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Equestrian Rehab (Act 1, Part 2)

By Adjudicant
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
23rd January 2023 02:13:15 PM

  1. ===============================================
  2.  
  3. Warning! This is the second part of Act 1. If you haven't yet read the first part, you can find it here: https://ponepaste.org/5110
  4.  
  5. ================================================
  6.  
  7. ”If you don’t need anything, then fuck off! I need… I need to think...”
  8. >Your foot hurts, your throat hurts, your chest hurts, and your heart hurts.
  9. >You nearly just fucking died. Got to get out of this place.
  10. >But Celestia-
  11. >She’ll be alright. You’ve already done enough.
  12. >No, you can’t do that. Not again.
  13. >Who cares? It’s not your responsibility.
  14. >You can’t just leave her.
  15. >Why not? It wouldn't be the first time-
  16. *Clop* *Clop* Clop*
  17. >Your train of thought is broken as a stoic Coal Crusher taps the rock next to him with a hoof - his eyes looking lazily across the road with a relaxed gaze.
  18. >What’s he up to?
  19. >Trying to lure you back inside no doubt. Finishing off the job.
  20. >No, he’d probably take you down out here instead.
  21. >That’d save you a lot of hassle.
  22. >Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.
  23. “Fuck!”
  24. >Probably thinks you’re being a whiny little bitch.
  25. >He wouldn’t be in the wrong though.
  26. >Someone like you deserves it.
  27. >Especially after what you did to-
  28. >Her shocked face pops up in your head.
  29. >You couldn’t help it. You had been so scared.
  30. >Just the sight of her horn had made your core shake.
  31. >And when she reached out...
  32. >Without realizing, you’d slapped her hoof.
  33. >The look she gave you.
  34. >How could you have done that?
  35. >The fuck is wrong with you?!
  36. >And when she called out, her hoof desperately reaching after you…
  37. >To leave her sitting there like that...
  38. >Now you’re running away? Again?!
  39. “Nnnggggghhhhhhhhh!!!” you pull up the collar of your shirt and yell into the fabric.
  40. *Clop* *Clop* *Clop*
  41. >He taps the rock again.
  42. >You glare at the stallion, but he doesn’t flinch.
  43. >He doesn’t even look at you, he just continues staring off into the distance.
  44. >Here you are losing your mind, and he just sits there.
  45. >Looking like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
  46. >It’s... oddly calming.
  47.  
  48. >Just the act of him sitting there indifferently acts as a calming sedative on your fevered thought process.
  49. >Maybe the sky isn’t falling.
  50. >Standing still, you take a few deep breaths.
  51. >They come wheezing in your throat; the air like sandpaper through your bruised windpipe.
  52. >You almost feel like throwing up.
  53. >But it helps.
  54. >Slowly.
  55. >Carefully.
  56. >One step at a time; you grudgingly making your way over.
  57. >The stallion barely moves. Only his patchy and unkempt silver mane swaying in the gentle breeze that sweeps alongside the main road.
  58. >A part of you is still screaming that you should get as far away from this place as possible, but an inexplicable warmth in your chest -- and the hurt face of a certain pony -- compels you to staying.
  59. >And so you sit, your sore sternum groaning with pain as you squat down.
  60. >It’s as you make yourself comfortable however, that you realize your hand won’t stop shaking.
  61. >You stare at it briefly, before you notice the wandering blue eyes of the stallion next to you.
  62. >They quickly snap away, but it still makes you bury your shaking digits in your pocket.
  63. >And so the two of you sit there.
  64. >In silence.
  65. >Joined only by the sound of your own raspy breathing and the occasional rustling of dry leaves on the warm summer wind.
  66. >You’re expecting a lecture, possibly some accusations.
  67. >Even a few snide remarks about how you should leave this place and never return after what you did.
  68. >Still, he just sits there.
  69. >A restless part of you feels like getting mad.
  70. >Maybe bitch and moan about how woe is you.
  71. >But every time you open your mouth to vent - the sight of the deeply burnt and scarred flesh that cuts paths through his black coat silences you.
  72. >Strangely - the more you look at them; the more you relax.
  73.  
  74. >They spread from a large clump of burnt tissue on his muscular back in patchy spots, carving a scattered pattern around his barrel and head - cutting his mane shorter on some sides, and leaving a few lightning streaks of burnt flesh wrapped around his strong muzzle.
  75. >A few scars from cuts also overlap with the burnt flesh on his face. Easily giving you the impression of a pony who’s been through a lot.
  76. >Yet here he sits. By your side. As calm as the breeze blowing through his grizzled mane.
  77. >Even though all of this was probably because of a Human.
  78. >”You’ve been staring an awful lot. Find something you like?”
  79. >His sudden deep voice catches you off guard, and you quickly look away.
  80. >The fast movement triggers a sputtering cough as your breathing suddenly hitches against a sore spot in your throat.
  81. >Each heave causing a fresh spike of pain in your chest and throat.
  82. >He gives a small chuckle, but it quickly dies off.
  83. >”How you holding up?” He begins after waiting for your coughing fit to settle down.
  84. “I’ve... been better.” You softly reply as you tenderly rub your bruised throat.
  85. >”Do you mind if I have a look?”
  86. >Most of whatever malice you may have had towards him died after getting a good look at his scars. So, with only the slightest trepidation, you pull your hand back from your neck.
  87. >”Damn… Sore?”
  88. “Smarts a bit, yeah…”
  89. >”Hmph. Not surprised. Typical Unicorn horseshit.”
  90. “Huh?” You balk.
  91. >”What? Didn’t think we’d picked up a few words since arriving here?” He gives you a sly grin. ”A few of them are quite nice. Roll of the tongue real well. I’m particularly fond of Cu-”
  92. “Alright, alright-” You raise your hand with a strained laugh. “I get the picture.”
  93. >A moment passes between you as most of the remaining tension slowly drifts away.
  94. “So... That’s magic, huh?” you start.
  95.  
  96. >”Been a while since I’ve seen it. But yea, no doubt about it.”
  97. >The aura. The chiming. That phantom force.
  98. >You shudder at the memory of it.
  99. >Another few seconds of silence pass before he speaks up.
  100. >”You wanna know a secret?”
  101. >He points a hoof to his forehead as you cautiously look over at him.
  102. >”Next time one of them tries to choke you out like that? Just bop them at the base of the horn. It’s like getting punched in the jaw for them. Kills the magic right away.”
  103. >He gives you a cocky laugh as he taps his forehead.
  104. >But there’s a nagging problem that has you restless.
  105. “Look, Mr -- uhhh -- Crusher, right?”
  106. >”Please, call me Coal, Anon. Mr Crusher was my father’s name.”
  107. “Cole.”
  108. >He nods, satisfied.
  109. “I don’t mean to be rude. But, uh, shouldn’t you be making sure that mare doesn’t hurt Cell-” you hesitate slightly. “-Celestia. A mare that’s able to use magic must be quite-”
  110. >”Harmless. Relatively Harmless.” He finishes your sentence nonchalantly.
  111. >A flash of heat spikes in your face and twists your expression before you can get a handle on it.
  112. >”By unicorn standards, she’s a weak one. Hell, if you knew what was going on - big guy like you could have crossed the room in two strides and tossed her out the window.” He lets out a laugh.
  113. “Ahaha, I get it now.” You laugh along as you scratch your leg. “It's pretty funny right? Finally seeing a Human get what's coming for them”
  114. >He’s probably loving this. Bragging about how easily he could handle a little mare while you were writhing on the gro-
  115. >”Hey!” he barks and stares you down. “I’m not that kind of stallion!”
  116.  
  117. >It’s a cold, hard kind of look that cuts straight to your core.
  118. >”Trust me. Nobody should have to go through something like that. To be in a situation where your life hangs on the whims of someone else's wrath.” He slowly looks away and rubs one of his scars. “Nobody.”
  119. “... Sorry.”
  120. >He looks up at you -- surprised -- and shakes his head.
  121. >”Don’t be - It’s my fault... I’ve never been good at this kind of thing.” He reaches a hoof behind his head and rubs his neck.
  122. >“This’s the first time something like that’s happened to you, right?”
  123. “... Yeah.”
  124. >Inside your pocket, you try clenching your hand into a fist, but it still shakes.
  125. >”It’s rough, isn’t it. One moment you’re fine, the next you’re… Well…”
  126. “Mmmm…”
  127. >”I gotta say, Anon. I’m impressed though.”
  128. “Huh?”
  129. >”Nobody would have blamed you if you had just hopped in your car and drove off. Though there is one party that I think would have been quite upset.”
  130. “...”
  131. >You don’t feel like responding.
  132. >Even now you-
  133. >”Still feel like getting out of here, don’t you?”
  134. “Wha-?”
  135. >”Like I said - nobody blames you. What happened back there really was extreme.”
  136. >You pull your shaky hand from your pocket and wipe your messy face.
  137. “I don’t-”
  138. >”It’s alright - nobody blames you.” He pats your leg with a hoof.
  139. “I-I Just-”
  140. >He looks away.
  141. >”It’s okay, Anon.”
  142. >What does he-
  143. >And then you feel it. Welling from deep within.
  144. >It starts slow at first, like a bubbling feeling in your chest, before everything starts boiling over the top as your lip starts quivering.
  145. >You slowly bury your head in your hands as you feel the corners of your eyes get wet; and with a strained cry, you start wailing for all your worth.
  146. >And boy, do you cry. And you heave. And you blubber. And you groan. And you wail.
  147.  
  148. >Like poison being drawn from a wound - you exorcise all your fear into your hands, in addition to a few things you’ve been carrying around with you for a while now.
  149. >Cursing and screaming, apologizing and accusing, before settling on a sobbing silence as you come to terms with what happened.
  150. >Coal Crusher for his part just sits there. Staring off into the distance while you effectively break down.
  151. >Thankfully though, your miserable display lasts only a short while before you finally begin settling down.
  152. >With a sniff and a rub of your nose, you look back up and pull a handkerchief from your back pocket to wipe your face.
  153. >”Feels better, doesn’t it?”
  154. “Hoo yeah.” you nasally reply.
  155. >Though as you pull your hand away from your face, you find out with a scowl that it hasn’t stopped shaking.
  156. >Before Coal can notice, you shove it back into your pocket.
  157. >”Feel like heading back inside yet?”
  158. >You flinch at the thought.
  159. >After a moments of receiving no reply, Coal sighs.
  160. >”Look, Anon. If you’re worried about that unicorn, then I can-”
  161. “No. No, it’s not that. I’m… I’m more worried about someone else.”
  162. >He nods.
  163. >”I can sympathize. I really can. But I think you’re being a bit too hard on yourself.”
  164. “Nah... I don’t know about that. I think I’ll stay out here a bit longer.”
  165. >He sighs.
  166. >”Then this makes it as good a time as any I guess... Now, I don’t mean to pile it on after what you just went through, Anon. But I need to know some things.”
  167. >This time he turns his whole body towards you.
  168. >As he does so, his physical presence suddenly really stands out.
  169. >Beneath his scarred flesh is a lean and well defined physique. His muscular bulk shifting effortlessly with every slight movement as he spins towards you.
  170.  
  171. >And now that you’re down at his eye level - the critical focus in his expression, and the hard lines on his scarred face really do give you the impression of a royal guard. Or possibly - an enforcer.
  172. >Although you’ve already broken the ice with him a few times already, there’s now a steely cold judgement that washes over his eyes that puts you on edge.
  173. >”Like I said, I’m bad with the subtle stuff. So I’m gonna ask you straight up.”
  174. >This isn’t something you’re compelled to do. In fact, you can probably back out at any point. But you get the feeling that doing so would cost you something dear.
  175. >You swallow heavily and nod at him; putting away the handkerchief and straightening your messy shirt.
  176. “Okay... Go ahead.”
  177. >”How did you find her?” he opens without missing a beat.
  178. >Right off the bat is a heavy hitter, and there’s an accusatory glint in his eyes.
  179. “With money and connections.”
  180. >”Not good enough. How did you find her?” he doesn’t give an inch.
  181. “Well, how much do you want to know?”
  182. >”Enough.”
  183. “For what?”
  184. >”You’ll find out soon.”
  185. >His jaw is currently a hard line, and his ears stand to attention. If it weren’t for how he just helped you, you’d swear he’s about to bite your head off.
  186. “Fine… I paid a contact to find me a Princess, any Princess -- a hefty sum I might add -- and after a couple of months of nothing, they found me a trail.”
  187. >He soaks it in. His expression unchanging.
  188. “I’ll admit - I do have experience tracking slaves through the system. But it’s not what you think.” you say in as calm a voice as possible.
  189. >”... Go on.”
  190. “My fianc-” you pause. “-My wife… She worked as a volunteer in the refugee camps. Helping with Pony mental health. Y’know, sitting them down, discussing their problems, their worries, helping them find some kind of stability and purpose.”
  191.  
  192. >”Sounds like a good mare. Er, woman.”
  193. “Oh, she was... One day though, a patient of hers goes missing. She comes to me in tears. Says she can’t find him. But there's a lead. So she asks for some, uh, financial assistance. Something she knew I wouldn’t like.”
  194. >Again, there’s no change in his expression.
  195. “She gave me the contacts, and after a bit of humming and hawing, I provided the money. We got a hold of manifests of slaver inventories. And after a lot of hard work -- and a bit more money -- we managed to track him down and get him back to the camps.”
  196. >”And using this method... That’s how you found her?”
  197. “For her - It took a lot more cash, and a lot more time doing it by myself. I had to go through years of sloppy and misleading records. Also burnt a lot of money on bad sources. But yea, I eventually found a place that was selling three ponies with human names that had popped up several times along the trail. I got in contact with their ‘owner’, and he bent over backwards trying to sell ‘them’.”
  198. >”All this by yourself? What happened to your-”
  199. “She died.” you swiftly cut him off.
  200. >”Oh… My condolences.”
  201. >His icy mask starts wavering.
  202. “At first I thought I had the wrong place. I mean, the names were listed at -- sorry for the slaver talk -- bottom of the barrel prices, when they should have been going at a premium. I couldn’t understand. How could an Alicorn be worth this little with how rare they are?”
  203. >His eyebrows crease.
  204. “But when I walked in… Well, there’s only so many of you that have wings and horns. And the state she was in… Let's just say it made some sense why she was selling for so low. There was no way I could leave her there.”
  205. >”So… When you were carrying her before, it wasn’t because you-”
  206. >You quickly catch onto his train of thought.
  207.  
  208. “I never hurt her. She was just too weak to walk back then.”
  209. >For a moment, his piercing gaze intensifies as his bright blue orbs scan for any signs of deceit on your face. But it soon passes, and he lets out a sad sigh.
  210. >”How… How bad was it?”
  211. “That’s something that stays between me and her. I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to make do with the fact that she was quite hungry.”
  212. >”I see...” His face says he wants to ask more, but he politely relents. “One last question, if you don’t mind.”
  213. “Go for it.” You start rubbing your sore throat again.
  214. >”Why did you rescue a Princess? I mean, rich human like you - you could have had any pony you wanted by the sound of it. Why her?”
  215. “I’m beginning to ask myself the same question...”
  216. >An awkward silence hangs between you.
  217. >Coal shifts slightly as you look away, staring across the road at the sunburnt bushland.
  218. >All the while a heavy question rolling around in the back of your head.
  219. “Cole… Do you hate humans?”
  220. >The guardspony tilts his head.
  221. >”Because of what they did to me?”
  222. “Because of what they did to those you care about.”
  223. >After chewing his lip for a short while, he lets out a heavy sigh.
  224. >”If you had asked me last year? I would have cursed all of you where you stood.” he grimaces.
  225. “I’m not surprised.”
  226. >”What can I say? Ever since Princess Celestia was taken from us, things have gotten bad. Real bad. I, uh, I myself ran into some trouble. Went through a lot of rough places. Suffered a lot at the hands of bad men.”
  227. “But now?”
  228. >”Now? Things are different, I guess. After I got-” he holds out his forelegs, showing off the burn scars. “-these… Well, let’s just say that if it wasn’t for Emily getting me out when she did, I wouldn’t have survived. Literally.”
  229. >He rubs one of the larger marks with a hoof.
  230.  
  231. >”She pulled me out of a bad spot, Anon. Patched me up real good. Gave me the space I needed. Heard me out. Even when I was threatening her daily - she would just shake her head and say ‘shut up and take your medicine, you grumpy old Stallion.’” he comically imitates her country accent. A deep, hearty, nostalgic laugh escaping his lips.
  232. “I remember one evening when I was walking near the main house, I heard them arguing inside. Stint had just pulled his vanishing act on another pony that was brought in for treatment. Hid her in the bushes off the side of the property while the owner screamed bloody murder.”
  233. >His laughter dies down and takes on a sombre edge.
  234. >”By that point, we already had quite a few mouths to feed. Adding another one and losing out on any payment hurt us real bad. We could live off the land, but we had to ration medicine; and a few ponies suffered real bad.”
  235. “What happened between them?”
  236. >”She nearly threw Stint out on the street then and there, but he said he’d skip his portion as penance. They’ve been together since before I got here, and I’ve never seen her as torn as when she was watching him suffer through those next few days. I’ve never seen any human care that much about a pony. It made me stop and think to say the least.”
  237. “That’s... actually a bit of a surprise.”
  238. >”What do you mean?”
  239. “Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve only gotten the impression they’re in a bit of a, well, a toxic relationship. She’s constantly hitting him, pulling on his ear, threatening him, has him doing odd jobs. I don’t know… Doesn’t seem good. In fact, I’d say it almost feels like he’s a slav-”
  240. >”Don’t say it.” he snaps.
  241. “... Sorry.”
  242. >Coal’s shakes his head and gives you an apologetic smile.
  243.  
  244. >”Nah, it’s alright, Anon. I know you mean well. I also know what you’re talking about, sure enough. Though I think most of it comes from Emily’s end.”
  245. “Sure that it’s not your bias showing?” you jokingly ask.
  246. >”It might be.” he chuckles. “And Celestia knows Stint’s a handful. But for all their problems, he’s been the normal element.
  247. >You tilt your head at that.
  248. >”In all the time I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her hanging out with people. Sure, she has clients; but things are usually kept brief. Almost urgently short. All the other time she spends with horses, or ponies like us.”
  249. “So the problem is that she’s treating him like a horse? I thought that would be a good thing?”
  250. >”She treats him like an Earthen horse, Anon. Those big, dumb, lumbering slabs of muscle who seem to need a bit of physical encouragement from time to time.”
  251. >Oh.
  252. “I see.”
  253. >The grizzled stallion looks up to the sky.
  254. >”Combine that with the stress of having so many ponies -- fillies and colts included -- to take care of… I think the stress of it all makes them lash out at each other.
  255. “If you say so...”
  256. >”I’m not saying it’s right, or that it’s the healthiest thing there is; but it’s hard at the top, Anon. Having to take care of everyone is taxing in a lot of ways. Having someone there to help you out can really make the difference. I also get a feeling that you should take some of that to heart.”
  257. >With each word your head hangs lower, and all you can muster in reply is a solemn nod.
  258.  
  259. >”But yeah, since then I’ve learned a lot. I guess what I’m trying to say is - I did hate a lot of your kind, Anon. I still do. I hate those who kidnap us, buy us, use us, abuse us, and throw us away. I hate the ones who sits on the sidelines - pretending they don’t see anything wrong, happy to ignore everything as long as their lives stay peaceful. Buying us as pets for flippant entertainment.”
  260. >He looks back down at you.
  261. But I’ve learned that there are some good humans. They’re as rare as an honest changeling, but they’re out there. So no, I don’t hate all humans. Not anymore”
  262. >”And if you-” he lightly jabs you in the shoulder with a hoof. “Actually did save the Princess. Then I’ll easily count you as one of them. In fact, I think I’ll owe you more than I could ever repay.”
  263. >He finishes by offering a hoof.
  264. >Staring at it for a moment, you’re unsure whether you really deserve it.
  265. >But after he insistently pushes it further towards you, you relent and grasp it in your own hand, giving it a firm shake.
  266. >”Good, good. Now, I know you asked me that in the first place because you’ve got something on your chest, and you still haven’t answered my question as well. So out with it. Why did you decide to rescue the Princess?”
  267. >Just like that, he’s back to being the guardspony - stoic and steely. Ready for any response you’ll give.
  268. “Hah, you got me.”
  269. >You pull some grass from the ground and start fiddling with it.
  270. “If I had to start somewhere… Remember how I told you about my wife?”
  271. >”That she passed?”
  272. “Yeah... A large part of that was because of a pony.” You swallow heavily. “It’s hard to admit, but for a long time after she passed, I hated your kind with everything I had in me.”
  273. >Coal’s expression goes south with a vicious scowl.
  274.  
  275. “I spent a small fortune tracking down the one responsible; travelling to mines, and warehouses, and factories in search of the prick. I looked for weeks, and then months; the whole time dreaming of my revenge.”
  276. >”I’m hoping this has a happy ending, Anon.”
  277. >He tenses up while his eyes narrow threateningly.
  278. “Bear with me. Please.”
  279. >He nods.
  280. “On the way, I came across a lot of ponies in shitty situations. Tortured, beaten, starved, overworked, sleep deprived, crippled, sick, the works. At first -- and I am ashamed to admit this -- I enjoyed it. ‘Serves them right’ was all I could think as I ignored that little voice in the back of my head that said all this was wrong. Only staying briefly in each hell hole before I marched onto the next. But the further I traveled looking for him - the worse it got. Each new mine or factory or warehouse was a disgusting new pit of pain and misery that no one should ever have to suffer through. It wasn’t long before all my hate had burnt away. And all that was left was a smouldering vengeance focused on this one pony.”
  281. >The stallion is looking at you with a collected calmness. The kind you’d find before a storm.
  282. >You better wrap this up quickly.
  283. “Then one day, the trail ended. I’d found him. A crumpled corpse of shattered limbs and rotting skin. Tucked away in a decrepit shack in the corner of run down housing. He had been dead for a few days at least, but the overseer didn’t even know. Didn’t even care. I found out that the slaver responsible for getting him to and from work somehow had his head caved in by a rock-”
  284. >Coal lips spread into a dark grin.
  285. “-and yet, none of the other ponies cared enough to report it. It was a normal thing for them.”
  286. >You scratch at the back of your head as your voice starts wavering.
  287.  
  288. “He had been alone at the end. Body broken and starving. He didn’t write any notes. He didn’t leave any messages. There were no grieving friends or family around him. No ceremony to mourn his passing. He’d just lain down in his cot and died in a shack. Deep down in the middle of some god forsaken pit in the ground.”
  289. >Checking back on Coal crusher, you find he’s looking away. Staring across the street again as he bites his bottom lip. A deep pain in his eyes.
  290. “It sounds stupid, but in that moment all my malice melted away; and all I had left was pity for this poor soul. Nobody should go out like that.”
  291. >”No. They shouldn’t.”
  292. “I made a promise to my wife before she died that I thought I’d never be able to keep. But after what I saw, how could I sit back and not do anything?”
  293. >”So… You decided to find a Princess right away?”
  294. “No, not right away. I gave a lot of thought to a lot of options. I looked into buying a few mines and factories. Y’know - tear them down and free all the slaves in them. Some silly liberator fantasy. But that wouldn’t stop the trend of ponies disappearing. That wouldn’t stop the suffering. It only would have burned through all my assets and accomplished nothing in the long term. So I tried searching for a more permanent fix.”
  295. >”Find some way to stop the problem altogether?”
  296. “Exactly.”
  297. >The black stallion sits silently and chews on his lip. His eyes flicking back and forth from you to the ground. Over and Over as he mulls through the details.
  298. >”I have to admit; it’s a bit of a tall tale. But a lot of parts add up. So I’m inclined to believe you.”
  299. >You let out a sigh of relief.
  300. >”But there’s one thing you haven’t mentioned, Anon.”
  301. “What’s that, Mate?”
  302. >He gives you a surprised side-long look, but takes it in stride.
  303.  
  304. >”What was the next part in your master plan? You found Her Highness and got her back on her hooves? Then what?”
  305. >Your breath catches in your throat.
  306. “I… Don’t know.”
  307. >”Really?” he asks disbelievingly.
  308. “I had a rough plan for sure. Rescue her, help her out, then maybe transition into a support role where I provide capital funding or something like that. I never expected…”
  309. >You hold your hands out in front of you and examine them. The skin on the back of your hands is bruised and cut, the fingertips stained with small smears of your own blood; and one still hasn’t stopped its persistent shaking.
  310. “I never thought I’d…”
  311. >”Never thought you’d care about a pony, did you?” he asks as his ears start twitching.
  312. >The sound of a car approaching in the distance reaches your ears soon after, and you both sit in silence as it passes by - speeding off into the distance with a rattling thrum of its engine.
  313. “Because of my… well, my money - it was hard finding people I could trust. For the longest time I looked for someone I could be happy with. Then, one day -- surprisingly enough -- my wife to be found me instead. It was like magic. Like I’d finally found a reason for each day. Of course, that is, until she started hurting. Then everything entered a downward spiral after that. And when she passed away, I thought I’d never be happy again.”
  314. >Running a hand through your hair, you swallow heavily.
  315. >”Until you met The Princess.”
  316. “That’s right-” you chuckle wearily. “-I finally found another person -- or rather -- a pony that makes me smile...”
  317. >”As much as it might pain me to say it, I think you have the same effect on her… So, what’s the problem then?” he asks, confused.
  318. “That ‘is’ the problem, or rather - I am.”
  319.  
  320. >You can feel the shame crawling up your back.
  321. >Coal sits there, scratching the side of his head with a hoof.
  322. >”Anon, I’m a bit slow on the deeper stuff, remember? You’re gonna have to-”
  323. “I feel guilty! Alright?” you suddenly snap at him.
  324. >”What?! Because you’re interested in a pony?!” he fires back.
  325. “No! Well, I’ll admit that has made things a bit odd at times, but no!”
  326. >”Then it’s because we’re Slaves, isn’t it? Do you feel guilty because you own her?” He spits with a mocking venom in his words.
  327. “Fuck no! Jesus Christ, Cole!”
  328. >”Then what is it, Anon? Help me out here, would you? Be a Celestia-damned stallion and spit it out already!”
  329. >He looks about ready to knock your head off, but you don’t care.
  330. >With a flourish, you quickly rise to your feet.
  331. ”I feel guilty because I care about another woman that isn’t my wife, you fucking prick!”
  332. >”Look, just because you-” he stops midway through his prepared retort, a hoof pointed accusingly at you. “-oh… Oooooh.”
  333. >He smacks his face with a hoof, then looks back up at you.
  334. >”Anon… I’m really sorry.”
  335. >After letting out a heavy sigh, you take a deep breath and sit back down on the rock.
  336. “No, it’s ok… We can just call it even, I guess. And to be honest, there’s a bit more to it that I’m not letting on.”
  337. >He sits back down next to you.
  338. >”Then if it’s alright with you - I’d like to hear it out. I’ll hold my tongue till the end this time as well.”
  339. “Thank you, Coal… I think you noticed earlier that Celestia had a certain ‘aroma’ about her?”
  340. >A comical blush spreads across his dark cheeks, and he gives you a robotic nod.
  341. “She’s not in heat, Coal. At least not a natural one.”
  342. >It takes him a moment, but as the meaning behind your words sinks in - his face goes aghast; and it almost looks like he’s going to be sick.
  343.  
  344. “She’s been through so much. She’s still going through so much. And yet after saving my life, I hit her... I don’t know how much of her affection is genuine, or from the drugs; and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m taking advantage of her. Hell, I still feel that I am.”
  345. >”Is that why she’s here? To detox?” he breaks his silence.
  346. “It sure is...”
  347. >Although the confession was intensely embarrassing, it already feels like a weight has been lifted from your back.
  348. >Now that it’s out in the open, you don’t feel the creeping shame so intensely.
  349. >”Anon, I appreciate you telling me this. I really do.” Coal chimes in. ”And don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you’re misunderstanding a few things.”
  350. “Huh?”
  351. >”She isn’t our Monarch just because she’s bigger than everyone else, Anon. Her Majesty is tough as nails. And you probably can’t tell right now because of what she’s dealing with, but she’s incredibly smart. She’s lived for over a thousand years, guiding us all the way. Always there to catch us when we fell.” He straightens up, his eyes gleaming with pride. “She didn’t make it all that way with just a pretty smile and a wave of her hoof. And if you think that that little incident is enough to make her hate you; if you think she’s that petty and childish - then maybe I should be the one smack you upside the head.”
  352. “What about the drug-”
  353. >”Who cares about it. She’s going to be detoxed soon anyway, and then you’ll find out for sure.”
  354. >He puts a hoof on your shoulder.
  355. >”Even if it's not meant to be, I think that if you really do fancy her - then you should make her as happy as possible while you still can.”
  356. “And my wife?”
  357. >”I don’t know what kind of person your wife was, Anon. But do you think she’d want your memories of her scaring you away from something that makes you happy?”
  358.  
  359. >You know for a fact she wouldn’t want that.
  360. “But when I hit her, I could feel that same anger from when I was hunting down that stallion!” you weakly deflect.
  361. >”Anon… You just got choked out. That’s a natural response. Why are you trying to run away?”
  362. “I-I just-”
  363. >Why are you still throwing excuses at him?
  364. >”Y'know, I think I've realized what’s wrong with you, Anon."
  365. “And what would that be?” you cautiously reply. A dark suspicion growing in your gut.
  366. >"The money.”
  367. “Excuse me?” Alarm bells start blaring in your head.
  368. >”I’m not saying give it all away, just hear me out.” He holds up his hooves defensively.
  369. >Please no, Cole. Don’t ask for money.
  370. >”You said you don’t have many people you can trust.”
  371. “I did.”
  372. >”Because of the money.”
  373. “Cole…”
  374. >”I’m not done, Anon. Even now you’re trying to get away, because you have money. We can’t do that.” He points behind him at the practice. “This is our life. We live it every day, and we have to take everything that’s thrown at us. But you don’t have to. At any point you can walk away. Right now you’re coming up with all these stupid questions that you know the answer to. Because you're searching for some kind of cop-out so you can run away, guilt free. Because you can.”
  375. >His words make bile rise in your throat. You know exactly what he’s talking about.
  376. >”I’ve said enough; I’ll give you some time to think about things now.”
  377. >The stallion stands up and walks away.
  378. >You want to say something. Anything. But a deserved self-loathing makes you swallow your words.
  379. >”Don’t get me wrong, Anon. After hearing your story, I like you. You seem like you’ve got a good heart. Yeah, you’ve got some things you need to work through, but who doesn’t?” he calls out behind his back. “But that’s not what she needs right now. It’s not what she needs going forward.”
  380.  
  381. >Coal Crusher reaches the driveway gate and stops.
  382. >”So make up your mind already.” he yells as he lies down.
  383. >Pantomiming a yawn, he closes his eyes and feigns sleep.
  384. >Leaving you to your thoughts.
  385.  
  386. ~~~~~~~~
  387.  
  388. >For the past hour you’ve sat on this rock.
  389. >Silently sitting.
  390. >Cautiously contemplating.
  391. >Running over everything that’s happened since you found Celestia in that warehouse. Since you met your wife. Since Equestria appeared on Earth. Since you inherited your fortune.
