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Choose Your Own Slaveventure Part 5 (Complete) (CYOA)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 05:22:26 AM

  1. Originally posted April 2018
  2.  
  3. [Choice]
  4. > No.
  5. > You'll keep your word, even if your balance books metaphorically wince at the thought.
  6. > This was more than just a question of your bottom line; this was a matter of building trust with your ponies.
  7. > One thing that you'd always tried to keep straight with them was honesty; they could always rely on you being truthful.
  8. > If they realized you were lying to them about something as important as the chance to rescue their families, there'd be all kinds of hell to pay.
  9. > First and foremost from Cadance.
  10. > And you could hardly afford to play dice with their trust when the protesters were literally at the walls.
  11. > Acquiring the older ponies could even be thought of as a sort of investment-in-propaganda, both for the benefit of those within the camp and those outside.
  12. > Reaffirm Cadance's loyalty to you.
  13. > Hell, even confirm to Mayor Mare that she'd made the right choice, putting her trust in you.
  14. > You would make her proud to have given you her dedication.
  15. "Mayor?"
  16. > "Yes, Master?"
  17. "Arrange room for eight new arrivals, selected by lottery. I'll set up the purchase arrangements through Foremost ELT."
  18. > Her expression broadens into a wide smile, eyes coming alight, and you suspect she had been silently judging you on how this decision would pan out.
  19. > If so, you're glad to see the mare happy.
  20. > "Immediately, Master!"
  21. > ...
  22. > Like the last time you'd taken ponies into the city, you select a handful by lottery and a few for more direct reasons.
  23. > Namely, the ponies who'd been lucky enough to have their choices - their families - selected for purchase.
  24. > At least this time it wasn't so hard to choose; while over a hundred ponies had been acquired on the last trip, this time it was only eight.
  25. > Few enough that you didn't bother arranging delivery, instead just having one of your employees drive another van.
  26. > Unlike the last trip, however, there was no parading around the city with windows rolled down to spook them.
  27. > What they saw was plenty enough.
  28. > The same uncaring society.
  29. > The barrage of ponies being used for every purpose imaginable.
  30. > Just about the only new thing is the circus posters plastered all around town:
  31. > 'The Celestial Circus: An all-equine show to dazzle all ages!'
  32. > Briefly you entertain the bizarre idea that they had somehow managed to find the namesake alicorn, but that would be quite impossible:
  33. > Not even any of your business contacts could turn up hide or hair of that princess.
  34. > Later you pass the tent as well - a garish, colorful, distinctly pony-like thing.
  35. > If you ever decided to give your ponies fifty thousand dollars of paints and decorating supplies, the camp would probably turn up looking something like this the next day.
  36. > Neither did you repeat the 'mistaken early arrival' trick you'd pulled on Bon Bon.
  37. > Ponies did talk, after all.
  38. > It'd be obvious if you kept trying the same thing over and over again.
  39. > This time you were quite clear that you'd brought them in early to share a meal together, and this time that aspect of it went rather more smoothly as well.
  40. > By the time you'd gathered them on the loading docks of Foremost Equine Labor Traders, they were relaxed enough to (mostly) not show too much stress.
  41. > When the new acquisitions come marching out onto the dock, however...
  42. > It's something amazing to see.
  43. > Both groups stop stock-still, ears rotated forward and eyes intent - nostrils flaring as they sniffed the air.
  44. > Finally, one of yours speaks up:
  45. > "F-Father?"
  46. > An older stallion, his muzzle touched with grey and legs turning thin with age, staggers forward against his chain:
  47. > "Maple? Stars above, Maple?! It can't be you; you were darker - your coat, it was so much darker back then-"
  48. > "I... kind of lightened out. When I stopped being a filly."
  49. > "That's im - impossible. Ponies don't - don't just -"
  50. > Approaching nose-to-nose, they touch muzzles and draw breath - eyes half closed.
  51. > And then, as tears begin to flow, they hug:
  52. > Necks wrapping around each other in a uniquely equine embrace, nuzzle each others backs as soft nickers and half-words are mumbled through lips that barely work.
  53. > As if a dam had been broken the rest of your ponies flow forward in a singleminded tide, surging forward to find and meet their long-lost kin.
  54. > The staff don't seem to quite know what to do, but you wave them off trying to interfere.
  55. > Let the ponies have this moment.
  56. > It's enough to move even your hardened heart.
  57. > Besides, you have other matters to attend to as alongside the ponies had come something decidedly different:
  58. > The griffons were only marginally taller or longer than the ponies, but you could see bunches of muscle and tendon beneath their slim coats.
  59. > Each also wore a head-covering hood that left only the beak exposed, plus a harness that straddled their entire body to hobble both wings and legs.
  60. > Despite these measures, the four griffons showed no signs of any rebelliousness:
  61. > Standing near stock-still in a line, chained collar-to-collar, they reminded you of nothing so much as a row of birds on a power line.
  62. > "Anonymous, good to see you again, good to see you!"
  63. > You heard Stedler long before you saw him - his larger-than-life (in more ways than one) persona still quite unchanged.
  64. > Parting the crowd like a runaway boulder, he strides up to shake your hand with considerable enthusiasm.
  65. > "Very sorry I couldn't see you the last time you came in to pick up an order. I hope that wasn't a problem?"
  66. "Not at all. Both your service and your ponies were exemplary; I've had no trouble integrating them."
  67. > "Good, good! Just taking a more modest approach to purchases from now on, then?"
  68. > Mentally you chuckle.
  69. > Of course that was his angle:
  70. > Wondering why there were no more monumental orders coming through.
  71. "For the time being. I'll certainly hope to keep growing my holdings. Speaking of integration, though-"
  72. > You nod to the griffons and their unusual accoutrements.
  73. "-what's with them?"
  74. > "Oh, the binders? They're just for transport. Keeps 'em passive."
  75. "Passive? They wouldn't be otherwise?"
  76. > Stedler shrugs his massive shoulders.
  77. "Griffons can get... a little testy, when being moved into a new environment. Have to keep reminding them where they stand, hence the restraints. Crack a few heads if you need to. Once you do, though - well, they're even more pliable than ponies."
  78. > That explained it.
  79. > There certainly hadn't been anything in these particular griffons' records about... obedience issues.
  80. > If it was something they all went through...
  81. "So, once I... 'crack a few heads', as you put it, I won't have rebellion problems."
  82. > "From them? Hah! No. They're all about pride and dominance; show them who's in charge and you won't find a more loyal bunch."
  83. > Heh.
  84. > Anything part-cat, being prideful.
  85. > What a coincidence.
  86. "I'll keep that in mind."
  87. > Kneeling down in front of the line, you study them carefully.
  88. > Despite being blindfolded, all the griffons quite clearly know you're there - heads rotating to focus on you.
  89. > This close, you can see the little nervous ticks in them as well:
  90. > Some are very much like pegasi - wings shifting beneath the harnesses or tails twitching cat-like.
  91. > Others are more subtle:
  92. > Claw shift and grasp on the concrete floor, leaving little lines of rubbed-off talon in their place.
  93. "Relax, all of you."
  94. > Your hand comes down hard on one's shoulders - out of range of that fearsomely hooked beak.
  95. > Just in case.
  96. "You're going to a good place. You follow the rules, and this'll be alright."
  97. > From the way the griffon shifts, you get the sense he is all too aware of your presence.
  98. > Stedler, however, just laughs - a great, rolling barrel laugh that echoes in the loading dock.
  99. > "You'll have to do a bit more than that, I'm afraid."
  100. "If necessary, I won't be so kind. But I'm not about to just start beating them here just because."
  101. > "Fair, fair."
  102. "Alright!"
  103. > Turning to the ponies, you gesture at the still-waiting vans.
  104. "All of you, pair off with your families and figure out who's riding in which car. I'll need four more spots in mine -"
  105. > You gesture back to the griffons.
  106. "- but other than that, pick as you please."
  107. > "You really do let them do a lot on their own."
  108. "Even the little things, yes. It helps. Trust me."
  109. > "Eh, a bit harder in a place like this... but your point is taken."
  110. > Stedler pauses, apparently having not seen something to his liking, and goes off roaring thunderously in an attempt to correct it.
  111. > You watch him go with a shake of your head - at least until a soft voice behind you speaks up:
  112. > "Mr. Anonymous, sir?"
  113. > Turning, you find a familiar equine face peering up at you.
  114. "Scriptorial, was it?"
  115. > "Yes, Sir. May I ask, is Miss Cadance here this time?"
  116. "I'm afraid not. Were you hoping to see her?"
  117. > Ears sink a touch, but Scriptorial nods firmly.
  118. > "May I have a word with you then, sir?"
  119. "Of course? What is it?"
  120. > "A message to pass on to her. And - for you as well."
  121. "Go ahead."
  122. > "Thank you. For - taking them. The older ponies, I mean. There aren't that many good jobs for them, and I'm always happy to see them go to a good place."
  123. > A wry smile makes it way to your lips.
  124. "You're sure what I have is a good place?"
  125. > "Absolutely. Cadance and I had - a talk the last time she was here."
  126. "Ah. Well, I will pass it on... believe me, the choice was not an easy one. But ultimately, I think this..."
  127. > You turn to look at the groups of ponies climbing into the vans.
  128. "...I think this is right. I really do."
  129. > "Are you going to be taking in more?"
  130. "Potentially. More family members - it's being done by random lotto."
  131. > "I will still look forward to it. Perhaps seeing Cadance again as well."
  132. "Perhaps. Can I ask you something else, Scriptorial? Do you know how accurate what Stedler was telling me about how to deal with the griffons is?"
  133. > "Mostly. He was just very..."
  134. "Blunt?"
  135. > "Blunt. Bombastic. Yes. You don't have to be hard with them all the time, but it is a dominance game."
  136. "Fair enough. Thank you for that."
  137. > When you get back to the camp, Thunderlane and Cadance both were out and about to greet the new arrivals.
  138. > While the other ponies are sent into the camp to settle in, however, when they approach the griffons something fascinating happens:
  139. > A brief look passes between pegasus and alicorn before both stand up as tall as they can, fluffing out their plumage and laying ears back.
  140. > The griffons, freshly freed of their harnesses and hoods, do something similar - hunching down with beaks half open and all eyes focused at the new interlopers.
  141. > Both begin to - there's no real word for it but growl.
  142. > Low, rough, like animals in a fight.
  143. > What follows is an elaborate dance, both groups circling each other warily.
  144. > Half of you is cursing yourself for not bringing a taser, terrified a fight is about to break out.
  145. > The other whispers a little reminder that Cadance had not yet lit her horn - something she had abundantly demonstrated using to restrain a foe before.
  146. > Slowly it becomes clear what the two ponies are doing:
  147. > Ironically, they are 'herding' the griffons like sheepdogs - breaking up their little group to figure out which of the four is most aggressive.
  148. > That one was now singled out and alone; Cadance and Thunderlane circle him with wings outstretched and legs tensed for a leap.
  149. > Until, in an instant, he drops to the ground and rolls his head back to expose his throat.
  150. > Cadance steps forward to touch his neck with her nose, then retreats.
  151. > In an instant the confrontation is over, pony and griffon alike relaxing
  152. > "Mi Amore Cadenza, yes? I did not think any of the alicorns were anywhere but cells."
  153. > "I've been deeply lucky. And, Cadance is fine."
  154. > Retreating to your side, she extends a wing up to you and bows her head.
  155. > "My Master, Anonymous."
  156. > Now you have something of an idea of what was going on here:
  157. > A dominance display, as Stedler had said.
  158. > Cadance had claimed hers, and passed it on to you.
  159. > Even so you keep up your best imperious stance:
  160. "Welcome to my facilities - my town."
  161. > Gesturing to Thunderlane, you add:
  162. "This is Thunderlane, the head of my pony - and now Griffon - security. He'll be your immediate superior; from him, my chief of security Gene and then up to me."
  163. > All the griffons bob their heads simultaneously, in a gesture you assume to be roughly akin to a pony nod or small bow.
  164. "I saw you were already starting to talk with the others on the drive back. That's fine; we operate with a rather more... open environment here than you might be used to. I expect you to be able to work things out on your own. If there are problems, however, I will intervene to deal with problems and set things back in line."
  165. > There.
  166. > If the dominance chain wasn't abundantly clear before, now it should be.
  167. > "And what of M- Cadance, Master?"
  168. > You're about to answer, but pause at the last second:
  169. > He had asked you, not Cadance.
  170. > That reflected their respect for you... but had also bypassed the alicorn's authority.
  171. > Fortunately she is still at your side, and a light tap on her withers spurs her into speaking:
  172. > "I manage the camp in general. Anonymous coordinate on major choices, but many day to day matters - including punishment over less serious mattes - I have primary authority in."
  173. > "...I see. Forgive me."
  174. > Cadance waves a wing dismissively.
  175. "Thunderlane, go get them settled in. Cadance, remain a moment."
  176. > She does, watching as Thunderlane leads them off into the camp.
  177. > There's no sense of tension or expectation of trouble in him; already he speaks easily with the four new arrivals.
  178. "So. What was that back there? Just a dominance show? Prelude to a real fight?"
  179. > "The former. Griffon negotiations are carried out very similarly to griffon squabbles. I... prefer not to do that, but it was something Celestia's staff mentored me in. Just in case, so I could seize control of a situation."
  180. "Well, you did fine seizing control of this. But I can tell something's upsetting you; what is it?"
  181. > "I cannot approve of this, Anonymous."
  182. "...what, don't think predators can get along with ponies?"
  183. > "No. In fact, I think once they settle in they will be fine there... but buying anyp - anyone to be a guard?"
  184. > Rounding on you, Cadance scowls.
  185. > "I asked Thunderlane to start the pony guard team because I knew he cared. I knew he would never abuse his power. But bringing someone in just specifically to give them that authority..."
  186. "If you're worried about abuse, I won't hesitate to put them in their place."
  187. > She shudders sharply.
  188. > "Neither will I, but I'm afraid you've made something like that inevitable by doing this. Or worse, will grow resentment from ponies who see you bringing outsiders to guard them."
  189. [Choice]
  190. "Why didn't you say something before?! I asked you, Cadance! You know you're my expert on Equestria's inhabitants; if there was going to be a problem, you should have told me about it back when I started asking about this in the first place!"
  191. > She huffs softly, shaking her head.
  192. > "Because you never did ask! You told me you were considering my advice on bringing in griffons at all, and I gave you my best advice then. But I'm talking about bringing in anyone to be guards. And you never did ask about that, and if they were ponies I would still be objecting. "
  193. > There, you have to admit, she has a point.
  194. > The griffons were never meant to be an inward-looking threat.
  195. > Rather, their eyes were supposed to be pointed outward.
  196. > You'd never consulted her on the impact of doing that.
  197. "...okay, look. In the end, you're still my advisor. You still have control over the ponies - and griffons - here. If you want them off the guard, put them on the watch to start with until they're better integrated, I can arrange that."
  198. > "No."
  199. > Cadance grimaces, pawing at the ground with a hoof.
  200. > "The watch would be, if possible, even worse. They need the trust just as much, but are supposed to listen to ponies too - help them work things out before they get to the level of guards and punishments. Outsiders wouldn't be trusted."
  201. "Then what do you want me to do, Cadance? I have an army of madmen camping out in front of my house threatening some madness that would endanger my property, my employees, and my daughter. I needed more guards; hiring would have cost a lot more and meant less ponies coming here."
  202. > No answer comes; instead her head hangs - bangs of mane hanging to either side.
  203. "I will do whatever is necessary to protect everything that's mine. And I think everypony here should know by now that the only ones who should fear my anger are the ones who know they are doing something wrong."
  204. > "It's what it looks like, though."
  205. > Fluttering her wings nervously, she gives another shake of her head to clear the strands of mane from her face.
  206. > "When it came to slaves guarding slaves... that was a delicate balance, and you've just tipped it."
  207. "Do you have any better options? I offered Bon Bon a spot in the guard, since they're supposed to be protecting you all as much as watching. She refused; are there ponies who are ready and willing to sign up?"
  208. > "No."
  209. > A heavy sigh heralds her admission of your point.
  210. > "I don't have alternatives. Unless what you see as a threat suddenly vanishes, I don't."
  211. > You drop to one knee, holding out a hand to touch her cheek.
  212. "I understand your concern, Cadance. You're afraid they won't ever be able to bridge that divide between guard and slave that the entire pony-guard thing was set up to connect."
  213. > "Yes. Exactly that."
  214. "But - I still think it's something we have to do. Back when you were a ruler, you surely had some guards who weren't always natives from exactly where you ruled, yes?"
  215. > "I did, yes. Some Equestrians came north to the Crystal Empire. And - there were some issues integrating at first. The Crystals were... broken, in many ways. But they were not slaves anymore, either. We freed them from that."
  216. > Hopefully she wasn't thinking of pulling any similar attempts this time.
  217. "The point is, though, it can be done. They'll still be taking orders from ponies, and from my employees - same as any of the others Thunderlane manages."
  218.  
  219. > Sunburst looks up the second you arrive in his office, snapping a book shut and setting aside.
  220. > "Your Highness. Can I guess - you want to know if we've heard anything more from our... contacts outside?"
  221. "A good guess."
  222. > "I'd believe it's on your mind. I heard Anonymous brought in griffons to help with the guards."
  223. "He did. I lectured him over it, but he seems set on the course."
  224. > "The good news is, we have heard back. First, your message to... 'A', was it? Seems to have been received and understood. We got solid answers to the questions you instructed me to send."
  225. "And?"
  226. > Sunburst's horn lights, opening an elaborate secret compartment in his desk that would be difficult verging on impossible to find without a sense of magic.
  227. > From it come several papers, crude notes scribbled on them:
  228. > "For starters: She says she's seeking information that could lead to a criminal conviction against Anonymous. Any signs of pony abuse, financial misdeeds, or other crimes."
  229. > Of course that's what this about.
  230. > The bitch is still seeking a feather in her cap.
  231. > "She's-"
  232. > Here Sunburst swallows slightly.
  233. > "She's looking for information regarding both Corona, Autumn Frost, and Comet Tail."
  234. "She has their names already? Then why hasn't she-"
  235. > You hiss softly, eyes narrowing.
  236. "Go on, Sunburst."
  237. > He dithers a moment, looking at you with worried eyes, before looking back to the papers.
  238. > "If information leading to a conviction could be provided, you would be freed under the Special Circumstances conditions - as a pony whose actions lead to a criminal's fall."
  239. > Two further sheets are extracted from the pile, turned around, and passed to you.
  240. > "Examples of ponies who were freed for playing critical roles in investigations. She sent the names, we looked them up to confirm."
  241. "I see."
  242. > At least you weren't being totally strung along then; it was very possible this could actually happen.
  243. > "She also adds that she understands how difficult it will be to acquire evidence, and... is willing to offer help in reviewing what we can produce to see if it would be of value. Apparently, even if ponies' words can't be taken as evidence in court, it can be taken as evidence to begin an investigation."
  244. "And the other things I asked for?"
  245. > "She has sent... some of the information. On your Husband."
  246. > Despite knowing that it could not end well, your heart quickens.
  247. > Sunburst's expression, however, turns that flutter into a nervous quiver.
  248. > "He was captured, Your Highness. They have traced him though processing and a taming facility... one of the harsher ones."
  249. > Any remaining hope vanishes, your heart taking an icy plunge.
  250. "I... see."
  251. > "His Highness Shining Armor was apparently sold from there at some point, but there is no record after that."
  252. > It was as you'd feared, then.
  253. > Perhaps some part of you had dared to hope that Shining had met his end proudly in some Equestrian redoubt, shepherding other ponies to safety and freedom.
  254. > Another part of you had always known that was foolish.
  255. > Shining Armor had either died in suffering beneath the lash of a slaver trying to break him, or had every drop of the pride, nobility, and protectiveness crushed from him until there was nothing of the stallion you had loved.
  256. > And you rather doubt he would have lasted long like that.
  257. > "I-I'm sorry, Your Highness. I didn't-"
  258. "No. You did exactly as I asked. I knew what I asked for."
  259. > Rather than accept your answer, Sunburst rises from his desk and circles around it.
  260. > "I didn't want to think about it either..."
  261. > You gasp softly as he nuzzles into your neck.
  262. > "He was everything I couldn't be. Strong. Handsome. Powerful."
  263. > Under other circumstances the touch would have been highly inappropriate, but there was no titles here - not princess and adviser or slave and overseer.
  264. > Merely two ponies mutually mourning the loss of one they'd known so well.
  265. "He was a good pony. But so are you, Sunburst."
  266. > Eventually you mutually pull away.
  267. "As much as it hurts me to ask, has she given any information on Twilight?"
  268. > "No. She says that more resources could be assigned to that search if it was related to an ongoing investigation, though."
  269. > In other words, she'll feed you more as a further reward for betraying Anonymous.
  270. "Very well, Sunburst. Again, your taking all of this on is more than I have any right to ask of you."
  271. > "Your Highness, it is more reward than I deserve."
  272. > He doesn't look rewarded, though.
  273. > If anything Sunburst seems even more distracted than before.
  274. "Is... something else bothering you, Sunburst?"
  275. > "I..."
  276. > His come off to rest folded on his desk - a sign you've come to recognize of the bookish pony being about to reveal something he finds difficult - as Sunburst returns to his seat on its far side.
  277. > "What happened with Flurry heart has me... nervous, Your Highness. I'm sorry. I shouldn't bother you with it."
  278. > Your expression falls and he looks away.
  279. "No - please. Tell me."
  280. > "Just... this whole thing. The messages from - her. The police woman. And the protesters too. And then I heard what she did..."
  281. > He rubs nervously at the book he'd been reading.
  282. > "So many ways for her to be lost... and she's really everything I have left. She's the light in my life now. Things have... meaning again."
  283. "I know exactly what you mean."
  284. > Your own voice drops down a few notes, but Sunburst slaps a hoof to his desk angrily.
  285. > "And that's exactly why it's not fair for me to lay this on you too! You're already worrying plenty about her."
  286. "Sunburst. There is more than enough room in my heart to carry the worries of such a good friend."
  287. > "I'm just - just so afraid. There's so many ways I could lose Flurry Heart. The protesters could try and take her. We would have to put the plan into effect and flee. She could get hurt running around the camp again. I don't know..."
  288. > Slumping forward, he comes to rest his head on the desk.
  289. > "I know what you had to do was hard. But I'm so scared, Your Highness. I'm so scared."
  290. "So am I, Sunburst. You are not alone."
  291. > "Do you know how to make it - stop? Is there any way-"
  292. "I'm afraid I don't know. That is exactly why I spanked her."
  293. > "Yeah. Neither you or Shining ever did that before, did you?"
  294. > Your ears fall at the mention of your husband again, and Sunburst's pupils shrink in belated recognition of what he'd done.
  295. > "Oh! Your Highness, I'm sorry-"
  296. "No. It's fine. And you are correct; we hadn't, but I was so afraid of losing her and that made me so angry that I - I was willing."
  297. > Lifting a hoof, you turn it over to peer at the underside.
  298. "And I wish I hadn't, but... it is what things are. And I don't want to lose her either. With what you just told me, Flurry Heart is what I have left of him too. Flurry Heart, and my memories."
  299. > "It's strange. Every step we take forward here, things get better. What we have would have been fantasy a year ago. But I feel more scared than ever."
  300. "Than ever?"
  301. > His head bobs sharply.
  302. > "Yes. Even when we had been caught escaping, when I knew I would be punished, probably whipped at the least... that was a different kind of fear. It was real. Immediate."
  303. > His glasses unfold, finding their way back up his nose.
  304. > "This feels looming now. Every day I'm afraid something is going to go wrong and we'll lose all of this. I'll lose her."
  305. [Choice]
  306. "We will overcome this together, Sunburst. All of us, together. That truth was not left behind in Equestria - it's true now. We face great challenges, but as long as we stay together no evil can defeat us. We never give up, we never let them take out hope, and we will be free again. Together."
  307. > It's not like you haven't spoken the words before.
  308. > But even so you can see the energy welling up in him:
  309. > Ears pricking, legs a little bit straighter, eyes a little bit brighter.
  310. "Right now, I have no reason to trust what she says. Anonymous already admitted what he had done to Corona to all of us, and if she wants to look for murder there are far darker places to be searching than here. What Autumn Frost and Comet Tail suffered was no worse than could have been done with them elsewhere."
  311. > You're up on all four hooves yourself now, pacing in circles.
  312. "If I give her more, there is no guarantee she will be honest with us. And even if she was, what does she think, I would leave my daughter behind? Accept my own freedom while she is still here? While all of you are still languishing here?"
  313. > "Yes, Your Highness!"
  314. > Well.
  315. > Sunburst is certainly reassured.
  316. "I would require some assurance that the camp would not be... divided up and all of you sent off to who-knows where. I will not abandon you like that, even if I were free."
  317. > "That's why the plan is for all of us to try and be carried out to the same destination?"
  318. "Exactly. I made a costly mistake in sending ponies away on their own; I will not repeat it."
  319. > "So, are you going to send back a message? To her too?"
  320. "I will not just talk now. If Anonymous regresses to the point we need to consider fleeing... that is a different matter. Until then, this fascination with him is... worrying. Send back a message. Tell her, I want to speak to her directly. No more of this... bouncing around messages."
  321. > "Understood, Your Highness! Do I have our contact send all of that? Including about us?"
  322. "Absolutely."
  323. > Notes are quickly scratched down and carefully folded into the hiding spot in his desk.
  324. > "I'll make sure that gets through."
  325. > Your sleep that night is troubled.
  326. > Nightmares plague you:
  327. > Swirling visions of claws and beaks, shackles and screaming.
  328. > Over and over again you found yourself in that room with Sunburst.
  329. > Knowing what would happen, but unable to act as the windows shattered and guards burst in.
  330. > Sometimes they were human.
  331. > Others, Griffons.
  332. > At times they wore Autumn and Comet's faces - accusing and mocking all at once.
  333. > Always, though, it ends the same way:
  334. > The guards drop you to the floor with tasers, current surging through you body with a pain you'd only felt under the severest punishment.
  335. > Pinned by their bodies, you can only look on as Anonymous enters.
  336. > His expression is one of total fury - a finger rising to pointedly accuse you as muzzles, shackles, and horn restrictors are fitted to you..
  337. > Words you don't quite remember are screamed.
  338. > But you remember exactly what happens next:
  339. > Anonymous steps forward, lifting a trembling Flurry Heart - had she always been there? - from beside you.
  340. > All you could do is scream and writhe as he folds her up in his arms and turns away.
  341. > Here, too, his words were blurry.
  342. > The point, however, was abundantly clear:
  343. > You would never see your daughter again.
  344. > Five times you woke with a pounding heart and reeking of the sweat drenching you.
  345. > Four times you tried to go back to sleep.
  346. > After the last you gave up.
  347. > It was nearly dawn, and you'd be rising soon anyhow.
  348. > An extra couple hours early on would not ruin you.
  349. > Nonetheless, you cannot shake the memory of the dreams throughout the day.
  350. > Of being so utterly helpless to keep Flurry Heart from being taken.
  351. > More than once find yourself glancing to your daughter while she worked - still on separation from Megan for one more day.
  352. > In the time Flurry would normally have spent with Megan, you'd set her to work doing simple examinations and sorting of camp documents:
  353. > Enough that she would begin to understand the mechanics of running this place.
  354. > Maybe enough to begin teaching her why governing it was so hard.
  355. > It was good for you that she was here too.
  356. > You'd had to restrain yourself from running up to the manor when you rose just to prove she was still there.
  357. > "Momma? What's wrong?"
  358. > And now you'd been staring.
  359. > Gently rising from your seat, you move to her side and drop to your belly beside her.
  360. > "...Momma?"
  361. "I want you to promise me something, Flurry Heart."
  362. > Now she realizes something is bothering you - looking up with eyes wide and attentive.
  363. > Any residual bitterness over being taken from her Mistress or the spanking you'd given her long since drained away.
  364. "Promise me - that if anyone ever tries to take you from me, you don't let them. Understand me? You don't let us be broken up again."
  365. > "What's wrong, Momma? Am I going to be going somewhere?"
  366. "No! Celestia, no - not as far as I know. I'm just... scared. I..."
  367. > You stretch a wing out, curling it over her and pulling your daughter to your side.
  368. "...I'm scared, Flurry Heart. Of losing you again. Being away from you again."
  369. > Idly you wonder if you'd really taken Sunburst's concerns to heart, or were just passing them on.
  370. "Just promise me, please, that you won't let us be separated..."
  371. > Seeming to realize that you needed her as much as the other way around, Flurry Nuzzles into your side.
  372. "Anyone tries to take you away from me, you fight - understand me? You don't let them. I can't ever be away from you again."
  373. > "But, Momma... what if..."
  374. > Her eyes turn worryingly towards the manor.
  375. > "What if he..."
  376. "Then I will need to talk to him. He will listen, eventually."
  377.  
  378. > At breakfast a few days later, you spot the stallion Copper Dust sitting at the end of a table with a deep and troubled scowl.
  379. > You drop your tray next to him with an audible thunk, but he barely glances up as you take a seat.
  380. "Mind if I join you?"
  381. > "Sure..."
  382. > Your own expression falters a touch.
  383. > Copper Dust had been... distant from so much of the rest of the camp, you were a touch worried to see him like this.
  384. "Something bugging you? You're looking pretty out of it."
  385. > "No. Or, nothing I feel like talking about anyway."
  386. "Ah. Sorry. Wasn't trying to bug you."
  387. > At first no answer comes.
  388. > After a moment, though, Copper Dust hisses an angry sigh and drops his muzzle to the table.
  389. > "Can I trust you not to report me or anything?"
  390. > You tilt your head questioningly.
  391. "Not unless you're planning on breaking any of the rules."
  392. > "I'm not even sure what the rules are anymore."
  393. "Well, hit me."
  394. > "Thunderlane, you're a guard. But - I get it. You're looking out for us."
  395. "Yeah. For my little brother, too."
  396. > "What do you think about those new guards? The griffons?"
  397. "I - haven't had any trouble with them yet. Nopony else has, either. Why, bad experience with griffons?"
  398. > Copper Dust shakes his head firmly, shaggy mane flip-flopping wildly.
  399. > "It's not that they're griffons. It's - bringing in anypony - anyone - just to be guards over us! I just can't believe she'd do this. Cadance, I mean."
  400. "I don't think it was really her decision."
  401. > "I wanted to think that. I really did. But now I'm wondering: Doesn't she trust us?"
  402. > Now that he is speaking, emotion is steadily filling Copper Dust's voice.
  403. > "That - isn't what guards should be. They should be part of us, not bought to control us!"
  404. "This is really getting to you, isn't it?"
  405. > Lighting his horn, Copper Dust idly lifts a piece of toast and uses it to stir around the oatmeal on his tray.
  406. > "...when I first got here, I - couldn't believe it was her. A princess. And she seemed to have Anonymous' ear too!"
  407. "Tell me about it. I was here before she came, so I could hardly believe it when she was brought in. Thought I'd eaten something bad."
  408. > The barest touch of a little smile passes over Copper's face.
  409. > "Yeah. But... I was also afraid. What if it was too good to be true? What if-"
  410. > Toast sinks into the oatmeal with a little plop.
  411. > "What if she was just collaborating with them for her own good? What if she'd become - cruel?"
  412. "She isn't. She never was."
  413. > Copper Dust nods.
  414. > "I wanted to think that too. And even when I heard about 'things' that had happened before, I saw she was so kind now. But..."
  415. "I promise nothing about Cadance has changed just because Anonymous decided we needed more guards, and he wasn't willing to wait for recruits to volunteer from among us."
  416. > He doesn't look reassured, though, still staring into the toast-and-oatmeal mix.
  417. "And yes. Some - things happened before. I would know; I still have the scars from the whipping. But so does she."
  418. > Still no response.
  419. "There's something else to this, isn't there?"
  420. > "I..."
  421. > Seeming to curl in on himself, Copper fidgets uncomfortably.
  422. > "I heard that - she beat her daughter. Because Flurry Heart snuck out to see us."
  423. > Your stomach drops out.
  424. > Word of that had gotten out?!
  425. > "I couldn't believe that either. She wouldn't do that. It wouldn't be right. But then I was watching her with her daughter, and - Flurry Heart couldn't sit down. She was sore. Just like she'd been-"
  426. > He can't finish saying it, only swallowing hard.
  427. > "Please. I want to know I'm wrong."
  428. "...it wasn't because she came to see us. She ran away from the pony she was supposed to be following. Megan did too."
  429. > "Megan..."
  430. > Copper Dust utters the name in a confused fashion.
  431. > "I... don't know what to think of her."
  432. "What do you mean?"
  433. > "Children... can be the kindest among them. Humans, I mean. But she's also training Flurry Heart to be her slave too. And I just can't be comfortable with that."
  434. > He grumbles, jabbing the toast into the oatmeal as if it were a knife.
  435. > "Besides. That also means she's up all day in that house with Anonymous too. I definitely do not trust him."
  436. "That's... understandable. Though, if you want to look back into the past for mistakes - he's really improved."
  437. > A fierce snort gives Copper Dust's opinion on that.
  438. > "In the end, he's still using us for his own benefit. And now those griffons being brought in to watch over us..."
  439. "You heard the announcements. They're in case the ones out there-"
  440. > You gesture towards the fence with a wing.
  441. > "-get rowdy enough to cause a problem. Not for us."
  442. "Yes, that's what's being said."
  443. > You pop the last of your breakfast in your mouth and
  444. "...listen, if you want to actually get some breakfast in you before first work-bell, you need to eat."
  445. > "Yeah, true."
  446. > Finally the toast comes out of his oatmeal and floats up to have a bite taken from it.
  447. > "But I can't shake the feeling... the dream is over. This place isn't better. And what does that mean, if Cadance is at the top of all of it?"
  448. “What do you mean?”
  449. > “Collaborator.”
  450. “Huh?”
  451. > “I didn’t want to believe - a princess could be a collaborator. Working with them, just to keep herself…”
  452. “If she’s a collaborator, then so am I. We all have reasons for what we do, Copper Dust.”
  453. > “No.”
  454. > Jabbing a hoof at you, the stallion swallows the last of his breakfast.
  455. > “You’ve done nothing to make me think you’re collaborating with them. You were whipped. Not the one doing the whipping.”
  456. "No, I'm not. I haven't been yet. But you know, Copper, you shouldn't be so fast to condemn her."
  457. > The sharp look he gives you suggests that was not the right thing to say.
  458. "...I mean - try to keep an open mind about these things. Don't let yourself get tunnel-vision about who's right and wrong. Remember that she has a lot of hard choices she has to make too."
  459. > He looks away, eyes hooded.
  460. > "Some things, there just isn't a choice about. Like whether to collaborate with them."
  461. "We'd all be starving if we didn't work. Or worse."
  462. > "Not that. There's a difference between just working and - Collaborating, with a capital C. Not just - doing what they say, but helping them order other ponies around so you can put yourself above them."
  463. > There's a particular bite in his voice - one that speaks of a personal element to his view.
  464. > No doubt he would be ready to tear you limb from limb if he knew you'd been collaborating with Anonymous long before openly becoming a guard.
  465. "You sound like you've had an encounter with a 'Collaborator with a capital C'."
  466. > "More than once. Sometimes with me, sometimes seeing what others did. Once at a slave sale house, somepony recognized one of them. Begged her for help. You know what she did? She kicked him aside and never looked back. It wasn't the only time. I swore then, I wouldn't be like that."
  467. > You grimace.
  468. > Seeing that, over and over again...
  469. "But you're working now."
  470. > "Working, yes. I found something to live for. Not collaborating. Never collaborating."
  471. > You sigh.
  472. > Shifting his mind on this would not be easy.
  473. "Just... try to keep an open mind. She never does anything she doesn't have to. She's not cruel. I promise you that."
  474. > ...
  475. > You're on hoof-patrol with one of the griffons - a tawny-feathered hen by the name of Gretchen - when you first hear it:
  476. > A kind of low, ache-inducing whine like a gigantic fly buzzing nearer and nearer your ear.
  477. > Ears swiveling in place, you perk up:
  478. "Hear that?"
  479. > "Yes. But I cannot tell where it is..."
  480. "Nevermind where; I'd like to know what!"
  481. > "A drone, I think? Big, maybe."
  482. > Her head, lacking your poseable ears, swivels through a startling range of motion.
  483. "A drone? What, like a changeling? They don't sound like that at all. Trust me on that."
  484. > "No, a -"
  485. > Something - vaguely hexagonal, its periphery lined with blurred disks, erupts from a nearby building's roof.
  486. > After it comes another guard pegasus already in fierce pursuit; he barely glances aside but yells out:
  487. > "Stop them! They're coming in from the protest camp!"
  488. > You barely have time to question the 'them' part of it before two more drones appear, whining as they surf low over rooftops.
  489. "Go! Bring them down!"
  490. > You've only half a grasp of what is going on, but that order is enough:
  491. > In the air with two wingbeats, and catching up on the 'drones' with by your fifth.
  492. > Whatever they were thinking of doing, they clearly hadn't bet on a racing pegasus being there to catch-
  493. > Gyrating midair, the drone performs a swooping turn that was nothing like any machine you'd ever seen!
  494. > You swear silently and follow closely:
  495. > It's rapidly becoming clear that whoever is controlling this thing, they're easily close to your skill in the air.
  496. > The drone might not be as fast in a straightaway, but is deft at making subtle, twitching maneuvers and narrowly dodging obstacles your larger wingspan forces you to swing wide about.
  497. > You can't just grab it; this is going to require some inventiveness.
  498. > If it came from the protesters' camp, it would probably be heading back in that direction...
  499. > Backing off, you peel away to gently curve towards the edge of the camp.
  500. > Not a few seconds pass before the guess pays off and the drone emerges from an alleyway!
  501. "Gotcha!"
  502. > Now you're in the lead; too late the drone tries to turn but slams straight into your barrel as your hooves close around it.
  503. > Where was the last one, though?
  504. > Spinning in a hover, you lay eyes on it racing for the perimeter fence.
  505. > Before it can reach, though, a yellow-brown blur slams down like a lightning bolt pinning it to the ground.
  506. > Bits and pieces tumble through the street as Gretchen emerges with the mangled body clutched in her beak
  507. > Spitting the plastic-and-metal carcass out, she waves proudly.
  508. > "I got it!"
  509. > The third one had been caught too, a unicorn on the ground reaching up with their magic to unbalance it just enough for a pursuing pegasus to slam-pin the machine to the ground.
  510. > Now all three - or rather, two and the fragments of the third - sat on the floor of a storage room, Anonymous staring at them with folded arms.
  511. > "Right, first of all: I don't need to tell you how bad this is. Thunderlane, Milestone - Gretchen, yes? Good job taking them. Good news, now the police will definitely do something about those fucks. Free speech doesn't mean shit about actually breaking into my property here. Bad news, the drones weren't the real problem."
  512. > Reaching underneath, he pulls a paper-wrapped package from beneath one drone.
  513. > Stripping the wrapping away reveals a radio much like the one you carry to talk with the guards, spare batteries taped to its side.
  514. > "This is."
  515. "So, there's two more in the camp."
  516. > "Three more. Each drone looks like it could carry two; we found two and another has already been turned in. They probably figure at least one will be hidden away from us, though.."
  517. > You grimace, already seeing the direction things are sliding.
  518. "And if even one is, we're going to have to turn the whole camp upside-down."
  519. > "Exactly. Cadance and I have already put word out that there won't be any punishment for having a radio to turn it in, but if anyone is caught hiding one we'll be treating it as rebellion. You do the same."
  520. > Please, Celestia, don't let them do that.
  521. > There hasn't been a real whipping in weeks.
  522. > To have one now...
  523. "If the radios don't get turned in?"
  524. > "Twenty-four hours, and you start a systematic search."
  525. "Understood."
  526. > The first second you have free, you're off to see Cadance.
  527. > No sooner do you enter her office then she stands - her expression and tone both brooking no argument:
  528. > "Come with me. There’s somepony we need to go see together."
  529. > You can guess who 'somepony' is, that you're let into Sunburst's office without question still raises your eyebrows.
  530. > The stallion takes one look at you and nods:
  531. > "It's that serious, then?"
  532. "Anonymous is on the warpath."
  533. > "Sunburst, if this was our contact's method of getting some better method to communicate into the camp then you can send a message right out that we will not be working with her. I will not be risking my ponies' lives with someone whose idea of helping is utter foolishness-"
  534. > "It wasn't, Your Highness!"
  535. > Shaking his head furiously, he opens a compartment in his desk and withdraws a sheet of paper.
  536. > "We already heard from her, in fact. 'Attempt this morning was not related to me. New idiot crew arrived with the drones. Again, I had no part in this. I will remain in the area if the police remove them, and the offer remains open'."
  537. > While Cadance goes silent to ponder that, you step in:
  538. "I think we're missing the point here. Anonymous has given everypony twenty-four hours for the missing radios to be turned in. If they aren't, we're going to be sweeping through the camp like we did before. If one of your cells is hiding one..."
  539. > "I understand. Your Highness?"
  540. > "Yes, I... send out word through the cells, Sunburst. This was no plan of mine and I want the radios turned in. This is not the time to aggravate Anonymous. Pass this opportunity, and keep our more discrete lines of communication open in case we truly do need them."
  541. "Besides. As I understand it, this plan was solely in case Anonymous turned back into being a monster again. If your contact is telling the truth, then the other end of those radios are in that mob's hands. If their impatience bleeds into the camp..."
  542. > Sunburst blanches.
  543. > "The cells I am in contact with wouldn't accept that. They are committed to Her Highness' plan. But some of the others..."
  544. "You'd best hope they'll all listen. I don't want to pull another sweep or be throwing ponies in chains again. I know Cadance doesn't want to carry out another whipping."
  545. > To this Cadance nods sharply.
  546. "I didn't turn this all in when you admitted it to me months back, because Cadance swore to me the plan could be controlled. That it'd be held back until it was - needed. But if you can't-"
  547. > "We know, Thunderlane."
  548. > Sunburst sounds very tired.
  549. > Look it, too, as he takes his glasses off to rub at his eyes.
  550. > "We know. All our necks are on the line. You'd lose your brother, Cadance would lose her daughter, I would lose Flurry too."
  551. "Sorry."
  552. > You sigh mightily, shuffling your wings to try and loosen the tension which has built in them.
  553. "I'm just... worried."
  554. > A look passes between the two others.
  555. > "Hardly the only one, Thunderlane. Hardly the only one."
  556. > ...
  557. > In twenty-four hours, however, only one more radio turned up.
  558. > With a heavy heart you strap on your uniform and join the other guards in sweeping through the camp.
  559. > This time, at least, there is little in the way of protest at the entries begins.
  560. > Everypony seems to either understand why this was being done... or are keeping their mouths pointedly shut to avoid suspicion falling on them.
  561. > Within an hour, however, you own radio squawks a confirmation:
  562. > Both radios had been found, and not willingly handed over.
  563. > Shamefully, you feel some actual relief that it had not been you who found them again.
  564. > Being involved in the circumstances surrounding Crescent Moon's arrest had left you with a distaste for every being involved in something like that again.
  565. > Your stomach is already sinking as you return back to the security post, but when you see the line of three ponies hobbled and collared in place you can't avoid showing your surprise:
  566. > The middle of a three is that new crystal unicorn - what had his name been?
  567. > Lattice?
  568. > He'd practically been attached to Cadance's side; what had he been doing with a radio when Cadance's orders went against it?
  569. "They're going in the cells?"
  570. > "Yeah. Until Cadance or Anonymous decides what to do with them."
  571. "I'll take one."
  572. > Lattice walks with a slight limp in one leg.
  573. > "Thunderlane?"
  574. "Yeah. Lattice, right?"
  575. > "Yeah. Does this mean Her Highness is really going to whip me?"
  576. > Your tongue feels almost too heavy to answer.
  577. "Probably. She can't go back on her word. And it seems Anonymous is really pushing for it too."
  578. > "Oh..."
  579. > The look of utter betrayal on his face shakes you.
  580. "You know, if you show some remorse she'll diminish it is as much as she can."
  581. > "It's just... I thought - I don't know. I thought they wouldn't look in my room. Because I'm... y'know. Special. One of hers. A crystal."
  582. "What would make you think that? We don’t play favorites here.”
  583. > “Yeah, you do. Did they search your quarters.”
  584. > He had a point.
  585. > Guards’ quarters were, if by de facto practice and not by de jure rule, skipped over during searches.
  586. > Seeing your look, Lattice sighs:
  587. > “It’s always like that. Every ruler has their favorites… but I don’t want to be one.”
  588. “Why didn’t you follow her orders to turn them in?”
  589. > “Because that was just what she was saying for Anonymous’ sake… or that’s what they said, anyway.”
  590. > Slipping into the cell you lead him to even without an order, Lattice settles onto its bed.
  591. > “They said I’d be just like everypony else if I helped hide them… that if I was helping, using that I was special, it wouldn’t be like I was holding myself better than them.”
  592. “Why?”
  593. > Rather than answer, Lattice just closes his eyes and lifts a shackled hoof as far as he can to clutch the threadbear kerchief on his neck.
  594. > “If I really am not her favorite, she won’t hesitate to put me through the same punishment.”
  595. “...fine. Cadance will probably be around soon to talk to you anyhow.”
  596. > “Does she do that for everypony?”
  597. “Yes.”
  598. > “Good.”
  599. > Later, you sit in Anonymous' office; Cadance rests equally quietly beside you, as does Gene on your other side.
  600. > Across sits your owner himself; Mocha Cream putters between the seats, arranging cups of coffee before each.
  601. > She's becoming more deft with using hooves in place of her faltering magic.
  602. > Enough that only a few drops are spilled, and those quickly wiped up.
  603. > "Thank you, Mocha. Alright, everyone. Let's go over what just happened. Gene, tell me the police are doing something about those fuckers out there."
  604. > "They are. They're gone for now, and there will be police car on station if they return. The police are also looking to get an order from the county judge to keep the protesters off the road in the future."
  605. > "Good. Cadance, any other signs of problems in the camp?"
  606. > "Not right now, anyhow."
  607. > Shifting in her seat, she glances out the window towards the road the protest-encampment had once inhabited.
  608. > "The protesters are... outsiders. Most ponies don't know what to make of them yet."
  609. > Cadance’s analysis seems to placate Anonymous; now his eyes fall on you.
  610. > "Excellent. Thunderlane, you talked to all three of the ponies brought in. What do you make of them?"
  611. > You, in turn, shoot a quick look at Cadance.
  612. > It was no secret Lattice's arrest had shaken her.
  613. > She hid it - perhaps the talk of him being her 'favorite' had gotten to her - but it was there.
  614. "Lattice had both the radios, Master. He was apparently told that he was Cadance's favored on account of a crystal pony, and browbeaten into hiding them in the belief that she would keep his quarters from being searched."
  615. > Rubbing his forehead, Anonymous snorts.
  616. > "What idiots told him we show favor like that...? And what about the other two ponies?"
  617. "They would be the idiots in question. They seem to think Cadance's orders to turn over the radios were just to appease you, not what she really wanted."
  618. > "Delightful. Any cooperation?"
  619. > You wince - this had been the part you'd been hoping to avoid.
  620. "Not from me. The other two are clammed up hard, and Lattice... it's strange. He told Cadance all about how he hid the radios, but is insisting he doesn't want special treatment. Honestly, I don't think any of them know anything more."
  621. > It's a strange feeling, outright lying to Anonymous.
  622. > While you didn't have any evidence pointing towards it, you had a sneaking suspicion they might have been one of Sunburst's cells who simply didn't receive word in time.
  623. > Not that they would tell you.
  624. > Your lack of certainty could be dismissed as a function of nervousness over the scale of this event, though, so onward you plunge.
  625. "All three are new to the camp, with no history of positive or negative behavior. Their quarters have been thoroughly checked, and there's nothing else to be found."
  626. > "Right... and you haven't seen any other further signs of rebellion either."
  627. "No."
  628. > "Good."
  629. > Anonymous slumps back in his seat; you guess he really was that scared of this being a sign of something larger.
  630. > If only he knew...
  631. > "Now, I guess, what we have to decide to do is what to do with them."
  632. > Head sinking, Cadance speaks up:
  633. > "It will have to be for all three of them."
  634. "Even Lattice? He did talk."
  635. > "But gave us nothing. And while I think he is apologetic, this is a direct violation of my order. He will join the others on the whipping pos-"
  636. > All of you jump as a crashing racket fills the room.
  637. > Mocha Cream stands stock-still, eyes wide with horror; the coffee pot she had been carefully balancing across her back now lays at her side, a dark stain steadily spreading on the carpet.
  638. > "You c-can't! Master, please! Y-You can't do that to him!"
  639. > Sighing, Anonymous kneels down beside her and rights the coffee pot.
  640. > "Please! He was scared, he thought he was going to be hurt because he was your favorite, it wouldn't be fair to him-"
  641. > Oh.
  642. > Of course.
  643. > After what she'd gone through on account of being accused of being a favorite, to see another pony whipped because of that...
  644. > Your heart aches, and from the Cadance's expression she feels similarly.
  645. > Even Anonymous looks pained as he gathers Mocha Cream in against his chest.
  646. > "Shhh, shh - you're okay, Mocha? Not hurt, didn't get burned?"
  647. > "N-No, Master. But-"
  648. > "Listen, Mocha. I understand."
  649. > His hand strokes through her mane as he talks, and you're reminded again of just how much he seemed to care for her in particular.
  650. > Ironic; if being his favorite had been all she'd ever been accused of, there might have been some truth to it.
  651. > "I understand, it hurts to see you a pony suffer that because of the same thing you went through. You feel like it's not his fault. That he was bullied into this, and he shouldn't be punished for it."
  652. > "Yes, Master!"
  653. > Mocha Cream pulls her head from his chest to nod enthusiastically.
  654. > "You can- it wouldn't be fair to whip him. He was hurt-"
  655. "Mocha. I know it doesn't seem right, but think: If he ignores an outright order from Cadance and Anonymous both, and then isn't punished... wouldn't that make him 'special', just like they say?"
  656. > Her head twists back and forth, looking between you and Anonymous.
  657. > The uncertainty laying siege to her convictions.
  658. > Beside you, Cadance joins in.
  659. > "This is not something I take on lightly, Mocha. I will not be harsh with him, for exactly the reasons you lay out. But I cannot be soft, either. If I were to, this might spread. More ponies could be hurt."
  660. > Whimpering softly, Mocha curls back into his chest.
  661. "Mocha... if you disobeyed a direct order from myself or Anonymous, would you not be punished? If it was this serious, do you think he would be soft on you?"
  662. > "...no..."
  663. "If Lattice had come to Cadance, Mayor Mare, or any of the guards, we could have stopped this. But he made his choice on his own."
  664. > Giving her mane one last stroke, Anonymous lifts Mocha into his arms.
  665. > "Thunderlane, Cadance - if there's nothing else to cover, I think I'd like to go?"
  666. > "Yes, Master - I think no other punishment will be required in this particular circumstance?"
  667. > Pondering a moment, he nods.
  668. > "I think that would be acceptable. As long as no evidence of anything else turns up."
  669. > "Of course, Master."
  670. > Gene departs after Anonymous, begging some work to be done in over the intrusion over the fence.
  671. > That leaves you alone with Cadance in the office.
  672. > Now without her drive, you can see how deeply shaken she really is.
  673. "Your Highness?"
  674. > "Forgive me. I'm just... not looking forward to this."
  675. "I know. Neither am I... but, we could face it together?"
  676. > Her head snaps up, eyes wide.
  677. > "I could not ask you to do that, Thunderlane! I remember when you told me why you joined the guard. Carrying out a whipping yourself-"
  678. "Then don't ask me. I'm volunteering."
  679. > "Vapor Trail will be furious. Rumble will hate you."
  680. "Vapor Trail will understand. She knows what my job means. And it wouldn't be fair to make you stand up on that stage and do it yourself alone."
  681. > Bowing, Cadance lets her eyes slip shut.
  682. > "Thank you, Thunderlane. Truly."
  683. > Despite your assurances, you sleep little that night.
  684. > The prospect of what you were doing weighing heavily on your mind.
  685. > You did not tell Vapor Trail, and the mare slept soundly - taking over quieting Sunbreak when she fussed or cried was something you were happy to take up this time.
  686. > Did she know anyhow?
  687. > If so, nothing is said about it at breakfast - or about any other topic.
  688. > You march over to the security building near evening, after the dinner bell had rung, and join the vehicles taking the three ponies out to what amounts to the camp center.
  689. > There the whipping posts waited.
  690. > Three in a line on the stages, almost innocuous in their simplicity.
  691. > Nothing was said as the three were lead up onto the stage and their forehooves secured to the posts, tails secured out of the way.
  692. > Cadance is speaking to the gathered crowd of ponies, reminding them of what happened and why this punishment must be carried out - but it's no more than a buzz in your ears.
  693. > The whip is handed to you and its corded wrist-strap repeatedly wound around your leg to hold the handle in place.
  694. > Its weight feels heavier than it should.
  695. > Alien.
  696. > Hostile.
  697. > Its limp length resembling a snake that might rear back and bite you at any moment.
  698. > But when Cadance takes her position behind Lattice and calls out the first blow, you raise it and strike anyhow:
  699. > A sort of almost-pirouette propelled by your wings spinning you about and lifting the whip to lash out at the pony on the pole.
  700. > What you hadn't expected was the way the shock travels back up the whip's length to jolt the handle bound to your arm.
  701. > It's hard to ignore, though, never growing easier as Cadance counts out and you both deliver the following lashes of the sentence.
  702. > Whimpers turn to screams and red welts begin to criss-cross their coats.
  703. > Your leg grows almost numb - and you insist to yourself it is the repeated jolts of the whip doing this, and not a reaction to what you are doing with it.
  704. > Finally the last blow cracks down across the pony's back and you drop down onto all fours.
  705. > One last scream of agony echoes through the square.
  706. > Not yours.
  707. > Despite what Cadance was inflicting on him, Lattice had refused to do more than whimper.
  708. > You look out over the crowd as guards move in to remove the punished from the whipping posts; most in the crowd either have a look of grim understanding or hide their expressions entirely.
  709. > But one stands out to you:
  710. > Copper Dust peers from beneath his long, shaggy mane with a look of such undisguised and visceral hatred that you physically recoil.
  711. > When you leap down from the platform, however, he has vanished.
  712.  
  713. > "It isn't your fault, Cadance."
  714. > You sigh, nodding softly in agreement.
  715. "I know, Anonymous."
  716. > He considers for a moment before reaching into his cabinet to extract a liquor bottle.
  717. > A glass is poured for you, and after a moment's consideration a smaller one for him as well.
  718. "A bit late for this, no?"
  719. > "It'll still take the edge off. Help you sleep. Which you should, soon - it's pretty late."
  720. > That was true.
  721. > The clock near his desk suggested it was nearly ten o'clock; all the other house staff had long since turned in for bed.
  722. > Anonymous moves back to his study window to look out at the camp.
  723. > Except for a brief departure to put Megan and Flurry Heart to bed, since they were no longer grounded apart from each other, he'd occupied that spot often as the ‘brief talk’ he’d wanted to have with you had somehow turned into hours of rambling discussion.
  724. > You had not joined him in putting them to bed.
  725. > No doubt word of the lashing had gotten around, and you’d not felt ready to face them so soon after.
  726. > “You know, Cadance, when I’m wondering if it’s really worth it I often take a little while to stand here and just… look. At everything - I tell myself it's worth it. To preserve a place unlike anything else."
  727. > You take your glass in a magical grip and join him.
  728. > The camp was indeed all peaceful again, quiet and placid except for the streetlamps and a guard patrol.
  729. “It is beautiful. But it’s not the buildings that do it for me; it’s the ponies. When I can look around and see them happy- or, happier than they might be. That’s when I’m comforted. But when I can’t…”
  730. > After a moment, Anonymous lifts both his hands and sets them on your neck.
  731. > It's a strange sensation, feeling his hand rub through your fur and mane.
  732. > One you could never quite get used to despite how often he did it.
  733. > “If you want to stay up here for the night, Cadance, I won’t refuse you. I understand. What you did can’t be easy.”
  734. “I… no, Anonymous.”
  735. > “Then at least tell me what you wanted to talk about. You mentioned there would be something earlier, but did we ever get to it?”
  736. “I’m not sure it’s really important enough.”
  737. > “Oh, not everything needs to be critical right-this-very-moment material. Come on, at least tell me about it.”
  738. "It's... Mocha Cream. I'm glad that you've been having her come out into the camp and work with ponies a bit more; even just in these few weeks, she's become so much more confident and comfortable helping ponies."
  739. > "Good to hear. I'm hearing a 'but' in there, though..."
  740. > You nod, tearing your eyes from the window and turning around to face him.
  741. "There's another half of what you have to do with her, Anonymous."
  742. > "Have to, Cadance?"
  743. "If you want her safe and sound, yes. On some level she is still attached to you - still believes she loves you."
  744. > Anonymous looks down into his own glass, swirling around the liquid in it.
  745. > "You sound awfully certain about this."
  746. "I was the Princess of Love, Anonymous. I have a sense for these things. She still pines for you, and these massages are not convincing her otherwise. As painful as it might be you will have to face it at some point."
  747. > “Maybe we just need to give her some more time-”
  748. “In the meeting, when she heard what was going to happen, she practically leaped into your arms when she had the chance.”
  749. > “She was scared, Cadance.”
  750. “And affection was still her first recourse with you. I don’t want you to be cruel to her, but you have to tell her: You aren’t right for her.
  751. > Anonymous sighs, swirling the liquor in his glass, silent.
  752. “If - that is what you still intend to do.
  753. > "I'd hoped she would mature on her own - especially now that she's seeing Rumble more often. The truth is… I’m not sure how to let her down gently. As you correctly pointed out, ‘princess of love’, her affection is not normal. So, what do I say to her?”
  754. [Choice]
  755. "You need to be as upfront as possible, I think. Tell her what you want. Not what she should want."
  756. > "Afraid she'll just push her own feelings down if I start telling how to think again?"
  757. "No. I'm afraid that if you tell her that she should want somepony better - somepony more her age, somepony who can give her a foal - she will decide those things don't matter, because she thinks she knows who she loves."
  758. > "Hmm."
  759. > Anonymous rubs his chin.
  760. "...forgive me if this is too probing a question, Anonymous - but may I assume you are looking for someone who will be with you for a long time? Forever, possibly?"
  761. > "Forgiven, because it's a fair question. I think you're mostly right, though."
  762. > A gentle smile touches your lips.
  763. "I... suspected as much. After what you have said of Megan's mother."
  764. > He seems to curl in on himself, and you lift a hoof to touch his shoulder.
  765. "I'm sorry, Master, I shouldn't have-"
  766. > "It's fine."
  767. > The clipped tone of his voice seems to suggest otherwise, though, and your head falls:
  768. "Just... I thought that after all you'd been through, you'd be wary of relationships with someone who is-"
  769. > You actually flinch as his hand comes to rest on the back of your neck again.
  770. > "Really, Cadance. I said it was fine. If anyone has the right to talk to me about losing a spouse, it's you. Besides, you're right. I'm not looking to be embarking on any... wild romps with lovers."
  771. > Ears perking somewhat back up again, you cock your head.
  772. "Then that's what you need to tell her. Because she is not just attached, she is devoted to you. She'll be frantic to hold on to what she has - to Mocha Cream, it's going to feel like she is truly losing something without anything gained."
  773. > "I remember what it felt like. How hollow you are when you realize the love... not working."
  774. > You swallow, but nod.
  775. "You'll need to be firm. She may ask you why, or think she can change herself to fit you better. I've seen it before - but love never works out when half of it is trying to change themselves to make it fit."
  776. > "I'll agree with that. I don't want to force her to be someone she's not."
  777. > Of course.
  778. > After his experiences, you probably didn't need to tell him that.
  779. "If I had to give one other bit of advice... make it clear you will still be here as a-"
  780. > A what?
  781. > Owner?
  782. > Mentor?
  783. > Father-figure?
  784. > You don't have a good word for this.
  785. "-will still be here to love her as a daughter, almost. Comfort her as much as is needed, but also be keeping in mind that you want to keep some distance until the lesson has sunk in."
  786. > "I think I understand, yes."
  787. "Good."
  788. > Lifting a hoof, you wrap it around the arm still reaching out for your neck.
  789. "It's good that you're doing this, Anonymous."
  790. > "I know. Much as I... enjoy her affections at times, it isn't right. Sooner or later we'd end up breaking apart, so better to rip off the band-aid before it gets too bad, huh?"
  791. "I would say so, yes. A poisoned love will spread and infect more."
  792. > "So. Will you be staying up here tonight, then?"
  793. "Can I use your shower to wash up?"
  794. > "Of course. I don't have to wash you again, do I?"
  795. > An ugly look is shot at Anonymous; he responds with a pat on your neck before extricating his hand from your mane.
  796. > "Go wash up, Cadance. I'll be out here."
  797. > Once inside, you crank the water all the way up to hot despite the already-muggy summer night.
  798. > The near-scorching torrent beat on your neck, withers, and back before cascading down your flanks.
