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Choose Your Own Slaveventure Part 6 (Complete) (CYOA)

By Lurkernon
Created: 20th December 2020 05:23:48 AM

  1. Originally posted August 2018
  2.  
  3. > It feels strange.
  4. > Laying there and letting the hands which were just beating a humiliating lesson into your rump caressing your mane.
  5. > Like he had a switch, turning him from cold Master to actual man with a heart.
  6. > At the same time you are hardly keen to pull away.
  7. > Resting in his like this with in his embrace, you are abundantly aware of just how close you just came to total disaster.
  8. > If Anonymous had reacted poorly to your lashing out with magic like that...
  9. > A shudder runs through you nose-to-tail.
  10. > Visions of horn rings or being locked away in a cell to await a more serious flogging dance in your mind.
  11. > "Hey. Shhhh. It's okay, Cadance. It wasn't really all that bad of a punishment, was it?"
  12. "N-No, Master."
  13. > You force - or try to force - the shaking to stop.
  14. > "Then what is it? The magic? You didn't hurt me. I'm more surprised than angry."
  15. "I could have-"
  16. > "I know you could have, Cadance. I remember when you damn near put that guard through the wall."
  17. > You were going to say you could be in line for something far worse.
  18. > But that seems out of place to say now.
  19. "Lashed out... I just lashed out at you, I..."
  20. > "Yeah, well... sometimes we lash out. Trust me, I would know. You stopped yourself and didn't hurt me, so that's what counts."
  21. > The analogy is utterly false.
  22. > Wanting him to stop beating you is nothing like when he had snapped and lashed out!
  23. > At you, or at Corona.
  24. > Even so you are glad to hear the equivalency in his words.
  25. > It was reassurance nothing more would suddenly fall on your head later.
  26. "Forgive me, Master. It was..."
  27. > "No, I should have realized. That time I whipped you - it was the first time you'd been whipped, wasn't it? Should have realized this should bring back bad memories-"
  28. "Not that, Master. Not that at all."
  29. > You allow yourself to slip further into his grasp, resting your head on his chest.
  30. > Whether there's some actual comfort taken in the touch, however bizarre that may seem.
  31. > Or it is, as your more cynical side says, nothing but a ploy to gain his sympathy.
  32. > Either way, it still feels like something you should do when on such rocky topics - especially after nearly losing control of your own magic.
  33. > The specter of a restrictor ring coming down on your horn just when you thought it was safe is one that still haunts you.
  34. > Best to show him there was no need to fear.
  35. "I was... angry. Not because of the pain, but because I felt like..."
  36. > No, no!
  37. > This still wasn't the right way to go around doing it.
  38. > Sighing, you let your head hang forward until your mane falls over your face.
  39. "When I went to make that call, I did it because I wanted to prove - to myself - that I wasn't totally reliant on your handouts. That I could still make my own decisions. That I wasn't - wasn't -"
  40. > "Broken?"
  41. "Broken. I didn't want to be broken."
  42. > Even a flick of your tail sends another wave of subtle throbbing through your haunches.
  43. "And then you chose - chose the most humiliating way of punishing me I could imagine. As if - if you wanted to attack the pride I'd been trying to take back with that call..."
  44. > You can hear the rush of air moving in his lungs when he sighs.
  45. > "I didn't want to use a whip. Or a belt, or a paddle, or anything like that. Because that all felt like too much."
  46. "Too much for what? For having a little pride in myself? That's too much, but holding you back with magic isn't? I-"
  47. > Cutting off your snapped-out reply, you hiss softly.
  48. "I'm sorry. That's - that's what happened back there. It felt like you were trying to hurt my heart, if not my body, and I got angry."
  49. > "And you stopped yourself."
  50. > His hand settles beneath your chin, lifting your head back up.
  51. > "You stopped when I told you, and that's what counts. Still... I'm sorry it had to come to this."
  52. > An awkward silence falls between the two of you, each desperately searching for a change of topic.
  53. > He gets there first.
  54. > "Has Flurry had a chance to tell you her 'big idea' yet?"
  55. "For helping Mocha and Rumble? Yes, she did."
  56. > Despite yourself, you manage a small but heartfelt smile.
  57. > If only just for having something else to talk about.
  58. "Very foalish, but very sweet. I do not know if I will follow through with it in particular, but perhaps something similar... Let one of Rumble's friends be the one to overhear it, maybe...."
  59. > "Sounds like playing chess with ponies' hearts."
  60. "You don't need to tell me to be wary, Master."
  61. > You drag your hoof across the bed, drawing interconnected creases in the sheet.
  62. "When your talent leaves you as open to the hearts of others as I am, you feel the true pain of every break."
  63. > "If only everyone could feel that."
  64. > If only, indeed.
  65. > Maybe then he could feel the pain that slavery causes everypony here.
  66. > "Still.. I'll be glad if it does work. For both of them."
  67. "Rumble as well?"
  68. > "Absolutely. I think he's been happier since he found something else to be focused on. Something to grow. This, I think would do him good as well."
  69. > Even as he says that, though, his eyes are distant - pondering.
  70. > This is not the only thing on his mind.
  71. "Is something else worrying you, Master?
  72. > "Yeah... There is something else you should know. I got a call today from Arlene Donovan. Remember her?"
  73. "Her?"
  74. > You cast your mind back - back to the agent who had first tried to pry into Thunderlane's mind.
  75. > When that had failed, she'd turned up with the protestors outside.
  76. "What did she want now?"
  77. > "To talk to you, and some of my employees. I told her she'd have to go through me first; I don't need her taking you apart the way she did Thunderlane."
  78. > Or, you wonder - as a shifting of your hindlegs sends a fresh snap of pain through your recently-beaten haunches - was it something else?
  79. > "She threatened to get an official order to force the issue."
  80. "She wants something. What?"
  81. > "My head on a platter, I presume. And it's got to be something about the eyes on me..."
  82. "Eyes?"
  83. > "Something Randall told me..."
  84. > You listen quietly, tail swishing, as he lays out what Randall had told him.
  85. > The news that the worst of the facilities - the 'glue camps' - were dying out already is welcome to you.
  86. > But something still doesn't add up.
  87. "Then, why does she want you so badly?"
  88. > "That's what I don't get. Despite everything that's happened, this is one of the safest large facilities for ponies. And that's what her agency is supposed to enforce anyhow - safety. Mistreatment."
  89. > The irony of their deciding that mistreatment begins somewhere above the level of holding another free pony in bondage never ceases to painful.
  90. > Still, you suppose you should be happy that such an agency exists at all.
  91. "Perhaps I should speak to her, even if just to determine what this is about."
  92. > "I'm hesitant, Cadance. Really, really hesitant."
  93. "I can hold my own, Master."
  94. > "Yes-"
  95. > A touch of a grin passes over his face.
  96. > "-you've stood your ground against me often enough that I know that to be the case. Trust me. But still..."
  97. > He ponders a moment longer before shaking his head.
  98. > "No. You focus on ensuring Rumble and Mocha have a good time together. I'll deal with Arlene."
  99. "Yes, Master."
  100.  
  101. > If there was one thing to be said for escorting Megan and Flurry around the camp, it was that at least now they did actually pay attention when you told them to stay with you.
  102. > That one attempt at running off had driven in the lesson not to deep enough.
  103. > And so you can follow alongside at an ambling pace, letting them occasionally scurry on a little ways ahead but always knowing both girl and filly will wait up for you.
  104. > Beside you, Seismic Shift an even more comfortable stroll, given his size.
  105. > "...so, you took the oath of the Royal Guard? What does that mean?"
  106. "A lot of things, though I'm still learning. Granite Cleave is teaching me some things - what he remembers from his time as a guard."
  107. > "But I mean, what does it mean about us guards?"
  108. "I'm not going to abandon you, if that's what you're meaning."
  109. > "Good. Because, honestly Thunderlane? You're doing better as our sergeant than anypony else could. Without you, I don't know if we'd have a leader. And we'd have to deal with them."
  110. > He subtly nods his head up towards the roof of one building, where a griffon sits perched sweeping the streets with golden, piercing eyes.
  111. "They haven't been giving you any trouble, have they?"
  112. > "No. But they respect you, so they respect us."
  113. "Well, I'm not quitting. Not just yet."
  114. > You put on a little speed, to where Flurry is now fluttering around the upper floor of a building acquiring a new roof and coat of paint.
  115. > Tongue stuck out one side of her mouth, she lights her horn and sprays a thin stream of paint straight from the can to splatter against the side of building.
  116. > Megan explodes into giggles as some of the paint splatters back - catching both other pony workers and the alicorn filly in its path.
  117. > A smile plays about your lips as you shake your head.
  118. > Foals.
  119. > You hoped Sunbreak wouldn't be that much of a hellion growing up...
  120. > At least you wouldn't have to worry about unicorn magic too!
  121. > Still, for now you could put up with this madness.
  122. > Especially if it meant Flurry and Megan were happier; both had taken Shining Armor's departure hard.
  123. > Flurry for obvious reasons; Megan, you suspected, was merely upset she had not been excused from school to be there for Flurry through what was obviously a very difficult time for her.
  124. > Not to mention-
  125. > Your gaze snaps aside.
  126. > A pony had just trotted around a corner, out of sight - something tucked beneath one wing.
  127. > It takes a moment for you to recognize him - the one colt who'd approached Shining Armor that one night at the rec hall.
  128. > He'd been pretty torn up at Shining's sendoff too.
  129. > Noticeable, certainly, but not something to be concerned about...
  130. > So why was that warning-tingle at the back of your head whispering that something was wrong here?
  131. > Something about how he'd been moving?
  132. > A furtive glance over his shoulder?
  133. > You don't know, but-
  134. "Seismic? Keep an eye on those two for a moment. I gotta see something."
  135. > "What? Hey, Thunderlane-"
  136. > You're already off, picking up your pace to a fast canter to catch up.
  137. > He's got the lead, but you're moving fast - fast enough to catch him disappear into one of the residential blocks.
  138. > But not which door.
  139. > Shit, shit!
  140. > Now you warning sense was on full-bore, insisting that something bad was about to happen.
  141. > Breaking into a fully gallop, you pause at each door - listening through for any sign of activity.
  142. > It feels like when you were looking for Cotton Cloudy.
  143. > Trying to find the filly too terrified to appear before the guards.
  144. > But now you are the guards, and you won't hurt-
  145. > There!
  146. > Movement, and soft cursing.
  147. > You go to tap the door open, but it slides open easily under your hoof.
  148. > This close, you can get a better look at the colt - no, the young stallion - too:
  149. > Tan coat fading into white around his legs and muzzle, coppery-red mane.
  150. > And a classic caught-in-the-act look - eyes wide, one hoof raised, clearly paused mid-motion.
  151. > But you couldn't be happier to have caught him.
  152. > There might have been a little time yet, but the shelving shoved to the middle of the room - just beneath the light fixture - and the rope already binding his wings tells you enough of what he had planned.
  153. > What is left of the rope was pooled around his hooves; clearly tying the last knot hadn't been as easy as he'd hoped.
  154. > Taking another cautious step forward, you raise a hoof defensively.
  155. "Easy, there. It's okay. I'm not going to punish you."
  156. > "N-No. Go away, I don't want you here-"
  157. "I'm staying though."
  158. > You drop to your haunches, though - making yourself seem less threatening.
  159. > Still more than enough leverage to leap if you needed to.
  160. "Trust me... whatever's hurting you, it's not bad enough to make this worth it."
  161. > "Shut up! You don't understand."
  162. > The young stallion has begun to tremble, his hoof jabbing accusingly.
  163. > "You're a guard. You can't understand."
  164. "I am a guard. But I'm here to protect you, so - try me. Please. Just tell me."
  165. > While you talk your mind is whirling.
  166. > There's no doubt you can stop him if need be.
  167. > Fighting him is not what you want, though.
  168. > But neither do you want a repeat of Chrysocolla's death at her own hoof.
  169. "I promise you're not going to be punished just for talking to me. And if this is about something you did-"
  170. > "Did? I can't do anything! I never will, 'cause we're never going to be free! Shining Armor was stronger than any of us, and they dragged him away in chains like an animal!"
  171. > Tears leak from his eyes as the young stallion slumps in place.
  172. > "He got away. He found his family. And they still took him away again. He can’t come back for us now. Nopony will come for us.”
  173. "You can't know that. One day-"
  174. > "No! It's - it's never going to happen. We're all going to die slaves and I can't take it anymore!"
  175. > "What's going on?"
  176. > Both of you jump up in shock at the light, innocent voice.
  177. > Oh, no.
  178. > You did not need Megan or Flurry to see this.
  179. > In the doorway, Seismic Shift gives an apologetic frown from behind the two young ones.
  180. > "Sorry, Thunderlane. On my own I couldn't stop them from getting around me..."
  181. [Choice]
  182. "Flurry, Megan - can you just step outside for a little while?"
  183. > "But Thunderlane-"
  184. "But nothing. Remember how you're supposed to listen to us when we're walking you around out here? I'll come out in a little while, but for now you wait. If you give Seismic Shift any trouble, he'll let me know."
  185. > "Aaaaalriiiight."
  186. > You wait until the door is closed before turning back around to face the colt.
  187. > To his credit, he doesn't try to flee when you approach.
  188. > Maybe being this far immersed in despair has already made him too dulled to try fighting back.
  189. "What's your name, then?"
  190. > "Barnstormer."
  191. "Barnstormer, huh?"
  192. > You lean over and take the knot binding his wings in your teeth.
  193. > A few tugs and pulls, and it falls loose around his barrel.
  194. "Listen... I know it seems rough. But you're wrong."
  195. > "How?"
  196. > He might not be fighting, but Barnstormer was trembling.
  197. > Pale legs shaking softly as he tried to support himself.
  198. > "You tell me, huh? What's going to change about this? Who's going to free us-"
  199. "They will. One day, they will - because there are good people out there. People like Megan. And if we keep our spirit alive, then that day will come."
  200. > "Keep our spirit alive? How do we even do that, huh? Who's looking out for us-"
  201. "I do solemnly swear, having been granted this rank by the right of their Highnesses Celestia and Luna, to defend Equestria and her ponies by hoof, by wing, or by horn against any foes which may threaten them and to stand by my comrades in discharging their duty in wartime or peace, faithfully upholding the Harmony which binds us all together."
  202. > Listening in quiet awe, his mouth half open in a small 'o', as you carry through the lines.
  203. > "Who - what's that-"
  204. "It's the oath of a Royal Guard. Do you know who taught me that? Shining Armor did. Because no matter what happened to him, he wanted someone else to uphold that spirit."
  205. > You stretch out a wing across Barnstormer's back.
  206. "He understood that you can't win every fight now. But you can fight back by ensuring we don't die."
  207. > "We are going to die, though. In slavery."
  208. "No."
  209. > Pulling the young stallion against your side, you embrace him with one free hoof.
  210. "We stand for each other. We look out for each other. We support each other, because that's how we survive. That's how we fight back, and they can't stop us. I do it because that's my duty as a Royal Guard, but everypony here has a reason."
  211. > He melds into the embrace, listening to you talk.
  212. > It seems to be a good sign, you think.
  213. > Being overwhelmed by the sense of loneliness, he wouldn't be willing to accept your comfort if it wasn't getting through.
  214. "Barnstormer, I want you to listen to me. Fact is, we're kind of isolated here. We get some news, yeah, but we can't really see what it's like outside."
  215. > "What's that matter?"
  216. "What it matters is, things are changing out there. Think about what Shining said at the rec hall that night: There are humans out there who will fight for us. Were you even listening to him?"
  217. > "Yeah! But then..."
  218. > He looks back down again towards the floor.
  219. > "...but then they took him away anyway. It didn't help in the end."
  220. "Maybe not now. Maybe not right here. But tell me this, Barnstormer: Did you see Shining Armor wearing a horn ring when you spoke to him?"
  221. > "N-No..."
  222. > You lean in and ask:
  223. "Do you think they could have forced him to go back that quietly if he didn't really want to?"
  224. > Squirming, Barnstormer struggles for an answer.
  225. > "...maybe they put it on him while he was sleeping?"
  226. > You give him a very flat look and his squirming only deepens.
  227. "And he'd still just walk away like that? Shining Armor was speaking up against slavery. Against the humans that keep us here. He's not a broken pony. And he wouldn't want to pass on the legacy of the Royal Guard if there wasn't hope?"
  228. > Sitting and thinking on that for a very long time, Barnstormer eventually huffs softly.
  229. > "I dunno. It feels like that's just something they'd tell us to keep us working..."
  230. "Y'know, my little brother felt a lot the same way."
  231. > "That's... Rumble, right?"
  232. > You grin; it seems having a somewhat higher profile today had its side effects.
  233. "Yeah. Rumble. He got angry instead of just sad, but in the end he found that there are better ways to fight back - ways that are still helping all of us. And I bet you can find something better to do than this."
  234. > He doesn't look too confident in that
  235. > "Are you gonna have to tell Anonymous about this?"
  236. "Yes, I will. But - I swear to you, as a Royal Guard, I will stand between you and him if he tries to punish you at all."
  237. > The barest touch of a smile crosses his face.
  238. > "You really going to stand up to him?"
  239. "Of course. I'm a Royal Guard. That's what we do: We protect ponies."
  240. > You open the door again to find two expectant faces waiting just outside.
  241. > Half of you was hoping Megan and Flurry would have gotten bored and moved along, but somehow they're still here - sweating in the summer heat and waiting to hear the results of your efforts.
  242. "Hey there, you two. Barnstormer, have you met each other before?"
  243. > "No..."
  244. > All of a sudden he is surprisingly shy, trying to tuck himself in behind your wing again.
  245. "Well. I'm sure you know of them. Megan, Flurry, this is Barnstormer. He was, uh... he was feeling pretty sad, so I had to talk to him a bit-"
  246. > "Why?"
  247. > Megan pauses, then adds:
  248. > "Why was he feeling sad?"
  249. > "It's - 'cause - 'cause I felt like I was going to live the rest of my life in here. Just... working for you, or your father, with no one really caring what happened to me-"
  250. > "That's wrong!"
  251. > Stamping one foot onto the concrete, she shakes her fists in a classic pout.
  252. > "It's - not like that! We are supposed to look after ponies. That's what daddy told me when he gave Flurry to me. I have to look after her too!"
  253. > Concluding that by wrapping a protective arm around the filly's neck, Megan glares at him.
  254. > Belatedly, Barnstormer seems to realize that maybe attacking her father wasn't the best idea.
  255. > His eyes fall, and he mumbles out:
  256. > "Sorry... I didn't.. wasn't trying to..."
  257. > So, too, does Megan soften her expression.
  258. > "M'sorry you were sad, but... it's not like that. It shouldn't be like that."
  259. "Hey... why don't we all head back to the house, and you two can talk more there."
  260. > ...
  261. > Anonymous listens, then calls Cadance and has you repeat the story.
  262. "...honestly, Master, you need to take a bit more consideration when you do things like sending off Shining like that. I'm not surprised somepony had this reaction, and it could have been a lot worse."
  263. > "Well, I didn't exactly expect all of you to show up! I thought we'd just quietly walk him out the gate, that would be it. That's why I brought him in here before putting all that shit on him."
  264. "Why wouldn't we, after how important he was?"
  265. > You glance to Cadance for support.
  266. > "...he's right, Master. I didn't plan for that to happen, but I can't say I am surprised."
  267. > "I am. Especially someone like Barnstormer. I looked his file up; he's been here for years with no trouble. No fighting, no discipline record, no warning signs at all. But if you hadn't followed your instincts, Thunderlane..."
  268. > Massaging his forehead, Anonymous grimaces sharply.
  269. > "I have to thank you for that, by the way. Another death right now would have been bad."
  270. "What do we do with him, though?"
  271. > "Put him under supervision, for starters-"
  272. "Master. Anonymous."
  273. > He looks up, perhaps surprised you would use his name.
  274. > Maybe he was used to it from Cadance, but not from you.
  275. > Subtly widening your stance, you shake your head.
  276. "I can't let you punish him for this. It wouldn't be right."
  277. > "Easy, Thunderlane. I'm not looking to punish, but given what he did... hell, I think even Barnstormer will understand if we put him under observation for a few days. That okay with you?"
  278. "Yeah. That'll be fine."
  279. > "Where is he now?"
  280. > "Downstairs, with my daughter and Megan. We left one of the house staff watching him."
  281. > After you step out with Cadance, she pulls you aside for a quiet talk.
  282. > Your eyebrows continue to rise as she explains her plan to you.
  283. "You're joking."
  284. > Cadance smiles softly, although you cannot help but notice how awkwardly she walks.
  285. > "I am not. I have even convinced the cooks to make a special dinner for them."
  286. "Don't you think you might be pushing this a little hard?"
  287. > "No. The cooks seemed to think it was very sweet. Especially Vapor Trail."
  288. > You groan.
  289. > Of course she would think that; Rumble was practically a little brother to her now too.
  290. > And since she hadn't been put back on proper duty until Sunbreak was a little older...
  291. > "I'm not going to force it on them, Thunderlane. But they will both be out to look over the messages dropped in the camp's mailbox tonight. I will simply remove part of the stack to be done, and then show up a bit later with food for them - pretend I thought they might be working late and would not want to pause to eat..."
  292. "...when they'll actually be finishing early. Coming from you that's still a little obvious, Princess of Love."
  293. > "Sometimes, we must be blunt. Unless you would prefer to do it?"
  294. > A smirk crosses your lips.
  295. > "No, Vapor Trail apparently decided this was a good idea, so she can do it."
  296. > Cadance laughs softly, then winces when she tries to sit.
  297. "Are you hurting?"
  298. > "Nothing deeply. Just - a bit of an ache."
  299. > Your own smile fades too.
  300. "Your Highness-"
  301. > "It is nothing I cannot handle. Yes, Anonymous struck me if that is what you were going to ask. But it was only his hand, and I am a grown mare. I can handle a few swats to the rear just as well as you or Lattice could."
  302. > There is something she is not saying, but you sense it is a private matter - not something to push on.
  303. "If you say so, Your Highness..."
  304. > "Besides, I want to see these two made happy. Yes, I was punished by Anonymous - but between that and the incident you brought to me this afternoon, I feel it is best to not let it overwhelm us."
  305. "Just keep pushing forward."
  306. > "And spreading love, yes."
  307. > Cadance sighs, shifting a touch so her rump rests differently on the cushion.
  308. "...perhaps I am being selfish, but seeing this to its end will be its own reward for me."
  309. "Do you want me to deal with Barnstormer, then?"
  310. > "After tonight I think I can handle his situation."
  311. > She hesitates and lowers her voice.
  312. > "And... Thunderlane, I cannot be deeper in your debt. If there had been another pony lost-"
  313. "Don't be. What I told him is honestly true. Being a guard means I protect ponies. I look after them. It's my duty, just like it was Shining Armor's."
  314. > That earns a soft smile from her.
  315. > "Why don't you head downstairs, check on them. I'd like to talk to Anonymous about one other thing."
  316. > You do, albeit with a soft laugh.
  317. > The last time you'd left her back there to talk to him, you had blundered into Shining Armor.
  318. > What would it be this time?
  319. > Nothing so dramatic, it seems, as you find both ponies and girl seated in a circle in the family room.
  320. > Barnstormer's eyes are wide, wings half-extended.
  321. > "He - a-actually let you ride him?"
  322. > "Uh-huh!"
  323. > Megan giggles wildly.
  324. > "And it felt really weird, because, like - I knew he was letting me, right? He had his horn, he could have thrown me right off if he didn't want it. He was strong enough to catch me when I fell off!"
  325. > "So then... why didn't he?"
  326. > "Because, like... it wasn't me making him do something. I - I don't know how to say it!"
  327. > Flurry lifts a hoof to touch her Mistress' side.
  328. > "Can I?"
  329. > "Sure. If you can."
  330. > "It's... before he let her on, he showed her how to take care of him. So she wouldn't hurt him. There was a bunch of stuff she had to do so he'd be comfortable first."
  331. > Barnstormer ponders the filly's words, looking thoughtful.
  332. > “So it was like… she had to show him she’d be kinder first?”
  333. > “Uh-huh.”
  334. > “Yeah. There was-”
  335. > Flurry pauses, a melancholy look passing over her face.
