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All Too Real

By SlavePonyGeneral
Created: 19th April 2022 08:02:45 PM
25th June 2022 01:39:17 PM

  1.  
  2. >”So what are we going to do with them?” a voice asks in little more than a whisper.
  3. >”SCB says to get them to a temp home until they can figure out some sort of treatment and placement,” another says, just as quiet.
  4. >Twilight perks an ear from her spot, laying on her side, and cracks open an eye.
  5. >The darkened, padded floor and black bars of the pet cage greet her sight, reminding her just where she is. The alicorn lifts her head, careful not to let the tag on her collar jingle and alert the voices.
  6. >A princess in a collar—Arrogant as it may sound, this world is truly mad.
  7. >Glancing around, the princess confirms that her huddle of friends are still in fitful sleep. Outside the cage is the cluttered backroom of an animal shelter.
  8. >An animal shelter. Like she and her friends are just animals.
  9. >Where had this all gone so wrong?
  10. >”Any idea where?” the first voice asks as footsteps sound nearby.
  11. >”A guy with a ranch and a few ponies offered to take them in. He knows Miranda from highschool or something.” The second voice sighs and Twilight gets the impression he’s shaking his head. “Why anyone would go through all the trouble of breeding and conditioning those six just to toss them out I have no idea. They’re show-perfect reproductions and all have functioning wings and horns. They gotta be worth a hundred grand a pop, though the alicorn is easily two hundred thousand by herself.”
  12. >”Over half a million in ponies sitting in the back, eh?” First muses. “The feistiness probably drives down their value a bit though. Can’t have ponies be that violent around people. Did you see the bite marks on Nate?”
  13. >Twilight silently curses Rainbow for yet again jumping the gun in a crisis and landing them in this mess. The talks of her and the Elements in numerical values CANNOT bode well. They spoke as if ponies are…
  14. >Twilight gulps, her thoughts starting to run wild.
  15. >...Slaves.
  16. >A whimper pulls her attention away from the conversation to Fluttershy, who is now awake and pawing ineffectively at her collar with tears in her eyes.
  17. >Twilight gives her pegasus friend a look, pleading her to be strong.
  18. >Fluttershy shudders, but nods weakly.
  19. >”That’s what he gets when he’s too stupid to listen to obvious threats,” Second says with a snort as the footsteps grow closer. “He learned the hard way.”
  20. >The footsteps pass right by the closed door, casting long shadows through the crack in the bottom that the two awake ponies watch fearfully. The two voices continue on, oblivious to their eavesdroppers.
  21. >”Let’s get them something to eat and cleaned up. They were all pretty stressed out yesterday, and I doubt Miranda’s friend wants grumpy ponies.”
  22. >”Mmmhmm.”
  23. >The two continue on, voices fading as they walk, leaving the ponies with only the hum of the building’s ventilation.
  24. >”Well, at least they won’t leave us to wallow in filth.”
  25. >Rarity rises out of the pile of sleeping forms, her usual impeccable appearance ruined with dirt and her mane totally devoid of its style. She tries to light her horn, but her collar blinks with a green light and the magic aura fizzles out.
  26. >The unicorn sighs and lets her shoulders slump. “I suppose that was a little much to hope for…”
  27. >”G-girls…” Fluttershy has to stop and take a deep breath. “W-what are we going t-to do?”
  28. >What indeed?
  29. >Never before had the Six encountered captors as thorough as these current ones. One moment they’re all laughing and enjoying a Pinkie party, the next they’re dumped into a world where everything is too big with pursuers on them in an instant.
  30. >And no matter how much they cried for help, the other ponies they saw didn’t even lift a hoof.
  31. >Some even ran BEHIND the tall creatures.
  32. >One struggle and some darts to the flank later, and they’re all in a cage with what seems to be a human in a labcoat trying to interrogate them.
  33. >No matter how they answered him he just kept asking the same questions over and over. Then he suddenly shifted to sympathy and told them to rest.
  34. >Leading to now.
  35. >Twilight lets out a breath. “We can't use force, that much I know. I firmly believe there has been some sort of misunderstanding that we can talk out,” she says, hesitating on ‘firmly believe’. “We have to solve this peacefully.”
  36. >Neither Rarity or Fluttershy respond.
  37. >They sit in silence for several minutes, then tense as more footsteps are heard outside the small room.
  38. >But… one set of the steps are wrong. They’re too frequent to be the long strides of the tall looking creatures and make a sharper “tap tap” along the tile floor.
  39. >”Jamie, can you wake our guests? I think they might be more willing to talk to you for obvious reasons,” a male voice asks.
  40. >”Sure thing!” a higher male voice responds. “Did Miranda find someplace for them already?”
  41. >”The Ymous ranch about an hour north.”
  42. >”Ah, okay.”
  43. >The long foot steps keep walking past, but the shorter ones stop at the door, which swings open on a squeaky hinge.
  44. >The three awake mares stiffen, then slacken in confusion at what they see.
  45. >”Dammit, where is it… Aha!”
  46. >The familiar shape rises to two legs and fumbles with a switch on the wall. The lights flick on, revealing a normal Earth stallion?
  47. >What..?
  48. >The stallion seems totally normal. With a burnt bronze coat, short mane, and tail of darker brown, he is wholly average. Forgettable even.
  49. >But Twilight’s eyes lock onto the earthy green collar around his neck instantly.
  50. >With a smile, the stallion falls back to all fours and turns towards the cage. “Much better. Good morning to you all! My name is Jamie and I’m one of the shelter assistants.”
  51. >’Jamie? What an odd name for a pony…’ Fluttershy thinks to herself. ‘Where are we?’
  52. >Rarity blinks and recovers the quickest. “Erm, good morning sir. My name is Rarity, and my companions are…”
  53. >”Fluttershy and Princess Twilight,” Jamie finishes for her with a nod. “We’ve got everyone’s names from the, er… Less than peaceful introduction yesterday.”
  54. >All three mares wince.
  55. >”N-not that yesterday was a huge issue!” Jamie hastily exclaims with a frantic wave of a forehoof. “We understand your situation and want to do everything we can to help.”
  56. >Twilight brightens immediately. “So you can get us out of here and back to Equestria?” She stands and walks closer to the cage bars with a wide smile “We would really appreciate it!”
  57. >Jamie’s smile falters. “Oh wow… They really were conditioned harshly…” he mutters to himself, but Twilight’s alicorn hearing picks it up.
  58. >’Conditioned harshly..?’
  59. >The stallion clears his throat and speaks back up. “Ah, well, I myself can’t get you home...” He sits and rubs the back of his head with a hoof, ”but we’ll be getting you out of that cage at least, and later to a place you can relax while the shelter finds your human.”
  60. >”Our human?” Fluttershy questions, speaking up for the first time. “I don’t understand…”
  61. >”You know? Your human?” Jamie asks with a tilt of his head. “I know you can't be strays. Not with how well made you are.”
  62. >The three mares share a look, all of them suddenly feeling uneasy.
  63. >”Your keeper? Owner? Not ringing any bells?”
  64. >Twilight’s blood runs cold, all her prior thoughts racing back to her in horrifying detail.
  65. >Collars.
  66. >Cages.
  67. >Subservance.
  68. >Jamie shrugs unsurely. ”Your master?”
  69. >The alicorn can’t help it.
  70. >She screams.
  71. >Jamie recoils.
  72. >Applejack, Pinkie, and Rainbow are all jolted awake by the shrill sound. Pinkie jumps so high she almost smacks her head into the top of the cage.
  73. >”No no no no no!” Twilight chants in a near panic. “This can’t be right! You…They…We...You’re a slave!”
  74. >The word is like a rock to a hornets nest.
