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A Wish Enough for Two (/nmp/)

By TakeItEasy
Created: 2022-11-15 23:47:51
Updated: 2024-06-12 02:08:28
Expiry: Never

  1. >"You're Anonymous, right? The new guy?"
  2. >Seems like taking the back alleys on your way home is no safer in Equestria than it was back on Earth.
  3. >If that wasn't already obvious by how much this city resembles the one you got harvested from.
  4. >You knew that one day your preferred shortcut through an alleyway next to the bakery will betray you but never expected it to be this soon.
  5. >Manehattan's dim street lights barely shine here and what light manages to get into this narrow passage between two buildings is now playing on the brims of the stranger's fedora.
  6. >The wideness of his long coat paints a well fed figure before you, and the wide bulky jeans that cover his modest black shoes that look like they were once a part of his school uniform, well...
  7. >Let's just say fashion isn't usually the strongest point of appeal of the kind of people Equestria smuggles here.
  8. >You are no exception, naturally. But so are the two extras this curious fellow has here along with him, keeping their distance at the far end of the darkened corridor that smells of danger and freshly baked bread. One of them looks a bit familiar, which makes it even weirder.
  9. >Maybe it's just the lighting of this place that makes this contrast of ominous ambience with corny attires feel so ridiculous.
  10. "Yeah," you answer, not really sure what to do. "What's going on?"
  11. >"Don't worry, we're just here to talk," the wide guy assures you. "Name's Josh."
  12. >You almost reply with your own name but have enough sense to stop before you open your mouth and embarrass yourself. That's definitely progress from your first days in Equestria.
  13. >"This here's Kyle," Josh nods to his left and you realize you do know this guy.
  14. >He's miss Rainbowberry's match, you see him in her jam shop from time to time. In fact, you were visiting that shop not just five minutes ago and the baked goods coupled with a jar of fresh berry jam you got there on your way home are still warm in your bag.
  15. >That place is like next door, which explains why the man is in his indoors clothes right now, nothing but a sweater and loose pants that still aren't long enough to reach his shoes.
  16. >Was he the one who prepared this ambush?
  17. >"And that's Sergey," the other goon is introduced, this time someone you haven't seen before.
  18. >From his looks you guess he's the polar opposite of Josh, being a twig in a weed patterned shirt and light shorts that are sure to be too cold right now.
  19. >So this lame names gang is here to do what exactly?..
  20. >As if reading your mind, Josh elaborates:
  21. >"I just want to ask a few questions. You do know about..."the show", right?"
  22. "Huh?"
  23. >This isn't something you were prepared to talk about in this world. Your opponent patiently awaits your answer.
  24. "Yeah, I mean, sure, but we're not supposed to..."
  25. >That's right, ponies can't be made aware of "the show", it's one of the most basic rules of the Initiative.
  26. >"Don't worry, there are no ponies here listening. In fact, we made sure nopony will overhear our conversation."
  27. >Somehow you don't feel so sure about this because the only proof of that is the two extras shuffling on their designated places a bit, as if to show they're ready to protect their leader if someone was to crash this gathering in the shadows.
  28. "Alright, w-what do you wanna know?"
  29. >"I just want to confirm that our memories are still intact," Josh points at his hat and the other two men nod in agreement.
  30. "Confirm?"
  31. >"You may have yet to notice it, but this world isn't exactly how we've imagined it. How we...remember it."
  32. >The finger he raises points up to the skies above and you feel a bit anxious.
  33. >Partially because there is one obvious discrepancy you yourself have noticed already. But this man speaks in a tone that doesn't suggest he's joking.
  34. >It might be that this anxious feeling is something you two share, and if he knows why...
  36. "Ugh, where is he?!"
  37. >You stomp your hooves against the balcony's railing and it responds with a timid clank reminding you of its decorative, fragile nature.
  38. >Calm down, Moonluck. Anonymous is just half an hour late. He might've met some friends on his way back or one of the shopkeepers is borrowing his ear.
  39. >Surely, positively he didn't ditch you and he's definitely not running away from you. And clearly not with some other mare.
  40. >Fine, you'll admit that things are not going as great as you wanted them to but you were working on it, honest.
  41. >Trusting others doesn't come easily to either of you so you figured this is why the Initiative has matched you. Working both your insecurities out together! Y-yeah!
  42. >Lukewarm autumn evening wind strikes at your pale-mint unkempt mane, bearing a reminder of the season change with it, and your horn lights up with a quick silver spark to throw the stray strands aside so you don't miss Anon's return just because your stupid long bangs got in the way.
  43. >If he's coming back at all.
  44. >Your pleading gaze finds the Moon and you remember how mom used to say it's supposed to help you and keep you safe because of your name.
  45. >Never a believer in such superstitions, you now hope it's real. Five more minutes and you're gonna go out there and start searching.
  46. >Should've done that right away. Maybe if he's really running away it'd make all the difference.
  47. >You'd stop him at the train stop and make a loud scene where you speak your mind plainly and confess to him and he'd yell at you too but he'd stay here in the end because he loves you too and been hiding it just like you...
  48. >This seems preferable to this agonizing wait.
  49. >Which is about to end, to your immense relief - down there on the mostly empty street now walks a familiar man, comfy clothes and a bag of whatever you asked him to buy today giving you all the hints you need.
  50. >You almost jump in excitement, but not before giving the Moon its due and thanking it under your breath.
  51. >It sounds stupid now but its help was your best hope just a minute ago.
  52. >The Mare on the Moon, eternally engraved on the benevolent disk, accepts your gratitude - at least that's what you'd like to believe.
  53. "Yes, finally, finally," you stroll around your room with a mere minute left until your man knocks on the door.
  54. >You hear his steps and follow the sound as it ascends all the way to the third floor, right to your apartment.
  55. >Thankfully you've managed to calm yourself down a little bit so he won't see your completely chaotic panicking self stomping your hooves around the place in anticipation.
  56. >You'd make him worry if that's the first thing he sees coming back home. So you do your best casual impression, as if his delayed return is of no concern to you.
  57. >Your magic opens the door exactly ten seconds after he knocks. A respectable pause of a mare whose heart certainly isn't beating extraordinary fast.
  58. "Oh, Anon, it's you!" you exclaim with modest excitement in your voice.
  59. >With the elegance of a real town's pony you are situated on a sofa in the living room, barely concealed from his glance but you get up just for him. No panic here. Just casual things you do every evening after Anon returns from work. Just being ready to take his puffy light-blue coat when he takes it off.
  60. >"Hey, Moonluck."
  61. >You repeat his words in your head a few times trying to guess if he's tired or annoyed, or...
  62. >"Sorry I'm late, just had a little chat on the way back."
  63. "I see," you keep up the attitude. "A friendly chat I hope?"
  64. >"I guess, some guys stopped me on the street and we had a... Moonluck?"
  65. >Your heart caves in under pressure and all your worries suddenly get displayed on your face.
  66. >When somepony stops somepony on the streets it usually doesn't mean anything good.
  67. >Did he get into a fight? Was it because of you? Is he okay?
  68. >"It's fine," the man chuckles seeing your reaction. "It really was just a chat, nothing bad happened."
  69. >You're standing before him all shocked and you completely forgot about taking his bag and coat as you usually do, so when he walks past you to the kitchen you can only watch him go.
  70. >You should've hugged him, that was your chance!
  71. >"Were you worried about me?" you hear his voice, laced with just a tiny bit of sarcasm.
  72. "Y-yes? You were late, what's wrong with worrying about that?"
  73. >You're at least thankful that he doesn't see your face right now. Fighting back sudden stress tears only takes a moment but it's a moment you bet he'd tease you about forever if he were to bear witness to it.
  74. >Your relationship is so frustratingly complicated you sometimes wonder if it was a mistake for you to take the Crystal Empire's offer at all.
  75. >Humans are so hard to read.
  76. >It's no wonder the two weeks you've spent together thus far have been a rollercoaster of emotions for you.
  77. >If only the Initiative offered any sort of guidance beyond basic advice.
  78. >"Sorry, Moonluck. I swear it's nothing."
  79. >He shows his face and smiles at you; it makes you realize you're still standing at the front door for no reason.
  80. >There's his classic switch from treating you like some kind of pet to being gentle and knowing how to reassure you.
  81. >You don't get it at all!
  82. >Compared to your own emotions it's so confusing. But when you try to show him how you feel it always comes out wrong or doesn't come out at all and it's always his fault.
  83. >Sure, you're just making excuses for your own awkwardness but it doesn't make it any less true, he sometimes feels like he's just playing with you, with your heartstrings.
  84. >That's why you were worried that he might get tired of this game, but that isn't making it any easier for you to be direct with him.
  85. >You finally shake away the distracting thoughts and trot to the small kitchen of this one-pony apartment that never expected anypony but you living in it.
  86. "Dinner is ready, by the way!"
  87. >"Yeah, give me a minute."
  88. >Anonymous walks past you again, having to maneuver around you at the door, no doubt to get into his home clothes, but after he's done it's finally time to eat the half-cold meal.
  89. >Today it's pasta with small glazed carrots to go with it, half-an-hour late serving style.
  90. >While Anon was doing his human things you empty the bag he brought home. The pastries he got, all according to your list, will make for a great desert.
  91. >Still, the table is silent aside from your match noting how the food is great as always.
  92. >You're not that skillful when it comes to cooking but his compliments always warm your heart, you prefer to not doubt them.
  93. >Anonymous looks like he's fine but thin lines of doubt shade his face when he's not looking at you.
  94. >Instead of any physical damage maybe you should be worrying about his emotions?
  95. "Are you sure everything's good, Anon?"
  96. >You sport your best calming smile, at least you think this is what you're doing, and the man nods, this time trying to match your calm demeanor.
  97. >"Absolutely. I was scared a bit too but it was just a bit surprising to have someone want to talk to me like that, I barely know anybody in this city. Though I can't imagine people who tend to harm others getting into Equestria in the first place."
  98. >He smiles at you the way he always does when he seeks your forgiveness.
  99. "I suppose that's true."
  100. >You're letting him go too easily but there's nothing else to be done if he's so adamant about hiding the subject of the conversation.
  101. >"Yeah, thank Celestia, otherwise it'd get ugly real soon in cities like this, right?"
  102. >Silence lingers in the air for a bit but this one you can't let slide.
  103. "Who's Celestia?"
  104. >Anon's smile is mareproof. You can't guess what is hidden behind it.
  105. >Sounds like a mare's name. Is this somepony you should be worrying about?
  106. >No, he wouldn't. Not like that in the open. Right?..
  107. >"It's just a saying, don't worry about it."
  108. >Even after dinner you can't shake the feeling that something was done to your Anon. He's thinking about something real hard even though he tries to pretend he's as airheaded as usual.
  109. >The rest of the evening goes by fast.
  110. >Preparing for tomorrow you notice your man staring at the Moon. At least this is something you have in common.
  111. >This incident might be a wake up call you can't afford to ignore. You can't spend all your time with him, sadly, as you have your own job at the local library and he is training to work at Manehattan's human embassy.
  112. >Technically he'd be a clerk there but they're understaffed, so he's doing basically everything that's needed to be done, stamping documents, sending and delivering mail, processing requests and naturally ends up coming home late. Which is how this whole incident happened.
  113. >You need to treasure the moments you have just for yourselves.
  114. >But here lies the problem. You can't just tell him what you really think.
  115. >Every time you try to open up nothing good comes out of it. You just end up looking silly because you hesitate too much and then the moment is lost or Anon turns it into a joke.
  116. >Such a joker he is. You wouldn't mind him hugging you more as a joke, just a little prank.
  117. >You even share a bed for pony's sake. Then why is it so hard to just lean in and...
  118. >Maybe you think it's too fast. Or that it isn't love at all. Who'd fall in love with somepony after just barely two weeks of knowing them?
  119. >That's just not possible. And if it's something else, it surely will hurt Anon once he learns the truth.
  120. >Doubts like these have been frequent visitors of your nightly abode on the same bed as your match.
  121. >You want to say so much to him. You need to do it now after the shock you've been through.
  122. "Anon..."
  123. >With dread in your heart you turn to him, holding the puffy pink-colored blanket with your magic so it doesn't get between you two in case some hugging will end up occurring.
  124. >"Wha?" you hear a faint voice of a sleepy man.
  125. >Of course you can't find any words right now. Ask him about his encounter again? That's annoying, he already told you everything he's willing to share.
  126. >You're being a needy marefriend, in a bad way.
  127. >"Moonluck?"
  128. >Anon turns to face you and for a moment you get lost in his eyes.
  129. >This is where you belong, in this...this...
  130. >"You're still worrying, aren't you?"
  131. "Yeah," you concede immediately.
  132. >His hand sneaks up on you beneath the blanket and you feel its warmth on your cheek. One blissful moment with your eyes closed is enough to make you feel better.
  133. >"I'll try to finish up my work faster today, alright? You know, actually, I'll come visit the library during lunch. How does that sound?"
  134. >Your poor heart flutters at the suggestion.
  135. "Yeah, that'd be... I mean, you don't have to if..."
  136. >Here comes the loss of words. What you want to say is that he might be feeling obligated to do this but it shouldn't be his worry.
  137. >"It's no problem, I was meaning to grab something to read on the job anyway."
  138. "Great!"
  139. >You almost sound too loud and seeing your muzzle scrunch up in embarrassment Anon gives you a soothing smile.
  140. >"Don't you worry about a thing, okay? Good night."
  141. "Good night, Anon."
  142. >You don't want to turn away and seeing how your mate remains close to you, albeit with his hand off your cheek now, you decide to stay like that as well.
  143. >Sleep takes you soon, but not before you sneak a few quick peeks at Anon's sleeping expression, calm and not worried at all.
  145. >Morning brings nothing but dim colors and the cold of the autumn drizzle.
  146. >Nothing like a little bit of walking on the wet sidewalk to the library where you'll spend this day safe from the elements outside.
  147. >Anonymous shares your morning melancholy as he gets ready for his job as well. He promised to visit today so that's gonna be the highlight of your usual mild monotony.
  148. >Even though your destinations are far apart, you can afford to walk together for some time, something you've come to enjoy greatly.
  149. >First few days he spent here after being finally relocated from the Crystal Empire were sunny and welcoming. The big city was friendly to him and envious of you, a mare who by all rights shouldn't have expected anything special like this to happen to her.
  150. >And yet it happened. Despite you supporting the aforementioned statement.
  151. >The only thing about you that stands out is your name, Moonluck Wish. In contrast, your cutiemark is a boring circle with a line crossing it from top to bottom.
  152. >You'd like to think that you got it because you're good at math. Truth be told, the only thing you've done in school is daydream.
  153. >Secretly you think this zero symbolizes what you amount to, and the line crossing it out - that even that is too generous to have to your name.
  154. >At least that was before you got into this human mate program and moved to Manehattan.
  155. >Things have changed so much since then. Expecting to comfortably sit on your butt all your life taking things slow and then suddenly having another living being to take care of, that was a lot.
  156. >You never even had a pet because you were afraid of responsibility. How were you supposed to support a human?
  157. >One room with only basic necessities for one pony soon became a nest for two filled with all kind of things, but not as much as your heart filled up with worries.
  158. >You've never known affection before, not beyond silly school crushes. Little by little all your daydreams became centered around Anonymous.
  159. >Imagining so many situations with you and him, from casual, to adventurous, to raunchy and outright indecent, it's no wonder you feel like you've fallen for the man already. He's all you ever think about as soon as you are left to your own devices.
  160. >But right now the thoughts are scattered and barely of any substance.
  161. >It's the weather, definitely. Your coat, usually glossy and shining with very light creamy cyan tones on the sun, now looks simply gray. Such an inconsistent presentation of your color is an allegory for your whole life.
  162. >"Well, here we are," Anon brings you back to reality and you notice you're already at the crossing you usually part ways.
  163. "I'll see you at lunch then?" you remind him of his promise.
  164. >"Yep, have a nice day."
  165. >He takes a fast pace immediately so you are left with yelling at his back:
  166. "You too!"
  167. >He's in a hurry today. Maybe he wants to start early to finish earlier. You expect him to remember last night's conversation.
  168. >Last night... Things didn't go as well as you wanted. Another opportunity missed.
  169. >Your own workplace is silent. Checking in, you find no customers waiting for you. Your head is swarming with doubts anyway, so this is your opportunity to go over the ways you could've done things right.
  170. >So many ways and you have followed none of them. You can be such a brave mare in your own fantasies, but instead you always choose the path of least resistance, which is usually the one of silence.
  171. >Today is awfully dark, the weather isn't clearing at all. The busywork you always do responsibly keeps you on your hooves at the very least, you feel like you could just fall asleep if you were to sit down.
  172. >But the work you're doing doesn't require too much brain power either, it's hard to focus on it. Somehow you feel like it's getting darker by the minute, despite the outside being just dim with autumn apathy.
  173. >To make things worse, it feels like your thoughts are out of control. You can't grasp any of them, they slip right through your hooves.
  174. >You are so out of it even your regular bookshelf arrangements can't keep you focused. It's like each corner is so dark you can almost feel shadows moving there.
  175. >Shadows, yeah, that's gonna make a great story for Anon. He has his secret and you have this, perfect. He'll be so impressed with you making this stuff up.
  176. >That realization somehow leads to an unexpected result - one that makes you stop on your path to the next shelf.
  177. >A clear thought, so clear you're not even sure it's your own, passes through your head.
  178. >'He doesn't need to be impressed, having her at his side already feels like some kind of magic.'
  179. "Whoa..."
  180. >You're so astonished by your revelation you almost fall over your own hooves with books still in your magic hold.
  181. >So this is how it feels, to actually think and not be bound by your foggy dreams all the time.
  182. >How did you even come to that conclusion on your own?
  183. >The thought was so clear that it even banished the darkness around you together with those imaginary shadows.
  184. >You are such a silly pony. A stupid and a silly pony.
  185. > can you be so sure in that statement? As if you actually know anything about him beyond some surface level stuff.
  186. >Never bothered getting too personal. Some mate you are.
  187. >'But she knows him well enough to realize he's bothered by something, hiding something.'
  188. >You turn around quickly at the feeling of another thought crossing your mind like that. Two in a row? By golly, Moonluck, you are giving your brain a workout this morning.
  189. >But now you notice that something is definitely strange about these thoughts being so...clear.
  190. >The shadows you thought imagined are still in the corner, dissipating quickly as your eyes find them.
  191. >They didn't look like a pony was producing them. You even decided to check, but found not a single hint of intruders.
  192. "What in the world is going on here?"
  193. >Your questions remain unanswered but you swear you'll be more aware of your surroundings from now on.
  194. >But nothing of this sort happens again. You just do your job and sit down until it’s lunch time. Some ponies return some books, school lunch break brings a few foals here, just the usual.
  195. >Anonymous comes in right on time with his own food - that you've packed this morning, but still. Your own employee corner of the library serves as the perfect place for your modest feast.
  196. >You've put fresh jam to good use so today you're both having some strawberry-peanut butter sandwiches, tea provided by your local reserves.
  197. >There's not much to talk about so you just exchange some basic work-related remarks.
  198. >Things only get wild when you feel the uneasy presence of what you can only assume is what you felt earlier in the morning.
  199. >You see nothing peculiar but you feel like you're being watched.
  200. >"You mind if I stay for a bit? Just wanna check a few books."
  201. "Sure," you try to sound as unbothered as possible.
  202. >The nagging feeling isn't going away. You need to drown it out so you decide to keep the conversation going.
  203. "Is it related to yesterday?"
  204. >"No, why?"
  205. >Anon doesn't sound too sure but you're not certain you're focused enough to pick up on his behavior.
  206. "Nothing, just wondering why you're suddenly interested in reading something from here, I mean we've got books at home too."
  207. >Keep yourself going, you can't let it get into your head, not now that you're with Anon.
  208. >"No reason, it's just things are quiet in the embassy and it's better than sleeping on the job."
  209. "It sure is," you chuckle nervously. "Just remember to check the books with me when you take them."
  210. >"Huh?"
  211. >He sounds like he wasn't counting on that at all.
  212. "It's a library, silly, that's how things work."
  213. >"Sure, sure."
  214. >As soon as you two fall silent you hear it. It doesn't even come from anywhere anymore, it's as if someone is whispering in your ear, but from the inside.
  215. >'He looks confused and she should offer to pick him up after work.'
  216. "Hey, if you finish work early today, wanna come pick me up?"
  217. >Wait, that was supposed to be the other way around!
  218. >Anon chuckles and looks you in the eyes.
  219. >"Sure, I'll drop by."
  220. >That still worked?!
  221. >You have zero idea what just happened. It all transpired so fast, you just said whatever came to your mind.
  222. >But it made him smile and now you're smiling too.
  223. >Unbelievable.
  224. >Is this what being a real couple feels like? Why, if you keep this up you've got this whole man-mare thing in the bag.
  226. >While Anon is picking his books you try to rationalize whatever has managed to push you to being so forward with him.
  227. >Are you finally going mad? Getting a split personality from all the daydreaming?
  228. >It's not rare for you to imagine full conversations in your head, what if you have made that into some sort of separate entity that has a will of its own now?!
  229. >The possibilities terrify you. It's not enough that you're too shy with your man, the man you want to love, now you're turning into some dangerous psychopath!
  230. >You don't even notice the books Anon keeps with him, you just go through the motions of your job.
  231. >Even his smile and farewell don't bring forth your consciousness. What does is what you see outside when you decide to watch him go, for no reason in particular, just curiosity. Just a little bit of it.
  232. >Anon stops on his way before making a turn that'd conceal him fully. You can barely see it so you move closer to the front window, squeezing your cheek against it to see better.
  233. >Next to him there's another human. They are standing fairly close and you notice the stranger's formal attire, some kind of fancy hat, a long coat and tube-like pants.
  234. >He looks fairly intimidating, certainly reminds you of pony special agents you've seen in comic books here at the library. If the rain was still going this attire would've been in a sorry state.
  235. >He's also more, how do they call it, big boned than your human.
  236. >What surprises you more is that Anon looks around him, not noticing you, obviously, and shows the stranger the books he brought from here.
  237. >The man nods and starts explaining something to Anon, to which he agrees with nodding of his own.
  238. >Finally, after a very short conversation, they part ways and you manage to jump away from the window just fast enough for the mysterious man to miss you - and he was looking straight where you were a moment ago, probably suspecting something.
  239. >After he is gone, assured he wasn't being watched, you finally let out a sigh of relief.
  240. >Only then you notice that the receptionist, Sturdy Quill, was watching the whole charade silently.
  241. >She doesn't even give you a scolding glance of hers, the usual treatment you receive for being half asleep on your job.
  242. >Maybe she just assumes humans make ponies irrational.
  243. >Maybe she's right. At the very least you feel like missing exactly what books Anon took was pretty irrational on your part.
  244. >Lucky for you, the records exist for this very reason.
  245. "What are you up to," you mumble quietly as you reach for the newest one.
  246. >Three books. "Modern History: Canterlot, Manehattan, Crystal Empire"; "Magic and Sorcery in Personalities" (newest revision); "Equestrian Royalty from Horns to Wings: Tome III".
  247. >You feel like these are all connected but besides being basic things about history you can't figure out why Anon would be interested in these ones specifically.
  248. >Curious beyond self-control, you wander between shelves, trying to retrace Anon's steps and see if he looked up anything else here, something he didn't take with him.
  249. >No such luck for you. Maybe next time.
  250. >You are almost certain this isn't going to end with just this one visit.
  251. >Well, as far as his visits are concerned, you do hope that Anon will keep his word and come for you.
  252. >And at the end of your uneventful shift he does, smiling at you as always.
  253. "You are right on time," you commend him. "I was just about to wrap things up here."
  254. >He is prepared to be patient but you don't take long at all. No scary shadows to distract you and you've been fairly awake this whole time, so keeping things in check was no problem through your work day.
  255. >Leaving things until the last moment was usually your style but today was just too different.
  256. >Anonymous looks like he's in a fairly good mood. And now that you're with him there will be no incidents that will make him frown like yesterday.
  257. >Unless, of course, you're both ambushed...
  258. >No, no need to think about this right now. The thought before that was much more pleasant.
  259. >You are not surprised that Anon's incident bothers you so much. It is direct proof that your feelings for him are real. At least you assume that this is what it means.
  260. >You'll take any confirmation you can get, to be frank.
  261. >"What?"
  262. >You notice that you've been walking a bit behind Anon and watching him this whole time. Now that he has taken notice, he stopped to wait for you.
  263. "Oh, it's nothing, I'm just...thinking."
  264. >"Something on your mind?"
  265. >Maybe being forward with him will work again?
  266. "I'm glad that you won't be late home today, that's all."
  267. >Your human smirks, hiding his smile in his light scarf. No comment follows but you think he appreciates the notion.
  268. >After some silent walking he finally speaks up:
  269. >"You're still thinking about yesterday, aren't you?"
  270. "A bit. You did give me a scare."
  271. >You are surprised to find that your heart is suddenly accelerating, eagerly awaiting Anon's reply.
  272. >"No need, really," he keeps insisting, but then adds. "But...thanks for, you know. Caring."
  273. >You almost blush at that and realize that, in a way, being more direct is working for you so far.
  274. >What's going on, are you finally solving this love issue? Certainly it wasn't without a little help of some hallucinations but you are satisfied with a bit of progress.
  275. >You take a step towards him and he takes one towards you too. Is that the secret?
  276. >Then you'll take another one right now.
  277. "Well, I am your match, it's only natural that I care," you boast playfully.
  278. >Your human nods and you hear a muffled shy "thanks" coming from the safety of his scarf.
  279. >That's right, even though both of you still can't figure anything out, you are together. He was dropped on you so suddenly you couldn't have possibly handled it well.
  280. >It's like your whole life was crossed out in a moment, like that zero on your flank, and now you're living someone else's.
  281. >You can barely even remember what you life was before you met him. It'd surely be weird to you if this wasn't something you're used to; you always had a good excuse for your faulty memory in the form of your constant daydreaming.
  282. >Vaguely you recall contacting your sisters, Moonchild and Ardent Gem, for advice. Naturally the former, being your partner in clumsiness, had no match of her own yet, while the latter met up with you in person and had given you more advice than you could remember.
  283. >Only she and her human were all...normal. She had a home for him back in Canterlot, real home, not just a flimsy apartment. He became her apprentice right away so they've spent all the time together during work and as she said they had plans to confess to one another on the same day, only she managed to do it earlier.
  284. >Three weeks from when they met. They're now married and your sister is expecting. And here you are on the second week of being tortured by doubts starting from not even believing you deserve this at all.
  285. >Gem told you there was no doubt in her mind, as soon as she felt something towards her human, she knew it had to be love. And what about you?
  286. >How can you become certain?
  287. >You gaze at him, now walking right by your side and all deep in thought just like you. Just imagining confessing to him makes you dizzy.
  288. >No, you'll ruin everything that way. You're being given an opportunity to love but you can't tell what love even is.
  289. >Would being honest help here?
  290. >Just saying "Anon, you know, I kinda love you."
  291. >No, that's... That's not a lie but it's not the truth either. "I love you but I'm not sure it's-"
  292. >That's even worse!
  293. >Your muzzle crumples up as if squeezed by your own thoughts and you hope Anon isn't seeing this. He'll assume worrisome things again.
  295. >Things are quiet when you get back home. Making small talk is nice and you and your human manage to avoid any bothersome topics.
  296. >You even have an absolutely normal dinner together, both smiling a lot, talking about Manehattan's life and your jobs like a completely normal couple - at least you assume that's what normal couples do.
  297. >Both of you enjoy city life. While you like to just get lost in the background noise of busy ponies, carriages, shops and businesses, Anon is more of an event enjoyer. There's always something happening in this city.
  298. >Celebrities, concerts, theater, cinema, art exhibitions, fashion shows. Anything you'd ever need to have a special evening.
  299. >Being a Canterlot pony you're not exactly poor, but definitely not rich enough to sustain a lifestyle of following popular entertainment. Nevertheless, you've taken Anon to a gallery and a play already. Once a week seems fair to both of you.
  300. >So this is one of the things you can bond over. City happenings, news, gossip, things you've picked up on at work. That is normal.
  301. >Just like now Anon is telling you about his day and such a mundane topic makes you feel safe.
  302. >"And there's a new arrival checking in with his match soon," he informs you. "Not far away from the embassy, actually. Gonna check in on them later."
  303. "Check in on them?"
  304. >"Yeah, might as well. It's right next to Rarity For You."
  305. "The what for you?"
  306. >Anon takes a moment to look you in the eyes and then he smiles.
  307. >"The place Mr. Stripes owns?" he sees you shrug and continues. "Anyway, there are still some documents they need to sign so I thought it's better to just do it myself than to bother our new courier."
  308. "That's nice of you."
  309. >His smile looks almost apologetic, just like yesterday when he was telling you things are fine. But you can't even tell what's the matter right now and he doesn't give you time to imagine anything.
  310. >"That's what I should be doing anyway as someone who helps people settle in, right? Just wanna...confirm things."
  311. "Confirm?"
  312. >"See it for myself," he adds in a more serious tone.
  313. >What exactly does he want to see for himself and what exactly needs confirmation remains a secret to you.
  314. >You also don't remember Mr. Stripes lending anypony his property. Maybe Anon is misremembering something, last you heard about that pony his daughter was moving to Canterlot to manage some fashion boutique with that lanky unicorn.
  315. >In fact, you're surprised Anon even knows such an unremarkable stallion - or assumes that you know him too.
  316. >You admit that it is a bit weird.
  317. >And just like that your illusion of normality fades away. Gone with your hopes of closing the day the right way, the ordinary way.
  318. >Your evening comes to an end and Anonymous is the first to take a shower while you are left alone with your thoughts.
  319. >If there ever was a good opportunity to tell him something about your feelings, it was ruined by him acting all cryptic again.
  320. >See, it's all his fault again. Being more straightforward was on your mind the whole day and he's just...he's just the opposite.
  321. >Fine, then you won't try being honest either! Maybe you'll try being mysterious for no reason too and see how he likes that.
  322. >Oh Moonluck, what's for breakfast? - I wish I knew Anon... No, don't worry, everything this fine, I just...don't know...
  323. >Stupid human, that'll show him. He wouldn't be able to handle you being weird even for one day, he'd crumble and beg you to tell him what's bothering you.
  324. >You jump face-first on the bed, frustrated with yourself and Anon, and for a moment nothing in the world exists other than cold sheets and the sound of running water.
  325. >The vacuum in your head is very unnatural. And so it begins to fill soon.
  326. >Only the thoughts are not your own.
  327. >'How can she tell she's in love?'
  328. "Huh?" you look around the room swiftly. "You again?!"
  329. >Nobody is here. Not even the shadows.
  330. >'Maybe it's just a passing thought. Or force of habit, or childish infatuation. Maybe she wants to believe she's in love just to stop doubting.'
  331. >'Maybe he's nice to her and that's all it takes, can she really trust these kind of feelings to last?'
  332. >You are feeling dizzy, like someone is spinning the bed. Hooves find the floor but your legs are suddenly wobbly and weak.
  333. >Anon isn't here to help. You need to do something.
  334. >Even your own shadow is scaring you now.
  335. >'But whatever it is, she doesn't realize that it's exactly what he's thinking about too. Is she forced to love him, he thinks, is he being a burden? Is he preventing her from finding her own feelings, forcing her to accept him?'
  336. >You can't tell if you're touching something that shouldn't be made known to you. All you know is that it frightens you.
  337. >Every corner of your room is brightly lit, even the one with the assortment of human clothing. Nothing out of the ordinary on the wall where a single photo of you with your sisters is framed, contrasting mundane seashell-patterned wallpaper with its muted colors.
  338. >Lamp near the bed, night stand, old sofa, potted plants that haven't been dusty ever since you got matched, bookshelf holding more housekeep items than books - nothing.
  339. >Nothing under the bed, even though it was scary to check it. That leaves...
  340. >Wind nearly blinds you when you open the balcony. Curtains are getting sucked out of the room and your mane will need some serious styling after this.
  341. >The city lights are too dim even for this weather and everything is murky and cold.
  342. >To your horror, you notice that Manehattan is covered in fog. No, more like a shadow.
  343. >Once again, a gaze to the Moon is the only thing that can help you. The full disk is behind the clouds but as soon as your eyes find it, the silver light shines down, coloring your coat and playing in your mane.
  344. >And it reveals the culprit immediately. Tendrils of shadows that yet linger, right under your balcony.
  345. >You barely notice them but they are there, sinister slimy vines trying to sneak up on you from the sides, forming a cradle for your mind that you are about to lose, faced with such a terrifying sight straight out of a spooky story.
  346. >The voice fills your head as the shadows grow, whispers scratching on the brain from inside your skull.
  347. >'She wasn't ready for him, he doesn't feel it's fair to expect to be loved, and yet he is feeling it too, how close they are getting and it is driving him mad every day.'
  348. >'The longer they wait, the longer-'
  349. "EEEK!"
  350. >Finally you snap out of it and your body, as if on its own, jumps back as far as your cotton legs allow it to.
  351. >With a loud bang your magic smashes the balcony door shut.
  352. >Your breath is out of control and your head is filling up with your own thoughts, swiftly weaving a web of complete confusion.
  353. >How do they know? Why are they telling you? What do they want from you? What are you supposed to do?
  354. >By the grace of everything sacred in this world you are saved from your thumping heart's threats to deafen you by a familiar voice.
  355. >"Moonluck?"
  356. >Anonymous nearly runs into the room, still half-naked in his preparations to take a shower.
  357. >No time is wasted as he puts two and two together and nearly rips out the balcony door, ready for the fight of his life.
  358. >But nothing is there. The Moon is silent, consumed once again by the sea of clouds hiding its full form adorned with a sacred engraving from careless eyes daring to call for its aid.
  359. >The human checks corners just in case but still finds nothing unusual. The most worrying thing now is located inside the room and he tends to that next.
  360. >"Moonluck, are you okay? Are you hurt?"
  361. >You are awake yet again, brought back to this realm by the voice of your mate. You shake your head but that makes it hurt and tears start forming in your eyes without you noticing.
  362. >All of a sudden you are picked up. You are against Anon's naked chest, held tightly but gently.
  363. >"You poor thing, did something scare you? What happened?"
  364. >There's no answer you can form to explain this with your trembling lip. You just shake your head again, this time with him on its way so your muzzle touches him as you do so.
  365. >"It's okay now," he gets the hint.
  366. "Sorry," you finally push out of yourself.
  367. >The sound of your voice scares you a bit but Anon is having none of that.
  368. >Fingers run through your mane down from your horn, passing right next to your ear, sorting the chaos of your wind-swept disaster most hair stylists would have nightmares about if exposed to.
