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The Wanderer - ACT I

By PKAnon
Created: 2023-06-15 23:02:44
Updated: 2024-05-31 05:54:01
Expiry: Never

  1. >Anon gets fed up with his shitty job and quits on the spot, electing to head home for a time while he tries to figure out what he actually wants to do with his life
  2. >Circumstances change quickly, and he’s left to wander the lands beyond Equestria on his own
  3. >A certain bookworm unicorn isn't quite content to let him be lost out there, though
  5. >“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
  6. >Leaning up against the conference table, you rub your aching temples with great force, hoping to slow the incoming migraine that you knew, in your bones, was on its way to find you.
  7. “I’m afraid not, Director Clean Sweep.”
  8. >The errant stallion furrows his brow and grunts in response, pacing back and forth in front of the chart that your manager had suggested that you present in her stead.
  9. >With a sigh of exasperation, he gestures to the ever-so-slightly downward sloping graph, his borderline disgust wafting about the room as a result.
  10. >“How, in the name of Celestia herself, are we not in an upswing with sales? Fleur’s new perfume should be smashing every other release right now!”
  11. “With the current trends in the market, it’s more than likely going to continue for a short while as part of a post-holiday lull. Other brands are seeing similar results as-”
  12. >“I don’t care about the ‘other brands,’” he interrupts, staring daggers at you as a vein juts out from his forehead. “I care about what goes on here.”
  13. >He points to a far more optimistic line on the graph.
  14. >“And what’s going on here is that this release was projected to break records through the other end of the holidays, yet here we are - on the precipice of failure.”
  15. >At the ass-end of this long, grueling week, you want nothing more than to bring him down from his lofty, corporate bubble and let him have it, just like your former coworker did a couple months ago.
  16. >Alas, you decidedly enjoy having a stable, comfortable income. Clean Sweep tends to have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to matters of severance, anyways.
  17. >So, with frustration mounting, you let one of your hands wander under the table, strangling the leg of your chair so that you can better filter yourself.
  18. “With all due respect, sir, marketing has done everything we could to counteract the effects of the exigent release window. Wherever you look in Canterlot or Manehattan, there’s a billboard, magazine, or storefront window with Flair all over it.”
  19. >“At the cost of a more-than-sizeable chunk of the advertising budget, I might add,” he retorts without missing a beat. “Which wouldn’t be an issue if Flair had sold according to the projections.”
  20. >Rather than offer your own possibly antagonistic rebuttal, you remain silent as the director continues his tirade.
  21. >Maybe it’s the end-of-week fog, but you swear you can feel the metal of the chair’s leg bending to suit your palm.
  22. >“At any rate, I struggle to understand the effectiveness of what Peachy Keen’s been directing the lot of you to do if the results look like this.”
  23. >He directs his oppressive gaze fully onto you, locking eyes and giving that ethically acceptable stare of contempt you’ve grown to hate so much.
  24. >“Especially for you, being her assistant manager.”
  25. >Despite your best efforts, your left eyebrow hikes itself upward ever so slightly.
  26. “I beg your pardon?”
  27. >Maintaining the same contemptuous disposition, he meanders over to the other side of the conference table you’re sitting at, not stopping to take a breath.
  28. >“We have high expectations of you, you know,” he begins, his expression subtly wavering as he tries, and fails, to hide the strange sense of satisfaction this exchange brings him.
  29. >“Miss Keen all but begged us to let you take the reins for this campaign, aggrandizing your proclivity for efficiency, as well as your understanding of this line of work. As such, you’re held to a higher standard.”
  30. >He turns to face away from you, once again tracing the unfavorable sales line with his gaze.
  31. >“Which is why you should consider this a setback not just for the team’s growth, but for your advancement in particular.”
  32. >You can’t help the impending deep frown that overtakes your features as a result of his continued mockery.
  33. “Sir, there was only so much we could do. The timing of the release was astronomically difficult to work with, and-“
  34. >“And it was necessary to not conflict with Fleur’s other product releases,” he interrupts once again, waggling a hoof and turning back around to face you.
  35. >“Those were the circumstances given to you, and your methods weren’t up to par. End of story.”
  36. >He takes a seat across from you, a hefty sigh accompanying.
  37. >“We’ll be keeping a close eye on your future projects to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” he concludes, twisting his chair to look out of the window and into the streets of Canterlot below.
  38. >You sit in stunned silence for a few moments, unsure of what exactly to say in the face of Sweep’s lack of self-awareness.
  39. >A stupefied smirk finds its way onto your features; despite your boiling blood, you can’t help but have some sort of twisted respect for the sheer gall of this stallion.
  40. >You quickly bring your face back to a neutral expression before you continue, eager to be finished with this whole ordeal.
  41. “Do you need anything else from me, sir?”
  42. >He absent-mindedly waves a hoof toward the door, his gaze remaining somewhere beyond the window as he does so.
  43. >“No, that will be all,” he dictates sternly. “You may go.”
  44. >Without delay, you gather your binder and assorted papers from the table, opting to leave the chart and display behind just in case he decides to get his panties in a twist again for some reason.
  45. >You slowly rise from your seat, being careful not to put too much enthusiasm into your departure as you cross the room in a few swift strides.
  46. >As you pull the door open, a slight rush of colder air flows in, a small concession for everything that had just transpired.
  47. >Amid the new soundscape of ponies idly chatting and drumming away on their typewriters, however, you can just barely make out something Sweep murmurs from the cage you just left.
  48. >Compared to everything else, it’s barely even a whisper, and yet it finds your ear regardless despite the door being almost completely closed.
  49. >“Witless ape.”
  50. >The door, only centimeters from being shut, freezes in place.
  51. >The chatter of the office gives way to an unnatural silence, save for a distant ringing in your ears.
  52. >All of the restless nights spent at this very office come rushing back to you; how you and your cohorts would hold out hope that upper management would notice your efforts beyond base acknowledgement.
  53. >All of the quiet evenings at the apartment, working on ideas and deals that would help your department along.
  54. >All of the hopes for this gig to turn into a comfortable, livable career somewhere up the chain of employment.
  55. >All of it for naught, because people like Clean Sweep would always get their rocks off by keeping people like you under their boot heels.
  56. >In one fell swoop, you’ve become no closer to a comfortable life in Canterlot than when you started four years ago.
  57. >Suddenly, the frequent bags under Peachy Keen’s eyes make sense.
  58. >Perhaps you were never closer at all.
  59. >You were doomed from the very start.
  60. >...
  61. >The door to the conference room is thrown wide by your fervorous hand, bouncing off of the wall adjacent.
  62. >The sound quiets the office space from a dull roar into hushed whispers.
  63. >You march back into the stuffy room, not taking care to shut the door behind you this time.
  64. >Clean Sweep has already spun around to face you.
  65. >His look of aggravation very quickly transforms into deep, stone-faced concern when he sees you approaching; a deep scowl has replaced whatever complacency you had when you left.
  66. >In a mere moment, you’ve crossed the room, throwing your palms down onto the table across from Clean Sweep, who recoils from your sudden motion.
  67. “Listen here, you little shit.”
  68. >You grab your binder from your bag and throw it back down onto the table right in front of him, garnering another savory flinch.
  69. “Every single one of us has worked our fucking asses off so that this launch wouldn’t be a total disaster.”
  70. >You lean in farther, delighting in every inch of space and comfort that you rob from him.
  71. “Peachy Keen missed her daughter’s graduation fighting against your utter incompetence. An incredibly important memory, Sweep. Something she’ll never get to experience because the hubris of you and your friends-”
  72. >’Friends’ is elongated with disgust, your face contorting as you struggle to equate his cohorts to anything resembling decent.
  73. “-dictated that she needed to stay behind and cover for all of your sorry asses.”
  74. >Sweep’s face struggles to find a suitable emotion to fit the situation, struggling between uneasy and dumbfounded.
  75. >Unwilling to let him find a middle ground, you continue your onslaught.
  76. “I upended my life to come here and work for this company. I deliver quality results on time, every time, and what do I get in return? I’m made to lick your boots in order to receive anything that isn’t some scathing critique from you and your cronies. What a fucking joke.”
  77. >You finally back up, standing up straight as you reach for the I.D. lanyard around your neck.
  78. >Your muscles feel distant to you, calling to you from some far off place as they do their work to undo the lone shackle from your head.
  79. >“Y-Y-you’re in deep water now, Anonymous,” he stammers out, visibly shaken from your outburst.
  80. >With the lanyard removed, you toss it at Sweep, hitting him square on the muzzle.
  81. “I can swim, you crusty fucking mule.”
  82. >The venom in your voice drips from your mouth as you begin walking out of the room, a vein in your forehead threatening to pop from the amount of restraint you employed.
  83. “And just in case that wasn’t clear enough, consider that my resignation.”
  84. >With your exit finalized, you cross the threshold into a dead silent office.
  85. >Countless sets of wide eyes are pointed in your direction as you straighten your tie, regain your composure, and make for the ground floor.
  86. >You don’t bother stopping to gather what little things you have at your desk; they can throw the pointless knick knacks away for all you care.
  87. >As you head into the main reception area from the stairwell, the shift in mood from wary to nonchalant is very much welcomed.
  88. >You stride unerringly toward the entrance, eager to put this chapter of your life behind you, when a voice catches your attention.
  89. >“Anon! Wait!”
  90. >Turning, you see a cream-colored pegasus mare barreling after you, her blonde hair falling from its loose bun in the process.
  91. >When she finally reaches you, she takes a moment to catch her breath before staring up at you, bewildered.
  92. >“Anon, what in Tartarus happened?” she asks, confusion lacing her every word. “Prim Thatch came and told me there was something going down on the fourth floor between you and Clean Sweep, and-”
  93. >She inhales deeply, organizing her thoughts before continuing, her expression switching to deep concern.
  94. >“Anon, please tell me you didn’t just get fired.”
  95. >You kneel down to meet her gaze on an even level.
  96. “Peach, can you promise me something?”
  97. >“Oh, Celestia, you did, didn’t you? I can go smooth things over with him, maybe he’ll take you back and we can-”
  98. “Peachy.”
  99. >Cut off, she looks straight into your eyes, worries deepening by the second.
  100. “Don’t waste your life for these people, okay?”
  101. >She searches your face for a few seconds before timidly nodding her head.
  102. >Satisfied with her answer, you pat her side and rise to your feet once more, straightening out your dress shirt as you do so.
  103. “You and the team will be okay. Hopefully, they’ll treat you better after what happened up there.”
  104. >“Are /you/ going to be okay, Anon?”
  105. >You pause for a moment.
  106. >You’re… actually not sure.
  107. >You’ve saved up a bunch thanks to a frugal lifestyle, yeah, but as far as your life’s direction is concerned…
  108. >You don’t know.
  109. “I’ll be alright. I should probably head to the apartment and pack my things, though.”
  110. >“Hm…? Oh, yeah,” she begins, confusion quickly subsiding. “I forgot that they made you live in the company housing units.”
  111. >Concern quickly returns when she realizes what charade Clean Sweep is likely going to pull on you.
  112. >“Do you need a place to stay? Bauble’s at her friend’s house for the weekend, so it wouldn’t be any trouble.”
  113. >You grin down at your favorite coworker, happy to know that there are still some people at this godforsaken company that genuinely care about you.
  114. “No worries, I’ve got some friends back home who won’t mind letting me crash for a bit.”
  115. >You reach down and tussle her hair, which she makes a show of fussing over.
  116. “Thank you for the offer, though. Genuinely.”
  117. >Not wishing to bring out the waterworks, you begin meandering over to the front door, with her following alongside you until you reach the threshold.
  118. >“You better write soon,” she half-seriously threatens. “You hear me, Anon?”
  119. “I promise. First chance I get, you’ll be subjected to my awful penmanship again.”
  120. >A laugh is shared between the two of you as you kneel down once again for a hug, which she returns happily with a tight squeeze.
  121. >You part from each other with a sigh.
  122. >“Be careful out there, Anon,” she asserts, flashing a solemn smile at you.
  123. >You return it in kind; you’re really gonna miss this plucky pegasus.
  124. “You too, Peach.”
  125. >When all words have been spoken, she turns back and heads into the belly of the beast once more.
  126. >You watch her the whole way, right up until she disappears behind the stairwell door.
  127. >With one more sigh from deep within your being, you turn and throw the main doors wide, striding headfirst into the streets of Canterlot.
  129. ...
  131. >The walk back to your apartment is brisk, to say the least.
  132. >It hadn’t occurred to you until after talking to Peach that they’d more than likely try to void your company-provided housing as soon as possible.
  133. >On better terms, they might have let you stay a week or two, but after the fallout with Clean Sweep, you suspect the clock’s ticking a lot faster than usual.
  134. >You just know that bastard is going to pull rank to get you evicted.
  135. >The more you think about it, though, the more you realize that he has proper leverage to demand something like that.
  136. >You /did/ let loose on a board member, after all.
  137. >The sound of a heavily irritated sigh leaving your body brings you back to reality as you trudge down a busy street, taking care to join the flow of passers by so that you don’t step on any hooves.
  138. >The dull roar of the Canterlot crowd drowns out your thoughts for now.
  139. >In their place, you pick up on isolated voices here and there, talking about anything under the sun.
  140. >A mare looking for a birthday present for her mom, accompanied by her two brothers.
  141. >Two older stallions talking about how their sons are doing in college.
  142. >A passing mailmare listing her delivery locations out loud in order to commit them to memory.
  143. >People that more than likely have their lives in some sort of order, if not worked out entirely.
  144. >It should upset you, but strangely enough, it doesn’t.
  145. >It takes you a second, but you realize that your idle frown that you’ve had since leaving the office is now gone, replaced by a neutral forward-facing gaze.
  146. >The whole walk, you’ve been absorbed in the uncertainty of your own future, but now, you’re content to simply listen to the snippets of others’ lives.
  147. >Anything to feel some semblance of stability, you guess.
  148. >Before long, though, you come upon your apartment complex.
  149. >Being a subsidiary of the company you worked for, it’s decidedly more streamlined and modern than the rest of Canterlot’s architecture.
  150. >Fitting for a company that has no soul.
  151. >Taking care not to run into anyone, you shift your stride out of the flow of foot traffic, offering up ‘sorries’ and ‘excuse-mes’ aplenty.
  152. >Once you’re free of the predetermined pace of the crowd, you slow your roll a bit as you saunter up the steps of the complex.
  153. >It hasn’t even been an hour since the meltdown; you’ve got plenty of time to get everything packed up.
  154. >Gently pushing the front door open, you’re greeted with a blast of cool air, as well as the usual smell of peppermint.
  155. >The mare at the front desk of the lobby greets you with a wide smile, which you try your best to return in kind as you make your way over to your apartment down the hall.
  156. >You stop in front of the door marked ‘1G’, taking your keys out of your back pocket.
  157. >It feels odd, turning the lock for what you know will be the final time.
  158. >Four years spent here, all coming to an end in one afternoon. The finality of the situation demands some kind of reverence from you.
  159. >Wordlessly, you enter into the silence of a mostly empty apartment, save for the furnishings provided by the complex.
  160. >By the time the door shuts behind you, you’ve already entered the kitchen and gotten to work making your final apartment lunch - a sliced chicken sandwich.
  161. >You may have led a frugal life here, but one thing you couldn't live without was real meat.
  162. >Thankfully, you struck a deal with a nearby market vendor to have the meat shipped in from Griffonia.
  163. >It cost you an arm and a leg, but holy shit, was it good to have meat in your diet again.
  164. >As the first bite of your sandwich goes down, you take a moment to do a general survey of the living room.
  165. >All of the furniture came with the apartment, so getting out of dodge shouldn’t be too much trouble.
  166. >Even the little things you’ve bought here and there throughout your four years here can be shoved into your suitcase along with all of your clothes.
  167. >Kinda depressing, but it makes life easier for you, so you can’t complain.
  168. >Most of the personal value behind this place is rooted in the memories of the few friends you had here, anyway.
  169. >Still, you find that leaving it behind is bittersweet.
  170. >Not bittersweet enough for you to slow down, though.
  171. >Before you realize it, you’ve wolfed down your entire sandwich, only just now registering the aftertaste.
  172. >Although you’ve got plenty of time to get packed, you still feel like you need to hurry.
  173. >The longer you linger here, the harder it’ll be to part with it.
  174. >Not just the apartment, but the comfort of a lifestyle that you know in and out.
  175. >So, with the ardor of change stirring within you, you set about getting everything inside of your suitcase.
  176. >...
  177. >Thirty minutes and some clever organizing later, your suitcase, full to bursting, stands by your front door.
  178. >You ended up having more clothes than you thought you did, but you were able to finagle some things around to get everything to fit.
  179. >Grabbing onto its handle, you turn around to look at your empty apartment one final time.
  180. >You nod a couple times in a gesture of thankfulness.
  181. >Wasting no time, though, you head out of your apartment, everything you own in tow.
  182. >The feeling of the complex shifts as you walk back down the hall toward the mare at the front desk.
  183. >The comfort you once felt is…
  184. >No, that isn’t the right word for it.
  185. >The complacency you once felt has gone altogether.
  186. >In its stead is all-encompassing uncertainty and uneasiness, but not necessarily in a negative way.
  187. >You shrug it off as you approach the front desk. Your head’s a mess right now, anyway.
  188. >The mare behind the counter flashes you that same earnest smile from earlier.
  189. >“How can I help you, sir?” she dutifully asks, eyeing your luggage for a brief second.
  190. “I have the final two months of this year’s rent cycle ready.”
  191. >You procure the money from your back pocket, gently placing it on the countertop between the two of you.
  192. >The mare frowns, confused at your gesture.
  193. >“It’s not my business to ask,” she begins, inquisitive in tone. “But is there a reason you’re providing both months’ rent now, rather than their respective due dates?”
  194. “My employment situation has changed. I don’t plan on renewing my lease here.”
  195. >No need to delve into the fact that you’re essentially being kicked out. They would’ve asked for the rest of the money, anyhow.
  196. >“Alright,” she replies with a flair of corporate cheerfulness, taking the money and filing it away on her desk. “I’m obligated to tell you that any personal belongings left in your apartment after your departure are considered forfeit, as per the leasing terms of the complex. Do you have everything sorted in that regard?”
  197. “I do.”
  198. >“In that case, all I’ll need is your keys, and you’ll be all set.”
  199. >Reaching into your side pocket, you procure the set of dual keys for your mailbox and apartment, handing them over into her waiting hoof.
  200. >She hangs them on the wall behind her desk, on a hook labeled ‘1G’, before turning to you once more with an increasingly plastic smile on her face.
  201. >“We hope you’ve enjoyed your stay here at Somnia Village,” she says, more than likely parroting her instruction manual. “Have a pleasant rest of your day.”
  202. >You nod at her, beginning your trek out into the streets once more.
  203. “You as well.”
  204. >Stepping back out onto the complex grounds, you look to the horizon to gauge how much time you have left until the train station stops selling tickets.
  205. >A decreasingly faint gold tinge coats the sky, signifying the oncoming march of the evening.
  206. >The station’s across town; if you leave now, you can probably get there before they close.
  207. >Without a moment’s hesitation, you join the flow of the crowd once more, tuning back into the droning of the crowd for passing entertainment.
  208. >Nothing really pops out at you this time, though. It seems the evening crowd isn’t quite as talkative.
  209. >Absent the stimulating discussion, you turn your focus to the passing scenery.
  210. >Canterlot’s always been a sight to behold. Of that, you’re certain.
  211. >Something about it feels off now, though.
  212. >You recognize that it more than likely has to do with earlier today, but even so, you can’t shake the feeling.
  213. >As if its veneer slips further and further the closer you get to the station.
  214. >By the time you begin to make sense of it, though, the telltale whistle of a train nearby rips you from your inner monologue and back into reality.
  215. >Thankfully, the station isn’t quite bustling yet.
  216. >Even better, there’s nobody in line for the ticket booth.
  217. >You walk briskly over to the counter, where a friendly unicorn greets you with a seemingly genuine smile.
  218. >“Welcome to Canterlot Station,” he says to you with his toothy grin. “How can I help ya?”
  219. >His enthusiasm is so infectious that you can’t help but flash a smirk of your own back at him.
  220. “Do you have any more tickets to Ponyville for the night?”
  221. >“We just might,” he replies, digging into a large hardcover book of records sitting on his desk. “Lemme check for ya real quick.”
  222. >He stops near the end of it, tracing through various entries with his hoof before finally settling on one.
  223. >“Ah, here we go,” he exhales, turning the book around so that you can read it.
  224. >“We’ve got a few open seats for the 7:30 train. Just mark where you wanna sit with your initials, and I’ll get a ticket ready for ya.”
  225. >You grab a pen from the cup of writing utensils on the counter and initial the only spot with an open seat next to it.
  226. >“Sweet!” he nearly exclaims, spinning the book back around and eyeing your seat. “I’ll have a ticket whipped up for ya in a jiffy.”
  227. >He turns around, setting himself to work while you rest your elbows on the counter, looking around for something interesting to pass the time.
  228. >“Your timing’s impeccable, sir,” he chimes in, grabbing your attention again. “Last train to Ponyville’s supposed to get here any minute now.”
  229. >Suddenly, you’re glad you weren’t able to savor that sandwich.
  230. “That cross-town walk takes forever, doesn’t it?”
  231. >“That it does, friend, that it does,” he agrees, grabbing the hole puncher behind him with his magic. “You live in the business sector, then?”
  232. “I did until this afternoon. Felt like a change of scenery was in order, you know?”
  233. >“I do,” he replies, a hint of revulsion on his tongue. “I never did like that part of town. It always felt anathema to the rest of Canterlot, like some kinda urbanite virus.”
  234. >You chuckle, knowing perfectly well what he means.
  235. “Manehattan and its consequences.”
  236. >He guffaws loudly, almost messing up the final stamp on your ticket.
  237. >“Too true, buddy!”
  238. >In the distance, you hear the steady march of an approaching train.
  239. >The unicorn wheels around once more, an outstretched ticket held by his magic.
  240. >“Sounds like your train’s here. Hope ya have safe travels, sir!”
  241. >You nod at him, grabbing your ticket from his aura’s grip.
  242. “Thank you.”
  243. >A curt nod in return from him, and he’s back to waiting for another customer.
  244. >As you pull away from the ticket booth, your train arrives with a whistle that reverberates throughout the station’s hollow housing.
  245. >Without much discussion, most of the ponies in the station rose to their hooves, eager to head home, start their vacation, or what-have-you.
  246. >You joined them in line, showing the conductor your ticket before heading into the second cabin from the front.
  247. >You’re one of the first to board, evidently; there’s only a few ponies already sitting down from previous stops.
  248. >Wordlessly, you take your seat, taking care to place your suitcase between your legs as you lean against the window, looking out into the countryside below.
  249. >If you remember correctly, the ride to Ponyville only takes about an hour and a half, which should put you there at about 9.
  250. >Hopefully, that isn’t too late of a time to see your friends.
  251. >Worst case scenario, you could always get a room at the inn. The one in Ponyville always used to be open pretty late for travelers.
  252. >You hope it doesn’t come to that, though. More than anything, you need to be around friends right now.
  253. >As your thoughts drift into drivel, you hear the doors close, the last of the passengers having boarded.
  254. >With a parting whistle, the train gently lurches forward, its steady chug beginning ever so slowly.
  255. >You elect not to look back at Canterlot as it becomes obscured by the surrounding mountain. There’s nothing for you there anymore.
  256. >Next stop, home.
  258. ...
  260. >The resounding last call of the train’s whistle brings your thoughts to the forefront of reality.
  261. >Peeling your head from its well-used perch on the window, you turn to see your fellow passengers beginning their disembarkment.
  262. >Not wanting to be left behind, you clutch the handle of your suitcase and roll it out into the aisle, joining the tired masses with a huff of exhausted breath as you stand.
  263. >You give a polite nod to the cabin’s attendant as you step out onto the landing, the cold air greeting you by nipping at your nose with a stray breeze.
  264. >Ponyville is the same as it’s ever been; that is to say, infinitely more welcoming and homey, even this late at night.
  265. >Since it’s Friday, the streets are busier than usual, as is the norm with the onset of the weekend looming on high.
