draws modest greetings and the odd bow from a few nearby workers, but Bon Bon simply keeps on heaving at the soil with her rake even when you approach.
  492. "Bon Bon. Are you able to talk? There are things we have to discuss."
  493. > "Oh, I don't know."
  494. > Her voice is a low, angry growl.
  495. > "If I stop working, I might not meet my quota on this shit that I have to finish."
  496. > Sighing gently, you close your eyes.
  497. > This mare...
  498. "I am sure an exception to the quota can be made."
  499. > Seeming to accept you wouldn't be pushed off, Bon Bon finally looks up - kicking aside the rake she'd been breaking up the cold earth with.
  500. > "Alright. Here, or somewhere else?"
  501. > A glance around reveals that there are no other ponies laboring within reasonable earshot.
  502. "Whichever you prefer."
  503. > "...here is fine."
  504. > So it will be.
  505. "I'm sure you've heard what happened. It's gone too far; that wasn't an attack on slavery or an act of resistance, but a brutal assault on a defenseless young mare."
  506. > Dropping to your belly, you lay down in the recently-turned earth - a little dirty, but nothing that could not be fixed later.
  507. "I - also owe you a considerable apology, Bon Bon. After - the ring was broken up, I thought you would hate me. I pushed you away and didn't reach out to you again, which was my mistake. I shouldn't have, and I hope you can forgive me."
  508. > "...you waited until you needed something out of me."
  509. > You don't bother hiding the flinch that runs through you at the bitterness in her words.
  510. > Regret and hurt was, after all, the emotion you wanted her to see.
  511. "Yes. As I said, that was my error. But I know you won't have given up."
  512. > Your voice drops again, despite no one being close enough to hear.
  513. "I know you won't have given up. You're not like that. You want to fight on and you're good at it, and I know you must have connected with some ponies who feel the same. We have to figure out who did this, Bon Bon. For all of us."
  514. > "All of us? Princess-"
  515. > And despite the title there's still an acidic burning in her voice.
  516. > "-you took her away from me. The one pony who meant anything in this camp to me, and you took her away - ordered me not to even see a hair of her. You took me away from my Mark-given talent. What do you mean 'for all of us'? I have nopony!"
  517. > Again you flinch back at the sheer venom in her voice.
  518. "...your time away from her is almost done, Bon Bon."
  519. > "It's almost permanently lost, you mean. While you - you cozy up to /him/ and get to be with your daughter despite what you said."
  520. > This time, you wish you could hold back the signs of your surprise.
  521. > There's no hope of it, though.
  522. > How did Bon Bon know?!
  523. > You'd never been with Flurry outside of the manor.
  524. > A leak, from one of the house ponies?
  525. > Or something else?
  526. > "Didn't think we knew that? Oh, we know alright. Some ponies are willing to forgive you for that, but you took away everything I had and I'm not in such a forgiving mood."
  527. > The bitterness is giving way to something new, now.
  528. > Pain - still raw and fresh as the day you had inflicted it.
  529. "He threatened her, Bon Bon. What was I supposed to do...? Wouldn't you have done the same to me if he'd threatened Lyra?"
  530. > She snorts angrily.
  531. > "Y'know, that's the funny part. I can forgive you for whipping me; you took as many lashes as any of us. Maybe even for taking Lyra away. But I can't forgive you for punishing us while you skipped off and did /his/ bidding in return for getting to play with your daughter."
  532. > To this, you have no immediate answer.
  533. > Your eyes fall to the ground, raw pain reemerging from the scabbed-over wounds you'd thought closed up.
  534. > "So, you want to me to find out who beat up that house-slave? Yeah, I could do that. They might even deserve it. And I could tell the Princess who brought us together to kick back at him too."
  535. > Taking a step forward, Bon Bon leans in so close you can feel her breath rushing on your muzzle - and see the tears held back in her eyes.
  536. > "But you're not that pony anymore. You've become something else now - a pony who whips fillies who were just scared and then run off to comfort the man who's holding us all slaves. And I don't like that pony."
  537. > Abruptly a burst of laughter, still just as bitter, works its way up through her.
  538. > "You want to know the funny thing? Right now I've got more respect for Thunderlane than you. At least he makes it clear whose side he is on. But you - you're something worse."
  539. [Choice]
  540. > You draw in a long, slow, and deep breath - holding it in your chest with eyes closed before blowing it out of your nostrils.
  541. > And then, eyes snapping back open, you let the emotions you'd held back for so long flow.
  542. "Don't you dare get in the way of my keeping this place safe, Bon Bon."
  543. > Instantly the mare seems to realize just how deep the mistake she'd made was, ears folding back and falling to her haunches as you rise from your belly to stand at your full height.
  544. > But by then it is far too late.
  545. "You can say what you wish. You want to hate me, well I can live with that too. I would hope that you could forgive me for spending just a few minutes with the daughter I have not seen in years - have you ever thought about what separation from Lyra for that long would be like? Never knowing if the sacrifices you'd made had kept her alive and free or if she was dead or worse?!"
  546. > Bon Bon's mouth falls open to respond, but you're still advancing - still speaking.
  547. "And I would hope that you - you of all ponies, who know exactly how much hatred for what has happened to us burns in my heart - would understand how much I hate to lift a single hoof to do his bidding. That you would understand I only do it because the alternative now is for everypony here to be sold off to who-knows-where and suffer there instead of here, where I can at least try! No matter how it sickens me I have to take up the whip, I have to let myself be paraded around as Anonymous' whore, I have to play the role of the good little slave."
  548. > You're looming over her now, wings spread to give you an even more imposing appearance.
  549. > Every word drips with the fury and frustration you'd bottled away for so long.
  550. > True, you might not have explicitly banned ponies speaking against you but that did not mean their words and caricatures did not sting.
  551. > Nor that you didn't wish you could snap back at them.
  552. > Now you could, though - now you had reason to fight for yourself.
  553. "Because the alternative is so much worse. Because you know as well as I do that if I don't do anything, someone else will. Haute Glamour will turn this place into her own ant farm, Anonymous will come with shackles and whips to mete out punishment without mercy or discrimination, and both you and Lyra will suffer - you heard his words! Do you think he's forgotten ponies who challenged him before? Do you think you wouldn't be identified as nothing more than troublemakers to be crushed?"
  554. > Head steadily tilting back as you close until you are muzzle-to-muzzle with her, Bon Bon remains locked in place.
  555. "But most of all, I would hope that you could see that this isn't even about me. This is about an innocent filly who is near death because some ponies decided she was a valid target for their anger. So go on - hate me if you want to. But if you can't at least see that this is about justice for her, not for me. Does Mocha cream deserve your grudge, Bon Bon?"
  556. > Still leaning in, your force your muzzle forward and Bon Bon back until she seems to be at risk of toppling over.
  557. > Your voice is little more than a growl now.
  558. "If you can't see that - if you still think Mocha Cream deserved this - then you're so blind that maybe I shouldn't have included you in our planning at all. Because to stand up for everypony here demands that we have to think of the bigger picture, and swallow our pride, our anger, and our bitterness at everything and work. There is no place here for bitter mares who will spite other ponies just to feed their sense of righteous anger."
  559. > At last it finally seems to occur to the earth pony that your rant is over - that the ball has been returned to her court.
  560. > A look up reveals that you are hardly the only one noticing this either.
  561. > Though none were particularly close enough to hear, more than a few ponies working in the surrounding fields have lifted their heads to watch the exchange - nervous gazes peering over the fields of leaves.
  562. > "What I think..."
  563. > Bon Bon's voice is surprisingly shaky.
  564. > Whatever response she'd expected you to give to being insulted, it was clearly not an eruption of that magnitude.
  565. > "...I think you're right. This isn't about you, and that house-pet whore - much as I might not have liked her parading around here like it made her one of us - had not hurt us. Whoever attacked her needs to be found and punished."
  566. "I thank you, Bon Bon-"
  567. > "But you're also wrong."
  568. > She was stabilizing herself in more ways than one - voice becoming more and more confident as she gathered her hooves beneath her and stood more steadily.
  569. > "You've forgotten - by mistake or by choice - that humans, like him? They're our enemies. Always will be. He can't be changed, he can't be helped. Won't have any plans to free us, just to take more and more."
  570. > And those words strike a hard blow, because in the end there is truth in them:
  571. > Never once had Anonymous given any hint of seeing emancipation in the future for ponies.
  572. > Only plans to hold even more beneath him.
  573. > "So you go off and play confidant for him, forgetting that these little things he gives us - these, these crumbs! - that they aren't enough to make some of us forget that we're going to be slaves forever! You said it yourself - Lyra's at risk too, if we don't do something. And she'll be at risk as long as we're slaves here."
  574. "...then what do you plan to do about it, Bon Bon? Will you find out who it is - if not for my sake, then for Lyra and Mocha Cream's?"
  575. > "No. We'll find out who it is on our own, and we'll deal our own justice. Then we can see how much of this is Anonymous actually wanting justice, and how much of it is him just looking for an outlet for his sadism."
  576. > Your jaws grit hard together.
  577. > Normally you'd just leave it there, but she's talking about beating a pony - and however much they might deserve it, you aren't sure you can let that go.
  578. "Bon Bon, if you assault a pony instead of turning them over for judgement-"
  579. > "You'll what? Arrest us? Turn us over as sacrifices to Anonymous instead? We'll do a lot less than that Tirek-spawn will to whoever he gets his hands on!"
  580. > You meet her angry glare without much trouble.
  581. "I will order you detained, but not turned over to Anonymous - because being ponies means we uphold the law, not going out to inflict vigilante justice on our own. That is exactly how we got into this situation in the first place."
  582. > "Oh, we're going to be upholding the law. You're just not a part of it anymore; if you want to be, then you need to remember that Anonymous is your enemy and your daughter is still a hostage."
  583. > A snarl begins to re-form itself on your face.
  584. "I do not think I can forget."
  585. > "Could've fooled me."
  586. "You won't back down, then."
  587. > "If you didn't want us to act without you, you should've thought twice before abandoning us. You should've remembered who your real allies are!"
  588. "And as I've said, everything I've done is what I needed to do to keep Anonymous from inflicting his own punishments."
  589. > "Somethings you've done sure - but everything?"
  590. > Bon Bon snorts.
  591. > "You just keep on believing that, Cadance. See where it gets you. See where it gets us."
  592. > Half of you just wants to detain her right now, before it could get to the point a pony is potentially injured by them.
  593. > It would be... extraordinary, to have a pony taken away by the guards just for claiming they were going to commit a crime.
  594. > The kind of thing you expected more from Anonymous than from yourself.
  595. > And what would you do if you arrested her?
  596. > Just hold her until she changed her mind?
  597. > Bon Bon was nothing if not strong-willed; she wouldn't be convinced so quickly.
  598. > But then, ponies' well-being was very much at risk here.
  599. [Choice]
  600. "...I'm not going to have you taken in or sent to Anonymous, Bon Bon. Not for that."
  601. > You won't be arresting ponies just for what they say; that would make you just the same as Anonymous.
  602. > ...you aren't like him.
  603. > Right?
  604. > Dismissing the shudder that runs down your back takes a small shake of your head.
  605. > You won't be like him - or worse, like Sombra.
  606. "I don't like you making... threats like that, but I won't have you arrested for them. But!"
  607. > Again you interrupt before the mare can snap back.
  608. "But - I have to warn you now, Bon Bon. If you take this into your own hooves, you will be every bit as guilty of the same crime that you're 'punishing'. That isn't how we did it in Equestria, and if you have any love for how things were then you will respect its laws and ways too. That means ending the violence, not just passing it on to a new target."
  609. > "And if I do?"
  610. "Then I will have to hunt you down. I will have to see you punished too, and I hope you understand that with the way things are, that might mean losing Lyra forever."
  611. > For the first time there is a glimmer of fear - real and raw - in Bon Bon's eyes.
  612. "I don't want to send anypony away - not to any place worse than this. That's why I was willing to have a pony who was just lashing out scared sent to the whipping post, even if they were opposed to me. Sending a pony out to their deaths is my absolute last recourse, but if things go on this way..."
  613. > "You wouldn't dare..."
  614. "I have to. If it is a choice between losing you and losing everypony else here when the camp dissolves into chaos, I will. And Lyra will know that it was your choice, too - that taking justice up on your own was more important than staying with her, and you won't see her again until this nightmare of slavery is over."
  615. > There is no 'if at all' added to that, but Bon Bon senses it anyhow.
  616. > "There won't be an 'again', Cadance. There won't be an 'over'. They're never going to let us go unless we fight. Look at Anonymous - even he is raising the next generations to be perfectly obedient ponies who love their masters."
  617. > Vitriol drips from her words - intended for those ponies or for the humans raising them like that, you can't tell.
  618. > It also makes you wonder if her bitter dislike of Mocha Cream was more anger, or fear that more like her were on the way.
  619. "You and I both know that, Bon Bon. That's why I haven't given up on our ideals, even if I made the mistake of not bringing you in yet. The question is, if you push this now - what would Lyra think, knowing that you put this ahead of her? Seeing that being a slave has changed you so much?"
  620. > This finally seems to get though to her; Bon Bon flinches, ears shifting from totally pinned-back to merely a lowered position of uncertainty.
  621. > But she gives no reply, instead simply turning away to pick her rake back up and resuming turning over the earth.
  622. "...there's one last thing. That 'house-whore' is was enslaved when she was nine. She lost her parents, her family, and most memories of what it feels like to be free. So before you condemn little more than a scared filly to being a traitor, I suggest you think about that!"
  623. > Your words land with a snap every bit as forceful as if you'd struck her directly.
  624. > If a reply is coming, you don't wait to hear it.
  625. > A moment later you're off again, wings beating to carry you up and off from the ground.
  626. > Thunderlane is waiting near Crescent Moon's apartment.
  627. > The moment he lays eyes on your expression, his own face sours.
  628. > "That bad?"
  629. "I struggle to understand how somepony could turn that bitter, that fast. Part of it is my error for pushing her away, but she's become so filled with poison that it's clouding her judgement. Why can't she..."
  630. > It takes a minute or two of ranting to realize just how infuriated you were by it.
  631. > Laying a wing on Thunderlane's shoulder, you sigh.
  632. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have subjected you to that."
  633. > "Of all ponies, Your Highness, I do not mind if you vent to me."
  634. "Still. How was Nurse Mellowheart, then?"
  635. > "Considerably more agreeable. Still uncertain, but she thinks the third part of her group will talk to us directly now."
  636. > Your eyebrows rise.
  637. "I wish it had been earlier, but it is the best we could have hoped for now."
  638. > "Yeah. Are you ready for..."
  639. > He motions towards the door.
  640. "As ready as I'll be. Let's go."
  641. > The interior is a space well familiar to you; unicorns sat in rows, carefully working their magic to implant various base enchantments into workpieces set before them.
  642. > Among them was Crescent Moon - her horn lit despite the dull-grey metallic inhibitor circling it.
  643. > Stepping closer, you realize something else was attached to it as well:
  644. > A second wire ran up from the desk to connect to the side of the horn limiter; that must be what was allowing her to use her magic at this station.
  645. > Crescent looks up as you approach, setting aside the amulet that she had been working on.
  646. > "I figured you would be here sooner or later. Even locked up, when something like this happens..."
  647. "Yes. Then you've probably thought about what you are going to say."
  648. > "Yeah."
  649. > With a careful touch, Crescent reaches up and pulls the wire from its slot on the horn limiter.
  650. > The moment it detaches, a shudder runs through her body and she immediately drops to all fours.
  651. > "I'll never get used to that..."
  652. > You can sympathize; the few times you'd had your magic entirely sealed off after being taken prisoner, it had been an utterly miserable experience.
  653. > To have it repeatedly sealed off after being partially given back...
  654. > Crescent Moon glances around, the wire dangling from the horn limiter bumping into her muzzle.
  655. > "Okay...just - not here?"
  656. "I'm sure the forepony will give us her office for a moment."
  657. > They are; Thunderlane seats himself at the door while you face Crescent Moon.
  658. > "So, I'm - I'm still not sure this is right. There's a lot going on here, and..."
  659. > She raises a hoof, taps it once, and sighs.
  660. > "But Mocha Cream... she hadn't done anything against us. I dunno if she was our friend, but what happened to her..."
  661. "I understand it can be hard to make these choice, Crescent. And I understand if you hate me for what I did to you -"
  662. > "I do. I think."
  663. > Crescent lays down on the floor, shivering.
  664. > "It's miserable. Being whipped, my magic taken away, and then chained in place at night... but then I think about what happened to Mocha Cream, and she was only just - she wasn't more than-"
  665. > "She was your age?"
  666. > Thunderlane speaks up at last, and Crescent Moon nods.
  667. > "Yeah. Couldn't have been more than a couple years off..."
  668. > Again you drop to your belly, lowering yourself down to a less imposing height.
  669. > It hadn't worked with Bon Bon, but then Crescent Moon was clearly not as certain of her assumptions as the older mare had been.
  670. "This is more than about me, Crescent. It's about keeping peace and security for everypony here. Already, other ponies are threatening to try and hunt down and attack the ones who beat her themselves, and while justice is a good cause if everypony takes it into their own hooves we all also lose."
  671. > "Yeah, I know. But if Anonymous tortures them, I'll probably get beat myself."
  672. > "We can offer protection, if it matters."
  673. > You aren't sure, in truth, how much weight Thunderlane's offer carries.
  674. > There isn't much room to isolate a pony if they demanded it, and Anonymous wouldn't be pleased with Crescent Moon being taken out of any working groups.
  675. > So you're mildly relieved when she shakes her head, smirking lightly in his direction.
  676. > "I'm not your little brother, Thunderlane. I don't need protection; I can handle myself."
  677. > Must be something between them, since Thunderlane looks understanding.
  678. > "Besides, if he tortures them, I'll deserve it."
  679. "...we need some kind of a hint - a way forward on this."
  680. > "Yeah."
  681. > Silence holds for a few moments, after which Crescent Moon groans.
  682. > "Either of you got a pencil and paper? I'd write, but my mouth-writing ain't too great, and horn writing..."
  683. > Stepping out, you glance at the sheet of paper firmly tucked beneath Thunderlane's wing.
  684. > Six names she'd given you - two of her group who'd been missed in the original raid, and four others who she thought were angry and rash enough to have attacked Mocha Cream.
  685. "What'll you do with them?"
  686. > "That's really up to you, Your Highness. I can grab some guards and bring them in right now, but we might want to wait before we start leaping at our first tips. Wait to see if Mellowheart's friend comes through or not."
  687. "Can you spare the guards to put them under observation?"
  688. > "It'll be - hard. Especially with Anonymous jumping into the thick of things now. He might even make an order if he finds out. But yes, I think we could."
  689. [Choice]
  690. "I just gave Bon Bon the lecturing of her life for taking justice into her own hooves. We can hardly do the same thing now; focus on confirming Crescent's information first, and then actually detain them."
  691. > 'Detain'.
  692. > It's such a... mild word.
  693. > As if it didn't reflect what was really going to happen - that the ponies who were going to be taken would be condemned to a severe punishment at the very least, and excessive torture at the most.
  694. > You hope Crescent Moon will forgive you if you cannot protect them.
  695. > "I understand, Your Highness."
  696. "Don't go to Anonymous yet - he'll find out eventually, but we need a bit of time to work. To show that we can handle this without him leaping headfirst in. Check if any of them have been in trouble with the guards before, or see if they have solid alibis. Wait for Mellowheart's contact to reach out, and-"
  697. > Cutting yourself off, you shake your head with a hefty sigh.
  698. "I'm sorry. You probably know more about how to carry out a proper investigation than I do."
  699. > "Really, I'm as lost as you are... like trying to fly in a thunderstorm on a moonless night: You catch glimpses of the ground in the lightning, but it's not enough to really know where you're going..."
  700. "An excellent way of putting it."
  701. > Stopping in place, you take one last glance back towards Crescent Moon's place of work.
  702. > Once she'd given you the six names, she'd had to go back to working.
  703. > A fact made somewhat more humiliating by that she'd had to ask you to re-connect the magic limiter on her horn to the wire that would disable it.
  704. > Even the shudder of relief that ran through Crescent as her magic was return - her muscles rippling, like a pony who'd just stood up and stretched after being cramped in a tiny space for too long - only drove more pain into your heart.
  705. > Maybe you could see about getting her sentence reduced as a reward for her cooperation on this.
  706. > Crescent's prediction that she herself would be in danger herself rings in your head.
  707. > Maybe it would be better if you could see about getting all of the ponies like her - those who'd lashed out in fear rather than hatred - a slight relief as well to conceal her direct participation.
  708. "Do what you can, Thunderlane. I know you won't slack off on this."
  709. > "Yeah. If you don't mind, I'd like to head back to the security post - bring everypony else up to speed on what happened and set new orders out for tomorrow."
  710. "Of course. I'll look forward to hearing from you, Thunderlane... and, be safe."
  711.  
  712. > Be safe.
  713. > Cadance's final words echo in your ears.
  714. > From the ponies who'd savaged Mocha Cream, you wonder, or from Anonymous?
  715. > You were, after all, playing a most dangerous balancing game.
  716. > Anonymous and Rumble's safety on one side, your pride, Cadance, and the wellbeing of everypony else in the camp on the other.
  717. > What would happen, you wonder, if you fell from that balance - to either side?
  718. > A tremble runs through your wings - and is instantly sensed by the pegasus mare curled at your side.
  719. > "Thunderlane? What's wrong?"
  720. "Nothing, Vapor..."
  721. > For a moment you think you might have gotten away, and then a broad span of creamy feathers settles over your eyes.
  722. > "Now, Thunderlane..."
  723. > Her voice is teasing, breath rushing off one ear.
  724. > "I know what shaky wings like that mean in Pegasi. So, what's wrong?"
  725. > Despite yourself, you still smile.
  726. > This mare...
  727. > She'd immediately seen just how stressed the day had left you, had guided you back to her quarters, and even was staying with you now.
  728. > The one time you'd questioned her on it, Vapor had simply responded that her roomate would understand.
  729. > At the same time, however, a kernel of nervousness had taken hold inside of you.
  730. > Crescent Moon had known Vapor Trail - maybe you should have asked her about that as well today, though now it was far too late.
  731. > Just how far in was she too?
  732. > "Thunderlane-"
  733. "It's just - you know. I've told you about it before. Frustration with - things not happening. Things I should be doing."
  734. > Like the little voice at the back of your head that says you should have been the one to go to talk to Bon Bon.
  735. > She'd been willing to speak frankly with you, at least.
  736. > Though who knows how much that would've helped now.
  737. "We've got some leads into who attacked Mocha Cream, but not enough to act yet. The pony who was supposed to give me more information hasn't shown up yet-"
  738. > And part of you still fears Mellowheart's contact never will.
  739. "-and in the meantime I'm afraid something worse is going to happen, somepony else is going to get hurt, and everything's going to go just completely fall apart, and - and it'll all have been for nothing!"
  740. > At the end of the little tired you collapse back down, breathing heavily.
  741. "...and I'm afraid you'll be caught up in it."
  742. > "Shh..."
  743. > Vapor Trail's wing rises from your eyes, but they remain closed.
  744. > Shortly thereafter her hooves fall on your back, pressing in on the dense knots of muscle that have built up in your back.
  745. > Being a pegasus herself, she knows exactly where to press.
  746. > With distinct, practiced motions her hooves traces down the ridges of muscle that support your wings; a far more pleasurable ripple runs the length of your coat from muzzle-tip to dock.
  747. "Where did you ever learn to do this?"
  748. > Even Vapor Trail cannot help but giggle softly at how mumbled your words come out.
  749. > "What can I say? I like helping ponies. Sometimes that means listening to them, or being there to support them. Sometimes it means giving them a relaxing touch to help them calm down."
  750. "Mmmmrph."
  751. > That was supposed to be a much more coherent statement, but as she was rapidly reducing your entire body to the consistency of jello it didn't quite make it.
  752. > Another soft giggle from Vapor Trail, who continues working down the length of your back and flanks until your wings lay limp and spread across the bed.
  753. > "So... now do you feel better?"
  754. "S'good..."
  755. > Rolling over onto your back, you stretch out considerably - fore- and hindlegs extending ahead and behind you respectively - and smile fondly up at her.
  756. > Vapor smiles back down, though it slowly fades.
  757. > "Something's still troubling you."
  758. "...is it that easy to see?"
  759. > "Yes. In some ways. What is it, Thunderlane?"
  760. > You can't bear to face her like this; head rolling to the side, your eyes instead peer out the window to the darkened sky beyond.
  761. > Within moments her head has been lowered to rest on your chest - breath from her nostrils tickling your chin.
  762. "Vapor, your name..."
  763. > A hoof slides up to circle around her neck on one side; on the other, a wing extends to do the same.
  764. "...when we were interrogating some of the ponies caught in the raid, your name came up. They knew you - were surprised I was asking about you. More than surprised; chocked, even."
  765. > At last you manage to drag your gaze back to focus on the mare above you, there's something inscrutable in her cyan eyes.
  766. "It was more than just familiarity, Vapor. What's going on?"
  767. > Now it is Vapor who is forced to look away.
  768. > "You - didn't know? I - I thought..."
  769. > The feeling of uncertainty and concern in your belly metastasizes into full-on fear.
  770. "I didn't know anything, Vapor."
  771. > "I'm - I'm not going to be staying, Thunderlane. When my foal is old enough to travel and there's a safe plan - Derpy said - I'm helping them to earn myself a spot getting out..."
  772. > Of course.
  773. > The one night you'd seen Cadance and Derpy slipping into the clinic while Vapor was in there, and how fast she'd turned around and agreed to stay after that.
  774. > Derpy must have told her there'd be a way to leave soon after.
  775. > She had a filly of her own still in the camp to look after, so it would make sense that she was more focused on leaving then on fighting back.
  776. > Word must have gotten around that to the cell that Crescent Moon was part of.
  777. > Your first instinct was to be furious that the information had been leaked, but it's soon overwhelmed by horror at what has been just laid on you.
  778. > Vapor clearly sees it, and winces sharply.
  779. > "I - I'm sorry, Thunderlane. I thought - with how close you were to Cadance - I thought you knew."
  780. "No, I - I didn't. I didn't know at you were going to. I - I really did think you were going to stay."
  781. > Your own eyes close and you have to swallow before you can speak again.
  782. "Crescent Moon. Did you know her?"
  783. > "No. Not directly. She was the one who knew me?"
  784. "Yes."
  785. > "I haven't met her, or anypony else from her group. I just carried messages."
  786. > Even as she speaks, it occurs to you just how much trust she is placing in you.
  787. > Vapor Trail knows what your job is; she knows you can have her thrown in a cell right now if you wanted.
  788. > But she hasn't stopped.
  789. > She's trusting you to understand - and that's reason enough for you to believe she genuinely didn't intend to fall in with violent ponies.
  790. > Reason enough to not have her imprisoned.
  791. > Yet, if she's held on to hope of eventual escape this long - even as she's seen what Cadance has been trying to do - she must still feel very strongly about keeping her foal out of slavery.
  792. [Choice]
  793. "Vapor..."
  794. > Your leg and wing are still wrapped around her, but now it feels more like a way to keep a pony pinned in place than a gesture of affection.
  795. "...who - who are you working for? Who's doing this?"
  796. > "I - a few ponies, I think."
  797. > Her voice is cracked and breaking.
  798. > "Not sure how - how many ponies are in it total. I - I just carry messages."
  799. > Just messages.
  800. "Have you looked at them? Tried to see who -"
  801. > "Once. I d-didn't understand it. C-Code, I think."
  802. > So she can't likely tell you about the information, but maybe she'd have something else?
  803. > The other ponies in the cells?
  804. > Is this connected to Sunburst, or something else entirely?
  805. > If his plan was compromised, then you'd have to start looking into - triage.
  806. > Who could be saved, and who... could not.
  807. > If it wasn't, then you had a whole new host of ponies to track down, something that puts an even greater emphasis on needing to know exactly who was involved.
  808. "Okay, who gives-"
  809. > "T-Thunderlane..."
  810. > Her voice is even more unsteady now, trembling and fearful.
  811. > "What h-happens now, Thunderlane? A-Are you going to put me in chains and take me to A-Anonymous? I-I'm a rebellious pony. I confessed - I want to leave; I won't stop trying."
  812. > Pausing, you force yourself to look - really look - at her and think again.
  813. > And you see not a rebel or a fighter or even a resource to be mined for information, but a trembling and scared mare - one hoof clutching her swelling belly, as if it could shield the foal growing there - terrified of what might moves you might make next.
  814. > "I - I won't fight, Thunderlane. I can't, not against you. Not without hurting the foal. But I'm begging you, please don't take me to him. You know what he'll do me."
  815. > In that moment, your heart cracks a little.
  816. > You'd gone too far ahead.
  817. > Jumped too quickly into thinking about the larger picture, forgetting about the mare clutching you like an anchor to prevent her from being swept away.
  818. "No, Vapor. I'm not going to have you thrown in chains."
  819. > After all, wasn't looking after ponies who needed it why you'd taken this position?
  820. > ...aside from protecting Rumble.
  821. > And even as Vapor collapses against you again wetting your coat with quiet tears of relief, you can't help but wonder about that.
  822. > What would you do, if Rumble was caught up in something again?
  823. > Could you bring yourself to turn over Vapor Trail to save him?
  824. > To betray Sunburst and Cadance again?
  825. > Once had been painful enough, to do it to them a second time and this loving mare too...
  826. > A fresh shudder runs through your body, and this time you're thankful Vapor Trail is too distracted to make notice of it.
  827. > It would be hard to explain this one, after all.
  828. > Those thoughts swirl in your head even as you lift your head to press your cheek to hers - both wings circling her barrel now.
  829. > "I-I'm sorry. I was so afraid - I - I thought for sure you were a part of it, and then weren't, and I thought-"
  830. "Shh..."
  831. > A hoof strokes her mane back, and you murmur softly.
  832. "I'm not going to turn you over, Vapor. But I need to understand exactly how far this goes. If who you're working for might be somehow related to the ponies who attacked Mocha Cream."
  833. > She snorts gently.
  834. > "Betray the ponies who're helping me? And then what? Maybe I'll be reward with a fluffy bed and a maid's uniform up in the house? What'll happen to my foal then - a new toy for his daughter to have fun with?"
  835. > Catching sight of the disappointed expression on your face, Vapor shakes her head.
  836. > "I'm sorry."
  837. "It's not your ponies that I care about, Vapor. It's whoever is pushing to fight now."
  838. > "They're - all that you're after? You have to swear-"
  839. "Vapor. They're it. They're the ponies we want to find; anypony else you worked with isn't in our sights unless they're threatening to be violent too. Trust me, please?"
  840. > A moment of consideration is needed, but in the end she nods.
  841. > "I was - it was Derpy who brought me in. Princess Cadance brought her when I was in the medical ward; she convinced me I could get my foal out later..."
  842. "...and then she drew you into the process."
  843. > Vapor Trail simply nods.
  844. > "And I thought - I thought because you were... y'know, with Princess Cadance, you knew too..."
  845. > You did, of course, know about the plan.
  846. > Now.
  847. > But you hadn't then, and neither had Cadance at the time either.
  848. "Have you told anypony else about this, Vapor?"
  849. > "N-No. Nopony I haven't, um, been told to."
  850. > Part of you wonders if that was a statement on the depth of her care for you, that she had considered you worth revealing it to.
  851. > Either way, it was a fair bet that the plan was still pretty airtight.
  852. "Do you know if anypony involved has also been responsible for the attacks? Or if not, if they might be thinking about doing something - ugly in the future?"
  853. > "Not really. We, um - we don't talk to each other too much. Just - just the messages that need to go, or things that have to be gotten."
  854. > Then she hesitates, though, eyes going distant.
  855. "Vapor..."
  856. > "There... is one other group. They, um, don't work with us. Or at least, I only ever brought them a message once. But from the way someponies talk, they're more about /doing/ while I think we're... waiting. Until it's all ready."
  857. > It certainly sounds like she is part of Sunburst's operation, even if Derpy had been the one to invite her in.
  858. > But then who was this other group...?
  859. > Asking Vapor to try and question others about them was just an invitation for reprisal against her, but-
  860. "If you hear anything about them - anything! - I need to know, okay? Not just because I'm a guard, but because if this violence continues it's only a matter of time before Anonymous wraps the whole thing up and then you'll be truly trapped."
  861. > "I know, Thunderlane."
  862. > She sniffles softly, nodding with still-bleary eyes.
  863. > "Just - I don't know how to do all this, okay? I just - do what they tell me to, and if it works out I'll be able to get my foal safely away from all this..."
  864. > Another gentle sniffle.
  865. > "...I'm not a secret agent. I'm just a pony who wants to be free."
  866. "Shh, I know."
  867. > Pulling her back close against you yields a soft sigh from Vapor Trail.
  868. > And, a moment later, information at last:
  869. > "The pony, from that group I met with once - her name was Autumn Frost. She tried to invite me into their group, but I didn't want any part of that I just want to leave."
  870. > You stiffen; that had been one of the names Crescent Moon gave.
  871. "You're doing the right thing, Vapor. I swear, I'm just trying to protect everypony."
  872. > The words almost manage to leave your lips without leaving the bitter taste of lies behind.
  873. > Almost.
  874. > "It's going to make a big mess for you when I leave, isn't it..?"
  875. "Maybe. Not as much as ponies fighting now, though."
  876. > "When it happens, we should all go together, Thunderlane. You, me, my foal, even Rumble! We're all strong fliers - we can hide in the clouds, follow the birds out farther than they can follow us. We'd be - a family! A free family!"
  877. > Laying there, feeling her heart thud against yours, you wish so very, very hard that you could say yes.
  878. > ...
  879. > The early morning air still has the winter's icy chill in it, and your breath steams as you set out on your first patrol of the day.
  880. > Leaving Vapor Trail hadn't been easy - as much on her as on you - but there was a duty to be done.
  881. > Trotting down the street, your eyes and ears both are kept on a swivel.
  882. > Above you, the sky is barely lit - stars only just fading before the oncoming sunrise.
  883. > At this hour, the only ponies who were awake were those who absolutely needed to be, which meant the streets were even more dead than midday when everypony was at their jobs.
  884. > Yet the absence of any other ponies only serves to heighten your fears.
  885. > Who else might be creeping around at this hour of the morning?
  886. > What other plots might be in play?
  887. > A soft shudder runs down your coat; this was two pieces of evidence to point towards one pony, but even if you arrested her now what would happen next?
  888. > If they were any bit as mad as the ones who'd been running the museum - or even an extension of that same group - then 'Galaxy' wouldn't just turn over the rest.
  889. > The thought of what Anonymous might do to make her do so is enough to make your legs weak.
  890. > Putting those thoughts from your mind, you swing back towards the security post, spread your wings, and-
  891. > Wait.
  892. > There.
  893. > A shadow had just moved in the early-morning light, dipping back into an alleyway between two factory buildings.
  894. > Instead of carrying you up, your wings launch you forward.
  895. > Hooves instantly sound on concrete in the chill air - not your own, as they were quite off the ground.
  896. "Hey, you! Stop!"
  897. > The shadow - no, a cloak - slips right around a corner again just as you come into sight.
  898. > Yet when you actually reach the corner, they're nowhere in sight and the hooves have stopped.
  899. > All that greets you is a dimly-lit space lined with a pair of dumpsters and a shipping crate.
  900. > How had they-
  901. > Too late you feel the cold prick at the back of your neck.
  902. > "Don't move either, police-pony."
  903. > They're voice is growled so low it's difficult to tell if a mare or stallion is making it.
  904. > Either way you do stay still, though, even as the blade slides around your neck to press in on your throat and a hoof replaces it on the back of your neck.
  905. "...easy, now. I'm not moving."
  906. > "Good. Don't wanna hurt you, but can't let you see."
  907. "That's fine. I won't try and look, alright?"
  908. > While your words buy time, your eyes sweep the alley for a way out of this.
  909. > They're close - so close that you can see their steaming breath in the corner of your eye.
  910. > But any movement, and that blade would meet your throat.
  911. > Nightmare's Wings, they'd been quiet!
  912. > "Sorry about this. Was going to talk to you even before you asked, didn't mean for it to be like this..."
  913. "Asked...?"
  914. > "Well, not asked me, but-"
  915. > It clicks.
  916. "You're Mellowheart's third pony."
  917. > A soft chuckle.
  918. > "Y'got it."
  919. "Listen, I'm not interested in hunting you. I'm here for whoever beat Mocha Cream."
  920. > "Y'might be, but I'm not trusting Anonymous. And you take his orders."
  921. > Reflexively you swallow, and the blade's edge scrapes on your throat.
  922. "...fine. What do you want?"
  923. > A sheet of paper is shoved across the ground into your vision.
  924. > "Names in there are the ponies who did it. Some of 'em, anyway."
  925. "You're just giving them up?"
  926. > "You think I'm anything like them?"
  927. > The first note of real anger enters the pony's voice.
  928. > "We broke windows, stole paint, made some noise, yeah - but that's a fair bit different than kicking a filly in an alley. We're not like that."
  929. "You were angry."
  930. > "Not like that. Angry at Anonymous for what he did, not whatever poor things he's got locked up in that house with him."
  931. > It's the least-insane thing you've heard out of any rebellious pony lately, and manages to lighten your heart a bit.
  932. > "Check whoever else you're asking. There's names and who to question to prove they weren't in their normal places right when it happened."
  933. "How do you know?"
  934. > "What they did isn't right, but I talked a time before then."
  935. > Sighing heavily, you nod.
  936. "Alright. I'll take a look at them. What now?"
  937. > "I back away. You stay still, don't look back until I'm well away."
  938. > You snort softly.
  939. > How had Vapor Trail put it?
  940. > 'I'm not a secret agent'?
  941. > "Sorry. I was going to pass it from where you couldn't see me, but then you saw me and came charging in before I could set things up right..."
  942. "I understand."
  943. > "Alright. Backing away now."
  944. > And they are - the hoof on the back of your neck relieving pressure first, then the blade at your throat.
  945. > Hooves sound again on concrete, and that split-second is all you have to make a choice.
  946. [Choice]
  947. "Hey, I didn't get to say - thank you."
  948. > Distantly, the pony laughs.
  949. > "I'd prefer I didn't have to, but you're welcome."
  950. "Just - if you hear about something going to happen, something to be aware of... you won't be punished if you let us know."
  951. > There's a long silence, then:
  952. > "I'll think about it."
  953. "It'll be good for everypony."
  954. > "Yeah. Now just stay there a bit longer."
  955. > You do, and moments later their hoofsteps fade around the corner.
  956. > Almost immediately you stagger, having to reach out with a wing to steady yourself against the wall.
  957. > Half of you had given up the moment the blade had touched your neck, concluded that this was it and you'd come up next on the list of ponies to be attacked.
  958. > The other half - the fighting half, the old pegasus warrior blood in your veins - had nearly been ready to turn and chase them down despite the weapon.
  959. > Thankfully whoever it was hadn't had killing you on their agenda, and you'd managed to hold your fighting instincts in check.
  960. > No point in getting yourself killed if they didn't want it either.
  961. > At long last you turn back around and stare down the mess of alleyways the pony had vanished into.
  962. > There'd be no tracking them now, and in a way you're almost glad.
  963. > A pony still willing to fight back against slavery, but not so totally lost to hatred...
  964. > You wish there were more like that.
  965. > Maybe even wish you were more like that pony was.
  966. > Wish you hadn't had to betray so many.
  967. > ...wish you could say for certain you wouldn't betray again in the future.
  968. > With another sigh you scoop up the paper they'd tossed to you.
  969. > A bit stained by dirt, but still perfectly legible - and everything you could have wished for.
  970. > Tucking it beneath a wing, you start back towards the security post.
  971. > A few other guards, ponies and humans alike, nod to you as you enter.
  972. > Gene was there, of course, and is the first to speak up:
  973. > "Thunderlane. Are we going to start questioning some of the ponies you mentioned yesterday? I will have to assign some to help you if we are..."
  974. "Maybe. In fact, almost certainly. But we've got some other things to do first, because you won't believe what just happened to me on the way here..."
  975.  
  976. > Sunburst looks quite surprised when you first step through his doorway.
  977. > It takes him a moment to do anything at all, and then it's a furious rush to sort through the mess occupying his tabletop in order to locate his glasses.
  978. > Pinning them to his face, he blinks owlishly - as if they had been necessary to confirm it actually you - before nervously glancing around the utterly chaotic space he called an 'office'.
  979. > "An- Master, I, uh - I hadn't expected you-"
  980. "I know."
  981. > You chuckle softly.
  982. "Our original meeting was supposed to be up in the mansion, and I think Cadance was supposed to bring you in - but if I'm going to be rather more involved, I thought I'd prefer to start with the matters immediately at hand. If you're not busy with something important?"
  983. > "Y-Yes, Master. I'll, uh - just, just one moment - I'm supposed to be out to set up the young ones' morning magic lessons in a little bit, but I can spare a little while."
  984. > Magic sweeps a stack of books and papers off a seat and heaves it from the corner it had been occupied, but unfortunately it's still a pony-sized seat.
  985. "Relax, Sunburst. I'll be fine standing."
  986. > You might be, but from the nervous bob of his head Sunburst gives you have to suspect he isn't quite fine with this.
  987. > Perhaps something to do with how you stand nearly half again as tall as he does.
  988. "So, I imagine Cadance has talked with you about what I'm considering."
  989. > "Y-Yes, Master. T-That I would be Flurry Heart's tutor."
  990. > Another pause, during which his eyes flick around the room anywhere but on you.
  991. > "If I may speak honestly, Master, I am surprised you would consider me after..."
  992. > Trailing off, he shifts uncertainly.
  993. "Well, I won't deny it was a hard sell. Which really, is why I wanted to come down here and talk to you about it."
  994. > "About w-what I d-did-"
  995. > He's terrified.
  996. > Stricken with fear that you would - what?
  997. > Decide to inflict more punishment on him?
  998. > Now you do sit down, lowering yourself to a more reasonable height compared to the stallion and putting both hands on the table.
  999. "Easy, Sunburst. This isn't an interrogation, and I'm not going to hurt you."
  1000. > At last he seem to settle, realizing you weren't a threat.
  1001. > Or at least not an immediate one.
  1002. "Whoever went after Mocha Cream, I'll deal with them when they're caught-"
  1003. > The grimness in your tone is matched by the expression on your face.
  1004. "-and it not be merciful. But right now, with you, I'm just interested in having a talk."
  1005. > "...yes, Master."
  1006. "Cadance made some good points in arguing on your behalf - you are probably the most knowledgeable pony I own, and you knew Flurry Heart beforehand to boot. If this works out, I'll be very glad. But if it doesn't - I'd rather know now than run into a problem later."
  1007. > You lean even further forward, both elbows coming to sit on the table too.
  1008. > It might have seemed menacing, but the gesture also brought your head down even lower - to a point slightly below Sunburst's.
  1009. "So, tell me, Sunburst - can I trust you to teach her? Do I have to be worried about what you'll be putting into her head?"
  1010. > For several moments, the stallion says nothing - a hoof rising to play with the little tuft of beard that emerges from it.
  1011. > "...I can say yes. But why would you trust me?"
  1012. "I don't know. Tell me why I should."
  1013. > This time, Sunburst answers quickly:
  1014. > "Because they're all I have left."
  1015. > His voice is stronger now too, much more confident.
  1016. > "My life, Master... I didn't really have an easy path. I left my only friend early on to go to the School for Gifted Unicorns. I didn't make too many friends there, and I wasn't good enough with magic to really stand out. I went to the Crystal Empire, but..."
  1017. > A soft sigh.
  1018. > "...I was drifting. Pretending I was someone important while I locked myself away to hide how bad at magic I actually was. If Starlight hadn't come back, I hadn't become closer with P- Cadance, Shining Armor, and Flurry Heart... I'd have turned up as nothing."
  1019. "What happened to 'Starlight'?"
  1020. > "I don't know."
  1021. > His glasses slip off to be set gently on the table top, letting him rub at his eyes with one hoof.
  1022. > "Starlight was further south when it all began. I never saw her again. Went with one of the groups of ponies trying to flee the Crystal Empire instead, and... well, that didn't work. I was alone again. No friends, no one I knew, no path forward... I was drifting."
  1023. "Until Cadance was brought here."
  1024. > "Yes, until then. Even when you first brought me to teach the foals and develop new products to sell... those were jobs. Then suddenly I had somepony I knew again. So when she came and asked me to for help organizing the escape... how couldn't I?"
  1025. > A fierce shudder ran through his body.
  1026. > "When she had to whip me... it hurt worse than anything I'd ever felt. But that wasn't anything to what it hurt me inside."
  1027. > 'Had to' whip him?
  1028. > For a moment you're considering probing if that was a remark on you, but there's no point now.
  1029. "I've no intent to keep you separate from Flurry Heart or Cadance unless I have to. I was even thinking that there might be a chance of having her come down here for her lessons, though I'm not so sure of that now."
  1030. > "And that's why you can trust me, Master. I want - nothing more than to see her here. Safe. I failed being her teacher and adviser once; I can't have it happen again."
  1031. > He gestures out the window, eyes locked on you even without his glasses.
  1032. "And I want the same. If she's to eventually take up the role I want her to, I can't hold her distant forever. She needs to know all of you too."
  1033. > "Not one of us wants to be a slave, Master. But if that is the cost of being with the ponies I care about..."
  1034. > Your fingers steeple together, gaze regarding Sunburst carefully.
  1035. "I wonder, though. What happens if Cadance decides she wants to get ponies out again? What if she decides having her Flurry run away is the 'best thing'?"
  1036. > "Would she do that, Master?"
  1037. > You're surprised by the frankness of Sunburst's question, but quickly recover.
  1038. "I do not think so. She's rapidly opened her eyes to the necessity of us working together. But if she did?"
  1039. > What if Cadance did get it into her head that rebellion or escape were right?
  1040. > It's a thought that leaves a trail of fear through your mind.
  1041. > Once had been bad; twice would be... disastrous.
  1042. > "I... I must speak freely, Master."
  1043. "Do it. I didn't come here for buttering-up or half-truths."
  1044. > "You have become much better as well. We have much less to fear - not looking over our shoulders for whips to be swung at the slightest problem or being subject to the whims of guards who enjoy our suffering."
  1045. "...I thought I said no buttering up."
  1046. > "I'm not!"
  1047. > And for the first time there's real force in his voice too.
  1048. > "I'm not - a few months ago I would have done all I could to get Flurry Heart away if I was asked. Now..."
  1049. > Voice going soft again, he looks away.
  1050. > "None of us want to be slaves, Master. But now that you've improved things... maybe we can live. And it's still my duty as Flurry Heart's adviser to make sure she gets the best she can."
  1051. [Choice]
  1052. "Well..."
  1053. > Reaching out, you take Sunburst's hoof for a moment.
  1054. > He seems surprised, almost fearful at first but it quickly passes.
  1055. "...I think that's a goal we both share. When do you think we can begin her lessons?"
  1056. > "Tomorrow; I can begin at least figuring out how much she knows and where to take her next."
  1057. "Excellent. Report to my house at any time after 10:00; you'll have until 3:30 to do what you need. And if it becomes too much, I'll temporarily pull you off other duties to make sure this gets done."
  1058. > Ears flopping down beneath his riotous burst of crimson mane, Sunburst nods - his smile widening.
  1059. > "I understand."
  1060. > You stand again, stretching.
  1061. "Do you have somewhere to be in particular now?"
  1062. > "I, uh, have to be at the schoolhouse to do a little bit of teaching with the other foals soon. And, um, then have to go back and see about some new products I was researching - but not now."
  1063. "I'll walk with you there. There's a lot I'd like to talk with you about."
  1064. > "Yes, Master. Can I get my things before we go?"
  1065. "Of course, of course. Take your time."
  1066. > It does take Sunburst a few moments to find what he's looking for in the bags, but soon enough the two of you are walking side-by-side through the camp.
  1067. > In addition to his bag, the stallion had thrown on a dark cloak and scarf to ward the morning chill.
  1068. > Other ponies were also still moving about at this early hour - deliveries being made throughout the camp, a few clusters marching on their way to their work with eyes squinted against the late-winter rising sun.
  1069. > They look at you with a variety of expressions:
  1070. > Glimpses of anger and disgust out of the corners of their eyes, sometimes confusion and surprise at you walking alone, but just as often apparent relief.
  1071. > Presumably that you were not showing signs of cruelty to the pony with whom you walked.
  1072. > If anything Sunburst actually seems to fare the worst from their watchful eyes.
  1073. > Wincing and cringing, he slinks along at your side.
  1074. > After a minute of this, you raise an eyebrow questioningly.
  1075. "Embarrassed to be seen out with me?"
  1076. > "Y-Yes... and no. I've never liked being, uh, at the center of attention... and you are attracting a lot of looks."
  1077. > You chuckle softly.
  1078. "Don't worry. I'll be out and around a bit more often now, so you're hardly going to be the only one."
  1079. > No response comes, but he does straighten up and walk a bit more normally.
  1080. > Your route takes you towards the core of the camp, near the still-rising rec center.
  1081. > At this hour no real work was ongoing, but even so the odd pony was hauling in a cart loaded with bags of mortar.
  1082. "You said things have been getting better."
  1083. > "Yes, Master."
  1084. "How?"
  1085. > Much of what he answers is things you've heard before:
  1086. > The guards aren't so tough, ponies have less to be fearful of, even that the food is better.
  1087. > But then his thoughts start to get personal.
  1088. > "...and honestly, I see it reflecting off the colts and fillies I teach too. They see older ponies are less fearful, and they are too."
  1089. "You teach them directly?"
  1090. > "A few. Most of them - the teachers handle basic magic; I check their work, add a few finer touches, and teach a couple of things myself. The most talented ones I take on directly."
  1091. "Well noted. What do you focus on?"
  1092. > "Well, we start with the basics of course. How not to hurt, not to overstress themselves. Then I start showing them how to do more complex workings - moving two or three objects together, basic enchantments, simply more advanced spells..."
  1093. > As he speaks, you can't help but notice the transformation that comes over Sunburst.
  1094. > Now in his element, the stallion's ears perk up, his tail carries more straight, and a spring enters his step.
  1095. > "A lot of documentation I've had to basically rebuild from scratch, since I can only get my hooves on a handful of books on magic. And, um, most of those are actually yours, I think."
  1096. "A fair few are, yes."
  1097. > 'Lending' them from your own library had been the only way to get proper Equestrian literature on the subject into the camp, since ponies weren't allowed to bring much of their own belongings with them.
  1098. > Anything else had been carefully sanitized prior to republishing to remove anything that might be the slightest-bit rebellious or glorifying of old Equestria.
  1099. > And, of course, there was the little detail that what unmodified copies survived were no longer being widely reproduced.
  1100. > "What we can't find... well, I've had to rebuild a lot of it from memory. And experimentation."
  1101. "Yes, I know you're working with a fairly decent laboratory as these things go; is lack of paper resources really hampering you that badly?"
  1102. > After pondering a moment, Sunburst shakes his head.
  1103. > "There's - so much lost. There are things I would love to do - workings I'd absolutely want to recreate. But they're not - they're not something we can do now. Not even if I knew how."
  1104. "Not enough materials?"
  1105. > "Not enough ponies. Or time to train the best of the ones I do have."
  1106. "I'll keep that in mind. Sooner or later the market is going to catch up to us; we'll have to keep taking steps forward if we want to keep ahead of everyone else."
  1107. > "Honestly, with being able to work with Flurry Heart again... well, it'll almost be like being back home again."
  1108. > Sunburst's expression softens, a warm smile overcoming his features; he really does love that filly doesn't he?
  1109. "Do you think she'll be able to help you? With your research, or teaching?"
  1110. > "I really don't know. Even back in Equestria, there was no real documentation on alicorns, especially young ones. It might be several years before she's mentally prepared to take part in anything, though."
  1111. > He's trying to talk you down - make sure you don't put too much pressure on Flurry.
  1112. > That's fine; the opportunity to use her magic wasn't something you'd been betting on anyhow.
  1113. "That's fine. With the expansion coming in a few months there'll be chances for you to pick up some new resources. You won't be the only area expanding - Randall says there's someone up in Pennsylvania with a pure Zap-Apple strain, but not enough ponies to work it - but we can balance something out."
  1114. > Sunburst's mouth opens as if to say something, closes again, and then re-opens as his confidence urges him ahead:
  1115. > "Is it - really still going to happen?"
  1116. "The expansion? If I have anything to say about it, yes."
  1117. > "We weren't sure. With your announcement after Mocha Cream was attacked..."
  1118. "Ponies were afraid?"
  1119. > His head bobs in answer.
  1120. "Mostly we didn't know what to expect. Some were afraid you would come down on the whole camp again if they aren't found. Find another example to be made."
  1121. "The only ponies who need to be afraid of me are the ones responsible. They'll pay the price - no one else."
  1122. > Sunburst stays quiet after this - at least until you prompt him.
  1123. "...you don't think I should be punishing them as harshly as I plan to."
  1124. > "I'm in no position to advise about that sort of thing, Master."
  1125. "So just give me the off the top of your head thoughts."
  1126. > It again takes him several moments to consider the proper words to use.
  1127. > He's actually really thinking about it, which gives you pause too.
  1128. > "Just - remember what's happening here. Remember that ponies are just starting to let go of what happened in the past. If you bring that back-"
  1129. "They'll never let go again, I get it. But this is big, Sunburst. I'm not punishing someone for speaking out of turn, but for savagely beating an innocent mare - and jeopardizing all of you here. I'm surprised you can't see that."
  1130. > "I can."
  1131. > Sighing softly, he stops - looking over with squinted eyes to the rising sun.
  1132. > "Just..."
  1133. "Say it, Sunburst. We're speaking freely."
  1134. > "Princess Celestia would never have had a pony tortured for committing a crime."
  1135. > Despite your reassurances, his muzzle was pointed to the ground and the words were barely mumbled out.
  1136. > "She'd - she'd have found something better. Cadance, too - y'know, when she was..."
  1137. "And what would they have done."
  1138. > Another hefty sigh.
  1139. > "I don't know. I'm not - not a princess. Not even a pony who knows about law. They'd have banished them, maybe? T-There've been a few executions, but they were for much, much worse..."
  1140. "...yes, well, I am not a princess either, this is not Equestria, and banishment... the only places I can 'banish' them to would be a death sentence."
  1141. > Folding your arms against the cold, you let your vision scan out over the street.
  1142. "If there was a better alternative, I'd damn well take it. But I'm not going to let them just walk away from this, Sunburst. They pay for what they've done."
  1143. > "I just keep worrying..."
  1144. > Hesitation for a second - and then he dives in, the words seeming to pour out a mile a minute like the raging torrent from a broken dam.
  1145. > "Like - I'm not saying what they did was right, you know? But the friend I was telling you about, Starlight - she did some very bad things too. Hurt a lot of ponies. But somepony still gave her another chance, you know? And she - she realized what she'd done was wrong, and-"
  1146. > Breaking off, Sunburst shakes his head.