  369. >It must be the magic of the human touch. The panic subsides as he keeps assuring you things are fine now.
  370. >Most of all you think it's because his voice leaves no space for anything else inside your head.
  371. >Now you wonder why you even got so jumpy in the first place. It wasn't anything that scary, you just made Anon worry for nothing.
  372. >You close your eyes and discover, to your relief, that your tears have dried up before even leaving your eyes.
  373. >Even after you calm down Anon understands that you'd prefer to not stay alone at the moment, so taking shower is postponed until the morning.
  374. >You don't even feel disappointed enough when Anon finally gets his warm pajama's top over his bare torso that was so comforting to you.
  375. >Honestly, you just want to forget about this.
  376. >You are very aware that you'll have time to think about all of this tomorrow. Just not now.
  377. >Anonymous even suggests leaving a candle burning for the night but you refuse and confirm that everything is fine now.
  378. >You're even too lazy to ask yourself why he assumes that you are scared of the dark. He couldn't have seen those shadows, could he? He dropped asking you about what happened almost immediately.
  379. >Yes, you are not touching this right now. You are touching Anon's arm that goes right over your shoulder as the man joins you in bed, protecting your back that is turned to him as usual, with his chest pressed against it.
  380. >It's not unexpected, but...
  381. "You don't have to," you assure him.
  382. >"I know," he admits in return. "Just wanna be safe, alright?"
  383. >One has to wonder if it's for your safety or his. It feels like he's taking this more seriously than even you.
  384. >With how close he's keeping you if almost feels like he needs it more than you. To make sure he won't wake up alone in the morning.
  385. >And you get the hug you wanted, so you of all ponies can't complain.
  386. >You are too tired to think about the way Anon has shown you a side of him you weren't aware of, but not too tired to be aware of the pleasant sensation of warmth around you.
  387. >Maybe you can still count this as a win for yourself.
  389. >"You were right, Josh," the voice of your human sounds strange to you right now.
  390. >"You confirmed it, Anon?" the other human sounds excited.
  391. >"With the pony himself. He has never heard of Rarity."
  392. >Silence befalls the two men standing next to each other, back to back as if they are trying to hide that they're talking right now.
  393. >Even though it makes it even more obvious this way.
  394. >There's no reason to pretend they're ignoring one another when there's nopony else they could be talking to right now.
  395. >Of course, being so into their detective game they don't even notice your muzzle sticking out of the nearest corner. Indeed, it is you, Moonluck, who's doing the real detective work right now.
  396. >And this is exactly what you were expecting to find. It was so clear to you once you've visited the embassy after your shift was over, only to find out that Anon has already left it.
  397. >You were prepared for something like this. After all, he told you all about his plans yesterday.
  398. >Trailing him was no problem even if you were distracted by the discomfort the day's thoughts brought to you. But that was then. Now you're really cracking this case. Finding out the root of Anon's problem.
  399. >To your dismay, you don't understand a single thing they're talking about.
  400. >"Plaid Stripes is still around her canon age," Anonymous reports. "But it's like the episode never happened."
  401. >"I suspected as much. It's like they never existed."
  402. >"That's not the strangest part."
  403. >The intrigue you have no chance of comprehending is making you freeze in place, hooves barely keeping you on their tips just so you can hear better.
  404. >"Plaid Stripes moved to Canterlot to be an apprentice of Sassy Saddles."
  405. >The other human hesitates for a moment and you can practically feel how tense he is.
  406. >"Let me guess, who is the manager of-" he finally speaks up.
  407. >"Not manager, owner and chief designer of Canterlot Boutique."
  408. >Once again, Anon's information leaves silence after its reveal.
  409. >"Huh..."
  410. >"It's as if everything got scrambled and then re-written," Anon concludes.
  411. >"To make the world work without them at all? But why?"
  412. >"That's what I wanted to ask you."
  413. >In response, the other human simply grunts with dissatisfaction. It's clear they are both unhappy with whatever Anonymous has brought up.
  414. >"I should’ve rewatched the whole thing before coming… Keep digging for info on them. We need to know who else is missing, anyone you can remember, got it?"
  415. >"Sure thing. I'll think of something. Maybe borrow a few more books," Anon assures his partner in crime.
  416. >"Good, then let's meet up the day after tomorrow, same place, same time. Sergey will probably be done with the new timeline by then, take this for now. Kyle will continue watching the mare."
  417. >You nearly lost all concentration because you realize that "the mare" is probably you.
  418. >Ms. Rainbowberry's human? You remember seeing him in the store more frequently as of recent. Is he really "watching" you, and with your human's approval no less?!
  419. >Shocked by this realization you nearly tip over on your hooves, ready to smack your face against the unwelcoming autumn pavement.
  420. >Quick to pull your own tail with magic to regain balance, you make sure you're not seen by the humans who are now done talking.
  421. >It's all you wanted to know anyway, so you make your retreat down the street which corner you've been hugging this whole time.
  422. >You've gathered enough info to fill your head for the day. Even got the mysterious stranger's name.
  423. >You don't suppose you'll ever need it though - you plan to keep this little eavesdropping session a secret from Anon. Even though you sure wish to know what that sudden mention of you meant.
  424. >There's a lot of questions to ask but something tells you that your human won't give you a lot of answers and it will only make him more suspicious.
  425. >Now that you've gained some distance you can finally attempt to pick up Anon after work. It'll only require taking a long way around the block.
  426. >Your clever calculations of "waiting for just a minute" made it easy to find your man once again, walking down the same street as before. Only now that you approach him from behind you can't help but keep your distance.
  427. >Something feels wrong about just walking up to him and saying "Hi, how's your day been?" now that you've heard him supporting some sort of conspiracy he wants to hide from you.
  428. >So you tail him again, unwillingly, until the man stops in his tracks as if pinched by somepony.
  429. >His head turns back and your eyes find his.
  430. >Anon smiles. Behind that smile, at the nearest alley, you spot an already familiar shadowy silhouette disappearing quickly, as if to leave the premises in haste.
  431. >And so Anon's smile is met with your frown, against your better judgement.
  432. >"Hi, Moonluck!" your human greets you.
  433. "Anon?"
  434. >You sound like you never expected to meet him here even though he's been the target of your pursuit this whole time.
  435. >"Aw man, don't tell me you were coming to get me, I thought for sure I was safe to leave now that the work day is over..."
  436. >The guilt in his voice doesn't sound fake, which is concerning to you, because it'd make things really easy for you if you could easily tell if your human is lying.
  437. "Don't worry, it's my fault, I was late and I thought I'd catch you on my way home instead."
  438. >You try to match his genuine tone but you don't feel like Anon believes you. Maybe it's you who's the worse liar here.
  439. >"I don't usually take this road back home," Anon confesses, still playing the airhead. "Lucky that you've managed to find me all the way here."
  440. "Sure is!"
  441. >This subject has to be dropped right now lest Anon realizes some things don't add up. Your own work place isn't even anywhere near this path.
  442. "Hey, you wanna get some Rainbowberry's cupcakes for tonight?"
  443. >"What's the occasion?"
  444. >You're gonna break into a cold sweat here in a moment. Anon is such a monument of equanimity you're about to crumble as if you're being interrogated.
  445. >Anon would probably make an excellent spy or a special agent. Just gotta get him that ridiculous attire like the other human was sporting today and-
  446. >"Moonluck?"
  447. >Brought back to Equestria, you get back on track.
  448. "Nothing special, I just...wanted to thank you for yesterday."
  449. >Now this isn't far from the truth at all. You did want to do something special for your protector. And as anything more daring is out of question for now...
  450. >"If you want to," Anon agrees without further questions.
  451. >He probably suspects a lot of things right now. Maybe a little shadow told him, in which case he's gonna be suspecting things all day long.
  452. >But little does he know that two are playing this game.
  453. >That's right, unbeknownst to Anonymous those shadows have visited you again, at your library. But you were so ready to face them, still feeling like you're protected by the remaining warmth of your man's embrace, that you've managed to stay calm.
  454. >It was strange that you couldn't even pinpoint their form, as if the shadows belonged to neither ponies nor humans. They were like drops of ink hanging from a quill but upside down, and when they moved along the surfaces of the objects around, they were like clouds of steam until they assumed a still position again.
  455. >It is doubtful that there's an object or a creature that's casting those strange looking shadows. They are on their own. Reminds you of some divination spells of evil witches in foals books that you've read back in school.
  456. >And it was fitting for such a spell that the mysterious figures in the dark never attempted anything. You were so certain they were after your hooves and coat, but they're just...watching. Spying on you.
  457. >And whispering.
  458. >That alone is uncanny but they aren't trying to scare you. And if the things you've heard are true...
  459. >Maybe you'll actually test some of it tonight.
  460. >The detour to the bakery doesn't take you long. Buying a set of baked goods you try to notice if you're being watched by a human who is supposed to keeping tabs on you, but there's nopony here other than the owner herself.
  461. >That can mean that only your scheduled arrivals count towards this. Or maybe the human just not aware of this plan just yet.
  462. >Anonymous is throwing quick glances around and you figure he's pondering the same thing you are. Too bad his shady human friend didn't show up and you're onto him now.
  463. >The food doesn't cost you much but Anon still reminds you that your little impromptu dessert wasn't necessary when you get to it after your usual dinner together.
  464. >But you insist on it:
  465. "You really helped me last night. Besides, I don't need a reason to spoil you a bit, you know.
  466. >"Heh, I guess you're right."
  467. >Going this way you'll make him blush at this rate. Maybe he deserves it.
  468. "You were so quick to comfort me, like a hero of some sort."
  469. >That definitely does it. Your hero, Anonymous, is avoiding meeting your gaze but his smile says it all.
  470. >"Aw, come on. I just thought it was some intruder or something. I guess I'm in my world's mindset still."
  471. "We're on the third floor," you remind him.
  472. >"It could've been a pegasus."
  473. >He makes a good point and now it's you who's feeling dumb.
  474. >"Equestria is a nice place, but you never know. It's a city after all," he shrugs.
  475. "Then I'm lucky I have somep- someone like you to protect me."
  476. >This time your eyes meet and you realize that without even meaning it you've used the information you've been whispered.
  477. >Something about his validation, knowing he's making a difference in your life. Maybe that was it?
  478. >"Don't worry, Moonluck. I'm no fighter, but I won't let anyone hurt you."
  479. >Just when you think he's being overly dramatic you feel his hand touching your hoof and in that moment his words echo profoundly in your heart.
  480. >It's not just a cheesy drama for him. His eyes hide worries enough for two behind them.
  481. "Thanks... I..."
  482. >I want to be protected, Anon. Please hold me right now, Anon. Kiss me and cuddle with me all night long, Anon.
  483. >This is what you want to say, right?
  484. >No, you're not brave enough yet.
  485. >At that moment the memory of being held by him returns to you. Last night the stress made you block out these sensations but now you recall it vividly, his fingers, his gentle motions caressing you.
  486. >If only, if only every night was like this but without the scary shadows. But the shadows aren't even scary anymore so the chance to experience this again is gone.
  487. >Unless you somehow force yourself to convey this desire to Anon and you skip the shock part and go straight to comforting.
  488. >Too late you shake off your daydreams once again, and what makes you wake up is a cold feeling right behind your back. As if there's some presence there despite nobody being in this room aside from you and Anon.
  489. >At least nobody tangible. And that could only mean one thing.
  490. >Anon's eyes look way past you. And for a moment, for just a second, you hear a very faint, far away whisper.
  491. >It's not directed at you.
  492. >And reacting to it, Anon's hand travels along your foreleg, up to your neck and onto your cheek.
  493. >You practically feel those cheeks starting to pulsate with heat in response to that, previously only slightly warm at the feeling of your hoof being held.
  494. >No, right now the hand is right next to your eyes and...well, it'd take just one motion for him to bring you closer for a-
  495. >"It's okay, Moonluck," Anonymous instead reassures you.
  496. >You almost felt this is gonna be it, it almost happened.
  497. >"You don't have to tell me what happened back there."
  498. >Anon's hand moves a bit further and you allow him this motion, leaning a bit to the side.
  499. >His fingers now trace your ear, a whole bouquet of unknown sensations being presented to you.
  500. >You close your eyes and smile.
  501. >Your ear twitches just a bit, taking in the unfamiliar feeling of being caressed by someone you want to never stop doing this.
  502. >"I'm here for you, alright?"
  503. >Yes, you are. Yes, you are. Imagine just saying these three words, just like that. Just spit them out, you dummy.
  504. >Still you resist, and for what? Who are you making happy with this?
  505. >Afraid you'll hurt him and yourself if it's all a lie but still hurting him and yourself by not telling anything.
  506. >It's just like those whispers said.
  507. >And now you realize that you're not alone in this anymore. There's no room for doubt in your mind, Anonymous hears it too.
  508. >Maybe you hear different things, see different shadows, but it all lines up. And if that's the case...
  509. "And I'm here for you too."
  510. >Blindsiding even your own expectations you are stunned by the boldness of that move. And to add to that, your hoof moves up, as if on its own, and touches his hand, keeping it close to your face!
  511. >That is so out of character for the Moonluck you know, the coward, the blind pony, and yet it's not any whispers that compel you to do this, it's just a simple notion of him going through the same kind of confusion you are.
  512. >No, even worse, considering he thinks this world is somehow wrong. You don't know how, but it's not what he was expecting and there are others that agree with him.
  513. >He's away from home and it still doesn't feel right to him.
  514. >Indeed, it is him, not you, who needs to be protected.
  515. >Anonymous understands what you mean and this alone is enough to solidify your impression, confirm those fears - his eyes are on you, mesmerized by this sudden confession, as if it was something he wanted to hear all along without even realizing it.
  516. >"Thanks, Moonluck," he exhales softly.
  517. >He sure likes saying your name. And you like the way he said it just now.
  518. >It needs to be whispered in your ear just like that.
  519. >But that's just a fantasy right now. He's still so close to you there's no reason to be greedy.
  520. >Whether or not it's going to lead to anything is unknown, but it's hard to deny that dealing with everything is easier when there's somepony out there to support you.
  521. >Things don't go far beyond that today. Anon still sleeps in the same bed but doesn't make a habit of holding you close. Well, maybe he'll be more open to sleeping facing towards you now at least. From there it's just an easy squeeze between his arms for you.
  522. >Nothing out of ordinary happens during the night and in the morning, however you do take one extra step in your investigation.
  523. >While Anon is in the shower, you carefully search his coat to find the clue his human friend slipped him back on their meeting.
  524. >As it turns out, this was a piece of paper with a dotted list on it. At least you assume that's what it is.
  525. >It somehow never occurred to you that you can't read human language. Anon learned yours really fast, but to you this hoof, no, handwriting looks nothing like the letters pony use.
  526. >So this one is out of the question. You return the paper back where it belongs, praying that this group of conspiring humans will use verbal communications as often as possible.
  527. >And so your duty of following Anon from the shadows begins.
  529. >Shadows around you don't mind where you go. They give way as soon they see you looking at them.
  530. >Hiding, slithering around when your gaze finds one. Returning back when you look away. It's like they're all bound to you, still there when they're out of sight.
  531. >This doesn't scare you now that you're not idling anymore, you have a goal now. You can't get distracted.
  532. >You don't hear a lot of intrusive whispers despite being more aware of them. But the tendency is concerning you nonetheless.
  533. >Is it the same to him, you wonder. Whether or not Anon sees these shadows too and to what capacity is still not known to you. To be frank, you're not about to ask him about it.
  534. >'He doesn't notice what's right in front of him, chasing the bigger picture as if that will grant him peace of mind instead.'
  535. >This whispered comment could've been about the shadows, but the more you follow Anonymous, the more you understand that it might also apply to him and you.
  536. >With each day, he's becoming more and more dedicated to his cause of figuring out this world.
  537. >He is a frequent guest at the library and the history books list keeps growing. You have no idea if he has the time to read them all on his job because the amount of clients he gets gradually started increasing lately.
  538. >The embassy has been hiring all types of ponies and humans to fill in the list of immigration related jobs. If Anon was still doing everything around there on his own he'd burn out by now.
  539. >Humans are filling Manehattan with their fresh and exotic lifestyle, little by little.
  540. >More and more billboards seek out human attention with their depiction of goods made just for these loveable aliens.
  541. >Sidewalks are getting more crowded - most humans don't fit in pony carriages and have to walk. The sounds of human footsteps are just as frequent as horseshoes hitting the cobblestone.
  542. >At their side there are almost always the mares that were lucky enough to get them. Only you prefer not to look at the couples. The ones occupying benches in parks, hugging (or worse) out in the open.
  543. >Yes, you got your own way before some mares here, doesn't mean you need to rush things with Anon. It's not a competition. At least that's what you keep telling yourself at the sight of another newly formed pair already kissing in some café like it's nobody's business.
  544. >And speaking of businesses, all kinds of them are booming now, the ones that get their sets of human-appropriate items and furniture get their investment returned in the first week. And you still remember some ponies pinching their bits thinking it's just a fad.
  545. >New arrivals means more work for Anon, who now focuses more and more on just helping out new humans with registering and settling in. Often he gives them advice and guidance as someone with experience.
  546. >Anon is fairly open about his job when you discuss it. However, his machinations with his suspicious friends are still kept secret. If you weren't already aware of them you'd probably have no idea where to even start looking for clues.
  547. >As much as you hate to admit it, the precautions these humans take do work in their favor.
  548. "Been a while since I've caught you right after your work."
  549. >You tease Anon as you walk down the street together, for the first time in what, a week? Two?
  550. >Things have been getting so busy for both of you. Pretty much ever since that incident with Anon and you panicking because of those silly shadows.
  551. >You can't imagine anything like this now. They're strange but they stay away.
  552. >Part of you wonders why you accept a phenomenon like this as something completely normal when it clearly isn't. But if Anon also sees them, he's keeping it a secret too.
  553. >...
  554. >That doesn't sound like a good excuse now that you think about it.
  555. >But it's not like you do anything about this either way. What's complaining about it gonna do, make them go away? Not like you can solve this even together with Anon.
  556. >"Yeah, feels like it's been forever," Anon sounds like he's lost in thoughts himself.
  557. "That's city life for you," you giggle trying to sound as carefree as you can. "World keeps on spinning and we can only try to keep up."
  558. >"We should go see some play on the weekend. Remember the last time we went? A week ago?"
  559. "More like two."
  560. >"Yeah. Or more."
  561. >Both of you fall silent. No denying it, Manehattan makes you lose your sense of time when things get busy.
  562. >This conversation puts Anon in a thoughtful state for the rest of the day. Even grabbing some snacks at Rainbowberry's (with her human keeping tabs on you, you bet) doesn't bring his good talkative mood back.
  563. >Maybe something in that conversation got under his skin because the next time you follow Anonymous, you discover that he now has means to counter your surveillance. A pocket mirror.
  564. >He pretends he's looking at himself but it focuses on something behind him.
  565. >How do you know that? Well, obviously because you've been using the same method of peeping at him from behind corners this whole time. No need to show your muzzle everywhere if that can be avoided.
  566. >But now that little trick might be obsolete. And from now on Anonymous is way more active with his old human pals.
  567. >You've seen him talk to the detective out in the open more than one time, something they've never done before. Maybe they think the crowd is enough to conceal them now. Maybe they're getting bold. Or desperate.
  568. >Desperate might be right because Anon's mood is rarely improved by their conversations. So you take it upon yourself to entertain him when you're with him. After you're done spying on him for the day, of course.
  569. >How dirty of you. You should be helping him instead, if only he'd allow it. Which is doubtful.
  570. >But even though he smiles, you can see it doesn't do him any good in the long run.
  571. >And the culmination of that manifests one of these murky days when you follow him around.
  572. >"What?"
  573. >You find him stopping on his way to your library. Of course he wouldn't find you there because you're trailing him from almost a building length away.
  574. >Yet he still notices you, the mirror in his hand a natural clue to his attentiveness.
  575. "Oh, I was just going back after my break..." you explain after you catch up to him.
  576. >"Do you have anything to say to me?"
  577. >His stern gaze makes you look away. Something tells you that the gig is up and what you're doing is not to his liking.
  578. >Not hearing a reply he turns around and continues walking, knowing full well you won't follow him further.
  579. >You feel guilty about this and for a good reason. How long has this been going? More importantly, how long has he been aware of it?
  580. >While the intentions might've been good... No, who are you kidding, no intentions beyond "I wanna know what's going on" were there in the first place.
  581. >Perhaps it's time to end this and come clean.
  582. >How long has it been since you started treating this like a game? This is important to Anon, yet for you it's nothing but an oddity.
  583. >'He delays the inevitable just because there's gonna be no way back once his heart is open.'
  584. >That's your lesson from the shadows for today. As usual, it can be interpreted in a convenient way or as something fundamental about his personality. All up to you.
  585. >As it stands, everything is up to you. You need to make this right.
  586. >Rushing up the stairs to your apartment you expect to find Anonymous angry with you, as he has every right to be. To your surprise it's nothing like that at all.
  587. >Although you wish it were.
  588. >In the silence of your room Anon is sitting on your bed, head resting on a knuckle, as if summoning aeons of philosophical wisdom to bless him by assuming an iconic pose you've seen in Initiative's booklets a few times.
  589. "Anon?"
  590. >You call out to him but he doesn't answer. The room is still well lit, but it feels like the man himself is becoming a shadow, his posture signifying defeat under the burden of his doubts, face darkened by the infinity of thought.
  591. >What you bring here isn't comfort or consolation but frightful images of betrayal.
  592. >Perhaps Anon is crushed by the realization that all this time the one he trusted the most was doubting him all along.
  593. >You sit on the floor right in front of him, watching closely in case he decides to look at you. But he remains the way he is.
  594. "Look, I'm sorry."
  595. >Remembering your exchange on the streets, you add:
  596. "And I do have something to say. First of all, the way-"
  597. >"Does this seem okay to you?"
  598. >You were about to spill the beans over everything that's been bothering you about Anon and his secrecy these last weeks, but you are cut off before you even start.
  599. >Without even hearing your reply, Anon continues:
  600. >"Is this your idea of a joke, Moonluck?"
  601. "N-nopony is joking here..."
  602. >"Am I the only one who finds this odd? All of it?"
  603. >You don't even know what he's talking about. A lot of things were odd, but-
  604. >"You see and hear them too, don't you?"
  605. >He finally looks up at you and he doesn't even need your answer, it is written on your face. His eyes squint in pain.
  606. >Your worst suspicions are confirmed but you wish they could remain just your silly assumptions forever.
  607. >"Why don't you say anything? Why do you stay quiet? Are you one of them?"
  608. "What?!"
  609. >You couldn't even imagine such a preposterous thought crossing Anon's mind.
  610. >"You never once brought it up. Not even when I helped you here in this room. How do I know this isn't another trick? Tell me."
  611. "This is ridiculous, do I look like one of...those things?"
  612. >Anon looks away and silently takes out his mirror as an answer to you. Still avoiding looking at you he puts it right in front of your muzzle.
  613. >The room grows cold the moment you notice them. A barely visible shadowy figure wavering somewhere behind your back.
  614. >Not right there but...there.
  615. >Everything around you grows dark and the whole room fills up with black smoke.
  616. >From behind that mystical veil more shadows join the first one until there's a whole congregation of them.
  617. >They are looking right at you through the mirror.
  618. "Ahh!"
  619. >You twirl around with a little bounce and immediately things go back to normal, light returning to your humble abode. You're startled but alive, only still cold.
  620. >"They're out there every day now," Anon finally turns his head to you. "As soon as I stop looking in their direction."
  621. >So it really is the same for him...
  622. >He nearly drops down from the bed on his knees but ends up sitting just on the very edge of it, pleading to you.
  623. >"Help me out here, Moonluck. You're still on my side, right?"
  624. >His words pinch your heart so hard for a moment you feel tears pooling in your throat. But the next moment he pulls himself back, returning to his position of a man doubting, but not yet crushed.
  625. >"No, forget it. I can solve this. Can you leave me for a moment?"
  626. "I can't."
  627. >Anonymous was not ready for a protest this firm, so when you return to sitting right in front of him he has no choice but to face you.
  628. "I told you I'll be there for you and here I am."
  629. >You're gonna make this right. He might be right to mistrust you, but that doesn't count as an excuse for you.
  630. >"Thanks, but I'd rather think on my own right now."
  631. "It's my room, I'm not going anywhere."
  632. >You jump up the bed to sit right next to your human, to his annoyance.
  633. >"Fine, I'll just go sit in-"
  634. "You're not going anywhere, it's your room too."
  635. >Magic lights up your horn and Anon is stopped by its grip around his hand.
  636. >This is gonna backfire horribly but you're beyond caring right now. Anything to push the image he has shown you out of your head, anything.
  637. >You'll force it out of his head too.
  638. >"This really isn't funny, let me go. I just need some time."
  639. "I don't think it's funny either. And you're right, I haven't been on my best behavior these days. But I am on your side, so I'm staying by your side."
  640. >What a heroic speech. Only Anon scoffs at it and rolls his eyes.
  641. >"Oh, now you- Yeah, great, whatever. Not like it matters, tomorrow you'll be back with them, hiding and watching."
  642. "Then let me help you."
  643. >"How? You don't know anything."
  644. "Then tell me."
  645. >"Moonluck, it's not that simple. And it doesn't concern you."
  646. "You concern me."
  647. >"Great, thanks. Okay, I believe you, can I go now?"
  648. "Not a chance!"
  649. >He sighs, looking down at his hands. Powerless to do anything.
  650. >"No matter what I tell you it doesn't change anything, does it?"
  651. >He sounds defeated so at this time you'll take this as your victory, he won't run away now.
  652. "I'm not letting you go no matter what."
  653. >"No, I mean... Even if I told you what's going on, it wouldn't change anything."
  654. "How do you know?"
  655. >"Because you've been following me. You know who I'm talking to and what about. You know what books I'm taking with me. And yet you’ve never tried to interfere."
  656. >This is getting on your nerves now.
  657. "Like you'd tell me, all you say is "it's alright" and smile."
  658. >"Watching me is funny, isn't it? It all must look so silly to you. Like we're playing a game."
  659. >You won't deny that this thought has crossed your mind a few times.
  660. >"What are you going to do tomorrow? Still stalk me like nothing happened?"
  661. "I don't know, what are you gonna do, try to catch me on the streets again?"
  662. >"I didn't try to catch you," Anon sounds insulted. "I was trying to see if those things are following me just like always. And I found you by accident."
  663. "What?"
  664. >"Turns out it wasn't their stare I should've been aware of all this time."
  665. >It burns, the bitter note of truth in his words. Worse than that, it makes you want to defend your faulty actions you'd condemn any other time.
  666. "I've done no harm to you. So what if I trailed you a bit out of curiosity?"
  667. >Both of you are getting annoyed with this conversation. You feel like if you continue down this path one of you will say something hurtful to the other. So you are preparing yourself to disregard any insults thrown your way.
  668. >"So you're just being a bystander in all this? Even now you just...sit here."
  669. "What else should I be doing?"
  670. >"Let me figure it out and I'll tell you."
  671. "What do you want me to do?!"
  672. >"I told you! If you have nothing more to say, go."
  673. >He motions you to leave with his hand and all of a sudden you feel like it's you who's about to do something you'll regret.
  674. "Oh, is that it!? You're gonna treat me like a p-pet in my own house?"
  675. >"If you can't understand human language what else am I supposed to do?"
  676. "Why don't you-"
  677. >"Go on now, shoo, shoo."
  678. >His mocking smirk is filling you with fury. But mostly with helplessness.
  679. >What ARE you going to do? Right now and tomorrow, what's your plan?
  680. >There is none.
  681. >But something has to change, he is right about that.
  682. >Only you can't think of anything else but to do everything against his wishes. That has to work, right? Reverse psychology?
  683. >And so...
  684. >"Hey, what are you-"
  685. "I'm not leaving!"
  686. >Your hooves push him. Your hindlegs give you enough force to overpower the human immediately. He is on his side now and you decide to secure your catch by following him down and holding him against the bed with your hooves, turning him on his back in the process.
  687. >"Are you nuts?"
  688. "Yes!"
  689. >Your human isn't amused in the slightest.
  690. >"Get off of me!"
  691. >Hold him closer? Of course you can do that.
  692. >You plop your body right on top of his torso, hooves pressing against his shoulders.
  693. >He isn't struggling too much so you assume you're not actually bothering him as much as he makes it seem.
  694. >"You want me to throw you off or something?"
  695. "Why don't you try, huh?"
  696. >"Because I don't want to hurt you."
  697. "I'm tougher than I look."
  698. >You still don't understand what's happening. This is not you. Not the shy Moonluck, not the gentle Moonluck. Who is this?
  699. >Your heart is beating too fast. Everything around you is a blur of colors. Only Anon is clear before you.
  700. >You're scared out of your mind. You are ruining everything you've been working towards, being stupid and making it worse on purpose, out of spite, like you want it destroyed.
  701. >The body you are supposed to command senses that your mind is no longer in control and just does its own thing.
  702. >Without hesitation you lean in.
  703. >"Wh-"
  704. >You find his resistance to captivity very lacking.
  705. >He could've thrown you off a lot of times by now. Well, maybe not with his arms being held by your magic as they are right now, but-
  706. >Wait, what? You don't remember...
  707. >Too late you realize what you're leaning in for. Thinking is something you're just not doing anymore. It's time for acting instead.
  708. >And your actions are apparently focused on restraining Anon while you kiss him.
  709. >He freezes up as if paralyzed when he feels your mouth on his and you are no less overwhelmed by this sensation than him.
  710. >The softness and warmth of his lips you used to only dream about now belong to you.
  711. >"Mm!"
  712. >As much as you press in, Anon still finds a way to free himself from this forced kiss. His confused expression is soon replaced with disgust.
  713. >His lips curl up as if he wants to spit every bit of your taste out of his mouth.
  714. >"What the hell are you doing?"
  715. >This was it. That's your first kiss. What a romantic situation. What a nice predicament.
  716. >"Let me go."
  717. >He will never trust you again.
  718. >"Moonluck?"
  719. >He will hate you for mocking him this way. His real worries being a toy to you.
  720. >"Why are you crying?"
  721. "I-"
  722. >Crying? No you're not.
  723. >Yes, apparently you are.
  724. "No, I..."
  725. >You lean in for another kiss. It's the only thing left to do. Like hiding your head in the sand, you are only guided by fear of you and Anon talking any longer.
  726. >The human doesn't hurt you but he is demonstrably against this. You know why. You can't stop now.
  727. >He even fights your tongue at first. But when you position yourself at an angle and give more passion to it, his jaws relax and you are given one free ticket to the ride of your life.
  728. >Doing the unthinkable now you imagine that this is exactly the only way you'd make this happen, being already out of your mind helps you not lose it any more than you already have.
  729. >Even without him returning the kiss it feels like heaven. This is your human. His breath is on your muzzle. His lips, tongue, teeth and gums are all there for you to explore, to experience. The precious thing you wanted for so long.
  730. >How sweet and vivid it all tastes. Oh, how you want to just...just...
  731. >Against your better judgement you let out a weak moan. Anon must be so disgusted with you right now.
  732. >A reminder that he can't do anything about this but take it is quickly dismissed by your overwhelmed brain.
  733. >With a barely audible pop your lips let go of his and your panting lets him know just how fast your heart is beating.
  734. >"Moonluck?" you hear his call, barely registering with you.
  735. >You shake your head but he keeps talking.
  736. >"It's okay, I won't go. I'll stay, alright? I'm not leaving."
  737. >Little by little your senses return to you and with them the realization that was only looming on the horizon becomes close enough for you to finally grasp fully.
  738. "I- Oh-"
  739. >You don't even know what to do now. To your luck Anon does the thinking instead.
  740. >"Calm down. Breathe."
  741. >Breathe. That's right, you'll do that.
  742. >"Will you let me hold you tonight?"
  743. >You nod and your body goes all soft. Yes, that'd be good right now. It's hard to keep your balance and you lie down on your side, exhausted for some reason.
  744. >This is the worst. You now get what happened, but Anon doesn't even need your explanation, he somehow already figured it out and he has never even seen you having such a panic attack before.
  745. >Truth be told, you haven't either. Must be the stress. All the feelings at once, yes.
  746. >Naturally, your magic also loses its potency and your human finally goes free.
  747. >For a moment you fear that he'll throw you against the wall for humiliating him like that. Or maybe he'll start hitting you now that his hands are free.
  748. >It'd be fair because you are the worst mare. You'd take any beating if it's him and you probably wouldn't even cry in pain.
  749. >Anon's hands touch you and you get ready. But he just brings you closer to himself.
  750. >Unsure of how to handle it, you extend your hooves forward and they find Anon's body, not holding it down now but simply accepting it into a hug.
  751. >But it wasn't a hug to comfort just you. Anon positions himself so that his head is against your chest, pressed up to your chin.
  752. >Your forelegs find his shoulders and hold him closer. His deep sigh that tickles your coat sounds dejected when his hands find your back and caress it slowly.
  753. "I'm sorry."
  754. >That's all you can say.
  755. >"Yeah..."
  756. >That's all you get in response.
  757. >Despite the worst already passing, this fever dream is still going. You stroke Anon's hair and your nose is trying to inhale as much of his smell as you can manage, just to keep your head clear.
  758. >You give his head a few kisses. Your thigh touches his arm and you give it a little slow rub too.
  759. >All to keep yourself busy, moving. Imagining embracing your Anon in any other predicament would've made you drool but right now it's not a thing that you can focus on.
  760. >The passage of time is lost on you and you never notice falling asleep until you come to. The room is still dimly illuminated by that one lamp on the nightstand and you can see Anon sitting as he was before you came in earlier.
  761. >Your movements made him turn his head towards you and now he's watching you closely.
  762. " long have I been out?"
  763. >"Around half an hour."
  764. >No wonder you feel so exhausted. But Anon doesn't look like he's ready to go to sleep.
  765. >When you ask him about it, he just shakes his head.
  766. >"A bit later. Try to fall asleep, I'll join you soon."
  767. "I'm sorry."
  768. >"It's okay, just relax for now."
  769. >Before you drift off to sleep, you hear his voice, whispering something to himself, but you can't make out any words.
  770. >You fall asleep shortly after and when you wake up it's not because of the alarm but Anon's footsteps somewhere in the kitchen.
  771. "Oh no, am I late for work? Anon?" you call your human.
  772. >"I'm gonna tell Ms. Quill you're sick on my way to the embassy. You're staying home today."
  773. "What?"
  774. >He walks into the room and you see he is already dressed for work.
  775. >"Please, it's for your own good."
  776. "But I'll- But you-"
  777. >"Stop thinking about this just for one day, will you?"
  778. "What about you?"
  779. >"I'll be fine."
