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Love and War

By pentapony
Created: 25th February 2021 05:51:41 AM
Modified: 19th April 2021 06:54:58 AM

  1. >You're Flurry Heart, and this is some bullshit.
  2. >Mom's taking you to Canterlot for some stupid royal affair.
  3. >She explained it on the carriage ride over, but you never pay attention.
  4. >Why would you? She's always going on about what her life was like when she was your age a million years ago.
  5. >She gets especially riled up whenever it's time to come back to her and dad's hometown.
  6. >Like Canterlot's anything special. The whole city's crammed onto a tiny cliff, not spread out with room to wander like it is back home. The palace here is half the size of the one you live in.
  7. >And on top of that, you have to go see Aunt Twilight. She's gonna sperg out about how much you've grown in the past few years, how it's been so long since she's seen you, how you're practically a full-grown mare.
  8. >You can hear her shrill voice ringing in your head already. It makes you want to retch.
  9. >Whatever. You have your game plan. Make your appearance, establish a presence, then immediately dip and find some way to kill the rest of your weekend.
  10. >As long as you can evade Mom's radar, you might actually have a pretty chill vacation.
  11. >Once you arrive at the palace, Dad immediately heads off to check some royal guard shit.
  12. >Just like him. He doesn't pay you an ounce of attention anymore. He's always concerned with something or other.
  13. >Mom takes you straight to the throne room, where Aunt Twilight's waiting for you.
  14. >Something weird you notice is how the royal guards aren't all stallions.
  15. >By that, you don't mean mares. Other creatures.
  16. >Granted, you haven't been here since you were a kid, but you're pretty sure that wasn't the case last time.
  17. >Maybe it's just your foggy memory.
  18. >Anyway, as expected, Twilight fawns over you. You have to grin and bear it while she bombards you with infantilizing affection and small talk.
  19. >Then it's straight to the ballroom. Of course. No time to even get your shit unpacked.
  20. >I mean, you have servants who do that for you, but still, it'd be nice to get a breather first.
  21. >The gala's full of vaguely-familiar noblemares and stallions. They all bow admirably as you, Mom, and Twilight walk past.
  22. >You just give them usual half-smile and nod of acknowledgement. You never know how to respond in situations like this.
  23. >Probably shouldn't have zoned out during all those princess lessons Mom forced you through.
  24. >Nah, fuck that. Princess shit is boring.
  25. >Sometimes you wish you were a normal kid. The luxury's great and all, but is it worth the responsibility? Not to mention, the helicopter parents?
  26. >Mom is constantly lecturing you, and Dad only seems to remember your existence when you fuck up and pull some stupid shit.
  27. >What do they expect? They never let you have any fun. They can't expect you to constantly be Miss Prim and Proper when that's not who you are.
  28. >Even now, you can see Mom watching you out of the corner of her eye. Her words echo in your mind.
  29. >'Remember the royal posture. A princess shouldn't slouch. Your subjects look up to you, so when they bow, make sure they're looking up to you. They deserve your respect.'
  30. >You sit at the head table on the stage alongside Mom. Some dragon comes out to...
  31. >Holy shit, is that Spike? It is, isn't it?
  32. >When did he get so huge? He used to be smaller than you, and now he's like ten feet high!
  33. >That's probably just how dragons work, you figure. You've only ever met the one.
  34. >He introduces Twilight, who takes the stage and gives some long, winding speech about how far Equestria's come, unity and all that crap.
  35. >Then she mentions Mom, about how she was her old foalsitter (you've heard all the stories before), and how the Crystal Empire can help that cause.
  36. >Wait, what cause?
  37. >Your mind keeps wandering off. It's not exactly entertaining stuff.
  38. >Then Mom addresses the crowd. She gives one of her usual speeches about love, hope, and family.
  39. >For some reason, she always emphasizes that last one. Like, really hard.
  40. >And then... she name-drops you. You didn't catch the words leading up to it, but you feel a spotlight land on you and the room applauds.
  41. >You immediately freeze up.
  42. >Glancing over at Mom, she stares back at you and tilts her head toward the crowd expectantly, like she's trying to get you to do something.
  43. >Sweating nervously under the heat of the light, you just smile awkwardly and wave to the audience.
  44. >Mom quickly breaks the tension by picking up where she left off about the future of the Crystal Empire.
  45. >Your heart is racing by this point. Fucking Mom, putting you on the spot without any warning.
  46. >And Dad's not even bothering to be here! His seat is empty. Shouldn't he be in attendance for something like this?
  47. >Soon Mom wraps up her speech and the crowd gets up from their seats to resume the gala. Some noblemares come up to the stage to talk with her and Twilight.
  48. >The two leave the head table to meet with their subjects, leaving you all alone in your chair.
  49. >This is your chance!
  50. >With Mom's back turned, you quietly slink off the stage and out the closest door.
  51. >It takes you to an open hallway. The only ponies here are a few caterers walking to and fro, far too busy to register your presence.
  52. >All the better. You set off down the hall, hoping to check out the rest of the palace while everyone's occupied in the ballroom.
  53. >Maybe you can find somewhere to hide out the rest of the night. Won't be long till she sends someone to look for you.
  54. >As you pass by a set of glass doors, you hear a voice shout from the other side.
  55. >"Shit!"
  56. >You look outside to see a tall figure standing out in the gardens.
  57. >Not a pony. Some other creature, one you've never seen before, standing upright. He's leaning over the stone railing, back turned to you.
  58. >There's all sorts of weird creatures hanging around now. It's probably just another one of them, though the shape is unlike anything you can recognize.
  59. >You start to back away, wondering what he might look like from the other side, when you bump ass-first into a caterer hurrying by.
  60. >He drops the tray he's holding, and you spin around fearfully just in time to see it crash loudly onto the floor.
  61. >"S-Sorry, Princess!" he stutters, scrambling to pick up the spilled food.
  62. >You step back uneasily, unsure how to make out an apology for the mistake that you clearly made.
  63. >He's just a poor colt, obviously freaking out for getting in your way. Just as you're about to stammer out an explanation to assuage him of any guilt, you glance back at the gardens.
  64. >And you need not wonder any longer what this tall creature looks like, because he's staring right at you.
  65. >Your whole body locks up.
  66. >This is definitely no creature you've ever heard of. The way he's just staring at you is kind of creepy.
  67. >But, then again, you're staring back at him exactly the same way.
  68. >By the time you finally snap back to reality and turn to face the caterer, he's already running down the hallway with his tray, no doubt fearful you'll punish him for your blunder.
  69. >When you look back to the gardens, the creature's walking over to you.
  70. >Shit, what do you do? That caterer might have the right idea, should you just bolt?
  71. >But you don't move an inch, staying planted where you stand as he comes up and opens the glass door.
  72. >"You lost?"
  73. >You muster the courage to answer him without sounding nervous.
  74. "No. I was just wandering around. I heard someone yelling out here."
  75. >"That was just me."
  76. >He swings open the door further, making room for you to pass.
  77. >He thinks you wanted to come outside.
  78. >Not knowing what to do, you simply oblige, stepping out into the cool air.
  79. >He starts walking back to the railing. You hesitate a moment before following him.
  80. >"I set my cigarette down for five seconds, and this damn bird flies by and grabs it thinking it's food. Stupid shit dropped it as soon as he flew off."
  81. >You look out over the railing and see a faint orange speck glowing down in the fields below.
  82. >Without even thinking, your horn shines as you levitate it back up, setting it down on the railing in front of him.
  83. >He takes it and brings it up to his mouth. "Nice. Good looking out."
  84. >You look over him curiously. He's dressed in formal wear like the others in the gala, but it's all proportioned differently to fit his weirdly slender body.
  85. >You squint at the little object you retrieved for him.
  86. "What is that thing?"
  87. >He looks down at it, rolling it between his figures. "Not anything you'd know about. I'm trying to make every last one of 'em count."
  88. >When he sticks it in his mouth, he breathes smoke out.
  89. >Maybe he's some weird dragon?
  90. "You're not from Equestria."
  91. >"No shit," he says, leaning back over the railing.
  92. >He's kind of a jerk.
  93. >Why do you like that?
  94. "I heard there were creatures from other worlds. I didn't think I'd actually see one here."
  95. >"Yeah, well, Princess Twilight was ever-so-gracious enough to let me crash at her tacky little castle. It's only fair, seeing as how she's the one who landed me here in the first place."
  96. >You glance back over your shoulder at the palace.
  97. "Are you supposed to be at the gala right now?"
  98. >He looks down at you with just a hint of mockery. "Aren't you, Princess?"
  99. >Hang on, does he know you?
  100. "How'd you know?"
  101. >Without warning, he reaches out and flicks your horn. Irritated, you frown and step back.
  102. >"Because you've got both sets of equipment, genius. I'm not from here and even I know only princesses have both."
  103. >He takes another drag as he looks out at the landscape.
  104. >"So where’d you make the trip from, Your Highness?"
  105. >He doesn't say your title with the same reverence everyone else puts into it. It just rolls off his tongue, almost like he's making fun of you.
  106. >You're not used to that. It's... interesting.
  107. >You answer him frankly.
  108. "The Crystal Empire."
  109. >He snorts in nonchalant amusement and turns back to you. "Really? So you're the one causing all that trouble?"
  110. "What trouble?"
  111. >He shakes his head. "Never mind. Of course it's not you, you're just a kid."
  112. "I'm a grown mare, you ass."
  113. >It's kind of true, but just barely. In saying that, your lack of confidence betrays you.
  114. >"Whoa," he chuckles, "looks like Princess got a sharp tongue. Your mother teach you to talk like that?"
  115. >You scoff, frustrated that the topic of conversation once again finds its way to her, the same way it always does.
  116. "Shut up."
  117. >He doesn't. Instead, he latches onto the nerve he struck with you.
  118. >"Oh, now I get it. She's the one running the show, you're just the diva daughter. I get it right?"
  119. >You flip your hair out of your eyes brazenly and try to act unbothered by his jeering.
  120. "You don't know me."
  121. >"No, but I know all about your mom. She wouldn't be too happy seeing you standing out here with me."
  122. "Let her. I don't care what she thinks."
  123. >"Even so, maybe you'll get off easy, but I sure as hell won't. Best move along now before your mom gets Twilight to kick me to the curb."
  124. >You stand firm, looking up at him arrogantly. Maybe a threat'll knock him down a peg.
  125. "And what if I don't? You've been kind of a pain to me, so maybe I should stick around and get us both in trouble."
  126. >Locked in a standoff, he just stares down at you stone-faced, until he finally breaks away and returns to the railing.
  127. >He doesn't respond the way you thought he would. He just laughs to himself.
  128. >"I was the same way, not too long ago. A stubborn fucking teenager, always talking shit. 'Fuck you Dad, I hate you.' Well, I sure showed him, didn't I? Look at me now, old man."
  129. >He falls silent and flicks his spent cigarette over the railing before repeating his words to himself softly.
  130. >"Look at me now."
  131. >Not knowing where to begin to respond to that, you stand in silence for a while, looking out at the horizon together.
  132. >Eventually, you speak up.
  133. "Why wouldn't my Mom want me talking to you?"
  134. >He sighs and pushes off the railing. "Ask her yourself, why don't you?"
  135. >He pauses and looks you in the eye one last time before strolling back to the palace.
  136. >"She can explain it better than I ever could."
  137. >He goes back inside, leaving you alone in the gardens.
  138. >Whoever he was, he might be the first person you didn't absolutely loathe being around.
  139. >In fact... you're not sure why, but you kind of want to see him again.
  140.  
  141. >"...and in front of all of Equestria's nobility, no less!"
  142. >You groan internally and roll your eyes.
  143. >It's later in the night, and Mom's giving you a talking-to in the guest chambers for tonight's 'catastrophe'.
  144. >"I told you everything you needed to know this morning, and it all went in one ear and out the other. You know I love you, dear, but are you /trying/ to embarrass your father and I?"
  145. >When she mentions Dad, you can't help but snap back.
  146. "He wasn't even there! At least I bothered to show up, why aren't you lecturing him?"
  147. >She shakes her head and sighs. "Your father has business with the Royal Guard. He needs to ensure—"
  148. "Bullshit!" you shout irritably. "We both know Equestria hasn't been in danger since I was a foal. He obviously just wanted to go see his old buddies."
  149. >Irate, she prods you in the chest with her hoof.
  150. >"Flurry Heart, you will NOT use that kind of language with me! I don't know where this attitude came from. We didn't raise you to behave like this. You used to be such a sweet little filly."
  151. >You scoff and turn away from her.
  152. "I'm not a dumb little girl anymore. You can't keep treating me like one. I know more about what goes on here than you think."
  153. >"Clearly, you don't, or you wouldn't have made a fool of us at the gala. Do you even know why we're here?"
  154. >You don't. Not really. But you're not about to prove her right, so you make up a half-right answer.
  155. "We're here because of your stupid obsession with family! Well, let me tell you something, Mom: us three are barely even a family. You're up here arguing with me over nothing, and you don't even know where Dad is right now!"
  156. >Obviously hurt, she doesn't respond for a few seconds. When she does speak, her tone sounds defeated.
  157. >"You're a Princess, Flurry. Like it or not, that's who you are. Princesses have responsibility. When I was your age, I was helping raise Twilight Sparkle."
  158. >Ugh. Not this again.
  159. >"Did I know at the time that she was going to grow up to rule over all Equestria? No. But that's how Princesshood works. From the moment we're born, our actions shape the future, even when we're young and foolish."
  160. >She heads to the door and imparts one final message before leaving.
  161. >"I know you didn't ask to be Princess, dear. But next time, before you get short with me, just remember: neither did I."
  162. >She shuts the door behind her.
  163. >And now you're upset, because she won't even let you be mad at her.
  164. >Maybe she's right, but you don't want her to be. It'd be so much easier to get angry if she didn't have a point.
  165. >But still, you're not the same as her, and she needs to realize that. You're your own mare, not some ditzy foalsitter with a schoolgirl crush on a stallion.
  166. >When you get older, you're not going to be anything like her.
  167. >After that fight, you don't feel like sleeping. You step out into the halls and start wandering like you did earlier in the night.
  168. >That time, it was to escape the gala. Now you're just trying to escape your thoughts.
  169. >Eventually, you come upon a half-open door, with candlelight from within spilling out into the hall.
  170. >As you step into the doorway, you see Twilight, working at her desk late into the night.
  171. >Right as you move to leave, she looks up and notices you.
  172. >"Flurry!"
  173. >Dragged into conversation, you reluctantly enter her chambers.
  174. "Hey, Aunt Twi."
  175. >"I'm sorry I didn't get to spend more time with you tonight," she says, setting her quill down. "I feel like I barely saw you at all."
  176. >You drag your hoof across the stone floor and answer her truthfully.
  177. "I didn't really want to be found."
  178. >She smiles warmly. "I understand. Social functions weren't my thing either. I used to try to slip out all the time. Sometimes Princess Celestia would even join me. She didn't care for events much, either."
  179. "Really?"
  180. >You've heard a lot about Celestia over the years. You don't really remember her from your early childhood, but she was obviously a big deal.
  181. >"Yeah. It's harder now, with everyone constantly watching me, but sometimes I wish I could still get away. Especially on nights like tonight, when there's so much pressure on all sides."
  182. >You're starting to regret not paying attention earlier, when Mom was explaining what this trip was about.
  183. >She changes the subject to lighten the mood. "Did you at least get to do anything interesting when you snuck off? The palace has a lot to offer if you look in the right places."
