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A Dubious Welcome

By Maonyman
Created: 29th October 2020 04:07:27 AM

  1. "Oh for fuck's sake, don't I have ANY decent music anymore?"
  2. >Anon casually swiped a finger across his phone to skip yet another song.
  3. >He had just left his veterinary clinic after getting called in at too-damn-early in the morning for a dog that had gotten outside and been hit by a car.
  4. >Poor thing had had several broken bones and severe internal bleeding, but he'd done his best and what would come would come. By his estimate, the unlucky pup's chances of survival were about one in three.
  5. >Of course, he hadn't told the owner that.
  6. >It had been nearly a decade since he'd finished schooling and began his veterinary work, but giving bad news was still the hardest part of the job.
  7. >He remembered them all, too.
  8. >Anon grimaced as the next song began playing and simply yanked out the audio cable to silence it since he was nearly home anyway.
  9. >It was a boring drive home from Podunk, the ironically named little town he called home.
  10. >Whoever named it probably thought they were being clever, but nowadays all it really does is get them laughed at.
  11. >Still, he liked the peace and quiet of living in such an out of the way town, especially with his house on the outskirts so he didn't have to--
  12. "ssSSHIT!"
  13. >There was a brilliant flash of light and abruptly a small deer was just standing in the road in front of him.
  14. >His foot slammed down, the wheel jerked to the side, and the sporty sedan shuddered as various electronic systems struggled to compensate and keep the vehicle under control.
  15. >Anon caught a brief glimpse of purple as the deer bounced off his hood with a sickening crunch and tumbled over the roof of the car.
  16. >As he screeched to a halt, Anon sat briefly frozen in stunned silence, breathing heavily.
  17. >Then he came to his senses, threw the shifter into park, grabbed his flashlight, flung open the door and rushed to the poor deer.
  18. "Wait... The hell?"
  19. >He stopped and stared in confusion as he realized the crumpled body in the road was no deer but rather what seemed to some sort of miniature horse with its back facing him.
  20. >It was bright pink or purple in color, its indigo mane and tail were streaked with magenta and--no, it couldn't be... yes, those were actually wings!
  21. >Not quite believing his eyes, he stepped closer and squatted beside the body for a closer look, and sure enough, one wing was folded neatly against the creature's right side, the other twisted and crushed beneath its barrel.
  22. >He looked up at its head and...
  23. >Was that a fucking horn?
  24. >Anon blinked, rubbed his eyes and leaned forward, but there was no mistaking it.
  25. >Protruding through its mane at the top of the forehead was a small, spiraled horn that tapered nearly to a point, with a jagged flat edge about the size of a penny at the tip.
  26. >Suddenly a bright mote of pink light sputtered out of that jagged tip with an electric crackle, startling Anon so badly he nearly fell backward onto his ass.
  27. "W-What...?"
  28. >For several seconds he could only stare in open amazement.
  29. >Then the creature's ear twitched, its sides heaved, and he suddenly realized it was still alive.
  30. >Shoving all other thoughts away in an instant, Anon snapped to attention, bent over the body, and rapidly diagnosed its condition.
  31. >Mare, approximately ten hands. Pulse slow but strong. Breathing steady, no bubbling or rasping. Unconscious, good pupil response. Horn broken, approximately one half inch missing. Left forehoof bleeding profusely from frog. Left fore and hind legs, both tibia cleanly broken. Left wing dislocated, humerus badly broken, possibly shattered, no penetration. Right side covered in minor lacerations. Oddly discolored flank, likely bruised or flayed skin.
  32. >Anon hurried to fetch his heavily customized first aid kit from under the driver's seat then quickly turned the vehicle around so the headlights fell on the injured... Pegasus? Unicorn? Surely...
  33. >Fuck it, he could think about that later.
  34. >He had a life to save.
  35. ...
  36. >It's very unusual for a head wound to knock any creature unconscious for more than a minute.
  37. >After working as quickly as possible for two or three minutes, Anon was starting to get seriously worried when the mare finally began to stir and he breathed a small sigh of relief.
  38. >Any longer and he'd have had to assume it had cerebral hemorrhaging, and that can spell death even on his operating table, nevermind on the side of the road with a damn first aid kit.
  39. >Still, despite his worrying, he had made good use of the extra time.
  40. >He had bandaged the bleeding hoof, set simple splints on both broken legs, jerked the dislocated wing back into the joint, and he was just wrapping gauze around the creature's barrel to secure the injured wing when its eyes began to flutter open.
  41. >Anon immediately began to speak with a soft, friendly tone in an attempt to keep it calm.
  42. "Whoa there, relax, girl. You're alright, I got you."
  43. >The words themselves were utterly useless, of course, all that mattered was his quiet, soothing tone of voice.
  44. >One ear twitched then slowly swiveled to orient on him.
  45. >Good, the creature was listening.
  46. >He was kneeling near its back where its hooves couldn't hit him if it began to flail in panic and far enough back that it couldn't see him in its peripheral vision.
  47. >It was important to keep up constant reassurance, so Anon continued to speak in a low, gentle tone, saying anything that came to mind.
  48. "You sure came outta nowhere, didn't you, girl? Took quite a tumble, but I'd say you're pretty lucky all the same, 'cause I'm just the doctor you need."
  49. >The mare tried to lift its head and let out a pitiful little moan, its mouth working as it tried to whinny, then its legs shifted uncomfortably.
  50. >Anon readied himself to jump back in a hurry.
  51. >This was the critical moment: if the animal was going to panic, it was most likely to be now as the pain starts to creep in through the shock and it tries to move its restrained legs.
  52. >Sure enough, when its left foreleg wouldn't move the way it wanted, the creature tensed up in fear, ears folding flat against its head.
  53. "Eaaasy now, it's alright. Just a brace to help your legs heal, that's all. You can still walk on them, I promise, just relax and take it slow. You'll be okay."
  54. >Slowly, the animal relaxed again, its ear fixating on the calming sound of his voice, and Anon felt a great weight of tension lift from his shoulders.
  55. "That's it, there's a good girl. Just relax, lay here for a moment. Give your body some time to wake up. You were out for a good couple of minutes, so you must have had a pretty good knock on the head. I bet you feel awfully dizzy, huh? Maybe even a little sick. It's okay, girl, take as long as you need."
  56. >As he spoke, he gently worked the gauze binding under the creature's barrel and the mare shifted uneasily, letting out another groan that sounded even less like a whinny than its first attempt.
  57. >Anon was beginning to worry it had cracked its jaw or bit through its tongue, but there was no way he could check while it was conscious, so he just finished the binding and continued talking, not caring or even really thinking about what he was saying.
  58. "You sure are an odd looking mare, huh? Ain't a problem though, you're close enough to what I do know. I'll fix you up right, don't you worry, girl. No, I'm really just wondering where you live since I've never seen anything like you 'round these parts."
  59. >The creature struggled weakly to lift its head then gave up and stared blankly ahead.
  60. >Its muzzle opened again and an odd sort of grunt and hiss came out, almost sounding like the word 'quest.'
  61. >Anon furrowed his brows in confusion.
  62. >The hell kind of horse makes a noise like that?
  63. >He saw its tail flick in annoyance, then its side rose in a deliberately slow breath.
  64. >"E...quest...tree...uh."
  65. >Anon fell very, very still.
  66. >There was a brief pause, the silence pierced only by the soft hum of his sedan, then the creature took another slow breath and this time the words were unmistakable.
  67. >"I... live in... Equestria."
  68. >Refusing to believe what his senses were telling him, Anon numbly repeated the words he thought he had heard.
  69. "Y... You live in E-Equestria?"
  70. >The animal immediately and distinctly nodded its head.
  71. >It had responded to his question.
  72. >It understood him.
  73. >Anon abruptly swayed crazily to the side as the very ground seemed to lurch beneath him.
  74. >He caught himself with a hand as his throat made an inarticulate choking noise of pure shock and confusion.
  75. >Slumping to one elbow, he just barely managed to hold himself on his side and stare dumbly at the back of the mare's head.
  76. >Surely he was dreaming?
  77. >Had he fallen asleep at the wheel?
  78. >Was he himself laying unconscious on the side of the road?
  79. >Or perhaps he had never even left his bed?
  80. >It felt like a very long time had passed when Anon's attention was forced back to the present.
  81. >The mare was rapidly becoming more and more agitated and its whining and scrabbling movements slowly roused his deeply trained need to care for his patient.
  82. >He shook his head and rubbed his eyes then pushed himself upright, and as he came back to his senses, he realized the animal wasn't just whining, it was speaking again.
  83. >Yes, its words were quite clear now and getting faster and louder as its panic began to take hold.
  84. >"Oh, ow, that really... wait... What? W-Why can't I... My horn? Oh sweet Celestia, my horn! NO! What--how... no, WHERE? Doctor, help! Please, I... Oh Tartarus, where is it? Doctor? Doctor, please! Where is the tip of my HORN!?"
  85. >It wailed in clear distress and struggled desperately to twist its weakened body around and search.
  86. >Anon took a brief moment to close his eyes and take one long, slow breath, forcing his mind into the focused calm he relied on to function in even the most bizarre and stressful medical operations.
  87. >When he opened his eyes again, he saw his patient in the throes of a full panic.
  88. >Normally it's not only impossible to calm a panicking horse but outright dangerous.
  89. >All your effort goes into avoiding panic in the first place and if things go wrong and the horse does panic, you simply step back, wait for it to calm down, then deal with any additional injuries it may have caused itself.
  90. >However, Anon realized the way he thought about this creature had shifted.
  91. >This was no dumb horse that had spooked from a fallen leaf turning over too quickly, this was a thinking and speaking person, panicking due to complex emotional trauma and fear.
  92. >This wasn't an 'it,' this was a 'her.'
  93. >Anon, faced with the threat of an out-of-control patient, roughly shoved aside any thoughts about the absurdity of the situation and simply addressed her as if she were a human.
  94. "I'm here. Listen to me, please. It's going to be okay, we'll get your horn healed, but I need you to try and relax. You're going to hurt yourself if you don't calm down."
  95. >Her ears immediately turned back to focus on him and she whimpered faintly.
  96. >Hell... she really did understand him.
  97. >A shiver ran up his back and he struggled to keep his voice steady.
  98. "Please, I can help but I need you to work with me. Here, try closing your eyes and focus on your breathing, it will help you relax. Count to ten every time you inhale and exhale. Everything will be alright, I promise."
  99. >Her eyes closed and he could clearly see her following his instructions to try and get her breathing under control.
  100. >His concentration wavered as a fresh wave of confused astonishment swept over him.
  101. >He felt like he should run away or slap himself awake or even just stand up and scream 'what in the hell is going on here?'
  102. >Then his eyes fell on her bandaged hoof and the sight of the blood soaking through the gauze almost seemed to electrify him.
  103. >Dammit, he had an injured patient here! Time to freak out later, right now he needed to get that bleeding under control and get her home for a more thorough examination. God forbid if she has internal hemorrhaging...
  104. >He took another deep breath to steady himself then quickly got up to grab an old towel from the trunk of his car.
  105. >When he returned to the mare and began to spread the towel on the ground behind her, she twisted her head to see him and her breath caught in her throat.
  106. >"What? You... you're not... Who are you? WHAT are you?"
  107. >He could hear the panic edging into her voice again and he paused, giving her a chance calm down before he moved again.
  108. "It's okay, don't worry. What matters now is you're hurt and I'm your doctor. Let's get you stabilized, then we can figure out the rest later, okay?"
  109. >She hesitated, shuddered slightly, then said, "Okay, but... can I see you first?"
  110. "Of course."
  111. >Anon slowly moved around her head in a sort of shuffle, keeping to a low squat to avoid towering over her too much. The mare watched his feet, then her eyes slid up his body and settled on his face.
  112. >Even through the fear and confusion, Anonymous could clearly see the intelligent curiosity behind those eyes.
  113. >Resisting another shiver, he gave her the best smile he could manage and her muzzle sort of twitched in a similar attempt.
  114. >The bloody bandage caught his eye again and his expression turned anxious as he gestured to the towel.
  115. "Now, I need to get you into my car so I can take you somewhere safe and treat you properly. I've put splints on your legs but they won't hold under any real use, so try not to stand. Your other two legs seem to be uninjured, but I can't say for sure out in the field like this."
  116. >Realizing his words were coming out too quick and tense, Anon cut himself off and passed a hand over his eyes.
  117. >When he spoke again, he sounded much more relaxed and controlled.
  118. "Sorry. Point is, try not to move as I slide you onto the towel except to shift your body weight where I press. Don't bend your braced legs and especially don't move that wing I bound to your side."
  119. >Her eyes widened, "My wing, what? Why?"
  120. >He patted the air in a calming gesture.
  121. "Don't worry, it'll heal, but it could get worse if you move it. Now come on, we need to move - that bandage can only soak up so much blood."
  122. >Stepping around her again, he gently wiggled a hand under her head and slid the towel under it then moved down and shimmied the towel under the rest of her body. She squeaked indignantly when he lifted her flank, but he ignored her protest and shoved the towel into place.
  123. "Okay, I'm going to slide you a little closer to the car then lift you inside. Try not to flop around too much."
  124. >He was trying to hurry now and began dragging her before she even responded. She yelped in surprise, but he shushed her and wiggled his arms under her barrel.
  125. >Half expecting to throw out his back, he braced himself and heaved... then stumbled to catch himself as she was far lighter than he'd expected, only forty or fifty pounds at most.
  126. >Her sickly groan at the sudden movement made him wince and he took much greater care as he slid her onto the backseat of his car then snatched up his first aid kit and jumped into the driver seat.
  127. "Alright, this is gonna feel weird 'cause of your head injury but try not to move, okay?"
  128. >He began to ease the car forward, but the mare suddenly cried out. "W-Wait, my horn!"
  129. >The car lurched to a stop and when he looked back, her face was contorted with fear and anxiety.
  130. >"Please, I NEED it! It can't heal without the missing piece!"
  131. >The effort exhausted her and her head collapsed back onto the seat.
  132. >"Doctor, please... you have to find it... p-please..."
  133. >He didn't like delaying further, but surely the strange creature knew her body better than he did and she'd been more distressed by her horn than anything else.
  134. >With a little sigh, he stepped out, placed his flashlight on the ground so every little pebble cast a long, distinct shadow then slowly swept the light across the road.
  135. >About a minute later, and just as he was about to give up, an odd glitter caught his eye on the side of the road.
  136. >He stepped closer to get a better look and--yes, this had to be it. He scooped up the tiny purple cone and ran back to the car.
  137. >The creature began to speak as soon as he opened the car door, but he cut her off.
  138. "Yes, I found it. Now shush and keep your head down, we've already taken too long."
  139. >Dropping the horn into his shirt pocket, he eased the car forward and was soon flying down the road at well over the speed limit.
  140. >Only a few minutes later he parked on the grass near his porch, stepped out to prop his front door open then shimmied the mare into his arms again, kicking doors shut behind him as he carried her inside.
  141. >He laid her on the island counter in his kitchen, roughly shoving the small decorative basket to the floor, then wrapped the piece of horn in a paper towel and buried it in his freezer's ice tray.
  142. >Since he was the only skilled veterinarian in this part of the country and sometimes an animal would be more likely to die if they moved it than if he simply operated on it in the field, he was careful to always keep a well-stocked medical bag at home in case such an emergency came in during off-hours.
  143. >As he left to fetch the bag from the other room he heard her make a faint noise of distress, but he returned less than a minute later and laid the bag open beside her.
  144. >"Is all that... for your healing spell?" she said, eyeing him nervously.
  145. >He gave her an odd look as he quickly swabbed some topical anesthetic on her shoulder.
  146. "Uh... not all of it, no. This is just my general kit so it has a bit of everything."
  147. >She relaxed slightly, "Oh good... only really powerful magic would need that much reagent... was worried my injuries might've been worse... than you were letting on."
  148. >It was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the strangeness of this creature and he hurried to prepare the sedative injection.
  149. "This might sting for a moment..."
  150. >Pinching her skin, he slid the needle deep into the thick muscle of her shoulder. She gasped and flinched but soon relaxed as the sedative began to take effect.
  151. >Anon set to work almost before she was asleep, moving with the quick efficiency born of long years of practice.
  152. >It was true she needed urgent treatment, but he also needed to keep his mind busy and distracted from the shock and bewilderment still lurking in the back of his mind.
  153. >The bleeding hoof was the most urgent problem. He quickly applied a tourniquet, removed the bandage, and realized the deep gash on the frog was more of a violent tear than anything that could be called a cut.
  154. >He cleaned and sterilized the wound, somewhat surprised by the large amount of gravel-like road dust he had to remove, then he used a thick suture and more stitches than usual to close the wound. It would hurt more during recovery, but it was necessary due to the pressures that would be exerted from walking on the frog.
  155. >Next he began cleaning and sterilizing the many small cuts and scrapes along her right side and realized the bruising on her flank was actually a little picture of a red star with smaller white stars around it. At first he thought it was a tattoo until he realized it was actually the fur that was colored. Anon decided to ignore it as a mystery for later.
  156. >He then examined the broken end of the horn but was forced to admit he had no idea what to do there. It wasn't made of bone like a deer or sheep, nor was it keratin like a giraffe or rhino. The surface was somewhat similar to ivory but much smoother and it lacked ivory's iridescence. Inside the horn was a porous sponge-like material that appeared to be some sort of flesh but was quite firm, like the gums of your teeth.
  157. >However, most bewildering was the horn's inner core, which was entirely unlike anything he knew of. It was vaguely similar to thick optical cabling, but though the core was completely filled with a dim pink glow and did not leak, he nevertheless got the impression of a slow-flowing liquid like honey, rather than the instant transmission of light through fiber optics.
  158. >He would have to learn more from her before he could reattach the broken tip, so, worried about antiseptic getting down into the spongy flesh, he cleaned the jagged end as delicately as possible then loosely bandaged it more for protection than anything else.
  159. >Next he thoroughly examined both broken cannon bones and was amazed by how clean and straight the fractures were. Since the mare was much lighter than a normal horse, this meant she shouldn't need intramedullary reinforcement, which was a great relief to Anon.
  160. >He replaced his quick and dirty splints with sturdy medical braces then wrapped both legs with gauze. Later he would check for swelling and probably switch to fiberglass casts, and she might even be able to carefully walk if it wasn't too painful.
  161. >The wing however was another matter. It wasn't shattered as he'd originally feared, but it was still a compound fracture and would require at least some surgery to position the broken pieces properly.
  162. >More importantly, he was forced to assume the wings were functional and that, crazy as it seemed, this mare could actually fly. That meant the bone needed to support her weight perpendicular to its length, so he had no choice but to reinforce the fracture with titanium rods. And to think he had almost decided not to keep any rods here at home!
  163. >Anon checked he had all the supplies he needed, spent a few minutes making the kitchen area a little more suitable for surgery, took another brief moment to recollect himself, then he bent over the mare and made his incision.
  164. ...
  165. >Over an hour later, Anon leaned heavily against the kitchen counter and heaved a great, weary sigh.
  166. >The surgery had gone remarkably well and, even after cleaning, sterilizing, and putting everything away, the sedative still hadn't worn off.
  167. >Anon eyed the small mare somewhat warily.
  168. >The intense shock of her first words had slowly faded into a persisting sense of awe and wonder.
  169. >Some small part of his mind had suspected some sort of trick or that the horn and wings were prosthetic, but there was no doubting their legitimacy after the surgical operation.
  170. >He was looking at a real, live, intelligent, winged unicorn.
  171. >Suddenly realizing this was likely a once in a lifetime opportunity, he slowly straightened, approached the unconscious creature, and began to give it a thorough physical inspection.
  172. >The first thing he did was pull back her lips and he was relieved to see herbivorous teeth, as a few legends claimed unicorns had been ferocious hunters.
  173. >Upon prying open her jaw, he was surprised to find her lips, tongue, and throat were much more human than horse, which explained how she was capable of speech. Hopefully she would be able to explain how they spoke the same language.
  174. >He tried examining the base of the horn next, but it simply merged smoothly into her skull.
  175. >Her eyes were significantly larger than normal and front-facing rather than angled out to the side, which resulted in a shorter muzzle and rounder head overall.
  176. >Moving down to her torso, he noticed that while her legs were relatively thick compared to her body, the hoof wall was not nearly as pronounced, and the frog was softer and less distinct than a normal horse.
  177. >He supposed that was due to her small size and weight, and perhaps her wings as well - the ability to fly would mean less need for the tough hooves required for long, hard galloping.
  178. >Next he massaged his fingers into her joints and quickly concluded that all the muscle groups were pretty much as expected, with the exception of the additional flight muscles around her barrel, making her sides appear more lean and toned than the smooth, round belly he was used to seeing on equines.
  179. >He hesitated only briefly before moving down and examining her hindquarters, deciding that even an intelligent horse is still only a horse, and this was nothing more than a scientific and medical examination of a new, unknown animal species.
  180. >There too, she was similar yet distinctly different from what he might expect. Her dock was significantly shorter than was normal for a horse, so most of her tail was only loosely hanging hair, and her genitals were even smaller than he had expected for her size, though otherwise appeared entirely equine.
  181. >Finally he turned to the strange image painted on her flank, dug his fingers into the fur and even plucked one of the colored hairs, finding that not only did the pattern extend all the way to the root, it seemed to be embedded into the very skin.
  182. >Anon straightened and rubbed his chin, wondering what to do next. The sedative wouldn't last that much longer and he didn't want the mare to wake up on an uncomfortable and cold countertop. If unicorns had gone undetected even in these modern times, the mare must have some incredible ability for escaping and hiding, so he needed to do his best to ensure she woke up feeling safe and comfortable.
  183. >However, just in case she still fled from him, he decided to take some precautionary measures.
  184. >First he set his phone to record a video and slipped it in his shirt pocket so the camera was peeking out, silently berating himself for not thinking of it earlier. It might not be that great of a view, but at least he could still use both hands.
  185. >He ran off to grab some assorted sterile containers which were not important enough to keep in his medical bag, then upon returning to his impromptu operating table, he decided there was one more precaution he ought to take.
  186. >He poured some raw oatmeal into a bowl, then placed a couple carrots and an apple inside as well, hoping the offering would help calm the mare if he had misjudged her sedation and she woke up before he finished.
  187. >As he prepared to take some samples, he realized there would surely be doubt and claims of trickery, so he checked his supplies and was relieved to find a small box of security labels designed to prevent tampering with medical specimens. He decided to take special care to keep any container he handled on camera until it was sealed and labeled.
  188. >Blood would be the most telling so he drew that first, then realized he should take two samples of everything so he could refrigerate one to minimize cellular damage and freeze the other to maximize shelf life.
  189. >Next he swabbed the inside of her mouth for saliva and tissue samples, then swabbed under her tail in the hopes of getting at least a small fecal sample for dietary analysis.
  190. >He briefly considered a pap smear but dismissed the idea. He could do it fairly quickly, but all the labeling had burned valuable time and he was getting quite worried about the mare waking up while he was still working.
  191. >Instead, he examined her uninjured wing and gently plucked two of the smaller feathers that he hoped she wouldn't miss, then finally moved to her most distinguishing feature: her horn.
  192. >First he brought his phone up and made sure it got a nice, clear view of the inside of the broken tip, then he gently shaved a tiny amount of dust off the surface of her horn, dropping the entire blade into the container just to be safe.
  193. >It took Anon almost a full minute of consideration before he chose to take samples of the horn's interior. The organ was simply too unique to pass up the opportunity, despite his fear of doing permanent damage.
  194. >He placed a fresh blade in his scalpel handle and, moving with the utmost of care, scraped out an incredibly small sliver of the fleshy sponge-like material and again dropped the razor with the sample into a container.
  195. >Finally, with more care than he'd given anything in his life, he lifted yet another fresh blade and gently touched the oddly glowing jelly-like core of her horn.
  196. ...
  197. >Twilight Sparkle groaned.
  198. >She was cold, tired, nauseous, sleepy and uncomfortable, but more than anything else, she hurt.
  199. >Every part of her was terribly sore and her head hurt worst of all. She could hardly even think through the stabbing in her forehead.
  200. >However to her surprise, the pain already seemed to be fading rapidly and only a few seconds later it had dropped to a dull, tolerable ache.
  201. >She tentatively opened her eyes and found herself in what appeared to be some sort of kitchen.
  202. >There was a small bowl of food beside her and she could see a small collection of clear vials on the counter behind it.
  203. >Two of them contained what looked suspiciously like her own fur so she slid a little closer and... yes, that was definitely her fur, and two more seemed to contain vials of blood, presumably hers.
  204. >Clearly this was a collection of medical samples from her body for later study.
  205. >She felt indignant and a little violated, of course, but on the other hoof she understood all too well the urge to study and analyze anything new and unusual.
  206. >But where was her doctor now? Her recollection was vague due to the shock and pain, but she could clearly remember that strange creature with its rich and oddly soothing voice.
  207. >Her head was still throbbing, but she slowly twisted to look behind her and--
  208. "Oh... oh no, nonono..."
  209. >She scrambled upright with her two good hooves and twisted around to get a better look.
  210. >Her doctor was slumped back against the counter across from her, the charred remains of a precision scalpel still clenched in his right... er, claw? And there were pale violet lines streaking up his foreleg and onto his neck, his mouth hung loosely open, and his eyes were glowing a brilliant, solid white.
  211. "Buck, buck, what did you do?"
  212. >But even as she muttered in panic, she realized what must have happened.