  780. >He states it so matter-of-factly that you can't help but doubt it.
  781. >But he's right in one thing, some quiet would be good right now.
  782. >You feel horrible, both in body and soul. Even sleep doesn't come to you easily now that you're awake with memories of your pathetic display last night.
  783. >You were so arrogant to imagine this wasn't like you. Back then you couldn't believe it, but now it's clear your cowardice is second only to your ability to be annoyingly clingy.
  784. >Being straightforward, it wasn't supposed to result in...that. You thought you were really on the right track but everything got ruined for you again.
  785. >That's right, it wasn't your fault. Under normal circumstances you'd comfort him, remind him that he can always rely on you and then give him that soft, tender kiss you always thought would be your first.
  786. >It's a kiss you've been imagining ever since you got invited to the Initiative to get your match and moved here to Manehattan. And now it's ruined.
  787. >That was what, not even a month ago? Or maybe it was.
  788. >The romance of your life is turning into a nightmare. And speaking of nightmares, the image shown to you by Anon suddenly resurfaces in your head.
  789. >With a startled jump off the bed you begin your sprint to the bathroom's mirror. But you find nopony there aside from yourself.
  790. >But that means... Either that you were truly seeing things last night, hallucinating or worse, or that it was Anon who somehow summoned them, perhaps completely unwillingly.
  791. >The thought of him blaming himself for this, being under assumption that he's somehow the reason behind this, is very discouraging. You hope you're wrong just like you usually are.
  792. >You silly little airhead Moonluck, you. Always imagining things.
  793. >Anon will come back later tonight and you'll talk just like you usually do and nothing will be wrong.
  794. >Is this too much to hope for, you wonder. And also wonder if he really hated that kiss.
  796. >He loves calling your name. And you love hearing him say it.
  797. >"Let's go to the park today, Moonluck, the weather is excellent."
  798. "Of course, Anon!"
  799. >Autumn in full swing brings color to your usually drab walks through the busy streets filled with man and mare couples in broad daylight.
  800. >You and your own human are relaxing on a bench on a lazy weekend day, nothing on your mind but the tranquility of being with one another.
  801. >It's cold but, more importantly, dry; the shades of yellow surrounding you on the trees and on the ground are calming and soft.
  802. >"I'm surprised, Moonluck, that opera really didn't put me to sleep just like you said. Maybe we should go see another one some time."
  803. "Of course, Anon!"
  804. >Another weekend spent in bliss after an uneventful week at the library. Barely anypony there but students this time of the year.
  805. >Anon's smile adorns his face when he's talking to you and knowing it belongs to you, even if unfairly, fills you with glee.
  806. >"Hey, Moonluck, wanna check out that Neighponese restaurant that just opened next to the embassy? I helped the chef pick the location when he was settling in with his mare."
  807. "Of course, Anon!"
  808. >Days fly by so fast. Once you stopped following Anon's secret investigation after that embarrassing outburst, you found a certain appreciation to just peacefully floating through life alongside him.
  809. >"Hey, Moonluck, did you know-"
  810. "Of course, Anon!"
  811. >It's like one day's conversation is finished on another. Events transpire without you moving through time.
  812. >"Moonluck, you know what we should do?"
  813. "Of course, Anon!"
  814. >It's like the calendar has lost its meaning. It's like a record being pushed to spin faster by somepony's impatient hoof. It's like...
  815. >"Moonluck, I can't take this anymore."
  816. "Of course, A-"
  817. >Candles are being lit one by one. All around the already brightly illuminated room more and more little lights are being brought forth, just like you have awakened from your slumber of one unending day while sitting on the bed in your room.
  818. >The foggy trance enveloping your life has ended in a moment - your human is bringing you back, as if saving you from a storming current you've fallen into.
  819. >That only leaves a question of what situation are you being dragged into now.
  820. "Anon?"
  821. >Instead of his answer you hear a sigh and the flame of the candle he has just lit trembles. The last one to complete his array of lights.
  822. >"No matter what I do they won't go away."
  823. >You don't need to ask him, you know he's talking about those shadows that have been avoiding you as of late. As you suspected, they never stopped following your man.
  824. >Now that the room is so bright they have almost nowhere to hide. And yet your silhouettes still throw their shades on the walls, on the floor, everywhere now that there's so many light sources around.
  825. >Perhaps it's Anon's way to confuse them. Thin them out. Blind them.
  826. >Wait, since when is Anon even treating them as something alive?
  827. >The man himself looks around to see if he's done a good job. The way he moves you'd say he's a bit on edge.
  828. "Are you okay?"
  829. >You know he's not but you can't just remain silent now. Mentally you're preparing to do the right thing unlike the last time you two had a confrontation.
  830. >This time it's gonna be different.
  831. >"No, I'm not okay. I'm completely lost."
  832. >That goes without saying, just looking at him was enough to understand that much. But you do appreciate the honesty.
  833. >And if he's lost, you should guide him. Trying to sound soft but determined, you call to him:
  834. "Come here."
  835. >Anonymous approaches with slight hesitation; whether or not he trusts you to not just restrain him once again will depend on how you allow him to approach.
  836. "Here," you move and make room on the bed.
  837. >He decides to take the seat and he's still looking at you with his eyes full of whatever hope he can muster right now.
  838. >That's right, you won't be stupid this time.
  839. "Come on, what's on your mind?"
  840. >"I don't think you'll believe me even if I tell you."
  841. "But all of this is just to talk to me without them interfering, right?"
  842. >You point at the candles and he nods, unsurprised by your understanding of his ritual. After a brief pause he finally explains:
  843. >"I'm out of options. Nothing about this place makes any sense. You noticed it too, right?"
  844. >You have noticed a lot of things lately but Anon doesn't need you to explain it.
  845. >Instead he turns to you and out of nowhere grabs your shoulders in one swift motion. You let out a little yelp but you can't move an inch now.
  846. >The way your Anon stares into your wide-opened eyes makes your back spasm with fear in his hold. Now would be a good time to tell him that he's scaring you but his pale face suggests he's not completely in his mind right now.
  847. >You'd recoil and attempt to keep your distance right now but he doesn't allow you the opportunity.
  848. >"There's so much wrong here I could write a book about it. Hell, we've already started."
  849. "W-we?"
  850. >"I'm not the only one who knows," Anon nods. "Every powerful pony is missing from this world. It's done on purpose."
  851. >You try to interject but Anon can't be stopped right now. It'd be as effective as throwing yourself against a moving train.
  852. >And the further this train of thought moves, the more terrified you become.
  853. >"Nightmare Moon is still up there, but there's no Celestia to raise the Sun. Who do you think is doing it instead?"
  854. "I- I have no idea," you plead innocent, once again not recognizing either of the names.
  855. >"Nobody does. Then there's no Twilight or even Cadance. Initiative has no records of her even though it'd be the perfect place for her."
  856. >Names fly straight through your head, into one ear and from another, because you swear this is the first time you're hearing any of them.
  857. >"Twilight and the Elements of Harmony are missing but every other pony is present, even Moondancer, everything is rearranged to adapt to this timeline. No Starlight, Sunburst, Starswirl, no Pillars, not a single unicorn who'd be able figure things out and interfere."
  858. >Your head is spinning so fast you think you're gonna get sick.
  859. >"But there's no trace of villains either, not even Discord. Nothing ever threatened this world. It's like there's a huge power vacuum here, or, I don’t even know what to call this..."
  860. "Slow down," you beg but Anon just squeezes your shoulders more.
  861. >"It could be one of Starlight's timelines but that doesn't explain the shadows. If Stygian is involved we found no trace of him or Pony of Shadows anywhere in history or the present. The whole chunks of history are missing."
  862. >He shakes you in his hands and his eyes once again focus on yours.
  863. >"Not just history, everything. I- I don't even remember my life before Equestria anymore. I did some...human things I guess, but I can't remember anything specific. Everything is a blur."
  864. "Maybe it's just-"
  865. >"What about you, do you remember everything? Or am I the only one?"
  866. >You try to recall something from your early life but it's always been hard for you since it was so insignificant and boring.
  867. >"I don't even remember my parents' names, Moonluck," he frowns. "Your name IS Moonluck, right?"
  868. "Y-yeah?"
  869. >By the slight wavering of his arms you know the man's on the precipice of breaking down. You're ready to take him in.
  870. >Trying to recall something from your life you might've forgotten proves to be an impossible task for obvious reasons. But there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with your memory.
  871. >"Now I don't even understand where one day ends and another begins, it's like everything is "today" and... I'm afraid I'll lose even more."
  872. >That was the last straw. Your hooves invite Anon to let his hands slide past your shoulders and the human falls into your embrace.
  873. >His fingers dig into your back as though his life depends on holding on to you. At this moment it might not be that far from the truth.
  874. >"I wish I could figure it out. Maybe I'm the fake one, not the world. Maybe I'm just another shadow."
  875. "No, you're my Anon."
  876. >With this immediate save you reach to his forehead with your lips and give him a reassuring kiss.
  877. >"How do I know if this isn't another illusion, I don't even know what this Initiative even is anymore, and I work for it. Orders come from above but I can't trace them once they go to Crystal Empire."
  878. "Then..."
  879. >A thought so brilliant crosses your mind for once, you just know it'll help Anon.
  880. "Then let's go to the Crystal Empire and see for ourselves."
  881. >"Huh?"
  882. >The man is so astonished by this daring proposition he leans back on his own, breaking the hug.
  883. >Somehow seeing him seated normally makes you feel relieved.
  884. "Yeah, let's just take a train there and visit them. They won't deny somepony like you a tour, right?"
  885. >"'ll do that for me?"
  886. "Of course, Anon!"
  887. >Seeing him finally smile again fills your heart with bliss. A faint hope still lingers in him. He is not surrendering just yet.
  888. "And it would be nice to take a break from this routine, right?"
  889. >"Yeah, this could work. I'll get us tickets as soon as I can."
  890. "That's my man."
  891. >Right now you're both smiling at each other and all is good. If there is a moment you wish for him to not forget, it's this.
  892. >This is the moment.
  893. >You need to say it right now.
  894. "I can't even imagine how you feel about all this."
  895. >And?
  896. "But I just want you to know that..."
  897. >Go on.
  898. >Even if you're blushing, even if your heart can't take it.
  899. "No matter what happens, I-"
  900. >...
  901. >Your mouth hangs open and you feel as if you're silently gasping for air.
  902. >The painful seconds you are given to stall your confession end with Anon's hand touching your mane and patting it lightly.
  903. >"I know," he says, trying to ease the tension. "You'll be there for me, won't you?"
  904. >Trying to hide the tears that are forming in the corner of your eyes, you shut them close and smile, nodding in agreement.
  905. >While you're fighting yourself and mentally kicking your stupid brain for freezing up for so long, you are apparently picked up by the human and are now travelling onto his lap.
  906. >Once you're there the eyes you were trying to keep shut open to face Anon...only to close the moment after, but not out of frustration.
  907. >His hand is embracing your back while the other cups your cheek, making sure to align your muzzle with his face to touch your lips with his.
  908. >This is how you wanted it. Even though his kiss is reserved and lacks the vulgar sloppiness you forced on him the first time you did it, it feels a lot better now that you both are into it, not just you.
  909. >Your lips touch again and again and you find it easy to lean on him and relax as his hand traces your neck, smoothly running through your mane.
  910. >When you finally break it off, all you can do is just look him in the eyes with your mouth still half-open, still longing for more. In the end, you're still a coward.
  911. >The magic didn't happen. Something is keeping your heart sealed. Your dumb head is afraid of some dumb words.
  912. >But you were so close. You'll get it right soon. You have to.
  913. >Even if it takes you hours to get out of yourself then so be it. You'll restrain Anon again and you're gonna keep kissing him until you can't take it anymore and just say it.
  914. >You just want it to be...special, yeah. Not like a comfort thing. Ponies will say anything just to reassure another in a dire situation, right? So you don't want to be misunderstood.
  915. >Yes, that's it. You need a different mood. It's all these circumstances again.
  916. >...
  917. >You are so lame.
  919. >Getting tickets to a Saturday train posed no problem. Now that Anon has this promise of clarity dingling in front of him the mood you're both in improves quite a bit.
  920. >Not only that, your human seems to be getting a bit more open with displays of affection after your first (consensual) kiss.
  921. >You're just going to forget that other one ever happened. Seems like it was forever ago.
  922. >Looking at the calendar you clearly see it's been just a month. If only you had memories enough for it.
  923. >The stress you've been through made you accept the faults in this reality. The shadows, the flow of time, who cares at this point. You have Anon.
  924. >You can't fight the whole world. You can't even understand it. Anon's theories made no sense to you and if he can't get it, then you're not even going to try.
  925. >If there's a fundamental flaw in it you just have to make the best of your time here together. You don't know if Anon agrees with you but it doesn't feel like he can do anything about it even if he wanted.
  926. >You can't imagine him complaining about having your support in his adventure, that's for certain. It's something you think you've bonded over already.
  927. >And so the days before the expeditions are spent preparing for it, mostly mentally. Especially when you’re out in the depths of the busy city.
  928. "What do you think we'll find there?"
  929. >Your magic carefully picks up a massive slice of pizza and you concentrate on it for a moment, not ready to hear Anon's reply yet. Thankfully, he's equally as busy with his slice.
  930. >These human establishments that keep popping up all across Manehattan have left you with weekend outings plans for months ahead.
  931. >Most of them owe Anon in some way or another. From an errand boy to being one of the oldest consultants at the embassy, your human has risen to the top and is widely esteemed as the unifying force between human and pony businesses.
  932. >And for you it means lots of dates involving exotic food. Even human pizza tastes different from what you're used to.
  933. >You wonder if that's meat you're tasting, humans eat that all the time, right? Those red discs sure are juicy and spicy.
  934. >Chewing his portion, Anon shrugs.
  935. >"Something that doesn't fit into our theory about lack of strong magic here. Transporting people from our world is probably a massive undertaking. Unless Cadance is helping but has personally erased every mention of herself everywhere, which is..."
  936. >Anon laughs bitterly at a supposedly preposterous thought like that.
  937. "I still don't understand, if the princesses you told me about were ponies who commanded such general ideas like love and friendship, wouldn't it make everypony simply rely on them to deal with all the problems?"
  938. >Anon shakes his head, taking another slice.
  939. >"Basically, yeah, but it's not that easy. They mostly help others by guiding them to realizing the solution to their problems on their own."
  940. "Hmmm..."
  941. >You know one thing, you could surely use some advice from the authority on all love-related things.
  942. >She'd tell you exactly what to do. "Yes, Moonluck, to deal with this you just have to blah blah blah". And your struggles and doubts are all gone.
  943. >Part of you admits that this reminds you of what those shadows have been doing, as cryptic as their musings might've been. But it's hard to deny that it'd be easier to trust those wisdoms if a friendly looking pony was giving them to you, not scary unnatural phenomena.
  944. >"I wonder how different things would've been if this was just normal Equestria..."
  945. >For a moment you think about this too. Just a normal life without any interruptions.
  946. >Just like you had before the circumstances started messing with your ability to express yourself. Although, now that you think about it, these same circumstances forced you to make drastic moves you'd never bring yourself to make otherwise.
  947. >It might've been a catalyst to you being this close to Anon now. After all, it's hardships that make you stick close to each other.
  948. >Not your words, naturally, but if this wisdom and all others weren't yours now through those whispers, what chance you would've had to realize such important things on your own?
  949. >You'd probably still struggled to even hug your man...
  950. >"Well, hopefully we'll find out once we see how things really are. Last human who got here like a week ago said there's nothing unusual going on in the HQ, but we'll see."
  951. >Anon nods to himself, assured that his hope isn't for nothing.
  952. "You really think we can fix whatever is wrong with this place?"
  953. >Your cautious question gets a confident reply:
  954. >"Maybe not fix, but something surely can be done. I'll be fine with just shadows disappearing forever. Or maybe we can even get into the proper timeline, who knows?"
  955. >So many opportunities, it almost makes Anon too excited. He's eating with gusto, probably imagining how he'll personally punch the villain responsible for this in the muzzle once he figures it all out.
  956. >What about you then? Surely you'll follow him into whatever other "timeline" he discovers.
  957. >Not a lot of things that keep you here. No real friends, family is fairly distant, the job is peaceful but not exciting at all.
  958. >The realization makes you chew a bit slower. Nothing really keeps you here other than Anon.
  959. >What WAS your life before you met him then?
  960. >You can't really recall. Going to work, coming back, sleeping on repeat? This is dangerously similar to Anon's description of his memories.
  961. >Either you are becoming affected by his memory fog or you were always just this bore of a mare.
  962. >Nothing was going wrong but nothing was going right.
  963. >You had a whole lot of nothing and nothing was going on before you met Anon. Maybe that's why you got matched to him, so you wake up from your eternal daydream for once and face reality.
  964. >And now it turns you this reality isn't even the right one. What if you were right to daydream all this time?
  965. "You sure it's possible to do this?"
  966. >"Not really, but what choice do I have?"
  967. >Anon looks at your with a bit of pity in his eyes and adds:
  968. >"You're worried about what's going to happen to everything here, aren't you?"
  969. "I guess," you lower your gaze. "But.. I'd rather follow you."
  970. >If his presence is the only reason you even remember these days then you simply can't afford to lose him, lose sight of him even for a short time.
  971. >"Thanks, Moonluck. This means a lot to me."
  972. >When your eyes meet again you feel he means it. You are his anchor here just as well.
  973. >How did it all come to this? You're both lost without one another.
  974. >So if it were up to you, what would you choose, leaving everything as is or changing everything but with a chance of being separated from Anon?
  975. >No, it is definitely too early to think about this.
  976. >But what would Anon choose?
  977. >Stop that!
  978. >He hasn't made any advances on you despite you being closer than ever. You know you're a stupid and awkward mare but he's not like you at all, surely he'd find it in himself to confess to you - if he has feelings for you that is.
  979. >What if...
  980. >To clear your head of such thoughts you stuff your face with what remains of your part of the pizza, to Anon's amusement.
  981. >You're too close to finding something that's gonna change your life to start doubting everything you've come to rely on in it now!
  982. >"Guess that's a good enough rating for this place?" the man laughs and reaches your muzzle to pick some stray bit of food off of it.
  983. >Which you immediately snatch right out of his fingers with your magic, embarrassed by him laughing even more as he watches you do that.
  984. >Your blush remains all the way until you pay for your food and thank the owner, a tall looking guy with a twirly mustache who expresses his gratitude to Anon with an unfamiliar accent.
  985. >However, the weather outside cools you down immediately. Even this lively part of the city is still freezing over despite all the movement disturbing the air around you.
  986. >It feels especially crowded tonight. You make sure to not let Anon out of sight as you return home.
  987. >There were times when you wished your man was more proactive than you, but you're not too dumb to not get that he might just be matching your non-existent pace.
  988. >So in order to get cuddled tonight you'll have to initiate it. You hurry home just to bring that moment closer.
  989. >By the time Anon is done with his own preparations for the night, you finish packing two modest bags for tomorrow, one for yourself and one for him.
  990. >After having such horrible doubts at the restaurant you simply have to make sure he's still reciprocating your affection, however timid it is.
  991. >It doesn't take much for you to confirm it. You are embraced as soon as you turn to face him when you both get under the sheets.
  992. "Mh-mm..."
  993. >You know Anon is smiling at you unconsciously vocalizing your satisfaction and it makes you smile too. A gentle hand brings your head to your man's neck and your full frontal hug is now complete.
  994. >"Tomorrow..." he whispers. "It'll all be over tomorrow."
  995. >In any other situation you'd be restless over this kind of wording, but your brain is too mellow right now to comprehend the possible danger.
  996. >Anon means it in a good way, that's where you're leaving this at. Nothing strange is gonna happen and everything will be fine, fingers that scratch your ear assure you.
  997. >But something strange happens almost immediately, first of the many strange things that are surely going to happen.
  998. >The train you enter next morning is all but empty.
  999. >"Guess trips to the Crystal Empire aren't popular this season?" Anon tries to joke but he doesn't look too delighted about it.
  1000. >It's good that you'll have the entire cabin just for the two of you but...
  1001. >The mood just isn't good enough for pleasant, carefree on-the-road affection.
  1002. >That's going into your "circumstances that prevented you from enjoying yourself" list or whatever you call it.
  1003. >Any other time you'd probably be hugging. But both of you are tense, cautious, ready for more oddities to make themselves apparent.
  1004. >Gazing out the window it's hard to spot anything unusual until you leave Manehattan.
  1005. "Anon, look!"
  1006. >Just as you thought, it all changes once the countryside takes over stone buildings and the scenery becomes more open.
  1007. >Only it doesn't - everything looks foggy around you.
  1008. >It is early morning, sure, but to this extent?
  1009. >"Just as I suspected," Anon mumbles to himself and writes something down in his notebook.
  1010. >There's already a dozen pages worth of notes there, no doubt about the strange occurrences of this world.
  1011. >It's the first time you've seen him actually document them and today it's not gonna be the last.
  1012. >The fog soon begins to thicken. So much so that by the time you run past the third stop you should've taken - but didn't, another note being added to the journal - it becomes as thick and dark, like some sort of endless bog.
  1013. >No familiar tendrils of shadows arise from it but you feel as uncomfortable as you ever had when encountering them, so there's no doubt in your mind.
  1014. >The whole world might as well be covered in this horrifying swamp and you are running through it full steam ahead, cutting it in half to reach your destination.
  1015. >Your forelegs cling to Anon's arm when the sight becomes too much to bear. He's strong for both of you even though you can almost feel him shaking just a bit.
  1016. "What if... What if this is all there is outside our city?"
  1017. >"No, that's not possible," Anon sounds like he wants to reassure himself first and foremost. "I understand covering one city, but the whole Equestria aside from one place?"
  1018. "Moonchild..."
  1019. >The thought of Canterlot drowning in whatever this nightmare is now makes you look away and concentrate on not imagining what could've happened to your dear sisters.
  1020. >It has to be just like Anon said, it's not possible, it can't be possible.
  1021. >It startles him a little when your muzzle touches his arm to hide in it.
  1022. >His worst fears are coming to pass. This is why you're out here. To find a way to fix this, or maybe simply escape it.
  1023. >Even if you can't know for certain what you'll find at your destination, if you'll even find anything at all, you have to know.
  1024. >What are you even going to do if there's nothing strange there, just happy ponies in the Initiative Headquarters and a bit of bureaucracy to keep you away?
  1025. >But nothing is allowed to be this innocent out here in the dreary wilds of a darkness-covered world.
  1026. >The only thing that makes you feel like you're making progress is the fact that the train is not stopping at all. Like its entire journey is made just for you two. You're not even sure anypony is operating it anymore, or if it's going to stop where you need it.
  1027. >Anonymous isn't feeling too good. The hope he had for this plan is being depleted rapidly by the depressing lack of scenery to look at.
  1028. >At least he can face the frightening vistas outside at all. You, you're happy with keeping your face buried in Anon's jacket, hugging his arm like it's the only thing keeping you sane.
  1029. >You don't want to see this world ever again. If Anon is right and there is a way to get out of here, he better find one.
  1030. >Anything is better than here.
  1031. >What's worse, you are forced to leave your comforting shelter of Anon's clothing when you feel the train decelerate at a pace that nearly throws you off your seat.
  1032. "W-why are we stopping?" you meekly exhale when all movement comes to a halt.
  1033. >"This is it. The Crystal Empire."
  1034. >Your sight betrays you. You look out the window but you can't see anything to justify the word "Empire" before you.
  1035. >"What a joke... Come on, Moonluck."
  1036. >The train seethes loudly, the whole locomotive spewing thick steam around itself after such a heroic run through almost half the country, though you're not sure exactly how long it's been since you departed.
  1037. >All the steam covering the platform you step on can't hide the fact that it's empty.
  1038. >Completely lifeless. Just like the rest of the city as far as eyes can see when you finally reach it after a short walk in complete silence all around you.
  1039. >You are fairly certain the Crystal Empire should be protected from the treacherous colds outside by some sort of a magical dome, but...
  1040. >"Looks like there's nothing left to protect here anymore," Anon voices your worries.
  1041. >At least the ocean of shadows doesn't dare to drown this ancient city in its ugly ethereal dirt. You only see them at a distance here.
  1042. >But as Anonymous takes the first step into the town it becomes clear that it might not be all that pretty.
  1043. >It is abandoned, yet there are no signs of its buildings wearing down. Like everypony just packed up and left.
  1044. >Instead of ponies, you see those pesky dark figures looking at you through the windows, gathering and flocking in the comfort of their abodes to watch your progress.
  1045. >It's so unnerving you only wish to keep your head clear of any ideas about what has caused this.
  1046. >The thought that it could've been natives that got turned into these creatures makes your spine turn into a very stiff icicle.
  1047. >You wish your man would just carry you through all of this, you just want to curl up and wait this out until it's over. But Anon himself is taking this way worse.
  1048. >He's sweating and panting like he's been running laps around the city. This place is silent, to an unnatural degree, yet the human still jerks his head from side to side when he hears anything resembling activity - mostly your own steps echoing in the empty streets.
  1049. >Face to face with something he has grown to despise, Anon only finds solace in taking notes. There's a lot to document about this place.
  1050. >Like for example how you don't feel very cold despite lack of magical protection over the Empire. And you even packed an overcoat for yourself in case it's gonna be colder than in Manehattan.
  1051. >Things like that seem trivial compared to you being alone and surrounded by hungering darkness. But Anon, even though his legs are no doubt as weak as yours, continues on forward.
  1052. "Are you alright?" you cautiously ask.
  1053. >"No, not really," your man sounds distracted. "I just want this dealt with, we have to hurry."
  1054. >Every building looks the same here, every home with a lawn discolored in the northern air, and you'd probably be lost if not for your human, who apparently knows just where you need to be to solve this.
  1055. >Even the fog preventing you from peering in the distance soon shows hints of a massive structure towering over this deserted city.
  1056. >The plaza it governs over would've definitely put you in awe if you'd ever see it in its full glory. It's something you only know from the books, the magnificent center of the city.
  1057. >Now it looks like the castle's enormous pillars, pale without any sunlight caressing its mass of solid crystal, are about to give in and bury you under them. The bright shine you've seen on the photos is completely absent, instead what you encounter in the center you appales both you and your companion.
  1058. >Spewing shade all over the place, the brewery of all darkness, without a doubt - the Crystal Heart channels its corrupted will throughout the spire leading to the sky where it spreads it all over Equestria.
  1059. >Of course, only something as splending and pure could be used for villainy of this scale.
  1060. >"So it's true..."
  1061. >It is most likely what Anon was fearing to find the most.
  1062. >"God damn it."
  1063. >The man puts his notes away. There's nothing else to document here. The perversion of this place is so obvious even you can tell it has to be stopped.
  1064. >Now Anon's words of powerful magicians being removed from this world are starting to make sense to you.
  1065. >How can any regular pony even begin to approach this?
  1066. >Examining the Heart further, you notice that it is still intact, faint color holding its magic still, but viscous streaks of some sort of black goo form a net that binds it.
  1067. >The more you look at it, the more it feels like it's pulsating just a bit, its shine changing just a little as it pumps its spiritual oil upwards to the crystals of the castle, which also have those vein-like engravings in them.
  1068. >"It looks like a real heart now, creepy," Anon tries to joke but his voice is seeped in fear.
  1069. "Can we do anything about this?"
  1070. >"You're asking me?" Anon bitterly chuckles.
  1071. "You're the one who knows everything about how this should really work."
  1072. >That's right, he's the expert on the "real" Equestria. Somehow in all the overwhelming panic you both forgot all about it.
  1073. >"Hmm..."
  1074. “And what happened to the Initiative here?”
  1075. >Anon simply shakes his head. This is so surreal that you bet he won’t even consider thinking about his organization right now when there’s this giant problem in your way.
  1076. >He puts your bags on the dirty crystal floor and walks a full circle around the Heart. Doesn’t seem like it really cares about you being right here, at the core of the corruption.
  1077. >"You know, this substance reminds me a bit of the space I crossed from Earth to Equestria," he points upwards where the concentration of the oily substance is the thickest and it almost looks like it's sparkling in whatever light touches it. "Maybe it's a hint?"
  1078. "I've never seen it, sorry."
  1079. >Your meek reply doesn't affect Anon's thinking process. He's making another lap around the Heart, all in silence.
  1080. >The shadows could jump at you at any moment, but for some reason you are so used to them being passive observers that you don't expect to be attacked even now.
  1081. >A dangerous mindset to have, but Anonymous seems to share it, consumed by thought.
  1082. >"Well, the original Heart was captured by Sombra, but this doesn't look like his handiwork. But still, if this one still functions the normal way, it still can be healed."
  1083. >He just knew all this, just like that? So there is a way?
  1084. >Your eyes light up with this newfound hope.
  1085. "Alright, what do we need to do?"
  1086. >To your dismay Anon isn't that happy about the solution he's about to share with you. In fact, he takes a second to decide if he should even reveal it.
  1087. >"It is powered by love, it amplifies it and magic happens. There has to be a lot of it around to, you know, charge it. It spins around and..."
  1088. >Anon makes a circling motion with his finger and his embarrassed smile displays clearly just how deep in trouble you both are.
  1089. >Where are you going to find something powerful enough to dispel this?
  1090. >Although Anon did say it only needs love...
  1091. >The stare you're giving one another now only means that he has arrived at the same conclusion as you.
  1092. >You are a matched pair. A man and a mare supposedly picked to be with each other. To love each other.
  1093. >"Hey, Moonluck, do you think it's possible that... We could... I mean, in theory it's possible that..."
  1094. >The silly grin on your face barely keeps the terror inside you contained.
  1095. "Oh, I mean, you clearly said that, uh-m... This could be a part of the solution, so-"
  1096. >This is way too much for you!
  1097. >Are you hearing this right? Not only do you have to somehow channel the magic of love - your love to Anon?! - to even attempt to salvage the situation, but this time the fate of the whole world depends on it?
  1098. >"If only we knew how to make this work exactly, ha-ha."
  1099. "What if we, you know... What if you t-touch my hoof and then..."
  1100. >And then what?
  1101. >For a moment a faint image of you passionately kissing in front of a heart just to watch its reaction passes your head.
  1102. >And what if you need to do more than that? Right here?!
  1103. >Alright, you are about to lose it.
  1104. >"Yeah, let's start with that?"
  1105. >Did he just say start? What, is he reading your mind now?
  1106. >You shut your eyes to shield your thoughts from anypony's prying sight and extend your foreleg towards Anon, blindly trusting him to do his thing.
  1107. >After a few painful seconds he touches it with just the tips of his fingers.
  1108. >Curiosity gets the best of you and you steal a glance at the Heart, noticing that Anon is doing the same.
  1109. >As if chiseled marble, this composition of your bodies symbolizes the purest love between a man and a mare for the Heart to observe. What a sight to behold, right onto the Initiative's brochure cover it would go if there was any Initiative left in this desolate Empire.
  1110. >It's no use. Even if you were to get nasty right here in front of this love-powered mineral, it wouldn't mean a thing to it.
  1111. >What you need is to invoke a feeling. And both of you are too scared and confused to focus on it.
  1112. >"Alright, clearly this isn't what it wants," Anon finally breaks his gentle contact with your hoof.
  1113. "There has to be a way to convince it."
  1114. >Would professing your love before it work? Now is not the time to think about the mood but it still feels disappointing to think about it this way.
  1115. >Your confession, forced out of you by the circumstances yet again. That's not how it was supposed to be.
  1116. >"Maybe we don't need to do anything."
  1117. "What do you mean?"
  1118. >"Maybe just us being here together can heal it."
  1119. "I packed some sandwiches, but... How long do you think it's gonna take?"
  1120. >On the side note, is he just assuming you're fit to affect it? In which case him loving you and you loving him is just the default for him?
  1121. >Any other time you'd have a panic attack about such an assumption. Right now you simply need a solution.
  1122. >Anon is right, this world is wrong on so many levels. You'll get rid of all of it and start anew.
  1123. "Come here."
  1124. >Your man trusts you enough to get closer to you. He even squats down to be level with you.
  1125. >Hoof touching his shoulder you explain it to him:
  1126. "If you're so sure that we can do this in the first place then what more do we need?"
  1127. >Anon takes a second to think about what you said and gets it right away.
  1128. >"You're right, Moonluck. Maybe by trying to find a solution we already have what we need."
  1129. >Nodding, you invite him to take your hoof. This time his palm is open and your foreleg slides onto it, fetlock stopping in his tender hold.
  1130. >You wish this could be just a bad dream and you'd wake up with Anon on your bed. You so want to end this once and for all.
  1131. >And when you wake up, you're gonna kiss him for so long you're gonna miss work and stay cuddling in your warm bed all day long.
  1132. >He'll say all kinds of sweet things to you and you'll tease him a lot.
  1133. >There's nothing you want more right now than to wake up.
  1134. >Anon nods to you and you respond in kind.
  1135. >Whatever your love amounts to is going to be tested now.
  1136. >The other hoof and the other hand are now close to the Heart, but your eyes are still locked.
  1137. >For a moment you see it. A reflection of the Heart's light in Anon's eyes, sparkling as you both touch its cold, polished surface.
  1138. >"Moonluck..." Anon whispers and the smile you show him is surely filling him with warmth.
  1139. >You feel it in him. All the emotions swelling and storming in him, now that the Heart connects you. He surely feels yours as well.
  1140. >And then everything starts falling.
  1141. >Wet warmths starts enveloping your hoof, not from the crystal it's touching, but-
  1142. "Anon?!"
  1143. >You finally break your loving gaze and see that everything up to your knee is already covered in sticky pitch-black mud coming from the Heart.
  1144. >Anon tries to pull you away, but his hand is in the same trap. He tries to help you with his other arm, but even him dragging you off doesn't accomplish anything - like some sort of slime the darkness stretches, but doesn't let go.
  1145. >It starts contracting back the moment you stop pulling.
  1146. >A desperate attack of your magic seems to have no effect on the hungering all-consuming shadow either.
  1147. "Come on!.."
  1148. >Both your hindlegs press against the Heart's pedestal, but as soon as you feel yourself pulling away you realize that now there's three legs stuck in this horrid tar instead of just one.
  1149. >Anon's situation isn't much better. The more he struggles, the more he is sucked into the now fully darkened Heart. It is as if it's growing in size now, feeding off your energy.
  1150. >"Don't worry, Moonluck..." your human pants, still doing his best to keep distance. "I'll-"
  1151. >Your heart is captured in an ice prison the second you realize that this might be the last time you're seeing your man.
  1152. "Aaugh, please!"
  1153. >If only the Moon were here to grant you its blessing as it always does.