  184. "Yeah, kinda. I met this new creature."
  185. >Twilight's spirits lift a little. "Really? Who was it?"
  186. >You just now realize you never got his name.
  187. "I don't know. He was one of the ones not from Equestria. Tall, and really skinny."
  188. >Twilight's hope fades just as quickly as it came. "Oh. Him."
  189. "You know who I'm talking about?"
  190. >"To be honest, I was hoping it almost anyone else."
  191. >That's weird. Sure, he mentioned that Mom wouldn't want you talking to him, but he seemed to be on good terms with Twilight.
  192. "Why? What's wrong with him?"
  193. >She hesitates. "Nothing, really, he's just a little... unfriendly. I'd enroll him in the School of Friendship, but I get the sense that wouldn't work out. I doubt he'd agree to it, anyway."
  194. >You definitely picked up on that vibe. He wasn't mean, though. He was rude, but like in a sweet way, where it's funny instead of hurtful.
  195. "I liked talking to him. He's not like all the other ponies here."
  196. >Suddenly, you catch yourself, hoping Twilight doesn't take offense to that comment.
  197. >Too preoccupied with something else on her mind, she doesn't seem to even notice.
  198. >"It's good to see you being so open-minded. Maybe you can rub off some of that on your mother."
  199. >You can't help but snicker. Twilight's never bad-mouthed Mom before. It's kind of funny.
  200. >She realizes what she just said, and rubs her head in regret. "Sorry, I didn't mean that. Princess Cadance has always been good to me. It's just that this delegation hasn't been going as well as I hoped."
  201. >You're not sure whether to press for details. If it's something you're supposed to already know about, you'll just sound stupid for asking.
  202. >"I'm glad you're broadening your horizons, though. I think that's something to encourage for a young girl like you. I can even set you up with another conversation partner. There's this sweet little griffon boy I know, or perhaps a yak, since I'm sure you've had some experience with them before..."
  203. >Gross, why is she phrasing it like that? She's making friendship sound like she's trying to hook you up.
  204. >And there's no way you'd hook up with a yak, no matter how hilariously mad it would make Mom.
  205. >Although...
  206. >You interrupt Twilight's rambling.
  207. "Can you introduce me to him? The same guy from tonight?"
  208. >She frowns. "I don't see what you could possibly have in common with a creature like him. Wouldn't you rather meet someone more your speed? Equestria's changed so much since you were last here, I have so many students who could tell you all about it."
  209. >You know Aunt Twilight. Once she gets fixated on something, there's no shaking her off.
  210. >And you don't feel like spending the rest of the weekend with some preppy griffon freak glued to you, so it looks like you're going to have to play her game.
  211. "I just thought that meeting someone from another world would be the best approach to understanding new cultures."
  212. >"Yes, I suppose that's true... but I've been to a number of other worlds! There are some fascinating creatures who'd be glad to tell you all about their homelands. You'd be surprised by just how unique they can be."
  213. >It's not working. If you're going to pull this off, you need to really pull her strings.
  214. >You put on your most convincing anxious expression and lower your voice to a meek whisper.
  215. "It's just that... I have trouble meeting new people. Maybe, if it was someone I'd already met before, I'd have an easier time opening up. It's embarrassing, but I'm just not very good at making friends."
  216. >"Oh, you poor thing!" she coos. "Don't you worry about that. I used to be exactly the same way, and look at me now, Princess of Friendship! If baby steps are what it takes, I'm sure I could arrange a second encounter. Maybe that'll get your confidence up."
  217. >You smile, feeling completely vindicated. She bought it, hook, line, and sinker.
  218. >"I'll have someone fetch you tomorrow. In the meantime, try to get some sleep, okay? You must be positively exhausted. I know how draining social interaction can be."
  219. "Sure thing, Aunt Twi. Thanks a lot."
  220. >You allow her to hug you goodbye and trot out of her chambers wearing a victorious grin.
  221. >All it took was playing the role of the egghead introvert and she was putty in your >hooves.
  222. >Now you get to see that mysterious man again, and this time, you have something you want to ask him.
  223.  
  224. >The next day, Cadance goes off with Shining Armor to some closed-door diplomacy meeting with Twilight and a few other dignitaries.
  225. >The only thing she told you before leaving was to not to get into trouble. After last night's fight, it seems to be all she cares about.
  226. >She has nothing to worry about. It's not like you could find trouble here even if you wanted to. Twilight micromanages everything in the palace.
  227. >This whole place is sickeningly... functional. Just once you wish something interesting would happen.
  228. >You spend the morning milling about the guest chambers, bored out of your mind.
  229. >Then a Royal Guard knocks at the door. You answer it hastily.
  230. >"I'm supposed to escort you into Canterlot," he says.
  231. >Canterlot? You're not meeting him in the palace?
  232. >You take a minute to adjust your mane in the mirror (you loathe these girlish curls, but Mom refuses to let you straighten them) before joining the guard out in the hall.
  233. >He takes you through the halls and down the staircase to the entrance, not saying one word the whole time.
  234. >He wears a stone-faced expression like he's some action hero, but who's he kidding?
  235. >He's taking a teenage princess out for a little social excursion, he could stand to lighten up a little.
  236. "Did Twilight tell you to do this?"
  237. >"Yes," he replies. She delivered the order earlier this morning."
  238. >Suddenly, you remember that Mom and Dad are with her, and they definitely wouldn't approve of you seeing this guy.
  239. >If they find out, they'll shut this whole thing down in an instant, and banish you to your chambers for the rest of the weekend.
  240. >Oh, how fun that would be. You could barely stand a couple hours of it this morning.
  241. >As the guard leads you down the palace steps into the city, you prod him for information.
  242. "Does my Mom know?"
  243. >He stares straight ahead while he walks and answers you plainly. "I have no knowledge of what Princess Cadance does or does not know."
  244. >You roll your eyes. He's probably being unhelpful on purpose to get you to shut up.
  245. >See how that works out for him.
  246. "Well, was she there when Twilight gave you the order?"
  247. >"She was not," he responds. "Princess Twilight stepped out of the room to address me when I arrived, and went back in when I departed."
  248. >That's at least something to go on. She didn't do it in front of Mom and Dad.
  249. >Maybe it means nothing. But it probably doesn't, right?
  250. >She was giving him an order pertaining to you. She had to consciously decide whether or not to do it in your parent's presence, and she chose to keep them out of the loop.
  251. >So Twilight's arranging this behind their back because she knows they'd disapprove?
  252. >No way. Is Twilight a cool aunt?
  253. >You shudder slightly. Never in a million years would you have used that word to describe her.
  254. >But, credit where credit is due, setting this rendezvous up was pretty sweet, even if she did have to be baited into it.
  255. >You sure as hell wouldn't have had any idea where to find this guy on your own. The palace is small when you need to get away and enormous when you need to find someone.
  256. >You're lost in thought as you trot through the streets of Upper Canterlot, absent-mindedly following the white figure clad in yellow armor in front of you.
  257. >You haven't been here since you were a filly, and you're not even paying attention to your surroundings.
  258. >Although it probably doesn't matter. As you look around now, you're not missing much. Just some shops like the ones you have back home, and ponies...
  259. >...who are staring at you? Why are they all looking like that?
  260. >With your neck craned, you don't notice when the guard stops suddenly.
  261. >You walk straight into him, and unlike the caterer, he doesn't even register the impact.
  262. >Awkwardly, you step back. The guard nods over to the shop in front of you.
  263. >"The creature you're meeting is in there."
  264. "Cool," you mutter, collecting your wits.
  265. >You need a moment to breathe before you go inside.
  266. >After a couple seconds of psyching yourself up, you look back to the guard. He's still standing there, watching you calmly.
  267. "Uh, you're— dismissed?"
  268. >That's what you say to get someone to leave, right?
  269. >Why isn't he leaving?
  270. "You can go now. Go do whatever guard stuff you need to."
  271. >"Twilight charged me with escorting you," he replies. "I'm to wait here until you're finished and return you to the palace."
  272. >Okay, now this guy is starting to get irritating.
  273. "Uh, I'm preeeetty sure I can find my way back."
  274. >You emphatically gaze up at the giant palace looming over the city, then look back to him like he's blind or just plain dumb.
  275. >"My orders stand. I will wait here until your business is concluded."
  276. >Ugh. You hate everything about this guy, from his dead personality to the way he talks.
  277. "Whatever," you mutter.
  278. >You turn around and walk up the stairs. It's a little shop called 'Donut Joe's.'
  279. >A bell rings when you step inside. The shop's mostly empty. There's a couple having breakfast off to the side, and a lone pony at the counter.
  280. >In the corner booth sits the person you're looking for.
  281. >Your eyes meet his as you walk over, and... he's a little confused by your arrival.
  282. >"You again?" he asks. "What are you doing here?"
  283. >Wait, what?
  284. >He didn't know you were coming?
  285. >But Twilight said she'd—
  286. >Oh, shit, Flurry, answer him.
  287. "I wanted to see you. Again, I mean."
  288. >That sounded so stupid! Why are you acting this way?
  289. >"And how'd you find me...?" he asks, slightly put off by the surprise.
  290. "Twilight sent me here."
  291. >He shakes his head. "I need to be less predictable."
  292. >Taking a sip of his coffee, he gestures to other side of the booth. "Well, don't just stand there, might as well sit if you came all this way."
  293. >You climb into the plush booth, not knowing what to say. You'd hoped that he'd be prepared to talk, knowing that you were coming.
  294. >Now it's just weird.
  295. >"Last night not do it for you?" he asks. "Had to come back for seconds?"
  296. "Shut up," you mumble.
  297. >"You tracked me down just to tell me to shut up?"
  298. >You quickly start getting annoyed with his antics.
  299. "Of course not, you moron. What's with all the questions?"
  300. >He sets his mug down. "Just curious why you wanted to see me again."
  301. >You hesitate before deciding to answer honestly.
  302. "I liked talking to you. Is that so hard to believe?"
  303. >"Coming from you? Yes."
  304. "Why?"
  305. >"Because you're a princess, and I'm me."
  306. >You stare down at the table. Now you're feeling stupid for coming.
  307. >"That wasn't me putting myself down," he follows up, "so don't go feeling sorry for me. I don't have anything in common with Twilight or any other of those other royal blowhards. Not gonna waste my time mingling. That wouldn't be fun for anyone."
  308. "Is that why you were in the gardens last night?"
  309. >"Part of it. Those guys don't like when I smoke around them. Like that sort of thing even matters here. Just goes to show, you can go a million miles from home, but prudes'll find you anywhere."
  310. >You pause a few seconds, sitting in silence while he drinks his coffee.
  311. "I'm not like them, you know."
  312. >"I know," he replies freely.
  313. "Then why are you so surprised I came back?"
  314. >"Because different or not, you're still a princess."
  315. >You don't know what he means by that.
  316. >You're a princess only in title. You don't even want to be one.
  317. >But then again, last night, Mom said neither did she.
  318. >What point was she even trying to make? She's as princess as princess gets. Everything's about duty with her.
  319. >There's no way she doesn't like her job. She acts like it was her birthright.
  320. >Now you're not so sure. From the way she talked, it kinda seemed like it wasn't easy for her, either.
  321. >But that can't be. If she knew how annoying it all was, she wouldn't be so hard on you.
  322. >She's just trying to turn you into a clone of herself, because she's so self-obsessed, she can't even stop to think you might be your own person!
  323. >Thank Celestia she doesn't know you're here right now, or she'd probably drag you back to the palace yourself.
  324. >You don't even know what she's so worried about. This guy—
  325. >Damn it! You forgot to ask for his name again.
  326. >Before you can open your mouth, he speaks up again.
  327. >"You eat yet? Let's get you something."
  328. >He raises his hand and yells toward the counter. "Hey Joe! Bring the lady something nice!"
  329. >You hold your hooves over your ears while he shouts his order obnoxiously loud. Slowly, you put them down when's he done.
  330. "Is... is that how you order food here?"
  331. >He turns back to you. "Huh? Oh, no, he hates it. I just don't care."
  332. >Smiling confidently, he brings the mug up to his mouth to take another sip. You can't help but chuckle softly.
  333. >He extends his hand toward you, laying it flat on the table. "I'm Anon."
  334. >You rest your hoof in his palm.
  335. "Flurry Heart."
  336. >"I know who you are," he says lightly. "I asked around last night after our little run-in. Didn't want to leave without getting your name. Seems like we had the same idea, huh?"
  337. >He gives your hoof a quick little squeeze before letting go, and you swear you could almost melt away.
  338. >...gross. That's your second thought.
  339. >Why do you find his touch so electric?
  340. >Maybe it's 'cause no one's ever touched you so casually before. It's strange. There's almost a magic to it.
  341. >You've had subjects kiss your hoof in reverence, but that was always painfully uncomfortable. You can't imagine that being enjoyable for either party, but somehow, it still happens.
  342. >Everywhere you go, ponies treat you like some magnificent god, someone who can solve all their problems on a whim.
  343. >But you can't. You're just a normal girl. You don't know any better than them. Why can't they see that?
  344. >More importantly, how come Anon's the only one who can?
  345. >Sitting back in his booth, he returns to his coffee. "I didn't think Twilight would help you find me."
  346. "She didn't want to. I had to bend the truth a little."
  347. >"Oh, your poor old aunt. If only she knew what her niece was up to..."
  348. >You scoff.
  349. "Spare me the lecture. I'm not up to anything."
  350. >He breaks into a smile. "That's a real sore spot with you. You don't like being talked down to."
  351. >No shit.
  352. "Who does?"
  353. >"Fair enough."
  354. >He takes a sip and continues, "But you're still pretty young. You've got a ways to go before that changes. If you ask me, you ought to count yourself lucky. You only have to endure it from your parents, maybe Twilight. That's it. I'm sure the rest of the world wouldn't dare patronize you, knowing you could have them executed for just thinking about it."
  355. "Yeah? And what about you? Not worried?"
  356. >"Well, I'm not from this world," he remarks. "I can't help it. I don't know any better."
  357. >A stallion, presumably the 'Joe' in 'Donut Joe's', comes up to the table carrying a small plate of pastries. He sets it down in front of you without so much as a curt nod. After refilling Anon's coffee, he walks off.
  358. >"Apple fritters," Anon tells you. "Closest thing you'll find to haute cuisine in a working-class joint."
  359. "I don't care about that."
  360. >You pick up a fritter and eagerly bite down into it.
  361. "I'm not some snob just 'cause I'm from the Crystal Empire."
  362. >He half-shrugs. "I only know what I hear around here."
  363. "Yeah? And what's that?"
  364. >"You know what I mean. Crystal Ponies have a certain reputation."
  365. "What kind of reputation?"
  366. >"Come on, kid, don't make me spell it out. You can't exactly say there's no truth to it. I mean, look at the reason you're even here in the first place."
  367. >What the fuck? What is he implying? That the only reason you wanted to see him is because you're some sort of slut?
  368. >"Wait, hang on a minute," he laughs, noticing your confusion, "do you really not know what your parents came here for?"
  369. >...He meant why you came to Canterlot.
  370. >Still, he doesn't have to be such a douche about it. As if you're supposed to know everything that goes on in the kingdom just because of who your mom is.
  371. "Wipe that dumb smirk off your face. I don't care about politics, and even if I did, my mom doesn't tell me shit about what she and Dad are up to. All she ever tells me is the same stupid rhetoric about love and family that I'm supposed to spew to—"
  372. >Family. The stuff she was saying at the gala last night...