  799. > It felt... soothing.
  800. > Absolving.
  801. > As if you could let what you had done today flow out and down the drain as well.
  802. > Was that why you were choosing to stay up here tonight?
  803. > Or was it what you had told Anonymous:
  804. > Being closer to Flurry Heart - the pony you did all of this for - would help settle your mind.
  805. > Maybe both.
  806. > Maybe neither.
  807. > You switch the water to cold, wincing as the flow saps the heat building inside of you.
  808. > Soon you step out entirely.
  809. > Most of the water is squeezed from your mane with magic, but you are still damp as you stride back into the room.
  810. "Your turn, if you want it."
  811. > "I will, thank you."
  812. > While Anonymous takes his turn, you settle onto the bed.
  813. > Amazing how little trepidation you feel at sharing it with him now!
  814. > ...okay, admittedly the benefit of sleeping in a house with air conditioning - as opposed to just the window or ceiling fans in the slaves' quarters - was a downright luxury.
  815. > Chills run down your sides as the lingering water in your coat evaporates out.
  816. > And-
  817. > A flicker of movement from the window draws your attention.
  818. > It's there for barely a second, but in that time you swear a pony-shaped shadow darts from the edge of the camp towards the house.
  819. > In an instant you're up and at the window:
  820. > Head craning, twisting and turning, to find the mysterious intruder.
  821. > None reveals themselves; even so you remain in place at the window like a guard at her post until Anonymous emerges from the bathroom.
  822. > "Cadance? Everything okay?"
  823. "Yes, fine. I thought I saw something."
  824. > Your eyebrows again rise at the sight of him:
  825. > Of course he'd opt to wear just a loose shirt and shorts in the warm summer nights!
  826. > You should have been expecting this!
  827. > Shifting over in bed, you extend a wing to pat the spot beside you.
  828. > Anonymous simply grins and slides over to settle down into it - drawing the loose covers up over himself and flicking off the light.
  829. "I don't think I thanked you for offering this."
  830. > "It's fine, Cadance."
  831. > His arm reaches out lightly scratch around your ears again, and you drop your head to the pillow with a gentle hum.
  832. > "I'm not exactly upset about having here, and I'd much rather it be like this than how it was last time."
  833. > Ah, yes.
  834. > The previous time you had rested in this bed, you had been wearing shackles and a bridle.
  835. > Avoiding letting it get to that point probably was a much, much better idea.
  836. "That part of it was not so terrible. As long as I don't insist you beat me again or anything so foolish as that."
  837. > "Oh, so you wouldn't mind if I got out the cuffs again?"
  838. > The indignant look you skewer Anonymous with is mostly wasted in the dark.
  839. > At least he can feel you pull away from his touch!
  840. "Please, Anonymous, do not joke about that. It was profoundly foolish of me."
  841. > "Oh, fine, fine."
  842. > Though you hadn't slept any worse then.
  843. > What did that say about you, you wonder?
  844. > Lifting a leg into the air, you stare at its outline in the light creeping in - wiggling your hoof around.
  845. > Imagining the heavy weight of a shackle resting on it.
  846. > If you were being honest, there was still some part of you who yearned for that easier time in the past.
  847. > When you strained in chains against an owner's touch
  848. > Not offered to share a bed or give relationship advice.
  849. > But...
  850. > This was good too.
  851. > Dropping the leg back down, you roll to your side and produce a small smile.
  852. "Goodnight, Anonymous. Sleep well."
  853. > Even in the summer, it seemed, Anonymous could not go the night without finding his way closer to you.
  854. > Admittedly the air conditioning made that rather less unpleasant than otherwise.
  855. > Perhaps even a bit... enjoyable?
  856. > The word leaves you feeling like a betrayer, but ponies weren't meant to be lonely.
  857. > Apart.
  858. > They were supposed to have somepony to cuddle and curl against, hold or be held by.
  859. > With careful movements you unfold a wing and lay it across his side.
  860. > Anonymous was... a difficult person.
  861. > A slaver still, and unrepentant.
  862. > But somewhere in there, there was a loving heart.
  863. > You knew there was.
  864. > You could feel there was.
  865. > Leaning in, you brush your muzzle across his cheek - a puff of breath stirring his hair.
  866. "Anonymous. It's morning. You need to get up."
  867. > "S'not... no 'larm yet."
  868. > Eyes flick to the alarm clock.
  869. > Six-fifty-six.
  870. "You can have four minutes more. Then you have to."
  871. > "Yes, mo-"
  872. > One eye cracks open, blinking until it settles on you.
  873. > Oh.
  874. > Your flush softly - the color deepening when you realize how close your faces were.
  875. > Then his eyes travel down to the wing you still held over him, and it's just too much.
  876. > Pulling back, you turn away to hide your eyes.
  877. "I'm sorry. Forgive me, Master. I don't know what I was-ack!"
  878. > You keel over as Anonymous wraps his arms around you and pulls you back in close.
  879. > "It's fine, Cadance. I don't mind."
  880. > That was not the point!
  881. > Still, you remain sitting there a while longer before he releases you.
  882. > At least, until the alarm you'd noticed decides to add its shrill call to the air conditioner's chugging.
  883. "...I suppose that's the end of that."
  884. > "We can spare a few minutes more."
  885. > A hand is scratching at your back, right at the sensitive spot directly between your wings where all the nerves and muscles come together, and you really can't be bothered to protest.
  886. > "Are you feeling better from last night?"
  887. "A touch. It still feels... wrong, but merely not being alone helped me rest."
  888. > A flicker of guilt runs through you at that.
  889. > The ponies who'd felt the lash wouldn't be resting so easily.
  890. > "Will you want to wash up again? Get my scent off of you?"
  891. > Aaaand you're flushing again.
  892. > When he puts it like that, it makes it sound like something lewd was happening between the two of you!
  893. "If... you don't mind."
  894. > "Not at all. But you're staying for breakfast too."
  895. > Breakfast turns out to be well worth staying for:
  896. > Both daughters join you for it.
  897. > Megan waves enthusiastically as she bounces into the room, her hair still a wild mess of stray blond curls.
  898. > In comparison Flurry Heart seems downright formal - her mane already smooth and clean.
  899. > "Hey Cadance! Good morning!"
  900. "And good morning to you, Miss Megan. Are you off to school today?"
  901. > The question draws an equally enthusiastic nod.
  902. > "Uh-huh! The bus'll be here soon. We have a history test today about the Equestria Contact, but it'll be okay 'cause Miss Mackle always gives easy tests-"
  903. > Across the table, Anonymous moans softly.
  904. > "Sweetheart, not until I've had my coffee please?"
  905. > Megan giggles and commences inhaling a bowl of cereal.
  906. > "Sorry, daddy."
  907. > "And why haven't you brushed your hair yet? Flurry?"
  908. > "Mistress Megan got up a little bit late, Master. I'll make sure she does it before she goes."
  909. > As the two of them begin to babble between each other, Anonymous turns to you with a grin.
  910. > "Ah, for the energies of youth..."
  911. "I, for one, have come to enjoy a more sedate pace of rising."
  912. > A function, you think, of spending your formative years as the adopted family of Celestia.
  913. > She always rose before the dawn after all.
  914. > Eventually the two young ones are shooed back to the bathroom to finish Megan's preparations.
  915. > Anonymous watches them go, sipping his coffee.
  916. > "You know, I've been thinking of sending them back into the camp again. With proper oversight this time."
  917. "Did you have somepony in mind?"
  918. > "One of the guards for sure this time."
  919. > He scratches his chin.
  920. > "A griffon, maybe? They need something to do now that those hippie fucks outside have been shut down."
  921. > You turn that idea over in your head; from what you remembered of griffon social hierarchies, immature children were usually considered part of their parents' dominance position.
  922. > Meaning, your already securing your dominance over the griffons would keep Flurry Heart safe from any challenges.
  923. > And it would potentially give them a chance to integrate further.
  924. > But...
  925. "I'm not sure I feel comfortable with turning them into some kind of... personal guard for my daughter."
  926. > "The concerns about bringing them in just as guards again?"
  927. "Yes."
  928. > "It'd only be one, but fair enough. Do you have another suggestion?"
  929. [Choice]
  930. "What about Rumble?"
  931. > "Rumble?"
  932. > Anonymous frowns deeply, swirling the coffee in his cup.
  933. > "Are you sure? He was one of the ones who ran your plan right up until the end, after all."
  934. "Do you really think he would let anything happen to her? After what was done to Mocha Cream?"
  935. > "No. But that's not what I'm really concerned about. It's..."
  936. > He hesitates, too late recognizing the trap he was talking in to.
  937. > Admit Rumble's resistance to being an obedient slave still bothered him, and that he based 'trust' on obedience.
  938. > Or give, and be willing to risk his daughter being exposed to those thoughts.
  939. > His answer would tell you just how much of his anger over Megan running off to encounter Crescent Moon was real fear for her safety, and how much was fear of what dark truths she might find in the camp.
  940. > To your surprise, however, he gives:
  941. > "...okay, we'll send those two out together. I think Rumble will be happy to spare a bit of time; he's been investing more in the camp lately."
  942. "I'm glad you agree. This is more than just about giving them someone safe to walk around with, after all... but if it will settle your mind, I think one of the griffons could go with him."
  943. > "Does your whole family-as-hierarchy thing extend from Thunderlane to Rumble as well?"
  944. "It may not; he's near fully grown. But they will have their orders, and Rumble's role in them will be made clear. Megan and Flurry, however, are both young and our children. They will be safe."
  945. > Privately, you're curious how the griffons might react to Thunderlane's brother.
  946. > How much will they push their hierarchy on someone they haven't directly tested yet?
  947. > You highly doubted they would hurt Rumble - but how much would they press him?
  948. "Does this sound acceptable to you?"
  949. > "I think so, yes. Those griffons have sharp eyes. They won't be running off again with one of them around."
  950. > Mollified, Anonymous shoots you a smile.
  951. > "And Rumble... well, having him there should settle Mocha Cream's worries. She's still been worrying herself over those two, you know?"
  952. "I had guessed when she continued bringing it up when she accompanied me, yes."
  953. > Chuckling, Anonymous shakes his head.
  954. > "She's such a sweetheart..."
  955. > He trails off and you can hear the pain halting his words.
  956. "...Anonymous, would you like me to be there when you - talk to her?"
  957. > "No. I - I don't think that would be good. She might see it as you pushing me."
  958. > In fairness, you kind of were.
  959. > "...okay, if you want to wait in the next room and step in if things are getting out of hand. But not more. Understand?"
  960. "Yes, Master."
  961. > "We'll use my bedroom. You can stay in the study - keep an ear to the door connecting the two."
  962.  
  963. > Mocha Cream pads into the room, her eyes lighting up as she spots you.
  964. > "Master! What did you need me for?"
  965. "I'm sorry to pull you off your work. I know you have a lot to do before you head out into the camp-"
  966. > "It's alright, Master. I'm... glad to help you with whatever you need."
  967. > It's all you can do to hide a wince.
  968. > God, this is going to be hard.
  969. "Mocha, listen. I... there's something really important we need to talk about."
  970. > "M-Master?"
  971. > Drawing close to the chair, she looks up with wide, warm, liquid-brown eyes.
  972. > "What is it, M-Master?"
  973. > Your hand flexes, balling into a fist and releasing.
  974. "Can I... Mocha, I know that you look at me with - affection. That you want to... be with me."
  975. > Color invades her cheeks, advancing up to tinge the creamy coat of her muzzle.
  976. > "Master, I-I d-don't know-"
  977. "Just... please, Mocha. Tell me, am I right? You know you can always be open with me. Honest."
  978. > Her eyes fall down, the blush now rising up to even her ears.
  979. > "Y-Yes, M-Master. I d-do want you. I know w-what I said in the h-hopsital, and I do l-love y-"
  980. > Snapping out, your hand settles - no, more like seizes her cheek.
  981. > A sharp gasp prompts you to let your grip relax, but even so you know you had to interrupt her.
  982. > You couldn't let her finish those words.
  983. "Listen, Mocha, I..."
  984. > Be as upfront as possible, Cadance had said.
  985. > Tell her that you didn't think it would work.
  986. > But Cadance wasn't the one here saying it!
  987. "Listen. I wanted to tell you. I don't think... I don't think it would work."
  988. > Was that too blunt?
  989. > You're not given any time to second-guess what had been said, as slow comprehension of your words settles over Mocha.
  990. > It begins with a dipping of her ears.
  991. > Then the her cheeks falling as the smile fades, eyes losing their sparkle and luster...
  992. > "M-M-Master, p-please, I don't unders-stand-"
  993. "Listen to me, Mocha Cream: I know you love me. I don't mean to - disparage that. But between us..."
  994. > You shake your head, hand coming to cup her cheek more softly.
  995. "I don't believe it could ever work between us. Not now, not soon. We're... for starters, I'm your master. There'd always be that difference between us."
  996. > "It's n-not a d-difference, M-Master, please-"
  997. > Still you're plowing on, unwilling to stop now that you've started.
  998. > Even as Mocha's eyes quickly fill with tears that spill down her cheeks.
  999. "For another thing... I'm so much older than you. Two decades, you know? You're just coming into adulthood while I have all of this work to do, plus my family too. I can't give you what you deserve-"
  1000. > Shit, Cadance had told you to avoid that line of thought.
  1001. "-and we're both looking for very, very different things. At this point... I'm
  1002. > "I d-don't 'deserve'! I lo-"
  1003. "Stop, Mocha Cream. Just, stop."
  1004. > She does, breathing hard and starting to tremble but still obeying your orders without thought.
  1005. > Even now, you still have that hold on her.
  1006. "You... want me because I gave you what you always deserved. I gave you a home. Saw you, when others didn't. I understand. That's not all I am, though, Mocha. You're infatuated with me, but stable relationships, good relationships, real love? They aren't built on that."
  1007. > Mocha whinnies fearfully, her eyes tossing back and forth as if to seek out some solution to the nightmare she found herself in.
  1008. > "I'll d-do better. I'm sorry, M-Master, I d-didn't m-mean to! I can do better f-for you, I-"
  1009. "Stop again. Listen. Do you understand what you just told me? 'I'm sorry, Master. I can do better.' You're blaming yourself, Mocha. But that's not right. It's not your fault. It's not something wrong with you. We're just... not for each other."
  1010. > Still, though, all she does is whimper and drive her muzzle into your palm - nuzzling it with a touch of desperation.
  1011. > "Please, don't send me away, Master. I - you're - you're all I have now. I'm nothing!"
  1012. "Don't ever say that, Mocha Cream. You still have-"
  1013. > "No, I don't! My magic is broken, I am a slave, my family is gone, I don't have anyone else to be close with-"
  1014. "Don't you? None of the ponies here, you see as your friends? Not one other pony you could imagine yourself loving?"
  1015. > Now it is your turn to stroke your hand around her cheek, up the side of her head to take an ear between finger and thumb.
  1016. > All it provokes from her, however, is another gentle sniffle.
  1017. "You aren't alone. Not now, not ever. I know at least one colt who would be happy to catch your eye. And a talent, too - a way to make use of your special talent. I dommmmmph!"
  1018. > Your brain goes utterly blank on account of the lips pressed to yours.
  1019. > They're soft, pressing to your own with a tentative uncertainty that suggested the bearer wasn't quite sure how much to push.
  1020. > Mocha had - had kissed you!
  1021. > It's almost enough to ignore the slight tickle of fuzzy coat around the corners of the lips, or bulging nose just above them.
  1022. > But not indefinitely.
  1023. > But not indefinitely.
  1024. > And when your mind abruptly shifts back in gear, you pull back with a loud cry:
  1025. "Mocha Cream! Just what the hell do you think you're doing?!"
  1026. > "I'm s-sorry! I'm sorry, M-Master! Please, I didn't mean to-"
  1027. > Crumpling, she collapses at your feet into a shaking ball heedless of the damage it is surely doing to her uniform.
  1028. > The door creaks - Cadance's muzzle and a worried eye peering through - but you wave her off and she retreats with a nod.
  1029. > You could still handle this on your own.
  1030. > Laying a hand on Mocha's withers, you feel her stiffen beneath your touch.
  1031. > "I-I'm so s-sorry, Master. P-Please forgive me, I d-don't know what I was - I'll go now-"
  1032. "No. Stay."
  1033. > Tentatively, as if fearing a blow, she lifts her head.
  1034. > Tears have matted her cheeks and reddened her eyes, while carefully-coiffed curls of mane are now jagged and pressing.
  1035. > Arms encircle Mocha Cream's barrel to lift her to your lap, settling her across the seat.
  1036. > When her head tries to rise, though, you bring it back down with a firm hand pressed between her ears.
  1037. > Comforting, but still in control.
  1038. > Then, you start to stroke - letting fingers brush along her cheeks to wick tears away and run up and down her back.
  1039. > She is the first to speak:
  1040. > "You're - safe. I know you wouldn't hurt me. I know you'd be there for me-"
  1041. "Who says you would be hurt?"
  1042. > Rather than pushing back up again, Mocha buries herself further into your lap.
  1043. > "I w-wanted it to be you. I know w-what a - a s-stallion does with a m-mare; I know it's scary and hard your first time and - and I wanted that to be you."
  1044. > You... aren't sure how to feel about that.
  1045. > A little flattered, of course - and in the back of your head, a little interested.
  1046. > But also very aware that this is exactly why you are keeping her from pushing it further:
  1047. > Normal relationships don't go like that.
  1048. > Especially not between slave and master.
  1049. > Unhealthy infatuations did.
  1050. "Now Mocha, I want you to listen to me."
  1051. > Her sniffle-sobs have slowed, allowing you to lift her head up and bring it gently to your chest.
  1052. "You - you mean a lot to me. And when you do actually find someone to love - really love, which I can tell you feels a lot different - I'm sure you'll be able to feel just as safe with them."
  1053. > "But I d-do l-love you, M-Master! And I want to be with-"
  1054. > Raising a finger to her lips silences Mocha again.
  1055. "No. There are different kinds of love, and I still do care for you - as family. As one I will be thrilled to see you blossom into a fine young mare, and find someone of your own to love. But not as a lover. Do you understand?"
  1056. > She does.
  1057. > That is, you presume, why her head buries itself against your stomach again as sobs resume shaking her body.
  1058. > You neither move her nor try to stop her.
  1059. > Instead simply stroking her back:
  1060. "I will still be here for you. To protect you. To listen to you. To offer advice, or comfort as needed. But not as a lover. In time, you'll find someone you can feel safe with too. And you'll give them the gift of your love. Feel real warmth in your heart, showing them your vulnerability."
  1061. > Another muffled whimper.
  1062. "I can't be your lover. And I can't ever really replace your parents. But, if I could be something like that to you - I would love that, Mocha Cream."
  1063. > Despite what you'd hoped to be calming words, no answer comes.
  1064. > Mocha remains still except for the little tremors wracking her body and tiny noises of despair issuing from her throat.
  1065. > Yet neither does she flee.
  1066. > That gives you hope that at the least she would not hate you for breaking her heart.
  1067. > You really don't think you could take that.
  1068. > At last her head rises again - eyes rimmed with crimson and coat around her face matted with dampness.
  1069. > "M-Master... A-Am I g-going to be p-punished f-for what I d-did?"
  1070. > It was far beyond what you would ever allow.
  1071. > In any other circumstance, a slave that tried that on you would be facing something quite severe indeed.
  1072. > Hell, even a human would.
  1073. > Especially right after you had told her in no unclear terms that it was not wanted!
  1074. > And keeping a firm line of discipline here would complete the lesson that you were not going to give her special treatment.
  1075. > At the same time, you aren't sure what level of reprimand would be best for Mocha right now.
  1076. > Or what level might absolutely crush her.
  1077. [Choice]
  1078. "No. No, Mocha. You were upset, you were scared, and your emotions just flared up a bit. I'm not going to punish you for that. But if you ever try something like that again, I will not hesitate to put you over my knee and light your button fire. It is never acceptable to do that to someone who doesn't want it, understand?"
  1079. > Her expression - which had been turning to something approximating relief - now slides straight back into one of pure shock; the blush reestablishes itself all across her cheeks and one of her hind legs twitches.
  1080. > Hrm - maybe that was the wrong thing to say.
  1081. > You'd meant it to be a final reinforcement that you were letting her go out of sympathy, but felt no attachment and would treat her as any of the other ponies that were your property if she tried something.
  1082. "Now, c'mere-"
  1083. > Rectifying the situation, you slip your hands beneath her forelegs and lift Mocha Cream up to rest against you - her head tucked over your shoulder and in against your neck.
  1084. > The pony needs no encouragement, one hoof folding beneath her while the other wraps around your side to pull her in close to you.
  1085. "-and listen to me. I know it hurts. I know it feels like something's just been ripped out of you, that there's lead ball where your stomach ought to be. I know it feels like nothing will ever be right again. I lost someone I loved very much once too, so believe me - I know."
  1086. > No petting now.
  1087. > Just your hand on her back, feeling the rise and fall of her sides beneath the now-wrinkled and battered uniform.
  1088. > Letting her sense the presence of its weight, and know that even after breaking her heart you would still be there to be her bulwark.
  1089. "I can't be what you want me to be. But I will always be there to support you. Understand?"
  1090. > "Yes, Master."
  1091. > It sounds odd, hearing her voice coming from just behind your head.
  1092. > Even despite having heard it before when she was giving a massage.
  1093. > ...probably would be best to hold off on those for a little while, until her emotions settled.
  1094. "You're a beautiful pony with a good heart and a sweet soul. Some day, there will be some other pony who sees that very much and loves you for it. And you'll give yourself to them."
  1095. > She can hear you - the turn of her ear, brushing against your head, proves that.
  1096. "When you're nervous, when you're scared, when you need advice or have to tell a secret to get it off your back, I'll still be there for you. Some things, though, we only give to certain people. Or ponies."
  1097. > Now a gentle, comforted whicker comes from just behind your ear accompanied by a soft swish of her tail.
  1098. > That comforts you.
  1099. > Even if just a touch.
  1100. "Now, are you going to be okay, Mocha Cream?"
  1101. > "I-I d-don't know, M-Master."
  1102. "Well. Why don't you go take the rest of the day off from your duties if you feel that would be better. Maybe go talk to Cadance, Rumble, or anypony else you know who could help you?"
  1103. > "If it's okay w-with you, M-Master... I think I-I'd like t-to work. Maybe - maybe take my mind off of - of..."
  1104. > You aren't sure whether you should be glad she's not dwelling on her sorrows, or worried that she's merely postponing them until later.
  1105. "Go ahead. But if you need to stop - if it's too much for you - you have my permission to just go rest."
  1106. > "Y-Yes, Master."
  1107. > That isn't what you'd hoped to hear.
  1108. > Her tone is still far too laden with despair and heartbreak for your liking, but what can you do?
  1109. > Maybe it's still too early to be judging; you'd only just told her, after all.
  1110. > Once Mocha Cream's hoofsteps have faded - heavy with sadness and easy to hear - Cadance once again nudges the door to your room open and peers through.
  1111. > "Anonymous?"
  1112. "...it's fine, Cadance. Just - shut the door to the hallway, would you?"
  1113. > She does, but then slips over to your chair unbidden to peer up with worried eyes.
  1114. "I feel like I lied to her Cadance?"
  1115. > "What?"
  1116. "There's a part of me that did want that, you know? Especially since I don't know that I'm going to have someone soon, being appreciated like that..."
  1117. > "It was the right thing to do, Anonymous. It might have felt desirable, but it wouldn't have been right."
  1118. "I know. But I think it hit my heart almost as much as it hurt hers."
  1119. > You look away, tapping the arm of your chair thoughtfully.
  1120. > And so are completely unprepared when Cadance puts a hoof up onto the chair, rears up, and uses it as leverage to lean in and rest her head on your shoulder - a broad feathered wing coming to rest over your chest.
  1121. > Even though she was the second pony to be doing something like this so recently, this feels...
  1122. > Different.
  1123. > Especially from her - the one who had once lead an escape to flee your very presence because she hated you so much.
  1124. > "I can tell how much your heart is aching."
  1125. "Contrary to what some might think, I don't causing pain like that... even to ponies."
  1126. > "That's why I do this. I've said it before, I think there is good in your heart."
  1127. > Your arm slips up to rub her side - the ridges formed by her ribs running beneath your fingers.
  1128. "Yeah... I probably did need this, Cadance."
  1129. > "I will speak to Mocha Cream later. Help her settle herself. This field is my talent, remember."
  1130. "I do."
  1131. > You lean your head to the side, feeling her mane softly press back and an ear flick against your temple.
  1132. "Speaking of which... you had better get moving. Ponies are going to start wondering where you are, and Mocha may very well go looking for you on her own."
  1133. > "I understand, Master."
  1134. > After Cadance goes, though, you decide to make one final check of your own:
  1135. > Marching down the stairs and on to the kitchen, already beginning to make preparations for lunch.
  1136. > Canele is the closest thing to a head of your house staff there is - certainly one of your most-trusted servants.
  1137. > He wouldn't be cooking for you if he wasn't.
  1138. "Canele? Can I talk to you a moment?"
  1139. > The unicorn sets down the eggbeater he'd been whirling about, coming to stand at the kitchen
  1140. > "Of course, Master. What is it?"
  1141. "I just had a... conversation with Mocha Cream. Addressed something with her, that I think maybe I should have addressed long ago."
  1142. > Hooves shuffling and tail lashing, Canele bows his head slightly.
  1143. > "We had, ah... we had suspected, Master. Your yell was heard, and she came down the stairs nearly in tears..."
  1144. > Damn.
  1145. > Nothing moves faster than gossip, you guess.
  1146. > Well, it wasn't like you were hiding it from him anyhow was it?
  1147. "Listen, just - please, have someone look after her. I know she's got somepony else in her quarters, but just have an eye kept on her please? I'm afraid she might do something - rash."
  1148. > "Rash, Master?"
  1149. "I don't know... find a rope and a tall beam in the basement or something..."
  1150. > Your face must have shown your fear, because Canele takes a no-questions, no-jokes look on his own.
  1151. > "Absolutely. We will; all of us."
  1152. > Good.
  1153. > You had already lost one pony to a despair so deep it drove them to end their life.
  1154. > Losing another was not something you could deal with either.
  1155.  
  1156. > Going back to Vapor Trail the night after the whipping had been...
  1157. > Awkward.
  1158. > There'd been an undeniable distance between you, and even though you could tell she had been trying not to snap - undoubtedly recognizing the reasons you did what you had to - any conversation between the two of you was brusque and stilted.
  1159. > When it did come time to sleep, even though you shared a bed there was barely any contact between the two of you.
  1160. > Except for when Sunbreak had cried:
  1161. > When that thin, wailing noise hit your ears, both of you were united in a desire to care for her.
  1162. > You did not push the matter; Vapor was not your first marefriend and you knew not to try interrogating her before she was ready to speak.
  1163. > In any case, come morning Vapor was the slightest bit less frosty and reserved.
  1164. > She would get over it in time, and that's all you needed to know.
  1165. > Once out in the camp you got a few cold looks, but they were few and far between.
  1166. > More normal was the generally subdued tone about the camp - something that held sway after every major punishment.
  1167. > It lingers all day - a malaise stemming from the reminder of just how much power Anonymous held over you.
  1168. > Copper Dust, when you saw him, kept a distance and never approached.
  1169. > Somewhere around mid-day, however, a new message comes down:
  1170. > Megan and Flurry Heart would again be making another trip into the camp - this time under more direct guard.
  1171. > That of one of the griffons and, to your surprise, your brother.
  1172. > Why him?
  1173. > Was Anonymous trying to give Flurry a deeper view of the camp, but still from a relatively trusted source?
  1174. > You don't know, but a talk beforehand with your little brother was in order:
  1175. > Finding him paused for lunch break amid a crowd of his other co-workers, you wave him over with a wing.
  1176. "Rumble. Can I talk for a moment?"
  1177. > "Sure, bro. What's up?"
  1178. "Listen. This evening, you're going to be asked to walk Flurry Heart and Megan around the camp a bit."
  1179. > Rumble's eyes widen, his little wings fluttering in surprise.
  1180. > "He's letting her out again? After what happened last time?"
  1181. "Yeah. One of the griffons will be there with you, but don't let him walk all over you. If there is any problem-"
  1182. > "I can take care of myself, bro."
  1183. > Eyes rolling sharply, your little brother makes an expressions that suggests it should have been obvious for anypony and everypony.
  1184. > That turns into a startled look a moment later as you trap him under one strong head and muss his already-scattered hair.
  1185. "Yeah, yeah. Okay, if that's how you're going to be - "
  1186. > The grin you wore is well-communicated even if he could not actually see it.
  1187. "-then the other thing I'm going to tell you is - be wary of what you tell her, okay?"
  1188. > "What do y'mean?"
  1189. "Like - Anonymous is putting a lot of trust into us by doing this, okay? Letting Megan wander around freely after the last time. And if you drop Megan into the deep end, try to convince her what her daddy's doing to us-"
  1190. > "I get it, I get it."
  1191. > Rumble brusquely pulls from beneath your wing, shaking his mane out.
  1192. > "Don't go pushing her too hard."
  1193. "Either of them. Besides, Mocha Cream would be really upset to hear that this had been called off. She knows you're supposed to be escorting them around, and I think she's rather happy about it."
  1194. > "Really?"
  1195. > Heh.
  1196. > That got Rumble's attention alright.
  1197. "Yes, really. So go easy on her, and we can do this again."
  1198. > " 'kay."
  1199. > Unexpectedly, he nuzzles back up against your chest.
  1200. > "Sorry if I was being a bit of a pain in the flank, bro."
  1201. "It's fine. I know things are - chaotic right now. If it makes you feel better, there'll be another guard - maybe me, maybe somepony else - hanging back to watch at a distance."
  1202. > "Anonymous order that too?"
  1203. "No, but it'll happen. If nothing goes wrong, he doesn't need to know. If it does, we stop it before they could be hurt."
  1204. > You ruffle his mane again, undoing the progress it had made in settling back down.
  1205. "I promise, I'm not trying to stifle you. We'll keep our distance."
  1206. > When the time comes, one of the other house slaves leads Megan and Flurry Heart down into the camp.
  1207. > You're rather surprised that duty didn't fall to Mocha Cream.
  1208. > Maybe she wasn't prepared to; you'd heard she was rather distraught by the news that Megan had slipped off the first time...
  1209. > Whatever the reason, you keep yourself at a reasonable distance as the handoff occurs.
  1210. > The griffon accompanying them is Gretchen - one you'd worked with before.
  1211. > She seemed to be a reasonable, if quiet figure.
  1212. > Didn't speak much on your patrols so far, but worked quietly and without needing your eye on her back.
  1213. > A good choice for this.
  1214. > Even now she stands to the side, fierce avian eyes swinging around as Rumble nervously rubs the back of his head.
  1215. > "So, uh, Miss Megan, Flurry - where would you like to go first?"
  1216. > "Back to the rec-re-a-tion-al place! It was fun there last time!"
  1217. > "Uh-huh!"
  1218. > "Well, we can - do that, I guess? It might be pretty busy after dinner. Gretchen, right? No problems with you?"
  1219. > You cannot hear the griffon hen's answer, but it is apparently in the affirmative as Rumble turns to trot off.
  1220. > "Alright. C'mon, I'll tell you the way."
  1221. > He is, you are gratified to see, walking alongside the two rather than letting them fall behind - one eye always on them.
  1222. > Not giving them a chance to run off.
  1223. > Good for him.
  1224. > You follow at a respectable distance, keeping to the sides of the streets on muted hooves.
  1225. > This late, there were few ponies out - most having retired for what little free time they had before lights-out and sleep.
  1226. > Even so a small crew were hard at work carefully repairing the front of one shop; you hold back as the small convoy stops to let Megan and Flurry talk to them.
  1227. > This, too, is too far to be really heard - but evidently proceeds smoothly, as they allow Megan to take a paintbrush in hand and add a few strokes.
  1228. > ...you hope she isn't getting her clothing dirty...
  1229. > So focused on watching her are you that you do not hear the hooves approaching behind you.
  1230. > "Thunderlane!"
  1231. > The hissed voice is from just behind you, and you nearly bowl over Sunburst when you spin around.
  1232. > He's all but covered in a cloak, the tip of his muzzle and horn being the only things emerging from beneath the shapeless brown fabric.
  1233. "Sweet Celestia, Sunburst! Be careful!"
  1234. > "I'm sorry, I'm a little bit - look, I'm just glad I found you!"
  1235. > He's paled, you realize.
  1236. > The already-normally-messy mane even further caked down on his head with sweat.
  1237. "Hit me; what is it?"
  1238. > "You know about - the plan, right?"
  1239. > The plan, meaning the escape plan?
  1240. > It'd explain why he's talking in a whispered hiss - and sneaking around this late at night in a cloak.
  1241. "Vaguely."
  1242. > "I just - somepony just - jumped me in an alleyway. Put a knife to my neck - but they weren't angry, just keeping me from seeing them.They said they were trying to warn me!"
  1243. > Wait.
  1244. > You remember something vaguely like that...
  1245. "Another unicorn? Kept their voice low and kind of growly, so you weren't sure if it was a mare or stallion?"
  1246. > "Exactly! Wait, how do you-?"
  1247. "I've met them before once. They gave me information that helped us pin down who had beaten Mocha Cream."
  1248. > Not exactly pleasing that they were still running around the camp holding blades to ponies' throats, but it was what it was.
  1249. > At least nopony had been hurt.
  1250. "Great. What did they tell you?
  1251. > "You know we had somepony from - the outside, right? In the camp, giving us messages?"
  1252. "Yeeeeees?"
  1253. > "They said the contact is getting ready to leave. They're going to use our escape tactic to get out - soon!"
  1254. "Wait; how do they even know?"
  1255. > "I don't know! Maybe - maybe they're part of the plan too? Maybe they saw something being done?"
  1256. > Shifting from hoof to hoof, Sunburst does a nervous little dance as he mumbles softly.
  1257. > Even with the cloak covering him you can tell his ears are pinned.
  1258. > Poor guy really is terrified...
  1259. > "Oh, Celestia help us - I tried to find you or Cadance; I don't know what to do! If Anonymous finds out about this-"
  1260. > It would be the whipping post again - or worse - for the both of you.
  1261. > And however awful that agony had been, it was undoubtedly worse for the soft, bookish unicorn.
  1262. "Okay, look. First thing you're going to do is tell everypony else involved in this that under no circumstances does this go off early. Got it?"
  1263. > "Y-Yeah. I already did. But if they don't listen-"
  1264. "I'll pass it on to Cadance as well if I see her first. I have to look after Megan and Flurry Heart tonight, and I can't bring them back early without raising questions why. So you just keep giving orders, and I'll let her know as soon as possible."
  1265. > "O-Okay, Thunderlane. I - I've got it."
  1266. "Good. Go on, then."
  1267. > You do - and then freeze with barely a hoof forward.
  1268. > They're gone!
  1269. > Megan and Flurry and Rumble and-
  1270. > Cursing beneath your breath, you promptly leap to the air and take off with wings beating.
  1271. > They were going to the rec hall, right?
  1272. > If you turn close and follow them there-
  1273. > Yes!
  1274. > Swinging wide around the next intersection, you dive into another alleyway - hoping the sound you made touching down wasn't too obvious.
  1275. > Fortunately you thought you were far enough away, and even more fortunately they were still on-track towards the rec hall.
  1276. > Letting them out of sight again feels wrong, but even so you give the group a few minutes after entering before pushing in yourself.
  1277. > Pushing almost literally, as just as you'd predicted the hall is quite busy at this hour.
  1278. > Ponies showing up to spend a few minutes in quiet chatter, a few minutes for themselves rather than the man who held them in bondage.
  1279. > Even if it was only just a few minutes.
  1280. > Spotting the group is easier than you'd feared; a small circle has opened up around Megan.
  1281. > Or around the fierce-looking griffonness guarding her; you aren't sure.
  1282. > You grab a mug - only water, unfortunately - and take up a position at a nearby table.
  1283. > Close enough to hear, but still far enough to blend in with the crowd.
  1284. > "-don't think you're to blame for that, Miss Megan."
  1285. > "I know, but I wish he hadn't kept it."
  1286. > "Tourmaline Twist knew what he was doing."
  1287. > "Yeah, but-"
  1288. > Megan sighs heavily, folding her arms and pouting a bit.
  1289. > At her one side sits Rumble, who seems to be mostly content scanning the crowd; on her other, Flurry Heart is nuzzled against her arm.
  1290. > "Nevermind. Can I ask you all a question? There were other alicorns, right? Did any of them have a kids too?"
  1291. > A dozen cheeks around her flush at the thought of Celestia or Luna with a foal at their side - or, perhaps, at the thought of being the one responsible for it.
  1292. > Rumble finally takes the hit and answers:
  1293. > "N-Not that we know of, Miss Megan."
  1294. > "I... remember Momma always did say I was special. Her little gem, unique like each crystal."
  1295. > "Yay!"
  1296. > Wrapping both her arms around the alicorn filly in a tight hug, Megan squeals with happiness.
  1297. > "That means we're both special, Flurry! I'm the only girl with a pony like you!"
  1298. > Releasing her grip, Megan promptly throws herself back down in front of the crowd and grins.
  1299. > "Lemme ask another one! Where'd you all come from?"
  1300. > "Village near Trottingham."
  1301. > "Fillydelphia."
  1302. > "Canterlot. One of the lower levels."
  1303. > "Hock island. On the south side."
  1304. > Megan gives Flurry Heart a nudge.
  1305. > "Can you write these down? I want to put them on the map Miss Mackle gave me!"
  1306. > "Of course, Mistress!"
  1307. > The pencil scribbles furiously in her magical grip, and more and more names come in.
  1308. > Some ponies are eager to not just mention the places they've come from, but talk about them in wistful tones.
  1309. > Ponies are all too happy to talk to someone willing to listen - even a human.
  1310. > After all, Megan was not judging; she was honestly enthralled in what they had to say.
  1311. > Eventually Rumble steps in, organizing it in a rough pattern around the circle facing the two.
  1312. > Each pony takes their turn, including Rumble's own fond memories of Ponyville, until only one is left.
  1313. > All heads turn to Gretchen, who shuffles nervously - leaving scratches on the floor from her talons.
  1314. > "Forgive me - I do not wish to say."
  1315. > In an instant Megan goes into a pout.
  1316. > "Oh, c'mon! Everyone else did!"
  1317. > Gretchen looks to the others, her head swiveling in jerking, bird-like motions and tail starting to lash in a distinctly feline gesture of displeasure.
  1318. > You prepare to stand, recognizing a problem when you see one-
  1319. > And then she looks to Rumble.
  1320. > Something passes between them, and he reaches out with a wing towards the girl.
  1321. > "...s'okay, Miss Megan. If she doesn't want to, I don't think it's really fair to make her."
  1322. > Megan does sit back down however, and the griffoness relaxes in turn.
  1323. > As you also return to your seat, though, from the corner of your eye a flash of reddish-brown mane catches your attention.
  1324. > Copper Dust!
  1325. > He's close, too - much like you, nursing a mug of something and sitting just close enough to listen in on the conversation.
  1326. > And as someone doing so yourself, you recognize a pony listening in.
  1327. > The ear cocked towards the little circle kind of gives it away.
  1328. > But what is he up to?
  1329. > No doubt he'd been furious at you for taking part in the whipping, but was he thinking of going after Anonymous' daughter...?
  1330. > ...you can't go leaping to conclusions like that.
  1331. > So he'd avoided you; that didn't mean Copper Dust was ready to go assault a child.
  1332. > Meanwhile, Megan's curiosity could no longer wait.
  1333. > "What did you do there?"
  1334. > "What were your homes like?"
  1335. > "If the sun was brought up by a princess, what about seasons?"
  1336. > All are answered enthusiastically, and sometimes even questions sent in the opposite direction too.
  1337. > Eventually, however, one of those questions tossed back lands with unintended consequences.
  1338. > "Miss Megan? If humans don't have cutie marks, how do you know what you're going to do when you grow up?"
  1339. > The girl gives a simple shrug.
  1340. > "We don't... we gotta figure it out. Though, daddy says someday I'm going to be running this place too. With Flurry, like Daddy and Cadance do now."
  1341. > Cocking her head, the pony who'd asked swishes his tail curiously.
  1342. > "Really? Like, here, or what?"
  1343. > "Iunno. But Daddy says I'm learning how to be a 'proper manager' with Flurry, so I can learn how to take care of you when I'm grown up."
  1344. > Here Flurry Heart jumps in:
  1345. > "S'true. After she does her homework, he'll give us little lessons too. Sometimes play a little game where we have to answer questions about what to do in certain situations."
  1346. > A long silence follows that; the same pony who'd asked the original question about cutie marks speaks up at last:
  1347. > "...but is that what you want, Miss Megan?"
  1348. > Another shrug.
  1349. > "Dunno. But Daddy does good business, and says it would be sad if someone else owned you when he was gone. So I'll just take over and treat you all real good, just like Daddy and Cadance do."
  1350. > In an even more cautious voice, he asks:
  1351. > “And - Flurry Heart? Do you-?”
  1352. > A long moment of silence passes, in which the filly fidgets nervously.
  1353. > “I dunno… But, Mistress Megan says we will, so I guess so?”
  1354. > Wait.
  1355. > Copper Dust had just stood up; was he-
  1356. > No.
  1357. > He was heading for the exit.
  1358. > Head drooping and hooves heavy, but leaving all the same.
  1359. > Not until you see him out of the Rec Hall do you actually relax, though.
  1360. > That, at least, was one less thing to worry about.
  1361. > In the meantime, the tide of questions had reversed itself:
  1362. > Now they were flowing back in at Megan, who was also happy to answer.
  1363. > With the most immediate 'danger' now gone and the evening carrying on, you find sleep tugging at your eyes.
  1364. > With the most immediate 'danger' now gone and the evening carrying on, you find sleep tugging at your eyes.
  1365. > The mug you sip from helps stave that off, but soon comes another reminder of the late hour:
  1366. > The all-encompassing wail of the camp's buzzers signal the final knell for the conversation:
  1367. > Signalling only a few minutes left to lights-out.
  1368. > By that point very few ponies were left, and you can clearly hear Gretchen as she rises from the comfortable sprawl she'd sunken into.
  1369. > "Miss Megan, my orders are to take you back before lights-out. We should be going now."
  1370. > Rumble shoots her a sharp look, but doesn't intercede.
  1371. > By now the late hour has begun to weigh on both girl and filly, and the former rubs her eyes as she rises.
  1372. > "Aaaaalright. But we gotta come back tomorrow."
  1373. > "That will be according to the decision of your father."
  1374. > "Awww. But we didn't even get to see more of the camp!"
  1375. > Flurry Heart giggles.
  1376. > "That's 'cause you sat here the whole time, Mistress Megan. Daddy's always telling you to get out and exercise more!"
  1377. > A tongue is stuck out in answer, only provoking more giggles from the filly and a very confused look from Gretchen.
  1378. > That sort of casual banter did not fit into their understanding of power hierarchies.
  1379. > Nonetheless, she dutifully falls in place behind Megan as the two exit - but abruptly holds one clawed foreleg out in front of Rumble.
  1380. > "Wait. If you come with us, you will be late returning to your quarters. I can keep her safe for just one walk."
  1381. > "No way. I was told I had to-"
  1382. > "Guide her while she is out. She is now returning. You job is done. Go. Rest."
  1383. > By now the discussion has caught the attention of Megan, who looks back with a curious expression.
  1384. > "Nah. It's fine if Rumble comes with us."
  1385. > Gretchen looks between the two, seeming uncertain of what to do, claws nervously raking the floor.
  1386. > At last she gives a click of her beak and relents:
  1387. > "...fine."
  1388. > "Cool! C'mon, Rumble!"
  1389. > Megan happily skips out the door into the warm summer night beyond; you wait a minute or so after her entourage leaves before heading out yourself with a wide yawn.
  1390. > Rather than follow close behind, this time you immediately take to the air and circle wide around the little convoy.
  1391. > Cadance is already waiting just inside the manor when you nudge the door open.
  1392. > "They're coming?"
  1393. "Should be here any minute now."
  1394. > "Excellent. No problems?"
  1395. "None at all, Your Highness. She was very well behaved."
  1396. > "Flurry Heart, or Megan?"
  1397. "Yes."
  1398. > Cracking a grin, Cadance straightens up as the sounds of hoof, feet, and claws grow nearer.
  1399. > The reunion is a brief one; Anonymous soon appears and both girl and filly vanish inside to make ready for bed.
  1400. > He, however, has another request:
  1401. > "Wait. Rumble, before you go - can you come inside a moment?"
  1402. > "...sure?"
  1403. > Your brother gives a questioning look; Anonymous' tone was not one of danger.
  1404. > Cadance, meanwhile, jumps in at the opportunity:
  1405. > "Master, may I go see Flurry Heart and Megan to bed?"
  1406. > "Sure. Let me know when they're actually there; I'll go down and say goodnight too. Thunderlane, you're welcome to come in as well. Gretchen, you are dismissed for the night."
  1407. > The group scatters; Anonymous leads both you and your brother up to his study.
  1408. > There he sinks deeply into a chair, and you're suddenly aware of how heavy and tired he seems.
  1409. > Not merely exhausted like you are, but - deeper.
  1410. > "...Rumble, I need to ask a favor of you. This morning I - did something I should have done long ago, and I'm afraid it's hurt Mocha Cream deeply."
  1411. > "Mocha?!"
  1412. > Rumble bristles, but to his credit waits for Anonymous to explain:
  1413. > "Yes. I... rejected her. You know she was - interested in me, I'm sure. In a way that wasn't really right."
  1414. > He sinks back into his seat, and you wonder - no, hope - Rumble can see how much this has gotten to Anonymous.
  1415. > "I finally told her that, and it cut her deeply. She's insisting on going back to work, and since the two of you handle the camp's mail and suggestions together-"
  1416. > "Yeah, I will."
  1417. > Not even waiting for Anonymous to finish, Rumble sits perfectly upright:
  1418. > His wings fluffed out proudly.
  1419. > "I'll make sure of it. Because she - I - she'll-"
  1420. > Grinning a touch, Anonymous waves dismissively.
  1421. > "Go ahead, Rumble. Say what you want."
  1422. > "She deserves somepony better than you. Much, much better."
  1423. > "I know."
  1424. > The reply brings Rumble up short, having clearly not expected that Anonymous would agree with him.
  1425. > "Mocha Cream needed someone who could give her real love - a life together, maybe even children. That's not me. So look out for her, Rumble, and if you want to be that pony? You're welcome to try. But-"
  1426. > Standing again, Anonymous steps forward to loom over the colt.
  1427. > "-don't you dare break her heart. Understand? I won't see her crushed like that twice."
  1428. > "Y-Yes. I get it."
  1429. > "Good!"
  1430. > Just as quickly his face softens as he squats down and offers Rumble and open hand.
  1431. > "I trust you'll be good to her. Now, go get some sleep. If anyone gives you trouble for being out after curfew, tell them I authorized it and they're welcome to come ask me about it."
  1432. > Soon after your brother leaves Cadance comes up to tell Anonymous that Megan is ready for bed.
  1433. > He steps out with a promise to be right back, leaving you alone with the princess.
  1434. > "You look tired, Thunderlane. Is everything alright?"
  1435. > Not wasting any time, you draw close to her and whisper in a whispered hiss:
  1436. "Your Highness - Sunburst found me while I was out shadowing Flurry. There is a problem."
  1437. > "Tell me."
  1438. > Her voice is just as low, sensing your trouble.
  1439. "Sunburst was contacted by somepony who's fed me tips in the past. Gave me information leading to the ponies who attacked Mocha. Now they're telling him part of your resistance-ring - the one who's been our contact to the outside - might try to jump the cloud early and leave the camp using Sunburst's plan."
  1440. > "It'd take a unicorn of considerable strength and skill to manage that spell. Sunburst assured me he could trust them all!"
  1441. "Not anymore. He's terrified."
  1442. > "He'll need to make it clear this is not my order-"
  1443. "Already is. But if they're going anyway, that might be enough."
  1444. > Pacing in a nervous circle, Cadance's eyes focus far away and she mumbles to herself.
  1445. > "I could break the rule keeping each of the cells separate, talk to them all together… or…”
  1446. "You - you could leak the information to Anonymous yourself. Or I could-"
  1447. > She didn't need to know the other reason Anonymous would trust your word.
  1448. > It'd only be the second time you had blown an escape attempt.
  1449. "-not the exact plan. But that something might be coming in or going out, and packages are going to be inspected. It might warn them off."
  1450. > "Maybe. But..."
  1451. > You both grow silent at the sound of footsteps coming back up the stairs.
  1452. > Anonymous slips back into the study and promptly sinks into his chair.
  1453. > "There we go. Two children, tucked away."
  1454. > A questioning look is shot at Cadance while he is looking away - would she tell, should you? - but only garners a negative shake of her head.
  1455. "Did the talk with Mocha really go that badly, Master?"
  1456. > He snorts.
  1457. > "Like you would not believe..."
  1458. > Unfortunately, being lost in his own memories of that matter means Anonymous does not notice how tired you are for some time - long after when any rational pony would be in bed.
  1459. > Eventually you simply raise a hoof in request:
  1460. "Master, I think I need to be heading to bed. If I can go...?"
  1461. > "Oh! Of course, Thunderlane. I'll talk to you tomorrow; g'night, Thunderlane."
  1462. "G'night."
  1463. > Stumbling out of the study, you carefully re-shut the door behind you and start down the stairs.
  1464. > With the entire staff bedded down for the night, the manor was more still than you'd ever seen it.
  1465. > All except one, whose tail you just barely catch vanishing through a doorway.
  1466. "G'nigh-"
  1467. > Wait.
  1468. > Through the mental cloud of fatigue you belatedly remember two very clear facts:
  1469. > That you knew exactly what all the house-ponies looked like - and that reddened tail hadn't belonged to any of them.
  1470. > And that doorway was Megan's room.
  1471. > Whirling about, you charge it without a thought - slamming the door open like a battering ram.
  1472. "Stop where you are! I see you, and-!"
  1473. > Your mid-air leap, hooves outstretched to grapple him, suddenly turns into an inelegant tumble that ends with you slamming into the wall.
  1474. > As your vision clears you see Copper Dust - his horn alight and face twisted into an expression of raw fury.
  1475. > In their bed, Megan and Flurry Heart are sitting up and clutching each other.
  1476. "Don't try it. Don't you fucking dare try it. They are innocent of anything you might think-"
  1477. > His horn lights, and again you leap.
  1478. > This time, however, a torrent of magic slams you to the wall - driving breath from your lungs, leaving you pinned and wheezing.
  1479. > Sweet Celestia - what was this?!
  1480. > His magic is incredibly strong!
  1481. > You can only watch helplessly as Copper Dust turns to approach the bed.
  1482. > There's another obstacle in his way, however:
  1483. > Flurry Heart has climbed to stand between the intruder and Megan, her wings spread and eyes narrowed.
  1484. > "Get away from my mistress!"
  1485. > Copper Dust recoils as if struck, his jaw working soundlessly.
  1486. > After a moment, though, he reaches a hoof out:
  1487. > "F-Flurry... it's - I'm - she's not your mistress anymore, little gem! I'm not going to hurt her; I'm just going to take you away. Somewhere safe, where you won't be taught to -"
  1488. > "No. I'm not going anywhere!"
  1489. > "They're teaching you to be a - a tyrant, Flurry! To rule over other ponies and whip them if they want to be free! And I won't see you-"
  1490. > Horn flaring, Copper Dust splits his magical grip - the other half manifesting around Flurry's leg.
  1491. > And two things happen simultaneously:
  1492. > One; you stand up, muscles straining against his remaining grip.
  1493. > And two, Flurry Heart screams.
  1494. > Not a filly scream.
  1495. > Not even a mare's scream.
  1496. > But an alicorn's scream, a Royal Canterlot Scream - a physical blow that sends you tumbling head-over-hooves for the second time that night.
  1497. > You're vaguely aware of coming too covered in glass - had the window exploded? - and upside down.
  1498. > Somewhere nearby, you can hear Copper Dust groaning as he stirs.
  1499. > And that's right when the door is ripped clean off its hinges.
  1500.  
  1501. > "So, Cadance. What did you want to speak about?"
  1502. “Master, I…”
  1503. > You have to tell him.
  1504. > Pass on the warning Sunburst had been given.
  1505. > He wasn’t like he was all those months ago.
  1506. > He would let you handle it.
  1507. > He wouldn’t send ponies to be tortured - if you admitted it before it could happen.
  1508. > So why was this so hard to admit?
  1509. > “Cadance? What is it?”
  1510. > Your pacing had brought you to a stop in front of his chair, and you shiver gently as he reaches down to lift your head into his hands.
  1511. > “Is it something to do with Mocha, Cadance? You know you can speak freely.”
  1512. “No, I…”
  1513. > Damn it!
  1514. > “Cadance…”
  1515. > Leaning forward, he brings his head level with your muzzle.
  1516. > “I’ve held you in chains. I’ve seen you at your weakest. Please, trust me - whatever this is, you can tell me.”
  1517. > He’s close - so close.
  1518. > Close enough for you to see the honestly.
  1519. > He really does believe that.
  1520. “Master, it’s something that I-”
  1521. > Two pair of ears prick as a shout echoes up from the floor below, followed shortly by a heavy thud.
  1522. "What was...?"
  1523. > Another angry shout, and Anonymous starts to rise from his chair.
  1524. > "Who the hell is fighting at this Godforsaken hour of the night?"
  1525. "I don't know, but let me go with you. It could be bad, and-"
  1526. > The scream tears through the house, a physically powerful noise that leaves your head pounding.
  1527. > Despite the pain, both of you are rising to your feet and hooves in a second.
  1528. > You knew that scream.
  1529. > It had been years since you had heard it, but it cut straight to your heart in the way only a child's cry could touch a parent.
  1530. > Throwing open the study door, you charge to the stairs and leap from the top - landing on the first floor with a heavy-hoofed thud.
  1531. > The door to Megan's room is shut, and you forego opening in favor of simply tearing it off to clear the way.
  1532. > Inside, you take in the scene in a moment:
  1533. > Thunderlane, pinned to a wall by a field of magic.
  1534. > Flurry Heart, winded and panting on the bed but still standing before Megan.
  1535. > And another stallion, one you didn't know, crawling to his hooves.
  1536. > Horn igniting, you seize him in a magical grip.
  1537. "YOU WILL NOT HURT MY DAUGHTER!"
  1538. > The roared challenge seems to shock him into action:
  1539. > His horn ignites, a gleaming lavender bubble encapsulating the stallion to shield him from your touch.
  1540. > It's strong magic - a more powerful field than you have felt in years.
  1541. > But you are an alicorn.
  1542. > And faced with the threat to your filly - with the specter of losing her again, having to bury her before you pass - there is nothing you will not do.
  1543. > Reaching within yourself, you tap the roiling nexus of magic at your core and pull it into your horn.
  1544. > Energies raw and primal flow through you, rippling our mane and effusing your eyes with glow.
  1545. > The shield is squeezed until it cracks, shattering like the glass that litters the room, and you seize the stallion in a crushing grip.
  1546. "Who are you?! How dare you threaten a child?!"
  1547. > He's trying to say something, but no part of you cares.
  1548. > There's - something else about him.
  1549. > Something magically resonating in your grip - a fragment of something, woven into his long, bushy mane.
  1550. > An enchantment?
  1551. > You rip it free, a few strands of mane coming with the wooden shard, and watch as the charm's disguising effect bleeds from him:
  1552. > Russet color running from his mane like blood, coat and eyes shifting too, revealing-
  1553. > Your magic fails.
  1554. > Not releases, but fails entirely.
  1555. > Overtaken by the lump in your throat, the stillness of your heart's beating.
  1556. > Half of you wants to rip the rest of his mane off, searching for another disguise enchantment in its tangled depths.
  1557. > But more of you knows that it is impossible; there was no more magic affecting him.
  1558. > No way to deny what you saw.
  1559. > No hope of making reality any less impossible.
  1560. > A great rushing fills your ears, lungs seeming to clamp up still and stomach turning entirely inside out.
  1561. > You are only dimly aware of Anonymous entering the room, or of Thunderlane rising to help him tackle the stallion and pin him down.
  1562. > No.
  1563. > Not 'the stallion'.
  1564. > Not a no-pony, an unknown.
  1565. > But your husband.
  1566. > Flurry Heart's father.
  1567. > Shining Armor.
  1568. [Choice]
  1569. "S-Shin-ing?"
  1570. > You can barely get the name past your lips.
  1571. > Much of your brain is still blindly repeating what it knew to be truth, desperately scrambling to repeat the mantra that Shining Armor was dead so that you would not have to face this reality.
  1572. > But the rest is recognizing what your eyes were clearly seeing:
  1573. > Shining Armor was alive.
  1574. > Warm, breathing, thinking alive.
  1575. > All thoughts of what he had just done - of what would drive him to try and break into the house, to go after Megan and Flurry -
  1576. > The same part of you that wants to give him a good slap across the jaw for this.
  1577. > All of that is washed away in a moment.
  1578. > The only things that matter was that Shining was alive.
  1579. "Shining!"
  1580. > You leap for him - not in attack, but in to tackle him into an embrace that actually spins the two of you over and over in a tumbling tangle of hooves, wings, and horns.
  1581. "You were d-dead, I was sure of it! I c-couldn't believe you were still a-alive, and I thought for sure you were dead-"
  1582. > It's the little things that you always remembered about him:
  1583. > The way his coat had a little swirl just between the pectorals, not true fluff but something you could stick your nose into and tickle him by swirling it about.
  1584. > The scent that you'd always come to associate as slightly iron-ey, even when he was wearing no armor.
  1585. > The two-toned blue mane with an omnipresent case of helmet-hair, now grown out into a long and shaggy mess.
  1586. > The slight crinkle of his eyes, just below the brow.
  1587. > All of that - yes, all of that still here.
  1588. > Even if you could see many more unwelcome additions to his appearance:
  1589. > You're all too aware of the hard ridges bands of scars criss-crossing his body meant.
  1590. > He must have suffered terribly.
  1591. > But no more.
  1592. > He was here now, and you were never letting go again.
  1593. "Oh, Celestia - Celestia, Luna, thank them all - I was all alone and I thought you were never coming back, and I don't know..."
  1594. > "C-Cady?"
  1595. > That voice.
  1596. > The voice you'd yearned to hear just one more time for so, so long.
  1597. "Shining... oh, Shining"
  1598. > You pull back, staring at him - drinking in that familiar face held between in your hooves.
  1599. > The impossibility of it all mounts one final assault on the shores of relief.
  1600. > An assault that utterly fails against the now-overwhelming tide of reality.
  1601. > Then another voice broke in:
  1602. > "Cadance...? Is this who I think it is?"
  1603. > Anonymous!
  1604. > Of course!
  1605. > You'd have to deal with him too.
  1606. > Never even letting go from Shining, you turn to bob your head in an affirmative nod.
  1607. > Four pairs of confused eyes - two pony, two human - look back.
  1608. "Y-Yes. This - this is my husband. This is Shining Armor."
  1609. > The more you look, the more you realize just how bad things seem:
  1610. > Broken glass litters the floor; nearby the now-empty door, flakes of plaster drift from where the hinges had been anchored.
  1611. > Hoofsteps - many, rapid, a number of ponies traveling together - are coming closer.
  1612. > Those in the room still barely see; Flurry Heart is still crouched over Megan.
  1613. > You barely care.
  1614. > Turning back to Shining, you lay your forehead to his - eyes sliding shut and relishing the feel of his horn brushing yours.
  1615. "Oh, Shining! What were you thinking?! Why didn't you - you say something?! I would have - have - I don't know-"
  1616. > "C-Cady... Cady, I didn't-"
  1617. > At last Shining relaxes too, breath puffing from his nostrils.
  1618. > "Cadance?"
  1619. > Anonymous again, once more intruding on the moment.
  1620. > "Are you going to - is he... safe?"
  1621. "Y-Yes. What happened, I don't know what happened. But he's safe, Master-"
  1622. > The second you speak that world, you feel Shining tense.
  1623. > Too late your eyes open.
  1624. > Not soon enough to catch the snarl on his lips.
  1625. > "Get your hooves off me, you traitor whore!"
  1626. > Every word is like a whip across your back.
  1627. > You can't even form words - not even when he tries to shove you off.
  1628. > Not that he can; the grip of an alicorn is much too great for even a well-built unicorn for him to throw off.
  1629. > Anonymous, however, is not content to merely let you hang on:
  1630. > Rising with a growl, he advances on Shining Armor; Thunderlane and - by now awoken by the clamor - two other house-ponies at his sides.
  1631. "No! Don't hurt him!"
  1632. > You're frantic, almost panicked.
  1633. > Despite what Shining had said you can't bear the thought of him being harmed.
  1634. > Not when he was only just come back.
  1635. > Still clinging to him, you swing your head around to ward them off with the point of your horn.
  1636. > When they advance still, you light your horn to hold them back.