  392. >And through all of it, there’s an uncertainty.
  393. >A constant pattern of retreat.
  394. >Coal just shined a light on a common theme throughout your entire life. But you’re not sure how you should proceed.
  395. >The guardspony in question still silently lies by the gate. His ear flicking occasionally at the sound of distant cars.
  396. >After going through the details for the umpteenth time, you still don’t have a definitive answer.
  397. >Though you do know that you can’t just run away here.
  398. >Nonetheless, having all this time to yourself has revealed itself to be a hidden blessing.
  399. >Most of this past week, you’ve been so busy with Celestia that you haven’t had much time alone.
  400. >Now that you’ve slowed down and poured over everything that’s happened, there’s a welcoming calmness that washes over you.
  401. >Your throat has stopped hurting for the most part; and though it still shakes, your hand has ceased its trembling for the most part.
  402. >You’ve dwelt enough on the past for now.
  403. >It’s high time you started moving forward again.
  404. >Taking a deep breath of the summer country air, you stand up and walk over to Coal.
  405. >He immediately perks up and stands tall as you approach.
  406. >”I was beginning to wonder if you were gonna think yourself to death.”
  407.  
  408. “Nah, Mate. I’m just a bit slow when it comes to these kinds of things.”
  409. >The stallion gives you a sly grin.
  410. >”I take it you’ve come to a decision then?”
  411. >Before you answer, you lean over slightly and reach a hand down to him.
  412. >Eyeing it carefully, he looks up at you, then back to the hand.
  413. >Then, with a quick nod to himself them, he places his hoof in your grasp.
  414. “I’m still not sure about a lot of things; but I think, for now, I need to keep moving forward and face whatever’s coming. Thank you for helping me out, Cole.”
  415. >”No. Thank you, Anon. You’ve saved me the trouble of dragging you back kicking and screaming.”
  416. >With a wicked smirk that doesn’t give away how serious he is, the guard pony turns and leads you back down the driveway.
  417. >As you walk, in the centre of the field off to your right, the ponies of the practice are hard at work assembling… Tables?
  418. >”We’ve got something of a surprise planned for tonight, provided Her Highness is feeling up for it.” he drops the not so subtle hint as a small cluster of ponies suddenly erupt in a cheer. “With the help you provided us, Anon, we’ve been able to do something like this for the first time in who knows how long.”
  419. >An uneasy voice in the back of your head whispers that they’re after your money, but you squash it quickly.
  420. >You’ve had enough of those thoughts.
  421. >Besides, the sight of a group of ponies holding up a hoof made chair in triumph -- a little filly excitedly perched on top of it -- is too precious for you to be miserable.
  422. >Soon enough though, you reach the front door.
  423. >As you reach for the handle though, Coal grabs your attention.
  424. >”I just want to let you know, Anon - from here on out, I’ve got your back. I’ll make sure no harm comes to you.”
  425.  
  426. >There’s a broader message behind that statement, but you pretend that you don’t notice it while thanking him for the support.
  427. >Carefully pushing the door open -- the stallion following closely on your heels -- you’re greeted by a strangely familiar humming.
  428. >It’s a heavenly tune that does wonders calming your nerves as you look inside.
  429. >Down the messy hallway, Velvet sits vigilantly outside ‘that’ mare’s room.
  430. >There are some flecks of blood on the ground near her, and a few holes in the wall from your desperate struggle.
  431. >You defensively rub your neck at the sight of her horn, although the fear isn’t as strong as last time.
  432. >Coal notices and gives your leg an encouraging nudge.
  433. >Velvet quickly notices both of you entering and holds up a hoof to her mouth.
  434. >”Shhhh.”
  435. >Silently, the grey unicorn then waves you over.
  436. >Backed up by Coal Crusher, you carefully tiptoe your way along the creaking wooden floors. The tremors in your hand getting stronger and stronger again with each cautious step.
  437. >As you get closer, the melodic tune in the air gets louder, as you realize it’s coming from the room.
  438. >Though you still can’t place it.
  439. >You know you’ve heard it before, but where?
  440. >Slowing to a halt as you near the door, Coal protectively moves in front of you and starts whispering to Velvet.
  441. >After sharing a back and forth series of hushed words, he tilts his head at her, takes a quick look in the room, then gives a goofy grin.
  442. >Bumping hooves with his new colleague, he takes up a post on the other side of the doorway and directs you into the room.
  443. >Every so carefully, you warily approach the doorway.
  444. >Taking a deep breath, you place a hand on the wall and cautiously peek inside.
  445.  
  446. >Ah.
  447. >That’s right.
  448. >You knew you had heard this tune before.
  449. >Driving the car.
  450. >Windows down.
  451. >Celestia in the back.
  452. >The soothing melody she hummed as the wind flowed through her wings.
  453. >How could you forget?
  454. >There she sits - curled up in the bed.
  455. >Her eyes closed as she hums.
  456. >A hoof affectionately stroking-
  457. >Your heart rate spikes while your breath starts coming sharp and shallow.
  458. >Sitting nestled into her barrel is the mare who nearly killed you.
  459. >She looks sound asleep -- like a harmless little angel -- but that doesn’t help.
  460. >In the meantime, Celestia runs a hoof carefully through her mane, over and over.
  461. >The betrayed look on her face from after you hit her flashes through your mind again, and you shamefully take a step back.
  462. >”Ehem!”
  463. >You glare angrily at Coal, as he loudly clears his throat.
  464. >He ignores your eyes boring into the back of his skull and nonchalantly acts as if he didn’t do anything.
  465. >But you realize it’s too late.
  466. >Taking a few deep breaths, you slowly look back up.
  467. >Bracing yourself for the worst.
  468. >Ready to be told you’re not wanted here anymore.
  469. >Only to be greeted by the same warm smile on her face that melted your heart when you first met.
  470. >Despite the streaks left by long faded tears on her cheeks, and some messy hair - her warm, yet tired, magenta eyes stare back affectionately at you.
  471. >Taking your breath away and leaving just a single thought.
  472. >How could you have even considered leaving?
  473. >She carefully shifts so she can get up and move away, but the maroon mare tucked into her barrel squirms and grabs her hoof - hugging it close to her chest and letting out a happy sigh.
  474. >Celestia gives you an apologetic smile.
  475. >You simply shake your head, sit down in the doorway, and smile back at her.
  476. >Your heart rate calming down once again.
  477.  
  478. >Best to keep your distance from that unicorn for the moment though.
  479. >The only reason you can even put up with being in the same room as her right now is because Celestia looks like she trusts the pony.
  480. >Plus, a strong guard or two at your back helps.
  481. >As you take a look around the ruined room, she lets out a gasp.
  482. >Pointing with a wing to her long neck, a look of concern is plastered on her face as she mouths ‘are you okay?’
  483. >You smile and nod, before tapping the back of your hand and returning her words.
  484. >She gives you a warm smile and a nod of her own, although her eyes linger on the bruised and bloody back of your hand.
  485. >Though you’d desperately like to walk up and properly talk with her, the atmosphere in the room is a calm and serene one.
  486. >It feels like a waste for a moment like this to be interrupted, and that feeling seems shared by those around you.
  487. >There’ll be a time for those words later.
  488. >As you close your eyes and rest your head against the doorway, her soothing humming resumes.
  489. >There’s a lot on your mind, and a part of you is still freaking out over what happened, but for now - you’re content with relaxing here.
  490. >A tranquilizing satisfaction sitting deep in your heart.
  491. >You didn’t run away this time. You decided to stay.
  492. >And though you’re still wary of that Unicorn, you’ll give her a chance.
  493. >For Celestia’s sake, and your own.
  494.  
  495. Part 2
  496.  
  497. >Moments in life like this are precious.
  498. >When everything settles down for just a moment.
  499. >Where everyone can sit and relax.
  500. >Allowed -- for the briefest moment -- to forget the world around them and the troubles they face.
  501. >Resting in the doorway, leaning against the door frame - this thought crosses your mind.
  502. >While Celestia hums a calming melodious tune, you sit silently and mindlessly rub your neck with a shaky hand.
  503. >Your soul drifting in a pleasant sea of calm.
  504. >Only barely cognizant of the pony who almost killed you lying only a few steps away.
  505. >An incoherent muttering escaping her lips as she holds tight the hoof of her Princess.
  506. >Locked in a deep sleep that nobody should disturb.
  507. >Behind you, Coal tries valiantly to remain as stoic and composed as a guard can.
  508. >His efforts are hampered though, as Velvet slowly scoots closer to him. Her tail occasionally flicking back and forth against his flank while she makes irrelevant small talk.
  509. >A hungry look in her eyes.
  510. >Maybe it’s just something in the air.
  511. >Your time outside has given you enough of a breather that you can now notice the subtle bite of Celestia’s scent.
  512. >She must be painfully aware of this, yet she still hums as if nothing were wrong with the world.
  513. >But like all good things in life, this moment must pass.
  514. >And it's a shame that the end of one as pleasant as this comes from suffering.
  515. *Cough* *Cough *Cough*
  516. >Like a spell was broken, you all snap out of your peaceful stupors.
  517. >Celestia’s humming stops.
  518. >The hooves of the guard ponies stationed behind you shift as they turn and assess the new development in the room.
  519. >And on the bed -- nestled in the hooves of the pony you rescued from a cage -- the amber eyes of a maroon mare shoot open.
  520.  
  521. >She doesn’t move though, instead she clutches tight the hoof resting against her chest.
  522. >Hopelessly watching on as the colt struggles.
  523. >”He’s not going to make it, is he?”
  524. >”I don’t know, Little One. We have to wait until Emily gets back.” she gently answers. “Velvet, there’s no doubt in your mind?”
  525. >A clopping of hooves on woods comes from behind, and soon the grey mare in question carefully steps past you and walks up to the sickly pony.
  526. *Cough* *Cough* *Cough*
  527. >The colt’s body heaves as his wheezing gets violent again.
  528. >As Velvet helps prop him up, she gives him a scrutinous look.
  529. >”If he’s been getting medicine daily-”
  530. >”He has! I’ve been making sure of it!” the younger unicorn blurts out. “No matter what it took…”
  531. >”Then… I’m sorry to say, Dear - but it’s just like what happened with Night Light.”
  532. >She looks sympathetically at the maroon mare, who only shrinks further into Celestia’s embrace.
  533. >A hopeless sigh escaping her dark muzzle.
  534. >The caring Alicorn pulls her Kevlar-wrapped hoof free and starts brushing the mare’s brown mane again.
  535. >”There there, young Match Stick. I know things don’t look good now, but-”
  536. >”Things don’t look good? Thing don’t look good?! I appreciate the input, Your Highness-”
  537. >Celestia frowns, and you can hear Coal crusher shifting restlessly behind you.
  538. >”But I don’t have anywhere I can go! I’m on the run-”
  539. >Hold up.
  540. >”I used up everything I had just getting here!” her voice starts cracking. “-I-I have no money left, no home, no food. I’ve just hurt the two humans who might be able to help me... I-I n-nearly-” the beginnings of tears pool in her eyes as she chokes on her words.
  541.  
  542. >”Shhhh, it wasn’t your fault, Child. You didn’t have a choice back then.” Celestia coos.
  543. >”B-But I did have one t-this time! A-And I still almost did it! Again!”
  544. >She said ‘again’.
  545. >”I-If it weren’t for you, then I would’ve... t-that man w-would be... h-he’d be… Ahaa-”
  546. >It looks like the mare has suddenly hit her breaking point, as she cries out in a long distraught wail; spinning where she lies and burying her anguished face in Celestia’s chest.
  547. >The protective Alicorn holds her close, whispering sweet reassurances in her ear.
  548. >Suddenly, her eyes turn towards you.
  549. >You’re not slow.
  550. >At least, you’d like to believe that.
  551. >As the conversation dragged on, you’d pieced together what happened.
  552. >Drawing on a few details over the past few days.
  553. >Emily’s insistence on getting rid of the mare.
  554. >Celestia’s warning, as well as her keen interest in a particular news story.
  555. >Finally - the abilities of the mare in question.
  556. >This unicorn in front of you killed a man.
  557. >With magic.
  558. >And then she almost killed you.
  559. >With magic.
  560. >But that isn’t the main problem.
  561. >The thing troubling you would be the look you’re getting right now.
  562. >Lying on the bed - the two brilliant, yet pained magenta eyes of the mare you care about stare back at you.
  563. >With each new heaving sob, the pleading light in those kind purple orbs grows ever stronger.
  564. >Her cheeks and brow twisting to the point where you think she might even start begging if she wasn’t concerned about revealing your presence.
  565. >Yet despite the question in her eyes, you know she’s already made up her mind.
  566. >It’s just that kind of look.
  567. >Eyes wander slightly; and her resolve wavers briefly as she spies your bruised neck again, but then she doubles down.
  568.  
  569. >The begging question quickly replaced by a fierce and determined statement.
  570. >She’s not asking that you take in a lost pet. She’s telling you that this mare needs help.
  571. >You know what the right words are. But the memory of what happened is still too fresh.
  572. >An easy lie sits like ash in your mouth.
  573. >It would be so simple if you just said what Celestia wants.
  574. >But so far, you’ve avoided outright lying to her.
  575. >You’re not starting down that path right after you’ve begun reconciling your feelings for her.
  576. >With shame burning your ears, you shake your head and look away.
  577. >Denying her hurts you deep down. But you can’t be forced into something like this, no matter how much she insists.
  578. >As you reach your still shaking hand up and rub your neck, you steel yourself and look back at her.
  579. >Only to be met by another one of her warm smiles.
  580. >Her ears held low and her lips mouthing an apology for asking too much.
  581. >Rather than push the issue with you any further, she instead chews on her lip for a few moments.
  582. >It doesn’t take long, though, before her eyes light up.
  583. >Nervously, she glances in your direction a few times, then slowly lowers her head down.
  584. >What is she up to?
  585. >”Match Stick.” she gently nudges the young unicorn with her nose.
  586. >The distraught mare only buries her muzzle further into Celestia’s fluffy white chest.
  587. >”I know things may seem bleak right now, Little One. But it’s not the end of the world. Not just yet.”
  588. >”You d-don’t k-know what I’ve been t-through!” she hysterically wails back. “I-I had to do s-so m-many b-bad thi-i-ings!”
  589. >Celestia lets her cry for a while longer before speaking up.
  590. >”Match Stick, what happened with that man was an accident. You know that.”
  591.  
  592. >”B-But I wanted h-him gone!!! M-My horn just hurt s-so much... And when he pulled it out of his pocket… I… I-I… Ahaaa-”
  593. >You guiltily check your pocket and confirm the emergency pill is still in there.
  594. >Meanwhile, Celestia holds the little pony close and consoles her.
  595. >Cooing gently and rocking her slowly back and forth until she finally starts calming down again.
  596. >”So you didn’t know it would hurt him like that.”
  597. >Her brown mane shifts from side to side.
  598. >”I j-just wanted him gone.” She shudders in Celestia’s grip. “And n-now I can’t get the sight of him out of my head! I see him e-every time I close my eyes. I e-even s-saw him when I… When that m-man… I didn’t k-know what to do! I-”
  599. >This isn’t right.
  600. >You won’t just sit here as she elicits an unwitting confession from this traumatized mare.
  601. “That’s enough, Celestia.”
  602. >The room goes silent as both mares on the bed flinch.
  603. >Match Stick visibly reels when she sees you before she quickly scurries behind Celestia.
  604. >Her own eyes red with dark, tired lines underneath them; and her face messy from tears.
  605. >As she cowers behind the larger mare, her body starts shaking.
  606. >”H-How long has h-he been-”
  607. >”For a while now, Dear.” a deflated Celestia answers with a sigh.
  608. >Amber, fear-filled eyes meet your own as you stare each other down.
  609. >Neither one of you budging.
  610. >Both of you waiting for the other to make the first move.
  611. >Yet something has to give.
  612. *Cough* *Cough* *Cough*
  613. >Almost synchronized, you both look over at the young stallion as he has another violent coughing episode.
  614. >Velvet struggles propping him up with her hooves while flecks blood sprays from his mouth at an increasing intensity.
  615. >The grey unicorn fretting as too many of the nearby sheets are covered in blood splotches for her to clean his muzzle with.
  616.  
  617. >You look back at Match Stick, but she doesn’t pay you any mind.
  618. >Instead, it looks like all the fire in her has died out.
  619. >Her head hanging while her eyes look like those of a dead fish.
  620. >It’s also at this moment that you notice a nasty purple welt at the base of her horn.
  621. >Looks like Coal was telling the truth.
  622. >Now you feel another gaze in your direction again.
  623. >Celestia’s.
  624. >She’s asking you to do something with those glistening purple orbs.
  625. >But what?
  626. >What can you do?
  627. >You don’t know how to help this pony.
  628. >All that comes to mind is…
  629. “Hey.”
  630. >Amber eyes lazily wander in your direction, before they go wide as she remembers you’re in the room.
  631. >Moving ever so slowly, you reach into your back pocket and pull out a handkerchief.
  632. >Offering it to the maroon mare as a token of peace.
  633. >She eyes it cautiously, moving out from behind Celestia and spreading her hooves wide in a defensive stance.
  634. “For your brother.”
  635. >Nothing happens for a while.
  636. >Then she nods, and a familiar orange light shines while a chiming sound echoes throughout the room.
  637. >Oh Shit!
  638. >As you scramble backwards - hand clutched defensively against your throat, the ponies around you leap into action.
  639. >”Stop that right now, Young Lady!” Celestia commands as she quickly leans over and squeezes the base of Match Stick’s horn in between her hooves.
  640. >”Get back, Anon!” Coal Crusher yells as he leaps in front of you and assumes a threatening stance.
  641. >”Oh my.” Velvet exclaims as she throws her body over the colt’s, protecting him from harm.
  642. >And in the centre of the room, horn softly glowing with the orange aura of her magic - Match Stick sits shell shocked.
  643. >Your handkerchief floating in the air by a magically suspended corner in the same spot your hand was offering it to her.
  644.  
  645. >”I-I’m s-sorry.” she stammers as the magic in her horn dies out - dropping the handkerchief to the ground.
  646. >”I-I j-just-”
  647. >Her body starts trembling violently.
  648. >”I didn’t m-mean to-”
  649. >As tears start welling in her eyes again, Celestia moves her forelegs down to the mare’s sides and pulls her into a crushing bear hug.
  650. >”You silly filly. What were you thinking?” she mutters as she holds Match Stick tight.
  651. >Sighs come from Coal and Velvet as the younger unicorn on the bed starts crying again.
  652. >Though this time it's more of a hopeless sob.
  653. >Your own tactical retreat had ended when you bumped into a wall in the hallway outside the room.
  654. >From where you’re currently seated, you can see down the hall to the front door.
  655. >The option is still there.
  656. >You can still leave if you want.
  657. >But you know the way forward is sitting in that room.
  658. >Waiting for a chance.
  659. >A part of you chimes in that you’ll never forget what she did.
  660. >That you have every right to walk out that door right now.
  661. >But looking at this helpless mare on the bed - who breaks down over the slightest things.
  662. >Who cares so much for her brother that she was willing to trust you, if only for a moment.
  663. >Held tightly in Celestia’s embrace as she fawns over her like a lost child.
  664. >She was only accepting the handkerchief with her magic.
  665. >It was dumb.
  666. >Some might say tremendously stupid.
  667. >But it wasn’t malicious.
  668. >As you look upon her now, a little idea sparks to life.
  669. >Maybe -- even if it’s only for Celestia’s sake -- you should give her a chance.
  670. >Even if you don’t feel she deserves one.
  671. “Coal, give me a hand getting up?”
  672. >The grizzled stallion looks back at you with a raised eyebrow, then grunts and slowly backs up until he’s standing alongside you.
  673.  
  674. >Placing a hand on his muscular back, you pull yourself onto your feet.
  675. >Briefly noting that the old earth pony didn’t even budge once.
  676. >In fact, the muscles under your hand felt like steel beneath the smooth scar tissue.
  677. >Just how strong is this Stallion?
  678. >That little thought is pushed away however, as you slowly enter the room.
  679. >Celestia is now gently rocking Match Stick back and forth, trying to settle the poor thing.
  680. >Automatically flanked by Coal, you silently move forward and grab the fallen handkerchief.
  681. >Ironing out a few creases with your hand, you move to Tinder’s side of the bed and sit down.
  682. “Excuse me.” you say as gently as you can while extending a hand forward.
  683. >The maroon mare -- bleary eyed and hiccupping from her hysterics -- glances up at you with a weary, yet cautious look on her face, then down at your hand.
  684. “I think that you and I have gotten off on the wrong foot, er, hoof.”
  685. >She stares at it incredulously.
  686. >Eyes not understanding what they’re seeing, while also occasionally flicking towards a scowling Coal Crusher by your side.
  687. >But then she notices something.
  688. >The hand you offered her won’t stop shaking.
  689. >And so she looks at you.
  690. >You’re not one-hundred percent sure, but you strongly suspect that the fear that is so palpable in her amber orbs is reflected in your own eyes.
  691. >Now or never.
  692. “My name is Anon.”
  693. >Celestia eases her grip only slightly.
  694. >A smile -- so bright that you think you might go blind -- plastered on her thankful face.
  695. >Giving just enough freedom so the mare can move on her own.
  696. >Ever so slowly, Match Stick gingerly raises her shaking hoof.
  697.  
  698. >The room watches on with baited breath as she moves it forward.
  699. >Retracts it slightly.
  700. >Then timidly places it in the curl of your fingers.
  701. >You both let out a shuddering breath at the same time.
  702. >Then, just as slowly, you clasp your hand firmly around it.
  703. >”M-Match Stick.” she stutters as she weakly shakes her hoof up and down.
  704. ”It’s good to meet you, Match Stick.”
  705. >She winces and looks away.
  706. >Maybe this was too much, too soon?
  707. >”I-I’m sorry...”
  708. >It’s so quiet that you almost missed it.
  709. >”I’m sorry - about the handkerchief, and… Well…” she glances at your neck and winces.
  710. “Don’t mention it. Please.”
  711. >She bites her lip and nods.
  712. >This is as good an opening as any.
  713. >Here goes nothing.
  714. “It might be a bit too late to say ‘let’s start over’, but I think I’ve got a plan.”
  715. >The maroon mare and Celestia both look at you and tilt their heads in sync.
  716. >A sight so comical that you hear a barely suppressed snicker escape Coal’s muzzle.
  717. “Now, you trust Celestia, don’t you?” you continue without paying him any mind.
  718. >Shifting slightly in the protective grasp of the mare in question - Match Stick confidently nods.
  719. >”O-Of course I trust Miss Celestia!”
  720. >That makes the Alicorn frown.
  721. >”Now Match Stick, what did I tell you about that way of addressing me?”
  722. >”But I can’t just call you ‘Celestia’! You’re a Princess!” she says as she looks up at the older mare towering over her.
  723. >Her insistence only makes Celestia frown further, but it brings a smile to your face and a hearty chuckle to your chest.
  724. “Is that right?”
  725. >Match Stick confidently nods.
  726. “Well then, I also trust ‘Miss’ Celestia-”
  727. >The extra emphasis you put on ‘Miss’ earns you a vicious scowl.
  728. >Worth.
  729.  
  730. “-And since ‘Miss’ Celestia trusts both of us, I think that we should give trusting each other a go. What do you think?”
  731. >Those amber eyes study you warily, then she looks up at her protector.
  732. >Welp.
  733. >There it is.
  734. >That warm, encouraging smile that you’re quickly learning is Celestia’s preferred weapon of persuasion.
  735. >The lethal armament is also coupled with a slow, yet reassuring nod.
  736. >Poor mare never stood a chance.
  737. >Still, she bites her lip for a moment before looking back at you.
  738. >”O-Okay then, Mr Anon…” she gives you a forced smile as she shakes her hoof in your hand again. “I-I’ll try my best.”
  739. >Although her use of ‘Mr’ gets a smirk out of Celestia; you ignore it, smile back, and firmly shake her hoof.
  740. >A few more sighs of relief go around the room as you let go of her, yet most of the tension still remains.
  741. >You’ve taken the first step, but where do you go from here?
  742. *Cough* *Cough* *Cough*
  743. >As if on cue, Tinder starts wheezing again.
  744. >Well, no time like the present.
  745. >Holding up the handkerchief and gesturing at the poor colt, you inquire:
  746. “Match Stick, May I?”
  747. >She scrunches her mouth with uncertainty and looks back and forth between you and her brother.
  748. >As she struggles, Celestia leans down and whispers something in her ear.
  749. >She looks up at her, then back to you.
  750. >”A-Alright... B-But I’m watching you!” she thrusts an accusatory hoof in your direction.
  751. “Of course.”
  752. >There’s some bark in her words, but no real bite.
  753. >Nonetheless, you take care moving alongside the colt.
  754. >Assuming Velvet’s spot as she shifts and moves out of the way.
  755.  
  756. >Ever so delicately -- with amber eyes watching every move -- you hook a hand under his back and prop him up against your arm.
  757. >You’re surprised when you feel a pair of tiny wings on his back, but you keep it to yourself.
  758. >This isn’t a good place to act out.
  759. >He’s got a bit of heft; but for a living, thinking creature - he feels rather light.
  760. >You can’t tell that well because of his age, but it looks like he’s a bit underfed.
  761. >Looking over at Match Stick, you now notice she also has thin legs.
  762. >In fact, it looks like the only pony in this room who is well fed is the strong stallion who sticks close by your side.
  763. >Those small details aside, it seems being properly supported thankfully results in the young colt’s breathing quickly becoming less haggard.
  764. >Unfolding the Handkerchief with your free hand, you gently start wiping the blood away from his mouth. Carefully and methodically cleaning up his muzzle.
  765. >Trying your best to rub out the dried stains in his coat.
  766. >Suddenly, his chest heaves and he hacks and sputters.
  767. >Quickly moving a clean section in front of his mouth, you catch the blood before it can stain anything.
  768. >Your supporting hand gently rubbing his back so you might ease his pain.
  769. >Thankfully, the attack doesn’t last as long this time.
  770. >And so you settle into a caring routine as you spend the next few minutes keeping Tinder’s mouth clean and clear.
  771. >Match Stick watching from the sidelines like a hawk for the whole time.
  772. >Occasionally, you wipe his brow clean of sweat with the back of your hand. Sometimes, you brush a lock of sweat soaked mane out of his eyes.
  773. >The fact that the maroon mare hasn’t attacked you yet -- and is even slowly nodding off as her tired eyes struggle to stay open -- is a heart-warming reassurance that you’re doing the right thing.
  774.  
  775. >It’s so calming, in fact, that it takes a while before you finally notice that your hand stopped shaking.
  776. >Huh, when did that happen?
  777. >Either way - even though you’re not out of the woods yet, you’re thankful that you stayed.
  778. >You’re even finding a relaxing peace in taking care of the young colt.
  779. >It really is incredible, how small he is. How frail his little body feels in your large hands.
  780. >Almost like you’re cradling a-
  781. *Ka-kunk*
  782. >With the clattering of a screen door, every able-bodied ponies’ ears swivel towards the doorway.
  783. >Coal isn’t keen on leaving your side just yet, so Velvet is the one who ends up peeking around the corner.
  784. >”Emily! Welcome back!” she happily chirps.
  785. >Oh.
  786. >That’s right.
  787. >You haven’t seen her since the incident.
  788. >And this is her house after all.
  789. >The blonde vet in question soon rounds the corner into the room, before doing a double take at the scene before her.
  790. >In her hands you spy a clipboard with a few documents attached.
  791. >”It’s good to see you, Emily!” Celestia warmly starts.
  792. >“H-How are you feeling?” a nervous Match Stick surprisingly follows up.
  793. >This elicits a proud smile from the white mare.
  794. >”Wow, looks like I missed the reunion.” she runs a hand through her messy hair. “Yea, I’m doing alright, thanks Matchy.”
  795. >Her eyes wander over to you.
  796. >“How you holding up, Anon? That looks a lot worse than mine.”
  797. “Better. Doesn’t hurt as much as it did.”
  798. >You spot Match Stick shrinking into Celestia’s embrace out of the corner of your eyes.
  799. >”Good, good. That’s good to hear. Really. Everything got sort of… Out of hand before.” she guiltily rubs her arm. “If it weren’t for some strong ‘equestrian diplomacy’ from a certain someone… Well, let’s just say we all might not be here right now.”
  800. “Too right about that.”
  801.  
  802. >Curious, you look over at Celestia, but she just acts like she did nothing special.
  803. >That reminds you - you still haven't thanked her for resuscitating you.
  804. >But that can wait for another time.
  805. >When you’re alone.
  806. “Hold on-” you look around as you realize something. “Where’s Stint?”
  807. >Emily mood visibly worsens, and she looks into a corner of the room.
  808. >”H-He’s alright… He and I had a little, um, a little disagreement while we were doing the tests. He’s, uh-” her bottom lip quivers slightly. “He won’t be joining us until later.”
  809. >”Very well.” Celestia chimes in. “In the meantime, I understand that you have the results there?”
  810. >The veterinarian beams.
  811. >”You better believe it! Let’s see... Your test, Matchy, was a negative-”
  812. >Celestia and Match Stick both let out a little cheer and nuzzle each other’s cheeks.
  813. >Good lord, just how close did they get while you were outside moping about?
  814. >”Oh thank goodness.”
  815. >”You’re telling me. I don’t know what I would have done if that came up positive.”
  816. “Someone mind filling me in on what this is about?”
  817. >”Likewise. It feels like a lot has happened while we were gone.” a grumpy Coal Crusher echoes.
  818. >”We’ll gladly catch you up soon, Anon.” Celestia impatiently reassures you. “But first, Emily?”
  819. >”Right!” she excitedly flips through the pages. “We followed your instructions to the word. Was a bit hard finding the right ingredients to mix. Took us quite a few tries till we got the balance right as well. Good thing we took a bit of extra blood from our generous donor.” Emily punctuates the sentence with a wink at Match Stick.
  820. >The mare in question gives a small growl and stares daggers back at the vet.
  821. >”And the results?” Celestia’s ears twitch as she keenly awaits the answer.
  822. >A silent prayer in her magenta eyes.
  823.  
  824. >”When adding the catalyst-” Emily glances quickly at Match Stick again. “-The mixture in vial number one turned green for about a second; the mixture in vial number two turned blue for about a second as well, and then the mixture in vial three turned purple before fading back to clear... Is that good?”
  825. >You cock your head to the side.
  826. >Just what on earth are they talking about?
  827. >You look down at Coal, but he doesn’t look confused.
  828. >Instead, he stares with his mouth hanging open across the bed at Celestia.
  829. >And then you hear a sniffling.
  830. >Scratch that, there are two sets of sniffling.
  831. >So you look over as well.
  832. >Since you rescued Celestia, she’s shown you her fair share of tears.
  833. >In times of anger, sadness, and loss.
  834. >But this… This is different.
  835. >While Match Stick slowly backs away -- probably worried that she accidentally did something wrong again -- Celestia sits on the bed as tears of joy roll down her face, her eyes staring off into space.
  836. >Velvet hops up on the bed and starts walking up to her, the grey mare’s own face stained with tears as she smiles.
