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Something, at least (SPG)

By awf
Created: 29th October 2020 06:03:27 PM
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  1. Something, at least
  2.  
  3. > Mr. Anonymous - it sounded completely stupid. No way you were old enough for a 'Mister'. It felt like an act. Suits, ties, extra slim laptop, haircut - all part of the performance.
  4. > You wished you could palm the meetings off to some assistant, but it was your name on the door.
  5. > Especially now, with the chance of going public, you have to make a good impression.
  6. > You'd much rather stay away from people and work on your code.
  7. > After all, it was what got the company off the ground.
  8. > You don't consider yourself rich. Wealthy, maybe. Bought the rooftop flat. Electric car. Awesome gaming rig. The usual.
  9. > Some other furniture (you don't really care about that).
  10. > No wife. No girlfriend.
  11. > Can't handle that sort of interaction. Maybe you're autistic or some shit. Idiot savant, or something.
  12. > No, money doesn't help. Sure, it gets you plenty of dates and the women are willing to ignore a lot of awkward when they see your flat.
  13. > But as soon as things get serious, you get scared shitless and kick them out.
  14. > With this new pony craze, there might be a way to get rid of the V-card.
  15. > Shady parts of the internet say there are brothels.
  16. > Maybe it's just human women that scare you? Worth a shot.
  17. > Expensive, but you don't care. Not like you're spending much these days.
  18. > There's an ad: two of the "mane 6" for the price of one.
  19. > You try to prepare. Google that shit up.
  20. > A week later, you've seen all the episodes. Weird how those portals opened up to that exact world.
  21. > You skim a few published papers, but it looks like the physics eggheads don't have a clue either.
  22. > Doesn't really matter, you're more into maths and software anyway.
  23. > Besides, you remind yourself, this is for your dick, not your brain.
  24. > Call the place and book two solid hours of fun. You pick Twilight and Rarity, your favourites from the show.
  25. > Nervous, but looking forward.
  26. > Saturday evening, you're sitting in a dirty lobby.
  27. > These places aren't exactly legal, but the police look the other way. Probably getting some 'reward'.
  28. > You're 30 minutes early. Nerd.
  29. > Out of boredom, take out your laptop. You can't focus on work, but you can get through some email backlog.
  30. > Place has a wifi, but it's passworded. You could just use mobile data, but maybe you can have a little fun instead.
  31. > Poke around. There's a lot of wifi traffic going on. Curious.
  32. > You look at the encryption and nearly laugh.
  33. > They probably haven't upgraded the router since Fred Flintstone installed it in the BC.
  34. > Your grandmother's mechanical alarm clock could crack this in under a minute.
  35. > It's a video feed. Seems they bought wifi cameras so they didn't have to lay down cable.
  36. > Not recording the 'work rooms', to your relief. But there's a camera just outside every door.
  37. > Out of curiosity, you click through the streams.
  38. > You find an open door.
  39. > You catch the fatso leaving the room. Looks like Pinkie in there. Doesn't seem to be moving.
  40. > How the fuck did the owner get the six? Must have paid a fortune.
  41. > You wait and watch, feeling uneasy.
  42. > Starting to think something's wrong with this picture? What took you so long?
  43. > Brute walks into the room. At first, you think he's the next customer.
  44. > Don't they let their 'workers' rest? Also, he left the door open.
  45. > They also have sound, so you quickly plug in your headphones.
  46. > But no, dude has a cane. As he taps it on the ground, Pinkie finally stirs.
  47. > Tries to crawl further up the bed, but there's no place to go. Room isn't exactly large.
  48. > "We talked about this, you horse whore," dude growls. Hard to hear, so you turn the volume way up.
  49. > Cane slams down with a smack. The pony yelps, but doesn't speak.
  50. > "The customers expect a certain something out of you." *SMACK*
  51. > "The weirdos watch the show and come here, expecting to meet Pinkie Pie." *SMACK*
  52. > Instead, they get this mopey, depressing hunk of worthless horse meat." *SMACK*
  53. > Dude pauses his monologue. You swear you can see the pony shivering, even on the crappy quality.
  54. > "Sorry, master," she chokes out. It was what the dude has been waiting for.
  55. > "Sorry's not good enough!" he yells and raises the cane.
  56. > *SMACK* *SMACK* *SMACK*
  57. > You can hear the wailing. "I'll do better, I promise," Pinkie swears while sobbing.
  58. > "You better!" dude barks out. "Another complaint and we start selling you to the sadistic fuckers."
  59. > "Please, no!" You can practically taste the fear coming from the pony.
  60. > Brute seems satisfied. "Okay. But remember what happened to Cheerilee!"
  61. > Pony just whimpers into a pillow while the goon walks out.
  62. > "Clean yourself up, you got 15 minutes!" is the last thing he says before slamming the door.
  63. > You close the laptop and put it away. Can't make yourself watch any of the other feeds.
  64. > Feeling sick to the stomach.
  65. > Well, what the fuck did you think was happening? Didn't you read your history books?
  66. > Slavery plus prostitution. Lovely combo. And with this kind of demand, you'd be surprised if the mares get any rest at all.
  67. > It's your turn. Hag at the counter calls you and sends you upstairs.
  68. > Fuck, you don't want to do this anymore. It's sick.
  69. > Should have thought of that, before. Maybe use the brain instead of the dick, next time?
  70. > No choice now, big dude meets you on the stairs and escorts you up.
  71. > Don't want him to know you saw anything you weren't supposed to see, so you go along.
  72. > Enter the door and hear it close behind you.
  73. > You gulp and look around in the dim light.
  74. > Filthy room. Filthy bed. Filthy ponies on the bed.
  75. > They look at you warily. You feel like you know them - you've watched all the episodes twice now.
  76. > You can't help but notice they're huddling as close to each other as they can.
  77. > The purple one speaks first, hesitantly.
  78. > "Hey, I'm Twilight Sparkle and I love meeting new friends."
  79. > The lifeless way she says it almost makes you throw up.
  80. > Those aren't the ponies you know.
  81. > Rarity also has a script to follow: "My, I hope you're a big one, mister. I could use something... big to help me relax right now."
  82. > You just stare. Those lines must have been beaten into them, probably by the big guy.
  83. > You lean back on the door and slide down. You put your face in your palms as the full reality of this abomination hits you.
  84. > You almost start crying, but the ponies beat you to it.
  85. > Twilight approaches you and carefully prods you with her muzzle.
  86. > "Please don't be mad, please please," she whispers, starting to panic.
  87. > "I know we're probably not what you were expecting, but we can still have fun."
  88. > She turns around and raises her ass up higher.
  89. > You look, but instantly wish you hadn't. It's worse than you could have imagined.
  90. > Shit, is that dried blood?
  91. > Something snaps in your brain.
  92. > This isn't right. It's a living hell and you want out.
  93. > But if you leave after five minutes, the two will probably get beaten for not being 'entertainig' enough.
  94. > You gotta stay in there for two hours. Worse, you gotta come out afterwards looking as if you had just rutted them.
  95. > No way you're gonna be able to live with yourself after seeing this.
  96. > Takes you three attempts to be able to speak.
  97. "No, stop doing that," you choke out.
  98. > Rarity becoming frantic. "But please, sir. You have to have your fun. Please. We'll do anything you want! Just tell us what you desire."
  99. > Sounds like they've heard (and done) all the fetishes. They're probably just hoping it's not something too painful.
  100. > Gives you an idea.
  101. "Okay, here's what I want. Both of you, get on the bed together."
  102. > They quickly understand and look at each other. Twilight is climbing up and you're grateful she's no longer presenting herself to you. It had made you ashamed on her behalf.
  103. > But why is Rarity turning on her back. And why is the purple one getting between her legs.
  104. > Oh god, they misunderstood you. They think you get off by watching them eat each other out.
  105. > That's sick.
  106. "Stop. Stop now! That's not what I meant!" you manage to get out just in time.
  107. > They both stare at you, puzzled. Thankfully, they move apart.
  108. > "What then, mister?" the white pony asks in a puzzled tone of voice.
  109. "Just... Just lay there, next to each other. Relax. Rest a little, okay?"
  110. > They comply, but they're still looking at you strangely. They don't speak, but you can almost hear the 'Now what?'
  111. > There's a chair next to the bed. You push it to the wall and take a seat.
  112. "Okay, that's good."
  113. > They look at each other, then back to you. "What now, sir? What do you want us to do?" Sparkle asks.
  114. "Nothing. This is perfect. I'll just..." you start and frantically try to think of some way out.
  115. > You need an excuse to not have sex with prostitute slaves. What, are you afraid of hurting their feelings?
  116. > You quickly take out your slim laptop. Well, more of an oversized phone, so it fits in your jacket.
  117. > Never leave home without it.
  118. "I- uh. I've got some urgent work to do, so you... you girls are off the hook."
  119. > You hope it sounded convincing.
  120. > You start typing, pretending you're doing some important work. Trying to ignore the quizzical expressions on the two pony faces staring at you.
  121. > Longest two hours of your life. But at least they didn't look at you the whole time.
  122. > After a while they decided you weren't going to do anything and just.. waited in silence.
  123. > Time was nearly up, so you packed up the laptop.
  124. > Congratulations, you typed two hundred pages of random garbage.
  125. > "S-sir," Twilight stammers. She seems deathly afraid. "W-w- what will you tell Dave?"
  126. > Probably the big guy. You guess where she's heading. If they didn't service you, they'd probably get a beating.
  127. > Can't have customers unpleasured, stupid.
  128. "I'll tell him you did everything I asked you to do."
  129. > It's the truth, really.
  130. > The shocked gratitude in their eyes - it was worth every penny to do this, even if it wasn't exactly your original plan.
  131. > You leave quickly, wanting to get out of this hell hole ASAP.
  132. > But not before your 'exit interview'.
  133. > Manage to lie to Dave well enough, but you can't get the image of those eyes out of your mind.
  134. > Hopelessness. Now you know what it looks like.
  135. > Conscience won't rest.
  136. "I'll buy them from you," you offer.
  137. > Dave nearly chokes on his cofee. "You'll what?"
  138. "Hundred grand for the six. Cash, if you want. I can have it here tomorrow morning."
  139. > He laughs, but your serious expression gives him pause.
  140. > "You're serious?"
  141. "Yeah, what do you say? I could use some... distraction around the house. I work a lot."
  142. > "No deal, buddy. They earn that much in a week."
  143. > You know that's true. There's some sick people in the world.
  144. > You were planning on being one of them.
  145. > The dude is making some serious bank here. You might not have enough money for this.
  146. > You improvise, remembering what you heard when he was 'motivating' Pinkie.
  147. "Okay, but sooner or later they must become useless for this sort of work. What do you do with them when they're completely broken?"
  148. > He squints at you, trying to guess just how rich you are.
  149. > "There are people who would pay good money for pony pussy, even if it doesn't talk. And there's other kinds of fun you can have. I don't judge."
  150. "How much. For all of them?"
  151. > "Six hundred K. A hundred each."
  152. > Fuck. Even with the savings, you can't do that. Maybe you can barter him down a little?
  153. > ...
  154. > Best you can do is Twilight plus Rarity for one hundred and fifty thousand.
  155. > It will drain all of your savings, but you don't care. It's only money.
  156. > You reach out your hand to shake on the deal, but Dave just laughs at you.
  157. > "You stupid or something? I said when they're used up. Those two still have a good month or so in them, if I'm any judge."
  158. > You forgot, idiot. Breaks your heart, but nothing you can do. You'll just have to take it.
  159. "Three weeks and I'll give you two hundred."
  160. > He agrees.
  161. > Well, you'll have to take a loan, but shouldn't be a problem with how well the company is doing.
  162. > Three weeks of sleepless nights.
  163. > You try not to imagine what the ponies are going through, but you can't control your dreams.
  164. > How the fuck is any of this even legal? Oh right, it's not. It's just that nobody cares what happens in the shadows. And ponies aren't covered under the Geneva Convention.
  165. > ...
  166. > Finally the day comes. You drive down to the place again.
  167. > Surprisingly small briefcase with cash.
  168. > Dave counts it very carefully. Once he's satisfied, two goons bring out your new property.
  169. > All three of them laugh and make some rude jokes that you try to immediately forget.
  170. > They probably think you're a sick fuck and want to rape the mares to death, like their usual buyers. You try not to care what they think.
  171. > Two ponies, gagged and bound are deposited on the back seat.
  172. > They look horrible. Even worse than you remember.
  173. > But what will haunt you for the rest of your life are the empty eyes.
  174. > If they recognize you, they don't show it. But why would they remember you?
  175. > You were just a strange weirdo, probably one of the twenty or so men they saw that day.
  176. > You swear to yourself that you'll change that impression.
  177. > You ignore the smirking and laughing and drive away.
  178. > Luckily it's night time, so no people in the garage. With luck, you won't meet anyone on the lift as you're bringing the mares up.
  179. > You open the car door and begin untying the purple one. You didn't want to stop on the drive and besides, it was only twenty minutes in the night traffic.
  180. > You pull the gag out, but the pony doesn't speak. Doesn't even move. Flank moves up and down as she breathes, so you guess she's alive.
  181. "Come, girl. Let's get you up, okay?"
  182. > No response. You try again.
  183. "It's going to be alright. Just come with me, please?"
  184. > Still nothing. You guess you'll have to carry her.
  185. > *Way* heavier than you guessed - as you try and lift her, she slips and falls out of the car.
  186. > Then she bolts. You get a kick in the stomach and all you can see is a purple blur.
  187. > For about ten feet, then the leash snaps taut. Goons were smart enough to tie them to the seatbelts.
  188. > You swear the car moved nearly ten inches.
  189. > Pony is yanked around and crashes to the ground. Doesn't try to get up anymore.
  190. > It takes you a minute to get your breath back. The kick hurts, damnit! But you hurry over as soon as you can, hoping she didn't break her fool neck.
  191. > Seems okay, chest heaving, but catatonic again. Staring off into the distance.
  192. > You're wary of trying to pick her up again, but what is the choice here?
  193. > This time you put your back into it.
  194. > Spine nearly breaks, but you manage to lift the pony.
  195. > You try to put her on her feet, but she just collapses.
  196. > At this rate, you might as well be beating her.
  197. > You untie the leash, making sure to have a firm grasp on it.
  198. > Not sure you could hold her if she bolted again, but you have to try. The garage is open to the street.
  199. > Pony running around alone would get shot by the police within an hour.
  200. > Nothing to it. You lock the car, planning to fetch the other one later. Then you pick up Twilight again and, amidst much protest from your muscles, carry her to the lift.
  201. > No place to tie her, so you have no choice but to take her all the way up.
  202. > Sweating and breathing hard by the time you finally depost her on your sofa.
  203. > Horse is still completely out of it. You're hopeful she won't go wild and trash your place while you're fetching the other one.
  204. > Whole thing took almost an hour, but you finally have both of them up.
  205. > As a precaution, you didn't even untie Rarity. She seemed in much the same state anyway.
  206. > You ungag her now and confirm your diagnosis.
  207. > Okay, that's done. You try to think of a plan.
  208. > The first thing is obvious: You need to clean them up.
  209. > They stink. You see traces of recent beatings. Some wounds are after being handled. You're sorry, but there wasn't much choice.
  210. > Can't do much if any wounds already got infected, but you have to try and prevent further problems.
  211. > You have no real medical training, but you remember the first aid courses in high school.
  212. > This would be whole lot easier if the ponies cooperated, but no such luck.
  213. > Even after an hour, waiting and talking to them, you get no response.
  214. > Heartbreaking. You hope their minds aren't permanently broken.
  215. > You go into your big bathroom and open the tap on the bathtub. It takes a few minutes to fill and you keep checking the water.
  216. > You make it warm, hoping the ponies have a similar temperature preference.
  217. > Get some shampoo ready. It's basically hair, right?
  218. > Despite the protest of your muscles, you pick one of them up. Rarity first - she was closer to you when you came from the bathroom.
  219. > Try to carefully lower her into the water, but your arms give out.
  220. > *SPLASH*
  221. > That wakes her up, but not in a good way. Pony panics and begins drowning. The tub is too large for her and you stupidly filled it almost to the top.
  222. > No other plan presents itself, so you quickly step into the water and try to get a hold of the thrashing creature.
  223. > Get a few kicks for your trouble, but you manage to lift her head out of the water.
  224. > It's a struggle to get her to stand, but eventually she does, trembling in your arms.
  225. > "Please, master! Don't drown me. Anything but that, please!"
  226. > It was barely a whisper, but it is some kind of response. You feel encouraged.
  227. "Shh, don't worry, dear. You're safe now, just relax. You're just taking a bath, that's all."
  228. > Can't tell if she understood, but at least she isn't moving or trying to get away from you.
  229. > When you release her, the pony stands on her own. Still shivering, though. Maybe you made the water too cold, but nothing to be done about that now.
  230. > You work as quickly as you can. Rinse, shampoo, repeat.
  231. > You're careful not to get any soap in the fresh wounds on her flanks and buttocks.
  232. > Whip, looks like, but you can't really tell.
  233. > Just water on those.
  234. > Finally, the head. You use extra shampoo. As you're lathering the long and tangled mane, you make a discovery.
  235. > Horn has been sawn off. You realize that was the simplest and fastest way to get rid of her magic.
  236. > You stop and sit on the edge of the tub, feeling sick. Takes a while to gather up your will to continue.
  237. > Mostly done. There's just one thing left and you don't know how to go about it.
  238. > The... 'ass' area.
  239. > Didn't want that can of worms, but that could be the worst problem if left unattended.
  240. > You reach for the softest towel you can find and wet it.
  241. > No time like the present.
  242. > It's hard to be both fast and thorough, so you choose the latter.
  243. "I'm sorry about this, okay?" you say, even though it probably won't help.
  244. > You do your best.
  245. > Boner, why?
  246. > She is technically female, but this is as wrong as it gets.
  247. > Can't shut off the monkey part of the brain, though, so you just ignore it.
  248. > Finally done. It takes another effort of will to lift Rarity out of the tub.
  249. > Water everywhere, but you don't care in the slightest.
  250. > You go through four towels before she's even stops dripping. Two more to get her down to 'damp'.
  251. > Best you could do, or you won't have any dry towels for the other one.
  252. > Got some antiseptic cream in the cabinet. You apply about half of the tube to Rarity's buttocks and flanks - the worst places.
  253. > Don't have any bandages, so that'll have to do for now. At least she's not bleeding anymore.
  254. > Horse is still unresponsive, so you just suck it up and carry her to the bedroom.
  255. > Didn't really plan this out, but your bed is large enough for both of them. You suppose it would help them to be together. Couch is plenty comfortable for you.
  256. > You wrap her up in the blankets and then play with the thermostat. A couple degrees warmer won't hurt. Summer's over and the nights are getting chilly.
  257. > You're glad you have that fancy-ass heating and cooling system. You can set the temperature for each room individually. And it's completely silent.
  258. > You watch for a minute, but the pony is still out. She just keeps staring straight ahead.
  259. > What the fuck have they done to them?!
  260. > Well, it's the best you can do for now. They're clean and maybe they'll get some rest.
  261. > Not being raped and beaten repeatedly should also help. You almost feel proud of yourself.
  262. > But then you remember you're only halfway done.
  263. > You're halfway done. Just need to get Twilight cleaned up and then you can let them sleep.
  264. > Muscles feel like jelly, but you've come this far.
  265. > Refilling the tub gives you a few minutes to rest, so you manage not to drop the pony on the way.
  266. > You're ready this time and you lower her carefully. Water's warmer, too. And the tub is barely half full.
  267. > It's working - no panic attack. No acknowledgment either, but at least she stands on her own.
  268. > ...
  269. > You thought you couldn't be shocked anymore.
  270. > Wrong.
  271. > Something seems off, but can't put your finger on it.
  272. > Until you put your fingers on her back.
  273. > Two stubs, right about where you imagine wings would come out.
  274. > And yes - you check - horn sawn off, too.
  275. > How come you haven't noticed it before? You try and think back. Did she have them three weeks before?
  276. > You can't remember, but either way it makes you ashamed to be human. Fucking pigs.
  277. > Stay strong now, gotta finish this. But you put your arms around her neck and try to give her a hug.
  278. > Stupid idea, judging by the way she tenses up. But hey, it's a sign of life.
  279. "I'm sorry," you whisper into the filthy mane.
  280. > The stubs where her wings were cut off don't seem sensitive. It was probably done a long time ago, you figure. A small mercy - she was like this already when you first saw them.
  281. > Nothing you could do. Helps with the ol' conscience.
  282. > A bit.
  283. > You're still careful while you wash. Take your time.
  284. > Same job. Coat. Mane. Legs.
  285. > Leave the worst for last. Washing someone else's genitals is exactly as awkward as it sounds.
  286. > Doesn't seem to be any blood, at least.
  287. > You hear sobbing and drop the cloth from surprise.
  288. > Practically jump away when you see her looking back at you.
  289. > She's no longer catatonic, but the resigned look she gives you is heartrending.
  290. > You reach out your hand to pet her face in what you hope is a soothing gesture.
  291. > Nope. She flinches away, staring at your fingers with utmost terror.
  292. > You let your hand fall down. She's clean enough, you decide. And you can't see any open wounds, luckily. All you have to do is dry her and put her to bed.
  293. "Hey, I won't hurt you, I promise."
  294. > She doesn't believe it. Too much evidence to the contrary from the humans she has met so far.
  295. > You sigh.
  296. "Look, I'm just going to dry you off and put you to bed with Rarity, okay?"
  297. > Her eyes widen and you quickly clarify:
  298. "Just to sleep! Nothing else. I want you to get some rest."
  299. > You can see the calculation going on. She expects a beating and probably worse. You can almost pinpoint the moment she detaches herself from the world.
  300. > She returns her gaze to the water around her legs. Still hasn't said anything.
  301. > Back to this. You sigh. You've been hoping for something at least, a response. You've been fumbling in the dark as far as the psychology of this goes. Some feedback would really help.
  302. > You use up your remaining towels to dry Twilight as best you can. One final effort and you have her in the bed.
  303. > Rarity hadn't moved at all. But you see she isn't staring into space anymore. Her eyes are tightly shut.
  304. > You can tell she isn't sleep by her rapid breathing. If you had to guess, you'd say it was a begining of a panic attack. You hope having her friend close will calm her down.
  305. > You manage to slip the purple horse under the blankets without dropping her. Small victories, right?
  306. > The way Twilight shuffles closer to her friend is encouraging.
  307. > You curse at yourself for not being able to get the rest of them. You have a feeling that will be a nice little hell to pay all on its own, down the road.
  308. > For now, you just dim the lights and leave. A night without abuse will probably help.
  309. > But you can't sleep, so you go to your computer. You won't be able to work, but you can try and find a way to save the other four. Dave said they'd work for at least another week.
  310. > Maybe you can come up with the money.
  311. > Even if you have to steal it out of your own company.
  312. > You'd rather take prison than the knowledge of what you let happen.
  313. > But first, you have to find the money. Not that much in liquid assets. Even if you skipped a paycheck to all the employees, it wouldn't be enough.
  314. > It's not a big establishment, despite the success.
  315. > You wake up when the sun hits your face. Can't even remember when you fell asleep.
  316. > Must have been the physical exertion.
  317. > You realize you aren't alone. Twilight standing in the doorway, watching you.
  318. > How long has she been there? When you look at her, she almost bolts.
  319. > You can see the struggle to stay still and face you, as you get up and slowly approach.
  320. > A few feet away you stop and sit down on the floor. You don't want to be looming above her for this.
  321. "Good morning."
  322. > You try to be polite. Still takes her nearly a full minute to be able to speak.
  323. > The voice is even more broken than you remember from the brothel.
  324. > "Sir, I've come to beg," she pleads. "Take me however you want, but please let Rarity rest a few more days."
  325. "No."
  326. > Full waterworks. You've never seen tears flow this fast.
  327. > "Please, sir. I beg you," she says, her voice cracking. "She can't take anymore. Just one day. Please?"
  328. > You're a monster. At least that's what it feels like. You hurry to try and explain yourself.
  329. > Man, you're bad with words...
  330. "I didn't mean that- I'm not going to rape either of you!"
  331. > You didn't think horses could pale, but there you go.
  332. > "No," she whispers and starts backing away slowly. "You're- you're one of those. Please, no!"
  333. > Fuck! You remember Dave's threat to Pinkie. He probably used it on all of them to get more 'performances'.
  334. "No, nothing like that," you say quickly. "I'm not going to hurt you in any way!"
  335. > Too late. She's no longer listening. She huddles down, trying to make herself as small as possible.
  336. > "No, no, no, no," she's murmuring to herself, oblivious to anything you say.
  337. > You wave a hand before her eyes. No reaction. She falls silent.
  338. > Back to square one. But you got a few coherent senteces out of her. You guess you could build on it.
  339. > Maybe if the expected beatings don't come, she'll start to believe you.
  340. > You go to check on Rarity. She's exactly where you've left her, but her blanket has slipped to the floor.
  341. > You can see a whole lot of ribs in the daylight. You quickly check Twilight, too. They're both emaciated.
  342. > Gotta get some food in them. Luckily, you have some fresh fruit and veggies in the fridge. You try to live healthy so you start most of your days with a smoothie.
  343. > A piece of luck.
  344. > Pineapple, banana, almond milk, mint. One of your all-time favourites.
  345. > Hopefully, the smell will wake them up enough to eat, but if you have to feed them yourselves, it will be easier because it's almost liquid.
  346. > Neither of them have moved, so it seems it's hand-feeding time.
  347. > Twilight seems a little more stable, so you start with her.
  348. > You get her back to bed. Stupid that you haven't thought of it before you left her lying on the floor for half an hour.
  349. > You wave the bowl under her nose.
  350. > Almost by reflex, she grabs it. You don't know how she can be this precise with hooves, but she's holding it perfectly.
  351. > Gulps it down with her eyes closed. The sight makes you grin like an idiot. Spoon falls out and makes a mess on the bed, but you don't care.
  352. > So cute.
  353. > "Thank you, sir," Twilight whispers, almost too low to hear.
  354. > You maintain your smile.
  355. "You're very welcome. I'll make you some more, right after your friend has some."
  356. > No answer and she watches you intently as you shuffle over to the white one.
  357. > Still in the same position. You wave the other bowl under her nose.
  358. > No result.
  359. > You take the other pillow - luckily Twilight wasn't lying on it - and carefuly lift the unmoving pony.
  360. > She's not particularly upright, but it will have to do.
  361. > You carefully try to pry her jaw open. Twilight looks alarmed, but doesn't say anything.
  362. > Rarity doesn't fight you, but doesn't cooperate either.
  363. > You keep her mouth open with one hand, hoping she doesn't bite you. Bring a spoonfull of goop up with the other.
  364. > It's a very strange and uncomfortable feeling. Like feeding a piece of wood.
  365. > The best you can do is just pour a bit in, push her mouth closed and wait.
  366. > After a short while, she swallows reflexively.
  367. > It's a miserable experience and you notice tears flowing freely down Twilight's face.
  368. > You're not sure if she's upset about her friend's state, or thinking what you're doing is some kind of horrible torture.
  369. > Doesn't try to stop you, so you make yourself believe it's the former.
  370. > Takes forever to finish the bowl. Made a mess, so you throw the pillow to the floor. You can wash it later.
  371. > You're worried about bedsores (do ponies get those?), so you start to turn Rarity on her other side.
  372. > You remember just in time and pause before touching. You look at her purple friend, who seems close to panic.
  373. "I'll just turn her around so she's a little more comfortable," you explain.
  374. > You do it quickly, then cover her with the blanket again.
  375. > Maybe you should get Rarity another bowl as well? But it felt too close to torture and made you really uncomfortable.
  376. > Could go for one yourself, though. You look at Twilight and carefully take her dish. It has been licked clean.
  377. "Want me to get you another one?"
  378. > She gives the smallest of nods, so you hurry and do it.
  379. > Again, she deftly takes it and starts slurping it up. Maybe she's afraid you'll change your mind and take it away, judging from the way she's vacuuming it in.
  380. > She's licking it clean again.
  381. "More?"
  382. > Pony looks shocked. She probably didn't get regular meals in that place, let alone seconds. And here, you're offering her a third serving.
  383. > She nods, but remembers her friend. "C-can Rarity have more, please, sir?"
  384. "Sure, no problem. But see if you can get her to eat it herself."
  385. > She's on it. Bends down to nuzzle the white face and whisper something. You hope it will work.
  386. > Out of pineapple, so you dig out some berries from the freezer. Will make it more refreshing, too.
  387. > Good thing you bought a quality blender.
  388. > ...
  389. > To your dismay, you see no change in the white pony. Still staring, motionless.
  390. > Well, you've got some practice now.
  391. > But Twilight looks panicked. "I can't wake her up, I'm sorry, sir. I'm sorry, please don't punish her, please."
  392. "Don't worry, I won't. I just thought eating on her own might be more pleasant for her."
  393. > She manages to calm down enough to start her third serving. If she notices the different taste, she doesn't show it.
  394. > Not gulping it down as fast, though. Maybe you're starting to get some trust out of the mare?
  395. > You fetch the pillow from the floor. It's already smudged, so you don't have to be as careful.
  396. > But you're even more careful. Takes almost half an hour to empty the dish.
  397. > All the while, the purple one watches you warily. It's obvious she doesn't know what to make of you, but the abuse has been going on too long. No trust, at least not this soon.
  398. > You collect the dishes. Twilight's is not as clean as the first two times. You smile to yourself. Pony must be full.
  399. "Okay, I'd like to talk to you a little. Will you come outside with me?"
  400. > She looks at her broken friend. It's obvious she doesn't want to leave her.
  401. "It won't take long. She's safe here, I promise."
  402. > Twilight doesn't really believe you, but she doesn't have much choice. She's afraid of making you angry, so she nods.
  403. > You lead her outside. Rooftop apartment with a big terrace has its advantages.
  404. > Sun is way up by now, but it's plesantly warm. Definitely starting to feel the autumn.
  405. > Pony follows you outside. There's a couple of wooden lawnchairs. You take one, but she seems to prefer standing.
  406. > Easier to run away, you guess.
  407. > She stares at you, too afraid to speak but you can tell there's something on her mind.
  408. "Go on, you can ask me anything."
  409. > "S-sir," she stammers a little. "What will you do to us?"
  410. > Such fear. You really want to scoop her up in a hug, but that would be very counterproductive.
  411. "Absolutely nothing," you say with conviction.
  412. > "N-nothing?" It doesn't seem to register in her mind. "But why did you buy us?"
  413. "Because I couldn't stand the thought of what some people were going to do to you."
  414. > You can't be sure, but maybe her mood brightened up a bit?
  415. > "Do you want us to serve you around the house, sir?"
  416. > You can see how that would be infinitely better than the alternative.
  417. > You almost shake your head, but think better of it.
  418. "I expect you to clean up after yourselves, but nothing beyond that."
  419. > You can almost hear the gears grinding. "I don't understand, sir," she says and hangs her head.
  420. > You idiot, why are you letting her call you like some kind of a slave master? Think, for once!
  421. "Okay, first thing: You don't have to call me 'sir'. Anon will do nicely. Anonymous, if you prefer that."
  422. > "They beat us if we didn't call people 'sir'," she admits.
  423. "That's not going to happen here. No beatings. That's a promise."
  424. > Sceptical horse, but she won't argue. She just nods. Then she looks back inside.
  425. > "Sir-" she catches herself and corrects quickly: "Anonymous. May I go back to Rarity? She needs me."
  426. > You nod.
  427. "Yeah, you don't need to ask permission. I'll be here, or at my computer - where you found me earlier. Come get me if you need anything, okay?"
  428. > "Yes, s- Anonymous." She's trying to remember you orders. You get a feeling she won't bother you unless it's an emergency.
  429. > Oh well, maybe you can focus enough to get through some of those emails. Technically, you were supposed to come into the office today, but you often work from home with no warning. Telepresence is a great invention, especially after you and your team improved the video codecs.
  430. > Come to think of it, licensing from that patent alone brings in some serious money. It's in your name. Maybe you could sell the rights to one of the big players?
  431. > You go to follow up on that idea, feeling a bit more cheerful.
  432. > Completely forgot to make breakfast for yourself.
  433. > Looking for money is hard. Especially when you need it fast.
  434. > You're not even aware that hours have passed. Good thing the secretary knows not to bother you when you work from home.
  435. > A faint clop on the hardwood behind brings you out of concetration-land. You turn to find Twilight.
  436. > She looks scared as fuck. Literally trembling. You almost stop breathing yourself when you see her expression.
  437. > Shit, something must be wrong with Rarity. You get up to go look, but pony blocks your way.
  438. > "S-sir," she mumbles, back to stammering and titles. "I'm so sorry. Please punish me, instead. Rarity can't take it. Please, I beg of you!"
  439. > She's prostrating herself on the floor.
  440. "Punish for what? Why? What happened?"
  441. > You step past her and enter the bedroom.
  442. > Oh, the smell!
  443. > You forgot about the other 'end' of the digestive process when you were feeding your ponies earlier.
  444. > Better not ask what they had been forced to eat in the brothel.
  445. > Purple one is right behind you, frantic. "No! I'm sorry sir, I didn't think. It's my fault, I should have remembered-"
  446. > You turn and she falls silent as you crouch down to her level.
  447. > She's not shying away and you admire her bravery in the face of punishment she expects.
  448. "Look, it was an accident," you say calmly. "Not your fault and certainly not hers. Hell, I should have thought about it, too."
  449. > She doesn't know what to make of it. "You- you're not going to punish us?"
  450. > You shake your head.
  451. "No, but I do expect you to help me wash her. It's not easy carrying you two around all the time."
  452. > She looks ready to cry and you worry you've said something stupid again.
  453. > But the way those purple eyes look at you. That's not fear or sorrow...
  454. > Twilight sighs and drops her gaze to the floor.
  455. > "A day without being beaten is the nicest thing I've experienced on this world yet," she whispers sadly to herself.
  456. > You probably weren't meant to hear it, but you did.
  457. > You wan't to hug this poor, abused creature, but you're not sure how she would take it. Patience.
  458. > Anyway you've got a job to do. You go to the bathroom and start the water. On a whim, you pour in a bit of bubble bath. You hope they like the smell.
  459. > Just as you're about to go fetch her, Twilight brings her friend through the door.
  460. > You can't imagine how she did that, but after a moment's thought you figure ponies must have experience handling other ponies - same way humans know how to pick each other up if needed.
  461. > She still needs help to get Rarity into the tub. The edge is quite high for her.
  462. > But she jumps in after her friend. You're grateful for her initiative.
  463. > There's only one place this pony needs washing and you'd much rather her friend handle it.
  464. > You pick up a reasonably clean towel from last night and hold it out to Twilight.
  465. > She takes it. You were expecting awkward and clumsy fumble with the hooves, but you learn again that she's quite dexterous.
  466. "Okay, I'll go get some fresh towels from the laundry room."
  467. > Mostly to give them privacy, but you didn't lie. You saw the wet and dirty towels from last night strewn about.
  468. > You quickly gather them up and leave.
  469. > About thirty minutes later you decide they've probably had enough time and wan't to dry off. Twilight could have called you sooner, but somehow you didn't expect she would do that.
  470. > You knock on the door, politely.
  471. > "Yes? Oh! Come in."
  472. > You're greeted by a welcome sight.
  473. > Rarity is sitting down in the water, crying into Twilight's mane. It's a definite improvement!
  474. "What happened?" you ask.
  475. > You see your own relief echoed in purple pony's eyes. "It was the bath. The bubbles and the smell. How did you know?"
  476. > There's a lot of gratitude there. It will help with gaining her trust.
  477. > You shrug.
  478. "It was pure chance," you admit, truthfully. "I just thought you two might like it."
  479. > "Thank you, s- Anon," she says. Still has to correct herself.
  480. > You carefully approach the bath and see Twilight has made good use of the towel. Reminds you about the two clean ones in your hands.
  481. "Here, I brough these."
  482. > You put them on a dry bit of floor and collect the dirty one.
  483. > The ponies are mostly ignoring you, engrossed in each other.
  484. > Well, Rarity is weeping and her friend is murmuring something soothing in her ear.
  485. > You stand up and wait until she looks at you.
  486. "Call me if you need any help, okay?" you say quietly.
  487. > Twilight just nods and you back out of the room.
  488. > Might as well get started on the mess in the bed.
  489. > One blanket and sheets are useless, but the matress seems unscathed, fortunately.
  490. > It's an easy job to change everything, but then you're stuck with a lot of soiled fabric.
  491. > Not sure what to do with it, so you stuff it all in a garbage bag. Towel, too.
  492. > You can always buy new bedstuff. After you tie it off, the smell's almost gone.
  493. > Trash men will probably hate you, but you drop the entire thing down the garbage chute.
  494. > It's evening, so you go outside. Always loved the view from up there in the night.
  495. > You're leaning against the railing when you hear hoofsteps behind you.
  496. > Twilight is alone, but she seems a lot less fearful. Still wary, though.
  497. > Having to care for her friend seems to really be helping with her own state of mind.
  498. > You wait for her to speak first. Or not, it's nice and peaceful up here, above the traffic.
  499. > She takes a few more steps closer.
  500. > "I wanted to say 'thank you'."
  501. "You're quite welcome."
  502. > "Why are you doing this?" she asks, but a second later stiffens. "S-sir?" she adds.
  503. > She probably thought you would take offense at her tone or something.
  504. "I couldn't stand leaving you in that place. What was happening. It-"
  505. > You shut up. That's just about the worst thing you could talk about.
  506. > Too late, you've reminded her. The beautiful eyes instantly fill with tears and the face crumbles.
  507. > You're about to apologise, but she speaks first. "My friends are still there..."
  508. > The knowledge is hurting her. You lower yourself to your knees so your face is closer to hers.
  509. > She's looking at the floor, though.
  510. "I know and I'm working on it. I tried to get all of you, I swear! But you two were the best I could do."
  511. > Doesn't seem to bring her much comfort.
  512. "Look..."
  513. > ...you say and carefully lift her chin with a finger. She doesn't shy away, but the way those eyes bore into yours almost physically hurts.
  514. "I'll get your friends out. That's a promise!"
  515. > You feel the tiniest of nods and take your hand away. The moment you release her, Twilight's gaze falls back to the floor.
  516. > "I need to go," she says.
  517. "Go where?"
  518. > "To... relieve myself."
  519. > Oh. OH!
  520. > You remember you haven't shown them where everything is. And it also reminds you that they haven't eaten or drunk anything since the morning.
  521. "Okay, it's the door next to the bathroom."
  522. > She nods. You guess she can handle human facilities - Dave probably didn't make any accomodations for his slaves.
  523. > Meanwhile you go and check on the food situation. Not much left - you ordered your dinners most of the time because cooking seemed like a waste of time.
  524. > Well, you can order groceries from your phone and have them delivered. But that won't be until morning.
  525. > For now, you find carrots, a head of lettuce and a couple of tomatoes. There's also a piece of cheese there.
  526. > Oh right, you remember you had stocked up to make a salad today for your guests.
  527. > Before you can forget again, you tap through the phone app, just randomly selecting any fruit and vegetable you see.
  528. > You hear a flush and then the clop of hooves on their way to the bedroom. You follow the sound.
  529. > Rarity seems to be sleeping, judging by her deep, regular breathing. Her friend was already hugging her by the time you showed up.
  530. > You don't want to wake her, so you keep your voice low.
  531. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
  532. > You can't help but notice the outlines of her ribs, visible even through her coat. Rarity is covered up, but you remember she's just as thin.