  213. >Either not knowing the danger or believing himself safe, he must had tried to collect a sample of the pure magical essence in the core of her horn.
  214. "Moon-blasted fool, even unicorns don't really understand..."
  215. >She whispered nervously to herself as she slid toward the edge of the table and resisted the urge to look down, her uninjured wing spread wide for balance.
  216. >It wasn't a long fall or anything, but in her injured state it was unlikely she would be able to get back up and try again.
  217. >She took a deep breath to calm herself, reared up on her hind hooves with a wince of pain in her injured leg, then lunged forward.
  218. >Her forehoof thudded into the creature's chest and she let out a nervous yelp as she began to pitch sideways, but by desperately flapping her wing and with a bit of pressure from her injured foreleg, she managed to keep herself upright.
  219. "Alright... phew... buck, I hope this still works."
  220. >She stretched her neck out and touched the edge of her horn to the creature's head and concentrated as the magic began to flow.
  221. >Sparks shot out of the broken tip causing her to wince more from the uncomfortable surge of wild energy than from any pain, feeling as if she was back in magic kindergarten again with no control over her magic, but she bore down on her focus, refusing to let such a simple spell go awry.
  222. >After what seemed like ages, she finally felt a trickle of energy flow into her horn as she absorbed the excess power that raged unchecked through the creature's mind.
  223. >"Ohhh... the--FUCK!"
  224. >Something slammed into Twilight's barrel and she was thrown violently back, only just catching herself before she slid off the far end of the table-thing she had woken up on.
  225. >Thankfully she had landed on her uninjured side.
  226. >"Oh shit, s-sorry! I... god, I don't... w-what...?"
  227. >She lifted her head to see him staring wide-eyed at the pink lines slowly fading from his foreleg.
  228. "Don't worry, you'll be okay now."
  229. >He looked up at her, his eyes wild and not quite able to focus on her.
  230. "Whatever you saw can't hurt you anymore."
  231. >"The fuck WAS that!?"
  232. >Twilight shook her head then winced as her headache spiked from the motion and she felt a wave of nausea and weakness. She gave him a somewhat strained smile.
  233. "I'll explain later. Right now I need you to get a hold of yourself. I am still your patient, right?"
  234. >The sound of her weak, shaky voice seemed to get his attention more than her actual words. He vigorously rubbed his face and took several deep breaths before looking up at her again with a somewhat sheepish smile.
  235. >"Sorry. Okay... good grief, and I just threw you aside?"
  236. >He leaned over her nervously, but she grinned and gave him a too-casual shrug.
  237. "Eh, I landed on my good side."
  238. >He gave a dry chuckle at that then carefully slid her back to the center of the table.
  239. >"I'm, uh... I usually work with animals. I'm not really used to patients that talk to me."
  240. >Twilight furrowed her brows in confusion but decided they could talk about that later. Her doctor was the last person she needed to be antagonizing.
  241. >"So you, uh... I assume you're dizzy, nauseous, headache, sleepy?" She carefully nodded and he continued, "Yes, well... you obviously have a concussion and normally I'd say you need to sleep it off right now, but, uh..."
  242. >He hesitated then fetched something from what appeared to be some sort of frozen container.
  243. >"Well, to be honest," he said as he returned to her, "I got no fuckin' clue what to do with this thing and I was hoping since you CAN talk you could explain to me how this heals."
  244. >Twilight looked down at what he held and gasped, tears springing to her eyes as she saw the broken fragment of her livelihood, her special talent, her dear and precious horn.
  245. "Oh my... thank Celestia you found it! I... we hurried off so quick and... y-you were so quiet I thought..."
  246. >She closed her eyes as she struggled not to cry from the intense relief. She had been trying so hard not to worry about it, fearing it was lost forever but...
  247. >Twilight suddenly looked up and gave him a broad, teary-eyed smile, almost giggling at his comically confused expression.
  248. "Thank you! Just... thank you so much! You have no idea how important it is and what this... Um, r-right. Okay, just, uh... just make sure it's clean, line it up with my horn, and secure it in place. My body will do the rest. It IS magical after all."
  249. >He gave her an odd look before carefully cleaning both ends of the break, but she stopped him just before he set it in place.
  250. "Um, Doctor? The broken piece... w-well, the core is safe now. You can take a, um... a sample."
  251. >His face twisted into a guilty cringe, but she touched his shoulder with a hoof to stop him from turning away.
  252. "No, it's okay, I understand, really. I... I probably would have done the same thing in your hooves."
  253. >Looking down at the horn fragment in his hoof-paw-thing, he let out a weary sigh then slowly picked up another scalpel.
  254. >"You're certain?" he said, looking up at her just before the knife touched the dim, lifeless material.
  255. "I promise, Doctor. The energy comes from me, not the horn."
  256. >He nodded and, with even more precision than most unicorns could manage, scooped an incredibly tiny sliver of the core into a vial like she had noticed earlier, scribbling a label onto a little sticker which he then placed across the cap and down the side of the bottle.
  257. "Tamper-resistant labels?"
  258. >The question seemed to surprise him, but he nodded.
  259. >"I've been recording everything too," he said, gesturing to an odd device on his chest, "No way anyone would believe me otherwise," then as an afterthought he added, "Not quite sure I believe it myself..."
  260. >Twilight didn't respond as she needed to concentrate while he slowly pressed the broken fragment into place.
  261. >She made a conscious effort and pushed the magic out just like she had read, giving it the chance to reinvigorate the dead core and begin the healing process. In theory, her body should handle the rest from there.
  262. >She felt a small pang of sympathy and sadness for Fizzlepop and her permanent disfigurement. After all, she was the only reason Twilight had researched healing a broken horn in the first place, but unfortunately her research had revealed a horn could only be repaired if it was still mostly intact.
  263. >They had excavated an enormous area in and around the cave where Berrytwist had been injured as a filly, but eventually had been forced to concede that it was gone forever.
  264. >Her doctor securing the broken tip with some sort of adhesive bandage brought her back to the present and she relaxed as she felt the life slowly returning to her horn.
  265. "Good, it actually worked..."
  266. >He frowned with sudden concern and she waved an exasperated hoof at his expression.
  267. "Oh, don't look at me like that, I've read all about it! I've just never actually known of it being done. It's not like horns break every day, you know."
  268. >"No, I don't know."
  269. >Surprised by his sharp tone, she glanced up at him then awkwardly averted her gaze.
  270. "Oh... right, I suppose you wouldn't."
  271. >He stepped back and she struggled to sit up with her injured leg, feeling strangely abashed and unable to meet his eyes.
  272. >"Well... since you're no longer dying and haven't run away yet..." his tone suddenly became gentle and friendly, "How's about some introductions, eh?"
  273. >She looked up into his charming grin as he extended a hoof-paw toward her and said, "My name's Anonymous, Anon for short."
  274. >Thinking this was some sort of greeting ritual, she slowly raised her hoof to mirror his own foreleg then jumped in surprise when he grabbed it and gently moved it up and down.
  275. >"You seemed just as surprised as I was when you saw me, so I guess you don't know what I am either? Well I'm a 'human,' a highly-evolved kind of ape or monkey."
  276. >She nodded awkwardly, then tried to smile and respond in kind.
  277. "Um... w-well my name is Twilight. Twilight Sparkle, that is. I'm a unicorn... er, well, an alicorn princess, really. I'm a pony, like a pegasus or an earth pony... o-or I guess a normal unicorn. You know, without the wings. Somepony told me once we're descended from 'hore-says' but... well, I couldn't find a source for that anywhere, not even in the Canterlot Royal Library, and I mean, if it's not there, where WOULD it be?"
  278. >She giggled nervously, then the room suddenly veered crazily and the human lurched forward to catch her before she could topple onto her side.
  279. >"Riiight yeah, the concussion. That's, uh... that's kind of important. Here, come on."
  280. >His forelegs wrapped around her barrel and she let out a faint whinny of protest, but her head felt like it was rolling around without her and she didn't have the strength to resist.
  281. >Anon slowly carried her into a dark room and gently laid her down in a bed that was bigger, warmer, and more comfy than anything she had ever felt in her life. She realized he was quietly speaking and tried to concentrate on his voice.
  282. >"I don't have a guest bed set up so just sleep in my bed for now, okay? I'll wake you up in a few hours with water and a small bit of food. You just relax and try not to think too hard so your brain can recover."
  283. >Twilight mumbled something that may have vaguely resembled words, then promptly fell asleep.
  284. ...
  285. >As Anon pulled his blanket up to the mare's neck, he couldn't help but smile when she let out a contented little sigh and cutely wiggled the tip of her muzzle under a fetlock.
  286. >Truth be told, he wasn't quite sure what to do with a patient that was actually sentient, but at least she seemed friendly.
  287. >Leaving the bedroom door ajar, he began to put the kitchen back to normal, restocking the medical bag and returning it to his office, sliding various kitchen items into place, and setting the decorative basket in the middle of his now pristine island counter.
  288. >Next he opened the freezer and began to rearrange the samples he had hastily placed inside, sliding them one by one into a neat row along the side of the freezer.
  289. >However, the moment his fingers touched the vial containing the horn core sample, his mind was abruptly filled with warped visions of the disturbing hallucinations he had suffered earlier.
  290. >Anon recoiled violently, stumbling backwards and catching himself with an elbow on the counter, but the unsettling images left him as suddenly as they had appeared, leaving him impotent and slumped against the counter.
  291. >His breath came in short, ragged gasps as he watched the freezer door slowly swing shut with a muted thump.
  292. >He passed a hand over his face and muttered quietly to himself.
  293. "Gonna be fun trying to sleep tonight..."
  294. >Wishing nothing more than to forget the aimless terror that still clawed at his chest, he forced himself to take a deep breath and stand up straight, then he glanced at the microwave clock and rolled his eyes.
  295. >It wasn't even noon and he'd already been through at least three days' worth of stress!
  296. >Rubbing his throbbing elbow, he took a good long moment to calm himself down then pulled out his phone and dialed his receptionist at the clinic.
  297. "Hey Sally, it's me. Listen, something came up and... yeah yeah, I'm fine, just, uh... do me a favor and apologize to Mary-ann, would you? Yeah, with the calico. No, that's not for another week, It's just I was gonna check on that infected claw later today. Eh, probably not, but still. Yeah, 'course. Alright, thank ya much."
  298. >He hung up and let out a heavy sigh, intensely relieved to know he wouldn't have to head in today.
  299. >Well, so long as no more emergencies came in at least, but really, three in one day would just be silly.
  300. >With one look at the freezer, he decided the samples were just fine the way they were.
  301. >He grabbed a bagel, walked out into the living room, put on some soft music and picked up the book he had started last night.
  302. >All he wanted right now was a good distraction.
  303. ...
  304. >"Hey, uh... Twilight Sparkle?"
  305. >A light tapping followed the soft words and Twilight reluctantly cracked open an eye.
  306. >She briefly tensed in alarm, not recognizing where she was, then she relaxed when she saw the strange creature that had been taking care of her and gave him a sheepish smile.
  307. "Morning, doctor."
  308. >By the dim glow coming from the thick curtain she could see his own somewhat awkward grin as he approached, a small tray held in his forelegs.
  309. >"Well... afternoon, really. Been asleep for a good, oh... five or six hours, I'd say."
  310. >Her ears folded back and she began to mumble an apology, but he interrupted her with a low chuckle.
  311. >"You ain't done nothing wrong, girl. Your concussion does need the rest, after all. No, I just wanted to, uh... y'know, check my handiwork. 'Sides, I figured you could get some fluids while I'm at it."
  312. >He held up a small glass of water with a straw. Without thinking, she reflexively reached out with her telekinesis, but she felt only a brief fizzle of magic before the dull ache in her skull flared up angrily and she winced, releasing the unformed spell before her horn even had time to light up.
  313. >As the pain slowly faded, Twilight furrowed her brows in confusion. She wasn't really surprised that it hadn't worked, but why had that simple spell failed when she had been able to save Anon before her horn was even mended?
  314. >Was her horn core draining her of magic while it healed? Her books hadn't said anything about that, but it wasn't as if arcane biology was all that well understood... Most unicorns didn't put any more thought into their magic than it took to float stuff around, nevermind analyzing and recording how their magic worked in the first place.
  315. >Suddenly realizing Anon was watching her with a mildly alarmed expression, she came back to her senses and hurried to reassure him.
  316. "Oh, s-sorry! I just, uh... I forgot it was broken, that's all. I'm okay though."
  317. >Silently cocking an eyebrow, he held the glass up again and she awkwardly grabbed it with a fetlock.
  318. >Just as she brought the straw to her muzzle, she suddenly realized just how vulnerable she really was.
  319. >She, Twilight Sparkle, an alicorn princess and wielder of the Element of Magic, was in an entirely unknown land with no magic from a broken horn, no flight from a broken wing, and no earth pony strength from two broken legs.
  320. >Worse yet, she hadn't explained what she was doing to anypony aside from vaguely mentioning to Spike that she was testing a new portal spell and she'd be back soon.
  321. >How long would it take him to realize something was wrong? Who would he tell once he did? What if nopony took him seriously?
  322. >Worst of all, she hadn't been able to predict where she would appear in this world, so how would anypony even find her when they got here!?
  323. >Who knows how long she might be trapped here!
  324. >A nervous flutter surged up inside her barrel and her fur stood on end as a tremor rattled up her spine.
  325. >Anon grabbed her fetlock in both hoof-paws, catching the glass before it could fall and causing her to yelp in shock and alarm.
  326. >"Whoa, girl, shhhhh shh shh... It's alright."
  327. >Twilight stared wide-eyed and panting into the human's face, but he gave her a friendly smile and gently laid his paw on her neck.
  328. >"There now, it's okay. Look at me, there's a good girl."
  329. >She tried to focus on her breathing, but the rapid heaving of her chest simply made her even more anxious. Instead, she stared into Anon's face and tried to concentrate on his deep, reassuring voice.
  330. >"That's right, there ya go. Don't you worry, I got you. You're safe here."
  331. >He slid his paw up her neck to cup her cheek and Twilight covered it with her own hoof.
  332. >"Everything'll be alright. We'll get you through this, you'll see."
  333. >The leisurely pace of his words dragged against her racing mind, suppressing her panic until she was able to get her breathing under control again.
  334. >"Good... that's good, well done, girl."
  335. >His paw was so warm, so comforting, and his smile was just so kindly and understanding...
  336. >The last of her resolve crumbled as the various stresses and rapid-fire ups and downs of the last few hours overwhelmed her.
  337. >Twilight closed her eyes, leaned into his gentle touch, and wept.
  338. >She slumped forward and clung to the human, feeling more helpless than ever before in her life, her body shaking with the force of her wretched sobs.
  339. >His forelimb lay across her withers and awkwardly stroked her neck in an attempt to comfort her.
  340. >The strange creature had done so much for her already... she tried to give him a little nuzzle to show him her gratitude.
  341. >Eventually her tears ran dry and she simply leaned against him, utterly exhausted but feeling much better for having released the pent up stress and anxiety.
  342. >Anon shifted uneasily and murmured, "So... you okay now?"
  343. >She choked out a weak laugh and pushed herself upright.
  344. "No, probably not... but I'm better, thank you. And, um... sorry."
  345. >"That's alright," he said with a little shake of his head, "I just... didn't know what to do, that's all. Most of my patients can't even talk, nevermind break down sobbing."
  346. "I guess we're both, uh... a little out of our element."
  347. >"Yeah... you, uh... you really ought to drink something, though. I mixed in some medicine that should help with the pain, too."
  348. >Once again he slowly held the glass of water out to her.
  349. >Concentrating hard, she tried to simply push the straw around to face her but although her horn flickered, she was unable to manage even that tiny spell.
  350. >Letting out a little sigh, she resigned herself to relying on Anon to hold the glass and smiled gratefully at him as she leaned forward to grab the straw in her muzzle.
  351. >When she'd had her fill, he proceeded to check on her various injuries and, after a few minutes, said everything was looking great.
  352. >"You might even be able to walk around if I replaced these braces with casts. Hell, I could do that right now if you feel up to it."
  353. >Her ears perked at that.
  354. "Being able to walk does sound nice..."
  355. >Anon grinned, "Well come on, then." He reached toward her then hesitated, looking abashed.
  356. "What's wrong?"
  357. >"Uh... I was gonna carry you to my office, but since you're... well, intelligent, I didn't want to just grab you like other animals."
  358. >Twilight frowned at hearing that comparison again then shrugged to herself and leaned toward him.
  359. >He took that as permission and carefully lifted her in his forelegs, one against her chest, the other under her hindlegs and pinning her tail down.
  360. >"I'll move slowly, but let me know right away if you feel dizzy or nauseous."
  361. >As he carried her out of the bedroom and down a short hall, Twilight caught a glimpse out the window and was surprised by how similar the land looked to Equestria.
  362. >He carried her into his office, laid her down on a small couch by the window, and sat down in the most complicated chair Twilight had ever seen.
  363. >The room was packed full of things across the various shelves and display cases throughout the room, mounted to the walls, and strewn across not one but two desks. There was a lot to look at and very little that she recognized.
  364. >Needless to say, she was a bit overwhelmed by all the otherworldly artifacts around her.
  365. >"...Twilight?"
  366. >Her attention snapped back to the human, then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself.
  367. "Sorry. Just a lot to take in."
  368. >"Ah yeah, sorry. I keep a lot of stuff here but I try to keep it tidy so it doesn't just look like clutter. How do you feel?"
  369. >She opened her eyes again and kept her gaze focused on him for the time being.
  370. "Um... slow?"
  371. >He raised an eyebrow questioningly so she tried to elaborate, rubbing the side of her head with a hoof.
  372. "I don't know... I haven't had any trouble remembering things and I'm not confused or anything, I just feel sort of slow and stupid. Does that make sense?"
  373. >"Of course, that's from the concussion."
  374. >He got up and crouched in front of her, holding up one small part of his hoof-paw.
  375. >"Follow my finger with your eyes, please."
  376. "Finger... so is this your 'fing,' then?"
  377. >She poked a hoof at the larger part of his paw and he looked confused for a moment, then he burst out laughing.
  378. >"Oh, of course, you have hooves! Here, look."
  379. >Still grinning, he raised his other paw and spread it wide, then used his finger to gesture as he spoke, either pointing to a specific place or circling a larger area.
  380. >"This is my hand at the end of my arm... what I guess you'd call a 'foreleg.' These are fingers and this is a thumb - notice it's angled differently. Then at the end of my leg - just leg, not hindleg - is my foot, or two feet. The small finger things are called toes and they help me balance upright without a tail."
  381. >He hesitated, then he looked somewhat abashed and said, "Uh... sorry. You got all that?"
  382. >Twilight blinked as she absorbed the sudden torrent of information, then she furrowed her brows in concentration and pointed with her hoof.
  383. "Fingers, thumb, hand, arm, leg, foot and... oh, toes. Yep, I got it! Is anything else different?"
  384. >Anon looked a bit taken aback as he replied, "Uh, y-yeah but just... just small differences like cannon, fetlock, barrel, muzzle... I thought you said you felt slow and stupid?"
  385. "Well yeah, I almost forgot the word for toes! That would've been embarrassing."
  386. >Twilight smiled nervously, not sure why he was looking at her so weird, then he just shrugged his shoulders and held his finger up again.
  387. >She watched his finger move around in six directions, then he held it still and had her turn her head left and right while keeping her eyes on his finger, and finally asked her to touch her hoof to various places on her body in rapid succession.
  388. >"Alright, I'll be honest... I'm a little out of my league here. You might be better off talking to a physician than a veterinarian like me."
  389. "Why? What's wrong with talking to you?"
  390. >"Well," he said with a laugh, "Mostly it's the fact that you're talking at all!"
  391. >She must have looked as dismayed as she felt because his expression softened and he patted the side of her neck reassuringly.
  392. >"I don't mean it like that, girl. It's just that I treat animals, you see? Cats, dogs, farm animals, horses... occasionally stuff like birds or snakes, but not humans. Most of my patients aren't even intelligent enough to recognize themselves in a mirror, nevermind talk... or instantly memorize a bunch of new terminology for that matter."
  393. >Twilight's eyes widened in realization.
  394. "So all this time you thought I was just some dumb animal?"
  395. >Before she even had a chance to get upset about that, he was already shaking his head.
  396. >"No, I knew you were special from the moment you spoke and I've been pretty much treating you like a human, as... unbelievable as that might be."
  397. >His voice and expression had shifted into something like awe and Twilight suddenly jumped to a conclusion.
  398. "Humans are the only intelligent species in this world, aren't they?"
  399. >She could almost watch his thoughts on his face as he processed the implications of her choice of words.
  400. >"In THIS world?"
  401. >Twilight gave him an almost apologetic smile and lowered her voice to a soft murmur.
  402. "I did tell you I was from Equestria."
  403. >"...And that's another world, is it?"
  404. >She nodded slowly and she was surprised to see his expression turn suddenly angry.
  405. >"Oh ok, so what," he said scornfully, "You're an alien, is that it? Where's your spaceship, huh?"
  406. "What? N-No, I... you..."
  407. >He just glared at her stammering then abruptly stood up and muttered, "Should've fuckin' realized when you just happened to speak english..."
  408. >Twilight instinctively shrank back into the sofa and struggled to keep her fear under control as he towered over her. How had she never realized how big he was?
  409. "I... I'm sorry, I meant no offense!"
  410. >He snorted disdainfully and his hand flopped in a gesture she didn't understand. She forced herself to sit up again and made her voice plaintive.
  411. "Anon, please, I swear I never meant to upset you. I don't even know what I did!"
  412. >"Oh, you don't, do ya? Thought you'd just pull the wool over my eyes, easy as you please?"
  413. >Twilight absently realized his accent was getting thicker in his anger and he was sounding more and more like Big McIntosh.
  414. "But I... no, I was just going to explain--"
  415. >"No, fuck that, I ain't listenin' to any more of your lies. Good fuckin' job on that 'wing' though, had me completely fooled."
  416. "W-What? Lies!? I haven't lied to you once!"
  417. >"Oh yeah? Then explain this!"
  418. >His hand seemed impossibly large as he reached down and grabbed at her horn.
  419. >As confusion was replaced by cold terror, Twilight Sparkle did not think, she merely acted.
  420. >Magic surged up inside her, a small spark shot out of her horn, and then it began to glow.
  421. ...
  422. >Anon's abrupt rise to anger had surprised him nearly as much as it had Twilight.
  423. >Her talk of other worlds had made him suspicious, of course, but he actually wasn't sure why that had made him so angry.
  424. >Thing is, a man tends to reconsider his priorities when his back is up against the ceiling.
  425. >Yeah.
  426. >He was floating.
  427. >The mare sat on the couch almost directly below him and he could only stare at her in confused awe.
  428. >Well, not so much at her as at her horn.
  429. >It was surrounded by a bright magenta aura which gently undulated up to the tip and, more importantly, it perfectly matched the aura that engulfed his body.
  430. >However, even as he considered the implications of that realization, a spark suddenly shot from the mare's horn, she let out a yelp of pain, and the aura around her horn flickered and died.
  431. "Wha--"
  432. >Anon only managed a surprised yelp before the side of his face thumped into the thick cushion of the couch.
  433. >He was saved by his wild flailing which managed to slap the back of his office chair and twisted him slightly as he fell. Thus, rather than landing face first, his side struck the seat of the couch and his legs landed off-center from his torso, twisting his hips to the ground instead of slamming his weight down on his knees.
  434. >All in all, the impact was thoroughly spread out across his body and no one part of him took the full force of the fall, so he suffered no major injuries.
  435. >That wasn't to say it didn't hurt.
  436. "Nnnngh..."
  437. >Twilight gasped as his upper body slid off the couch and he slumped wearily to the floor.
  438. >"Oh my gosh," the mare said in a shaky voice, "I'm... Oh Anon, I'm so sorry! Are you okay?"
  439. >He leaned heavily on his elbow and struggled to keep his voice at least somewhat restrained.
  440. "What the fuck just happened?"
  441. >"Um... y-you fell?"
  442. >Anon rolled his eyes.
  443. "Yeah, I noticed."
  444. >He slowly lifted himself to the couch and laid sideways against the back cushion. She looked a little confused but mostly just nervous as he glared at her.
  445. "I mean what the fuck was holding me up there?"
  446. >She cringed and gave him a plaintive look, her ears folding flat against her head.
  447. >"I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean it! I just--you were so angry a-and I got so scared when you reached for my horn--"
  448. "So you were holding me up?"
  449. >She nodded and nervously rubbed her foreleg with a hoof.
  450. >"Y-Yes, with my magic, but I only meant to push you away, I was just so scared you would break my horn," her voice gained an edge of desperation, "Please, Anon, I swear I never meant to hurt you!"
  451. >Anon rubbed his forehead with one hand. She seemed genuinely concerned, but her high, nervous voice was giving him a headache.
  452. "Alright alright! Just shut up a moment, let me think."
  453. >She started to apologize again but he cut her off with a sharp gesture, then closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.
  454. >That strange aura had to have come from her, that much was obvious. Not only had it looked the same as the one around her horn, but he had fallen the moment she yelped and the aura vanished. She had called it magic, but surely...
  455. >Anon impatiently brushed that thought aside for the moment.
  456. >First and foremost he needed to get a hold of himself. The day had already been off to a bad start with that dog that would probably still die even after his best effort, but then he'd hit this mare, rushed like mad to save her life, had those horrid visions or whatever the hell they were... then his book had had such a disappointing ending, and finally all this shit!