  1637. > It's the barest touch of telekinesis; enough to make halt their advances.
  1638. "You have to promise, you won't hurt him! Please-"
  1639. > "Cadance..."
  1640. > At a distance Anonymous stops, frowning with a confused look in his eyes.
  1641. > "...I don't know if we can-"
  1642. "Please. If anything of what I've done for you matters at all, Master-"
  1643. > Shining's body spasms in another enraged attempt to flee.
  1644. "-then don't hurt him. He wasn't going to hurt them, I swear it. My Shining Armor could never hurt a child."
  1645. > Unconvinced, Anonymous hesitates still.
  1646. "...please... I can't lose him again. I can't."
  1647. > Your whispered plea finally seems to break through to him.
  1648. > "...alright, Cadance. We'll just get him to a cell. Nothing more."
  1649. > Yes!
  1650. > That was little enough.
  1651. > You could work with that.
  1652. > "Someone go get one of the guards. Have them bring shackles, a horn restrictor, and something to carry him on. And maybe an injection for sedation."
  1653. > You allow them to seize Shining, but stay clinging to him still - even if you cannot bear to see the look in his eyes.
  1654. > The expression of utter betrayal.
  1655. > Of all-consuming rage at your - cooperation.
  1656. > Even so, you stay at his side whispering a blabbered stream of thoughts until the guards come with chains, a horn-ring, and a needle to take him away.
  1657. "...Shining? Please, trust me Shining. It's going to be okay. I'll be there. You're going to be fine. We're going to be fine, Shining - oh, sweet Celestia what got into you?! - but you're going to be fine and please trust me. I'll be there for you, Shining. I'll be there...."
  1658. > You're following close behind him when Anonymous' hand falls on your back.
  1659. > "Wait."
  1660. > Forcing your hooves to stop may very well be the second-hardest thing you have ever done, after sending Flurry away as a foal.
  1661. > Once the guards are out of earshot, you look around again.
  1662. > Oh.
  1663. > Right.
  1664. > The room was still a mess, Flurry and Mega were still huddled amid the now-ruined bed...
  1665. > And no doubt Anonymous would want an explanation.
  1666. > Once more your horn lights, lifting filly and girl from the bed.
  1667. > The former is set on your back; the latter into her father's arms.
  1668. "U-Upstairs. We should go upstairs."
  1669. > "Right. I... someone get some duct tape and a tarp, cover over that window."
  1670. > "Yes, Master."
  1671. > Though the house ponies quickly go to work, all their eyes are on you.
  1672. > You can feel them, pressing on you like a saddle on your back.
  1673. > Upstairs, Anonymous sets Megan on the bed; you put Flurry next to her and they quickly scramble together.
  1674. > "Right. Cadance, Thunderlane... what just happened?"
  1675. "I... I don't know. I came through the door first and saw him, but he had something-"
  1676. > Damn, you'd forgotten it downstairs!
  1677. "-there was something. He had it woven into his mane; it must've been enchanted to conceal his appearance."
  1678. > Anonymous, who had started pacing in a frantic circle, halts in place and jerks up in shock.
  1679. > "That can be done?!"
  1680. "With the right resources. I think I'd even maybe seen him once or twice before, but... Thunderlane?"
  1681. > The stallion looks to you, and you nod.
  1682. > "As I was going downstairs, I saw his tail go around a corner. I knew it wasn't one of the house ponies, so I pursued him. Then you came down..."
  1683. > "Do you know about the disguise at all?"
  1684. > "Actually, yes. He came in with first wave of the big expansion - was going by the name Copper Dust. We talked a few times; I never thought to look for a disguise either."
  1685. "You talked to him?!"
  1686. > "Several times. He..."
  1687. > Thunderlane pauses, brows knitting.
  1688. > "...actually, this explains a lot. A whole lot."
  1689. > His eyes flick to you, and you know what he is thinking.
  1690. > The message Sunburst had been given...
  1691. > Was Shining planning to flee with Flurry Heart?
  1692. > The thought of that - the thought of Shining actually doing something, because he was alive and you still weren't quite sure how to handle that idea! - is almost too much to consider.
  1693. > Anonymous finally stops pacing entirely and sinks onto his bed.
  1694. > Instantly Flurry Heart and Megan are occupying his lap, and you feel a sense of shame bubbling up within you.
  1695. > How could you have forgotten about your daughter?
  1696. > She must have been terrified - a strange stallion bursting into her room, attacking her...
  1697. > Climbing up onto the bed yourself, you drop onto your side and rest your head next to Flurry; after a moment, her wing extends out over your neck and yours up to shelter her back.
  1698. "Thunderlane... what was he like?"
  1699. > From how the stallion's eyes fall, you can tell the answer will not be a welcome one.
  1700. > "Angry. Really, really angry at times. He talked a lot about how you were a collaborator. When he heard you were had - hit Flurry Heart?"
  1701. "I spanked her. It was just a spanking..."
  1702. > The whispered protest is meaningless to Thunderlane, of course.
  1703. > He simply shrugs and goes on:
  1704. > "It wasn't always like that. He talked with me sometimes. Not angrily, just pony-to-pony. It was only when something happened that the anger came back up?"
  1705. > Running his fingers through Megan's hair, Anonymous grunts.
  1706. > "So, it's a fair guess that something provoked this - incident."
  1707. > "Yes. Or a lot of somethings, building up over time like a storm grows until it breaks."
  1708. > "He said he was going to take me away."
  1709. > Everyone jumps as Flurry Heart speaks at last.
  1710. > "He said you were teaching me to be a - a tie-rant? And he was going to take me somewhere safe."
  1711. > Megan nods soundlessly, pulling your filly ever-closer to her; Flurry turns her head to look at you.
  1712. > "M-Momma? Is dad... Is he really...?"
  1713. "I... I don't know, little gem."
  1714. > "Okay, Thunderlane. Go downstairs, tell the guards I want a guard on the house. If there's more trouble, let me know. Otherwise... there's no sense facing this now. He'll still be here in the morning. Go get some sleep."
  1715. > "Yes, Master."
  1716. > After he leaves, you become aware of a gentle whimpering at your side.
  1717. > Megan.
  1718. > Despite her father's arms around her and Flurry now nuzzling into her side, she still trembles and sniffles.
  1719. > For entirely different reasons, you can't help but be fearful as well.
  1720. > What would Anonymous do to Shining...?
  1721. > Phantom fears of the fate that had befallen Autumn Frost and Comet Tail flicker through your head.
  1722. > As much for yourself as for her, you lean over to brush your cheek against Megan's chest - both yourself and Flurry nickering softly.
  1723. "Shhh, little one. Everything will be okay. Understand? No harm will come to you. I swear it."
  1724. > How much it helps either of you isn't clear, but at least Megan quiets.
  1725. > Anonymous squeezes her shoulder:
  1726. > "Both of you, climb in to bed. You'll stay here tonight. Cadance, come with me a moment?"
  1727. > Your stomach drops.
  1728. "Yes, Master."
  1729. > As soon as the bathroom door closes, he turns on the water to run with a low hiss.
  1730. > Instead of washing, however, he turns to look at you.
  1731. > "...you once told me that if Shining was free, you'd have heard. If he was captured, he'd be dead or broken. But now he's here and neither free, dead, or broken from the sound of things."
  1732. > Instantly you are down in a deep bow, nose touching the floor in spite of where you are in an abject gesture of submission.
  1733. "Master - if anything I have ever done for you matters to you, anything at all, please don't-"
  1734. > Hiccups break the flow of your words.
  1735. "-don't hurt him. I can't - I can't lose him again."
  1736. > "I know. I saw how you leaped at him. Tackled him. I thought you were going to tear his head off, honestly, but... yeah. I get it. Honestly, I'm mostly concerned about you."
  1737. > You dare to raise your head just enough to meet your eyes to his.
  1738. "You - you won't-"
  1739. > "Half the reason I'm waiting until morning is because I think I might be calm enough to act rationally then. Right now, I'm still trying to get over the fact that someone broken into my house and threatened my daughter. I shouldn't deal with him now."
  1740. > The relief that cuts through you is almost enough to make your hind-legs collapse and drop you to the floor entirely.
  1741. > "Come on. I can see that you aren't good, so you're going to be staying here tonight again. Tomorrow morning... we'll see what happens."
  1742. > This time, however, you shift aside, letting Megan and Flurry sleep between yourself and Anonymous.
  1743. > Sheltering them in an encircling wall of protective warmth.
  1744. > ... and it quiets all your old fears over sleeping alongside your master, which have now come back at full-strength.
  1745. > It was one thing when you'd believed Shining dead, but now...
  1746. > Even with this measure, sleep evades you.
  1747. > A violent cocktail of emotions and hormones keep you well away from any real rest.
  1748. > By five in the morning, you've had enough of tossing, turning, and stewing in fear.
  1749. > Orders and exhaustion be damned, you could not abandon your husband.
  1750. > Rising from the bed, you slip down to the first floor - past the ruined doorway - and out to the security post.
  1751. > The guard on duty doesn't even ask why you are there, just rises and starts down toward the cells.
  1752. > You note with a touch of irony that Shining had been placed in the same cell you had after being caught escaping.
  1753. > And just like you had been, he was shackled in a torturous upright position:
  1754. > Hooves above his head, shoulders bearing much of his weight in a permanently reared-back position.
  1755. > His mane - long, unkempt, and now gleaming with a sheen of oil - falling to frame his head.
  1756. > A thick and heavy restrictor mounted on his horn.
  1757. > Was this what you had looked like?
  1758. > Certainly the hateful glare he gave you as you entered must be every bit the equal of the one you gave Anonymous once upon a time.
  1759. > Shining is the first to speak, but his words are nothing of what you had expected:
  1760. > "Changeling. Take off my wife's face. I won't speak to you like this."
  1761. "W-What?!"
  1762. > "You fooled me once - enslaved me once - with your tricks. I won't be fooled again. So don't pretend to be her!"
  1763. > Like a knife twisted in your ribs, the words send you recoiling back in agony.
  1764. > Was that how he saw you?
  1765. > As that wretched creature who called herself queen?
  1766. "I - I'm not -"
  1767. > Tears begin to form in the corners of your eyes, around the puckered bags beneath them.
  1768. > The only tactic you can think to take is refuge in the absurd:
  1769. "How - how do I don't know you aren't the changeling?! You're the one who a-attacked Flurry-"
  1770. > "Attacked?!"
  1771. > His chains rattle as Shining writhes in them.
  1772. > "I'm trying to free her! You - you -"
  1773. > Abruptly he sags again, drips falling from his blazing eyes.
  1774. > "-I dared to believe it was her again. For just a second, when you hugged me. I wanted it to be her so badly. But your nature shines through. All you want is to be in power, and the second HE spoke you were right back to assuring you were-"
  1775. "I spoke up because I didn't want him to kill-"
  1776. > "Shut up!"
  1777. > His roared order sends you backpedaling again.
  1778. > This time, however, you rally forward again:
  1779. "...when they were coming for us, in the Crystal Empire, I wanted to send Flurry Heart away to you. I thought you could protect her, even if I couldn't. It was your talent. But you were already away, and there wasn't time... do you remember the last letter I sent?"
  1780. > "Don't even try to-"
  1781. "My dearest Shining, I wished to wait for you forever. But time waits for nopony, and we must leave before the passes - or the net which seeks to ensnare us - closes in. I am taking Flurry and fleeing. Come back to me, Shining - we are two souls but one heart, and every day without you is another day that part of me is missing..."
  1782. > "...and without you I fear that I am growing cold as the snows we now flee into. Come back to me, my love, for we stood against the black wraith Sombra together..."
  1783. "...and together we may stand against this calamity until love and justice rules the land again..."
  1784. > "...Your one and true love forever, Mi Amore Cadenza."
  1785. > You nod as Shining finishes the message, whispering only half to him:
  1786. "I couldn't stand alone. I couldn't protect them. I couldn't protect Flurry Heart. I lost them all, Shining... oh, Celestia help me I lost them all."
  1787. > For a long time the cell is silent, but for the occasional creaking of his chains.
  1788. > Finally it occurs to you that you should do something about that.
  1789. > A quick burst from your horn opens the latch suspending him and lowers Shining to the floor.
  1790. > Yet when his head finally rises, if at all possible he seems even more enraged.
  1791. > "Then you're not a changeling. You're even worse. You're a traitor. A collaborator. Living up in that fancy house at the cost of everypony else here."
  1792. "I am doing nothing of the sort!"
  1793. > "How can I believe you! I know everything you've done. You beat Flurry-"
  1794. "It was a spanking, Shiny! A spanking for running into danger!"
  1795. > "-you're helping them turn her into a tyrant that will rule over ponies with you-"
  1796. "If she is Megan's friend, then Megan will see why slavery is wrong!"
  1797. > "-you have ponies whipped when you could be using your magic to free them all-"
  1798. "He disobeyed a direct order, and Anonymous would have done worse!"
  1799. > "-and you had Corona tortured damn near to death!"
  1800. > This at last you have no easy answer for; the scales have tipped.
  1801. > With monumental effort Shining Armor heaves himself upright to advance on you, shuffling on still-shackled hooves.
  1802. > "You walked down those beds, between rows and rows of ponies weak and tired and exhausted and already hurting from the whips and cattle prods of the slavers who'd dragged them back. You chose her. And when she was done you had the hubris to visit her room and try to apologize to her-"
  1803. > Now it is your turn to collapse, ears fallen and whinnying fearfully.
  1804. "How - how can you possibly know that?"
  1805. > Nopony else had been in the room with you when that had happened.
  1806. > Looming over you, Shining Armor snarls:
  1807. > "Because Corona told me. She told me everything you did. How they looked up to you. Called you 'Your Highness". Put their hopes in you. And you - you fed her to him! A defenseless pony, to that!"
  1808. > The room begins to spin.
  1809. > Corona told him.
  1810. > Corona had told him what you did.
  1811. > "It's never left her, you know that? She's like - like one of the Crystals, remembering what Sombra did to them. It plagues her. When I came here, first I dared to hope she was wrong. That she had lied. Then I thought, it couldn’t by Cadance."
  1812. > Somehow you'd always thought she had either died or vanished.
  1813. > But now - was this Harmony itself punishing you for not being stronger?
  1814. > You begin to weep softly.
  1815. > "It had to be a changeling, because my Cady would never do that. She was love, not cruelty. But you… We were supposed to shelter and guide them, Cadance. Not sell them out to save ourselves. That was our duty!"
  1816. "I - I tried?"
  1817. > "You tried? Tried?! How lucky. I never even got the chance to fight. They took me while I slept. I guess they didn't need to do that to you."
  1818. > Shining pauses a moment, then leans in to deliver the coup de grace:
  1819. > "And I know you've been sleeping with him. I saw you, up in that room at night. Was I that easy to replace, Cadance? Does he make you call him "master" when he mounts you? Is that just another 'price to pay' for having ponies look up to you?"
  1820. > That...
  1821. > That is just too much.
  1822. > He could accuse you of many, many things - of failing to save Flurry, of whipping ponies, of what had befallen Corona.
  1823. > But your love, your heart, was another matter entirely.
  1824. > Your heart was his.
  1825. > Some hidden reserve of strength bursts forth in you, flooding your body and filling you with righteous indignation.
  1826. > Shining falls back as you rise, wings spreading and eyes narrowed.
  1827. "No. I have never, never let him touch me like that. I have never broken our vows. Even when I thought you were dead, I never did."
  1828. > Your voice is ringing, strong, filling the cell.
  1829. "And now you will listen to me too: I did try to protect them. I did guide them to escape, and when that failed I suffered under the lash too. He - he found Flurry, Shining. After I lost her, he found her and she was sick and had fleas and was so thin you could see her bones-"
  1830. > A deep breath is sucked down to let you continue.
  1831. "-and he told me she would have to be sold off to who-knows-where if I kept fighting, and more ponies would follow, and - and what was I supposed to do, Shining?! There are no good options here. I fought the battles I could, saved everypony from what I could, and mourn the ones I lost every day."
  1832. > Now everything is reversed:
  1833. > You are advancing, while Shining shimmies backwards in retreat.
  1834. "I have given everypony here a place where they don't have to fear the whip for not bowing low enough. Where they can remember Equestria openly, not whisper of our traditions in corners and under blankets. Where they can dare have a princess to look up to!"
  1835. > At last he reaches the cell wall and can go no further.
  1836. "I have done many, many terrible things, Shining. Things I will never be forgiven for, even by myself - not even if I lived forever like Aunt Celestia or Luna. But I have never been a traitor."
  1837. > And then you sit, the strength that had sustained you that far fading away.
  1838. > Both of you breathing hard.
  1839. > Tentatively, you dare to lean in and rest your forehead against his.
  1840. > He huffs softly, then nickers.
  1841. "...oh, Shiny. What have we become?"
  1842. [Choice]
  1843. > You stay like that for who-knows-how-long, just standing against him.
  1844. > Eventually you back up, however.
  1845. "Wait here."
  1846. > Moving a second cot into the cell is easy enough for your magic, and no one questions what you are doing.
  1847. > When Shining Armor tries to leap up onto the bed, however, he nearly tumbles over and you are forced to catch him in your magic.
  1848. > The look he shoots you is one of protest over the emasculating assistance, but you are not in the mood for questions.
  1849. > He must have hung by his forelegs there for hours - while you were resting comfortably in bed, no less! - and you know from personal experience how weak and shaky he would be.
  1850. > Shining does not hesitate to take advantage of the cot, however, promptly falling over onto his side with a very audible sigh of relief.
  1851. > You settle on the second cot, facing him with sad eyes.
  1852. > So many questions whirl through your head.
  1853. > What had happened to him?
  1854. > How had he survived - both fleeing slavery, and in the misery that his scars hinted at following capture?
  1855. > What had happened to Corona, and how did they end up meeting?
  1856. > How was she faring now?
  1857. > Was she safe?
  1858. > Was he safe?
  1859. > So many questions - but Shining is not talking, only looking at you with inscrutable eyes.
  1860. > Instead, you begin to talk:
  1861. > Starting from the very beginning.
  1862. > What happened after your capture.
  1863. > Being traded from owner to owner, a fancy but useless trophy, until finally Anonymous found you.
  1864. "When I first came here, I - I thought a lot the same way. He wasn't thinking of anything but his profit, and we didn't have any option but to resist and escape. He couldn't think of everything so I hatched a plan to get as many ponies as possible out."
  1865. > Settling down on your belly, you let your eyes drift - mind wandering back to those days so many months ago.
  1866. "We must have been betrayed. We were caught in the escape, and he told me that he'd found Flurry Heart. Showed me what shape she was in. You can't know how I felt right then, Shining - my daughter, the filly I would have given my life for, so sick and thin..."
  1867. > "So you turned."
  1868. > Despite the words, there's none of the anger his voice had once held.
  1869. "Yes. I 'turned'. And I hated myself for it, so very much. Especially when they started bringing back the ponies that had escaped. I talked him out of torturing them all, but - but he wouldn't - he said an example had to be made. I would pick one, or he would pick them all. And I - I-"
  1870. > It's too much.
  1871. > You sink down onto the mattress, nose touching the rough fabric and flanks heaving with tears.
  1872. "N-Nothing has ever made me more sick. Not even when I was forced to take a whip to the ponies who'd helped me plan the escape. At least then I could force him to whip me too, so I could suffer alongside them. But that... it was too much."
  1873. > He waits patiently for the tears to end, for you to be able to speak again.
  1874. > Neither comforting, nor accusing.
  1875. "What - what is she like now?"
  1876. > "...she's... persevered. Not healed. Nightmares and panic attacks, like I sometimes saw in veteran guardsponies who'd seen battle. And her cutie mark, of course."
  1877. "Her - cutie mark?"
  1878. > You're almost - no, you are afraid to ask; but there's no turning back now.
  1879. > Shining eyes you levelly as he answers.
  1880. > "She had it cut off. So she couldn't be identified and brought back."
  1881. > Immediately you're leaned over the edge of the bed, retching as gorge rises in your throat.
  1882. > Her mark - the sign of her talent, her destiny - cut off.
  1883. > Truly, desperation born of unfortunately rational madness.
  1884. > "I think she would have been worse. But she escaped far enough away that she couldn't be traced back to him, and then our owner..."
  1885. > Wait.
  1886. " 'Our' owner?"
  1887. > "Corona and I... we have the same owner."
  1888. > So there was another owner.
  1889. "What is he like?"
  1890. > "He's... we don't agree all the time. But to him, I'm not just property. Neither is Corona. We work for him, sure, but that's 'for', not 'under', and he works with us. And that's all the world's difference."
  1891. > A pause, and then he adds:
  1892. > "...it's a better place for Corona than this could ever be."
  1893. "And you would have taken Flurry out of here to go - where? Back to him? Running off in the night, like the ponies I sent away? Some of them died, Shining!"
  1894. > "She wouldn't have died! I would have been looking after her. Can you imagine what that would mean for ponies, Cadance? A free alicorn, a free princess?! It would have made all the difference!"
  1895. "Is that all she is to you? A - A figurehead for a revolution?"
  1896. > Shining snarls, and you know you'd gone too far.
  1897. > "That is the last thing on my mind, Cady! What matters to me is that she is safe and being molded into something for a slaver's use!"
  1898. "Then why didn't you tell me you were here?! She doesn't stay in the house all the time; I - I could have-"
  1899. > The answer, of course, is already on your lips.
  1900. > He hadn't told you because he thought you had betrayed everything you once stood for.
  1901. > Even your love for him.
  1902. > "There are... places to go, Cadance. Safehouses. I used some of them to get in here, I could get out again."
  1903. "Right. Just turn yourself into a picture and mail yourself out. And you'd be doing that magic yourself too?"
  1904. > "I - what - the plan, you know about the plan-"
  1905. "Because I told him to build it, Shining Armor!"
  1906. > This, at last, gets him to visibly recoil.
  1907. > Still you go on, tears flowing from your eyes.
  1908. "Sunburst set it all up, found the contacts outside, because I would never, ever abandon my ponies. Because if the day ever came that life here was totally intolerable, they would have a way out."
  1909. > "Then - why not?!"
  1910. "Because after Corona... I think he started to turn too. But more importantly than that, even, because I met his daughter for the first time. I'd never seen Anonymous with something he actually loved before, but the two of them... he became a completely different person. He gave Flurry Heart to Megan, and she - she actually treated Flurry almost like a friend."
  1911. > A gift from Harmony itself, that had been.
  1912. > Not having to fear for her anymore.
  1913. "You said your owner doesn't treat you like property? She doesn't treat Flurry like that either. She's - she's innocent, Shining."
  1914. > His eyes flick away, and you know you've found a weakness in his defenses.
  1915. > "Right. Innocent. Megan said it herself; she was going to be training Flurry Heart to be like... you. That Megan was going to treat everypony 'kindly', just like you do. Is that what you call using a whip?"
  1916. > The muttered comment lacks the anger of his earlier ones, though.
  1917. "Yes, innocent. She's kind. Megan plays with her as a - a friend; 'masters' don't do that. She protects Flurry too, not just uses her. She doesn't know to see ponies as just things to be used yet."
  1918. > "I..."
  1919. > Shining shifts uncomfortably, and with a start you come to understand why he finds this so hard to argue.
  1920. "You've seen it too, haven't you? Or something like it."
  1921. > "It's... not the same with her."
  1922. "What's her name, Shining?"
  1923. > "Gracie... when I'm around her, I'm like taffy. I can't resist her, no matter what she asks me to do. It's all so innocent."
  1924. > His voice is low, as if he is afraid to admit this.
  1925. > "But, she isn't an owner. She's just a friend."
  1926. > Now you feel comfortable enough to reach out with a hoof to touch his side.
  1927. "It's easier when there's just good and bad, isn't it? When you can figure out who's right and wrong. Who to defend, and who to defend others from. Did you know, Shining, that I once snapped and all but begged Anonymous to beat me? Because it's so much easier if he could be an enemy."
  1928. > "He did, from the look of your back."
  1929. "And it seems you suffered far, far worse than I ever did."
  1930. > "They didn't like a slave who wouldn't bow deep enough. Especially one who was a prince."
  1931. > The bitterness in his voice tells you exactly how that displeasure had been expressed.
  1932. > "And the worst of them were the ponies who just went along with it. Tartarus' black teats - some of them even enjoyed it!"
  1933. > Now you cannot resist the urge any longer.
  1934. > Reaching across the cots, you slip into a tender and gentle embrace.
  1935. "Oh, forgive me Shining..."
  1936. > "Until I met him, I'd never seen one who I - I could..."
  1937. > Shining begins to crack, his flanks heaving.
  1938. > "I couldn't believe he wasn't just going to beat me too."
  1939. > And so he'd expected you to be the same way.
  1940. "If you truly have seen the innocence of a child, Shining, then you understand what I am trying to do here. Megan may be his daughter, but she is not our enemy. Enemies don't come down into our camp to help us. You saw how Flurry Heart went to shelter her, back there?"
  1941. > He flinches sharply, and you know he did.
  1942. > It's a dirty blow, reminding him that his own daughter had seen him as something to be feared, but necessary.
  1943. "You can't force that kind of loyalty. You can't beat it into somepony with a whip. That's love, Shining. Love that can save us. Just like love saved the Crystal Empire before, it can save us now. She will grow up seeing us as ponies, not things. You want to fight back, to have a revolution? Megan is the revolution."
  1944. > "He'll never let you do that to his daughter."
  1945. "He can't stop me. Without me, this place falls apart. If he wants Megan to take this place over, he can't even send her away."
  1946. > This time he doesn't have a comeback, a retort to challenge you with.
  1947. > Just looks down at the bed, twists his still-shackled hooves, and grimaces.
  1948. "We each have our own strengths, Shining. You had the will to keep yourself strong in the face of cruelty I could never face. But I fight differently. My talent is love, and I will spread it wherever I can."
  1949. > Slowly you reach over, daring this time to rest your neck across his.
  1950. > His mane is greasy with oil and reeks of dried sweat.
  1951. > It is the most beautiful thing you have ever smelled.
  1952. > And Shining does not fight back nor pull away.
  1953. "But most of all, Shining, I promise you this: Whatever happens, my love for you will never fade."
  1954. > "I... I shouldn't have said all that. About you."
  1955. > You can feel him shift, trying to get comfortable on the mattress with his still-shackled hooves.
  1956. > "But I still - I can't understand this. My owner - he's a partner. He doesn't keep me beaten down. And Gracie is..."
  1957. "Innocent."
  1958. > "Yes. I'm still figuring out how I feel about them, but I can make my peace with working for them. Even defending them, against somepony trying to hurt them. But helping a slaver subjugate ponies, it just feels so - so - wrong!"
  1959. > One wing extends, draping itself across his back.
  1960. "I imagine your owner is very different, if he let you pull this off-"
  1961. > "He didn't."
  1962. > Your heart skips a beat.
  1963. "What?"
  1964. > Shining winces.
  1965. > "He doesn't know. After I found out Corona knew where you were, I..."
  1966. "You ran off! You ran off on some hoof-brained quest to find me and now he doesn't have any idea where you are either - and oh, Celestia, if he comes looking for you and brings Corona-"
  1967. > "How badly will he react?"
  1968. > You honestly have no idea.
  1969. "I'll keep working on this. You rest now, Shining, and I'll set this right. In the meantime... tell me what happened to you, from the beginning."
  1970. > He is still talking when the door to the cell opens and a guard sticks her head through:
  1971. > "Cadance? Anonymous wants to see you."
  1972. "...I'll be right there."
  1973. > Rising, you kiss Shining Armor on the forehead.
  1974. "Rest now."
  1975. > As you walk from the cell upstairs, however, you are still very much uncertain.
  1976. > So many unknown factors at play here:
  1977. > Would he insist on further punishing Shining Armor?
  1978. > Would he punish you, for that matter, for running off without waiting for him to wake?
  1979. > What about Shining's owner?
  1980. > You were no expert of human law, but that would mean Shining had to be returned to his actual owner - right?
  1981. > And - most of all - what do you do with the information about Corona?
  1982. > How would Anonymous react to knowing she still lived and had even escaped?
  1983. > Demand he recover his property?
  1984. > Try to make amends?
  1985. > Dare you hope - just let her go?
  1986. > And how do you approach the topic, if at all with him?
  1987. [Choice]
  1988. > ...you can't hide this from Anonymous indefinitely.
  1989. > Sooner or later, it'd end up coming out - and it was time to stand behind what you had told Shining and trust that your Master truly had changed after realizing what he'd done.
  1990. > Still, you cannot hide some trepidation as you head back to the manor.
  1991. > A quiet suggestion from one of the servants sends you upstairs to Anonymous' study again.
  1992. > He was there, slumped in a chair and staring at the far wall.
  1993. "Master? You wanted me?"
  1994. > "Is it really him, Cadance?”
  1995. > You close the door behind you and step to his side.
  1996. > At least he didn't smell of alcohol this time.
  1997. "Yes. It is definitely my Shining Armor."
  1998. > "Hmm."
  1999. > Thus follows a period of silence, broken only when he adds:
  2000. > "I called in Megan late to school. She needed some time to recover. Didn't sleep well, especially after you left."
  2001. > The accusation hits home, but you have more important concerns.
  2002. "Anonymous - please believe me on this. I truly, truly trust he did not mean harm to Megan."
  2003. > This draws a snort from him and a continued protest from you.
  2004. "Please, Master! Listen to me. I know - I know he is angry. I know you just had your child's room broken into; I remember how I felt when I realized Flurry Heart had been taken. But I am begging you: Do not torture him. He believed I was - was helping you subjugate ponies, and meant to flee with Flurry Heart. Not to harm Megan."
  2005. > "Delightful. Another pony causing trouble because all they can see in me is the worst possible thing. And why wouldn't that transition to Megan?"
  2006. "Because he found a little girl of her own. He says her name is Gracie, and... I wish you had heard him. Shining understands that Gracie is innocent, and I do not think he aimed to hurt Megan either."
  2007. > It is, perhaps, something of a stretch.
  2008. > Shining had never explicitly said that, after all.
  2009. > But neither had he expressed toward Megan any of the visceral disgust he reserved for yourself or Anonymous.
  2010. > "So, he only wants to tear out my own guts."
  2011. "I - would not put it so violently..."
  2012. > Another hefty snort.
  2013. > Circling around to the front of the seat, you drop to your haunches in front of it and give him your best pleading expression.
  2014. "He is angry, yes. But he is not blind. And he has good reason to be angry, too-"
  2015. > "Oh, what the hell could that be?"
  2016. "Corona told him."
  2017. > From your position directly in front of the seat, you can see the exact moment when those words make their way into Anonymous' ears.
  2018. > He stiffens, jerks forward, eyes wide-
  2019. > "She's alive?"
  2020. "Alive... but not well. She is scarred, in mind and body. So desperate to flee that she had her cutie marks... removed by a doctor. Just so you couldn't find her. Couldn't claim her. Shining said she is still plagued by nightmare-visions of what you did to her."
  2021.  
  2022. > You feel as if the world has fallen away around you.
  2023. > Blood rushing up into your ears.
  2024. > She was - alive.
  2025. > Really, truly alive.
  2026. > "Can you imagine, Anonymous, what kind of fear and horror drives a pony to do that?"
  2027. > You can't.
  2028. > Not really.
  2029. > It was more than just cutting, it was killing a very part of their identity.
  2030. > The mechanics or logic behind cutie marks might not be something you understood, but you were well aware of the weight they carried for ponies.
  2031. > After all, your business was based on leveraging those identities.
  2032. "Alive... how?"
  2033. > A million things could be meant by that.
  2034. > How had she managed to leave the camp?
  2035. > How had she survived outside, in her weakened state?
  2036. > How had she and Shining Armor have come to cross paths?
  2037. > Or perhaps even how could you have been so angry to want a pony utterly crushed the way you had tried to crush her?
  2038. > Leaning forward, you press both your palms into your face and draw a shaky breath.
  2039. "She cut her fucking marks off... And then Shining Armor found her, God, of course he did."
  2040. > "Yes. She did. And then you had him hung in chains too; more torment has not improved his opinion."
  2041. > You're too shaken to respond to the accusation.
  2042. "How did they cross paths, do you know?"
  2043. > The last thing you needed to find out is that Shining had somehow been involved in however she'd gotten out.
  2044. > "Apparently they are both owned by the same person. She carried the secret for a long time, but eventually told him everything."
  2045. > That is befuddling enough to get you to lift your head from your hands.
  2046. "Shining Armor, resister-supreme, who broke into my house to get his daughter out, has an owner?"
  2047. > "It would seem so. He was tortured nearly to the end, Anonymous - the sort of thing you did to Corona. They wanted to see him break too."
  2048. > You can only imagine what he had gone through.
  2049. > If one unremarkable mare had resisted you so fiercely, what had they done to try and break him?
  2050. > "I don't know how close together their owner found them, but he did. And they bonded, perhaps as two ponies who had suffered through so much. Bonded with their owner, too."
  2051. "Now you're just shitting me."
  2052. > "Not everyone, Anonymous, sees us as... things to be acquired. Used for profit."
  2053. "I don't see you as things!"
  2054. > Cadance's flat look tells you exactly what she thinks of that claim.
  2055. > "Yes. That is why Shining Armor was nursed back to health from being nearly dead. That is why they work together, not with his owner merely directing ponies to carry out jobs. Anonymous, you may not be the worst owner out there; I acknowledge that. But you are not the kindest either."
  2056. "...let's just move on."
  2057. > "Hmph. Well, there is not much more to tell. Eventually Corona could not carry her secret any more."
  2058. "And she told him."
  2059. > Flopping back in the chair, you let your head roll back to face the ceiling.
  2060. "I'll be honest with you, Cadance. My daughter's room was just broken into. Regardless of what you say his intentions were, someone just got into my house, into my child's room, and I can't say nothing would have happened to her. This isn't about slavery, this is about feeling so helpless that your kid was almost attacked. I want to go down there and beat him senseless. Or worse. Get the prod, the irons, hoof crusher..."
  2061. > Your fingers arch into claws, grasping at air for something - someone - to throttle.
  2062. > Drawing a sucking breath, you try to stem the flow of words.
  2063. > Cadance shifts, and even without speaking, even without looking at her, you can still hear her silent accusation:
  2064. > 'Now you know how we feel.'
  2065. > Even more than that, though, you are angered by the realization that your realization that your anger could not be blown off.
  2066. "But... I can't do that, because it'd be Corona all over again. Just stuck in an endless fucking loop, me venting my rage on one of you. Going apeshit and then realizing just what the hell I'd done but it'd be too late again... Fuck!"
  2067. > You slam your fist down on the chair's arm - just in time for one of the house ponies peering in through the door to catch it.
  2068. > He flinches back.
  2069. > "Ah - Master, forgive me if this is not a good moment, but you asked to be told when Randall would arrive..."
  2070. "It's - it's fine. Thank you."
  2071. > Still, though, you don't get up and moving until Cadance takes your hand and gently leads you down to the conference room.
  2072. > Randall is already waiting there, Posey resting at his side.
  2073. > "Good morning, Anonymous."
  2074. "...'morning."
  2075. > Your mumbled reply gains a questioning look from Randall, who folds his arms on the table.
  2076. > "Now, I don't need working eyes to know that something is rather wrong here today. If I can ask what it is..."
  2077. > Rather than answer, you sink into one of the seats and rub your eyes again.
  2078. "Cadance, would you...?"
  2079. > She does - catching Randall up on what has happened since the prior night.
  2080. > To your immense and utter relief, no mention is made of Corona or what you had done to her.
  2081. > Still, Randall continues to watch with an ever-more surprised look as the story is told.
  2082. > When Cadance reaches the end he shakes his head.
  2083. > "That is quite the conundrum you have yourself in now."
  2084. "Tell me about it. I know this probably isn't your area of law specialty, but is there any advice you can give?"
  2085. > "Well, you're going to have to send him back to the owner or the police so they can handle it, but you've got grounds for a civil suit against his owner at the very least. Possibly a more serious criminal offense, if he knowingly brought Shining Armor here for-"
  2086. > "There's no criminal case."
  2087. > One of your eyebrows rises questioningly.
  2088. "And since when are you an expert on our law, Cadance?"
  2089. > Unlike when you usually challenge her, she does not back down but meets your eye evenly.
  2090. > "No expert, Master. But Randall just said, if he knowingly brought Shining Armor here... without that, there is no case, correct?"
  2091. > It takes a second for the meaning of what she says to click.
  2092. "Oh, for fucks' sake - I'm sheltering a runaway now too?!"
  2093. > "He couldn't simply stand by when he heard what I was doing!"
  2094. > Politely clearing his throat, Randall looks about.
  2095. > "If I can ask - it seems there is something more going on here, some other point of this that I am missing...?"
  2096. > It's a leading question if you've ever seen one.
  2097. > And despite there being every reason not to want to answer, you've come to respect and even trust him.
  2098. "There was... a pony. Before the dinner where we first met. Corona. She was part of the escape that took place..."
  2099. > Randall listens calmly as you lay out the story.
  2100. > Posey was listening too, you notice, her ears laid flat but eyes locked on you.
  2101. > When you reach the end, Randall reaches down to find her head and rub between her ears.
  2102. > "I am the last one who can criticize you on letting things get out of hand. After all, I let Haute Glamour rampage among my ponies for a lot longer than one incident. And I doubt Cadance would continue to serve you if you were still doing things like this."
  2103. "Spot on with that."
  2104. > "Still. I can't help but think that this stallion has understandable reasons to do what he did too."
  2105. > Your hand drifts up to start rubbing your forehead again.
  2106. "In the abstract, so do I. In the moment... I'm still settling my feelings about having my fucking home broken into. In any case, we're still left with the same issue in the end: I've got someone else's stallion in that cell, and I don't know what to do with him yet. I send him back, how do I know he won't come back again? But I can't really keep him, for like five different reasons."
  2107. > Randall taps the table thoughtfully.
  2108. > "Well, I imagine there's another voice to be heard with respect to that."
  2109. > Both of you look to Cadance, who has suddenly gone wide-eyed when put on the spot.
  2110. > "I... I mean, I..."
  2111. > Shifting from hoof to hoof, her tail flicks and wing shuffles as she finds her words.
  2112. > When the come, however, they're in a small voice.
  2113. > "I don't know. I can't lose him again, I just can't. We're a family. I haven't seen him for years, and if we I let go I might never see him again..."
  2114. > A deep breath, and Cadance tries to squeeze it down.
  2115. > "...I'm sorry, Master. That was not the answer you were looking for. And I know he cannot stay; not really."
  2116. "Well, there's the whole bit about how he doesn't belong to me, for starters. But I assume you meant for some other reason - because he would be too resistant?"
  2117. > Her head bobs in a sharp, jerking motion.
  2118. > "He may come to accept what I do, eventually. But you..."
  2119. "So, we're looking at another Bon Bon. Huh."
  2120. > "Possibly worse. She is merely upset. It is in his nature to want to protect, Master."
  2121. > Mane falling in a curtain that obscures her eyes, Cadance sinks towards the floor.
  2122. > "...but I can't bear the thought of sending him away, either. I can't."
  2123. > Unbidden you reach down, stroking the back of her head.
  2124. > Despite herself, Cadance leans into the comforting touch.
  2125. > Across the table, Randall stirs in his seat.
  2126. > "I am in no position to tell you how to manage your property, Anonymous. But if I can make a suggestion?"
  2127. "Please do."
  2128. > "Allowing this issue to linger may lead to a resolution, but it will be hard for all involved. I should have focused on what Haute Glamour was doing to my ponies, rather than letting her handle things."
  2129. > Posey shifts unhappily at those memories, rearing up a bit to press her head into Randall's hand.
  2130. > "Shining doesn't like you because he has only heard one side of the story. Show him another."
  2131. > It's an idea.
  2132. > You... well, you had told Cadance you would be restraining yourself with regard to him.
  2133. > Not that it would be easy.
  2134. > But maybe that was exactly what he needed to see?
  2135. > That you weren't the kind of asshole who had tormented Shining Armor - or Corona - so much?
  2136. > If he'd be willing to see it.
  2137. > Then again, he had apparently been talking to Cadance and that was apparently a step up from the vitriol he'd been spewing at her the past night?
  2138. [Choice]
  2139. "Not right now, I don't think. I'm... it's still too raw. From all of this. By the end of the day, though."
  2140. > You pull a breath in through your nose, tapping on the arm of one chair.
  2141. "I get one good shot at this. I don't think Shining will give me another. So we take it carefully. In the meantime, there's a lot of other work we have to do still. Finding out who the hell owns him, for one. And I'm going to make an announcement, word of this will have gotten out soon enough."
  2142. > "Not to mention our meeting before any of this came up."
  2143. > Grimacing, you nod.
  2144. "I'm not trying to blow you off, Randall. Sorry if it seemed that way. Can you at least hold until I get the announcement out? I'd prefer not to leave speculation running rampant for too long."
  2145. > "Of course! Please, go deal with what you have to."
  2146. > In the end, you leave any mention of Shining Armor out of the announcement.
  2147. > Or, his name anyhow.
  2148. > Just that there had been a break-in to your house, into Megan and Flurry's room.
  2149. > And that there was only one pony, and so there would be no need to fear further... issues.
  2150. > Even so, you could still feel the issue looming on your mind throughout the morning.
  2151. > That returns full-throttle when you rise go to take Megan to school.
  2152. > More accurately, when Flurry tearfully begs you to go with her mistress.
  2153. > Sighing, you drop to one knee and put a hand to her cheek.
  2154. "Flurry, you know I can't really let you do that. It'd be too much of a distraction for the other little girls in the classroom."
  2155. > "But I can't... I don't wan't Mistress Megan to go 'way!"
  2156. > Oh, God damn it.
  2157. > She's actually crying.
  2158. > Megan is giving you The Eyes Of Requesting too, but that you can resist.
  2159. > A sobbing little filly, though...
  2160. "I tell you what. If I let you come in the car with us, will that be enough?"
  2161. > "Yes, Master! Please!"
  2162. > "Yes, daddy!"
  2163. "But you have to let her go in when we get there. And Megan, you have to go in. Understand?"
  2164. > "Uh-huh!"
  2165. > "Yes, Master!"
  2166. > Sighing gently, you wrap an arm around each and bring them into a hug.
  2167. "I know it's scary. I'm scared too. It's nothing to be ashamed of, I promise. But you are safe now. Tonight, Megan will come back just fine and you two can spend all the time together you need."
  2168. > Squeezing each in turn, you lean in to let each rest their head on a shoulder - mane and hair tickling your jaw on both sides.
  2169. "You need to be strong. Sometimes, in life, there'll be hard things that come along. You won't even see them coming, and then - bam. Out of nowhere. That's it. You just have to be strong and keep going, both of you."
  2170. > Despite your words, they are both still muted and nervous on the ride to school.
  2171. > More than once, you glance in the rear-view mirror and find them curled-up next to each other:
  2172. > Megan's arms around Flurry's midsection, the latter with a wing extended over her mistress' shoulders.
  2173. > The filly gives a little whimper when you pull up at school and let Megan out, but true to her word remains calm.
  2174. > It's such a pathetic sight however, that you even consider allowing her to come up to the front seat.
  2175. > ...no, safety first and all tha-
  2176. > "Master?"
  2177. > Flurry Heart's voice is soft and tremulous.
  2178. "Yes, Flurry?"
  2179. > "Was th-that really m-m-my daddy last night?"
  2180. > Oh, no.
  2181. > She's starting to cry again.
  2182. > The hell with it!
  2183. > Pulling over to the side of the road, you turn around in your seat and beckon her up into the front.
  2184. > "C'mere, Flurry."
  2185. > She does come, burying her head into your chest again as the tears begin to come.
  2186. > You stay there holding her until she's started to calm.
  2187. "Now, strap yourself in up front here and we'll go home, okay?"
  2188. > You'll just... drive slowly or something.
  2189. > Flurry does buckle up, awkwardly perching in a seat not meant for a filly, but shakes her head.
  2190. > "Master, please. I want to know. Was that my d-daddy?"
  2191. > No way to avoid this, you suppose.
  2192. > Reaching out, you place a hand on her withers and start to rub.
  2193. "It seems like it was, yes. Your daddy... I don't know why. He's... very angry right now."
  2194. > "At me?"
  2195. > Oh, God.
  2196. > That face.
  2197. > That pleading tone.
  2198. > That need, need to understand - to comprehend why her father would do that.
  2199. "No. Not at you."
  2200. > "At Mistress Megan?"
  2201. "No. Mostly... mostly at me, I think."
  2202. > And Cadance.
  2203. > Maybe.
  2204. "But, I'm going to have to have a talk with him this evening. Find out exactly what's going on."
  2205. > "C-Can I-"
  2206. "No. I don't want you or Megan going to talk to him yet, understand? That's a direct order."
  2207. > "Yes, Master!"
  2208. > It is said just a little bit too fast.
  2209. > Reaching across the car, you slip your arm more fully around her to give a little squeeze.
  2210. "I'm sorry, Flurry. I didn't mean to scare you. I just don't want you doing anything foolish, understand?"
  2211. > "Yes, Master."
  2212. "Good girl. Now, c'mon. Let's go home."
  2213. > Even so, you keep your arm stretched out for her through most of the trip.
  2214. > The police are thankfully busy elsewhere.
  2215. > That evening, Thunderlane joins you at the front of the security building.
  2216. > "You're sure you want to do this?"
  2217. "Absolutely."
  2218. > "I mean, after the last time with Comet Tail..."
  2219. "That's why you're here. I can't keep hiding from my emotions forever; I have to see this through. Besides, this time I really do just want to talk to him. Not interrogate or anything, just talk."
  2220. > The stallion huffs softly, shifting nervously.
  2221. > "...fine."
  2222. "You okay?"
  2223. > "Vapor Trail and I had... a long talk after I came back. We're good now, I think. But she's... she's a little worried about everything too."
  2224. "Hmm."
  2225. > Heading back through the building towards the cells, you ask:
  2226. "I can understand, with all the madness that's been cropping up here lately. Protesters, drones, now this... she worried about Sunbreak, though, or you?"
  2227. > "Yes."
  2228. > Thunderlane grins wryly.
  2229. > "But for different reasons."
  2230. "Heh."
  2231. > Despite his grin, though, you're still seeing more and more little signs in his body language.
  2232. > A wing-twitch here, a flick of the tail there-
  2233. "Hey. You going to be okay?"
  2234. > "Yeah, I..."
  2235. > Eyes flick back and forth, nostrils flared wide.
  2236. > Wings half-spread - wasn't that what he'd done with the griffons too?
  2237. > An aggression display?
  2238. > Why-?
  2239. "Thunderlane... are you scared of him?"
  2240. > "It's... fuck, yeah. I kind of am."
  2241. > Huffing softly, he looks away from you.
  2242. > "Being tossed around like that last night. I dunno. I'm used to be able to... keep ponies safe. But if Cadance hadn't come down in time, I wouldn't have been enough-"
  2243. "No. Don't let me hear 'what-ifs'. You can drown yourself with those. You put my daughter's safety before your own, and that's all I can ask. Understand?"
  2244. > Shuffling his wings again, Thunderlane finally manages to get them settled back down.
  2245. > "I guess."
  2246. "You should know. This has got us all shaken up; you, me, everyone. But I trust you're still up to the task at hand, and that you'd tell me if you weren't. Am I right, Thunderlane?"
  2247. > "Yeah."
  2248. > Twisting his head back and forth dog-like, Thunderlane nods.
  2249. > "Yeah, I'm good. I can deal with it."
  2250. "And with me, I hope."
  2251. > He doesn't answer, which you take as an affirmative.
  2252. > The cell door opens smoothly on its hinges, letting you get the first real look at the stallion since the frantic chaos in the bedroom.
  2253. > Shining Armor is a well-built specimen, even despite all he'd been through.
  2254. > His white coat was dirtied in a few places, and that mane was so shaggy it fell far enough to nearly conceal his shoulders.
  2255. > Which, you suppose, had been something of the point.
  2256. > Shining Armor was also asleep at this particular moment, curled on a cot with his legs as close up to his chest as the shackles they bear will allow.
  2257. > Not that his rest lasts long; barely have you stepped into the room before his eyes snap open and he rolls from the bed onto his hooves.
  2258. > He winces when he lands, limbs failing him a moment and requiring a few awkward steps before he is stable.
  2259. > Despite the restrictor mounted on it, his horn falls to point low at you in a wary, guarding stance.
  2260. > Piercing blue eyes - alert and ablaze - lock onto you.
  2261. > ...they were almost the same color as Flurry's.
  2262. > Your hands rise, showing them empty but for a sheaf of papers and pencil.
  2263. "Relax. I'm not here for a fight. I just want to talk."
  2264. > His nostrils flare in a snort, and his hooves shift uncertainly on the hard cell floor.
  2265. "Easy - I'm just going to sit do- actually, I'm going to grab a chair.
  2266. > A stool, in fact, sitting out in the hallways.
  2267. > When you return with it, Shining Armor and Thunderlane are staring each other down.
  2268. > You pointedly pass between them on your way to take a seat.
  2269. "Shining. Why don't you have a seat too?"
  2270. > He doesn't, though, opting to remain standing as you settle on the stool.
  2271. "I'm sure you know who I am, but I think this is the first time we're really talking face to face. So, if I can re-introduce myself - I'm Anonymous. I, uh - I own this place."
  2272. > "You own them."
  2273. "...yes, I do."
  2274. > "You own her."
  2275. > Which 'her' it is - his daughter or his former wife - isn't really clear.
  2276. > Asking seems like a bad idea.
  2277. "Yes, I do. Shining... I'm not here for an argument. I know you're angry at me. I know why you're angry at me - hell, why you're here in the first place."
  2278. > "Corona."
  2279. > The name is spat out - an accusation, or a challenge.
  2280. "Yes."
  2281. > Dropping forward with your elbows on your knees, you squeeze your hands together.
  2282. "Shining... let's jump straight to the point. You heard that I did terrible things. Truly evil things to her. And I did; I'm not going to beat around the bush or try to justify it. I tortured her because I was angry. Cadance says you've been through something similar-"
  2283. > You nod towards his back.
  2284. > At this close distance, you can clearly see the numerous scars covering it, a spiderweb testimony to what had been done to him.
  2285. "- and so really, I can understand your rage."
  2286. > "Then what is there to talk about? You admit it all."
  2287. "Flurry Heart. For starters."
  2288. > His face tightens again.
  2289. "I... I can understand that, too. You don't know this, but my wife and I... aren't close anymore. She wasn't a good person, and I almost lost my daughter to her. I wouldn't have ever gotten her back the same. So, I can understand that too - not wanting your daughter to be... well, you'd see it as turned into another servant of someone who did something so cruel."
  2290. > "Is that why you came here? To brag to me?"
  2291. > You can practically hear his teeth grinding.
  2292. "No. I came here, because I want you to - just for a second - think about this from my perspective. Not as a slaveowner. Not as a your enemy. I want to talk to you, father-to-father, as someone who is also very worried about his daughter."
  2293. > "I don't think-"
  2294. "You broke into my house, Shining Armor. You went into my daughter's room. Cadance says you didn't mean to hurt her, but for me..."
  2295. > A hand rises to run through your hair.
  2296. "...the reason I'm only just getting around to talking to you now, is that I wanted to let my anger cool off a little bit more. So I wouldn't do anything really bad to you."
  2297. > For the first time, he actually seems surprised.
  2298. > Just for the briefest moment, you see his eyes shift in confusion.
  2299. > They're quickly back to a narrowed questioning, searching to try and figure out your angle.
  2300. > You grin a touch.
  2301. "I told you, Shining. I want to talk. Not torture you, not argue. Talk. For my daughter, I'd do anything. If Thunderlane or Cadance hadn't been there, I'd have thrown myself between you to protect her."
  2302. > "And what about my Flurry Heart?"
  2303. "I'd have put myself between her and someone threatening too."
  2304. > It hadn't been what he meant, clearly, but Shining is also obviously taken aback by this.
  2305. > "I..."
  2306. "Flurry isn't my daughter. But she's damn close. So yes, I would have saved both of them if you had been... anyone else, really."
  2307. > "What is your point?"
  2308. "I want you to understand two things. The first is simple: What I did to Corona... it was wrong. What I did to her there is no excuse for; I knew that the second I realized what I'd done, and part of me thinks the best thing for her would be for her to just never to come back."
  2309. > "You've already followed her out there. In her memories."
  2310. > Shining Armor's tail is swishing angrily.
  2311. > "You know who else I've seen with those kinds of nightmares? Guardsponies, who came back from battle. That's what you did to her. It haunts her."
  2312. "Yes. I believe it, Shining. I know it. And that's why I'm not chasing after her. Why I - can't. I - I know it's too late for her. But I swear to you, I have - changed. Become better. You can believe me - or not. Hell, just take a good look around."
  2313. > Sitting in one place suddenly feels too constricting; you rise and begin pacing back and forth as far as the cell allows.
  2314. "You might have only just "gotten here", but Copper Dust has been here a while. Long enough for you to see that this place isn't like the hell-holes you've been through."
  2315. > This produces a heavy snort from him.
  2316. > You pause in place, one eyebrow raised.
  2317. "Do you really think you could do that to me, if I was like any of them?"
  2318. > Rather than admit defeat, he just stares at you impassively.
  2319. > You shrug, and move on.
  2320. "...look. You don't like that I'm a slaveowner. But - Shining, that's the second thing I want you to understand. I want you to look at what I'm building here, really look at it, and tell me - is it honestly the same as what you went through?"
  2321. > Before he can intercede, you add:
  2322. "I know, I know. A pony was whipped here - but not because he didn't swear he loves serving me or something. Do you think for a second, for a single second, Cadance would stand by if I did that?"
  2323. > "She did when you tortured Corona."
  2324. "Yes... she did. Because I forced her hoof, exactly once. And it almost broke what we had built. If I did again? No way. She tears herself up over doing just this much."
  2325. > If this was a game of chicken, Shining Armor just flinched.
  2326. > His eyes fall from you, expression turning distraught at that idea.
  2327. > You seize on the opportunity, leaning in again.
  2328. "What I'm building here is better - infinitely better than any of the places where you were. Yes, ponies here work. But is that so bad? Cadance tells me you've found someone you can trust-"
  2329. > "You are nothing like him!"
  2330. > It's the first time you'd heard Shining really yell, and sends you jerking back on the stool.
  2331. > "He - he took care of me! Even when I was too weak to work, too sick to be of help, he was right there by my side all the time. The same with Corona: He helped her through all the time she was blind with fear because of some nightmare."
  2332. > Snarling, he raises a hoof to jab it in your direction.
  2333. > "You don't care. You've just found a cheaper way to keep ponies feeding your wallet. So you can live in that big fancy house while they work day in and out."
  2334. "I know we're not the same, Shining. But I do care. I'm sure you've heard what happened to Mocha Cream. Is that what you'd expect of an owner who just wanted workers?"
  2335. > A touch of bitterness had entered into your voice, and in the corner of your eye you see Thunderlane inching forward.
  2336. > Shining sees it to, shaking his head.
  2337. > "That's - that's not the point. What about all the ponies out there, in the camp? Can you say the same for all of them?"
  2338. "It's damn near two-thousand ponies out there. I can't know all of them face-to-face. But you know what else it is? Two thousand ponies who don't fear, don't tremble in terror or hide when I pass. Doesn't that mean anything to you? Wouldn't you prefer your daughter be helping lead that?"
  2339. > "No, I wouldn't. I'd prefer she be free!"
  2340. "That's not a choice here!"
  2341. > "Why not? Because you decided it isn't?!"
  2342. "Because I need something to give Megan!"
  2343. > You're standing, leaning over Shining.
  2344. > Who is also stood as tall as he can be, glaring right back.
  2345. "You're right: I do want Flurry to help Megan run this place, because everything about it I’ve built for her. To give her something she can be proud of, when it's time."
  2346. > "Built on our backs!"
  2347. > "Enough! Both of you, enough."
  2348. > Thunderlane finally straps in, wings rising to push both of you back.
  2349. > Grimacing, you fall back onto the stool.
  2350. "...right. Yeah. Sorry."
  2351. > "Do you need some time off, Master?"
  2352. "No, I..."
  2353. > Your fist clenches, unclenches, clenches again, and finally falls limp at your side.
  2354. "...I'm good."
  2355. > He looks to Shining Armor, who says nothing but settles back on his haunches.
  2356. "Look at me, Shining. I... if I'm really a tyrant, could Thunderlane do that to me?"
  2357. > "What do you want from me?"
  2358. > His growled question draws a sigh from you.
  2359. "For right now... I need to figure out who owns you. So I can start getting you back home. Otherwise, the police are going to come crawling up my ass for dealing with you."
  2360. > "You'll come looking for Corona."
  2361. "I'm not interested in chasing her. She's... nothing I can do would undo the damage. I don't want to drag her back here kicking and screaming."
  2362. > "Swear it."
  2363. "You'll take the word of a slaver?"
  2364. > "Swear it on your daughter's life. You won't try to take Corona. Actually, you won't come looking for her at all. Give her up."
  2365. [Choice]
  2366. > You don't answer that.
  2367. > You can't, not just yet.
  2368. > Instead you look away.
  2369. "...Cadance told me - that you said she's happier now."
  2370. > It takes him a moment to realize what you mean, but Shining nods.
  2371. > "Yes. Corona is. Away from you, away from anyone who sees her as just a slave."
  2372. "I'm... glad for her."
  2373. > They had given her what you were fairly sure you couldn't have.
  2374. > Comfort.
  2375. > It would have taken years before Corona would view you with anything but unmitigated terror, and even then her feelings would likely only have been reduced to a simmering hatred.
  2376. > What must his owner be like to disarm her so?
  2377. "Can I ask you a question first, Shining Armor? Cadance once told me she thought you were dead, because if you were alive you'd still be fighting or broken so badly you wouldn't be yourself anymore."
  2378. > You pause a moment, then add:
  2379. "...well, I guess we both underestimated their ability to hide you. But now here you are, a slave to another... and you're defending him. Shining... what made you change? Why give up? Was she wrong, or was it something else?"
  2380. > Shining doesn't answer, instead just turning away, huffing softly and shifting on the cot with the soft clink of chains.
  2381. > Being entirely honest with yourself you didn't really expect him to.
  2382. "I'm just... trying to understand."
  2383. > "So you can turn this place into an even bigger farm filled with complacent ponies, ready to do your bidding? It won't work."
  2384. "Maybe not. But if I can just understand, then maybe that's another layer of control I don't need to use anymore-"
  2385. > Another powerful, dismissive snort.
  2386. "But... fine. In answer to your earlier question, I can't swear on my daughter's life. I can't give you that oath any more than you could swear on Flurry Heart's life."
  2387. > The stallion lays his head down on crossed legs.
  2388. "I don't know a lot about your journey. I'd like to know, but we tried looking before and couldn't find much. And I'm pretty sure the files on 'Copper Dust'-"
  2389. > Raising the sheaf of papers you'd brought down, you waggling them in his direction.
  2390. "-are a pile of bullshit too. But in the end, I don't need your cooperation to find out where you came from."
  2391. > "Right. You'll just try to beat it out of me instead."
  2392. > Shining's comment drives you to throw up your hands, scattering papers in the air as anger floods through you again.
  2393. "Oh, for fuck's sake! Will you stop assuming I am going to have you tortured at the drop of a hat?!"
  2394. > Struggling back upright, Shining jabs a hoof in your direction.
  2395. > "Assume? I look at you having ponies whipped for 'supporting rebellion', look at what you did to Corona, look at that you had me hung up by my rutting hooves and would have left me there to rot until morning if Cadance hadn't come to see me! I know what the score is; I'm a rebel, a threat to your perfect order. I broke in with a disguise and you need to find out who gave it to me. So just start in already-"
  2396. > "Shut up!"
  2397. > Very unexpectedly, Thunderlane had leaped up and now interposed himself directly in front of Shining - forehooves on the bed to bring himself practically nose-to-nose with the other pony.
  2398. > "I've seen Anonymous do a lot of really, really harsh things. But he's always been clear about it. Listen to him. He's not threatening you. Okay? Listen!"
  2399. > Once he is certain Shining isn't going to snap again, Thunderlane backs off and looks to you.
  2400. > You, however, are not in a particular state to continue.
  2401. > Hung up by his hooves.
  2402. > Right.
  2403. > That had happened.
  2404. > Teetering your way back to the stool, you slump back down on it.
  2405. "...yeah. Okay. Y'know what, you've actually got a little bit of a point. But Thunderlane's right too. I'm not threatening you; if I wanted to find your owner I'd just have a fresh medical done and do a bit more searching around based on that."
  2406. > Lifting your head you jab a finger at him.
  2407. "But you know what? I'm not trying to hunt you or whatever you did to get in here. I'm trying to give your master Corona."
  2408. > Shining shakes his head.
  2409. > "She's not yours to give. I know what the laws are, why she came the way out to us. You can't chase her now; she doesn't have any identification. You don't have any proof-"
  2410. "I have money, which when you get down to it means I have the law."
  2411. > "What the hell does that mean?"