  1147. > "They deserve punishment. It's not my place to think about it, but I can't help but wonder if they'd see what they're doing is wrong too. If somepony gave them a chance..."
  1148. [Choice]
  1149. "Unfortunately, these aren't some misguided or misunderstood ponies looking to find the right path. They had their chance, Sunburst. They threw that chance away and stomped on it when they attacked a not-even-fully-grown filly just carrying out her duties."
  1150. > "I know..."
  1151. > The words are mumbled, and Sunburst looks down to the ground again.
  1152. "I know that a lot of ponies are expecting me to torture them, and of course straight punishment is not a perfect solution. Anything fitting their crime would be close enough to torture already, and I-"
  1153. > This time it is your turn to hesitate for a few moments.
  1154. > How much can you really say to him?
  1155. > Sunburst may seem to have a decent head on his shoulders, but he'd still taken part in a rebellion without a second thought.
  1156. > ...no, you're trying to be open - and in the end, this is a truth you'd been telling for a while now.
  1157. "If these rebels push me too far now... What happened to Corona was wrong. I lost control, I became a monster, and she suffered beyond any reasonable measure for it. I don't want to be that person again."
  1158. > Your hand balls into a fist, nails digging hard into your palm.
  1159. "I'd much rather they repent and turn themselves around, but - like I said, I'm not a princess and this isn't Equestria. And they all chose to be part of what they did, to spit on the olive branch I've been trying to offer... your friend was one situation, but this is another. Tell me, Sunburst - if they'd beaten Flurry Heart, would you still be willing to give them another chance? Can you honestly tell me you wouldn't be calling for their blood too?"
  1160. > He doesn't answer at first, simply turning his head away from you.
  1161. > When he does, it's with a small voice.
  1162. > "I suppose I would only wish there'd be someone there to make sure I don't become a monster too."
  1163. "Mmm."
  1164. > "Master - if I may go - I need to be off for the morning lessons..."
  1165. > It's a cop-out, a fleeing from the real questions you're throwing at him.
  1166. > Even so, you nod.
  1167. "Go ahead, Sunburst. And thank you for listening to me."
  1168. > He nods once before swerving off and galloping into the crowd.
  1169. > You watch Sunburst go, turning his words over in your mind.
  1170. > What had happened to Corona was wrong, yes - but these ponies were no Coronas.
  1171. > And if you-
  1172. > Thoughts are abruptly cut off by a discordantly upbeat jingle coming from your pocket.
  1173. > A glance at the phone's screen tells you it is Gene; instantly your stomach tightens.
  1174. > This could be either very good, or very bad.
  1175. "Anonymous here. What is it?"
  1176. > "You're going to want to come over to the security post. We just got something big..."
  1177. > Chest tightening as Gene lays out what he has, you spin on a heel and start towards the security post.
  1178. "Does Cadance know?"
  1179. > "Yes, she was told."
  1180. "Okay. I'm on my way over."
  1181.  
  1182. > That it had taken a day for Haute Glamour to reappear within the camp - making her way lazily back down from the manor where you'd asked Anonymous to keep her tied up - was in some ways rather nerve-wracking.
  1183. > If this had been part of her plan, after all, every hour you couldn't manage her was an hour she made headway against you.
  1184. > Not to mention what was looming on the horizon; if even half of what the guard had told you was true, then within a day or two you'd have to decide what would be done with the ponies responsible for Mocha Cream's beating.
  1185. > But even so, facing Haute again was not something you were looking forward to.
  1186. > Nonetheless you steel yourself as the mare saunters in, her cool eyes sweeping over the office.
  1187. > They come to pause on the image of Shining Armor resting on your desk, regarding it for a moment before shifting to settle on you.
  1188. > There's no doubt; she is reevaluating her opinion of you - or perhaps more accurately, taking a step back and truly evaluating you for the first time.
  1189. "Thank you for making some time to come down and see me, Haute Glamour."
  1190. > "Not a problem at all, Cadance."
  1191. > Her 'smile' is sickly sweet and doesn't remotely manage to reach her eyes.
  1192. > Without waiting for a request, Haute slides a seat over to the opposite side of your desk and settles down onto it.
  1193. > "I'm sure you understand, we've been having to reconsider our position over the last couple days..."
  1194. > Despite her use of the word 'we', she doesn't sound nearly as certain as you might expect.
  1195. > ...maybe she is reevaluating her own position as well; after all, she'd come into this apparently expecting an ally (or even a teacher) and now might be finding something quite different.
  1196. > But if so, did that imply Haute wasn't behind what'd happened to Mocha Cream?
  1197. > There'd been no evidence, but she did somewhat stand to gain from it...
  1198. "I hope your reevaluations are taking their due time. I understand things have been turbulent here as of late, but I still think our relationship will be an ongoing one... both our Masters will be interested in seeing this through."
  1199. > "Will they."
  1200. "Yes, they will."
  1201. > Fixing Haute Glamour with your firmest look, you lay both your forehooves on the desk and lean in.
  1202. "This camp is in the midst of its most significant expansion yet, and I am not about to let a few ponies unable to control themselves get in my way threaten what I have here."
  1203. > Enough force had been poured into your voice to hopefully make it sound genuine - because it was.
  1204. > Not only would failing now imperil your daughter, but if you were going to be forced into this role then by Celestia you were going to make it the best place for ponies it could be.
  1205. > Haute Glamour, unfortunately, doesn't seem to quite accept that.
  1206. > "Are you now? Because-"
  1207. > She glances askance, horn lighting to close the door to your office.
  1208. > You have the barest glance of Mayor Mare peering in with a concerned look on her face before the door shuts entirely.
  1209.  
  1210. > "Because at this hour, Cadance, I have to wonder if my estimation of you has really been correct."
  1211. > Your hard, flat look only provokes her to go on:
  1212. > "When I first came here, I really did think I saw something strong in you - a pony who'd managed to make the right conclusion, who was even more successful than I. Whose touch as a ruler was the most subtle and exquisite I had ever seen: So delicate yet controlling that I could barely see it."
  1213. > The portrait of Shining Armor is lifted from your desk and turned, allowing her to examine it closely.
  1214. > "But the more I watch, the more I think you're not so much ruling them as stumbled your way to the top of the heap, and have only held on because Anonymous insists on you being there while you sit pining for everything that you lost."
  1215. > For a second your cheeks draw back in the beginnings of a furious snarl before it is squashed.
  1216. > Squashing the hard, flat tone in your voice, though, proves impossible.
  1217. "I will not deny that I wish very much for many things that were taken from us, my husband most of all. But I do not think that keeps me from carrying out what I have to here."
  1218. > "Hmm."
  1219. > Replacing the portrait, Haute tosses back her crimson mane and regards you with hooded eyes.
  1220. > "Are you? Or is your touch so soft because you're still trying to believe that what we had in Equestria can be clung to? Because you aren't actually accepting that all of those... ponies-"
  1221. > The word is spoken with the same tone one might speak of insects.
  1222. > "-aren't so much cattle to be owned now? Because you do not truly have the willpower to rule them with the force needed?"
  1223. "You saw how I deal with ponies who threaten the stability here."
  1224. > "I saw how you acted when your hoof was forced. I also saw you've taken no preemptive action to squash them when they start to speak against you."
  1225. > Your mouth half-opens to reply, but Haute cuts you off before you can:
  1226. > "Oh, I remember what you told me. Yes, of course, there's no need to be excessive, let them adore you rather than fear you... but they aren't adoring you. They're fighting you. What are you going to do this time to keep more from cropping up, hmm? Or will you be forever dealing with the consequences of this? My ponies may fear me, but at least they fear only me."
  1227. > Now it is Haute Glamour who is leaning forward over the desk, forcing you back towards your seat.
  1228. > "These are the questions I have to ask, and the answers to which I have to find. If you aren't prepared to control them... if you have deceived me..."
  1229. [Choice]
  1230. "...you know, Haute Glamour, I think I'm coming to understand you a bit better."
  1231. > The mare in question blinks, clearly not having expected that reaction.
  1232. > Similarly, your voice is kept low to start. hiding the anger now starting to boil within you.
  1233. "You think that because you control a hooffull of stallions and mares doing a hooffull of simple jobs towards one goal, that you understand exactly how everypony thinks and that this is something which can be extended to everypony, everywhere."
  1234. > It finally occurs to Haute that something isn't quite right - you aren't backing down - but you're still speaking:
  1235. "Maybe you even think that you've figured out your owners, and that because of this you can figure out any owner. Well, let me tell you that you are wrong, Haute."
  1236. > Now it is you who is rising from your seat, standing with your hindlegs on the chair while your forelegs rest on the desk itself.
  1237. > Combined with your already-significant stature, nearly as tall as most stallions, and steadily unfolding wings, your posture is suddenly one of a looming threat.
  1238. > A stormy presence, bearing down on the unfortunate pony on the opposite side of the desk.
  1239. > Despite her confidence and poise, Haute cannot resist the instinctual, base reaction to that sort of body language coming from an alicorn.
  1240. "You are a nopony. A ruler of what, a dozen you hold in line with base fear and threats? I know Fear, Haute Glamour. I faced the Shadow King. I was imprisoned beneath Canterlot by a beast that wore my face. And because I am still here, I know its limits, too."
  1241. > She has leaned back in her seat - ears laying flat and eyes starting to shrink.
  1242. "I know that given a chance, everypony you've stepped on to get where you are will step on you right back. They fear you, yes, but they will turn on you. When you're managing over a thousand ponies, you can't take that risk. I cannot be looking over my shoulder every second for a threat that might come."
  1243. > "And yours are already turning on you! They're not even waiting-"
  1244. "Do you think yours wouldn't if there were a thousand of them? Do you think they will stand by your side if your position becomes shaky? Because I know my ponies will. I know that when I have to deal with the ones who attack me, the rest won't abandon my side."
  1245. > The expression of sheer shock on Haute Glamour's face is a delightful one.
  1246. > How long had it been since another pony had dared talk back to her?
  1247. > Since anypony had the guts to stand up to her cruelty?
  1248. "You've crawled to the top of your pile, and that's your accomplishment... but I have been tested as ruler and leader, as a princess and as a slave. So before you jump to the idea that because I happen to wish for how things were or run this place with a softer hoof than you, I suggest you think about that."
  1249. > From the moment you stood, your voice had been rising.
  1250. > Now it reaches a crescendo, punctuated by thundering hoof-stamps banging on the desk you half stood on.
  1251. "And I suggest you remember your place, stop thinking you somehow know my job better than me, and curb your blindingly obvious ambition to sit in my seat. Even if you somehow unseat me, you will never be a princess to them."
  1252. > And with that, you slam your haunches back down into the seat, glaring death across the desk at her.
  1253. > Haute had begun to breath heavily, her mane swaying.
  1254. > It takes a few swallows before she feels ready to speak.
  1255. > But eventually her old expression does reestablish itself on her face - now marred by a twisted scowl, fury leaking from her narrowed eyes.
  1256. > "You're so keen to lecture me, "Princess", but I think you're as blind as the humans are. They'll never love you either. Ponies like that - the weak, the ruled - to them, we're no friend."
  1257. "More a friend than if they only feared me."
  1258. > Snorting, Haute shakes her head.
  1259. > "No such thing as friends now, Cadance. Only rulers and slaves."
  1260. > Standing, she all but rips the door open to leave.
  1261. > "Tell me then, Cadance, if fear is so weak what is keeping you here? Is Anonymous your 'friend'? Or is it because you fear what will happen to your daughter if you turn on him?"
  1262. > The smile that splits her face barely deserves the description.
  1263. > It is a bitter, hateful thing.
  1264. > "I'll just leave you to think about that."
  1265. > You do think about it, long after she vanishes.
  1266. > Was that a threat against Flurry Heart?
  1267. > If so, it only emphasized the need to get through to Posey.
  1268. > But Sunburst would need time to work; he couldn't just go up to her on his first day there, and it might take a while to convince the timid mare.
  1269. > It might be time to ask some of the house ponies to look after Flurry Heart too...
  1270. > Even that wasn't a sure thing, but what else could you do?
  1271. > The answer comes immediately, and nausea runs through you at even the thought of it:
  1272. > You could use your talent on Haute Glamour's mind.
  1273. > Awaken whatever love she was still even able to feel.
  1274. > But doing that...
  1275. > Another wave of revulsion sweeps you.
  1276. > You'd seen the results of misuse of mind-magic - on the Crystal Ponies, and even your own husband.
  1277. > Merely freeing him from Chrysalis' entrancement had not removed the experience from his memory; recovering from that had been a long and difficult road.
  1278. > No, to misuse your talent to quash a rival - even one as despicable as Haute Glamour - was wrong.
  1279. > Down that path lay the tyrants and horrors of Equestria, and you had walked it to far already.
  1280. > "Miss Cadance?"
  1281. > Mayor Mare's muzzle cautiously peered around the office door.
  1282. > "Is - everything alright? I heard the yelling, and you've been quiet..."
  1283. "I am..."
  1284. > Not fine.
  1285. "...it was not a pleasant meeting."
  1286. > "From the volume involved, I rather gathered this."
  1287. > Unbidden, she slips the rest of the way around the door and steps in - taking the same seat Haute Glamour had so recently vacated.
  1288. > "Tell me."
  1289. > There are a lot of things you could tell her.
  1290. > But first and foremost is what is still sticking in your head from what Haute Glamour had said.
  1291. "...I sometimes wonder, Mayor, how many ponies here are actually my friends."
  1292. > "Friends, Your Highness?"
  1293. > Her use of your title - a title you no longer actually bear and do not feel worthy of - only sends your heart lower.
  1294. "Yes. How many ponies here think of me as - a real friend to them? Thunderlane?"
  1295. > You snort gently.
  1296. "He's a good stallion, don't get me wrong. And I don't think I could have anypony better for his position. But my friend? I think he hates me for giving him that position. My daughter?"
  1297. > A saddened sigh.
  1298. "I'm almost a stranger to her at times. She runs to Anonymous for comfort before me. Mocha? No. Any of the foreponies? No. Even-"
  1299. > The words are stopped before they can come, but Mayor Mare finishes them anyhow.
  1300. > "Even me."
  1301. > You look away, and it is now her turn to sigh.
  1302. > "No, no. You've not wronged me, Your Highness."
  1303. "I have co-workers. Managers. Subjects. But I worry that the only ponies here with strong feelings about me are the ones who hate me."
  1304. > "Do not ever say that."
  1305. > The force in her voice actually makes you jump.
  1306. > A transformation had come over Mayor Mare - the older mare's face creased with a stern expression that was matched by her tone.
  1307. > Yet, it was not fearsome but supportive, almost motherly.
  1308. > "We may not all be your friends, it's true. Your position is a lonely one; I wouldn't wish for it. But you are our Princess, and that means more than you think."
  1309. > She raises a hoof to gesture out the window and to the camp beyond.
  1310. > "Nopony here is blind to what you've brought us. If they are not fawning over you, it's because we all understand how much you'd hate that. But we know. We know, Cadance. Our respect is something you've earned, not taken or been given."
  1311. "Thank you, Mayor..."
  1312. > "Believe me, Your Highness. If there was some way I could be out there helping you deal with her more..."
  1313. > You manage to force a small, if pained smile.
  1314. "...no, I don't think that would be a good idea."
  1315. > "Yes; I'm fairly sure Haute Glamour knows I am your pony through and through."
  1316. "Besides, you are helping. Doing all that you do to keep this place running and stable is every bit as much a blow against her as anything else you do."
  1317. > Now it is Mayor Mare who smiles.
  1318. > "Good of you to say that. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking towards the future... speaking of which, the recreational building is just about done."
  1319. "Is it now? Well, I suppose that's one bit good news."
  1320. > "I'm told it'll be a bit longer until the inside furnishings are actually done, but the building can be opened for use before then."
  1321. "We absolutely should. It might even be good for everypony to see the inside go from barren to decorated by our own hooves."
  1322. > A calendar is detached from a nearby wall by your magic and hovered over to the desk.
  1323. > With a shock you realize the entire desk's top was bowing in somewhat.
  1324. > Earth Pony magic had always come a little bit easier to you than the use of your horn - perhaps a lingering relic of the Earth Ponies who'd raised you - and you must've been exercising a bit of it during your tirade against Haute.
  1325. > ...Mayor Mare must have been politely ignoring it too; your thankfulness for her instantly redoubles.
  1326. "Now, I think it might be good if I came down and said a few words before we properly open. I don't want to be only trotting out as a harbinger of disasters and horror..."
  1327. > Despite the bitterness in your voice, Mayor Mare smiles as well.
  1328. > "I couldn't agree more, Your Highness. Now, the only question is when."
  1329. "Not after work in the evening hour. And I doubt I can convince Anonymous to give us another day off, so that just leaves Sundays."
  1330. > "Well, that's three days from now, and-"
  1331. > Briefly retreating from the office, Mayor Mare returns with her own calendar.
  1332. > "- and the good news is we've nothing else impending then, so the whole day can be ours."
  1333. "Three days it is. See if we can get-"
  1334. > Fresh knocking at the officer door draws your attention.
  1335. > When it opens, another familiar face - one of the workers at the town hall - nervously pokes her muzzle into the office.
  1336. > "Your Highness? There's someone here to see you. I, um, told her you're busy but she's very insistent. Says it's important."
  1337. "Well, let her in of course."
  1338. > The pony that enters is a pegasus stallion you barely remember seeing once or twice.
  1339. > He is, however, obviously extremely nervous - terrified even:
  1340. > Ears laid flat, nostrils flared, and eyes flicking around the room and out the windows to the street behind you, as if he expected something to come screaming through them to carry him away at any moment.
  1341. "...hello, my little pony. Please, come in."
  1342. > With a nod you get the door shut behind him, then rise to circle around the desk and put on your best warm, smiling mask.
  1343. "May I ask your name?"
  1344. > "W-Windy Winters, Miss C-Cadance."
  1345. > Up close, you can not just see but even smell the fear on the stallion:
  1346. > A rank, bitter scent that sets your own nostrils wide.
  1347. "Well, you need not fear anything in here, Windy Winters. What can I-"
  1348. > Barely can you finish when he collapses, sinking to the floor and seizing at one of your forehooves with clinging legs.
  1349. > "Please, Ca- Your Highness! Please, please protect me! I didn't know they'd hurt her like that, but Anonymous is going to kill us now! Please, mercy!"
  1350.  
  1351. > The little motorized cart whines slightly as it travels down the road, occasionally bumping and shuddering at the odd crack or pothole.
  1352. > None of that is enough to distract you from what is going on.
  1353. > Your stare blankly out at the buildings and ponies, mind a million miles away and-
  1354. > "Hey, Thunderlane?"
  1355. > Beside you, Seismic Shift nudges you with a hoof.
  1356.  
  1357. > Also in the cart are two other human security officers in the front seats, leaving the two of you to share the back.
  1358. > "You doing alright?"
  1359. "Just - thinking."
  1360. > Celestia, please don't let them actually fight you...
  1361. > For a moment, Seismic seems ready to speak again.
  1362. > Thankfully he quiets, seeming to realize that you're needing a moment to yourself.
  1363. > Unbothered, your thoughts slip back to the meeting with Anonymous:
  1364. > He'd listened quietly at first as Gene had laid out the details.
  1365. > "...and three of the four ponies accused by the list Thunderlane was given match the names another pony turned over to us."
  1366. > "And the fourth?"
  1367. > "Was not given to us by Crescent Moon. But we have also questioned the other ponies mentioned by the note Thunderlane was given, the ones who knew the accused."
  1368. "They agree. All four ponies accused on the list I was given were away from their work positions for one reason or another when Mocha Cream was attacked, and all have... expressed anger about current camp conditions."
  1369. > "Very diplomatic, Thunderlane."
  1370. > Anonymous is smiling, but it's a thin expression devoid of any real happiness - though still bearing a degree of morbid pleasure.
  1371. > "So they hated my guts, have no alibi, and have been fingered by two different sources."
  1372. > And a third, but you reject even the thought of mentioning Vapor Trail's involvement.
  1373. > "I'd say that's plenty of evidence to go on. Gene, Thunderlane - get these ponies in here fast and quietly. Try not to let them start a scene."
  1374. > And so you found yourself puttering along with Seismic and two other guards.
  1375. > At least until the cart stopped in front of one of the many work buildings.
  1376. > "We're here."
  1377. > Another cart with three more guards would be pulling up on the opposite side of the building as well.
  1378. > That lends you some reassurance as you hop out and start in towards the building.
  1379. > Within is a mess of Pegasi charging back and forth, pushing clouds ahead and carefully breaking them into more manageable pieces for insertion into enchanted mattress frames.
  1380. > Yet the moment you enter a bubble of utter vaccum seems to form around you, however:
  1381. > A glance to either side confirms that the human officers have drawn their tasers; your wings spread as well as you converge on the pony you'd been given sent after.
  1382. "Autumn Frost!"
  1383. > A middle-aged pegasus mare with ivory-white coat and a shock of orange hair jerks
  1384. > If she'd had any hope that you weren't here for her, it was broken the moment you called out her name.
  1385. > There's no howled retort or hurled insult; recognizing the closing jaws of the trap, she quickly examines the four approaching threats and simply throws herself straight into you.
  1386. > Unfortunately, you're more than prepared - having expected a fight from a pony like this, you've braced all four hooves on the ground and manage to catch her charge.
  1387. > Instantly Seismic's grey-black form plows into her side, drawing a grunt from Autumn Frost.
  1388. > Yet she refuses to go down without a fight; you manage to pin her lashing wings and one foreleg as Seismic restrains her powerful hindlegs.
  1389. > In desperation, Autumn Frost's jaws close on your neck and twist, but she's in no position to really get enough leverage to actually harm you.
  1390. > Something whizzes past your ear, the taser's pins burying themselves in Autumn Frost's side.
  1391. > She howls, but goes still and rigid as the current courses through her.
  1392. > Only then are the two officers to able to shackle Autumn and bind her wings.
  1393. > Climbing off of her, you rub at your ear.
  1394. > That had been close; one degree off and it'd have been you catching that shock...
  1395. > Looking around, you meet a sea of wide-eyed pegasi faces.
  1396. "...guard business. Keep a distance and we'll be out of here."
  1397. > They do, the sudden burst of violence and its just as sudden conclusion proving an effective deterrent against any attempts at interference.
  1398. > Even with her legs hogtied by the shackles and wings securely bound, Autumn Frost struggles - and when that doesn't work, unleashes a hail of profanity that has a few in the crowd diving to cover the younger ears and keep them from taking it in.
  1399. > It takes both the human officers to stretch her across Seismic's back and keep her there as you all leave.
  1400. > You take the lead, parting the crowd with a few gestures of your wings.
  1401. > Whatever has happened here, they know not to get involved.
  1402. > As she is deposited in the cart, one of the officers turns to Autumn and threateningly places his weapon directly against her forehead.
  1403. > "If you don't shut up, I'll pull the trigger until you do."
  1404. > Her lips part in a snarl, but she does remain quiet for the rest of the ride back.
  1405. > In truth, you're not feeling particularly charitable towards her either.
  1406. > Had they carried out their threat against her, you're not sure you'd have stopped them.
  1407. > Nor do you go to speak to her when they find a cell to place her in - shackles being securely bolted to the rings in the wall, leaving her unable to move more than a few shuffles in any direction - as you had done with the other ponies you'd arrested.
  1408. > ...which worries you.
  1409. > Enemy or not, hateful or not, Autumn Frost was still a pony.
  1410. > Weren't you supposed to be defending her?
  1411. > Was it right for you to play judge like that?
  1412. > But what were you supposed to say?
  1413. > Suggest they beg for mercy?
  1414. > Ask them why they did it?
  1415. > Those thoughts continue to swirl in your head, at least until you return to the briefing room.
  1416. > The sour looks on Gene and Anonymous' faces promptly rouses a whole new set of concerns.
  1417. "What happened?"
  1418. > "Autumn Frost and Comet Tail have been caught. Windy Winters and Chrysocolla were not anywhere we expected."
  1419. "...great. And they'll probably hear about this, so they're not exactly going to come back."
  1420. > Everyone is silent for a few moments, pondering that.
  1421. > And then, Anonymous stands abruptly and leaves, heading for the cells.
  1422. "Master?"
  1423. > You're after him immediately, breaking into a brief gallop to catch up.
  1424. "Master, what are you doing?"
  1425. > "I'm going to find out where the two of them went. The two we have almost certainly know - or know how else we can find them."
  1426. > His tone is hard and grim.
  1427. > Stomach plunging, you realize he's going to do whatever he feels is needed to get the last two ponies' locations.
  1428. > ...and at the same time, you're not as horrified as you might have otherwise been.
  1429. > "I've ordered a camera system to be installed, but until it arrives and gets set up we can't wait for them."
  1430. > Catching a glimpse at your expression, Anonymous shakes his head.
  1431. > "I'm not going to go overboard on them, Thunderlane. This isn't about punishment - yet. But one way or another, they're giving up those names. Whether I dig them out of those assholes or you do, it doesn't matter. It'll end when they give them up."
  1432. [Choice]
  1433. > Have to be careful now, Thunderlane.
  1434. > Convincing Anonymous when he's in a mood like this is only mildly less dangerous than flying through a thunderstorm at night.
  1435. > One wrong wingbeat, and not only would it get away from you but leave you bruised and aching as well.
  1436. "An- Master, give me a chance to work on them. I know they're not going to be cooperative right to start, but if it's me or the whip... and we've already got their names; it's not like they can go anywhere. What's a day or two more waiting?"
  1437. > The flat look that Anonymous gives you suggests that he doesn't quite believe they're going to give you anything less than bile and fury.
  1438. "Then at least let me be there with you! I - I can offer them an out, when you're -"
  1439. > It takes a moment to find the right words.
  1440. "- pressing them; they'll see it as better than giving in to you. And, I can-"
  1441. > "You can keep me from going berserk on them if they don't give in to me, is what you're really saying."
  1442. > Swallowing hard, you look away.
  1443. > Anonymous had cut to the heart of the matter, saying everything that you'd been dancing around admitting.
  1444. > His hand flexes, curling in and out of a fist several times before he seems to deflate.
  1445. > "Alright. You're in, and if they don't crack you can go talk to them on your own time too."
  1446. "Thank you, Sir."
  1447. > "There's no need for me to let go on them now. This is just an interrogation, after all. There'll be time for a proper sentence to be carried out on them later."
  1448. > The way he says that sends an unwelcome prickling through your coat.
  1449. > "And for that matter, Thunderlane... if I do start going overboard, step in and stop me. That's an order."
  1450. > You hadn't been expecting that command, and it clearly shows in your expression.
  1451. > Anonymous shoots you a bitter smirk.
  1452. > "Hey, maybe it'll make you a more palatable negotiating partner to them. That's what you want, isn't it?"
  1453. > Yes, but not like that.
  1454. > Nonetheless you remain silent as he continues the rest of the way down, pausing collect a plastic bucket along the way, consumed by your own thoughts.
  1455. > Surprisingly, rather than Autumn Frost he instead turns to the other cell.
  1456. > "None of the files say anything about these ponies having family or anyone else close. Maybe that's why they moved together. Either way, we'll heave to break them apart from each other."
  1457. "I understand."
  1458. > Comet Tail turns out to be an older unicorn stallion with a bright yellow coat - that had unfortunately already become smeared with dirt.
  1459. > Compared to your take-down, he must have fought viciously:
  1460. > In addition to the heavy restricter on his horn a harsh, tight bridle, muzzle, and bit had been fastened around his face; you could see the furrows in his coat where their straps dug into his flesh.
  1461. > Furthermore, his shackles had been used not merely to hobble him but had been attached to the wall bolt with a far-too-short chain, leaving Comet Tail sprawled on his back unable to lower his legs.
  1462. > From the moment Anonymous enters Comet Tail keeps his eyes fixed on the man - leaving you relatively unseen.
  1463. > His flicking ears, though, betray his awareness of your presence as well.
  1464. > "Comet Tail..."
  1465. > The bucket Anonymous had collected is set down behind his tail, leaving him unable to see what is in it.
  1466. > You can, though, and your blood runs cold at the collection of implements of misery stacked in that bucket.
  1467. > He'd promised...
  1468. > ...this had to be part of the bluff.
  1469. > You had to believe that.
  1470. > Squatting down by Comet Tail's side, Anonymous reaches out to brush a few strands of his mane back.
  1471. > Comet angrily flicks his muzzle away, but cannot do anything more.
  1472. > "You're in a pretty bad spot, aren't you?"
  1473. > An angry snort, and the stallion pulls on his chains.
  1474. > "You've managed to piss me off in perhaps one of the worst ways possible. Now that you're in here - well, I'm not expecting a sudden rising-up to break you out of here, y'know? After all, it was those ponies who gave you up to me."
  1475. > This does provoke a rather angrier snarl; this time, Comet actually tries to heave himself upright in his chains to face Anonymous directly.
  1476. > Instead he falls back to the cold concrete floor, air driven from his lungs by the boot Anonymous had planted in his chest.
  1477. > You wince, but that wasn't too far... yet.
  1478. > Still holding him down, Anonymous leans in - fury dancing in his eyes.
  1479. > "You've been given up by everyone, Comet. No other pony here cares about you. None of them came to your rescue when the guards came. They've left you out to hang. You might hate me, but I'm literally your only hope right now."
  1480. > For a moment Comet actually seems to be pondering this.
  1481. > Then he turns his head and - around the bit - spits against Anonymous' boot.
  1482. > "Fu' off."
  1483. > Being unable to properly open his mouth distorts his words, but the meaning remains clear.
  1484. > "Y'gonna 'orture me, jus' do i'. No games. 'm done."
  1485. > Despite the brave face being put on, you can smell the rank fear rolling off the stallion - a bitter, stinging scent that betrays just how terrified he is.
  1486. > He knows what happened to Corona.
  1487. > He saw the bucket Anonymous brought in, even if not what was in it.
  1488. > And he's perfectly aware of what lays in the future for him.
  1489. "We don't want to torture you, Comet Tail."
  1490. > Head snapping around, Comet fixes you with an equally hateful glare.
  1491. > "Y'wan' wha'ever 'elps you, traitor."
  1492. > "You should listen to Thunderlane, Comet Tail. He's about the only reason I didn't just walk in here and start in on you."
  1493. > Sorting in both anger and disbelief, the stallion swings his head back around to look at Anonymous.
  1494. > "Why? M'not goin' t'beg."
  1495. > "You should. You think the rest of your little group is going to spare you? If you hold out, you're just going to find yourself at the back of the line."
  1496. > "...liar..."
  1497. > Comet's voice wavers with uncertainty, though.
  1498. "He isn't. You think you're the most popular pony around? Remember that you got sold out to us. I break one of you, the rest of you are sunk. It's a first-or-not-at-all deal."
  1499. > "I..."
  1500. > "Look, Comet."
  1501. > Anonymous' face twists into a very unpleasant grin.
  1502. > "Right now I'd be much, much rather putting a cattle prod into your balls. And we both know you're not staying here."
  1503. > Comet Tail seizes up.
  1504. > "Not - no' stayin'?"
  1505. > Shrugging, Anonymous chuckles.
  1506. > "Of course not. What, did you think I'd have my fun torturing you and then let you back out?"
  1507. > Comet twists in place, and you have to wonder if that was exactly what he'd been expecting.
  1508. > That was, after all, what had happened to Cadance and Corona.
  1509. > "There's three futures for you, Comet Tail: One, you get sold off on the open market tagged as violent and hostile. Two, the same... but with your horn's nerves cut."
  1510. > Both yourself and Comet stiffen at that; a unicorn with no horn would only be wanted for the simplest, hardest labor and have little hope.
  1511. > A pegasus' clipped feathers could grow back, but the horn's nerves...
  1512. > "...three?"
  1513. > "Euthanasia."
  1514. > Comet blanches, his already-pale yellow coat losing even more color.
  1515. > Anonymous only grins wider - an ugly, unpleasant grin.
  1516. > "I have my fun with you, then make the case you're still a completely unsalvageable threat. Too dangerous for any work. Only solution is to have you destroyed."
  1517. > "Y'can' do tha'. Not jus' b'cause I beat your house whore."
  1518. > A smarter stallion would have known not to use those words.
  1519. > Seen the warning signs of barely-held-back fury in Anonymous' posture and expression.
  1520. > Comet did not.
  1521. > Driving a boot into his stomach hard enough to leave the stallion curled and gasping in pain,
  1522. > "Alright, suit yourself. Thunderlane, I'll be right back."
  1523. > The cell door slams shut, leaving alone with the moaning stallion.
  1524. "...Comet Tail, please. He's telling the truth. I can try to hold him back a while, but I can't stop him. You've put him on the warpath. He will have you killed!"
  1525. > Despite the desperation in your voice, the other stallion only laughs - a pained, wheezing sob of a laugh.
  1526. > "Liar. Y'say tha', bu' you've been on 'is side since y'joined th'guards. You jus' want another pat on th'head from him."
  1527. "Damn it, Comet! I'm not lying! I can't save you entirely, but you don't have to get yourself killed or dehorned!"
  1528. > He laughs bitterly still, but there's a new element in it now.
  1529. > Fear, terror, the kind of awesome horror you cannot stand up to but only laugh at or break.
  1530. > "Keep lyin', Thunderlane. Lie t'me, lie t'your brother, lie t'yourself..."
  1531. > Laughter breaks down to real crying.
  1532. > In the distance, you can hear water running.
  1533. > "...maybe we shoulda gone after y'runt brother as well as tha' house whore."
  1534. > Your mind immediately snaps to the two missing ponies.
  1535. "You wouldn't dare."
  1536. > "Why wouldn' we? He was a good pony once. Helped us, then turned tail after y'got flogged. Woul' send a message t'all you traitors. We were watchin' him."
  1537. > Before you can answer, Anonymous returns - now struggling with a full bucket, water spilling over the sides.
  1538. > This bucket is set beside Comet Tail's head.
  1539. > Comet stares up at Anonymous from his spot inverted on the floor as the man kneels, a knee to either side of his head locking it in place and a black cloth spread out over the stallion's face.
  1540. > Barely a squeal emerges from the stallion before the bucket is tipped, water splashing out onto his face and rendering it a muted, gurgling scream instead.
  1541. > He twitches and writhes, suspended hooves heaving and pulling as his chest spasms.
  1542. But his head is firmly locked between Anonymous' knees, and there's no escape from the stream of water pouring over his covered face.
  1543. > ...you should stop this.
  1544. > It was what you'd come here to do - even what Anonymous had asked you to do.
  1545. > But he'd threatened Rumble.
  1546. > And you had to keep your little brother safe too.
  1547. > If those ponies weren't found, if they hurt him...
  1548. [Choice]
  1549. > You stare at Comet Tail, ears laid flat against your skull as if to block out the gurgling screams even having petered out, reduced to gurgling, retching heaves.
  1550. "He's drowning!"
  1551. > "No."
  1552. > Anonymous' tone is bizarrely flat given the struggling stallion trapped beneath him.
  1553. > "He just feels like he is because of the cloth. It'll be fine as soon as I let him up."
  1554. > That depends very much, you think, on the definition of 'fine'.
  1555. > But still you don't move, limbs frozen by Comet Tail's words echoing around your ears.
  1556. > Would they attack Rumble - or worse, threaten him to try and escape?
  1557. > It wouldn't end well, but they would be just desperate enough...
  1558. > Unbidden, your eyes stray from the spectacle to the other bucket Anonymous had brought in.
  1559. > Its nightmarish contents are enough to make your stomach twist:
  1560. > The thick, heavy whip laid coiled against one wall was the least of it; next to it rested an upright cattle prod, while a small gas torch and several metal handles leaned on the opposite side.
  1561. > A powerful shears, its long and heavy arms hinting at the great force that would be used to close its hooked jaws, hung half-over a third side.
  1562. > In between them all sat a pair of metal contraptions you didn't even recognize - or particularly want to - but whose spiked arms and screw-tightened hinges were enough to plant plenty of suggestions.
  1563. > At last Anonymous sets the bucket down, ripping the rag away and letting a gasping and spluttering Comet Tail catch his breath.
  1564. > It takes him a few moments - his eyes initially rolling in wild fear until the sensations of drowning fade.
  1565. "Celestia help me..."
  1566. > Your muttered oath goes unnoticed.
  1567. > You should stop this.
  1568. > But...
  1569. > Was it any different than when you'd turned over the ringleaders?
  1570. > You knew what would happen to them.
  1571. > Wasn't your soul already damned by that?
  1572. > Protecting Rumble had been enough reason then; wasn't it now?
  1573. > "That was fifteen seconds at most, pony. I've heard of this going for two, three hours... and we're not exactly going to run out of water."
  1574. > Comet Tail's breath catches again at the threat.
  1575. > Yet it still is not enough to move him to speak.
  1576. > "Well, suit yourself. After we're done with this we can try something else."
  1577. > For a moment Comet Tail looks pleadingly to you, but you cannot muster up a response in time.
  1578. > The rag is thrown down over his face again, masking the desperate expression.
  1579. > Even with the knowledge of what is coming, the stallion is soon screaming, then gurgling, then simply writhing again.
  1580. > ...you can't watch this.
  1581. > Despite promising - it's just too much.
  1582. > To just know about it in a distant, abstract way is one thing; to be right there as it happens is another.
  1583. > It's all you can do to keep from galloping from the room.
  1584. > Instead you go to the next cell down.
  1585. > Autumn Frost looks up as you open the door, having shifted herself over just far enough to rest on the cell's thin, hard mattress.
  1586. > Initially she says nothing, meeting you with the same wordless resignation that she had when you'd arrested her.
  1587. > Instead you begin the exchange.
  1588. "Chrysocolla and Windy Winters."
  1589. > Her face tightens; clearly Autumn had been hoping that she was the only one known.
  1590. "They managed to avoid us. We need to know where they are."
  1591. > "Go rut yourself."
  1592. > The three words are spoken in a surprisingly soft tone - cool, distant rage rather than hot and immediate.
  1593. "We have to know, Autumn, or Anonymous is only going to get worse."
  1594. > Nothing comes but a small shake of her head.
  1595. > In contrast, your anger only rises.
  1596. "Damn you, Autumn - he's going to get all of you anyhow! He'll break one of you - or just turn the entire camp upside-down to find them. You heard how angry he is!"
  1597. > This finally seems to shock her into actually speaking:
  1598. > "What do you mean, one of-"
  1599. > Her ear cocks, head twisting on the mattress at a half-heard distant gasp.
  1600. > When it is immediately followed up by another muted scream, Autumn's expression tightens.
  1601. > "Who is that?"
  1602. > From her tone she has guessed already anyhow, but you confirm it:
  1603. "Comet Tail."
  1604. > Autumn's ears go flat as well, she lays her head back down on mattress.
  1605. "How are you so calm?! Do you have any idea what he's doing to Comet?"
  1606. > "No."
  1607. > After a second's thought, she adds:
  1608. > "Expect I'll find out soon, though."
  1609. "You'll find out-"
  1610. > For several moments, you remain glaring at her - the silence occasionally broken by Comet Tail's distant struggles.
  1611. > "He wants us to grovel. No grovelling, he beats us until we do. I don't grovel."
  1612. > It's the most words you've gotten out of her yet.
  1613. > And enough to make your exasperation boil over; stepping forward, you reach out with your teeth to grab her mane in a twisted reversal of how she'd tried to attack you.
  1614. > Unlike then, however, you have plenty of leverage to lift her up.
  1615. > Spitting out her mane, you growl softly:
  1616. "This doesn't have to happen. He's not just taking his anger out on Comet, he's looking for something. You give him that something, it /will/ stop."
  1617. > Staring soundlessly at you, Autumn simply shakes her head.
  1618. > "Nothing. I say nothing."
  1619. > In the distance, Comet Tail's voice raises to an open scream - a howl of pain.
  1620. > Anonymous had, apparently, moved on.
  1621. "He's not just going to hurt him, Autumn! He's talking about having Comet's horn cut if those two aren't found. He might cut your wing tendons too!"
  1622. > This finally earns a real reaction from the mare, her stoicism breaking under the thought of that.
  1623. > As she thinks it over, another agonized scream issues from Comet Tail's cell.
  1624. > Swearing furiously, you spin and gallop from the cell.
  1625. > Pausing only to kick the door shut with an earsplitting bang, you charge back into the first cell - and shrink back at what you see.
  1626. > Two clearly-recognizable boot marks were already imprinted in Comet Tail's belly, black dirt marring his light yellow coat.
  1627. > The soaked rag had been left in place over his muzzle - barely enough to muffle his yells.
  1628. > Even as you watch, Anonymous - a hand pulling one of Comet's hindlegs apart - draws his foot back and lets it slam forward squarely in between-
  1629. > Comet Tail spasms, back arching wildly as he screams.
  1630. > Flinching in sympathy as your own hindlegs instinctively close protectively, you snap your wings open and take a hard step forward.
  1631. "Anonymous, that's enough!"
  1632. > His head snaps up to glare at you.
  1633. > Gone is his cool and dispassionate anger from before, replaced with a hot-burning fury ready to be unleashed.
  1634. > But you meet your owner's gaze head on and refuse to back down.
  1635. "You ordered me."
  1636. > "...yeah. Right. I'll - be outside."
  1637. > Letting him go isn't what you have planned though; instead you follow him out, only speaking when out of earshot.
  1638. "What happened."
  1639. > "He opened his fucking mouth, that's what happened."
  1640. > One hand rising to rub his forhead, Anonymous sighs.
  1641. > "Maybe even deliberately provoked me. I don't know."
  1642. "You need to go and calm down somewhere."
  1643. > "Yeah. I do..."
  1644. > He sounds so... drained.
  1645. > Lost, maybe.
  1646. "There's no need to rush. We can get the names. A day or two, and it'll mean you won't do... this."
  1647. > "You're right. Thanks, Thunderlane."
  1648. > Surprisingly, he doesn't sound too sorry to admit you're right.
  1649. > Had he actually been expecting you to control him...?
  1650. > You wait until Anonymous is entirely out of sight - just to be sure - before turning back into the cell.
  1651. > Comet Tail is still moaning and curled into as tight a ball as his shackles will allow - twin fresh lines of wetness trailing from his eyes.
  1652. > It's quite a while from when you pull the soaked rag from his face that he is coherent enough to speak.
  1653. > And even then only with a breathless, pained voice.
  1654. > "You... you made him stop."
  1655. "I shouldn't have left in the first place."
  1656. > Dropping onto your haunches, you belatedly remember the filthy floor was still soaked - not nearly all of the water having gone down the drain.
  1657. > "Why?"
  1658. "Because I told you the Tartarus-damned truth, Comet Tail! I don't - I don't want you to suffer! Even after you threatened my brother, I really don't!"
  1659. > "Why should I-"
  1660. > Comet tries to shift, but gives up a second later - gasping in sudden pain at a misjudged movement.
  1661. > Instead he settles for rolling his head over to stare at you with bloodshot eyes.
  1662. > "-should I care what you want?"
  1663. "Because I'm a pony trying to help you!"
  1664. > "You're a traitor, just like that whore we kicked up. Just trying to make yourself look good. Save your sorry own rear..."
  1665. "...then if you don't think about me, think about the others! Autumn Frost is in the cell right next to yours; do you want her to be tortured too?"
  1666. > Comet Tail's reaction is quite unlike hers.
  1667. > In contrast to her quiet look of anger, a look of horror and despair creeps over his face.
  1668. > "...she'll never talk. She barely talked to us. I, I talk to much. She won't say a word."
  1669. "He'll go even harder on her. You think this is bad? I can't be around to stop him forever, Comet. He'll break her. If he's willing to take your horn, he might take her flight! You have to talk - for her sake, if not for yours or mine!"
  1670. > Leaping up onto your hooves, you circle around him and kick over the bucket filled with hideous implements of torment - letting them scatter across the floor in full view of the other stallion.
  1671. > "All of these - he'll go through every one on her!"
  1672. > "If I talk, he'll spare me and cripple her."
  1673. "No. You can negotiate. I can negotiate!"
  1674. > Laughing an agonized, wheezing noise, Comet Tail shakes his head.
  1675. > "You can't force him, and you can't force me."
  1676. > A second later, he has stopped laughing - staring with eyes wide at the electrical prod gripped in your jaws.
  1677. > "...you're bluffing. You said you don't want me to be tortured. You wouldn't."
  1678. > All the certainty and cockyness that he's spoken with a moment earlier was gone, though.
  1679. > Speaking around the handle gripped in your jaws is hard, but you're still mostly understandable.
  1680. > And even if not, your growled tone says plenty.
  1681. "You have no idea what I would do to protect my brother."
  1682. > "...c'mon, Thunderlane, it's not me that's putting him in danger. You doing - this! That's what it is!"
  1683. "You threatened him. Before, I didn't - but I've got a reason to want you to talk now too."
  1684. > "N-No way. I don't believe you!"
  1685. > With the control switch where it was, finding it with your tongue was relatively easy.
  1686. > ...but is this right?
  1687. > It's one thing to let Anonymous do the torturing.
  1688. > Even to turn other ponies over to him for it.
  1689. > To actually hold the implement of torture in your own jaws, make use of it yourself...
  1690. [Choice]
  1691. > Slowly you approach Comet Tail, the prod still grasped in your mouth.
  1692. > His eyes are locked onto the two-pronged tip as it drifts closer - real fear, even fear that you hadn't seen before, now filling them.
  1693. > Breath hitching they pass over the tender location of Anonymous' blow.
  1694. > Even with your fortitude the thought of torturing a stallion there is enough to make you shudder - but not so much it shows.
  1695. > Comet Tail jumps as you squeeze on the trigger - sharp, snapping pops coming from the prod's contacts.
  1696. > "No..."
  1697. > He's scared - really, truly scared now.
  1698. > Still pressing forward, you advance until those twin metal pins are digging into his throat.
  1699. > Eyes rolling wildly in fear and body shaking, Comet desperately tries to wriggle back away from you.
  1700. > But there's only so far he can go, and it's not nearly enough.
  1701. "I want you to remember this moment, Comet Tail."
  1702. > Lips working soundlessly, the stallion shakes his head - horn scraping against the concrete floor.
  1703. > The bit in his mouth clicks as he struggles to bite through it and free his jaw.
  1704. "Focus, Comet! Focus on me, and remember that between the two of us, wher we both held a completely defenseless pony at our mercy..."
  1705. > Your head twists aside and you spit the prod from your mouth, leaving it to clatter on the floor.
  1706. > Then you spit again, just to get its foul taste - literal and metaphorical - out of your mouth.
  1707. "...and it was the 'traitor' who refused to harm another pony."
  1708. > Though it's impossible to be certain, you think some of the drops of liquid that run down Comet's side are sweat.
  1709. > He is sucking deep, heaving breaths - taking time to come to terms with what you said.
  1710. > While he does, you go to work:
  1711. > Dragging the bucket from where you'd tipped it over fills the room with an ear-splitting scraping, but you have to bring it around into Comet Tail's field of view.
  1712. > As he watches, you pick up every tool that had spilled out.
  1713. > The gas torch, and the brands it would heat.
  1714. > The powerful shears, with its gleaming jaws.
  1715. > Devices whose bladed and spiked edges hold the alarming tinge of old blood.
  1716. > When the last is out of sight, you step over to Comet Tail himself.
  1717. > Trembling still racks his body, but he remains still as you reach down and - taking the straps carefully in your teeth - undo the muzzle around his head.
  1718. > Comet gasps when you pull it free, spitting the bit clear of his jaws.
  1719. > As soon as it is gone he gasps out:
  1720. > "Why...?"
  1721. "Why should I torture you? I told you, Comet. I'm trying to protect you."
  1722. > Again you drop to your haunches, ignoring the cold wetness seeping up from the floor.
  1723. > A moment later you give in altogether, dropping down to your belly and letting your head rest on crossed legs.
  1724. "I've been called a lot of things, Comet. Traitor, coward, Anonymous' attack dog... I'm not, though. All of this... when I started it, I swore that I would be doing it to keep us all safe. To keep him from doing... this to even more ponies."
  1725. > "So you won't torture me."
  1726. "I won't."
  1727. > Laying his head back down against the floor, Comet eyes you from his upside-down position.
  1728. > "It's a noble ideal, Thunderlane. But you're wrong. He takes from us in more ways than whips and torture. Every time a pony follows an order without question, it's another defeat."
  1729. "That doesn't make it right to beat an innocent filly half to death."
  1730. > "She was a casualty. We're at war, even if there isn't an Equestria anymore."
  1731. "I don't want to be at war, Comet. I don't want to call innocent fillies 'casualties'. And I think the camp agrees with me more than you."
  1732. > "That's just the problem."
  1733. > Twisting his head over, the stallion manages to look at you with both eyes.
  1734. > "Nopony wants to be at war. It isn't nice. So they obey, because Anonymous promises to let us have a little bit to ourselves and it feels like a win... and they forget everything humans like him have taken from us."
  1735. "If it's between having a little and having nothing..."
  1736. > "But do we really have anything?"
  1737. "Yes. It's exactly that kind of little independence that let me kick him out of this room, refuse to torture you, even take that muzzle off. It's exactly what lets me look at myself in the mirror and swear I'm still the same stallion I was. That I could stand in front of Celestia herself tomorrow and swear I did the best I could."
  1738. > This finally seems to break through to Comet Tail, and he spends several long minutes staring off into the distance.
  1739. > You are patient, though, and eventually he does speak up again:
  1740. > "I guess... I kind of envy you. That you can make that peace with what you do."
  1741. > Again he twists around to look at you, squirming on the floor and heaving on his chains.
  1742. > "You know what I see? I see us being obedient. Being turned into livestock for them, for the rest of the future."
  1743. "That won't happen."
  1744. > "Won't it? He's talking about bringing a lot more ponies here. Everypony will see this being better, and the humans will see us being good, hardworking little ponies, they'll see an alicorn-"
  1745. > The word is spat as an insult, and you don't think he could bring himself to use her name.
  1746. > "-following him around like a filly in her first heat... and both'll forget everything they took from us."
  1747. "I..."
  1748. > You turn away now, shuffling your wings and trying to ignore the insult against Cadance.
  1749. "I'm not ignoring that. I want to fly freely again too! I want to sleep in a real cloud for once! But I've also seen his daughter. She's a good, innocent soul. I think we can show her how we really feel, and in time... something might pass."
  1750. > "Yeah, well..."
  1751. > Comet Tail sighs again, adjusting his head to try and keep his horn from scraping the floor.
  1752. > "...like I said, I wish I had your confidence."
  1753. > You nod, then stand.
  1754. > Detaching the chains that held Comet Tail's shackled hooves in mid-air isn't as easy as removing his muzzle had been, but you manage.
  1755. > The moment they detach he all but collapses onto his side, legs curling defensively over his belly.
  1756. > "What're you doing?"
  1757. "Letting you down. You'll have time to think this over, but I can't keep Anonymous off of you either. Sooner or later, he'll be back. He'll use everything in that bucket against you and more, and you will break."
  1758. > "I know. I thought if I pushed both of you, he'd just get it started and over with faster."
  1759. "He won't, if you talk."
  1760. > "Yeah, but I can't be a good, obedient pony either."
  1761. "Well... I tried, Comet. I'm sorry."
  1762. > The cell door slams shut behind you, leaving you alone in the hallway beyond.
  1763. > Immediately you sink to your belly again - an unbidden trembling now running through your own body.
  1764. > You'd... resisted.
  1765. > Somehow, despite his angry words, you'd held back and refused to use the prod.
  1766. > Where the strength to do that had come from, you aren't quite sure, but you're glad it was there nonetheless.
  1767. > Anonymous is just outside, resting in a chair with his elbows on his knees and a pensive expression on his face.
  1768. "Sir?"
  1769. > "Thunderlane... any luck?"
  1770. "I got him thinking, but it'll take some time."
  1771. > "I sort of figured. I know what you were hoping would happen, Thunderlane, but they're beyond rational argument."
  1772. > Anonymous stands, stretching.
  1773. > Glancing about, you find no one else close nearby.
  1774. "...sir, how are you holding up?"
  1775. > The glance he shoots you is enough to make you reconsider having asked that.
  1776. > But then his expression softens.
  1777. > "If it weren't for how you pulled me out of there before, I might think you're getting a bit full of yourself... but fair question. I'm not okay, and I have to thank you for getting me out."
  1778. "You're... welcome. You told me to."
  1779. > "I did, didn't I?"
  1780. > His expression barely fits the description of a smile, but it is one still.
  1781. > "And you carried out your duty. Thank you, Thunderlane."
  1782. "What will happen to them now?"
  1783. > Anonymous looks down at his hand and lets it clench.
  1784. > "...I can't be dealing with them while the anger is so fresh. There'll be time for that later. I'll put Eric on it, have him box them up for a day or two."
  1785. > Catching your questioning look, he adds:
  1786. > "It's not nearly as harsh as I was going to be in there."
  1787. "If you say so. If there's nothing else, I'd - like to go see Rumble."
  1788. > "Sure, sure. Go ahead, Thunderlane."
  1789.  
  1790. > For a few seconds after the stallion's tearful admission, you're frozen by shock.
  1791. > He-
  1792. > One of the ponies who had-
  1793. > Taking your silence to be coldness against his offer, Windy Winters throws himself around your leg and squeezes tightly.
  1794. > "Please, Your Highness! Your Majesty! It's - you have to protect him! Don't let him take me!"
  1795. "Windy - please, calm yourself. You will not be harmed in this room. But please, tell me everything you can."
  1796. > Rubbing his nose on one hoof, he nods - speaking in a halting, broken voice:
  1797. > "Autumn and Ch- the others, th'said - said we were just going to give her a little scare. Just - k-knock her about a little, you know? Push her over, yell a bit, give a few kicks..."
  1798. > Mayor Mare looks questioning to you, then the door, but you shake your head.
  1799. > It'd be good to have another pony in here to corroborate your claim.
  1800. "This was Mocha Cream, yes?"
  1801. > "Y-Yes, her. W-We knew sh-she'd taken the stuff from our cache. S-So we were going to just... spook her a little, show A-A-Anonymous we weren't afraid to a-act."
  1802. > The irony of that point being given by the terrified, teary-eyed stallion in front of you is not lost.
  1803. "What happened, Windy?"
  1804. > His jaw clams up, though, teeth jammed together, and Windy gives a little shake of his head.
  1805. > Despite the first tendrils of anger creeping up to grasp your heart, despite the voice that tells you to avenge the little filly's savage treatment, you force them down.
  1806. > A wing stretches out, laying across Windy Winters' trembling back.
  1807. > "C-Can't tell y-you. You'll get angry, and tell Anonymous, and he'll-"
  1808. "I have to know everything that happened, Windy. Please, tell me the rest. I swear I will do nothing until you've finished your story."
  1809. > It takes a few moments, but eventually your gentle, soothing tone works its magic.
  1810. > "W-Well they c-called her over into th-the alley, to f-far to be seen... and then we started p-pushing her around. A-Autumn took her b-bags, and we shoved her down-"
  1811. "Did you kick her, Windy Winters?"
  1812. > He swallows, but nods.
  1813. > "Once. Twice. M-maybe more. Not too hard - we were just trying to s-scare her."