  457. >Anon slumped deeper into the couch and spent several minutes just focusing on his breathing.
  458. >During that time, the pain of his fall slowly faded to a dull ache that told him he'd probably feel even worse in the morning, and the mare's anxious panting settled into a steady rhythm much like his own.
  459. >Eventually he felt reasonably in control again and he thought back to his angry outburst.
  460. >Now that he was thinking clearly, he couldn't even see any reason to be angry at her. Sure, she might have been lying about the 'other world,' but he really should have simply sought proof or further clarification.
  461. >Hell, for all he knew, she might have only meant 'world' in a figurative sense, but he'd instantly assumed she was simply lying.
  462. >It was almost as if he'd been waiting for an opportunity to explode.
  463. >Anon nearly groaned aloud as he realized what must have happened: he'd simply been overwhelmed by all the stress from today and had taken it out on her like some sort of teenaged jackass.
  464. >Damn that book for ruining his relaxation time! He should turn it into tinder!
  465. >He took another few calming breaths, then brought his thoughts back around to the matter at hand.
  466. >There was no denying the fact that something very strange was happening here. He was still skeptical of her claims of other worlds and magic of course, but he'd just have to ask her to clarify. Maybe she had some sort of proof for him or he was simply misunderstanding her entirely.
  467. >In any case, he would certainly need to apologize.
  468. >When he finally opened his eyes, Twilight was slumped against the back of the sofa much like he was, but she had been watching him warily and her ears flattened as soon as their eyes met.
  469. >Aware that he had likely terrified her and badly damaged her trust in him, he made no movement, kept his voice low, and chose his words carefully.
  470. "Twilight Sparkle, I want to apologize for my behavior."
  471. >From the way she tilted her head and furrowed her brows, he guessed that wasn't what she was expecting.
  472. "I'm sorry for abusing your trust and frightening you when you've done nothing wrong. There's no excuse for what I did."
  473. >He chanced giving her a sheepish grin.
  474. "Honestly it's pretty unusual for me to lose control like that, but... well, it has been a pretty unusual day."
  475. >Her eyes widened as she seemed to finally process his words.
  476. >"Wait, so..." she said in a tiny voice, "You're not mad at me?"
  477. >Anon let out an incredulous snort of laughter.
  478. "Hell no! If anything, you should be mad at me!"
  479. >"B-But I--you were so furious... a-and I still don't even know what I did!"
  480. >Watching her carefully in case she didn't want it, we slowly reached out and lightly touched her hoof with his fingertips.
  481. "Listen... You didn't do anything wrong. What happened was my own fault and no one else's, alright? I let my stress get the better of me and you just happened to be the scapegoat for my frustration, that's all."
  482. >With a grimace, he withdrew his hand and turned away from her, dropping his gaze regretfully.
  483. "It was a damn fool thing to do and I feel like shit for doing it... especially after what you've already been through today."
  484. >Twilight seemed oddly perplexed, rubbing her mane with a hoof and looking more confused than anything else.
  485. >"I was just so worried... I though I'd done something wrong."
  486. >He was surprised to hear her voice thick with emotion.
  487. "Huh? I figured you'd be angry... hell, or maybe just scared of me."
  488. >She looked up at him suddenly, eyes shining in the warm light of his office.
  489. >"I was scared of losing you!"
  490. >Anon could only shake his head in bewilderment at that.
  491. "Losing me? What? I don't follow, why would you give a damn about some old stranger like me? Especially after I was such a jerk."
  492. >"Because you... y-you're..."
  493. >She trailed off and averted her gaze, taking a long, slow breath in an attempt to suppress her tears.
  494. >"Anon, look at me," she said in a low, pained voice, "I have no friends, I have no power... hay, I can't even walk, and there's little hope of rescue for at least a few days, maybe even longer."
  495. >As if expecting he might snap at her, she tentatively shuffled closer and laid her hoof on his forearm.
  496. >"I wasn't sure what would happen when I came here, but I did expect I would have my normal abilities at the very least. Now..."
  497. >Whether she was trying to trust him again or if she was simply allowing herself to be vulnerable, she leaned forward and laid her head on his shoulder.
  498. >"I'm totally helpless right now, Anon. If I alienated you... well, I might not survive long enough to BE rescued."
  499. >He'd been expecting her to be cautious or aloof or even angry, but her sincere relief and heartfelt appreciation had thrown him for a bit of a loop. Still, after a moment's hesitation, he slowly wrapped an arm around her shoulders in a sort of half hug.
  500. "Hey... I ain't going anywhere, okay? You're too special to just turn aside like some mangy stray dog. Honestly, you could've been the meanest, scary-est beast I ever did see and I'd still have tried to keep you around."
  501. >Twilight sniffled a bit, "R-Really?"
  502. "Really. That's partly why I feel so shitty about that little stunt I pulled earlier. I'd never have forgiven myself if you... well, I dunno, spirited yourself away or something."
  503. >He tried to give her a grin and a little playful jostle to cheer her up.
  504. "So relax! You don't gotta go anywhere 'till YOU decide to go, alright? You'll be welcome here anytime at all, promise."
  505. >"Well... okay. Thank you, Anon. You don't know how relieved I am to hear that."
  506. >She looked up at him, her eyes slightly damp.
  507. >"I really don't know what I would do without you right now."
  508. >Anon gently tapped her snout with a finger and couldn't help but smile at the way it made her snort and wiggle her muzzle.
  509. "But you do have me. I'm just sorry I put a wedge between us with that assholery of mine. Look, I'll admit I don't quite understand what's going on here, but I can see plain enough that you need help and I'm glad to give it. "
  510. >With a bit of a groan, Anon got to his feet and turned to the mare.
  511. "Anywho, enough moping around. How about we get you that cast, huh?"
  512. >"But... aren't you hurt?"
  513. >He waved away her concern with a casual flip of his hand.
  514. "Aw, I'm just sore, nothing serious. Take more than a fall onto this big, fluffy couch to take me down. C'mon, up you get."
  515. >Ignoring the protests of both the mare and his aching back, he knelt and began carefully removing the bandage and splint from her foreleg.
  516. "Hmm... it's looking pretty good so far. Tell me if this hur--ah, yep, sorry."
  517. >There was almost no swelling around the fracture but it was still extremely sensitive to pressure. Not that he was surprised - it hadn't even been twelve hours yet.
  518. "So, normally I wouldn't even let you try to walk for at least a couple of days, but you're awfully light and this here's about the cleanest damn break I ever seen, so I'm gonna give you a choice. And remember, casts are long term, so whatever you choose, you'll be stuck with it for a couple of weeks, alright? I'll probably be doing the same to your hind leg, too."
  519. >He sat back and gave her his most serious expression, but her own gaze was so clearly attentive it hardly even seemed necessary.
  520. "Option A: I wrap you up in a big plaster cast all the way from hoof to shoulder. It'll be big, ugly, heavy, awkward as hell to walk around in, and by the time you heal, your whole leg will be filthy with old sweat and matted fur... but you'll be able to walk just as soon as it sets here in a few hours. Option B: I use--"
  521. >"Option B is fine."
  522. >Anon froze mid-word, then gave her a hard stare.
  523. "But you ain't even heard it yet."
  524. >She shrugged nonchalantly, "Isn't it obvious? A lighter, cleaner, easier cast, but I won't be able to walk for a couple more days, right? I'd rather that... if you don't mind carrying me around, that is."
  525. >He hesitated another moment, then grinned and shrugged.
  526. "Alright then, fiberglass it is. Wait here and don't move that leg."
  527. >Most of what he needed was in the room already, but he had to fetch a large bowl of water for the resin. When he returned, he instructed her on how to position her limb for him and chuckled gently when she immediately moved as he asked.
  528. "Usually you'd be unconscious for this and an assistant would be holding the limb, but having you help out is pretty nice."
  529. >Careful not to jostle the barely-healed fracture, he slid a foam stockinette over her foreleg, then began wrapping it in cotton padding. It was strange working with the unfamiliar shape of her body, but he kept to standard procedure and gave her fetlock joint some extra padding so it wouldn't be too uncomfortable.
  530. >Next was the cast itself. He donned a pair of exam gloves and wet the roll of fiberglass to activate the resin, then carefully began wrapping her leg, immobilizing the fetlock but leaving her hoof exposed and stopping just below the knee.
  531. >Twilight had been watching raptly the entire time, and as he began layering on a second roll of fiberglass, she said, "Fascinating... this is so much more efficient than the way earth ponies do it."
  532. "Oh? How's that?"
  533. >"Well... it's just they have to do everything with their hooves or mouth. I still don't understand how they manage some of the things they do without magic, but those hands of yours... you may as well be a unicorn!"
  534. >Anon frowned as he began to mold the cast, sliding his hands up and down the cast to press it close and evenly distribute the pressure. Twilight eyed him sheepishly when he didn't respond.
  535. >"I'm sorry... I can stop talking about magic if it bothers you."
  536. "Oh, no, it's not that. It's just..."
  537. >He trailed off, not wanting to just come out and say he didn't believe her right to her face.
  538. >Then in a small voice, she asked, "Anon... can humans do magic? Or any creature, for that matter?"
  539. >Anon bit back his initial terse reply. This little mare was too damn perceptive!
  540. >After a brief pause, he let out a small sigh and tried to be a bit more tactful in his approach.
  541. "Alright, look... what I think of as magic is either just clever slight of hand and props that trick you, or it's make-believe fantasy stuff like wizards and sorcerers. In other words, it's all fake. You're talking like magic is real, so how about you explain what you mean when you say magic so we're on the same page?"
  542. >He figured she'd be glad to talk about it, but instead she quailed at his suggestion.
  543. >"Just... explain magic? B-But... there's so much! Where would I even start? I may as well try to explain nature, or color, or... I don't know, everything! How can I explain everything?"
  544. "Whoa, easy girl! I ain't looking to get a college degree on the subject, I just want a basic idea of what you mean by the word."
  545. >If anything that seemed to bewilder her even further. Anon tried to smile patiently as he interrupted her stammering.
  546. "Here, maybe I can use your examples to show what I mean. Nature is all the stuff outside that nobody built, right? And color... color's just paints and pigments. You see? I ain't explaining color to a blind man, I'm just explaining it to you, and you know perfectly well what color is. That make sense?"
  547. >Twilight nodded, but she didn't seem any less agitated.
  548. >"I know what you want, but I..." she shook her head helplessly, "Anon, you don't understand, magic is EVERYTHING to me! It's my cutie mark, my field of study, what made me an alicorn in the first place... I mean, I'm a unicorn whose special talent is magic itself. Like, ALL magic! It's my entire livelihood and I just..."
  549. >Her voice trailed off as Anon leaned closer and gave her a reassuring smile.
  550. "Sounds to me like there ain't nobody more qualified to explain it."
  551. >She opened her mouth, then closed it again, momentarily at a loss for words.
  552. >Then her expression hardened, she let out a determined snort, and closed her eyes in concentration.
  553. >Several minutes later, the cast had nearly finished setting when she finally looked up at him again.
  554. >"Magic is the direct and conscious manipulation of energy."
  555. >Anon sat on the floor before her and nodded soberly as he removed his gloves.
  556. "Nicely done. Very concise."
  557. >Then he grinned and threw up his hands in a defeated shrug.
  558. "Unfortunately that doesn't sound like anything I've seen, so I guess there's no magic here."
  559. >Twilight returned his grin and rolled her eyes in mock irritation.
  560. >"Well that was a waste of time."
  561. >He raised his hands higher, comically exaggerating his shrug.
  562. "At least you'll know what to say next time."
  563. >"Yeah... I guess you're right. Still, if you don't know anything about magic," She rolled onto her side and thrust her injured hindleg at him, "then you'd better get to work while I explain."
  564. >He did bend over her leg and begin unwrapping the bandages, but he interrupted her before she could begin explaining.
  565. "Look girl, I don't mean to be rude but unless you can actually show me some magic, I ain't gonna believe it no matter how well you explain it."
  566. >"But I already showed you magic! Remember floating on the ceiling?"
  567. "Well yeah, of course, but I was a bit distracted at the time. I'm just saying you're asking me to believe in something I thought was fantasy my whole life, and--"
  568. >He cut himself off suddenly and shook his head with a dry chuckle.
  569. "Oh for pity's sake, listen to me. Talking about fantasy stuff like it's make-believe nonsense... when I'm talking to a goddamn unicorn!"
  570. >Twilight quietly interjected, "Um, alicorn."
  571. >He barked out a laugh, then waved a hand magnanimously.
  572. "Alright, miss alicorn, I give up. Explain away."
  573. >"It's okay, Anon," she said with a giggle, "You're not the first creature I've met that hasn't ever seen magic before, so I understand if it's hard for you to believe. I should at least be able to show you something small to prove myself."
  574. "Okay, what do you need?"
  575. >"Well, magic gets exponentially more difficult with size, weight, and distance, so I need something small and light..."
  576. >While Anon struggled with the ramifications of a horse that understood exponential growth, she peered around the room and eventually settled on his medical bag.
  577. >"Ah!" she exclaimed, drawing his attention back to her, "Could you tear off a small piece of this bandage material? That should do nicely."
  578. >He nodded, and when he placed the the tuft of gauze in her outstretched hoof, she lifted it to her face and furrowed her brows in concentration. Immediately, both her horn and the fabric were engulfed in the same pink aura that had held him earlier and the cotton floated up and hovered near the tip of her horn.
  579. >For a moment, Anon could only stare at it stupidly, then he waved his hand around it to check for strings and, finding none, poked it with his finger. When it didn't move, he prodded it harder and Twilight winced as the aura flickered slightly.
  580. >"Um, Anon? Injured horn, remember?"
  581. "Oh... sorry. I didn't realize."
  582. >He poked it again more gently and she giggled, then the aura suddenly reached out toward his finger with an amoebic tendril.
  583. "W-Wha--"
  584. >He reflexively yanked his hand back but, as if she'd been expecting that very reaction, Twilight casually hooked his wrist with her fetlock, smiling patiently.
  585. >"It's okay, Anon, it's just me."
  586. >Slowly, she drew his hand close again, and he felt a slight tingle as the magic surrounded the tip of his finger. The sensation grew to a subtle pressure as the aura shifted and tried to lift his finger. Curious, he tried to resist the movement, but the aura simply relaxed and Twilight rolled her eyes with a grin.
  587. >"I'm not giving myself a headache just to prove a point, Anon. I'm lucky I can do even this much after burning out earlier."
  588. "But what is it?"
  589. >"Telekinesis. It's the most basic spell and every unicorn can cast it to some degree."
  590. >Anon gently tugged his finger free from the glow and stared at her.
  591. "No, I mean... what IS it? What's it made of, how does it work, how can you control it... I just don't understand."
  592. >She gave him a wry smile, "I thought you didn't want to get a college degree on the subject?"
  593. "But... y-you..."
  594. >"Sure I could spend the next few weeks explaining harmonic thoughts, fundamental elements, and the various essences of energy..." she giggled lightly, "but unless you expect to grow a horn in the near future, there isn't much point."
  595. >Anon simply stared at her until she laughed again and gestured to her hindleg.
  596. >"If you please, doctor? Look, I promise I'll show you more magic as my horn heals. Deal?"
  597. "Uh... more magic?"
  598. >"Of course! I did say that was the most basic of spells, and not even a very good showing of it. Wait until my horn heals, then I'll really show you the good stuff."
  599. >Even as willing he had been moments earlier, Anon was having real trouble believing what he had just seen. Still, after he lightly shook himself as if to settle his thoughts, he bent over her hindleg and got to work on her cast.
  600. ...
  601. >Twilight kept quiet as Anon molded the cast around her hindleg, guessing from his expression that he needed a moment to process what had just happened.
  602. >Actually, she was mostly just trying not to giggle at his reaction. She always did enjoy the first time a creature gets to see magic, and though she regretted she couldn't give him a proper demonstration in her crippled state, she was eagerly looking forward to his face once he sees her teleport.
  603. >Of course, she was also looking forward to not feeling so defenseless. Yes, he'd frightened her with that angry outburst, but his apology had seemed heartfelt and he'd genuinely seemed upset with himself for what happened, so she was willing to give him a second chance. Still, she'd have to be more careful around him until she was in better condition.
  604. >She was pulled from her thoughts as Anon sat back with an air of satisfaction and sighed.
  605. >"Alrighty, all done."
  606. "Thank you, Anon."
  607. >"Ah, just doing my job," he said modestly as he removed the odd hand-shoes he wore and tossed them into a bin near his desk. "Now you'll want to spend most of the next twenty-four hours with those casts raised up on pillows to avoid swelling. Feeling itchy or sore under the cast is okay, but be sure and tell me right away if you feel a persistent burning sensation or if your hooves start going numb."
  608. "Um... is that likely?"
  609. >"Oh no, not at all," he said with a dismissive wave of one hand, "Especially not with such clean and simple fractures, it's just in case, y'know? Now your wing on the other hand... that's another story."
  610. >His tone made her ears flop down in concern.
  611. "Is it that bad? I will be able to fly again, right?"
  612. >"Uh, well..." her breath caught at his uncertain tone but he quickly continued, "I mean, probably? It's just I ain't exactly an expert on winged equines, y'know?"
  613. "Oh... Still, I'd like to know, just how bad is it?"
  614. >"Not too bad, really. My best guess is you should be back to yourself within a month."
  615. >Twilight shook her head stubbornly as he finished putting away his materials and sat beside her on the couch.
  616. "I'm not looking for reassurance, I want to understand my injuries. Please, Anon."
  617. >He stared at her for a long moment, then slowly nodded.
  618. >"I suppose you do have the right to ask. Well, your wing was dislocated and had a moderately severe compound fracture in the largest bone, the first one from your barrel. I surgically realigned the pieces and reinforced the fracture with lightweight titanium rods. It'll take longer to heal but it's a lot more likely to support your weight once it does heal."
  619. >He gestured at her other injuries as he continued.
  620. >"You already know about the fractured legs and horn of course, but that bandaged hoof had a really deep gash through the frog as well. I used stronger suture than normal so it'll be pretty sore once the pain meds wear off, but it should be able to take your weight if you walk carefully."
  621. >There was a slight pause as he stroked his chin in thought, then shrugged.
  622. >"I think that's everything. None of those scrapes along your side were anything serious and I haven't noticed any symptoms of internal injuries aside from your concussion, and I guess that wasn't as severe as I thought from the way you're talking."
  623. >Twilight lowered her gaze as she took in the information. She'd learned the basics of earth pony medicine mostly out of curiosity than any real need, but it meant she understood most of what he was saying - though the 'titanium rods' he mentioned were unfamiliar.
  624. >She was a bit surprised when Anon laid a comforting hand on her fetlock and she saw him smiling gently down at her.
  625. >"Hey, it could've been a lot worse, you know. Getting hit by a car like that could have easily killed you."
  626. >Figuring he must think she looked upset, she gave him a reassuring smile.
  627. "Oh, I'm okay, don't worry! I'll always be okay now so long as my horn is whole."
  628. >She faltered as she tried to imagine what kind of beast could have injured her so severely in a single blow.
  629. "Still, I think I'll stay inside until I have my magic back... i-if you don't mind, of course. I don't think I'd stand a chance if I was attacked by another one of those 'car' beasts."
  630. >"Attacked?" Anon looked briefly confused, then chuckled quietly and said, "A car ain't a wild beast, Twilight, it's just a big hunk of metal that rolled into you at about... oh, I dunno, forty or fifty miles an hour? I was going sixty before I slammed on the brakes."
  631. >He grimaced suddenly and averted his gaze, "And for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I tried to swerve out of the way, but I only had like a second to react before I ran into you."
  632. >It took her a moment to register what he was saying, then she couldn't help but fold her ears down and cringe away.
  633. "Wait... YOU did this to me?"
  634. >Anon held his hands up, looking taken aback.
  635. >"Whoa, hey, it was an accident! I was driving home, minding my own business, then you appeared in the middle of the road in front of me! Just in the wrong place at the wrong time, that's all."
  636. >Twilight forced herself to stay calm and think about this rationally. If he had attacked her on purpose and meant to hurt her, he wouldn't have gone to all the trouble of healing her, right?
  637. >After one more brief pause, she let out a little sigh and looked sheepishly up at him.
  638. "Well, I guess I can't blame you for that. I am the one who popped in front of you after all."
  639. >He relaxed visibly and let out a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness. Dunno what I'd do if you blamed or resented me for all this."
  640. >She let out a nervous giggle.
  641. "To tell the truth, I don't know what I'd do about it either."
  642. >Anon shot her a sour look and muttered, "I guess you'd drop me from the ceiling, huh?"
  643. "Oh! B-But I... that was--"
  644. >He grinned suddenly and cut her off with a wave of a hand.
  645. >"Relax, I'm only teasing," then his face twisted into a wince and he averted his gaze, "Seriously though, I didn't mean to frighten you... didn't think about how big and scary I must seem to you."
  646. >At that she couldn't help but be reminded of how he'd angrily reached out at her and the memory made her want to fold her ears back and turn away, but she stopped herself.
  647. >She had already decided to give him a second chance, so why was she allowing this awkward and uncomfortable wall to build up between them? If she was going to be stuck with this strange creature, she certainly didn't want them both stepping on eggshells around each other. Wasn't she was the Princess of Friendship? If anypony could befriend this human, it was her!
  648. >She took a short breath to collect herself, then slid across the couch to sit directly beside him and met his surprised look with a friendly smile.
  649. "Hey, cheer up, okay? I already forgave you, so stop moping!"
  650. >He furrowed his brows as if unsure he was hearing her correctly so she tried again in a more plaintive voice.
  651. "I mean it, Anon. Look, unless I'm not nearly as good a judge of character as I thought, you're just a friendly doctor who's under a little too much stress right now. The last thing you need is some weird pony acting grumpy and suspicious when you're just trying to help, right?"
  652. >If anything, he seemed more confused than ever.
  653. >"Well... I guess. But why the sudden change of heart?"
  654. >She shrugged casually and twisted around a bit to face him better.
  655. "It's not that sudden, really. I've been doing a lot of thinking and it just doesn't make sense any other way. I could go into detail, but basically I'm completely helpless right now and you're just being nice and trying to help when you could have taken advantage of my weakness. If that doesn't make you a good person, I don't know what does."
  656. >That seemed to surprise him but instead of seeming pleased, he rubbed the back of his head and hesitantly said, "Well, that's nice of you and all but... I did take those samples while you were unconscious."
  657. >Twilight had actually forgotten about that, but after a brief moment's thought she dismissed it with a wave of her hoof.
  658. "If you were going to sell them or something it'd be different, but they were obviously medical samples intended for scientific analysis, so I don't think I'll fault you for that. Honestly I'd probably do the same thing to you, given the opportunity. I am a scientist after all."
  659. >"You... you're a scientist? Hor--uh, ponies have scientists?"
  660. "Of course we do! Obviously magic is my preferred field of study, but I've learned at least the basics of almost every branch of science out there."
  661. >She folded her ears back with a sheepish smile.
  662. "I tend to get a little obsessed whenever I find a new subject until Spike or Starlight wrenches me back to what I'm supposed to be working on."
  663. >"I see..." He trailed off and looked more thoughtful than Twilight was expecting.
  664. "Why? Is there something wrong with that?"
  665. >He glanced up sharply, "What? No no, not at all! It's just... surprising, that's all. You're not at all what I expected."
  666. "Uh, what did you expect, then? Aren't I entirely new?"
  667. >"Well... I dunno, I guess I figured you'd just be a horse that could talk. Well, that or the mystical unicorns from our legends."
  668. >Twilight sat bolt upright at that.
  669. "Wait, what? You have your own legends of unicorns? That... That's incredible! Oh my gosh, can you tell me any of those legends? Are there any historical documents I can see? Ooh, what about any artwork or maybe references to first hand--"
  670. >"Whoa, easy!" He raised his hands defensively, chuckling gently, "Here, I'll pull up a wikipedia article or something, alright?"
  671. >Before she could ask what he meant, he moved to the odd chair at his desk and reached down to his side. Suddenly a black rectangle she'd thought was merely part of the wall lit up with an image of rolling hills of grass and a clear blue sky. Twilight gasped and leaned as close as she could without falling from the sofa.
  672. "Ooh, what IS that? It's so detailed... and I never knew scrying pools could be mounted vertically!"
  673. >"Uh..." Anon turned back to the image before looking at her again, "You mean my desktop wallpaper?"
  674. "Desktop... wallpaper?"
  675. >She glanced at his desk and the wall of the room, then jumped when he suddenly burst out laughing.
  676. >"S-Sorry! You're just so human-like, then you said you're a scientist and I... oh lord."
  677. >Anon looked down and shook his head, then continued once he composed himself.
  678. >"Alright well, if you don't know about computers then... oh hell, where do I even start?"
  679. >He stared as if he actually wanted her to answer but just as she was about to speak he laid his head in one hand and weakly began laughing again.
  680. >"Hoo-ey! Now I know how you felt when I asked you to explain magic!"
  681. "So... are these 'com-pewters' very complicated then?"
  682. >"Oh they aren't the half of it. Do you even know what electricity is?" At her blank expression, he grinned and waved a hand at her, "Yeah, see? Exactly."
  683. >Twilight flattened her ears, unsure if she was being insulted and starting to get a little annoyed.
  684. "Yeah well, you didn't even know what telekinesis was and even unicorn FOALS can do that!"
  685. >"Peace, Twilight," Anon said as he held up his hands in a placating gesture, "It's just that I'm only now realizing just how much I have to explain."