  75. >”What? A slave? What’s goi-”
  76. >”-I knew it! I knew this was going to go this way! I-”
  77. >”Hold on, who is a-”
  78. >The room fills with a din of confused and frantic voices. Not a moment later it’s followed by the rattle of metal as Applejack kicks at the cage bars without effect.
  79. >Jamie stiffens. “Stop stop! All of you stop so we can talk this out!” he cries. “There’s no need for the freakout!”
  80. >Rainbow’s face contorts into a scowl as she matches up to the front. “Easy for you to say, pal. You’re not the one who woke up in a cage. What’s going on? Are you working with them?”
  81. >”You’re in here because you were all found incoherent in a public park frightening parents and children,” Jamie replies. “When no humans stepped forward to claim you, the shelter got called and well… Here you are.”
  82. >Rainbow seems befuddled by the answer, letting Twilight take the forefront again.
  83. >”You mean ‘claim’ is in property,” the princess states, staring a hole in the uncomfortable stallion. “Like a slave. Like yourself.”
  84. >The gathered mares gasp.
  85. >Jamie hisses through his teeth leans away from the cage, but it doesn't hide his scandalized expression. “That is… Not true. Not true and extremely offensive. Shelter guests or not, I will not be spoken to in such a way!”
  86. >”If a cage is what you treat guests to, then Ah’d hate to see what you do to folks ya don't like…” Applejack grumbles.
  87. >Pinkie giggles. “Do they get the evil lair lava pits and chambers of doom?”
  88. >Jamie just sighs.
  89. >The door suddenly swings open, revealing a tall, labcoat clad woman with a narrow eyed expression and dark brown hair in a low ponytail.
  90. >Jamie’s eyes widen. “M-Miranda!”
  91. >’This is Miranda?’ Rarity wonders, taking in the form of the angular woman.
  92. >”Jamie,” the woman starts as she folds her hands behind her back. “I heard a scream.”
  93. >”Erm, our guests were just a bit startled as they came to.”
  94. >Miranda nods, accepting the answer easily. “Go help Eric get breakfast ready for these six. We’ll be sending them to the Ymous ranch before noon.”
  95. >The stallion blinks. “So soon?”
  96. >”Yes,” is the curt answer.
  97. >Jamie waits for a moment, but when it becomes apparent that he’s not getting more information, he trots past her and out to his new assignment.
  98. >Miranda’s eyes remain on the free pony until he is out of sight, then she turns to the cage.
  99. >The six, including Rainbow, quickly have the fight taken out of them under the intense gaze of the intimidating human. They all break the eye contact and share looks between themselves.
  100. >’I don’t like this’ says Applejack’s
  101. >’Agreed’ says Fluttershy’s watery eyes.
  102. >’We’ll get through this. We always do’ says Pinkie’s cheerful face.
  103. >’We’ll see’ says Rarity’s frown.
  104. >Rainbow and Twilight just scowl.
  105. >”As you’ve probably guessed, My name is Miranda, and I’m the director of this train wreck of a shelter.” Miranda says after a long minute. “I’m going to let you out. You will be fed, given a medical examination, and then sent to a proper and comfortable living area while we sort everything out. There will no fighting or foolishness.” Her eyes sharpen even further. “If you try to attack anyone, run away, or otherwise become belligerent, then your collars will shock you into a not-so-blissful slumber.”
  106. >Every eye in the cage widens.
  107. >”Do I make myself clear?”
  108. >She gets low and reluctant murmurs of agreement.
  109. >Miranda fishes a key out of her pocket and unlocks the padlock on the cage, letting it swing open.
  110. >Applejack is the first one to cautiously step out, followed by a still scowling Rainbow.
  111. >As the ponies leave the little cage, Miranda turns and walks out into the hallway, the unspoken command to follow obvious.
  112. >The lost ponies follow the woman, having to trot briskly to keep up with her long strides and leaving little time to inspect the plain and sterile hallway.
  113. >They pass several doors, all shut, but when they pass one with muffled sounds behind it, Fluttershy’s ears perk up.
  114. >The sign on the door has a simple dog face, but the words are gibberish.
  115. >“M-Miss Miranda?” she asks hesitantly. “Is this place an animal shelter?”
  116. >”Not strictly,” the woman relies without looking back. “It’s also a pony shelter. At one point it was just for animals, before ponies become common. Naturally it’s lead to some issues, since ponies are rapidly displacing pets.”
  117. >Fluttershy looks away, her expression disturbed. “Oh…”
  118. >”What do you mean by that?” Twilight cuts in, wiping her own uneasy look off her face. “By ‘before ponies become common’ I mean.”
  119. >”I mean that ponies are being added to families more and more these days. With reputable ranches setting up, there’s a steady supply of well bred foals being sold.”
  120. >A chill settles over the group for what seems like the hundredth time in the last day.
  121. >”Selling...foals?” Rarity forces out. “You mean, taking infants away from their parents to be sold for money..?”
  122. >The unicorn stumbles like she’s going to faint, only for Pinkie to rush in and act as a support at the last second.
  123. >”That… That ain’t right…” Applejack growls past clenched teeth. “Thats…”
  124. >”Slavery,” Rainbow finishes, uncharacteristically quiet. “Twi wasn’t just freaking out over nothing. This is the real deal.”
  125. >Twilight just stares at the floor, but her ruffled wings give away her fury. “Is that stallion, Jamie, a slave?”
  126. >”He’s owned by Nate, the one your rainbow friend bit.” Miranda says simply.
  127. >The group makes a sharp turn into a cramped break room before silence can set in. Inside is a dirty kitchenette, an equally dirty table, some chairs, and a lower set table with six plates of assorted greens and glasses of water on it.
  128. >The six each take spots around the table and slowly eat. The food is neither old or fresh, and neither appetizing or disgusting, but it was filling to the mares who hadn't eaten in over a day.
  129. >Pinkie finishes her food in her typical rushed fashion with a smile, uncaring of the lack of taste. While her friends were busy eating, she turns to the human leaning against the door frame. “Say, Miss Miranda? You said we’d be going to a ranch, and you mentioned that ranches make, well, babies…”
  130. >The pink mare seems to struggle with formulating her next thoughts. “That’s not so we.. erm. So we…”
  131. >”No, it’s not. You’ll simply be living there for the time being.”
  132. >A collective sigh of relief runs through each mare.
  133. >”But…”
  134. >Tense.
  135. >”The ranch owner will probably want you to earn your keep somehow,” the woman says, pulling her phone from her pocket to glance at it. “I had to call in a favor to get you this chance. If you waste it and he ships you back here, then you’ll regret it.”
  136. >Twilight isn’t sure what worries her more. The boldfaced threat or how casual it was.
  137. >Rainbow sneers. “So you hold us against our will and then you're going to send us off to work? Sounds like a raw deal.”
  138. >”I could just throw you outside and wash my hands of you. How long will a bunch of mares without documents or advocates last, I wonder? Two days? Three?”
  139. >”A ranch is fine,” Applejack pipes up before somepony digs their hole deeper. “We’re no strangers to honest work and we’ll do it if you keep your end of the bargain and help us get home.”
  140. >Miranda just nods. “Finish up. We’ve got an MD sitting idle waiting for your ex-”
  141. >”Ma’am!”
  142. >A scraggly, younger man, probably just out of his teens, pokes his head into the break room with a clipboard in hand. “I’ve got a few things you’ll probably want to see. Do you have a moment?”
  143. >The woman sighs and looks to the ponies under her watch with a pointed glare. “You six stay here. I mean it.”
  144. >She walks off just far enough down the hall that the conversation can't be made out, giving the girls precious few moments alone.
  145. >”W-what are we going to do!?” Fluttershy loses her last semblance of cool. “T-theres too much too fast! What is going on?!”
  146. >Rainbow is quick to answer. ”We bust outta where while they’re gone! C’mon!”