  336. > “-there was some other girl who he talked about a lot. She was the one who showed him things like that first. He really, really seemed to like her..”
  337. > "Besides-"
  338. > Megan chirps a moment later.
  339. > "-besides, your dad's going to be coming back soon, right?"
  340. > "No, not coming. Master says we'll get to go see him soon, though."
  341. > "Wait, really?"
  342. > "Uh-huh! He promised we'd get to."
  343. "And when Anonymous promises, he does follow through. I'll give him that much."
  344. > You drop onto your haunches next to Barnstormer, settling a wing across his shoulders.
  345. > "R-Really?"
  346. "Really. Like I told you before, I don't think they could have moved him easily if he didn't have that kind of assurance."
  347. > It doesn't take long for Anonymous to come downstairs with Cadance.
  348. > Barnstormer shifts back into your side at the sight of him.
  349. > It does feel a bit odd, having a near full-grown stallion clinging to your side like a foal.
  350. > Even so you do not move an inch.
  351. > Anonymous seems to sense what is going on, and squats down a few feet away from you.
  352. > "Hey there, Barnstormer."
  353. > "M-Master..."
  354. > "Thunderlane told me what happened. We all talked, and - well, we're all still pretty worried about you. So, we'd like to keep you under observation for a little while."
  355. > Barnstormer's ears fall back, his tail pinning down.
  356. > "B-But your said-"
  357. > "Not in a cell. It's not a punishment; you'll just be in the clinic for a little while so the nurses there can keep an eye on you."
  358. "That's not too bad. Heck, I've been in there for a few days. They're nice there."'
  359. > Tapping him on the side, you stand.
  360. "Come on. Let's get you on over there, okay?"
  361. > You're almost out of the room when Megan's voice rings out:
  362. > "Why does he have to go to the clinic, though. Is he sick?"
  363. > Everyone tries to hide their grimaces at her question.
  364. > How do you explain that to a child?
  365. > You lead him into the next room and get the door closed before Anonymous can answer.
  366. > Barnstormer goes off to the far side of the room, while you remain at the door with one ear cocked to it.
  367. > "Megan, sweetheart... sometimes when ponies - and people too - get very, very sad, they do things they don't really mean to. They're hurting so badly that sometimes they do things to try to make that hurt stop, but those end up making everything worse."
  368. > Cadance joins in as well.
  369. > "Indeed. We just want to make sure Barnstormer is okay, and is gonna keep being okay. He's not in trouble."
  370. > After a moment, Megan mournfully asks:
  371. > "Can... we go visit him there?"
  372. > "If... the nurses think he's doing better, I don't see why not-"
  373. > "Yes!"
  374. > The little pitter-patter of feet on the floor is the only warning you get before the door bursts open and Megan comes charging through with Flurry hot on her heels.
  375. "Woah, hold up a moment-"
  376. > "Hey! Hey, daddy says we can visit you there too!"
  377. > Barnstormer grunts softly as they both plow into him and hug him tightly.
  378. > The moment he realizes not only is his master's daughter embracing him but an alicorn filly as well, the dun coat about his cheeks reddens considerably.
  379. > "I-I don't-"
  380. > "We will come visit you, both of us! I promise."
  381. > A tentative, cautious smile spreads to Barnstormer's face.
  382. > "Y-You sure?"
  383. > "Uh-huh. If the nurses say you're okay, so you get better fast!"
  384. > Barnstormer eventually extends a wing to wrap around Megan cautiously, as if he feared being punished for daring to touch her.
  385. > Eventually he lets go, looking to you.
  386. > "You're going to walk me over?"
  387. "Yeah. Let's go?"
  388. > The walk is made in near total silence.
  389. > When you arrive, Barnstormer is left seated in the waiting room while you speak quietly with one of the nurses.
  390. > Soon enough a room has been made ready - that is, all rope, sharp objects, or anything else a pony might misuse removed - and you lead him into it.
  391. > Barnstormer takes a look around and hops up onto the bed, flopping to his side.
  392. > You put a hoof next to him, extending a wing in what you hope is a comforting manner.
  393. "Hey... it's not a cell, and you aren't being punished."
  394. > "Going to be locked in here, aren't I? Kind of feels like it."
  395. > Before you can speak again, he shrugs his wings dismissively.
  396. > "I know, I know... it isn't. I know."
  397. "Look. There will be a nurse by soon to take a look at you, and before you know it you'll be out of here."
  398. > You lift your hoof to offer it to him.
  399. "And remember: Just because we're isolated in here, doesn't mean we're going to be like this forever. One day, we'll be out of here."
  400. > ...
  401. > That evening finds you standing just outside Cadance's office, waiting for a particular pony to emerge from within.
  402. > Vapor Trail appears in due time with a soft smile on her face.
  403. "How are they?"
  404. > Your whispered question only produces a widening of her grin.
  405. > "They're great. I think they'll be here for a while."
  406. > Nudging the bundle of fur and feathers curled in a saddlebag at her side, Vapor adds:
  407. > "I made a show of fussing over Sunbreak so I could stick around while they got started. They're already doing great."
  408. "Do you think it will actually end up being anything?"
  409. > "Do you not? Cadance seems to think there is hope."
  410. "I don't know. It's not that I don't trust her judgement, but pushing them together like this..."
  411. > Vapor places a small kiss on your cheek."
  412. > "Hey, it worked well for us didn't it?"
  413. "Yeah, it did. It just feels like a relationship isn't something that should be rushed. Like, ever."
  414. > "Bah. They'll be fine. We're just letting them have dinner together."
  415. > Pulling back, Vapor Trail spreads her wing and looks back at you.
  416. > "Coming?"
  417. > Then she is off, although you have little trouble keeping up; one mare carrying a foal to boot is no match for a fit stallion.
  418. > When she settles on a nearby rooftop, your jaw drops.
  419. "You're going to spy on them?!"
  420. > "Are you not?"
  421. > Well..
  422. > It isn't right...
  423. > With a grimace you throw yourself down next to her.
  424. > Vapor shoots a smirk in your direction before withdrawing Sunbreak from her saddlebags and nudging her into her belly to nurse.
  425. "...maybe I'm the one fussing over them, honestly."
  426. > "You're just trying to be a good big brother. Mocha Cream's the one I'm more fearful for, though."
  427. > Sighing softly, she rests her chin on the edge of the roof - still warm from the summer's baking sun - and sighs.
  428. > "Taken from her family at such a young age... she really hasn't had anypony to look out for her. And, that's important, you know? Being - part of the herd. A herd."
  429. "Oh, so now you're open to being part of a herd, hrmm? Should I start looking around for another-"
  430. > "Finish those words, Thunderlane, and I'll buck you off this rooftop."
  431. > There's laughter in her voice, though, and you only grin back.
  432. > "...you know what I meant, though. She doesn't have anypony, which I think is why she fell so hard for Anonymous. Even though it wasn't healthy."
  433. "I'm not disagreeing. I just - don't feel like I know much about love."
  434. > "You know plenty enough for me-"
  435. > Across the way, one of the town hall's doors opens.
  436. > Both Rumble and Mocha Cream steps out; there's some quiet gesturing discussion between them and gesturing from Rumble, although about what you cannot tell.
  437. > That only becomes clear a moment later, when Rumble slips his hooves around Mocha's barrel and - with some effort - manages to lift her up to the rooftop.
  438. > A couple more trips brings the trays of dinner up as well.
  439. > "...well, looks like someone thinks alike to his big brother."
  440. "Let's be fair, an office isn't exactly the most romantic spot to have a date."
  441. > "Then it's good that they're dedicated enough to try for another, isn't it?"
  442.  
  443. > The following day Anonymous calls you to a meeting with Thunderlane.
  444. > "Cadance, have you had a chance to check with the nurses yet?"
  445. "I have. They believe he was very genuine in his intentions. If Thunderlane had not stepped in..."
  446. > A shudder sets the tips of your wings trembling.
  447. > Rubbing his forehead, Anonymous grimaces.
  448. > "That's what they told me as well. Again, Thunderlane, I... well, 'I owe you' doesn't even begin to cover it."
  449. > The stallion shrugs.
  450. > "I am just surprised you let him off so easily. No punishment, I mean."
  451. > Lifting his head, Anonymous shoots him a strange look.
  452. > "He was hurting enough already, Thunderlane. Yes, he took himself out of work doing this - but I'm not stupid enough to punish for being depressed. Honestly, I'm a little surprised you would even think I'd punish him for that."
  453. "We're both glad to know that. As is, I am sure, Barnstormer."
  454. > Thunderlane shuffles nervously.
  455. > "I... guess I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions so quickly. Back before, when ponies were sick they sometimes got accused of malingering, trying to get out of work. I... panicked."
  456. "Before, yes. Not anymore."
  457. > You shoot a look to Anonymous who cocks his head.
  458. > "In truth, it is something I'm worried about. I don't want to take him off work forever, and the thought did cross my mind he might have been acting out for attention."
  459. > He pauses, and adds more softly:
  460. > "But if that had been for attention, he wouldn't have tried in private. Sending him back to work now would just validate his fears. He needs some time to himself."
  461. "I see..."
  462. > "Hell, Megan was very upset the nurses didn't feel he was ready for her to visit. Point is, I'm not going to toss him back on the work crew just yet. I think he will be better, though."
  463. "Good."
  464. > When no more questions come, you glance aside to Thunderlane.
  465. "...if I may address some much-needed lighter matters - how did it go last night?"
  466. > The change of topic brings a grin to his face.
  467. > "Magnificently. It was all Rumble could talk about this morning. I think those two will do just fine."
  468. > "...can I ask, what the two of you are talking about?"
  469. "Oh, nothing!"
  470. > Your singsong tone betrays your lightened spirits.
  471. "I may have set up a date between Mocha Cream and Rumble last night, and let Vapor Trail carry it out."
  472. > "Did you now?"
  473. > Anonymous manages a modest smile.
  474. > "I'm more glad than ever I agreed to let you find a way for that mare to stay comfortably."
  475. "Tell me, Master, did you see any change in Mocha this morning?"
  476. > "It's... hard to say."
  477. > He rubs his chin thoughtfully.
  478. > "I didn't see any really massive changes, but I've been trying to limit my contact to more... professional sorts of things. She might have been a little bit more 'peppy', I suppose? But it's hard to tell after one day."
  479. > Even that is enough to set your heart beating.
  480. > It hadn't been in vain!
  481. > There was hope to be had for her too!
  482. > And now-
  483. > Anonymous looks aside as his computer chimes, the sign of an incoming message.
  484. > It does that a lot, but the way his face changes as he reads through it tells you this is no ordinary message:
  485. > The smile fading, nose wrinkling and eyes narrowing.
  486. > "I don't fucking believe it..."
  487. "What is it, Master?"
  488. > "She actually did it. That fucking bitch actually managed to get a court order forcing me to present you."
  489. > Your stomach falls out as well.
  490. > Thunderlane gives a startled whinny and rears back.
  491. > "That - that woman? I have to go see her again-"
  492. > "No, just Cadance. For now. Apparently I'll have to either present her or set a time for her to come here and interview with Cadance in a private space."
  493. > Anonymous' hand slams down on the arm of his chair, accompanied by a bellowed swear:
  494. > "FUCK!"
  495. > Rising, you approach his chair.
  496. > One hoof is placed on the seat to let you rise up and nuzzle his hand.
  497. "Easy, Master. Please..."
  498. > After a moment, his hand un-clenches to stroke your cheek.
  499. > "Sorry, Cadance. This wasn't your fault... I just don't understand what her obsession with me is. With you, for that matter."
  500. > You let him do that a moment before pulling back.
  501. "What will you do?"
  502. > "Well... in all honesty, I'll leave that one up do you. I could tell her you'll be available immediately, or put it off - I can't forever, of course, but a few days. If you wanted more time to prepare? Or maybe you'd prefer to just confront this now."
  503. [Choice]
  504.  
  505. "I don't see the point in delaying it any longer than we must. Tell her I will be ready as soon as required - say, a day or so from now?"
  506. > "Understood. I'll take that up with her."
  507. > "I'll, uh..."
  508. > Thunderlane glances between the two of you.
  509. > "...I'll get back to work, then?"
  510. "Yes... and again, Thunderlane, I'm so glad you spotted Barnstormer before he could-"
  511. > He huffs softly, ears pinned back.
  512. > "I know. And so am I - if I'd found him... after, I don't know what I would have done."
  513. > You wait until he closes the door before speaking again.
  514. "It's not going to be easy to solve this, Anonymous."
  515. > "Yes."
  516. > His hand comes to rest on top of your head again, rubbing between your ears.
  517. "What Barnstormer feels is understandable. He is not sick, he really did mean to do it. You may not understand why, but - it is like when you... spanked me, Master."
  518. > "What?"
  519. "It felt..."
  520. > Your head falls, staring at the floor as you try to conjure what emotions had flowed through you.
  521. > The deep shame at being handled like a foal.
  522. > The burgeoning anger that he could not even give you that much...
  523. "...it felt like you were attacking my pride, Anonymous. Deliberately trying to humiliate me for having the little bit of self-determination that I could make the call myself."
  524. > "That wasn't the point at all!"
  525. > A hand slips beneath your head, tilting it up to look at him.
  526. > To let you see the worried expression on his face.
  527. > "That wasn't about your pride at all! Hell, that's not ever an issue; you've got more than enough of that. It's because you went behind my back. Even as a partner, that's not acceptable."
  528. "Well, it felt like it!"
  529. > Whirling about in place, you place both hooves on the chair and use them to lift yourself up so that you can look him straight in the eye.
  530. "It felt like it, Master. It felt like you were telling me that we aren't partners, that I'm just a slave and I have to ask your permission before I do anything for myself!"
  531. > Rather than angry, though, he just looks sad.
  532. > Again a hand comes up to stroke your cheek.
  533. > "An apology is owed, then. Because I didn't mean that at all."
  534. "Whether or not you meant it, Master, that is how it felt. And Barnstormer is no different: You may not have meant to crush him with day in, day out work but that is what happened. And while I may trust that you only accidentally degraded me, he will be harder to convince."
  535. > "I... Cadance..."
  536. > His hand falters.
  537. > "I've been thinking, and I..."
  538. "Master?"
  539. > "...nevermind. I don't know."
  540. > Leaning in, you brush your muzzle to his cheek.
  541. "You must try, master. You must keep trying."
  542. > No answer comes, but he lifts a hand to rest on one of your shoulders.
  543. > You lift one wing up just enough to touch his wrist with its crest.
  544. "Please. Send the message to Arlene Donovan. I do not believe it should take long to figure out what she wants.
  545. > ...
  546. > Arlene Donovan's car is surprisingly nondescript.
  547. > Somehow you had expected it to be a slick black thing with tinted windows, or one of the rough military monstrosities you had been hauled about in after your capture.
  548. > Instead it is little more than an average vehicle, unrecognizable but for a small sticker on the door indicating the agency to which it belonged.
  549. > She herself was much like you remembered:
  550. > Stepping from the car and proceeding into the manor with a confident, fast pace.
  551. > Her suit clean and professional, hair that might have been shoulder-length bound up behind her head in what you understood to be called (ironically) a pony-tail.
  552. > Eyes regarding Anonymous coolly as she steps into the manor.
  553. > "Thank you for agreeing to allow me to visit so quickly, Mr. Anonymous."
  554. > There is absolutely no real thanks in that tone, and he can tell.
  555. > "My sole goal here is to let this get to the bottom of the matter sooner rather than later. The faster we can get to the truth, the better."
  556. > "...yes."
  557. > Her eyes flick around the entrance room, taking in the wealth he lived in - and then landing on you, patiently seated at Anonymous' side.
  558. > "I assume you have a room ready?"
  559. "If you will follow me, I can take you there."
  560. > "Good. For the purposes of this investigation, Mr. Anonymous, you will not be able to enter the room while I am interviewing your property-"
  561. > "I remember what the email said, Miss Donovan. You will get your interview, trust me."
  562. > She smiles thinly.
  563. > "I am afraid that under the circumstances, that is one thing I cannot do."
  564. > Managing to pull her away before the bitterness between them grows even greater, you lead her downstairs to one of the house-slave quarters.
  565. "You will, I hope, forgive the tight quarters. My Master suspected you would want a room out of the way, where you would not be bothered."
  566. > "That is true."
  567. > You close the door behind her with a flick of your horn; within, a rough simple table had been set up along with a folding chair and pillow for you to sit on.
  568. > Arlene sets her briefcase on the table; the first thing to come from it is a black box.
  569. > When plugged into the wall it produces a low, hissing roar like a distant wind.
  570. > "A white noise machine, to prevent anyone listening in on us. I will be recording what we say so I can review it later; is this acceptable?"
  571. "You know nothing I say is admissible as testimony in court?"
  572. > "I know, of course. But I can still review it myself and include it in my report."
  573. "Then please do."
  574. > "Good. Also I must apologize, Cadenza, for the way I behaved in our previous meeting. I placed a great amount of pressure on the pony in the guard - Thunderlane, yes? - and it was... hard on him. For that, I am sorry."
  575. > Your eyes narrow; was this meant to be some tactic?
  576. > She did sound genuinely apologetic, though.
  577. > Another box is placed on the table and a button pressed.
  578. > This, you presume, is the recording device.
  579. > "Now, for the record, please let us verify: You are Mi Amore Cadenza, currently bonded in service to one Anonymous..."
  580. "Yes."
  581. > "Very good. I am here to make an offer to you regarding our ongoing investigation. We have received evidence that your owner, Anonymous, is directly responsible for the killing of at least one pony. He is also implicated in the unnecessary torture of others and possible killing of one."
  582. > A computer is placed on the desk and opened as well as she speaks.
  583. "I see. And my reason for cooperating in this would be...?"
  584. > "Aside from the chance to bring him to justice?"
  585. > When that fails to elicit an answer, she goes on:
  586. > "In return for your cooperation, we are prepared to offer a writ of freedom to yourself and your daughter. Under the Special Circumstances code, for assistance in a legal investigation."
  587. > Well, you aren't surprised she has to go over this again; after all, her last time telling you was through... highly unconventional means.
  588. "While that is definitely appreciated, I believe you are missing the point."
  589. > "Then explain it to me, please?"
  590. "I have been placed at the head of this... community. However much I may hate it, these ponies are my responsibility. If what you say is true, and if he is imprisoned, they will be lost."
  591. > "He uses you as an enforcer, Cadenza. There is no need to defend him."
  592. "He does. But that much is not illegal."
  593. > No matter how much you wished it would be.
  594. > "And does the suffering of those ponies, the ones you are 'responsible for', not move you at all? Do you feel nothing at the prospect of gaining justice for their suffering?"
  595. "I do. But not at the cost of every other pony here. I cannot let them be sent anywhere where they might suffer too."
  596. > The mask of professionalism begins to crack, a frown crossing Arlene's face.
  597. > Papers are withdrawn from her bag.
  598. > "Perhaps I should remind you of what has occurred here."
  599. > The first is placed on the table.
  600. > Autumn Frost's face stares back at you - bitter, pained, and accusatory.
  601. > "You know her, I am sure. Branded as punishment for damaging another pony. Punishment like that was not mandated. Nor was the fate she suffered after passing through the auction house."
  602. > The second paper bears another familiar face.
  603. > Comet Tail looks... empty.
  604. > He truly never had recovered from having the implant cut off his magic...
  605. > "I see you remember what happened to Comet Tail as well. Severing of magic by implant by no means mandated either; this was your owner's decision. What do you think happened to a magic-less unicorn?"
  606. > It is not something you wish to ponder on.
  607. > But Arlene gives you no reprieve, laying out another picture.
  608. > This time, it is a photo from another familiar pony:
  609. > Corona, from before she had caught Anonymous' unfortunate attention.
  610. > "Your master stands accused of torturing this one until she 'vanished'. I think we both know no pony in her state could have escaped; her bones are buried here, aren't they?"
  611. > More papers emerge from the briefcase.
  612. > "The list goes on and on. Haute Glamour, beaten to within an inch of her life. Chrysocolla, driven to commit an agonizing suicide by the fear Anonymous would lay his hands on her-"
  613. "That is quite enough."
  614. > Eyes closing, you draw a deep breath to steady yourself.
  615. "I am... abundantly aware of what you say has occurred here. But what you present as fact, you can't be certain of or there would be no need for this conversation."
  616. > "We have been informed-"
  617. "But apparently not well enough, or you would not need to bombard me with these - lurid baits"
  618. > At last her hand falls, sliding the next papers back into the briefcase.
  619. > Silence holds for a few moments as she considers you.
  620. > "...in truth, Cadenza, I had thought that after discovering what your husband had endured and then seeing him taken away again, you would be more sympathetic to this."
  621. "Miss Donovan!"
  622. > You stand, dropping a hoof to the table with a solid thunk.
  623. "That is - far, far beyond your purview. I see exactly what is happening here."
  624. > Leaning forward in her seat, Arlene matches you - both hands gripping the edge of the table.
  625. > "And what is that?"
  626. "You want, for whatever reason, to pin my Master with some crime. I do not understand why. What is it you're seeking? Approval from your superiors? A promotion? Pride, in taking him down?"
  627. > "What I want is to determine whether he is guilty of any crime-"
  628. "You have already concluded he is guilty! Now you just dig around his foundations, trying to undermine him. And for whatever reason, you need my help."
  629. > "I am carrying out a normal investigation through typical protocols-"
  630. "By lurking on the edge of the property with the protesters? Was it you who incited them to try and rush the fence? You didn't have any problem using the - connections I made to speak to me!"
  631. > In your anger, your voice has begun to rise - accompanying a furious lashing of your tail.
  632. > Speaking those words in Anonymous' home was dangerous, yes.
  633. > But so was this woman.
  634. > "I did no such thing. I was ordered to mix with them and determine if they knew anything-"
  635. "And all I have is your word on this. In the meantime, I see you try to tear him down again and again - and I remind you that he is our protection from far worse things here."
  636. > "He is your captor!"
  637. "He is my Master, yes, but we have lives here and you are trying to tear them apart! If you are so well-informed, then again: Why have you not charged him-"
  638. > "Because our informant is a pony."
  639. "What?! Who?!"
  640. > "Haute Glamour."
  641. > Instantly your lips are drawn back in a snarl, ears pinned as the beginnings of a scream build in your throat.
  642. > That bitch!
  643. > That complete and utter bitch!
  644. > Someway - somehow - she had managed to talk her way into the ears of investigators, and set them about tearing this place down.
  645. > Revenge, that is all this was!
  646. "Whatever she has told you, I highly advise you to disregard it all. Haute Glamour holds a - a vendetta against me and this place and is seeking to mislead you. She is-"
  647. > "A self-serving, conniving cunt who would sell out her own mother for her own benefit?"
  648. > Arlene's description catches you off guard.
  649. > Touches of a smile flicker around the edges of her lips.
  650. > "I'm not a fool, Cadenza. I see exactly what she is doing. But everything she has said so far has checked out. I can only push this so far on her word, though. To truly crack this investigation open, I need your help."
  651. "Carrying out her revenge plan will not help us, however."
  652. > "That's exactly what I am trying to do, though!"
  653. "What, help her get back at us for tearing her down when she was hurting ponies too? That's not-"
  654. > "I am trying to help you!"
  655. > Her shout is actually strong enough to give you pause.
  656. > What?
  657. > Help?
  658. > Both of you eye each other, breathing hard as tempers subside.
  659. "...explain yourself."
  660. > "You asked me why I'm not focusing on far worse places. The answer is because things are changing outside already, Cadenza. People are starting to form groups, fighting back against these cruelties. You know what you said, about a slave's testimony not being admissible in court? That could change, too. The Supreme Court - the highest court in our country, which can make a judgement which would affect the every state and territory here, is considering hearing a challenge to it."
  661. “Can they be overruled?”
  662. > “Congress… can, but on such clearly legal matters it would not be likely. The Court’s word would probably be final.”
  663. "I am glad to hear this."
  664. > "Things are improving. The worst of the labor camps are closing in droves. "
  665. > She hesitates, then lifts a hand to wave about - indicating the room.
  666. > "And then there are places like this. This is what they're going to become next - where ponies 'police' themselves and are given meaningless 'freedoms' while you're kept locked behind walls and in chains."
  667. "And you think tearing Anonymous down and sending him to prison will prevent this?"