  686. "And I've spent my whole LIFE studying magic, and that--that... ugh!"
  687. >She turned away sharply, forcing herself to take a deep breath before she said something she regretted. Second chance or no, she definitely didn't want to make him angry again.
  688. >Anon surprised her, however, by suddenly shifting to a soft and apologetic tone with not a trace of mirth.
  689. >"Hey now, I didn't mean to upset you, really. I'm sure magic is just as complicated, maybe even more so, and if I was in your home - I think you called it Equestria? Well, I'm sure I'd be stupider than a foal there."
  690. "More stupid..."
  691. >She absently corrected him before she realized it might annoy him, but Anon merely smiled.
  692. >"Yep, more stupid than a foal. But look, if I went to Equestria knowing fuck-all about magic like I do now, and tried wandering around without your help, how quickly do you think I'd run into trouble?"
  693. >Twilight's immediate thought was of course the deadly Everfree Forest, but as she thought about it, she realized having absolutely no understanding of magic turned all sorts of mundane objects and creatures into serious threats. Just walking about Ponyville could be hazardous... buck that, even standing and doing nothing in the middle of somepony's house could get him in trouble!
  694. "Well... okay, point taken. Magic is just a curiosity here, but where I'm from it's a crucial piece of almost everything we do. Are you saying these 'com-pewters' are just as important?"
  695. >"Computer," he corrected gently, "As in 'computations,' and... no. Computers are important, yes, but they're powered by electricity, and it's electricity that's unintuitive and potentially dangerous if you don't know anything about it."
  696. >She nodded and glanced warily around the room as if even now she might be at risk.
  697. "Alright, so what do I need to know?"
  698. >Anon opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again, looking suddenly uncertain.
  699. "What's wrong?"
  700. >"Well... a veterinarian isn't exactly the best person to explain electricity, that's all. Here, just... just hold your questions for a moment, okay? I'm gonna pull up something to help me explain."
  701. >Twilight nodded and watched as he turned and shuffled with some things on his desk. Suddenly the brilliant image before him turned white and he made some odd clacking noises with his hands. She tried to peer around to see what was making the noise, but he stopped before she could get a good look.
  702. >"Alright, here: electricity is the set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and motion of... of matter that has a property of electric... oh, for fucks sake Wikipedia, this isn't helpful at all! Maybe if I just google what is electricity..."
  703. >Twilight was nearly bursting with questions, but she managed to hold her tongue while Anon continued to mutter under his breath, the odd rectangle flashing into colors and occasionally panning across some strange image.
  704. >Finally, Anon made a noise of disgust and brought the image of grassy hills back up with a loud slap on his desk.
  705. >"Fuck it, everything I can find is way more technical than you need for now. Even the basic stuff keeps going on about atoms and fundamental forces and shit. Yes, yes," he interrupted as she opened her muzzle, "I know you're a scientist, but you can learn the technical stuff later. For now I just want you to know how to not die, alright?"
  706. >Twilight simply nodded and he continued briskly.
  707. >"Alright. Electricity is a kind of power created far away and brought here through metal strings that we call wires when they're small and cables when they're big and thick. It always wants to flow into the ground and it will happily flow through YOU to get there."
  708. >He suddenly stood and pulled aside the curtains over his window, pointing with a finger.
  709. >"See those wood poles with black lines connecting them at the top? Those lines are cables carrying high power or high 'voltage' electricity. Touching the cables will probably kill you but the poles themselves are safe, they just hold the cables up out of reach."
  710. >Replacing the curtain, he then knelt over by the wall, never stopping in his explanation.
  711. >"Just outside my house, the high voltage gets transformed into weaker, safer electricity called low voltage and is sent to these power outlets. Don't ever poke something into these little slits or you can get shocked - that's what we call when electricity flows through you and hurts you. Low voltage usually won't kill you but it'll still hurt."
  712. >His hand wrapped around a black cord leading out of the outlet.
  713. >"This wire goes to that lamp over there which uses electricity to make light. If I pull out the wire," and the room abruptly dimmed so the only light came from the edges of the curtain, "now the lamp has no electricity and can't make light. I plug it back in and light comes back."
  714. >Twilight held up a hoof to stop him.
  715. "Okay okay, wait. So all I really NEED to know is don't touch the big cables outside or poke the little outlets inside?"
  716. >Anon hesitated, still kneeling by the wall, then grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
  717. >"Yeah, I guess so. I mean there's a hell of a lot more to understand if you want to actually DO anything with electricity, but if you never bother with it, then yeah... just don't touch electric stuff."
  718. >She gave him a little smile in return.
  719. "Well, maybe we should just leave it at that for now."
  720. >"Really?" he looked surprised and sat back in his chair, "I figured you'd be dying to know all about it."
  721. "Oh I am, don't get me wrong! It's just, um... w-well..."
  722. >She averted her gaze and shuffled her hooves a bit.
  723. "Where can I... you know, relieve myself?"
  724. >"Oh! Uh..." Anon hesitated, then stood, "Here, I'll take you outside."
  725. "...What? Outside!?"
  726. >Twilight couldn't keep the dismay from her voice and Anon froze, a confused look on his face.
  727. >"Uh... yeah?"
  728. >She tried to control herself but the mere thought of doing her business outside like some filthy animal was simply too much to bear.
  729. "You're joking, right? All this crazy-looking advanced, civilized stuff and you're telling me you don't have toilets?"
  730. >For a moment, Anon simply stared at her, dumbfounded. Then he plopped back down in his chair and barked out an incredulous laugh.
  731. >"Hell, but you're full of surprises! Yeah, yeah, 'course I got a bathroom, just... well, I figured you'd be used to the outdoors."
  732. >She gave him a pointed stare.
  733. "I'm not an animal, Anon. You know that, right?"
  734. >"Oh, I'm figuring it out, yeah."
  735. >He rubbed the back of his neck, then shrugged helplessly, "Look, no offense, but you look an awful lot like a horse and that IS an animal."
  736. >Twilight's ears folded back as she tried not to sound too snippy.
  737. "Well, I'm not a horse, okay? I'm a PONY and I live in a castle with multiple bedrooms, a kitchen, and even it's own entire library, nevermind basic plumbing."
  738. >Anon's eyes widened at the mention of the library, then his expression turned somber and he lowered his gaze.
  739. >"Well, Twilight, I think I owe you an apology," he gave her a wry grin and added, "Another apology, that is. See, I've been thinking you were some sort of strange talking horse, but if you've got buildings, libraries, scientists... Hell, the fact you even know what a toilet is speaks volumes by itself."
  740. >He raised his hands in a sort of helpless shrug, "I've been waiting for some concrete proof of this 'Equestria,' but I can't deny it any longer. You're obviously intelligent, civilized, and come from some sort of modern society, so... well, if I've been condescending or offended you, I'm sorry."
  741. >Twilight squirmed in her seat and tried to smile but it came out more like a grimace.
  742. "I'm glad you understand, and I appreciate that you can so openly admit to a mistake... but can you please take me to the bathroom now?"
  743. >His startled expression as he hopped to his feet almost made Twilight giggle.
  744. >"Shit, I'd nearly forgot! Here, up you get - you should be able to walk if you're really careful but this'll be faster."
  745. >He scooped her up and whisked her rapidly down the hallway and into the bathroom, then set her down on the tiled floor and took an awkward step back, gesturing at an odd white chair in the corner of the room.
  746. >"That's the toilet there. I'm guessing it ain't what ponies are used to but--"
  747. >Twilight interrupted him with a dismissive wave of a hoof.
  748. "Yeah, I'll figure it out, thanks."
  749. >A few minutes later, Twilight's hooves fumbled with the round doorknob until Anon cracked the door open and asked if she was done.
  750. "Yes. Actually it wasn't too different from what we have in Equestria. It's hard to move around in these casts, though."
  751. >As if to prove her point, she waddled awkwardly into the hallway and smiled sheepishly up at him.
  752. "So, um... what now?"
  753. >"Don't rightly know. You hungry or sleepy?" When she shook her head, he turned to face down the hall, "Well, I guess we could watch some TV. That oughta keep you occupied a good long while."
  754. >Rather than ask what he meant, Twilight assumed she'd find out in a moment and leaned into his arms as he knelt to pick her up.
  755. >At the end of the hallway, Twilight couldn't help but gawk as they entered a large room with a high, vaulted ceiling. Everything was brightly lit by a soft glow cast from the huge frosted-glass window dominating one wall, and though there was not much furniture, it was carefully arranged to keep any one spot from seeming too sparse.
  756. >She was distracted by Anon's quiet chuckle and turned to see he was watching her reaction.
  757. >"You like it, then?"
  758. "O-Oh yes, it's very nice! This architecture is unlike anything I've ever seen."
  759. >"Heh, thanks. It's called 'modern' design but I like to think of it as just clean and open more than anything else. Anyway, shuffle over to the couch and I'll find us something to watch."
  760. >Twilight slid from his arms and was trying to get comfortable when she suddenly heard another voice and snapped her head up at the source.
  761. >On the far wall was another strange scrying rectangle like Anon had used in his office which showed a pile of thin brown objects on a table.
  762. >Without taking her eyes from the scene, she leaned closer to Anon to ask what she was looking at when the image suddenly shifted to show the same pile from a different angle, causing her to gasp.
  763. "What? B-But... How!?"
  764. >Astonished, she turned to Anon, who was looking quite amused.
  765. "You can't change where you're scrying in the middle of a spell! You just can't!"
  766. >Anon's smile faltered and he furrowed his brow in confusion, "Uh... not what I expected, but okay."
  767. >He began to explain how a TV was an electronic display that showed recorded videos of things that had already happened, but Twilight was soon distracted as the scene shifted to some complicated mechanism handling tall columns of some brown material.
  768. >The other voice began to explain what was happening, and though she didn't understand many of the words, Twilight eventually realized she was watching an incredibly complex process which turned wood and something called 'gra-fight' into a writing implement that looked far more convenient than the ink and quill she was used to.
  769. >As soon as the process finished, the TV abruptly went silent and Twilight turned wide eyes on the human beside her.
  770. "What was THAT?"
  771. >"That," Anon said with a quiet chuckle, "was 'How It's Made,' a show that explains how various seemingly simple things are made in large enough quantities to supply all people that use them."
  772. "And that was how 'pen-sills' are made? What is 'gra-fight'? What was moving all that stuff? How is it all so precise? And how... ohmygosh."
  773. >Twilight cut off abruptly and stared down at the floor, whispering very faintly.
  774. "I've never had so many questions in my life..."
  775. >Anon laid a hand on her forehoof and she slowly turned back to him, eyes still very wide.
  776. >"Trust me, I know how you feel," and he squeezed her hoof reassuringly, "But try not to get bogged down in the details. There's more knowledge out there than you could learn in a hundred lifetimes."
  777. >He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly before continuing.
  778. >"I could spend the rest of the evening trying to explain your questions in detail, or I can simply say graphite is a mineral that's soft enough to leave a mark if you rub it on paper, most of the moving things you saw were powered by electricity, and they're so precise because they were very, very carefully designed."
  779. >He raised his hands in another, more exaggerated shrug.
  780. >"That's all you really NEED to know."
  781. >Twilight was silent for a moment, then quietly asked.
  782. "Can I watch another?"
  783. >Anon grinned, squeezed her hoof again and lifted a small device in his other hand. The TV shifted to a sort of chart or table and Anon made a pleased exclamation.
  784. >"Oh, you lucked out! This channel's showing nothing but 'How It's Made' for the next few hours."
  785. >With a squee of delight, Twilight settled herself more comfortably, but she frowned when the TV switched back to some strange image of a large human gesturing emphatically as unfamiliar writing slid around the TV and flashed brightly.
  786. "What is this?"
  787. >Anon waved a hand dismissively, "Ignore this bit, it's just a commercial."
  788. "Um... Okay, I guess."
  789. >He let out a little sigh and added, "It's complicated to explain but basically there's a short burst of useless nonsense every few minutes when you're watching a TV show. Here, watch."
  790. >Suddenly the TV blared out with obnoxious music and a voice shouting, "FOR THE ALL NEW DODGE RAM TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED WITH EXTENDED CAB AND--"
  791. >It cut off just as suddenly and Twilight turned back to Anon, her ears folded flat.
  792. "And some humans watch this?"
  793. >"Not really," Anon said with a shrug, "Pretty much everyone just tunes it out or mutes it like I did."
  794. "Then why--"
  795. >"Like I said, it's complicated to explain. Not really worth the effort either, so really, just ignore it. Look, that was the last commercial and How It's Made is back now."
  796. >Twilight needed no more encouragement than that and eagerly turned her attention back to the TV as it began to speak again.
  797. >"No bathroom's complete without one, and any parent will tell you that no teenager can survive without one. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, how do they make you after all?"
  798. >Anon rolled his eyes, "Forgot about their silly intros..."
  799. ...
  800. >Over the next few hours, between the show itself and the infinite questions she tried to cram into each commercial break, Twilight Sparkle learned more about the human world than she'd have ever guessed there was to learn.
  801. >More than anything else, however, she was astounded by the sheer number of humans there were.
  802. >She was still raving about it as Anon carried her into the kitchen.
  803. "I mean, Manehatten has almost as many ponies as all the rest of Equestria combined, and yet even a SMALL city has more humans than that!"
  804. >Anon grinned wearily at her, "Yep, that's why all those factories make so many of everything."
  805. "But how do you send it everywhere? You said I'd have to gallop for over an hour just to get to the closest city but there must be hundreds or even thousands of cities!"
  806. >"Remind me tomorrow, I'll find a video that explains shipping containers. It's even more bonkers than you'd think."
  807. "What, you can't summarize it like all the other things you explained so concisely?"
  808. >"Uh... I guess I can try. Here..."
  809. >He set her down in one of the tall dining chairs, then Twilight held her tongue so he could concentrate as he turned away and grabbed two little brown packets out of his pantry.
  810. >"Okay, imagine there's a really popular type of cart that's really good at holding one specific kind of box, so everyone stores stuff in boxes just like that so the carts that everyone else uses can move them around really easily."
  811. >As he spoke, he emptied the sweet-smelling packets into a bowl and poured some milk into it, then stuck the bowl into the strange cabinet with a built-in window, which began to glow and hum softly.
  812. >"All these carts gather to unload onto a boat specifically designed to hold a big stack of this one particular kind of box and nothing else. That way you can move hundreds of boxes across the sea no matter what's inside them. With me so far?"
  813. >Twilight nodded, her mouth beginning to water at the aroma coming from the humming cabinet.
  814. >Anon paused a moment and pulled out what she had learned was some sort of pocket computer which he used to double check facts as he explained things. He'd tried to show her how it worked but gave up when she spent ten minutes simply trying to understand how thin it was.
  815. >After a moment, Anon looked up again and his grin was a bit concerning.
  816. >"Now imagine each box is as big as this entire kitchen."
  817. >She blinked a couple of times as she tried to picture even one box that large, nevermind hundreds.
  818. >"Now imagine a ship that can carry about twenty thousand of those boxes."
  819. >Her muzzle scrunched with effort as she tried to imagine how insanely huge such a boat must be.
  820. >"Now imagine there are about fifty thousand of those ships world-wide."
  821. >Twilight finally slumped against the table, her ears drooping in stunned disbelief.
  822. "No way! Where would you even keep them!?"
  823. >With a smirk, Anon held up the little device which showed a picture of a large docking port covered with thousands of long, rectangular boxes and half a dozen boats stacked high with even more boxes.
  824. "Okay, but this doesn't really prove..."
  825. >She trailed off as Anon manipulated the image to zoom in on a minuscule black speck beside one of the boxes, and Twilight realized the speck was actually a human.
  826. "Oh Tartarus..."
  827. >A loud beep made Twilight jump so badly she nearly fell out of her chair, smacking her muzzle with her cast in her haste to cover her dirty mouth.
  828. "Sorry-Princess-I-won't-do-it-again-I-didn't-mean-it-I-swear-I'm-not--"
  829. >Anon nearly fell out of his own chair as he howled with laughter, clutching his belly and leaning heavily on the table.
  830. "H-Hey, it's not funny! Anoooon!"
  831. >She batted at his shoulder with a hoof in a pathetic attempt to make him stop. He merely waved her hoof away and shuffled over to the strange cabinet, wiping away tears of laughter.
  832. >Twilight tried to cross her hooves and pout as he removed the steaming bowl, but the smell nearly had her drooling as he set it down in front of her. She immediately bent to lap some up when Anon's hand wrapped around her muzzle and her head jerked back with instinctual panic.
  833. "Hey! Don't--"
  834. >"I know, sorry!" He quickly stepped away and raised his hands defensively, "But I had to stop you 'cause that's really, REALLY hot. Like, instantly burn the hell out of your mouth kind of hot."
  835. >She frowned down at the bowl and swallowed a build up of saliva.
  836. "But it smells so good..."
  837. >"Yeah, I know. Here, maybe this will help."
  838. >He poured another brown packet into a bowl and gave it to her dry. In this form she was able to recognize it as oats and happily munched away, commenting on how unusually sweet it was. By the time she finished that, the first bowl had cooled down enough for her to tentatively lap some up and her eyes widened at the wondrous flavor.
  839. "Anon, this is amazing! It's like Granny Smith boiled them in cider or something!"
  840. >"Heh, glad you like it."
  841. >Twilight realized all he was eating was a banana and a bagel, but when she commented on it he only shrugged.
  842. >"I had a big lunch while you were sleeping. I'll be fine."
  843. "Oh... well, okay."
  844. >He gave her a questioning look and she bobbed her head uncertainly.
  845. "Just making sure you're eating alright, didn't want to steal your dinner, that's all."
  846. >That earned her a warm smile and he reached out to stroke the soft fur at the top of her neck.
  847. >"It's nice of you to worry, but I'm alright. There's plenty of food here, I'm just not very hungry."
  848. >Twilight was only half listening as she closed her eyes and leaned into his hand. Anon automatically responded as if she were a pet, scratching more firmly at her mane and neck. Twilight shivered as she let out a little moan of delight and his hand abruptly pulled away, forcing her to catch herself on the table to avoid falling over.
  849. "Aw... why'd you stop?"
  850. >She turned to him with a hopeful smile, then her expression turned more serious when she noticed how uncomfortable he seemed.
  851. "Anon? What's wrong?"
  852. >He shuffled awkwardly in his chair and refused to meet her eye, "I... I was treating you like an animal again. Sorry."
  853. >Twilight wasn't sure what to say to that and there was a moment of uncomfortable silence, then she asked in a very quiet voice.
  854. "Can you do it again?"
  855. >Anon slowly looked up at her and Twilight smiled shyly.
  856. "I, um... it felt really nice, that's all."
  857. >She turned away so he was looking at her mane again and waited.
  858. >And waited.
  859. >Then just as she was starting to think he'd simply ignore her, she felt his fingers lightly brush her neck.
  860. >The anticipation immediately made her shudder and he drew his hand back again but she leaned toward him so eagerly that she began to fall sideways.
  861. >Her startled yelp was cut short as he caught her by the neck and shoulder. There was a brief moment of hesitation, then Twilight began twisting her head around to scrub her own neck against his palm. He took the hint and began rubbing with an open hand, then dug in with his fingers when she pressed against him more firmly.
  862. >As a veterinarian, Anon was no stranger to giving scritches, but not even a professionally groomed and luxuriously pampered long-haired kitty compared to a unicorn's velvety fluff. He'd been too distracted to notice when he had carried her around, but now he could see it was much thicker and longer than he'd thought, and he couldn't resist tracing his fingers over her marvelously soft coat, through the delicate hairs of her mane, and around the downy fur of her cheek and the ear that kept twitching and flicking with the slightest touch.
  863. >For her part, Twilight quickly determined that human fingers were the greatest thing in all of Equestria. Or in all of Earth. In all EVERYwhere. She was nearly purring with pleasure as she squirmed against Anon's supportive arm, eyes half-lidded in sheer bliss at the utter sense of comfort and relaxation that flowed out from his touch. It was like he had an instinctive sense for just the right amount of pressure to dig through her fur and soften the tense muscles beneath without ever hurting her, even around her sensitive ear. Oh Celestia, that ear...
  864. >It was a long time before either of them thought to stop, but eventually Anon's arm began to tire of supporting half her weight. He gently pushed her upright again and they both sat in silence, staring anywhere but at each other.
  865. >Anon eventually broke the silence.
  866. >"So."
  867. "Yeah..."
  868. >"That was..."
  869. "Weird?"
  870. >"Not bad weird."
  871. "N-No, not at all."
  872. >"Felt... nice."
  873. "Really nice."
  874. >"Yeah."
  875. >They both fell silent again. Twilight snuck a sidelong glance at Anon and caught him watching her out of the corner of his eye. They both immediately looked away and pretended not to notice.
  876. >Twilight lifted a fetlock to her muzzle and quietly began to giggle. A slow grin spread over Anon's face which quickly turned into a soft chuckle. The tension abruptly evaporated from the room and they both burst out laughing.
  877. >"Alright alright," Anon said with grin and a shake of his head, "Come on, let's find you someplace to sleep."
  878. "But--"
  879. >"I know, you probably don't feel sleepy, but trust me, your body needs the rest."
  880. "Oh... okay."
  881. >Twilight pouted slightly, but allowed herself to be picked up and carried to the guest bedroom. It was still a mess as he'd only spent a few minutes cleaning the room while she'd slept that morning, but at least the bed sheets were clean and tidy.
  882. >"Alright, my bedroom is the next door down so if you wake up to any burning sensation or anything else weird, just shout."
  883. >She looked at the dusty boxes around her and flicked a tail disdainfully.
  884. "I'd rather steal your bed again..."
  885. >"Yeah, I'm sorry. It's just for tonight, I'll clean this place up proper tomorrow. You might be here a while, right? C'mon, up you get."
  886. >He helped her up onto the unusually tall bed and, since he was already there, helped her slide under the covers and pulled them up to her neck. Finally, he stepped back and rubbed the back of his head awkwardly.
  887. >"Uh... you good?"
  888. "Yeah. Um, thanks."
  889. >"Sure."
  890. >He took another step back.
  891. >"Well..."
  892. >Twilight giggled and flicked a hoof at him.
  893. "Good night, Anon."
  894. >"Yeah," he said, turning off the light, "Good night, Twilight."
  895.  
  896. ...
  897.  
  898. >Princess Celestia gave a warm and motherly smile as the last pony was kindly escorted out of the throne room. He had only had a minor issue, but the stallion had been exceedingly grateful when she solved it so quickly. He stopped just outside the chamber and she returned his parting wave as the great doors slowly swung shut.
  899. >Celestia immediately slumped to the side with a deep and weary sigh.
  900. >On the one hoof, she treasured her weekly open court sessions as one of few methods to stay in touch with her subjects, but on the other hoof, some of those ponies were awfully tedious to satisfy.
  901. >One of her guards approached the side of her throne in a formal trot, the crisp click of his hooves echoing around her royal hall.
  902. >"Princess, that was the last one."
  903. "Yes, Silver Spear. Thank you."
  904. >He leaned closer and lowered his voice.
  905. >"Your sister told me to tell you she has a surprise waiting for you."
  906. >Celestia's ears perked up a bit and he leaned even closer, whispering conspiratorially into her ear.
  907. >"A surprise that starts with 'e' and rhymes with 'lair'."
  908. >She rolled an eye at him with a naughty grin.
  909. "And you both must feel ever so sly and clever for that, no?"
  910. >The guard immediately snapped to attention and saluted with one hoof.
  911. >"Yes Princess! Of course, Princess!"
  912. >Celestia let out a bright peal of laughter as she slipped daintily onto her hooves.
  913. "Stop it, you silly colt."
  914. >"As you command!"
  915. >She rolled her eyes and wrapped a wing around his withers, nudging him forward.
  916. "Oh do behave, Silver. You are delaying my sister's delightful gift!"
  917. >The stallion finally broke into a wide grin, relaxing his charade as he turned down one of the throne room's back passageways. Celestia followed in peaceful silence until a gentle voice called out from a side hall.
  918. >"Um, Princess? A moment, please?"
  919. >She slowed and smiled warmly at the meek unicorn mare.
  920. "Good evening, Serenity. Could it possibly wait until morning? I suspect my sister is hiding an eclair from me."
  921. >"Oh, of course! Goodness, that sounds much more important than this stuffy old paperwork!"
  922. >They both giggled and Celestia broke into a graceful trot to catch up with her guard. As they passed the open kitchen door, there was a friendly call and Celestia held up a wing in greeting.
  923. "Hello, Dough Mortar! Shall I thank you in advance for my eclair?"
  924. >There was only a husky chuckle in reply and Celestia followed Silver Spear around the corner and into the small private dining hall. Princess Luna was sitting casually at the large empty table and smiled as they approached.
  925. >"Ah, my sister! Did the weekly whining go well?"
  926. >Celestia huffed and glared at her with mock severity.
  927. "Princess Luna, you must learn to respect the open court! It is of vital importance and the veritable backbone of our civilized culture. Why, without it, there may as well not even be a Canterlot!"
  928. >Luna somberly bowed her head, her eyes twinkling with suppressed humor.
  929. >"Of course, dear sister, you are correct. I hereby vow to forever hold such respect as is appropriate for such a critical function."
  930. >There was a beat of silence, then she smirked and added, "So there was a lot of whining today, then?"
  931. >The Princess of the Sun slumped into the adjacent seat with a heavy groan.