  266. >In the business sector, the Friday rush was largely unpleasant, due mostly to the belligerence of most of its elitist residents.
  267. >Here, though, among the commonality of those much like you, you’d go so far as to say that hitting the local bar with friends was a great time.
  268. >The remembrance of nights spent under the stars, all of you tipsy and beset with joy, draws your focus back to the purpose of your stint in town.
  269. >Wordlessly, you march into town, your recollection having faintly painted your expression with jubilation.
  270. >Your memory of the town ensures a quick trip, much to the dismay of your frozen face, buffeted by the wind all the while.
  271. >You bring your free hand to your collar and tug upward, obscuring your chin and part of your mouth from the harsh winter chill.
  272. >Before long, an all-too-familiar oak stands tall in front of you, illuminated from the outside by the orange glow of various lanterns and lights from other buildings.
  273. >The shrubbery on some of the window arches has grown quite a bit since you were last here; where there were once bushes, there now sit flowing cascades of greenery and flora, the front of which hang slightly over the windows themselves, silhouetted by the light within.
  274. >She must’ve been letting it grow out for winter.
  275. >Better insulation, or something along those lines.
  276. >Whatever the case may be, you close the distance between yourself and the front door, where the earthy, almost bitter scent of the tree wafts into your nose.
  277. >Bringing your hand up to the door, you gently place three firm knocks into the carved-out impression of a candle, stepping back a tad once you’ve finished.
  278. >From within, just above the dull row of the windy night, you can make out the rustling of someone leaving their seat.
  279. >A few seconds later, footsteps; faster than a normal gait. Hoofsteps, then.
  280. >Wispy thrums of magic grace your ears as the handle is enveloped in a bright purple aura.
  281. >The door turns ajar gingerly, revealing the first friend you’d ever made in Equestria, clad in her reading glasses and pajamas.
  282. >Her purple coat is a bit disheveled; by the looks of it, the poor mare was almost asleep when you knocked on her door.
  283. >Her hair shares the same fate, matted on one side. More than likely it ended up that way after nearly passing out on a book, if you know her well enough.
  284. >“Anon?” she asks, visibly confused by your sudden and unannounced presence.
  285. >You offer her the most sincere smile you’ve given since leaving for Canterlot four years ago, hoping to defuse any uncertainty you’ve brought to the table.
  286. “It’s nice to see you again, Twi.”
  287. >You rub your left cheek bashfully, regretful for having woken her from what would’ve likely been a peaceful night’s sleep.
  288. “I’m really sorry if I woke you up. A lot’s happened, and I didn’t really know where else to go, so I hopped on the first train here that I could find, and-”
  289. >You’re cut off by a purple blur latching onto you, forehooves thrown around your midsection as she mats her hair further by resting her head against the bottom of your chest.
  290. >“I missed you, you big goofball,” she greets you, muted slightly as you return the gesture and bring her in for a tight hug.
  291. >As she steps down from the embrace, she grabs the handle of your suitcase with her aura, dragging it into the house alongside her.
  292. >“Come on in,” she offers warmly, looking back at you, decidedly more awake than when she first answered the door. “I’ll make us some tea.”
  293. >A familiar offer that you can’t refuse.
  294. >You follow after her, taking care to gently shut the door behind you as you cross into your old home.
  295. >Above all, the familiar scent of lavender hits you like a runaway train. You can remember only faintly smelling it when you lived here, but in the four years since you’ve been gone, it’s grown far stronger than you ever could have imagined it would.
  296. >Apart from the domination of your olfactory system, you see that Twilight’s reorganized the actual library section of her house into something like an extension of her living room.
  297. >Rather than a relatively empty space with a few book stands strewn about, there now sits a couch, a few loveseats, and the odd reading chair.
  298. “I really like what you did with the front room,” you compliment, genuinely enthused by the change. “It feels even cozier than it used to.”
  299. >“You really think so?” she calls back to you as you catch up to her, both of you crossing into the actual living room. “I figured that the extra furniture would make it a nice place to settle in with a good book. You know, for the odd pony that comes in and checks something out.”
  300. “And for you, no doubt,” you tease.
  301. >She grins sheepishly, looking up at you from your left side.
  302. >“/Somepony/ had to make sure it was comfy, Anon,” she responds with a slight giggle. “Without proper testing, how could I have justified the expense?”
  303. “Touchè.”
  304. >Passing by the living room, she leads you to the guest bedroom, where she drops off your suitcase just inside before turning to you once more.
  305. >“You still like chamomile, right?”
  306. “I can’t even imagine a day where I would stop liking chamomile.”
  307. >“That’s a relief,” she half-laughs. “Rarity’s developed a palette for tea recently, and Spike took after it with her, so I’ve run out of every other kind of tea.”
  308. >You can’t help but laugh.
  309. “He’ll grow out of it eventually, I bet.”
  310. >She giggles as she turns to head toward the kitchen.
  311. >You follow in kind, resting your elbows on the island countertop while she fetches the leaves from one of her cabinets.
  312. >“I hope so. He doesn’t even like tea, he just thinks she’ll be impressed by his ‘refined taste.’”
  313. “Speaking of him, what’s he up to?” you inquire, looking around for any sign of him. “Isn’t he usually still up around now?”
  314. >“He’s probably fast asleep upstairs,” she responds as she gets the kettle ready. “We had a long day today.”
  315. “Do tell.”
  316. >“Well,” she began, moving to light her heinously old - at least by your standards - stove. “We did a lot of running around in town, trying to get the last touches for the winter festival ready.”
  317. >The flame in the stove ignites, enshrouding the kitchen, as well as the two of you, in a dull, warm glow.
  318. >“Being in charge of the whole thing this time around has been fun, but it’s also been really stressful. Honestly, you wouldn’t believe how many ponies that signed up to help out were just slacking off until the last minute.”
  319. “How many were there?”
  320. >She adopts a dumbfounded expression, most likely the same one she wore when she initially discovered how much work was left.
  321. >“Three whole ponies!” she exclaims, careful to keep her volume down. “Three!”
  322. >She sets the kettle down on the stovetop and turns her full attention to you.
  323. >“It felt like thirty with all the work we had to help them catch up on.”
  324. >The exhaustion of the day makes itself known in her gaze, a tired and fed-up pair of eyes pointed right at you.
  325. >You mentally kick yourself again for interrupting what was probably a well-deserved rest.
  326. “Were you able to kick their butts into gear?”
  327. >“Just barely,” she sighs, “There shouldn’t be any problems tomorrow, hopefully.”
  328. >Tomorrow, huh?
  329. >You sure picked a hell of a time to play couch surfer, Anon.
  330. “Well, I’m more than happy to help out, if you need.”
  331. >She beams at you from across the countertop, her exhaustion replaced by a grateful smile.
  332. >“I might just take you up on that offer, Anon,” she replies, using her magic to lift the lid of the kettle and check on the tea before gently placing it back down.
  333. >“In fact, did you want to come to the festival with me tomorrow? The booths only need one last lookover, so it should give us plenty of time to catch up.”
  334. >As she finishes her sentence, the low whine of the kettle fills the room, prompting her to turn the stove off and place the kettle on a nearby rag.
  335. >“Besides,” she continues, searching her cabinet for the tea leaves. “You could surprise the girls! I know they’d be excited to see you again.”
  336. >It had been quite some time since you’d connected with the motley crew in any meaningful capacity beyond back-and-forth letters.
  337. >Letters had become routine in your hectic day-to-day crawl. There wasn’t much room for anything else, shy of the odd holiday off here and there.
  338. >You’re ashamed to admit it, but keeping the flames of friendship kindled had been knocked down a few notches on the totem pole of responsibilities thanks to your previous job.
  339. >Even so, the girls did a good job of acting like nothing had changed, Twilight included. Despite your letters becoming sparse during busy product releases, it was always as if you had replied to them just yesterday.
  340. >A pit in your gut opens, its maw unhinged.
  341. “...Yeah. Yeah, I’d really like that.”
  342. >Twilight, looking over at you while she pours the tea, seems to notice the tension building up within you, though you can’t place exactly where on your neutral features she discerned it from.
  343. >Ever the analyst, that mare.
  344. >“Is everything okay, Anon?” she inquires, placing tea bags across the tops of both cups as she does so. “You look bothered by something all of a sudden.”
  345. >You’re far too tired for any sort of deflection tonight.
  346. “It’s just… it’s been so long since I’ve made time to see any of you.”
  347. >She rests her expectant gaze squarely on you, saying nothing as she finishes pouring the tea, opting to let you expound your thoughts.
  348. “And I haven’t exactly been timely with my letters, either. I guess I was…”
  349. >It’s not a guess, it’s a fact.
  350. >You fidget slightly against the counter, discomfort with yourself manifesting a malignant tightness in your heart.
  351. “I haven’t been a good friend to any of you.”
  352. >You lean further into the counter, hanging your head over your forearms.
  353. “I got so bogged down with trying to make it in Canterlot, I just… lost sight of everything else.”
  354. >She shifts in place slightly, readjusting as she gracefully passes you your steaming cup of tea with her aura.
  355. >She mulls in careful consideration for a few moments before she softly speaks up, doing her best to soothe you.
  356. >“Is that why you came back so suddenly?” she asks, speaking steadily with careful, gentle intonation.
  357. >Was it? Are you sure you didn’t come back just to bum a bed off of your old friend?
  358. >Twilight was the first person that crossed your mind after quitting, sure, but the only thing you were preoccupied with was getting the hell out of Canterlot.
  359. >You’re terrified of the notion of having picked up the acidic habit of selfishness from your poisonous environment.
  360. >You rub your face roughly in a cyclical motion, attempting to rid yourself of your acquired depravity.
  361. >“Hey.”
  362. >Removing your face from your palms, you’re greeted by Twilight’s worn-out countenance, mere inches from you.
  363. >Though there is no grin present, you can feel no malice of any kind behind her affable eyes.
  364. >Without a word, she rears up on her hind legs, once again wrapping herself around your midsection in a warm embrace, cheek pressed tightly against your solar plexus.
  365. >Her warmth sinks through your clothes and into your body, and you become a conjoined radiator of comfort and kindness.
  366. >You squeeze her tighter against you, feeling wholly undeserving of such a display of empathy.
  367. >“Everything is alright, Anon,” she coos into your chest, giving you a good squeeze after a few moments before stepping back down, staggered hoofsteps echoing gently throughout the kitchen as she does so.
  368. >Her disarmingly amiable smile returns in full force, halting most thoughts from running rampant.
  369. >“Sometimes, when we chase our dreams,” she begins, never once breaking eye contact, “we get so caught up in the chase itself that we lose sight of everything else. Nothing exists in that moment but ourselves, and the goal we’ve fought for so long to achieve.”
  370. >“It can happen to anyone. I mean, look at how I used to be before Ponyville!” she exclaims, a chuckle rising from her chest.
  371. >“The thing is,” she continues, a mentorly tone guiding her voice as her face takes on a more serious expression. “In our race to cross the finish line, we end up making sacrifices that aren’t necessary without ever realizing it.”
  372. >“And then, only when we’ve finally reached the end, the weight of what we’ve lost hits us all at once.”
  373. >Your heart contorts with pain at the thought of your fate, should you have stayed at Flair and continued slaving away.
  374. >Memories of past holidays where Rarity would ask you to visit more frequently now stab at you with unholy vigor.
  375. >“It’s important to chase your dreams, there’s no doubt about that,” she expands. “But it’s even more important to live your life in the present tense while you’re chasing those dreams.”
  376. >“And if it’s really your dream, you won’t have to compromise any part of your inner self to achieve it.”
  377. >You pore over her advice, hanging on each word amid the silence that follows.
  378. >It all reflects back at you, casting clearly the image of yourself that you had imagined you would reach someday.
  379. >The ideal was always distant, with its intimate details hazy at best, but you could always envision your overarching qualities.
  380. >Successful, opulent, promising, et cetera.
  381. >Now, removed from your cubicle hellscape, the introspection has become far clearer.
  382. >The future you looks great, sure. Nice clothes, spacious house, friends in high places; the song and dance of luxury.
  383. >But there’s no mistaking that glint of pure exhaustion in his flat eyes, nor the bags that accentuate it so.
  384. >The graying hair atop his head is neatly groomed, but lifeless and flat from years of overwhelming stress.
  385. >There is no jubilance in his stature, only prostration and weariness.
  386. >And, for the first time ever, the destination of your once-dream becomes clear.
  387. >All around this future self are those like him; a menagerie of royal husks, surrounded by their nigh-servantile laborers who provide them succor with no recompense.
  388. >Important chatter is passed back and forth, but not one of them - not a one - ever truly means what they say to one another.
  389. >Masks behind masks behind masks, all playing the same game for the rest of their pitiable lives.
  390. >They extend for miles into immeasurable, golden space.
  391. >A grove of standing dead, pretending they’re alive.
  392. >“Anon, are you okay?”
  393. >The vision rips itself away, planting you firmly back in the dimly lit kitchen of the treebrary.
  394. >Across from you, closer than before, Twilight reaches out to you with a single hoof, looking absolutely mortified.
  395. “...Huh?” you ask, not sure what just happened.
  396. >“Y-You had this glassy look in your eyes, and you were starting to lean forward, a-and I didn’t know if you were gonna fall, so I just-”
  397. >She cuts her manic explanation off, unsure of what to say next.
  398. >“Are you alright?” she asks, now uncaring of her volume.
  399. >You place your hands against the edge of the countertop, leaning against it to steady yourself against the wave of vertigo.
  400. “I think your impromptu friendship lesson just kick-started my midlife crisis.”
  401. >It’s a fight to get every word out from the bottom of your throat.
  402. >“I thought you said you were young for your species?” Twilight asks, a hint of confusion clouding the rest of her concern.
  403. “I am.”
  404. >You grasp for your teacup on the counter, careful not to spill any with your relatively unsteady hand.
  405. >With a single swig, half of the soporific liquid is gone, the still-hot liquid serving to open your throat up once more.
  406. >It burns on the way down, but you take the pain on the chin with naught more than a deep wince.
  407. >Looking back up, Twilight seems a lot more mellowed out now that you’ve broken out of… whatever it is that just happened.
  408. >“Wanna go sit on the couch?” she asks with a gentle smile, levitating her cup alongside her. “It’s always easier to get tired when you’re resting.”
  409. >“Plus, I don’t want you falling over if whatever that was happens again.”
  410. >You nod wordlessly, removing yourself from the kitchen counter and testing your legs.
  411. >Everything feels alright; no dizziness, legs aren’t weak, and your vision is okay.
  412. “Lead the way, purple smart.”
  413. >She throws a half-hearted scowl your way before heading back into her living room, with you in tow.
  414. >“Anon, you know how I feel about that awful nickname.”
  415. “Oh, come on, it’s on the same level as ‘goofball.’”
  416. >“It’s not, and you know it!”
  417. >You can’t hold back your laughter as you both take your seat on the couch, each of you on separate sides.
  418. “Okay, it’s pretty bad,” you concede, lowering your volume as you remember Spike is just upstairs.
  419. >She hums in approval, both of you sipping gingerly at the calming tea in silence for a time.
  420. >It’s surprisingly quiet with both of you focused on your drinks; the combined gentle breathing from both of you is enough to stand out from the sounds of the house settling and the wind outside.
  421. >“You know,” she begins, breaking the silence with her voice barely above a whisper. “You never did say what brought you back home. You made allusions to it, but nothing specific.”
  422. >You lean into the cushion behind you, letting your head rest on it as your vision locks onto the ceiling.
  423. “I quit my job at Flair after my boss’s boss called me an ape.”
  424. >She nearly chokes on her tea, clearly baffled.
  425. >“He /what?/” she exclaims, albeit in a hushed tone.
  426. “Yeah, a product launch went bad because of another department’s mistake, and I got all of the heat for it. He’d always been breathing down our necks anyways, so any excuse to get on our cases was like a holiday to him. He even threatened my career growth…”
  427. >You take another dainty sip, already feeling more at ease after having drunk most of the cup.
  428. “He called me an ape under his breath as I was leaving, but I heard it. I made it /very/ clear that he was the reason I quit.”
  429. >“What did you say to him?” she asks, frustration at your former employer leaking out through her words.
  430. >You refocus your gaze onto her, cocking an eyebrow as your smirk grows.
  431. “I’m not repeating any of that in front of you,” you admit, a chuckle overtaking your sentence.
  432. >“Was it really that bad?”
  433. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was blacklisted from working in the business sector entirely.”
  434. >Her expression turns to bewilderment as she takes another sip from her cup, her drowsiness beginning to show as much as yours.
  435. >She finishes it with one final swig, setting it down on the coffee table in front of her.
  436. >“Well, I’m glad you got out of there,” she replies, turning to face you fully. “I was starting to get worried about you, to be honest.”
  437. >It’s your turn to be surprised.
  438. “Really?”
  439. >“Really. The last few times you visited, you just seemed so… out of it. Almost everypony could tell.”
  440. >You think back to the last time you saw everyone together.
  441. >As far as you can remember, you felt fine. Were you really so deeply buried that you couldn’t even recognize it..?
  442. >“We asked if everything was okay in Canterlot,” she continued solemnly, “but you just kept insisting that you were alright, and that your job was just getting a bit stressful. We could see a different story written all over your expression.”
  443. “I really looked that bad?”
  444. >“Anon, your dark circles were so pronounced when you got here that Rarity wanted to offer you concealer.”
  445. >...
  446. >Jesus Christ.
  447. “Well, don’t worry,” you reply, mustering up a resolute smile and throwing it her way. “I don’t intend on going back for anything.”
  448. >She tosses the same expression right back at you, clearly pleased with your decision.
  449. >“Good. After everything you’ve told me, there was no way I was going to let you.”
  450. >Just then, a twinned yawn breaks out in the two of you; the somnolent nectar has fully nested itself within the both of you, it seems.
  451. >Combined with the heft of the day’s events, you’re having trouble even keeping your eyes open.
  452. >Next to you, a stifled giggle rings out.
  453. >“Tired?” Twilight asks, her own exhaustion threatening to overtake her as well.
  454. “Mhm. Everything’s just… crashing all at once. God, what brand of chamomile was that?”
  455. >She gets up off of the couch, reaching with her magic for a blanket tucked away in one of the shelves on the wall.
  456. >“A local vendor,” she says as she fishes it off of the shelf, reeling it back in. “We can actually get some more tomorrow at the festival, if you’d like to.”
  457. “Please.”
  458. >Another giggle drapes itself over the soundscape as she hands you the comforter, which you hold to your chest.
  459. >“It’s still supposed to get a fair bit colder, so here’s a spare blanket for tonight. I wouldn’t want to wake up and find a human popsicle downstairs, would I?”
  460. “Depends. What flavor would I be?”
  461. >She brings her hoof to her chin, tackling your inquiry head-on.
  462. >“Hmmm… You strike me as a spearmint flavor, I think.”
  463. “I’ll take that.”
  464. >“What about me?”
  465. >You take far less time to decide than she did.
  466. “Grape, no question about it.”
  467. >She deadpans, looking you square in the eyes.
  468. >“Let me guess…” she sighs, clearly done with your shit. “It’s because I’m purple.”
  469. “Nnnnnnnnnnyes.”
  470. >She plants her head firmly into her waiting hoof with a resounding thud.
  471. >Even through her disappointment, you can see the faint smile breaking through her lips.
  472. >“I don’t have the energy to argue about that,” she says, trying to hold back a laugh.
  473. >She shifts her gaze upward to the ticking clock on her wall.
  474. >You follow in suit, reading the clock as your eyes pore over it: 11:42 PM.
  475. >“We should get some sleep,” she resigns, another strong yawn wracking her entire body. “We’ve got a relatively early schedule tomorrow, and we need to be in tip top shape so we can help anypony who needs it.”
  476. >You rise from your seat, still clinging tightly to the down comforter for its continued warmth.
  477. “You got it, Twi. What should I set the alarm to?”
  478. >“The festival starts at noon,” she says, collecting her thoughts. “We should be there to help set everything up by ten at the latest, so… Let’s say around eight for the alarms.”
  479. “Gotcha. I’ll be up and at ‘em.”
  480. >“You better be,” she jokingly threatens, exchanging a warm expression with you as she walks up to you, rearing up on her hind legs for the final embrace of the night.
  481. >“Goodnight, Anon,” she murmurs against you, the heat of her breath melting into your shirt as you squeeze back.
  482. “G’night, Twi. Thanks again for letting me stay, I’m sorry it was so sudden…”
  483. >She pulls away, gently hitting your arm with her hoof as she does.
  484. >“Stop apologizing, goofball,” she responds, “You’re always welcome here, no matter what.”
  485. “...Thank you, Twilight.”
  486. >A tired grin graces your features as you step back from each other, turning to head in the direction of your respective bedrooms.
  487. >As you’re about to reach for the door to close it, her voice rings out from the staircase one more time.
  488. >“Anon?”
  489. >You swing the door back open, Twilight looking down at you from the top step before the wall.
  490. >There is an innocent hesitance in her bright expression, not unlike the student of a public speaking class delivering their first speech.
  491. >It’s there for only a moment before whatever hurdle she wrestled with is put firmly in its place.
  492. >“I’m really happy that you’re home.”
  493. >Before you realize it, you’re beaming back up at her, cheeks straining with elation.
  494. “Me too.”
  495. >Satisfied, she continues heading back up the stairs. You watch her until she disappears behind the wall, content to be among friends once more.
  496. >Without so much as a peep, you shut the door to your bedroom, marching over to your bedside without any fanfare or delay whatsoever.
  497. >Your head doesn’t even hit the pillow before you’re out like a light, thrown deep into a gentle, restful sleep.
  499. ...
  501. >A creeping chill, running amok down your back, is the first thing that registers.
  502. >The dull thrum of idly creaking wood follows shortly after, bouncing to and fro in your ears, giving the sound an almost echo-like quality.
  503. >The soft, floral smell of freshly washed linens wafts about, a pleasant addition to an otherwise poor array of senses thus far.
  504. >Your eyes peel open, vision obscured by half of the blanket that Twilight had given you.
  505. >Even with your eyes having been adjusted to the darkness, you still have to squint to see most things in your room.
  506. >They instinctively lock onto the alarm clock, your fogged mind sluggishly processing the positions of the hands.
  507. >6:48 in the morning.
  508. >Seems that even after being freed of your short-lived career, you still can’t stop beating the alarm.
  509. >You can already feel how tired you’re going to be during the festival, given how late it was before you finally passed out.
  510. >Still, though, you hold close to your chest the fact that the bluish-amber light breaking through the windows signifies the start of a new chapter for you.
  511. >One with less brown-nosing, hopefully.
  512. >You write the first few words by sitting up on the side of the bed, a few delightful pops sounding off as your joints spring to use.
  513. >You stretch your back concavely and extend your arms to the sky, wringing out the remaining cracks the further you extend.
  514. >With a contented grunt, you rise from the bed, static ensuring that the front of your pajamas stick to your legs as your feet meet the cold, wooden floor.
  515. >The brisk, still air envelops your nude upper half as the down blanket slides off of you, coming to rest with a gentle thud from its surprising weight.
  516. >As you stand, you involuntarily stretch your legs out as well, every muscle straining against you in the ecstasy of long-awaited movement.
  517. >A yawn escapes from deep within your throat, airing a particularly noxious bout of morning breath into the otherwise pleasantly scented room.
  518. >One accidental whiff and a scowl develops; this simply won’t do.
  519. >Scanning the poorly lit room, you find your suitcase still standing in the spot that Twilight had left it in.
  520. >You walk over and throw it on its side, zipping it open with ease due to how full it is.
  521. >Digging through the entirety of your wardrobe and belongings, you find the bag of your various toiletries resting somewhere near the bottom, disrupting your carefully calculated mess as you fish it out.
  522. >You grab an outfit for good measure, resolving to get completely ready. No sense in breaking the process up, is there?
  523. >Carefully, quietly, you open the door to your room, peeking out to see if anyone is awake.
  524. >The darkened living room to your left is dead silent, as is the kitchen to your right; it seems your friends have yet to stir from their deep slumber.
  525. >Clutching your outfit and other articles, you open the door fully and pass into the noticeably colder open room, a shiver threatening to once again use your spine as transit.