  147. >The escape stops before it can even begin, as Rainbow’s collar blinks it’s green LED, reducing her frantic wing flapping to wasted effort.
  148. >”ARRRH! I HATE THIS THING!” She cries, pawing at the collar and finding no purchase. “I can feeling it sapping my magic!”
  149. >”As much as I abhor to say it, I think we’re going to have to play along with this one,” Rarity says with a grimace. “We’ve no idea where we are, we’ve no magic, and we’ve no alibi. This is the worst possible situation.”
  150. >Applejack frowns and flicks her tail. “This ain’t the worst, but it’s almost there. We just gotta play our cards right… We got some nightmare world nonsense going on.”
  151. >”Aww, c’mon gals, it’s not all bad,” Pinkie interjects with a wide grin. “It’s just… Mostly bad… I guess,” her grin falters some. “We’ve just got to look on the bright side. Why would the crabby tall lady use a favor on us if she isn’t trying to help?”
  152. >”A good point, but we’re getting sent to ranch where enslaved ponies are used as breeding stock, Pinkie,” Twilight says with a sigh, killing the mood. “It’s a little hard to look on the bright side.”
  153. >”She already said we’re not going to be used for… For that!” Pinkie still can’t vocalize the heinous implication.
  154. >”Miranda seems halfway trustworthy, but we’ll still be around it…” Twilight looks away, pushing down the bile rising in her throat. “Just the thought makes me ill…”
  155. >”Well, I don’t think we have much of a choice unless we can get these here collars off, and they can't be made to come off easy,” Applejack says.
  156. >She rubs at the black band around her neck with a hoof, making the bronze tag jingle.
  157. >”You’re right on that.”
  158. >All six of them snap their heads to the doorway, where Miranda now stands again, an unamused expression on her face. “C’mon, ladies. The doctor is on the clock now and I have enough trouble with the shelter’s budget as is.”
  159. ---------------------------
  160. >”Anything?”
  161. >A man in hair covered scrubs tosses his latex gloves in the trash and moves to the examination room sink, where he quickly washes his hands.
  162. >”Well, all six seem to be in good health,” he starts slowly, leaning back against the sink as he tosses his paper towel after the gloves. “No visible injuries or malformations, and all the instant tests for common diseases came back negative. The hair and blood samples will take more time to show any results. Now onto the weirdest thing. They have no electronic ID.”
  163. >Miranda’s eyebrow rises. “None?”
  164. >”No ID chips. No neural implants, no bionic parts. Notta.”
  165. >The other eyebrow joins the first. “So we’re looking at a private breeding job?”
  166. >”Most likely.”
  167. >”Any evidence of gene therapy or forced mutation?”
  168. >The doctor shrugs. “I can’t say for certain until the blood work gets back, and the local LabCorp office didn’t give me an ETA. If they did do gene therapy, those ponies would have had to have at least twenty rounds each even with parents providing the needed traits, if not more to get to the level that they’re at. Just the naked eye can tell they’re near perfect. No way forced mutation was used, though.”
  169. >Miranda sighs. “That would explain the fabricated memories at least. Who or what could live through so much therapy I have no idea. But the cost of so much...”
  170. >”Definitely beyond what those mares would fetch for resale. So the master is probably some demented fuck. Not that that narrows down the search much.”
  171. >”Probably,” Miranda half heartedly agrees. She looks over to the far side of the examination room, where one of the strictly animal veterinarians goes over the exam results with the group of mares. “I’m going out for a smoke. Get them packed and ready to head to Anon’s.”
  172. >The doctor offers a lazy salute. ”Aye, ma’am.”
  173. >As the woman walks to the front of the building, she can’t help but feel something is off with those little oddballs.
  174. >Well, more off than they already are.
  175. ----------------------------
  176. >The six sat stiffly in the back of the off-white van that was taking them to their new, temporary home. The metal contraption rattled, groaned, and bumped under them as it road along, stopping at hanging lights periodically.
  177. >Twilight noted from her poor vantage point that the van stopped at red lights, and then went on green.
  178. >They weren’t alone in the back. With them was a bubbly unicorn mare named Amber who happily makes small talk with Pinkie.
  179. >”So you’re going to the ranch up north? Isn’t that the Ymous place?” Amber questions with a tilt of her head.
  180. >Pinkie rubs her chin. “I think so…”
  181. >”Are you going there for…” Amber makes a suggestive gesture with her hoof.
  182. >The party mare goes green under her coat, along with the rest of the six. ”No!”
  183. >Amber pins her ears back and recoils. “S-sorry! I didn’t realize you had such strong feelings over it… That’s usually what mares go there for...”
  184. >”Don’t apologize, sug,” Applejack says with a shake of her head. “Ya didn’t know. We’re just living there for now.”
  185. >Amber regains her smile and nods. “How lucky! I had to stay in the shelter for so long while you get sent to live on a ranch. On day one…” she says, tone trailing and smile strained.
  186. >”Is the shelter that bad?” Fluttershy asks quietly.
  187. >Amber shakes her head. “No. It’s just… lonely, I guess. There are other ponies to talk to, but the humans are all always busy. I can understand why, but it’s frustrating.” She looks out the van window, expression wistful. “I was finally bought though. I don’t have a bloodline, or any real skills, so that dashed any real chance of a rich family, but I was told that I’m going to be a present for a little girl. I can’t really complain.”
  188. >The back of the van is quiet. Then; “You don’t think it’s wrong?”
  189. >Amber blinks at Twilight. “I don’t understand.”
  190. >”Don’t you think it’s wrong that you, a living being, are being owned by another?” Twilight nearly demands. “You think. You feel. Doesn't it seem strange that you’re not equal? That you are treated like a object to be bought and sold?”
  191. >Amber seems shocked. “W-what? B-but that’s just how things are! How things are supposed to be!” She exclaims. “Why would you think otherwise?”
  192. >Now it’s Twilight’s turn to be shocked. “Don’t you have free will?! The drive to be something!?”
  193. >Rarity lays a hoof on Twilight’s wither. “Dear, you’re rightfully upset, but now is not the time or place…”
  194. >She’s ignored.
  195. >”But I AM going to be something!” Amber cries, genuine distress in her voice. “I am! I really am!”
  196. >Twilight grits her teeth so hard it’s audible ”Yes, a SLAVE to a CHILD!” she roars.
  197. >”Hey hey hey!” The van driver, middle aged man with a beer gut and beard cuts in. He glares back at the ponies for a second before his eyes return to the road. “Enough fighting back there. In fact, just quiet down the rest of the way. Amber, sweetie, your friends there are ehh…”
  198. >He twirls his finger by his head in a gesture that this six don't understand, but Amber seems to get it instantly. Her face morphs from shock to pity.
  199. >”Oh… Now I understand why you’re going to a ranch…” she whispers, looking away.
  200. >”What? What does that mean?!” the alicorn demands. She turns to the driver and matches up to front, ignoring Amber’s mortified face. “What did you me-!”
  201. >CLICKCLICKCLICK!
  202. >Twilight stiffens and her mouth opens in a silent scream as pain lances up and down her body. All she can do is stand on paralyzed legs and soundlessly seize as her friends watch in horror. Her efforts to retreat eventually let her fall to her side, where she harshly impacts the van floor.
  203. >After the longest three seconds of her life, the pain suddenly cuts out, leaving the dazed mare on the floor with jumbled thoughts and nerves.
  204. >The driver shakes his head and holds up his phone. On the screen are seven soft buttons with a name under each. “Don’t take that tone with me, and stay in the back. It’s for your own good.”
  205. >The other ponies sans Amber quietly pick up the still stunned Twilight and carry her to the back of the van, where they huddle together in a shivering pile. The van ride is devoid of noise other than the van itself for some time.