  932. "You have no IDEA. What kind of a grown mare can not handle one single chicken? And I had two pegasi brothers trying to claim the same cloud, but for Tartarus' sake, the cloud was barely big enough to stand on, nevermind OWN. Oh, and do not even get me started on that old stallion that INSISTS his donkey neighbor is casting 'dark and mysterious magic' and that 'ponykind will forever suffer' if I do not take 'urgent and decisive action'."
  933. >"Brewing a balding potion, I assume?"
  934. "Of course he was."
  935. >They stared at each other for a moment, then they both burst out laughing and Luna wrapped a comforting tendril of magic about her shoulders as they struggled to regain their composure. Celestia let out a wistful sigh and stifled one last chuckle behind her fetlock.
  936. "Our silly little ponies... Goodness, remember the kinds of problems we USED to have?"
  937. >"Indeed, sister, how could I forget?"
  938. "Angry Chimera attacks..."
  939. >"Failed spells destroying buildings..."
  940. "Blatant racism toward earth ponies..."
  941. >"Rampant plagues with the strangest symptoms..."
  942. >They fell into a somber silence in remembrance of those dark and hateful times, then Celestia broke the spell with another light giggle.
  943. "And here I must deal with complaints about a chicken. ONE chicken."
  944. >Luna suppressed a giggle of her own and got that glint in her eye that Celestia knew only too well.
  945. >"Yes well, originally I had thought to help you unwind after such an onerous and stressful day... but now I believe I will dedicate this to the blessing that is a boring and uneventful life."
  946. >And with a casual flick of her horn, the illusion spell dissolved and revealed two multicolored eclairs sitting not a horn's length from Celestia's own muzzle.
  947. "Oh... do my old eyes deceive me?"
  948. >"They most surely do not!" The night mare clapped her hooves excitedly and exclaimed, "For I have procured... zap apple eclairs!"
  949. >She stared dumbfounded at Luna and her eyes began to glisten.
  950. "My dearest sister... do you know how long it has been?"
  951. >Luna hesitated, ears folded back uncertainly. She had expected delight or even ecstasy, but this reaction was quite unexpected.
  952. >"Well... no, I do not."
  953. >Luna averted her gaze.
  954. >"It has been over a thousand years for me."
  955. >Her tears flowing freely now, Celestia gently tugged at Luna's muzzle with her magic until their eyes met again.
  956. "It has been as long for me, too."
  957. >Luna blinked twice in surprise, then with a breathless, "Oh..." she slumped toward her sister and extended a wing about her withers. Celestia responded in kind, and it was a long moment before either Princess was able to speak again.
  958. >When they finally broke the embrace, Celestia lifted her eclair and held it up to Luna's muzzle with a smile, her eyes still damp with budding tears.
  959. "Like old times, dear sister."
  960. >Luna returned the smile and lifted her own eclair to Celestia's lips.
  961. >"And many times to come."
  962. >Then a sudden burst of green flame startled them both and a letter fluttered gently to the table between them. They both smiled patiently and set the eclairs down again as Celestia unfurled Twilight's letter and began to read.
  963. >At the first sentence, her smile vanished and turned to a hard stare.
  964. >Seconds later, her magic began to waver with emotion and she was forced to set the letter down on the table.
  965. >Concerned by her reaction, Luna leaned over to read as well.
  966. >"Dear Princess Celestia, this is actually Spike writing to you, but I'm sorry, I didn't know what else to do! Twilight said she was trying a new spell and said she'd be back within the hour, but that was this morning and I'm scared something went wrong. She made this weird blue circle on the wall and stepped into it and then she and the circle disapp-ared. Plea-e, ca- yo-ou he--p"
  967. >His claw had obviously been shaking as he wrote and the last few words were barely recognizable.
  968. >For a brief moment, both princesses could only stare at each other in utter horror.
  969. >Then their horns glowed in unison and they teleported away, the zap apple eclairs abandoned on their little decorative plates.
  970. ...
  971. >"SPIKE. STARLIGHT GLIMMER. COME, NOW."
  972. >Starlight jumped with a startled yelp as the Royal Canterlot Voice reverberated through the castle. She immediately teleported to Spike's room, seized him in her magic, and teleported them both into the wide castle foyer.
  973. >Seeing both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna looking so serious was concerning enough already, but then she noticed Spike was crying uncontrollably and felt a cold pit of fear in her barrel.
  974. "Yes! U-Uh, Princesses, w-what--"
  975. >Celestia interrupted her, "Has Twilight Sparkle torn a dimension gate?"
  976. >Her eyes widened in horror and a chill ran down her spine. Dimensional gates were a truly ancient magic and unbelievably dangerous due to how unpredictable they were.
  977. "What!? No! I mean, buck, I would hope not! S-She doesn't--"
  978. >Luna cut her off and said, "Spike, control thyself, you must help Us."
  979. >When his pathetic sobbing continued unabated, she reared up and slammed both hooves down before him.
  980. >"CEASE THY WEEPING!"
  981. >The little dragon jerked his head up at her in shock, hiccuped once, then fell utterly still and silent.
  982. >"Thank you, and We apologize little one, but We must have thy help this instant. Where did Twilight create the blue circle you mentioned?"
  983. >Spike silently pointed to a nearby door and Starlight gasped.
  984. "She couldn't have..."
  985. >Even as she whispered those words, both Princesses teleported into the room, not even wasting the time it would take to walk.
  986. >She immediately teleported in behind them and started to ask what was going on, but Celestia shushed her and she and Luna both closed their eyes, horns glowing faintly.
  987. >They must have been trying to detect the portal, because Celestia abruptly opened her eyes and said, "Here, sister," as she faced toward the far wall.
  988. >Now that they knew where it was, it was obvious the cleared out space was just the right size for such a portal.
  989. >"Then that must mean--" Luna broke off, choking on a little sob.
  990. >"Yes..." Celestia murmured sadly, "I, too, had hoped we would not find it."
  991. >Starlight had no doubt now. Twilight must have ripped a hole in the material plane and stepped through the void into another world. How could she without even warning her? Where had she even gone!?
  992. >Celestia let out a little sigh and turned to Luna.
  993. >"Help me search for her, sister. Together we may penetrate the veil more easily."
  994. >At this the unicorn could not help but cry out.
  995. "No, wait! You can't both follow--"
  996. >Luna cut her off with a flick of a wing and Celestia gave her a tight smile.
  997. >"Be calm, little one. We are simply casting a spell to detect if... well, if there is even any point in attempting a rescue."
  998. >She frowned in confusion.
  999. "What do you mean?"
  1000. >"If she's dead, Starlight," Luna said bluntly.
  1001. "O-Oh, right..."
  1002. >"Indeed," Celestia added, "In some dimensions, a pony may perish even before their first breath. Now please, no more interruptions."
  1003. >Even Starlight Glimmer knew better than to ignore a direct order from Princess Celestia, and she backed away with her ears folded meekly against her skull.
  1004. >Luna brought the tip of her horn up almost to touch the tip of Celestia's and both sisters closed their eyes in concentration as their horns began to glow, their two auras mixing into a blinding white between the two points.
  1005. >Mere seconds later, they broke the spell, and Luna's expression slowly shifted into one of utter horror while Celestia simply stared, a grim set to her muzzle.
  1006. >Starlight felt her body go cold as she realized that could only mean something terrible had happened and tears began to prick her eyes.
  1007. >She was never going to see Twilight Sparkle again.
  1008. >But then Princess Celestia spoke in a low and sorrowful voice.
  1009. >"You know what I must do."
  1010. >Luna stepped back as if struck, shaking her head in denial.
  1011. >"No..." she whispered, then again with more force, "No! Sister, y-you can't... We can't! Please, We'll go instead. Let Us go! Tia, please!"
  1012. >Celestia merely stared at her with old and weary eyes.
  1013. >"She is my pupil, Luna. I must go."
  1014. >At those gentle words, Luna abruptly sat down, her voice dropping to a pitiful whisper.
  1015. >"Please don't leave me..."
  1016. >"Sister, I beg you," and Celestia's own voice began to quaver with emotion, "Do not make this more difficult than it already is. You know what must be done and time may be critical."
  1017. >Luna just stared for a moment, tears streaming silently down her cheeks, then her features hardened, and both Princesses stood facing each other with an air of ritual, formally spreading their wings as if they were before a crowd.
  1018. >Celestia took one breath to steady her trembling, then spoke with an authority both awesome and terrible, her voice echoing with an eerie reverberation that was felt more than it was heard.
  1019. >"Princess Luna, Guardian of the Night, Defender of Dreams, Mare in the Moon: by the ancient power of the Sun and Moon, I name thee Princess of Equestria. Do thou accept?"
  1020. >Starlight's hoof flew to her muzzle to suppress a gasp as Luna tried to respond.
  1021. >"By th--"
  1022. >She swallowed hard and tried again, her voice hardly more than a whisper.
  1023. >"By the ancient power of the S-Sun and Moon... I accept."
  1024. >Both mares solemnly bowed their heads and delicately touched their horns together, Starlight's fur abruptly stood on end, and her horn began to spark of its own accord.
  1025. >Then Celestia dimmed.
  1026. >It was as though she had been standing in sunlight but had just passed into shadow, her brilliant, iridescent coat fading into an ordinary, pale pink color. Perhaps even more tragically, the ghostly breeze billowing in her long, flowing mane and tail grew steadily weaker until finally her mane simply sat across her neck like... just ordinary hair, now.
  1027. >Then Luna glowed.
  1028. >Her navy blue coat began to shine with an almost metallic luster of deepest indigo, breathtakingly beautiful as it shimmered with infinite scintillations, yet almost dull when compared to the resplendence of her magnificent mane, which now blazed from within with an unseeable light of purest majesty.
  1029. >It made no sense, but that was the closest Starlight could ever come to describing what she saw in that ethereal mane.
  1030. >Then she realized Luna wasn't simply shining... she was being shone on.
  1031. >The sun now bathed her in its heavenly light no matter the time or place, giving her coat a subtle radiance through any roof or shadow.
  1032. >Just as it used to do for Celestia.
  1033. >Only then did Glimmer begin to realize the full significance of their little ceremony.
  1034. >Both mares folded their wings, then Celestia let out a wistful sigh and flicked her inert mane with a hoof.
  1035. >"Well sister, it seems you have well and truly bested me now."
  1036. >Luna's breath caught in her throat, then she tried again, her voice thick and husky.
  1037. >"Yet all I can think is... once again I truly am the little sister."
  1038. >"Yes, it is strange to realize I am aging again after so long."
  1039. >Then Celestia shook herself and cast a few spells in rapid succession.
  1040. >Most of her mane and tail sloughed away and fizzled into nothing, leaving her with a normal and manageable length, then her coat flickered with what Glimmer recognized as multiple magical wards.
  1041. >Finally, and with such a casual flick that Starlight was awed by the power and skill in that horn, Celestia tore into the void and that accursed blue circle appeared on the wall.
  1042. >The two sisters exchanged a quick hug and Luna said, "I love you, Tia."
  1043. >Celestia took a step back and smiled in her kind and motherly way.
  1044. >"I'll see you soon, Lulu."
  1045. >Then she was gone.
  1046. >Starlight choked with sudden emotion and marveled that Princess Luna could stand there so stoic and calm.
  1047. >There was a heavy silence until she found her voice.
  1048. "S-So Twilight's still alive?"
  1049. >Princess Luna nodded silently and Starlight swallowed the lump in her throat.
  1050. "Will Prin... w-will Celestia be okay?"
  1051. >"Our life force is bonded from long ago. I will know if something happens to her."
  1052. >For a moment she thought that was all Luna would say, then the Princess sighed.
  1053. >"I do not know, Starlight Glimmer. I know she is in the same world as Twilight and I know she has not immediately suffered any harm. I do not know how dangerous that world is, but there must be some threat there as the spell to return to your natural world is much easier than the spell to leave it."
  1054. "So... Twi should've been able to come back at the first sign of trouble."
  1055. >"Yes, Starlight. Something on that world has prevented Twilight Sparkle from returning, and though she does not yet equal myself or my sister... she is close. Whatever has restrained Twilight may well be capable of restraining my sister as well."
  1056. >Starlight was silent for a long moment, then she asked in a very quiet voice.
  1057. "What if you feel Celestia... feel something happen? What will you do?"
  1058. >Princess Luna took a deep breath and tilted her head toward the ceiling.
  1059. >"I do not know, my little pony."
  1060.  
  1061. ...
  1062.  
  1063. >When Celestia appeared in the sunny plains, she was instantly on high alert.
  1064. >It took mere seconds for a skilled unicorn to summon a return portal, so whatever had stopped Twilight from returning must have either moved incredibly fast, seemed totally innocuous until it was too late, or was able to suppress magic to some degree.
  1065. >So, with ears perked, hind legs slightly bent, wings loose and ready, and horn nearly buzzing with energy primed to release, Celestia stood tense and silent for a very long time.
  1066. >She did not at all trust the innocent sounds of nature around her, but after several minutes passed with no movement save for the insects and a small bird taking flight nearby, she relaxed marginally and began to explore her immediate surroundings.
  1067. >She was in a wide savanna covered with dry, brown grass and sparsely populated with odd trees that had many branches but no leaves save for along the top.
  1068. >It was a shame she had not the time to cast more protective spells. Her wards should absorb the bulk of any serious injury, but anything more powerful would take time to cast and, now that she was here, she didn't want to risk dropping her guard for that long. However, she did risk a very quick spell that allowed her to feel when a creature was watching her from behind where she couldn't see.
  1069. >Some movement in the distance caught her attention and, though she couldn't be sure through the vegetation, Celestia thought they were distinctly equine in shape.
  1070. >This wasn't really unexpected. The first dimension explorers had surprisingly found creatures in other worlds were quite similar to their own.
  1071. >Nature tended toward certain designs, it seemed.
  1072. >She turned and began heading towards the equines, still wary of this world but unwilling to immediately assume every creature she saw was hostile. So long as she kept her guard up, there should be little risk.
  1073. >As she approached, she saw they were closer to wild deer than to ponies, with a single black stripe running along their side.
  1074. >Then she noticed the two tall horns on their heads and stopped dead in her tracks.
  1075. >If these creatures could use magic, that raised the stakes significantly.
  1076. >They would be a great help if they were friendly... but also a major threat if they were hostile as even weak magic users could overpower an alicorn in large enough numbers.
  1077. >Was that what happened to Twilight?
  1078. >While she was still trying to decide whether she should risk approaching them, the entire herd abruptly bolted, all of them galloping away as fast as they could move.
  1079. >The fact that she saw no reason for them to run only made Celestia more nervous.
  1080. >She turned to the side and began to trot away, too anxious to walk but not wanting to make too much noise. There were more trees in this area, not dense enough to form a true canopy, but she was uncomfortable with any restriction to her airspace at all right now and headed for a broad clearing just ahead.
  1081. >As she passed under one of the last trees before the clearing, her ears twitched at a faint rustle above her.
  1082. >There was a burst of yellow movement in the corner of her eye and her wings flung out more from instinct than any conscious effort.
  1083. >A great weight collided with her left wing and bounced over her back, leaving a bright line of pain across her withers.
  1084. >Even as she jerked her head around, her horn only just beginning to glow, the beast managed to twist in the air, land upright, and instantly launch itself at her throat.
  1085. >Then it abruptly stopped and floated in mid-air within Celestia's magical grasp.
  1086. >Flailing wildly, it let out a deep, crackling roar and struggled to reach her with its claws, then her horn pulsed once and it fell limp.
  1087. >She casually tossed the unconscious beast aside and primed herself for a followup attack from its allies...
  1088. >But all was still.
  1089. >The alicorn waited a moment longer, but as the silence continued, she eventually decided any allies would have attacked while she was distracted with the first, so it must have been solitary.
  1090. >She took a deep breath, shook herself a bit, and peered over her shoulder at the bright red gash in her back.
  1091. >Even with her ward, it had managed to slice surprisingly deep into her skin and she was thankful she'd insisted on refreshing her knowledge of medical magic every few decades, cleaning and closing the wound with relative ease.
  1092. >Figuring it was unlikely two different predators would hunt the same territory, she decided to take the time and cast a real spell, something that would protect her more effectively than a simple ward to absorb kinetic force.
  1093. >She was severely limited by the lack of reagents, but after scouring her memory she eventually settled on a complex regenerative spell. It was quite tricky to cast, but it needed no extra materials, would greatly accelerate her healing, and wore off very slowly over the course of about a week.
  1094. >A few moments later, she tested it by biting down hard on her lip and was pleased to find the bleeding stopped after only a couple of seconds.
  1095. >It did not stop the pain, of course, and larger injuries would still take hours or even days to heal, but at least it would no longer require a conscious effort on her part.
  1096. >Feeling much more confident with that spell in place, she finally turned back to her attacker and floated its limp form up to get a better look.
  1097. >It was an enormous cat-like creature with golden yellow fur and a dense pattern of irregular black which was obviously quite an effective camouflage. It had a stocky build and heavy paws covered with thick fur to dampen their noise.
  1098. >Floating the beast along beside her, she continued trotting into the clearing and immediately took to the air, aiming for one of the tiny clouds she saw in the sky.
  1099. >After a moment when it did not appear to be getting closer, Celestia was dismayed to realize the cloud was actually far larger and more distant than she had thought.
  1100. >Shrugging to herself, she decided the middle of the sky would do just as well, turned the beast so it faced away from her, and woke it from its magical sleep.
  1101. >Almost instantly, it began to flail again and Celestia had to harden her telekinetic grip to keep it from twisting too much.
  1102. "Can you understand me?"
  1103. >Its ears swiveled back on her and it let out a low growl. Celestia dropped the beast a few feet and caught it again, adding a note of command to her voice.
  1104. "Let's try that again. Answer me."
  1105. >It growled again and Celestia thought it sounded a bit uncertain now. When it tried to twist its head around to look at the source of the sound, she hovered around in front of it and had to steel her magic against its sudden attempt to claw at her face.
  1106. "That was not wise."
  1107. >Her magic pressed firmly into its throat, cutting its roar off into a weak mewling whimper, but still, the beast only glared at her and bared its teeth.
  1108. >Celestia sighed and floated the mindless creature back to the ground.
  1109. >There had been no intelligence in those eyes.
  1110. >She watched it sprint away until it faded into the brush, then turned in a slow circle, examining the land around her.
  1111. >There was a hard line off in the distance, far too straight to be made by wild animals. It might simply be a geographic feature, but if it was a path, then it must lead to some sort of civilization.
  1112. >Celestia angled a glide toward the line, keeping relatively low to reduce the the distance from which she would be visible, just in case.
  1113. >Hopefully these creatures, whatever they were, would be compatible with one of her various language spells and willing to communicate. Perhaps she could even barter magical services in exchange for information or hospitality.
  1114. >There was a flash of light from a distant bush, something ricocheted off the base of her horn, and her head abruptly exploded with blinding pain.
  1115. >Her wings folded like paper and she tumbled from the air, bouncing off a tree branch before thudding heavily to the ground.
  1116. >Dazed, disoriented, and hurting more than she could ever remember, she struggled to stand, to open her eyes, even just to breathe as she heard the faraway roar of some strange monster, but her body felt distant and it took all her will simply to remain conscious.
  1117. >She should really be more afraid, but in that moment, Celestia worried only for her dear sister.
  1118. >Would Luna be okay without her? Yes, she was strong... she will be a good Princess.
  1119. >And Twilight... is this what happened to her precious student?
  1120. >Seized by an urgent desire to lay eyes upon whatever monstrosity had defeated her so readily, Celestia tried again to open her eyes, and was almost surprised when she succeeded.
  1121. >She lifted her head with a great effort and stared dumbly at the bark of the tree beside her.
  1122. >She HAD tried to open her eyes before, hadn't she?
  1123. >Then her head cleared a bit more and she almost slapped a hoof to her muzzle.
  1124. >Of course, her regeneration spell!
  1125. >It was working better than she had expected and she might now have a real chance of fighting back or escaping.
  1126. >The roaring sound was becoming quite loud and Celestia knew she could wait no longer.
  1127. >She began to struggle to her hooves, then cried out in pain as her foreleg buckled underneath her.
  1128. >Dismayed, she could only stare at the unnatural angle in her cannon bone, shocked by her crippled state.
  1129. >Her wards should have prevented such an impact!
  1130. >Then, with mounting horror, Celestia saw the hard kink in her leg grow thicker before her very eyes as the regeneration spell forced her body to repair a bone that was not properly set.
  1131. >She immediately flopped on her side and tried to push the bone straight with her other hoof, but it had already begun to stiffen with new bone growth.
  1132. >Tartarus, this regeneration was TOO strong!
  1133. >In desperation she slammed her hoof against the trunk of the tree in an attempt to shatter the new bone, but the flash of pain that lanced up her foreleg nearly made her lose consciousness again.
  1134. >Abruptly, the monster came roaring around the tree and Celestia stared in amazement as three dark-skinned ape-like creatures leapt from the back of some sort of large metallic vehicle.
  1135. >It was obvious which one was the leader from the way the others deferred to him and, with as much dignity as she could muster, Celestia stood on her three unbroken legs to face him.
  1136. >He immediately gestured at her, barking a command in a strange language, and one of the other creatures raised a device in one hand and pointed it at her head.
  1137. >Fortunately, a magical shield was one of the simplest of spells and Celestia hardly even needed to think before casting it.
  1138. >Agony lanced through her skull as her horn fizzled and a golden spark shot out from the damaged base where she had been struck out of the air.
  1139. >All three of the creatures leapt back with cries of alarm and the device made a sound like thunder, startling the one that held it.
  1140. >By the time the pain faded enough for Celestia to see clearly again, their leader was scowling as he strode purposefully toward her and lifted a similar device of his own.
  1141. >She stumbled as she tried to take a step back, eyes going wide and ears flattening against her skull.
  1142. "N-No, wait! I d-didn't--"
  1143. >Celestia felt an explosion, the pain of impact, then nothing.
  1144.  
  1145. ...
  1146.  
  1147. >Princess Luna needed some time to think, so she decided to fly herself back to Canterlot instead of teleporting straight back, yet only moments after she left Twilight's castle, she felt the first twinge of pain through the faint connection to her sister.
  1148. >It was a minor injury, no more than a ripple in her pool of life force, and it was not long before the damage was healed.
  1149. >Still, Luna worried as she rode a thermal updraft into the clouds.
  1150. >Celestia was a formidable spellcaster and well able to handle herself, so the fact that something even managed to touch her was concerning.
  1151. >Then Luna shook her head. Most likely Tia had simply not taken things seriously enough at first and some creature had surprised her. She would be more vigilant now, surely.
  1152. >Yes, she believed in her sister. Twilight Sparkle was in danger and Celestia would do anything to save her precious student.
  1153. >Even if that meant abandon--
  1154. >Luna fiercely cut off that thought and bucked whatever remained.
  1155. >Envy had led her into her living nightmare in the first place and she would die before she let that happen again! With the full power of the combined throne, it was unlikely Equestria would ever recover if she succumbed to the darkness now.
  1156. >She hadn't felt so much as a hint of that evil since Twilight Sparkle and her friends had saved her, but she rigorously avoided even the slightest whisper of a thought that could lead down that regretful path.
  1157. >In an attempt to distract herself, Luna dropped into a steep dive and flattened out just above the treetops, whipping around protruding branches at a respectable speed.
  1158. >She used to spend a lot of time practicing her aerial agility and was pleased to see her performance had not deteriorated too badly.
  1159. >It had been too long since she really put any effort into exercise and her wings were beginning to feel the strain of her exertions, but she continued flapping to maintain her velocity, pressing on with the intent of exploring her physical limits.
  1160. >Then abruptly, Celestia's life force suffered a jolt of such severity that Luna cried out aloud in fear and alarm.
  1161. >She flared her wings, turned in a sharp angle, and brought herself roughly to the ground in the space between some trees.
  1162. >The ancient spell was vague at the best of times and since Tia had gone through that portal it had faded to distant echo of its usual strength, but Luna concentrated on what remained of the link between them.
  1163. >When the injury began to heal almost immediately, Luna let out a little sigh of relief. Celestia had always been skilled with healing magic and indeed, had she not ascended all those centuries ago, she likely would have become a doctor.
  1164. >Luna waited a few moments for Tia to regain her strength before she decided to move on, but just as Luna spread her wings to take flight again, she froze in horror.
  1165. >Her connection to Celestia had vanished.
  1166. >Cold fear gripped her heart and she checked again, but there was nothing there.
  1167. >Luna gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, and poured every ounce of her will into seeking out her sister. She tried to ignore the tears budding in her eyes as her horn began to glow faintly, re-energizing the old spell and pushing the ancient magic to its limit.
  1168. >Then she felt the faintest tremor across the void, a mere echo of the strength that had been there just moments before.
  1169. >Yet even in that weakened state, there was no mistaking it.
  1170. >Her sister was still alive.
  1171. >Luna nearly collapsed with relief, then she straightened with determination and seized the tremulous connection in her magic, charging her horn to tear a portal of her own.
  1172. >She would NOT lose her sister!
  1173. >However, before she could finish casting, she felt the distant spark of life began to grow stronger and hesitated.
  1174. >Celestia was not only alive, she was healing.
  1175. >Tartarus, she had been healing before, she could still be in danger! Luna resumed focusing on the spell anyway.
  1176. >Yet if she was healing, surely that meant she defeated the monster, right?
  1177. >Her condition was so poor it was unlikely she could escape, so if any creature was still a threat, it would have already... well, she wouldn't be healing.