  533. > To your relief, Twilight nods at last. You were worried they'd refuse food. It sounded like something traumatised people might do.
  534. > As you're leaving to prepare their dinner, purple pony starts waking up her friend.
  535. > Luckily, salad is easy and fast. Wash stuff, cut it up a little, throw together, pour dressing.
  536. > You hope they like joghurt. Should have asked them, if only you had thought of it. Insensitive clod.
  537. > You only have two clean bowls left. You think they won't mind sharing and fill one with salad and the other with water.
  538. > You pause at the bedroom door.
  539. > Twilight is still trying to rouse her friend. She sounds worried. "Please, Rare, please wake up. You have to eat something."
  540. > The way she nuzzles Rarity's face. You're reminded how deep their friendship goes. Maybe if more humans could feel that way, it wouldn't be such a shitty world.
  541. > You enter and carefully place the dishes on the bed. Purple one glances at you, but goes right back to nudging her friend.
  542. > It's working. Rarity opens her eyes and looks around.
  543. > When they land on you they go wide with fear and she starts to drag herself away.
  544. > "Please, no more!" she breathes. "I'll do anything, just no more whip, please!"
  545. > She doesn't seem to notice her friend until Twilight speaks.
  546. > "Shh, it's okay. You're safe."
  547. > Doesn't seem to work. White mare tries hard not to start crying, but all it does is make her hiccup miserably.
  548. > You push the bowls closer and stand up.
  549. > Try to find something to say, but can't think of anything. Something reassuring?
  550. "I won't hurt you, I promise."
  551. > Sounds lame, but it's the best you can do. That and leave them alone for a while.
  552. > You pick up your laptop on the way to the terrace. You still need to find a way to extricate a few patents from the company so you can sell them on your own.
  553. > Doesn't look good - you'll have to ask the lawyers, but you're losing hope on that front.
  554. > No way you can do it fast enough.
  555. > You're so engrossed in the documentation that you almost didn't notice Twilight walking up to you.
  556. > Spot of white on her face. It makes you smile. She seems to have liked your salad.
  557. > Your expression encourages her to speak.
  558. > "Sir," she says, but doesn't correct it this time. "Can you save my friends?"
  559. > Better not lie to her.
  560. "I'm trying my best, but it doesn't look very good right now."
  561. > "Please, sir?" she seems to remember something and her gaze falls to the floor. "Master?"
  562. > She is near tears again when she looks back. "I promise I'll serve you faithfully for as long as I live. Just get my friends out of that place. I'll-" She sigs. "I'll do anything you want."
  563. > You wish you could tell her anything else, but if you get her hopes up and dash them later, it might destroy her. It would certainly lose you any trust you've gained.
  564. "I really want to, Twilight, believe me. It's just that I don't have any money left. It took almost everything I had to get you two."
  565. > Her breathing has quickened and her eyes are getting that faraway look again. "You have to! You just have to, please!" She puts her hoof on your knee without even realizing it. "You don't know what they're going through in there!"
  566. > She's thinking about it and you can see what it's doing to her. You put your hand over her leg for a bit of moral support.
  567. "I can imagine. I'm trying to help, Twilight. I really am!"
  568. > But she doesn't seem to hear you. "Pinkie! Dash!" she moans for her friends. Then her breath catches. "Fluttershy is in there! You have to get her out! Take me back in her place, JUST GET FLUTTERSHY OUT!"
  569. > You can't take much more of this. You scoop her into a hug and somehow she doesn't fight you.
  570. > Just cries in your chest.
  571. > Nothing you can do but wait out the storm. It seems hours later when she finally stops sobbing.
  572. > You stay still until her breathing becomes regular.
  573. > As carefully as you can, you lift her sleeping form. She is not any lighter, but maybe you're getting practice.
  574. > Muscles still scream, but you just ignore it and take her to the bedroom.
  575. > You can't tell if Rarity heard the screaming. She doesn't seem to be moving and she's facing away from the door.
  576. > You tug the blanket away and slip Twilight in next to her friend. Then you cover them up and quietly leave.
  577. > You're badly shaken as you return back outside. You realize you've been preventing yourself from thinking about Fluttershy.
  578. > God, what that place must be doing to her!
  579. > Desperate idea. You check Skype and find a contact you swore never to click.
  580. > Why didn't you delete it? Lucky you didn't. You call it, feeling as if you're in a trance.
  581. "Sam, I need to talk to you."
  582. > You realize he can hardly see you over the webcam in the dim light, but maybe it's better that way. You don't want anyone to see your expression right now.
  583. > "Hey, Anon. Long time, no see. What's the occasion?"
  584. "I-"
  585. > ...you start and pause. It's a big step and you should probably think it over.
  586. > But even if you brain about it for a day, you know in your heart you'll make the same choice.
  587. "I'm ready to sell."
  588. > His mouth falls open. He does a double take.
  589. > "What? Where did this come from?"
  590. > You don't really feel like explaining it to him.
  591. "Look, I just need the money."
  592. > "You in trouble or something?"
  593. "No, but I need the money. Ten million."
  594. > "Anon - this feels wrong. I think we should meet. And for god's sake, have your lawyer there this time!"
  595. "Ten milion. Take it now or leave it. I'm calling Gregory next."
  596. > It's a cheap price for your portfolio of patents and tech. But most importantly, he wants your people. You've got the best in the field.
  597. > "Okay, fine! Let's say I'll take it. I'll be there first thing tomorrow morning with a formal offer, okay?"
  598. "Sure. I'll join you remotely."
  599. > "Fine."
  600. "One more thing. You pay me a million up front. By the end of the week."
  601. > "Fuck, dude. You sure you're not in trouble with the mob or something? Been gambling with the Don?"
  602. > ...
  603. > It's done. Sam has been after your company ever since you first made it big. It is his business model: buy out all competition.
  604. > All that's left is to call your office and get them started on the paperwork.
  605. > It's only money.
  606. > Despite your insistence, selling off your livelihood takes time. Money won't be in your account until next week.
  607. > It's better than you hoped. After taxes you'll be getting nearly five million bucks. Sam really wanted your experts.
  608. > The downside is that the ponies will have to suffer that place for a while longer. And worse - Dave might sell them off as they become useless to him.
  609. > Fortunately, you can always count on greed.
  610. > You quickly call him up. It's late, but you don't care.
  611. > "The fuck do you want now?"
  612. "I want to buy the others. I'll have the money next week."
  613. > "Yeah, you and a bunch of other freaks. Call me when you have the money. No promises."
  614. "Half a million. All four of them."
  615. > That gives him pause. You can almost see his greedy expression.
  616. > "I said no promises. I'll believe you have that kind of money when you show it to me."
  617. > He hangs up, but you think he'll wait. You hope, anyway.
  618. > And you're pretty sure he won't let them die.
  619. > That leaves you with another problem.
  620. > No way in hell you can take care of six broken ponies.
  621. > For that matter, there's no way you can take care of two. Probably not even one.
  622. > You'll need help, but you can't trust anyone.
  623. > Your usual friends are mostly slackers you know from high school, who come around every once in a while for beer and video games.
  624. > There's only one way to do this, that you can think of.
  625. > You need Twilight and Rarity to help you.
  626. > You know getting past those kind of experiences takes time. But that is one thing you don't really have.
  627. > You think Twilight will be fine - helping her friends seems to do the trick.
  628. > Rarity might be a different story, judging from what you've seen so far.
  629. > You go to check on them. The light is still dimmed. You didn't want to leave them in darkness.
  630. > They are sleeping tightly huddled together. You moved quietly and they didn't wake up.
  631. > You'll let them sleep until morning, but then you have to start talking with them.
  632. > Maybe, you hope, with two partly-functional ponies you can rehab four others.
  633. > It's a mess and you probably won't be able to handle it. You're resigned to having this thing blow up in your face.
  634. > But what else is there to do?
  635. > You can't even remember walking outside again. You drop down into the lawn chair and try to think.
  636. > It's been almost a year since the worlds have touched.
  637. > You don't know why or how, but that's fine. Even the physics eggheads don't have a clue. They're still trying to reconcile magic with Quantum Mechanics.
  638. > Actual, fucking magic!
  639. > World wasn't ready for another sapient race. The smart, greedy types quickly saw the potential in the lack of legislature.
  640. > Before the general public could react, ponies were being captured and enslaved.
  641. > Maybe in a few years, they will have rights. But right now, the law treats them like house pets.
  642. > And people like Dave treat them worse than livestock.
  643. > Nope, you're not getting any official help with this any time soon.
  644. > You find your brain going in circles. You wish you had a programming problem to solve - you're good at those.
  645. > With a sigh, you get up and move yourself inside. It was getting chilly anyway. You drop your laptop into its dock to charge and switch to the desktop.
  646. > Maybe the Internet has something useful? You start searching for anything pony-related.
  647. > ...
  648. > You wake up in your computer chair, again. You swear the thing is more comfortable at night than it is in the morning.
  649. > A glance at the screen reminds you of what you were doing. Your latest idea was to check the peer-reviewed journals for biology and medicine.
  650. > Makes sense the ponies would be a hot research topic right now.
  651. > Nothing particularly useful, but there's a lot of information to sift through.
  652. > No time for that, now.
  653. > You check the bedroom. Both your guests are awake and watching you warily. As soon as she spots you, Rarity buries her face in the other's mane.
  654. "Uh, good morning," you manage.
  655. > No reply, but after a bit Twilight shifts slightly.
  656. > You wait a little longer.
  657. > "May we use your toilet?" She adds hastily: "Sir?"
  658. > Seems they're falling back to slave mentality. You don't know how they've been conditioned, but you imagine it involved beatings.
  659. "You don't have to ask me. Everything in this place is yours. Make yourselves at home, okay?"
  660. > You almost forget.
  661. "Oh, and none of that 'sir' business. Anon will do, remember?"
  662. > "Thank you... Anonymous," Twilight says. She touches Rarity with her nose and whispers to her.
  663. "I'll get something ready for breakfast."
  664. > You think both of them will be able to eat on their own, today. You just pile up some random fruit in a bowl.
  665. > Have to wash the dish, first.
  666. > You hear the toilet flush. They seem to have things in hand. Hoof. Whatever.
  667. > You check the hallway. Both of them are still inside, talking softly.
  668. > Well, Twilight is talking.
  669. > You think it would be nice to have breakfast outside, in the sun. You drop the fruit bowl on the low table.
  670. > Then you remember about water, which means washing another dish. Bare minimum, remember? Lazy is a way of life.
  671. > It's not a feast, but it will do. You hear another flush and then the clop of hooves on hardwood.
  672. > Heading back to the bedroom. You can't have that. Enough timeouts. Time to start building up some trust.
  673. > Why does it sound too easy when you think about it that way?
  674. > You head the ponies off before they can slip into the room.
  675. > They both watch you fearfully and Rarity takes an involuntary step backwards.
  676. "Now, ladies, if you would care to join me on the terrace for some breakfast?"
  677. > You might be autistic.
  678. > But you have a feeling they'll follow, so you lead the way outside.
  679. > You've set up three lawn chairs, even though they don't seem too comfortable for equines.
  680. > Important to treat them as equals, your gut tells you that.
  681. > You guess was right and they slowly approach.
  682. > The way they look at the fruit - poor things are probably starving.
  683. > You should have gotten them to eat more, yesterday.
  684. > They stop a short distance from the table and sit on the floor. Their eyes roam from the fruit to you and back.
  685. "You can take the chairs, if you like. I don't know how comfortable they will be for you."
  686. > "This is fine, Anonymous." Twilight is the only one of them who speaks.
  687. > Still, it's good to see them both up and lucid. Guess that's some progress, at least.
  688. "And please help yourselves."
  689. > You take an orange, which makes  you aware of your fingers.
  690. "Oh, let me know if you need me to help you peel it."
  691. > Twilight carefully removes a peach with her mouth and holds it out toward Rarity.
  692. > It's gone in seconds.
  693. > You just smile and work on your own fruit."
  694. > It's all gone before you've eaten the first piece.
  695. > When Twilight notices the bowl is empty, she freezes in fear.
  696. > "I'm sorry, sir-"
  697. > You wave your hand and interrupt her.
  698. "Don't worry about it. Let me get some more."
  699. > They shrink away when you grab the bowl.
  700. > This sort of 'cooking' is easy. You just pile up random fruit and take it out again.
  701. > They don't know what to make of you. Even Rarity is staring in disbelief.
  702. > What do you say? You've always sucked at chitchat.
  703. > "So, how was your enslavement and torture?" - No.
  704. > "How were you and all your friends captured?" - No.
  705. > "Any fun stories from back, before you got into this mess, you know, when you were all together and free?" - No.
  706. > Maybe start with the most important thing?
  707. "Okay, I want you two to know that you're perfectly safe at my place. No one will beat you again or make you do anything against your will."
  708. > Twilight remembers her manners, even if she doesn't quite believe your words yet. "Thank you."
  709. "And I've found a way to get all your friends from that place. It will take a week, and I'm very sorry about that, but they will be safe."
  710. > "No they won't," Rarity mutters, looking into the distance.
  711. "What? Why?"
  712. > She transfers her gaze to you. You can see she's afraid, but there's anger there that gives her courage.
  713. > "You won't be able to save our friends, no matter how much *money* you have."
  714. > Sounds like she really believes it.
  715. "I will do everything I can. I will throw as much money as it takes at that bastard until he gives me all of them."
  716. > Twilight shakes her head sadly. "Applejack was..." the next word hurts and you can see fresh tears welling up. "... sold. Separately from us. The first day after we were captured."
  717. > You have to hope.
  718. "Maybe she's okay. We shouldn't give up. I'll find her, somehow!"
  719. > Rarity is glaring at you now. She shaking, but you think it's anger, not fear.
  720. > "You won't get Rainbow Dash either!"
  721. > This time both you and Twilight speak at the same time:
  722. "What?"
  723. > "What?"
  724. > The white pony takes a deep breath. "I saw her before... before the end. She said she won't give some fat, sadistic bastard the pleasure."
  725. > The ease with which she uses such language chills you. You hadn't expected them to come through unscathed, but these are not words you expected Rarity to speak so casually.
  726. > You're afraid of what she will say next. And so is Twilight, judging by the way she is starting to shake her head in denial.
  727. > Rarity doesn't seem to notice, or care. "She said she would rather kill herself than spend another day in that place."
  728. "I understand how she felt, but let's not lose hope. Maybe she's fine-"
  729. > Rarity rounds up on you, making you lean back in your chair, away from her rage.
  730. > "Fine? Fine?! After what you monsters did to her, I *hope* she's dead! It's better than living in that... that nightmare!"
  731. > Twilight can barely speak with a broken voice. "Rare, don't say such things, please. Hope is all we have left."
  732. > The white mare turns to her friend and stares her down. "No, we don't have hope. We never had hope, ever since you decided on this 'diplomatic mission'!"
  733. > You feel like you should say something, but you're stunned out of your ability to speak.
  734. > Twilight is moving back, her expression haunted. "No, I wanted to go alone. I didn't want to bring you into danger."
  735. > "As if we'd stay home!" Rarity goes on, advancing. "You knew we would never let you go alone. And now we're here!"
  736. > She lets her head fall. "They've got Fluttershy."
  737. > You can barely hear Twilight. "I know."
  738. > When rarity looks back up, her tears are flowing freely. "I was in the next room," she says, quietly.
  739. > "I heard what they were doing to her, Twilight. I heard how they beat her. Because she refused. They beat her and beat her. It never stopped."
  740. > She seems to collapse in on herself. "And I don't know which hurt her more. The beating or what they were trying to make her do. But I do know how much it hurt me."
  741. > "I begged them to stop. I promised them everything. I wanted to take her place."
  742. > Rarity is speaking softly now, barely above a whisper.
  743. > "I don't know when she broke. But I heard her that night."
  744. > She closed her eyes, maybe to stem the tide of tears or maybe so she wouldn't have to see Twilight's face.
  745. > For that matter, you wish you didn't see it either.
  746. > "The things she said. The way she said them," Rarity says, sounding utterly defeated. "Maybe it would have been kinder to whip her to death."
  747. > She just watches Twilight for a while, then turns to face you. She seems calm, but her face is soaked.
  748. > "Maybe, it would be better if we were all dead," she finishes. The last bit of strength seems to leave her and she folds to the floor.
  749. > Twilight also looks at you. You can almost see her heart breaking.
  750. > You can't take that look. You leave your chair and fall to your knees before the purple mare.
  751. > She doesn't resist when you take her in your arms.
  752. > She's crying violently and there's not much you can do, except let her.
  753. > Rarity has gone back to staring at nothing, but you put your hand on her head anyway. She doesn't seem to mind.
  754. > Meanwhile, Twilight is breaking down again. "It's true. This is all my fault. I thought I could come here and talk."
  755. "Shh, you couldn't have known."
  756. > She doesn't hear you. "I'm supposed to be their leader. Princess of Friendship," she wails. "It was just a lie I was telling myself!"
  757. > You don't have anything else with which to comfort her, except your presence. You gently rock her back and forth, like a child.
  758. > Luckily, she doesn't say anything else.
  759. > A long while later, all your limbs feel numb from sitting in an uncomfortable position. But you still don't move.
  760. > Finally, Twilight pushes herself away and you release your grip. She just looks at you.
  761. > You feel those big eyes almost pull you in.
  762. "Don't lose hope. We'll get your friends, somehow. It won't be easy, but we'll get past this together."
  763. > She just looks at you for a while longer. "Thank you," she mouths silently and turns her attention to Rarity.
  764. > The while mare seems to be asleep. It's better than catatonic, and you've kept your hand on her mane the entire time. Maybe it's some small measure of trust?
  765. > Maybe it was the shock and the pent up grief talking. You hope she will move past it.
  766. > Twilight seems to be thinking the same thing.
  767. > "I don't blame her," she tells you. "That place did terrible things to us all."
  768. > She remembers and looks at you pleadingly.
  769. > "My friends are still there. I don't know why you're doing this and I don't have a means to thank you, but please save them."
  770. > You're tearing up now. You just nod, momentarily speechless.
  771. > It's a big step. True, she's begging out of desperation, but she hopes you really will do it.
  772. > You must. You know deep inside that her hope must not be crushed.
  773. > Your throat hurts. You remember the water you've brought. You reach out and bring the bowl to Twilight.
  774. > She stares at it for a while, then dips her muzzle and drinks.
  775. > Almost all of it.
  776. "See if you can wake Rarity, I'll go get more."
  777. > When you bring it back, White mare is sitting up and Twilight is hugging her.
  778. > You hold the bowl for her until she empties it.
  779. "More?"
  780. > They both shake their heads.
  781. > Rarity watches you with different eyes. The anger is gone. Now she's just numb.
  782. > You hope that's better.
  783. > You're glad the ponies can perform their evening ablutions on their own. It almost feels.. normal.
  784. > Somehow you understand that routine is key for getting past the trauma.
  785. > You will still need help. Professional, if possible. But someone kind. Probably a woman.
  786. > The ponies have a hard time accepting you.
  787. > There's not much choice in that, not if you want to be absolutely certain they're okay. But 'subjecting' them to multiple men doesn't sound right.
  788. > Internet probably has your back.
  789. > You do your own evening stuff - shower, teeth, quick wash. Well, sometimes it's midnight stuff, or early morning stuff.
  790. > Programmer's schedule. Your excuse.
  791. > Then you quickly check on your guests. They are in bed. You still can't understand how they handle blankets and such, but they're covered up.
  792. > Twilight is already asleep. Rarity glances at you, but doesn't say anything.
  793. "Sleep well." Simple and it does the job.
  794. > You leave the lights on, but dim them some more. You hope that's relaxing.
  795. > Gotta remember to ask them.
  796. > And now you're back at your screens. You've got a ton of articles bookmarked, but you ignore those and look for pony-friendly websites.
  797. > There have to be some, right? PETA, if no one else, though you don't quite trust them. Too many rumors around.
  798. > There are a few big hits way up on the Google results.
  799. > "Pony Protection Society"
  800. > You like the design of their webpage.
  801. > You decide you like what you've read. These people steal or buy ponies from abusive owners and provide living facilities.
  802. > Law says nothing yet about owning the creatures, so it's similarly vague on stealing them.
  803. > They also have initiatives to introduce legislature. Pressuring government to ban pony slavery and give them rights.
  804. > It will probably go through, but not quite that soon.
  805. > Whatever, they list vets on their staff, so you fire off an email, explaining your situation and asking for advice.
  806. > Hopefully, your guests' fame will net you some assistance.
  807. > That done, you go back to reading.
  808. > There's a lot about pony physiology. You briefly wonder how they got that info.
  809. > Don't want to go too far down that line of thinking. At least the information might be useful.
  810. > You also get some news from the office. Apparently, the takeover is going well and you should have your money on schedule.
  811. > A lot of people are unhappy with the sale. Some of the best ones even resigned on the spot.
  812. > You write back with strict instructions that they are to be given their departure bonuses anyway.
  813. > You try to be a good boss, even while you stab them in the back.
  814. > But you ignore their personal emails, asking you what the fuck is wrong. You don't have the energy to go into that.
  815. > Most people don't care about the ponies other than a curiosity.
  816. > You didn't, until you saw what was happening.
  817. *Yawn*
  818. > This time, you manage to drag yourself to the couch before falling asleep.
  819. > You wake up and almost jump off the couch.
  820. > Rarity is sitting on the floor, her face not five inches from yours.
  821. > "You can make everything alright, can't you?" she pleads as soon as you open your eyes.
  822. > "You can get all my friends back. They'll be fine?"
  823. > You're not awake enough for this, but you sit up and instinctively reach out your hand.
  824. > She shies away a little, but lets you touch her face.
  825. "I'll do everything I can."
  826. > Best promise you can make.
  827. > She chooses to understand it her way - as an absolute oath that everything will be okay at the end.
  828. > Maybe not a smart idea, but the way her eyes are glistening, you don't have the heart to disabuse her of the notion.
  829. > Change the topic, quick!
  830. "Would you like some breakfast?"
  831. > She thinks about it.
  832. > "An omelette would be lovely, now that I think about it."
  833. > The change in her is.. surprising. But welcome.
  834. > "In fact, I know *the* perfect recipe for an omelette. I can do it myself-"
  835. > She remembers her horn and falls silent.
  836. > "At least, I *used* to be able to do it myself."
  837. > You pointedly don't mention how Earth ponies can work their tools without levitation magic.
  838. "Okay, how about you tell me what to do and I'll make it?"
  839. > You were afraid she would get depressed again, but that seems to have done the trick.
  840. > "Oh, yes, I suppose that could work!"
  841. "Okay, go and check in the fridge if we have everything we need. I'll just go wash quickly."
  842. > She trots off toward the kitchen. You wonder what had caused her mood shift. It doesn't seem plausible.
  843. > You go and run the water in the bathroom, then quietly sneak back.
  844. > Rarity is sitting in the middle of the kitchen, head bowed. You even hear a sniffle.
  845. > Why would she pretend?
  846. > "M-master?"
  847. > Second jump scare of the day. You didn't notice Twilight standing just inside the bedroom. She was probably wondering why you were spying on her friend.
  848. > There's no good explanation, so you don't even try.
  849. "Good morning, Twilight. We were just about to cook an omelette."
  850. > She looks like she wants to press the question, but then closes her mouth and looks down.
  851. > "That sounds good, s-" she stops. "Anonymous."
  852. > You guess the slavers had beaten that lesson quite deeply into her. But Rarity doesn't seem to be so deferent.
  853. > Damn, you need a psychiatrist!
  854. > Twilight seems embarrassed about her slip. You make sure to give her your most disarming smile.
  855. > You walk up to Rarity and crouch down. A few more days around the ponies and you could be an honorary Slav.
  856. "What's wrong? You can tell me, I won't mind."
  857. > She thinks about it.
  858. > "No, I'm fine, really. I just have to keep a positive attitude, that's all. Everything will be just fine."
  859. > Really sounds as if she's desperate to convince herself.
  860. > She takes several deep breaths.
  861. > "Okay, let's see about that omelette!"
  862. > ...
  863. > You've made.. something. Well, mostly, you made a mess, but Rarity assures you it's edible.
  864. > You manage not to burn it too badly.
  865. > Why did you even bother to furnish the kitchen? Was it just habit? All you really need is a microwave and a fridge.
  866. > Blender comes in handy at times.
  867. > You've used the induction stove for the first time. Still has that new-induction-stove smell.
  868. > Omelette is a little crunchy, but ponies don't seem to mind. You don't either, floating on a high of pride and accomplishment.
  869. > Why did you even order eggs the previous day?
  870. > After breakfast, Twilight seems to have something on her mind.
  871. > "Anonymous?" she asks, using the more formal full name.
  872. "Yes?"
  873. > "I was wondering- do you have any books about your world? History, or something that would tell me more about your people?"
  874. "Huh, I don't have anything like that. Why are you asking?"
  875. > Horse looks sheepish. It's almost her normal self. Well, 'normal' from what you've seen in cartoons. You don't know how accurate those were.
  876. > "I was hoping I could learn more about your people. I still want to complete my mission. The other..." she falls silent and glances at her back.
  877. > She's remembering what she lost.
  878. > But she forces herself to continue. "Other princesses are still relying on me."
  879. > "I want to speak with your leaders and present our plea."
  880. > She's thinking about politics and the wellbeing of her people, after what she's been through?
  881. > Seems your instinct was right - when she's worrying about others, she doesn't focus on her own pain.
  882. "Well, I don't have any books, but you can use the Internet."
  883. > Twilight looks hopeful. "I've heard about that. What is it?"
  884. > You grin. Might not know a lot about psychology, but this is your home turf!
  885. "Come, let me show you."
  886. > You lead her to your work desk. Rarity follows too, but she doesn't seem curious. Maybe she just doesn't want to be alone.
  887. > Hooves and keyboard won't mix very well, but you've got a brilliant idea.
  888. > Speech to text. What the world has, is mostly garbage. A few months ago you saw an ad for some charity - people who've lost their arms.
  889. > Gotten a few of your best interested and drastically improved the tech.
  890. > It's still not ready for release. And, technically, Sam now owns it.
  891. > But you can use it at home.
  892. > Shit works almost like in Star Trek. Just say what you want to look for and off goes Google.
  893. > It takes Twilight all of ten minutes to get the idea. She can somehow scroll with a hoof.
  894. > You watch closely, trying to figure it out. But you don't know how she does it. Precision legwork, that.
  895. > She seems to like Wikipedia, though.
  896. > "Thank you!" she says with a genuine smile. "This will do perfectly!"
  897. > You leave her to it. Don't know how therapeutic it is, but anything that takes her mind off is good, right?
  898. > Rarity looks at her friend then opts to follow you.
  899. > Outside is nice. Not too hot with a gentle breeze.
  900. > The way white pony is just sitting on the floor and staring at you is a little disconcerting.
  901. > You return the look, trying to figure out what she's thinking.
  902. > "They aren't really going to be all right, are they?"
  903. > Ho, boy. Mood swings.
  904. > "None of us are ever going to be all right. Not after this."
  905. > Starting to get that faraway look in her eyes again.
  906. > Shit. You do your most comforting smile.
  907. "Don't say that. There's always hope."
  908. > "Look at me!" she demands, tears already pouring down. "Here I am, comfortable and fed, while my friends are still suffering at *that* place!"
  909. > What do you say to that?
  910. > She seems almost to be collapsing in on herself. Now she's staring at the floor.
  911. > "Why did you choose me? Why didn't you save Fluttershy instead?"
  912. "I- I tried."
  913. > It's not nice to admit something like this, but you really wanted to bring the yellow pegasus out first.
  914. > Dave wouldn't hear any of it. She was his best earner.
  915. > You know why. He told you. They didn't have to make her act like her cartoon self. She did it naturally.
  916. > Apparently, her 'clients' enjoyed breaking her in various ways.
  917. > You hate your own kind.
  918. > "Please send me back," Rarity continues, quietly. "I'd gladly take her place. I'll act however they want me to act. I'll say those stupid, inane things."
  919. "I'm sorry, I can't. Not until I have the money. It will be fine, just stay strong."
  920. > She rounds up on you. "Strong?! I can be strong!"
  921. > There's a dangerous glint in her eye.
  922. > "I'll *SMILE* while I suck their cocks!" she says, making you flinch at the words.
  923. > "I'll *BEG* them to shove it up my ass! I'll squeal. I'll giggle. I'll moan. Just save *her*!"
  924. > You can't even reply.
  925. > "Please, I beg of you! Would you like some? Right now!"
  926. > She turns around and waves her hindquarters in the air.
  927. "No, don't do that, Rarity."
  928. > She doesn't hear as she backs up, bringing herself closer. "Go on! Anything you like. Just promise you'll take me back and trade me for someone who deserves to be saved!"
  929. "Stop it!"
  930. > With a small jump, she's in your lap. She's facing away, but you can hear her gritting her teeth.
  931. > "Well, what are you waiting for, *dear*? I'm all yours!"
  932. "ENOUGH!"
  933. > That came out rougher than you intended. The pony freezes.
  934. > She glances back at you and just bursts into tears.
  935. > She sags, but doesn't want to go away. She even leans into your chest.
  936. > Time for some hug therapy. At least you can't fuck that up.
  937. > You spot Twilight in the door, watching you with wide eyes.
  938. > Fuck, how much of that has she seen?
  939. "Twilight, wait!"
  940. > When she noticed you looking, she vanished back inside.
  941. > You can't follow, not without dropping Rarity. She seems to need you more.
  942. > You really need help with this.
  943. > You decide to call the Pony Protection Society as soon as you calm them both down.
  944. > How you ever thought you could handle six is beyond you.
  945. > But what else could you do?
  946. > You untangle yourself from the still-crying Rarity. She barely glances at you.
  947. > "I'm sorry!" she sobs. "I don't know why-"
  948. "It's okay, I understand," you say, even though you really don't.
  949. > She's bawling quite loudly now.
  950. > You enter the flat and hear Twilight sobbing in the bedroom.
  951. > Of course that is the perfect time for the doorbell.
  952. > You want to ignore it, but your visitor starts hammering on the door.
  953. > "Hey, what's going on in there?"
  954. > You don't recognize the voice - it's a woman, but probably not one of your neighbors.
  955. > That's just perfect. All you need now is noise complaints.
  956. > The racket is making both ponies cry louder.
  957. > You go and crack open the door.
  958. "What?!"
  959. > Your eyes fall on the Pony Protection Society badge.
  960. > "Anonymous? You sent us an email..."
  961. > You nod.
  962. > "Is everything okay in there? Do you need some help?"
  963. > You quickly step back and open the door wide.
  964. "Oh, god, yes!"
  965. > Maybe you shouldn't trust her so quickly, but you're at your wits' end.
  966. > "Sally, by the way," she introduces herself. You quickly shake her hand while closing the door.
  967. > "What happened?"
  968. > You spread your arms. "Hell if I know, really. Rarity started going on about how I should take her back and save one of the others, then she just... threw herself at me."
  969. > Sally nods, expertly. You dare to hope she's a vet or something.
  970. > "And the other one?" she asks and looks toward the bedroom.
  971. "Oh, Twilight walked in on the last part."
  972. > "Ouch. Okay, I think you should see to Twilight. I'll go see what I can do - may I?"
  973. > She paused for your nod before entering the apartment proper.
  974. > You check the bedroom. Purple pony is hiding behind the bed. You walk into her line of sight, but stop well out of reach.
  975. > "S-stay away!"
  976. > You just sit yourself down. At least she's not screaming anymore. And by the sound of it, Rarity is winding down, too.
  977. "Look, I know it seemed bad, but it wasn't what you think."
  978. > "I know what I saw. You were trying to-" she can't even say it.
  979. > You quickly shake your head.
  980. "I wasn't! I swear. Rarity- she wanted me to take her back and save one of the others, but I said no. I don't know why she did... that. Maybe she thought I wanted something in return?"
  981. > You sigh.
  982. "She's terrified and sad and confused. Hell, we all are!"
  983. > You see she desperately wants to believe you. But she's afraid.
  984. "I don't know how I can prove it," you admit. "But I'm really trying to help. I just don't know how."
  985. > You can't hear anything from the terrace anymore and decide it's a good sign.
  986. "That's why I asked for some help. There are people who rescue ponies from bad situations and keep them safe. They're called the 'Pony Protection Society'."
  987. > There's a tiny spark of hope in those purple eyes.
  988. > "Is that- is that the lady with Rarity?"
  989. > You guess her hearing or smell is far better than yours.
  990. "Exactly. I specifically asked for a lady, because I knew you probably wouldn't like more men around the place."
  991. > You watch each other in silence. Twilight transfers her gaze to the door and you hear Sally come in.
  992. > She's carrying Rarity and humming some sort of lullaby. She makes it look so easy. Are you really that out of shape?
  993. > Sight of her friend makes Twilight forget about you. In an instant she's on the bed, where Sally has put down her friend.
  994. > "Oh, I'm sorry I wasn't there, Rare, I'm so sorry,"
  995. > They hug and Sally tussles both their manes. Then she looks at you.
  996. > "Let's give them a minute. We need to talk."
  997. > Rarity is quiet, withdrawn, but not as badly as before. She's returning Twilight's affections, at least.
  998. > You lead the woman to the living room. You remember to offer her a drink, but she refuses.
  999. > "Okay, let's start at the beginning. How did you come to have these two in your-" she stops and looks at you for a second. "Under your care?"
  1000. > Seems like you don't look as an abuser. You suppose you should feel proud.
  1001. > You relate the story as best you can. But you don't go into all the details, especially about your company. You don't want this woman to think you're crazy.
  1002. > Besides, it will hit the news soon enough.
  1003. "And here we are, basically," you finish.
  1004. > She seems impressed. "That is very generous, Mr. Anonymous-"
  1005. "Anon," you interrupt.
  1006. > "Okay, Anon. We've been looking for these six ever since we heard rumours that they are in our world. I can't imagine why they would come, though."
  1007. > You know that - Twilight has told you.
  1008. "I think they're supposed to be the embassy to negotiate peace and try to get their people released."
  1009. > "Yeah, that does sound like them."
  1010. > Another ten seconds of uncomfortable silence as Sally sizes you up.
  1011. > "Well, they seem to trust you, but if you want, we can take them in, at one of our rehab facilities. There's a plan in place to get ponies home, but for the moment it's unworkable."
  1012. > You remember the news articles. Military has clamped down on all portals and declared them active war zones. No one is permitted in or out.
  1013. > The good news is that Dave won't get new victims quite as easily.
  1014. > The thought of giving the two ponies away makes you uncomfortable.
  1015. "If you don't mind, I'd prefer if they stay here. I think another change of environment would be too much of a shock, just now."
  1016. > You almost miss the slight frown.
  1017. "But," you add, quickly, "I really could use help. Anyone who's willing to give me a hand, especially once I get the others. Preferably someone with experience."
  1018. > "Of course, that can be arranged."
  1019. "I'll pay. The best vets you have. Psychiatrists, if you have any. I don't care about the money. I'm just worried my fumbling in the dark will do more damage than good."
  1020. > Sally looks at you strangely. "How do you intend to get the other four?"
  1021. "Money," you say with a shrug. "I'll just throw money at the bastard who has them until I get all three."
  1022. > "Three?" The sudden fear in her eyes makes you trust this woman. She obviously cares for the creatures.
  1023. "Yeah, Applejack wasn't with the lot. She was sold earlier. I intend to track her down, but right now I have to focus on the ones in immediate danger. I'll have the money soon."
  1024. > It's Sally's turn to distrust you.
  1025. > "Why are you doing this - all this money and effort?" She doesn't say it, but the question hangs in the air. Are you buying yourself a harem?
  1026. > You shrug.
  1027. "Because, what was done to them is wrong. It's horrible and if I didn't do anything I couldn't live with myself anymore.
  1028. > Finally, you earn a small smile.
  1029. > "Well, I had veterinary training. The ponies are quite close to the equines of Earth, so the skills are mostly transferable."
  1030. > "At first glance, these two seem okay. A little malnourished, but that's to be expected."
  1031. > You just nod. It's a relief to have someone here who knows what they are doing.
  1032. > "I would still like to take a look at them. I have the basic kit in my car."
  1033. > It sounded as if she was asking your permission.
  1034. "Oh, okay. But I need to talk to them about that, first."
  1035. > Another nod of approval. You realize the woman was testing you. She excuses herself and goes to fetch her bag.
  1036. > You take the chance to check up on the ponies. They haven't moved.
  1037. > Slowly, you approach and sit on the bed, close to them. They watch you, but don't try to move away.
  1038. > Twilight seems worried. "I'm sorry, sir," she says quickly. "I may have overacted. Rarity has told me what happened. I'm sorry."
  1039. > You wave your hand dismissively.
  1040. "Don't worry, I'm not mad. I understand how it looked."
  1041. > She just nods.
  1042. "Anyway, Sally is here from the Pony Society. She's a doctor and wants to take a look at you. You know, make sure you're fine."
  1043. > Just in time you catch yourself and add quickly:
  1044. "Physically, I mean."
  1045. > They look at each other, then Twilight bobs her head again.
  1046. > "If you think that's best," she says with a hint of fear.
  1047. "Don't worry, she's a good person. It's just a quick check, nothing painful or unpleasant."
  1048. > ...
  1049. > Sally makes her goodbyes and promises to return the next day with more help, so your two guests can begin to get used to the Pony Society members.
  1050. > Looks like you'll be having a lot of people at your place in the future. But you're adamant that you don't want ponies to go elsewhere.
  1051. > You feel personally responsible for them.
  1052. > But you can already see how much the vet has helped. She obviously has experience with traumatized Equestrians.
  1053. > Twilight is back on your computer, exploring the wonders of the Internet.
  1054. > Of course, you made sure a family-friendly filter is in place.
  1055. > Rarity is outside, looking at the skyline. She's quiet, but present.
  1056. > You opt for your lawn chair and the laptop. There are still things you need to do, to finalize before you can get the money.
  1057. > It's almost... peaceful.
  1058. > Finally, the date is confirmed. You know exactly when you will get your payout.
  1059. > Excited, you quickly call Dave.
  1060. > "What the fuck is with you and these hours?" he seems upset, not that you care.
  1061. "I've got the money. Wednesday. I want the others." That's only two days away.
  1062. > "Well, I got bad news for ya. Got rid of the yellow one, fat neckbeard gave me his life savings. Idiot even mortgaged his house!"
  1063. > He laughs nastily, while your stomach sinks.
  1064. "Give me his contact details!"
  1065. > Turns out that Dave doesn't give out his customer's information for less than ten grand.
  1066. > You hope you're not too late.
  1067. > You're about to hang up and call the buyer, but Dave has more bad news. He seems to enjoy doing this.
  1068. > "Oh, and by the way, the blue one tried to kill herself."
  1069. > Shit, shit shit shit!
  1070. > You remember that Rarity is right there with you.
  1071. > You remember that she can hear way better than you.
  1072. > She is staring, unmoving. You imagine you see her trembling.
  1073. > "Vet says she'll make it, but she's crippled from the neck down."
  1074. > Oh, god.
  1075. > "She's not much fun anymore, so you can have her. Ten grand off, because I'm a nice guy."
  1076. > You've never worked so hard to keep your voice steady.
  1077. "Fine."
  1078. > You hang up and drop the phone on the floor.
  1079. "Rarity..."
  1080. > You don't know what to say. Fucking idiot - you should never have done this in front of her.
  1081. > She walks up to you, blue eyes already brimming with fresh tears.