  2412. "You broke into my home. I've spoken to a lawyer and he says I have a pretty good case. If I wanted to, I could drag a case out - and I'd bet your owner will run out of funds before I do. Or hell, I find another way to prove Corona's ownership."
  2413. > Okay, that's an exaggeration.
  2414. > A severe one; you have no idea if you could get your hands on Corona again.
  2415. > "So we're down to threats now. I knew you weren't-"
  2416. "No. No threats. Just making a point of what I could do... and what I'm not going to. Whether I have to have a full medical check done on you or you just tell me, I will find out who you came from - and I will hand over the full ownership documentation for Corona. So that she knows I have no interest in ever pursuing her again. I will swear to that."
  2417. > "That would mean you couldn't come after her? Ever?
  2418. "Ever. And she would know it, too. She'd be able to rest at night without ever worrying about me finding her."
  2419. > His jaw working soundlessly, Shining drops back his haunches on the bed - tail swishing thoughtfully.
  2420. "That's all I want. To just - let her go. Let her be happy. Nothing good would come of chasing her again, and I-"
  2421. > Your jaw clamps hard, taking a second until you're ready to speak again.
  2422. "- I want to let this go. Let her go. I'd actually even like to send a letter with you, when you go back. You can read it first, or your owner can, just to make sure I'm not hiding anything."
  2423. > "That won't help her. Won't fix her. It's not so easy to undo what you did."
  2424. "I don't expect it to. But maybe knowing she will never need to worry about me again will help her heal faster. That's all. I'll let you think about it a bit, okay?"
  2425. > With that, you gather up the scattered papers and fold them back into a stack.
  2426. > When you leave, the cell door slips shut just as soundlessly as when you had come.
  2427.  
  2428. > You wait until Anonymous' footsteps are out of earshot before speaking up.
  2429. "He's not as bad as he used to be."
  2430. > A grunt and the jangling of chains is Shining's response as he drops back to rest on his belly - forehooves crossed beneath his chin.
  2431. > You sigh softly as well.
  2432. > You hadn't lied to Anonymous; this stallion, in some ways, did scare you.
  2433. > If Megan had been hurt... if Flurry had been hurt...
  2434. > Everything you had - Rumble, Vapor Trail, Sunbreak - everything would be gone.
  2435. > But at the same time, you don't see a better way to disarm the danger he represented than this.
  2436. > And that would mean facing him.
  2437. "Shining. I get why you're angry. We - we shouldn't have to do this. I shouldn't have to put this uniform, carry out his orders, just to keep my brother safe."
  2438. > "But you do. You whipped that pony too."
  2439. "Yeah. I did. I..."
  2440. > You hold up a hoof, watching to see if it will tremble.
  2441. > It doesn't, and you aren't sure what to make of that.
  2442. "...what are we supposed to do, Shining Armor? Like he said, there's two thousand ponies here. One pony starts getting ideas about rebellion, it spreads, and we all lose. I lose my brother, my marefriend, she loses her foal - and Anonymous' idea crashes."
  2443. > "Do you actually like what he's doing?"
  2444. "No. I don't like being a slave. I don't like-"
  2445. > Your voices trembles.
  2446. "I don't like any of this. But if there was a rebellion, we'd all be off to the worst kind of camp. The kind of place you were. I couldn't put Rumble through that, or Vapor Trail. Or Sunbreak."
  2447. > Putting a hoof on the edge of the cot in an almost supplicating gesture, you add:
  2448. "Is that wrong of me, Shining Armor? To want to protect them? You were in the Royal Guard. Tell me, please - is it wrong?"
  2449. > "Why are you arguing with me?"
  2450. > You sigh.
  2451. > So much for making a connection.
  2452. "Because I don't want you to get stuck on yourself. You scared the shit out of me, what you did... but I also thought Copper Dust was a good stallion. Maybe a bit too jumpy, a bit too driving... but ultimately a good pony. A pony who cared. Was that just part of your disguise?"
  2453. > No response comes, not even a movement.
  2454. > He just lays there, ears down and even tail still.
  2455. > You sigh, rising to turn and leave.
  2456. > Abruptly Shining raises his voice from behind you:
  2457. > "Wait."
  2458. > You turn your head back, looking at him questioningly.
  2459. > He is half-propped up on the cot and giving you an uncertain look.
  2460. > "You... I... I don't know. Maybe Cady is right. Maybe I did die back there. Or enough of me died inside I'm not the same pony anymore."
  2461. > Now you turn fully around, head cocked.
  2462. "What do you mean?"
  2463. > "When - when my master found me... I was pretty close to the end. They couldn't beat me into groveling, so the last one had just stopped feeding me, washing me, cleaning my waste... anything. I don't think I would have lasted more than another couple weeks, or even a few days."
  2464. > With slow, cautious steps you come back to the cot's side.
  2465. > Shining Armor's eyes are distant, his voice soft.
  2466. > "Maybe I was already gone. The hunger was... everything. I slept in my own filth, when I could sleep at all. The nightmares kept me from getting much. Nothing seemed to matter anymore."
  2467. "Then he came and took you. Your master."
  2468. > A bob of his head sends Shining's unkempt mane swinging.
  2469. > "He chose me. Out of all the ponies there, he chose me."
  2470. "Do you know why?"
  2471. > "Not really. To work, he told me later... but that can't be it. There were better ponies there for just working. And he took me home, he said he didn't even want to talk about that. Just gave me something to eat and washed all of the filth off me himself and gave me his own bed to sleep in and-"
  2472. > Just the memories alone are enough to draw Shining Armor to tears, his sides heaving in little sobs.
  2473. > Not that you looked down on him for that.
  2474. > Nothing you or Rumble had ever experienced compared; you held no illusions that you hadn't been fantastically lucky in your experience.
  2475. > "You can't understand how that feels. To be completely, totally, helpless. A step away from giving up and just laying down to die. Even when he fed me, I thought it was just so he could work me... to be like that, and then have someone show you that kind of kindness."
  2476. > Another long pause while Shining gathers himself.
  2477. > "It was the same thing with Corona. He didn't have to take her. He didn't have to help her when he found out how hurt she was. When she finally opened her heart up to him, he didn't have to-"
  2478. > Biting his tongue, Shining shakes his head.
  2479. > "Your owner, here - he doesn't see you as anything but tools. Something he can give to his daughter. Two thousand ponies, but in his mind you're all just something he can get rich with."
  2480. "That is not true."
  2481. > Shining just rolls his eyes.
  2482. > "He wanted to know why I'm okay with my master? He cares. He shows us he does. Maybe I did change back there, but I wouldn't have if he didn't show that kind of kindness. Can you name one time your Master did something only out of honest, real kindness and not because it makes the ponies here more placid and obedient, Thunderlane?"
  2483. [Choice]
  2484. "Honestly? Yes. Yes I can."
  2485. > Extending a wing, you reach out to tap one of your primaries with each point you make:
  2486. "One. You know the community center with the museum? He didn't want to build that. He was afraid it would encourage rebellion. But he did it anyway, because we voted on it using money freed up when he fired the guards who were mistreating us and let us watch ourselves instead. He gave us the money, when there was absolutely no call for him to do that."
  2487. > Another feather is tapped.
  2488. "But maybe that's not really kind enough. Have you seen Mocha Cream? Young unicorn mare, kind of flighty, walks with a limp? When she was attacked - attacked for just carrying out her duties - a 'business' decision would have been to just get rid of her. He didn't, though. He paid for her treatment, even when she came back disabled. Isn't that what you were praising your master for doing?"
  2489. > Shining looks ready to interject, but you just keep going:
  2490. "Is that too close to him, though? What about how he's buying up ponies' family members where they're found, even if they're older and not able to work that well? It's not very businesslike, is it? Or how he pulls ponies off of their normal jobs when it's time to bring new ones in, so the new ones don't have to be afraid they're being shipped to a death camp?"
  2491. > On and on you go, point after point.
  2492. > His very real anger when he'd discovered guards were abusing ponies, more than just at the sabotage of his business.
  2493. > How he had gotten Windy Winters to a better buyer, for coming to his senses.
  2494. > The way he'd rejected Haute Glamour and everything she had stood for - exactly the kind of behavior Shining feared.
  2495. > Letting real Equestrian history be shown in the rec hall's 'museum', against his own intuition.
  2496. "...now, maybe it's possible to just see all of this as - as any kindness making us more likely to follow him. And - don't mistake me, I know what he really is. But he's been better to us than he had to be."
  2497. > This is clearly percolating through Shining Armor's head; his eyes have again taken on that far-away look.
  2498. "Even more important, though? He wasn't always this way. There was a time where we had to fight tooth-and-hoof for every crumb he gave us. But your wife, Shining - she's been changing him, she really has."
  2499. > "Flurry too?"
  2500. "Flurry too. You should have seen him when he found out she couldn't fly... he gave Cadance the time she needed to help Flurry learn again."
  2501. > Grunting in a noncommittal sort of manner, Shining Slumps over onto his side.
  2502. "I... I know this isn't the easiest for you. There are still some days when I get sick with myself for what I'm doing, but still."
  2503. > "I want to see my daughter."
  2504. > You pause, considering.
  2505. > Shining wasn't in much of a position to negotiate, but...
  2506. "I'll pass on word. If I can make a suggestion, though? Give Anonymous the information he wants. It costs you nothing, but he won't miss what it means."
  2507. > Another wordless grunt gives you a sense of exactly how Shining Armor feels about that.
  2508. "And - I meant what I said about Copper Dust. He was - and you are - a good pony. Doing this won't change that."
  2509. > "But... if I tell him, he'll just send me back."
  2510. > The sheer pain in Shining's voice gives you pause.
  2511. > There was a depth there, even more than he'd shown you already.
  2512. > "I've come so far. All this way, just to find them. Just for Flurry and Cadance. And he'll just send me right back because I'm a runaway and he can't keep me-"
  2513. > You do sympathize.
  2514. > This stallion had been through so much, finally found his family, thought he'd lost his wife only to discover she was not the tyrant he'd thought.
  2515. > And now he'd have to give them all up.
  2516. "I... I'll talk to Anonymous. Maybe he can figure something out."
  2517. > "What, fly them that far just to see me? Even if he's as generous as you say, I doubt that. Besides, I'm a rebel. A runaway. I might put some ideas about fighting back into Flurry's head. He couldn't have that."
  2518. > Rolling the rest of the way over onto his back, Shining holds his shackled hooves up above himself.
  2519. > "I still half-expect him to come in and try and whip the location of everyone who helped out of me. All the places I stopped on the way here, the ones who gave me the disguise enchantment. Hang me up by my hooves again until I begged-"
  2520. "He won't. I wouldn't let him. Cadance wouldn't let him."
  2521. > "The police won't be very happy if he knowingly lets a rebel go."
  2522. "Then I'd suggest you don't mention it around him."
  2523. > Now the look Shining Armor gives you is a completely new one:
  2524. > Relieved surprise.
  2525. > You just lift your wings in a shrug.
  2526. "I'm here to keep everypony here safe, Shining. Not be a slaver's attack dog. If he can send you home without any of that, it's no trouble for us. If it spares you... even better."
  2527. > "...that's good of you."
  2528. > This time it is you who gives a little grunt.
  2529. > Shining doesn't seem to have more to say, just laying on his back and still staring at the shackles on his legs.
  2530. > Turning, you walk for the door.
  2531. > Locking the cell is the only thing you pause for before you all but flee from the security building.
  2532. > The rest of your day is spent in almost a trance.
  2533. > Back at the manor, things are only just settling down.
  2534. > Megan's room's window, now replaced with plywood for the moment, still stood out like an open sore.
  2535. > After dutifully reporting to Anonymous what Shining had said, you couldn't resist taking a peek in through the now-permanently-open doorway when you passed by.
  2536. > Pausing to stare for a moment at the spot where you'd tumbled into the wall, landed in a daze.
  2537. > Looking at the holes in the walls where Cadance had ripped hinges from frame.
  2538. > Sometimes you did really forget how powerful she could be.
  2539. > The room has already been thoroughly cleaned by the industrious house-ponies.
  2540. > Plaster, glass, and paint chips swept up.
  2541. > Megan herself would be moved into a temporary bed in one of the other rooms, of course.
  2542. > And-
  2543. > A soft gasp behind you sends you spinning around, wings open in a ready-stance.
  2544. > Mocha Cream, however, is just as surprised and stumbles back on unsteady legs until she falls onto her haunches.
  2545. "Oh - oh, Mocha. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to surprise you."
  2546. > "It's okay. I know you didn't mean to."
  2547. > You hold out a hoof, though, to help her up.
  2548. "Is Megan home yet?"
  2549. > "Yes. She went straight to Flurry when she arrived. They're upstairs now."
  2550. "I imagine they're pretty shaken up too."
  2551. > "This morning, they didn't even want to be separated when Miss Megan went to school."
  2552. > Mocha sighs heavily, shaking her head.
  2553. > "I don't know which of them was more scared... Flurry Heart has more to think about, of course."
  2554. "How is she taking it?"
  2555. > "Poorly."
  2556. > Settling back on her haunches again, Mocha grimaces.
  2557. > "She's been somber, even after Miss Megan came back. I think she's afraid this is all somehow her fault."
  2558. "Poor filly's been through a lot. First no one to care about her, and now everyone pulling her in different directions..."
  2559. > "And it will depend on what becomes of her father."
  2560. "Well, that at least we're making headway on. You can tell her that - I think it will be okay in the end.”
  2561. > “Celestia and Luna help her, she will need the good news.”
  2562. > You glance back towards Megan’s room, muttering under your breath:
  2563. “At least she has news to be happier about… some way to clear the clouds from her mind.”
  2564. > Mocha cocks her head questioningly.
  2565. “...sorry. I shouldn’t saddle you with it. I’m just… this whole thing came so close to destroying everything here, and I couldn’t stop him. I felt - feel - helpless.”
  2566. > “Yes… that is a hard place to be.”
  2567. > Holding up a hoof - a trembling hoof, one of her weak ones - Mocha shakes her head.
  2568. > “Talk, Thunderlane. That’s what they told me at the hospital Master sent me to, and it did help with the fear. At least talk about it with someone.”
  2569. > Even if you did not know her circumstances, Mocha’s tone alone is enough to know this is coming straight from her heart.
  2570. “I’m telling you.”
  2571. > “Not because you chose to. Because we happened to meet. Choose to. You have somepony close, don’t you?”
  2572. “Yes, Vapor Trail.”
  2573. > “Then tell her.”
  2574. > Mocha Cream smiles sadly, tears brimming in the corners of her eyes.
  2575. > “At least you have that much.”
  2576. > Oh.
  2577. > Quickly you pull the little mare into a tight hug with both forehooves and wings.
  2578. > “You have us too, Mocha Cream. Myself, and I’m sure Rumble would be happy to listen to you too.”
  2579. > ...
  2580. > Your thoughts are still distant and wandering when you return to your quarters.
  2581. > Vapor Trail is there, of course.
  2582. > Still being a nursing mother, she was on much-reduced working hours with many breaks.
  2583. > In fact, Sunbreak was tucked between her hindlegs even now - suckling away happily, her little wings twitching as she drank greedily.
  2584. "Still hungry, huh?"
  2585. > "You bet it. She's going to be a strong filly, I can tell."
  2586. > Shrugging off the uniform, you walk over and briefly nuzzle the foal before turning to nuzzle her mother in turn.
  2587. > "A tough day?"
  2588. "After what happened last night... you bet it."
  2589. > "Thunderlane?"
  2590. > Tilting her head away, Vapor fixes her eyes on the bed's pillow instead.
  2591. > "Ponies are saying it was Shining Armor. Princess Cadance's husband."
  2592. "...are they?"
  2593. "Yes. Some ponies are also saying he tried to escape with her, but I don't believe that. She wouldn't be walking around now if it were true."
  2594. > "That's probably accurate."
  2595. > You clamber up on the bed, settling down beside her and draping your head over Vapor Trail's side.
  2596. > She lifts her wing accommodatingly, letting you slip your muzzle beneath it.
  2597. > A quick twist of your head let you press an ear to her side and find her heartbeat.
  2598. > "Is it true, Thunderlane? The rest of it?"
  2599. > Exactly how word of this got out, you aren't sure.
  2600. > You can guess, though; even if the house-ponies knew about what they were or weren't supposed to talk about, gossip would spread about something like this.
  2601. > And at this point, you're tired of being Anonymous' representative.
  2602. "It's true; some of it, at least. I don't want you telling everypony, but Shining Armor was there, and..."
  2603. > Vapor increasingly curls in on herself as you tell the story.
  2604. > When it is done she twists around to look down at Sunbreak, who had finished her meal and promptly gone to sleep against her mother’s belly.
  2605. > "He only wanted to see his child..."
  2606. "Yeah. And honestly, with all that he'd heard... I can't say I entirely blame him."
  2607. > Vapor kisses Sunbreak softly on the forehead, causing the foal to squirm lightly in her sleep.
  2608. > You watch, her wing still forming something of a blanket over your head, and wonder.
  2609. > She'd been part of the plan to carry out Cadance's new secret escape plan, you knew that much.
  2610. > But just how far into it she was?
  2611. > How dedicated?
  2612. > That was beyond you.
  2613. > Was she still planning on fleeing the camp, when Sunbreak was old enough to travel?
  2614. > Helping others do the same?
  2615. > You draw in a deep breath, taking her scent.
  2616. > Her softness.
  2617. > "Something on your mind, Thunderlane?"
  2618. "Huh?"
  2619. > "You're staring."
  2620. "Just... thinking. About all of this."
  2621. > Rolling off of her, you fall onto your back and hold your hooves up in the air just above you, just like Shining had done.
  2622. "I... I was scared, Vapor. Scared of him. He was strong - so much stronger than me; I couldn't stop him even if I wanted to and if he did hurt anyone in that house, anyone at all, that would be it; everything here would close down and I'd lose you and Sunbreak-"
  2623. > Vapor's wing settles over you again, breaking the stream of words flowing from your mouth.
  2624. "Sorry. I'm rambling."
  2625. > A soft kiss is placed on your cheek.
  2626. > "You're allowed to. You don't have to be some stoic rock for me to lean on. It's okay for you to tell me."
  2627. "Losing you... Celestia above, I don't know what I would have done."
  2628. > Vapor listens patiently as you tell her everything.
  2629. > Exactly as Mocha had suggested.
  2630. > When you’re done, you twist your head and place a kiss on her lips.
  2631. “Thank you.”
  2632. > She smiles before nuzzling into your neck, but you can tell she is worried too.
  2633. > About what, though?
  2634. > Again the little nagging voices make their way into your head.
  2635. > Was it that she sympathized with you, or was she afraid her own chances of escape were going to be crushed?
  2636. > You could just - ask her.
  2637. > Be direct about it.
  2638. > Ask her what her plans are.
  2639. > ...at least then you wouldn't be blindsided, heartbroken, when it happens.
  2640. > No!
  2641. > You shouldn't be mistrusting her like this.
  2642. > Vapor's been nothing but kind to you.
  2643. > But...
  2644. > Then why do you feel so scared?
  2645. [Choice]
  2646. > ...well.
  2647. > Just straight up asking her would only make Vapor Trail defensive - entirely understandably!
  2648. > No, you need to go about this more softly.
  2649. > She's your marefriend, not your therapist!
  2650. > Nuzzling back into her side, you sigh softly.
  2651. "I can tell I'm not the only one with something on my mind. You know you can always speak to me, too."
  2652. > "Yeah."
  2653. > Vapor slips Sunbreak beneath a leg and rolls over to face you, carefully tucking the foal in between the two of you.
  2654. > For Sunbreak's part, she yawns, stretches her little wings with a tiny flutter, and then goes back to sleep.
  2655. > You wait a moment before giggling helplessly at the gesture; Vapor Trail soon joins in.
  2656. > "You're right. There is a lot on my mind. This... this is going to change a lot, and I'm still not sure where I stand."
  2657. "With your... friends?"
  2658. > "With ponies who want to be free, yes."
  2659. > She shuffles her wings a bit.
  2660. > "Ponies are talking already, and - Thunderlane? Is Anonymous going to hurt Shining Armor?"
  2661. > A suspicion is already growing at the back of your head as to what she is asking about, and so you decide to gamble and answer honestly:
  2662. "No. He's - very much holding himself back like that. He's a father too, you know, and I think he really understands what drove Shining to do that."
  2663. > Vapor releases her breath in a soft hiss.
  2664. > "Truly?"
  2665. "Absolutely."
  2666. > "There was a rumor going around that somepony was going to escape. Now, with what Shining did..."
  2667. > You nod.
  2668. "Yeah. Do you think somepony else is going to try it?"
  2669. > "No... but some ponies are scared. Scared that Anonymous will find them, and they'll be punished."
  2670. "I think - I'll talk to him. Anonymous shouldn't have been so short on details when he admitted something had happened this morning. I'll tell him that he needs to show Shining isn't being tortured. That should calm some fears."
  2671. > "...thank you. I think it would calm a lot of ponies’ fears."
  2672. > Including hers, no doubt.
  2673. > You place a soft kiss on Vapor's nose, drawing a gentle smile.
  2674. "Vapor, can I ask something? If Shining Armor had managed to escape with Flurry Heart... do you think other ponies would have run too?"
  2675. > "Yes."
  2676. > There's not a second of hesitation before she answers.
  2677. > "We all know what it would mean if that had happened. If Flurry had been taken, he'd have torn this place apart finding out how. We'd all have felt his rage. Anypony who wanted any chance to go, would have known to before he could figure it out, because there'd never be another chance to be free."
  2678. "...oh."
  2679. > You don't know what to say.
  2680. > Every angle you consider approaching this from feels like it would be too risky.
  2681. > Too close to an interrogation.
  2682. > You'd long ago resolved not to go down that route with Vapor Trail.
  2683. > Sometimes living like this left you feeling like a traitor.
  2684. > Riven in half by the competing paths.
  2685. > Serving Anonymous on the one hoof, perpetuating his dominion over you all.
  2686. > And then caring for this mare who so obviously could not simply ignore the injustice, the wrongness being perpetrated here.
  2687. > Comforting her.
  2688. > Sometimes you even felt like you were just playing the role.
  2689. > Instead of pursuing the question further you just lean your head down and lightly brush your nose through the fringes of Sunbreak's mane.
  2690. > "I know what you're thinking, Thunderlane."
  2691. > Vapor Trail's voice is tinged with sadness.
  2692. > "You're wondering if I would have gone. If I'd have run away with Sunbreak."
  2693. "I... I didn't want to push you."
  2694. > When this fails to produce an answer, you add:
  2695. "You don't have to say. I'm not going to force you to-"
  2696. > "I don't know myself. Even if Sunbreak was old enough to travel, I-"
  2697. > Oh, shit.
  2698. > Are her sides shaking?
  2699. > Is she-?
  2700. > Reaching out, you pull Vapor in against your chest.
  2701. "Shhh... hey, it's okay. I didn't mean to push you-"
  2702. > "No, I - I'll be okay."
  2703. > It takes her a few moments, but she does calm.
  2704. > "I'm sorry. This... this is really eating at me."
  2705. "You know I said you can talk to me-"
  2706. > "Uh-huh."
  2707. > Still she doesn't begin telling you immediately.
  2708. > "I... I wanted to think this wouldn't ever be a home to me. It wasn't some place I could ever be comfortable in. It'd always be something that was using me."
  2709. > She shifts on the bed, lips brushing your chest.
  2710. > "But now there's you. And Sunbreak too. And everypony else here, and I... I'm not sure I would go. I'm not sure I could make myself leave you."
  2711. > At least, you think, she understands that you would not be convinced into running off with her on some feather-brained scheme so easily.
  2712. "Hey, hey. You don't have to worry about it right now."
  2713. > You are so, so out of ideas.
  2714. > And Vapor's shaking her head at the attempted dismissal.
  2715. > "I do have to think about it. It's my future and Sunbreak's too. And... I don't want to leave you, either."
  2716. > To Tartarus with it.
  2717. > You're done dodging around this issue.
  2718. "I don't want you to go either, Vapor."
  2719. > "I know. I... I don't think I can go, now. Not with everything how it is. I... am I broken, Thunderlane?"
  2720. "Broken?"
  2721. > Cupping her head between your forehooves, you lift it up to force her to look at you.
  2722. "Nothing of the sort. Vapor, this is what makes us pony still. Loving. Caring. If you were cold enough to not think about anything like that, then I'd be worried."
  2723. > She frowns, but you cut that right off with a kiss.
  2724. > When it is broken some innumerable seconds later a smile has returned to her face.
  2725. "I mean it. I love you because you're always so supportive and caring. If you turned into somepony else, then would you even be free anymore?"
  2726. > "I.. I don't know, I guess. Which... is why I'm going to say..."
  2727. > Swallowing hard, Vapor gathers herself up and spits it out:
  2728. > "...I wouldn't leave. Not - not now. Not while you're still here."
  2729. "Hey. Vapor-"
  2730. > You move to kiss her again, but she turns her head away.
  2731. > "Don't Please. Don't do that, don't say anything. I'm disgusted by myself. I stayed because of what Derpy said to me before: Sunbreak deserved a chance to live and be free. But now she won't ever have it. She'll wake up every morning, knowing she is still that - that thing's property."
  2732. > Then she goes quiet.
  2733. > For a moment you ponder embracing her again, but she'd asked not.
  2734. > This time, you would respect her wishes.
  2735. > "...look at this, Thunderlane. Look around us."
  2736. > A hoof is waved around the room - spare, simple at best, with only a few basic amenities beyond the bed and table.
  2737. > "We're property. Oh, yes, he's better than most. I see that. I do. But is this still any way to raise a foal?"
  2738. > You open your mouth to answer, but Vapor gets there first:
  2739. > "No. But it's what we have. And everypony else here would have it that much harder if I did ran. So, I won't."
  2740. "I promise you this, Vapor. The day we are free? I'll burn my uniform and go with you. Wherever you want. I don't think I could stand another day here either."
  2741. > This actually manages to draw a grin out of the mare.
  2742. > "You shouldn't make silly promises just to impress me, Thunderlane."
  2743. "I'm not being silly-"
  2744. > "Yes, you are."
  2745. > As if to make her point, she taps your snout with a hoof - even as her eyes shimmer with the threat of renewed tears.
  2746. > "When we're free, your brother will still need you."
  2747. > Opening your mouth to argue, you decide against it
  2748. > This wasn't the time for that.
  2749. > Instead, you take the opportunity to embrace both mare and (with some careful maneuvering) foal between you.
  2750. > ...
  2751. > Next morning comes with a new announcement.
  2752. > You, in fact, miss it - having come to lunch a little bit late, and so only catching the nervous chatter in the aftermath.
  2753. "Hey, what happened here? What's everypony so stirred up about?"
  2754. > "You didn't hear?"
  2755. > "Anonymous was on the PA again!"
  2756. > "He said that the pony who broke into his home-"
  2757. > "It was Prince Shining Armor!"
  2758. > "Her Highness' husband!"
  2759. > "Well he didn't say the prince bit-"
  2760. > "-that doesn't matter. It's him! He's here, and Anonymous says-"
  2761. > "-actually broke into his house to try and get his daughter-"
  2762. > "-going to let some ponies in to see His Highness, because Master said he wasn't going to be punished!"
  2763. > So.
  2764. > Anonymous had given up the 'nothing is wrong, go about your business' line, had he?
  2765. > Smart, in your opinion.
  2766. > Rumors were already flying around like a growing storm before you’d admitted anything to Vapor.
  2767. > But letting some ponies in to see him...
  2768. > No doubt he had extracted some promise from Shining Armor not to try and set off a rebellion, and allowing select ponies access had worked when it came to quieting growing rumors about Chrysocolla's death.
  2769. > But a part of you wonders if it was wise to do this so early.
  2770. > Perhaps he was test-running whether it would be good to let Shining see Flurry Heart as well?
  2771. > You eat your lunch in almost-silence, mostly keeping your ears pricked to the hum of conversation surrounding you.
  2772. > Trying to sense the flow of sentiments.
  2773. > That changes, however, when a familiar face sits down next to you.
  2774. "Lattice."
  2775. > You give the crystal pony a wary nod.
  2776. > His back still bore healing welts from the lashes Cadance had delivered.
  2777. > "Thunderlane. Can we talk a moment?"
  2778. "I'm listening."
  2779. > "I - I would like to see Shining Armor. If Master Anonymous is willing to let some ponies go, I want - I need! - to be one of them."
  2780. > At first you think to remind him just how far-fetched a request like that is.
  2781. > Especially from a pony who'd so recently been punished for a fairly serious disobedience.
  2782. "I'll pass it on to him for consideration. But remember, Lattice - you won't be the only pony who wants to talk to him."
  2783. > "I know. But there's something only he can really answer for me."
  2784. > You turn that answer over in your head a bit before leaning in to posit a theory:
  2785. "It's because he was your prince, isn't it? Back in the Crystal Empire."
  2786. > "Yes. Some of it. Did you ever travel there, Thunderlane?"
  2787. "Only as part of the Equestria games... and there wasn't much time to really explore then."
  2788. > Slumping over, Lattice almost seems to sink in onto himself.
  2789. > As if he had been hoping you'd visited.
  2790. > "I see."
  2791. "I... know there weren't a lot of crystal unicorns, though. Is that what this about?"
  2792. > "It... It is. And is not. That's a part of it."
  2793. "Is that why you can't tell anyone else? Some - unicorn thing?"
  2794. > He shakes his head again, though.
  2795. > "No; it’s simply who he is to me. Anonymous was my master, but Shining Armor will always be my prince."
  2796. "You couldn't have spoken to Princess Cadance about it, then? Before, she, y'know..."
  2797. > "Not about this. This... Her Highness is good to us, and I don't blame her for what she had to do. But I can't ask her this."
  2798. "If you're hiding something, I don't know if Anonymous will be keen to have you talking to Shining."
  2799. > Lattice's hooves curl in.
  2800. > One around the kerchief on his neck, the other on the table.
  2801. > "Yes. But...Maybe you can tell me, Thunderlane: If I knew something, if I had this secret that could cause so much trouble... should I tell everyone?"
  2802. "...is this a secret, Lattice, that could hurt somepony here?"
  2803. > "Only myself. And Her Highness, if she made me reveal it. And Anonymous, perhaps. You work for him; do you think he would want trouble, even if it might mean getting rid of me?"
  2804. "Secrets don't stay this way forever. All it takes is one other pony finding something out-"
  2805. > "No!"
  2806. > Emphatically shaking his head - a glittering spectacle of light reflecting off his coat and mane - Lattice taps a hoof on the table.
  2807. > "You don't understand. These is no evidence. Nopony has to know. It doesn't hurt anyone to not let it be known."
  2808. "Except you, if this is tearing you up so badly."
  2809. > "I can stand it."
  2810. > You sigh, rubbing and itching wing with one forehoof.
  2811. "Then tell me, if you think Princess Cadance can't properly answer."
  2812. > Still, though, Lattice shakes his head.
  2813. > "I'm sorry. You wouldn't understand; you weren't there. And Her Highness would only open her heart to me without question; it's who she is. His Highness Shining Armor could tell me the truth."
  2814. [Choice]
  2815. > You tap a hoof on the table in thought.
  2816. "Honestly, Lattice... I understand you being scared of telling. But if you want an answer on this, you're going to have to give me a reasonable idea of what this is first. I'm not a delivery service; I report things that I know might be problematic."
  2817. > "There's no way you'll understand-"
  2818. "Maybe I won't. I understand you want to talk to Shining Armor specifically - but Lattice, I need you to tell me first. Then I can get you in, if it really is that important."
  2819. > The stallion frowns, his hoof drawing slow circles on the table.
  2820. > "I..."
  2821. "Either that, or I go ask Shining Armor if he knows what it is first. If he agrees, I'll take that as confirmation... but if he doesn't, then we're back to square one and I have nothing. Do you think he'd really know?"
  2822. > "Look - I... I'll tell you, okay? But only you, and then you decide."
  2823. > This stallion is really sweating.
  2824. > If not for the fact that his coat already gleamed and glimmered with muted crystalline reflections, you'd say he was absolutely soaked with sweat.
  2825. > "And not here. Somewhere private."
  2826. "I can unlock a room for us. If you'll tell?"
  2827. > His head hangs, locks falling low to the table.
  2828. > "...you promise to give me a chance to talk to him?"
  2829. "If it's that serious? I'll do all I can."
  2830. > "Fine."
  2831. > Rising to his hooves, Lattice looks around.
  2832. > "Where are we going?"
  2833. > You decide to use one of the storerooms, currently unused on account of the lunch shift.
  2834. > Jokes about two stallions vanishing into a locked room aside, you also make sure the door is secured before turning to him.
  2835. > After all you had a bad history with mysterious tip-offs.
  2836. > As soon as he starts to talk you realize this has almost nothing to do with the current camp situation.
  2837. > Or at least, very little to do with it.
  2838. > Enough for him to be reasonable in his concern.
  2839. > He makes his way through his reasons, and by the end you're sitting on your haunches.
  2840. "...sweet Celestia, Lattice. If half of what you're saying is true, this isn't your fault at all. Nobody will blame you-"
  2841. > "Yes, they will! If they knew all of that-"
  2842. > He sighs, tugging at the kerchief.
  2843. > "-I kind of figured you'd say something like that. Her Highness would too. She'd tell me it wasn't something I chose."
  2844. "It wasn't, though!"
  2845. > "But this can be! This, I can choose what I do about it even if I am a slave!"
  2846. "And you want to talk to Shining Armor to see if you should."
  2847. > "You have no idea what he was like. Shining Armor faced him down, and he'll give me an honest answer. Not just one meant to make me feel good."
  2848. "...right. Well, I do understand why you were hesitant, at least. Okay, I'll talk to Anonymous."
  2849. > "Don't tell him. Please. I don't want him to know until - I'm ready."
  2850. > Shuffling your wings, you grimace but nod.
  2851. "He - will probably agree to it."
  2852.  
  2853. "You want do what?!"
  2854. > Thunderlane looks rather put-upon, as if he expected that response.
  2855. > "I know it's unusual-"
  2856. "Unusual? It's completely out of the norm to just let someone in on the promise of a maybe-secret."
  2857. > "Master, please trust me - this is a serious thing. It's... something you might not understand. Business between him and Shining Armor."
  2858. "Try me. I'm not dumb when it comes to Equestrian history; I know the two of them were prince and subject once."
  2859. > You hold up a hand and wave it to halt Thunderlane.
  2860. "Actually, don't - because it's not even about that."
  2861. > Leaning forward in your seat, you check that the room's door is closed and motion the stallion forward.
  2862. "Look, I know you're good on your word. You've spared me enough now for me to trust that when you say it won't start anything, it really won't."
  2863. > "But...?"
  2864. "But, it's the same thing as always - I can't do favors for you without raising the question of why."
  2865. > "He's a crystal pony. Isn't that enough? Letting Lattice reunite with the one who was a his prince? You've been pretty clear about Cadance's past being a defining part of why she's here; why not Shining Armor?
  2866. "You know very well why. Shining Armor is... cooperative for now; he's given me the information I asked for, not in the least because of your urging him. But he's only just, and I can't know what will happen between them."
  2867. > "Master. If Shining Armor were going to encourage Lattice into rebellion, wouldn't he have done it before?"
  2868. > Thunderlane raises a wing, pointing it out towards the camp.
  2869. > "If you're concerned about what Lattice might do just from a quick talk, you should be concerned about what might have already passed between them."
  2870. "That's because-"
  2871. > Grimacing you rub your forehead, a touch of a grin gracing your lips.
  2872. "Damn, you're starting to get good at this. You got me complete off track."
  2873. > His look suggests that he isn't entirely sure whether that is a good thing or not.
  2874. > You tap a finger on the chair's arm, lost in deep thought.
  2875. "I'm... really not sure about starting it like this, Thunderlane. We'll have to put someone in the room with him, just in case - no, not you. You volunteer for enough already."
  2876. > "I'm the logical choice, Master. He's already told me."
  2877. > Which, in truth, was one of the reasons you wanted it to be someone else.
  2878. > Thunderlane was a good pony and a good servant.
  2879. > But you didn't want all of this resting on one pony.
  2880. > No single point of failure.
  2881. > "And, Master, Shining Armor trusts me. I don't know how he'll react if you put someone he doesn't know in there."
  2882. > Unfortunately, you had no control over that single point.
  2883. > Shining Armor had only just listened to Thunderlane in giving you the information on how to find his old Master; treating him as if you expected him to just be obedient might undo that progress.
  2884. > Despite the fact that - from what you'd gathered - he was reasonably obedient with his owner.
  2885. "Urgh, fine. I'm not happy about this, but... fine."
  2886. > Thunderlane nods, then looks away.
  2887. > "If I can also ask, Master... if Shining gave you the information, have you contacted his owner yet?"
  2888. "No. I'm... considering how. If I just call up, and Corona happens to pick up the phone..."
  2889. > Thunderlane winces, and you nod.
  2890. "Yeah. Exactly I could try to change my voice-"
  2891. > You push it up an octave or two, putting on a false accent that sounds like something out of a bad movie from forty years ago.
  2892. "-an' jus' talk t'her like this, but I think then she'd jus' 'ang up on me."
  2893. > "If I can make a request, sir... don't ever do that again."
  2894. > Actually laughing in spite of the topic, you nod.
  2895. > Perhaps there was a touch of bitterness in that laugh too.
  2896. "So, yeah. You see my problem. I've got half a mind to just do the dialing and then put Shining on the line and let him talk."
  2897. > "You think he would say something - upsetting?"
  2898. "He's passive for now, but I really do wonder what he'll do when I start taking steps to send him home. When I try and pull him away from his little filly."
  2899. > At this Thunderlane looks away.
  2900. > "That is true."
  2901. "Hell, with how close you've become with Vapor Trail, I imagine you understand his position. Feeling a little sympathetic?"
  2902. > Rather than fall for the trick question, Thunderlane looks you dead in the eye and nods.
  2903. > "Yes, I do. I absolutely do, because I know what I'd go through if someone tried to take Vapor from me. I'm not going to help him, though."
  2904. > Your smile widens, then fades back to a very slight scowl.
  2905. "Good. Truth be told, I don't want to keep him in that cell until it's time to go. As a father, I'm not unsympathetic either... and I'd much rather have him leave with some measure of understanding between us."
  2906. > "That may not be possible, sir."
  2907. "I know. I don't expect to have him happily sitting at my knee, but right now I'm faced with some pretty fundamental questions. Like, can I even let him see Flurry?"
  2908. > "You said he's passive for now, didn't you?"
  2909. "Dangling his daughter in front of him is one of those things that makes me wonder whether he'll stay that way."
  2910. > Rubbing the bridge of your nose, you shake your head.
  2911. "Nevermind. Go talk to him about... whatever this is, and we'll think about that later. Understand?"
  2912. > "Yes, Master."
  2913. > In the end, Thunderlane waited for the rest of the ponies to have their chance to see Shining Armor first, before letting Lattice in.
  2914. > Even then you didn't have much of an idea it had actually happened until your telephone rang.
  2915. > "Master?"
  2916. "Yes, Thunderlane?"
  2917. > "Can you come down to the cells? Lattice wants to talk to you. And Shining Armor, too."
  2918. > That sounds... bizarre, but your schedule isn't impossibly tight now.
  2919. > Enough that you can spare some time.
  2920. > You aren't the only one arriving either; when you reach the cell, Cadance is also on her way in.
  2921. > She shoots you a questioning look, as if she almost hadn't expected you to be there.
  2922. > Shrugging, you follow her in.
  2923. > Within Lattice sat in one far corner of the cell; in the other, Shining Armor.
  2924. > He was still in chains, but a much greater length allowed him greater leeway within the confines of his prison.
  2925. "I'm getting the feeling this is a little bit more than a quick explanation."
  2926. > "It is."
  2927. > That was from Thunderlane.
  2928. > "Lattice... we talked a bit. He explained his position. Shining Armor-"
  2929. > He nods to the stallion, who had been sharing an inscrutable look with Cadance.
  2930. > The alicorn in turn did not seem particularly happy with him.
  2931. > Had this all happened without her knowledge?
  2932. > "-Shining Armor gave his thoughts. And Lattice is willing to explain. But, he needs something from you as well."
  2933. > "If I do reveal all of this, I - I don't want you treating me any differently. I don't want to be somepony important. No - no shops of my own, no ponies working for me. And - what I do, it has to go back into the camp."
  2934. "What, like the profits?"
  2935. > Lattice nods sharply.
  2936. > "Exactly. I-I know you do that sometimes, Master. Like with Thunderlane. You gave the guards' pay to the camp instead. That's how it has to be."
  2937. > Does he expect to be making you money, though?
  2938. > Clearly, otherwise he wouldn't be bothering.
  2939. > Is this something to do with the talent for shaping crystals he and Tourmaline Twist supposedly had?
  2940. > Whatever it is, you're not comfortable with this situation at all.
  2941. > From the second Thunderlane called you down this has been spinning out of your control.
  2942. "Right. First of all, I don't enjoy being ambushed with these demands. I came down here because you told me Lattice wanted to talk, Thunderlane."
  2943. > Your arms fold across your chest.
  2944. "Instead I'm hit with these demands right off the bat - demands I'm willing to be Cadance didn't even know about, which makes me only more certain this was a deliberate attempt to hit me with this. And I'm pretty sure I know why-"
  2945. > "I did, Master."
  2946. > Lattice's daring interruption is shocking enough on its own.
  2947. > What he is saying is even moreso.
  2948. > "I had to. I had to prove - prove I wasn't-"
  2949. > Frowning, you turn to him and drop to one knee.
  2950. "Lattice... when have I ever forced you into something? When have I ever demanded you do something? When you said that crystal shaping was something you couldn't do, I accepted that."
  2951. > He looks away, mumbling at the floor.
  2952. > "You didn't give He- Cadance a choice."
  2953. > Your frown deepens.
  2954. "You're not a princess. Prince? Am I dealing with a second prince in disguise here? Are you a - a leader of some kind, Lattice?"
  2955. > "No!"
  2956. > It's just that much too quick of a denial.
  2957. > He knows it too.
  2958. "Lattice..."
  2959. > The stallion whinnies sharply.
  2960. > In the corner of your eye, you see Shining Armor watching you intently.
  2961. > Whatever Lattice might have said, you're quite certain this was Shining's doing as well.
  2962. "...look. You want not to be... important? Not a leader? I can accept that, I suppose. But ultimately, Lattice, I can't always assure you that the money you specifically make will always go back into the camp like that. Being able to give the guards' salaries was a luxury; I can't always be assured of it."
  2963. > "So then you're just going to take it for yourself?
  2964. > You hold a hand out to the stallion.
  2965. "No, that doesn't mean I will ignore what you're asking for. I'd be happy to divert something back into the camp. After all, that's what I do here."
  2966. > Lattice shifts nervously, turning this over in his head.
  2967. > You can guess why.
  2968. "There are two ponies here who will be very, very happy to hold me to account if I don't honor that promise, Lattice. And they can, too."
  2969. > "T-Thank you, Master."
  2970. > There.
  2971. > Maybe now, Shining Armor would see.
  2972. [Choice]
  2973. "...now."
  2974. > You take a seat on the bed, and the ponies form a sort of semicircle in front of you.
  2975. > Despite the fact that you won't be the one telling the story, this feels like nothing so much as an interrogation.
  2976. > Cadance takes up a place next to Shining Armor; within moments, her wing is out and over his withers.
  2977. > On her far side, Thunderlane; Lattice sits alone.
  2978. > At least, until you reach out and rub his shoulder in what you hope is a reassuring gesture.
  2979. "What, exactly is going on here that I can't even be told?"
  2980. > "A-Are you familiar, Master, with why there are so few crystal unicorns?"
  2981. > Your brows knit.
  2982. "I am not."
  2983. > Lattice sags despite the touch on his shoulder.
  2984. > "There used to be. Until S-Sombra. Until the long winter."
  2985. > It takes you a moment to comprehend what he means.
  2986. > Thunderlane looks equally confused; Cadance and Shining Armor, however-
  2987. > When it does hit you, however, it settles over your back like an icy, leaden weight.
  2988. "But - fucking hell! I heard it was just - just mind control. Not - genocide!"
  2989. > "Magic could undo magic. From what I have gathered, Sombra saw threats in every shadow near the end. Any unicorn was a spark to rebellion."
  2990. > That in a soft voice from Cadance, echoed by a nod from Lattice.
  2991. > "So he removed the threat. Those who would not serve him willingly were - culled first. Those who turned on their neighbors to spare each other were next; for if they would betray once, they would betray again."
  2992. "Then how-"
  2993. > Too late you realize that might not be the best question to drop.
  2994. > But then, that must be the key to what Lattice was finding so hard to tell.
  2995. "How are you here?"
  2996. > "I don't know. Blind luck, perhaps, that he did not label us traitors too."
  2997. > He sinks the rest of the way to the floor, legs folding as they can no longer hold his weight.
  2998. > "Us - my family. They served him loyally. We don't remember much from that time; no crystal pony does. Too many shadows in our minds. But enough can be found out..."
  2999. > Swallowing hard, he flicks his eyes up to the Cadance and her husband.
  3000. > "When the tyrant king was destroyed and our eyes were opened, not everypony was willing to forget who worked for him. Some remembered what we'd done."
  3001. > Lattice lights his horn and carefully unfurls the kerchief about his neck.
  3002. > There, nested carefully within, hangs a glittering stone - pure and clear, but for a three-pronged flame of midnight blue and sickly green spearing it through the middle.
  3003. > "The symbol of my house. The last memory I have of them. I hate what they did, but we were family too."
  3004. > "Forgive us, Lattice... we did not protect you."
  3005. > He shakes his head sharply, but she perseveres.
  3006. > "It wasn't your fault. Sombra was - everywhere. I only faced him for such a short time, but even so it was all I could do. You don't have to-"
  3007. > "And that is why I could not ask you, Your Highness. I knew you would say that. I had to ask His Highness Shining Armor."
  3008. > Immediately Cadance's head snaps around, glaring at Shining Armor.
  3009. > You, however, preempt her:
  3010. "And I assume that your question was whether you should keep this information to yourself?"
  3011. > "Yes, Master. If ponies found out who I was - if I started drawing attention to myself..."
  3012. > He shifts nervously, tail flicking and a hoof dragging on the hard cell floor.
  3013. > "...it'd only be trouble. They might come after me. I heard what happened to Mocha Cream; everything they said about her would be true about me."
  3014. "But not now. Hell, I can attest to that."
  3015. > "Would the kind of pony who'd attack me listen to what you say, Master?"
  3016. > He does have a point there.
  3017. "Does Tourmaline Twist know?"
  3018. > "I don't know. Maybe. I haven't told her much."
  3019. "Is she going to come after you?"
  3020. > Shining Armor snorts softly.
  3021. > "She had better not. Another crystal pony, she should know what it was like with Sombra."
  3022. > Lattice nods, adding in:
  3023. > "I think she will be more sympathetic. Other ponies..."
  3024. "Is that why you hid the radio? To - prove somehow, that you weren't my lackey?"
  3025. > "Yes, Master."
  3026. > That is mumbled more softly; your hand rises from his shoulder to squeeze the bridge of your nose.
  3027. "God damn it, Lattice, why didn’t you tell me? I could have - have arranged something from the start!"
  3028. > He doesn't answer, but the reason comes to you again.
  3029. "...you thought I'd insist you work with me again."
  3030. > "Yes, Master."
  3031. > By now his voice is barely a whisper.
  3032. "And this is why you want money you make issued back to the camp. Because you're terrified they'll think you're just enriching yourself...
  3033. > "Yes, Master."
  3034. > It's starting to sound like the chorus to a song by now.
  3035. > "And why I had to ask Shining Armor. He - he's been through a lot, because he wouldn't give up who he was or hide to fit in. He suffered, and I hid."
  3036. "Okay."
  3037. > You scoot back on the cell's cot a bit further and rub your eyes a bit more.
  3038. "I still wish you had told me all of this to begin with, Lattice. Especially after I let you off the hook for running the crystal growth project, I thought you understood me well enough."
  3039. > "I should have, Master."
  3040. > Grunting at that, you turn back to Shining Armor - who is also still getting something of a glare from his wife.
  3041. "And you, I suppose, told him to demand that he should demand his profits go back to the camp instead."
  3042. > "I told him that he shouldn't be afraid of what happened in the past if he isn't doing it now. I have always hated ponies who collaborated just to get ahead-"
  3043. > Here Lattice winces, but Shining still goes on.
  3044. > "-but that Lattice didn't have to be that, as long as he kept looking out for other ponies. Doing it right here was not my idea."
  3045. "Right."
  3046. > You shoot a look back at Thunderlane and Lattice each.
  3047. "I'm almost a little sorry I already told you I wasn't going to give a punishment for this, because it's really out of hand. Now, there's one last thing I am wondering: Lattice, you're insisting that I pay back some of your extra profits into the camp. But, what extra profits?"
  3048. > Instead of answering directly he forces himself upright to his hooves.
  3049. > Laying the crystal totem on the ground atop the kerchief, he stares it at a moment and pulls a few shaky breaths before lighting his horn with a blazing aurora.
  3050. > "Wait, Lattice don't-"
  3051. > It's too late.
  3052. > Despite Cadance's cry, Lattice's horn is glaringly bright - sending coruscating rainbows gleaming from his obsidian coat.
  3053. > You are too shocked to do anything at all.
  3054. > If this had been an assassination attempt, it'd be all over.
  3055. > It isn't, though.
  3056. > Instead, when you blink your vision clear Lattice is swaying over the remnants of his totem.
  3057. > Or, not the same totem.
  3058. > For now a fourth spur of crystal has been added, growing branch-like from the three-lobed center of it.
  3059. > Despite his eyes staring vaguely into the distance a wide grin splits Lattice's face.
  3060. > "It worked, didn't it? Hard - hard to do. But I've still got i-"
  3061. > You're off the bed just in time to catch Lattice as he tumbles over, his head landing full in your lap with eyes rolling up.
  3062. "Stunts aren't needed to prove stuff, Lattice! Thunderlane, go get some water for him!"
  3063. > "I'll... I'll be fine, Master."
  3064. > Running your fingers along his neck finds his pulse regular, if weak.
  3065. > You brush his mane back and shake your head in disbelief.
  3066. "Looks like you're lucky enough that you actually will. Don't ever do that again, Lattice!"
  3067. > "S-Sorry, Master."
  3068. > Swallowing hard, the stallion finally lets his eyes flutter shut - sides now dripping with sweat from his exertion and nostrils flared to pant heavily.
  3069. > "I h-had to know. If it could work still. If it really was just my fear stopping me."
  3070. "Is it always going to be like this?"
  3071. > "No. I c-can do it slower. Less tiring."
  3072. > Rising hoofbeats announce Thunderlane's return with a water bottle gripped in his teeth.
  3073. > You twist and open it, but as soon as the first drops hit his tongue Lattice lights his horn and finishes draining it himself.
  3074. "Feeling better?"
  3075. > "Much."
  3076. > He struggles to his hooves, and with some shakiness manages to look at you.
  3077. > "Thank you, Master. I'll - I'll be sure to do everything I can."
  3078. > You heave yourself to your feet and dust off your hands.
  3079. "Good. Now -"
  3080. > Tapping him on the side, you wiggle a winger in a mid-air circle.
  3081. "-turn around?"
  3082. > Cautiously, Lattice does.
  3083. > And is still looking away when your hand comes down with a hard swat on his croup, eliciting a slight yelp from him.
  3084. > It is joined by pair of rather more muffled whimpers as you deliver a couple more quick slaps to both sides of his haunches.
  3085. > Thankfully Lattice is intelligent enough not to try and kick, though you had preemptively stepped to the side just in case.
  3086. "Thunderlane."
  3087. > The look he gives you suggests he is seriously wondering whether this is necessary.
  3088. > But he does turn around, and barely gives so much as a squeak when you deliver a few solid slaps to his rear.
  3089. > Though his tail does firmly pin itself
  3090. "Don't ever jump me with a demand in front of a crowd like that, either of you. That was completely out of line. Next time, it'll be something more than my hand. Understood?"
  3091. > "Yes, master."
  3092. > "Yes, Master."
  3093. "Good. Thunderlane, go see him home; Lattice, rest up. We can talk more about how to implement this later, but I'm still glad you told me in the end.."
  3094. > After both of them head out, you take a seat back on the bed - looking at the two remaining ponies in the cell.
  3095. > Despite their earlier apparent differences, Cadance and Shining had huddled back up together again.
  3096. > Surprisingly, the latter pony doesn't look too upset at your impromptu discipline.
  3097. > Rather, he seems more surprised you agreed in the first place.
  3098. > "We should have looked after him better, back in the Empire..."
  3099. "Sometimes, Shining Armor, even leaders make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes can have very real consequences; but even so you can't spend hours agonizing over the mistakes. Just keep moving, and do what you can to rectify the damage."
  3100. > "...yeah."
  3101. > You look to Cadance, who gives you a flat look.
  3102. > "Should I turn around as well?"
  3103. "No, you didn't have any part in this. I saw you were as surprised as I was. Though, you should know I won't ever hesitate to give you a few good swats if you ever try anything like that either."
  3104. > That at last manages to draw an angered snort from Shining Armor, while Cadance's cheeks merely color.
  3105. "Now - as long as I'm down here, Shining, I wanted to have a talk with you as well."
  3106. > "I'm listening."
  3107. "The fact is, I don't want to keep you down here in chains forever. For a whole number of reasons."
  3108. > "You want me to believe that you are 'better'."
  3109. > Wincing, you rub the back of your head awkwardly.
  3110. "Well, that's part of it. I won't deny that. But there's another part that really doesn't want to keep you chained up in a cell just because, and another part that wants to let you out just because - hell, I want you to have a chance to really talk with your wife and daughter."
  3111. > That finally gets through to him; Shining's eyes brighten at the perspective.
  3112. "I won't deny I'm no bleeding-heart ponies'-rights advocate. But, like I said - I'm a father too. I'd go through hell for Megan, and I get that."
  3113. > "So, what do I have to do?"
  3114. > Ah, progress!
  3115. "Not much. Just stay under Cadance's watch, don't go wandering off or try to set off any rebellions. And, don't try to get inside Flurry's head."
  3116. > He huffs, ears laid flat and tail swishing.
  3117. > But Cadance leans back against him and nickers softly.
  3118. > Shining Armor relaxes, even starting to lean back against her.
  3119. > "I don't have much to lose, do I?"
  3120. "No, you don't. I'm not going to ask for groveling or anything like that. Your pride will be intact."
  3121. > "What about the horn suppressor?"
  3122. "It stays. We can fit you with a controllable model if you're going back to work. It'll shut off when you're plugged in at your workbench."
  3123. > "...I see."
  3124. > “Please, love. Don’t you want to be out of here? Don’t you - you want to live like a sane pony again, wash up-?”
  3125. > Shining pulls from Cadance's side and walks up to you.
  3126. > Despite barely reaching your chest, despite the chains he drags on the floor, you can feel the force of will in his eyes.
  3127. > "I can't know how much of what you have told me about this place is true. But I can't find out in here, either."
  3128. "So, is that an agreement from you, then? Stay with your minder, no wandering off, no trying to turn ponies on me."
  3129. > "I want to take another look at this camp. If what you've said about it being - 'better' - if that's true, then I - I agree. And..."
  3130. > His eyes fall, tail droops again, and voice softens.
  3131. > For the first time you hear real, real desire in his tone.
  3132. > "Please. Let me see my daughter. I will beg for that, if that is what it takes."
  3133. [Choice]
  3134. "Alright. Then, Cadance - he's yours to look after. A guard will come to take your chains off."
  3135. > "Thank you, Master."
  3136. > Shining merely huffs at hearing her call you that.
  3137. "I'll go see to Flurry, coax her out. Megan will probably want to come along, initially anyway. Oh, and Shining-"
  3138. > You stand, dusting off your pants again.
  3139. "I just want to be clear about this. You will be going back to your owner eventually; I'll be making that phone call pretty soon, and you should probably be a part of it."
  3140. > "Do... do I..."
  3141. "You have to, yes. Even if this was somewhere you wanted to stay, I can't legally keep you around. In fact, since I found out who you are I could be charged with receiving a stolen pony if I drag my heels."
  3142. > This produces another soft huff from the stallion.
  3143. > But also a nod of understanding.
  3144. > Turning for the door, you wave a hand in a goodbye.
  3145. "Good. Honestly... you two enjoy your time.together, okay? Cadance, tell me if you need a little bit of time off."
  3146. > Back in the manor, you have another issue to tend to.
  3147. > Megan had claimed one of the house-ponies' quarters as her own room while repairs were being done.
  3148. > Aside from giving her and Flurry a proper room, it kept them well within the house - where they would be safer.
  3149. > The displaced ponies were merely bunking in one of the other rooms.
  3150. > Marching downstairs, you tap the door to their 'room' and call through the door:
  3151. "Megan, sweetheart? Can I come in?"
  3152. > It is not your daughter who answers.
  3153. > "One moment, Master. Mistress Megan is - um - oh, you can come in now."
  3154. > You do, to find Megan struggling to fit her arms into her pajamas.
  3155. "Hey there, sweetheart. Getting ready for bed already? It's early."
  3156. > "Just felt like it."
  3157. "You didn't want to go out and play a bit?"
  3158. > "Nah. It's okay, Daddy."
  3159. > Willpower alone keeps the frown off your face.
  3160. > Still so nervous about going outside...
  3161. "Well, okay then."
  3162. > Sitting on one of the room's beds - there were two of them, but only one showed signs of actual use - you wave both girl and filly to your side.
  3163. > They're all too happy to come, Megan curling up beneath your left arm while Flurry settles under your right.
  3164. > You muss both their heads fondly.
  3165. "That's my girls."
  3166. > "Is something wrong, daddy?"
  3167. > Huh.
  3168. > They were astute girls.
  3169. "...not wrong, but there is something I need to talk to the both of you about. Flurry Heart, you father, Shining Armor - you know he is still here? Until it's time to send him home."
  3170. > Given how she is curled against your rubs, you can feel her instantaneously stiffen.
  3171. > "Yes, Master."
  3172. "Well... he'd like to see you. He's out of the cell now, with your mother."
  3173. > No answer is given to this, although Megan reaches out across your chest to squeeze Flurry's hoof.
  3174. "Now, I won't force you to. Hell, I can't force you to. But... I think it would be good if you at least tried. Cadance will be there, of course."
  3175. > "Is he angry at me, Master?"
  3176. "No, Flurry. I've told you that before."
  3177. > Leaning over, you place a soft kiss atop her head directly between the ears.
  3178. > It earns you an earflick and comforted nicker.
  3179. "If anything, I think he's a little scared too right now."
  3180. > "Is momma angry at him?"
  3181. "I... maybe. Just a little. But she's mostly happy to see him back."
  3182. > "Then why didn't he want to talk to me before?"
  3183. > Shit.
  3184. > You don't know how to answer this.
  3185. > As if to say what you couldn't, Megan speaks up:
  3186. > "Well, I am angry with him! He should have. That's what they're always telling me at school: Don't hit when you're mad. Use your words. He didn't."
  3187. "...yes. He didn't use his words at all. And maybe we're all a little bit mad at him too. Even you, Flurry. You're allowed to be mad at him."
  3188. > "So mad that I don't want to see him at all?"
  3189. "So mad that if you don't want to talk to him, you don't have to. That's allowed. But, that's not using your words is it? Maybe you should tell him - nicely - and then hear what he has to say too, hmm?"
  3190. > She doesn't look convinced, and you sigh as you run fingers through her mane.
  3191. "Just once at least, Flurry. Then no more. Can you do that for me?"
  3192. > With another squeeze from Megan's hand buoying her spirits, Flurry nods at last.
  3193. > "Mmmk. I'll... I'll do that."
  3194.  
  3195. > The walk back to your quarters is possibly one of the most tense moments you can remember.
  3196. > At the very least, the most tense moment in a very long time.
  3197. > Shining Armor walks at your side; not so close as to share affection, but not so distant as to obviously show a rift between you.
  3198. > He keeps his head up, looking around, as if examining the camp with new eyes.
  3199. > And really, he almost is.
  3200. > For the first time he isn't an agent or rebel, infiltrating to discover the truth or retrieve his daughter from some hell.
  3201. > He is examining it with a more open point of view.
  3202. > You, too, are watching - but for entirely different reasons.
  3203. > It is the ponies that you are looking at, trying to see their reaction to Shining Armor appearing at your side.
  3204. > Free from chains, yes, but scarred and his horn still capped with the restrictor ring.
  3205. > Some of your herd gaze on him with expressions of relief, even joy:
  3206. > Here was another Equestrian royal, alive and un-broken, even at your side again.
  3207. > A triumph!
  3208. > From the way some of them look, perhaps even a miracle!
  3209. > For others, you see not elation but a deep, deep sadness.
  3210. > It is not difficult to understand why:
  3211. > The same facts, taken from a different perspective.
  3212. > Here was another of Equestria's royal family, trapped in slavery as well.
  3213. > Another chance at somepony who might eventually spearhead a march to freedom, captured.
  3214. > In some, you even see anger.
