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De-Meaning the Six (Part 1)(Lewd)

By TakeItEasy
Created: 1st January 2021 03:51:11 PM
22nd October 2021 06:19:35 AM

  1. >"So, Anon, is it done yet?"
  2. >Twilight Sparkle enters her newly erected residence - a fairly spacious tent.
  3. >Of course it was up to you to set it up. Who else in this gang would accomplish something like this?
  4. >After all, this isn't really Twilight Sparkle. It's whatever magical clone-animation-whatever-thing created by some bug horse or something.
  5. >She and her crew got left behind after their creator's plan failed, or so you've heard. The Everfree forest is now their 'base of operations', as Twilight explained.
  6. >Twilight calls it that, but just one look at it can tell you that it's just a couple of tents and a bonfire in the middle of a forest.
  7. >They've set it up on a modest clearing near a lake, so anyone could just assume they're camping.
  8. >Only it's their home and they're surviving out here. Without much success so far. If not for Rarity's scavenging and Fluttershy's ability to scare away animals, they would've been lost here.
  9. "Yeah, no thanks to your friends," you answer here.
  10. >"They aren't my friends, and what did they do this time?"
  11. "It's nothing, just Rarity being Rarity."
  12. >"Ugh."
  13. >Twilight looks around her new home. The last tent you've help them with. When you first found them, only a week ago, there was just one - Rarity's.
  14. >Needless to say, it was filled to the brim with junk so others had to stay outside.
  15. >But among that junk Twilight has found other tents. God knows where Rarity got those from, probably stolen from other campers or found some left-behinds.
  16. >And so, with a bit of fighting and convincing the white pony that you're not stealing anything, Twilight has ordered you to set them up.
  17. >Ordered is a strong word, but she thinks she's in charge, so...
  18. >"Great, great. This will definitely help."
  19. >No words of thanks. Not like you expect any from her anyway.
  20. "Can I go now?"
  21. >"Where to? Are you running away already?" she asks cautiously.
  22. "No, I'll be nearby. Just wanted to fish for a bit before I head home."
  23. >Twilight frowns.
  24. >"Fish? You mean in that lake?"
  25. "Yep."
  26. >She's considering it like it's up to her to decide whether or not you're allowed to do it.
  27. >"Fine. I'll call you if I need anything."
  28. "Alright."
  29. >Both of you exit the 'commander's outpost'. It's already past noon but you're not worried about time. You won't be getting lost in this forest.
  30. >You have your fishing rod with you and some bait in a can. Everything you would ever need to sit near the lake and relax. Of course, you don't care about the fish itself. It's the ritual that goes with it that's important.
  31. >Simple fishing relax times. Ah, what can possibly be better?
  32. >You wonder if you can find any alcohol in Equestria. Without a bottle near your chair it's not the same.
  33. >Still, the ambience is perfect for this. In no time you are seated right near the lake and your hook is idly thrown into the crystal clear water.
  34. >Man, being a ranger in the Everfree is such a piece of cake. All the tales about it being dangerous was probably to ward off stupid ponies.
  35. >Though some of them now live here and they don't know the first thing about survival.
  36. >It's not like you're an expert, but you're definitely capable of something on your own. Unlike these fillies.
  37. >For example, one of them is now resting up above on tree branch. You don't see her, but you hear her landing there.
  38. >Then, of course, comes a yawn. She was napping the whole day.
  39. >"Hey, Anon," you hear her tremendously bored voice from above.
  40. "Hi, Rainbow."
  41. >"What's all this?" she sounds absolutely disinterested, yet still has to ask.
  42. "I'm fishing."
  43. >"Pfft."
  44. >That's all you get.
  45. >A few moments late you head her ruffling up the leaves and getting comfortable yet again.
  46. >So far you've been fishing here two times, and all of those were under her watch. She doesn't care for you, but she still prefers to sleep above you, not anywhere else. Only when you're sitting here fishing.
  47. >What a strange little pony.
  48. >Just as strange as the pink one that's approaching you right now.
  49. >"Ugh, again?"
  50. "Yep, again."
  51. >"Can't you think of anything else to do?"
  52. "Not really. Any ideas?"
  53. >"Uggh."
  54. >That's about it. That's all there is to your conversation.
  55. >Pinkie lies down on her belly right at the lakeside and watches her reflection get distorted by ripples made by your line.
  56. >"This is so boring."
  57. >Pause.
  58. >You listen to Rainbow Dash snoozing up above and some birds chirping in the distance.
  59. "That's the point. It's relaxing."
  60. >No reply.
  61. "Is anything not boring to you, Pinkie?"
  62. >She's still watching the water. Another pause is almost a minute long.
  63. >"Not really."
  64. >Now you stay silent for almost two minutes. Pinkie is still here.
  65. "Hey, Pinkie."
  66. >"Yeah."
  67. "What's more boring, watching paint dry or watching your own reflection in the water?"
  68. >She pauses again, but then gets up and turns away from you.
  69. >"Answering stupid questions."
  70. >With that, she walks away towards the camp, where something is going down between Twilight and Rarity.
  71. >Yes, again.
  72. >That means the hoarder freak is back from her daily scavenger hunt.
  73. >Your idyllic daytime at this beautiful lake might be ruined again. Better hide your can of worms, unless you-
  74. >"Hey!"
  75. >Oh no.
  76. >"Hey, you! Forest ape!"
  77. >The yellow one is back too.
  78. >"Or maybe you're more of a clothed sloth?"
  79. "Hey, Flutterbitch."
  80. >"Ooh! Big words for someone that fat and lazy."
  81. >You're not that fat. And certainly not that lazy. But it goes without saying that this annoying horse will use anything to get under your skin.
  82. >"Trying to fish again? So you really are braindead, huh?"
  83. "Piss off," you don't even look at her but you know she's right at your side now.
  84. >Better get ready for an attack.
  85. >"I've already told you, there's no fish in this lake."
  86. "Hey, there might be."
  87. >"Spoken like a true idiot."
  88. "Whatever."
  89. >"WhAtEvEr..."
  90. >Did she just mock your voice? You're having hard time hiding a smile.
  91. >"So if you know you won't catch anything, you don't need these!"
  92. >Before you can react, she snatches your can from the ground and lifts off.
  93. >In a matter of seconds, Fluttershy flies over your head and empties the content of the can right on your head.
  94. >To salt the wound, she throws the can in the camp's general direction. And that, of course, prompts Rarity to drop everything and run to get it.
  95. >"Mine!" you hear her exclaim, as she runs off to her tent to add her newest catch to her junk collection.
  96. >Fluttershy hovers lower so her face is on the same level as yours.
  97. >"Oops!" she mocks you. "Well, at least somepony managed to catch something today."
  98. >She then proceeds to laugh like a maniac and fly off, not before hitting Rainbow's branch on her way, of course.
  99. >You hear the blue pegasus grumble something half-asleep.
  100. >It's only now you notice that Pinkie has watched the whole thing and never did anything.
  101. >She looks at your dirt-and-worm covered self and not even a hint of smile crosses her face.
  102. >"Well, at least that was more fun than fishing," she remarks and walks away.
  103. >It's hard to tell if she actually enjoyed the show.
  104. >But still, now you'll have to spend some time cleaning yourself.
  105. >That's just how things go in this camp of jerks and assholes.
  106.  
  107. >It wasn't hard to kinda wave and flail your shirt around to at least somewhat clean it after Fluttershy's prank. But pieces of soil got stuck in your hair, and that needs to be dealt with.
  108. >Of course, the obvious solutions is to just wash it in the lake. But it would certainly attract the mean ponies' attention.
  109. >For example, leaving your shirt on the ground was basically inviting Rarity to take it. And leaning over to submerge your head? You'd get kick in the butt right that instant by someone yellow and annoying.
  110. >So you wait until Rarity gets in her tent and snatch a vacant pot from the camp's "kitchen tent", also known as Pinkie's home.
  111. >Basically no one wanted all the day-to-day use kitchenware Rarity has scavenged in their own tents and Pinkie didn't really care.
  112. >So aside from personal cups, everything is stored at her place.
  113. >She wouldn't mind you taking one thing for just a moment, she's not Rarity. Not like Pinkies is even here at the moment, it's all good.
  114. >Next, you move to the far side of the lake. Only there you can safely wash your head.
  115. >Fluttershy can still fly over to this place, but you're not really worried. She gets bored rather quickly.
  116. >But, apparently, some other pony managed to find you here.
  117. >An orange mare emerges from the depths of the forest, carrying a basket of berries in her mouth.
  118. >That basket was made by her, which was impressive, considering she's an earth pony. Knowing who she mirrors it's only natural that she has good hooves, but still.
  119. >For an asshole, she's pretty resourceful.
  120. "Hey, AJ!"
  121. >She looks startled like she hasn't notice you yet, even though she was purposely passing near you.
  122. >"Who, me?" she sets the basket on the ground and approaches you. "Who are you again?"
  123. "Oh, just a humble fisherman passing through."
  124. >You point at your rod and AJ frowns.
  125. >"Well I've never seen you fishing here before."
  126. "That's because there's no fish in this lake," you go with her flow.
  127. >"Sure there is. Just yesterday I caught one."
  128. "Using what?"
  129. >"Uh..." her eyes dart left and right and you know exactly what that means. "A thirty three feet branch and... Uh... A pretty rock."
  130. "Really now?"
  131. >"Eyep. It was shining like a pearl and a big-mouthed fish came to see it in awe, and then she said-"
  132. "Alright, fine. I'm just a lousy fisherman then."
  133. >"Yep."
  134. "Never mind that, you got some berries there? I thought you only liked apples?"
  135. >The apple mare shows you the most convincing offended expression she can manage.
  136. >"Me?! Never! These here berries are all we ponies need."
  137. "I see, so nice of you to bring them here."
  138. >"Oh, it's not for them. These are, um, poison berries. To... Keep the timberwolves away."
  139. "They eat berries?"
  140. >"No, but they think that they grow where the ground is poisoned, so they won't come near."
  141. "Ah, this makes a lot of sense," you nod to her, totally convinced by her explanation as always. "Say, aren't these just blackberries?"
  142. >The pony is quick to hide the basket behind her body.
  143. >"Nope! Don't even know what those look like."
  144. "I see, carry on then."
  145. >She nods and makes her way to the camp with her basket.
  146. >This pseudo-Applejack is probably the sweetest mare here. As soon as you got used to her manner of expressing herself, you quickly started to 'get' her.
  147. >She helped a whole lot with erecting the camp. You've managed to counter her habit of lying by presenting her simple yes or no questions.
  148. >That narrowed down a lot of her advices, because usually you can't just trust her to tell the opposite of truth.
  149. >If you ask her 'what time is it?' she might say that she can't read clocks, sun dials and hourglasses. Or she could tell you a whole story of how she was kidnapped by sentient pollen and carried to a country with no concept of day and night. Either one could happen.
  150. >But she does know a lot and is really capable for a small pony. You feel like you've bonded a lot while working on construction and fighting with Rarity for supplies so AJ is pretty much your friend at this point.
  151. >AJ managed to distract her just fine. It's not like the white hoarder is that gullible, it's just that her desire to get something outweighs her common sense.
  152. >Something you've been working on already, actually. Every time you visit the camp you give Rarity something, even if it's not much. It's like training a dog, but, to be honest, there's not much of a difference at times. This mare can get so obsessed with even the littlest thing she acts like an animal.
  153. >Even though she's a pretty nice pony otherwise, when there's nothing to snatch or protect from snatching.
  154. >There is potential there and you wish to work with it. Same with all the others, really.
  155. >Aside from Applejack, the easiest one to get things done with is Twilight. As long as you agree with her and nod your head to things she say, she can be quite bearable.
  156. >Just when you remember her, you see the purple mare herself flying towards you. Her reflection perfectly mirrors the fake alicorn in the still surface of the lake.
  157. >"Anon, there you are. I have something-"
  158. >She lands near you and looks at you with a bit of confusion.
  159. "What is it, Twilight?"
  160. >You hear her murmuring under her breath as she looks over you still naked torso and frowns:
  161. >"So he does take them off..."
  162. "What was that?"
  163. >"What? Look, I have something to discuss with you. Move to my command post when you're ready."
  164. "Alright."
  165. >Twilight nods and starts walking away but soon finds out that you're walking right behind you, putting your shirt back on.
  166. >You meet her questioning glance with a shrug.
  167. "I'm ready right now."
  168. >"...Good."
  169. >Twilight is obviously a bit uncomfortable leading the way since she wasn't expecting to return with you right away.
  170. >She probably wishes she had messengers to send instead of going everywhere on her own. Oh well, no one here can be trusted with someone like that.
  171. >Upon your return you see that the camp is pretty much abandoned aside from Pinkie lying on the ground near the currently cold campfire.
  172. >She's taking a nap by the looks of it.
  173. >Others can't be seen anywhere. Twilight leads you into her tent and closes it behind you with magic.
  174. >"So... I have a task for you."
  175. "Alright."
  176. >What else could she possibly need you for, Anon? You'd be silly to imagine anything else.
  177. >"But first, I want to ask you one thing."
  178. >You nod and Twilight turns around to her mattress (as step up from a bedroll, as commander should have) and gets something from under it.
  179. >"Do you know what this is?"
  180. >Her magic holds a big and thick book in it.
  181. "Twilight? It's a book."
  182. >The mare gives you an impish smile.
  183. >"Exactly. Now, what does it say on the cover? You can read, right?"
  184. >Ponish language is quite a bit different from English, but it was really easy to learn since all you had to do was to learn runes instead of letters, everything else is exactly the same.
  185. "Asparagus: from ancient Equestria to modern days."
  186. >"Huh?"
  187. "Tome three."
  188. >Twilight looks at the cover herself, as if she suspects that you're lying.
  189. >"What in the world..."
  190. "Oh, I get it, you want to start growing your own products. That's something I-"
  191. >"No! That's not it."
  192. "Why do you have a book like this then?"
  193. >"Rarity brought it here today. And that made me think."
  194. >Twilight starts walking around the tent right in front of you.
  195. >"It made me think about what we've been doing wrong so far. We've nowhere near conquering Equestria. As soon as we were abandoned by that treacherous vixen, we've been doing nothing but surviving out here."
  196. "Sounds about right."
  197. >She doesn't mind your remarks and doesn't stop walking from side to side.
  198. >"Well, we'll have to move forward eventually. But it's not that easy. I would be a fool to assume that in our current state we can accomplish anything at all. You've seen these ponies. They aren't a team, they're a bunch of self-centered idiots!"
  199. >You shrug yet again but Twilight pays no attention, inspired by her own speech.
  200. >"Something is missing here. Something that was present when that bug queen was here. Can you guess what it is, Anonymous?"
  201. "Uh... A plan?"
  202. >The mare's eyebrow shoots up in surprise.
  203. >"That too! Good job. But actually, it's... Control. Orders. A common goal. What we lack now, is a sense of direction."
  204. >You're not sure how exactly did Chrysalis command these ponies, but it sure as hell had no success. But you aren't about to argue with someone like Twilight on this.
  205. >You don't need a massive headache right now, she won't back down until you admit you're wrong, even if you aren't.
  206. >If she think that this queen of hers was actually good at what she did, who are you to judge? Twilight doesn't really have anyone else to be a role model for her.
  207. >"So, this is where this thing comes into play."
  208. "A-asparagus?"
  209. >Twilight throws the book at you and you barely dodge it.
  210. >"No, you imbecile! Books! I lack knowledge to lead like Chrysalis did. But knowledge is something you can obtain from books."
  211. "Oh, now I get it."
  212. >"Finally!" she says triumphantly. "Now I just need to obtain books. And this is where you come in."
  213. >Of course. You already see where this is going.
  214. "I'm not stealing anything, if this is what it's all about."
  215. >"Stealing? How narrow-minded of you, Anonymous. There are things called 'libraries' where you can borrow books, though I assume you've never been in one if you're missing such an obvious point."
  216. >It's not like she's been to one either...
  217. >"We can't show up in Ponyville to just get books, especially me. So it's up to you to get some and bring them here."
  218. "Alright, I can see how this works. What books do you need?"
  219. >"Well, any that have something to do with control."
  220. "Anything specific?"
  221. >"No," she answers swiftly. "Figure something out. I'll accept anything if it helps my cause..."
  222. >She stops and takes a step towards you.
  223. >"Our cause."
  224. "Right."
  225. >Her voice suddenly becomes hushed, almost seductive.
  226. >"Of course, you'll get rewarded for it. I can offer you something extremely rare and appealing."
  227. >You almost burst out laughing at such an obvious attempt at acting like she's the master manipulator. Maybe that bug queen taught her that?
  228. >Twilight thinks she has you wrapped around her hoof and that you'll do her every bidding at her beck and call.
  229. "Alright," you try to sound serious. "What would that be?"
  230. >Twilight turns around for added dramatic effect and you can finally smile from ear to ear without being noticed.
  231. >"How does being my personal assistant sound?"
  232. >You barely suppress a giggle. What a gift, Twilight! What benevolence!
  233. >"Right now you're just a servant, but I feel like together we can accomplish a lot."
  234. "We sure can."
  235. >The sarcasm in your voice is lost on the totally inspired mare.
  236. >"So, what will it be?"
  237. >You know for sure she won't take no for an answer. But you wouldn't deny her this anyway. This is too good to pass up. Even if it basically makes you this Twilight's Spike.
  238. >Maybe she knows about the princess having an assistant and wanted one for herself? Who knows at this point.
  239. "Sure, I'll do it, commander."
  240. >Twilight's eyes light up with genuine excitement.
  241. >"Good! Great. Get started immediately."
  242. "Uh, one thing though."
  243. >"What?"
  244. "I won't be here tomorrow."
  245. >"Huh? Why?"
  246. "Pinkie has invited me to her party, I can't miss that."
  247. >"Pinkie? But she-"
  248. "The actual one, Twilight."
  249. >"Oh. I keep forgetting."
  250. >Twilight almost looks dejected.
  251. >"Fine. Just be here the next day, alright? That's an order."
  252. "Of course. You can count on me."
  253. >The pony nods and you both walk out of her tent.
  254. >"Are her parties that good?"
  255. "Yeah, they're a blast."
  256. >"Hmph..."
  257. >Is Twilight jealous? You wouldn't be surprised but... It seems kinda weird.
  258. >"Parties are no fun..." you hear a voice coming from the campfire.
  259. >While you were talking, Applejack already managed to light it up and is now boiling water over it in a pot, and Pinkie is still laying dangerously close to the fire.
  260. "Careful with the mane, Pinks."
  261. >She opens her mouth to respond, but doesn't.
  262. >Twilight is already walking away to check on Rarity so you use this time to move the pink pony away from fire.
  263. >She's soft and feels like a mass of play-doh. The pony doesn't react in any way to you getting your hands under her chest and belly and gently moving her. She just gives you a heavy sigh and that's about it.
  264. >"Anon, we'll be having berry soup tonight, wanna join?" Applejack asks you.
  265. >You already know it's a lie so you decline her politely.
  266. >You'll have to head home soon anyway. Leaving these ponies alone for one whole day seems dangerous, but you hope they'll manage.
  267.  
  268. >There's a forty minute walk from Meanlight's camp to your humble cottage on the outskirts of Ponyville.
  269. >It's probably the closest building to the forest, aside from Fluttershy's.
  270. >That is good for both of you. Your employer gets to see you go to work and return back just by being anywhere near the window, and you get to talk to the kind pony about anything work related.
  271. >Or even if it's not related. Fluttershy sometimes loves to just chat.
  272. >This time it seems that she's been waiting for your return: the mare flies to greet you as soon as you walk out of the forest.
  273. >You exchange your greetings from far away but only when Fluttershy flies closer and takes a good thorough look at you she speaks up.
  274. >"You're really late today. Did something happen?"
  275. "No, I... Well, I decided to double-check things. You know, since I'll be missing tomorrow's round."
  276. >"Oh, the party!" Fluttershy sighs with relief. "You're going, right?"
  277. "Sure am. Can't miss Pinkie's party."
  278. >You look at the sun and add:
  279. "Am I really that late?"
  280. >Fluttershy looks away and smiles.
  281. >"Not that late, but I was already getting worried."
  282. "Nah, you know me, no need."
  283. >"Last few days you've been returning later and later. Is everything really okay?"
  284. "Yes, nothing to worry about."
  285. >"If you say so. Remember, if you need anything I'm happy to help."
  286. "Of course. Thank you."
  287. >She smiles warmly at you and give her a reassuring nod.
  288. >With that, you part ways.
  289. >Even when you turn around and walk away, you notice that you're still smiling. Fluttershy always brightens up your day.
  290. >She really is the complete opposite of the yellow menace you have to deal with in the camp.
  291. >Even if you gave that rotten mare a big scare not long ago, she still can't help herself.
  292. >You were this close to slapping her across her smug face. One day you swear she'll get under you nerves and you'll do it.
  293. >Who cares if she's a small pony. She should know better. You're there to help them be better and if this is what it takes...
  294. >Some bullies just have to be shown they're not that powerful. You prefer to believe that this is the case with Flutterbitch as well. Only time will tell.
  295. >How will they manage without you, you wonder? Even if it's just one day.
  296. >Seems like even when you're away you can't stop worrying about them.
  297. >But no matter, tomorrow is your time to relax, a day off from your job.
  298. >Fluttershy never really specified what you do. Seems like you're part forest ranger, part guide.
  299. >Most ponies are scared shitless of the Everfree forest. Fluttershy included.
  300. >Even if you know it's a dangerous place you've yet to see anything really hostile or dangerous. And so you don't really have any reason to be afraid.
  301. >Growing up near the forest certainly helped you with that. So, having a need for a job, you were assigned to this place.
  302. >First, you patrol it. Lost ponies, suspicious footprints, signs of wild animals - you are there to find and report it all. The next time something dangerous is lurking near Ponyville you'll be the one to warn everyone.
  303. >Of course, nothing of the sorts ever happened. Guiding locals that want to collect some rare herbs or just mushrooms and berries, that's your usual routine.
  304. >You've been doing this for the last half a year and it hasn't been a week without some pony wanting you to keep her company in the spooky forest.
  305. >All of that ensured that by this point in time at least half of the town had spent a few hours with you, alone in the forest.
  306. >Of course, you think it's a fairly insignificant thing. Nothing spooky has ever happened to you. But townsponies are grateful to you nonetheless and somehow appreciate your labor.
  307. >Even if all you do is take long nature walks every day.
  308. >It feels good and reminds you of home, of your childhood, spent mostly playing in a forest. And, besides, you're still looking for the way out.
  309. >Even now, almost a year after you've been spirited away to this place, you still don't give up hope.
  310. >But right now all you can think about is Pinkie's party and grabbing a book for Twilight.
  311. >The first is really easy. You sleep well and spend the whole morning in your humble cottage. Fluttershy always leaves food in your fridge while you're away to work so you have no problems making yourself an all-in meal.
  312. >Taking a shower and reading local newspaper also takes time. Finally, you leave to help Pinkie prepare for her party.
  313. >It's Golden Harvest's birthday. You have never really been close as she never used your services, but you know Pinkie would appreciate your help, especially knowing that a pair of hands can be of great use to these little ponies.
  314. >"Heya, Anonnynonymous! You're here early!" you hear the familiar high-pitched voice as soon as you even approach the place.
  315. "Hey, Pinkie. Thought I could help you with preparations and stuff."
  316. >"How deliciously thoughtful of you! Although I'm pretty much all set by now, you can help me a lot with food sampling."
  317. "Oh, really?"
  318. >The pony hops right in front of you and sways her mane just enough for it to point in the right direction.
  319. >"I have all kinds of fun things to eat there but I can't decide what to serve first! Maybe you can help me with that?"
  320. >You smirk at such a silly problem to have. But you still nod in agreement, of course.
  321. >"I knew I could count on you, follow me."
  322. >Despite it being your day-off you still can't get those mean ponies out of your mind - immediately you think back to the Meanie Pie almost setting her mane on fire just because she was too bored to move.
  323. >Man, with those little shitheads you almost forgot how real ponies act. Your heart flutters at hearing Pinkie humming some simple melody as she arranges a line of cupcakes and pies before you, from smallest to largest.
  324. >There are so many samples you're getting a bit intimidated. But you know Pinkie will encourage you as much as she can.
  325. >This is what it's all about. This is what Equestria is. It's so good to be here instead of that camp.
  326. >Though Pinkie's task proves to be quite hard. When she sees that you struggle to think about any sort of order, she start helping you with eating.
  327. >It was always about just giving you something extra to eat, wasn't it? God damn it, Pinkie. She never once remembered her own instructions and just settled for sampling and chatting.
  328. >You watch her eat so much and you can't help but wonder if she's just as soft as that bored Pinkie.
  329. >The warm softness of her coat is still at your fingertips, the pliant belly of the mare giving in to your touch...
  330. >No, now is not the time.
  331. >You like Pinkie, but this kind of thoughts will lead to nowhere good right now.
  332. >Hell, you like a lot of ponies. They kinda grew on you with time. You don't see them as something alien anymore.
  333. >One stands out to you though. That Rarity mare.
  334. >When the party finally starts, you see her in a shiny new dress, prettified to the max. It's hard for you to not be noticed even from the other side of the room and the white mare gives you a big smile and a gracious nod. You do the same to that charming little pony.
  335. >Maybe it's her attitude, always polite yet playful, quick to empathize and share her own feelings. Maybe it's the clothes, since it's more familiar to you than ponies running around naked.
  336. >Drowned in party music and Pinkie's screams, the party moves at full speed right away. You get to give the birthday mare her present, a little statue of an owl you carved out of wood.
  337. >Ponies think these are really impressive even though it's something you just do out of boredom, not to mention you can only make this one.
  338. >Maybe Twilight being the first to own one and proudly displaying it at her new school had something to do with its popularity...
  339. >Golden Harvest thanks you dearly for your present and for coming. And speaking of the princess, you see her at the party too.
  340. >She approaches you to chat for a bit and you think about asking her for a book that other Twilight mentioned. Something about control?
  341. >But you're not sure you should, not until you know exactly what you're looking for.
  342. >Twilight is so nice to you as well. Everything about her just radiates friendly vibes you missed so much, being alone in the forest most of the times. It makes you feel at home.
  343. >Every pony in this town have something great about them. You know it has to be some kind of magic.
  344. >And still, even thinking about it just leads to you comparing them to the evil versions of these mares, stuck in the forest.
  345. >You can't help but giggle, imagining the graceful and well mannered Rarity snarling at ponies and stealing everything she sees.
  346. >Or lovely princess Twilight smiling wickedly and verbally abusing you for doing something she doesn't agree with.
  347. >It's fun to think about it, and the other way around too. Just imagining anti-Rarity approaching you with "so nice to see you here, Anonymous, darling" makes you smile like an idiot.
  348. >You wouldn't mind those ponies being happy to see you, though.
  349. >Pinkie has already started her fun-fun-fun party games and all you can think about is 'would that bored Pinkie like this?'.
  350. >It's hard to admit, but you do kinda miss those little mischievous horses already. Just a little. Just for a small bit.
  351.  
  352. >As the party dies down ponies soon start to leave. You yourself are not really that tired, but still, it's getting late already and you don't want to mess up your sleep schedule.
  353. >There's another thing on your mind. The book that you'll have to get tomorrow. Obviously, you don't have time for that today since it's already pretty late. You'll just have to make time for that in the morning.
  354. >One thing you managed to miss is that there's only one library here and it's in Twilight's castle.
  355. >You can't really just ask her "give me something about controlling ponies", that would seem really weird.
  356. >Seems like you'll have to look for it on your own, and be quick about it too.
  357. >It's not like that anti-Twilight even knows what kind of book she needs, so anything would be fine, you imagine.
  358. >So for now you just make your way back home, still in a good mood after the party.
  359. >The late evening Ponyville is such a quiet and comfy place. You take in the ambience of total serenity around you.
  360. >Even with this new friendship school in the area, it's still a small place with a small community.
  361. >No matter what you tell yourself, at the end of the day you're actually do feel pretty exhausted, so once you get home all you really do is take a quick shower and go to sleep.
  362. >It was refreshing to have such a day off and you've slept nicely. Too nicely, it seems.
  363. >An hour later than usual you finally manage to wake up, groggy and a bit tired.
  364. >You already don't have a lot of time to visit the castle's library, so you decide to throw together a quick sandwich instead of any sort of proper breakfast.
  365. >Though once you make your way to your kitchen, you notice a sizeable bag on your counter. And a piece of paper near it, with something scribbled on it.
  366. >Even approaching the bag tips you off about its contents - the smell of baked goods can't be missed.
  367. >So the note is, as you guessed right away, by Pinkie.
  368. >It goes on about how she appreciates your help at the party but also laments your hermit-like lifestyle.
  369. >"You haven't visited for a while", it says, and describes how Pinkie wants you to feel more welcomed.
  370. >It's true, that these days you have less free time, caring for the forest band of outcasts and all that.
  371. >But instead of dragging you to the Sugarcube Corner, Pinkie decided to share some of its goods this way.
  372. >"These are just things you've tasted at the party, since we baked a lot more than we needed."
  373. >It's cute how she tries to humbly pass these as leftovers while you can surely tell that they're freshly backed.
  374. "Oh, Pinkie," you roll your eyes and smile.
  375. >Of course, there's no need to ask how she even got in your house in the first place - the door is never locked.
  376. >At first you weren't sure if you should follow this Equestrian tradition, but you got used to it with time.
  377. >Fluttershy use it to bring you food while you're away, and now Pinkie too. You wonder if she left it just because you overslept, maybe she planned on actually giving it to you in person.
  378. >Something about this makes your heart skip a beat. That would've been so cute.
  379. >How strange it feels to have someone who cares about you like this. It's almost suspicious.
  380. >Or maybe you've been around those asshole ponies too much lately, so you expect some sort of trick when you see something this good. But here in Ponyville you have nothing to fear.
  381. >As you make your way to Twilight's castle, you once again appreciate the slow pace of the village. A few ponies are walking around, strolling idly or buying food. Some are just sitting around lazily. The air is filled with nothing but relaxing noises of a rural town that is used to live day by day without much change.
  382. >Something like this is enough for you to wish you could just stay here all day and not go on your patrol.
  383. >Just like you were NEETing it up when you first got here. You never truly appreciated how wonderful those times were.
  384. >Now when you think about, just slowing your life down to a crawl, it seems so nice. Just being among these ponies is enough to make you content with your existence.
  385. >But, of course, this is just lazy thoughts and dreams. You have no reason to complain about your current life.
  386. >Besides, it's not always quiet like this around here. Twilight's castle and the school are the proofs of that.
  387. >With a sigh you knock on the doors of the crystal monument, so strange and captivating. The home of a princess, and a friend of yours.
  388. >Still seems hard to believe that she actually considers you her friend. You're not really that close, but you're not the one to argue. Maybe it's because you're an exotic alien?
  389. >It's not the mare who opens up the castle doors for you this time though.
  390. >"Hey, Anon! Nice to see you again."
  391. "Hey, Spike. Is Twilight home?"
  392. >The dragon shakes his head, smiling for some reason.
  393. >"Nope, she's at school right now, Starlight is too. You need anything?"
  394. >Oh, now this is just perfect.
  395. "Yeah, I just wanted to borrow a book or two."
  396. >"Does Twilight know about this?"
  397. "Uh... It's a public library, right?"
  398. >"Oh, yeah, I mean, does she have it ready for you or..."
  399. "No, I'll just look around if you don't mind."
  400. >"Sure thing." Spike shrugs and lets you in.
  401. >Doesn't seem like he has any objections to you roaming the castle. This chill little fellow has no reason to inquire more, as long as you don't cause any trouble.
  402. >And you'd like to be away as soon as possible, you're already late for your daily patrol.
  403. >It dawns on you fairly quickly, however, that you really overestimated your ability to navigate here.
  404. >"Do you even know where to look for the book you need?" the dragon asks you when he sees you standing before the giant bookshelves of this massive castle.
  405. "I, uh... I think it should be something about... Psychology?"
  406. >Spike scratches the back of his head and points you to the far right section of the hall.
  407. >Here you see tons of books you wouldn't mind reading in your own spare time.
  408. >Seems like Twilight has everything you'd ever need to understand ponies and, mostly, their friendship.
  409. >Indeed, most of the publications are about your fellow pony. The art of compromise, the beauty of social grace, whatever you'd ever need in your life, it's all here.
  410. >However, none of this seems appropriate for what your anti-Twilight is looking for.
  411. >For a moment there you think that if she's the anti-Twilight, maybe real Twilight just doesn't have what she seeks, since their interests are completely different.
  412. >You even consider bringing your Meanlight some of these "being nice" books. Maybe she'd learn a thing or two.