  668. > "Destroy the lie, and let people know that there is no such thing as 'kind' slavery. That even here, ponies have been tortured and died because of this cruelty."
  669. > She leans in again, eyes intense and alight with some internal flame.
  670. > "Refuse... and the ones reaping profits from you will keep you locked up for years, maybe decades longer. They will wield their wallets to force through legislation protecting their 'humane' slavery. Exploit loopholes to protect themselves as long as it is profitable. Stop that, and you could accelerate the end of slavery by generations, Cadenza!"
  671. > The point is... difficult.
  672. > You turn it over in your head, dropping back onto your haunches.
  673. "Miss Donovan, I-"
  674. > Unfortunately, you had not been watching how you sat.
  675. > Coming down just a touch too roughly re-ignites lingering pains from his spanking; you are unable to avoid a hard wince as a fresh wave of soreness lances through your hindquarters.
  676. > Just for a moment you seen Arlene's mask slip.
  677. > Expression faltering from its severe and intent one to something softer and more caring.
  678. > "Has he forced himself on you, Cadenza?"
  679. "No!"
  680. > Rearing back, you shake your head furiously.
  681. "Of all - of all the things that I have suffered, that has not been one of them! It was merely a punishment."
  682. > "A beating. He has been beating you, Cadenza; call it for what it is!"
  683. > You hesitate, adjusting your seat to a more comfortable one.
  684. "Miss Donovan, let me explain something else to you. When he went to look for other investors to expand this camp, he had to present me to them as a - a thing. A pretty pet, a broken and obedient princess."
  685. > Leaning forward, you place both hooves on the table.
  686. "Your point about accelerating things here is taken. But, can I send them all off into the hands of men and women like that?"
  687. > "If you don't, men and women like that will end up owning more and more ponies anyhow."
  688. > You bite the inside of your cheek, drawing on all your experience as a princess to avoid letting the torrent of emotions sip through.
  689. > “Is this how you want to live? Being beaten? Having to watch loved ones being marched off in chains?”
  690. "I - I cannot give you an answer now."
  691. > "That is fine. There is time. I will have to demand an answer eventually, but you can take some time to consider it."
  692. > She pauses, then asks more softly, barely loud enough to be heard over the hiss of the white noise machine:
  693. > "Forgive me if this is too far again, Cadenza, but I wonder: How loyal are you really, if I was able to contact you through a group dedicated to helping ponies escape through to freedom?"
  694. > You don't answer, and eventually she shakes her head.
  695. > "I... apologize as well. When I see the potential to end this injustice early, I can become... very intent."
  696. "You are forgiven for being driven by what you see... but not for anything else."
  697. [Choice]
  698.  
  699. > You stand again, looking to the door.
  700. "Is there anything else, Miss Donovan, or may I be excused?"
  701. > "I..."
  702. > She seems to struggle with her emotions again, any number of them passing over her face.
  703. > "Cadenza, please... he holds your daughter's safety over you to ensure you are obedient! Can you really say he is your friend?"
  704. > No, you cannot just say that.
  705. > But neither can you tell her that Anonymous is your enemy.
  706. > Seeing your struggle, Arlene casts her eyes down.
  707. > "I thought about trying to buy a pony out of slavery once, you know. Give them a better home. One where they would be a slave in name only."
  708. "It sounds as though you did not, though."
  709. > "Even if I treated them like family, I would be paying a slaver. They would buy another pony in turn, and it would go on... eventually they would start looking for ways to - make more ponies, and I couldn't be part of that."
  710. > There is an unspoken challenge there, just waiting to drop:
  711. > Could you?
  712. > Your mind automatically goes back to Barnstormer's deep, lingering depression.
  713. > To Vapor Trail's fears for her own filly.
  714. > And, of course, to your own family.
  715. "...I will reach out to you with my answer. Or you may reach out to me."
  716. > "I... understand."
  717. > Good.
  718. > In a moment her mask is back on, voice returning to its typical clipped tones.
  719. > "When you go back up, please ask them to send down the next one I am supposed to speak to."
  720. > Anonymous is found waiting in the living room, a laptop.
  721. > "Well?"
  722. "Tell Randall that Haute Glamour is more resourceful than any of us thought."
  723. > "You're fucking joking."
  724. "I am not. Somehow she got through to Arlene, and not only accused you of cruelty but suggested you had murdered Corona as well."
  725. > "That I-"
  726. > Actually throwing up his hands in frustration, Anonymous shakes his head.
  727. > "How incredibly fucking ironic. Since I gave away her ownership papers, I couldn't drag her back into this if I wanted to."
  728. "I am aware."
  729. > "Yeah... not your fault, Cadance. I assume she wanted you to inform on me?"
  730. "Indeed. Apologized for her treatment of Thunderlane, but got similarly - intense this time as well.
  731. > "Why am I not surprised... alright, Cadance. Thanks. I'll get the word around to everyone else she's going to try and wring something out of today."
  732. > That much felt good to say, but you are still troubled by what Anonymous had said.
  733. > Trying to force through the more mindless tasks while turning the encounter over in your head.
  734. > The more you think about it, the more you come to a simple conclusion:
  735. > Anonymous had to know.
  736. > Not about your own - lines of communication to the outside.
  737. > But about Arlene?
  738. > About her plan?
  739. > Yes, he had to know.
  740. > So, that evening - once Arlene's car was well and gone - you head back up to the manor again.
  741. > Anonymous was found resting off to the side of the living room, watching Flurry Heart and Megan play amid the thick carpet that spans the room.
  742. > He pats the sofa to signal you to join him.
  743. > Settling on your side stretched across two cushions, you watch the two for a few moments before speaking:
  744. > A brief respite of happiness amid the torrent of emotions.
  745. "...there's more than what I told you before."
  746. > Rather than answer, Anonymous tilts his head in your direction.
  747. > Prompting you to continue.
  748. "It's not just that she is investigating you. She offered me my freedom to assist her."
  749. > "She what?!"
  750. "And Flurry too, if I could bring about your conviction."
  751. > Both of you had kept your tones low to avoid being overheard, but even so your daughter cocks an ear in your direction when her name was mentioned.
  752. > "Special Circumstances, for deeds or talents uniquely rendered in the aid of another..."
  753. > Anonymous bitterly mutters to himself, hands balling into fists in his lap.
  754. "Yes."
  755. > "But you are telling me."
  756. "I am. You spoke to me about trust, Anonymous. And right now I am trusting you with a lot more than this."
  757. > "Explain?"
  758. > Your hoof stretches out, starting to trace shapes in the surface of the sofa.
  759. "You told me that the worst of the labor camps are starting to close, and are looking to you instead. But Arlene pointed out many will be happy to continue exploiting ponies for profit."
  760. > "So she wants you to what - take me down instead?"
  761. "To make the concept of even a 'less restrictive' camp unappealing. To put me out there as a free pony, where I could begin pushing for even more rights for ponies."
  762. > "But you told me first instead."
  763. > Ceasing its tracing on the couch, your hoof stretches out to touch his leg.
  764. "You berated me for not acting like I trust you, Anonymous. Well, I am showing more trust than part of me thinks I should right now. The offer is - tempting. Can you confirm something she said for me, Anonymous?"
  765. > A test, to see if his trust stretches as far as yours does.
  766. "Arlene said that your Supreme Court is going to consider taking on a case - potentially allowing a pony to testify in court. Is it true?"
  767. > "Yes. It's rather contentious, for reasons I'm sure you can understand."
  768. > Of course you can.
  769. > Anonymous himself would be in danger in that case!
  770. "She also said that if I did not do this, and people did start trying to replicate your work, they would also use their money and influence to prevent further laws from being passed."
  771. > This, however, draws a powerful snort from him.
  772. > "That's a massive over-simplification. I don't see how that is tied to your actions in particular, Cadance."
  773. > Your eyes narrow.
  774. "That makes it sound like they will do so regardless."
  775. > "Some will, no doubt. And maybe it is true, they would have a harder time if you tore me down. But that's all dependent on social movements as well. There's only so much money can buy."
  776. > Bluster is something you know when you are hearing it.
  777. > Sighing, you drop your head the sofa.
  778. > A moment later Anonymous' hand comes to rest on the back of your neck.
  779. > Not to pet or stroke like you were an animal needing comforting, but in a simple gesture of reassurance.
  780. > "Were you tempted to take the offer, Cadance?"
  781. > This is a test, too.
  782. > Just like the one you gave him.
  783. "Of course I was. To not only be free again, but to be able to save yet more ponies from further slavery? This was sorely tempting, Anonymous."
  784. > His hand gently rubs the back of your neck, and you know he understands.
  785. > "Why didn't you?"
  786. "For starters, trust. I have no way to know how much of what she told me is true, except for her word. I had to ask you."
  787. > After a moment, you add more softly:
  788. "I do not think of her as an enemy, Anonymous. She seems to genuinely want the best for us. But I do not think she is my friend, either."
  789. > "I see."
  790. > You roll your head to the side, peering up at him with one eye.
  791. "Being enslaved for all my remaining days is not something I want to see. But, seeing the camp split up - seeing Megan sent off to who knows where?"
  792. > "Where am I going?"
  793. > Cursing softly, you lift your head to meet the questioning gazes of the girl - and your own daughter.
  794. "...nowhere, Megan. I'm just speaking to your father about - something that happened."
  795. > "Is it about that woman who was here earlier?"
  796. > You frown.
  797. "Weren't you at school then?"
  798. > "Uh-huh. But Flurry wasn't."
  799. > Of course those two would share everything...
  800. "...well, it is about her, yes. She thinks your daddy did some truly terrible things, and offered to free Flurry Heart and I if I would tell her that he had."
  801. > "Why would she want to take you away?!"
  802. > Sweet Harmony - how do you explain this to a little girl?
  803. "She... believes that if I do not, then more people will continue enslaving ponies."
  804. > "Oh..."
  805. > You can hear the next question coming even before Megan's lips open to speak it:
  806. > "Is that - bad? Isn't daddy good to his ponies?"
  807. "Yes. However - remember Barnstormer? He's saddened because he is a slave, even though there are other places where ponies are treated - worse. If more people enslave ponies, then more will be sad like he is."
  808. > "Why?"
  809. "Because - he is a slave. And sometimes, it feels really really bad to be a slave; you just want to be free. Even from a - better place like this."
  810. > "Which is why-"
  811. > Anonymous butts in, giving a guarded look from the corner of his eye.
  812. > "-it is important that we look after him and make sure he is better. Have you had a chance to go down and see if the nurses will let you see him yet today?"
  813. > "Uh-uh. Do you think they will?"
  814. > "It can't hurt to ask. Why don't you take Flurry and go see, sweetheart?"
  815. > Once they are gone, you cast your eyes down.
  816. "My apologies, Master. I didn't mean to bring her on to that topic."
  817. > "I'm not going to punish you, Cadance. But lecturing her like that... don't let me catch that again."
  818. "Yes, Master."
  819. > You won't give up, though.
  820. > If you do stick with him - if you do refuse Arlene's offer, in the end - it will be because of the hope that Megan will grow up seeing slavery for what it is.
  821. "May I go join them - seeing if everything is ready?"
  822. > "Yes, go ahead. I'm going to wait back here."
  823. > Today, apparently, the nurses had decided Barnstormer was well enough to see guests.
  824. > By taking to wing you are able to catch up with the pair shortly after they enter his room.
  825. > So quickly, in fact, that you can still hear Megan's excited greeting echoing down the hall as you touch down into it.
  826. > When you peer around the doorway into his room, she is still hanging onto him:
  827. > Arms wrapped in a tight hug around his neck.
  828. > "I'm so happy they finally let me see you again!"
  829. > "H-Hey there."
  830. > Barnstormer flushes, especially when Flurry joins in on the hug.
  831. > "Are they gonna let you out soon?"
  832. > "I don't know. I think so. I've been - speaking to one of the nurses a lot. Talking things over with her."
  833. > "Oh... and?"
  834. > He lets go of the hug, looking out the window.
  835. > "I don't know. It's - nothing is changing. It's - still the same as it was before."
  836. > Megan hesitates a moment, then glances to the door.
  837. > Your head pulls back just in time to avoid her spotting you.
  838. > "Barnstormer? I - Cadance said something just now. That you were sad because you were a slave, even though this is a better place. Is it true?"
  839. > "I - I can't- I mean, you and Flurry Heart-"
  840. > You can only imagine him choking on the question.
  841. > It is not the best one, after all.
  842. > Delivered with all the bluntness of a child who did not realize what they were asking.
  843. > "Please, Barnstormer?"
  844. > He sighs.
  845. > "Megan... you go to school, right?"
  846. > "Uh-huh. They won't let me take Flurry..."
  847. > "Imagine your whole life being like that. Day in, day out. Fourteen hours a day - keep doing the same thing, over and over."
  848. > You hear a bed creak, and dare to risk a glance back in.
  849. > Megan had hopped up onto the room's sole bed next to Barnstormer, and even as you watch Flurry Heart flutters up to settle beside him.
  850. > Having dropped to his belly, he shifted aside to make room for them.
  851. > "But I thought daddy lets ponies work on things that they're good at?"
  852. > "He - he does. Kind of. But, think of your favorite thing to do at school - maybe, aside from playing. Would you be happy if you had to do that all day, every day, for years? No hope of changing?"
  853. > After a moment, without a word she reaches out to pet his back.
  854. > Barnstormer nickers gently at the touch, his ears raising from their drooped position a bit.
  855. > "We don't even get to see who's made happier because of our work. Like, yeah, the supervisors are happy... but then it just gets shipped out, and there's even more."
  856. > "But... what about the other rewards? The rec-re-uh - uh - the rec place?"
  857. > That was from your daughter, and draws a soft laugh from Barnstormer - not of bitterness, but actual amusement.
  858. > "Oh, they're... they're nice. Don't get me wrong. I like them. But... it's not the same."
  859. > "Oh..."
  860. > Silence holds a moment longer after that, during which Barnstormer starts to lean into her touch.
  861. > "It's like we don't even exist to anyone. We're just a big blob of working 'things' - as long as we keep working, then everything's fine."
  862. > Meeting his lean-over, Megan slips an arm about his withers.
  863. > Again Barnstormer's russet cheeks coloring as Flurry Heart shifts closer to her Mistress and ends up resting against his leg as well.
  864. > "Miss Megan? What did you think about - Shining Armor?"
  865. > Her hand - which had been starting to rub his back slowly - pauses.
  866. > "He... he really scared me at first. But when I saw him again, he wasn't mad and was much nicer. He, um... I think he really loves his family. Since he came all the way here for Flurry."
  867. > Slowly Barnstormer nods.
  868. > "Sounds like you really knew him well. Do you miss him?"
  869. > "Yeah. And I know Flurry does a ton."
  870. > As if in answer, she nuzzles her head into Megan's chest.
  871. > "Do you miss him, Barnstormer?"
  872. > "Greatly. It was like - like a new day, hearing that there was still hope out there."
  873. > "Yeah... and I get missing family too, 'cause I know my daddy was real mad when I couldn't stay with him for a while."
  874. > This actually gives Barnstormer pause; he looks down at her again - forcing you to once more retreat behind the doorframe.
  875. > "But - I mean - it's not like..."
  876. > He hesitates, clearly unsure of what exactly he can say to the daughter of his Master.
  877. > "...Miss Megan, you know that pony families are - not often kept together, right?"
  878. > "Yeah, but Shining Armor was... I dunno. Maybe 'cause I talked to him more? Or 'cause I knew Flurry? But I think he was my friend too."
  879. > "Your friend?"
  880. > "I... guess? Yeah."
  881. > "O-Oh."
  882. [Choice]
  883.  
  884. > You slip away for just long enough to keep it from being apparent that you were snooping on their conversation.
  885. > Even though you were, well, a parent.
  886. > To one of them, at least.
  887. > And everypony used to say that Celestia was 'Equestria's mother'!
  888. > But that still doesn't mean that you had a good excuse for snooping, so instead you turn around at the end of the hallway and walk back at a rather more audible pace - letting your hooves click on plastic tile.
  889. > All eyes are already on the door by the time you enter it, offering the small group a warm smile.
  890. > Immediately Barnstormer dips his head into a bow, but you cut him off:
  891. "That's quite alright. Please, don’t trouble yourself for me."
  892. > "Your Highness..."
  893. > Barnstormer murmurs the title almost unconsciously, right before his eyes snap to Megan.
  894. > She doesn't comment, though.
  895. > Approaching, you lower your head and touch your nose to his.
  896. > He accepts the gesture with some degree of trepidation, finally relenting with a puff of breath through his nostrils.
  897. "I'm glad I can finally see you, Barnstormer."
  898. > "Nurses wouldn't let you come either, huh?"
  899. > You offer a sympathetic look.
  900. "It seems even an alicorn is nothing compared to a nurse looking after her patient."
  901. > An actual grin, if still an intensely bitter one, creeps onto his face.
  902. > "Yeah. I don't suppose they've said when they're going to let me out?"
  903. "I am afraid not, but I will ask them again when I go."
  904. > "...you're too kind to me, Miss Cadance."
  905. "Shhh."
  906. > Again you brush noses with him, drawing a bit more color into his cheeks.
  907. "But, what were you doing before I entered? I did not interrupt anything, did I?"
  908. > "Nah... we were just talking about Dad..."
  909. "Oh..."
  910. > Fortunately there's no need to obfuscate your emotions here:
  911. > The sadness in your voice was very real, but you only allow it to stay for a moment.
  912. > "Momma? When we go to see Dad again, can we take a picture to bring back here?"
  913. "Of course we can, little gem. Maybe even have him bring another picture for us from his home."
  914. > "Oh... but then it wouldn't be of all of us being together."
  915. "It doesn't have to be one or the other. We can take one there and have him bring one."
  916. > "C-Could it be one of Gracie?"
  917. > "Who's Gracie?"
  918. "A girl my husband knew. She was very, very kind to him when he was hurting. The first human, I think, he was able to look at as someone other than a Master."
  919. > "Other... than a Master?"
  920. > He seems so utterly unfamiliar with the idea that Megan actually sighs in frustration.
  921. > "It's what I was telling you before!"
  922. "Well, it might not be the exact same thing for you, Megan-"
  923. > After all, she was Anonymous daughter - and might someday be Mistress to more than just Flurry Heart.
  924. "-but yes. She was the first one Shining allowed to ride him, in fact."
  925. > "Shining said she was younger than me, so I bet he's huuuuuge compared to her!"
  926. > Barnstormer nods, a thoughtful look on his face.
  927. > "Miss Megan? What was that like? When he - let you ride him?"
  928. "It was... strange. It wasn't like riding a bike. He was... big. And of course he can think. He had to show me how to do it so I wouldn't hurt him. Or hurt me; I nearly fell off him once, but he caught me!"
  929. > "O-Oh."
  930. > Soon their conversation drifts on again - Megan offering small stories from the world beyond, from school or places she had seen while she toyed with Barnstormer's feathers or mane.
  931. > Some of the latter category came with a hint of sorrow.
  932. > They, you suspected, had been places she had gone with her mother.
  933. > Or before her parents even split.
  934. > Soon, however, Barnstormer's head begins to droop:
  935. > Her fingers' gentle touch bringing him to a more comfortable state in which his eyes hang half-shut and ears drooping.
  936. > Every few moments he would pop up again with a start, clearly struggling to stay awake.
  937. > Finally Megan had given up, just stroking his head.
  938. > "M... M'sorry, Miss Megan, y'can... go on. I jus'... didn' sleep real well-"
  939. > "It's okay, Barnstormer. Do you want to sleep? I'll stay a little longer."
  940. > He hesitates, but moments later his head is back down to the bed again - ears splayed as his eyes fall the rest of the way shut.
  941. > Leaning in, you whisper softly:
  942. "You two just don't be too late coming back, okay?"
  943. > "Yes, Miss Cadance."
  944. > With a smile you turn from the room.
  945. > On the way out, you catch sight of Nurse Mellowheart and hurry to catch her; when questioned about Barnstormer's case, however, she shakes her head.
  946. > "I don't know when we will be able to release him, Your Highness. We're none of us psychologists; the best we can do is guess."
  947. "Please, try your hardest."
  948. > "We are, trust me. In my opinion? He needs someone to connect with, badly. He's been worn down by seeing nothing for all his work."
  949. > Pausing, she adds:
  950. > "...not that we all haven't been, but it's hit him even harder than most."
  951. "I will take that into consideration. If he did have something, could you let him out of the clinic?"
  952. > Reassuring words or not, sooner or later Anonymous would want him back to work.
  953. > "If.. he did?"
  954. > Mellowheart cocks her head.
  955. > "I would want somepony looking over him still, at least for a while. But... if he did have that, and it helped him pick his spirits back up again? Yes."
  956. "Good. I think that would be right for him, if somepony could be found."
  957. > Or someone...
  958. "Getting out of here will definitely be better for him."
  959.  
  960. > "Haute Glamour."
  961. > Randall's grip on his cane is so tight, you can see his joints turning white.
  962. > "I should have made sure she was sent to the darkest, farthest corner of the world, Anonymous. I should have-"
  963. > "Master, please!"
  964. > It takes him a moment, but eventually Randall lowers a hand to brush Posey's mane.
  965. > Even that little gesture cannot hide the fury still showing on his face.
  966. > Radiating from his blind eyes.
  967. "...I realize it seems a little silly to say, but there's no need to beat yourself up over this. There's nothing that can be done about it now."
  968. > "Yes, but I should have realized then-"
  969. "And take it from me as well, Randall - from a man who knows about these things - vengeance is a tricky thing to be indulging in. Yes, maybe something could have been done to stop her - but Haute clearly has a golden tongue. It's not your fault."
  970. > He grunts softly, hand still stroking through Posey's mane.
  971. > "But now it is a problem for you."
  972. "It is. But it could have been a lot worse, if Cadance had not come to me first."
  973. > "Yes. That mare... you have a real treasure there, Anonymous."
  974. "Don't I know it..."
  975. > Your half-whispered admission was accompanied by a tapping of your fingers on the chair.
  976. > Her admission had probably saved you from far worse, yes.
  977. > Now, though, you had so much to think over yourself...
  978. > Already you had come close to giving her the answer she had been seeking before - telling her whether you would free her.
  979. > Before this had dumped a whole lot more in your lap.
  980. > Before Cadance had placed the well-being of your ponies, of your daughter, before her freedom.
  981. "...let's take this one step at a time."
  982. > "Agreed. Can this Donovan woman pin anything on you?"
  983. "Without Cadance? I don't know. She's been talking to my other employees as well, but they all know where they stand."
  984. > "Thunderlane?"
  985. "Is torn between hatred and fear. In either case, she hasn't interviewed him again."
  986. > "Can she assemble enough to pin something on you anyways?"
  987. "I... don't know."
  988. > The regular tap-tap of fingers turns to a regular, repeating ripple.
  989. "Or maybe it's more accurate to say, I know she can prove I did a lot of what she's asking about. But she can't hit me with any of the big crimes without evidence; maybe some small infractions?"
  990. > "So, nothing that would send you to prison... or force you out of contact with ponies."
  991. > Out of contact.
  992. > That would be a change, even if you were still 'free'.
  993. > They'd been a part of your life for - what?
  994. > Four years now?
  995. > Having a court order you to no longer be able to own one...
  996. "I do not believe so. However, just in case - I've been considering some contingency plans. Just rough ideas for now, but just-in-cases should she manage to get something pinned."
  997. > "Explain."
  998. > You do, and Randall's eyebrows shoot up.
  999. > "That would only barely work. It would get taken apart in any sensible court."
  1000. "But that would be enough time to set a more permanent solution in place. One that favors us - or Megan, at least. Or the ponies."
  1001. > "...yes, it could. Delay it with motions and misdirection. That much, at least, would actually work. Though, Cadance would not ever forgive you."
  1002. "She would live with it, though."
  1003. > "I think she would."
  1004. "That's all I would need. Okay, I think we know our path forward. If any of the investors give you any trouble, tell them I continue to soundly refute any accusations and her efforts are nothing but a rank-chaser looking for a big case to win."
  1005. > "Understood."
  1006. > Randall stands, and Posey quickly rushes to his side to provide guidance.
  1007. > He makes his way to your chair, placing a hand on your shoulder.
  1008. > "I think you'll do just fine, Anonymous."