  837. >”She did it. Didn’t she, Celestia?”
  838. >Snapping out of her stupor, the big Alicorn looks over at the approaching guardspony and smiles the goofiest grin you’ve ever seen on her face.
  839. >”There’s no doubt in my mind now, Velvet! She’s done it! Twilight succeeded!”
  840. >Both mares erupt in joyous laughter and wrap each other in a hug.
  841. >The excitement in them boiling over the top as they start bouncing in each other’s hooves.
  842. >Constant cries of ‘she did it!’ escaping them as they giggle.
  843. >And cry.
  844. >And laugh.
  845. >And weep.
  846. >The rest of you unable to get a word in as they bury their heads in each other’s necks and rock back and forth.
  847. >Little shouts of joy and relief escaping their muzzles the whole time as they clutch onto this one moment and don’t let go.
  848.  
  849. >While they lose themselves in their rapturous celebration, you try your best to keep Tinder’s body still.
  850. >The sickly young Colt still having trouble breathing as he lies in your arms.
  851. >”W-Why are they crying when they’re so happy?” Match Stick nervously turns around and asks you.
  852. >Although you can understand why she still can’t really handle talking to you, a question remains about why she’s keeping her distance from Coal.
  853. >Despite her fear of you, she maintains a cautious gap between herself and the grizzled stallion.
  854. >Constantly checking so she can make sure he isn’t getting any closer.
  855. >Guess you’ll have to ask him about it later.
  856. >Because right now, he looks like he’s about to break into tears himself.
  857. “Hmmm. How should I put it...? Have you ever been so happy that you can’t really contain it?”
  858. >The young mare shakes her head.
  859. “Well, it’s sort of like that.” you say as you gently start rubbing Tinder’s back again.
  860. >”That sounds… Nice...” she ponders as she wistfully stares at the two jubilant mares bouncing up and down on the bed.
  861. >It takes a while for them to settle down, but when they finally do, they pull apart with blushes on their faces and several embarrassed coughs.
  862. >“Your Highness, Does this mean what I think it does?”
  863. >Now it’s apparently Coal’s turn to ask.
  864. >”Yes. You would be correct, Sergeant.”
  865. >As if the strength just left him, the stallion’s back legs give out and his rear falls to the floor.
  866. >But he doesn’t mind. Instead, he leans back and looks up at the ceiling with his eyes closed.
  867. >Taking in a deep breath. Letting out a long sigh.
  868. >So he can rebuild his composure before standing back up on shaky legs.
  869.  
  870. >”I thought the day would never come, Your Majesty. I’ve waited for it for who knows how long now.”
  871. >”I can assure you - the sentiment is shared, my patient Protector.”
  872. >Although the titles they call each other feel a bit strange in your ears, there’s a more pressing matter on your mind.
  873. “Alright, I think enough is enough.”
  874. >All eyes in the room suddenly turn to you. Even Emily stares at you like you just said something strange.
  875. “Could someone please tell me why everybody is acting like they just won the lottery? What did those tests mean? I get who Twilight is, but what on Earth did she do?”
  876. >”What are you talking about, Anon?” Emily scoffs. “You of all people should know these things! Unless…” She holds a hand over her mouth and looks down at the snow white Alicorn on the bed. “Celestia did tell you about ponies and magic, right Anon?”
  877. >All eyes are on Celestia now as you frown.
  878. >”W-well, i-it’s not like I didn’t want to tell you, I just never really g-got the chance to!” She stammers. Her cheeks and the tips of her ears slowly turning a rosy red. “Th-there was never a good, uh… A good opportunity! Yes, that’s right! Just not enough time!” She scrunches her mouth up and looks away.
  879. “Celestia...” you deadpan. “We’ve been sleeping in the same bed for the past week.”
  880. >”Hmph.”
  881. >”Oooooh, how exciting!”
  882. >”Ahahaha, for real?! Anon, you stud!”
  883. >”You can always do worse, Miss Celestia. Trust me... ”
  884. “Oi.”
  885. >Velvet and Emily quickly crowd around the now pink faced Celestia and start gossiping in an indecipherable whisper.
  886. >A continuous chatter surrounding the poor Princess as she tries to remain composed and regal; yet failing as they ask a particular question that makes her visually balk and look over at you.
  887.  
  888. >After a few moments of internal deliberation -- and with a blushing grin -- she holds her hooves wide in front of her in some strange gesture, making the ladies squeal with surprise as they sneak glances at you.
  889. >But as amusing as all the reactions are, something’s not right here.
  890. >From what you can remember, Celestia isn’t a bad liar.
  891. >Hell, she kept her knowledge about the deadly magical Unicorn a secret from you so long and so well that it almost actually killed you.
  892. >But every now and then, she slips up in such comically obvious ways.
  893. >What’s the pattern?
  894. >While Velvet and Emily start gossiping with a now beet red Celestia, Coal Crusher thankfully speaks up.
  895. >”Anon, allow me to start things off. You see those marks on the young ladies’ haunches?”
  896. >He points with a hoof to the actual match stick imprints on Match Stick’s hind-quarters.
  897. >The maroon mare wilts under his attention and looks away.
  898. >Shifting her rear nervously as you both inspect it.
  899. “Yeah, it’s a tramp stamp. What about it?”
  900. >”Wha-” he scoffs. “That’s no tattoo, Anon. There’s no dye or ink involved. It’s what we call a cutie mark.”
  901. “A cutie mark.” you sarcastically repeat.
  902. >”That’s right, a cutie mark. And while I’ll admit the name is a bit... Silly… what it represents is on a whole other level.”
  903. ”So, is it some genetic thing? Or-”
  904. >”Not exactly. What you’re looking at is a, uh, physical manifestation… I think… of a ponies’ special talent or ability. Sometimes it’s direct and easy to understand; sometimes it’s more… Confusing. The important part here is - it only appears under two conditions.”
  905. >He smiles wide.
  906.  
  907. >”When a pony discovers their special talent and comes of age -- and more importantly for our current situation -- when they have magic flowing through their body.”
  908. “It just pops into existence?”
  909. >”There’s usually a bright flashing light or some other fancy thing that happens, but yes.”
  910. >You carefully study the mark further.
  911. >Upon closer inspection, you can clearly see each individual hair fiber that constitutes the image is its own colour. All the way down to the root as far as you can tell.
  912. “So Match Stick here is good with… Match sticks?” you ask, slightly disappointed.
  913. >”Hey! I’m also good at making sculptures out of them and starting small fires!” The mare angrily remarks.
  914. ”Sorry.”
  915. >Seems like you touched a nerve.
  916. >”You’re not exactly wrong, Anon. But ponies feel differently about their special talents than you do, don’t forget that.” Coal remarks.
  917. “Doesn’t feel good when someone mocks what you enjoy… Yeah, I get that.”
  918. >”Good.” he nods. “The mark can also represent other things, such as characteristics of your personality. Or, in some rarer cases, your greater role in life.”
  919. >Suddenly a few pieces click together in your head.
  920. “Hold on a second. Match Stick has her special talent of match sticks-”
  921. >”Why does it have to sound so bad when it comes out of your mouth?” she bites back with a surprising new confidence.
  922. “Sorry.”
  923. >You scratch the back of your head with your free hand and look back at the stallion.
  924.  
  925. “I guess from your name, that you’re good at… Crushing things, Cole?”
  926. >”You’d be correct, but in my case, that works out as a boon to my strength. Makes for a good guard pony. You’ll often find we have things like ‘steel’ this, or ‘iron’ that in our names.”
  927. “Interesting. What do you crush in particular, Cole?”
  928. >”What do you mean?” he stares at you, perplexed. “You just said it.”
  929. “Huh?”
  930. >”What?”
  931. “I’m asking what things you crush, Cole?”
  932. >”Yes!”
  933. “What do you mean, yes?”
  934. >”When you asked if I crush coal, I answered yes!”
  935. “But what do you crush?!”
  936. >”I’ve already told you!”
  937. “What did you tell me, Cole?”
  938. >”Exactly!”
  939. “Exactly? What do you mean exactly?!”
  940. >On the sidelines - Emily, Velvet, and Celestia all clutch at their sides now that they’ve finished with their little chat. A barely restrained snickering spreading amongst them.
  941. >”I mean exactly what you said!”
  942. “What did I say?”
  943. >”You asked if I ‘Crushed Coal.”
  944. “Yes! I asked ‘What do you crush, Cole?”
  945. >”And I’m telling you that’s correct!”
  946. “What’s correct???”
  947. >It’s apparently too much for the ladies on the sideline as they collectively erupt in laughter.
  948. >Desperately holding onto each other for dear life as they’re rocked by their mirth.
  949. >Even Match Stick lets out a little giggle.
  950. >”That’s too much, you two! Please, no more. It hurts.” A breathless Emily pleads as she clutches her sides.
  951. >”Anon, his name is Coal” Celestia struggles to point out as she wrestles with her laughter.
  952. “Yeah, I know it’s Cole!” you huff. “I just want to know what he crushes!”
  953. >Another bout of laughter goes around the room.
  954. >”N-No, Anon. Ohohoho, oh dear. It’s C-O-A-L Coal. Not the human name.” Celestia cheerfully corrects you.
  955. “Oh.” you look over at an exasperated Coal Crusher. “Oooooohhhhhhh.”
  956.  
  957. >Shit.
  958. >Taking another look around at all the smiling people and ponies in the room -- including a beaming Match Stick -- you feel a heat building in your cheeks.
  959. “Man, I’m dumb sometimes.”
  960. >That just sets the mares and Emily off again.
  961. >”What do you mean ‘sometimes’?” is all Coal has to say on the matter.
  962. “So!” you quickly begin, desperate to wrap up the subject and move on. “You crush Coal.”
  963. >He gives you the most deadpan stare you’ve ever received from a pony.
  964. >”Yes.” he says quite firmly. The hard lines of his scarred face sending a message.
  965. “Alright, alright. So once you get your magic back, your mark will be like - some broken coal? How does that work with your dark coat?”
  966. >”It’s actually a pickaxe striking a mining vein. But close enough. Very well defined on my coat as well!” he beams proudly.
  967. “Then little Tinder here would have a...?”
  968. >”He’s too young to have a cutie mark.” Match Stick speaks up. “Plus, he's never really lived with magic…” she gives the wood-brown coated colt in your arm a pitying look.
  969. >Oh.
  970. >That makes sense.
  971. “What about you, Velvet?”
  972. >”Who me? Oh, don’t let the mark confuse you, Dearie-”
  973. >There it is again.
  974. >You really need to ask Celestia how old she is when you get a chance.
  975. “-My full name is Twilight Velvet, but it’s a bit hard to guess from that. Before we came here, I was a writer. Mostly children’s bedtime stories. Some kind souls might even say I have a way with words!” Like the others, she puffs out her chest in pride of her special talent.
  976. “Wait… Your name’s Twilight? But you just said ‘Twilight succeeded’. Isn’t that you?”
  977. >”Oh, no, no, no, Sweetie. Twilight is my daughter!”
  978. >It feels like a gear stopped turning in your head.
  979. “This isn’t another one of those ‘Coal’ things, is it?”
  980.  
  981. >”Not quite, Anon.” Celestia giggles. “Velvet’s daughter is Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of magic and friendship.”
  982. “Friendship?”
  983. >”Friendship.”
  984. “Magic ‘and’ friendship?”
  985. >”Magic and friendship. Although it would be more correct to say that friendship is magic.”
  986. >Now it feels like a spanner was thrown into the workings of your mind.
  987. “Okay. Right. Gotcha. And Stint?” you hastily change the topic before any more damage is done.
  988. >The room looks expectantly at Emily.
  989. >”That’s a bit of a sore spot for him.” She rubs her arm. “His mum was a nurse, his dad was an iron-worker. When he was born, she named him Stent Casterly; y’know like after a heart stent? The big oaf of a stallion was in charge of the documents while she was getting some rest. Wrote stent with an ‘i’ instead of an ‘e’ on his birth certificate. By the time they found out, it was too much effort to change it so they left it be.”
  990. “Ouch.”
  991. >”Yeah, I think that’s where he gets the eternal chip on his shoulder from. He told me that he used to specialize in medicine and making small surgical devices.” She lets out a heavy sigh. “He explained it to me once - that not having his magic means he can’t do delicate work like that anymore. That it was like if I lost my fingers. Never told me what his mark was though. Didn’t want to talk about something that wasn’t there, I guess.”
  992. >”That would explain a fair bit about him.” Coal Crusher adds with a hoof held to his chin.
  993. “Okay, okay. I’m getting the trend here.”
  994.  
  995. >You spy Celestia scooting along the bed, trying to hide her larger body behind Velvet and failing miserably.
  996. “There’s just one more pony name that doesn’t make sense.”
  997. >Her multi-coloured tail flicking as she searches for another avenue of retreat.
  998. “Celestia.”
  999. >She freezes like a deer in the headlights.
  1000. “Please, enlighten me.”
  1001. >There’s a moment of silence as she searches for a way out the situation.
  1002. >But before you can press her, someone else speaks up.
  1003. >”Her highness is one of the Sovereign Sisters of Equestria. Her mark is a depiction of the glorious celestial body - over which she has control and guides through the sky. The source of warmth and life in Equestria, the Sun itself.” Coal crusher announces with a militaristic pride.
  1004. >...
  1005. “The sun.”
  1006. >He nods.
  1007. >You look over at Celestia.
  1008. >She bites her lip and looks away, before closing her eyes, sighing, and confirming it with a nod.
  1009. “That thing?” you point upwards.
  1010. >Coal nods again.
  1011. “The, uh, the giant fucking fireball that’s more than a hundred times the size of earth, has a surface temperature of over 5000 degrees, and is hundreds of millions of kilometres away.”
  1012. >The stallion hesitates as you drive a stake through his certainty.
  1013. >Backed into a corner, he looks to his Monarch.
  1014. >”I-I’m sure t-that once she regains her magic-”
  1015. >”That’s... not quite correct, Sergeant.”
  1016. >Celestia finally speaks up, unfortunately only to deal a blow to her guard’s pride.
  1017. >”Your Highness!? W-What do you mean? I’ve seen you raise the sun many times with my own two eyes! Surely, that wasn’t just a mere illusion?”
  1018. >She sighs and moves out from behind Velvet.
  1019. >”That was back in Equestria, my Loyal Subject. Back on our old world.”
  1020. >Her words render him speechless.
  1021. >”Anon. I’ll tell you everything I should have, and then what might happen next. But it will take a short while.
  1022.  
  1023. >Looking over at everyone else in the room, she smiles.
  1024. >”The rest of you are welcome to listen in if you’d like, but I ask that you not part with this story easily once you’ve heard it.”
  1025. >All the conscious ponies gulp, and Emily closes the door before making a makeshift pile of junk she can sit on.
  1026. >”I remember the morning we arrived here.” she continues as she slowly moves towards you. “I woke early, yet the sun was already rising without my assistance. When I reached out to it… All I could feel was an overwhelming tempest. A raging storm that was so different to the warm body I had known for more than a millennia. I knew right away - something was terribly wrong.”
  1027. >She curls up at the head of the bed, digging in for the long haul.
  1028. >You follow her lead, moving the rest of your body up onto the bed and lying with your back propped up by some spare pillows.
  1029. >Pulling the sickly colt from the sheets as you do so, you lie him on top of your chest.
  1030. >His small wings twitching weakly as they can finally stretch free.
  1031. >With one hand - you gently rub his back between the wings while Celestia rests her neck against your other arm.
  1032. >It feels good, being so close to her again. Feeling her warm, soft coat on your skin again.
  1033. >But the sombre tone in her voice sours the reunion.
  1034. >Match Stick quickly manoeuvres towards the Alicorn’s barrel. Her movements still measured and wary of you and Coal as she claims her seat and tucks her hooves under her body.
  1035. >Meanwhile, the two guardsponies lie down attentively at the end of the bed.
  1036. >Though Velvet seems a bit distracted as she keeps glancing at the stoic stallion next to her.
  1037. >Her tail gently flicking back and forth against his side once again.
  1038. >But now, you’re all ready and waiting.
  1039. >And together - you look expectantly at the Princess of the Sun as she begins her story.
  1040.  
  1041. Part Twenty-one (Part 21)
  1042.  
  1043. >With a slight clearing of her throat, Celestia looks around the room.
  1044. >A quick check, making sure everyone is ready before she begins.
  1045. >”From the very first hour, things were falling apart. Transportation spells would go awry. Long distance communication lines quickly collapsed. We soon lost contact with all other kingdoms and major city hubs. And as the power of magic in Equestria slowly faded - the crown became blind. Velvet’s daughter -- Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship -- was quick to action. Though, in typical fashion, keeping her calm was more than a challenge.” She shares a knowing look with the white and purple maned pony at the end of the bed.
  1046. >“Within a day, she had made it to the palace. Once there, she instantly dove into the vaults of Canterlot library - enlisting her friends’ help in her search for a solution. But despite their best efforts, it wasn’t long before everything began falling apart.”
  1047. >She looks down at the tired mare in between her legs.
  1048. >”Do you remember those days, little one?”
  1049. >Match Stick nods sadly.
  1050. >”M-My mum was working in the Cloudsdale evacuation right up until it collapsed… I remember she wouldn’t stop crying as it fell from the sky...”
  1051. >”Indeed. It was a sad day, and an enormous loss for all of us. It was the first major blow we all felt, and the foreshadowing of a crisis that would drive us from Equestria.”
  1052. >Celestia pulls her head back and looks at you.
  1053. >”In Equestria, Anon, magic was used for many things. From everyday living, to growing food, controlling weather, even for building a city in the sky. It’s no exaggeration to say that Equestria lived off of magic.”
  1054. >She looks down at the colt in your arms.
  1055.  
  1056. >”While Unicorns have always been the most sensitive to magic; Pegasi are the species of pony -- along with all other flying species in Equestria -- that rely the most on it. No longer able to soar through the skies, it wasn’t too long until large number of ponies could no longer work. Their home in the clouds crumbling as the magic which kept it afloat dissipated. It also meant we no longer had control over the chaotic and unrelenting weather of our world.”
  1057. >Her ears fold back.
  1058. >”Within days, we received reports, then calls for help, as refugees started appearing from the flooding coastline cities; then, from the earthquake ruined badlands. The drought stricken deserts soon followed; and before long, Canterlot and central Equestria were bursting at the seams with displaced ponies, in addition to many other creatures.”
  1059. >”Space quickly became a luxury, and soon we had given up all the spare rooms in our house to strangers.” a sad Velvet adds. “We even had people sleeping in hallways and broom cupboards.”
  1060. >”I’m not surprised. It was also around this time that we received an emergency missive from Princess Cadance and the Yaks in the north. The weather was growing wilder, and the magic of the crystal kingdom was failing. Without the power of the crystal heart to protect them, their lands were quickly being overtaken by the blistering winds. But that was not all they faced.”
  1061. >There’s a cold tone in her words that makes the temperature in the room drop.
  1062. >”Included in the reports were tales of strange creatures approaching from the east and west. Wrapped in strange clothes and walking on two legs - they marched with steel wagons, and carried devices that claimed lives with a thunderous roar. I don’t think I need to tell any of you what they were.”
  1063.  
  1064. >You carefully pat the wheezing colt on your chest as his hoof kicks weakly in restless sleep, before contributing a small detail.
  1065. “A new continental landmass suddenly popped into existence… No claims. No laws. No natives - at least from what we could tell... It didn’t matter what anyone tried to do to stop it, things were heading for a feeding frenzy from day one. And a lot of places had been hurt by the appearance of Equestria as well. Shipping lanes were disrupted. Ocean weather patterns were ruined and wreaked havoc on seasonal weather patterns. A few islands completely vanished from the face of the Earth... There was a lot of confusion.”
  1066. >”That’s may be so, but we didn’t have the liberty of knowing what was coming...” She pauses.
  1067. >”My-” her breath hitches. “After our call for aid from various allies went unanswered - my sister, Princess Luna-”
  1068. “Luna, is it?” you gently interject. “Guessing from her name, and from what you’ve told me, she controlled the moon?”
  1069. >”Yes, she did.” Celestia answers with a chuckle at your rolling eyes. “She was the Princess of the Night. And she was loved by her subjects. Without her help in the early days, Canterlot would have swiftly fell to ruin…”
  1070. >Celestia stares down at her purple, Kevlar-wrapped hooves.
  1071. >”She… S-she was my s-sister.” her voice starts cracking.
  1072. >The room goes quiet.
  1073. >Nobody making a sound out of sheer respect.
  1074. >Unease starts creeping up your back though, as Celestia takes a few shuddering breaths, and so you reach over and gently stroke along the side her long neck.
  1075. >At the same time, Match Stick tucks herself in tighter and nuzzles the Alicorn’s fluffy chest.
  1076. >”T-thank you. I-I’ll be okay.”
  1077. >She takes a deep breath as she cranes her neck against you ministrations.
  1078.  
  1079. >“My sister was an earnest mare. Always painfully concerned with how others viewed her, yet completely oblivious to even simple body language. She was a mare from a different time, but she didn’t let that stand in her way. With Twilight and her friends working day and night -- travelling the land and pouring over ancient knowledge in search of a solution -- someone needed to go check things out.”
  1080. >You’ve never really heard of this Princess Luna before outside of rumours and hearsay.
  1081. >You know that the bad feeling in your gut is correct.
  1082. >”She volunteered right away, and left on an expedition north with a contingent of her own guards. Before she set out on her journey though, we stopped and held each other close. One last time together as the world was falling apart around us.” A few tears pool in the corners of her eyes. “... I haven’t seen nor heard of her since she departed that day.”
  1083. >Ever so carefully, so you don’t disturb the colt on your chest, you move your arm up and run your hand through Celestia’s multi-coloured mane. Gently consoling her as she does her best to stay composed.
  1084. >”She’ll come back to us, your highness. Just like before. Just like you did.” Coal speaks up.
  1085. >A deep pain in his eyes.
  1086. >”I hope so, Sergeant... I truly do.”
  1087. >Running a Kevlar-wrapped hoof through Match Stick’s mane to the delighted murmur of the young mare, Celestia clears her throat and continues the tale.
  1088. >”We did welcome a small contingent of crystal ponies after that. But we never heard anything about Princess Cadance, or her husband - Shining armour. Velvet’s son.” She shares another kind look with the grey unicorn.
  1089. “Quite the royal bloodline you’ve got Ms Velvet.” you sympathetically offer the now downtrodden guardspony.
  1090.  
  1091. >”Y-You’re gosh darned right!” she quickly picks herself up. “Those two are tough, Your Highness. Just you wait and see! They’ll probably just rock up on our doorstep one day. Maybe a bit battered and bruised, but f-fine in the end. Little Flurry should be a young filly by now, and there’s no way they would let her grow up alone...”
  1092. >There’s a strong confidence in her voice, but there’s nothing backing it up barring sheer force of will.
  1093. >Nonetheless, you’re discovering she’s the type of person -- or rather, pony -- that you want to see proven right. If not for her energetic enthusiasm, then for her sheer positive outlook that shows no hint of naivety.
  1094. >”We can only hope, Velvet... Now, where was I?”
  1095. “Refugee crisis. It’s been enlightening - hearing how it started.”
  1096. >”Ah, right. Thank you, Anon. Let's see then…” she taps her chin with a hoof.
  1097. >”Shortly after Luna’s... Departure - we, or rather I, made proper contact with humans. An expeditionary force of courageous souls had made their way -- over the course of a few weeks -- from the battered coastlines and through the now chaotic wilds of the countryside. There had been brief interactions with humans before, as well as some wild rumours flooding the overpopulated camps, but I hadn’t yet met any for myself.”
  1098. >A wistful smile spreads across her face.
  1099. >”They brought with them strange devices, and a wealth of information. We stayed up late into the night, sharing stories and knowledge. Confirming the unsettling truth that we were on an alien world. I thought young Twilight would have a fit, she was so excited.”
  1100. >The smile slowly disappears.
  1101.  
  1102. >”Unfortunately, our new friend’s welcome was quickly overshadowed by our deteriorating situation. The weather was growing ever dangerous. Canterlot’s magic was almost completely dried up. That’s also around the time when I realised that a critical choice had snuck up on me while I had been trying to hold the kingdom together.”
  1103. >She looks apologetically at Velvet.
  1104. >”I was already pressuring Twilight day in, day out. Things were becoming dire. Food stockpiles had already been mostly burned through. The last of whatever Earth pony magic and skill we had left was being squeezed dry so that the final harvest of crops would survive the constant assault of wild storms and blistering heat waves.”
  1105. >”Crime was rising sharply. Guards were pulling 18 hour shifts and just barely holding everything together.” Coal Crusher concisely contributes.
  1106. >”I wouldn’t have made it without you, Coal.” Celestia performs a small bow with her head.
  1107. >”We wouldn’t have made it without you Princess. Please, don’t ever forget that.” He quickly bows lower. His chin almost touching the sheets.
  1108. >With a heavy sigh, she nods and thanks him.
  1109. >“Things were falling apart. We couldn’t stay there any longer without resorting to drastic measures. And so, with a heavy heart, I poured over our options. Then, a few days later, I made the announcement.”
  1110. “The Great Equestrian Evacuation. Little bit of a bombshell when we found out what was coming our way.”
  1111. >”I don’t think either side could have prepared for it. I know we weren’t.” She pauses. “Though I will say, the kind humans that visited us that day provided us with enough information that they can rightly be called saviours. For with that knowledge, we were able to make plans to flee our crumbling lands.”
  1112.  
  1113. >The tone of the story swells with hope, but the mournful mare by your side just sounds bitter and spiteful.
  1114. >”Can I add something?” Match Stick raises her head from where it was resting on Celestia’s barrel.
  1115. >”Of course you can, Little One.”
  1116. >Rising onto her hooves, she meets the eyes of everyone in the room. Although her gaze quickly rolls over you without stopping.
  1117. >”If Miss Celestia didn’t get us moving when she did, then I don’t think we would have made it.”
  1118. >”Oh, I’m not so sure about tha-”
  1119. >”I remember those days, Ms Celestia. Anyone who was there would say the same thing. My Mom and Dad would stand in bread lines from the crack of dawn every day, and sometimes not even get anything. I was already stealing food just to keep Tinder fed at that point. If we didn’t leave when we did, then I don’t think a lot of us would have made it across the ocean.”
  1120. >There’s an honesty burning in her eyes that cuts deep. And then those glowing amber orbs turn your direction.
  1121. >”And you, Mr Human-!”
  1122. “I have a name.” you point out as you continue rubbing Celestia’s mane while Tinder lays safely perched on your chest.
  1123. >She flinches slightly.
  1124. >”R-Right, Mr A-Anon. M-My bad... Still-” She points a nervous maroon hoof at you. “This is m-my Princess. I don’t know what she likes about you, and I don’t get why either. But if you make her sad, then you answer to m-me, u-understood?”
  1125. >”Match Stick! That’s highly inappropriate!”
  1126. “Haha, nah. It’s alright, Celly.”
  1127. >The nickname comes naturally this time. Easily drawing her surprised, purple eyes.
  1128. “I’ll just have to make sure that you’re never sad again. I think that’s fair, don’t you?”
  1129.  
  1130. >Celestia sighs and shares a disarmingly gentle look with you that makes your heart pound in your chest.
  1131. >Her magenta eyes conveying a sweet shimmering affection that makes heat build in your cheeks
  1132. >You’re quite glad nobody else can see it.
  1133. *Ahem* “Now where were we? Great Equestrian Evacuation?”
  1134. >”Of course.” She smoothly replies.
  1135. >Celestia waits until Match Stick is once more tucked against her barrel before she continues.
  1136. >”With the tremendous help of Twilight-”
  1137. >Velvet beams.
  1138. >”-as well as a large number of highly capable ponies - we collectively organized the systematic evacuation of millions of Equestrians. I can’t give you an exact number because we honestly don’t know. Plans were disseminated-”
  1139. >”Disseminated?”
  1140. >”Handed out, Young Match Stick.”
  1141. >”Oh... Hey, yeah! I remember those!”
  1142. >”-disseminated among the sprawling city and camp districts. Certain species, like the dragons, aimed straight west and moved as a group. Aiming for what we now knew as Asia. We couldn’t all go to the same place though - so preparations were made, goodbyes were said; and with heavy hearts, we began moving out... Still, there were those that refused to abandon Equestria.”
  1143. >Celestia looks to her ponies. All of them gathered around her and listening in rapt attention.
  1144. >”But we didn’t have that choice! If we were to survive, we had to take action!”
  1145. >They all nod in agreement without averting their eyes.
  1146. >“Things were going well at the start.” she continues. “Instead of scrounging for scraps in camps, ponies were motivated by having a collective goal. I was amazed and inspired by how quickly large, self-organized groups had formed while the sole purpose of guiding the evacuation. But it seems that good things never last long.”
  1147. “Was this the start of the infamous magic sickness?”
  1148.  
  1149. >”Unfortunately, yes… As we harvested lumber for ship building and brought it with us to the coasts, many ponies and other creatures started falling ill. While at the same time, we started encountering humans en masse.”
  1150. “I remember those days. People had just finished pushing through the storms surrounding Equestria and had established communication lines. All these hazy pictures were flooding the news. Caravans of Equestrians. Lines of ponies -- and other strange creatures mixed in -- that would stretch to the horizon - all of them heading for the coast.”
  1151. >”Indeed, It was quite the sight to behold. What was even more impressive though, was when we arrived at those battered shores. Great cities that were once major hubs of civilization now lay flooded and ruined. And sitting out near the horizon, swaying with the violent currents, was a fleet of giant ships - all of them seemingly cast from metal. I specifically recall a military adviser saying ‘that’s not possible without magic!’ as he tried to pick his jaw up off the floor.”
  1152. “This coming from the advisor to a Princess who could move the sun with her mind?”
  1153. >A crimson blush spreads across her cheeks as her ears fold back.
  1154. >”A-As I was saying, there were many new sights waiting for us at the coast, including a large encampment of human engineers, scientists, and military personnel. But the most disturbing one was the fatigue that now hung off every pony’s body. Try as we might, we could find no cure. But for the meantime, it was manageable. It slowed down construction of the ships, and once again we rushed towards another crisis.”
  1155. “This is when a lot of people got their first full dose of your kind. Hell, I remember your first interview on T.V.”
  1156. >”Don’t remind me…”
  1157.  
  1158. “You had a lot on your plate. Everybody could tell.”
  1159. >”How am I supposed to act when they tell me billions of humans are watching me and I can’t even see them?” she scoffs incredulously.
  1160. “Trust me. Nobody cared how confused you were. Hell, the papers the next day were plastered with corny headlines like: ‘Straight from the horse's mouth!’”
  1161. >Celestia huffs and pouts adorably.
  1162. >”Moving on!”
  1163. >A few snickers go around the room, with even the cautious Match Stick giving a little giggle.
  1164. >”As I was saying - after making proper contact, we forged a stopgap treaty and enlisted the generous assistance of the humans. Together, we built thousands of ships over the course of a few months. But the whole time, a rot was slowly seeping through the camps. The sickness had started turning for the worst, with most ponies becoming bedridden and some even becoming desperately ill. Being the Princess of Magic, it’s no surprise that Twilight was the first to work out the underlying cause. And the one who lead us to a cure.”