  1082. "I'm so sorry."
  1083. > You spread your arms a little, hoping she would accept a hug, at least.
  1084. > "Rainbow Dash- she tried to kill herself," she says in a broken voice. "She told me and I said nothing. I- I wished her dead, so she wouldn't have to suffer that place anymore."
  1085. > Rarity takes a step backward. "It's my fault! I should have talked her out of it."
  1086. > "And- oh, sweet Celestia, Fluttershy."
  1087. > Tears are flowing unimpeded now. The look of betrayal on her face hits you home.
  1088. > "You- you said you will save them. You promised!"
  1089. "Rarity, I-"
  1090. > "YOU PROMISED!"
  1091. "I'm sorry. I'll get Fluttershy back, somehow."
  1092. > She hears the unspoken: But there's nothing we can do about Dash. She'll be crippled for life.
  1093. > "Twilight said we could trust you. She said you were a good person."
  1094. > You have nothing to say to that. You wish Sally had stayed.
  1095. > All energy seems to leave the pony. Her head hangs down and she forces herself to draw breath.
  1096. > "This world is shit," she says, defeated. "This is hell and everyone here is a monster."
  1097. > "There never was any hope, from the moment we stepped through that cursed portal."
  1098. "Rarity, don't talk like that. There's always hope. Maybe Dash will-"
  1099. > "-die, so she doesn't have to live like this anymore! Maybe that's what we should all do."
  1100. > You feel something is very wrong and tense up. You can feel the rush of blood as your heart beats faster.
  1101. > She focuses those large eyes on yours. You can't help but notice her mutilated horn.
  1102. > "No more, please," she begs. "I can't take any more."
  1103. > She looks at the sky, points of light barely visible in the city's glow.
  1104. > "Even your stars are dead..."
  1105. > When she looks back, that ice-cold stare sends a shock through you.
  1106. > "Tell Twilight-" she starts to say, but stops to close her eyes and take a deep breath.
  1107. > "Tell her I'm sorry."
  1108. > She suddenly bolts for the railing, a blur of white.
  1109. > You don't even feel yourself move. You'll be too late.
  1110. > Out of the corner of your eye, you see Twilight in the terrace door.
  1111. > "Noooo!" she screams with all her might.
  1112. > The desperation in her voice gives you a burst of speed.
  1113. > All you can see ahead of you is a white blur.
  1114. > She jumps impossibly high.
  1115. > You lunge.
  1116. > A finger brushes fur.
  1117. > ...
  1118. > You're almost knocked out as time rushes back into the world.
  1119. > The railing slams into your abdomen, driving all the air out of your lungs and sending pain shooting through your body.
  1120. > Your arm is nearly pulled out of its socket.
  1121. > Somehow, you keep your grip, both on the pony leg and on the metal bar of the balcony fence.
  1122. > But it feels like you're being split in half.
  1123. > It's all you can do to keep your grip as Rarity looks back.
  1124. > Her eyes are crazy and she tries to kick.
  1125. > "Let me go! I DON'T WANT THIS! LET ME GO!"
  1126. > You ignore her. Ten seconds in and you're already slipping.
  1127. > Doesn't matter. Either you both get back up or you both go over together.
  1128. > Maybe you can get her above you, cushion her fall.
  1129. > The thought vanishes as you feel a tug on your pants.
  1130. > Twilight has her teeth on your belt and is dragging you back.
  1131. > You quickly release the railing and bring your other arm down.
  1132. > You manage to grip a leg with both hands.
  1133. > You pull with all your might.
  1134. > You fall backward, catching the white mare in your arms.
  1135. > You got the ponies inside and bundled them up in a blanket on the couch.
  1136. > Doesn't look like Twilight will ever let go of her friend, so you quickly go fetch your laptop and phone.
  1137. > Then you lock the terrace door.
  1138. > You take a seat next to Rarity, who is looking at you angrily.
  1139. > "You shouldn't have pulled me back!" she snaps.
  1140. "No, *you* shouldn't have jumped."
  1141. > She turns away, pressing her face into a cushion.
  1142. > "I don't want to do this. Leave me alone!"
  1143. > The events of the past day catch up to you and you can't help but feel angry at her attitude.
  1144. > You can understand it. You don't blame her. But it's frustrating.
  1145. "Twilight, could you give us a minute?"
  1146. > The pony seems unsure, but after seeing your expression she untangles herself from the blanket.
  1147. > "I'll just- I'll go and read some more of your Internet."
  1148. > You watch her go, but Rarity doesn't seem to care.
  1149. > You take her head and force her to look at you. Gently, but firmly.
  1150. "Now, you're going to listen to me."
  1151. > She struggles briefly to free herself, but her heart isn't really in it.
  1152. > All fight seems to have gone out of her.
  1153. "Look, Rarity. I know you've been through hell and back. I get that. It sucks. I'm sorry, if that helps any."
  1154. > She's glaring now, but doesn't say anything to interrupt.
  1155. "I'm sorry you met the worst people you possibly could have. And what they did to you is inexcusable."
  1156. > Her eyes are getting wet, but she maintains the glare.
  1157. "But killing yourself will just make it worse. You're supposed to be generosity, right? Well, that's one of the most selfish things you could do."
  1158. > She doesn't like to be reminded and struggles to free herself again. But you manage to maintain your grip.
  1159. > Finally, she speaks up: "You don't get to say that! You don't get to tell me what I should do! You're a- a *human*!"
  1160. > She said it like it's a curse.
  1161. "Maybe. So go on - tell me how much you hate us and our world. Tell me you hate me and want to see me dead. I don't care, I can take it."
  1162. > She doesn't say it, but you can tell she's thinking it very loudly.
  1163. "Go on, take a stab at me. But don't do it to your friends!"
  1164. > For a second, you're afraid she might actually try to murder you.
  1165. > But then she sags in your hands and closes her eyes.
  1166. > "I hate this place," she says quietly. "And I hate the monsters who did this to us. And I hate that I can't help my friends."
  1167. > She looks up at you again. "But I don't hate you."
  1168. > "I just wanted it to be over. I didn't- I never wanted my friends to hurt. So I made myself not think about it."
  1169. > You release her, but she keeps staring up at you.
  1170. "I know, Rarity. I understand."
  1171. > "How can you? You're just a-"
  1172. "Human."
  1173. > She's immediately sorry. "I didn't mean-"
  1174. "Yes you did. But I don't blame you."
  1175. > Pony looks like she's about to cry. "This whole thing is like a nightmare, Anon."
  1176. > You feel like it's time for a hug. She doesn't resist or shy away, which you take as a good sign.
  1177. "I know. We'll figure it out. It's going to be okay."
  1178. > "But my friends..."
  1179. "We'll get them."
  1180. > You stay like that for a long while, but finally the mare is pushing you away.
  1181. > "T-thanks, Anon," she says, back on the defensive. "I would like some time alone to think, please."
  1182. "Nope. You saw where that led you."
  1183. > You keep hold of her.
  1184. > "So what? Now you'll be watching me sleep, too?"
  1185. "If I have to."
  1186. > She gives in. Is that relief you think you see in her expression? Or just resignation?
  1187. "Okay, if you don't want to talk, let's watch a movie."
  1188. > Netflix has got you covered. You choose a Disney animated something at random. It seems like a safe bet.
  1189. > You wake up sore all over. Everything hurts and you need to take a leak, badly.
  1190. > But on the plus side, pony is still here, leaning against you and snoring softly.
  1191. > Actually, Twilight is the one snoring, leaning on Rarity from the other side. You haven't even heard her join you.
  1192. > The scene seems adorable, but you can't fight your bladder anymore. Both of them wake up when you move.
  1193. > It takes you a minute to stand up fully. That railing had hit you pretty hard last night.
  1194. > You almost make it to the bathroom when the doorbell rings.
  1195. > Goddamn hippies and their impossible early hours. You glance at your watch.
  1196. > 10 A.M.
  1197. > Oh.
  1198. > It's going to be a fun day.
  1199. > ...
  1200. > Zoe. You do your best to commit the name to memory. It's the new girl who came with Sally to help out.
  1201. > She seems nice enough, if a little fiery. Definitely cares about the ponies.
  1202. > But for the moment, she's awestruck.
  1203. > "You're *the* Anon? The hacker?"
  1204. > You've never claimed that. Funny how the media like to exaggerate.
  1205. > "Dude, why don't get get that bastard thrown in jail? Hack into the police database or something?"
  1206. > It's not quite that easy. Movies tend to give people entirely wrong ideas about hacking.
  1207. > Then, memory hits you like a train and your hand comes up to meet your forehead in a resounding slap.
  1208. > Idiot! You *have* hacked into Dave's piss-poor network.
  1209. > How the fuck do you forget something like that?
  1210. > You all but run into your work room. Sally is talking to the ponies, but Zoe is right behind you.
  1211. > It takes you all of five minutes to get back on the brothel's network.
  1212. > This time, you stay away from the video feeds and look instead for computers.
  1213. > Bingo.
  1214. > Zoe is grinning like an idiot. She's quick on the uptake.
  1215. > "Is that what I think it is?"
  1216. "Yes. Everything on Dave's computer. We'll have it all in about forty minutes."
  1217. > "Can I- Can I get a copy of that?" the girl asks with a gleam in her eye.
  1218. > You feel the excitement too. There's probably a lot of damning evidence in there. The police won't be able to ignore it if someone 'accidentally' sends copies to the press.
  1219. > Law isn't clear about ponies yet, but the public outrage could help speed things along.
  1220. > Besides, you're willing to bet the bastard is doing illegal crap.
  1221. > Justice boner engage.
  1222. "Just - make sure the ponies don't suffer because of this."
  1223. > She nods, thoughtfully. You believe she really will keep it in mind.
  1224. > You're almost glad when the Pony Society says goodbye. Sally has brought in even more people, to help you prepare the place.
  1225. > You've got simple cots in the living room and your fridge is stocked with pony cuisine.
  1226. > Apparently, they're partial to oats. You could have guessed that, if you had tried.
  1227. > All the activity seems to have done wonders for your two existing guests.
  1228. > Finally, they feel like they're doing something. Even Rarity seems happier.
  1229. > You haven't seen that pony hopeful yet, but this is the closest she's ever been.
  1230. > Twilight is nerding it out on your computer again.
  1231. > instantinternetiaddiction.exe
  1232. > Tomorrow is D-Day. You're as ready as you'll ever be.
  1233. > Which means not at all. But you're sure you can deal with it, especially with the new friends you've made.
  1234. > Those are some *driven* people.
  1235. > Rarity is on the couch beside you, almost completely relaxed, which feels like good progress.
  1236. > She doesn't talk much, not unless you ask specific questions. But for now, it's enough that she's focusing on the movie.
  1237. > Lady and the Tramp. A classic.
  1238. > Distraction, remember?
  1239. > Your phone buzzes and you take a look.
  1240. > It's from Zoe: "Docs had address of bastard's shady vet. We broke in - got Dash out."
  1241. > Holy fuck, these people are crazy! But in a good way.
  1242. > The bad guys probably have guns.
  1243. > You reply to the message, saying as much.
  1244. > "Don't worry, no one was there. Got 3 poners. They're on way to hq, doc is waiting."
  1245. > A few seconds later, you get another text.
  1246. > "Idea: I'll take R and T to visit tomorrow, so you can get P settled in peace. Happy reunion in the evening?"
  1247. > It sounds like a good idea.
  1248. > Things are looking up.
  1249. > You suppress a twinge of worry that Dave might do something stupid when he learns about the 'theft'. You decide you can rely on his greed.
  1250. > You see that Rarity is watching you strangely. Oh, you're grinning at your phone.
  1251. "Good news. The Pony Society just rescued Dash and two others."
  1252. > That's the first smile you're seen on that pony. It's a beautiful sight.
  1253. > She all but falls on you in a hug. "Oh, that's wonderful. Simply wonderful, Anon."
  1254. "Zoe will take you and Twilight to see her tomorrow."
  1255. > You should stop talking. Any happier and she'll squeeze you in twain.
  1256. > So you just return the hug for a while.
  1257. "Okay, let me go now. I want to go tell Twi."
  1258. > She reluctantly releases her grip and you walk over to the computer room.
  1259. > Twilight is sleeping, curled up in the chair. You see over thirty tabs open on a variety of topics.
  1260. > Total nerd.
  1261. > It's kind of cute, though.
  1262. > She looks comfortable enough, so you decide you'll let her sleep and break the news in the morning.
  1263. > You take stock of the situation. One pony on the couch, sleepily watching a Disney movie.
  1264. > Another on your computer chair, having fallen asleep at the screen.
  1265. > Remind you of someone?
  1266. > You're about to head to the bedroom, but you remember that you shouldn't leave Rarity alone.
  1267. > She seems better, but she has had mood swings before.
  1268. > The couch it is. You carefully sit yourself next to the pony.
  1269. > "Anon?"
  1270. "Hmm?"
  1271. > "Thank you," she says, sweetly. It might be the drowsiness, but it sounded heartfelt.
  1272. > You just ruffle her mane.
  1273. > ...
  1274. > Dave sounded *pissed* on the phone. But you were right, he still wanted the money.
  1275. > You're a little surprised he told you Dash was gone. You half suspected he'd try to pull some trick and get your money anyway.
  1276. > Well, he still might do something stupid. Sally insisted you take two of the Pony Society 'operatives' along.
  1277. > You reluctantly agreed.
  1278. > Zoe has already taken the girls to see their friend and meet the other ponies they had rescued.
  1279. > Who knows, maybe there'll be some tearful reunions.
  1280. > Your phone beeps and you head down to the garage.
  1281. > ...
  1282. > You're in way over your head.
  1283. > Mike, one of the guys, has a gun. You happened to see it when he was getting in the car.
  1284. > Shit, this could turn ugly.
  1285. > You're glad you skipped breakfast as you're waiting with the car in front of the brothel.
  1286. > Feels like your stomach is twisted up in knots.
  1287. > You almost gasp when the door opens. The goons bring out the pony, followed closely by Dave.
  1288. > You can't help but stare.
  1289. > It's certainly Pinkie, but she seems changed.
  1290. > You get out of the car and take the briefcase from the back seat.
  1291. > Of course Dave counts the money carefully. You try to keep an eye on his two men and the pony.
  1292. > Luckily, your own goons (face it, that's basically what they are), stay in the car.
  1293. > "Okay, we're good here," Dave proclaims. You find yourself holding Pinkie's leash.
  1294. > She barely looks at you before returning her gaze to the ground.
  1295. > Well, she seems better than the other two were. But you don't like that expression.
  1296. > Dave noticed you looking. He almost grins.
  1297. > "Because you're such a valued customer, I went to the trouble of training this one up for you."
  1298. > Those words make you afraid. And you can see they are making Pinkie tremble, too.
  1299. > You just want to get out of there, fast. You have to pull on the leash to make the pony move, but she jumps in the car by herself.
  1300. > She keeps looking down.
  1301. > You get in and drive, hoping you'll never see that place again.
  1302. > Or that bastard.
  1303. > All you want now is to get home and send these men away. You know they're there to help, but you feel uneasy around guns.
  1304. > You don't invite them upstairs and they don't ask. Pinkie seems to follow when you tug her leash, so you don't need help.
  1305. > You can't believe how empty the place feels. You've gotten used to your guests.
  1306. > Well, there's Pinkie, but she just stands in the hallway, disinterested.
  1307. > You start to worry what Dave meant when he said he'd 'trained her'.
  1308. > First thing - get that damned collar off.
  1309. > You unhook the leash and reach around her neck to unclasp the leather loop.
  1310. > The pony tries to wriggle away, raising her hooves as if to protect the collar.
  1311. > "No, Master!" she whimpers.
  1312. "What's wrong?"
  1313. > You swear she has paled from fear. You let her go out of surprise.
  1314. > "M-Master - a slave is not allowed to go without her collar!"
  1315. "You don't have to do that, Pinkie. I'm not going to be your Master."
  1316. > She's shaking her head, growing increasingly panicked.
  1317. > "No, that's not right, Master. That's why you bought me. To serve you."
  1318. "I don't want a slave."
  1319. > You can't believe how wide her eyes are.
  1320. > "N-no," she whispers. "Please, Master, don't kill me! I can be a good pony, just give me a chance."
  1321. "What?! I'm not going to kill you."
  1322. > But she doesn't seem to hear. Tears start dripping from her face.
  1323. > "Master Dave said this would happen. I'm just not good enough."
  1324. > She turns that tear-filled gaze on you.
  1325. > "Please let me try, Master."
  1326. "That's nonsense, Pinkie. You're not a slave. You're free now."
  1327. > It seems like she can't even grasp the concept. She's whimpering openly now.
  1328. > "No, no, please no more. Don't beat me again, I'll be good!"
  1329. > She's in a world of her own and you don't know how to bring her out.
  1330. > It doesn't look good, the way she's shaking and hyperventilating.
  1331. > It's making you scared as well.
  1332. "Hey, hey, calm down, Pinkie, everything is fine!"
  1333. > Still no touch with reality. She just continues her crying.
  1334. > "No, no more. Please no more. I'll do anything!"
  1335. > Maybe, if you play along, you can calm her down? Her world was shaped by slavery for you don't know how long, and now you've taken even that last bit of familiarity away.
  1336. > She can't make sense of anything. Maybe her friends can help, but they won't be back for a while.
  1337. "Okay, that's enough. Shut up, Pinkie!"
  1338. > You try to make your voice stern, but you can't really do it - not when you don't mean it.
  1339. > She focuses on you, so maybe you're convincing enough?
  1340. "Come with me."
  1341. > She's still shaking and crying, barely able to stand, but she follows you.
  1342. > You'd wondered what good the cots in your living room will do, when the ponies can just sleep on the couch, but Sally said it would help if they had a little space to consider their own.
  1343. > You pick the one in the corner and point to it.
  1344. "That's your bed. I want you there and quiet."
  1345. > She quickly walks over to it and plops down.
  1346. > "Yes, Master," she says with a tiny voice.
  1347. > You really don't like doing this.
  1348. > It's kind of working. Pinkie has stopped shaking and now just looks miserable.
  1349. > She sniffs and wipes at her nose with her foreleg.
  1350. > You sit yourself on the cot next to hers and just look.
  1351. "This is a mess, but we'll get through it."
  1352. > You said that for yourself, really.
  1353. > "What d-do you want me to do, Master?" she asks when she doesn't understand you.
  1354. "I want you to rest a little. Are you thirsty? Hungry."
  1355. > Asking her like that seems to unsettle her.
  1356. > "I'm grateful for anything my Master gives me," she mumbles like a mantra.
  1357. > You can't go wrong with a bit of water. You go fetch a bowl. On a whim, you also grab a carrot from the fridge.
  1358. > Pinkie just looks at them when you put them down by her mattress.
  1359. "Go on. These are for you."
  1360. > "Thank you, Master," she says very carefully and dips her muzzle. She doesn't drink much and she doesn't touch the vegetable.
  1361. "Don't you want it?"
  1362. > "I-" she says, looking at it, "I haven't earned it yet, Master."
  1363. > Sigh.
  1364. "You don't have to earn it. I'm giving it to you."
  1365. > She's getting scared again. "No, no, I can't, Master. I'll be good, I promise!"
  1366. > You start to think they drugged her or something. Beatings alone can't do that, can they?
  1367. > While you wait, you can see the pony lick her lips as she's looking at the carrot.
  1368. > "M-maybe Master wants me? I'm a good pony."
  1369. > It's unsettling, the way you can't help yourself but look her over.
  1370. > You finally see the bruises. They blend in too well with her color.
  1371. > You're no judge, but it looks like she's been beaten, repeatedly. And very hard.
  1372. > Carefully, you reach out to pet her. She doesn't move away.
  1373. > "Yes, Master," she says, trying to sound seductive, you guess.
  1374. > "Please touch me, Master. I want it."
  1375. > The smile is so forced that you quickly move away.
  1376. > With horror, you realize she though you were going to do it - take her up on her offer.
  1377. "Oh, no. No, Pinkie. You don't have to do that ever again."
  1378. > She's still trying. This was probably the only way she had earned food while 'working' for Dave.
  1379. > "Please, Master. I want you to rut me! Don't you like me?"
  1380. "Don't- please don't talk like that."
  1381. > "But Master, that's my purpose. I'll be your good little mare, I promise."
  1382. "Enough!"
  1383. > She falls silent. You think she's about to cry again.
  1384. "Look, we'll talk about it in the morning. Right now, I want you to eat and drink some more, and then get some rest."
  1385. > You made your tone commanding and it seems to have done the trick.
  1386. > "Yes, Master," she says and takes the carrot with her mouth.
  1387. > You watch her chew in silence. Then you watch as she drinks. Once the bowl is empty, you just move it aside.
  1388. > She lies down on her side and watches you, motionless.
  1389. > You guess that's the best you can do, for now.
  1390. > Twilight and Rarity should be home soon. You take out your phone and fire off a quick message to Zoe.
  1391. > The reply isn't what you were expecting: "Decided to stay the night. Dash is really down, could use the company. I'll keep an eye on R, make sure she's not stupid."
  1392. > Apparently Sally had told her about the incident.
  1393. > That leaves you in a bind. You're not a hundred percent sure Pinkie might not try something similar.
  1394. > You will have to stay up and watch her.
  1395. > With a deep sigh you move yourself to the couch. It seems you'll spend another night there.
  1396. > But you know you won't be able to stay awake, not without help.
  1397. > Pinkie seems okay for the moment, so you go and start the coffee machine.
  1398. > It's a long afternoon. You try to distract yourself with your laptop for a while.
  1399. > When that fails, you watch a movie. Pixar stuff, nothing violent. Pinkie glances at it occasionally, but mostly she's keeping her eyes on you.
  1400. > You'll have to find something for her to do, or you'll both go stir-crazy from boredom.
  1401. > Maybe you have an idea.
  1402. > You go to the bathroom and start the water.
  1403. "Pinkie, come here!"
  1404. > She trots up, obediently and looks from you to the tub and back.
  1405. "I want you to wash yourself. Here's the shampoo."
  1406. > Sally has brought you some. Apparently, the ponies don't like the smell of most soaps. Too chemical, you guess.
  1407. > You also point out the towels.
  1408. "Call me if you need anything else, okay? Or if you're done."
  1409. > She climbs in. "Yes, Master. I'll be pretty and clean for Master."
  1410. > There's about three inches of warm water, you guess that's enough so you shut it off.
  1411. > You feel pleased with your idea and leave the pony to it.
  1412. > It still sucks that you have to order her around like this. You really hope she will snap out of it.
  1413. > You loathe to imagine what Twilight or Rarity would think of you if they saw that.
  1414. > While the pony is bathing, you go make dinner for both of you. You couldn't be sure, but Pinkie seemed a bit thin.
  1415. > You make your signature: toast with cheese and a side of juice.
  1416. > She'll eat it if you command her.
  1417. > You put the plates down on the coffee table and play another movie.
  1418. > Thirty minutes later, there's still no sign of the pony.
  1419. > You go and knock on the bathroom door.
  1420. "Are you okay in there? Do you need help?"
  1421. > There's a definite sound of hooves on tiles. You assume that means she's out of the tub.
  1422. > You hesitate before opening the door and then feel stupid. Ponies don't wear clothes. Why is walking into the bathroom any different than going into another room?
  1423. > You open the door.
  1424. > Pinkie is trying to lick up a puddle of vomit.
  1425. "What are you doing?"
  1426. > She's already shaking in expectation of punishment.
  1427. > "I'm so sorry, Master. I couldn't help it. I'll clean it up, I promise. Please don't punish me, I'll clean it up!"
  1428. > There's a lot of soapy water on the floor.
  1429. > You kneel down and pull her face out of the gunk.
  1430. "Tell me what happened."
  1431. > "I-I spilled some shampoo, Master. I didn't mean to, I swear!"
  1432. > You can see the bottle on the floor.
  1433. > "I knew I had to clean it up, but it made me sick. I'm so sorry, Master. I didn't mean to make your floor all dirty. I'll clean it up!"
  1434. "Don't do that, it will just make you sick again."
  1435. > "Old M-master D-dave always made me clean up with my tongue," she wails, distraught.
  1436. "Well, I'm not him!"
  1437. > You have to put on your firm voice before she starts panicking again.
  1438. "Go to the living room. There's a plate for you with food I want you to eat, and a glass of juice you'll drink. Then wait for me!"
  1439. > She hangs her head and moves immediately. "Yes, Master."
  1440. > You go and fetch a mop.
  1441. > At least the pony is somewhat cleaner than before.
  1442. > By the time you're done, Pinkie had devoured her toast and emptied her glass. She's sitting on the floor, waiting.
  1443. > You take your seat and slide your plate toward her. Mopping up vomit has left you with a reduced appetite anyway.
  1444. "Are you still hungry, Pinkie?"
  1445. > You can see how she's watching the plate. Her eyes say 'yes'.
  1446. > "N-no, Master," she lies.
  1447. "Eat it anyway!"
  1448. > You can see the conflict. She's looking at you again, trying to understand what you want from her.
  1449. > She believes it's some kind of a trap, but she can't figure it out. In the end, she takes a bite and slowly chews.
  1450. > Keeps a close watch on you, but she continues. Bite by bite, until it's all gone.
  1451. > She even licks the plate clean.
  1452. "Good, now come up here."
  1453. > You pat the couch next to you.
  1454. > Her eyes go wide again. Too bad it's fear.
  1455. > "B-b-but, I-," she stutters, "I'm not allowed. Furniture is too good for filthy whores like me."
  1456. > That last part sounded like she had been quoting. You can guess who.
  1457. > "M-master D-dave said so!"
  1458. > Yep.
  1459. "Well, I'm saying get up here and get comfortable. We're watching a movie."
  1460. > She's uneasy as fuck, but obeys. You can see she's trying hard to touch the couch with as little of her body as possible.
  1461. > It's still better than the floor.
  1462. > She almost jumps off when you drape a blanket around her. She was still damp from the bath, after all.
  1463. > The blanket probably smells like Twilight and Rarity. You're a genius, even if it was an accident.
  1464. > You can see how deeply the pony inhales the scent. And you can see how her eyes fill with tears.
  1465. > But you keep quiet and just play the next movie on the list. Looks like you're watching Frozen.
  1466. > You haven't been interested enough to see it before.
  1467. > No time like the present, right?
  1468. > ...
  1469. > You're having a confusing dream about ponies in the Matrix when something wakes you up.
  1470. > The TV is still going, but you don't immediately recognize the movie.
  1471. > Last thing you remember, Elsa was singing, but that probably doesn't mean much.
  1472. > You try to figure out what woke you up.
  1473. > It's not difficult. Pinkie is trying to undo your belt.
  1474. > She already managed to pull your shirt up a little and now you feel her hot breath on your exposed skin.
  1475. "Whoa, stop! Hey, what are you doing?"
  1476. > She quickly backs away. You raised your voice at her because you didn't like how good it felt.
  1477. > "Eep! I'm sorry, Master. I thought you wanted me," she says, beginning to tear up again.
  1478. > You can see how she came to that conclusion. There's an uncomfortable bulge from your sleep boner.
  1479. > You haven't said anything for a while, so the pony steps closer.
  1480. > "Just r-relax, Master. I'll do everything..."
  1481. > Dear god, you aren't actually thinking about it, are you?
  1482. > "I," she starts in that same, broken tone, but falls silent. She takes a breath and tries again.
  1483. > "I want to, Master. Let me repay your kindness."
  1484. > You manage to snap out of it.
  1485. "That's what they beat into you, Pinkie. It's not right, so just stop talking."
  1486. > She swallows and her words turn more urgent.
  1487. > "P-please! You're the nicest Master I've had. I don't want to go away. Let me be a good mare for you, Master. You'll like me, I promise!"
  1488. "I'm not sending you away, Pinkie. And you don't have to repay me anything. You'll be safe here with your friends until we figure something out."
  1489. > She heaves a sigh and steps away. "I don't have any friends, Master."
  1490. "Sure you do. Rarity and Twilight will be here tomorrow. Rainbow Dash is in a hospital - you can visit her later. And we'll find AJ and Fluttershy."
  1491. > The pony is shaking her head. "No, they aren't my friends anymore. M-master D-dave said they didn't want to see me."
  1492. > Time for another cry?
  1493. > "They don't want to be friends with a worthless little whore."
  1494. > Yep.
  1495. > She doesn't resist when you pick her up bodily and drop her back on the couch. She doesn't even register your hug, but you keep it going anyway.
  1496. > Best just to let her get it all out now, and her friends can set the record straight in the morning.
  1497. > She probably wouldn't believe you anyway, not in this state.
  1498. > You're getting drowsy and it's not even midnight. You consider taking a brief nap - Pinkie seems stable enough.
  1499. > You think she's sleeping, curled up on her cot with her tail wrapped tightly around her.
  1500. > She's probably cold. You quickly take a blanket over and carefully drape it over the sleeping pony.
  1501. > You sternly resist the urge to pet when she shifts slightly and mumbles something incoherent.
  1502. > Then you make sure the terrace door is locked and the kitchen and bathroom are closed. Those seem the most dangerous.
  1503. > You figure she can't do anything too bad without waking you up, so you stretch out on the couch and turn off the TV.
  1504. > ...
  1505. > You wake up in the morning. As far as you can tell, pony didn't try any more fellatio in the night.
  1506. > She is still exactly as you left her.
  1507. "Good morning, Pinkie."
  1508. > You're not the happiest person this early - a quick glance at the phone tells you it's half past eight - but you don't want to bring your guest down with your sour mood.
  1509. > Well, further down.
  1510. > She looks at you blankly for a moment. "Oh, good morning, Master."
  1511. > Pony sounds depressed, but you can see she's trying to be cheerful for her owner.
  1512. > Your bladder makes itself known and you shuffle your way to the toilet.
  1513. > There, you're empty now and thinking about filling up again.
  1514. "Pinkie, would you like some breakfast?"
  1515. > She's standing in the middle of the room, waiting patiently.
  1516. > "Yes, Master. What do you want me to make you?"
  1517. > Having her cook on human furniture would be both difficult and dangerous.
  1518. "Don't worry, I'll make us something simple."
  1519. > Looks like she's not going to argue anymore. She just hangs her head low.
  1520. > "Yes, M-master."
  1521. > God, you hope Zoe gets back with the other two soon.
  1522. > But you still want to take a stab at this. You approach and sit down on the floor in front of the distraught pony.
  1523. "I'd like to talk to you for a bit, first."
  1524. > "O-okay, Master," she says in a small voice. It obviously worries her, but she doesn't dare say no.
  1525. "Sit down, please."
  1526. > Her rump  hits the floor.
  1527. "Do you believe I'm telling you the truth?"
  1528. > She frantically looks for the trap. You wait patiently until she gives up and nods. "Yes, Master."
  1529. "Good. Everything those bad men said while beating you were lies."
  1530. > You think she's taking it rather well. Her breathing quickens a little and you think her pupils grow larger, but that's about it.
  1531. "They wanted you to be a good slave, so they hurt you until you forgot how to think for yourself. And they told you that you have no friends anymore."
  1532. > "I don't-"
  1533. "Nonsense," you interrupt. "I spoke with Rarity just yesterday - do you know what she told me?"
  1534. > Pinkie shakes her head.
  1535. "She asked me to take her back and bring you out of that place. She wanted to take your place, because she didn't want you to get beaten and used anymore."
  1536. > There it comes, the pony keeps shaking her head and taking small, fast breaths.
  1537. > You press on, anyway.
  1538. "And Twilight said she hopes you're okay and can't wait to see you again. You've got good friends, who care about you."
  1539. > She's openly sobbing now and can't even keep looking at you. She's not saying anything, either.
  1540. > You don't want to push the issue too much. Luckily, you'll have some pony help, soon, otherwise you feel this rehabilitation would take a very long time.
  1541. > Baby steps?
  1542. "Okay, enough about that. Let's go over some rules, alright?"
  1543. > It seems to help. She looks up again.
  1544. "If you're hungry or thirsty, you have to tell me. Even if you haven't earned it. If you need to use the bathroom, you just do - you don't have to ask. And if you're uncomfortable in any way, you must say something."
  1545. > She seems sceptical about the rules, but she isn't going to argue.
  1546. > "Yes, Master." She thinks for a few moments, then carefully adds: "Thank you, Master."
  1547. "And you're not to call me that. You can say 'Anon', instead."
  1548. > At this point, Pinkie seems resigned. "Yes, Anon."
  1549. > She makes 'Anon' sound exactly like 'Master', but it's an improvement anyway.
  1550. > "I'll- I have to use the bathroom. And I'm a little hungry, if it's okay. A-anon."
  1551. > Well, she's obeying, all right. It's better than trying to guess what she needs all the time.
  1552. "Very good. I'll go make us something, just wait here and make yourself comfortable."
  1553. > ...
  1554. > You remember the day you brought the other two and decide to go for a fruit smoothie. Maybe Pinkie will appreciate something tasty.
  1555. > The blender is whirring away so you almost don't hear the doorbell. You guess it's the girls, probably with Zoe or maybe Sally.
  1556. "Pinkie, could you open the door?"
  1557. > You quickly fish out more fruit. Gotta turn two smoothies into five, fast.
  1558. > You hear two excited squeaks of "Pinkie!" and then a dull thud.
  1559. > Hopefully they won't hug her to death. A few moments later, Zoe is in the kitchen.
  1560. > "Stop that and come look," she says with a wide grin.
  1561. > You obey. It's almost done, anyway, just needs pouring into glasses.
  1562. > Looking in the hallway, you find a bundle of purple and white fur, pinning down Pinkie, who is on her back. There's some crying.
  1563. > Pink pony doesn't know what to do, she seems in shock. Her mouth is opening and closing and she's staring at the ceiling.
  1564. > Zoe turns serious. "What's wrong with her?"
  1565. > You lean closer. The other two don't need to hear this.
  1566. "Bastards beat her senseless and made her like that. Submissive as all hell and afraid to even think for herself. I've been trying to break her out of it."
  1567. > You watch for a minute as Rarity and Twilight nuzzle their unresponsive friend.
  1568. "Not much luck yet, I was hoping seeing them would help."
  1569. > The girl nods to herself. "It will, but it might take a while. I've heard about this before. Ponies beaten so much that they forgot who they were."
  1570. > You hope it's not that bad.
  1571. > Meanwhile, Twilight has planted her face right in Pinkie's line of sight. She looks worried.
  1572. > "What's wrong? Pinkie, are you okay?" she asks, voice full of concern.
  1573. > It gets a reaction. Pony focuses for a moment and carefully touches Twilight's face with a hoof.
  1574. > "I- I thought-" she can't seem to find the words. "I know you hate me. I'm sorry."
  1575. > "What?! Who told you that?" the purple mare demands. Rarity is also staring after hearing those words.
  1576. > "M-master Dave."
  1577. > Twilight snorts angrily. "Everything that bastard told you is a lie. I never stopped thinking about you.
  1578. > Pinkie is starting to shake her head again, but Twilight just slaps her gently. You're stunned, but don't interfere.
  1579. > "Who are you going to believe? The pig that did all those things to you, or your friends - the Elements of Harmony?"
  1580. > Twilight doesn't wait for an answer, she just goes in for a hug again.
  1581. > It's working. Pink mare returns the hug and buries her face in the purple fur. She seems to be sobbing.
  1582. > She pulls away for a moment and blinks up at her friends. "I don't knoooow," she wails.
  1583. > Zoe pulls on your sleeve. "Uh, let's just give them some privacy. Come, I want to show you something."
  1584. > You follow her into the work room. She pokes at the keyboard, but is stopped by your password screen.
  1585. > She just looks at you until you unlock it.
  1586. > "Look here, in Dave's files," she explains while she clicks through them. You see there are some video clips.
  1587. > She selects one, apparently at random.
  1588. > You can't help but stare. Dirty Dave had been recording his customers, it seems.
  1589. > The way Zoe glares makes you think you should know the person in the video. You just raise your eyebrow.
  1590. > "That's the fucking chief of police!"
  1591. > You fail to make a connection.
  1592. "So? It's not exactly illegal."
  1593. > She seems furious with you. "No, but it will still cause an uproar. There's all sorts of important figures here. I bet the bastard was planning on some light blackmail to round out his bottom line."
  1594. > She plunges on when you don't answer immediately.
  1595. > "Anyway, that itself is not too illegal, but blackmail is."
  1596. "You've got proof?"
  1597. > She grins, cruelly. "We have his e-mail inbox."
  1598. > You feel your own nasty smile starting as well.
  1599. > "Oh, and he also liked to sell guns and drugs. An all-round business man," Zoe adds, casually.
  1600. "Shit, why didn't you tell me that in the first place?"
  1601. > "Eh, doesn't matter, really. I made a few copies and dropped them into a few mail slots. No way the police will turn a blind eye now."
  1602. > That was really irresponsible. You say as much, but Zoe just laughs.
  1603. > She remembers something. "What about Fluttershy - you said he already sold her? Can you, I dunno, hack a bank or the phone company and find the guy?"
  1604. > You sigh.
  1605. "Not everything is solved by hacking. And no, I can't just hack into a bank, that's a federal offense."
  1606. > "Worked pretty well so far."
  1607. "Okay, I've got an idea, gimme a sec."
  1608. > You check your old projects folder. You've remembered something that might work.
  1609. "You ever heard of data mining?"
  1610. > She thinks about it for a second. "That's where they gather up all kinds of information and build a database of people?"
  1611. "Something like that. We did a job for a search engine a few years back. The usual function is collecting a ton of data and correlating it, but you can change it, like so."
  1612. > You type fast and it always amazes people. But with so many ideas, you *have* to speed along or you'd never get them out of your head.
  1613. "There, a simple change in the indexing function. Now it will look for specific words and phrases in combinations."
  1614. > She doesn't understand yet. "Phrases like...?"
  1615. > You say them out loud as you put them in.
  1616. "Fluttershy, yellow pegasus, yellow and pink, butterfly cutie mark,..."
  1617. > You briefly glance back. Zoe is almost jumping up and down with excitement.
  1618. > "That will actually find her?"
  1619. "Yes, if anyone mentions anything like that on social media or forums. I'll patch in some image recognition later to try and find her in photos. I'll do the same for AJ."
  1620. > The slap on the shoulder almost knocks you off the chair.
  1621. > "Damn! We should have gotten ourselves a hacker a long time ago. Dude, this is *amazing*."
  1622. "Don't get your hopes up too fast. It could take a while and it may turn up empty. But I'll leave it running anyway."
  1623. > You look for Zoe's phone number and punch it in.
  1624. "We'll both get a message if it finds anything."
  1625. > "Seriously, dude. You rock!"
  1626. > You smile, modestly, happy that your skills can be put to use.
  1627. "Just my job. How about you help me feed our guests? I was making fruit smoothies when you came in."
  1628. > "Delish."
  1629. "Oh, and I want to hear about Dash. When can you bring her?"
  1630. > ...
  1631. > Zoe left before lunch, so it's just you and the three ponies. And it looks like that's how it will stay for a while.
  1632. > Dash will need specialized care for now. Sally promised that they will try to find a skilled surgeon to look at her.
  1633. > You've arranged to take your three guests to visit her the next day, so you can see Dash yourself.
  1634. > For now, Twilight and Rarity are both huddled around Pinkie, talking quietly.
  1635. > You try to distract yourself with the Internet, but it's not working too well.
  1636. > On a whim, you order a couple of pizzas for lunch. Why not?
  1637. > You don't even notice the pony walking up to you.