  1814. "What happened then?"
  1815. > He takes a ragged, gasping breath before continuing.
  1816. > "M-Mocha? Mocha kept trying to talk, tell u-us we were wrong, and that made Autumn real pissed. Told me to watch the entrance of the alley. Lookout if anypony was coming."
  1817. "And then they really hurt her."
  1818. > Nodding shakily again, Windy Winters lays his head back down against your leg like a fearful colt confessing to his mother:
  1819. > "I guess I r-realized something was wrong when Co- they g-gagged her. And then they just started kicking and she was screaming but nopony could hear her. I t-told Autumn it was to much, but she told me to sh-shut up and just kept kicking, and I looked and there was blood, and..."
  1820. > Another pause.
  1821. > Mayor Mare is looking distraught, a hoof to her chest.
  1822. > "They already took Comet and Autumn, and they tried to take me and Chrysocolla but we got away. She's hiding, I think. He's going to k-kill them, Your Highness! Please, you have to protect me!"
  1823. "Shhh..."
  1824. > Leaning down, you brush the top of his head with your muzzle.
  1825. > Windy Winters reeks of fear and sweat; he must've come galloping right to you.
  1826. "...Windy, I will do all I can to see that you do not suffer, or - Celestia forbid - are killed. But... you must understand. I may not be able to protect you entirely. I may have to tell Anonymous... some of this."
  1827. > "No!"
  1828. > His howl is accompanied by a new round of grovelling before you.
  1829. > "He won't listen. He wants blood now. He'll break us! Make examples of us!"
  1830. > Those last four words send a shiver though you, and Windy can see the tremble in your feathers.
  1831. > "Please, Your Highness. Please, I know we've - attacked you. But you have to see, I'm a pony too... you have to protect me."
  1832. "I.. need to go think this over. But I will swear this to you: You can stay here, and so long as you are in this room no one will harm you. Do you understand? No one."
  1833. > Sniffling, he tilts his head.
  1834. > "...swear by your aunt's memory."
  1835. > A chill runs down your neck, but you do so anyhow.
  1836. "I do swear, by the memories of Celestia my aunt, what I say is the truth."
  1837. > That seems to be enough to mollify Windy Winters.
  1838. > Circling around to the far side of your desk, he hunkers down beneath the window - as if the mere act of daring to reveal himself in it would be to expose himself to Anonymous' wrath.
  1839. > Stepping out of the office, you're followed by Mayor Mare who quickly turns to face you.
  1840. > "Well?"
  1841. "Well, what?"
  1842. > "What'll you do?"
  1843. "Do you believe him?"
  1844. > "I do."
  1845. > Her blue eyes regard you questioningly - perhaps with just a touch of accusation as well.
  1846. > "Do you?"
  1847. "I do. I've seen true terror. He really does believe I am his only hope... and I believe him in that, too."
  1848. [Choice]
  1849. > "Do you have any idea what you're going to do about this?"
  1850. "Something incredibly foolish, but I really think it's the only one that can be done. Windy Winters trusted me; now I must pass on that trust to another."
  1851. > "...you aren't going to-"
  1852. > Silencing Mayor Mare with a sharp look, you gesture towards the closed door to your office.
  1853. > Even shut, it wasn't quite enough to stop a raised voice.
  1854. > In a lower tone, you respond:
  1855. "Yes, I am. He'll need to know, and the faster we can find the last of them the sooner this can all be resolved."
  1856. > "Windy Winters won't like it."
  1857. "He doesn't have to."
  1858. > "That's a dangerous path for you too, Your Highness. What if Anonymous disagrees? What if he orders you to turn him over?"
  1859. "Then he will find out just how much of a Princess I truly still am."
  1860. > Re-opening the door makes the stallion in question nearly leap for cover - from his already hidden spot.
  1861. > Poor thing truly was terrified.
  1862. "Windy?"
  1863. > "Y-Yes, Your Highness?"
  1864. > He speaks the title with more reverence than you'd heard most ponies who honestly approved of you.
  1865. > Nearing him, you drop down onto your belly - how often had you been doing this lately? - to reduce your size.
  1866. "First, I want you to understand something. I am not upset about the things you said about me."
  1867. > His mouth snaps open, but you raise a hoof to stop him.
  1868. "Or, perhaps it's better to say that I am - but what is said about me does not change my duty as a princess to protect you. Whatever you've said, however you've characterized me, I will still do the best I can for you."
  1869. > "Yes, Your Highness."
  1870. > It's obvious from his expression that he does not believe you.
  1871. > Agreeing is simply the best choice to avoid further pain.
  1872. "What happened to Mocha Cream, however, isn't so easy. I need you to do something for me too, if you're going to stay here."
  1873. > A little whimper escapes Windy's throat, but he bobs his head and a terrified nod.
  1874. > "What do I have to do?"
  1875. "You have to own up to what you did. I won't let Anonymous torture you, but you must accept I cannot save you from having any punishment at all."
  1876. > "I..."
  1877. > Windy pauses, glassy eyes staring into oblivion.
  1878. > Clearly contemplating just what "a little" punishment would involve.
  1879. > "What if I can't...?"
  1880. "I can't say. But I won't let you become another Corona, Windy."
  1881. > Reaching out with a wing to gently brush the tip across his withers, you stand again.
  1882. "There are things I must take care of regarding all of this, but you're safe as long as you stay in here. I'll put a magic seal in place over the door so no one else can enter without me."
  1883. > Halfway to the door, he catches you with an unexpected question:
  1884. > "What'll happen to the others?"
  1885. "I do not know. I will do all I can, but that depends a lot, on what they do too."
  1886. > Then you leave him behind; as promised, you seal the door with a flicker of your horn.
  1887. > It was, you consider, as good as locking him in as anyone else out.
  1888. > A prisoner in the cell of his own choosing.
  1889. > Ignoring Mayor Mare's gaze - unseen but definitely felt - you strut from the rest of the office.
  1890. > Surprisingly, Anonymous isn't in his manor as you'd expected but in the camp itself - standing near the gateway and surveying things with a pensive expression on his face.
  1891. > In the late winter air he must be freezing - the thin jacket he wears is not nearly enough to completely ward off the cold but even so he stands still in the cold.
  1892. > His expression is haunted, you notice.
  1893. > Had something already happened with the two that had been captured?
  1894. "Anonymous. We need to talk."
  1895. > "Coming to scold me too?"
  1896. > You come up short; the bitterness in his voice hadn't been what you expected.
  1897. > Seeing your reaction, he laughs and shakes his head.
  1898. > "I'm doing plenty of that myself, so you can just fuck right off if that's what you wanted."
  1899. "...it wasn't. What happened?"
  1900. > Now it is Anonymous' turn to be surprised; studying your expression for evidence of a lie, he finally nods and goes to lean against the nearest building.
  1901. > "I went in to try and dig the location of the last two our of the ones we grabbed."
  1902. > Your breath catches.
  1903. "Did you-"
  1904. > "No. But only because Thunderlane was there to stop me - have to find a way to thank that stallion. One of those assholes, Comet Tail, was goading me into snapping at him. It was working, too."
  1905. "...you were stopped, though."
  1906. > "Only just."
  1907. > He grimaces again, shaking his head.
  1908. > "What I did to Corona was my anger getting the better of me. So was this. Having someone else there isn't enough; I have to master it myself. Even if the bastards deserve the worst I can do."
  1909. "Still."
  1910. > "But, if you're not here to lecture me, why are you?"
  1911. "The third of those ponies - Windy Winters - has been found."
  1912. > Eyebrows shooting up, Anonymous cocks his head.
  1913. > "That fast? I wasn't expecting..."
  1914. "He turned himself in."
  1915. > Once again Anonymous is thrown for a loop, his lips working silently over the words.
  1916. > "...turned himself in? Why? How?"
  1917. > And so you tell him what Windy Winters had told you.
  1918. > Emotions work their way over Anonymous' face in waves, most the incestuous children of rage and fury but also sometimes accompanied by sheer shock, surprise, and incredulity.
  1919. > At the end of it, you draw a deep breath and make your case:
  1920. "Windy Winters placed his trust in me, Anonymous, and I believe him. I cannot let you have him if you intend to torture him. No matter what you do to me, you will not see him until I have that from you. If you torture him-"
  1921. > "It'd be disastrous, I know."
  1922. > He sighs softly, scuffing a shoe against the pavement and wrapping his arms around himself to ward the chill.
  1923. > "For me and for you. I'm not an idiot, Cadance; I understand the carrot and stick. He turned himself in, stayed when you told him it'd mean facing a punishment... if I treated him like the others, no other pony would dare do the same."
  1924. > Looking back over at you, Anonymous' mouth twists itself into a bitter grin.
  1925. > "What, didn't expect me to see that?"
  1926. "...in truth, no."
  1927. > You bow your head in admission.
  1928. "I've wronged you in that, I see."
  1929. > A moment later, his hand comes down to brush against your cheek.
  1930. > "You're willing to admit it, though. That's enough for me."
  1931. "So will you give me your word?"
  1932. > "I want to make a phone call first. Then you'll have my response."
  1933. > ...
  1934. > Windy Winters is still there when you unseal your office door and step through.
  1935. > He looks up, expectation shining bright in his eyes.
  1936. > "Y-Your Highness! What happened? Is-"
  1937. > That light dies as Anonymous appears just beyond the doorway behind you.
  1938. > In an instant Windy is cowering back, wings raised defensively and retreating into the wall.
  1939. > "No! NO! You promised!"
  1940. > "Cadance, do it, like we talked about!"
  1941. > Your horn flashes bright enough to cast the room in flare and shadow, and an iridescent cerulean field springs into existence - sealing the doorway again and locking Anonymous out.
  1942. "Windy! Look, Windy - he can't hurt you. He can't come in; my shield won't let him touch you. You're safe, Windy!"
  1943. > Several more repetitions pass before Windy Winters really does look, though.
  1944. > Only then does Anonymous talk:
  1945. > "I'm not coming after you now, Windy. Just want to talk. Can we just talk?"
  1946. > Still shaking, the stallion looks between yourself and the man who owns both of you - and then nods.
  1947. > "B-But when y-you're done, you have t-to get out."
  1948. > "If you want me to, I will."
  1949. > When no disagreement is given, he goes on.
  1950. > "Truth is, I don't know if I can believe you alone. But I do know who I can believe - so I called the hospital Mocha Cream is at, got to talk to her a little bit."
  1951. > You and Windy both start; though he'd accepted your terms for seeing the stallion, Anonymous had kept the nature of the phone call he'd made from you as well.
  1952. > "Yeah, she's awake sometimes now. They're having to do a bit more surgery, but I got lucky and she was lucid enough to talk. I asked her about your story... and she confirmed it."
  1953. > "She - did?"
  1954. > "Yes. Said she didn't remember you really hurting her, that the other three did the worst of it. That's... enough corroboration for me, I guess."
  1955. > "You believe me..."
  1956. > The words are whispered in half-prayer, half-shock.
  1957. > "I do, and you stuck around while Cadance went out and got me so I can't just let that go either. I'm not going to have you tortured, Windy Winters. You - did the right thing, I guess, and even if I want blood... I can't have it from you."
  1958. > Even you are surprised; once again Anonymous' rejection of what he'd done once and nearly repeated again ran deeper than you'd expected.
  1959. > Lifting himself from the corner he'd crawled into, Windy Winters rises and approaches Anonymous on shaky legs.
  1960. > "You - you swear it?"
  1961. > "I do."
  1962. > Your ears twitch; there'd been the barest amount of anger in his voice, but Anonymous had quashed it admirably.
  1963. > Looking to you, he gestures to the force field.
  1964. > "May I?"
  1965. > Carefully you retract a portion of it, just enough to let him stick a hand through.
  1966. > Windy retreats again, eyes locked fearfully on it, but then forces himself forward and wings back down again.
  1967. > He pauses in the doorway, then at last stretches a hoof through and touches it to skin.
  1968. > "Cadance said I'd still have to face some p-punishment..."
  1969. > Anonymous nods and holds his own tone low and soft.
  1970. > "You will. I can't pardon you entirely."
  1971. > Mouth opening again, Windy hesitates - unable to bring himself to ask.
  1972. > Instead a single, whispered plea squeaks out:
  1973. > "Mercy..."
  1974. > You step in to ask what Windy cannot force himself to.
  1975. "What will happen to him?"
  1976. > "You'll be sold off, Windy; I'm sorry, but there's no place in the camp for a pony who can do this. But if you help me do this, you'll be sold off as - just a pony. Not marked as dangerous or disobedient. I'm willing to believe you were lead astray by the others, but you have to show me that."
  1977. > "Not - dangerous? Not sent to a glue camp?"
  1978. > The slang term - for the sort of worst places ponies could be sent - is enough to make you wince, but Anonymous weathers it.
  1979. > "Definitely not that, whether you help me or not. You'll have a new, fresh chance to prove that this isn't you. If you somehow ever end up back here again and I don't see any more trouble on your file, I'll even give you another chance here."
  1980. > "What about the others?"
  1981. > "Unless they suddenly show some sign of regret for what they did, they'll be permanently marked as dangerous and sold off as such. After that, they will have a chance to fix their own lives - if they care to."
  1982. > Both you and Windy cringe; no pony sold as dangerous and disobedient would be going anywhere good.
  1983. [Choice]
  1984.  
  1985. "Windy. Can you tell us where Chrysocolla might be hiding? Where we might be able to find her, or anypony else who might do something like this again?"
  1986. > "I... I dunno much. I wasn't really... in, y'know? I never really got to talk to anypony else."
  1987. > Of course, they would have adapted the same compartmentalized-cell structure you'd ordered Sunburst to use.
  1988. > Whether they were even part of the same network or had just come to similar conclusions you don't know, but it was a good enough guess.
  1989. > "You have to have some idea about where Chrysocolla might be, though."
  1990. > "I..."
  1991. > Windy's head hangs dejectedly, mane falling around his neck.
  1992. > "I have to do this if I'm going to make up for what happened to Mocha..."
  1993. > Despite it not really being a question, you step close enough to lay a wing on his back; Windy's own feathers shuffle under your touch.
  1994. "Yes. You may not have done the worst of it, but you were still a part... and a large part of showing you are truly sorry for what happened is making sure that those who really are responsible face punishment."
  1995. > "Yeah."
  1996. "And remember what Anonymous said: If they show remorse, he'll consider improving their sentence as well. You aren't automatically condemning them; this is something they have a choice in."
  1997. > "Agreed. If they do - really do - I can... water down the descriptions of exactly what happened, make them sound less dangerous."
  1998. > And, implicitly, spare them from going to a place where their remaining lives would be measured in mere months and not years.
  1999. > Somehow Windy's head manages to droop even further, but he does talk:
  2000. > "You know the underground storm drain vault near 4th and H streets?"
  2001. "We can find it."
  2002. > "Those hatches are padlocked, though."
  2003. > Anonymous frowns, head tilted.
  2004. > "I don't see how she could have gotten in there, especially without being seen."
  2005. > "Back around the loading dock for the good near it, there's a storm drain with a loose cover. It's pretty hidden, and Chrysocolla is a smaller mare. She can get in there and squirm down the larger pipes into the main vault-"
  2006. > Here Windy Winters shudders, and your coat prickles in sympathy.
  2007. > An earth pony may have felt safe down there, but to a pegasus the thought of crawling through a tiny pipe you could get stuck in at any moment was tantamount to torture.
  2008. > "Anyway, she put most of our stuff in there after the guards raided everything. I bet she'll be there now."
  2009. > "Going to be fun for the guards, trying to dig an earth pony out of the ground..."
  2010. > Anonymous' mutter provokes another shake of Windy's head.
  2011. > "It's worse than you know. She broke through the walls a while back and into the utility vault next to that for more room."
  2012. > Groaning, your owner drives both his hands into his forhead and rubs them there; even you have to boggle at how busy they had been.
  2013. > "Great. So now we're going to have to check on all of the manholes and vaults here next."
  2014. > "...I'm sorry, sir..."
  2015. "I think right now we need to focus on wrapping this up as quickly as possible. Everything else follows."
  2016. > "Right. I'll get the guards moving on digging her out of that vault."
  2017. "Better get one to accompany Windy Winters as well."
  2018. > After a moment your unspoken implication of what might occur should somepony realize he had turned clicks with Anonymous.
  2019. > "...right, yeah."
  2020. > "Where am I going?"
  2021. "A cell, Windy Winters. You will be kept there until this is done with."
  2022. > Through the windows of his eyes you can clearly see the moment of panic that flashes through.
  2023. > It passes, though, replaced with a softer look of understanding.
  2024. > "...yes, Your Highness. Can I - get a few of my things?"
  2025. > Despite the question being directed at you, Anonymous nods.
  2026. > "We'll have a guard go to your quarters and pull everything out."
  2027. > "Thank you, Master. If at all possible, I'd like a pencil and paper. I... want to write a letter to Mocha Cream."
  2028. "I'm sure that can be arranged."
  2029. > "Cadance, if you have a moment we've got a few other things to discuss."
  2030. "I'll be right there."
  2031. > Anonymous steps back from the shimmer shield still half-blocking the doorway and closes the proper, wooden door - leaving you alone to brush your nose down Windy Winters' neck.
  2032. > He shivers gently, but bows his head.
  2033. > "Thank you, Your Highness. I... did wrong, but you listened to me."
  2034. "But all I did is listen; you proved yourself. This was the right thing to do, not for reward or pardon but because it is simply right. That Mocha Cream was willing to stand up for you shows how much this is worth."
  2035. > "I..."
  2036. > Fresh tears trace familiar paths down his cheeks.
  2037. > "I'm ready. Send the guard when you want, I won't fight. And... if I don't get the chance to speak to you again, Your Highness-"
  2038. > For the first time, the title is not laden with dread.
  2039. > "-you're a better leader then we said."
  2040. > ...
  2041. > Anonymous had grabbed an empty seat while he waited, the pony-sized accommodation leaving him with knees tucked up to his chest.
  2042. > Everypony else had evacuated the office - nopony knowing what was really going on, but all having enough sense to realize it was something they did not want to be part of.
  2043. > As you arrive, though, he doesn't rise - or, indeed, even bother looking in your direction.
  2044. "Something on your mind?"
  2045. > "A bit. But you've obviously got some thoughts too; you go first."
  2046. "Is it truly necessary to sell off Windy Winters? I understand he did a terrible thing, but he's not just turned himself in to protect his own skin. He's truly remorseful."
  2047. > Anonymous produces a sigh that suggests you aren't the only one to have considered that.
  2048. > "I know. And he's put a lot of trust into both of us too."
  2049. > The unspoken 'but' hovers leaden in the air between the two of you.
  2050. "You won't, though."
  2051. > "Recognizing what he did is as much as I can really do. There's still a fair part of me that wants to shackle him up and give him the same treatment I'll give those two assholes up in the cells already."
  2052. > Finally turning his head to look at you, Anonymous (mostly) manages to keep his face calm.
  2053. > "I'm not going to, though. But neither can I keep him there. There's a place for a pardon, but not now."
  2054. > Your own ears fall, but you nod - this was not a place to argue with him.
  2055. > "I'm sorry, Cadance, but there has to be a red line for this place overall - after which you're out."
  2056. "Very well, Master. At the very least, then, can I suggest lightening the sentence on Crescent Moon and the others with her? She gave us much the same information too, and without even a threat of punishment."
  2057. > "...yeah, I guess that could be done. And just because I'm not going to pardon Windy Winters doesn't mean I won't do anything for him: He won't be permanently marked like the others, and I know which market circles the better buyers circulate in. A couple tweaks to his file, play down what happened while emphasizing his clear remorse, and he'll be okay."
  2058. "Now, on your end."
  2059. > "On my end... well, for starters I ought to tell you - there's going to be a camera system put in. It'll hold a bit of video, so we won't have to go around digging for information in the future."
  2060. > Scratching his chin, Anonymous stares off into the distance for a moment.
  2061. > "Otherwise - when the sentencing is carried out, I'm going to speak too."
  2062. "I understand."
  2063. > In a way, you wish there was something else he could do as well.
  2064. > He was - trying.
  2065. > And even if he was still very much your enemy, in some ways you felt sorry he couldn't be more than a harbinger of punishment and distress.
  2066. > ...of course, there was the rec center opening soon.
  2067. > This weekend, even - though on second thought, perhaps you'd better tell Mayor Mare to hold it back a week.
  2068. > "Recognizing what he did is as much as I can really do. There's still a fair part of me that wants to shackle him up and give him the same treatment I'll give those two assholes up in the cells already."
  2069. > Finally turning his head to look at you, Anonymous (mostly) manages to keep his face calm.
  2070. > "I'm not going to, though. But neither can I keep him there. There's a place for a pardon, but not now."
  2071. > Your own ears fall, but you nod - this was not a place to argue with him.
  2072. > "I'm sorry, Cadance, but there has to be a red line for this place overall - after which you're out."
  2073. "Very well, Master. At the very least, then, can I suggest lightening the sentence on Crescent Moon and the others with her? She gave us much the same information too, and without even a threat of punishment."
  2074. > "...yeah, I guess that could be done. And just because I'm not going to pardon Windy Winters doesn't mean I won't do anything for him: He won't be permanently marked like the others, and I know which market circles the better buyers circulate in. A couple tweaks to his file, play down what happened while emphasizing his clear remorse, and he'll be okay."
  2075. "Now, on your end."
  2076. > "On my end... well, for starters I ought to tell you - there's going to be a camera system put in. It'll hold a bit of video, so we won't have to go around digging for information in the future."
  2077. > Scratching his chin, Anonymous stares off into the distance for a moment.
  2078. > "Otherwise - when the sentencing is carried out, I'm going to speak too."
  2079. "I understand."
  2080. > In a way, you wish there was something else he could do as well.
  2081. "The rec center will be opening soon as well. This weekend, even - though, hrm. Perhaps I should tell Mayor Mare to put that one off for a week... but if you wished to, you could speak then as well. There's no need for you to be only a harbinger of punishment and domination."
  2082. > Part of the offer was a purely mercenary, self-serving one.
  2083. > Rebellion would never cease, if ponies only ever saw him as appearing at times of woe.
  2084. > Yet part of it was honest; he was trying to be a better man than the one you'd stood in shackles before so many months before.
  2085. > Now he was promising to be more involved, and even if he was your captor perhaps you could open his eyes too.
  2086. > But Anonymous himself looks conflicted, and it's not hard to guess why:
  2087. > The rec building had always been a 'by the ponies, for the ponies' development... he knows he might not be welcome.
  2088. [Choice]
  2089. > "Alright, Cadance, I'll make a show. You're still headlining, though. That place is rightly your achievement, and you should be proud of that."
  2090. "Don't tell me. Tell everypony there when it happens."
  2091. > "Yeah, I guess I should."
  2092. > He scratches you around the ears.
  2093. > "I'm going to head back to the house, then."
  2094. "What for?"
  2095. > "Sunburst is going to be coming in for his first lesson with Flurry Heart, and I have to be there. Not only did I tell him I would be, but I could use something to get my mind off of this."
  2096. > A pang shoots through your heart at the thought of missing their first new lesson together - let alone the reunion.
  2097. > Anonymous notices it too, and cocks his head.
  2098. > "...I guess you'd like to be there too."
  2099. "Yes, but - I can manage. There will be other lessons, and much has to be done right now."
  2100. > "True enough."
  2101. > Reaching out, Anonymous strokes his fingers along your cheek one last time.
  2102. > "There'll find a chance. You deserve that much, with all you've been doing."
  2103.  
  2104. > The orange-coated stallion stirs nervously as you lead him through the manor.
  2105. > He was obviously quite apprehensive at being welcomes in, yet his curiosity was getting the better of him:
  2106. > Sunburst's head was kept on a swivel, peering at nearly everything that he passed - taking in the relative opulence of your home.
  2107. > Saddlebags, swollen with books and a few magical testing apparatus, turned his normally slender and lanky figure into a swollen one that almost seemed unlikely to fit through doorways.
  2108. "The rest of the staff have been using Megan's room while she is at school for Flurry's lessons, but you can take the living room if you need more space."
  2109. > "I, um. I don't think that'd be a good idea. Not at first. Foals can have surges of magic..."
  2110. "I know, but she's far past the age when that normally happens. Though, I suppose those aren't exactly known for alicorn fillies..."
  2111. > Head bobbing in agreement, Sunburst puts on a little speed to keep up with you.
  2112. > "Exactly my thinking, Master. And, um, she's not used her magic in so long I don't know what could happen. It might be weaker, or it might be like opening a dam."
  2113. "A fair point."
  2114. > "Outside of the house would be better, if anythi-"
  2115. "Out of the question, at least until we wrap up these rebels, deal an appropriate punishment, and see that things have calmed."
  2116. > Practically jumping back at your grim tone, Sunburst's head droops back down.
  2117. > "O-Of course, Master."
  2118. "...sorry. Those matters are still sore for me."
  2119. > Arriving at the door to Megan's room, you pause with a hand on the door handle.
  2120. "Ready for this?"
  2121. > "As ready as I'll be, I think."
  2122. > Grinning, you open the door and stroll in.
  2123. "Flurry Heart! There's someone here to see you, a new tutor to help you with your magic."
  2124. > The alicorn filly was in the midst of cleaning up toys left scattered from the previous night's play - you'd have to talk to Megan about cleaning them up at night instead, and at least helping herself.
  2125. > She is running to you the moment you call, though, and seats herself just in front of you.
  2126. > "Magic lessons, Master?"
  2127. "Mmm-hmm. Here..."
  2128. > You'd deliberately left the actual introduction to Sunburst, and now you step aside to let him enter.
  2129. > Barely has he made it two steps in before he freezes, eyes wide and a leg raised in shock.
  2130. > "F-Flurry... ittle gem..."
  2131. > Taking the initiative to march the rest of the way up to him, Flurry Heart knits her brows - an expression which makes you work hard to silence a delighted 'dawww' - and studies him hard.
  2132. > "...Flurry?"
  2133. > "I - I know you. I remember you. But.. I can't..."
  2134. > Sunburst's expression cracks from awe to despair, and even you feel a pang of sympathy.
  2135. > By everything Cadance had told you, they'd been only just short of family in Equestria.
  2136. > For Flurry to have forgotten him...
  2137. > "Little gem, it's - I'm - I'm Sunburst, Flurry..."
  2138. > Now it is her turn for the shock to hit - though only for a moment.
  2139. > In a second Flurry Heart has flown forward - literally flown, her massive wings spreading and beating once with enough force to send a few toys scattering on the floor - to plow into Sunburst.
  2140. > "Uncle Sunburst! It is you, it is-"
  2141. > Any further coherent words are preempted by Flurry wrapping both her wings around him - a veritable shell of pink feathers - and Sunburst lighting his horn to pin the filly to his chest and safely hold her there.
  2142. > A few tears run from his eyes as they reconnect, but his magic brushes them away before he lets her; you alone see them.
  2143. > "I missed you so much, little gem..."
  2144. > Flurry is still far to incoherent to properly respond, and it takes her a minute or two before she did.
  2145. > "...I heard you were here. Wanted to see you..."
  2146. > "Shh..."
  2147. > Sunburst brushes his muzzle through her mane.
  2148. > "I wanted to see you very badly too, Flurry Heart. But I have a lot of things to do here, and I wasn't allowed..."
  2149. > Screwing her face up into another frustrated expression, she shakes it angrily.
  2150. > "I wish you had!"
  2151. > "Yeah..."
  2152. > Laughing softly, Sunburst turns his head and releases the saddlebags to fall tot he floor with a solid thump.
  2153. > Unfortunately they took his near-omnipresent cloak with him, and Flurry Heart gasps softly as the scars of his flogging are revealed.
  2154. > "What - what're - why-?"
  2155. > Though you hadn't planned it, you couldn't have hoped for a better test of Sunburst's loyalty.
  2156. > And the results are as much as you could have expected:
  2157. > Head falling, Sunburst turns his head around to start at the faded welts.
  2158. > "Flurry, one of the reasons I couldn't come see you... I did something I shouldn't have. I was part of helping some ponies try to esca- try to run away from here."
  2159. > Her mouth opens in a little raw gasp.
  2160. > All that emerges, though, is a single-syllable word that nonetheless managed to carry all the weight needed:
  2161. > "Why?"
  2162. > "Because..."
  2163. > Abruptly he hesitates, and you realize he wasn't aware she knew Cadance had been punished too.
  2164. "Flurry, do you remember how your mother told you she'd been a bad pony?"
  2165. > "Yeah...?"
  2166. "Well, because she was mistaken, Sunburst thought she was right and he followed what he told her to do."
  2167. > Sunburst himself looks mildly shocked - not that you'd characterized him as merely following, but at your use of 'bad pony' in reference to Cadance.
  2168. > "Oh..."
  2169. > Looking between the two of you and face showing equal degrees of concentration and questioning, Flurry Heart finally asks:
  2170. > "But... why'd they go?"
  2171. "Well, when ponies get angry they can... do foolish things. Some of them were angry because they'd been hurt like you, but some of them were just... angry."
  2172. > "You're a good master, though..."
  2173. > Flurry turns to stare at you with an uncertain, wondering expression.
  2174. > "A-Are the angry ponies, like the ones who hurt Mocha Cream?"
  2175. "...yes, they're some of the same, I think."
  2176. > Immediately she rounds back again on Sunburst, who backpedals at the furious expression on her face.
  2177. > "Why'd you help them?! They're bad ponies! They hurt Mocha Cream!"
  2178. > "I-"
  2179. "Flurry Heart!"
  2180. > She leaps in surprise at the sharp bark.
  2181. > Immediately the filly is at your feet, in a deep both with wings spread.
  2182. > "I'm sorry, Master. I didn't mean to..."
  2183. > Dropping to sit on the carpet, you reach out and pull her into your lap.
  2184. "No, Flurry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped like that."
  2185. > It takes a moment, but Flurry Cuddles into your lap - a protective measure, both seeming to seek shelter there and to show you she wasn't holding back from you.
  2186. > "Little gem, I - I was a bad pony, though. I did try and help some of them, and that was wrong. That's why I was punished... if I'd been able to see what they would do, I wouldn't have done any of that."
  2187. > "Oh..."
  2188. > Flurry manages to sound mildly apologetic, clearly having not thought about how Sunburst might have already been feeling.
  2189. "Now, Sunburst, both of you have a job to do here. Flurry, he's going to go through a few tests first to see how powerful your magic is right now, okay?"
  2190. > "Yes, Master."
  2191. "Then he'll start teaching you what's missing."
  2192. > ...
  2193. > In all truth, you didn't understand most of what Sunburst did.
  2194. > Unicorn magic is something you know how to leverage for a benefit, but the clear inner workings of it?
  2195. > Whatever it was, the stallion clearly understood what he was doing and quickly moved from test to test.
  2196. > When he was done, he asked for a few moments alone in your study to consult the books he'd brought.
  2197. > That left you waiting, though.
  2198. > As you paced about, however, you gradually became aware of other footsteps - or rather, footsteps and the tap-tapping of a cane - approaching.
  2199. "Hello, Mister Cooper."
  2200. > "Ah, good morning Mr. Anonymous. Something bothering you? I heard you pacing."
  2201. "Just... thinking about things. Posey isn't with you?"
  2202. > "No, one of your ponies - though I didn't recognize the voice, a younger stallion - asked for help for a moment and honestly I can get around inside here will enough on my own now that I know the layout."
  2203. > A younger stallion?
  2204. > Sunburst?
  2205. > What would he need Posey for?
  2206. "Ah, well. In the interim, is there anything I can get you."
  2207. > "Get me? No, not get me, but I do have things that I think we need to discuss."
  2208. "...of course. If you're not busy now...?"
  2209. > "Not at all."
  2210. > Folding his hands on the cane, Randall regards you through sightless eyes - a surprisingly eerie experience - and frowns slightly.
  2211. > "In truth, I'm starting to become a little concerned. I realize you've safely managed to expand your processes with a considerable improvement in profit until now, but I am beginning to wonder if things are getting too large for your current control mechanism."
  2212. > Your face hardens, and for once you're thankful he could not see.
  2213. > Though the tone of your voice probably told him all he needed to know.
  2214. "And what, may I ask, is driving you to these conclusions? The... difficulties we are experiencing now are if anything much smaller in scale than the ones I had before you arrived."
  2215. > "Be that as it may, they're not being resolved either. And there is more."
  2216. "More?"
  2217. > "Haute Glamour, is expressing concern over Cadance's ability to lead. It isn't any call against your decisions, mind you, and your recent choice to become directly involved may very well be one that much improves things here."
  2218. > Haute was whispering in his ear, was she?
  2219. > Cadance had warned you about her.
  2220. > But then again... Cadance had been the one responsible for
  2221. "Is that so."
  2222. > "She feels that Cadance may be taking too light a touch with the camp - placing too much faith in the methods of leadership she used back in Equestria."
  2223. "I doubt my alicorn could forget this isn't her original home."
  2224. > "I doubt she has, but she may be trying to make it like her original home instead."
  2225. > Arms folding, Randall sighs and shakes his head.
  2226. > "Please, Anonymous. I do not want to push you too much, but ultimately I am responsible to your investors as well as you. And if they do not see something being done, they may get worried. Give them something to settle their minds."
  2227. [Choice]
  2228. "Well, I understand your concerns-"
  2229. > "My concerns? No, they are not my concerns. I'm merely passing them on."
  2230. > An excellent way, you think, to deflect responsibility from himself.
  2231. "Regardless of whose they are, I have to rebuff them entirely. The entire objective of this operation is to allow Cadance to function with less need for strongarming her into things she doesn't want. Yes, there are ponies here who will act out and rebel - but so would there be in any other facility of this size, and I'm not paying a small army of guards to look after them all."
  2232. > You've been wandering in circles waiting for Sunburst for too long, and a chair is looking particularly restful at this moment.
  2233. > Dropping into it, you note that Randall's head follows you with some fair accuracy on noise alone.
  2234. "Maybe she is working with a lighter touch than they are used to, but that's the risk they're investing in: The idea that if we let things be a little bit more like Equestria, we can skip all that costly oversight. If they don't like that, they can always invest in T-bonds and get an assured return."
  2235. > "Yet you yourself are promising to get more personally involved now. They might argue that's a contradiction."
  2236. > You chuckle to yourself - again with that 'they'.
  2237. "I am moving to become more directly involved with the operation - but in cooperation with Cadance, not against her. The details may be changing, but the broad theory remains the same. Their money - your money - remains in good hands."
  2238. > "You'd be willing to bet your livelihood on that promise?"
  2239. "I'm betting my daughter's future on this, Mr. Cooper. If it falls apart, she has nothing."
  2240. > Cocking your head, you raise an eyebrow before forgetting the gesture is wasted on him.
  2241. "What about you? Would you bet your future on Haute Glamour's word?"
  2242. > "She is, in my opinion, unparalleled in her ability to get inside the minds of other ponies and discerning how best to manage them..."
  2243. > Now it is your turn to push back, sensing that he isn't quite sure of something:
  2244. "I hear a 'but' there."
  2245. > A little smile creeps across Randall's lips.
  2246. > "You do. She's an excellent judge of character, but I do not think she has ever managed a situation on this scale before."
  2247. "That might be part of it, I think it has much less to do with scale and much more to do with preference."
  2248. > Shrugging lightly - again, out of sheer habit - you add:
  2249. "Haute may be used to taking a more absolute management style, and so she is simply reporting what she sees as out-of-the-norm. But the entire point of my endeavor is to put Cadance in a position of limited power within my facilities, and that may include letting her run things in a more typically Equestrian style."
  2250. > "Perhaps. I do admit I've never considered giving her this kind of power to direct my business. She simply does not have those skills."
  2251. "Regardless of her skillset, Cadance's decisions are netting me results."
  2252. > Glancing aside to make sure there are no other four-legged listeners, you go on:
  2253. "Of the four responsible for attacking my maid, the pony security guards have already recovered two. The third surrendered to Cadance voluntarily, and she's pried the location of the last from him."
  2254. > Though he normally held an admirable poker face when dealing with business matters, Randall is completely unable to hide his shock.
  2255. > "Really, now? What will you be doing with them?"
  2256. "The three we're having to drag in - they're going to have to be doing a damn good bit of begging to earn even a drop of mercy from me. The one who surrendered... I'm not mindlessly cruel. If you want to report to your shareholders that I'm taking a stronger hand, tell them that."
  2257. > Grinning sharply, Randall nods an affirmative.
  2258. > "You know, in a way I'm glad you chose to stand your ground on this."
  2259. "Really? You were the one who brought it up to me."
  2260. > "Yes, but that doesn't mean I thought they were the greatest problem you had. If you'd gone back on your grand scheme, that'd be more worrying to me than anything else."
  2261. "I won't be. Cadance and I may not always see eye to eye, but I brought her here for a reason and I intend to stick with that. If she-"
  2262. > You're interrupted by your study door swinging open.
  2263. > Posey emerges - the guide handle strapped to her saddle waving in the air like some sort of bizarre antenna.
  2264. > Behind her, you can just barely hear Sunburst's voice:
  2265. > "...and thank you again!"
  2266. > So, they had been talking.
  2267. > You'd have to see what that was about.
  2268. "Well, here comes Posey. I suppose this means you're going to be heading off now?"
  2269. > "Unfortunately so. Thank you for the time, though."
  2270. "Always, always."
  2271. > As soon as she is out of earshot, though, you march back into the study.
  2272. > Sunburst is still on the floor, packing books back into his saddlebags.
  2273. > He starts when you speak, nearly tumbling over:
  2274. "So, needed to borrow Posey for a bit?"
  2275. > "Yes, Master."
  2276. > Head dipped in an obviously deferential position, Sunburst is offput by you presence.
  2277. > "I needed a - a baseline, so to speak, to compare Flurry Heart to."
  2278. "Ah. Non-unicorn, I assume, since otherwise you'd use yourself."
  2279. > "Yes... although I'm not a very good example. My magic isn't that strong at all."
  2280. > Even as he speaks, though, you can tell there is something else running through his head.
  2281. > Something other than mere baselines and comparisons is weighing on Sunburst's mind.
  2282. "...you know, Sunburst, if there's something you're concerned about, you can tell me directly."
  2283. > "I..."
  2284. > Again there is hesitation, but this time he manages to pull his eyes up to look at you directly.
  2285. > "Will I be coming back tomorrow? To continue her lessons?"
  2286. > You blink in surprise.
  2287. "Is that it? That's what you were worried about?"
  2288. > "You hadn't said anything about it before now, Master..."
  2289. > Chuckling gently, you reach out and ruffle Sunburst's already-messy mane.
  2290. "If I was going to throw you out, I'd have done it already. You'll be back here, Sunburst."
  2291. > Though he cringes back from the touch, the relief felt at your words is immediate and obvious.
  2292. > "Thank you, Master!"
  2293. "You really were worried about that, huh?"
  2294. > "I..."
  2295. > This time his hesitation is different - personal, rather than out of fear for you.
  2296. > "Master, I've told you... Flurry Heart is the closest thing I have to family left. Aside from my marefriend, she was the closest thing to family I had even before. If I lost her again..."
  2297. > It is slowly dawning on you just how much that filly means to this stallion.
  2298. > Perhaps even as much as Flurry meant to Cadance.
  2299. > If he ever turned rebellious again - though you doubted that - Flurry could possibly be leveraged against Sunburst as much as against her own mother.
  2300. > A useful note to be filed away.
  2301. "Do I really worry you that much?"
  2302. > "In some ways, Master. I thought you would hate me. Because I helped lead the escape."
  2303. > With just those words, Sunburst manages to crack the smile that had been sitting on your face.
  2304. > He sees it too, and flinches in anticipation of what is to come.
  2305. "...I admit, I'm - not happy about that. To say the least. But you took a pretty harsh whipping for it, and you've given me no trouble since. That's enough reason to put aside my anger."
  2306. > No words are given in reaction to that, but you can practically see the stress and apprehension leaving him.
  2307. > "I'll be sure to do the best I can for Flurry Heart."
  2308. "I know you will. That's why I agreed to this."
  2309.  
  2310. > In the end, nine guards had been assigned to this.
  2311. > Six human, and three ponies.
  2312. > No chance had been taken; Chrysocolla wasn't going to be escaping this.
  2313. > Similarly, the raid was being done in broad daylight - both for speed, and because it wasn't as likely she'd have slipped away.
  2314. > The grate Windy Winters claimed she had been slipping in and out through was circled first; true enough, it was very loose.
  2315. > You glance up to Gene with a nod.
  2316. "We'll go for the storm drain vault. If she isn't there somehow, close it all back up and wait her out."
  2317. > "Agreed."
  2318. > Leaving three guards behind - two humans and a pony - the rest of you circle around.
  2319. > The vault itself has little to show on the surface except for a round metal plate set into the ground - a 'manhole' (how typical of humans to name something arbitrarily after them).
  2320. > Next to it, though, is the far larger double sheet metal doors belonging to the utility vault.
  2321. > Gene motions to the that second vault:
  2322. > "Radio it in - have them shut off the electricity in there."
  2323. > Moments later the entire street goes dark, a bizarre silence falling as everypony who had been working comes to a halt.
  2324. > "Good. Unlock the storm vault; we'll open that one first.
  2325. > One guard kneels to undo the padlock holding it shut while another fits a lever to one of several small holes.
  2326. > Then Seismic Shift steps up, taking the lever in his mouth and quickly dragging the entire plate aside with a flick of his neck in a prodigious display of Earth Pony strength.
  2327. > Immediately you are at the side of the hole, peering down into it.
  2328. > Stretching your neck out over the hole reveals an expansive, shadowed space falls away to three sides of the manhole.
  2329. > On the fourth sits the ladder used to enter the storm drain.
  2330. > Despite the very limited light falling into the space, you can clearly see small stacks of supplies and materials to either side of the channel meant to carry the water.
  2331. "Chrysocolla!"
  2332. > And there's the movement you'd expected - a sudden scrambling of a half-seen shape as the mare realizes she's been found.
  2333. "Give it up, Chrysocolla. We have your entrance covered and there's nine of us up here. You've got one chance to come up, then we flush you out."
  2334. > "Go to Tartarus, I'm not just giving up!"
  2335. > Her voice is equal parts rage and fear.
  2336. > "You know what he'll do to me if I come up there. I'd kiss Nightmare Moon's hooves before I turn myself in to that!"
  2337. "No! He's reasonable, Chrysocolla! Windy Winters surrendered to us, and he hasn't been mistreated!"
  2338. > "Really? Really?! That's what I'm supposed to believe? He ripped my hiding spot out of that stallion with-"
  2339. "Windy told us! He turned you over, without anyone laying hand or hoof on him. Do you understand? It doesn't have to be this-"
  2340. > Something goes whizzing by your head up into the air to clatter back down onto the pavement.
  2341. > A fragment of concrete - probably rubble from her efforts to break a path into the utility vault.
  2342. > Chrysocolla's voice follows, shrill and now rich with terror:
  2343. > "Liar! He's going to torture me to death the same way he did Corona, and you're going to lie about that too!"
  2344. > You'd instinctively yanked your head back the moment the first projectile appeared, and now sigh.
  2345. "...I don't think she's coming up. Flush her out."
  2346. > A small, innocuous-looking cylinder is dropped in, but moments later you can hear a soft pop-hiss and the mare's pained shriek.
  2347. > As you wait to see the results of it, one of the human guards fits a wet rag and large pair of goggles over your head rendering your vision blurry and distorted.
  2348. > It was the result of an oversight discovered early in planning this:
  2349. > While the human guards had masks suitable for protecting them from the irritating sprays they used, no such provision had been made for pony guards.
  2350. > Something that might be rectified in the future, but for now a simple pair of pegasi goggles and soaked cloth tied over you nose and mouth hopefully providing enough.
  2351. > When the latter didn't make it feel like you were choking already, that is.
  2352. > Wearing the rag had given you fresh sympathy for Comet Tail and his experience.
  2353. > Not that you'd be going into the storm-drain manhole in the first place; ponies made terrible climbers in general, and pegasi in particular were ill-suited to such underground warrens.
  2354. > Even the thought of being trapped in a tiny, enclosed space surrounded by hundreds of pounds of concrete - some of it already damaged by her excavations - is enough to send prickles down your spine.
  2355. > The humans, on the other hand, have no such problems; already purpose-made protective masks are being pulled on.
  2356. > "We'll go in through the utility vault. Open it up!"
  2357. > Again Seismic Shift heaves his head back - this time throwing open the utility vault doors with a mighty clang that echoes down the street.
  2358. > Immediately it is clear that Windy Winters had been had been absolutely right about her using this as a place to store any leftover contraband.
  2359. > The floor was littered with it; a neat circle had been punched in one of the concrete walls opposite the thick electrical conduits to connect it to the storm drain.
  2360. > But the most important factor - Chrysocolla herself - is nowhere to be seen.
  2361. > Two guards drop down into the space, tasers drawn, and make their way to the hole.
  2362. > "She's not in there!"
  2363. > You swear under your breath - made even more muffled by the kludged-together mask - but Gene just snorts.
  2364. > "Must be trying to go for her exit. They'll be waiting for her there."
  2365. > Yet, as you wait, no report comes and your worries only grow.
  2366. "Gene, where this storm drain goes - are there any other vaults she could have gotten to? Any other she could escape from, that Windy might not have known about?"
  2367. > "No. The next closest to it - we looked for them on a map, you know? It is through twenty feet of earth and concrete. And we checked it - no tunnels."
  2368. > "Not then."
  2369. > Seismic steps up, his own voice distorted by the bizarre 'mask' he wore.
  2370. > "But she's an earth pony with a talent for rock. She'll have an affinity for it. She could dig that."
  2371. "Like you, Seismic Shift?"
  2372. > He bobs his head in affirmative.
  2373. > "Might even have started digging before. Who knows how long they were working on this place?"
  2374. > Muttering some swear under his breath in his native language, Gene points to two more of the guards.
  2375. > "You, and you! Stay here! You two, and you two - go check any other manholes! Thunderlane, with me!"
  2376. > And then he takes off; for his apparent age, Gene is surprisingly sprightly and you're forced into a gallop to keep up with him.
  2377. > Sprinting the distance to the next utility vault, he arrives panting but not completely winded; considering the body armor
  2378. > There's no need to even check the vault; the crunching and cracking of concrete audible from within already told plenty the moment you had arrived.
  2379. > Chrysocolla lifts a hoof to shield her eyes as the Gene throws the covering doors open, sun suddenly streaming in and finally giving you a solid look at the mare.
  2380. > Her face is young, but lined with early age; her coat, originally the same rich blue-green of her namesake stone, now filthy with accumulated muck and dirt from the tunnel walls.
  2381. > Eyes, red and watery from the effects of the gas they'd used.
  2382. > But not enough to hide the fear in them.
  2383. > The hole she'd opened in the wall in desperation wasn't even complete; though she'd managed to get her head, shoulders, and forelegs through, the rest of her was still in the tunnel.
  2384. > It had been poorly-positioned, breaking through directly in back of a pair of gently-humming transformers in the vault and forcing her to duck beneath their cabling.
  2385. > Evidently this one was not on the same circuit as the first, and had not been shut off.
  2386. > She'd clearly been trying to widen the aperture enough to get the rest of the way out when you arrived.
  2387. "Wait!"
  2388. > You lift a hoof, keeping Gene from advancing.
  2389. "I'm not lying to you, Chrysocolla. You will be punished, but he won't torture you just to see you break. Cadance won't allow it."
  2390. > Spitting furiously onto the ground, she shakes her head - voice laden with unimaginable panic.
  2391. > "She'll 'allow' whatever her Master wishes. I'll just be another example to break everypony's spirit. A tool for him. Just like Comet and Autumn and Windy-"
  2392. "Windy gave himself up! And where else are you going to go?! You can't turn around now. I will go down there and drag you out if I have to."
  2393. > "I'll bite! I'll tear your throat out!"
  2394. > "No, you won't."
  2395. > Stepping up, Gene levels another can of spray-gas at her.
  2396. > "You make a move for Thunderlane, I'll spray this right into your eyes."
  2397. "It's over, Chrysocolla. Time to give up."
  2398. > "No, no, no!"
  2399. > Her eyes are rolling in wild fear; you can even smell the rank desperation wafting off of her.
  2400. > "You won't take me to him, you won't!"
  2401. "Yes, I will. Gene, if she moves, dose her-"
  2402. > Abruptly Chrysocolla's eyes straighten and focus on you.
  2403. > Face splitting in a wild, maddened smile, she laughs a shrill, broken laugh that makes your coat stand on end.
  2404. > "You. Won't. Take. Me."
  2405. > With no warning she raises her head to a rubber-coated cable above her-
  2406. "NO!"
  2407. > -and bites.
  2408. > There's a flash, bright enough to fill your vision with spots.
  2409. > A noise, like a million angry bees.
  2410. > Some great force lifts you and hurls you back, but when you rise it does not hurt.
  2411. > Not physically.
  2412. > The eerie silence, the stillness that has come, though - that hurts.
  2413. > When the other guards come running, they find you sitting at the edge of the vault - staring with dull eyes at the corpse of a mare frozen in eternal spasm by her own choice.
  2414. > By her own fear.
  2415. [Choice]
  2416. > "Thunderlane?"
  2417. > Someone is shaking you.
  2418. > "Thunderlane, are you okay? Are you hurt?"
  2419. > No, somepony.
  2420. > That's a hoof on your withers.
  2421. > Seismic Shift?
  2422. > No.
  2423. > Somepony else.
  2424. > "Thunderlane!"
  2425. "I..."
  2426. > "Let him be."
  2427. > This time it is a hand sitting on your back.
  2428. > Gene - he has gotten back up as well, and is standing at your side.
  2429. > This is finally enough to snap you back to your senses; everything seems to come screeching back into motion.
  2430. "No, I'm - I'm okay."
  2431. > You swallow, hard, and look back at the corpse-
  2432. > No.
  2433. > You can't think of her like that - 'the corpse'.
  2434. > Chrysocolla was a pony; not always a good pony, but still a pony.
  2435. "We... we need to get her body out of here. Before anypony sees. Before this can turn into a riot."
  2436. > "We will close this street. I've already called for more guards; they'll bring a cart to move her."
  2437. "Okay. I'll wait here, until this runs out-"
  2438. > "No. Thunderlane, you have done your part. It's okay. You can go now. Tell Cadance and Anonymous what happened; they need to know."
  2439. "...Sir, I realize I am just a pony - a slave - so I'm only asking - please. Please don't. I have to see this to the end-"
  2440. > "You will."
  2441. > Kneeling down, Gene keeps his hand steady on your shoulder.
  2442. > "She will not be going anywhere. But you - you are hurting, Thunderlane. You can go."
  2443. > He wasn't trying to push you away, but to spare you.
  2444. > Mouth opening once, then again, you at last just settle for a nod when no words come.
  2445. "Alright. I'll - go. But please."
  2446. > So many thoughts running through your head, so much to still be said.
  2447. > And not nearly enough time to say it.
  2448. "Don't - don't take her to the medical clinic. They see this there, it'll just make things worse. And check for any other tunnels down there; remember what Seismic Shift said-"
  2449. > "Thunderlane -"
  2450. > Gene pats your shoulder.
  2451. > "-go. Telling them as important as any other part of this."
  2452. > True enough.
  2453. "O-Okay. Radio Anonymous, tell him that I will meet him down here."
  2454. > You turn away and retreat on hoof, not quite trusting yourself to take to wing right now.
  2455. > It's a miracle you're able to trot straight; every time you blink the specter of Chrysocolla's body, twisted in its final agony.
  2456. > ...
  2457. "Chrysocolla is dead."
  2458. > Anonymous had taken a few minutes to arrive, and in that time you had decided that there would be no mincing words here.
  2459. > Beside him, Cadance hangs her head - eyes squeezed shut.
  2460. > "Celestia help us all..."
  2461. > "How did it happen?"
  2462. "We set up on the hideout Windy Winters told us about, and started flushing her out. Unfortunately, she had another nearly-complete tunnel to a different utility vault Windy Winters didn't know about. We didn't know to shut the electricity there off-"
  2463. > Anonymous actually goes pale, sweat turning his bare skin shiny.
  2464. > "That noise I heard-"
  2465. "Yes. We cornered her and she was - terrified. Of being captured."
  2466. > "Of being tortured."
  2467. "Yes, Master. Both Gene and I tried to bring her in safely, but - there was a power cable to one of the transformers above her head. She bit it."
  2468. > Anonymous drops his head into his hands and simply remains that way, curled over in a position of such abject unhappiness that you can't help but feel a pang of sympathy.
  2469. > He may have had little mercy for the ponies who'd beaten Mocha Cream, but this clearly had not been something he wanted.
  2470. > Cadance, however, has no such sympathy.
  2471. > "Anonymous, you need to do something about this - now. Right now this - this is a condemnation from many ponies' point of view. A pony is dead after being chased by the guards, and rumors about what happened to Corona-"
  2472. > "I know what the rumors say I did!"
  2473. > Both you and Cadance take steps back; Anonymous' voice had risen to an unexpected roar.
  2474. > A second later, it is back down to its normal low tone.
  2475. > "No, I'm - I'm sorry. God, I just..."
  2476. > He sucks a hard, shaking breath.
  2477. > "...okay. This is bad. I get it - really, really bad. Ponies are going to think you and I did kill her-"
  2478. "...may I speak honestly?"
  2479. > "I'd hope you were already."
  2480. "You and I are responsible - you especially. I chased her down, cornered her, left her no option to flee - but you also set the expectation she had of being tortured to the point of breaking. Cadance has been telling you to get more directly involved, be more open with us - but you hadn't yet, or have to late. She committed suicide, but we - specifically you - brought her to that point."
  2481. > Anonymous' chair scrapes across the floor as he suddenly stands, hands balling into fists, but Cadance yells first:
  2482. > "Thunderlane! This isn't the time-"
  2483. "Yes! Yes it is! Because damn near every other pony in this camp is going to be thinking the same thing. And if we don't, there's going to be a real rebellion. Not broken windows and painted messages, not a pony being attacked here and there - a real fight. We have to confront that!"
  2484. > Turning wordlessly, Anonymous walks straight away from you to a window.
  2485. > There he stops, hands tightly clasped behind his back and staring it into the street beyond.
  2486. > Cadance looks between the two of you, for once seeming at a loss for what to do.
  2487. > Because she knows you are right.
  2488. > Anonymous does too.
  2489. > Swallowing hard, you wrench your tone back down to a more reasonable one.
  2490. "...I know this wasn't what you were aiming for, Anonymous. But if you don't accept some of the blame, them ponies are going to lose faith in you."
  2491. > More softly:
  2492. "I'm going to lose faith in you. I didn't take this job to see ponies fry themselves - to have to stare at her corpse, all twisted up and hard like that. I joined to keep ponies safe. If I can't do that because of you... what am I doing?"
  2493. > "If I don't admit that I was responsible for a pony that full of hate deciding to off herself."
  2494. "You are responsible, in some ways."
  2495. > Lifting a hoof, you jab it angrily in his direction.
  2496. "Her hate was her own, but you are responsible for her fear."
  2497. > "Cadance."