  413. >But then you see it. "Of Influence, Control and Respect."
  414. >Seems perfect. And there's a smug stallion on the cover too.
  415. >Flipping through it, you see that it's easily the thing you've been looking for this whole time.
  416. >There seems to be talk of control, how to stay on top, what to do to charm ponies and so on. Even if you just swiftly read the table of contents without getting deep into it, you know Meanlight will probably love it.
  417. >When you finally decide to pack it, you see Spike standing to your side and looking at you with his eyebrow raised.
  418. >You feel like you're gonna blush a little.
  419. "I-it's for a friend," you mumble to him.
  420. >"Right."
  421. >He realizes he's being too obvious and goes away real fast. But you bet he'll remember this.
  422. >Just don't tell Twilight, dragon boy. Don't be a dick.
  423. >Finally getting the book into your bag, you get out of the castle and finally decide to head out to the forest.
  424.  
  425. >Even before you get close to the mean-pony encampment you sense that something is wrong. It's in the air.
  426. >There's a slight strange smell all around you.
  427. >The stench of something musty, or even... burnt?
  428. >The only thing you could possibly attribute it to is some sort of burnt moss.
  429. >Naturally, in your book this doesn't mean anything good. It just now comes to your attention that these ponies probably have no idea what fire safety is.
  430. >In a hurry you move forward as fast as you can, wondering if you should've told them something before leaving them alone for one whole day. They're like kids, for fuck's sake. Who knows what could happen.
  431. >It's not long now and as far as you can tell there's no raging fire there or anything like that. That's good news.
  432. >Kinda reassuring, but still far from completely easing your mind.
  433. >Finally, the clearing with all the familiar tents is right in your line of sight. Nothing indicates that there's any destruction, devastation or cataclysmic activity in the vicinity.
  434. >But just when you approach the perimeter you see that the actual ponies aren't in that great of a state. Mostly on a interpersonal level.
  435. >That's not to say it's not something you weren't expecting. Quite the opposite.
  436. >The vista is painfully familiar. So much that you wonder if your senses were off somehow. Nothing has changed since you left this place.
  437. >On the lowest branch of the tree above the camp you spot sleeping Rainbow Dash - as always. Under it, Pinkie is trying to relax with Fluttershy telling her something, smiling wickedly.
  438. >Applejack is tending to the campfire and it seems like it's almost time for lunch already, judging by the manipulations she's trying to perform with a kettle just above lively fires.
  439. >And the crown jewel of this asylum is, like always, Rarity and Twilight, arguing, just like on any other day.
  440. >The don't even notice your approach and you get to hear the annoyed whining coming from both sides.
  441. >"...said that you should have it?" you hear a snippet of Rarity's snarling.
  442. >"Me! I said that, for the last time, as a leader of you bunch of idiots I get to take things from your pile of junk if WE need them."
  443. >"Well, that's just won't happen! These things are MINE, you don't get to take anything for yourself."
  444. >Twilight lets out her patented "uggh" you've been hearing so much these days and strikes the dirt with her hoof.
  445. >"Alright, let's go over it AGAIN. I myself don't want this stupid crap you've been hoarding, but WE, as a team, need-"
  446. >Sooner or later that would've happened, but Twilight only now notices your presence. You've almost managed to sneak up on her, quite impressive for someone who doesn't hide their presence in the slightest.
  447. >Rarity notices you too and you see both ponies smile at the same time. Just for a small fraction of a second though.
  448. >At the very least their arguing is postponed for now, right?
  449. >"Oh, he's back," Twilight obscures her uplifted mood with as much of a casual tone as she can manage, looking away for a moment.
  450. >"Anonymous!" Rarity, on the other hand, gasps, not even bothering to hide her excitement. "So good to have you back, you wouldn't believe what I've been going through these days..."
  451. >You wave at them both but only Rarity makes an approach towards you.
  452. >But you won't flatter yourself. You know what she wants. It's not headpats.
  453. >With increasing awe she watches you reach out into your bag and pull out a set of quills.
  454. "Here you go."
  455. >Rarity accepts the offering with a manic smile and sparkling eyes, and runs away to her tent with the newly acquired gift in her magic hold.
  456. >Only then Twilight steps towards you.
  457. >"Why do you insist on bringing her things? You know you won't ever see them again, right?"
  458. "Well, I won't miss them either. And it can do some good for her."
  459. >"Like what?"
  460. "Like understanding that getting something isn't just a matter of taking it forcefully?"
  461. >Twilight shakes her head at that lovely friendship lesson. So ungrateful. Maybe you really should get her one of those 'being nice' books?
  462. >"Yeah, like that crazy pony understand anything aside from hoarding piles upon piles of junk. By the way, aren't you giving her literal rubbish as well? That's kind of cruel."
  463. "No, these are just things I don't actively use."
  464. >"What a waste."
  465. "It will pay off, you'll see."
  466. >Twilight stares at you and grunts.
  467. >"Well it better pay off soon! Ever since you've left I was trying to... Deal... With these imbeciles."
  468. >Oh? Is it a struggle just because you're not here?
  469. >You already open your mouth to answer her but something bumps into you leg.
  470. >The discolored orange coat can't be mistaken for anything.
  471. >"Oh, haven't noticed you there, pardon."
  472. "Hey, AJ."
  473. >"Uh, do I know you?"
  474. "I missed you too."
  475. >"Yeah, well I didn't miss you in the slightest, not for a moment. Whoever you are."
  476. >Her head tilts back and she moves away, but you still see a smile on her little lying muzzle.
  477. >"Oh, the monkey is back! Finally."
  478. "Oh hey, you're still here too."
  479. >The yellow menace smiles smugly from her place near the dead bored Pinkie, whose ears still do perk up once she notices you're here. Fluttershy gets back to annoying her right away though, so you're safe for now.
  480. >Twilight rolls her eyes as she now has to stand here just waiting through all the greetings going on.
  481. >Seems like the only one to pay no attention to you is the lazy blue pegasus. Which you're okay with, to be honest. She moves at her own pace and will probably greet you later, when no one is looking.
  482. >Fluttershy decides to stay with Pinkie for now and AJ is concentrating on making the water boil, so Twilight has your undivided attention for now.
  483. >"So... Did you get it?"
  484. "What?"
  485. >"The book."
  486. "Oh. Right, I have it with me."
  487. >Now the mare is smiling for real.
  488. >"Good, let's-"
  489. >"Oh, Anonymous!~" Rarity's voice interrupts Twilight out of nowhere.
  490. >The purple pony shudders, visibly aggravated by this.
  491. >Rarity pays that no mind as she approaches you. Her eyes gleam with something mysterious - and that only means she wants something from you.
  492. >She always does, after all. That's basically the only reasons she hangs out with you at all.
  493. >At least your Rarity domestication project is going well. Giving her something each time you arrived at the camp made her quite a loyal follower of yours.
  494. >It's a bit weird to think about it this way, but what else are you supposed to think when she jumps towards you first thing in the morning to get her treat, like some kind of dog.
  495. >Only this time you hear something different, not "mine" or "gimme".
  496. >"Anon, it really is so nice to see you again."
  497. >You hear her voice warping the real Rarity's manner of speaking. This one completely lacks any grace or control over the voice in general. Instead of being sweet and sophisticated, she sounds bratty and even vulgar.
  498. >You wince at the thought of what kind of request she has for you if she forces herself to act "sweet" for you.
  499. "Same here, Rarity," you answer with care.
  500. >Twilight's piercing glare shifts from the pony to you, back and forth. Judging you. Warning you.
  501. >But you know what she wants and you'll play by your own rules. You'll hear Rarity out.
  502. >"I've found some rare things in the forest during our absence," the white mare continues. "And I'd love to show them to you, as a fellow... Collection enthusiast."
  503. >Well, you've HAVE been giving her free stuff, so this title is... Nope, still makes no sense.
  504. >Twilight makes an effort to save you from answering the pony:
  505. >"Sorry, Rarity," in a tone that's anything but sorrowful she explains, walking between you and the intruding mare. "But I have business with Anonymous right now, you'll have to wait."
  506. >Rarity smiles upon hearing this, strangely enough.
  507. >"Well, Twilight," she says with overplayed saccharine politeness, "I don't really think it's up for you to decide what Anon's plans are, don't you think?"
  508. >You almost see it. The spark. The jolt. Or, rather, the lightning storm and thunder between the two ponies.
  509. >You're glad you're not caught in between them, at least not literally.
  510. >Though this is obviously all about you right now and you don't really know how to react.
  511. >"I don't think it's up to you to decide either," Twilight's voice sounds more like a growl right now.
  512. >"Well, I'm only suggesting something he might actually enjoy, not forcing him into... 'business'."
  513. >Rarity is dead serious as well, like she's ready to pounce her fellow pony.
  514. >They... They really are like wild animals. And you thought it's only Fluttershy.
  515. >"Well then, maybe Anon can actually speak for himself, huh?" Twilight finally says, not even turning to you.
  516. >How utterly predictable of her to put this upon your shoulders.
  517. >She almost looks like she's trying to block you from Rarity's potential attack. Like she's afraid the pony will attempt to snatch you away or something, like she does everything else. Which you wouldn't rule out completely, knowing this Rarity's habits.
  518. "Uh, look..."
  519. >Both ponies are looking up at you, awaiting your decision.
  520. "Rarity, I'd love to do that. I really do. But I do need to discuss something with Twilight, so I'll just come visit later, alright?"
  521. >Just as well, both ponies look disappointed. You can understand Rarity's feelings, but you thought Twilight would approve? At least?
  522. >The hoarder squints her eyes at you.
  523. >"Fine, I suppose. Have 'fun' with your 'business'."
  524. >As Rarity walks away, defeated but not crushed, you do notice a faint smile on Twilight's face.
  525. >"Let's go," she commands and moves towards her tent, deciding against commenting on the previous exchange.
  526. "Are you sure you want to read the book there? Maybe we could-"
  527. >The stare she gives you when she turns her head to you says it all. She's in no mood for arguing.
  528. >So you can only follow her, and when you do she motions you to reveal your treasure.
  529. >Twilight seems pleased when she sees a fairly sizable book leaving your sack.
  530. >You still don't understand why you needed to go here to give it to her though. She can just read it in her spare time, which is all of her time, while you spend your own time lazying around her camp as always.
  531. >You extend your arms with the book, like an offering of peace. But Twilight just gives you a puzzled look.
  532. >"Well, aren't you going to read it?"
  533. "Huh? I thought you wanted to do it. That's why I got it."
  534. >"What do you mean? I needed you to get it and then read it to me."
  535. >Now looks who's a demanding pony. Maybe you should've gone with Rarity?
  536. "Come on, can't you do it yourself? What is this?"
  537. >"I've never learned how to read."
  538. >She says it almost with pride in her voice.
  539. >It all becomes clear now and the expression on your face quickly becomes as sour as it can possibly be.
  540. >Twilight is still looking at you expectantly. She's probably not joking. It's not a prank. It does kinda make sense, a little bit.
  541. >It is your reality, something that you'll have to deal with right now since you were roped into asshole daycare duty yet again.
  542. >And that's even before you get to share everything else you've brought with you. Which you really wanted to do right at lunch.
  543. >Alas, a prisoner of purple war chief you are. And she's not about to let you go anywhere, not after Rarity's attempt.
  544. >Looks like you're going to have a long, long day ahead of you.
  545.  
  546. >Twilight's tent got even more murky since you've been here the last time.
  547. >It wasn't a pretty sight to begin with. The mattress was pretty much the highlight of it. Today it's somehow even less lit by the sun than before, so you wonder how in the world does she expect you to read here.
  548. >But, to your surprise, Twilight lights up a small magic oil lamp with just a flick of a spell around her horn.
  549. >The lamp is situated quite conveniently right at the side of this 'bed' and the makeshift abode gets a bit comfier. Even though the air here is a bit stale and smells like mare, it's a bit warmer here than outside.
  550. >Not cozy enough though. There's somewhat of a table near the bed, low and crudely made, with some plates and cups on it, and then some papers.
  551. >Near those lies the familiar agriculture book, previously thrown at you some days ago.
  552. >The interesting about this whole thing is that there are some sheets of paper right next to it. And they all have letters on them.
  553. >Pony runes make their way streaming down multiple sheets and even looking at them briefly you realize what this actually is.
  554. >You don't get to stare. Twilight uses magic to throw everything off the table (carefully setting it behind her) and frowns at you.
  555. "It's nice to see you're willing to study, Twilight, I'm impressed."
  556. >That's not to say that trying to learn how to read and write on your own is nigh impossible with such a limited exposure to actual reading and writing...
  557. >"It's none of your business," she answers starkly without crossing your gaze with hers.
  558. >Seems like you've found a soft spot in her after all. Twilight adds in a much more relaxed tone:
  559. >"Ignorance never benefits anypony."
  560. >That is actually true. Shockingly, this Twilight has something in her head aside from grotesque feeling of self-importance.
  561. >"Now, let's get started."
  562. >The pony points at the bed, right near the lamp.
  563. >For a moment you ponder the implications of this gesture, but Twilight herself takes a seat on the other side of the table, waiting for you to start reading.
  564. >Since the table is made for a sitting pony and is quite small, you have a hard time finding a good sitting position.
  565. >Eventually, you manage to get comfortable enough to proceed.
  566. >The book doesn't seem to be that long, so you're probably gonna go through it in a couple of days. Reading out loud is certainly not your strongest feat and you wonder if your voice can hold through it all.
  567. >Twilight seems to be quite serious about this, while you start having doubts about it as soon as you open up the book.
  568. >You just now realized you were in such a hurry to get out of Spike's sight back then in the castle, that you forgot to even check what this book actually is.
  569. >Then, at home, it kinda slipped your mind to do it. Probably because you expected to just give it to Twilight and then only see it when you have to return it.
  570. >You yourself had no interest in this idea, but now it seems that you'll have to get through this whole book.
  571. >It even crosses your mind that it would actually be wiser to teach Twilight how to read instead. But the mare looks a bit impatient.
  572. >And also a bit excited. In a good way.
  573. >But the book itself... Even in the foreword, you see how gravely you were mistaken about its contents. It wasn't really about influence, control, or, especially, respect.
  574. >Well, it kinda was, just not in the way you had any reason to expect, even if it is your fault for not checking.
  575. >In the foreword, the author goes in details about how with this book, you'll get anypony to be your loyal friend.
  576. >And also a friend with benefits. Works for both mares and stallions.
  577. >Skimming to the end of the foreword for a moment, you see the signature of the author, Chad Thunderrod.
  578. >It's a pick-up guide, isn't it?
  579. >You don't know what you're should be more concerned about. Real Twilight having this in her library (it can't be that she just took it because of the title just like you, right?) or fake Twilight being so serious and enthusiastic about what basically classifies as 'how to be alpha' drivel.
  580. >She seems to be completely oblivious to something as obvious as this.
  581. >But then, when you read deeper into it, it starts to get strange.
  582. >Trying to maintain a straight face, you read to Twilight the bragging of Chad, no doubts true, about how many friends he has.
  583. >How he met them and how he 'lured them into friendship' will be explained in this tome of knowledge, he promises.
  584. >If you follow this advice, you'll have lots of friends of 'any nature' in no time.
  585. "Twilight, look..." you stop after finishing the foreword and you see the Twig just sitting there, all giddy.
  586. >She nods to you:
  587. >"Sounds like you really got me exactly what I wanted. Good job, assistant."
  588. >You can only sigh in return. You kinda hoped that Twilight would be enraged by you getting this book instead of something actually of use to her, but she probably doesn't understand what this is.
  589. "I don't think this is exactly what you need though."
  590. >"Really? Why did you bring it then?"
  591. >She sees you shrug and rolls her eyes.
  592. >"If you're just trying to get lazy you have to try harder than this. Now get to it."
  593. >And you have no choice but to do so.
  594. >The book starts with explaining how friendship works. You're no expert, but seems like the author just explain basic benefits of having friends.
  595. >If this is really what he means by 'friends with benefits', then it's kinda hilarious, and even kinda cute, dealing with quite dirty concepts in the cute innocent pony way.
  596. >But you soon learn that it does fluctuate to the more adventurous side of things ever so slightly.
  597. >'Being friends is lots of fun, but sometimes you want something more', the book states. Twilight nods at this and her expression of utter concentration on understanding the material would be pretty adorable, if not for the creeping suspicion that she also has no idea what the book is actually about.
  598. >That's the problem here, you have no idea what these ponies actually do know about the world.
  599. >They seem to have some basic ideas about life, but do they know social intricacies and abstract concepts, something you only learn while you grow up in a society?
  600. >In fact, this bunch of lunatics can't be seen as anything more than just kids. Like the mean-spirited Fluttershy is just a bully who doesn't know any better. AJ doesn't know the weight of her words. Rarity is... Well, just deranged, but still.
  601. >'The main thing to remember while utilizing the advice I give you, is that it's not guaranteed to work every time. But when it does work, you'll see that all the practice is going to pay off.'
  602. >"Huh?" Twilight exclaims. "Why write a book about it if it's not going to work?"
  603. "It's just not all the times, Twilight. Ponies are all different, and-"
  604. >You stop yourself right there, before you go on defending this work of literature.
  605. >"Well, I don't need something that doesn't work. I need results."
  606. "I'm sure that if-"
  607. >"Still, it's better than nothing. Continue on, we'll figure it out as we go."
  608. >So it's we now, huh.
  609. >Going through the first chapter is already a slog. It explains basic things about friendship anyone should know, but those things are probably useful for someone like Twilight.
  610. >But it certainly isn't the how to be a nice friend manual. The 'benefits' of friendship are mostly described in a fairly selfish manner. Even without going into detail it manages to already put you off with its condescending tone and tons of bragging.
  611. >Anyone with half a brain would dismiss this, but Twilight is captivated by the egocentric attempts to impress the reader.
  612. >The tall tales of mares being at the beck and call of the charming stallion seem to impress Twilight.
  613. >She nods sometimes and frowns in thought, pondering the information presented to her.
  614. >When the first chapter is finally over with promises of actual advice in the next one, Twilight looks at you with determination in her eyes.
  615. "Well?"
  616. >"Yes, this is definitely what I need."
  617. "I'm not sure about that," you say, flipping through the pages. "I don't think these methods are particularly effective."
  618. >"If they get the job done, then I don't see what's the problem."
  619. "Your situation is really different. And I don't think even half of it is true at all. This guy just sounds like a self-absorbed asshole."
  620. >Kinda like Twilight sometimes, really.
  621. >"Well, I don't see YOU publishing a book on how to make ponies work for you."
  622. "That's not a book about that either!"
  623. >"So you're saying you know better?"
  624. "That's beside the point."
  625. >"Oh, really? Come back when you have ponies lining up to be at your side, then I'll listen to you over someone who made a book about his success."
  626. >You do your best to not grunt in annoyance, but you still shake your head to show your disapproval.
  627. >Trusting a book just because it's a book. That's so Twilight-like. Classic Twilight, you'd say.
  628. "So how do you think these pick-up advices are going to help you?"
  629. >"Pick-up?"
  630. >You think she's mocking you at first, but when your eyes meet you know that she genuinely doesn't know what you're talking about.
  631. "...Forget it."
  632. >You'll leave her at that. It's better not to dig this hole further.
  633. >Her snarky remark aside, you think you can turn this into something salvageable. If you just explain things to her, maybe she'll understand.
  634. >Even though it would certainly take a lot of effort to make her listen to you, the lowly assistant.
  635. >Your musings on that will have to wait, however. You hear some rustling noises near the entrance to Twilight's tent.
  636. >The mare herself is on alert right away.
  637. >"Who's there?"
  638. >Pink fluff emerges from the fabric curtains, finding its way inside. The pink emotional void spreads across the space all around it.
  639. >"Hey, is it lunch time yet?" Pinkie asks with an extremely bored face like she doesn't even want to hear an answer.
  640. >"Pinkie! At least knock... or something."
  641. >Twilight is visibly upset by this invasion, but doesn't actually do anything to throw the intruder out.
  642. >"Doing anything fun in here?" Pinkie asks, measuring the situation as her eyes move slowly between you and Twilight.
  643. >"Maybe, maybe not."
  644. >"I thought I smelled some backing goods and came here. What a bummer."
  645. >"What in the world are you talking about? Also, we're kinda busy here, so if you don't mind, we'd appreciate if you-."
  646. >"Really? I don't see anything interesting going on here."
  647. >Pinkie squints her eyes and Twilight does the same. The pink mare doesn't move an inch.
  648. >This time you are able to defuse the situation.
  649. "Hey, actually, I did bring some snacks with me. From that party."
  650. >"You did?" Twilight looks fairly surprised.
  651. >It's impressive how Pinkie was able to sense it, even if your bag is out here and there's also that burning smell in the air. Which you never even got to ask anyone about yet.
  652. "Yeah, I thought we could eat them together, you know. I have enough for everyone here."
  653. >Twilight frowns at that while Pinkie's face kinda looks less bored now. Even a bit smug.
  654. >"See, I knew it was something good out here."
  655. >"Yes, alright, just go."
  656. >"Fine. Don't get too busy here, you two," Pinkie humphs and walks out.
  657. >"What was that suppose to mean?"
  658. >Twilight turns to you as if you know the answer. You do. But you're surprised that she doesn't. And that Pinkie really just said that.
  659. >It's not completely impossible that some of them know more about things in life. Twilight here, for example, can't process that crude nudge, while Pinkie assumes too much. Though you doubt she was serious.
  660. >Maybe Twilight really is that innocent? Or maybe she just doesn't concern herself with that kind of thing, being too smart for that and all.
  661. >Or maybe she just doesn't see you as anything but an assistant.
  662. >It's impossible to tell. Only time will reveal what lurks in the depths of her soul.
  663. "By the way, Twilight," you try to sidetrack her. "What's that burnt smell around the camp?"
  664. >"Huh? Oh, that's Fluttershy's idea."
  665. "Really now?"
  666. >Doing something Fluttershy recommends sounds like a death wish more than anything.
  667. >"She says it's to protect us from some kind of wood wolves or something. Applejack helped her set this up, it's just smoked moss. Nothing to worry about."
  668. >This is the first time you've actually heard about something like deterring timberwolves by burning things. Though it does make some sense, you guess.
  669. "You approved of this?"
  670. >"Fluttershy does know a lot about animals and she can talk to them. Even if she's insufferable, she's still probably the most useful pony in here, given that we're stuck in a forest."
  671. >Sad but true. That talent actually helps with survival, unlike, say, lying on a tree branch the whole day.
  672. >"Why do our most useful ponies have to be so... unbearable?"
  673. >That question hangs in the air as you both can't answer that.
  674. >Of course, the other pony, the one who makes this camp go around, is Rarity. Without her expeditions half of things these ponies are used to by now wouldn't even be here, hell, even tents are Rarity's loot.
  675. >Come to think of it, what does Twilight actually do here?
  676. >No, let's not think about it right now, nor tell Twilight about that thought.
  677. >"Alright, if we're taking a break maybe we really should just go have lunch."
  678. >The pony stands up and stretches her body. You are happy to oblige, since reading more of this moronic stuff isn't going to get better any time soon.
  679. >To think that you'll have to read this whole book...
  680. >Just more hard times ahead. You just hope Twilight sees things your way eventually.
  681.  
  682. >Twilight seems to be quite displeased that her read time has been interrupted, even if she said she's okay with taking a break.
  683. >She doesn't exactly hide it, too.
  684. >The annoyed mare passes Pinkie at the campfire, glaring at her. The pink pony looks as bored as ever sitting there on a piece of wood you can barely call a seat, but as soon as you approach her she looks up, as if she expects something right away.
  685. >She'll have to wait until you and Twilight get the others though.
  686. >And looks like you're the one taking Fluttershy.
  687. >You find her chilling on top of Rarity's tent. She doesn't seen to be plotting anything, but her choice of location is kinda suspicious.
  688. "Hey," you call to her.
  689. >"What do you want?" the pony doesn't even turn her head.
  690. "We're eating pie, come join us."
  691. >"I don't eat with losers."
  692. "More pie to us then."
  693. >You watch her closely, but aside from her eyes squinting a bit you don't get a reaction. Still, this is more than enough. You know she'll be there even it is just out of spite.
  694. >Well, if you're over here, might as well tell Rarity too.
  695. >But you don't get to. The curtain of her tent glows with the tint of her magic and the pony herself emerges from the darkness of her junkyard.
  696. >"Is there something you need, Anonymous?"
  697. >The same strange sounding tone kinda makes you wince. It doesn't suit her at all, especially knowing her utterly barbaric nature that she doesn't hesitate to show once potential loot is in her sights.
  698. "Uh, yeah, care to join us at-"
  699. >"Why, certainly, I'd love to."
  700. >Left pondering exactly what in the god damn just happened, you stand at the tent while Rarity starts walking towards the fire.
  701. >She even had her personal cup prepared.
  702. >Even if her behavior leaves you flummoxed, you do note that you never actually thought about getting something to go with pie. Like tea.
  703. >They don't have any, you bet. What will you drink instead?
  704. >You dread to even think about the kind of beverages these ponies have here.
  705. >"Oh, Anon?"
  706. >A familiar accent brings you back to reality.
  707. "Applejack, you in? We're having some pie for lunch."
  708. >"Nah, I don't really like town food. These here forest's gifts of nature are the best thing ever."
  709. >You just notice she's chewing some sort of...grass?
  710. >Is she eating fucking cattail?
  711. "Come on, AJ," you point at the campfire and the pony complies without much hesitation.
  712. >You NEED to feed these mares something edible, stat.
  713. >At the fire you already see others - it probably didn't take Twilight too long to convince Rainbow to get down to this lowly earth just for this occasion.
  714. >Surprisingly, she doesn't look very bored. In fact, you even see curiosity in her eyes.
  715. >When Applejack joins the circle of 'friends' it's time for you to take your seat as well.
  716. >Somehow these ponies are all looking at you now.
  717. "One second."
  718. >The fact that you need to get the snacks from Twilight's tent saves you some time before you have to land your ass somewhere between those mares.
  719. >They are sitting equally close to each other, which means you'll probably have to choose on your own.
  720. >You're not oblivious to your situation. At least one pony probably expects you to make the 'right' decision.
  721. >But it's a lot worse than you've imagined, as you learn once you're out on the fresh air again.
  722. >Twilight nods slightly, right to her side, for you to sit between her and Pinkie, who doesn't take her eyes off of your sack of goodies.
  723. >At the same time, Rarity is tilting her head towards space between her and Rainbow Dash, who, in turn, is just staring at you with curiosity so rarely found on her face.
  724. >Those two camps are directly the opposite of each other. Twilight is on the right, Rarity is on the left. A dilemma.
  725. >When you spot Fluttershy from the other side of the campfire grinning at you menacingly, you know that she's aware of the struggle in front of you, which only serves to confirm it.
  726. >But that also gives you and idea.
  727. "So, here we go."
  728. >You plop on the improvised wooden seat right between Pinkie and Rainbow.
  729. >Needless to say, both Twilight and Rarity are confused and, subsequently, disappointed by your decision to remain completely neutral.
  730. >All the while you realize you're right between the two ponies who were aching for the reveal of food the most.
  731. >Fluttershy is smiling even more impishly and Applejack, who is seated right next to her, is just poking the barely flickering embers.
  732. "I have one piece for each of us, so don't be shy and take yours."
  733. >You get the sizeable platter out of your sack and for a moment all of the ponies are staring at it.
  734. >It's wrapped up in cloth and they watch you unwrapping it like it's their Christmas present right here.
  735. >What a pitiful, yet heartwarming sight. All come together to celebrate actual food. It really is like a holiday miracle.
  736. >And then you feel the tingling aura of magic at the plate. Of course, you are ready for it.
  737. "Nuh-huh," you move the pie away from Rarity. "One for each, alright? It's called sharing, Rares."
  738. >The grayish mare humphs at you and you hear Fluttershy giggle.
  739. >No comments though. At least that's something.
  740. >Rarity's antics do make Twilight roll her eyes. She's the only one who even noticed this aside from Fluttershy, it seems.
  741. >Now it is time to deliver the pre-sliced goodness into each pair of hooves.
  742. >Like a shaman with your tribe all around you, you bestow the gift of taste and calories upon your followers, one at a time.
  743. >Pinkie is already drooling, so is Rainbow. Doesn't she hate pies, or is it just the original?
  744. >AJ looks like she doesn't care, but you keep your hands stretched out to her long enough to save the fallen soul.
  745. >The mare takes it eventually.
  746. >Fluttershy looks you in the eyes with spite, but does take her slice. Her hoof touches your hand and she almost jumps up from that.
  747. >After that she's quick to lean back to her side again, glaring at you almost with anger.
  748. >Both Twilight and Rarity take theirs without any incidents. What a relief.
  749. >And you have your own too!
  750. >But that's not all. While you're handing out the pie, Twilight also passes cups to all the ponies, and one for you too.
  751. "Where'd you get that?"
  752. >You stare at your cup, a real actual porcelain cup, half-filled with some slightly pinkish transparent liquid.
  753. >"Rarity brought these... As always."
  754. >Twilight doesn't sound too happy saying it and Rarity smirks at that.
  755. >Now you notice that all the cups are similar. It was obviously a set. Rarity was keeping her for herself, but it's obviously a part of it too.
  756. >"Don't worry, it's just boiled water with some berry juice."
  757. "Guys, I'm sorry I didn't bring any tea or something, kinda slipped my mind."
  758. >"It's no big deal," Rarity replies.
  759. "If you say so..."
  760. >You do feel kinda bad for these little ponies drinking flavored water.
  761. >"Do you like tea, Anonymous?"
  762. >Rarity's voice is a bit quieter this time, and a lot more natural. Sweet, but not saccharine, without the overplayed tones she's usually trying to force.
  763. "I guess. It's pretty good."
  764. >"Hmm..." she sings out, looking at the embers.
  765. >"Well, are we eatin' or what?"
  766. >AJ's sudden enthusiasm makes you smile and you nod.
  767. >Of course, you don't have to tell these ponies twice. They dig in like it's their last meal, every single one of them.
  768. >For some time, the camp is just filled with chewing and sipping.
  769. >The berry water isn't that bad, but you do wonder if it's really boiled. This could get nasty.
  770. >Especially if it's just the water these wild berries had been boiled in. Because that sounds just about what these ponies would do.
  771. >That's just straight up dangerous.
  772. >You don't even want to imagine what could happen if one of these mares gets sick, and seeing how they spend their whole life in a forest it is bound to happen eventually.
  773. >God help you then. Or Celestia, or whoever can.
  774. >Once the pie frenzy subsides a bit Fluttershy is the first to break the silence.
  775. >"So, Anon, I see you've been hanging in Twilight's tent a lot lately."
  776. "Well, I've been-"
  777. >"We've been reading some important material," Twilight interrupts you.
  778. >"Oh, you mean Anon's been doing the reading, right?"
  779. >The yellow mare chuckles at Twilight's flustered reaction that follows immediately.
  780. >"It's alright, Twilight, not every pony is meant to be perfect OR smart. Some just can't figure out which way the book is supposed to be held."
  781. "Fluttershy, can you not do this right now?"
  782. >Your glance crosses with Fluttershy's and you let her know by the intensity of it that you're serious.
  783. >Twilight is chewing her piece looking at the embers, but it's obvious it only feels sour to her now.
  784. >"Now is as good a time as ever," the pegasus snarks at you.
  785. >"It's not like any of you can read either," Twilight murmurs to herself.
  786. >"What was that?" Fluttershy's ears instantly perk up. "Can't hear you over the sound-"
  787. "Come the fuck on! Can you shut your trap for like five minutes?"
  788. >Your voice was almost too loud, but the yellow menace gets your drift. She just rolls her eyes and continues eating with a smile that's almost glued to her face now.
  789. >Almost a kind of a bitter one too. Was your comeback scary to her?
  790. >Well, good.
  791. >"Don't let her get to you, Twilight," Rarity speaks up all of a sudden. "You're trying your best and that's commendable."
  792. >Wow, you would've never expected something like this from this pony.
  793. >"However, Fluttershy does raise a good point, you are spending an awful lot of time alone with Anonymous."
  794. >"Yeah, so?"
  795. >"Oh, nothing, just wondering if reading is all you're interested in."
  796. >"What does that supposed to mean?"
  797. >You'd like to join in on this question. Both you and Twilight are staring at Rarity now, awaiting explanations.
  798. >"Well, you know how-"
  799. >"You know what I'm interested in, Rarity," Twilight cuts her off. "In taking over Equestria, or at the very least getting us out of here! To this end, I will do whatever I require, thank you very much."
  800. >Everyone is silent, not willing to be the next to speak to the boss pony. They all probably understand the situation they're in and the fact that Twilight is basically the only one who even has plans farther than just "survive".