  1638. > Not until Twilight speaks, anyway.
  1639. > "Uh, Anon - can we talk?"
  1640. "Sure, what's up?"
  1641. > "Rarity asked if she could spend more time at the Pony Society. She wants to be around Rainbow Dash and the others."
  1642. "Others?"
  1643. > She sighs, saddened by the memory. "There are a few of our... old neighbors. They're not doing too well."
  1644. > She looks back at the other two and you follow her gaze.
  1645. > Pinkie still looks depressed, but she's talking. It seems like progress.
  1646. > "I think it's good for her," Twilight goes on. "When she's helping her friends I can almost see her old self."
  1647. > She leans in and lowers her voice. "I think I saw her smiling a few times."
  1648. > That, in turn, makes Twilight smile a little. It's a welcome sight.
  1649. "Do you trust the people at the Society enough for that?"
  1650. > Now she looks uneasy. "Well, we don't really have a choice. They have Dash and everyone."
  1651. > It takes a lot of strength for the pony to say this, but you can see the determination.
  1652. > "I think we can trust them. They have good intentions. I trust Sally and Zoe."
  1653. > Yeah, now that you think about it, you do, too. You just wished they didn't need armed goons.
  1654. "Okay, I suppose that's fine. But I'd still like both of you here, most of the time. We have to figure out what to do next."
  1655. > Mare gives you a curt nod. "Thanks. I've been thinking about that, too."
  1656. > You raise your eyebrows and wait for her to explain.
  1657. > "I can't-" she starts and closes her eyes at the memory. "I can't do magic anymore, but I still remember it all."
  1658. > "There's a unicorn at the Pony Society who still has his horn."
  1659. > You are about to ask why the slavers would take that risk, but Twilight answers before you can say it.
  1660. > "They didn't think he was a threat. His magic is- it isn't strong." She says as politely as possible.
  1661. > "Maybe I can teach him," she proposes, but you can already see the doubt in her expression.
  1662. > Just how weak is this guy?
  1663. > "I mean- at least so he can send a message back home. I think he can manage that."
  1664. > Some help from the other Princesses would be welcome, but you're worried about the military.
  1665. "O-kay. I don't know anything about magic, but is it a good idea to bring more ponies here?"
  1666. > Twilight shakes her head. "I wasn't going to propose that. I'll tell them to close the portals."
  1667. > If you had a drink in your mouth, you'd spit it out now.
  1668. "What?!"
  1669. > Rarity and Pinkie look at you, but after a few seconds go back to talking quietly.
  1670. > Twilight just stares at you.
  1671. > "I don't want *anypony* else to go through- this," she says fiercely.
  1672. "But you'll all be stuck here!"
  1673. > She nods. You can see the determination. "I know. I'll try and get at least some of the others home, but even if I can't, the portals *must* close."
  1674. > You don't think there's any chance of talking her out of it.
  1675. > It brings you back to a stranger question you've had.
  1676. "By the way, how is it possible that we had a show about you and suddenly there's portals to your exact world?"
  1677. > You can swear her eyes sparkle in excitement, at least a little.
  1678. > "Well, I've been wondering about that, too. Ever since-" she stops and her ears droop.
  1679. > "Ever since a customer told me about it."
  1680. > She's looking down. The shame of those memories is like a physical force.
  1681. > You can't help it - you reach out and brush her cheek.
  1682. > It seems to help. Twilight takes a deep breath and looks back at you.
  1683. > You keep your hand there, slowly stroking her cheek with your thumb.
  1684. > She doesn't seem to mind. Quite the opposite - the pony is leaning into your touch.
  1685. > "I've thought about it a lot. Mostly to try and take my mind off-"
  1686. > There she goes again. But this time she rallies quickly.
  1687. > "Off what was happening. I think it's got something to do with dreams."
  1688. > She sighs again. "I wish I could talk to Luna - she's the expert. My theory is that sometimes, when we dream, we actually see other worlds."
  1689. > Well, it's as good a guess as any.
  1690. > "I've read some of your science," she says and her eyes lose their focus as she's remembering.
  1691. > "The 'Many Worlds Interpretation', I think it's called."
  1692. > You remember it vaguely from college.
  1693. "Wasn't that disproved?"
  1694. > "Well - yeah. But maybe they were wrong about that? Or something similar is happening?"
  1695. > You think this sort of discussion is really helping her. Twilight seems engaged, even excited to debate the metaphysical. All traces of her bad memories seem to be gone for the moment.
  1696. > Reminds you strongly of the pony in the show.
  1697. > "Anyway, physics aside, I don't really have a better explanation. One human saw our world in a dream and then made a show based on it. And then so many people watched it and imagined it..."
  1698. > "I think that somehow drew our worlds closer. All it took then was one gifted, dissatisfied unicorn who wanted to escape. The walls were so thin that she inadvertently made a portal."
  1699. > It takes you a bit to process all that. It sounds crazy, but hey - who are you to judge?
  1700. > Seems like Twilight is about done talking.
  1701. "So anyway, you teach this unicorn at the Pony Society how to send a message. Then what? Can the others open up more portals closer to you? Because I don't think we can get to the existing ones, not with the military there and all."
  1702. > The pony sits down on the floor. You scooch over and pat the couch.
  1703. > She jumps up. Might as well be comfortable.
  1704. > "Maybe. I don't know how much control they have. It's possible there are places where the walls are thinner. But I'm definitely telling them to close all the portals first. Even if there's a chance they won't be able to open any new ones."
  1705. > Her experiences fuel her conviction.
  1706. "You'll be trapping all of you on this side."
  1707. > She's not happy about that, but still determined. "I'll have to live with that."
  1708. > You nod. In her position, you'd probably make the same call.
  1709. "Okay, how can I help?"
  1710. > "Pen and some paper, please. I couldn't find any. I need to write some spells down for Gray Lotus."
  1711. > You guess that's the unicorn.
  1712. "Okay, I'll order some supplies. These days they deliver everything. I'll show you."
  1713. > ...
  1714. > You leave Twilight browsing through Amazon for anything else she might need.
  1715. > Meanwhile, you go and check on the others.
  1716. > Rarity was saying something to her friend, but falls silent when she spots you.
  1717. > Pinkie is the first one to speak up.
  1718. > "Anon?"
  1719. > Her worried tone tells you she has some ways to go before she can talk to you like Twilight just did.
  1720. "I've ordered us a pizza. It should be here any minute. You like pizza, right?"
  1721. > She gives you a hesitant nod. "Thank you, M-master."
  1722. > Rarity looks at her in surprise and then back at you. That's disapproval, no doubt.
  1723. > You quickly raise your hands up.
  1724. "Hey, none of that Master stuff, I already told you. Not a slave anymore, okay?"
  1725. > Pinkie looks like she's about to cry and Rarity's glare is liable to create some storm clouds above you.
  1726. > Well, if she's angry, at least she's not depressed. Maybe that's better.
  1727. > You still change the topic, quickly.
  1728. "Would you like something to drink?"
  1729. > That should be safe enough.
  1730. > After a moment, Pinkie nods. You go check the fridge and spot a can of Coca-Cola in the back.
  1731. > You grab it on a whim and take it to the living room.
  1732. > Pinkie is watching with genuine curiosity - you guess the vivid red caught her attention. You crack it open and hold it out.
  1733. > You still can't get your head around the way these ponies can hold stuff so precisely.
  1734. > She takes a sip and you see her eyes widen.
  1735. > "It- it's good!" she exclaims, surprised. "Wow! What is it?"
  1736. > She remembers the manners they have force-taught her and adds belatedly: "Anon?"
  1737. > At least she didn't say 'Master'.
  1738. "It's Coke. It's quite popular here. I'll buy some more."
  1739. > Rarity almost gags. "Coke?! That sounds absolutely horrid!"
  1740. > It takes you a second to piece it together. You almost slap your forehead.
  1741. > Can't help laughing.
  1742. "Not coke as in coal, Rarity. It's short for 'Coca-Cola'."
  1743. > She's sceptical, but you swear you saw a small smile on Pinkie. She holds it out. "Wanna try?"
  1744. > Rarity is tempted, but shakes her head. "I'd.. rather not. I'll take your word for it."
  1745. > There goes the doorbell. You grab your wallet from the coffee table and fish out the credit card.
  1746. > You barely suppress a laugh when the delivery boy nearly shits himself. Twilight had poked her head out of the room to see what was going on.
  1747. > Poor guy just stares, until you just take the pizzas out of his hands.
  1748. > You also have to take your credit card back. Good thing you paid first, it doesn't look like he remembers how to work the card terminal.
  1749. > "Is.. is that-" he tries to say, pointing.
  1750. "Sure is. Thanks!"
  1751. > You close the door on him with a grin.
  1752. > It's good to be a little bit evil every now and then.
  1753. > Twilight closes her eyes and swivels her ears toward the door. You guess she's listening for the guy to leave.
  1754. > You just wait. A long while later she relaxes and bursts out laughing.
  1755. > "The look on his face!" she chokes out.
  1756. > Seeing her giggling like that warms your heart.
  1757. > You're sure the delivery boy won't mind. You've given him a fifty-percent tip. But you don't think he will notice until he gets back to the pizza place.
  1758. > Suddenly Twilight is all serious again. She raises her nose up and inhales.
  1759. > "Is that what I think it is?"
  1760. > You just nod.
  1761. > "I haven't had pizza in... forever. Thanks, Anon!"
  1762. "Hey, don't mention it. Come!"
  1763. > You take it to the coffee table, purple pony right on your heals.
  1764. > The other two seem a bit reluctant, but having heard Twilight laughing like that has definitely improved their mood.
  1765. > Mental note: pizza party seems to be a good cure for depression.
  1766. > And it gets better. Twilight swallows a mouthful and seems to remember something.
  1767. > "Oh, Anon, there was a thing in the news today on Internet. I just saw it - I was coming to tell you when the pizza came."
  1768. > You stop chewing and look at her.
  1769. > "The police - 'raided, I think the word was - that place," she says. You instantly know what place she means.
  1770. > "There was this big scandal and all the newspapers published what was happening."
  1771. > The memory almost brings her down again, but she pushes past it.
  1772. > "Anyway, most of the people who worked for him are in jail and they saved a bunch of ponies. The Pony Society will take them in, for now."
  1773. > Rarity speaks up, interrupting her friend. "We *have* to go see them! I'm sure a friendly face will make everypony feel better."
  1774. "Of course," you say with a nod. "I'll call Sally right away."
  1775. > Twilight isn't finished yet. "They didn't get him - Dave," she admits, grimacing at the name. "But there's something called an 'APB'. The reporter seems to think they'll catch him soon."
  1776. "All Points Bulletin. Means every law officer will be looking out for him."
  1777. > All three ponies brighten up.
  1778. > "Zoe told me you were the one who got all that evidence," the mare continues. "I wanted to say thanks, Anon. You've done a good thing."
  1779. > You're not entirely certain how legal it all was. You've been worried that people - and ponies - might die because of it.
  1780. > It's a relief to hear it ended up okay. But you still have to talk to Zoe and make sure she doesn't do stupid stuff like that anymore.
  1781. > You notice how wide Rarity's eyes are as she's staring at you.
  1782. > "Y-you did that?" she asks, incredulous.
  1783. > "Yes," Twilight confirms.
  1784. > You're almost knocked down by the sudden hug. All you can see is the purple mane in your face.
  1785. > Well, maybe you've earned yourself some trust, at least.
  1786. > ...
  1787. > You stand in front of a white door, trying to gather up the courage to open it.
  1788. > This wing of the building looks very new - white tiles and fresh paint everywhere. It's a contrast to the rest of the place.
  1789. > Pony Protection Society HQ.
  1790. > They converted an office building into a safe house for ponies. They even renovated a part of the floor into a makeshift hospital.
  1791. > From what you could see, it's well supplied. It seems the people are serious about what they do.
  1792. > Enough delaying. You look down at Rarity and Pinkie and push the door open.
  1793. > A day in the company of her friends has helped the earth pony immensely. That and the prospect of visiting Dash.
  1794. > Twilight had asked to stay at the apartment so she could keep researching the Internet.
  1795. > The room looks like a regular hospital room, but the beds are lower. Easier for ponies to use, you imagine.
  1796. > Your eyes land on this particular pony. Exactly as you imagined - rainbow mane, outline of wings under the covers.
  1797. > And a scowl.
  1798. > Her grimace vanishes when her two friends fall on her, one from each side.
  1799. > Pinkie is crying already and it looks like Dash might also start.
  1800. > For a short while, they just hug.
  1801. > Rainbow is the first to break the silence.
  1802. > "I'm sorry you have to see me like this."
  1803. > It just makes Pinkie weep harder. "No, Dash. *I'm* sorry I wasn't there when you needed me."
  1804. > You almost feel like you're intruding on something private. You think about leaving and giving them some time.
  1805. > But Rainbow keeps looking at you, so you stay.
  1806. > "I'm supposed to cheer up my friends..." Pinkie keeps going.
  1807. > Dash bumps her with her nose. You're painfully reminded that she can't move.
  1808. > "Don't beat yourself up, Pinkie," she says. "It's not your fault. It's his!"
  1809. > Finally, they peel themselves away, if only to look from her to you in shock.
  1810. > Dash keeps her glare on you. "Guys, could you give me a minute alone with Anon?"
  1811. > The other two look at each other, but they leave.
  1812. > Rarity takes the initiative. "Come, Pinkie, let's go see a few other friends."
  1813. > She all but drags her friend out and closes the door.
  1814. > You feel a little nervous. The pegasus on the bed can't move, but her stare feels like a slap by itself.
  1815. > "They tell me you got the others out of... out of that place," she says.
  1816. "Yes. I was trying to get you all. Fluttershy-"
  1817. > She just interrupts you. "You couldn't have come and told me that a little sooner?"
  1818. > You're starting to understand why she's angry.
  1819. > She needs a scapegoat. Someone to blame beside herself.
  1820. > It's the least you can do.
  1821. > Besides, you have thought about it yourself. You could have gone back and booked (even the word makes you feel dirty) the others. You could have told them, given them hope.
  1822. > But what would happen if you couldn't make good on your promises?
  1823. > You look at the broken pony before you.
  1824. > Would it be worse?
  1825. "I'm sorry. I really am."
  1826. > She's not quite ready to accept the apology. "Come here. Look at me!"
  1827. > You shuffle forward and take a seat at the side of the bed. It's a low chair, so you're very close.
  1828. > Close enough to clearly see her tears.
  1829. > "I did this. *I* did this to myself. Do you have *any* idea what that feels like?"
  1830. > She looks away. "It would have been better if I succeeded in killing myself."
  1831. > You can't help yourself and you reach out to grab her hoof.
  1832. "Please don't say that. There's still hope-"
  1833. > The angry glare is back. "DON'T TALK TO ME ABOUT HOPE!"
  1834. > She doesn't even seem aware that she yelled.
  1835. > "There is no hope. There never was any. I hate this world, I hate the bastards at the whorehouse and I hate *you*."
  1836. > Maybe you should be angry at those words, but all you feel is pity. And it looks like that's the worst thing you could give her just now.
  1837. > Her eyes are like red fire.
  1838. > You're surprised her tears don't come out as steam.
  1839. > "I tried to off myself. That's what you humans did to me. I tried to up and quit on my friends. ME! LOYALTY!"
  1840. > She has difficulty drawing breath, but she pushes on. "I stuck my head under a chair and I twisted, because I couldn't think of any other way to escape."
  1841. > You find yourself gripping her leg in terror, but you can't make yourself speak up and stop her.
  1842. > "I felt my spine snap. I thought that was it and I was GLAD! But then I didn't die."
  1843. "Oh, Rainbow..."
  1844. > You can't stop it. You're crying, too.
  1845. > "And then I had to lie there and wait. I knew. I knew I'd never walk again. Or fly. Or anything. I'd just be a- a *fuckpillow*!"
  1846. > Finally, she can't talk anymore. You keep hold of her hoof, but you don't think she can feel it.
  1847. > She can see it, though.
  1848. > You just wait. Eventually she cries herself out and falls silent.
  1849. > She's still angry, but maybe not at you, personally. You were just convenient.
  1850. > Dash couldn't take her anger out on the doctors or the nurses. But she could rage at you.
  1851. > You're okay with that. It feels like it helped to get all that out.
  1852. > As you shift, you become aware of your backpack. You remember the present you brought. Maybe it will ease her boredom, at least.
  1853. "Well, I brought you something, if you want it."
  1854. > She doesn't answer, so you just give it to her.
  1855. > It's a tablet computer, fitted with similar voice software you've given Twilight. You've improved on it quite a bit, becase Dash can't even use a mouse.
  1856. > She looks at it skeptically. "What am I supposed to do with that?"
  1857. > You place it in her lap. The cover serves as a makeshift stand.
  1858. "Computer, call Twilight."
  1859. > A little Star Trek, maybe, but it works. The screen comes on and it's already on Skype and ringing.
  1860. > A short while later, the picture changes. It's a live feed from the camera on your home computer with a very pleased-looking purple pony.
  1861. > "Hi, Dash!" she pipes up. The voice is a bit tinny from the small speakers, but quite clear. You bought the very best you could find.
  1862. > "T-twilight?" Dash says, incredulous. "How did you do that? I thought they took your magic."
  1863. > The pony on the screen grins proudly. "It's not magic. Anon showed me this thing. It's called 'the Internet'. You can use it from that thing - the computer."
  1864. > Always the lecturer, but it looks like Dash is distracted. You imagine there's less anger and more amazement in her face now.
  1865. > Twilight just goes on: "There's a lot of things it can do. I'll show you! I think you'll like movies."
  1866. > You leave them to it and go look for Pinkie and Rarity.
  1867. > A 'thank you' or maybe an apology would have been nice, but you didn't expect either.
  1868. > Maybe someday.
  1869. > You don't have to go far. They are right outside. From the looks on their faces, they've heard everything.
  1870. > Pinkie, especially, has a hard time believing. "Y-you won't punish her for that, M-Anon?"
  1871. > You shake your head.
  1872. "I'm not mad. I understand why she's angry. I just wish there was more I could do."
  1873. > "But- but- She said all those mean things!"
  1874. "I don't mind, really. Go in and help Twilight cheer her up, okay? I have to find a doctor to ask something."
  1875. > Pinkie is even more confused. "Twilight? I thought I heard her, but how?"
  1876. > You just grin and hold the door open.
  1877. "Go and see for yourself."
  1878. > They hurry inside and you close the door.
  1879. > You can't help Dash walk again. She won't be able to fly and see the world. But you can bring the world to her.
  1880. > It's something, at least.
  1881. > You set off in a random direction, looking for anyone in a white lab coat.
  1882. > A nurse directs you to a doctor's office. You knock, but don't wait for permission to enter. He was just reading a newspaper, so he obviously has time.
  1883. > He seems to recognise you. "Ah, Mr. Anonymous. You're becoming quite famous around here."
  1884. "Oh?"
  1885. > He nods. "It's not every day that someone sells a successful business and uses the money to help ponies."
  1886. > You try to wave it off, modestly.
  1887. "I just had the means to help. Doesn't make me a hero."
  1888. > He shrugs, unconvinced. "How can I help you?"
  1889. "I want to ask about Rainbow Dash. Is there anything you can do?"
  1890. > "Unfortunately, no. I'm still waiting on a few opinions from my colleagues around the country, but the consensus is that she won't walk again."
  1891. "What if money wasn't an object?"
  1892. > The guilt is real, even if somewhat unjustified.
  1893. > Doc spreads his arms and lets them fall back. "I've already asked that same question. Sorry, Mr. Anonymous."
  1894. > Well, you're going to get a second opinion anyway. If you can find a reputable pony surgeon on the Internet.
  1895. > ...
  1896. > You take a walk around the building to clear your mind. There are a lot of security cameras and quite a few armed guards.
  1897. > It makes a sort of sense. With people like Dave around, these rehabilitation facilities could be interesting targets.
  1898. > It feels like a prison, though, so you make your way back to the hospital.
  1899. > The door opens quietly and you can hear Twilight explaining Youtube to Dash.
  1900. > Her other two friends are on the bed, too. All of them are watching with interest.
  1901. > Rarity notices you first.
  1902. "Ready to go?"
  1903. > She looks at Pinkie and then at Rainbow, then back to you.
  1904. > "Anon," she says, carefully, "we would like to say here tonight, if that's all right."
  1905. > She is still wary, but definitely bolder around you.
  1906. > You shrug.
  1907. "I can't see why not. Do you have someplace to sleep?"
  1908. > Dash interjects. "They can sleep here, with me." It sounded a little forceful, but you don't mind.
  1909. "Okay. Have Zoe or Sally drive you back tomorrow. And if you need anything, have the tablet call my place, like I showed you. And when it says the battery is low, ask a nurse or someone to plug it in."
  1910. > You point to the backpack, which you had left by the bed.
  1911. "The charger is in there."
  1912. > You get three nods. Twilight had fallen silent when Rarity began talking to you, but now you hear her question: "You guys are staying there?"
  1913. > They'll work it out with the staff. You're not too worried - it looks like this place really is a sanctuary for ponies, if a little prison-like.
  1914. > Well, they haven't given you a reason to distrust them, yet.
  1915. > Luckily the drive isn't very far, but the car feels emptier. You've gotten used to company rather quickly, haven't you?
  1916. > ...
  1917. > You can hear very loud music when you exit the lift.
  1918. > Sounds like 'It's My Life', you forget the singer.
  1919. > You hope the neighbors won't complain too much.
  1920. > It's only afternoon, so maybe people aren't back from work yet.
  1921. > You quickly enter the apartment and close the door behind you. It's deafening.
  1922. > You walk to the work room. Serves you right for buying those $1500 speakers.
  1923. "Twilight, what the hell?!"
  1924. > You can barely hear your own voice.
  1925. > She hears you and looks back, a huge smile on her face.
  1926. > "I love this song!" she yells back.
  1927. > You quickly turn the volume down. The knob isn't that large - how did she even work it?
  1928. "You shouldn't play it that loud, though."
  1929. > In the sudden silence your voice seems louder than you meant to make it.
  1930. > Her face falls. "Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't realize..."
  1931. > Then she remembers something else. "I got us a pizza!"
  1932. > You can't wrap your mind around the thought.
  1933. "Pizza? How did you-"
  1934. > She doesn't let you finish. Her smile is back and the pony is looking proud of herself.
  1935. > "I saw the square thingy yesterday - the credit card. I searched on the Internet how to use it. And then I searched for pizza and found one place that delivers."
  1936. > She frowns up at you. "Did you know you can pay right over the Internet? I just told the delivery guy to leave it on the floor and go, so he didn't see me. You don't have to worry about that."
  1937. > Smart horse.
  1938. "Well, that's... impressive."
  1939. > She narrows her eyes. "But?"
  1940. > How do you explain Internet scams to a pony?
  1941. "You should be careful giving out credit card numbers, especially on the Internet."
  1942. > Still, pizza is nice. You grab a slice and head for the living room.
  1943. "Come, I'll try and explain."
  1944. > ...
  1945. > You end up on the couch, watching the last piece of the pizza. Twilight is also looking at it.
  1946. "Go ahead," you offer graciously.
  1947. > She shakes her head, but it's obvious she's just being polite and really wants it.
  1948. "I'll play you 'rock, paper, scissors' for it."
  1949. > "What's that?"
  1950. > The rules are simple and you explain them in about a minute.
  1951. > She seems confused. Fingers are a prerequisite for this game. She holds her hoof up and looks at it. Then back at you.
  1952. > "Anon, I don't think this is going-"
  1953. "Onetwothree, GO!"
  1954. > You hold out scissors. She blinks and stares at you in confusion.
  1955. "You've got rock," you point out.
  1956. > She hadn't moved at all.
  1957. "Well, rock beats scissors, so I guess you win."
  1958. > The pony needs a few seconds to piece it together. Then she bursts out laughing and smacks you on the shoulder.
  1959. > You shrug, pick up the last piece of pizza and hold it out to her.
  1960. "Rules are rules."
  1961. > It takes her a few seconds to get herself under control, but she takes it.
  1962. > You watch her while she chews it.
  1963. > Purple pony is cute. Why would anyone want to hurt that?
  1964. > She catches you staring and looks away. You imagine her blushing, but it's getting dark so you can't see.
  1965. > Shame, it would look adorable, you imagine.
  1966. > She tries to change the topic. "Oh, Rarity told me what happened."
  1967. > "I wanted to apologize. That's not like Rainbow, I don't understand why she would-"
  1968. > You put a finger on her lips to shut her up. She doesn't flinch away, so that's good.
  1969. "You don't need to apologize for Dash. I understand."
  1970. > Twilight pulls away and goes on: "Well, it's still not right-"
  1971. "Don't worry. What else did they tell you? Is she feeling better?"
  1972. > You let your hand fall into your lap. A moment later, the pony covers it with her hoof.
  1973. > "Anon. She asked me to thank you for the gift. I think it will help a lot."
  1974. "Good. I just wish there was more we could do."
  1975. > A wild idea appears.
  1976. "Hmm, what about magic?"
  1977. > Twilight frowns a little. "Magic? What do you mean?"
  1978. "Can't you like heal her or something? I mean - it's freaking magic."
  1979. > She heaves a sigh. "Maybe, back home. There were things we could do. But I never was very good at healing spells, even when I still had my-"
  1980. > Aw, crap. You've made her sad now. You quickly shuffle closer and bring her in for a hug.
  1981. > She sniffs and talks into your shirt. "I just feel so useless, Anon. That was the one thing I could do, and now it's gone."
  1982. > You pat her back, careful to avoid the stumps. Last thing you need is to remind her of her missing wings as well.
  1983. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought it up."
  1984. > But Twilight resolutely pushes herself away. "No, no. It's okay. I have to get used to it."
  1985. > You try her own argument.
  1986. "Maybe once you get home, you can get it back? Don't just give up."
  1987. > She nods and wipes her face with her foreleg.
  1988. > "You're right. Maybe. I just have to focus on helping Gray Lotus improve."
  1989. "Oh, how's that going? Do you need anything else?"
  1990. > This seems to cheer her up. "I can show you!"
  1991. > You're curious, so you follow her into the work room.
  1992. > There is a stack of papers on the floor in a corner. Twilight deftly picks one up with her mouth and holds it out to you.
  1993. > It looks like gibberish. Like someone printed a document in Wingdings font.
  1994. > You can't help but notice how well it's drawn. Perfectly aligned, all shapes precise and clear.
  1995. "Wow. This looks very neat. But I don't understand a single thing."
  1996. > She's handing you another. This one has larger writing and fewer symbols.
  1997. > "Here, this is an easier one."
  1998. > You imagine you see less complexity, but without some statistics you can't be sure.
  1999. > That reminds you of what you do.
  2000. "Wait, I'm getting an idea."
  2001. > She freezes and watches you in silence. Smart pony - Twilight obviously understands what it's like to have a thought which isn't quite ready.
  2002. "Okay, can you tell me how many different symbols there are?"
  2003. > She doesn't even pause to think. "Two hundred and thirty-six, not including variations and rotations."
  2004. > That's the pony you remember!
  2005. "Good. Now, what do these represent? Is it a language - sounds or letters?"
  2006. > She is trying very hard to explain. "It's different things. Some of them are sounds, but others are - like thoughts and feelings. They tell me what I need to do in my mind to make the magic work."
  2007. "And how do you make new spells?"
  2008. > "Well, it depends. Sometimes you can combine pieces of existing spells. The really gifted unicorns were able to come up with completely new ones."
  2009. "Did they have to make up new symbols?"
  2010. > Your line of questioning is not random. You feel like you're gathering information about a particularly difficult programming problem.
  2011. > If all you have is a hammer...
  2012. > "Not usually, no. The set of glyphs hasn't changed in over five hundred years."
  2013. "So there is a grammar or something? Rules on how to write down new magic. Consistent, logical rules?"
  2014. > The way her eyes sparkle makes this conversation worthwhile, even if your idea doesn't pan out.
  2015. > She nods, happily. "Yeah. Not exactly grammar, but there are rules. I guess that's as good a name for it as any."
  2016. "Okay, could you write all the glyphs down on a few pages. Even the non-unique ones - rotations, you said?"
  2017. > She looks blank. "I could, but that wouldn't make any spell I know."
  2018. > You shake your head.
  2019. "It's not for a spell. If I can get the basic alphabet into the computer, I can run your spells through OCR and then do some analysis on them."
  2020. > You step to your bookshelf and look along the top, dusty row.
  2021. > You bring out the book and show it to Twilight.
  2022. > "Algorithmic Cryptanalysis," she reads. "I'm not familiar with that."
  2023. "It's a computer thing. Looking for patterns, decoding secret messages, that sort of thing."
  2024. > "I still don't follow."
  2025. "Twilight - one of the problems, which computers solve well, is statistics and analysis. If you give me the alphabet, all the rules you can and as many sample spells as possible, I can work out a formal grammar."
  2026. > Now she's intrigued, but still can't quite figure out the value. "Then what?"
  2027. "Then we do some optimizations. Brute-force, if we have to."
  2028. > "Optimizations?"
  2029. "Make spells shorter and easier. Humans have been doing that with computer programs for about sixty years now. There is a lot of math and science out on that topic."
  2030. > Now she gets it. The expression can only be described as 'stunned'.
  2031. > "If you can make a spell shorter and easier..." Her eyes are unfocused as she imagines that. "Anon- that would be a breakthrough!"
  2032. > You hold up your hands.
  2033. "Can't promise anything, but I want to try. It might help you with that Lotus fellow."
  2034. > You suddenly have your knees hugged fiercely. "Thank you! Thank you, Anon. I'll get right on that. I'll write down *everything* I can remember!"
  2035. > You reach down to ruffle her hair, but are interrupted by your phone ringing.
  2036. "Sorry, I should get that."
  2037. > You extricate yourself from the hug and go answer it.
  2038. > It's Zoe.
  2039. > "Man, where have you been? Didn't you get the message?"
  2040. > You quickly take the phone away from your face and glance at the screen. It's from your automated data miner.
  2041. > Your heart begins to beat faster. The part of the message you can see in the status bar says 'Fluttershy'.
  2042. > Zoe is talking, so you quickly put it back on your ear.
  2043. > "It's genius! There's a photo on Instagram and Shy is right there, in a car in the background!"
  2044. > You stifle a gasp.
  2045. "Is there a license plate?"
  2046. > Zoe just giggles with excitement. "YES!"
  2047. "That's great!"
  2048. > "Yes! Go! Hack the DMV or something and find out who it is!"
  2049. "Yeah, I'll call as soon as I have something."
  2050. > You've given up on lecturing her about 'hacking' into government systems.
  2051. > The plan is a lot simpler. Car dealerships. Their security is much more lax.
  2052. > You almost run to the computer. Twilight is watching you with wide, frightened eyes.
  2053. > "W-what is it, Anon?"
  2054. "Sorry, I gotta focus. We have a lead on Fluttershy."
  2055. > Her fear is instantly replaced with hope. But she doesn't say anything, just follows you and stands behind your chair as you work.
  2056. > Quick as you can, you feed the picture of the car back into the data miner and let it loose again.
  2057. > A few minutes later, there are matches. Didn't need to hack anything.
  2058. > You hit gold. The guy is an avid blogger and likes to brag about his car. Poor excuse of a website, too. You get a real name and, moments later, an address.
  2059. > You send it to your own email, so you can open it on the phone, then you stand up.
  2060. > "You found her?" Twilight pipes up.
  2061. "Yes. I'll call Zoe and we'll go there right away."
  2062. > You're pulling on your jacket and checking that your wallet is in your pocket. You're about to walk out the door, but purple mare is blocking your path.
  2063. > "I'm coming, too," she says, firmly.
  2064. > You know that tone. Arguing would just waste time.
  2065. "Okay."
  2066. > You forward the info to Zoe and then quickly dial her, while waiting on the lift.
  2067. > It sounds as if she is already in the car. But she is further away, so you will still get there first.
  2068. > ...
  2069. > It looks like an average house in the suburbs. The light is on in the dining room, but the curtains are drawn and you can't see anyone.
  2070. > Twilight is looking around nervously. Good thing it's night and no people around.
  2071. > You knock until a fat, bearded man answers. It's hard to tell, but he's about your age. A few years younger, even.
  2072. > "Whaddya want?"
  2073. "Hi. I'm Anon. I understand you have Fluttershy here?"
  2074. > Good thing you put your foot in the door, otherwise it would be slammed in your face.
  2075. > "I'm not interested," he barks while trying to force the door shut.
  2076. > "Please, sir," Twilight speaks up behind you. "I just want to see my friend."
  2077. > The shock on the guy's face is priceless.
  2078. > "Whoa, you're Twilight Sparkle!" he exclaims.
  2079. > You seize the opportunity and push the door fully open. You take his hand and shake it vigorously. "Anonymous, pleased to meet you!"
  2080. > It's a trick you've picked up from an insurance salesman friend.
  2081. > It works. The guy's brain skips a beat, then falls into a familiar pattern. "Pete," he says and steps aside to let you in. He's staring at Twilight, though.
  2082. > ...
  2083. > You're sitting on an old armchair. The place isn't very clean and there are food containers and empty soda bottles everywhere.
  2084. > The main feature of the room is the computer.
  2085. > Your host is sitting in a regular chair and Twilight took the couch, after dubiously inspecting the cushions.
  2086. > Pete seems defensive. "Look, I don't know what you think, but Fluttershy is very happy here."
  2087. > Twilight looks at you, but remains silent. You follow her lead.
  2088. > The guy goes on, as if arguing his case.
  2089. > "I couldn't leave her in that place. I went to see her as often as I could. I mean - it's *the* Fluttershy. She's my Wi-"
  2090. > He clamps his mouth shut just in time and looks at Twilight.
  2091. > You understood, but you agree that the pony probably shouldn't hear that.
  2092. > Pete heaves a sigh and just keeps going. "Anyway, I treat her nice. I get her whatever she wants to eat. And I don't tie her up or beat her."
  2093. > The guy keeps staring at Twilight. You realize he's trying to convince her that one of her friends is well-off in his care.
  2094. > "Can I see her?" Twilight asks. You can't imagine how much restraint it must have taken her to sit through that quietly.
  2095. > Pete stands up and beckons you to follow. He leads you to a closed door and knocks on it.
  2096. > "Fluttershy, dear. You have some visitors."
  2097. > He doesn't wait for an answer, but opens the door.
  2098. > It's his bedroom and the yellow pegasus is on the bed.
  2099. > From what you can see, she's not as thin as the others were when you got them. She also isn't showing any obvious signs of beatings.
  2100. > Even her mane and tail look reasonably clean.
  2101. > In a flash, Twilight is on the bed and hugging.
  2102. > You pull Pete's sleeve.
  2103. "Come on, let's give them a minute. I'd like to talk to you alone."
  2104. > He follows you back to the living room. He sits back in his computer chair, but you remain standing.
  2105. "Look, I can appreciate you're taking good care of her..."
  2106. > You don't know exactly what to say and how. It's obvious he cares about the pony, at least on some level.
  2107. "But don't you think she would be happier with her friends?"
  2108. > He's already shaking his head, but you keep going.
  2109. "There's Rarity, Pinkie and Dash and they all miss their friend. There's also a plan to get them all home."
  2110. > The guy seems afraid of losing his Waifu.
  2111. > "I-I don't think- I think she can be perfectly happy here with me."
  2112. > You offer up a silent thank you to the insurance-dude for his drunken ramblings.
  2113. "Yeah, I'm not arguing that. It's obvious you're a good guy."
  2114. > That was probably a lie, but you delivered it smoothly.
  2115. "But think about her. You've seen what Earth does to ponies. Wouldn't you rather set her free, back to her home and her friends?"
  2116. > It looks like it's working. Just a bit of grease, now.
  2117. "And look, I know how much money you paid. I'll give you double that."
  2118. > You think he's about to agree, but Twilight walks between you and stares him down.
  2119. > "You're a sick pervert, just like the rest of them!" she spits.
  2120. > You try to grab and shush her, but the pony evades you easily.
  2121. > She advances on Pete and he seems to shrink back from her rage.
  2122. > "You talk about making her happy, and then you-" she has to swallow. For a moment she looks like she is going to be sick. "You *force* yourself on her every night!"
  2123. > You groan internally. You've guessed as much, but this confrontation will just make the guy angry. He might even call the police on you.
  2124. "Look, Twilight..."
  2125. > Pete also speaks, trying to argue. "No, it's not like that! You don't understand, she wants it too!"
  2126. > Twilight just snorts in disgust. "She told you that?"
  2127. > The guy looks away. "Well, no, but..."
  2128. > He is interrupted by the sound of a car pulling up the driveway.
  2129. > Zoe - you hope she can somehow salvage this situation. Or at least get Twilight away, so you can try and talk to the dude again.
  2130. > "Well, well, well..."
  2131. > The voice sends chills down your spine.
  2132. > You look right into Dave's gun, with his leering expression behind it.
  2133. > You feel your stomach twist up and your muscles become weak.
  2134. > The bastard shifts the gun between you and Pete.
  2135. > Fatso looks about ready to piss himself, but the terror in Twilight's eyes hits you much more deeply.
  2136. > "Isn't this a nice surprise? I was just about to pay old Pete here a visit and make him an offer for his pegasus." He waves his gun, showing exactly what his offer was going to be.
  2137. > You stay silent, trying to fight off despair. You just pray to God that Zoe isn't bringing the others to see Fluttershy.
  2138. > Dave just laughs in the silence. "Seems I'll have two new employees. This turned out to be a very good business decision."
  2139. > He looks between all three of you and frowns. "So what's this? A little playdate? Switching your girlfriends around to keep it more interesting?"
  2140. > Then he leans down to Twilight and pokes at her stub horn. "And you seem to have done a fine job with this one. I should have offered you a job."
  2141. > You see Fluttershy behind the man. The way she's looking at him worries you.
  2142. > Pete sees her too, but the idiot can't keep quiet. He tries to get up and reaches out his hand.
  2143. > "No, Shy! Get back!" he says.
  2144. > Dave looks back, but not fast enough. In a flash, Fluttershy has her teeth in his leg.
  2145. > She didn't do much damage, but it's enough to make him lose his aim.
  2146. > The gun goes off.
  2147. > You hear someone scream and force yourself to move. All you can see is the gun. You grab it and try to wrestle it away.
  2148. > As you're holding it, there's another shot.
  2149. > It was louder than you could ever imagine and the shock made you lose your grip.
  2150. > You fall backward and see that Fluttershy is still holding Dave's leg and he's struggling to free himself.
  2151. > But Twilight is facing the other way.
  2152. > Her hind hoof connects with Dave's hand. He screams in pain and the gun falls from his grip.
  2153. > Twilight is looking at you.
  2154. > You have never seen this kind of rage. She turns her eyes on Dave.
  2155. > "You little bitch, I'll beat you until you *beg* for death!" he yells and reaches down to grab her.
  2156. > Twilight lets out the breath she was holding. "NEVER! AGAIN!"
  2157. > You never thought someone so small could scream so loud.
  2158. > Her back arches and she bucks again, with all her might.
  2159. > The aim is true. Dave was leaning in, bringing his face close enough.
  2160. > The hoof connects with a sickening crunch.
  2161. > As he's falling back, all you can hear is Twilight's wordless scream of rage.
  2162. > ...
  2163. > Zoe bursts in at that exact moment, her eyes wide. She takes in the whole room, then quickly goes to Twilight.
  2164. > Pony is now crying her heart out. You don't know if it's relief or horror. But you trust Zoe to handle it.