  526. >You make haste for the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen, not wanting to offend your prudent hostess with your partial indecency.
  527. >Not that it would, in a land of pastel nudists.
  528. >Sure, it’s not the same, since they’re only actually exposed when they feel like it, but…
  529. >You throw out that train of thought entirely with a shake of your head, opting instead to focus on freshening up.
  530. >A brief trek across the kitchen lands you in the bathroom, which is somehow colder than the rest of the house.
  531. >Teeth chittering almost comically, you shut the door behind you, holding the handle down until it makes no noise as you release your grip on it.
  532. >You slip the lock into place and strip out of your clothes, placing your toiletries and your clothes to the right of the sink.
  533. >You dig into your bag of essentials first, picking out your toothbrush and toothpaste.
  534. >A quick shimmy over to the sink, and you’re face to face with your reflection.
  535. >You pause for a moment, eyeing yourself up and down.
  536. >Not bad, but not great, either.
  537. >An unremarkable body reflects a thusly unremarkable life, you guess.
  538. >You don’t give yourself any time to linger on it, quickly dispensing some toothpaste on your brush and going to town.
  539. >After a lengthy round-trip through your mouth, you spit out what remains, only rinsing slightly to keep your breath minty.
  540. >Drying off the brush, you put both it and the tube of paste back into your bag before heading over to the shower and letting the water heat up.
  541. >Before long, steam steadily begins billowing out from behind the curtain, prompting you to fetch your various washes from the bag and hop in.
  542. >The jump from the dry cold of the house to the humid heat of the shower is bliss, and that’s before the water even starts hitting you.
  543. >You shuffle underneath the stream, and the sheer difference in temperature is enough to chase your shivering away almost instantly.
  544. >The water washes over all, dragging all of the woes of yesterday - as well as the past few years - down the drain, where they belong.
  545. >It’s a while before you actually begin your self-ministrations, and slowly at that.
  546. >The time crosses your mind once or twice, but you woke up early enough that you can comfortably relax.
  547. >Rarity Mode initiated.
  549. >One last look in the mirror.
  550. >Outfit looks good; the beige turtleneck that Rarity gave you for Hearth’s Warming ties it all together.
  551. >You hope she notices the effort. It’s the least you can do, since she’s effectively the only seamstress that goes out of her way to make clothes for you.
  552. >Hair’s styled properly, but now that you’ve broken free of Flair’s restrictive dress code, you openly wonder what it would look like if you let it grow out.
  553. >Deodorant: applied.
  554. >Cologne: delectable and fragrant.
  555. >Breath?
  556. >You exhale onto the back of your hand to quickly check.
  557. >...
  558. >Immaculately minty.
  559. >With everything shipshape, you make for the door but stop yourself just short of opening it, gaze affixed to the mirror.
  560. >Even with your neutral glare, you look…
  561. >Genuinely happier.
  562. >As if your features themselves had been lifted from their plight.
  563. >It puts an actual, real smile on your face. Not a big one, and not even that wide, but real nonetheless.
  564. >Here’s hoping you can keep that going.
  565. >You open the door and traipse into the kitchen once more, greeted - surprisingly - by Spike, sitting down at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee, looking outrageously tired.
  566. >Immediately, you catch his eye, and he frowns out of confusion, slowly raising his pointer finger in your direction as you stand there, a dumb smile plastered all over your face as you cross your arms.
  567. >A few seconds pass without an exchange of words, each of you waiting patiently for the other to finally say something.
  568. >“Am I still…?” Spike mumbles, tapering off before he can finish his sentence.
  569. “Spin a top and find out,” you reply cheekily.
  570. >He retracts his finger, putting said hand to better use by taking a swig of his coffee.
  571. >“...Huh?”
  572. >Your pert grin falls a bit, but you didn’t expect him to get it anyway.
  573. “Human thing. But no, you’re not still dreaming.”
  574. >Another swig is lazily gulped down, the mug draining at an astonishing rate for the young dragon.
  575. >“Okay, good,” he says in return, rubbing one of his eyes as he does. “Didn’t wanna get my hopes up for nothing.”
  576. >A pang of content in your chest tugs the corner of your mouth upward into a good-natured smirk.
  577. “Missed you too, Spike.”
  578. >He smiles softly through his tired expression, gaze affixed to his coffee.
  579. >“Let me finish this stuff, and I’ll be a bit more chatty, I think.”
  580. “You think?”
  581. >“It’s just not the same thing as tea, dude,” he replies, a tinge of annoyance toward his drink in his tone. “I usually crash more often than it gives me any energy.”
  582. >You repress a chuckle just barely.
  583. “Yeah? We can get some from the vendors today, then.”
  584. >Mid-swig of coffee, his eyes light up, pointed directly at you.
  585. >“No way! Are you coming with us?” he asks after finishing his sip, tone expectant of your confirmation.
  586. >Did he think you were just popping in to say hi?
  587. >Just how much of a husk were you the last time you saw everyone…?
  588. >You opt to sit across from him. Beats standing around like a jerk while you’re waiting for Twilight, anyway.
  589. “You bet, little dude! I couldn’t think of anything better to do even if I tried.”
  590. >Your face falls when you realize that your choice of words was harshly subpar at best.
  591. “Wow, that, uh, came out wrong. I meant that, like-”
  592. >A few stiff moments pass without further input.
  593. >You can’t really come up with anything beyond your backpedaling.
  594. >That’s odd; usually you’re a lot better at talking than this.
  595. >Come to think of it, just about everything you’ve said to him so far seemed kinda sloppily put together.
  596. >Maybe you’re just nervous about seeing everyone again?
  597. >“Nah, nah, I get what you mean,” Spike interjected. “I live with the princess of misspeaking, remember?”
  598. >You both share a hearty chuckle at his good-natured jab.
  599. “Speaking of her, is she still getting ready?”
  600. >“Yep. She should be finished pretty soon, though. I still have to get freshened up, but I’m about done with my coffee, so it won’t take long at all.”
  601. >He goes to take another swig, but stops himself halfway and glares with thinly veiled disgust at the contents of his mug.
  602. >“Actually… Do you want the rest of this?”
  603. >You weren’t exactly the commissar of coffee, but what the hell, you could use a little pick-me-up.
  604. “Sure, why not?”
  605. >He eagerly hands you the mug before he slips out of his seat and heads back upstairs, presumably to complete the morning routine.
  606. >As such, you’re left in contemplative silence once more.
  607. >Or, at least, you would be, if a gentle pitter-patter on the kitchen window didn’t draw your attention.
  608. >The gentle blue light from before has been replaced with gorgeous amber light, somehow breaking through the dense cloud cover and blanketing the outside in an early sunshine, slightly obscured by the light snowfall piling up at the windowsill.
  609. >How does Princess Celestia do this every day?
  610. >...
  611. >Wait, it’s-
  612. >It’s snowing!
  613. >And quite a bit, too, if that sizable little pile was anything to go by.
  614. >That shouldn’t excite you as much as it does, what with you having lived in Canterlot, but still!
  615. >It’s snowing, and for once, you can actually take some time to enjoy it.
  616. >The fact that you can actually give yourself the opportunity to be happy about it is, in turn, putting a dopey grin on your face that you don’t bother hiding, not even when a familiar set of hoofsteps descends upon the stairs.
  617. >“Whoo… Okay!”
  618. >You turn around, equally as mirthful about the unicorn descending the stairs.
  619. >Still, you don’t wanna just up and hit her with a smile that’s registered at a category 5 on the ham-scale, so you settle it down into a light grin.
  620. >She’s bundled up in a dark blue down jacket, a fuschia sweater, and her favorite beanie, as well as a nice pair of fur-lined winter boots.
  621. >Ethically sourced fur, of course. Fluttershy would have pitched a fit, otherwise.
  622. >She quickly eyes the clock as she descends the final few steps, turning to you once she reaches the ground floor.
  623. >“It’s 9:34 right now. The walk to Ponyville Park takes around ten or so minutes, and Spike just started his routine, which will only take a couple minutes since he bathed last night.”
  624. >Her gaze tapers off into indiscriminate space, focused on thought alone.
  625. >“Everything taken into account, we should be there right before preparations start!”
  626. >Sounds perfect to you. All that’s left is to wait for Spike and-
  627. >You haven’t eaten yet.
  628. “Oh, god, I should probably eat something fast, then, huh?”
  629. >Without delay, you down the rest of Spike’s coffee on the spot.
  630. >Eugh. This blend is /really/ fucking bitter, no wonder he didn’t like it.
  631. >You move to check the cabinets to see if there are any breakfast bars, but Twilight happily chimes in before you have the chance to leave your seat.
  632. >“Actually, I was wondering if you wanted to grab something on the way? A new breakfast place moved into town since you’ve been here, and I think you’d really like it.”
  633. >That piques your attention to a degree that somewhat embarasses you.
  634. >Internally, at least.
  635. >You slowly look back at the mare, an eyebrow of utmost interest cocked into the heavens, your face taking on a grave expression.
  636. “Do they serve… gourmet bagels?” you inquire, sounding like a Bond villain revealing his master plan.
  637. >She giggles up a storm at your ridiculous expression, her gaze firmly locked onto yours.
  638. >Her little laughing fit wears off, but her smile doesn’t.
  639. >You drop the faux seriousness, her infectious smile taking you over easily.
  640. “What? I’m serious about my bagels, Twilight.”
  641. >“I know, I know,” she relents, “I just… You haven’t even been here a day, and it already feels like you’re bouncing back to how you were when you first got here.”
  642. >She frowns just a bit, catching something in her wording that you hadn’t noticed.
  643. >“Well, n-not /right/ when you first got here, that was… pretty traumatic. I-I meant the months after that.”
  644. >The infamous ‘awkward Twilight grin’ is on full display, likely due to her little lapse in speech that you never would’ve caught, had she not corrected herself.
  645. >You rise from your seat properly, the same gentle smile from earlier still lightly set upon your features as you walk over to Twilight, stopping just shy of the mildly perplexed mare.
  646. >Her confusion ends as you reach your hand out toward her head and begin scratching away at the base of her ear, a gentle firmness throughout.
  647. >Instantly, she leans into it, having been on the receiving end of it for as long as she’s known you.
  648. >She grunts softly as her eyes close halfway, glassing over a tad.
  649. >“I still don’t know what to think about the fact that humans do this to their pets, too.”
  650. >You scoff at the notion, mild banter at the ready.
  651. “Well, I sure as hell don’t consider any of you guys my pets, if that’s what you’re asking.”
  652. >“I-I didn’t mean-”
  653. “Besides, that pet play stuff is waaaaay too kinky for me.”
  654. >She wrenches free of your scritching hand, her exasperated glare threatening to melt you down into human soup.
  655. >“A-Anon! Gross! You know that’s not what I meant!”
  656. >You cannot help the bellowing guffaw that rises from the deepest pit of your gut, leaning on a nearby wall for support while you laugh your ass clean off.
  657. “Oh, it’s too fun to mess with you, Twi,” you struggle out, unable to stop laughing long enough to get the sentence to flow together in one piece.
  658. >She scrunches her muzzle at you with a frown; widely known as the universal pony symbol for “I’m mad at you, but in a friendly kind of way.”
  659. >As your laughter finally fizzes out, a voice from the stairs grabs both of your attention.
  660. >“What’d ya get her with this time, Anon?” Spike calls out, the prominent scales on his head looking shinier than they were earlier.
  661. >A shit-eating grin takes hold, not unnoticed by Twilight, who once more affixes her laser-like gaze solely on you, almost daring you to say something.
  662. >Luckily for her, you’d rather not traumatize your dragon bro.
  663. “A good one. Remind me to tell you about it when you’re older.”
  664. >A sigh of relief can be heard next to you. Glancing down at its source, you see a far more relaxed Twilight, raising her signature Eyebrow of Shame™.
  665. >Even so, the unmistakable traces of a smile form as she lowers her guard.
  666. >Yeah, this mare is definitely your best friend by a damn sight.
  667. >“Aw, man,” Spike dejectedly sighs. “You know I age slower than you guys, right?”
  668. “All the better.”
  669. >“All the better,” Twilight stonewalls in unison with you.
  670. >Another groan as Spike reaches the bottom of the stairwell.
  671. >“Fine, suit yourselves. We should get going, though, if we still wanna get breakfast.”
  672. >Oh, right, that.
  673. >You should have plenty of-
  674. >“Oh, shoot!” the perfect attendance holder next to you exclaims. “We really do need to leave!”
  675. >A wayward glance up at the clock reveals that it’s 9:46.
  676. >Hopefully, that’s just enough time to eat on the go. Wouldn’t wanna be starved while you’re trying to help somebody out, would you?
  677. “I’m ready, if you two are. That bagel’s callin’ my name.”
  678. >“I’m ready to roll,” Spike confirms, grabbing his little coat off of the rack by the front door.
  679. >“Well, in that case,” Twilight replies, using her magic to grab her scarf from the same rack. “Let’s go see about helping some ponies, shall we?”
  680. >That infectious grin is back.
  681. >You grab your own standing-collar jacket before holding the door open for the two of them, both thanking you as they step out into the sunlit snowfall.
  682. >With a dip of your head, you, too, pass through the doorway, deeply joyful to be with those close to you like this again.
  683. >…
  684. >Okay, the promise of a bagel is helping, too.
  686. ...
  688. >Thunk, thunk, thunk…
  689. >With the final nail fully sunken into the painted piece of wood, you stand back and admire your handiwork.
  690. >Before you is, by all accounts, the most perfect wooden stand the world has ever seen.
  691. >Every single piece is perfectly level, down to the millimeter.
  692. >Zero chips or splinters anywhere; you could wrestle naked on this thing and not come away with a single scratch.
  693. >That won’t be happening, of course, but you feel that the outlandish example is absolutely necessary to capture the full scope of your craftsmanship.
  694. >You circle your breathtaking work, enraptured by its magnificence, unwilling to tear your eyes away from the divine cut of the-
  695. >“Geez, Anon, are you gonna buy it dinner first, or what?”
  696. >You’re brought back to attention by Spike calling out to you from behind, holding the tool bag open for you while he walks closer.
  697. >The hammer is dropped back in, its weight dragging the bag downward slightly before he zips it shut.
  698. “Might as well, if it looks /that/ good. How many of the stands are fully up and running now?”
  699. >The question is more apt to floating around in the open air, rather than be directed at anyone in particular.
  700. >Both of you swivel your heads to survey the park in its entirety, more than happy with the progress you three have made in such a relatively short amount of time.
  701. >The snowfall from earlier this morning had died down a fair bit since you had all made it to Ponyville Park, reduced to naught more than a fleeting few flakes fluttering in the wind here and there.
  702. >The morning fog, too, had disappeared, leaving you with a full view of the snow-covered field, white as the surface of the moon.
  703. >You felt bad, marring the downright picturesque landscape with your boot prints, but alas, there was work to be done.
  704. >And work, you did; within only an hour and fifteen minutes - give or take a few - the three of you had finished helping with nearly the entire roster of vendors present, stopping only for a brief respite here and there.
  705. >Twilight handled any logistical problems, while you and Spike sorted out any problems with anyone’s physical setup, a la their stands, overhead tarps, positioning, et cetera.
  706. >Now, the only thing that stood between you and a fun day at the fair were two booths.
  707. >Coincidentally, these two were the ones you looked forward to helping the most.
  708. >With pep in your step, you grab the tool bag from Spike, who hands it to you without much thought.
  709. >Slinging it over your shoulder, you turn in the direction of the end of the park, where the final two points of interest awaited you across a small, snow-capped bridge hanging closely over the gently flowing creek that separated the park into two sections.
  710. >Wordlessly, you turn to Spike and kneel down, holding out your hand for him.
  711. >He climbs up to your left shoulder and perches on it, steadying himself with his claws as you stand to your full height once more.
  712. >He’s not tiny, per se, but while most ponies come up to your hips or lower waist, Spike clocks in around your knees.
  713. >As you begin your brief walk toward the final two tents, you hear him sigh into the open air, his eyes skyward.
  714. >“I hope the weather stays like this for a while,” he muses, almost wistfully.
  715. “For the day, or the season?”
  716. >“The season. The last winter we had was pretty short thanks to something that happened at the weather factory, so I’ve really been missing the cold like this.”
  717. >You cock an eyebrow at the mention of a mishap up in Cloudsdale.
  718. “What happened up there?”
  719. >He shrugs his shoulders.
  720. >“I dunno. They said it wasn’t serious, but they wouldn’t really talk about it beyond that.”
  721. “So, while the rest of Equestria had a genuine winter, you guys had, what, two months or something?”
  722. >“Something like that,” he grumbles, as if it had just happened. “I mean, it was still pretty cool outside for a while because of the natural weather, but it would’ve been nice to have a blizzard or two, ya know?”
  723. >You’re not entirely sure about that one.
  724. >Heavy snowfall is one thing, but a blizzard? No thanks.
  725. “Yeah, I understand. I thought dragons loved the heat, though?”
  726. >“Most of us do, but I didn’t grow up in the Dragonlands, so I’m way more used to Ponyville temperatures. Still immune to lava, though, so that’s pretty cool.”
  727. >Before your conversation has the chance to continue, you’ve come upon a rather grandiose tent, styled extravagantly with all sorts of candy-centric designs and flair.
  728. >Stopping a few meters shy of the entrance, you pick up on a jovial conversation within, singling out the voices of what sounds like BonBon and Mrs. Cake, among others that you can’t quite place yet.
  729. >You can’t make out what they’re saying, but you’ll figure it out soon enough.
  730. >Besides - the one you’re primarily here for is probably in the back.
  731. >Rather than simply enter, you get Spike’s attention with a nudge of your shoulder, addressing him with a hushed voice.
  732. “Can you check and see if they’re facing the doorway for me?”
  733. >He looks confused by your request at first, but quickly switches to a knowing grin, complete with a raised eyebrow.
  734. >“Trying to surprise the queen of surprise parties herself?” he jests, clearly confident that you’ll fail.
  735. >You know you’ll fail, too, but that won’t stop you from trying.
  736. >Hell, you being here in the first place is a surprise in and of itself, so maybe it’ll work!
  737. “Well, it’s definitely worth a shot. I feel like she’d appreciate the effort.”
  738. >“Either way, she’s gonna flip, so I’d get ready if I were you,” he replies, shifting himself to disembark from your shoulder as you kneel.
  739. >With a mild spring off of your shoulder, he takes off into the entrance flap, disappearing behind it as it takes its natural form once more.
  740. >Standing back up, you stretch out your back with measured gusto, your breath hitching for just a moment as it reaches its apex.
  741. >It shouldn’t take him too long, hopefully. How big can one tent-
  742. >Before your thoughts can fully form, you feel two slender, minimally fuzzy appendages snake around your torso, interlocking in front of your stomach.
  743. >The grip tightens to an ungodly level of pressure, and for a brief moment of breathlessness, you consign yourself to what may possibly become the loss of your entire lower torso.
  744. >Thankfully, the intense initial grip subsides as quickly as it arrived, sparing you from a paraplegic fate.
  745. >“NONNY!!!” she squeals with delight, giving you another, far lighter squeeze.
  746. >Still, you double over, but the frenetic mare holds on tight, smushing her cheek against your back and rubbing it up and down in affection.
  747. >You laugh with what strength you have left, straining your arms to reach behind you and give whatever you can reach - thankfully nothing risque - a squeeze.
  748. “Pinkie!” you gasp, using your free hand to tap out on one of her hooves.
  749. >Mercifully, she lets you go, and the oxygen once again returns to your lungs as you turn to face your cuddly assailant.
  750. >She beams up at you, her toothy smile spanning across her entire face.
  751. >You could swear she’s vibrating.
  752. >“OH MY GOSH! I had no idea you were in town! How long have you been here?” she exclaims, absolutely no pauses in between sentences.
  753. >A few years ago, you would’ve asked her to repeat herself.
  754. >Thankfully, even with your extended absences, you’re accustomed to it enough now that you can usually just pick up on what she says the first time.
  755. “Just last night, actually. Uh, how’d you-”
  756. >“Get the jump on you?” she finishes for you, not missing a beat.
  757. >As if to couple her explanation with a physical demonstration, she starts mimicking what she was doing when she supposedly noticed you coming.
  758. >“That was easy! I was helping Mrs. Cake make the last few batches of cupcakes ‘cause we were running out of time to get the stand ready for the festival, and when I went to throw one of the batches in the oven, I got this itchy feeling right behind my left ear that I only get whenever you’re nearby and I haven’t seen you yet, so I threw it in the oven really quick and snuck out of the back of the tent while you were sending Spike in, and when I saw my chance, I went in for a good old Yakyakistani bear hug!”
  759. >Well, that explains why the hug almost outright severed your spine.
  760. >But, wait-
  761. “An… itch told you I was coming?” you ask in confusion, a frown of disbelief dragging your brow downward.
  762. >“Yep!” she responds, almost proud of it. “I’ve got a different one for everypony!”
  763. >…How has this never been brought up before now?
  764. >She brings a hoof to her chin in brief contemplation.
  765. >“Well, it isn’t /always/ an itch. Sometimes it’s a tingle, sometimes I get the shakes… You get the idea, don’t you, Nonny?”
  766. >Not at all.
  767. “Yeah, I think I get what you’re saying. Anyways, how’ve you-”
  768. >A miniature cupcake finds its way into your mouth, courtesy of one baby pink forehoof rather haphazardly shoving it in there.
  769. >“No time for small talk!” she resolutely proclaims, a determined expression quickly replacing her signature smile. “How’s that taste?”
  770. >Were it most other mares, you’d be a bit upset at this sudden invasion of your personal space, but you’ve long since come to realize that popping personal bubbles is just something Pinkie was born to do, and very likely couldn’t help herself from doing it.
  771. >Without hesitation, you bite down, her sense of haste unusually infectious.
  772. >A bit tart, with a hint of cocoa somewhere in the mix. The cream cheese you taste before you swallow binds it all together, and a cavalcade of sweet, yet savory flavors spread over every inch of the inside of your mouth.
  773. >A terse grunt of approval rises from your soul; you sure do love red velvet cupcakes.
  774. >Red velvet anything, honestly.
  775. >Glancing down at the best baker you’ve ever met, you stifle back a hearty chuckle when you see her head cocked at an awkward angle, one single eye pointed straight at you with the mother of all raised eyebrows reaching nearly up to her hairline.
  776. >One succinct gulp later, and you smile as your judgment is delivered.
  777. “That was ridiculously good.”
  778. >Her beaming grin returns once more, with her beginning to bounce in place to help vent her mountains of contentment.
  779. >“Think you can help us make some more?” she asks. “We’ve only got a few batches left to make, and I could reeeeeeeally use some helping hands!~”
  780. >She punctuates her request by dragging out the final few words into a sing-song rhythm, flashing her pearly whites at you for effect.
  781. >Couple that with the fact that she bothered to make the distinction for your hands in particular, and you find that it’s genuinely impossible to say no.
  782. “As long as you don’t mind me being slower than you. Honestly, I haven’t done any baking in a really long time…”
  783. >“That’s okay!” she beams at you, content even with your self-deprecating answer. “Mrs. Cake and I can handle all the tricky stuff, like decorations. All you gotta do is fill the liners with batter and throw ‘em in the oven!”
  784. >…
  785. >Do not make the obvious joke.
  786. >Not with her.
  787. >Devoid of an immediate response, she searches your face for any sign of an implicit answer.
  788. >For some reason, she starts to giggle uncontrollably.
  789. >“You’re thinking of a dirty joke, aren’t you, Nonny?”
  790. >You suddenly feel a few degrees hotter, and it’s not the jacket’s fault.
  791. “What?” you blurt out, looking unambiguously guilty.
  792. >Her giggle blossoms into full-blown laughter that doubles her over, a hoof held up to her chest to help keep her balance.
  793. >“Oh, I missed you lots, Anon,” she says after coming down from her howling. “Now, come on!”
  794. >She quickly takes your hand in her teeth and starts dragging you into the tent, careful not to bite down hard enough to hurt you.
  795. >She winks back at you as you file through the tent’s entrance flaps, a rush of warmer air enveloping you both.
  796. >“That batter isn’t gonna make itself!”