  2498. > "Yes?"
  2499. > "Crescent Moon. We were going to do something for her benefit, yes?"
  2500. "And the others. So she isn't suspected of telling. After this, if word gets out she gave us names-"
  2501. > "I get it, Thunderlane."
  2502. > He sighs softly.
  2503. > "I'm going to have a hell of a time rationalizing it, but I'm going to have to."
  2504. "You'll do it then?"
  2505. > "Not tonight. Wait until tomorrow, at least. I know rumors can spread, but we'll gain nothing by rushing in to things. A day to organize, and I'll address this."
  2506. > That, you suppose, is as much as you could have hoped for.
  2507. "In that case, may I ask - am I dismissed?"
  2508. > "Yeah. Go ahead, Thunderlane. I'm guessing you need some time to yourself too."
  2509. "Yes. Your Highness, if I may?"
  2510. > "Of course, Thunderlane..."
  2511. > You're only half a block from the town hall when your legs fail you again.
  2512. > Collapsing onto your belly, you stay there a moment - drawing the odd look from a passing pony - and try to force the image of Chrysocolla's final moment back down from your eyes.
  2513. > Somehow you eventually get up to your hooves again, lurching the rest of the way back to a common shower area and firmly planting your body beneath its icy spray.
  2514. > You'd been afraid that she would find you again hunched over the toilet, vomit coating your muzzle, but surprisingly there's little of the nausea that had come with Crescent Moon's whipping.
  2515. > Instead a cold deadness fills you, a hungry void which saps your energy and leaves you shivering even when you turn the water up to hot.
  2516. > Eventually you shut it off, and half-walk, half-stumble in a daze to Vapor Trail's quarters.
  2517. > Later you would think back that opening the door with your guard's key was a terrible abuse of power, but at this moment you needed to be there.
  2518. > Climbing up onto her bed, though, feels like an unforgivable sin.
  2519. > So you wait there, huddled in place and sometimes dozing, until the sun creeps away and the door cracks open.
  2520. > "Oh, Thunderlane..."
  2521. > Her hooves approach, muzzle brushing over your withers between your wings.
  2522. > "What happened...?"
  2523.  
  2524. > Anonymous had retreated back to his own home soon after Thunderlane left, and it is there - predictably ensconced in the fortress of his bedroom - that you find him come evening.
  2525. > Tapping lightly at the door, you do not wait for him to answer before sweeping in.
  2526. "I notified Crescent Moon and the other ponies, like you asked."
  2527. > "Thank you, Cadance."
  2528. > Anonymous was seated in one of his typical large chairs, staring out the window as he often did when perturbed.
  2529. > "I'll announce my... whatever come tomorrow."
  2530. > Also as he often did, there was an empty glass in his hand.
  2531. > Even before you approach you know you'll smell the remnants of alcohol in it.
  2532. "What do you plan to do?"
  2533. > "Hell if I know. Throw myself at their mercy, find out if Equestria has a capital punishment..."
  2534. "This isn't a joke, Anonymous!"
  2535. > "I'm not joking!"
  2536. > His hand slams down on the chair's arm, the three words roared out.
  2537. > "I don't know, Cadance. I don't know - this is running away from me as much as you. I knew there'd be some ponies pissed at my punishment for them, but I never expected a pony to be DEAD!"
  2538. > Finish, he slumps forward - free hand clutching his face.
  2539. > "God, I'm at my own wits' end. Get more directly involved, you say - but that's not much help if I barely know how to do it!"
  2540. > Carefully you creep around the chair, and realize to your shock that there are actually tears running down between his cheeks and hand.
  2541. > "Punish them - fuck, sure I wanted to punish them. Give them ten times what they gave Mocha Cream. But a pony dead..."
  2542. "Master..."
  2543. > He snorts gently.
  2544. > "Yeah. Some master I am. God fucking damn it all..."
  2545. "That you are this upset about it alone proves that you care, though!"
  2546. > "I care, but I don't think that ponies are going to accept my heartfelt apologies just because I care!"
  2547. > Rocking back into the chair, Anonymous tilts his head up until his eyes stare into the ceiling.
  2548. > "Thunderlane is right. It is my fault that this is happening anyway, and they are going to see that. Fuck if I know how we're going to get around this..."
  2549. "You're going to have Crescent Moon's sentence shortened already. That's a good start. And you have started listening to our suggestions-"
  2550. > "Yeah, well that doesn't fucking help much if I'm already the boogeyman who goes out and snuffs ponies I don't like, does it?!"
  2551. > For the briefest moment you consider snapping back that none of this would have happened if he hadn't owned slaves.
  2552. > He couldn't have tortured Corona, wouldn't have had ponies looking to flee from him in the first place...
  2553. > But that isn't the time for this; if this tipping point falls the wrong way, you will lose the camp - and with it, Flurry Heart.
  2554. > To say nothing of the violence that would be visited on ponies and humans alike
  2555. "You are responsible, Anonymous, and you need to own up to that. But that does not mean you cannot do something."
  2556. > "Yes, yes, I always have to do this, have to do that, have to do - just who the fuck is the actual slave here?!"
  2557. > You duck as the glass goes whizzing past your head to explode against the wall, shattering into a million glittering fragments.
  2558. > Staring a the little pool of gem-like slivers glittering in the sunlight, Anonymous sighs and waves a hand dismissively.
  2559. > "Don't worry about it. I'll just ask Mocha to get rid of it; she'll-"
  2560. > The hand falls to the chair's arm again, his head slumping back forward.
  2561. > "She's been gone for so long, and I still sometimes forget she isn't here..."
  2562. > He laughs bitterly, head shaking.
  2563. > "You know, it's funny. I lived well over ninety percent of my life without a servant in sight, but the second she's gone I feel something's - missing."
  2564. > A mere spark of your horn is enough to gather up the glass and compact it into a ball to be set aside.
  2565. "You're not missing a servant. You're missing her. You're missing somepony."
  2566. > "Yeah... somepony who actually saw me as something real."
  2567. "For right now, though, you need rest. And to sleep this alcohol off; this isn't good for you, Anonymous."
  2568. > "What are you, my mother now? You want a son too?"
  2569. > Standing is an effort for him, but he manages.
  2570. > "Fuck... I don't want to be isolated up here away from the camp. But every time I do try to connect, something like this happens..."
  2571. > With great, lurching steps he manages to make his way to the bed.
  2572. > At the very edge he trips and falls face-first into it, but manages to right himself and sit on the edge.
  2573. "...I'll be back in the morning. And then we can discuss exactly what you will do."
  2574. > "Cadance?"
  2575. > His voice is weak and plaintive.
  2576. > "Stay with me. Tonight."
  2577. > You're stalled with one hoof lifted, mind racing.
  2578. "I..."
  2579. > "Please. Stay."
  2580. > It's not an order, but a request.
  2581. [Choice]
  2582. "...I will stay."
  2583. > Anonymous seems to sink in place, releasing a breath and nodding.
  2584. > "Thank you..."
  2585. "Can you get yourself ready for bed, or do you need help?"
  2586. > "I can manage. I think."
  2587. > Though his efforts to heave himself upright do not entirely reassure you on that point.
  2588. > Two tries are needed to even stand up, and his passage to the bathroom is staggering and unsteady.
  2589. > You remain waiting at a distance until the door shuts and even a few moments thereafter, ears focused forward and half-expecting to hear him tumbling to the floor at any moment.
  2590. > When that does not come, you turn to other tasks.
  2591. > A fresh glass is brought, and with a little searching a bottle of water to fill it from as well.
  2592. > "Cadance? Are you there?"
  2593. > Anonymous' muffled voice carries a note of uncertainty.
  2594. "Yes?"
  2595. > "...my sleep clothes aren't in here."
  2596. > You groan gently, resisting the urge to find a nearby object to rest your forehead against.
  2597. > He was drunk, you remind yourself.
  2598. > Not thinking straight.
  2599. > You couldn't hold him responsible for this.
  2600. > Seeming to sense your frustration, he adds:
  2601. > "...I'm sorry. Normally Mocha Cream would have laid them out in here before I came in. I forget a lot, but then I can come out and get them-"
  2602. "Are they somewhere out here?"
  2603. > "Yes. Dresser on, um... left, I think. Left of the big window with my chair."
  2604. > Yes, there they are.
  2605. "Open the door a touch, and I will pass them through on my magic."
  2606. > The door does indeed open - how far you cannot see; in expectation that "a touch" might be difficult for him, you'd stood off to one side to avoid any unwanted views.
  2607. > It is, however, plenty open enough for the bundle of clothes to be floated in.
  2608. > "I have them. Thanks."
  2609. "You are welcome."
  2610. > Something Anonymous said is nagging on you, and when he does emerge - now dressed in a much more loosely-fitting sweatshirt - you ask:
  2611. "You've didn't choose another pony to take care of these things while Mocha Cream is... gone?"
  2612. > "No, I..."
  2613. > Running a hand through his hair, Anonymous shakes his head.
  2614. > "...never got around to it."
  2615. > There's more he isn't saying, you suspect.
  2616. > How many other ponies, even in the house staff, would be that close with him?
  2617. > The naked adoration with which Mocha regarded him alarmed you at times for it certainly could not have been healthy, but perhaps she had been able to reach out to him in a way another could not have.
  2618. "Here. Drink, our you will regret it in the morning."
  2619. > "Thank you..."
  2620. > Anonymous re-seats himself on the bed when the glass is drained, and you snap the light off leaving the room lit only by the diffuse glow of distant lights coming in through the curtained windows.
  2621. > You turn to the bed, and are struck by a sudden moment of hesitation.
  2622. > Getting in bed with your owner, quite literally...
  2623. > It was something that had happened before, yes, but you had been drunk then too - having no memory of deciding to join him.
  2624. > Willingly joining your captor was quite another decision.
  2625. > Why are you even doing this?
  2626. > Anonymous was clearly no friend of yours.
  2627. > Why even bother?
  2628. > Your first instinct is to dismiss it as a purely mercenary choice:
  2629. > If Anonymous could not control this situation, you would lose your daughter; this was a small cost to be spared that misery.
  2630. > You had to curry favor with him.
  2631. > But the truth is, it wasn't that.
  2632. > He'd shown you that somewhere buried beneath that unsympathetic, even violent shell was a real heart that still cared.
  2633. > Celestia had always taught you that until the very end, any soul could be redeemed by friendship.
  2634. > If you were to be half the leader your aunt had been, you would have to hold to that.
  2635. > Especially with the number of other lives he held in his grasp, anger and alcohol were no excuse for pushing Anonymous away.
  2636. > Besides, at this point you were little better.
  2637. > No longer could you pretend that you hadn't become a collaborator.
  2638. > "Cadance?"
  2639. > Anonymous' voice cuts through your chain of thought.
  2640. > "You're staring. You okay?"
  2641. "Yes, I... I'm sorry. My thoughts got lost."
  2642. > With a little hop you bring yourself up onto the bed.
  2643. > On the opposite side, Anonymous brings down the covers and - with a few tries - manages to get himself mostly buried beneath them.
  2644. > You...
  2645. > ...aren't sure what you are going to do.
  2646. > Did Anonymous mean for you to join him beneath the covers as well?
  2647. > Whatever your reason for choosing this, that degree of intimacy was... a bit much.
  2648. > Instead you settle for sprawling out on your side over the covers, facing him with your hooves drawn close to your belly.
  2649. > Anonymous watches you a moment - his eyes glittering points in the dark.
  2650. > Slowly a hand reaches out to brush your cheek.
  2651. > Despite the touch not being expected, perhaps not wanted, you do not pull away.
  2652. > His hand lingers there, fingers tracing the side of your face.
  2653. > Up, up around your eyes to your ear, then down through the fall of your mane to where it pooled on the bed.
  2654. > "I... thank you doesn't seem enough."
  2655. "You needed this."
  2656. > Your tone is low, soft, soothing.
  2657. > "But I didn't order it."
  2658. "No."
  2659. > Deciding to change the subject, you tilt your head to allow him to continue brushing you.
  2660. "Why haven't you selected another pony from another among your staff here to serve you, though?"
  2661. > "I don't know, honestly. Maybe I'm trying to prove something to myself... maybe it just feels like Mocha Cream's place."
  2662. "She will be coming back, then?"
  2663. > The long silence that follows tells you otherwise.
  2664. > "They're doing some testing. She's - having some trouble. Fine motor control, magic control, that sort of thing. It might clear up eventually..."
  2665. > No wonder he feels alone now.
  2666. > To select another in Mocha's place undoubtedly feels like an admission she would not be able to recover from her ordeal.
  2667. "What happened there was not your fault."
  2668. > "I know. Those damn cunts who beat her-"
  2669. > You feel the covers shift as he tenses up, and quickly reach out with your magic to press him back down into bed.
  2670. "Shh. This isn't the time for that, Anonymous. We can think about those things in the morning."
  2671. > "Yeah, yeah..."
  2672. > He does, though, and after a moment you release your magic.
  2673. > It is only after it that you realize how disastrously that could have gone.
  2674. > Most slaveowners would not have tolerated any pony holding them down with magic.
  2675. > Yet all Anonymous does is, after a moment, reach out and let his hand brush down along your neck and over your chest.
  2676. > "Maybe I should have you fill that position."
  2677. > Your heart quickens a little, ready to head him off.
  2678. "I am - not sure if that is the best choice, given the current demands on my time and how it would look-"
  2679. > "Don't be silly; you'd look magnificent. A nice little maid's dress, a proper collar on your throat, some cute little frilly socks for you..."
  2680. > Your cheeks heat, at the same moment you realize he was teasing about the idea.
  2681. > A spark of anger flashes at how he so easily thought to reduce you to an object for his enjoyment, before it too is squashed.
  2682. > But not before his hand had felt the thudding of your heart.
  2683. > "I'm joking, Cadance. I know you're best where you are... better than I am."
  2684. > He chuckles gently.
  2685. > "Though I don't think you'd be so bad at being a maid either. You manage to keep yourself dignified, no matter what..."
  2686. > There are some times you remember that make you question that assertion, moments when you'd had to grovel shamelessly before him for some goal.
  2687. "...I..."
  2688. > "Even when they brought you in to me, the first time - they had you in hobbles and a huge fucking steel collar, but even then I could see the grace you had. You were magnificent."
  2689. > It is not a moment you care to remember, being one indignity in a long line of them.
  2690. "That is because I fight, Anonymous. Because I refuse to let this break me."
  2691. > "Mmm."
  2692. > After a moment's pondering, you lay your head down across your forehooves and let it rest there facing him.
  2693. "And you should not give in to your own anger, your own despair so quickly either.
  2694. > "Hah."
  2695. > His hand comes up, though to rest on your cheek again, though.
  2696. > Only a moment's warning is given, Anonymous' elbow bracing to support his shoulders.
  2697. > And then his arms are wrapped around your neck, head nestled in against your ear with breath tickling against it.
  2698. > "You tell me 'thank you' often enough, Cadance, but I don't ever get to really say it to you."
  2699. > Awkwardly you lift a hoof, then think better of it and extend a wing around him instead - an unexpected soft nicker being drawn from your throat as he strokes down your neck.
  2700. "Words are good, Anonymous. But actions, from both of us, will show more."
  2701. > "True, true."
  2702. > Anonymous falls back into bed, half-pulling you with him.
  2703. > You end up resting a hoof on his chest, peering down at him as he looks up.
  2704. "Rest now, Master. You will need it."
  2705. > "I will, I will."
  2706. > Once more, though, a hand rises to cup your cheek.
  2707. > His voice drops to a whisper, forcing you to turn both ears fully forward to hear:
  2708. > "You truly are magnificent..."
  2709. > With that, he lets his hands fall back down - eyes closing and resting on his belly.
  2710. > Backing away too, you retake your place sprawled on the far side of the bed.
  2711. > Soon Anonymous' breathing slows, and you know he has found rest at last.
  2712. > You, though, do not do so quickly.
  2713. > Instead you remain watching his passive form in the darkness, wondering.
  2714. > How did the same mind that was capable of torturing Corona, unhesitatingly holding Flurry Heart's well-being over your head, and threatening ponies with even worse inhabit the same man who you'd seen just now?
  2715. > A shiver runs through your coat.
  2716. > Not entirely on account of your thoughts; though the room was warmer than even your quarters and you of course had your own coat, it was still winter and Anonymous seemed to prefer cooler temperatures.
  2717. > Regarding the blankets you lay on, you ponder a time before concluding that it would not be disaster to crawl beneath them and avoid shivering the night away.
  2718. > After all, you had done so once before - in far less controlled circumstances - and Anonymous had not done anything untoward then.
  2719. > With a deft touch of magic and minimum of wriggling you slip under the covers, taking a position pointedly on the far side of the bed from him.
  2720. > Even then sleep does not come easily.
  2721. > I takes several rounds of the careful breathing exercises Celestia had taught you before unconsciousness arrives at last.
  2722.  
  2723. > Morning.
  2724. > It comes with furious, stabbing lances of light that penetrate the windowshades and pour into the room, dragging you back to consciousness.
  2725. > Yet it is not quite as miserable as you'd somehow expected, given the alcohol consumed the previous night.
  2726. > ...of course, it had been much less than the last time, and Cadance had given you -
  2727. > Cadance.
  2728. > Who had stayed with you afterward.
  2729. > In your bed.
  2730. > And at some point during the night chosen not merely to make use of the covers, but shift over against you as well.
  2731. > Her back is pressed to your side, and you can feel the bulge of one wing against your belly.
  2732. > That weight on your shoulder - that must be her head.
  2733. > ...yes, if your twist your own head a bit you can feel her mane brushing against your cheek.
  2734. > She smells - sweet.
  2735. > Not the sickly sweetness of perfume, but a sort of genuine, more natural scent.
  2736. "Cadance?"
  2737. > Your voice is low and soft.
  2738. > But it is enough to draw her awake, and the alicorn stirs a bit before freezing under your touch.
  2739. > "A-Anonymous - Master - I, ah -"
  2740. "It's okay, Cadance. Nothing, ah, happened..."
  2741. > "N-No, Master. Your hand..."
  2742. "Hrm?"
  2743. > One of your hands - the one on her side - was resting on her back, slightly further down than her wings.
  2744. "It's okay, Cadance. You don't have to be afraid of my touch."
  2745. > "M-Master... it's just that it'skindofonmycutiemark."
  2746. > The last few words are babbled out so fast you take a moment to process them.
  2747. > ...oh.
  2748. > OH.
  2749. > Cadance's hips must bet twisted in a way you hadn't realized.
  2750. > That was a rather more intimate gesture for them, wasn't it?
  2751. > Immediately you draw your hand up until you can feel her ribs beneath your fingers instead.
  2752. > And just as quickly you can feel Cadance relax - rolling back onto her belly and into a safer position.
  2753. "My error. I hadn't meant... anything of it."
  2754. > "I - understand."
  2755. > Rolling onto your side, you slip both arms around her and squeeze; the alicorn makes a surprised squeak as she finds herself trapped in another hug.
  2756. > This time your hands fall a little bit lower, settling on the base of her wings, and Cadance's whinny ends with a quiet nicker.
  2757. "...honestly, though, you don't have to be afraid of my touching you."
  2758. > "I-I know."
  2759. > And to her merit, she does relax - wings half-spreading and head settling on your shoulder.
  2760. > "You've shown me you aren't only a monster."
  2761. "Good girl."
  2762. > Releasing her, you push yourself upright in bed.
  2763. "Well. Time to face the music, I guess, and make are calls on exactly what we're going to announce."
  2764. > "And what happens to the other two rebels that were captured."
  2765. > You grimace, nodding.
  2766. "Suffice to say I don't think I'll be going through with all my threats I made..."
  2767. > "What did you say?"
  2768. "I threatened to have Comet Tail euthanized. And to have his horn taken or Autumn Frost's wing tendons cut."
  2769. > To her credit, Cadance does not show a hint of revulsion or hatred.
  2770. > She does not even pull back from where her hoof touches you, only regards you with sad eyes.
  2771. > "Would you have?"
  2772. "If Windy Winters had not come forward, if Chrysocolla hadn't been found or had tried to strike back... I don't know what I'd have considered."
  2773. > You sigh heavily.
  2774. "I was not thinking right. Anger... consumes you sometimes."
  2775. > "But you will not."
  2776. "No. I will not."
  2777. > "And the others-"
  2778. > You raise a single finger to silence her.
  2779. "First, I think we both need to freshen up. Second, I think it might be better if we actually discussed this all in the camp, not sealed away up here, no?"
  2780. > Understanding dawns on Cadance's face, followed quickly by approval.
  2781. > "Very much so. My office again, then?"
  2782. "Yes, that sounds good. I'll see you there... one hour."
  2783. [Choice]
  2784. >...
  2785. > The afternoon is unseasonably warm, as if a portent of the end of winter and the coming spring.
  2786. > Or, perhaps, of the embers of discontent burning in the camp - ready to burst into flame at any moment.
  2787. > Though rapidly falling towards the horizon, the sun was not yet set.
  2788. > You'd ended the work day hours early and called this gathering while the sky was still light.
  2789. > The ponies - your ponies - needed to see this with their own eyes, all of them.
  2790. > Merely listening to a PA system speak was not enough.
  2791. > And so every single pony was crowded into an open field on the edge of the camp, their collective body warmth combined to form a blanket of heat over the equine mass - enough to stave off the falling temperature even once the sun vanished.
  2792. > "Are you ready for this, Master?"
  2793. > Tearing your eyes from the murmuring horde of four-legged shapes, you glance down to the alicorn at your side and shake your head.
  2794. "No. Not ready. Not in the least. But time waits for no man - or pony. Come."
  2795. > There is no need to call for quiet as you step out onto the stage.
  2796. > From the moment you are in sight, a wave of silence sweeps through the crowd.
  2797. > Rumors, as you expected, have been spreading.
  2798. > A few guards linger just out of sight behind you; Gene had made the correct call in assuming that trying to surround you with a wall of men and arms would only make you seem standoffish and vulnerable.
  2799. > Instead, the only ones that accompanied you out on to the speaking platform were three ponies:
  2800. > Cadance, and two of the ponies who had elected to take up positions as guards.
  2801. > Neither was Thunderlane.
  2802. > You weren't clear exactly where he was, but you had some guesses.
  2803. > When questioned, Gene had simply shaken his head and said the stallion would not be there.
  2804. > You hadn't pushed it.
  2805. > Halting in front of the podium that had been set up, you pause and wait for the last whispers to die away.
  2806. "There is no easy way to say this."
  2807. > Voice alone was incapable of reaching all the crowd's ears, and so your words echoed from a handful of mobile speakers hastily arranged for the purpose.
  2808. "Over the last week, we have all been rocked by a series of events - a pony savagely beaten by her own kin, a hunt for those responsible - and yes, a death."
  2809. > A gentle ripple runs through the crowd, but for the moment you still hold their attention.
  2810. "No doubt a great many of you have heard a great many things at this point, so let me start by addressing the greatest issue at hand: Chrysocolla is indeed dead. She was one of four ponies who had beaten Mocha Cream, and was being hunted for this. Having been cornered in a hideout she constructed in an electrical vault, she chose to take her own life rather than face capture. She chose to do this because she feared torture at my hands - because she believed that death was a preferable alternative to being at my mercy-"
  2811. > "She was right!"
  2812. > The lone speaker is close, but is quickly drowned out by a hubbub of others responding.
  2813. > You wait for it to die some before raising your voice again:
  2814. "The truth is, actually, that I am not innocent in this and will not pretend to be. I am in many ways responsible for her fate even though I did not lay a hand on her. I was the one who terrified her with a hasty message - given in anger when I heard of what had happened to Mocha Cream, and indeed I bear responsibility for it."
  2815. > Once again you solidly have the crowd's attention; they had not been expecting that at all.
  2816. "When I said that I was becoming personally involved now, Chrysocolla had only my past examples to consider. She examined, and came to the conclusion that to be in my power was something to be feared - to be avoided at any cost. Because she remembered what happened to Corona."
  2817. > All at once the crowd flinches in unison, as if struck.
  2818. > They clearly had not expected you to utter that name - thought you would refuse to acknowledge the mare had ever existed, let alone that she had been tortured at your hands.
  2819. > Voices rising in a confused rabble, a million little arguments break out among them.
  2820. > And you let it happen - let them discuss.
  2821. > A unified crowd would be the worst possible thing at this moment - it might go with you, but it might just as well go against you.
  2822. > So for several long minutes you simply stand, allowing discussion, before silencing the crowd with a few short blows to the podium.
  2823. "...this, I think, is a topic that has festered too long in the darkness without being addressed. Now, we have to rip off the bandage and face this matter directly."
  2824. > No chance is given for discussion this time; you jump straight into it.
  2825. "Some time ago, a particular mare was chosen to be an example of punishment deserved for an escape. What followed after that, however, was a thuggish piece of brutality the blame for which rests solely on my shoulders. I allowed my anger to take hold of me, and rather than a mere punishment I acted with intend to break her. She suffered - worse, I would say, than the actual punishment given to those who had planned and lead the escape. I allowed myself to vent my anger against someone who had no cause for it, and it was this mistake - this catastrophic failure by me and me alone - that Chrysocolla thought of when she was cornered."
  2826. > As the words poured out, you could feel your voice becoming shakier.
  2827. > Emotions, being drawn up - the memories of the fury you'd unleashed on Corona, the deep and driving anger you'd in turn focused upon yourself when you'd come to your senses afterward.
  2828. > The endless regret for what it had set in motion.
  2829. > Letting them hear those feelings, and know your words were not empty.
  2830. "I compounded this by cutting myself off in the aftermath, leading Chrysocolla to the entirely rational assumption that if I were to 'get directly involved' again, it would be for her to suffer a similar fate."
  2831. "There is, of course, no way to undo the damage that I have done, and I will continue to bear the blame for that. I do not expect the consequences of it to go away, nor do I expect their memories to simply vanish away. But, that does not mean I cannot look forward to the future."
  2832. > Leaning in now, you let your voice begin to rise:
  2833. "No reason that we - together - cannot fix the lapses now and keep this from happening in the future. Keep any lives from being needlessly lost. Keep hatred from festering into violence. And the first step of this is to show that no pony has to fear torture and brutality at my hands."
  2834. > A single hand motion sets the signal.
  2835. > Five guards - five pony guards - lead the remaining three responsible ponies up onto the stage.
  2836. > The crowd's eyes immediately snap to them, seeing the shackles, hobbling chains, and heavy muzzles Autumn Frost and Comet Tail bore; seeing the way two guards walked with each pony leading them at the end of chains to their collars and muzzles.
  2837. > Taking in the deep fury with which they continued to glare at you.
  2838. > But it is when Windy Winters ascends the stage from the opposite side, unbound and with only a rope linked to his collar, that a true murmur of surprise runs through all the assembled ponies.
  2839. "...the other three ponies responsible for Mocha Cream's savage beating. Not chosen at random, not by whim or by opinion, but turned in by a handful of others among you who understood what would come of violence like that."
  2840. > Though you had not said anything about Windy Winters being included in that category, the other two had evidently guessed his participation in it.
  2841. > If Autumn Frost's glare at you had seemed to be enough to melt flesh, now she skewered him with expressions so fearsome it seemed as if he might burst into flame at any moment.
  2842. > Comet Tail takes a more direct route - rearing up and heaving at his chains as he tries to charge the other stallion, held only in place by the guards accompanying him.
  2843. > Were it not for the muzzles, both would surely be unleashing their exact feelings for their one-time compatriot.
  2844. "And, perhaps more importantly, not been victim to some parade of horrific tortures. Not broken. Not brutalized. They will face the consequences of what they did, and nothing more - and that will not be torturous either. There is no place in this camp for those who would choose to remorselessly beat innocent fillies simply for carrying out their given orders, and so their sentence is simple: They will be removed. Sold off, not to return."
  2845. > A fresh hubbub breaks out, the shock being too much.
  2846. > Not surprising; never before had you used expulsion from the camp as an actual punishment.
  2847. > Flagrant floggings and worse, yes - but never altogether expulsion.
  2848. > You're forced to raise your voice, speaking over the crowd to be heard:
  2849. "Windy Winters: You alone turned yourself in, knowing full well what you would face. You alone were apologetic, understanding that what you had taken part in was wrong. On account of this you will face no other punishment, and I will endeavor to ensure that you are purchased by a safe; should you find your way back here again with no more trouble, you will be allowed to return. I also extend the same to Comet Tail and Autumn Frost: Should you show due repentance for your actions, you too can receive the same."
  2850. > Their response is immediate and clear.
  2851. > Autumn Frost simply turns her head away, while Comet Tail looks you straight in the eye and manages to open his lips far enough to spit on the stage.
  2852. > Well, given the muzzle it's more like 'drool on the stage', but the point is made.
  2853. > Always the provocateur, right until the end.
  2854. "...very well. You will, both of you, be marked to indicate your unrepentant violence. Your feathers will be clipped, and an inhibitor implant put in as you cannot be trusted with your natural talents. Cadance, I turn them over to you to carry the sentence is carried out."
  2855. > Anger from the first two is expected, but Windy Winters simply bows his head in passive recognition of his fate.
  2856. > As they are being lead away, however, once again a single voice cries up from the crowd:
  2857. > "How in Tartarus do we trust you? How do we know they haven't been tortured, or that you would give them any chance-"
  2858. > "I will watch him."
  2859. > Cadance steps up beside you, her voice echoing without any need for microphone or speakers.
  2860. > "I am guilty for what happened to Corona too; I have that weight on my soul too. I cannot let it happen to another."
  2861. "...and if you will not trust her - Mellowheart! Nurse Mellowheart, come forward would you please?"
  2862. > At first, nothing happens.
  2863. > The ripple begins somewhere in the back of the crowd, slowly pushing forward.
  2864. > By the time she reaches the front, ponies are already moving out of Mellowheart's way.
  2865. > She strides a few paces forward from the edge of the crowd and stops there, staring defiantly up at you.
  2866. > "What?"
  2867. "...you have made it abundantly clear that you have no tolerance for torture, that you are even willing to put yourself at risk to make it known what you thought is wrong. Will you examine Windy Winters, to see if I have tortured him into submission? Will you examine Chrysocolla's remains, and verify the truth of how she died?"
  2868. > The mare stands still for several long moments, seeming to turn that over in her mind.
  2869. > "Is this an order or a request?"
  2870. "It... is an order. I order you examine them, and find the truth. I order you to tell nothing but the truth. Even if I am lying, then to tell the truth will let all of you know what I am. If I am honest, then the truth will show that I am no monster and that I only meet violence with violence."
  2871. > Mellowheart's face splits into an angry grin.
  2872. > "You don't need to tell me. If I find so much as a hint you're trying to pull the wool over our eyes-"
  2873. "Then I will deserve every bit of hell that will descend on my head."
  2874. > With that you spin and leave the stage entirely, your point made.
  2875. > Everything you could do now was done; it all depended on what Cadance and Mellowheart choose to say.
  2876. > While the nurse would have to wait before giving her verdict, the alicorn immediately takes the center stage.
  2877. > "As I said before, I too bear responsibility for this tragedy. However, what happened to Mocha Cream was a choice made by those four - a choice to, rather than directing their anger at the state of bondage we live in towards some useful task, vent it upon a mare who had equally little choice in the duty she was given."
  2878. > She is quickly getting into the flow of her speech, leaning forward with wings spreading.
  2879. > "Furthermore, this is no longer just about slavery and obedience or rebellion. It was a blow against the common bond of friendship Equestria was built upon and we still survive on amid this bondage. It was a blow against our ability to live side by side as ponies, against our efforts to preserve anything of our ways here."
  2880. > Pausing, Cadance turns her head away - not just from the crowd, but from you as well.
  2881. > Perhaps to hide her pained expression as the next words are given.
  2882. > "...because of this, I have to concur that this punishment does fit the crime. There is no place for them here. No matter how much anger might fill our hearts at the injustice we face, we cannot tolerate violence against each other. Friendship and camaraderie sustain us in these dark times, and we cannot afford to lose it."
  2883. > Gaze returning to the crowd - driven and fierce - she sweeps it across the assembled ponies, and then to you.
  2884. > "I, as your leader, will give my every breath before I admit defeat and allow us to be mindlessly brutalized, no matter who is responsible. To those of you who still rail against the bondage we live in - I urge you not to let that spirit die, for if it does I say we are no longer even ponies."
  2885. > Another pause, during which she seems to struggle for words before simply giving up.
  2886. > "...that is all."
  2887. > With that Cadance dismounts the stage eyes locked ramrod straight ahead and face covered with what you know by now to be a practiced mask.
  2888. > As you march away together, she murmurs:
  2889. > "That was a good touch with Mellowheart. Do you trust her, though? It could go badly if she lies."
  2890. "Gene's report indicated she was cooperative with Thunderlane. It's needless brutality that angers her, not me blindly. I think she will speak the truth."
  2891. > Cadance nods and says no more on the topic.
  2892. > At least not until you are far from the assembled ponies; only then does her mask break.
  2893. > Her everything - tail, ears, wings, head, everything - falling as the energy and fire seems to desert her.
  2894. > Reaching out, you rest a gentle hand on her withers.
  2895. > Not the teasing or possessive touch you had used this morning, but one of soft reassurance.
  2896. "You did well, Cadance."
  2897. > "I am sending ponies to their deaths, Anonymous. This weighs on my heart, even if they deserve it and have had every chance to apologize."
  2898. "They are not going straight to euthanasia, and they can even avoid the worst work camps if they turn around their behavior-"
  2899. > "Do not pretend that there is a real question about this, Anonymous. Neither of them will change."
  2900. > Her tone is unusually snappy, and Cadance glares up at you through narrowed eyes that are beginning to water.
  2901. > "Hatred has a firm grip on them - trust me that I know what is in their hearts - and being placed in a harder camp will not release that grip. They will only lash out more, a vicious spiral..."
  2902. > Halting in place, Cadance's eyes fall once more to the ground as her legs begin to tremble.
  2903. > "Doing it by proxy makes it no less certain. We have executed them. Their blood is on your hands - and my hooves."
  2904. [Choice]
  2905. "You might be right about that, Cadance, but they didn't give us much of a choice. This went well beyond anything that could be handle with any lesser punishment, not a whipping or anything. You said as much yourself."
  2906. > Shrugging lightly, you resume trudging forward.
  2907. "They chose to do this. They chose to target a filly. They chose to refuse every way out I gave them. They chose to be completely unrepentant. That isn't on your hooves. And if they manage to turn themselves around, they might survive still."
  2908. > "Yes. But it still tears at me."
  2909. > Cadance had managed to start herself moving again too, keeping pace at your side.
  2910. "It is hard, I'm not arguing that. But is there any choice at all here? If we didn't crush this now, violence would only have spread. A pony might even have been killed here."
  2911. > "A pony was killed here."
  2912. > You fix her with a hard look.
  2913. "You know what I mean. The points I'm trying to make are, they gave us zero choice and made their own decisions. None of that can be blamed on you."
  2914. > "Easy to say, but..."
  2915. > The alicorn had stopped again, the trembling of her legs becoming too much to easily walk straight.
  2916. > Instead she falls to her haunches and stares into the distance.
  2917. > "...truly, I have never been a part of condemning a pony like this. Not even when I ruled."
  2918. "Really?"
  2919. > "To death? Never."
  2920. > A hesitating pause, and then:
  2921. > "Once. A stallion so dark and terrible he was destroyed by the forces of love and hope united. And even then I did not... choose. Merely was a part of putting it in action."
  2922. > You can't hold back the slight snort.
  2923. > That does sound like something that would come out of Equestria.
  2924. "And what did he do, that stallion?"
  2925. > "King Sombra, who enslaved a nation to his will and broke their minds with his dark powers. There was nothing left to be spared in his dark heart."
  2926. > Again, a reflexive action - this time, flinching at her words.
  2927. > Was she saying she would execute you, if she could?
  2928. > But her tone was not the least hateful or threatening.
  2929. > Stepping around in front of her, you drop to one knee and rest a hand on her cheek.
  2930. "You know what the alternative was here, Cadance? To ensure that we don't have to face this again? The alternative was that I took those two in and had them broken until they would bow at Mocha's hooves and beg forgiveness."
  2931. > This time it is her turn to flinch, knowing full well the kind of torment that would be required to drive Comet Tail or Autumn Frost to such actions.
  2932. > "No. That - would be a living death."
  2933. "Agreed. But hand - or hoof, whatever - has been forced. Their decision to change - or not - once they're sold is theirs alone; you shouldn't bear it."
  2934. > Sighing, Cadance leans her head lightly into your hand.
  2935. > "I know. Objectively, I know."
  2936. "Then you don't have to worry about me turning into Sombra or something."
  2937. > "It's not you I'm worried about, Anonymous. You don't have the magic to do that, so ponies will always resist you."
  2938. > Her eyes rise up to lock on you, still riven with pain.
  2939. > "It's me. I'm afraid of what I'm becoming, finding excuses of a 'need' to hand out punishments that I'll move down that road."
  2940. "...trust me, Cadance, if half the things I've heard about him are true you're nowhere near him. You're too attached to the memory of your aunt."
  2941. > "Maybe."
  2942. "I mean this, Cadance. Being a ruler means to be hard choices, but nothing I've seen from you - despite how much it might frustrate me sometimes - makes me think you're in danger of that. The degree you're tearing yourself apart over this, even..."
  2943. > This time she just nods, eyes closing again.
  2944. > "Sometimes, I wish I could just throw this position down and walk away from it. Go back to being a simple pony."
  2945. > You aren't quite sure how to respond to that, so you settle for just giving her cheek a little rub.
  2946. "If it gives you any hope... if at any point before they're marked and sold off you can get through to Comet Tail or Autumn Frost, I'll hold my option open."
  2947. > "They won't listen to me. They hate me."
  2948. "But then you can tell yourself you tried everything, and they still chose."
  2949. > To this, Cadance nods again.
  2950. > "I suppose so. I suppose that is all I can do..."
  2951.  
  2952. > In the end, Vapor Trail had stayed the whole night with you.
  2953. > At first she had sat and listened while you told your story in halting bursts, scooting ever closer each time until she was huddled to your side.
  2954. > Even when her roommate appeared, Vapor had simply urged you up and retreated back to your own quarters where she stayed until morning.
  2955. > Dinner was long since over - the dining hall having closed while you were curled on the floor of her quarters.
  2956. > But between yours and her the rations handed out for off-hours meals, Vapor had been able to scrap together something of a dinner which she fed into you practically under threat.
  2957. > You'd eaten, but numbly - mechanically chewing and swallowing as your mind was still somewhere far away.
  2958. > After that Vapor had allowed you to curl against her on the bed, your head resting on her ribs and listening to her heart beat.
  2959. > One wing was extended over your head, cloaking you in a white blanket that took the world away as her muzzle brushed at your mane.
  2960. > Unfortunately, all of that could not keep away what was already inside of you.
  2961. > How long had you stayed like that, still in her hooves as the tears intermittently came?
  2962. > Why was this loss even weighing so hard on you?
  2963. > You'd hardened your heart to betray Cadance and five more ponies for your brother's safety.
  2964. > You'd known there would be no mercy for them.
  2965. > And again done the same for Crescent Moon.
  2966. > Chrysocolla's death, though...
  2967. > Maybe it was that it was more than a whipping - that she was gone now forever.
  2968. > Or maybe it was seeing it happen right there before you.
  2969. > Watching her raise her head - that mad glint in her eye - and squeeze the cable between her teeth.
  2970. > The awful flash and buzz, leaving only-
  2971. > A fresh spasm runs through your body, new tears leaking from your eyes.
  2972. > "Shhh..."
  2973. > Above you, Vapor Trail's muzzle again brushes across your forehead.
  2974. > This mare...
  2975. "I don't deserve you..."
  2976. > "Yes, you do."
  2977. "No, I don't. I couldn't stop her. Wasn't able to keep her alive. A pony is dead because of me..."
  2978. > "No. A pony is dead because she was a slave. Because she was driven by the suffering heaped on us every day to snap and attack one of our own, and then had no reasonable authority to turn to who she couldn't-"
  2979. > Vapor breaks off, shaking her head.
  2980. > "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be laying this on you... my point is, it's your fault least of all."
  2981. "I was chasing her. I should have checked, thought about another option, been able to keep her from grabbing the cable-"
  2982. > "No. This is not your fault. At all."
  2983. > You can feel the breath of each word brushing over your coat.
  2984. > "It's Chrysocolla's fault for snapping and hurting another pony who wasn't doing anything wrong. And it's the slavers' fault for putting us into this situation. But it is not your fault."
  2985. "Why are you even supporting me...? You should hate me. I'm helping them. I'm-"
  2986. > Her only response is to wrap two legs around you - around neck and barrel - and hug tight.
  2987. > After a few moments you relax, a few more tears flowing freely out.
  2988. > Rather than run onto the already-damp bed, however, their path is interrupted by Vapor's muzzle.
  2989. > Brushing them away, she lays a soft kiss on your forehead.
  2990. > "Remember her, Thunderlane. Remember a pony driven mad by all of this, and when we're free - then we can still make sure she isn't forgotten."
  2991. > When morning comes, Vapor Trail slips away.
  2992. > You understand.
  2993. > She has her shift duties to get to, and 'caring for a wreck of a stallion not fit to be a guard' wasn't a viable excuse for missing them.
  2994. > By the time you manage to heave yourself out of bed, there wasn't any time left to grab any breakfast either.
  2995. > Instead you find yourself going through the typical morning motions in a sort of stumbling daze:
  2996. > Showering alone, every other pony having long since departed.
  2997. > Pulling on your uniform, wings and legs operating on their own.
  2998. > As if you half expected to walk into the security post an find that the hunt hadn't even begun yet.
  2999. > But there is no such luck.
  3000. > If anything. Gene looks shocked to see you walk in.
  3001. > "Thunderlane. I told you not to come back!"
  3002. "I'm sorry. I need to be here."
  3003. > "You need time to recover."
  3004. > Standing, Gene walks around from his desk to stare down at you with a concerned look.
  3005. > "I mean it, Thunderlane."
  3006. "So do I. I can't be sitting in one place doing nothing; it all just swirls around in my head. Given me something to do, even if it's just mopping floors."
  3007. > A glimmer of understanding appears in his eyes.
  3008. > "...okay. I will get you something. We have paperwork waiting always."
  3009. > Paperwork is fine.
  3010. > More than fine.
  3011. > It's not truly challenging, as you do sometimes find yourself wracked by subtle shaking.
  3012. > But not so mindless that your thoughts can sweep away to nothingness and find their way back to the memories.
  3013. > So you throw yourself into it, filling out paperwork, inventory, and more until your jaw aches and hooves are stained with ink.
  3014. > Evening approaches, and Gene leans in to the office he'd parked you in.
  3015. > "So you know, Thunderlane, Anonymous is going to be giving a speech on all this."
  3016. "I..."
  3017. > "Will be skipping it. Stay here."
  3018. > You settle back into the seat, obvious relief exuding from your posture.
  3019. > Facing Cadance - facing everypony else - right now wasn't something you could handle.
  3020. > So you remain there, filling out paperwork, even when the guards return from the speech and then head back out again.
  3021. > It is in the midst of these things, while stepping away to find more envelopes, you pause amid the hallways of the guard post - an ear cocked.
  3022. > Something had pulled your attention, a noise that was decidedly out of place in the guard post.
  3023. > A moment passes, and it comes again.
  3024. > "...down this way, okay?"
  3025. > "Thanks, Mister guard! I promise we'll stay away from them like you said!"
  3026. > The voices are relatively easy to follow.
  3027. > Turning a corner, you spot the bearers further up ahead.
  3028. > One of them you know very well - Milestone was one of your guards, a reliable unicorn.
  3029. > The other, though...
  3030. > You'd only ever seen Flurry Heart and Megan at a distance, but both of them were of course instantly recognizable.
  3031. "Mi-"
  3032. > Your voice cracks from disuse, forcing you to clear your throat.
  3033. "Milestone, what's going on here?"
  3034. > Jumping at your call, the unicorn turns - eyes wide with surprise.
  3035. > "Oh! Thunderlane, I'm - I'm sorry, I didn't know you were..."
  3036. "S'fine."
  3037. > You nod to the other two, and Milestone looks to them a moment before jumping.
  3038. > "Oh! Them! Uh, they came down with one of the servants from the house. Apparently she is supposed to be speaking to the three prisoners before they're sent off."
  3039. > "I promise we'll be safe, Mister Thunderlane!"
  3040. > Megan's tone is eager and hopeful, and she looks at you with expectant eyes.
  3041. > ...they might try to be, but one guard against three prisoners - if something did happen...
  3042. "Anyone else around to help you with this, Milestone?"
  3043. > "No; other guards are out on patrol right now."
  3044. > Damn.
  3045. "I'll go with you."
  3046. > "Thunderlane, I..."
  3047. > Stepping in closer, Milestone leans in and reduces his voice to a whisper.
  3048. > "...are you going to be okay with them?"
  3049. "I can manage."
  3050. [Choice]
  3051. "...Milestone..."
  3052. > You lift a hoof to rub your eyes, trying to clear the cobwebs from your mind.
  3053. "...you were going to let her in a cell with three rebels, two of whom are still very dangerous? How did she even get down here? Who came with her?"
  3054. > "It was Canele. And they're shackled in place, Thunderlane - it's not like she'll actually be able to get close to them. I wouldn't let her."
  3055. > One of the manor's chefs had brought Mocha down?
  3056. > Why-
  3057. > No, nevermind why.
  3058. > He was a tough cookie, but that wasn't any excuse for what had happened here.
  3059. "Miss Megan - did Master Anonymous really tell you to come here and speak to them?"
  3060. > "Uh-huh!"
  3061. > Her nod is enthusiastic and immediate, golden curls bouncing around her head.
  3062. > Flurry Heart, however...
  3063. > Well, the first word that you would use to describe the poor filly is "uncertain".
  3064. > She's clearly well out of her depth here, no doubt in part due to not having ever entered the camp before.
  3065. > But more importantly there's a moment of uncertainty when Megan responds so clearly.
  3066. "...right. So, he sent you down here, through the camp, without a single guard? Without calling in advance, or coming back here after the big speech he just gave that had everypony else away?"
  3067. > You're so skeptical, you even forget that Anonymous' official term for this place was 'facility', not 'camp'.
  3068. > "Uh... huh."
  3069. > This time, Megan does not sound nearly as certain either.
  3070. > Nor does Milestone, for whom it seems to be dawning just what he may have gotten himself into.
  3071. > Flurry...
  3072. > Poor Flurry Heart looks downright terrified.
  3073. "...so, if I went to a phone and called Master Anonymous' number right now, he'd agree that he really ordered this too?"
  3074. > "Yeeeeeah?"
  3075. > No certainty at all.
  3076. "Good. Because that's what I'm going to do. Milestone, keep her here."
  3077. > "NO!"
  3078. > Megan scurries around with surprising speed, putting herself directly in your way.
  3079. > Flurry Heart follows at a much more uncertain pace.
  3080. > "No, you shouldn't, he doesn't need to-"
  3081. "Miss Megan, what you are suggesting is not only very dangerous, but I think you are lying to me."
  3082. > "I'm... I'm not! And you have to let me speak to them!"
  3083. > "Mistress Megan-"
  3084. > Flurry Heart's interruption goes unnoticed by the little girl, but you can't miss it - it's the first time you'd actually heard the alicorn filly speak, and those two words speak volumes.
  3085. > She's worried, but not terrified.
  3086. > Along with her body language - those outsized wings make her very easy to read - you get the feeling she is scared for Megan, not scared of her.
  3087. "I do not have to do that. I have to keep you safe. That is my job as a guard."
  3088. > "Yes, you do!"
  3089. > Her shoulders bunch up, fists balling and pout forming.
  3090. > "Because - because I have to know! And because - because you're a slave and you have to do what I say!"
  3091. > The second the words leave Megan's lips it hits her exactly what she said.
  3092. > Before you can even begin to formulate a response, her face goes pale and hand slaps up to cover her mouth.
  3093. > "I... I didn't-"
  3094. "...Milestone, would you keep her here? I have a call to place."
  3095. > "Yeah, go ahead, Thunderlane."
  3096. > Just as you turn to walk away, however, Flurry Heart abruptly breaks from Megan's side to stand in your path.
  3097. > "M-Mister Thunderlane?"
  3098. > Despite her young age, the filly manages an imposing figure on account of her wings and determined expression on her face.
  3099. > Not sure what to do, you settle for simply cocking your head.
  3100. > "Please... Mistress Megan didn't mean it. You... don't have to call him-"
  3101. "Flurry Heart... I imagine you have to follow Miss Megan's orders, yes?"
  3102. > "Uh-huh."
  3103. "I have to follow Anonymous' orders. And his orders are clear: If I think there's anyone is at risk, I have to stop it. Whether or not they mean what they say."
  3104. > "I-I know. B-But she wants this very much, and... maybe you could call him after? If she is going to be in trouble any way..."
  3105. > Despite yourself, you can't help but soften your expression some.
  3106. > What had happened between this filly and the girl, to make her willing to stand up for her 'Mistress' when there was no need to?
  3107. > Seeing your uncertainty, Flurry Heart adopts an even more heartachingly hopeful expression.
  3108. > "A-And Mister Milestone said the bad ponies won't even be able to touch us. It'll be safe, right?"
  3109. "...no. I'm sorry, Flurry Heart, but I have to do this."
  3110. > And to your surprise, she stands aside.
  3111. > Stands aside with body language despondent enough to make your heart ache, but stands aside nonetheless.
  3112. > When you place the call, it only takes a brief explanation before Anonymous issues his response in four terse words:
  3113. > "I'll be right over."
  3114. > He arrives like an oncoming storm, the atmosphere seeming to grow heavy as his footsteps approach.
  3115. > Megan's head had begun to hang, until she was practically staring at the floor when Anonymous actually appears.
  3116. > Stopping, he folds his arms and sweeps his eyes across everyone present.
  3117. > "Milestone, let's start with you. What happened?"
  3118. > Despite his obvious nervousness, to his credit Milestone keeps himself mostly calm as he relates the story:
  3119. > "She arrived at the front door with Canele, Master. He was the one who actually told me that you had given the order that she should speak to the rebels, but now I, ah..."
  3120. > He glances towards Megan, who puts an arm around Flurry Heart and sniffles.
  3121. > "I didn't think anything of it then. The prisoners, they're still shackled to their cells - so she could talk to them from a distance away. I thought it was safe..."
  3122. > "Okay. And you, Thunderlane?"
  3123. "I was working here. Heard them come in. Asked where they were going, and it felt... wrong. So I went to call you, and, ah..."
  3124. > Flurry Heart fixes you with pleading eyes, but you're too drained to notice them.
  3125. "...Miss Megan said that I had to take her, because I am a slave and I have to follow orders."
  3126. > "I see."
  3127. > Taking two steps closer, Anonymous folds his arms and glares down at Megan.
  3128. > "I spoke to Canele on my way over, and he told me how you tricked him too. I am very, very dissapointed in you, Megan."
  3129. > "M'sorry..."
  3130. > "You snuck out while I had everyone away at the speech, lied, and I have told you it is not okay to try and order the ponies around just to suit yourself."
  3131. > Megan sniffles again, and Flurry Heart extends a wing up around her in return.
  3132. > Unfortunately, that only attracts Anonymous' attention to her.
  3133. > "And you - I'm very disappointed in you as well, Flurry Heart! You're supposed to look after Megan, not just go along with what she asks when it's something foolish like this!"
  3134. > Evidently feeling the sting of his words as hard as a physical blow, Flurry Heart sinks down onto her belly.
  3135. > "I-I'm sorry, M-Master..."
  3136. > "Both of you - and I mean both of you - could have been hurt very badly! What were you thinking, wandering around the camp alone?! Do you have anything to say for yourselves!"
  3137. > Unlike Flurry, Megan does not reply.
  3138. > Instead she remains head-down, hair hanging in a golden curtain around her head.
  3139. > You, too, remain silent - albeit for a different reason.
  3140. > This was a private moment between father and daughter, and you were surprised he had chosen to deal with it out here at all.
  3141. > Eventually Flurry nudges Megan with her opened wing, looking up with wide eyes.
  3142. > "Mistress Megan? I think you, um. I think you should say, what you told me."
  3143. > Anonymous raises an eyebrow, looking pointedly at his daughter.
  3144. > "Did you order Flurry Heart to help you do this?"
  3145. > "Yes!"
  3146. > You'd seen Megan's outburst coming, in the subtle hunching of her shoulders and draw of her breath.
  3147. > Even so, it makes you flinch and step back.
  3148. > "Yes, because I gotta know - why! Why'd they hurt Mocha! And you wouldn't let me go see them so I had to sneak-"
  3149. > She's glaring now, eyes alight with a fire long held back.
  3150. > "I gotta know!"
  3151. > "...right. And Flurry Heart, why did you go along with this, exactly?"
  3152. > "She was going to sneak off to do it if I said no, Master. I think I should be here, with Mistress Megan."
  3153. > Despite the absurd riskiness of what they'd done, you can't help but feel of sympathy for her.
  3154. > Flurry had, after all, been put in a situation with no easy-outs.
  3155. "If I can say - if I'd been put in the same situation, where she'd find a way over with or without me, I'd have done the same thing. Stick to her side, and try to keep her safe."
  3156. > Unspoken but clear is your implication:
  3157. > Do not punish her for this.
  3158. > "...right..."
  3159. > Anonymous rubs his forhead in frustration, nodding.
  3160. > "Yes, I can understand that, I suppose. Flurry, in the future... tell someone if she does something like this again. It'll get back up to me, and-"
  3161. > Here he shoots another glare back at Megan.
  3162. > "-I will deal with it."
  3163. > "Yes, Master."
  3164. > Evidently finding Flurry Heart suitably chastised, Anonymous' wrath finds a new target.
  3165. > "You, however, Megan - I really thought I taught you better than this. There will be a punishment for this - Milestone, you can stop looking so surprised. She doesn't get any special treatment."
  3166. > Beside you, the stallion shuffles in place and looks at his hooves.
  3167. > Anonymous turns to go, but Megan remains firmly planted in place.
  3168. > "I still wanna see them."
  3169. > The two look at each other for a long time - a silent contest of wills.
  3170. > "I suppose if you're going to be running this in time you really should see everything you'll have to deal with, but..."
  3171. > Rubbing his cheek, Anonymous turns back to look towards the cells.
  3172. > "...I'm really not sure this is the right time."
  3173. > Apparently undetered, Megan continues to glare fiercely at him.
  3174. > Flurry Heart shuffles uncertainly caught between her Master and Mistress
  3175. [Choice]
  3176. > "...alright. But I have to warn you, Megan: These ponies aren't like Flurry Heart, or any of the others you've met yet. They're going to be angry and say some hurting things. You might not get the answer you want."
  3177. > "Yeah. But I gotta know."
  3178. > "Well, I warned you. Thunderlane, Milestone, are you two up for being part of this?"
  3179. "Yes."
  3180. > And you'll have to thank him later for not singling you out, even if it's really only you he is asking.
  3181. > Milestone, after all, had little question about his readiness.