  373. >Mom always said the Crystal Empire was one big family. That you had to look over your subjects as your children, and protect them from the dangers of the world, the way she did for you.
  374. >The pieces start to fall together in your head, and suddenly, it clicks.
  375. >You drop the fritter onto your plate.
  376. "She's going to war with Aunt Twilight," you murmur.
  377. >"There you go," he says, raising his mug. "Took you a minute, but you got it. Maybe, at least. We'll see. That's what this weekend's for: a last-ditch effort at peace talks between your dear old aunt and mum."
  378. >You sit there frozen in stunned silence.
  379. "I can't believe it."
  380. >"Nothing like a good old family feud to inflict some generational trauma," he jokes, leaning back in his booth. "Why, I remember my own like it was yesterday. Such fond memories..."
  381. >You don't laugh. You don't even register what he's saying. All you can do is sit in disbelief that Mom might actually go so far as to declare war against Aunt Twilight. Her husband's sister.
  382. >What must Dad think of all this? Whose side is he taking? What's he going to do if there's war? Fight against the guard he used to be captain of? Or worse, leave you and Mom and stay here in Equestria?
  383. >Now it makes sense why you haven't seen him since you arrived in Canterlot. And—
  384. >Fuck. Just this morning, you insulted him to Mom. You basically called their marriage a sham, you said you weren't even a family...
  385. >And now that all might come true. You could lose everything.
  386. >You didn't know! You obviously didn't mean it, you wouldn't have said any of that if you just knew what was going on!
  387. >This is all her fault, she should have just told you what was happening!
  388. >What, did she think you couldn't handle it? That you were just a stupid kid who didn't need to know? It's about your own family, damn it, that's her whole fucking thing! How could she do this to you?
  389. >On the verge of tears, you fight back the urge to break down in the middle of this restaurant.
  390. >Anon's demeanor flips instantly. "Oh, no," he says, setting his mug down. "Hey, don't cry, I was just poking fun. Please don't— It's going to be alright, okay? Just try— Joe, can we get some damn tissues over here?"
  391. >He trips over his words as his confidence locks up. It might've been funny if you weren't utterly inconsolable right now.
  392. >You wipe away your tears and try to pull yourself together.
  393. "It's not what you said. Just forget it."
  394. >The atmosphere between you two has changed completely. It's hard for you to even look each other in the eyes.
  395. >Not wanting to just sit there awkwardly, you take another bite of your fritter.
  396. "They're good."
  397. >"Yeah," he replies grimly, hand gripped tight around his mug.
  398. >You don't like him like this, all quiet and sullen. You can't believe you're thinking this, but you actually prefer his old smug self.
  399. "Is that why you like coming here? Because this place is working-class?"
  400. >He eyes you uncertainly.
  401. "Your words, not mine."
  402. >"That's probably it," he relents. "I wouldn't use that word to describe myself anymore, seeing as how I live rent-free in a gaudy palace, but there's no escaping your roots, I guess."
  403. "Do you like Canterlot?"
  404. >He hesitates while he thinks it over.
  405. >"It's not a bad place to live. You just got to make your way through, like anywhere else."
  406. "I think it's nice, in small doses. I probably couldn't stand living here, but then again, I've never been anywhere else in Equestria. I know it's different, being the capital and all, but you think the other cities are the same way?"
  407. >"Don't ask me, Princess. I'm just as much a foreigner here as you are."
  408. >You fall silent. All this time, you never really gave much thought to the place Anon came from.
  409. >He's not just some fantastical creature living in another land. He comes from a completely different WORLD. The reality of that is just now starting to sink in.
  410. >Maybe you didn't think about it much because he doesn't seem that way.
  411. >Aside from the obvious looks, which you got past pretty quickly, he feels... normal. Easy to talk to. Like you wouldn't have ever guessed that he was from another world altogether if he hadn't told you.
  412. "What's your home like?"
  413. >He raises an eyebrow. "What, you mean like my /home/ home?"
  414. >You nod.
  415. >"It's... like here, I guess. Except the people look like me."
  416. >That's a disappointing answer, and not the springboard back into conversation you were hoping for.
  417. >Maybe he's holding back because he's scared he'll say something wrong again, which is stupid. It wasn't even his idiotic teasing that set you off the first time. As if you'd be that sensitive.
  418. "Come on, quit holding out on me, give me the sordid details. It can't be exactly the same."
  419. >"No, of course it's not. It's just surprisingly similar in some ways. And in other ways, it's different."
  420. "Like how?"
  421. >"Well, we don't have magic, for one. None of us can fly. And we're the only talking creatures on the planet."
  422. "You're lucky then," you mutter. "You don't have to go to war over whether or not you should let other creatures into your empire."
  423. >For the first time in a while, he laughs, if a little morbidly. "That's where you're wrong. We still have war. A whole lot more of it than you get here. I promise, if it wasn't over this, you'd just be fighting over something else. It'd be pegasus versus unicorn, or earth pony versus crystal pony, instead of pony versus creature."
  424. >You snort in discontent.
  425. "That supposed to make me feel better?"
  426. >"Kind of, yeah. It should be a relief knowing it's out of your control. That way, you won't have to worry whether there was something you could have done to stop it."
  427. >You just stare at him in skeptic annoyance. Of course it's not going to feel better. You're family's getting ripped apart, and all you can do is stand by idly and watch the living nightmare unfold.
  428. >"Fine," he sighs. "You want to be treated like an adult, so I'll quit the saccharine bullshit and level with you. I don't know the first thing about your situation. It's all in the news, Twilight versus Cadance, the political showdown of the century, and I don't know who's right. Maybe griffons and changelings can make Equestria stronger, or maybe crystal ponies are right to look after their kind first. How the hell should I know? This is your world, not mine. I didn't ask to come here. So maybe you feel like a stranger in this city, but cry all you want, you're not going to get my pity. You'll never be a more of a stranger here than I am, and at the end of this all, you get to go to home."
  429. >He slaps his hand against the table defeatedly. "I don't know what I'm saying, I don't know what my point is. If you came here under the impression that I was going to help you somehow, I'm sorry to disappoint. I don't know what I'm doing with my life, and thinking about this shit is the exact opposite of what I come to this place for."
  430. >"Hope that helps," he concludes, half-sarcastically.
  431. >His hopelessness should bum you out. It should make you make you hate your life, it should make you wonder why you bothered coming here to begin with. But it doesn't.
  432. >For the first time in a while, it makes you feel less alone.
  433. >So it's not all bad.
  434. "It does help," you whisper.
  435. >He hears you say that, and he hears it's genuine. That lightens the mood just a smidge.
  436. >But a smidge is enough.
  437. >"I'm sorry, kid. Nothing I say is gonna make it better. You might be a princess, but this stuff's still above you. Whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen, and you just got to suck it up and hang tough. That's how life is."
  438. "You sound like my dad."
  439. >"I never met the guy, but he's probably right."
  440. >Maybe he is, but you don't like admitting it.
  441. >You feel perfectly fine believing Anon, though. When it comes from him, it's not so annoying and condescending.
  442. >It's ironic, but he's actually kind of sweet. When he wants to be.
  443. "Thanks, Anon."
  444. >You finish up your fritters while he nurses his coffee.
  445. >It's not as hard talking to him after that. After all, small talk is nothing compared to the heavy stuff that just passed. You feel like you can loosen up a little.
  446. >"Hey," he says, looking up, "you want to go see something?"
  447. >You see an idea forming in his head. It's got you a bit curious.
  448. "Sure. Not like I got anywhere to be."
  449. >"Great." He throws his jacket on and slides out of the booth.
  450. >Right as he's about to go, Joe appears in front of him, looking surly even though Anon stands twice as high.
  451. >"I hope you plan on paying this time," he grunts.
  452. >"Easy there, buddy," Anon croons, placing a hand on his wither. "No need to put it on my tab, just bill it to the Princess' caravan. They'll cover it, no issue, won't they?"
  453. >Joe looks to you.
  454. "Uhhh..."
  455. >Anon makes a face at you and tilts his head towards the door while he quietly slips past the stallion.
  456. "Yeah, totally," you assure him as you get out of the booth. "I'll let them know."
  457. >Ducking your head in embarrassment, you hastily follow after Anon, hoping Joe doesn't go after him.
  458. >As you catch up to him, all you hear is the sound of dishes clacking and grumbling behind you.
  459. >Anon lays his hand on the door, and that's when you catch the sight of blue hair poking out of the top of a helmet outside.
  460. >Before Anon can push open the door, you brashly yank him back.
  461. >"What?" he asks, pulling his arm out of your grip.
  462. >You motion to the guard standing outside.
  463. "That's my escort."
  464. >Anon snickers.
  465. "Oh, shut up, will you? He's supposed to take me back to the palace. There's no way he'll let me go anywhere with you."
  466. >He leans over to catch a glimpse of the guard waiting outside the shop.
  467. >"Easy," he says, turning back to you. "I'll create a diversion, and you slip out once he's distracted. Meet me right outside the city walls."
  468. "Wait, how do I know when t—"
  469. >Before you can finish, he flashes you a smile halfway out the door.
  470. >Peering over the back of a booth, you watch nervously through the glass as Anon walks up to the guard all friendly-like.
  471. >You have no idea how he's planning on distracting an officer of the royal guard, you know from Dad that they're specifically trained to—
  472. >Anon abruptly grabs the blue hair emerging from the helmet and yanks it upward.
  473. >What the hell is he doing?
  474. >You watch in horror as the guard reels back from Anon's grasp in a defensive position. Before he can regain his footing, however, Anon lunges forward and grabs the helmet on both sides, pulling it off in one clean motion.
  475. >Helmet in hand, he immediately takes off down the street. The guard wastes no time chasing after him.
  476. >Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck!
  477. >You charge out the door in full panic, watching the chase. Anon dives into the marketplace crowd before the guard's gallop can close the gap between them.
  478. >You see the top half of his figure weave through the sea of ponies nimbly while the guard blunderously pushes through them.
  479. >What was he thinking, pulling a stupid stunt like that?
  480. >That guard's a trained fighter who could easily beat him into the ground. If he gets caught, he's toast.
  481. >After several seconds, you see the guard reemerge from the market, sans helmet.
  482. >Before he can notice you, you take off down the street in the opposite direction.
  483. >While you make your escape, there's only one thought racing through your mind.
  484. >Anon, you slippery motherfucker.
  485.  
  486. >You stand just outside the city walls, by the east gate, praying that Anon's not rotting in a dungeon right now.
  487. >He's such an idiot for messing with that royal guard. Of all the ways to go and get yourself killed, that has to be the stupidest.
  488. >There's a ton of other ways you could've ditched the escort. Why did he have to go with the first thought that popped into his head?
  489. >After about fifteen anxious minutes of waiting, you spot a figure coming around the corner.
  490. >It's Anon. And he's wearing the guard's helmet on his head.
  491. >He grins at you triumphantly as he approaches. "Like my new digs? Too flashy, or no?"
  492. >You're not in a joking mood.
  493. "What the hell, man? Why'd you pick a fight with the Royal Guard? Now they'll be after you."
  494. >"Hey, I got away, didn't I?" He pulls the helmet off and polishes it with his sleeve. "Did you know the hair sticking out the top is their mane?"
  495. "Of course it's their mane, what did you think it was?"
  496. >"Well, back home, they—" He pauses, then shrugs it off. "Never mind, it's not worth explaining."
  497. "You idiot, what happens when you go back to the palace?"
  498. >"Oh, lighten up," he says. "I've got diplomatic immunity or something, you ought to know all about that. Only Twilight has jurisdiction over me. Besides, it's not like they can prove I did anything."
  499. >You frown, dumbfounded by his obliviousness.
  500. "You're literally walking around Canterlot with a guard's helmet on your head."
  501. >"Easy solution to that."
  502. >Before you can react, he flips the helmet around and sets it firmly on your head. Your horn slides straight through the slot and your mane gets matted down.
  503. "Hey!"
  504. >You reel back out of his reach.
  505. "That's not funny. No way I'm letting you implicate me in your hare-brained scheme."
  506. >"Come on," he chides. "The gold goes well against your coat. I think you look pretty cute."
  507. >His compliment catches you off-guard.
  508. "S-Shut up. You're just trying to mess with me."
  509. >He shrugs and brushes past you, walking off parallel to the wall. "Wear it or don't, then, I don't care."
  510. >You hesitate a moment before deciding to just leave it on.
  511. >That guard probably deserves it back. And this'll be easier than carrying it around all day.
  512. >Not 'cause of what Anon said or anything. It's just less work this way. Yeah.
  513. >You hurry to catch up with him.
  514. "Where are you taking me, anyway?"
  515. >"You'll see," he says. "Just shut up and enjoy the trip."
  516. >Together, you follow along the wall, heading south. Gradually, the strip of land between the city and cliff narrows down to just a few yards wide.
  517. >And then you see it.
  518. >The river that runs through Canterlot comes to an end on the cliffside and drops off in a giant waterfall.
  519. >It falls so far, you can't hear the sound of water crashing into the base of the mountain below.
  520. >You couldn't even tell it was a waterfall until you got as close as you are now.
  521. >Anon motions to the cliff's edge. "Check it out."
  522. >Slowly, you walk over to the very brink of the mountain and peer out. The column of water falls thousands of feet, forming a distant cloud of mist on the ground below.
  523. >If you weren't so confident in your flying skills, you might be terrified.
  524. >But instead, you're just awestruck.
  525. >The Crystal Empire has loads of mountains, most of them taller than this. But none of them are as steep.
  526. >The empire's nestled in a mountain range, with plenty of ridges and slopes that build elevation gradually, sometimes so slow you don't even realize you're climbing.
  527. >This just makes the height so much more remarkable.
  528. >"Cool, huh?" Anon says. "Makes you wonder what kind of geological fuck-up birthed this monstrosity."
  529. >You have a vague recollection of your Equestrian history lessons.
  530. "Magic," you murmur.
  531. >"Of course it is," he grunts, sitting down against a tree. "Nothing ever makes sense in this godforsaken world."
  532. >You turn back to face him.
  533. "What's your problem?"
  534. >"What?" he asks, defensively.
  535. "Why do you hate ponies?"
  536. >"When did I say I hate them?"
  537. "It's like every word out of your mouth is a jab at Equestria."
  538. >He scoffs. "I'm sorry, next time I'm teleported to a world full of cutesy little princesses, I'll be more grateful. Sorry I'm not the only one who sucks up to you, Your Royal Highness."
  539. >You walk up to him.
  540. "Don't even try that with me. I couldn't care less about the meaning of respect. But you, you just like being a jerk for no reason."
  541. >"Isn't that what you do?" he gibes.
  542. "No! I think most people are lame, but at least I'm not a total ass towards them."
  543. >He gets up off the ground. "Don't get all high and mighty just 'cause you're some bull-headed kid who thinks she's got the world figured out. A few years back, I was right where you are now. You might think you're better, but news flash, you're not. The only reason you keep your mouth shut is because you're afraid to speak your mind. Not because of some delusion of empathy."
  544. >You sneer at him.
  545. "You're so sad."
  546. >"No shit, I'm sad!" he snaps. "It's your fucking fault I'm here! Your psychotic aunt couldn't leave well enough alone!"
  547. "Don't you dare lump me in with her! I didn't have anything to do with you coming here!"