  2165. > You look at Pete.
  2166. > Fuck. He's on the floor, bleeding.
  2167. "Zoe, I need some help here!"
  2168. > She looks over and her eyes go wider.
  2169. > "Twilight - go find Fluttershy and keep her safe," she says urgently. You admire her presence of mind. Both ponies are probably scared out of their wits.
  2170. > The mare obeys without question and runs out of the room. She makes sure not to look at Dave. You wish you hadn't either. His face is a bloody pulp.
  2171. > Zoe helps you turn Pete around. The wound is in his arm, which makes you breathe a little easier. Those aren't fatal, right?
  2172. > Thankfully, the girl works well under pressure. She grabs a nearby T-shirt and pushes it against the wound. "Call the cops," she tells you.
  2173. > ...
  2174. > It took several hours to sort it all out. The paramedics came before the police and took over for Zoe. Pete would be fine, they said.
  2175. > Dave was in a critical condition, but still alive. They rushed them both to the hospital with one police car following. He was a wanted criminal, after all.
  2176. > Then came the questions.
  2177. > The detective was very understanding, you think, especially given the circumstances. Dave's injury was attributed to self-defense, so there would be no charges.
  2178. > They even agreed to let Zoe take the ponies, after she showed them her Pony Society badge.
  2179. > You still have to go down to the station and give an official statement, but you're not technically under arrest.
  2180. > You take that as a good sign. It probably helped that the officers didn't really know what to do with the two mares. They were mostly left alone in Pete's bedroom, while you and Zoe were being questioned.
  2181. > The sight of them, huddled together and crying their eyes out must have helped.
  2182. > You don't want to drag them to the station with you, so you give Zoe your apartment keys and tell her to get them home.
  2183. > You feel like you're about to break down, but the thought of Fluttershy, safe and in your flat with her friends, helps you keep going.
  2184. > But you can't wait to get back home, hug Twilight and thank her. The pony probably saved all your lives.
  2185. > By the time you get home it's already past midnight. You find all three girls on the couch with some movie playing on mute.
  2186. > Zoe is awake and glares at you. "What took you so long?" she whispers.
  2187. > You see that the ponies are asleep - Twilight sandwiched between the human and Fluttershy, who is resting her head on her purple friend.
  2188. > There's no point in waking them, so you keep your voice low.
  2189. "Sorry. I had to wait for my lawyer."
  2190. > She shrugs and gets up. She supports Twilight's head with her hand while she places a pillow underneath. Then she lowers the mare down again.
  2191. > It was so smooth that the pony didn't even wake up. You stare, impressed.
  2192. > Zoe just shrugs. "Lots of practice," she says quietly.
  2193. > You follow her out and wait while she puts on her jacket. She also hands you back your keys.
  2194. "Thanks. I'm really glad I didn't have to drag them through the police station, not after what they've been through."
  2195. > She grins and pats your shoulder. "No problem. You do realize how lucky you were today?"
  2196. "Yes."
  2197. > "Good. I'll bring the others tomorrow. Well, except Dash, of course. Doc says she has to stay at least another week."
  2198. "No problem, I can drive them over whenever they want."
  2199. > ...
  2200. > You're finally done with the day. You quickly check up on the ponies. Twilight is looking at you. Guess Zoe wasn't as quiet as she thought.
  2201. "Good night, pony."
  2202. > You whispered. Fluttershy might be still asleep and you'd like to keep it that way.
  2203. > For a long while she just watches back. Then she seems to remember herself. "Night."
  2204. > The couch is occupied, so you head for your bedroom. You can't remember the last time you slept in a proper bed. Was it a week ago? Or two?
  2205. > Before all this started, certainly.
  2206. > You're out as soon as your head hits the pillow.
  2207. > ...
  2208. > A strange sensation wakes you up. There's just enough light for you to see a yellow pegasus licking the back of your hand.
  2209. "Hmm? Fl'shy?"
  2210. > She still has that sweet, mellow voice. "Um, I'm sorry to wake you, Mr. Anon. But I was wondering if, um..."
  2211. > She trails off and starts to back away.
  2212. > "It's nothing, sir. I'm sorry I-"
  2213. "Go on, what were you going to ask?"
  2214. > You might regret it, but you want to know anyway. You just hope she won't try to suck you off or anything like that.
  2215. > Please, not her!
  2216. > She still hesitates, but at least she's not backing away anymore. "Um, I'm sorry to bother you," she repeats, "but I can't sleep."
  2217. > Maybe, you hope, she isn't quite as broken as you feared? She's talking to you and everything. Maybe Pete wasn't all bad?
  2218. "How can I help you with that? Do you need something to drink? Some music? A movie?"
  2219. > She shakes her head. "Thanks, but I don't think any of that will help."
  2220. > You don't want to drag it out of her piece by piece.
  2221. "Okay, then what?"
  2222. > You can hear her swallow, but she manages to speak. "If I c-could maybe s-sleep in your bed?"
  2223. > It's what you were afraid of. The pony seems to sense your reluctance. "J-just, um, tonight? M-master Peter let me, so I would feel safe and not have nightmares."
  2224. > You become painfully aware of the fact that you don't sleep in pajamas. All you are wearing are boxer shorts.
  2225. > The pony takes your continued silence as denial. You can see her ears droop as she starts to turn away.
  2226. "Wait."
  2227. > She freezes and looks back at you.
  2228. "No funny business. I don't need you to 'make me happy' or 'service me'. You don't have to 'pay me' or 'reward me'. Understand?"
  2229. > She nods quickly and you lift up the covers.
  2230. > She's there with a single bound. The pony snuggles up against you. She feels ice cold.
  2231. > After a few seconds she wriggles a bit closer and sighs contentedly.
  2232. > You shift yourself to make sure your boner doesn't poke her in the back.
  2233. > Enough guilt and embarrassment that you can't control it in the first place.
  2234. > "Um, Master Anon?" she says.
  2235. > Uh-oh, the jig is up. You start thinking up a non-creepy excuse for your bodily functions.
  2236. > "Could you- could you put your arms around me?"
  2237. > You release a breath you have been holding. Good, she hadn't noticed. A little more awkward positioning and you end up hugging the pony.
  2238. > There's a faint "Thank you" and then she's asleep. But you're wide awake, all too aware of your situation.
  2239. > You're trying to stay perfectly still, afraid to make even the slightest movement. Even when her mane tickles your chin, you just ignore it.
  2240. > It's not something you expected to happen. True, sometimes you hoped it would, but it's not like you'd ever admit that to anyone.
  2241. > And it's exactly as pleasant as you had imagined. You feel like you could easily get used to this.
  2242. > Before you realise what you're doing, you lean forward to brush her mane with your lips and whisper quietly.
  2243. "Sleep well, Fluttershy."
  2244. > You almost swallow your tongue at the audacity. But luckily, she doesn't wake up. You see her ear flinch toward you and hear a sleepy, unintelligible murmur.
  2245. > Great. Now she's too cute and any chance of falling asleep is gone.
  2246. > Or so you thought.
  2247. > ...
  2248. > You wake up very stiff, but in the same position. It's already light out. You almost jump up when you notice a bundle of yellow and pink in your arms, but then you remember.
  2249. > It was strange, right? And you don't even know why you agreed.
  2250. > She just looked so sad and lonely with those big, puppy eyes.
  2251. > Well, she might have been conditioned to want it, but she does seem comfortable.
  2252. > Maybe even smiling a little in her sleep?
  2253. > You decide you're not sorry, however creepy it would look to everyone else.
  2254. > You hear hoofsteps at the door, followed by a sleepy Twilight.
  2255. > "Anon, have you seen-" she was about to ask, but then she spots you and stops.
  2256. > Her eyes go wide and she backs away, incredulous.
  2257. > "W-what are you doing?!" she breathes out.
  2258. "Hey, whoa, it's not what it looks like!"
  2259. > But purple horse won't have any of it. There's already tears in her eyes.
  2260. > "I thought you were different!" she cries, glaring at you accusingly. "I really fell for it! But you're just another prevert!"
  2261. "No! Wait, I can explain!"
  2262. > The yelling woke up the pegasus, who is looking from her friend to you and back. She's scared and near tears herself.
  2263. > "Get away from him, Fluttershy!"
  2264. > The urgent command from her friend makes the yellow pony quickly wriggle out of the bed.
  2265. > You let her go, of course.
  2266. > You feel stupid and guilty for no reasong and it makes you raise your voice.
  2267. "Hey! Enough of that. Calm down and we'll talk about this."
  2268. > Twilight lowers her head. Even without her horn, it isn't a pleasant sight.
  2269. > "Come here, Fluttershy! Behind me!" she barks, urgently.
  2270. > But the pegasus doesn't move. "Wait," she says, but no one seems to hear.
  2271. > With no other options, Twilight walks forward and pushes her friend behind. She's glaring at you.
  2272. "For fuck's sake, take it easy. It's not what you think!"
  2273. > "Stop!" Fluttershy says again, a bit more loudly, but no one is paying her any attention.
  2274. > "You're all monsters!" Twilight exclaims, tears streaming freely down her face. "Every one of you! All you want is-"
  2275. > She can't even say it.
  2276. > "At least at the whorehouse they had the decency to tell us the truth," she keeps going instead. "But you're scum! You lie and pretend to be our friend so we would let our guard down-"
  2277. > "SHUT UP!" Fluttershy screams at the top of her lungs.
  2278. > It's not loud, but both you and Twilight notice it. She falls silent and turns to stare at her friend in shock.
  2279. > "You're jumping to conclusions, Twilight," the pegasus explains. "Anon didn't make me do anything. I was lonely and cold so I asked him to let me sleep there."
  2280. > Purple horse is dumbstruck. "But- he's-"
  2281. > "A gentlecolt!" Fluttershy counters. "He didn't try anything, even though he wanted to. I could tell."
  2282. > You feel your face growing hot.
  2283. > "And even if he did, I wouldn't mind," she keeps going. Now you feel your jaw drop.
  2284. > "I think he would be gentle with me, like Master Peter."
  2285. > Purple horse tries again: "Fluttershy, that guy-"
  2286. > "No. I was glad he took me. He was way nicer and kinder than all the other men at that place."
  2287. > Twilight apparently can't take any more of that. She just bolts for the door.
  2288. > You stare at the yellow pegasus in disbelief.
  2289. "What?"
  2290. > Brain couldn't come up with anything else to say.
  2291. > She sighs and goes to follow her friend. "I'm sorry, Anon. I didn't mean to cause all this trouble, I really didn't. I'll go talk to her."
  2292. > You take a look at your phone. It's barely seven.
  2293. > Great start of the day.
  2294. > Although, to be honest, waking up with a pony in your arms wasn't all bad.
  2295. > You firmly push the thought down and get out of bed.
  2296. > Might be a good idea to dress quickly. And then get some breakfast started.
  2297. > You've got oatmeal and milk, which you distribute between three saucers.
  2298. > Cold, just the way you like it. You take the dishes to the living room and put them on the coffee table.
  2299. > Then you listen. You think you hear whispering from the computer room.
  2300. > You sternly resist the urge to go and eavesdrop.
  2301. > Instead, you turn on the news and wait.
  2302. > There's a piece already about yesterday's shooting. Luckily, they don't have details, except that Dave was caught by the police.
  2303. > You've finished your breakfast by the time the ponies show up.
  2304. > It's obvious Twilight doesn't trust you, but she walks up anyway.
  2305. > "I... may have overreacted," she admits, grudgingly.
  2306. "I can imagine what it looked like," you concede. "And I didn't plan on it. She just came up in the middle of the night and told me she wants to sleep in my bed."
  2307. > Her eyes narrow and you quickly continue.
  2308. "I should probably have woken you up, but I was half-asleep. And she said it helps keep the nightmares away."
  2309. > She's still not entirely convinced, but the pony gives a curt nod. Then she tries to back away.
  2310. "Hey!"
  2311. > She freezes.
  2312. "You haven't apologised to me. Barging into my room and yelling all those things about me. That wasn't very nice."
  2313. > Her indignation quickly changes to embarrassment. "Well, it looked like you were-"
  2314. "Twilight... That's Fluttershy you're talking about. Who do you think I am?"
  2315. > She's obviously trying to figure that out, judging by the way she stares. It takes her almost a minute to answer, but you're patient.
  2316. > "A- a friend, I guess," she admits, looking at the floor.
  2317. > You almost have a complete moment, but Fluttershy speaks up.
  2318. > "Mr. Anon, is Peter going to be okay?" she asks, nervously.
  2319. > You see she's looking at the TV, where a reporter is standing in front of his house.
  2320. "The police said he was going to be fine."
  2321. > Twilight spins around. "Don't worry, Shy. You'll never have to see that pervert again."
  2322. > Seems like purple horse has found her word of the day.
  2323. > Fluttershy shakes her head. "Oh, but I want to. I'm worried about him."
  2324. > "What?! After what he did to you?"
  2325. > You decide to stay out of it. You don't agree with Pete, but you can understand it, somewhat.
  2326. > "Maybe, but he was way nicer than any of the others. He treated me like a person, Twilight."
  2327. > "He bought you like a pet, Fluttershy!"
  2328. > "Well, Anon bought you too and I don't hear you complaining about that."
  2329. > Yellow mare has a point.
  2330. > It takes Twilight a moment to find her response: "Yeah, but he didn't *rape* me!"
  2331. > They both fall silent. Twilight is the first to speak up. "I'm sorry."
  2332. > "Master Peter was always gentle with me. I begged him to buy me, rather than one of the bad ones. He spent all that money, it was the least I could do."
  2333. > Twilight just stares. "So you said yes to him?"
  2334. > The pegasus looks away. "I didn't say no."
  2335. > That has gone far enough, you think. All they're doing is reminding each other of their situation and what they went through.
  2336. "Ladies, if you would like some breakfast."
  2337. > They notice the food on the table.
  2338. > Twilight is grateful for the distraction and chows down immediately. But the yellow one is looking at you, pleadingly.
  2339. > You can guess.
  2340. "Okay, how about this: Let's wait for the others, so you can see your friends again, and then I'll take you to the hospital to see Pete in the afternoon."
  2341. > She nods, happily and steps up to her plate. "Thank you, Anon."
  2342. > ...
  2343. > You help Fluttershy up until her hooves reach the hospital bed. She can just about pull herself over the edge, to see the man. You keep your hands around her barrel to steady her.
  2344. > Pete - or Peter, you guess - is happy to see her. He reaches out to pet her mane and the pony leans in, closing her eyes in pleasure.
  2345. > Then the man looks to you. "You're not stealing her?"
  2346. > You try to keep your face straight. It's comments like this that you have a problem with.
  2347. "I didn't steal her, Peter. She's not property, you know?"
  2348. > His face falls. You suspect that somewhere, deep down, he knows that. But he's trying to forget it to save his conscience.
  2349. "Her friends were very happy to see Fluttershy."
  2350. > He doesn't seem to hear you. "Well, maybe she *should* stay with you. I'll be stuck here for a while and then I'll have this hospital bill to deal with. No insurance."
  2351. > You can't help feeling sorry for the guy. You know how much money he sank to save the pony. And from what you've seen, he gave her a good home. For the most part.
  2352. "Look, I'll cover your bill. And I'll pay you back everything you've spent to save her, okay?"
  2353. > He heard that and focuses on you again. "But you'll keep her..." he says, dejectedly.
  2354. "No, Pete - I'll give her a home until Twilight figures out a way to get them all back to their world."
  2355. > He is desperate, so he grasps at straws. He looks at the pony. "I treated you nice, Fluttershy. Don't you wanna stay with me?"
  2356. > She's already tearing up and you can feel her heart beating faster.
  2357. > "I would like that, I really would," she says quietly. You're sure she means it, too. "But I can't leave my friends. They need me. I hope you'll understand."
  2358. > Poor sap is madly in love, that much is apparent. He just nods, blinking away his own tears.
  2359. > You're not sure you can blame him, not after holding that ball of fur in your arms for a night.
  2360. > Fluttershy clambers up onto the bed and throws her legs around Peter in a hug. She kisses his cheek and whispers something you can't hear.
  2361. > For a while, she just stays like that, but then she pushes herself back down.
  2362. > "You can visit me when you're better," she promises.
  2363. > You're not entirely sure about that, but you can't tell her no. You look for a business card in your wallet. It reminds you that you'll need to get new ones printed.
  2364. > But the number on it is still good.
  2365. "Here, give me a call and we can have lunch or something."
  2366. > It sounded colder than you meant it, but while the pony was hugging Pete, all you could imagine was him... using her.
  2367. > Imagination is a horrible thing, sometimes.
  2368. > Fluttershy waves and follows you out of the room.
  2369. "What did you whisper to him there?"
  2370. > You shouldn't pry, but you were desperate to break the silence and it was the first thing that popped in your mind.
  2371. > She looks up at you as she walks. "I said: I'm sorry I can't love you like you love me."
  2372. > Wise horse. You start to wonder just how frail she really is. Fluttershy seems to be in better shape than any of the others, both physically and mentally.
  2373. > Rarity almost killed herself over what she saw, or imagined, was done to Fluttershy.
  2374. > Or maybe the pegasus is just repressing the horror and it will all burst out someday?
  2375. > Either way, you can't help but admire her. She's keeping it together. Probably mostly for her friends, but there it is.
  2376. > It's something.
  2377. > ...
  2378. > You don't want a repeat of this morning, so you tell Fluttershy your bed is off limits from now on.
  2379. > She nods, albeit reluctantly.
  2380. > Besides, three of her friends will be sleeping in the same room. No way she's going to feel lonely or scared.
  2381. > By the time you bring her home, the others have already pushed the cots together to make a larger bed.
  2382. > They're talking, which is good. But the discussion is subdued. You see worried faces, uneasy glances, even fear.
  2383. > Their carefree days of galloping around Equestria, saving the world, are barely a memory.
  2384. > Now they are just happy they weren't beaten and used today.
  2385. > And they're very grateful for that. You enter the living room and see a plate of pancakes on the coffee table.
  2386. > You don't even know how they managed that in your, human-sized kitchen. But you're curious, so you ask.
  2387. > Twilight seems proud of herself. "I've had to look up how to use your... 'induction' stove. Turns out, it's not that difficult."
  2388. > Rarity pipes up, too. "Yeah, but it was all Pinkie's idea."
  2389. > The pink pony shrugs. You could swear her hair is puffing out again. "I just though we should thank Master Anon."
  2390. > The others look at her. "Sorry," she corrects sheepishly. "Anon."
  2391. "Where did you get the jam?"
  2392. > You're sure you didn't have anything like that in the fridge.
  2393. > Pinkie almost seems afraid, as if she had done something wrong.
  2394. > "It- it's not jam, A-anon. I just blended some fruit and sugar."
  2395. > It ended up tastier than you expected. Not that you remember the last time you had pancakes.
  2396. > All in all, a very nice surprise. And probably a good sign of their recovery.
  2397. > You leave them talking and go check your computer. There's a ton of email to wade through again, plus you wanted to check up on your data miner.
  2398. > Still nothing about AJ, which is starting to worry you.
  2399. > After you're done, you briefly think about sleep. There are no more sounds coming from the living room, so you guess the ponies beat you to it.
  2400. > You decide to stay up a little longer and catch up on your reading. You still have a few papers about ponies bookmarked.
  2401. > ...
  2402. > You become aware of the keyboard pressing against your face. It's not a new sensation - you're used to falling asleep on your desk.
  2403. > The thing that woke you up is new, however. It's Twilight, shaking your chair. "Wake up, please! I don't know what to do."
  2404. "I'm awake, I'm awake!"
  2405. > She nervously trots a few steps away and looks back. "Please come. It's Fluttershy!"
  2406. > You can hear it, but it didn't register until now. Loud moaning, interspersed with words.
  2407. > It makes you hurry.
  2408. > You don't immediately know what to make of the scene. They turned on the lights, but the dimmer was left on very low. It looks surreal, full of shadows and faint patches of light.
  2409. > The pegasus is being held down by Pinkie and Rarity, both of whom look like they'd like to be crying, but are holding it back.
  2410. > Twilight darts around you and throws her hooves around Fluttershy.
  2411. > "Don't worry, I'm here. All your friends are here, just wake up, please!"
  2412. > It's strange, because you clearly see that Fluttershy is awake.
  2413. > Or so it seems. Her pupils have shrunk to pinpricks and she's staring at the ceiling. You see the others have trouble holding her down.
  2414. > But she's not registering anything that's happening around her. Instead, she's trying to fend off her friends.
  2415. > "No, no, no, no, no, PLEASE NO!" she's yelling as she struggles.
  2416. > "I can't! I CAN'T! Anything but that!"
  2417. > Then she just devolves into outright screaming. You've never heard such volume from her and it makes you step backward, involuntarily.
  2418. > Twilight looks to you in desperation. "We can't wake her up! Please do something!"
  2419. > You're not sure what you can even do, but you gotta try.
  2420. > First, it's obvious restraining her is making the pegasus panic.
  2421. > You quickly approach and slide down on your knees.
  2422. "Okay, let her go, give her some room."
  2423. > They obey and Fluttershy immediately pushes herself away. She scoots into a corner and huddles up.
  2424. > At least she's not screaming any longer. She's back to mumbling.
  2425. > "Please don't make me, please Master! Not that. NOT THAT!"
  2426. > You're guessing she's relieving whatever they did to her in that place. She can't repress it in her dreams.
  2427. > She falls silent, trembling. But then she flinches and tries to hide her head under her wings.
  2428. > "Ow, ow, OW! Please stop!" she yells.
  2429. > God, now she's remembering the beating.
  2430. > The others are gathered around you, watching in wide-eyed terror. But they're not crying, other than a few wet eyes.
  2431. > You carefully reach out and pet her mane.
  2432. > It seems to work, she's no longer yelling out. But she still isn't aware of her surroundings.
  2433. > Then she starts sobbing. "Please no more. I can't take it anymore," she chokes out.
  2434. > "I'll do it," she whispers brokenly. "I'll do it. Just don't beat me anymore."
  2435. > She closes her eyes and starts full-on crying. Whatever she's remembering has completely crushed her spirit.
  2436. > What the fuck did they make her do?!
  2437. > It breaks your heart, so you reach out to hug her.
  2438. > She's aware of you now, but doesn't seem to recognize you.
  2439. > She flails her legs again and pushes your hands away.
  2440. > "NO! DON'T TOUCH ME!"
  2441. > You've quickly pulled your arms back, but she still screams.
  2442. > "Noooooo!"
  2443. > It is the most mournful cry you've ever heard and it makes your blood run cold. It ends with her choking.
  2444. > She pushes further into the corner, making herself as small as possible.
  2445. > She looks at you with such loathing that it almost feels like a physical slap.
  2446. > But it's not directed at you. Somehow you know she's talking to herself.
  2447. > "Get away from me! DON'T LOOK AT ME! I'm a monster!"
  2448. > It sounded so broken, so hopeless. So hateful.
  2449. > You can't stand this sweet, kind creature abhor herself this much.
  2450. > She doesn't resist anymore when you resolutely pick her up and cradle her against your chest.
  2451. > Your eyes are wet and you can't trust your voice. The others are looking at you in stunned shock.
  2452. > Rarity is the one to speak, but she's so quiet you can hardly hear her voice.
  2453. > "I know what they made her do."
  2454. > Everyone looks at her, terrified of what she would reveal.
  2455. > She almost says it, but closes her mouth and shakes her head wildly, flinging tears around.
  2456. > "I- I can't tell you. I can't bring myself to tell you. I'm sorry."
  2457. > It looks like she might have a panic attack if forced. And you remember how she tried to jump from the balcony to escape the memory.
  2458. "You don't have to. I can see how bad it was."
  2459. > You get up with some effort, making sure you don't jolt the pony in your arms.
  2460. > She's still crying, but silently now. You start taking her to her bed, but Twilight steps in front of you.
  2461. > You can see how hard it is for her to say this.
  2462. > "Anon, last night. She said she doesn't get these nightmares if someone is holding her when she sleeps."
  2463. > You nod and try to go around her. A pegasus is lighter than the others, but you can't carry her for very long.
  2464. "Well, make sure you hug her, then."
  2465. > Purple pony shakes her head, sadly. "We did, but it didn't help."
  2466. > You can see where she's going with this.
  2467. > "I can't believe I'm saying this, but is there any chance she could-"
  2468. > You know she doesn't want to say it, so you just nod quickly.
  2469. "No problem."
  2470. > Twilight looks at you with suspicion. You have a feeling that it won't go away for a long time.
  2471. "Tell you what - push your beds in my bedroom, then you can all keep an eye on me."
  2472. > She considers it, but then heaves a sigh.
  2473. > "I'm sorry, Anon. You've given us every reason to trust you. I have to try."
  2474. > You look around at the others. They're clearly uneasy, but there's also relief. They were scared out of their wits by Fluttershy's 'episode', and they're grateful you're taking it out of their hands.
  2475. > Hooves, whatever.
  2476. > Twilight follows you into the bedroom. She watches closely as you lay her friend on the mattress and cover her up.
  2477. > Then you climb in, fully dressed.
  2478. > Purple horse watches you strangely. "You'll sleep in your clothes?" she asks, remembering the previous morning.
  2479. "Will it help you trust me?"
  2480. > She hangs her head. "Yes," she says in a small voice.
  2481. "Then that's your answer."
  2482. > She just watches you settling in and bringing the pegasus to your chest. After you stop moving, she whispers: "Thank you." Then she slowly leaves.
  2483. > A small part of you is glad that you get to do this again. But you wish the circumstances were different.
  2484. > You can feel the pony in your arms still shaking and quietly sobbing.
  2485. "It's okay. You're safe now."
  2486. > She twists to look at you. Now that you know how blue her eyes are, you feel like you could get lost in there.
  2487. > You wouldn't even mind.
  2488. > But she's not really looking at you.
  2489. > "I'm sorry," she says in her soft voice. "I'm so sorry, little friends."
  2490. "It's okay."
  2491. > You're repeating yourself, but maybe that way it will get through to her.
  2492. > She shakes her head firmly. "It's not okay. There's no forgiveness for what I've done to you. But I'm sorry."
  2493. > She's starting to cry again, lost in her memory once more.
  2494. "I'm sure they forgive you. It wasn't your fault. The men beat you until you weren't yourself anymore."
  2495. > It worked. She's back with you. But it doesn't seem better.
  2496. > "I wasn't thinking straight. But I still did it. I s-stomped and-"
  2497. > Saying it out loud pushes her over the edge again. She squeaks and buries her head in your chest.
  2498. > "I did it so they would stop hitting me. I couldn't say no anymore. I'm a monster."
  2499. > You carefully lift her head away so she can see your expression.
  2500. "No you're not," you say as firmly as you can. "You're the kindest, sweetest, gentlest person I've ever seen. Whatever they forced you to do, that wasn't you. It was them."
  2501. > She's thinking it over! Please let this work!
  2502. > But the pony shakes her head. "I should have kept saying no. I should have let them kill me, rather than..."
  2503. > Seems like it will take a lot of effort to convince her otherwise. But you're damned sure you're going to try your hardest.
  2504. > It took almost an hour for Fluttershy to quiet down and fall asleep. You just kept holding her and sometimes brushing her mane with your fingers.
  2505. > Finally, with her face pressed against your chest, she seemed to relax.
  2506. > A short while later you're sure she's sleeping. But you don't want to move to find out.
  2507. > You don't think you'll ever nod off, but then you remember last night and just wait.
  2508. > ...
  2509. > You wake up on your back with the pony curled up in the crook of your arm.
  2510. > It's of vital importance that you don't move a muscle. You have to try and keep this going for as long as possible.
  2511. > But it's no use - you must have shifted slightly or held your breath. She stirs, then yawns.
  2512. > It's adorable and you can't help but grin like an idiot.
  2513. "Slept well?"
  2514. > She seems surprised to find herself in your bed.
  2515. > "H-how did I get here? I'm sorry, Mas- Anon. I didn't mean to intrude upon you again."
  2516. "Shush. You had a nightmare, so I brought you here. You said it helped."
  2517. > She looks around, growing concerned. "It does, but if Twilight catches-"
  2518. "It was her idea."
  2519. > That seems to answer her last question. You get a tentative smile back.
  2520. > "Well, in that case, can, um, can I stay for a little while longer?"
  2521. > You're about to say yes, but the purple horse barges in, as if summoned.
  2522. > "Rise and shine! We've got a busy day ahead of us!"
  2523. > Twilight talks with a certain kind of manic cheerfulness which shows you she doesn't quite trust you, yet.
  2524. > She wants Fluttershy out of your bed sooner, rather than later.
  2525. > But she wasn't about to admit that.
  2526. > You wonder how long she had been waiting, listening for any sounds of you waking up.
  2527. > Fluttershy also gets the same idea, judging by her blush. She quickly scampers down from the bed.
  2528. > There aren't really any plans. At least not ones you've shared with the ponies, or they with you.
  2529. > You'll probably drive Shy to the Pony Society to see Rainbow Dash, but then you've got to visit your ex-office and sign some paperwork.
  2530. > You also want to finish reading the articles. You almost remember something exciting in them, but maybe it was part of a dream.
  2531. "How about some breakfast, first?"
  2532. > Twilight points at you with a hoof. "Yes! Exactly. A nice, friendly breakfast. Just sitting around the table, eating... uh, breakfast!"
  2533. > It makes you laugh.
  2534. "Any ideas?"
  2535. > "Not a single one," the pony admits. It almost sounds like she's proud of it.
  2536. "Well, I think I've cooked an omelette once before. Maybe I can remember how it goes."
  2537. > Fluttershy comes to the rescue. "That sounds lovely, Anon."
  2538. "But first, I need a shower and a change of clothes."
  2539. > ...
  2540. > You're at Rainbow's door again. You were right that Fluttershy insisted on going to see her friend.
  2541. > She didn't mind that she'd also have to accompany you to the office. You don't want to make multiple trips in downtown traffic.
  2542. > You take a deep breath and open the door. Hopefully, the blue pegasus won't be irrationally mad at you this time.
  2543. "Hey Dash. I've brought you some company."
  2544. > She glowers for a moment, but then seems to give up. "I don't want to see them."
  2545. > That's when the pony steps from behind you.
  2546. > "F-fluttershy?"
  2547. > You don't think you've ever seen Rainbow Dash so happy.
  2548. > "Fluttershy! I'm so glad you're safe!"
  2549. > In a yellow flash, the two are hugging. Well, one of them is hugging the other.
  2550. > "Oh, Rainbow Dash, I'm so sorry I wasn't there for you."
  2551. > The blue mare looks away, out through the window.
  2552. > "It's not your fault. I did it to myself," she admits with a sigh.
  2553. > "Maybe if I had been there - if you had a friend to talk to-"
  2554. > Rainbow still won't hear it. "No, Fluttershy. You know they didn't let us see each other, except when a client-"
  2555. > You saw poor Shy freeze in terror, but luckily Dash noticed you vehemently shaking your head.
  2556. > She quickly changes the topic. "Never mind that. I'm just happy you're okay!"
  2557. > It seems to work. "Me too," she answers.
  2558. > They keep hugging for a little longer, then Fluttershy drops down from the bed.
  2559. > Rainbow looks at you, briefly, before lowering her eyes. "Hey, Anon. I'm sorry about last time."
  2560. > You hadn't expected an apology.
  2561. "Yeah, no problem. I understand how you felt."
  2562. > She keeps talking. "I just couldn't stop thinking about it all. It's not fair. I'm stuck here and all my friends have to see me this way and it's all my fault."
  2563. > You step closer and wipe away her tear with your finger.
  2564. > Actually, you just spread it around, but the thought was there.
  2565. "Hey, don't worry. Twilight is working on a way to get you all home. She thinks they could use magic to make you better."
  2566. > For the first time, there's a faint hope in her eyes. Even Fluttershy smiles happily at the sight.
  2567. > It might not pan out, but this pony needs some hope about now.
  2568. > You think she understands just how slim the chances are. But she's grateful.
  2569. > "Thanks. And thanks for the computer thing. It- it really helps."
  2570. > It got Fluttershy interested. "Computer?" she asks and looks around. "Master Peter had one of those on his desk. Sometimes he showed me, um, 'cartoons'."
  2571. > Dash looks to the cabinet next to her bed. "Uh, Anon, could you-?"
  2572. > You take the tablet from the drawer. You quickly check the battery, but it's almost full, so you just place it in her lap.
  2573. > Rainbow is happy to show it off. "Now *this* computer is way cooler. I can use it with my voice!"
  2574. > After a bit you've zoned out and started reading email on your phone. You're not in a hurry yet, so you can let the friends catch up.
  2575. > Dash is showing Fluttershy her favourite music. It's mostly Rock, of course.
  2576. > ...
  2577. > You stand up and put away your phone. It's almost time for your meeting.
  2578. > Fluttershy sees you and quickly says her goodbye.
  2579. > Dash is sad you're leaving, but she puts on a brave face. "Well, come and visit me again. It's not like I'm going anywhere."
  2580. > She smiles sadly at the bad joke.
  2581. "Don't worry, a few more days and you can go home with me, doc says. At least you'll have company, there."
  2582. > But she's already looking out the window. "Yeah, whatever."
  2583. > ...
  2584. > They've already changed the logo above the front door. It feels weird walking into the place now.
  2585. > It's empty, with no people around the lobby. It's like a morgue. A lot of people quit on the spot when the news was announced.
  2586. > Linda, the receptionist, is still there. She starts to grin as you walk up to the desk, but then she spots Fluttershy behind you.
  2587. > "Is that a-?" she looks at you incredulously.
  2588. "Sure is. Can you keep her company while I talk to Sam?"
  2589. > Linda quickly finds a chocolate chip cookie on her desk. She leans down over the counter, as far as she can reach, holding the treat toward Fluttershy.
  2590. > "Hey, you pretty thing, would you like something sweet?"
  2591. > It sounds like she's talking to a dog.
  2592. "Linda, she can talk."
  2593. > You get a stunned look. "She can?" she whispers, then stares at the pony.
  2594. > Fluttershy blushes a little at the attention. "Yes, I can, Miss. And I would like a cookie, please."
  2595. > The shock doesn't last long. The woman quickly walks around the counter and pets the pony.
  2596. > "Oh, but you're just adorable!"
  2597. > It's making the pegasus blush harder.
  2598. > Linda remembers something and straightens up. She talks quietly, not wanting Shy to overhear.
  2599. > "Was she one of those they rescued from- that place?"
  2600. > You half-nod, but change it into a shrug at the last moment.
  2601. "Yes, kind of. It's a long story. I bought her after that, but yes."
  2602. > You can tell she doesn't like that word. "Bought?"
  2603. > You explain quickly.
  2604. "I couldn't stand what they were doing to them, so I tried to buy as many as I could to get them out of there."
  2605. > Her eyebrows rise. "Oh, so that is why you-"
  2606. "Yes."
  2607. > "You needed the money to-"
  2608. "Yes. Please keep it to yourself."
  2609. > She nods. You're glad she didn't think to ask you what you were doing in the brothel in the first place. It's still something you're deeply ashamed of.
  2610. "Anyway, if you could keep Fluttershy company, I'll just go finish up with Sam. Don't worry, I know the way."
  2611. > She chuckles at the joke, but then she's bending down again.
  2612. > "My, that's a lovely name, Fluttershy. Would you like to have some more cookies with me while we wait?"
  2613. > "Um, I'm not a child, Miss," the pegasus half-complains in her timid way.
  2614. > You leave the pegasus in the receptionist's hands. Linda can be a big gossip, but she has a heart of gold.
  2615. > Unlike the man you're about to see. But then, his money will go a long way to help the ponies, with maybe enough left over for you to start over with a fresh company.
  2616. > ...
  2617. > On the way out, Linda stops you again. It's eerie how she always guesses what you're thinking.
  2618. > She speaks very quietly, keeping a lookout for other people.
  2619. > "Sir, I've been talking with some of the people. There's a lot of anger and confusion, but many still trust you. If you decide to open a new company, give me a call and I'll spread the word."
  2620. > She winks at you. "A lot of us would prefer working for you."
  2621. > Well, that might make starting fresh a lot easier. You thank the woman and call the pony to leave.
  2622. > She's only a small bit reluctant to part from her new friend.
  2623. > You see Linda wave to both of you as you exit the front door.
  2624. > On the drive home, you try to recap what your life has become.
  2625. > Five ponies in various states of mental and physical breakdown.
  2626. > Rabid, overzealous members of the Pony Protection Society, who idolize you as some sort of amazing hacker.
  2627. > A nice sum of money in the bank, but no way to replenish it.
  2628. > A tentative plan to somehow enlist help from Equestria, of all places.
  2629. > Half-baked idea to open a new software company someday, without any business plan or product.
  2630. > Oh, and you need to sleep with your arms around Fluttershy, or she gets night terrors.
  2631. > Actually, that last part is kind of nice.
  2632. > ...
  2633. > Every day you see small improvements in your guests. A smile here, excitement there. A glint in the eyes, the way they stand. Baby steps.
  2634. > Being around them so much gives you a lot of insight.
  2635. > There are still episodes of depression and crying, but nothing quite as bad as before.
  2636. > Fluttershy has nightmares, sometimes, but they are just regular, run of the mill bad dreams.
  2637. > A few times she has woken up with a small scream, but she quickly remembered where she was and snuggled back with a murmured apology.
  2638. > Meanwhile, Sally calls you almost every day and tells you that Dash is doing fine. As well as could be expected.
  2639. > She is having sessions with a psychiatrist. Turns out pony minds are similar enough to ours for that to help.
  2640. > You asked her if the shrink would be able to see the others, too.
  2641. > She gave you a number and you arranged for sessions. He wouldn't come over, though. Said he needed a neutral environment.
  2642. > The ponies were sceptical the first time you drove them there, but agreed to go twice a week.
  2643. > And suddenly it's the day Rainbow Dash can leave the hospital.
  2644. > It wouldn't be much different - instead of hospital bed, she'd be lying in a comfortable armchair. But she herself said it would be a relief to get out of that place.
  2645. > And it seems good for the others. Taking care of their friend seems almost therapeutic.
  2646. > ...
  2647. > You're lazily scanning the news one afternoon while Dash is watching some action movie.
  2648. > It's not you favourite genre, so you didn't pay attention to the title.
  2649. > She speaks up, suddenly. "TV - pause."
  2650. > The picture freezes and the sound cuts out.
  2651. > It was a simple matter to hook up a Raspberry PI to the smart TV and program in simple voice commands.
  2652. > Rainbow really appreciated not having to ask her friends to change channels or select movies for her.
  2653. > You glance up from your screen right into her eyes. She's looking at you.
  2654. > "Uh, Anon, could you give me a hoof here?"
  2655. "Sure, what do you need?"
  2656. > She lowers her eyes. "I need to, uh, use the bathroom."
  2657. > You both blush. You quickly look for the others before you remember that Zoe took them to the Pony Society.
  2658. > They are visiting old and new friends, so you're alone with Dash. No choice, it seems.
  2659. "Okay, what do you need me to do?"
  2660. > She looks back at you as if you're dumb. "You're gonna have to carry me. To the bathroom."
  2661. > Well, you'll just have to get it over with. She's lying on her stomach, so you slide your arms under her belly and lift.
  2662. > She's even lighter than Fluttershy.
  2663. > One of her wings unfolds and hangs limp.
  2664. > The pony sees you looking at it worriedly.
  2665. > "Just kinda fold it back. Carefully."
  2666. > You shuffle your grip awkwardly and sit her back down on the chair. You keep one hand around her barrel and try to maneuver the appendage back.