  3215. > Over what had been done to him, or merely that another of your family had appeared in the camp?
  3216. > Hard to tell.
  3217. > Much like Shining Armor's perspective had changed with time, you only hope their consideration of the topic does as well.
  3218. > The door to your quarters shuts behind the two of you with a soft click.
  3219. > For the first time in what feels an eternity you are actually alone with your husband.
  3220. > No threat of being interrupted at a moment's notice.
  3221. > He is looking about as well, studying your modest quarters with the face of one who had somehow expected more.
  3222. "I told you... it isn't much at all. I have a private bathroom, instead of one of the communal ones. That's about as much luxury as I've taken."
  3223. > "I see."
  3224. "Would you like to wash up? It must have been a while since..."
  3225. > "Yeah, I... that'd be nice."
  3226. "Come. I'll show you."
  3227. > As is typical, it takes a few moments for the water to rise from icy to lukewarm.
  3228. > The heaters never were sufficient for the task...
  3229. > Shining tests it with a hoof, then carefully steps beneath.
  3230. "Here. I have some good shampoos; that should get some of the gunk out of your coat-"
  3231. > "Cadance."
  3232. > That one word brings you to a screeching halt.
  3233. > From his place in the shower, mane and coat now slick with water, Shining looks at you with a guarded expression.
  3234. > "Why are you doing this?"
  3235. "Doing what?"
  3236. > "Pretending everything will just be..."
  3237. > He pauses, searching for the word.
  3238. > "...domestic. Between us."
  3239. "I-"
  3240. > The denial dies in your throat.
  3241. > It was what you were trying for, wasn't it?
  3242. > Domesticity.
  3243. > Pretending everything was okay again.
  3244. > Seeing his point made, Shining Armor's eyes fall to the bathroom floor, to water pooling and running to the drain.
  3245. > "I'm sorry. I shouldn't take your dream. But I can't lie either. It's - hard for me. To forget everything that you're doing."
  3246. "But you said-"
  3247. > "I understand you're not a monster, Cadance. But I can't just pretend it isn't, either."
  3248. > You look away.
  3249. "I understand. I'll... leave you be, then."
  3250. > Retreating from the bathroom, you head for the bed in long, slow steps.
  3251. > A few minutes later, though-
  3252. > "Cady?"
  3253. > His pet name for you, and that tone...
  3254. > Ears pricked, you turn back.
  3255. > Still standing in the shower, Shining tilts his head and offers a small smile.
  3256. > "I... can't wash myself very well with this ring on. Could you...?"
  3257. > It is a lie; even with the ring, he is more than capable of a simple wash.
  3258. > But more importantly, it is a peace offering.
  3259. > With a smile, you slip back into the shower.
  3260. "May I...?"
  3261. > "Yes."
  3262. > Stepping in, you take the bottle in your magic and squirt out a dollop into his mane - tracing a thinner line down his back.
  3263. > His body has not gone to waste during his bondage - still every bit the muscular stallion you remember.
  3264. > Shining shivers softly at the cold goop landing in his fur, but gives a soft and happy sigh when you dig your hooves in to massage the stuff in with careful, slow motions.
  3265. > The slow, luxurious motions are as much for your own benefit as for his:
  3266. > This is the first time in so long you have been able to spend with him, and very well may be the last for at least as long.
  3267. > Nor for pleasure alone; your heart breaks each time you feel the rough crest of a scar beneath your hooves.
  3268. > Truly, Shining Armor must have suffered many times what you did.
  3269. > And despite the memories they must bring, Shining Armor seems to be managing to enjoy things as well.
  3270. > His head sinks, soon followed by his shoulders, until he is leaning almost far enough over to fall.
  3271. > A soft, happy nicker escapes his lips, followed by a long and happy sigh.
  3272. > "Perhaps... I can pretend for just a bit."
  3273. > You smile too.
  3274. > Smile, and keep rubbing until his entire body is covered in soap foam and his mane - the ragged, lanky thing he had used to hide the core of his disguise - literally drenched in suds.
  3275. "Rinse?"
  3276. > "Please."
  3277. > Rather than light your horn, you extend a wing out to deflect the water onto him in a cleansing spray.
  3278. > Shining's head rises back up into the spray.
  3279. > Shining's head rises back up into the spray.
  3280. > Suds run down his flanks to his hooves before being whisked away to the drain, but still he stays in place even when you lower your wing.
  3281. "Better?"
  3282. > "Much."
  3283. > What you do next is an undeniable risk.
  3284. > There is no way to know how he will react.
  3285. > Even this little bit of intimacy had clearly been a stretch for him; how much further can you dare to push it?
  3286. > But you could not live with yourself if you did not try either.
  3287. > And so you sidle up close against him, the limp and dripping strands of your mane coming to rest over the sodden mess of his as you press against his flank.
  3288. > Not in a gesture of desire, but simple comfort.
  3289. > Being able to share in his presence.
  3290. > And to your utter delight and relief, he relents:
  3291. > Leaning back against you, he lets his neck rest against yours amid the falling spray.
  3292. > Even earns a soft giggle from you by nibbling lightly at your mane.
  3293. > "You tempt me, mare. And I am defenseless before you."
  3294. "I know."
  3295. > You rest your chin on the back of his neck, breathing in his scent.
  3296. > Despite the recent cleaning it was still clearly there - familiar, masculine, comforting.
  3297. > Your Shiny.
  3298. "I love you, Shining Armor."
  3299. > He tries to answer, but only hiccups instead.
  3300. > Crying, you realize.
  3301. > He is crying.
  3302. > The big softie.
  3303. > Your big softie.
  3304. > Shutting the water, you wrap both your wings about him and hold him there.
  3305. > Feeling the soft heaves of his sides against yours.
  3306. > Eventually it quiets enough to let him speak.
  3307. > "And I love you, Cady."
  3308. > That name.
  3309. > Not Cadence.
  3310. > Not Princess.
  3311. > Not even Mi Amore Cadenza.
  3312. > Just Cady.
  3313. > With your magic you haul over a pair of towels to dry you both; it takes little time to wrap him up in them.
  3314. "Come. Let's get you into a proper bed."
  3315. > You don't even need to lead him on, but it is clear that something is still bothering him.
  3316. "Shining? What is it?"
  3317. > "I..."
  3318. > He jumps onto the bed, settling down onto his side, but still looks away.
  3319. > "I don't know if I want to go. My owner... he's a decent guy, but he's going to be angry. Really angry. Will probably take my magic away again."
  3320. "Is it really just your magic, love?"
  3321. > "No..."
  3322. > His head bows again, eyes half-closed in contemplation.
  3323. > "I - I thought I'd lost you. Now I've found you again and I'm told I just have to go home? He'll never let me out again!"
  3324. > Climbing up beside him, you stretch a wing across his back and let him leans his head into your chest.
  3325. > "I don't belong here. You don't either, but I really don't... but I can't just leave you behind again! I left you and Flurry Heart in the Crystal Empire and lost you both then; I can't just go now! I might never see you-"
  3326. > He cuts off, breathing hard.
  3327. [Choice]
  3328. "Shining... I think we both know you cannot stay."
  3329. > The admission draws a shaky huff from him.
  3330. > You wrap both your wings around him, cocooning Shining Armor in a feathery blanket.
  3331. "You said yourself this is not a place where you can fit in. I understand that. I - I wish you could."
  3332. > Muzzle sinking into his mane, you breath deep and hard - taking in his scent and relishing in it.
  3333. "And besides: Your master cares for you, does he not? From what you have told me."
  3334. > "Yes. He does."
  3335. > Shining sighs heavily, shifting beneath you.
  3336. "It would break his heart if you didn't come back. Do you really think he is going to punish you that severely?"
  3337. > "I don't know. He..."
  3338. > Trailing off into a low mumble, Shining utters something beneath his breath.
  3339. "If you don't want to tell me-"
  3340. > "He's taken a belt to my rump a couple times, okay?"
  3341. > Your soft gasp draws a prompt shake of his head.
  3342. > "It's - he's not cruel. It's a lot less even the lighter whippings. He can be stern, but yeah... he does care."
  3343. "So... he will not lock you up forever. Or torture you. And knowing what he does about this place, would your owner ever let you stay?"
  3344. > "No. It'd destroy Gracie if I didn't come back, though."
  3345. > Gracie.
  3346. > His own human child he'd grown attached to.
  3347. "Yes. You have others relying on you now, remember."
  3348. > "Not to mention, it'd crush Corona as well."
  3349. > Corona.
  3350. > You had forgotten her.
  3351. > Possibly on purpose.
  3352. > Shifting around, you slip your wings beneath his chin and lift Shining's head to face yours.
  3353. > His eyes are still so rich, so alive with light despite all he suffered.
  3354. "But I can promise you this:"
  3355. > Leaning forward, you press your forehead and nose against his - both your horns turned slightly aside to brush past each other.
  3356. "We will never lose each other again. You may go home, but you will not be walking away from me. We can speak by video, by telephone, by visit. We might be apart, but we will never be separated."
  3357. > "It's... not the same."
  3358. > He's desperately trying not to sound whiny.
  3359. "I know. But what other option is there? Righting this is going to take time, effort, and sacrifice for the both of us, Shining."
  3360. > "What if he's hurt? Or he can't afford to keep us? Or-"
  3361. "Then we will see. We will face that trial then. But we cannot be paralyzed with fear now."
  3362. > Eyes falling, he mutters:
  3363. > "We shouldn't have to sacrifice our family."
  3364. > You bring them back up with a kiss to the tip of his muzzle.
  3365. "Never stop saying that, Shining Armor. Never let go what is right. You are the strength I don't have."
  3366. > Huffing softly, he looks aside instead.
  3367. > But you can see the red color invading his cheeks.
  3368. "I will bow and beg Anonymous shamelessly, if that is what it takes to see you. I don't think it will, though."
  3369. > "Really?"
  3370. "He... his heart is truly moved by seeing our separation, I think. His wife is - moved on, and it pains both him and Megan. He knows it pains Megan too."
  3371. > "Someone married that?!"
  3372. > The exclamation of genuine surprise draws a roll from your eyes.
  3373. "From what Megan has told me, he is the better of the two."
  3374. > "Well. Monsters do find comfort with monsters."
  3375. "Shining Armor!"
  3376. > "What? He may be 'getting better', but he is still a slaver. And even you cannot say he wasn’t a monster before."
  3377. "The point is, Anonymous will be sympathetic. And from what you have told me of your owner, he will be too. Be strong, my Armor."
  3378. > "He is. I know he is. Even with how stern he can be, he really does care. He took me and Corona in, after all."
  3379. "So he did."
  3380. > Releasing Shining, you opt to lay down beside him instead.
  3381. > It takes no urging for him to slip his legs around you - wrapping himself around your barrel and flanks, resting his head beside yours.
  3382. "Shining? What is she like now?"
  3383. > "Passionate. Vivid. Lively... like her name. Timid sometimes still, but she's learning to overcome that. If I respect my owner, she loves him."
  3384. > Now it is your to release a breath of relief, ribs shaking as you do.
  3385. > She hadn't been permanently crippled - destroyed - by her trial.
  3386. > "She’s hurt. Maimed in more ways than one. The nightmares still come; sometimes about here, sometimes about when she had her mark taken off. Sometimes about Merribelle."
  3387. > As if in confirmation of you recognizing that name, a soft 'oh' utters from your throat.
  3388. > "And even some things during the day... he used something electrical on her. Just a pop is enough to get her breathing hard; if there's a buzz or something..."
  3389. > Your emotions plunge straight back down, drawing a whimper from your lips.
  3390. > "Cadance... why was it her?"
  3391. "She was - strong. In mind and body. One of the strongest who'd come back. I thought she could stand what he would do better than somepony else. I thought he'd exact something on her, then let her go. I never thought he'd - he'd-"
  3392. > Although you cannot go on, Shining Armor continues to hold you between his legs.
  3393. > Now the situation from before is reversed:
  3394. > It is he who is sheltering your shaking, trembling form.
  3395. "F-Forgive me, Shining Armor. I didn't know what to do, I thought it would be over once and then we could just... I don't know."
  3396. > Eventually he nuzzles your ear again.
  3397. > "I can't understand how you defend someone who did that. But I do admit, you had no better choice."
  3398. "Shining?"
  3399. > Your voice is small and weak now.
  3400. "I w-want to ask you something. You - you were the one who was relaying our messages to the outside, right?"
  3401. > "Yes. I was. To the people who helped me get in."
  3402. "Then you know about the plan. You were going to use the plan to get out."
  3403. > "I was."
  3404. "I told Sunburst to start that plan in case Anonymous ever became that monster again. If - if that day ever comes, could I send Flurry Heart to you?"
  3405. > Digesting this requests takes him several long moments.
  3406. > Moments during which he is all but still.
  3407. > "You - would trust Flurry with me? With Corona?"
  3408. > Disbelief mixes with shock in his tone.
  3409. "If it gets to that point, then I will have been wrong and you right all along."
  3410. > Shining's limbs tighten around you - a wordless recognition of what you had just admitted.
  3411. > "I... I don't think so. My Master once said that he wouldn't shelter a fugitive pony."
  3412. "But Corona-"
  3413. > "Had taken measures to - conceal herself. An alicorn is difficult to hide."
  3414. > You shudder, remembering what he had said Corona had done to her cutie marks.
  3415. > "Maybe if her life were in danger. Maybe."
  3416. "I will consider it as a last resort, then."
  3417. > Another soft squeeze from Shining Armor is accompanied by a nuzzle into the back of your head.
  3418. > "Thank you, Cady. For even thinking of me that way."
  3419. > Smiling, you twist aside to place one last kiss on his cheek.
  3420. "Whatever has happened to us, you are still my Shining Armor. Rest now; you deserve it."
  3421. > And he does.
  3422. > Soundly, despite having little else to do but think and rest in his cell already.
  3423. > That does not stop the stallion from spending the night dead asleep beside you, a comforting presence against your coat.
  3424. > You, though?
  3425. > Another story entirely.
  3426. > Perhaps it was having another in your bed - although that could not be it; to your shame, you had slept plenty well beside Anonymous in the past.
  3427. > No, it was Shining.
  3428. > Having him here.
  3429. > Something about that disrupted your sleep.
  3430. > Worry about losing him again, despite what you had told him?
  3431. > Or is it just the presence of another pony in here, as opposed to Anonymous' room?
  3432. > You don't know.
  3433. > In the end, you get only a few hours of sleep.
  3434. > Waking up beside Shining Armor, however, makes you instantly forget any malaise.
  3435. > It is a reassurance that this miracle is not a fantasy.
  3436. > He is alive.
  3437. > He is here.
  3438. > He does not hate you.
  3439. > Unbidden, your eyes begin to dampen again as you watch him breath softly in his sleep.
  3440. > When Shining stirs and rises, his eyes immediately go wide.
  3441. > "Cady? What's wrong?"
  3442. "N-Nothing. I'm - I just can't - it's really you."
  3443. > Leaning in, he brushes his lips against your forehead.
  3444. > "Yes, Cady. It is."
  3445. > ...
  3446. > Which is more surprising - that Anonymous had actually asked Flurry Heart to see Shining in the first place, or that he had arranged for it out in the camp as opposed to his home?
  3447. > You don't know, but you are glad for each:
  3448. > What might otherwise have been an awkward confrontation amid the luxury of his home was now done in yours.
  3449. > Not that it makes Shining any less nervous.
  3450. > He paces in circles; path echoing the one you had often worn into the floor when turning some difficult issue over in your head.
  3451. "Shining. I swear, this will not be as bad as you think it will."
  3452. > "But after what happened before-"
  3453. "She will remember you, love."
  3454. > "Maybe. But I don't think-"
  3455. > The door to your quarters pops open, and you quickly spin to face it.
  3456. "Hello, Flurry. Why don't you come-"
  3457. > But it isn't Flurry.
  3458. > It is Megan - the young girl filling the doorway with her arms hunched defensively at her side.
  3459. > Oh, wait; now you see your daughter:
  3460. > Huddled behind those arms, one great aquamarine eye peeking around her mistress' side.
  3461. "Will you come in?"
  3462. > Looking around for her target, Megan first raises a finger to point straight at at Shining Armor's nose.
  3463. > "You can't hurt her. Okay? I won't let you. Flurry stood up to you, and I will too!"
  3464. > Breath freezes in your throat; this wasn't how you'd wanted it to start at all.
  3465. > Rather than anger, however, Shining Armor seems to look at her with some degree of sadness or regret.
  3466. > "I won't hurt anyone. Or anypony. I swear."
  3467. > As if to prove the point, he drops to his belly and points to his suppressed horn.
  3468. > "See? I can't do magic right now."
  3469. > "Good!"
  3470. > Marching straight up to him, her little hands balled into little fists, Megan all but pushes herself straight into Shining Armor's muzzle.
  3471. > "You - you great big idiot! Do you know how much you scared Flurry?! What did you think you were doing?! Don't you know to talk to someone when you're angry with them? Didn't anyone ever teach you that?"
  3472. "Megan. Please."
  3473. > "I was so scared."
  3474. > Her hands fall back to her sides, shoulders slumping and golden curls bouncing.
  3475. > "Flurry was scared! Why couldn't you have told her this? Why did you have to come in? Why?!"
  3476. > "It wasn't her. It was you. I didn't think you would let her go."
  3477. > "Well, you can't!"
  3478. > Back up come the hands, echoing the hiccup in Megan's voice.
  3479. > "You can't have her! Flurry Heart is mine and I will protect her."
  3480. > Shining hesitates, then lowers his head.
  3481. > "May I speak to my daughter? Please?"
  3482. "Speaking is all he will do, Megan. I will see to that."
  3483. > While she still looks uncertain, a choice is made for her:
  3484. > Flurry creeps from the doorway, advancing on cautious hooves, to stand before the father she has not seen for years.
  3485. > Each step taken in a slow, measured pace until she is close enough for him to reach out a shaking hoof.
  3486. > "H-Hey there, little gem..."
  3487. > "Why did you go away?"
  3488. > A tone so accusing, so bitter that even you are shocked.
  3489. > "Why didn't you stay with me? You could have stopped them! You should have stopped them! They took me away, away from you and momma and everypony I knew, and they stopped giving me food, and I was so hungry and sick and scared and wondering where you were and-"
  3490. > The words pour forth in a torrent, her wings spreading to a width that nearly echoes your own by now despite her smaller frame.
  3491. > Shining Armor accepts the attack without defense, his head falling and mane cascading down over his eyes.
  3492. > "I wasn't strong enough, Flurry. They ambushed me while I was sleeping, caught me when I couldn't fight. They put me away somewhere - somewhere very bad. And I couldn't - I couldn't come for so long."
  3493. > "Then why did you sneak in-?!"
  3494. > Turning his head aside, he sighs heavily.
  3495. > "I... I was a stupid pony. The places where I was, they hurt me very, very badly. And I heard that this was a place like that, so I thought they were hurting you. I thought I had to take you, or there wouldn't ever be another chance..."
  3496. > "Never! I would never hurt Flurry!"
  3497. > Brushing forward, eyes alight with anger, Megan wraps both her arms protectively around the filly's neck.
  3498. > "She belongs to me! That means I look after her-"
  3499. > "Where I had been - what I had heard about here - 'belonging' meant... meant like a pony would have to accept being hurt by someone. They would have to bow and beg all the time even though they were being hurt, and if they didn't they would only be hurt more. And then I heard that you were supposed to be learning to help run things here, I thought you were going to be made to hurt other ponies..."
  3500. > Pulling herself as upright as she can, Flurry Heart hisses out:
  3501. > "Mistress Megan has never hurt me."
  3502. > Despite flinching at ‘Mistress’, Shining nods.
  3503. > "I... I know now. But I didn't then. So I thought - I thought if I dared say anything, you would try to make me 'belong' like that too. I thought you, or your father, would hurt me too."
  3504. > He neglects to mention your role in that 'hurting'.
  3505. > Megan is frowning, though.
  3506. > "I don't get it. Why would you ever think that? Didn't you see anything? Dad is good to ponies! Why would you ever think any of us would hurt Flurry like that? Are you like the ponies who hurt Mocha Cream?"
  3507. > Shining freezes, choking on his next words.
  3508. > "Your father - he -"
  3509. > Pleadingly, he looks to you.
  3510. > You understand what he is stuck on:
  3511. > Her father had made it quite clear; no putting ideas of rebellion in Flurry Heart's head, let alone Megan's.
  3512. [Choice]
  3513. "Megan, come here a moment?"
  3514. > She does, if a touch hesitantly.
  3515. > You bring her around to Shining Armor's side.
  3516. > One wing stretches out to brush the deep scars littering his back.
  3517. "Do you see this, dear? Do you know what causes this?"
  3518. > Her head is shaken just a little bit too quickly.
  3519. > You suspect she has an idea.
  3520. "In some places, Megan, people aren't so kind. In some places... the punishments are much, much worse than what we do here."
  3521. > "When you whip a pony, is that what it does?"
  3522. > So she did know.
  3523. "If you are harsh. Your father once whipped me quite hard-"
  3524. > Shining shifts, but the slightest pressure from your wing keeps him firmly in place.
  3525. " -but it did not leave scars like that. In those places, Megan, it is both harsher and happens more often. Do you remember when you said Thunderlane had to do what you wanted, just because her was a slave?"
  3526. > "Uh-huh. When daddy spanked me."
  3527. "Well, in some other camps nobody would have stopped you. And he would have been whipped for not bowing and agreeing immediately."
  3528. > You can see her turning this over in her head.
  3529. > Weighing the basic desire to have had him do what she wanted, over her empathy for the ponies she knew day in and out.
  3530. > In the midst of this, Shining Armor speaks up again:
  3531. > "Most humans I'd known, especially most slave-owners, were like this. They didn't care if their ponies were happy. They just wanted us to obey, and hurt us when we wouldn't. The only ones who weren't hurt were the ones who were helping them hurt other ponies."
  3532. > A frown has begun to creep across Megan's face, as she ponders this.
  3533. > Victory!
  3534. > "Especially people who owned large camps like this... they were all like that. Preferring ponies who were too beaten-down to object. I heard this place was like that, and I couldn't leave Flurry Heart in a place like that."
  3535. > "Why would anyone do that?!"
  3536. > Reaching out with your other wing, you pull Megan into a hug.
  3537. > After a second's hesitation Flurry joins you as well by wrapping her wings around the girl's midsection.
  3538. > "Even the one who used to own me... he didn't care about me either. He didn't hit me or whip me, but he didn't really feed me either."
  3539. > Shining nods, adding:
  3540. > "I thought Flurry was being - taught to hurt other ponies now. I broke in because I couldn't stand the thought of my little gem having to do that, understand? Would your father want you hurting other little girls?"
  3541. > "No! No, he wouldn't!"
  3542. "We know that, Megan. But some other pony coming in wouldn't."
  3543. > Huffing, Shining flicks his tail.
  3544. > "I... I even thought Cadance was hurting ponies too. And I was very, very angry with her too. So angry and scared that I didn't stop to think about it at all.
  3545. > "But what about now? I heard you have a master now you'll be going back to; is he good?"
  3546. "Shining Armor's new master is far, far better than he has had in the past, yes."
  3547. > "Even more than my master, though... I always obeyed him, but there was another little girl. Maybe about your age, even. I think she was my first human friend."
  3548. > Megan looks rather skeptical, but Shining manages a soft, almost fond smile.
  3549. > "Honest. My master took me to a party she was at, and she - she didn't even see me as a slave. Just a friend. Or C- did she try and order me around."
  3550. > Though younger ears might have missed that slip, it wasn't so quick as to avoid your own.
  3551. > What, you wonder, had the prospect of a real human friend done for her recovery?
  3552. > How much had some girl been able to give her that you never could have?
  3553. > "When you're a slave, Megan, you can't understand how different it feels to be asked something rather than told. She was so innocent - do you know that word?"
  3554. > She shakes her head in a whirl of golden curls.
  3555. "It means when someone can't be blamed for something. When they didn't do anything wrong."
  3556. > "Gracie is... she just wants everyone to be happy. Even when she's asking you to do things it doesn't feel like orders, because she's so kind."
  3557. > Face screwed up in a look of intense pondering, Megan nods.
  3558. > "Do you understand now? I knew there were some humans out there who wouldn't hurt Flurry Heart. But I didn't know that any place like this would be safe."
  3559. > "But did she give you orders?"
  3560. > "Uh... Ye-e-essss?"
  3561. > Poor Shining - forever a bad pony at hiding his nervousness.
  3562. > "Kinda? I mean... she wasn't my master - mistress - but I did what she said a lot. And, uh, gave heraponyrideonce."
  3563. "You what?!"
  3564. > You can't help the outburst; your eyes go wide with shock.
  3565. > The Shining Armor, who had snuck in disguised as another pony to try and foalnap his daughter to safety, giving rides?
  3566. > Unthinkable!
  3567. > But the way he is burying his head in his hooves to hide the blush spreading on his coat cannot be denied.
  3568. > "Okay, maybe more than once!"
  3569. "And is there anything else you want us to know?"
  3570. > Knowing that teasing, leading, sing-songy tone of your voice, Shining Armor rolls his eyes.
  3571. > "And let her paint my hooves. And braid my tail once."
  3572. > The laugher comes up bubbling from your chest.
  3573. > Maybe a little forced at first, but then again maybe you just really needed a good laugh.
  3574. > And a moment later, Megan joins in the merriment - even if just with a shy grin as well.
  3575. > Soon, however, Shining Armor sobers.
  3576. > "I guess what I mean to say, Megan, is that I didn't do it because I hate you or wanted to hurt you. I did it because I wanted my Flurry to be safe."
  3577. > Although his words address the girl, his eyes are firmly locked on his own daughter.
  3578. > "I'd been so long without her, and I let myself find somewhere good... when I heard where she was, I was angry with myself for enjoying that while I thought she was hurting."
  3579. > All of Flurry Heart's earlier anger seems to have evaporated.
  3580. > In its place was fresh and raw understanding that whatever she had suffered, it was undoubtedly worse than she had.
  3581. "If anypony here should feel that way, it is myself. I was the one who was never hurt as either of you were."
  3582. > You add more softly, for Shining's sake:
  3583. "And when I had the chance to do something for one of my family, I could not resist opportunity either. No matter what it cost me."
  3584. > Shuffling forward, Megan leaves your side - although one hand is still kept on your flank, like a child or foal keeping a limb on the "safe tree" during a game of tag - and towards Shining.
  3585. > Her other reaches out to touch his nose.
  3586. > Cautiously at first, but resting more comfortably when he does not snap or lunge at her.
  3587. > Indeed, all Shining does is turn his head fractionally to give a better feel.
  3588. > "I'm sorry, Megan. For scaring you. I just wanted my daughter to be safe."
  3589. > "But she is safe. She belongs to me now, and I won't let anyone hurt her!"
  3590. > Shining Armor bristles at the new reference to Flurry 'belonging', his ears snapping back and tail flicking hard enough to thwack against the floor.
  3591. > It is quickly suppressed, however, until only through intimate familiarity can you see the tight lines in his face.
  3592. "Megan, when you say she belongs to you... remember, Shining Armor has had a much, much different experience of 'belonging' than you give. He doesn't like that word."
  3593. > "That word is the reason I can't go home. Why I can't stay here with you. Why-"
  3594. > Biting his tongue, he again silences himself until it is done.
  3595. > "...nevermind."
  3596. > He must, you reflect, hate the promise he had been forced to make too.
  3597. > "You're going to have to go away?"
  3598. > "I don't want to."
  3599. > Again Shining's eyes fall to his daughter, still standing at a distance.
  3600. > "But I have to, because I belong to someone else. And that means I go. Besides, there's - another pony at home who was hurt badly like I was. I have to go back to her."
  3601. > "Oh."
  3602. > Megan's hand starts to slide up and down his nose.
  3603. > "P-Please believe me, Shining. Flurry is my pony, but that means she's my friend too. I don't hurt her. I don't whip her. I even stole a whooole bowl of cookie dough for her once!"
  3604. "And got both of you horribly sick in the morning."
  3605. > Even Shining cannot resist a smile at that:
  3606. > "Did she, now?"
  3607. > "Uh-huh! And we got grounded together too. I was also there when she learned to fly again!"
  3608. "Actually, I might even say that was because of Megan that Flurry was able to take to the skies..."
  3609. > When you finish telling that story, Shining looks back at his daughter then to Megan again, then back to Flurry - re-evaluating just how close they were.
  3610. > "I... So Cadance gave you a pony ride, and she followed you up. The two of you really are close, aren't you?"
  3611. > "Uh-huh."
  3612. > Megan hesitates, then looks back to Flurry as well - and sticks out an arm to motion her closer.
  3613. > Her shyness overcome, Flurry Heart advances from your side to near her father.
  3614. > They meet nose-to-nose; Shining whickers softly and she responds with a higher-pitched, foalish equivalent of the same.
  3615. > And then they are together again, brought into a hug by Megan wrapping both in a fierce hug.
  3616. > It takes a moment, but Flurry climbs into his father's hooves and hugs him too.
  3617. > He whispers something into her ear, and she shakes her head while whispering back.
  3618. > A pained but mirthful laugh escapes is throat, and Shining puts a forehoof around each of them in turn.
  3619. > Megan squeaks in surprise, but goes along with it - an arm encircling both filly and father.
  3620. > When she finally pulls free, however, there is an absolutely serious expression stamped on her face:
  3621. > "Shining Armor, I need to ask you something really big."
  3622. > "What, Megan?"
  3623. > "Can you give me a pony ride? The way you did for Gracie?"
  3624. > Immediately Shining is rearing back, eyes wide.
  3625. > "I, uh - I don't know-"
  3626. "She'll be gentle. I promise."
  3627. > "You'd know, I suppose."
  3628. > Sighing, Shining tilts his head to grant Megan better access to his mane; she'd started to brush it.
  3629. > He's hesitating, though.
  3630. "Shining?"
  3631. > "I... I don't know. I mean, it might be dangerous, and I don't even know if there'd be a saddle anywhere around here-"
  3632. > You can't help it; cheeks flush bright red and you twist your head to hide them away.
  3633. > Because there was a saddle somewhere in the camp - although where Anonymous had put it, along with the rest of that tacked-up outfit he'd had you wear for the investor's meeting, was a mystery to you.
  3634. > One that should remain hidden.
  3635. > If there a single thing that you were certain of, it was that Shining Armor should never find out about that.
  3636. > And certainly never see that dress!
  3637. > In another time, he might have had a - very positive reaction to it.
  3638. > But that would probably not be the case now, and certainly not in front of Megan or Flurry!
  3639. > You'd have to get to Anonymous and warn him off suggesting it before either girl or filly could try.
  3640. > "Oh, that's okay. I rode Cadance without a saddle when she gave me a ride!"
  3641. > "Did you now?"
  3642. > ...oh, sweet Celestia.
  3643. > That look he's giving you - it's Shining's 'there will be words later' look.
  3644. > You sigh.
  3645. > At least now there was an excuse for the rosy hue blanketing your face.
  3646. "Yes, she did. Briefly. I used my magic to hold her in place."
  3647. > Shining nods, his eyes darkening.
  3648. > Not an option for him while the hated horn-ring was still in place.
  3649. "...however, you will not be flying and that is, ah..."
  3650. > Oh.
  3651. > That look again.
  3652. > Huffing heavily, Shining lays his head back down.
  3653. > "I'm sorry, Megan. It's - difficult for me. I know you might be good for my Flurry, I do. But when I close my eyes, I still see things so differently no matter how much I want to believe..."
  3654. > "Is... there anything I can do?"
  3655. > Her cautious, hopeful tone actually causes his face to lighten - or maybe it was what she had asked, rather than demanding.
  3656. > "I don't know. Maybe... before I gave Gracie rides, she went through a whole bunch of things first. Brushing, checking my hooves... it was very calming. Maybe - I could teach you some of it... but there isn't a saddle here anyway."
  3657. [Choice]
  3658. "Megan, dear, that's a lot to ask of Shining so quickly. Why don't we go take a walk around while he thinks it over?"
  3659. > It's not your most graceful attempt at diversion.
  3660. > But it is enough; though saddened, Megan makes a little affirmative noise at the proposal.
  3661. > "Okay. But only if Flurry can come along!"
  3662. "Of course she can, dear. Shining, would you like to come as well?"
  3663. > "...yeah, I will."
  3664. > If nothing else, so as not to be apart from his daughter for a second longer than he has to.
  3665. > Not like you don't have ulterior motives either; getting Shining out and about enough would be the best way to head off any detractors worrying over his state of mind.
  3666. > The best way to show that he has not been broken before Anonymous would dare to release him.
  3667. > Out in the camp, you keep Megan at your side while Flurry Heart steadily drifts back to speak with her father in a quiet voice.
  3668. "I have to ask, Megan, have you ever ridden a horse before? Or a pony, besides me?"
  3669. > "Nu-uh. Is it that hard?"
  3670. > You smile a touch in spite of the topic.
  3671. "I am afraid I would not know, but I would think it is much, much more difficult than when you rode on my back. I could feel if you were slipping and hold you in place with my magic."
  3672. > "And Shining can't 'cause daddy took his magic away 'cause he was a bad pony?"
  3673. "Exactly. And I do not think he would give it back just for a ride, no matter how much you ask."
  3674. > "Oh."
  3675. > From her expression, you'd accurately guessed her next question.
  3676. "That's why when you ride an animal, you have to use certain things to control them. But for a pony, using those can have... bad connotations sometimes. Because it can mean they're being forced to give up control."
  3677. > Or very, very good connotations, depending on the context.
  3678. > But there was no way you were ever explaining that one to Megan!
  3679. > Let Anonymous have that conversation with her; dealing with one daughter was bad enough.
  3680. > You were already dreading Flurry Heart hitting puberty - having her first estrus! - and hoping you would get there before she could get an education from someone else.
  3681. > Squashing those thoughts with an iron hoof, you glance back to Shining Armor.
  3682. > His head was lowered, both ears pointed towards his daughter - and neither towards you.
  3683. > Good.
  3684. "And that is why, Megan, I am going to ask you to please, please not tell him about the time I wore a saddle and bridle for your father's party until I can explain it first. Do you understand why?"
  3685. > " 'cause he might think it was something bad, like how he was scared for Flurry?"
  3686. > It was such a relief, you thought, that Megan had a good head on her shoulders.
  3687. "Exactly. And I don't want him scared like that."
  3688. > "Okay!"
  3689. > But then, a second later:
  3690. > "Um... does that mean I won't be allowed to ride Shining Armor? Because ponies would think the wrong thing?"
  3691. "They, ah, might, but I think they'll understand if it's you."
  3692. > ...a few years from now, however...
  3693. > Well.
  3694. > A bridge to cross when she comes to it.
  3695. > "So, where are we going?"
  3696. "You remember Sunburst, of course?"
  3697. > "Yeah? Oooooh, he knew Shining Armor, didn't he?"
  3698. > Infectious delight spreads on her face, a little skip entering her step.
  3699. > Giggle, Megan swings back and catches Shining totally off-guard with a light pull on his shoulder.
  3700. > "C'mon, you two! Hurry up, there's someone who's gotta seeee youuuu!"
  3701. > That last singsong bit makes your husband cock his head.
  3702. > "And who would that be?"
  3703. > Megan, in turn, looks to you -
  3704. "Surely you haven't forgotten Sunburst."
  3705. > Gasping, Flurry spins about.
  3706. > "You haven't seen Sunburst yet? He's going to be so happy to see you!"
  3707. > Shining chuckles and shakes his head at the sprawling jumble of chaotic gear that fills the office.
  3708. > "I see he hasn't changed one bit."
  3709. "Not a touch. If anything, he's slightly better than he used to be."
  3710. > Unfortunately, the space is short one bookish stallion so you ended up waiting for him to return - Flurry, Megan, and Shining quietly conversing to pass the time.
  3711. > Sunburst's soft gasp is what first alerts you his return.
  3712. > A moment later he rushes in; despite the two being stallions he is more than happy to greet Shining Armor with a neck-to-neck hug.
  3713. > "Y-Your Highness, I didn't think I'd ever see you aga-"
  3714. > "Neither of us. But don't worry about it now; I'm just glad to be here."
  3715. "If the two of you are good here, I am just going to step out for a moment; I need to go speak to somepony. I'll be right back."
  3716. > In particular, you are going to see about somepony who can carry a discrete message to Anonymous.
  3717. > And you know just the mare.
  3718.  
  3719. "He wants to what?!"
  3720. > The look you give Cadance does much to convey your primary concern:
  3721. > That she has utterly lost her mind.
  3722. > Frankly, Cadance doesn't look entirely sure that she hasn't.
  3723. > "He wants to give Megan a ride, Master. One that will require proper equipment."
  3724. "I'll be honest, that was not what I was thinking of when Mocha came to tell me you wanted the saddle and bridle."
  3725. > "What was?"
  3726. > You shoot her a 'really?' look; Cadance's muzzle colors and ears lay flat as she takes on an indignant expression.
  3727. > "Master!"
  3728. "What? He is your husband."
  3729. > "We have many, many other things on our mind, Anonymous. And I am not sure what I think about you probing into the intimate details of my relationship with him either!"
  3730. "Like I said, I thought you asked."
  3731. > You wave a hand dismissively, eager to change the topic again.
  3732. > It probably wouldn't do good for her to know of the other thoughts that had been passing through your head, then.
  3733. > The ones that pondered whether a liaison between your alicorn and her husband could grant you another boon in turn - a second alicorn foal.
  3734. > ...or the ones that had pondered just how good Cadance had looked in that saddle and tack as well.
  3735. "So. He wants to give a ride, huh? There are about five different reasons that's insane, but let's start with the fact that not too many days ago, Shining Armor was trying to break into her room?"
  3736. > You lean back against the building you'd paused beside, folding your arms across your chest - the sun-baked bricks warm against your back.
  3737. "I can believe he was honestly mistaken and just meant to protect Flurry. But this is kind of a big turnaround rather quickly."
  3738. > "It has to do with another girl he knows. They apparently bonded over this."
  3739. > Another flat look is shot in Cadance's direction, though she weathers this one considerably better.
  3740. "Now I know you're pulling my leg."
  3741. > Flicking her tail, Cadance huffs softly.
  3742. > "I will admit, that bit caught me off guard as well."
  3743. "...look, I'm just a little bit iffy on this. Hell, what if Shining's owner objects?"
  3744. > "He is a runaway; any objections are going to be pretty strongly made already. And Shining is not objecting now."
  3745. "That doesn't mean I can endanger him. Megan's never had riding lessons - I don't know what she'll do. And then there’s the matter of the saddle - the one I had you wear was mostly decorative. It might take Megan's weight since she's so young, but the girth strap might slip and it has no stirrups."
  3746. > "Can they be made? Shining suggested converting one of the work harnesses into something he could use."
  3747. "Not a chance. Those harnesses put all the load on your breast and rump, very little on your back. It wouldn't be safe. I'll have to talk to Backstitch and see if he thinks stirrups could be added on to your saddle-dress."
  3748. > "If not, could you purchase one?"
  3749. > Another look is passed in her direction, but this one is really more inquisitive.
  3750. "You're really set on this, aren't you?"
  3751. > Sighing, Cadance settles on her rump.
  3752. > "It would be good for both of them, I think. Megan would overcome the last of her fear of Shining, and he would be able to leave more confident that Flurry Heart is in good hands."
  3753. > More softly, she adds:
  3754. > "That last bit is the important part. It's going to hurt when he finally has to go, but he won't do anything hot-tempered if he really trusts Megan."
  3755. "...I see. Speaking of that, Cadance - I think he should be the one to place the call home, and it should be tonight."
  3756. > "Already, Master?"
  3757. "Yes, Cadance."
  3758. > Your hand descends to rub between her wings.
  3759. "I'm sorry, but every day I don't take action on this I'm opening myself to prosecution. I have to do it."
  3760. > "Yes."
  3761. > Abruptly rising from her slumped-over stance, Cadance again rises to her hooves and comes to face you.
  3762. > "Master, I have to beg you - when you send him back, I need - need! - a way to speak to him still. A visit, now and again - but if not that then video, phone calls, something! I cannot go without him and he has asked the same of me. Please, ask his owner-"
  3763. > You halt her with a hand on her shoulder.
  3764. "I understand, Cadance. Phone calls, video calls, those I can absolutely give you. Visits... perhaps if we met somewhere in the middle? He's the next best thing to fourteen hours away, sixteen with realistic traffic. It won't be a day trip."
  3765. > Cadance's expression falls and you squat down in front of her, rubbing her mane.
  3766. "I'm sorry. I could put you on a plane; that'd only be a few hours. But I'd have to send you with someone - you know a slave can't fly alone - or put you in cargo, and I'm not shipping you like a suitcase."
  3767. > "I would do it. If it meant I could see him, I would spend however long in the smallest crate you could-"
  3768. "I know, Cadance. I know. We'll see, okay? I will talk to his owner about it, I promise that, but it'll depend on how angry he is Shining ran away.”
  3769. > This yields a soft sigh from her.
  3770. > "I guess it will. Thank you for that much, at least."
  3771. "Least I can do. Though, there is one other thing I'm a touch concerned about, and you've brought it back to my attention again."
  3772. > "Master?"
  3773. > Standing up again, you lean back against the building and stare out at the busy street.
  3774. > It wasn't a mistake that you'd scheduled Megan and Flurry to meet with Shining on Sunday, when the ponies would not be working.
  3775. > Or at least, would be working on the camp's upkeep rather than for the jobs you'd assigned them.
  3776. > Unlike many other days, the streets were relatively busy with ponies wandering about - wandering from place to place, often in small groups chatting and laughing among each other.
  3777. > Though none so close they might overhear your conversation.
  3778. "It's Mocha Cream. She's... not been doing very well ever since I broke the news to her. Quiet, muted, not even seeming to take that much pleasure in the work she's doing with her talent - lifting other ponies' spirits and so on."
  3779. > Snorting through flared nostrils, Cadance lashes her tail.
  3780. > "I've noticed it some as well, Master. She speaks less and is more withdrawn."
  3781. "I was about to ask if you saw any of it today, but I suppose that answers that. I want to do something for her, but I'm really not sure what. Has she been growing any closer with anyone here in the camp? Someone who could help her?"
  3782. > "Rumble would be the one to ask, but I don't believe so."
  3783. > You run a hand through your hair.
  3784. > It comes away damp - whether from the heat or worry, you don't know.
  3785. "I'm afraid I really did take away the last thing she had. I'd like to do something for her, but I don't know what. I realize Shining is probably the bulk of your thoughts right now, but if you have any advice...?"
  3786. > "None I haven't given already. I'm sorry, Anonymous."
  3787. > You can't even be annoyed with her; it's obvious she feels just as bad about this as you do.
  3788. > "I can attempt to speak to her again..."
  3789. "It'd be appreciated. I'll see what I can do in the meantime."
  3790. > "Right."
  3791. > Cadance's eyes fall to the ground.
  3792. > "Asking about that bridle and saddle probably didn't do much for her confidence, though. Damn, I should have thought about that!"
  3793. > Her wings flutter open as she swears, not falling back shut again until you put a reassuring touch on her shoulder.
  3794. > Mocha had, after all, seen Cadance wearing the full outfit:
  3795. > Not just the bridle slipped tight over her head with its ‘reins’ hanging long over her neck, saddle tucked tightly beneath her folded wings.
  3796. > But also the gauzy fabric falling like reigns along her neck, emerging to cover her hindquarters-
  3797. > Aaaand you're pushing that thought down.
  3798. "I'll have to talk with her again at some point. You just focus on Shining right now, okay?"
  3799. [Choice]
  3800. "...alright, I'll see about getting a proper saddle. Do me a favor, and get Shining's measurements? I think it'd be better if you did that."
  3801. > "Agreed."
  3802. "And in the meantime, I'll think about Mocha Cream."
  3803. > You rub your chin, trying to figure out just where to push her next.
  3804. "She needs to see less of me, not more. Maybe send her for some more lessons? There certainly is more she could be doing, even with her unstable magic... and I need to talk to Rumble as well."
  3805. > "Yes, Master. And soon. Letting this slip forever will do no one good."
  3806. > Raising an eyebrow at Cadance yields a soft shrug from her.
  3807. > "I realize you have much on your mind as well, but this cannot wait."
  3808. "Don't need the reminder, Cadance. Go get the information I was looking for, and remind Shining that we're going to be doing the phone call."
  3809. > She tries to hide it, but the little sigh is still audible.
  3810. > "Yes, Master."
  3811. > ...
  3812. > Unlike Megan's business with the stallion, you didn't feel comfortable handling this in the camp.
  3813. > So evening found you camped out in a circle amid your study, a phone set on the low table at the center of the circle.
  3814. > To your right was Cadance, a wing reached out to clamp over her husband's side.
  3815. > Though everyone was apprehensive, he seemed to be taking this all the worst.
  3816. > Not surprising; if one of your ponies called you up after vanishing over the fence and asked to be picked up, there'd...
  3817. > Well, there wouldn't be hell to pay; not anymore.
  3818. > But there'd still be something of a consequence for them!
  3819. > On your opposite side sat Randall and Posey, who had thoughtfully agreed to stick around in order to be on hand in case said owner is belligerent.
  3820. "Well, let's not hold this off any longer. It won't get any easier."
  3821. > Amidst a few rumbles of affirmation - some more certain than others - you tap the speaker button and begin dialing in the number.
  3822. "Shining, you remember what we went over? What to say?"
  3823. > "Yes, I do."
  3824. "Good."
  3825. > The last couple digits are punched in, discrete beeps replaced by the flat buzz of a ringer answering.
  3826. > Once, twice, three-
  3827. > "Hello?"
  3828. > The voice means nothing to you, of course, but from the way Shining Armor tenses up you can tell exactly who it is.
  3829. > Privately, you're unimaginably thankful Corona hadn't been the one to pick up.
  3830. > "Who is this?"
  3831. > Shuddering softly, the stallion leans over towards the phone.
  3832. > "...hey, Master."
  3833. > Another long pause, but this time you can practically hear the shock straight through the silence on the line.
  3834. > "Shiny? Shining Armor? Is that you-"
  3835. > "Yeah. It's me. I, uh... I'm safe for now. Just - thought you should know that first. I'm safe."
  3836. > "Safe?! Where the hell are you? This area code -"
  3837. > A brief pause, during which Shining is visibly cringing.
  3838. > "- what the hell, Shiny? This is like three states over? What- hold on - yes, it's Shining - I don't know, he says he's safe-"
  3839. > "Master?"
  3840. > Interrupting softly, he casts a nervous glance over to you.
  3841. > "Is that Corona you're talking to?"
  3842. > "Yeah, why?"
  3843. > You can feel the shudder running down your body, hair rising on your arms.
  3844. > So she did still live - and sane enough to talk, too.
  3845. > "Is it on speaker? Or is she listening on another phone?"
  3846. > "No, it's just me... Shiny, what's wrong?"
  3847. > "I - found them."
  3848. > Another long pause -
  3849. > "Them?"
  3850. > You know that tone.
  3851. > Testing the waters when the answer is already known, and the speaker wants to be sure.
  3852. > "Cadance. And Flurry Heart. I-"
  3853. > Shuddering, Shining Armor makes soft sort of huff-whinny.
  3854. > "I found them both. I'm - they're here."
  3855. "That'd be my cue, I guess?"
  3856. > "Who the hell are you?"
  3857. "I - was Corona's owner. And am Cadance and Flurry Heart's owner. Your pony not only made his way quite a distance, but managed to sneak his way into my holdings."
  3858. > What follows is a surprising degree of swearing, which you head off with a slightly raised voice:
  3859. "Just, making one thing clear here - I'm not here to threaten. Not threaten, bargain, or hold this over you. Nothing like that. I - we - are calling you to see about getting your pony back home."
  3860. > "I'm not entirely sure I believe-"
  3861. > You don't blame him.
  3862. > Had the assholes who'd neglected Flurry Heart called from the blue like this, they would have met with exactly the same suspicion from you.
  3863. "Whatever you've been told of me - and I'm not here to argue the details, particularly because a reasonable number of them are true - I'm not calling you to antagonize you."
  3864. > At least he isn't arguing back anymore, although the silence is none too reassuring either.
  3865. > "Master?"
  3866. > "Yeah, Shiny?
  3867. > "Am I allowed to come back?"
  3868. > Another long silence, and you can tell that the stallion is feeling the pressure just as much as you are.
  3869. > His mouth opens, but before anything can come out his eyes fall to you and he hesitates.
  3870. "Why don't I leave you alone for a moment? You can talk it out, settle things between each other. Then I can come back and we'll work out the logistics of getting Shining Armor home."
  3871. > "That sounds good, yeah."
  3872. > You rise; on the creak of your chair Randall stands as well.
  3873. "Okay. Shining, Cadance, just call downstairs when you're done."
  3874. > The former just grunts in acknowledgement; the latter dips her head and murmurs - perhaps softly enough to avoid the phone picking it up.
  3875. > "Yes, Master."
  3876. > Randall holds his words until you're halfway downstairs and nearly into the meeting room.
  3877. > "I'm surprised you didn't do this by Skype. Wouldn't a video do more to allay his concerns?"
  3878. "Probably. But privacy is better this way; first of all I didn't want Corona seeing my face on the screen. Second, on Skype..."
  3879. > Stepping into the meeting room, you tap another phone's speaker on and immediately mute the microphone.
  3880. "...I can't do this."
  3881. > Shining's voice - shaking, tearful, now rich with all the emotion he'd held back while you were looming over his shoulder - fills the room.
  3882. > "-screwed up, Master. I know I screwed up. I'm sorry; I don't know what I was thinking running off-"
  3883. > "Your kid, Shiny. You were thinking of your kid. Christ, I'm just glad you're alive. I was afraid you'd be lying in a ditch, or I'd get a call from some doc some place saying they'd found you half-starved or something."
  3884. > There's a soft noise somewhere in the background, perhaps the hint of words being spoken.
  3885. > "And Corona says she's sorry she didn't tell you about it before, and she shouldn't have kept it a secret from you."
  3886. > Even though it'd barely been a whisper, maybe a word or two properly heard at all, you feel your skin ripple and prickle.
  3887. > Randall gives you one of those eerie, blind looks which suggests he almost sees more with his sightless eyes.
  3888. > On the phone, Shining gives a bark of bitter laughter.
  3889. > "She's sorry? She was right. Look at me - I ran away leaving everyone behind, even though you told me not to do anything stupid-"
  3890. > "That doesn't mean we shouldn't have told you some time!'
  3891. > Shining's volume begins to rise.
  3892. > "It's still not her fault, Master. I want you to tell her that - it's not her fault, okay?"
  3893. > "Alright, alright! Corona? Corona, Shining says it's not your fault. ... Yeah, I know. But he insisted I had to tell you."
  3894. > Another half-heard burst of words, and his master comes back to the phone.
  3895. > "She's gone away. To the bedroom, I think, but she might've bought it."
  3896. > Sighing heavily - a noise which produces a hissing burst like a snap of wind through trees - Shining speaks in a such a tone that you can just imagine him half-slumped over, head hanging in that pony way.
  3897. > "How is she?"
  3898. > "Surviving. She's been really out of it ever since you... left. It's been getting a little better lately, but she was fucking terrified, Shiny. She thought you were going to get yourself caught there. Was damn close to running off herself to try and stop you, if her fear hadn't stopped her too."
  3899. > That lecturing tone, sharp and berating without being a real yell - this is a man who's experienced in handling ponies.
  3900. > "And - Gracie?"
  3901. > "Inconsolable. Corona's been spending some time over there."
  3902. > The noise Shining makes can only be accurately described as whimper, but you can't actually believe it's come from the stallion.
  3903. > "Do you even want me back?"
  3904. > Another staticky sigh, this time from the opposite end of the line.
  3905. > "Of course I do. I still need you, and so does everyone else here."
  3906. > "I was afraid after that - after I ran away - you wouldn't want me back again. No one wants a pony who runs away... I was such an idiot."
  3907. > "Yes, you were! This is how ponies get hurt, Shiny! What if someone had caught you? What if you had been so far out of state that I had couldn't find you?"
  3908. > "I-"
  3909. > "Do you want to go back to what it was like before I found you? Because out there, I can't help you-"
  3910. > "That is enough."
  3911. > Cadance had been so quiet throughout this, even you are surprised when she cuts in.
  3912. > "Shiny? Who is that?"
  3913. > "M-My wife, Master."
  3914. > A long, long silence, then -
  3915. > "Your who?"
  3916. > "I am Cadance. Mi Amore Cadenza. I am Shining Armor's wife. You should not berate him too hard. I've heard what he suffered through - and if half of what he feared was happening to his daughter was true, he would still have a good reason to come here."
  3917. > "Cady-"
  3918. > Ignoring Shining's attempt at taking the conversation back, Cadance goes on:
  3919. > "I understand why Shining Armor did what he chose to. And while it was not right, I would ask that you also consider what it means for us - to not just discover that your lost family are still alive, but that one may be suffering terribly as he did."
  3920. > "From what I've heard, you had a bit of a part in that."
  3921. > That is spoken more softly, as if Shining's owner were trying to avoid it being heard by other, sensitive pony ears.
  3922. > "I will not deny I have done terrible things - made terrible choices. But Shining Armor has never given in, and you should not be so harsh towards him."
  3923. > No retort comes to this.
  3924. > "On a different note, however... from what I am told, you saved his life when he was weak and near death. I cannot thank you enough for that; one act of kindness has allowed us to come together again. I cannot repay this; I am forever in your debt."
  3925. > "And from what I am told, Cadance, it is not me you owe anything to. There's someone else here you can't ever repay either."
  3926. > Ouch.
  3927. > You could hear the bite in that straight through the phone.
  3928. > So could Randall, and Posey's ears have gone down as well.
  3929. > Cadance, too, takes am moment to recover.
  3930. > "This is... true. I wish I could, but I cannot."
  3931. > "Shiny?"
  3932. > "She's - right."
  3933. > And there is a weighty sense of regret when he says that.
  3934. > "It's not good here. Not like with you, Master; we're all just - ways to get rich for him. But it's not as bad as I was having nightmares of either."
  3935. > God, what it must have cost him to admit that!
  3936. > For a moment you almost allow yourself to wonder if he was beginning to respect you and all you'd done.
  3937. > That hope is mercilessly quashed a second later.
  3938. > For a pony like Shining Armor, he would never see things that way.
  3939. > Just see you riding on the backs of oppressed ponies.
  3940. > "Are you saying Corona lied to me, Shiny?"
  3941. > "Lied? I - I - no. No, not lied. She didn't lie. It's... complicated, Master."
  3942. > How weird it sounds to just hear him call someone that.
  3943. > You'd pegged Shining as the sort who'd never utter that word unless someone forced him to.
  3944. > "Master... I should just come home, shouldn't I?"
  3945. > "Yeah. You should. And we're going to have - words when you do, but not now."
  3946. > Again, you can almost just about hear the wince straight through the phone.
  3947. > 'Have words', indeed.
  3948. > "Cadance, then? Why don't you go get your owner."
  3949. > Once more your alicorn's voice cuts in.
  3950. > "Of course."
  3951. > You cut the phone off when you hear her hoofsteps coming down the stairs, just so she doesn't hear anything.
  3952. > "Master? He wants to speak to you again."
  3953. "...right, on my way."
  3954. > Cadance falls in at your side as you head up the stairs, murmuring softly with an accusatory glare:
  3955. > "So, you were listening to all of that, I assume?"
  3956. > Shit!
  3957. > Had she heard?
  3958. > What do you say?
  3959. [Choice]
  3960. > You stop dead in your tracks, and Cadance does too - the look back suggesting that she has belatedly realized how much of a mistake she made.
  3961. > Leaning over at the hips so that your presence is slightly looming, you lower your voice - breath brushing her ear:
  3962. "Watch your tone, Cadance. I've been extremely tolerant of your attitudes, but I draw the line when we have others around - even on the phone. How I take care of things is my business."
  3963. > Her frown deepens, but she submits - canting her head in what you've come to recognize as a gesture of acceptance.
  3964. "I guess I wasn't quite fast enough on the mute button. I have to know what's going on, so that I can dodge the next load that comes flying at me. In this case, despite the good you've done with him I'm still dealing with a stallion who isn't very fond of me and a man who doesn't seem to be either. Knowing where I stand will help me deal with this more effectively - and help me keep the two of you in touch."
  3965. > "I understand, Master."
  3966. > Good.
  3967. > You stand back up, but the touch of a smile flickers around the edge of Cadance's lips.
  3968. > "Nothing was heard, though. You were fast enough; I merely guessed, because I know how you think."
  3969. > You frown.
  3970. > That attitude again...
  3971. > Back up in the study, Shining Armor looks up as you enter.
  3972. > He appears worse off than you'd imagined - his eyes hollow and expression blank.
  3973. > Despite the rapport he'd expressed for his owner, the stallion looks like someone informed he will be shortly marching to the gallows.
  3974. > You seat yourself by the phone; Cadance needs no prompting to take a comforting position at his side.
  3975. "Hello; are you still there?"
  3976. > "Yes, I am."
  3977. "It sounded like you wanted to speak to me again."
  3978. > "I did. I'm not sure exactly what happened - I still feel like I am missing something - but I'm not going to argue getting my pony back."
  3979. > You can't help but crack a slight smirk at that as well.
  3980. "Trust me, you are not the only one. This whole thing has been a shock for the both of us. Especially Shining showing up - first I just wanted to know what this pony was doing in my daughter's room, then he had this weird bit of magic that let him change color, and then Cadance is just hugging him..."
  3981. > "Your daughter's room?"
  3982. "Oh, he didn't tell you?"
  3983. > Cadance shoots you a dark look, both begging and daring you not to mention this.
  3984. > But you're already locked in - and besides, this will come in handy later on.
  3985. "We caught him breaking into my house. Flurry Heart - his daughter - belongs to my girl. He came in at night looking for her, and there was a bit of a scuffle-"
  3986. > "What the fuck, Shining?"
  3987. > The stallion seems to slide even further into Cadance's side.
  3988. > She takes it without criticism, extending a wing over him.
  3989. > You wonder how much this had been happening while you were out of the room.
  3990. > Meanwhile, the voice from the phone continues its rant with such fervor you half expect the phone to rattle off the table and onto the floor.
  3991. > "Were you trying to end up like Sparky? To get yourself killed - worse? Do you not understand, I might not have been able to do anything if you were hurt?"
  3992. > "I know! I know, okay? I - I was angry, and I don't..."
  3993. "He was protecting his daughter - or he believed he was, anyhow. If I can ask a somewhat personal question, are you a father?"
  3994. > "No."
  3995. > The tight, clipped tone suggests you might not have gotten an answer if the reply had been 'yes'.
  3996. "I am. My girl is nine years old. And, since I am sure you have heard all about me, would you be able to just sit still if you thought your child was in danger? If your family was in danger?"
  3997. > This time, there is no swearing.
  3998. > Just a tense silence.
  3999. "Let me tell you, I wouldn't. I won't pretend I wasn't close to beating Shining Armor bloody... he wasn't. Because in the end, I understand why."
  4000. > Shining Armor gives a sort of whuffling grunt - a wordless 'I don't think you do'.
  4001. > You ignore it, though; it probably hadn't been audible over the phone anyhow.
  4002. > "That is... extremely generous of you."
  4003. "I'm not the same man I was when Corona and I... crossed paths."
  4004. > "When you tortured her!"
  4005. > That is hissed with a surprising degree of spite.
  4006. > For some reason it doesn't hurt as badly as you'd expected, though.
  4007. "Yes. I did."
  4008. > "Shining? Is he really -"
  4009. > "I don't know. Maybe. Maybe he isn't as bad, but - I told you, it's complicated. He still uses whips, and I know I'd have taken one already if I try half the things I did with you."
  4010. > He sounds sullen, like he's wishing the spotlight hadn't just been cast on him.
  4011. > Another long silence follows; this time you don't butt in.
  4012. > It just doesn't seem like the right time.
  4013. > "Do you have skype?"
  4014. "I was actually going to ask the same thing of you, but yes. Why?"
  4015. > "Show me Shining Armor. Something funny is going on here and I'm not sure what."
  4016. > You feel a frown building on your face and ruthlessly suppress it.
  4017. > Even if it couldn't be seen over the phone.
  4018. "So you want to know what - that I don't have a gun to his head? I left the room, remember?"
  4019. > "I don't know. Do you have it, though?"
  4020. "Of course. Business meetings have to happen somehow. And you?"
  4021. > "I'll have to get an account set up. Why did you want to know?"
  4022. "Cadance wishes to have some way to stay in contact with Shining Armor; we haven't discussed it with Flurry Heart yet, but I'm sure she will too. We can discuss trips for one or both of them, but right now Skype seems like a good start."
  4023. > When no answer comes immediately, Shining speaks up as well.
  4024. > "Master, I can't just stop thinking about them if I come home. I couldn't bear to be cut off again. Even if you do punish me, I can't go without them."
  4025. "Both of them made a very convincing argument, and I am open to the idea. But Shining is yours; so I have to ask."
  4026. > The stallion in question bristles at that.