  801. >"Anon here is my assistant now, and I'll spend all the time I need with him to get things done."
  802. >"Does he even know about that?" Fluttershy quietly says, but avoids Twilight's stare when the mare turns to her.
  803. >You yourself can't do much about it other than calm everyone down. Luckily, you have something to do that with.
  804. >Aside from pie, you also have cupcakes.
  805. >Ponies didn't expect that, and now they're getting bonus treats out of nowhere. Another miracle that shuts everyone up for some time, which is all you need right now.
  806. >"Is this what Ponyville ponies get to eat every day?" Rainbow asks you after she's done.
  807. "Well, maybe not every day, but from time to time, yes."
  808. >The blue pony looks kinda sad hearing this. She's thinking about something, but you're not sure what.
  809. >"Sounds pretty fun," you hear a faint sad voice from your other side.
  810. >Pinkie is almost done with her cupcake and now stares at what's left of it like she's trying to imprint the image of sugar and sprinkles in her mind forever.
  811. >The whole camp is silent for a while until ponies start to kinda leave one after the other.
  812. "You wanna read some more?" you ask Twilight as she's pretty much the only pony left at the campfire.
  813. >"No, I think I'm okay for today."
  814. >Her voice in unusually sheepish and you dread to think what's going on inside her head if it's Fluttershy's little poke is bothering her so much.
  815. >She retreats to her tent and now you have nothing to do.
  816. >Finding Rarity, you ask her about that offer to show you her collection.
  817. >"Maybe some other time," she answers you. She, too, seems a bit bitter.
  818. >Nothing else to do but to lazy around at the lake, under Rainbow as always. You feel her shuffle about a few times, like she can't find a good position.
  819. >You have a suspicion she also takes time to stare at you, but every time you try to look at her she always returns to her usual position fast enough to avoid being called out, but barely slow enough for you to take note of her movement at all.
  820. >All kind of thoughts invade your mind while you rest. All of them concerning these little ponies trapped here in the wild with nowhere to go.
  821. >All of them a bit depressing.
  822.  
  823. "Hey, Fluttershy!"
  824. >"Oh, hi, Anon! You're early today, that's great."
  825. "Yeah, got to finish my rounds faster today."
  826. >The yellow pony came out to greet you as you were passing her cottage, as always.
  827. >After the beating you took from the fake Fluttershy today, it's really refreshing to chat with the real one.
  828. >Something was bothering the yellow menace today and she was extra rough with you, almost outright kicking your legs. You've never seen her so worked up.
  829. >And you yourself shoved her away pretty good, making a statement she can comprehend. There's a limit to your patience and if this keeps up, you might just lash out on her.
  830. >You can get her wanting to banter, but an actual fight isn't something she wants to turn this into. And you're about done having to deal with Flutterbitch and her attempts to bully you for real.
  831. >Now, however, it's so nice to see the real Fluttershy at last. She smiles at you and you realize you've been kinda staring at her lost in thoughts.
  832. "Sorry, I-"
  833. >"Be sure to get enough sleep, yesterday's party was no joke," the mare nods to you a few times and you chuckle.
  834. "Sure, thanks."
  835. >You kinda stand there looking at each other after that and then both laugh at the same time at the awkwardness of this situation.
  836. >You like it when she laughs. It's much nicer than they mean Flutter's wicked cackling.
  837. "I actually wanted to ask you something, you know about timber wolves, right?"
  838. >Fluttershy's eyes widen and she looks at you with unconcealed worry in her gaze.
  839. >"Oh no, did something happen? Did you see one?"
  840. "No, no. It's a more of a theoretical kind of question," you let Flutters sigh in relief and continue. "Is it true that they're afraid of smell of something burnt up? Like moss?"
  841. >The pony frowns and looks up, trying to remember.
  842. >"I've never heard of this one, to be honest," she explains with confusion in her voice. "I don't think this method is used by anypony, but it does make sense."
  843. "Right, because they're wood and fire would..."
  844. >"Yes. Forest fires are really serious."
  845. >Fluttershy shudders just thinking about it. Poor little thing.
  846. "So it could work?"
  847. >"I think it could, yes. Why? D-do you need-"
  848. "No, I said, it's fine, just a bit of a trivia I've picked up somewhere and forgot to ask you about. Don't worry," you nod and then add: "Please."
  849. >"Alright, if you say so."
  850. >You both smile at each other again and this time Fluttershy's smile grows even larger and she closes her eyes and giggles.
  851. >Then she gets serious again.
  852. >"But if you do have any problems, especially with wild life, just tell me, alright?"
  853. "I'll be sure to let you know if anything happens. Thanks."
  854. >"Have a nice evening!"
  855. "You too."
  856. >Fluttershy trots back to her house and you watch her for some time, only then resuming your own walk to your house.
  857. >It's not even late yet, so you'll have plenty of time to take a shower and prepare for any sort of troubles in case that berry water was something you shouldn't have tasted.
  858. >It probably is, isn't it?
  859. >God damn, these ponies. You need to find a way to smuggle some quality of life things to them, even if Rarity is already all up for it. Those cups, for example, had to be stolen from some unlucky pony, right?
  860. >For her own good you hope their origins isn't Ponyville. That's something you absolutely don't want to deal with, no matter what.
  861. >You should also get Twilight a better book, even if you have to finish this one. Something about actual friendship.
  862. >You'll need real Twilight's expertise on this one. Imagining the princess' reaction to such a request makes you smile. You should absolutely do this.
  863. >Little by little, you plan out your next move, hoping to turn things around for the poor forest ponies.
  864. >Sounds like these bootlegs are keeping you busy even when you're not with them.
  865.  
  866. >"Friendship?!"
  867. >Twilight's eyes widen and sparkle with reflections of her castle's crystals.
  868. >The princess looks like she's pleasantly surprised to hear that word from you.
  869. "Yes. Books about friendship."
  870. >Friendship princess barely manages to contain her enthusiasm and her excited voice makes you smile:
  871. >"Well, you've come to the right place! Do you have anything specific in mind, maybe something about a certain element, or-"
  872. "Actually, I was wondering if there's anything you've personally written on the subject."
  873. >Twilight once again is surprised at the request, but this time she explains in a serious manner.
  874. >"Not really, but I can give you our Friendship Journal, the one we printed not long ago. Maybe some of the lessons would be of use to you."
  875. "That sounds great, I'll take it."
  876. >"Good, I'll be right back!"
  877. >You're lucky you've managed to find Twilight in her castle this early in the morning.
  878. >Unlike last time, you're here for decent literature and can fully trust the princess to not get suspicious.
  879. >She does take her time in her library hall, and you see right away why that's the case: she's carrying not one, not two but a whole stack of books.
  880. >Figures. Couldn't help herself.
  881. >"I know it's a lot," she laughs nervously, "But these are honestly all essential, if you're learning by the book!"
  882. "I'll take your word for it."
  883. >"Will you be fine taking all that to your house? It does seem a bit too much..." Twilight worries, realizing she got carried away.
  884. "No problem, I'll take it. If it's you who recommends them, they're bound to be good, right?"
  885. >A small blush appears on the princess' face as she helps stack the books in your arms.
  886. "I mean, ignorance never benefits anyone."
  887. >Twilight nods a couple of times, impressed by your borrowed wisdom.
  888. >"You won't regret it. Books like "Making an impression" by Mallow Orchard or "From friend to friend" by Charlotte Twingle are pretty basic and should set you on the right path... Unlike the advanced one you took earlier."
  889. "Huh?"
  890. >Oh no, did the dragon rat you out? That little son of a-
  891. >"Ooh, did you think I won't notice an empty spot? I know ALL my books by location, Anon. Don't underestimate me."
  892. >So Spike isn't to blame here? Well, you're still going to be careful in the future.
  893. >You can't help but scoff at Twilight's overly-smug face, seeing how exaggerated it is just for you.
  894. >But in the next moments you both laugh at that.
  895. >"It's fine, as long as you keep your head cool."
  896. "Wait, what does that suppose to mean?"
  897. >"Oh, nothing in particular. Enjoy your books, Anon."
  898. >Twilight isn't mocking you and sounds genuine in her wish, so you thank her and make your way outside, to the empty early morning Ponyville streets.
  899. >The air is fresh and the scent of late flowers and slightly moist greenery easily reminds you of home. It's not too hot yet and it's probably only going to get cooler the following weekend.
  900. >It's always like this here, as Rainbow once explained. One last push of late summer from pleasantly warm to summer-hot territory, and then a respite in mild early autumn conditions, followed by gradual decrease in temperature.
  901. >Seems rather cozy. Though, as always, when your mind defaults to your little refugee clone camp, you wonder what that means for them.
  902. >Cold can't be good for their shoddy camp. Countdown to winter puts Anti-Twilight on a fairly tight timer.
  903. >Honestly, you don't believe for a second that she can actually accomplish anything with the team she has, at least not that fast.
  904. >It may be dishonest of you to keep enabling her in spite of that, but you can't just argue with her about what might be her only motivation to go on.
  905. >You're already used to constantly thinking about these little mischievous ponies so you don't even wonder why it's all what's in your head these days.
  906. >Especially, for some reason, Rainbow's amazement with Ponyville food sticks out for you.
  907. >Maybe because sometimes you overlook the fact that they've never had any life aside from the forest one. No society to live in, no quality of life things ever.
  908. >You feel like that problem would be the most important one to solve for them. How to integrate into any kind of society while being clones of extremely well known ponies.
  909. >You'll let Twilight worry about her world domination plans but you sure hope those involve her and her ponies settling in for a while.
  910. >Though it might not. No need to make friends with those you wish to conquer, right? A waste of time.
  911. >You completely forgot that the friendship book was all about control for her. How to make other clones do her bidding.
  912. >Somewhat, it is actually your fault. But you're still adamant in your belief that Twilight will see reason eventually, fall out of her edgy world domination phase and just focus on living her life.
  913. >Though it might not be easy since they don't have a life to 'return' to since that's the only life they even know.
  914. >Man, that all is just too much for you. Maybe you'll think about it later.
  915. >For now you return home to dump all the books on the table. You might read them later, but you'll need just one for now. Maybe bringing the Friendship Journal is the best choice.
  916. >At the very least Twilight would like to learn about her counterpart. At least you think so.
  917. >Fluttershy wishes you a safe day when you finally set off to your daily rounds through the forest.
  918. >Of course, you don't ditch your job, but as soon as you're done with bare minimum of it, you're quick on your way to the Camp Mean.
  919. >The smell of burnt moss is still there, although not as acute as yesterday. But at least now you know why it's there in the first place.
  920. >Yesterday, Fluttershy's doubts in this method were disconcerting, but maybe it's just her. She's just a pony after all, she, naturally, doesn't know everything about everything.
  921. >This Fluttershy, the mean version, maybe she knows more about this forest's wildlife just because she's constantly here.
  922. >And what do you know, she's the first one you meet when you finally find your way in.
  923. >Surprisingly, all you get is a condescending gaze and a "humph". The yellow mare takes to the skies as soon as you approach her, steeling your nerves in anticipation of another verbal brawl.
  924. >But the fight doesn't happen. Your opponent conceded before you even started.
  925. >Something is clearly wrong here.
  926. >Soon you find more strange things, though not as strange as the Fluttershy deviation.
  927. >Dash actually makes effort to speak words of greetings and even to wave her wing. Pinkie also looks a lot more alive once you approach the campfire. Almost like a real pony.
  928. >And AJ, while denying any knowledge of who you are, almost jumps towards you in excitement.
  929. >The only pony who doesn't greet you, ironically, is the ever so accommodating Rarity.
  930. >This time she's sitting by the fire, watching something brew inside a charred kettle dangling over it.
  931. "Hi, Rarity."
  932. >"Shh!" she stops you with her foreleg stretched out to you.
  933. "Alrighty then."
  934. >You shrug, but the mare elaborates in a serious voice:
  935. >"Good morning, Anon, I'll chat with you later. I have something important to attend to."
  936. "I can see that. Good luck with whatever that is."
  937. >Rarity nods to you, not taking her eyes off the kettle.
  938. >You wonder how that thing is still there while Fluttershy exists in the vicinity, but then you remember how strangely she has fled and just write it off as a mood swing or something.
  939. >No flipped over kettles here this morning.
  940. >The boss pony mistress Twilight herself is nowhere to be seen and you start wondering if she's even here, but she soon emerges from her tent. She looks a bit sleepy.
  941. >"Oh, there you are. You're late, you know that?"
  942. "Sorry, I had to pick a few things before going here."
  943. >"Really now? Well, are you going to... Share them with us?"
  944. >With your peripheral vision you see Rarity's ears perk up, but the mare herself is way too concentrated on the mysterious liquid to react.
  945. "It's just a book for you."
  946. >"But we already have one to read."
  947. "I know, but I'm pretty sure you're going to find this one interesting too."
  948. >Twilight looks to her sides and motions you to come with her.
  949. >You leave Rarity to her own strange devices and follow the almost-lavender mare into her tent.
  950. >The 'bed' isn't even made yet, the blanket is thrown on the mattress in a frivolous way and it looks like the pony woke up not too long ago.
  951. >So you being late is pretty much irrelevant here. Or maybe she fell asleep waiting for you?
  952. >That's not important so there's no reason asking.
  953. >"Well, it's better be worth it. We should just return to that book you got yesterday."
  954. "Fine."
  955. >You take out the book, revealing an item most ponies familiar with princess Twilight Sparkle would recognize with ease. This mare, however...
  956. >"What's this?"
  957. "It's Twilight's Friendship Journal."
  958. >The pony's eyebrow crawls up in confusion as she takes her seat at the table.
  959. >"What do I need this for?"
  960. "It's a collection of the lessons Twilight has learned over the years, I thought it might be interesting to you, since you're... You know..."
  961. >This Twilight frowns at your insinuations.
  962. >"Well, so what? I don't have anything in common with that pony. I don't see how this can help me in any way."
  963. "Twilight seems to be an excellent leader." You try to reason with the pony. "Maybe you could learn a thing or two."
  964. >"No, that has nothing to do with me. I don't deny that influencing those around you is important, but her methods aren't for me."
  965. "How do you know? You haven't read it yet."
  966. >Twilight doesn't pay attention to your mocking tone.
  967. >"Because, isn't it obvious? She has all this power in her hooves and she's still just a princess of some village and her friends are mostly still some nobodies. With all that magic at her command it's obvious that she could rule over the land with ease - but she doesn't."
  968. "That's because-"
  969. >"That's because she isn't actually about that. And I am. So her methods can't possibly suit me."
  970. >That is surprisingly reasonable, you expected her to completely dismiss the princess' lessons. But it's still not good enough for you.
  971. "What happened to that ignorance thing you said?" you sigh.
  972. >"I still stand by that, but I think this is a waste of time and I don't exactly have a lot of it."
  973. >She crosses her hooves at her chest to seal the deal, but you're not giving up.
  974. "Think about it. You know you're going to face her sooner or later, right? She'll be the first to rise against you if your world domination plan involves fighting. You realize that, don't you?"
  975. >Twilight is listening to you, so you pretty much have already convinced her.
  976. >"I do," she says after a brief pause. "I guess listening to her experience wouldn't hurt, if only to learn her weak spots."
  977. "Yes, exactly," you nod in approval.
  978. >Whatever you need to justify this, you'll take it.
  979. >"Uggh, fine. But we'll do this one later, after the first book, deal?"
  980. "Alright with me."
  981. >Seems like you have won this one. You're not her assistant for nothing after all.
  982. >She'll see the light eventually. You just need to push her in the right direction.
  983. >Right now, though...
  984. >"Now get to reading."
  985. >Mean Twilight puts the wretched pick-up guide on the table. It's time to read some more useless bragging.
  986.  
  987. >"What is this?!"
  988. >Meanlight walks up to you and looks into the book you're holding.
  989. >She probably forgot that this won't actually help since pony runes are still a mystery to her.
  990. >Realizing the futility of her rash action, she instead looks up, right into your eyes.
  991. "What?"
  992. >"Did you replace that book with a different one?"
  993. "Huh?"
  994. >The fact that such a devious idea never actually crossed your mind kinda makes you feel ashamed.
  995. >She wouldn't even know if you're reading the wrong book or making stuff up.
  996. >But it happened none the less, only you have been reading the right book, the same old presumed pick-up guide.
  997. "What's wrong?"
  998. >Twilight keeps switching targets, being unsure what to burn first with her searing glare.
  999. >"Is this some sort of a friendship guide or what?"
  1000. "It has always been exactly that, yes."
  1001. >"No, it hasn't. But it doesn't have anything to do with being a leader or subduing your underlings, or being in control, or-"
  1002. "Yes, because it IS a friendship guide."
  1003. >Twilight gives up and shakes her head. Her bangs wobble tiredly, following the mare's defeated motion.
  1004. >"But it started with- Ugh."
  1005. "Just let me read it, maybe it fits the bill after all."
  1006. >You can't believe you're defending this book now. But, to be fair, it wasn't what you were expecting as well.
  1007. >After Chad's bragging about how many friends he effortlessly 'picked up' it was revealed, right in the first chapter, that this will indeed have many benefits.
  1008. >Benefits like being able to talk to someone about your interests. Or like always having someone to play with. Or even someone to cuddle for warmth when it's cold.
  1009. >The more friends you have, the more it benefits you. And also, through you those friends can befriend each other, reaping the benefits of a bit circle of friends themselves.
  1010. >This is what he calls 'friends with benefits'.
  1011. >To say you're impressed with a twist like that would be an understatement. But it gets even better.
  1012. >The most important benefit of having lots of friends is... Better chances of finding your special somepony.
  1013. >That's right, when you widen your social circle, it's easier to get to know lots of people (ponies) and when you become friends with them and their friends, it speeds up the process significantly.
  1014. >Brilliant, isn't it?
  1015. >So how do you actually make this much friends? And how do you keep them?
  1016. >Well, by the time you got to that part Twilight already got over her boiling point and expressed her confusion the only way she can, with anger.
  1017. "Come on, Twilight," you plead. "Just listen to this, maybe you'll learn something."
  1018. >'First things first, you gotta learn how to respect your fellow pony. The folk surrounding you may be a tough crowd at first glance, but you'll soon realize that almost none of the ponies around you are inherently against making new friends. If you're being nice, chances are they'll be nice just as well, and that's already a good start.'
  1019. >You steal a glance at the lavender meanie and by the looks of it she's still mad.
  1020. >So you continue with the reading.
  1021. >'Studies - and my own amazing experiences - show, that an average pony is very opened to starting new friendships, even with a pony she has never seen before. Even something as trivial as asking for directions can become a start of a beautiful friendship, especially if you're going the way your fellow pony is going.'
  1022. >"Uggh!" Twilight finally exclaims and walks up to you again. "Is this really what it says?"
  1023. "Yes, really. I can repeat it to you if you want to test me."
  1024. >"Huh?"
  1025. "Because it's- Ugh, never mind."
  1026. >"This is boring, Anon. Is there a chapter on how to make them overcome mutual disdain?" Twilight flips the pages with her magic, but luckily you have your finger at the current one. "Or maybe about mind control?"
  1027. >'Them' is probably Twilight's ponies. So she really does want to take something out of this book.
  1028. >But then...
  1029. "Wait, mind control? You can do that?"
  1030. >Twilight looks you in the eyes and smirks.
  1031. >"Maybe. Maybe not." she gets even closer to increase the dramatic effect. "Maybe I'm already doing it."
  1032. >For a second you are both locked in a staredown and you quickly realize that she's so close to you that you feel her breath on your nose.
  1033. >Twilight seems to realize that at the same time as you do and she swiftly backs away, returning to the page flipping.
  1034. >It gets awkwardly silent for a few painful seconds.
  1035. "Come on, Twilight, it can still help."
  1036. >"With WHAT? I don't intend to make friends."
  1037. "But-"
  1038. >"With random strangers. I know that my team is essential for me to succeed, no matter how it pains me to admit it... But aside from them, why would I make friends?"
  1039. "Why not?"
  1040. >"Because who-"
  1041. >She hesitates for a moment and looks away. But then, with newfound fury, she turns to you again.
  1042. >"If I need a pony to do my bidding I don't need them to be friends. These are means to an end that have to be accepted, that's true. Spies, for example. But getting too friendly with them wouldn't make it better. It's a weakness in my line of work."
  1043. "Your line of work?"
  1044. >She remains silent for a moment but then answers, this time a lot calmer.
  1045. >"World domination, of course. Alright, let's hear some more. It's not like there's any other book to read."
  1046. "Well, there's Twilight's Friendship journal."
  1047. >Negalight's sour expression is a reply enough for you to keep reading this one.
  1048. >You're not sure where you were at, so you just start with a random paragraph:
  1049. >'When you find yourself in the center of a circle of friends, it's important to remember that a lot depends on how you connect with each on of them and help them connect with each other. Make sure they know how you feel about them. It should never be a mystery, since it can breed misunderstandings, and with a tangled net of close friends that can be disastrous.'
  1050. >Still no reaction from Twilight, so after a brief pause you continue on:
  1051. >'There's one extremely easy way to brighten up a pony's day: it's to compliment them. It boosts their confidence and increases their value against yours, which can be very important when you have a lot of friends.'
  1052. >Now you hear the "uggh" right in front of you. Twilight looks dead tired.
  1053. >But even so, you have to persevere.
  1054. >You really do hope that this could do some good to her and the team even if it's applied only to the mean ponies surrounding her.
  1055. >Twilight feels even more tired when the book gets into small details on how to compliment ponies, both your current and potential friends.
  1056. >This is killing the mare. Even if she can stomach some parts of the guide, this really feels like she's wasting time.
  1057. >Some moments you really consider skipping it. But your resolve to make this right always wins in the end.
  1058. >It's only when the chapter ends you agree with Twilight's suggestion: you should take a break.
  1059. >There's no snacks to share this time so there's no need to call for a family lunch.
  1060. >Once you exit the tent, first thing you notice is how strange Rarity is situated near the campfire.
  1061. >She's laying down on the wooden bench with an empty cup and a kettle near her. It seems that whatever she's been brewing there is inside her now.
  1062. >Then what's with the pose?
  1063. >"Rarity?" Twilight calls to her and immediately adds in annoyed voice. "Are you sleeping?"
  1064. >Indeed, Twilight's observation is correct. Rarity's sides are moving slowly, rising and falling at a calm and steady pace and you hear faint snoring coming from the mare.
  1065. >She also looks like she's not that comfortable with her hindlegs being down on the ground and her dirty forehooves kinda situated on the side, creating a very painful-looking twisted curve Rarity's neck assumes to support the head.
  1066. >Though you can't deny that this discolored marshmallow looks kinda pleasantly soft, with her belly and thighs squished like this.
  1067. >"What happened here? Rarity? Hey, I'm talking to you!"
  1068. >You exchange shrugs with Twilight and the pony makes her way to the sleeping hoarder.
  1069. >Even if Twilight shakes her and calls her, nothing really works.
  1070. >Maybe she's just that tired from brewing whatever she was concentrating so much on?
  1071. >Finally, after lots of shaking and name calling, the pale horse opens up her eyes.
  1072. >"Wh- Where? What?" are the first words she utters.
  1073. >"Uggh," Twilight goes once more, realizing this might take some time.
  1074. >You decide to leave this one to Twilight. Instead, what you see near the lake catches your attention.
  1075. >It's Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash talking. It's fairly rare for those two to interact since Rainbow is a very passive pony. She does nothing and that makes it harder for Fluttershy to roast her - nothing really to pick on.
  1076. >This time something did happen.
  1077. >"I told you, I haven't seen it, now go away," Rainbow doesn't even maintain the eye contact. She obviously waits for this to be over so she can return to lazying about.
  1078. >"So you lied before or what? Your dumb head can cost us all dearly if you're not sure about what you've seen just an hour ago."
  1079. >Fluttershy seems unusually serious, her smugness gives way to something more... mature?
  1080. >Suddenly, from bushes nearby a third pony jumps out. Her mane is filled to the brim with leaves in sticks.
  1081. >No one else but Applejack does that sort of thing.
  1082. >"You ain't gonna believe it, there are so many tracks there! Like there's been a stampede or somethin'."
  1083. >Fluttershy grumbles something upon hearing this, but Rainbow still holds her attention. The blue pegasus is still not looking at Fluttershy, but now that you approach the group, her eyes are on you.
  1084. >And not only hers.
  1085. "What's going on?"
  1086. >"Nothin!" Applejack waves her hoof at you. "You can go on with yer day, Anon, nothing is happenin' in here."
  1087. >"It would've been nothing, if not for Rainbow Dumb's bird brain!" Fluttershy menacingly squints her eyes at Rainbow, making her wince.
  1088. "Alright, what happened?"
  1089. >"Rainbow is in charge of patrolling the woods, you see."
  1090. "She is? I've never seen her-"
  1091. >"Exactly!" Fluttershy points at the culprit. "You never see her do it. Because she doesn't do it. Because she's good for nothing lazy mule."
  1092. >"Hey..." Rainbow rolls her eyes and shifts her weight from side to side, not knowing what to do with herself.
  1093. >"But today was different. She actually has been flying around. And when she returned, she told me and Applejack-"
  1094. >"Hold on a second, I haven't been told anything!"
  1095. >"-that she has seen some sort of monster lurking not far away from here."
  1096. >For a second a shiver goes down your spine. The inevitability of this always scared you, but to have it so suddenly become something real is still a shock to you.
  1097. >"But then!" Fluttershy points at Rainbow again. "Then she tells me she MIGHT have seen it. So now I just want to know one simple thing, Rainbow. One simple thing that is kind of sort of important to all of us."
  1098. >Dash braces for impact when she hears Fluttershy inhale.
  1099. >"WHICH ONE IS IT?!"
  1100. >You're pretty sure you hear birds flapping their wings in the nearest tree, flying away from the terror of angry shouting loudmouth Fluttershy.
  1101. >"I'm just not sure, okay? It might've been just... I dunno."
  1102. >Even though Rainbow does look scared, she still carries the same 'I wish you'd go away already' expression on her face.
  1103. >"That's it, I'm getting Twilight to interrogate you with magic," Fluttershy grumbles and takes to the skies, heading towards the campfire.
  1104. >"Bummer," says Rainbow with clear apathy in her voice and just walks towards the nearest tree and plops herself at its roots.
  1105. >She assumes the usual lazy pose.
  1106. >"Hey, thanks," she calls to you.
  1107. "For what?"
  1108. >"Interrupting, I guess."
  1109. "You're welcome. I guess."
  1110. >That's that. Dash closes her eyes and her nap time begins.
  1111. >"Hey, Anon," AJ attracts your attention instead. "I can tell you all about that monster, y'know."
  1112. "Don't tell me, you've seen it?" you fake shock as convincingly as possible.
  1113. >"Yeah!"
  1114. "With your own eyes?"
  1115. >"Eyep."
  1116. "And lived to tell the tale?"
  1117. >"I'm not sure, but... probably?"
  1118. "Oh man, I've gotta hear this one," you smirk.
  1119. >Liarjack looks very agitated and eager to tell you all about her adventure. For you, that means a chance to relax near the lake again with this pony lulling you to sleep with her chirping as usual.
  1120. >Maybe even have Pinkie join in.
  1121. "Come on, let me set things up and you can tell me the story."
  1122. >The liar runs forward full speed to help you with your lounge chair. She moves so close to you her side brushes against your leg almost knocking out off balance.
  1123. >This pony seems almost too happy to tell you her tale. And who are you to deny her that pleasure.
  1124.  
  1125. >"So there it was, sneaking closer and closer with its wings flopping around like a rooster in the morning, and I just got one thought in my head - I needed to get rid of that fiddle!"
  1126. "Not play it?" you ask AJ absentmindedly.
  1127. >It was so hard to follow her crazy convoluted made up monster story, but it was even harder to stay awake under the late summer sun near the lake.
  1128. >"Nah, ya see, I may be the best fiddler in Equestria, but I realized that it's exactly what's expected of me. It wanted me to do that. Once I start playing, the monster would jump at me for sure."
  1129. "Uh-huh."
  1130. >"That's because it hates the sound. It was a set up all along!"
  1131. "I thought you said it didn't have ears."
  1132. >The liar doesn't even stammer for a moment.
  1133. >"Of course it didn't. But the vibrations still get to it. It's the only way it can hear anything, so when those sounds interfere with it, it gets mad."
  1134. >It's no use. You're gonna fall asleep right here, right now. It is absolutely impossible for you to win the fight with your eyelids.
  1135. >How can something as small and light be so heavy and strong?
  1136. >You never even notice those things exist, but that's their plan all along. They dull your senses, make you become unaware of any kind of danger they pose, pretending to help your eyes; but then they fall down like a meteor, an unstoppable force that-
  1137. >"Huh? Anon, you listenin'?"
  1138. "Hwuh!"
  1139. >A fierce jolt rushes through your body as it shocks itself awake at the pony's call.
  1140. "Sorry, I guess I drifted off for a moment there."
  1141. >"Well that's fine, I don't really care if you listenin' or not."
  1142. >Appleliar looks away for a moment but never manages to prevent her eyes from betraying her real emotions.
  1143. >Sometimes it's so easy to figure her out.
  1144. >And now you feel bad. There probably isn't a single pony here who'd listen to her willingly.
  1145. >Truth is, Applejack is invaluable to this camp. This much is clear, she's pretty much the only pony who is capable of gathering food in the forest.
  1146. >You're surprised there wasn't even one time you or the ponies have been poisoned by anything she brought here.
  1147. >But at the same time it's hard to even praise her. You never know what's on her mind.
  1148. >She's not hardwired to say lies, is she? It's not a curse, not her nature, and even if it somewhat is, who's to say she can't overcome it?
  1149. >Just like you believe that Fluttershy can possibly be less mean and Pinkie less bored, maybe there's something to be done about Applejack too. But what? She's not always obvious.
  1150. >It would be so much simpler if she just always said the opposite thing every single time and not invented elaborate lies. It makes it look like it is deliberate, that there's much more to her than just simple desire to lie.
  1151. >But the truth of the matter is, you just don't know what. The web of deception is too subtle for now.
  1152. "Hey, Applejack," you call her in a friendly tone to avoid any sort of suspicion.
  1153. >She doesn't answer but she still looks at you.
  1154. "Do you like it here at the camp?"
  1155. >The pony wasn't really ready for that kind of question, but you were ready for her reaction, ready to catch every bit of it.
  1156. >You watch closely as her face turns from a surprised one to a bit of a scared one, then goes through a sour phase and finally arrives at a smile.
  1157. >All in less than two seconds at most. You would've missed it if you blinked. Her eye movement was especially expressive, revealing so much about her inner struggle to arrive at a deceptive conclusion.
  1158. >"Well, course I do!" she answers with a happy smirk.
  1159. >Something dips your insides in a cold water when you see that smile and the gaze that doesn't match it in the slightest. She probably doesn't even realize it.
  1160. >Even if you want to observe her more, you see her getting distracted by something up in the air and can't help but to look too.
  1161. >Three ponies are up high, arguing with each other. Rainbow, Flutter and Twilight.
  1162. >Fluttershy points somewhere and Rainbow shrugs. Fluttershy points in a different direction and Rainbow's reaction is the same.
  1163. >Twilight plants her hoof to her forehead and shakes her head like she has the worst head ache imaginable.
  1164. >You can hear the voices as they bark at each other, but you have no hope of hearing what exactly is the matter. It must be still about that monster spotting fiasco.
  1165. >While you're looking at the disheartening scene of Rainbow being pelleted by mean-sounding tones from both other ponies, Applejack mutters under her breath.
  1166. >"Constant bickering, unrest before winter, struggle to survive day by day, no proper rest or hygiene, constant threat from wildlife, no reasons or motivation to move forward in life..."
  1167. >When you look up to her, she's smiling. And in a much more cheerful note she adds:
  1168. >"Who wouldn't enjoy a life like that? You sure you don't want to move in with us? You know, we have plenty of room here for another tent."
  1169. "N-no, I think I'll pass."
  1170. >"Well, suit yourself."
  1171. >You want to be shocked, you want to form conclusions based on this, but to be honest, you learned nothing new from this. It's nothing you weren't already suspecting.
  1172. >If you said right now that you hate her stories and her constant lies, would she say that she hates you too or that she doesn't care?
  1173. >If you went away right now, would she say that she wouldn't miss you?
  1174. >How would she really feel? Would she lie to herself too? Would she cry the moment you turn around? Would she blame herself for it? Does she always blame herself for lying?
  1175. >But the most important question for you is: where is the line between being compelled to lie and being serious for her? Is there such a thing? If you push her hard enough, will she snap and tell you the truth?
  1176. >Will she at any point care enough to be honest just for one time in her life?