  1165. >She now looks at the poor Pegasus lying on your chest.
  1166. >”Although the particulars escape me at the moment, the overall process is rather simple. Ponies -- and all Equestrian creatures for that matter -- lived off of magic. Our bodies used it in everyday processes. It makes us stronger, it keeps us in good health, and it ties into the very fabric of who we are. Without a strong flow of magic in the world, our bodies became weak. But their hunger for magic didn’t stop... Biologically speaking, it's a three part process.”
  1167. >Glancing down at a blank faced Match Stick, Celestia furrows her brow for a moment before continuing.
  1168.  
  1169. >”You see, Little One, there are parts inside of us that collect magic, some parts that organize and distribute it, and other parts that use the magic. What was happening was that our bodies -- which had evolved in an environment of constant background magic -- were starving. Different parts of us were all crying out for more magic, and so the collecting parts started taking it where they could find it. Stronger parts started stealing what little magic they could find from weaker parts. Sometimes they would get violent and try to take any magic by force. Or even just go wild with a sort of impotent rage. This would often cause damage or fatigue to the parts inside us that make us work. And the longer we went without magic, the more aggressive this process became.”
  1170. >”Is that what’s wrong with Tinder?” Match Stick inquires.
  1171. >Her amber orbs wandering over to the struggling Colt on your chest.
  1172. >”In a way, yes... Although the medicine quells our body’s desire for magic, there are some ponies for whom the medicine does not work as it should. Rather, it has the opposite effect. Ramping up the body’s hunger for magic rather than removing it. Accelerating the degeneration process. This is what happened with Night Light, Velvet’s husband.”
  1173. >Velvet lets out a heavy sigh and leans into the stallion by her side, making the intimidating stallion flinch and stare at her sidelong with a scar-faced blush.
  1174.  
  1175. >”No matter how much I told her otherwise, poor Twilight always blamed herself for what happened. The ‘cure’ only had an adverse effect on a remarkably small number of ponies, and it was only after taking the medicine for a while, or when moving through puberty would this aberration appear. She saved the lives of millions of ponies. But she could never forgive herself for cutting her father’s final days shorter... As the final ships left Equestria, she and her friends stayed behind - vowing that they would find a fix to the whole mess before catching up with the rest of us.”
  1176. >A few tears roll down her cheek, but she still meets your eyes with a defiant smile.
  1177. >”Nobody could stop that silly filly from saving the world, even if they tried.” The proud mother declares.
  1178. >”But, it should be fine now right? I can use magic, which means there must be enough magic for him to be okay!” Match Stick urgently asks.
  1179. >”Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case.” Celestia corrects her. “The medicine, in addition to quelling our hunger, blocks all three parts of the process. So even if somehow the collection and distribution were working like they should, the part that uses the magic won’t work. And from the tale you’ve told me, I’m of the opinion that this ‘usage’ part is the last one to become active once a pony stops taking the pills. This is why you released your power so violently.”
  1180. “You’re saying not taking the medicine turned her body into some sort of pressure cooker? A ticking time bomb waiting to go off?”
  1181. >The princess gives you a grim look while Match Stick averts her gaze.
  1182.  
  1183. >”I’m afraid so... While you were gone, we learned that she stopped taking pills for a bit under a week. This would have restored her body’s hunger for magic, while slowly restoring her absorption and other faculties. Without anywhere to go or anyway to be used, the magic started raging inside of her.”
  1184. “But she survived, right? How come there haven’t been others yet then, if all you need to do is stop taking the drugs?
  1185. >”A good question, and one that I don’t currently have a reliable answer to. However, I strongly believe that the only reason why Match Stick survived the process, is due to her rather abnormally low magic capacity and talent for spellcasting. A more proficient pony would very likely have suffered severe internal trauma. And if they survived the process, the after effects would have been much direr. No offense by the way, Dear.”
  1186. >Coal Crusher’s comments about the mare’s abilities roll through your mind.
  1187. >‘Relatively Harmless’ was his assessment.
  1188. >And yet, she still did that to you.
  1189. >”That’s okay… I never was that good with magic back in Equestria. Apart from lifting things and lighting small fires, I can’t really do the more difficult spells.” The maroon mare hangs her head.
  1190. “Hold up, are saying this colt on my chest might blow up? I mean, if his body is sucking in magic and he can’t use it…” You cautiously look down at the restless pony on your chest.
  1191. >”No, Anon… I believe that the drugs are working on him. That means that his body can’t absorb magic, nor can it redistribute or use it. But magic deficiency alarms are constantly sounding all over his body now; and so the ineffective components are tearing him apart internally, trying to get a hold of magic that they can’t even use.”
  1192.  
  1193. >She reaches over with a wing and brushes a sweaty lock of mane out of the young colt’s eyes.
  1194. >”S-so, t-that’s it then… T-there’s nothing more we can do! He’s just g-going to get worse and worse, until...” Match Stick pauses, tears pooling in the corners of her eyes as she fearfully awaits an answer.
  1195. >”There is hope yet, Little One.” Celestia consoles her. “Remember the tests that I had Emily run?”
  1196. >The distraught mare nods.
  1197. >”They confirmed that the flow of magic has been restored to Equestria, and by proxy, Earth as well. As of this moment, it flows around and through all of us, though the only one who can properly access and use it at the moment - is this special young Unicorn right here.”
  1198. >Celestia bends down and nuzzles the young pony; eliciting a brief smile that stretches across the mare’s tired muzzle before she resumes sulking over her sickly brother.
  1199. >”But what difference does it make… T-Tinder still isn’t going to-”
  1200. >”Don’t be so sure, Match Stick. I think I may have a plan in regards to that. One that can’t be done without your help.” Celestia hums knowingly.
  1201. >”Huh?! Me? How?! Tell me! I’ll do anything! You name it! I’ll even sleep with the human if I have to!”
  1202. >”Baha!” A loud burst of laughter suddenly erupts from Coal Crusher before Velvet swiftly jabs him in the ribs.
  1203. >It happened so fast that you’re not quite sure it occurred, until you notice the tips of the Sergeant’s ears going red as he averts his gaze.
  1204. “What do you mean ‘even’?”
  1205. >While the guardstallion valiantly suppresses his mirth, Match Stick quickly realizes what she said and looks nervously at you with an apologetic smile.
  1206. >”Rest assured, Filly. You would not have him so easily.”
  1207. >Wait, what?
  1208. >Tension soaks the air as things get unexpectedly serious.
  1209.  
  1210. >Celestia has uncharacteristically thrown down a threat. Her voice dripping with a power that makes the pony in her embrace wilt.
  1211. >The denizens of the room all give each other nervous looks as the maroon mare shrinks under her monarch’s withering gaze.
  1212. >You can feel the muscles tensing in the Alicorns neck as her multi-coloured tail swats the bed.
  1213. >Her eyes narrow, daring the poor pony to speak.
  1214. >You’re about to speak up, but the moment is ultimately brief; and like a switch being flicked, Celestia is suddenly back to her kind and caring disposition as she strokes a terrified Match Stick’s mane with a soothing hum.
  1215. >A brief, yet confident nod to herself the only clue as to what she’s thinking.
  1216. >”As I was saying, I have a plan. And it starts with… Hmm, let’s see… Coal Crusher, Twilight Velvet. I have something ask something of both of you.”
  1217. >Although they’re still shaking off the uneasy feeling from a few moments ago, the two ponies confidently nod.
  1218. >”I’ll also need Stint. So I’ll trust you to relay what I’m about to say, Emily.”
  1219. >The unusually quiet veterinarian perks up from her phone. Nodding enthusiastically as she’s finally included in the conversation.
  1220. >”You got it, Big Girl. Just let me know what to tell him.”
  1221. >”Thank you. I truly do appreciate it.”
  1222. >She pauses and looks around the room again.
  1223. >“Now... I’d like to ask the three of you, plus young Tinder here, to stop taking your medicine.”
  1224. >You can hear a pin drop, as everyone in the room silently soaks in what the Princess just said.
  1225.  
  1226. >”... No offense, your majesty, but have you gone completely mental?!” Emily is the first to speak up. “You said it yourself - without the pills, their bodies will tear themselves apart! I’ve seen it first hand, and I'm willing to bet you have as well. Bleeding from every orifice… Good lord, the screams of pain! Just what on earth are you thinking???”
  1227. >”If that’s what My Lady so desires, then I shall gladly oblige.” A stone faced Coal answers.
  1228. >”Coal!? You can’t be serious! After everything you’ve been through, you’re just gonna throw your life away now?”
  1229. >She stomps around the side of the bed and stares him down.
  1230. >”My life is hers to command.” He unflinchingly replies.
  1231. >”Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable. And here I am - dumb enough to think that you had learned something since then.”
  1232. >Her eyes burning into the side of his head, the vet and the guardspony refuse to back down from their stances.
  1233. >”E-Easy now, Emily. I’m sure Her Highness isn’t just asking us to die.” Velvet nervously assures her. “I hope… Right, Dear?” The newly inducted guardsmare asks her monarch.
  1234. >”I understand your concerns, Emily; and I’m also grateful for your devotion, Sergeant. But -- as Velvet suspects -- I do have a strategy.”
  1235. >Celestia looks down at the confused mare between her legs.
  1236. >”I have a little spell I’d like to teach you, Match Stick. It’ll be hard to learn, and you may fail a few times along the way; but if you master it, then you may very well save your little brother, as well as light a path for the rebirth of Equestrian civilisation everywhere... Do you think you’re up for the challenge?”
  1237. >The tension from the previous altercation quickly fades away, and the Alicorns words are filled with such hope and faith that even you feel slightly inspired.
  1238.  
  1239. >Amber irises flick away though, and the maroon mare hesitates beneath the questioning gaze of her Princess.
  1240. >As if he could sense his sister’s conflict, the sickly colt on your chest coughs wetly.
  1241. >Staining your shirt with a few flecks of blood before you can hold the handkerchief against his mouth in time.
  1242. >Gently stroking his back, you sit up on the bed and prop him up against your chest so he might breathe easier.
  1243. >Still, his strained wheezing rattles in his throat for all to hear.
  1244. >That ends up being just what the young mare needed.
  1245. >”I-I’ll do it, Miss Celestia! Whatever it takes, I’ll do it!” She answers while staring at her struggling brother with brilliantly blazing amber eyes.
  1246. >Celestia beams and bends down so she can nuzzle her.
  1247. >She’s met halfway, and the mares hum happily as they do a rather pony-like neck hug.
  1248. >”This is all fine and dandy, Cinderella, but you still haven’t spelled out how you plan on not making everybody bleed out in my practice!” An irate Emily chimes in.
  1249. >Giving a confident chuckle as she leans into Match Stick’s neck, Celestia looks smugly at the upset veterinarian.
  1250. >”It’s simple, Emily. I’m going to teach this young pony how to drain magic!”
  1251.  
  1252. =========================
  1253.  
  1254. *Crunch* *Crunch* *Crunch*
  1255. >Walking alongside Coal Crusher and Emily, you gradually make your way down the driveway.
  1256. >The other two parties dead silent as they roll over Celestia’s plan.
  1257. >None of the ponies in the room had any idea what she was talking about when she had said ‘drain magic’, but the ancient Alicorn had deigned not to share her secrets with any of you.
  1258. >It was simple in essence though.
  1259. >Ponies stop taking the medicine.
  1260. >Their bodies start building up magic in lethal amounts.
  1261. >Match Stick drains a large chunk of it so that it doesn’t rampage inside of them.
  1262.  
  1263. >Then, when they can use it again, it won’t come out as a lethal torrent of blistering destruction.
  1264. >Nor will it cause severe internal damage to the pony in question.
  1265. >Sounds easy, right?
  1266. >The one caveat is that, apparently, it’s quite a hard spell to use.
  1267. >Judging by the look on the maroon mare’s face as you left, she wasn’t as confident in her own magical capabilities as her Princess was.
  1268. >You also got a bit of a ‘taboo’ vibe from all the ponies in the room, but you trust that Celestia knows what she’s doing.
  1269. >Trudging down the asphalt, you hear a beep from the end of the driveway that draws your attention.
  1270. >There’s the truck, just like Emily had declared after her phone abruptly went off.
  1271. >Filled with the necessary equipment for Celestia's treatment.
  1272. >And so, she had conscripted the both of you in helping her carry everything inside; leaving the motherly mares behind so they may instruct their new student.
  1273. >Though from the lost look on her face, you’re pretty sure Velvet’s just there for moral support.
  1274. >They also wanted the unicorn to start using magic again, and you’re not quite ready for that shit again just yet.
  1275. >Even the chiming sound that echoed down the hallway as you left sent shivers down your spine.
  1276. >Before you left though, as you had removed the colt from your chest and started hoisting yourself out of the bed - Celestia had leant over and whispered in your ear.
  1277. >”I want to talk when we can, Anon. Just the two of us.”
  1278. >She had punctuated the sentence with a loving nuzzle against your check that had left you speechless; and as you approach the end of the driveway, you idly bring a hand to your face and touch where your skin still tingles with her warmth.
  1279.  
  1280. >Heading around the back of the delivery vehicle, a skinny man hops out of the driver’s seat and opens the back up.
  1281. >While he chats with Emily about various horse related things, you start piling boxes on Coal Crusher’s back before grabbing a few of your own.
  1282. >How the grizzled stallion balances so many of them without even wobbling, you’ll never know.
  1283. >Turning back and starting down the driveway, your ears pick up snippets of slightly hushed conversation.
  1284. >”So… You finally got a boyfriend, Em?”
  1285. >”Huh? Wait, what? Oh... Him? Oh... Oh! Oh, no, no, no, no! I’m, uh, already taken. He’s a… Just a client.”
  1286. >”It’s ok, Em. I think you guys make a cute couple. Plus it’s good you have someone to talk to that isn’t a horse. You’ve been alone long enough.”
  1287. >”... What’s that supposed to mean?”
  1288. >”Look... I know that Mark hurt you bad-”
  1289. >”Hurt me bad? Hurt me bad?! Don’t you dare say his fucking name again! He ruined my life!”
  1290. >”I know, I know... Look, I’m sorry, okay? All I’m saying is - it’s good... see you’re... other people…”
  1291. >Their voices slowly become indecipherable as you get further away, leaving a question on your lips.
  1292. “Hey, Coal, do you know what happened between Emily and Mark?” you ask the scarred stallion by your side as he steadily walks down the driveway.
  1293. >”Nope.” he nonchalantly shrugs despite the five boxes piled on his back. “Not my place to ask. All I know is that Emily use to have a lot more horses here. Then one day, she didn’t.”
  1294. >In the centre of the front yard, another cheer escapes the crowd of hard at work ponies; and you see that they’ve now finished fashioning several long tables that only stand a couple of feet off the ground.
  1295.  
  1296. >”Hey, Mr Crusher! We’re just about done with the furniture. We’ll have dinner ready on time, so we’re counting on you, Sir!” An enthusiastic stallion calls out across the field.
  1297. >A few of the other ponies turn so they can wave at you.
  1298. >The guardspony gives a curt nod and faces forward again, not bothering with a proper reply.
  1299. >Instead, his large blue eyes give you a sidelong look.
  1300. >”Do you think she’ll be right to join us, Anon? There’s a lot of hopeful ponies that have been looking forward to tonight. That little meet and greet from earlier wasn’t enough.”
  1301. “I dunno. She’ll probably need some encouragement, but I think I can handle that. What matters most is them giving her some space.”
  1302. >”What do you mean?” he asks as he tilts his head to the side.
  1303. “That place I rescued her from… She wasn’t exactly treated well by the other ponies there. Let’s just say her cage didn’t have any neighbours for a reason.”
  1304. >”They’ll treat her right, Anon. I’ll be there to make sure of that.”
  1305. “I don’t doubt it. I reckon anyone who gives her flack will get a broken jaw in return. But from what we’ve talked about, I think she’s still conflicted.”
  1306. >”About what?”
  1307. >You stop a short distance from the house and wait for the stallion to do the same.
  1308. “... This is between you and me, okay?”
  1309. >His features suddenly harden, and he gives you a strong nod.
  1310. >You feel like you’re overstepping your bounds a bit here, but it's about time you stepped up to the plate.
  1311. >If you’re intent on taking the next step in this journey, then caring for Celestia beyond just throwing money at her problems is a top priority.
  1312.  
  1313. “I’m fairly certain that Celly blames herself for everything that has happened. And she’s going to be thinking that it’s her fault every time she sees or talks to an injured pony. Hell, remember how she acted when she realized she couldn’t remember you because of your scars?”
  1314. >”Oh… I see...” is all Coal offers, as the stoic stallion looks down and bites his lip.
  1315. “Look… I’ll be there to help her out as much as I can, but I can’t do it alone. I need you to handle the crowd control with an extra level of scrutiny. Keep an eye on how she’s faring before you let more ponies get close to her. And keep an eye out for the ones who have a bone to pick.”
  1316. >For the first time since you’ve met him, the guardspony looks slightly nervous. His eyes flitting from side to side while his ears flick.
  1317. >”I-I can handle crowds, Anon. Key word being ‘handle’. I’ll gladly be an immovable rock that nobody can get past. But I can’t read ponies, or people, that well. I just don’t get that kind of thing. Never have, never will.” he ashamedly admits.
  1318. “What are you talking about? You knew what I needed to hear when I was struggling, didn’t you?”
  1319. >”T-that was different. I just happened to know what you were going through… This though… This is different.”
  1320. >There’s a slight wavering in his deep and powerful voice.
  1321. >Unbelievably, the pillar of confidence that helped you get through the last couple of hours is crumbling.
  1322. >There’s no hint of cowardice on his features; but nonetheless, there is a deep fear.
  1323. >”I can’t fail her, Anon. Not again.”
  1324. >His confident composure capitulates in front of your eyes.
  1325. >Even though you have sympathy for his struggle - it’s a bit unnerving, seeing such a strong stallion shaken like this.
  1326.  
  1327. >But beneath all of this, you sense an opportunity.
  1328. >A role that you can fill.
  1329. “Then we’ll just have to work together.”
  1330. >Coal lifts his head, a question in his eyes as he sees the newfound confidence in your smiling face.
  1331. >Placing the boxes on the floor and crouching down at his level, you offer a hand.
  1332. >”The ponies won’t really trust me, no matter how good my intentions might be. I’m not stupid enough to believe otherwise... But they do trust you, Coal.”
  1333. >He slowly nods while eyeing your outstretched palm.
  1334. ”And if you and I work together, then we can help her cope.”
  1335. >”What do you propose?” the stallion asks, a hint of caution in his words.
  1336. “Nothing too complex. I’ll be by her side, so I’ll try to let you know how she’s feeling throughout the night. As discreetly as I can for that matter, because lord knows that mare won’t turn any of her subjects away. In return, you act as the gatekeeper, safeguarding her peace of mind from any unwanted encroachers or anyone else with a bone to pick. If you’re unsure on a pony, let me know and I’ll give you a second opinion. And if all goes to plan, Celestia can mingle with her subjects without stressing too much or withdrawing from the crowd. How does that sound?”
  1337. >With each word that leaves your mouth, the stallion’s mood lightens. A new hope surging in his eyes at your offer. And as you finish, he thrusts his hoof into your offered hand without hesitation.
  1338. >A quick shake sealing the deal as he shows you a satisfied grin.
  1339. >”That’ll work fine by me, Anon.”
  1340. “Good stuff.” you quip as you retract your hand and sit down by his side again. “Just one more question then.”
  1341. >He doesn’t look like he even notices the boxes on his own back as he nods.
  1342. >”This about the story Her Majesty told?”
  1343.  
  1344. “Nah, not quite. Though that’s still rattling around in my head for sure, I need some more time to digest it before asking some questions.”
  1345. >”Fine. So what’s the problem?”
  1346. >Probably best if you just straight up ask this.
  1347. >You’re probably misunderstanding things again anyway.
  1348. “Just before she made her grand reveal, Celestia had a moment. Kind of came out of left field.”
  1349. >”Uh huh.”
  1350. “It was weird. Like she was threatening Match Stick or something.”
  1351. >His eyes vacantly blink at you a few times before he realizes what you’re talking about.
  1352. >”Oh! That! That’s a, uh, a mare thing I’m pretty sure.”
  1353. “So I should ask Celly about it then?”
  1354. >”What? Dear Celestia no, Anon!”
  1355. “Well then what do you mean it’s a mare thing? That doesn’t help me understand at all.”
  1356. >Coal crusher immediately facehoofs.
  1357. >”Gods… it’s like I’m explaining things to a colt.” he sighs.
  1358. “Hey, I’m learning as fast as I can, alright?”
  1359. >Dragging the hoof down his face, the stallion looks up at you with tired eyes and nods.
  1360. >”No, you’re right. Unless you’ve lived in pony society before, then you wouldn’t understand.”
  1361. “So, enlighten me then?”
  1362. >”Well... If I understand the situation correctly, which I remind you is not my strong suite, I believe the pills that she’s on create a sort of... pseudo heat.” He smacks his lips a few times in disgust at uttering those words.
  1363. “Right. Hence the name of the pill.”
  1364. >”Exactly. What you don’t know though, is that we have a sort of matriarchal society when it comes to sorting that thing out. Most of that is due to having The Princesses as our sovereigns for the past thousand or so years.”
  1365. “Sorting what out?”
  1366. >”Y’know…” he meanders as he gestures with a hoof. His head nodding towards the house.
  1367. >You give him a blank stare.
  1368.  
  1369. >”Luna, help me... I can’t believe I’m explaining this to a human… When mares are in heat, Anon - they sort of…” he rolls his hoof in the air, searching for the right words. ”Choose their own partners. They don’t take them by force; they make intimate gestures, give compliments, show a tremendous amount of care and affection. That sort of thing.”
  1370. “Isn’t that the kind of stuff that you told me not to worry about?”
  1371. >”I said you’d find out soon enough whether she actually likes you or if it’s just the drugs. Though I don’t believe Her Highness is cruel enough a mare to deceive a stallion like that, despite whatever alien influence may currently be afflicting her.”
  1372. ”So, she’s sort of chosen me? I’m flattered. I really am. But why did she snap as Match Stick?”
  1373. >”I don’t really understand this part all that well, since, y’know…” Again he gestures with a hoof, this time at his own obviously masculine form. “But from what I’ve experienced over the years - when one mare goes into heat, the other mares can tell. And it’s sort of like the starting horn of a race going off. Every mare that doesn’t already have a partner starts laying their claims and staking out a potential partner… Or two, or three if they’re into that sort of thing. You get the picture. Surely you noticed Velvet getting a bit ‘close’ with me when we were listening to the story?”
  1374. “I did indeed notice that.”
  1375. >”I’m not saying that she’s 100% into me and wants to gallop through fields of flowers just yet. But she’s -- and I still can’t believe I’m talking about Her Highness this way -- sort of letting The Princess know that she won’t intrude on her claim if Her Majesty won’t start making advances on… Well… On the pony that Velvet’s interested in, I guess.”
  1376.  
  1377. “Well, well, well. Look at Mister Popular over here. Only just met the mare and you’ve already got her drooling over the strong guardstallion.” You cheekily jab, bringing an embarrassed flush to the stallions black, fur coated face.
  1378. >”Don’t be silly. A mare like her wouldn’t… She shouldn’t waste her time on-” His mood suddenly dips, and his scarred face twitches slightly. “-on a stallion like me.”
  1379. >Ouch.
  1380. >Looks like you accidentally hit a nerve.
  1381. >You hadn’t really given much thought to it yet due to how composed Coal Crusher has been so far.
  1382. >But looking at the huge swathes of burnt scar tissue all over his body, you really can’t blame him for feeling a bit self-conscious about how he looks. The old healed over wounds cutting huge thick, pink-white, fleshy patterns through his still glossy black coat.
  1383. “Hey... Chin-up, Mate. Everyone knows that chicks dig guys with scars.”
  1384. >”Hah!” he happily scoffs. “You can always have too much of a good thing, Anon.”
  1385. >Thankfully he doesn’t seem too broken up about it, but you should keep that in mind for the future.
  1386. “So what was it then? When Match Stick said she’d sleep with me, she sort of crossed a line? Even if she was only joking?”
  1387. >”Sort of… Maybe… Look, I don’t know, Anon. I don’t think she was serious, more like a heat of the moment thing. Whatever it was, Her Highness felt like she needed to throw down a challenge right then and there. I want to say that her highness is being extra protective of you. Especially after what happened. But to be frank, don’t overthink things too much. Best just to roll with these sorts of situations and let them sort it out amongst themselves. Especially when it comes to how mares think about you. Though... I don’t think you really need to worry about Match Stick making advances on you anytime soon.”
  1388.  
  1389. >You idly bring a hand up and rub your bruised purple throat.
  1390. “True...”
  1391. >”In the meantime, Anon - just, please, do what you can to make Her Highness happy.”
  1392. >He turns and starts heading towards the house again.
  1393. >At the same time as Coal walks away, a small breeze carrying errant leaves blows past you.
  1394. >”Even if your time together isn’t meant to last.”
  1395. >He leaves you with those words as he bends down next to the front door and braces.
  1396. >In an impressive display of dexterity and strength, the stallion bucks off of the ground - launching the boxes into the air while he quickly steps out from under them.
  1397. >Following a series of short thumps, the column of boxes now stands neatly piled on the ground of the front door landing, and the stallion starts trotting back towards the truck.
  1398. >”You coming, Anon?” He looks back at you over his shoulder.
  1399. “Yeah...”
  1400. >Placing your own boxes down beside his, you follow the stallion’s lead.
  1401. >Leaving you with your own thoughts as you help Emily out.
  1402.  
  1403. Part Twenty-two (22)
  1404.  
  1405. >A good amount of time passes while you ferry all the goods from the back of the truck.
  1406. >Emily chatting the whole time with the skinny truck driver and delegating delivery details, as you and Coal haul the cargo back to the practice like pack mules.
  1407. >You don’t really mind the small busy work though.
  1408. >Something to keep your hands busy is welcome while you crunch through things.
  1409. >As the situation currently stands, you’re inclined to believe Celestia’s grand tale of struggle and hardship.
  1410. >Even though she never dove too deep into the details and perhaps embellished a few things, the general sequence of events lines up with what you’ve put together yourself over the years.
  1411. >Besides, after all the time you’ve spent with her, you can’t help but her trust her.
  1412. >She did just save your life after all.
  1413. >But there is one thing that jabs at the back of your mind like an irritating thorn.
  1414. >Why didn’t Celestia tell you all of this before you came here?
  1415. >Why didn’t she tell you about magic?
  1416. >Did you make her think that you wouldn’t believe her somehow?
  1417. >Again, you hold a hand against your neck and rub the still sore flesh.
  1418. >Just a heads up would have saved you a whole world of trouble.
  1419. >Still, you do have a theory that you’ve been sitting on.
  1420. >But you’d rather ask her in person than speculate too much.
  1421. >After a few more trips back and forth -- some of them taking you all the way down to the large barn in the expansive field behind the practice -- Emily signs for the goods, shakes the driver’s hand without saying anything about you or Coal, and off he goes.
  1422.  
  1423. >She walks with you down the driveway, making small talk about the driver as she goes; but as you get closer to the house, she veers off towards the side gate.
  1424. >”Thanks a lot for the help again, you two. I’ve gotta go now and find Stint so I can fill him in on Cinderella’s grand plan. I’ll see you guys at dinner tonight though?”
  1425. >Both of you nod and say your goodbyes.
  1426. >But before you head inside, you take another look at the ponies out in the field.
  1427. >A few portable lamps and lights have been brought out and placed on and around the tables.
  1428. >In addition to that, they’ve also set up a makeshift bench where they’re currently making salads, burgers made out of hay, and other pony styled meals in jovial groups.
  1429. >It seems like almost every pony in the practice is lending a hand -- or rather a hoof -- with the more crippled ponies being lent generous assistance by those around them.
  1430. >The sight truly is a heart-warming spectacle. But it also brings you to a strange realization.
  1431. >Despite all the images and videos you’ve seen, and the real life interactions you’ve had with ponies in the past; none of them ever seemed anywhere near as happy as they are right now.
  1432. >All of them merrily chatting and laughing into the twilight hours of the day.
  1433. >The younger colts and fillies -- thankfully untouched by the greater circumstances for the most part -- flitting around the busy adults. Their eyes wide with wonder and joy as they laugh and play.
  1434. >No worries can assail this swarm of brightly coloured ponies as they buzz around tonight’s dinner table.
  1435. >This must be the difference Celestia makes.
  1436. >This is how much her appearance means for them.
  1437.  
  1438. >Your chest quickly swells with a somewhat alien pride.
  1439. >After all, it’s your job to make sure she’s cheerful enough to face them.
  1440. >Drinking in the odd new sensation and turning around, you stroll up towards the front door with Coal.
  1441. >A clarity of purpose forming within you which reinvigorates your tired spirits.
  1442. >Confidently, you place your hand on the door knob and-
  1443. >Hesitate.
  1444. >You can hear it.
  1445. >The mystical chiming sound that comes from that mare using her magic.
  1446. >Your hand squeezes the knob hard, and you freeze on the spot.
  1447. >You can feel hardwood floor beneath your back.
  1448. >Your chest feels tight.
  1449. >Like there’s not enough air.
  1450. >”... Anon…”
  1451. >Like there’s something pressing down on you.
  1452. >Crushing your throat.
  1453. >”Anon.”
  1454. >There’s someone screaming in the corner.
  1455. >You can’t breathe, you-
  1456. >”Anon!”
  1457. “What?!” You snap angrily at the stallion by your side.
  1458. >Without flinching at your little outburst, Coal Crusher eyes you worryingly.
  1459. >”Your hand, Anon...”
  1460. >Still blistering with irritation, you look down.
  1461. “Oh…”
  1462. >The shaking is back.
  1463. >Gingerly, you pull it away from the door handle and inspect it.
  1464. >It’s a subtle tremor. Not as strong as it was earlier today.
  1465. >But still there nonetheless.
  1466. >You swear under your breath as you clench it into a fist, yet the subtle tremor doesn’t subside.
  1467. >Like every muscle fibre in your hand is twitching its own little dance.
  1468. >Oblivious to your will.
  1469. >Frustration building, you give it a good shake and clench it again.
  1470. >But it won’t stop.
  1471. >As long as that damned chiming sound keeps ringing in your ears, you can’t stop your chest from tightening.
  1472. >You can’t stop the creeping fear.
  1473. >You shouldn’t stay here.
  1474. >You need to get away.
  1475. >Just a few moments reprieve-
  1476. >”You okay, Anon?”
  1477.  
  1478. >The Stallion interrupts your train of thought again.
  1479. >Snapping you out of that dangerous spiral.
  1480. “Yeah, yeah... Nah, I’m fine Coal. Just a bit jumpy is all.”
  1481. >He gives you an unbelieving stare.
  1482. “Don’t know what came over me, actually.”
  1483. >Yes you do.
  1484. >In fact it’s still there.
  1485. >And your hand won’t stop shaking.
  1486. >Taking a deep breath, you steel yourself and open the door.
  1487. >It’s even louder now.
  1488. >Coming in short, melodic, bursts alongside cheers of encouragement and exasperated sighs.