  548. >"No, just your power-hungry family, getting high on fighting their petty rivalries while walking all over the little guy. Face it. You're one of them, you'll always be one of them. You don't care about anyone but yourself. It's in your blood."
  549. "'I' don't care? You're heartless! You're incapable of caring about anyone but yourself!"
  550. >"Oh yeah?"
  551. >He pauses a second before.
  552. >"You ever been in love?"
  553. >You clam up instantly, taken aback by the sudden turn.
  554. "W-What?"
  555. >"I said, you ever been in love?"
  556. "I..."
  557. >"No. You haven't. Because you're a kid."
  558. >He slumps back down against the tree.
  559. >After a few seconds of tense silence, you sit a few feet away from him.
  560. "Were you...? In love?"
  561. >"I don't want to talk about my old life," he mutters. "I cared about someone once, and now I'll never see them again. That's what caring gets you. Leave it at that."
  562. "I didn't think someone like you could love someone else."
  563. >"Of course you didn't. What do you know about love?"
  564. >You furrow your brow.
  565. "My mom's the Princess of it, dumbass."
  566. >"So what? That doesn't mean you have any idea what it's like."
  567. >You hesitate a moment, choosing your next words very carefully.
  568. "I could make you fall in love with me."
  569. >He stares out at the river. "No, you couldn't."
  570. "Can too. Dad teaches me defensive spells, Mom teaches me love spells. Sometimes they overlap. One charm is all it would take. You'd be instantly pacified and hopelessly infatuated with me."
  571. >"That wouldn't be love."
  572. "What makes you so sure about that?"
  573. >"Magic all you want, but love's not something you can force like that."
  574. >Maybe he's right. You remember the story of Mom and Dad's wedding pretty well. That's not the kind of thing you forget.
  575. >But Mom taught you the love spell. She never let you try it on anyone, but she said herself it's love magic.
  576. "You wanna bet?"
  577. >He glances at you, confused. "What?"
  578. "I bet I can make you fall in love with me."
  579. >"No, that's insane. I'm not letting you cast some mind control spell on me."
  580. "But you'd be happier."
  581. >Those words leave your mouth before you even consider them.
  582. >It's condescending to insinuate he's incapable of happiness. You didn't mean it like that.
  583. >But... you kind of did. He would be happier. Even if he's right and it was all fake, he could never tell the difference.
  584. >From him, you don't get the instantaneous resistance you were expecting.
  585. >Instead, as you watch his face, you see him actually thinking about it.
  586. >And the moment it stops being purely hypothetical, it freaks you out.
  587. "N-Never mind," you stutter, "it probably wouldn't work anyway."
  588. >There's a long silence that follows. The two of you just sit there on the riverbank, watching the water trail along, silently slipping off the cliff.
  589. >Anon is confusing. You're never sure whether you like him or not.
  590. >He's obnoxiously mean, but at the same time, it feels like he has a reason to be.
  591. >You want his approval, but you also don't care what he thinks.
  592. >And that stuff about love?
  593. >Does his kind experience it in the same way?
  594. >They can't, right? Because there's no magic. No Crystal Heart, no manifestation of love.
  595. >But the way he talked about it makes you doubt that.
  596. >Because it seemed almost too real.
  597. >And if he's not lying...
  598. >Then you feel like a total asshole for antagonizing him.
  599. >Tearing someone away from love is just about the worst thing you can do to them.
  600. >Mom said protecting it is the most important duty you have. Through the Crystal Heart, the love of crystal ponies keeps them safe.
  601. >Without it, you'd be an open vessel to the dangers of the world.
  602. >And Anon just might be a case study on what that does to a person.
  603. >But... can it be remedied?
  604. >"You know, you look just like your dad in that thing."
  605. >Dragged back to reality by the sound of his voice, you look back up at him, and realize you're still wearing the helmet.
  606. "What?"
  607. >"Twilight showed me all the old pictures. You have the same eyes."
  608. >What was he doing, noticing your eyes?
  609. >You try not to dwell on it long.
  610. "Thanks."
  611. >You pull the helmet off, shaking your hair free. Holding it in your hooves, you stare down at your reflection in the sheen.
  612. >"Is that what you really want?" he asks. "To follow after your parents?"
  613. >No one's ever asked you what you wanted before.
  614. >You don't really know how to answer.
  615. "It doesn't matter what I want. I have a responsibility."
  616. >He sits up. "You don't really think that."
  617. "No, but that doesn't change anything, does it? Like it or not, I'm still going to be Princess."
  618. >"Says who? Why do you have to be anything like them? Right now, they're locked up in some room, arguing over idealistic nonsense while there's a million other more important things that need attention."
  619. >You set the helmet down onto the grass.
  620. "If I don't follow after them, then who will?"
  621. >"Forget that. What about your dreams? What is it that you want to do?"
  622. "I— I don't know."
  623. >"You don't know because they never gave you a chance to wonder what you want out of life. This whole system is so screwed up, all it does is put people in charge who never even wanted it in the first place, and everyone suffers for it."
  624. "They're my family. I can't just abandon them."
  625. >"Fuck family!" he exclaims. "Bonds by choice matter a hell of a lot more than bonds by blood. Nothing's ever going to change around here if you think like that."
  626. "Yeah? You're so sure, then you tell them that, see how they react."
  627. >"Fine," he says smugly, getting up.
  628. >When he starts walking off, you hastily grab his arm and laugh.
  629. "No, no, no, I was just kidding! You're gonna get me killed."
  630. >It'd be less embarrassing if you called him on his bluff, but from the brashness he's shown today, you're worried he might not be joking.
  631. >He stops and pulls himself from your grasp. "If I were you, I'd take the execution."
  632. "Maybe I should stage a coup. Build support, get a nice insurrection going, and then I can rule the right way before my family runs both their kingdoms into the ground."
  633. >"Wouldn't that be nice," he muses. "You've got my vote."
  634. "I won't be needing it," you say slyly, pushing past him.
  635. >You walk over to the river and skim your hoof along the surface.
  636. >Suddenly, you turn back to face Anon.
  637. "Why'd you bring me here?"
  638. >He shields his eyes from the sun. "What, this place not up to your imperial standards?"
  639. "Seriously."
  640. >He drops the act and shrugs. "You seemed like you needed a distraction back at the diner, and this is the only place in this stuck-up town I actually like."
  641. >You gaze up at the city walls.
  642. "We're not even in the city."
  643. >"Yeah," he jokes, "that should tell you how much I care for this place."
  644. >An idea comes to you. You don't even think twice before blurting it out.
  645. "Go back with me."
  646. >"What?"
  647. "No, really," you say, trotting up to him. "Come to the Crystal Empire."
  648. >"Why would I do that? Crystal ponies are the most xenophobic race on the planet."
  649. "Because, it's not like you have anyone here, and I don't have anyone there. At least that way, we'll both have someone who's not totally lame to hang out with."
  650. >He shakes his head. "You've gone off the deep end."
  651. >But you remain convinced of the idea.
  652. "Why is it so weird? What's keeping you here?"
  653. >"Twilight, for starters. She keeps a painfully short leash."
  654. "She'd probably jump at the idea to send a new diplomatic creature to the Crystal Empire!"
  655. >"And your Mom?" he asks. "The one who's fighting tooth and nail to keep anyone like me out of there?"
  656. >Fueled by the rush of adrenaline, the gears keep turning in your mind.
  657. "I can figure something out. She'll at least hear me out if I vouch for you, and if one small concession means staving off the war, Dad'll probably push her to accept. Yeah... this could work!"
  658. >He stares at you, completely deadpan. "I haven't said yes."
  659. "Come onnnn!" you groan. "You admitted it yourself, there's nothing for you here. What do you have to lose?"
  660. >"Everything!" he shouts. "Getting lynched by a mob of crystal ponies isn't a great incentive."
  661. "I'll keep you safe! With me behind you, no one will dare mess with you. They all love me too much."
  662. >"You're playing a dangerous game, Princess." He walks off, staring out at the landscape past the cliff. "You're asking a lot for someone I just met."
  663. "Is your life here really worth living? You asked about my dreams, but what about yours?"
  664. >"My dreams died the day I got sent here. Maybe my life sucks, but it's mine. I eat at the same shitty diner, savor the same shitty pack of cigarettes, and do the same shitty thing I choose to do every single day. Now some kid's asking me to risk it all and play house with her, just 'cause she's got it in her head that she likes me."
  665. >You walk up to him on the cliff edge.
  666. "You wouldn't have brought me here if you didn't like me."
  667. >For the first time ever, you stump him. He's at a loss for words.
  668. >It feels like a victory in this game of mental chess you've been playing all day.
  669. >"You're asking me to put my life in your hands."
  670. "Hooves."
  671. >"Whatever."
  672. >You step forward reassuringly.
  673. "You can trust me, Anon."
  674. >"Yeah?"
  675. "Yeah."
  676. >He smiles softly. "Then let's put that to the test."
  677. >He leans back, and you watch in utter horror as he plummets off the mountain.
  678. >WHAT
  679. >THE
  680. >FUCK
  681. >Your body locks up in total panic for a full three seconds before fight or flight kicks in, and you leap off the cliff, diving after him.
  682. >What is he doing?! He can't fly, can he? He doesn't have wings!
  683. >Unless they're under his clothes, but then what good are they to him now?
  684. >You tighten up your frame and align yourself vertically to hasten your plunge.
  685. >He's a hundred feet below you, tumbling haphazardly through the air, and the gap between you is getting larger.
  686. >Desperately, you try to make yourself narrow as possible to dive faster.
  687. >But it's no use. You're so much lighter than him. His terminal velocity is outpacing yours.
  688. >All you can do is watch, terrified, as he slowly escapes your reach more and more with every passing second.
  689. >Oh, why can't he at least TRY to slow his descent? Doesn't he realize he'll die if you can't catch him?
  690. >Think, Flurry, think! There has to be some way!
  691. >Maybe some spell? Teleportation? Time stopping?
  692. >No, that stuff is Twilight's expertise! All you know is what dad taught you!
  693. >Enchanted shields, lightning bolts, nothing that can help you here!
  694. >Wait, levitation!
  695. >You clench your teeth and channel your magic, aiming your horn directly downward.
  696. >A pink beam shoots forth and races toward him, slowly encompassing him in magic.
  697. >Once you sense your grasp on him, you pull with all your psionic fortitude.
  698. >But the spell's strength weakens over long ranges. He's too far and too heavy.
  699. >All you can manage is to stop the gap between you two from growing. So long as you're tethered, you'll fall at the same speed.
  700. >No slower, no faster.
  701. >You're halfway down the mountain now. The ground looms larger and larger, threatening to obliterate you both if you do nothing to stop it.
  702. >Your mind races, clawing for any idea that might save you. You look around, trying to find any little thing that could make a difference.
  703. >The rocky cliffs behind you, the towering waterfall to your right... None of it's useful.
  704. >There's nothing you can possibly do in this moment with this little time.
  705. >You shut your eyes, tears forming inside them.
  706. >Because either you spread your wings and watch Anon die, or perish with him.
  707. >Still, you cling to some sliver of hope that a Deus Ex is coming to save you.
  708. >Maybe Mom went out looking for you after you ditched the escort, maybe she'll find you in the next twenty seconds and teleport you both to safety.
  709. >Oh, of all the spells she knows, why couldn't she have taught you anything useful? Why only the—
  710. >Suddenly, your eyes snap open. There's one last thing you could try.
  711. >It might not do anything, but you have to try.
  712. >Releasing your levitation charm, you calm yourself as best you can and charge up this next spell.
  713. >It requires a peaceful state of mind, as unreasonable a request that is right now.
  714. >Taking a deep breath, you fire the spell straight at Anon. It collides with his body dead on and dissipates into the air around him.
  715. >Focusing on his face, you look down at him, watch him look back, and...
  716. >He spreads his limbs outward, lying flat as he falls.
  717. >Yes!
  718. >His jacket catches air, flapping violently as his descent immediately slows. Now the gap between you and him is rapidly shrinking.
  719. >But so is the gap between you and the ground.
  720. >Clenching every muscle in your body, you speed down and quickly grab ahold of him.
  721. >The moment he's able, he reaches out and clings to your body, wrapping his arms around your neck.
  722. >Without a moment's hesitation, you outstretch your wings and beat them as heavily as you can, fighting against the air.
  723. >Anon's too heavy. If you make it, it's going to be close. You'll still hit the ground hard, but hopefully not hard enough to shatter every bone in your body.
  724. >Without warning, he pulls himself closer into you, causing you to lose balance.
  725. "What are you— agh!"
  726. >You roll off your axis from the abrupt weight shift, forcing your right wing under you, too low to generate any lift.
  727. >You're not going to make it!
  728. >With only your left wing outstretched, you're sent tumbling towards the right, and everything goes white. And wet.
  729. >You're shrouded completely in mist. With how violently you're rolling through the air, you can't even tell which way is up.
  730. >All you can feel is Anon's body wrapped around yours, and fine droplets of water smacking you in every direction.
  731. >Thoroughly drenched and spiraling out of control, Anon's hold on you slips, and he flies off of you. You quickly lose him in the mist.
  732. >Right as you try to cast a shield spell, your body collides straight into a wall of water.
  733. >Hard.
  734.  
  735. >You regain consciousness underwater. Violent eddies batter you around.
  736. >You try to swim up toward the bubbling surface, but the rush of water forces you back down.
  737. >Fighting to hold your breath, you swim with the flow further down the river, away from the waterfall.
  738. >Once you feel your chest constricting too tight to bear, you fight the current and pull yourself up towards the light of day.
  739. >Air fills your lungs the moment you breach the surface, every gasp a sweet relief.
  740. >You look around, trying to get your bearings, when you catch sight of a dark figure floating further down the river. You can just barely make it out through the mist.
  741. >Swimming toward it, you come upon Anon's limp body, floating face down.
  742. >You can't tell if he's alive or dead.
  743. >You summon what little strength you have left to drag him to the riverbank. Stepping out onto the shore, you throw his body onto the muddy bank and collapse at his side, panting in exhaustion.
  744. >Anon's eyes are closed, and you can't see him breathing.
  745. "No, no, no..."
  746. >You quickly get back up and slam your hooves against his chest.
  747. "Wake up, damn it!"
  748. >You don't know how to resuscitate him. All you know is what you've seen in the movies.
  749. >So it's either that or nothing.
  750. >Breathing deeply, you press your lips to his and force the air back into his lungs.
  751. >Again. And again.
  752. >After the third time, he gasps and coughs, sputtering out water.
  753. "Oh, thank Celestia..."
  754. >You fall back, relieved to see him alive after the terrifying ordeal you just suffered.
  755. >After taking a few seconds to breathe, he looks over at you.
  756. >"You risked your life to save me."
  757. >He brings his hand up to your dripping cheek and smiles.
  758. >"You love me."
  759. >You're completely dumbfounded. Of all the things you would've thought he'd say... What in Equestria would drive him to say THAT?
  760. >What is that look in his eye?
  761. >Oh no.
  762. >You scramble back, only just now realizing what you've done.
  763. >He props himself up on his elbows, concerned by your sudden retreat.
  764. >"What's wrong? Did I say something? I didn't mean to, I promise!"
  765. >There has to be some counterspell, some way you can undo this. Think, damn it!
  766. >What did Mom say about it? 'Undoing the spell is the same as casting it, only with the opposite energy of equal magnitude in your heart.'
  767. >What the hell is that supposed to mean?!
  768. >Anon sits up and reaches out, offering his hand to you. "Flurry, it's okay. It's over now. We can be together."