  1177. >That's not something you're willing to try, to be honest. At least for now. Maybe it is worth trying, however brutal the awakening may be for her. Breaking her so that she can learn the weight of her words.
  1178. >But you feel like it's too early. You barely know anything about her, or other ponies here for that matter. Sure, you've been around to get the gist of it, but the nitty-gritty of how they actually work is still beyond you.
  1179. >So for now you have no other choice but to entertain them, gathering information and learning about these little ponies.
  1180. >Whether or not you can (or should) actually help them, only time will tell.
  1181. >In the meantime, you and Applejack return to watching Rainbow getting roasted up in the skies. Poor thing doesn't know what to do with herself yet again.
  1182. >When Twilight and Fluttershy start arguing with each other instead, the blue pegasus disengages the commotion and flies down, still expecting to be called out at any second.
  1183. >But she reaches her branch safely while the argument between the two remaining mares gets a little bit too heated.
  1184. >At last, Fluttershy shouts something really loud and flies away, heading to the forest. Twilight shouts something to get the last word and then groans so loud it can be heard perfectly here on the ground.
  1185. >The alicorn descends to her tent and marches inside, looking furious.
  1186. >"Aw, they're such good pals," Appleliar is smiling again.
  1187. "Maybe I should check if everything's fine."
  1188. >"No need, Anon, it's like the first time that happened between them, I'm sure it's just an accident."
  1189. "Got it," you reply, standing up.
  1190. >That's about all the confirmation you needed to make a move.
  1191. >Once you open up the tent you see Twilight laying down on her mattress, looking up. She's so still with her eyes opened and unblinking and it doesn't even look like she's breathing. But she hears you entering and reacts:
  1192. >"At least knock or something..."
  1193. >Her throat is sore from shouting so she sounds extra bitter to you.
  1194. "Hey, is everything alright?"
  1195. >"Why do you care? Yes, everything's fine."
  1196. "I just-"
  1197. >"It's not like it's unexpected from both of them. I was more than prepared for this."
  1198. "Twilight..."
  1199. >"If they want to be difficult, well, in the end they are hurting themselves with it."
  1200. "Is there anything I can help with?"
  1201. >The pony props her head up and looks daggers at you.
  1202. >"Well, isn't that nice? Anon wants to help! Yes, go tell Fluttershy how much of a stupid ass she's being. Go tell her that I don't give a-"
  1203. "I'm being serious here, Twilight."
  1204. >"You're being blind." she drops her head on back on her flat excuse for a pillow. "You've been around, you know what I'm dealing with here. You know perfectly well."
  1205. >Venomous undertones creep into Twilight's voice and you find yourself wincing at her accusations.
  1206. >"Have you been waiting specifically for something like this to happen to offer help after the fact? To mock me after I fail to contain the situation?"
  1207. >You hesitate to answer and that's answer enough for Twilight.
  1208. >"Exactly. Go listen to more of Applejack's blabbering or go fish or whatever."
  1209. >With a sigh you exit Twilight's tent without much else to say. At the campfire, Rarity is still sleeping, but the kettle and the cup aren't there.
  1210. >Instead, Pinkie is sleeping right near the greyish mare. The bored pony is almost hugging her, but that's probably just because there's not much space on that bench for the two of them.
  1211. >Though she didn't have to lay down on the same one as Rarity...
  1212. >Whatever. Maybe you should just call it a day and go home.
  1213. >Twilight did manage to get under your skin with the offended tone of hers. What she said isn't entirely untrue, but you're just one man. No one is interested in bettering these ponies, not even Twilight herself. She just needs control without knowing how to acquire it. Looks like that book really doesn't help her much.
  1214. >That's awfully selfish of her to make you do all the work. But then again, it's awfully natural for this Twilight to be awfully selfish.
  1215. >When you leave the camp, one subtle sensation doesn't leave you for some time. It's like you've been watched.
  1216. >Is some pony following you? Or...
  1217. >Would you rather choose to believe Rainbow's monster sightings?
  1218. >But even before you're out of the forest, that feeling is long gone, so long that you never even noticed it leaving.
  1219. >Fluttershy's cottage is already in sight and you rejoice, expecting the mare to greet you as always.
  1220. >But it turns out that even if she's already out in the fresh evening air, she's not alone there.
  1221. >You've seen those stripes before. The only other Everfree's resident you're aware of.
  1222. >"Ah, Anon! Welcome back," Fluttershy waves at you.
  1223. >Zecora turns around with a smile on her face and waves too.
  1224. "Hey, what's going on here?"
  1225. >"Anon, I'm glad to see you around," she nods when you approach her. "Say, maybe there's something mine you've found?"
  1226. "Like what?"
  1227. >"Zecora said she has disposed of some failed potions recently, but her usual site had been raided by wild animals!" Fluttershy explains quickly and the zebra continues from there:
  1228. >"Some bottles with a wretched brew, maybe you found at least a clue? It's not the first time wildlife strikes, so maybe you've seen them on your hike."
  1229. "Can't say I have, sorry. I don't think I've seen anything man-made lately in the forest. Pony-made, sorry."
  1230. >Both you and Fluttershy chuckle at your usual incorrect wording.
  1231. >"Oh, I see, but thank you still," Zecora turns to the forest, marking the end of her visit. "I hope no creature will get ill..."
  1232. >You exchange you farewells and you watch the zebra leave back to the forest.
  1233. "It's unusual for her to appear so suddenly, is it really that big of a deal?"
  1234. >"Well, I may have asked her to come here for something too, so she had another reason."
  1235. "May have?"
  1236. >Fluttershy just laughs and looks at you warmly.
  1237. >"Don't think about it too much."
  1238. "Alright, if you say so."
  1239. >"Have a great evening, Anon."
  1240. "You too, Fluttershy."
  1241. >With that, you continue your stride back to your house.
  1242. >It's strange for that zebra to ask you about something like this since she basically lives on what basically constitutes as the other side of the forest for you - she occupies the boggy area while your usual patrols are much more dry and mild.
  1243. >Now that you think of it, wasn't it strange that Zecora got her toxic waste stolen and a monster has been sighted in the forest at the same day? No, maybe Zecora didn't notice until...
  1244. >Ugh, you're just trying to tie two things together, aren't you? One of which might've been just Rainbow's imagination.
  1245. >Whatever. It doesn't matter. Tomorrow you'll just head straight to Twilight's tent, read some more and get out of there.
  1246.  
  1247. >Suspicious activity has been spotted near Fluttershy's cottage.
  1248. >"It's not like that at all!" you hear the mare explaining something to another pony.
  1249. >You were just leaving on your patrol this morning. When you heard another voice coming from Fluttershy's yard, you decided to sneak close without being noticed.
  1250. >And it seems like that other voice is rather familiar.
  1251. >"I'm not saying it is," the other mare adds. "Just giving you some information, you know... Just in case."
  1252. >"Twilight!" Fluttershy reacts immediately. "Honestly, it's not like you to be this distrustful towards someone like him."
  1253. >"I'm not, honest! I just mentioned those books, I'm not trying to insinuate anything."
  1254. >After a brief pause you hear Fluttershy sigh.
  1255. >"Alright, sorry, maybe I worded it wrong, alright? I didn't mean anything bad by it." Twilight pleads to her friend. "Anyway, I have to go, call me if you need more ingredients."
  1256. >"I'm sorry too, Twilight. Maybe I over-reacted a bit. Thank you for coming."
  1257. >They exchange another round of 'I'm sorry' and 'it's fine' and then Twilight takes to the skies.
  1258. >It was about time you moved to your usual position and pretend you didn't hear anything. Or maybe ask Fluttershy about the visit and see if she'll tell you anything about this.
  1259. "Hey, Fluttershy!"
  1260. >The mare was already hovering back to her place but she turns around right away.
  1261. >"Oh, good morning, Anon! Just a moment."
  1262. >It seems like she's carrying a bag full of stuff. If the conversation she had with Twilight is anything to go by, these are the 'ingredients' she was talking about. Is Fluttershy making something?
  1263. >Come to think of it, Zecora was here yesterday too.
  1264. >Something suspicious is brewing in the house of Fluttershy.
  1265. >While you're consumed by these thoughts the pony already makes her way back to you, empty-hooved.
  1266. >"Sorry, Twilight was here just a minute ago."
  1267. "I never took you for alchemy type, Fluttershy," you joke while watching her reaction closely.
  1268. >"Alchemy?" she is genuinely perplexed by that, but then realizes you probably noticed the shapes in the bag. "Oh, no, it's for a remedy I'm making."
  1269. "A remedy?"
  1270. >"Yes, you'll see soon enough," she smiles at you.
  1271. >That smile tells you 'please, be patient and don't ask any more questions' so you decide to drop the subject for now.
  1272. >All in all, it's her own business.
  1273. >No mention of any sort of books Twilight was talking about though. Shame. She does have something to hide after all.
  1274. >You won't press it, in the end it's also her own business. She was awfully defensive about that subject with Twilight for some reason, might be a good idea to not touch it.
  1275. >The rest of the conversation goes smoothly, just the usual stuff.
  1276. >She wishes you a good day and you're off.
  1277. >After what happened yesterday it's hard to tell if Anti-Twilight will have the same enthusiasm about you reading that book to her today. You left her in a bad mood and the book itself doesn't really appeal to the mare.
  1278. >But as soon as you get close to the camp through the newly refreshed smell of burnt moss, you realize that maybe you shouldn't have come at all.
  1279. >Or maybe that your timing is right, depending on how you look at it.
  1280. >And it's hard to actually draw any conclusions, because everyone is arguing with everyone right now.
  1281. >It's a miracle this quarrel can't be heard from Ponyville, really, because you certainly can hear it just entering the clearing where the camp is located. A cacophony of yells and insults that is driven by two ponies: Twilight and Fluttershy.
  1282. >The purple alicorn stands her ground near the campfire and on her side you see Rarity and Pinkie, not really paying attention to anything.
  1283. >Rarity is cleaning some bottles she no doubt found abandoned somewhere in the forest by careless campers.
  1284. >The pony sometimes adds a quick one-liner to the conversation but she's concentrating on her loot most of the time.
  1285. >Pinkie really seems to like this new spot at the campfire right near Rarity. The pink lazy mare looks like she's sleeping, but you see that her eyes are half-opened.
  1286. >One might think she's dead. But you know that it's normal for her to look like this.
  1287. >Meanwhile, Fluttershy's side isn't too active as well.
  1288. >The mean pegasus is backed by Dash, situated on her usual branch, and Applejack, who is constantly yelling something too.
  1289. >The difference is, no one is listening to her. Soon you realize why that is - she's saying whatever nonsense goes through her head.
  1290. >Dash, on the other hand, is just trying to not pay attention to any of this. You can understand her not wanting to help Fluttershy after what happened recently. She just happens to nap on that side of the camp.
  1291. >So, at closer inspection, all the noise here is in fact produced by just two ponies arguing with the third one adding to the commotion just for the sake of it.
  1292. >You can't even really understand what the argument is. It's something about Twilight and it seems that it still lingers on yesterday's topic.
  1293. >Fluttershy has her own ideas about running the camp, specifically the idea that Twilight doesn't have any idea about how to run it.
  1294. >It seems that a little argument over Rainbow's monster sightings has evolved into a power struggle.
  1295. >You don't even know how to approach this.
  1296. >"Well, guess what, egghead - we're not going to survive here on plans alone!" you hear Fluttershy shouting as you move closer to the ponies.
  1297. >"Oh, so living your whole life in this wood is the only plan now, huh?" Twilight barks back.
  1298. >"I don't see you moving a feather to rectify that."
  1299. >"I once had a feather stuck behind my ear and I felt so much power coursing through my body," states Applejack, looking up to the sky with nostalgia in her eyes.
  1300. >The two arguing mares don't pay any attention to that.
  1301. >"I'm sorry that your bird brain can't comprehend that we can't just go out there and live a normal life without a plan!"
  1302. >"So instead we had to rely on your big-boned head to tell us how to live, princess, and guess what, we are still living in this forest with no chance of leaving it any time soon!"
  1303. >"Well, maybe-"
  1304. >Twilight is the first to notice you approaching but Fluttershy turns her head to you right after.
  1305. >You kinda stand there, without doing anything, just trying to not attract too much attention.
  1306. >And now all of it is on you.
  1307. >"Oh look, the alicorn defense force is here," Fluttershy murmurs.
  1308. >"Of course he's here," Twilight states triumphantly.
  1309. >Wait, how are you the 'defense force'? Does your presence actually matter in this argument?
  1310. >"Don't think he'll turn a deaf ear to these problems like you always tell him to!" the yellow pony hisses.
  1311. >"I don't have to tell him anything, he knows I'm right. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out. Though, seeing how you struggle with it..."
  1312. >"Oh, of course he'll agree with anything you say as long as you allow him to be your lap monkey."
  1313. >"He's an assistant!" Twilight loses her nerve.
  1314. >"Ooh, so I'm right on target with this one, how interesting." Flutters is hitting the smuggest note she can muster.
  1315. >You don't really want to follow that argument anymore and you consider just walking away, but something distracts you.
  1316. >"Hey, 'Non."
  1317. >The orange pony is looking right at you from below, standing very close as per usual.
  1318. "Hi, AJ. Having fun?"
  1319. >"Heh, yeah. So much... Fun."
  1320. >You both look at the two ponies absorbed in a confrontation that might just take up the whole day.
  1321. >Applejack points at the campfire, or, rather, on the bench near it.
  1322. "This might take a while, huh?"
  1323. >"No idea, this never happened before."
  1324. "I see."
  1325. >So both of you join Rarity and Pinkie, who just now notices you.
  1326. >Pinks is already looking way more alive than before, and Rarity drops her polishing (almost literally dropping her bottles on the ground) and sits proper in attention.
  1327. >You know why she's doing that. Rarity watches your hand dive in your backpack and you know that whatever it pulls out, the pony will grab it as soon as she sees it.
  1328. >This time, it's a small simple wooden mane brush.
  1329. >Rarity's magic tugs on it and you let go. The smile on the mare's face makes you smile as well. These smiles of her are becoming less and less deranged with every single thing you gift to her. You like think she's making a lot of progress because of you.
  1330. >It's like training a dog. Just a bit of patience and good will goes a long way.
  1331. >It's almost like she's grateful to you now. Like she understands you're willingly giving her these things, instead of her having to steal them.
  1332. >While Rarity takes her new item to the pile in her tent, Pinkie finds that there's nothing warm near her anymore and scoots towards you a little bit, just to be in range.
  1333. >Her lazy attempts are endearing in their own way. You yourself slide a bit towards her and she looks like she appreciates it. She's now lying right next to you, almost touching your leg with her soft-looking but dirty body.
  1334. >Over your head you hear wings flapping and soon the ever so apathetic blue pegasus lands on the bench next to yours.
  1335. >She says nothing and doesn't look at you, but she steals one little glance at you, at that is enough for you to understands why she's here.
  1336. >Who could blame her?
  1337. >With Applejack sitting right near you, already telling you some bullshit story again and Greedity returning to take her place near you with just Pinkie being between you and her, the whole gang is at the campfire.
  1338. >The only ponies who are missing are the still arguing assholes.
  1339. >You've missed a bunch of their inane bants, but sounds like they've left the topic of you being Twilight's whatever and are now discussing how Twilight's magic doesn't help the camp one bit.
  1340. >"Hughh..."
  1341. >You hear Pinkie grunting at your side and when you look at her she twists her head so your eyes meet.
  1342. >"Can you cover my ears or something? My head is aching from all the noise."
  1343. >You smile bitterly and attempt it - you have to turn your palms at awkward angles, but for a second you manage to cover both of Pinkie's ears.
  1344. >You notice how her mane is really soft despite being so messy and dirty. That's some magic at work. Just like Rarity's mane is still styled too.
  1345. >The greyish mare looks at Pinkie too and you see a timid smile forming on her face when she looks upon your improvised sound barrier.
  1346. >This pony actually pays attention to something that isn't loot?
  1347. "Is this better?" you ask Pinkie, not hoping for much.
  1348. >"Yeah, kinda. I think."
  1349. >Her voice is a bit more lively than before.
  1350. "Do you need head medicine? Do you ponies even have that here?"
  1351. >"Rarity probably does," Rainbow speaks up all of a sudden.
  1352. >Even Applejack stops talking to not miss out to this rare occasion.
  1353. >The unicorn mare, being called out, reacts quickly.
  1354. >"I have no idea what you're speaking of. And even if I had it, I would certainly not give it to anypony."
  1355. "Even to Pinkie?"
  1356. >"Even to her."
  1357. "Even if her head is hurting bad?"
  1358. >Rarity shakes her head to that.
  1359. >"No."
  1360. "Man, that's cruel."
  1361. >"It's alright, she's always like that," Pinkie sighs. "No-fun as usual."
  1362. >Rarity humphs and turns away, but something tells you she's not feeling guilty over her sudden but inevitable betrayal.
  1363. >At least Pinkie's pain is alleviated just a little bit by you now.
  1364. >The pony's ears are quite pleasant to the touch. They sometimes quiver at the unfamiliar sensation, hitting your hands, and that just makes it cuter.
  1365. >But you can't keep this up for long. As your arms move away from Pinkie you accidentally touch the almost-fluffy mane on her withers.
  1366. >Even if this was on accident, the pony somehow follows the motion, albeit with a slight delay, leaning into it.
  1367. >Too late she realizes there's nothing to it, and her motion towards you ends with her head falling down on her extended leg. She's motionless again.
  1368. >It's hard to tell what was that about, but you have a few ideas. Most of them aren't something you'd be willing to test. Not with Pinkie being so dirty, that's for sure.
  1369. >Not like it's important right now.
  1370. >You're watching the storm continue to unfold before you while being surrounded by mares who'd rather spend time doing absolutely nothing near the campfire than pay attention to both of the assholes fighting over everything and nothing.
  1371. >And the day has just started. Somehow you feel like it's not going to get any better any time soon.
  1372.  
  1373. >Having front row seats to this fierce, relentless, never-ending and repetitive argument, you soon find yourself more and more uncomfortable listening to it.
  1374. >The further Flutterbitch and Twigglight go on, the more they get under each other's skin, making things extremely personal.
  1375. >But, to no-one's surprise, it also gets extremely boring over time.
  1376. >It's pretty hard to distract yourself in this kind of situation, but you really really try.
  1377. >If only you could go get your lounge chair right now; the path to it is, of course, blocked by the wall of accusations and condemnations between the two ponies.
  1378. >The bench doesn't offer any support for your back - it's just a log on the ground.
  1379. >So you have no choice but to haunch over and plant your elbows onto your legs in order to put your heavy head on your hands.
  1380. >In such a position the barely alive campfire is all that occupies your vision. There is nothing but embers to capture your attention.
  1381. >Soon it appears that you're falling asleep. Yeah, that'd be nice right now.
  1382. >This faint warmth is so alluring. The ash seeketh embers, as they say, and so you are drawn to the warm flashes of ember tones on charred wood.
  1383. >You should probably reanimate it soon, it looks like it's gonna go out any second now. There's plenty of wood to burn. Everything will be fire.
  1384. >"ANON!"
  1385. >The scream pierces you ears and you realize it's Twilight calling to you.
  1386. >Apparently, you've been out for some time now, at least it feels that way to you. There's definitely a trace of drool on your lip and chin and you feel compelled to wipe it, but somehow it's too much trouble to even move your hand.
  1387. >Instead, you try to collect your thoughts and at least try to understand why Twilight would yell at you from all the way over there.
  1388. >That's right, she and Meanshy were arguing. And that yellow pony also calls to you:
  1389. >"Yes, Anon, tell her how wonderful it is!"
  1390. "Huh?"
  1391. >You try real hard to concentrate, but your thoughts are like fireworks: even if you hold the barrel, they still escape into the air, painting the sky of your head in confusing kaleidoscope of colors.
  1392. >Fluttershy takes your answer though.
  1393. >"See? SEE!" she points her hoof at you.
  1394. >Twilight looks angry, but also a bit sad. Like she was expecting something from you.
  1395. >"He didn't pay attention to any of this! Nopony did!" Fluttershy's voice sounds coarse and tired. "Nopony cares, Twilight. We can stand here all day long. None of this matters."
  1396. >"No. I will not accept it. Giving up may be your plan, but not mine."
  1397. >"Have you ever asked THEM about THEIR plan? What they want to do?"
  1398. >"Last time I checked, we're all in one team."
  1399. >"Last time I checked they'd rather sleep with Anonymous than listen to your horse apples."
  1400. >Well, that sounded a bit-
  1401. >You notice how both Twilight and Fluttershy are a bit startled by that wording. So you're not the only one. Awkward as it may be, you get to enjoy the silence for a few moments, so it's a win in your book.
  1402. >Only then it hits you. You're not the only one who managed to fall asleep on this loud battlefield.
  1403. >Right at your left arm sits the reason you couldn't move it before - Applejack is nodding off while leaning to your side.
  1404. >On the right, Pinkie is warming up your leg by lying right next to it. Her back is pressed to you so hard you can almost feel her spine moving as she breathes calmly.
  1405. >Right next to her, Greedity is curled up. Her muzzle is right next to Pinkie's. She's like her mirrored reflection in terms of pose. You can almost see a heart shape in the space between them.
  1406. >And Rainbow is snoring on the nearby log in the "just came back from work" pose - she's all over the place.
  1407. >It's a circle of sleepiness here near the fire.
  1408. >"So?!" Twilight speaks up, regaining her poise. "You're here arguing with me, not over there."
  1409. >"Yeah, and you're not there as well! You're arguing with me about things they don't even know about."
  1410. >"Oh, you're so invested in this, aren't you? Don't tell me you actually want to help now."
  1411. >"I wouldn't-" Fluttershy starts, but Twilight decisively interrupts her.
  1412. >"In the end, Anonymous is still MY assistant. The fact that they're with him just means they'd rather be on my side than yours."
  1413. >"What? That doesn't make any sense."
  1414. >"Do I have to spell it out for you, rooster mane? My assistant keeps them united and in check while you try to stir things for your own gain."
  1415. >Fluttershy jumps up and begins to hover menacingly.
  1416. >"There's nothing to gain here! Not for me, you or them."
  1417. >Twilight finally dishes out a smug smile.
  1418. >"So what's keeping you here? You said living on your own would be easy. Why don't you try that if you hate us so much."
  1419. >"Why don't you-"
  1420. >"I don't have time to babysit you, Fluttershy. Some of us have WORK to do."
  1421. >Twilight turns to you and through the struggle to not fall asleep again you repeat your "Huh?" again. At least you think you do.
  1422. >"Anon? Let's get back to reading."
  1423. >Fluttershy wants to get the last word in this:
  1424. >"You keep saying he's your assistant, but he doesn't actually care. And they don't care too. Maybe he's the one who should lead us instead."
  1425. >"What are you talking about?"
  1426. >"Just look at them. I don't see you keeping a crowd like this. Maybe this is what they want, not your plans."
  1427. >This time the glare Twilight gives you is burning real bad.
  1428. >"I'd think about what that means if I were you," Fluttershy continues. "Put that bony head of yours to actual work at least for once."
  1429. >With that she flies up, not giving Twilight a chance to respond.
  1430. >The alicorn keeps her eyes on Fluttershy and then returns to drilling you with her stare.
  1431. >Somehow you're supposed to be guilty of something here?
  1432. >"Come on!" she says in a rough manner, approaching you. "What is this daycare? Applejack!"
  1433. >"Hu-wah?!" the orange mare jolts up, wide awake. She hits your arm doing that but she doesn't even pay attention, looking at her boss.
  1434. >"The fire is almost out. Now is not the time to sleep," Twilight barks at her.
  1435. "Hey, easy now."
  1436. >Even if you want to defend the pleasant heater at your side, it seems that you're next on the chopping block.
  1437. >"Anon, let's get back to reading. I've wasted enough time on lecturing that braindead bird already."
  1438. >Not even listening to Applejack's idiotic excuses she starts spilling as soon as she wakes up, Twilight leaves to her tent.
  1439. >She doesn't look back, but you know her patience is short right now. Begrudgingly, you leave your place, abandoning Pinkie's sleeping softness.
  1440. >Goodbye, warm world.
  1441. >It's not hard to notice how pissed off Twilight is, even if she technically did manage to "win" an argument.
  1442. >Though it's obvious there could be no winner there. Just two ponies who are frustrated with each other on a fundamental level.
  1443. >Is there even any reason to argue with Fluttershy? She's always up to upset you, so no matter what you say she'll just try to enrage you even more. She doesn't care about winning, she just wants to argue for the sake of it.
  1444. >On the contrary, Twilight is all about winning. And this is exactly the thing she can't achieve with Fluttershy no matter what.
  1445. >But even so, she tries to forget about it now and asks you to read. That you can do.
  1446. >The chapter you're on now tells about the importance of your special somepony. It's alright to hug a friend and you don't have to feel bad about it.
  1447. >Something like cuddling up on a cold day is totally fine with a friend. Same with complimenting each other, giving gifts and so on.
  1448. >Just as long as you remember that your heart only belongs to just one other pony, your significant other.
  1449. >In other words, don't take things too far if you're not willing to commit.
  1450. >"Willing to commit..." Twilight repeat absentmindedly.
  1451. "Twilight?"
  1452. >"No, nothing," she shakes her head.
  1453. >You resume your reading, but Twilight suddenly cuts you off again.
  1454. >"How can I make them commit to our cause?"
  1455. "Your cause?"
  1456. >"Taking over Equestria?" Twilight shrugs and then sighs. Her head leans down in defeat. "Maybe they really don't care. You don't care too."
  1457. "I-"
  1458. >"Do you?" the mare is looking right into your eyes.
  1459. "Twilight, I care about all of you, alright?"
  1460. >She stares at you for a while, squinting.
  1461. >"But not helping me - us - to take over Equestria."
  1462. "Look, I'm not saying Fluttershy is right-"
  1463. >"I knew it! You were on her side all along!" she yells at you.
  1464. >But you won't take it. You yell back.
  1465. "There are no sides here! You should all be on the same side. Can't you- Can't you just take it slowly?"
  1466. >"No. Every single day wasted on taking things slowly is another day we grow accustomed to this way of life. Accustomed to this forest, this...inertia. This isn't how we're supposed to be."
  1467. >That actually sounded like a genuine worry.
  1468. "How are you supposed to be?"
  1469. >Twilight looks away and doesn't really answer. So you press on.
  1470. "Can't you be like normal ponies? Get a disguise and live somewhere else where no one knows Twilight and her friends?"
  1471. >"What would that accomplish?"
  1472. "I don't know, and other ponies don't know what would taking over Equestria accomplish."
  1473. >"They're stupid."
  1474. "You're with stupid in this forest. There's no one else here."
  1475. >"That's stupid."
  1476. "What do you really want, Twilight? There's gotta be something more to it that grand ambition. What do you want to accomplish by conquering Equestria?"
  1477. >This time she looks outright lost. It's enough to make you feel bad about bringing it up in the first place.
  1478. >Of course she doesn't know. You don't have to hear her answer to know that. Maybe it's a search for her purpose. Maybe it's a way to escape. Maybe it's a way to prove her right to exist. It doesn't matter.
  1479. >"I want you to continue reading."
  1480. >Of course she'd say that.
  1481. >"I don't need you to judge me. There's no way you'd understand."
  1482. "You're not giving me anything to understand."
  1483. >That's a lie though. She may not say anything, but you already know so much about her. But it's also not a matter of her telling you, but of her admitting it to herself.
  1484. >Knowing how stubborn she is, it's possible she just prefers to turn a blind eye to her real problems. The ones that lie deeper than Fluttershy taunting her.
  1485. >"What, you want to argue too?"
  1486. >The venom in her voice hurts you with its bitterness.
  1487. "No, I don't."
  1488. >"I'm getting tired of this," she says as if she didn't hear you. "Get out."
  1489. "Twilight..."
  1490. >"Go. I don't need this right now. Don't come back until you're ready to actually help instead of trying to stir things anew."
  1491. >There's nothing for you to do aside from sighing. Anything you say now would just provoke her.
  1492. >So you put the book down and stand up.
  1493. >Twilight has turned her back to you. She's probably sulking right now. Maybe you do need to give her time.
  1494. "Sorry, Twilight."
  1495. >With that, you make your way to the exit.
  1496. >Coldness of the outside air envelops you right away. But that's not the worst things about the outside.
  1497. >"Kicked out? That's so pathetic."
  1498. >Of course Fluttershy is there to greet you, hovering right next to the exit. It's hard to tell what she was doing there before you walked out, but you have a few ideas, most of them unpleasant.
  1499. >"So much for being an assistant to that jerk, huh? Thrown away like you mean nothing to her. That's so Twilight, discarding anypony as soon as they stop pleasing her."
  1500. "The hell do you want?"
  1501. >"Oh, me?" she plays innocent. "Maybe I'm here to just talk, who knows?"
  1502. "Piss off."
  1503. >You're really not in the mood for this shit right now.
  1504. >Even though there's no real reason for you to be mad, you can't deny you are bothered. Much more than you're willing to admit.
  1505. >Making your way to your place near the lake you notice that Fluttershy is following you.
  1506. >Bracing for confrontation, you mentally clench your fists. And maybe, only maybe, physically too.
  1507.  
  1508. >"So dismissive. I haven't even said anything yet."
  1509. >Flutterbitch keeps on hovering right behind you as you make your way to your lakeside safety chair. The pony keeps her distance but she isn't stopping.
  1510. >It's obvious that she wants something from you.
  1511. >"If you want somepony to be mad at, it's not me, you know."
  1512. >Maybe if you ignore her she will go away?
  1513. >Not a chance. In reality, your lack of resistance is just an excuse for her to push things forward.
  1514. "Is this about Twilight?"
  1515. >"Oh, no," Fluttershy reacts quickly. "It's not about her."
  1516. "Then what?"
  1517. >You finally reach your destination, and sit down with a sigh.
  1518. >The yellow mare lands in front of you and she doesn't look very hostile. Maybe she really only wants to talk?
  1519. >Her expression isn't all that aggressive, but serious none the less. She tries to maintain eye contact when she sits and speaks up.
  1520. >"About you, of course. And how useless you are."
  1521. "How unexpected."
  1522. >"Useless to Twilight, I mean."
  1523. "So instead of talking about her, you want to talk about me...and her."
  1524. >First flare of Fluttershy's anger is quick to spark her voice with the same annoyed tone she had while arguing earlier today.
  1525. >"You're her assistant, you dumb monkey. You're the one who is close to her. Though, lately you've been close to everypony else but her. That's what I wanted to talk about."
  1526. "What about it?"
  1527. >"Twilight might not see it, but you surely do. I know you weren't following our friendly conversation, but you know that not a single pony cares about Twilight here, right?"
  1528. "I dunno, I never thought about it."
  1529. >You lean back and try to relax, but that invites Fluttershy to go on.
  1530. >"Oh, you haven't? Maybe you really are as dumb as Twilight thinks you are, but we both know you know what I'm talking about. In this camp she's utterly useless, even more than you are."
  1531. "Doesn't she help organizing things? The camp itself was erected under her directions."
  1532. >"Aside from that she didn't help, an even without that we'd still make this camp. You ended up helping more."
  1533. "Is that praise I hear?"
  1534. >The pony doesn't react to that, determined to press the issue.
  1535. >"It's irrelevant right now. I'm just saying, you don't have to do what Twilight tells you."
  1536. "So, what should I do instead?"
  1537. >"Anything else? You've been kicked out of her tent like two times the last-"
  1538. "So what?"
  1539. >"So what?!"
  1540. "What would you want me to do instead?"
  1541. >"Me? I don't care, do whatever you want."
  1542. "What if I want to help Twilight?"
  1543. >"Do you really?" Fluttershy laughs. "I think you'd rather spend your day over here."
  1544. "Who cares what you think? You don't know me."
  1545. >You have no idea what's this all about, but you better be on your guard.
  1546. >"I know enough to tell that you feel obligated to help Twilight while not being committed to her cause."
  1547. >That wording makes you uncomfortable. Was she listening to you reading for the whole day today?
  1548. >"You offer nothing. You're useless."
  1549. "Twilight doesn't think so."
  1550. >"Twilight doesn't have any other option. Others are useless as well. At least she uses your ability to read, and that's just her stalling while she does nothing of use."
  1551. "What do you think she needs to do then?"
  1552. >You feel stupid for even asking this. You know Fluttershy doesn't have a suggestion. It is as you thought before - she's only here to be annoying.
  1553. >"I talked to her about that, if you missed it - that's too bad. Maybe you shouldn't sleep so much, you narcoleptic freak."
  1554. "Can't help it when the two of you argue about things no one cares about."
  1555. >You close your eyes in resignation, relaxing in your chair. You hear Fluttershy stomping her hoof, just like you thought she would. It's about time she dropped her act.