  2667. > The last thing you want to do is hurt her wing, so it takes you over a minute to figure out how it folds back.
  2668. > Luckily, it stays like that on its own.
  2669. > Then you pick her up and carry her into the bathroom. You stop and watch the toilet with mounting terror.
  2670. > You've realized you'll have to hold her the entire time.
  2671. > Dash turns her gaze on you again.
  2672. > "My ass goes on the toilet, in case that's what you're wondering."
  2673. "Sorry."
  2674. > You start to lower her down, but she sighs.
  2675. > "You think you could keep my tail out? I'd love to help, but - you know - I can't really move."
  2676. "Oh, sure. Sorry."
  2677. > You manage to awkwardly pull her tail up. Then you finally seat her down.
  2678. > Luckily, it's enough that you lightly hold her shoulders to keep the pony upright.
  2679. > Something lights up in your brain.
  2680. "Wait - You can feel when you have to.. go?"
  2681. > She nods. "Yeah, but I can't hold it for very long. What's your point?"
  2682. > You don't know how quadriplegia works and you add it to your mental list of things to look up.
  2683. "Well, I thought you couldn't feel anything below your neck."
  2684. > "I can feel it, a little. I just can't move," she explains. Now she's looking at your with interest.
  2685. > "Where's all this going, Anon?"
  2686. "Oh, just curious. Maybe the fact you can feel it is a good sign. I don't know, I'll have to read up on it."
  2687. > "Doc said the same thing. He said maybe I'll get some function back, in time."
  2688. > The amount of sheer hope in her eyes is heartbreaking.
  2689. "Well, I've got some money now, I'll see if I can find a specialist to take a look at you."
  2690. > She smiles back. "I appreciate that, Anon. Anyway..."
  2691. > She doesn't finish the sentence, but you hear the sounds.
  2692. > You thought it was awkward at work when someone took the other cubicle in the toilets and you could hear their bodily functions?
  2693. > That's nothing compared to this. You look away, trying to keep calm and pretend it's not happening.
  2694. > Dash is doing the same.
  2695. > It's finally over and you shift your hands to pick her up.
  2696. > "Whoa, hold on a second! You gotta..." she has to pause and take a deep breath. "You gotta wipe me."
  2697. > Well, shit.
  2698. > You grab a few squares of the toilet paper and try to work out the mechanics.
  2699. > "Just, uh, reach in between my legs and, you know."
  2700. > There's enough room, but the awkward factor is up to eleven and someone broke the knob.
  2701. > Okay, try not to think about where your hand is. Try to ignore the warmth.
  2702. > You brush your wrist against a bump. Of course, that's where they have their nipples.
  2703. > No holding back the blush now.
  2704. > She also felt it. Her ears are down and her eyes tightly shut.
  2705. > Crap, this must be reminding her of the brothel. You quickly drop the paper and take your hand away.
  2706. > The flush brings her back, but Rainbow has to take a few deep breaths before she can talk again. She sounds subdued.
  2707. > "Thanks."
  2708. > You pick her up again and quickly carry her to the living room. She doesn't look at you until you've put her back in the chair.
  2709. > She just stares at you for a long while and you wait.
  2710. > You can see her ears twitching, like a nervous tick. Finally, she opens her mouth.
  2711. > "Fine, you can do it," she says and looks away. You thought you saw tears forming in her eyes before she turned her head.
  2712. "Do what?"
  2713. > "You can have me. I know you want to. I'll be fine with it, just - not Fluttershy anymore, okay?"
  2714. > You're too dumbstruck to form a coherent reply.
  2715. > She takes it for anger and starts talking faster.
  2716. > "Look, she told me what her last Master wanted. And I know you take her to your room every night. All I'm saying is to please let her go and take me, instead."
  2717. > She thinks you're unconvinced, so she adds: "You can do anything you want, I won't mind. I can't stop you, anyway."
  2718. "Wait. No!"
  2719. > Finally, the words work again.
  2720. "I'm not.. doing *that* to Fluttershy."
  2721. > The mere thought makes you shudder.
  2722. "I'm letting her sleep in my bed because she gets night terrors otherwise. Really bad ones."
  2723. > You quickly describe what happened. It looks like none of the others had told Dash about it and she hadn't asked them.
  2724. "I'd never hurt Fluttershy!"
  2725. > You can't exactly blame the ponies for jumping to these conclusions. After all, that has been their first impression of humanity.
  2726. > At least they have all gone through offering themselves to you now. You think.
  2727. > Dash believes you and gives you a relieved grin.
  2728. > "Okay, I'm sorry. I kinda jumped the cloud on that."
  2729. > But the entire experience has left you saddened. It will take a long time before the ponies can leave the experience behind them. If ever.
  2730. > One thing's sure, though. Dash needs to continue her therapy sessions, maybe more so than the others.
  2731. > She resumes her movie and you go back to your laptop.
  2732. > ... (Six months later.)
  2733. "Okay, now hit 'Build and Run'."
  2734. > Twilight is sitting in your computer chair and you're standing right behind it, leaning on the back.
  2735. > She wanted to see more of what you do for a living. So you decided a small demonstration was in order.
  2736. > The screen goes dark and an image of a tea kettle appears. It is spinning, slowly.
  2737. > The horse almost squeals with delight.
  2738. > "That's so cool!"
  2739. > She twists around and holds out her foreleg. You bump it with your fist.
  2740. "Yeah. You remind me of when I first started programming."
  2741. > She has already closed the graphics and is looking at the code again.
  2742. > "I'll have to brush up on my trigonometry, but that's a clever use of matrices, Anon."
  2743. > You shrug, even though she's not looking at you.
  2744. "Not my idea. It's just how we've been doing 3D for the past forty years or so."
  2745. > Twilight closes the file and turns back to you.
  2746. > "Okay, I think I'm ready to see something more advanced."
  2747. "Anything you have in mind?"
  2748. > She doesn't have to think. "You said something about optimizing spells, once. Can you show me that?"
  2749. "Sure thing. Go back two folders, then look for 'Magic OCR - Twi'."
  2750. > She does so. While it's loading, she turns back to you.
  2751. > "I've read that book you gave me - Cryptanalysis. I had to look up a lot of the math, but I think I get the basics."
  2752. > You just stare at her.
  2753. "You... finished that book? And god knows how many other, college-level maths books?"
  2754. > She nods, feeling a little proud of herself. "Sure! I had a lot of time and it took my mind off... things."
  2755. "Damn. Genius horse."
  2756. > That brings out a smile and a blush, which you still find cute, even after all this time.
  2757. > "The statistics ones were hard - that field wasn't as developed back home. But most of the other stuff wasn't too far advanced. I just had to refresh my memory, mostly."
  2758. "Okay. Anyway, I've gotten the OCR to accept your magic language and I've done some basic analysis on it, but I haven't had time for much more."
  2759. > "Well, I'd like to take over, if you don't mind. I'll probably need a bit of help with the actual programming stuff, but if you can recommend a good book..."
  2760. "Sure, no problem. Oh, by the way, how is it going with that guy... Lotus something?"
  2761. > You haven't asked about that in ages and Twilight hadn't said anything.
  2762. > She gives a sad shrug.
  2763. > "Not good. Gray Lotus is improving, but too slowly. Even sending a letter is beyond him right now. I was hoping if what you said - about making spells simpler - if it works, he might be able to do it."
  2764. "And you haven't met any others who could perform the spell?"
  2765. > You're sorry you asked when you see her face fall.
  2766. > "No. It seems as soon as a unicorn shows the slightest bit of power, they just-"
  2767. > She shudders and you quickly hive her a hug from behind the chair.
  2768. "Sorry."
  2769. > You stay still for a while, just breathing in her scent. It's a new shampoo, you guess. Vanilla.
  2770. > Must have gotten it on one of her shopping trips with Zoe.
  2771. > You don't know if you could have managed the ponies without that girl. At first, she was just an energetic, friendly pony enthusiast.
  2772. > But she's shown hard work and dedication over the months. You still don't know much about her past - she doesn't like to discuss it.
  2773. > But you've heard rumors that she is ex-military. Boot camp only, before she had decided against that career.
  2774. > You would never have guessed. But thinking back on it, the signs were there.
  2775. > She is much stronger than you, picking up the ponies easily. She was also up every day at the crack of dawn.
  2776. > She is loud, punctual and a fan of action over discussion.
  2777. > And she talks about guns sometimes.
  2778. > You wrench your mind back to the present and focus on the pony in your arms.
  2779. > She's humming softly and leaning into your hands. You realize you've started massaging her shoulders.
  2780. "Oh, sorry. I got lost in thought there for a second."
  2781. > She blinks a few times then sighs. "I wish you stayed lost for a few more minutes."
  2782. > She squeaks and covers her mouth with a hoof.
  2783. > You can't help but laugh. After a bit she joins in. You hold up your hands and wriggle your fingers.
  2784. "Some human magic, right here."
  2785. > She nods enthusiastically. "When- If I ever find a way home, you should come with. Forget software, open up a massage parlor and you'll be rich."
  2786. "That good?"
  2787. > Instead of answering, she just watches you. It's obvious she's deciding to ask something, but isn't sure how to put it.
  2788. "Go on, just ask. You know I won't mind."
  2789. > The encouragement helped. She blushes a little and looks away.
  2790. > "I was wondering if I could get you to- uhh.." She puts her hooves over her face and blurts it out.
  2791. > "IfIcouldgetyoutogivemearealmassage."
  2792. > It's not something you've been expecting, but you think back and realize you've shared a lot of such accidental touches recently.
  2793. > You're starting to suspect the pony was orchestrating situations where she could lean against you, or get you to put your arm around her.
  2794. > Could she? Is it a sign of her finally getting past the abuse and the fear?
  2795. "Sure thing. Right now?"
  2796. > She coughs and splutters in surprise. Then hear ears droop and she looks guilty. "Yes, please."
  2797. > The couch is occupied by Fluttershy, watching something with Rainbow Dash. You pause and look at the screen. Doctor Who?
  2798. > Of all the things on Netflix...
  2799. > But they seem to be enjoying themselves, so you just continue to the bedroom.
  2800. > Fluttershy still sleeps there, but it has become habitual - almost normal. Her nightmares are very rare now, but you don't want to risk it. Besides, every time you fell asleep in your computer chair, she had come to wake you up and reminded you to go to bed.
  2801. > You suppose that means she likes to cuddle.
  2802. > You pat the bed and Twilight is up in an instant. She flops down immediately and closes her eyes.
  2803. > "Okay, go!"
  2804. > Your phone interrupts the session. The mare had been sighing and moaning and humming for the past ten minutes. When you stop to look at the message, she raises her head.
  2805. > "What is it?"
  2806. "It's from Zoe. Her friend said yes. We're going tomorrow. It'll be nice and sunny and warm."
  2807. > The pony has you in a death grip hug. "Oh, thank you, Thank you! That will make her sooo happy."
  2808. "Yeah, of course. Just don't tell her and spoil the surprise!"
  2809. > She pulls back and winks. "Pinkie Promise!"
  2810. > Then she's laying back down. "Now, were were we?"
  2811. > ...
  2812. > You let Zoe carry Rainbow Dash to the car. The baby seat has become a permanent fixture for driving Dash around.
  2813. > "Guys, you still haven't told me where we are going," the pegasus reminds you.
  2814. "Just wait and see. It's gonna be fun, I promise."
  2815. > She's about to ask again, but snaps her mouth shut. "Fine, be that way."
  2816. > You just grin. As soon as Zoe closes the passenger door you're off.
  2817. > A glance in the rear view mirror shows you that Dash is scowling, but Twilight is almost bouncing with joy. The pegasus can't help but notice.
  2818. > "What's gotten into you? What's going on?"
  2819. > You're worried she might spill the beans, but the bookhorse manages to keep it to herself.
  2820. > "Just wait and see, Rainbow Dash."
  2821. > As soon as you're outside the city, you stop at a gas station. Your car doesn't need it - it's electric - but Zoe goes to buy some snacks.
  2822. > While you're waiting, you turn around on your seat and fix the pegasus with a stern look.
  2823. "Now, Dash, there's something I need to tell you."
  2824. > You make your voice hard. You hope Twilight won't spoil it. She's barely keeping herself from laughing out.
  2825. > Dash is suddenly worried. "What's this about, Anon?"
  2826. "You've been mopey lately. You're bringing everyone down. We can't have that, you know?"
  2827. > Her face crumbles and her ears flatten immediately. She glares right back.
  2828. > "Well, excuse me for not being all sunshine and smiles! I'm not exactly happy with this situation either, you know?"
  2829. > You let yourself grin.
  2830. "I know. That's why we decided to take you out for some fun!"
  2831. > She's flabbergasted. "What?!"
  2832. > You've been planning this for a while. You stab a button on the dashboard and the car roof starts to slide back.
  2833. > Tesla Lotus, baby. It cost a fortune, but you wouldn't trade it for the world.
  2834. > It was winter, so the ponies have never seen that it's a convertible.
  2835. > Twilight was in on the plan, but she's also staring, open-mouthed.
  2836. "Ready for some wind in your hair? Mane, sorry."
  2837. > Dash opens and closes her mouth a few times, but can't find anything to say. She just nods.
  2838. > Zoe jumps in and taps at the screen on the dashboard. iTunes doesn't normally work in a car, but it wasn't difficult to make it. You've considered selling the app, but didn't want to get mired in Apple legal crap.
  2839. > The ponies immediately recognize the tune and Twilight squeals in delight.
  2840. > Then you drive, laughing.
  2841. > You hear Dash yelling in excitement as you speed down the highway. It's a good hundred miles, so there's plenty of time for her to enjoy the ride.
  2842. > After a while, she asks the question: "Where are we going? Not that I'm complaining, but I'd really like to know."
  2843. > You glance at her in the rear view mirror. You've never seen her this happy. Not outside the screen.
  2844. "Soon! Patience!"
  2845. > ...
  2846. > You arrive at a hilltop. There are a lot of people around, many of whom cast curious glances at you and the ponies. One of them recognizes Zoe and grins widely.
  2847. > He's slightly intimidating, a large, bald man with sunglasses and a beard.
  2848. > "Oi, you made it!" he yells and grabs her in a bear hug.
  2849. > She introduces him simply as 'Tommy'. You've exchanged email with him, but you haven't spoken in person.
  2850. > He leans in the car to look at the ponies.
  2851. > "And these must be the ladies!" he says with a laugh and removes the sunglasses.
  2852. > Dash is visibly nervous. She can probably see what's going on, but it looks like she doesn't believe it.
  2853. > It's a hang-glider takeoff spot. And Tommy has a tandem kit ready. You've arranged for him to take Dash up in the sky.
  2854. > You know it's not the same, but you've hoped it would be fun for her.
  2855. > Opening the car door, you put a hand in her mane.
  2856. "Zoe and I thought you might like to get in the air for a while. Tommy's going to help you with that. Don't worry, he's a professional."
  2857. > She looks at the guy, then back to you.
  2858. > She can't form coherent sentences. "But- You're- I mean, I-"
  2859. > Then her eyes fill up with tears and  you cringe inwardly.
  2860. > Fuck, you were afraid that would happen. The memory of what she can't have anymore is worse than any pleasure she might derive from this activity.
  2861. > But... she's smiling?
  2862. > "I- I don't know what to say," she says, her voice breaking.
  2863. > Zoe is right there beside you. She's also grinning and winks at you. It was her idea, after all.
  2864. > "Come on, enough talk. Let's get you fitted and in the air!"
  2865. > ...
  2866. > You sit between Twilight and Zoe, watching the gliders float around the sky. The one with Rainbow is a little larger, easy to spot.
  2867. > They've been up there for nearly two hours now. You've read a little about the sport and you know skilled pilots can find updrafts to gain altitude. They can keep flying for as long as the air is moving.
  2868. > Dash kept yelling at the top of her lungs for the entire time, whooping and laughing. You made sure to get a radio on her, so Twilight could listen in.
  2869. > Purple mare is just smiling, tears leaking from her eyes.
  2870. > Dash is in the middle of commanding poor Tommy: "Okay, bank hard left and then pull up, NOW!"
  2871. > Twilight giggles as the glider spirals.
  2872. > Dash sound ecstatic. "Woooooooooo! YEAH!"
  2873. > You're glad you added a Go Pro cam to her helmet. Dash will love showing the footage to others.
  2874. > ...
  2875. > As you're strapping Rainbow Dash back into her seat, you see her face is practically soaked. But she's grinning widely and looking at the few remaining kites in the air.
  2876. > You turn around and shake Tommy's hand.
  2877. "Thanks man, you don't know how much that helped."
  2878. > His grin is almost as big as Rainbow's. "I know. And it was a pleasure."
  2879. > The expression on his face changes to one of amazement. "Man, the girl's got some serious talent. I wish I could see her fly, you know, on her own. She must've been really something."
  2880. > He barks a short laugh. "Even taught me a new trick or two, today."
  2881. "So, you'd not be averse to doing this again?"
  2882. > He slaps your shoulder. "You kiddin'? Any time. Any. Fucking. Time! She already gave me her Skype name, so we'll definitely be in touch."
  2883. "Okay, we'll work it out. Money's not an issue."
  2884. > He frowns at you. "No, no payment. Not for her."
  2885. > You still pull out a couple of hundred dollar notes and hold them out.
  2886. "Come on, I'm rich. Let me at least pay for the fuel, wear and tear on equipment, a nice lunch, beer. It's only fair."
  2887. > He accepts it, grudgingly. When you step away he leans in to ruffle Rainbow's mane.
  2888. > She snaps out of watching the sky. "Dude, you ROCK!" she yells.
  2889. > "So do you. Anon says we should do this again. I'll call you and we'll figure out when."
  2890. > "You better!"
  2891. > The drive back is a little quieter, Dash lost in thought and Twilight tuckered out, sleeping in the back seat.
  2892. > Zoe speaks up first. "You did a good thing today, Anon."
  2893. > You just shrug.
  2894. "It was your idea."
  2895. > "Oh, yeah, that's right. Well, then I did a good thing today."
  2896. > She sticks her tongue out at you, which makes you laugh.
  2897. > "Guys?" Dash pipes up. "I just wanna say... Thanks."
  2898. "Don't mention it. We'll get you up in the air as often as possible, okay? I know it's not the same as flying yourself, but-"
  2899. > She looks at the sunset, wistfully and heaves a sigh.
  2900. > "Yeah. It's something, at least."
  2901. > ...
  2902. > The massages have become a daily occurrence for Twilight. The first few times she was still shy and embarrassed to ask, but even that slowly went away.
  2903. > Now she just comes up to you and nudges you with her hoof.
  2904. > Her confidence in letting you touch her seems to be a good thing. She is happier and engages in conversation more easily.
  2905. > Zoe also tells you that the pony has an easier time meeting other humans when she visits the Pony Society building for her lessons with Gray Lotus.
  2906. > It's late evening and you're just running your hand through her mane, while Twilight lays on the bed. The others are out with Zoe, so you have the place to yourself.
  2907. > The pony seems to have trouble concentrating, sometimes forgetting to finish her sentences.
  2908. > "Anyway, the search space is too big, even if I limit clearly impossible strings. So I was thinking-"
  2909. > She trails off in a pleased hum. "Ooooohhh. Right there."
  2910. > You wait for her to pick up the thought again, but she seems to be concentrating on breathing.
  2911. "Yes?"
  2912. > She snaps out of it. "Oh, sorry. I mean: since there's no discrete solution, I want to look into heuristics. But I'm not sure how to evaluate the- the-" she falls silent again.
  2913. > You just smile to yourself. Smart horse, but fingers on her back seem to turn her brain into putty.
  2914. "You need to evaluate the state and reduce it to an integer score."
  2915. > All she can do is nod.
  2916. "Hmm, I think I have a PDF on min-max search somewhere. These problems are well known, maybe you can find something useful there."
  2917. > She blinks and remembers again. "Oh, yeah, that's right. Thanks, Anon."
  2918. > But it doesn't last. You feel her shiver as you pass over the spot between where her wings would be.
  2919. > "Mmmmm, don't stop!"
  2920. > You can't help but laugh.
  2921. > Unfortunately, you hear the door as the others return.
  2922. > "Okay, make yourselves comfortable. I'll get dinner started as soon as I get Dash in her chair."
  2923. > Zoe often cooks for the ponies. If you're lucky, there's some left over for you.
  2924. > The one time you asked if she could make a little extra, she nearly bit your head off.
  2925. > "I'm not your little housewife! But I can make you a nice knuckle sandwich!" she snapped. You think it was a joke, but haven't had the guts to find out.
  2926. > She doesn't mind using stuff in your fridge, though. Even leaves you little notes for grocery shopping.
  2927. > You don't mind, it's food for the ponies, after all.
  2928. > Pinkie bursts into the room. She is almost back to her old self.
  2929. > "Hiya, guys! Whatcha doin'?" she asks in her near-singing voice.
  2930. > By now, Twilight doesn't even blush anymore.
  2931. > "Massage and computer talk," the sprawled mare answers, absent-minded.
  2932. > You tried offering it to others, too, but they've been reluctant, except for Fluttershy. She is as insatiable as Twilight.
  2933. > Strange, but you haven't really thought about it.
  2934. > "That's nice," is Pinkie's answer before she trots out. You hear her asking Zoe if she needs any help.
  2935. > You haven't really interacted all that much with that pony. But she spends most of her time at the Pony Society with Rarity. Keeping the spirits up, she says.
  2936. > To Twilight's eternal disappointment, you remove your hands from her flank and flop on your back, next to her.
  2937. > That's how Zoe finds you, but she's used to the sight by now.
  2938. > "Still no news about Applejack?" she asks, like she had almost every day.
  2939. "You'll get the message too, if there's anything. I checked the computer, it's still working. There's just nothing to be found."
  2940. > Twilight looks at you with concern. "I don't like this. It's been too long, Anon. I hope she isn't-"
  2941. "She isn't."
  2942. > You have to believe it. More importantly, you have to make the ponies believe it.
  2943. > The mare turns to her side. She looks like she's about to argue, but you put your hand on her neck and scratch behind her ear with your pinkie.
  2944. > She falls silent and closes her eyes. Then she remembers something. "Uh, Zoe - can you hit play on the music?"
  2945. > The woman does so. Tom Petty's 'Into The Great Wide Open' starts to play.
  2946. > You've gotten an education in music lately. It's only slightly embarrassing that Twilight was the one to introduce you to all these songs.
  2947. > Zoe turns to head out. "I made veggie stew. You *may* have Fluttershy's portion. We're heading out."
  2948. "Heading out where?"
  2949. > She seems loath to tell you. "Dinner at Pete's."
  2950. > You sit bolt upright.
  2951. "What?!"
  2952. > "Fluttershy insisted," the girl explains with a shrug.
  2953. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
  2954. > Yellow pegasus suddenly steps from behind Zoe's legs. You haven't even seen her there.
  2955. > "It's fine, Anon," she explains patiently. "Master Peter is really nice to me. He took me in from that horrible place, remember?"
  2956. "Well, yeah, but he... 'used' you."
  2957. > You regret reminding her, but she just stares you down. "Maybe so, but now he knows it was wrong. He even apologised to me. Everyone deserves a second chance!"
  2958. > You can't find a counter for that logic, so you stay silent, trying to think of something. You'd really like to forbid it, but that seems petty. You're not even sure if it's your place to make that kind of choice for the pony."
  2959. > She compounds on your uncertainty. "He got shot because of me. Visiting him for dinner is the least I can do."
  2960. "Okay, okay. Just- be careful."
  2961. > Zoe nods. "I'm there at all times. If he ever tried anything I'd break his arms."
  2962. > Fluttershy is a little alarmed at those words, but seems to decide Zoe is joking.
  2963. > "Oh, and Master Peter said to thank you for the money. He knows you didn't have to do that. It was very nice of you."
  2964. > Why do you feel such obscene pride when that particular pony compliments you?
  2965. > You notice something in the conversation.
  2966. "Why do you keep calling him 'Master' Peter?"
  2967. > The pegasus blushes a little. "Oh. Just habit, I guess."
  2968. > Well, it's not like you get much of a say, so you just nod and fall back down. Twilight has been watching the exchange, but after seeing you relax she just closes her eyes again.
  2969. > The two leave and you hear the remaining three ponies talking in the living room. Trying to decide on a movie to watch, it sounds like.
  2970. > You look over at Twilight.
  2971. "Want some dinner?"
  2972. > "Nah. Too comfy. Could be warmer, though," she answers, sleepily.
  2973. > When you don't move after several seconds, she adds: "Hint, hint."
  2974. "Oh, sure."
  2975. > She wriggles closer and you put your arm across her side. Your palm ends up over her cutie mark.
  2976. > You trace the shape with your finger. By now, you have it memorized perfectly.
  2977. > The pony shivers slightly, but you don't think it's from cold.
  2978. > A few minutes later she starts to snore, ever so quietly. It's cute and you don't want to move and disturb her.
  2979. > You're thinking about what she said, trying to come up with a way to help her solve the computer/magic problem. Your thoughts are interrupted when she suddenly kicks out her hoof and wakes up with a small start.
  2980. > "Oh, I didn't mean to doze off like that. It's just so comfortable."
  2981. > You can't help but chuckle.
  2982. "Don't worry."
  2983. > "Uh, Anon?"
  2984. "Yes?"
  2985. > "Can I stay here tonight?"
  2986. > You don't have to see her face to know she's blushing. Massages have become a regular thing, but this is something new.
  2987. > You think it over.
  2988. "I can't see why not. Plenty of room."
  2989. > Lewd thoughts are no longer a problem. You've had a lot of practice with Fluttershy and a quick, private shower every evening allows you to keep a handle on things.
  2990. "I'll just go wash up and change. You should get some dinner, too."
  2991. > She thinks about it, but doesn't move. "Nah, I'm fine. Just cover me up, please?"
  2992. > You oblige. Maneuvering the blanket from under her is a little awkward, but you manage.
  2993. > The others are sleepily watching something that looks like a musical from the sixties. They barely glance up at you when you pass them on the way to the bathroom.
  2994. > You've got pajamas now, at least. The ponies all laughed the first time you wore them, but they're used to it now.
  2995. > It's still strange to them that you have to wear clothes all the time.
  2996. > A quick pat and a whispered 'good night' to each of them, then you turn in for the day.
  2997. > Twilight is out again and doesn't even wake up when you slide under the covers.
  2998. > Pleasantly warm, which is very nice.
  2999. > You wake up briefly when the front door opens, but you hear Zoe make her goodbyes. She had slept over a few times, on the couch, but it seems she's going home today.
  3000. > Then the hoofsteps as Fluttershy enters the bedroom. She starts to climb up on the bed, but freezes.
  3001. > "T-Twilight?" she asks with some surprise.
  3002. "Ssh, she's asleep. Go around, there's room on the other side."
  3003. > The pony thinks about it. "But Anon, that's my spot. I'll get nightmares-"
  3004. > She's no longer whispering and you feel Twilight move in your arms.
  3005. "Don't worry, it'll be fine. I'm right here."
  3006. > Fluttershy seems to think about it. "No, I don't think that's going to work. Can, um, can't Twilight go on the couch with the others?"
  3007. > You're dumbstruck. You didn't imagine Fluttershy would have a jealous side.
  3008. "Don't be silly, there's enough room."
  3009. > The touch of anger in her voice worries you. "No, I would prefer if she wasn't here."
  3010. > Finally, the mare in your arms wakes up fully and raises her head. "Fluttershy? What's wrong?"
  3011. > Before you can explain, the pegasus makes her demand: "You're in my place, Twilight, and I'd appreciate it if you could leave."
  3012. > "What?" the purple horse says what you're thinking. "Fluttershy, what has gotten into you? Just get in, we're all friends here."
  3013. > You can see the pegasus shake her head in the dim light. "No, I just don't think that's a good idea. I have to ask you to leave."
  3014. > Twilight keeps trying. "Fluttershy, don't be silly. You're acting as if you own Anon and his bed."
  3015. > You feel yourself nod, even as the pegasus stamps her hoof.
  3016. > It's not very effective on the soft bed, but the gesture is very unlike her.
  3017. > "I'm sorry, Twilight, but Anon was mine first! You're just going to have to accept that."
  3018. "Wait, wait. What do you mean 'yours'?"
  3019. > The shock seems to have given you back the power to speak.
  3020. > "He was there for me when I needed him," the yellow mare explains. It sounds like she's nearing the end of her patience. "And I've always known he likes me. Likes me a lot."
  3021. > She seems to reconsider that last part. "No, he loves me! And I love him. So, if you could just get out of *our* bed, we don't have to say anything more about this little disagreement!"
  3022. > Both you and Twilight speak up at the same time.
  3023. "What?!"
  3024. > "Loves you?"
  3025. > Fluttershy goes on, unperturbed: "That's right. We're in love and that's just how it is. You'll just have to accept it and find a nice man of your own!"
  3026. > That's deeply worrying, but you have to try and set the record straight.
  3027. "Fluttershy, stop. We're not in love. I let you sleep here because it helped you with your nightmares. Nothing more. I thought we were just good friends."
  3028. > She doesn't want to hear it. "No, we're in love. That's why you've been so nice to me. I've wanted you for a long time, but you told me you're not ready yet. But that doesn't change anything."
  3029. > You guiltily half-remember a sleepy conversation a few weeks prior.
  3030. "I didn't mean it like that, Shy. You've got the wrong impression."
  3031. > She's starting to cry. "You're just saying that to spare Twilight her feelings!"
  3032. "No, it's the truth. I'm sorry if you got the wrong idea, but this - what you're saying - it isn't true."
  3033. > The pegasus doesn't want to talk to you. She turns her tear-filled gaze on Twilight.
  3034. > "This is all your fault! You were jealous so you had to steal him from me! You're a bad friend and I don't want to see you ever again!"
  3035. > Then she's out of the room before either of you can say anything.
  3036. > Twilight is getting up. "I- I should go talk to her."
  3037. "You think it will help?"
  3038. > "I have to try. I don't think it's a good idea I sleep here tonight."
  3039. > She's probably right. You say as much and then she leaves.
  3040. > You feel stupid. You've never even thought about talking seriously with Fluttershy about your sleeping arrangements. You had no ulterior intentions and so you've just assumed she didn't, either.
  3041. > You scan your memories and maybe the signs were there.
  3042. > Whenever you've sat on the couch with any other pony, Fluttershy squeezed in between you and her.
  3043. > She always sat next to you around the table.
  3044. > She had a tendency to barge in whenever you were alone with Twilight and ask for your help with something silly in the other room.
  3045. > When driving around in the car, she insisted to take the middle seat in the back. Then she kept her muzzle on your shoulder the entire time.
  3046. > You also think she was deliberately showing you her... 'mare bits'. But you *really* hope that one is just your imagination.
  3047. > Jeez, what a mess.
  3048. > Can you even fix this?
  3049. > You waited for a while, hoping Twilight can work it out. But eventually you just fell asleep.
  3050. > It barely registers when a pony is getting into your bed. You wake up about half way, just enough to see it's Twilight.
  3051. "Wh' happened? Y' okay now?"
  3052. > You hold up the covers and she snuggles in. "Everything is fine, Anon. We had a talk and we've reached an agreement."
  3053. > Well, that's a relief.
  3054. "G'd."
  3055. > A few minutes pass in silence. Or might have been a few hours. Suddenly the room is getting brighter as dawn approaches.
  3056. > You try to put your finger on what woke you up this early.
  3057. > Why is the pony licking your face? She pauses to breathe heavily and you feel her shudder against you.
  3058. > You're instantly awake. With mounting horror you become aware of the situation.
  3059. > She gripping your arm against her belly. Your fingers are right in her...
  3060. > Oh. OH!
  3061. > You remove your hand from the wet and warm spot. The sheet feels completely soaked. But the pony doesn't release your arm.
  3062. "What the hell are you doing?"
  3063. > She groans slightly. "No, please don't stop!"
  3064. > You sit up and forcefully dislodge her.
  3065. > What do you even say?
  3066. "Damn it Twilight, what's gotten into you?"
  3067. > She reaches up and plants a wet kiss on the side of your neck before you can react. It makes you shift further away.
  3068. > "Come on," she pleads. "I want it. It's my time of the year. Nopony has to know!"
  3069. > She's in heat. It does explain things.
  3070. > Maybe, though...
  3071. "No!"
  3072. > With Fluttershy's emotional state this would cause too many problems.
  3073. > Not to mention it's wrong. Poor mare is just a slave of her hormones right now.
  3074. "Pull yourself together, Twilight. You're better than this."
  3075. > She lets her head fall. "You're right. I just can't control myself. I'm sorry."
  3076. "What happened with Fluttershy last night?"
  3077. > Now she looks away, clearly embarrassed.
  3078. > "She wouldn't talk to me. I think she knows... about my condition. That's why she got so mad yesterday, I think."
  3079. > You shake your head sadly.
  3080. "I'm disappointed. Coming in here, doing- that. Some friend you are."
  3081. > Great, now she's about to cry. But you stand by your opinion. Let her stew in it for a while, maybe it will help her control the urges.
  3082. "I'll go talk to 'Shy."
  3083. > You find the terrace door slightly ajar. The ponies are able to open it, but they can't close it properly after themselves.
  3084. > The pegasus is sitting in a lawn chair, watching the horizon. It's not morning yet, but you can already see the pink in the east. It will be sunrise, soon.
  3085. > You take the chair by her side.
  3086. "Morning."
  3087. > She doesn't look at you.
  3088. "You okay?"
  3089. > She still doesn't look at you, but you see her exhale a breath she had been holding.
  3090. > "Not really."
  3091. "Want to talk to me?"
  3092. > "Not really."
  3093. > You reach over and try to scratch her ear, but she ducks out of the way.
  3094. > The pony needs something to do. You try to come up with an idea.
  3095. > Maybe if you get her a pet to care for - a bunny or a hamster. Something like that.
  3096. > You can take her to a pet store and let her choose. Maybe it will cheer her up?
  3097. > She might want all the pets, though. But you'll insist she only gets one. Maybe two.
  3098. > Three at the most and that's final.
  3099. > But right now, she is still staring into the distance.
  3100. "Want to tell me what they did to you in that place?"
  3101. > "No."
  3102. > You've read up a little on the subject. You know she should talk it over at some point, but you also know it has to be on her terms and in her own time.
  3103. "Just keep in mind I'm here to listen, okay?"
  3104. > Finally she looks at you. Even manages a small smile.
  3105. > "Thanks, Anon."
  3106. "Anyway, Twilight wanted to apologise for the way she acted. But you need to say you're sorry, too."
  3107. > Her head snaps back and it looks like she's about to argue again. But then her ears sag and she just nods.
  3108. > "I can smell... her. On you."
  3109. > Oh boy.
  3110. "Twilight's going into heat. But nothing happened. She's sorry."
  3111. > She gives a half-hearted nod. "I know."
  3112. > Okay, just walk over this minefield and you'll be in the clear.
  3113. "I don't want to be the reason you stop being friends. Just so you know, I'm not 'choosing' either of you."
  3114. > No answer, this time. But she is looking at you with an expression you can't quite read.
  3115. "You can sleep next to me, if it helps with your nightmares, but no funny business, okay?"
  3116. > "And Twilight?"
  3117. > If you give in now, the pegasus would be encouraged to try and get her way again. Or so you think. Well, you don't really know, but it sounds plausible.
  3118. "She can also, if she wants. But we'll talk about it. Politely."
  3119. > Now her face looks like defeat. But she gives a small nod. "Yes, Anon."
  3120. > Maybe, once she has a furry animal, she'll get less needy. She probably just needs someone to care for.
  3121. > After all, that was what got Rarity through her worst time.
  3122. "Okay, come here for a hug and let's watch this sunrise together."
  3123. > There's that smile. Faint, but present. She carefully steps over the gap between the chairs. Her wings extend a little to help her balance.
  3124. > Then she sits in your lap and nuzzles up against you.
  3125. > Her right wing goes around your shoulders. The feathers tickle your bare arms, but you don't mind.
  3126. > Both of you watch the sky in silence as the first bit of bright orange peeks above the distant mountains.
  3127. > As the brilliance intensifies, you feel the pony in your arms relax.
  3128. > "I'm sorry I acted so mean," she says again, unprompted.
  3129. "Go say that to Twilight and make up."
  3130. > She wriggles a little closer, tickling you with her feathers again. "In a minute."
  3131. > You're enjoying the sensation of her warmth, but you sternly remind yourself it can't go any further.
  3132. > Maybe, if there was just one of them with you, something could develop. But with both, all you'd accomplish is destroy their friendship.
  3133. > Twilight bursts out the door. "Mmmpfh!" she tries to say, but there's something in her mouth.
  3134. > You see that she's carrying your phone, so you quickly take it.
  3135. > "Anon, you gotta see this!" she says now that she can.
  3136. > Fluttershy doesn't move, but her ears perk up.
  3137. > You wipe a bit of spittle from the screen and push the button. It lights up and your heart jumps in your throat.
  3138. > The message is from your search program. You don't see what it says, because all your attention is on that word.
  3139. > 'Applejack'
  3140. > You've frozen up, but Twilight bumps you with her nose. "What does it say? Did it find Applejack? READ IT!"
  3141. "Oh, right. Sorry."
  3142. > Quick as you can, you open the message. It's a photo. The caption says: "Cognitive NN, possible match: Applejack (43%)"
  3143. > The image is one of those crazy Google satellite close-ups. The date on the image is less than a week in the past.
  3144. > It shows a suburban street, rows of similar houses with green lawns and pools. There is a red square around an orange blur in one of the gardens.
  3145. > You zoom in as far as you can. With a bit of imagination, you can almost see a pony lying on her side. There's even a bit of brown where you think a head would be. Like a hat.
  3146. > Maybe, if you squint, a pixel or two of red on her flank. The yellow of her mane is probably imagination, though.
  3147. "I dunno," you admit.
  3148. > You show the phone to Twilight and her face lights up.
  3149. > "That's her! That's Applejack!"
  3150. > You also show it to Fluttershy, who had started shaking with excitement.
  3151. > She nods. "Yes, I see it too. That's definitely her, Anon. We have to go find her!"
  3152. > You're a little skeptical. The image is very blurry and you all might just be imagining what you want to see.
  3153. > It could also be, for example, a weird blow-up pool for kids. The algorithm is only 40% certain.
  3154. > For all you know, it could also be some kind of plushy toy.
  3155. "Well, let's not get our hopes up too high. We'll definitely check it out. I'll change the program to focus more on this area."
  3156. > They seem disappointed. "We're- we're not going to drive there?" Twilight asks.
  3157. > You check the town and state.
  3158. "That's almost eight hundred miles. It'd take two or three days just to drive out there."
  3159. > They both look at you in shock. "So?!" the ask in unison.
  3160. > You sigh. Looks like road trip time. Unless.
  3161. "How about this. I'll try and find phone numbers of people who live in this house. And some neighbors, too. We can call them and ask if it really is Applejack."
  3162. > The ponies think this over. Twilight finds a flaw immediately. "What if they lie and say no?"
  3163. "One of the neighbors should tell the truth. And meanwhile the computer will go through all news, blogs, photos, twitter... Everything it can find in that town."
  3164. > You do a quick mental calculation.
  3165. "If there is anything, it should find it in about a day."
  3166. > They seem satisfied with the answer.
  3167. "Anyway, let's get breakfast going."
  3168. > The mention of the food causes Fluttershy's stomach to growl.
  3169. > She grins and blushes, embarrassed.