  769. >Trying to concentrate, you ignore him.
  770. >Opposite energy, equal magnitude...
  771. >He sets his hand down, distraught by your inattention.
  772. >"Flurry, I lo—"
  773. "STOP!" you yell, cutting him off before he can finish. "Just give me a second!"
  774. >You can't take another moment of this. You have to just try.
  775. >You steady your racing heart, trying to get back to the place you were when you first cast the spell.
  776. >Only this time, you do your best to invert the energy.
  777. >Anon opens his mouth to speak once more, and in your desperation to not hear it, you fire off the spell prematurely.
  778. >Anon is knocked onto his back as the pink blast washes over him.
  779. >After a second's hesitation, you walk up to him apprehensively, not knowing whether it worked or simply killed him.
  780. "Anon?"
  781. >He opens his eyes. "Flurry...? What did you do to me?"
  782. >You stand over him.
  783. "Forget about that. Do you love me?"
  784. >His expression turns to confusion as he looks up at you. "What?"
  785. "Do you love me?!"
  786. >"No, of course not!" he yells back, sitting up. "What the hell are you talking about?"
  787. "You asshole!" you cry, hitting him in the chest and knocking him back down. "You're a psychopath, you know that?"
  788. >He recoils from the blow and tries to sit up again. "For God's sake, will you just tell me what's going on?"
  789. "I had to cast the love spell on you!"
  790. >His face goes pale. "W-What?"
  791. "You were going to fucking die, and you weren't doing anything to stop it!"
  792. >"So you made me fall in love with you?!" he shouts in exasperation.
  793. >You're crying angry tears now. It can't be helped.
  794. "You weren't even trying to slow down!" you sob. "It was the only way I could make you come closer!"
  795. >His frustration turns to guilt, and he stares down at the mud beneath his legs.
  796. >"I—"
  797. "Just stop, okay? Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it. It was one thing when your stupid little stunts put your own life at risk, but you had NO RIGHT to make me do that!"
  798. >You can't stand to even look at him anymore. You turn your back on him and storm off in the opposite direction.
  799. >"Flurry..."
  800. "Just leave me alone!"
  801. >You don't hear another word from him. You certainly don't look back to see his expression.
  802. >Maybe you would've been tempted earlier in the day, but after the emotional nightmare he just put you through, you just want him as far away from you as possible.
  803. >Sniffling, you wipe away your tears with your muddy hoof, leaving streaks on your face. You don't care.
  804. >Everything just feels so numb.
  805. >After that, you walk along the river for a long time.
  806. >Canterlot is all the way back up the mountain. You don't have nearly enough energy to get there on foot. It'd probably take days. There's no chance of you flying all the way back up, either.
  807. >So all you can do is follow the river mindlessly as it meanders through the valley.
  808. >You don't even register the passage of time until you notice it getting dark.
  809. >Towards the west, where the sun is starting to set, you see buildings on the horizon.
  810. >The river leads right to it.
  811. >After another hour, you come up on the outskirts of a town, left with only the moonlight to navigate by.
  812. >Walking up to the dirt road, you recall it's Ponyville. You remember because Aunt Twilight used to live here.
  813. >Caked with dried mud, and your mane tangled and matted, you trudge into town aimlessly.
  814. >Drained of all energy, the next few hours pass by in a haze.
  815. >Some ponies find you almost immediately and start asking questions. When you fail to answer, they get other ponies. Ponies Twilight used to know, or something. They, in turn, call Twilight.
  816. >Pretty soon, she and your parents descend upon the town in full force, with a squadron each of the Royal and Crystal Guards in tow.
  817. >Mom immediately scoops you into her hooves and pulls your face into her breast, going on about something or other.
  818. >When she finally pulls back, though, Twilight's face comes into view, and for once you're able to concentrate on something.
  819. >Because she mouths something to you, and you don't even need to look to know what the question is.
  820. >You just gently nod, and watch her as she walks off to whisper something into Dad's ear.
  821. >Then he starts shouting orders at guards, and that of course pulls Mom's attention away from you. She tries to find out what's going on, but Twilight just tells her they need to get you home.
  822. >So, without much thought, you climb into a carriage with the other two princesses, and set off on the journey back to Canterlot.
  823. >Mom fusses over your appearance, trying to clean up your disheveled appearance. She's asking all these questions, like where you've been and what happened to you.
  824. >She pleads with you for an explanation, an inkling, anything to go on, but you just stare down at the velvet floor, not knowing how to even begin to answer her.
  825. >Twilight's face is somber the whole time.
  826. >Eventually, Mom gives up. She just holds her hoof around you, letting you lean your head on her shoulder. Normally, you'd push her away.
  827. >Not tonight.
  828. >It's late in the night when you get back to the palace. Mom insists on getting you into a bath, but Twilight convinces her to let you rest up.
  829. >After fetching a doctor to make sure you're not injured (miraculously), they leave you in your chambers. You haven't said one word to either of them all night.
  830. >Lying in bed, you stare down at the light spilling in from under the door.
  831. >You can make out two silhouettes of hooves on the other side, no doubt belonging to the guards posted there to bar anyone's entry, as well as your escape.
  832. >Escape is the last thing on your mind at the moment, though, because after everything that happened today, the only thing that matters to you is getting some sleep.
  833. >You just want the nightmare to be over.
  834. >But that's wishful thinking, because unlike the water in your mane, tomorrow's problems won't evaporate tonight.
  835.  
  836. >You're awoken very early the next morning by Twilight entering your chambers.
  837. >Pulled from restless sleep, you raise your head to face her groggily.
  838. "Aunt Twi?"
  839. >"I thought I'd give you the chance to tell me what happened before your mother descends on you again."
  840. >She comes over to your bed and pulls the sheets off of you. "But first, you should wash up. You're caked in filth, and that can't feel good."
  841. >Following her instruction, you roll out of bed and lock yourself in the bathroom, filled with anxiety at the prospect of recounting yesterday's events.
  842. >You draw yourself a hot bath and wade into the pool. It's large enough for you to stretch your limbs out and unwind the tension held within them.
  843. >You want to stay enveloped in this warmth forever, where it's safe and comfortable. But you can't fully relax knowing Twilight's waiting on the other side of the door.
  844. >It takes you a long time to scrub your coat clean, back to its soft pink luster, and even longer to clean out the curls in your mane.
  845. >But eventually, you find yourself in a far tidier state than you began with, and you finally drag yourself out of the pool to dry off.
  846. >Throwing the towel over your back, you unlock the door and return to the chambers, where your aunt nervously awaits you.
  847. >"Feeling better?" she asks.
  848. >You nod quietly.
  849. >"Good. Now, please, start from the beginning."
  850. >You hesitate, not knowing how to explain the decision to ditch the escort she had foisted upon you.
  851. >You try putting the words together in your head, but you can't find the courage to speak them aloud.
  852. >Several seconds pass, each more uncomfortable than the last.
  853. >"Look, Flurry," Twilight sighs, "the truth is going to come out sooner or later. Cadance wants answers, and we can't stave her off for long. I'll have to tell her what I know, which will only put the heat on you to fill in the gaps. If you're honest with me now, I can help you when the time comes."
  854. >Her words are sincere, but not enough to bring you to speak. Telling her the truth would amount to admitting you betrayed her, and her empathy only deepens the guilt you feel.
  855. >"Did he hurt you?" she whispers.
  856. >You shake your head vigorously.
  857. >Anon wouldn't do that. Recklessly endanger you, yes, but never hurt you outright.
  858. "Where is he?" you ask abruptly.
  859. >"Your father's dealing with him. You don't have to worry—"
  860. >You press the question again.
  861. "Where?"
  862. >"The dungeons," she answers.
  863. >Throwing off your towel, you brush past her and head for the door.
  864. "I want to see him."
  865. >As you pull it open, Twilight's magic promptly forces it shut.
  866. >You spin around and face her.
  867. "Let me out."
  868. >"Not until you tell me what's going on."
  869. >Though you're doing your best not to show it, your heart is pounding. You're terrified thinking of what Dad could be doing to Anon right now.
  870. >He's always been protective of you, even more so than Mom. That side of him just doesn't come out unless things get really bad.
  871. >And for as long as you can remember, it's never gotten as bad as this.
  872. "I'm not saying a word until I see him."
  873. >You try the door again, but it doesn't budge an inch.
  874. "Let go!"
  875. >"Don't you see I'm trying to help you?" she asks forcefully. "If you did something wrong, and you're afraid of your mom, I can be there to defend you. If you didn't do anything, then you have nothing to hide, and we can deal with him appropriately. But either way, you need to tell me what happened."
  876. >You snarl at her.
  877. "I don't have to tell you anything! Whatever happened yesterday is between me and him, and it's nobody's business but mine!"
  878. >Growing exasperated, she scolds you in a hushed tone. "We found you covered in dirt and catatonic all the way in Ponyville! I don't think you realize the severity of the situation. You were under my care the moment you asked me to arrange your little rendezvous. That makes it my business. Do you know how that looks? A princess disappears for a day, then mysteriously reappears in another town, and you're one of only two people who can explain why that is."
  879. "Oh, of course," you snap, "that's what you really care about, how this reflects on you. If it weren't for my stupid title, you wouldn't give a shit about what happened to me. You're just mad people found out and that you have to do damage control."
  880. >She gasps, taken aback by the accusation. "How could you say that? I'm your aunt!"
  881. >You stare straight into her eyes, unburdened of whatever remorse you previously carried.
  882. "Yeah? What kind of aunt goes to war with her niece?"
  883. >Twilight falls silent, her expression strained.
  884. >"Who told you that?"
  885. "Everyone already knows. I was probably last to find out, no thanks to you."
  886. >"Whatever political issues I take with the Crystal Empire are between your mother and I only. She's become my sister. I don't love her any less for it, and I certainly don't put ideological differences ahead of my concern for you. A feud is the last thing I want for us. I'm doing everything in my power to prevent it."
  887. >You shake your head dismissively.
  888. "And what if we do go to war? If you win, if your troops march straight into the Crystal Palace, what then? Are you going to make my mom step down? Banish her? Throw her in the dungeons? What about Dad? Will you punish him for not siding with you? And what, I have to wonder, would you do with me? Exile? Or execution, because you're afraid I'll one day turn into my mother?"
  889. >"Flurry..."
  890. "No, I'd really like to know the answer. Because no one in their right mind would go to war without knowing what they'd do if they won. So either you don't know, and you're stumbling blindly in the dark, or you do know, and you're too much of a coward to tell me."
  891. >She frowns. "This isn't helping anyone."
  892. "Which is it?"
  893. >"I'm not doing this right now. Leave the diplomacy to your mother and I, and talk to me about what's really going on here."
  894. >You scoff in disbelief at her antics.
  895. "Just what I thought. I'm a princess when you want me to behave, and a useless little filly when I stick my nose in princess business. You might think you're different from Mom, but inside, you're exactly the same."
  896. >You pull the door open and slip out quickly before she can stop you, taking off down the hall for fear of her coming after you.
  897. >You run through the east wing, desperate to find a staircase. Surely any one of them should take you down to the dungeons.
  898. >Soon you come across the tower stairs and hurry down the steps, tracing the spiral into the bowels of the palace.
  899. >Down here you find nothing but empty service halls and storage rooms.
  900. >That is, until you round a corner and nearly crash into a pair of guards.
  901. >Behind them, you can see the dark recesses of the dungeons, built into the bedrock of the palace's foundation.
  902. >You try to walk past them, but they push together to block your path.
  903. "Let me through," you command them.
  904. >One of them stares down at you, undeterred by the demand. "We're under strict orders not to let anyone enter."
  905. "I'm Princess Flurry Heart, you idiots. Let me through, or I'll have the Crystal Guard blow you to bits."
  906. >"You may bring your guards, Your Highness, but I'm afraid we're duty-bound to bar your entry."
  907. "I don't need them," you growl.
  908. >You step back and point your horn at them, letting it spark menacingly.
  909. "Either of you ever fought a princess before?"
  910. >You hope they don't call your bluff. Your innate magic may be more powerful than theirs, sure, but their training outmatches your ability to harness it.
  911. >You could conceivably channel your power and unleash your raw might upon them, but such an attack would be disastrously uncontrollable.
  912. >It hasn't happened since you were a foal who didn't know any better, and the results were catastrophic.
  913. >Needless to say, it wouldn't be the smartest move.
  914. >The guards look to each other, more unsure of their willingness fight you than their ability to win.
  915. >You impulsively seize the momentary distraction and leap up in an attempt to fly over their heads.
  916. >Their spears clash together just in time and knock you back onto the cool stone floor.
  917. "AGH!" you groan in frustration.
  918. >You pick yourself up and charge up to them.
  919. "Listen, assholes! You're gonna let—"
  920. >Before you can finish, a third guard pushes through the other two. "What's going on here?"
  921. >You freeze instantly when you see his face.
  922. "Dad?"
  923. >The guards step aside for him, and he comes up to you. "You shouldn't be here, sweetheart."
  924. >He puts his hoof around you and starts guiding you back to the staircase. "Come on."
  925. "I'm not telling you anything until I make sure Anon's okay."
  926. >"You don't need to," he says calmly.
  927. >You look up at him, puzzled by his lack of resistance.
  928. >"He's already confessed everything. He told me the whole story voluntarily. He's lucky, too, because I would have pried it out of him one way or another."
  929. "But..."
  930. >"Don't worry about him, dear. He can't hurt you anymore."
  931. >You ascend the stairs together.
  932. "What's going to happen to him?"
  933. >"That's for Twilight to decide. I'll fill her in and make a recommendation for his sentencing, but the final judgment will go to her."
  934. "What are you going to tell her to do?"
  935. >He stares ahead stoically as he walks. "Banishment. Though, being the danger that he is, permanent imprisonment might be safer.
  936. >You stop dead in your tracks.
  937. "No, you can't!"
  938. >He turns to face you. "Trust me, it's the most merciful option. Your mother will probably want him extradited when she finds out what he did."
  939. "It's not her call, though! It's Twilight's! When she hears what I have to say, she'll make the right choice, I know she will!"
  940. >"Flurry, you can't—"
  941. >You don't wait to hear the rest. You sprint off up the staircase, desperate to find Twilight before Dad can get to her.
  942. >There's no way she'll go through with his sentence once she hears your side of things. Her conscience won't let her. She's always done the right thing before.
  943. >Tracing back the path to your chambers, you spot her at the other end of the hall, coming out of Mom's guest room.
  944. >You race up to meet her.
  945. "Aunt Twi, listen!"
  946. >She shakes her head in disappointment when she sees you. "You're too late, Flurry. I already told Cadance everything I know. Whatever happened, I'm to blame for sending you off into a stranger's care."
  947. "No, you have to listen, it was all my fault!"
  948. >"It's too late for that!" she exclaims. "I tried to listen and you pushed me away. I wanted us to come out ahead of this, but someone needs to bear the guilt, and regardless of what you might have done, it was under my care, and I'll be held responsible."
  949. "But that's just it! Dad's going to tell you everything, and he and Mom are going to push you into punishing Anon way more than he deserves, and you're going to feel pressured to accept because it'll take the blame off you, and that's not fair!"
  950. >You're panting as you rush to get out all the words.
  951. >"Whatever decision we come to, it will be as a group," she reassures you. "But we can't make that determination until we have the full story. Your mother's in her room collecting herself. She'll meet us in the diplomacy room when she's ready. We'll all sit down and figure this out as a family."
  952. "But..."