  4027. > Clearly he doesn't like - to say the least - that access to his family is dependent on another's mercy.
  4028. > "...give me a little while to think about this, okay? You're calling me out of the blue, and especially because of who you are-"
  4029. "Of course. Take all the time you need."
  4030. > "Yeah. And Shining, you - you take that time with your family as well, okay? I just need a little while to get my feelings in order."
  4031. > "Thank you, Master!"
  4032. > The elation in his voice is palpable; Cadance gives her husband a delighted squeeze and nickers happily.
  4033. "We'll speak again - a couple of days, let's say?"
  4034. > "A few days sounds good. I should have a Skype account or something ready by then."
  4035. "Talk to you then."
  4036. > "Yeah. Later, Shiny."
  4037. > And then, in a softer voice:
  4038. > "Missed ya. Just glad to know you're okay."
  4039. > Despite the earlier threat of 'words' being had between them, the stallion smiles warmly.
  4040. > "Me too, Master. Me too."
  4041. > And then the line clicks quietly closed.
  4042. "...so. A few more days here. I suppose that will work out well enough."
  4043. > You aren't so sure, in truth.
  4044. > Part of you is still insisting Shining should be well away from anything of yours as quickly as possible - that he could only create more trouble.
  4045. > More of you was saying he deserved at least a few days more, since the odds of frequent travel thereafter were... low.
  4046. > Heh, were you going soft?
  4047. > Maybe.
  4048. > Somehow it didn't particularly seem to matter.
  4049. > Shining looks up at you with a guarded but hopeful look; you get the sense he still doesn't know what to think of you.
  4050. > "You didn't tell him about giving Megan a ride, though."
  4051. "Does he absolutely need to know?"
  4052. > Shining hesitates.
  4053. > "Well..."
  4054. "Do we really need to trouble him with another thing, when he's already obviously got so much on his mind?"
  4055. > "I guess not, but it doesn't feel right hiding that from him."
  4056. > Leaning back in the chair, you raise an eyebrow questioningly.
  4057. "Sometimes, I still really don't get you. You obviously have such a hatred of slave-owners - not entirely without reason, considering where you've been. But hiding a harmless thing like this from him really gets to you."
  4058. > Rather than he, it is Cadance who answers you:
  4059. > "That's friendship, Master. That's what trust looks like."
  4060. > "Yeah! Even after I ran away, he still misses me. He still worried about me - not just was angry because he lost 'his' slave."
  4061. "Hmm."
  4062. > Tapping lightly on the chair arm, you eventually shrug.
  4063. "I won't deny it threw me for a loop, hearing you call him Master. That's all."
  4064. > Shining turns his head away, cheeks slightly colored, and mutters something indecipherable beneath his breath.
  4065. > Denying yourself the chance to push this further takes considerable willpower.
  4066. "Anyhow, Cadance and I did speak about that request earlier."
  4067. > Immediately he has perked back up again.
  4068. > "And? If you don't have something proper, I think one of the work harnesses could be modified with a little work-"
  4069. > You shake your head a firm no.
  4070. "I don't feel comfortable getting Megan up on something that wasn't ever meant for that. Harnesses put all the load on the breastband and breeching strap. There's barely anything on your back, and nothing for her to really hang on your sides."
  4071. > "Ah. I... didn't know."
  4072. "Not a worry. Point is, not only could she slip off but her weight wouldn't sit right and you could be injured too."
  4073. > Twisting his face in a way that suggests it is now his turn to avoid an awkward comment no matter how hard he wishes to, Shining Armor nods.
  4074. > "So, that's no option then."
  4075. "But, that doesn't mean I'm giving up on it. So, here's the plan..."
  4076. > ...
  4077. > Acquiring the saddle was easy enough; with the measurements Cadance had acquired, you can get something which is closely-fitting.
  4078. > The seller had warned you that buying without a proper test-fit would be risky, but you had paid anyhow.
  4079. > Sometimes you really do love having money to spare!
  4080. > It was only for a short while, and besides - Shining Armor was not a dumb animal.
  4081. > He could tell you where it wasn't fitting.
  4082. > ...bullheaded and foolish, but not dumb.
  4083. > At least this saddle had been made for Equestrian ponies; he'd also made it clear that you'd have been in trouble if you'd tried using a saddle meant for something like, say, a Shetland.
  4084. > Completely wrong body type.
  4085. > And so you ended up with one second-hand Equestrian-pony saddle and tack, fit to size for an middle-sized stallion.
  4086. > It stayed stored in your car, well away from any peeking pony eyes, until you could quietly bring it in to a lightly-used storage building on the edge of the property.
  4087. > There you dumped it on the floor, a mixed-up pile you barely know where to start with.
  4088. > Shining Armor takes one the collection of materials and sighs.
  4089. > "I just hope I remember everything."
  4090. "Megan can be a little bit headstrong, Shining. If you realize you've forgotten something or she's pushing to hard..."
  4091. > You rub your head awkwardly.
  4092. "...strange as this might sound to say, I am trusting you to look out for her."
  4093. > "Don't worry. I will stop - if I'm uncomfortable with how she's acting too. This is something I'm choosing to give her, not something I have to."
  4094. > Nodding, you pat the saddle.
  4095. "Yeah. I'm a little surprised you still are, but... I won't question it."
  4096. > Sitting down with a grunt, you start sorting through the mess of materials.
  4097. > Shining joins you nosing through the pile and pulling elements he recognizes out with his teeth.
  4098. "...if you don't mind my asking, how'd you end up giving - what was her name, Gracie? - a ride the first time?"
  4099. > Pausing with one hoof lifted, Shining ponders a moment.
  4100. > "I'm not entirely certain she understood what it meant, that I was a slave."
  4101. "How do you mean?"
  4102. > He shrugs, an odd gesture of rolling his forelegs.
  4103. > "Don't know how to put it... I've been looked down a lot by all of you. A pony - good-for-nothing, useless, thickheaded pony. Won't work, won't even obey unless you whip him silly. That's all I was."
  4104. "Then you met your current owner - if I've got the order of events right."
  4105. > "You do. His kindness earned my loyalty, but I still worked for him. Gracie... she was just happy to see us. So happy. She loved us, and stole my heart."
  4106. > Chuckling, he shakes his head.
  4107. > "I did things for her I wouldn't have done for any other human. Lay down, rolled over, let her paint my hooves... there was an innocence in her."
  4108. "Lucky girl, to have that. And you."
  4109. > "Plus..."
  4110. > Shining's voice falls, as do his ears.
  4111. > "...plus, I - I thought it was the closest I might to being a father again. I - I guess a part of me missed that."
  4112. "...ah."
  4113. > "Is - that kind of what you're trying to do with my daughter? Make Megan ... a better person? Give her a pony to care about?"
  4114. > In that question, you hear not just a desire for an answer but an almost physical need for that answer to be 'yes'.
  4115. > For Shining to have some certainty that his daughter will be with someone good.
  4116. "A bit, yes. Megan isn't so lucky to be as innocent as you say Gracie is; she's - having to learn."
  4117. > "Still, with Flurry around... Maybe she'll be better than you."
  4118. > Reaching forward again, Shining drags the bridle out of the pile with a hoof.
  4119. > Another flick of his tail is accompanied by an annoyed snort as he lightly kicks the bit.
  4120. "Not a fan of those?"
  4121. > "We used bitless."
  4122. "It's what I could find on short notice."
  4123. > Shining grunts an affirmative, then looks back at you.
  4124. "...I assume 'we' means you and Corona."
  4125. > "...yeah."
  4126. > Dropping to his haunches, he flicks his tail and taps the saddle.
  4127. > "She told me what you did."
  4128. "Did she."
  4129. > You struggle to keep your voice as neutral as possible.
  4130. > Shining is fighting the same impulses, after all.
  4131. > "Yes. Why?"
  4132. [Choice]
  4133. > You put the strap that you'd been fiddling with down.
  4134. > Out of the corner of your eye, you can see that Shining Armor isn't even bothering to hide his attention - watching you closely for your response.
  4135. > Why had you...?
  4136. > It felt so rational at the time.
  4137. > Break her in, make her accept this life.
  4138. > Discourage another escape from any ponies who would see her afterwards.
  4139. > But you rather doubt Shining Armor would accept that alone, and besides - that wasn't the whole truth either, was it?
  4140. "...I got angry. I - lost control. In the beginning, it was just a punishment. Misplaced, maybe... but someone had to be punished for that. Cadance didn't understand how close she came to ruining this place with that stunt. It was as much to show her that she couldn't do that and not expect anyone to be hurt. Maybe I was already too angry to be rational."
  4141. > Leaning over you, rest an elbow on your knee.
  4142. > One hand reaches out to toy with the bridle, straps and bolts clinking lightly against the floor.
  4143. "But Corona wouldn't give no matter what I did. Not when I lashed her, not when I kept her suspended and aching, not at all. I just kept getting angrier, and she must have just kept getting more scared... then she bit me, and after that I lost any control I still had. After that, it was just wrath pure and simple. I wanted to see her suffer, and so I did - listening to her beg for mercy and forgiveness every second of the way."
  4144. > Shining Armor remains silent, not giving you anything to answer to.
  4145. > That's fine.
  4146. > You still have plenty of things to say yourself.
  4147. "Have you ever done something, Shining, that you know the second it happens was wrong? But by then it's already too late to do anything about, and you're left just to pick up the pieces with the realization that you fucked up?"
  4148. > "Yes."
  4149. > It is the only word he says, and you can absolutely tell he is struggling not to say more.
  4150. "Well. I guess I set out to try and teach Cadance something, and ended up teaching myself just how out of control I was instead. Opened up my eyes. Cadance helped with that too."
  4151. > "Do you think that changes what you did?"
  4152. "No. Just feeling bad doesn't undo the damage I did."
  4153. > That finally draws a nod from Shining, who likewise tosses away the harness strap he'd been handling.
  4154. > "No. It really fucking doesn't."
  4155. "Cadance tried to stop me, over and over again. Tried to get me to spare them, but I forced her. And when it was done, she rightly tore me a new one for what I'd done."
  4156. > Now you have his attention again:
  4157. > "She fought you over this?"
  4158. "Your wife? Absolutely. Every inch. Corona didn't see half of it, and I can understand why she thought Cadance was just throwing her to my tortures... but no. She fought, even when I threatened her. Afterward, too, she demanded I change."
  4159. > "That... that would be her, yes. Always looking for the good in everything, no matter how dark."
  4160. > You flop onto your back, hands tucked behind your head, not even caring what the dirty floor must be doing to your shirt at this point.
  4161. "I started looking at her a different way after that, I guess. Seeing a bit more of what she saw. After that, things changed - I started having ponies take a proper place on the guards. I gave them a way to tell me what was wrong, so I could actually listen. I listened to Mocha Cream - my maid - who I'd barely even thought of before."
  4162. > "Is that why there was a pony always with you when you came to see me?"
  4163. "Exactly why. Never again will a pony be in a place where my anger can hurt them."
  4164. > Shining does the opposite, standing up to walk around the pile of tack in a slow circle.
  4165. > "I want to think you really have changed, because that means you can keep changing."
  4166. "Not quite there yet, huh?"
  4167. > "No. Not there yet."
  4168. > You can sort of loosely follow him by the sound of his hooves on the hard floor.
  4169. > "At the same time... this is why I can't ever be okay with slavery. Even if my Master is a good man, how many others aren't? How many consider that a suitable way of 'teaching a lesson'?"
  4170. > Hooves stop, and you can only guess he is looking back at you.
  4171. > "How many more ponies are going to suffer for the rest of their lives because their owners got angry at them, because they wouldn't grovel? That's the cruelty of owning another being as your property."
  4172. > This time it is you who doesn't have a good answer.
  4173. > None that he would accept, anyhow.
  4174. > "At the same time, though... I'm glad to hear it wasn't her turning."
  4175. "Nothing could be further from the truth. I can't tell you how many times I regretted giving her the authority I did, because she just would not give up - then regretted second-guessing that at all when her arguing turned out to be right!"
  4176. > You prop yourself up on one elbow.
  4177. > Sure enough, Shining had been watching from the far side of the spread-out pile of tack.
  4178. > Was that the touch of a smile around his mouth?
  4179. > No way to be sure, but he certainly does look pleased.
  4180. > "Good."
  4181. > As if aware that the conversation regarding them had just drawn to a close, the door to the storage area flings open to admit those in question:
  4182. > Flurry and Megan leading the charge with scurrying sneakers and shoes alike, followed close behind by a saddlebag-laden Cadance proceeding at a more reasonable pace.
  4183. > "I'm home, daddy!"
  4184. > "Hello, Master!"
  4185. > There's not nearly enough time for you to get upright before both land remorseless tackles - arms and wings closing around you.
  4186. "Ooof!"
  4187. > Wind is driven from you with a grunt, but your arms still find their way around both to greet them with a squeezing hug.
  4188. > Enmeshing your fingers in hair and mane, you squeeze both before letting them go.
  4189. "Boy, you two are eager! Megan, you must have just gotten home from school!"
  4190. > "And I came right over!"
  4191. > Chuckling softly at their haste, you ruffle both their hair (and give Flurry a bit of a scratch around the ears, earning a coo from her).
  4192. "Flurry, don't you want to say hello to your father, though?"
  4193. > Emitting a small eep, she quickly disentangles herself from your hands and dashes to nuzzle up against Shining.
  4194. > He smiles back and nuzzles into her mane - though not so quickly you hadn't seen the look of deep, heart-aching pain on his face before it is quickly wiped away.
  4195. "Now, did you remember to bring your helmet and pads, Megan?"
  4196. > She had obviously not.
  4197. > Cadance quickly steps in as the girl's face twiss into a wince, motioning to her own saddlebags.
  4198. > "I gathered them. I had a suspicion she would forget."
  4199. "Megan, that was very nice of Cadance wasn't it? Fixing what you forgot."
  4200. > Squirming around, Megan waves and shoots a bashful smile at the alicorn.
  4201. > "Thank you, Cadance..."
  4202. "Good girl. Now, let's see - how do you want to go about this first...? Shining, I think you should take the lead - after all, you're the one of us here who knows this best."
  4203. > Reluctantly separating himself from the clinging filly wrapped around his legs, Shining nods.
  4204. > "Yeah. Okay, um, Megan?"
  4205. > Your daughter detaches herself from your side with considerably greater ease, moving to his side.
  4206. > "What do I do, Shining?"
  4207. > "Have you brushed Flurry Heart's coat out?"
  4208. > "Oh, all the time when she's done washing up!"
  4209. > Motioning towards the coat brush, Shining then gestures to his back.
  4210. > "Okay. The first thing you're going to want to do is brush my coat flat, so it doesn't get bunched up or pull beneath everything."
  4211. > Adopting a deadly-serious expression - her tongue stuck to one side - Megan sets to work with the brush.
  4212. > Quickly Shining is backing away with a nervous whinny:
  4213. > "Easy there! I know my coat isn't as soft as hers, but be slow and gentle. Smooth strokes, okay?"
  4214. > "Sorry..."
  4215. > With a little more guidance she is soon delivering much more pleasurable brush-strokes all along his withers, back, and flanks.
  4216. > At least, that is what you assume by the relax and almost dopey expression fixed on Shining Armor's face.
  4217. > "Ooooh, that does feel good..."
  4218. > Privately, you ponder if the stallion is uniquely vulnerable to this treatment or if the next time you wish to bend a pony to your will a more peaceful application of brush to coat would do.
  4219. > Judging by the bemused expression Cadance sports, probably the former.
  4220. > Eventually Shining shakes himself loose of the stupor and refocuses.
  4221. > "Alright. Now, you're going to have to check my hooves for any debris or anything that got stuck in underneath them. It's especially important because I don't use shoes, so things can get trapped beneath there."
  4222. > You aren't, strictly speaking, sure how true that is.
  4223. > Ponies were perfectly capable of checking their own hooves, after all - but then again, this was all about teaching Megan to care for them on her own.
  4224. > In any case she wastes no time, picking up each of Shining's hooves and checking them carefully for any sign of dirt or pebbles.
  4225. > There are none, of course, but that doesn't stop her from giving them a methodical looking-over.
  4226. > "What's next?"
  4227. > "Saddle blanket. That's so the saddle doesn't chafe on me, like if you wore a big heavy backpack without anything else to support it."
  4228. > "Don't you always have a coat, though?"
  4229. > Despite her question Megan does as she is asked:
  4230. > Lifting the blanket and carefully placing it over his back, folding it over and squaring it off.
  4231. > Twisting his head around, Shining nods approvingly.
  4232. > "Yes, I do. But it isn't enough. Trust me; you can eventually get bald patches if the straps chafe. I've seen it with work harnesses here, and..."
  4233. > "And...?"
  4234. > His voice goes soft, almost wistful.
  4235. > "Back home, with the armor. If you weren't properly padded, the barding could dig in fiercely."
  4236. > Another shake of his head and he's back and focused again.
  4237. > "Anyway. Saddle up on my back now.
  4238. > This proves a bit trickier; in the end, Shining is forced to drop down on his belly to let her settle it in place.
  4239. > Even then, much adjustment is needed.
  4240. "I brought some rags as well, so anywhere it isn't sitting right you can use those for extra padding."
  4241. > "That's good, but I might not know it until she's up there. Okay, Megan - belts. You're going to need to make them tight, so you don't slip off."
  4242. > "Got it!"
  4243. > And she does - leaning back to pull the belt tight around his chest, passing just beneath his shoulders.
  4244. > Shining trots in a slow circle, stirrups jingling, and shakes himself almost dog-like - saddle waving on his back.
  4245. > "Should be good. A little tighter, maybe, but good. Okay, last part..."
  4246. > His eyes fall on the bridle and his ears fall - reluctance clearly reasserting itself.
  4247. > Megan realizes something is wrong; picking up the bridle, she looks it over questioningly.
  4248. > "Does - this need to be tight too?"
  4249. > "Not really. It's just..."
  4250. > He trails off; moments later, Cadance is at his side giving a reassuring nuzzle.
  4251. > Meanwhile Megan is looking between yourself and Shining Armor, desire to go forward with this clearly conflicting with knowledge something was wrong.
  4252. > "Do you not want to...?"
  4253. > "No, it's okay."
  4254. > Ducking his head down, Shining takes a deep breath and holds it out towards her.
  4255. > "Go ahead. The metal part goes inside my mouth, and those straps under and over - yeah, just like that, and this one behind my head..."
  4256. > Here he cuts off, as the bit had settled into the groove between his teeth and onto the tongue.
  4257. > Immediately he is shying back - but catches himself quickly and is soon standing strong again.
  4258. "You going to be okay there?"
  4259. > "Yuh-huh. Ith... 'e last 'ime I 'ad one o'eese in-"
  4260. > Truthfully you were more concerned with Megan's safety; he'd looked awfully close to bolting there, and little pony or not Shining was more than enough muscle to trample a nine-year-old.
  4261. > Even so, you unbuckle the bit from the rest of the bridle.
  4262. > Shining Armor is all too happy to spit it out.
  4263. > "The last time I had one of these in, it was - one of those camps. Harder to pull on, and takes away your speech..."
  4264. > "Then say something, Shining Armor!"
  4265. > He shakes his head at his wife's scolding.
  4266. > "No. I can do this..."
  4267. "It's your call. How is the rest of it sitting?"
  4268. > "Once you tighten it down a bit, it should be fine."
  4269. > This, you take the lead on - working the individual straps until they are firm, fitting the crownpiece around his horn and the bulky inhibitor still mounted on it, tucking the throatlatch beneath his chin.
  4270. > Lastly, you hold the bit back up.
  4271. "Can you take it again? It'll be easier for you to sense Megan's pull if you do."
  4272. > "Yeah. Just... be gentle, okay?"
  4273. > "I will."
  4274. > Your daughter adds a serious nod to that answer, and Shining opens his mouth to allow you to slip the bit back in.
  4275. > Right before it settles in, he adds in a voice soft enough only you can hear:
  4276. > "Just remember, I'm doing this for her. Not for you."
  4277. "I will."
  4278. > Getting Megan up proves to be trickier, especially with the helmet, arm-, and leg-pads Cadance had brought.
  4279. > Ultimately she lifts Megan onto Shining's back with a flare of her horn.
  4280. > The stallion shifts as her weight settles in, grunting softly.
  4281. > " 'eavier 'an 'racie was. Ol'er."
  4282. "Older? It's not too much."
  4283. > "No."
  4284. > Shaking his head - something that sets the bridle jingling - Shining huffs softly.
  4285. > "S'weir'."
  4286. > Cadance ducks in, nuzzling his neck.
  4287. > "You'll be fine, Love. Megan, do you know what to do?"
  4288. > "Uh-huh. To make him go, I give a little nudge with my legs, and to turn I pull-"
  4289. > Whinnying sharply, Shining all but spins around in place - tail lashing.
  4290. > It takes him a moment to get his words back:
  4291. > "Easy! 'at hurt!"
  4292. > "I'm sorry!"
  4293. > Megan promptly drops the reins and leans in to hug him around the neck.
  4294. > "I didn't mean to! I'm sorry."
  4295. > "Jus'... jus' be gen'le, 'kay?"
  4296. > This time when her heels tap his ribs Shining trots in a slow circle.
  4297. > His tail still occasionally twitches, but you suspect that has more to do with how uncertain Megan still is.
  4298. "You going to be alright up there, sweetheart?"
  4299. > "Uh-huh. I think... it's not like when I was on Cadance. That felt like her magic was a blanket, holding me down. Everything's... wobbly here."
  4300. "You have to get used to that, I'm afraid. Don't lock up."
  4301. > Pausing as he nears your side, Shining hesitates and gestures to his bit.
  4302. > Once you pop it off, he speaks softly:
  4303. > "...I could hold her on too, if you'd take the ring off my horn."
  4304. > Seeming to preempt your response, he adds:
  4305. > "I know, I'm a runaway. And our first meeting was me... yeah. But I'm already carrying her; you're trusting me at this point. Can't you give my magic back, in case she falls?"
  4306. “It’s not just about me. There are rules about these things-”
  4307. > “And who has to know about it? This is your private camp. Trust me, a lot of ‘rules’ get broken in places like this.”
  4308. [Choice]
  4309. > You hesitate.
  4310. > After what you had just told Shining, could you really trust him?
  4311. > Would he try to avenge the cruelty you'd inflicted on Corona?
  4312. > No.
  4313. > He was right - you were already trusting him with your daughter's life.
  4314. > Reuniting him with his family truly did seem to have broken his will to actually fight back.
  4315. > What difference could this make?
  4316. "Let me get a screwdriver."
  4317. > Shining gasps softly when you finally get the fixing-screw lose, the clamps on the ring's interior releasing his horn and allowing you to draw it off in one quick gesture.
  4318. > His legs tremble and he almost seems ready to fall to the floor.
  4319. > But a moment later he is upright again, almost seeming to stand taller than before.
  4320. > "You have no concept of how good it feels to get that off."
  4321. "I don't, but I can imagine. Cadance, you understand that this is your responsibility?"
  4322. > "Yes, Master."
  4323. "Good."
  4324. > Fingering the ring briefly before dropping it into a pocket, you grunt:
  4325. "I'm trusting, Shining Armor, that you understand why I did that. That, from one father to another, you see that I haven't hurt Flurry Heart - and will extend the same to Megan."
  4326. > "Absolutely. I swear."
  4327. > His horn lights - softly at first, an almost filmy sort of haze appearing around your daughter's legs.
  4328. > "Can you feel that, Megan?"
  4329. > "Uh-huh. I can feel the magic, yeah. I've felt Flurry's a lot."
  4330. > "Okay. I'm not going to press too hard, so you can still move around a bit up there."
  4331. > This time, when Shining starts to march in a slow circle Megan is much more able to ride easily - sitting upright on his back.
  4332. > A slow, but wide grin spreads across her face; despite the soft glow of magic around her legs they are no longer clamped so tightly around Shining's flanks.
  4333. > She still does not use the reins, though.
  4334. > Still afraid of tugging too hard.
  4335. "You can pull on those just a little, sweetheart. Just not too much, and let go as soon as you feel him respond."
  4336. > "Like this?"
  4337. > Her 'pull' barely qualifies as such.
  4338. "A little more."
  4339. > This time Shining huffs softly, but does turn to the rein's tug.
  4340. > Definitely not a fan of this guidance-by-bit business.
  4341. "That's good. And you keep it back as long as you want him to turn, or both to stop."
  4342. > Now minus her fear of wobbling off, it doesn't take long for Megan to slip into an easier pattern.
  4343. > For his part, her steed seems to have settled into quiet tolerance of this situation.
  4344. > Shining even perks up as she becomes more familiar with the controls, and almost seems to be enjoying himself.
  4345. > He still hesitates when Megan pipes up:
  4346. > "Can we go outside, Daddy? It's kind of small in here."
  4347. > "No! M'not 'onna..."
  4348. > Hesitating, Shining lets his head droop again and mutters around the bit.
  4349. > "Don' wanna b'seen like thi'. S'emberassin'..."
  4350. > Ah, there's that old pride again.
  4351. > In a way, you're almost glad to see it - at least you knew he wasn't fuming inside.
  4352. "You know, Megan, I'm not the one you really need to ask. He isn't mine, after all - and even if he was, you should still talk to him before you ask for something big like that - not just wait for me to give an order."
  4353. > "Oh..."
  4354. > Shining shoots you a thankful look - up until Megan leans alarmingly forward to hug his neck.
  4355. > "Pleeeeease, Shining? I know you can't run in here..."
  4356. > "I..."
  4357. > Cadance leans in again, frowning.
  4358. > "Dear - ponies here will understand. She's a child, and you are doing her a great favor. There's no shame in it."
  4359. > "Yeah, th'is. This - this isn' jus' a wor' ha'ness or somethin'. This is slave stuff. Wha' if a pi'ture gets out?"
  4360. "Remember, you have some privacy in the camp. Same thing that lets me take your horn restrictor off, means you also don't have to worry about being seen."
  4361. > "I... I guess..."
  4362. > "Yaaaaaaay! Thank you, Shining Armor! Thank you sooo muuuch!"
  4363. > He gags a bit from how tight Megan's hug is about his neck, but Shining does not recant.
  4364. > You take the opportunity, moving to open the warehouse doors.
  4365. > Instantly a burst of fresh, hot summer are sweeps in; Shining trots forward through it with nostrils wide and sniffing.
  4366. > His ears are half-tipped back and tail swishing.
  4367. > But there is no sign of any real anger, especially when Cadance pulls up alongside him to murmur:
  4368. > "Don't worry, Love. I'll be right here alongside you every minute of it."
  4369. > Squaring his shoulders, Shining nods and walks out onto the road beyond - Megan swaying on his back.
  4370. > "C'mon! Let's go, go, go! We're outside now, you can go faster than that!"
  4371. > No amount of nudging with her heels will drive him any faster.
  4372. "Not going to work, Sweetheart. Like I said before, you have to ask him-"
  4373. > In her frustration, Megan snaps the reins against Shining Armor's shoulders.
  4374. > The effect is dramatic:
  4375. > He is off like a rocket, galloping down the side-road with a shrieking girl clinging to his back.
  4376. > Cadance also charges after him leaving you to pick up the rear with an awkward if desperate sprint:
  4377. > For a second you fear he will buck her off, but Shining quickly comes to a halt with Megan still hanging on.
  4378. > Those shrieks quickly die out, and by the time you reach them - heart pounding and breath hard in your lungs - she is excitedly bouncing on his back.
  4379. > "Doitagain, doitagain, doitagain! That was fun!"
  4380. > "M'sorry! I didn't mean to, when Master does tha' it means I'm supp'sed t'pull as 'ard as I can-"
  4381. "Megan! Are you okay-"
  4382. > "I'm fine! It was like riding a roller-coaster - scary, but good."
  4383. > You wipe your forehead; the degree of sweat beading on it couldn't be blamed on the heat alone.
  4384. > "Can you do that again, Shining? Please, please please please-"
  4385. "Now, Megan, you can't just force him to do what you want."
  4386. > She pouts again, and Shining Armor cranes his neck around to look at her.
  4387. > The look that passes between stallion and girl is almost missed.
  4388. > Almost.
  4389. > "Y'know, ba' when I was a roo'ie 'olt in the guard, one of my l'tenants once tol' me: If y'scared o'somethin, y'jus' gotta go righ' into it har' as y'can."
  4390. "Hold up a moment-"
  4391. > Maybe Shining Armor had decided he wanted to stick it to you - to defy you just to prove he still could.
  4392. > Or maybe he had decided that if he was going to be seen out and about with your daughter saddled on his back, he was going to do it on his own terms.
  4393. > Whichever it is, your warning goes totally unheeded.
  4394. > "Me'han? Don't pull too har', or I'll just stop."
  4395. > His horn ignites, pink magic congealing around her legs -
  4396. > And then he is off, hooves raising little clouds of dust as they drive into the dirt.
  4397. "Wait, you can't just run off!"
  4398. > "Don't worry, I can hold her in place wi' my ma'ic now! I'll brin' her ba' fine!"
  4399. > The hollered answer does little to settle your churning stomach.
  4400. > Barely do you pursue a few steps before giving up; it's clear that you'll only wind yourself trying to keep pace with the work-hardened pony.
  4401. "Ahh, God damn it - Cadance, follow him; I'll get Flurry and the cart!"
  4402. > Except you don't have Flurry; a pink-and-purple blur shoots past you head hot on the trail of her Mistress and father.
  4403. > "Mistress Megan, wait for me!"
  4404. > Throwing up your arms, you turn for the cart.
  4405. "Well, the hell with it. Apparently nobody's listening to me today."
  4406. > "Shining was right: He can shield Megan from a fall, and if anything does happen Flurry will come get us. They will be fine."
  4407. > Despite her pointed comment, Cadance takes to wing also in pursuit.
  4408. > You aren't so sure, and push the cart to its limits - straining the electric motor in an effort to keep up with him.
  4409. > Every once in a while you could catch the distant sound of hooves on pavement or earth, or your daughter's voice in the distance:
  4410. > "Giddyap, Shining! Giddyap, giddyap!"
  4411. > Judging by the bemused-looking ponies you are passing by, this is the right way.
  4412. > Wait-
  4413. > Had they turned off into one of the fields?
  4414. > You spot the pair in the distance, accompanied by Flurry Heart and raising a cloud of dust as Shining pounds through one of the work paths between rows of plants.
  4415. > There’s no way your measly little cart will keep up with him in that, but he’ll have to turn aside sooner or later or hit the fence-
  4416. > And knowing that, you can cut him off.
  4417. > Megan surely sees you coming, but still guides Shining right past you.
  4418. > Now, on a proper road, you can at least keep up-
  4419. > But all of a sudden, stopping them doesn’t seem so important.
  4420. > Megan is grinning, laughing, clutching the reins in her hands.
  4421. > And Shining has fallen back from a full gallop to a fast trot, but is focused hard:
  4422. > Both ears straight forward, head low and horn pointed forwards.
  4423. > With this pace, you really can see just how well-built he is:
  4424. > Muscles standing out as they work, nostrils flaring to suck down air, sweat beginning to lather his sides.
  4425. > A slight tug on the reins turns him down an alley too narrow for your cart to follow.
  4426. > Is Megan deliberately evading you?!
  4427. > If it’s a chase she wants…
  4428. > You miss intercepting them on the next street over, but pick them up on the third again.
  4429. > Finally Megan pulls him to a skidding, scuffing halt.
  4430. “Well, was it everything-”
  4431. > Shining actually rears up, whinnying loudly - not a sound of pain, but almost of exultation.
  4432. > For a moment you fear Megan will topple from his back, but his horn is already lit to keep the girl firmly in place even before she can begin to fall.
  4433. > Dropping back down, Shining Armor whips his head about - spraying sweat from his mane.
  4434. > “Sorry. Havin’ a run like tha’... a’tually felt real good!”
  4435. > A laugh bubbles up out of you, shaking your head.
  4436. “That’s… well, you did hold your promise. She’s fine, so that’s okay, I guess.”
  4437. > “Is th’any water? I need a drin’.”
  4438. > There is, but only from a hose - and never have you seen a pony so happy to gulp down the spray from it
  4439. > Cadance and Flurry Heart catch up as he is drinking, while speaking to them, you almost miss when Megan leans over and whispers into his ear:
  4440. > “Wanna do it again?”
  4441. > And then the chase begins anew.
  4442. > ...
  4443. > Later that evening, you finally return home - sweaty, tired, but still grinning a bit from the day's events.
  4444. > There's one thing you have to deal with, though, before this can be considered 'done'...
  4445. > The house ponies are gathered up, sitting in front of you in a loose circle.
  4446. "Now, I assume you all saw what happened out there today?"
  4447. > A low chorus of 'Yes, Master' echoes you.
  4448. "This goes for everyone here, but especially you since we have so many guests here: Not a word about that comes out about that to anyone outside the camp, understood?"
  4449. > Again the chorus sounds, although more muted and less certain this time.
  4450. "Good. I don't ask much of you, but this one thing... some people out there could use that to say I am misusing another man's pony, understand? So we won't talk about it."
  4451. > It's less of a chorus this time and more of a general series of agreeing rumbles, but even so you can definitely say there's more agreement in it.
  4452. "Excellent! That's all; you're now dismissed."
  4453. > As they tumble out, you spot one lagging pony you've got a comment for:
  4454. "Oh, and Backstitch?"
  4455. > "Yes, Master?"
  4456. > The tailor-pony cocks his head questioningly.
  4457. "If you haven't already, you can put Cadance's dress and bridle away. We're not going to need them now, obviously."
  4458. > "I'm sorry, Master, but she came and picked it up earlier this evening."
  4459. > Your eyebrows rise.
  4460. "Did she really?"
  4461. > "Yes. Just before dinner this evening, Master."
  4462. > Leaning back in your seat, you dismiss him with a wave of your hand.
  4463. "Did she now..."
  4464.  
  4465. > You stumble back into your quarters alongside Shining Armor.
  4466. > Exhausted, sweat-soaked, and still laughing here and there in fitful bursts.
  4467. > Too damn long, that's how long.
  4468. > For a few minutes there it had seemed like just the two of you, alone in the world.
  4469. > Even the girl on his back didn't seem to matter so much.
  4470. > The two of you mutually collapse on the floor before the bed, not wanting to rub your sweat-lathered coats on the sheets.
  4471. > Twin scents fill the room:
  4472. > Heavy, thick, mare and stallion, strong enough to fill the space.
  4473. > Ten minutes, fifteen - the two of you just lay there, grinning like madponies.
  4474. > Maybe you were madponies.
  4475. > Finally Shining gasps out:
  4476. > "I want to run like that every day. For the rest of my life. Just running, running until it's all I can think about-"
  4477. "I know."
  4478. > Your neck ached too much for a nuzzle, but your wings had been mostly unused and were still strong enough to reach out and wrap around him.
  4479. "Tartarus' black teats, I loved that! Feeling - feeling alive again!"
  4480. > "Lungs burning, heart pounding, legs screaming for relief-"
  4481. "And of course, you right alongside me."
  4482. > "Of course."
  4483. > Neither of you wants to think about how so very soon a run together will be impossible.
  4484. > Squirming over to you with an awkward flop-shove movement, Shining rolls on his side to press himself back to back with you.
  4485. "You know what else I'd like?"
  4486. > "What?"
  4487. "To get all this sweat off of me."
  4488. > "That sounds amazing. For once, no hot water isn't a problem."
  4489. “Do you want to go first?”
  4490. > "Go ahead. I'm a big strong stallion. I can deal with some sweat for a little bit more... even if it does feel gross."
  4491. > Stumbling into the shower, you twist the water on to its heaviest, coldest stream and dunk yourself beneath it.
  4492. > There you are forced to confront another want:
  4493. > One that had first made itself known a day or two ago, but now - with his scent clinging to the room and you - had become almost irresistible.
  4494. > That desire...
  4495. > At least the water had quenched most of it by the time Shining wanders in after you.
  4496. > It's perhaps a minute more before either of you feels like lathering up.
  4497. > This time both of you can help the other, of course:
  4498. > Manipulating soap and water to lather in and soothe tired muscles.
  4499. > Years apart had not dimmed Shining's memory of exactly where pressure could make you coo and sigh with happiness - his hooves digging in to massage the bands of muscle that support your wing.
  4500. > Ah, that felt good!
  4501. > Really, really good...
  4502. > "Cady?"
  4503. "S'good, Shiny... keep goin'..."
  4504. > Your eyes are half closed, all focus on his hooves and the water pouring on you.
  4505. > "Cady..."
  4506. "Whaizzit, Shining...?"
  4507. > "Cadance!"
  4508. > Everything snaps back into focus; you peer over your shoulder in confusion.
  4509. "What's wrong, I-"
  4510. > Oh.
  4511. > You don't even need to finish that sentence.
  4512. > The burning need is back in force, and your tail is hiked up...
  4513. > Shame colors your cheeks; you drop your haunches to the shower floor and will the heat to fade away again.
  4514. "I... don't..."
  4515. > "Shh..."
  4516. > Shining leans in against you, which unfortunately doesn't help much:
  4517. > The scent of soap cannot entirely hide his own musk.
  4518. "Shining? Is... is it wrong of me to want this?"
  4519. > "Wrong?"
  4520. "It feels wrong. I only saw you again for the first time a few days ago, and I now I'm just thinking about..."
  4521. > "Shhhh."
  4522. > Leaning in, Shining nuzzles into your neck - one hoof rising to settle over your withers.
  4523. > "You're allowed to be a mare, Cadance. It's not wrong of you. Feelings like that are natural; didn't anyone ever teach you?"
  4524. "Yes. Celestia. And believe me, it was exactly as embarrassing as you would think having the Princess of the Sun instruct you about colts and fillies..."
  4525. > That thought puts a smile on both your faces, and even a chuckle from Shining.
  4526. > Releasing you from the embrace, he takes your head in his hooves and lifts it.
  4527. > Your eyes roam across his features:
  4528. > Roughened, aged by all he has been through.
  4529. > But still the same stallion you fell in love with so long ago.
  4530. > "So, yeah. Really. It's not wrong of you. You're allowed to desire, love."
  4531. > Reaching forward, he kisses you softly.
  4532. > The touch is so foreign, so unexpected, that you almost leap back before melting right into it.
  4533. > "...and I'm glad you still think of me that way too."
  4534. > Returning the kiss isn't even a question.
  4535. "Thank you, Shining... I think I'm going to head out now. If you can finish up, follow me when you're ready?"
  4536. > "Sure. Are you okay, Cadance?"
  4537. > You deliver one more final kiss to the tip of his nose.
  4538. "I'm fine. Trust me."
  4539. > In the few minutes it takes for Shining to emerge from the shower, you prepare.
  4540. > When the finally does step out, he only makes it halfway before the doorway before he halts in surprise.
  4541. > Not that you blame him.
  4542. > You were sprawled languidly on the bed, wearing the "dress" Anonymous had once made you strut before his business partners with.
  4543. > This time, wearing it doesn't feel so wrong at all.
  4544. > You'd ditched the golden hoof-cuffs and chains leading to them, of course, but the rest...
  4545. > The gauzy reins leading from the bridle set upon your head, laying across your neck and still-damp mane.
  4546. > The 'saddle' wrapping your barrel, straps of fabric emerging from it to encircle your chest and highlight your rump through the translucent cloth.
  4547. > All of that is still there.
  4548. > Under Shining's stare, you eventually turn your head aside - cheeks again burning hot with a mix of need and confused shame.
  4549. "S-Shining? Will - you be mine again, so I can be yours?"
  4550. > You can hear his hooves clip-clopping against the floor as he comes closer, but still don't look up until his magic lifts your head to face him.
  4551. > His lips press to yours, heavy and needing.
  4552. > A soft moan is pulled from your throat - how long had you dreamed of this in private, almost shameful moments?
  4553. > Of feeling that touch again, that pressure and demand-
  4554. > Shuddering, you allow yourself to roll over and make room for him on the bed - something Shining Armor is all too eager to do.
  4555. > You feel the mattress shifting as his weight settles beside you.
  4556. > Hot breath puffs on the back of your neck, he drawing in your scent as you had relished in his.
  4557. > "Cady..."
  4558. "Shining..."
  4559. > Cocking your head back, you raise it up to brush his chin.
  4560. > Your back arches, wings fluttering out, and tail again hiking up for him.
  4561. > Hormones have begun to fog your mind.
  4562. > Desires.
  4563. > Needs.
  4564. > The heat that you had only barely quenched in the shower is back with full force.
  4565. > His lips meets yours again, more forceful this time.
  4566. > Pressing and parting, letting your tongues meet.
  4567. > Shining is straddling atop you now, his hooves planted firmly on either side of your shoulders.
  4568. > His muzzle traces over your shoulders, out along a wing - brushing among your feathers in just the way you'd always loved.
  4569. > Your tail flicks up, teasingly brushing between his legs.
  4570. > Your neck twisting to let you kiss him again, then rolling back as his lips find their way down your neck.
  4571. > Cheek nuzzling against yours - his coat prickling between the straps of the bridle.
  4572. > Scent all around you in a cloud you'd missed so very, very much.
  4573. > And oh, yes-
  4574. > His length pressing down on your back.
  4575. > You can feel it, even through the saddle binding you.
  4576. > Again your tail flicks up to tease him, and that is all the invitation Shining needs:
  4577. > A gasp is torn from your throat as he enters you:
  4578. > Wings snapping out to either side and head rolling back as you are filled by him.
  4579. > On some level you are aware the dress should probably come off by this point, before it becomes wrinkled or stained with sweat and other fluids.
  4580. > Mostly, though, you are beyond caring.
  4581. > Everything is a haze now:
  4582. > Your two bodies rocking together in perfect unison.
  4583. > Each thrust driving a fresh burst of pleasure in ways that you had almost forgotten.
  4584.  
  4585. > The time for words is long since passed; only muted grunts and whinnies, moans and nickers pass between the two of you.
  4586. > His jaws clamp on the bridle's 'reins', tugging them back with a low growl as he hilts himself again in you.
  4587. > Your head kicks back in return.
  4588. > Hips rise, lifting to meet his and push him ever deeper.
  4589. > So what if your rump wasn't as large as some ponies'?
  4590. > You liked how neatly it fit beneath him.
  4591. > How it let you feel his weight over you, on top of you, pressing down on you, hips grinding against yours.
  4592. > There was nothing gentle or tender in this encounter:
  4593. > This was feral, instinctual, passionate lovemaking full of demand.
  4594. > A product of two loving souls torn apart from each other for far too long.
  4595. > "Ca-adaaa-aaaah!"
  4596. > Such were your passions that the climax comes with no warning.
  4597. > He erupts within you, an even greater heat filling your marehood.
  4598. > Teeth release the bridle's straps, only to close around the back of your neck with a force that makes you clench down on his shaft.
  4599. > The last few regular pumps break you as well - the entire room seeming to glow as a ripple of pleasure runs up from the bottom of your spine to the tips of your wings.
  4600. > Shining slumps down atop you when he is spent.
  4601. > In another circumstance his weight would be crushing; now, it is comforting.
  4602. > Familiar.
  4603. > When your breath has caught up and senses you realize that the room was, in fact, glowing - illuminated by both your horns, unconsciously lit amid your rutting.
  4604. > You extinguish your own, and focus in on the sensation of feeling Shining's heartbeat through his ribs:
  4605. > Thudding, pounding still, against your back.
  4606. > Matching your own.
  4607. > Eventually you gather enough strength to roll yourself over beneath him, pressing your lips to his once more and sighing in relief.
  4608. > It comes as something of a surprise when Shining lights his horn to strip the bridle from your head before he returns the gesture - unraveling the fabric from around your neck, and unbuckling the straps which kept the saddle locked to your barrel.
  4609. > You cast your eyes down, murmuring softly:
  4610. "D-Did you not like it, Shining? I'm sorry, I thought-"
  4611. > "Shh."
  4612. > His lips meet yours again.
  4613. > "I did like it. Even if I do wonder where you got something like that-"
  4614. > Before you can explain he quickly goes on:
  4615. > "-I definitely did... like it."
  4616. > The flush still showing starkly on his snow-white cheeks attests to that.
  4617. > As had the passion of his lovemaking.
  4618. > "But right now... I don't want any assistance. I want to love you, Cadenza - you alone, bare of anything like that. Just you. Just my love."
  4619. > Your heart quickens again and your head comes to rest nestled in against his shoulder.
  4620. > It hadn't been revealed to you, but that was something you had needed to hear.
  4621. > He still loved you.
  4622. > Not the mare wearing the bridle and dress that made your rump pop just right.
  4623. > You.
  4624. > Cadance.
  4625. "Thank you, Shining..."
  4626. > The second time you make love, it is much slower.
  4627. > Less beholden to the instinctual calls of need.
  4628. > More about two hearts being intertwined as your bodies were, intent as much on giving pleasure to the other as taking pleasure for yourself.
  4629. > When you take him into you, you are as much listening for his hums of pleasure as the surges coming from your nethers.
  4630. > And when he holds you against his body, coats and wings and horns brushing against each other, you can tell he is feeling for your heartbeat as well.
  4631. > The late-evening warmth doesn't even seem to matter.
  4632. > You'll have to shower again later or go to bed sweat-soaked, but that seems an acceptable tradeoff.
  4633. > And when you do finally slip into bed for the night, tangled with Shining, it is the first night you sleep utterly undisturbed without ever waking up once.
  4634. > ...
  4635. > The next evening finds you gathered again in Anonymous' study.
  4636. > This time all a ways back from the computer, so that the camera could catch all of you.
  4637. > Up-close had proven impossible to fit you all.
  4638. > Although it did produce a nicely tension-breaking bout of laughter when Shining Armor's attempt to examine the camera closely had provided everyone with an in-depth view of his nostril.
  4639. > Finally the 'incoming video call' message pops up, and despite speaking to him once before you can feel your heart begin to thud.
  4640. > This was it.
  4641. > You only hoped he would be willing to allow you to see more of Shining.
  4642. > If he didn't...
  4643. > You cut those thoughts off with the same ferocity you had in the past twenty-four hours.
  4644. > That bridge would be crossed if it was even reached.
  4645. > In the meantime...
  4646. > Anonymous accepts the call, and Shining's master appears on the screen.
  4647. > He is-
  4648. > Well, you don't know what you expected.
  4649. > Someone kindly-looking, maybe?
  4650. > Soft, to have taken care of him like that?
  4651. > But he just looks... average.
  4652. > For a human, anyhow.
  4653. > You always did get the sense that you were missing some standard of handsomeness or beauty when it came to them.
  4654. > Anonymous is the first to speak, breaking the silence.
  4655. > "Okay. I guess, this is it... well, you can figure out who I am, and Shining-"
  4656. > "Master!"
  4657. > He's clearly restraining himself from charging the screen - although that wouldn't do much.
  4658. > "Hey there, Shiny. I... I'm just... I'm really glad to see you. Like, for real."
  4659. > "I know, Master. I'm..."
  4660. > Head hanging, Shining sighs:
  4661. > "...just shouldn't have run out on you. Shouldn't have left you, Gracie, and Corona hanging."
  4662. > Anonymous speaks up, raising a hand almost like a child in school:
  4663. > "If I can ask real fast - I assume she isn't around?"
  4664. > "Yeah. Asleep upstairs, and I have the door shut. I... didn't tell her about this, or she'd have wanted to see it."
  4665. > "Master? Can you tell Corona, I just - I don't want to her to worry."
  4666. > "I will, boy. She's just happy to hear you're coming home."
  4667. > You can't help but giggle at Shining being called 'boy', especially since he doesn't seem to mind it too much.
  4668. > That giggle, however, reveals your off-camera presence.
  4669. > "Who was that? Is there another pony there with you, Shiny?"
  4670. > Stepping forward, you enter the camera's frame and immediately dip your head in a small bow.
  4671. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be peeping, just... didn't want to overwhelm you with too many at once. I am Cadance."
  4672. > His face hardens, and your heart sinks.
  4673. > Your head dips further, mane beginning to fall over your face and wings shuffling nervously.
  4674. "I just wanted to see the face of the man who saved my husband's life. What I said before is still true: I owe you a great debt."
  4675. > "Master - don't... judge her too hard. I know what happened was..."
  4676. "Wrong. What I did was wrong. No one is questioning that. I wish very deeply there was something I could do to undo it... but there is not."
  4677. > Shining nods, stepping over to lean against you.
  4678. > His master studies the two of you for a long moment before sighing.
  4679. > "Whatever happened over there, I don't know. But I know how Shining talked about ponies who collaborated, and since you're still that close... I guess."
  4680. > Both yourself and Shining perk up - you leaning against him and nickering softly.
  4681. > That even prompts a little smile from his master.
  4682. "I know that the stallion who I loved is not gone. He has not been broken... thanks, in large part, to you."
  4683. > "It wasn't just me. There was this girl too-"
  4684. "Gracie?"
  4685. > His eyebrows rise; looking to Shining, he lifts one questioningly.
  4686. > "Been talking to them, Shiny?"
  4687. > "A bit, Master."
  4688. > He hangs his head guiltily..
  4689. > “Did you tell her what I asked you to? That I’m alright, and I’ll see her soon?”
  4690. > “I did. Corona did, actually, and you should have seen how happy she was…”
  4691. > “O-Oh. Well, I will when I get back, I guess.”
  4692. > Hesitating, Shining Armor adds more softly:
  4693. > "I... gave his daughter a ride here too, actually. Megan. She's very nice."
  4694. > "And you didn't think you should ask me about that? Come on, Shiny!"
  4695. > Hunching over defensively, Shining lets his ears hang and tail swish nervously.
  4696. > "I'm sorry, Master! I knew you'd say yes if I did, since it's something I did before - and she's really a gentle girl, once she figured it out. Good at learning. I knew she wouldn't do anything bad to me."
  4697. > "Well..."
  4698. > His master rubs his head awkwardly.
  4699. > "...okay, that's true, but - really, Shining. Ask, okay!"
  4700. > "I will, Master!"
  4701. > Only you, from your angle, can see what the camera cannot:
  4702. > The slight smirk creeping up the edge of your husband's jaw.
  4703. > That cheeky stallion!
  4704. > He knew he'd be forgiven if he put on that act!
  4705. > Though from the way his owner his shaking his head, you rather suspect he might have known about Shining's deceit too...
  4706. > "I've... actually been thinking. I think having Shiny driven back will be for the better, but... for the two of you, it could wait a few days."
  4707. "You... are willing to let him stay here?"
  4708. > Surprise at the sudden turnaround can't be kept from your voice or expression.
  4709. > "Yeah. I thought about what you'd said the last few times, and... if he really was fine, I thought maybe - I dunno. It seems wrong to take Shining back so fast, when you are finally still back together."
  4710. > You spin about on two hooves, a wide smile growing as you give Anonymous a wide grin.
  4711. "Master-"
  4712. > "Okay, okay!"
  4713. > Laughing, Anonymous waves you off.
  4714. > "You don't have to give me that face. I guess it wouldn't do any real harm to have another pony hanging around for a while."
  4715. > "That will give us time to make final arrangements anyway. And-"
  4716. > There is no warning.
  4717. > On the screen, the door behind Shining's owner creeps open.
  4718. > "Master? Are you coming to bed soon?"
  4719. > That voice.
  4720. > Another voice you'd never thought you'd hear again.
  4721. > He seems to realize what is about to happen, and starts to turn in his chair.
  4722. > "Corona, go back-"
  4723. > No, no, no!
  4724. > Not now!
  4725. > "Who are you talking to, Master? Is that Shin-"
  4726. > It only takes a second.
  4727. > Just a second's glimpse of the screen for Corona's eyes to find Anonymous.
  4728. > And less than a second more for her question to turn into a shriek of unearthly terror.
  4729. > "NO! NOT YOU! Not you, I got away from you! I got away, you can't have me! I escaped! Nooo!"
  4730. > Shining's master stands, but half-turned as he is all that does is clear the camera's view on his end so that you can see what happens next in perfect clarity:
  4731. > Corona stumbles back, eyes wide and pupils shrunken to pinpoints of utter terror.
  4732. > "I won't go back. I can't go back. You can't have me! I can't go back, I got awaaaay!"
  4733. > Unfortunately, the door had closed behind her; Corona's retreat bumps her into it and turns into a stumbled collapse that leaves her a huddled ball on the floor:
  4734. > Shaking and whimpering, her head buried in her hooves.
  4735. > Amid the fog of panic, unable to realize that her retreat was not actually blocked.
  4736. > Her owner rises, going to collect the shaking mare into his arms.
  4737. > Unfortunately, he forgets the camera - leaving it on and providing you with an all-too-clear view of what is happening.
  4738. > Letting you see exactly how he kneels down and wraps his arms around her in a hug, how he pins her ears down to block out all voices but his own.
  4739. > The mare is just too caught up in her fear.
  4740. > "No! No, don't take me back! Master, please - don't take me back! I love you, Master, please don't send me back to him! He'll kill me, please!"
  4741. > Trying to bring Corona upright and get her from the room proves futile; even his efforts to move her set off a fresh wave of terrified, helpless wailing.
  4742. "Anonymous..."
  4743. > The soft murmur is all you can manage right now without choking.
  4744. "Turn it off, Anonymous. Now."
  4745. > "No."
  4746. > It hadn't been he who answered, though, but Shining Armor.
  4747. > "Not yet. But, you-"
  4748. > A hoof is jabbed at Anonymous.
  4749. > "-you can get out of here."
  4750. > For once, your Master does not argue.
  4751. > He simply stands and retreats from the camera's view, off to the side of the room where he sits down just beyond your reach.
  4752. > Even so, you extend a tentative wing towards him in offering.
  4753. > His hand rises to brush a few of its primaries.
  4754. > But you can still see the despondency on his face.
  4755. > Shining Armor, meanwhile, has leaned in closer to the camera to try and fill it with his own (albeit distorted) face.
  4756. > "Corona? Corona listen to me, it's going to be okay. You aren't going to go anywhere, Corona; you're safe."
  4757. > You hadn't thought it was possible for her expression to grow even more despondent.
  4758. > When she cracks an eye to peer at him it does just that:
  4759. > A fresh wave of horror sweeping across it.
  4760. > "No... not you, Shining. Not you too."
  4761. > "I'm safe too, Corona-"
  4762. > "Safe?! Nopony is safe there!"
  4763. > Again she buries her head against her owner's chest, though it does little to hide her whimpering.
  4764. > "I shouldn't ever have told you. Shouldn't have said a thing. Now you're there and Oh Celestia help me I sent you there-"
  4765. > Her owner strokes her mane back and makes soft comforting noises, but still her ear cocks toward the screen when Shining Armor speaks up again:
  4766. > "Corona! Look at me!"
  4767. > Changing tactics, Shining Armor retreats back - trying to fit all of himself in the camera's view.
  4768. > "Look at me. I'm not hurt, see? I'm not injured. He hasn't done anything too bad to me-"
  4769. > "Anything too bad? What the hell does that mean, Shiny?"
  4770. > Wincing at his owner's response to the slip-up, Shining opts instead to fall back on regularity.
  4771. > "I am fine. Corona. I'm safe, and I'm coming back. Soon. Okay? I'm coming back, and you aren't going anywhere."
  4772. > That tone is a classic Royal-Guard-officer one - authoritative, yet reassuring.
  4773. > Demanding, yet compassionate rather than cold.
  4774. > To some degree, you had found that most officers of the Royal Guard could muster it.
  4775. > Your Shining had always been better at it than many others.
  4776. > "C-Coming home?"
  4777. > "Yeah, Corona. I am. Because you're right - he can't have you. You did get away. He can't have me either, because I don't belong to him. We belong to-"
  4778. > "Master."
  4779. > Uttering the title with a surprising degree of reverence, she nuzzles the man again.
  4780. > He leans over to whisper something into her ear - repeating what Shining Armor had said, you presume - and finally Corona pulls her head far up enough to look.
  4781. > Her eyes roam over Shining:
  4782. > Taking in the expression of utter determination and certainty he wore both on his face and in his posture, the lack of any obvious signs of torture...
  4783. > "I'm here because I broke in, Corona. I went to see just like you said, and now I'm coming back."
  4784. > And just when she had begun to relax-
  4785. > Just then, her roaming eyes fall on you.
  4786. > Instantly they blossom with something far worse than terror:
  4787. > Not fear, for you had never taken part in her savage torment.
  4788. > Something far worse.
  4789. > Something you had hoped never to see in a pony, let alone one who had been a subject of yours:
  4790. > Hatred.
  4791. > Pure and unquestioning hatred.
  4792. > "You-"
  4793. > Corona boils up out of her Master's arms, advancing on the camera with teeth bared and ears pinned.
  4794. > "You sick whore. You filthy hoof-licking, Tirek-spawned, blood-crowned, demon-human-rutting TRAITOR!"
  4795. > Tail lashing whip-like and snorting angrily with each breath, she spears you with her words as fiercely as any blade.
  4796. > "Why can't you just roll over and die?! Do you even know what you did, or are you too - too busy being his good and faithful saddle-rat to think about that?!”
  4797. > On some level you thought you had been prepared for this.
  4798. > After hearing Anonymous admit what he had done.
  4799. > You were not ready.
  4800. > Falling back on your haunches, you let your head hang.
  4801. "Celestia forgive me, Corona, there's not a single day-"
  4802. > "Forgive you?! Celestia herself would banish you! To the furthest pit of Tartarus, without a thought!"
  4803. > You flinch - hard.
  4804. > The barb had struck deep in your heart, landing amid all the old fears.
  4805. > What would your adoptive aunt have thought of you?
  4806. > Raising your eyes, you look for some escape:
  4807. > They fall on Shining, but he is paralyzed with indecision as well:
  4808. > His own eyes flicking back and forth, nostrils flaring uncertainly as he tries to make a decision.
  4809. > Caught precariously between the mare he loves and the one he had seen scarred and crippled by a slaver's sadism.
  4810. > "Corona..."
  4811. > You quickly raise a wing to stop him before he is forced to take a side.
  4812. [Choice]
  4813. > No, Shining Armor shouldn't have to make that choice.
  4814. > Shouldn't be caught in the middle.
  4815. > But there was someone else here could step in, now that Corona seemed to have pushed past the worst of her terror.
  4816. > And perhaps finally take responsibility for what he had done, too.
  4817. > You look to Anonymous, but his he is already rising - a hand settling on your shoulder.
  4818. > "That's enough of that, Corona."
  4819. > Five words is all it takes.
  4820. > She recoils with a fearful whine, anger again receding in the face of pure and unadulterated fear of that voice.
  4821. > "Hey! Get out of there or cut it off, can't you see you're terrifying her?"
  4822. > Anonymous looks straight at the camera from his spot beside you.
  4823. > Ignoring the other man's protest, he continues speaking:
  4824. > "You've every right to be angry. To be furious. But you will not hold Cadance responsible for what I did."
  4825. > Even though Corona has buried her eyes in her master's chest again, one ear is still pointed at the computer screen to hear with.
  4826. > "N-No. She - she c-chose-"
  4827. > Unable to form a coherent sentence, she cannot keep herself from being interrupted again.
  4828. > "She chose because I forced her to. Do not forget that Cadance is mine - and I gave her the same choice I did you."
  4829. > "G-Give up a-another p-pony-"
  4830. > "-or face something worse. She made that choice... but do not act like it was her idea alone."
  4831. > A fresh sob tears its way from her throat.
  4832. > "Y-You complete - complete - aaaaugh!"
  4833. > She'd tried to look up, to look at him, but barely a fraction of a second had passed before fear had driven her eyes back down.
  4834. > Anonymous, meanwhile, is still talking - his hand still comfortingly on the back of your neck.
  4835. > "What I did was wrong; I will not deny that. It went well beyond punishment and into just venting anger. But Cadance did not - could not - know what was going to happen."
  4836. > More softly, he adds:
  4837. > "And given how she fought me so much on even that much, doing everything she could to spare as many ponies punishment as she could, I know that if she had forseen what would happen to you she would never have accepted it."
  4838. > "S-She didn't f-fight for me-"
  4839. "Forgive me, Corona. I couldn't fight anymore. I had to pick somepony-"
  4840. > "I had insisted one had to be punished for an escape that brazen."
  4841. "-and you... you were strong. You weren't sick, or had been mistreated by the slave-catchers already, or were just too weak from exhaustion or lack of water to fight. You were strong, so I thought you could bear it."
  4842. > "Well, you were wrong!"
  4843. > The tormented cry draws another round of shushing from Corona's master.
  4844. > "Everything hurt too much and I couldn't even think anymore and then he shocked me and shocked me and shocked me and there wasn't anything I could do - oh Master please, please don't send me back the-e-ere!"
  4845. > Her owner finally manages to quiet Corona erratic sobs, but the damage is already done.
  4846. > Your head falls despite the defense, and that in turn becomes a bow.
  4847. "Forgive me, Corona. I..."
  4848. > Voice hitching, you swallow.
  4849. "...I didn't know. I would have..."
  4850. > What?
  4851. > What could you have done?
  4852. > Again Anonymous speaks up:
  4853. > "Remember, Corona. That is what I did to you. Not what Cadance did. I didn't even give her the choice to substitute herself in your place."