  206. >”I can’t believe it. They… He… He actually…” Rainbow’s words are no louder than a whisper as she struggles to articulate past her disbelief. “I thought they were just bluffing. But… but…”
  207. >”Seems not,” Applejack finishes grimly. She gently nuzzles Fluttershy, who is buried in the farmer’s side and heaving with silent sobs.
  208. >Pinkie has no comment, as she just keeps looking between the slowly recovering princess and the human up front with uncomprehending eyes, as if she can't register what happened.
  209. >Rarity is much the same. Each time she opens her mouth to speak, the words die before they can leave, and each time she forced her face into a neutral look. There is no mistaking the frustrated tears in her eyes, however.
  210. >As the van rumbles along, Twilight comes to, but opts to stay her the middle of the group hug and stare at the wall with unfocused eyes.
  211. >There is no downplaying the situation, no matter how much it could be sugarcoated.
  212. >As of today, they’re slaves.
  213. >The van slows to a stop in front of a suburban home, where a plainly dressed woman waits outside.
  214. >The driver grunts and heaves himself out of his seat. A moment later, he opens the side door on the van from the outside.
  215. >Rainbow tenses like she’s going to spring out the open door to sweet freedom, but an orange foreleg around her middle and a shaken head stop her at the last moment.
  216. >The prismatic mare growls and sits again.
  217. >”Alrighty, Amber. C’mon, your family is waiting.”
  218. >’Family’ is like a magic word to the unicorn, who sports a beaming smile and happily jumps out after the driver. The door closes on squeaky hinges right after.
  219. >Pinkie and Rarity muster the will to rise and watch from the window.
  220. >The driver and woman talk for a moment, their words lost between the distance and the glass window. Then the woman turns and calls behind her towards the house.
  221. >Hardly a second later, a little human with it’s long hair tied in pigtails exits the house.
  222. >’This must be the girl,’ Rarity thinks, mentally correcting ‘it’ to ‘her’.
  223. >The girl blinks and her jaw slowly drops when she sees the grinning Amber. She slowly walks forward only to break into a run a few steps in.
  224. >Amber prances forward to meet her halfway and rises to her hindlegs to meet the girl in a hug. The girl’s expression and the pure note of laughter from her are the very definition of joy.
  225. >The woman, who must be the girl’s mother, looks at the embraced pair fondly, paying just enough attention to the driver to accept a folder of paper and offer a farewell.
  226. >Despite their own situation, Rarity and Pinkie smile and return to their friends, feeling just a little lighter.
  227. >The driver enters the van and sits heavily with a sigh. A moment later, the van lumbers to life again and leaves the unicorn to her new family.
  228. >”Alright you bundles of trouble,” the driver looks at the huddle of fur and hooves through the rear-view mirror. “We’re off. It’ll be a bit ‘till we get there. No. More. Freakouts. Got it?”
  229. >And with that, the six are steadfastly ignored.
  230. >Fluttershy finally pulls her face from Applejack’s side, her eyes a painful red. “G-girls? W-we’re going t-to be o-okay, right?”
  231. >”Of course we are!” Rainbow replies immediately. “We can get through this. No matter what, there is nothing that can stop us. Nightmare Moon, Discord, Chrysalis, Tirek, compared to them this is nothing!” she exclaims with a ruffle of her wings.
  232. >Rarity smiles slightly. “Maybe, but that’s no excuse to get over confident. All our old foes had serious pratfalls ripe for exploitation. We’ll need to be cautious here. I just hope we get to our destination soon and that our host is courteous enough to…”
  233. >She runs a hoof through her still messy mane with a grimace. “Offer the use of a shower. Ick!”
  234. >The rest of the six giggle quietly to themselves at their friend’s plight, falling into a companionable silence and enjoying the simple pleasure of each other's company.
  235. >The passing buildings slowly become more rundown and hostile in appearance, much to Twilight’s worry, but the van driver doesn't seem to notice.
  236. >Ring! Ring!
  237. >The van driver raises his phone into view, looking over the caller ID and then double-taking. “Oh shit…”
  238. >He lets it ring out without an answer.
  239. >Twilight watches carefully as the little device rings again. It’s the same remote used to electrocute her, but the driver has used it several times without any effect on her or her friends. Might it have more than one use?
  240. >A sickly pallor overtakes the driver’s face as he lets the call ring out again. He growls in frustration as the van is stopped by a red light. “Fuck, c’mon!” Fluttershy and Rarity jump when he smacks the steering wheel.
  241. >The instant the light changes to green, he peels off and makes a turn down a side street, sending the six sliding into the opposite wall with a collection of “Oof!”s
  242. >Rainbow scowls and rubs her head ”Hey! What’s the big id-!” She yelps from the split-second zap her collar gives her and falls bonelessly into her startled friends, stunned.
  243. >”Just shut it, okay?!” The driver all but yells. “Man there is no fuckin’ way…”
  244. >Something swoops down in front of the van.
  245. >The driver swears violently and slams on the breaks, nearly sending the panicking mares sliding into the front seats.
  246. >The van comes to a stop and something lands on the hood with a “bang!”
  247. >”...Fuck me…”
  248. >Fluttershy is the first to gain her bearings. With a shake of her head, she looks up to see what caused the sudden alarm.
  249. >On the hood of van sitting like nothing was out of place is a pegasus stallion. His coat is a forest brown with a speckled white underbelly. His short, windswept mane is the same color as his coat. But what really catches her attention are his wings and eyes.
  250. >The stallions folded wings are a size too big for his body, as the primary feathers rest over his flank and the alulas are near his withers.
  251. >But the yellow, piercing eyes...
  252. >The unpony-like gaze settles on her for a split second, pinning the poor mare in place. A horrid phantom feeling washes over her, like it’s not just one set of eyes dissecting her bit by bit.
  253. >The mysterious pony looks over all her friends as well, then returns his scowling visage to the suddenly sick-looking driver.
  254. >With a shaky hand, the driver rolls down the window and leans out. “Heh… Hey, Freefall… So uh, what brings you out here?”
  255. >The now named Freefall takes his time answering. “I could ask you the same, Shawn.” He says with a voice deeper than a pony should have. “I was under the impression that you were in-route to my Master’s ranch-”
  256. >By now the others are watching. The six notice the collar around his neck. The front has a gleaming silver tag in the form of a stylized ‘A’.
  257. >The strange stallion is a slave as well, so why is Shawn the driver so nervous about dealing with him?
  258. >“-But you seem to be taking an… unusually long path. Are you lost, perhaps?” Freefall asks with a tilt of his head.
  259. >The gesture comes off as far more condendensing than confused, Rarity thinks.
  260. >Shawn blows air out of his nose and looks away from the pony “Yeah. Yeah I’m lost. My GPS is on the fritz today.”
  261. >Freefall raises an eyebrow. “Odd that you need it, considering you and other drivers have made the route without assistance before.”
  262. >The man doesn't reply.
  263. >”You didn’t think this through very well, did you?”
  264. >Shawn grips the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles turn white.
  265. >”I’m going to escort you the rest of the way. Do not deviate, Shawn,” Freefall says, the unspoken threat plain as day.
  266. >A stiff nod is the only answer.
  267. >Freefall spreads his huge, angular wings and lifts off with a single flap. The van follows him out of the rundown area and onto a road out of the town.
  268. >As the mares in the back puzzle over the dynamics of the odd land they found themselves in, Twilight is the first to connect the chilling dots of the short confrontation.
  269. >She resolves to later find Freefall and thank him.
  270. ------------------------------
  271. >The sun is halfway through the sky when the van turns off the long rural road into a long driveway.
  272. >Rainbow, normally the heavy sleeper of the group, rouses from the cozy nap-pile in the back and blinks herself awake.
  273. >She raises her head from it’s spot on Pinkie’s back and squints at the sun-lit window, pondering on why the van is slowing.