  1009. > When Megan comes home that afternoon, you head downstairs to find her already sprawled out in her room - her room again, now that the damage which had been done to it had been repaired - with Flurry Heart.
  1010. "Hey there, sweetheart. How was school today?"
  1011. > "Boooring."
  1012. > With a roll of her eyes, Megan flops onto her back.
  1013. > "Super boring."
  1014. > You point to the tablet she had been playing around on.
  1015. "Uh-huh. Is that why you're already playing instead of doing your homework?"
  1016. > "I didn't have homework today!"
  1017. "Suuuure about that?"
  1018. > "Yes, Dad- eeeeeep!"
  1019. > Megan's protestations turn to shrieks as your hands descend on her sides, tickling furiously.
  1020. > "No homework! No homework, I promise!"
  1021. > Abruptly your assault is cut off by a ball of fur and feathers colliding with you.
  1022. > Flurry Heart's tackle sends you tumbling to the floor, if only for a moment.
  1023. "Oooof!"
  1024. > "I've got him, Mistress!"
  1025. "Oh, then I'll just have to interrogate you instead!"
  1026. > Deft fingers tease and tickle, and Flurry squirms wildly in your grasp - battering at you with her wings.
  1027. "Now, did Megan have homework to do or not? Speak!"
  1028. > "No, Master! Ahahahaha, s-she didn't, hehehhee!"
  1029. > Megan, in turn, jumps you as well, and soon you have a giggly girl and filly under each arm.
  1030. > Breathing hard, you flop back on the floor - just in time to catch one of the house-ponies watching through the doorway with an amused grin.
  1031. > You shoot them a smile back.
  1032. "Ooof... how am I getting too old for this already?"
  1033. > Lifting each hand, you ruffle Megan's hair and Flurry's mane.
  1034. "Okay. No homework today, so you've got some time. Maybe you want to go see Barnstormer again?"
  1035. > "Yeah."
  1036. > She pauses, though, squirming up and around to rest on top of your chest.
  1037. > "Daddy? Can I ask you something?"
  1038. "Of course, sweetheart. What is it."
  1039. > Both of Flurry Heart's ears prick attentively.
  1040. > That sets off a warning bell in your mind, but already it is too late.
  1041. > "Barnstormer said that he doesn't want to say here forever... so why does he have to?"
  1042. "I..."
  1043. > "It's... making him sad. Because he has to stay and work. So why can't he go somewhere else?"
  1044. > This - from your own daughter, no less.
  1045. > It's almost as bad as Arlene; the question was just as bad, and you could not rebuff Megan so easily!
  1046. "...it's not that simple, sweetheart."
  1047. > "Why not? Isn't there anyone else who would want a pony like him?"
  1048. "Well - yes, maybe... but-"
  1049. > "Then why not?"
  1050. [Choice]
  1051.  
  1052. "Megan, sweetheart, problems don't just go away because you move somewhere else."
  1053. > Pushing yourself upright, you scoot up against the wall and straighten your legs out.
  1054. > One of the children settles on each - Megan sitting on your left, Flurry sprawled out over your right - with their heads leaning on your chest.
  1055. "Life... life is hard wherever you are. Especially for ponies. If he went away, we don't have any idea if he'd be treated well."
  1056. > You hand traces up and down Megan's back, rubbing softly as she lays there.
  1057. "Tell me, what did he tell you?"
  1058. > She stalls, if only for a moment.
  1059. > Pondering whether to tell you?
  1060. > You hope not - and in any case, she's soon resumed.
  1061. > "He said it's like - like being forced to do schoolwork all day long. And even if you get to pick your favorite kind of classwork, it's still boring and hard."
  1062. "I imagine that's true, sweetheart. But remember, no other place is going to be that kind to him either. You know what I do here is much, much better than ponies have it in so many other places."
  1063. > "Y-Yeah..."
  1064. "So, if he's having this much trouble here, do you think he would do any better anywhere else? I'm afraid he would be just as miserable, and possibly be treated worse because of it."
  1065. > "O-Oh..."
  1066. "In the end, he still belongs to us. That means he has to work for us, the same way Flurry has to help you."
  1067. > "But I like helping Mistress Megan."
  1068. > The filly stretches out a wing to brush your daughter's shoulder.
  1069. > "She's my friend too."
  1070. > You switch your attentions, brushing your fingers through her mane - drawing a light flick from one of her ears.
  1071. "I know that's true. But, hasn't there ever been a time when you had work to do or lessons to go to with Sunburst, and you preferred to be doing something else?"
  1072. > "Well, yeah..."
  1073. "But you couldn't, because she's your mistress."
  1074. > Lifting filly and girl from your chest, you hold them up a bit so you can look each of them in their eyes.
  1075. "That's something you're going to have to learn about. Both of you, honestly. This business will be yours one day, Megan, and that means you will have to understand what they can - and can't - be allowed to do."
  1076. > "And me, Master?"
  1077. "You too, Flurry. You'll be advising Megan like your mother advises me, and you'll have to learn as well. Understand?"
  1078. > "Yes, Master."
  1079. "And you, Megan?"
  1080. > She gains a thoughtful look for a few moments, then lifts her head to look up at her.
  1081. > "W-What if he wasn't still be a slave? Could he be better somewhere else out there then?"
  1082. > You sigh.
  1083. > Putting her in close contact with a pony like Barnstormer... you'd been afraid this line of questioning would crop up.
  1084. "No, even if he wasn't a slave. Even free ponies don't have an easy time of it out there. Not even if he stayed free."
  1085. > "Oh..."
  1086. "He'd be out there alone, with no one to help him. No one to look after him. What would happen if he got sick, or got hurt? Where would he live? And, there are people out there who look at free ponies as just potentials to take back into slavery too."
  1087. > "I..."
  1088. > Her face screws up, nose wrinkled in thought.
  1089. > "...what about Shining Armor! Shining Armor could go help him! Or Barnstormer could go live with him!"
  1090. > Flurry's ears prick.
  1091. > She turns to look at you questioningly too.
  1092. "Shining is very, very far away, Megan. Even if I told Barnstormer where to go, he could get lost. Run out of food and end up who knows where, hungry, and if someone saw him running around alone..."
  1093. > Hesitating, you wonder whether this story is right to tell them.
  1094. > But there doesn't appear to be any other option.
  1095. "You know, there was a pony who ran away from me once. She went sneaking around someone's house, looking for food. They-"
  1096. > You hesitate again.
  1097. "-hurt her. Badly"
  1098. > Megan covers her mouth, while Flurry gives a little muted whinny as her tail clamps down on her haunches.
  1099. "That made me very, very angry, because if she'd stayed here then she wouldn't have gotten hurt. I won't subject Barnstormer to that; even if they don't hurt him that badly, they might just take that as an opportunity to make him a slave again."
  1100. > There's no need to say that they won't be so gentle as you had been; the point is abundantly clear already.
  1101. > Flurry Heart cringes, perhaps remembering her own experience with slavers like that.
  1102. > "I don't want him to be hurt..."
  1103. "I'm sorry, Flurry. I didn't mean to bring back those bad days."
  1104. > "It's okay, Master. I know you didn't mean to."
  1105. > And then both are clutched against your chest again, your head dipping down to let them nuzzle into your cheeks.
  1106. > On one side, a little arm clutch your shoulder.
  1107. > On the other, a feathered wing circles you.
  1108. "Oh, my sweethearts. Sometimes the things you have to do in this business aren't easy choices to make. Sometimes, things can get very, very hard."
  1109. > Both the children also extend a limb - arm and wing - out to hold each other too.
  1110. "No, the best thing we can do is try to find a way for him to be happy here. We do care about him, and we need to find a solution for him here."
  1111. > "It feels mean."
  1112. "It can, sweetheart, it can."
  1113. > Even as you remain there - your face filled with their hair, breath puffing across your neck - your remaining thought is that this isn't the last you've heard of this topic.
  1114.  
  1115. > You're camped in the front room of the town hall, waiting for Cadance to emerge from her private office.
  1116. > Exactly why she had called you wasn't something you were certain of yet, although you had a good guess.
  1117. > The visit she recently had with Arlene was no doubt a cause, if not the sole cause.
  1118. > That woman...
  1119. > When Cadance’s office finally does open, though, her expression is downcast.
  1120. > "Forgive me, Thunderlane. I have to be going out. There's something I must do before I can speak to you. It shouldn't be long, but if you need to go."
  1121. > You glance at the clock, then shake your head.
  1122. "I can wait here a while longer."
  1123. > "Thank you, Thunderlane. Mayor Mare, if you could follow me?"
  1124. > "Of course, Your Highness."
  1125. > You almost hadn't seen the Mayor coming out behind her, but you offer her a calm nod as she passes as well.
  1126. > Then the front door clicks shut, leaving you alone.
  1127. > Not that you mind; it's a chance to lean against the wall and doze in the late-summer heat.
  1128. > Let your thoughts wander.
  1129. > What had Arlene been up to?
  1130. > Cadance had been very concerned when she’d shown up on the protest-line, but this time she hadn’t said anything.
  1131. > So far.
  1132. > That, in some ways, makes you even more nervous.
  1133. > Cadance had secrets, of course, and you respected that
  1134. > But you couldn’t help your thoughts drifting to the secret fears she was holding back on something important-
  1135. > There is knocking on the door again.
  1136. > You actually jump as the rapping comes, struggling upright.
  1137. "Welcome back, Your H-"
  1138. > But it was not Cadance in the doorway when it opens.
  1139. > In retrospect, that should have been obvious - she would not have to knock - but you were half-asleep at that moment!
  1140. > Instead Mocha Cream is frozen with one hoof lifted to the door and eyes wide.
  1141. "O-Oh. I'm sorry, Mocha - why don't you come in? I'm sure it's incredibly hot out there."
  1142. > And she had her maid's uniform on too!
  1143. > Tentatively Mocha slips the rest of the way through the door, followed by another one of the guards.
  1144. > He has barely laid eyes on you before speaking:
  1145. > "Thunderlane, can you keep an eye on Mocha for a moment? I want to go get a drink before I escort her back up to the house."
  1146. "Sure thing."
  1147. > You knew from hard experience how sweltering the guard uniforms could be in the summer.
  1148. > After the door closes again, Mocha looks back to you.
  1149. > "S-So, Miss Cadance isn't here right now?"
  1150. "No. She just went out, but it shouldn't be too long if you want to wait."
  1151. > "That would be fine. I just have to pick up some papers from her."
  1152. > And with that, she takes a seat in the corner - head tilted down and eyes staring somewhere off into the distance.
  1153. > You, meanwhile, have found your tongue suddenly sticking to the roof of your mouth.
  1154. > What could you say to her?
  1155. > There was so much, but if you started it in the wrong way-
  1156. > "T-Thunderlane? Can, um, can I a-ask your something?"
  1157. > Lifting your head, you cock it slightly and put on a welcoming smile.
  1158. "You know you don't have to ask, Mocha."
  1159. > The little unicorn filly - it was still so hard to think of her as a mare, with how slender her frame was - smiles apologetically, her big brown eyes shimmering softly.
  1160. > "I-I'm sorry, I just didn't want to be to - um, too probing, and-"
  1161. > Sucking down a deep breath, she hisses softly in frustration.
  1162. > "Thunderlane, did you have somepony special... back home?"
  1163. "Yes, I did."
  1164. > You keep your voice even, devoid of any surprise to keep from shocking her.
  1165. > Mocha nods, her eyes still firmly pinned on the floor.
  1166. > "When you were... getting close to Vapor Trail, what did you do? Were you - afraid?"
  1167. "Of Cloudy? My, uh, marefriend from before?"
  1168. > "Uh-huh."
  1169. "I..."
  1170. > Your head tilts, thinking.
  1171. > How had you thought about her?
  1172. > Perhaps the truth was you hadn't thought of her that much:
  1173. > Vapor had been there when you needed her, when you were desperate for a pony to lean on.
  1174. > You couldn't exactly say that, however.
  1175. > Discussing this topic with Mocha at all was already a huge risk.
  1176. "I... I guess I thought, that Cloudchaser would have understood. That it'd been - years since I saw her-"
  1177. > No, you can't go too far on that.
  1178. > Mocha's problem was very immediate, after all.
  1179. "-and that she wouldn't be angry that I'd found - a way to be happy with somepony else. Even if it meant not being with her."
  1180. > "B-But you did still love her?"
  1181. > Love?
  1182. > Well, that's maybe a strong word for it.
  1183. "I really did care for her, yes. I still thought about her a lot after that too. After I was... taken."
  1184. > "O-Oh."
  1185. > Trotting around, you seat yourself next to Mocha Cream and slip a wing over her withers.
  1186. > She stiffens at the touch, and you almost retract it - but then she softens.
  1187. "It's okay, Mocha, to let go of someone you love. It's not always easy, but you shouldn't be afraid of it."
  1188. > "But... he's my M-Master."
  1189. > The way she says that, it comes as a simple statement of fact.
  1190. > Like that's all there is to say.
  1191. "Yes he is, Mocha. But you are the one who feels this way."
  1192. > She nods, deep in thought.
  1193. > "Thunderlane? Are - are you-"
  1194. > The words stick in her throat, twisting into a nervous little whinny as her ears fall.
  1195. > You tighten your wing around her, lightly nuzzling her mane through the maid's headdress she wears; a second whinny falls to a muted nicker instead.
  1196. "You can ask me, Mocha. I'm not going to be angry."
  1197. > "Are you trying to set me up with Rumble?"
  1198. > Your eyebrows shoot up; that was not the question you were expecting.
  1199. > "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to-"
  1200. "No, no. It's okay, Mocha. I'm just - surprised."
  1201. > "You're his brother, though..."
  1202. > This last bit is mumbled beneath her breath, as if she still expected you to be furious with her.
  1203. > "I t-thought you would be - trying to - make h-him happy with a-another pony. I h-heard some ponies do t-that sometimes. S-Set up others in relationships."
  1204. "Well, Cadance might. Maybe-"
  1205. > "She's a pri- an alicorn! Of love! That's different. It's her talent."
  1206. > And she had been the one who had suggested this whole scheme as well.
  1207. > Twisting your head to look down at her, you tilt it and allow one ear to flop over.
  1208. "I'm sorry, Mocha. Is this - am I - worrying you? Upsetting you?"
  1209. > "N-No. Not - not upset. Just - not sure. How I feel, I mean."
  1210. "Maybe you should talk to Cadance about this, then. Like you said, she is the Princess of Love."
  1211. > You rather hope Mocha isn't so loyal to Anonymous as to report those words.
  1212. > Somehow you doubt it, though.
  1213. > "I-I should. I will."
  1214. > She looks back up - determination lighting those brown eyes of hers.
  1215. > "But I w-want to know too. Did you try to make Rumble my c-colt friend?"
  1216. [Choice]
  1217.  
  1218. “I won’t deny I was trying to help him out a bit, Mocha. A ‘wingpony’, it’s called.”
  1219. > She slumps in place, and you quickly go on before she can fall too far:
  1220. “But, Mocha, this isn’t because I’m trying to force you into anything. Back in Equestria, when I was just a colt, other ponies sometimes did that too. They looked out for me in the same way I’m looking out for you.”
  1221. > “R-Really?”
  1222. “Yeah. And - maybe I did it once or twice too. When you saw two ponies you thought would be happy together, you tried to help them… well, be together.”
  1223. > “You think I w-would be happy with Rumble?”
  1224. > Removing your wing from her back, you turn around to face her but drop to your belly in the hopes of rendering yourself less imposing.
  1225. “Yes, I do. I’m not trying to force anything. You don’t - have to love him. I won’t be angry at you if you don’t. If you do, I'll be happy for the both of you."
  1226. > "O-Oh..."
  1227. > She looks like she has something more she wants to say, and you give her a moment to work up the effort to say it.
  1228. > She does, though:
  1229. > "Then it's not - not b-because you feel sorry for me?"
  1230. "Not at all. Like I said, it's something we did when we saw two ponies who'd already be happy together. Rumble really does like you - he has since you started working together on the camp's mailbox."
  1231. > Mocha Cream's cheeks color a touch, which you take as a good sign.
  1232. > "He - really does like me then?"
  1233. "Mocha, ponies don't do those kinds of things for other ponies if they don't like them a little bit. It was how kind and spirited you were that he likes, and there wasn't any pushing needed for that."
  1234. > Tail swishing thoughtfully, she nods.
  1235. "If I can ask... do you like him?"
  1236. > "You - can't tell him, okay?"
  1237. > For a moment you're ready to accept that as a given answer - but that could still go either way.
  1238. "I won't. But I might encourage him. Would you mind that?"
  1239. > The flush in her cheeks deepens, and she seems to curl into herself.
  1240. > "I - I don't know how I feel about him. I think I kind of do, but then I worry too..."
  1241. "About Anonymous?"
  1242. > Mocha squeaks, as if remembering something.
  1243. > "Oh, please don't tell him either!"
  1244. "Relax, Mocha. I won't. But, I don't think you need to worry so much. That's why you were asking me about Cloudchaser, wasn't it?"
  1245. > "...Uh-huh."
  1246. "Here's my advice to you, then. If you feel like you think you might like him... keep trying it. I won't press you into anything, and neither will anypony else. But, see about it - isn't the chance at happiness worth it?"
  1247. > "I guess. But, you have to promise me: Don't - don't push me, okay? Please."
  1248. > There's an undercurrent of fear, of vulnerability in that plea.
  1249. > For you, of course, there isn't any choice but to nod in agreement.
  1250. "Of course, Mocha."
  1251. > Eventually, her assigned guard returns.
  1252. > Soon after, Cadance and Mayor Mare; when she spots Mocha Cream, Cadance shakes her head.
  1253. > "I had forgotten... I'll be along in one moment with the papers you're here for, Mocha. Thunderlane, would you mind doing one last favor for me? Go find Sunburst and remind him to come see me. In fact, just bring him back."
  1254. "Of course, Your Highness."
  1255. > Finding the bespectacled stallion isn't so easy as you would think; his office is empty but for the typically mountainous piles of tomes and paper he kept in there.
  1256. > You can't help but poking through a few of the books.
  1257. > Just on the off-chance one of them hid another animate pony, magically bound to its pages.
  1258. > But no, only dust and old notes, scratched in his indecipherable hornwriting, can be found here.
  1259. > Instead you wander back out again, heading for the schoolhouse.
  1260. > It was officially just the 'education building' - doing double duty in training new acquisitions to their roles in the camp.
  1261. > But mostly everypony called it the schoolhouse, since it was where the few colts and fillies in the camp spent their lesson-time.
  1262. > In fact you never actually reach it; instead you all but stumble over Sunburst outside the building.
  1263. > The stallion was stretched out in a small patch of grass behind it, Flurry Heart at his side.
  1264. > Before them lay an open book; exactly what it was for you weren't sure - the arcane diagrams within were well beyond your understanding - but it was clear that Flurry was paying them very close attention.
  1265. > "...okay, Little gem. You understand what you have to do?"
  1266. > "Uh-huh. Try and - and use both my unicorn and pegasus magic at once."
  1267. > "Exactly. Ready to give it a try?"
  1268. > "Ready!"
  1269. > Whatever was intended to happen, however, the bright yellow flash and burst of snowflakes fluttering down over the open book clearly wasn't it.
  1270. > With a yelp Sunburst pulls the book shut and out of the way.
  1271. > "Well, that - that wasn't exactly what was supposed to happen..."
  1272. > "Did... Did I do wrong, uncle Sunburst?"
  1273. > "No, no!"
  1274. > Leaning over, he nuzzles Flurry reassuringly.
  1275. > "Nothing wrong at all, just - unexpected."
  1276. > When he looks up, though, Sunburst finally catches a glimpse of you.
  1277. > "Thunderlane! Is something up? I was just doing a little bit of practice with Flurry."
  1278. "Yes, actually. Her Highness wants to see you. Immediately."
  1279. > "See me...?"
  1280. > Abruptly he clicks his tongue, stomping one hoof into the pavement.
  1281. > "Right! I was so caught up - I'll be right over. Her office, right?"
  1282. "Yes. Actually, I think she wants me there too. She called me for a meeting as well."
  1283. > Sunburst's eyebrows rise, the scruff of his beard flopping as his head cocks in the opposite direction.
  1284. > "Has it... I wonder why. Alright. Flurry, dear, you know where your guard is waiting?"
  1285. > "Uh-huh."
  1286. > "You go right back there and home, then. Our lesson has already run over-time."
  1287. > "Awwww!"
  1288. > But she does go; only when both she and the guard step out together does Sunburst look to you.
  1289. > "Lead the way."
  1290. > The trip is made in mostly silence, both of you too busy pondering what circumstances could have lead Cadance to call for you.
  1291. > When you return, she is alone in the town hall with Mayor Mare - but has, to your delight, acquired several bottles of cool water.
  1292. > Nodding to them, she motions you to pillows set out on the floor.
  1293. > "Please, all of you, sit down. There's something I have to explain to all of you, and I wanted a chance to do it in private..."
  1294. > What she lays out next is...
  1295. > Incredible.
  1296. > Almost unthinkable; an offer of total freedom!
  1297. > Only for the small prices of betraying the human - and leaving behind the ponies - she had worked with for so long.
  1298. > "...and even if I wanted to, I doubt Anonymous would allow me to remain in contact with you. At least, not if you were still forced to stay here."
  1299. > You risk a glance to the other ponies in the room:
  1300. > Mayor Mare bears a neutral, thoughtful expression - her eyes inscrutable behind her glasses, or perhaps simply so distant that they are empty of any emotion at all.
  1301. > Sunburst is...
  1302. > ...well, he's definitely showing emotion.
  1303. > His breaths are coming so hard that his chest is visibly pumping and nostrils flared out.
  1304. > You stretch out a hoof towards him.
  1305. "Easy there, Sunburst..."
  1306. > "S-Sorry. This is just... I don't know how to..."
  1307. > "Sunburst."
  1308. > Cadance reaches out too, albeit with a wing, and he calms at the touch.
  1309. > "I know this is - shocking. Terrifying, even. But you can calm yourself; I'm not making a decision yet. I want your opinions on this."
  1310. "Our - opinions?"
  1311. > "Yes. I have come to rely on you three more than any other ponies in this camp. However unofficially, you have become my cabinet, of sorts - my ministers here."
  1312. > You hadn't thought of yourself that way, but in a way it was true wasn't it?
  1313. "What do you want to know, Your Highness?"
  1314. > "Thunderlane. You have had the most - interaction with Arlene Donovan prior to this. How likely is it that her offer is genuine? Are her intentions as good as they sound?"
  1315. > You think back - back to what had seemed an eternity, stuck in that room with you.
  1316. > Hunched at the table, your wings pinned to your sides like shields, while she hammered you with one question after another.
  1317. > Could a woman like that really be looking out for ponies?
  1318. > One the one hand, you want to think it was only because she had seen you as a collaborator.
  1319. > That, like Shining Armor, she would come to understand the path you had taken.
  1320. > But another part, the ancient pegasus at the back of your head - all emotion and instinct - screamed a counter.
  1321. > No - there was no way she could be an ally.
  1322. > She hadn't tried to sympathize with you one bit, considered for a second how Chrysocolla's death had impacted you.
  1323. > Of how fresh and raw the memory of the flash and pop that had ended her life was.
  1324. > She was no friend.
  1325. > "Thunderlane?"
  1326. "I... can't say. I spoke to her the most, yeah. But it was all at once. Was she upset, or just being honest then?"
  1327. > You shake your head sharply, half to clear away the intruding thoughts.
  1328. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. It's possible she is honest, but it's possible she is not. I don't know."
  1329. > "I think I do."
  1330. > Everypony there looks aside at Sunburst.
  1331. > His eyes fall at the attention, one hoof rising to nervously play with the scruff of his beard.
  1332. > "Tell us, Sunburst."
  1333. > "I... asked some of our outside contacts about her when she showed up with the protesters. Apparently she's known as someone who fights for pony rights. Someone on our side."
  1334. "So you think she is trustworthy?"
  1335. > "Yes, but - Your Highness..."
  1336. > Sunburst chokes, swallows, and tries again.
  1337. > "I - I don't think you should. Take the offer, I mean."
  1338. > Calmly, Cadance drops prone on the floor - tucking her forelegs beneath her.
  1339. > "Go on, Sunburst."