  4854. > You are thankful for his defense, but it seems to do little.
  4855. > That voice, that face, simply has too great a pull on her terror.
  4856. > She can do little more than whimper.
  4857. > Overrun with fear.
  4858. > Helpless.
  4859. > Anonymous grunts, rubbing his forehead.
  4860. > "I'll... see myself out."
  4861. > He only takes one look at you before departing the study.
  4862. > Clearly he understood this was not the time for him.
  4863. > You had been wrong.
  4864. > Absent the terrifying force, Corona manages to stabilize herself enough to speak.
  4865. > "She - you - you should have saved us, Cadance! You should have done whatever you had to! Isn't that what you alicorns are for? For protecting us, not - not taking everything away?!"
  4866. > On some level, you know these are the words of a mare driven nearly mad by her experiences.
  4867. > That she is speaking from a heart filled with tumultuous emotions, not rationally.
  4868. > By the same merit, though...
  4869. > You cannot deny your own emotions.
  4870. "Forgive me, Corona. I wish I had. Somehow, someway - it shouldn't have happened to you."
  4871. > "No."
  4872. > The answer comes so quickly, so sharply, that you are actually surprised.
  4873. > "I have to live every day like this. The nightmares, the scares, the losing myself every time I hear a buzz because I can still remember that rutting prod burning my teats, my marks being - gone! Forever!"
  4874. > Shining's master, meanwhile, has finally coaxed Corona to her hooves and is trying to lead her from the room.
  4875. > Your eyes fall to her flank.
  4876. > A sick twist forms in your stomach at seeing the hairless, white line of a scar when her cutie mark ought to be.
  4877. > Pausing only to shoot a long look back - one part remaining deep-seated fear, two parts furious hatred - she snarls out:
  4878. > "Why should you get a settled mind when I can't? Forgive you - you can go to Tartarus, 'princess'! I believed in you!"
  4879. > Once she is gone her returns only briefly, reaching beneath the camera for the computer.
  4880. > "I'll call back later."
  4881. "That.. sounds like a good idea, yes."
  4882. > Corona's scars were still raw and unhealed; there was also a dangerous glint in Shining's eyes when he looked the door Anonymous had vanished through.
  4883. > As the screen goes black, though, he moves to your side and leans against you.
  4884. > It takes a moment longer than it ought to have for the normally level-headed stallion to truly calm, but eventually manages leans back - crossing his head over yours and nickering gently in comfort.
  4885. "I'm sorry, Shining. I didn't mean to put you in the middle of all that."
  4886. > "She would have found out when I got back."
  4887. > Even so, you spread a wing over his withers and nuzzle into the crook of his neck.
  4888. "You should go back to our quarters. Get some rest."
  4889. > "You need me here."
  4890. > A smile grows on your lips.
  4891. > Rich with sadness, but a smile nonetheless.
  4892. "That's my Shining. Always looking out for me."
  4893. > "Do you need to go to see to Anonymous?"
  4894. "I should."
  4895. > "If you don't mind, for that I will stay here."
  4896. "That's fine."
  4897. > Brushing noses with him one more time, you head for Anonymous' bedroom.
  4898. > He is in his normal spot there - the chair facing the large window overlooking the camp.
  4899. > Completely still, even when you close the door and come to the seat's side.
  4900. "Anonymous?"
  4901. > Nothing.
  4902. "Master?"
  4903. > Stirring, but little more.
  4904. > Dropping to your haunches beside the chair, you lift a hoof to rest on his leg.
  4905. "You're doing better, Anonymous. Everything Corona said was true... but you aren't that person anymore."
  4906. > "Regret doesn't change who someone is, Cadance."
  4907. "But actions do. Your actions have. All that's happened with Shining Armor - would that man have done that?"
  4908. > He snorts softly, but after a moment his hand comes to rest over your hoof.
  4909. > "You don't have to flatter me with meaningless platitudes; it's not your thing. What do you want from me?"
  4910. > Eyes rolling, you lash your tail against the chair with a snort.
  4911. "Fine. I don't want you moping around, not in the least because Shining's owner is going to call back soon and if you're not in shape to speak to him I don't know what will happen. Are you satisfied?"
  4912. > "Well, thank you for being honest at last-"
  4913. "Good. Now I can say that I am also genuinely worried about you."
  4914. > Finally he gives a genuine reaction, looking down at you.
  4915. > A wing extends up, touching his arm.
  4916. "That was... hard. And you do bear blame for what you did to her. But this place would not be so much better if you had given up back then either."
  4917. > After a moment he lift his hand to cup the side of your head, thumb rubbing at the spot just beneath your ear.
  4918. > "You know, I think I find myself mildly jealous of Shining Armor."
  4919. "Master?"
  4920. > "He is very, very lucky to have found someone like you."
  4921. "I..."
  4922. > Your cheeks flush and Anonymous grins.
  4923. > "Despite our rough moments, I don't think taking you into my confidence will be something I regret. Go back to Shining now, Cadance. I think he could use your company too."
  4924. > That, it seems, was enough.
  4925. > When the phone rings again Anonymous arrives stone-faced but sober and calm.
  4926. > Shining's owner appears on the screen again, a tired expression stamped on his face.
  4927. > "I've put her to bed again, so I think we should be clear for now."
  4928. "I'm glad to hear."
  4929. > Rather than answer you, he points toward Shining.
  4930. > "Shining, I want you home as soon as possible."
  4931. > Instantly your heart freezes.
  4932. > Shining, too, jerks up in horror with his ears laid perfectly flat.
  4933. > "But Master, you said-"
  4934. > "I know. I changed my mind. You're coming home, Shining. I'll put in the transport order tomorrow, so you'll probably be on the road either then or the day after. And these calls-"
  4935. > His attention switches to Anonymous.
  4936. > "-you're out of them, or they aren't happening. Understand?"
  4937. > Anonymous frowns deeply.
  4938. > "You're asking a lot. I wouldn't have any way to know what they're saying at all."
  4939. > You resist the urge to roll your eyes at that.
  4940. > As he had so recently demonstrated, Anonymous was not whatsoever above surreptitiously listening in.
  4941. > "That's the point. I don't want you looming over Cadance's shoulder while my Shining is talking to her. And while I can appreciate that you took responsibility for what you did, I'm not dealing with another shock to Corona like that."
  4942. "I..."
  4943. > A glance to Shining reveals that he looks just as you feel:
  4944. > Ears laid down, tail flat against his haunches.
  4945. > Eyes filled with shock.
  4946. "Pardon me, sir, but... will I ever get to see him again? I... he is my husband. My love. I cannot go on without ever seeing him again... please."
  4947. > The face on the screen regards you with a mixture of concern and sadness.
  4948. > "He really has beaten you down, hasn't he...? We'll talk about the possibility of visits another time. Right now, I just want my Shiny safe and home, with no more problems."
  4949. > Talk about it.
  4950. > You've had just about enough of waiting for 'talking about it'.
  4951. > But what can you do?
  4952. > "Master - I can't just... leave her behind either!"
  4953. > "That's enough, Shiny. You're coming home, and then we can see about all this."
  4954. > Before the argument can grow worse, Anonymous steps in and raises a hand to halt both of you.
  4955. > "That's fine. Contact me when you have the information for transporting him. Glad to be able to work with you."
  4956. > He shoots Anonymous a dark look, but nods in agreement.
  4957. > "I will."
  4958. > Hesitating a moment, he looks back to your husband:
  4959. > "Shiny... I'm not trying to be cruel. I just want you back home, everyone safe and sound again. Okay?"
  4960. > "Yes, Master."
  4961. > Sighing at the stallion's muttered acknowledgement, he lets the screen go blank - leaving the three of you alone in the room.
  4962. > Immediately you are at Shining's side.
  4963. > Leaning into his neck, nickering softly, letting him know you were there.
  4964. > You hold that a few moments before finally letting him go with a sigh.
  4965. "Shining... can you go back to our quarters? I'll be along soon."
  4966. > This time, he doesn't argue.
  4967. > You ponder if it was wise, sending him to make the trip back alone - but he was no Mocha Cream.
  4968. > Shining Armor could stand up for himself, especially with his magic back.
  4969. > When he is gone your strength gives out:
  4970. > Everything you had been holding back to avoid letting him see, boiling up and rushing over you.
  4971. > Now it is Anonymous' turn to be there for you; kneeling at your side, he lifts a hand to put on your neck.
  4972. > "Cadance?"
  4973. "Will it ever end?"
  4974. > He doesn't answer, so you go on.
  4975. "Will there ever be a time, when - when this can't happen? When he can't just be taken away by someone else just - saying so!"
  4976. > You're shaking.
  4977. > That's... different.
  4978. > It's been a while.
  4979. > "Cadance... you knew he was going to have to go back."
  4980. "I thought there would be more time! I thought I would have more than a few days before I might never see him again!"
  4981. > Opening your eyes, you look at Anonymous to let him see the anguish residing in them.
  4982. "Tell me, Anonymous - when does this change? When do we get to be a family again, not at someone else's leisure? How many years do we lose?"
  4983. > "He won't keep you apart. Haven't you been listening to them? He's angry now, but even with Shining running off, there's so much respect there-"
  4984. "Stop dodging the question and tell me: Will this ever end?!"
  4985. > Your owner - your Master - looks away.
  4986. > "I don't know."
  4987. > That is what you had been afraid of.
  4988. > No answer - not even a prediction of eventual freedom years or decades down the line.
  4989. > Just... limbo.
  4990. > Eternally wondering if you will ever get a chance to just live with your Shining Armor before either of you passes on.
  4991. [Choice]
  4992. "Master?"
  4993. > Pulling from under his touch, you rear back enough to look him head-on.
  4994. "If you could free me right now... would you?"
  4995. > "There'd have to be recognition of Special Circumstances, or-"
  4996. "Forget that. Forget the laws, the rules, the expectations. If it was just your decision, would you free me? Would you let me choose my own path, go to see my family?"
  4997. > "I..."
  4998. > The words catch in his throat, indecisiveness sticking them there.
  4999. > His hand trembles with uncertainty.
  5000. > Like a window into his mind, his eyes show the thoughts churning and processing within.
  5001. > You suppose there ought to have been some comfort in that:
  5002. > Mere months ago he would have answered that you were to serve him, without question.
  5003. > Now, seeing your pain and your love has softened him.
  5004. > But right now, it does not feel like comfort.
  5005. > It feels like an affirmation:
  5006. > Despite all of that softening, he could not accept the idea of seeing you out of his grip.
  5007. > In the end, you were still a slave to him first and foremost.
  5008. "...I see. Thank you, Master, for answering honestly."
  5009. > He recoils, having realized too late the blow his non-answer had struck.
  5010. > "Cadance, wait-"
  5011. "No. I understand, Master. What was it you once told me? I am too important to this place for you to lose."
  5012. > Your eyes fall to the floor.
  5013. "Nonetheless, I would ask that I be allowed to take tomorrow off from work. To be with my Shining Armor, before he must go."
  5014. > "Of course, Cadance."
  5015. > He knows it won't make up for what he has just told you.
  5016. > But it is all the apology he can give.
  5017. > Turning for the door, you mope (or stumble) back into the camp.
  5018. > For a moment, almost by instinct, you draw your head up into something approximating your standard walk.
  5019. > Regal.
  5020. > Leader-like.
  5021. > But only for a moment.
  5022. > What was it Shining Armor had said?
  5023. > 'You're allowed to be a mare?'
  5024. > Well, that's all you are now:
  5025. > Not a princess, just a mare.
  5026. > Grieving for the looming loss of the family she had only just rediscovered.
  5027. > You trudge through the camp on heavy hooves.
  5028. > At this late hour of the night there are few ponies about to see you; those who do watch with expressions of concern and worry.
  5029. > No doubt tomorrow your condition would be fodder for the camp's rumor mill.
  5030. > Let them worry.
  5031. > You were fed up with having to put masks on over your emotions.
  5032. > This time - this one time - you could let them see the grief-stricken pony beneath.
  5033. > Shining Armor is already waiting for you in the quarters when you get there; avoiding a gallop straight into his embrace is all you can do.
  5034. > Instead you climb up beside Shining and settle against him.
  5035. > He nuzzles into your neck, breath puffing on your mane and whickering softly, while you lay your head across his hooves.
  5036. > A gesture of simple comfort:
  5037. > 'I am here.'
  5038. > That knowledge is something you throw yourself into:
  5039. > Relishing in the simple awareness of his closeness, bathing in it as if the feeling was something that could be harvested before he vanished again.
  5040. > "Cady?"
  5041. > Soft lips touch a spot behind your ear, drawing a flick from it.
  5042. "I'm tired of it, Shining. Every time I think we're finally getting somewhere - finally taking steps towards setting everything right - something else is taken."
  5043. > Rolling over, you peer up at his concerned eyes.
  5044. "Don't I ever get... ‘us’ again? Is that too much to ask for, to even get to pretend for a little while?"
  5045. > Leaning down, his lips softly meet yours.
  5046. > Not with desire, but as a tender touch of love.
  5047. > "Yes. We will, Cady. One day, we will - all three of us."
  5048. > On any other day you would have found this reassuring.
  5049. > Not today.
  5050. > Shining can tell, too.
  5051. "I... asked Anonymous. If he would free me, if he could - to let me be with you."
  5052. > You don't need to say what the answer was.
  5053. > It's plenty clear already.
  5054. > Cradling your head in his hooves, Shining frowns.
  5055. > "That's why... I understand why you've made the choices you have about this place. I saw that well enough when he admitted what he'd done to Corona. But someone like him, he'll never be able to let go of seeing you as 'his'."
  5056. "I wish I could say you're wrong."
  5057. > "But Cadance: There are others. There are humans who don't see us like that. Gracie-"
  5058. > And here he winces.
  5059. > "-who I will have to explain myself to for leaving a friend behind. Megan. You are right about her - they will see how wrong this is."
  5060. "But will it be soon enough?"
  5061. > He doesn't have an answer.
  5062. > Neither do you.
  5063. > Eventually you find sleep in each others' hooves, but it is a fitful and turbulent sleep.
  5064. > A night loomed over by the specter of soon being torn from his side.
  5065. > By morning, you can tell Shining has had the same reaction.
  5066. > And you?
  5067. > You have had enough.
  5068. > If the end of this servitude is not in sight, then you refuse to let yourself be tossed about by it as a helpless victim.
  5069. "Shining, when does your Master go to work?"
  5070. > "Uh, not for another hour or so. Why?"
  5071. > Even with the timezone difference, there may still be time.
  5072. "By afternoon it might be too late; he might have put in the transport order for you. Come with me."
  5073. > Not until you slip through the front door of Anonymous' manor does he catch on to what you intend.
  5074. > Or maybe that is when he finally feels compelled to bring it up.
  5075. > "Cadance, what are you doing?! I think we'll run out of his good will very quickly if he catches us-"
  5076. "Anonymous will take a while to be dressed and have his breakfast. He won't be up in his study for a while."
  5077. > There's an edge to your voice.
  5078. > One that gives Shining pause; he hangs back at your flank.
  5079. > "What about Megan?"
  5080. "Not up for another half an hour."
  5081. > "The other house ponies?"
  5082. > Looking back, you brush your muzzle against his.
  5083. "They will not say anything. I know your nature is to guard, but please, Shining - trust me."
  5084. > "I'm just worried about you. He did threaten to beat you if you went behind his back!"
  5085. "I would take a hundred lashes if it meant you could stay longer. A few slaps to the rump will be nothing."
  5086. > "Don't say that, Cady. Please. I don’t want to see you lashed."
  5087. > But he doesn't argue further either.
  5088. > As you'd expected, the office was empty.
  5089. > The computer, however, was locked.
  5090. > "Use the phone. I know his number."
  5091. > Ring, ring, rin-
  5092. > "Hello?"
  5093. > Shining draws a breath.
  5094. > "...h-hey, Master."
  5095. > "Shiny? Why're you - do you know what time it is?"
  5096. > "I -"
  5097. > He struggles with the question, and chokes.
  5098. > "Is Corona okay?"
  5099. > "...kinda. She didn't sleep well last night, but I think she's doing better now that you're coming home again."
  5100. > You can't help but give a despondent huff.
  5101. > "Shiny? Who was that? Who's there with you?"
  5102. "Myself, sir. Cadance. No one else?"
  5103. > "He let you two call me?"
  5104. "We, ah..."
  5105. > Hesitation drags the moment on, and Shining's owner leaps into the silence:
  5106. > "Seriously, Shining? You're going around behind his back now too?"
  5107. > "I had to, Master, I - I can't come home yet."
  5108. "I cannot let him go either."
  5109. > This time it is his turn to stall in silence.
  5110. "Please, I am begging you. If not for my sake, then for his. This is destroying him; neither of us could sleep at all last night!"
  5111. > "That true, Shiny?"
  5112. > "Yeah. I can't just let myself be taken away from her right after I found her. Please master, I'm-"
  5113. > His voice shakes.
  5114. > "-I'm begging you too, don't take me away from her just yet!"
  5115. > "And I begged you, don't break my trust again. But here we are."
  5116. > Ouch.
  5117. > You can see Shining flinch from that.
  5118. > Leaning over against him, you briefly nuzzle his mane.
  5119. > "Master... I'm sorry. I - I had to see my family. And now, I can't imagine going back without..."
  5120. > A gentle sniffle is a tell-tale for the tears beginning to dampen his cheeks.
  5121. > "I've barely even spoken to my daughter, Master!"
  5122. "Just the few days, like you originally said you were going to let him stay. Just a few days more!"
  5123. > "I said I was thinking about it, Cadance. Not said I would."
  5124. > Oh.
  5125. > "What do I have to do, Master? What is it you want me to say just to get a few more days with my family?!"
  5126. > His plaintive pleading is becoming indistinguishable from actual cries.
  5127. > It doesn't sound faked either.
  5128. > Had he genuinely thought his owner would be more accommodating than this?
  5129. > "I..."
  5130. > "Is this what you really want to do to me? Pull my family apart, like Gracie's was? Leave my little Flurry having barely seen her father."
  5131. > A hiss of rushing static on the line - or a tired sigh.
  5132. > "That was a very low blow, Shiny..."
  5133. > "It's how it feels, Master."
  5134. > “And speaking of Gracie, what do I tell her anyway? Sorry, we found Shining Armor, he doesn’t want to come home?”
  5135. > Shining flinches back, and you snarl angrily.
  5136. “Excuse me! But for someone who was just speaking of low blows, that is a very low one. Surely simply knowing he will be coming back should lighten her spirits?”
  5137. > “...yeah. Okay, yeah. That was. I’m sorry, Shiny. Shouldn’t have - tossed that at you.”
  5138. > “No. I’m sorry, Master. I started aiming low.”
  5139. > You smile a touch at their reconciliation.
  5140. > That relationship was hard to break, and quick to mend.
  5141. "If I can say - Shining came here looking to make sure his daughter was safe. Even if he does think she is safe now-"
  5142. > "And I... guess I do."
  5143. "-can you really force him to come back before he's really had a chance to spend time with her?"
  5144. > Still no answer comes, but that still feels like an improvement over a blind 'no'.
  5145. "I... I understand you are upset about what happened. But I am asking you - do not take that anger out on Shining Armor!"
  5146. > The longer a lack of any response comes, the more it seems less reassuring and more worrying.
  5147. > Where the two of you having any effect at all?
  5148. > "Shiny... I have to go to work."
  5149. > "Master!"
  5150. "Sir!"
  5151. > "Okay, okay! I - I won't send the transport order in today. I'll - have to talk to your Master, Cadance-"
  5152. > You wince; that was going to be a fun discussion.
  5153. > "-but... you get your few days. And then we can talk about more visits... somehow. If you don't give me any more problems."
  5154. > "Yes, Master!"
  5155. > Elation lifts Shining's voice; he whinnies happily and does a little trot-in-place dance.
  5156. > "Thank you! Thank you so much, Master!"
  5157. > "...yeah, yeah. Love you, you big goofball. Even if you are a pain in my ass sometimes."
  5158. > You can't help but giggle at that description.
  5159. "Needless to say, thank you as well from the bottom of my heart."
  5160. > "Yeah. Look, I'll talk later - maybe call back once I'm at work, set this up for certain."
  5161. > The line clicks dead, and you sag against Shining Armor in utter relief.
  5162. "Thank you too, love. I know that cannot have been easy for you."
  5163. > In response Shining nuzzles you back, whickering as his teeth nibble at the back of your neck.
  5164.  
  5165. "So, I take it the call went well?"
  5166. > Both ponies jump, Cadance giving a half-squelched whinny as they rapidly untangle from their embrace.
  5167. > Leaning against the study doorframe, you allow yourself a smirk.
  5168. > "M-Master, you heard-"
  5169. "The funny thing about a phone, Cadance, is that the display tells you when the line is in use. And when I noticed that particular number had been dialed out to..."
  5170. > They have the decency to look ashamed, at least.
  5171. > Shining is also shooting little worried looks at his wife.
  5172. > You've a fair guess why.
  5173. "You know, Cadance, I seem to distinctly remember telling you there'd be some very specific consequences for going behind my back."
  5174. > To your surprise, she does not seem particularly upset about this.
  5175. > If anything, her previously-ashamed expression hardens.
  5176. > "Yes, Master. You did."
  5177. "Was making the call worth it, at least?"
  5178. > Ducking his head, Shining looks back to Cadance and swishes his tail nervously.
  5179. > Though not a direct answer to your question, obvious excitement boils just beneath his skin.
  5180. > Keeping himself from leaping and bucking in joy is all the stallion can do.
  5181. > "If you allow it, I am permitted to stay for a few days more."
  5182. > You turn the question over in your head.
  5183. > It had been something you had considered before - at that point, there seemed to be no downside.
  5184. > And, if you were honest with yourself, you held some sympathy for the plight of a broken family.
  5185. > After this...
  5186. > Well, you couldn't punish Flurry for what he had done and-
  5187. > Oh, who are you kidding.
  5188. > You're a sucker for this.
  5189. "Accepted... if you don't cause me any more problems. If you do, you're on the first ride home I can get you. Understood?"
  5190. Now he does buck and leap for joy - whinnying happily with each bound.
  5191. > Keeping a bit of laughter out of your voice is hard too!
  5192. "Easy there! You'll go right through a wall like that."
  5193. > Calming down just a touch, Shining Armor tosses his head and snorts.
  5194. > "Can't help if I'm happy about this!"
  5195. "No, I suppose you can't. Still, be careful."
  5196. > "Master?"
  5197. > By far the more nervous of the pair, Cadance shuffles uncertainly with her head still hung.
  5198. > "Am I to be punished for this? I... did go back around behind your back, and you did say.."
  5199. > That you did.
  5200. > A warning - a promise of retribution, swift and stern, should she do this.
  5201. > Yet...
  5202. > There was no malice or rebellion in this - at least not in your eyes.
  5203. > Could you deliver a punishment for merely seeking to gain time with her loved ones?
  5204. > What would you have done to avoid Megan being taken from you?
  5205. "I..."
  5206. > Pushing off from the wall, you approach Cadance until you can drop to a knee and hold a hand out to her.
  5207. "Just - tell me why this couldn't have happened with my knowledge?"
  5208. > "It was... after what you told me, about not knowing exactly when it would ever end."
  5209. > She swallows, though from the emotions that raises in her mind or from the sense that this would not appeal to your mercies you aren't sure.
  5210. > "For once, I wanted - we wanted - to have something of our own. Not given to us, but something we sought out ourselves. So we would not take this lying down."
  5211. > That doesn't entirely make sense.
  5212. > They'd still have had to ask Shining's owner for him to stay, and then had asked you...
  5213. > But who said emotion - strong emotion - was logical?
  5214. > What this did say, is that stubborn rebellious streak was not quite suppressed in her.
  5215. > Likely never would be, especially if there weren’t repercussions for it.
  5216. > Or would punishing her now only reinforce that?
  5217. [Choice]
  5218. > In the end, you could understand what she had done.
  5219. > But this had struck at something deeper than merely rebelling against authority.
  5220. > She'd betrayed your trust.
  5221. > She had decided that this was not something she wanted you part of, no matter the importance.
  5222. > That was...
  5223. > Not acceptable.
  5224. > What had gotten into her head, thinking it "had" to be this way?
  5225. > Certainly nothing you said; merely because she ambushed you with a rough question - a question you couldn't answer so easily - didn't mean you would hold her back from the chance to ask for what she had needed!
  5226. > There was absolutely no good reason for this to have been brought to this point.
  5227. > Had she merely chosen to reject the cards that fate had dealt her and ask for a call, you'd have granted it without a second thought.
  5228. > And the end result would still have been the same.
  5229. > ...at the same time, though...
  5230. > Your eyes fall to Shining, who watches you with a critical eye.
  5231. > And you know:
  5232. > This punishment will not be delivered right now.
  5233. > Not just because he would judge you for a laying a hand on his wife, but also because it would be a dark cloud over whatever time they did have left together.
  5234. > Was it dishonest to hide this from him?
  5235. > Perhaps.
  5236. > But still you would not inflict this on them nonetheless.
  5237. "Cadance? Go enjoy your time together. We can talk about this later... and about what I said before. For now, there's someone who needs you very much-"
  5238. > You nod to Shining Armor.
  5239. "-and you shouldn't waste the time you've just won. He's here for you, as is your daughter."
  5240. > "He's allowed to stay, then?"
  5241. > The hope in her voice is reflected by the hopeful lean-forward in her body.
  5242. "Yes. This... disagreement? This matter? It's not anywhere near enough to make me do something as harsh as take the two of you apart. He can stay, and you still have the day off today. I'll coordinate with Mayor Mare."
  5243. > You are not a monster, after all!
  5244. > Something about the way Cadance holds herself softens, a subtle relaxation of her muscles.
  5245. > "Thank you, Master."
  5246. > She clearly still knows some punishment is coming.
  5247. > So does Shining.
  5248. > But both of them understand that you are giving them something - something neither of them asked for, even.
  5249. > And that's enough.
  5250. > Ruffling her mane a bit, you give Cadance a grin and point towards Shining Armor.
  5251. "Go. Enjoy. And just so it doesn't trouble you - as long as there isn't any more trouble, I won't deny you the chance to see each other in the future as well. Assuming something can be worked out."
  5252. > Now Shining brightens as well, tail swishing happily once more as he gives a little happy snort.
  5253. "Now, c'mon-"
  5254. > Standing aside the door, you motion both of them out.
  5255. "-go out. Enjoy yourself. For that matter, I'll free Flurry from her minor duties once her lessons are done today; that should give both of you plenty of time with her."
  5256. > They do.
  5257. > Cadance pauses behind him, looking up at you with a wondering eye.
  5258. > You pat her on the withers and shake your head.
  5259. "Later."
  5260. > Whether you mean your talk or a punishment, she doesn't ask.
  5261. > Just nods and goes.
  5262. > ...well.
  5263. > You'll just have to wait for the call from Shining Armor's owner.
  5264. > In the meantime...
  5265. > Padding from the library door, you turn for your bedroom.
  5266. > There you find the mare you'd been expecting, dawdling at the side of your bed.
  5267. > Mocha Cream spent so many hours in the camp these days that it felt rare to actually have long periods alone with her.
  5268. > That, you suppose, could be seen as a good thing.
  5269. > The filly needed a goal beyond - well, yourself.
  5270. > Still, you somehow missed her thoughtful and attentive presence.
  5271. "Hello, Mocha."
  5272. > Squeaking softly - a noise sort of like a muted, choked whinny - is drawn forth as she spins around into a nervous, deep bow.
  5273. > "H-Hello, Master."
  5274. "Listening to all of that, I suppose?"
  5275. > Her eyes fall, a blush creeping across her cream-coated muzzle.
  5276. > "Forgive m-me, Master. I c-couldn't help but hear-"
  5277. "Pssh. Don't worry about it."
  5278. > Wandering over, you give her an affectionate little rub between the ears.
  5279. > A risk, with how attached she had been, but no more or less than what you had often done for your other ponies.
  5280. "Though, as long as you are here..."
  5281. > You seat yourself on the side of your bed.
  5282. > Mocha moves to stand attentively before you.
  5283. > She looked...
  5284. > You wanted to say 'better'.
  5285. > Her maid's uniform was crisper, mane neatly done, and she seemed calm enough.
  5286. > Perhaps the bite of your rejection had begun to fade a bit?
  5287. > But there was still a hopeful, expectant, needful look in her eyes at the promise of your attention.
  5288. "So, Mocha. You've been out and about with Cadance and some of the others a lot more now. Tell me, what's the word in the camp?"
  5289. > "Ponies are... not sure what to think about Shining Armor being here."
  5290. > Her head cocks, one ear flicking thoughtfully as she ponders the answer.
  5291. > "Some are glad for them. A few are angry that he was... b-broken, Master. Some others are worried that C-Cadance is being h-hurt by this..."
  5292. "Hurt?"
  5293. > "Yes, M-Master. She was - she was seen last night, looking very - upset."
  5294. > You have a fair guess as to why.
  5295. > Well, her delight at what she had fought for - and won - today ought to counteract that.
  5296. > "M-Master... if it's not too forward of me, what did you tell her?"
  5297. "Tell her?"
  5298. > "She said something. In the other room, just earlier. Something you said made her break your trust. What is it? Was it something about the dress?"
  5299. > You nearly splutter in shock.
  5300. “The dress?”
  5301. > “Y-Yes, Master. I h-heard one of the other p-ponies say that Cadance had taken ‘the dress’. I remember she h-hated wearing it f-for that one p-party-”
  5302. > An image that springs into your head - of Mocha bearing that particular dress instead, the bridle fitted snugly over her mane and saddle around her slender barrel, gauzy ‘reins’ laying over her back -
  5303. > Nope.
  5304. > Not thinking about that.
  5305. > You crush that image ruthlessly, putting it entirely out of your mind.
  5306. > Somehow, answering Mocha’s actual question seems almost easy to face in comparison.
  5307. "N-No! Nothing about that at all. She asked if I could free her - all laws and rules aside - would I, this very moment? And you know... that's not an easy question for me to answer. Everypony here is very important to me and to Megan's future."
  5308. > Mocha's eyes fall again, her forehooves shuffling and tail swishing along the carpeted floor.
  5309. > "She still w-wants to go, after everything you've given her."
  5310. > Huh.
  5311. > You hadn't noticed it until now, but was Mocha stumbling on words less than she used to?
  5312. "Yes, she does. Mostly right now, I think, because Shining Armor will have to go soon. That was the other part of last night - she thought he would be leaving today."
  5313. > Gaze being locked even more forcefully onto the floor, Mocha mutters something.
  5314. "Hmm? What was that?"
  5315. > Cheeks showing crimson, she whimpers out:
  5316. > "I-I'd be okay b-because I know y-you're never g-going away."
  5317. > Almost immediately she adds on, with eyes squeezed shut and in a plaintive voice:
  5318. > "F-forgive me, M-Master. I know you s-said y-you cannot be with me, b-but my heart says I... I envy the love they have."
  5319. "I know, Mocha Cream. I know."
  5320. > Running a hand through a twisted, spiralling lock of her mane, you sigh.
  5321. "I suppose I do too. But you know, that's not the kind of love you can find with me. I've told you this before. You need to go find some pony who can love you as they love each other."
  5322. > "Y-Yes, Master."
  5323. > God damn this little mare and her miserable voice.
  5324. > You're completely defenseless to it.
  5325. > Leaning over, you clasp the mare in your arms and lift her forelegs up over your shoulders with a grunt.
  5326. "Seeing you happy is the thing I want the most. And strange as it may seem, hard as it may seem, this is the better way."
  5327. > "Yes, M-Master."
  5328. > Is that the only answer she can give?
  5329. > A simple acknowledgement of your word?
  5330. > Part of you almost wishes she would dare to reject your position - dare to utter 'No, Master.'
  5331. > Then again, that would probably come as part of her refusing to give up this blind hope.
  5332. > Your arms wrap around her midsection hug her hard.
  5333. > At this point you can truly feel how thin she is.
  5334. > Mocha had always been a slender filly as far as you remember, but was she eating well?
  5335. "Hey. It's going to be okay in the end, alright? There'll be a colt in your life soon enough, trust me."
  5336. > Resting her head against yours, she nickers gently.
  5337. > It is, you suppose, the best answer you will get.
  5338. "Have you spoken to Cadance about all of this?"
  5339. > "Not y-yet, M-Master. I couldn't; it f-felt too embarrassing."
  5340. "Perhaps you should. I understand she's something of a specialist in these things."
  5341. > "Yes, Master."
  5342. "Oh, Mocha. I wish you could be happy - I wish that deeply. That's why I'm trying to do this - give you a real future."
  5343. > "I know, Master."
  5344. > She pulls back, smiling but with a dampness around her eyes.
  5345. > "But that doesn't mean it doesn't still hurt."
  5346. > ...
  5347. > That night found you wandering amid the camp.
  5348. > It had been a cooler day, as summers went, with a breeze sweeping down the camp's streets that almost turned chilly as the night went on.
  5349. > Randall had opted to join you, Posey trotting along in her guide-harness before him.
  5350. > "Any particular reason you've chosen to go out on this particular night?"
  5351. "Aside from it being the first one in a while that hasn't left me wanting to seek out an ice bath?"
  5352. > You chuckle.
  5353. "I am trying to keep more direct tabs on the situation of things down here."
  5354. > "Regarding Shining Armor, you mean."
  5355. "Yes. Mocha gave me a glimpse, but I need a full view of how ponies are reacting to him."
  5356. > Turning to look at you with unnerving accuracy, considering his sightless eyes, Randall raises an eyebrow.
  5357. > "Concerned he might introduce some instability into your operations here?"
  5358. "If I were that concerned, I wouldn't have let him stay. I'm mostly curious if it's our regular adversaries - Bon Bon, Crescent Moon, and the like - or others."
  5359. > You try to meet his gaze before remembering the meaninglessness of that gesture.
  5360. "Why, are my investors getting spooked?"
  5361. > "Not in particular, although I have deflected a few questions."
  5362. > Rubbing his chin, Randall makes a wavering gesture with his free hand.
  5363. > "If anything, I think they're confident in your success. It's their other investments they're worried about, though, so they want more from you."
  5364. "Other investments?"
  5365. > Randall pauses, Posey twisting around to look up at him questioningly.
  5366. > "I don't know how much of this you follow, Anonymous, but a lot of the other big pony work camps are starting to look shaky."
  5367. "I'm not surprised. Those places chew through ponies like fuel. It's foolish... and monstrous."
  5368. > "Yes. There's the rare-earth and uranium works, the Chittagong shipbreakers, a few other places - they're still growing, but that's about it. There simply aren't enough ponies for that to be profitable for long. Not to mention the political pressure."
  5369. > You allow a wry grin.
  5370. "I have not forgotten about that, yes."
  5371. > "But when they're gone, then what? The quick profits are done with. So they're looking to your model: Cut overhead by letting the ponies watch themselves."
  5372. "Delightful. More pressure."
  5373. > Chuckling, Randall shakes his head.
  5374. > "Sorry to lay that on you while you're trying for a nice, relaxing walk."
  5375. "It's fine."
  5376. > You resume walking, and Randall soon follows behind.
  5377. > Destination:
  5378. > The dining hall nearest the center of camp, where Cadance often went for dinner.
  5379. > Just as you had expected - not only is she here, but her husband is as well.
  5380. > Almost as if by the instinct of a herd to recognize the dominant individual in it, a small court of attentive ponies had formed around them.
  5381. > Whatever discussion was passing between them was far too distant for you to hear, but you could still read their expressive faces at a distance.
  5382. > Most were focusing on him with a mix of sadness and horror; you rather suspected he was telling the story of his experiences.
  5383. > Barely have you set foot into the hall when you are met by an eager stallion offering you a ready-made plate of food.
  5384. > He is dismissed with a wave, but the damage is already done:
  5385. > Your arrival has been noticed, before you could find a quiet spot in a corner to observe from.
  5386. > Instead you dive straight in.
  5387. > As you grow near the impromptu circle, you discover how you'd missed the third member of their little family.
  5388. > Flurry Heart sat nestled in between her father's forelegs.
  5389. > Her head was tilted over and back so that she almost rested it against his chest while she looked up and listened to him.
  5390. > "...my real advice. I've seen them at their worst-"
  5391. > Shining Armor tosses his head, gesturing to his back with its almost map-like crosswork of lash scars.
  5392. > "-but also at their best. I've seen a little girl who couldn't even think of hurting a pony. And, I guess, now I've seen that they can change too. So, mark my words, this will all change one day."
  5393. > "Does that mean we'll be free soon?"
  5394. > "I..."
  5395. > Hesitating, Shining pauses.
  5396. > "I can't honestly say that. Some day… some day we will. Because there are humans who care; we need to remember who they are and work with them. Despite everything they’ve done to me... They aren’t all evil.”
  5397. > Was he implying you were one of those people?
  5398. > Or that they needed to ‘work with’ those protesters and others like them?
  5399. > One of the ponies in the group steps forward.
  5400. > You’ve seen the type before:
  5401. > A young stallion, barely out of colthood, eyes still bright and glimmering with a youthful hope.
  5402. > Almost reminded you of Rumble, if Rumble were less angry.
  5403. > “But what about you? You… you escaped your master. You’ll keep fighting for us, won’t you?”
  5404. > Shining freezes, choking on his words.
  5405. > “I…”
  5406. > “Y-You’ll be back for all of us one day, right?”
  5407. > There’s an edge of desperation in the colt’s voice.
  5408. > You’ve heard it before.
  5409. > A need for someone to look up to, for some hope to grasp on to.
  5410. [Choice]
  5411. > No, you'll not interfere in this.
  5412. > Shining Armor's response should be a telling insight into how the stallion saw things.
  5413. > If he answers at all.
  5414. > Right now he seems to be choking on any coherent reply, utterly failing to start speaking at all.
  5415. > With each moment that passes the tension in the air thickens.
  5416. > Shining's head, once held high and proud, sinks ever lower and the young stallion who'd approached him looks ever more despondent.
  5417. > "I - you -"
  5418. > Swallowing hard, Shining sighs.
  5419. > "Going back. I am going to be going back soon - you understand that, right?"
  5420. > "Going back?"
  5421. > The poor stallion barely seems to believe it.
  5422. > "Yes. Going back to my own master. I ran away, but I didn't escape him entirely. After this... I'm lucky he's willing to take me back."
  5423. > "But... I thought..."
  5424. > Grimacing as though he were in mortal pain, Shining tries to reach out with one hoof:
  5425. > "Please understand - I wish I could take you. I wish... but my Master can't take all of you."
  5426. > "What does he matter?! Then - if you can't take us now you'll come back, right? Another time! You did it once, you can do it again-"
  5427. > "I don't know. I really don't. Maybe. But... I'm not your hero."
  5428. > The coltish stallion begins to pull away, but Shining rises - stirring Flurry Heart who abruptly finds her pillow gone.
  5429. > "Don't you dare give up, okay? Don't you dare. I'm not your hero, but that's not how this works. You stand up for each other, understood? You keep each other strong, so that when it does happen you are strong and ready to go."
  5430. > Edging a little close to discussing rebellion there, but Shining cuts himself off before going any further.
  5431. > "I'm just... a foolish stallion who ran off with delusions that I could be a hero again. Run away with my daughter, and raise her to save everypony."
  5432. > "How can you tell me not to give up when you are-"
  5433. > "Nopony is giving up. Freedom will come. Keep on believing that - I do."
  5434. > The stallion doesn't look convinced, but raises a hoof to tap against Shining's in a gesture of tentative acknowledgement.
  5435.  
  5436. > When you sit down next to Shining Armor, the look he shoots you is a bit more skeptical than you'd expected.
  5437. > It softens in a moment, though, so you suspect it was a bit more than he'd meant it to be.
  5438. "Bad time?"
  5439. > "No, just... sorry. Some impressions are hard to shake, and they still creep up a bit even when I don't mean them to."
  5440. "Ah."
  5441. > You don't have to ask which one.
  5442. > The raw anger he had skewered you with when you'd been up on that stage, whip clutched in your jaws and a pony slumped against the post before you...
  5443. > Shining can see that you know, too.
  5444. > He sighs, shaking his head.
  5445. > "You've proven yourself, Thunderlane. Don't worry. I see that... especially how you discreetly handled Lattice's problem."
  5446. > That had turned out well.
  5447. > The stallion still wasn't showing off his heirloom necklace to anypony else, but from what you heard the crystal-growing project was making actual headway now.
  5448. "Well, don't thank me yet. There's still something else I want to ask you to do."
  5449. > "Another favor for a pony?"
  5450. "Only for me."
  5451. > "Name it."
  5452. "Just follow me down a dark alley at night to meet with some ponies who just want to get to know you."
  5453. > This time a much, much flatter look is shot at you.
  5454. > Unlike then, this one you meet easily with a grin.
  5455. > "Don't push it, colt. I was being inducted into the Royal Guard when you had just found your cutie mark."
  5456. "Yeah, yeah. Hey, look at it this way - I'm putting a fair bit of trust in you as well."
  5457. > A gesture with your wing indicates his horn.
  5458. > Or, the lack of a restrictor fixed on it.
  5459. "You tossed me around pretty good once. I bet you could do it again."
  5460. > "Hmm. Sorry about-"
  5461. "Don't be. It's all behind us now."
  5462. > Shining Armor nods, actually sounding more convinced than you feel yourself.
  5463. > "Right. Well, as long as it doesn't take too long. I want to spend most of my time..."
  5464. > He leans over to brush his nose through the mane of the slumbering alicorn filly resting between his hooves.
  5465. "Sure. Not that long at all."
  5466. > "Who, though? Not your marefriend?"
  5467. "Vapor? No... though it might have been good for her to be there. She's a bit busy tending to Sunbreak, though."
  5468. > "Ah, yeah. Young foals. I remember. At least Vapor's doesn't nearly demolish palaces with her sneezes."
  5469. "Thank Celestia, no."
  5470. > "I guess I'll meet them when they get there."
  5471. > Later, once Shining had been able to deposit a still-sleepy Flurry Heart onto Cadance’s back, he wandered out into the night with you.
  5472. > Something was eating at him.
  5473. > Instead of his ears forward or turning about if he were calm or searching for threats, Shining keep them locked back and his tail swishing.
  5474. > It might be your imagination, but his hoof-falls feel heavier too.
  5475. "What's on your mind?"
  5476. > "It's what that one stallion asked me before. I don't think I gave him the answer he wanted."
  5477. "You did the best you could. He kind of ambushed you with that."
  5478. > "Certainly felt like it. How do I answer that?"
  5479. > The two of you walk in quiet for a moment more.
  5480. "In any case, I don't even think it's the right question to ask."
  5481. > "What do you mean?"
  5482. "When we'll be free isn't the question. It's... 'what then'?"
  5483. > Catching Shining Armor's questioning expression, you add:
  5484. "There was a stallion here, when the new part of the camp was being built. Transom, his name was."
  5485. > "What happened to him?"
  5486. "He left. He was a free pony - a hired worker."
  5487. > Shining actually stops in place, eyes wide with shock.
  5488. > "And he decided to work here, of all places?"
  5489. "Yep. Because he needed the money to survive. And... I think that's the question I have."
  5490. > Pausing yourself, you look back.
  5491. "So we're free - then what? The way Transom put it, a lot of the world out there isn't ready for free ponies. Do we stay here? Go home? Is there a home left in Equestria?"
  5492. > "We can. We did, once - when the tribes united. We built Equestria from nothing, and we can do it again."
  5493. > You shoot him a real, honest smile.
  5494. "It's good to hear that confidence. Even if I'm not sure, I'm glad you are. Tells me I made the right decision asking you to do this."
  5495. > "Yeah. I'm still wondering about that..."
  5496. "Just about there."
  5497. > The place you meet him was the same lobby of the living quarters you'd followed Flurry Heart and Megan to that one time.
  5498. > A choice made as much for the others involved as for anyone else.
  5499. > Shining looks around with some degree of familiarity.
  5500. > You think he might be getting an idea of who is to be met here as you call out:
  5501. "It's just us two. Nopony else. No one else either."
  5502. > They appear in ones or twos.
  5503. > Drifting out of corners and shadows, in through darkened doorways.
  5504. > Bon Bon and Sunburst.
  5505. > Nurse Mellowheart and Derpy, her remaining daughter clutched close to her side.
  5506. > Cheerilee and Crescent Moon.
  5507. > Rumble.
  5508. > Vapor Trail.
  5509. > "...who are they all?"
  5510. "The resisters."
  5511. > Shining gives you a look of confusion and surprise.
  5512. "They're the ponies who can't just live day to day. Who feel the need to look forward to something - to have hope of a free tomorrow to go towards."
  5513. > "And you want me to what - talk to them?"
  5514. "Yes. Give them that hope."
  5515. > Confusion begins to morph into annoyance.
  5516. > "You're putting me a bit on the spot, Thunderlane."
  5517. "I know. And I'm sorry - but when I asked them for this, we didn't even know if you'd still be here tomorrow."
  5518. > "What am I supposed to say? If I encourage them-"
  5519. > You extend out a wing to tap his side.
  5520. "Look. I brought you here because - honestly - I'm worried about them. Even though I'm security, I don't see threats. I see mothers worried for their fillies-"
  5521. > Your wing turns to point to Derpy and then Vapor.
  5522. "-who feel a need driven by their very being to make sure knowledge of who we are doesn't fade-"
  5523. > To Cheerilee.
  5524. "-and who can't forget the injustices done, or who we've lost to them."
  5525. > To Nurse Mellowheart.
  5526. "And I worry about all of them, because I don't want any to suffer the way you have. Some of them have suffered enough already. If they do something to push rebellion again..."
  5527. > You swallow.
  5528. "I want to protect them. So please - whatever it is that you've found that settled your mind, pass it on to them. Help them understand you can be obedient without submitting to them entirely. If you want me to stay back here in case you have to say anything seditious, that's fine."
  5529. > After a moment Shining proceeds forward with hesitant, temporary hoofsteps.
  5530. > Amid the cool summer night, each one seems a thunderous impact.
  5531. > Perhaps thirty paces ahead, though, he looks back at you with a cocked eyebrow.
  5532. > "Well? I didn't say not to come."
  5533. > You grin, marching forward alongside him.
  5534. > Most of the faces here you recognize.
  5535. > Some you do not, and they shrink back when they realize who you are.
  5536. > More, however, are merely interested in greeting Shining.
  5537. > He walks among them - his carriage strong and proud, the kind of posture you had always seen the guard take up in public.
  5538. > Even if you were invited, you still restrict yourself to hanging around the edges.
  5539. > 'Invited' and 'welcome' are two very different things.
  5540. > So it's something of a surprise when Bon Bon and Crescent Moon both sit down beside you.
  5541. "Something up?"
  5542. > "Just..."
  5543. > Bon Bon's often-sour expression has reached new levels of acidity in the dim light filtering in from outside.
  5544. > "...wanted to say 'thank you', okay? For - setting this up. You didn't have to."
  5545. "You trusted me enough to come."
  5546. > "It occurred to me that despite being his attack-dog, you've never trapped us into doing anything just to get us punished."
  5547. > That, you think, is the highest praise you're likely to hear from Bon Bon in a long, long time.
  5548. > An admission, however tacit, that you never turned on them.
  5549. "I'm glad. Frankly, Bon Bon, I think you needed to speak with him the most."
  5550. > "What? Why?"
  5551. "He was drawn here out of love for his family. Your love is already here. You've got everything to lose if you did do something."
  5552. > Bon Bon snorts.
  5553. > "All that means is I get reminded every day of what this does to Lyra."
  5554. > Her tone, however, implies a point grudgingly accepted.
  5555. > Crescent Moon reaches out and taps your side.
  5556. > "Well, I'll just say thanks."
  5557. "You're welcome."
  5558. > Eventually the meeting breaks up, the hour becoming late.
  5559. > Shining trots back to your side.
  5560. > "Time to head back?"
  5561. "Yeah. I need some sleep."
  5562. > Just when you are turning to go, however, an anxious voice calls out from behind you:
  5563. > "Wait!"
  5564. > Looking back, you find a trembling Mellowheart - one hoof clutched to her chest.
  5565. > "I - I'm sorry; I heard - I heard that Corona is with you now, Shining Armor."
  5566. > Turning fully back around, Shining Armor nods.
  5567. > "Were you the one who treated her?"
  5568. > "Yes."
  5569. > The single word is uttered breathily, accompanied by her ears pinning back and nostrils flaring.
  5570. > "Is she-"
  5571. > "Corona is not unscathed. But... whatever you did, I know you must have done the best you could. Her remaining scars... they are in her head, and it will take years for those to fade no matter how hard you tried."
  5572. > "There weren't any major wounds to even treat."
  5573. > A shuddering in her voice mirrors the shaking in her body and prickling of her coat.
  5574. > "Sprains, a minor burn... it had all been done so coldly, to make sure she wasn't-"
  5575. > Whinnying, Shining reaches out to nuzzle her neck.
  5576. > Your wing settles across her withers a second later.
  5577. > "...forgive me. I'm sure you didn't come here wanting to listen to that."
  5578. > Rubbing her nose, Mellowheart looks up at Shining and smiles sadly.
  5579. > "...forgive me. I'm sure you didn't come here wanting to listen to that."
  5580. > Rubbing her nose, Mellowheart looks up at Shining and smiles sadly.
  5581. > "I just wanted to say, thank you for doing what we couldn't. For healing her."
  5582. > "Wasn't me alone... but I'll pass that one along to him as well."
  5583. > Later, as you walk among the quiet streets, Shining Armor seems pensive.
  5584. "Still thinking about what the Nurse said back there?"
  5585. > "A bit. Can I ask something about you, though? Call it a return favor for what you asked me to do."
  5586. > You chuckle.
  5587. "Hit me."
  5588. > "You said those were the rebellious ponies. But you're not half the lapdog I thought you were. That back there? Not exactly ordered, what with all the secrecy."
  5589. "I know about a lot, yes. I’ll still act against anypony who might turn things over here, but that doesn’t mean I blow the whistle on everything."
  5590. > “Like?”
  5591. > You swallow.
  5592. > This would be a considerable risk, but…
  5593. “Before you broke into Anonymous’ home, I knew somepony was going to try and escape the camp. Not who, but I knew it would happen and I knew how you would do it.”
  5594. > Shining Armor had gone very still, watching you with focused eyes.
  5595. > “Is that why you were in there, that night? To catch me?”
  5596. “No. That was pure coincidence… and in any case, I didn’t know it was you or that you were trying to take Flurry until later on.”
  5597. > “But Anonymous does not know.”
  5598. “If he did, do you think either of us would be having this conversation?”
  5599. > "A good point… But you still think of yourself as his lackey."
  5600. > You stop, looking at the stallion critically.
  5601. "Shining... you saw me up on that stage, taking a whip to another pony. And I know it’s getting to you. The truth is, I am his lackey. No matter what secrets I keep.”
  5602. > He grunts, which you take as an admission of your point.
  5603. > “That’s not why you became a guard, though. Not for the benefits or the power-”
  5604. “Power? What power? I hate it. Hate it so deeply you can’t even imagine. I agreed to this to protect ponies, not to hurt them - no matter the reason.”
  5605. > A shudder runs through you from nose to tail, wings fluffing as it runs to their tips.
  5606. “But… it’s what I have to do. I don’t have your kind of strength inside, Shining. If this keeps Rumble relatively safe in this camp, I’ll be Anonymous’ lackey.”
  5607. > “Do you want that kind of strength?”
  5608. “How? Cadance once said you were the source of her strength, and she’s right. It’s not something I have.”
  5609. > “It’s something you could have. But it would mean taking a stand. No more straddling in two places at once.”
  5610. > There’s a kind of light in Shining’s eyes, a spark of determination that all at once alarms you and fills you with interest.
  5611. “What are you talking about?”
  5612. > “I… I could induct you into the Guard. The EUP Guard. Technically I never resigned my commission; it would be in name only now, but…”
  5613. > Raising his eyes, Shining looks around.
  5614. > “...sometimes, a cause is what you need to stop giving up. Something to stand for.”
  5615. “What would it mean?”
  5616. > “I still have the oath memorized. I would teach you, have you take it… I can’t offer anything more, but then you said it yourself: You’re in this to help ponies. To guard them.”
  5617. > He had a point there.
  5618. > But at the same time...
  5619. > What if there did come another time when you had to speak up?
  5620. > When you had to sell out a pony to Anonymous?
  5621. > Or maybe you’re thinking about this the wrong way.
  5622. > If you took that oath, ‘selling out’ ponies wouldn’t be a question anymore.
  5623. > They would come first.
  5624. > All of them.
  5625. [Choice]
  5626. "Shining, tell me..."
  5627. > You look down, stirring a hoof on the pavement.
  5628. "...I got into this to protect my brother. Now Vapor Trail and Sunbreak too. Would it be wrong to take this oath with them first in my mind?"
  5629. > Shining drops to his haunches, tail swishing across the road.
  5630. > "There was this one time that a pony came onto our land. Back with my master. I don't think he was really looking for a fight, but he wasn't afraid either... Something went wrong. Master tried to warn him off, but he attacked instead."
  5631. > Tilting his head back up, Shining stares up at the night sky.
  5632. > Illuminated as the camp was, relatively few stars shown through - but enough.
  5633. > "I went after him. Pinned him down until the cops got there and took him away. I thought about him a lot later on. Was that right, what I did? Turning him over to their mercies?"
  5634. > His story, you think, is uncomfortably close to what happened to Merribelle.
  5635. > A pony sneaking about, coming on a house and approaching it not realizing what was about to happen...
  5636. > "I saw what happened to him later on. They weren't kind. And I set him up to go through that..."
  5637. "That's not the same at all. He attacked someone without being provoked. It's not like your master had him trapped there, was it?"
  5638. > "No. But it's not like Sparky was looking for blood either. My owner would have been fine eventually no matter what I did. Chasing Sparky was my call."
  5639. > Snorting, Shining tosses his mane back.
  5640. > "And they weren't kind with him, either... a pony attacking a human? He got it pretty rough. At least in the end we could..."
  5641. > He shakes his head, a suddenly perturbed expression flickering across his face.
  5642. > "...nevermind."
  5643. "Still a lot more than what I'm worried about. Hell, the night you were in the house, you think I'd have hesitated for a second to come after you? Chase you as long as I could?"
  5644. > "That's true."
  5645. "But you still think I'm wrong."
  5646. > "I think you're underselling yourself, Thunderlane. Whatever you've done, I think the fact that you stood up to protect anyone tells me there's more strength here-"
  5647. > His hoof taps your chest.
  5648. > "-than you're willing to admit. You just have to draw on it."
  5649. > You swallow.
  5650. > Hard.
  5651. > This... was more than you'd ever expected.
  5652. > Seeing that, Shining Armor gives a somewhat apologetic smile.
  5653. > "You don't have to answer right this very moment. Heh, I shouldn't have dropped this on you right after telling you off for putting me on the spot-"
  5654. "I'll do it."
  5655. > He blinks.
  5656. > "You're - certain? If you want to wait-"
  5657. "No. You're right... I need to grow a pair. Stand up and stop being a traitor. Stop pretending that doing this makes them any less his property than they would be without. And..."
  5658. > Now it is your turn to look up at the stars above.
  5659. "...I couldn't take this if I didn't mean it. I'd be dragging the reputation of the Guard through the dirt if I took it lightly. And I wouldn't do that to them or you."
  5660. > Smile turning from tentatively sorry to something more firm, Shining Armor nods.
  5661. > "Knew I didn't have your measure wrong."
  5662. "But, before you do... there's another pony here. Granite Cleave. He used to be in the Guard too. I think you should speak to him as well."
  5663. > "I will. I'm... surprised he didn't talk to me already."
  5664. "He's a kind of quiet pony."
  5665. > "Meet me tomorrow, then, and we'll see about the oath - or, if not, then talk it over with him."
  5666. "Right. And Shining? Thank you. Not many ponies would give me another chance after what you saw."
  5667. > ...
  5668. > You mention the offer to Cadance the next day.
  5669. > It didn't seem like a violation of her trust - if he had not told her yet, you were certain he would soon enough.
  5670. > Perhaps some part of you even wished for that.
  5671. > Hoped Cadance would expressly forbid it, admonish you for hanging on to archaic symbols of old Equestria.
  5672. > Urge you to let it go in the same way she had suggested her own royal status had died back in the snows of the Frozen North.
  5673. > But instead she only smiles sadly.
  5674. > "Shining Armor must think well of you to offer that, Thunderlane. His guards meant the world to him. They were like his children, until Flurry Heart came along."
  5675. > Her reinforcement, conversely, only deepens the deep unease growing in your stomach.
  5676. > A sense that even taking this oath with the full intention of following through on it would be a falsehood.
  5677. > How could you, after selling out ponies to Anonymous like that?
  5678. > Foolhardy it may have been, but that did not make you any less responsible for the fate those punished had suffered.
  5679. > Some part of you feels like this is papering over long-festering sins.
  5680. > More, however, feels that it is a chance to further your repentance for those mistake.
  5681. > So when you do show up it is little surprise that Shining Armor looks somewhat skeptical.
  5682. > "Are you really certain about this, Thunderlane? You're looking a little bit shaky."
  5683. > He had, indeed, found Granite Cleave - the other former guardstallion you'd mentioned.
  5684. "I am. It's not been an easy decision, but I am."
  5685. > "Good. Granite agrees with me - it'll be worth it to offer you this."
  5686. > You bow your head in thanks to him.
  5687. "Much appreciated. Though - how will this work? Because I am pretty certain he'll outrank me-"
  5688. > "I'll teach you the standing orders. But that will be it - besides, if we're being sticklers for the rules you won't even be under my command."
  5689. > You can't help another sigh of relief, earning yourself another questioning look from Shining Armor.
  5690. "It's fine. I admit, I'm a little nervous about this - even if it is effectively in name only."
  5691. > "That's good. You're not taking it flippantly."
  5692. > Nodding, you glance back to Shining Armor.
  5693. "Is it okay if Vapor Trail watches in on this?"
  5694. > "...I don't see why not.
  5695. > A wave of your wing brings the mare in; Sunbreak's napping form emerges from beneath his mother's wing in a foal-saddle.
  5696. > Without a word Vapor goes to sit by the side of the room.
  5697. > There she seats herself, shooting you a reassuring smile.
  5698. > You need it.
  5699. > "Ready, Thunderlane?"
  5700. "About as ready as I'll ever be."
  5701. > "Good stallion. Now, repeat after me..."
  5702. > Fitting your hooves side-by-side and locking your legs, you puff out your chest and wings while keeping your head up and straight ahead.
  5703. > A best approximation of what you remember an 'attention' stance looking like.
  5704. > Probably a bad approximation, given the subtle smile playing around Granite Cleave's muzzle, but damn it you are going to try anyhow!
  5705. > "Repeat after me: I do solemnly swear..."
  5706. "I do solemnly swear..."
  5707. > "Having been granted this rank by the right of their Highnesses Celestia and Luna, to defend Equestria and her ponies..."
  5708. "Having been granted this rank by the right of their Highnesses Celestia and Luna, to defend Equestria and her ponies..."
  5709. "...by hoof, by wing or by horn, against any foes which may threaten them..."
  5710. "...and to stand by my comrades in discharging their duty in wartime or peace, faithfully upholding the Harmony which binds us all together."
  5711. > Shining Armor pauses as the oath comes to an end, and you realize you were probably supposed to salute him.
  5712. > It's most likely a sloppy salute as well, but still draws approving looks from both stallions.
  5713. > Each returns the salute; from across the room, even baby Sunbreak has woken up and is watching the exchange with wide eyes.
  5714. > "Not half bad, actually."
  5715. "I was a Wonderbolts' trainee. They never got around to having us take the oath - it was supposed to happen when we finished training - but they did start hammering the basics into us."
  5716. > "And it must have stuck as well. Though, remember - you have to call me Prince-Captain now."
  5717. > The look you gave must have been fantastic, because it sent both stallions laughing again.
  5718. "...hah, hah. Was it this nerve-wracking when you took the oath?"
  5719. > "First time, absolutely. Everypony there was about ready to shit bricks."
  5720. > "It's a good thing I didn't know Cady was there watching. We barely knew each other at that point, but even so... and you don't tell her that, okay."
  5721. "Yes Sir, Captain lovercolt Sir!"
  5722. > Amid a fresh round of guffaws, Shining Armor unexpectedly turns serious - clapping a hoof to your shoulder.
  5723. > "Thunderlane... do that oath proud. We might not have Equestria anymore, but that bit about upholding Harmony? It's still important."
  5724. "I know. And I will."
  5725. > All as one together, you wander on back - talking softly, Vapor Trail brushing your flank with her own and Sunbreak riding happily on your back.
  5726. > She seems to realize the mood has lifted and giggles happily all through the walk.
  5727. > Dinner is well underway by the time you arrive in the dining hall, but Cadance is still there.
  5728. > Shining wastes no time going to her, while you find a seat for both Vapor Trail and yourself.
  5729. > Not a few minutes later she taps you with a wing and points to the royal couple's table.
  5730. > "Your brother's here."