  1556. >"Then why do you-"
  1557. "Do you actually have anything to say, Fluttershy? Go bother someone else."
  1558. >For a second everything is quiet. But it's a calm before the storm, apparently, since you suddenly feel a breeze upon your face.
  1559. >Next second, something strong pulls the collar of your shirt up and you finally open your eyes, only to see Fluttershy's angry face right in front of you.
  1560. >Even if you have no time to get scared, you're utterly confused.
  1561. >The mare is trying to hold you up with her hooves and she looks pissed. Her wings beat right over you and it's like she wants to lift you in the air.
  1562. >"I do have something to say, you maggot! You spend your time laying in here while Twilight uses your butt to cover her own fragile self and hide herself from her responsibilities."
  1563. >You give the annoying pony a light shove, but it's not enough to make her stop.
  1564. "Why is this a problem?"
  1565. >"You're the same as those ignorant fools! Don't pretend that you're not! You're only here to make things worse for all of us!"
  1566. >Little by little you start to understand what this insane pony's gripe with you even is. And it still doesn't make any sense. Though it is in her nature to assault everyone for no apparent reason.
  1567. >Actually, the fact that there IS a reason for it is the confusing part.
  1568. >You do actually help though, right? Individual ponies and the camp life at large.
  1569. >Thinking back to today's circle of laziness by the fire, you think no one can deny that you're the center of these mares' attention sometimes.
  1570. >But that means...
  1571. >"You just enable their idiocy, contaminating the rest of us, who-"
  1572. "Who feel left out, huh?"
  1573. >Fluttershy's reaction to that is something you've never seen before. It's not even a blush, it's like a battlefield of emotions on her face - no, a nuclear detonation that deforms it in so many ways during mere seconds.
  1574. >A chain reaction of strange feelings, none of them welcome in her heart.
  1575. >At last, the mare finds a way to reign in these feelings, and that way involves assaulting you even more.
  1576. >Your collar is being ripped apart as Fluttershy, madly flustered, groans and almost roars something incomprehensible at you.
  1577. >"We're stuck out here!.." you finally can hear individual words in her torrent of curses. "And this is all you do?!"
  1578. "Fluttershy, let me go, holy shit."
  1579. >This is getting ridiculous. You have no idea how she even grips your shirt so tight, but she's like a mad dog that's fighting for her favorite toy.
  1580. >"You don't understand anything! Go die in a hole! Idiot! Assface! Balut!"
  1581. "The hell is wrong with you?!"
  1582. >Now you're seriously trying to push her away. There's a fine line between her usual harassment and a fight.
  1583. >"Ooh, mister human is going to take it easy with a few ponies and then bail out as soon as problems start appearing!"
  1584. >The pony is glaring at you like a madman and her smile creeps you out.
  1585. "Fluttershy!"
  1586. >"No need to care about it, it's not your business, right?!"
  1587. >She smacks your hand that's pushing her, and plants that hoof into your cheek, pushing you in turn.
  1588. >One of her legs is still enough to grip your shirt tightly, stretching it as hard as she can.
  1589. >"Let them settle it so you can take it easy again! Just pretend you're neutral, that you don't have to take responsibility. Just take what you need and return to your safe warm dry house when you had your fill for the day!"
  1590. "Shut the fuck up!"
  1591. >You finally stand up and Fluttershy now has even more room to attack you. But it also allows you to fight back. And you still don't know if you should fight full force or if this is just her having a violent outburst that'll end in nothing.
  1592. >You'd like to just disengage without resorting to strong measures, but grabbing her legs seems to be difficult: she's hitting your hands with her hooves once you're near enough to touch her and just pulls the shirt further with another. So you go for another plan.
  1593. >Your arm reaches her neck and you shove her as hard as you can. But it slides to the side, betrayed by the mare's sleek coat, giving Fluttershy the opportunity to lean in and look you right in the eyes.
  1594. >"Oh, are you gonna 'call it a day' and run away now? Well?"
  1595. >Your heart skips a beat and you clench your teeth, burning away under Fluttershy's scalding glare.
  1596. >The mare lets out a wicked laugh and you can feel her triumph. She knows when she hits her target where it hurts the most.
  1597. >And then she goes for it. Her head dives in and her forehead collides with your lips, sending a wave of nauseating heat all around your teeth.
  1598. >But that wasn't even her target. Her own mouth is now all affixed to your shirt.
  1599. >The beast-like image is complete. She starts helping her hooves with her head, trying to tear your clothing, or at least be as annoying as it gets.
  1600. >A rabid dog that found an enemy within some piece of clothing, she does her worst to deal as much damage as possible, swaying her head and hooves, pulling, pushing from side to side.
  1601. >You can hear the fabric creaking and tattering at the shoulder seam, giving in under the crazy mare's advances.
  1602. >Grunts and grumbles accompany her animalistic wrath while you're still dazed from the pony's headbutt.
  1603. >But once you come to, the ludicrous charade is over in a matter of seconds.
  1604. >Without saying anything, you grab a handful of Fluttershy's mane and pull as hard as you can.
  1605. >Still with you shirt between her teeth, she's looking at you without a semblance of sanity in her eyes. Next thing you know, her hoof connects with your mouth in a quick strike.
  1606. >And not even a moment later your own fist reaches its destination, a jab right in the kisser.
  1607. >Hard and wet. Lips and teeth. That's all you feel upon your hand. That's about all you feel right now.
  1608. >Dazed out of her mind, Fluttershy doesn't offer any resistance to you anymore. You finally get her off of you, giving her frail body a nice forceful shove towards the ground.
  1609. >It's only a second of complete silence later, when adrenaline rush dies down, you understand what you see before you.
  1610. >A pony spread on the ground, mane covering her face. All shaking like an abused animal. Her startled, quivering motion to look up at you makes you face her.
  1611. >There's a mix of so many emotions in her eyes. With little droplets of a tears forming in the corners.
  1612. >Droplets that soon become giant and take their journey down her cheeks.
  1613. >She opens her mouth and you see another streak on her lips, barely visible. Red.
  1614. >A cry of an injured beast rings through the calm mid-day forest. A cry of fear and helplessness and a fall of tears.
  1615. >"W-WHAAAAAAAAHHH!"
  1616. >It's so loud and yet so pitiful. Like a little girl who doesn't get to have what she wants.
  1617. >Little annoying brat. That's all she really is. That's all she's ever really been.
  1618. >With her head thrown back and tears streaming down she looks so small and frightened.
  1619. >But you won't be deceived. Something tells you that you can't show pity on her. You ARE in the right here. Her crying won't change that.
  1620. >The brat gets what she asked for. End of story.
  1621. >Actually, it's just the beginning. Already you see other ponies approaching you.
  1622. >"What's going on here?!" you hear Twilight's concerned voice.
  1623. >The false alicorn flies in and her eyes shift between the crying pony and the standing human.
  1624. >Then her eyes stop at you and she outright gasps in shock. Those same eyes squint in anger when they find the yellow crybaby.
  1625. >"Fluttershy?" Twilight hisses in a cold, almost shaking voice.
  1626. >Her low and menacing tone is like a sharp shard of ice she tries to pierce Fluttershy with.
  1627. >You just now realize why Twilight reacted that way. Your lips feel swollen and your chin is wet. Not only that, your shirt is ripped at its shoulder, the collar hanging pathetically down your chest.
  1628. >"What happened?" Twilight continues her investigation, walls of furious coldness closing in on Flutterbitch.
  1629. >Fluttershy can't stop crying, not until all the ponies are gathered around.
  1630. >They all notice your condition and express varies degrees of concern.
  1631. >"Anon, oh my stars, are you alright?" Rarity walks closer, looking mildly worried.
  1632. >But as soon as she takes a step closer, the yellow victim lets out an even louder cry.
  1633. >Somehow everyone managed to ignore her condition until now.
  1634. >"What happened here? Was it that monster?!" Applejack barges in.
  1635. >"N-NO!" Fluttershy finally snaps.
  1636. >Everyone gets quiet. From the veil of messy mane, a blubbered face emerges.
  1637. >Rivers of tears and one streak of blood accentuate the uneven landscape of the scrunched muzzle.
  1638. >"He..." the pony stays in a shaky voice. "Anonymous... HE HIT ME!"
  1639. >Fluttershy continues on with her sobs in total silence. Her weak sniffles tear apart the awkward atmosphere of apprehension.
  1640. >"Oh," Twilight finally states. "I see. Anon, are you alright? You're kinda bleeding."
  1641. "I think I'm thine."
  1642. >What? You didn't say that. You said 'fine'.
  1643. >It's probably the damn lip. You touch it and concentrate on the sensation, trying to identify if that's really the cause. It doesn't really feel anything, just burns up some more.
  1644. >You hear giggles in the crowd and for a moment even Fluttershy stops crying, listening to the playful sounds of mares' laugh.
  1645. >"I see," Twilight replies. "Make sure you treat this right."
  1646. >How do you treat this? With something...cold? You're not sure they have any ice in here.
  1647. >"B-but..." Fluttershy calls out meekly. "He hit me."
  1648. >"Huh? What about it?" Twilight squints her eyes again.
  1649. >The supposed victim can't believe her ears and shakes her head:
  1650. >"What do you mean 'what about it'?"
  1651. >"Fluttershy, you kinda had that coming with that attitude of yours."
  1652. >This time, the silence is drenched with suspense. Fluttershy sits there, eyes wide in shock. She looks like she's dazed even more now that from you hit and she can't stop trembling.
  1653. >The one to undo the silent spell is Appleliar.
  1654. >"Shame on ya for sayin' that, Twilight! And you too, Anon, how could you? Hitting Fluttershy? Who would EVER do that? Don't ya ever go doin' it again, y'hear? I mean, none of us would've done that in we had an opportunity."
  1655. >You hear Rainbow Dash letting out a snicker in the back of the 'crowd' and Applejack immediately turns her head towards the blue mare.
  1656. >"Don't laugh now, Rainbow, that's a serious matter!"
  1657. >You swear you see a smile on AJ's face as well. She turned her head so she could hide it from Fluttershy, didn't she?
  1658. >"So that's how it is, huh?"
  1659. >The yellow crybaby stands up, her face as determined and angry as ever. If you didn't know she was bawling her eyes out just mere seconds ago, you'd never assumed she ever did. Such a sudden change makes you wonder if this devious mare was genuine at all.
  1660. >The ponies turn to her again and she continues her sudden comeback:
  1661. >"That's how you ponies treat your own, huh? You'd rather take his side?"
  1662. >"Fluttershy, look-" Twilight begins, but not for long.
  1663. >"I've seen enough!" tears show up in Fluttershy's eyes again. They seem as real as they come.
  1664. >"You've hit Anon too, you know," Rarity speaks up, pointing at your face.
  1665. >"Yeah," Rainbow joins it. "That's so not cool."
  1666. >"It's the least fun thing you could've done," even Pinkie adds her voice to the consensus.
  1667. >Fluttershy is breathing heavily and her eyes dart from pony to pony, not finding anyone supportive or even sympathetic.
  1668. >Finally, she turns her head to look up at you.
  1669. >For a moment, you see so much disdain mixed with fear that it leaves you breathless. It's a gaze of a cornered animal that is ready to beg for mercy.
  1670. >And then Fluttershy lets out an annoyed grunt and leaps towards you.
  1671. >You throw your arms up to defend yourself, but too late you realize that the pony isn't going for a grapple like before.
  1672. >"I hate you all!"
  1673. >Two hind hooves collide with the side of your shin. Using the force of this impact, Fluttershy pushes herself up and takes off the ground like a rocket, spreading wings a few meters above the ground.
  1674. >Her assisted jump blinds you with searing pain and you drop on the ground, embracing your leg.
  1675. >You don't feel like anything is broken, but the impact sure does hurt the flesh.
  1676. >"Fluttershy!" Twilight spits out angrily and almost flies off to catch her, but when she sees your condition she decides to stay.
  1677. >You think you're gonna break all your teeth from the pressure you clench them with in attempt to contain the agony.
  1678. >Finally, after the searing pain dissipates - that is, makes its course further through your leg, making it numb - you let yourself breathe again, starting with a labored, loud exhale.
  1679. >Ponies are talking about something, but you can't really process it for a minute or so.
  1680. >"Anon?"
  1681. >Twilight is standing right near you.
  1682. >"Can you explain what in the world even happened here?"
  1683. "It's a long story."
  1684. >You honestly can't be bothered to recall the entire conversation right now. You manage to at least sit up on the ground, carefully bending your leg.
  1685. >"That's not an answer."
  1686. "Sorry."
  1687. >Thankfully, Twilight doesn't interrogate you.
  1688. "Do you have anything cold, like ice or something?"
  1689. >You point at your still hurting leg when you see Twilight's perplexed gaze. The pony shakes her head.
  1690. >"I don't think so. Unless Rarity has some and is willing to share."
  1691. >Of course, the hoarder reacts to her trigger word instantly.
  1692. >"Not a chance."
  1693. >That makes both you and Twilight sigh.
  1694. >The others also shrug and kinda move away so they can avoid responsibility. They all go their own way soon after, except Twilight. And Pinkie, who lies near the lake just like always.
  1695. >So there's only Twilight left to deal with you.
  1696. "Hey, you have magic, don't you? Maybe you can freeze some water in a bucket or something?"
  1697. >The alicorn is thinking hard on this one. She crosses her eyes to look at her horn as if to check its condition, and that makes you chuckle - which you immediately regret since it stretches your hurt lip.
  1698. >"I don't think I know that spell," she informs you after some intense soul-searching. "But that gives me an idea. Can you bring me a book on basic spells like that?"
  1699. >Now she gives you an errand to run? Thinking about herself just like always.
  1700. "We're already reading a book," you bring up an excuse.
  1701. >"I'll read it on my own. I feel like I'm getting better at reading these days."
  1702. >She nods a few times to make sure you understand how confident she is in her skills.
  1703. >"By the way, could you get a dictionary too?"
  1704. >She gave up on this confidence thing that soon. Apparently, your reaction reveals your skepticism to Twilight and she adds:
  1705. >"I just don't think I have enough reference over here with just an agriculture book and a few others. Alright?"
  1706. "Fine, but... You mean you can't do anything about this?"
  1707. >"I don't think so. I know what you're thinking," Twilight frowns. "I don't like this either. We can't treat injuries here. That's a big problem."
  1708. >You definitely remember thinking about this some time ago. It's probably the most concerning thing of all right now. Once someone gets seriously hurt or ill, there's no way but to get them real medical attention.
  1709. >And that means taking them to town, blowing their cover. Which means all the effort they put into hiding and surviving right now is ultimately meaningless.
  1710. >That, in turn, means that this supposed health problem had no reason to occur in the first place. It also means it would take some time to get treatment. And in some cases, every minute without medical attention costs you dearly.
  1711. >Twilight without a doubt realizes this. Maybe not to this extent, but she surely concerns herself with this conundrum.
  1712. >And knowing which other pony worries about this just makes it worse right now.
  1713. >"Can you even stand?"
  1714. "I think so."
  1715. >That wasn't really a lie, but it's really hard to do so.
  1716. >It's gonna go away as you walk, right? Make the blood move and so on.
  1717. >The lip is the real damage here. Despite you being able to manage talking, it doesn't get any smaller or colder.
  1718. >"Anon, I think you need to go for now."
  1719. >It may sound cruel, but there's nothing here that can help you here anyway. There's nothing for you to do other than get proper treatment, and that can't be done here.
  1720. "Alright, I'll see you later then. I'm not sure if I'll be able to return tomorrow."
  1721. >"Be a good assistant and at least try to."
  1722. >Her uncaring words make poor disguise for her worried tone.
  1723. "No promises."
  1724. >Step by step, you hit the road. As soon as you see a big and strong enough stick you make use of it and it does actually help you walk.
  1725. >It doesn't hurt all that much, but it does get annoying. And to make it worse, you also feel the same thing as a few days ago. Like someone is watching you.
  1726. >Of course this is probably your tired brain, but the feeling is way too similar to the last time.
  1727. >You're not the guy to believe in this kind of things and you've never understood how you can 'feel' someone's gaze on you.
  1728. >But somehow it is unsettling to walk through the sunlit forest.
  1729. >And it's gonna be a long walk.
  1730.  
  1731. >Of course, you were bracing for your arrival long before Fluttershy's cottage came into view. You even try to maintain a presentable view by managing to keep the shirt from flabbing about on your chest, just to minimize the panic.
  1732. >You kinda expected some screams and cries and questions. But she's just looking at you, paralyzed in terror.
  1733. "Hi, Fluttershy."
  1734. >"Oh... My..."
  1735. >That's all she can give you. Only a few seconds later she explodes with a chain reaction of assumptions, guesses and concerns.
  1736. "I just fell down after getting myself caught on a branch, that's all."
  1737. >Of course she doesn't believe that.
  1738. >"No, I'm not hearing any excuses," you haven't made any, but better safe than sorry. "Come with me."
  1739. >This is the first time you actually enter Fluttershy's house. And it's as nice as you imagined it.
  1740. >Baked goods is the first thing you smell in the air. You kinda expected this place to smell like a zoo or something, but aside for food you feel some flowery fragrance and nothing else.
  1741. >It's also very tidy. The pastel colors of everything around you makes you feel relaxed right away. The sofa you are immediately commanded to sit on feels so soft too.
  1742. >But Fluttershy herself is anything but relaxed.
  1743. >After a quick trip to another room, presumably kitchen, she returns with a bag of what you can only assume is ice.
  1744. >You are correct - a spoonful of it is offered to you on her hoof.
  1745. >"Put it behind your lip."
  1746. >After you do this, she gives you the rest of the bag and tells you to press it to the hurt place.
  1747. >It feels strange, but pleasant. The relief is instant and it overshadows both the stinging sensation in your lip and the awkward coldness at your teeth. It's just what you needed all along.
  1748. >"Anything else you've hurt?"
  1749. >You shudder at a thought to show Fluttershy your leg. And that reaction is obviously enough for her to get suspicious.
  1750. >"I promise I won't get mad or scared. Please, show me."
  1751. >She's so determined all of a sudden. But not pushy. Just enough to make you decide on complying.
  1752. >To be honest, you yourself isn't ready to look at the mess your leg is right now. But you can't hide it too.
  1753. >The fabric goes up, revealing... Well, just the thing you thought it would. A nasty, newly forming bruise.
  1754. >When you look at the pony to see her reaction, she doesn't even bat an eye.
  1755. >Quietly, she brings in more ice. Two bags, for the two circles of pain.
  1756. >It's such a relief. God, it feels so good to be home, in a civilization of good-mannered ponies, and with someone who can actually help you too.
  1757. >"Give me your shirt."
  1758. "Huh?"
  1759. >Fluttershy manages to maintain eye contact for just a few seconds and then looks away.
  1760. >"You're here anyway, I might as well fix this for you while you're sitting here."
  1761. "Are you sure?"
  1762. >"I can stich well, you know. No need to call Rarity for something this simple. A-and you're not going anywhere any time soon, so I'll give it back to you right away."
  1763. >You consider it and you can't really find anything against this.
  1764. >Putting your ice down on the sofa, you hesitantly drag your dirty and sweaty shirt off of your body.
  1765. >After you're done you see a hoof extended towards you. Fluttershy is facing to the side, away from you, and her face is burning red.
  1766. >You hang the tattered shirt upon the leg of a flustered mare and she flies off on the second floor without saying a word.
  1767. >What's up with that reaction? Naked pony is embarrassed to look at a naked human?
  1768. >It was strange to see, but you know you won't have the nerve to ask anyway, so there's no reason to overthink it.
  1769. >While you resume the ice treatment you notice that you really are a bit dirty. It feels bad to intrude such a pristine place in this way. And the shirt is just a mess all around. It's disgusting to touch it even for you, and you're making Flutters take care of it.
  1770. >It's not really fair. You can't even repay her for this, she probably won't take money. Though it might be worth a try.
  1771. >You've been staring at your leg bruise for some time now and you just now notice how it has a defined form of two horseshoes. As in, its color fills in perfectly. It's like a flesh cast of two little hooves. There's no way Fluttershy didn't notice.
  1772. >How do you even explain this?
  1773. >To distract yourself, you decide to take another look around the pleasant house of this helpful mare.
  1774. >It's strange there's no animals here at all. There's always some in her yard.
  1775. >Oh, what if Discord shows up? That'd be awkward.
  1776. >He'd probably make a remark about your state. But maybe not. First and only time you've met you never got any traction.
  1777. >Seems like he doesn't take you for anything special, even if you are an inter-dimensional traveler. Well, so is he, big deal, right?
  1778. >Still, you'd rather not endure some stupid teasing from Fluttershy's freaky friend right now.
  1779. >Thankfully, nothing out of ordinary happens.
  1780. >A bird flies in, jumps around the table, chirps and flies away. Everything is quiet again.
  1781. >The ice in your mouth finally melts and you feel like both bags are getting watery too.
  1782. >Still, the pain is going away fast. Which feels so good. Feeling heavenly, you close your eyes for a moment to appreciate your luck.
  1783. >Finally, the mare flies down the stairs from her abode, still not looking at you.
  1784. >The price of her timidness is her inability to see in front of her. She bumps into furniture a few times before reaching you.
  1785. "Sorry, Fluttershy."
  1786. >"N-no problem, Anon. See, it was really fast and easy."
  1787. >When you finally put the shirt on, she finally looks at you and smiles.
  1788. >The shirt is just like new. Aside from being just as dirty, of course. You can't even tell that it was torn and stitched back.
  1789. >Only at a closer inspection you see that the thread Fluttershy used is pink, the very same shade as her mane.
  1790. >"How are you feeling?"
  1791. "A lot better, thank you so much. You're a life saver."
  1792. >The pony blushes again.
  1793. >"I'm just happy to help my good friend."
  1794. "Well, then I'm lucky to have a friend like you."
  1795. >This time smiling doesn't even hurt that much. And Fluttershy herself is beaming too.
  1796. >"Oh, one more thing."
  1797. >She walks back to the kitchen and brings something small with her.
  1798. >"Hold this to your lip," she says and gives you a wet piece of bandage. "Just press it down, don't worry."
  1799. >You follow the simple instructions. It feels even colder than ice and somehow even more relieving.
  1800. "What's this?"
  1801. >"A little bit of something just for this kind of accidents."
  1802. "Is that the remedy you've been working on?"
  1803. >"No, that's not it. This is a herbal paste I usually make for animals who get scratches and bruises."
  1804. "I see."
  1805. >Flutters nods and looks at your leg.
  1806. >"But I don't think I have enough for something this... Impressive."
  1807. "Don't worry, it's gonna be fine like this."
  1808. >"Maybe you shouldn't go out there tomorrow. It's gonna hurt badly. I know you like forest and all but..."
  1809. "Yeah, I thought about skipping at least a day."
  1810. >"It would be for the best."
  1811. >Fluttershy nods and you just now notice that her nose is a bit dirty. When you point it out, the pony's cheeks fire up immediately.
  1812. >"I-it isn't what you think!" she blurts out, embarrassed by something. "I just, um, w-while I was fixing... T-the thing is... I though I-"
  1813. >Oh, you completely forgot. She had to dive into it with needle in her teeth, the poor pony. That's how they do it without magic, right?
  1814. "It must be hard to do this with just your mouth. I'm sorry."
  1815. >"Huh?" she calms down for a moment and then blushes even more. "Oh! Yes, that's it! It's just because I was stitching it back together again, heh. No worries, Anon, it was my pleasure."
  1816. "Are you sure? I feel bad making you do this all of a sudden."
  1817. >"No, no, it's fine."
  1818. >She sighs in relief and looks happy for some reason.
  1819. "Can I at least repay you in some way?"
  1820. >"You can promise me to be more careful so this doesn't happen again."
  1821. >Even though she's smiling, you can tell she means it. You have no other choice but to agree.
  1822. "Alright, I promise."
  1823. >"Good. Now go get some rest. Call me if you need anything, alright?"
  1824. "Thank you."
  1825. >Fluttershy re-fills your bags of ice and gives them to you as a parting gift.
  1826. >You can walk much easier now, but you're already hitting the resting phase and you can barely feel anything in your leg.
  1827. >It really is better to just not go anywhere tomorrow. Looks like Meanlight won't be getting her books too soon.
  1828. >Once you return to your place you just sit down on the bed and try to collect your thoughts.
  1829. >Thinking back to the camp, the whole situation is so stupid. Right now you feel it was a bit unfair to hit Flutterbitch. She was obviously provoking you for the sake of it.
  1830. >But it also was a reaction to your words. Did you manage to actually get under her skin? Maybe she never expected a personal attack and got mad for real?
  1831. >Though she did get what she wanted to get. It's just like Twilight said, that was bound to happen sooner or later. Talk shit, get hit.
  1832. >You weren't in the wrong here. Yet something tells you that maybe you're setting a bad example here.
  1833. >And the worst thing is, you kinda feel bad when you remember how all the ponies just abandoned Fluttershy - no, they never even considered her a victim. No one took her side in this conflict.
  1834. >That's what happens when you go out of your way to piss others off. But you yourself thought that these ponies aren't irredeemable. Looks like that's just you.
  1835. >Would these ponies defend anyone else in such a situation? Would they care if someone else got in trouble?
  1836. >A helping hoof from Pinkie, Rainbow and somewhat Applejack seems so unlikely. Rarity has made her point, she's not helping anyone with her supplies and that's final. Fluttershy herself would never offer help to anyone, especially anyone in the same predicament she was found today.
  1837. >So that leaves Twilight. You don't think she cares beyond helping her camp because she feels in charge of it.
  1838. >Basically, they're all assholes. What else is new?
  1839. >Apparently, you've lost sight of that fact all too easily.
  1840. >You close your eyes and all you see is Fluttershy's face when she looked at you after she realized there's no one to support her.
  1841. >Behind the facade of rage in those eyes covered by loose strand of her mane, hints of despair and fear distorted her face in a strange mask of nothing but confusion.
  1842. >Did she feel betrayed? Even though she would never take someone's side herself. Was this a surprise to her?
  1843. >Or was it because it just proved her point?
  1844. >It's the hardest pill to swallow. To know that she was right. Nopony cares. Nopony is there to care about one another or about the team they're supposed to make.
  1845. >It's nothing new. But seeing it with her own eyes, feeling it with her own coat - it must be pretty horrible to her.
  1846. >And even though you're there and act like you want them to change, is this really enough?
  1847. >Are you making a mistake trusting these ponies? Trusting your ability to change them? Are you wasting your time?
  1848. >It's impossible to tell right now. Thinking about it won't change anything though.
  1849. >You decide to take a shower first and then do the thinking second.
  1850.  
  1851. >It is common knowledge that shower is a place of meditation. One should reflect upon all the exigent matters during that time, face to face with one's true self.
  1852. >Naked, vulnerable - yet secluded, protected by walls so close that an arm's reach is enough to reaffirm that the bastion still stands, even if you are blinded by soaps, oils, extracts, moisturizers and what else these ponies have to keep their manes healthy, silky and aromatic.
  1853. >Oh, Lord in Heavens, do they care after their manes. Immaculate beauty, the golden standard of purity, the very thing that makes a mare into a goddess, the stamp of approval from iridescent Celestia herself; inspiration to some, subject of jealousy and imitation to other, the divine awe a simple mane can instill in one's heart is truly a remarkable phenomenon of purely Equestrian origin.
  1854. >And, by an unspoken rule (of fashion, trend, or simply market - who knows) most of the products that enable mare's beauty to shine with it's own, special gleam through the tired and the mundane, are sold purely in a bundle.
  1855. >...
  1856. >You wish you had just your regular shampoo from back home that didn't cost you an arm and a leg to buy.
  1857. >You'd think that Ponyville of all places would surely never lack a sturdy, reliable and, most of all, affordable solution.
  1858. >Something a simple stallion would use, you know?
  1859. >You were lucky enough to get something resembling that, with some local guidance, of course. Lots of trouble to just get one item instead of a full set that mares usually waste money on.
  1860. >As for the body wash... Well, you make do with some coat conditioner that also isn't too hard on your wallet.
  1861. >After the initial fear of growing a coat of your own by using this, you kinda got used to it.
  1862. >Remembering those days of adapting to this world brings a sense of nostalgia already, even if it wasn't that long ago.
  1863. >The stress was too much and reliving it is something you've worked for on your own, finding solutions that worked for you time and time again.
  1864. >It was about time you felt comfortable here, and you now realize that you were.
  1865. >That realization hits you now because being stressed about something strange and alien to you is the feeling you'd rather forget, and you were already starting to.
  1866. >But now it becomes apparent that new troubles are surrounding you, and you have no one else to share them with. The newly formed bruise on your leg and your still stinging lip are definitive proof of that.
  1867. >Indeed, once you start your shower routine, memories of the scandalous incident in the forest follow you closely.
  1868. >Now that you had your chance to calm down and relax, it seems to you that the more you think about it, the more confusing it becomes, even though it's as simple as it gets.
  1869. >But it just doesn't sit right with you. There's no way to really rationalize Meanshy's outburst. Such violence exceeds her usual mean but ultimately harmless bullying attempts.
  1870. >So that's the difference. Once it gets personal she loses her mind.
  1871. >Or maybe it's just the culmination of everything she's been keeping inside her all this time. The final straw that broke the pony's back.
  1872. >That's a horrible possibility. Fluttershy seems to be affected by things around her, unlike, say, Rainbow or Pinkie. But she has no one to talk about it. Maybe that was the real cornerstone of her argument with Twilight. Just venting on top of 'ideological' confrontation.
  1873. >It's not just Meanyflutter. Appleliar also has concerns but can't voice it.
  1874. >What if it's not just them? Pinkie and Rainbow don't seem to be very happy ponies. Rarity and Twilight have something to distract themselves with, but...
  1875. >It's not hard to imagine how all of them hate that place and want to leave. And, more than all of that, hate each other.
  1876. >In that moment you remember Meanshy's "I hate you all!" and right now it seems like a desperate cry, created by some insane rules her existence has to follow without her really knowing why.
  1877. >It's all these ponies know: despair, distress and silence. Twilight's empty promises of hope, even if unintentionally just create a poisonous vacuum they all have to live in.
  1878. >Waiting for nothing in particular, wasting away without any direction and purpose.
  1879. "Fucking hell..." you mutter to yourself as you finish your bath time.
  1880. >Maybe you do need to remind them that they don't have to stay there if they hate it so much.
  1881. >So what if they're sociopaths without any kind of knowledge or experience expected from adult mares, and that's on top of being unfriendly and also copies of very famous ponies.
  1882. >...
  1883. >Yeah, that does sound pretty bad. But you've gotta draw the line in the sand somewhere. This kind of bad might just be somewhat less bad than living in a depressing forest.
  1884. >Especially with autumn starting so soon. Was it next week or this one?
  1885. >You'll need to remind yourself to ask Fluttershy about it. The actual Fluttershy.
  1886. >Just another reason to approach her later.
  1887. >You exit the temple of bodily cleansing without feeling any better mentally.
  1888. >If you're gonna talk to Fluttershy, what if you just tell her about the whole thing?
  1889. >Ask her to not tell anyone... She'd certainly know the way to make things better.
  1890. >But then again, what will you tell her? That some creations of some bug monster that look like clones of-
  1891. >No, forget this. Telling her this story won't help one bit. It's your own responsibility whether you like it or not.
  1892. >It's not the end of the world. Meanshy will come around and everything will be good again.
  1893. >For now, your own affairs need to be in focus. You have time for yourself now, seeing how it's not that late yet.
  1894. >But it's hard to find comfort right now. You try clearing your your head by doing some wood carving but it doesn't help one bit.
  1895. >You keep defaulting to those mean ponies and can't focus on anything else.
  1896. >It doesn't just concern you that you can't get a hold of your own skittish thoughts; the fact that your life is so intertwined with theirs now is a bit alarming.
  1897. >You spend so much time with them and everything you do basically revolves around them. From your daily routine to wasting time money on them, and almost bothering other ponies because of them.
  1898. >Good thing you decided to not tell Fluttershy anything, you've already started to regret even having that thought.
  1899. >Maybe you should just go to sleep early. Anything to forget this damn mess.
  1900.  
  1901. >In the end, you never did. You couldn't sleep.
  1902. >After some minutes of looking at your plain wooden ceiling, you decided to just read something.
  1903. >It was an opportunity to start reading something new. This time, your choice was one of the Shadow Spade books.
  1904. >You've already forgotten about how it got here, but you're pretty sure someone recommended it to you and it wasn't Twilight.
  1905. >The story was way too descriptive with attires for your taste, but it managed to keep you engaged enough until it was dark. And, more importantly, it served as a nice distraction, even if you were sometimes skimming over pages of pointless descriptions.