  3170. > "Oh, sorry. I didn't eat last night."
  3171. "How come? I thought you and Zoe went to Pete for dinner?"
  3172. > You still don't know how to feel about that. You guess if the guy really has changed, and if Zoe was with them at all times, it should be okay.
  3173. > The pegasus lowers hey eyes to the ground. "We, um, had a fight."
  3174. > Or maybe you were wrong. You're about to ask, but she goes ahead and tells it on her own.
  3175. > "He kept trying to convince me to stay with him. I kept saying no. Then he got angry and started yelling." She heaves a sigh. "Zoe hit him and then we left."
  3176. > You'd be glad, but not with that expression on her face. You put your arms around her barrel and squeeze.
  3177. "I'm sorry to hear that."
  3178. > She leans her head back against your chest. "Maybe that's why I acted so jealous. You're the nicest human I've met and I guess I didn't like the thought of sharing."
  3179. > Twilight takes the cue from your look. "I'm sorry too, Fluttershy. I was way out of line."
  3180. > You leave them alone to talk it over.
  3181. > ...
  3182. > You didn't tell 'Shy where you were taking her. She follows you into the store a little uneasily.
  3183. > "Um, where are we, Anon?" she asks nervously.
  3184. "Take a look."
  3185. > Her eyes go wide when she sees the interior and she starts backing away, until she is right against the door.
  3186. > It only opens inward, so she can't get out.
  3187. > You can see her shaking her head. "No, no, I can't, no. Please, let's get out of here. I just can't."
  3188. > And there are tears in her eyes. You can't make sense of it.
  3189. "What's wrong, Fluttershy? I thought you'd like a little furry friend."
  3190. > She tries to speak but no words come out. She's still shaking her head vehemently.
  3191. > You try for the direct approach. The employee - a very 'goth-looking' girl is staring at the pony. It's obvious she knows about them - it's been all over the news lately. But she definitely hasn't seen one yet.
  3192. "Hey, could you let her see a bunny up close? I'm looking for a pet for her."
  3193. > The girl seems to snap out of amazement. She carefully lifts a rabbit out of the central, open pen. It's too high for Fluttershy.
  3194. > The pegasus presses herself against the door as the critter is brought closer. She has her eyes closed, but is still swinging her head left and right.
  3195. > The goth girl looks at you. "You sure this is a good idea?" she asks.
  3196. > You aren't. Not anymore.
  3197. "May I?"
  3198. > She gives you the bunny. It's even softer than a pony. You realize you've never held a rabbit before. The little creature seems a tad afraid of you, but he doesn't try to wriggle away as you hold him loosely.
  3199. > You take him to Fluttershy and crouch down, so the bunny is at her eye level.
  3200. "Hey, Fluttershy. There's someone here who would like to meet you."
  3201. > The pony opens her eye for a second, then squeaks and turns away. She bangs her head against the door, then covers her face with a wing.
  3202. > "No, please no. Get it away from me. I can't. I'M SORRY! GET IT AWAY!"
  3203. > She's getting frantic and starting to scream, so you quickly back away. You give the bunny back to the girl, who was watching it all with wide, frightened eyes.
  3204. > "What the hell?" she asks you while she returns the creature to the pen.
  3205. > You quickly fish out a fifty-dollar bill and hold it out to the saleswoman.
  3206. "Look, I'm sorry about this. She's been through a lot. I thought a pet might help, but I was wrong."
  3207. > She's skeptical, but takes the money. "Well, okay. But I think you should leave."
  3208. "Yeah, you're right. I'll get her home. Sorry."
  3209. > Before you can leave, she catches your sleeve. "Was she-" the girl starts to ask, but then lowers her voice. "Was she one of those they rescued? It was on the news."
  3210. > You just nod. The anger is replaced by pity for the poor pegasus. "I'm sorry it didn't help. No hard feelings," she says.
  3211. > Quickly, you gather up Fluttershy in your arms. You're afraid she might bolt if you open the door.
  3212. > The pony presses her face against your shirt and cries.
  3213. "I'm sorry, girl. I didn't mean to upset you. Let's get you home, okay?"
  3214. > There's no response, but you imagine she's not crying as hard as before.
  3215. > ...
  3216. > "Stupid son of a bitch!" Zoe almost yells at you. You deserve it, too. "If you just asked me, I could tell you that's a stupid idea."
  3217. "How the hell was I supposed to know she'd react that way? She loves animals, for god's sake!"
  3218. > The woman has to take a deep breath. You suspect she'd punch you otherwise.
  3219. > "You were supposed to listen. Talk to her, maybe?"
  3220. > You hear the pegasus still sobbing in the living room, while Twilight and Rainbow are trying to calm her down. The other two are at the Pony Society.
  3221. "I asked, but she didn't want to talk about it."
  3222. > "Of course she didn't. That's why you listen, you idiot. Get her talking about other stuff. Eventually she'd tell you."
  3223. "She told you?"
  3224. > Zoe nods and it seems to take some of the anger out of her. "She did. And it was bad."
  3225. "Well, what happened then?"
  3226. > She shakes her head. "Not my place to say. She made me promise. You'll just have to man up and have a real conversation with her."
  3227. > It's probably a good idea.
  3228. > "And if you don't, I'll really kick your ass!"
  3229. "Okay, okay, I get it. You're taking Rainbow out to fly again next weekend, right? Can you take Twilight with you? Then I have the entire day with Fluttershy."
  3230. > She thinks for a moment. "Can we take your car?"
  3231. > You fall silent. Eventually you nod.
  3232. "Fine, just be careful."
  3233. > The way she pumps her fist doesn't inspire confidence.
  3234. > "Yes! Now, do you have the numbers?"
  3235. > It takes you a few seconds to remember what she's talking about. You look for the paper on your desk.
  3236. "The house and all the neighbors. Surnames for all and first names for most of them."
  3237. > It was a major relief that Zoe agreed to call all those people and ask about AJ.
  3238. "I hope you get something."
  3239. > "Doesn't matter. Even if they say no, I'll still drive down there. But you're paying for motels and gas."
  3240. > Still sounds like a good deal.
  3241. "Okay. Give the data miner a few more hours. Maybe it will come up with something more definitive."
  3242. > "You've got until tomorrow morning."
  3243. > "Excuse me, Anon," Twilight says right behind you.
  3244. > How haven't you heard her approach?
  3245. > "I'd like to go along."
  3246. > Zoe is up for it immediately. "Yeah. Some company. Girls out on a road trip!"
  3247. > The pony smiles. Doesn't seem like you have much of a choice.
  3248. "Fine."
  3249. > Zoe tries her luck again. "Can we take your car?"
  3250. "Not a chance!"
  3251. > "But you're still paying for gas?"
  3252. "Yes."
  3253. > She shrugs. "Well, it's something, at least."
  3254. > The mood in the apartment is subdued. Ever since Twilight and Zoe returned with the bad news.
  3255. > It was a false positive. Turns out the blur you all had hoped would be AJ was actually a wooden rocking horse. Apparently the daughter of the family was a fan of the show and had decided to paint it.
  3256. > And then left it outside on the exact day the satellite photo was taken.
  3257. > What are even the odds?
  3258. > You felt a small tinge of pride that your software found it that quickly. But you're back to square one.
  3259. > The ponies seem to be preparing themselves for the worst.
  3260. > All except Twilight. That one just threw herself into work with renewed vigor.
  3261. > Sure, a part of that was to keep herself busy during her heat. But it also seemed like she took her dashed hopes and turned them into determination.
  3262. > You can't help but admire that.
  3263. > With the pall hanging over the place, Zoe has been keeping her distance. She still took Dash out flying (in your car), but hasn't been around otherwise.
  3264. > On the plus side, Fluttershy was able to put the incident behind and her sympathy for Twilight had led to them patching things up.
  3265. > You've been staring at the same screen of code for the past hour, trying to think up a way to find Applejack.
  3266. > Nothing.
  3267. > "ANON!" the bookhorse is yelling for you. It sounds urgent, so you scamper from the lawn chair, through the flat and into your work room.
  3268. > You try not to imagine what new catastrophe might have happened as you barge in.
  3269. > But the pony is grinning from ear to ear. She's practically tap-dancing on the hardwood, her tail swishing around wildly.
  3270. > Maybe it's good news? Maybe she found AJ, somehow?
  3271. "What is it?"
  3272. > "I did it! I DID IT!" she exclaims. The others have gathered around you and are staring.
  3273. "Did what?"
  3274. > "Come, I'll show you, I'll show you," she says quickly and jumps back into the chair.
  3275. > You take your place behind it and lean your elbows on the back. You need a moment to recognize what she is working on.
  3276. "The spell optimizer?"
  3277. > Her head bobs up and down, happily. She quickly glances back to confirm you're watching, then scrolls to a particular section.
  3278. > "I finally parallelized it! I figured out where the boundaries should go, so I was able to shard it deterministically!"
  3279. > You find yourself gasping, even as the others look at each other in confusion.
  3280. "That means you can map-reduce it and-"
  3281. > "Already done!"
  3282. "And then you just shove it onto the AWS cloud-"
  3283. > "Did that too!" Her enthusiasm fades for a bit and she turns again to give you a sheepish grin. "I may have accidentally gone slightly overboard."
  3284. "Hmm?"
  3285. > "It cost over a thousand dollars. Sorry."
  3286. > You just shrug it off.
  3287. "Did it work?"
  3288. > The horse almost squeals with delight. "YES!" She deftly works the mouse to bring up two pages of text.
  3289. > Well, it's her weird 'magic' text. The right one is definitely shorter, but you can't tell much more.
  3290. > "Almost twenty percent!" Twilight says, proudly.
  3291. > You can't help yourself. You pick her up in a hug and twirl her around. A few seconds later your back lodges a complaint, but you're too excited to care.
  3292. > She lands rather heavily after a few turns, but doesn't seem to mind.
  3293. > You notice the vacant expressions on the other ponies, who are staring at your display.
  3294. > Twilight beats you with an explanation: "This means that Gray Lotus will be able to send a letter back home, to the Princesses!"
  3295. > Both she and you find yourselves knocked down and mob-hugged by warm bodies. They are all talking over each other and laughing in delight and relief.
  3296. > ...
  3297. > You had to be present for this. All six of you are standing around the poor, nervous-looking gray unicorn. Well, Dash is sitting in a wheelchair, but you can see she's as excited as the rest of you.
  3298. > The poor guy looks from one to the other, then finally at the paper Twilight is holding up in her mouth.
  3299. > "I-I suppose I c-c-ould do this..." he says, slightly uncertain. His glance goes to you.
  3300. > You are reminded that you never once came to see him practice with Twilight. You're a stranger and a human, which probably isn't helping.
  3301. "Uh, do you want me to leave? So you can concentrate?"
  3302. > He's taken aback. "Uh, no, no, that's fine," he says, looking at the floor.
  3303. > Before you can offer again, Twilight stomps her hoof impatiently. "Okay, juft like we practifed."
  3304. There are a few written pages on the floor, twisted into a roll and tied with a ribbon. The unicorn focuses on them intently.
  3305. > "Okay, I think I got it," he says, finally. "Let me just read it once more."
  3306. > Twilight holds the printed spell higher. If it weren't for her swishing tail, she would be the model of patience.
  3307. > You find yourself very interested. You've never seen magic done.
  3308. > It looks like a strain. Gray Lotus has closed his eyes and is frowning in concentration. You can see his muscles tensing up.
  3309. > After a moment, his horn lights up with brilliant white.
  3310. > It seems to pulse a few times, as the pony grunts in effort.
  3311. > Twilight had spat out the paper and is now murmuring encouragement. "Almost there," she says with a nervous shiver that belies her quiet, calm words. "You almost got it, just the last bit."
  3312. > He cries out wordlessly and leans forward, as if giving his horn a push. There is another flash of light, this time around the letters. They just to evaporate into the air before your eyes.
  3313. > Then Gray Lotus sags. He would have fallen, but Twilight and Rarity quickly catch him between themselves.
  3314. > Everyone starts cheering and you find yourself clapping your hands. The unicorn seems a little embarrassed by the display.
  3315. > "Ah, thanks," he says, his voice faint and tired.
  3316. > "Are you okay? How do you feel?" Twilight asks, her concern finally overcoming the joy of accomplishment.
  3317. > He sighs, but seems happy enough. "Just tired. I'll be fine." He seems to lean heavily on Rarity, who leads him away, presumably to a bed.
  3318. > The rest of you look at the patch of floor where the letters were. It's empty.
  3319. "So - it worked?"
  3320. > Twilight grins. In a moment she has her forelegs around your knees. "It did! It worked perfectly!"
  3321. "Okay, now what?"
  3322. > "Now we wait for a reply."
  3323. > The room, part of the Pony Society offices, looks like some kind of a meeting room. You had pushed the chairs away to make space for the spell, but now you drag a few of them back.
  3324. > Might as well sit while you wait.
  3325. > "Shouldn't take too long," Twilight says, only a little bit uncertainly.
  3326. > As you sit in silence, you think about the letter they just sent. The ponies wrote it together, with Twilight holding the pen and others dictating parts of it.
  3327. > The really gratifying bit is that they asked you for a few words, as well.
  3328. > They even sought out your opinion after it was finished.
  3329. > It had stuck in your mind.
  3330. > ~~~~~~~~~~~~
  3331. > To my dear mentor and friends, Celestia, Luna and Cadence:
  3332. > As I know you must be worried, let me start by saying that I am well - a little battered, but safe. With me are my friends: Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy as well as others.
  3333. > I will include a full list of names in one of the future letters. We are still looking for Applejack, but I remain hopeful that she will be found, alive and well.
  3334. > This world of 'humans', as they call themselves is entirely unlike anything we have been expecting. Although me and my friends have endured much pain and hardship, so have we found kindness, generosity and understanding also.
  3335. > Despite that, I must, ask you to immediately close the portals between our worlds, even if that risks us being stranded here.
  3336. > No more of our friends - your subjects - must be allowed to be taken. The human leaders do not yet give us any rights, so we are considered pets, at best. Slaves, at worst.
  3337. > I fully intend to complete my mission and rectify this error. As you have charged me, I *will* bring peace between our nations, but until then, travel between the worlds must not be permitted.
  3338. > If you can, I implore you to briefly open a new portal, through which our friends may be sent to safety. I have not yet had a chance to study the magic of these portals, so I do not know what you may be able to do.
  3339. > Now that we have a means of communication, I will be sure to send you regular letters, both to advise you of new development, and also to answer any questions you might have.
  3340. > I must keep this short, lest it overwhelm our ability to send it, but I will include short messages from each of my friends.
  3341. > ...
  3342. > And lastly, I wish to convey greetings from the human, Anonymous, who was primarily responsible for our survival. Because of him, and those like him, I have hope that peace can yet be achieved.
  3343. > Please find included a copy of the spell which allows me to send this message, as well as geographical references by which you can reply.
  3344. > I miss all of you and hope to hear from you soon.
  3345. > Twilight Sparkle
  3346. > ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  3347. > You went over the words in your mind several times, while the others talked quietly among themselves.
  3348. > You check your phone. Twenty minutes have passed.
  3349. "Maybe it will take them a while to figure it out? I can ask Sally to call me if a letter appears."
  3350. > Twilight sighs and nods. "That's probably a good idea. We're just worrying ourselves ragged, waiting here."
  3351. > You see Rarity looking uneasy with the proposal, but she doesn't say anything.
  3352. > "Five more minutes," Fluttershy says.
  3353. > You look at Twilight, who shrugs.
  3354. "Okay, five more minutes."
  3355. > They are soon up and you get up to leave.
  3356. > But there is a small explosion in the air in front of you, which pushes you back into your chair.
  3357. > A roll of parchment falls to the floor near your feet.
  3358. > You quickly pick it up, while the others are staring in stunned silence.
  3359. > They recover soon and gather around as you slip the ribbon off and unroll it. You're about to read it, but think better of it.
  3360. > Instead, you hold it out so Twilight can see it.
  3361. > Her voice is a little unsteady as she begins, but quickly grows stronger and more confident.
  3362. > "My dearest Twilight, words cannot express the relief both I and Luna feel at finally hearing from you. When no message came for so long, I feared the worst."
  3363. > "I am happy that I can lay some of your worries to rest, however. Your friend Applejack is safe at home, having returned alone, shortly after your departure. She was grievously wounded and, as a result of her injuries, did not have much recollection of the events beyond the portal. I am happy to write that she is doing better and will make a full recovery in time."
  3364. > Twilight is forced to stop here, as the others exclaim their relief and joy. There are a few hugs exchanged and some happy words.
  3365. > "Many have wanted to follow and search for you, Applejack among them, but I could not allow it. Not after we have seen the weapons these humans possess."
  3366. > "After you did not return, Luna took it upon herself to guard the portals against further intrusion. She cannot be everywhere at all times, however, and ponies still go missing, much to our dismay."
  3367. > "I have therefore decided to heed your warning and close all the portals between our worlds. With a heavy heart, I accept the chance that we will never see each other again."
  3368. > "I have written to the Crystal Empire. Both Cadence and your brother are on their way to join me and Luna here at Canterlot. I believe that between the three of us, we can sever the connection between the worlds."
  3369. > There is some consternation among the ponies as they listen to this and a few whispers break out. Hearing that they might never get home is not easy.
  3370. > But you see their faces slowly fill with determination. If it prevented more of their kin falling into the hands of humans, they would accept exile.
  3371. > The pony plunges on.
  3372. > "Be assured, dearest Twilight, that none of us shall rest until we have exhausted every possibility of bringing you and all our subjects safely home."
  3373. > "Even as I write these words, Luna swears to you that she will see you again."
  3374. > Twilight's eyes are brimming with tears and she has a bittersweet smile on her face. She bravely pushes onward.
  3375. > "Please convey our thanks to this human, Anonymous, as well as to any others who have aided you. Despite the horrors of this conflict, I trust your judgement completely. If peace can be achieved, I have faith in your ability to bring it about."
  3376. > "Please know, that we will render you any assistance we are able from our side."
  3377. > "Let me conclude, my faithful student, by saying that in all this time, you have never been far from our hearts and minds."
  3378. > "As soon as Cadence arrives, we will form a plan of action and write to you again. Please reply as you are able."
  3379. > Twilight takes a breath and concludes. "It is signed: Celestia."
  3380. > There is silence. You see your thoughts reflected in the faces before you. A lot is going to rest on Gray Lotus' shoulders.
  3381. > Twilight glances at the bottom of the page and gives a small start. There are a few lines left.
  3382. > "P.S.: Even in these dark times you continue to astonish us with the light of  your talent. The spell you sent us for these messages is nothing short of brilliant."
  3383. > "As they always have been, the Canterlot magical library, as well as the library in the Crystal Empire are entirely at your disposal. You have but to ask and we shall send you all the spells and books you require."
  3384. > There is silence after that.
  3385. > Rarity turns out to be the most practical: "One of us will have to wait here, in case they send another letter."
  3386. > You tend to agree. The Pony Society people seemed nice so far, but now that you think about it, this is far too important. What if a cleaning lady happened to find it and throw it in the garbage?
  3387. > Dash quickly volunteers. "I'll do it. Just get me my tablet. It doesn't matter much where I am, after all."
  3388. > The white mare is right by her side. "I'll stay as well. I can keep you company and I have wanted to visit with some ponies anyway."
  3389. > "Me three!" That was Pinkie.
  3390. > Twilight is already working on a permanent solution, you recognize that expression of extreme concentration. Soon, everyone is looking at her.
  3391. > "I'll tell Celestia to send letters to your place," she says and looks at you. "That way we don't have to have someone sit in this room all the time."
  3392. "Good idea."
  3393. > Just one question left.
  3394. "How often do you think this Gray Lotus fellow can send messages?"
  3395. > The pony gives it some thought. "He'll have to rest a day or two between each. I'll see if I can reduce the spell some more."
  3396. > When you get them home, Fluttershy seems tired and plods off to bed almost immediately. You sit on the couch, trying to get your thoughts in order.
  3397. > Twilight ends up in front of you, just watching, silently.
  3398. > Almost without thinking, you put your hand on her head, letting your fingers find their way behind her ears.
  3399. > It is very relaxing for both of you. That is, until she speaks.
  3400. > "I saw it in the news the other day, Anon."
  3401. "Huh? What are you talking about?"
  3402. > "You sold off your business so you could help us."
  3403. > Oh. You tried not to think about that too much. It was done and you didn't regret it. Well, most of the time you didn't.
  3404. > "I was trying to come up with what to say. But I don't think there's any words that-"
  3405. "Hey, it's fine. It was the only thing I could think of."
  3406. > She frowns. "That's your livelihood. I can't imagine how hard that must have been. And now you have no income."
  3407. > You've thought about that. And Linda, the receptionist had given you ideas.
  3408. "I'll just start a new company. I hear some of the people would gladly come back, if I asked them."
  3409. > "I want to help you with that," she says.
  3410. "Help me, how?"
  3411. > "You said it yourself: I'm a genius." It didn't sound as if she entirely believes it herself, but she knows you do.
  3412. "Yeah, that's right."
  3413. > "I can pull my weight, if you start another software company. I can work. I want to. I have to. Thanks just isn't enough here, Anon!"
  3414. > Having seen her progress in the short time she had, you feel Twilight could do the work of any five programmers.
  3415. > "And also..." she starts, then waits. It's almost as if she's teasing you, but you know her well enough to understand she is just putting her thoughts in order.
  3416. > "I have some ideas I'd like to try out with regards to magic. I can still study it, even if I don't have-"
  3417. > She has to take a few deep breaths and you just wait.
  3418. > "I've read your science and physics. I know I'm a long way from it, but my gut tells me magic must have a physical explanation. I'd like to try and find it."
  3419. "Okay, then what?"
  3420. > "Then I can find a way to use it without... my horn. If it's a physical phenomenon, there should be a way to control it with a machine."
  3421. > She glances around, at the TV, at your phone on the table, at the computer, barely visible through the open door.
  3422. > "I would never have considered this before I saw your electronics. Anon, I suspect magic is ultimately just patterns in the brain. There *has* to be a way to emulate that!"
  3423. > You feel her conviction has a lot to do with trying to cope with her loss.
  3424. > Maybe it will never be more than a pet project. But you want to enable her to try.
  3425. "Okay, I'm sold. We'll give it a shot. But the contract I signed forbids me from opening a competing business for at least two years."
  3426. > Sam was clever and wanted to milk your patents and your people for as long as he could, before you re-entered the scene. He knew you would, eventually.
  3427. "We'll have to make sure there's enough money left over to open a small startup. I've got some ideas already and I suspect I'll come up with a few more."
  3428. > "But we can start working on them before, right?"
  3429. "Yeah. As long as we're not selling software, we can do whatever we want."
  3430. > "So I'll make sure we're ready to hit the market with some amazing products, as soon as you can start a company!"
  3431. > You can see that having a goal helps this pony a lot. And now she has several, you remember.
  3432. > Hopefully, the remaining Princesses can find a way to open new portals in different places. Doesn't really matter where - as long as Twilight knows ahead of time, she can smuggle her people away from Earth.
  3433. > Closing the existing portals should also keep the rest of their citizens safe.
  3434. > Wait, you missed something glaringly obvious.
  3435. "Twilight. If you find a way to get ponies home, that means you will also leave."
  3436. > She starts to frown and you quickly add:
  3437. "Not that I'd blame you. If you ask me, I think you should go and close the portals and make sure they never appear again."
  3438. > She chuckles at your expression. "Aw, are you gonna miss me?"
  3439. > It's only a little embarrassing, but you nod.
  3440. "Yeah."
  3441. > "Well, I don't intend to leave until *all* of my ponies are safe. There are still so many out there..."
  3442. > She didn't have to say it: enslaved.
  3443. > She lets the thought go.
  3444. > "Not to mention, I owe you big after everything you did. At the very least I'll stay until your new business takes off."
  3445. > "Also, you have some amazing music. And fingers. I'm not giving that up!"
  3446. > You don't think she meant to say that out loud, by the way she is blushing.
  3447. "Aw, that's sweet of you."
  3448. > She choses simply to ignore it. "And I wasn't lying in my letter to Celestia. I still want to talk to your leaders. I still want to try and make peace."
  3449. > The pony looks around the room again.
  3450. > "There's a lot we could both gain if we found a way to be friends."
  3451. > Damn, that brings a tear to your eye. Princess of Friendship to the core.
  3452. > "So you don't have to worry, Anon. I'm not leaving you that soon."
  3453. > Her ears droop a little and she adds. "Provided it is even possible. Shouldn't get your hopes up, Twilight, you know you can't handle another disappointment."
  3454. > She laughs weakly after talking to herself.
  3455. "Well, that answers all my questions for now."
  3456. > "Yep. I'll go work on my next letter. I'll probably need to tell them why I can't use my magic. And there are some spellbooks I have to ask for."
  3457. > She had the faraway look - unfocused eyes, head turned slightly to the side. Now she looks at you again.
  3458. > "Oh, I will need to optimize a few other spells for Gray Lotus."
  3459. "Okay?"
  3460. > She sighs and rolls her eyes. "How much am I allowed to spend on that? You know, AWS and all that?"
  3461. "Oh! Well, try and keep it under ten grand, okay?"
  3462. > When you had been thinking about pony-related expenses, you would never have guessed 'cloud computing' would be the biggest one.
  3463. > Twilight retreats to what you've started to think of as 'her study'. It's a good thing you have your laptop, otherwise you would have gotten no computer time at all in the recent weeks.
  3464. > You wait for a while longer, thinking about watching a movie or something. But then you catch a faint sound from your bedroom. You remember Fluttershy is there, supposedly asleep.
  3465. > Is she... sobbing?
  3466. > You remember you still haven't really talked to her since the pet shop. Maybe now might be a good time, given the good news and optimism of the day?
  3467. > Luckily, Twilight has started playing some music, which should give you some privacy.
  3468. > You make your way to the bedroom and find the pegasus curled up under the covers.
  3469. > She falls silent when you sit down beside her. A hoof pushes the cloth down to reveal her face.
  3470. > You break the silence.
  3471. "Wanna tell me what's wrong?"
  3472. > "I want to go home," she utters, more calmly than you expected.
  3473. "Don't worry, the Princesses will figure something out."
  3474. > She's shaking her head. "No, you don't understand. I want to go home. But I can't!"
  3475. > It almost sounds as if she's afraid of the idea.
  3476. "Why not?"
  3477. > For a minute, she just watches you, breathing slowly. You can see she's thinking about telling you, but isn't quite there yet.
  3478. > Well, you've got time. You slip your hands around her and carefully lift her from under the covers.
  3479. > The pony doesn't resist, but you feel her stiffen up.
  3480. > You deposit her in your lap, much as you would a child. Though you have to be extra careful with the delicate wings.
  3481. > One arm around her haunch to keep her steady. You use your free hand to grab the edge of your shirt and carefully wipe her face.
  3482. > After a short while, the pony relaxes in your lap and even closes her eyes.
  3483. > You get her face reasonably dry, so you release your wet shirt and simply keep caressing her with your palm.
  3484. "You know you can tell me what's wrong, right?"
  3485. > She gives a single nod.
  3486. "Would you like to?"
  3487. > This time it takes a while. But finally, she bobs her head again.
  3488. "There's no hurry, just take your time. I'm not going anywhere."
  3489. > You can feel her breathing becoming rapid. The pony throws her legs as far as they would reach around your chest and presses her face against your neck.
  3490. > It means she's looking away when she begins to talk.
  3491. > "I want to go home," she repeats again, fervently. There is longing in her voice.
  3492. > "And I miss my animal friends." She sniffs a little at the last part. "But I... I'm afraid."
  3493. > She pushes herself away somewhat, so she can face you.
  3494. > Those big, expressive eyes finally find your own. Again you almost get lost in that endless expanse of sorrow.
  3495. "What are you afraid of?"
  3496. > You feel almost as if you're being hypnotized.
  3497. > "They won't like me anymore. Won't like what I've become. They'll be afraid of me."
  3498. > You barely notice the tears that are dripping on your shirt and pants. All you want to do is hug this terrified, broken creature. But there is more and you feel it would be good for her to let it all out.
  3499. > She plunges on without prompting, but you feel her body shivering.
  3500. > "I don't know if- if I c-can ever f-f-forgive myself," she chokes out.
  3501. > "Those men made me into a- a-" she's interrupted by a hiccup before the floodgates open.
  3502. > "I'm a mooooonsteeeeer!" she cries, turning the word into a wail. She pauses and sniffs, wetly, then keeps crying.
  3503. "Hey, hey, look at me, please."
  3504. > She does so, blinking those blue eyes at you.
  3505. "You're the furthest thing from a monster I can imagine."
  3506. > You even manage a small smile.
  3507. > She's just shaking her head in disbelief. "B-b-but I did those things! They beat me and I..."
  3508. > The pony can't even say the word.
  3509. > "I couldn't help it. It h-hurt so muuuuuch!" She extends the word into a pained scream, which turns into more sobbing.
  3510. > You don't really know what to say. But she really shouldn't be beating herself up like this, that much you understand.
  3511. > You'll need to be delicate. Wait until she calms down a little again. It takes quite a while.
  3512. "I don't blame you."
  3513. > She doesn't say anything, but she's watching you again, at least.
  3514. "And I don't think anyone else will, either."
  3515. > For a moment you thought she would argue. But she just keeps looking at you, silently.
  3516. "It wasn't your fault, Fluttershy."
  3517. > "B-but-"
  3518. "It wasn't your fault."
  3519. > Her lip trembles and she takes a deep breath. You think she will cry again, but she just lets it out. Then takes another.
  3520. > You run your fingers through her mane, pausing only briefly to scratch an ear.
  3521. "You're still the nices, kindest, sweetest little pony I know. Trust me."
  3522. > Maybe it's cheesy, but you think you saw her mouth quirk up in a smile.
  3523. > By now, her face is wet again and your shirt is a mess. You use the hem to wipe her clean again.
  3524. > You start to put Fluttershy back on the bed, so you can go change, but she clings to you.
  3525. > "Please don't go!" she pleads.
  3526. "I'll just go change into my pajamas. I'll be right back."
  3527. > But one look at her face changes your mind.
  3528. "Okay, then why don't you come with me?"
  3529. > You just stand up holding her, a little unsteady on your feet, and make your way to the bathroom. That still leaves you unable to change clothes, though.
  3530. "I'm gonna put you down for a bit, but I'll be right here."
  3531. > You wait for her tentative nod before letting her slip down. There are four quiet clicks as her hooves touch the tiles.
  3532. > It's a little disconcerting the way she keeps staring at you, but you just change. Quickly and efficiently. A short splash in the sink later and you're basically ready for bed.
  3533. > You grab a fresh towel and kneel down so you can reach the pony. Again you painstakingly wipe her face dry.
  3534. > Might be a good idea to bring the towel with you, though. You drape it over your shoulder.
  3535. > She reminds you of a small child like this. Which brings an idea to mind.
  3536. "Would you like a cup of hot cocoa before bed?"
  3537. > She shakes her head, tossing her mane over her face. You brush it back before standing up.
  3538. > She follows you closely, looking around fearfully, even though she had been living in the apartment for a long time now.
  3539. > At least she hops on the bed by herself. You leave the towel on the nightstand, then sit yourself cross-legged in front of the pony.
  3540. > She quickly leans against you, nuzzling right back into your chest.
  3541. > You almost don't hear her speak. "You'll hate me if I tell you."
  3542. "Never."
  3543. > She closes her eyes and concentrates on breathing for a while. You can tell this will be difficult for her.
  3544. "Just remember, if it's too hard, you can stop anytime, okay?"
  3545. > That seems to help a lot.
  3546. > "At first they just... used me," she says, looking into the distance. Probably remembering, so you just make sure you're not gripping her too tightly, in case she wants to back away.
  3547. > "And they beat me and told me I have to act like- like it didn't happen. They wanted me to act like I was happy."
  3548. > This part you already knew, but hearing it still turns your stomach.
  3549. > "Then someone came, and..." she begins, but has to pause to wet her lips. "and he brought a bunny."
  3550. > Her voice is breaking, but Fluttershy closes her eyes and pushes onward.
  3551. > "He wanted me to-"
  3552. > You tighten your grip around her shaking body.
  3553. > "He told me to kill him. But I wouldn't. I couldn't!"
  3554. > She draws a ragged breath. Now that she's doing it, the floodgates seem to have opened. You don't think she could stop now, even if she wanted to.
  3555. > "They tied me to the bed and beat me every day. But I still couldn't do it. They didn't give me any food or water. And they still- used me."
  3556. > She can't speak anymore, so you just keep petting her until she stops crying.
  3557. > "I don't know how long I was there. I just knew it hurt."
  3558. > The tear-filled eyes seek out your face again. "I couldn't stand it anymore. I couldn't take another day."
  3559. > "I said- I said yeeeees," she draws out into a wail.
  3560. > It takes her longer before she is able to continue.
  3561. > You hope there's not much more.
  3562. > "I said yes, just so they would stop hurting me. But I still couldn't do it."
  3563. > "So then they-"
  3564. > The pony shudders at the memory. "They took the bunny. He was terrified. I tried to tell him everything would be okay, but they just..."
  3565. > "They put his head in my mouth."
  3566. > It's obvious she can't go on, but you can guess the rest.
  3567. > She's breathing rapidly now and holding onto you for dear life.
  3568. > "I tried to keep my mouth open, but they were just too strong..."
  3569. > "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, little friend," the pegasus pleads as she relives the memory.
  3570. > She hiccups and you feel warmth spread down your chest as she vomits up her dinner.
  3571. > She almost chokes on it, because she's still trying to speak. "I'M SORRY!"
  3572. > Fluttershy retches again and you quickly grab for the towel. The pajamas are beyond salvation, but you manage to stop it before it reaches the bed.
  3573. > You let her cry, while you try to think of something to do.
  3574. > In the end there's only one thing you can do. You lift the pony again, holding the towel in place with your elbow.
  3575. > She doesn't even seem aware of what's happening. You take her back to the bathroom and sit down on the edge of the tub while she cries.
  3576. > You keep Fluttershy in your lap while the tub fills. You make it hotter than you usually would and pour in some rose-scented bubble bath.
  3577. > You try to lower her in, but she subconsciously grips you harder. So you end up just slipping into the tub yourself.
  3578. > It's large enough and the warm water feels nice. You don't even care that you're fully clothed.
  3579. > As she is submersed, the pony gives a little surprised gasp and opens her eyes. They focus on you as if on a life line.
  3580. "Don't worry, you had a little accident but we'll clean you right up."
  3581. > The trust in her gaze melts your heart. You let her hold you and soak for a short while, then you carefully extricate yourself.
  3582. > You pull off the soiled top and just throw it in the sink. A moment later, the bottom part follows as well.
  3583. > You decide to leave the boxers for now.
  3584. > First, you switch the water to the showerhead and wash it carefully over her mane. You go slowly and methodically, careful not to get it in her face and eyes.
  3585. > She is still sobbing, but it seems to be subsiding.
  3586. > The pony just closes her eyes and relaxes, letting you do what you want. After she is completely soaked, you just let the showerhead fall into the water.
  3587. > Then you look for shampoo.
  3588. > You remember to pour it on your hands first, so you can warm it up. Then you knead it into her mane. You quickly work up a good lather and spread it over her fur.
  3589. > A few times you need a fresh glob of shampoo.
  3590. > Luckily, you don't have to wash her nether regions, so you just stay away from there. The tail is a bit awkward to reach, but you do your best.
  3591. > Soon the pony is more white than yellow. Then it's just a matter of fishing out the showerhead again and rinsing her.
  3592. > You remember to unplug the tub, so the dirty water can drain out while you finish washing her.
  3593. > The lack of warm water is making her shiver, so you quickly grab a towel.
  3594. > It takes a very long time to get anywhere near reasonably dry, because you're being too gentle. But the pony doesn't complain as she waits, patiently.
  3595. > The last thing to wipe is yourself.
  3596. > Just one obstacle - your wet underpants.
  3597. "Uh, could you look away for a minute?"
  3598. > She quickly understands and you see a beginning of a blush. But she complies and turns her face to the white tiles.
  3599. > Quick as you can, you remove the wet boxers, dry yourself and pull on a fresh pair from the dresser. There's no pajamas, though. But you don't think Fluttershy will mind.
  3600. "Okay. Ready for bed?"
  3601. > She almost smiles a little. It seems the bath has taken her mind off her memories for now.
  3602. > You open the bathroom door as she leaps out of the tub.
  3603. > You lead her back, wordlessly. A quick inspection shows you that the sheets are clean. You lift up the cover for the pony and she quickly climbs in.
  3604. > You can see she is still shivering a little, so you join her.
  3605. > Her fur is damp and cold as she presses herself against your skin, but you just slip your arms around her barrel and endure until she warms up a little.
  3606. > "Anon?" It is the first thing she said since telling you her dreadful story.
  3607. "Yes?
  3608. > "Do you hate me?"
  3609. "Not even a tiny bit."
  3610. > She takes a ragged, shuddering breath. "Thank you."
  3611. > Instead of a reply, you just squeeze her tighter.
  3612. > A minute passes in silence.
  3613. "Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me."
  3614. > She wriggles a little closer. Her hind hoof kicks you gently in the shin as she moves.
  3615. > "I feel a bit better now. Maybe- maybe I won't have such bad dreams tonight."
  3616. "I'll watch over you, okay?"
  3617. > Somehow you can feel that smile. "Like Luna?"
  3618. "Like Luna."
  3619. > You know you'll probably fall asleep pretty quickly, but you also know you'll take up the moment she moves. You've had a lot of practice calming her after a nightmare.
  3620. > The evening was an ordeal for the little pegasus. It will probably take her a long time to put it behind her, but maybe she was right. Maybe her dreams won't be as bad, anymore.
  3621. > It would be something, at least.
  3622. > ...
  3623. It was on all the news channels when the portals closed. You watched the TV with the ponies, sometimes worried, sometimes laughing at all the speculation and fear.
  3624. > No one could guess what that would mean in the long term, but for the moment nothing significant had changed.
  3625. > The military still occupied former portal spots. The ponies still had no legal rights.
  3626. > But the mood in your apartment was decidedly better. Even if the closing of the portals cut them off from going home, the ponies were pleased that no more of their kind would be stolen.
  3627. > You and your guests have always known that severing the link between your worlds was a gamble. There was a chance further travel would become impossible.
  3628. > You nervously awaited the next letter from Equestria, fearful that it might not arrive.
  3629. > When it popped out of the air, barely an hour after the portals closed, you could hear a collective sigh of relief from the girls.
  3630. > You quickly unrolled it and held it up for Twilight to read.
  3631. > "My dearest Twilight," she began. That line never failed to bring out a small blush. "The bridges are now closed, but it is too soon to tell if our worlds are moving apart once again."
  3632. > "We should, therefore, proceed with haste. I have asked your friends, Starlight and Sunburst, to help us devise a way to open new portals. They have correlated their findings with the map you sent us and determined the places where the walls between our worlds are thinnest."
  3633. > "Unfortunately, we cannot be sure exactly where the opening will appear, so they have created a spell, which will allow Gray Lotus to find it as soon as it opens."
  3634. > "I am not sure how long we can maintain the link, so you will have to move fast. We will await your message to set the time of the opening."
  3635. > The mare finishes with a sigh. "All three of them signed it."
  3636. > There are more papers - a map of the city with a large circle draw on it, and a spell.
  3637. > The ponies look at each other in silence until Twilight speaks up.
  3638. > "I think you should go in the first group, Rainbow Dash."