  3182. > "Okay, so: Megan, you get to talk to them. But after that, we're going to have a long talk about going around behind my back, and then figure out what I'm going to do with you."
  3183. > Though she'd managed to get what she'd been aiming for, Megan remains subdued.
  3184. > "Yes, Daddy..."
  3185. > "And when you go in there, I want you to stay well away from them. Listen to Thunderlane and Milestone, you hear?"
  3186. > "Uh-huh."
  3187. > Still looking very uncertain, Anonymous slumps in place - shoulders sagging.
  3188. > He looks to you again, a frown stamped on his features:
  3189. > "Keep a close eye on her, okay?"
  3190. "...of course."
  3191. > "Good. I'll be waiting just outside; you'll never get anything out of them if I'm around."
  3192. > After a thoughtful pause, he adds:
  3193. > "...or Comet Tail would be too busy trying to rile me up. Either way, I'll be waiting in case something goes wrong."
  3194. "Got it. Miss Megan, please follow me."
  3195. > Despite her confidence in pulling off the subterfuge to get this far, obvious tension builds in her as you step into the actual cell blocks.
  3196. > But neither does she stop - hanging at your side even as you stop in front of the cell holding the first two prisoners.
  3197. "Comet Tail and Autumn Frost are in this one, Master. Windy Winters is in the next one over."
  3198. > "Start with them, I guess."
  3199. > Anonymous had paused on the way here to step into one of the offices, and now clutched a stun-gun in his hand.
  3200. > Locks thunk, the door squeals, and the cell opens.
  3201. > Both ponies within still bore shackles, chains, and muzzles; you guess they'd been used for the speech Anonymous had made earlier.
  3202. > But an additional chain had now been linked to the cell floor, keeping either from moving far - or even from touching each other.
  3203. > They simply lay on opposite sides of the cell, sprawled on their sides as the chains (and, in Autumn Frost's case, wingbinders) kept them from taking any other position.
  3204. > Two sets of eyes regard you with a mix of anger and uncertainty when you enter, but fresh confusion comes over both prisoners' expressions when Megan appears behind you.
  3205. > Confusion turns to total befuddlement when Flurry Heart appears at her side as well, one wing still extended to circle protectively around her mistress' back.
  3206. > Megan, too, pauses - laying eyes for the first time on the ponies responsible for Mocha's injuries.
  3207. > You're forced to break the sudden pause with an order:
  3208. "Milestone, can you get their muzzles?"
  3209. > "On it."
  3210. > Stepping forward, the unicorn quickly and carefully undoes the muzzles on both ponies.
  3211. > Autumn and Comet quickly take advantage of the opportunity, stretching out jaws long held shut by tightly-bound straps.
  3212. "Miss Megan wants to talk to you."
  3213. > Your voice is grim, flat, and emotionless.
  3214. > Eyes in particular are locked on Comet Tail.
  3215. "You're to speak freely, but I don't think it's a good idea to deliberately upset her."
  3216. > The stallion snorts gently, but apparently takes the point - failing to give any snappish reply.
  3217. > Looking back, you shift to the side and nod to Megan.
  3218. "Go ahead, Miss Megan."
  3219. > She advances a few nervous steps ahead, Flurry Heart actually interposing herself between Megan and the two prisoners.
  3220. > You'd have to keep an eye on her - don't want her to try leaping into anything.
  3221. > Megan stands there, hands slowly balling into fists as she builds up the courage to speak to them.
  3222. > When it comes, it comes in a single word:
  3223. > "Why?"
  3224. > To this, both Comet Tail and Autumn do not reply - simply remaining staring at Megan with uncertain expressions.
  3225. > This, however, only drives her to ask more - a growing tremble entering both her voice and body.
  3226. > "What'd Mocha Cream ever do to you? Why'd you beat her up?"
  3227. > Their only response is to look at each other, silently debating how to respond to this interrogation.
  3228. > "M-Mocha - Mocha was a good pony. She was my friend-"
  3229. > "Kid..."
  3230. > It's the first time you'd heart Autumn Frost display real emotion in her voice, and it comes as a complete surprise.
  3231. > She sounds... tired, more than anything else.
  3232. > "Kid, you're so sheltered I don't even know where to begin."
  3233. > That obviously fails to satisfy Megan, though, and after a moment Autumn goes on.
  3234. > "I want you to just - just stand back and think about everything for a second. You see us around your home, and - I guess, that's good to you? But, if you're able, think about how it feels to all of us."
  3235. > Megan frowns, obviously not getting it.
  3236. > "I don't get it. You're good ponies and work for us, and we're good to you back. That's how it wor-"
  3237. > Autumn's bitter laughter abruptly cuts her off.
  3238. > "You're good to us? Oh, Celestia help you, kid - you'er as blind to it all as the rest of your kind. Okay, look... look, I want you to stop and think - really think for a second - about how we got here. All of us ponies."
  3239. > "You... were bought?"
  3240. > Shifting her eyes upwards to the cell ceiling as if hoping for a sign from the sky beyond, Autumn shakes her head.
  3241. > "Before that. Before we were slaves. We had homes, lives, families. I had a husband. He-"
  3242. > She tries to gesture with a wing, belatedly remembering they were bound, and instead points to Comet Tail with her muzzle.
  3243. > "He had a marefriend. We had lives. A nation. A ruler. Then we wake up one day and get hauled off in chains to be slaves... you ever been beaten, kid?"
  3244. > "Beaten? Like, at a game?"
  3245. > "...no, like - hit. You ever been hit by someone?"
  3246. > Megan nervously shuffles in place.
  3247. > "My Daddy sometimes spanks me when I've been real bad..."
  3248. > Seeming to find this absolutely hilarious, Autumn throws her head back and laughs hard.
  3249. > "Oh, so fuckin' sheltered. Spanked when you've been bad, Celestial help us... So, they drag us away from our homes, toss us in cages, and kid - we were really beaten. Whips. Rods. Boots. Whatever they had, any time we showed a sign of thinking for ourselves, of lifting our noses up out of the muck… and beatings were the least of it."
  3250. > “But… Mocha Cream didn’t hit you.”
  3251. > “I’m getting there. So then your father comes in and buys us up… and he says, I’m better than they are. But he beats us at first too, until we hit him back and get some away. Every time, over and over… he squeezes us until we can’t take it any more. Just takes every bit of dignity - you know that word, kid? It means he takes everything we were proud of. Be a good pony. Work hard. Forget where you came from. Forget your homes. Forget every pony you’ve lost.”
  3252. > “But… Mocha didn’t hurt you.”
  3253. > “Yeah, she did… she became an agent of your father. She helped him try to break us all. Stole our stuff, when we tried to mind everypony else who we all were.”
  3254. > It’s the most you’d ever heard Autumn speak and you’re actually surprised by how well she does so.
  3255. > “No! You’re lying - Daddy is nice! She wouldn’t do anything like that!”
  3256. > “Shut up and open your eyes, Megan.”
  3257. > Comet Tail had finally jumped in, heaving himself upright and turning to show a series of ugly bruises forming down his side where Anonymous had layed in with his boot.
  3258. > “You think we aren’t being hurt? That just because your father isn’t having us flogged whenever he wants, we can forget what he’s taking from us?”
  3259. > “What - what is he even taking from you?!”
  3260. > “Freedom. I just want to go home, Megan. I had a nice little house to myself on the edge of town, my eye on a couple of pretty fillies, neighbors we’d always go out and help with the harvest… I want all of that back. And if I can’t have it, then I’m not going to forget what happened to it.”
  3261. > Autumn Frost nods, even as she stays staring at the ground.
  3262. > Her shoulders shake with long-dry tears.
  3263. > “And I want my husband back. And my parents. And my colt... he'd be about your age now, if he's still alive."
  3264. > "We didn't beat Mocha Cream because she was obedient enough to survive. Tartarus' teats-"
  3265. > Comet Tail earns a glare from you for that; even if she didn't understand it, there was no reason to be swearing in front of a child.
  3266. > "-you think we haven't followed orders when we had to too? But she helped him destroy us. When we tried to fight what had happened to us, he had her come down to do his bidding to crush us. And she did it happily."
  3267. > "But I don't want to hurt you!"
  3268. > Trembling already, Megan seems near tears herself.
  3269. > "I want things to be like with me and Flurry Heart-"
  3270. > Instantly you wince as the two prisoners' eyes shift from the girl to the alicorn filly at her side.
  3271. > "Oh, kid..."
  3272. > Autumn actually sounds despairing, fresh sadness entering her voice.
  3273. > "You don't even know... kid, you know what a hostage is?"
  3274. > Damn her!
  3275. > Damn both of them!
  3276. > Should you step in, cut this off before it crushes Megan, or was the point that she needed to know-
  3277. > Too late.
  3278. > Seeing Megan's confusion, Comet Tail answers:
  3279. > "It's somepony who you hold prisoner to make somepony else do what you want, or you hurt the hostage. That's what she is, Megan - a way to make Cadance play nice."
  3280. > "No! You're lying!"
  3281. > You can hear the waver in her Megan's voice, though.
  3282. > "Cadance is a good pony now... too..."
  3283. > There's something else at play here, some dawning realization coming over Megan.
  3284. > Grinning a distinctly vengeful grin, Comet Tail pulls himself forward as far as his chains will allow.
  3285. > Megan takes a step back and Flurry moves to stand protectively in front of her, but nothing can stop Comet Tail's continuing words:
  3286. > "Seeing it now, Megan? That's how your father scares ponies into behaving right. Ask him, if you don't believe us. Ask him about Corona, too, so you understand what kind of a monster he-"
  3287. "Comet Tail, that's enough! She asked you why; this is going well beyond that."
  3288. > "Oh, now you suddenly care about someone, /murderer/?"
  3289. > The viciousness of his barb had been expected, a risk you'd taken by attracting his attention.
  3290. > Even so, it stings hard - freshly tearing open wounds that had only barely begun to heal.
  3291. "What I care about isn't relevant. Answer the question or shut up."
  3292. > "This is why, though. Because every lie her father tries to sell us, every pony silenced when they try and tell the truth-"
  3293. > Again, Comet's eyes drill into you.
  3294. > "-mean we have to act, even if it means fighting."
  3295. > He ends it there, daring you to order him muzzled again for that.
  3296. > It is Autumn Frost who breaks the silence:
  3297. > "Look, what he's trying to say is... to us? This is a war. We win, or everypony is a slave and we lose everything we had forever. Mocha Cream took her side. She didn't have to happily prance along helping Anonymous crush us. She made herself our enemy."
  3298. > Sighing a tired sigh, Autumn lays her head back down on the cell floor.
  3299. > "We've just lost this battle. He won. So he cripples us both and sells us off, knowing only a glue camp'll take us now. Keeps his hands nice and clean, while we get finished off."
  3300. > After that, nothing more is said by either of them.
  3301. > It seems to you that there isn't anything more that can be said.
  3302. > After a few moments, you nudge Megan with a wing.
  3303. "Did you want to go, Miss Megan?"
  3304. > She only just nods, and you spare a glance to Milestone - a wordless order - before you follow her out.
  3305. "There's still Windy Winters to see, if you wanted to talk to him-"
  3306. > Megan only manages to just get out the door before she takes off running, long-held-back tears finally breaking free.
  3307. > Flurry Heart gallops after her, and Anonymous looks down with shock written on his face.
  3308. > "The fuck did they do to her, Thunderlane?!"
  3309. "Didn't touch a hair on her. Didn't even yell. Just... talked."
  3310. > Cursing angrily, Anonymous stomps after her.
  3311. > Megan always used her room as her fortress, and that makes it very easy to find her.
  3312. > It also means that you have to knock before entering.
  3313. > Breaking that sanctuary would be an even greater misstep.
  3314. "Megan, honey? Can I come in?"
  3315. > No answer comes, but after a moment Flurry Heart opens the door - still staring at the floor as she does so.
  3316. > "Mistress Megan says you can come in, Master..."
  3317. > The girl herself is flopped belly-down on her bed, pillow clutched to her face, not even having bothered to remove her shoes.
  3318. > Sitting down on the bed's edge, you place a soft hand on her back and start to rub.
  3319. > You'd meant to give her something to think about for what she'd said to Thunderlane - maybe a bit of a spanking; she wasn't too old for those and it had been spectacularly bratty.
  3320. > But now...
  3321. "I shouldn't have let you see them..."
  3322. > "I had to."
  3323. > Voice muffled by the pillow she clings to, Megan still manages to talk
  3324. "Yes, but... you know, some things it's best to teach in certain ways. And through them... you know, when people are angry, they can say some very dumb things. That's why I wasn't sure if you should talk to them first..."
  3325. > "They said they're at war with you..."
  3326. "They... may see it that way, but it isn't what I want. I didn't bring all of them here to fight, I brought them here to build."
  3327. > On her opposite side, Flurry Heart had also gotten up onto the bed - nuzzling in against Megan's ribs.
  3328. > Eventually, that seems to get through to the little girl.
  3329. > Megan rolls onto her side, stroking back the alicorn's mane before abruptly throwing her arms around Flurry's neck.
  3330. > "I want... I wanna know..."
  3331. > Choking on her words, Megan opts instead to whisper something into Flurry's ear that makes the alicorn's expression go wide.
  3332. > "...I'm sorry, Mistress, but I think - I think you have to ask that."
  3333. > "Please, Flurry..."
  3334. > "I'll know it's dis-disobedience-"
  3335. > Flurry has to sound out the word slowly.
  3336. > "-but I can't ask that for you."
  3337. > Perhaps something of what you'd lectured Flurry on earlier had taken root after all.
  3338. > After a moment Megan nods, sitting up and looking you directly in the eye.
  3339. > "Daddy... is Flurry Heart a hota - hostage?"
  3340. > If you were to be absolutely honest, then yes.
  3341. > She had been from the moment you'd first mentioned her presence to Cadance all those weeks ago in that cell.
  3342. > It was the sole thing that had actually gotten Cadance to work with you, and even if now she was more agreeable it still all came back to Flurry Heart.
  3343. > And you had always tried to be honest with both Megan and the ponies alike.
  3344. > But even without having heard everything that was said to her in the cell, it's clear this forms the crux of the whole issue:
  3345. > How much could Megan trust you, or the pony you had given her?
  3346. [Choice]
  3347. "No. Flurry Heart is not and has never been a hostage."
  3348. > You manage to speak the words with such conviction it gets through to Megan, who finally releases her deathgrip on the pillow and sits up.
  3349. > Immediately taking advantage of this, you reach out and pull her into a one-armed hug against your side; on the opposite side you extend an arm to Flurry Heart who quickly slips beneath it.
  3350. "Being a hostage would imply that I'm just... using her. That I would have hurt her to spite Cadance, or to force her to obey."
  3351. > Turning to the filly, you address her directly.
  3352. "I wouldn't ever do that. You're a good pony, Flurry Heart, and I wouldn't hurt you for that."
  3353. > She manages to bring a smile to her face - small, but real and honest.
  3354. > On the other side, though, Megan shifts.
  3355. > Though she leaned in against your side, you could still feel her curling up around herself.
  3356. > "Why do they think that, then...?"
  3357. "...well, shortly before Flurry came here, Cadance lead some ponies to try and escape-"
  3358. > Here Flurry Heart shifts uncomfortably, ears twisting about to point in the direction of the camp as if she could hear her mother's distant presence.
  3359. "- I'm sure you've heard about that. When she did that and I found out..."
  3360. > Turning to the little filly, you reach down and stroke the bridge of her muzzle.
  3361. > Distracted from her more troubling thoughts, Flurry goes slightly crosseyed and even manages a squirmy giggle.
  3362. "You know, I hadn't even told your mother you were coming. I wanted it to be a surprise... a way to show her how well she'd been doing. But after that..."
  3363. > "Did you say you were going to hurt her?"
  3364. > A moment of actual annoyance flushes through you at Megan's question.
  3365. > Hadn't she been listening earlier?
  3366. > But no - she was a child questioning everything about her life.
  3367. > There was no need to be angry with her.
  3368. "No. Like I said before, I'd never threaten Flurry like that."
  3369. > "Why, then?"
  3370. "What I told Cadance is that if she kept causing problems - if I couldn't make any money with the camp - then I wouldn't be able to keep Flurry Heart."
  3371. > With a little gasp Megan escapes from beneath your arm to wrap the filly in question in her own two-armed hug.
  3372. > "No!"
  3373. "Well, she didn't want it either. She saw reason, and stopped making trouble... but when the other ponies saw that, they thought I had threatened Flurry Heart myself."
  3374. > "Oh."
  3375. > A pause, and then Megan buries her head against Flurry's barrel again; one expansive wing settles down over her head.
  3376. > "That's good. Cadance is a nice pony; I don't want her to have to make Flurry Heart go away..."
  3377. "Neither do I. In fact, I really want Flurry to stay too; that's why I had to tell Cadance. I hope you understand now, though: Ponies like those two will take anything I do and twist it into being a bad thing - like saying that makes Flurry a hostage."
  3378. > "I don't care."
  3379. > Flurry Heart had suddenly spoken up again, a freshly determined expression on her face.
  3380. > "If I'm a hos-tage or not, I mean. I'm happy. Mistress Megan is good to me, and you're a good Master. You brought me back to momma."
  3381. > Her voice drops to a softer tone, eyes briefly turning watery.
  3382. > "M-Maybe it's because I don't remember too much. And I still miss my Daddy Shining. But... I'm not hungry anymore. I have someone who cares about me. Who lets me stay with her at night so I can sleep okay."
  3383. > You shoot Megan a questioning look, but it goes unnoticed by both of them.
  3384. > Flurry Heart is too busy nuzzling Megan's head.
  3385. > "I'm glad to be Mistress Megan's pony."
  3386. "Well."
  3387. > Smiling down, you wrap both filly and girl in a wide hug.
  3388. "I'm glad you feel that way, Flurry Heart."
  3389. > And it's the truth too; your heart is honestly swelling to see how close they've quickly become.
  3390. > Unfortunately, that doesn't mean you can ignore a particular issue from before...
  3391. "But Megan - not only did you go around behind my back, but said something very, very hurtful to Thunderlane, and I think we have to deal with that."
  3392. > "Reeeeally?"
  3393. > Despite her tone, you nod.
  3394. "Sorry, sweetheart. But you saw what those two were like... some ponies just aren't reasonable, and you went sneaking out without anyone looking after you. There's a reason we have rules."
  3395. > "Daddy... please?"
  3396. "No. Especially after you were so hurtful to Thunderlane; can you imagine how Flurry Heart would feel if you yelled at her like that?"
  3397. > That finally seems to get through to Megan.
  3398. > The time-tested guilt trip wins again!
  3399. "Now. Here's what's going to happen: You're going to to go back down there and apologize to Thunderlane and Milestone, and then I'm going to spank you for talking to them like that."
  3400. > Megan gives a little whimper, but extricates herself from your arms and Flurry to stand.
  3401. > Both guard ponies are easy enough to find, having remained in place.
  3402. > They both look up when you enter, Thunderlane's head tilting curiously.
  3403. "Do the two of you have a moment?"
  3404. > "...sure, Sir."
  3405. > Standing aside, you motion Megan to enter; Flurry follows hesitantly at her heels.
  3406. "Megan, you have something to say to them?"
  3407. > "I'm sorry I yelled at you, Mister Thunderlane, had to do what I said 'cause you're a slave."
  3408. "And?"
  3409. > "...and I won't do it again, 'cause that must've really hurt."
  3410. > Thunderlane looks genuinely bemused by it all.
  3411. > Pulling a chair over, you seat yourself in it and pat your knee.
  3412. > Glancing between yourself and Thunderlane, Megan hesitates - but you repeat the gesture more firmly.
  3413. > With an unhappy whine, she lowers herself over your legs.
  3414. > Even expecting it, she jumps at the first slap to land on her behind.
  3415. > It's crack echoes in the room, along with a small squeak from your daughter.
  3416. > Flurry looks on sadly as you continue to firmly spank her, but with a sort of certainty that this was right.
  3417. > Within the first few blows Megan is mewling; soon, she has begun to cry.
  3418. > Having this done in front of the ponies must be harder on her than you'd thought, as you are not striking her particularly hard.
  3419. > The two ponies are looking increasingly uncomfortable at the spectacle, as if they really hadn't expected you to actually do this.
  3420. > Eventually it does end, though, and you lift Megan off your lap to set her back on her feet.
  3421. > Placing your hands firmly on her shoulders, you bring your face close to hers and speak calmly but heavily:
  3422. "Don't ever just tell the ponies. Not only will they refuse - as you saw - but that's a very good way to make them angry, and when that happens... well, you've seen what happens."
  3423. > Tearful but silent, Megan nods.
  3424. "They aren't machines. They're thinking beings; if you want them to follow you, you give them a real reason that they can understand. That way, when it's an emergency and you need them to just follow your orders, they will trust you have a good reason. Understand?"
  3425. > "Yes, Daddy..."
  3426. "Good. I won't have any behavior like that from you; it'll make things a lot worse than a little spanking. Milestone? Would you find another guard and take my daughter back up to the house; I'd like to talk to Thunderlane."
  3427. > "Sure thing. Miss Megan, Yo- Flurry, please follow me..."
  3428. > Once they are gone, you politely shut the door and fall back into the seat.
  3429. "I do apologize for that, Thunderlane."
  3430. > "I think you made your point clear."
  3431. "It's more than that... I thought she really did know better."
  3432. > An awkward pause follows, broken only by your change of topic:
  3433. "...regardless, how are you holding up?"
  3434. > "I'm... surviving."
  3435. > Settling back on his haunches, Thunderlane drops his eyes to the floor.
  3436. "That rough?"
  3437. > "I... see her a lot. That last moment. Celestia help me, if I'd been just a second faster..."
  3438. > Choosing to ignore the oath to their deposed leader, you frown in concern.
  3439. "If you need time off - you're one of my best. You've earned it-"
  3440. > "No. I told Gene, I need to be busy or it's only worse."
  3441. "Mmm... you stood out of it when my daughter was talking to the two in the cells, though. I'm actually a little surprised."
  3442. > This time the scowl on his face is all too apparent.
  3443. > "It was a tough struggle, let me tell you. The things they said... but it wouldn't have been what you ordered if I had been jumping in every ten seconds on them."
  3444. "I suppose."
  3445. > "If I can ask, Sir... how long will they be staying?"
  3446. "A few more days, until the truck comes for them. Windy too; I've already got a good place for him."
  3447. > You rub your forehead, sighing.
  3448. "I promised Cadance some time to talk to them, but we'll have to get them marked sooner or later. Make sure it has time to heal before they're moved."
  3449. > "Marked?"
  3450. "Branded. A note on their records can be expunged, and even something etched on their hooves would fade eventually... this way, they'll always remember the mistake they made."
  3451. > Thunderlane blanches visibly beneath his dark coat, but nods.
  3452. > "I'm not sure they see it as a mistake."
  3453. "No, I don't think they do. Which honestly doesn't make me sympathetic."
  3454. > "Yes, boss. Uh, if I can ask... permission to go talk to them myself?"
  3455. "You think you can get through to them?"
  3456. > "I don't know. Maybe I just need to vent a bit. Say what I couldn't when Megan was in there. Or maybe I've gotta clear my conscience."
  3457. > His head falls a bit, wings shifting.
  3458. > "Prove they poisoned Chrysocolla. That I couldn't have done anything for her..."
  3459. "Cadance said something very similar, you know."
  3460. > Looking entirely unsurprised, Thunderlane gives a small snort.
  3461. [Choice]
  3462. "Yeah, go ahead. If you think it'll help, or just need to vent..."
  3463. > You rub the bridge of your nose, sighing.
  3464. "Honestly, I just want to get them out of here. I know I promised Cadance some time, and if you or Cadance can get through to them that's fine; I can adjust where they'll be sold. But honestly, Thunderlane? This needs to be done with. One way or another, I need them out of here."
  3465. > "...I understand."
  3466. > Grimacing, you stand.
  3467. "I've got to go get back to work, then. You let me know if you need that time for yourself, okay?"
  3468. > Thunderlane seems to relax as well, understanding that you're actually trying to do the best for him.
  3469. > "Yeah, I will."
  3470. "Thanks. I do appreciate it."
  3471. > Leaving the guard building, you at first turn back towards your house - but after a thought, decide to make a detour through the camp.
  3472. > Let them try and strike at you; though you weren't a trained fighter or anything like that, you weren't an idiot or a child either.
  3473. > And neither were they dumb.
  3474. > Even the ponies who hated you the most surely understood that attacking you would only send them to a long, painful death.
  3475. > Besides, being seen out in the camp without the overbearing presence of guards might be a good thing.
  3476. > Open up some new lines of communication with the ponies, especially after your recent admission regarding Corona.
  3477. > Indeed, as you watch them (and they watch you), it's apparent that some are viewing you in a new light.
  3478. > Not always a positive one; some looks are distinctly angered.
  3479. > But none of those ponies approach you, and for every hateful glare there's another pony who seems to be looking at you with a degree of fresh...
  3480. > Respect?
  3481. > Acceptance?
  3482. > You respond to those with nods or calls of greeting, recognizing their understanding in turn.
  3483. > A few you pause to exchange brief words of greeting or discussion, but even then you can feel a sort of enforced distance.
  3484. > They're giving you a chance, but not ready to welcome you with open arms.
  3485.  
  3486. > Or hooves, whatever.
  3487. > Yet, one familiar face does stick out at you - and she seems to be watching you with a considerate expression.
  3488. > You angle yourself towards her, stopping to squat down to a more reasonable height in front of the filly.
  3489. "Crescent Moon, yes?"
  3490. > As if you could forget her appearance; the sight of her being flogged was something long burned into your memory.
  3491. > "Yes."
  3492. > After a moment she adds more softly:
  3493. > "Master."
  3494. > Belatedly you realize there wasn't much you actually had to say to her, but fortunately Crescent steps in herself.
  3495. > "I - was at your speech. Heard it all. You really going to let Mellowheart look at that dead mare?"
  3496. "As long as she needs to satisfy herself and come to a conclusion."
  3497. > "I don't think Mellowheart likes you very much."
  3498. "Like I said at the speech, that's exactly why I'm letting her. It has to be her."
  3499. > "Yeah, I heard. But hearing, and seeing real improvement..."
  3500. "It's different, yes."
  3501. > Crescent Moon snorts softly, rolling her eyes and turning to walk away.
  3502. > But a moment later she turns back, glancing over her shoulder to check if you're following.
  3503. > So you fall in just behind her; walking slowly.
  3504. > Eventually, Crescent Moon speaks again.
  3505. > She has to crane her neck up and around a bit to talk to you, but the fact that she is leading you seems to put her some at ease.
  3506. > Or maybe it's just that she could flee if she needed to, being already stripped of a unicorn's first and foremost defensive measure.
  3507. > "The thing is, you can say you screwed up. Admit it, and say you're trying to do better. But, there's still no real punishment for you. I screw up once when I'm scared out of my wits...
  3508. > Her eyes stray back to her withers and haunches, where a few scars of her flogging still remain.
  3509. > "...I'm whipped. And I won't ever forget what that was like; it's a kind of pain you can't even imagine. And that's not even the end of it; I lose my magic too and have to be chained to the bed at night like an animal."
  3510. > The venom in her voice is real, as is the fury in her eyes.
  3511. > "We're not just 'punished', we're humiliated. You can't even imagine what it's like losing your magic. Your hands - imagine having someone just... take away your hand working. You know it's there, you can feel it, but it doesn't do anything you want it to. A whole part of you, gone."
  3512. > Shuddering softly, Crescent Moon closes her eyes.
  3513. > "That's what it is. And even when I'm working and plugged in so my horn can be used, then I have to unplug it and lose that part of myself all over again. But you screw up-"
  3514. "And I'm not even whipped. Mocha Cream is beaten instead."
  3515. > Her head jerks in a nod.
  3516. > "What happened to her wasn't right. She wasn't you, and she didn't do anything you did."
  3517. "I wish everyone could see that distinction. Disagree with me, fine... but she isn't part of this. Things were running out of control here, everything being responded to with an even bigger blow back. It had to stop somewhere."
  3518. > "Yes. But I don't like you. You're a slaver. And just admitting what you did to Corona doesn't mean it's better."
  3519. > Halting in place, Crescent Moon's eyes close as she speaks more softly:
  3520. > "If you wanted it to stop earlier, why didn't you stop it when they took me up there on that stage and flogged me."
  3521. > You... do not have an easy answer for that.
  3522. > Not one that she will accept, anyhow; you doubt she gives a damn about the kind of problems that would have come down on the entire camp if you hadn't had her punished.
  3523. "...no answer I can give will satisfy you, Crescent Moon, and I can't change what was done anyhow. But that doesn't mean I can't show you now either."
  3524. > Again dropping into a squat, you let her see you expression:
  3525. > Open and honest, with no emotion held back.
  3526. "You showed that even after what happened to you, you're still reasonable. I think I'd be an idiot not to recognize that... and I think it means there's no need for you - or the others in your situation - to be chained in at night."
  3527. > Crescent Moon considers you through narrowed eyes, as if searching for a catch or trap.
  3528. > "Others in my situation?"
  3529. "Like you said, ponies who fought out of fear rather than hatred. You've earned that much, and I think we can maybe see about setting your horn limiter to a milder setting as well."
  3530. > "You know I'm not going to suddenly like you just because you're undoing what you did to us anyhow. You're still a slaver. You still had me whipped, even after I begged."
  3531. "Yes, I know."
  3532. > And the sadness in your voice is very real.
  3533. "Like I said, I'm not trying to undo the past. I'm not expecting to be loved. I'm expecting that you'll see I'm listening to you too."
  3534. > "Well..."
  3535. > Eyes dropping to the ground, Crescent paws at the asphalt with a hoof - her nostrils flaring as she snorts and flicks her tail.
  3536. > "...well, I guess I can do that much."
  3537.  
  3538. > To his credit, Anonymous gives you the time he'd promised to try and get through to the two emaining rebels.
  3539. > What actually surprised you more was how he put the time to use - often being seen out and about in the camp, speaking to ponies and actually making himself seen.
  3540. > It would do him good, you judge, especially after that speech.
  3541. > Admitting the very existence of the mare and what he had done to her had tipped the balance in the favor of reason and peace.
  3542. > Re-kindled an acceptance that things might possibly be getting better.
  3543. > Come the next Wednesday, however, when he appears at your office door with a knock you know there's only one reason why he will have come.
  3544. > Setting the ledger you had been working on aside, you beckon him to enter.
  3545. "Anonymous. Please, sit down."
  3546. > "Thanks, though I'll stay standing."
  3547. > He grins slightly, motioning around the room.
  3548. > "Furniture's a bit undersized."
  3549. "Ah, well, yes..."
  3550. > "It's fine, Cadance."
  3551. > He glances around the room, eyes again pausing on the small portrait of Shining Armor that now resided on your desk.
  3552. > Tracking his gaze, you frown.
  3553. "Something an issue?"
  3554. > "No..."
  3555. > Shaking his head, Anonymous sighs.
  3556. > In the awkward pause that follows, he adds:
  3557. > "Flurry's been doing well with Sunburst's lessons, apparently. I've sat in on a few more, and he's already making a bit of progress... their bond is strong, even after all this time."
  3558. "...I'm glad."
  3559. > Your voice tells the truth of your emotions, though, and a moment later your head falls and eyes drop to the front edge of the table so that you do not have to see your husband's face.
  3560. > Yet, after a moment there's a soft touch at your cheek:
  3561. > Anonymous raising your head with a gentle hand, a concerned expression on his face.
  3562. > "You know, your time away from her will be over soon. After that, any time she isn't on duty - or maybe even when she is..."
  3563. > The mere thought of seeing your daughter again at whatever time you choose is enough to draw a soft nicker from your lips, eyes half-closing and ears perking up.
  3564. > "...guess you would like that, huh?"
  3565. "Do I need to say it?"
  3566. > "No, I guess not."
  3567. "Good."
  3568. > Yet, your answer once again leaves a supremely painful silence in its wake.
  3569. > With a groan, Anonymous breaks it - rocking back on his heels to lean against a wall with folded arms.
  3570. > "I guess we should both stop beating around the bush... you know what I'm here."
  3571. "Yes."
  3572. > Your voice is whisper soft, even moreso than it had been before - ears falling back down.
  3573. > "I can't keep them waiting forever. We're going to have to get them marked, clipped, and implanted with enough time to make sure they're healing before the truck arrives for them."
  3574. > When you don't respond, he asks in a softer tone:
  3575. > "Have you had any luck with them?"
  3576. "No."
  3577. > The admission feels all at once like a lifting of a weight from your shoulders, and a twisting of your heart at what is effectively a final condemnation.
  3578. "I've visited them several times, and... nothing. Their hearts are closed. I've lost them."
  3579. > "It's not your fault, Cadance. They chose what they did; I don't think you'd want to control their minds anyhow."
  3580. > You want to disagree, but not having yet another argument with him right now is something you want even more.
  3581. > Seeming to sense this, Anonymous pushes off the wall and at last takes up your offer to sit down - despite how it brings his knees uncomfortably far up.
  3582. > "Listen, I just wanted you to know, before I do anything."
  3583. "I... appreciate it."
  3584. > The three words barely seem like an appropriate response.
  3585. > "If you want to be there, or anything..."
  3586. > Swallowing your the growing lump in your throat, you nod.
  3587. "Yes. I would. I'm sorry, you've been offering me a great deal and I've just been... wallowing. Let me be there; in the end, I am still supposed to be responsible for all these ponies."
  3588. > With a nod, Anonymous rises.
  3589. > "Thought you might. And if it'll settle your mind that I'm not trying to slip in more unnecessary cruelty."
  3590. > It hadn't been a thought, but that he's thinking it over gives you another reason to believe he's actually telling the truth.
  3591. > He returns not to the guard building, but to the medical clinic.
  3592. > There, in one of the larger rooms, two metal frames had been set up:
  3593. > Half skeleton and half body-fitting cage, their cold beams held the two ponies locked within firmly in place - straps and buckles securing them for what is to come.
  3594. > Around the perimeter of the room stood three guards - two ponies and a human - all looking equally uncomfortable with what was going to happen.
  3595. > Dilligently setting up his tools on a nearby table was one of the few human doctors in the camp.
  3596. > Apparently this task wasn't to be trusted to a pony.
  3597. > Autumn Frost and Comet Tail were already glaring at anyone in their line of sight, but the moment you appear they spear you with an especially fierce glare.
  3598. > Nothing is said, though, as both are also securely muzzled once more - their heads additionally locked in the metal grip of the frames to keep them from moving.
  3599. > You refuse to bow to it, though, simply moving to a position at the side of the room.
  3600. > Anonymous stops beside you, his arms folded.
  3601. > "This is everyone. Let's get this over with."
  3602. > A section of hair, you see, had already been shaved out around Comet Tail's horn.
  3603. > This the doctor approaches hypodermic in hand, and begins making small injections at the base of the bony spiral.
  3604. > Leaning over, you murmur to Anonymous:
  3605. "Anesthetic?"
  3606. > "Yes, local. No need for full body for a procedure this minor."
  3607. "Minor?"
  3608. > Your skeptical tone must have carried, as Anonymous looks down and places a reassuring hand on your withers.
  3609. > "This is one of the more basic inhibitors; it's just going to be inserted under the skin, around the horn's base. It doesn't require brain surgery."
  3610. > A more basic inhibitor - that would give very little fine control over Comet's magic, only a few basic options if he was lucky.
  3611. > One that would probably only ever be left on its highest setting, denying the stallion a sense he'd taken for granted from birth.
  3612. > Your thoughts must have also carried; Anonymous shrugs lightly and adds:
  3613. > "I'm not going to waste a full surgical suite and an expensive, full-spectrum implant on him. If he does well, whoever buys him can put that in."
  3614. > As you watch the doctor carefully opens a tiny incision in Comet Tail's skin.
  3615. > The stallion is trembling, but not in pain - in fury, or perhaps fear, at what is being done to him.
  3616. > Not that you blame him.
  3617. > This was taking away a sense as core to him as voice or sight.
  3618. > Stepping away, the doctor returns with the inhibitor itself, loaded in a vicious syringe-like machine.
  3619. > Placed against the incision he had just made, it carefully guides the implant in - curling it around the base of the horn.
  3620. > While this is happens, Comet's expression is changes too:
  3621. > Anger draining away to be replaced with fear, then horror - a trembling beginning that makes you realize the full reason for the frame.
  3622. > If he were not locked into it, the doctor's job would be near impossible.
  3623. > At last it is over.
  3624. > The injection device is drawn away, and the incision carefully closed up.
  3625. > Comet Tail, however, does not return to lucidity:
  3626. > His eyes have gone glassy, straps holding him creaking against the continuing shivering and a sort of helpless mewling coming from the muzzle.
  3627. > Even after what he had done, you still feel a pang of sympathy for the stallion.
  3628. > In the other frame, Autumn Frost is eyeing him with pity in her gaze.
  3629. > The doctor's work with her takes far less time:
  3630. > He does not even release her wings from their straps on the frame, simply shearing through her primary feathers with a shears and soft snip-snip-snip.
  3631. > Sections of ivory-white feather fall to the floor, looking like the namesake frost.
  3632. > The sudden snap-hiss of the blowtorch is so rapid that you can't help but jump a bit.
  3633. > Unnoticed, Anonymous had stepped away and was now heating a pair of brands by the blue gas flame
  3634. > A leaden sense in your belly only grows stronger.
  3635. > Rearing up to place a hoof on the table and lift your head to Anonymous' height, you lean in and whisper:
  3636. "Anonymous, are you -?"
  3637. > "Yes."
  3638. > His voice is dull as well, not filled with grim satisfaction or fury as you'd expected.
  3639. > Even so...
  3640. "I thought no cruelty? I thought this wasn't about revenge?"
  3641. > "It isn't. I just want to see it done with."
  3642. "Then why are you doing it?"
  3643. > He considers for a moment, and then holds the brand's handle out to you.
  3644. > "I don't have to. You do it, if it'll settle your mind."
  3645. [Choice]
  3646. > Reaching up with a hoof, you push his hand back with a shake of your head.
  3647. "I... trust you. I will be watching, though. If I think that you are... taking personal enjoyment of this, I will step in."
  3648. > That comes out a bit harder then you'd meant it to, but gets your point across.
  3649. > Backing up, you drop back down onto all four hooves - wings rustling nervously.
  3650. > How were you so calm right now, watching Anonymous play the blowtorch back and forth across the pieces of steel until a rose-red hue began to flicker from within?
  3651. > So detached from what was about to happen?
  3652. > Maybe you were trying to tell yourself there wasn't anything you could do.
  3653. > Because it made it easier to shift blame off if you could become a helpless bystander.
  3654. > Judging the irons suitably heated, Anonymous turns to face the captives.
  3655. > Two are held in his hands:
  3656. > One terminated in a pair of letters, 'C D' - Chronically Disobedient.
  3657. > The other, in a glyph supposedly resembling a pair of biting jaws - the symbol for a slave responsible for significant violence.
  3658. > You'd only rarely seen either among Anonymous' stock; he did not tend to buy ponies with either such issues, after all.
  3659. > But you knew of them.
  3660. > You watch him travel across the room a detached state of mind - almost as if you were viewing the happenings in a dream, or on a screen.
  3661. > It is not what your would have ordered.
  3662. > To say the least.
  3663. > But it is what Anonymous had declared, and despite every chance you'd given them neither Autumn Frost nor Comet Tail had given you any leverage to avoid it.
  3664. > Could you do something to make it less a torture?
  3665. > Numbly your mind sorts through the options available:
  3666. > A stunning spell, or something to take their mind away from what was happening to them?
  3667. > You know certain... tricks in those respects.
  3668. > Order the doctor to use an anesthetic?
  3669. > Would an anesthetic even do anything for that kind of trauma?
  3670. > Could you just order the doctor to do the branding altogether?
  3671. > Or maybe-
  3672. > It all happened too fast, while your mind was still running in circles.
  3673. > He'd proceeded to Autumn Frost first; given Comet Tail's continuous efforts to provoke you can't help but wonder if this was Anonymous' way of telling you he is avoiding the obvious target.
  3674. > Your throat threatens to close up as Anonymous nears the mare.
  3675. > With every step, you can see her defenses crumbling.
  3676. > Nostrils flaring, sides heaving as much as the frame and straps she was secured into would allow, panic turning to terror as she begins to feel the heat radiating from the irons.
  3677. > Little noises of emerge from her throat, pupils shrunken down to pinpoints and tail lashing in the only movement she could really make.
  3678. > At the last second her eyes fall on you, wordlessly begging for mercy.
  3679. > You step forward, raising a hoof-
  3680. > And by then it is done.
  3681. > A patch of Autumn's coat had been shaved on her withers, just above the shoulder.
  3682. > Below the terminus of her mane, but not so far down that she could ever hope to cover it with her wings - not without perpetually holding them awkwardly, obviously, and painfully high.
  3683. > It is to this Anonymous presses the irons - one after another.
  3684. > What surprises you is how rapid it is.
  3685. > Half of you had expected - based perhaps on some foalhood specters of villains from fantasy - for it to be held there as the flesh roasted.
  3686. > But it is there only for a second, a hiss and puff of smoke before he retracts the first and applies the other.
  3687. > That is enough; the frame creaks as Autumn spasms in it - a keening squeal ripped from her throat before is sputters out in a strangled gasp.
  3688. > Your hoof falls to the floor.
  3689. > Too late.
  3690. > She had made her choice; it had been too late the moment you had stepped into the room.
  3691. > Anonymous ignores all of this, simply stepping away and wordlessly returning to the torch.
  3692. > Then the smell hits you.
  3693. > A wretched, sickly burning smell; not the cooking of meat - you'd smelled that often enough in your time as a slave to become inured to it - but a far worse odor that sends your stomach plunging.
  3694. > So, to, does it hit Comet Tail.
  3695. > His nostrils flare as the awful stench strikes, finally snapping him from the post-implantation daze.
  3696. > Eyes rolling, he fixes the only one he can on Autumn - a tear running down his cheek.
  3697. > Then they swing to you, and any hope you'd had to even be able to spare him is erased.
  3698. > Bitter, bitter fury fills those eyes.
  3699. > They stay locked on you until Anonymous again sets down the torch and approaches Comet Tail.
  3700. > As the cherry-glowing irons near him, Comet too begins to fear - breath starting to come ever faster, and-
  3701. "Stop."
  3702. > Everyone does; Anonymous even takes a step back to look questioningly at you.
  3703. > It's understandable - he had not given any sign of taking any pleasure or revenge in this.
  3704. > Stepping forward, you light your horn and gently take the iron from his grasp.
  3705. > But not to throw it away.
  3706. > Instead you approach Comet Tail, whose eyes are now locked on you with a mix of confusion and fear.
  3707. > Leaning in to his head, you whispering:
  3708. "I'm sorry. I tried; I'm so sorry."
  3709. > A flare of your horn, and his eyes go glassy - the gentle nudge of magic on his mind pushing him into back into the daze.
  3710. > The press of the iron against your magic as it meets his flesh is as powerful as a hammer-blow against your skull.
  3711. > Trying to spare an absolute bare minimum of thought to what you do, you keep it there just long enough as Anonymous had before ripping the iron away.
  3712. > As soon as your horn leaves his head, Comet's eyes refocus and he gasps - lungs once again working - but the worst is already passed.
  3713. > You think of none of this, though; you are already rushing for the door.
  3714. > That horrifying, wrenching stench had again hit your nose, and the full impact of what you'd done was no longer deniable.
  3715. > In a moment you were gone from the room - the brand, had it ended up placed back on the table?
  3716. > You're rather beyond caring.
  3717. > At least you manage to hold back the retching until you reach another open clinic room, slamming the door shut behind you and sinking onto the floor to retch.
  3718. > What had you done?
  3719. > How?
  3720. > It - it was a mercy, right?
  3721. > To cloud his mind before doing that?
  3722. > No matter what Comet Tail had done, he'd also been so traumatized by the inhibitor being implanted already.
  3723. > Did he need to be lucid when he was branded too?
  3724. > You shudder, forehead going to rest against the floor.
  3725. > The vinyl tiling is pleasantly cool against your horn and coat, but after a moment all it does is summon the image of Comet Tail - his eyes unfocused and panicked as the implant takes affect.
  3726. > Autumn Frost's scream, echoes in your ears.
  3727. > What was it about this that hurt you so badly?
  3728. > You'd whipped ponies, and certainly some of those had certainly left scars that would take many years to heal if at all.
  3729. > What was different about this?
  3730. > Was it that it was supposed to forever mark them as slaves, define them by their degree of obedience?
  3731. > Or was it-
  3732. > "Cadance?"
  3733. > A gentle touch of a hand on your back.
  3734. > You want to snap at him.
  3735. > To scream and rant and rage at the man who'd caused you to brand - to brand! - another pony.
  3736. > But all that comes out are four bitter words:
  3737. "What do you want?"
  3738. > He doesn't answer, instead rising from where he had crouched beside you.
  3739. > After a moment, however, he returns - this time with a plastic cup of water.
  3740. > "Drink."
  3741. "Go away. I can't deal with you-"
  3742. > "Drink it."
  3743. > His tone is heavy and forceful, brooking no argument.
  3744. > Whipping your head back up, you grab the cup and down its contents.
  3745. > The water tastes like ash on your tongue.
  3746. > Now emptied, the cup crumples to a tiny plastic ball under your magic.
  3747. > And yet-
  3748. > Something about the simple action had focused you.
  3749. > Brought your whirling thoughts back together.
  3750. > Anonymous, now seated on the floor beside you, nods approvingly.
  3751. > "There. Now, talk to me."
  3752. > It takes another moment to bring your thoughts in line.
  3753. "I am a monster. And a failure."
  3754. > "No. You aren't. You are making the hard choices that have to be made."
  3755. "Do not patronize me!"
  3756. > Driving a hoof against the floor, you spread your wings - nearly knocking him aside in the process - in an unexpected display of anger and whip your head about angrily.
  3757. > "I'm not. I'm telling the truth. None of this is caused by you."
  3758. "Yes, it is! It's my talent, Anonymous! My talent, my destiny, to spread love wherever I go! And I tried, I tried to hard to open them up, to find something they could love - some reason to be spared this no matter what it cost..."
  3759. > You're shaking now, though whether in pain or in fury you don't know.
  3760. > Emotions long tamped down starting to trickle up again.
  3761. > "And there was nothing to be found, I take it."
  3762. "Nothing I could give. I've had ponies angry at me before, but I've never - never lost one like this."
  3763. > "You did everything you could, Cadance."
  3764. > Anonymous snorts softly, resting back on his elbows.
  3765. > "If anything, the blame is with me for causing this all. You did all you could, right up until the end."
  3766. "No, I didn't. I - I could have -"
  3767. > "Could have what, Cadance?"
  3768. > And you can hear the frustration in his voice too.
  3769. > "I wish they hadn't done what they did too. But slaves or not, they made their choices. I mean, what were you supposed to do? Mind-control them? Force them to grovel that way?"
  3770. > Only barely do you manage to hide your look of disgust and shock, turning away to keep him from seeing it.
  3771. > Yes.
  3772. > You could have.
  3773. > Broken the one rule you'd kept since you gained your horn, mark, and magic.
  3774. > Not merely awoken and expanded the love they might have already felt in their heart, but twisted and pulled until an entirely new love - a sickly, forced thing - existed.
  3775. > Made them true slaves - mind, body, and heart.
  3776. > Spared them this fate, but at such terrible a cost.
  3777. > Could you even admit that power to Anonymous?
  3778. > Let him see the full extent of what you could do?
  3779. > It was something you'd carefully hidden from every interrogator who attempted to break you.
  3780. > A lie practiced since you were little older than a filly.
  3781. > Most of Equestria had not even known.
  3782. > Celestia, your husband, Twilight...
  3783. > Not even Sunburst.
  3784. > But without it, how would Anonymous ever hope to understand what you felt?
  3785. [Choice]
  3786. > ...no, you can't tell him.
  3787. > Not about this.
  3788. > Anonymous may be the most agreeable slaver you've ever met - an oxymoron if there ever was one - but he was not that deeply trusted.
  3789. > This very incident being an exact demonstration of why.
  3790. > The feelings that drove him may have been understandable, but ponies had just been branded.
  3791. > Marked with hot irons for the rest of their lives.
  3792. > And you had been made part of it.
  3793. > What would happen if something else like this occurred again?
  3794. > Would he force you to use your magic to 'correct' them?
  3795. > If once, why not again?
  3796. > Was there anything keeping him from deciding to hold Flurry Heart's fate over your head unless you made the ponies here truly love him?
  3797. > From concluding that your hiding this from him was already enough of a crime to part you from her again?
  3798. > A nightmarish vision forces its way into your mind:
  3799. > Of an endless line of ponies marching past, your horn flickering and their faces turning to awestruck joy as their minds were filled with true love for their owner.
  3800. > Of being made to teach other ponies the spells to nudge minds, a self-propagating wave of slaves forever trapped believing that they love serving with all their heart.
  3801. > That they are blessed to be slaves.
  3802. > Bile rising, you turn your head away and squeeze your eyes shut.
  3803. > No.
  3804. > So long as Anonymous had even a drop of belief that what he did was in any way right or just, you could never reveal this to him.
  3805. > Never allow him to gain any inkling of the true scale of your power.
  3806. > "Cadance?"
  3807. "Anonymous... you can not understand. You have, by your own admission, never been a true leader or ruler. And you have never been a slave - never lost control of everything you had, all your subjects you cared for and family who cared for you taken."
  3808. > Sinking down to your belly, you let your wings droop out to either side and spread on the floor.
  3809. "I have tried to spare them anything I can... Held back every cruelty, because I do not want to be a monster holding a lash. But all that's done is leave me the one torturing them instead."
  3810. > Again Anonymous' hand lays against your back.
  3811. > This time, however, you can feel your hackles rise against it.
  3812. > "You're no monster, Cadance. You do what you have to, nothing more."
  3813. "Auntie Celestia would still be disgusted with me. They call me 'Your Highness', but I'm no princess. A princess wouldn't do this."
  3814. > "Cadance, listen to me. A monster is someone who takes joy in doing this. In causing pain."
  3815. "Oh, like you?!"
  3816. > The words had snapped out without warning, and a second later you freeze - tensing at the expectation of a sharp response for a line being crossed.
  3817. > "...at times, yes, I have been."
  3818. > His hand remains still, though, gently resting on your back.
  3819. > "I don't deny for a second that I have done some truly monstrous things. And for all that I argue with at times... I've never once seen you enjoy doing any of this."
  3820. "That doesn't change the reality of what I did."
  3821. > "No, but neither does it change the reality of how you did it - only as a last resort."
  3822. "I wish I hadn't."
  3823. > "I wish they hadn't beat Mocha. I wish they'd given me some sign of regret. But things are as they are."
  3824. > No, they aren't.
  3825. > In the end, he still held you captive.
  3826. > If not for that, none of this would have happened.
  3827. "Anonymous, you can say that. But it doesn't change that I have just - just -"
  3828. > You can't even bring yourself to say it, a sputtered gasp coming out instead.
  3829. > Simply nodding, Anonymous forces himself to sit back up.
  3830. > "Would you like some time alone, or should I stay here?"
  3831. "I - I think some time alone would be appreciated. To think about what I just did."
  3832. > "Okay. But I want you to remember, Cadance. You're more than this. For the pain that you've just inflicted, how many more will find this place a stable and safe home?"
  3833. > No answer is forthcoming, as you simply have none to give.
  3834. > Anonymous, seeing that, just sighs and adds more softly:
  3835. > "It's how I deal with a lot of this. As painful as so much of it can be, the rewards of still pushing forward are so much greater."
  3836. > Easy for him to say.
  3837. > He has not violated his very purpose and destiny, nor does being part of slavery apparently violate any of his social inhibitions.
  3838. "I will keep it in mind. But, as I said, I think right now I just need time to think."
  3839.  
  3840. > When the rumors had first started to swirl about the camp, you'd found them impossible - unbelievable.
  3841. > Cadance, being part of actually branding a pony?
  3842. > Sure, some had said she had fled the room accompanied by the scent of seared flesh.
  3843. > But even if that was true, it didn't mean she had been responsible for it - right?
  3844. > It seemed to go well beyond hyperbole, but you hadn't been there in the medical suite building with them that day.
  3845. > At last you'd given in, and taken the final option available to you:
  3846. > Questioning the other guards who had been present.
  3847. > The story they'd told was all at once vastly more understandable and every bit the confirmation of the fears you hadn't even dared entertain.
  3848. > Yes, it was utterly understandable that Cadance would step in to spare the unicorn further torment.
  3849. > All the same, though...
  3850. > Branding.
  3851. > It was the kind of thing which was whispered about between slaves.
  3852. > Marked as livestock or criminals for the rest of their lives.
  3853. > Utterly forbidden in Equestria since many long centuries ago.
  3854. > All these thoughts are still swirling on your mind as you march down the cell block, coming to the last door.
  3855. > Lock buzzing and hinges squealing, it opens to reveal the last stallion of the trio of prisoners resting in the cell beyond.
  3856. > Windy Winters wore no shackles and was not chained to his cell; the sole indication of his captivity is the collar anchored around his throat.
  3857. > Other hints of his better treatment abounded as well:
  3858. > An empty food tray lay in the corner of his cell, and the bed he rested on was relatively well-appointed with blanket and pillow.
  3859. > A few spare sheets of paper rest on the ground, littered with scribbled mouthwriting.
  3860. > It was a cell, yes.
  3861. > But not a torment.
  3862. > Head rising, Windy blinks owlishly once before finally settling his gaze on you.
  3863. > "It's time?"
  3864. "Yes. Time to go."
  3865. > Heaving himself up, the stallion walks to the doorway.
  3866. > He seems calm, having apparently come to terms with the fate he is being sent to.
  3867. "I'm sorry, but I have to..."
  3868. > Lifting a wing, you unfold the rope lead tucked beneath it - taking the clip at the end in your mouth.
  3869. > Windy rolls his head back without protest, exposing his neck and collar.
  3870. > Immediately after snapping the lead into place you take a hard step back, a dirty taste permeating your mouth.
  3871. > "Do you need to bind my wings as well?"
  3872. "Are you going to try and fly away?"
  3873. > "No."
  3874. "Then I don't."
  3875. > Thankfully.
  3876. > Stepping out of the cell doorway, Windy Winters follows you closely towards the exit.
  3877. > Only for the briefest moment does he pause, eyes locked on the closed cell door his two one-time friends were behind.
  3878. "Thinking about them?"
  3879. > "Yes."
  3880. > Ripping his eyes away, Windy treads on.
  3881. > For a moment you consider asking if he'd like to pass on a final message to them but ultimately decide against it.
  3882. > If he wanted to do that, he could ask.
  3883. > Though you doubted he would; any relationship they had would long since be over.
  3884. > Out of the guard post you take him, now accompanied by a second human security officer.
  3885. > He is utterly unneeded, though, as while ponies stop to watch you cross the grounds up to Anonymous' house none of them try to approach.
  3886. > Once inside, you can't help but notice that Windy Winters is somewhat distracted by the fresh sights of the manor's opulence.