  1154. "I can't-"
  1155. >Anon is barely visible now that both of you are so deep into this sticky predicament.
  1156. >This isn't how this was supposed to be.
  1157. >Your only free hoof tries to find your man and for but a moment his fingers touch it.
  1158. "I can't lose you NOW!"
  1159. >Not now, not after all you've been through. There's so much left to say and do. You're not ready for such an inglorious end.
  1160. >Your ear gets so full of this sickeningly warm substance it loses hearing completely. Next to follow are your eyes and the last thing they see is Anon's face being drowned by the same goo.
  1161. >His eyes are burning with a promise of revenge, not fear or acceptance.
  1162. >"I'll find you," you hear in your only working ear. "I'll find you, Moonluck! Wherever-"
  1163. >Your eyes go blind and the rest of your body disappears into the suffocating deep. You can't breathe, you can't scream, you can't hear, you can't see, you can't move.
  1164. >There is nothing left for you.
  1165. >And then all your senses are returned to you at once. So forcefully that you scream.
  1166. >Only there is nobody to hear you. Yet still something takes notice of you. A dim light so far away in the depths of complete darkness surrounding you.
  1167. >And then more, more and more start appearing like eyes opening to your presence. Billions of them.
  1168. >Like stars on the night sky canvas they propagate through your sight looking for them.
  1169. >You are floating in this star soup and as soon as you realize that your hooves find a solid surface under them without anything to indicate such.
  1170. >It's like the world is forming anew all around you. Moonluck's world.
  1171. >You wonder what kind of realm that would be. Certainly one where Anon is still with you.
  1172. >Enchanted by these distant stars you wonder if he'd like this. Maybe wherever he is, he's seeing the same thing.
  1173. >No, you know it's not true. This is the end for you, as pretty as it is.
  1174. >At least your mind is free to wonder before your life eventually fades away.
  1175. >See how much wrong there is with this? It's not what fate had in store for you, surely.
  1176. >You, Moonluck? Finding an end like this?
  1177. >Cowards like you don't deserve a spectacle of these proportions.
  1178. > couldn't even tell Anon you love him. Even as your last words.
  1179. >If you thought it was a lie before, what did it matter in the end? Now you've taken it to your cosmic grave and it will remain a lie forever, never to give him even the faintest of hopes.
  1180. >Maybe if you told him... What if that was it? What if that was the only right thing to do?
  1181. >You haven't made anypony happy in the end. Now this is Moonluck you remember. Indecisive, useless to the very end, making no difference.
  1182. >The only things that have ever made you kick your emotions into overdrive were horrors inflicted on you and your human.
  1183. >And now it doesn't even matter.
  1184. >You sit down and you tears filling your eyes. For the first time since Anon has arrived to change your life with his warmth you started crying for real.
  1185. >Letting it all out isn't helping. The more you realize that this is your end, the more you regret everything you've ever done. No consolation to be had.
  1186. >You've been a horrible mare to Anon. You didn't deserve a man like him, or anypony at all.
  1187. >This is your place now, your last home before fading away. Just an endless expanse of stars winking at you in their own hypnotizing motion.
  1188. "I've had enough of this, just take me," you solemnly request.
  1189. >But nothing happens. You realize you're not even crying anymore. What reason is there to pity yourself when even if you were given a second chance to right your wrongs, if you were suddenly flung out back to Anon, you wouldn't be any wiser for it?
  1190. >This mare doesn't learn. She's useless like that. Only daydreams and floats through her life.
  1191. >Wait, if you're not crying anymore, why do you still hear yourself crying?
  1192. >Startled and alert, you stand up. The voice is so close, you can almost-
  1193. >Right next to you, a pony's silhouette is slouched over the floor, threatening to fall over at any moment.
  1194. >Her muzzle is showing a grimace of utmost bitter pain and her tears nearly stream down from her cheeks, falling into the depths of this abyss to disappear in it.
  1195. "H-hello?"
  1196. >She is wrapped in it, this starry substance. You never notice it before she moves her head towards you, but now you see layers of the strange fabric slithering against each other, shining stars of their own at you.
  1197. >But under these blankets of unknowable witchcraft fully wrapping the pony you recognize a face. A face of your own.
  1198. "Gah!"
  1199. >Even your jump is softened by the carpet of unfeeling nebulas. It's all so soft, no wonder that pony is using it to comfort herself.
  1200. >'Go away.'
  1201. >Hearing your own voice coming from somepony else is terrifying, especially because she isn't moving her mouth to speak, just cries more and more. But you haven't been overcoming all the terror just to back out now, so you are determined to face her.
  1202. >'Can't you see?' she pleads again, right from inside your head, voice sounding just like those whispers you've been hearing. 'You did everything right, and yet...'
  1203. >Her blanket falls lower on her face so only her patchy, dirty mane still peeks out of it.
  1204. >'I can never be like you... I'm...'
  1205. >Step by step you approach the wailing mare, not repulsed by her deep, snotty cries.
  1206. >'I'm so useless.'
  1207. >Time stands still. Your hoof is touching hers and at that moment you finally understand. Your struggles and regrets didn't mean anything in the end.
  1208. >Merely a framed painting before its disheartened artist.
  1209. >Your horn lights up on its own, so brightly that you feel like it's going to blind you.
  1210. >The body you clearly feel as yours in one second, loses its form in another.
  1211. >The mind you thought you had is no longer your own.
  1212. >The last thing you see is a faint memory of Anon reaching out to you in his own last moments.
  1213. "Funny", you think to yourself as you lose control over everything that was once you. "Even knowing how it's going to end, I still couldn't tell him."
  1214. >You wonder if Anon would accept a coward like you back even if he never learned about your feelings.
  1215. >The spark of the magic fully extracted from your body, bright as a star, takes its place among all the others in the void, adding just one more to the endless myriad of lights that will never bring joy to anypony.
  1216. >The daydream has run its course. This manifestation of Moonluck is no more.
  1217. >...
  1218. >...
  1219. >...
  1220. >You are Moonluck Wish, unicorn recruit of the Mate Retrieval Initiative on her fifth mission. And you are in deep manure right now.
  1221. >At least you think your name is Moonluck Wish. This is what your flower badge says but you can't be sure any longer. You're starting to get delirious from exposure.
  1222. >How could you be so careless? Wait, don't answer that. You've been asking yourself that question for the whole two days now, or maybe even three days? Five?
  1223. >Time flows differently in the human world. Well, everything is different here. Usually you don't get to experience it fully because you always have a H.O.P.E tank on your side, fixed to your tightly fastened Special Risk Mission saddlebags.
  1224. >It was so well fixed, in fact, that you've lost it together with those saddlebags when you were trying to escape a sudden shootout and nearly got run over by a car.
  1225. >Back then you were so naive to assume that's the worst thing that could happen to you. That was before you found yourself completely stranded in this wretched realm of colorless debauchery.
  1226. >Of course, your emergency field teleporter was still on your foreleg, but guess what? It also runs on the magic stored in H.O.P.E.
  1227. >And where do you get magic to refill it now? That's right, from your own body.
  1228. >It should be standard protocol. The thing is, that standard protocol doesn't assume you'll be left behind completely. Somepony would extract you within a day, locating you by your unique magic imprint, and you'd get back a bit exhausted, but safe and sound.
  1229. >But nobody came.
  1230. "Celestia DAMN IT!"
  1231. >You kick the nearest trash can on your way through the park, your only source of food here.
  1232. >Eating grass from the ground just like that? So much for being a Canterlot upper class mare!
  1233. >And yes, you ARE using those swear words like it's nothing, you're that deep in despair. It's only fitting you've fallen from grace this much.
  1234. >"I-is anyone there?"
  1235. >Sudden voice from the dark startles you and with no hesitation you run deeper into the park, diving right into the tree line.
  1236. >Albeit decorative, it can hide somepony as small as you well enough.
  1237. >That was a human, because who else would that be in this world, and you are not dealing with humans right now, or ever again.
  1238. >If you had your spells at the ready you'd probably try to attack too, but you have to conserve your innate pony magic while the teleporter is charging.
  1239. >Urgh, it's all humans' fault! All of it.
  1240. >You were briefed that your target could be armed but it wasn't the reason this whole thing happened. He was actually in a hurry to get out of here and not even five minutes after your team found him you've discovered why.
  1241. >It's what humans do, to your guess, drive up to one of their own in their shiny vehicles and start shooting guns at them.
  1242. >Your captain decided that this calls for the use of those smoke grenades she always had on her, and the confusion allowed them to gain enough distance to quickly open the emergency portal and shove the human in there.
  1243. >Problem is, you got on the other side of that confusion; as you were diving from the bullets, the car those murderers were speeding on grazed your side.
  1244. >And that hit that you thought you did your best to avoid was right on that canister with pressurized alicorn magic.
  1245. >You have no idea if any of the humans survived the explosion, you only know that your own magic shields got drained in a matter of a moment, faithfully protecting your frail pony body until the very last drop of magic, and you still got thrown so far away from the epicenter that by the time you came to in some ditch, other humans have already arrived on the scene.
  1246. >Black cars, black suits, no sirens, total silence aside from occasional radio chatter. These weren't the kind of human police forces you were briefed on.
  1247. >You watched them take what was left of your equipment with them. Soon, they started searching for you and you had to run, cursing your aching legs.
  1248. >Those legs never started feeling any better.
  1249. >But soon you'll get out of here and it won't matter. Just a horrible dream you’ll wake up from and try to forget.
  1250. "Come on, come on!"
  1251. >You give the device on your fetlock a small poke as if that’d make it charge any faster.
  1252. >The worst thing about this situation - aside from eating grass, drinking dirty water, having no shelter and being really cold, hiding from humans and-
  1253. >Okay, it's not the worst thing about it, but still, one of the bad things about this situation is that you are left completely alone with your own thoughts.
  1254. >As if that wasn't bad enough as it is in your usual daily life.
  1255. >Guess that's the change of pace you’ve always wanted when you signed up for the Initiative’s lucrative recruitment offer, huh?
  1256. >You knew all along you weren't cut out for this and your only hope was that you'll avoid all the dangerous situations you were warned about. You aren't a guardsmare, you have no proper training in...well, anything.
  1257. >Now you have even more reasons to feel useless and you can spend days in this magicless prison world thinking just about that! Isn't that precious?
  1258. >Trying to stay away from any open spaces you make your way to the park's water fountain. No, not the drinking kind - those are here but utterly broken and vandalized seemingly ages ago.
  1259. >But a decorative one still works during most hours and you still have time to drink before it shuts down for the night.
  1260. >These moments of being exposed are the hardest for you so you make sure nopony is watching, approaching the target in a circle from within the tree line.
  1261. >It only takes you a minute. It's so utterly repulsive to drink this mud but your pounding heart doesn't allow you to concentrate on the taste.
  1262. >You fill a bottle you now always have with you for the night too, but only half-way; a bright flash interrupts you and you almost hit the ground expecting to hear deafening gun shots again, the newest trauma of your life.
  1263. >But there's no sound that follows that flash, and that could only mean...
  1264. >You gallop as fast as you can in the direction opposite of the suspected camera, seeing another flash aimed your way tear up the air.
  1265. >Why are you so stupid, why can't you do anything right, why are you making these kind of mistakes when your whole life is on the line?
  1266. >You collapse on the grass so far away from your usual area of operation you don't think you'll be able to ever find your way back.
  1267. >Your legs hurt, your side hurts, your stomach hurts, everything hurts, you're thirsty again and your chest is heaving with burning, labored breaths that bring no relief to your scrambled mush of a brain.
  1268. >This is so like you. Confused, scared, ditzy, inattentive - that's Moonluck.
  1269. >Is this what you wanted, some change to your lonely but comfortable life of daydreams? Here's something for a change, a reality check.
  1270. >Five missions without contributing much to the team, more like getting in the way of the determined mares who take this way more seriously than you.
  1271. >Every mare on the Extraction team seems to get her own match sooner rather than later, once the Initiative caught wind of that it became its main appeal point - and also the reason they've ran out of professionals so fast and ended up picking up anypony volunteering for the cause, even pegasi and unicorns who are mostly useless in the magic vacuum of this world.
  1272. >You figured you'd never get your match by waiting, so you've decided to take the matters into your own hooves.
  1273. >Now you know why you never got yours, an utter nuisance like you doesn't get to have one.
  1274. >Those mares on your team, they were happy to get rid of you. What an amazing opportunity to list you as a casualty and let you rot here. Captain Iris is probably laughing her flank off right about now, drinking carrot juice with her teammates.
  1275. >Who can blame them?
  1276. >No, this isn't right. This isn't how this is supposed to be.
  1277. "Please, I've had enough..."
  1278. >Your voice sounds so weak right now you're not sure why you even bothered saying anything, this doesn't prove you're still sane or even alive in any way.
  1279. >Won't somepony save you? Or wake you up from this horrible nightmare?
  1280. >Moonchild will certainly shake you when she hears the weird noises you're making in your sleep and you'll wake up right next to your dear sister in peace and quiet of regal Canterlot where you belong.
  1281. >Only you're not a filly anymore and you haven't met up with Moonchild for years now.
  1282. >No pony is there for you when you sleep, and certainly no human.
  1283. >No matter how much time you've spent daydreaming about a simple, quiet life with a simple man somewhere in a city like Manehattan, where you can get lost in peace and quiet at his side, even that is absolutely beyond your reach.
  1284. >You are alone.
  1285. >...
  1286. >You are ALONE.
  1287. >This thought makes your body move on the cold, dirty grass. All your remaining willpower is spent just standing up.
  1288. >You are on the edge of the park, completely unfamiliar to you and, thankfully, completely dark.
  1289. >Through the fence that reaches high above you see lights of the rest of the city. They bring no joy to you.
  1290. >The bars that separate you from the world outside aren't here to keep you in, they're to keep that abhorrent civilization out of your domain.
  1291. >Like a wide dead river, the road separates this safe corner from the movement on the other side.
  1292. >There are no colors other than grey of stone and sickeningly-cold yellow of electric tubes illuminating it.
  1293. >The more you stay here, the more this greyness seeps under your coat, which has lost its gloss long ago, right through your pores, filling your soul with its nauseating apathy.
  1294. >With each inhale of this alien air contaminated with human sins you become more desensitized to the toxic perversion of everything that makes you a pony.
  1295. >With each exhale you lose a part of you that belongs to Equestria.
  1296. >And now even the looming inevitability of becoming completely drained of pony magic is but a distant memory of a mare who was never too hopeful to begin with.
  1297. >You don't feel anything in your heart anymore. Body may ache but the soul is elsewhere, assured that none of this is real.
  1298. >That's right, it's too gruesome to be real. Those lights running left and right on the road are hypnotizing you and the buzz they produce makes you lose what's left of your focus.
  1299. >All of this was doomed to fail right from the start, from the moment you've realized the Initiative is months into its campaign and you're not among thousands of lonely mares getting a match.
  1300. >You were so lonely and yet you were never meant to be comforted. You are that insignificant.
  1301. >Walking along the massive fence you think about how many hours you have left.
  1302. >What will happen once you are completely discolored? Will you just lose your mind? Or your life?
  1303. >But you don't get to learn about it.
  1304. "Eek!"
  1305. >The buzzing of your teleporter amulet brings you back to Earth.
  1306. >With bated breath you look at it - its noise indicates it is either charged or it has no more power to charge from.
  1307. >Your eyes reflect the red dot on its side.
  1308. >It ran out of magic.
  1309. >At long last, for the first time on this miserable misadventure, tears start forming in your eyes.
  1310. >It was always inevitable but now it's your reality. There is no way back home.
  1311. "No!"
  1312. >Even now you choose to rebel, as the last desperate measure.
  1313. >Your vision is so blurry now that the cars in the distance are like a current of pallid light, so when you drop the device on the grass you can't even find it at first.
  1314. >Only a few seconds later the portal rips reality apart, fighting the magicless world for any scrap of supernatural power to sustain itself.
  1315. >You have no idea what is going to happen - the artifact got only half-charged at best. But if this can lead you home, if there's a slightest chance...
  1316. >You are done with the human world forever. You'd rather perish than spend even a second more on this poisoned ground.
  1317. >But the other side of the barely stable portal makes you regret those thoughts immediately.
  1318. "Hello? Anypony here?"
  1319. >It's all around you, the light produced by so many stars, that you get dizzy as soon as your gaze lies upon them. It doesn't get any easier finding your bearings around here no matter how many times you've traversed this space between worlds on your missions.
  1320. >There is no ground, there is no up or down, only the empty space with nothing by malevolent illumination all around you.
  1321. >The portal fizzles out right behind you. Good thing you were fast enough to get here.
  1322. >Or maybe it's really not that good of a thing, usually there's the other side of the portal in the distance, visible at all times. A direct tunnel punched through this place by a spell sustained on Equestria's side, not lacking in magic to continue existing as long as it is needed, and an unwavering light rail to concentrate on while you cross to the other side.
  1323. >Compared to the artificial lights of the city these stars feel even colder. Like you are staring at something that's been unchanged for ages.
  1324. >And usually you have your team's chatter to accompany you on the journey through this place. Now it's silent. You can't take it.
  1325. "Don't tell me I'm stuck here."
  1326. >It seems that even turning your head to the side slightly completely ruins your sense of direction. Nothing around here that your eyes can use as a reference point.
  1327. >It's possible that you are already lost.
  1328. >The tears that have dried up because of your panic return again. A crying mare is now walking through nothingness without any chance of leaving it.
  1329. "This isn't right. It just isn't."
  1330. >The more you try to dispel the silence around you by talking to yourself, the more it envelops you, like a snake tightening its coil around the victim with its every breath.
  1331. >Worse, the more you speak, the more it seems in your head like somepony is listening. You really don't like that. You're either going insane or...
  1332. "No, there can't be anypony here, that'd mean somepony actually cares about me. Haha!"
  1333. >Such a funny joke makes another batch of tears leave your eyes.
  1334. "It's just a dream. I'll wake up soon. This can't be happening, it's not right."
  1335. >You keep repeating it wishing it to be true.
  1336. "It's not real. It's not..."
  1337. >Your muzzle meets the soft surface of nothingness below you when you fall. Even the pain in your legs that finally give in on you can't make you feel anything in your heart now that you're completely motionless on the unfeeling carpet of stars.
  1338. "This isn't happening."
  1339. >You just wanted to meet a human and live a normal life.
  1340. >No, that's not right. You were so afraid of meeting a human the way you were, ashamed of what little you could offer him, terrified of the prospect of being loved, that you've decided to become a new mare, brave, stoic, decisive just to be able to get matched.
  1341. >An Initiative operative Moonluck would know how to live a normal, healthy life as a good marefriend.
  1342. >An Initiative operative Moonluck would know how to talk to a human, how to make him feel at home, how to invite him to outings and later to your bed, how to hug and how to kiss.
  1343. >And how to say that she loves him.
  1344. >But you're just Moonluck Wish. A sheltered baby with no motivation to do anything with your life, no experience in anything remotely romantic.
  1345. >You don't know any of those things, they scare you, they mortify you, paralyze you, they make your heart feel like it's going to explode when you think about them.
  1346. >Instead of steeling your mind and soul like you hoped, the Initiative has utterly destroyed them and now you're a goner in the void that ponies are not even allowed to look at during the operations.
  1347. >This shouldn't be happening to you. If only you were somepony else.
  1348. "If only I weren't Moonluck."
  1349. >Somepony else might've found a way. Somepony else might've survived.
  1350. >Your eyes close, tears in them evaporating into the nothingness that is already blanketing your body, burying you alive under sheets of warm fabric of the darkened space.
  1351. >Moonluck Wish is now its property. She can't resist any longer. Her "self" is refused by her, discounted as a bad dream, as something that is not real. Only her waning desire to reject all of this is still pulsating in her heart.
  1352. >Her final thoughts are of an imaginary human she left her docile, perfectly uneventful life for, thinking she can become someone worthy of love.
  1353. "I must find him! This can't be how it ends! It just can't. I will find him and tell him I've been waiting for him all my life, and he'll hug me, and..."
  1354. >Now with her final breaths she is inhaling the thickness of the interdimensional Void itself.
  1355. >It weaves a cocoon of silent stars around her, ready to accept her with all her faults as a lover would.
  1356. >This makes her think of a human who is embracing her, a hallucination to interpret the sensation of the Void getting a hold of her.
  1357. >A human... In her dream, she reaches out to him, and the Void follows that motion, guided like a moth to the flame of the mare's last passion.
  1358. >It reaches out through space and time to reveal him, to make you, Moonluck Wish, see him, hoping that it will multiply the magic of your wish the Void hungers for.
  1359. >Your body shifts and twists. Your sight is cloudy and your thoughts can't penetrate the fog in your head.
  1360. >Visions of the human world blur past you with incredible speed, as if you're flying through their whole cities in a matter of seconds.
  1361. >Streetlights, cars, all are squashed together. But then you slow down and descend to the ground.
  1362. >Below you stands a human - no, the human. Only... You can't tell him anything.
  1363. >It's not you, not Moonluck. Your wish, personified, is looking down at a blurry figure of a man and nothing is clear to you.
  1364. >But you also notice some other figure right next to him.
  1365. >It's what they call a woman. The way she hides behind the human's, YOUR human's back, paints a picture most humiliating in your mind.
  1366. >She is clearly with him, meaning your match has already found somepony else instead of you.
  1367. >Even now, when you have finally found him, you are being denied. Robbed of everything you have ever hoped for in your life.
  1368. "This is a joke, right?"
  1369. >Instead of tears flowing down, fire rises up from the very tips of your hooves to your head.
  1370. "So this is how it is, huh?"
  1371. >No words are produced by your silent fury; it would prefer to speak for itself if you allow it.
  1372. "Is this all that I'm worth to that damned Crystal Heart?! And the princess, she probably thought it'd be so funny to let me hope all for nothing when it's...when it's the only thing I-"
  1373. >The fire is streaming higher, right into your horn, and in its trail the Void claims the body burnt throughout.
  1374. >It's so clear now, everything was wrong right from the start. Crystal Heart deeming you unworthy of love. Princess Cadance setting you up with a taken man so even if you ever find him your happiness will be crushed. Your teammates abandoning you to die in the human world.
  1375. >They were all right. Only you are here right now and they are not.
  1376. "I don't need the Initiative. I'm not losing this chance. I'll make the Heart accept us!"
  1377. >You'll take him and drag him to that phony rock, shove him right at it and show it you've earned your match. And you'll hit that rock until it approves!
  1378. >THIS is the real change you hoped for all along. The power to deny the reality where you are just a useless daydreaming loner.
  1379. >If there’s no way for you to be together with him then you’ll simply create a world where you are, and you won’t let anypony else interfere.
  1380. >Your horn finally flares up, unleashing magic you've never felt before.
  1381. >The fog before your eyes thickens until you can't see anything anymore.
  1382. >Silky layers of warm void that cradle your whole body fall on your face from your head like a cloak and only strands of your dirty, ragged mane peek out of it.
  1383. >In the comforting cocoon of shining tarp of cosmos your struggles and regrets finally lose their meaning.
  1385. >"You're Anonymous, right? The new guy?"
  1386. >Your eyes open to see Josh, the only other employee of this decrepit car wash.
  1387. "Yeah."
  1388. >The man is without a doubt older than you, at least in his thirties, and the track suit on his wide shoulders coupled with a dirty rock band shirt makes him look like some hobo.
  1389. >He definitely doesn't mind. Nobody here cares anymore.
  1390. >"Here," he puts bank notes on the table you're sitting at and you notice it's just four tenners. "From Sergey for today."
  1391. >Josh looks at them with slight pity in his eyes and adds:
  1392. >"Slow day, huh? We're closing down for the rest of the weekend so you're free to go."
  1393. >It's about time, dozing off sitting here on the company's ragged sofa awkwardly situated in the depths of this humble establishment isn't the best way you could be spending your time.
  1394. >Money find their way into your pocket just like that, no wallet on you, and after saying your goodbyes to Josh (boss has already left his work place a while ago, naturally) you're ready to head back home.
  1395. >The way down the road is windy. Early autumn mood is slowly setting in on the land and the only thing that warms your heart is the money in the chest pocket of your old jeans coat that makes you look like a total asshole. At least your hair isn't clean cut like your boss'.
  1396. >Why is it just forty bucks for the day? Because you've only worked for four hours today.
  1397. >Why just four hours? Because barely anyone wealthy enough to afford regular car washes is left in this part of your Bumfuck Nowhere city, the perfectly forgettable medium sized town.
  1398. >Why just ten bucks an hour? Because nobody is offering more for this kind of job anymore.
  1399. >Why cash? Because you'd rather have such an insignificant amount of money right now and not deal with the wait times and buggy online banking. Shit's been so unreliable lately it's more of a joke than a service now.
  1400. >Doesn't take a lot of brains to figure out why white collars were the prime target for the Harvest. So many lonely guys got abducted in the first three waves it's a wonder this country still has an economy to speak of.
  1401. >Of course, at first nobody was paying much attention to what kind of people went missing. It's months later, when underqualified workers and especially women started taking administrative positions all over the country that the cracks in the system started leaking.
  1402. >So now getting a good job involves good experience and your qualifications start and end with retail work.
  1403. >And so you're here. Working at this car service center that only really washes cars these days.
  1404. >Right now you're buying yourself some smokes at a kiosk on your way home. The luxury you want to afford to remind yourself you're still human.
  1405. "The usual," you tell the old lady inside and wait for her to get you the pack.
  1406. >It was Kyle's place once. He got abducted by those little critters as well. He was always quiet, lonely and miserable, figures they'd hunt him down eventually.
  1407. >You miss the guy, people found it weird that he has a knack for baking but he liked treating local kids once a week since he never had the chance to have his own. Now those kids and their families are long gone, moved deeper into the city once the rent prices near the center dropped.
  1408. >And it was still too steep for you, the eternal wage slave.
  1409. >Getting your cigs and your change you continue your lonely path down the sidewalk of a road travelled by few even in the evening.
  1410. >Lighting one up you notice you're being watched.
  1411. >Not by someone troublesome but rather peculiar, birds.
  1412. >It's no surprise that the fences surrounding unfinished construction sites you're moving past right now attract birds. But you never really felt they do things like stare at someone without moving.
  1413. >Like a dozen local crows, just sitting there in a line with their heads turned to the side, beads of their eyes like surveillance cameras following your path.
  1414. >Hell, with how secretive the little human-hunting aliens are you'd be willing to believe they actually use wildlife for peeking at people.
  1415. >At the same time it crosses your mind that people who were close to the abducted right before they got snatched were noticing supernatural phenomena happening near them. From banal signs of bad luck to paranoia-inducing occurrences.
  1416. >For these people lighting didn't strike twice, it was striking until they were gone. Figuratively.
  1417. >Like they were marked for the Harvest and became beacons attracting reality-bending powers.
  1418. >You even feel a stare from a long abandoned rusty brown Opel near the sidewalk. You pass it twice each day and only now feel like there's somebody inside it, obscured by the darkness of the cloudy evening.
  1419. >Meanwhile, you notice there's no end to the fence-sitting crows. It's like they're moving with-
  1420. >You stop to look behind you. The birds are not there anymore. Only one straggler flies above the group to take its place in the front.
  1421. "You've got to be kidding."
  1422. >What kind of circus is this? If all these eyes are on you, it can only mean you really are a target.
  1423. >Well, what can you say? Wherever those weird quadrupedal creatures drag single men to, it can't be much worse than this.
  1424. >Perhaps they just need slaves to work in their magic mines or something. Why else are they taking all the capable men from here but not a single woman?
  1425. >Speaking about women...
  1426. >"Hey 'Non!"
  1427. >On your way back to your apartment you've encountered a few more bad omens like two black cats running straight across your path in one minute, making it too obvious you're attracting a lot of bad energy.
  1428. >But none of that was as bad as seeing this woman again.
  1429. "Hey, Carol," you give her a tired smile.
  1430. >Still in a plain looking suit, right off the hook at work just like you it seems, this office lady is holding two bottles of cheap beer in one hand and her smartphone in another.
  1431. >At a glance one would consider her quite attractive, but the longer you stay with her, the more that image starts to crack - just like the screen of her phone, for example.
  1432. >It's not as new as it looks. Same goes for her: now well into the Christmas cake territory she uses too much makeup to hide it and that just makes things worse.
  1433. >The shoulder length haircut with long bangs she prefers these days doesn't make her look any younger as well. Her name is just the icing on the cake.
  1434. >Why does this eternally old-fashioned woman even cling to you this much is beyond you.
  1435. >Oh right, it's because there's nobody within your shared group of friends left to cling to. Everyone she tried to get it on with got Harvested one by one within this year.
  1436. >As her childhood friend you never really were in her scope of interest and there was a time you were frequently feeling really inadequate because of it.
  1437. >You used to think about her a lot when you were just a kid and she was already blooming. Then you realized she's not interested after the third time she had to shoot you down. Then you developed a complex thinking nobody will ever be interested if she isn't. And that's how you are now, not interesting to anybody.
  1438. >Now that you're long past your college days you can't bring yourself to care.
  1439. >"I got you some," Caroline shows you the best smile she can manage and you take a bottle out of her hand.
  1440. >Cheap, just like her.
  1441. >And her attention is just a handout like this beer. This isn't at all how you wanted it, being the emergency day leftovers for her.
  1442. >Hey, maybe this is why you got chosen for the Harvest.
  1443. "Thanks. Want one?"
  1444. >You show her your smokes to test her and she nods. Of course she wasn't serious about quitting a week ago, why would she be when you're the one offering her something?
  1445. >When it's in her mouth you light it for her instead of giving her the lighter. She instinctively forms a cup with her palms around the flame and her hand touches yours.
  1446. >Carol keeps it like that for just a moment. The small flame dances in her eyes when they meet yours.
  1447. >Your apartment building is situated right near the road, and on top of that there are train tracks running right next to that road, but right now it's so quiet you can hear the cigarette burn as she takes a long drag.
  1448. >As you use your lighter again to pop the cap off the bottle, you cautiously look around you in hopes of finding your saviors from another world.
  1449. >If this goes on she might get thoughts. You will not become this woman's consolation prize just because all her other male friends are gone now.
  1450. >They were your friends too. People you were growing up together with. Why even remain in this world when you have nobody left but this old hag and your parents who won't let you move back in with them no matter what you tell them?
  1451. >But there's nothing happening around you. The tree line at the building stands silent, a few parked cars don't seem to have any eyes watching you, there are lights in some of the windows but nobody is there to see this improvised couple share a beer after work.
  1452. >The building is long and the other one just like that is facing it from behind your back, right across a small overgrown park that's just like lettuce between two baguettes of five story panel insult to architecture housing dozens of small poor apartments.
  1453. >That goes on for a while, into the depths of a suburb you could call rural already.
  1454. >It's a serene place. The world in general feels a lot slower and emptier lately.
  1455. >Once the abductions started everyone's been on edge but at the same time it feels like at this time of global emergency people find it easier to live a relaxed life.
  1456. >Like it's not real and things will get back to normal any day now, so they have an excuse to not be so uptight.
  1457. >Only you're not sure all the snatched people, count in the high thousands across the globe by now, will ever return.
  1458. >It's not enough to deal any real damage to the world. More than enough to make a stir. It only takes one prison breakout because of a disappeared guard to make waves across the country. It only takes one successful banker to pop the lid off a whole net of offshores right before disappearance to cause oligarchy to start sweating.
  1459. >The ripples are much more significant than the people that make them.
  1460. >"It's so quiet," the woman next to you states after taking a swig from her bottle.
  1461. >You see the seductive crimson of her lipstick encircling the cigarette when she puts it in her mouth again.
  1462. "Isn't it always around here?" you deflect.
  1463. >"Hmph. Not anymore. You heard what happened last week? About that explosion?"
  1464. "A bit, what about it?"
  1465. >Some car got blown up on the other side of the city, right near that abandoned walled-off hospital on the outskirts, and people were whispering about some special agency being on the scene recovering everything before anybody could call the police.
  1466. >"Turns out it was them. They're terrorists just like everybody thought."
  1467. >Them. The aliens.
  1468. >Sure, by the targets they were picking it seems like they wanted to destabilize our world. But the real pattern was obvious to all men on the planet.
  1469. >Ironically, the more people believed in some higher power giving them a pickup from this lonely world, the more targets appeared on the radar for the Harvest to continue.
  1470. >"They even caught one on camera."
  1471. "Huh?"
  1472. >"Yeah, here."
  1473. >Of course Carol would have an article open on her phone already, she's the editor for the local news site.
  1474. >Scrolling through the text you quickly find those photos. Just like all the sightings of anything supernatural on this planet they're so blurry you can barely make out anything on them.
  1475. >Some old guy just happens to have an old-fashioned film camera on him in the park on that day?
  1476. "Heard some strange voice and followed it... Caught drinking from a fountain... You really believe this crap?"
  1477. >There was no doubt about it. Even if it's a blurry silhouette, it definitely resembles an equine.
  1478. >If this isn't a fake - which is very possible with this being a hot topic due to lack of direct confirmed sightings - it fits the descriptions.
  1479. >Many people want to believe they're real. Including you. Little ponies that take you away to a land of harmony instead of the otherworldly coal mines...
  1480. >"It looks fake to me," Carol reads your mind. "But the rest is true, people have seen some special agents show up here, in our city."
  1481. >Oh, you get what's going on.
  1482. >With a pitying smile you return your friend her device.
  1483. >If these aliens are here again, they're searching. And they might find you and take you away from her. You get it now, she's scared.
  1484. "I wonder who they're after now."
  1485. >"Probably some politician again," your friend scoffs, spreading the cigarette smoke around with her indignation.
  1486. "Hm..."
  1487. >You want to notice her reaction, see if she's bothered on a personal level as you're expecting her to be. But you don't get the chance since both of you are suddenly startled by a loud noise.
  1488. >It's just birds flapping their wings flying up. A lot of them. All of them crows. Silently surrounding you up in the tree branches up until now, they've suddenly taken off into the distance.
  1489. >You never even noticed them flocking around you, a whole murder assembling above your line of sight.
  1490. >Something must've scared them off. Soon you understand what.
  1491. >"Uh, Anon? Wh-"
  1492. >Your worried gaze thrown at Carol traces her extended hand to the ground which is now becoming covered by some sort of smoke.
  1493. >"What is this? Gas?"
  1494. >It swirls a bit as it forms a thin layer all around your cheap worn down shoes, only it doesn't stop there.
  1495. >"Oh god, we gotta get out of here," the woman is starting to panic.
  1496. >You feel like you should be running away from here but something is stopping you. It's like fear has disabled your whole body.
  1497. >"Anon?! Move!" you hear Carol but you can't do anything.