  1340. > "She is right. We could be trapped here for longer. Much longer. But she doesn't understand what it feels like to cling to what little we have now."
  1341. > His head droops, looking at the floor.
  1342. > "Before you came - before Flurry Heart came - we were all alone. I was all alone. When you came, we had hope. When Flurry came, we had progress."
  1343. > "Some ponies would say that progress is poised to stop."
  1344. > "It won't forever. Anonymous isn't the same man he was before."
  1345. > Twisting around to look at his back, Sunburst murmurs out:
  1346. > "...he's not the same kind of person who would have forced you to whip all of us. He thinks differently now. But that's all because of you and Flurry Heart. If you went, I don't think he would stay the same."
  1347. > There's more than that to it.
  1348. > You can sense it, and so can everypony else in the room.
  1349. > It takes a moment, but eventually Sunburst sighs.
  1350. > "And... I don't know what I would do. Having both of you back has - has re-lit the light in my life."
  1351. > Cadance nods.
  1352. > "Very well. Mayor?"
  1353. > The older mare's hoof stirs, drawing little shapes on the floor.
  1354. > "I told Cadance what I'd been through once. What I'd - seen, when I was captured. What I'd done, and helped them do. Cruel things. Terrible things."
  1355. > Ah.
  1356. > Was that why her look was so distant..?
  1357. > "This place is - better. Not so cruel. But every day, I still wake up a servant to a slaver, helping him rip more profit out of ponies' lives. Every day, I miss just being mayor of a little village called Ponyville."
  1358. > You're actually taken aback.
  1359. > Mayor Mare had never, that you can remember, spoken with such strong emotion about being a slave.
  1360. > Of course, you missed Ponyville too.
  1361. > Yet now her hoof was taking her glasses from her muzzle with a small tremble.
  1362. > "Your Highness - Cadance - if there is any chance that this can shorten the years we have to live like this, I say you take it. We - we will survive. It isn't a knock against you, Your Highness, but we survived before you and I will make sure we survive if you go."
  1363. > "Even if I do go, Mayor, freedom may not come so quickly."
  1364. > "I understand. But if it shortens it at all... I will manage. It's not like I haven't managed before."
  1365. > There's iron in that voice, and she accompanies that last statement with a stomp of her hoof to the floor.
  1366. > "If there is hope, we have to leap at it. Before more ponies can be hurt. Before this can go on any longer."
  1367. > And now, of course, all eyes in the room fall on you.
  1368. [Choice]
  1369.  
  1370. > You think long and hard on this.
  1371. > The desire to be free sooner - before you're an old stallion, worn out by work and this life - is a strong one.
  1372. > A powerful on.
  1373. > But at the same time...
  1374. > Rumble.
  1375. > You've done all of this to look after him - becoming Anonymous' spy, becoming a guard, and yes - even taking the oath of the Royal Guard.
  1376. > To protect, and also to inspire.
  1377. > Not just Rumble in the end either, but Vapor Trail and everypony else here too.
  1378. > And - in a horrible, twisted way - it is more safe to remain in servitude than to gamble with hope.
  1379. > Maybe Arlene would win - or maybe it would be nothing, and Cadance would have betrayed Anonymous' trust without result.
  1380. > Maybe she would come through on her promises, or maybe not.
  1381. > And even if you were free, the world out there was not easy for ponies.
  1382. > Transom had testified to that.
  1383. > But in here... Anonymous was not perfect, not by a long shot.
  1384. > Cadance had a working relationship with him though, and maybe even something approximating an actual one too.
  1385. > She had been an undeniable calming factor, a pony who could challenge his positions and win.
  1386. > Mayor Mare was right - you all had survived before, and could do so again.
  1387. > But you were doing more than surviving here, you were building something.
  1388. > "Thunderlane?"
  1389. > Cadance's voice - insistent, questioning - draws you out of your thoughts.
  1390. "Honestly, Your Highness... I can't. Not in good faith."
  1391. > Both Mayor Mare and Sunburst actually look shocked, as though they hadn't expected you to swing in that direction.
  1392. > From Cadance, however, you simply receive a thoughtful nod.
  1393. > "Why?"
  1394. "Arlene offers hope. I don't dispute that, and Mayor - you do have a point. Anything which gets us a day closer to being free is good. But I think we already have hope here. I've seen the changes that have happened, and with Megan poised to take over I think we'll see even greater changes."
  1395. > You pause, shuffling your wings nervously.
  1396. "...I'll admit. We have family connections here, Cadance and I. And Sunburst, Flurry is so close to you that you may as well be her uncle or something. That... changes how we see things."
  1397. > "We're none of objective viewers here, Thunderlane. That's what I want all your views."
  1398. > Nodding at Cadance's comment, you shrug.
  1399. "I'm still trying to be objective... and even so, I can't say we should."
  1400. > Sunburst breaks in -
  1401. > "We could always use the escape plan. If we needed to get out of here really."
  1402. > Cocking her head, Mayor Mare raises an eyebrow and mutters to herself.
  1403. > "So there was another plan..."
  1404. "There was, yes. And it's good that we still have it for emergencies. But do we want to make those emergencies?"
  1405. > Looking back at Cadance again, you sigh.
  1406. "Your Highness, I can't know everything that will happen. But I can say, our chances aren't terrible here either. I like a little hope that we can keep a solid grip on, more than a bigger hope with much turbulence on the way."
  1407. > "And your taking the oath of the Royal Guard has affected your thinking on this?"
  1408. > You nod.
  1409. "I would say so, yes. That made it more than my choice; now it's my duty to protect ponies. And..."
  1410. > Hesitating, you lower your head.
  1411. > Was this really the right thing to say...?
  1412. > Maybe not, but you didn't feel right not saying it.
  1413. "Your Highness, what if things didn't work out? What if Anonymous tried to sell us off, or he fell back to being like he used to, or - Celestia forbid - they find a way to trap you back into slavery. What would it do to our cause - to ponies' cause - then?"
  1414. > A long silence holds in the room after you say that.
  1415. > The air is still, hot and stuffy; it seems to weigh on everypony with an almost physical pressure.
  1416. > Through it only a few muted sounds reach from outside.
  1417. > Here and there an ear flicks or tail twitches, but nopony speaks until Cadance finally rises with a sigh.
  1418. > "Thank you, Thunderlane. Perhaps that sobering reminder is what we needed after all."
  1419. "You're welcome. I didn't mean to crush everypony's hopes-"
  1420. > "You didn't."
  1421. > Shooting you a sorrowful smile, she shakes her head.
  1422. > "No, perhaps I was overly-hopeful."
  1423. > You rise as well, looking around - and immediately realize that your apology had been sent to the wrong pony.
  1424. > It wasn't Cadance who had needed it, but Mayor Mare.
  1425. > Her head had fallen, ears folding down.
  1426. "...Mayor, I... I'm sorry."
  1427. > "No. I'm fine."
  1428. > The crack in her voice tells the lie.
  1429. > She lifts her head up, and you can see the sorrow in her eyes.
  1430. > "I suppose I wanted it to be true, even more than Her Highness. I wanted to be free, to go back home or look for my family again..."
  1431. > Leaning in, you nicker gently and brush your nose along her neck - not a truly intimate gesture, but one of close reassurance.
  1432. > Mayor Mare's smile widens a touch.
  1433. > "Now, don't you go doing that now, Thunderlane. What would Vapor Trail say?"
  1434. "That I'm a foal if I'm not there for a pony who needed it."
  1435. > "Oh, you are a silly foal. I will be fine. Like I said, I endured before and I can endure again."
  1436. > From behind you, Sunburst speaks up as well:
  1437. > "We all want that one some level, Mayor. I very much want to see Starlight Glimmer again someday. You're not alone."
  1438. "Yes. You're never alone."
  1439. > Mayor hesitates a moment, then leans against your neck and closes her eyes with a smile.
  1440.  
  1441. > You’re eating breakfast the next morning, when you first notice something is off about Mocha Cream.
  1442. > She sits calmly the side of the table, taking down any notes on tasks you want done during the day - scratching them down in messy writing with her mouth, or her horn if she was feeling good that day.
  1443. > Today, however, you repeatedly catch her watching you from the corner of your vision:
  1444. > Staring with those big, round, brown eyes.
  1445. > Her mouth half-open, as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t quite manage the words.
  1446. > At last you set the fork down one final time and twist in your chair to look down at her.
  1447. “Mocha, is something wrong?”
  1448. > “N-No, Master. Nothing’s w-wrong.”
  1449. > She’s lying.
  1450. > Strikingly well, considering - her ears are pinned and eyes furtive, but she's managed to keep herself more or less calm.
  1451. "Mocha..."
  1452. > Standing from the chair, you drop to one knee in front of her and reach out with a hand for her cheek.
  1453. "You know, Mocha, that you can tell me something. Especially if it's worrying you, I'll always try to at least listen."
  1454. > "I know, Master. But..."
  1455. > To your surprise, she doesn't go straight for your hand.
  1456. > "M-Master, I'm a-afraid. I think. I don't know."
  1457. "Well, why don't you start by telling me everything from the beginning again?"
  1458. > "I don't..."
  1459. > One hoof comes up to brush her mane aside, tug at her maid's headdress - and it's shaking.
  1460. > Shaking worse than she had ever been since she came back.
  1461. "Mocha?"
  1462. > "M-Master... I think - I think I-I m-might - I d-don't know, I think I might-"
  1463. > You silence her with one raised finger.
  1464. > No one who was repeating themselves that often was really ready to speak.
  1465. "Deep breaths, Mocha. Take a few deep breaths and tell me slowly. You can close your eyes if you need to, to help clear your mind."
  1466. > Immediately taking advantage of your offer, Mocha squeezes her eyes shut and begins to breath deeply.
  1467. > Eventually the breaths calm into something approximating a normal rate.
  1468. > Her hoof drops back down to the floor, and eyes un-scrunch into merely being closed.
  1469. "...very good. Now, Mocha, go ahead and tell me what you were going to say before?"
  1470. > "Master-"
  1471. > Her voice is a tiny whisper, almost difficult to hear even in the quiet of the house.
  1472. > "-w-what if I l-like somep-pony? H-Here?"
  1473. "Well, what if you do?"
  1474. > That seems to short-circuit her entire thought process.
  1475. > Whatever response she had been expecting, simply turning the question back around at her wasn't it.
  1476. > Mocha Cream cocks her head, lip trembling.
  1477. > "I... don't know. I can't - I don't - not s-sure if I even care-"
  1478. "Mocha, stop again. take another deep breath, and start again - from the beginning."
  1479. > This time, she does - telling you everything.
  1480. > Working with Rumble on the camp's message-box was something you'd been aware of, of course.
  1481. > And you knew the feelings Rumble had for her as well.
  1482. > After all, he had shown up in the hospital when Mocha Cream was attacked.
  1483. > ...and yes, you suppose you knew about the ideas some had for her as well - you'd told Flurry Heart to go bring her suggestions to Cadance, after all.
  1484. > But that they had actually carried out a plan...
  1485. > That was new.
  1486. > Especially that Thunderlane had some part in it; you hadn't expected it to be him, of all ponies.
  1487. > "...s-so, I d-don't know if I like h-him or if I d-don't, and I thought y-you would be mad-"
  1488. > At some point you'd transitioned from kneeling to sitting on the floor next to her as you listened.
  1489. > Now you reach out for her again; this time, you give her no choice about whether to touch your hand or not.
  1490. > It settles on her shoulder, squeezing reassuringly.
  1491. "First: I've told you before I wouldn't be angry, and I still hold to that. I'm not. In fact, I'm glad you told me."
  1492. > "W-Why?"
  1493. > She truly, honestly, doesn't seem to understand.
  1494. "Because even if your heart is for someone else, I can still care for you. I can still help you. I can still be there when you need an ear to talk to or someone to lean on."
  1495. > And she does just that:
  1496. > Leaning over in place to rest herself against your arm.
  1497. > "O-Oh, Master. You're t-the kindest p-person I've ever known."
  1498. "I doubt that. But I'm glad to help."
  1499. > Reeling her in with your arm, you bring Mocha next to you and drop her onto her haunches with a tap on her rump.
  1500. "Now, about how you feel."
  1501. > She gets ready to flinch again, but you head that off quickly:
  1502. "Mocha, for the last time - you don't have to be afraid of feeling like that about somepony. You are allowed. It's not forbidden to love someone."
  1503. > "B-but it feels... like I-I'm aband-doning you!"
  1504. "You aren't. The fact that you're telling me this says enough."
  1505. > Her eyes fall somewhat, but she still speaks:
  1506. > "T-Thunderlane said I should t-take a chance on happiness. T-That it would be worth it."
  1507. "I think that's fair, yes. And of course, you can want to be with him and still be close with me. In fact-"
  1508. > It's risky, but you still reach out to put an arm on her back again.
  1509. "-in fact, I would like that very much. Because no matter what happens, I will still be here for you. As a friend, if not as a lover. To care for you, because you belong to me."
  1510. > Rather than lean into it, Mocha outright collapses against you - burying her muzzle against your chest.
  1511. > "W-Why does this feel so wrong, M-Master?"
  1512. > You wrap her in your arms - not just a loving touch, but a protective and defensive one.
  1513. "Because it's new. It's scary. It's unknown. For a long time, I'm all you had to care about - and your owner, before that. Now, you're thinking about something new, and it means stepping out of your comfort zone."
  1514. > Slowly her breathing calms again as you let your hand run up and down her back.
  1515. "But that's okay, Mocha. That's okay. You're allowed."
  1516. > "T-Thank you, Master..."
  1517. [Choice]
  1518.  
  1519. > ...you know, you should probably have a few choice words with Rumble too.
  1520. > Just let him know that you'll be watching over his shoulder.
  1521. > Making sure nothing bad happens to Mocha Cream.
  1522. > That's like, a father's duty - right?
  1523. > And even if Mocha was no daughter of yours, she was damn close enough.
  1524. > Plus, you needed practice.
  1525. > For when Megan was that age; she wasn't too far off now.
  1526. "Mocha?"
  1527. > You lean over, placing another soft kiss in the middle of her forehead.
  1528. "Just know, that if you ever want to have Rumble come up here for a while - or go down into the camp to see him -"
  1529. > You can feel her tense up in your grip almost immediately.
  1530. "Hey, hey. It's okay, Mocha. Nobody will hurt you."
  1531. > "I-I'm afraid, Master. A-And..."
  1532. > She trails off awkwardly, tucking her head back in against your chest again.
  1533. "...I'm still here, Mocha."
  1534. > "...I don't want a-a guard to w-walk with me when I'm going - going to-"
  1535. > To see him.
  1536. > That's reasonable, you suppose.
  1537. > Who would want a guard watching over you on a date?
  1538. "That's understandable, Mocha. And I don't want you feeling uncomfortable."
  1539. > Wrapping both your arms around her again, you pull her in tight and whisper:
  1540. > "I'm going to see that you're happy one day, Mocha. We'll figure something out, I swear. Trust me."
  1541. > This is answered with a small, comfortable nicker.
  1542. > "Of c-course I do, Master!"
  1543. > And, seeing her curled up against your chest - tail tucked around one of your legs and head resting with one ear to your heartbeat - you're sure she does.
  1544. > You wait until a little bit later before sending word for Rumble to be sent up to the manor.
  1545. > Time enough for Mocha Cream to get busy with other work.
  1546. > So she wouldn't be around to see this.
  1547. > In fact, you end up making him wait too:
  1548. > Half in a deliberate effort to let the colt sweat a little before facing you.
  1549. > Half out of accident as well, though - a sudden phone call adding to what you'd already planned for him to sit through.
  1550. > At last you open the study door, peering out into the hallway beyond.
  1551. "Come in, Rumble."
  1552. > You shut the door after him and turn, walking to the window.
  1553. > "...sir? What did you want me here for?"
  1554. > Huh.
  1555. > That's - unusually respectful of him.
  1556. > Must be feeling the heat for sure.
  1557. "Rumble. There's actually only one thing I wanted to talk to you about today, but it's very important to me."
  1558. > "Huh?"
  1559. > You can hear him pad up softly behind you.
  1560. "Mocha Cream, Rumble. I know you've been - interested in her affection for some time. And I know that it's recently started to come a little further."
  1561. > For a few long moments, he doesn't say anything at all.
  1562. > Then-
  1563. > "I won't stop seeing her. Not unless she wants me to stop. And I'll know if you just tell her to say that!"
  1564. "Rumble-"
  1565. > "Just because you're our 'master' doesn't mean you can run our private lives like that! And-"
  1566. "Rumble!"
  1567. > Your snap, accompanied by spinning in place to face him, finally shuts the colt down.
  1568. > He looks up, seeming to suddenly realize exactly what he had been doing - fear clouding his face.
  1569. "I'm not going to order you to stop seeing her. If anything..."
  1570. > Turning back to the window, you let your eyes roam out over the camp.
  1571. "I've been accused of playing favorites before, Rumble. Of doting over certain ponies, letting them get away with anything. I'll reject the latter, but can't deny I care very much for Mocha Cream in particular."
  1572. > Mouth opening and closing a few times, he finally seems to settle for an understanding that whatever you were going to say, it wasn't what he'd thought.
  1573. "Not as a - a lover. I have not forced her into that, Rumble... if anything, she almost feels like a child to me. I care for her, Rumble, and if anything now I'm glad to see that she's found someone to be happy with."
  1574. > "Even if it's me?"
  1575. > The challenge is met with a bit of a shrug.
  1576. "Yes, even you. You're rude, angry, and still manage to keep that mostly in check."
  1577. > "But you didn't order me up here just to tell me you care about her."
  1578. > Heh.
  1579. > Little guy wasn't a fool, that's for sure.
  1580. "Indeed. I wanted to talk about the flip side of caring, Rumble. She is - still learning. Still young, and in many ways still fragile. Including in her heart."
  1581. > Now you do turn around:
  1582. > Taking the last couple steps up to Rumble and leaning down to loom over him.
  1583. > Your voice drops a couple of octaves.
  1584. "I care very much about her, Rumble, and I'm willing to give you a chance. But I'm also warning you: Be very, very careful with her. Should you hurt her - should you hurt someone I care about a lot - I will hurt you right back."
  1585. > He actually backs up, retreating with wings half-spread as if he wasn't totally sure whether to fight or flee.
  1586. "Not a punishment, Rumble. Not as a Master. This goes much, much deeper than that. Your brother will not be able to protect you, nor will Cadance."
  1587. > At some point this had stopped being an act, as real emotions long since hidden away stirred to life and climbed up from deep within your heart.
  1588. > Stumbling on a back hoof, Rumble ends up on his haunches and looking up at you.
  1589. > And for once, real fear - naked and unmasked - on his face.
  1590. > All attempt at bravado done away with.
  1591. "Am I entirely understood, Rumble? You have my explicit support to be with Mocha Cream. But you also have my attention. Is that clear?"
  1592. > He swallows.
  1593. > Hard.
  1594. > "Y-Yes. Sir."
  1595. > Heh, his voice is barely a squeak.
  1596. > "I understand. No heartbreaking. Got it."
  1597. "Good."
  1598. > Standing back up again, you turn and walk back to the window.
  1599. > Channeling that had been...
  1600. > Odd.
  1601. > You hadn't felt like that since you had to deal with-
  1602. > With-
  1603. > Megan's mother.
  1604. > Protective?
  1605. > Defensive?
  1606. > Maybe.
  1607. > "You - You really do care about her. A lot, I mean."
  1608. "Absolutely."
  1609. > You sigh, the mask you'd put on starting to fall away as well.
  1610. "I can't say I was always the best for her. But she was always there for me nonetheless, and at some point - I started feeling for her as well."
  1611. > "Um, I, I kind of saw that. When you were in the clinic with her, after she was attacked."
  1612. "You came in looking to see her, but I was already there, yes."
  1613. > Now you pause:
  1614. > How much of what you knew did you want to reveal?
  1615. "...you might have also seen then, she was - attached to me. More than is right. I might be her Master, but I'm not her one true love. No matter what she thinks."
  1616. > "That's why you, uh, you're looking for, uh, someone to be with her?"
  1617. "I wouldn't say I was looking, but I was glad to see her take an interest in someone else."
  1618. > "And that's why you're worried for her too."
  1619. > Damn, it's proving hard to keep the mask of annoyance up in the face of this.
  1620. > Especially when he's sounding so worried too.
  1621. "That's exactly it, Rumble. So, for her sake as much as mine - don't. Mess. Up."
  1622. > "I won't. I promise!"
  1623. > He sits up a little more straight, puffing his chest out and half-spreading his wings in a classic pegasus-aggression stance.
  1624. > "I'll be the absolute best she could have. Just to show you I can!"
  1625. > ...
  1626. > This particular evening, you opt to take a stroll through the camp rather than ask Cadance to come to you.
  1627. > ...the happy little ball of joy skipping along at your side may have something to do with it.
  1628. > Megan is giggling as she keeps pace, Flurry Heart just as easily keeping pace at her side.
  1629. "Dear, do watch where you're going. You don't want to run into anyone!"
  1630. > "I'll be fine, Daddy - oof!"
  1631. > "Gotcha!"
  1632. > Flurry, who had taken advantage of Megan's momentary distraction, had tagged her.
  1633. > Now she flutters into the air, hovering, just outside of your daughter's reach.
  1634. > "No fair!"
  1635. > "Want me to come down? Oookaaaaay!"
  1636. > Another 'ooof' is heard as Flurry descends directly atop Megan, nearly knocking the two over.
  1637. "Be careful, you two!"
  1638. > "Yes, Master!"
  1639. > "Yes, Daddy..."
  1640. > Chuckling softly beneath your breath, you finally reach the rec hall.
  1641. > Here the crowd of ponies thickens - enjoying their brief respite between the dinner bell's signalling workday's end and the lights-out.
  1642. > Some acknowledge you with nods, small bows, or looks.
  1643. > Most seem to simply prefer to ignore you.
  1644. > Megan and Flurry, on the other hand, draw rather more attention.
  1645. > Slipping into the rec hall proper, you point them towards the rear where a space had been cleared out and some games marked into the floor.
  1646. "You want to go play with the others, you two?"
  1647. > "Yeah!"
  1648. "Go right ahead; I'll be right over here. And remember, Megan, you can't make them let you win. It's not nice."
  1649. > "I know, Daddy!"
  1650. > The eyeroll which accompanies this is enough to set your stomach churning.
  1651. > God, was your little daughter getting to that age already?
  1652. "Alright, go on then!"
  1653. > After they scamper up, a few other ponies take the opportunity to speak to you in quiet tones.
  1654. > Topics are this and that - news from around the camp, issues they thought you should know about, projects they considered important...
  1655. > A few pleas for some important request that they felt was too important for the suggestions box, or for personal assistance in recovering family members from the market.
  1656. > Those, you passed off with noncommittal words towards "doing something about it".
  1657. > Mostly you just enjoy the ambiance.
  1658. > It's - earthy, rustic, simplistic.
  1659. > The kind of thing you'd expect to find in some old lodge in the mountains somewhere.
  1660. > Actually pleasant.
  1661. > Eventually, however, the crowd parts for a far more welcome face.
  1662. > Cadance seats herself at your right, with Sunburst close behind.
  1663. "Good evening, Cadance."
  1664. > "Out with the children tonight, Master?"
  1665. "Yes; Megan wanted to go out."
  1666. > You gesture to where they were currently embroiled in a somewhat-foreign game of ball whose rules you weren't entirely sure of.
  1667. > Though too far to hear, it didn't appear to be going badly...
  1668. “They seem to be doing well - both of them.”
  1669. > “Trust me, I am glad to see it.”
  1670. “Well, I don’t think you need to worry. She seems to be bouncing back excellently. Speaking of which, Sunburst, how are Flurry’s magic lessons going?”
  1671. > The stallion cocks his head, tugging on his short scruff of beard.
  1672. > “Reasonably well, all things considered. She is a studious, if perhaps - over-enthusiastic - learner.”
  1673. “Over-enthusiastic?”
  1674. > “We have begun to practice outside with a reason. Especially now that I am beginning to try to instruct her on combining her tribal magics.”
  1675. > Cocking his head towards Cadance, Sunburst pauses.
  1676. > “I… don’t suppose you’ve thought of anything more that could help with her, have you Miss Cadance?”