  274. >”We gotta be there…” Rainbow near silently muses to herself. Her own words hit her a second later, creeping cold settling in her core and chasing away the warmth of her friends “Oh… We gotta be there…”
  275. >She slowly pulls herself from the pile and raises herself just enough to see out the front.
  276. >Her eyes widen.
  277. >An enormous, rustic building rests in the distance, similar to the Apple family home but on a much grander scale. The top level is dotted with balconies, each with a pony-sized door. It’s surrounded by acres of green land on each side dotted with smaller, odd looking buildings. The huge swath of land is separated from the edge of the road with a simple wooden fence.
  278. >For a moment Rainbow wonders why the fence isn’t larger, only for her collar to jingle when the van hits a bump and offer a rude reminder.
  279. >As they draw closer, the prismatic mare spots a practical horde of small ponies all playing and running out in the field just right of the huge building. Several larger ponies and a single human watch them from a distance.
  280. >Rainbow squints, her pegasus vision magnifying and zooming in on the strange gathering.
  281. >’Foals,’ she realizes. ‘Those are foals just playing outside and... minders I guess?
  282. >’Those are foals bred to be sold…’
  283. >Rainbow looks away as her stomach rebels from the thought.
  284. >Shawn the driver starts to shake when Freefall shoots off like an arrow towards the human watching the foals. The stallion lands and speaks briefly with the man, who nods and begins walking towards the end of driveway with a unicorn in tow.
  285. >Freefall takes off and vanishes into one of the balcony doors.
  286. >The van comes to a stop just as the other five mares start coming too.
  287. >”Rainbow?” Twilight asks, rubbing her eyes with a hoof. “Are we there?”
  288. >The wonderbolt just nods.
  289. >Shawn heaves himself out of the van just as the other man and the unicorn walk up. “Anon! Buddy, pal! It’s been uh, how long?”
  290. >The six aren’t able to get a good look at the new human through the narrow side window, but they do hear him give Shawn a mirthless chuckle. “Long enough for you to try and pull a fast one.”
  291. >”Hey man, look. I just got a bit turned around. I got here, didn’t I?” the van driver asks with a shrug.
  292. >”I guess…”
  293. >Shawn smiles. “No harm, no foul, right?”
  294. >”Hmm. We’ll call it even if you can do something for me.”
  295. >The smile vanishes. “U-uh…”
  296. >”When you get back to the shelter, tell Miranda you’d like to resign effective immediately. Oh! And that you’d like to forfeit your last paycheck as a donation as well.”
  297. >Twilight draws her mouth into a thin line, unsure if she should be satisfied with the punishment being doled out, or be worried about ‘Anon’s’ casual wrath arbitrarily landing on her.
  298. >”What!?” Shawn screams, his complexion turning pale again. “Anon I can’t! This job is all I’ve got! If I lose it then… then… C’mon man!”
  299. >”I’ll not forgive so easily.”
  300. >”What in the world is this all about?” A wide-eyed Rarity asks.
  301. >Applejack answers before Twilight can formulate a response. “Our chauffeur is a two-face. Ah don’t rightly know where we were going when mister Freefall stopped us, but it wasn’t here.”
  302. >Call the farm mare what you wish, but ‘dull’ would never be correct.
  303. >”Remember, bright side, girls!” Pinkie cuts in before Applejacks words can sink in. “We’re here and safe! It’s all good from here!” She says with a grin.
  304. >”Anon, man c’mon,” Shawn’s voice drags the six back to the exchange outside. “You can’t do this, it’ll kill me! And and and… The shelter will be down a driver! They need all the help they can get!”
  305. >”A professional bottom-feeder like yourself can find a warehouse to sweat in for pennies in hardly a day, I’m sure,” a cutting female voice snarks from out of view. “Driving a cargo van is far from difficult, so the shelter will have you replaced with a less repulsive laborer before long.”
  306. >Shawn’s pale face goes bright red as he looks down at Anon’s side, but he doesn't retort.
  307. >”This is as merciful as I’m willing to be,” Anon says, his voice still even. “You can take it or leave it.”
  308. >The older man sighs and raises his hands. ”Man, don’t do th-!”
  309. >A silver colored aura covers Shawn the instant his hands start advancing forward, freezing him in place. The man can only franticly roll his eyes around in his paralysis.
  310. >Twilight’s eyes nearly bug out of her head. “That’s magic! But h-?!”
  311. >The unicorn with Anon. She can do magic.
  312. >But the collars..?
  313. >“It would do you well to not even think of touching my master, cretin,” the still unnamed unicorn says. They may not be able to see her, but her voice conveys her snarl clear as day. “You might suffer a sudden case of-”
  314. >”Freyja, enough.”
  315. >The aura fades and the man caught in it falls to the ground where he takes great heaving breaths.
  316. >”You’ll find that you’ll want to do things my way. I’ll call later to confirm it, okay?”
  317. >Anon gets no answer other than labored breathing.
  318. >”Sure thing. Now…”
  319. >The six tense up when the side door latch on the van pops, each expecting the worst. Fluttershy even hides her head behind her wings.
  320. >The doors open, revealing…
  321. >A normal looking human and mare.
  322. >All six share unsure looks and turn back to who has to be Anon and the mare.
  323. >The man doesn't seem outstanding in any sort of way. Clad in a flannel shirt, a white undershirt, worn jeans, and dirt spotted boots, he would be perfect in a farm setting. Or a ranch.
  324. >The unicorn looks out of place next to him, though.
  325. >The mare is of average height with a spotless coat the color of faded gold. Her wavy mane and tail are a darker, richer shade of gold highlighted by streaks of beige. The coat and mane are offset the her annoyed, ghostly blue eyes and frown.
  326. >But the biggest thing of all…
  327. >...Is her lack of collar.
  328. >The human offers the huddled mares a pleasant smile. “Well my esteemed guests, let me be the first to offer you a welcome to the Ymous ranch. I understand you’ve had a... “ he looks over at Shawn, who is backed away and eyeing the gold unicorn with fear. “Turbulent twenty four hours and some change, so let’s get intros out of the way so you can head inside and get cleaned up.”
  329. >Rarity instantly perks up.
  330. >”The lovely mare at my side is Freyja, my right and and best friend.”
  331. >The now named Freyja tries to frown, but Anon’s fingers comb through her mane with obvious affection, making her lips twitch upward. “Well met, I suppose,” she greets simply.
  332. >”And I am Anon Ymous, owner and head honcho of the ranch,” Anon says, his smile growing. “Now let’s go, we’ve gotta round up the little ones and I’m sure you’ve got questions.”
  333. >Twilight silently laments her lack of writing tools.
  334. --
  335. >You and Freyja lead the six wayward mares back towards the herd of foals at a leisurely pace. It seems like the six are still a little overwhelmed if the lack of talking is anything to go by.
  336. >Your phone dings with a next text message, so you pull it out of your shirt pocket only to hear a hiss of breath.
  337. >With a blink, you glance back to see your newest ponies carefully watching the phone in your hand.
  338. >Why would..?
  339. >Ah, Shawn probably jumped the gun and zapped one of them.
  340. >You’ll send Stratosphere out to even the score later.
  341. >Glancing at the new text, you see it’s from Freyja, who is still looking forward as she walks.
  342. >Freyja: I only skimmed the email sent by the shelter. These prize pets seem a little too surprised with their surroundings. How damaged did Miranda say they are?
  343. >You frown and type out a reply.
  344. >Anon: shes not sure. said that they only probed a little bit but the damage is more than a little. theyre full on washed. SBC is looking for owners but its only day 1. they could be here for a bit considering the temp owner papers faxed over. lol why are faxes still a thing.
  345. >Freyja: Joy, mental cases… The one thing we’re NOT equipped for.
  346. >Anon: itll be fine. SBC will send pros if no owners come forward. whats the worst that could happen?