  5731. > So he was - speaking to Shining Armor.
  5732. > About what you can't imagine; hopefully not anything regarding the little rebels' gathering the prior night.
  5733. > ...probably not, considering how amused Shining looks.
  5734. "I'll be right back, okay?"
  5735. > "Of course."
  5736. > You're quite close before Rumble notices you and waves shyly to you.
  5737. "Hey there, little bro. Something up?"
  5738. > "Y-Yeah. I just needed to talk to Mister Shining for a couple minutes."
  5739. > That draws a laugh from you; 'Mister Shining'?
  5740. "Can I ask what, or is that a big secret?"
  5741. > Rumble looks down, ears flattening and a touch of red coloring his light-grey muzzle.
  5742. > Shining Armor leans over and mutters something into one ear.
  5743. > It draws a furious shake of Rumble's head.
  5744. > "B-But I can't just tell him! He's my brother!"
  5745. "Aww, don't worry. I'll only tease you about it for the rest of your life."
  5746. > Drawing back his lips, Rumble actually snarls at you.
  5747. > "Easy, easy!"
  5748. > Lighting his horn, Shining Armor actually holds both of you back.
  5749. > This time when he whispers into Rumble's ear it draws a soft sigh from the colt.
  5750. > "Alright. I guess I gotta... look, big bro, can you not tease me if I tell you?"
  5751. "If it's that serious, I can, yes."
  5752. > "I'm... asking him how to tell a filly I really like her when I'm afraid it's all going to go really wrong, okay?"
  5753. > His blush deepens as your eyebrows rise.
  5754. > "And I thought - because he must have asked Her Highness Cadance out-"
  5755. > "Please, Rumble. It's still okay to call me Cadance."
  5756. > "-he's got to have some advice, right?"
  5757. "I'll admit, I never thought of how it must have gone with you asking her out the first time."
  5758. > "Good."
  5759. > Cadance giggles, eyeing Shining mischievously.
  5760. > "Because trust me, he was such a - a doofus the first time. But that was part of why I liked him, I think. I'd seen the determined guardstallion and the colt inside."
  5761. > You grin at that image too - much to Shining Armor's chagrin.
  5762. "See, Rumble? You don't have to worry about talking to some filly. Besides, didn't you have a fillyfriend here before?"
  5763. > "Yeah, but she was like... I dunno. But now, this one..."
  5764. "Well don't leave us hanging, little bro. Who is it?"
  5765. > "Now, Thunderlane!"
  5766. > Cadance slips a wing over Rumble's back.
  5767. > "Don't hound the poor colt. He's obviously nervous enough already-"
  5768. > "It's Mocha Cream, okay?"
  5769. > Shuddering lightly, Rumble tucks his head away beneath his own wing for further shelter.
  5770. > "I... she's nice. A lot nicer than I thought she was at first. And I kinda wanna tell her that, but..."
  5771. > He goes quiet.
  5772. > Cadance leans over to give him a worried nuzzle, then a whispered question of her own.
  5773. > Sighing, Rumble extracts his head and looks up at you.
  5774. > "I think something's wrong with her again. We've still both been handling the messages ponies send to Anonymous, y'know? But lately she seems more... I dunno. She doesn't talk as much, and not as happily."
  5775. > Cadance shares a knowing look with you.
  5776. "And you thought telling her this would cheer Mocha Cream up?"
  5777. > "I... dunno what I thought. Maybe get her mind off of whatever is the matter. She's got to be hurting - she's like a pegasus with a broken wing."
  5778. > "We need to bring this to Anonymous. I know he is trying to be 'hands off' with her, but if he knew she was still tearing herself apart he could sit down with her and talk."
  5779. > "No!"
  5780. > Rumble actually seems to surprise Cadance with the vehemence of his answer.
  5781. > But vehement he is, standing up beneath her wing and half-shrugging it off.
  5782. > "Mocha Cream doesn't need him. She doesn't need a Master. She needs ponies - other ponies - letting her know that we - we care!"
  5783. > He does have a point there.
  5784. > Not to mention that the troubled young mare might see any attention from Anonymous as a victory.
  5785. > On the other hoof, merely telling her to stop thinking about Anonymous - while he remained passively out of reach - might not be enough.
  5786. [Choice]
  5787. "...Anonymous should know. In his way, he does care for her."
  5788. > Rumble growls at you, but you don't back down.
  5789. "I'm not saying he should intervene. In fact, I think he should stay well away from her. That kind of attention wouldn't be good. It'd tell Mocha that what she's doing will get her what she wants."
  5790. > "Then why-"
  5791. "Because like I said: He does care for her. He'd want to know, even if we have to tell him not to get involved."
  5792. > Still looking extremely unhappy with the concept, Rumble growls beneath his breath.
  5793. > Cadance settles her wing back over him, smiling gently.
  5794. > "We are not taking her away from you, Rumble. I do think it will be good for her to see another pony cares for her like that."
  5795. "Yeah. Don't get me wrong, bro - go for her."
  5796. > "I... I wanted it to be us who fixed her. So Anonymous would see, we're better off without him. Even the ones he 'cares about'."
  5797. > You frown, and so does Cadance.
  5798. > It is Shining Armor who speaks up first, though:
  5799. > "The way I'm understanding things, he will still be a bystander. We will still 'fix' her. But remember, Rumble. She's a mare-"
  5800. > He taps a hoof on the colt's chest.
  5801. > "-not a weapon against Anonymous. You're not winning a battle by winning her away from him; you're winning her heart. Remember that."
  5802. > Cadance laughs, a beautiful and musical sound.
  5803. > "Shining is right. That's a part of how he won my heart: Coming for me not as a princess or an alicorn, but as a pony."
  5804. "Yeah. But don't worry, Rumble. We're going to set you up on a real good date with her."
  5805. > "Bro!"
  5806. > Ignoring his indignant protests, you give him a grin utterly devoid of mercy.
  5807. "Uh-uh. We're going to do right by you for this."
  5808. > Rumble looks between yourself and an equally eager-looking Cadance sporting an equally enthusiastic smile.
  5809. > "C'mon, what can you do? It's not like there's a ton of hot dating spots here-"
  5810. > "Don't worry, Rumble. We'll figure something out to make both of you happy."
  5811. > Hanging his head at her assertive tone, your brother sighs.
  5812. > "...oh, alright. But if either of you mess it up, it's your fault."
  5813. "Always has been!"
  5814.  
  5815. > By the time Rumble and Thunderlane depart that night, the plan is already mostly formed.
  5816. > And the independent colt had just about given in to having your hoofprints all over this.
  5817. > Which might have something to do with the distinctly amused look Shining Armor is giving you.
  5818. > "You enjoyed that, didn't you?"
  5819. "I cannot help it if my talent is the opening of hearts to each other."
  5820. > You probably could have tried to sound a little less smug about that.
  5821. > But you truly cannot help it:
  5822. > There have been so few moments to truly express your talent since being enslaved, and now you were determined to see both of them find happiness.
  5823. > Though...
  5824. > "Will they really fit together?"
  5825. > Shining gives voice to your one worry, and you look towards the door where the two pegasi brothers are heading out.
  5826. "I don't know. There is a bond there, but it is not full yet. I won't push him into it if it is not, though."
  5827. > Even as you watch, Rumble says something inaudible that earns him bat over the head from Thunderlane's wing.
  5828. > Emerging full of laughter, he runs out into the nighttime streets beyond - pursued closely by his elder brother.
  5829. > "Ah, siblings..."
  5830. > Shining sighs softly.
  5831. "Shiny? Do you ever... think about her?"
  5832. > "Huh?"
  5833. > A better pony would have noticed the off tone in his voice.
  5834. > Have bowed out with a 'nevermind' or given another answer.
  5835. > You, still lost in your thoughts, miss it.
  5836. "Twilight. Do you ever think about her?"
  5837. > It takes only a second for you to realize your mistake.
  5838. > Shining's mask of strength lasts barely a moment before crumpling into sadness.
  5839. > Your heart follows.
  5840. > "All the time, Cady. All the time. After you, she... she was the closest. The one I should have protected the most."
  5841. "Shh."
  5842. > Your own wing slips over his withers, and your love leans into your side.
  5843. > Both of you stay like that for a minute, until you finally speak up.
  5844. "Shiny? There's something else I'd like to do tonight. I need to show you, in my office..."
  5845. > He had reared back in surprise when you pulled out the painting - his own visage greeting him alongside your own.
  5846. "It kept me going through a lot of hard moments. Just, having something from - before to focus on."
  5847. > "It's... not original, is it?"
  5848. "No. A reproduction, by an extremely talented pony here."
  5849. > "Ah. I thought I recognized the similarity, but... wasn't this taken at a ball?"
  5850. > With a hoof, he reaches out to brush it.
  5851. "Yes. I remember the photograph. When this was repainted from it, I think they wanted it to just be focused on just us."
  5852. > "Ah."
  5853. "I'd... like to have a new one made."
  5854. > "Why? Seems a bit early to be comissioning new Royal Portraits."
  5855. > Snorting, you nudge him in the ribs with your wing.
  5856. > Jokes could diminish pain - one of Twilight's friends had been a walking demonstration of the strength of a smile - but now didn't seem to be the time.
  5857. "Something looking forward to the future, not just back to the past. Not just mourning over what we don't have anymore, but a reminder that we have each other - and Flurry Heart - again."
  5858. > Then, you add with a grin:
  5859. "Also, when we are free again, I will be ensure it hangs on the palace walls for all of history."
  5860. > Rather than scoff Shining Armor hums thoughtfully.
  5861. > "That would be nice a testament to the strength of ponykind in their darkest hour... will Flurry sit still?"
  5862. "It can't be any worse than her first royal portrait. You remember, when she was still just a foal-"
  5863. > "Oh, yes. Turned her into a wriggly little bundle right off the start."
  5864. "And she wouldn't even look at the painter half the time-"
  5865. > "-she kept running around trying to get a good look at Flurry's muzzle because she was too nervous to dare ask us to help-"
  5866. "-not that Flurry Heart's crawling away constantly helped-"
  5867. > "-tried to take a nap on all those rolls of spare canvas-"
  5868. > Both of you are too far gone into giggles to continue this any further.
  5869. > This time, the laughter is honest and cleansing.
  5870. > Even when they subside, you are thankful for the brief moment of merriment.
  5871. > "...but yeah. A new painting... I could go for that."
  5872. > ...
  5873. > You lay sprawled happily on the bed, wings spread to either side and mind submerged in total bliss.
  5874. > Shining Armor was crouched over you - hooves planted in the midst of your back and neck curled down to bring his mouth down to your wings.
  5875. > There it was hard at work:
  5876. > Nudging each feather in turn, sorting and testing, nudging those misplaced ones back into proper order.
  5877. > A happy sigh escapes your lips and one of your hind legs does a little kick as a loose feather is drawn free of the wing.
  5878. "You have no idea how unimaginably good this feels."
  5879. > "Don't tell me you haven't been preening yourself, love."
  5880. "Of course I have."
  5881. > Another little tremor runs down your back as he deals with a particularly itchy misplaced feather.
  5882. "But it is really, really not the same."
  5883. > Too soon he reaches the last tip-feather of your second wing, bringing the whole thing to an end.
  5884. > Getting up again almost seems wasteful, and so you have no objections when his hooves take over - pressing and kneading at the muscles of your back.
  5885. "I've never understood how you did it, Shining. All that standing in place at perfect attention for hours and hours..."
  5886. > "Very carefully, dear. That's how. Besides, don't you do the same? Princessly duties and all that."
  5887. "At least when I was left listening to some vapid presentation, I could move around a bit. Enough to stretch and - oooh!"
  5888. > Shining had pressed down with his body weight atop both hooves, and your spine had produced an impressive series of pops in response.
  5889. > All at once it felt as if the pressure that had built inside of you just... drained out.
  5890. > Giggling softly, you finally tuck your wings in and roll onto your back.
  5891. > A quick peck on Shining's lips turns into something longer as he follows you down.
  5892. > Legs intertwining with yours while he sinks to rest belly-to-belly with you.
  5893. > For a time the two of you simply remain resting there, grooming each others' cheeks, manes, and ears with magic and tooth alike.
  5894. > Relishing in each others' presence.
  5895. > "It's coming too fast, Cadance."
  5896. "What is?"
  5897. > "Going back."
  5898. "If your Master is half the man you say he is, it won't be that long before we see each other again."
  5899. > "I know. But even so, it feels so wrong to go-"
  5900. > He whimpers - actually whimpers! - and you tighten your grip on him.
  5901. "...and here I thought you are supposed to be the strong one."
  5902. > "Strong doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. You away here, Twilight... gone..."
  5903. > Is that what had brought this on...?
  5904. > You remain silent for a long time, periodically kissing his muzzle.
  5905. "Tomorrow, I'm going to ask Megan if she would let Flurry Heart stay with us for a couple nights."
  5906. > "In here?"
  5907. "Yes. All together, as a family."
  5908. > "Aww. But then we won't be able to-"
  5909. > His hips grind gently against yours, drawing a twitch from one hindleg and bringing a mild blush to your face.
  5910. "Shining Armor! Honestly - is that all your stallions think about?"
  5911. > "All day, every day."
  5912. > Your huff draws even more snickering from a tone already filled with amusement.
  5913. > Soon, however, he turns somber again.
  5914. > "I'd love that, Cadance. Really. Just to spend a little while together as a family again."
  5915. "You might have to bribe her with another pony ride."
  5916. > "A price I will pay with honest pleasure. Megan's a good kid, too. I don't think she'll protest."
  5917. "Decided, then. A day all together... we'll have to "
  5918. > Now it is he who places a kiss to your nose.
  5919. > "Though, if you wanted to... make up for any missed time together now -"
  5920. > Again his hips grind against yours - this time, with the addition of something rather more solid pinned between your bellies.
  5921. > Smirking you nip lightly at his cheek.
  5922. "See? Just like I said. Dirty stallions."
  5923. > It isn't a refusal, though.
  5924. > Being filled up with him is more than a physical sensation - although that is most welcome too, a physical stretching that leaves you aware of every inch of him inside of you.
  5925. > There is a psychological sense to it too:
  5926. > The union of two souls together in a most intimate moment, doing their best to give each other utmost pleasure.
  5927. > You'd bet there are a lot of ponies who'd dismiss that as tripe, especially in this era.
  5928. > But right now, like this...
  5929. > You believe in it wholeheartedly.
  5930. > There are barely any words between the two of you - grunts, sighs, and soft moans, but nothing more is needed.
  5931. > And when he is finally spent, your belly full and warm with the heat of his seed, you lay with him a while longer simply relishing in that closeness long over the act is full..
  5932. > ...
  5933. >"Okay, let me see... Thaaat's good. Just stay right there, Your Highnesses."
  5934. > Resisting the urge to sigh after being put back into the 'right' position for what feels like the fiftieth time is a true chore.
  5935. > Without moving your head too much, you murmur to Shining Armor:
  5936. "I think after we're done with this, I'm going to need another preening and massage from you."
  5937. > "I'll be happy to... when we're done."
  5938. > "Is that going to be soon, momma?"
  5939. > Set between the two of you, Flurry Heart had already begun to fidget.
  5940. "Very soon, dear."
  5941. > You have no idea how soon.
  5942. > Fortunately, the painter does - peering up from his canvas, the pony spits the brush out just long enough answer:
  5943. > "Very soon, Your Highnesses. I just need to finish the initial work; the rest, I can continue tomorrow."
  5944. > Thank Celestia!
  5945. > Aches had long since crept up your back and radiated out into your wings.
  5946. > Decades since gaining your horn had not reduced that basic pegasus urge to not be fixed rigidly, and now your muscles protested vociferously at just that.
  5947. > By the time the painter finally releases you standing up is forgone entirely in favor of simply collapsing onto side with a happy moan.
  5948. > Moments later, Flurry Heart joins you - sprawling across your side with a grateful sigh.
  5949. > Shining Armor rears up-
  5950. "If you jump on us, I will embarrass you in front of everypony."
  5951. > The smirk in your tone draws a laugh from him, and instead of a pounce he embraces the both of you instead.
  5952. > Flurry nickers softly as the both of you sandwich her in a reverse hug.
  5953. > That the painter is still watching you with a mix of amusement and uncertainty if he should be seeing this moment is completely un-mentioned.
  5954. > Untangling yourself, you rise and nod your thanks to him.
  5955. "Will you be needing anything more from us?"
  5956. > "Not until tomorrow. Thank you, Your Highnesses."
  5957. "Of course."
  5958. > Dropping his voice while Shining is helping Flurry up, he asks:
  5959. > "Actually, Your Highness... there is one thing I am not certain of?"
  5960. "Go on?"
  5961. > "I... I could paint you with your proper regalia. If you wished. There are... sufficient references I could use."
  5962. > Your mind drifts up to Anonymous' study - and your regalia, locked behind glass doors.
  5963. > Would he consider this a reasonable need to take them out?
  5964. "I would not want to leave Shining Armor out of it."
  5965. > "I believe I could reproduce his uniform as well, if you wished."
  5966. > It is...
  5967. > Tempting.
  5968. > A chance, again, to reclaim what you had lost.
  5969. > But is reclaiming what you want to do?
  5970. > Or was this - as you had suggested before - a chance to look forward instead?
  5971. > Would keeping the trappings of your past authority detract from that?
  5972. [Choice]
  5973. "No, thank you."
  5974. > You smile softly to the stallion.
  5975. > Looking back at your husband and daughter, now working through a series of stretches together after sitting still for so long.
  5976. "I don't want this to be about station or role. It would suggest nothing has changed, and that would be a lie. We've gone through much - everypony has."
  5977. > "Very well, Your Highness."
  5978. "If you could, make this... just about family. Us, together again, as one... that is what I am hoping for."
  5979. > A smile touches his lips as he nods.
  5980. > "I understand entirely. I'll get right on that, Your Highness."
  5981. "Thank you. For now, I have another matter to attend to."
  5982. > A kiss on your husband's forehead and you leave him to spend some time on his own with Flurry Heart; your objective is now Anonymous' manor.
  5983. > First to go see your owner himself; you find him stretched out languidly on a couch, a show playing on the television even as he scrolls absentmindedly on his phone.
  5984. "Anonymous, if now is not a bad time?"
  5985. > "Huh? Oh, of course Cadance. Please, go ahead."
  5986. > He sits up to face you more directly, resting his elbows on his knees.
  5987. "It is about Mocha Cream. Rumble mentioned to me that he thinks she is still not doing well. In particular, she seemed to be quiet and withdrawn while working on the camp's suggestions-box. I'm sure you know that was always one of the things that made her happiest."
  5988. > "Yes, since trying to bring ponies' spirits up was a big part of her talent."
  5989. > Grimacing, Anonymous scratches his hair.
  5990. > "I noticed she felt a little thin lately was well, but didn't think much of it - she's always been a somewhat slender mare, you know?"
  5991. "But in this case, it is not merely 'how it is'."
  5992. > You can't help but frown a touch yourself; had she not been eating right either?
  5993. > If so, that could account for her low spirits.
  5994. > It was a dark spiral you had seen before in depressed slaves:
  5995. > Their malaise lead them to abandon meals, which in turn left them only feeling worse...
  5996. > "I could go talk to her again-"
  5997. "No. We are..."
  5998. > Looking away, you feel your cheeks flushing softly.
  5999. "...I believe she has someone in the camp who likes her very much, and-"
  6000. > "Rumble, you mean."
  6001. "You knew?"
  6002. > "I had an inkling. He came in to see her when she was attacked, and looked more than just... normally worried."
  6003. > Anonymous smiles, if perhaps a bit sadly.
  6004. > "It should be good for her. I think it's certainly been good for him."
  6005. > Well, that's pretty much permission from him - you aren't going to ask for more.
  6006. "That is my hope. I will nudge them as much as I dare, and it will brighten her days."
  6007. > "Good. But Cadance? Be careful with her heart; I don't want to see it even more broken."
  6008. > You incline your head, eyes half-closed in acknowledgement.
  6009. "It is my talent, Anonymous. I will not defy you."
  6010. > "Good."
  6011. > You turn to go, then look back.
  6012. > In a softer voice, you ask:
  6013. "Shining Armor's departure - is it still set for the day after tomorrow?"
  6014. > "Yes, I'm afraid."
  6015. > Reaching out, he places a hand on your shoulder.
  6016. > "I know it isn't that much longer-"
  6017. "I asked for a few more days together, and it was given. It was all I could have expected, Anonymous."
  6018. > "Still... I will see about arranging some time for you to see him again soon."
  6019. > Your head sinks a touch further, turning the gesture into something akin to a thankful bow.
  6020. > Perhaps that would make it easier on Shining when it was time to go...
  6021. > Before you leave the house, you have one final thing to do.
  6022. > Meghan is quite busy with her homework.
  6023. > But still looks up with a smile as you enter.
  6024. > "Hi, Cadance."
  6025. "Good afternoon, Megan."
  6026. > Dropping to your belly beside her, you offer a soft, tentative smile.
  6027. "I need to ask you for a very big favor."
  6028. > "Shining's going to have to go soon, isn't he?"
  6029. > Children and foals alike, it seems, liked to dive to the heart of the matter.
  6030. > You bow your head in acknowledgement.
  6031. "The day after tomorrow, I am afraid. And, I was wondering - would it be acceptable if Flurry Heart stayed with us these last two nights? I know we are already taking so much of her time, and-"
  6032. > Cutting off with a grunt, you snap out your wings - first to steady yourself, then to encircle the girl who had suddenly lunged into a hug against your chest.
  6033. > "I could tell. You looked very sad. Take her for as long as you want, Miss Cadance."
  6034. > With a warm smile you lift a hoof to finish the embrace.
  6035. > Tucking her head beneath your chin, you nicker deeply - a heavy, throaty noise that she undoubtedly feels as much as hears.
  6036. "I cannot thank you enough, Megan. Before he goes, I am sure Shining Armor would love to give you another pony-back ride."
  6037. > "Yes!"
  6038. > Megan bounces in place, but then re-tightens her hug around you.
  6039. > "S'not just because of that, though. I... I know how much her dad being here means to Flurry. I can't say no; she's a good pony. A good friend."
  6040. > A good pony.
  6041. > From another mouth it could have been a statement of derision, or perhaps patronising affirmation.
  6042. > Not from this girl, however.
  6043. > Not from that innocent, thoughtful voice.
  6044. > You squeeze her so hard she squeaks; tears, too, are squeezed from your eyes.
  6045. > That night, you sit with Flurry Heart and Shining Armor atop the roof of the museum-and-rec-hall.
  6046. > While it was certainly not private, any late-flying pegasi visiting the rec hall below were giving you a wide berth.
  6047. > Recognizing, perhaps, the need for privacy in this moment.
  6048. > Tonight you had been lucky; a cool evening allowed you to huddle close together beneath the star-strewn sky.
  6049. > Shining Armor rested on his back, his head nestled into your flank.
  6050. > In turn Flurry Heart was nestled between his upturned hooves, her expansive wings draped to either side of him.
  6051. > This far into the evening, the camp's lights were dimming towards lights-out and curfew beginning.
  6052. > Off in the far east, this planet's moon was rising from the horizon.
  6053. > It hung there, fatly ovoid and white like a great egg, immobile yet subtly higher each time you looked back.
  6054. > Flurry Heart stirs:
  6055. > "Daddy? Can you ask your Master for just a little more time? I don't want you to go yet."
  6056. > "I know, Little Gem."
  6057. > Kissing her brow just below the horn, he resumes grooming her - nibbling about her mane and ears.
  6058. > "I don't want to go either."
  6059. > Slipping a hoof beneath her chin, he lifts his daughter's muzzle to face him.
  6060. > "You've been through so much. Things I should have been there to protect you from... or at least support you through them. Will you forgive me, Flurry Heart?"
  6061. > Responding with a muted whinny that devolves into a whimper, she buries her muzzle back into his chest:
  6062. > Nostrils flaring and sides heaving as she tries to drag in his scent.
  6063. > "Then don't go away again, Daddy!"
  6064. "I'm afraid that's not a choice he has to make, Little Gem."
  6065. > "Yeah. Even if I wasn't owned by him, there's a pony there who needs my help still."
  6066. > "Then - then we'll bring them here and they can live with us-"
  6067. > You flinch, but thankfully she doesn't seem to have noticed.
  6068. "That would... not work very well, I'm afraid."
  6069. > Going to cry out again, Flurry is instead caught by Shining's hoof.
  6070. > It guides her head over towards the east, where the moon still hangs like a spotlight beneath the clouds.
  6071. > "Look at that moon, Flurry Heart. I know it's not Auntie Luna's moon, but it's still the only one this planet has."
  6072. > "Y-Yeah?"
  6073. > "Yeah. And that means, if you ever feel like you miss me, that night you go and look at the moon. And I promise, I'll take a few minutes every night to look at it and think about you here too."
  6074. > That has to be the cheesiest, silliest thing you've ever heard.
  6075. > And yet it still rings a chord.
  6076. > Despite how plainly foalish it was, this was so much a part of why you'd fallen for this big goofball of a stallion:
  6077. > The happy colt inside the tough guard exterior.
  6078. "And believe me, Little Gem - before you know it, we'll all be coming together to see each other again."
  6079. > Flurry clearly is not happy with this answer.
  6080. > But acceptance does not require happiness, and she does not protest further - only nuzzling down into her father's coat.
  6081. > Though lights-out is coming soon you can't help but wish to never move from this spot:
  6082. > Curled up with your family, the cool summer night warded off by your shared body heat.
  6083. > Actually...
  6084. > Why couldn't you?
  6085. > The roof was not the most comfortable place to sleep, of course, but you'd had far less pleasant beds in the past.
  6086. > With a few blankets and pillows spread out...
  6087. "Love?"
  6088. > "Mrrrrph?"
  6089. "Would you just like to stay up here tonight?"
  6090. > "That sounds lovely."
  6091. > A quick flight to your quarters, and you are soon returning back with several pillows and sheets floating in a field of magic behind you.
  6092. > Flurry is fast asleep by the time you return and Shining doesn't look like he'll be long to follow.
  6093. > But he still wakes up enough to sweep a spot clean on the roof and lay out the impromptu bedding.
  6094. "I'm sorry it isn't exactly a comfortable spot out under the stars."
  6095. > "Cady, any bed you are in is plenty good a bed for me."
  6096. > Giggling, you kiss him on the nose before settling down:
  6097. > Legs intertwined with each other, and Flurry Heart dozing contentedly between your bellies.
  6098. > "Do you remember, Cady, how we used to sit on one of the Crystal Palace's balconies and just watch the stars?"
  6099. "I do. I was always hopeless at spotting the constellations."
  6100. > Shining gives an amused snort.
  6101. > "Yes, you were."
  6102. > It was, you suspect, more that Shining had grown up with that bookworm of a sister lecturing him about anything and everything.
  6103. > Not even your foalsitting experiences with Twilight could rival that!
  6104. "They're so different here. The stars, I mean."
  6105. > "But they're still stars. And this is still watching them with you."
  6106. "I know."
  6107. > Shining gives a low, content whicker which you eagerly return - turning your head aside and pressing your cheek to his.
  6108. > Even Flurry Heart joins in, making a sleepy and higher, foalish nicker from her spot between the two of you.
  6109. "What you said before, about looking up at the sky and thinking about you looking at it too?"
  6110. > "Yeah?"
  6111. > Only the slightest twist of your head is needed to kiss his cheek.
  6112. "I think I needed to hear that too."
  6113. > "So did I, Cady. So did I."
  6114. > ...
  6115. > "Giddyap! Go, go, giddyap!"
  6116. > Heeding Megan's urging, Shining Armor puts himself in an all-out sprint down the street.
  6117. > At its end they strike loose earth; dirt and pebbles go flying.
  6118. > With a tug from the reins she signals him to dig his hooves in hard - leaning into the hard turn.
  6119. > For a second it seems that he could take it, but then Shining Armor overcompensates.
  6120. > Rolling into a tumble, he goes sprawling into the dirt with a wild neigh; Megan cartwheels from his back only to hang mid-air in a cloud of magic.
  6121. > From your spot perhaps only ten paces behind you are close enough to gasp in horror, then give a little cheer when his magic sets her back to the ground unharmed.
  6122. "Megan!"
  6123. > "OhmyGod! Shining, are you okay?"
  6124. > Groaning softly, he rises and shakes himself off.
  6125. > "I'm... I'm 'onna be fine. 'ventually. Ow."
  6126. > Flurry Heart darts between her father and mistress with concern etched on her face.
  6127. > Marching up to Shining with folded arms, Megan pouts furiously.
  6128. > "Well, you didn't have to catch me! I'm wearing a helmet, just like Daddy tells me to."
  6129. "Which doesn't mean he didn't do the right thing. That looked very risky to my eyes; please be more careful, Megan."
  6130. > "But he got hurt!"
  6131. > Grabbing Shining's bridle earns another groan from the bruised stallion.
  6132. > "I'm sorry! Where does it hurt?"
  6133. > "M'mouth. Th'bit. Pulled hard when y'went 'own."
  6134. > "Let me see!"
  6135. > He rolls his eyes as she pries up his lip to examine the bare gum the bit rested on.
  6136. > But he doesn't protest, and even draws it back a bit more to help her.
  6137. > "I... don't see any blood?"
  6138. > "No. S'not blee'ing. I'd tashte it."
  6139. > Ducking under his head to check the other side, Megan then rubs his nose - tears beading in her eyes.
  6140. > "M'sorry... didn't mean to hurt you. Just wanted to try doing a fast turn."
  6141. > Pushing his head down into her arms and allowing a rub of his mane, Shining puffs out a soft, wordless breath of acceptance.
  6142. > You can't blame Megan either:
  6143. > After posing for a few more hours to let the painter finish his outlines, Shining had seemed a bound-up ball of energy:
  6144. > Ready to take off like a rocket.
  6145. > Little surprise she'd been able to goad him into doing something risky then.
  6146. > Meanwhile, you look aside at Anonymous.
  6147. > Finally having caught up on one of the little motorized carts, he was now snapping pictures as he had been all day:
  6148. > More candid - and lively - portrayals of your family than a painting.
  6149. > You were relieved to have both.
  6150. "I'm honestly amazed they've bonded so well, so quickly."
  6151. > "It's like you said: Shining Armor has a weakness for children, and Megan has a good heart."
  6152. > Up ahead Megan had - after some coaxing - clambered back onto Shining's back.
  6153. > Rather than take the reins again, however, she leans over to whisper something into his ear before waving to you.
  6154. > "Shining and I are going to back to get him unsaddled, okay?"
  6155. "Of course, dear."
  6156. > "Sure, sweetheart! Care to follow, Cadance?"
  6157. "Right behind you."
  6158. > Once they reach what had been designated as the 'saddling spot', Megan slips back off his back again and clambers down.
  6159. > First to go is the hated bridle:
  6160. > Shining is all too happy to spit the taste of it from his mouth when the bit is pulled from it.
  6161. > The saddle falls to the ground next.
  6162. > It is soon followed by the blanket beneath it.
  6163. > Megan steps back with a squeak-turned-giggle as Shining shakes himself out, mane fanning out in a wild spray.
  6164. > "Ohhh, that feels good!"
  6165. > "C'mere. I'll give you a wash-down too!"
  6166. > A hose is adjusted and directed at Shining; the sweat-soaked stallion luxuriates in the spray.
  6167. > Actually scrubbing him down forces him to crouch so Megan can reach all of him.
  6168. > She is all too happy to wield the soap-laden sponge with gusto, however, and Shining absolutely willing to enjoy.
  6169. > There's something almost ironic about it as well:
  6170. > A reversal of her earlier total command of him.
  6171. > Now it is the girl who serves the slave, scrubbing out the aches and strains her ride had caused him as well.
  6172. > Indeed, he almost looks disappointed when she drops it and goes for the hose again.
  6173. "Dear, try not to enjoy yourself too much. You're practically purring over there."
  6174. > Too late you catch the fiendish gleam in Megan's eyes.
  6175. > By the time your shield forms, it is far too late:
  6176. > The hose's frigid spray has thoroughly drenched you!
  6177. "Augh!"
  6178. > "Mistress Megan!"
  6179. "That is - augh! My mane is soaked!"
  6180. > Your indignity is only further exacerbated by not only Megan, but Shining and Anonymous cracking up as well!
  6181. > Even Flurry is giggling, the little traitor!
  6182. > "Careful, Megan."
  6183. > Shining nudges her side.
  6184. > "She turns into a terrible monster when her mane is ruined. Trust me."
  6185. > "Eeeek!"
  6186. > Tossing up the hose, Megan flees.
  6187. > The nozzle lands at Flurry Heart's hooves.
  6188. > Scooping it in her magic, the filly looks between yourself and Anonymous.
  6189. > A subtle nod from both of you seals Megan's fate:
  6190. > Counter-betrayal!
  6191. > "Fluuurrry, you're supposed to be on my side!"
  6192. > "Not anymore!"
  6193. > Her soaking duty done, Flurry Leaps up to roost on a nearby rooftop and stick out her tongue in defiance.
  6194. > Unfortunately, she had forgotten that both mother and father have horns too:
  6195. > Twin balls of water are scooped up to burst over her and render the filly a whinnying, dripping mess.
  6196. > Everyone bursts out another round of laughter.
  6197. > Anonymous, the only one remaining un-drenched, raises his hands in mock pleading.
  6198. > "I surrender."
  6199. > ...
  6200. > Your final night together is spent in private - away from the rest of the camp and its ponies.
  6201. > This was not a night for community, but for family.
  6202. > Stories are shared, swapped, retold.
  6203. > Many of Flurry, when she was yet too young to remember.
  6204. > Others of ponies yourself or Shining had known.
  6205. > He relates a few of Gracie, the girl who had helped mend his scarred heart, too.
  6206. > You tell a few of more tender moments in the camp.
  6207. > When the camp's lights go out, moonlight illuminates the tellings instead.
  6208. > Sleep is a foe long staved off.
  6209. > Eventually it comes nonetheless, claiming you in a tumbled pile, and soon after the unwanted dawn.
  6210. > Somepony had thoughtfully left breakfast at your door.
  6211. > You take it in even though you know nopony will feel like eating.
  6212. > Eventually Shining sighs and pushes his plate away.
  6213. > "Maybe it's better. I'll be traveling for a long time without any breaks."
  6214. > Wordlessly you embrace him.
  6215. > Even that seems insufficient, and when the knock comes on your door it feels all too soon.
  6216. > Nonetheless you answer it.
  6217. > Anonymous himself stands there, a somber expression on his face.
  6218. > "It's time. They'll be here to pick him up any minute now."
  6219. > The trip back to the manor is made in a morose silence.
  6220. > Once there Anonymous retreats to the his study for a moment before emerging with a packet he hands to Shining.
  6221. > "What is this?"
  6222. > "Corona's documents of ownership. I said I would send it with you, and I'm damn well going to keep my promise. There's also a letter there for her..."
  6223. > "I don't know if she'll want to read it."
  6224. > "Neither do I. But it's worth a try, at least. Oh, there's also some pictures of you, your family, and Megan there. She insisted. Wanted you to always have something to remember by."
  6225. > A touch of a smile, however wan, develops on Shining's face.
  6226. > "I'll keep her in mind. The horn ring has to go back on, I guess?"
  6227. > Anonymous grimaces.
  6228. > "Worse than that. For a runaway, you're supposed to be bridled and hobbled."
  6229. "Anonymous! There's no reason to put him in chains; he wants to go!"
  6230. > "Not my choice, Cadance. That's how runaways are transported."
  6231. > "Cady..."
  6232. > Shining leans over, nuzzling your chin.
  6233. > "I'll be fine, Cady. I've survived so much already, I can live through a few hours of this."
  6234. "I don't like it. They shouldn't do this to you. You're not some mindless brute!"
  6235. > Lips brushing your cheeks, Shining nods.
  6236. > "But this is what slavery is. Anonymous, do it."
  6237. > The shackles come first - closing around his fetlocks, a short length of hobbling chain linking each of them.
  6238. > A bridle is next:
  6239. > Not a lightly-resting thing like he had used with Megan or you had worn for him.
  6240. > This is heavy and thick, with a strong steel bit and muzzling straps to keep him from lunging or biting.
  6241. > Loosening the straps so they do not bite so cruelly into him is all Anonymous can do.
  6242. > As if this were not enough, an equally strict collar is locked around his throat - chain leads running from it and the bridle alike.
  6243. > At one point you turn to tell Flurry Heart to go back to Megan's room.
  6244. > She should not have to see her father like this.
  6245. > But one look at her expression tells you just how little chance of her fleeing would be.
  6246. > Lastly, the horn ring.
  6247. > A fierce shivering racks Shining's body as it is fitted into place, his pupils dropping to pinpricks as the ring severs his connection to magic.
  6248. > When he is done, Anonymous drops to one knee and holds a hand out to Shining Armor.
  6249. > "I'm sorry about this, Shining. I honestly am. You've proven to be a good husband and father, and I'm glad I got to see that side of you."
  6250. > Unable to speak, he just nods and lifts a hoof as far as the chains allow in return.
  6251. > Flurry goes next.
  6252. > Embracing him fiercely, she lifts herself up to whisper in her father's ear.
  6253. > Whatever is said makes Shining Armor begin to tear up at last, embracing her in return.
  6254. > Your turn is last.
  6255. > By now you have no words; you simply step forward and kiss him head-on.
  6256. > It is awkward due to the bridle, yes.
  6257. > But no less passionate.
  6258. > Nor does Shining hesitate for a moment to return it just as deeply.
  6259. > Then takes the package in his lips, lifts his head, and nods to Anonymous.
  6260. > Time to go.
  6261. > Your owner looks at the chain lead in his hand, then hands it to you.
  6262. > "I think you should walk with him, Cadance."
  6263. > Once you would have been enraged to hear him force you to carry out such a painful task.
  6264. > Now, you understand what he is giving you - a chance to spare Shining the humiliation of being walked out alone.
  6265. > On stepping out the door a new problem presents itself:
  6266. > Far from being alone, while you had been inside ponies had gathered around the manor.
  6267. > Shining's ears pin back at the sight of so many staring faces - and yet more arriving by the minute!
  6268. > He rallies, though:
  6269. > Lifting his head proudly, and marching forth as cleanly as the chains allow.
  6270. > You try to do the same and keep at his side.
  6271. > It is not easy; each step is another one closer to his departing again.
  6272. > Another hole ripped in your heart.
  6273. > Still you force your hooves to carry you on.
  6274. > Even as he crosses the open square with you to the front gate the crowd continues to swell.
  6275. > They watch in utter silence.
  6276. > Among the faces there you can see respect, anger, horror, and so much more.
  6277. > Thunderlane stands next to Granite Cleave - one hoof raised in stiff salute.
  6278. > Bon Bon's eyes are cold and hard, while Nurse Mellowheart's calm face seems to be actually genuine rather than a practiced mask.
  6279. > Sunburst, trying to keep himself under control.
  6280. > The colt who'd approached him that one night in the rec hall, who seems only to be able to stand for the support of the two ponies on either side.
  6281. > His face a portrait of utter horror and despair at seeing Shining shackled and lead.
  6282. > Just as Shining reaches the gate, a voice begins to carry from somewhere behind.
  6283. > “Equestria, the land I love. A land of harmony…”
  6284. > “Our flag does wave from high above,”
  6285. > “For ponykind to see…”
  6286. > Despite himself, Shining Armor begins to tear up.
  6287. > You're fairly close to completely breaking down yourself, as even more voices join the chorus.
  6288. > The crowd has swelled to tremendous size; nearly the entire camp must be here!
  6289. > “Equestria, a land of friends,”
  6290. > “Where ponykind do roam.”
  6291. > “They say true friendship never ends,”
  6292. > “Equestria, my home!”
  6293. > Every line seems louder, a swelling and roaring chorus of pony voices.
  6294. > The attendants waiting by the truck are gesturing and yelling, but they cannot be hear over so many voices singing in unison.
  6295. > Anonymous watches from his door with an unhappy look.
  6296. > He still makes no move to stop the display.
  6297. > The last lines are sung again; this time as the song comes to an end ponies begin dropping into bows:
  6298. > A few at first, then all more, until a visible wave is moving through the crowd as sheer herd instinct takes over.
  6299. > Shining has failed to keep his composure entirely; tears easily run down his cheeks.
  6300. > Arriving at the truck, he looks back at the camp one last time.
  6301. > Dropping the package on the ground, he - despite the chains - settles back on his haunches.
  6302. > It takes a few tries to avoid unbalancing himself.
  6303. > But eventually Shining Armor manages to hunch himself over enough to raise one hoof in a returned salute.
  6304. > Flurry Heart is embraced one last time against his side, and he delivers one final heartfelt kiss to you.
  6305. > And then he is gone:
  6306. > Taking the package again and hobbling up the ramp into the truck.
  6307. > You and Flurry remain there watching until it disappears down the road.
  6308.  
  6309. > To your considerable surprise, Cadance does not take the rest of the day off.
  6310. > You'd barely begun to ask the question when she dismissed it with a firm shake of her head.
  6311. > "I don't need to be dwelling on it right now. I need to think."
  6312. > That this had been said by a face framed by a sorrowful expression and deeply-bagged eyes obviously showing a lack of good sleep kind of diminished her point.
  6313. > Nonetheless you allow her to do as she wishes.
  6314. > Her waiting punishment is not brought up either; that too could be handled once her pain was a little less raw.
  6315. > Initially Flurry Heart had departed with her mother, but soon you caught her peeking around the corner of your study door.
  6316. "Lonely, little one?"
  6317. > "Yes, Master."
  6318. > Her downcast voice is accompanied by overtones of nervousness.
  6319. > As if she half expected you to jump on her.
  6320. > "Momma said I could stay with her, but she's working too hard trying to pretend."
  6321. > Always the workaholic when she was in a sour mood...
  6322. > As if she could somehow redeem whatever misdeed had brought this one her.
  6323. > Especially foolish now - this was no punishment.
  6324. > Shining Armor was simply owned by another person.
  6325. "And Sunburst too?"
  6326. > "I'unno where he is."
  6327. "Well, c'mere then Flurry."
  6328. > Your beckons summons an eager blur of pink and purple, the filly happily clambering up into your lap.
  6329. > The chair groans as she settles down - inadvertently giving you a face-full of feathery wing - and you grunt as her weight comes to rest across your thighs.
  6330. "You're getting pretty big now, girl. I think you might be in line to get as big as your mother."
  6331. > If not larger, on account of those grossly oversized wings.
  6332. > "You and Mistress Megan have been treating me very kindly, Master."
  6333. "And you've been keeping fit, too. Especially now that you can fly."
  6334. > Leaning over, you place a soft kiss on the top of her forehead.
  6335. > Flurry lifts her head to nuzzle your cheek.
  6336. > Soft little breaths puff against your skin.
  6337. > This close, however, you can also tell she is also just barely keeping it together.
  6338. "Don't worry, sweetheart. I'll make sure you see him again."
  6339. > "I-I'd like that a lot, Master."
  6340. > A tremble enters her voice, and you again set down the mouse to lift Flurry Heart into a hug.
  6341. > She takes it with gusto:
  6342. > Burying her head into your shirt and trembling against your chest.
  6343. > Just as she had done all those months ago when you had first wiped away her fears on arriving.
  6344. "Shhh. It's okay. You're allowed to be sad."
  6345. > "M-Mistress Megan will be sad too. I think she liked him."
  6346. "She will. But Megan will be a strong girl. So will you - be a strong filly."
  6347. > "Yes, Master."
  6348. > You need to change the topic now.
  6349. "Say, Flurry, as long as you're here... maybe you can give me some advice. But, you have to promise me that you won't tell anyone without asking first."
  6350. > With a little gasp she tears her face from your chest and stares up at you with eager eyes.
  6351. > "I promise, Master!"
  6352. "What would you do if you knew that two ponies kind of liked each other, and you thought it would be really nice if they ended up together. But, you didn't want to push them too hard?"
  6353. > "I, um..."
  6354. > Chuckling, you scratch the filly between her wings and earn a delighted coo.
  6355. > "-m-might not be able to answer if you keep doing that, Master."
  6356. "Sorry. Go on? I know it's a very big question and you haven't even found your talent yet, but you are your mother's daughter. Maybe you will have some of her talent.
  6357. > Drying her eyes with a wing, Flurry puts a pondering face.
  6358. > "So, like, they're in love but not sure they want to be?"
  6359. "Well, I don't know if I would say they're that far. Let's say they're friends, but might be more."
  6360. > "Weeeell. Maybe, what if you got one pony to say they loved the other, but they didnt know other pony was listening?"
  6361. > You can't help but chuckle softly.
  6362. "Sounds like it came out of a book or something."
  6363. > Flurry squirms around onto her back and tucks her forelegs up against her chest.
  6364. > Worried eyes look up at you.
  6365. > "It was a story I heard. Is that a bad idea?"
  6366. > God, you're helpless against that look!
  6367. "No, not at all."
  6368. > Your hand descends to rub absentmindedly over her belly, palm running over the velveteen coat covering it.
  6369. "In fact, it might just be worthwhile trying... since you and Megan aren't back in your room yet, I imagine you've seen Mocha Cream downstairs?"
  6370. > "Yeah. Why? She seems sad-"
  6371. > A little foalish gasp and she cranes her neck to look up at you.
  6372. > "Master! Does Mocha love somepony?"
  6373. "Actually, Flurry, Mocha... well, she thinks she loves me."
  6374. > "But..."
  6375. > Big eyes screw up in confusion, muzzle wrinkling in a scrunch.
  6376. > "...you're her master, and she's your pony."
  6377. "Yes, I know."
  6378. > Though that hardly seemed to matter for some people...
  6379. "But, there's someone else I think she might care for. Someone who might make her happy again."
  6380. > Cadance had urged you to leave it to her...
  6381. > But it wasn't really interfering just to give a chance for things to be set in motion, was it?
  6382. > Do a little more 'direct management' of your herd.
  6383. > Not like you would be really pushing them to date or locking them in a room together.
  6384. > ...or maybe the Princess of Love herself would be better off handling this.
  6385. [Choice]
  6386. "I think, maybe, that you had better tell your mother about this."
  6387. > "Awww."
  6388. "Something wrong?"
  6389. > "No, just... Momma's really sad right now, and I dunno if she'll feel like it-"
  6390. "Maybe not. But, you know this sort of thing is her talent, right?"
  6391. > "Uh-huh."
  6392. "Well, maybe your mother would like to have a bit of something to keep her mind off of this, you know? I know it feels good when you're able to work at something you're good at."
  6393. > "That's why you gave Mocha Cream her job, right?"
  6394. "Exactly."
  6395. > Giving her belly one last rub, you flip Flurry Heart back over and start in on her back - digging your thumb in between her wings.
  6396. > God, you need this sometimes.
  6397. > It was almost therapeutic.
  6398. > Fuzz therapy.
  6399. > She probably did too, considering what she's just been through.
  6400. "I'm sorry it hasn't worked to heal her heart, but it has helped some. Maybe this will help your mother, until we can arrange for all of you to see your father again."
  6401. > "Uh-huh."
  6402. "And then Mocha can be happier as well, I hope."
  6403. > "Uh-huh."
  6404. > Yeah, you kind of doubt she's listening to you at this point.
  6405. > Maybe too caught up in the massage, or maybe just too deep down in her own concerns.
  6406. > Either way-
  6407. > Slipping your hands beneath Flurry Heart's forelegs, you lift her up in front of you with a grunt.
  6408. "Hey. Listen, it's going to be okay in the end. Understand?"
  6409. > "Yeah."
  6410. > Reaching out, she taps you on the nose with a hoof.
  6411. > "Don't you be sad either, Master. Okay?"
  6412. > Laughing softly, you bring her in to rest your forehead against hers.
  6413. "Okay, Flurry. I'll keep that in mind. Now, why don't you go back to your mother and tell her what I just suggested, okay?"
  6414. > "Could I stay here with you, Master? At least until Mistress Megan comes home. I won't bother you, I promise!"
  6415. > You almost give in to those pleading eyes.
  6416. > Almost.
  6417. "No, Flurry. I think right now your mother needs you. And I'm sure if you go to see her, she'll make some time for you."
  6418. "Hey. There will be plenty of time later."
  6419. > You plant a kiss on her forehead, just beneath her horn.
  6420. "Plus, Megan will need your time then as well."
  6421. > ...
  6422. > The phone's insistent ringing cuts through the soporific late afternoon.
  6423. > Tapping the speaker on, you speak up even as fingers continue tip-tapping away on the keyboard before you:
  6424. "Hello, Anonymous here."
  6425. > "Hey. It's me. I, uh - just wanted to say, Shiny got home safe and sound."
  6426. > Ah!
  6427. > You'd been expecting this call - it'd been a couple of days since you'd seen him off already, after all.
  6428. "Good to hear. I'm sorry they had to deliver him like that, all chained up-"
  6429. > "I kind of expected it. Running away and all... anyway, the letter. I... thank you for that."
  6430. "Did Corona read it?"
  6431. > "Only after I did first."
  6432. > 'And?', you want to ask.
  6433. > Maybe that came through without even being said, because a crackly sigh comes across the phone.
  6434. > "Corona's been quiet. Staring off into the distance a lot. I think the fear you'd find her was always looming over her even out here, and now she's still coming to terms with it being gone."
  6435. "That's - better than before though, right?"
  6436. > "Yes. No nightmares so far, at least."
  6437. > Sounds like an improvement to you.
  6438. "Well, I'm just happy it's off her back now. What about Gracie?"
  6439. > “He told you about that, huh?”
  6440. > A soft, but bitter-sounding chuckle.
  6441. > "That’s going to take a while longer. It’ll happen, though. Shiny's already been asking me when he can go see his wife and kid again."
  6442. "I don't blame him. About that, though..."
  6443. > "Yeah, look. I think some sort of middle ground would be best."
  6444. "Agreed. More drivable for both of us, and will keep Corona's mind settled. Rent a hotel room for them or something."
  6445. > "Will places there rent to just a couple ponies alone?"
  6446. "I don't know. Maybe an AirBnB. Look, worst comes to worst we get another room for one of my guys to babysit them for a day or two."
  6447. > Although, you'll have to make sure it's a place with thick walls.
  6448. > Otherwise they'd get the thudding and whinnies of those two going at it every night...
  6449. "Anyway... I think it'll be a few weeks out."
  6450. > "Besides, Shiny is still grounded for a long time."
  6451. "Heh, sounds about right. I'll reach out to you about letting them talk over Skype safely."
  6452. > "Sure thing."
  6453. > The phone clicks to silence, and you return to your typing.
  6454. > Only for it to ring again perhaps a minute later.
  6455. > Without even looking you tap the speaker button.
  6456. "Hello again. You forget something, or is Shiny looking to talk?"
  6457. > "I'm looking to talk alright, Mr Anonymous, but I don't think I am who you think I am."
  6458. > Anger - and a bit of horror - surges into your veins.
  6459. > You fumble to pick the handset up and cut the speaker.
  6460. “Arlene Donovan.”
  6461. > "I see you remember me."
  6462. "How could I forget? You gave my ponies quite the fright - drove one to tears with your “investigations”, and then riling up that crowd of hooligans outside my facilities."
  6463. > "I did no such thing. I was merely observing in case an incident occurred."
  6464. "Well, one didn't - only barely. No thanks to you."
  6465. > Your force your teeth to unclench for fear of grinding them down to nubs.
  6466. > It would do good to contain your anger here.
  6467. > If she really was determined to pin something, an angry outburst would do no good.
  6468. "So then, Miss Donovan, what can I do for you."
  6469. > "I'd like to talk to some of your staff and ponies. In private. The staff we can simply request, but the ponies I have to go through you for."
  6470. > Damn right she does.
  6471. > And you aren't budging.
  6472. "And can I ask the nature of your inquiry?"
  6473. > "That is something to be discussed in private."
  6474. > The hell it was!
  6475. > Your ponies, your business!
  6476. "I'm afraid-"
  6477. > You swallow, trying to put your anger down a notch again.
  6478. "-I'm afraid having to put them in for another interrogation would be seriously disruptive to my business. If you could inform me-"
  6479. > "Or I could get an order for questioning."
  6480. > Your stomach clenches.
  6481. > There's no way.
  6482. > If someone had squealed on you already, it would be you they were looking to question.
  6483. > Not to poke around with your ponies.
  6484. > A slave's testimony wasn't even admissible in court, otherwise there'd be Masters always worrying that a few ponies they had disciplined would gang up on them!
  6485. > It's a bluff.
  6486. "Then in that case, you'll have to convince your superiors of your grounds. Or you could start talking to me."
  6487. > Amusement is heavy in her voice.
  6488. > "You think you're calling my bluff, Mr Anonymous. I am not bluffing."
  6489. "Is there anything else, Miss Donovan?"
  6490. > "I'll be in touch."
  6491. > You have to exert every ounce of willpower to avoid slamming the handset down.
  6492. > Damn her!
  6493. > Fingers grip the chair's arms claw-like, digging deep into the leather veneer.
  6494. > Eventually the anger wanes and leaves cold logic in its place.
  6495. > You'd deal with her in time; she clearly had no basis for a full investigation or your office would be full of agents right now.
  6496. > But at the moment you had bigger issues.
  6497. > Like a bit of discipline to enforce.
  6498.  
  6499. > You had a reasonable guess why Anonymous would call you back to your quarters early.
  6500. > Even so you avoid skulking in like a nervous filly coming home to an angry parent.
  6501. > Instead you enter with head held high.
  6502. > Knowing full well what you were going to.
  6503. "Master?"
  6504. > "Here, Cadance."
  6505. > Seated on the side of your bed, Anonymous pats the spot beside him.
  6506. > You hop up obligingly, falling prone beside him.
  6507. > "I... decided to do this out here, because it's the least-likely place anyone will hear. Flurry is off with Megan, so it's just us."
  6508. > What do you say to that?
  6509. > A 'thank you' is probably warranted, for not adding humiliation to punishment.
  6510. > It still feels wrong to say, though.
  6511. > Anonymous sees your hesitation and puts a hand on your withers.
  6512. > "I guess, I also want you to understand 'why'."
  6513. "I called Shining's master to plead for him to stay. Not just misusing your phones, Master, but also going against what you had decided."
  6514. > "Not... really."
  6515. > Another hefty sigh as he considers his next words carefully.
  6516. > "It's more than that, Cadance. You broke my trust by going behind my back. If you'd asked, I would have said to be wary - but yes, you could have. Instead, I find you sneaking into my house."
  6517. > Your eyes half close in understanding.
  6518. "Have you ever been so - so crushed by everything life has taken from you, that you just want one thing back from it above all else?"
  6519. > "Yes. But you could have gotten it after asking me permission."
  6520. "No. I would have been given permission by you to try it, not aimed for and seized it myself."
  6521. > Your head falls to rest atop crossed forelegs.
  6522. "Is your trust for me so fragile I cannot make phone calls?"
  6523. > "Do you think you don't deserve this?"
  6524. "I went behind your back, as you warned me against doing."
  6525. > "That's not an answer."
  6526. > No, it wasn't, was it?
  6527. > Hands slip beneath your chin, lifting your head up to his.
  6528. > "Cadance, I'm not doing this because you disobeyed me as a friend. I'm doing it because our trust was broken. By you."
  6529. > He truly doesn't see why those things cannot be separated, can he?
  6530. "...let us please get this over with."
  6531. > "Alright. Lay across my lap - here, like this..."
  6532. > Sweet Celestia, this is really happening, wasn't it?
  6533. > Somehow it hadn't seemed real until now.
  6534. > Outrage rekindles itself within you.
  6535. "Now, Anonymous, I don't think that's really necessary..."
  6536. > A few smacks around the rump was one thing, but being put over his knee like he'd done with Megan...
  6537. > No.
  6538. > Just, no.
  6539. > It'd be almost as humiliating as when he'd paraded you around in the tack-and-chains outfit!
  6540. > "Well, Cadance? I'm waiting."
  6541. > Hesitantly you crawl forward until your belly rests over his knees.
  6542. > Going prone to balance on Anonymous' legs proves to be a tricky business, forcing you to both keep yourself upright on your forehooves and stretch your hindlegs out behind you.
  6543. > Awkward, but not impossible.
  6544. > And leaving you uniquely vulnerable, unable to easily lift yourself back upright.
  6545. > Your wingtips are already twitching nervously.
  6546. > "Good girl. Now, tuck your tail down?"
  6547. "A-Anonymous, please. I don't think it's necessary to take it this far-"
  6548. > You're quite unable to keep the nervous tremble out of your voice, but he seems totally unphased.
  6549. > "Master. Punished ponies don't get to use first names. You should know that by now, Cadance."
  6550. > Really?
  6551. "Master, then. I get the point; you don't need to - Eeeep!"
  6552. > A most un-princessly noise is dragged from your lips as your tail is dragged down between your haunches.
  6553. > Okay, it is far better than being - exposed by having your tail pulled aside.
  6554. > But still!
  6555. > It takes all your will to keep your wings from snapping out in instinct and bowling him back.
  6556. > "Now, Cadance. Keep calm, and let's get this over with."
  6557. > When the first slap comes down across your haunches, your mind goes completely and totally blank.
  6558. > He didn't just-
  6559. > He couldn't have just-
  6560. > There wasn't any way he would have-
  6561. > "I warned you. Protesting just makes it worse. Now, are you going to be silent and let me finish? Because I can assure you, fighting it is just going to make it all that much worse."
  6562. > You can only splutter wordlessly.
  6563. > Finish?!
  6564. > He meant to do more?!
  6565. > Yes, he did - a point driven home as his palm drives home on each of your cheeks, delivering a pair of resounding slaps.
  6566. "Ah! Anonymous, it's enough!"
  6567. > "Not if you're still not paying attention, it isn't. Focus, Cadance - see how it doesn't actually hurt that much? As long as you don't hit too hard, it only builds up over time. And you've got plenty of padding there."
  6568. > You really don't.
  6569. > You weren’t lucky enough to be gifted with an abundance of rump.
  6570. > Not like your aunt, or even Twilight for her size.
  6571. > What is important, is that Anonymous had actually dared to take you over his knee like a child!
  6572. > Your cheeks must be cherry-red with the way they're burning right now, and a worried little voice says that your hind cheeks will be in a similar state if he keeps this up.
  6573. > Which he is.
  6574. > Very effectively - his open palm beating a regular drumbeat on your rear.
  6575. > Already you can feel the pain beginning to settle in deeper, a dull and pulsing throb.
  6576. > Enough is enough!
  6577. > You try to stand, only for his free hand to push very firmly down on your withers.
  6578. "An-Master, this isn't funny anymore! Please, stop it!"
  6579. > "I wanted this to be fast and simple, Cadance - over and done with. But if you keep fighting I will make it harsher. Do I need to get a bridle for you?"
  6580. > He's absolutely serious about this.
  6581. > The prospect of being bridled as he lay a beating against your croup.
  6582. > Instead you are reduced to resting your head against the bed as flat as your horn will allow.
  6583. > Barely enough to hide the tears beginning to leak from your eyes.
  6584. > Not from pain.
  6585. > As he had said, this was still far less than if he had used a belt or - Celestia forbid - a whip.
  6586. > But tears of humiliation.
  6587. > You had gone behind his back to regain some control over your life, a need to hold some choice of your own driving you to take that risk.
  6588. > And here he was, tearing that pride right back down with this debasing and foalish treatment.
  6589. > A fresh reminder of how little choice you actually had.
  6590. > Whimpering softly, you try to keep your tail from instinctually flicking that punishing hand away - lest the abject humiliation of exposing yourself to him be added on top!
  6591. > How many blows has it even been?
  6592. > You didn't think to count!
  6593. > Now you understand why he had wanted this done out of view from the rest of the camp.
  6594. > In some ways this hurt even more than what he'd done when you begged him to punish you, and that had been pure agony.
  6595. > This, though, was a pain of the soul.
  6596. > Mortification combines with the growing haze of pain around your hindquarters to grow into something darker:
  6597. > Anger.
  6598. > Fury at how he seemed determined to tear down what little self-determination you had claimed.
  6599. > And bitterness at-
  6600. > "Cadance?"
  6601. "M-Master?"
  6602. > Your voice is weak and shaky.
  6603. > "Let me go, Cadance."
  6604. > Let him-
  6605. > Oh.
  6606. > Oh no.
  6607. > Belatedly you realize your horn had unconsciously lit.
  6608. > A magical field gripped his hand to keep it from striking another blow.
  6609. > No, not just his hand.
  6610. > Both hands, and his chest too - pinning him back against the bed.
  6611. > In a panic you snuff your magic, horn going dark, and clamber from his lap to sink into a deep bow on the floor.
  6612. > Both wings spread wide and low in supplication..
  6613. "Forgive me, Master! I-I didn't mean to do that, I let myself slip away-"
  6614. > With a raised hand he stops you.
  6615. > "Come back up here, Cadance."
  6616. > Legs trembling, you do so - carefully climbing onto the bed.
  6617. > Using magic against him, to restrain him no less!
  6618. > That was no small thing!
  6619. > When you sink down to stretch across his lap again, it is with utter certainty that your punishment just became