  1489. >Ever so carefully.
  1490. >Step by cautious step.
  1491. >You creep down the hallway.
  1492. >Only kept going by the reassuring thumping of heavy hoofsteps by your side.
  1493. >Coal keeps an eye on you. His pace slow and his stance braced and ready.
  1494. >Just in case.
  1495. >Stopping to wipe your suddenly sweaty forehead, you give him a nervous nod before moving onward.
  1496. >He said he wasn’t good at reading others.
  1497. >So you must be one hell of a sight right now.
  1498. >It’s frustrating to no end.
  1499. >But each time that chiming sound rings in your ears, an anxiety sets in.
  1500. >A creeping doom that forms a knot in your stomach and makes you feel sick.
  1501. >Still, you push on.
  1502. >This isn’t a place you can stop.
  1503. >Hand shaking, you reach out and knock on the door.
  1504. >The chiming immediately cuts out, followed by an audible gasp of breath.
  1505. >”I think we’ve done enough for today, take a break for now, Match Stick. Who is it?”
  1506. “It’s just us, Celestia.”
  1507. >”Oh! Why are you waiting outside then? Please, come in!”
  1508. >Now that the sound is gone, a wave of calm washes over you.
  1509. >Almost like the panic that filled you just a few moments ago was a bad joke.
  1510. >Shaking off the remnants of whatever that was, you open the door and step through with Coal.
  1511.  
  1512. >An exhausted and sweaty Match Stick sits on the bed, a few orange sparks shooting off from her spent horn.
  1513. >A large number of actual matchsticks lay discarded and completely burnt through in a tray at her hooves.
  1514. >Celestia gives a pleased smile, though a frown tugs at the corners of her muzzle as she carefully examines you.
  1515. >Meanwhile, Velvet sports a now frazzled mane that looks like it needs a very solid brushing.
  1516. “I take it things are going well?”
  1517. >Another lock of Velvet’s mane springs out of place with an audible twang, and she offers a broken smile.
  1518. >”It’s definitely a process.”
  1519. >Celestia sighs as a tired Match Stick mouths an apology, her hoof guiltily tracing a circle on the bed.
  1520. >”I’d hate to intrude, Your Highness-” Coal begins. “- But we need help fixing a problem that this young mare started.”
  1521. >Surprised, you look down at the stallion as his expression hardens, making the maroon coated pony scurry and seek refuge behind her Princess.
  1522. >Protectively shielding the smaller mare behind her own much larger frame, Celestia protests.
  1523. >”What is the meaning of this, Sergeant? Apart from the obvious-” She quickly glances in your direction. “-What exactly has she done now?”
  1524. >”She’s given him a scare, Your Highness.”
  1525. >Celestia raises a curious eyebrow and looks at you.
  1526. >You avert your eyes.
  1527. >Your cheeks burn with shame as you know Coal’s right.
  1528. >The stress you felt from just walking down the hallway was not normal by any stretch.
  1529. >”I can’t say I’m shocked, especially after what Anon’s been through; but he seems… Better now. Do you want her to apologize again or-?”
  1530. >”This hurt runs a bit deeper than the surface, Your Highness. He practically turned into a ghost when he entered the house.”
  1531. >”... Is this true, Anon?”
  1532.  
  1533. >You look back at her, only to find Celestia’s warm purple eyes awash with concern.
  1534. >A cautious Match Stick also sheepishly peeking around her side.
  1535. >Her face mostly hidden by her large bird’s nest of a brown mane.
  1536. “Look. I’m fine now. I was just feeling a little jumpy is all.”
  1537. >”A little jumpy?” Celestia frowns. “How do you mean, Anon?”
  1538. “I’m not sure…”
  1539. >”Anon!” Coal barks. “Please. You can’t dance around this kind of thing or it’ll get worse!”
  1540. >The stallion stomps a forehoof and gives you a stern look as you reach for an excuse.
  1541. >But ultimately, you know he’s right.
  1542. “Fine! Fine. Alright... When I came back in the house, I could hear that… Chiming sound… I don’t know. If I had to say, it was like I was suddenly back in that moment. Back in that situation.”
  1543. >The mares all share a worried look with each other.
  1544. “I-It was like I couldn’t breathe again…”
  1545. >”He’s got a bit of a shake to him, Your Majesty. It wasn’t too bad this time; and it only shows up when he can hear magic; but if we don’t nip this in the bud right now, then it’ll get worse.”
  1546. >”What do you propose then, Sergeant?’ A concerned Celestia asks. “Something that involves Match Stick?”
  1547. >”It’s a tried and true fix, Your Majesty.” The stallion looks up at you, a reassuring smile on his face. “Something that helped me out when I suffered from a similar problem.”
  1548. >You give him a thankful smile - his words alleviating some of the shame you feel.
  1549.  
  1550. >”When I was inducted into the guards, Anon. We all had to go through gauntlets of combat training.” He sighs wistfully. “My whole life I could beat any other Earth pony in a contest of strength. A Pegasus could drop rocks on me, but they couldn’t fly all day. I could wait and take them out when they got close to the ground. But in the mountain town I grew up in, there weren’t many Unicorns. And the few that were there weren’t exactly the fighting types. That all changed when I met the captain.”
  1551. >”Oh dear! My little Shining didn’t do something extreme, did he?” Velvet chimes in with concern.
  1552. >”Captain Shining Armor?” Coal chuckles. “Oh no, this was one of his predecessors. Well before he even joined up. By the time I met your son, I was already a grumpy old Sergeant.” the stallion chuckles to himself.
  1553. >”I will say though, that it was amazing watching how fast he climbed through the ranks. He’s an admirable stallion, Ms Velvet.”
  1554. >”Oh pshaw. I just raised him like any other mother would-” She pauses mid-sentence. “Wait a minute... You said something rather curious just now, didn’t you?”
  1555. >”I did?”
  1556. >Coal looks up for help, but this is beyond you as well, so you just shrug your shoulders at him.
  1557. >Running a hoof through her mane that magically fixes the errant strands, Velvet subtly tidies herself up and thrusts her chest forward slightly while looking around nonchalantly.
  1558. >”Forgive me if I’m being too rude in asking, but... Exactly how old are you, Sergeant Crusher?” the grey unicorn inquires.
  1559. >”I’m in my early forties.” he matter-of-factly informs her.
  1560. >Holy shit.
  1561. >You would have sworn he was in his early thirties from what you know about how Equestrian ponies look when they age.
  1562.  
  1563. >It seems that you’re not the only one surprised at this revelation, as you spy Velvet’s tail flicking back and forth against the bed while she smiles appreciatively.
  1564. >Nonetheless, her eyes betray less than innocent thoughts, as she looks upon the stallion with an intense hunger.
  1565. >Coal Crusher doesn’t seem like he notices though; and he clears his throat before resuming the tale.
  1566. >”Getting back to the matter at hand - soon enough, it was my day of reckoning. I had breezed right through most of the training, and the only Unicorn I had faced in the intake didn’t know how to fight with magic yet. I strutted around the boot camp grounds like I owned the place, like becoming captain was a sure thing. That is: until the mare herself showed up. I confidently challenged her right there on the spot. I did it in front of all the other trainees to boot. Not one of my prouder moments, I’ll admit.”
  1567. >While he talks, Match Stick once again slowly makes her way out from behind Celestia.
  1568. >”That was when I discovered why the Captain is almost always a Unicorn. Before I could even charge, she had dislocated my shoulder and pinned me down on the ground.”
  1569. >He looks up at you.
  1570. >”She apologized profusely of course, but I brushed it off after a quick visit to the medical tent for my shoulder. Or so I had thought. I didn’t realize the ordeal had shaken me in another way... For the next few days - anytime I heard that chiming sound, I couldn’t keep my own hooves steady. I felt weak. Panicked. And it got worse the longer I left it.”
  1571. “How did you fix it then?”
  1572. >The stallion sighs.
  1573.  
  1574. >”I had been avoiding the Unicorns for a few days, then the Captain had finally had enough of me leaving the room every time she was nearby. She pulled me aside and asked what was wrong. When I brushed her off and walked away, she stopped me with her magic. She wouldn’t let me go. And I didn’t appreciate it. Not one bit. I struggled in her grip. I wouldn’t settle down no matter what she said. I got a little unhinged. I started flailing and yelling. Then, suddenly, I was slowly pushing back. Slowly breaking out of that invisible vice. With a final surge of strength, I broke free and bonked her on the horn.”
  1575. >Coal holds his head up high and flexes.
  1576. >You hear a pleased hum from someone else in the room.
  1577. >”I was over the moon. I had bested the captain of the guard! The fear was gone, and I was on top of the world!”
  1578. >His head falls.
  1579. >”I only realized a short time later that she had intentionally let me win. To give me my confidence back and to help me get over my fear. But, nonetheless, she’d achieved her goal. Despite the blow to my shame.”
  1580. >His hoof stomps confidently.
  1581. >”I’m telling you, I got better so quickly it was like someone had cast a spell on me.”
  1582. >The room collectively groans.
  1583. >But Coal doesn’t even flinch.
  1584. >In fact, he seems slightly irritated at the reaction.
  1585. >”What? What’s wrong? What did I say?”
  1586. >”N-Nothing, Sergeant.” A snickering Celestia says in between giggles, a hoof held up to cover her mouth. “P-Please, continue.”
  1587. >The rest of you nod, though Velvet seems particular taken with him - as she holds both her hooves over her muzzle, covering an adoring smile that stretches across her muzzle from ear to ear.
  1588.  
  1589. >”Well -- as I was saying -- the fear was gone. And I could stand being around magic users again.”
  1590. >As the mirth from a few moments ago fades and reality encroaches again, you share a look with Match Stick and Celestia.
  1591. >Both of them also appearing to have pieced together what Coal’s little ‘cure’ might be.
  1592. “It’s a nice story, Coal. But I don’t get it. Do you want me to fight her or something?” You ask incredulously.
  1593. >Meanwhile, Match Stick begins slowly slinking behind Celestia again.
  1594. >”What? No, no, not at all.” He waves a hoof dismissively. “She will need to use magic on you again though. And you will need to stop her.”
  1595. >Now, that makes you panic a little.
  1596. >”I can’t say I approve of this Coal.” Celestia weighs in as she looks between the two of you. “You’d be exposing him to that kind of trauma again.”
  1597. >”Trust me, Your Majesty. While he did suffer something severe, it hasn’t fully shaken him just yet. But if we don’t act now, then it’ll pop up again in the future. And it’ll come back stronger and harder to deal with.”
  1598. >”I don’t know about this-”
  1599. >”Forgive my directness, but are you fine with him being scared of magic for the rest of his days, Your Highness?”
  1600. >There’s something about that sentence that cuts Celestia deep.
  1601. >Deep enough that she winces before looking over at you.
  1602. >”And you, Anon? What do you think?”
  1603. >You chew on the inside of your lip for a while before looking over at the mare responsible.
  1604. >She’s stopped cowering behind Celestia for now.
  1605.  
  1606. >In fact, all she’s doing now is staring straight at the great, big, ugly bruises on your neck.
  1607. >A misery and regret dripping down her exhausted face as a few useless sparks bounce off of her horn.
  1608. >Maybe it’s because of how Celestia is treating this mare, but you can’t find it in your heart to hate her.
  1609. >Regardless of how badly she hurt you.
  1610. >Your eyes wander over to her little brother - the young colt calm for now, but still wheezing under fresh new bed sheets.
  1611. >And now back to her.
  1612. >Young mare on the run.
  1613. >Hooves stained red.
  1614. >A monstrous responsibility suddenly thrust upon her.
  1615. >Pushed to her limits.
  1616. >Yet all you can see in her eyes a deep regret for the harm she inflicted upon you.
  1617. >Letting out a sigh, you walk up to the bed and crouch down to her level.
  1618. >Exhausted amber eyes follow you the entire way. Cautious perhaps, but there is almost no energy left in those dim orange orbs.
  1619. >Certainly not enough to be a threat anymore.
  1620. “Match Stick?”
  1621. >She flinches and averts her gaze.
  1622. >Her hooves shifting sluggishly in front of her.
  1623. >”Y-Yes, Mr Anon?”
  1624. >Giving an audible grunt, you sit down in front of her.
  1625. >You search for the right words to say, but the only thing that comes to mind is a simple action.
  1626. >The mare slowly looks up. Confused - as you again offer a hand to her.
  1627. “I said I was willing to trust you Match Stick. I meant that. I don’t know what exactly Coal’s planning, but I don’t want to have whatever ‘this’ is haunting me. And I need your power to do that. Will you help me?”
  1628.  
  1629. >The young pony gives you a guilty look.
  1630. >Her body swaying slightly as if she might pass out.
  1631. >Then, after glancing down at your neck and biting her lip, she squints her eyes shut in concentration before giving a solemn nod and putting her hoof in your hand.
  1632. “Thank you.”
  1633. >”P-Please… J-Just don’t hit me too hard.”
  1634. >She rubs the large purple welt that has swollen at the base of her horn.
  1635. “I’ll do my best.”
  1636. >You stand back up, getting a thankful smile from Celestia in the process.
  1637. ”So then… What’s this grand plan of yours, Coal?”
  1638. >”Well, Anon. All she needs to do is use telekinesis on you. And all you have to do is stop her from doing it. I’ve already told you how, and you’ve got us here as well. We’ll make sure nothing bad happens this time. We’ll be starting on my signal.”
  1639. >With your heart hammering in your chest, you nod and take a few steps back from the bed and face Match Stick.
  1640. >The maroon mare eyes you up.
  1641. >This feels like a bad idea, but Coal hasn’t led you astray yet.
  1642. >Though before either of you receive the signal, Match Stick’s hooves start shaking slightly.
  1643. >There’s something pooling in the corners of her eyes.
  1644. >Oh no...
  1645. >She’s hit her breaking point
  1646. >You also want to back out now.
  1647. >Though just as you open your mouth, you catch concerned magenta eyes watching you.
  1648.  
  1649. >Celestia’s sitting there on the bed.
  1650. >Biting her bottom lip as her eyes flick between you and the pony by her side.
  1651. >Watching you.
  1652. >Caring about you.
  1653. >That gives you the tiny bit of encouragement you need so you can hold your tongue.
  1654. >This mare who has been through so much.
  1655. >Who is helping out a young mare in need and planning for the future of her subjects, all while having a nightmarish night looming ahead of her.
  1656. >Yet there she sits - looking like her heart might break at what you’re about to go through.
  1657. >You’ll be strong.
  1658. >You need to be.
  1659. >For her.
  1660. >A strong hoof stomp behind you signals the start; and as a tear rolls down Match Stick’s cheek, her eyes squint shut in concentration and her horn flares with life.
  1661. >The chiming sound hits your ears as, with a sputter of sparks, her horn is enveloped in that strange orange aura.
  1662. >In an instant, you’re back in that moment again.
  1663. >You can’t breathe.
  1664. >Your eyes squeeze shut and you start backpedaling as it feels like your throat is being crushed.
  1665. >A vice is squeezing down on-
  1666. >”Anon! Focus. You’re ok!”
  1667. >You barely register Coal at your side yelling something.
  1668. >Nearly hyperventilating, chest screaming for air, you reach up towards your throat.
  1669. >Your back slams into a wall.
  1670. >There’s no time.
  1671. >”You can do this, Anon!” Celestia cries out.
  1672. >On instinct, you open your eyes and look towards her.
  1673. >But you can’t keep it up, you can see it.
  1674. >You can hear it.
  1675. >The orange glow.
  1676. >Your throat is-
  1677. >”Anon! Look. At. Me.” She commands.
  1678. >Again, her words break through your panic.
  1679. >And then you see it.
  1680. >Celestia is looking you in the eyes sidelong as she mutters encouragement for a Match Stick that is falling apart.
  1681.  
  1682. >The poor mare’s body heaving as she sobs openly.
  1683. >Her horn blazing with effort as errant sparks continually fly from it.
  1684. >Face twisted in tremendous effort as she flinches and strains, her body twisting under the exertion and the pain, yet her magic persists.
  1685. >Velvet has also sidled up alongside her, one of her hooves rubbing the poor mare’s back. Holding her tongue as Celestia handles the cheer leading.
  1686. >Even Coal Crusher -- whose eyes are scanning over you constantly for any malicious lights -- steals sympathetic glances back at the heartbreaking sight on the bed.
  1687. >The honest display of her remorseful effort pierces and shatters your mania like a bullet through glass.
  1688. >You don’t even realize that you’ started breathing again.
  1689. >And although you don’t completely settle down, the tightness does start fading.
  1690. >Greedily gulping down a few mouthfuls of air, you reach up with your arm towards your neck.
  1691. >Just double checking that she’s not actually strangling you again.
  1692. >That’s when you feel a small tug on your wrist.
  1693. >Match Stick cries out at the same time, but she grits her teeth and refocuses her efforts.
  1694. >Looking down, you find a small band of translucent orange light around your forearm.
  1695. >No bigger than a watch.
  1696. >That’s it.
  1697. >That’s all she’s doing, yet it’s taking so much out of her.
  1698. >And yet you acted out like that...
  1699. >You’ve had enough.
  1700. >This needs to end. It’s already gone on far longer than it should have.
  1701. >Slowly, you make your way forward.
  1702. >Careful the whole time that you don’t move your arm too much - as each time it shifts, the band and her horn flares, making Match Stick cry out in pain.
  1703.  
  1704. >Maybe it’s because you’re not being suddenly strangled, maybe it’s because Match Stick is struggling so much. Whatever it is - the chiming sound that now fills the air now feels no more threatening than a mosquito.
  1705. >In fact, it’s rather curious how the orange light twists and moves around her horn while ringing out with a steady chiming noise.
  1706. >And there’s nothing that visibly connects the aura around her horn and the one around your arm. They’re just same colour.
  1707. >It’s so fundamentally intriguing that you find yourself sincerely wishing that your first experience with it wasn’t so brutal.
  1708. >”That’s it, Match Stick. You can do it! Just a little bit longer.” Celestia gently encourages the distraughtly squirming mare.
  1709. >Her magenta eyes away from you now that you’ve regained your senses.
  1710. >As you get within arm’s length of Match Stick’s horn, you reach your free hand back, but then pause.
  1711. >That’s overkill.
  1712. >Instead, you gently reach forward; and as everyone watches on with bated breath, you poke the welt at the base of her horn with a single finger.
  1713. >With a slight sparking sound, the magic in her horn abruptly short circuits, and Match Stick crumples to the bed.
  1714. >Celestia and Velvet swiftly react and catch her as she falls, though Celestia struggles with the weight of the adult pony.
  1715. >Lending your own arm - you help gently lay her down on the bed before taking a seat yourself.
  1716. >There she stays, chest steadily heaving as she catches her breath.
  1717. >A white wing deftly sweeps down to her face and dabs at the deep wet splotches of tears that mark her cheeks.
  1718. >”Well done, Match Stick. You’ve done a very good job.” Celestia coos, rubbing her cheek against the young mare’s.
  1719.  
  1720. >”Hah, hah, I... I-I did?” she weakly asks after a few moments of heavy breathing.
  1721. >”Yes, I believe you did. And I’m very proud of you of how strong you were. In fact, I think there’s someone here who’d like to say something to you.”
  1722. >You get a wink from the white coated mare as Match Stick wearily opens her teary orange eyes.
  1723. >Her amber orbs immediately go wide and she starts stuttering, a fresh wave of tears nearly pouring forth, but you pre-empt her.
  1724. “How you feeling, Big Red?”
  1725. >”W-what?” she balks and blubbers back.
  1726. “Don’t like it? I feel like Match Stick is a bit too cumbersome. I also didn’t want to call you something silly like ‘Sticky’. And-”
  1727. >You reach over and pick up the empty box of matches lying on the bed, holding it in front of her eyes so she can read the brand name.
  1728. “-I thought it was a good match.”
  1729. >Her amber eyes gives you a deadpan stare - a challenging sight when combined with her tear streaked face.
  1730. >Yet you hold your composure as best you can.
  1731. >*Snrk*
  1732. >Gottem.
  1733. >It starts small, like the few pebbles that signal a coming rockslide.
  1734. >A subtle snort escapes her nose.
  1735. >Her chest convulses with a chuckle.
  1736. >Eyes start dancing with mirth while a bottom lip quivers.
  1737. >The other ponies in the room start smiling as Match Stick’s poker face crumbles, and she breaks out in an infectious laughter that shakes the bed.
  1738. >It rings for all to hear, brightening up the dreary room that until now was only a poorly painted box of misery and suffering.
  1739. >Everybody’s worries rolling away as she’s swept away on this jovial wave.
  1740. >She even rolls onto her back and starts kicking her hooves in the air.
  1741. >Suddenly, you realize that you’re smiling as well.
  1742. >Despite everything that’s happened today.
  1743. >This is what you’ve been looking for.
  1744. >This must be what your wife fought for.
  1745.  
  1746. >And it feels like you’ve been having moments like these ever since you met a certain mare.
  1747. >Marveling at the sight of a nearly hysterical Match Stick wiping fresh tears of joy away from the corners of her eyes, you look over at Celestia.
  1748. *Ba-dump*
  1749. >Your heart pounds in your chest as you find her looking at you.
  1750. >Her messy multi-coloured mane framing her face as her magenta eyes shimmer with a deep appreciation.
  1751. >Come to think of it, she wanted to have a chat in private with you, didn’t she?
  1752. >And judging from the progress of the ponies outside, you don’t have much time left.
  1753. “Glad you enjoyed that little joke, Big Red.”
  1754. >”Ahahahahaha, ahahaha, aha. Ohhh. I haven’t *snrk* l haven’t laughed like that in… Well… I can’t remember when.” the maroon mare sighs as she rolls back onto her stomach.
  1755. >She looks at you, a brand new smile stretching across the muzzle of her tear-stained face.
  1756. >Though it doesn’t take long before her face dawns with a realization, and she quickly averts her amber eyes.
  1757. >Thankfully, a shy smile remains plastered on her muzzle.
  1758. “Glad I could help. Consider it a thank you for helping me out.”
  1759. >Match Stick tilts her head and frowns, hiding one of her eyes behind her messy brown mane.
  1760. >”You’re… You’re not… Mad at me?”
  1761. >Mad.
  1762. >For nearly killing you.
  1763. >She’s not a kid, but she definitely isn’t quite as mature as you initially guessed.
  1764. >Maybe that’s why Celestia showed her leeway.
  1765. “I… I was. I won’t deny that. But I’ve also had a lot of time to think. And I’ve gotten some perspective on things.”
  1766. >She rubs her foreleg with a hoof and nods for you to continue.
  1767.  
  1768. “I don’t think I could ever truly understand what was going through your mind when we first met that made you do what you did. I don’t think I ever will. But I can try to sympathize. I’ve seen enough of how ponies suffer that I can at least try that. There’s just one more thing I need to know before we can move forward from here.”
  1769. >Instantly, her ears pin back, and she looks down at her hooves.
  1770. “I need you to be honest with me. About what you’ve done.”
  1771. >The temperature in the room plummets.
  1772. >You glance over at Celestia and she nods back.
  1773. >Velvet slowly retreats to a respectable distance.
  1774. >Coal Crusher shifts behind you.
  1775. >Here goes nothing.
  1776. “Did you kill a man before coming here?”
  1777. >Even though she knew they were coming, the words hit her like a ton of bricks and she flinches.
  1778. >Nobody makes a sound for a few moments as Match Stick looks around for an escape.
  1779. >Only to be met by you and a room full of stone-faced ponies.
  1780. >Several painful seconds of silence pass before she finally gives a guilty nod and opens her mouth.
  1781. >But the only thing that comes out is a strangled sob.
  1782. >She tries again, but only a strained croaking nose comes from her throat as she searches for something, anything to say.
  1783. >In the end, she snaps her mouth shut, lies down flat on the bed, and silently buries her face in her hooves.
  1784. >Well...
  1785. >You confirmed your suspicions.
  1786. >She probably could have done it for any number of reasons.
  1787. >In particular, you have a strong suspicion that protecting the sick colt in the bed would be the most likely motivation for her to commit such an act.
  1788. >Though the bottom line is that she did it.
  1789. >And now you all must act on that information.
  1790.  
  1791. >At least you can say she appears remorseful.
  1792. >Celestia, interestingly, doesn’t seem surprised at all.
  1793. >In addition, it looks like she has something to say.
  1794. >But it seems she’s waiting for you to speak first, as her intelligent magenta eyes consider you carefully.
  1795. >All you can do is say what’s on your mind.
  1796. “I won’t say that that’s the answer I was hoping for.” you sigh. “But like I said. I’ve seen what’s happening out there. So I’ll withhold my judgement. For now.”
  1797. >Match Stick doesn’t budge.
  1798. “I can understand if you’re a bit tired right now. I’ll give you some time alone, so you can think about things. Celestia and I are shacked up here for the next few days though, so if you want to talk about anything - I wouldn’t mind having a chat.”
  1799. >With that, you’ve said all you feel you should at this point in time.
  1800. >You could give some bullshit spiel about how you’d love to take her in, but you decided quite a while ago you’re not going to tell blatant lies just to make Celestia happy.
  1801. >Speaking of…
  1802. ”Celestia, I’m going to go unpack my things in the lounge room, if you want to join me?”
  1803. >She smiles warmly at you before nodding. Then she bends down next to the morose pony on the bed.
  1804. >”Match Stick... I know things seem a little bleak right now, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.” She tenderly brushes the back of the younger mare’s mane with a hoof. “Get some rest, and remember what we talked about.” She pauses. “Do you think you might be joining us for dinner?”
  1805. >A brown mane shakes back and forth.
  1806. >”That’s alright. But make sure you get some rest. I’m going to be… Busy over the next few days. So, if you need someone to talk to, I’m sure Anon and Velvet would love to oblige.”
  1807.  
  1808. >Celestia is met with more silence as the maroon mare continues covering her face with her hooves.
  1809. >”I think we should all give her some space now.”
  1810. >You and Coal nod as Velvet gently rubs the mare’s back before hopping off the bed.
  1811. >With a mighty thump and an unsteady landing, Celestia follows suite.
  1812. >”Sleep well, little Match Stick.” The Alicorn reiterates like a doting mother, as you all step out into the hallway.
  1813. >After you close the door, a collective sigh goes out.
  1814. >Before you can say anything though, Velvet quickly speaks up.
  1815. >”Sergeant Crusher?”
  1816. >”Yes, Ma’am?”
  1817. >”Since the current crisis seems resolved, would you mind doing me a favor?”
  1818. >As Velvet asks, she subtly crosses her front hooves and tilts her head slightly sideways, showing off her neck.
  1819. >“I’ve only been here a few days, and this place is awfully large. Do you think you could kindly show me around the practice?” she invites him out while idly flicking her mane back.
  1820. >”And leave the Princess undefended?” he scoffs. “I think not. Especially with… Well…” he rather clumsily nods at the closed door.
  1821. >Good lord.
  1822. >Even Velvet is furrowing her brow and scrunching her mouth.
  1823. >”We’ll be fine, Sergeant. Please, don’t hesitate on my behalf.” Celestia, as politely as you would have expected of her, shoos him away.
  1824. >”Nonsense. It is my sworn duty to protect-”
  1825. “Hey. Champ.”
  1826. >”-The throne and… What is it, Anon?”
  1827. “Give us some space if you could, ladies.”
  1828. >Both mares oblige.
  1829. >You bend down and wave him closer.
  1830. “You’re over 40, right?”
  1831. >”I am, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
  1832. >A heavy sigh escapes your lips.
  1833. “Humour me, Mate. Does it take more than a few days to understand the lay of the land around here?”
  1834. >”No...“ he frowns. “It would only take you a few hours at most.”
  1835.  
  1836. “Uhuh. Thought so. Next question: you do have experience with mares, right?”
  1837. >”Of course! In my younger days, I practically had to fight them off with a stick!”
  1838. >Yea, sure you did.
  1839. “Then what is it? Do you think Velvet is a stupid mare?”
  1840. >”Huh?!”
  1841. “Okay then… Do you think Velvet is an ugly mare?”
  1842. >”Wha-?!”
  1843. “Because if you do, I’ll bail you out. No harm in-”
  1844. >”Anon, Velvet is a smart and beautiful mare!” he says a little too loudly. “Any stallion would be lucky to be with her!”
  1845. >That certainly gets a blush from the grey coated unicorn.
  1846. “So, let's put the pieces together then, Mate.”
  1847. >He nods while raising an eyebrow.
  1848. ”You’ve already worked out that Velvet’s taken a liking to you.”
  1849. >”... I may have, yes.”
  1850. ”And she just gave you a bullshit reason so that she could get some alone time with you.”
  1851. >”Oh… I see.”
  1852. “Big Red’s not gonna be making any noise for a while. This place seems pretty safe for Celestia to hang out in. And last but not least: you’ve got a lovely mare waiting. I’ve also got a lovely mare waiting too. Let’s not keep them waiting anymore, alright?”
  1853. >It takes a few seconds as the gears in his head slowly grind, but eventually he snorts and nods.
  1854. >But he doesn’t turn around right away.
  1855. >Instead, he studies his legs for a few moments before looking up at you.
  1856. >”Anon?”
  1857. “Yea, Mate?”
  1858. >”The, uh, the scars… They, um, they don’t look too bad, right?”
  1859. >You reach over and slap him on the back, right in the center of the mangled mass of scar tissue that features so prominently on his body.
  1860. “Can’t even notice them, Champ.” you tell him with a grin.
  1861. >That seems to do the trick, as he nods a few more times to himself before raising his head high and turning towards the waiting mare.”
  1862.  
  1863. >”Ms Velvet, I think I’d like to take you up on your offer.”
  1864. >He takes a tentative step forward.
  1865. >“That is, if it still stands.”
  1866. >”Of course it does, Sergeant.” she eagerly nods and gives you a quick, appreciative smile.
  1867. >The blush on her face getting even stronger as if she were a teenager going on her first date.
  1868. >They fall in line together and head towards the back door. Velvet leaning into his body slightly and letting out a sigh as he rigidly marches forward.
  1869. >And as they disappear around the corner, you swear her tail starts wrapping around his.
  1870. >Godspeed son.
  1871. >Though with that matter wrapped up, you’re finally left alone with Celestia.
  1872. >It's about damned time.
  1873.  
  1874. 23
  1875.  
  1876. >It’s… calming.
  1877. >In a strange way.
  1878. >You’ve only been apart for a few hours, but it feels like months have passed.
  1879. >And with your reunion, a wave of fatigue suddenly comes rushing on.
  1880. >So, without speaking any words, you and Celestia share a tired smile and walk side by side towards the living room.
  1881. >The going is a bit slow though, as Celestia’s legs struggle with the effort.
  1882. >You gently place a hand on her back, eliciting a hum from her as she leans back into you.
  1883. >This day has already taken a heavy toll on both of you.
  1884. >When you arrive at Emily’s pony-patterned couch, Celestia makes a half-hearted attempt to get up on it; but after her front legs buckle under her, she just sighs and sits on the floor.
  1885. >So that’s where you sit as well.
  1886. >Comfortably by her side.
  1887. >Your hand still resting on her back.
  1888. >Neither stroking nor scratching.