  347. >Your right hand furrows her brows and swiftly replies
  348. >Freyja: Now that you’ve said that, just about everything.
  349. >You roll your eyes and pocket your phone.
  350. >It’ll just be another day on the ranch.
  351. >Right?
  352. ---------
  353. >Twilight and the girls follow the human and mare closely, unsure where to go from here. Their new host seemed nice enough, but it didn’t take away the fact that they were considered property.
  354. >As the group approaches the large gathering of foals, Anon pulls back his sleeve and checks a plain watch on his wrist. Afterward, he puts a finger in each corner of his mouth and lets out a long, sharp whistle.
  355. >Every ear out in the field perks up, but the colts and fillies let out groans and grumbles of disappointment.
  356. >“Alright everyone!” Anon bellows, his voice echoing against the large central building. “Recess is over! Lets head back inside and back to class! You know where you need to be!”
  357. >All the colts and fillies continue to grumble, but break up their games and slowly shuffle towards the waiting adult ponies who were monitoring them. They make three lines, one behind each adult, and are lead back inside.
  358. >“Recess?” Rarity questions with a raised eyebrow. “Are they educated here?”
  359. >Freyja glances back to white mare. “They are.”
  360. >Rarity waits for Freyja to elaborate, but when the collarless mare never does, Anon steps in.
  361. >“We do have some teachers, both human and pony in-house,” Anon says with a smile. “Like most children, the little ones aren’t happy about days in a classroom, but they understand why they need to be there, at least.”
  362. >‘But why bother educating a slave?’ Twilight wonders with a frown. ‘An uneducated one would be far easier to control and manipulate. What does he gain?’
  363. >One of the adult slaves, an earth pony mare coming into middle age, hangs back and falls into step with Anon.
  364. >Anon smiles ruefully and shakes his head. “Lemme guess. Sterling?”
  365. >The mare nods “Yes, Anon. Sterling hasn’t been focusing in class and seems troubled in general. His mother isn’t sure what the issue is either since he refuses to say.”
  366. >The human crosses his arms and nods. “He’s got a family prospecting him, thats what's bugging him. Freyja or I will talk to him when we can and try to clear it up. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.”
  367. >“Of course,” the un-named mare says with a smile and incline of her head before she briskly trots back inside. Anon leads the group after her at a slower pace
  368. >“The man wanting to buy Sterling, his background check has yet to come back,” Freyja tells Anon as they walk. “That could mean trouble.”
  369. >‘She sounds so callus about it…’ Fluttershy thinks with a shaky breath. ‘Like she’s talking about an expensive toy and not a child…’
  370. >“He seemed a little sketchy, but nothing overly bad,” Anon says back. “If anything does come back from the SCB, then he’s not getting Sterling. I’ll have you with me in that case.”
  371. >Freyja just nods.
  372. >Applejack clears her throat just as the group clears the door on the side of the building. “So Mister Anonymous? Where exactly are we gunna be stayin’?” She asks, making her friends perk up and listen close.
  373. >Anon frowns. “Just Anon, please, Applejack. That goes for the rest of you too, unless we have a guest over or something. You all will be staying with me and my ponies considering your… special circumstances,” he says, carefully testing the words before saying them. “This will keep you from the other ponies on the ranch, but once we get some trust built then I can let you wander more.”
  374. >“So you can keep us close and zap us if we don't act like good little pets, just like that fat guy,” Rainbow accuses, her face contorting into a scowl and her wings ruffling. “You hyoomans are sick.”
  375. >The other five all suck in sharp breaths.
  376. >Freyja snaps her murderous gaze to the lippy pegasus. At the same time. her horn lights up in a silver color and hums threateningly.
  377. >Rainbow snorts and spreads her wings…only for the green light on her collar to blink, sapping her strength yet again and making her wings shake. Rainbow, to her credit, refuses to back down.
  378. >“Wait! She didn’t mean it!” Pinkie clamors in front of Rainbow, shielding the petite pegasus with her own body. “Please don’t hurt Rainbow!” the pink mare pleads with a gulp. She stares at Freyja with fright that is totally out of place on her face. “T-Take it out on me if you have to!”
  379. >“Pinkie no!”
  380. >“Pinkie…” Rainbow says, shocked.
  381. >A hand is put between the two parties. “I don't think we’ll be doling out any punishment today.”
  382. >The group of ponies look up at Anon, who has lost his smile for a more stony expression.
  383. >“Freyja,” he starts, closing his eyes and crossing his arms. “Please keep a lid on the temper. I know you wouldn’t have actually hurt them, but they don’t know that nor any of the rules. They need time and space to acclimate.”
  384. >The unicorn looks away and nods stiffly, obviously sore at being called out.
  385. >“Girls,”
  386. >The Six unsurely look at Anon.
  387. >He sighs. “I will admit I don't have a good grasp on your origins so this is all probably new and stressful. I can understand that, but I ask that Freyja and I be given at least a minimal amount of respect,” he cracks open an eye and locks onto Rainbow, who shrinks under the look. “You’re not going to be punished arbitrarily, there will ALWAYS be a legitimate reason given. We don't have to be friends, and I don't EXPECT us to be friends. I just ask for your cooperation, okay?”
  388. >The mares all look between each other, each one slowly nodding.
  389. >Anon’s smile returns. “Great. Now, like I was saying, you all will be staying with me and mine. I have a large communal room big enough for 10 ponies that never gets used that I think you’ll find comfortable. Thankfully, my remaining duties for today consists of mostly busy work that I can pawn off, so we can get you all settled in.”
  390. >“Pleeeease tell me there is a stocked bathroom,” Rarity pleads. “It’s been a full day since I’ve washed. I practically feel like the embodiment of grease.”
  391. >Anon throws his head back and laughs. “Don’t worry little miss. I won’t leave you to stew in filth. Let’s get going and I’ll show ya.”
  392. >The human leads the group further into the large building, showing the inside to be similar to a rustic styled home, only on a much grander scale. He lead them past a long hallway dotted with doors leading to classrooms headed by either a human or an adult pony teaching a small class of colts and fillies. There were only three classrooms in use with about ten students to each. Twilight can’t help herself and stops to peer into one.
  393. >“Okay, everyone. Settle down and get the recess out,” the teacher, an older unicorn mare with narrow spectacles on her muzzle and her mane in a gray-speckled bun called out. “Lets start on our language arts for today.”
  394. >The class, a medley of older children, all fish notebooks and pencils out of their desks with only minimal noise and just a single paperball launched across the room. If the teacher noticed it, she ignored it.
  395. >The teacher picks up a stack of paper from her desk in a magic aura-waitwhat!
  396. >Twilight zeros in on the teacher mare’s horn and the collar, which has the same stylized A as Freefall’s. This mare has a collar yet can do magic. How can that be? Yet more questions to boggle her mind.
  397. >The older mare passes out the papers as she talks. “We’ll be doing our advanced vocabulary today. Use each word in a proper and grammatically correct sentence. There are bonus words at the bottom, and if you need help, ask a peer then myself. And when I say ‘ask a peer’, I don't mean directly ask for answers, Miss Wintergreen!”
  398. >The class lets out a collective “Ooooooohhhhhh!” when a green and white filly in the back blushes and ducks her head.
  399. >Twilight blinks, unsure what to think. The whole scene is so… so… normal that it’s surreal. It’s as if they didn’t know what the collars around each of their tiny necks ment.
  400. >Like none of them knew that they’re just things to be owned.
  401. >“Get sidetracked?”
  402. >Twilight gasps and backs up into a pair of legs. Looking up, she sees Anon smiling down at her.
  403. >“Oh, Mister Anonymous!” The teacher takes notice immediately and stands as straight as she can. “Class, say hello to Mister Anonymous,” she orders, subtly tightening her mane bun with a magic aura.