  797. >The tent comes alive with the sound of duetted laughter.
  799. ...
  801. >A single bead of sweat rolls down your forehead, caught quickly by the sleeve of your undershirt before it can fall any further.
  802. >Letting your arm fall from your forehead, you gingerly pull the portable oven open, the last batch of cupcakes finally ready to be taken from its blisteringly hot cocoon.
  803. >Keeping your eyes on the fuming maw, you reach to your left, pawing at the plastic table for a second or two before finally grabbing hold of the pony-sized oven mitts and slipping them on with a smidge of difficulty.
  804. >Despite the fact that they were obviously not designed for human hands, you were able to find a workaround relatively quickly, even if it was a bit tedious.
  805. >With your hands roughly three quarters of the way up the mitts, you scrunch the remaining length against the tray of cupcakes, using the slack to get a far better grip on it than if you had slipped them all the way on.
  806. >“You know I can get that without all the mitten issues, right?” Spike interjects, walking over from his perch on the table where he was helping you make the batter. “Heat resistance is pretty cool, ya know.”
  807. “Yeah, but it’s easier for me to handle since I’m bigger.”
  808. >He frowns for a moment before considering your logic, ultimately deciding that an awkward grip on something small is better than having to leverage a tray that’s half his size.
  809. >“Touche, treetop.”
  810. >His little ‘jab’ earns an honest chuckle from you.
  811. >Cupcakes firmly in hand, you place them on the table, looking over each one individually before deciding that, yes, the batch is up to snuff with the rest of them.
  812. >You smirk to yourself, feeling satisfied that your hideously amateur baking skills hadn’t diminished over the years in Canterlot.
  813. >Years of late nights and early mornings never really left any time for hobbies, sadly.
  814. >You look back over your shoulder at the tent flap leading to the frontmost room, where you can hear Pinkie humming away as she and Mrs. Cake work on decorating the cupcakes.
  815. “Last one’s out!” you call out to them, picking the tray back up and heading in their direction.
  816. >“Go ahead and bring it to the prep table, dearie,” Mrs. Cake calls out to you from the front room.
  817. >Pinkie was being exceptionally modest when she said they only had ‘a few batches’ left.
  818. >In reality, it was something more like six batches. Not a ton for a bakery, mind you, but with the rather diminutive portable oven only able to hold one rack of something at a time, the whole ordeal became a rigorous test of time management in order to get the batches done before the fair started.
  819. >In between preparing batches and waiting for them to finish, you brought the Cakes anything that they needed so that their process, too, was sped up.
  820. >They even let you decorate a couple of the cupcakes when there was downtime.
  821. >Your handiwork couldn’t compare to their confectionary perfection, but they seemed to love it all the same, arranging them randomly into their lineup of desserts to sell while you headed off to the kitchen again.
  822. >Coming out of your daydream-induced stupor, you brush aside the tent flap and head into the main sale area, where Mrs. Cake and Pinkie, backs turned to you, are working together on making sure the product shelves look good before the shop opens.
  823. >It’s an impressive spread, really. Cakes, cupcakes, finger foods - you name it, Sugarcube Corner’s vendor tent has it.
  824. >That’s not where it stops, though. Interspersed throughout the displays are candies of all shapes and sizes, wrapped delicately and placed perfectly to compliment the ensemble of desserts that dominate your vision.
  825. >That’s strange. You don’t remember the Cakes selling any candy.
  826. >Hold on, didn’t you initially hear-
  827. >“Got that last batch for you, Mrs. Cake!”
  828. >Across the room from you, another tent flap spreads apart, revealing the candy mare of the hour holding a tray of sweets in her teeth.
  829. >Her eyes rest on the center display for a moment, combing it over to find any empty space, before they eventually find you.
  830. >Surprise dominates her features for a moment before Mrs. Cake’s voice brings both of you back to ground.
  831. >“Oh, good timing, Bon Bon!” she says in gratitude, both her and Pinkie turning to face the both of you. “Anonymous just finished with the last batch of cupcakes, so we’re almost done setting up.”
  832. >You take the opportunity to adopt your usual friendly disposition, flashing a smile at Bon Bon while bringing the tray over to the prep table behind the sales counter.
  833. “Nice to see you again, Bon Bon.”
  834. >She flashes one right back at you, an eyebrow raised for flair.
  835. >“You too, Anon,” she responds after setting her tray down on the same table, subtly confused by your presence. “Celestia, it’s been a while since I last saw you. How’ve you been?”
  836. >You grab a frosting bag as the four others conglomerate around the prep table, each of you immediately setting to work.
  837. “I’ve been…”
  838. >You trail off as you delicately pluck a cupcake out of its slot, liner and all, before handing it to Pinkie, who smiles at you before taking the frosting bag and beginning the base of the decorations.
  839. >It’s a difficult question to answer.
  840. >Life has been quite shit, if you’re honest, but as of this moment, you’re pretty happy with where you are.
  841. >Unemployment notwithstanding, obviously.
  842. “…Decent, all things considered.”
  843. >She nods at your answer, taking a stack of cellophane wrapping and applying it to her candies as delicately as she can, her hooves working as well as any horn could.
  844. >How does that even work?
  845. >You chalk it up to some sort of innate magic before mentally moving on.
  846. >“Well, that’s good,” she replies, focused intently on her work while she chats with you. “Last I heard, you were up in Canterlot’s business district. Kinda surprised you’re able to be here at all, with the reputation that place has. You got a job at Flair, right?”
  847. >Memory of an elephant, this one.
  848. “Yep. It was the ‘opportunity of a lifetime!’” you mockingly parrot, remembering their hiring manager’s exact phrasing she used to rope you in.
  849. >Another cupcake removed from the tray; this one, you start to work on yourself, shadowing Pinkie’s speedy expertise with your own careful mimicry.
  850. >Your face sours as the past four years crawl through your mind.
  851. “Until it wasn’t. I’m just glad I’m out.”
  852. >To your left, a long, drawn-out gasp rings out as Pinkie nearly drops the frosting bag she’s working with.
  853. >“You QUIT?!” she exclaims, going bug-eyed at you. “I thought it was your dream to live in Canterlot!”
  854. >Yeah, Anon.
  855. >Wasn’t it your dream?
  856. >You frown as you stop your cupcake-centered ministrations.
  857. >Thinking back on it now, you genuinely did want to live in Canterlot before your escapades with Flair.
  858. >Was the agitation and displeasure you felt as you were leaving yesterday genuine disillusion, or was it something more temporary?
  859. >You met Peachy Keen there, who was one of the few reasons for your continued employment at Flair, in the last year at least.
  860. >Pushing the business sector out of mind entirely, you think of Canterlot proper, with its stunning architecture and bustling streets.
  861. >Your mind drifts to the conversations you listened to on the way home, recalling memories of regular people trading tales of family, success, and other things back and forth.
  862. >It finds Canterlot Castle at last, recollections of your first half-year in Equestria painting its halls and corridors.
  863. >The two sisters smile at you from the past, as well as others who spent time with you, took care of you, and brought you up to speed with a life so unlike your previous one.
  864. >It dawns on you, then, that your attachment to Canterlot wasn’t to its brilliant locale, or its place at the throat of the nation.
  865. >It was to the friends you had made. You didn’t need a stuffy job or a fancy set of dinner clothes for that.
  866. >Besides…
  867. >It’s not like you can’t visit often, right?
  868. >You bring up a free hand to ruffle Pinkie’s mane, which she leans into despite still being superbly surprised.
  869. “Guess I’ll need to find a new dream, huh?”
  870. >It’s Mrs. Cake’s turn to be surprised, looking up from her generously sprinkled cupcake to address you while she applies the finishing touches.
  871. >“You’re alright with giving up on it? Just like that?”
  872. >You shrug your shoulders, resituating your grip on the frosting bag.
  873. “I’m not sure it was ever mine to begin with.”
  874. >A quick glance over at Pinkie turns into a held gaze as you scan her expression.
  875. >Gone is the shock of your bombshell reveal; in its place is a soft, knowing smile, as if she had somehow heard every thought running through your frantic head.
  876. >It’s almost prideful, in a way.
  877. >“Well, in any case,” Bon Bon chimes in, setting aside her final piece of candy. “It’s nice to have you back in Ponyville. Honestly, it was kind of weird not seeing you around for so long.”
  878. >“For some, more than others,” Spike quips from the right of you, done with his helping of cupcakes.
  879. >Actually, wait-
  880. >They’re all done with what they were doing.
  881. >You look down, and are met with a completely empty cupcake tray.
  882. >In fact, the only one left is yours, still lacking any decorations beyond your adequate layer of frosting.
  883. >You set your cupcake down, only for it to be immediately set upon by Pinkie, who dresses it up perfectly in a matter of seconds.
  884. “Wh-”
  885. >The frosting bag hits the table with a resounding thud.
  886. “How did you guys do that so fast?”
  887. >“Pinkie took, like, half of my share,” Spike replies nonchalantly, as if this had happened before. “Pretty much all of yours, too.”
  888. >…How?
  889. “How?”
  890. >She giggles to herself as she moves to the front of the sales shelves, placing your cupcake right in the front of one of the ensembles.
  891. >“Baker’s secret!” she calls out teasingly as she surveys the counters for any missing spots.
  892. >From across the table, Mrs. Cake breathes out a sigh of relief, content with the composition of the goods.
  893. >“It looks like everything is ready,” she states resolutely, reigning in her excitement.
  894. >She looks over at Pinkie, who stands at the ready for whatever directions may come from her boss.
  895. >“You can take the rest of the day off, Pinkie Pie! You’ve earned that much, at least.”
  896. >Her surprise returns in full force.
  897. >“A-Are you sure, Mrs. Cake?” she asks. “Who’s gonna operate the sales counter?”
  898. >“Mr. Cake and Lyra will be over in a bit to help with that,” Bon Bon interjects with a smile, plucking a candy from behind the counter and unwrapping it for herself. “Four’s a crowd, don’t you think?”
  899. >Coupled with the promise of extra assistance, Mrs. Cake’s reassuring smile melts any apprehension Pinkie might’ve had.
  900. >“Go have fun with your friends, dear,” she nearly coos, her soothing tone putting even you at ease. “We’ve got this.”
  901. >Even from across the tent, you can feel the vibrations begin.
  902. >Casting your gaze toward Pinkie, you realize that as her smile grows ever wider, the tremors grow stronger, an indicator of the elder pink one’s undeniable power.
  903. >As it reaches crescendo, Pinkie blinks forward within the span of what must be milliseconds, wrapping both Mrs. Cake and Bon Bon in an exceedingly familiar spine-crushing type of hug.
  904. >They’re in abject agony, but their faces, with their pained smiles, paint another picture.
  906. >A strained wheeze is all that escapes their lips. Finally realizing her own strength, Pinkie relents, setting the two future chiropractor patients down on their hooves.
  907. >“Oops… My bad,” she apologizes, a bashful grin dominating her features.
  908. >She shifts her gaze over to you and Spike, and for a second, you’re afraid that your spine may not be safe after all.
  909. >“Come on, you guys!” she exclaims, hastily throwing on her winter apparel that she had left on a clothes hook behind the front counter.
  910. >You do the same, retrieving your sweater and jacket from the highest hook, slipping them on amid the heat of the tent.
  911. >It’s uncomfortable at first, but you know that you’ll be thankful when you head out into the winter winds again.
  912. >You file in behind Pinkie as she quite literally bounces out of the front entrance, the pom of her beanie bobbing to the rhythm of her hops.
  913. >A quick look down at your watch reveals that it’s nearly time for the festival to officially start.
  914. >With Twilight not having popped over to check on you and Spike in the hour that you’ve been helping, you imagine she must be dealing with some sort of logistical nightmare in that final tent.
  915. >Normally, you’d like to stay far away from that sort of thing, but you can’t stand the thought of leaving her alone to deal with something like that.
  916. >Even if she does enjoy it.
  917. >The three of you cross into the snowy field once again to find that none of the snow from earlier has melted; it remains the same winter wonderland you first happened upon hours ago.
  918. >Perfect weather for an apple or two.
  920. ...
  922. >The winter wind whips at your face, skin pulling tight against muscle as a result.
  923. >Though Sweet Apple Acres’s tent is only a short walk to the west, the frigid conditions make it feel like a small hike.
  924. >You pull up your collar again, fighting for every inch of warmth as your skin grows goosebumps all over to compensate for a rogue gust of wind.
  925. >Clearly, being in that tent with the portable ovens for over an hour did you no favors. Hopefully, it won’t take you very long to get re-acclimated to the weather again.
  926. >“Was it like this before…?” Spike chimes in from your shoulder, holding his extremities close to preserve his body heat.
  927. >He’s got a point. You’ve sat through some pretty crazy Canterlot winters, but this feels different somehow.
  928. >When a dragon starts trying to keep warm, that’s how you know it’s chilly outside.
  929. >To your left, Pinkie continues to bounce away towards your destination, seemingly undeterred by the frigid weather.
  930. >“The weather team’s trying to make this the coldest day of the season,” Pinkie informs the both of you, her tone as chipper as ever. “Dashie gave me a heads up a few days ago.”
  931. >She spins around mid-hop to face both of you, no momentum lost as she remains the leader of your little troupe.
  932. >“She said this was about as cold as it’ll get, though, so you two shouldn’t be shivering for much longer!” she reassures the both of you before she once again spins around mid-hop.
  933. >As if the universe itself seeks to spite her, you are compelled into a particularly violent bout of shivering; although it ends relatively quickly, it succeeds in further opening you up to the cold.
  934. >It seems like Spike suffers from the same thing, as you feel him curl his tail around himself for any further warmth he can afford.
  935. “God, I hope she’s right. Do you know when she’s supposed to be meeting up with us?”
  936. >“It should be sometime after the fair starts, but not too much later,” Spike chimes in. “Twilight couldn’t get an exact time out of her.”
  937. >Yeah, that sounds about right for Rainbow.
  938. “What about Rarity and Fluttershy?”
  939. >“Rarity’ll come in with the rest of the ponies when the park opens, since she didn’t have a booth this year. I think she’s bringing ‘Shy with her, so they’ll get here at the same time.”
  940. >With only one tent left, it won’t be too long until they all know you’re back in town.
  941. >Every step you take toward the last tent, you feel a strange tension building; the same tension you felt last night, you’d venture to guess.
  942. >Just what is it that you’re nervous about? Pinkie acted like she always does when she saw you, why would the others be any different?
  943. >…Actually, maybe Pinkie isn’t the best metric to judge the others by. Nothing against her, of course, she’s just genuinely the friendliest person you’ve ever met, pony or otherwise.
  944. >Still, it’s not like they’ll hold your negligence against you, right?
  945. >…
  946. >You wouldn’t blame them if they did. It’s not exactly a tenet of friendship, slowly disappearing from a friend’s life.
  947. >In such a hyper-social society, that’s tantamount to spitting on someone’s mother.
  948. >That, or maybe you’ve just been spending time with the wrong crowd for a couple years.
  949. >The business sector had some striking similarities to Earth, now that you think about it.
  950. >As you draw closer to the entrance, you cast a glance over at Pinkie, who nonchalantly continues bouncing along, now humming a tune that you can’t quite place.
  951. >You really hope they’ll be like her.
  952. >Even if you feel you don’t deserve it.
  953. >As Pinkie goes to draw the tent’s entrance open, a country drawl from just beyond the veil of polyester and canvas breaks through a mere half second before it opens.
  954. >“...don’t know how I feel about leavin’ em to themselves like this. Are ya sure they’ll-”
  955. >With her gaze firmly affixed behind her, the familiar winter-dressed farm mare bumps into Pinkie, losing her hat and nearly sending them both toppling over into the snow.
  956. >Apologies are immediately exchanged back and forth as they find their footing (hoofing?), both of them not even registering who the other is for a brief moment.
  957. >When their expressions of regret eventually tail off, they giggle about it for a moment, AJ having yet to take notice of you.
  958. >She’s got a fur-lined denim work jacket on, which hangs just a bit loosely off of her barrel even with it zipped up a tad.
  959. >Apart from that, she’s actually pretty sparsely dressed for the winter. Not that it matters for her, of course.
  960. >The memory of an old lecture from Twilight springs to the surface of your mind; anatomical illustrations of pony anatomy, replete with every difference between the three races that she could think of.
  961. >Apparently, Earth ponies’ naturally denser muscle mass means their body temperature is uniquely difficult to bring down.
  962. >Pegasi have something similar to deal with altitude and flight speed, but it’s not quite as effective as good old bulk.
  963. >Twilight explained it in much better detail, but you were content to dumb it down and fluster her with your utterly basic descriptions.
  964. >You really miss those lectures.
  965. >“Sorry ‘bout that, Pinkie,” she apologizes, brushing herself off and retrieving her hat. “Shoulda looked where I was goin’.”
  966. >“No worries, silly!” Pinkie reassures her with a beaming grin. “Do you girls need any last minute help?”
  967. >“Actually, we just got done,” AJ replies, turning around and holding Twilight’s gaze as she steps out of the tent, still as bundled up as when you left this morning.
  968. >She notices you out of the corner of her eye, smiling at you as if she hadn’t been with you and Spike all morning.
  969. >It’s a kind of bright, unfiltered thing that you can’t help but reflect back at her, almost taken aback by how sincere it is.
  970. >Like clockwork, AJ follows the route of Twilight’s eyes, her own landing on you and freezing in place.
  971. >It only takes a second or two before a similarly crooked - yet not quite as vibrant - grin finds itself on her countenance.
  972. >“Land sakes, Anon!” she exclaims, walking over and holding her hoof up toward your head.
  973. >You bend down to her level and hug it out, light squeezes from both of you decorating the exchange.
  974. >“I didn’t know you were in town!” she says as she breaks the hug, both of you returning to your standing positions. “What’s the occasion, sugarcube?”
  975. “Long story,” you reply with a smile, arms folding over themselves for extra warmth.
  976. “Mind if I wait ‘till everyone’s here to tell it again?”
  977. >“It don’t bother me none. Shoot, I’m just glad t’see ya again. You stayin’ for the festival?”
  978. “Yup! Spike and I have been helping Twilight all morning.”
  979. >“Even better,” she says before looking at Twilight once more.
  980. >“Again, are ya /sure/ I don’t need to stay behind n’ help? I feel bad galavantin’ around while Granny is slavin’ away in the tent.”
  981. >Twilight shakes her head and pulls out a clipboard from one of her saddlebags, meeting AJ’s uncertainty with a disarming grin.
  982. >“There’s no need to worry, Applejack,” Twilight reassures, leafing through her clipboard and perusing her notes. “Caramel and Big Mac can handle the heavy lifting together, and Apple Bloom can help some of your other family members with-”
  983. >“Ah thought ah told ya to git, young lady!”
  984. >A somewhat shrill, aged voice laden with a heavy country accent cries out from within the tent, and not a moment later, a heavily-bundled Granny Smith shuffles out, looking positively peeved.
  985. >It’s actually almost comical how many layers she has on. Sweaters within vests within jackets, all swimming around their host in a sea of wintry heat retention.
  986. >“I’m just worried about ya, Granny, that’s all!” AJ protests, albeit with her ears angled slightly back.
  987. >The matriarch’s face softens a bit.
  988. >“Ah know, Applejack, but ya been workin’ yer tail off helpin’ us get set up since the start a’ this week, and ah think ya deserve a break.”
  989. >AJ winces, more than likely at the thought of giving up her share of the work.
  990. >“Granny, I appreciate the offer, I really do, but I’d feel better if-”
  991. >“Hooey.”
  992. >AJ visibly recoils, wholly smited by such an explicit country-ism. Her expression is unreadable, save for eyebrows upturned in genuine surprise.
  993. >Quickly regaining her composure, she attempts to assert her opinion once more.
  994. >“I just feel like y’all’ll need my help with-”
  995. >“Hooey!” Mrs. Smith repeats, more forcefully this time. “An’ ya know it, too.”
  996. >You look over at Spike to gauge his opinion, only to find that he had already been looking your way from his perch on your shoulder.
  997. >You raise an eyebrow, your unspoken question reaching out to him.
  998. >Only a few times had you ever really interacted with Granny Smith, and fewer still had it been anything beyond a greeting, so you’re uncertain whether she’s actually upset or not.
  999. >All he offers in response is a gentle shrug and pursed lips.
  1000. >You look to the others as well, but they’re too invested in the conversation to notice your wayward gaze.
  1001. >“Jackie, sugarcube,” she continues, voice and face softening to a great degree. “Ah’m mighty thankful for all ya do, ah really am. Heck, you n’ Mac’re the reason the farm always runs so well.”
  1002. >“But even after all this time, ah swear ya have no idea when ta hang yer hat n’ kick yer hooves up.”
  1003. >“That ain’t true!” AJ retorts in defense.
  1004. >Mrs. Smith simply deadpans at her granddaughter.
  1005. >“Applejack, ya skipped breakfast this mornin’ ta get down here early when ya knew the family would be comin’ to help out.”
  1006. >“...I did?”
  1007. >“Ya did. Grabbed an apple from the pantry and darn near galloped out the door while grub was sittin’ on the table. The fact ya don’t remember it proves m’point even more.”
  1008. >The flow of conversation halts as Applejack takes a moment to recollect the events of the morning, a defeated sigh escaping her lips when she presumably remembers what her grandma is talking about.
  1009. >“Guess I really did get carried away…”
  1010. >You’ve got some sort of quip about breakfast being an Apple specialty in your head, but you hold your tongue, not wanting to dilute the impact of a tried-and-true Apple family lesson.
  1011. >Mrs. Smith takes the opportunity to walk up to her granddaughter, resting a mentorly hoof at the base of her neck.
  1012. >“Ah know ah’m gettin’ old, Jackie, but that don’t mean ya gotta make up for it somehow. ‘Specially not when it’s eatin’ up all yer free time.”
  1013. >Silence takes hold once more, but Mrs. Smith is quick to dispel it.
  1014. >“Ya know what ah was doin’ at yer age, ‘sides workin’ on the farm?”
  1015. >AJ says nothing, only searching her grandmother’s smirking face for answers.
  1016. >“Well, my memory ain’t quite what it used ta be,” Mrs. Smith jokes, a quick chortle leaving her throat before she continues. “But even durin’ the busy times, ah remember gettin’ together with friends a whole lot, sometimes even at festivals like this’n. Shoot, ah even skipped out on work a couple o’ times so I could see ‘em!”
  1017. >…Really?
  1018. >Seems even Applejack has her doubts about that, if her expression is anything to go by.
  1019. >“Don’t get any ideas,” Mrs. Smith adds flatly before AJ can ask anything.
  1020. >“The point is, sugarcube, ya got yer whole life ahead o’ ya to work hard. Take some time ta be a young mare, alright?”
  1021. >AJ smiles as the time-tested advice washes over her, meeting her grandma’s gaze with grateful eyes.
  1022. >“…I’ll do my best, Granny.”
  1023. >They both step forward, hanging off of each other in a hug that only family can really know of.
  1024. >The display tugs at the corners of your mouth as Mrs. Smith’s advice runs through your head.
  1025. >Some time to be young, huh…?
  1026. >You’ve no time to ruminate for too long; the breeze from the east softens below your waist, and you realize that Twilight has joined your side.
  1027. >“How’d everything go over there, you two?” she asks, gesturing to Sugarcube Corner’s tent.
  1028. >“Great, actually,” Spike chimes in. “Mrs. Cake even made us some eclairs toward the end, which was pretty nice.”
  1029. “Oh, god, yeah, those were so good…”
  1030. >“I know, right!?”
  1031. >Twilight’s giggling interrupts the two of you before your eclair-centered ramblings can continue.
  1032. >“I meant how the /setup/ went, Spike.”
  1033. >“Huh? Oh, yeah, it went well,” Spike says, returning to earth from his dessert-fueled haze.
  1034. >Before the conversation can trail off, a wayward gaze to the entrance of the park helps you find your way into it.
  1035. “Yeah, it took us a while, but we finished up a bit before you did. Just in time, too.”
  1036. >You nod over in that direction, and Twilight follows it.
  1037. >There, spilling in through the gates, is an utter swarm of ponies - more than likely the majority of the town, if the size of the crowd just outside the grounds is anything to judge by.