  1178. >Luna stood paralyzed with indecision, horn glowing bright with the spell all but finished, torn between loyalty to her subjects and the love for her sister.
  1179. >What would Celestia do? What advice would she give?
  1180. >With a roar of frustration, Luna broke the spell and energy burst from her horn in an aimless explosion of wild magic.
  1181. >Then Luna slumped, her head hung low.
  1182. >She knew what Celestia would want.
  1183. >Celestia loved her and she loved Twilight, but she loved Equestria more than both, and she had trusted Luna to rule in her stead.
  1184. >Now was not the time to abandon her little ponies.
  1185. >Luna slowly spread her wings, almost dreading to return now.
  1186. >Then she frowned and shook her head.
  1187. >Celestia WAS healing, was she not? She was healing well, in fact.
  1188. >Perhaps things may still turn out alright in the end.
  1189. >She must remain hopeful and trust in her sister's capabilities.
  1190. >After all, that must have been a tremendous foe she just vanquished! She must ask Celestia to describe the battle when she returned!
  1191. >She leapt into the air with a powerful downstroke and hurried on to Canterlot.
  1192. >Yes, she believed in her sister. She had to.
  1193. >To do otherwise would only drive her mad.
  1194. >When Luna arrived at their castle, she was able to explain things to the night guard captain so there was at least somepony in a position of authority that knew the situation, but it was late enough that few ponies were awake to hear her news.
  1195. >She had actually worried he would be suspicious of her, but the glow of the sun about her gave credence to her words.
  1196. >After that, she made her way to her chambers, but though she already felt worn after the stresses of the evening, she had not even been awake half a day yet and knew she would not be able to sleep.
  1197. >She found herself wondering how she could possibly continue if something really did happen to Celestia and also how she would ever manage handling both day and night tasks.
  1198. >Then she quailed as she thought of a dozen other problems, realizing just how many things she had to do alone now.
  1199. >Fortunately, there did not exist a better distraction than the infinite oddities of the dream world, so Luna threw herself at the sleeping minds of her subjects and worked harder that night than she ever had in recent memory.
  1200. >Through it all, she never released her hold on the link to her sister, watching it gain strength and trying not to imagine it snuffing out entirely.
  1201. >Hours later, when she finally collapsed into bed, it certainly seemed like her sister's health had improved, but Luna's final thoughts before she slept were still full of concern.
  1202. >Celestia really should have healed more than that.
  1203.  
  1204. ...
  1205.  
  1206. >Anon let out a strangled yelp and bolted upright.
  1207. >That was the third time he had tried to sleep that night.
  1208. >There were beads of sweat dripping down his back and he was panting heavily.
  1209. >There was never any memory of the terrors that plagued him, only a lingering sense of horror and existential dread.
  1210. >He dropped his face into his hands and let out a ragged breath, then tiredly rubbed his eyes.
  1211. >Glancing out the window, he groaned at the first hints of light peeking over the horizon.
  1212. >No point even trying to sleep again.
  1213. >With a weary sigh, he slid from his bed and slowly began his morning routine.
  1214. >As he was getting dressed, he abruptly remembered the mysterious unicorn and was gripped by a terrible fear that she had left him during the night.
  1215. >Flinging on his bathrobe, he hurried down the hall to the guest bedroom and cracked open the door as quietly as he could manage.
  1216. >Even in the dim light, there was no mistaking the pile of purple pony among the pillows.
  1217. >Anon quietly let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, feeling a little foolish and silently chiding himself for panicking as he gently closed the door.
  1218. >Trying to regain a sense of normalcy, he returned to his routine and thought about what to do now that he'd woken up so early.
  1219. >Then he grinned to himself.
  1220. >What else but cook her his specialty for breakfast?
  1221. >Hopefully her digestive track was at least similar to other equines...
  1222. >It wasn't like he had anything else to go by after all.
  1223. >Beginning to feel more awake as he got the blood flowing, he hurried to finish shaving and changed out of his pajamas before heading out to the kitchen.
  1224. ...
  1225. >With an exaggerated flourish that, of course, no one else was there to appreciate, Anon stood back to admire his handiwork.
  1226. >Two beautiful plates of blueberry french toast, just like granddad used to make.
  1227. >He poured two glasses of apple juice, fetched a small syringe of medicine, piled everything onto a wide tray, and swept down the hall to the guest bedroom.
  1228. >With a gentle tap on the door, he kept his voice to a low murmur as he entered.
  1229. "Twilight?"
  1230. >There was a faint groan as he approached the bed and set the tray down on one of the nearby boxes.
  1231. "I, uh... I made some breakfast."
  1232. >"Mmmffgh..."
  1233. >She started to move beneath the covers, then froze with a wince and sucked her teeth against the pain.
  1234. "Oh, and I got some pain medicine too! Good stuff, stronger and faster acting than what I gave you yesterday."
  1235. >Twilight moaned softly, then cracked an eye open and whispered, "Please?"
  1236. >Anon grimaced.
  1237. "That bad, huh? Alright, here."
  1238. >He slid the curtains back to let in the dawn light, then hurried to prep the syringe and drew her uninjured foreleg out from under the covers.
  1239. "Now this is gonna sting a bit because it's an injection, but it'll work a lot faster and better this way, okay?"
  1240. >Twilight gave a tiny nod as he swabbed the crook of her knee with alcohol and felt for her blood vessels.
  1241. "Alright, you ready? 3... 2... 1..."
  1242. >With practiced ease, he slipped the needle smoothly under her skin and into the vein.
  1243. >Her ears flipped straight back and a shiver ran up her barrel, but she took a slow breath and kept herself under control.
  1244. "Good girl... almost done."
  1245. >Just as swiftly, he drew out the needle and pressed a cotton swab over the tiny wound, quickly securing it with a small bandage.
  1246. "There. That should start kicking in in just a couple of minutes."
  1247. >Twilight nickered appreciatively, then looked up and murmured, "Thank you. The food... um, it smells really good."
  1248. >Anon chuckled quietly.
  1249. "Well, think you could sit up or do you want to wait until the medicine kicks in?"
  1250. >Twilight winced, then slowly started to push herself upright and Anon quickly reached out to support her injured foreleg.
  1251. >"Ooh... this sucks."
  1252. "The first couple days are the worst, yeah. It'll hurt a little less every day though, promise."
  1253. >Anon gave her a wink.
  1254. "And it'll hurt a lot less when that medicine kicks in. Seriously, that's the good stuff... not as good as morphine, but just about."
  1255. >Once she was sitting upright, Twilight took a slow breath, then asked, "If morphine is so good why not give me some of that?"
  1256. >Anon chuckled as he slid the tray closer to the bed.
  1257. "Morphine is one of the most powerful painkillers we know of, but it carries some hefty risks with that strength. The stuff I just gave you is a bit weaker but a WHOLE lot safer."
  1258. >"Ah... I suppose it'd be like using Zensalve's Stitch for a simple paper cut."
  1259. "Uh--"
  1260. >"Right, sorry," she said quickly, "Um, it's a powerful healing spell that can close huge and complex wounds without so much as a scar, but it's very difficult to cast and when it goes wrong..." A shudder ran down her back, "It goes VERY wrong."
  1261. >Anon quickly turned back to the plates of food.
  1262. "Yeah okay, changing subject now. You ever had anything like this back in Equestria?"
  1263. >"Um... soggy bread?" Twilight said with an uncertain smile.
  1264. >Anon grinned as he sliced her a piece, making sure she got plenty of the syrup and blueberries.
  1265. "It's called french toast. Here, just try it."
  1266. >He held up the fork, but instead of leaning forward to take a bite, Twilight only furrowed her brow and stared at it.
  1267. >She winced as a spark ran up the length of her horn, then abruptly both her horn and the fork lit up with her glowing magic and the fork pulled itself from his hand.
  1268. >It floated up to let Twilight take a bite, then drifted back down to the plate with a soft clink.
  1269. >Twilight let out a soft moan of delight, her ears flopping lazily back as she savored the mouthful, then she glanced at Anon, hurriedly swallowed, and burst into giggles.
  1270. >"Quit staring, Anon!" She said as she playfully batted at his shoulder with a hoof, "You've seen this spell before!"
  1271. >Anon turned away awkwardly and busied himself with his own food.
  1272. "Right, 'course. I just, uh... forgot. Not used to it."
  1273. >He felt her hoof on his knee and glanced back to see her smiling warmly at him.
  1274. >"I understand, Anon. You're not the first creature I've introduced to unicorn magic after all... though I think you're the first I've introduced to any magic at all."
  1275. >He returned her smile and they ate in companionable silence for a few moments.
  1276. >French toast had always been his favorite, especially after granddad passed away, so he was pleased to see Twilight so obviously enjoying her meal.
  1277. >However, once she had eaten a few bites, she set her fork down again and looked up at him.
  1278. >"It must be strange..." She said wistfully, "Going from thinking magic doesn't even exist to meeting a unicorn... and of all the unicorns to meet, too! Gosh, I can't wait to show you my full power."
  1279. >Anon swallowed his mouthful and grinned nervously.
  1280. "Uh, just how powerful we talking here? I don't need to warn the military about any upcoming explosions, do I?"
  1281. >Twilight let out a bright peal of laughter, "Oh no, most of arcane study is learning how NOT to explode! For all the time I've spent learning new spells, I've probably spent five times as long learning to control their energy. Here, let's see if I'm healed enough for something a bit more complicated..."
  1282. >She closed her eyes and lowered her horn as if to aim at him and Anon couldn't help but lean back a bit, but all that happened was their two forks began to glow.
  1283. >They floated up and halted a few inches in front of her muzzle, then snapped into an upright position, perfectly parallel and only a millimeter apart.
  1284. >Anon thought that was impressive enough already, but then one fork abruptly flipped upside down and passed its tines through the empty spaces of the other fork, slowly twirling around the other so the prongs slid repeatedly in and out of each other.
  1285. >Then there was the faintest ring of metal as one fork brushed against the other and Twilight immediately clicked her tongue in annoyance, lowering the forks back to their plates.
  1286. >"Still need to heal some more, I guess," she muttered, "Sloppy letting them touch like that..."
  1287. "Wha... Sloppy? Hell, I doubt I could do that with my own fingers! And with your eyes closed?"
  1288. >She blushed and looked down with a bashful smile.
  1289. >"I've just had a lot of practice, that's all..."
  1290. >She delicately ate another piece of toast, then continued a bit awkwardly.
  1291. >"Using magic is all about precision and control, really. Technically I still have just as much magic as before my injury, but if I tried to use a powerful spell right now I might just blow the tip of my horn off or something."
  1292. "That can happen?"
  1293. >"Well... not normally, no, but studies do suggest there is an increase in pressure inside a unicorn's horn proportional to the strength of the spell, so with a damaged horn... maybe?"
  1294. >She shrugged her shoulders, "We don't really understand the biology of unicorn magic very well. I'm the first one to really try and study it since Starswirl the Bearded disappeared."
  1295. "Interesting..."
  1296. >"Is it?"
  1297. "Well, it's just that we've had a lot of trouble understanding exactly how our own bodies work too."
  1298. >Anon shrugged his own shoulders in response.
  1299. "I guess I thought magic would make it easier to figure that kind of stuff out."
  1300. >Twilight frowned and asked a bit sharply, "Anon, how can you guess what magic can do when you didn't even know it existed until yesterday?"
  1301. >Anon held up his hands in mock defense with a sheepish smile.
  1302. "Whoa hey, I'm not claiming to actually know anything about it! I'm just going by our silly fantasies, that's all. Magic is usually just some mysterious power that can do basically anything for the sake of the story."
  1303. >She turned back to her plate.
  1304. >"I see."
  1305. >Anon put his hands down and spoke more seriously.
  1306. "I didn't mean to offend you, I just don't--"
  1307. >"It's fine!" she interrupted, then she rubbed her forehead and took a deep breath.
  1308. >After a moment, she tried again more gently, "Sorry, Anon. It's okay, really. I'm just... still adjusting, that's all."
  1309. "That's alright."
  1310. >They ate in silence for a while, then when Twilight had finished her last bite, she arched her neck and stretched both hooves above her head.
  1311. >"Gosh... that medicine you gave me really is good."
  1312. >Anon gestured at her with his fork.
  1313. "It is, but still be careful. You have to go easy on those injured legs or they won't heal properly and now they won't hurt when you push them too hard."
  1314. >"I guess that makes sense. I can still walk though, right?"
  1315. "Not really, not without being really careful, but I have an idea about that. You'll need to be able to get around without my help today, after all."
  1316. >"Oh? Why's that?"
  1317. "I have some work to do at the clinic so I'll be leaving soon, should be back in about six or seven hours."
  1318. >Twilight hesitated, "Um... how long is an hour?"
  1319. >The question caught Anon off guard, but he supposed it made sense that they would have different units of measurement where she came from, so he shrugged it off.
  1320. "From one sunrise to the next is twenty-four hours, so I'll be gone for about a quarter of the day."
  1321. >"Oh... that's not so bad, I guess."
  1322. "Don't worry, you'll be okay. Wait here a moment, okay?"
  1323. >Twilight nodded and Anon scooped their plates onto the tray, carried it out to the kitchen, and left it on the counter to deal with later.
  1324. >Then he fetched a little stool on wheels from the garage and brought it into the guest bedroom.
  1325. "There we go. Think you could roll around on this?"
  1326. >Twilight leaned forward to inspect it, then nodded.
  1327. >"I think so, yes."
  1328. "See if you can use it without my help, then. Avoid using your injured legs, but if you must put weight on them, always use both of them together."
  1329. >Her horn glowed and Anon still had to resist the urge to gawk at the way the blanket lifted itself away from her as if it was alive.
  1330. >Then she shuffled toward the side of the bed and carefully slid down onto the stool.
  1331. >There was a little shelf under the seat for holding tools and such which turned out to be a convenient place to rest her injured hind leg, and she stretched the other hind leg behind her and pushed herself around a bit, then turned to smile at him.
  1332. >"It's a little awkward, but it should be fine."
  1333. "Good. I'll follow you to the living room, then."
  1334. >"Oh! Um, okay."
  1335. >She shuffled into a more secure position, then pushed off toward the door, occasionally flapping her uninjured wing to keep herself from spinning.
  1336. >It was actually working rather well, but when she rolled from the carpeted bedroom onto the hardwood floor of the hallway, she let out a startled whinny at the suddenly reduced friction and nearly crashed into the wall.
  1337. >Anon lurched forward to stop her, but she caught herself against the wall with her good forehoof and he relaxed as she grinned sheepishly over her shoulder at him.
  1338. >"Works a little TOO well out here."
  1339. "Heh... probably should have warned you of that."
  1340. >"Oh no," she said quickly, "I should have been paying better attention, that's all. It's obvious I'd roll better out here."
  1341. "Everything's obvious in hindsight."
  1342. >She giggled, "Touché."
  1343. >They made it to the living room without further incident, but when she tried to climb onto the couch, the stool kept rolling out from under her.
  1344. >Anon stepped forward to help her, but she waved him away with a hoof and glared down at the stool until her magic enveloped the wheels and locked them in place, allowing her to switch seats with ease.
  1345. "Handy, that magic."
  1346. >Twilight grinned as she settled onto the couch, "Oh you haven't seen anything, yet."
  1347. "Well, until your horn heals, care to talk about some of the other spells you know?"
  1348. >"And spoil the surprise?" She snorted at him, "You'll just have to wait and see."
  1349. >Anon let out a mournful sigh as he slumped onto the couch beside her, crossing his arms and curling his lip in an exaggerated pout.
  1350. >Twilight rolled her eyes with a smirk.
  1351. >"Oh Celestia... if you're gonna mope about it, then fine, I'll show you ONE new spell, okay?"
  1352. >He glanced at her and raised an eyebrow, but kept his arms crossed.
  1353. >Twilight took a deep breath and closed her eyes as her horn began to glow.
  1354. >"This magic is called..."
  1355. >There was a gentle tingling around his lips and he began to wonder just what he'd gotten himself into, when abruptly the corners of his mouth were jerked up into a goofy grin.
  1356. >"A happy spell!"
  1357. >Anon burst out laughing and waved his hand in front of his face as if brushing away a fly.
  1358. >Twilight raised both hooves in triumph.
  1359. >"See? SUCCESS!"
  1360. >Still chuckling, Anon reached over and quickly tickled her belly.
  1361. "More like a silly spell!"
  1362. >"EEP!"
  1363. >He jerked his hand back as her hooves flew down to protect her underside.
  1364. >"Why you... I'll show you a silly spell!"
  1365. >Her horn began to glow and, despite her broad grin, Anon couldn't help but flinch as he felt the tingling about his throat.
  1366. >But nothing happened.
  1367. >Anon felt around his neck, checked his reflection with his phone, even took a deep breath a bit nervously, but he couldn't tell what she'd done.
  1368. >Finally, he gave up and just asked her.
  1369. "aLrIgHt, wHaT dId YoU... hUh?"
  1370. >His voice had come out in a ridiculous warble, as if the pitch was bouncing up and down by over an octave several times a second.
  1371. >Twilight immediately dissolved into helpless giggles.
  1372. "hEy, pUt iT bAcK! tWiLiGhT! i hAvE tO lEaVe FoR wOrK sOoN!"
  1373. >This only made her laugh harder and she flopped onto the arm of the chair, weakly waving a hoof in his direction.
  1374. "tWiLiGhT sPaRkLe, yOu uNdO tHiS sPeLL tHiS INSTANT!"
  1375. >Unfortunately his warbling ended his sentence on an absurdly high squeak that even he couldn't help but grin at.
  1376. >Twilight slapped the cushion with a hoof, laughing so hard now that she hardly made any sound at all.
  1377. "aLrIgHt FiNe."
  1378. >Anon stood and loomed menacingly over the defenseless mare.
  1379. "yOu AsKeD fOr tHiS."
  1380. >Twilight peeked one eye open just in time to see his claw-shaped hands descending toward her.
  1381. >Her eyes widened in fear and her horn flickered once, but she was in no state to cast any magic now.
  1382. >This time she was utterly at his mercy.
  1383. >Anon's face split into a wicked grin.
  1384. >She let out a high-pitched squeal as his hands latched onto her vulnerable belly.
  1385. >Her legs flailed helplessly against his arms.
  1386. >Then he relentlessly
  1387. >Mercilessly
  1388. >Almost violently
  1389. >Began to tickle her.
  1390. >The little pony squeaked and shook and gasped at his touch, his fingertips wiggling incessantly through the fur around her barrel, it all made even worse by her own squirming as his hands slid freely around her torso.
  1391. >Anon couldn't help but laugh, and he let it out as a crazed and maniacal guffaw that warbled unnaturally from her spell, bouncing around the walls and forming a cacophony of different voices all overlapping with each other in utter chaos.
  1392. >Then, without warning, he abruptly shut his mouth and lifted his hands.
  1393. >Twilight lay trembling beneath him as the deranged echoes of his mad laughter faded until her heaving gasps were the only sound remaining.
  1394. >Anon leaned down very close to her, his expression deadly serious.
  1395. "WiLL YoU uNdO yOuR sPeLL nOw?"
  1396. >Twilight hiccuped a weak giggle and Anon tried not to grin at his own voice, then gave in and broke into a wide, grimacing smile, lifting both hands up like claws.
  1397. "oR sHaLL i cOnTiNuE?"
  1398. >"N-No!" She panted with a terrified shake her head, "Sweet Celestia, p-please... no more!"
  1399. >Anon waited a moment for her to get her breath back, then her horn glowed briefly and made a sort of pop as she released the spell.
  1400. "Ahh... much better. Thank you, Twilight."
  1401. >"You really ARE a monster..."
  1402. >He smirked and shrugged in resignation.
  1403. "Shame to play my trump card so soon, but you did ask for it."
  1404. >In response she stuck out her tongue at him.
  1405. >Anon shook his head with a chuckle, then stood up.
  1406. "Well, much as I'd love to keep torturing you, I do need to leave soon, so before I go..."
  1407. >He fetched a tablet and stylus from a nearby table, set it up to cast to his TV, then sat down again and gestured for Twilight to watch him, but she hesitated and stared nervously at his hands.
  1408. "Alright, alright, I promise I won't tickle you again."
  1409. >After a brief moment she edged a little closer, then Anon added in a lower voice.
  1410. "Not unless you really deserve it."
  1411. >Twilight froze with a little squeak, then she startled when Anon burst into laughter.
  1412. "Good gravy, you'd think I was threatening to whip you! Come on, girl, relax. It's okay."
  1413. >He reached out and she immediately flinched away, but he only set a gentle hand on the back of her neck.
  1414. >"I... y-you don't..."
  1415. "Shh, it's alright. I ain't gonna bite."
  1416. >His hand slowly stroked down her mane, then came to rest on her withers and gave her shoulder a little squeeze.
  1417. >They sat like that for a moment, Anon gently massaging her back while she took several long, slow breaths, then she gave him a timid smile.
  1418. >"Okay, I... I'm better now."
  1419. "You sure?"
  1420. >"Well... You did promise not to, um... tickle me again. Right?"
  1421. >She looked hopefully up at him but he waggled a finger in response.
  1422. "Only if you deserve it."
  1423. >She frowned momentarily, then let out a resigned sigh, "Fine. I guess."
  1424. "Great!"
  1425. >In a burst of spontaneity, Anon suddenly scooted over so he was sitting right up next to her, then wrapped his arm around her shoulders and held the tablet up so it was almost right in front of her face.
  1426. >"H-Hey!"
  1427. >Her ears folded down and her cheeks turned bright pink, but Anon simply continued as if nothing was wrong.
  1428. "Alright, so while I'm gone you can use this stylus to do stuff with this tablet and it'll show up on the big screen there."
  1429. >He wasn't quite sure why he'd done that, but it was a little late for second thoughts now.
  1430. >Still, at least she wasn't struggling and did seem to be paying attention, even if her ears were still pressed firmly down.
  1431. "Touch this button on the side first to turn it on, then you can touch either this symbol called Netflix or this one called Youtube to watch videos to learn stuff or just for fun."
  1432. >"...Okay, but what should I watch?"
  1433. >She began to relax a little and Anon couldn't help but smile.
  1434. >He'd just sort of acted without thinking and hadn't even thought about how badly this could have gone, but she actually seemed to be taking it rather well.
  1435. "Anything you want, really. If you touch this little magnifying glass symbol to search for stuff, touch this symbol here to use speech-to-text since you can't type - 'how it's made' - and see? Now there's a bunch of clips from the show we were watching last night."
  1436. >"O-Oh!" Now her ears perked up eagerly, "I'd like that."
  1437. "Well then, just touch whatever picture looks interesting, then touch this little triangle in the corner if you want to go back and try a different one."
  1438. >He grinned and gave her a little squeeze with his arm.
  1439. "But you don't have to just stick to that one show, there's lots of other interesting things to watch."
  1440. >"Really!?"
  1441. >A hoof pressed into his thigh as Twilight twisted around to stare at him, her eyes bright with excitement.
  1442. >Then she abruptly lowered her gaze and leaned back against his arm, though she didn't seem to be aware of that.
  1443. >"Um..." She said, slowly lifting  the hoof from his leg, "What else is there like How It's Made?"
  1444. >That had even surprised Anon a bit, and indeed maybe his expression had been what made her back off so abruptly, but he decided not to press the issue and gestured back to the tablet again.
  1445. "See this area along the side? These are 'channels' that all have their own unique style of video. I like watching stuff like How It's Made too, so most of them are sorta along the same lines. Just stay away from that one."
  1446. >Twilight let out a defiant snort and said, "Well now I have to try it!"
  1447. >Anon only chuckled and shook his head.
  1448. "It's not like it's a secret or anything, it's just full of silly memes that barely even make sense to me, nevermind someone-"
  1449. >"What are memes?"
  1450. "-who doesn't even know what a meme is."
  1451. >"...Hey!"
  1452. >He snorted with laughter.
  1453. "Sorry girl, you walked right into that one."
  1454. >She turned away with a "Hmph!" and Anon patted the side of her neck with the hand he still had draped around her shoulders.
  1455. "Oh yeah! Something else I wanted to do, gimme one sec."
  1456. >He leaned forward and pulled up the tablet again, backed out to the home screen, and added a widget that would let her call his phone via wi-fi calling.
  1457. >Twilight tried to pout, but she was too fascinated by the technology to be too serious about it, and he could tell she was just itching to know what he was doing.
  1458. "There we go. This is just in case something happens and you need to contact me, you can touch this symbol to call my phone-"
  1459. >Twilight jumped as his pocket suddenly began to vibrate against her hindquarters and he quickly canceled the call.
  1460. "-and that will let us talk even while I'm away. Don't do it unless it's really urgent though, okay?"
  1461. >"W-Well alright... but what was that buzzing!?"
  1462. "Sorry, I should have warned you before I made it go off. That's just how my phone alerts me that someone is trying to contact me."
  1463. >Twilight shifted awkwardly and her ears folded halfway back, but all she said was, "Okay."
  1464. >Anon raised an eyebrow at her.
  1465. "You... are okay, right? You got all that?"
  1466. >Twilight closed her eyes and took one slow breath, then looked up at him and nodded seriously.
  1467. >"I got it."
  1468. "Alright, one last thing."
  1469. >She snorted at him as he removed his watch and held it out for her.
  1470. "Last thing, I promise. Do you have clocks in Equestria? Okay good, I'm still not sure just how much I need to explain... Anyways, I'll be back when the short hand is pointed roughly here, okay?"