  1889. >One of her wings unfurls and wraps around your side like a soft blanket.
  1890. >You pull her in close.
  1891. >And -- as she leans back so she can press her cheek against yours with a hum -- you both sit there and simply enjoy each other’s company.
  1892. >The twilight of the setting sun creeping through the curtains as the night looms closer.
  1893. >But your mind is on different things.
  1894. >The smell of shampoo you bought for her.
  1895. >The feel of her soft, white coat against your skin.
  1896. >The weight of her body resting against yours.
  1897. >The wonderful warmth that’s being shared between you under her wing.
  1898. >Even the little way her messy mane tickles your face.
  1899. >Each little sensation enhanced by the shadow of your recent touch with death.
  1900. >Although you can still feel her ribs beneath the taught skin under your fingers.
  1901. >An irritating reminder of her condition and why you’re here.
  1902.  
  1903. >You keep that to yourself though and just close your eyes so you can enjoy this peace and quiet with her.
  1904. >Time slips away in her embrace, and you’ve nearly nodded off to sleep, when she suddenly speaks up.
  1905. >”Anon… How is your neck feeling?”
  1906. >Her voice is almost a whisper.
  1907. “It itches a bit. But I’ll be fine.”
  1908. >You move your free hand down and rub her leg above the Kevlar wrapping.
  1909. “How’s your hoof?”
  1910. >She places it on your own leg and rests her head against your chest.
  1911. >”Anon, forget my hoof… Y-You almost… If I hadn’t arrived when I did...”
  1912. >Several more long moments of silence pass before she speaks up again.
  1913. >”I’m glad you came back, Anon.” she whispers again, a sweet tinge of affection in her melodic voice.
  1914. >You reach further around her barrel and hug her closer.
  1915. “Me too, Celly. Me too… I’m, uh, I’m sorry for running out like that...”
  1916. >Her wing envelops you further.
  1917. >”Don’t be. I should have warned you. I knew somepony had somehow used magic, I just never thought-”
  1918. “That she’d show up at the exact same practice you did?”
  1919. >”Right… The hoof is fine by the way.”
  1920. >That gets a snicker out of you.
  1921. >Celestia politely laughs along, but her mind seems somewhere else.
  1922. >Another long silence slowly drifts by.
  1923. >The only sounds -- apart from your breathing -- being the muted, far off chatter of ponies outside; and the steady ticking of a grandfather clock in the living room that has horses for hands.
  1924. >You’re at peace just sitting with her while you still can, but there’s one question that you shelved earlier that stews in the back of your mind.
  1925. “Celly?”
  1926. >”Yes, Anon?” she sleepily replies.
  1927. “Why are you so scared of letting me know more about you?”
  1928. >She flinches and takes her hoof of your leg, yet her wing tightens around your side.
  1929. >”W-what makes you say that, Anon?”
  1930.  
  1931. “Really? You’re gonna pretend like you haven’t been avoiding the topic like a bad smell? You hate it whenever I find out more about who you are. You get bitter whenever I call you a Princess. I mean… It took us most of the week just for you to tell me how old you are.”
  1932. >You can feel her tensing up under your fingers - so you make small, gentle strokes with your hand.
  1933. “I know you trust me. I think I earned that much by coming back. And you should already know that I trust you. So hit me with it, Big Girl. I can take it.”
  1934. >Celestia pulls back and looks you in the eyes, her messy multi-coloured mane falling over her face as she bites her bottom lip.
  1935. >Then, her gaze slowly slips down your face towards your neck.
  1936. >Before they can drift all the way down, you reach out and lift her chin up.
  1937. >You’re getting sick of that.
  1938. “Celestia. I’m okay. But I might not be so lucky next time. If you don’t want to, then I won’t force you to say anything though. It can wait until after detox when you’re feeling better. But the stakes are escalating, Celestia. We’ve seen what can happen in such a short time.”
  1939. >Thankfully, her eyes don’t wander downward this time.
  1940. >”They were always high, Anon.” She coldly deflects.
  1941. “In the long term, yeah. I knew what I was signing up for.” you fire back without missing a beat. “But I didn’t expect that I’d be considering taking in a stray pony with blood on her hands within the first week.”
  1942. >The mare’s eyes go wide.
  1943. “I… I didn’t think...”
  1944. >That you would find something that you couldn’t stand to lose again.
  1945. >You brush a strand of mane out of her eyes and hold a hand to her cheek, giving you full view of those captivating purple orbs.
  1946. >She sighs and leans into your palm.
  1947.  
  1948. >”Where’s all this coming from?” she smirks. “A bit of sympathy before you march me out in front of my subjects?”
  1949. >It’s obviously a joke, but the mare is avoiding your question with it.
  1950. >But before you can comment, a frown crosses her face.
  1951. >”If you really must know, then... I guess that there is a reason, Anon. When we were sitting in the room a while ago, do you remember how Match Stick insisted on calling me Miss? Even when I told her not to?”
  1952. “Uh huh, I also remember you challenging her in front of everybody.”
  1953. >A slight red hue creeps onto the Alicorn's cheeks, and she scowls.
  1954. >”I had a weak moment, Anon. I thought I had lost you, but then you were back and-”
  1955. >Immediately you hold up a hand.
  1956. “I know, I know. I didn’t really mean anything by it. In fact, once Coal sort of clued me in, I thought it felt kind of… Nice. It’s just…”
  1957. >You don’t know if she’ll still be fond of you after the drugs wear off.
  1958. >That is why they’re used in the first place after all.
  1959. >”Anon?”
  1960. “Don’t worry about it… So, as you were saying - Match Stick insists on putting a title in front of your name. Velvet and Coal -- especially Coal -- always refer to you as ‘Your Highness’ or ‘Your Majesty’. And I’ve got a feeling that every pony in that group outside acted a similar way. How am I doing?
  1961. >A heartfelt smile touches her lips.
  1962. >”You’re quite perceptive, aren’t you, Anon?”
  1963. “Call it a good hunch.”
  1964. >”Was it really that obvious?”
  1965. “Only for me.”
  1966. >Retracting her wing, she stands and moves in front of you before sitting again.
  1967. >Shifting her haunches slightly on the ground, she reaches up towards your chest with a hoof and starts tracing a circle on your pec.
  1968. >An act you all too gladly answer by gently reaching out and stroking your hand up and down her neck.
  1969.  
  1970. >Biting her bottom lip for a moment, Celestia takes a deep breath before looking into your eyes again.
  1971. >”You’ve done so much for me, Anon. You’re still doing so much for me.”
  1972. “Don’t sweat it. Seriously.”
  1973. >”And are you really considering taking in Match Stick? Even after what happened?”
  1974. “I gotta say, I’m still leaning towards a heavy no.”
  1975. >Her ears fall slightly.
  1976. “But I’m not blind, Celestia. I can reconcile that this isn’t a clear cut situation with an easy answer. I can also understand the value of holding onto the first magic capable pony that humanity has seen. So I’m trying very hard to keep an open mind.”
  1977. >Celestia smiles nonetheless.
  1978. >”That means more to me than I can put into words. But, Anon - regardless of all those things, I don’t treat you like I do because I feel like I owe you a debt.”
  1979. >She leans forward, the mare being careful not to impale you with her overly large horn, and rubs her neck against yours.
  1980. >”I do it,” she softly whispers. “Because I can forget I’m a Princess when I’m with you. Because I feel like I’m allowed to have fun when I’m with you.”
  1981. >You lean back against her.
  1982. “Celly, please, I couldn’t put you up on a pedestal even if I tried.”
  1983. >She hums sweetly next to your ear.
  1984. “You’re too heavy for that.”
  1985. >”Anon!”
  1986. “And the drooling when you sleep? Yikes.”
  1987. >Celestia jokingly smacks your chest and pulls back.
  1988. >A playful smile stretching across her muzzle.
  1989. >”There’s definitely something different about you.” the mare muses as she moves her head from side to side, carefully studying your features.
  1990. “Hmmm? How so?” you ask as you lean back against the couch.
  1991. >”I’m not so sure yet… you just feel-” she twirls a hoof in search of a word. “-Warmer?”
  1992. >You let her look over you for a few more seconds, until she sighs and gives up.
  1993.  
  1994. >”Whatever it might be, I can’t say that I hate it.”
  1995. >She smirks and bites her bottom lip again.
  1996. “Is that so?”
  1997. >Giving her a grin, you run a hand up the side of her neck, before sliding it down her barrel while leaning forward slightly.
  1998. >Unfortunately, a loud cheer erupts from outside; making you both jolt while deflating the mood of the room.
  1999. >Letting out an irritated sigh, Celestia’s eyes go to the darkening window.
  2000. >”I suppose we’ll have to put this on hold. With how late it is, our presence might be requested outside soon.” she pouts. “Never having enough time is one of the few things I didn’t miss.”
  2001. >Her hoof affectionately rubs your shoulder, though you can mostly only feel the cold metal of the underlying horseshoe.
  2002. >“And just when things were finally getting good too.”
  2003. ”Hey, I won’t be going anywhere. And when you’ve recovered, I think a lot of things are going to change for the better.”
  2004. >Your words don’t seem like they cheer her up though.
  2005. >Now more conscious of the ponies outside and the coming celebration, Celestia backs away from you slightly and quickly inspects herself.
  2006. >”Appearance is everything, even in these circumstances.” she drearily remarks as she runs a Kevlar-wrapped hoof through her messy mane.
  2007. >Moving on - the skinny mare twists and turns where she sits, before opening her wings and inspecting them.
  2008. “Is it really that urgent? I mean, surely they can understand if you-”
  2009. >”If I don’t look presentable, Anon, then I get to answer the same question about my appearance thirty to forty times.” she informs you as she inspects the underside of the feathery appendages. “The better I look, the more they can relax and think that everything will be fine.”
  2010.  
  2011. >Letting out a tired sigh, she shakily stands up and turns around.
  2012. >You raise an eyebrow.
  2013. >Suddenly, her rear starts slowly backing up towards you.
  2014. >Hold up.
  2015. “Whoa, whoa, wait, easy there.” you blurt out. “I don’t think-”
  2016. >Before you can finish your sentence -- or make some beeping noises like a truck would when reversing -- Celestia abruptly plonks her bony pony posterior down on your lap and stretches out her wings again.
  2017. >”You’re on cleaning duty, Anon.”
  2018. “You sure about that?”
  2019. >They always felt like they were one of the more delicate and alien parts of her body.
  2020. >You’d never forgive yourself if you damaged them in some way.
  2021. >”I’m very sure. Getting a mouth full of dirt and feathers isn’t exactly the most enjoyable sensation.” she chirps as she bends a wing back towards you. “I’m also looking forward to seeing what those fingers feel like.”
  2022. “Alrighty then… Just, tell me if I’m doing something I’m not supposed to.”
  2023. >”It shouldn’t be too hard, Anon. I cleaned them recently, so I just need you to quickly sift through them for broken feathers or anything that doesn’t look like it belongs.”
  2024. >Cautiously reaching out, you gingerly put a hand on the soft, snow white sheet that’s offered.
  2025. >”That’s it. Now, carefully, move one out of the way. Very good. Now check the root for any-”
  2026. >As your thumb touches the base of a feather where it joins the limb; she cries out and spreads her wing, wrenching it from your grip.
  2027. “Shit, shit, shit. I didn’t hurt you did I?”
  2028. >”N-No. Not at all.” she stammers as she gets the feathery appendage under control. “It was just a bit more… intense than I was expecting. Please… Continue.”
  2029.  
  2030. >You give her a concerned look, but she just stares forward; once again offering you her wing.
  2031. >Showing extra care this time, you delicately start sifting through her feathers with your fingers.
  2032. >Once again, you reach the bottom of a larger one, and ever so gently, you grab the base and twist it slightly so you can inspect the root.
  2033. >”Mmmmm.”
  2034. >Celestia hums, making you flinch.
  2035. >Yet the wing stays in your grip.
  2036. >Breathing a sigh of relief, you refocus and pick up your pace.
  2037. >Steadily moving from feather to feather; feeling where they connect with her wing and inspecting them for damage or dirt.
  2038. ”What exactly am I meant to be looking for back here?”
  2039. >”Mmmmm.”
  2040. >Well, that’s not helpful.
  2041. >But she sounds happy, so you must be doing something right.
  2042. >And so you continue methodically touching, twisting, and pulling each feather before laying it back where you found it.
  2043. >That is until you discover one that is bent clean in the middle.
  2044. “Hey, Gorgeous?”
  2045. >”Hmmmm?” She dreamily hums.
  2046. “I think I found a broken one, it’s kind of forming a right angle because it’s bent so badly.”
  2047. >”If it’s, mmm, if it’s one of the smaller ones, then pull it out in one go. Otherwise I’ll just wait for it to fall out and grow back normally.”
  2048. “Alrighty then… You’re the boss.” you answer as you grab the base and give it a sudden yank, making Celestia suck in air through her teeth and lift her rear slightly as you pluck the errant feather out of her wing.
  2049. >Twirling it in between your fingers, you give it a once over before depositing it by your side.
  2050. >Something catches your attention when Celestia sits back down though.
  2051. >As she parks her rear in your lap again, you can’t help but notice things have gotten noticeably damp down there.
  2052. ”Celestia?”
  2053.  
  2054. >”Yes, Anon?” she coyly answers, pressing her rear harder into your crotch at the same time.
  2055. >This mare…
  2056. >She knows full well what’s going on.
  2057. >But… You’re not ruining her fun if you can help it.
  2058. >Besides, she’s earned it in your books.
  2059. >So you’ll indulge this little scenario.
  2060. >That’s your justification and you’re sticking to it.
  2061. “I’m still not done with that wing.”
  2062. >”Of course.” she eagerly answers, quickly thrusting the wing back into your grasp.
  2063. >You pick up where you left off, but this time - you linger a little longer with your fingers at the root of each feather.
  2064. >Deftly caressing and rubbing the area where each feather connects with the underlying limb before moving onto the next.
  2065. >Each strong probe of her wing making her jolt and yelp with increasing enthusiasm.
  2066. >”Ooohh goooddds, this is dangerous, Anon.” Celestia finally moans out loud, dropping all pretext as she starts grinding in your lap.
  2067. >That lights a fire in your fingers, and you start applying more pressure while still being careful that you don’t break anything.
  2068. >Your digits drawing forth a satisfying chorus of pleased mewls and moans from this mare at the mercy of your fingertips.
  2069. >Every now and then, you have to stop and pluck a broken one, or pick some dirt out, before quickly resuming your ministrations.
  2070. >Fortunately, Celestia’s few complaints about these interruptions become short lived, as she starts openly panting.
  2071. >Her tail slowly flagging as you move onto the second wing.
  2072. >”Hah, hah, hah, i-it’s, i-it’s not enough, A-Anon.” the squirming mare in your lap stammers. “I-It’s like you’re, hah, c-constantly teasing me.”
  2073. >Maybe you are taking things a bit too far.
  2074. >Maybe you should stop and let her calm down before you two need to go outside for dinner.
  2075. >Or.
  2076. >Maybe you could continue?
  2077.  
  2078. >Something deep down and primal inside of you screams to keep going as your fingers near the end of her second wing.
  2079. >That this might be the last chance you’ll get to be with her.
  2080. >But that thought gives you pause.
  2081. >This was meant to be some innocent fun.
  2082. >A little break for both of you before you take on the rest of the night.
  2083. >And now you’re fondling a mare who is not in her best state of mind.
  2084. >Blood already pooling in your crotch as you get her worked up, but to what end?
  2085. >You know exactly what, though the desperate tinge of the thought brings a deep shame.
  2086. >Your fingers start slowing down and easing up in their efforts.
  2087. >Celestia immediately notices, craning her neck and looking back at you.
  2088. >A deep longing mixed with a mild confusion in her eyes.
  2089. >”A-Anon? What’s wrong?”
  2090. “I’m, uh, nearing the end of the wing... Was thinking we should start cooling things down.” you mutter, unable to meet her eyes for fear she might read your thoughts.
  2091. >Your avoidant attitude awkwardly douses the fire in her eyes, and she looks away slightly embarrassed.
  2092. >In that instant, you feel the cruel weight of reality rushing on.
  2093. >You’re at this practice for a reason.
  2094. >The poor mare in front of you has had something terrible forced upon her.
  2095. >And right now, her recovery is your top priority.
  2096. >Until then, everything has to wait.
  2097. >It must wait.
  2098. >If she only feels something for you when under the influence of those pills, then you never deserved to be with her in the first place.
  2099. >But that excuse doesn’t matter in this moment as Celestia pulls her wing out of your hands; tucking it into her side before slowly lifting her damp haunches off of your crotch.
  2100.  
  2101. >The mare looking into a corner of the room as you get a full view of the soaked state of her.
  2102. “I’m sorry, Celly. This isn’t fair on you. I shouldn’t have-”
  2103. >”Just stop it, Anon!” She suddenly snaps.
  2104. “W-wha-?”
  2105. >As you fumble with a reply, Celestia angrily turns around.
  2106. >Hooves stomping on the rug beneath her before she sits down with a wet squelch in front of you.
  2107. >Her magenta eyes gleaming with a cold fury.
  2108. >”How do you think doing that makes me feel, Anon?!”
  2109. “I-I don’t-”
  2110. >”I asked you - how do you think it makes me feel?! You’re so perceptive after all, aren’t you?” she condescendingly jabs.
  2111. “Celestia, I-”
  2112. >”Isn’t fair on me? Isn’t fair on me?! I understand my own circumstances, Anon! I understand them because I am the one dealing with them! So how on Equestria do you think it makes me feel - when I’m enjoying an intimate moment with someone I care about-!” She stomps a hoof again. Her ears held back and her tail flicking in irritation “Someone with whom I can finally relax with and enjoy being myself around - and don’t say that this is a surprise, I refuse to believe you’re that naive after everything we’ve been through.”
  2113. >The enraged mare pulls back slightly, biting her bottom lip hard before continuing.
  2114. >”And the moment I feel like I can open myself up, like I can get to know them on a deeper level; they wrench their hooves, their hands, whatever, off of me - like I’m some kind of sick and delirious pony who doesn’t know what she’s doing! Who doesn’t know what she wants!”
  2115. >You hold your tongue.
  2116. >Anyone in the house can probably hear her angry booming voice, she’s yelling that loudly.
  2117. >But there’s just no other option for you at the moment.
  2118.  
  2119. >”I’m a mare, Anon. I have needs. And I have things that I want as well. Having you treat me like I might break if a slight breeze hit me? That I’m not in control when I do things like that? That hurts! When you pull your hands away from me and look like you just kicked a dog? Like you’re ashamed of touching me? That hurts even more! But do you want to know what the most painful thing is?”
  2120. >The tone of her voice levels out with an icy chill, and she holds her head back and regards you with a calculating coldness.
  2121. “... What is it, Celestia?”
  2122. >You brace.
  2123. >”It hurts, Anon, when I see you apologize for doing something that I know you want to do. Like you’re too scared to go after what you want. Almost as if you’re running away from yourself. And it’s made worse by the fact that you’ll do things you don’t want to do for my sake. It turns you into a hypocrite, Anon; because by making concession after concession to me without giving yourself an inch, you are putting me on a pedestal. Either that, or you see me as some pathetic pony that deserves your pity. That’s what’s not fair, Anon.”
  2124. >...
  2125. >Several long, painful moments creep by, but you can’t think properly.
  2126. >You can’t do anything after that kind of evisceration.
  2127. >”I’m going to the bathroom so I can get myself cleaned up.” she finishes with an exhausted, dismissive sigh.
  2128. >Standing on skinny, shaking legs, Celestia slowly starts making her way out of the room.
  2129. >Her head hanging low as she grunts with the effort of each step.
  2130. >It’s happening again.
  2131. >Just like it did so long ago.
  2132. >The urge to scream out, to yell, to shout, to do or say anything that might stop her from leaving right now rages inside you like a wild torrent.
  2133.  
  2134. >You should stand up.
  2135. >Go help her.
  2136. >But you can’t even open your mouth.
  2137. >You just sit there against the couch, stunned into silence.
  2138. >This can’t happen.
  2139. >She can’t leave like this.
  2140. >Or else things might never go back.
  2141. >Come on.
  2142. >You have to stop this!
  2143. >Just. Say. Something!
  2144. >Anything!
  2145. >Or have you really not changed at all since that day?!
  2146. >For once in your life, just open your mouth and say what you want to say!
  2147. “C-Celestia!” you finally blurt out, just as she‘s nearly left the room.
  2148. >Thankfully, she stops, though the mare does stare back at you with an almost heartbreakingly indifferent gaze.
  2149. >But it does buy you one precious chance.
  2150. >You can’t defuse this with a joke.
  2151. >You can’t bullshit her.
  2152. >You can’t stay silent.
  2153. >You must act.
  2154. “You want to know what I want, Celestia?”
  2155. >You stand up and meet her eyes.
  2156. >”I do.” she sincerely replies. ”More than anything else, Anon.”
  2157. >Your mouth opens, but nothing of substance comes out.
  2158. “I-” you stall. “I want…”
  2159. >You’re dropping the ball.
  2160. >”Anon.” for the briefest moment, her cheeks pull back into a smile before she can reign them in. “You can trust me, Big Boy.”
  2161. >You really can’t beat this mare, can you?
  2162. “How honest?”
  2163. >”Brutally.”
  2164. >She gives you another cheeky grin that quickly disappears as you finally catch on.
  2165. >“I can handle it.”
  2166. >While her little lecture was accurate with a frightful precision; on reflection, it feels more like a little advice for you to digest later.
  2167. >Some of that old age showing through maybe, yet you still can’t associate her with being over a thousand years old.
  2168.  
  2169. >In the meantime - as you were picking up the pieces of yourself, this clever old mare chose to take her outrage and get something out of it.
  2170. >Embellishing her reactions so she could lure you hook, line, and sinker into this kind of situation.
  2171. >A small payback for effectively blue balling her, you guess.
  2172. >Probably threw in those grunts for dramatic effect too.
  2173. >So maybe you can have a bit of fun in return.
  2174. >While being brutally honest of course.
  2175. ”Celestia.”
  2176. >“Yes, Anon?”
  2177. >Well.
  2178. >It’s now or never.
  2179. “You were right.” you begin with a heavy blush. “I did want to continue. In fact I wanted to keep going so badly, that all I could think about was throwing you onto the couch right then and there.”
  2180. >Aside from a small twitch of her tail, she remains stone-faced.
  2181. “But I stopped myself. Because as much as it excites me, I can’t shake off the dark cloud hanging over every single one of those moments.”
  2182. >That makes the mare scowl slightly.
  2183. >”Anon, I thought I told you-”
  2184. “Hey, I’m not done yet. This is about what I want, remember?”
  2185. >Clearly not satisfied, Celestia bites her tongue and nods for you to continue.
  2186. “I ‘want’ to have drinks with everyone we’ve met at this practice, and watch Velvet drunkenly hit on Coal while everything soars over his oblivious head. But I can’t, because you need to stay healthy for detox.”
  2187. >You start walking towards her as she frowns.
  2188. “I really want to give Match Stick a chance. But I can’t even begin considering taking her in when I’m worried sick about how much you’re going to be hurting over the next few days.”
  2189. >Finally, you say something that gives her pause.
  2190.  
  2191. “I want to see you able to walk by your own power wherever you go. But I can’t. I want to lie down and watch movies with you all day. But I can’t. I want to be able to enjoy a lovely evening with you without having to drug you and take you to bed early. But I can’t.”
  2192. >You stop in front of her and sit down.
  2193. >She’s still not smiling, but a few cracks are starting to show in her mask.
  2194. >From the subtle swivel of an ear to the slightest readjustments of her wings.
  2195. “I want to see what kind of plans you can come up with. I want to see how the world changes when you go public. I want to learn out about magic. I want to do something, anything, about this fucked up situation that took my wife from me and did this to you. I want to do so many things! With you, Celestia. But I can’t. Because it all comes back to one thing.”
  2196. >Tepidly reaching forward while keeping an eye on her reactions, you place a hand on her neck.
  2197. >Thankfully, even though her purple eyes follow you the whole way, she doesn’t pull back.
  2198. “The thing that I want most of all, right now - is for you to get better, Celestia. Because the thing that I want most of all - is ‘you’. The natural ‘you’. The healthy ‘you’. That takes priority over everything else that I want.”
  2199. >There we go.
  2200. >It’s all out in the open now; and so the embarrassment of your blunt admission comes surging forth, making your ears burn.
  2201. >”Is that really all true, Anon?” the Alicorn inquires.
  2202. “I guess it is… I didn’t really have it in focus until you gave me that lecture and put me on the spot. But yeah. That’s pretty much it.” you state plainly.
  2203.  
  2204. >She taps her chin with a hoof and studies you, carefully considering her options.
  2205. >”And you meant that first part? About the couch? You weren’t just joking around?”
  2206. >You feel like looking away; but holding onto a modicum of resolve, you steel yourself and hold her gaze.
  2207. “Damn straight.”
  2208. >”Then I’ll be holding you to that offer, Anon.”
  2209. “Huh?”
  2210. >”What I’m trying to say is - in exchange for my forgiveness for leaving me ‘stiff-winged’; once I’m done with detox, I get a freebee.”
  2211. “I’m gonna say yes anyway, but what do you mean by ‘freebee’?”
  2212. >Donning a coy grin, Celestia takes a few steps forward and leans in close.
  2213. >“Wherever I want. Whenever I want.” she sultrily whispers in your ear. “I say the word, and you take me right then and there.”
  2214. *Gulp*
  2215. >”Bonus points if you drag me tail first and bend me over a couch.”
  2216. “Yes Ma’am.”
  2217. >Satisfied with that, Celestia pulls back and finally breaks her mask, giving you a tender smile.
  2218. >”Excellent. Now, if you could be so kind, I would very much appreciate some, um, help. With getting tidied up.”
  2219. >Craning her neck to one side, she glances worryingly at something behind her.
  2220. >Following her gaze, you find a thin, clear strand of liquid trailing to the floor between her hind legs.
  2221. “Par for the course, Babe. Just one question.”
  2222. >”Yes, Anon?”
  2223. “Where exactly is the toilet in this house?”
  2224. >Sharing looks of uncertainty, you both check up and down the long hallway for a few moments, before a sudden knock comes from the front door.
  2225. >”Anon! Celestia! It’s time for dinner!” Emily's voice echoes through the door.
  2226.  
  2227. Part 24
  2228.  
  2229. >A short while later, you and Celestia are standing behind the front door in the dimly lit hallway.
  2230. >Your right hand once again resting on her back for her peace of mind.
  2231. >Also for your own. But that’s something she doesn’t need to know.
  2232. >”You’re sure I look fine, Anon?”
  2233. “Celestia, you look so good that someone might accidentally mistake you for a Princess.”
  2234. >That gets a brief smile from her, before she immediately goes back to biting her lip.
  2235. >She’s started doing that an awful lot lately.
  2236. >Nonetheless, you can’t help but marvel at how right she was when she said that appearance is everything.
  2237. >A quick brush and groom of her mane and tail later, coupled with some instructed hair spray use; another, less stimulating, check of her wings; some soap and water for errant blood flecks from one of Tinder’s coughing episodes.
  2238. >Combine all of that with a bit of maintenance on her backside, and now the Alicorn princess looks transformed - ready to face her subjects as she holds her head high and psyches herself up.
  2239. >Her profile is a captivating sight, despite her current circumstances.
  2240. >And you yourself have swapped out your old, blood stained shirt and pants for new ones; and under Celestia’s advice, you’ve borrowed an old scarf from Emily to cover up the bruises on your neck.
  2241. >”This is our first public event, Anon. It’s alright if you make some mistakes.”
  2242. >Celestia gives you a warm and reassuring smile, but the incessant swishing of her long, multi-coloured tail; and the constant, back and forth flicking of her hears lets you know that the encouragement was meant more for herself than it was for you.
  2243. >*Knock* *Knock*
  2244. >”Your Highness, we’re ready out here.”
  2245. >Coal’s deep voice comes through the door.
  2246.  
  2247.  
  2248. >Immediately, you feel a slight trembling under your hand.
  2249. “You ready, Gorgeous?”
  2250. >”O-Of course, Anon.”
  2251. >Bullshit.
  2252. >This can’t go on, or she’ll be a wreck before she even gets to the dinner table.
  2253. >A grin spreads across your lips as you quickly throw together a plan.
  2254. “Y’know Celestia, there’s an ancient human technique that has helped calm down people for centuries. You want to try it?”
  2255. >”I-I’ll take anything at this point, Anon.”
  2256. “Alright, alright.” You crouch down beside her and hug her closer with your right arm. “Look here.”
  2257. >Holding out your left hand flat out in front with the palm pointing towards her, you start slowly counting down out loud and with your fingers.
  2258. “Five, four-” You sneak a peek to make sure she’s focusing on your hand. “Three-”
  2259. >Oh yeah. Her eyes are glued to your fingers, and she’s even silently counting along with her mouth.
  2260. “Two.”
  2261. >Here we go.
  2262. >Instead of counting the final number, you deftly move your right hand up and cup one side of her face while you give her left cheek a quick kiss.
  2263. >Celestia’s eyes go wide.
  2264. >You quickly pull back and stand up before returning your hand to her back.
  2265. “They say it only ever works once. What do you think?”
  2266. >A smile slowly spreads across her muzzle as she stares straight forward.
  2267. >She doesn’t answer.
  2268. >She doesn’t need to.
  2269. >The slight tremor in her back has abated as well.
  2270. >Instead, she raises her hoof to the door and knocks back.
  2271. >”We’re ready to come out, Sergeant.”
  2272. >This is it.
  2273. >There’s a small bit of chatter from the other side.
  2274. >Then suddenly-
  2275. >”Fillies and Gentlecolts!” A deep and powerful stallion’s voice booms out. “May I have your attention, please!”
  2276. >The mare at your side shifts slightly.
  2277. >“Presenting tonight’s guests!”
  2278.  
  2279. >You rub your thumb against her back.
  2280. >”Please, give a warm welcome to our humble home: Sovereign of the Sun; the eldest of the two ruling sisters of Equestria; Her Royal Highness, Princess Celestia!”
  2281. >As you reach out for the doorknob, a thunderous roar comes from the crowd outside, nearly shaking the door on its hinges.
  2282. >”You won’t leave me. Right, Anon?”
  2283. >It’s almost a whisper.
  2284. “Never.”
  2285. >Swallowing heavily, you open up the path in front of you, revealing a waiting rainbow of thirty to forty multi-coloured pastel ponies, all of them illuminated by cheap flood lights on the front lawn.
  2286. >A split second passes before they erupt in another monstrous cheer.
  2287. >It’s intensely overwhelming as many of them stomp their hooves and rear back with cries of joy.
  2288. >In front of you - a kaleidoscope of wide, hopeful eyes standing a respectable distance from the house; all of them demanding your attention.
  2289. >Combine that with the raucous noise that feels like it’s coming from every direction at once, and you can feel your legs turning to jelly.
  2290. >You spot Emily in the back of the crowd, standing almost twice as tall as everyone else.
  2291. >By her side - a tired and grumpy looking Stint is nursing a cold pack against his forehead.