  1038. >Combing through the oncoming crowd, you can’t quite make out any sign of Rarity or Fluttershy, which makes you a bit anxious.
  1039. >Instead of tackling your nerves head-on, it seems you’re meant to abide suspense for a while.
  1040. >The pit in your stomach expands, fueled by the passage of time.
  1041. >AJ seemed to appreciate you coming into town, but you can never be too sure, right?
  1042. >No, no, you’re doing none of that today. Take an interaction at face value, god damn it, she’s not Clean Sweep.
  1043. >I mean, for christ’s sake, AJ? Of all ponies, you think AJ would be insincere?
  1044. >“You good, Anon?”
  1045. >The little dragon’s slightly hushed inquiry rips you out of your introspection almost as fast as you leapt into it.
  1046. “Huh? Yeah, I’m good. Why?”
  1047. >The words leave your mouth as scant mumblings as you turn to face him.
  1048. >A twinge of disbelief replaces his concern.
  1049. >“I mean, you were clenching your jaw like crazy, dude. That, and I could feel your shoulder tense up for a bit.”
  1050. >Whoops. Time to deflect.
  1051. “Yeah, I dunno about you, but I’m ready for it to get a bit warmer than this.”
  1052. >“I thought the ponies up in Canterlot loved the cold?” he mocks, stifling a low chuckle.
  1053. “You can like the cold and still not enjoy standing in a freezer, man.”
  1054. >Off in the background, Pinkie seems engaged with AJ and her grandma, leaving Twilight without a conversation partner.
  1055. >Feeling a little guilty about that, you take the opportunity to bring her into your little back-and-forth.
  1056. “How ‘bout you, Twi? You holding up alright in this weather?”
  1057. >Your head turns idly toward your friend, expecting a response of some kind.
  1058. >Instead, you see that her gaze is still firmly locked onto the billowing crowd now spreading throughout the park.
  1059. >She’s wearing the same crooked grin that she directed at you earlier, only now, you can see her rightfully prideful eyes darting around to different points in the massive gathering of ponies.
  1060. >A deep sigh escapes unsteadily through her nose, her uneven breath visible as it slowly ascends into the surrounding trees.
  1061. >A shiver runs through her; the visible parts of her fur ripple ever so slightly, begging for warmth.
  1062. >Despite this, she appears unbothered.
  1063. >You think about calling her name again, but don’t. Something wriggling around in your midsection is asking you to stay silent, if for but a moment.
  1064. >Some seconds pass before she finally addresses you, albeit without breaking eye contact with the crowd.
  1065. >“Can you believe how many ponies ended up attending?” she asks.
  1066. >Her voice seems airy; the depth of her gratification is made plain to you.
  1067. “I know, right? If I were a betting man, I’d say that’s most of the town right there.”
  1068. >You take a moment to scan the crowd yourself, zeroing in on ponies in a sort of rapid-fire fashion.
  1069. >Even the most dour one you spot still looks like she’s having a good time, being tugged along by her far cheerier friend group.
  1070. >“I’m happy to have helped put all this together,” Twilight muses, tightening her scarf against the cold.
  1071. “What, not even a mention of the two best handymen in Ponyville?” you jokingly chide, gesturing to yourself and Spike. “That’s cold, Twi. Colder than this weather, even.”
  1072. >“Oh, hush,” she giggles, finally turning to you. “You know you were included in that.”
  1073. >The three of you laugh in tandem, and for a moment, you forget about anything you could’ve been worried about.
  1074. >Until a familiar posh accent cuts through the growing ambience of the distant crowd, that is.
  1075. >“Yoohoo~!”
  1076. >Oh, shit.
  1077. >Well, so much for suspense.
  1078. >You comb the crowd once more, only this time you stop just shy of reaching the middle.
  1079. >Pun not intended, because the first of the two that you see is Flutters herself, looking like a warm-weather tourist caught in a blizzard; bundled up almost as much as Mrs. Smith, with two scarves and…
  1080. >…Is that a teal trapper hat?
  1081. >Despite the implications, it actually suits her quite well.
  1082. >It fits a bit loosely with the flaps down, though, since it falls forward into her brow a bit with every few steps.
  1083. >You catch her eye and she grins sheepishly, stopping for a moment to wave at you and adjust her hat tight against her head.
  1084. >It’s hard not to smile at that, nerves be damned.
  1085. >Beside her, the patron saintess of elegance strides toward the three of you, donning a black wool coat with a matching fur collar.
  1086. >Upon closer inspection, you can see subtly darker pinstripes running from collar to hem.
  1087. >Topping off the look are a pair of rounded sunglasses with vibrant pink lenses and a matching teal trapper hat, much like Fluttershy’s, but with the flaps pinned up.
  1088. >She’s even got some stylish winter boots on.
  1089. >It’s all very chic, and her expression conveys her acute sense of awareness of that fact.
  1090. >The duo wait until they’re a bit closer to start any conversation, but before that can even happen, Twilight takes off at a steady canter to meet them in the middle.
  1091. >Names aren’t even exchanged between the three as a way of greeting; instead, Rarity catches Twilight in an embrace, bringing in Fluttershy with a free hoof to share in the affection.
  1092. >Before you head over to them, you check on the three earth ponies behind you, who all still seem to be absorbed in their conversation.
  1093. >Unwilling to interrupt them, you turn to Spike, still perched on your shoulder, gaze unerringly aimed straight at Rarity.
  1094. “You wanna stay up here, or greet ‘em yourself?”
  1095. >No response. You scan his eyes, only to find somewhat transparent hearts in place of his pupils.
  1096. >You freaked out the first time you saw it happen way back when, but you’ve gotten used to it since then.
  1097. “Spike?”
  1098. >Nothing; his awestruck reaction continues.
  1099. >At this rate, he’s going to start hovering over there, carried by the scent of her perfume or something.
  1100. >You bring your right hand up in front of his face, snapping twice in hopes of getting his attention.
  1101. “Dude.”
  1102. >“Wh-huh?” he almost exclaims, shaking his head as he snaps out of his decidedly amorous trance.
  1103. “Please don’t drool all over my jacket, man.”
  1104. >He instinctively looks downward, eyes poring over your shoulder for any stains he might’ve left.
  1105. >Satisfied that there aren’t any, he adopts a bashful grin as he looks up at you.
  1106. >“Sorry, Anon,” he says shyly, a chuckle deep in his throat afterward. “What were you saying?”
  1107. “Did you wanna go say hi on your own two feet, or are you cool chilling on my shoulder?”
  1108. >He contemplates the choice for all of a half a second.
  1109. >“I’ll get down. I actually haven’t seen Rarity in a while, so…”
  1110. “No, really?” you tease with a smarmy look.
  1111. >You kneel down to get rid of a good chunk of Spike’s ground clearance, lightly touching your knee into the snow so as to reduce any wetness.
  1112. >He takes the opportunity to hurriedly hop off and into the snow, wasting no time in making his way over to the object of his affection.
  1113. >They exchange greetings and she gives him a dainty squeeze, which he leans into fully and without hesitation.
  1114. >Kids and their crushes.
  1115. >Not one to keep a friend - much less two - waiting, you follow behind him, hands safe from the cold in your pockets.
  1116. >“Well, here’s a face I haven’t seen in a long while,” Rarity greets you, breaking from the group’s conversation and reaching for you.
  1117. >You laugh heartily as you accept her embrace, going through the motions of both of you air-kissing each others’ cheeks.
  1118. >These sort of high-class greetings normally weird you out, but with a close friend like Rarity, it isn’t so bad.
  1119. >Maybe that’s the point of it, then?
  1120. >You both go to stand once more, but as she pulls away, Rarity’s horn lights up.
  1121. >Both of your jacket’s zipper lines are enveloped in her blue aura as she moves them to and fro, her eyes scanning the minute details of your outfit before they eventually land on yours.
  1122. >“And wearing one of my ensembles, no less! If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume you were trying to flatter me, Anonymous.”
  1123. >You chuckle lightly as she lets you go.
  1124. >It comes out naturally, but it’s a bit constricted by the nerves you wish you didn’t have.
  1125. “Only a little bit. How’ve you been, Rarity?”
  1126. >“Very well, actually!” she responds, “I just recently had a wedding order come in at the boutique. An entire group of bridesmares wants their dresses tailor-made, so it’s been a busy week, but seeing their faces whenever they finally put them on will be more than worth it.”
  1127. “I don’t doubt it. Who’s the lucky mare?”
  1128. >“Somepony who moved here recently, believe it or not! An adorable pegasus named Sunshine Smiles.”
  1129. >That name rings a bell…
  1130. >Wait!
  1131. “Sunshine Smiles?” you ask, eyebrows raised in surprise. “As in, Sunny from the QA department?”
  1132. >“Oh, do you know her?” Rarity inquires, curious.
  1133. “Yeah, she used to work a couple of cubicles away from me. She never did say where was moving to, only that she was finally gonna be free from Flair, which - understandable.”
  1134. >Another, flown to the homely streets of this cozy town.
  1135. >Huh. What’re the odds?
  1136. “Anyway, who’s she getting hitched to?”
  1137. >“Get this,” Spike responds, eager for your reaction. “You remember the old earth pony that used to run the book store over by Quills and Sofas?”
  1138. “Yeah, Page Turner.”
  1139. >He’s waaaay too old for her, though.
  1140. >So that just leaves…
  1141. “No way!” you blurt out in surprise. “Tide Turner? His son? The one we played O&O with that one time?”
  1142. >“The very same. We were surprised, too.”
  1143. >You’re not too taken aback by it; you remember seeing some miniatures next to her pen cup a couple times.
  1144. >“Oh, but you should see them together,” Rarity adds wistfully. “They’re absolutely wonderful as a pair. You can practically /feel/ the love they have for each other every time you’re in the same room with them. Why, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tide Turner as talkative as when he’s with Sunny!”
  1145. >The thought of her finally breaking out of the hell-grind and into a better life, complete with a special someone, gives you cause for a hopeful smile.
  1146. “I’m happy they’re doing well. Flair wasn’t good to Sunny, but she was always really nice to everyone in spite of that. If any of us deserved to get out, it was her.”
  1147. >“She never does talk about her days there with any sort of fond remembrance,” Rarity says, an eyebrow gently raised in concern. “A shared experience, I presume?”
  1148. >“Oh, is it ever!” Spike interjects, which gets a laugh out of you.
  1149. >You cross your arms, more out of comfort than any other reason.
  1150. >Your nerves must have cooled. For now, at least.
  1151. >Still - you aren’t overly eager to launch into the story about why you came back.
  1152. >Somehow, now, it feels even more selfish than it did when you first got here.
  1153. >You hope you’ve got the gumption to tell all later.
  1154. “More than you might think. I’ll tell you all about it later when everyone’s here.”
  1155. >Rarity nods her head, flashing you a smile.
  1156. >“Of course, darling.”
  1157. >“Tell us all about what?”
  1158. >A look to your left, and you’re greeted by Twilight, having joined your circle of conversation along with Fluttershy.
  1159. “The thing we talked about last night. I just figured it’d be better if I could get everyone on the same page at the same time, you know?
  1160. >“Oh!” she responds, confusion erased just as fast as it came. “Yeah, I don’t blame you. Explaining yourself repeatedly can get tiring when it’s a lot of information at once.”
  1161. >“It’s all good information, though, right…?” Fluttershy chimes in, her voice barely registering above the noise of the crowd.
  1162. >Her eyes dance back and forth between you and Twilight, scanning your faces for any sort of tell as to the nature of your circumstances here.
  1163. “Yep! It’s nothing to worry about. Honestly, it’s probably a good thing.”
  1164. >Relief washes over her features as she tucks herself tighter into her scarf, a misty sigh leaving her nostrils.
  1165. “And it’s nice to see you again, by the way, ‘Shy.”
  1166. >“I-It’s nice to see you too, Anon. How long will you be in town?”
  1167. >Hmm. How do you dress that without giving away the big news…?
  1168. “Actually, I’ll-”
  1169. >“LOOK OUT BELOW!”
  1170. >That works too, you guess.
  1171. >The raspy yell rings out behind you, echoing from some far-off point in the sky.
  1172. >When you turn around to pinpoint where it came from, a cyan blur rockets into existence in the open field between the two groups, blowing wind every which way from the sheer speed and force of her entrance as a full-spectrum rainbow trails behind her, dissipating after a few seconds.
  1173. >With a few strong beats of her wings and a slight contortion of her barrel, she comes to an abrupt stop just above the grass, hovering for a second before touching down with all four hooves.
  1174. >She actually has a surprisingly conservative amount of clothing on for the weather; the only article she’s donning is her favorite Wonderbolts jacket,
  1175. >“For the love a-” AJ calls out from behind her, picking up her hat from the ground after it had been blown off. “Pull off a Rainboom, why don’tcha?”
  1176. >Pinkie blows past her, straight-on galloping over to-
  1177. >“DASHIEEEEEE!”
  1178. >In the blink of an eye, she tackles her, and they both go rolling for some distance before they finally come to rest only a few yards from your group.
  1179. >Applejack follows them over with a sigh, bringing you in the midst of everyone again for the first time in what must be a year.
  1180. >The realization is not lost on you as Rainbow untangles herself from Pinkie, facing her on her own four hooves as she laughs straight from her gut, mouth upturned in abject elation.
  1181. >“It’s good to see you, too, Pinkie,” she says when she comes down from her guffawing, blowing strands of her prismatic mane out of her eyes. “Hope I didn’t keep any of you waiting /too/ long! I flew over here as soon as work ended.”
  1182. >She says that while sweeping her gaze over a good chunk of the group.
  1183. >You're still largely behind her, though, so she doesn’t notice you quite yet.
  1184. >“Actually, the festival only opened a few minutes ago,” Twilight responds.
  1185. >She pulls her clipboard out from her bag and checks it one last time before filing it away, presumably for the rest of the day.
  1186. >“And since we just got done helping out with the stands, that gives us the whole rest of the day to have fun together!”
  1187. >Dash rears up on two legs and hoof-pumps, her excitement radiating off of her as she does so.
  1188. >It’s contagious, apparently; the rest of the girls react similarly, though not as boisterous.
  1189. >“Aw, yeah!” she shouts. “Mare’s day out!”
  1190. “Not quite, but close enough.”
  1191. >Her ears rotate toward you for all but a millisecond before she whips around faster than you thought feasible, her eyes finding yours and locking on immediately.
  1192. >A grin cracks that surprised expression of hers as she takes off again with a flourish of her wings, flying up to you with her front legs outstretched toward you.
  1193. >“Anon!”
  1194. >You go to accept her embrace, only to find out that the display was a front; she uses the misdirection to sidestep you, bringing one hoof around your neck and resting the other atop your head, herself positioned behind you.
  1195. >With a total lack of mercy, she noogies the absolute shit out of you.
  1196. >It actually kinda hurts, but it only lasts for a few moments.
  1197. >“Where ya been, big guy?” she interrogates enthusiastically as she lets you go, touching down once more in front of you. “It’s been too long since I last saw you.”
  1198. “Up in Canterlot, mostly. And honestly, I’m surprised you didn’t see me when you rocketed down here.”
  1199. >“Eh, I sorta saw you, I just thought you might’ve been some kinda pole. Everything blurs pretty hard when I’m going that fast. Besides, I meant figuratively, not literally.”
  1200. >You can’t hold a chuckle back.
  1201. “Missed you too, Dash.”
  1202. >You turn and look at everyone.
  1203. >All eyes are on you.
  1204. >Well, mostly. Spike’s stealing glances at Rarity every couple of seconds, but it still counts.
  1205. >Strangely enough, your stomach isn’t in knots anymore. It’s still not completely calm, but it’s getting there.
  1206. >You sigh deeply, blowing steam into the nippy air.
  1207. “…I really missed all of you.”
  1208. >The words come out a bit strained.
  1209. >Twilight steps forward, holding one hoof up to her chest as she addresses you with an authenticity you’ve been sorely lacking up in Canterlot.
  1210. >“The feeling is mutual, Anon,” she says, a sparkle in her eyes. “For all of us.”
  1211. >Your throat gets ever so slightly tighter.
  1212. >You can’t hold eye contact with her for some reason. Your gaze falls into the snow, a disastrously genuine smirk holding itself in place.
  1213. >A nod of your head in silent reverence, and your nerves are nowhere to be found.
  1214. >Facing them again, you feel a surge of excitement take you, one that is reflected in their own expressions.
  1215. “How’s some cider sound to you guys?”
  1216. >“Sounds like heaven,” AJ replies, making headway for her tent again. “I’ll get us some’a the big mugs we got hidin’ in the back of the tent.”
  1217. >“Oh, I’ll just take a regular-sized cup, darling,” Rarity says. “I’d like to pace myself until later tonight.”
  1218. >“Suit yourself! I’ll take the biggest mug ya got, AJ,” Dash all but demands.
  1219. >“Not if I get to it first, Dashie!” Pinkie interjects, taking off in a sprint toward the tent.
  1220. >Fluttershy tries to speak up, but is drowned out by the resulting argument, electing to settle for whatever she’s given.
  1221. >Spike hops onto the back of Rarity, both eager to set off for their beverages. Non-alcoholic for Spike, of course.
  1222. >Twilight takes a spot by your side as you all set off, eager to get some cider in your bellies.
  1223. >…
  1224. >It’s a wonderful feeling, being home.
  1226. ...
  1228. >Thunk!
  1229. >“Yeeeah! Another one for Team Pegasus! Woooo!”
  1230. >Dash, drunkenly uncaring of her volume as several passing ponies throw concerned glances her way, wraps Fluttershy in a tightly woven aerial embrace, squeezing tightly as she sings their praises for all to hear.
  1231. >Another game of Arc seemingly won in their name, all of their bags sitting outrageously close to the bullseye.
  1232. >It was like Skeeball’s backwoods cousin; instead of underhandedly rolling balls up a slope and into holes, you toss bean bags onto a floor-adjacent target, hoping they land where you aim them.
  1233. >The closer you get to the bullseye, the more points you get, and since there aren’t any holes for the bags to sink into, that means things get competitive. Especially when one team knocks another’s bean bag off of the platform.
  1234. >Two teams play at a time, and currently, it’s Team Pegasus versus Team Earth Pony, consisting of Pinkie and AJ.
  1235. >“Now don’t count us out just yet, missy,” AJ retorts, securing her hat more firmly to her head. “This lil’ tango ain’t over!”
  1236. >Her words, even from a few feet away, are sharper in the chilly evening than they were at the beginning of the day.
  1237. >Same with most of the noise; the soundscape filled your ears from top to bottom, louder and without much focus yet still remarkably clear.
  1238. >Touch was impacted similarly. Your clothes became a cocoon, and each brush against the denim of your jeans or the cotton of your shirt was uncompromisingly vivid, despite the cold.
  1239. >Your head swims, but comfortably so, swaying at a pace you dictate.
  1240. >Another swig of cider travels down your throat, warming your already cozy stomach.
  1241. >What a buzz. God, you love this shit so much.
  1242. >How’d you ever go without it up there?
  1243. >Beside you, you feel Twilight stir slightly, riding out a blissful tipsiness of her own.
  1244. >Her expression is stuck as a smile; you don’t think she’s stopped ever since her second mug.
  1245. >Not that you’d like to change it. The first image that comes to mind when you think of her is that big, dorky smile she’s got on her library card.
  1246. >It’s too adorable to not giggle at, especially in your cider-addled mind.
  1247. >You try to stifle it, but a very faint snort escapes, catching the attention of your bitter Arc rival.
  1248. >“What’re you giggling about, Anon?” she asks as she turns to look at you, one eyebrow raised in accusatory fashion, no doubt thanks to the cider’s influence.
  1249. “Oh, nothing. I just, uh, remembered something funny.”
  1250. >The entire sentence is warped by your incessant chuckle fit.
  1251. >“Tell me!”
  1252. “Huh?”
  1253. >“I wanna hear it,” she explains, already starting to laugh at nothing in particular. “If it’s got you laughing, I definitely wanna hear it.”
  1254. >Even her speaking mannerisms have changed slightly.
  1255. >Just how much has she had?
  1256. >Nevermind that, though - you are wholly unprepared for her question, and you’re not one to be overly funny on the fly, either.
  1257. >Quick, Anon! Put on your thinking cap!
  1258. >Surely there must be /some/ off-the-cuff joke buried in that head of yours.
  1259. >You search fiendishly, milliseconds stretching into years behind your eyes.
  1260. >From the depths of the farthest reaches of your mind emerges a joke so old, so terrible, it makes you shiver as it reaches your mouth and demands release.
  1261. “W-Why do math teachers love going to dance clubs?”
  1262. >“Hmm…”
  1263. >She puts on a show of pondering what the answer could be before turning to face you again.
  1264. >“I’m actually not sure. Why?”
  1265. “It’s ‘cause… they like breakin’ it down.”
  1266. >After you deliver the decidedly underwhelming punchline, your face autonomously rearranges its expression into the physical representation of the phrase ‘I’m sorry.’
  1267. >You look ahead to the two teams battling it out, clueing into a yelled ‘consarn it’ here, and a raspy ‘no way’ there.
  1268. >The silence beside you gives way to a barely stifled laugh; when you turn to face her, you find Twilight starting to double over, catching herself on the edge of the bench.
  1269. >Honestly, you… didn’t expect that. Maybe it’s the alcohol?
  1270. >“Anon, that…” she manages to get out during lapses in her giggle fit. “I think that might have been the worst dad joke I’ve ever heard.”
  1271. “Oh yeah? Well, /you’re/ laughing at it, purplesmart.”
  1272. >She doesn’t seem to notice that you’ve used the dreaded nickname once more.
  1273. >“It was so repugnant that it circled back around to being funny, honestly.”
  1274. >…Mission accomplished, sorta?
  1275. “You know what? I’ll take that.”
  1276. >The two of you fall silent, both watching AJ desperately trying to displace Fluttershy’s expertly tossed bean bags with mixed results.
  1277. >Over time, though, you’re compelled to keep talking.
  1278. >There’s no discernible reason; the words simply take shape before you’ve had time to think of them.
  1279. “Are you having fun?”
  1280. >“Oh, absolutely! I’d hoped that the festival would end up being a success, but I had no idea today would be this…”
  1281. >She hangs on ‘this’ for a few moments, looking to capture a word she can properly ascribe to the feeling.
  1282. >“This magical, I suppose.”
  1283. >You laugh at her ironic choice of words.
  1284. “The element of magic, planning a festival that ends up being magical? Color me shocked!”
  1285. >“No, no, I mean…” she laughs out before a tone akin to that of wistful gratitude. “I mean us. Look at us, Anon!”
  1286. >Your eyes scan the two teams out in front, still engaged in their heated battle, cut off from the world around them as their conflict rages on.
  1287. >With only a quick flick of your head rightward, you spy Rarity and Spike, chatting at a food booth while they wait for their order.
  1288. >Every single one of them - even the ones embroiled in the Arc war - all seem content beyond measure.
  1289. >As if they’re aware of how good things are, but on a more primal level than upfront recognition.
  1290. >Turning back to Twilight, she’s probably the most aware of it out of all of them, judging by her beaming smile.
  1291. “You sure it isn’t just the cider, Miss Lightweight?”
  1292. >She shakes her head, her expression unchanging.
  1293. >“I know it isn’t. Today being a mare’s day, I already knew it was going to be wonderful like it always is, but then…”
  1294. >She stops for a second, the weight of her chosen next words showing in her hesitance.
  1295. >All at once, she barrels through those second thoughts.
  1296. >“Then you showed up out of nowhere, and now we’re all back together again having fun, just like it used to be… I was hoping we would come back to that.”
  1297. >Her words twist your stomach into a solid knot.
  1298. >How do you even respond to something that levels you completely like that…?
  1299. “I was, too.”
  1300. >Your response has her full attention; sensing this, you launch into it.
  1301. “I was scared that I messed up our friendship. When I boarded the train, I realized just how much I had alienated myself from your lives, all in the effort of…
  1302. >You sigh deeply.
  1303. “Of living out someone else’s vision of fulfillment.”
  1304. >Your arms cross as you lean back into the bench.