  953. >You trail off, not knowing how to make your point any clearer.
  954. >Twilight smiles at you softly. "Don't worry. Reasonable heads will prevail. Your mother and I may disagree on some issues, but we both want what's best for you."
  955. >Twilight sets off down the hall, motioning you to come with her.
  956. >Your mind starts to race. You're torn. Because pretty soon, the truth will coming spilling out in a big mess, and the circumstances dictate that the only way that Twilight and your parents can stay a united front is by making Anon suffer for what he did.
  957. >And maybe he deserves some punishment for being a stupid asshole, but spending the rest of his life rotting in a dungeon wouldn't be justice.
  958. >It'd just be a worthless gesture so both sides can win political points.
  959. >Mom will be on a warpath, and Twilight's going to concede to her to stop her from retaliating. She might even hand Anon over to her completely!
  960. >What would Mom do then? Anytime anyone has come between her and her family, she's unleashed her wrath on them.
  961. >Dad would, too, if he weren't caught between sides. He'll push them to agree, and Twilight will cave long before Mom will.
  962. >She might kill Anon for toying with your life.
  963. >He doesn't deserve to die! It was still your choice to go after him. He didn't put a gun to your head.
  964. >You can't stand him, but you also can't stand around idly while they use his life as a pawn in their wargames. It's not right.
  965. >Whatever happens, you can't let them leave until you're sure Anon's fate is safe. You'll bar the door if you have to. Hell, you'll fight them if that's what it takes.
  966. >You'll plead your case, and get a guarantee that he won't be harmed.
  967. >After that, you'll never have to think about that jerk again.
  968. >Putting together your game plan, you follow Twilight into the diplomacy room, a place you thought you'd never see.
  969. >It's a beautifully ornate room, with crimson walls, plush upholstery, and a crackling fireplace.
  970. >Twilight sits in an armchair by the hearth. Wandering around, you find yourself drawn to a large portrait of Princess Celestia hanging on the wall.
  971. >Staring up at it, you're enthralled by her majesty. Even in painting form, she holds command over the entire room.
  972. >You wonder what it would be like to meet her for real. She held you as a foal, and still, she feels more like a myth than anything else.
  973. >Twilight watches you examine the portrait. "Every day, I ask myself what she would do in my place," she says pensively.
  974. >You glance back at her.
  975. "Do you ever get an answer?"
  976. >The door suddenly opens, and you see Mom enter the room. She looks more disquieted than you've ever seen her.
  977. >She approaches you. "Are you alright?" she asks quietly.
  978. >You just nod, put off by her state of agitation. This might be harder than you thought.
  979. >While she pulls you in for a hug, she shoots an icy glare at Twilight from across the room, who does her best to ignore it, staring deep into the fireplace.
  980. >You've never seen them so tense with each other. It can't be the sort of thing that happens overnight.
  981. >Maybe that's why it's been years since you've been back in Equestria. All this time, you had no idea's what's been building behind the scenes.
  982. >This cauldron's been slowly bubbling for a while, and now it's about to boil over.
  983. >And you're going to be the one that sends it over the edge.
  984. >You push the subject from your mind, doing your best to steady your nerves.
  985. >All that matters now is getting Anon justice. Everything else can be patched up later. You'll figure it out.
  986. >You have to.
  987. >Dad arrives and shuts the door behind him. "Good," he says, coming around to the table in the center, "you're all here."
  988. >You and Mom come over to join him, taking your seats on the sofa across from Twilight.
  989. >It'll be best if you stay at her side. You'll have to convince her, not antagonize her, and she's the one who'll be hardest to break.
  990. >You just hope you can get some support from Twilight along the way. Get them to meet in the middle, and Dad will follow.
  991. >You can do this.
  992. >Just got to stay calm.
  993. >Dad starts to undo his breastplate. "I've been up through the night interrogating our prisoner. Luckily, he answered all my questions without a fight, and gave me no reason to think he was lying. After a long night, I was able to piece together everything from when Twilight last saw Flurry to when we found her in Ponyville."
  994. >He sets his armor down on the table.
  995. >"And?" Twilight asks. "What did he tell you?"
  996. >His answer comes out grim and unsettled.
  997. >"He confessed to the crime of abducting Flurry."
  998. "NO!" you cry out.
  999. >Your heart sinks just as soon as you hear his words. You fly off the couch and claw at your father's chest.
  1000. "That's not true! You're lying!"
  1001. >Mom pulls you off of him and holds you back. You thrash in her grasp, fighting to get free.
  1002. >Twilight just looks on, stunned by the revelation.
  1003. >And Dad?
  1004. >He doesn't even look you in the eye.
  1005. "You're trying to frame him! You don't want justice, you just want him dead for what he really did!"
  1006. >"I... I don't understand..." Twilight whispers.
  1007. >Shining tries to mask his disappointment. "I have a full confession from him."
  1008. >You manage to break free of Mom's hold just as she speaks up.
  1009. >"Why? Why would he take Flurry from us?"
  1010. "He didn't!"
  1011. >"I was afraid of this," he mutters. "He was manipulating her, trying to radicalize her against us. And now I'm worried he might have succeeded."
  1012. "None of that's true!"
  1013. >"But how?" Twilight asks.
  1014. >Mom glares at her. "You tell me. What were you trying to accomplish?"
  1015. >"I promise you I didn't know about any of this."
  1016. >"She's an impressionable young girl! And you sent her straight into the arms of terrorist bent on destroying our family?"
  1017. >"I had no idea! I never would have sent her over there if I knew what he was capable of. I know it looks bad, but I'll take care of this, okay? He'll pay for what he did. You don't have to worry."
  1018. "No!"
  1019. >You charge around the table, running up to her.
  1020. "Aunt Twi, you have to listen to me, none of what they're saying is true. It's a trap. Please, I'm begging you, don't fall for it. You're smarter than this."
  1021. >Twilight, visibly conflicted, looks to Shining for help.
  1022. >"I have a signed confession," he says.
  1023. "Which you probably got by torturing him!" you yell, whipping around to face him.
  1024. >Filled with indignant fury, you storm up to him.
  1025. "I know exactly what you're capable of, Dad. You'd probably do anything to keep our family from going to war. Even if it means pinning all our problems on an innocent creature."
  1026. >You spit at his hooves.
  1027. "You're a coward."
  1028. >"Flurry!" Mom exclaims.
  1029. "What? That's exactly what he is!"
  1030. >"You see what you've done to her?" she snaps at Twilight. "You've taken our sweet daughter and turned her into a seditious monster!"
  1031. "Don't you dare feed into this bullshit! Anon didn't do a damn thing to me, this is exactly who I am! Someone who's not afraid to fight when everyone else is too much of a pussy to do the right thing!"
  1032. >Dad puts a hoof on your shoulder, which you promptly throw off.
  1033. >"Sweetheart, he was a bad person who wanted bad things. He was using you. You're just too young to see it. He probably made you believe all these awful thoughts were your idea, but they're not."
  1034. "For the last time, stop treating me like a fucking filly! YOU'RE the one trying to deceive me, not him!"
  1035. >Dad groans, his frustration mounting. "I'm not lying to you. I don't know how you could trust some stranger over your own parents. But if you're so insistent on the truth, we can all go down to the dungeons now, and you can hear for yourself what he wanted from you."
  1036. >Suddenly, hope flashes across your eyes. Anon can back you up.
  1037. >Whatever Dad did to him, threatened or coerced him into admitting to this crap, you can undo it.
  1038. >You can talk to him, tell him what's at stake, and he'll tell Twilight the truth. The real truth.
  1039. >He'll listen to you. You know he will.
  1040. >But just as you open your mouth to accept, Twilight loudly cuts you off.
  1041. >"No!"
  1042. >Everyone looks to her.
  1043. >She pauses anxiously. "If what you say is true, Shining, we shouldn't expose her to his trickery any more than we already have."
  1044. >"For once, she's right," Mom says. "There's no way I'll let him fill Flurry's head with more lies. That's probably just what he wants, to see her one last time so she'll see him as some kind of martyr."
  1045. "Shut up! It's not your choice, it's mine!"
  1046. >You turn back to face Dad.
  1047. "Take me to him."
  1048. >But now, he laments his own idea. He looks hesitantly to the others before answering you.
  1049. >"They're right. I don't think we should."
  1050. "UGH!"
  1051. >They're blocking you at every corner!
  1052. >If you don't do something, they'll sentence him to death for sure.
  1053. >If they won't listen, there's only one thing you can do. Direct action.
  1054. >You run straight for the door, but of course, it fails to open. Twilight's magic bars the only exit.
  1055. "Stop it! I have to see him!"
  1056. >Mom just watches you struggle with the door in disbelief. "Look at what he's turned her into," she murmurs.
  1057. >Fuck!
  1058. >This isn't working.
  1059. >Anything you say to Anon's defense just reinforces their delusion that he duped you.
  1060. >You have to figure out some way to argue in support of him... without supporting him.
  1061. >Great.
  1062. >You release the doorknob and return to Twilight.
  1063. "Fine. Believe or me don't, it's not going to make a difference. But you can't punish him like this. He deserves a fair trial."
  1064. >"Not when he's signed a confession," Dad says.
  1065. "That doesn't mean anything! A confession doesn't count if it came from the inside of a dungeon! Don't you have a tribunal for things like this?"
  1066. >Twilight looks back at you dolefully and sighs.
  1067. >"She's right. I trust you, Shining, but I can't sentence a person without hearing their case myself. It's too late to conduct it today, but if you're willing, I can arrange for it first thing tomorrow morning."
  1068. >Your heart flutters with the feeling of a small victory.
  1069. >Anon will have his day in court. The truth will come out, and Twilight will see it's all just a plot against her.
  1070. >"Fine," Mom says. "Do what you want. Hold your theater of a trial. We won't be sticking around to see it."
  1071. "No, we have to stay! I have to tell Aunt Twilight what really happened!"
  1072. >"Absolutely not. We're not spending another night here, not after all this. I'll collect the Crystal Guard and we'll leave within the hour."
  1073. >Your mind races, struggling to come up with a way to get her to stay.
  1074. >"Hang on, Cadance," Twilight interjects. "Flurry has a point. She should at least stay for the trial."
  1075. >Mom scoffs. "You can't be serious. Her testimony is meaningless after the mind games that miserable creature put her through. I'm not going to subject her to any more of this. We're going home."
  1076. >Failing all else, you turn to Dad as a very last-ditch effort.
  1077. "Dad, do something!"
  1078. >He looks between Mom and Twilight, and for the first time, you actually see him in the position you've been imagining all weekend.
  1079. >Torn between his sister and wife.
  1080. >And when you see the look in his eyes, you almost feel bad for him.
  1081. >No, screw that, you do feel bad for him.
  1082. >He might be a conspiring asshole, but you're not heartless.
  1083. >This is obviously hell for him.
  1084. >Still, that doesn't give him the right to throw Anon under the bus, does it?
  1085. >But he doesn't deserve this pain either. I mean, he's Dad. He loves you more than anything, even though he's been such a dick of a parent.
  1086. >He looks between the two of them, and then down at you.
  1087. >And you see that love for you in those eyes.
  1088. >"Let Flurry stay," he tells them, not taking his gaze off you.
  1089. >You want to cry tears of joy.
  1090. >"Dear, no," Cadance insists firmly. "I'm not letting that beast anywhere near her."
  1091. >"We'll let her speak before we bring him up. We can make it work. No matter what lies he fed her, she's still our daughter, and I trust her to do the right thing."
  1092. >You throw your hooves around him and hug him close.
  1093. "I'm sorry," you whisper, burying your face in his chest.
  1094. >You feel him stroke the back of your mane. The sensation reminds you of when you were younger.
  1095. >Back before everything got so fucked up.
  1096. >It doesn't seem all that long ago.
  1097. >You don't know where it all went wrong.
  1098. >Twilight smiles softly. "She's a good girl. Stubborn, but passionate. I doubt any force in Equestria could break the bond between you."
  1099. >"Family is all that truly matters," Mom says coldly. "I'll die before I let anything happen to her."
  1100. >She locks eyes with Twilight as she says that last part.
  1101.  
  1102. >You're sent to your chambers after that. Mom agreed to stay one more night, but only under a strict set of conditions.
  1103. >Twilight had to double the guards in the dungeons and patrolling the palace.
  1104. >As for you, you're not allowed to leave your room until the trial. The Crystal Guard has posts outside your room to make sure of it.
  1105. >You won't even get to see Anon. Twilight will hear your piece in court, and you'll depart for home straight after.
  1106. >Whatever happens then will be out of your hooves.
  1107. >It's daunting, for sure, but about as good as you could have hoped for.
  1108. >All that's left is to figure out what you'll say.
  1109. >Luckily, you have the rest of the day in your room to figure that out.
  1110. >It should be simple, right? Tell the truth. The story of what really happened yesterday.
  1111. >Anon's worst crime was reckless endangerment, and that's borderline at best. You were never in any danger until you made the choice to save him.
  1112. >He's just an asshole, not a criminal.
  1113. >But your account is only half of it. What's he gonna say?
  1114. >With Dad gone before Anon is brought in, he won't have to lie. Whatever Dad threatened him with will have no weight behind it. Anon knows Twilight. He'll tell her the truth.
  1115. >That there wasn't any confession, and Dad made it all up. He'll go free.
  1116. >...then why's Dad letting this trial happen?
  1117. >How's he supposed to make sure Anon confesses in court if he'll be heading home with you?
  1118. >It doesn't make sense.
  1119. >You spend a good amount of time mulling the details over in your head.
  1120. >Night comes faster than you'd like it to.
  1121. >Though it feels futile, you try to force yourself to get some sleep.
  1122. >It takes a couple hours, but eventually, you start to drift off.
  1123. >When you open your eyes, you see the Crystal Heart, and nothing else.
  1124. >You groan to yourself.
  1125. >It's an awful night for dream duty.
  1126. >But something's weird about this. You don't see any ponies.
  1127. >Usually there's all these other crystal ponies, arriving upon their sleep. They go to the Crystal Heart, and a hole opens up for them to walk inside.
  1128. >Then it swallows them up, allowing them to enter dreams about the ones they love. You loathe it, but even you can recognize it's important.
  1129. >The Heart has some level of sentience. It knows the significance of dreams for reinforcing bonds.
  1130. >So it strengthens the crystal ponies' love, which in turn strengthens it. You've always figured it to be self-preservation, but still, you can't help but feel a kind of kinship with it.
  1131. >Usually, the Heart does all the work itself, but sometimes you have to nudge them along. It's part of the job.
  1132. >Mom did it before you, and from what you recall, Princess Luna once did something similar for Equestria.
  1133. >But tonight, there are no ponies.
  1134. >Maybe because you're so far from home?
  1135. >But then why's the Heart still here, glowing bright as ever?
  1136. >Slowly, you walk up to it. And it does something it's never done before.
  1137. >It opens up for you.
  1138. >You're hesitant to walk inside. You've only ever experienced it from out here.
  1139. >What could possibly await you on the other side?
  1140. >Okay, you're not naive. You know the answer.
  1141. >But admitting it means something you really don't want it to.
  1142. >Yet you know more than anyone there's no helping it.
  1143. >Once you got old enough, it fell to you to push ponies through the process. Most trust in it, but there are always some who are afraid.
  1144. >You haven't met a single one you couldn't talk through.
  1145. >Now, you stare deep inside the hole, but all you see is a indiscernible veil.