  1677. > “I’m afraid not, Sunburst. I’ll keep instructing what I remember of Celestia teaching me, but she knew so much more…”
  1678. “Well, we will manage nonetheless.”
  1679. > Tearing her eyes away from her daughter, Cadance turns to you.
  1680. > “Master, if I could ask you about something else for a moment?”
  1681. “Of course, Cadance. What is it?”
  1682. > “Barnstormer, Master. I have spoken to the nurses, and we agree: At this point, we need to either bring in an outside specialist to see to him, or release him. But just keeping him cooped up in a room is doing him no good.”
  1683. > Your smile fades, a thoughtful frown replacing it.
  1684. “...I see. I can’t honestly say I know of any psychiatrists specializing in ponies - especially all the way out here. I’m sure you could find one in a big city, or some hack who knows the basics, but someone really equipped to treat him?”
  1685. > “It would be too far, Master?”
  1686. “Much. I’d have to fly them out here - if they even agreed to stay.”
  1687. > “I see…”
  1688. > Frowning as well, Cadance sighs with a shuffle of her wings.
  1689. > “It was too much to hope for, I suppose.”
  1690. “I can reassign him to lighter duty - for a while. But not indefinitely.”
  1691. > “We will have to have somepony look after him...”
  1692. > “Um, Daddy? What if - what if I were to ride him sometimes?”
  1693. > Everyone jumps; amid the rec hall’s hubbub and conversation, no one had heard Meghan and Flurry’s return.
  1694. > Not even the ponies, with their sensitive hearing.
  1695. > “Megan, dear, we went over this. What Shining Armor did with you was special. Not every pony will want that."
  1696. "Absolutely. You'd need to ask him first, and there's absolutely no guarantee he'd agree. Even if he did, it might not change what he wants-"
  1697. > "I did already."
  1698. > You blink.
  1699. "...what?"
  1700. > "Ask him. I did it already. When I went to see him again."
  1701. > Quickly you glance to Cadance; she returns an equally blank look.
  1702. > Apparently this was just as much a surprise to her as it was to you.
  1703. > "She - she did discuss it with him once, Master, but there was no asking about trying it with him-"
  1704. > "Duh."
  1705. > Megan rolls her eyes.
  1706. > "That was the next day. I thought he might want to - try it out. I mean, it helped Shining right? With, um, Gracie?"
  1707. "That was a touch different, Sweetheart. Shining Armor was angry; he needed to be shown kindness. Barnstormer is - sad."
  1708. > "But we had fun together! And I think Barnstormer might have fun with me too!"
  1709. > Urgh.
  1710. > You rub your forehead.
  1711. "Megan, you can't just expect that he will say yes-"
  1712. > "He did."
  1713. > You shoot another flat look at Megan; this time, she begins to squirm.
  1714. > "...okay, he said he'd be willing to try it out. But that's a yes, right?"
  1715. > Well, damn.
  1716. > You can’t really refuse that - she’s beat you at your own game.
  1717. [Choice]
  1718.  
  1719. "...Cadance, you've seen how Megan interacts with him, yes?"
  1720. > "Yes, Master. I've looked in on when she visited him in the clinic."
  1721. "Your thoughts?"
  1722. > Pondering for a moment, she tilts her head and speaks slowly.
  1723. > "She listens well, Master, and is open to him. I think that if we were to - try this, Megan would listen to him then too."
  1724. "But would he listen to Megan?"
  1725. > Hesitating, Cadance recognizes the difficult question you've laid for her.
  1726. > "I - I believe so, Master. He knows she is listening to him, and - for a pony like Barnstormer, I think that is what matters the most: That he is being heard."
  1727. "And if he doesn't?"
  1728. > You look back to Megan, one eyebrow raised.
  1729. "Will he follow her orders, not merely suggestions?"
  1730. > "...yes, Master. From her, he will."
  1731. > Hmm.
  1732. "Alright, sweetheart. You and Flurry, go back and play some more. I'll go talk to Barnstormer tomorrow, and we'll see about this."
  1733. > "Yaaaaay-"
  1734. "But!"
  1735. > Your interjection cuts through her celebratory whoop.
  1736. "But, Megan, in the future, I want you to ask me about these things before you go putting ideas in his head. Or anyone else’s."
  1737. > "You didn't say that before..."
  1738. "I know, and that's why you're not in trouble. These things aren't so easy, though, and there are reasons I would want answers to some questions first."
  1739. > "...alright. But we can still try it, right?"
  1740. "After - maybe - after I talk to Barnstormer."
  1741. > There's an affirmation in your tone, though, however unintentional it might be, and Megan runs off with another happy yell - Flurry at her heels.
  1742. > "...she is entering the age when they get rebellious, isn't she?"
  1743. "And Flurry isn't far behind. We're both going to have hell to pay; I can sense it."
  1744. > Cadance nods thoughtfully, shuffling her wings.
  1745. > "What did you want to talk to Barnstormer about?"
  1746. "Rules. Honestly, I'm still a little iffy about this. Shining Armor was one thing; he suggested it. Now we're talking about putting her on the back of a pegasus who just recently tried to..."
  1747. > You cut off, conscious of the many ears still potentially within hearing distance.
  1748. > "I recognize that, Master. But he wasn't violent, even when he was caught. I don't think he wants to be."
  1749. "That's why I'm giving it a chance. There are still some basic rules I want to set first, though. Like for instance..."
  1750. > ...
  1751. > The next day sees you heading down to the clinic.
  1752. > Alone.
  1753. > Megan is still at school, leaving you free to deal with this situation before she can return home.
  1754. > Barnstormer, sprawled on the bed, jumps when he sees you crack the door to his room open.
  1755. > For his sake, you knock on the doorframe before entering.
  1756. "Can I come in? I'd like to talk."
  1757. > "It's your building, Master."
  1758. > He does not add that he is your pony too, you notice.
  1759. > Slipping in, you shut the door behind you and move to sit on the edge of the bed.
  1760. "...so. Megan told me what she's been discussing with you."
  1761. > Even through his coat, you can see the blood drain from his face.
  1762. "Now, I'm not mad. In fact, if you really are agreeing with this... I might let it go through. But there's some things I want to talk about first."
  1763. > He doesn't even need to ask what you are speaking about.
  1764. > "I think I do want to try, Master. It - I don't know. Half of me thinks it will be the most humiliating thing I've ever felt."
  1765. > His eyes fall to his hooves.
  1766. > "But the way she talks about it, it sounds like she really did have a - a bond with him. And Shining Armor - Shining Armor was like..."
  1767. "He was important to you. I've heard."
  1768. > "Yeah..."
  1769. > Despite your reassurances, Barnstormer still occupies the farthest possible spot on the bed from you.
  1770. > You sense that no amount of empty platitudes would break the fear in his mind.
  1771. > Instead, you jump straight to the point:
  1772. "Barnstormer, I'm willing to let you try what you and Megan are looking to do. But, there are going to be a few rules about it."
  1773. > "Rules, Master?"
  1774. "Yes. For one - no flying with her. Not just because I don't want her to fall, but you're not quite full grown yet and I don't want you to hurt yourself getting over-confident."
  1775. > He curls up a touch, head twisting around to look back at his wings.
  1776. > "I know."
  1777. "Maybe eventually - once we see how long you can go without tiring yourself out - we can think about having you try flight. But not yet."
  1778. > Ticking off a second finger, you go on:
  1779. "Two, it'll be supervised. Probably Cadance. Again, until we see how well you are able to handle Megan's weight, I don't want to risk her falling off."
  1780. > "Is there really that much of a danger, Master?"
  1781. "She fell off Shining Armor once, but he was able to catch her. Once you prove yourself, I'll think about letting you out on your own."
  1782. > "U-Understood, Master."
  1783. "Three: Megan has her own work she has to do too. While you're free to try riding with her when she has free time, I don't want her running off for too long and things falling behind because she's distracted."
  1784. > Again he shies back from you, ears flicking nervously and tail thunking softly as it lashes against the bed.
  1785. > "Will I be punished if she doesn't-"
  1786. "Not severely, and if you make a good attempt to stop her then I'll just focus on her. I'm not going to let you be a victim to my daughter's whims if it comes to that; you can ask Thunderlane if you don't believe me."
  1787. > A slight grin creeps onto your lips as you say that.
  1788. > Oh, yes - Thunderlane would be all too happy to tell him about the time you had pointedly kept Megan from being a brat.
  1789. > And - surprisingly and delightfully - Barnstormer grins too.
  1790. > It's a tentative, nervous smile.
  1791. > Not yet fully expressing how much he clearly could smile.
  1792. > You rather hope you'll get to see that full smile someday, but for now this starter will do.
  1793. > The first real sign of connection.
  1794. "...no, I won't have her be responsible for getting you hurt. By the same measure, I expect you to look out for her as well."
  1795. > "I can't not do that!"
  1796. > Belatedly Barnstormer seems to realize he'd interrupted you and adds in a sheepish tone:
  1797. > "...sir."
  1798. "It's okay. Why not?"
  1799. > "She - came and looked out for me. When I was having a rough time of it, she seemed to really care. I can't hurt her..."
  1800. > But not you yourself?
  1801. > Ah, well.
  1802. > You will manage.
  1803. "That's good. That's another point in favor of trusting you. Another that suggests this is worth doing. So-"
  1804. > You tick off on your fingers:
  1805. "One, no flying. Two, it'll be with supervision to start. And three, don't let Megan skip her homework or chores. Stick to that, and I think we can actually do this. Understood?"
  1806. > Barnstormer nods.
  1807. > As you rise and turn for the door, however, you hear him speak up softly behind you:
  1808. > "Master? Why - why are you being so kind to me?"
  1809. "...I'll be honest. I don't like the idea of keeping you cooped up in here - you were promised somewhere to be looked after, not a cell. And I don't want to break that promise; it certainly won't help to ."
  1810. > Turning, you look back at him.
  1811. "And the other half of it - well, it's what you said. About wanting to be able to see something come of your work - see someone made happy by what you do."
  1812. > Turning around, you sit back down on the edge of the bed again.
  1813. > Barnstormer does not shy away this time.
  1814. "I work towards making sure my daughter can inherit something good, you know? That's what I wanted to see at the end of this. So if seeing her happy will be good for you... I'll be more than happy to do what I can."
  1815.  
  1816. "So, why did you actually agree to it?"
  1817. > Anonymous grunts softly, watching you from the corner of his eyes.
  1818. > "Talked to Barnstormer, did you?"
  1819. "Yes. 'You felt for him', Anonymous? Not to belittle your feelings, but if our worries were your first concern there is a better solution than this..."
  1820. > Looking back through the workshop's door - just within which Barnstormer is talking quietly with Megan - Anonymous grunts again.
  1821. > "Okay, Cadance. I'm a little desperate here. I still haven't found anyone willing to come out here to take a look at him, and there's only so much I can do over Skype."
  1822. "I see..."
  1823. > "That, and Megan needs to learn a bit as well. She's doing well with Flurry Heart, but Flurry's a filly. Some experience in working with adult ponies will do her some good, I think. Teach her how to handle them, how to react."
  1824. > Your brows knit, a touch of anger creeping into your voice.
  1825. "You are experimenting with the life of a pony, Anonymous?"
  1826. > "Experimenting? No, that implies I don't know what will happen. But I don't think she'll hurt him - really hurt him, physically or emotionally - and in the meantime, it will do both of them good."
  1827. "I am not happy with this, Anonymous. This is still betting on the outcome, with a pony's life hanging in the balance."
  1828. > "Nothing is 'hanging in the balance', Cadance. Barnstormer will still have ponies looking out for him."
  1829. > Folding his arms, he shakes his head.
  1830. > "If it doesn't work out... I'll see about more significant options. Maybe even sell him off?"
  1831. "Selling him?!"
  1832. > Your eyebrows shoot up.
  1833. > "Towards a major city, where someone can look after him. And to a smaller operation, where he can see better the results of what he's doing."
  1834. "Do you have a place in mind?"
  1835. > "No. If it comes to that, I will."
  1836. > Ears falling flat, you frown.
  1837. > It's good to know he's not gambling everything on this, but it doesn't feel like a real plan.
  1838. "I am still uncertain of this."
  1839. > "Don't get me wrong, Cadance. I'm not certain either, but I don't want him in the clinic forever. Sooner or later it'll be a cell to him, no matter what either of us say."'
  1840. "Fine."
  1841. > At least you will be there to help them try it out.
  1842. > Breaking from Anonymous' side, you step forward into the workshop.
  1843. > You can feel your tail swishing angrily as you walk; you force it down and a happier expression onto your face.
  1844. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything?"
  1845. > "Nu-uh. We were just talking about what we were going to try and do."
  1846. "Are you ready, then?"
  1847. > Barnstormer nods nervously, looking at the saddle and accompanying gear.
  1848. > "Will it fit me?"
  1849. "With some adjustments. If it does not, Anonymous may have to get another. Megan, why don't you start?"
  1850. > "O-kay. Shining showed me what to do to start..."
  1851. > To your surprise, Barnstormer jumps back when she picks up the brush.
  1852. > "I-Is that really - needed?"
  1853. > Megan frowns deeply and lowers her hand.
  1854. > "He said it's so his coat wouldn't get messed up... do you not want me to?"
  1855. > "N-No. It's just..."
  1856. > Barnstormer pauses, wings fidgeting.
  1857. > "...it's been a long time since anypony I didn't know brushed me. It just - feels kind of weird."
  1858. > "I'll go nice and slow, okay?"
  1859. > And she does:
  1860. > Slowly dragging the brush along his coat, seeming to smooth out his tensed-up muscles with its calming effect as much as it does the hair covering him.
  1861. > Leaning in, you nicker gently and brush your muzzle close to his.
  1862. "See, Barnstormer? It's okay. She really is kind."
  1863. > His wings slowly relax, settling back down from where they'd been packed against his sides.
  1864. > Soon his head has joined them in a relaxed droop.
  1865. > Finally Megan drops the brush and retrieves the saddle pad; Barnstormer barely reacts as it is laid across his back.
  1866. > The saddle presents a different problem:
  1867. > Even once laid across his back and tightened with the straps, it is still loose.
  1868. > Not tremendously, but more than you suspect is safe.
  1869. > Barnstormer is simply too young a stallion, not the equal of Shining Armor's well-built frame, for it to fit well.
  1870. > "Cadance? What do we do?"
  1871. "We could try another blanket. But if it is still not tight enough, I don't want to risk your safety, Megan."
  1872. > "Awwww-"
  1873. > You give her one hard look that shuts the girl right up.
  1874. "No. No 'aww'. Eagerness is not an excuse to risk yourself or Barnstormer's health."
  1875. > "Okay. Blanket, then?"
  1876. > You don't like the sound of that 'okay'.
  1877. > It was a drawn-out admittance - 'o-kaaaaaay' - and not one of understanding.
  1878. > Fortunately there was another blanket, and after folding and fitting it beneath the saddle it appears reasonably tight...
  1879. "Barnstormer, how does this feel?"
  1880. > "Tight."
  1881. > His wings twitch, feeling the straps beneath them.
  1882. > "Strange. Tight... a little restrictive to breath, but not too much."
  1883. "That is probably a good thing."
  1884. > The bridle is a whole different question.
  1885. > His ears prick the second the jingling of its straps and rings reach them.
  1886. > Megan frowns as he shies back from it.
  1887. > "It's okay, Barnstormer. It doesn't hurt or anything..."
  1888. > "I know. It's just - been a while."
  1889. > She doesn't ask 'since what', which is probably good.
  1890. > You can guess:
  1891. > Since he was tied down to anything like that.
  1892. > Megan is blind to the implication.
  1893. > Oh, she might understand - abstractly - that it doesn't feel good to be tied up.
  1894. > But she doesn't associate the bridle with that.
  1895. > She's only seen it used with friends.
  1896. > Never with lines of ponies - hobbled with chains, bridled, and linked one to the next.
  1897. > To keep them from even thinking of turning aside.
  1898. > Leaning in, you drop your voice to a whisper.
  1899. "Barnstormer, if this is too much..."
  1900. > "N-No. Just - please. Slowly."
  1901. > That last bit is as much to Megan; you look aside to make sure she's got the message.
  1902. "I got it, Miss Cadance. Slowly."
  1903. > She holds the bridle up to his nose, then his cheek; Barnstormer regards the tangled mass of metal and cloth cautiously and you raise an eyebrow.
  1904. "What are you doing, Megan?"
  1905. > "Something I saw on Youtube. They said it was, um, for 'haltering', you had to get them used to it first-"
  1906. "Oh, sweetheart."
  1907. > You can't help a slightly bitter smile coming to your lips.
  1908. "That's not why he doesn't like it. I'm sure it's plenty safe for him, but it's just... hard for us, sometimes."
  1909. > "I'm sorry..."
  1910. > Her hand falls down, bridle jingling where it falls to the floor.
  1911. > "I thought it might help a little bit-"
  1912. "You didn't do wrong, Megan, and Barnstormer might still want to try it. Will you?"
  1913. > "Y-Yes. I'll try it."
  1914. > "Yes!"
  1915. > Megan jumps and almost does a little clap, nearly forgetting she still holds the bridle in one hand.
  1916. > "Just say if it's scaring you, okay Barnstormer?"
  1917. > "I-I will."
  1918. > He doesn't, though you can clearly see the nervousness and fear filling every inch of him.
  1919. > Eventually Megan slips it on over his head - tightening the straps, adjusting the buckles to accommodate his smaller skull.
  1920. > "This isn't too tight, is it?"
  1921. > "No, Miss Megan... but, um..."
  1922. > Barnstormer shuffles in place, eyes sweeping back and forth as he struggles for the words.
  1923. > That internal fight is a hard one for him.
  1924. "Megan?"
  1925. > In the moment she turns away, Barnstormer seems to sink into himself:
  1926. > His eyes squeeze shut, and he wordlessly mouths something to himself - some repeated mantra, you think, although you aren't certain of the exact words.
  1927. "Maybe it would be best if we didn't-"
  1928. > "N-No. I'll - I'll be okay. Could we skip the bit this time, though? Maybe?"
  1929. > You hear the unspoken 'please' in his voice and dearly hope Megan does too.
  1930. > Fortunately, she does.
  1931. > "That's fine, Barnstormer. Just, walk slowly now, okay?"
  1932. > "Yes, I will!"
  1933. > The relief is so complete that he doesn't even bother hiding how obvious it is.
  1934. > "Okay. In that case, um... I'll just leave this here-"
  1935. > The bit falls, left hanging at the side of his head.
  1936. "I think that looks good. Megan, why don't you let me lift you up onto his back?"
  1937. > A quick glances shot at Barnstormer gives the silent command to remain still as you light your horn.
  1938. > Ironically, it is Megan who actually stays too still:
  1939. > Rigid and stuff until you finally settle her atop the stallion's back.
  1940. > Barnstormer wavers as her weight settles on him, shifting a back and forth on his hooves but not wavering too much.
  1941. > There a few problem is encountered:
  1942. > With Shining Armor, the stirrups for Megan’s legs had fit cleanly on his sides.
  1943. > Not so here; Barnstormer shifted awkwardly as their weight settled over his wings.
  1944. > Immediately he began the awkward side-shifting dance of a pegasus terribly nervous about having his wings pinned.
  1945. > Quickly you lift her legs back up with your magic.
  1946. “Don’t let them sit over his wings, Megan. It’s not comfortable for him at all.”
  1947. > “Oh. Sorry, Barnstormer!”
  1948. > “It’s okay, Miss Megan.”
  1949. > “But, um, where do I put my feet then?”
  1950. > Some experimentation proves that moving the stirrups forward - in front of his wings - only determines that left there, they rub awkwardly on the wing-root.
  1951. > In the end, you ask Barnstormer to stand with his wings fully spread as Megan settles her legs on his sides.
  1952. > Only then do you have him let them back down - over her legs.
  1953. > Megan doesn't seem to mind.
  1954. > Actually, she giggles and hugs his neck.
  1955. > "Is this good? It feels like you're hugging my legs."
  1956. > "I - I don't know, Miss Megan. It feels better, but still a little strange. They feel kind of like really light saddlebags."
  1957. > He twists his head to look back at her; in that moment some understanding passes between them:
  1958. > That they were both nervous, but by admitting that to each other could both face their own troubles.
  1959. "Just don't got too fast. That way, you can learn early if there's something wrong."
  1960. > "O-oof. Yeah, I don't think I'll be going too fast for now. This - this is going to take some getting used to."
  1961. "I'm not surprised."
  1962. > Megan reaches forward to ruffle the stallion's mane before grabbing the reins.
  1963. > "Okay, let's get ready to do this..."
  1964. > Her heels nudge his sides, but Barnstormer only gives her a curious look.
  1965. > Megan flushes beneath her helmet.
  1966. > "...that means 'walk'. Um, sorry."
  1967. > "You could always just say."
  1968. > "Okay, um, walk?"
  1969. > His first steps are nervous, shaky, as if he fears dropping the girl from his back and incurring some furious punishment at the hands of her father.
  1970. > When that doesn't come, however, he picks up to a more normal walking pace; on his back, Megan relaxes too when she realizes he'll be able to take her weight.
  1971. > Outside waits the final test:
  1972. > Anonymous still rests with folded arms against the side of the building.
  1973. > Barnstormer emerges first with Megan; you follow close behind in case he falters.
  1974. > But he does not, only looking up at his owner for reassurance
  1975. > Anonymous studies the two for a few moments - walking in a slow circle around the girl and stallion, occasionally tugging on a strap or testing the fit of her helmet.
  1976. > Eventually, however, he nods his satisfaction and pats the stallion on his rump.
  1977. > “Cadance, keep a close eye on him. I’m a little iffy on that extra blanket, but it looks good.”
  1978. "Yes, Master."
  1979. > "And Megan... go easy on him. This is still new for him, remember."
  1980. > "Yes, Daddy."
  1981. > You can hear a touch of that petulant, annoyed tone in her voice - but only a touch.
  1982. > And then she nudges his sides with her heels again, calling out:
  1983. > "Let's go, Barnstormer!"
  1984. > Trotting off close behind, you keep a wary eye on the pair.
  1985. > Fortunately, Megan seems to have a good grasp on things - soon finding the most comfortable position to ride in.
  1986. > She is also keeping well away from the more hazardous fields she'd once shot through on Shining Armor, instead keeping to the well-worn paths.
  1987. > A few ponies look up from their work, heads tilting questioningly at the strange sight.
  1988. > But nopony seems to argue.
  1989. > Confusion is far more evident than anger.
  1990. > Perhaps in part because Megan is clearly leaving some things up to Barnstormer; every couple minutes she would lean forwards and whisper something into his ear, earning an affirmative nod or negative shake from him.
  1991. > Quickly you come to understand:
  1992. > She was checking in with him, finding out what worked and what did not.
  1993. > A smile graces your lips - why had you worried?
  1994. > She was clearly deeply caring for him, and-
  1995. > Megan nudges his sides again; if not for the fact that she had to lean forward and whisper an explanation of what that meant, you might have been taken off-guard.
  1996. > As is, you join them in picking up a faster trot.
  1997. > Barnstormer's sides are starting to pump, his nostrils flaring as he is forced to take in more air to compensate for the heavier load on his back.
  1998. > But still he doesn't stop.
  1999. > If anything you can see him growing more excited:
  2000. > Testosterone starting to flow, the high of a good run starting to rise.
  2001. > His wings twitch against his sides; if not for the firm admonishment not to fly, Barnstormer would surely have launched himself for into the sky by now.
  2002. > That he has not is surely a point in his favor.
  2003. > By the time Megan pulls him to a stop, his sides are well and lathered with sweat.
  2004. > "Do you feel like going on, Barnstormer?"
  2005. > "If - if it's all the same - the same with you, Miss Megan, I think I could use a rest."
  2006. > "It's fine!"
  2007. > Leaning forward, she wraps both her arms around his neck - earning a nervous shying back from him before he settles again.
  2008. > "Let me just get off-"
  2009. > Of course, once they had stopped you'd let your guard down.
  2010. > Too late to light your horn again and catch Megan as she stands in the saddle, swings one leg over, and tumbles to the ground.
  2011. "Megan!"
  2012. > "I'm okay! I'm fine!"
  2013. > She actually giggles as Barnstormer leans his head down to deliver a questioning nuzzle.
  2014. > Pushing herself back upright, Megan hugs him again.