  404. >“Hello Mister Anonymous,” they all say in the same disinterested drone as any classroom of children would.
  405. >He smiles and waves to the class. “Afternoon everyone. Not making Minnie pull her mane out I hope,” he says, earning a few giggles.
  406. >“They certainly try,” the now named Minnie says with a roll of her eyes. “What do we owe the pleasure?”
  407. >“Just collecting a wayward guest,” Anon says, poking Twilight on the top of her head. “Say ‘hi’ to Twilight everyone. You’ll see her around here.”
  408. >Twilight flushes and looks away when the class lets out another greeting, this time for her.
  409. >“You look like the real Twilight!” A young pegasus filly in the front row says excitedly.
  410. >“Hey yeah, she does…” A colt behind her mutters.
  411. >“I’ve never seen a real alicorn before!”
  412. >Twilight blinks. “I look like what..?” ‘I look like the REAL Twilight?’
  413. >“Minnie,” Anon cuts in suddenly, derailing the alicorn’s thoughts. “Send Sterling to me after class, okay? I’d like to talk to him.”
  414. >“Ooooooohhhhhhhhh!”
  415. >Twilight is immediately forgotten in the wake of the juicy new gossip. Near the back of the class, a colt with a white coat and brilliant silvery mane sinks in on himself.
  416. >“It’s nothing bad,” Anon dismisses with a wave of his hand. “In fact, it’s the opposite. I think I’ve got good news for mister Sterling. Anyways, sorry for interrupting. We’ll be off.”
  417. >A hand on Twilight’s wither leads her out of the doorway with the door being pulled closed behind them.
  418. >“It looked so normal.” the lavender mare blurts suddenly. When Anon just raises an eyebrow, she continues. “It looked just like a normal classroom. It worked like a normal classroom. But all of them had collars… They’re slaves... What…” She shakes her head, fighting a sudden bout of dizziness. “What is going on..?”
  419. >Anon blows out a breath. “It is how it is, Twilight. I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day. Freyja and your friends are waiting by my personal wing of the house. Let’s go.
  420. >Twilight, too mentally exhausted from the last day and a half, allows herself to be lead away.
  421. >The walk to the personal wing is nary a minute, but to the tired Twilight, it felt like a year. She still noticed how she was lead in through the right side of a rather grand foyer and to the left, down the center of the massive house. Down the hallway is a door emblazoned with the familiar stylized A, an impatient Freyja, and the concerned elements.
  422. >Anon smiles at the group. “Well everyone. Home sweet home.”
  423. >The mares sans Freyja flinch, making Anon’s upturned lips falter. “Ah, right. Well we’ll try to make feel like home at least. Freefall, Stratosphere, and Gadget should be along shortly,” he says before looking at Freyja. “You know, I think this will be the first time we’re actually used the massive dining room table fully. Why did we get that thing?”
  424. >“Because the decorators wanted an excuse to use your money,” she replies simply.
  425. >The man chuckles. “Yeah, I guess. Let’s head on in so we can get dinner started. You mind texting Lisa and telling her that we’re closing shop a little early today?”
  426. >The unicorn raises a single delicate eyebrow. “And your paperwork for today?”
  427. >“Fuck it. I’ll get up early and do it tomorrow.”
  428. >She rolls her eyes and flicks her tail. “Very well. It’s done.”
  429. >The unspoken question rolls between the Six as they share the silent communication only best friends have. What is ‘texting’ and what exactly did the unicorn mare do? Her horn didn’t light up so it couldn’t be magic.
  430. >Anon fishes a set of keys from his pocket and opens the door for them, ushering them inside first.
  431. >With reluctant steps, they move forward.
  432. >“Ahhhh! Much better!”
  433. >Rarity steps out of the steamy bathroom with smile, feeling equal parts satisfied and serene. The hot shower did wonders for her mood even if her lack of magic forced her to use a more mundane mane-style. She looks around the spacious bedroom where her friends are lounged around, just taking in the last few hours of quiet.
  434. >When Anon said it was fit for ten ponies, he wasn’t joking. The room was easily the size of a Princess suite, though less luxurious. A single huge, low-set bed dominates the corner, large enough to fit all Six comfortably. Both Fluttershy and Twilight lay across it with Fluttershy already drifting off into an exhaustion induced sleep.
  435. >The rest of the bedroom is sparse, with just a pony-sized desk pushed against the far wall, a ceiling fan and light, and a “Television” on a stand that Rainbow and Pinkie try to puzzle out. A bemused Applejack sits just behind them and watches.
  436. >“C’mon, it was working a just a minute ago!” Rainbow growls as she mashes buttons on a complex looking remote controller held in her wing. She has it aimed at the television, but each button pressed yields nothing but more frustration. Before she can get angry enough to smash the little device, a pink hoof swipes it.
  437. >“Lemme try it,” Pinkie says, looking over the remote with a critical eye and exaggerated rub of her chin. She hold the deep expression for only a few seconds before smiling and shrugging. “Okay, I dunno, but when in doubt, press ALL the buttons!”
  438. >Pinkie’s hoof moves like lighting and presses each little rubber button in sequence until she hits a large on near the top, then the television suddenly flares to life. The sudden light and noise startle her, Rainbow, and Applejack, who all jump back.
  439. >“-And temperatures are expected to remain at a pleasant sixty-five to seventy degrees for the remainder of the week during daytime hours with lows in the fifties at night,” a well dressed and smiling man on the screen says, dropping his arm from where he was pointing at an unfamiliar map behind him. “Back to you, Katrina.”
  440. >The screen transitions over to another smiling human, a woman this time. “Thanks, Ted. In local news, the beloved Big Iron Grill downtown has finally recovered from last year’s fire and will re-open on-”
  441. >Twilight perks up, pulled from her thoughts as the television demands her attention. “Is this the news? Like on a radio?”
  442. >“Seems like it, darling,” Rarity says as she settles next to Twilight on the bed. “Though it’s certainly flashier. Like somepony miniaturized a movie theatre.”
  443. >“-ck on the menu,” the woman on the screen finishes, glancing down at the paper on her desk for a split second. “In other news, several lost and frightened ponies were found in Ford park-”
  444. >All Six sans the asleep Fluttershy instantly zero in on the TV.
  445. >“-yesterday. The six ponies, all mares, were hysterical and subdued by animal control before being transported to the local pony shelter. The shelter has not released names or images of the mares in question, but due to their lack of electronic ID, request that any owner missing six mares step forward to claim them as early as possible.-”
  446. >Applejack snorts. “Good luck with that.”
  447. >“-At the moment, the mares are in protective custody. For developing news, local police are still puzzling out the motive for the grizzly murder of 9 year old Tonya Coon at the hands of repeat felon Arnold Connor, who was out in parole for-!”
  448. >A pale-faced Pinkie smacks the power button on the remote and silences the TV, leaving the room silent. She gulps and looks at her equally spooked friends.
  449. >‘That lady looked waaaaay too comfortable reporting that, even if it was an act,’ Pinkie thinks, feeling cold sweat dot her. ‘I hope that was just some sorta outlier. Hymanes don’t actually do that to others, do they?’
  450. >“Uhh…” Rainbow tries to break the silence with limited success. “Too much info. I’m glad Flutters wasn’t awake for that.”
  451. >A slamming door from outside their room breaks the tension and rouses a groggily Fluttershy.
  452. >“Anon! I’m home!” a youthful, female voice calls.
  453. >“Welcome back, Strats!” Anon calls back deeper in the house. “We’ve got some guests and dinner is about done. Can you get them?”
  454. >“Kay! Guest room?”
  455. >“Yep!”
  456. >Light hoof falls tip-tap just down the hall to the bedroom get closer and stop just behind the door, which gets two light knocks before swinging open.