  1498. >The corners of your eyes watch everything surrounding you drown in that smoke. It is becoming so concentrated despite still being a thin layer on the ground, it feels like it's condensing into some sort of pitch-black liquid.
  1499. >Only when Carol grabs your arm to drag you away the strength to move on your own returns to you.
  1500. >She is relieved to find you're following her once you start your attempt to outrun the fog - deeper into the yard, far enough from the road where this mysterious smoke is apparently coming from.
  1501. >But your escape isn't as successful as you initially assume, because the front of the car you'd pass by in just a moment is suddenly flattened by some sizeable object fallen from the sky.
  1502. >With a shriek, Carol nearly falls over, pieces of glass hitting both of you in a painful shower. The crash was so loud and unexpected you yourself nearly lose your balance, but you not only remain on your feet, you also keep your friend standing when she grabs your arm for balance.
  1503. >The sound of your beer bottles hitting the ground is nothing compared to that overwhelming thunder.
  1504. >Now it seems you're cut off from your direct way of escape and Carol's small hands squeeze you as hard as her fear lets her when you both see what caused this massive impact.
  1505. >Instinctively, you keep Carol behind you as if you could ever protect her.
  1506. "Don't move."
  1507. >You feel like running will get you evaporated in an instant because in front of you you see the horror that makes your head hurt just looking at it.
  1508. >Fog streaming down her legs as if she has four smoke machines attached to her, a big lanky equine is now standing on that poor car, slammed down beyond repair.
  1509. >You don't have the time to realize you were right to suspect the enigmatic aliens to be ponies. This one doesn't resemble any pony you know.
  1510. >It's like she's made of some constantly shifting viscous goo, so many shadows turbulently moving around that they roughly create a silhouette of a big equine, much larger than you.
  1511. >It is especially obvious on her raven mane contrasting the gloss of her bubbling bible black body, only that mane is sparkling with barely noticeable lights resembling the night sky of your light polluted city.
  1512. >This ethereal substance is evaporating fast as it flows off her head and neck; akin to burning fire under heavy wind it's leaving tiny inky sparks flying around as they are taken high in the air.
  1513. >The face, at least the part where it's supposed to be located, is sterile, expressionless. No mouth, just two ovals of shining eyes - two searchlights focusing on you, sinister shapes with no features to see in them instilling fear into your heart.
  1514. >Crowning the head is a long straight horn, alive with spiralling shadows that leave its tip to dissipate into the air. And on the back, to complete the look of the uncrowned royalty, two massive wings are open like wet drapes.
  1515. >You can't even tell if there's any form to them as they are just thick streams of crude oil now covering the car in its mucus that flows down to join the sea of darkness below, probably the cause of this flood in the first place.
  1516. >Can you call such a mystifying and more importantly enormous creature a mere "pony"? She's definitely an alicorn, only a really unnatural looking one.
  1517. >"W-what is this?" you hear your friend sheepishly whisper behind your back.
  1518. "No idea but... This isn't good."
  1519. >You feel like you're suffocating in this smoke that smells like wet asphalt as soon as you open your mouth. The creature reacts to your words as if it can hear it with its shadowy ears perking up at the sound of Carol's voice.
  1520. >The eyes shift onto her and it's then where you see emotions in them.
  1521. >They squint in anger.
  1522. "Oh no."
  1523. >You push Carol a bit to urge her to move. Whereas at first you thought running away won't do you any good, now this seems the only thing left to do, lest this thing blasts you with magic or something.
  1524. >The woman certainly can't keep up with you on her heels, but she still tries to hold onto you. When she starts falling behind, her hand slides down your arm, but as soon as you grab that hand, cold and trembling, her pace becomes more confident.
  1525. >As if to confirm your suspicions, everything around you starts growing darker the more distance you gain. That monster doesn't want you to escape.
  1526. >Hitting your spine from behind, a furious screech pierces your head with needles, as if it's scratching on your neck with its pitch so high you feel like you're going deaf.
  1527. >Carol screams together with it, covering her head with her free hand. It makes you both slow down and that might be the one mistake you couldn't afford to make.
  1528. >Showering you with smoke from above, the massive shadow of the alicorn soars through the air, effortlessly passing you to land right in front.
  1529. >The fog it produces reaches up in massive suffocating clouds. The creature has spared another parked car this time, landing instead on the pavement near it where it's finally level with you.
  1530. >Still looks too big to not be intimidating.
  1531. >Its eyes are still burning with cold resentment, all aimed behind you at the woman clinging on to you.
  1532. >But that's still just a look - only when you see the horror's horn lighting up you realize how deep in trouble you are.
  1533. >Almost ready to start running back to where you came from again you watch the creature shake its head as if the power it is gathering is too much.
  1534. >If it wanted to blast you with some death spell, it'd certainly have no problem doing so. But instead of that it looks like it is trying to contain itself more than anything.
  1535. >Like it's in pain and the magic is just a byproduct of it feeling hurt.
  1536. >Finally the spell is unleashed and you feel like this is where your life is going to end.
  1537. >The horn becomes the epicenter of an explosion. With another deafening screech the alicorn pushes everything around it away with such force it immediately lifts you off your feet.
  1538. >After what feels like an eternity spent in the air your back is utterly flattened by the impact against something hard and uneven, certainly not the road.
  1539. >You find yourself on top of the car that was previously destroyed by the hellish creature. Carol is not there anymore when you finally start feeling your body again, to your dismay.
  1540. >And even then you have no time to dawdle around trying to count the bones in your body that don't feel broken by now.
  1541. >The alicorn is now pushing swirling, wild beams of some kind of pale white magic from its horn. It travels in a chaotic pattern, burning everything in its path. And it's coming your way, thankfully slow enough to let you react.
  1542. >Feels like the creature can't control it well and this might be the only reason you're still alive.
  1543. >Finding your friend is a worry way past your brain right now. As soon as this wild magic reaches this car you're dead meat. If it's not going to end you, the explosion will.
  1544. >You somehow force your body to obey you and roll off the car's carcass.
  1545. "Oh fuck..." you moan when you hit the ground, landing right on your arms. "Carol?!"
  1546. >Even if you call her, something tells you she won't answer. The car cushioned your descent somewhat but you don't think she was this lucky. Maybe she landed somewhere on the grass or hit a tree?
  1547. >Not now. You gotta start crawling in the smoke you can barely even breathe in.
  1548. >Of course it's not enough to outrun anything.
  1549. >The fizzling of that spell reaches you and at that moment you are shaken by a sound so loud it makes you want to scream.
  1550. >Blinding light and wave of scalding heat only means one thing. You're too close to the explosion just as you feared.
  1551. >But instead of being taken in the air or hit in the head with a piece of metal shrapnel, or having your lungs burnt by the fire, you only feel mild heat spreading all over your skin.
  1552. >It's hard to focus but you are alive. And you take notice immediately that it's not entirely by luck.
  1553. >Pieces of the car are still landing all around you but they can't hit you - when you squint hard enough you see the distortion of the air around you.
  1554. >It is protecting you like some sort of a dome. Dangerous bits falling from the sky bounce off of it, unable to reach you.
  1555. >And then a female voice, most caring and regal, reaches your ears.
  1556. >"Anonymous, stay still."
  1558. >With bright metallic clunking two pairs of pony legs move past you right outside the protective spell. They are encased in a puffy silver colored suit, polished horseshoes affixing it to the hooves.
  1559. >Where they travel the smoke is dispelled, as if it is making way for this equine. And the destination is nowhere else but the creature of nightmares assaulting you.
  1560. >You twist your body to see what's going to happen but your vision is still blurry with that smoke getting into your eyes even in the magical dome still covering you.
  1561. >Your savior suddenly breaks into a gallop towards her target and the thunder of magic spells clashing together makes you wince.
  1562. >The shadow pony's beam is still too untamed, too twisted and unfocused. Meanwhile, the pony that protects you knows exactly what she's doing. Her light blue magic is deflecting the weaponized cosmic radiation with precision and power.
  1563. >It only takes a few bright flashes for your ally to completely negate the attacks, but as she reaches her enemy the stygian alicorn takes to the skies.
  1564. >When its wings unfurl it feels like the world grows ever so darker. Rivers of smoke shower everything with its shadows.
  1565. >Even the previously blue magic of the mare protecting you looks grey in such tainted air.
  1566. >The hellspawn fires back and it looks like the magic it uses is amplified now, a lot more consistent and bright. It scorches everything below her but the capable mare deflects it once again, albeit not as easily as before.
  1567. >The last thing you need is this nightmare creature to gain full control of its powers but you're in luck for now: instead of attacking further it flies even higher, flapping its obsidian wings that propel it up with a jet of smoke hitting the ground below.
  1568. >Bright flash is all it takes for the alicorn to disappear, retreating somewhere beyond this reality or maybe simply teleporting away.
  1569. >Everything goes completely silent aside from some car alarms still going off in the distance, previously obfuscated by the storm of magic.
  1570. >Oh god, if somebody in the apartment block has seen any of this happening, or worse, recorded it, this might expose a lot more about these aliens than they've been willing to share thus far.
  1571. >Part of you feels guilty about it but mostly you just feel pain all throughout your body which is still face down on the road as you can't find it in yourself to even sit down.
  1572. >The hero mare that has saved your life just now is approaching you swiftly.
  1573. >It's a shame you can't see who it is. The suit she's in covers her entire body up to her horn, the only bare part of her sticking out.
  1574. >The face is covered by a protective screen as if it's a hazard suit, not some battle armor as you've imagined at first.
  1575. >"Are you alright? Can you talk?"
  1576. >Hearing her voice makes you just a little bit more hopeful that you're going to be fine. But her approach becomes a gallop once again when she sees you trying to prop yourself up on your aching arms.
  1577. >"No, don't move!"
  1578. >The gasp she lets out when your body fails you and you hit the asphalt again sounds very concerned.
  1579. >"It's going to be alright, just stay still. I'll... I'll think of something."
  1580. >The words barely reach you at this point. Taking her advice and relaxing proves very effective at making your consciousness slip away.
  1581. >The mare is calling for you but you can't control anything anymore. Everything goes dark for just a moment.
  1582. >"Hello? Oh, thank goodness, you're waking up."
  1583. >Immediately your senses rush back into your head, empty and cold without them.
  1584. >Wherever you are now you're not on the road anymore, under your back there’s something cold but soft.
  1585. >Grass is all around you. It's dark. Your head is on something that feels like clothes but it's pulsating with the worst headache of your life so it's hard to concentrate on anything right now.
  1586. >"Are you feeling any better?"
  1587. "No... Oh fuck."
  1588. >Your hand wants to touch your back but in turn your arm feels like it's too hard to operate right now.
  1589. >The pony visibly winces at your strong word and it's almost enough to make you smile. Almost.
  1590. >It really is a pony, isn't it? There's no doubt about it now. They're real. Equestria is real. You'll be taken there soon.
  1591. >Wait, will you? Are you their target or is this just some sort of misunderstanding?
  1592. "It hurts," you explain. "Who are you?"
  1593. >"It's not important right now, you're-"
  1594. "Blue magic... Pink horn..."
  1595. >It doesn't take much guesswork to understand it even without the colors. The horn is way too long for regular ponies and her figure looks lanky even in her suit.
  1596. >The mare sighs. Looks like she understands that you’re in the know.
  1597. >"If you know who I am then you know I'm here to help you. But first you need rest. I've already applied the spells to ease the pain, we just need some time."
  1598. "With that thing...still out there?"
  1599. >Even barely seeing the mare's muzzle through the tinted shield protecting her face from the outside world, you know she's frowning right now. The long pause is giving you a hint she has no good news to share.
  1600. >"Let's just hope it won't come back for now."
  1601. "That's not-"
  1602. >You're talking too loud. Your lungs really dislike that and now your cough is threatening to shatter all the bones in your body and blast open your skull.
  1603. >"Shh, take it easy for now."
  1604. >The mare checks on something on her foreleg, something that looks like three watches in a row fastened to the suit, and she's not liking what she's seeing.
  1605. >"So much for the inhibitors."
  1606. >That wasn't for you to hear but even her quiet murmur is loud enough in this quiet space you still can't identify.
  1607. "Why is it so dark here?"
  1608. >"It's already late."
  1609. >You know she's lying, even at night there are some lights on the streets. Something happened to your eyes maybe?
  1610. >Can't trust anything anymore.
  1611. >"Just rest for now, please. I'll explain everything later."
  1612. >She sounds so worried you can't help but to do as she says just to not unnerve her further. You don't even notice how you slip into a dreamless unconscious state once again.
  1613. >But when you come to, everything feels a lot more normal.
  1614. >"How are you feeling?"
  1615. >The mare is still guarding you. It doesn't seem like you were moved in the meantime, still on the grass but now able to see more clearly.
  1616. >It is indeed already night time. You don't recognize this place, it's not your familiar apartment building you're next to, hidden in some bushes next to a tree.
  1617. >Thank god for these mini-parks surrounded by apartment blocks like books on a shelf, you'd be an easy find for anyone just looking out their windows otherwise.
  1618. >Feels like this mare is taking an awful risk staying here with you.
  1619. >And then you remember the whole thing. The battle, the explosion.
  1620. "Wh-where's Caroline?"
  1621. >"Who?"
  1622. "My... The woman that was with me."
  1623. >Your savior thinks for a moment.
  1624. >"We didn't account for anypony else other than you. If she was out there, our team would have probably found her and taken her to safety already. Don't worry about it."
  1625. ""
  1626. >"From the MRI. It's a long story, let's not stay here for long. You look a lot better, can you walk?"
  1627. >To your surprise you really can sit down and even stand up. Although everything in your body is still aching it's not a near-death experience for you anymore. You can even pick up your jacket, which was your improvised pillow all this time spent dawdling here, without help.
  1628. "Yeah, I guess. Where are we going?"
  1629. >"I can't let you cross right away. You're still too weak. We'll need to hide, preferably indoors. We should stay at your apartment for now."
  1630. "What? You're joking, it's probably swarming with cops by now."
  1631. >The hero mare doesn't have an answer ready right away. But soon she nods to herself.
  1632. >"We'll infiltrate by air."
  1633. "You're not-"
  1634. >"Top floor, right?"
  1635. "No, one below."
  1636. >"Then we'll teleport."
  1637. >You can only sigh at this barrage of ideas that don't bode well for either or you.
  1638. >Not only do you have to trust this pony to help you, there's also the fact that you have to rely on her to show you the way back.
  1639. >Why can't this be easy? Just open the portal, shove you in Equestria and that's it.
  1640. >"This is not an option right now," the mare comments when you share your thoughts with her.
  1641. "Why not? You still haven't explained anything, what that creature was, why are you even here personally?"
  1642. >"We can't talk about it here, she might be listening."
  1643. "Great," you shake your head.
  1644. >Still feeling the pain of this tiresome day in your body, you walk right behind the pony who tries to stay in the shadows as much as possible. You're at the mercy of her memory right now.
  1645. >With some luck it doesn't falter and after a journey through some mini-parks, back alleys and small roads, your home is just in sight. But - of course - things don't go exactly the way you have planned.
  1646. >Approaching your building from afar, you see that the field of today's battle is now exposed to you fully.
  1647. >There is a whole team of people walking around, quick on their feet but silent to the best of their abilities. They are all business and no talk.
  1648. >Remembering Carol's article, you tell your companion to get down before you get noticed. Whoever these people are, they're definitely no police, you can tell that much. Actually, you don't see any police anywhere, just those operatives.
  1649. >Black suits, black cars with tinted windows, bright flashlights, a whole assortment of tools that they've taken here to account for anything that might've been scorched by magic. That includes the burnt up car and its pieces that are getting documented and taken away into a nondescript minivan.
  1650. >The only thing that stands out about it are the wheels and the windows. They seem a bit too new for this kind of regular workhorse, you bet they're bulletproof.
  1651. >"Who are these people?"
  1652. "No idea, some kind of clean up crew," you squint in an attempt to see if there's more of them in ambush somewhere. "Apparently they're always the first on the scene when something goes wrong with pony magic."
  1653. >"But nothing goes- Well, there was one time recently, but..."
  1654. "They've obviously been preparing for incidents like this. Maybe you're not as subtle as you think."
  1655. >That just makes the pony sigh.
  1656. >"Our own cleanup crew usually gets everything first. Where are they? I'll give Twilight a piece of my mind when we get back..."
  1657. "What are we going to do now?"
  1658. >It's obvious you'll get apprehended the moment your face shows up at the scene, with or without a pony trotting by your side.
  1659. >Something tells you that potential witnesses are valued by whoever is so professionally interested in pony activity in this world.
  1660. >"We'll do the usual, infiltrate from above."
  1661. "But how are you-"
  1662. >"Don't worry, it's standard procedure for our teams and they've never been caught."
  1663. "They didn't have federal agents snooping around in their way, what if they have traps or something?"
  1664. >"Oh, please, pony magic is so delicate you can't reverse engineer it in this world."
  1665. >You don't like the sound of that. Confidence can lead to the most obvious mistakes you could make.
  1666. >"And now I'm sounding like Twilight myself," the mare chuckles quietly. "Come on."
  1667. >She is looking at you expectantly.
  1668. "Come on what?"
  1669. >"Hold me."
  1670. >No hesitation on her part.
  1671. "Shouldn't we wait until they're gone?" you nod in your apartment's direction.
  1672. >"If they are still busy here they probably haven't checked the witnesses yet, or are already done with them. Either way, inside should be safe...if we enter without them knowing. Now hold onto me."
  1673. >You hesitantly touch the mare's suit. Even with this light of a touch you can feel how tender her little body is.
  1674. >"I need you to grab me so we can teleport together."
  1675. >The pony is patient with you. You get in closer and your hands encircle her barrel in the middle as if you're about to pick her up and carry at your side.
  1676. >You even get on your knees to at least be level with her but that makes this all the more embarrassing to you.
  1677. >"Come on, I won't bite. It's easier on the magic reserve that way."
  1678. >Tightening your embrace means putting your head right next to hers. Even through the protection shield you see her kind eyes watching you as your cheek touches the cold sealed material of the suit.
  1679. >"Aww, don't worry. It's just a teleport, hold tight and don't let go even after we're clear, okay?"
  1680. >You feel like her cheek is touching yours from under the suit and you hear her breath so close, it distracts you from your extreme awkwardness for a mere second.
  1681. >Just enough time for the world to quite literally disappear from under your legs.
  1682. >You almost scream in panic but in a blinding flash the cold hard surface once again appears under your legs. The scream that never was turned into a sheepish little yelp.
  1683. >The pony can't help it and giggles.
  1684. >You already start letting her go but for some reason you can't keep your balance and fall over.
  1685. >Thankfully, it's not a long fall.
  1686. >"The shock will wear off in a moment. Now, let me see..."
  1687. >As you recover from the spell you realize that you're no longer anywhere near your building, instead this feels more like...a roof?
  1688. >Your guess is proven right by the mare who waves her hoof at you from the precipice. She's looking down without even trying to conceal herself. You're a bit more careful about it, barely showing your head above the concrete.
  1689. >"Where's your window supposed to be?"
  1690. >You have to lean in a bit and it makes your head spin. The ground below is scaring you and you're not sure this pony can be trusted to keep you safe.
  1691. >Still, you concentrate on finding the right column of windows and after some time you think you can guess correctly.
  1692. >It's also an opportunity to look at the special agents working on the scorched street.
  1693. >They're picking up some small black parts off the ground all around the place where the fight was taking place.
  1694. >Burnt concrete and asphalt show the path of that nightmare alicorn's magic across it. The car is now a piece of burnt metal. No sign of Carol.
  1695. >Someone is arguing with one of the agents in the yellow circle of a street light and by the indoor clothes and frantic gesturing you can guess it's one of the residents. The words barely reach you but if it's the car's owner it's gonna be a long discussion.
  1696. >And those black things are all over the place. A bit too late you realize what they actually are.
  1697. >"Anon, over here!" your pony guide calls you with an exagerrated whisper.
  1698. >Those are the not so hidden living cameras used on you and discarded now after they've lived past their usefulness.
  1699. >The pony asks you the same thing when you approach her as she is looking down.
  1700. >"Are those...birds? Dead birds?"
  1701. "Yeah. It's a long story."
  1702. >"How gruesome," sadness in her voice makes you feel a bit sad too.
  1703. "How are you planning on getting inside?"
  1704. >"You are going to get on my back and I'm going to magically open the window for us to fly inside."
  1705. "You're- You know what, let's get to it. I don't like this."
  1706. >The pony watches where your finger is pointing now, below, where one of the agents is explaining something to others in a hurry. He's showing them something on his tablet.
  1707. >The men disperse and get to their cars, leaving only a few to watch the surroundings. The part you're uncomfortable with is them reaching to their suits as if each of them has a weapon in there.
  1708. >"You're right. Let me just..."
  1709. >She concentrates on something and then swiftly sways her head to the side.
  1710. >A loud noise in the distance coincides with the pony's horn firing up a spell. Sounds like breaking glass.
  1711. >Immediately the agents take off to a completely different building. You even see one of the hiding ones get out of his car with a small briefcase in his hands.
  1712. >"Just a distraction, come on!"
  1713. >No time to blush this time around. You mount the pony in one awkward motion. She is still too small for her back to even reach your crotch. You'll have to actually sit down on her spine.
  1714. >Before you manage to do that, the hidden zippers on her sides are opened with magic and two candy pink wings unfurl from there, tired of their confinement.
  1715. >"Get ready."
  1716. >Your body lies on top of hers, hands over her neck, and your chin resting right on the top of her hazard helmet. Your legs are off the ground and are now pressed to the pony's thighs.
  1717. >Asking if she can carry your weight is unreasonable by this point.
  1718. >But everything becomes unreasonable once you take off. Your heart goes silent for a moment when the princess confidently kicks the ground from under herself in one strong motion and you nearly fall off.
  1719. >The suit is too slippery and your legs are threatening to slide right off her when the pony stops climbing.
  1720. >But that is nothing compared to the vertigo of the immediate descent. Wind is slicing at your ears and it takes your breath away. The wings of this decisive mare are surprisingly loud and she changes their angle constantly, correcting your trajectory on instinct.
  1721. >When your pilot circles around to aim at the window you outright shut your eyes. The ground is spinning in a way that can throw you off the mare if you see it for just one more moment.
  1722. >Magic tingles at your cheek that is squeezed against her horn. And in one swift acceleration the outside ambience around you stops existing.
  1723. >"OW!"
  1724. >The sudden ruckus of something big falling down on the floor from your apartment's table that is right near the window is followed immediately by horribly loud scratching sound, metal against wood, horseshoes against your floor.
  1725. >And then the final act, windows being shut carefully but precisely with magic.
  1726. >With that, silence is tested against the loudly breathing duet, you and your incredible savior.
  1727. >Your eyes open and your hands let go of the mare's thin neck. Her body is unmoving and tense under yours, and you attempt your slow disconnect from her starting with your legs.
  1728. >The pony’s chest is heaving, but she stands on solid ground and that's the important part. Seems like her operation was a success. With minor destruction of your property, of course.
  1729. >Quick magic jingle brings the drapes together and the room falls completely dark.
  1730. >"Don't turn on the lights."
  1731. "Yeah."
  1732. >You nod just to be sure, even knowing the princess won't see it. You don't need those suited bastards noticing someone is actually here now and crawling up just to check. Especially if they are into interrogating witnesses.
  1733. >"Sorry," you see the hoof pointing at the thing that was tipped over.
  1734. >Without even looking you know it's one of your displays. Your humble PC station was located right at the window.
  1735. "Don't worry," you reassure her. "Not like I'll need it anyway. You ARE here to take me to Equestria, right?"
  1736. >If this isn't the place to talk about it either, you don't know what to believe in anymore.
  1737. >"Yes, of course!" The mare's tone is apologetic at best. "Eventually! Right now it’s a bit…complicated."
  1738. "I have noticed that."
  1739. >The princess sighs, still trying to restore her breath.
  1740. "You know, you can take that off now, nobody's here."
  1741. >She shakes her head when you point at her visor shield that's all misty now.
  1742. >"I can't, it's tox- It's not good for us ponies."
  1743. >You'd like to ask her to elaborate on that, but for now you'll just take her word for it. Hell, you don't think you'd be surprised by anything she told you anymore.
  1744. >At the same time you beg reality to not make you eat those words.
  1745. "Okay, look..."
  1746. >You squat right in front of the princess and put your hand on her shoulder. Her eyes meet yours as far as you can tell behind the foggy glass.
  1747. "We can stay here for now. I think it's high time you've given me some answers."
  1748. >"Alright, fair enough. But-"
  1749. "Fighting some eldritch creatures might be a regular thing in Equestria but I n-nearly died here today, okay? What is that thing? What is it after? Why are you here, Cadance?"
  1750. >Saying her name for the first time feels weird. But this has to be personal now.
  1751. >"I'm sure this feels really strange to you and I apologize."
  1752. "Strange?! It- That's one way to say it."
  1753. >You can't hide annoyance in your voice. It's true that the princess has saved you, but you are starting to suspect the reason you had to be saved in the first place lies with her.
  1754. >"Okay, you are right. Sorry."
  1755. >She tries to sound as genuine as possible. No doubt a trait a princess has to have in order to negotiate to any degree of success.
  1756. >But you are not here to doubt her, you just want to know what's going on.
  1757. "It's okay, just tell me the truth, alright? I promise I won't do anything rash, just talk to me."
  1758. >The princess nods. So for the first order of business...
  1759. "Please explain why we can't open the portal and bail to Equestria right now."
  1760. >Cadance takes a moment to collect herself. She sits down on the floor and you find your chair in near complete darkness. Only vague shapes of objects are filling this room but you've spent so many years here you can navigate it with no problem.
  1761. >"It is because of that pony. We call her the Mare of Shadows."
  1762. "Wasn't there already the Pony of Shadows in Equestria, or..."
  1763. >"Yes, but that was a stallion."
  1764. >You need a moment to process this amazing naming sense.
  1765. "Fine, whatever you say. So?"
  1766. >"Well, it seems to be related to the space between our worlds. When a portal connects them, there's an- Speaking plainly, there's a rift between our worlds that we have to cross. We don't know anything about it, but this mare resembles the substance this rift consists of."
  1767. "And so it lives there?"
  1768. >"We don't know, she only appeared very recently. Attacked one of our teams in that divide, so we assume she can freely travel there. We've been trying to be careful ever since."
  1769. "Alright... I think I get it. It's gonna get us killed. So how do we deal with- No, wait a moment. So I was going to get to Equestria, is that right?"
  1770. >"Yes," the mare's voice warms up switching to this topic. "You are matched to a mare and we were getting ready to extract you until, well, this happened."
  1771. >You... You were getting harvested. For real.
  1772. >Despite everything, you still have the strength to smile. Being "matched" probably means being with someone. With a pony.
  1773. >No more of this lousy life. No more of this routine, living day by day with no hopes for the future.
  1774. >Cadance nods quietly, satisfied with your reaction it seems.
  1775. >She feels it, doesn't she? This rise of hope sparked by a mere mention of Equestria. She is the princess of love, she has to.
  1776. >You'd accept any pony, any mare. Even the worst one around. Just to never feel alone again.
  1777. >"And this brings us to the root of the problem."
  1778. "What do you mean?"
  1779. >"Is there a place we can safely turn the lights on at?"
  1780. "Yeah, here."
  1781. >The princess follows you silently.
  1782. >No windows in your bathroom. A small bathtub, a mirror on the other wall, a sink at the far wall between them, toilet on the side. Nothing fancy at all, just like the rest of your tiny one-man apartment.
  1783. >The light hurts your eyes. You enter first and take a seat on the edge of the tub. Cadence follows you and only now you notice how ragged her protections suit it.
  1784. >This thing is just one more fight away from completely falling apart. The pockets for her wings hang at her sides since she had to get them out, some wires run along her body right to the devices on her foreleg, something resembling protected sport watches, only she's wearing three of them in a row.
  1785. >The tinted visor is scratched and foggy, but two big eyes stare at you from the depths of her helmet.
  1786. >"The thing is, I've got your match certificate right here with me."
  1787. "Oh? You wanna give it to me now?"
  1788. >"You'll see the problem right away."
  1789. "Problem? With that match thing?"
  1790. >It can't be that your match and this situation are connected in any way, right?
  1791. >Too late. The gears in your head are connected, annoyingly pointing at the possibility you really don't want to admit.
  1792. >A tube with rolled up paper inside leaves Cadence's suit through the wing pocket. She opens it up for you and takes out the document.
  1793. >Immediately your eyes find the giant blotch of spilled ink at the bottom. Of course, of course it is located right over the "Mare" field.
  1794. >There's even a signature of the Mate Retrieval Initiative Chief Princess Mi Amore Cadenza right under it.
  1795. >This can't be real. This is...
  1796. >"It is what it looks like, I'm afraid."
  1797. "Is this a fucking joke?"
  1798. >Cadance visibly flinches at the completely frigid tone of your voice. Yet still she tries to reply:
  1799. >"This is something we can-"
  1800. "I'm being hunted by some nightmare creature, I nearly died today, now the feds are looking for me and it's all because... B-because of some spilled ink?"
  1801. >You giggle a few times, still in disbelief.
  1802. >"It's not like that."
  1803. "Have you tried like...printing this thing again?"
  1804. >Cadance looks away and this speaks louder than any words she could've said.
  1805. "Oh, you HAVEN'T!"
  1806. >Your arms shoot up and hit your legs in a sarcastic impulse and the pony recoils in fear. You can't even look at her anymore without smiling like an idiot.
  1807. "Of course not! Some spilled ink means my match is a fucking lovecraftian horror that can kill me by looking at me the wrong way. This makes perfect sense! Ho-ho, that's some pony logic if I've ever seen any!"
  1808. >"No, this is more complicated than that."
  1809. "Really, let's hear it. Am I chosen as a victim to appease some force of nature because only I can do it?"
  1810. >She has no answer for you, of course.
  1811. "Can we just avoid all of this altogether, it's obvious I'm not really matched to it, this is just an office mistake. Just reprint the thing, or maybe even match me again or something, I'm sure there are enough ponies that-"
  1812. >"Do not ridicule me, Anonymous!"
  1813. >Hooves hitting your tiled bathroom floor in frustration pull you back to reality. Cadence sounds like she's about to cry.
  1814. >"Do you think this is easy for me? I've spent the last few days trying to figure this out!"
  1815. >You want to feel bad about her but all you can do is sigh.
  1816. "Sorry. Let's- let's hear what you know about this. Why can't this be redone?"
  1817. >After a few sniffled breaths the princess of love mostly calms down. You can't see it beyond the suit but now you can imagine just how tired she is.
  1818. >"You are not matched to that Shadow Mare, not directly. We believe that it is only symbolic. Even if we "print it again", as you said, the result will be the same, the name under that ink will be the same. One man is only ever matched to one mare. Only the mare you're matched to can't be found."
  1819. "Don't tell me she turned into... that."
  1820. >Thinking about the way some of Equestria's villains came to be this makes almost too much sense.
  1821. >"This is our only guess right now. I'm not supposed to tell anypony this but... One of our Earth team members went missing a few days ago. She never returned home and we couldn't trace her."
  1822. "There's not a lot of places a pony could hide on Earth, you know."
  1823. >"Yes, we do know. But we also can't spend a lot of time here searching for her and it's like she has dropped off our radars the moment she got left behind. Usually ponies have a distinct magic signature which is easy to locate in this world, since it's amplified by our equipment so much, but something must've gone wrong with her. Maybe she has lost everything on her or...worse, her magic. Maybe her signature just wasn't prominent enough to begin with."
  1824. >For a moment you try to imagine a pony like that, someone completely unremarkable in any way perhaps? Capable of blending in with this world?
  1825. "Do you think it's her?"
  1826. >"We still don't know for sure. The connections are there but we've never seen this substance between worlds act like it has any power other than destructive."
  1827. "Destructive?"
  1828. >"It's hard to explain. It doesn't seem to be alive but it's known to charm whoever is looking into it. It is beautiful but you can't make contact with it, like it dissolves or absorbs whatever enters it. And those who stare at it long enough report vision and hallucinations for weeks after."
  1829. "You mean if this thing captures me, it's going to...absorb me?"
  1830. >"I'm not certain. But those that made contact say it's really soothing, like they're getting lost in it and can't resist its pull. That's why I fear for the mare that might be behind this."
  1831. "How do you know all that?"
  1832. >Her silence when she looks away once again gives you the answer you didn't want to know.
  1833. "Okay, I get it. But why is it trying to kill me?"
  1834. >"I don't think it is."
  1835. >Before you make your sarcastic remark Cadance elaborates, hiding your matching certificate back under her suit:
  1836. >"She doesn't seem to be in control of her magic. As for why she attacked in the first place... You said you were with a woman, right?"
  1837. "Wait, you're telling me that thing was simply jealous?"
  1838. >"Your guess is as good as mine, this is the first time she has shown herself in the open like this. But if she is attracted to you she might feel a certain way without realizing it."
  1839. "God damn it."
  1840. >You cover your eyes with your palm to cool your head a bit. This is so ridiculous, it has no right to make any sense. But ponies are involved now, and this means common sense is long since out of the equation.
  1841. "Oh, this is just perfect."
  1842. >Can you reason with this creature at all? Can it feel actual emotions like love or compassion? Desire to be with you?
  1843. >The last thing you need is some sort of yandere god-like alicorn born of all-destroying abyss following you and trying to "charm" you. But it seems like this is exactly what you'll be getting. Unless the real mare behind all this shows up.
  1844. >The princess is probably thinking the same thing, there's nothing but uncertainty here.
  1845. >Now that you're not mad at her for this ridiculous explanation anymore, it pains you to see her disheveled form. She's been through a lot in this world already and now she's stuck here in this suit. Probably on a time limit too.
  1846. "Alright, look, let's wait it out until the morning like you planned. We'll figure something out later."
  1847. >"You're right. We can't do anything right now anyway. Not until those men leave."
  1848. >It is doubtful they'll just pack up and go away. You expect to hear them knocking on your door any moment.
  1849. "By the way," you suddenly remember. "If that cleanup team of yours didn't show up, do you think those guys got Carol instead?"
  1850. >"No idea. Maybe they've taken her away somewhere already."
  1851. "Great..."
  1852. >You really don't want to be responsible for her being tortured or something. It's enough you're here to take the hit, no need to involve others like that.
  1853. >Cadance leaves the bathroom first. You turn off the light and everything goes dark again. The mare carefully proceeds back to your room.
  1854. "You can use my bed if you want."
  1855. >"No, it's okay, I need to take care of a few things first. You better relax for now."
  1856. "Fine, whatever you say."
  1857. >You're done arguing for the day. The path to your bed is obvious to you even in the dark.
  1858. >No strength to undress besides throwing your jacket to the side, or to do anything else.