  1305. “Yesterday, I would have given anything to get those four years back. To spend them here, with you all. Now, though…”
  1306. >You turn to Twilight.
  1307. “Now, I know I already have all the time I need.”
  1308. >It’s like she’s awestruck, with those near-bulging eyes of hers shining even in the dim light of the receding sun.
  1309. >“You mean…?”
  1310. “Yep. I get to browse the housing market again.”
  1311. >You don’t even get an opportunity to laugh at your own dry joke before she launches into you, throwing her hooves around your torso and resting her head on your chest.
  1312. >The sensation of her hugging you so tightly sends sparks across your flesh, setting it alight.
  1313. >She’s laughing again, although this time, it’s a lot more sing-songy. It lilts through the air and vibrates through your chest, a declaration of joy belted with her eyes closed.
  1314. >Her breath reaches you, cider and lavender co-mingling in your nose.
  1315. >She’s definitely tipsy; she’s received better news before and been more reserved than this.
  1316. >Still, the gesture tugs at your heartstrings. You embrace her fully in return, squeezing as hard as you think she can take.
  1317. >She’s actually surprisingly warm, despite the steadily dropping evening temperatures. That down jacket of hers must be working wonders alongside the alcohol.
  1318. >A couple seconds later, it seems like she gains some of her self-awareness back, tensing up just a tad and pulling back to give you your space.
  1319. >“S-Sorry, Anon,” she stammers out, her face flush. “It’s just- that’s amazing news!”
  1320. >You chuckle, a bit lightheaded from the attention.
  1321. “It’ll be a while before I can make any kind of down payment on a house, so it’s not quite set in stone, but I really would like to do that. I don’t know what I want to do with my life right now, especially after yesterday, but Ponyville’s a great place to try and figure it out, right?”
  1322. >“I don’t think you could have picked a better town for it, honestly.”
  1323. >Thinking about it, she’s absolutely right.
  1324. >Last time you combed the job listings here, the variety of positions and apprenticeships offered was so staggering that it was hard to believe.
  1325. >Back home it was front desk associate, mail clerk, office assistant, and other soul-draining positions if you ever wanted to just get your foot in the door of a practice.
  1326. >In Ponyville? You can basically walk up to any store in town, ask for an apprenticeship, and if the trial period goes well, you’d have an interesting, engaging career path.
  1327. >Bookkeeper, assistant caretaker at the animal sanctuary… Hell, there was even a blacksmith that was taking on students.
  1328. >At least, that’s what the job listings said the last time you were in town.
  1329. >It makes you wonder why you ever wanted your old job in the first place. A memory lost in the swathes of corporate skullduggery, you suppose.
  1330. “I just hope I can slide into a career I really enjoy. I’ve been on autopilot for so long, I feel like I don’t even know what I wanna do anymore.”
  1331. >“Luckily, you’ve got a place to stay while you figure it out,” she says, unsubtly winking at you.
  1332. “Twi, the last thing I wanna do is bum off of you.”
  1333. >“Is it bumming if I /want/ you to stay with us?”
  1334. “I mean… inverse stockholm-bumming syndrome, maybe?”
  1335. >“Anon, I thought we were enjoying the festival, not working out,” she pseudo-whines, disappointment plain for you to hear.
  1336. “...Huh?”
  1337. >“You know, with all that stretching you just did.”
  1338. “Ha-ha. I’m serious.”
  1339. >“So am I,” she says sternly. “That bedroom’s been yours since before you left, and it always will be.”
  1340. >You’re not sure what to say to that, snark or otherwise.
  1341. >Her genuine kindness is welcomed, but there’s a nagging feeling in your gut that you can’t quite shake.
  1342. “I’m sorry, Twilight. I’d be more than happy to stay with you two. I don’t really know why I…”
  1343. >The words die in your throat as Twilight listens intently, her expression disarmingly neutral, attentive to a fault.
  1344. >Soft gaze, slightly upturned eyebrows, the ghost of a grin as you struggle to explain your initial refusal… It’s like she knows what you’re going to say, but you feel compelled to say it anyways.
  1345. >“YAAAAAA-”
  1346. >A cannon goes off next to the game of Arc taking place in front of you, forcing your hands to shoot up to your ears.
  1347. >The party armament - which, by all accounts, wasn’t there five seconds ago - blasts confetti to and fro, a fair bit of it landing on both you and Twi.
  1348. >More than a few passers by are stealing glances in your general direction, a good many of them startled out of their wits.
  1349. >Well, at least you know who won.
  1350. >Looking over, your suspicions are confirmed by Pinkie and AJ’s brief victory dance, Rainbow momentarily sulking in the background while ‘Shy claps her hooves for the winning team.
  1351. >“Now what was that about putin’ our bits where our mouths are?” AJ goads, her competitive spirit winning out over her humility.
  1352. >Rainbow openly sighs, shaking the sour taste of victory off.
  1353. >“You know what?” she harrumphs. “Fair play. Don’t think you’ll get so lucky next time, bub.”
  1354. >“Luck ain’t got anything to do with it, sugarcube. Good game, though.”
  1355. >They close the distance between each other and shake hooves, leaving their bitter rivalry behind for merrier pastures.
  1356. >Suddenly, the enchanted lamps scattered throughout the park come alight, signaling the official transition from evening to night.
  1357. >You look back over at Twilight, who returns your gaze just as soon as you give it.
  1358. “We’ll talk about it more later, okay?”
  1359. >She smiles fully at you, brushing some of the confetti out of her mane as she does so.
  1360. >“Of course, Anon.”
  1361. >The two of you hop off of the bench and head toward your friends, all convening around the peppered target and picking up the bags.
  1362. >AJ holds a bigger bag open while you all toss the sacks in, cleaning up so that the next group wouldn’t have to do the dirty work.
  1363. >“Who’s got the next game?” Pinkie asks excitedly, already raring to go.
  1364. >Maybe it’s just your imagination, but you swear you can feel her vibrating next to you.
  1365. >“Nopony, unfortunately,” Twilight chimes in, mild dejection painting her features. “The festival was only scheduled to operate until the lights came on, that way the vendors can pack up before it gets too dark out.”
  1366. >“What!? It can’t be over yet, we barely even started!”
  1367. >“I’m sorry, Pinkie. Mayor Mare’s the one who set the limits, I can’t bend them.”
  1368. >The partier of eons literally deflates before your eyes, accompanied by a comical sputtering noise as she slumps further and further into a pile on the ground.
  1369. >“It’s hard to believe it’s already over,” Fluttershy chimes in. “It really doesn’t feel like it’s been seven hours, does it?”
  1370. >The others hem and haw at her statement; your own answer is to look around you as their words blur in your ears.
  1371. >It doesn’t feel like seven hours have passed, but the flow of time presents itself under the dim lamplight of the late evening.
  1372. >Once pristine blankets of snow are now heavily tread, bits of waterlogged grass peering out in messy clumps.
  1373. >The goings-on have died down considerably; where once a giant crowd resided, there are only inklings of groups here and there, finishing up their loose ends before making for the entrance of the park.
  1374. >Night hasn’t fully descended yet, and a dull glow seeping through the clouds paints everything one or two shades toward amber, irrespective of its prior color.
  1375. >Celestia’s handiwork, of course. Who else could be responsible for a sunset blooming through cloud cover like that?
  1376. >She must’ve had a particularly good day.
  1377. >A small smirk tugs at the corners of your lips; a good day for her usually means that something funny happened in court, or at some mind-numbing delegate meeting.
  1378. >‘What could it be this time?’ you wonder.
  1379. >A mischief of her own design, perhaps?
  1380. >Oh, you hope so. You’ve always loved hearing about her legendary gags in your back-and-forths with her, written or otherwise.
  1381. >Come to think of it, her letters are the only ones you’ve responded to with some sort of regularity.
  1382. >Though, you suppose that’s to be expected, given she was the first friend you’d happened to make here.
  1383. >A bomb hits your gut - you haven’t told her what happened yet.
  1384. >She likes her impromptu visits once in a blue moon, and the last thing you want is for her to show up at an empty apartment none the wiser.
  1385. >Looks like you’re gonna be writing a letter tonight when you get home.
  1386. >With any luck, it’ll reach her while she’s still awake, now that you have Spike nearby.
  1387. >Hopefully, it won’t take her too long to see it. You’ve seen the busier end of her and Luna’s schedules firsthand; sometimes, the sea of responsibilities swallows all.
  1388. >Funny, that.
  1389. >Infinitely busier than you were, and yet she still found time to get back to you every week or so.
  1390. >…
  1391. >“Do we have anything else planned for tonight?” Rarity chimes in, breaking you out of your runaway thoughts.
  1392. >“Yeah, I was gonna ask the same thing,” Dash says. “We can’t end it here, it’s not even that late yet!”
  1393. >Twilight looks off into the waning crowd for a second, weighing the possible post-festival options for entertainment.
  1394. >She frowns momentarily, seemingly coming up short.
  1395. >You, however, might just have an ace.
  1396. “I mean, it /is/ Saturday night.”
  1397. >Six sets of eyes dart to you, expecting a continuation.
  1398. >Pinkie miraculously reinflates, aiming that seventh set straight at yours with barely contained anticipation.
  1399. “Is Ponyville Pub still open?”
  1400. >Rarity giggles daintily, bringing a hoof up to her face.
  1401. >“Anonymous, dear, we’ve already been drinking quite a bit of cider.”
  1402. “Oh, no, I meant for dinner.”
  1403. >As if on cue, your stomach grumbles.
  1404. “I haven’t had their mushroom stew since the last time I was here, and honestly, I could probably eat two bowls right now.”
  1405. >Looks of consideration take the group by storm.
  1406. >“Well, you already know my answer,” Spike chuckles, patting his stomach with his claw.
  1407. >“I didn’t eat very much for lunch, so I wouldn’t mind coming along,” Shy adds.
  1408. >Everyone else nods along with your two vocal supporters, clearly into the suggestion.
  1409. >“Any extra time together sounds good to me!” Pinkie interjects, hopping merrily in the direction of the pub.
  1410. >You all follow suit, conversation springing up around you once more.
  1412. >…
  1414. >“See ya later! And good to have you back again, Anon!”
  1415. >Rainbow waves hastily, flashing a winning smile before jetting directly upward into the night sky, her signature rainbow trail lighting up the street that you and Twilight are standing on, Spike riding on her back.
  1416. >The technicolored light strips stay behind for just a few seconds before dissipating into thin air, leaving the three of you once again blanketed in starlight, save for the dim lamps strewn about the town.
  1417. >Cloudsdale’s shadow blots out the stars behind it, its usual array of lights and rainbows missing for the night.
  1418. >Back on earth, the streets have died down considerably; now, only a few ponies mill about, most having retreated indoors for the night.
  1419. >You turn to your two closest friends, both of them still looking with gentle regard at the floating town’s impression against the sky.
  1420. >Errant snowflakes dot their clothing here and there, the snowfall having kicked up once more after dinner ended.
  1421. >And yet, despite the recurring onset of the cold, they aren’t shivering. Not like you, at least.
  1422. >Before long, you find that their grin has found its way onto your face as well.
  1423. >Maybe, if they’re generous, they’ll lend you a bit of that cold resistance they’ve got going right now. Why not, if their smiles were so infectious?
  1424. >A sudden sigh from Twilight breaks your attention, the steam from her breath billowing forth from her nostrils and curling into the night air before ultimately fading into nothing.
  1425. >You stay silent, unconsciously echoing her with a much gentler sigh of your own.
  1426. >Apart from the crickets and the gentle pittering of the snowfall, all is still.
  1427. >She shares with you not her inherent warmth, but the hidden feeling fastened just behind her eyes, locked onto the clouds above.
  1428. >The nighttime introspection of a day shared with loved ones, all crashing at once now that they’ve gone home.
  1429. >She doesn’t look sad; far from it, in fact. Her joy more than likely looped back into relative neutrality.
  1430. >It’s a strikingly familiar feeling, having experienced it yourself during every trip back to Canterlot.
  1431. >She looks back at you, that wistful smile still holding, ending your train of thought.
  1432. >“Ready to go home, Anon?”
  1433. >You nod, the three of you once more setting off for home.
  1434. >The uneven firmness of the cobbled streets feel nice against the soles of your shoes, even slippery and covered with snow.
  1435. >You speak, but your voice comes out as a murmur, still audible against the delicate ambience.
  1436. “I’ll never get used to how quiet it gets after dark here.”
  1437. >“Even after living here for a while?” Spike asks, twisting to look at you.
  1438. “Mhm. It’s different than just quiet, though, it’s… weirdly calm.”
  1439. >Ach, poor choice of words.
  1440. “Not weird in a bad way, of course. It’s just… agh, how do I even convey it?”
  1441. >The sound of hooves, feet, and claws marching homeward, buffeted by the gentle snowfall, is the only response you get for a few moments.
  1442. >“Serene?” Twilight muses, both of you still looking ahead.
  1443. “Not quite, but I feel like that’s pretty close.”
  1444. >Your eyes sweep the quaint homes around you, each cottage with its own somewhat unique architecture and decorations despite being mostly uniform.
  1445. >Most of the houses are illuminated from the inside, giving a lived-in feeling to the otherwise empty path.
  1446. “I was thinking ‘homey’ might do it justice, but that seems too aggressive a descriptor.”
  1447. >Even after a few more moments of deeper thought, you struggle to come up with anything, especially under your friends’ curious gaze.
  1448. >Maybe later on, whenever you’ve settled back in, you’ll be able to-
  1449. “It’s gentle.”
  1450. >The word sort of falls out of you as opposed to being spoken confidently.
  1451. >It did come to your mouth before your mind, after all.
  1452. >Spike cocks his head at your answer, while Twilight raises an inquisitive eyebrow.
  1453. “Well, that isn’t exactly it, but it’s close. You get what I mean?”
  1454. >You gesture to the town around you, your hand falling against your pants with a slap afterward.
  1455. “It’s like there’s this giant blanket covering the town, keeping everything cozy or something.”
  1456. >You sigh openly.
  1457. “I don’t know, that probably sounds stupid.”
  1458. >“It’s not stupid,” Twilight retorts, sounding almost taken aback by your self-reprimanding. “Trying to understand those strange, ineffable feelings is really interesting. I actually did a study on it once when I was still in school.”
  1459. “Did you find anything out?”
  1460. >“Well, it was more of a thesis than anything, but in laymare’s terms, I proposed that certain ineffable emotions could be attributed to color, with an individual’s upbringing and social environment being the largest determining factors of what color denotes which feeling.”
  1461. “How’d you summarize the unnamed emotions?”
  1462. >The three of you turn onto the street leading to the library, and you inwardly wish that the road would go on forever.
  1463. >“Mostly by combining other known emotions, or describing the experience somepony had when they felt it, like you just did. It wasn’t exactly the best or most thorough study I’ve ever done, given that it wasn’t about anything related to magic, but it ended up making me a lot more conscious of my own feelings.”
  1464. “In a more analytical way, I presume?”
  1465. >“To a degree,” she concedes. “Afterward, I started seeing the context of why I felt certain ways at certain times.”
  1466. >Before she can continue, she squints in the direction of Golden Oaks, scanning something that you don’t quite see yet, even when you pore over the homestead with your own eyes.
  1467. >“Odd… I wasn’t expecting any mail today.”
  1468. >You affix your gaze to the mailbox, just barely picking up the outline of the red flag raised above the box proper.
  1469. >How she was able to make out that tiny detail in the dark, you’ll never know.
  1470. >The two of you pick up the pace slightly, her confusion growing as you both reach the mailbox.
  1471. >With a flourish of her horn, the flag is nestled on its side once more and the hatch is pulled gently open, revealing nothing but a single letter inside.
  1472. >She envelops it within her aura and pulls it out, a confused frown gracing her features as she reads over the addressing information.
  1473. >“It’s for you…?” she half-asks as she floats it over to you, befuddled.
  1474. >You grab it out of the air, leafing it over in your hand to look at the cover.
  1475. >In the very center of the envelope is Fleur de Lis’s cutie mark, with ‘Flair’ superimposed over it in eloquent script.
  1476. >It takes a second or two before some mild alarm bells ring out in your head.
  1477. >Chief among them is the fact that the letter was addressed directly to here, with no trace of your old apartment’s address to be found.
  1478. >You’d think they would’ve re-addressed it here after the initial delivery failed, but no; straight to Golden Oaks.
  1479. >Then, there’s the timing of the letter. You quit /yesterday/, and you’ve already gotten written correspondence from them for who knows what.
  1480. >Eager to dispel the mystery, you tear at the envelope’s fold, cold fingers ringing along as you open it.
  1481. >You unfold the delicate slip of paper within and begin reading.
  1482. >‘Mister Anonymous,’
  1483. >‘The employees in charge of clearing out your vacant cubicle found that a number of your belongings were still present. These include, but are not limited to:
  1484. >‘Office decorations, books, a lunch box, personal photos, and a scheduling journal.’
  1485. >‘These items will be held for pickup until end-of-day Sunday. In the event that we do not hear from you by then, we will have no choice but to dispose of them. We apologize for this inconvenience; our storage facility is currently at capacity, and we cannot afford overflow at this time. We look forward to your arrival!’
  1486. >‘Yours truly,’
  1487. >‘Clean Sweep, Senior Director of Sales’
  1488. >…
  1489. >Motherfucker.
  1490. >He saw those pictures and knew he’d have you by the nuts.
  1491. >You know for a fact that storage isn’t at capacity. At least, it wasn’t yesterday.
  1492. >Even then, how the hell do some knick knacks cause an overflow?
  1493. >And for that matter, why’s his signature even on the letter, anyway? This dreck reeks of corporate copy-and-paste.
  1494. >Fuuuuuuuuck.
  1495. >If it were anything but the pictures of you and your friends, you’d leave Flair to rot.
  1496. >…God damn it, you hope the station opens early.
  1497. >“What’s it say?” Spike chimes in, interrupting your inward rant.
  1498. >A dejected breath leaves you in a hurry.
  1499. “I left some stuff with sentimental value at the office by accident, and they’re gonna throw it away if I don’t go pick it up tomorrow. Pictures of all of us, a few months after I got here.”
  1500. >“They’d really do that?”
  1501. “Not normally, no. Clean Sweep’s pulling out all the stops to fuck me over, I guess.”
  1502. >“Anon!”
  1503. >Your head whips to a decidedly displeased Twilight mad-dogging you.
  1504. >Ah, shit, right. She hates when you curse, especially in front of Spike.
  1505. “Sorry, Twilight.”
  1506. >“I swear, one day, I’m going to break that habit of yours,” she promises, her expression switching to that of concern over your situation.
  1507. >“Is there any way we can help?”
  1508. >Despite an extensive internal search, you come up with nothing. The fate of your pictures lies solely with you.
  1509. “Not that I can think of. I just hope he hasn’t already gotten rid of all of it.”
  1510. >“He’d have to be awfully rotten to do something like that.”
  1511. >Although misplaced, you really did miss her unflinching optimism.
  1512. “He is. You don’t get to his position in that company without stepping on others.”
  1513. >You crumple the letter and envelope in your hand, balling it up and shoving it deeply into your palm with your curled fingers.
  1514. “Knowing him, he’s gonna be there when I show up, complete with his trademark snide.”
  1515. >“Do you want us to come along with you?” Twilight asks. “The library is closed until the week starts, so it wouldn’t be any trouble.”
  1516. >You honestly consider it for a second, but…
  1517. “I think I’ll be okay. I doubt he’d try to be overly confrontational about it.”
  1518. >You turn to the two of them, both holding your gaze with neutral expressions.
  1519. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to drag you two along on a fetch quest the day before work starts back up.”
  1520. >“I /do/ like having the day to relax,” Twilight admits with a giggle. “Still, are you sure you’re alright with going alone?”
  1521. >You nod, shooting a disarming smile at her.
  1522. “Yep. One last headache to deal with, am I right?”
  1523. >And then you can get on with your dreams, whatever those are.
  1524. >Spike smiles back at you, nodding along with your statement.
  1525. >Twilight looks like she’s going to argue a case for going along with you, but relents after a moment, smiling with a barely audible sigh.
  1526. >“One last headache.”
  1527. >Without warning, she yawns, bringing one out of you as well.
  1528. >“We should probably head in and start winding down,” she suggests in the midst of an exhale, both of you heading for the front door. “It’s nine right now, and the station opens at six, so you’ll need as much sleep as you can get.”
  1529. “Looks like chamomile’s on the menu again, then.”
  1530. >“Too right,” Spike agrees, his own yawn taking over at the end.
  1531. >You open the door for the both of them, and they thank you as they head inside, the floorboards creaking gently beneath them.
  1532. >Shutting the door behind you, you’re blasted by a gust of cold outdoor wind before the slightly warmer air of the library envelops you.
  1533. >You follow them into the living room proper, and before you get too far in, you stop as you realize you’ve almost forgotten something.
  1534. “Hey, Twilight?” you call out across the room.
  1535. >“Hm?” she responds, looking back as she lights an overhead lamp with the help of her magic.
  1536. “Would you mind if I borrowed some of your parchment? I wanna write a letter to Celestia real quick.”
  1537. >“Oh, sure! I keep a stack in the front desk in the library room, second drawer from the top.”
  1538. “Thanks!”
  1539. >You traipse back into the library room, heading back behind the desk and taking a seat.
  1540. >You pull some fresh parchment from the aforementioned stash, smoothing it out against the wood surface as you place it down.
  1541. >The material gently catches your fingers, rough to the touch.
  1542. >Pulling her fountain pen from its receptacle, you hover your hand over the paper, ready to write.
  1543. >You pause just before the ink starts to flow, molding your thoughts with care.
  1544. >When you’re satisfied with the composition, you press the tip into the page, translating mind into ink.
  1545. >‘Dear Princess Celestia,”
  1546. >‘Hail, fair Celestia, whose friendship and acquaintanceship is a boon to us all! How have you been faring as of late, Your Majesty?’
  1547. >You leave a small blank space after that word vomit.
  1548. >‘Okay, that /felt/ bad to write. I don’t think I could ever be one of the advisors in the castle, I don’t have the stomach for their vernacular.’
  1549. >‘In all seriousness, how’ve you been, Cel? I know it’s been a bit longer than usual since I last wrote to you, and I want to apologize for that. Hopefully my negligence hasn’t upset you too much.’
  1550. >‘If I know you at all, then you’ve already figured out that I’m not in Canterlot by now from this letter’s method of delivery. There’s a story surrounding that, and although I usually prefer waiting to tell you in person, I feel like this one’s too important to sit on the proverbial shelf.’
  1551. >‘I’ll save the juicier gossip for the next time I see you, but in short, I quit my job at Flair and moved out of my apartment in Canterlot.’
  1552. >‘Let’s just say I was made aware of how people were being treated by certain people in power at the company.’
  1553. >‘I just wanted to-’
  1554. >A brief pause. You cross the words out with a deftly painted line, curving towards the end.
  1555. >‘I can’t believe I let-’
  1556. >Another scratch-through, this one slower and less uniform.
  1557. >Nothing that comes to mind seems right, until-
  1558. >‘I don’t know what I’m here for, Cel.’
  1559. >The pen moves far slower than before; its weight drags your fingers along with it.
  1560. >Your chest tightens, but you keep writing, pausing to dictate almost every single word.
  1561. >‘All I’ve ever known is the path that was set for me, for better or worse. It helped keep me focused when I was in school, but now that I’ve got to make my own way forward, I realize how suffocating it’s been.’
  1562. >‘The only part of my life, work or otherwise, that I’ve ever been passionate about was the end result. Always beyond me, always dangling from a rope. It was always the next milestone, and when I eventually did reach it? It was no big deal; I should’ve been there already.’
  1563. >‘It’s devastating, realizing you’ve been chasing someone else’s dream on autopilot for so long that you’re starting to wonder where the ghost ends, and where you start.’
  1564. >…
  1565. >‘But it’s not all bad. I’m back in Ponyville, surrounded by friends who genuinely care about me and want to see me grow. It’s a far cry from what I’m used to, but it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.’
  1566. >‘They’re making this whole thing manageable. I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t for them.’
  1567. >You chuckle to yourself.
  1568. >‘Here I was, thinking they’d be mad at me for not writing to them when I came back, but they ended up inviting me out to Mare’s Night and drinking me under the table.’