  1471. >"Okay. See you later, Anon."
  1472. >He nodded and began to head for the door, then hesitated in the hallway.
  1473. "And if you get hungry or thirsty, the--"
  1474. >Twilight interrupted him with a surprisingly sarcastic neigh, then she giggled and waved a hoof at him.
  1475. >"Oh, go on! I'm a clever mare, I'll be alright."
  1476. >Anon blinked in surprise, then chuckled quietly, grabbed his keys and wallet off the end table, and finally left the house.
  1477.  
  1478. ...
  1479.  
  1480. >For the first hour or so, Twilight was content with How It's Made.
  1481. >What they explained directly was already fascinating enough, but she was also able to learn a lot about the human world in general from things they said in passing and by reading between the lines.
  1482. >Like the video about copper which started off by saying humans had been making tools out of copper for at least ten thousand years.
  1483. >Even Princess Luna's banishment to the moon a thousand years ago seemed like an absurdly long time, but ten times further back?
  1484. >She kept needing to start videos over again because she would get distracted and stop listening.
  1485. >A short while into her marathon, Twilight got her first glimpse into the humans' industrialization of living creatures when she learned they cultivated silkworms by the thousand in order to make some sort of cloth.
  1486. >Then the show casually explained that the pupae were boiled alive so the cocoon could be used intact.
  1487. >Twilight shifted uneasily where she sat.
  1488. "Well, they are only insects after all..."
  1489. >She shrugged to herself and continued watching for a while, and eventually came across a video about farming shrimp.
  1490. >Within the first few moments of the video, she learned that humans carefully cultivated thousands, maybe millions of these small crustaceans, simply to eat them later.
  1491. >Twilight shuddered as she realized that meant humans must be omnivores.
  1492. >Yet as she continued to watch, it was obvious the shrimp were well taken care of, given a stress-free life and got a perfectly balanced diet.
  1493. "These shrimp do have a pretty ideal life... until the end, at least."
  1494. >Spike had always told her it was weird to talk to herself, but... well, he wasn't here now, was he?
  1495. >Besides, it helped her keep her thoughts in line.
  1496. "Maybe they have no choice? If eating other creatures is necessary to have a healthy diet, I suppose this is a good way to do it."
  1497. >Once the shrimp episode was finished, she considered asking the tablet device about human nutrition, but decided to stick with How It's Made for now.
  1498. >Then just a few clips later, she stumbled onto hot dogs.
  1499. >The introduction was innocuous enough, but as soon as it got into the processing plant, the narrator calmly explains that it was made of a mix of different meats, and though she didn't know what pork and beef was, there was no mistaking "chicken."
  1500. >Especially when the words were accompanied by the sight of hundreds, maybe thousands of mutilated carcasses being dumped into a large vat for processing.
  1501. >If she hadn't been so horrified she might have stopped the video then and there but, too stunned to react, she simply watched in morbid fascination as that enormous mass of quivering flesh was mashed into a sort of paste, coming out looking more like wet clay than anything else.
  1502. >Oddly, that made the rest of the video almost bearable as the stuff looked far enough removed from any sort of animal that she could almost forget that's what it really was.
  1503. >Almost.
  1504. >She finished the video feeling deeply uneasy and a little nauseous, but took a moment to collect herself and ultimately came to the same conclusion she had made from the shrimp video.
  1505. "They say variety is the spice of life... I guess I can't expect them to only ever eat shrimp."
  1506. >She shuddered and quickly returned to the list of videos, but the mere image for the next video clearly showed strips of meat hanging on large racks, and that was just too much for her.
  1507. >With a convulsive shudder, Twilight backed out of the search results, closed her eyes, and took several deep breaths.
  1508. >Once she had regained control of herself, she stared at the device and tried to decide what to do next.
  1509. >She was tempted by the 'channels' Anon had pointed out earlier, but after a moment's consideration, she decided the most useful thing she could do with her time was to learn to read.
  1510. >She tapped the symbol Anon had showed her earlier and spoke clearly at the device.
  1511. "How to read the human language."
  1512. >It seemed to work, but she watched the beginning of the first few videos and they all seemed to be about subtle body language clues.
  1513. >That might be useful, sure, but it wasn't what she wanted right now.
  1514. "Hmm... how about 'how to read for foals'?"
  1515. >Even the images showed her that was wrong.
  1516. "Right, of course it wouldn't be 'foals.' Um... 'how to read for young humans'?"
  1517. >That was a bit better, but more importantly one of the videos soon mentioned the word 'children,' so Twilight immediately backed out and tried again.
  1518. "How to read for children."
  1519. >Jackpot.
  1520. >The first video was obviously an instructional video for very young humans and was quite tedious and boring to sit through, but it still gave her what she needed.
  1521. >After all, she already understood Anon's language - somehow - all she really needed was the grammatical rules and which symbols humans used for which verbal sounds.
  1522. >Unfortunately that plan quickly backfired once she learned that humans apparently used some ridiculous writing method where each symbol represents a whole group of sounds.
  1523. >That meant even the most basic of rules had countless exceptions and confusing overlaps.
  1524. >Not even the dragons' writing system was so convoluted!
  1525. >Still, she soon learned yet another valuable term: alphabet.
  1526. >She couldn't help but giggle at such an odd name for your species' phonetics, but nevertheless it, along with a bit of experimenting with the search results, was the key to unlocking the videos she really needed.
  1527. >Now instead of tediously simple videos designed for foals, she found more concise videos aimed at humans who spoke and wrote in other languages, though the fact that not all humans spoke the same language in itself was a bit of a shock to her.
  1528. >Fortunately this "english" seemed to be one of the more common ones, so she set to learning it with a will.
  1529. >Working out the needlessly complex and seemingly arbitrary laws of the english alphabet - Twilight giggled again at the silly name - quickly proved much more difficult than she initially expected.
  1530. >Still, this wasn't the first new phonetic system she'd learned.
  1531. >By the Sun and Moon, she would make sense of this "i before e" rule or die trying!
  1532. ...
  1533. >Some time later, Twilight sat back with a satisfied smirk.
  1534. >Without so much as a glance at her meticulous notes or the faintest thought of falling back on voice-to-text yet again, she had successfully typed out her first complete sentence using the tablet's 'keyboard.'
  1535. >"My name is Twilight Sparkle," it read.
  1536. >With a dramatic swoop of the stylus, she pressed the 'search' button and... well, of course the results were meaningless and unrelated.
  1537. "But still! SUCCESS!"
  1538. >She could even understand some of the video titles!
  1539. >Once she had stumbled onto a video that simply read along with a bit of text on screen, she had improved dramatically, and she finally felt proficient enough to be useful, even if she was still slow.
  1540. >Now it was time to unlock the full potential of these computers Anon had given her.
  1541. >Last night she had watched Anon ask questions on his phone but he'd never needed to watch a lengthy video so clearly there was a way to read the answers you needed.
  1542. >As she slowly tapped out her next search result, she once again silently praised whatever wizard of this world had allowed for this tablet device to make spelling suggestions.
  1543. >She was also starting to learn the "rules" of this search function as well, and was getting better at writing questions that gave her the results she wanted.
  1544. >The back of her tablet said "samsung" so she tried "how to search on a samsung tablet" and was pleased to see a video titled "Samsung Galaxy Tab for beginners."
  1545. >The device looked slightly different from the one she was holding, but when she tried out the things it explained, most everything worked the way she expected.
  1546. >Thus, Twilight finally learned how to back out to the tablet's home screen for the first time... something Anon had forgotten to show her.
  1547. >Good thing she'd never needed to use that emergency contact he'd set up!
  1548. >With a start, Twilight suddenly realized how low the sun was getting in the window and looked around for the watch he had left her.
  1549. >He would be getting home soon!
  1550. >Almost frantically she turned back to the tablet... then relaxed and giggled at her own silliness.
  1551. "It isn't as if I'm doing anything I shouldn't... why, Anon specifically said I could look up anything I wanted!"
  1552. >Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that she had done something naughty and set the tablet down instead.
  1553. >Besides, she was now realizing how hungry she felt and probably wouldn't be able to focus on starting a new project anyway.
  1554. >Hunger in the middle of a project she was already obsessing over was a minor nuisance at most, but hunger at the start of a new project was an unbearable distraction - a fact that Spike frequently used to his advantage.
  1555. "Oh Spike... I do hope you knew to send for help..."
  1556. >She cut off that train of thought before it began to depress her and rolled her little stool into Anon's kitchen.
  1557. >At first she was just going to munch on some fruit he had left out, but then she hesitated.
  1558. "He did make breakfast... maybe I should make him dinner?"
  1559. >She didn't think he expected it, but it seemed like a good way to thank him for his hospitality.
  1560. >Sure she was using his own supplies to make him a gift, but it was the thought that counts, right?
  1561. >She quickly scanned through Anon's pantry and refrigerator - a machine which she would definitely be looking up later - and tried to find something she could cook reasonably quickly.
  1562. >Using her wonderful newfound skill of "reading," she was delighted to find a box of pasta noodles and a jar of pre-mixed sauce in his pantry.
  1563. >After a slight struggle, she managed to wrestle the jar open and the smell that wafted out immediately reminded her of something her dam used to make.
  1564. >All that was missing was...
  1565. "Ooooh, YES!"
  1566. >Right there in the refrigerator door was a beautiful little jar of hibiscus flowers.
  1567. >She had always loved hibiscus pasta as a filly, and she immediately began to salivate at the thought of the subtle sweet and tart flavor complementing the tomatoes and noodles.
  1568. >With some effort, she climbed from her stool to the island counter which Anon had used as his makeshift surgical table for a better vantage point.
  1569. >Then she focused her magic, and the entire kitchen came to life.
  1570. >Cabinets doors flapped and drawers slapped as she sought out what she needed.
  1571. >Water and noodles flowed into one pot, ingredients to the other, and burners flashed into life.
  1572. >A spoon started smoothly circling to stir sauce and syrupy hibiscus simultaneously.
  1573. >It was a wonderfully intricate dance of ingredients and utensils with her at the center.
  1574. >Everything was going beautifully.
  1575. >That is, until her forehead exploded with blinding pain.
  1576. "Hnnng!"
  1577. >With a momentous effort of will, she managed to hold the magic just long enough to send everything clattering to the countertop instead of the floor, then she flopped onto her side with a pitiful whine, wrapping a fetlock around the base of her horn.
  1578. "Nononononono..."
  1579. >She clamped her muzzle tight against the desperate whimpering she couldn't seem to stop and curled up into a little ball, one hind leg kicking feebly at the air.
  1580. >It felt like she laid there for ages, head pounding furiously against the inside of her skull, hardly even aware of the tears leaking past her eyelids.
  1581. >But eventually, the pain began to fade and Twilight slowly regained her sense of self.
  1582. >She cracked open her eyes, sniffled a bit, then gingerly sat up and wiped her snout with a fetlock as she blinked away the tears.
  1583. >Almost afraid of what she would see, she turned back to the stove... and was pleasantly surprised to see the noodles had only just began to soften.
  1584. >It must have only seemed like such a long time because of the pain.
  1585. >Twilight waited a bit for the noodles to boil and for the throbbing to die down some more, then very carefully tried a tiny amount of magic to twist the knobs on the stove and lower the heat to simmer.
  1586. >She let out a sigh of relief when she only felt a faint echo of the agony she felt before.
  1587. >That meant she'd only strained the core, not damaged it further.
  1588. "Stupid... risky... should have known better..."
  1589. >But she knew why she did it.
  1590. >She hadn't forgotten her injury, oh no.
  1591. >Never for a single instant could she forget what had happened to her dear and precious horn.
  1592. >No, she'd simply missed feeling like a powerful unicorn and gotten careless after spending the whole day floating that little stylus around.
  1593. >It had certainly been fun for a little while, but she could have easily undone all the healing so far with that one stupid little moment of self-satisfaction.
  1594. >The thought of going without so much as a telekinesis spell for even one more day made her shudder.
  1595. >Then, as she began to gently massage her forehead, she heard a noise outside and glanced out the kitchen window to see Anon climbing out of a sleek grey vehicle.
  1596. >He could obviously see her in the window so she awkwardly raised a hoof in greeting, then carefully climbed down onto her little stool.
  1597. >...Why did she feel so nervous all of the sudden?
  1598. >Trying to ignore the fluttering in her barrel, she rolled over to the foyer just in time to see Anon open the door and greeted him with a timid smile.
  1599. "Welcome home! I made dinner. Well, you can see that - or smell it, I guess - but I just wanted to, um... to show my appreciation. For you. For what you've done for me, I mean."
  1600. >As she spoke, Anon dumped some things onto a little end table near the door, walked over and closed the kitchen curtains, slumped wearily against the counter, and stared down at her with a slight frown.
  1601. >Twilight couldn't help but droop her ears at this lackluster greeting, but she tried to hold onto her smile.
  1602. "Obviously you're tired, so that's good! Uh, not that you're tired, I mean. That's bad. But, um... well, if you're tired then it's good I made dinner! Right?"
  1603. >Anon barely even seemed to hear her, he just stared for a few more seconds, then pushed himself upright again and walked slowly toward her.
  1604. >Twilight was really starting to worry she'd done something wrong now and had to resist the urge to step back as he approached.
  1605. >Yet Anon only walked past her, running his hand gently across her head and down her mane.
  1606. >Somehow, with only that simple contact, Twilight immediately knew it wasn't her fault.
  1607. >So... was his gloomy mood because something happened at work?
  1608. >She watched Anon walk out to the living room, then glanced at her food still simmering on the stove and let out a little sigh.
  1609. >Her rumbling tummy would have to wait.
  1610. >With a twist of a hoof, she dropped the stove to its lowest heat, then wheeled down the hall and saw Anon slump onto the couch, not seeming to notice her notes sprawled across the coffee table.
  1611. >She rolled over, climbed onto the couch, and sat awkwardly apart from him for a moment, simply watching his profile as he stared numbly at the floor.
  1612. >Her mind raced as she tried to figure out what might be wrong and how she could help.
  1613. >She knew he was a veterinarian and that he had gone into the clinic for something important, and he didn't look angry, just very sad and tired.
  1614. >Actually, he looked like he was grieving.
  1615. >Everything clicked into place and, almost without thinking, Twilight lurched forward to wrap a hoof around his shoulders, gently laid her cast across his belly, and tucked her muzzle up under his jaw.
  1616. >He twitched in surprise and tried to look down at her, but that only made his chin press into her snout and Twilight responded with a little nuzzle.
  1617. >"What-"
  1618. "One of my closest friends works with animals, too."
  1619. >She drew back her head so she could meet his eyes.
  1620. "I'll never forget the first time she... lost one."
  1621. >He looked away sharply and she felt his body go rigid.
  1622. "Is that what happened? You couldn't save them?"
  1623. >Anon crushed his eyes shut and said nothing, then he gave one tiny nod of his head.
  1624. >For a moment, they just sat there, utterly still and silent.
  1625. >Then all at once something seemed to collapse within Anon and he slumped forward with a deep and weary sigh.
  1626. >She leaned across his chest to hug him properly and he slowly wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her mane as his breathing grew ragged.
  1627. >The first time Fluttershy lost one of her sick animal friends, she had become so depressed it had taken weeks of comforting before she was herself again.
  1628. >She doubted this was the first time it had happened to Anon, but she tried to imagine what it must be like to go through something like that, then come home to this big empty house in the middle of nowhere with no one to comfort you.
  1629. >Twilight hugged him tighter.
  1630.  
  1631. ...
  1632.  
  1633. >When was the last time someone held him like this?
  1634. >He hadn't been able to fly down to visit his parents last holiday season, but even the year before that he couldn't remember getting anything more than a quick farewell hug.
  1635. >There had been that girl when he was a college freshman, but that was over a decade ago.
  1636. >Had it really been that long?
  1637. >He couldn't even remember her name anymore.
  1638. >Anon felt his chest tighten and he struggled to control his breathing.
  1639. >Twilight's gentle breath was hot against his ear and it sent a shiver down his spine.
  1640. >He inhaled deeply in an attempt to steady himself and his head was filled with the faintly musty scent of her mane.
  1641. >It reminded him oddly of a used book store he used to visit.
  1642. >The building had been so densely packed with shelves of old books that it muffled all sound and was dead silent even when it was full of people.
  1643. >It had always been a deeply calming place.
  1644. >The pony shifted her weight slightly and began kneading the back of his neck without releasing her embrace.
  1645. >She was much stronger than he expected and the smooth edge of her rounded hoof felt amazing as it rolled across the base of his skull and down his spine.
  1646. >When she moved to his shoulder, he let out an involuntary groan and sagged deeper into her warm hug.
  1647. >Her hips pressed into his thigh as she supported his weight without any apparent effort and continued to massage his upper back.
  1648. >He began to rub her withers to return the favor, but she flicked an ear at his face and puffed out a tiny snort, so he simply relaxed into her.
  1649. >The tension rapidly eased from his torso and her comforting aroma lulled his mind.
  1650. >Yesterday he was woken up early by that emergency at the clinic, and last night he'd hardly slept thanks to those strange nightmares.
  1651. >It was no surprise then that he began to doze off in her embrace.
  1652. ...
  1653. >"Wha-aaAAA!"
  1654. >Something struck the side of his head and Anon reeled back against the sofa, blinking in confusion at the startled mare on his lap.
  1655. "The fuck?"
  1656. >"I could say the same!"
  1657. "W-what happened!?"
  1658. >"I don't know! You were practically asleep but then you just started screaming!"
  1659. >She huffed angrily, then hunched her shoulders and added in a more subdued tone, "I kinda panicked and smacked you in face, so... sorry."
  1660. >Anon rubbed his temples and took a deep breath before responding.
  1661. "No, no, it's fine... Must have been another one of these damn night terrors--"
  1662. >"Night terrors?" Twilight interrupted, abruptly becoming very serious, "What kind? How long have you had them?"
  1663. "Uh, well... I can never remember them, I just wake up feeling... I dunno, this sense of impending doom or something."
  1664. >"But when did they START, Anon?"
  1665. >Her intense expression made him hesitate.
  1666. "Just... last night?"
  1667. >Twilight dropped her head in her hooves and let out a low groan.
  1668. >"Oh Tartarus..."
  1669. >When she looked up at him again, she almost looked like she was about to cry.
  1670. >"Anon, I'm so sorry."
  1671. "Huh? Why? What's wrong?"
  1672. >She leaned a little closer and laid a hoof on his shoulder, her eyes glistening in the setting sunlight.
  1673. >"When I... yesterday... well, the magic--"
  1674. >She took a deep breath, then tried again in a steadier voice.
  1675. >"Look, after you took those medical samples... do you remember when I woke up?"
  1676. "Well sure, I..."
  1677. >He trailed off with a frown as he realized he couldn't actually remember her doing so.
  1678. >"You tried to sample my horn and..."
  1679. "Then next thing I remember is freaking out and throwing you off me."
  1680. >Twilight nodded somberly and explained, "When you touched the core of my horn, some of the raw stuff of magic poured into your body, overwhelming your mind with Celestia knows what. You're lucky the pain woke me up so quickly because without a horn to focus and contain the energy, it could have fried your brain before long."
  1681. "So what, the nightmares are some kinda magical brain damage?"
  1682. >She shook her head, "I don't think so. I think the pain woke me more or less immediately so it was only in your body for a moment, not long enough to cause any real damage. Thing is, raw magic like that tends to give you... visions, especially when asleep. Nopony has ever been able to remember them after waking, but they always leave behind a horrible sort of existential dread."
  1683. "Yeah, that sounds about right."
  1684. >"So no," she continued, "I doubt your brain is actually damaged, but I think it means a little bit of the energy is still stuck in there, and that means, well," she grimaced and choked on the words, "my spell... f-failed."
  1685. >She bit her lip, then shook her head and hurried on before Anon could respond.
  1686. >"And that means I failed a spell so simple that it could hardly even be called a spell! I mean, the core of a unicorn's horn naturally absorbs magical energy on its own so I basically just had to touch you with my horn and relax and the power would flow right back to me, but apparently even THAT is too much for me right now!"
  1687. >A note of hysteria entered her voice.
  1688. >"I guess that means I really am just a useless broken pony with no magic and no f-friends who doesn't even deserve to be p-princess anymore, n-nevermind--"
  1689. >A startled little squeak escaped her as Anon hugged her to his chest and planted a gentle kiss on the top of her head.
  1690. >She looked up at him in surprise and he returned her gaze with a warm smile.
  1691. "From what I gather, if you hadn't done as well as you did I'd already be long dead, so you saved my life even with your broken horn."
  1692. >Her muzzle was starting to turn pink, "W-W-Well I..."
  1693. "Now I don't know much about magic, but I'll bet me waking up and throwing you back probably cut you off before you were quite done, yeah?"
  1694. >She stared up at him with wide eyes, "Um, maybe, b-but--"
  1695. "So if you could ALMOST do it with my dumb ass interrupting you, a broken horn, and a damn concussion to boot... well, I'd bet my left kidney you'll do just fine if you try again right now. Besides, you do have a friend."
  1696. >He tapped her snout with a fingertip.
  1697. "Me."
  1698. >Her muzzle snapped shut and her blush deepened as she averted her gaze.
  1699. >Something seemed to ignite within Anon's chest.
  1700. >Before he could think about it, Twilight looked up at him again with a smile.
  1701. >"I... You're right. Thank you, Anon. I don't know what came over me."
  1702. >He stroked his fingers through her mane and she shivered slightly at his touch.
  1703. "It's alright, I understand. You have a lot on your mind right now, but it'll be okay, you'll see."
  1704. >"You really think I should try again?"
  1705. "Oh, I'm sure you'll do great."
  1706. >She puffed out her cheeks nervously, then nodded.
  1707. >"Alright, but... later. I need to rest my horn for a bit since I kinda burned it out while making dinner," then she gasped and added, "Oh my gosh, I forgot about dinner!"
  1708. >Scrambling off his lap and onto her little stool, she wheeled toward the kitchen as fast as she could manage.
  1709. >Chuckling, Anon slowly got up and followed, hearing her cry, "Oh thank Celestia," as he approached.
  1710. >Once he rounded the corner, she looked up and said, "I think it's okay. The noodles might be a bit overcooked, but I lowered the heat before I went out there with you so it shouldn't be too bad."
  1711. >On the stove were a pot with noodles and another with spaghetti sauce, but something about the smell caught him off guard.
  1712. "Is this, uh... your own receipe?"
  1713. >"Mmhmm! Well, kind of. I don't know exactly what's in that pre-mixed jar of sauce, but it smells like the kind of sauce my dam always used as the base for hibiscus pasta, so I think it'll work."
  1714. >She gestured at the empty jar of spaghetti sauce, but Anon was distracted by the empty jar of hibiscus flowers beside it.
  1715. >Anon let out an incredulous laugh.
  1716. "Hibiscus flowers... in spaghetti?"
  1717. >"Oh, so you don't..."
  1718. >At her dejected tone, he turned back to see her forlorn expression and any trace of humor was instantly wiped from his face.
  1719. >"When I saw the flowers, I just... It was my favorite as a filly, so..."
  1720. >Feeling like a total jackass, Anon quickly knelt beside her stool and laid a hand on her neck.
  1721. "Hey, it's okay! I've just never heard of it before so it caught me off guard, that's all."
  1722. >Her ears perked up a bit, "So... you don't mind?"
  1723. "If it was your favorite then I'm sure it'll taste great."
  1724. >Considering how vastly different their palettes may be, he wasn't at all certain of that, but he'd be damned if he was gonna make her feel bad for making him dinner now.
  1725. >Hoping to reassure her, he piled plenty of pasta on a pair of plates, added some silverware, and gestured for her to follow him into the living room.
  1726. >As she scooted along behind him, she asked, "Don't you have a dining room?"
  1727. >Anon chuckled dryly as he thought about the long-disused lump of dust that once was his dining table.
  1728. "I don't have guests very often so it's been ages since I touched any of that stuff. I doubt it's clean."
  1729. >"Oh..."
  1730. "Yeah, I usually just eat on the couch or at my desk and watch a movie or something."
  1731. >As they approached the couch, Anon saw the papers spread across the coffee table which he'd been too distracted to notice earlier and gave Twilight a questioning look once they were both seated.
  1732. >"Sorry, they're just some notes I took while I was learning to read your language."
  1733. >Anon nodded as he absentmindedly twirled his fork, still a bit hesitant to try the strange pasta.
  1734. "Ah, good idea. How far along have you gotten?"
  1735. >"Well," she said with a shy flop of her ears, "I'm still pretty slow and make a lot of spelling mistakes, but I've been able to work out every word I tried after a moment, and I'm getting better at writing sentences."
  1736. "Hey, that's pretty good! How long have you been studying our language then?"
  1737. >"Um, well I watched a lot of How It's Made first, so maybe... half the time you were gone?"
  1738. >Anon froze with his fork halfway to his mouth.
  1739. "What, you mean just today?"
  1740. >"Well I had no way to learn anything yesterday."
  1741. "Are you telling me you've never read or written any english before today?"
  1742. >"Um... no? How could I?"
  1743. "You didn't, I dunno, study us humans before you came here or something?"
  1744. >"Huh? No, I didn't even know what humans were before yesterday."
  1745. >With a confused stare, she added, "I did say I came from another world, Anon."
  1746. >He remembered her saying that but he hadn't really taken it seriously then, but now after all that he'd seen of her...
  1747. >Anon slowly leaned back into the couch and simply stared at her as he suffered yet another major revelation about the strange creature he had befriended.