  1859. >The moment your head hits the pillow the world spirals into nothingness.
  1860. >When you open your eyes it's still dark. The only illumination, aside from whatever spills in between closed window drapes, is coming from a small glowing screen in Cadance's hoof. The princess is still in her suit. You can't imagine it's easy to rest in it, maybe she didn't try at all.
  1861. >She is sitting in your computer chair and looking at some device similar to a smartphone in size. You notice a cable running down from it.
  1862. >"Come on, come on... Purple two, come in, do you read me? Purple two? This is Pink one, come in..."
  1863. >She's whispering this into the device and you wait for a reply before moving a muscle just like Cadance. Finally something breaks the static from the other side.
  1864. >"-nce, are you still there? The signal is too weak."
  1865. >"Oh, thank goodness," the princess sighs. "So as I was saying, we can't deal with them on our own, we need backup."
  1866. >"Negative. The subject was trying to breach our side. The team barely escaped. We need her distracted to cross."
  1867. >"So she is trying to enter Equestria like you suspected," Cadence nods to herself.
  1868. >"This is getting too dangerous, I'll have to notify other princesses if this continues."
  1869. >"No! I'll deal with it, I promise."
  1870. >The static gives her a pause but the pony on the other side continues after considering if she should trust the stranded princess:
  1871. >"This is becoming a matter of Equestria's security. It may be after the Heart. Our operations are stalling for the moment, I fear somepony is going to report this."
  1872. >"Starlight, I've got it under control. Just keep this from escalating."
  1873. >"Only if it's an order."
  1874. >Cadance sighs, looking away from the screen for a moment.
  1875. >"Fine, it's an order."
  1876. >"Understood, chief."
  1877. >"Ugh," the princess of love lowers the screen in defeat.
  1878. >Only then you allow yourself to move.
  1879. >Cadance reacts immediately but once she turns her head on alert she realizes it's just you.
  1880. >Just to be sure you put your open palms in front of you and declare your intentions:
  1881. "Bathroom."
  1882. >Cadance nods and resumes her tinkering with her communication device.
  1883. >After arriving at your destination you also realize you're hungry as hell. It seems like it's late at night right now, so it's even harder to see anything with windows completely covered, you might just pull something out of your fridge and be done with it. Or make a simple sandwich at best.
  1884. >These thoughts keep you occupied until you're finished with your business and finally get to washing your face. While the feeling is refreshing you feel the burden of all the pain once again.
  1885. >Maybe a day or two of just sleeping would help with the aching bones. You should've brought your jacket with cigs with you here.
  1886. "Fucking hell," you tell yourself when you notice your face the mirror.
  1887. >It's the kind of caricature a hangover after a night of drinking creates.
  1888. >But your focus is lost immediately when you see a reflection of something moving behind you - like rising smoke from the bathtub.
  1889. >Your mind must be playing tricks on you because there's nothing really there when you turn around to see what's going on.
  1890. >Great, now you realize you've fallen for the classic horror trope - when you turn back to the mirror, something is going to be standing behind you, something like that monster of a pony.
  1891. >Oh, you are so scared of this bait!
  1892. >Only nobody will be there and you'll go to sleep again.
  1893. >You turn. Nobody is behind you.
  1894. >Instead, she's in front of you, right on the other side of the mirror that has become a pool of ink with distant lights shining through.
  1895. >A piece of a pristine night sky behind two beacons of dizzying light. The Mare of Shadows is staring into your eyes from behind the calm surface of the looking glass.
  1896. >Instinctively you recoil, or at least want to, but your body doesn't move an inch.
  1897. >It appears that you are paralyzed once again, just like when you first saw her. Even when the mirror cracks and breaks from the pressure inside, sending sharp pieces flying your way, you don't even bat an eye.
  1898. >Some of those pieces definitely scraped you, but you can't even react to the burning sensation left by those hits.
  1899. >The eyes on the other side are just too much. They are glowing so bright it makes you lose focus completely. It's as if you're dead drunk and the world is swirling around you when their leash is on your neck, and everything beside you and this creature is covered by a veil of darkness.
  1900. >A secluded space just for you and her. That unseen leash is now getting shorter and soon you find yourself being tugged forward by the sheer force of her will.
  1901. >The abyss behind the mare is almost spilling over into your bathroom, ready to accept your body. But before you're gonna get dipped in this star-rich oil, there's an obstacle to overcome.
  1902. >The mirror explosion was so messy, some of the glass is still in the mirror's frame. And one particularly pointy bit on the bottom is right on your path.
  1903. >It takes you immeasurable effort to just make your arms move. That alone slows you down since you can now put them against the wall but you are still being pulled.
  1904. >What's worse, this resistance makes you lower your body and when your head eventually squeezes to the other side of the mirror, lost in a twilight hall and surrounded by deaf nothingness, you feel that pesky piece of glass scratching at your neck.
  1905. >If you get any lower you're done for. And it's inevitable.
  1906. >With your mouth shut you still feel yourself grunting as the glass engraves a line of burning pain onto you. There's only one thing to do to avoid getting slashed this horrid way.
  1907. >You allow yourself to get further in and that's where the real pain starts - your neck is safe, but your white t-shirt is getting ripped in two as the glass blade digs into your chest. It doesn't break or flinch even under the weight of your body.
  1908. >Where the wild cut is growing, the darkness is immediately attracted to it. It's like it is trying to get into you through the opening flesh, replace your blood with its nauseating warm mass.
  1909. >The pull of your invisible leash grows stronger, feeling your weakness. Only your shaking arms are preventing you from diving right in.
  1910. >And those eyes. You still feel them on you even if you aren't looking into them anymore, head spinning in the debilitating hurricane of stars all around you. It's doubtful you'll be able to resist for long.
  1911. >You break free enough to scream in pain when the glass makes its way all the way down to your upper stomach. Yet you produce no sound.
  1912. >It is then that you hear a voice so close to you despite your head already being consumed by nothingness:
  1913. >"Anon?! Oh gosh, are you alright?"
  1914. >As if on command, all the darkness around you disappears.
  1915. >Your head is still propped up but now it's facing the ceiling of your bathroom, not the blanket of stars.
  1916. >You are unmoving. In fact, you're sitting on the cold floor. In the doorframe you see Cadance, eyes shifting all over your body.
  1917. >Her loud gasp makes you realize you are still hurting badly. But it's even worse than you were expecting.
  1918. >The mirror is still broken, but not from any explosion caused by your nemesis. It was hit by someone and that someone is you.
  1919. >How do you know? Well, your knuckle is all bloody. But not as bloody as your palm that is clutching a sharp piece of mirror you were using to carve a line on your chest right through the now cut shirt.
  1920. >Moment this all registers with your brain you jolt up on the spot and throw the piece of glass away from you, almost hitting Cadance with it.
  1921. "W-what the fuck is going on?"
  1922. >What was supposed to be a loud scream comes out as a barely audible whimper in a cracking voice.
  1923. >You are so deafened by your own heartbeat you can't even focus on what your body is feeling.
  1924. >The pony meanwhile is stunned by the sight of the blood oozing from the wound that only now starts hurting as your senses are returning to you. Her eyes are unblinking in the cold terror that prevents her from looking away.
  1925. >You can hear her panicked breathing from under her helmet getting worse. Feels like you're both gonna heave right now.
  1926. "C-Cadance?.."
  1927. >Your squeak makes the princess stumble back out of the bathroom. The coughing you hear from afar definitely sounds like her trying to suppress her gag reflex out of your sight.
  1928. >And you're just standing in awe, shaking like a leaf, smearing blood over the wall you’re touching for balance.
  1929. >Maybe it's good that your mind still can't offer you any realistic explanation to the growing anguish you're starting to feel across your torso.
  1930. >Too bad that focusing on that lack of explanation makes it easier to accept this as is. Now your senses are being kicked into overdrive instead.
  1931. "Oh fuck, oh god, Cadance? W-what happened? What do I do?"
  1932. >You throw yourself out of the bathroom on your wobbling legs. The pony's disheartened gasp greets you outside when your shoulder hits the wall, begging for support in your fruitless endeavor to stand.
  1933. >Despite all the cotton on your ears you still hear a chime of magic and all of a sudden your head is being wrapped into a blanket. No sensations are allowed to get inside. Everything becomes smudged like you're perceiving the world through a dirty lens.
  1934. >Your hand reaches your forehead to clean the sweat off of it, but all you accomplish is painting it red with your own blood.
  1935. "Wait, shit, shit, shit..."
  1936. >Can't focus. The understanding of what happened was so close but some magic is preventing you from comprehending.
  1937. "Wait, what are you... I'm..."
  1938. >The hot snake on your chest is so annoying, it's burning you with every breath you take.
  1939. >Your palm touches it, traces the edges. But you can't look down, your stiff neck doesn't allow you.
  1940. >"H-hold still!" you hear a hiss directed at you.
  1941. >Instead of being held still you are pushed. Not by someone, but by magic.
  1942. >The panic you feel makes everything seem like a dream sequence. You’re moving, but it doesn't feel like you're doing anything of use.
  1943. >Finding anything in the kitchen drawers where your medical supplies are supposed to be is such a pain when you can't just turn on the lights.
  1944. >At the fringes of your mind you know something must be done, it's just hard to make something happen when you barely consider anything around you real.
  1945. >That nightmarish beast, she's done something with your head, she did. The second you close your eyes you see the two beacons imprinted on your eyelids, like a reminder of her command over you.
  1946. >It haunts you even after Cadance's spell. In attempts to escape it you keep shaking your head, but find no solace.
  1947. >"Hold on, it's just the after effect of the spell," Cadance assumes you move funny because of her.
  1948. >But she is right, little by little your senses return to you. By that point the pony has already followed your unconscious hint and found your nonexistent med tray.
  1949. >Neither you or Cadance know how to treat something like this and the pony, despite playing brave, is barely even conscious at this point, almost as bad as you: she only looks at you when she absolutely has to and you feel hesitation in her actions. But she still keeps her horn lit and that's the only reason you can even see anything at all.
  1950. >But soon, as the dampening spell starts to dissipate, you find something to bring you back to Earth: searing pain, of course.
  1951. >After that you remember you were trying to treat the wound somehow. While the princess is searching for anything other than the most basic stuff, your brightest idea is to use peroxide and, of course, it's as bad as you imagined.
  1952. "Oh fuck, oh shit-"
  1953. >"Wait, that's-"
  1954. >Too late Cadance realized you shouldn't be trusted with the whole bottle. You nearly empty it immediately.
  1955. >It brings clarity. Just what you needed.
  1956. >You're still getting blood all over the place. Thinking about using any sort of sewing supplies to possibly-
  1957. >No, this is not an option, you're straight up not doing that.
  1958. >Besides, in this state you'll both just make a bigger mess of everything.
  1959. >Why is this happening to you, the least capable person to deal with it?..
  1960. >"Hold on, let me..."
  1961. >The princess, now a bit more lucid herself, stops when she comes closer to the horrid wound but she gets over her emotions. Making sure to not touch it with her hoof she lights her horn close to it, just enough to shine some long awaited light on you.
  1962. >Despite the pain it doesn't look too bad now that you've cleaned it a bit. Even Cadance sighs with a bit of relief.
  1963. >It's shallow, mostly it's just skin that got cut, but still rough and wide enough to look gruesome. Just about what you expect of a carving made with a shard of glass. The shirt really saved you, it got ripped pretty bad, but that thin layer of fabric might've made all the difference.
  1964. >The problem is going to be keeping its jagged edges clean. The length of the cut is playing against you since every breath you take is affecting the whole thing. You fear it might get deeper from you just moving around.
  1965. >Hell if you know, you've never even seen anything like this before, what are you supposed to do about something like this?
  1966. >"I knew I should've brought more."
  1967. >While you were busy being distracted by your grim perspectives for the future, Cadance apparently whipped out another artifact from Equestria. A test tube filled with some red goo.
  1968. >God knows just how many things she has stashed in her suit, for all you know there's a mini-portal to Equestria there.
  1969. >”Should’ve listened to Shiny…”
  1970. >The mare searches through your poorly organized supplies once again. Soon she finds what she wants, a few rolls of old bandages.
  1971. >No dressing in sight, of course. Lucky for you, she has a plan.
  1972. >After painful minutes of shuffling the bandage around, you look like you're being congratulated for being the stupidest man in town with a festive ribbon of cloth dipped in the red substance going around your torso. And a few circles around your chest and stomach horizontally to affix it better.
  1973. >Well, not like you have any brighter suggestions.
  1974. >It feels cool against your skin, that new red ribbon. The alicorn's magic work is so precise that you feel like it's affixed better than anything you could've done on your own. Cadance even helps you put your shirt back on, for whatever reason - it’s clear it has long outlived its purpose as a clothing article.
  1975. >With that done you both finally have a chance to take a breath. You sit at your small table and now that the worst has passed you just want to empty your head.
  1976. >For some time it's all both of you do. Just breathe loudly in the silence of the night.
  1977. >"Should keep you safe for now," the princess points at your bandage. "Extraction missions are dangerous, gotta keep something like this around... Sorry if the spell wore off too fast."
  1978. >You can't see a smile from behind the glass of her helmet but you know it's there by her tone.
  1979. "Thanks."
  1980. >"I want to ask, but..."
  1981. "Cadance, I... Yes, please don't."
  1982. >You are now bandaging your hand with her magical help. How do you even explain something like this? This hand was yours, the movement was yours, only it really wasn't and you weren't even aware of it? Like your mind interpreted the whole thing in a completely different way?
  1983. >"It was her, wasn't it?" the princess still can’t help it.
  1984. "I thought I saw her, but..."
  1985. >"A charm spell this strong, but why? What was she trying to accomplish?"
  1986. >So much for Cadance's assumption about Shadow Mare not wanting to harm you.
  1987. >You can't even tell the princess anything that can give her a clue. You're not sure what was real and what wasn't. It would just confuse both of you more.
  1988. >"Stay here, alright? I'm gonna clean up a bit."
  1989. >She goes back to the bathroom, careful to not step into the little but numerous dark red drops staining the floor and you stand up yourself, getting your medical supplies back into the drawer.
  1990. >Everything feels wrong now, like you're still hallucinating. Your own clothes and hands are now darkened with blood, hell, Cadence's suit has it on her, like she was cutting you herself.
  1991. >And worst of all, you're still hungry.
  1992. >The mare returns soon enough and when she notices you reach for the kitchen knife (to slice some bread, of course), she immediately uses magic to confiscate it with a nervous laugh.
  1993. >"I'll take care of it. Stay put."
  1994. >No trust for a man who just attempted cutting himself in a half.
  1995. >Your hands that you've managed to wash in the kitchen sink to the best of your abilities while Cadance was making food are shaking when she gives you a simple peanut butter sandwich.
  1996. >The unused weapon is rotated in the magic aura as Cadance frowns at it.
  1997. >"There's a knife right here, why would she need you to do all this with the mirror?" the princess ponders to herself while you're sitting down to eat.
  1998. "Maybe that's exactly why, to confuse us?"
  1999. >You're really not helping anything with that. Having no more enlightening insights to share you sheepishly focus on the food.
  2000. >For a moment you consider telling Cadance about what you were seeing in your hallucination, but you're not sure it'd explain anything.
  2001. >"You should get back to resting, there's only so much pain relief magic a human body can take. I can't let you even walk around on your own, apparently."
  2002. "Look, I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting-"
  2003. >You stop, shocked at your own wavering voice. It sounds like you're about to cry, which would be really, really shameful in front of a hero princess.
  2004. >She even fills your cup with water and you gulp it all in one go.
  2005. >"It's okay, I should've known something like this was going to happen."
  2006. "I thought you said- You said she wasn't out to kill me."
  2007. >"She shouldn't be. Which means this...torture had a different purpose than just hurting."
  2008. >What a cynical idea.
  2009. >She continues watching you consume your food for a moment while you think about what other reason could there be to mind-control you into rending your flesh.
  2010. >"I have a feeling that figuring this out can make a lot of things clear. But I have not the slightest idea."
  2011. >Tired of watching her eyes follow your sandwich, you bring the mare down to Earth:
  2012. "Don't you want something to eat too? I've got enough for both of us here."
  2013. >"No, thank you. I've got some of my own."
  2014. >Her head motions to her side where her wings are already folded back and are inside the suit. Where is she keeping everything if it's so skin-tight?
  2015. "One bite wouldn't hurt."
  2016. >"In the long run it's going to. I have no idea how much longer we'll be stuck here."
  2017. "Is this world really that toxic to you ponies?"
  2018. >The answer doesn't follow immediately.
  2019. >"Yes," Cadance laments. "Usually ponies don't need anything like this here, but the longer you stay, the worse the effect is. Little by little it will sap my magic away if I don't protect myself as much as possible. Now, please, try to get some sleep. I'll rest too, okay?"
  2020. >Maybe this pony can read minds too because you were just thinking about how tired she herself might be right now.
  2021. >It might be the first time she was seeing blood at all. Or at least so much of it.
  2022. >You lead her back to your room after washing your good hand once again. This time she doesn't stay up to call some other ponies and gets on your bed right away.
  2023. >Nowhere else to sleep here aside from the floor that's already ruined by her rough landing.
  2024. >Any other time you'd be weirded out to sleep in one bed with a princess of love but right now feelings like that don't even register with you.
  2025. >After this cutting incident nothing seems strange. Your wound dressing is shoddy at best but there's no way you can care about this. Should you get another shirt to replace this one? Probably in the morning but now it doesn't matter.
  2026. >Just like it doesn't matter that Cadance's back is touching your arm when you lie down next to her. You wonder if she can fall asleep in that suit.
  2027. >To be fair, sleep doesn't come to you easily just as well.
  2028. >The two of you are like refugees squatting in some abandoned building. No certainty in what the morning will bring.
  2029. >Even when you shut your eyes and let your mind wander in hopes the sleep will find you soon, the illusion of drifting off disappears because you are being shaken by your arm.
  2030. >At first you imagine it's Cadance trying to wake you up. But the pony is still in her curled up sleeping position.
  2031. >No, it's just her body shaking in her sleep. First thing you do is find the blanket that's been pushed at your legs in all the commotion yesterday and drag it over the pony.
  2032. >It still hurts to move and your chest cut is still burning even through pony healing remedy it's soaked in now.
  2033. "Cadance?"
  2034. >No reaction follows your call so you touch her shoulder slightly.
  2035. >The suit feels slimy and cold. The princess doesn't stop.
  2036. "Hey, wake up."
  2037. >You shake her herself, just a bit. And soon enough with a gasp she nearly jumps up, but calms down right away. You can hear her cough as quietly as she possibly can but the spasms of her body can't be hidden this despite her best efforts.
  2038. >"I'm alright," she finally replies.
  2039. "You were shaking, are you cold?"
  2040. >"No, I... I'm not sure."
  2041. >If she got the shakes it doesn't bode well for you. Maybe her suit is punctured and her magic is leaving her?
  2042. >Next cough fit can't be suppressed. This isn't making her time in that sealed suit any more safe.
  2043. >Cadance brings her foreleg to her visor and for the first time you clearly see the watches she's been looking at all this time.
  2044. >You don't know what any of those dials mean, but you see that they're all indicating that something is at low levels.
  2045. >"No, no contamination yet. I'm just tired, that's all. But thanks for worrying."
  2046. >That'd sound like a jab at you being the helpless victim she usually worries about - if you cared enough to interpret it that way.
  2047. >Thankfully, your brain is empty enough to ignore this.
  2048. >You lie on the bed with your eyes wide open but at some point you drop into a slumber deep enough to not disturb you with any nightmares.
  2049. >When you wake up again, this time already near the sunrise, it's not anything that mundane.
  2050. >Someone is knocking on your door.
  2051. >It can't be the Shadow Mare, she doesn't need an invitation. It can't be Carol as the knocks are very persistent and strong.
  2052. >"It's them."
  2053. >Cadance has already gathered her wits enough to process the situation.
  2054. >Quietly, trying to minimize the clopping her horseshoes produce, she moves to the window and looks out with her neck bent to the side. You assume it's to hide her horn.
  2055. >"They're still outside too. We gotta go now."
  2056. >Her whispering is drowned in the knocks that now turn into kicks.
  2057. >Your apartment's door isn't anything special. It's not going to last long. Cadance is right, there's no way you'll be able to stay here and be safe.
  2058. >But how are you gonna bail? Well, the princess already has the answer ready.
  2059. >"We're teleporting out, grab me."
  2060. >So many things are happening way too fast, you think as your hands find the pony's body once again.
  2061. >Your second time isn't in any way easier to handle as your first. You are plunged off your floor's planks into nothingness with a bright flash blinding you again.
  2062. >Moments later you're already outside, falling on your side with the air punched out of you by the impact.
  2063. >It's hard to imagine these agents were deaf and couldn't hear the sounds of teleportation. You already hear something about a target being confirmed from behind you.
  2064. >Apparently these people are stationed all around the place, so even though you appear out of nowhere near the other building away from the road and possible blockades, there's still someone waiting for you.
  2065. >Which means they've been expecting the use of magic.
  2066. >"Hurry!" Cadance goes into gallop immediately, trying to escape deeper into the block of apartment buildings, to at least hide from their eyes.
  2067. >You follow her as closely as you can but not even a few seconds later you see something landing right between you and Cadance.
  2068. >Thrown from behind you, it can't be anything other than a grenade of some sort, which is a terrifying thought, but its effects are not harmful to you, as you learn when you pass it.
  2069. >With a loud bang an invisible wave flattens the grass near the sidewalk you've already abandoned to make a turn to the right.
  2070. >When it reaches Cadance her horn suddenly shines brightly for just a moment and then with a loud pop its glow disappears.
  2071. >This makes the pony let out a surprised yelp which ends as soon as her magic goes out and her horn starts smoking.
  2072. >That smoke follows her all the way to the ground: Cadance's legs give out right under her and she drops down, sliding on the ground to a halt.
  2073. >She isn't moving.
  2074. "Cadance?!"
  2075. >You also drop to the ground to check on her. The eyes behind the visor are shut tight.
  2076. "Oh god, what now?"
  2077. >There's no time to figure anything out. You simply grab the mare and continue your escape.
  2078. >Some voices are arguing loudly behind you as you take an angle behind the building to at least avoid being seen. Something about police and authorizing something?
  2079. >Well, all the better if those agents aren’t rushing after you immediately. You don’t need to know the reason why, your thoughts are all in your legs right now. You poor aching legs trying to bear the dull ache of unwanted exercise in the barely lit early morning alley.
  2080. >You don't hear the pursuit behind you but you can't be sure. Taking the path with the most cover, you princess carry the princess out of this war zone. No idea where, just as far away from here as you possibly have the strength to.
  2081. >Though, obviously, you don't get to go very far. Running with a pony exhausts your already weak body really fast. You choose a tree with the most greenery left on it for cover and put the mare down.
  2082. >Somehow you feel like you won't be left alone just because they think they've knocked her out for good. Even if your hopeful assumption is right and they’re being stalled.
  2083. >Of course, now it’s easy to say that you should’ve looked back to assess the situation. You’re just happy you didn’t get shot in the back.
  2084. >The fear of seeing something resembling a grenade still lingers in your legs. Thank god it wasn’t anything lethal.
  2085. >They have simply knocked her out, right? Nothing more than that.
  2086. >At least the pony is still breathing. Good sign. Now to wake her up.
  2087. >Nothing you do helps, shaking her, slapping her suit in various places. You're not even sure she hears you in her protection.
  2088. >Worst of all, you start hearing voices in the distance. Really persistent, aren’t they?
  2089. >No choice left for you. You can't carry her fast enough to escape. You can't leave this place without her help.
  2090. >You nearly tear off the helmet before you find where it connects to the rest of the suit.
  2091. >The pony’s face is still distorted with pain when you take it off, carefully sliding it along her horn. You notice a tube going right in her nostrils from the depths of her suit, splitting in two right at her muzzle.
  2092. >She's drenched in sweat and her coat is all dirty and patchy. Not the most regal look.
  2093. "Come on, Cadance, wake up."
  2094. >You slap her cheeks gently, then a bit harder.
  2095. "I know you can hear me, wake up."
  2096. >Your own vision is getting foggy now. But you soon hear Cadance coughing again. Her eyes are opening and for the first time you see their beauty without anything getting in your way.
  2097. >It's like those Shadow Mare eyes but without all the horrifying stuff.
  2098. >Immediately she goes into panic mode. She attempts to grab her helmet with magic, but as soon as she focuses her eyes on it she winces in pain.
  2099. >Her horn lets out a few sparks but nothing besides that.
  2100. >"Put it back on, quickly!"
  2101. >You try to affix it right away but the voices are getting louder, telling each other that the location is clear.
  2102. >The helmet still isn't affixed on Cadance properly when she tells you to open her wing pockets.
  2103. "You sure you can handle it?"
  2104. >Instead of answering, the princess nearly throws you on her back by squatting under your torso.
  2105. >Alicorn wings are at the ready and with a resolute push you are off the ground.
  2106. >It doesn't feel like she's up to the task, the flapping is so weak and panicked it barely gets you on the third floor level when your pursuers finally locate you.
  2107. >You pray they won't use firearms to shoot you down. Moving this slow you'll be such an easy target.
  2108. >But it seems that Cadance's magic is slowly returning to her. The flight becomes a lot more confident once you clear the building's roof.
  2109. >"Do you know any places we can hide at for now?"
  2110. >You look down, to your dismay, but you know this isn’t the time for you to fret like the scared frail human you are.
  2111. >Being on the back of an actively moving flier isn't getting any easier so you need to remember some place that's not too far from here.
  2112. "Uh... Sure, the car wash! I work there, I think I still have my keys on me."
  2113. >You point somewhere in the right direction, at least if you land near the train tracks you can figure out the rest from there.
  2114. >"Alright, hold on tight!"
  2115. >You can't hold on any tighter. To make things worse, the mare's flight is becoming wobbly and unbalanced again.
  2116. >Whatever strength she has gathered for that one push is already leaving her.
  2117. "Cadance, you okay?" you ask just to make sure.
  2118. >"Yeah, I just..."
  2119. "Maybe we should land soon."
  2120. >The mare nods and tries to ease the trajectory into a glide. Even if she can't sustain a climb her wings are still massive and easily carry you both forward, albeit in a noticeable dive.
  2121. >"Uh, Anon..."
  2122. >Two things are becoming obvious now. First, you'll make it all the way to the car wash after all. Second, the wind that is pushing you in that direction is getting stronger.
  2123. >"I'll try coming around."
  2124. >The princess realizes she has to maneuver somehow to avoid crashing, but when she starts flapping her wings again it feels like she's just not doing enough.
  2125. >"Come on, come on!"
  2126. >She manages to turn in the air which nearly pushes you off of her. Concerned about her passenger, Cadance tries her magic again but to no avail. It's clear to her that she'll just have to land in a straight descent soon.
  2127. >And so you're up for another turn. And this one would push you off if you weren't holding onto the mare so hard you are instead sliding down under her, rotating around her barrel. And then one of your legs loses its grip.
  2128. >Both of you know it's either landing or you falling on your head.
  2129. >The ground is so close. You just have to keep on holding. Your fingers are digging so deep into Cadance's neck, you fear they're already ripping the suit at the seams trying to keep your body from falling.
  2130. >"Brace!"
  2131. >With horrible screeching of metal against concrete, sparks flying right into your face, Cadence's legs plant themselves on the ground right before the closed down car wash.
  2132. >Even in your awkward position you can still feel it, the mare isn’t stopping quickly enough.
  2133. >She's drifting so fast she'll surely hit the wide metal doors that cover the usual car entrance.
  2134. >However, even this easy crash resolution isn't granted to the princess. The thin pony legs on the side where you're still holding her give in under your weight.
  2135. >In a sudden moment of silence, the princess falls head first, the crunch her visor produces promising nothing good for her, and you are flung forward, unable to stop your momentum in any way.
  2136. >And so you hit the door with your back, producing a hollow metal bang before falling down on your arm with a very unpleasant stinging smack.
  2137. >Thankfully, your head is safe, but just one look at Cadance tells you that hers isn't. She's on the ground with her legs outstretched and neck bent nearly all the way to her back.
  2138. >The wings that were just carrying you so confidently are like two dirty towels lazily thrown by her sides.
  2139. >You can't even draw a breath waiting for her to at least move a muscle. Fortunately, after a few seconds of agonizing silence, you see exactly that and exhale.
  2140. >This fall didn't seem to damage you too badly. But the princess is another matter. At least you can see that her horn is safe.
  2141. >Cadance produces a few pained sighs as you approach her.
  2142. "H-hey, you alive? Everything alright?"
  2143. >Worst thing you worry about right now is her neck. But the mare seems to move it without any problems now that she's conscious again.
  2144. >Instead, it's her leg. The one with all the watches on them. When she tries to get on her hooves, as soon as she puts weight on it she gasps and nearly falls over.
  2145. >Or at least she would, if you weren't there to catch her.
  2146. "Easy now, easy."
  2147. >"Don't worry," she preemptively calms you down. "Just a bit of a shock."
  2148. >Your eyes meet and between them a piece of Cadance's visor falls out of it right into the helmet.
  2149. >The thing is cracked and scratched all over. Even if it was still in one piece it'd be impossible to see anything through it.
  2150. >"See, it did protect me."
  2151. >For a moment you see her smile and you're almost fooled by it. Almost.
  2152. >You're no equine expert but you know what a damaged leg could mean to a pony. At least in Equestria they treat them instead of putting them out of their misery, right? You're pretty certain you're right.
  2153. >All you have to do now is get this pony to Equestria, because you've got absolutely no clue how to treat a horse leg.
  2154. >It doesn't look broken or anything but if it's sprained or dislocated...
  2155. "Wait here, I'll open the door."
  2156. >You know Cadance can't follow you but she might try. You want to be sure no more heroics are being performed today.
  2157. >Of course, there's no reason to open the car doors for this, so you just open the regular employee entrance and then return to once again princess-carry Cadance to your destination.
  2158. >She avoids looking at you.
  2159. >You make sure to enter the building carefully to not hit her against anything. There's not a lot of space here, but at the end of the corridor made of metal shelves there is a couch where you used to rest on since day one.
  2160. >Now it's the perfect place for the injured princess. Good timing too, since your arms are starting to shake under her insignificant weight.
  2161. >She looks at her leg with the same eyes she was looking over your cut just last night.
  2162. >"Anon, can you... You should go check if we're being followed."
  2163. "But I-"
  2164. >"Please, do it. I want to be sure."
  2165. >You know why she's asking you to leave her. You just don't want to admit how useless you are.
  2166. >And so, of course, when you walk far enough for Cadance to not hear your footsteps you hear a muffled scream coming out of the building. There was an attempt to hide it, but it still wasn’t enough.
  2167. >You were expecting it, truth be told, but it still makes shivers go down your spine.
  2168. >This mare... Just how ruthless is she?
  2169. >Truly, princesses are on another level. And you, you've been nothing but dead weight for her. Almost literally in this case, hanging off her and forcing her to land like this…
  2170. >Sure, you've helped a bit here and there but if you weren't that helpless you wouldn't have been in these situations in the first place.
  2171. >You make her worry too much, risk everything just to save you, even treat both your injuries. Are you really worth all this to her?
  2172. >Not like you're her match for her to treat you like this. Or maybe you are kept safe so that she can get the Shadow Mare to reveal herself.
  2173. >Yes, this makes a lot more sense. A matter of Equestria's security, right? So this has to be the reason.
  2174. >You on your own are just useless to these ponies. Just another human. Your match is a lot more interesting.
  2175. >She must've been a very powerful mare to summon such forces to aid her. A great magician or maybe a very spiteful villainess.
  2176. >You sure would like to meet her even if that’s the case. Without the whole shadow business. Set her on the right track with your affection and all that. But you're starting to think that you'll have to start with her current form to get to her.
  2177. >And this is why the princess of love is here in person. Risking her life for this cause.
  2178. >You think you've waited long enough once you make sure the streets really are as empty as they usually are at this hour. Cadance is probably done with the worst parts of her own treatment, no need to show your face around here in the open for too long.
  2179. >Even though nobody is rushing in to see what all the commotion is about. You’re fairly certain a human flying on a pony would be an easy target to spot even by regular bystanders that might come knocking any minute now.
  2180. >Looking down on your ripped shirt you see that the bandages Cadance thrown around your body are nowhere near the wound which is still slowly oozing with unnaturally dark blood.
  2181. >The overwhelming rush of this flight made you forget the smaller pain, but you already feel the burning return once you become aware of it again.
  2182. >This is gonna be one hell of an infection soon enough. You gotta find the first aid kit in the shop, it has to be somewhere out there.
  2183. >Upon your return the princess props herself up on her good leg, lying down on the couch with her suit partially open.
  2184. >The dials she had on her injured leg are all taken off, dangling on their wires, so is the sleeve of the suit, revealing a second, fully skin-tight suit under it going down to her knee.
  2185. >The hoof itself is exposed with its fetlock wrapped in some thick and wet looking bandages, familiar red in color.
  2186. >Cadance is emanating a flowery fragrance and you assume this is because of that bandage. The mare's head is also fully exposed and you don't even see the helmet anywhere near her.
  2187. >There are also visible holes in her suit right at her shoulders. You'd assume that's your doing, but it looks more like damage from her being dragged across the ground on her landing. But the wings that are still out and at her sides look uninjured, only very dirty.
  2188. >Cadance gives you a smile when you sit on the floor before her.
  2189. "Are you going to be okay?"
  2190. >"Yeah, I've seen worse."
  2191. >Right after that a wet-sounding cough makes her whole body tremble.
  2192. "I'm not convinced," you comment on that.
  2193. >"I've applied some healing paste, every team member has it. You'd be surprised how many accidents happen on extraction missions, you have to be prepared."
  2194. "I'm sorry."
  2195. >"No-no, don't be."
  2196. "No, I am. I dragged you into this nonsense and-"
  2197. >"As far as I remember I've appeared here on my own."
  2198. "Yeah, but it wasn't for- It wasn't to get beaten up like that."
  2199. >She sees right through you immediately.
  2200. >"The fact of the matter is you are in danger. I'm not here to neutralize that pony or anything. I'm here to help you help her."
  2201. >Keep you alive long enough for you to get to her.
  2202. >"I'd do that for anypony."
  2203. >You're not special in any way.
  2204. >"It's a matter of love magic and as the princess of love I can't let anything bad happen to either of you."
  2205. >It's a matter of her pride as a professional.
  2206. >"Anon?"
  2207. >You don't have to feel bad about it but you still know it's not fair to her.
  2208. >"Anon, hello?"
  2209. "Oh, uh, yeah, sorry. Just got lost in thought for a bit."