  1906. >All in all, you've enjoyed it for what it is, and that's what matters.
  1907. >Before you finally lay your head to rest, a noisy thought still crosses your mind: maybe you shouldn't skip a day and just go out there like you normally would?
  1908. >There's no time to give it attention though, sleep finally takes you and for once a dreamless night keeps your mind empty in a fit of much appreciated sympathy.
  1909. >And it lasts for a long time - the gentle embrace of slumber holds you until later in the morning.
  1910. >At this point it's not happening. You leg hurts like hell when you move it and you feel tired in general.
  1911. >Thanks to that your decision is made for today. Keeping yourself safe and taking it easy is the way to go.
  1912. >Though it doesn't mean you don't have to leave your house today. You can use this day off to pick up those books for Meanlight.
  1913. >In the mirror you see a fairly okayish look on your face. Your lip will certainly attract attention if a pony is to look real close at it, but otherwise you can get away with the same excuse Fluttershy had to accept during her initial panic.
  1914. >So that settles it. After a late breakfast you set out to Twilight's Castle.
  1915.  
  1916. >"A book about simple magic spells?"
  1917. >The princess squints her eyes looking nowhere in particular. She's trying to figure out why in the world you of all people would need that.
  1918. >"And a dictionary?" she adds, looking even more confused.
  1919. >You two are walking down the hallway of Twilight's castle and the mare isn't too quick on her hooves.
  1920. >It's like once the books are in your hands she'll lose the chance to solve this mystery so she drags this on purposely.
  1921. >But you still do arrive at the library hall and Twilight never gets the answer.
  1922. >You hear hoofsteps just around the corner and notice how there's a clothed mare standing right in front of one of the book shelves.
  1923. >Even though she's wearing a pretty ash grey dress that almost reaches to the ground, flowing freely from her croup, together with a grey and white cartwheel hat of some sort, you can easily guess who is hiding there under all that fabric.
  1924. >Not because of purple mane that is curled up perfectly as usual. And not because of a simple motif the mare is humming as she's looking at books through a magnifying glass.
  1925. >No, simple because no other pony would bother going to the library in such an attire.
  1926. "Hey, Rarity!" you greet her first.
  1927. >The pony jumps up a bit from a sudden shock and turns to you right away, revealing her ever pretty face with her usual smile.
  1928. >"Oh, good day, Anonymous. I'm really sorry but I can't talk to you right now, I'm a bit busy at the moment."
  1929. "That's alright," you nod, confused by her swift explanation.
  1930. >It's not like you've come here just to talk to her but somehow she assumed that's the case anyway?
  1931. >Twilight, meanwhile, is already searching for your books, and she finds them soon enough. Just in time for Rarity to resume her humming again. A lot quieter this time.
  1932. >"Alright," Twilight starts, giving you two books one by one. "Here's 'Introduction to Magic: Easy Spells for Utility and Amusement', I think this fits the bill nicely."
  1933. "This outta do it, thanks."
  1934. >"It's not my place to ask, but..." Twilight almost voices her concern, but shrugs it off. "No, never mind."
  1935. "It's alright, Twilight. I'm just being curious," you explain to her and she blushes at your correct guess of the nature of her question. "I've been living here for a while but I still have no idea how things really work, so I'm trying to, you know..."
  1936. >"That's great! Fantastic," the princess looks genuinely moved by your pursue of knowledge. "Then the dictionary, this one is-"
  1937. >"A dictionary?!" you hear Rarity's high-pitched gasp and the next second the mare is already moving towards you.
  1938. >Her magnifier is pointed at you and her giant eye doesn't blink even once.
  1939. >"A dictionary, you say?"
  1940. >As Rarity walks towards you, a chair is pulled towards you by her magic. She wastes no time even looking under her legs and jumps up - just to see your face closer, again, through her tool.
  1941. >"Rarity, please." you hear Twilight's meek voice from behind the inquisitive pony. The princess already knows she's too late to stop her friend.
  1942. >"What do you know about the dictionary?" Rarity asks you sternly, putting her glass right to your eye.
  1943. >It's like she's passing a microphone when it's your turn to speak.
  1944. "It has... Words?" you utter, mainly on reflex.
  1945. >"And their meaning, too," Twilight adds, feeling confident again.
  1946. >"Well, what do you know about the... The other book?" Rarity continues, trying to find the perfect distance from your face to her magnifier so you stay in focus.
  1947. "Other... Book? That magic one? Or..."
  1948. >"'Equestrian Wildlife and Its Hierarchy'," Twilight gives you a hint and then sighs. "Look, sorry you're getting roped into this, but our book store got robbed last night."
  1949. "Robbed?!"
  1950. >Wait, Ponyville has a book store?
  1951. >"And the robber only took two books. That one and a dictionary."
  1952. >This is something you've never heard happening in Ponyville, hell, all of the Equestria. It's something that only happens in those novels, like Shadow Spade.
  1953. >Wait a second, Rarity's outfit... Oh, now you remember.
  1954. >Rarity is now taking her glass for a trip all around your face, looking for clues.
  1955. >"And now you come here, asking for a- Oh!" the detective's tone changes to worrying all of a sudden. "Anon, my stars, whatever happened to your mouth?"
  1956. "I... Fell."
  1957. >"I see. From a certain window in a certain book shop, if I had to guess?"
  1958. >Rarity is trying hard to conceal her smile at her own wit.
  1959. >"Anon, sorry for this, Rarity is just-"
  1960. >"Shush, Twilight!" the mare reacts to her friends apologetic tone with pride. "You can't rule out any possibilities in a case like this."
  1961. "You think I've stolen it?" you ask blatantly.
  1962. >"Oh, no, Anon, darling. Not...yet."
  1963. "Why'd I need a dictionary if I've got one already?"
  1964. >"To create and alibi!" Rarity gasps. "That's so obvious!"
  1965. >Is this a game for her? Seems like a serious business. But you can play this one too now.
  1966. "Oh, come on. That didn't work in the 'Shadow Spade and the Reveal of the Century' where Antoine Saint-Germain created a double false alibi by pretending he needed one."
  1967. >Rarity is outright struck by lightning and has to balance on her chair when her legs suddenly go limp.
  1968. >"That's true!!" she almost screams at you, stars in her eyes, and begins pestering you with question: "Anon, have you been- Oh my, I've never actually expected you to actually- Did you like it? What was your favorite-"
  1969. >"Wait, Antoine is the villain?!" Twilight interrupts her with a gasp.
  1970. >Both you and Rarity turn to the purple princess.
  1971. >"Oh, darling..." Rarity puts her hoof to her chest, sharing Twilight's pain she herself probably knows well.
  1972. >The pain of hearing spoilers to something you are only about to finish.
  1973. >"It's alright, I-" Twilight tries hard to not make her sadness be seen. "It was p-pretty obvious, now that I think about it... And I only had a few chapters left anyway, so it's not a big deal..."
  1974. >She sighs, completely crushed.
  1975. >"I'm so sorry," Rarity whispers.
  1976. >The minute of silence for Twilight that takes place after that ends abruptly with a boyish voice entering the hall a few moment before the door to it is opened.
  1977. >"I've got the magnifier collection brochure you asked for, Rari...ty?"
  1978. >Spike the dragon stand in the door frame with a puzzled expression.
  1979. >Before him the Ponyville's human stands next to a chair. On that chair, Rarity stands with a magnifier right in his face, with an expression of despair on hers.
  1980. >In the center, the princess of friendship is holding back tears.
  1981. >"Um, is this a bad time?" the dragon tries to take in a scene that makes so little sense for an outside viewer it might as well be an art installation.
  1982.  
  1983. >After everyone manages to calm down, a plan is formulated by Twilight.
  1984. >"Anon, I'm fine with giving you these books, but I have an advice."
  1985. >You nod to her and she continues.
  1986. >"A dictionary isn't something you take just for a few days. If you want to learn from it, it could better serve as a handbook that's readily available."
  1987. "That's true."
  1988. >"So my advice is to get your own while you're using this one, so once you return it you can still continue learning."
  1989. >Rarity is listening to this conversation closely. She seems to be hatching a plan of her own.
  1990. "I guess you're right. But if the dictionary has been stolen..."
  1991. >"Oh, please, THE dictionary?" Rarity finally starts talking. "It's not like that was the only dictionary in this whole town. And if my guess is correct... Anonymous, I think you should go buy a dictionary."
  1992. "Yes, I get it. I'm gonna do that."
  1993. >"Today. In that book store."
  1994. "Really? Why?"
  1995. >"Just trust my...intuition."
  1996. >The pony's hat falls lower, menacingly covering one side of her face.
  1997. >You and Twilight look at each other and all you can really do is shrug.
  1998. "Alright. It doesn't cost too much, right?"
  1999. >"Shouldn't be more than a dozen bits."
  2000. >That's not a lot for a book, but still more than you've expected to spend today.
  2001. >But then again, Twilight is absolutely right. You can't be sure when that dictionary is going to return to her, if at all, Meanlight probably does intend to keep it as a handbook she actively uses.
  2002. >Actually, you kinda forgot you have to return the other books too, eventually. Maybe Meanlight will understand? She should be able to, right?
  2003. >You say your goodbyes and notice that Rarity isn't quick to bid you farewell.
  2004. >"I am going to accompany you to the store."
  2005. >She even has a different hat for that. A lot more revealing and mostly black instead. You have no idea where Rarity was keeping it all this time. With Spike, perhaps.
  2006. >You wouldn't be surprised if she barged in here with a heap of different hats and gave all of them to Spike so she can draw the right one from her collection at the right time.
  2007. >Speaking of the little dragon, he must've definitely heard that Rarity is going to accompany someone other than him somewhere, while he doesn't get to go anywhere. Certainly not with Rarity.
  2008. >But, to be fair, you'd rather she stayed here.
  2009. >Too bad, Spike. Too bad for both of you.
  2010. >Soon, your journey starts. Twilight wishes you a happy trip and you're off to the book store.
  2011. >Rarity is silent and her dress still doesn't touch the ground despite hanging so low.
  2012. >The pony notices you watching it and raises her brow. It never came to your attention that by watching that dress you're also kinda staring at her butt.
  2013. >That's a blush for sure. You almost suspect this was her intention all along.
  2014. >But Detective Rarity doesn't bring it up. Instead, she asks you something different:
  2015. >"Anonymous, you're quite heavy on one leg today. Are you hurt?"
  2016. >For a moment there blood runs cold in your veins. Even if you have nothing to fear since you're innocent, the perception of this pony still impresses you.
  2017. "I fell down, I told you."
  2018. >"Mhm..."
  2019. >That's all she says to that. That's even worse than spouting crazy theories about you being the culprit in your face.
  2020. >Wait a second, is she really suspecting you? But you're innocent. You've spent your night sleeping like a good boy.
  2021. >But, well, it's not going to convince the famous detective like Rarity.
  2022. >"The plan is simple, Anonymous," she speaks up as the shop comes into view. "You enter and ask for a dictionary. I stay behind and document everything that's going to happen. Then we meet at the front door. Understand?"
  2023. "I thought you're going to... Wait, do you suspect someone else?"
  2024. >"It's my duty to suspect everypony, darling," Rarity smirks. "That's what professionals do."
  2025. >Like Shadow Spade, right. But that doesn't solve the case. In fact, it can distract from something really important but not nearly as obvious.
  2026. >You hope Rarity does pay attention. But suspecting the employees of the shop? That's a daring move.
  2027. >And so you enter the robbed store, leaving the other books with Rarity to escape needless confusion.
  2028. >Nothing about the place indicates any crime activity.
  2029. >Just a bored cashier and an equally bored clerk.
  2030. "Hello," you greet the two stallions.
  2031. >Not a lot of enthusiasm follows in response, but you get your "Can we help you with anything?" fill right away.
  2032. >Here goes nothing.
  2033. "I'd like to buy a dictionary."
  2034. >Zero reaction. The clerk stands up and walks up to a shelf, then goes back with a pretty big book under his wing and puts it down before the other pony.
  2035. >"That'll be ten bits."
  2036. >Coins hit the table. The dictionary is in your hands. The fated artifact of knowledge is purchased legally and without a hint of the expected scandal.
  2037. >When you walk out safely, Rarity herself seems surprised you weren't kicked out of the store or something like that. In she goes, giving you instructions to wait for her.
  2038. >After nearly five minutes of standing with a dictionary in your hands like a pastor cradling his Holy Bible, you finally see the door opening.
  2039. >"I have to apologize, Anonymous," Rarity begins as soon as she exits the store. "Perhaps I should've asked them right away instead of jumping to conclusions."
  2040. "What happened?"
  2041. >"You see, one of them managed to get a glimpse of the culprit. He saw lights in the store and rushed there to see what is going on."
  2042. "How was he able to see it?"
  2043. >"His house is right there," she points somewhere on the other side of the square. "The store can be seen clearly from it."
  2044. "So, what did he see?"
  2045. >"He never got to identify the robber, but he said that he saw them jumping out of the window. They've...fell."
  2046. >You fight the urge to gulp.
  2047. >"But when I asked if the criminal looked strange to him, he denied it. Whoever it was, it was definitely a pony."
  2048. "Oh."
  2049. >Oh - as in 'Oh thank fuck I don't have to endure this any longer'.
  2050. >But Rarity isn't done.
  2051. >"A unicorn pony. With a light blue magic tint."
  2052. >The mare squints her eyes and tenses up, barely breathing.
  2053. >You do the same.
  2054. >"With a styled mane..."
  2055. >No way.
  2056. >"...gleaming violet in that magical aura."
  2057. >Now you gulp for real.
  2058. >Rarity pauses to amplify the dramatic reveal.
  2059. >"I'm not going to jump to conclusions this time. But I have my concerns."
  2060. >There's nothing to add to that. Rarity is defeated at her own game and the only clue she has is, well, nothing she can really follow.
  2061. >"Again, sorry for the inconvenience, Anonymous. The investigation had just begun and I don't think I've started it from the right spot. I'll rethink my strategy. You're free to go."
  2062. "Thanks, Rarity."
  2063. >"No hard feelings?"
  2064. "Of course. It was kinda fun."
  2065. >But not the kind of fun you want to repeat in near future, or, preferably, ever.
  2066. >The mare smiles and it brightens up her face.
  2067. >"I guess that is definitely a positive. Though I'd love to discuss the novels later, if you're up for it."
  2068. "Sure. With us making our own here..."
  2069. >"That is true," Rarity giggles. "But I'd prefer things like this to stay fictional."
  2070. "At least the outfits are faithful to the fiction."
  2071. >Aw, now it's Rarity's turn to blush. That's so satisfying.
  2072. >"Of course they are!" she laughs. "You can't solve a mystery when you're in the wrong mood, and the outfit helps set things up just perfectly."
  2073. "Sure does."
  2074. >It brings her joy to hear you agree. But something else does too.
  2075. >"Wait a second... Of course! I've gotta go to confirm something, Anon! See you around!"
  2076. >Not even giving you a chance to ask about her epiphany, Rarity runs away in her boutique's direction.
  2077. >Her dress is still above the ground at all times.
  2078. >As for you, maybe you should just head home, with two dictionaries, a magic guide for foals and a nearly empty wallet.
  2079. >And a realization that something really is happening at the camp. And it might be because of you. Or just because some pony is getting a bit too desperate.
  2080. >Meanlight has some questions to answer. And Greedity does too.
  2081. >Your own investigation starts tomorrow.
  2082.  
  2083. >No matter what your cunning plans to expose those devious mean ponies are, there's still a whole day ahead of you until tomorrow.
  2084. >That means you have barely anything to do for some time.
  2085. >Contemplating dedicating yourself to something other than working on wood or reading books, you feel like you're in a vacuum, surrounded by nothing at all.
  2086. >It never really bothered you, but it's still something you have to consider from time to time. You don't lead a particularly exciting life.
  2087. >What do ponies even do in their spare time? Your guess is they partake in some community activities. But despite you being generally liked among citizens of Ponyville, you're still far from being just a regular guy there, no matter how you or they would like to see it like that.
  2088. >No matter what you're still 'the town's human'. And it's probably your fault.
  2089. >It is you, Anonymous the recluse, living on the outskirts and being a strange forest loner, who doesn't really come into contact with local ponies.
  2090. >Not like that ever bothered you; now, with how much time you spend with those mean ponies in the forest, you wonder if you could've been this close with their counterparts if you just tried a bit more.
  2091. >Did Rarity, for example, enjoy her time with you today? Is Twilight fine with you visiting her in her castle sometimes?
  2092. >Is Fluttershy... Well, Fluttershy seems like she's closer to you than anyone. And, to be fair, that pony is nice to everyone. So it doesn't really count.
  2093. >But still, you meet her every day and she doesn't sound like it's awful for her. It can possibly be that she enjoys spending time with you, right?
  2094. >Ah, it doesn't matter. Not like you're gonna ask her.
  2095. >Just one actual interaction with ponies is enough for you to start thinking about this topic. What a pathetic little soul you are.
  2096. >How would you even ask Fluttershy about her opinion on you?
  2097. >You can't. You just can't. Maybe like a joke? And then back away immediately, just in case.
  2098. "I guess I'm the shy one. Haha." you'd say after that.
  2099. >Just thinking about saying this to her makes you cringe. You hiss, sipping air through your closed teeth like you're in pain.
  2100. >You shake your head to forcefully drop these thoughts out of it.
  2101. >That's right, why are you even thinking about this in the first place? Now is not the time for it. There's crime to solved.
  2102. >Once you get back at the forest camp, you'll-
  2103. >"Anon!"
  2104. >Somehow you completely missed the walk back to your house. Now you're standing right next to Fluttershy's cottage and the mare is there to greet you, staring down from her opened window.
  2105. "Oh, hi, Fluttershy."
  2106. >"Is everything fine?"
  2107. >She rears a bit and then jumps out with her wings unfurled.
  2108. >Passing every obstacle below her, she lands just beside you.
  2109. "Yeah, all good, what about you?"
  2110. >"I was kinda worried about you after yesterday," she continues to talk about you. "I'm glad to see you're fine."
  2111. "All thanks to you."
  2112. >The cute little blush once again appears on her cheeks and she looks to the side, letting her mane fall a little bit further on her face like a veil. But she snaps out of it the next second.
  2113. >"Oh, it's nothing."
  2114. "I still feel bad for making you do all of this for me."
  2115. >You didn't even mean to say it that way, now it sounds like you're accusing her of something. But before you can correct yourself and say anything else, Fluttershy reacts with haste:
  2116. >"It really is no problem and you've already promised me you're going to be more careful."
  2117. "I guess I did."
  2118. >"I don't really mind taking care of you..."
  2119. >You're not the only one who didn't mean to say something in a certain way, it seems. When you look at Fluttershy after her quite bold statement, you almost see her biting her tongue over such a careless remark.
  2120. >She is very quick to correct herself, and it doesn't even take her one second to build an entire skyscraper of elaborations and excuses:
  2121. >"I-I-I mean who else would? I mean, I'm not saying that nopony else would i-if they were available at the time, that is if they lived here where I lived, close to you, and saw you before me, they would help, certainly, but it's me so- I don't mean that I feel obligated to help because nopony else could, just-"
  2122. >You can't help but smile at such an adorable display of confusion an despair you only thought yourself be capable of.
  2123. >But that smile of yours stops Fluttershy on her tracks and it makes her giggle at her own display.
  2124. "I get what you mean. Thanks."
  2125. >This time she turns her head even more and her mane now covers like half of her face with only muzzle sticking out. She smiles with all the strength she can muster and you can almost hear a 'squee' in it.
  2126. >"I have s-something to take care of, I'll see you later, alright?"
  2127. >The pony looks like she's trying to hide herself in her own lush hair. In fact, she looks like she wants to appear smaller in general: her head is close to her body, tail driven between her shut hindlegs and wings trembling close to her body. All to hide herself from embarrassment.
  2128. >But that doesn't last long and you see her trying to run away instead, awkwardly unfold her wings.
  2129. >She's ready to take off again.
  2130. "Wait!" you call her and she freezes up.
  2131. >Fluttershy was ready to fly away and now she's petrified with her legs already bent to give her a push upwards.
  2132. >She gives you a scared look, but you wave your hand to indicate that it's nothing serious you're stopping her for.
  2133. "I just remembered, it's gonna rain pretty soon, right? I forgot when."
  2134. >Hearing such a mundane question does somewhat relieve Fluttershy's tension. She finally stands up like she always does, regaining composure but still hiding in her mane.
  2135. >"Yes, it's gonna start on Monday, so the day after tomorrow."
  2136. "Wait, that means today is Saturday? Already?"
  2137. >"Yes," the pony smiles while you're perplexed by the swift passage of time. "Sweet Apple Acres wanted it to be sooner, but it's the weekend, so they'll have to wait one day until the week starts."
  2138. "Alrighty then, I guess I've gotta prepare for it sooner."
  2139. >"You should! You know how the weather isn't really regulated over the forest, pegasi don't usually bother with it."
  2140. "So it might rain tomorrow?"
  2141. >"Maybe. Remember the spring rains?"
  2142. >Of course you do. While ponies were gathering clouds in preparation for early showers, it started raining over the forest the day before that and caught you off guard.
  2143. >"Feels like it was so long ago."
  2144. >Fluttershy is smiling again, thinking to herself, and it makes you smile too.
  2145. >Back in spring you barely just started your patrols and didn't know much about anything here. Fluttershy was here for you, patiently answered your questions and helped you with everything you'd ask her about.
  2146. "Yeah, I think I'll take my rain gear with me tomorrow, just in case."
  2147. >The mare nods in approval.
  2148. "Well, I'll see you later then."
  2149. >"Have a nice day."
  2150. >After you part ways and you return to your plain house, you notice it again - the smile on your face, however subtle, is still there.
  2151. >It's just how it is, talking to a friend really does improve your mood.
  2152. >But thinking back to that conversation, you don't really remember Fluttershy being so bashful and, well, shy around you as of late.
  2153. >Naturally, when you first started living here, she was just like that, meek and even unfriendly at times, fleeing conversations and pretending she doesn't notice you when you walk past her house, even if you she was out on the yard.
  2154. >Her animals had no affection for you too, but that changed pretty soon. She became pretty open and casual with you. So something must've happened now if she's acting like that.
  2155. >It's yesterday's accident, isn't it?
  2156. >It can't be she's afraid of you or anything like that. But then you have no idea what could've caused it.
  2157. >Another thing you'll probably never muster the courage to ask her upfront.
  2158. >You shouldn't pay this much attention to it anyway.
  2159. >Sadly, with that out of the way you're now back to square one in terms of possible activities to waste your time on.
  2160. >In the end you decide on carving something out of wood instead of reading. There's still a long day ahead of you and you intend to immerse yourself in your work fully.
  2161.  
  2162. >Your leg was still reminding you of its agonizing existence the whole way through your work and it made sitting for long periods of time uncomfortable.
  2163. >When you finally decided to lay down for a bit, you fell asleep almost immediately.
  2164. >Right now, without a glance on the clock you know it's already night time when, and you just woke up. The lamp on the table was still on, dimly shining through Equestria's starry night.
  2165. >You could barely find your way to the bathroom (shower was definitely out of question right now), and through the haze of your unexpected nap you could feel the stale pain in your leg.
  2166. >Despite Fluttershy's treatment, it was still not fully healed.
  2167. >You even feel like you're having a fever, but that must be just because you feel so weak you can't even put your hand up without it shaking.
  2168. >Once you trail back to bed, you just wish to fall asleep again. And you do.
  2169. >You even manage to wake up roughly on time again in the morning.
  2170. >At least you're feeling better now. Even your leg does.
  2171. >Walking is possible now and after finally taking a quick lukewarm shower you can even consider yourself refreshed.
  2172. >Packing rain supplies and getting your autumn water-resistant attire is such a bother after the breakfast, but it has to be done. Good thing there's not a lot to pack or change.
  2173. >Rummaging through your stuff you also find your old compass that doesn't even work anymore.
  2174. >But at least now you're thankful that you didn't throw it away. Rarity probably won't care whether it's damaged or not.
  2175. >You walk out of your house almost an hour later than usual. You were okay with it, however...
  2176. >"Is everything alright?"
  2177. >Fluttershy certainly isn't okay with it, as concerned look her face shows you. Of course, she must've thought you're staying home today if you weren't out by your usual time.
  2178. "Yeah, I just overslept."
  2179. >"Staying up that late isn't very healthy, you know?"
  2180. "Huh?"
  2181. >"I saw light in your room late at night."
  2182. "Oh, I just forgot to- Wait, were you that late?"
  2183. >You almost expect another freak-out from Fluttershy, but she has an answer to that:
  2184. >"Some night animals woke me up. The poor fellas were cold so I let them in."
  2185. "Is it that cold? I don't feel it."
  2186. >"It was freezing in the night. Oh, by the way... Wait here, I have something for you."
  2187. >You watch the yellow pegasus cheerfully walk back into her house and soon she returns with a little porcelain pot that seems to be sealed by heavy fabric with a metal ring affixing it to the neck.
  2188. >"It's something I've been working on recently," she releases it over your hand.
  2189. >Compared to its modest size (no larger than your knuckle) it's fairly heavy and the fabric on its top feels completely solid. You'd have to tear it off to open this thing.
  2190. "Is it that remedy thing? What's it for?"
  2191. >"Timberwolf bites."
  2192. "Excuse me?"
  2193. >You faintly remember Fluttershy being alarmed at you asking about timberwolves the other day. She was making this all this time then.
  2194. >Well, it's been what, three days? God, you really are losing your sense of time these days.
  2195. >"If you get bitten, you have to pour it into the wound and also drink whatever is left. It should neutralize the timber rot."
  2196. "The what?"
  2197. >Whatever it is it doesn't sound pleasant.
  2198. >"The reason why timberwolves stink so badly. It's like tree sap, only poisonous to us ponies. Even if it's slow, it can do a lot of damage if it stays in your body."
  2199. "I see..."
  2200. >"This is an old recipe and I haven't prepared it in a while, but it should work just fine."
  2201. "Thank you, but I haven't really seen any of those wolves, ever."
  2202. >"Better safe than sorry. You did mention them and asked how to protect yourself from them."
  2203. "But I-"
  2204. >"Now, now, there's no harm in taking this with you, is it? Just in case."
  2205. >With a sigh you put the pot into your sack, much to Fluttershy's delight.
  2206. "Alright, thank you. But I told you, there's no reason to worry about it. Honestly."
  2207. >"I believe you."
  2208. >There's such a subtle note of mockery in Fluttershy's voice you almost miss it. Almost.
  2209. >The pony's smile does seem genuine though.
  2210. >"Be careful not to 'fall down' again, Anon."
  2211. >She turns around and goes back to her cottage, humming some melody. It takes you a considerable effort to tear yourself from a trance that sudden snarky remark has put you in.
  2212. >All of a sudden you realize you're probably not the smart, cunning guy you thought you are lying to this mare.
  2213. >As you step into the familiar forest, its coldness is nothing compared to how cold your spine still is.
  2214.  
  2215. >The deeper you go, the darker it gets.
  2216. >Ponyville's sunny weather doesn't affect the eternal enigma of the Everfree forest. It has its own rules.
  2217. >The very forest that brought you here, in Equestria, is something you wish you could challenge again.
  2218. >Alas, its secrets are kept well by the darkest thickets and twisted labyrinths of the ancient foliage.
  2219. >You haven't given up. But you've grown soft. Accepted your new reality. Your oath to find your way back has not been your priority for some time now.
  2220. >And these days you have your hands full. And the reason for that is, of course, the exile camp. The familiar clearing under leaden skies.
  2221. >It's going to rain at any moment.
  2222. >You hope that it will at least mask the odor of Fluttershy's medicine. You found out quickly that its minty aroma is persistent and threatens to stain everything near the vial.
  2223. >Seems like the seal on that thing isn't as hermetic as you initially assumed.
  2224. >Wouldn't it be funny if that smell ended up attracting some other dangerous animal or something?
  2225. >...
  2226. >You better hurry to the camp.
  2227. >From afar it seems pretty much the same as always. Well, you've been away for like a day, so why wouldn't it be.
  2228. >The fire is almost out, as far as you can tell. Pinkie and Rarity occupy the seats near it.
  2229. >One is bored, the other is looking at something in her hooves.
  2230. >Nothing has changed. It would be silly to expect something drastic. You wonder if Flutterbitch is here after her retreat that day.
  2231. >She probably came around during the night or something. You don't expect to reconcile with her or anything, but... It would be nice to just move past that. It wasn't very graceful of both of you to act the way you did.
  2232. >If she'd just go back to being passive-aggressive you'd be fine with that.
  2233. >But you can't see her anywhere at the camp. Pinkie and Rarity is all you get as a welcoming party and they only now notice your approach.
  2234. >"Huh? Is that Anon?" you hear Pinkie say to Rarity.
  2235. >"It is. It actually is!" the gray mare replies with growing excitement.
  2236. "Who else are you expecting?" you jokingly ask as you make your way to the fire.
  2237. >"Nopony, really," Pinkie says, positioning herself towards you. "Twilight said you won't be coming back."
  2238. "Why would she say that?"
  2239. >You think you know the answer, but it's a bit of a stretch.
  2240. >Someone else voices it for you, however. It's Rainbow Dash, landing near her tent after no doubt chilly nap.
  2241. >"We figured you won't be coming back after you've knocked Fluttershy out of the camp."
  2242. "I never-"
  2243. >"Oh, but we're glad you're back," Greedity says with glee.
  2244. >You already know why she's happy about it. All of her attention is on your sack as always. You bet she was waiting just for this moment. This is what you are here for, she probably thinks.
  2245. >"Who's back?"
  2246. >Applejack walks out of her tent, looking a bit groggy. You can't blame her for resting in this kind of depressing weather.
  2247. >"Anonymous?" Pinkie points at you.
  2248. >"What? He's been here the whole time! Heh, you girls must be going blind. No wonder, there's so much smoke in the skies."
  2249. "Smoke?"
  2250. >The liar points up above, to the low menacing clouds.
  2251. >"I've heard there's a volcano erupting somewhere up north. You can't even see the sun!"
  2252. "Heard? Who told you that?"
  2253. >"Uh, a pony who managed to escape a nearby village."
  2254. >"What pony?" Rarity's ears perk up even though she's not really listening, still looking patiently at your bag of goodies you brought just for her.
  2255. >"See?" AJ shakes her head. "They're all going blind from that smoke, they couldn't even see that pony."
  2256. "Alright, fair enough," you raise your palm, signaling Applejack to stop.
  2257. >The pony stops talking and decides that her job here is done. She intends to move past you when she walks to the campfire, but she chooses to do it so close to you that her side brushes against your leg as she moves by.
  2258. >You think you see a smile on her face as she goes.
  2259. >It's unusual to witness such a thing as happy Liarjack. At least something is made better by your presence here.
  2260. >"Yeah, I bet Twilight will be so happy," Rainbow rolls her eyes and gets closer to the fire, seeing how AJ is finally there to tend to it.
  2261. >You can only guess if Twilight is still angry after she kicked you out of her tent that day. You wouldn't be surprised.
  2262. "So, she just said that I won't come here anymore or what?"
  2263. >"Pretty much," the blue pegasus shrugs and wants to add something, but the gates to the main boss open up swiftly, as if the purple alicorn has been listening the whole time.
  2264. >"I never said that!" an angry face emerges from the darkness of the purple tent.
  2265. >Rainbow mumbles "Here we go", as if she was expecting exactly this outcome. Which means she just tried to misinform you on purpose.
  2266. >Is she training to be the next Fluttershy or something?
  2267. >Or it's just Twilight trying to backpedal on her statement. You'll found out soon enough either way.
  2268. "Hey, Twilight," you say nonchalantly. "I guess you weren't expecting me?"
  2269. >"That's not it, I just said that they shouldn't be surprised if you don't return here for the next few days."
  2270. >"Or ever, as you said," Dash adds.
  2271. >"Or ever," Twilight grunts, looking at the blue mare.
  2272. >"And that we should just forget about him," Pinkie utters in a weak voice, already feeling tired laying on the log again.
  2273. >Applejack isn't swift with rekindling. The mare is poking the embers with a stick and is suspiciously lost in her own thoughts. So Pinkie, having no source of heat near her, is extra mushy and feeble.
  2274. >"I didn't say that either!" Twilight defends herself.
  2275. "What did you say?"
  2276. >"Something different," she looks away.
  2277. "Really now?"
  2278. >She must be ashamed of her own words now that you're here. A hard lesson to learn, but valuable nonetheless.
  2279. >"I said that we should prepare ourselves to live without your help."
  2280. >So that's what was so hard to admit.
  2281. >The poor alicorn probably feels humiliated right now, admitting that you're actually needed at the camp.