  2292. >The veterinarian notices your gaze and mouths a ‘sorry’ in your direction while pointing down at the stallion.
  2293. >Seems like he got a bigger knock on the head than you thought.
  2294. >You should thank him when you get the chance though.
  2295. >Meanwhile, Coal and Velvet are flanking you on either side of the doorway; with the grey mare on your right and the scarred stallion on your left.
  2296. >Velvet seems slightly irritated though, as she scowls with splayed back ears.
  2297. >Hopefully their little date didn’t end too badly.
  2298.  
  2299. >As you soak in the situation: Celestia -- like it’s second nature -- gives a curt bow of her head and leans against you for support, so that she can raise a Kevlar-wrapped hoof and wave at them.
  2300. >That just makes the crowd go even wilder.
  2301. >”And introducing her royal consort-!” the stallion by your side yells again.
  2302. >Her what?!
  2303. >Oh no.
  2304. >The crowd goes deathly quiet while you stare daggers at the side of his face.
  2305. >Coal.
  2306. >Please!
  2307. >”A sincere and earnest human who has earned my respect and trust.”
  2308. >Don’t!
  2309. >”Please, give a warm welcome: to the human who found and rescued our Monarch; who brought her back to us for a swift and steady recovery; who is responsible for the luxuries we have enjoyed as of late, and who has sworn to help us in our ongoing struggles. I present to you - Sir Anon!”
  2310. >You never really understood the phrase ‘Deafening Silence’.
  2311. >But standing there -- with the crowd of ponies instantly going so quiet that you can hear a car travelling down the main road several hundred metres away -- gives you a new appreciation for it.
  2312. >After all, the sudden vacuum of noise really does feel like someone just blew out your eardrums.
  2313. >”Give them a wave, Anon.”
  2314. >Celestia nervously nudges your side.
  2315. >Ever so slowly -- as if they might swarm and tear you limb from limb if you make the wrong move -- you raise your free hand and stiffly wave it back and forth.
  2316. >More silence.
  2317. >You look at the stone faced stallion by your side who stands there like a statue.
  2318. >Not a guilty hair on his black, scarred coat.
  2319. >Thanks a lot Coal, you absolute cu-
  2320. >Although it isn’t as loud as Celestia’s welcome, the crowd suddenly erupts in a humbling, yet indecipherable chorus of praise and thanks.
  2321. >Their hooves collectively stomping the ground in what you assume is pony applause.
  2322.  
  2323. >”Start walking now, Anon.” Coal harshly whispers by your side.
  2324. “Sir Anon?” you chide back at him.
  2325. >His stone-faced features fracture for a moment, and he gives an unsure smile.
  2326. >”Gotta entertain the crowd somehow.”
  2327. >Swallowing the butterflies of anxiety in your throat, you summon what courage you can find and step off the front door landing.
  2328. >Celestia moves in lock-step with you the whole time, her body leaning heavier into your side than you would have expected.
  2329. >Hopefully she’s just very tired.
  2330. >The alternative means you have less time than you thought.
  2331. >Both guard ponies quickly fall in at your flanks, and you soon realise that you’re experiencing your first ‘royal’ escort.
  2332. >But the moment is overshadowed by Celestia’s degrading constitution.
  2333. >Spying the arrangement of dinner tables in the distance, you adjust your heading so you can beeline towards them.
  2334. >Unfortunately, the way forward takes you right through the cluster of ponies who still haven’t relented in their fervent support.
  2335. >Thankfully, Coal picks up on your intent and swiftly trots out in front.
  2336. >”Make way for Her Majesty!” he bellows.
  2337. >But none of the over-excited ponies show any inclination of moving out of the way.
  2338. >The solitary stallion vanguard stays his course, forming a one pony spearhead as Velvet follows in your footsteps.
  2339. >As you get closer to the herd, a small knot starts forming in your gut.
  2340. >Not a single one of the ecstatic ponies is even flinching at the oncoming guard.
  2341. >This could get really bad, really quick.
  2342. >Maybe you should-
  2343. >”Don’t hesitate, Anon. Keep going straight.” Celestia urges at your side.
  2344. >A thin sheen of sweat shimmering through the coat around her horn that you didn't notice inside.
  2345. >Following her advice, you stay the course and keep marching forward with her.
  2346.  
  2347. >Tensions rise as Coal is nearly about to bulldoze his way through the front ranks of the crowd, and you brace for a collision; when miraculously, the ponies part like the red sea so you can pass.
  2348. >As you move through the narrow corridor between them, you feel like your eardrums might rupture from the fevered jovial pitch the ponies are reaching.
  2349. >A keen awareness of the many wandering eyes gnaws at your vanity, making you extremely self-conscious of how you’re currently looking and very thankful for the scarf around your neck.
  2350. >Like it’s her second nature, Celestia smiles and shakes the hoof of any pony who reaches out to her, while also mixing in the occasional ‘how are you’, and ‘it’s good to be back’.
  2351. >Slowing you both down slightly while she caters to her subjects.
  2352. >Velvet, for her part, handles the crowd control.
  2353. >The grey unicorn swiftly heading off any errant ponies who get a little too touchy with their Princess.
  2354. >As you’re standing there in the middle of the herd - for only the briefest of moments, an immense sense of panic washes over you.
  2355. >But rather than letting it interfere, you squash it with whatever willpower you can spare and push onward.
  2356. >Though the crowd moves with you, it thankfully only takes a few minutes to reach the tables.
  2357. >There you find four rows of the crudely constructed furniture; stretching out with basic seats, utensils, and plastic plates littered all over them for the ponies.
  2358. >Though you’re not sure how useful the knives and forks will be.
  2359.  
  2360. >A short distance away -- stretching across far side of those tables -- lies a fifth, more carefully constructed one.
  2361. >Insofar as it doesn’t look like it’ll fall apart at any second.
  2362. >It also only has a limited number of proper lawn chairs on one side, in addition to a handmade wooden ‘throne’ parked in the middle.
  2363. >This seems to be so that their occupants can look over all the others gathered.
  2364. >In addition, the cutlery and plates adorned on it are actually stainless steel and ceramic with basic floral patterns.
  2365. >Despite the step-up in quality, you would still only describe the setup as very basic.
  2366. >Lying further away -- and off to one side -- is a sixth, human made, fold-able camping table that holds several large bowls of salads, pastas, what looks like hay covered in sauce, as well as many more vegetarian meals.
  2367. >It doesn’t look like you’ll be getting a hot meal tonight though as there isn’t a portable stoves or grill or anything of that like.
  2368. >Might have to order some pizza again.
  2369. >Wonder if they deliver all the way out in the sticks?
  2370. >”L-Lets go and sit down, Anon.” a struggling Celestia gasps by your side.
  2371. “Right, sorry.”
  2372. >You apologize and follow Coals lead.
  2373. >As you approach the end table that’s meant for Celestia, Emily catches up and falls in line with a dizzy Stint trailing in her footsteps.
  2374. >But she doesn’t share any pleasantries with you.
  2375. >Instead, she critically studies the mare by your side.
  2376. >Celestia’s shaking has returned, but you don’t think it’s the nerves this time.
  2377. >”You feeling alright, Cinderella?” Emily sympathetically asks.
  2378. >”J-just fine, thank you. S-some water would be nice though.”
  2379.  
  2380. >”Maybe we should call things off-”
  2381. >”No!” the haggard Alicorn blurts out. “N-No. I can h-handle something like this.”
  2382. >Her magenta eyes sparkle as they look over her subjects - all of them laughing, sharing jokes, and a few overrun with tears of joy at the momentous occasion.
  2383. >”I-I can handle something like this.”
  2384. >Emily smiles at her and nods, before giving you a worrying glance.
  2385. >Retreating back and then walking up alongside you this time, the vet whispers in your ear.
  2386. >”It looks like we don’t have as much time as we would have liked, Anon. She's not going to last long. Do you think can carry her back to the house in an emergency?”
  2387. “Absolutely.”
  2388. >”Also, just to let you know, our three test subjects will be going through a lot without their pills. Try to take things easy on them.”
  2389. >You nod.
  2390. >Running a hand through her blonde hair, Emily sighs and hangs back, stopping Stint as well so they can talk about something.
  2391. >As soon as you finish helping Celestia into her seat positioned in the centre of the table, the mare urgently reaches for an already poured glass of water sitting next to her plate.
  2392. >Her hoof goes slightly off target though, and she knocks it over - spilling water all over the table cloth.
  2393. >Thankfully, the ponies in the herd are too busy buzzing around the other four tables and taking their seats to notice.
  2394. >Grabbing your own glass, you raise it to her lips, and she greedily gulps down all of it.
  2395. >The mare nearly choking as she does so.
  2396. “You alright, Celly?”
  2397. >Holding her eyes shut as a wince flashes across her face, Celestia gives a subtle shake of her head and holds a foreleg to her stomach under the table.
  2398. >”I’m fine, Anon.”
  2399. “Celestia, maybe we should-”
  2400. >”No! Not until we have to!” the Alicorn seethes.
  2401.  
  2402. >As she opens her now slightly bloodshot eyes, you feel your heart wrenching.
  2403. >Again, that small panic from before resurges.
  2404. >But you can’t find it in your heart to deny her when she’s struggling so much.
  2405. >So you squash it again, and the rest of you take your seats.
  2406. >Coal and Velvet sitting on your left.
  2407. >Emily and Stint sitting on Celestia’s right.
  2408. >Doctor’s orders after all.
  2409. >And in front of you, a veritable rainbow of chattering equines who glance expectantly at their monarch.
  2410. >Taking a few shuddering breaths, the Alicorn looks over them.
  2411. >The pain in her intelligent eyes intensifying as she takes in everything about them.
  2412. >Maybe you really should call this off.
  2413. >”The Princess wishes to speak!” Coal suddenly bellows at the top of his lungs.
  2414. >God damn is he loud.
  2415. >But isn’t he jumping the gun a little bit?
  2416. >It has the desired effect though, and the crowd swiftly falls silent.
  2417. >Without leaving her seat, the mare by your side looks over the crowd for a few more moments, soaking in their expectant gazes before she begins.
  2418. >Though as you look at Celestia, you get the sudden feeling that something is terribly wrong.
  2419. >A looming sense of dread that surges forth from deep with your chest and reignites the panic.
  2420. >Ears are splayed back.
  2421. >Tears pool in the corners of her eyes.
  2422. >A bottom lip quivers.
  2423. >But it’s too late to stop her.
  2424. >”M-My little ponies. My p-precious ponies. How g-good it is to s-see-”
  2425. >She chokes, unable to speak as her words become stuck in her throat.
  2426. >”T-to see-”
  2427. >Again, she chokes.
  2428. >What are you missing?
  2429. >Is she just hurting from withdrawal?
  2430.  
  2431. >No this is different.
  2432. >What is it?
  2433. >”I’m s-sorry... ” Celestia whimpers.
  2434. >Why is she-?
  2435. >As your gaze wanders back to the crowd of ponies, you finally stop and take a good look at this whole situation.
  2436. >All the little details that you ignored up till now -- either because you were too focused on Celestia or yourself -- come flooding in.
  2437. >Or maybe you just never really could understand where she stood.
  2438. >It makes you cringe so hard that you feel sick.
  2439. >The now despondent and despairing eyes.
  2440. >The crippling injuries.
  2441. >The handmade furniture that’s falling apart.
  2442. >And finally, the fact that what is meant to be Celestia’s reunion with her subjects feels like a shitty barbeque party.
  2443. >Chaperoned by you and Emily as you both tower so tall over the ponies that you make them seem like kids.
  2444. >Add to that the clumsy ceremonial process, and the entire thing feels like some child’s make-believe party.
  2445. >It’s deeply embarrassing just sitting at the table.
  2446. >But you’re not their leader.
  2447. >Their leader is currently having a very public break-down as she now sobs openly in front of them.
  2448. >Her kingdom in ruins and her people effectively reduced to beasts of burden who can’t even provide for themselves.
  2449. >You’re the one who paid for everything here, after all.
  2450. >The worst thing about all this is the silence from the herd
  2451. >There are no confused whispers.
  2452. >No shouts of assurance.
  2453. >No eyes glistening with hope.
  2454. >Just a deep, deflated acceptance on all of their faces.
  2455. >Even the small handful of colts and fillies awkwardly crowd together and stay silent.
  2456. >Their adolescent minds understanding something is wrong, but not fully comprehending the gravity of the situation.
  2457. >This is what Celestia was afraid of all along.
  2458. >Not their judgement of her.
  2459.  
  2460. >But rather - witnessing the crushing state of her downtrodden subjects.
  2461. >”I-I’m S-Sooorrryyy. I-I’m So-o-o-o-ry-y-y.” Celestia wails at them.
  2462. >A deep agony consuming her as she heaves and sobs in front of all of her ponies, before burying her face in her hooves.
  2463. >Fighting the rising panic in your throat, you look to your sides for help.
  2464. >Coal won’t stop looking at the ground - a bitter scowl on his face.
  2465. >You can’t even see Velvet’s face, as the unicorn mare is looking off into the bushes.
  2466. >Emily openly weeps as she hugs Celestia, rocking back and forth in a desperate attempt to console the poor mare.
  2467. >And Stint…
  2468. >Stint just sits there with horrified eyes, gazing out at all the ponies who look like they’ve now given up.
  2469. >Their final ember of hope snuffed out as they fully realize that their Princess is just like them, and all that entails as well.
  2470. >His face slowly drift towards you.
  2471. >No animosity left in his deflated features.
  2472. >No accusation.
  2473. >No blame.
  2474. >Just a simple, silent cry.
  2475. >Help us.
  2476. >Running a hand through your hair, you rattle your brain.
  2477. >How can you fix this?
  2478. >You should have seen something like this coming from a mile off.
  2479. >Instead, you got so distracted with your own problems that you’ve been blindsided.
  2480. >Now Celestia is rapidly running out of time.
  2481. >Which means your window to fix this has almost closed.
  2482. >It’s now or never.
  2483. >Do or die.
  2484. >Urgently, you scan the crowd as the seconds drag on.
  2485. >Looking for something.
  2486. >Anything you can latch onto.
  2487. >But…
  2488. >Try as you might...
  2489. >There isn’t a single thing that comes to mind.
  2490. >”Anon!”
  2491. >Emily cries out from your side.
  2492. >Your head instantly snaps in her direction.
  2493. >And that’s when you realize.
  2494.  
  2495. >Celestia is still crying.
  2496. >But now there are grunts and gasps of pain mixed in as the mare hides her tear streaked muzzle behind the table.
  2497. >Oh no.
  2498. >”Anon. We need to get her inside. Now!” Emily urgently begs.
  2499. >Oh no, no, no.
  2500. >You look around. But there’s no one else who can help.
  2501. >There’s nothing else you can do.
  2502. >The cold, hard truth is: you’re out of time.
  2503. >*Hurk*
  2504. >Celestia dry wretches.
  2505. >That snaps you out of your frantic panic.
  2506. >Instantly, your priorities shift.
  2507. >The dinner is a failure.
  2508. >There’s something more important that demands your attention now.
  2509. >Coal and Velvet are paralyzed, and Emily is the only one who is thinking ahead.
  2510. >Her patient’s health of the highest priority.
  2511. >This situation is a disaster, but if Celestia gets any worse, then it will soon become a nightmare.
  2512. >Steeling your resolve, you push out from the table and stand up, sending your chair flying.
  2513. >You dimly register some of the ponies flinching, but you dismiss them from your mind.
  2514. >As Emily moves out of the way - you pull Celestia’s seat back and move in front of her.
  2515. >In one deft movement, you bend down, hook your arms in typical fashion around the large mare’s body; and with a grunt of effort, you pick her up.
  2516. >Awkwardly crushing her forelegs against your chest as she presses the bridge of her muzzle against your collarbone.
  2517. >The mare squirms slightly in your grip, but the poor pony is in too much pain to protest effectively.
  2518. >Turning towards the house, you do your best to ignore the sea of eyeballs following you and the murmur that is spreading through the herd.
  2519. >The blonde veterinarian quickly falls in line with you and starts asking her patient questions.
  2520. >None of them get any meaningful response though.
  2521.  
  2522. >You pick up the pace; and in no time at all, you’ve made it about halfway to the house.
  2523. >Suddenly, Celestia wretches again; and something warm splatters against your clean shirt.
  2524. >Emily was right to act when she did.
  2525. >All that matters now though is making sure that she’s safe-
  2526. >”Anon! You stop right there!”
  2527. >You glance back and find Coal standing with his front hooves on the table you were just sitting at.
  2528. >“What are you doing with our Princess?” the stallion yells.
  2529. >His scarred face blistering with an enraged furor.
  2530. >Looks like he finally found himself at the worst moment.
  2531. >But you can’t risk turning around and letting the other ponies see the state Celestia is in.
  2532. >So you continue walking forward.
  2533. >”Answer me, Human!!!” he desperately demands, a thick vitriol hanging off his words as he strikes the table so hard that you can hear it splintering under the force. “I won’t let you steal her away from me again!!!”
  2534. “I’m taking care of her, Coal!” you spit back at him without turning around. “Someone has to!”
  2535. >You carry on at a brisk pace, half expecting the sound of thundering hooves at your heels.
  2536. >But they never come.
  2537. >As you approach the house - Emily moves ahead and opens the front door for you, then quickly leads you down the hall to a back room.
  2538. >Her room.
  2539. >Something that’s made obvious by the obscene amount of horse posters plastered on the door.
  2540. >She opens it, revealing a recently sanitized sanctuary; stocked to the walls with all kinds of medical goods from IV bags to hypodermic needles.
  2541. >You also spy a healthy pile of towels and bed sheets lying in one corner as you step inside
  2542. >Following the veterinarian’s guidance - you deposit Celestia on the queen size bed that forms the centerpiece of the makeshift hospital room.
  2543.  
  2544. >Gently cooing and stroking the back of the sobbing, sickly mare - Emily looks to a pile of supplies.
  2545. >”Thank you, Anon. That’ll be all.” she coldly dismisses you.
  2546. >Wait.
  2547. >Hold on!
  2548. “What do you mean, Emily? I can still-”
  2549. >”Anon!” she barks with an intimidating intensity. “Remember what you promised me.”
  2550. >You’d rather tell her to fuck off, but you know deep down that you’re an intruder in her domain now.
  2551. >And you did ultimately promise that you wouldn’t interfere.
  2552. >So, unless it’s the worst case scenario and she needs another dose of pills, you can’t come back in this room until Celestia comes out.
  2553. >That’s something you have to accept.
  2554. “Alright then…” you miserably answer. “I’m gonna say something to her before I go though. Is that alright?”
  2555. >The vet nods as she starts rummaging through some nearby equipment.
  2556. >You take your opening and walk up to the squirming mare on the bed.
  2557. >As you squeeze her leg - those haggard, bloodshot eyes of hers shoot open.
  2558. >The purple orbs are swimming in pain and wander aimlessly for a moment.
  2559. >But then they lock onto you, and her lips begin quivering.
  2560. >”I-It’s all w-wrong, A-Anon.” she deliriously babbles. “N-None of t-this should be h-happening. I s-should be w-with my s-sister… W-We s-should be b-back in E-Equestria… S-she-”
  2561. “Shhhhh, shh, shh, shh. Easy, Celly. Things are going to be okay.”
  2562. >”I-It hurts s-so much, Anon. It-”
  2563. >The mare’s sentence is cut off as her face is contorted with pain, making her curl up and clutch at her stomach.
  2564.  
  2565. “I know. I know. But Emily’s going to be taking care of you. I’ll be right outside the room the whole time. I won’t be going anywhere. So you-”
  2566. >”C-can’t you just… g-give me the pill?” she interrupts you with pleading eyes. ”I know you h-have it. W-We won’t have to, ngh, do this! W-We can go back o-outside!”
  2567. >Before you can stop yourself, you glance down at your pant pockets where you keep the emergency dose for safe keeping.
  2568. >Celestia instantly notices and lunges out with her legs, desperately pawing at your jeans with weak hooves as her eyes are consumed with a desperate hunger.
  2569. >You quickly flinch away from the flailing mare, falling onto your rear.
  2570. >”Anon. Out. Now!” Emily puts her foot down as she turns around and notices what’s happening.
  2571. >”N-No! Don’t g-go, Anon!”
  2572. >Celestia screams out as you stand up and start backing away from her.
  2573. >“You promised me, Anon!” Her tone turns vicious. “You said you wouldn’t abandon me!”
  2574. “I’m not, Celestia. I’m gonna be right outside-”
  2575. >”You lied to me! You betrayed me!”
  2576. “Celestia, please-”
  2577. >”Anon!!! Get. Out. Now!!!”
  2578. >Emily commands you over Celestia’s hysterical screaming - the vet trying to hook an IV into the mare’s leg and receiving a few wayward bludgeons from her hooves in the process.
  2579. >You can’t concentrate.
  2580. >All your senses feel overwhelmed as the mare you care about lashes out; hurling paranoid accusations at you in a delirious, pain driven fever.
  2581. >It isn’t until your back suddenly collides with the wall that you realize you’ve stumbled all the way out into the hall.
  2582. >”No!!! No!!! Don’t touch me!!!” Celestia screams out as she smacks Emily in the jaw with a wayward hoof.
  2583. >”Anon! Hold still, you little… The door, Anon!” The vet yells out as she wrestles with the flailing Alicorn.
  2584.  
  2585. >Dazed and reeling, you slowly reach out and grab the handle; pulling the door shut as you get one last glimpse at her.
  2586. >That tear streaked face.
  2587. >The carefully groomed, multi-coloured mane - messy and ruined.
  2588. >Her entire body still dangerously slim from malnutrition.
  2589. >A dribble of brown-green against the white coat on her chin.
  2590. >Her bloodshot paranoid eyes meet yours for one final moment while she flails against the woman trying to help her.
  2591. >”Anon, wait-!” she frantically pleads, but her words fall flat as you slam the door shut.
  2592. >Your legs immediately go weak; and you collapse against the wall, sliding down it until you hit the hardwood floor with an audible thump.
  2593. >The hallway is quickly filled with muted sound of the Celestia’s hysterical wails, and you bury your face in your hands.
  2594. >And so it finally begins.
  2595. >The first night of detox.
  2596.  
  2597. 25
  2598.  
  2599. >Cold.
  2600. >”Stay back!!!”
  2601. >It’s so cold in here.
  2602. >”Get away!”
  2603. >The hard wooden floor below.
  2604. >“Get away!!!”
  2605. >The pale plastered wall behind your back.
  2606. >”Keep those hands off me!!!”
  2607. >How is it so cold in the middle of summer?
  2608. >”No! No! No-o-o!”
  2609. >Except that’s wrong.
  2610. >Your chest is warm...
  2611. >Pulling your muggy face from your hands, you look down at the dried brown stain on your shirt.
  2612. >That’s right.
  2613. >She threw up on you.
  2614. >How long have you been sitting here then?
  2615. >”Anooon!!!”
  2616. >Who cares...
  2617. >You should go change into something else though.
  2618. >“Help me! Please!!!”
  2619. >C’mon.
  2620. >Legs underneath you and push.
  2621. >”Ano-o-o-n!!!”
  2622. >You really should stand up.
  2623. >...
  2624. >Come on.
  2625. >You can do this
  2626. >...
  2627. >”Plea-ea-ease…”
  2628. >Despite your best efforts, the muffled wails flood the hallway again, sapping your strength.
  2629. >You’re on the verge of curling into a ball and falling onto your side, when-
  2630. >*Ka-clunk*
  2631. >-The abrupt sound of the front door opening and closing snatches your attention.
  2632. >Though only for the briefest of moments as -- at the same time -- another desperate shriek of pain erupts from the room.
  2633. >”It hu-u-urts! It hurts so mu-u-uch!!!”
  2634. >”Celestia! Plea-, ngh, please! I need you to stay still!”
  2635. >”No! No! I don’t want it! I don’t want i-i-it! Where’s Ano-o-on?! Why did he leave me?! Why do they always lea-ea-eave me???”
  2636. >The heavy clopping of hoofsteps gets closer.
  2637. >But you can’t even lift your face from your hands.
  2638. >Trapped in the midst of an old nightmare again.
  2639. >Stuck in a hallway as the one you care about screams out in pain from a room you can’t enter.
  2640. >Because you can no longer help her.
  2641. >You can’t even muster enough strength to handle whatever it is Coal or Velvet wants.
  2642.  
  2643. >Silently, you pray under your breath, asking that they leave you alone.
  2644. >The venom in Coal’s words still stings; pooling in your gut and making your face burn with a childish frustration.
  2645. >’Human.’
  2646. >It plays back in your head over and over again like a stubborn broken record.
  2647. >Before you can sink further into your own indignation though, you notice that something is strange about the new arrival.
  2648. >Desperate for a distraction, you greedily latch onto that peculiar feeling.
  2649. >Although it doesn’t take long before you realize what’s wrong.
  2650. >With each heavy clop of horseshoes against the hardwood floor, you gradually realize that the timing and cadence is off.
  2651. >Something is missing.
  2652. >You wrack your brain and desperately piece together a shoddy explanation.
  2653. >Yet it yields no results to your immense frustration.
  2654. >Your train of thought is derailed almost immediately, and you’re left with an alien panic in its place.
  2655. >Suddenly, as the mystery pony comes within a few meters of you - the clopping of hooves on wood halts; and whoever it is sits down with a tired thump.
  2656. >You tense.
  2657. >Unsure of yourself.
  2658. >A vile torrent of ill will pooling deep inside as the panic slowly twists into anger.
  2659. >Hysterical accusations have stopped coming from the room at least. Replaced for the moment by a backdrop of steady sobbing and gentle consoling.
  2660. >All you can do is wait and hope whoever it is goes away.
  2661. >Before you do something you regret.
  2662. >Surprisingly, the intruding pony remains silent.
  2663. >*Ah-em*
  2664. >Or, at least, they wait a few moments before clearing their throat.
  2665. >You flinch; and before you can stop yourself, you flex and tuck your legs in closer to your chest.
  2666. >Whoever it is, they don’t comment.
  2667. >In fact, they don’t make any other sounds at all for a while.
  2668. >Until, once again, they clear their throat.
  2669. >*Ah-em*
  2670. >From the sound of it, it's definitely a stallion. And he’s definitely not leaving until he can talk with you.
  2671. >There’s also a hint of urgency underpinning his actions.
  2672. >You’re beyond caring about that right now though.
  2673.  
  2674. >Why can’t Coal just leave you alone?
  2675. >Why won’t he fuck off and bother someone else?
  2676. >Did he come to apologize?
  2677. >Or maybe, he just came inside so he could yell at you again.
  2678. >The more you dwell on it, the more toxic feelings swell to the point of bursting.
  2679. >You feel you might detonate if things go any further.
  2680. >So, please...
  2681. >Just go away.
  2682. >Please.
  2683. >Please...
  2684. >Plea-
  2685. >*Ah-em*
  2686. “Can you just-” you bellow as you pull your head from your hands and stomp to your feet. “Fuck! Off! Cu-!?”
  2687. >Your face is burning with anger; and you’re still of half a mind to vault across the hallway and throttle the stallion, but the words die in your throat.
  2688. >Sitting back on his haunches - one forehoof held in front of his mouth in a shushing gesture; the other holding a cold pack to a nasty purple bruise on his light-blue coated forehead - an incredibly haggard looking Stint pleads with desperate teal eyes for your silence.
  2689. >The medical stallion’s gaze flicking fearfully to the door behind you every now and then as he takes careful measured breaths.
  2690. >”Anon? Anooon!? I’m in here! I’m in he-e-ere!!”
  2691. >Suddenly the shrieking starts up again and the sounds of a scuffle are renewed from within the room.
  2692. >”Oh for God’s sake! Celestia! Please, be more careful! I need to put that back in now!”
  2693. >”I don’t want it! I don’t want i-i-it! S-Stay away! Anooon! I’m so-o-orry! Plea-ea-ease! Don’t leave me!!!”
  2694. >The last words come out in a plea so desperate that it makes you shake.
  2695. >With each renewed cry for help, your heart feels like it’s being slowly stabbed by a knife; and you bite down hard on your lip to hold back some bile.
  2696. >”Anon!”
  2697. >This time an exasperated Emily addresses you directly through the door, her words mixed in with grunts of frustration as she wrestles with her distraught charge.
  2698.  
  2699. >“I don’t give a -- hold still, you little -- shit who’s out there! Clear off, would you? You’re just- ow, fuck, that hurt! Should have never given you horseshoes, you ungrateful-”
  2700. >Her words become indecipherable for a moment as more back and forth sounds of a struggle come from the other side of the door.
  2701. >The occasional yelp and cry from Celestia becomes intermixed with the odd command barked by Emily, as the two audibly wrestle with each other.
  2702. >“Go away for, ngh, now, Anon! You’re just making things worse!”
  2703. >And there it is.
  2704. >The final punch that sucks the wind from your lungs.
  2705. >Or it would, if you didn’t have someone else to get angry at.
  2706. >Someone who’s caused nothing but trouble at every turn.
  2707. >You face Stint, ready to let loose.
  2708. >And once again, you can’t find any words.
  2709. >Your anger hanging heavy in your throat at the sight of the stallion cradling the cold pack against his head with a hoof.
  2710. >His eyes pleading for your patience.
  2711. >Nursing an injury he received while trying to help you.
  2712. >Regardless of whether he succeeded or not, that fact alone is enough to leave your frustration fizzling impotently inside your chest.
  2713. >All you’re left with now is a single, somber thought.
  2714. >There’s nothing more for you here right now.
  2715. >You take a moment.
  2716. >Suck in a deep breath.
  2717. >Wipe your muggy face with your hands.
  2718. >And grudgingly, you give Stint a nod and start stomping down the hallway.
  2719.  
  2720. >A few more panicked cries come from the room as Celestia hears your heavy footfalls moving away; but with clenched fists and a heavy heart, you shut them out as best you can.
  2721. >Some part deep down still insists that the best course of action is to kick the door in, carry her out of the room, drive her back home, and keep her safely medicated until the end of your days.
  2722. >Just the two of you together.
  2723. >Keeping the world at arm’s length with only each other for company.
  2724. >Yet she’d always resent you for that.
  2725. >For letting her live a life of medicated luxury while all that she cares about suffers and crumbles to dust.
  2726. >You’re not sure you could forgive yourself either.
  2727. >And so, soldiering on towards the living room, you step past a grateful Stint who mouths a simple ‘thank you’.
  2728. >Without saying anything else, he starts following you down the hall, all the while being careful with his hoofsteps.
  2729. >Each one taken with the utmost delicacy.
  2730. >Almost as if he were treading on broken glass.
  2731. >Thankfully, the door to Match Stick and Tinder’s room stays shut as you stomp past it.
  2732. >Whether the young mare is too polite or too tired to intrude, you couldn’t really care less right now.
  2733. >Though as you enter the living room, there’s something that immediately grabs your attention.
  2734. >You left the curtains open the last time you were in here, and now it affords you a heartbreaking view of the failed state of Celestia’s dinner.
  2735. >While some of them may have cleared off - most of the residents of the practice are still sitting in their seats, illuminated by the still brightly shining camp lights on the front lawn.
  2736.  
  2737. >Among this sea of downtrodden equines, there are no more smiles or bouts of laughter.