  3639. > The pegasus blinks in surprise. "What? No way I'm leaving you guys here alone!"
  3640. > It brings a smile to all their faces. Despite her disability, Dash had remained true to her element.
  3641. > Rarity is the nearest and gives the blue pegasus a hug. "And we all appreciate it, dear. But Twilight is right. We would all feel better if you went home so the doctors can take a look at you."
  3642. > Twiligt nods in agreement. "I hope we're not already too late, but if you have any chance to fly again, it's sooner, rather than later."
  3643. > The pegasus looks from one to the other. The conflict is painfully apparent on her face. The hope that Equestrian magic can give her back the use of her limbs was the only thing keeping her going.
  3644. > But she would have to leave her friends, abandoning them, in a way.
  3645. > Her ears fall flat and she looks down. "Fine. I'll go. It's not like I'm any use to you like this."
  3646. > Rarity raises her chin with a hoof. "Don't say that, dear. This time it's not about what you can do for us. It's what we can do for you."
  3647. > Twilight waits a few seconds, then continues down her mental list. "Okay, next. Pinkie, you know the ponies at the Society best. Can you pick the ones who should go home in the first round? Maybe the youngest and any injured?"
  3648. > The earth pony gives a salute. "On it!"
  3649. > But there's more. "Could you also ask Sally for a van or something? We'll need to be on the move with everyone. We may only have minutes to send them through."
  3650. > "Okey-dokey!" she says and trots all the way to the door before coming back with a sheepish grin. "I guess I'll go in the morning."
  3651. > It looks like you're next.
  3652. > Twilight walks up to you and carefully places a hoof on your knee. "I'll understand if you don't want to be a part of this, Anon," she begins. "But I'd like you to drive the car with me, Dash and Gray Lotus."
  3653. "Okay, I'll do it."
  3654. > "Hopefully, the portal will appear somewhere on a street. But we may need to break in, if it's inside a building. Are you sure you're okay with that?"
  3655. "Yeah, I understand."
  3656. > You don't like the idea, but a little light breaking and entering doesn't seem like too big of a deal.
  3657. > She quickly hugs you. "Thanks, Anon." But after a moment she's already talking again, explaining her plan.
  3658. > It's rather simple, really. Park the two vehicles in the middle of the weak spot. As soon as Gray Lotus knows where the portal is, you rush there. If needed, you'll break into a building.
  3659. > Then you send as many ponies as possible through.
  3660. > "Okay, I think that's it. I'll go along with Dash and Anon, but the rest of you should stay here."
  3661. > The murmur of agreement sounds a bit reluctant, but it's obvious to every one of them that there's only so much room in the cars.
  3662. > "Good," the purple mare finishes. "We should all get some sleep. It's gonna be a busy day tomorrow."
  3663. > ...
  3664. > The waiting is hard. You check the clock again. Eleven fifty-five. The portal would open at midnight, if all goes well.
  3665. > Gray Lotus, sitting in the passenger seat, has cast his spell and is now concentrating on keeping it up. His horn is glowing dimly.
  3666. > His eyes are shut tightly and you can see how much he is straining.
  3667. > You've agreed to start the spell ten minutes before midnight, just to be sure you don't miss it.
  3668. > You glance at the back seat, where Twilight is holding Rainbow's hoof in both of hers. No one is talking.
  3669. > Suddenly, the unicorn gasps. "I feel it!"
  3670. > Two minutes early. You look at him while he swings his head from side to side, horn flashing brighter.
  3671. > "That way," he points. "Turn around!"
  3672. > Now that it's time for action, your arms feel heavy and your response feels sluggish. But you force your limbs to operate the car anyway. As you start moving, you hear the van behind you turn on.
  3673. > Zoe had volunteered to drive it, much to Twilight's relief.
  3674. > You race along the street, ignoring the speed limit and hoping like hell there aren't any cops or pedestrians around at this hour.
  3675. > At least it's a quiet part of the city - no business, stores, restaurants. Just apartment buildings, which seem mostly dark.
  3676. > "Left here!" Gray Lotus says, his eyes still closed.
  3677. > You make the turn quickly. The van behind you follows, tires screeching.
  3678. > "A little further," the pony says. "Almost... STOP!"
  3679. > You pull over on the side of the road and and look around. Nothing that would indicate a portal.
  3680. > You look at the unicorn and he holds out his leg toward one of the buildings. "In there!"
  3681. > It's not the best outcome, but at least the opening should be at ground level. Twilight was pretty certain about that.
  3682. > You jump out of the car just as the van stops behind you. In a moment, Zoe is also outside and opening the back.
  3683. > Gray Lotus lets himself out and then helps Twilight with her door. Meanwhile, you unbuckle Dash and pick her up.
  3684. > By the time you're done, Twilight and Lotus are already at the entrance to the building. You see an intercom and guess it's locked.
  3685. > You try to come up with a good excuse for someone inside to let you in, but the mare is thinking more simply. She turns around and bucks at the door.
  3686. > It rattles and the glass breaks. She hits it again and it swings open with a crash.
  3687. > You really hope no one heard that.
  3688. > A brief looks tells you that Zoe and the others are right behind you. The two ponies ahead have already entered the building and you follow closely.
  3689. > The unicorn leads the way, his horn shining like a beacon. He takes you deeper into the building and then suddenly stops.
  3690. > The rest of you pile up behind him, staring.
  3691. > It's a small lobby with mailboxes and elevators, but in the middle of the room a green, vertical pool of light swirls gently.
  3692. > You absentmindedly note that the edge is touching the floor where it has already burned grooves into the tiles.
  3693. > Hopefully, no one will know what to make of them.
  3694. > "Quick, no time to lose," Twilight says.
  3695. > You're nudged by a dark red earth pony, who looks at you expectantly.
  3696. > "Let me take her," she says.
  3697. > Another comes near to help. You carefully lay Rainbow Dash on the first one's back, while the other is keeping the pegasus stable. Then they slowly walk toward the portal.
  3698. > You've already said your goodbyes, but you reach out just in time to ruffle her mane.
  3699. "Good luck!"
  3700. > Dash looks back and smiles. "Thanks for everything, Anon! If you're ever in Equestria, come find me!"
  3701. > You watch with interest as they step into the green light. The effect is not what you expected.
  3702. > They just seem to vanish with a small flash the moment they touch the surface.
  3703. > The apparent success encourages Twilight and she waves to the others.
  3704. > "Okay, get through, everypony. I don't know how long we have!"
  3705. > They don't need to be told twice. You watch them as they go, but you don't know any of their names.
  3706. > After the mares, who took Dash, there are three pegasi, but you can't even tell their genders. That just leaves two unicorns, who pass through together.
  3707. > Gray Lotus watches the opening wistfully. He knows he has to stay behind. His magic is the only way to send messages and find the portals.
  3708. > Twilight walks up to you and leans against your legs as you both watch the swirling green light.
  3709. > "I don't understand," she says. "They should be through by now. They should have closed it. What are they waiting for?"
  3710. > Before you can answer, there is a bright flash and you instinctively cover your eyes.
  3711. > When you look again, the circle is gone. In its place stands a white unicorn with a dark blue mane. There is a brither streak in his mane and tail.
  3712. > "Twiley!" he yells, overjoyed.
  3713. > You recognise him, but the mare beats you to it. "Shining Armor?"
  3714. > Her eyes go impossibly wide, but before she can say anything else the stallion is embracing her.
  3715. > "I'm so glad to see you again, sister," he says with a choked voice.
  3716. > Zoe taps your shoulder and nods her head toward the door. You're reminded of the danger.
  3717. "Come on, we need to get out of here."
  3718. > You're a little sad that you have to break their reunion short, but you really want to leave before anyone comes.
  3719. > They understand and quickly follow you outside.
  3720. > The street is still empty. Zoe takes Gray Lotus in the van, as you had agreed, while you lead the other two to your car. They both opt for the back, despite the baby seat, and you close the door behind them.
  3721. > ...
  3722. > It was a tearful reunion back in your living room, while you sat on the couch and waited.
  3723. > The sight of his sister's condition gave Shining a pause, but he didn't bring it up, choosing instead to focus on the good. Smart guy.
  3724. > It didn't save him from a hoof slap from Twilight. She came right out of a hug into the hit.
  3725. > "That was the stupidest, most foolhardy thing you've ever done!" she yells.
  3726. > He's as shocked as you. "But I just came to help!"
  3727. > The mare rounds up on him, wiping tears away with a leg. It's funny how the stallion, despite being larger, shrinks down under her stare.
  3728. > "You have a wife and a foal! It was irresponsible. What if you can't go back? What if something happened? What if there had been cameras?"
  3729. > Holy crap, you haven't even considered that.
  3730. "That's right! God, I never even thought of that. That could have been bad."
  3731. > The mare grins proudly, anger momentarily forgotten. "I thought about that. I gave Gray Lotus a spell to deal with them if I saw any. And relax, I looked."
  3732. > You're glad she's on your side. A mind like that...
  3733. > Shining used the interruption to prepare his argument.
  3734. > "But I'm fine, Twiley. I'm here to help you get home. All of you!"
  3735. > You suddenly realize that you have a powerful unicorn, with his horn intact, on your side.
  3736. > He keeps going: "Celestia taught me a spell. A beacon, she called it. If we get to one of the weak spots, I can cast it and they can send a portal right to us!"
  3737. > Twilight relaxes a little. "That would make it a lot easier. And safer," she admits.
  3738. > "And, I can send more letters, so it's easier to work out plans. I learned that spell, too."
  3739. > You get a feeling that the rescue will go much smoother, now.
  3740. > But it's very late and you're exhausted from all the excitement. You stand up to go to bed.
  3741. > Shining steps in your way. "You're the human, right? Anonymous?"
  3742. "Yep."
  3743. > He sits on his haunches and holds out a hoof. It takes you a moment to figure it out and shake it.
  3744. > "I wanted to thank you in person, Anonymous. What you've done - for my sister and her friends. It's-" his words fail him. "Thanks."
  3745. "Don't mention it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about ready to fall over. We'll talk in the morning, okay?"
  3746. > He nods and moves out of your way.
  3747. > You hear the others talking to the stallion as you leave. Questions about home, it sounds like, but you're not really paying attention.
  3748. > You barely manage to remove your clothes, but you're too tired to go put on pajamas. You just fall in the bed in your boxers.
  3749. > A few minutes later you feel Fluttershy slip under the covers and snuggle up.
  3750. > You try to relax, but a thought keeps bringing you back to full wakefulness.
  3751. > They will be able to leave now, probably very soon. That means no more cuddly pegasus to hold in the night. You're going to miss that.
  3752. > "Anon? What's wrong?" she says.
  3753. > You're sure you haven't said anything.
  3754. "How do you know?"
  3755. > "From how tightly you're hugging me."
  3756. > You relax your grip with a sigh.
  3757. "Sorry."
  3758. > She shuffles around to look at you. Her eyes are barely visible as dark pools in the dim light.
  3759. > "Tell me what's wrong," she commands and you find yourself obeying.
  3760. "I was just wondering. With Shining Armor and his spells, you'll all be able to leave very soon. Are you okay with going home? What if the nightmares come back?"
  3761. > She actually giggles! "Aw, Anon. Will you miss me?"
  3762. > Damned perceptive pegasus!
  3763. > You try to form your response carefully and eloquently.
  3764. "Yes."
  3765. > Smooth.
  3766. > She bops your nose with hers, grinning in the faint light.
  3767. > "Don't worry, Twilight will stay with you and keep you warm."
  3768. > You're not so sure. You've seen how she looked at her brother. Sure, she promised to stay until she can help you get the business started. And she talked about bringing peace between the two worlds.
  3769. > But you know you'll tell her to go, when the time comes.
  3770. "I don't think that's a good idea. I don't want to keep her here. This world isn't exactly good for ponies."
  3771. > Fluttershy looks at you for a long time, then settles back down.
  3772. > You're about to do the same, but she whispers barely loud enough for you to hear.
  3773. > "She won't go. She has a crush on you."
  3774. > You feel as if you've just done the ice bucket challenge.
  3775. "What? But you're the one sleeping in my bed every night. How does any of this make sense?"
  3776. > She raises her head again and tries to explain.
  3777. > "Twilight knew I needed this, so she didn't say anything. She is a good friend. But when I go home, she'll have you all to herself."
  3778. > Another giggle. Did that pony just sound suggestive?
  3779. > It's a good thing she can't see your blush.
  3780. > "If you want, I can go sleep with the others and send Twilight in. Although, with her brother around, that might not be the best idea."
  3781. > She can't see it, but she definitely can feel the heat radiating from your cheeks.
  3782. > Well, it does sound flattering, but you push all of that aside for now.
  3783. > If Twilight decides to stay - and you intend to try and dissuade her - there will be time enough to explore these feelings.
  3784. > ...
  3785. > It isn't easy, but you manage to get some alone time with Twilight when the others take her brother to meet everyone at the Pony Society.
  3786. > You invited her out on the terrace to watch the sunset.
  3787. > It's quiet and comfortable. You realize you actually could enjoy your life with this pony by your side.
  3788. > Gotta be strong, though.
  3789. "Twilight, there's something I wanted to talk to you about."
  3790. > She is sitting on the ground next to your lawn chair, and leaning against your legs. She turns her head.
  3791. > "What is it?"
  3792. > Telling her to leave you is harder than you thought.
  3793. "With Shining here, you'll get everyone home pretty soon, right?"
  3794. > She nods happily. "Of course. Being able to communicate more frequently and having precise control of when and where the portal will appear should make it all go much smoother."
  3795. "So - a few more days?"
  3796. > She frowns and that adorable face almost makes you lose your nerve. "What are you getting at, Anon?"
  3797. "I think you should go, too."
  3798. > For a moment the pony looks heartbroken, but it's gone too quickly to be sure.
  3799. > "Why would you say that? I already promised I'd stay and help you start the new company."
  3800. > You're kinda hoping she will keep that promise.
  3801. "I know, but you'll be stuck here. We can't ask Gray Lotus to stay behind, and we sure as hell aren't asking your brother to abandon his family."
  3802. > She gives you a bittersweet smile. You're guessing she has you figured out already.
  3803. > "I appreciate the gesture, Anon. But I've made my decision. Besides, it's not just about you."
  3804. "What do you mean?"
  3805. > "There are more ponies out there. Ones we haven't rescued yet. They need someone to fight for them. To represent them."
  3806. > She turns her head away and watches the city. "I still want to talk to your government."
  3807. > There is a big flaw in her plan and you don't hesitate to point it out.
  3808. "You'll be cut off from Equestria, probably forever."
  3809. > "I'm willing to take that chance."
  3810. > Time to be firm, Anon. Just make sure you don't look into those eyes.
  3811. "Well, I'm not! The Society will keep fighting until ponies have rights. It doesn't have to be you!"
  3812. > "So what you're saying is that I shouldn't sacrifice my happiness for others?"
  3813. > Damn it. If she puts it like that it sounds selfish.
  3814. "No! Yes! The hell I know."
  3815. > You sigh deeply.
  3816. "I guess I just don't want you regretting this decision later."
  3817. > She is silent for a long while. Then she climbs up on the chair, awkwardly balancing with a hoof on your knee. She's too close and you can't help but look into her eyes.
  3818. > It hits you like a train. Somewhere along the way, you've fallen for this pony and almost didn't realize it.
  3819. > All the late nights you've stayed up on the couch, talking maths and computers.
  3820. > The mornings when you've found her curled up next to the computer or somehow dangling between the desk and the chair.
  3821. > How you've carefully picked her up and took her to the couch and she didn't even wake up.
  3822. > Not until you've waved a cup of coffee under her nose.
  3823. > The way she sometimes nuzzled into you as you draped an arm around her shoulders, watching a bad movie.
  3824. > Her excitement as she explored the Internet.
  3825. > You know you can't just let it end.
  3826. > It looks like she's thinking the same thing. A single tear drops and lands on your hand.
  3827. > "If I go, I might regret it just as much," she says, quietly. "I have found happiness here, too."
  3828. > God damn it, right in the feels.
  3829. > You can't help it, your arms go around her and you draw her near.
  3830. > The intention was to bring her in for a hug, but she doesn't want that.
  3831. > Instead, her face meets yours. Her lips touch yours.
  3832. > All you can think in this moment is how her fur tickles you. How warm it feels.
  3833. > You just let it happen and empty your mind of thought.
  3834. > For a long, blissful moment, there is just the kiss. You share her breath and she yours.
  3835. > Hooves find your face, then wrap around your neck and pull you closer.
  3836. > Then it ends, suddenly.
  3837. > You open your eyes and stare in awe. She still has hers shut, a small smile playing on her lips.
  3838. > All at once you understand why you've had such trouble in the past.
  3839. > It has always been about lust.
  3840. > But not this time.
  3841. > You want this creature to be safe. Happy. Free.
  3842. > Is this love? Is this what was missing?
  3843. > You desperately want to find out.
  3844. > A hand finds her face and she opens her eyes.
  3845. > "I want to stay. I want to find out what happens next."
  3846. > Finally, she leans against your chest and releases you from that hypnotic gaze.
  3847. > "I want to know what it's like without the pain and fear. I want to say yes and see how beautiful it is *supposed* to be."
  3848. "Yes."
  3849. > She draws a deep breath and lets it out. It feels nice against your arm.
  3850. > "If it makes you feel any better, I'll tell the other Princesses to open the portal again after a few years, just for a minute or two. That way I can go home, if I really want to."
  3851. > Now you're hoping she won't want to.
  3852. > Well, you'll just have to buckle up and make her want to stay.
  3853. > ...
  3854. > You're still holding her when the others return. It is dark, but you aren't really looking at anything in particular.
  3855. > Fluttershy is the one who finds you. She's about to speak, but you put your finger carefully on your lips.
  3856. > Twilight is asleep in your arms and you'd like to keep it that way for a while longer.
  3857. > The pegasus understands. She gives you a smile and a wink and returns inside. You hear faint whispering and then nothing.
  3858. > Twenty minutes pass. Twenty minutes of bliss as the pony snuggles against you.
  3859. > It is very different from holding Fluttershy. That was to help her nightmares. But this... this is nice.
  3860. > She breathes faster than you, each lungful gently rocking her against your chest. Every now and then a hoof or an ear twitches.
  3861. > But your absolute favourite is when she partly wakes up and shuffles around, wriggling closer against you.
  3862. > Eventually, Shining Armor joins you. You can't decode his expression, but he doesn't say anything as he takes the other chair and watches you.
  3863. > Eventually, he speaks in a whisper. He obviously doesn't want to wake his sister.
  3864. > "I don't think I've ever seen her so relaxed."
  3865. > You just shrug carefully, unwilling to wake the little mare in your lap.
  3866. > "You really do care for her."
  3867. > It wasn't a question, but you nod anyway.
  3868. > Unfortunately, that's too much and Twilight yawns. A moment later she opens her eyes. But, to your relief, she doesn't seem to want to move.
  3869. > "Shining?" she asks. "What time is it? I should finish my letter so you can send it-"
  3870. > "Hush, Twiley," the stallion says, no longer whispering. "There's no hurry, just rest a little."
  3871. > She realizes where she is and who's watching. "Oh! It's not what it looks like! I was just-"
  3872. > You and Shining both laugh at the flustered pony.
  3873. > "Relax, Twiley. I'm okay with this."
  3874. > Now she's indignant. You feel her hoof stomp down on your thigh. "Good!" she says. "I mean, it's not your decision anyway."
  3875. > It might be a good time to change the topic.
  3876. "So, what's the plan?"
  3877. > Shining Armor pauses for a second before explaining. Whatever he might have said just now, you feel he still has some reservations about humans.
  3878. > Seeing what they have done to his sister has probably caused that.
  3879. > "I've sent more maps to Starlight Glimmer and she found a spot with much thinner walls, about three hours' trot from the city. I talked with Sally and she agreed to arrange transport for all the ponies. If I cast the beacon there, the Princesses can keep the portal open for much longer - long enough for all of us to go through."
  3880. "Good."
  3881. > "I'm not going," Twilight speaks up.
  3882. > It's almost comical. Her brother is now in the same position your were earlier - trying to talk her out of it.
  3883. > "What are you saying? Twilight, you have to go! I'm not leaving you here, alone!"
  3884. > She's still resolute. Maybe even more so. "I won't be alone. And there are still ponies on Earth. They need a voice. They are technically my subjects so it's my duty to protect them!"
  3885. > He puts his hoof down. "I am not discussing this, Twilight. You're going and that's final!"
  3886. > "No," she says and blows air out her nose.
  3887. > The stallion almost growls back in anger. "You. Are. Going."
  3888. > But she is a match in stubbornness. "No. I'm. Not."
  3889. > They stare at each other for a long time. Finally, Shining lowers his head.
  3890. > "There's no talking you out of it, is there?"
  3891. > The mare shakes her head.
  3892. > "I could just drag you through."
  3893. > She snorts. "And I could hoof you across the snout."
  3894. > You know she wouldn't stand a chance against his magic without hers, but the certainty in her words makes you believe she would actually win.
  3895. > It seems Shining is thinking the same thing.
  3896. > "Okay. But I hope you know what you're doing," he concedes.
  3897. > Twilight looks at you and grins. "I'm not, but I still want to do it."
  3898. > Before they could argue any more, there is a pop and a flash in the apartment behind you. The ponies look at each other.
  3899. > "A letter!" they both yell in unison.
  3900. > A few seconds later they're running inside and you're doubled over around where her hoof pushed against your stomach.
  3901. > Pony kicks like a mule. You hope she never has reason to really buck you.
  3902. > Anyway, you don't have to get up just yet. You can nurse yourself back to health. If only you had a-
  3903. > "Enjoy!" Pinkie says right in your ear.
  3904. > You almost scream and jump out of the chair.
  3905. "Don't sneak up on me like that..."
  3906. > Your voice trails off as you don't see the pony. Was it only your imagination?
  3907. > There is a glass on the ground next to your foot. It's exactly what you thought about - a Margarita.
  3908. > You guess Pinkie is almost back to normal. Maybe it's a good thing they're going home soon.
  3909. > That particular pony is completely bonkers.
  3910. > The cocktail is good, though.
  3911. > You're almost done with it when you hear a clop of running hooves on the tiled terrace floor.
  3912. > She has to have a sixth sense or something to know just when you're about to run out of drink.
  3913. > But it's not Pinkie. Twilight jumps back into your lap.
  3914. > You catch her with a muffled 'oof', barely managing to get the glass out of the way.
  3915. > Luckily there wasn't much left to spill on your shirt.
  3916. > But that concern is secondary as the mare hugs the breath out of you.
  3917. > "YES! Yesyesyesyesyes!" she says, forgetting how to make sense.
  3918. "What is it?"
  3919. > Her excitement is contagious and you're grinning stupidly.
  3920. > "Celestia sent me a package from Zecora. She's an enchantress who lives in the Everfree forest, and-"
  3921. "I know, I know. What did she send you?"
  3922. > You're too impatient to even let her finish. Besides, taht zebra was on the show, so you're familiar with her.
  3923. > The way she's grinning is making you nervous. But in a good way.
  3924. > "She says my horn will grow back, in time!" the purple mare squeals and crushes your chest again. "That means I'll get my magic back! She even sent me a potion to help it grow faster!"
  3925. > You find yourself hugging back with all your might. But Twilight doesn't even seem to feel your wet-noodle arm strength.
  3926. > She becomes serious for a moment. "Zecora says it may take a couple of years. And I'll have to learn the spells all over again. But I'm still so happy!"
  3927. "That's awesome, Twilight! I'm happy for you, too!"
  3928. > She gives you a wink. "Now I'm definitely staying! If I get my magic back, it's only a matter of time before I can send letters home. This. Is. AMAZING!"
  3929. > The childlike delight is really infectious. You don't even mind how she's bouncing on your legs.
  3930. > That will leave some bruises, but you don't even care.
  3931. > Suddenly she stops. Her eyes meet yours. You can't really see much of her face at this angle, but the faint glow of the city proves a nice highlight around her figure.
  3932. > "Ever since I met you. Back in the- in that place," she says quietly. "That's when my life started to get better. I had lost all hope, Anon. And when you first brought me here, all I wished was that you'd just kill me quickly."
  3933. > "I didn't want to suffer anymore. I just wanted it to end."
  3934. "And now?"
  3935. > She gives it some thought. "Now," she says, still quietly, "now I don't want it to end, ever."
  3936. > And just like that she's kissing you again. You put your arms around her barrel and bring her closer.
  3937. > Your lips stay locked together for eternity as you explore each other.
  3938. > Finally, almost feeling sorrow, you break it off.
  3939. > "I think- I think I love you," she admits.
  3940. > You chuckle. Horse is still braining, even at a moment like this.
  3941. "Yeah, I think I love you, too."
  3942. > Her giggle is adorable.
  3943. > But you remember your other guests. You don't want to make it any more awkward, so maybe you should keep these displays of affection to a minimum, until they are safely home.
  3944. > Good thing no one walked in on you.
  3945. > But then you notice that your cocktail has been refilled.
  3946. > Oh, that's right. Pinkie can move like a ninja if she wants to. Or if it's inconvenient for anyone.
  3947. > Strange, strange horse.
  3948. > But you're fairly certain that you're not currently being brutally murdered by Shining Armor. So you guess Pinkie had kept her trap shut, for once.
  3949. > All you can do is hope that she keeps it that way. Somehow you have a feeling the pink pony knows exactly when to keep a secret. That means murder by stallion probably won't be the way you go.
  3950. > It's something, at least.
  3951. > ...
  3952. > You're reading from your laptop, Twilight listening intently from across the coffee table in your living room.
  3953. "Okay, lower tables, some bean bags. Carpet. They don't have any kitchen appliances and furniture suitable for ponies, so I guess some kind of stool or ladder, which you can move around."
  3954. > You look up to see the pony nod, then continue.
  3955. "One of those Japanese-style floor toilets, pony-friendly door handles. I still don't know what to do about the shower, but we can probably make do until you start to get your magic back."
  3956. > She seems only a tad embarrassed. "W-will you wash me? I mean when the others are gone."
  3957. > That's right, you remember them helping each other with these things.
  3958. "Uh, yeah, sure. No problem."
  3959. > Despite it sounding a little awkward, you're looking forward to bath time with Twilight.
  3960. > She still seems uncomfortable with the plans. "Anon, you really don't have to spend all this money. I'll be fine."
  3961. "Hey, if you're gonna permanently live here, the place needs to be comfortable for you."
  3962. > "Yeah, but it can wait. Why everything now?" She mutters but you just barely overhear: "Besides, all I really need is the computer and chair."
  3963. "I should have done this six months ago. But at first I didn't want to bring construction workers in, because I didn't think you and your friends wanted to see more humans. And then I just kinda forgot about it. This is the perfect chance, really."
  3964. > You've made plans.
  3965. "We'll meet the others out there, watch them go through the portal, then we'll take a short vacation seaside. By the time we're back, the place will be ready for you."
  3966. > She insists: "You don't really need to do all that, Anon."
  3967. "Shut up and accept it, horse."
  3968. > Her laugh is pleasant. "Okay. I see there's no talking you out of it. Thanks, though."
  3969. "Okay, next thing. It's still a little early to be talking about a new company, but I've had some ideas."
  3970. > The pony quickly forgets her embarrassment about taking gifts as you start talking business. "Like what?"
  3971. "Software for the disabled. People without hands or fingers. I can't believe no one has done eye tracking and voice control. Or maybe I should say, no one has done it well enough."
  3972. > She seems skeptical. "There's money in that?"
  3973. "Well, not directly, I'm thinking we give that out for free to actual disabled people. But licensing to other companies could bring in some cash flow. Then there's that work you did on spell optimization. Some of the techniques are unusual. I smell a patent."
  3974. > Now you've gone and triggered her modesty. The blush is back.
  3975. > Mental note, make her blush more often. Shit's adorable.
  3976. > "I'm sure it's nothing special."
  3977. "Take my word for it. Oh, and I want you to be partner, if it can be done legally. And if not, we'll just do it for publicity."
  3978. > "Oh, yes, I've been meaning to ask you about that. I need to go more public."
  3979. "In what way?"
  3980. > She has obviously thought about it at some length. "Interviews, press, TV, that sort of thing. If I'm present when you open the company, that will give me more exposure."
  3981. "And what's your plan?"
  3982. > You have a vague idea, but you don't want to jump to conclusions.
  3983. > She grins, rather proud of herself. "I thought if I get a big media presence, your government won't be able to ignore me so easily. Start addressing the problems ponies face. Bring the whole slavery thing to public attention."
  3984. "Good thought. There's still a lot of noise out there with the portals closing. I'll call up a few local newspapers and ask if they want an interview with you, how's that sound?"
  3985. > "That would be perfect, Anon. But two conditions. One - we do it here. And two - you're right there beside me the entire time."
  3986. > Public speaking has always been your weak point, but you've had to make do when your company started getting attention.
  3987. "Deal."
  3988. > You glance at the clock.
  3989. "We've got some twenty minutes to kill before we need to get going. Shining said the portal will open at four and I'd like to get there with enough time  to properly say goodbye to everyone."
  3990. > The apartment already feels empty. If Twilight were leaving too, you would be quite depressed right now.
  3991. "Can't believe I'm saying this, but I'm gonna miss the girls. Even Pinkie."
  3992. > The pony laughs again. "Yeah, she has that effect on ponies. People." She remembers something. "You got your presents?"
  3993. > You nod.
  3994. "In the trunk already. Can't let them go home empty-handed."
  3995. > "Hooved," she corrects without even thinking about it. Her mind is obviously on something else.
  3996. > "Anon?"
  3997. "Mmm?"
  3998. > "Will I get my own office. I mean, when we open the company? Also, what are you going to call it?"
  3999. > You have thought about it with no success, but there's plenty of time.
  4000. "To the first: yes, if you want it. The Lead Developer has to have her own office, don't you think? And the second, I don't know yet. Something pony related - get the fact that you work there really out in the public face."
  4001. > "Lead? I don't think I'm ready for that," she says, a little uncertainly. "Are you sure people are going to listen to me?"
  4002. "It's that or the door. Our company, our rules. And you've got some time yet. Better start studying!"
  4003. > She jumps down from the chair.
  4004. "I didn't mean right now..."
  4005. > But the pony walks around the table and climbs onto the couch, next to you.
  4006. > "I just realized..."
  4007. "What?"
  4008. > "I don't want to be talking about plans and jobs, not right now. I'd rather be doing this..."
  4009. > She gives you a peck on the cheek.
  4010. "Oh."
  4011. > ...
  4012. > You're standing on a slight incline in the middle of some field. Shining was right - the spot is nicely secluded, well away from the nearest signs of civilization.
  4013. > Plus, it's the middle of the night. You watch as a multitude of ponies make their goodbyes from the Pony Society members and head down to the portal, which will take them home.
  4014. > There are quite a few tearful farewells, you see.
  4015. > The fact that the Pony Society didn't make a big fuss about letting their charges go home is really reassuring. But you've still decided to keep an eye on the organisation, make sure it doesn't become twisted from their ideals as it grows big.
  4016. > Drop some donation money and they'll be sure to listen to you, especially with Twilight by your side.
  4017. > They recognise her royal status.
  4018. > Twilight's close friends and her brother are the last ponies remaining. The humans slowly wave their goodbye and start leaving.
  4019. > You're a little surprised Zoe isn't staying, but she had hugged her friends and wished them good luck. It looks like she's driving one of the trucks.
  4020. > The people probably want to get home as soon as possible.
  4021. > There isn't much time left, but the girls approach you to say bye.
  4022. > You crouch down so they can group-hug you. There are quite a few eyes filled with tears.
  4023. > Rarity seems to speak for them all.
  4024. > "I don't know what to say, except thank you, Anon. I never thought I would see Equestria again. I won't forget what you've done for us. And me, especially."
  4025. > A bit formal, but you don't mind.
  4026. "Before you go, there's a few things left."
  4027. > You made sure to pick personalized gifts. You quickly run to the car, a short distance away and lift a cardboard crate out of the trunk.
  4028. > You bring it back and lower it to the ground. nothing in it is labelled, so you just pick randomly.
  4029. > First up is a stack of smaller boxes for Pinkie.
  4030. "Here, I got you some of my favourite board games. Hope they help you at parties and whatnot," you tell the earth pony.
  4031. > She can't take her eyes off the colorful art. "Wow, these look amazing. I can't wait to try them, Anon!"
  4032. > Then you have a much smaller box, which you open before Rarity.
  4033. > It wasn't cheap, but, you haven't cared about money this far. No point in starting now.
  4034. > She gives a little gasp as you hold up a jeweled hairpin. "It is expertly cut, the artist had really outdone himself.
  4035. "Aquamarine - the closest in color to your cutie mark."
  4036. > You get another hug instead of an answer, then she lets you put it in her hair.
  4037. > Shining seems to be impatient, looking from you to the portal, so you decide to speed it up.
  4038. > The next one was a little awkward to order, but they made it custom just for you. It's a plushy doll of a human for Fluttershy.
  4039. "Here you go, Flutters. In case you miss me too much at night."
  4040. > You delivered the line with a wink, just like you've practiced in front of a mirror.
  4041. > Everyone chuckles and the pegasus blushes a little. "T-thanks, Anon."
  4042. > The doll doesn't resemble you, though. You're not that much of a narcissist.
  4043. > The next thing, is neatly stowed in a backpack. You hold it out to them.
  4044. "This is for Rainbow Dash."
  4045. > Rarity takes it in her mouth, being the least encumbered.
  4046. > "What is it?" Pinkie asks, trying to unzip it and look inside.
  4047. "Her tablet with all her favourite music and movies. And some solar panels to charge it."
  4048. > "Oooh, she'll like that!"
  4049. > Thinking you're done, Shining Armor comes to say bye to his sister.
  4050. > They embrace, wordlessly.
  4051. > After they pull apart, he quickly wipes his tears away.
  4052. > "Don't worry, I'll write as soon as my magic comes back," the mare promises.
  4053. > "You better, or I'm coming to look for you!"
  4054. > Not knowing him very well, you got him a more formal present. A nicely crafted dress sword and a matching scabbard. He can't hold it, except with magic, but it wasn't meant to be wielded. Maybe as a wall decoration you guessed.
  4055. > Diplomacy and all that noise, right?
  4056. "Here, a little something to remember us."
  4057. > He recognises it as a weapon, which you guess would appeal to him with his position as captain of the guard. But he seems reluctant to accept, until he catches Twilight's eye.
  4058. > "Thanks, Anonymous."
  4059. > He holds it in his levitation spell and turns to the portal.
  4060. > "Let's not leave them waiting. Holding that open isn't easy," he says.
  4061. > Finally, the girls start to move. But before they are able to make two steps, there is a flash of light from the portal.
  4062. > You look quickly, hoping it hadn't closed. But it's still there.
  4063. > And standing in front of the green pool is...
  4064. > "Applejack!" Twilight cries out and runs. Mere moments later the others follow her, with you right behind them.
  4065. > The orange pony has seen better times. You see she has an eye patch and a piece of her ear is missing. There is also a bald scar along her cheek and under her jaw. She seems to be limping with her back leg.
  4066. > Bullet wounds as she escaped, you remember from one of the letters Twilight had read.
  4067. > And she has an annoyed expression. "The Princesses sent me to see what y'all are waitin' fer. It ain't exactly easy keepin' that thing open!"
  4068. > She nods her head toward the pool of light.
  4069. > But her face softens when Twilight tackles her into a hug.
  4070. > "Oh, I've missed you so much, Applejack! I'm so glad you're okay."
  4071. > The farm pony just smiles a little. "Well, it's mighty fine to see yah too, Twilight. Ah can't tell yah how relieved we were when yer letter came through!"
  4072. > Finally, the new arrival spots you. "That the human?" she asks, needlessly.
  4073. > Twilight just nods, while the others mill around, all talking at the same time. Applejack just ignores them and pushes through the crowd toward you.
  4074. > She silently looks you up and down, frowning slightly.
  4075. > You decide to make the first move and crouch down, arm extended.
  4076. > AJ shakes it, a little awkwardly.
  4077. > "They tell me that Twilight will be stayin' with yah," she says and you just bob your head.
  4078. > "Yah better take good care of her, or ah'll be comin' fer yah!"
  4079. "I swear."
  4080. > The treat from that one is actually scary, even if she's injured.
  4081. > She keeps her eyes on you for another moment, then turns back to the others, who are staring at their friend.
  4082. > "Okay, everypony. There'll be plenty of time later fer lollygaggin' and chitchat. Now we gotta move!"
  4083. > She all but pushes them into the portal, then turns around before she herself is gone.
  4084. > "Take care, Twilight. Write as yah can and don't let no human tell yah what to do."
  4085. > They embrace again, briefly, then Applejack takes a step back and vanishes.
  4086. > That just leaves Shining Armor.
  4087. > Of course he has to try again. You don't blame him. "You sure you don't want to come with me?"
  4088. > Twilight shakes her head again. "I'll be fine. Just go. This isn't goodbye forever."
  4089. > He sighs in defeat and steps into the light.
  4090. > A few moments later, it vanishes, plunging you into darkness.
  4091. > You both stare at the spot for a while longer.
  4092. "No choice, now."
  4093. > Until she can send letters herself, Twilight is cut off from her home. You hear her sigh, sadly.
  4094. > But she really stayed behind. It makes your heart warm.
  4095. > "Let's go to the motel and try to catch some sleep."
  4096. > ...
  4097. > Neither of you made it to dreamland, but that doesn't really matter.
  4098. > You sit down in your car and wait for the roof to fold back. It seems like a nice summer day and you're looking forward to a drive with your favourite pony in the passenger seat.
  4099. > Twilight is still a little thoughtful, though.
  4100. > "You think Rainbow Dash will ever fly again?"
  4101. "You kidding? Even if the doctors declare her legally dead, she'll be up and training again in about two weeks."
  4102. > The mare laughs pleasantly. It brings a smile to your lips as well.
  4103. > "Thanks, Anon."
  4104. > But there seems to be more. "You think we can ever achieve peace? I'm not even sure where to start."
  4105. > You don't want to lie to her and say it will all be alright.
  4106. "That's a big question. I don't know if it's possible, Twilight. But I do now that you're the only one who has a chance."
  4107. > "There are a lot of ponies depending on me."
  4108. "Some people, too. Anyway, miss Pony Ambassador, I rented us a cabin, right on the beach. It's a little unkempt, but I like the place. It's nice and isolated. And I left the computers at home. All this can wait."
  4109. > She snorts. "Ugh, you're no fun."
  4110. "The idea is to relax. It will all still be there, don't worry. There won't be any less work to do when we come back."
  4111. > "Well, at least I got the music in the car. Do you mind?"
  4112. > You shake your head and tap at the dashboard screen, starting Twilight's personal playlist. You read the name of the song that started playing.
  4113. "Viva la Vida?"
  4114. > It's loud, so you've had to raise your voice.
  4115. "What happened to Guns 'n' Roses?"
  4116. > The pony shrugs. "They're still on the list. But I'm all about Coldplay now!"
  4117. > It's not exactly your style of music. Twilight's taste isn't bad, but it leaves you lukewarm at most.
  4118. > Well, you both hate Country, so that's good. You can build on that.
  4119.  
  4120. > It's something, at least.

Getting Shy - Part 2 (SPG)

by awf

Getting Shy - Part 1 (SPG)

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Floor Chasing Love (NEET)

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Cutie pie (neet)

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Red Sky (SPG)

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