  2282. >Actually, she's way into it, nearly blushing, at least trying to hide it with her head turned at an angle which might make it go unnoticed, so it's possible that she personally feels that way about you.
  2283. >You were helping her with reading after all. And no matter what she thinks, you do care about these ponies. And about her as well.
  2284. "Well, you can't rid of me that easily, so..."
  2285. >You try to laugh it off, but Twilight isn't amused. Then the pleasantries are over and it's time for you to get to your investigation going.
  2286. "Twilight, can I speak to you and Rarity in private?"
  2287. >The mare didn't expect such a question and her eyebrow is now raised in bewilderment. Rarity, on the other hand, doesn't want to question your request and is ready to go whenever your sack will lead her - as long as you finally give her something.
  2288. >The patience of this pony is something to be proud of. You've trained her well. Maybe she's ready to progress even further.
  2289. >Twilight sees Rarity's eagerness and finds herself cornered. If it something that concerns her, she might as well get it over with quickly.
  2290. >"Alright, come on in."
  2291. >She walks back into her tent and you follow her, together with Rarity close at your side.
  2292. >With the corner of your eye you see how both Applejack and Pinkie Pie both watch you closely as you go.
  2293. >You'll return to them later, but now is the time for business.
  2294. >Nothing has changed here in Twilight's abode. As you and Rarity take your place near her table, on the mattress, your gaze shifts from one thing to another, searching for books.
  2295. >"So, Anon, what is it?" Twilight inquires coldly.
  2296. >Right away she assumes you have some quarrel to be had with her and won't hesitate to get defensive.
  2297. "Just wanted to make sure if I got the message correctly, without others interrupting."
  2298. >"If this is about what I said, then it doesn't matter. Words are words."
  2299. "Until they're backed by actions."
  2300. >"Oh, aren't you such a delicate soul. Yes, I had to plan for us to move forward without you. Because I'm not stupid."
  2301. >She looks at Rarity as if she expects her to say something, but the greed pony is too busy drooling over your sack. You decide to finally give her your offering for today.
  2302. >"First of all, if something happens to you we must be able to operate on our own. Second of all, you might just ditch us for whatever reason."
  2303. "It's kind of mean of you to assume that."
  2304. >"Reality is mean. And I'm trying to be realistic here. Both of those things I've mentioned could've happened after Fluttershy attacked you."
  2305. "I told you I'll be back."
  2306. >"And if you were to change your mind I'd waste precious time hoping for you to return for naught. Are you really that stupid to not understand this?"
  2307. >Of course you do. It's just...
  2308. "I just thought you'd trust me more as an assistant, that's all."
  2309. >You look away, trying to focus on finding Rarity's item, but you see how Twilight looks to the side as well.
  2310. >"I..."
  2311. >Despite her explaining herself as a 'realist' here, you know how naive and idealistic she can be. These two stances of completely different origins clash so much that she looks like a bitter child who is making their first independent decisions.
  2312. >And if she completely missed the point you just brought up, well, she might just be.
  2313. >"I do trust you," she finally answers. "But I can't afford to constantly rely on you."
  2314. >Your fingers finally find the compass you've been looking for and you start pulling it out of the sack.
  2315. >But Greedity has her own plans, it seems. Her horn lights up as she sniffs the air.
  2316. >Twilight's voice sounds a lot more tame and warm now, and you feel sincerity in it:
  2317. >"Maybe I really was too quick to-"
  2318. >"Oooh!" Rarity's awe interrupts Twilight's heartfelt confession.
  2319. >The alicorn frowns when she hears that, but even more so when she notices Greedity pulling out a small vial out of your sack.
  2320. "No, Rarity, this isn't for you," you hastily clarify.
  2321. >"It is now!"
  2322. >The pony sniffs the lid and you only now realize how she even found this.
  2323. >"No, come on, Rarity!" Twilight takes your side in this. "This looks dangerous."
  2324. >"But it smells good."
  2325. >"Remember the last time you tried tasting some strange potion in a vial?"
  2326. "The last time?"
  2327. >"You were out cold the whole day," Twilight ignores your question. "I don't want to carry you back to your tent again every time you wake up only to fall down a minute later."
  2328. >That does make Rarity consider her decision one more time.
  2329. >"But I just wanted to make tea."
  2330. >"It wasn't tea, Rarity."
  2331. >"But it smelled like it."
  2332. >"Do you even know how tea smells like?" Twilight squints her eyes.
  2333. >"Just like that potion, to my knowledge."
  2334. "Wait, what is this all about?"
  2335. >The alicorn grunts yet again and points at Rarity.
  2336. >"She brought some potions in fancy vials with skulls on them from who knows where, and decided that it would be such a fun idea to try and boil and drink them without knowing what's actually there."
  2337. >"I thought it was tea!" Greedity whines, putting your remedy down at last.
  2338. >"Why did you even want tea so badly, you've never even tasted it!"
  2339. >"I just- I wanted to..."
  2340. >The greedy pony looks at you and mumbles something.
  2341. >"You probably wouldn't even like it," Twilight crosses her legs on her chest.
  2342. >You think you vaguely remember Rarity asking you about tea. Was it because of that?
  2343. >She asked you if you liked it. But... it can't be THAT, right?
  2344. >More importantly, 'fancy vials with skulls on them' isn't something you've ever encountered anywhere other in one peculiar hut deep in the Everfree.
  2345. "Wait, when was that again?"
  2346. >"A few days ago."
  2347. >You've got to be kidding.
  2348. "What have you done with the potions?"
  2349. >"I've confiscated them, of course" Twilight states. "Rarity won't try and brew them again. And I don't want new ones in this camp either!"
  2350. >Well, that's one mystery solved... Probably?
  2351. >"But it smells nice," Rarity is still keeping her hoof on the fabric that seals the remedy.
  2352. "Come on, Rarity. I have something different for you."
  2353. >You take out your gift compass and show it to the unimpressed mare.
  2354. >"I have this already."
  2355. "So? You have a lot of duplicate things, like brushes and quills."
  2356. >She humphs and turns her head to the side, swinging her perfectly styled mane at your face.
  2357. "Don't be picky now."
  2358. >"But it's..." she mutters to herself and you decide that it's finally the moment to try something new.
  2359. >Time to see if she puts any value in the one who provides all these items for her and not just the items themselves.
  2360. "Then maybe we can trade?"
  2361. >"Trade?" she almost looks shocked at such a proposition.
  2362. "Yeah, barter. Look, if you return the vial to me I'll throw in a little extra. Something like..." you frantically search the insides on your sack and finally take out something. "Like this!"
  2363. >Only then you look at what you've scooped up from the bottom.
  2364. >It's a box of matches in a thin wrap. It doesn't look pristine, but it's 'something'.
  2365. >Twilight shakes her head, knowing that giving Rarity something like this isn't safe at all, but you need this to work right now so you ignore it.
  2366. "You can have both of these if you give me back my medicine."
  2367. >"But..." Rarity doesn't look persuaded. "I can just take all three of these right now, you know."
  2368. "I won't bring you anything ever again if you do that."
  2369. >"Why?"
  2370. "Because... Because I won't trust you to not take everything else with it."
  2371. >She never took anything of yours as long as you bring her something and maybe that could convince her.
  2372. "But right now I trust you to make the right choice. The one that will keep our accord going. And two for one isn't that bad of a deal, right?"
  2373. >You smile at her, but deep inside you're trying to figure out what to do if she refuses. Losing Fluttershy's remedy doesn't sound like a very fun time.
  2374. >It's not like you're afraid that somehow you'll come across timberwolves. You've never had to worry about something like that without even knowing there's a danger of some deadly toxin.
  2375. >But still, giving it up feels wrong.
  2376. >On the other hand these ponies might need an asset like this as well. Even if they already have means to deter the beasts.
  2377. >In the end it all comes down to Rarity being willing to get past her compulsion. It's a choice between you and her nature. Desire to steal and your trust.
  2378. >Something that differentiates her from an animal.
  2379. >"Uhh..." she finally opens her mouth. "Well, alright, fine. I guess if you'll be back with more later it's better in the long run."
  2380. >Your smile turns into one of relief. Rarity wants to let you know that it was a hard decision for her, but the way she takes both of your very special items tells you that she's more than willing to cooperate like this.
  2381. >It does seem a bit harder for her to nudge the remedy vial back to you, but after she does that it doesn't look like she'd going to miss it.
  2382. >Both the compass and the matchbox are now in both her hooves and she's pretty satisfied with that, holding them close.
  2383. >Now that the test is over you swiftly put your medicine back where it belongs and change the subject:
  2384. "By the way, you look like you've put some effort into that mane."
  2385. >Twilight, who was completely disinterested this whole time (or at least made it seem that way) now perks up to see where you're going with this.
  2386. >Greedity chuckles and turns her head again, swaying her mane the other side.
  2387. >"I'm glad you noticed. It wasn't easy."
  2388. >The pony's eyes are shining when her inspired gaze crosses yours and you feel a bit of warmth pooling at the center of your chest.
  2389. >For a moment you're paralyzed by it, but it passes soon enough.
  2390. >You snap out of it, remembering that you're not saying this to compliment her.
  2391. "Someone else took notice of it too."
  2392. >"Really?"
  2393. "Yeah, back in Ponyville."
  2394. >Twilight's eyes go wide and she opens her mouth to counter your accusation, but Rarity, mellowed by your praise, answers first:
  2395. >"Oh, then it really was worth it. I used the brush you gave me before and-"
  2396. >"Rarity!" Twilight barks at her and the grey mare has to stop her explanation.
  2397. >"What is it, Twilight?"
  2398. >"We weren't supposed to talk about- Ugh, never mind."
  2399. >Seems like the gig is already up and you didn't even have to try much to make the suspects confess.
  2400. >Two cases in a row, solved and almost closed. Man, Shadow Spade has something to learn from you.
  2401. "You mean you wanted to hide it from me?" you turn to the alicorn who doesn't even look at you, forelegs still crossed. "It's kind of a big deal, don't you think?"
  2402. >Twilight sighs and turns to Rarity.
  2403. >"Anon, if you two are done I think you and I should discuss it in private."
  2404. "I think-"
  2405. >"Rarity, you should go now."
  2406. >"I thought Anon wanted to-"
  2407. >"You got what you wanted, can we talk now?" Twilight is getting more annoyed by the moment.
  2408. >Seeing how this is going down, you turn to Rarity and try to get between Twilight and her.
  2409. "Rarity, I'll talk to you later about it, alright? I want to hear all about your mane later."
  2410. >"I guess..." she looks at the entrance.
  2411. >You really don't want this to turn into another argument. Fluttershy was one thing, but Rarity doesn't need to participate in something like this.
  2412. >Twilight probably won't hesitate to verbally attack her just like that, going by her previous experience, and Rarity doesn't stand a chance, she's no yellow bully. A delicate mare like her won't hold that kind of banter.
  2413. >Well, delicate might be a strong word in this case, but still.
  2414. >"Fine, I'll see you later..." Rarity finally decides, and then adds a bit louder: "In MY tent."
  2415. >With that she sees herself out. Both of her new items float before her and she also makes sure to fling her mane to the side one more time for your amusement.
  2416. >She's such a spoiled kid. You feel dirty for enabling that sort of behavior.
  2417. >But at least you've now proven that she's not beyond redemption. And that means every pony here is like that. You just have to try enough.
  2418. >Right now you have a different matter at hand though. Twilight is looking at you, knowing what it's going to be about. And she's not happy about it, not one bit.
  2419.  
  2420. "So."
  2421. >"So," Meanlight repeats after you.
  2422. >Her grim gaze doesn't leave you as you travel back to the table. In turn, your stare goes back to the irrefutable evidences of the alicorn's crimes.
  2423. >And those aren't exactly hidden. Twilight's eyes dart to the obvious item that's right there, sitting on top of the stack of books in the corner.
  2424. "So..."
  2425. >You sit down at your usual place, taking the "Equestrian Wildlife and Its Hierarchy" in your hands.
  2426. >"Spit it out," Twilight barks impatiently. "I know already what you're going to say, just make it quick."
  2427. "Well, maybe I'll surprise you. No need to hurry."
  2428. >Twilight's whole face exhibits annoyance and at this point you're just doing this on purpose.
  2429. >Once you can't sustain your serious outlook anymore, you chuckle softly and shake your head.
  2430. "Alright, I'll bite. Why this book?"
  2431. >"That's not what you want to really ask."
  2432. "I am asking this though."
  2433. >"I'm sorry I hurt your precious human feelings with my totally vapid pragmatic attitude."
  2434. "I just want to know why did it have to be such an extremely specific book."
  2435. >After a brief pause Twilight graces you with an actual answer:
  2436. >"It's because of that thing about the monster, remember?"
  2437. "The Rainbow's one?"
  2438. >"Yes. I thought I'd look into it just in case. I got my book, but, of course, the weakest link wasn't me."
  2439. "It was her?"
  2440. >"Rainbow Dash couldn't answer any of my questions about the beast she has seen. I've asked her a few times and nearly all of the features she named were different each time."
  2441. >The pony's hooves massage her temples in attempt to relieve the taint of other's incompetence she still feels.
  2442. >"But still, it was educational, I guess. I never imagined there's so many dangerous creatures out there."
  2443. "I bet this forest is full of them."
  2444. >"Some are very territorial. Maybe I can even learn something from their behavior. Like how they deal with their packs or clans or whatever they have."
  2445. "I don't think you can take pointers for commanding actual ponies from there."
  2446. >"It's worth a try."
  2447. >Yeah, what an alpha predator she is.
  2448. >"Shame it doesn't describe any ways to defend from these monsters."
  2449. "You'll figure something out."
  2450. >"I guess, but that's Fluttershy's job, not mine."
  2451. "Is she even here? After, you know..."
  2452. >"Yeah, she's in her tent."
  2453. "Wait, really?"
  2454. >"Yep," Twilight nods and turns her head to the tent's entrance like she's expecting the yellow mare to take her cue and come in. "She doesn't stay for long though. Something keeps her busy out in the wild. Other than that she barely talks to us."
  2455. "Maybe I should go talk to her."
  2456. >"That's possibly the worst thing you could do."
  2457. "How so?"
  2458. >"I mean, she hit you once, she'll probably attack you the second you walk in."
  2459. "I don't think so, I mean, she-"
  2460. >Remembering Meanshy's face from back then you feel only regret. Aren't you the one who is supposed to guide them, make them the better selves?
  2461. >That means Flutterbitch too. Actually, it especially means her.
  2462. >"Hey, if you want to do it then I won't stop you," Twilight brings you back from your thoughts. "Don't blame me if you get kicked again."
  2463. "I guess."
  2464. >"If you're gonna try to talk sense to her, you better hurry. She has work to do. Without her no one is going to find that moss to burn. Even though I still don't know if it does anything, it's better to be safe than sorry."
  2465. "Let me guess, the book has nothing about that either."
  2466. >"Not a word. It does a great job explaining how dangerous timberwolves are though. I suspect this publication was created more to entice fear than to help understand how to gain an upper hoof against these creatures."
  2467. >That's an interesting observation. Twilight really did spend time reading through this.
  2468. "Can you actually understand what's written here with no problem?"
  2469. >"Not everything, no. But it's really simple. I can handle that level."
  2470. "Oh, by the way..."
  2471. >You just remembered you have books for her. Reaching your sack you find them with ease.
  2472. "Here you go."
  2473. >"You really did bring them, good job," Twilight nods in approval.
  2474. >Looking at both of your gifts, she smiles impishly.
  2475. >"Yes, these will do nicely."
  2476. "You already have one dictionary though, kinda wasteful."
  2477. >"That's-"
  2478. >She interrupts herself, reminded of her crime once again.
  2479. "Why did you have to send Rarity there?"
  2480. >Twilight doesn't answer, looking away and pretending to explore the cover of that book on magic.
  2481. "And, actually, how did you even find a way to Ponyville?"
  2482. >"Oh, that was easy," she puts the tome down. "I've been following you back there to learn the path."
  2483. "Really now?"
  2484. >The fact that Twilight understands why you're upset with her sending Rarity to steal and at the same time completely oblivious to the fact that spying on you is just as bad would be funny, if it wasn't that infuriating.
  2485. >And a bit scary. She's the kind of pony who would easily do anything if she believes that the result justifies it.
  2486. >"What about it? It's not like it's forbidden or anything."
  2487. >While it's true you still don't believe she just doesn't know any better.
  2488. "Twilight, you or any other pony of this camp can't afford to be seen in Ponyville."
  2489. >"I know, I was careful."
  2490. "Rarity wasn't, she was seen."
  2491. >"I know, that's regrettable."
  2492. "Twilight, you-"
  2493. >"What do you suppose I do about it right now? Go apologize to the ponies who saw her? Get real, Anon, it can't be helped at this point."
  2494. >It's hard to admit that she's kinda right about that.
  2495. >"Rarity was a lousy thief, I completely agree. I thought that it's her forte and I could rely on her, turns out I couldn't. I accept the blame for it, it was my own miscalculation."
  2496. "Can you just not go there anymore?"
  2497. >"I don't need anything at the moment so I don't intend to."
  2498. "Just ask me if you need to get something from there."
  2499. >"But I do, you were just out of question at the time."
  2500. "The hell I was!"
  2501. >That audible frustration in your voice makes Twilight back away a little.
  2502. >"I have already explained that to you. I had to make a decision and I made one. It's what I do."
  2503. >For a second you're locked in a staredown; Twilight is the first to break it.
  2504. >"It doesn't diminish your value here, alright? If that's what you're getting to. As you said, we can't really operate in Ponyville, so you're still our best hope for that place. Does that sound acceptable to you?"
  2505. "I guess. Just... Don't let yourselves be seen ever again."
  2506. >"With ponies like these lazy mules it would be kinda hard to manage."
  2507. "That's also your responsibility, right? Make it work."
  2508. >"I'm doing my best with the material I'm given," she rolls her eyes sarcastically.
  2509. "And if you fail that it will be on me to salvage, so try your best, please."
  2510. >Twilight doesn't take offense in your tone, but she gives you a stare of disbelief.
  2511. >"How would you be responsible?"
  2512. "I'd be the only one in the know, like with that Rarity incident."
  2513. >"Yes, but how does that make you responsible?"
  2514. "If things escalate I'll surely be found out and then interrogated. Hell, I'm risking it every day going here. I wonder if someone will eventually try to trail me here."
  2515. >The only pony who could possibly get that suspicious would probably be Fluttershy, now that you think about it.
  2516. >"I guess so."
  2517. "It's a miracle no one has discovered this place yet. Pegasi don't fly that far, I guess. And no one sees the smoke from the campfire..."
  2518. >"We try to be discreet about it."
  2519. >Or maybe ponies don't actually watch the forest at all. With their superstitious fears of it this isn't so far fetched.
  2520. >"Would ponies dislike us if they found out about us?"
  2521. "No idea. I don't even know who you really are, so they won't know either."
  2522. >Twilight looks down to the ground, thinking about it.
  2523. >"There's no place for us anywhere at this point in time. That's why we have to make our own."
  2524. >She nods to herself, reaffirming her doctrine to herself.
  2525. "But only Ponyville is an immediate danger to you since your counterparts all live there. Do you think any other village, especially small and remote, would care about you six?"
  2526. >"Sooner or later they would."
  2527. "Says who? Ponies aren't that suspicious. I bet if you put on an eyepatch and cover your cutiemark with a piece of paper or something, no pony in Equestria would be able to recognize you."
  2528. >"I don't know, they can't all be that stupid."
  2529. "Alright, but do you really need the whole Equestria? Make your own village or something?"
  2530. >"Anon, that wouldn't-"
  2531. "Or just a big house with enough rooms to live together."
  2532. >"Anon..."
  2533. "Even a couple of wagons to travel between places if you're afraid of-"
  2534. >"Anon!"
  2535. >She finally stops you and shakes her head.
  2536. >"It's not a matter of living somewhere far away, it's a matter of not living like exiles, in constant fear. The only way to achieve that is to be the ones in charge."
  2537. "By that you mean yourself."
  2538. >"Who else would be able to do it?"
  2539. "Right. Because no one else here even wants to rule anything."
  2540. >"And so you're repeating Fluttershy's horseapples. Congratulations."
  2541. >Silence befalls both of you, who are unwilling to continue this conversation in that manner. You may think that Twilight's worries aren't warranted, but she thinks otherwise. At this point arguing about it would be just milling the rhetorical wind.
  2542. >Twilight gives it a thought and then asks:
  2543. >"What do you think Twilight would do to me? If she found out about me and my plans?"
  2544. >That came out of nowhere. You have to spend a few seconds in search for a response.
  2545. "I... I don't really know. She's known to forgive ponies no matter their crimes. And you haven't even done anything that bad."
  2546. >"Well, isn't that just perfect."
  2547. >Twilight takes the book about magic you brought and tries to show how little she cares by pretending she's reading it. But she's not fooling anyone but herself.
  2548. >And you won't call her out on it just yet, even if the hint is so obvious it's ludicrous how she missed it.
  2549. >But Meanlight's defensive reaction isn't enough for you to stop going on about the princess of friendship.
  2550. "She's a kind pony, considerate and helpful. Always tries to listen and find a solution. I can't imagine her doing anything bad to you."
  2551. >"She sounds just fantastic. Isn't she the best."
  2552. >You swear to god, you really tried your hardest to hide your grin, but you are but a man, and each man has his limits. Thankfully, Meanlight isn't watching your struggle, she's too busy looking away from you and scrunching her muzzle in frustration behind that book.
  2553. >It would be so easy to nag her a bit right now, but you decide to appeal to reason.
  2554. "You can imagine anything you wish but I learned this first-hand. Twilight was the one who helped me secure my place in this world. Without such basic things as a roof above my head, food and her attention I couldn't have had it nearly as good as I do now."
  2555. >Meanlight's ears flicker backwards a little bit and she relaxes, finding something to relate to in your story.
  2556. "That's why I'm sure she of all ponies would understand the situation you're in right now."
  2557. >"I'm not giving myself up to her if that's what you're trying to say here."
  2558. >That's not what you're saying at all. But it's in this moment that exact thought crosses your mind.
  2559. >If Twilight hesitates too much, winter will outright kill these ponies. And even if she remains adamant about her motives, others might not share her bravado.
  2560. >You hope it won't come down to making a deal with them behind her back. Sounds like deserting a battle.
  2561. >But if the battle is hopeless right from the start...
  2562. >That's what Twilight is trying to prove wrong though. She won't forgive you for this and you'll destroy what semblance of trust she has for others.
  2563. >If you are to convince these ponies to just give up and get to Ponyville or any other settlement where they can at the very least not freeze and starve to death, it's gotta be all six, no exceptions.
  2564. "I'm not suggesting anything other than being rational."
  2565. >"Alright. Whatever."
  2566. >She concedes without a struggle now and hides her face behind the book once more. But this is as far as you're willing to go with this.
  2567. "Twilight?"
  2568. >"Yeah?"
  2569. >You reach out to her and put your finger on top of her book to pull it towards you, revealing the mare's confused face.
  2570. "You're holding it upside down."
  2571. >Flustered, the mare immediately flips the book with magic. She can't see your smug smirk behind her wall of shame she retreats behind once again.
  2572. >For some time you sit in quiet, but Twilight lowers her defenses soon enough, hint of red still on her cheeks.
  2573. >"Can you read that first book some more?" she asks you, still on edge.
  2574. >Her hoof points at your good old relationship book. It's under the rest of Twilight's collection and you feel kinda proud.
  2575. >Started with something so small and now this little mare is reading on her own.
  2576. >No matter what you can't deny your influence on her. You hope it's going to be enough to sway her opinions before it's too late.
  2577. "You can read it on your own now, can't you?"
  2578. >The alicorn smiles and slides the book from under the stack to give it to you.
  2579. >"I can, but I still make mistakes, don't know big complicated words and can't read as fast as you."
  2580. >As you open the book she adds:
  2581. >"Besides, this one's on you. So you've gotta finish it."
  2582. >That sentiment makes you smile. Interesting how Twilight sees it as some kind of a tradition now. She hasn't touched the book in your absence either.
  2583. "Sounds good to me."
  2584. >You try to remember where you left off, but once you start reading it comes back to you.
  2585. >It kinda feels good to do it again. Just simple reading together with no worries about anything.
  2586. >Almost feels cozy enough to forget about everything that is bound to change everything about this camp if Twilight allows things to drift the way they are now.
  2587. >And Twilight seems to feel the same way, getting lost in calming sound of your monotone reading.
  2588. >It's like meditation for her, so maybe that's the feeling she's after.
  2589. >Maybe you'll read some other books for her later. Like Twilight's friendship journal so she can actually understand what you meant without getting mad.
  2590.  
  2591. >You left off on a chapter fairly relevant to Meanlight's interests, so she's all ears now.
  2592. >Sitting at her table with a thoughtful expression, she listens to you patiently.
  2593. >A nice change of pace from being kicked out of her tent because you said something she doesn't like.
  2594. >Seeing how she handled the previous conversation it could be that she's a bit more resilient now. Maybe your absence has cooled her off a little bit.
  2595. >But now you're reading about influence and that's something she definitely wants to hear.
  2596. >Chad writes about one simple thing: without a doubt, your friends are what influences you the most. From peer pressure to friendly advice, to criticism.
  2597. >While the book doesn't touch on friendly criticism much, it does explain how your entire lifestyle can change when you have a lot of different friends (which you should have, of course).
  2598. >What about your significant other? Well, it's also covered in the book:
  2599. >'In times when your special somepony gives you a chance to compromise, take it. It's easy to see an opportunity to control them and assertively force your point of view onto them, but in the long run this may bring disharmony into your relationship.'
  2600. >'Instead, influence them by suggestions, make them see why you uphold your stance on the matter. If you really want to be in control, there has to be compromise first; taking control by force is different from letting them give you the reigns when they are willing to do so. You want them to want your control.'
  2601. >Twilight is absorbing the information and you can only imagine how she applies it to the context of her situation out here in the woods.
  2602. >It doesn't help that all the practical examples barely matter here: Twilight probably never imagines herself arguing about which restaurant to go to tonight with her special somepony. For obvious reasons.
  2603. >Or if they should take a walk in the park instead of going to the bar. Or if they should visit a resort instead of spending time sightseeing.
  2604. >All of those are minor examples of how both ponies can have a completely different approach to spending time together, and ultimately the outcome is decided either by compromise or by force.
  2605. >And all of that straight up doesn't matter to Meanlight. But for some reason she seems to be captivated by such a premise.
  2606. >Her face shows intense concentration all the way through. Finally, when you finish the chapter, she speaks up.
  2607. >"You know, that book about animals had information on this too."
  2608. "What do you mean?"
  2609. >"As I said earlier, a lot of them are territorial. There's a leader in their ranks who dictates what his subordinates do."
  2610. "Well, that's not uncommon in nature."
  2611. >"Exactly. But how do they keep that status? How do they make everyone do what is needed?"
  2612. "I don't think they have thoughts like this, they're animals. I guess they respect strength?"
  2613. >Twilight doesn't answer your rhetorical question and goes on about her own research:
  2614. >"They also form alliances with other strong ones in the pack. They control all the good things. For example, they get to pick their mate, they get to set the rules of who gets the best food and so on, and everyone has to follow."
  2615. >It's a bit specific, but then again, the book she was reading was somewhat about hierarchy. It was on the cover after all.
  2616. >"I thought about ways to apply that here," Twilight sighs and mutters: "I mean, some of these ponies aren't that far from wild animals..."
  2617. >That makes you chuckle. You're in no position to argue that point, you've been training Rarity like your little pet.
  2618. >Which reminds you that you should go see her soon. She said it was fine last time so she might refuse now too, but you feel like spending time with her would be beneficial in the long run.
  2619. "So you just want to dictate what everyone does here?"
  2620. >"I want to show them that it is in their best interest to help me, because I'm doing things that would help us achieve our shared goal. The problem is, with how short-sighted they are it's hard to convince them there's life to be had beyond this forest."
  2621. >That kind of approach might be a bit totalitarian, but she is somewhat correct about her comrades.
  2622. >"I can't even appeal to their desire for a better life - if there even is one in them, they sure don't want to work for it."
  2623. "I dunno, Applejack seems pretty hard-working to me."
  2624. >"She is, when immediate survival is concerned. Even Fluttershy helps with that. But as soon as the bigger picture comes into play they act like it's none of their business."
  2625. >On one hand, it's not their fault. You think Twilight is indeed overthinking it. But at the same time the lack of ambition and direction in life can't be good for anyone.
  2626. "You know, I can kind of get how they feel."
  2627. >"Oh, you do," Twilight winces.
  2628. >Though her expression softens when she hears what you have to say.
  2629. "I was pretty much the same when I first got here. Like, what do I even do? Aside from bare necessities, what do I need here? You know?"
  2630. >"I guess. But it's different now, right?"
  2631. "Yeah. I found something I like to do and I have friends now. Someone who wants me here."
  2632. >You think about both Twilight and Fluttershy and try to evaluate your statement. You're pretty sure they do count as friend to you.
  2633. >At least you count them as such.
  2634. >Meanlight watches you ponder this situation and then asks calmly:
  2635. >"You know, you've never really told me the whole story. How you got here. Maybe your example could help me find a way to make things work for us?"
  2636. >You know she's not really interested in the story itself. But you do think that your situation is somewhat similar.
  2637. "I'll share it some day then."
  2638. >Something tells you that this is something everyone here would want to hear, so you're compelled to withhold it for now.
  2639. >Twilight doesn't argue, but she does look like she was expecting something personal out of you.
  2640. >"Oh, alright. I guess we can talk about it later."
  2641. "Yeah. Uh, hey, I'm done with a chapter so I'll go out for a while, okay? I promised Rarity I'll visit."
  2642. >This makes the alicorn look even more disappointed than before.
  2643. >"Alright, I'll just read that book about spells or something."
  2644. "Great, call for me if you need anything."
  2645. >With that you take your make your way to the exit. Leaving the moderately warm tent you shudder at the murky and cold ambiance of the camp. There's not a single soul around.
  2646. >Even Pinkie is away somewhere, probably in her own tent.
  2647. >A silly thought crosses your mind when you look at Fluttershy's tent; one of those things that'd be impossible for you to make yourself execute. Even if you want to make amends, there's no way you'd actually go there and talk to her right now.
  2648. >So your path lies straight to Rarity's tent. The castle of unfathomable riches stands proud, rivaling Twilight's tent in size.
  2649. >Unlike the alicorn's abode, this one seems too small for the mare that inhabits it, as you realize soon after you excuse yourself in.
  2650. >Not before calling Rarity from the outside first, of course. The greedy mare sounds excited about your arrival so you don't hesitate to come inside.
  2651. >You've never been here after Greedity settled in, so the sight takes you aback at first.
  2652. >Even if you've expected a massive junk pile, this is something of grotesque origins for sure. At least it smells kinda pleasant, something earthy and flowery is in the air.
  2653. >The enormous pile that's barely contained by the walls of the tent leaves barely any space for the mare herself to live. Her own mattress is situated right at the entrance since the rest of the space is occupied.
  2654. >It's actually quite impressive. Real Rarity is such a high maintenance mare, and here you have someone who sacrifices every bit of convenience to her passion.
  2655. >Only it's not really passion, it's addiction and obsession, and she lives like that not because it's her actual choice, she just can't live any other way.
  2656. >What a pitiful little creature she is. And then you have the mare herself, sitting on her improvised bed, leaning on the pile of trash and holding the brush you've given her recently.
  2657. >Her eyes are on you and she looks like this is the best thing that has happened to her this whole day.
  2658. >"Anonymous, I'm so glad you came by!"
  2659. "I did promise I would."
  2660. >"Indeed. Have a seat."
  2661. >She doesn't even move on her mattress, so you awkwardly seat yourself on the edge, trying to not get too close and personal to the mare.
  2662. >Silence befalls you both and you wonder what are you even here.
  2663. >She wanted to talk to you? You think it was something like that.
  2664. "So, Rarity..."
  2665. >"Oh," she snaps out of her silent state. "You wanted to hear about the mane if I'm not mistaken?"
  2666. "Yeah, that's it."
  2667. >You'll take anything other than awkwardly sitting so close with her. Something about that felt uncomfortable.
  2668. >"Well, I have some wonderful things here. Of course the comb is the centerpiece of-"
  2669. >Immediately your brain just shuts itself down. You're pretty sure it's a defense mechanism that's on par with self-preservation, to prevent any harm that girl-talk could bring to your fragile mind.
  2670. >But as you watch Rarity showing you her different tools, you at least comprehend why you feel so uncomfortable near her.
  2671. >You finally realize that it is, in fact, Rarity.
  2672. >Maybe she's a clone. Maybe her colors are off, maybe she's completely different on the inside.