  457. >A smiling pegasus mare who looks like she just came into adulthood greets the sight of the Six. She’s petite similar to Rainbow, with a snowy white coat and sky blue mane and tail, both cut short. Her eyes are a darker cerulean, matching the collar around her neck. But none of that is watch catches the attention of the elements.
  458. >What looks like flat metal studs run down her neck in dual rows of five, starting on either side of her jaw and running down her throat to her chest. Two more rows of five run down the back of her neck onto her back, and two more are embedded in the base of her muzzle just diagonally from her eyes.
  459. >Her smile turns into a grin. “You’re all staring.”
  460. >Rarity is the first to recover. She blinks and wets her lips before replying. “We’re dreadfully sorry about that, dear. Your, well... interesting style caught us off guard.”
  461. >“I get that a lot,” the mare says, her grin growing. She winces when her joval expression tugs at the skin around her muzzle studs. “Ech. I could do without that, though,” she grumbles, rubbing the bridge of her snout with a small hoof. “Anyway, the names Stratosphere. It sounds like Freyja is about done with dinner and you're with us tonight, so let’s get going before she starts bitching about it getting cold.”
  462. >She starts back down the hallway without waiting for an answer, forcing the Six to stand and hurry to follow.
  463. >Stratosphere leads them down the hallway, passing a handful of other doors and through a modern looking living room. “So you were the six they found in the park yesterday, right?” She ask over her shoulder.
  464. >“That’s us.” Pinkie replies with a smile. “Dunno how we got here, but that’s us.”
  465. >Stratosphere hums under her breath. “Mkay, whatever you say.”
  466. >“Do you not believe us?” Twilight asks with a frown.
  467. >The white pegasus folds her ears and looks back at them. “No no, I believe you…” she says, turning forward again a mumbling something.
  468. >Twilight sighs a few moments later. ‘The tone was a little uncalled for on a pony younger than us who probably doesn't know the details…’ Thinking it over, she starts the conversation again. “I’m sorry about snapping at you, Stratosphere. The last day and some change has been rough and we’re all a little frayed at the nerves.”
  469. >Their guide perks back up and grins. “Nah, I understand, Twilight, right? And call me Strats if you want, all my friends do.”
  470. >Warmth blooms in Twilight’s chest.
  471. >Friends.
  472. >The one thing that’s never failed her before is the presence of a good friend. Through thick and thin friends stick together no matter what. In this odd world, the offer of a new friend is a glittering ray of light in the inky dark.
  473. >The alicorn lets out a smile, the first genuine smile she’s had since she and her best friends were dropped into this backwards world. “Friends, huh? I think I can speak for all of us all when I say I’d enjoy that.”
  474. >Stratosphere looks back at the group, blinking at the true and friendly expressions sent her way. She turns forward again, her cheeks a bit pink. “Oh wow. I didn’t realize it meant that much to you all,” she says, stopping for a second to giggle and do a full body wiggle on the tips of her hooves. “I’m glad I made your day a little better!”
  475. >The last (and rather short) leg of the trip is spent in a comfortable silence to the kitchen.
  476. >Stratosphere speeds up to a swift trot once they pass the open doorway to a large, open, human sized kitchen. “Anon!”
  477. >…Only to skid to a stop when the kitchen only has Freyja on a footstool carefully watching some sizzling pans on the stove and no human in sight.
  478. >“He’s getting a maid,” Freyja starts, stirring one of the pans without looking up. “Gadget is busy on some project and Freefall wants to spend time with his son. Anon granted both requests to be absent but wants to send food to them.” She taps the wooden spoon held her telekinesis in the pan, freeing it of any scraps and sets it down. A silvery aura then turns down two dials on the stove, letting the flames fizzle out. “Set the table, would you?”
  479. >“Nah,” the pegasus replies with a sniff and a grin. “Have one of the new gals do it. Top cabinet in the corner is the dinnerware. Chip-chop!”
  480. >“Um, hello?” Rainbow cuts in, deadpan. She raises her wings and her collar blinks green.
  481. >“I don’t think we’re in much-a position to help, sug,” Applejack says with a little smirk. “If you’d kindly?”
  482. >“Oh…” Stratosphere hoofs her own face. “Fiiiiiiine…”
  483. >“Who called me?”
  484. >Stratosphere’s eyes light up. “Anon!” she cries, racing across the room and past a certain annoyed unicorn.
  485. >The man grins and opens his arms, letting the white-furred missile crash into him so hard that he has to twirl around as to not be knocked over. He chuckles into facefull of blue mane and hold the mare in a hug, letting her back legs dangle. “Missed you, baby girl. You weren’t joking when you said you’d be back a full day early.”
  486. >Freyja seems wholly unbothered by the display, just rolling her eyes and pulling the dishes from the top corner cabinet with telekinesis.
  487. >The Six, however…
  488. >‘She’s got a collar like the rest of ‘em,’ Applejack thinks with a frown tugging at her face. ‘But she’s lovin on him something fierce. The youngin’s I can get not caring, since they probably don't understand. This is too genuine to be faked, though…’
  489. >A sudden thought strikes the apple farmer like a hoof to the gut. ‘What if she ain’t faking it? What if the others ain’t faking it..?!’
  490. >She looks to her friends. Fluttershy and Pinkie are faintly smiling and grinning respectively at the display, Rainbow and Rarity seem indifferent, but Twilight’s expression is one of pondering that slowly morphs into disbelief.
  491. >She knows.
  492. >“Ugh,” Stratosphere grunts into Anon’s chest. “Escort duty sucks and I hate it,” she says, raising her head to nuzzle her cheek into the man’s. “Nothing even happened! You figure that people who buy a pony will put out some extra cash for rush shipping and not UPS ground of all things,” she says, muttering a few rude works under her breath. “I’m glad I’m home.”
  493. >“And we’re glad you’re home, Strats,” Anon says, giving the mare one last rub across the back before letting her slide down to the floor.
  494. >Stratosphere tries to stubbornly hold the embrace, but eventually gives up and falls to her hooves with a grumble.
  495. >Without an armful of mare occupying him, Anon turns his attention to the Six. “Hope you all like stir-fry. Simple stuff, but Freyja somehow makes it taste like gourmet each time,” he praises, sending a lopsided smile to the gold-coated unicorn.
  496. >As if on queue, the smell of the freshly cooked veggies wafts it’s way to the elements and elicits more than one stomach growl.
  497. >“Oh my…” Rarity covers her belly and blushes red. “I suppose it has been some time since we’ve last had a substantial meal. And it does smell excellent…”
  498. >Freyja’s lips twitch upward just the smallest amount. “Having many a day of practice is all that is needed for skill. If not for me, my dear master would have already starved himself, the silly man.”
  499. >Said man snorts. “Probably. I was never much of a cook unless cup noodles counts as cooking.”
  500. >“Pfft!” Rainbow stifles a laugh. “What kind of adult can’t cook?”
  501. >Her friends throw her alarmed glares, but Anon just chuckles. “This one, I guess.”
  502. >“Like you’re one to talk, Rainbow,” Twilight quickly deflects, raising her eyebrow as she speaks. “Didn’t you almost burn down your CLOUD house making soup?”
  503. >Anon, Freyja, and Stratosphere share confused looks at ‘cloud house’.
  504. >Rainbow flushes. “I did not!”
  505. >“You did though!”
  506. >“I remember that!” Pinkie says with a giggle. “The whole weather team showed up with rainclouds cuz they thought the town was next!”
  507. >“Perhaps we can finish bickering at the dinner table?” Freyja cuts in, levitating three plates to a mare in a maid dress who shuffles off as quick as she came. “I did not cook all of this just for it to get cold,” she says, the threat clear in her stern blue eyes.
  508. >Stratosphere snorts and readjusts her wings. “Told you she’d bitch.”
  509. >Anon didn’t defend her when a wooden spoon smacked her right on the muzzle.

UNTITLED

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