  3887. > It is, you suppose, something that you'd become inured to while for him the stark comparison to the camp's basic measures was a fresh shock.
  3888. > You let him take the time to look, and eventually Windy mostly overcomes it.
  3889. > The final destination intended for the two of you is a familiar office meeting room; on entering, however, you find only Anonymous seated at the table within.
  3890. > "Thunderlane, Windy - come in. I think everyone else should be arriving shortly, so we can get started."
  3891. > His tone is grim, flat, and businesslike.
  3892. > Everyone else?
  3893. > That must mean, you decide while leading Windy off to the side of the room, that more than just whoever was coming to pick up Windy would be here.
  3894. > While you were content to sit in place the collared and leashed stallion you'd lead in is rather antsier.
  3895. > Shifting from hoof to hoof and wings shuffling, his eyes keep snapping back to Anonymous.
  3896. > Despite their previous interaction, he was clearly afraid of his owner.
  3897. > Afraid of what might be done to him.
  3898. > Idly you wonder if word of Autumn Frost and Comet Tail's fate had reached-
  3899. > Thoughts are interrupted by the door opening and confirming your earlier assumption when Cadance enters through it.
  3900. > The moment she steps in, however, it becomes clear that whatever had happened between her and Anonymous that day it was far from over in her mind.
  3901. > She freezes, almost seeming to recoil back a step at the sight of him, before forcing herself forward again into the room.
  3902. > Anonymous for his part makes no mention of it, instead looking around with a nod.
  3903. > "Alright. That's the last. I'll get straight to the point here: I was going to do this outside, in public, for the sake of it being known - but honestly, this could go bad anyhow and we don't need another incident. This will have to do. Windy, I promised I'd see you to a good place. To keep my word I've asked the one who'll be taking you to come out here and pick you up. Gregory, come in?"
  3904. > Something about the name is vaguely familiar, but it is Cadance who gasps in surprise at the enormous, broad man who enters next.
  3905. > The two are clearly familiar, as he returns a grin to her.
  3906. > "Cadance, 'lo again. Good to see you so soon."
  3907. > Before she can answer, Windy pipes up:
  3908. > "Y-Yo - Miss Cadance? Do you know this man?"
  3909. > "Yes, actually..."
  3910. > The familiarity finally clicks, and you blurt out:
  3911. "You were at the dinner."
  3912. > Nodding in agreement, Cadance adds:
  3913. > "He stood up for me when someone... took the wrong implications from what I was wearing."
  3914. > "Yes. Mr. Barker runs an operation training ponies to make the most out of their talents; he is also a respectable voice when it comes to treating his ponies well - as Cadance will attest to."
  3915. > "I can. Gregory... was respectful to me, and asked me for the clear details of how ponies are treated here. He wanted them to be treated... decently."
  3916. > Digesting this new information, Windy Winters manages only an uncertain few words:
  3917. > "I'm going to be... trained?"
  3918. > Windy Winters shifts back when Gregory approaches him, no doubt on account of the man's considerable bulk.
  3919. > Seeing this, though, Gregory drops to one knee and holds out a hand to which Windy tentatively extends a hoof.
  3920. > "Yes. I've already looked over your profile, and Anonymous told me what you got mixed up in. I think there's still a decent pony in there, though, and more importantly one who could be taught to make even more of their talent."
  3921. > Standing, Anonymous moves to Windy's side as well; you back off a bit, so as not to leave the nervous stallion feeling boxed in.
  3922. > "I can't speak to what is coming. But... this much, at least you've earned. And what I said before holds true; if you manage to somehow come back here, you'll be given a second chance."
  3923. > Summoning all his strength, Windy Winters swallows hard and nods.
  3924. > "Thank you. I - believe you. And I swear, I won't waste this chance."
  3925. > "Good."
  3926. > "B-Before I go, though... there's one thing..."
  3927. > Windy lifts a wing, and a folded sheet of paper flutters out from beneath.
  3928. > This he carefully pins with a hoof; you can see the messy hoofwriting scrawled on it.
  3929. > "Can one of you g-give this to Mocha Cream? It's - a letter. I have to... I want her to..."
  3930. > Anonymous gently takes the letter from him, sighing.
  3931. > "I can't force her to read it, but I will pass it on."
  3932. > "Thank you, Sir."
  3933. > Spontaneously dropping into a bow, Windy holds that post for a moment - a single tear running down his cheek.
  3934. > Then he rises, looks up to Gregory, and swallows again.
  3935. > "I'm ready."
  3936. > "Wait!"
  3937. > The high, childish voice catches everyone by surprise.
  3938. > No one had noticed Megan enter, but enter she had - fists curled into little balls.
  3939. > When no one immediately halts her, she approaches the little knot of people.
  3940. > "You said I can talk to them all. Before he goes, I want to talk to him too."
  3941. > Gregory lifts an eyebrow in Anonymous' direction, who in turns rubs his chin.
  3942. > "...unless you have any objections?"
  3943. > "None at all."
  3944. > His tone suggests he'll be questioning Anonymous about that later, though.
  3945. > "Alright."
  3946. > Motioning his daughter forwards, your owner steps back to give her room.
  3947. > "Ask away, Megan."
  3948. > Windy looks around the room helplessly - from Cadance, to his current owner, to his future one, then back to Anonymous.
  3949. > There he stays, seeming to silently beg for advice on what to do.
  3950. > You can sympathize; the stallion is caught between giving a meaningful answer and appearing ungrateful just after he was spared, in front of the one who is sparing him.
  3951. > Seeing what is happening, though, Anonymous motions him to go on:
  3952. > "It's okay, Windy. She knows what to expect, and I'm sure Gregory'll understand."
  3953. > "O-Okay..."
  3954. > Finally he looks back at Megan.
  3955. > Behind her, peering through the cracked door she had entered through, you spot two teal eyes.
  3956. > If not for the fact that they were at vastly different heights, you might have even been tricked into thinking they were one ponies' eyes; as is, you guess Sunburst and Flurry Heart must have just finished up her lessons.
  3957. > Neither Windy Winters nor Megan wants to speak, though, and both awkwardly stare at each other as the seconds tick by until at last she blurts out:
  3958. > "Why? Why'd you hurt her? I don't get it; I asked Autumn and Comet and they just told me Daddy was a bad person but I know he's good to you and you were good ponies too so I just don't get WHY!"
  3959. > The cluttered jumble of words spills out once it begins, pouring fourth until she is left shaking.
  3960. > After another second of hesitation, Windy starts to speak:
  3961. > "I've always been a pony who wanted to move around. Mother said even when I was a colt I'd always be squirming or buzzing around, and I left home at a pretty young age. I wanted to see the rest of the world, to get out there and make my own path. Just going place to place, never staying too long... When I was captured, I'd even been hiding out a while - just staying out in the middle of nowhere, where I knew everything but no one else did. The longer I was a slave, the more scared I got. I'd never be able to travel again, I'd lose my sky, I'd become a - a stupid simple farm animal!"
  3962. > At some point Megan had, despite Anonymous' warning, begun to edge close to him again.
  3963. > Seeing this, Windy carefully drops down to his belly and then rolls to his side - a clear sign that he is not intending to make any sudden moves.
  3964. > "Same thing, every day, days after weeks after months... the sky was always there, just out of reach. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair to me, or to anypony else... we'd all been taken away from our homes. We'd lost our lives. You might be too young to remember a time without us, but we all remember before we were slaves. When we had lives of our own. When we had choice. Would you go quietly if someone tried to take you from your father and your home?"
  3965. > Megan, however, simply looks confused:
  3966. > "But... Daddy didn't take you anywhere. He's good to you. I'm goo-"
  3967. > She glances back to the door and unconsciously rubs her rear end.
  3968. > "-try to be good. And you're good ponies. Why did you - why hurt Mocha?"
  3969. > From the way she is just repeating her earlier lines, it's obvious Megan just isn't getting it.
  3970. > Windy is patient, though:
  3971. > "Your father is better to us than some others would be, yes, but we're still trapped. We're still prisoners in a cage with an open sky. When I came here, if we tried to leave it'd be the whip or worse. If we didn't work, the same. Even if we stayed out too late..."
  3972. > "We don't do that anymore."
  3973. > Anonymous' voice is cold, hard, and firm; you got the feeling despite his authorization for Windy to speak his mind, the human was none to happy about what was being said.
  3974. > Flinching in instinctive fear, Windy goes on anyhow:
  3975. > "No, you don't - but ponies remember, and they think the only reason it stopped is because we got mad enough to try running anyway... So they keep getting mad. And it still feels like you're trying to make us forget about ever being free... even with kindness."
  3976. > "I still don't get it. You were angry... but why hurt /Mocha/?"
  3977. > The plaintive question, repeated a third time by Megan, finally makes sense.
  3978. > She wasn't asking why he'd been upset anymore, but why he'd vented his anger there.
  3979. > Lowering his head back down, Windy sighs.
  3980. > "That... was my fault. I felt abandoned. Left alone. Cadance - we thought Cadance had left us to spare her daughter. I started talking to Comet Tail. He started talking to me. Introduced me to the others. Had ideas about how we could make it clear we still weren't broken. We still had fight. Just... pushing her around a bit."
  3981. > Windy swallows hard, a small whinny still working its way up out of his throat.
  3982. > "When I saw how hard they were hitting her, I - I knew. They didn't want freedom, they wanted to hurt. To lash out. Revenge, you know what that means?"
  3983. > "Yeah..."
  3984. > Megan's voice is soft, filled with unspoken hurt.
  3985. > So too is the stallion's, and fresh tears are beginning to crowd his eyes.
  3986. > "I knew my mistake. So I ran. I ran, and then your father came on the speaker and he was so angry... I knew they must've hurt her so much worse. Please, please believe me - I didn't want her to be hurt like that. I just wanted her to know we were still angry, so she would tell your father and he would know."
  3987. > Apparently finding himself unable to bear looking at the hurt expression on the young girl's face, Windy turns his head from her entirely.
  3988. > "Celestia help me, I wish I could go back and stop myself. Stop all of them. Mocha didn't deserve it..."
  3989. > Facing away as he is and with his mind far away, he can't see the little hand that reach out to gently touch the side of his muzzle.
  3990. > He can feel it, though - starting with a soft nicker.
  3991. > Anonymous, too, jumps; he seems ready to step between the stallion and his daughter in an instant.
  3992. > But he does not, and a moment later it is clear Windy Winters has no ill intentions towards his daughter.
  3993. > "You're still a good pony, Windy. Inside, I think you are."
  3994. > "Thank you."
  3995. > Head coming back around, he presses his muzzle into her hand - voice shaky.
  3996. > "I don't know if I can be, though."
  3997. > "You are. I'll tell Mocha, when she comes back. So she'll know, if you come back too."
  3998. > Unable to reach the right words, Windy simply settles for a heartfelt, thankful smile.
  3999. > Then he stands again, looking up to Gregory.
  4000. > "If I can, I think I would like to go now."
  4001. > "...yes. Right, then - let me get your lead..."
  4002. > In a few moments he is gone; a few moments more and the footsteps and hoofsteps fade.
  4003. > Everyone remaining is silent.
  4004. > Cadance has let her mask slip, a tortured expression now on her face.
  4005. > Megan looks sorrowful, though not as deeply hurt as the alicorn.
  4006. > Anonymous...
  4007. > His expression is also surprisingly pained.
  4008. > Despite what Windy had done, there were obviously some confused feelings there.
  4009. > Eventually he stirs, looks around the room, and sighs.
  4010. > "Thunderlane... go get Sunburst and Flurry, would you?"
  4011. > So, he'd noticed the none-to-stealthy observes too.
  4012. > Neither is right outside the door anymore, but you find both sitting next to each other a short distance down the hall.
  4013. > Sunburst looks up as you approach, adjusting his glasses with a flicker of his horn.
  4014. "Anonymous wants to see you."
  4015. > "I don't think they saw us. When they were going, I mean-"
  4016. "It's... not about that. I don't think. Come on."
  4017. > You're actually the second back into the room - Flurry Heart had galloped ahead, all but leaping into her mother's embrace.
  4018. > Following at a more sedate pace, Sunburst nudges the door shut behind him.
  4019. > In your absence, Anonymous had sunk into one of the chairs; he hunches over as if a great weight was resting on his shoulder.
  4020. > "...so. Flurry, Sunburst, I imagine the two of you heard most of that."
  4021. > Two silent nod are his answer.
  4022. > With a hefty sigh Anonymous seems to sink ever deeper into the seat.
  4023. > Four of the others in the room were his slaves, and the last was his daughter.
  4024. > Yet it seems like he is the one being pressed here.
  4025. > "If I could have kept him... you know, for how much I hate him I might've just done it. But the fact is, I can't. He'd be in constant danger from any other rebels for surrendering, other ponies would've hated him for Mocha... it would've been bad for everyone."
  4026. > Reaching up to rub his forehead, Anonymous sighs softly.
  4027. > "Giving him a fresh start in another good place is genuinely the best thing I can do for him."
  4028. > No one immediately replies; Cadance in particular still seems lost in her own sea of misery.
  4029. > After a moment Megan runs up to him and hugs her father around his hip.
  4030. > Reaching down, he squeezes her shoulder softly and you're again left to wonder how the caring father could exist in the same body as the man that made such hard decisions.
  4031. "For what it's worth... I think you're right. We couldn't have given him protection all the time, and I don't think he or the guards would have liked it."
  4032. > Yet the silence holds, no one else finding anything to say on the topic.
  4033. > After a moment, Sunburst meaningfully clears his throat:
  4034. > "Miss Megan, why don't you take Flurry Heart and go - back to your room for a bit?"
  4035. > Eyebrows rise and ears cock questioningly around the room; everyone seemed to realize that it's unusual for the timid stallion to be issuing suggestions - especially to your owner's daughter.
  4036. > Anonymous, however, simply pats Megan's shoulder and nods:
  4037. > "Go on, sweetheart. I'll be around."
  4038. > She detaches from him easily; Cadance is far more reluctant to let Flurry go but does nonetheless.
  4039. > When the two disappear, he looks back to Sunburst:
  4040. > "Her lessons are going well, then?"
  4041. > "Yes, Master. She is a fast learner, and enthusiastic when I - explain how these lessons will help her help you."
  4042. > "Alright..."
  4043. > Nodding - and seeming thankful to have a change of topic - Anonymous tilts his head:
  4044. > "So then, what did you want to tell me? I presume you had a reason to ask them out-"
  4045. > "I can teach her all the magic I know, but..."
  4046. > Sunburst cringes, looking down.
  4047. > "...I cannot teach her to fly. Which - she cannot."
  4048. "What?"
  4049. > "What?!"
  4050. > Both you and Cadance had spoken at the same time.
  4051. > Unable to fly-
  4052. > "She - was not able to with her previous owner. From hints, I've gathered that he kept her chained or caged enough that flight was entirely out of the question."
  4053. > Shuffling in place, Sunburst bows his head - almost as if trying to apologize.
  4054. > "Flurry Heart leaps, catches herself with her wings, and uses them for stabilization when galloping; her wings are perfectly good... but she cannot fly. I do not know if she is to afraid, or has actually forgotten how..."
  4055. > Cadance's expression suggests that her heart had been torn out anew.
  4056. > Her mouth forms a silent, pained 'No'.
  4057. > Anonymous, however simply grunts and acknowledges this new fact with a neutral mask:
  4058. > "Can she be taught again, then? What will it take?"
  4059. > "I believe she can, Master, and I believe she should - but not by me. I can't."
  4060. > As he'd been speaking, though, the theory of an idea had started creeping into your mind:
  4061. > There was, after all, a pony here in the camp who had been good about teaching fliers.
  4062. > Vapor Trail was nothing if not helpful, and to restore a pony's lost flight would surely be enough to get her to agree.
  4063. > But - you aren't sure you want her in the house.
  4064. > Not near Anonymous, not near Sunburst - another conspirator in the new escape plot - and especially not near Haute Glamour.
  4065. > If that unicorn uncovered Vapor's secrets...
  4066. > And there's another factor too:
  4067. > Cadance would surely want to teach Flurry Heart herself - a chance for mother and daughter to bond.
  4068. [Choice]
  4069. > No.
  4070. > Vapor Trail was... spirited, and despite your coming to terms with her determination to be free there was too much potential for argument if she was put in close proximity to Anonymous.
  4071. > Besides, her foal was only going to weigh on her more.
  4072. > Both literally and figuratively.
  4073. > As much as she might be a good teacher, this wasn't the time for it.
  4074. > Cadance quietly catches your eye, and you give her a subtle nod:
  4075. > Go on - do this.
  4076. > You aren't going to interfere.
  4077. > "Anonymous, I'd like to be the one to teach her."
  4078. > "Do you think you'll have time, with everything else going on? Especially with the expansion coming in the next few months; I don't want you being worn out by taking on to much."
  4079. > "I will make the time."
  4080. > Her voice hard and determined, Cadance straightens up and takes a few steps closer.
  4081. > "I grew up among earth ponies. I had to learn flight myself; I can teach her too."
  4082. > "And, of course, you want to be with your daughter as soon as you can."
  4083. > Looking away, Cadance lets her head drop a bit - mane falling over one eye.
  4084. > "Yes. I know my time away from her is coming to an end soon, and I want my daughter back so badly..."
  4085. > "Well..."
  4086. > Leaning forward, Anonymous rests his elbows on his knees.
  4087. > "I can understand that; when Megan came I didn't want to spend a moment apart either. Alright,Cadance - in about a week your sentence will be up. At that point, if you can find the time without taking away from managing the camp I've no objection."
  4088. > "Thank you, Master..."
  4089. > A rush of breath escapes her, relief at Anonymous' choice flowing back in its place.
  4090. > "When I say without taking time away, Cadance, I mean it. If things go to pieces here, whether she can fly or not is irrelevant. That's your first priority."
  4091. > Cadance flinches, and even you have to frown a bit.
  4092. > Being told your own child wasn't your first priority...
  4093. > Technically correct, perhaps, but no less painful.
  4094. "Is there anything else, sir, or should we go now?"
  4095. > "No, I think that'll be just about it. I just thought you all might want to be there for that."
  4096. > With a nod you turn from the room.
  4097. > Your ears tilt back, recognizing the hoofsteps of Cadance and Sunburst following close behind.
  4098. > No words are said until you leave the house - not even when Cadance stops, head turned to watch Flurry Heart and Megan tearing around one of the open living room in a maelstrom of pink wings, golden hair, and giggles from both.
  4099. > Her thoughts, you can tell, are the same as your own.
  4100. > Anonymous was a businessman through and through, but if she could forgive somepony who'd hurt such a close friend...
  4101. > Maybe she would be the sympathetic ear needed so badly.
  4102. > Cadance, however, remains silent until all three of you step out the front door, and even then only after a check around to ensure no one - human or pony - is within listening range.
  4103. > "Sunburst. Have you had any luck talking to Posey?"
  4104. > "When I can; she isn't always around."
  4105. "Concerned about Haute Glamour?"
  4106. > "Yes. She is already slipping away from what I can do; if we don't manage something soon I am afraid of what she might attempt... and even if I begin teaching my daughter, there'll be little chance."
  4107. > Head hanging, Sunburst scuffs at the ground with a hoof.
  4108. > "I'm sorry, Your Highness... I can try harder-"
  4109. > "No, I'm sure you're doing all you can Sunburst."
  4110. "I can run interference for you, if you'd like. Find reasons to suspect she might need a guard escort..."
  4111. > "That might be too obvious."
  4112. > Grimacing, Cadance shakes her head.
  4113. > "No. I don't think we can risk that. Everything that we do risks imperiling ourselves. We still have Anonymous' backing for now; there's no need to push things too quickly."
  4114. "Isn't that being a bit cautious? We're fighting for our right to keep running this ourselves and stay out from under her hoof, Cadance. We can't just sit back and wait for the storm to come."
  4115. > "Maybe. But we can't be overly-ambitious with our actions towards her just yet... Thunderlane, if you want to give her an escort in the camp? That will be fine. But not a permanent one all the time."
  4116. "Understood."
  4117.  
  4118. > The little mare - really not much more than a filly, you have to remind yourself - shivers as your fingers brush her horn.
  4119. "Sorry. Just let me see if I can-"
  4120. > "It's... okay. Something touching it with the restrictor on feels strange - I know the horn is there, but my magic is cut off so half of it feels like it isn't. It's kind of like when a limb goes dead and theaaaawoah!"
  4121. > Distracted by her nervous chatter, Crescent Moon has missed your fingers finding the proper release latch on her restrictor with the key.
  4122. > Clicking mutedly, the metallic band releases its grip on her horn.
  4123. > Instantly Crescent draws in a sharp breath, eyes going wide before falling half-open in an expression of almost euphoric delight.
  4124. > "You have no idea how good it feels to have that off..."
  4125. "I have some idea, though admittedly probably not the right one. Hold your neck up?"
  4126. > Complying, Crescent lets her horn flicker and glow seemingly just for the sake of stretching that particular arcane sense.
  4127. > "No, you really don't. It's beyond just a - a loss of sense. It's a part of who we are."
  4128. > Slotting the electronic key into the correct spot on her collar, you lift it from her neck as soon as the internal latches click aside and let it hinge open.
  4129. "Hmmm."
  4130. > Really, though, your thoughts are elsewhere.
  4131. > With the Comet Tail, and how he had reacted when the inhibitor implant was put into place.
  4132. > It certainly had seemed like a significant loss to him then.
  4133. > ...well, you think, if it was then maybe the bastard deserved it.
  4134. > Certainly there'd been no mercy for Mocha Cream before or after what he had done for her, and-
  4135. > "Anony- Master?"
  4136. > Crescent's wavering voice draws you back to reality.
  4137. > Her expression, one of fearful nervousness.
  4138. > Oh.
  4139. > You'd tightened your grip on her collar after removing it, hands digging in until tendons stood out while your face had twisted into a hard grimace.
  4140. "Sorry. It's - not you. My own thoughts, wandering."
  4141. > "O-Oh... I was - afraid for a moment that..."
  4142. > Trailing off awkwardly, she turns her head away.
  4143. "That I'd be putting it back on? Because I was angry at you?"
  4144. > Her head dips sharply in a single nod.
  4145. "...you're still afraid of me."
  4146. > "I. Was. Whipped."
  4147. > Each word is spat out, one after the other.
  4148. > "Whipped, and a section of my soul cut off with that limiter. Oh, sure, it might not've been you that ordered it... but you still put us in this. Why shouldn't I be afraid of you?"
  4149. > When you don't have an easy response, Crescent goes on:
  4150. > "I'll be honest... half of me wanted to go off on you again. Just to show I wasn't... tamed by this."
  4151. "And the other half?"
  4152. > "Scared shaking at the idea of having that /thing/-"
  4153. > Her eyes, locked on the inhibitor ring with a degree of terrified fascination, tell you exactly what she means even if you do not.
  4154. > "-put on me again. Scared enough to stop me... which only makes me angrier."
  4155. > Or, you suspect, being subjected to another whipping.
  4156. "If it means anything to you... I'm sorry it came to that point."
  4157. > "No you aren't."
  4158. > Grumbling, Crescent Moon shifts in place.
  4159. > "You might be angry that I caused some trouble, but you're not for a second sorry for what I went-"
  4160. "No, I am. Please, just hear me out for a moment?"
  4161. > This, at least, renders the filly silent for a moment.
  4162. "...think about what I said when I was doing that speech the other day, okay? We might have... differences about the need for discipline we aren't going to reconcile, but I will admit that what led up to it was my fault."
  4163. > Finally setting the collar aside, you fold your hands together in your lap and sigh:
  4164. "And that much, I really am sorry for. There wasn't any need for it to get that bad, and you suffered for it."
  4165. > Though Crescent Moon remains silent, you can tell she is thinking it over again.
  4166. "That's a big part of why I came down here and did this myself. To show I am paying attention. I can't undo what was done to you, obviously... but now that this is done with, I think you really should go down and look around the museum Cadance is building. I think it banish a lot of your fears."
  4167. > "Maybe."
  4168. > Standing up from the chair she'd been seated on, Crescent lifts herself to something approaching your (seated) height.
  4169. > "But let me make this super-clear for you: Even if it does, I don't like you. I don't like being a slave. And I really, really don't like that you - you -"
  4170. > On instinct, you try and reach out to put a hand on her neck.
  4171. > The mare slips away, though, leaving only your words to follow up:
  4172. "I didn't break you, Crescent. Hell, the fact that you can say that to me pretty much proves it."
  4173. > "Doesn't matter. I still can barely think for myself anymore; my mind's always going back to that - that -"
  4174. > A fresh shudder ripples through her.
  4175. > "...may I be dismissed now, Master?"
  4176. > There was no point in keeping her any longer.
  4177. > The others being released from their sentences would be just about done in the adjacent rooms by now.
  4178. "Yes, Crescent. You're dismissed."
  4179. > She slips from the room without another word, pointedly using her magic to shut the door behind her.
  4180. > Remaining in your seat, you prop your chin on folded fingers and let your thoughts swirl.
  4181. > A lesson, you suppose, in the reality that merely admitting your mistakes and moving to correct them did not undo damage already done.
  4182. > And if you-
  4183. > Chiming softly, your phone interrupts that line of thought.
  4184. > With a frustrated grumble you draw it out, but immediately suppress that growing annoyance when you see the message waiting on it:
  4185. > You were wanted at the security building.
  4186. > Now what could that be about?
  4187.  
  4188. > Rising with the grunt, you step from the room out into the hallway beyond; Crescent Moon and the others who'd been arrested with her - and now freed - were long since gone.
  4189. > The building you'd taken over for this wasn't anything special, just an unobtrusive workspace in the midst of the camp no abandoned during the off-shift hours where the lot of them could be gathered and their inhibitors, wingbinders, and collars removed.
  4190. > Outside, the streets have already mostly emptied from the early-morning rush of ponies heading to their workplaces after scarfing down a brief breakfast.
  4191. > Apart from a handful of latecomers galloping past you (or, in one case, buzzing along low to the ground on eager wings) no one is really about, and they aren't eager to risk being late to try and stop.
  4192. > And-
  4193. > Wait.
  4194. > One of the security guards was already waiting at the entrance.
  4195. > By his side was another man - dressed in a loose-fitting casual coat - and a woman, whose equivalent was far more formal and must have been rather insufficient in the early-spring chill.
  4196. > Both, however, focus on you.
  4197. > Two sets of eyes instantly sweeping over you in evaluation.
  4198. "...may I help you?"
  4199. > "Mr. Anonymous. I am Jack Weller, this is Arlene Donovan. We are here to investigate a report we received regarding your operations here. Now, let me be clear this isn't a criminal investigation yet but we do need to get to the bottom of-"
  4200. > "We were told that a pony you reported dead was in fact killed by your security staff in direct contravention of the laws regarding slave euthanasia."
  4201. > Well, that is to the point.
  4202. > It shows, too - you rock back on your heels, not having expected either of them to be that blunt about it.
  4203. > Jack appears equally annoyed, shooting his partner a dirty look that she cannot see.
  4204. "...I see. I suppose you're both Federal employees - if I could see some identification?"
  4205. > They have some.
  4206. > You do, indeed, see.
  4207. > Which just leaves you wondering:
  4208. > Who had ratted you out?
  4209. > One of the ponies gotten their hooves on a phone, decided to raise some other hell for you?
  4210. "Very well. I'll cooperate of course - what will you be needing to see?"
  4211. > Even as Arlene launches into a laundry list of things she wants, your mind is running a mile a minute.
  4212. > Chrysocolla, of course, had not been executed.
  4213. > But even appearing under investigation for too long could undermine your investors' support - force you to give them more.
  4214. > ...there was one other option you might take advantage of.
  4215. > Mellowheart had finished her study of Chryscolla's body; if you gave them access to her, she would be able to make your point quite clearly.
  4216. > Having a pony with medical training and a record of acting out against slavery show them exactly why Chryscolla could not have been murdered would be a huge bonus towards getting these two investigators out of your hair.
  4217. > Assuming, of course, she did not lie.
  4218. > Or worse, told them about what had happened to Corona.
  4219. > But Mellowheart had been responding well to your new initiatives, and had pushed her unknown ally to help smoke out Chrysocolla in the first place...
  4220. [Choice]
  4221. > Interrupting the woman's continued speech-
  4222. > Closer to a rant, you briefly think.
  4223. > -you raise your voice to make yourself heard by both:
  4224. "There's something else you might want to consider looking at, if I could interject? An autopsy has already been performed by a medic here; you may want to examine that as well."
  4225. > "We will be conducting our own investigation, thank you very much-"
  4226. > This woman.
  4227. > Had you done something to piss her off already, or was she always like this?
  4228. > Judging by the expression of her partner, it seems like the latter.
  4229. "Undoubtedly you will be; however, perhaps you would at the very least like to look at it to guide your own examination of the body?"
  4230. > "The body isn't buried yet?"
  4231. "No. I - was going to soon enough.
  4232. > After
  4233. > "That would be very much appreciated, yes."
  4234. > Thank God for this guy - Weller, he said his name was?
  4235. "I'll instruct my medical staff to let you take a look at it. If necessary, I suppose I could pull the one who wrote off for you to speak to as well, though I don't think you'll get much else out of her."
  4236. > With any luck they wouldn't have to speak to Mellowheart directly, the report being plenty enough.
  4237. > ...with any more like, there'd be nothing in the report to arouse their suspicion.
  4238. "As for the rest - I'll make my chief of security and all the other guards who were present when she died available for interview, as well as the reports on the matter."
  4239. > "Appreciated. I realize you're probably not to happy to see us, but we're just like to verify all the details and then hopefully be out of your hair too."
  4240. > You know, if this guy is the one who is in the lead you might just be able to deal with this.
  4241. > Especially if Arlene keeps looking like she just swallowed a mouthful of raw sewage.
  4242. "I don't suppose you can tell me where exactly this report came from?"
  4243. > "Afraid not, I'm sorry."
  4244. "Even if the matter is resolved?"
  4245. > "The reports line is absolutely detached from everything else, I'm afraid. We can't reveal anything about it, except what was reported."
  4246. "Hmm."
  4247. > Spotting your frown, he gives a sympathetic smile.
  4248. > "I know, I know. We're not the most welcome sight. Just let us work through this, and we'll be gone soon enough."
  4249. "Of course. Why don't I show you the right way to the medical building..."
  4250. > You hadn't ever taken a look at Chrysocolla's body.
  4251. > Now, you can't help but wonder if it would have been better to steel yourself in advance.
  4252. > The results of her method of suicide were none too pretty; the arcing electricity had scorched her face - burning back her lips and cheeks to expose her teeth in a rictus death-grin.
  4253. > Blackened streaks ran down her coat, in places split open as well to reveal the cooked flesh beneath.
  4254. > If there was any consolation for your obvious queasiness on viewing the body, it was that both of them could clearly see how uncomfortable you were with it.
  4255. > "What happened?"
  4256. > Even Jack - Mr. Weller? You don't know how to think of him - sounds surprised by the twisted corpse laying on the cold metal tray.
  4257. "She bit a power line. My security teams had cornered he; we had good information she was one of a group responsible for the beating of a filly. She decided death was a better option than punishment."
  4258. > "And what punishment would make a pony that desperate, I wonder?"
  4259. > Again you force yourself not to roll your eyes at Arlene's aggressive tone.
  4260. "Sale. The other three were all sold for their roles in that bit of violence - although I made sure one who cooperated went to a retraining facility rather than general sale."
  4261. > Jack nods again, seeming to understand where a pony with that sort of record would be going.
  4262. > On the other hand, Arlene simply seems to want to get out of there as soon as possible.
  4263. > "Well, I suppose I'll leave the rest of this up to you and start doing interviews of the other witnesses..."
  4264. > "Yeah, go do that - I'll take a look at this. Mr. Anonymous, you said a report had already been done on this?"
  4265. "Yes. Let me go get a copy..."
  4266. > Barely has he begun to glance through it before Jack looks up in surprise, one eyebrow raised.
  4267. > "A pony did this work?"
  4268. "Mellowheart..."
  4269. > You crack a small grin.
  4270. "...isn't particularly fond of me. You can question the others to confirm that. But she is one of the best trained medical staff I have here, so if I wanted the truth really confirmed..."
  4271. > "Or she could be following your orders and excluding anything to incriminate you... but we'll have to determine that later. Can I question her?"
  4272. "If you have to. She might be a bit busy, though."
  4273. > "I understand. I'll start my own look through of the body-"
  4274. > As he speaks, a shoulder-bag is opened and a white smock taken from a plastic bag within it.
  4275. > "-and confirm what this report says?"
  4276. > Noting your expression, he shrugs apologetically.
  4277. > "Sorry. Procedure."
  4278. "Yes, I'll have this room turned over to you."
  4279. > "Thank you. I'll be as fast as I can."
  4280.  
  4281. > In all honesty, the security building isn't really somewhere you want to be so quickly again.
  4282. > Just the thought of guards, prisoners, and punishment was enough to draw back up-
  4283. > -Comet Tail's defiance turning to fear and then fugue as the implant was inserted, Autumn Frost's scream as the incandescent iron pressed to her hide, the iron's own heat and weight in your magical grip-
  4284. > -everything that you had been trying to push down and forget.
  4285. > But there was work to be done here - someone apparently wanted to talk to you - and even if the mere sight of the fortress-like building was enough to turn your stomach you could not simply abandon it.
  4286. > Even as you slip in through the main doors, however, your ears cock forward to focus in on the sound of raised voices.
  4287. > One male - Gene, his recognizable accent carrying through - but the other an unfamiliar woman's.
  4288. > It isn't hard to guess roughly to who it belongs.
  4289. > Word of the investigators had been circling in the camp since they'd arrived that morning.
  4290. > Quickening into a trot, you pull open a door into the main office and are promptly assaulted by the discordant noise of two voices raised to their maximum against each other.
  4291. > "He is clearly not well! You have been 'interviewing' him for two hours now; at least let him have a break!"
  4292. > "You are interfering with an official inquery. It is my job to-"
  4293. > "To inquire, not to torment him!"
  4294. > "The report we received clearly indicated that pony was responsible for-"
  4295. > Yes, judging by her unusually formal outfit this woman had to be one of the investigators.
  4296. > Coughing softly, you raise your voice just enough to interject in the politest tone you can manage:
  4297. "Excuse me, but I was told that I was needed here. May I ask what the problem is?"
  4298. > She glances down briefly, then back up - only for her eyes to return again a moment later, staring in surprise as if she hadn't expected you to be... you.
  4299. > Gene, by contrast, barely spares you a glance and reserves his ire-filled gaze for the other human in the room.
  4300. > "The investigator has been /interviewing/ Thunderlane, and apparently fails to notice that the topic she seems so focused on is rather rough on him."
  4301. > Topic-
  4302. > Brushing past both of them you proceed on through to the next room.
  4303. > Shutting - and locking - the door behind you, your attention then turns fully to the stallion despondantly slumped over the table.
  4304. > He was the very essence of unhappiness, wings spread to rest on the table to either side and golden eyes barely visible beneath half-fallen lids.
  4305. > Even your entrance goes unnoticed until you approach him, brushing his withers with the your feather-tips.
  4306. > "Cadance?"
  4307. "Yes. Thunderlane..."
  4308. > Seating yourself next to him, you drop your head to rest on the table at the same level as his.
  4309. > A rather more awkward position, given that you are somewhat taller than he is.
  4310. > Still, it gets the point across.
  4311. "What happened to Chrysocolla wasn't your fault, Thunderlane."
  4312. > "I know."
  4313. > He speaks without even moving as if to do so would cost him to much.
  4314. > "That doesn't mean much if I can't stop thinking about how she just reached up and - and bit down..."
  4315. "...that woman out there-"
  4316. > "Arlene Donovan."
  4317. "-is she pushing you?"
  4318. > Weakly, Thunderlane nods.
  4319. > "I've told the story five times now. I don't understand what she's looking for. I think she wants me say I killed Chrysocolla... keeps asking me questions with answers that lead to that."
  4320. "Just her? Not her partner?"
  4321. > "Yeah. He's... somewhere else. I don't know where."
  4322. > Somewhere else.
  4323. > You can guess what her reason is, though.
  4324. > Pinning a crime on Anonymous would be a proud feather for an investigator like her.
  4325. > Growling softly, you lift yourself from the table and turn back to face the door.
  4326. > The argument you'd left behind had not resumed - at least not at the same volume as before.
  4327. "...go back to duty, Thunderlane. Or take the rest of your shift off. I'll deal with this."
  4328. > Except that, when you trot back out, Arlene is nowhere to be found.
  4329. > Gene is still there, though, and nods in greeting.
  4330. > "I told her to shove off, she wasn't going back in there with him. She didn't like that, and went to go find her supervisor."
  4331. "That was good of you. I've told Thunderlane not to bother with her anymore - I'm going to find Anonymous."
  4332. > Barely have you exited the security building before you take to wing, carrying yourself up on several long beats to reach the manor much more quickly than any gallop could have carried you.
  4333. > With each beat of your wings, you feel a familiar fire building in your chest:
  4334. > The same anger, the same fury at the raw injustice of it and at your need - your obligation - to do something about it that you'd felt back when you discovered Cloudy Cotton being assaulted by a guard.
  4335. > Touching down on its front step, you stride in with a furious presence that sends servants and ponies alike scattering before you.
  4336. > The charge continues as you march up the stairs towards Anonymous' office.
  4337. > Investigate - yes, they could investigate.
  4338. > But there was no need for them to torment a pony like that!
  4339. > They would have to go over your body before-
  4340. > "Dear me, you seem to be in quite the hurry. Is something wrong, Cadance?"
  4341. > That voice.
  4342. > That smug, self-satisfied, perfectly-controlled voice.
  4343. > And of course, the pony it originated from had firmly planted herself seated on her haunches in the doorway to Anonymous' study.
  4344. "Haute Glamour. I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't have time right now - I need to speak to-"
  4345. > Nothing in your tone had suggested you were actually sorry, but the unicorn doesn't seem remotely bothered by it.
  4346. > "And I'm afraid that won't be possible right now. He is in a meeting with Randall and some others - and we aren't welcome to take part in it."
  4347. "You will get out of my way. I am going to speak with him."
  4348. > Yet, Haute does not move.
  4349. > If anything, her smile only grows.
  4350. > "Apparently someone else has finally taken notice of how dangerous the way this place is being run and decided to investigate. Such a shame; I do hope they don't find anything wrong with your decisions - or the degree of freedom Anonymous has given all of you here. I understand they're quite interested in uncovering Thunderlane's actions..."
  4351. > Instinctual responses boil up from somewhere deep inside of you, the most basic actions of a pony meeting a challenge:
  4352. > Ears pin back, head dropping to point straight at her, and teeth baring as your wings spread in a classic gesture of Pegasus aggression.
  4353. "You did this."
  4354. > Your growled tone and eyes narrowed to violet slits similarly have little affect on her.
  4355. > "I? Oh, no no no Cadance dear. I did nothing."
  4356. > That plea of innocence, however, is starkly contracted by her tone.
  4357. > Rarely have you heard a pony sound so incredibly satisfied with herself; any doubt that she was merely taking advantage of the situation and not directly responsible is rapidly evaporating.
  4358. "Do not lie to me, Haute Glamour. You are responsible for this-"
  4359. > "If you do not believe me, you are welcome to ask the investigators. Though, they may not be able to tell you; I am told the tips line is completely incognito..."
  4360. > Snarling, you light your horn with a vicious snap-pop.
  4361. > To your complete and total surprise, Haute does the same - her horn coming alive with a pale red light, magic flaring to counter yours.
  4362. > To say you are taken totally by surprise is an understatement.
  4363. > Not one pony had dared raise their magic against you from the moment you'd arrived; even certain as you now were that she was a foe this was not something you'd been prepared for.
  4364. > But even if your unicorn magic is not the strongest, you are still an alicorn.
  4365. > Still head-and-shoulders above this traitor.
  4366. > Ruthlessly clamping down, your magic encircles Haute's and constricts to squeeze that light out.
  4367. "You will not destroy what I have worked so hard to build here!"
  4368. > Rather than respond, she spreads her hooves, grits her teeth, and fights back - flanks heaving with effort.
  4369. > A low hum permeates the air as magic writhes and crashes, until at last you find a weakness in her field and snuff it out entirely.
  4370. > Haute Glamour goes tumbling back against the wall with a yelp and thud before your magic finds her again and pins the mare in place.
  4371. "You should not have done that, Haute."
  4372. > "Doesn't - matter!"
  4373. > Winded, she still manages to push out a hacking laugh.
  4374. > "Stupid. So stupid. No - no friendship anymore. No P-Princesses... Just slaves - and masters."
  4375. > The anger you'd already carried within flares up anew:
  4376. "You will not be master here!"
  4377. > "Not - your choice!"
  4378. > Face splitting into a twisted smile, Haute opens one eye to meet yours.
  4379. > "If you won't learn, I'm sure F-Flurry will be more-"
  4380. > With a furious roar you drag her from the wall, skidding across the floor in a tangle of legs and mane to halt at your hooves.
  4381. > There you pin Haute with a hoof driven into her ribs, dropping your head to snarl at her:
  4382. "Lay a hoof on my daughter, and I will tear you limb from rutting li-"
  4383. > "Cadance!"
  4384. > Your name - roared by Anonymous at the top of his lungs - shatters the moment.
  4385. > "What the FUCK are you doing?!"
  4386. > And you look up-
  4387. > -into the shocked faces in the door way of Anonymous' office.
  4388. > Your master, of course, and some of his staff - and of course Randall, guided by his cane to the edge of the crowd, Posey appearing a moment later at his side.
  4389. > Before you can respond, Haute Glamour croaks out two words:
  4390. > "Master - help..."
  4391. > Anonymous is on top of you in a moment, seizing a fistful of your mane and hauling you up off of her.
  4392. > Despite your earlier fury, for some reason you find yourself utterly unable to resist him and go tumbling head over hooves.
  4393. > Free of your weight, Haute scrambles upright and runs to cower at Randall's feet:
  4394. > "She's mad! Insane! I told her you didn't want to be disturbed, and she tried to kill me!"
  4395. > Suddenly you are aware of how mad you must look - wings spread, a crazed glint in your eye, appearing nearly ready to crush another pony beneath you.
  4396. "She - is responsible for this investigation. She sent in a report to draw them here! This entire mess is of her making - she is trying to destroy this place so she can take over!"
  4397. > As the words leave your lips, you are all to aware of how frantic, how insane they must sound.
  4398. "She threatened my daughter!"
  4399. > How unconvincing.
  4400. > In that moment, you understand.
  4401. > Haute had never meant to keep you from the room.
  4402. > Maybe never even meant the investigators to find anything.
  4403. > This entire thing had been a trap for you and you alone.
  4404. > To destroy their trust in you.
  4405. > To make you vulnerable.
  4406. > "Haute?"
  4407. > Randall's voice is soft, yet full of danger.
  4408. > "What happened out there?"
  4409. > "I don't know!"
  4410. > It was like she had become an entirely different pony - angry, yes, but full of innocence, righteous anger, and even a little fear towards you.
  4411. > "She hates me, I think - I just told her you didn't want anyone coming in, but you heard her! She's insane!"
  4412. "You lying-"
  4413. > Anonymous' fist again grips your mane, forcing your head back down to the floor.
  4414. "I know it! She called the investigators, fed them her lies! She bragged about what she would do to my daughter when I am gone!"
  4415. > "I didn't do anything!"
  4416. > Haute's plaintive reply provokes Randall to tuck his can in the crook of an arm and drop his hand protectively to her neck.
  4417. > Slipping - everything is slipping away, second by second.
  4418. > There is no way this will be forgotten.
  4419. > The same crime you'd just condemned ponies to sale for, now you were made guilty of.
  4420. > Haute blinks, and in that moment you see the spark of victory in her eyes.
  4421. "No! I won't let you-"
  4422. > "She's lying!"
  4423. > Everyone freezes, no one having realized who it came from at first.
  4424. > After all, few of them had ever heard Posey speak - and no one, not even yourself, heard her yell.
  4425. > But yell she had, stepping forward with trembling legs but a clear, strong voice:
  4426. > "Haute Glamour is lying. She is trying to ruin Miss Cadance, because Miss Cadance has a-"
  4427. > Overriding her, Haute snaps angrily:
  4428. > "You will shut your mouth when your betters are talking; I will deal with you later!"
  4429. > "No, Haute."
  4430. > In contrast, Randall's voice had dropped dangerously low.
  4431. > "Posey... do you swear you are telling the truth?"
  4432. > Shaking so fiercely her mane and the guide-handle on her harness sway back and forth, Posey nods.
  4433. > "I swear, master... I heard her placing the call. You were out, but I don't think she knew I was there, or..."
  4434. > Or believed Posey would ever tell, you finish in your head.
  4435. > Once more Haute had undergone a fresh transformation, eyes narrowing and lips drawing back in an angry expression.
  4436. > Stepping forward, she lights her horn again - clamping Posey's mouth shut with a band of magic.
  4437. > Her eyes bug out, but a moment later the shimmering muzzle is gone.
  4438. > Randall's hand had left Haute's neck, instead finding her horn and clamping down tight over it.
  4439. > "Posey... tell me everything."
  4440. > It takes the timid mare a moment to find herself again, but she manages.
  4441. > "Haute Glamour is - is wretched! She terrorizes all of us, beats us when we won't play along-"
  4442. > "Why didn't you tell me?"
  4443. > Despite his blindness, Randall's expression matches the pain in his voice.
  4444. > "I - I d-didn't know. She s-said you approved and I thought all m-masters were like this..."
  4445. > Posey's head droops, mane falling over her face to hide it.
  4446. > "I didn't know there was another w-way until I saw this place, and now Haute is trying to destroy it too."
  4447. > "You swear this is true...?"
  4448. > Again he asks, and again Posey nods.
  4449. > "I do. You can ask the others at home, I..."
  4450. > Searching for something more, a light suddenly comes on in her eyes.
  4451. > "Your phone! Haute used your phone to place the report, knew you wouldn't - wouldn't see it, so she just used your own phone! The number will still be there, right?"
  4452. > "...Master, Cadance has clearly been twisting Pos-aauuuh!"
  4453. > Also despite his blindness, Randall has impeccable aim with his cane.
  4454. > Throwing Haute to the floor and interrupting her protest, he had grabbed the stick and laid into her with frightening accuracy - blows raining on her flank, shoulder, and haunches with heavy, meaty thwacks.
  4455. > "I knew it! I knew something was wrong, but I trusted you!"
  4456. > Despite that catching the falling cane would surely be within her abilities, Haute does not.
  4457. > Instead she lays shrieking, hooves raised to cover her head.
  4458. > "No! Mercy, Master! Please!"
  4459. > "Mercy?! I brought you into my home, let you run my house - I trusted you! And now I find out you've not just been terrorizing all my other ponies, but sabotaging my work too?!"
  4460. > "No! Please!
  4461. > On and on the beating goes, and somewhere along the line the fire in your chest begins to dim.
  4462. > No longer was Haute the confident mastermind, but now a tearful wreck huddled beneath the raining blows.
  4463. > You could stop this.
  4464. > Maybe should stop this.
  4465. > Monstrous as she was, Randall was clearly acting in anger.
  4466. > ...or maybe, a dark part of your heart whispers, you could do even worse.
  4467. > If Haute feared to be a slave without power, then you could use your magic to twist her heart and make her a slave to it instead.
  4468. [Choice]
  4469. > On and on the heavy, meaty thuds go.
  4470. > Haute's cries turn from the initial high notes of shock to a regular, keening wail as the pain of her beating sets in.
  4471. > And still it goes on, like a marching drumbeat against her hide.
  4472. > A familiar leaden, sick feeling begins to grow in your stomach.
  4473. > Sympathy, for this pony?
  4474. > Who had only moments ago been threatening your daughter?
  4475. > Or perhaps it's less that and more fear at the anger that seems to drive Randall's unceasing blows.
  4476. > Not even just unceasing, but barely showing signs of slowing down despite Haute having been reduced to little more than sputtered, gasping sobs.
  4477. "Randall, stop!"
  4478. > Struggling up, you pull free of Anonymous' grip - which he releases with little effort - and lurch forward towards the two.
  4479. "Please, Randall, no more!"
  4480. > Stopping with his cane raised in mid-swing, Randall's head twists around to face you in that eerie, not-quite-looking-straight-at-you way.
  4481. > "Why?"
  4482. > Voice reduced to a breathy whisper, his shoulders heave with each heavy breath.
  4483. > "She - she lied to me. She hurt my Posey-"
  4484. "Because you're angry. You want to hurt her, but - you can't let yourself. It's not justice. Whatever she deserves, a beating in anger isn't it."
  4485. > Looking down at Haute - now reduced to a trembling ball of pale coat and crimson mane - you sigh softly:
  4486. "Not any more than when I attacked her. I was wrong then, and so is this. Let your anger cool, and then give her just desserts."
  4487. > Hand trembling, Randall eventually lets out a sharp breath and drops the cane back to his side.
  4488. > You, too, release a breath you hadn't even known you were holding.
  4489. > Gaze dropping to Haute, you try to properly compose yourself.
  4490. > Her head had barely begun to emerge from beneath the protective cover of her hooves, but she peers back up - emotions rapidly flickering over her face.
  4491. > Fear, anger, pain, confusion.
  4492. > She truly doesn't know what to make of this situation.
  4493. "Haute Glamour..."
  4494. > Leaning down, you study her with a mix of sadness and residual anger flickering across your own muzzle.
  4495. "You know, I think I understand you, Haute Glamour. I think... I scare you. Because, I think somewhere - buried down deep within you - there's still a good pony. A pony who wants to believe what she is doing is right."
  4496. > An hateful hiss is her only reply, apparently still hurting to much for a proper reply.
  4497. "That's why you were so glad when you thought I 'proved you right' at first, and why you tried to destroy me when you found out I wasn't cruel like you. Because as long as I am succeeding here you're scared that all the cruelty, all the pain you inflicted... it all might be for nothing."
  4498. > This time, she recoils as if a venomous snake had leaped from your mouth.
  4499. > Satisfaction fills your chest - followed a moment later by shame.
  4500. > Cruel as she was, Haute doesn't deserve to have her world shattered like this.
  4501. "But it's not that easy. We have to all make up for our mistakes... and as much as I want to hate you, some part of me hopes you can find it within you to change."
  4502. > Your part said, you back off.
  4503. > After a moment, Haute heaves herself upright and faces you on trembling legs.
  4504. > She presents a wretched figure - bruises already starting to form, her perfectly-kept mane a ragged wreck, a little blood oozing from one nostril where an errant blow had fallen.
  4505. > Yet still a fire blazes in her eyes, and is given voice by her lips:
  4506. > "You... you disgust me, 'princess'. You think you're so pure and noble, but in the end you're lying to yourself - clinging to the gravestone of a dead nation."
  4507. "I do no such thing!"
  4508. > Smirk growing, she shakes her head - ragged crimson mane swaying like a bloody waterfall.
  4509. > "Keep telling yourself that. These humans will turn on you eventually, and then you'll get to see how much-"
  4510. > Yelping, Haute Glamour collapses again as Randall once more brings the cane down on her.
  4511. > Only once, though; after that he speaks up:
  4512. > "Anonymous, I hope you don't mind - I'm going to need somewhere to put her until I can deal with her."
  4513. > "Not at all. Let me call a couple of the security staff up here to come get her. What're you going to do with her?"
  4514. > Somehow managing to lift her head, Haute utters a sharp bark of angry laugher:
  4515. > "Yes, what are you going to do? Whip me? Beat me some more? You won't do anything to me in the end; you need me to keep your house running!"
  4516. > "No."
  4517. > Randall's voice is deadly soft.
  4518. > "Anonymous, I think you may have had the right idea. There is nothing I can do to fix this kind of... poison. I'm going to sell you, Haute."
  4519. > The mare freezes, eyes dilating down to pinpricks.
  4520. > She must have thought herself safe from sale; as she herself had said moments earlier, Randall 'needed' her.
  4521. > Or, it seems, he did not.
  4522. > "No..."
  4523. > "Yes. This is too far, Haute. I gave you a home, I gave you respect and care... and you've been tormenting my ponies and sabotaging my work as thanks. You're done."
  4524. > "NO!"
  4525. > Confusion turns to a shriek of desperation, and you understand.
  4526. > Haute desired control, and Randall was going to put her into the one place where she had none whatsoever.
  4527. > Nodding, Randall's blank eyes still narrow in anger:
  4528. > "Yes. You're going on the market, with full reports of all you did."
  4529. > For a moment you expect Haute to try and charge Randall, but instead she snaps in another way.
  4530. > Completely dropping to the floor, she lays there limply with eyes staring dead ahead into nothing:
  4531. > "No, no... you don't understand! I'm pretty, I - if you do that, I won't be worth anything! They'll /use/ me!"
  4532. > The meaning of her words is clear, and despite the fury still burning in your chest your heart does a flip.
  4533. > Randall, however, is completely unaffected:
  4534. > "They may well use you. Just like you used me."
  4535. > Words fail Haute; she can only give a terrified, heaving cry and remain laying on the floor in utter despair - even when the guards arrive to remove her.
  4536. > Once the door slams shut, again leaving you all in privacy, it seems as though all the tension in the room had been shut out as well.
  4537. > Randall carefully twists about, then drops to one knee with a hand outstretched:
  4538. > "Posey?"
  4539. > With uncertain steps the nervous mare approaches, until she can brush her cheek against his fingers.
  4540. > Breath hissing out, Randall seems to sink down into himself.
  4541. > "I'm sorry, Posey. I've not been a good Master to you... I spend so much time with you, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't even once think to really try and push in to find out what was wrong."
  4542. > That is, you think to yourself, one of the great evils of slavery.
  4543. > He had not thought to check, and Posey could not simply have left - or even threatened to.
  4544. > She was trapped.
  4545. > And yet, the pain in Randall's voice was so real...
  4546. > Full of very real anguish over what had occured.
  4547. > Posey chooses to pay attention to the latter; eyes damp, she nuzzles in against his hand.
  4548. > "I forgive you, Master. Whatever she did, you've always been good to me."
  4549. > "Thank you..."
  4550. > Randall's whispered response draws a shake of Posey's head.
  4551. > "Don't thank me. There's a pony here - um, Sunburst? He was the one who started talking to me. Told me about how much better things are here."
  4552. > Anonymous shoots you a look.
  4553. > He knows - and you'll be discussing it later, no doubt.
  4554. > "I will have to thank him, yes."
  4555. > Slowly he runs a hand down Posey's damp cheek, and you're left with the sense there will be many long-overdue words between the two of them as well.
  4556. > Then Randall stands, turning to face yourself and your master:
  4557. > "Anonymous, Cadance, I think I owe you an apology both. I brought Haute in, and she has only caused you trouble. This will, obviously affect things between us-"
  4558. > "No, it won't."
  4559. > Shaking his head, Anonymous stands as well and folds his arms.
  4560. > "Like Posey said - whatever she did, you've been nothing but a boon. We're still going forward."