  2738. >In their place are hanging heads and an eerie silence as the nearly forty ponies of the practice look like they’re attending the most miserable wake on the planet.
  2739. >A few have their heads buried in their hooves.
  2740. >Some others stare miserably down at the empty, pathetic plastic plates set out in front of them.
  2741. >Ears splayed back and heads hanging low as their vacant stares bore holes into the table
  2742. >There’s even one particular stallion who seems like he’s having an especially hard time of things.
  2743. >The poor pony desperately rocking his entire body back and forth while a mare by his side consoles him with an ineffective hug.
  2744. >Those around him averting their gazes from the heartbreaking sight.
  2745. >To make matters worse, one of the hoof-made tables has completely collapsed at one corner - scattering its plastic adornments across the freshly cut grass while a few ponies halfheartedly clean things up and a couple of others slowly try and fix it.
  2746. >Coal and Velvet are nowhere to be seen, and with Stint wearily hoisting himself up on the living room couch by your side; the taller, more carefully constructed table meant for tonight’s ‘special guests’ sits depressingly vacant.
  2747. >As you continue studying the forlorn landscape, you come upon a sight that nearly breaks your heart.
  2748. >Lined up at the smaller kid’s table, the fillies and colts of Emily’s practice still don’t understand what’s going on.
  2749. >They continue standing on their hind-legs - their forehooves perched politely on top of it, patiently awaiting the food that still sits neatly wrapped on a nearby table.
  2750.  
  2751. >Smaller heads collectively look this way and that while ears splay back; and they share upset looks with each other that drip with a deep confusion.
  2752. >They’re all talking as well.
  2753. >Maybe looking for some answer for what’s going on from the despondent adults around them.
  2754. >That only makes things all the more upsetting, as the stallions and mares sitting nearby can’t even meet their eyes.
  2755. >For all the heart wrenching things going on in this scene, you feel deep down inside that there’s something more critical missing here.
  2756. >Something isn’t there that should be.
  2757. >Something beyond the lack of smiles and the ruined dinner.
  2758. >Something very important that claws on the edges of your thoughts… yet you still you can’t remember what should be there. Or, at least, what used to be there...
  2759. >Stint, on the other hand, doesn’t even glance outside before letting out a heavy sigh and closing his eyes.
  2760. >The stallion laying down on the couch as he massages his forehead with the cold pack.
  2761. >”How are you holding up?”
  2762. >His voice is a higher, more immature pitch than Coal’s deep rumblings; with a know it all undertone mixed in.
  2763. >It might as well be chalk scraping on a blackboard for how much it gets on your nerves right now.
  2764. >That’s part of why his question isn’t one that you feel like answering.
  2765. >Especially not coming from someone like him.
  2766. >Yet, there’s no huff of indignation at your silence.
  2767. >No sigh of frustration.
  2768. >Only the steady sound of breathing and a ticking grandfather clock fills the room while the depressing scene outside stagnates.
  2769. >C’mon, Anon.
  2770. >Stop being such a child and actually talk to him.
  2771. >Now’s not the time for petty bullshit. Put the past behind you.
  2772. >He did as much when he tried to save you.
  2773.  
  2774. >”It’s a disaster out there.” Stint offers another invitation, coupled with a tired sigh.
  2775. “I can tell.”
  2776. >”No offense, but you really can’t.” he quickly retorts.
  2777. >For the briefest of moments, you feel anger flare up again. But the sight in front of you has an impressively sobering effect.
  2778. >”You don’t live with them.” the stallion continues, his melancholy voice cracking slightly. “You don’t know them. How much this meant. How much it would have done for them. How desperately they looked forward to today.”
  2779. >Your eyes parse over the gathering as Stint rambles on.
  2780. >”The hours spent planning. The dreams of a new leaf being turned over! Talks of a new beginning. Another chance, for all of us! They been… I-I’ve been dreaming of a day like this for so long...”
  2781. >He swallows heavily.
  2782. >”And now I've gone and screwed it all up!” his controlled tone suddenly spikes before he sends his cold pack hurtling across the room, where it collides against the wall with a wet smack.
  2783. >”I’ve screwed up again. Like I always do...”
  2784. >An uneasy silence encroaches as Stint starts gingerly prodding the swollen lump on his forehead with a careful hoof.
  2785. >”I always screw everything up and make everyone angry…”
  2786. >It’s almost surreal.
  2787. >There are so many thoughts weighing on you right now.
  2788. >So many reasons to be upset.
  2789. >Hell, a lot of those impulses still bubble fresh below the surface.
  2790. >And in this past week, you’ve been on what seems to be a non-stop emotional roller-coaster.
  2791. >Right now though, you just feel… Tired.
  2792. >Exhausted.
  2793. >Like you’re running on empty after what seems like the longest day in your life.
  2794. >You want to curl up in a corner somewhere and nod off until you’re ready to face the world again.
  2795. >And there lies the problem.
  2796. >These ponies don’t have that luxury.
  2797.  
  2798. >All they can do is take this next sucker punch from life in stride and keep moving forward.
  2799. >That’s why you can’t stop either.
  2800. >Not just yet.
  2801. “Is that why you didn’t want to speak in the hallway?”
  2802. >”Pfft, n-not even close.” he immediately recovers with a stammering sneer and a small sniffle.
  2803. >Still abrasive, but dismissive is better than whatever unsightly thing was about to rear its ugly head.
  2804. >”I made a promise with Emily that I’d keep my distance from the Princess while she was recovering. And I intend to keep that promise.”
  2805. >There’s a glint of pride in his voice, but it’s marred by a seething wince as he accidentally prods his swollen bruise a bit too hard.
  2806. “So, what did you need from me then?” you hesitantly inquire as you wander over to the fallen cold pack and pick it up. “I assume you didn’t drag me out of that hallway without a plan, right?”
  2807. >You look at him expectantly, but the stallion opts to sit there silently.
  2808. >His eyes suddenly flick over to you, and he opens his mouth to talk.
  2809. >Unfortunately, his words fail him as his mouth opens and closes like a gaping fish’s a few times, and he quickly gives up.
  2810. >”I-I… I don’t know. But I-” Stint sighs. “I really don’t have any other choice right now.”
  2811. “Is that right?”
  2812. >You toss the cold pack up and down a few times, pretending you misheard his admission that you’re his last resort.
  2813. >Though mid-throw, another of Celestia’s screams echoes down the hallway and into the living room.
  2814. >As if a thorn was suddenly jabbed into your side, you flinch and fumble the cold pack.
  2815. >You feel a flush of volatile embarrassment as it unceremoniously hits the ground with another wet thwack, but Stint thankfully doesn’t laugh.
  2816.  
  2817. >He simply goes back to wearing a miserable look while you bend down and retrieve the cool pouch from the floor.
  2818. >At least the feeling is mutual.
  2819. “Why don’t you go out there and do something then? I’m sure a man-”
  2820. >The pony swiftly shoots you a dirty look.
  2821. >Can’t he at least cut you some slack?
  2822. “-Alright. I’m sure a stallion like you has a million ideas, right? You seem like you’ve been pulling them out of your ass non-stop since we met.”
  2823. >That earns you another dirty glare.
  2824. >Play nice, Anon.
  2825. >It’s what Celestia would want.
  2826. >... Maybe.
  2827. “Well... Just how exactly is all this your fault anyway?”
  2828. >”... I’m the one who organized this whole dinner...”
  2829. “Oh.”
  2830. >Stint bows his head in shame as you pinch the bridge of your nose with a free hand.
  2831. >You should have known.
  2832. >Squeezing in a high stress social event before a detox sounds exactly like a scheme he’d come up with.
  2833. >Mr ‘kidnap sick ponies from the back of cars’ here.
  2834. “Okay then… Everyone listened to you before though, right?” you offer. “Why don’t you just go come up with a new plan and go tell everyone about it?”
  2835. >”Oh yea! That’s a great idea!” he sarcastically sneers. “Why didn’t I think of that? Thank goodness you humans are so brilliant so a poor little pony like me knows what to do.”
  2836. >You have a few choice words you could offer him right now, but you can agree it was a pretty stupid question.
  2837. >So you bite your tongue and take it on the chin.
  2838. >”I already tried, in case you were wondering. And guess what? They didn’t listen to me!” he bitterly spits out. “They only listen to Coal. Like they always do… Mister ‘former guard stallion’.”
  2839. >Stint air quotes derisively with his hooves before letting out another sarcastic grunt.
  2840.  
  2841. >All you can do is sigh and run a hand through your hair.
  2842. >Wandering back towards the window, you offer the stallion his cold pack.
  2843. >He quickly snatches it out of your hands, but doesn’t offer any thanks.
  2844. “Where is he then?”
  2845. >”Who, Coal?”
  2846. “Yeah, him…”
  2847. >”Hmph, Hell if I know.” the stallion grumbles dismissively and looks away.
  2848. “C’mon, Stint. Cut me some fucking slack would you? I’m trying here.” you bark at him.
  2849. >”... Alright, alright, fine.” He raises a fore-hoof and waves it lazily at you in surrender. “He stormed off. Somewhere. I don’t know where exactly. That mare - what’s her name? The one who helped out today?”
  2850. “Velvet?”
  2851. >”Yeah. Her.” he spits. “In case you couldn’t tell; after you took our Princess away, things kind of fell apart. A lot of ponies started yelling. Choice words were shared. Some things were said that maybe shouldn’t have been. Coal stormed off. She chased after him.”
  2852. “That’s a nice story, except for one thing. I didn’t take her away, Stint. I carried her inside because she was sick. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
  2853. >That makes the medical stallion balk.
  2854. >”What’s that supposed to mean?!”
  2855. >He immediately rises to a standing position.
  2856. >Head lowered at you and shoulders raised - ready at any moment in case you say something you shouldn’t.
  2857. >Although the stallion sways slightly on his hooves, you still take a moment and consider your next words carefully.
  2858. >You’ve come too far with him just for things to slip back to where they were.
  2859. >If you can just mend this relationship -- even a little bit -- then spending the next few days waiting for Celestia’s recovery might not have to be so painful.
  2860.  
  2861. ”When I drove in here, there was a sign next to the driveway.”
  2862. >Stint snorts and quickly looks away.
  2863. “It said ‘Emily and Co’s Vet Practice’.” you say a bit softer.
  2864. >Your change in demeanour seems like it’s having an effect, as the stallion is now rather keen on studying his own hooves rather than leaping across the room.
  2865. “Now, unless there’s another pony here with medical experience, or unless that sign is a joke - then I’m guessing you’re the ‘Co’. I’d add in something mean about not seeing you help anybody in all the time I’ve been here, but-”
  2866. >You’re interrupted as another long, drawn out wail of agony echoes down the corridor.
  2867. >You swallow heavily and pause until it passes, but continue nonetheless.
  2868. “-But-” While tapping your forehead with a finger, you offer a diplomatic smile. “-I remember hearing something earlier today. I heard someone taking a stand as they tried stopping a distraught mare from making a mistake. And I think that I owe you a lot for that.”
  2869. >Stint avoids your eyes.
  2870. “You tried to save me, and got hurt in the process. Didn’t you?”
  2871. >”That was-” he scoffs as his ears splay back slightly. “That was just me screwing up again. Coal was the one who stormed the room and stopped her. Coal was the one who saved the day, like he always does. I just got injured like an idiot...”
  2872. “Regardless-” You continue with a bit more strength in your voice. “I got to breath for a few more seconds because of you.”
  2873. >Stint seems slightly stunned at your acknowledgement, yet he keeps his lips pursed shut while his eyes stay glued to a corner of the room.
  2874. “I’m tired of picking fights with you, Stint. I really am.”
  2875. >You turn back to the window with a sigh.
  2876. >Back to those ki-
  2877. >No. They’re colts and fillies.
  2878. >Actually, fuck that.
  2879. >’Kids’ is fine.
  2880.  
  2881. >They’re just confused kids -- human or not -- who still look lost as ever.
  2882. “And as for what happened earlier… She might be your Princess, Stint. But she’s my Celestia. Her well-being come first.” you state confidently.
  2883. >The moment you finish talking though, you instantly regret the choice of words.
  2884. >’Your’ Celestia?
  2885. >Of course.
  2886. >You bought her after all.
  2887. >Might as well write the fact that you purchased their monarch in neon paint on your chest, you absolute dickhead.
  2888. >In fact, why stop there? Why don’t you just pull your pants down and start pissing all over the-
  2889. >”I see…” Stint solemnly responds.
  2890. >Huh?
  2891. >That’s it?
  2892. >No snark or sneering?
  2893. >No outrage?
  2894. >Well… at least he sounds like he’s considering things.
  2895. >But you’re worried that he’ll back away if you so much as glance at him, so you keep your eyes on the distraught kids.
  2896. “I’m willing to move on if you are, Stint. What’ do you think?”
  2897. >You extend the olive branch.
  2898. >The stallion starts shifting on the couch.
  2899. “There’s work to be done, and I could use the distraction.”
  2900. >Before you can say anything else, something distinctly hoof shaped lightly pokes your side.
  2901. >You turn back and find him standing there, facing you with a critical gaze.
  2902. >He’s clutching the cold pack to his head again, but his teal eyes finally have a bit of light in them.
  2903. >”Y-You’re serious then?” he asks, his voice dripping with doubt.
  2904. >“You really think I helped you?”
  2905. >A simple nod is all you give him before you look back outside.
  2906. “Now how are we gonna help those kids? How are we gonna help all of them?”
  2907. >”Hey! They’re colts and-”
  2908. >The stubborn pony begins correcting you, but quickly catches his tongue.
  2909. >”-Never mind.”
  2910.  
  2911. >You hear him moving around; and soon enough, he pops up in the corner of your eye, mirroring your position as he studies the scene outside by your side.
  2912. >His large eyes focusing and his brow furrowing in thought.
  2913. >Given your vantage point, the ponies outside can see you just as well as you can see them.
  2914. >Whether they’ve noticed you or not though is a different question, as none of the ponies outside seem to pay any mind to your watchful eyes.
  2915. >”I still don’t know, Anon…” Stint mumbles. “Like I said. I tried talking with the others after you went inside, but most of them were either too upset or too angry. I’m pretty sure most of the blame for how things turned out is on me.”
  2916. >You offer him a sympathetic look at those words, yet the medical stallion doesn’t even appear bothered by his own statement.
  2917. >”They said I should have known better. Then after yelling at me for a few minutes, one of the tables fell apart and I got the impression I wasn’t really welcome out there anymore.”
  2918. ”Well, the kids don’t look angry. In fact, despite how confused they look, they seem like they’re doing a lot better than everyone else out there.”
  2919. >”They’re usually like that.” The tone of his voice lightens up. “Even on the worst days, they’re still trying to have fun and play games.”
  2920. >A proper smile stretches across your face at that, and you glance sideways to find the same thing happening on Stint’s.
  2921. >”On the hard months when we had to stretch the little hay we had so we could afford medicine - those little trouble makers would always grumble at first, but they could understand that we were doing the best we could. Hell, after a while they even turned that into a game as well! Whoever finds the most flowers in the woods and brings them back home wins! Stuff like that...”
  2922.  
  2923. >The smile on his face grows larger as he lets out a small chuckle.
  2924. >”One time they even got into Emily’s garden! She was so mad that I could have sworn her head would explode. But when they all gave her those big sappy eyes, all she could do was smile and forgive them. They helped so many of us push through our troubles… I mean, how could we be so miserable when those colts and fillies are smiling at us?”
  2925. >He takes a deep, satisfying breath.
  2926. “They’re precious, aren’t they?”
  2927. >”You better believe it! It’s why Emily and I always brought them home with us whenever we found them in bad places. No matter how much it set us back.”
  2928. >The medical stallion looks up at you as his expression hardens slightly.
  2929. >”Even if that bad place ended up being the back of somebody’s car”
  2930. >His large teal eyes glisten with a fierce resolve.
  2931. >You were expecting some strong looks from the stallion going into this, but this is the first one that makes you feel slightly guilty.
  2932. “... I guess the answer’s simple then, isn’t it?” You try and change the subject.
  2933. >Stint gives you a curious look -- the intensity of a few moments ago swiftly disappearing -- and tilts his head slightly.
  2934. >“What is?”
  2935. “You said it yourself. If the kids are smiling, then the adults will smile too. We just need to work out how to make them smile right now. I don’t think it’ll magically fix everything, but at least we might be able to take everyone’s mind off of what just happened. Or at least ease some tensions. It might not fix everything, but it’s a start.”
  2936. >”That’s… actually a good idea.”
  2937. “Well you’re the one who thought of it. I just ran with what you were saying. Now what other ideas have you got, champ?”
  2938. >The stallion scoffs, yet his eyes return to the kids.
  2939.  
  2940. >Seconds tick by as he hums and haws, a hoof rising to tap his chin as he thinks.
  2941. >Those seconds slowly turn into minutes as you patiently wait for an answer.
  2942. >His ears start flicking in irritation as your expectant gaze bores into the side of his head, and you’re about to say something when he lets out a snort.
  2943. >”Well, what? I still got nothing, how about you?”
  2944. “Me? I don’t know these kids! Besides, you’re the smart one here, aren’t you?” you add with a grin.
  2945. >”Oh, fuck off.” He fires back half-heartedly.
  2946. >Now it’s your turn to balk as the pony’s sudden profanity catches you off guard.
  2947. >”Learned that one from, Emily.” he follows up with his own shit-eating grin. “Many times at that. Never heard a pony swear before have you?”
  2948. “Not until today, no. I’m not quite used to it yet.” You answer with a chuckle. “Still, I don’t know what you want me to say. I don’t know how to make these kids smile.”
  2949. >”What did you expect from me then?”
  2950. “You live with them, don’t you?”
  2951. >”Yeah, but I don’t go around playing games with them. I have a rough idea of what they like, sure. But we need them smiling and laughing! And I spend most of my time helping Emily take care of the Earthen horses.” Stint grimaces before another smile creeps onto his cheeks. “I know how to get Emily to forgive me, but those kids are bit too young for that approach.” he concludes with a smirk.
  2952. >You raise an eyebrow, before stifling a laugh and shaking your head.
  2953. >The good feelings are fleeting however, as both your gazes are drawn back to the miserable sight outside.
  2954.  
  2955. >A few more adults have begun clearing off, while some of the others are trying to lead the stubborn colts and fillies away from the table.
  2956. >Though if the hooves held over their small ears as they mouth ‘la-la-la’ is any indication, then their caretakers aren’t having much success.
  2957. >More importantly, you’re both running out of time.
  2958. “Look, Stint, I’m not saying you should have doubled as the practice clown, but surely you remember some fun activities from, I dunno, birthday parties, Christmas, something like that?”
  2959. >”Nice joke.” he suddenly scowls and narrows his eyes. “Like we could ever afford a party for them.”
  2960. >God damn it.
  2961. >He just told you they could barely pay for medicine at times.
  2962. “Sorry. I didn’t think.” you sincerely apologize.
  2963. >There’s a tense atmosphere that hangs between you, until Stint thankfully lets out a reluctant grunt.
  2964. >”I’d make a joke about how you’re a prick with a silver spoon up his… Well...” he trails off into an irritated huff before letting slip a forgiving smile. “I gotta say, the money you gave us a few days ago really has helped us out. More than I can really put into words. It’s also helped them out. So… Thanks. Just, please, be a bit more mindful.”
  2965. >You give him a curt nod.
  2966. >With the matter settled, Stint looks back towards out the window.
  2967. >By now, you’ve noticed a few eyes wandering your direction, and several heads lean in as you get the feeling your presence is being shared among the group.
  2968. ”So, what are we gonna do then?”
  2969. >You wrack your brain, but nothing satisfying comes out.
  2970. >You’re about to sigh for what feels like the hundredth time today, when Stint suddenly perks up.
  2971. >”That’s it! They’ve never had a party!” he excitedly announces.
  2972.  
  2973. “... Yes, you just said that?” You lean back slightly as the stallion gets a strangely devious look on his face.
  2974. >”Don’t you get it, Anon? Oh it’s so simple!”
  2975. >You hear something behind you and quickly look back, only to find Stint’s dark-blue tail swishing excitedly against the couch as he stares at the scene outside with a peculiar glee.
  2976. “Don’t keep me in suspense now, what’s the plan?”
  2977. >”Your car has a radio, right, Anon?” he turns to you.
  2978. “It certainly does.”
  2979. >”So that means we have music!”
  2980. “Hold up, Stint.”
  2981. >”We still have all the food wrapped up for the dinner as well!”
  2982. “Stint, just wai-”
  2983. >”We can still turn this into some kind of celebration! Then everyone can come back-”
  2984. “Stint!”
  2985. >”-and we can fix things! You can give a speech or something! We can do this!”
  2986. >Before you can get another word in - the over-excited stallion practically leaps off the couch, nearly falling over in the process with only three available legs to land on.
  2987. >”I can finally make things right for once!” he yells, desperation staining his words as he races out of the living room.
  2988. >You hear his hooves thunder down the hallway for a few moments before suddenly stopping.
  2989. >Unfortunately, that seems to have triggered something you managed to forget about for a brief moment, as Celestia’s cries for help start up from Emily’s room again.
  2990. >It takes a few moments, but the medical pony eventually limps back into the living room. A confused and apologetic look plastered on his features.
  2991. >”W-What are you waiting for, Anon?” he asks with a desperate urgency. “And sorry about the noise…”
  2992.  
  2993. >Even though the sounds coming down the hallway stab at your chest like a rusty knife, you force a smile and wave it off like nothing happened.
  2994. “It’s a solid idea, Stint. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a bit shaky though.”
  2995. >The stallion tilts his head.
  2996. “We might have music and food. But those two things don’t make a party. Besides, most of the food out there looked like boring stuff for adults. Y’know fancy salads and stuff.”
  2997. >Stint’s eyes go wide as he realizes what you mean, and he bites his lip with frustration.
  2998. >”What can we do though, Anon? I know in my heart this is the right thing!” he pleads with an almost obsessed glint in his eyes as he stomps the floor with a hoof.
  2999. >He flinches immediately as you give him a dirty glare.
  3000. >Thankfully though, no more noises come down the hallway.
  3001. “You may be right, Stint. But just walking out there and saying ‘Hey, here’s some food and music, start celebrating!’ isn’t much of a plan.”
  3002. >”You want to just stand here and do nothing instead?” He begins protesting, but quickly bites his tongue. “No, I know you’ve got a point. All I’m doing is getting ahead of myself like I always do, and I’m sick of that happening.”
  3003. >Taking a few deep breaths, the excited equine slows down and calms himself.
  3004. >”So… What do you think we should do?”
  3005. >He looks at you expectantly as he sits down on his haunches.
  3006. >Getting the kids happy and laughing is the goal.
  3007. >But your current resources aren’t sufficient.
  3008. >Although speaking of your car… You did bring your laptop.
  3009. >And a rather expensive Wi-Fi USB for camping.
  3010. >All that’s left is the food.
  3011.  
  3012. >Something simple for the kids would be good.
  3013. >Maybe you could-
  3014. “Say, Stint?”
  3015. >”Yea?”
  3016. “In the medical barn out back - you wouldn’t happen to know if Emily has any projectors, would you?”
  3017. >”Projectors?” He takes a moment, but eventually gives an unsure nod. “I think so. She had one installed in the first room for patients with more internal issues that needed x-rays and stuff displayed. We’ve barely ever needed to use it though, ever since-”
  3018. >Stint hesitates for a moment.
  3019. >“Let’s just say Emily used to have a much larger clientele.”
  3020. “But it still works?”
  3021. >”Well, yea? I guess? I mean, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how since Emily really doesn’t like using it. I love her to bits, but a country girl and a country mare are grown from the same garden. She insists that computers and things like that are only good for rotting your brain. Even getting her to use a phone is like getting the most stubborn horse to take its medicine. All I know is that she puts stuff on the flashing box, and it comes out on the big screen.”
  3022. “As long as she uses a computer with the projector, then I can work with that.” you declare with a renewed confidence.
  3023. >The small pieces of a plan slowly falling together.
  3024. >Apparently it’s infectious, as Stint is now also standing to attention in the hallway.
  3025. >”You’ve worked something out then?” he asks with glint of hope.
  3026. “I might have.” you tease him with a cheeky grin.
  3027. >There is a problem though.
  3028. >This plan has another step.
  3029. >You carefully examine the temporarily three-legged pony in front of you and remember what he said.
  3030. >Unfortunately, he can’t really help for what you have in mind.
  3031.  
  3032. >For starters, you’ll need someone else.
  3033. >Someone the ponies outside will follow.
  3034. >And there’s only one pony on this practice that fits that criteria.
  3035. >You just hope that he doesn’t hate you too much by now.
  3036. >If you can get his help, then maybe… Just maybe…
  3037. “I’ve got a plan, Stint.”
  3038. >You squat down to his level as he eagerly leans forward.
  3039. “But first, I need to find Coal and get him on-board.”
  3040. >Stint’s face instantly falls, and he lets out a disappointed grunt.
  3041. >”Hmph, I should have known. Everyone always needs Coal. It’s always about him! The grizzled guardstallion with a ‘heart of gold’.” he sneers with a petty contempt.
  3042. “Easy, Champ. We’ve all got our parts to play.”
  3043. >”Oh yeah? Then what’s my part, huh?”
  3044. >The sharp stature that he holds himself with soon gives way to a nervous wobble as he sees the growing smile on your face.
  3045. “Simple.” You gently reassure him as you crouch down to his eye level and pull your phone out of your pocket.
  3046. “I need a clown.”
  3047.  
  3048. Part 26
  3049.  
  3050. >An errant beam of light flickers through the trees, stretching your shadows across the dark bushland clearing.
  3051. >A heavy lump hangs in your throat, and a spike of pain gently pulses at the base of your horn.
  3052. >It had all fallen apart so fast.
  3053. >Questions were flying through the air from the distraught crowd - accusations mixed with panic and a deeper distress, swelling incessantly with each passing moment.
  3054. >But one voice rose above the rest.
  3055. >”Stint!!! You litte, rat fuck!”
  3056. >The sheer furor in the guardstallion’s voice had stunned the entire practice into silence.
  3057. >”How could you do this to us, you mouldy fleck of shit?! Look at the state you’ve reduced our Princess to! How much of a fuck-up can you be, huh?! Do you even have two brain cells you can rub together in that fucking chasm between your ears?”
  3058. >Foals hid behind their parents and caretakers, and the crowd huddled together on instinct.
  3059. >A terrible feeling festered in your chest as the lone guardstallion stomped towards the medical pony still trying to slink away.
  3060. >”You really are just so useless aren’t you!? Haven’t we all suffered enough at the hands of your ‘plans’ yet?! Or are you just gonna keep sticking your dick in things until we have to sell off even more ponies just to survive?!?!”
  3061. >A sharp gasp went through the crowd, and the strength nearly left your legs.
  3062. >Coal was utterly terrifying right now, but not just because of what he was saying.
  3063. >It was more who and what he was starting to sound like.
  3064. >You could see the same fear in the horrified eyes, cowing heads, and shaking legs of nearly all the ponies of the practice.
  3065. >This had to stop.
  3066. >Now.
  3067.  
  3068. ”Coal that’s enough!!” you practically screamed with every bit of courage you could muster.
  3069. >That rabid gaze quickly flicked in your direction, and you could feel your lip slightly quivering at the intense hate radiating from the ferocious eyes of the guardstallion.
  3070. >His eyes weren’t the only ones suddenly upon you; the attention from the entire crowd was practically boring a hole into the side of your head.
  3071. “Y-You’re scaring everybody…” you cursed the stuttering, weak words as they left your lips, but they were all you could muster in that intense situation.
  3072. >A heavy snort escaped Coal’s nostrils, and for a second your heart sunk in your chest, but those old eyes of his finally flicked towards the herd.
  3073. >Face slowly twisting in a bewildered confusion, the stallion looked across the crowd at the suddenly very wary and on guard ponies.
  3074. >You haven’t been here long, so you can only imagine how well some of them must have known each other.
  3075. >Head flicking back and forth, desperate to find a sympathetic face - the stallion finally looked back down at they pony cowering in front of him.
  3076. >The younger blue coated stallion had the eyes of a dead fish - head hanging low as he submitted to the hateful words.
  3077. >You had wanted to say something else - anything to change the crushing atmosphere.
  3078. >But as your mind raced, Coal had sneered and stormed off into the trees, leaving a despondent Stint behind who slowly stood and weakly meandered his way towards the main house.
  3079. >There was a choice to make here, and you quickly made yours.
  3080.  
  3081. >You had followed the guardstallion as he stomped off into the dark bushland that surrounded the practice.
  3082. >A small fear in your stomach holding back the words on your lips.
  3083. >Tripping and stumbling the whole way, you pushed through the vegetation after him.
  3084. >The dark coated stallion powering forward through the thick, treacherous undergrowth unhindered.
  3085. >Never showing any signs of stopping or slowing down.
  3086. >But you had to make things right.
  3087. >And so you followed in silence.
  3088. >Deeper and deeper into the ever darkening embrace of the trees as you moved beyond the reach of the lights on the lawn.
  3089. >That is, until a headache lanced through your head like a nail through your skull.
  3090. >You’ve felt them before.
  3091. >Any unicorn knows this pain.
  3092. >A flower of agony blooming at the base of your horn, letting you know you were now on the clock before things got bad.
  3093. >Really bad.
  3094. >You had fallen to the ground as black dots swept across your vision.
  3095. >But as you seethed in pain - a scarred hoof had been offered.
  3096. >Warily, you grabbed it; and a stone faced Coal easily helped you back to your hooves, but he soon turned away again.
  3097. >Though rather than continuing any further - this time the stallion hung his head, before dropping to his haunches with a heavy thud.
  3098. >A thick silence settled in as faint light from the practice danced over the nasty scars on his back.
  3099. >He had finally stopped, but the mere thought of saying anything to him had your legs shaking slightly.
  3100. >You couldn’t leave him though.
  3101. >Not yet.
  3102. >And so you sat down as well.
  3103. >You can’t tell just how long that you’ve both been here for now, but after all your years with Night Light, you know this is one of those times.
  3104. >He wants to think.
  3105. >He wants silence.
  3106. >But he doesn’t have to be alone.
  3107.  
  3108. >Swallowing another lump in your throat, you take a deep breath.
  3109. >Peering patiently into the dark bushland alongside the morose stallion.
  3110. >Barely listening to the dim chittering of cicadas as a warm, summer night’s breeze slowly rolls through the woods.
  3111. >Occasionally glancing side-long while you wait for Coal to pull himself back together.
  3112. >Meanwhile, your thoughts drift back to the ponies of the practice.
  3113. >Their horrified faces as they watched Celestia break down…
  3114. >Oh, that poor mare…
  3115. >Just remembering the sound of her wailing voice nearly breaks your heart.
  3116. >And that human.
  3117. >He looked like he was in so much pain.
  3118. >Anon.
  3119. >You still don’t know about him, and you’re not sure what to make of him.
  3120. >Celestia might be fond of the man.
  3121. >But she’s not really… In the right state of mind, and in more ways than one…
  3122. >Any pony close enough can tell that from the smell alone.
  3123. >Just how long could she have she been on those pills?