  1569. >An exaggeration, but one made in goodwill.
  1570. >‘I don’t think I’m worthy of them, but I’m gonna make sure I spend the rest of my life trying to be.’
  1571. >You only realize you’re smiling when your cheeks start hurting.
  1572. >Rubbing them cyclically with your left hand, you continue to write with your free one.
  1573. >‘In other news, I’ve gotta come back up to Canterlot tomorrow to pick up some mementos I accidentally left at the office before they throw them away. Do you remember that picture Luna got of you nailing me in the face with a pie from around the corner? Yeah, I wouldn’t wanna lose that one.’
  1574. >‘Anyway, I’m starting to run out of parchment, so I’ll cut it short. I know you probably won’t get this before morning, but I just wanted to reach out and say hello.’
  1575. >‘Miss ya, Cel.’
  1576. >‘Wishing you all the best,’
  1577. >‘Anonymous’
  1578. >With your friendly outpouring complete, you let the pen fall from your hand, its surprising weight crashing onto the table with a resounding thud.
  1579. >It's not everything you wanted to say, but it works for now. There's only so much the written word can convey, anyway.
  1580. >You lean back into the chair, letting your head loll back onto the cushion at the very top.
  1582. >The floorboards give a tad underneath your weight as you make your way back to the kitchen, where Twilight and Spike are already partaking in their nighttime tea.
  1583. >Letter in hand, you pull out the chair next to Spike and gingerly take your seat, a steaming cup waiting to grace your lips on the table in front of you.
  1584. “Hey, Spike, do you mind sending this out when you get a chance?”
  1585. >He nods mid-swig, not even bothering to open his eyes as a spot of tea streaks down his cheek from the sudden motion.
  1586. >Not an insignificant amount of time later, he finally sets his mug down with a resoundingly empty clink. The vibration of the motion reaches your knee pressed up against the kitchen island’s base.
  1587. >He gestures for you to hand him the letter with a quick beckoning motion of his claw, which you oblige.
  1588. >Holding the scroll in front of him, he takes a deep breath, straightening his back out in the process.
  1589. >In a swift moment, he forces all of the air out of his lungs. Just past his lips, the intangible stream is painted into a brilliant verdant flame, engulfing your letter in a billowing cloud of blinding color.
  1590. >Your letter takes on a dark green shine before crumbling bit by bit into dark ash, floating away into nothing.
  1591. >The flames dissipate along with it, returning the room to its warm, orange tone.
  1592. >He clears his throat a few times, blinking slowly as he props his head on his claws, placing his elbows on the counter.
  1593. “I’ve been meaning to ask, how does that even work?”
  1594. >“Do you want the long answer, or the short one?” he replies.
  1595. >Your brain isn’t exactly ready for a Twilight-level explanation right now, unfortunately.
  1596. “Short.”
  1597. >He grunts in response, his tea seemingly already taking hold over him.
  1598. >“It’s a self-sustaining spell. Whenever my fire breath comes into contact with any paper or parchment, it gets de-materialized and teleported to wherever she is at the moment.”
  1599. “So, essentially, you’re the world’s most efficient delivery service.”
  1600. >“Basically.”
  1601. >That’s… actually really cool.
  1602. “Still looking for a short answer here - how complicated is that spell?”
  1603. >“Very,” Twilight chimes in from across the table. “If I remember correctly, it took Celestia half a year to put it together.”
  1604. “I’m guessing it’s because both of your exact positions are always changing, and it needs to be able to account for it accurately?”
  1605. >“That, and it has to be able to hold up under considerable distances.”
  1606. >Well, holy shit. It’s the magical equivalent of texting someone.
  1607. “It still blows my mind that you guys can just shoot laser beams out of your horns willy-nilly, but things like /that/ are what takes time.”
  1608. >“In laymare’s terms, it’s a matter of strength versus finesse,” Twilight says, her tone developing into the one she uses in her famous lectures.
  1609. >“Even then, lasers aren’t exactly an easy feat for the average unicorn. The enormous mana drain alone could pose serious health risks if not mitigated properly, and that’s not even touching on whether or not their reservoirs are deep enough to support a sustained beam in the first place!”
  1610. >You nod along with her educational ramble, grateful that she feels it necessary to go back-and-forth with you.
  1611. “I don’t think I’m present enough to understand magic right now.”
  1612. >“Not with that attitude, you aren’t,” she jokes.
  1613. >Even though her wealth of knowledge currently has nowhere to go in your tired brain, you find a smile gracing your features; she’s always fun to listen to.
  1614. >In the comfortable silence of a settling kitchen, you take hold of the handle of your steaming mug and gently bring the rim to your lips.
  1615. >Even smelling the chamomile is enough to make you drowsy; closing your eyes, you lazily tilt the cup toward you, letting the hot tea run across your tongue for the second day in a row.
  1616. >With your luck, you’ll develop a dependency on this stuff while you’re living here.
  1617. >Hands steadied by the new warmth spreading outward from your stomach, you set the cup back down and lean against the counter.
  1618. >You’re tempted to lay your head down, but you know that you’ll fall asleep shortly after if you aren’t careful, so you abstain for now.
  1619. >Still, you find that your eyelids are getting quite heavy, dragging themselves downward in microscopic increments against your will even as you sit straight.
  1620. >I mean, it wouldn’t be /awful/ if you fell asleep right here, but you’d rather not drool all over Twilight’s countertop.
  1621. >Or wake up with a wicked backache from being hunched over.
  1622. >“Oh, by the way,” Twilight chimes back in, picking her gaze up from her half-full cup and resting it on you.
  1623. >“What were you going to say earlier, while everypony was playing Arc?”
  1624. >You’re brought back to the realm of the living, locking eyes with her as your full awareness returns.
  1625. “Hm?”
  1626. >“You know, when Pinkie interrupted you with her party cannon.”
  1627. >Huh…?
  1628. >Oh!
  1629. “You mean when we were talking about having me stay here?”
  1630. >She nods before taking another frugal sip of tea, still gently smiling.
  1631. >You align your forearms to be parallel on the counter, your right hand grasping your left elbow through the layers of warm clothing.
  1632. >This isn’t exactly the easiest thing to jump into after casual conversation, but you’ll try for her sake.
  1633. “I just don’t want to take advantage of your hospitality.”
  1634. >Instead of responding immediately like earlier, she focuses intently at the table for a fleeting few seconds, seemingly gathering her thoughts before proceeding.
  1635. >“Why do you feel like that’s what you’d be doing, Anon?”
  1636. >You rub your fingers back and forth, friction heating the skin just above your elbows.
  1637. “Well, I mean… It’s not like I got fired, right? I quit, abandoned my apartment, and ran home all of my own volition.”
  1638. >You scoff at your lack of forethought.
  1639. “I mean, I didn’t even let you know I was coming home. I just showed up, and honestly, I didn’t really leave you much of a choice whether to take me in or not.”
  1640. >Twilight sips deeply from her cup, knocking back what must be almost the entire rest of her tea.
  1641. >As she lowers the mug back down to the table, you notice that a slight frown has replaced her otherwise omnipresent cheeriness.
  1642. >“It’s true that it was a bit sudden, but I don’t see that as a bad thing, Anon.”
  1643. “How? I mean, what if you had plans and my homecoming totally screwed them up?”
  1644. >A chuckle escapes her throat as she leans against the table with her hooves.
  1645. >“I /did/ have plans,” she says, her airy tone a much needed push against the otherwise seriousness of the conversation.
  1646. >“And you became a part of them.”
  1647. >Even you can’t help but smirk just a bit; you’ve been here only a day, and already they’re rubbing off on you.
  1648. “Okay, maybe not the best example, but you get what I mean, don’t you?”
  1649. >“In general, but your reasoning doesn’t apply in this specific situation.”
  1650. >She takes one last dainty sip before disembarking from her chair and heading over to the sink to rinse her cup out.
  1651. >“I’ll say it as many times as you need to hear it: you aren’t taking advantage of us by staying here.”
  1652. >She sets her cup down and turns to you, a determined look on her face.
  1653. >“I promise, you’ll feel differently once you’ve been away from your old job for a while.”
  1654. >Her reasoning is sound; already, you feel different. Far better, you’d venture to say.
  1655. “Do you have an ETA on that?”
  1656. >“Coming from somepony who’s gone through a variation of the same thing, I’d give it until you find your next job.”
  1657. “Are we talking Canterlot time or Ponyville time here?”
  1658. >“Ponyville time, I think? Whichever one’s shorter.”
  1659. “Ponyville it is, then. I swear, you have to sign a stack of paperwork to bring a bagel into the office in the business district.”
  1660. >That earns a chuckle out of both of you, each one turning into a yawn seconds later.
  1661. >As you cover your mouth with the top of your hand and squint, you try to get a glimpse at Spike’s reaction.
  1662. >Instead of any reaction at all, you find the poor guy face down on the countertop, his mug sitting a few inches from his upturned hand.
  1663. >His body heaves with his inward breaths, only to press itself against the counter again with every exhale.
  1664. >Not too long from now, you’ll be in the same boat. Already, gravity seems to be a much easier trap for your limbs to succumb to.
  1665. >Looking back at Twilight, you see the same ghost of sleep beginning to possess her as well.
  1666. >With a few shakes of her head, she resists, but you know that another wave will hit her in short order.
  1667. “Gettin’ tired?”
  1668. >A simple nod is her only reply, her half-lidded stare threatening to turn into closed eyes any second.
  1669. >Jesus, the chamomile’s hitting a lot faster than usual tonight.
  1670. >Even so, you don’t want to go to bed without a proper capstone for your conversation.
  1671. “Hey, Twi?”
  1672. >“Mm?” she vocalizes, opening her eyes as wide as she can under the influence of exhaustion.
  1673. “Thank you. For all of this, I mean. Letting me stay here, having me come along to your get-together… I didn’t know how much I needed this.”
  1674. >She bats a hoof at you, smiling all the while.
  1675. >“I’m just happy you’re home, Anon.”
  1676. >You hum your approval, eyelids growing heavier by the second as you rise from your seat.
  1677. “I’m gonna try to get some sleep. I have no idea when the first train to Canterlot leaves tomorrow, so I’ll head out early to check the schedules.”
  1678. >“We’ll come with you to see you off. When do you think you’ll be back?”
  1679. “Hopefully before dinner, with belongings in hand.”
  1680. >“In that case…”
  1681. >She meanders over and stops just shy of you, holding out a hoof in your direction.
  1682. >As you kneel down to meet her, she rears up on her hind legs, rising to meet your height halfway through your downward motion.
  1683. >All at once, you’re wrapped in each others’ warm embraces.
  1684. >The nightly chill is sent cowering into nothing for a few fleeting moments as she rests her cheek on the base of your neck.
  1685. >“Goodnight, Anon.”
  1686. “See you in the morning, Twi.”
  1687. >Before long, you both pull away, influenced in no small part by your growing sense of sleepy delirium.
  1688. >You turn and head for your bedroom, her magic gently ringing through the room as she snuffs out the light and picks Spike up from his seat.
  1689. >When you make it to your room and shut the door behind you, you barely have time to crawl into bed before the sandman whisks you away.
  1692. >“Lunch?”
  1693. >Your hand rummages around feverishly inside your bag before finding the container, cold to the touch from the refrigerated salad inside.
  1694. “Check.”
  1695. >“Water bottle?”
  1696. >A short shift leftward, and the condensation dampens the top of your fingers.
  1697. “Check.”
  1698. >“Snack bars, just in case?”
  1699. >There they are, right under the emergency change of clothes; your ring finger brushes against three rectangular shapes, foil wrapping crinkling under your minute touch.
  1700. “Triple check. Is that everything, or are we missing something?”
  1701. >Twilight takes hold of the bag in her magic and places it between you and herself, leaning back against the cold metal of the white bench.
  1702. >She’s silent as she gives the contents one last passthrough, giving the busy station an opportunity to fill the air with the goings on of its many soon-to-be passengers.
  1703. >Even this early in the morning, the platform is relatively lively, mostly with out-of-towners.
  1704. >Funnily enough, if you know what to look for, it’s relatively easy to figure out who’s from where.
  1705. >The ones who are the most bundled up are usually from Las Pegasus or Appleloosa, or some other southern town that never really gets much cold.
  1706. >Poor things look downright pitiful, shivering in the relatively fair winds.
  1707. >Manehattanites and ponies from Baltimare are similarly dressed, but they’re decidedly more accustomed to the climate than their southern counterparts. The wind may be blowing their hair and this way and that, but they look comfortable, if not a tad chilly.
  1708. >Ponies from Canterlot are almost completely accustomed to the cold, even with the unusually low temperatures. More often than not, they’re carrying on conversation like it’s a crisp seventy degrees outside.
  1709. >You hadn’t lived there quite long enough to develop the same immunity, but it did help keep you from being a sniveling mess, so the four years weren’t completely wasted.
  1710. >“I don’t think we missed anything back home,” Twilight chimes in, zipping your bag back up and handing it to you. “Even if we did, you’re coming back later, so it’s not a big deal.”
  1711. >You sling the strap around your arm, riding it all the way up to your shoulder. While you sit, it rests on the bench, freeing you of the burden of its weight for now. It used to be one of Twilight’s saddlebags, but it became your messenger bag after she re-purposed it for you a few weeks after your arrival to Equestria.
  1712. >“Hey, is your old office anywhere near that one really good pizza place?” Spike asks, looking up to you from your right.
  1713. “Cloud Nine?”
  1714. >“Yep, that’s the one.”
  1715. >You chuckle at your matching enthusiasm for the eatery.
  1716. “It’s a couple blocks away, nothing too bad. Why, you want me to bring back a slice or two?”
  1717. >He clasps his hands together, eyes pleading.
  1718. >“Please?”
  1719. >That gets a curt laugh out of you as you reach out to gently pat him on his back.
  1720. “I’ll do you one better and get us a pie. Probably be cold by the time I get back, though.”
  1721. >“You do know who you’re talking to, right, dude?”
  1722. “…I don’t know why I keep forgetting you’ve got fire breath.”
  1723. >“And an oven,” Twilight sternly interjects, unenthused by the prospect of an open flame in her almost entirely oaken house. “Which I would prefer you use, for the sake of everypony’s safety.”
  1724. “Aw, come on!” you bargain with a smile. “I bet the green flames give it a good kick.”
  1725. >“As long as you both do it outside,” she says with a sigh, “I guess it wouldn’t hurt, as long as you don’t set anything on fire.”
  1726. >“We’ll be on our best behavior, ma’am,” Spike says, saluting Twilight’s authority.
  1727. >As you and Spike have a good-natured chuckle, you notice a faint chugging moving into earshot.
  1728. >Looking in the direction it’s coming from, you see that familiar pinkish-purple engine coming into view over the horizon, tugging along its many cabin cars.
  1729. >Steam billows high into the air as it trudges along, and before long, the screech of the brakes greets your ears as it begins its mile-long stopping process.
  1730. >Only a matter of time before it eventually comes to rest in the station.
  1731. >The three of you stand from your seats on the bench, and the weight from your bag’s convenience supplies finally starts tugging at your shoulder.
  1732. >You fish your ticket out of your pocket, thumbing it around as you make certain which car you’d be boarding.
  1733. >Out of curiosity, you’d checked to see if the private cabin had already been booked, but luck hadn’t been on your side this morning; coincidentally, it was booked all the way until Canterlot.
  1734. >You did manage to snag some pretty good seating, though. Right next to the private cabins, actually.
  1735. >Before long, the train finally lurches into the station, signaling its arrival with a few blows of the steam whistle.
  1736. >Unceremoniously, you all head to the second to last cabin, and you hop in line as Twilight and Spike stay at your side.
  1737. >“Stay safe, okay, Anon?” Twilight all but demands, looking up at you with a smile.
  1738. >There’s a hint of something else behind her words, but you’re too focused on boarding to take much note of it. Maybe bittersweetness?
  1739. “I will, Twi, don’t worry. Don’t let any monsters attack the town while I’m gone, ya hear?”
  1740. >She giggles, standing up on her hind legs to catch you in a brief hug.
  1741. >“I won’t. See you later, Anon.”
  1742. >As you both return to standing, the line of ponies moves forward, and you’re compelled to flow with the crowd.
  1743. >Twilight and Spike stay behind, idling by a support beam as they watch you go.
  1744. >When you reach the boarding door, you show your ticket to the concierge, who lets you in with a curt nod and an earnest grin.
  1745. >As your shoes cross from concrete to carpet, the first thing you notice is how comparatively empty your cabin is with the rest of the train.
  1746. >You have to bend down a bit to not hit your head on the ceiling, and if you don’t angle your body a certain way, you’re liable to shoulder check either the various seats or an unfortunate passenger.
  1747. >Your seat waits for you in the back, near the door to the privacy cabin.
  1748. >As you crouch down and shimmy in, you get a brief glimpse of the renters in the cabin next door.
  1749. >A flash of gold and silver, of regality and elegance, greets your eyes for a few fleeting moments.
  1750. >Armor; upright armor, that is, so it rules out ponies.
  1751. >Casting your eyes a bit further upward reveals beaks, fur, and piercing eyes directed right at you, mostly out of bewilderment.
  1752. >You can only assume that they’re Gryphon royal guards, judging by the flamboyant decorations on their gear.
  1753. >You’re about to question why they’re on the train when the answer makes itself strikingly apparent.
  1754. >From behind one of the rearmost chairs in the privacy cabin, a head juts out, noticeably younger than those of the numerous guards surrounding it.
  1755. >A young gryphon, no older than twelve years, eyes you up on down, an eyebrow raised in curiosity as she leverages herself against the chair ahead of her for a better look.
  1756. >Not one to stare, you give a quick smile and a nod before going about your business, shimmying the rest of the way into your seat without waiting for a reply.
  1757. >You suppose that they’re on the agenda for Celestia today, since the train’s headed for the capitol.
  1758. >The royalty behind you is pushed to the back of your mind as you look out of the window, watching Twilight and Spike have a conversation as the train’s doors close.
  1759. >Spike’s the first to notice you in the window, getting Twilight’s attention and pointing in your direction, waving at you all the while.
  1760. >You wave back as Twilight joins in, her grin spreading ear-to-ear.
  1761. >As the train lurches forward with a brief blowing of its whistle, you see Spike suddenly clutch his stomach and cover his mouth with his claw.
  1762. >Not a moment later, green fire erupts from his maw and manifests into a letter, no doubt sealed with Celestia’s cutie mark.
  1763. >Fuck.
  1764. >Well, guess you’re not reading that until later.
  1765. >Twilight checks on him, still waving to you as they slide out of sight, replaced by houses that pass idly by as you pick up speed.
  1766. >You sigh inwardly, already missing them.
  1767. >Unzipping your bag from beneath you, you dig through its contents until you find the book that Twilight gave you to pass the time on the train rides.
  1768. >‘Panacea: Tales from the Veil’
  1769. >Huh. Twilight’s never mentioned this one before; must be a new addition to the library catalog.
  1770. >Maybe you’ll finally be able to talk /her/ to death about a book she’s never read before!
  1771. >Excited by the prospect of such uncharted territory, you flip to the first page, leaning back in your chair as you settle in for the ride.
  1773. >...
  1775. >Okay, what?
  1776. >How would Signus even be able to do that? As far as you know, the book never even hinted at the prospect of him being a rift weaver.
  1777. >Although, the rest of what you’ve read is decidedly well written, so you suppose you can forgive a plot hole or two.
  1778. >Agh, but it’s so glaring, though…
  1779. >You put the book down, dog-earing the eight-first page to save it for later.
  1780. >Don’t tell Twilight.
  1781. >A glance outside doesn’t reveal much, given the onset of the rain halfway through the trip, but you can see the mountain in the distance, so it’s safe to assume you’re at least a little over halfway through.
  1782. >Through the window, the countryside looks wavy and mottled, thanks to the rainwater rushing over the glass.
  1783. >You lean your head against the cold window, shutting your eyes for a brief second.
  1784. >A nap wouldn’t hurt. You’d been awake since dawn, and at this rate, you still had-
  1785. >Without warning, the train car rattles a bit. Not the standard bout of turbulence that you’ve come to expect, either; this was a bit too rough.
  1786. >Your eyes fling open, your head searching the cabin for any clues as to what might’ve happened.
  1787. >The few ponies in the cabin with you are doing the same, some more alarmed than others.
  1788. >For a few moments, other than the rain and the ambient chugging of the train, everything seems quiet.
  1789. >Calm, even.
  1790. >But as you go to rest your head again, the cabin rattles once more, much stronger this time.
  1791. >The seat below you is locked in your death grip as you look to the other passengers, who trade looks of deep concern with you.
  1792. >The steady trudge of the train has noticeably slowed; the terrain outside passes by leisurely at best.
  1793. >“Ladies and gentlecolts,” the conductor announces over the loudspeaker.
  1794. >“It looks like we’re having a bit of trouble with some debris on the tracks. Please remain seated, we’re going to come to a slow stop and attempt some-”
  1795. >A deafening roar blocks out the rest of his statement, and you feel the cabin being lifted straight off of the railway by some unknown force.
  1796. >A frantic look out of the window reveals four figures, black as ink against the warped landscape.
  1797. >Three of them stand as quadrupeds, one as a biped.
  1798. >The biped has its arms outstretched toward the sky, and the quadrupeds are seated, doing much the same with their front legs.
  1799. >Another terrifying lurch upward rips your eyes from the strange congregation.
  1800. >Back in your immediate surroundings, the entire cabin is coated in a deep crimson light. To your horror, your body is enshrouded by the light as well, warbling as you wave your hands in front of yourself.
  1801. >The deafening noise builds without end as the light gets brighter, brighter still until-
  1802. >The cacophony reaches its apex, and the world goes dark as the worst bout of turbulence yet bounces your head violently against the window.
  1804. ...
  1806. >You shut Advanced Magical Theory with a contented sigh, setting it down gently on your nightstand.
  1807. >Of all the authors you’ve read over your life, you can’t help but keep coming back to Starswirl.
  1808. >You’ve already been through Volume VII at least a hundred times, but can anypony really blame you? The way he wove tales of his life into his instructional material was just…
  1809. >Ugh, you could read it forever.
  1810. >Which, judging by the amber glow being cast across the oaken walls of your bedroom, you very nearly did.
  1811. >And so closes another perfect Sunday; reading, organizing, and some good old rest and relaxation.
  1812. >You hop to your hooves off of the side of your bed, the floorboards gently creaking under the pressure of your landing.
  1813. >You stretch out your back legs, throwing your head to the ceiling as you feel your withers pop a few times.
  1814. >Gosh, you must’ve been in bed for a good while.
  1815. >Normally, you’d feel guilty about being a lazy lump, but surprisingly, there wasn’t much to do after the festival.
  1816. >You’ll have to thank Mayor Mare somehow for overseeing the cleanup for you. Maybe some cupcakes from Sugarcube Corner as a friendly gesture?
  1817. >A yawn forces itself out of your lungs as you traipse over to the staircase, making your way down to the living room to start making dinner.
  1818. >The rest of the house bathes in the same golden light from your bedroom; the wooden fixtures appear almost luminescent.
  1819. >Unfortunately, you’re too distracted by your grumbling stomach to pay proper attention to the decidedly wondrous lighting.
  1820. >Hmm… What to make?
  1821. >You had a hayburger yesterday at the fair, so you’ll more than likely keep it relatively light tonight.
  1822. >Maybe you’ll make the same kind of salad you made for Anon this morning?
  1823. >Ah, but you’ve had that a few times this week already…
  1824. >Oh, what the hay. You can’t beat a classic.
  1825. >As you retrieve the ingredients from the fridge with a smidge of your magic, you find that your thoughts start drifting toward Anon.
  1826. >Rather, they’re drifting toward his absence.
  1827. >You turn to the clock as you levitate a sizable bowl over from one of your cabinets.
  1828. >Quarter to five, it reads.
  1829. >Absent-mindedly, you begin combining the ingredients, not really paying attention to the order in which they fall in.
  1830. >He still has about an hour before dinnertime proper, so you’re not overly concerned, but you still feel a pang of worry when you let your thoughts wander.