  2210. >"If I could keep you away from it and just fight it like we do in Equestria, believe me, I would."
  2211. "I understand, I just didn't want anything like this to happen."
  2212. >"I knew the risks. We all do at the Initiative."
  2213. >You still don't buy it. But you won't interrogate Cadance about it any longer.
  2214. "What about your suit? Are you going to be fine?"
  2215. >"For some time, yes. It's not like this place is actually poisonous or anything, just more tiring than usual. Like high altitudes but for magic instead. Usually ponies only need a breathing mask with some alicorn magic to survive here for weeks."
  2216. "Alicorn magic?"
  2217. >"The Heavily Opiating Protective Extract, as Starlight calls it," Cadance giggles. "Just a little bottle of Equestria for the road."
  2218. "You're an alicorn, do you need one?"
  2219. >"Always with me," the mare points at her nose tubes. "The suit is just to prevent leaks. Or how does she call it, passive radiation escaping with body heat? So even like this I'm still going to be mostly fine."
  2220. "Mostly."
  2221. >"As long as we don't crash land a few more times."
  2222. >Both your laughs sound really forced.
  2223. >"I'll be fine after some rest, don't worry. Sorry if I scared you with my..."
  2224. >She weakly moves her now properly oriented leg and nods without spelling this out.
  2225. >You've heard so many variations of that over this night you can't take it seriously. But if she can actually rest like this, you’d feel better.
  2226. >Even if you're not that well yourself you still have some things to do.
  2227. >You find your way to the local stash of supplies. Even if it's just some plain snacks like crackers and chips, you need to eat something and Cadance could use it too. You reckon now that her mask is off she won't refuse some food.
  2228. >Finding a med kit is a bit harder. You distinctly remember this place having one and after some time you locate it, all the way in the back.
  2229. >It's not like you'll ever show up at this place again after this whole Mare of Shadows business is taken care of. You'll either be in Equestria or dead. So it's all yours for the taking.
  2230. >Of course, everything inside of the kit is already past its expiration date. You'll just have some good old peroxide again.
  2231. >It barely helps anything. Seems like it's not blood that covers your cut now but some sort of oil. At least it hurts just as much when you apply your "medicine" and then try to cover everything with Cadance's loose bandages again.
  2232. >This isn't looking good.
  2233. >Maybe you'd look up something right now if your phone wasn't an old piece of plastic. And Sergey's PC is most certainly passworded.
  2234. >You wonder if Cadance's device can access the Internet here.
  2235. >The pony has already entered a restless, twitchy nap when you come back so you don't get to ask. You put some waffles in a plastic bag and a bottle of water, your humble loot, near the couch.
  2236. >Checking the outside once again you make sure there isn't anybody trying to capture you again.
  2237. >Weird, this place isn't that far away from your home, less than an hour even on foot. Something else must've caught their interest.
  2238. >Maybe it’s some sort of miracle, or just someone stalling them.
  2239. >Maybe collecting clues is their priority and you've left a lot of them at your apartment. If they’re a clean-up crew that might explain a few things. Not the grenade though. You won’t forgive that.
  2240. >Either way, it's time to lock yourself in here. If they start banging on your doors again you'll definitely hear it.
  2241. >Since this place is still two days from opening again it will definitely have to be the feds.
  2242. >Back into the depths of your former workplace you silently pull a chair near Cadance's sofa and sit there looking at her peaceful rest until sleep takes you too.
  2243. >You never believed people could just sleep sitting down, but apparently you just have to be tired enough. And when you come to, groggy and even more tired than before falling asleep, Cadance is already up.
  2244. >Actually, she's more than up, she's calling you at the door. Somehow she has managed to unlock it, maybe she took your keys?
  2245. >You don't get to check - she's so persistent you better check this out right away. Especially if the federal agents are outside the building.
  2246. >The rest of the building looks ominous in complete darkness and for a moment you feel as though you're walking towards the light in your last living moments.
  2247. "What's happening?" you whisper to the princess when you get closer.
  2248. >"Anon, I think I found a way to slip in unnoticed."
  2249. "Slip in?"
  2250. >"To Equestria."
  2251. >Equestria.
  2252. >Your heart starts beating faster upon hearing the promised land's name.
  2253. "W-wait, is it really safe?"
  2254. >"Yes, I just got word from Starlight. They'll be expecting us."
  2255. "Just like that?"
  2256. >"Yeah, just need some space to cast the spell. Come on."
  2257. >With that she starts limping to the front of the car wash, leg still bandaged and not covered by the suit.
  2258. >She's nearly bouncing on her other three legs just to avoid putting pressure on this one.
  2259. "Hey, let me carry you."
  2260. >"No need, this is going to be over soon."
  2261. >She's even leaving her equipment here. Those feds are gonna have a field day with all that Equestrian stuff once they find your temporary hideout.
  2262. >You check your surroundings but the early morning fog is so thick you can barely see Cadance in it, much less anything in the distance.
  2263. "Be careful, there's a road here."
  2264. >"Yes, this is perfect."
  2265. >Turns out the road is exactly the place she wanted. With a considerable effort she lights her horn up.
  2266. "You can do magic again?"
  2267. >"Looks like it healed over time. At least some of it."
  2268. >With a wide swing down, the mare's horn cuts the fabric of reality in half. The motion is so powerful it sends a ripple forward and peeking from behind the princess you see the dark matter splitting apart, creating a corridor with no end in sight.
  2269. >It reaches far beyond the road and even railroad behind it, but it's only visible if you look through the magically formed tear.
  2270. >"Now listen carefully, no matter what you do, don't stop and follow me. Don't be distracted by anypony calling you, it might be a trap. Only look at me when you walk, understand?"
  2271. "Yeah. Is it really that dangerous?"
  2272. >Cadance nods and looks into the gaping darkness full of cold stars. The very same you were being dragged into in your hallucination.
  2273. >"You know what that alicorn can do. You can't even trust your own senses."
  2274. "I thought you said she won't be a problem?.."
  2275. >"Let's go, quickly."
  2276. >No time to hesitate. If you start doubting Cadance now you might get stuck here, the passageway is just in front of you.
  2277. >With your heart still beating loudly you step inside.
  2278. >It's warm here. Calm. And the stars are dancing with each step you take. You can understand how one could fall under their spell here. But you focus on Cadance as she asked.
  2279. >One thing that worries you is that you can't see the exit this way. Is there one? Is she going to open it? You've got no clue.
  2280. >Some things are just beyond your control right now. With no idea what to expect your thoughts are scattered.
  2281. >And once you become distracted, the temptations begin.
  2282. >"Anon? Anon, is that you? Holy fuck."
  2283. >The voice is coming from afar, right from the depths of the abyss looking at you with its hungering eyes as if billions of crows are flocking over you.
  2284. >"Wait, stop! Why are you-"
  2285. >Cadance cuts this off by reminding you of your real target here:
  2286. >"Don't listen, just keep walking."
  2287. >Even after a few seconds of silence the distracting voice is getting closer.
  2288. >"Hey, I'm talking to you here, have feds brainwashed you or something? It's Carol, hello? Ring any bells?"
  2289. "Carol?"
  2290. >You know you're dumb and you've been given clear instructions on what to do. It's just a surprise, that's all. Cadance can't expect you to completely shut your heart out.
  2291. >At least that's what you are telling yourself now that you have turned around and the Shadow Mare is standing right in front of you, just at an arm's length away.
  2292. >As soon as your eyes meet you know this is the end for you. Some part of you hopes that Cadance was ready for something like this to happen and she's going to blast her with magic right away.
  2293. >But that doesn't happen. Instead, your nightmare alicorn is taking a silent step towards you. To your horror you see something resembling a smile forming on her previously featureless face.
  2294. >This makes her resemble a proper pony a bit more now. One of Celestia's build, only tall like a real horse.
  2295. >But you don't get to think about it much longer. Your match lowers her head towards you.
  2296. >What, is she expecting headpats?
  2297. >No, she's after something else. A long, slimy tongue dripping with the same substance she is made of touches your body.
  2298. >Her head is so close you can feel her powerful breath on you. She kisses your abdomen.
  2299. >And then her tongue travels up, tracing right over your wound, moving the bandages aside as it goes up.
  2300. >For some strange reason it doesn't hurt. It's actually a bit pleasant. The annoying burning sensation is taken away without any struggle and, to your shame, you nearly moan from instant pain relief.
  2301. >Only then you notice that the thick oily trail of her tongue is quickly absorbed by your cut.
  2302. >This strange action ends at your neck and in another soft kiss. The horrifying beast looks oddly satisfied with her work, pulling away and giving you a hungry smile.
  2303. >The eyes are still enchanting you, only... They're allowing you to move. You are not just a slave to her will now.
  2304. >She is now moving even closer, aiming for your mouth next. And even though you're not bound anymore, you simply can't bring yourself to avoid her.
  2305. >It's a horrifying thought, that she has this much power over you. Not by simple magical subjugation. Something more...spiritual.
  2306. >Every cell in your brain is revolting against the prospect of being kissed by your tormentor, but that means nothing if you can't act on it. It's like all your senses are numb and you have surrendered yourself to your fate.
  2307. >Yet you still hear the same voice from beyond the void:
  2308. >"Are you nuts, I said get off the tracks! Holy f-"
  2309. >From the depths of nothingness a human figure draped in something white jumps at you and tackles you off your feet.
  2310. >Everything around you is shattered by a long, desperate whistle of a train. By the time you hit the ground and slide down the track mound you already see it approaching from afar.
  2311. >"What the FUCK is your problem, man?!" yells a woman lying on top of you.
  2312. >Before you can answer, the train overwhelms you with its deafening whistle again, this time passing the spot where you've been occupying not even five seconds ago.
  2313. >While Carol is crying and hugging you, your thoughts are flying right out of your head to follow the train's mass that's piercing the early morning air in a cacophony of metal and wind.
  2314. >There was no Cadance and there was no escape plan. There was no tunnel of the void leading you to Equestria. Only your dumb ass falling for an illusion again.
  2315. >You can hardly believe it, yet it's so obvious now.
  2316. >Worst of all, you can't even bring yourself to be shocked by this. Like this is your life now.
  2317. >But one thing was real and Carol confirms it after sitting up and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
  2318. >"What in the world..."
  2319. >Her shaking fingers touch the wound you got last night and the black goo you've obtained from your match is still there. She rubs her fingers together in disbelief and it appears that the substance is a bit sticky.
  2320. >But that means it wasn't entirely a hallucination? You're so confused. What of that WAS real?
  2321. >"I know those guys were a rough bunch but this..."
  2322. "Wait a moment, what- What are you even doing here?"
  2323. >You only now notice the absolutely scandalous attire of your middle aged friend, that is to say the lack of it.
  2324. >She is sporting a hospital robe, her skirt, a thick bandage around her head and that's it. Her warm naked legs are still at your sides as she's not quick to get off of you.
  2325. >"What, do you expect me to stay at their damn asylum when they'll definitely off me once they find you? Not a chance."
  2326. >The smile on her tired face with no makeup left on it is quivering and her eyes shift from your ink cut to your face a bit too swiftly; you're surprised she's able to think straight by this point. Or, perhaps, not entirely straight any longer.
  2327. >She's shaking just a bit and it doesn't look like that's just from the cold. The woman might be a bit delirious by this point.
  2328. >But what she's implying does make sense to you, surprisingly.
  2329. "They? You mean those guys, the agents that look like feds?"
  2330. >"I don't know what agency they are from but anyone wanting to interrogate you right after you wake up and then strip you and tie you to a hospital bed doesn't mean well. So I escaped. They're probably after you so I might as well be too."
  2331. >She laughs weakly and finally gets up, allowing you to sit.
  2332. >You don’t feel like you’re gonna get a straight answer even if you ask how she managed to get away from those people.
  2333. >So it's just like you were suspecting, they got her because of you and confiscated everything related to the Shadow Mare incident, which supposedly included her clothes?
  2334. >"Got this from them too."
  2335. >Carol's hand slides into her cleavage and from there she pulls out a handgun, as if it's some sort of a magic trick.
  2336. >You've got a feeling that even if you were a gun person you'd still have no idea what this thing is, some parts seem modded like the weapon is assembled from different models.
  2337. >A few cables are running to what looks like a flashlight or a laser sight under the barrel, only the giant lens on that thing is very reflective and looks crystally to you.
  2338. >Multitude of colors are playing in it like a rainbow even in this pit where the faint light of the young sunrise isn't reaching you just yet. Now that the train has passed, this sight in silence reminds you of something warm and friendly.
  2339. >But you can't be sidetracked by something like this.
  2340. >It now occurs to you that Carol's interpretation of what is happening is completely missing the point and she might be doing more bad than good without realizing it.
  2341. "If they're following you- Wait, how in the hell did you find me anyway?"
  2342. >"You weren't home so..."
  2343. >And so she decided to check the only other place in the whole town you could be hiding at.
  2344. >Great, it's like she wanted to make sure the whole agency is following her.
  2345. >"They've already found you even without me, right?" she answers your silent judging gaze. "I haven't told them shit. Isn't this because of them?"
  2346. >She points at your blackened cut and then frowns.
  2347. >"I know I came too close to the truth but that's just over the line. Or... was it THAT? The black creature?"
  2348. >She actually has no idea what happened to you and just assumes things. You, in turn, also have no idea why she'd assume them.
  2349. "This isn't... You've got it all wrong. Are you okay?"
  2350. >"Me?" she lets out a sad chuckle. "I'm not the one throwing myself under a train."
  2351. >Well, if you look at it that way... She doesn't even know half of it.
  2352. >"You really need some help, man."
  2353. >The promised help starts with Carol helping you get up on your feet. Her hand, unsteady and weak as it is, is still more stable than your entire body threatening to collapse now that it has tasted relaxing gravel and grass under it.
  2354. >"Keep it together, man."
  2355. "Yeah, give me a second."
  2356. >"We gotta move before- Ow!"
  2357. >In one moment the roles are reversed. With her palm now rubbing the back of her head, your friend blinks a few times and her legs threaten to give in under her.
  2358. "Easy, easy."
  2359. >"I'm okay. I'm..."
  2360. >Thankfully, you're quick to react to her suddenly losing control. Carol finds herself in your awkward embrace when her head finally starts moving again after a few seconds of blacking out. The gun she was holding hits the soil with a soft clunk.
  2361. >Her arms find yours and she realizes she's still standing up only thanks to you keeping her propped up under her armpits.
  2362. >"Sorry."
  2363. >One moment of weakness completely wipes away this woman's bravado. Instead of disengaging from you now that she's not a wet towel hanging on your arms, she leans in even more.
  2364. >Now, the one squeezing your forearms with her trembling hands and pressing her wrapped forehead into your collarbone to hide her scared sniffling, is not the indomitable survivor going against the whole government by herself, but a scared girl miraculously carried through the night by a swiftly evaporating adrenaline high.
  2365. >"I'm not..."
  2366. >Feeling her legs rub yours when they wobble you secure her in a hug, hands on her sweaty back. Her voice is a febrile whisper against the dull ache of your cut:
  2367. >"I don't know what they want but I'm not... I'm not letting them take any more friends away from me."
  2368. >A strand of wet bitterness trails down your chest when Carol closes her eyes pressed to it. You can't help but keep her close and her soft forms squeezed tight against your body would certainly feel comforting to you in any other situation, nothing but a thin hospital gown separating you from her.
  2369. >Yet the potent mix of medical smells emanating from the bandage on Carol's head is sobering like nothing else.
  2370. >Only now that her head is laid on you, you notice through the patches of her dirty hair the darkened area on the white cloth right where she was touching it.
  2371. >You never realized how small and vulnerable this office lady is. She's always been "the grown-up" to you but now that she's this close it feels like she's just a lost child who has nobody else to turn to for protection.
  2372. >You really want to say something reassuring, that you'll somehow get through this and she shouldn't worry, but you know the truth is ultimately far less favorable to her than it is to you.
  2373. >These arms of yours aren't for her to take comfort in.
  2374. >You don't even get to open your mouth when you hear faint chatter from the other side of the tracks, farther to the side. It's lucky you're in this ditch right between the two mounds and nobody from the other side can see you.
  2375. >"Oh shit."
  2376. >Carol comes to her senses right away. She's now steady enough to move on her own and the first thing she does is drop on her knees to find her weapon again while you look around.
  2377. >The woman squeezes her gun with both her shaking hands when she's back on her bare feet and lets out a nervous sigh when she nods to you.
  2378. "Let's move."
  2379. >After what's been happening to you there's no room for confusion in your head anymore. You grab Carol under her naked forearm and tug at her to follow. She might be feverish but she understands what you require of her.
  2380. >Both of you are crouched and moving at a really slow pace. But there's gonna be time for running later.
  2381. >That's because the voices are undoubtedly getting closer. You have the advantage on your side still: they have no idea where exactly you're hiding, or if you're already gone to the other side.
  2382. >The logical way would be to search for you there, so hiding here until they're gone is the plan for now.
  2383. >You try to disappear in the nearest bushes to continue your way along the tracks through there, but that slows Carol down considerably.
  2384. >On top of it being the only place for the feds to really search without getting lost in the thicket behind that point, you're not sure you'll be safe for long. But you only need that to be long enough for them to lose you.
  2385. >You don’t know if you’ll succeed but what you do know is that outrunning them isn’t an option, not in this state and not with a scared injured woman at your side.
  2386. >At the very least the depths of this ditch aren't touched by the sunlight yet, giving you just enough hope to keep moving.
  2387. >Carol, being mostly naked, lacks any sort of footwear and that also makes it harder for her to avoid hurting herself against everything in her way.
  2388. >This woman brought them with her and she doesn't even realize this. It's not even the same bunch of agents that tried stopping your escape, you bet. You'd be left alone if not for her. What a joke.
  2389. >Something is being said about some signature but you clearly hear "this way" from behind you. The next second the space right beside you is illuminated by a flashlight.
  2390. >You stop both yourself and your unlucky companion, hoping you won't be seen that easily.
  2391. >If they had a device to somehow detect you, you might've been doomed right from the start.
  2392. >Carol is breathing heavily. You can't be sure she won't just break and do something stupid but she has already been dealing with these guys for some time.
  2393. >Maybe she can do the right thing and just keep on following you.
  2394. >Moving slowly, you pray to Cadance as you continue to avoid the lights being pointed in your general direction with no target in sight yet.
  2395. >But the cover these bushes provide isn’t perfect. The silent charade you're playing with search lights doesn't last forever and eventually...
  2396. >"Movement!"
  2397. >Your shadow is in front of you, signifying that the light of the search party is finally on you. And you were just about to decide to run over the second pair of tracks and disappear down below in the woods.
  2398. >If only you've decided on this a few moments before this. Or maybe relying on stealth wasn’t right in the first place.
  2399. >But Carol isn't getting caught, not again.
  2400. >You see her take aim when her arm slips out of your grip.
  2401. >It's doubtful she has ever used a gun before. But she takes a shot with no hesitation. It's so loud you instinctively cover your ears but the only thing that delayed action protects you from is Carol's short surprised scream.
  2402. >"Get down!" you hear from afar. The searchlight disappears from your location.
  2403. >It's hardly needed anymore.
  2404. >Fuck it, you're running now.
  2405. >But Carol isn't following you. On the contrary, she loves her not so hidden position so much she opens fire again.
  2406. >Unfortunately for her, the people after you aren't as stupid as you'd hope. They're not too far away, but definitely far enough for Carol to miss her frantic shots.
  2407. >You're so focused on climbing you don't even notice something hitting the gravel above you, right at the second pair of tracks that were your ticket out of here.
  2408. >It starts rolling down and you notice that it's a small canister that immediately starts spreading some sort of smoke all around it as it's rolling right past you.
  2409. >Even hearing the call "Gas!" from behind doesn't give you time to prepare.
  2410. >You're already out of breath, so when you instinctively hold it you know you won't last long. You gotta climb.
  2411. >Climb and hope they need you alive. That in response to Carol's still ongoing attack they won't just end you here and now.
  2412. >It's not even a big mound, you're just out of strength.
  2413. >By the time you are up the hill and your hands grab the tracks, you simply can't hold it anymore, you need to breathe.
  2414. >Praying that the gas grenade is already far enough from you, you inhale the fresh morning air mixed with some sweet smelling substance.
  2415. >You feel like you could fall asleep right here, just laying your head here is probably enough. If anything, some tear gas would keep you on your toes right now.
  2416. >There are no more shots being fired from below, so you assume whatever this gas is, it finally got to Carol.
  2417. >But you still hear people approaching despite your best efforts to cross the tracks as if getting over them would save you right away.
  2418. >You're not out cold just yet, you can move. Barely.
  2419. >Why is it so hard to do everything all of a sudden? Even your arms are getting so heavy you can barely lift them.
  2420. >You don't hear Carol at all, is she even alive?
  2421. >At least Cadance is safe, maybe. Probably. If these guys are only after Carol, maybe...
  2422. >Last thing you see before you pass out is someone squatting down near you and looking right at you through a mask with a respirator.
  2424. >No handcuffs, no other restraints. Plain bed, white painted walls, cold tiled floor. Medical tray with some sort of package on it and a plastic water bottle. Portable bio-toilet in the corner. Sink in another.
  2425. >Massive metal door. One barred window completely covered with a sheet of metal on the other side, just tall enough to leave a meager gap up above for the sun to reach into the room which is otherwise not lit by anything.
  2426. >This is the way you find yourself after you wake up. Your shirt and bandage aren't on you but besides that nothing seems to be out of ordinary.
  2427. >Putting two and two together, you assume they were taken as evidence. Seems the same kind of situation Carol was describing. At least your pants are still on you.
  2428. >Your wound isn't hurting but it looks just horrible, the sticky blackness of it looks like rot but it doesn't feel that way. At least the glue-like substance that's oozing out of it doesn't smell.
  2429. >Nobody comes to see you. Cadance, Carol, they're gone now. You're the only one left.
  2430. >The package contains some dry food as you soon discover. Maybe something akin to MRE? You've never had any.
  2431. >Tastes like... nothing. Like crackers only completely tasteless. At least the other human living conditions this place provides make you feel more relaxed. Something as simple as washing your hands and face feels like a luxury to you.
  2432. >Shame it doesn't make you feel any more refreshed. It's like the state of constant tiredness is your reality now.
  2433. >Seems like it's evening again, if the orange light getting into your room is anything to go by, which means you've been out cold for most of the day. Where even are you?
  2434. >If only you could look out the window, but you're not moving the bed just to look through the small slit above.
  2435. "Guess that's it, huh."
  2436. >Your own voice sounds strange in this empty room. The only reply you hear is some crow making a scene outside your window. The thing just doesn't shut up, as if it's calling someone.
  2437. >There's nothing to do but sleep and at last you feel like you're gonna get some recuperation done.
  2438. >But it was really too good to be true. When things get bad they get worse.
  2439. >Next time you come to, you're not in the comfort of a holding cell anymore.
  2440. >Even before your eyes open, you realize that you're restrained. Seated on a metallic chair, arms behind your back.
  2441. >Trying to move around you produces unfamiliar clunking, chain against metal, with both your hands and legs.
  2442. >The room is almost completely dark even when you decide to look around you. A slit in what you only assume is a door is shining cold artificial light on the table in front of you and that's the only thing that illuminates this room.
  2443. >Then again, there's nothing in this room to warrant any sort of curiosity. It's barren aside from another chair on the other side of that plain table.
  2444. >At least this gives you some time to reactivate your brain. No particular thoughts grace it, however, mostly because you're ready to fall asleep again even in this horrible predicament, mind completely cloudy in the chlorine-smelling emptiness around you.
  2445. >Maybe you got your evening sleep, but it sure doesn't feel like you're feeling any better. You got dragged here without waking up, it's either you're on your last ropes or they used something to sedate you.
  2446. >Probably that damn gas again.
  2447. >At least they've given you time to eat and use a toilet before bringing you in. Maybe you can bargain a cigarette too? Feels like it’s been forever since you had a smoke.
  2448. >Lights above you suddenly blind you with their sterility when they come alive with a quiet monotone buzz. That means someone is watching you. They know you're awake.
  2449. >They really have nothing better to do than chase you across your block and then put you in some cell that looks suspiciously like a hospital room just to interrogate you? You don't know anything about the Harvest anyway.
  2450. >At least you assume that's what they're after.
  2451. >Cogs in your brain carry you to the conclusion that if they wanted to get rid of you they'd do it by now. The fact that they've never used any sort of firearms to even slow you down, or to return Carol's fire, makes you hope they take at least some precautions to avoid harming you.
  2452. >Maybe they won't beat you up and electrocute you to get what they want?
  2453. >The prospect of experiencing actual torture is so outlandish to you it's hard to think about it as something real. Even Carol said they were preparing to just "interrogate" her, not torture.
  2454. >Even had her situated in some medical wing, presumably in the same building you are now. Maybe in the same kind of cell.
  2455. >You wonder how she even managed to escape on her own. Or how she found her way back so quickly. You certainly don't feel any sort of survival instinct of that level in yourself right now.
  2456. >Though it now occurs to you that if these people are after you, Carol's escape might not have been entirely her own achievement...
  2457. >These kinds of thoughts keep your head preoccupied until you hear footsteps approaching. Three people are coming to meet you. The closer they are, the faster your heart is beating.
  2458. >Just get this over with, you just want to know what the hell these people want.
  2459. >They stop right at the door and it's hard to make out any words in their murmurs behind it. Finally, your chamber is unlocked with a loud bang of a sliding lock.
  2460. >Suits. Breathing masks. Gloves. The first one to enter aims some device at you, but it doesn't look like any sort of weapon, it has more in common with a handheld thermal camera than a gun, only it's much larger than any camera you've seen.
  2461. >After a few seconds of standing in the door frame with this apparatus pointed at you he nods and the trio finally enters your empty room.
  2462. >They don't bother taking off their masks. Seems like they can never be too careful.
  2463. >The one entering last is the one to sit at the table right against you. The briefcase he has with him finds its place on the floor near him for now.
  2464. >The voice of this man is muffled through the mask but he sounds friendly enough as he introduces himself:
  2465. >"Pleasure to meet you. I'm sergeant Incognito of the MRI."
  2466. >You think you've heard this abbreviation somewhere and you're not sure if it was from Cadance or not. But it can't be that these guys of all people are involved in the same Harvest those ponies are.
  2467. >Your reaction is noted.
  2468. >"I see this does sound familiar to you. I doubt you've heard about it from any of your human acquaintances so let's avoid the guessing game. We know you've been in close contact with two aliens in the last day."
  2469. >You give him no response but none is needed from you.
  2470. >"You are here because any information on close contact with them is very valuable to our organization. Our goal is to gather intelligence and understanding of the whole array of phenomena some people call simply the Harvest."
  2471. >He finally reaches down to put his briefcase on the table and opens it.
  2472. >"I assure you, no harm will come to you or your friends. We simply want to ask a few questions."
  2473. "Just like that?" you squint at him. "What makes you think I'm gonna talk to some thug I know nothing about?"
  2474. >Incognito clears his throat and explains, his hand still on the briefcase:
  2475. >"The MRI stands for Magic Research Institute. We're not in any way a police force or an investigation bureau."
  2476. "That sounds like bullshit to me."
  2477. >The guy doesn’t even bat an eye at your provocation.
  2478. >"Our goal is to simply establish contact that could benefit both our worlds. Your alien friends already utilize technology obtained here freely. Technology obtained...not in a right way. It is only fair that we wish to understand theirs too."
  2479. >It's true that the princess was using some advanced tech you never expected her to have. But was it really simply stolen from here? You never even bothered asking.
  2480. >On the other hand this MRI weren't suckers in terms of pony tech either. Magic neutralization, taking signature readings, those strange firearm attachments you don't know the purpose of.
  2481. >Maybe it's not as easy as you imagine, but it feels like both worlds are borrowing something from one another.
  2482. >Sergeant presses on as he sees you considering his words:
  2483. >"We just want to get some answers, that's all. We never tried to harm you, never even opened fire your way."
  2484. "Oh, is that why you were trying to catch me?"
  2485. >"Catch you? Catch you!?" Incognito laughs. "To be honest, I don't even know who the hell you are."
  2486. "Drop the act, you were smoking me out trying to break down my door, and then-"
  2487. >"What? We've been going door to door taking signatures the whole god damn night because people got their hands on glowing evidence and had footage on their phones! Do you even know how hard it was to keep cops and firefighters out of the premises because those dumbasses kept calling them?"
  2488. >This is still too convenient for you. You don't want to admit the possibility that it's true if their goal actually is cleanup like Cadance guessed right away.
  2489. >But Incognito doesn't care about your doubts. The man sounds like he's fed up with this situation and is starting to fume, mask hissing as he heats up.
  2490. >"The only one we've been trying to "catch" was that girl we picked up on the scene, the damn rat took a hostage and vanished in some sewer or whatever. Even without all her contaminated clothes she had some residual magic on her so we let her go before she did something we'd all regret. And even then it took us almost two fucking days to find her, and there she was, right with your sorry ass also glowing with that signature, the one reported by the cleanup team! Two for fucking one, bite my ass."
  2491. "Wait, so where's Ca- Where's the pony?"
  2492. >"That's what YOU are here for, kid," the guy smiles bitterly. "You might think you're such an important person now because you were gonna get harvested but trust me, you've got bigger things to worry about. So without your little pony to protect you we're the only ones standing between you and whoever is out to kill you."
  2493. "Wait, you... What do you know about that...creature?"
  2494. >Incognito finally calms down enough to continue his negotiations, once again at least pretending to sound like an agent and not some common thug.
  2495. >"As much as you're going to tell us. All we know is that our world has recently become a battlefield for their conflict. And that's on top of potentially harmful technology being developed in their world, something that affects more than just regular people. It is only fair that we wish to know some answers, don't you agree?"
  2496. "Huh, you pretend like you're just observers but you still joined in on the fight. You used something to knock her out, I wouldn't call that not trying to harm us."
  2497. >"It was used as a brief stun, nothing more. Just like the harmless sleep gas we used to pacify your homicidal friend who tried to shoot us."
  2498. "Can you really blame her?" you smirk. "Maybe try not to capture people in some kind of prison against their will."
  2499. >"That's nothing compared to what's going on in our world now because of the aliens claiming their victims left and right. Understanding them would help us prevent even more dire accidents from happening."
  2500. "Oh yeah, like what?"
  2501. >"You know, a week ago one of our own agents got harvested," Incognito nods. "His life was in danger, as we have learned only after his disappearance, and we are thankful for saving him, but do you know what doesn't help the reputation of our so-called benefactors? Detonating military grade explosives out in the streets."
  2502. >Now you remember the article Carol was showing you, about that massive explosion a week or so ago. Was it really because of pony tech?
  2503. >While you ponder that occurrence, Incognito starts getting a bit heated again.
  2504. >"These creatures don't exactly have the best reputation here, without us picking the place clean before authorities arrived it would've been spun as a terrorist attack, or worse, an international incident. Or take what happened right at your home, you think the police would be concerned with pacifying the civilians and confiscating video footage of our supposed saviors?"
  2505. >These aren't the questions you could possibly answer. Incognito nearly hits the desk in passion as he closes the briefcase with two photos in his hand.
  2506. >"They're too careless now. If not for us, their tech would already be circulating on black markets and video evidence of them would be all over the Net. Harm you, bah! Do you seriously think we were concerned with chasing after you when we had so much work to do on the incursion scene? As if you'd fucking know. Running right under the windows with a goddamn alien at your side..."
  2507. >He shakes his head to clear it and then clears his throat.
  2508. >A photo of Cadance taken at an angle from somewhere above her above makes its way to your side of the table.
  2509. >"I hope you understand the stakes here. Helping us will help them in the long run. First of all, what can you tell me about this one?"
  2510. >You pause for a bit but you figure it's better to talk for now. No need to involve anything harmful if it can be avoided.
  2511. "Not much, really," you tell him the truth.
  2512. >You know he's most likely aware of who that is. It's just a test.
  2513. >"This is what is known as a "pony" to people who are aware of a particular set of...fictional characters," Incognito's finger taps the photo. "You are very well aware of the fact they are not fictitious in any way. What was she after, what’s her business with you?"
  2514. "Sorry, I can't remember right now."
  2515. >Another photo is presented to you. This time of the black goo left by the Shadow Mare somewhere.
  2516. >"We also read another very prominent signature on you. One we haven't been able to identify or produce an image of. Can you tell me about it? Is it something outside of the established canon?"
  2517. >You can't believe you're seriously being asked questions about a kid's cartoon by some guy who looks like a federal agent.
  2518. "I'd like to know that myself."
  2519. >"It's obvious you do know something," Incognito points at your chest. "It was trying to harm you, was it not?"
  2520. >Your wound wasn't giving you any troubles all this time so you forgot all about it by now.
  2521. >Traces of that oil Shadow Mare has imparted onto you are staining your skin below as if you were actively leaking that stuff all the while.
  2522. >"We've taken a sample of that for now but it'd be easier if you told us. We might be able to help you."
  2523. >A sudden thought crossing your mind makes you smile.
  2524. "You know, I think you might."
  2525. >The man nods, listening carefully to what you're about to say.
  2526. "I think this is just another illusion."
  2527. >"Another?"
  2528. >One of the men standing next to the door starts writing something down on his tablet he previously kept behind his back with impressive speed.
  2529. "Yeah. You see, I don't even know what's real or not anymore. For all I know I might still be in that ditch, dreaming up all this for whatever reason."
  2530. >"Interesting, why would you think this isn't real?"
  2531. "Everything happens because she needs something. So you are here to interrogate me so she learns all about the human abductions and how they work!"
  2532. >Incognito turns around to confirm his colleague is indeed writing all of this down.
  2533. "So in the end none of this is real, just my imagination to extract my memories."
  2534. >"So it's a "she", can't access memories directly but can create extremely believable hallucinations. That's good, keep talking."
  2535. "Yeah, see. Just like that. Any hint I give, she'll use it. So you know what, I'm not saying anything."
  2536. >"But why? Is she endangering the place humans are transported to?"
  2537. "Maybe, maybe not."
  2538. >"Or is she after that other pony?"
  2539. "No, of course not. She's only after me. And you know what, if- If this IS real and not another illusion, she'll be here to inflict one on me."
  2540. >"She can find you just like that? Do you think she can breach our facility?"
  2541. "Why don't you wait a bit and find out what happens to someone standing between her and me."
  2542. >You see the man hesitating to react. That's right. The Shadow Mare isn't out there to kill you. But she's hellbent on following you around and she's the jealous type.
  2543. >If she really wants to have you all to herself, how will she react to seeing you chained up here? Exactly.
  2544. >You see confusion in Incognito's eyes and it makes you smile. Yeah, he's afraid, afraid of this unknown factor. His stupid face is so funny now you can't help but laugh a little.