  4561. "If I can ask, what will you be doing with her? Do you really intend to sell her to - those markets?"
  4562. > "I..."
  4563. > Frowning deeply, Randall pauses.
  4564. > "...I'll think it over, when I've had a chance to calm down. She will be gone no doubt, though."
  4565. > That, you think, might be for the best.
  4566. > Even after all she'd done you aren't comfortable condemning her to a lifetime of rape.
  4567. > Unable to produce anything to say, you settle for a simple nod - only belatedly remembering that of course he could not see the gesture.
  4568. > After a moment, though, Anonymous breaks the awkward silence:
  4569. > "While she might have been dealt with, we still have one big issue to deal with: These investigators she brought down on us."
  4570. "Two issues, Anonymous. Justified or not, I attacked another pony in my anger. That is no small thing, especially after what I just did to two ponies for that same thing."
  4571. > "That isn't the same, and you know it Cadance."
  4572. "Same or not, it's the truth. I let my anger take control of me, and..."
  4573. > Your head sink, eyes falling to your hooves.
  4574. "...I can't be above them. I can't hold myself to a different standard, or everything Haute said will be true."
  4575. > Anonymous shakes his head.
  4576. > "Well, I mean, I didn't see you lay a hoof on her, did you? I just heard raised voices, and we went to investigate."
  4577. "What?!"
  4578. > But that was a lie!
  4579. > He'd caught you red-hoofed!
  4580. > "No, I didn't see anything at all. Did anyone else here see her attack Haute?"
  4581. > "I-"
  4582. > Randall's sightless eyes crinkle with amusement.
  4583. > "-saw nothing whatsoever."
  4584. > They're going to cover for you.
  4585. > Lie for you.
  4586. > No one else had seen; the camp would never have to know.
  4587. > Maybe...
  4588. "No - I - that's not right! Whatever anyone knows, I still attacked her. I am still guilty."
  4589. > "Anonymous, if I may handle this?"
  4590. > Tilting his head questioningly at Randall, Anonymous nonetheless nods.
  4591. > "Go ahead."
  4592. > "Cadance, if you would turn around?"
  4593. > Uncertain yourself, you do so also without question.
  4594. > The cane feeling its way from your hind-hoof up to your haunches only gives you a moment's warning:
  4595. > "Is that in the right place, Cadance?"
  4596. > Despite now knowing full well what he intends, you nod.
  4597. "Yes. It is."
  4598. > Being struck with his cane is nothing like a whip.
  4599. > It is solid and heavy; the impact actually makes you stagger forwards a step despite preparing yourself.
  4600. > While it is not accompanied by the immediate, searing pain of the lash you are quite certain your haunches will be sore for a good while.
  4601. > "There. Punishment. As much as you deserve; the rest, waived on account of the good your actions. Now, as Mr. Anonymous said... we saw nothing."
  4602. > Honestly, it does not feel like it.
  4603. > One different decision from Posey, and everything could have fallen apart.
  4604. > You cannot be that impetuous.
  4605. > Princesses do not let their emotions run away from them.
  4606. > Behind you, Anonymous coughs softly.
  4607. > "Well, then, if we could get back work..."
  4608. > ...
  4609. > Over an hour later, you finally follow Anonymous from the room.
  4610. > Without a word, he turns and heads for his bedroom and you follow.
  4611. > No order is needed to know what will follow.
  4612. > Glancing briefly at the heavily-stuffed chair, Anonymous instead turns for his bed and collapses into it with a hefty groan - kicking off his shoes.
  4613. > Staring at the ceiling, he stretches both arms out to either side - one dangling awkwardly off the edge of the bed.
  4614. > "Did you plan it, Cadance?"
  4615. "No. Well - sort of."
  4616. > "Explain."
  4617. "I told Sunburst to try and talk to her, yes. I did hope Posey would eventually find the strength to speak up. But happening right then, in front of everyone like that? No; not planned."
  4618. > Nodding - or more accurately, rolling his head where it lays on the bed - Anonymous sighs.
  4619. > "I'm a little relieved. I was afraid suggesting Sunburst to teach your daughter was just a ploy - that you'd played me to your own ends."
  4620. > No, you think.
  4621. > Playing Anonymous to your own ends was more in line with Sunburst's other task.
  4622. > "I'm glad you weren't, though I also have to admit you scared the ever-loving shit out of me back there. I thought you'd completely lost it, going after Haute like that."
  4623. "...I'm sorry..."
  4624. > Approaching with a softly-lit horn, you lift the dangling arm and return it to his side.
  4625. > A moment later he reaches out again - this time to cup your cheek lightly, stroking along your jaw.
  4626. > "If anything I owe you an apology. I shouldn't have jumped on you so quickly; I know you better than that."
  4627. "No, you were right to. I lost control. It was just like when I discovered that guard raping Cotton Cloudy; a kind of - of pure rage just took me over."
  4628. > Your eyes close and ears fall, and a tremble begins in your wings.
  4629. "If Posey hadn't spoken up... I would have lost everypony here, lost my daughter - I would've ruined everything for you."
  4630. > Tugging lightly, Anonymous guides your head in towards where he lays.
  4631. > Dropping down to rest your chin on his chest, you let it rest there.
  4632. > The question of when exactly you became so comfortable with physical contact with your owner, your captor and tormentor, is a question only briefly pondered before being swept away by the storm of heavier thoughts.
  4633. "I just went through with torturing two ponies for letting their anger drive them to violence. And it's the second time for me too; one stroke... it doesn't feel like enough."
  4634. > "You have by far the biggest drive to be a martyr I have ever seen... What do you want me to do? Go get a whip and put you through a bit of penitent scourging? Put you in a bridle and chains?"
  4635. > The thought of that awful, burning pain coming down on you again was enough to send a shudder from your nose to tail-tip.
  4636. > But it does not dismiss the sense you have that simply hiding it was wrong.
  4637. > Hands gently lift your muzzle, turning your head until you're looking up at his face.
  4638. > "Did you do wrong? Yes. But the right outweighs the wrong in this case."
  4639. > So he says.
  4640. > You can't help but feel shaken, though.
  4641. > Right outweighing wrong was not a zero-sum measurement; that good had been done did not negate your mistake.
  4642. > And you were not a mere pony but an alicorn, a princess even in exile.
  4643. > Rulers, you remember your aunt telling you often, are held to different standards.
  4644. > Even if the camp never knew, you would know in your heart.
  4645. > And it could tear you apart.
  4646. [Choice]
  4647. "That's not enough, Anonymous..."
  4648. > You head tries to droop - and when the support of his hands on either side keep that from happening, your gaze drops to stare down at his chest instead of looking him in the eye.
  4649. "You said you were afraid I'd plotted the whole thing out behind your back. In some ways, I wish I had - then I could tell myself that I didn't just almost ruin it for you."
  4650. > Some part of you wishes he would actually yell at you - yell, grab, even beat - do something!
  4651. > Anything to show he understood just how massive this mistake was!
  4652. > All your comment evokes is a soft snort, though.
  4653. > "You did, Cadance - almost. Not actually. And you need to recognize tha-"
  4654. "Yes! Yes I did actually! I didn't turn things around; that was Posey - I don't know why you can't see that!"
  4655. > Tail lashing angrily, you pull from his hands and stalk in a slow circle.
  4656. "Why are you so insistent that I didn't do anything wrong?! I'm not a foal; I don't have to be coddled!"
  4657. > "You know the last thing I am going to do is coddle you."
  4658. > Snarling at his perpetually calm and understanding tone, you spin around to re-fix him with a fierce glare.
  4659. "Then why aren't you listening to me?! Look at what I did to Crescent Moon and the others! I took had her whipped and an inhibitor put on her!"
  4660. > "And?"
  4661. "And?! That was for just fighting a guard! If I was any other pony and just did what I did, I'd be going under the lash right now too - or considering what I just did to Autumn and Comet, even worse!"
  4662. > "Oh for fuck's sake, Cadance! Is that what you really want me to do? Throw you in a cell, beat you, have Eric work you over?"
  4663. > Freezing mid-step, you rear your head back with nostrils flared.
  4664. > Was it?
  4665. > To face a clear punishment and be done with it?
  4666. > To have some acknowledgement of how badly you had screwed up?
  4667. > It was a tempting thought, though the mention of that man - the one who'd been responsible for so many other brutal punishments, who seemed to know just how to break down a pony - was enough to send a fresh spike of fear through you.
  4668. > Your consideration of the idea must have been obvious in your expression; Anonymous' look of frustration fades, being overtaken by concern.
  4669. > He sits up again, elbows resting on his knees and brows knitted.
  4670. > "God damn, Cadance. When did you become such a masochist?"
  4671. "It's not masochism. I can't hide from the responsibility of what I did, and if I try to it'll tear me apart. That would hurt me even more."
  4672. > "Your responsibility is to me; I am your owner. And I am saying you don't deserve that."
  4673. > Snorting softly, you can't help but roll your eyes in a very un-princesslike fashion.
  4674. "Is that supposed to help?"
  4675. > "It's a fact."
  4676. "Since when has that ever changed what I feel in my heart?"
  4677. > "...okay, fair point."
  4678. > Anonymous is unable to help but crack small grin entirely at odds with the gravity of the discussion, though it soon fades with a shake of his head.
  4679. > "I think you're completely insane, though."
  4680. "Do you remember what we talked about, the first night after the escape? Everything has repercussions. I have made so many mistakes, and now this - I can't go unpunished forever. I wouldn't be a leader then, but just your figurehead again."
  4681. > "And do you remember what I told you when we talked up here after the party? You're my partner in this. Besides, what the hell am I supposed to tell everyone else in the camp? I start beating you, they're likely to revolt."
  4682. "I will tell them."
  4683. > "Will they listen to you?"
  4684. "Yes. Maybe not understand, but they will listen."
  4685. > "I'm not sure that will be enough. It could incite a riot."
  4686. "So could my facing nothing. This will silence anypony left who still thinks I'm abusing my authority."
  4687. > With a sigh, he again reaches out to touch a hand to your cheek.
  4688. > "I knew how to deal with you when you were fighting me, but not like this... If I hold you to account for what you did, will you be able to keep working afterward?"
  4689. "I... think so, yes."
  4690. > "Then I'll take it under consideration, on two conditions: One, I am not doing this to you right now. We've got investigators running around, opening the rec center, probably a re-negotiation with my investors after this... I can't take you out of action for a day or two. Second... not Eric."
  4691. "Why not?"
  4692. > "Because you belong to me, not to him. If you're upset because you almost ruined me, then I'm the one who should punish you. If this is your responsibility, then you're my responsibility - and I think the ponies know that. Just like the last time you demanded I punish you, I'll carry it out."
  4693. "That... makes sense, I suppose."
  4694. > "Your voice is trembling."
  4695. > So it is.
  4696. > Yes, the thought of going through with something to recognize the monumental scale of the mistake you'd made was alluring.
  4697. > Or perhaps it was the hope that once through with it, you'd be able to let it go.
  4698. > But at the same time, to suffer through one of his punishments...
  4699. "I'm sorry, I-"
  4700. > "Are you sure this is what you want?"
  4701. "No."
  4702. > Your voice is almost whisper soft, and his hand - still cupping your cheek - tenses.
  4703. "But I am sure I need something. Or this will build until it eats me from the inside out."
  4704. > "Alright then. But like I said, not today - and if you take that time to reconsider, I will understand."
  4705. > You won't be reconsidering.
  4706.  
  4707. > Marching through the cell block seems by now to have become a regular thing, a required part of your duties as a guard.
  4708. > Or at the very least, something that you'd become used to.
  4709. > You had taken that day off as Cadance had ordered - or, more accurately, taken a day "on duty" but mostly socializing with the camp's ponies.
  4710. > 'Engaging in outreach', if anyone asked - a phrase you'd heard come up before - but if anypony was being reached out to it was yourself.
  4711. > After that repeated interrogation, a reminder that there were still live ponies in the camp who even appreciated what you did was sorely needed.
  4712. > That was then, though.
  4713. > This was now.
  4714. > The investigators, their questions seemingly satisfied, had eventually vanished after another two days of poking around the camp.
  4715. > A judgement on the whole matter, you understood, was still to come.
  4716. > Your thoughts lay elsewhere, though.
  4717. > Staying off your actual duties was only possible for so long, and this, you thought, was something you needed to do.
  4718. "Open it up."
  4719. > It'd be impossible to miss the noise of the cell door opening, but only one of the two ponies within reacts to it.
  4720. > Autumn Frost raises her head, looking at you with an expression of tired resignation.
  4721. > "It's our time, isn't it?"
  4722. "Yes."
  4723. > That one word is all that is needed.
  4724. > What more would anything else add?
  4725. > Leaning over, Autumn nudges Comet Tail with her nose; her wings were bound and legs hobbled, precluding any other method of contact.
  4726. > "Hey, Comet..."
  4727. > Her voice is low and gentle, the softest you'd ever heard it.
  4728. > "It's time for us to go."
  4729. > Two more nudges are needed before Comet rises to his hooves.
  4730. > The stallion seems utterly lost in his own world, having remained completely still when the cell door opened and once upright continues to stare dully off into the distance.
  4731. > Not even when the chain linking him to the cell wall is removed and transferred to a strap you take between your teeth does he respond.
  4732. > Just marches forward, hoof in front of hoof, through the cell block.
  4733. > Signs of what they had been through are obvious; each still bears a gauze pad carefully strapped down over where they had branded, and another pad was taped to Comet Tail's forehead.
  4734. > Missing too were the tips of Autumn Frost's feathers.
  4735. > That was enough to send a fresh shiver down your spine.
  4736. > To have every single flight feather damaged like that was an act comparable to implanting an inhibitor in a unicorn.
  4737. > It took not just flight but the flow of magic that a Pegasus always felt through their wings - a sense as subtle or tempestuous as the wind itself.
  4738. > At least, you thought, mere clipping could be undone.
  4739. > Another harsh, buzzing tone and the door in front of you slides open.
  4740. > Cold wind lashes your face; the morning had come blustery and chilly with gray skies and the promise of rain later.
  4741. > Out into this you push the two prisoners.
  4742. > The space beyond is fully enclosed by the twisted wire of a fence; springy and strong - difficult for even a mighty earth pony to tear.
  4743. > For these two, it is an insurmountable barrier.
  4744. > Even so, their leads are quickly clipped to a bolt sunk into the concrete pad that forms the floor and left there while they wait.
  4745. > "Thunderlane, if you want a moment alone with the two of them-"
  4746. "Yes."
  4747. > Nodding up at the guard, you give a quiet affirmative huff.
  4748. "I'd appreciate that, if you could."
  4749. > "Sure thing. We'll be watching, if you need help. Or if the truck pulls up, that'll be it."
  4750. > Stepping back in through the door into the security building he slams it shut - leaving only the three of you and the chill, biting breeze.
  4751. > "Looking to get your own lumps in, since you missed our torture? Put your marks on us too?"
  4752. > Gone is Autumn Frost's gentle tone; for you, her typical acidic bite has returned.
  4753. "If I were going to beat you, back in the cells where no one can see would have been better. Not that I am anyway."
  4754. > "What, then? If you're looking to talk, forget it."
  4755. > Yes, she'd always been the quieter of the two.
  4756. > And Comet... his loquaciousness is still absent, replaced only by that distant, empty look.
  4757. > "They took my magic, Thunderlane..."
  4758. > His voice has utterly lost its confident, cocky tone; instead it has a sort of breathy lightness that suggests each word is an effort.
  4759. > "I can't feel it at all. I keep reaching for it and expecting it to be there but it's not, and I don't know where it is..."
  4760. "What did you expect, going after a pony close to him? And right after he ordered inhibitors on ponies who'd lashed out in fear too?"
  4761. > "That he would see... he can't crush us."
  4762. > A fresh tremble runs through Comet from nose to tail.
  4763. > "...guess we were wrong about that."
  4764. > Fixing you with a fiercely accusing glare, Autumn Frost does not even need to speak to make it clear what she thinks:
  4765. > You are responsible for this.
  4766. > You were the one who found them out.
  4767. > You chose to turn them over.
  4768. > Responsible.
  4769. > Just like that investigator had tried to make you responsible for Chrysocolla's death.
  4770. > But this time, you have a choice.
  4771. > This time, you can argue back:
  4772. "No. You don't have to respond, but you do have to listen to what I have to say."
  4773. [Choice]
  4774. "You..."
  4775. > Hissing softly, you shake your head.
  4776. "You disgust me. You act so high and righteous, noble defenders of the cause of Equestria."
  4777. > "Says the broken dog serving his master!"
  4778. > You hold back a sharp bark of bitter laughter.
  4779. > How right Autumn is - you are a broken dog.
  4780. > But that still does not make her any better.
  4781. "You want to know what you were 'fighting?' A fifteen-year-old who was taken from Equestria when she was still a filly. All the memories of Equestria you and I cling to, all the things we fight for - she only had a fraction of. Mocha Cream grew up being trained a slave, she carried out the job she was given in the house because it was all she knew - and you all made her an exile for that 'crime'! Is it any wonder she clung to Anonymous, even if he owned her?"
  4782. > Advancing now, your wings begin to creep out from being pinned at your sides towards a full spread.
  4783. "But even after that, even after we were cruel enough to treat her as an enemy, she came to us looking to help us. She wasn't stealing our history, she was the one who brought the idea of keeping it open for everypony to see to Anonymous in the first place!"
  4784. > "Yeah, where he can keep it cleaned of anything-"
  4785. "You will shut up now!"
  4786. > Voice dropped to a harsh growl and eyes narrowed to golden slits, you cut an imposing figure.
  4787. > Enough that Autumn Frost's mouth snaps shut with an audible click as she shrinks back; despite your claim not to want violence, she clearly fears being struck.
  4788. > But striking is not your intention.
  4789. > Not with hoof or wing or tooth, anyhow.
  4790. "Regardless of what he did, Mocha Cream was the one who spent the bare little free time she had helping us. She argued for our having a place to show it at all. She was the one who was bringing our things back on the very same trip you cornered and damn near killed her on. And you know what? Everypony else here can see it. See just how insane you really are."
  4791. > Lips split to reveal a fearsome grin as you unleash your ace:
  4792. "You think Windy Winters was the only one who turned on you? Four different rebels gave us information on you. What you did was so... so disgusting, that they were the first to throw you to Anonymous."
  4793. > Both Autumn and Comet Tail recoil in horror.
  4794. > "Liar!"
  4795. > Autumn's hiss is low and angry, but that the quiet pegasus even felt the need to say that tells you just how much this is getting under her coat.
  4796. "No lies. You were sold out by your own, because you went too far. They knew what you really were - just angry ponies who wanted to get your anger out on someone close to Anonymous but didn't have the guts to go after him, and tore up an innocent filly's life instead."
  4797. > Angrily she stamps in place, a furious gesture but also one that hides how her legs have begun to tremble.
  4798. > Comet Tail...
  4799. > He just looks hollow.
  4800. > As if your admission had freshly ripped him open and cut out whatever had been left of him inside.
  4801. "You think I'm a broken dog? You're right. But so are you - you were broken by the slavers the second you decided to beat Mocha Cream like that. And I wonder, Autumn - I really wonder if you could look your colt in the eye and tell him what you did was right. I wonder if you thought for a second that there might be a mother and father wishing to see Mocha again. I wonder if you thought that Anonymous might be able to find your colt for you, bring you back together!"
  4802. > Huh.
  4803. > You're shaking too.
  4804. > That's new.
  4805. > You must've been more riled up than you realized.
  4806. > The fully-spread wings, the legs spread in a stance that screams challenge, that you'd expected.
  4807. > Not the shaking.
  4808. > ...whatever.
  4809. > A distant but rising rumble of an engine suggests your time alone with them is coming to an end anyway.
  4810. > Backing off, you retreat a few steps and drop to your haunches - now just watching them passively.
  4811. > Regaining her nerve, Autumn pushes herself up again and hisses back:
  4812. > "Don't you dare try and lecture us on family. I can't understand how your brother can look at you!"
  4813. > All she gets in return, though, is a little grin.
  4814. "Rumble knows well what I do, and he understands why. He even helped Mocha when she came down into the camp."
  4815. > At her shocked expression, your smile only grows.
  4816. "I've betrayed, Autumn. You're not wrong about that. I betrayed the escape."
  4817. > Telling her this before she is on the truck out is probably a mistake, but something - some anger long buried in your chest - pushes you on:
  4818. "I sent six ponies to the whipping post, and I kept Celestia knows how many more from running away to freedom. Maybe even sent them to their deaths, when they scattered without a plan or leader. I'll be regretting that until I go up to join the Great Herd. But you-"
  4819. > Turning your head, you extend a wing forward to meet your muzzle.
  4820. > Quickly brushing it along the wing, you find a looser covert and tug it out.
  4821. > The feather is spit out to drift down to the ground at her shackled hooves, like a great flake of ash.
  4822. > A second later the wind catches it, carrying it through the fence surrounding you and away.
  4823. > Autumn's eyes are wide, whether at your revelation or the old pegasus gesture - saying that to pluck your own wings was worth spiting her - you don't know.
  4824. > Over the motor's rising noise, you finish your statement:
  4825. "-but you, I won't spend a second repenting for. You deserved this. "
  4826.  
  4827. > The guards move quickly once the truck pulls up, marching you across to the camp's gateway under guard.
  4828. > A few ponies, out amid their daily duties, pause to look at you.
  4829. > Too far away to call out to.
  4830. > To reveal Thunderlane's treason.
  4831. > Maybe they would see what the six-cursed slavers were doing to you, and have their eyes opened.
  4832. > More likely not.
  4833. > So many, broken beyond any hope of helping.
  4834. > At the truck's side shackles are quickly exchanged, Comet Tail and yourself heaved up into the truck bed, chained to its metal floor, and the door unceremoniously slammed behind you.
  4835. > Alone with your thoughts and your pain.
  4836. > The brand ached, a constant throbbing of endless pain that seared into fresh agony when the truck shifted into movement.
  4837. > Old pains littered your body, from the less-than-kind handling the guards had given you or where you'd strained against the gibbet as Anonymous had tortured you and Comet Tail.
  4838. > Comet...
  4839. > If there was one thing you regretted, it was him.
  4840. > There was just enough light creeping into the truck to see his outline, to see the glint of light off of his eyes.
  4841. > He did not deserve this.
  4842. > He'd followed you faithfully, brought others into the circle, been a bulwark at your side.
  4843. > And for this, Anonymous had sentenced your ally - your friend - to a torture that would continue even when the brand had healed.
  4844. > You had seen how much the implant did to him.
  4845. > Little spasms when he tried some every day action, reached for his magic, and found it cut off.
  4846. > Whimpers and twitches in the few hours of rest he got, legs spasming in their chains as he galloped through dreams devoid of Princess Luna's protection.
  4847. > You should have done more to protect him.
  4848. > Given him a mask for when you delivered justice to Anonymous' whore.
  4849. > Kept a closer eye on who he was bringing in.
  4850. > Something to-
  4851. > "Autumn?"
  4852. > He must've seen you watching him, and his eyes met your now too.
  4853. "I'm sorry, my friend."
  4854. > Stretching out, you try to nuzzle him.
  4855. > The chains only just allow your nose the barest brush against his side.
  4856. > "Was it worth it, Comet? Did we do right?"
  4857. > His voice is shaky and weak, and you wish you could say yes.
  4858.  
  4859. > This gathering is the second time you have seen all the camp's ponies gathered in one place in recent days.
  4860. > Of course, there are two major differences:
  4861. > One, that no hours of work would be missed for this; it was Sunday, and they were making full use of their available time.
  4862. > Second, and perhaps more important, was that they were not here by order for a sentencing but by free will for something far better.
  4863. > Cadance stands before the doors to the new building, its fresh paint still gleaming in the morning sun.
  4864. > Allowing the ponies to build their own structure had yielded something so very far different from the function-first buildings that dominated the camp.
  4865. > It had an irregular, almost haphazard appearance; a riotous multitude of colors had been painted on that still somehow managed not to clash, while expertly-carved buntings lined the walls while windows large enough for a pegasus to fly in through lined both stories.
  4866. > Like something, you thought, from their old homeland.
  4867. > How appropriate.
  4868. > The bleak cloudiness that had accompanied the last two rebels' departure had vanished alongisde them, being replaced by an early-spring sun that warmed the chilly air; ponies stood in close clusters for warmth but with heads raised to soak in the rays.
  4869. > So too did it illuminate the new building, causing it to almost glow.
  4870. > You, on the other hand, hung back towards the edge of the crowd - a pair of guards at your shoulders.
  4871. > Hostile wasn't exactly accurate, but this was not a welcoming crowd.
  4872. > "Everypony!"
  4873. > Stepping forward, Cadance briefly launches herself aloft with a few beats of her wings to gain their attention.
  4874. > "Everypony, please, I would like to speak!"
  4875. > That's another thing that is different:
  4876. > No stage for her to stand on.
  4877. > There was a microphone though, hovering by her head in a field of magic - you'd figured lending her some speakers would be worth it for this occasion.
  4878. > When the crowd's soft muttering dies, Cadance drops back to the ground.
  4879. > "Thank you - thank you, all. I... don't exactly know what words are right for this moment, but there's so much that's lead up to this. I know our thoughts have all been with Equestria, with all that we've lost. Certainly, it hasn't ever left my mind. That memory carries us forward on wings of hope - the idea that we might some day leave this bondage and return to the lives we had."
  4880. > Turning, she looks up at the building behind her.
  4881. > "But the first step in that is to make sure Equestria is never forgotten, to make sure we never give in to the weight of despair or anger and let those dark feelings rule us. This building - this place - this is our first step. The things here will ensure that if we ever need to remember what we strive for, if we want our colts and fillies to know why we cannot let go, then we can come here. If we are overcome by frustration, so will this place offer a measure comfort - a place to relax alongside everypony else here..."
  4882. > It's downright rebellious, you think to yourself.
  4883. > Every fear you'd held about this place being used to reignite rebellion stirs back to life.
  4884. > How could it not?
  4885. > Remembering was one thing, but the way she is talking - it makes it sound like working for you is only temporary.
  4886. > Well, too late to interrupt her - let alone take away the building - now.
  4887. > Thank God the inspectors had already retreated to finish their report somewhere else; seeing this could leave you with some very pointed questions on an entirely different line of investigation.
  4888. > Well, you were committed now and so was Cadance.
  4889. > ...or was she?
  4890. > Despite the warming sun, a shiver runs down your spine as you remember how she had actually seemed to consider the idea of being left to Eric's attention as 'punishment' for her mistake.
  4891. > Yes, it had been a mistake - a grievous one.
  4892. > Probably worthy of some sort of punishment - but that?
  4893. > What was going on in her head?
  4894. > At least you'd convinced her to wait a while.
  4895. > She'd reconsider when she thought about how idiotic the whole idea was... wouldn't she?
  4896. > "...and, Anonymous? If you would like to say a few words?"
  4897. > Shit!
  4898. > Cadance had finished her speech while your thoughts were meandering.
  4899. > Stepping forward - guards opting to hang back - you proceed to Cadance's side.
  4900. > The crow'd eyes are on you, in all their varied emotions, and ears pointed forwards and waiting for you.
  4901. "...the truth is, I don't have much to say. This - this is not mine. I did not make it, I did not put in the time to design or construct it. I did not even choose it in the first place."
  4902. > A mutter sweeps the crowd, but you are not concerned.
  4903. > Not about this, at least.
  4904. "This is your triumph. This is your reward. You earned this, all of you, and you should rightly be proud of it. This is what I hoped to see when I founded this place - that I would not have to loom over you at every moment, but that you would find yourself able to manage, even thrive without my supervision. Your effort produced the resources to buy the materials, your choice picked what they were used for, and your dedication to our home here will keep it safe. The truth is I could not even have ordered you to put the effort and love you did into this; it is only something you could do yourselves."
  4905. > Glancing down at Cadance, you offer her a slight smile and nod.
  4906. "...and Cadance - you especially should be proud of this. You brought them to this, not me alone. You took the lead in this project. You convinced me to allow it. This is your triumph too."
  4907. > It doesn't happen all at once, but rather in sporadic groups:
  4908. > A few ponies stomp their hooves against the ground in their form of applause, but soon more and more are doing it until the ground is vibrating with the pounding of hooves.
  4909. > There, you think to yourself, you see Cadance?
  4910. > You are not failing.
  4911. > The moment the doors open, ponies stream in eager to see what it had been built within.
  4912. > Surging past yourself and Cadance, they form a solid river of color.
  4913. > You turn to go; your part in this was done, and despite their applause lingering might not be welcome.
  4914. > Once the moment passed, they would surely remember you are their master - not just their friend.
  4915. > ...or, maybe it would be most welcome, to be seen acknowledging their 'triumph'?
  4916. > No, this was - and would only ever be - their moment.
  4917. > You couldn't force your way in without being an intruder, an invader.
  4918. > They wouldn't be able to look at you without wondering if you were scoping out which works to remove or claiming some portion of their success for yourself.
  4919. > A little part of your mind suggests that maybe it would have been a good idea to be an invader - to remind them that in the end, even their triumphs did actually belong to you.
  4920. > But not at this moment; there would always be chances to come back in the future.
  4921. > This moment really was theirs to enjoy.
  4922. > Besides, looking at the sheer mass of equinity pushing through those doors you can't help but think that there'd be some physical difficulty in getting in.
  4923. > A small grin playing about your lips, you turn and start back towards the manor.
  4924. > Barely have you gone a few steps before there is a soft cough at your side.
  4925. > Cadance looks up with a questioning expression.
  4926. > "Heading back so quickly?"
  4927. "Yes. This isn't my moment Cadance, and I'd be wrong to try and push my way into it."
  4928. > Her brows knit, an expression which suggests she was almost hoping you would stay a while.
  4929. > "You were going to be more involved."
  4930. "And I was."
  4931. > Turning to face her, you drop to one knee and bring yourself to her head height.
  4932. "But Cadance - I wasn't joking about this being your moment. I wasn't even planning on speaking, just watching."
  4933. > Not to mention you were going to have a talk with her about what kind of thoughts her own speeches should be invoking.
  4934. "There'll be a chance for me to come down later on, take a look then. But I wouldn't want to get in their way."
  4935. > Sighing gently, Cadance nods.
  4936. > "Okay. I'll be coming up a bit later on, then."
  4937. "That's fine."
  4938. > The house is, if nothing else, quieter after the hubbub of the crowd.
  4939. > Any hope of relaxation, however, is dashed when you see the letter resting on your work desk.
  4940. > Once, Mocha would have delivered those to you in person; now, they were simply left on your desk by whatever member of the house staff was responsible for it today.
  4941. > None of the ponies had really felt comfortable fully replacing Mocha in her duties, even now.
  4942. > But that was for another moment; right now, you had larger things to worry about.
  4943. > You slit the envelope and pull out the letter within, unfolding it and pausing to consider the official federal letterhead it had been typed on.
  4944. > No point in waiting; refusing to read it would not change the outcome.
  4945. > Taking a seat, you begin to scan down the letter:
  4946. > 'Mr. Anonymous,
  4947. > Per our investigation into your facilities as a result of a tip placed on our hotline regarding the mistreatment and death of equine property...
  4948. > ...investigators dispatched to your premises to further determine the truthfulness of these claims...
  4949. > ...per the autopsy conducted by your property and further inspection of the body by our personnel to verify the statements therein...
  4950. > ...interviews conducted with your employees and property...
  4951. > ...come to the conclusion that no mistreatment of your equine property has occurred, and all claims as to such are baseless.'
  4952. > It is all you can do to avoid jumping up and dancing in place.
  4953. > As is, you fall back against the chair with a soft whoop.
  4954. > You were safe.
  4955. > The gamble payed off.
  4956. > No fines, no further investigations, and certainly no actual serious penalties that could be inflicted if those dug up your actual mistakes.
  4957. > You'd have to find a way to reward Mellowheart.
  4958. > She'd done well.
  4959. > Or would that seem like you were bribing her, paying her off for sparing you a worse report?
  4960. > Ah, well.
  4961. > That could wait.
  4962. > For now, you were content to be happy with what you had.
  4963. > Unfolding the letter again, you go back to reading through the rest.
  4964. > 'On account of the suicide of a mare belonging to you, this report will remain on permanent record regarding your business and facility. This should not taken as an indication of guilt or accused guilt on your behalf. It will, however, be considered should future investigations be undertaken at any time...'
  4965. > So, you weren't in trouble - yet.
  4966. > But if something flew out of control again...
  4967. > Well, Haute was well and gone.
  4968. > And it wasn't likely you'd pull another Corona - you wouldn't let yourself, and neither would Cadance.
  4969. > Carefully re-folded, the letter is tucked back inside its envelope and set aside for filing.
  4970. > The news has put you into a far better mood.
  4971. > Alongside the opening of the museum - who would have ever thought the ponies would applaud you? - it left you with the sense that things were, in fact, looking up again.
  4972. > And then Cadance went and lost her mind.
  4973. > ...
  4974. > The first warning you get is the cell phone buzzing in your pocket.
  4975. > Swiping the call open, you wave aside the pair of earth ponies studying maps spread across the table you stood at.
  4976. "Gene, what is it?"
  4977. > "Anonymous, why didn't you tell me there was a problem with Cadance?"
  4978. "Problem? I didn't think there was one."
  4979. > Silence is his answer, and one that starts a fresh feeling of worry forming in your belly.
  4980. "Gene, what's going on?"
  4981. > "She just went on the PA. Sentenced herself to a day in a cell 'for further punishment' over what happened with Randall's mare, talked it up like a huge deal. Where are you?"
  4982. > That utter madpony, she actually did it.
  4983. "Fucking - I'm out in the fields, looking over the survey results for the expansion."
  4984. > You're already moving, though, marching for the motorized cart that brought you out here.
  4985. > God damn it; Cadance hadn't said a thing about this in the days since it'd been brought up and then pushed off.
  4986. > That she'd forgotten about it - especially after the museum's opening had gone so well - had seemed like the logical conclusion.
  4987. > And evidently a mistaken one.
  4988. "How bad is it? Are we looking at a riot?"
  4989. > "Not yet. The other ponies - Bon Bon, Crescent Moon - on the PA with her; I think they held back the worst of it."
  4990. > Snorting softly, you shake your head.
  4991. > No clue what Bon Bon's beef with Cadance was, unless there'd been a falling out between them over the escape's failure.
  4992. > But it figured she would bring Crescent Moon to back her up - one of the few ponies who would unhesitatingly condemn Cadance to significant punishment for losing control of her emotions.
  4993. "Where is she now? If I finish up out here first, is it going to be a problem?"
  4994. > "Somewhere in the facilities. Do not think so."
  4995. "Then I'll be up in a bit. I want to get this done first."
  4996. > Cadance actually precedes you back to the manor; she is already waiting in your office, belly on the floor and head resting between her forehooves.
  4997. > One eye turns to look at you, paused halfway in through the door.
  4998. > Shutting it carefully, you walk to her side and squat down - a frown stamped on your face.
  4999. > "You're angry with me."
  5000. "I didn't think you'd actually do it, Cadance!"
  5001. > "Then you lied to me."
  5002. "No - yes - augh!"
  5003. > Rubbing your forehead, you fall back to seat yourself fully on the floor.
  5004. > After a moment she lifts her head, turning to study you with worried eyes.
  5005. "...if there's anything I'd actually punish you for, it's going over my head like this. It's completely unacceptable."
  5006. > "Three days. You said so - what was I supposed to think? And the investigators are gone, your negotiations are in a pause, the museum's open, and there aren't any other crises. I've set things up to let Mayor Mare handle the camp for a day... when else, Anonymous?"
  5007. > She really is determined to see this through.
  5008. > Fine; you can work with her.
  5009. > But that doesn't mean you have to play her game.
  5010. "Alright. Follow me."
  5011.  
  5012. > Despite every rational urge telling you not to, your eyes travel around the cell the moment you step in.
  5013. > What they see is enough to make you rear back, one forehoof lifted defensively.
  5014. > The racks lining the walls are littered with tools that promise nothing but pain and misery.
  5015. > Tools some of which have undoubtedly been used on ponies - on your ponies.
  5016. > Off to one side, one of the very same cage-like frames that Autumn Frost and Comet Tail had been secured in draws your eye.
  5017. > Anonymous, standing just behind you, leans over and murmurs:
  5018. > "Having second thoughts?"
  5019. > Your hard swallow is all the answer he needs; a soft hand rests on your withers.
  5020. > "There's no shame in backing out of this, Cadance."
  5021. "No."
  5022. > Regaining control, you force yourself forward.
  5023. > Behind you the door shuts, making you jump in place - wings half spreading, as if you could fly in this tiny place.
  5024. > With a disconcertingly soft hand Anonymous guides you over towards that nightmarish frame.
  5025. > "Here, let me show you - that's it, step up easily now, lift your legs over that and onto that platform... that's it, now lay your belly onto this bar, chin up there..."
  5026. > Head hanging but heart strong, you passively allow him to show you how to mount the frame.
  5027. > Somewhere along the line, as he starts to close the shackles and tighten the straps that hold you in place, a trembling had started.
  5028. > Your head was restrained in place by the heavy bridle that left you unable to even turn it and a strap wound around your wings forced them upright and together, away from your sides.
  5029. > The net result is a feeling of utter helplessness.
  5030. > Some tentative squirming verifies that there was no room to move.
  5031. > All you can do is watch as Anonymous selects an inhibitor and slips it down your horn.
  5032. > "Are you ready?"
  5033. > In for a bit, in for the bullion.
  5034. "Yes."
  5035. > A click, and the inhibitor snaps firmly onto your horn.
  5036. > Immediately you gasp, lungs filling as much as the frame holding you allows.
  5037. > Magical inhibitors were nothing like when you and your aunts had given up your magic to Twilight for safekeeping, or even like the suppression pills' obfuscating haze.
  5038. > This was a brutal, crushing grip that cut your magic off like the blood to a limb under a torniquet.
  5039. > A constant awareness that something should be there, but was not.
  5040. > And you'd subjected Crescent Moon to this every time she re-enabled her inhibitor.
  5041. > A filly her age, experiencing her magic cut off over and over...
  5042. > Dimly you become aware that you were panting shallowly.
  5043. > Somewhat in response to the inhibitor, but also because Anonymous was moving again:
  5044. > Barely in the range of your peripheral vision, shifting something around.
  5045. > Selecting the first tool of your punishment, no doubt.
  5046. > ...whatever it is, it sounds heavy.
  5047. > Panic begins to edge its way up from easily-ignorable background noise to something more significant; you truly were at his mercy now and at no point had you actually talked about what he was going to do.
  5048. "Anonymous, I..."
  5049. > "Yes, Cadance? Rethinking things?"
  5050. > You squirm in the shackles and straps, trying to find even a millimeter of free movement.
  5051. > Is this what Autumn and Comet had felt?
  5052. > Unable to do anything more than wait for it to begin?
  5053. "...no, I just-"
  5054. > "Good."
  5055. > And with that one word, he forces you back into silence.
  5056. > He wouldn't go to far...
  5057. > ...right?
  5058. > "Ready, Cadance?"
  5059. "Yes, Master."
  5060. > Why do you sound so damn weak!
  5061. > What is with you?!
  5062. > Stepping out from behind you, Anonymous carries with him - a folding chair?
  5063. > Yes, a folding chair which he carefully sets up in front of you and sits down in.
  5064. > "Cadance, why are you here?"
  5065. > The question - the entire act - catches you entirely off guard.
  5066. "I - I don't know. No one knows why the worlds connected, except maybe my auntie-"
  5067. > "Not that. I mean, why are we in this cell, here, right now?"
  5068. > This, you have even less of a reply to.
  5069. > The obvious answer is because you'd done wrong - but he obviously knew that, so what was he looking for?
  5070. > "I have a lot of ponies here, Cadance. Had, even before you came. I've seen some ponies who suffered in slavery... but you, telling me to put you in for a day of torture?"
  5071. "Crescent Moon was sentenced for the same thing, and I'm no filly-"
  5072. > "She was sentenced to a few lashes at the post, not a whole day of punishment. Come on, Cadance - the last time I had you in chains, you tore into me without any hesitation! Now you're trying to excuse me punishing you?"
  5073. > Finally, you identify the tone in his voice:
  5074. > Worry.
  5075. > Real, serious, worry.
  5076. > "I wanted to break you, as in I wanted to see you stop pushing active rebellion. But this... Cadance, you just walked into a cell and helped me restrain you. You know what this thing-"
  5077. > He motions to the frame you are strapped into.
  5078. >"-is used for. And you did it anyway. That doesn't make me relieved, that makes me worried. This isn't normal, and I'm not lifting a finger until you can give me a damn good reason why I should."
  5079. "You agreed!"
  5080. > Surging forward in your restraints, you try and reach out for him - eyes beginning to blur with dampness.
  5081. > Even with your alicorn strength, however, this does little more than make the frame creak.
  5082. > With your magic cut off and wings bound, you were completely unable to do more than struggle meaninglessly.
  5083. "We talked about this, and you agreed-"
  5084. > "To bring you down here. I also told you that I would be the one doing it. That the punishment would be at my discretion. So tell me, Cadance - why should I hurt you?"
  5085. "Why?"
  5086. > You're shaking again - not of fear, but of anger now.
  5087. > Or at least, shaking as much as the bindings allow.
  5088. "Aren't you listening to me? I - I screwed up. I failed them. Again! After I condemned them to - to this for-"
  5089. > "Again, Cadance?"
  5090. > He's leaning forward, face nearing your own with a hard look on it.
  5091. > "I don't happen to remember you lashing out at anyone like you did at Haute before - not anyone who didn't deserve it. Unless there's something you need to tell me?"
  5092. "Not like that! I am their princess. I should be protecting them, not ordering them whipped!"
  5093. > Anonymous rocks back in his head, one hand pinching the bridge of his nose.
  5094. > "God, I should have seen this coming for so long. After all, when I told you to pass judgement on your ringleaders you decided to put yourself up and take both the punishments you offered them..."
  5095. "I was their leader. I organized the whole thing!"
  5096. > "And you were punished for it. This - you didn't have any part of this!"
  5097. > Of course you do.
  5098. > You were their leader, their princess still.
  5099. "I haven't done anything except force myself to endure the same things they are! I told you, I won't carry myself above them!"
  5100. > "An eye for an eye doesn't fit here, Cadance. There's no guilt in doing what you have to do. I don't know how much more I can say that!"
  5101. > Snarling angrily, you try to lunge forward again.
  5102. > You can feel the bridle's straps cutting in to you, but it barely seems to matter.
  5103. > Not compared to the pain now boiling and churning inside of you.
  5104. "If I were a real leader - a good leader - I wouldn't have to do that."
  5105. > "Being a real leader doesn't mean avoiding the hard choices, Cadance. It means knowing they are hard, and making them anyway."
  5106. "Then I wouldn't even let them get there! I'd stop them before they were a problem - wouldn't need to give ponies a chance to do anything wrong!"
  5107. > "You're talking about an impossibility."
  5108. "No, I'm not!"
  5109. > Anonymous stands, looming over you with fists balled and shoulders hunched:
  5110. > "How can you even say that, Cadance? How can you know - what, are you supposed to be omnipotent? Omnipresent? You can't-"
  5111. "My aunt did!"
  5112. > In the few moments of silence that linger after that last outburst, a fresh look of understanding comes over Anonymous' face.
  5113. "...auntie - Celestia - she was always so good... if there was trouble, she would be there first and in front, protecting everypony else. She always found a way to - arrange things. To turn somepony back if there was even a drop of good in them. It's my failing if I'm not a good enough leader to stop them!"
  5114. > Without warning Anonymous stands, again stepping out of your view.
  5115. > When he returns, your heart stops:
  5116. > In one hand, was clutched a familiar, coiled whip; you knew from experience the agonies that could inflict.
  5117. > Yet it is what he clutches in the other, though, that really holds your attention:
  5118. > You'd seen cattle prods before, of course, though never had the experience one being used on your own body.
  5119. > But even beyond that, there is no doubt in your mind.
  5120. > Somehow you know, with the absolute surety of somepony who needs that certainty, that this was the one he had used on Corona.
  5121. > This was the one he had wielded in all his vicious anger.
  5122. > Was he finally going to snap?
  5123. > Was this it?
  5124. > He seats himself again, once more loosely resting elbows on his knees.
  5125. > When he speaks again, his voice is so much softer:
  5126. > "So, this is it then. This is that why I'm supposed to be punishing you, Cadance? Because you aren't as good as Celestia was?"
  5127. "Yes. Maybe. I don't know..."
  5128. > You aren't thinking clearly right now.
  5129. > Fear sharpens your mind, adrenaline surging into your veins as he raises the prod's tips to brush against your throat.
  5130. > He wasn't going to string you along anymore.
  5131. > You were going to suffer.
  5132. > And-
  5133. > "But you aren't your aunt, Cadance. Don't you remember, telling me that?"
  5134. > That's true.
  5135. > You had, back right after the escape.
  5136. > Then why do you feel...
  5137. > Rising again, the prod taps at your cheek.
  5138. > "Cadance - look at me."
  5139. > As you had much of a choice.
  5140. > "I don't know how Celestia did it. But you... aren't her. You shouldn't feel bad because you aren't. Now... feelings are one thing. Feelings are understandable. But Cadance... this is verging on self-harm. Look at what you're doing to yourself!"
  5141. "Nothing I didn't do to anypony else..."
  5142. > Your voice had fallen too - down to nearly a whisper.
  5143. > Wings twitch in their bindings, trying to droop.
  5144. "I've been failing since this all began. I lost my Shining Armor. I left Flurry Heart alone. I let her fall into slavery. I planned the escape, punished ponies who were only following me, and wasn't there to help guide anypony who'd escaped either."
  5145. > In the softest voice possible:
  5146. "Why won't you see that? I can't just take credit for the good and not the bad."
  5147. > "Because I think you already are taking credit for the bad. Inside."
  5148. "Inside isn't good enough! I need to show, to do!"
  5149. > "Do you?"
  5150. "Yes!"
  5151. > Fresh anger boils up, following on the heels of your disappointment with yourself:
  5152. "And what happened to you, Mister 'I want you to be a leader'? Aren't you going to hold me to account for all the mistakes I've made? Or what about what I said at the museum? Wasn't that inciting rebellion? Or do I have to show that too! Then what about-"
  5153. > You're cut off by a loud, hard pop.
  5154. > For a second you think he had triggered the prod against your cheek, but its touch is gone:
  5155. > His other hand is empty, though:
  5156. > It was a slap that had left your cheek stinging.
  5157. > Senses return just in time to hear him speaking again:
  5158. > "You want to talk about showing? Then think about what you're showing me now! You walked in here, helped me make you utterly helpless, and then tried to provoke me into hurting you. That's not taking responsibility, that's..."
  5159. > Waving his free hand about, Anonymous eventually gives up.
  5160. > "...just don't try to bullshit me, Cadance. I know what real rebellion from you sounds like, and this isn't it."
  5161. > Your eyes fall again, uncertain emotions still swirling inside of you.
  5162. > Relief, of course, that the pain had not come.
  5163. > But also disappointment.
  5164. "You can't ignore my failures forever, Anonymous. If you do, it will only make them see me as your spoiled pet. And when I do screw things up, it will be truly disastrous."
  5165. > "Oh yeah? Name one thing that you've done recently that you caused a 'disaster' with."
  5166. "Sending the guards after Chrysocolla! She died, and if the investigators decide you were responsible-"
  5167. > "Cadance..."
  5168. > His hand is on your cheek, stroking back gently.
  5169. > It feels... odd.
  5170. > Utterly helpless.
  5171. > No room to move.
  5172. > Remembering the prod's cold metal kiss, even after it was replaced with his soft touch.
  5173. > Maybe that's why you shut up when he started speaking.
  5174. > "Cadance, the investigators already cleared me."
  5175. > What?!
  5176. > "There's not going to be any trouble. Nothing bad is going to come of that, and you're trying to invent reasons for me to punish you."
  5177. > No.
  5178. > You aren't.
  5179. > You're-
  5180. > You're just trying to-
  5181. > The first tear begins to run down your cheek.
  5182. > Seconds later, you collapse entirely - eyes closed and both swimming, sides beginning to heave against the frame holding you.
  5183. > It's a wretched, horrid feeling:
  5184. > Ribs attempting to expand, only to be constrained by the unyielding straps holding you down.
  5185. > Instead you simply lay there, sides now heaving as emotion long anchored down flow forth in a tsunami.
  5186. "I don't get it. You're right, I'm looking to be hurt and it's foalish and stupid and it doesn't make any sense."
  5187. > "I hear a but there."
  5188. "...I still feel like all of this is my responsibility. My fault."
  5189. > Then, in a smaller voice:
  5190. "I'm broken, aren't I...?"
  5191. > "Yes."
  5192. > Maybe some part of you had expected him to comfort you, to deny it.
  5193. > Or maybe you were just looking for things to argue with him over.
  5194. > Instead his answer only pushes you to let even more emotion pour out:
  5195. > All the interrogations, when you'd been captured.
  5196. > All the sales, moving from one owner to another.
  5197. > All the months spent in a literal golden cage, a prize on display.
  5198. > None of that had broken you.
  5199. > But being given authority, real authority again...
  5200. > That had crushed you.
  5201. "I try so hard, but everything... every time I never quite make it! Somepony always gets hurt, no matter what do! And someday - someday, if I don't stop screwing it up, everypony's going to be hurt!"
  5202. > He doesn't say anything, hands just listening as you vent long pent-up frustrations:
  5203. "I'm afraid! Afraid of being this - this completely untouchable thing ruling over them. Afraid nopony will stop me! Afraid that when we all get called to account for what we did for each other, I'll have failed!"
  5204. > You're breathing, hard as you can while still strapped into the frame.
  5205. "At least when I was a Princess in Equestria there was everypony else to help me, to tell me if I'm doing right. Shiny, Auntie Celestia, Twiley, Sunburst, somepony! Now... now I'm just me, and I am failing!"
  5206. > The frame is actually rattling as you shudder in it, restraints and buckles struggling to manage your alicorn strength boosted by raw emotion.
  5207. > Amid this you spit out in a bitter, hoarse voice:
  5208. "Why can't I be good enough for them...?"
  5209. > Anonymous simply watches for a while before again raising up the prod - not to touch you, but to be held in front of your face.
  5210. > "And because you're scared, because you don't have anyone to help you along, you think you should've spent a day with this being used on you?"
  5211. > It takes you several moments of hard breathing to come up with an answer for that.
  5212. > An answer you do have, though, and one that he can't refute so easily.
  5213. "Corona. The rest of this... maybe you're right. But Corona wasn't invented. Corona isn't about my aunt. She was my failure. I should've stopped you; it was my duty as her Princess."
  5214. > "You aren't their princess anymore, though. And frankly, you weren't in any condition to take another punishment then either!"
  5215. > Your voice is raised to a shout, even a shriek:
  5216. "But I should have! I should have stood in front of you and refused to move until you forced me aside and or took me and spared her! But I didn't, and she - she was-"
  5217. > Swallowing hard, you manage to force yourself to look him straight in the eye:
  5218. "I want to know what happened to her. I want you to show me."
  5219. > "Cadance-"
  5220. "No! This time - I have to know."
  5221. > Instead of responding to that, though, Anonymous' hand reaches out to stroke down your mane.
  5222. > "I wonder though, Cadance... how long has it been since you had someone to admit things like this to? How long have you been alone? I promised to be open to you, but who are you open with?"
  5223. "No one. I wonder if this is how my aunt felt - always the ruler on the throne, never the pony..."
  5224. > There's no hesitation in the answer, only a shuddering breath drawn in filled with pain.
  5225. > A long silence follows that, at the end of which Anonymous sighs softly.
  5226. > "You've put me in a rough spot, Cadance. The truth is there are things I need to hold you to account for - yes, including some things that might include punishment."
  5227. "Then do it. Isn't that what I've been asking for?"
  5228. > Anonymous continues right on as if you hadn't even spoken:
  5229. > "But while you're in a state like this, I'm not sure how safe I feel doing it. I think, maybe, that letting this pass might be better-
  5230. "No!"
  5231. > "-but I'm also concerned about what just letting it linger is doing to your head. So: I will show you some of what she endured. But that will be it. After this - you swear to me this will not happen again. We sit down, and we have a talk about this and any future you feel have to answer for. Do you understand?"
  5232. "...yes."
  5233. > "...if I do this, will you be able to explain it? Not to me, not to Thunderlane or any of your other confidants, but to anypony I choose?"
  5234. > This time, you have to give it a pause for thought.
  5235. > Could you really explain this?
  5236. > Admit you were broken?
  5237. "I can."
  5238. >...
  5239. > Pain.
  5240. > Your entire body is pain.
  5241. > Anonymous had taken you out of the frame's constricting grasp, but it had only been a moment's respite.
  5242. > What replaced it was almost worse.
  5243. > Your forehooves were shackled together and stretched in front of you, while your hindhooves were similarly outstretched behind.
  5244. > In between, your body bowed under its own weight - stretching joints and bending your spine, tightly-bound wings useless for supporting you.
  5245. > Your hips and shoulders in particular are white-hot centers of agony as they were rotated far beyond what any pony's limbs ought to be able to do.
  5246. > The weighty steel collar anchored around your throat made every second you lifted your head an effort.
  5247. > As if a final touch, the strain on your ribs forces each breath come shallow and unsatisfying.
  5248. > Almost like you were almost choking.
  5249. > While the heavy bridle that wrapped around your head did not prevent you from speaking, only whimpers escaped your lips so far.
  5250. > Finishing tightening the chains, Anonymous stands back and examines you with a look you cannot quite place.
  5251. > A mixed expression, you think, one part satisfaction and one sadness.
  5252. > In between heavying breaths, you manage to wheeze out:
  5253. "This ... she suffered ... through this?"
  5254. > "Yes. The first day she was whipped too."
  5255. > Whipped.
  5256. > Celestia help you, you can barely imagine.
  5257. > Each blow forcing muscles to jump and unleashing new torrents of agony as joints were re-strained.
  5258. > How had she even survived?
  5259. > A soft touch to your coat pulls your attention back to the immediate.
  5260. > Anonymous had placed his hand on the underside of your sweat-dampened ribcage, just between your forelegs - feeling your heart beating at a furious pace.
  5261. > You can feel it too, hammering relentlessly.
  5262. > Against your slender, narrow frame - once considered elegant, and something you had considered yourself blessed with - the stressful position had stretched your hide tight as a drum.
  5263. > Each and every rib stood out, straining against the skin.
  5264. > Yet the worst thing of all is how helpless the position feels.
  5265. > With that single touch Anonymous had made it clear he could do anything he pleased to you:
  5266. > Belly, ribs, flanks, groin - everything was exposed to whatever torments he might use.
  5267. > A fresh tremor runs through your body, tears leaking from your eyes both at the pain reawakened by the movement and the understanding of what Corona must have experienced.
  5268. > Alone, each moment turned to an eternity of agony, no sense of what was coming, abandoned by the one pony she must have trusted would protect her absolutely?
  5269. > How had she survived?
  5270. > And you have the safety of the knowledge that Anonymous will not truly try to break you.