  2015. > "C'mon. Let's go get some water."
  2016. > Much like Shining Armor, Barnstormer doesn't seem to care that the wash-down he receives comes from a hose.
  2017. > Instead he simply collapses on the warm tarmac and relishes the frigid water running down his coat - slumping down onto his belly in relief.
  2018. > "Ooooh, my hooves ache..."
  2019. > "Oh no! Are they hurt? I forgot to check for anything before I got on-"
  2020. > Nickering gently, he lifts his head to nuzzle Megan.
  2021. > "No, it's fine. I'm just not used to doing all that walking with a heavy load. Mostly it's my wings that are tired at the end of the day."
  2022. > Chuckling softly, you settle down prone yourself and smile at the two.
  2023. "A bit of exercise between will help with that, in time."
  2024. > "I know..."
  2025. > Pausing, Barnstormer looks up to Megan and tilts his head.
  2026. > "I-If it's okay, can you take the bridle off please?"
  2027. > She does it without hesitation, and he gives a little whinnying sigh of relief.
  2028. > That comes to an abrupt halt as Megan throws her arms around him in spite of his sopping wet coat.
  2029. > In fairness to her, amid the summer heat it must have felt delightful too.
  2030. > "Thank you, Barnstormer..."
  2031. > His wing extends to circle her, clearly unexpected to and unprepared for this degree of affection and thanks.
  2032. > "Y-You're welcome..."
  2033. > "Was it what you wanted?"
  2034. > "I... I'm not sure yet. It was different. Strange. Maybe yes. I'll have to think about it."
  2035. > The notion of serving - of being ridden by a captor - is still eating at him, you can tell.
  2036. > But there's also something growing in his eyes, something expectant and hopeful.
  2037. > Megan sees that much too, and nods with a fierce expression.
  2038. > "You're going to get stronger. Then we can do this even more, and then you'll see!"
  2039.  
  2040. "So, what did you do with him in the end?"
  2041. > "Sent him back to his quarters for the night. There is a guard watching from a distance, but I don't think Barnstormer will be any trouble."
  2042. "He's changed his mind, then? Bonded with her already?"
  2043. > You throw yourself back on the bed, tucking one arm behind your head to keep it propped up.
  2044. > Cadance follows, standing beside the bed with a pondering expression.
  2045. > "More that he's got a lot on his mind. I think he's still feeling out how it means to relate to someone like that."
  2046. "Thinking is good, though. Keeps his mind off the despair."
  2047. > "Exactly why I don't think he will be a risk to himself or others. I still put the guard there anyhow, though."
  2048. "Covering your bases is good."
  2049. > You pat the bed beside you.
  2050. > She accepts the invitation, sprawling out but keeping a fair distance from you.
  2051. "There's something else I need to talk to you about regarding Barnstormer, actually. I've been thinking - if this thing with Megan works out, I might transfer him to be fully under her authority."
  2052. > "Fully?"
  2053. "Yes. He'd become her responsibility entirely - with reasonable oversight. He'd still put in his work hours, but it'd go through her instead. And then, if she wants some time with him, that'd be her prerogative as well."
  2054. > Cadance cocks her head slightly, one ear tilting down.
  2055. > "I understand why, Anonymous, but why do you ask me about this?"
  2056. "Because when I mean it would be handing him over to Megan entirely, I mean entirely. Everything would be through her... including rewards, or punishments."
  2057. > "Oh."
  2058. > Her voice had grown unexpectedly small, and you nod as understanding settles.
  2059. "Now, there'd still be some reasonable oversight. I wouldn't let her do anything insane. But, I did give you responsibility for all the ponies here. I don't want to pull that from you without a talk first."
  2060. > Cadance's eyes fall, her hoof tracing lightly on the bed's surface.
  2061. > "I... appreciate that. Very much."
  2062. "At some point she's going to have to learn to manage ponies, and Barnstormer is a pony she cares about."
  2063. > "Flurry Heart is a pony."
  2064. > That is dismissed with a shake of your head.
  2065. "She's also a foal. And... well, you know her past."
  2066. > A prickle runs through Cadance's coat, down her back to the base of her tail.
  2067. > "I could never forget."
  2068. "She'll need practice with adults too. But I've also been thinking about what you said about gambling with Barnstormer's future too. If you want me to wait for a different pony, one who isn't in such a fragile place..."
  2069. [Choice]
  2070.  
  2071. > "Give him a while, Anonymous."
  2072. > One hoof stretches out to lightly touch your shoulder.
  2073. > "I know you are eager to see Megan begin to learn. But these things do not happen in an hour, or even a day. He still has much to overcome. Be patient."
  2074. "...yeah. Yeah, I suppose that is a good point. No good just pushing him into this."
  2075. > "And if something did happen, how terrible would it be for Megan's first experience aside from Flurry to be with a pony who..."
  2076. > She doesn't finish.
  2077. > There's no need to; you get the point:
  2078. > If Barnstormer did regress, another attempt on his own life might happen.
  2079. > Megan had only half understood what ailed Barnstormer to begin with.
  2080. > If it happened again...
  2081. "Point taken. Not just yet, then - give them a bit more time to bond first."
  2082. > "Also, let me speak to him first. You mentioned how important it was to get my consent, but it could be just as bad if Barnstormer thought he was going to be just 'thrown away'."
  2083. "It's exactly the opposite, though!"
  2084. > Cadance nods, watching you closely with those great, huge eyes of hers.
  2085. > Eyes which now half-close, as if thinking on something distant.
  2086. > "I know, Anonymous. I know. But Barnstormer does not, and the sense that you are being shoved around without any say in it at all could be very bad for him at this moment."
  2087. "...very well. Time it is, then."
  2088. > "And also-"
  2089. "Cadance!"
  2090. > You raise a hand defensively, easing her back.
  2091. "It's okay, really. I understand. Time will be given."
  2092. > "Sorry, Anonymous."
  2093. > A true apologetic smiles lifts the corners of her mouth; however, it does not reach her eyes.
  2094. > "Sometimes I suppose I get - protective of these ponies. Of my ponies."
  2095. "I know, Cadance."
  2096. > This time it is you who reaches out, taking her hoof in your hands:
  2097. > Rubbing it's hardened wall, feeling the softness concealed within that tough rim.
  2098. > A soft inside, guarded behind a toughened wall of protection.
  2099. > How very much like her.
  2100. > However, you know just how to break past that wall...
  2101. "On to... other topics, I've got some good news for you as well."
  2102. > Her head tilts, one ear lifted.
  2103. "I heard back from Shining's owner today too."
  2104. > "You did?!"
  2105. > Instantly she perks up, ears fixated forward as a wide and excited grin appears on her face.
  2106. > You can't help but mirror that smile.
  2107. "Yes. Shining is still grounded for a while on account of running away, but he's agreed to start thinking about letting you two have calls together - even set a date for seeing each other aga-"
  2108. > You don't even make it to the end of the sentence because Cadance all but leaps from her resting spot and tackles you into the mattress with a delighted whinny.
  2109. > "Ohhhh, yes! Oh, thank you Anonymous! Thank you so much."
  2110. "Easy, Cadance!"
  2111. > Breath driven from your lungs, you laugh (with some wheezing) and pat her on the withers.
  2112. "Ooof. And I thought having Megan bounce on me was bad!"
  2113. > She backs off and settles back down with an abashed, but not before you catch the shimmer of dampness in her eyes.
  2114. > "F-Forgive me. That wasn't proper of me-"
  2115. "Elation at being able to see him is perfectly normal. Just try not to sacrifice my ribs in the name of it, okay?"
  2116. > Patting her side, you chuckle:
  2117. "Remember, you have Earth Pony strength in you too."
  2118. > She seats herself again, but you can just see the nervous energy all but vibrating in her.
  2119. > It's only a temporary reprieve from her overjoyed outburst, at most.
  2120. "Now, don't get yourself too worked up. It'll be a while yet - we'll agree on a time, and it might be a while."
  2121. > "Of course, of course. But don't you see, Anonymous - oh, don't you see?"
  2122. > Cadance's hooves beat a little drum-like beat against the bed, her face still split by a wide smile.
  2123. > "It still going to happen. That's enough! Just - just knowing, not being completely in the dark - that's all I need."
  2124. "Well then take your joy in that much, at least."
  2125. > You lay back down on the bed, smiling still.
  2126. "Now, go tell your daughter. I imagine she'll be just as overjoyed to hear as you are."
  2127. > No 'thank you' is given as Cadance has leaps from the bed and scampers from the room.
  2128. > But none is needed.
  2129. > Some things speak for themselves.
  2130. > Unfortunately, you can't remain resting forever:
  2131. > While Cadance is busy passing the news to Flurry Heart, you go to seek out your own daughter.
  2132. > Megan is found curled up on her own bed with a book, and eagerly jumps up when you enter.
  2133. "Hey there, sweetheart! Heard you had a good bit of fun with Barnstorme- oof!"
  2134. > Grabbing her in the tackled hug she'd hit you with, you spin around once before setting her back on the bed.
  2135. > Is everyone going to do this to you today?
  2136. > "A whole lotta fun. He's super, super nice! But he's kind of scared sometimes."
  2137. "Just remember, he's as new to this as you are. Barnstormer is learning too; you can't expect this to be like with Shining Armor, when he could do all the teaching."
  2138. > "Uh-huh. But he is learning."
  2139. > Megan pauses, then asks softly:
  2140. > "Daddy? What is the bit for?"
  2141. "Which bit of..?"
  2142. > "The one on the bridle."
  2143. > Ooooh.
  2144. > That bit.
  2145. "Well, mostly so that you can signal him without needing to talk. For him, you can just tell him where you want to go since he's an Equestrian pony - but it's faster if you just use the reins to signal through the bit. Especially when you’re going fast. Why do you ask?"
  2146. > "Barnstormer was afraid of it."
  2147. > You seat yourself on the bed beside her, holding out an arm to offer a hug.
  2148. "Is that why he wasn't wearing it when I saw you go past?"
  2149. > Megan is all too happy to take advantage of the hug, leaning in against your side.
  2150. > "Yeah. He really, really didn't like it there."
  2151. "Well. Sometimes, if you pull too hard on the bit it can hurt them. Imagine if you stuck something in your mouth and pulled too hard-"
  2152. > Of course, she actually does it with a finger.
  2153. > Right there.
  2154. > And then winces, because - well, ow.
  2155. "Yep. Just like that. Even worse, because it goes between their teeth."
  2156. > "But..."
  2157. > Megan frowns a little, attempting another tug on the corner of her mouth to test.
  2158. > "It wasn't like that. He was scared of just the sight of it..."
  2159. "If I had to guess, one of his previous owners might have used it to try and control him. If they used it the wrong way, it could really have hurt him already."
  2160. > "Will he ever be okay with it?"
  2161. > Megan's murmured question draws a shrug from you.
  2162. "I don't know. You'll have to ask him what exactly upsets him about it. If he wants to tell, then you can maybe do something to help him."
  2163. > "Okay, daddy."
  2164. > ...
  2165. > It's little surprise to you that Megan opts to have her next riding attempt with Barnstormer no more than a few days later.
  2166. > This time you decide you're going to come along with them.
  2167. > You hadn't seen her set up the saddle the first time, but she's clearly much more comfortable with it now - moving through the steps with care and precision.
  2168. > Each of Barnstormer's hooves is checked carefully, and the saddle fitted with the extra pad as it had been before.
  2169. > This time, however, you're there to see what she means about the bridle.
  2170. > From your perspective, it is clear:
  2171. > Clearly this pony had a lot of very bad experiences with it in the past.
  2172. > He still stiffens up when she tries to put it on, even though he must know she doesn't actually mean him harm.
  2173. > Once again the bit is left hanging unused at the side of the bridle.
  2174. > Eventually Megan is ready, looking up to you with wide eyes.
  2175. > "Can you put me on, Daddy?"
  2176. "Of course, sweetheart."
  2177. > Barnstormer grunts softly as you settle the girl onto his back, but both of them work together to quickly gets her stabilized.
  2178. “You know, I can find some recommendations if you want to work out and strengthen you back.”
  2179. > Too late you remember that it could be taken as an order rather than an offer.
  2180. > Fortunately Barnstormer shakes his head, the bridle jingling loosely.
  2181. > “I’ve already asked some of the others what I can do to help with that, Master.”
  2182. > ...well.
  2183. > That is a very encouraging thing to hear.
  2184. > If he’s already planning ahead…
  2185. “Alright, everything looks good to me. Off you go, then - and remember Megan, be easy on him.”
  2186. > “ ‘course, daddy!”
  2187. > You watch the two until they are far out of sight, then shake your head.
  2188. > What a strange outcome…
  2189. > “Something the matter, sir?”
  2190. > You glance aside, to where Thunderlane was waiting in a spot of shade.
  2191. > That actually looks rather tempting, and so you go over to join him.
  2192. “Good afternoon, Thunderlane. What brings you all the way out here?”
  2193. > “Just walking my rounds, Master. You?”
  2194. > You motion to the rapidly vanishing pair of girl and stallion.
  2195. > “...ah.”
  2196. “To your earlier question - I’m not certain about him. He was so close to the edge before and riding is… well, there is kind of an element of submission in it.”
  2197. > “You think he might fall again?”
  2198. “That the weight of what he is doing will eventually overwhelm whatever he gets out of it, yeah.”
  2199. > “It’s good you’re thinking about it, but I don’t think that’s as likely as you’re afraid of.”
  2200. > You cock a head, one eyebrow up.
  2201. “Explain?”
  2202. > “We’re - I don’t know how to say it. I’m not a book-head.”
  2203. “Try your best.”
  2204. > Thunderlane actually looks abashed, rubbing his head awkwardly.
  2205. > “Ponies kind of - need contact with someone. They need to be involved with someone, as friends at least.”
  2206. “And Barnstormer was isolated.”
  2207. > “Exactly.”
  2208. > Nodding sharply, Thunderlane extends a wing in the direction the two had ridden off in.
  2209. > “We never heard anything bad about him, but nothing good either. He was alone, and… Master, this life isn’t easy for any of us. But we support each other.”
  2210. “Like yourself and Vapor Trail.”
  2211. > “Yes! And without that, it all caught up to him.”
  2212. > You seat yourself down beside him - resting your back against the sun-heated wall.
  2213. “Okay, I see where you’re going with this. But how does what Megan’s doing help?”
  2214. > “The riding? It might not. I don’t even know if he really cares about it.”
  2215. “Wait, you’re saying this is all completely useless -”
  2216. > “No. Just, listen a sec.”
  2217. > His wing tucks back down and Thunderlane stares into the sky a moment or two as he thinks.
  2218. > “It’s - it’s not the riding. It’s that she cares for him when he does it. It’s that she tends to him every time before and after, with her whole heart. When he helps her back, she loves it. It wouldn’t work with a girl who wasn’t already devoted like-”
  2219. > He cuts off and shrugs .
  2220. “You sound pretty certain of this.”
  2221. > “I talked to Shining Armor a lot when he was here. I think he’d say the same thing about his first encounter.”
  2222. “...so, it’s that he is being cared for by someone.”
  2223. > “And has someone to care about. It’s a two-way thing. We’ll bend over backwards to help a friend. That’s how it was back in Equestria - everypony helping each other.”
  2224. “It didn’t have to be her?”
  2225. > “No. Although, who she is probably helps. But she was the one who went down to look after him, to speak with him when there wasn’t any need to be.”
  2226. “He isn’t afraid of her.”
  2227. > Stating the obvious lifts a weight from your shoulders - but also forces you to admit, silently, the opposite counterpart to that:
  2228. > Barnstormer is scared of you.
  2229. > Not quaking, but he certainly wasn’t comfortable around you.
  2230. “Can I ask you to do a favor for him, Thunderlane? Make sure he gets out and around. Make certain he has other ponies to talk to too.”
  2231. > “Already trying, when I can.”
  2232. “Good. He said he was asking some of them for exercises to help him strengthen himself up for Megan-”
  2233. > “Oooh, he wants exercises, does he?”
  2234. > One eyebrow rises at the excitement flooding into the stallion’s voice.
  2235. “...I take it you approve?”
  2236. > “Did I ever tell you I was an athlete, back in Equestria?”
  2237. > Sitting back on his haunches, Thunderlane does a little tip-tap stomping dance with his forehooves
  2238. > “Exercises? I’ve got exercises for him!”
  2239. “Alright, alright!”
  2240. > You can’t help but chuckle at his antics.
  2241. “Just - don't got overboard on the poor guy either, okay?"
  2242. > "Relax - I have a little brother too, remember?
  2243.  
  2244. > You appear before Anonymous the next morning, soon after breakfast.
  2245. "Master - there's something I want to do with you today, so if there's time...?"
  2246. > Setting the newspaper he'd been reading down, Anonymous raises an eyebrow in question.
  2247. > "Go on?"
  2248. "Arlene Donovan... I want to call her back. You should be there."
  2249. > "You're going to even bother with a response to her offer?"
  2250. "Yes - I think I am. Partly because I think she'll try to push her way in here again to get one otherwise. But also because I think it might actually change her perspective to get this. Maybe convince her to rethink her positions."
  2251. > Anonymous hisses through his teeth, chest deflating slowly.
  2252. > "Well, I can't say your logic is bad. I don't think it'll convince her if I'm there, though."
  2253. "It's not for her. You're right; maybe she shouldn't see you. But I think you should be there to see me."
  2254. > Because, perhaps, he would be more willing to let it happen if he was watching in.
  2255. > Rubbing his chin and shrugging, Anonymous pushes himself up from his seat.
  2256. > "Okay, Cadance. You've convinced me. Where do you want to do this?"
  2257. "With your computer? I would very much like to do it by video, if possible."
  2258. > "Over the internet? Sure."
  2259. > While the computer boots up, you think on what to say.
  2260. > Arlene meant well, yes.
  2261. > But her plans imperiled more than they would save - to you, at least.
  2262. [Choice]
  2263.  
  2264. > You should have thought about this before asking Anonymous to get started.
  2265. > Waiting for the computer to start up, and then sending a message to Arlene, waiting for her to reply and a call to begin...
  2266. > It's positively nerve-wracking!
  2267. > Of course, you'd made your choice long ago.
  2268. > Practically, it felt, the moment you had told Anonymous what she'd planned.
  2269. > But certainly after taking counsel with your three closest ponies.
  2270. > So then why did you feel so-
  2271. > "Hello?"
  2272. "Miss Donovan?"
  2273. > "Cadenza?"
  2274. "Yes. I've called you about your offer - could we use the, ah, video camera device?"
  2275. > "A video call? Yes, of course - one moment-"
  2276. > Fortunately, once she initiates it first you can figure out how to answer the call on your end.
  2277. > The sight that greets you is rather different than you'd expected.
  2278. > For how driven she was you'd expected her to occupy a pristine and organized office.
  2279. > Instead she is ensconced behind - really within the arms of - a table buried in enough books and piles of papers to rival Sunburst's quarters.
  2280. > More importantly, you can see the change in her too.
  2281. > There is a tiredness in her eyes, lines on her face you had not seen before.
  2282. > This is a woman whose task has taken something out of her, too.
  2283. > Yet she still brightens when she sees you, and for a moment you almost feel sorry for having to deliver the news you bear.
  2284. > "So! What I proposed. I assume you've thought deeply, and..."
  2285. > Arlene trails off, finally seeming to consider the room visible behind you.
  2286. > "...where exactly are you right now, Cadenza?"
  2287. > Drawing a deep breath, you gather your strength.
  2288. "I am afraid I must refuse your offer, Miss Donovan."
  2289. > A look of confusion passes over her face, trailed soon after by concern.
  2290. > "Cadenza, I could protect your daughter. He can't hold her over your head any longer-"
  2291. "No. This is not about fear, or threats. Miss Donovan, I want to make it totally clear: I am not taking the side of a slaver in this."
  2292. > "Then why-"
  2293. > You continue talking over her.
  2294. > This is not the time or place to get involved in an argument.
  2295. "In fact, honestly, I must thank you. I do not want to disparage your work or doubt your motives, and I am deeply relieved that there are some out there looking to end the tyrannical abuses ponies face. There is nothing that I wish for more than the end of slavery, an evil however it may be perpetrated. Nothing I wish for more than them to be treated as equals, not as property."
  2296. > In the face of your monologue Arlene has temporarily given up:
  2297. "However... what this is about is the danger to my ponies. Here. Now. Even if you did succeed in your prosecution, even if it did bring my owner down, what would happen to all of them? You cannot say for certain - they could be split up, sent anywhere. 'Acceptable losses' are something you may have, ponies are strongest together."
  2298. > Her head falls, hair sweeping forward to cloak over her face.
  2299. > "I am not going to be able to move you on this."
  2300. "No, Miss Donovan. I am afraid not."
  2301. > You cock your head.
  2302. "May I tell you something? About what once happened in the past?"
  2303. > "I... yes."
  2304. "Once before, I planned an escape from here. Managed to get nearly a hundred ponies out... and it was an utter failure. Most were returned; some were hurt or died alone in a world that would not be kind to them."
  2305. > As you speak you can feel the old emotions welling up:
  2306. > Regret, pain, anger at yourself for allowing them to come to harm.
  2307. "I leaped at what seemed like an opportunity - and failed as a leader then, because I forgot what being ponies meant. It means we support each other, in harmony - and it means I will not cast them to the chance of fate again."
  2308. > "You are right, Cadenza. I cannot give you assurances about what will happen to the other ponies there."
  2309. "It is my understanding that, in your legal system, the property of one convicted of a serious crime is often forfeit."
  2310. > "This is true, yes."
  2311. > There's an emptiness in her voice which suggests a sense that it was no longer worth it to hide such things from you.
  2312. "Then you understand why I cannot."
  2313. > You lean in towards the camera - and then back again, when you remember that approaching a camera does not work the same as leaning into a face-to-face meeting.
  2314. "Please, Miss Donovan. I do not want to see you give up this work. What you do is important. This was simply the wrong target; it is not the worst slave camp out there. Please - do keep fighting. Do not give up this struggle."
  2315. > Edges of her mouth curling up into the slightest smile, Arlene looks back up at you again.
  2316. > "I would warn you of how much this might delay freedom for all ponies, but I think I have already made that point thoroughly."
  2317. "It is a cost I will accept. Anonymous was not always the kindest master, but he is not guilty of what you accuse him. Now, this has become a shelter. A place where I would bring ponies, so that they could be safe."
  2318. > "Is any pony safe in slavery?"
  2319. > Now it is your turn for a slightly embittered smile to raise the corners of your mouth.
  2320. "Touche. But my point stands - the more ponies who come here, the more of us are united. The more united we are..."
  2321. > "...the stronger you become. Yes, I do see your point."
  2322. "Take one step at a time, Miss Donovan. Focus on the places where ponies are in danger. Do whatever you can. I will cheer each victory you have."
  2323. > "Then I'll have to give you plenty of them, Cadenza."
  2324. "And... please. Simply Cadance."
  2325. > "But - it is your name-"
  2326. "Cadance is simply fine. I feel as though Cadenza is - a name I can’t use now."
  2327. > Except, perhaps, from Shining Armor.
  2328. "Not until every pony is freed. Then I may finally be Mi Amore Cadenza again."
  2329. > "Cadence, then. I.. don't suppose your Master will allow us to talk again, so this might be the last time I can speak to you for a very long time."
  2330. "You will not try to pursue this further?"
  2331. > "I cannot push charges with just what I have, and I've already done what I can."
  2332. > Eyes falling again, she rests her elbows on the table as if needing to support herself.
  2333. > "That still gets to me. He won't ever face justice for what happened to Chrysocolla..."
  2334. "What you saw weighs on you."
  2335. > "It's hard not to, seeing a body laid out on a table like that. Especially with how she died. But I probably don't have to tell you that."
  2336. "No. You do not. But I can tell you this: Chrysocolla's death was only indirectly brought on by cruelty. There are so many places where death is directly brought - ponies too weak, too old, or too resistant to work. Let that anger fuel you."
  2337. > "It will. Believe me, it will."
  2338. "Then I will hope to see you again some day - when all ponies are free, and both our wars against slavery will be over."
  2339. > Once the connection closes, Anonymous stirs.
  2340. > "You spoke awfully strongly there."
  2341. "About slavery?"
  2342. > You turn to look at him.
  2343. "Would she have believed me if I had not?"