  1146. >See, the Heart's not dumb. It knows you won't cross through if you know what's behind it. You've encountered a lot of ponies who fell in the same category.
  1147. >If they could have looked before they leapt, they would've called it a lie. They would've said the Heart was mistaken, and never trusted its judgment.
  1148. >But you've seen how it goes. Sooner or later, they all own up to it. The Heart's never wrong.
  1149. >It doesn't always give you what you want, but it always gives you what you need. Love can be scary like that sometimes.
  1150. >It just takes a little push.
  1151. >Breathing deeply, you step through, nervously anticipating that which awaits you on the other side.
  1152.  
  1153. >The world around you materializes from an array of shimmering, swirling dust.
  1154. >Almost immediately, it's apparent where you are: a dark, cramped cell in the lowly dungeons.
  1155. >And though, deep down, you were steeling yourself for this, your heart still sinks at the sight of Anon slumped back against the stone wall.
  1156. >He picks his head up when you arrive, his empty eyes meeting yours.
  1157. >He doesn't say a word.
  1158. >Straight away, the truth becomes clear.
  1159. "It's true, isn't it?" you whisper. "Dad wasn't lying."
  1160. >His gaze drops back down to the floor.
  1161. >"You shouldn't be here," he says weakly.
  1162. "Well, I'm not here," you spit back. "Right now, I'm in bed, and this isn't really you. So if I'm putting up with it, you can, too."
  1163. >You shake your head, exasperated with his reaction.
  1164. "You think I want to be here right now? My first Crystal Heart dream, and it's this?"
  1165. >"Sorry to disappoint."
  1166. "No, you should be. This was supposed to be a special moment, and you took that away from me. You don't appreciate how important this is. I had crushes when I was kid, but I knew they weren't real because they never landed me here. I spent almost every night of my life wondering when the Heart would open up for me, and what that would be like. Whether it was going to treat me different because of my history with it, or if I was even going to see it coming. And now it's stuck me with you."
  1167. >"I don't even know what you're going on about," he mutters.
  1168. >He still won't even look at you.
  1169. "It's your fault I'm here. You're an asshole. I shouldn't give a shit what happens to you, but I do, and to make things worse, my feelings apparently go way further than that."
  1170. >"So leave. I didn't ask to see you, either."
  1171. >Your frustration's only increasing, but now so is your emotional state. You struggle to keep your voice from shaking.
  1172. "I was just a game to you, wasn't I? Now it's over, and you don't want anything to do with me."
  1173. >He doesn't respond.
  1174. "Answer me!"
  1175. >"I'm not me, remember? Whatever I say now is nothing more than the truth you've already convinced yourself of."
  1176. "No, you're wrong. The Heart sent me here because I need to hear it from you. It knows the truth, even when I don't. That's the only reason it would put me here."
  1177. >His head sinks lower to the point where you can't see his face, arms draped over his folded legs.
  1178. "You didn't care what happened to me."
  1179. >The silence drags on before he finally speaks.
  1180. >"No. I didn't. You're just a stupid kid who got too close too fast, and I was stringing you along for kicks. There's your answer."
  1181. >You don't know how to respond.
  1182. >You don't know how this is happening.
  1183. >You can't even begin to fathom how the l-word is remotely possible when it comes to you and him.
  1184. >Maybe this is the Crystal Heart's sick game. It has to be trying to torment you. This has to be a joke.
  1185. >Because this is the last thing you need right now.
  1186. "I can't believe you," you murmur.
  1187. >"I don't care. I don't care if it's all made-up, I don't want you here. Just get out."
  1188. >Your thoughts slowly pull together as you regain your composure.
  1189. "Not until you tell me truth."
  1190. >"I already did."
  1191. "No. I want to know why you lied."
  1192. >"I didn't."
  1193. "Bullshit! Tomorrow morning, my dad's putting you on trial, and he won't even be there to see it. I'll tell Twilight the truth, you'll tell her the truth, and you'll get off."
  1194. >"Then it all worked out," he says.
  1195. "Except you didn't plan for that. They wouldn't have believed a word of the real story, they would've said I was covering to protect you. I almost didn't get you a trial."
  1196. >"Maybe you shouldn't have."
  1197. >Unable to contain your frustration any longer, you unload on him.
  1198. "Are you trying to get yourself killed? Is that it? Jumping to your death and copping to some stupid crime that'll get you the death penalty? Do you hate yourself that much? Are you hoping that I'll keep saving you, that you can keep throwing yourself in front of trains and I'll keep pulling you away, like that'll be what finally gives your life meaning? Do you really think that little of me, that I'm just some jaded little punk who hates the world but hates you just a little less? Someone who'll actually stomach your stupid smug attitude and look past the fact that you're actually an insufferable asshole? Someone who's too naive to see you for what you really are, a jackass who plays mind games with everyone he perceives to be below him, and treats the people he pretends to care about as completely disposable? Or do you already know all that, and that's why you're trying to die, and you're just too much of a fucking coward to do it without leaving yourself the slim chance that someone else will want to save your miserable ass?"
  1199. >You come down off your tirade heart pounding, eyes burning with contempt, but he doesn't even acknowledge your words.
  1200. >He just stays where he sits, gaze glued to the floor between his legs.
  1201. >"Yeah."
  1202. "Yeah, what?" you ask sharply.
  1203. >"You got me pegged. Now get the fuck out of my head."
  1204. >You don't stop to consider what he means by that.
  1205. "No. I want to hear you say it."
  1206. >"What's the point? You got your answer. There's nothing for you here."
  1207. "I want you to tell me you lied because you don't care what happens to me."
  1208. >He shakes his head. "Get out of here, Flurry."
  1209. "Say it."
  1210. >He stays adamant. But you refuse to let it go.
  1211. >You step up to him.
  1212. "Say it!"
  1213. >Leaning in, you set your hooves against his chest and force him to look you in the eyes.
  1214. "Say you never cared about me!"
  1215. >Your head stays pressed against his, tears welling in your eyes.
  1216. >He finally breaks.
  1217. >"Of course I fucking care! I ONLY care about you, even to the point where it kills me! You couldn't leave well enough alone, could you? You're supposed to hate me, you're supposed to never see me again, but you had to go and fuck everything up! You should've just kept to your word and stayed the fuck away!"
  1218. "Why?" you cry. "Why would you do all this?"
  1219. >"Because you were right! I don't know what I'm doing! I can't tell you why I jumped, I don't know what's happening to me, but whatever it is, but if I cared— if I really cared— I wouldn't have let you get tangled up in any of this!"
  1220. "You should've just told my dad the truth..."
  1221. >"It doesn't matter. None of it matters. I'll still hang. I just couldn't go knowing I put any of the blame on you."
  1222. "Fuck, Anon, what does that matter?"
  1223. >"Don't play dumb with me," he says, his voice breaking. "You already told me everything. I know the way your parents see you. I know how trapped you feel. It was the only way. The power's made them paranoid, terrified of anything that might want to oppose them, even if it's their own family. As long as you had any choice in the matter, they'd never see you the same way. You'd never have a moment of freedom again. You'd be a prisoner the rest of your life. All because of me."
  1224. >You take his hand in your hoof, and he clenches it.
  1225. "Anon..."
  1226. >"Don't kid yourself. There was never any future with me. I know what you were hoping for, but I'm not it. I don't know why I let myself fall, but after the crash, after the spell... I didn't want to hurt you ever again. For one fleeting moment, I knew what it was like to love you, and I knew I had to let you go."
  1227. >None of this is what you were expecting.
  1228. >You want to hate him. You don't want to forgive him for the things he did.
  1229. >But you know the fucked-up, irrational truth of it better than anyone else.
  1230. >You can't help who you love.
  1231. >In a moment of emotional impulsivity, you press your lips into his, locking him into a tender kiss.
  1232. >He pushes back, and you lean into his body, aching to be enveloped in the warmth of his frame.
  1233. >In the cold, dank air of the dungeon, the only comfort you can find is in him.
  1234. >You don't pull away for a long while. When you do, your face lingers beside his.
  1235. "It's okay," you whisper.
  1236. >"No, it's not. I don't want you thinking it is."
  1237. "I'm not leaving. I can fix you."
  1238. >"I'm not yours to fix."
  1239. "Too bad. If I wasn't meant to be here tonight, I wouldn't be. Even if I'm making the worst decision of my life, I care about you too much to not make it. I'm not leaving you behind."
  1240. >You place your head on his shoulder, and his hands come up to rest on your sides.
  1241. >"I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," he says.
  1242. "It'll be okay. It has to be."
  1243. >"And if it's not?"
  1244. "Then just give me one last night before we're ripped apart."
  1245. >There's a long, drawn-out silence before you hear a soft response.
  1246. >"Okay."
  1247. >You stay in that position, cradled in his arms, for as long as you can remember.
  1248. >"You were right," he says quietly.
  1249. "About what?"
  1250. >"I was happier. When I loved you. I didn't want that feeling to ever end..."
  1251. >"...until it did."
  1252. >The terror you felt in that moment is still impressed upon your memory. The look in his eyes could have fooled anyone. You'd have thought he really, truly loved you.
  1253. >...
  1254. >Maybe he does.
  1255. >Is it real, then? Or is he just chasing a high he'll never get back?
  1256. >If he loved you, he'd want you be okay more than anything.
  1257. >And after everything he said, you think that might be true.
  1258. >So if that's the case, then it doesn't matter what road, what spell, whatever turn of events led him to here.
  1259. >Because if tonight's any evidence...
  1260. >You were bound to end up together regardless of circumstance.
  1261. >With your eyes held shut, you cling to each dwindling sensation. The rhythmic tides of his breaths, the pulse of his heartbeat matching yours, and the almost ephemeral impression of his fingers against your coat.
  1262. >But every dream is fleeting. Without any knowledge of your surroundings, you inevitably drift off, blissfully unaware of the fading world around you.
  1263. >Until you awake.
  1264. >The distant sound of a voice causes you to stir.
  1265. >Your eyes open to see the same stone floor beneath you, with Anon lying at your side.
  1266. >"Oh, Flurry, you helpless little fool."
  1267. >You look up at the figure standing by the dungeon entrance.
  1268. "Aunt Twi?"
  1269. >You pick yourself up as she draws closer to your cell.
  1270. >Is this still part of the dream?
  1271. "What are you doing here?"
  1272. >She steps up to the bars and frowns at you.
  1273. >"Was this your bold plan?" she asks. "You somehow manage to get down here, and rather than escape, you choose to take a nap?"
  1274. >Anon wakes behind you.
  1275. >It's starting to feel less like a dream with every passing second.
  1276. >But how could you really be here, when you started in bed?
  1277. >The Crystal Heart didn't do this... did it?
  1278. "Aunt Twi, listen, Anon was lying about his confession. He'll tell you what really happened, just—"
  1279. >"Oh, spare it, Flurry," she interrupts you. "I know exactly what happened."
  1280. >Anon gets up, remaining where he stands at the far end of the cell.
  1281. "Y-You do? How?"
  1282. >She looks down haughtily at you. "You still don't get it. That's just like you, isn't it? Too naive to see what's going on, but still clever enough to be a thorn in my side."
  1283. "This was you?" you ask. "You put him here?"
  1284. >"Sweetheart," she croons, "it was all me. Everything that's happened to you since you first set foot in the city has been orchestrated."
  1285. >The pit of your stomach drops.
  1286. >"Your chance encounter in the garden, your little date in the diner, even your little tumble off the mountain — all carefully planned out by me. Right up until you survived, that is."
  1287. >Slowly, you set your rear hoof back, discreetly preparing to a cast a spell against her.
  1288. >She detects the shift in your aura instantly.
  1289. >"There you go again with the brainless ingenuity. You somehow manage to get inside the cell, but you're still too foolish to realize there's no casting spells from behind those bars."
  1290. >You try to fire off a bolt, but it's useless. Your magic is so deeply suppressed that your horn doesn't even spark.
  1291. "Why do you want me dead? What did I ever do to you?"
  1292. >"It should be obvious by now. It's not your death I'm after, but the circumstances behind it. Your martyrdom by an alien creature will rally your empire against Equestria."
  1293. "Are you insane? Kill me just to declare war?"
  1294. >"There's the problem! It can't be me who declares war. Until now, your mother's cleverly been playing the defensive. All nations one way or another ultimately joined Equestria willingly— the Griffon Isles, the Changeling Kingdom, Yakyakistan... all except the Crystal Empire. If I took it by force, your subjects would never recognize my authority, and worse, the other creatures might have second thoughts about my intentions. But if I can flip it around and make the Empire the aggressor? Equestria would act in self-defense! You'd be conquered out of innocent self-preservation, and the world united under one flag— my flag."
  1295. "I can't believe this. You're a monster. You'd kill your own niece—"
  1296. >"Don't you see this bigger than you or me? This is about Equestria! For a thousand years, both my kind and yours have constantly teetered on the brink of extinction. Discord, Tirek, Chrysalis— no matter how well-intentioned, Celestia was helpless against all of them. Sombra managed to enslave your land for an eternity. Each time we were so easily dominated because our nations stood alone, only narrowly defeating them in the end at great cost and insurmountable odds. But together, united against any threat? We can finally be safe, for now and ever! I love you Flurry, I do, but what is your life weighed against the entire world's?"
  1297. >You slam your hooves against the bars.
  1298. "You can't do this!"
  1299. >"I already have. You see, Anon's been my little helper this whole time."
  1300. >You glance back at him in disbelief, but he says nothing.
  1301. "What are you talking about?" you growl.
  1302. >"Just an old trick I picked up from a former enemy," she answers confidently. "Why, it once worked wonders on your father. But Chrysalis was an old hack. Your mother and I saw through her illusion eventually. There are ways to pull the mind's strings so subtly that it's indistinguishable from the real thing."
  1303. "You're lying."
  1304. >"Oh, honey, did you really think that what you had with him was real? You're so young, so easily manipulated. I told him exactly what he needed to say and do to charm you to the point where you'd die trying to save him. It would appear as an assassination by a rogue creature, and your mother would be so enraged that she'd engage hostilities, citing my open tolerance of creatures as an existential threat, and giving me the perfect ruse to conquer the last holdout."
  1305. "Why all this theater, then? Why not just kill me off yourself and pin it on someone else?"
  1306. >"Perhaps I should have. But there was no guarantee I'd be able to get you alone, and I had to be with your parents when it happened. If the plot failed, there could be no way it would get traced back to me. And since you're still breathing, that was evidently the right call."
  1307. >She squints at you.
  1308. >"I ran all the calculations meticulously. Without an impossibly minuscule reaction time, there was no way you could have saved him. But here you both are, very much alive."
  1309. >You look back at Anon, who's been hauntingly silent as he listens.
  1310. >"You threw a pretty big wrench in plans by surviving," she continues. "When we found you in Ponyville, I had to decide between going after Anon or staying with you. I couldn't leave you with your mother to piece together a story I couldn't spin, so I left Shining to deal with him and prayed he wouldn't tie anything to me."
  1311. >Twilight looks past you to Anon.
  1312. >"I don't know where that kidnapping bit came from, but it worked well enough for my purposes. The fault still lies with you and Cadance thinks my innocuous yet careless intentions enabled your crime. You've served your purpose sufficiently, and I no longer have any need for you."
  1313. "Is that why you're here now? To kill him?"
  1314. >"I haven't seen him since the incident. He's been acting without orders between then and now. His improvisation has worked out so far, but I can't allow any loose ends to keep flapping about. The new plan was to have him try to kill you and die by way of the guards outside your chamber door, prompting your parents to act against me. So imagine my surprise when I come down to stage his escape and find you slumbering peacefully at his side."