  5271. > Corona had no such luxury.
  5272. > Cast into an abyss of torment and uncertainty - you have no idea how she managed to hold out for so long.
  5273. > As if sensing that your thoughts were drifting, Anonymous again intervenes - seizing hold of your mane and pulling your head aside to face him.
  5274. > "Now, Cadance... explain to me. Why am I doing this to you?"
  5275. "B-Because I put - aaaagh! - put Corona through-"
  5276. > "Wrong."
  5277. > The prod's pop and snap makes your blood freeze, even though he had not even touched it to you.
  5278. > Now firmly having your attention, though, Anonymous lifts the prod to again settle its cold, metal fork into your throat.
  5279. > "Now. Explain to me again. Why. Should. I. Do. This."
  5280. > Heart rising up into your throat, your mouth opens to answer then snaps back shut with an audible click.
  5281. > No, can't be hasty.
  5282. > Can't be-
  5283. "Because I failed her, just like I'm failing everypony e-"
  5284. > Your vision flashes, lungs locking up and refusing to pump as a high keening noise fills your ears.
  5285. > It takes a moment or two for you to realize it is your own scream.
  5286. > How long did it last?
  5287. > A minute?
  5288. > Or a single second stretched out to an eternity?
  5289. > You don't know which - only that when it is over you slump back down in your chains only to find that the spasms had increased the pain of hanging there ten times over.
  5290. > All hope of logical thought is gone, reason and ration blasted away by the prod's shocking touch.
  5291. > "Now. Explain."
  5292. > But you did!
  5293. > You told him exactly what you were-
  5294. "Because I'm not good enough for them! They think - they think I can solve everything! Be the pony my aunt was! I-"
  5295. > This time the prod met your vulnerable, soft belly.
  5296. > A pinpoint of pure, white-hot, fizzing agony that sends your entire body into a fresh round of spasms.
  5297. > How long this time?
  5298. > Five seconds, ten, a hundred?
  5299. > Fog edges at the corners of your vision even after the shock ends, any coherent train of thought thoroughly derailed.
  5300. > Your scream peters out, heavy heaving sobs - as deep as your constrained lungs will allow - coming in its place.
  5301. > Above this all, Anonymous is talking again:
  5302. > "No. That isn't it. Why did you demand this? Why did you push me into this? Don't you lie to me!"
  5303. > An immediate answer comes to your lips.
  5304. > Not but because any hesitation has likewise melted away under the onslaught of pain and chaotic emotions whirling in your head.
  5305. "Because I don't want to be a spoiled bitch like Haute was! If I start excusing myself-"
  5306. > The middle of your back now, between your wings - electrical surges sending the limbs into especially wild spasms, though they could not move against the bindings still holding them tight.
  5307. > Your throat is hoarse and raw; you can feel each the vibrations of your scream against the steel collar.
  5308. > "Still not telling me the truth, Cadance!"
  5309. > He taps your belly again with the prod, and the touch of the metal to your coat alone is enough to draw a shriek from your lips.
  5310. > "You're giving me things that add up to your reason. Now, why did you want this?"
  5311. > Mind running a miles a minute, you're only able to fruitlessly struggle in the chains - an instinctual response, no matter how much it agonized your joints.
  5312. > What more could you give him?
  5313. > You'd told him everythi-
  5314. > Fresh terror floods your body as the prod's cold tips find their way down along your belly, stopping pressed ever-so-lightly into a teat.
  5315. "Because I'm scared! I'm scared and I don't know what to do anymore and everything made so much more sense when you were just my captor and sometimes I just want to go back and then I'd know the right way and please no Master don't shock me agaaain!"
  5316. > Automatically you tense up, eyes screwed shut in expectation of the prod's searing touch.
  5317. > But nothing ever comes.
  5318. > After a second you dare to open your eyes.
  5319. > Anoonymous was not even standing anymore, having sunk back down to his seat:
  5320. > Face resting in the palm of one hand, while the other loosely holds the cattle prod.
  5321. > Even as you watch, the awful tool slips from nerveless fingers to clatter against concrete.
  5322. > "She never really begged, you know..."
  5323. > After a moment, he looks back up - face a twisted mix of emotions that doesn't seem to know where to settle.
  5324. > "From the beginning. She never gave in, right until the end."
  5325. > Swallowing hard, Anonymous stands again.
  5326. > "Would you like to get down from there now, Cadance?"
  5327. > Nose stuffed from your running tears, you have to swallow hard before answering:
  5328. "Yes. Please."
  5329. > And so he does:
  5330. > Carefully you are lowered to the floor - exhausted legs folding beneath you.
  5331. > Body returning to something a normal position, lungs finally able to draw air freely, the binding around your wings removed.
  5332. > "Can you walk, Cadance?"
  5333. > No.
  5334. > Not yet.
  5335. > After a few hopeless attempts, you simply fall back to the floor; on the next try you're halted by Anonymous' hand pressing softly on your back.
  5336. > "Wait here."
  5337. > What follows next is a blur that you struggle to remember in retrospect.
  5338. > You remember movement, being carried on something, a blanket draped over you.
  5339. > But the next solid moment is defined by softness.
  5340. > Placing yourself takes a moment, but familiar memories provide the link:
  5341. > His bed.
  5342. > You were resting in Anonymous' bed, in his room.
  5343. > How had you climbed the stairs?
  5344. > It didn't seem likely.
  5345. > Who else had seen you coming in?
  5346. > Was there going to be a riot?
  5347. > Would they-
  5348. > "Cadance."
  5349. > Anonymous' hand brushes your cheek.
  5350. > "Are you back with me again?"
  5351. "...yes. I think. I'm here now."
  5352. > He was beside you, sprawled out on the bed - his expression now fully turned to concern.
  5353. > Trying to right yourself, you belatedly realize two things:
  5354. > First, your joints still ached and muscles were still weak; second, your forehooves are still shackled together.
  5355. > A quick test proves it is the same with your hindlegs.
  5356. > So to was the collar still weighing on your throat, and the bridle's tight straps digging in to your head.
  5357. "Why-"
  5358. > "Because we're not out of the woods just yet. You just pushed yourself - and me - to do something extraordinarily stupid. Before I let you go again we're going to talk. At the very least."
  5359. > Eyes falling, you nod.
  5360. > You suppose it was to much to hope for that he would just let that go.
  5361. > "You don't have to tell me everything this second. If you want to rest, that's fine. But I do have to know."
  5362. "I..."
  5363. > Swallowing again, you find an unexpected bitter laugh bubbling up from your throat.
  5364. "I don't suppose you have any alcohol I could drink."
  5365. > "No, I'd rather not be making a habit of that. There is water, though."
  5366. "Please."
  5367. > He rises, returning with glass brimming with water so cold and refreshing you almost choke downing it.
  5368. > For a moment you meditate on the irony of him serving you, before turning back to the topic at hand.
  5369. "I'm... nobody's friend here, Anonymous. Not really. Mayor Mare, Thunderlane, maybe. But not enough. I have nopony to talk to; I'm never a pony, just a princess, a tyrant, a savior, a slave-"
  5370. > He stiffens, looking away, and you realize your mistake.
  5371. > Anonymous had thought you closer - probably on account of that night after the party.
  5372. > ...then there's only one way to fix your mistake, isn't there?
  5373. "I... when I thought of you as my enemy, my captor, everything was easy. I knew how to fight you. I knew how to rally ponies together, to stand up for what's right. Now, I - I just don't know. I can't understand how it came to ponies being my enemies..."
  5374. > "So you tried to put it back to when we were just... enemies. Because then if I overruled you, at least you weren't to blame yourself."
  5375. "Ye-no! No, I don't want us to be enemies!"
  5376. > Or do you?
  5377. > Right now, your mind is still a confusing mess of emotions and ideas.
  5378. > "Good. Because frankly, not only do I not want to go back to that, but the things I regret the most? Corona? That happened when we were enemies."
  5379. "But ponies are still being hurt now."
  5380. > "By their choice. Not yours, or mine. And don't you dare say your Aunt could have stopped it; that's not relevant."
  5381. "I wasn't going to."
  5382. > "Good."
  5383. > Lifting your head, you study him again.
  5384. > Now it is Anonymous' turn to look away, staring out the window towards the camp.
  5385. > "You said you were broken."
  5386. "Yes. I am. What kind of pony would welcome torture? What kind of Princess of Love wants to go back to hating? I am broken."
  5387. > Your chin falls to the bedding, heedless of the way the collar's metal pressed into your throat.
  5388. > "Well. First of all, I'd disagree with a lot of that. Not only are you still kicking, but really-"
  5389. > Abruptly his arm slips around your neck, pulling your head up and in to his chest:
  5390. > "-second of all, you're not the only one who's changing. Do you think, months ago, I'd have put up with the kind of talk you gave at the museum? That I would have hesitated for a second to take a whip to you? Or stopped when you cried out?"
  5391. > Your nostrils flare, drawing in his scent as you mediate on that.
  5392. > The answer, of course, is obvious.
  5393. "No."
  5394. > "Then if you're 'broken', maybe you aren't the only one. Maybe you're still doing that whole 'spread love and friendship' thing, and you don't even realize it."
  5395. "Maybe..."
  5396. > You whisper, blowing a heavy breath out, and nestling in your head against his shirt.
  5397. > In response his hand trails down your neck and down to your back, stroking over muscles strained and tense from your experience in the cell.
  5398. > Even now, though, a growing whisper in your head was giving you no rest.
  5399. > 'Traitor', it says, 'taking comfort with the enemy. Finding solace with a slaver.'
  5400. > 'He tortured you; how can you be comfortable here?'
  5401. > All the strength is gone from your limbs, though, and with hooves shackled you couldn't remove yourself if you wanted.
  5402. > Or maybe that is just an excuse.
  5403. > Maybe you're just glad to have someone to vent all your misery, all your true helplessness to.
  5404. > Even if he is a slaver.
  5405. > "Cadance?"
  5406. "Yes?"
  5407. > "You said you could explain why you demanded going through with that."
  5408. "I did."
  5409. > "Wait here."
  5410. > The door shuts after him, leaving you alone with your thoughts.
  5411. > Had you 'broken' Anonymous too?
  5412. > Certainly he was less prone to cruelty than when you'd arrived.
  5413. > More willing to work with you.
  5414. > But this was the same man who had sent Autumn and Comet to their fates with a hot brand each.
  5415. > Nothing about that could be described as remotely good.
  5416. > So was he really-
  5417. > "Momma?"
  5418. > Your heart misses a beat.
  5419. > Anonymous had returned, with Flurry Heart riding comfortably in his arms.
  5420. > No.
  5421. > Not her.
  5422. > Anypony but her.
  5423. > Curling your hooves beneath the bedding - at least they, and the chains they bore, were still hidden from her eyes.
  5424. > You'd once heard it said that if it can't be explained to a foal you don't understand it yourself - but how could you explain this to your own daughter?
  5425. [Choice]
  5426. "I..."
  5427. > Your tongue seems leaden, throat swollen shut again.
  5428. > How could you tell her?
  5429. > How could you expose her to this misery?
  5430. > Flurry Heart's future was supposed to be one of warmth, kindness, safety, and shelter for all ponies around her.
  5431. > Not a harsh existence of regrets for those she could not save.
  5432. > Moaning softly, you squeeze your eyes shut and flick your ears down and back - ignoring another panicked call from your daughter.
  5433. > "Momma?!"
  5434. > Anonymous had said he wanted her to lead another camp eventually.
  5435. > Would she face the same horrors you were?
  5436. > Again your stomach contorts.
  5437. > Even if he waited for her to be grown, a young pony should not have that kind of weight on her back!
  5438. > "Momma! What's wrong?!"
  5439. > For the briefest moment your eyes flick open - just long enough to see them both looking at you, eyes wide and concerned.
  5440. > A brief burst of anger sweeps through you:
  5441. > Anger at Anonymous for bringing your daughter into this.
  5442. > How dare he?
  5443. > What demanded that he destroy a filly's innocence, her belief in her mother?
  5444. > He had done this once before - told her you had been a bad pony.
  5445. > Preyed on her wholehearted belief that what her Master told her was the absolute, uncorruptible truth.
  5446. > And on your visceral need for your daughter's approval.
  5447. > Or was this anger at your own inability to admit that you could not explain this?
  5448. > That you were blindly flailing in the dark, seeking some way to lead your ponies that did not involve subjecting them to punishments?
  5449. "Flurry, I..."
  5450. > Suddenly she is there on the bed, right in front of you, rearing up on her hind legs with a few beats of her broad wings to reach for your neck.
  5451. > Little hooves slip around your neck and a muzzle buries itself against your shoulders, just below where the collar encircles your throat.
  5452. > You want to hug her, but even if your hooves were not shackled together you doubt there is enough strength left in your legs to do so.
  5453. > Instead what comes out is veritable tsunami of words:
  5454. "Oh, Flurry Heart - I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry. I never meant to leave you - oh, Harmony forgive me, I never meant it! I didn't want to-"
  5455. > Bending even further up, Flurry Heart brushes her nose against your jaw.
  5456. > "Were you a bad pony, Momma?"
  5457. > Again your heart flips and stomach wrenches at the sheer sadness in her voice.
  5458. "Yes."
  5459. > Whispering softly, you droop your head - letting Flurry Heart continue nuzzling into your cheek.
  5460. "I left you out there, in the cold without me, let you be captured and taken and I should have been there to stop them-"
  5461. > All your tears had been spent, but somehow you a fresh sob finds its way up from your throat.
  5462. "-and now, now I tried to go back to fighting Anonymous because I just wanted things to be so easy for me again, even if other ponies were getting hurt. And I know it was wrong, I know I shouldn't have, but I wanted him to hurt me so badly just so I could be angry at him again, and-"
  5463. > Clamping her legs around your neck again, your daughter whimpers:
  5464. > "Please don't be a bad pony, Momma. Please don't hate Master. I don't want him to go away."
  5465. "But I left you! I let you be taken by them, let you be left to rot and starve and if I had been there-"
  5466. > For just a second, she seems to hesitate.
  5467. > Then her answer comes:
  5468. > "But I'm here now. You're here now. I'm not hungry, and I'm not alone. And Anonymous doesn't hurt me. He even-"
  5469. > She shoots a questioning look at your owner, who nods an affirmative.
  5470. > Leaning in, Flurry drops her voice to an almost conspiratorial whisper:
  5471. > "-he even spanked Mistress Megan for being mean to the other ponies!"
  5472. > Despite the fierce pain you still feel, a little laugh manages its way to your lips.
  5473. "Truly?"
  5474. > "Uh-huh. Right in front of Thunderlane too! So Momma - please don't make him hurt you too. Please?"
  5475. > Damn Anonymous.
  5476. > Damn him to Tartarus for all eternity!
  5477. > How dare he use your daughter against you like this?
  5478. > But you cannot deny the reality of what you feel.
  5479. > Lifting your head, you please a soft kiss on Flurry Heart's muzzle.
  5480. "I won't be a bad pony, Little Gem. I promise, I won't."
  5481. > After a moment Anonymous' hand touches your shoulder.
  5482. > "Do you want to wash up, Cadance?"
  5483. "Yes, I... I think I'd like that very much."
  5484. > "Here. Show me your hooves?"
  5485. > You do, and he separates the shackles to hold a shortly length of hobbling chain between both fore and hind hooves.
  5486. > Enough to awkwardly shuffle with, if not truly walk freely.
  5487. > "Do I need to go with you?"
  5488. "No, I think I will manage on my own."
  5489. > The limiter on your horn, at least, had been removed; with hooves shackled your magic would still allow you to shower.
  5490. > Even the collar and bridle were... manageable.
  5491. > Being forced to limp about in chains was humiliating enough; you were not going to allow him to wash you like a foal!
  5492. > As a bonus, washing up gave you a few minutes alone to collect your thoughts.
  5493. > Scorching water cascades off your back, easing out knots in muscles driven in by your torturous experience.
  5494. > Your eyes close again, submerging your head in the cleansing flow.
  5495. > In retrospect, of course, it seems the ravings of a madmare.
  5496. > How could you have ever wanted to go back?
  5497. > The allure of simpler times hid a poisonous bite.
  5498. > No.
  5499. > You had to forge ahead.
  5500. > Somehow.
  5501. > Again you cast a silent wish that Shining Armor was here.
  5502. > While your destiny might be to spread love, his relentless drive and sense of justice balanced you perfectly.
  5503. > But he was gone - another casualty of slavery.
  5504. > You must face this alone-
  5505. > Lost in your thoughts, you suddenly find yourself tumbling - a clatter of hooves against porcelain tile as you slip on the slick floor.
  5506. > Instinctively you try and reach out and steady yourself on spread hooves, only for the hobbling chains to catch and still-weak muscles to fail you, bringing you the rest of the way to the floor in an ungainly sprawl.
  5507. > Stupid filly; what were you doing?!
  5508. > This is no time to be losing track of your own-
  5509. > "Cadance? Is everything okay?"
  5510. > Your cheeks heat, tail clamping down over your haunches.
  5511. > Now it was a debasing, ungainly sprawl as Anonymous peered in with a worried expression.
  5512. "Yes, I'll be fine. I just - just need to -"
  5513. > Damn these chains!
  5514. > Before you can get yourself upright, he is already at the edge of the shower area - reaching in to grab the head from its mount and bring it down to your level.
  5515. > "No, just stay there Cadance."
  5516. "You'll get wet!"
  5517. > "A little. I'll manage."
  5518. > Anonymous' tone suggests there is going to be no argument about this, and part of you wonders if that had been his plan all along.
  5519. > Kneeling beside you, he pauses just long enough to roll up his sleeves before going to work.
  5520. > As the first layers of soap are worked into your coat, you wonder how long it had been since someone had last done this.
  5521. > Certainly some of your past owners had staff responsible for bathing you.
  5522. > But their work had always been distant somehow, even when they primped and preened you as a polished trophy.
  5523. > Professional.
  5524. > Whatever his reasons Anonymous was now putting actual, real effort into this - fingers digging deep into your coat, working their way along your bands of muscle as he continues to soap you up.
  5525. > He was... forceful, but not harsh.
  5526. > Not rough.
  5527. > And to your eternal shame you can't help but find yourself enjoying the treatment some.
  5528. > Your wings unfold, drooping lazily out to either side - something he takes immediate advantage of, working in a touch of soap along the muscled limbs that support the spans of feathers.
  5529. > Shackles, collar, and bridle are all deftly worked around too, fingers digging beneath to send a small shiver down your spine.
  5530. > That truly did feel good, and-
  5531. > "Roll on your side? I need to get at your underside."
  5532. > Oh.
  5533. > Right.
  5534. > Old shame reasserts itself as you carefully tuck your tail in between your haunches, preserving your modesty while he works.
  5535. > Not that it helps much.
  5536. > There is still something profoundly vulnerable, something intimate, in rolling over to expose your belly to him.
  5537. > As if you needed a reminder that you were ultimately his property and subject to his orders.
  5538. > Was this somehow his revenge for your slip of the tongue earlier - reminding him that he was ultimately still your master, not a friend?
  5539. > Or somehow how he hoped to show affection?
  5540. > Sometimes he truly was an enigma to you.
  5541. > "Okay, stand up again? I'm going to rinse you off now."
  5542. "One moment."
  5543. > More carefully this time, you stand - careful not to overstress your weakened muscles again.
  5544. > Taking the showerhead again Anonymous sets it to a heavier spray setting and begins rinsing out all the soap he'd worked in, and you once again close your eyes and simply enjoy the impact of water against your coat.
  5545. > It was like a massage in its own way, and simply being able to stand there and enjoy...
  5546. > This was a luxury you had not had in a long time.
  5547. > As the soap runs out it almost seems to leave your coat feeling lighter, dried sweat from your... experience in the cell earlier washing away.
  5548. > Cathartic, almost.
  5549. > The last remnants of your mistake going down the drain.
  5550. > And-
  5551. > Reality comes crashing back as the spray goes up under your tail, sending a jolt of entirely different sensations through your body.
  5552. > He had not asked to do that!
  5553. > Wings snap out for entirely different reasos as you jolt upright with a small gasp, but the moment is already passed.
  5554. > What is not passed is the sharp heating of your cheeks.
  5555. > Relaxed as you were, your tail must have come untucked and Anonymous took the moment to... wash off there.
  5556. > You don't think he saw anything, and the brief touch of water had been perfunctory and brief.
  5557. > But still...
  5558. > Head drooping, you hide your still-flushed cheeks in the cascading fall of your mane while he finishes up.
  5559. > "All done. Do you need help drying off?"
  5560. "No. I will manage."
  5561. > This time you put as much effort as you can into the statement.
  5562. > Just in case he had any ideas; you needed some time alone to let that unwanted moment pass.
  5563. > "Alright. I'll be waiting outside."
  5564. > As soon as he is gone, you quickly dry yourself with one of Anonymous' towels.
  5565. > Relishing the almost cloudlike softness - you were so lucky to receive them once they were worn and thin.
  5566. > Most of the camp's linens were far cheaper cloths.
  5567. > The second you step from the bathroom, you stop still at the scene before you.
  5568. > Anonymous had Flurry Heart stretched across his lap, a brush in his hand.
  5569. > Wings unfolded in twin sprawling fans - a sign of utter relaxation - Flurry barely raises her head as you enter.
  5570. > Too delighted by the way Anonymous has been regularly drawing a brush through her mane and coat.
  5571. > Sighing gently, you take the brush in your magic.
  5572. "You can't brush her mane straight; it won't ever stay that way. You have to curl it."
  5573. > "Show me?"
  5574. > Carefully clambering up onto the bed, you settle prone onto your belly and stretch out your forelegs.
  5575. "Flurry? Come here, Little Gem?"
  5576. > Sparing a nervous glance at the shackles, Flurry settles across your slender legs.
  5577. > Soon she lulled back to a state of utter relaxation by the repeated passes of your brush.
  5578. > Unbidden, an old lullaby you'd once sung to her amid gleaming, crystalline halls comes to your lips.
  5579. > At first as only a soft hum, but then more as some lyrics begin to return.
  5580. > A warmth begins to flood your heart, but also a pain.
  5581. > The last time this had been sung, there had been another at your side too.
  5582. > You can almost feel Shining's presence there with you.
  5583. > Hear his soft if occasionally off-tune singing, feel his warmth beside you, smell his scent - the strong tones of a stallion, but also the slightest hint of oil and steel.
  5584. > Even so, the song only falters once:
  5585. > When Anonymous begins to brush your own mane.
  5586. > Only a momentary pause though, and soon you resume - your own eyelids growing heavy as the brushing sends fresh, tingling sensations through your scalp.
  5587. > At a certain point you realize you have begun to run on instinct alone:
  5588. > Humming wordlesssly as you brushed your daughter long after she had fallen asleep, as Anonymous had kept doing the same to you.
  5589. > Setting the brush down, you gather your daughter in against your chest and lower your head to rest across her back, nickering gently at the soft touch.
  5590. > "If all of you out there are done eavesdropping-"
  5591. > Anonymous' tone is laden with amusement.
  5592. > "-perhaps it's time to get back to work?"
  5593. > For a second you are confused, until a sudden fading of scampering hooves is heard outside the door.
  5594. > Instantly you rear back up, flushing hard.
  5595. "They - they heard me-"
  5596. > "Oh, don't worry. You sing well."
  5597. > Still flushing, you scrunch furiously but it's an empty gesture.
  5598. "Apparently I am also a fantastic actor, if none of them saw how close I came to madness..."
  5599. > "You are. After all, you fooled me too right up until I decided to get directly involved with everything. Though, I hope you see now -"
  5600. > Reaching forward, he places a hand on Flurry's side as well.
  5601. > "-you aren't failing."
  5602. "If you do actually want me to hate you, using my own daughter against me is a very good start."
  5603. > He responds with a cocked, questioning eyebrow and you sigh heavily.
  5604. "But your point is made. I was... a foalish pony."
  5605. > "Extremely."
  5606. > Another pause, and then:
  5607. > "Cadance... don't ever do that to me again. Remember that when it comes to a lot of this, you are my guide. If you fail, I'm left flailing about blindly... and I don't always make the best choices. I know how to plan, how to manage, and how to enforce. I'm still learning how to lead."
  5608. > Then what right, you wonder, does he have to hold you as his chattel?
  5609. > But those words remain safely behind your lips, unsaid.
  5610. > Instead, you change the topic:
  5611. > Glancing down at the filly still asleep in your hooves, you sigh softly.
  5612. "I suppose she will have to go back soon..."
  5613. > "For today, yes. But there'll be more chances later on, and..."
  5614. > Pausing to consider, Anonymous suddenly nods decisively.
  5615. > "Another night, she - and Megan - can stay up here as well."
  5616. "I..."
  5617. > You glance back at your hooves - weighing the desire of seeing your daughter for longer against the cost of yet another seeing you in chains, collar, and bridle.
  5618. > In the end, though, it is really no contest.
  5619. "I would like that very much, if she could."
  5620. > "I'll arrange it."
  5621. > Nickering and brushing her back with the tip of your muzzle one last time, you lift Flurry up to Anonymous.
  5622. > He vanishes through the doors with her, but returns before too long.
  5623. > In that time, though, you've come to another decision.
  5624. "I can't go back out right now. Not just because of this-"
  5625. > You raise a hoof to indicate the shackle still locked around it, and by extension the bridle and collar.
  5626. "-but I'm too weak right now."
  5627. > "I know. You'll stay the night."
  5628. "Thank y-"
  5629. > "Longer than a night, actually. Cadance, I'm taking you off leadership duty for a while."
  5630. "What?! You can't take me away from them-"
  5631. > "I can and I will, Cadance. If I send you right back out there, you'll be liable to crack again. And like I just said, I can't have that."
  5632. "Then who will lead them?"
  5633. > "You said it yourself - things are more stable at the moment; Mayor Mare can manage some, and I will learn as well. I might even consult you, but you need time without stress."
  5634. "No convincing you otherwise, I sense."
  5635. > "Cadance, I will shackle you to the God-damn bed if that's what it takes to keep you from burning yourself out."
  5636. > Your muzzle wrinkles again.
  5637. "...let us avoid that, please."
  5638. > "Agreed. Besides, Flurry needs flying lessons once your strength returns and there are other matters at hand..."
  5639.  
  5640. > Finding Bon Bon is harder than you'd thought it would be.
  5641. > The mare is not in the barracks she had been assigned.
  5642. > On a hunch, you check the separate barracks Lyra had been assigned to and find them similarly empty.
  5643. > Questioning the overseers for both their assigned workplaces finally reveals a lead.
  5644. > Hence it is you who is laying in wait this time, curled amid reams of deflated pillows waiting for cloudstuffing.
  5645. > Just like she had done so many times you hold off until the door opens and Bon Bon slips into the back room before saying anything.
  5646. > Unfortunately, Bon Bon's senses are somewhat more tuned than yours.
  5647. > She goes stock-still the second she steps in, nostrils flaring.
  5648. > Oh well; you roll from the stack of fabric and land on your hooves, strutting towards her.
  5649. "So, this is what it feels like. Y'know, when you'd always surprise me by sneaking into my quarters or something."
  5650. > "Thunderlane."
  5651. > Her greeting is more of a growl than anything else.
  5652. "Hello, Bon Bon."
  5653. > "What do you want, Thunderlane? You going to drag us off for being back here together? You'll have to find a new reason; our time is up. We can see each other again."
  5654. "I know. I was part of that same business, remember?"
  5655. > "Yeah, but you weren't told you can't see-"
  5656. > Huffing softly, Bon Bon lashes her tail.
  5657. > "Nevermind. Can we have a few moments to ourselves, or does Anonymous need another scapegoat for something?"
  5658. > "Bonnie? What's wrong?"
  5659. > ...ah.
  5660. > Your next question is answered prematurely as a second head pushes through the doorway just behind her; Lyra immediately lays widening eyes on you, her mouth forming an 'O'.
  5661. "Hey, Lyra."
  5662. > "Hey, Thunderlane."
  5663. > A second later, more awkwardly:
  5664. > "How's Rumble?"
  5665. "Bro's doing alright. He, uh... he's been feeling it a bit hard ever since Mocha Cream was... y'know."
  5666. > "Yeah... tell him, I, uh... I'm sorry that all happened. It wasn't right."
  5667. > Good to know Lyra's head is screwed on straight then.
  5668. "I will."
  5669. > Another awkward pause, during which Bon Bon continues glaring daggers at you and which Lyra breaks by scuffing a hoof nervously on the floor and lowering her voice to a tiny whisper.
  5670. > "Um... I think - I think I should just go."
  5671. "It's alright Lyra. I just wanted to talk; this won't take too long and I'll leave you be after that."
  5672. > "Yeah, let me just kick this colt's flank-"
  5673. > "No, really. I'll, uh - I'll see you later Bonnie!"
  5674. > With a burst of white-and-teal tail and the fading of hoofbeats, she is gone - leaving you alone with her Earth Pony friend.
  5675. > "Lyra, wai-"
  5676. > Whirling back around, Bon Bon jabs a hoof in your direction - ears pinned all the way back and tail lashing furiously.
  5677. > "Now look at what you did! Four months, Thunderlane! Four months we were kept from seeing each other. Now we're finally back together, and you can't even give us a little time to be back together-"
  5678. "I didn't actually say anything! I wanted her to stay! Besides, the way you sneak around I bet you've been seeing her anyway."
  5679. > "Yeah, well-"
  5680. > Face cycling through multiple expressions, Bon Bon eventually settles on a narrow-eyed grimace.
  5681. > It's more than enough answer for you.
  5682. > "Whatever. Talk fast, Thunderlane."
  5683. > Getting straight to the point?
  5684. > You can do that.
  5685. "Why'd you push Cadance to go throw herself at Anonymous' feet? Do you have any idea of what you've done?"
  5686. > Bon Bon snorts angrily.
  5687. > "You staked me out to ask about that?"
  5688. "Yes! I didn't want to make a scene about it."
  5689. > "...fine. I don't like that she's been holding herself - and you - up as something special for us. Dealing with Autumn, Comet, Windy Winters, and Chrysocolla should have been our job, not yours."
  5690. "That-?!"
  5691. > "Yes, that! Thunderlane, I know you mean well but ultimately you're working for Anonymous. Ponies get turned over to him, they're sold off to die. Now, we wouldn't have been easy on them either - but I don't like that. Not one bit."
  5692. "That wasn't exactly part of her plan, you know!"
  5693. > Dropping to her haunches, Bon Bon nods.
  5694. > "I guessed. But in the end, you - and Cadance - are working for a slaver, and she's trying to make you all something... normal. Get ponies to accept what you're doing. So she comes to me talking about how she'd actually screwed up and imperiled all of us, wondering if it would rile everypony up if she took a hefty punishment for it..."
  5695. "You told her that she should take a punishment just like she'd been issuing out."
  5696. > Another sharp roll of Bon Bon's eyes.
  5697. > "I told her that she could either be one of us - and take the same punishment she gave us - or she could be the princess above us and take on the heavier load that comes with. She made her choice."
  5698. > Groaning, you raise a hoof to rub at your forehead.
  5699. "She's not trying to hold herself over us, Bon Bon! And she is still our princess, even if she doesn't wear a crown!"
  5700. > "Not when she's working for Anonymous, she isn't. And neither are you protecting us when you do his work either!"
  5701. "Oh, so I just should've let your mob chase down those ponies instead?"
  5702. > "Well maybe if you had, Chrysocolla wouldn't be dea-"
  5703. > To her credit, Bon Bon manages to bite her tongue and cut the words off before they can finish.
  5704. > Wings snapping out with a puff of air, you still rise up - ready to spit a furious comeback.
  5705. > Only to hesitate when she stares shamefully at the floor.
  5706. > "I'm sorry, Thunderlane. That wasn't right."
  5707. > Biting your own tongue you manage to force your wings down, then drop to a seated position.
  5708. "...fine."
  5709. > Instead of going on with the argument, Bon Bon rises to approach you - lifting a hoof to rest on your side.
  5710. > "I mean it, Thunderlane. I didn't mean to..."
  5711. "No, you did. You and everyone else who's been asking me."
  5712. > Barking a short, bitter laugh you shake your head.
  5713. "And maybe you're right. If you'd gone after her, Chrysocolla wouldn't have been as afraid. But everyone forgets, every time they ask me I ask myself the same thing ten times more."
  5714. > Nickering gently, Bon Bon brushes her muzzle against your shoulder.
  5715. > "I'm sorry. I don't hate you, Thunderlane. Or Cadance."
  5716. "Kinda figured I'd be getting a hoof in the snout instead of an explanation if you did."
  5717. > "Yeah. I just - I want everypony to remember what he's doing to us. He's making all of this... normal to us. Turning ponies over to be branded and sold away. That's not right. Tartarus - I want her back the way I knew her. When she always stood up for us."
  5718. > Turning, you brush your own muzzle against Bon Bon's shoulder.
  5719. > Perhaps unsurprisingly, she smells like candy.
  5720. > "I thought this might remind Cadance a bit of where she actually stands. And I knew Anonymous wouldn't hurt her. Not like he did to Corona. He relies on her to much."
  5721. "That's - cold."
  5722. > Bon Bon draws back from you with a shake of her head.
  5723. > "We're living in a cold place now, Thunderlane. She is the one who gave Crescent Moon a whipping."
  5724. "I take it you were pushing Crescent to tell Cadance the same?"
  5725. > "No, Crescent had her mind pretty much made up on her own."
  5726. "Good. She's a filly, and eager to have someone to follow. No offense, Bon Bon, but being lead on by someone looking to kick back at Anonymous already hurt her once."
  5727. > "I know. I said I didn't push her infto anything."
  5728. "No, but you didn't exactly talk her down either?"
  5729. > "Am I supposed to be your advocate, Thunderlane?"
  5730. > Bon Bon shrugs.
  5731. > "Cadance came to us, asked our opinions, and if we would back up her decision in public. I answered as I would."
  5732. > She's at least partially right.
  5733. > You should be angry with Cadance for asking the opinion of ponies who were sure to back her up.
  5734. > But at the same time...
  5735. "You really don't understand what you've done, Bon Bon. Cadance hasn't come back."
  5736. > "What?!"
  5737. > Eyes wide, she rears up onto three hooves.
  5738. "I don't know what he did to her, but she's going to be 'off duty' for a few days at least. Maybe up to a week. The announcement's going out tomorrow."
  5739. > Slumping back down, Bon Bon shakes her head nervously.
  5740. > "No - no, I didn't mean to..."
  5741. "Well, you did. I agree with you, I don't think he'll really injure her. But in the future I suggest you really consider the implications of your choices before making them."
  5742. > Bon Bon nods, but keeps her eyes firmly on the floor.
  5743. "Now, you want to make up for this? Gather up all your friends and make sure they don't do anything stupid in because of this announcement. If you're so certain Cadance won't be hurt, make sure they're certain too."
  5744. > "Yes... Okay, yes! I can do that."
  5745. "Good."
  5746. > This time it is your turn to reach out and place a hoof to her shoulder.
  5747. "I don't hate you either, Bon Bon. But I'm pretty pissed you encouraged Cadance to go beg herself to be tortured."
  5748. > "Mmmm."
  5749. > Scuffing at the floor with a hoof, the mare looks away again.
  5750. > "I... still think she deserved something. Can't be responsible without a higher cost too. She took a whipping and stayed apart from her filly after the escape, you remember?"
  5751. > Before you can answer, she keeps going:
  5752. > "But - I get what you mean. So I'll make sure nopony does anything more stupid. We can do that."
  5753. "Thank you."
  5754. > ...
  5755. > You finish your dinner quickly that night, so that you can slip from the mess hall quickly and be waiting by the door when Vapor Trail emerges.
  5756. > Quickly spotting you, she extends an ivory wing to wave enthusiastically:
  5757. > "Thunderlane! Hey!"
  5758. "Hey, Vapor."
  5759. > Approaching, you nuzzle her gently the mare and softly blow from your nostrils as she meets you nose to nose.
  5760. > "Long day?"
  5761. "Not the best, but... I think I did as much as I can."
  5762. > "Hmm."
  5763. > Brushing her nose up along your cheek, Vapor nibbles gently at your ear.
  5764. "Hey! Quit that; it tickles."
  5765. > Swatting her playfully with a wing, you dismiss a rather lewd catcall from a distance with a roll of your eyes.
  5766. "You want to come back to my quarters for a bit?"
  5767. > "I'd love that, Thunderlane."
  5768. > Side by side you walk, flanks pressed together and a wing extending over her withers.
  5769. > The days had been steadily growing warmer, but the nights still held a stark chill - Spring irregularly making itself known rather than a timely arrival following a well-planned Winter Wrap-Up.
  5770. > Your breath steams into the night air, the only accompaniment to an otherwise silent walk.
  5771. > Vapor is the first to break it:
  5772. > "So, Thunder... how is - well, everything? The camp?"
  5773. "It's... better, I think. Even with Cadance being... away. I don't think Anonymous is really going to do anything to her."
  5774. > Thank you, Bon Bon, for that idea.
  5775. > "Really? Why not?"
  5776. "They're closer than it can seem. He relies on her, and Flurry Heart too."
  5777. > "If you say so..."
  5778. "I do. And aside from that, there really isn't anything else going wrong. All that's happened, with... it's kind of woken everypony up. Like, the museum. It showed us we can have some part of our life back."
  5779. > "Without fighting."
  5780. "Without fighting. Have you seen the museum?"
  5781. > "Yes. It doesn't change we're still slaves, still their 'property'... but it's nice."
  5782. "Yeah."
  5783. > Arriving at your quarters you unlock the door and slip in, quickly shutting it against the sharpening chill.
  5784. "Well - welcome to my humble castle, Lady Trail."
  5785. > Vapor snickers softly, immediately heading to leap up onto the bed without hesitation.
  5786. > "Quit it. Keep talking like that, you're going to sound like some prissy unicorn."
  5787. > Unable to keep the grin from your own lips, you wander on over to the bed as well.
  5788. "Plus, it's not much of a palace. Actually-"
  5789. > You look around the single room, taking in the bare bulb on the ceiling, the cracked walls, the barebones unpainted furniture and creaking bed...
  5790. "-just about the farthest thing from."
  5791. > "Oh, shush."
  5792. > Leaning over, Vapor plants a soft kiss on your cheek.
  5793. > "Long as you're here to help keep me up, this could be the grandest mansion in all of Cloudsdale to me. Now get up here; it's chilly and this blanket only does so much."
  5794. > Partly to hide the deep flush showing even through your black coat and partly because - well, what kind of stallion is going to reject that offer? - you immediately do jump up.
  5795. > Carefully stepping around her, you sink down to your belly just behind Vapor and immediately curl up against her and draw up the blanket.
  5796. > Four legs and a wing work their way around her, pulling the mare in against your belly.
  5797. "There. A little warmer now?"
  5798. > Giggling softly, Vapor rolls her head back to let her nose brush your chin.
  5799. > "Just like you, Thunderlane. Always looking out for another."
  5800. "Says the pony who's kept me going when I was ready to give up and fall."
  5801. > "Yes. We all need someone there for us."
  5802. "But I think you go above and beyond any real-"
  5803. > You would say something more, but there's something pressed against your lips.
  5804. > Vapor Trail.
  5805. > Her head turned just enough to let her lips touch yours.
  5806. "Mmmm-"
  5807. > Relaxing against her, you hold the moment until your lungs burn and heart is pounding.
  5808. > Although there might be other reasons for that thunder in your chest.
  5809. > Smiling, Vapor tucks her head back in against your neck and closes her eyes.
  5810. > "There."
  5811. "What - was that for?"
  5812. > "Because you consistently undervalue yourself and the effort you put in to all of this. You weigh yourself down with everypony else's struggles, never letting anyone else show how much they care about you unless they push the issue. And because-"
  5813. > She hesitates, stirring nervously.
  5814. > Brushing a hoof down her neck, you whisper softly:
  5815. "Vapor?"
  5816. > "-because I do care. About you, I mean."
  5817. "Well-."
  5818. > Turning Vapor's head, you bring your lips so close to hers that you can feel her puffing breath and whisper:
  5819. "I'd should probably get better at showing that, shouldn't I?"
  5820. > What follows is... very nice indeed.
  5821. > How long had it been since you'd kissed a mare?
  5822. > Really had a relationship?
  5823. > After that initial hesitancy, everything begins to come so much more naturally.
  5824. > The touch of her lips to yours.
  5825. > Limbs meshed together.
  5826. > Several minutes later found you rolled on your back, Vapor clambered partially atop you and resting her head on your ribs.
  5827. "Vapor? Thank you."
  5828. > "For what? Kissing you?"
  5829. "For being blunt enough when a thickheaded stallion like me needs someone to show them just how much they're cared about."
  5830. > "Well then let me say-"
  5831. > Clambering a little further up, Vapor plants another firm and lasting kiss directly on your lips.
  5832. > "-you're welcome."
  5833. > You smile - and a moment later realize that when she had climbed up she had also thrown one hindleg over one of yours.
  5834. > Now your stifle was rubbing somewhere a little... intimate.
  5835. > Cheeks going bright red, you look away.
  5836. "Vapor?"
  5837. > "Yeeesss?"
  5838. > She knows.
  5839. > Swallowing hard, you turn back to look her straight in the eye:
  5840. "Are you sure you want this? You don't have to feel... obligated to me or anything because I'm looking after you-"
  5841. > "Thunderlane, do you really think I'd do this for a second if I didn't want to?"
  5842. > Expression turning sober, Vapor Trail shakes her head:
  5843. > "No. I know what I'm offering. And if you don't want to now.. I'll understand. But-"
  5844. > She taps your nose lightly with a sly grin returning to her face.
  5845. > "-you're going to have to choose fast, before this foal makes me all swollen up and gross."
  5846. [Choice]
  5847. "What I want, Vapor, is to see you happy."
  5848. > Another soft kiss, your hoof stroking down along her neck and coming to rest between her wings.
  5849. "And what comes along the way of finding that? Well, I'm certainly not going to object."
  5850. > "Good. Because if you kept teasing me any longer, I think I might have been the one who ended up mounting you!"
  5851. "Oh really? Isn't it the stallion who gets all pent up?"
  5852. > Vapor Trail wriggles her hips, grinding them against your barrel.
  5853. > "Mares have needs too, featherbrain. And right now this foal is doing strange, strange things to me."
  5854. > What happens next is... even more delightful than the kissing had been.
  5855. > Vapor Trail is - eager.
  5856. > Very eager.
  5857. > So are you.
  5858. > So eager, in fact, that you find yourself finishing before you even enter her - the literal feather-light teasing with her wings proving to much and a belated warning going unheard.
  5859. > Perhaps you were a bit more pent up than you'd realized; a hoof or wing only did so much to relieve that.
  5860. > For a moment you fear, cheeks turning red with utter humiliation.
  5861. > But those worries are dashed a second later.
  5862. > Vapor had never been anything but a supportive friend, and rather than be disappointed she distracts you with kisses and further teasing until you are ready to go again.
  5863. > And when you do...
  5864. > She has clearly been going through a bit of a drought as well, as she is every bit as eager as you are.
  5865. > The foal is... noticeable. a weight in her belly that cannot just be ignored.
  5866. > Hardly an impediment to your desire, though.
  5867. > That night lasts a long, long time.
  5868. > A small eternity of two bodies shared in absolute, passionate intimacy.
  5869. > This was something the slavers could never take from you:
  5870. > Not the ability to passionately rut like colt and filly in the throes of a powerful estrus - although there was plenty of that going on.
  5871. > To be together with someone you care for, to let go of all the weight of the world around you.
  5872. > That was an something untouchable.
  5873. > Later, when you lay curled together - utterly spent, softly breathing, sweaty bodies cooling as heat of lovemaking fades and reeking of both your desires - you reflect that this had absolutely been the right choice.
  5874. > Not for the sex, though that of course had been welcome.
  5875. > But for the emotion you'd been deprived of for so long.
  5876. > Leaning over, you place one last soft kiss on the ear of a thoroughly-satiated Vapor Trail.
  5877.  
  5878. > Stepping out onto the open field in before of the camp's main gate, you shrug off your coat and fold it at your side.
  5879. > Today had turned to warmer temperatures, and you'd underestimated how quickly they would rise.
  5880. > Beside you, Rumble stirs nervously - glancing up at you and dancing from hoof to hoof.
  5881. > You'd pulled him temporarily off-duty for this, but the colt was still decidedly nervous about being around you.
  5882. > That was fine.
  5883. > You were quite certain this would be worth it.
  5884. > Gates creek and groan as they are drawn back, allowing the nondescript van to pass in through it.
  5885. > Only once the first, outer gate is shut does the inner gate open.
  5886. > Just in case one of the ponies had thoughts about bolting.
  5887. > "Do I really have to be here for this?"
  5888. > Choosing to ignore his pointed lack of your title, you nod.
  5889. "Sorry to drag you out here, Rumble, but I do think you'll want to see this."
  5890. > Further up, the van pulled around in a semicircle and stopped, its rear to you.
  5891. > The driver quickly hopped out, going to open the back.
  5892. > "What is this? New ponies coming in, or-"
  5893. > "MASTER!"
  5894. > With a delighted shriek, Mocha Cream tumbles from the back of the van.
  5895. > Falling head-over-hooves to the ground, but quickly righting herself and hobbling across the open yard towards you at a shocking speed for a pony with one leg still lifted in a cast.
  5896. > When just a few steps away from you, Mocha attempts a leap up.
  5897. > Unfortunately the missing leg unbalances her and she ends in another tumble - a flying ball of coffee-and-vanilla mane.
  5898. > You'd predicted that though, and preemptively dropped to one knee to catch the filly as she leapt.
  5899. > Plowing into your chest, Mocha locks both her forelegs around you and hugs fiercely.
  5900. > With her head buried into your chest she gives a wordless and keening cry of happiness.
  5901. > Despite the fact that her horn is poking you firmly in the shoulder you're happy to simply squeeze the filly in a hug as well.
  5902. "Welcome home, Mocha Cream."
  5903. > "I-I'm glad to be b-back, Master."
  5904. > Is she crying?
  5905. > A quick check, and yes she is.
  5906. "Shhh..."
  5907. > Stroking your hands through her long mane, you lean over to rest your cheek against the top of Mocha's head.
  5908. "Hey, it's okay. You're back now, Mocha. It's going to be okay."
  5909. > "C-Can we go back i-inside now, Master? I'd like to be home."
  5910. "Of course, but you know I think there's someone else here who'd like to see you first..."
  5911. > Lifting her head from your chest, Mocha Cream looks around until she spots Rumble.
  5912. > The colt peers up with a nervous expression, but it quickly fades a Mocha frees a horehoof - the fetlock still bound up in a brace - to wave enthusiastically at him.
  5913. > "Rumble! Hey!"
  5914. > You give him an affirmative nod, which seems to be all the confirmation Rumble needs to approach.
  5915. > "Hey, Mocha. I missed you."
  5916. > "Missed you too."
  5917. > Extending her neck out, she rubs her nose to his.
  5918. > Both young ponies nuzzle briefly, Rumble's wings shifting in a small expression of happiness.
  5919. > Eventually they break, and you murmur softly:
  5920. "Can you walk on your own, Mocha? Or do you need help?"
  5921. > Flushing, she shakes her head.
  5922. > "Don't let me slow you down, Master! I can walk if I'm careful."
  5923. > Letting Mocha Cream back down with a nod, you stand again.
  5924. "Do you remember the museum, Mocha? While you were... away, it finally got built. The rec hall along with it; your help with the suggestions box really paid off. So I thought you and Rumble and I might want to go and see what your good work created, how everypony is enjoying it-"
  5925. > "NO!"
  5926. > With a shrieked cry she hurls herself back against you - forelegs wrapping around you pants.
  5927. > "No, no. Please. Don't wanna go there, not now-"
  5928. > In a tiny, almost inaudible voice Mocha Cream whimpers:
  5929. > "-not safe there, not safe in the town."
  5930. > Your heart sinks and a piercing pain fills your chest.
  5931. > The staff had warned you, but this...
  5932. "Easy, Mocha. Easy... okay. We don't have to go now. We'll just go back to the house now, is that better?"
  5933. > She lets her iron grip on you subside, though her shaking continues.
  5934. > "I'd like that, thank you Master."
  5935. "Did you still want to come with us, Rumble?"
  5936. > "I-"
  5937. > His eyes dart in the direction of your house; you doubted he had ever been that close to the manor, let alone inside of it.
  5938. "It won't be a problem, really."
  5939. > And, you think, Mocha Cream could probably use another friend around now.
  5940. > "...okay, I'll come with. For, uh, a while anyway."
  5941. > Approaching the house, you catch a glimpse of a few faces in the windows.
  5942. > But you don't realize what is about to happen until you swing the front door open to reveal the entire house staff - ponies and humans - filling the foyer.
  5943. > For a second you expect Mocha to panic, but she simply stares in awe as they begin to cheer and hoof-stomp-clap in the way ponies do.
  5944. > Again her eyes fill with tears as she hobbles through the front door and in among them, smiling wistfully at all the familiar faces.
  5945. > "Th-Thank you all, everyp-everyone. I'm so h-happy to be home again!"
  5946. > You follow in behind her - and Rumble slinks in behind you - as they crowd around the filly, nuzzling and hugging and rubbing her back.
  5947. > He barely has eyes for the reunion going on before him.
  5948. > Instead Rumble's expression is one of sheer awe at (you suspect) the relative luxury of your home.
  5949. > His eyes drift from object to object, taking in the rugs and couches and elaborate lighting.
  5950. > By the time the group breaks apart Mocha has acquired a few flowers in her mane and her cheeks are streaked with tears.
  5951. "Come on. Why don't we go upstairs, and we can talk a little bit."
  5952. > "Um, okay. Let me-"
  5953. > Facing the stairs, Mocha scrunches her muzzle up and considers how to best ascend them.
  5954. > With one bad leg, walking is no hope.
  5955. > Then she tries to sort of hop up the stairs, but collapses flat on her nose two steps up.
  5956. > "Mocha!"
  5957. > Rushing forward, Rumble slips his muzzle beneath her side and helps her up.
  5958. > "No - no, please - I can do this, I can!"
  5959. > Acceding to her demands Rumble backs off, even when Mocha falls face-first into the very next step.
  5960. > The next few she actually manages to make, but her legs are trembling and unsteady.
  5961. > Only a couple steps later she nearly falls all the way down, only halting when you dash forward to catch her.
  5962. > The impact drives breath from your chest, but you hold her steady.
  5963. "No, Mocha. Here. Let me-"
  5964. > It takes a bit of straining - Mocha Cream isn't that far less than full grown - but you manage to slip both arms around her and carry Mocha up the rest of the way.
  5965. > She flushes again, but nestles down against your chest until your arrive at the top.
  5966. > Diverting into your office and library, you select one of the seats and drop into it with a heavy sigh.
  5967. > Mocha - after a bit of shifting - manages to seat herself mostly on her haunches, while Rumble remains standing.
  5968. "...I imagine you'll want to go back to work pretty soon, Mocha."
  5969. > "Um, as s-soon as I can. But the d-doctors, um... they said my magic might be affect by, um, intrac-crani-um..."
  5970. "Intracranial injury?"
  5971. > Rumble cocks his head.
  5972. > "What's that mean?"
  5973. "It means her head was hurt, and she might have a little trouble thinking straight - or using magic - for a little while."
  5974. > Or longer than that, you think.
  5975. > You'd have to have Sunburst look in to that as well; he was most likely to know about ponies' neuro-magical disorders.
  5976. "Well, that's okay; I was going to say there's no need for you to go rushing back to work just yet. It'll be best for you to just wait a little while until you get better. In the meantime... Mocha, did you actually want to see the museum?"
  5977. > "I..."
  5978. > Her voice catches.
  5979. > "But I - I'm s-scared, Master. I know you said you sent them all away but who knows who else might be down there?"
  5980. > Dropping her gaze to the floor, Mocha hangs her head despondently and mumbles.
  5981. > "Don' wanna b-be hurt 'gain, M-Master. Wanna be here with y-you. If it's not an o-order..."
  5982. > Rumble slips his wing over Mocha's trembling withers.
  5983. > "I'm pretty sure Anonymous wouldn't force you to go down there if you don't want to."
  5984. > As if you could order that!
  5985. "No. It is not an order. But if you want, you could go down with Rumble or me, or Cadance - or all of us."
  5986. > "M-Maybe..."
  5987. "We could even have every one else leave for a little while so you feel safe. That can be decided later. In the meantime..."
  5988. > Reaching down into your pocket, you withdraw a scrap of folded paper.
  5989. "This is from Windy Winters. You remember when I asked you about him, right?"
  5990. > Mocha's gaze falls, her mouth opening but no noise coming from it.
  5991. > After a second of being unable to say anything, she just nods.
  5992. "Well, he wrote a letter before he went away with the others else. It's to you; you don't have to read it, but I think he really wanted you to. It was the only way he had to say sorry."
  5993. > Because you certainly weren't going to let him stick around to say it himself.
  5994. > Not after what he'd been part of.
  5995. > Windy Winters may have been honestly sorry for what he did, but he still crippled your Mocha.
  5996. > And as you hold the letter out, it becomes clear just how deep that damage runs:
  5997. > Her magic grabs it, but the paper only makes it about halfway to her before the field flickers and fails.
  5998. > Gasping, Mocha quickly reestablishes grip on it - but if that had been anything heavier than a sheet of paper, it would have been too late.
  5999. "While you read that - and the two of you talk - I'm going to go next door real fast, okay? I'll be right back."
  6000. > Barely do you give them time to answer before fleeing the room, its door slamming shut roughly behind you.
  6001. > A few steps carry you to your bedroom.
  6002. > There you immediately seek the bed, swinging back and driving a hard fist straight into it.
  6003. > A second time, a third, fourth, as a roar of anger grows in your throat-
  6004. > Magic stays your arm.
  6005. > "Anonymous? What's wrong?"
  6006. > Cadance.
  6007. > She still bore the shackles, collar and bridle of her punishment, but stared at you with an expression that carried nothing but worry.
  6008. > Lowering your arm, you slump in place.
  6009. "I was too easy, on them, Cadance."
  6010. > "Who?"
  6011. "Autumn. Comet. Windy. Should've gone through with everything I told them I was going to do."
  6012. > Turning, you seat yourself on the bed and drop your head to rest in your palms.
  6013. "The doctors warned me she was like this. I'd hoped it wasn't as bad as they were making it sound, but... she's terrified, Cadance. Of any pony she doesn't know. They said it took weeks before she was comfortable around the nurses there, and going outside of her room? Forget about it."
  6014. > Cadance gasps softly, and you can only imagine the alicorn's pain at knowing one of 'her ponies' had been cut off from her own kind.
  6015. "On top of that, she has some brain injury. Time will tell if it clears up in time; they sounded optimistic, but with these things it's hard to tell."
  6016. > "Where are they now?"
  6017. "Next door. I left them reading Windy Winters' letter."
  6018. > "Ah... Did you read it first?"
  6019. [Choice]
cadance princess cadance rumble thunderlane mayor mare flurry heart /spg/ pie

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