  2545. >Then a lot. It's just that funny that you're now holding the cards, you can't stop laughing now.
  2546. "That's right, you just wait, she'll be here for me any moment now."
  2547. >That is assuming this is actually real and not happening within a world she has created to torture you.
  2548. >For once, you hope that a shitty predicament like this turns out to be reality.
  2549. >A thought like that also seems pretty funny to you, so your laughter continues, to your captor's bewilderment.
  2550. >But in the end the questioning doesn't stop.
  2551. >Your every word is taken as a clue and some questions are repeated in a different manner to get some more details.
  2552. >As much as you don't want to answer anything, at times even a negative remark or your silence are taken as answers.
  2553. >And you have to be really careful to not drop any names.
  2554. >All the while you are waiting for some rescue to arrive. You'd prefer Cadance but there's nothing to suggest she isn't a prisoner just like yourself.
  2555. >So this duty lies on the Shadow Mare alone.
  2556. >But it's not all one-sided. The prolonged conversation with your captor reveals that it's been at least a full day since you got caught.
  2557. >And also that Carol is kept here as well. Just like you were suspecting.
  2558. >But this friendly chat can't continue long.
  2559. >"Before we continue this in a more...rough manner, I'd like you to consider giving us answers without us being forced to utilize methods you'd find unpleasant."
  2560. "So it was going to end up in torture after all."
  2561. >"No, not at all," you see Incognito shake his head. "As I said, we won't harm you. We have more effective methods we've acquired from our otherworldly friends. We'd simply like for you to have a choice in what to tell us instead of being forced to tell everything in vivid and unnecessary details. Think about this. We'll be back in an hour."
  2562. >The men leave you and close the door behind themselves. Only the two photos they brought in with them remain with you.
  2563. >Cadance... What you'd give to see her safe again.
  2564. >She can deny it all she wants but it is all your fault.
  2565. >If only you weren't so helpless. Imagine saving her yourself. Hell, you'd be a hero of Equestria at that point.
  2566. >Infiltrating this facility with nothing but a found handgun. Maybe even together with Carol, yeah. If only you had escaped back then at the train tracks, you would’ve been able to get back at these bastards.
  2567. >You would’ve followed their car to this place and besieged it.
  2568. >But, of course, none of that happened. Unless it has and you're really just hallucinating.
  2569. >No, that'd be too good for someone like you. As it stands, you're just...
  2570. >'Useless.'
  2571. >Yeah, that's right, voice from inside your head.
  2572. >...
  2573. >You'll give this a pass. It's just another thing you're imagining right now, no big deal.
  2574. >You can't even say that things aren't right because you have no idea how things are in reality.
  2575. >'If only I weren't so useless.'
  2576. “Yeah…”
  2577. >Motionless and thoughtless you can't even tell how much time has passed since those people left.
  2578. >Everything is silent aside from your own breathing and the buzzing of the lights above.
  2579. >Actually, they're not even that bright anymore. What, this MRI organization can't afford to change their lights?
  2580. >In that dim illumination even the photos before you look bleak and colorless.
  2581. >Weirdly enough, you can't remember Cadance's photo being marred by some ink blotch at its side. These guys really aren’t as professional as they want to seem, huh.
  2582. >Reminds you of that story when some careless pony got a bit of ink spilt on your match certificate and that obviously meant you're now married to some terrifying monster from beyond reality!
  2583. >Now THAT is hilarious. It'd make a cute story. You'd call it "Matched to Unidentified" and there you'd be living together with a physical manifestation of the concept of nothingness but it'd be a completely regular life and nobody would bat an eye at her murderous exploits.
  2584. >She'd scare everyone around her and do horrible stuff, but everyone would still love her and you'd give her playful lectures on how to treat others.
  2585. "No, Shady (you'd call her that in the story), you can't just drown this man's eyes with a mix of dead stars and bitter emptiness! Now he'll have to wear glasses!"
  2586. >Cue everyone laughing at the Shadow Mare who is now smiling and apologetically scratching the back of her head while producing sounds akin to wails of tortured souls and dripping concentrated shadows from her foaming mouth mad with the taste of fresh misfortune.
  2587. >"Oh, that's our Shady, such a silly pony!"
  2588. >Carol would pat your loveable eldritch wife on her back and that hand would be all dirty from the processed blood of Shady's victims the pony secretes profusely.
  2589. >Tune in for the next episode of Save Me From This Living Hell Please God Let Me Die In Peace where Shady fills your lungs with smoke potent enough to start comically blowing out of your nose, ears and empty eye sockets.
  2590. >Another drop of liquified nightmares hits the photo of Cadance, covering her face entirely.
  2591. >You look up above to see what's going on and the substance is leaking down from all the cracks in the concrete ceiling, including the sockets where lights are screwed in.
  2592. >But why just look up when your chair can suddenly lean backwards as if somebody is playing a cheap trick on you - for your eyes to meet the two already familiar hellish lighthouses, in an instant freezing all muscles in your body.
  2593. >She's here. She's actually here.
  2594. >With one flicker of magic around her horn the chains on your cuffs, both on the legs and arms, explode and send pieces of metal ricocheting across the room.
  2595. >With your hands now outstretched in hopes to retain balance you continue falling backwards but you hit no floor. Instead, the viscous substance that's already spread across this whole room accepts you eagerly, cushioning your impact.
  2596. >It feels very sticky to the touch and your efforts to stand up after crawling back and kicking the chair away from you aren't too successful.
  2597. >What a sorry fate, being freed from imprisonment only to end up in another, a lot more sinister.
  2598. >She will not allow you to escape. As if you already weren't aware of this, the smile Shadow Mare shines at you is too smug to be one of a mindless creature.
  2599. >Mixed feelings rise up in your heart when you realize that you have been noticing these changes in her form quite easily.
  2600. >She isn't getting any taller anymore, already in a form that towers over you, but she looks all the more like an actual alicorn, slim and lanky, with only a few flares of black matter appearing here and there, betraying her actual shadowy composition.
  2601. >It is no proper body but a congregation of dark spirits coiling against one another, although she made it look convincing enough that only you could probably notice the slight currents running through her form.
  2602. >This storming Jupiter of a mare lacks not even the evil storm eye. For the first time you notice she has something akin to a cutiemark - an empty circle on her flank created by circulation of the shadows.
  2603. >The mane that evaporates at the slightest waver still holds the dim stars in its transient frame. It is a vision of night skies of past and future one could lose himself in if allowed to stare at for long.
  2604. >But unlike that visage, her face is now fully alive and pony-like. Reminds you of Cadance in its shape, with a longer muzzle and the phosphorous moonlight gaze of her enormous eyes.
  2605. >These are the black holes for your willpower. Your surrender to her is complete once again but your movement is allowed as much as the tar sticking your arms and legs to the floor can be stretched.
  2606. >You can even stand up now. Just not run away anywhere.
  2607. >She isn't attacking but she isn't moving away either. She is simply watching.
  2608. "W-what do you want?"
  2609. >These words don't come out without effort. The fear still shackles you. Yet as soon as you speak up it becomes easier to talk.
  2610. "If you're here to free me then let me go."
  2611. >The pony starts walking towards you with no reply to impart.
  2612. >Instead, you are pushed against the wall.
  2613. >Lights on the ceiling completely give up in their fight against the oppressing darkness and go out with a pathetic click.
  2614. >In the very same second your mouth is enveloped by the substance you never wanted to taste in your entire life. Yet it starts pouring right inside.
  2615. >You are choking on it and with every movement of your body it finds it way deeper and deeper inside down your throat.
  2616. >It feels disgusting, like it's a warm paste of no texture, slime that has no taste yet feels dry despite flowing down without hesitation.
  2617. >Neither your gag reflex nor your instinctive gulping can stop it.
  2618. >It is only when you open your eyes wide in panic of not being able to scream you see the Shadow Mare.
  2619. >Neck craned and lowered, eyes closed as if she’s lost in the moment, her muzzle is right against your mouth.
  2620. >Only then you realize that you are free to push and kick to make this stop. But it doesn't. You are so weak, the only thing you can do is flail your arms and let out pathetic moans as the nightmare itself is passionately kissing you.
  2621. >The mass of darkness it is spewing right into you doesn't stop at filling your whole stomach. It's almost as if it moves through your veins, spreads to your very fingertips, fills your heart to the brim, invades your skull and liquifies your brain to take its place.
  2622. >It is then where you finally stop fighting.
  2623. >This is the end for you, isn't it? The sweet release at last. The kiss of death on your mouth putting a seal on your fate.
  2624. > want to make it quick.
  2625. >As you were already aware, you are either leaving this world to Equestria or to your grave.
  2626. >And if it's the latter, god, just make it all end now.
  2627. >With that, you attempt to hurry your deadly match by grabbing her again, this time not to push away, but to bring her closer.
  2628. >Your body touches hers, the wound on your chest caressed by the stream of shadows in her body.
  2629. >The starry mane feels cold but the shadow alicorn itself is warm. Almost comforting, if not for the very viscous constitution of her form.
  2630. >It does invigorate her. Your head is being pushed against the wall even harder. You could almost feel it's more passionate now and you open your mouth more to let your tongue be engulfed in her unstable substance.
  2631. >But you doubt these kinds of emotions are known to her. And you only wish to not prolong whatever misfortune you find yourself in right now.
  2632. >Isn't it ironic, to be released by the very pony who was supposed to love you? More and more you caress her unsure body that is flickering with shadows under your fingers.
  2633. >Touching her cheeks with your trembling hands and moving down her neck you feel sad that this couldn't be real, that this affection is wasted on the last moments of your life. Your first kiss is your execution.
  2634. >Nothing in your body is yours anymore, it's just flowing oil and feels as such; without anything solid in your legs left to support your weight you are about to collapse.
  2635. >But you are not given even that privilege.
  2636. >The door to your cell opens and you drop to your knees, suddenly released from your hold.
  2637. >Of course, you hit the hard floor instead of black goo. Because none of this was real, yet again.
  2638. "Stop toying with me, you coward..."
  2639. >It was meant to be this poetic and she got scared by some feds? What kind of eldritch goddess does that?
  2640. >You're almost disappointed with her. In the end she IS your mare. Why can't she be forward with you even in this form, isn't it why she assumed it in the first place?
  2641. >Or, fuck it, you don't even know what's going on in her head.
  2642. >"Wait, what?"
  2643. >"Stay where you are!"
  2644. >The two people who are now here are pointing handguns at you. No, only one is, the other is holding that thermal gun and he's looking very surprised right now.
  2645. >"Holy hell..."
  2646. >"What?" the other asks and jumps back at you when you try to get up. "I said stay where you are!"
  2647. >"This intensity is just like the subject."
  2648. >"You mean... The thing itself?"
  2649. >The words can't reach you right now. The kiss might've been a dream but you still feel like you're going to barf out sickeningly sticky tar at any moment.
  2650. >You look at your captors and your eyes ask for pity.
  2651. >The next second one of the guards, the one standing closer to you, drops his weapon. His eyes are fixated on yours.
  2652. >"Oh fuck!"
  2653. >Too late the other man covers his friend's eyes to break the contact. The whites in his sockets are now black and he falls to the ground, body limp and motionless.
  2654. >The remaining agent doesn't look at you but the pistol is still on the floor between you and him.
  2655. >He makes a careful walk towards it. You don't have it in you to stop him. All you want is for this to end. For “you” to find any form of deliverance.
  2656. >”You” can’t even feel “yourself” right now, what are you supposed to do? Just wait patiently until the guard finds his bearings and decide your fate.
  2657. >Eventually the weapon is found, but aiming it without looking at you is really hard for him.
  2658. >"You bastard... Come here so I can..."
  2659. >It's too bad he doesn't get to hold the handgun for long. He was looking the other way to avoid your gaze, yet this made him exposed to the sight of the mare of horrors herself manifesting once again out of thin air right in the door frame, spewing her shadows everywhere by simply being there.
  2660. >When the second guard hits the floor he has the same black eyes as the first one.
  2661. >You can only guess the two of them are in their own dream world, separated from this reality entirely.
  2662. >The condition of your mind might be ailing but it doesn't take you much to understand why "you" now have the same effect on others.
  2663. >Your match is waiting for you patiently right outside your pen.
  2664. >One step after another the two void spawns start walking down the corridor, alarms all throughout the facility singing you a love serenade and the emergency lights taking the spot of the regular ones that shut off as you pass under them are coloring the path you've taken with their bloodthirsty crimson.
  2666. >You couldn't walk any longer. Even pumped to its limits by the welcoming and supportive void, your body was failing you.
  2667. >All you can do is watch, now that your Shadow Mare is carrying you on her back.
  2668. >The escape isn't quick. There is no need to rush, she has nothing to fear.
  2669. >Well, there was one thing. The blinding light of a different kind of flashlight that apparently made your match recoil in pain. She dealt with it without a problem, but it was still concerning. Every single agent you've faced on your path was equipped with those and little by little your pony was growing weaker under those lights.
  2670. >You remember seeing that rainbow lens on one of their guns. Perhaps it was an instrument to combat these kinds of enemies specifically. But in that case they already knew about it before you even got captured.
  2671. >But the Shadow Mare has only lost a bit of her body under those death rays. In the end, their defensive measures meant nothing.
  2672. >She was ready to destroy them. You didn't let her.
  2673. >Seeing them putting their weapons to their own mouths against their will reminded you that they are still men. And a man could have a mare waiting for him.
  2674. "No, don't."
  2675. >Your hands touched her neck and she understood it. Instead, these people are now locked in their own worlds. Just enough to keep them out of your way safely.
  2676. >Some go limp before you even see them. The shadows spread far and wide. Nobody is safe, you even hear shots on the other floors being fired at something.
  2677. >But soon you understand that this is not your mare's doing.
  2678. >"Anon?.."
  2679. >Shadow Mare stops as both of you notice a figure up on the stairs to your side.
  2680. >Aiming her gun at you, Carol is panting heavily. Not only is she all dirty as before, her minimalistic attire unchanged, the white of her gown is also stained by blood and you can't tell if it's hers.
  2681. >You calm your alicorn the moment she readies a spell.
  2682. "Let her go. Don't harm her."
  2683. >You whisper it into the mare's ear and she obeys, but her eyes are still on Caroline when you both pass her while her weapon is still aimed right at you, not at the pony.
  2684. "Sorry," you tell her as you are taken away.
  2685. >The woman lowers her gun after you pass her. You are not pursued by her when you enter the spacious cargo elevator.
  2686. >It appears to not be working in the emergency but nothing is impossible with this creature at your side.
  2687. >You feel protected, at peace, even if you suspect you're not getting out of this one alive. The void is eating you, gnawing at you from the inside, and you have no willpower left to resist. It is simply a matter of time until you're lost in it.
  2688. >This isn't a rescue operation. This is your match parading her trophy around before it expires.
  2689. >If she wanted to toss you into her boundless abyss, she would've done so by now. No, something different is on her mind, but what?
  2690. >No matter, it's going to end soon one way or another.
  2691. >But the way it actually ends isn't something you could've predicted.
  2692. >The facility feels quiet now; even the drone of alarms barely reaches your brain. There is nobody left to contest the Shadow Mare.
  2693. >The last corridor to the freedom of the night outside is motionless. But something is bothering you.
  2694. >It doesn't feel safe here. The mass of fermenting abyss inside refuses to calm down. Soon you understand why.
  2695. >Once your faithful void mare exits the building through the front door, as befits the conqueror, she faces an obstacle she wasn't counting on.
  2696. >Not just meager flashlights with some crystal lenses that hurt her. A few big searchlights dazzling their fractured light, above and to the sides aimed straight at her, on top of a dozen of regular ones in front.
  2697. >It's a whole installation of these lights blocking the exit. And the ones wielding them are ponies.
  2698. >This was such an obvious trap, but your mare walked right into it. Despite everything in you feeling it and protesting against it, despite not even needing to take the door to exit.
  2699. >Just when you start thinking it can't be that bad if your match is marching into the ambush so bravely, you are proven wrong.
  2700. >"Target!"
  2701. >A female voice calls it and the others take aim immediately.
  2702. >With only her oily wings to cover herself, your pony is fully exposed to the blinding flash. You shut your eyes as tight as possible but it still burns through your eyelids so you have to cover your face with your forearm.
  2703. >It's too late as your eyes immediately start hurting, as if through them fire has entered your head.
  2704. >And then the screaming starts. Not only your mare's desperate wailing, not the oil that's boiling inside of you as if this is hurting it, but also...
  2705. >"She got Cadance!"
  2706. >Blinded, you can only hear what's going on and rely on your imagination. A familiar sound of magic at the evil alicorn's horn is followed by the also familiar scratching noises of metal against concrete.
  2707. >"No! Argh!"
  2708. >The princess is being dragged here? But why?
  2709. >"Closed space spell!"
  2710. >"Eyeshields down!"
  2711. >The moment later the second magic aura chime joins Shadow Mare's and suddenly you don't feel blinded even through your hand block.
  2712. >One glance at the field of battle through tears in your eyes is enough to understand: the searchlights are all held away from your position by none other than Cadance.
  2713. >She is being embraced by shadowy tendrils extending from your mare's wings instead of feathers, pulling her towards the void creature.
  2714. >You can't see her eyes but you assume she is under the influence of the mind-altering spell.
  2715. >To you it's obvious why she is dragged forward. The abyss will swallow her whole once she gets close enough.
  2716. >Now that only regular flashlights are peeling off the layers of shadows from your mare's body, she's regenerating fast.
  2717. >"Shoot her!"
  2718. >Being blinded is one thing, but now that beams of concentrated magic are burning the air around you it's not safe even on the alicorn's back, even protected by her wings and a shield channeled by Cadance.
  2719. >Too bad you still can't do anything about it. You can't help her or the princess. The slow rot inside you is safe from all the light, even after its cleansing fire has evaporated some of it leaving you some space to reclaim your inner self.
  2720. >All the spells from the outside can't harm what remains and the remains can't be subdued fast enough, not by your own weakened will alone.
  2721. >Despite the battle being fought between a whole army of ponies and princess Cadance, defending her new master without knowing any better, you feel like you are the one who is going to be the first victim of it and lose consciousness at any moment.
  2722. >Cadance probably thinks they're on the wrong side, maybe contaminated by the Shadow Mare and that's why they're attacking her, not the other way around. Funny. She's just like you now.
  2723. >"Ignore Cadance, just shoot that thing!"
  2724. >And then the Shadow Mare is shot. Not by any pony. Not by magic.
  2725. >With deafening thunder, a bullet flies straight through her eye, piercing both of them from the side and leaving a swirling hole in the pony's skull.
  2726. >For a moment the Shadow Mare dissipates into nothingness, but regains her form anew the next second, good as ever.
  2727. >That second is enough for you to fall down, narrowly avoiding smacking your head against the solid ground.
  2728. >Just like that, a mere second and there’s no indication she got attacked at all.
  2729. >But that second is enough for Cadance to break free and immediately fire magic at her captor. Her mind must've been fighting for control all this time and she was waiting for this moment.
  2730. >You're a bit ashamed of your initial conclusion. She's so much stronger than you, who had given up on your "self" immediately.
  2731. >A flash of magic aimed your way once again lights up the night, so horribly powerful it feels like it's going to evaporate you together with your captor.
  2732. >This time it flows with rainbow colors, not just hints of them produced by some crystals breaking the light down.
  2733. >This is the real deal. The raw power Cadance is betting everything on.
  2734. >Her bet is justified. The Shadow Mare wasn't prepared to repel such powerful magic point-blank and even after some struggle it overwhelms her.
  2735. >Only when the desperate cry of the Shadow Mare thins into nothingness the attack stops.
  2736. >The silence is colored by ponies breathing loudly at first, then by their chatter and muffled, unsure cheers.
  2737. >Before you stands the princess of love, no suit on her, just her horribly dirty coat glistening with sweat in the lights behind her. Her leg is still bandaged, but she appears capable of standing on it.
  2738. >And a few dozen feet to the side, peeking out from her improvised cover of a lamp post and rubbing her eyes, Carol is clutching her gun.
  2739. >" all this?"
  2740. >If there is even a bit of journalistic passion left in this woman's head, it's probably working real hard right now.
  2741. >Carol drops on her knees and in a magical flash her gun is taken from her hands.
  2742. >"Treat the civilian," you hear the same voice that's been giving commands on the pony side all this time.
  2743. >No way to know who that mare is as she is covered in protective gear from her hornless head to her steel-reinforced hooves. The only thing that identifies her is the patch with symbols resembling "MRI".
  2744. >The one next to her, however, didn't bother even with a simple mask, a plain sign she's not planning to stay for long. You recognize her right away when she calls Cadance.
  2745. >"Is it over?"
  2746. >"It should be," the princess turns around to greet Purple two. "Nice work, Starlight."
  2747. >"Is this him?"
  2748. >The unicorn nods at you and Cadance smiles.
  2749. >"Still alive and in one piece."
  2750. >Just as the unconscious Carol is being carried by two unicorns somewhere in the improvised camp that's now being erected next to the closed facility, you are being tended to as well.
  2751. >It's really adorable how these ponies even had some tents with them, maybe they were expecting to camp here for a while?
  2752. >All of this was being prepared right under human-MRI's noses? How is that possible, you wonder.
  2753. >And where is "here" exactly? You see a rundown building you were kept in, all windows covered and reinforced, but it just reminds you of some administrative object, maybe a school or a small hospital.
  2754. >In the darkness of the late evening the emptiness of this yard in front of the improvised prison, stripped of everything that could make it look friendly and welcoming, feels really lonely.
  2755. >It is completely cut off from the outside world by big plates of concrete forming a tall wall around this featureless concrete yard, signifying possible construction being done, only there's no construction and the barbed wire on top of these walls is especially thick.
  2756. >Your only guess is that this shady organization has appropriated an empty building nobody uses.
  2757. >After being escorted away from the entrance on your barely moving legs, you are set on the ground by two adorable mares in bodysuits, with their cute little serious muzzles under their cute little protective visors that are only slightly up for now, still protecting their eyes from a stray gaze.
  2758. >Only now that you're this close to them, you really take it in. They're ponies. They're real.
  2759. >You smile at one and she reacts the same way. But soon they are both gone.
  2760. >When the rest of their crew, all in those suits as if they're uniform, rush inside the building to "Clean up", as the commander orders, Cadance finally approaches you with two other mares that don't look that intimidating.
  2761. >To your surprise, one of them is holding the same kind of apparatus the other MRI used to take signatures with.
  2762. >Perhaps Incognito wasn't bluffing about some things after all.
  2763. >Cadance's inquisitive glance on the measuring assistant yield an immediate reply:
  2764. >"The signature is the same."
  2765. >"Check the others," the princess orders and the pony runs away with the familiar device in her magic hold.
  2766. >For a moment you hesitate to look up at the princess. Even though you feel like nothing substantial remains in you, it's still hard to face her.
  2767. >But she's standing right in front of you. Your eyes finally meet and...nothing happens. Nothing stirs in you, nothing is attacking her through you.
  2768. "I thought you were..."
  2769. >"Captured?" Cadance smiles at your silly idea. "I got the hint and moved right after waking up without you nearby. I figured you wouldn't have left for no reason. Your shadow match even helped me out a bit."
  2770. "Really?" you frown in disbelief.
  2771. >"You could call it that, her tricks got me on the right track. I just had to fight for my freedom a bit."
  2772. "How... did you figure out it was an illusion?"
  2773. >"A closed space?" she corrects you only to evade the question. "It was tricky, but it's a long story. I can't believe they've taken you all the way to the other side of the town and then some."
  2774. >Of course. And now their guarantee that nobody will find them here is also guaranteeing that nobody will help them here. At least not soon enough.
  2775. >Princess smiles and only now do you notice a few fresh cuts on her cheek and her flank.
  2776. >"It's nothing. At least after fending her off I was able to call Equestria safely and, well, here we are. We figured she'd be after you here so we just watched until the lights went out and moved in quickly and quietly while your friends were busy with their situation."
  2777. >You hear pride in the pony's voice.
  2778. >"Even borrowed a few of their sparkly toys, I gotta bring Twilight one as a gift, she'll love these harmony imitation crystals."
  2779. >Look at this pony, already acting like everything is over. You just hope you won't hear gunfire coming from the hospital or something.
  2780. >This conversation feels odd to you. Like Cadance needed you to hear her explanation. Maybe she doesn’t fully believe it herself and wants you to call her out on it?
  2781. "Is she actually gone now?"
  2782. >You still feel something churning inside you. You can't be sure if it's just your empty stomach.
  2783. >"She probably can't be dealt with by just one practical spell like this, we need the real deal, the Elements. For now we have to get you to Equestria, we can plan our next step there."
  2784. "Just like that?"
  2785. >"She most likely won't attack when she's weakened like this if she knows what's good for her," Cadance motions you to follow her with her horn. "But we have to leave right now before the situation changes."
  2786. "Wait a moment, Cadance, how... How did you even know?"
  2787. >"What?" she plays innocent.
  2788. "That she'll be here and..." you point at the entrance. "And go through there?"
  2789. >"Well, call it providence."
  2790. >She sees your dissatisfied gaze and explains herself:
  2791. >"In my vision, it was like this MRI was contacting me and asking for help. They told me how to get here."
  2792. "And you didn't think it's a trap?!"
  2793. >Is this pony really a princess?
  2794. >"I knew that it had to be," Cadance nods with a smile, probably aware of what you're thinking right now. "But I knew this was our only chance of predicting anything in this world. And this open space is the only reason we had a fighting chance."
  2795. "What if she never showed up here at all?"
  2796. >"It was a better chance than we've had being on the run, you know."
  2797. >You fall silent, reminded of events that seem so long ago.
  2798. >Something about this doesn't add up. Cadance was desperate so directing her here was easy, you can imagine that, but why? Why make it so convoluted and rely on her taking the bait?
  2799. >It's no use. You're too relaxed now. Instead of being hurt like before you just feel like you're floating in thick oil, like your body is wrapped in a blanket.
  2800. >You've been sustained by nothing but painkiller spells and void injections for the last day or two. Your brain is still liquid even after most of the void in it being evaporated.
  2801. >You notice that the cleanup brigade is on their way out of the building when Cadance gets all of them checked by that pony with the device that shows some kind of oscillations when pointed at ponies.
  2802. >That includes you, Cadance and Starlight. The conclusion is simple:
  2803. >"No subject signature traces on anypony but the princess and the human."
  2804. >"Hmm..." Cadance furrows her brow. "Probably just due to the contact with the Shadow Mare. But that means she's not hiding in the building."
  2805. >Yeah, probably just that. Maybe you should put fingers into your mouth and vomit everything on the ground just to be sure you're not taking anything unwanted to Equestria.
  2806. >Hard to even smile at thoughts like that anymore. If Cadance were to tell you to do it, you'd do it no questions asked.
  2807. >"Is he okay?" you hear Starlight whisper to Cadance when she beckons the princess to talk to her for a moment.
  2808. >"Just a very rough day. Go easy on him."
  2809. >You feel a pitying gaze of the unicorn on you without even looking at her directly. You must look like a complete hopeless mess to anyone who doesn't know, a rugged cut up shirtless mannequin.
  2810. >The ponies are now running around and discussing what to do with the humans here, so you are left alone for the time being. Seems like some got harmed after all and are gonna be treated later.
  2811. >Some ponies gather around their commander who nods to the princess.
  2812. >"We can go whenever ready," the battle-pony's voice is much softer this time.
  2813. >"Thank you, Iris."
  2814. >With that Cadance returns to you and gives you the most confident smile she can manage.
  2815. "Great. I think I've had enough of this place to last a lifetime."
  2816. >The princess hesitantly shifts her eyes on your wound, still festering with the oil that's been bestowed upon you by your shadow match.
  2817. >"Yeah... I'll get everypony ready as soon as possible. When we're safe I promise we'll figure out how to get her out safely too."
  2818. >Your sarcastic smirk prompts Cadance to think about it once again.
  2819. >"You want to meet her, don't you?"
  2820. >Seeing no sign of agreement or disagreement on your face, she continues:
  2821. >"Just don't be too harsh on her, she probably doesn't know what she's doing."
  2822. >You know it's not entirely true. The kiss still lingers in your memory. But this isn't the place and the time to argue about the extent the mare behind the shadow was aware of her actions in this world.
  2823. >Imagining her being completely aware of everything but helpless to stop it makes you sad.
  2824. >Hurting you and others and not being able to do a thing to prevent it. That'd make her feel completely...
  2825. >'Useless.'
  2826. >Yes, thanks for the tip again, voice inside your head.
  2827. >"Anon, come here for a moment."
  2828. >The princess leaves you no time to ponder the possibility of that voice remaining in you even now. Other problems await you when you join a group of unicorns, their visors up on their heads now that safety has been confirmed, together with Starlight and Cadance.
  2829. >"Look, this is very important," a quick nod towards Starlight redirects your attention to her. "We'll be moving as soon as she opens the portal."
  2830. >"Whatever you do, don't look anywhere, ANYWHERE but forward."
  2831. >Starlight makes sure to speak loud, slow and clear.
  2832. >"Anywhere, you got it? Not to the sides-"
  2833. "Yeah, I know."
  2834. >"Not behind you. And especially - especially! - not in the direction of anypony calling you. You understand?"
  2835. >Cadance picks it up from there:
  2836. >"The Mare of Shadows is weakened but it doesn't mean we're completely safe from her influence in the divide. Just concentrate on Starlight's butt or something when you walk."
  2837. >"Hey!"
  2838. >Cadance winks at you and giggles.
  2839. >You can only smile weakly at that attempt at easing the mood.
  2840. >But you look at Cadance's butt instead. Not on purpose. It's just...
  2841. >The scratches on it, from the fight with Shadow Mare as she has explained, are glistening with the same black oil your chest cut is. It's barely visible and nobody else would notice it, but to you it's obvious.
  2842. "Cadance, I-"
  2843. >"We're ready now."
  2844. >Starlight throws you off with her confidence and her horn immediately lights up.
  2845. >Cadance is speaking into her favorite radio device that's not affected by static anymore:
  2846. >"Purple one, we are entering the divide now, how copy?"
  2847. >"Loud and clear, Pink one. Ready to receive."
  2848. >A knife made of magic light, Starlight's horn burns through the fabric of the world and the wound extends so far beyond that you can't see the other end.
  2849. >"Got the signal," the "Purple one" mare confirms on the radio. "We are opening the exit."
  2850. >There's a small red dot playing on the ground. Soon you notice that there is a thin laser line shining all the way through the path. A guiding rail of focused light.
  2851. >Cadance waits until Starlight, who is at the helm of the procession, takes half the platoon after her. Then it's the princess' own turn. And then it's you.
  2852. >Right after you, the battle-ready captain walks in. She's really close. You wonder if it's to immediately react if you stall the procession.
  2853. >She's probably instructed to break your legs and carry you on her back all the way to the exit if you stand still even for one second.
  2854. >So you better not do anything funny now. Not now. You are so close.
  2855. >Speaking of funny, this corridor reminds you a bit of your own wound which is streaming right on your body and is filled with the same substance this place is made of.
  2856. >It is captivating, you can't deny. Even as you watch Cadance's tail swish and swoosh to the sides as she walks in front of you, in the corners of your eyes you notice the stunning vista of distant emptiness.
  2857. >The echoes of the same void that was once inside of you, now, hopefully, all burnt up in the attack on the Shadow Mare, are starting to churn, probably reacting to being returned here.
  2858. >And so it’s no surprise you eventually start hallucinating again. You are ready for it, it's a part of your life now just like this place is a part of your body and mind.
  2859. >It's just a faint voice from somewhere far beyond.
  2860. >"Anon? Is that you, Anon?"
  2861. >No, you're not that stupid. Just keep walking.
  2862. >"It's me! It's Moonluck!"
  2863. >Just keep walking. Remember what happened last time. Just keep walking.
  2864. >"Please, don't leave! I'm so scared, I don't know where I am or why this is happening."
  2865. >Just keep walking. It's not gonna get better just because you want it too. She's not gonna be right there just because you want her to be.
  2866. >There is no mare for your useless ass to save in this glowing abyss. You will not heroically charge forward and find her using just your intuition. You will be lost the moment you face the stars that are here for the sole purpose of dizzying people like you, their prey.
  2867. >"I don't know what’s going on anymore, I just want... All I wanted was to find you! This isn't how it was supposed to be."
  2868. >You can't help her. You will be consumed, seduced, taken. You are not the one to go against the entire cosmic filling between two realities. Not right now.
  2869. >So what if your teeth are about to break against one another from how strong you're clenching them? So what if you're sweating bullets trying to prevent your heart from exploding?
  2870. >So what if this voice is the same you've been hearing in your head?
  2871. >For once, god, just for once... Do the right thing.
  2872. >Just. Keep. Walking.
  2873. >"Please... If you can..."
  2874. >"Find me..."
  2875. >'Find me.'
  2876. >'Find me.'
  2877. >'Find me.'
  2878. >"CLEAR!"
  2879. >With a flash of light you are being pushed forward by the strong and very persistent head of the commando mare.
  2880. >Sounds, colors and smells fill the world around you when your body nearly flies out of the portal, on the other side of reality.
  2881. >The air you're gasping for feels so different you nearly drown in it. Hands on your neck you try to gulp more and more but it fills your lungs without giving you any oxygen.
  2882. >Only when some kind of a breathing mask is affixed to your head with magic you can finally breathe in normally.
  2883. >"Just like all the others recently, huh."
  2884. >It's Starlight's voice. She looks at you pensively, studying your reaction.
  2885. >"What is going on out there if you can't even make your brain pretend this is real?"
  2886. >"Starlight," Cadance interferes. "Not now."
  2887. >You look up at the princess and she nods.
  2888. >"Don't panic, it's just a mix of your world's air with ours. It’s normal, or at least it is now..."
  2889. >Another voice, awfully familiar to you, chimes in with an explanation from somewhere farther away, to the side:
  2890. >"The working theory is that the less magic is left in the world, the harder it is for the natives to process a magic-rich world as something real, in other words the oxygen here is so ionized with magical-"
  2891. >"Twilight, not you too. Just let him take a breath for pony's sake."
  2892. >"Yeah, sorry..."
  2893. >Twilight isn't the only pony walking in on your successful rescue.
  2894. >"Cadance!"
  2895. >The princess reacts to the male voice calling her immediately.
  2896. >She nearly takes flight towards her husband carrying Flurry with him.
  2897. >"Oh, Shiny, I'm so happy to see you!"
  2898. >"Told you I should've come with- Oof!"
  2899. >You hear a lot of struggling behind you, a mighty hug of relief and reassurance. The ponies focus on the happy reunion and you're left alone for now.