  2673. >But it's so easy to pretend. Especially when she chirps about her self-care. Just like actual Rarity.
  2674. >Even without closing your eyes you can pretend that you're with real Rarity right now. Talking to her like a friend. Sitting so close to her. Being the center of her attention.
  2675. >But such daydreams are purged from your head once Greedity pulls you back on Earth by shoving in your face a vial of something so aromatic it could bring a spirit back into a dead body with its colorful floral bloom fragrance.
  2676. >"It's a very special gel I borrowed from that striped mare I got my tea from. It's so good on my mane, it was definitely made just for me."
  2677. >If she considered those failed potions 'tea', you don't want to know what this 'gel' is actually supposed to be. Hope you won't die just by inhaling that substance.
  2678. "Oh, right," you remember now. "I wanted to talk to you about that too."
  2679. >"Yes, go ahead."
  2680. >Greedity seems to be finished with her demonstration and has no problem with you talking about your issues.
  2681. "I don't think it's good for you to steal from her."
  2682. >"Oh, don't worry, after that tea incident I think so too. Even though she has so many wonderful things she brings to a remote spot every few days."
  2683. "You mean her failed potions?"
  2684. >"Well, I'm not quite sure what the terminology is, but I only ever took things she herself has given to the forest."
  2685. "Right... And Ponyville?"
  2686. >"It was Twilight's idea," the pony pouts. "She knows that place is a no-go."
  2687. >You're surprised she understands something like this - it would require an actual concept of restraint. But Rarity confirms to you that you really are too hopeful.
  2688. >"I mean, there's so many things that should belong to me, I can't even decide on what to take first!"
  2689. "Yeah, what a problem..."
  2690. >"And then she asks me to take just two books and nothing else! How cruel."
  2691. "M-hm."
  2692. >Greedity puts her things back into the pile and turns to you. She has no distractions now and can focus on the conversation fully, and it shows: her eyes are glued to you.
  2693. >"I do want to visit some other day, but on my own."
  2694. "Well, don't. It will end badly for you."
  2695. >"Why?"
  2696. "You'll get in trouble and you'll get others in trouble."
  2697. >"Others?"
  2698. "Me, for example. Actual Rarity."
  2699. >"Actual... Rarity?"
  2700. "In short, you should just stick to avoiding Ponyville."
  2701. >"But it has so many things I need."
  2702. "I can bring you something specific if you want."
  2703. >"I... I'll just go take it myself."
  2704. "Why can't I do it?"
  2705. >Rarity pouts even more.
  2706. >"Because... There are reasons, alright?"
  2707. "I'll keep it a secret, don't worry. Is something bothering you when I offer help?"
  2708. >"I just don't want you to bring it to me."
  2709. "And that's because?"
  2710. >"Because," she frowns and looks away. "Then it would be a gift, not something that's actually mine."
  2711. "What? Gifts are yours. I'm not taking them away."
  2712. >"You're just going to try and barter again!"
  2713. "That's just for something that's valuable to me."
  2714. >"Well, some things are valuable to me too."
  2715. "Most of the things."
  2716. >"Yes, most of them. So I want them to be mine."
  2717. >You can just ask why, but deep inside you know she's not going to give you any reasonable explanation.
  2718. "So I'm better off not bringing you anything?"
  2719. >"No, I didn't say it. Bring things to me."
  2720. >Greedity suddenly moves closer.
  2721. >"Lots of things."
  2722. >She leans in and her side touches your arm. With eyes wide open you see her moving even closer, rubbing herself against your arm when moving forward.
  2723. >The heat emanating from her and the softness of her coat makes you panic but all you can do is look Greedity in the eyes.
  2724. >"All the things."
  2725. >Her dopey smile and trembling eyes freak you out enough for you to get yourself away from the frenzied mare.
  2726. "Alright, fine!" you jump up, leaving Greedity alone on her bed. "I'll get something for you tomorrow, okay? I'll go get some fresh air for now."
  2727. >You exit the tent swiftly before getting a reply and first move away from it until you're sure you're safe, and only then try to calm yourself down.
  2728. >"Anon, everything alright?" you hear a familiar voice nearby.
  2729. >At the mostly cold campfire Applejack is sitting with her stick, still poking the embers.
  2730.  
  2731. >The sight of the lonely earth pony at a dying fire surrounded by the dreary forest was kind of depressing.
  2732. "I'm fine, what about you?"
  2733. >Appleliar grimaces like she's thinking real hard, then nods a few times:
  2734. >"Never been better."
  2735. >Of course. Why would you expect anything else from this pony?
  2736. >With no motivation left to ask further questions, you instead walk up to the lier mare and sit next to her on the log.
  2737. >She doesn't react in any obvious way, but after almost a minute of sitting next to her and looking at heated embers in silence, you notice with your peripheral vision that Applejack sometimes flings a sneaky gaze at you.
  2738. >It's fine with you either way, the gentle heat from the fire is calming and the embers feel relaxing to look at. All is well until Applejack makes a daring move to approach you.
  2739. >Just one squeeze. She looks to the side and tries to hide it as just shuffling in place. But for anyone but her it's quite obvious that she did move towards you.
  2740. >Part of you is naturally curious about her intentions and against your will you turn your head to face the mare. She faces towards you as well, with a bit of a surprised expression.
  2741. >"What?" she asks nonchalantly.
  2742. "Nothing, why?" you play it cool.
  2743. >"Alright then."
  2744. >Silence is restored one more time as you both look back to the faded campfire.
  2745. >Then another slide. A mere inch towards you.
  2746. "Hey, Applejack," you utter without turning to her this time.
  2747. >"Huh?"
  2748. "How do you suppose you'll protect the fires from rain?"
  2749. >"What rain?"
  2750. "It's gonna pour hard one of these days, maybe even today. You better prepare for it."
  2751. >"I'm pretty sure it's gonna be fine. It doesn't rain in this kinda forest."
  2752. "Oh, really?"
  2753. >"Yep. This here is the kind of forest that's so tall that the rain clouds get stuck on the trees and never actually enter the forest."
  2754. "What kind of forest does that?"
  2755. >"You know how there are rain forests? This isn't one. That's the big difference."
  2756. "Oh, I see. You still have all the dry wood in your tent, right?"
  2757. >"Nah, I got rid of it."
  2758. >You won't even bother rolling your eyes. You're quite sure that you've seen this pony stacking wood in there, just like she did when the camp was first erected.
  2759. >Applejack's tent is not unlike Rarity's in this sense; only she tries to keep things that might prove useful in there, not every single thing she has in her sight.
  2760. >"I'm collecting decorative things now," the mare boasts proudly.
  2761. "That's interesting, like what?"
  2762. >"Like, uh, little trinkets, post marks, bottle caps."
  2763. "Can I see it?"
  2764. >"No, you can't," Applejack's eyes dart from side to side in search for an excuse. "It's, uh, too dirty in there... And I'm renovating the whole thing anyway."
  2765. "Well, I'd certainly like to see it some day," you smirk at her.
  2766. >"Oh? Yer looking for an excuse to sneak in, aren't you?" her voice is oozing with sass.
  2767. "That's-"
  2768. >The smug is too much.
  2769. >"How naughty of ya, but I can admire your straightforwrar- strai- how blunt you are. Heh."
  2770. >Maybe she wanted to act smug but her mess of words turned the tables on her.
  2771. >You can't say you weren't taken by surprise by the little pony's straightforwardness, but seeing such an opportunity to reverse the situation you can't help yourself.
  2772. "What's the matter, AJ, too flustered to even speak straight?"
  2773. >"N-no, I just think I, umm, I need to go get some more wood as you said. Yeah, I'll see you later."
  2774. >Wasting no time she jumps off the bench and almost gallops away, turning at the first tree so that you can't see her any longer.
  2775. >You shrug it off with a smug smile. Like a kid who tries too hard to trip someone and instead just loses balance, Applejack played herself.
  2776. >She was quick to admit defeat, but her attempt was pretty brash. It does seem strange for her to try something like this though.
  2777. >It doesn't suit her. Too obvious and...vulgar. So you're pretty sure she's just trying to mess with you, nothing more.
  2778. >After all, it's what she does in life.
  2779. >And, to your satisfaction, her plan got foiled by her own mistake.
  2780. >Now that Applejack is gone, you're sitting here alone with nothing to do. Poking the embers doesn't seem too fun of an activity at the moment, so it's up for your trusty old lounge chair to save the day.
  2781. >Unfortunately, you soon find that it's too cold to sit on. Your trip to the lake, however short, was for nothing. You can't deal with it.
  2782. >And the lake itself seems so unfriendly now. Reflecting the low rain clouds it has nothing in store for you but coldness.
  2783. >It sure feels like it's autumn already.
  2784. >To sit here comfortably you'll need a big blanket. You don't have anything like that in your house, certainly not one you can just bring here and leave with these ponies.
  2785. >That means you're going to have to either think of something else, or just buy one.
  2786. >As you return to the campfire you come to conclusion that it would be nice to buy some real tea for these ponies. Now that it's so cold outside it's going to be just the thing for them.
  2787. >So that's more things to buy.
  2788. >And then you think how you don't have anything to go with that tea.
  2789. >So that's even more things to buy.
  2790. >You're not sure if you have this much money to blow on a whim. Even with your monthly compensation being fairly generous, the mid-month payment isn't due until the next week.
  2791. >It doesn't help that these weeks are getting rather crazy with these insane lunatic mares and it feel like you've been here for months already.
  2792. >With a sigh you take your seat on the wooden bench. Maybe you should just go back to Meanlight and continue with reading. Or even discuss something again.
  2793. >Preferably something that won't get you kicked out of her tent.
  2794. >It's hard to find a topic like that though, isn't it? Mostly because everything that alicorn is thinking about revolves around her ambition and the camp.
  2795. >You can't even remember having a 'regular' conversation with her.
  2796. >It's a bit sad, really. Maybe that pony needs a distraction?
  2797. >The next moment you find out that the one who's been distracted was you. Never expecting a voice from behind you jump up, surprised.
  2798. >"Oh look, he actually came back. How brave!"
  2799. "Fluttershy?"
  2800. >Before you even turn around to face the unexpected visitor, your head suddenly gets pushed down and almost collides with your knees.
  2801. >You weren't ready for such a forceful intrusion and it almost costs you. But it doesn't end with a shove.
  2802. >While you try to regain your balance a light bonk on the back of your hand indicates a rather tame smack across it with a hoof.
  2803. >And a devious snicker that rings in your ears follows it right away.
  2804. >"Couldn't stay away from getting your daily punishment? Being a masochistic freak just completes your pathetic image, you worthless-"
  2805. >She was clearly ready for your retaliation: the back of your hand connects with nothing, flying right before the pony's nose.
  2806. >Her smile never wanes through all of it.
  2807. >"Do you think I'd make the same mistake twice?"
  2808. >By the time you swing your arm back, the yellow bully is already high up in the air, distancing herself from you just enough.
  2809. "And you just can't resist the thrill of getting into a fight you might not win."
  2810. >You try to match her smugness with your own, but you're not sure if you're successful. She can't afford to show weakness right now even if it does get under her skin.
  2811. "I guess you're just as much of a freak as I am."
  2812. >"That title is yours alone, bonehead monkey."
  2813. "Well then stop trying to compete for it and crawl back to your tent, you oversized pigeon."
  2814. >In a single moment the pony rushes towards you, but you are prepared now. This time you swing right at her.
  2815. >But, in turn, Fluttershy is ready for this just as well - her mouth opens and she aims to dodge the punch and instead bite your hand.
  2816. >Alas, too slow, you see through her reckless plan and your motion curves to the side, making the pony fly over your head.
  2817. >When you turn to face her, your eyes meet yet again; both of you are frozen in a strange stalemate created by the masterful multi-layered mind games of two brilliant fighters.
  2818. >She's more smart about her attacks, but you're not giving up that easily.
  2819. >This could escalate swiftly and you have no desire to deal with it right now. Thankfully, neither does she, by the looks of it.
  2820. >She squints her eyes menacingly but relaxes in the air. Without saying a word, she flied over your head again, but this time just to continue with whatever she wanted to do before seeing you.
  2821. >This shit won't ever end, will it?
  2822. >Getting lost in thoughts about that you to poke the almost cold embers with a stick once you make sure that your tormentor is gone for good.
  2823. >It's not that bad, poking a pile of embers. Almost like a meditation, really. Applejack sure knows how to relax.
  2824. >At the same time you realize how utterly pitiful this is.
  2825. >Maybe you should just get out of here. You still need to but things for tomorrow and it doesn't look like this camp is getting any less depressing any time soon.
  2826. >At the very least there's nothing to do here for you.
  2827. >Before you go, one last thing interrupts you.
  2828. >Rarity is walking towards you, leaving her tent in haste. She sees you getting ready to walk and trots right in your path so you absolutely have to stop.
  2829. "Hey, I'm already going, see you tomorrow!" you try to disengage as soon as possible.
  2830. >"Wait up, I wanted to ask you something!"
  2831. "Rarity, I'm kind of in a hurry..."
  2832. >"What did you mean by 'actual Rarity?'"
  2833. >Oh god, is she trying to be a smartass now of all times? You can barely even remember why you mentioned it at all.
  2834. "Exactly that, why?"
  2835. >"But... I'm Rarity. Am I not?"
  2836. "I guess you are."
  2837. >"What did you mean by the 'actual' one? Is there somepony like me out there?"
  2838. "Well, you know how there's-"
  2839. >Wait.
  2840. >Something isn't right here.
  2841. >The look in her eyes clearly read concern and distress. She is aching for an explanation.
  2842. >But you're pretty sure she knows. She should know by now. Right?
  2843. >With intense concentration you try to remember if this pony could've heard that they have their counterparts in Ponyville. But, to your surprise and dismay, you can't recall anything of the sort.
  2844. >Soon you come to conclusion that somehow all of your discussion on that subject was with Twilight. You couldn't have missed something that important. But you guess you did, if Rarity is completely oblivious to that fact. If she's not just playing dumb, that is.
  2845. >Even the party snacks, only Twilight knew where exactly they came from, not just vaguely 'from Ponyville'.
  2846. >Looking at Rarity now you see her in a completely new light. Maybe she really has no idea who she is.
  2847. >Maybe none of them does.
  2848. >Or maybe those who do can't believe it or can't accept it.
  2849. "I... It's a common expression in Ponyville. I know it seems strange but it's just local thing."
  2850. >Rarity doesn't seem like she's buying it, but she cautiously decides to let it slide.
  2851. >"What does it mean then?"
  2852. "It's a- It's a very long story and I've gotta go, I have to get you something very special for tomorrow, remember?"
  2853. >"For me?"
  2854. >It's so relieving to see how easy it is to shift this absurd mare's attention to something else. Right now you're grateful for her mental disorder.
  2855. "Yeah, for you and all of your friends. But I have to go now in order to get it in time, so I'll see you later, bye."
  2856. >"So long, Anon!"
  2857. >Happy that you've managed to walk away with no scandal on your hands, you almost run back to Ponyville.
  2858. >Another pleasant thing that you take note of is that there seems to be no one watching you this time.
  2859. >It's still hard to believe that it was Twilight this whole time. The feeling was way stranger than that. You're not buying it, it had to be something else.
  2860. >But right now it's good that nothing is here to oppress your mind with even more problems.
  2861. >Same old greetings from Fluttershy are there to welcome you back once you step out of the forest. Even if you feel uneasy, she doesn't seem to notice it.
  2862. >You are aware that she probably notices everything, as she herself hinted, but if she prefers to be quiet about it, then you're fine with it.
  2863. >There are other things for you to worry about. Like counting the bits you can spend on stuff.
  2864. >Who knows if you're making a worthwhile investment. Your shopping list as of now consists of lots of tea, cupcakes and a warm blanket. You're not taking any one of yours to the camp. Those are either hand-picked for their special purpose, or gifts from citizens of Ponyville.
  2865. >Before you go out to do your shopping, you check your closet, just to be sure. There you find your trusty lumber axe.
  2866. >You know, just for some wood cutting.
  2867. >There's a suspicion that those ponies are just using whatever wood they find on the ground to burn. So when it starts raining, it would be a good idea to cut some for drying purposes.
  2868. >So you're gonna get that little axe with you. Just for that.
  2869. >Of course, it could also be used as a weapon against some wild animals made of wood. But you don't worry about those. Not at all.
  2870. >To be honest, you're more worried about Rarity trying to steal it.
  2871. >You sigh, already picturing that in your head. You better get this pony something better to catch her attention. Something shiny and sparkly. And preferably something not that expensive.
  2872.  
  2873. >It was inevitable and you have been preparing for it, but that doesn't mean that you're happy with it. The rain catches you right as you take a hike down to the Mean pony camp the next morning.
  2874. >Not just rain, savage winds are teaming up with it to blast your face with disgustingly cold water.
  2875. >Massive trees that guard the path sides are creaking and moaning, standing tall against nature's relentless assault. You sometimes struggle to catch your breath, but try to keep up the pace even with your raincoat's hood flapping about and barely guarding your skin from the elements.
  2876. >The sack on your back is certainly bigger than usual, with two boxes of packaged tea and two boxes of cupcakes. At least it's not that heavy. The blanket that you carry rolled on top of it is adding some weight though.
  2877. >So does your axe, hanging on your belt strap, slapping your leg with every second step you take.
  2878. >Just a modest camping axe bought for an equally modest price with your initial funds when you first started your job. Back then you thought you'd actually use it to combat the wilderness and hostile lifeforms alike, since ponies described the Everfree to you like some hazardous jungle or a deadly maze.
  2879. >Not the first time you've come across ponies being superstitious, with all the rumors about you that were circulating around the town at that time; most certainly not the last.
  2880. >Of course, it turned out the forest isn't unfriendly at all. While your whole job is associated with extreme danger, you're free to take things as easy as you wish.
  2881. >But you still decided to take the axe today. Even if you won't need your tool for anything in the camp, it's better to be safe than sorry.
  2882. >And the camp itself is dead silent. It also definitely took a beating from the brutal weather.
  2883. >On top of the campfire lies a big piece of fabric. Judging by the fact that there are four sticks next to it, this used to be a sort of a tent over it to prevent rain from getting to whatever was left of the wood and embers.
  2884. >The wind has destroyed this construction and now it threatens to take the cover away with it. It doesn't look like it lies safely on the ground so first thing you do is put the sticks at it sides, and then a few stones from whatever is left of the fire pit as well.
  2885. >That outta do it. For a few seconds you stand surrounded by the closed tents flopping on the wind. What a sad sight.
  2886. >Ponies are probably really cold in their flimsy soaked wet shelters. The only home they have. They probably realize by now how utterly fragile their settlement really is, one step from comfort to complete devastation.
  2887. >There's no reason for you to stay outside too and without giving it too much thought you approach Twilight's tent.
  2888. >After all, she's pretty much the only pony here you can spend more than ten minutes with and not go insane in the process.
  2889. "Twilight? Are you in there?" you announce your presence at the entrance.
  2890. >"Anon?" you hear after a few seconds of silence. "Is that you?"
  2891. >Nodding to yourself you push the fabric aside and walk in.
  2892. >Twilight is on the bed, covered by her thin blanket. She has a book in her hooves and her lamp is dimly illuminating the scene.
  2893. >Even without that light you can clearly see: the book she holds is the friendship journal.
  2894. >Naturally, she notices your stare and swiftly puts the book aside, not before inserting her bookmark though.
  2895. >You're too busy unbuttoning your coat to even make a snide remark about that.
  2896. "It's hell out there, how are you holding up?"
  2897. >The hood slides down from your head and you breathe in, freed from the tightness of you waterproof attire.
  2898. >"It's cold," Twilight mumbles while watching you closely.
  2899. "I hope you don't mind me putting this here."
  2900. >Twilight just shrugs in response so you go ahead.
  2901. "You seem a bit down today," you try to get a conversation going. "Is the book interesting at least?"
  2902. >"I guess."
  2903. >Poor pony really isn't in the mood. When you finally get everything wet off yourself, she inches back on her mattress, nodding you to sit down.
  2904. >"Try to not get it wet."
  2905. >It is actually rather warm on the bed. Probably because of Twilight's own body heat.
  2906. "So, have you learned anything?"
  2907. >"Yes. It was educating. I had no idea what kind of things Twilight, real Twilight, actually does."
  2908. "What do you think about it then?"
  2909. >"Well..." she sighs and stops to stare at the floor, lost in thought.
  2910. >Looks like it's still up to you to drive the conversation forward.
  2911. "By the way, yesterday Rarity asked me about the 'actual Rarity', she had no idea who that is."
  2912. >"No wonder."
  2913. "You never told her? Or anyone here? About their counterparts."
  2914. >"I guess not. There was no reason to bring it up. Or maybe I did but they just payed no mind."
  2915. "They probably didn't understand what you meant."
  2916. >"They don't have to. It's enough that they don't actually have any motivation on their own."
  2917. "You think they'd take it badly?"
  2918. >"Well it probably wouldn't help them in any way."
  2919. >The mare stares at the journal and you hear her quiet sigh again.
  2920. >"Twilight's friends seem to cooperate easily with her. These... just don't care."
  2921. "Maybe they don't see your goals as something they can personally relate to?"
  2922. >"This again?" Meanlight glares at you. "You can't really ask them what the personally want. They don't care as long as they are left alone."
  2923. "But you can't leave them alone out here."
  2924. >"I can't offer them an alternative! I don't have one."
  2925. >Meanlight looks at you in dismay and you feel like she's been thinking about this very topic a lot.
  2926. >"I'm not like that Twilight. It's not all rainbows and friendship for me. And those idiots - those are certainly not the kind of ponies Twilight is friends with."
  2927. >Little by little this mare is losing confidence. It's probably the first time you've seen her wavering in her own beliefs this much. But it just makes her angrier.
  2928. >"It's so easy for her to solve problems when she has so much support from everypony, even from Celestia. Compared to her, I'm just..."
  2929. "Twilight, look-"
  2930. >"...Just too smart for those who surround me. They just can't understand what I'm trying to accomplish here. Can you imagine me having an entire nation to back me up?"
  2931. >Of course. You didn't expect a heartfelt acknowledgment of her own flaws from her, did you now? That'd be too naive from you.
  2932. >Everyone else is to blame.
  2933. >Yet you still sense something much more desperate stirring inside the false alicorn. You're certain this isn't how she really feels and it's a bit painful to see her not being able to admit it to you.
  2934. >And you're pretty much the closest human or pony to her.
  2935. >"I guess I really am nothing like Twilight. That's my punishment for not wasting my time and power on idiotic things like parties and schools and celebrations. For thinking about the grand scheme of things. I mean, she's a princess, yet she doesn't even rule anything. She doesn't even know what to do as a ruler! What kind of princess is that?!"
  2936. "Twilight..."
  2937. >"And so, if I'm completely the opposite of her, it just means that she's not actually smart. She's just doing things others expect her to do. 'Ooh, let me help this pony by doing the most basic thing anypony can do, I'm a friendship princess, ooh!'"
  2938. >Hearing Twilight attempting to impersonate Twilight is hilarious in and of itself, but this rant just has to stop.
  2939. "You don't have to be mad at her, you're-"
  2940. >"Does she even have a slightest idea what she herself could accomplish with the amount of resources available to her? Oh, pfft, no, let's go to some auction to show off books or organize a daycare for fillies! Grrreat ways to spend time, your Majesty!"
  2941. "Twilight, stop."
  2942. >"Don't call me that! I don't want to be associated with that... That..."
  2943. >Chest heaving, Meanlight is trying hard to find a word insulting enough for the friendship princess.
  2944. >Her eyes dart from side to side, but instead of rage you just see helplessness in them.
  2945. "Calm down, jeez. It's not like that."
  2946. >"You think someone like her would find a way out of this mess," Meanlight is mumbling to herself and her hyperventilation intensifies. "Isn't that easy when you're that smart? Isn't she... I..."
  2947. >You have no way to snap her back to reality but to do it with force.
  2948. >With a dull slap your palm collides with the mare's shoulder. It wasn't too strong, but strong enough for Twilight to jump up and fix her eyes on you.
  2949. >"Huh?"
  2950. "Breathe, Twilight, breathe."
  2951. >She does so, with a loud inhale and an equally loud exhale.
  2952. "Easy now. Just calm down."
  2953. >Honestly, she has a lot more in common with actual Twilight than she thinks.
  2954. >"I'm nothing like her, am I?"
  2955. >She looks you in the eyes, seeking answers. Something to affirm and justify her whole existence.
  2956. >Your palm is still on the pony's body and you feel how tense she is. Twilight herself doesn't even notice your touch, it seems.
  2957. "Does it matter?"
  2958. >Taking off your hand from the pony you lean back and look upwards. You know she's still watching you as you lay down across the mattress. It's not wide enough for you so you kinda slide down so your head doesn't dangle on the other side.
  2959. "I think it doesn't. Of course you're not Twilight, but you're also not just Anti-Twilight. I don't know how and why you were created but even if you are the opposite of those other ponies, it doesn't mean that it's all there is to you. You're all your own ponies, aren't you?"
  2960. >"But we were created as such. That's obvious if you look at us and what we represent compared to our originals."
  2961. "Only you even know about them. Your companions don't and they don't think about it, and still live their own life."
  2962. >"They are still bound by their purpose. The one which they were created with. That's the line between us and everypony else."
  2963. >So this is what life in seclusion does to you. This pony's circular logic is without a doubt a product of her being locked up in this environment.
  2964. >She wasn't like this a week ago. Not as desperate, not as questioning. You need to somehow steer the conversation away from this.
  2965. "It doesn't mean they can't change. They already are. One day they'll be able to fit into society, even if right now they're not ready."
  2966. >"It's just wishful thinking," Twilight shakes her head in disbelief. "You can't go against their very nature."
  2967. "What if that isn't their nature? Even Twilight's friends changed over time."
  2968. >Meanlight looks away. The more you argue with her the more she seems to lose faith.
  2969. >"At least they always had a place they belonged to."
  2970. >You can't help but chuckle at such a thought.
  2971. "Well, then maybe it's a matter of accepting help to find it. I was stubborn about it too at first."
  2972. >"Yeah, you're-"
  2973. "An alien in every way. Do you think I was always like this?"
  2974. >Now you're piqued her interest. If it's going to help that pony, you might as well continue while her attention is on you.
  2975. "When I first arrived here I had no idea what to do. It took me a few months to even start talking to ponies more than it was absolutely necessary."
  2976. >"How did you even get here in the first place?"
  2977. "I was spirited away."
  2978. >"What does that mean?"
  2979. "At least that's how I call it. I don't really remember how exactly it went down, but I remember I got lost in a forest."
  2980. >"So you were always a forest kind of guy?"
  2981. "I guess? I somehow managed to lose my way there. The compass was going crazy and I've lost all my landmarks I usually used to navigate in those woods. I survived for almost two days out there, moving slowly in the direction I thought was right."
  2982. >"Survived just like that?"
  2983. "It's not like I didn't have some supplies with me. But anyway, I managed to walk out of the forest. But it wasn't where I expected it to be, it was here."
  2984. >"How is that even possible? You told me you're from another world."
  2985. "I don't know either. It's just at some point I was in the Everfree instead of the forest near my house and never noticed the transition. It must've happened in the dark."
  2986. >"So you're saying you haven't noticed anything strange?"
  2987. "Not anything I can recall. But I don't remember a lot of things from the past. Somehow it got so vague over time I can't even tell you where I lived, what my job was or even how old I am."
  2988. >"Does it scare you?"
  2989. >Twilight's voice is filled with an unusual amount of concern.
  2990. "Not really. I think it's for the best. I used to tirelessly walk around Everfree every single day to find the place where I could return home, but now it just sounds silly. At least I got a job out of it so it wasn't all pointless. Ponies thought I was doing it because I love forests and it kinda stuck with me from there on..."
  2991. >Your assumption was always that in your previous life you did like forests, otherwise how would you have got lost there with all the equipment?
  2992. >These days it doesn't matter. You've lost your motivation to return a long time ago.
  2993. "I like it here and I don't want to return anymore," you nod to yourself, voicing your thoughts to Twilight. "But at first I hated it. I had nothing to live for, so I spent all my time in the wilderness, and later, when I lost hope, locked in my room. I was living in the attic, in a house of a pony who were seldom home."
  2994. >It's almost a nostalgic feeling. Back then it felt like there's no reason to even try anymore, so you've wasted days and nights just looking at the ceiling. Or the roof in your case.
  2995. >Until the very day Twilight dragged you out of there, you thought you'll never belong in a place where others just see you as a strange and probably dangerous alien.
  2996. >It was you against all of them. Now it just sounds stupid. Back then, making that first step to accept that you can actually live normally here was a leap of faith, and you were completely faithless.
  2997. "Twilight has given me my own house, forced me to socialize, and never left me. She spent time with me every day. Without her patience and resolve to make me a part of this world I would have never done that. And, you know, ponies weren't that hostile to me after all. Maybe they never were and I was just... I dunno."
  2998. >You close your eyes, full relaxing on the mattress. Being busy with your new life it's no wonder you have forgotten everything about your previous one. And were so afraid that it would happen. Now that it happened, you wonder if it was something important to you.
  2999. >Something you were really afraid you'd forget, so much that you've reminded yourself over and over staring at the roof. At the outskirts of your mind you can almost grasp it again. The thing that was your last grip onto your previous self.
  3000. >You can't imagine such a thing. You have so many things to worry about now it would only slow you down. You've let it go a long time ago and have never felt regret for it.
  3001. >This is your home now and you can't see it any other way.
  3002. >"So we should just follow your hoofsteps and surrender ourselves to Ponyville just like you did? We had this talk before. It's not happening."
  3003. >Meanlight sounds a bit bitter, but opening your eyes you see that the mare is just a bit sad.
  3004. "I'm not suggesting anything right now, I just think that it's not a lost cause to try to fit in, that's all. You may not be Twilight, but Anti-Twilight is not everything you are or will ever be. If that makes sense."
  3005. >"Maybe."
  3006. >You both fall silent. Twilight is staring at her lamp, lost in thought. In this quiet you actually hear something.
  3007. "Hey, the rain has stopped."
  3008. >The pony looks upwards and flicks her ear in attention.
  3009. >Just as you make your observation, you hear voices outside.
  3010. >"Ah, land snakes, it's all a mess!" the obvious one.
  3011. >"Who put rocks on MY fabric?!" the demanding ring of the hoarder's annoyance.
  3012. >You nod to Twilight and stand up, stretching your whole body that is feeling stiff after leaning in a weird way for so long.
  3013. >The mare says nothing but decides to join you when you leave the comfy tent.
  3014. >Outside world is so cold it's almost insulting.
  3015. >"Oh, Anon! How was your night?" Liarjack almost jumps towards you, barely avoiding collision with Twilight.
  3016. >"Anon?" Rarity exclaims, seeing you exit. "I must've missed your arrival."
  3017. >"Who could blame ya, Anon never actually left," the liar points at you. "He was here all along and spent his night together with Twilight."
  3018. >"Excuse me?" you can almost see Twilight's coat standing up from sudden outrage.
  3019. >And Rarity is shocked even more, it seems.
  3020. >"What?! But I've seen him leave yesterday. Don't tell me..."
  3021. >"Oh, ye naive lil filly," Applejack starts walking towards the hoarder mare, looking way too smug for the affair she's running here. "Anon has been doing this for weeks now, maybe if you payed more attention to him and not your pile of junk you'd have a chance at-"
  3022. "Applejack, stop it."
  3023. >You try to make yourself sound as stern and confident as possible. Luckily, it works, and Liarjack just shrugs and walks to her tent.
  3024. >Looking at Rarity's confused face, you explain:
  3025. "She's just messing with you. I got here less then an hour ago."
  3026. >Twilight grunts in annoyance. She avoids meeting your eyes but you know that her mood is now ruined.
  3027. "Just forget about it," you say to both ponies.
  3028. >"If you say so," Rarity is still not sure about it but she finds a distraction right away.
  3029. "Hey, what's this?"
  3030. >You come over to her and she shows you a compass you've given her recently.
  3031. >"I can't figure it out. It keeps spinning and I was waiting for it to stop, but it never does. What is it supposed to be pointing at?"
  3032. >You chuckle and let out a nostalgic sigh.
  3033. "I wish I knew."
  3034.  
  3035. >"Barter."
  3036. >With her newest gift in hoof, a shiny tea spoon that you got while buying tea, Greedity is looking up at you.
  3037. "Huh?"
  3038. >"I want to exchange this for something different. Like you did last time."
  3039. "Oh, I guess that's fair. What do you want to-"
  3040. >"That potion you took away."
  3041. >Somewhere between excitement and madness, the pony's eyes shine when she fixes them on your bag.