  1315. >She steps up close to the bars, staring you down menacingly. "How did you save him, Flurry? How did you get here?"
  1316. >You scowl at her.
  1317. >You don't give her the satisfaction of an answer. No, you give her something much more deserving.
  1318. >A faceful of spit.
  1319. >She steps back and wipes your saliva off without a word.
  1320. "Fuck you."
  1321. >"You are your mother's daughter, you know that?"
  1322. "I'd rather be her than you."
  1323. >"You will," she grins wickedly.
  1324. >Her horn glows, and a bright violent flash blinds you.
  1325. >It takes a couple seconds for your vision to return. When it does, you find yourself in the cool air of night, at the waterfall by the city's edge, standing in precisely the same spot you did 36 hours ago.
  1326. >You can feel heavy gusts of wind blow past you, whipping your mane about.
  1327. >The moment your eyes catch Twilight standing by the cliff's edge, you don't hesitate.
  1328. >You point your horn at her and fire off a series of bolts.
  1329. >A quick counterspell from her disperses them easily.
  1330. >You try every offensive spell at your disposal, advancing forward closer and closer to her, but she blocks them all with ease.
  1331. >You stare back at her with fiery hatred.
  1332. >"It's useless, Flurry!" she yells over the roaring winds.
  1333. >Of course it is. She's the element of magic and twice your age. Your meager spellset is dwarfed by hers. Even if you unleased your raw magic— an uncontrolled burst with the potential to level whole cities if improperly focused— she'd contain you before you could even charge it.
  1334. >But you have to try.
  1335. >Summoning the strength of the Crystal Heart within you, you channel all your energy, all your emotions into the magical ether.
  1336. >Everything. Your compassion for Anon, contempt for Twilight, even your frustration with your parents. You'll need every last ounce of it.
  1337. >The Crystal Heart needs you, and right now, you need it. Where Twilight's magic once failed in repairing it, yours succeeded, forever tethering its soul to yours.
  1338. >It's the only edge you have over her.
  1339. >Your horn radiates violently and your eyes glow a blinding white. You feel yourself lifting into the air, the energy bubbling inside you, the simultaneous thoughts and sensations of every crystal pony combined in a chaotic amalgam rushing through your head...
  1340. >And then the crushing weight of an impossibly dense column of light pummeling you back to the ground.
  1341. >You shriek in unimaginable agony.
  1342. >The force pins you against the grass like the rushing flow of a river directed downward, making everything inside the column a blazing white.
  1343. >Just outside the edge, you can just barely make out Twilight's outlined frame, inflicting this abhorrent might upon your fragile body.
  1344. >The crippling weight of the light is too much to bear. It's crushing your lungs, making every breath more of a strain than the last.
  1345. >You can feel all sensation slowly fading, the world around you getting blurrier, when just before the point of passing out...
  1346. >It ceases entirely.
  1347. >You draw a sharp breath into your lungs, coughing and gasping for air.
  1348. >You don't wait to fully regain your senses before meekly pulling yourself back up. There's no way you're allowing her another chance to continue her bombardment.
  1349. "Why are you doing this?" you sputter. "There are other ways to find harmony!"
  1350. >"You're just like your mother!" she yells back. "Even if I waited for her death, you'd just be there to replace her, and your daughter to replace you! It's in your blood! Stubborn, close-minded, and afraid of progress! So long as the Cadenza line lives, Equestria will never know peace!"
  1351. "This isn't you, Twilight! I've heard the stories! You saved my parents, saved ME, because you love us! You know it!"
  1352. >She laughs maniacally. "What good is love if we're all dead?!"
  1353. >Your mind is racing with panic. Do you run, knowing she'll stop you long before you get anywhere safe? Do you keep fighting her anyway, hoping against hope that some tiny stroke of luck turns the tables in your favor?
  1354. >Before you can decide, you feel Twilight's magic grab you by the scruff and drag you rapidly up to her face.
  1355. >"But since you value love so much, how poetic would it be for love to be the way you die?"
  1356. >She whirls you around to face the city, and you catch sight of Anon, standing by the tree on the riverbank. Twilight teleported all three of you of you here, together.
  1357. >She drops you onto the dirt of the cliff's edge, locking you firmly in place with her grasp. You try to fight back, but her spell stifles any chance at movement or magic.
  1358. >"Anon!" she calls out to him. "Come here and meet the moment of your destiny!"
  1359. "NO!"
  1360. >Anon, completely expressionless, pauses a few moments, and starts approaching.
  1361. >And then he stops.
  1362. >On the ground in front of him is something golden nestled in the tall grass. He bends down to pick it up, and you suddenly realize what it is.
  1363. >The stolen helmet, sitting right at the spot where you took it off and never picked it up again.
  1364. >Carrying it delicately in his hands, he continues his approach.
  1365. >"How sweet," Twilight muses. "A souvenir to remember each other by."
  1366. >She leers in at you insidiously. "You see that? I made that happen. You fell in love with an illusion I designed for you. That's what love is: a distraction that lures you out from safety. If you really love something, you protect it at all costs. No sacrifice is too great. That's why you have to die. Because I love my kingdom too much to let anything endanger it ever again."
  1367. >Twilight summons a set of ropes. In a fraction of a second, they snake around you and bind your wings to your body, squeezing the breath out of your lungs as they tighten, tying off in a knot.
  1368. >"Push her to her death," she orders Anon, "and go with her."
  1369. "No..." you choke out.
  1370. >She motions to helmet he holds. "Bash her head in with that thing before she tries to cast anything. But not until right before she's out of range of my magic suppression spell. I want her to savor the first few seconds of her demise."
  1371. >She ruffles your mane, patronizing you. "That way the lesson will really set in that it's blind love that got her killed. See? There's always a chance learn something new, even in death!"
  1372. "Don't do this," you plead.
  1373. >"Quiet now, I'm trying to parse out any potential loopholes I may have omitted. You've already evaded my plans twice, I won't let there be a third."
  1374. >She mutters to herself as she maps out her scheme in her head.
  1375. >You try to push your wings back against the rope, but they're impossibly snug.
  1376. >Anon just stands there silently, letting it all unfold.
  1377. "Do something!" you urge him.
  1378. >He gazes back at you, an air of guilt hanging over him.
  1379. "You can't let her do this. You don't want to die — you don't want me to die. I don't care if she's controlling you, I know you're in there somewhere. You don't have to listen to her. You care about me, even if it was all fake, I know you do. The dream proves—"
  1380. >"Quiet!" Twilight yells. "I can't think with your abject rambling in the background. Don't you see how useless this is? I'm the most powerful being in the universe, my magic has bested forces you can't even begin to comprehend! Even with all the time in the world, nothing you say could pull him from my enchantment!"
  1381. "I don't care how strong or smart you think you are. I've outmaneuvered you before, and I'll do it again."
  1382. >"Yeah?" she chides. "We'll see how you feel about that when you're splattered all over the ground!"
  1383. >She turns to Anon and nods. "Do it."
  1384. "Anon, don't!"
  1385. >He looks down at his reflection in the helmet, then back at you.
  1386. "Please..."
  1387. >"I'm sorry," he whispers.
  1388. >Before anyone can say anything else, he charges straight at you, and you both go flying off the mountain's edge.
  1389.  
  1390. >That was weeks ago.
  1391. >As you later learned, Twilight was right.
  1392. >Everything Anon did from meeting you to falling off the cliff had been preordained by her. He had no idea why he was doing anything he did— in fact, he even said as much in the diner, ironically unaware of the deeper implication.
  1393. >He was fully under the belief that his actions were his own. He didn't even have any recollection of Twilight's orders.
  1394. >It's chilling to think that, at any moment, you could be controlled by someone else and never even know it.
  1395. >Her spell over Anon was too powerful. Love can't magically pull him out of that trance.
  1396. >But a love spell can.
  1397. >Whether it was an oversight or just plain ignorance on her part, she failed to consider the possibility of a love spell affecting Anon.
  1398. >Neither of you knew it, but the moment you cast the spell on him, he was no longer in Twilight's grasp.
  1399. >And neither did she.
  1400. >After that, everything he did was of his own accord. Taking all the blame out of sheer guilt. Vowing to never see you again because he couldn't trust his own actions.
  1401. >Because the real him cared.
  1402. >It was a shock, to be sure, finding out every shitty thing he did to you was because Twilight compelled him to. It was just as much news to him as it was to you.
  1403. >He didn't know what to do. He didn't know if he was still under the spell.
  1404. >Until she ordered him to kill you— and he thought about it. Not blindly obeyed as one would expect a puppet to, but actually pondered the decision.
  1405. >Then came very careful planning, because even a tiny misstep would ruin everything.
  1406. >And it worked.
  1407. >He obeyed Twilight, giving her what she wanted. But as you fell, he did something you didn't expect.
  1408. >He cut your binds.
  1409. >You have the helmet to thank for that. Its sharp edges and tempered steel saved your life.
  1410. >That stupid helmet, the one you once wished you never had, the one that made you impossibly frustrated with Anon...
  1411. >The one you're staring into right now.
  1412. >You don the helmet easily (your mane's now cropped short, the way you always begged Mom to let you style it) and kick dust over the campfire, leaving only embers behind.
  1413. >Slinging your bag over your back, you step out of the cave into harsh morning light.
  1414. >Anon's pack lies on the ground outside the entrance, its owner nowhere to be found.
  1415. "Anon?"
  1416. >"Up here!" a voice calls from above.
  1417. >You look up to see him perched on a branch, waving down at you.
  1418. >"Just scanning the horizon before we head out!"
  1419. >Furrowing your brow, you outstretch your wings.
  1420. "Wings, babe."
  1421. >He climbs down the tree, carefully descending branch by branch, until he jumps down onto the ground.
  1422. >"And let you have all the fun? You're forgetting, my kind literally came from monkeys. We're built for that sort of thing."
  1423. >You roll your eyes. The way he was climbing, it sure didn't look like it.
  1424. "Sure thing."
  1425. >You toss his pack over to him, and he drapes it over his back.
  1426. >"Besides," he says, "I didn't know when you'd be up. You've been sleeping in like crazy lately."
  1427. "First time in my life I don't have my mom bearing down on me, I'm gonna enjoy it."
  1428. >As soon as the words leave your mouth, you immediately bite your tongue. You've been actively trying to avoid mentioning your parents.
  1429. >And even though you hide it well, Anon notices your reaction.
  1430. >"You miss her?"
  1431. "No," you scoff, brushing past him. "Only thing I miss is having a warm bed."
  1432. >Anon follows after you as you trek onward into the forest.
  1433. >"It's okay, you know. Even I miss my folks sometimes, and they were awful."
  1434. >You look up at him skeptically.
  1435. "Yeah?"
  1436. >"Well, not political-conspiracies-and-attempted-murder awful. You got me there."
  1437. "Thought so."
  1438. >He taps at your helmet. "You gonna keep wearing that thing?"
  1439. "Why not?"
  1440. >"It's, like, two sizes too big. I thought it was a joke at first, but it's getting less funny."
  1441. >You stare straight ahead at the forest path.
  1442. "I'm a fighter now. I have to start acting like it. It helps me get in the right headspace."
  1443. >He chuckles.
  1444. "What?"
  1445. >"Headspace. 'Cause it's a space for your head."
  1446. "Shut up."
  1447. >"But seriously. Is that it?"
  1448. >You pause.
  1449. "Maybe I like wearing it because it reminds me how much you care."
  1450. >"Ah, there it is!" He drapes his arm around your neck and pulls you against his side playfully.
  1451. "Quit it!"
  1452. >You squirm and slip under his arm.
  1453. "We have to be on alert."
  1454. >"Right..." he says. "Haven't seen another soul in three weeks, but the two seconds I'm holding you are the ones we're getting ambushed."
  1455. "You know what Twilight's capable of," you reply quietly. "I don't have to remind you what she did."
  1456. >He falls silent, the atmosphere suddenly much more sober.
  1457. >Just as you're about to regret bringing it up, he finally speaks up again.
  1458. >"Do you know what you're gonna do? About her, I mean."
  1459. >You've been thinking about it every day since you fled Canterlot.
  1460. >You were hoping an answer would suddenly find you, but so far, there's been no such luck.
  1461. "She's not stupid. She probably searched for our bodies. She must know we're alive."
  1462. >"We fell far. It's not impossible to think we wouldn't be found."
  1463. "But you were right— the power's made her paranoid. As long as there's an inkling of doubt, she'll be worried I'm out there."
  1464. >"Should she be?"
  1465. "Yeah," you state coldly. "Because I'm going to kill her."
  1466. >"Do you think we should head for the Crystal Empire? Your parents—"
  1467. "No. There's no way they're not already at war. I called her reckless for not having a war plan, but she did, she just couldn't reveal her true intentions. There's no conscience holding her back. With Equestria's full force, she'll take the Empire, kill Mom off, and make Dad lead her new puppet state— willingly or not. She'll do it by the time we get there, if she hasn't already."
  1468. >"So what do we do? Keep running and pray she never finds us?"
  1469. "No. We take the fight to her."
  1470. >"She'll win."
  1471. "Against us. She's strong, but powerless against the will of her subjects. That's why she's so careful about her image in this war. We strike her there."
  1472. >As you talk it out, it starts to come together in your head, the same way it always does.
  1473. >"How?"
  1474. "By exposing her. Sow the seeds of doubt in ambivalent populations, starting with Klugetown. They're far-removed and Equestrian territory in name only. We go around, subtly chipping away at her reputation, piece by piece, until we have enough of a base to unite against her."
  1475. >"And they'll listen to you?"
  1476. >You flash a confident smile up at him.
  1477. "I'm the People's Princess."
  1478. >"Your charms may have worked wonders in your little sphere of influence, but I think you're overestimating the barbarity of the outer world."
  1479. "That's why I have a big scary monster boyfriend to back me up."
  1480. >He snorts. "Rude. But fair."
  1481. >You bump your head against his side affectionately.
  1482. >"Say you actually get the support you need. Then what? How do you take a tyrant down?"
  1483. "Rebellion. We siege Canterlot. By then, her own city will be against her. Whatever few loyalists she scrambles, we'll capture easily. Her powers are nothing compared to the magic of an army of thousands."
  1484. >You bite your lip, growing more excited with each sentence.
  1485. "Weak and desperate, she'll cower in fear as I take her palace and march into her throne room. She'll beg for the mercy she never showed me. I'll make her pay for what she did— to my parents, to you, to me— and, at long last, I'll be the one who finally takes her down."
  1486. >"Riveting. You know, Equestria will need a new ruler after that. Think that'll be Princess Flurry Heart?"
  1487. "No."
  1488. >You always resented that title. It was a reminder of the life you loathed.
  1489. >Crushing responsibility, meaningless dogma, and a life lived in emotional captivity.
  1490. >You never wanted to be Princess. You never wanted to become your mother.
  1491. >Both she and Twilight are extremists who care more about principle than practicality. Right now, Equestria and the Crystal Empire are suffering through the hell of war because their princesses value their petty morals more than innocent lives.
  1492. >You won't make their mistake. Once Twilight falls, and the princesses of the old world are gone, the world will enter a new age.
  1493. >A new dawn.
  1494. >A new empire.
  1495. >Suddenly, a smile breaks out across your face.
  1496. "Call me... Empress."
Flurry Heart Anon Romance

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