  2344. > Chuckling, he shakes his head.
  2345. > "I suppose not."
  2346. > You stand to move to his side
  2347. "Besides - my heart is not going to change. I will always long for the day when I am no-one's property."
  2348. > His hand settles on your withers.
  2349. > "I gave up trying to change that long ago."
  2350. > No more words are spoken until you have departed the house, heading outside with Anonymous at your side.
  2351. "Anonymous? What would you have done if I said yes? If I had given her the information?"
  2352. > "What, do I have to be afraid that you secretly have? And this was all nothing more than a distraction?"
  2353. "I am serious, Anonymous!"
  2354. > He comes to a stop still some distance from the nearest buildings.
  2355. > A few ponies look to you in passing, but none approach.
  2356. > "There was... a backup plan if I was convicted. I talked it out with Randall, worked it out until it was fairly solid."
  2357. > Your eyebrows rise, prompting him to go on.
  2358. > "I would have transferred actual ownership of the camp to Megan, via a limited-liability corporation."
  2359. "But Megan is a child. She cannot run the business yet!"
  2360. > "But a child's property can become the responsibility of their legal ward."
  2361. > He turns to look down at you, his eyes hooded.
  2362. > "And ponies can be made legal guardians of children."
  2363. > It takes a moment for you to comprehend what he is implying.
  2364. "You - you would have made me-"
  2365. > "Effectively the owner, yes. Whether because Arlene had managed to get you freed, or because you would have remained Megan's property even as you were her guardian."
  2366. "That does not sound legal."
  2367. > "There is precedent. It's meant for ponies taking temporary responsibility of minors while parents are out, but there is precedent."
  2368. > But...
  2369. > That would have left you…
  2370. > Anonymous’ hand settles on your back again.
  2371. > “I suspected you wouldn’t ever forgive me for putting you in that position.”
  2372. “I… don’t know.”
  2373. > “It’s okay. It would have been cruel, in many ways. But it would have at least stalled them out while I worked through the sentence.”
  2374. > You huff gently; your ears twitch, but stay upright.
  2375. “Will it ever be set right, some day?”
  2376. > “Yes.”
  2377. > Eyebrows rising, you twist your head to look up at Anonymous.
  2378. > He shrugs.
  2379. > “It can’t last forever. The movements are gaining strength, laws are changing… this won’t be an eternity.”
  2380. “When?”
  2381. > Your voice is a whisper.
  2382. > “I couldn’t say. Long enough we still have to think about the future.”
  2383. > Of course.
  2384. > He wouldn’t be planning to install his daughter as manager if he thought it was coming that soon.
  2385. > Somehow you still feel disappointed, yet the mere fact that he acknowledges slavery must bend is still heartening.
  2386. “Someday, then.”
  2387. > …
  2388. > Fall isn’t here quite yet, but there’s already a subtle, shift in the air already.
  2389. > The first hint of the scent of turning leaves.
  2390. > You draw a deep breath, savoring that aroma - the sign of the season’s change again.
  2391. > Perhaps this year you would ask Anonymous to attempt a proper Running of the Leaves…
  2392. > Shaking your head to dispel the fantasy, you continue on behind Megan.
  2393. > Barnstormer was already waiting for her:
  2394. > The tack and saddle laid out at his hooves.
  2395. > While she sets about putting them on with Flurry Heart’s assistance, you pause next to him and murmur:
  2396. “You’re sure you feel ready for this?”
  2397. > “Absolutely. I stretched this morning, and I know it feels right.”
  2398. “I’ll still be alongside you. For however long it is, anyhow - until you touch down again.”
  2399. > “Not planning on flying for that long, so I think we should be good.”
  2400. “Okay. Megan, you’re ready?”
  2401. > “Uh-huh.”
  2402. > She’s finished tightening the saddle’s girth straps, and moves to his head to set the bridle on.
  2403. > This time, however, when she tightens it into place Barnstormer hesitates.
  2404. > “Megan, I… I think you should use the bit.”
  2405. > “What? But you hate it-”
  2406. > “You’re going to be relying on me to carry you. I have to know if you’re stable. If you’re slipping, you can use it to tell me quickly-”
  2407. > His voice is almost a whisper, and you can see the instincts screaming at him not to.
  2408. > Megan huffs softly, folding her arms.
  2409. > “It’s not - why are you so scared of them, even?!”
  2410. > Freezing with his wings half-open, Barnstormer chokes on the answer.
  2411. > “I…”
  2412. “Megan, sweetheart… it’s not something he may be ready to answer yet.”
  2413. > “No, it’s okay, I…”
  2414. > His head falls, ears pinned and tail slashing back and forth.
  2415. > “...when they were marching us out, they hooked us up in lines. One pony after another, bridle and bit. Couldn’t even look to one side to see our homes as we marched away. Just the next pony in front of us, marching, marching…”
  2416. > “Why?”
  2417. > Her question - the refrain of all young children everywhere, filly or girl, is now accompanied by a new note of emotion:
  2418. > Frustration, or perhaps even anger, as if not understanding how or why it would be done was something she should know.
  2419. “It is an easy method of controlling a pony, Megan. That is all it had to be. Keep your head forward, don't look to the side, and if you pull, it - hurts."
  2420. > "Hurts you?"
  2421. > "And the pony behind you."
  2422. > She thinks a moment before shaking her head.
  2423. > "I don't want to use it on you, Barnstormer!"
  2424. > Barnstormer leans over, nickering as he nuzzles her back.
  2425. > "But you - you need to, Mistress Megan. It's for your safety. For your father. You could be hurt."
  2426. > "So could you!"
  2427. > Stepping in, you light your horn and separate them.
  2428. "Megan. I know you don't want to make him feel bad, but there are some things you cannot get away from so easily."
  2429. > On her opposite side, Flurry Heart nuzzles Megan's leg.
  2430. > "It's okay, Mistress. Some things we trust you with."
  2431. > Tears bead in her eyes, but Megan reaches up to slip the bit into his open mouth.
  2432. > Barnstormer's jaw twitches and shifts about getting used to the old sensation again.
  2433. > His whole body is stiff, but you do not stop him:
  2434. > It's clear how hard he is trying to keep the old memories under control.
  2435. > To step in now would be tantamount to admitting you had not trust in him, and that you weren't going to do.
  2436. > This was his moment.
  2437. > Once she has clipped it in place, he apprehensively turns his head from side to side in an achingly slow creep - as if testing that he could do so without causing himself overwhelming pain.
  2438. "You're okay, Barnstormer?"
  2439. > Yet another shudder runs nose-to-tail through his coat, but he manages.
  2440. > "Yeth, mi' 'Adansh."
  2441. > Megan sniffles once then hugs him fiercely around the muzzle.
  2442. > In lieu of a proper, spoken answer through the bit he gives another soft nicker.
  2443. > "C-Can I climb on now, Barnstormer?"
  2444. > "Yesh, Mish'resh."
  2445. > She does, taking up the reins only with some hesitation.
  2446. > Although just the act of lifting them would be enough to harm him.
  2447. > Without prompting Barnstormer walks around in a slow circle, Flurry Heart hovering close at Megan's side with a worried expression.
  2448. > When he has made one circuit his head twists back around to look at her questioningly.
  2449. > No words are needed this time:
  2450. > Megan gives a fierce nod, starting to grip the reins more tightly.
  2451. > "Okay. I'm ready."
  2452. > You'd chosen the same field you'd once given Megan her first flying ride over for this.
  2453. > Half because it was simply a good location, and half so that (you hoped) it would keep her from panicking at the rather different experience of riding a saddled pegasus mid-air.
  2454. “Do you think you will to pick up speed before trying to fly?”
  2455. > “No - ‘fraid - fraid I’ll go ‘ead over hoof. Star’ ‘ere.”
  2456. > Barnstormer’s speech is slurred, but still clear enough for you to understand.
  2457. > Taking two paces back, you gesture Flurry Heart to your side.she gives her mistress once last nervous glance.
  2458. > Your horn lights as Barnstormer opens his wings - preparing to catch Megan if need be.
  2459. > She is gripping the reins with white knuckles, her eyes wide and fearful beneath the riding helmet.
  2460. > One, two, three beats of his wings - he rears up, and Megan leans forward with him.
  2461. > You can see the muscles bunching in his legs to leap, but when he does it isn’t quite enough to go airborne.
  2462. > When he comes back down, you are already taking a hoofstep forward and slowing Megan’s descent.
  2463. > Her coming down too hard could be terrible for both of them.
  2464. “Easy there!”
  2465. > Snorting unhappily, Barnstormer shakes his head.
  2466. > Megan, however, is far more worried for him than her own well-being:
  2467. > “Oh no! Did I pull too hard?”
  2468. > “No, Mi’ressh.”
  2469. > He snorts again, tossing his head angrily.
  2470. “Now, Barnstormer. I know you don’t normally have to take a running start, but maybe this time it would be a good idea?
  2471. > He grunts, but nods with a jingle of the bridle.
  2472. > “A’righ’.”
  2473. > At the end of the field, Megan nudges his sides with her heels and Barnstormer explodes into motion.
  2474. > From no motion on his first attempt to a flat-out gallop on his second; each step kicks up dirt while Megan hunkers down on his back.
  2475. > Even you, with your long and graceful stride, are forced to a gallop to keep up.
  2476. > Flurry Heart is hampered by her short, foal-sized stride and gives up entirely - quickly taking to the air to keep up.
  2477. > His first wingbeat again doesn’t quite bring him airborne.
  2478. > With the second and third, though, his hooves cease striking the ground.
  2479. > Each following beat is a labored, forceful sweep slamming air towards the ground; there is no grace or smoothness in how he flies.
  2480. > Fly he does, though:
  2481. > Megan whooping excitedly even as she is bounced with each stroke.
  2482. > Though your horn is lit, there isn’t yet any need to reach out grasp her with your magic.
  2483. > Heads below turn and ponies look up:
  2484. > Wondering at the sight passing overhead.
  2485. > Some smile, a few wave, even one briefly launches to join his unsteady flight.
  2486. > That flight does not last longer than thirty or forty seconds at most; soon Barnstormer is obviously straining to continue.
  2487. > Before you can even step in to warn him, he is gliding, then stumbling into a landing.
  2488. > Though rough for him, it is far smoother for Megan.
  2489. > She promptly leans forward and hugs him around the neck, heedless of the sweat he had built up during the short flight.
  2490. > "That was amazing! Do you still feel like going on? We can head back-"
  2491. > "I'll b'fine Mis'ressh."
  2492. > Though the bit, he actually gives a whinny and laugh.
  2493. > "I did i'! I really did i'!"
  2494. > You touch down on his once side; Flurry Heart joins him on the other, nuzzling her mistress.
  2495. "You did - and quite well, all things considered. If you're done flying for today, though, I might head off?"
  2496. > "I think we are. Thank you, Miss Cadance!"
  2497. > "Than' 'ou!"
  2498. > Laughing softly, you lean over and give Flurry Heart a motherly nuzzle before turning and spreading your wings again.
  2499. > Anonymous is right where you had left him:
  2500. > Seated just outside the manor, stretched out and enjoying a brief soak in the afternoon sun.
  2501. > You touch down next to him without a word; he offers you one of the two cushions he had brought out with him.
  2502. "So. What did you think?"
  2503. > "They're bonding well. He'll be fine, I think."
  2504. > You settle down, sprawling out on the cushion and folding your wings.
  2505. > In the distance Barnstormer walks back across the field:
  2506. > Megan still on his back, and Flurry hovering excitedly around her shoulders.
  2507. "He has someone who cares again. That's all we need."
  2508. > "He has a future."
  2509. "Yes."
  2510. > Anonymous' hand settles on your back, rubbing softly.
  2511. > Your eyes continue to rove; they fall on the large, open field near the edge of camp where the whipping posts had once been set up.
  2512. > Celestia above - how long had it been now, since you'd first condemned six ponies to those posts?
  2513. > Since you'd taken your place at the post in turn and suffered the same?
  2514. > The scars, though long since healed over, itch in sympathy with the memory.
  2515. > Ten months, no more.
  2516. > And yet, so much has changed.
  2517. "We all have a future now. A path forward."
  2518. > "Yes. You once told me, Cadance, that you were always afraid of what Celestia would think of what you did here."
  2519. "It was my guiding principle for a long time."
  2520. > "I think she'd be proud. You've been a good leader -"
  2521. > You start to turn towards him, and Anonymous quickly corrects:
  2522. > "-not just for me. I know that's what you were afraid of; I mean for them. You really have been, Cadance, and you should be proud."
  2523. "I could have done better."
  2524. > "Maybe. Maybe not."
  2525. > Anonymous shrugs lightly, resting his elbows on his knees and hands on his chin.
  2526. > "We don't know the impact of every choice we make, unless fortune-telling is something you can do too. Their results might not be immediate. But all things considered, the choices you've made - we've made - have been good ones."
  2527. > You aren't so sure.
  2528. > Even so, you extend a wing to lightly touch his shoulder in return for the gesture.
  2529. > That lasts for a minute before you slip away from his touch and take to the air again.
  2530. > Your destination this time, an empty rooftop of a taller building from which you could survey much of the rest of the camp.
  2531. > There you touch down, falling to your belly and lying there - staring into the distance in silent contemplation of what you have done.
  2532. > And the rewards it has reaped.
  2533. > Those are visible from this perch too, written in the actions of every pony living here now.
  2534. > In the distance, Rumble walks alongside Mocha Cream - both engaged in deep conversation, his wing stretched across her and pace slow to match her limp:
  2535. > A bristling, angry soul, now turned to heartfelt protection of a fearful one.
  2536. > Sunburst emerges from the town hall alongside Mayor Mare.
  2537. > The older mare pauses and stretches deeply in the late-afternoon warmth.
  2538. > Sunburst watches her with a small smile as she gathers herself up and returns to the documents they had been consulting.
  2539. > From the tumbling procession of the camp's foals who follow him out, you're certain it was something to do with them.
  2540. > The next generation, now under the careful tutelage and care of the last.
  2541. > Elsewhere, a distant dark-grey shape circles over the edge of the camp -
  2542. > Thunderlane, always vigilant for trouble.
  2543. > Except for the moment when he pops down to a rooftop, just as a door opens for Vapor Trail to emerge.
  2544. > New love, fresh and passionate, reborn like Aunt Celestia’s phoenix from the ashes of the old.
  2545. > They share a deep kiss - her leaned back and up, he dipping his head while still hovering midair - and she passes a package up to him.
  2546. > Dinner, no doubt, for his evening watch.
  2547. > He is not the only guard visible; elsewhere, you can see Seismic Shift's large profile lumbering through the streets, while one of the griffons converses quietly with a pony as two more perch like hawks on a roofline above.
  2548. > Dedicated, just, and fearless protectors, carrying on the traditions Shining Armor had embodied.
  2549. > It isn't quiet sundown yet, but already some distant smells of cooking are rising from the rec hall:
  2550. > Bon Bon trots from an alleyway, Crescent Moon at her side; they wait there - conversing softly - until Lyra appears at the far end of the street.
  2551. > She shares a brief nuzzle with her marefriend, and all three of them turn for the rec hall and trot off together, talking excitedly.
  2552. > They, like many other ponies, will gather there tonight to eat together.
  2553. > Surrounded by symbols of Equestria and a sense of community that just for a few moments will let them forget they are the property of another.
  2554. > That fact still looms over the whole situation:
  2555. > You are still property, still slaves.
  2556. > But that fact does not seem to be so immutable anymore, with the only recourse being a danger-filled dash for total freedom.
  2557. > Now there is a fresh, new path to follow.
  2558. > Not the fastest, nor necessarily the easiest.
  2559. > Certainly not the most dignified - but, you think, not a bad one either.
  2560. > Megan’s eyes are opening.
  2561. > Already her sympathies rise; in time she will come to understand the true cruelty of slavery.
  2562. > Abstract ‘sad things’ you had told her of coming into sharper focus when she matures.
  2563. > Arlene Donovan had feared keeping your trust with Anonymous would set back freedom by decades, but that didn't seem right to you.
  2564. > Twice you had been taught the lesson that ponies needed to watch out for each other above all else:
  2565. > Once when you had abandoned Flurry Heart in the hope that both she and you could slip away before slavery's jaws snapped shut around you.
  2566. > That mistake had cost Flurry her safety and doomed her to neglect.
  2567. > Yet somehow you still hadn't learned.
  2568. > You'd pushed ponies to flee individually, and cost yet more ponies their lives and well-being.
  2569. > No more.
  2570. > Ponies support each other.
  2571. > By accepting that freedom will not come soon - but not leaping for another distant hope - you have planted the seed of freedom, and at the roots of the very ‘humane slavery’ Arlene feared would form a foundation for the next generation.
  2572. > No - that seed would sprout, grow, and burst forth.
  2573. > A strong new tree of friendship for Flurry Heart and Megan to raise together.
  2574. > Perhaps you won't ever see freedom - or maybe not until you've grown old and your coat dulled by age.
  2575. > But you will see Flurry Heart - and every other colt and filly - have their freedom.
  2576.  
  2577.  
  2578. ==========
  2579.  
  2580. EPILOGUE
  2581.  
  2582. > It takes you a few moments, after opening your eyes, to realize exactly what has changed in the hospital room.
  2583. > The shades lining the far side of the room have been drawn open, flooding the room with late-afternoon sun.
  2584. > It spills in to fill the room like liquid gold:
  2585. > Revealing details that had been lost when you had dozed off.
  2586. > Stirring, you manage to heave yourself upright.
  2587. > Though your eyesight was failing, it was still plenty good enough to spot a mottled pastel blob at the side of the bed.
  2588. > Especially when her horn ignites, magic surrounding your chest and laying you back down.
  2589. > “It’s okay. I'm here now; it’s okay.”
  2590. “My glasses - I need my glasses, please.”
  2591. > Your voice came out as a croak, and so first came a glass of water - drifting up to your lips to let you sip from it.
  2592. > Only once it has gone do your glasses settle across your nose - turning a blurry blob into a proper pony again.
  2593. > A pony who smiles at you, again gently lifting your body to re-fluff the pillows beneath you.
  2594. > “There, now - isn’t that much better?”
  2595. “Much, thank you.”
  2596. > She smiles, and so do you.
  2597. > One hand - skin brittle, thin, and pale - rises to brush her cheek; she, in turn, leans into it and nickers gently.
  2598. “Ah, you’re looking well. The years have been kinder to you than me, I think.”
  2599. > It’s true - her coat is faded, pink turned dull, and mane shot through with silver hair.
  2600. > Not that she’s grown homely.
  2601. > If anything, compared to your mottled skin and sparse hair aging has given her an appearance of grace and elegance.
  2602. > She only smiles, though, and climbs up onto the bed to nuzzle you.
  2603. > In response your hand slips around her neck.
  2604. > Though your fingers ache with arthritis, her mane s as soft as you ever remember it being.
  2605. “You didn’t have to come out for me, you know. I know how busy you are…”
  2606. > “Never too busy for you.”
  2607. “Are any of the others going to be here?”
  2608. > “I’m afraid not. Skyla’s at a conference somewhere in India, I think -”
  2609. > She rolls her eyes, a childish gesture she’d never quite grown out of.
  2610. > “Between you and me, I think she’s taking this whole ‘Princess’ business a bit too seriously. And Mom… Mom’s starting to feel her years too, I think.”
  2611. “I’d have liked to see her again, but in the end I’m just glad to see you here.”
  2612. > Dropping down the bed, she settles against your side; a wing extends out across your belly.
  2613. > Even through the thin dress you wear, you can still feel the warmth of her body against you - echoes and memories of passions whose fires have long since faded to embers.
  2614. > “It’s still good to see you again, Mistress.”
  2615. “You know you don’t have to call me that now, Flurry.”
  2616. > “I know, I know. ‘Free’.”
  2617. > Her muzzle brushes your cheek - a chaste and modest kiss, so very far different than those you’d shared in years past.
  2618. > But no less loving than those passionate touches.
  2619. > “But you have still earned it, love.”
  2620. > You brush aside her mane with one hand and kiss the tip of her snout.
  2621. “Flattery is beneath you, ‘Your Highness’.”
  2622. > Flurry giggles, nuzzling your forehead.
  2623. > “It’s true, though. You’ve done so much for us. We’re free because of you-”
  2624. “You are free because you never gave up.”
  2625. > Her eyes roll again.
  2626. > “Yes, yes. But you set all of that in motion. You marched at the head. You stood up to your father, asked him questions neither myself or my mother could-”
  2627. > Cutting her off with a finger to her muzzle, you shake your head.
  2628. “Flurry… do you ever still think about - before?”
  2629. > “Before?”
  2630. “Before my father - purchased you.”
  2631. > Pain flickers across her eyes - a distant, muted pain dulled by many long years but never totally healed.
  2632. > “Sometimes, yes.”
  2633. “The old dreams, still?”
  2634. > She nods, slowly.
  2635. > “Sometimes I’m back on display, chained to the post out in the rain. Sometimes I’m a foal, sometimes grown - always helpless.”
  2636. > Leaning in, she brushes her cheek to yours and goes on:
  2637. > “More often, though, I dream about being with you. Being happy. Being safe and warm and loved.”
  2638. > You don’t answer, and Flurry Heart whispers softly:
  2639. > “What is wrong, Mistress?”
  2640. “I… sometimes wonder. Did I do enough? Was it soon enough? You said I stood up to my father, but how many years did I not know how to ask? Could he have changed before that if I said-”
  2641. > “You did all a little girl could be expected to do.”
  2642. > Standing, Flurry climbs from the bed.
  2643. > A moment later magic surrounds it entirely, the room rearranging itself to allow the bed’s shifting over towards a window.
  2644. > Then she returns to sitting at your side, but this time having propped you the rest of the way up so you can look through the window.
  2645. > There extends rows and rows of rooftops - not a camp now so much as a proper town.
  2646. > The fences were long gone.
  2647. > A place to live now, rather than be imprisoned in.
  2648. > “Look at all of this, Megan. This would not have happened without you. You did all a filly - a child - could do.”
  2649. > Her head comes to rest on your shoulder, while you huff softly.
  2650. “Yes, and not one of you will let me forget it. Barnstormer visited last week, did you know?”
  2651. > “No! Did he bring his foals this time too?”
  2652. “Well, they’re hardly foals anymore - he did bring the grandfoals, though. And then insisted on sitting them down and telling them all about everything I had done to help ponies…”
  2653. > Now it is your turn to roll your eyes.
  2654. “I made sure not to leave you out, of course.”
  2655. > “I never doubted you.”
  2656. > You lift a finger to lightly tap her nose.
  2657. “This is serious, Flurry. Like I said, you did more than a little filly ever should.”
  2658. > “Hah, hah.”
  2659. “I mean it. You did so much for me… did you know I still have your collar?”
  2660. > “My last one? But I thought that’s the one I gave to the-”
  2661. “Your first one.”
  2662. > Her eyes mist up, mouth forming a small ‘o’.
  2663. > “Y-You still…”
  2664. “In the stand - the one that was beside my bed.”
  2665. > Flurry Heart cants her head, horn lit.
  2666. > Though you do not turn yours, you can hear the stand’s drawer scrape open.
  2667. > She sets the collar on the bed between the two of you - a short length of buckle-ended fabric.
  2668. > Light and short, only long enough to constrain a filly’s throat.
  2669. > “Why?”
  2670. > Her voice was shaky and eyes misted over.
  2671. “Because I wanted to remember - how good you were for me. You and your mother both. Even when you were bonded to me as my - my property.”
  2672. > “Oh, Megan…”
  2673. > Flurry lays the collar down on your chest, then rests her head on your side as well.
  2674. > "You never needed a collar to bind me to you. Your heart was always enough."
  2675. > There seems to be no good answer to this, and instead you slip a hand about her.
  2676. > One great wing - broad and voluminous as a blanket, her feathers now tipped with purple just as her mother's had been - stretches across you.
  2677. > You lay a kiss on her forehead, just beneath her horn.
  2678. > And for just the briefest moment, you feel as though you were a young girl again:
  2679. > Happy, content, curled up and dozing with the sleepy filly who meant the most to you in the whole world.
  2680. > With your friend.
  2681.  
  2682.  
  2683. ===
cadance princess cadance flurry heart thunderlane rumble mayor mare /spg/

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