  1748. >Twilight shifted uneasily and asked, "Are you okay?"
  1749. "So by another world, you mean... what, a whole different planet?"
  1750. >"Well, I don't know what a planet is, but it's a whole other place with different land, different creatures, different sun and moon--"
  1751. >She cut off suddenly and leaned toward him, setting a hoof on his thigh.
  1752. >"Anon, what's wrong? Please, you're starting to worry me."
  1753. "I'm f-fine, just..."
  1754. >He rubbed his face with both hands and took a deep breath.
  1755. >After a brief moment of silence, he tried again.
  1756. "Look, when you told me 'another world,' I just assumed you meant it... metaphorically or something. Like, rural Japan feels like a different world, but it's still a place here on Earth. I figured you must come from some hidden land we never discovered because of magic or whatever, underground or in the sky or in the ocean or... something."
  1757. >He expected her to smirk, roll her eyes, or maybe even get angry.
  1758. >Instead her expression was oddly tender and she leaned forward to lay a hoof on his arm.
  1759. >"Does that mean you thought this world was the only one with life? In all existence?"
  1760. >At his nod, her gentle smile almost seemed to become pitying.
  1761. >"Oh Anon, I'm so sorry. I can't imagine how cold and lonely that must have felt."
  1762. >Her grin widened and she sat back, waving her hooves in a grandiose gesture.
  1763. >"But no, you are not alone. There are hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of worlds out there, all teeming with life, totally unique and full of strange sights nopony has ever even imagined."
  1764. >A lifetime of habit made it hard to accept what she said, but that burning in his chest made it hard to refute her.
  1765. >He found himself wanting nothing more than to trust her and believe the things she claimed.
  1766. >Distracted by the implications of this new information, he lifted his fork to his mouth mindlessly, as if on autopilot.
  1767. >The cranberry-like flavor of the hibiscus was so entirely different from what he expected of spaghetti sauce that it jolted him out of his reverie and he almost gagged at the unexpected flavor which, normally so pleasant in teas, now seemed more akin to the sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit.
  1768. >When she saw his reaction, Twilight let out a deep sigh and said, "Oh... well, I understand. I suppose my pony tastes are just too different from yours."
  1769. "I-It just surprised me, is all."
  1770. >He immediately tried a second bite and, now that he knew what to expect, the flavor was simply unusual rather than sickening.
  1771. >"No, it's okay Anon, you don't have to pretend for me. We are entirely different species after all, it's a wonder our tastes are even this similar."
  1772. >She was putting on a brave face and her voice was strong and steady, but Anon could see the tip of her tail twitching with distress, so he swallowed and smiled reassuringly.
  1773. "I mean it, Twilight, really. Look, have you ever had a sip of something you thought was one drink but was actually something completely different? Like, you were expecting milk but then you tasted orange juice?"
  1774. >"Once or twice, sure, but--"
  1775. "My first bite was just like that. I was distracted thinking about what you'd just said and stuck some food in my mouth without thinking, so I was expecting normal human spaghetti."
  1776. >"Oh," her ears perked up slightly, "So... it's okay?"
  1777. >He nodded in pleasant surprise.
  1778. "Actually yeah, now that I'm expecting it. The tangy flavor compliments the tomato sauce pretty well, and while it being this sweet is definitely strange to me, it does kind of work with the pasta."
  1779. >Turning away shyly, she murmured, "You're not just saying that to make me feel better? Promise?"
  1780. >She glanced back at him and he nodded.
  1781. "Cross my heart and hope to die."
  1782. >The phrase seemed to startle her so he hastily added;
  1783. "Sorry, just a saying people use, I don't actually hope I'll die."
  1784. >"Y-Yeah..."
  1785. >After that, Twilight seemed to be lost in thought for a while, so he resumed eating in silence.
  1786. >Whether it was because he was getting used to it or simply because he really wanted to make Twilight feel better, the more he ate of the strange spaghetti, the better it seemed to taste.
  1787. >By the time he reached his last bite he was thoroughly enjoying the meal, and in fact even decided to go and get seconds.
  1788. >This seemed to genuinely surprise Twilight and she looked much more cheerful and relaxed when he returned with more.
  1789. >Anon guessed she had still suspected him of only pretending to enjoy it to spare her feelings.
  1790. >When she finished her own plate, Anon took it from her and tucked it under his own mostly-empty one, then gestured at her notes still spread across the coffee table.
  1791. "So, wanna show off what you've learned while I finish?"
  1792. >"Oh! Sure, um..."
  1793. >She grabbed the tablet awkwardly in her hooves and floated the little stylus over, scooted closer to sit right next to him so he could see the screen, then slowly typed out the words, 'I am Twilight Sparkle, an alicorn Princess of Equestria.'
  1794. >After re-reading what she typed to make sure it was correct, she looked up at him with such an adorable little grin across her muzzle that Anon couldn't help but laugh and give her some scritches under her chin.
  1795. "Very impressive, miss Twilight Sparkle."
  1796. >Her ears flopped down bashfully, "I can barely even write at a foal's pace."
  1797. "Hey, that's nothing to shake a stick at. It'd probably take me days to learn a new alphabet like that, even if it was my own language."
  1798. >Twilight stifled a giggle and said, "Oh stop, it's not that impressive..."
  1799. "Sure is! And yesterday when you rattled off those body parts I named like it was nothing? You are crazy smart, Twilight. Smarter than most humans, I reckon."
  1800. >Blushing furiously now, she turned back to the tablet and focused on practicing her typing some more while Anon ate the last few bites of his pasta, fighting to keep a self-satisfied smirk off his face.
  1801. >Once finished, he set the dishes on the coffee table then sat back and laid a hand across Twilight's withers.
  1802. "So anyway... about those night terrors?"
  1803. >She looked blank for a second, then her face lit up.
  1804. >"Oh right! Yeah, my horn should be fine now, it's not like it's a difficult spell."
  1805. "Great, 'cause I'm exhausted and would love to get some real sleep tonight. What do you need me to do?"
  1806. >"Oh, you don't have to do anything, you can just lean back and relax."
  1807. >She looked down at her hoof and it glowed with her horn for a couple seconds then stopped.
  1808. >At his questioning look she only muttered, "Um, just checking," and took a couple of deep breaths.
  1809. >Then she lurched forward, lifted a hindleg across his thighs and sat down on his lap, laying her hooves on his shoulders for balance.
  1810. "Uh--"
  1811. >"I know, don't worry," she reassured him with a smile, "I'm keeping my weight off my injured leg."
  1812. "That's not--"
  1813. >She tapped his lips with the frog of her hoof and said, "Hush and let me concentrate, Anon. It's a simple spell but I still need to focus."
  1814. >Anon reluctantly fell silent and tried not to think about the last time anyone had straddled his lap like this.
  1815. >Twilight closed her eyes, slowly leaned toward him, and he followed the movement of her horn until he felt its cool surface gently rest against his forehead.
  1816. >He lowered his gaze and watched her as her horn cast a faint illumination across her features.
  1817. >Her face was so close he could see each individual hair in the ultra-fine fur of her muzzle, which was only an inch or two from his face.
  1818. >It was so quiet that he could hear the faint whisper of her breath as it brushed across his lips.
  1819. >How he could hear that over the blood pounding like thunder in his ears, he had no idea.
  1820. >Moments later, he was distracted by the most unusual sort of releasing sensation.
  1821. >It was like a headache abruptly fading away, though there hadn't any pain, or taking the weight off a weary joint, except it was his brain instead of bone.
  1822. >In any case, it was intensely satisfying in a way he hadn't even realized he needed.
  1823. >He let out a little sigh and slumped forward under the powerful sense of relief.
  1824. >His nose very gently touched the warm and fuzzy tip of her snout.
  1825. >The contact seemed to electrify them and in an instant both man and unicorn were sitting bolt upright, eyes wide, bodies tense, mouths slightly agape, each staring at the other.
  1826. "S-Sorry I--"
  1827. >"Well t-that's--
  1828. "Good job I guess--"
  1829. >"I'll just scoot over--"
  1830. >Twilight flopped onto the couch beside him and Anon abruptly stood, grabbing the dirty plates from the coffee table and walking them into the kitchen.
  1831. >The harsher and brighter light in there made his eyes burn and he suddenly became aware of the depth of his exhaustion.
  1832. >He'd had at best 6 hours of sleep over the last two nights combined and it was catching up to him with a vengeance.
  1833. >With an enormous yawn, he dumped the plates unceremoniously in the sink and shuffled back out to the living room where he found Twilight watching him from the couch.
  1834. "Right, well... thanks. Barely slept at all so I'm a go do that now. Y'know where your room is so--"
  1835. >He stopped midsentence and let out a deep and weary groan.
  1836. "Ahh shit, forgot to clean out the junk..."
  1837. >Twilight grimaced and wiggled her nose distastefully, "Ugh... are you sure I can't just sleep in your bed again?"
  1838. >Anon's lips twitched into an awkward grimace and her tone became pleading, "Oh, I'm sorry! I know it's kind of awkward but I just kept sneezing so much from all the dust last night. Plus your bed is so much warmer, and it's an awfully large bed after all--"
  1839. >Anon weakly threw up his hands.
  1840. "Okay, fine! Feel like I'm already half asleep just standing here, not gonna try an' argue with--"
  1841. >Another yawn interrupted him and he simply turned around, waving his hand for her to follow.
  1842. >He found himself digging through a drawer to find some pajama pants with no memory of having walked to the bedroom.
  1843. >An instant later, he was reaching out from under the covers to turn off the bedside lamp.
  1844. >His last waking thought was that of a fluffy warmth enveloping his side.
  1845.  
  1846. ...
  1847.  
  1848. >"Princess Luna?"
  1849. "Nnnngh..."
  1850. >The alicorn wrenched her eyes around to see a lavender unicorn in the signature dark grey armor of her night guard.
  1851. "Ah, good evening, Bastion."
  1852. >Her captain grimaced, "My apologies Mistress, but it is morning."
  1853. "Yet the sky is still dark?"
  1854. >She saw him wince and sat upright in alarm.
  1855. "There is an emergency?"
  1856. >"No, Princess... You must raise the sun."
  1857. "I..."
  1858. >Her eyes widened as her drowsy mind recalled the events of the previous night.
  1859. >Instantly, she lowered her head and focused on the distant connection to her sister's life force, and a faint cry escaped her muzzle as she felt how weak and tremulous it had become.
  1860. >The guard laid a hoof on her fetlock, quailing at her fearful glance.
  1861. >"Princess Luna, what's wrong?"
  1862. "My sister... so weak..."
  1863. >"She didn't heal any further?"
  1864. "Or was injured anew as I slept... something must be preventing her return just as it did Twilight!"
  1865. >Bastion looked at her firmly and he said, "Mistress, I think she would not return even if she could, not until she has found Princess Twilight."
  1866. >Luna bit her lip, wishing she could argue, then she let out a long sigh.
  1867. "Alas, I cannot deny your words, but oh Bastion, if she were lost to me... I am so frightened."
  1868. >His expression softened as she looked up at him again.
  1869. >"As am I, but I am here for you, my Princess," then he hastily added, "T-That is, we are all here for you. Stout Anchor and I made sure all the castle staff understand."
  1870. "Thank you, dear friend. Stout was the first pony I spoke to upon my return last night, and I am glad to know he did not waste the night."
  1871. >She caught the slight tension in his brow and clicked her tongue in disapproval.
  1872. "Discard such jealous thoughts, my Bastion, for you know better. I was simply uncertain whether he would react appropriately. Never have I felt any such doubt for you."
  1873. >His muzzle colored slightly as he stammered out, "I... of course. Thank you, Mistress."
  1874. >Even distressed as she was, she couldn't help but smile when he became flustered like that.
  1875. "I assume Silver Spear has been informed as well?"
  1876. >"Yes, and in fact he is waiting in the hall. Serenity is also expecting you at your earliest convenience."
  1877. >Luna resisted the urge to grimace and nodded somberly. Obviously her night staff could not remain with her throughout the day as well. She would have to rely on Celestia's staff to help her while her own rested.
  1878. >But then... when was she expected to rest?
  1879. >Ever perceptive to her worries, Bastion quietly added, "Nopony is expecting you to do everything singlehoofedly, Princess. The day staff only await your presence to begin reducing and reorganizing responsibilities normally shared between you both as much as possible."
  1880. >She smiled sadly and gently cupped his cheek with a tendril of magic.
  1881. "You know me so well. I will miss having you by my side today, Bastion."
  1882. >He returned her smile, then politely backed away as usual when she became too friendly with him.
  1883. >She did respect his attempts to keep their relationship formal, but she also yearned for somepony she could confide in and seek comfort from other than her sister, and Bastion was one of the few ponies she felt comfortable with.
  1884. >Maybe one day she would find out just how far his loyalty would go.
  1885. >"Thank you, Princess," Bastion said formally, interrupting her thoughts, "But I am confident Silver Spear and Serenity will be of more use to you than me, as I am completely ignorant of the daytime routine."
  1886. >Luna nodded and adopted his more formal tone.
  1887. "Very well. You may retire to your quarters, Captain. Please tell Silver Spear to remain outside for now."
  1888. >"Yes, Mistress."
  1889. >The stallion saluted and exited in a smart trot.
  1890. >Luna slid from her bed and stretched her forelegs out before her, wings slowly spreading to their full extent, then she relaxed with a little wiggle to help loosen the joints.
  1891. >Finally, she turned reluctantly toward the window.
  1892. "My dear sister... I pray this privilege shall never again be required of me."
  1893. >Her eyes closed, her horn glowed, and her mane and tail billowed in a fresh gust of ethereal wind as her magic expanded into the sky.
  1894. >The moon immediately greeted her with its subtle embrace and she was happy to respond in kind. There was a hint of concern among the vague sensations that represented its glacial emotions, but Luna reassured it that all was well as she laid the silvery sphere to rest.
  1895. >She then cast her magic around the horizon until she encountered the sun and formally requested it to rise.
  1896. >Celestia did not talk of the sun very often, likely thinking it to be a sore subject, but Luna did recall she once mentioned that the sun was more willful than the moon and could even be a bit forward at times, so she was prepared for a bit of stubbornness or animosity.
  1897. >However, the moment the sun realized she was not Celestia, she was startled by an intense wave of contempt followed quickly by greed and hunger.
  1898. >Almost immediately, she felt a terrible wrath ignite within her chest and her mane began to spark with the first hints of flame.
  1899. >Princess Luna merely rolled her eyes.
  1900. >Then a veritable deluge of arcane power exploded into the sky as she focused the full force of her power upon the petulant orb, seizing it like a mewling kitten caught by the scruff of its neck.
  1901. >She was the wielder of the ancient power of the sun bestowed upon Equestria in eons past and she made it eminently clear which of them was the master and which was the tool.
  1902. >Her will poured forth in an irresistible torrent of almighty authority and the sun, cowed into submission, obediently rose into the sky.
  1903. >Not until it reached its peak did she release the spell and turn stiffly away from the window, then she let out a long sigh of disappointment.
  1904. >That meant the sun would likely never be the peaceful companion she had found in the moon.
  1905. >Was that why Celestia always doted on that insufferable pigeon, Philomena?
  1906. >Luna grimaced at herself.
  1907. >It seemed that fiery wrath still lingered within her, despite her instant and overwhelming response to the sun's attack.
  1908. >It was true there were countless ponies awaiting her presence, but if she appeared before them in this state, it would do more harm than good.
  1909. >She decided to take a moment to calm down, and nothing helped her relax like a good preening, so she hopped up onto her bed again, curled up on one side and began methodically nuzzling her wing.
  1910. >It had only been a couple days since her last preen, but her strenuous flight through the treetops the night before had been quite unusual, and her wings had become noticeably ruffled.
  1911. >Even if they had already been immaculate though, she still would have gone through the motions for the sake of her sanity.
  1912. >The faint echo of Celestia's once tremendous life force still needled at the back of her mind.
  1913. >She dared not release the connection, but she tried not to think about it as she gently stroked her coverts and felt the tension leave her withers.
  1914. >As she moved along the edge of her wing, she began to reminisce about her ascension and the first time she had felt her glorious wings.
  1915. >Her sister had been born a pegasus and almost seemed to take them for granted, but Luna had not felt the joy of flight until she was a mare and, even centuries later, still delighted in the experience.
  1916. >A twist of her neck brought one of her secondaries back into line, and Luna wondered if perhaps she took her magic for granted just as Celestia did her wings.
  1917. >Certainly she had never neglected her studies - indeed, she generally considered herself the superior spellcaster, with the exception of healing magic for which Tia had a natural talent.
  1918. >She stretched her neck to give her primaries a few delicate licks, then she carefully folded the wing and rolled around to her other side, starting the whole process again.
  1919. >Luna decided that no, her sister likely respected and enjoyed her wings just as much as her, but Celestia had so much more responsibility she simply didn't have as much time for pegasi practice.
  1920. >Besides, it wasn't as if she could see all the times Tia preened her own wings in the privacy of her bedroom, just as she was now.
  1921. >Her feathers were always clean, her flight was even and steady, and her air control smooth and efficient.
  1922. >Luna was still the better spellcaster though.
  1923. >Slightly better.
  1924. >...Mostly.
  1925. >With a final tender caress of her muzzle, Luna spread both wings to inspect her work.
  1926. >Satisfied, she gave a powerful downward stroke and reveled in the precision with which she lifted her body.
  1927. >Hovering sideways off the bed, she dropped onto her hooves and casually donned her regalia, then finally exited her bedroom door.
  1928.  
  1929. ...
  1930.  
  1931. >Celestia let out a low groan.
  1932. >The fact that she was even still alive came as a bit of a surprise.
  1933. >She struggled to open an eye and saw only darkness, but seconds later a bag was yanked from her head and she had to squint against a painfully bright light.
  1934. >Her vision slowly came into focus, but beyond her circle of light was pitch black and impenetrable.
  1935. >She started as a sharp voice barked out of the darkness.
  1936. >"Uyangiqonda?"
  1937. "Wh--"
  1938. >Even if her muzzle hadn't been so stiff, the word would have died in her parched throat and she broke off with a weak cough.
  1939. >A plume of water abruptly flew at her from the darkness and slammed into her face, making her gasp in surprise and immediately choking as some of it inevitably made it down her throat.
  1940. >Almost before she got her sputtering under control, the sharp voice spoke again.
  1941. >"Uyangiqonda? Ingaba uyandiqonda? ...Verstaan jy my?"
  1942. "I-I don't... what? Who are you?"
  1943. >"Ag, of course it would be English, the garbage. Well at least Jabu was not lying."
  1944. >An ape-like face leaned into the light, similar to the ones who had attacked her but with apricot colored skin.
  1945. >"I am called Arno. What are you called?"
  1946. "My n-name..."
  1947. >It was still terribly difficult to speak, but she swallowed hard and tried again.
  1948. "I am P... um, Celestia, from Equestri--"
  1949. >She broke off in another fit of coughing that burned horribly and she instinctively tried a small healing spell without even thinking.
  1950. >Fresh waves of pain stabbed into her forehead as sparks shot from the hole in the base of her horn.
  1951. >Arno jerked back with an angry shout and something slammed into the side of her head.
  1952. >Through her dazed confusion she could hear distant shouting and was vaguely aware of something firmly gripping her head.
  1953. >Just as the fog began to lift from her senses, one of the creatures placed a primitive saw against the base of her horn.
  1954. "Nnn... No!"
  1955. >The first cut rattled her skull and filled her with icy dread.
  1956. "Wait, p-please--"
  1957. >The second cut got through the outer shell and filled her with burning agony.
  1958. "You don't... don't undersss..."
  1959. >The third cut bit deep into the flesh of her horn and she could barely even gasp.
  1960. >Celestia knew what would happen next and no longer had the will to stop it.
  1961. >So instead, she embraced it.
  1962. >Clenching her muzzle against the blinding pain, she pressed as much energy as she could muster into her mutilated horn.
  1963. >Then the saw cut a fourth time and all chaos broke loose.
  1964. >An unfathomable amount of raw arcane power burst from the core of her horn, flowed into the metal saw, shot up the creature's limb like lightning, and coalesced about his head with an ominous golden aura.
  1965. >There was a brief look of terror in its face and Celestia felt a pang of regret for its suffering.
  1966. >Then its eyes filled with white, growing brighter and brighter until they outshone the lamp.
  1967. >It tried to scream, but all that came out of its mouth was more light.
  1968. >The body - as by this point it was already dead - slowly rose a short distance into the air as its very skin began to glow from within.
  1969. >Celestia turned away and saw about half a dozen other creatures all staring at the unfortunate scene in shock and horror.
  1970. >All except Arno.
  1971. >He stared right at her.
  1972. >An explosion of wild magic pulsed outward in a wave of distorted iridescence, flowing over everyone and everything in the room as the lifeless body crumpled to the ground.
  1973. >Each of the creatures stumbled back with various cries as they felt a tiny echo of the psychological horror the creature had experienced before its death.
  1974. >Celestia merely relaxed and allowed her aching horn to reabsorb any magic that reached her.
  1975. >There was a few seconds of stunned silence and Arno met her gaze again.
  1976. >"Jou bliksem!"
  1977. >Arno raised his hand in alarm and Celestia tried to turn toward the shout.
  1978. >Then a club smashed into her skull and everything went black.
  1979. >Again.
  1980. ...
  1981. >Next time she awoke, she found herself lying on a simple bed with a wide bowl of oats and carrots nearby, which was nice.
  1982. >She was also bound with so much rope that she could barely wiggle a hoof, which was less nice.
  1983. >They were kind enough to leave her head free but her horn was bound with a crude metal shackle.
  1984. >By crossing her eyes she was just barely able to see it had a short stub of metal that stuck straight into the wound at the base of her horn.
  1985. >That would prevent her horn from healing properly no matter how long her regeneration spell worked at it.
  1986. >For the first time in centuries, Celestia felt a twinge of real fear in her chest.
  1987. >She tried to twist around to look at her body, but something tugged uncomfortably at her neck.
  1988. >"I would not do that if I were you."
  1989. >The quiet voice startled her and she whipped her head around toward the source, but the tugging quickly became painful and she froze.
  1990. >Arno slowly walked into view and knelt a short distance away, watching her thoughtfully.
  1991. >"My people... they think you are a demon. They say you are here to punish us and I am wrong to keep you."
  1992. "I... I'm just looking for my... well, student."
  1993. >"Student? Another like you?"
  1994. >Celestia nodded and he looked down thoughtfully.
  1995. >"What will you do when you find this student?"
  1996. "Take us both home."
  1997. >"No punishing?"
  1998. "No... I never meant any harm. What happened earlier was... I tried to stop it."
  1999. >"Kaya would wish you tried harder. I think she loved Mandla. Certainly they were fucking at least."
  2000. >Arno paused as if expecting her to comment, but she simply waited for him to continue.
  2001. >"Well, where is home then? Where has your kind been all this time?"
  2002. "That's... complicated."
  2003. >"Eish, probably not enough time then."
  2004. >Something about his smirk made her uneasy, but she tried to ignore it.
  2005. "May I ask you something?"
  2006. >He rolled his eyes and gestured at her, which she assumed meant to continue.
  2007. "I was... attacked in the air before I had even met one of your species... why such hostility without even an attempt at negotiation?"
  2008. >Arno burst out in derisive laughter and her ears flattened in annoyance. He muttered something under his breath before finally responding.
  2009. >"Jabu was out hunting for rhinos and brought me you instead. There is no negotiation in a hunt, domkop. But then he arrives and swears up and down that you spoke before he shot you in the face. I sigh, thinking you dead and now we'll never know."
  2010. >He raised his forelimbs and feigned shock.
  2011. >"Then a miracle, you make a noise, I yank the bag from your head, and the wound on your head closes before my very eyes! Then I remember Jabu said you spoke, so I ask if you understand, and you respond in this ukubhebhana language, so I ask your name... and what do you do? You spit fire or light or something! So we try and cut off your horn."
  2012. >He shrugged with terrifying indifference.
  2013. >"Mandla paid for that and you did not, but then I think of how you healed..."
  2014. >Celestia was starting to feel oddly tired and was surprised to find she was panting.
  2015. >"So I do a little experiment. Kaya angered me in striking you without orders, so I have her restrained and give her a little cut. Nothing serious, but ek sĂȘ, she screams like hell. Then I give you a little cut, gather some blood, pour it on Kaya's cut... then she is well! So boer maak 'n plan."
  2016. >It was rapidly becoming difficult to keep her eyes open. Celestia thought that was probably a bad thing and she should be worried, but she was just so tired.
  2017. >Seeing her eyelids flicker, Arno grinned and reached around her as he continued.
  2018. >"I think maybe I need some more experiments first, but if I am right, then you will make me far more rich than any rhino."
  2019. >A large jug slid into sight and a tube clamped to the edge was dribbling a pulsating stream of thick red syrup.
  2020. >The flow grew stronger as Celestia realized it was her blood.
  2021. >"Of course," Arno continued in a too-casual tone, "twenty liters is a bit much for some little experiments, but I must draw that much so you become too weak to kill any more of my men."
  2022. >The edges of her vision began to fade but her gaze remained fixated on that little tube as her life flowed out of her.
  2023. >"But do not worry, my little poplap. I am a forgiving man and will not kill you for that."
  2024. >Celestia's head slowly sank onto the bed and Arno patted her cheek.
  2025. >"No... you are much more valuable to me alive."
PiE safe Celestia Luna Anon Twilight SoL WIP

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