  1831. >In a futile attempt to rationalize the situation, you weigh the length of the train ride with the timing of both his arrival and the rough distance from the train to his former offices, doubling that to account for his return trip.
  1832. >Oh, yes, and the pizza that he said he would bring back. That has to add another fifteen minutes at least, given how popular the establishment is in that part of town.
  1833. >Still, all of that together, it only shakes out to about seven hours in total if everything goes well.
  1834. >Given that he boarded the first train at around nine this morning, he should have been home forty-five minutes ago, if everything went to plan.
  1835. >You inwardly staunch your overly worried conclusions about what might be holding him up, remembering Princess Celestia’s advice about remaining in the here and now in stressful situations.
  1836. >After all, plans almost never happen perfectly, do they? Maybe he had some trouble with his old boss, or the pizza place was busy, or his return trip was delayed…
  1837. >You suddenly become very aware that you’ve been standing still, staring at the countertop, for several minutes according to the clock on the wall.
  1838. >With a quick shake of your head, you get back to throwing the salad together, pouring in some sauce before grabbing a spoon and stirring the contents into what ultimately becomes your dinner.
  1839. >You drag a stool out from under the island, promptly sitting down and placing the bowl in front of you.
  1840. >There’s no need to worry, Twilight. He’ll be home soon, and then you can give him the letter that Celestia-
  1841. >The front door crashes open and bounces off of the adjacent wall, revealing a sweaty, panting Spike, a slightly scrunched scroll in his right claw.
  1842. >His sudden, boisterous arrival very nearly sends you reeling off of your seat, but a quick shift of your weight forward prevents your fall.
  1843. >“Twilight?!” he calls out in distress, not having seen you yet.
  1844. “I’m here!”
  1845. >You leave your dinner at the table and quickly trot into the living room.
  1846. >Spike locks eyes with you, and up close, you can see that the depth of his concern is packed intensely within his downturned brow.
  1847. >You get as close as you can, checking him over for any injuries.
  1848. >A onceover doesn’t reveal any, but you can never be too careful.
  1849. “Spike, what happened? You look like you’re about to faint.”
  1850. >“I am,” he struggles out between breaths. “I had to run all the way back here from Rarity’s.”
  1851. >You frown; the Carousel Boutique isn’t exactly close to the library in terms of the town’s layout.
  1852. “Why? What’s going on?”
  1853. >You can’t hide the growing pit in your stomach; your voice wavers ever so slightly at the apex of your sentence.
  1854. >“You-”
  1855. >He takes a second to catch his breath, leaning against the wall by the door as he does so.
  1856. >“You should read this,” he says, shakily holding the letter out towards you.
  1857. >You quickly envelop it in your magic and bring it in front of you, unrolling the letter in the process.
  1858. >‘Twilight,’
  1859. >Alarm bells immediately ring out in your head. In your years of tutelage, she’s only been this curt with you on three occasions, all of them about something grave.
  1860. >‘Your presence is needed in Canterlot.’
  1861. >‘Due to the time-sensitive nature of the situation, I believe it best to explain everything once you arrive. For now, know that Anonymous may be in danger.’
  1862. >Wh-
  1863. >What?
  1864. >‘I’ve sent a personal carriage for both you and Spike that should arrive within an hour or so.’
  1865. >‘Bring overnight necessities; it will be late when you arrive, and presently, I do not know how long you will be here.’
  1866. >‘Stay safe, both of you.’
  1867. >‘Your faithful teacher,’
  1868. >‘Princess Celestia’
  1869. >…
  1870. >Your blood runs cold.
  1871. >You don’t-
  1872. >He…
  1873. >What?
  1874. >He was… just here.
  1875. >What happened to him? Did he make it to Canterlot?
  1876. >No, no, if he… if he somehow-
  1877. >No, no, no, you just got him back. He was just here, and-
  1878. >…and these runaway thoughts aren’t getting you anywhere.
  1879. >Hold it together, Twilight. Focus on the things you can control.
  1880. >You re-roll the scroll and set it on a nearby table, taking a deep breath and shutting your eyes as you do so.
  1881. >No time for speculation; root yourself in the here and now, just like she taught you.
  1882. >Another deep breath enters your lungs as you open your eyes.
  1883. >You’ve got this.
  1884. >You turn back to Spike, standing at the ready now that he’s regained relative control of his lungs.
  1885. “Let’s get our things packed. Only the essentials this time, alright?”
  1886. >Your voice still comes out a bit shaky, but you have no time to worry about delivery.
  1887. >He nods and runs off to your bedroom, wood steps creaking the whole way up.
  1888. >You almost trot up after him, but the open door to Anon’s room catches your attention.
  1889. >Even though it’s your home, it feels rude to just leave it open like that, his business visible to the world.
  1890. >You head over and make to shut the door, but stop midway as you glance inside.
  1891. >The bed is made, but the sheets are ruffled just a bit.
  1892. >Just as well, his suitcase lay open, clothes within lightly messed with as if he had pulled today’s outfit right from the top layer.
  1893. >The light from outside is dulled as it’s parsed by the closed curtains, the room resting sleepily without its owner.
  1894. >…
  1895. >If you can help it, it’s not going to stay like this.
  1896. >Gathering your inner resolve, you gently shut the door, the click of the latch ringing throughout the living room.
  1897. >As you trot upstairs to get your things ready, you try to channel your mentor and save the what-ifs for another, more appropriate time.
  1900. >Toothbrush, shampoo, soap, hairbrush, Spike’s deodorant, an emergency book…
  1901. >Everything looks like it’s in order.
  1902. >From across the room, three solid knocks ring out from the front door, yanking you from your troubled thoughts.
  1903. >You disembark from the couch, Spike following close behind, as you let your saddlebags slip over your withers.
  1904. >You speed over to the door, briskly opening it with a brief flash of your magic.
  1905. >Beyond the threshold stands a pegasus donning the traditional Royal Guard armor, eyes steely and serious as he looks you over.
  1906. >The sun dipping below the horizon in the distance makes it a bit hard to maintain eye contact with him without burning your retinas.
  1907. >“Miss Sparkle?”
  1908. “Yes, that’s me.”
  1909. >You try your best to sound cordial, but it falls flat given the circumstances. The words come out rushed, and a tad exasperated.
  1910. >“Your transport is waiting for you outside. Are you both prepared to board?”
  1911. >You look over to Spike, who nods at both you and the guard, before facing him again yourself.
  1912. “We are.”
  1913. >The guard nods, then steps aside to let you through, holding a hoof out toward the idle carriage and its team of pegasi guards.
  1914. >“Right this way, then.”
  1915. >You oblige him, heading over to the ornately decorated vehicle and hopping inside without delay.
  1916. >Were it not for the dire situation, there’d be quite a bit of fanfare from you about riding in Celestia’s personal carriage.
  1917. >Alas, fate conspires otherwise.
  1918. >Once you and Spike are comfortably nestled inside, the pegasus who greeted you closes the door of the carriage and addresses you once again.
  1919. >“Weather permitting, the trip will take about an hour and fifteen minutes. We’ll initiate takeoff in just a moment, ma’am.”
  1920. “Thank you.”
  1921. >“Of course.”
  1922. >The guard bows slightly before moving to rejoin the rest of his flying team, all talking amongst themselves.
  1923. >You lean into your seat for a moment, closing your eyes as the back of your head hits the velvety cushion behind you.
  1924. >As good as you think you’re handling the overall stress, this is the part of the process you were dreading since the moment you read the letter.
  1925. >The wait.
  1926. >For a little over an hour, you won’t have anything to do but speculate, hypothesize, and worry your head off.
  1927. >Maybe it’s good to get it all out now, as opposed to bottling it up until you reach the princess?
  1928. >Agh, but then it might spiral out of control, and by the time you’d arrive, you’d be a few steps away from a blubbering mess.
  1929. >“Are you okay, Twilight?”
  1930. >Spike’s question stops you from getting too carried away with your thoughts.
  1931. >You turn, and he’s looking up at you, his expression clearly conveying his own inner battle to remain level-headed.
  1932. >The last thing you would want to do is feed into that.
  1933. “I’m alright, Spike. Just… staying level headed, you know?”
  1934. >“Yeah, I understand.”
  1935. >You look out of the other side of the cabin at the passing ponies in the street.
  1936. >Some steal glances at you and the carriage. Some gawk openly, wide-eyed with the realization of whose chariot this is. Others, still, mind their business as they go about their ordinary day.
  1937. >How you wish Anon was one of them.
  1938. >“What do you think happened?” Spike chimes in softly, bringing your attention back to him.
  1939. >Your gaze drifts away for a moment.
  1940. >What happened, indeed…
  1941. “If Princess Celestia herself is telling us about it, I can’t even begin to venture a guess.”
  1942. >You sigh deeply, attempting to expel some of the nerves keeping you riled up.
  1943. “Whatever it was, I just hope he’s okay.”
  1946. >…
  1947. >Hooooooly fucking shit, your head is pounding.
  1948. >Good god, that is not pleasant.
  1949. >The numbness in your body slowly gives way to an unbelievably intense ringing in your right arm, as well as the throbbing sting of cuts and bruises littered…
  1950. >Well, judging from the pain, everywhere.
  1951. >The rest of your senses start to come back online one at a time, delayed no doubt by the sorry state you’re in.
  1952. >Wherever you are smells burnt, and that’s putting it lightly. It’s as if you huffed a bag full of glowing cinders from a trash fire.
  1953. >…Oh, fuck, is wherever you are on fire?
  1954. >When your touch returns, it replies a resounding ‘no;’ it’s decidedly warmer where you’re laying, yes, but it’s not on fire.
  1955. >Taste creeps in, and suddenly, you’ve got a figurative mouthful of iron and saliva.
  1956. >You spit, and it clears up just a bit.
  1957. >Luckily, you don’t feel any loose teeth or gaps where one is supposed to be, so you’re probably fine in that regard.
  1958. >All you can hear is steam, the sound of wood settling against its will, and a far-off pair of voices that you can’t quite make out yet.
  1959. >At last, your eyes come open, and you’re greeting a facefull of felt seating.
  1960. >You go to sit yourself up, but are met with a vicious series of aches and pains radiating from various locations on your body, stopping you midway.
  1961. >Your arm is still ringing, but it’s not in any special kind of pain; more than likely, you just hit a nerve extra hard or something. You don’t know, you’re not a doctor.
  1962. >Instead of getting up all the way, you shift your torso slightly to face away from the seat.
  1963. >You’re greeted by the once-beautiful train car you were riding in, now tilted at an odd angle and in ruins, everyone’s luggage strewn about the cabin.
  1964. >A glance downward reveals that you’re laying on the floor in the aisle, textured walkway digging into your ribs, which protest the obstruction fervently.
  1965. >Summoning all of your strength with a strained groan, you fight against the aching pains and sit yourself up, shifting some glass around on the floor as you do so.
  1966. >A look down at yourself, palms held up to your face, reveals that whatever the hell happened roughed you up quite a bit.
  1967. >Your clothes actually took a good bit of the damage, but they’re utterly filthy now; all you feel underneath is undoubtedly a good bit of bruising.
  1968. >You’ve got a decent cut on your left hand, but it’ll be fine for now. Nothing that some medicine and a bandage won’t fix.
  1969. >Content that you’re mostly alright, you realize something that should’ve been glaringly obvious from the moment you opened your eyes.
  1970. >All of the passengers are gone.
  1971. >Before you can even begin to try to wrap your head around that, the two voices from earlier steadily rise above the ambience of the ruined train, leveling out as barely audible.
  1972. >“…give me, Grand Vizier! The arcane circles we weaved should have been enough to cover the entire distance!”
  1973. >The first voice - a young male, most likely - is panicked, almost frantic in tone.
  1974. >“Cease your obsequious groveling, child. We are here now because of your oversight, and must deal with the hand that fate has dealt us.”
  1975. >A soft, elderly man’s voice quickly cuts the first off, impatience dripping from every word spoken.
  1976. >“How far are we from the town?”
  1977. >“W-well, since most of the teleportation circle activated, we should be within… f-five miles, give or take a few.”
  1978. >Hold on, are these the people you saw outside of the train when all hell was breaking loose?
  1979. >“Is your locator attuned to the outpost?”
  1980. >Another voice chimes in, this one female, maybe middle aged.
  1981. >“Y-yes, your Grace. The attunement was a simple matter.”
  1982. >“As simple as the teleportation circle?”
  1983. >“M-m-much simpler, your G-Grace!”
  1984. >Silence follows; these definitely sound like people who would kidnap a fucking train.
  1985. >What do you do, though?
  1986. >Do you sit here and wait for them to leave, or what?
  1987. >You’re not charging out there. If they plucked a whole train away to god-knows-where, who knows what other kinds of freaky shit they could do?
  1988. >“Still,” the female voice continues, “despite this setback, we are fortunate enough to have intercepted our quarry all the same.”
  1989. >“Indeed, your Grace,” the older male agrees. “Our benefactor will be pleased.”
  1990. >Yeah, fuck this, you’re grabbing something you can swing just in case.
  1991. >As quietly as you can, you shimmy along the floor, avoiding the windows as you pick through the various debris and belongings for anything even slightly resembling a weapon.
  1992. >From underneath a loose coat, you spot a broken-off piece of the steel railing from the wall.
  1993. >It’s not much, but it’s something.
  1994. >You try to take it as silently as possible, but when you do, a hidden suitcase that was dependent on its support clatters loudly onto its side.
  1995. >“It seems you’ve missed a passenger or two, Virtue.”
  1996. >“My apologies, Grand Vizier… I could have sworn that was all of them. I’ll go look again to make sure!”
  1997. >Fuck’s sake, you’re doomed.
  1998. >Unless…
  1999. >Wait, no, this could actually work to your advantage.
  2000. >If you can get the jump on the suck-up and give him a good one right in the head, you might be able to use him as leverage against the other two.
  2001. >That, or they could just fry the both of you. They didn’t seem to care too much about the guy.
  2002. >Oh, to hell with it, you’re not about to have their figurative boot on your neck. In for a penny, in for a pound.
  2003. >You shimmy on your knees closer to the open train door, stopping just shy of revealing yourself and readying your makeshift club for the hardest swing of your life.
  2004. >Oh, wow, you’re trembling pretty hard.
  2005. >Okay, you’re… actually afraid.
  2006. >You might actually die here if you mess up.
  2007. >Nerves be damned, you steady your breathing and focus on what you can control.
  2008. >That, of course, being the arc and power of your swing.
  2009. >You can hear him drawing closer; the pace of the gait can only mean he’s a quadruped.
  2010. >The arm holding the club adjusts accordingly for his anticipated height.
  2011. >The steps draw closer.
  2012. >You think of your friends back home. Of the sisters, of Spike, of Twilight…
  2013. >Closer still.
  2014. >You wish they were here.
  2015. >Closer.
  2016. >Your breathing stops.
  2017. >Right outside.
  2018. >Your grip tightens; you rear back.
  2019. >The steps culminate as the assailant steps through…
  2020. >…the next door over.
  2021. >Huh.
  2022. >Guess the echo in here is bad.
  2023. >You get a brief look at him; unicorn, sky blue coat, light blonde mane. Covered in what looks like ceremony robes.
  2024. >That’s all you get to take in before he notices you crouched up against the wall, yelps, and blasts you with something that hits you square in the chest.
  2025. >You shout, too, but there’s no pain; fearing the worst, you look down at yourself once more.
  2026. >There’s… no wound.
  2027. >You’d breathe a sigh of relief, but you’re feeling rather tired all of a sudden.
  2028. >Actually, you’re downright exhausted.
  2029. >If you could just… maybe…
  2030. >The metal railing clatters back to the floor, sleep taking you before you can even finish falling over.
  2032. ...
  2034. >The sudden lurch of the carriage beginning its descent rips your focus from its fixed point in the starry horizon.
  2035. >You press your side against the firmly locked door and look out at the mountain below.
  2036. >The three vertically ordered ringed districts of the city are bustling with life and light, and even from your windy vantage point, you can just barely see the ponies below going about their lofty business.
  2037. >From here, you can actually point out the business district, sprouting out from the left edges of the middle district.
  2038. >So that’s where Anon lived!
  2039. >You find it strange how you never visited him up here. He never really invited anypony to his house, always opting to come home any time he wanted to see any of you.
  2040. >The ghost of pain spreads through every vein in your chest as the memories bring you right back around to the current situation.
  2041. >Just as quickly as it comes, though, you banish it to the depths of your mind.
  2042. >Focus, Twilight. Right now, act on facts, not emotions.
  2043. >Your resolve renewed, you cast a glance at Spike, who seems to be echoing you if his tepid, lingering gaze forward is anything to go by.
  2044. “Are you alright, Spike?”
  2045. >“Huh?” he says, startled into his usual demeanor. “Yeah, I’m good. Just… hanging in there.”
  2046. >You give him a reassuring smile.
  2047. >Both of you know it’s forced, but he seems to appreciate the gesture nonetheless, flashing his own grin back at you.
  2048. “Just a little bit further and we’ll work on getting him back home.”
  2049. >“I know,” he replies, seemingly not swayed by your words of encouragement.
  2050. >“I just… I can’t stop worrying. Something about this feels weird, Twilight.”
  2051. >You’d be lying if you said you didn’t feel the same.
  2052. >Unsure of what to say, you scooch closer to him, reaching your hoof out for a hug.
  2053. >He readily accepts it, and as he sinks into your embrace, you bring your other hoof around him for comfort.
  2054. >Some possibilities for what you could say swell within you, and a few even reach the precipice of forming words, but in the end, you aren’t really sure what to say to comfort him without sounding like you’re deflecting, or telling him to suck it up, or dismissing his concerns altogether.
  2055. >So, in place of that, you stay silent.
  2056. >“You know what I mean?” he asks, breaking the hug a bit to look up at you.
  2057. >You nod.
  2058. “We’ll get him back in no time, Spike. You’ll see.”
  2059. >How long will you regurgitate that before it becomes reality, you wonder?
  2060. >Silencing your inner detractor, you take another quick glance out of the carriage.
  2061. >Oddly enough, it doesn’t look like you’re being taken to the usual landing area just inside the castle’s main gates; if you were, the guard retinue would be coming in from the side of the castle onward.
  2062. >Instead, you see canterlot start to disappear underneath the carriage as they look to circle around the castle.
  2063. >A frown takes hold of your brow; you don’t remember there being any landing zones on the backside of the mountain.
  2064. >Sure, there are the peak’s springs just past the castle, but there isn’t much room to land there for a carriage this size.
  2065. >Where are they taking you…?
  2066. >That anxiety you’ve been forcing a lid on threatens to bubble over as hundreds of different scenarios and reasonings flash through your head, each one cut off as the next one starts.
  2067. >They’re amplified by an untold amount when you lean over and see that your carriage has started heading straight for a rock face just beyond the lowest point of the castle.
  2068. >For a moment, you think your fliers are just maneuvering for a turn, but when they hold their line, you start panicking.
  2069. >You practically throw your head out of the window, eyeing the guards out front.
  2070. “What’re you doing?!” you yell, catching the attention of the left rearmost pegasus.
  2071. >“Going in for a landing, ma’am,” the guard replies, the sheer audacity of his apparent confusion astounding you.
  2072. “We’re about to hit the cliff face, not land!”
  2073. >His confusion deepens for a second before it’s wiped away in favor of a smirk.
  2074. >“Don’t worry, ma’am,” he says, something conniving hidden within his reassurance. “There’s nothing to worry ab-”
  2075. >“Private, explain what’s happening to her or the whole team gets fifty poles,” the surly stallion from earlier says from somewhere within their formation.
  2076. >The private’s cocky smirk instantly makes way for stone-faced terror as he glances quickly back at his superior before returning to you.
  2077. >“The platform is obscured by an illusion spell’s area of effect. When we get close enough, you’ll be able to see it clear as day.”
  2078. >Even though that was supposed to lessen your nerves, your hoof still grips your seat with a force only black holes could rival.
  2079. >From where you are, it still looks like you’re about thirty seconds out from a direct impact with the mountain.
  2080. >Deep breaths, Twilight.
  2081. “T-Thank you.”
  2082. >“Of course, ma’am,” the private replies, voice now laden with professionalism.
  2083. >You slide back into your seat, still high-strung.
  2084. >“Uh, Twilight?” Spike chimes in from beside you, leaning out of his own window. “Why are we-”
  2085. “Illusion field, we’ll pass through it any second now.”
  2086. >The sentence comes out at a speed you didn’t quite intend, betraying your anxiety.
  2087. “S-sorry, it's just- it’s really convincing.”
  2088. >He chuckles half-heartedly, clearly uncomfortable with the oncoming rock face as well.
  2089. >Even informed, you yank Spike from his spot and hold him as close as you can, eyes shut tight as you draw ever-nearer.
  2090. >Come to think of it, this is like one of those roller coaster rides in Manehattan, but with a much more heightened sense of imminent doom.
  2091. >In all honesty, you can’t say you’d recommend it to anypony.
  2092. >A few moments later, though, you feel an unmistakable gust of magic rush past you, a cold wind grazing over your fur for a split second.
  2093. >You just barely lift your left eye open.
  2094. >In front of you, what once was nothing but crags of rock is now a runway going all the way into the mountainside.
  2095. >Looking back at where you came from, you see the night sky as if it were shards of dotted black glass, all mirroring each other ad infinitum.
  2096. >You’ve tried illusory magic before, but you’ve never quite been able to get the hang of it beyond the basics.
  2097. >Whoever cast a field of this size and detail was either seriously talented or had been studying the art for decades. Either way, it was an impressive feat.
  2098. >You’re ever so slightly jolted by the sensation of a smooth landing, and as your team of fliers begins to slow on the runway, you take in the strangeness of the hidden enclave.
  2099. >The walls and ceiling are all simply the jagged innards of the mountain itself, dotted abundantly with glowing stone to provide a fair amount of light to work under.
  2100. >The floor is a solid slab of what looks to be concrete, the runway underneath you marked by solid white lines going all the way to the end of the cave.
  2101. >Something that surprises you is just how spacious the area is; from the outside, it looks relatively cramped, but now that you’re here, it’s like you’re in the middle of a smaller-sized warehouse.
  2102. >Warehouse wouldn’t be that great of a name for it, though; there are copious amounts of carriages and other modes of transportation uniformly placed around the rearmost wall, most of them appearing to be outfitted for battle.
  2103. >This is no ordinary takeoff platform - this is a war hangar.
  2104. >Thankfully, there aren’t that many ponies in here working. If it were busier, you’d be much more worried.
  2105. >Eventually, your carriage comes to a stop, and your entourage shucks their flight reins.
  2106. >Before you can even think about stepping out, the officer leading them comes around to your side and opens the door for you.
  2107. >“Follow me, miss Sparkle,” he says, making room for you to disembark. “We’re right on schedule.”
  2108. >Spike joining you at your side, you match the guard’s brisk pace as he leads you toward the back left side of the hangar.
  2109. >The halls leading out of the giant room look like they’ve also been carved out of the mountain; as you walk through them, the only decor you can spot are torches periodically placed to grant some usable lighting.
  2110. >It smells slightly damp, as if the outside weather had never reached this far inward.
  2111. >As you’re following along, a question for the guard gnaws at you.
  2112. “Was there a reason why Princess Celestia chose to have us enter this way? I’ve never seen these passages of the castle before.”
  2113. >“She’ll fill you in on everything once we reach her,” he stonewalls, just as curt with you as he was with the private.
  2114. >As much as his dismissal irks you, you suppose you understand. He’s more than likely been sworn to secrecy.
  2115. >Before long, the hallway culminates, smooth stone impeding your progress.
  2116. >Just before the dead end is a small gap on the left side, large enough to hold several ponies.
  2117. >“One moment,” the guard says, pulling a pendant from an indentation in his chest plate.
  2118. >He heads over to the wall and feels around with his wing for a second, grunting a tad when he finds something that you can’t quite see in the dim lighting.
  2119. >With his hoof, he centers his hoof over where his wing is, and replaces his outstretched feather tips with the pendant.
  2120. >Blue lines of magic pulse outward in intricate patterns, overlapping each other repeatedly until the image of a sun forms, its light overpowering that of the torches.
  2121. >The guard retracts the pendant and steps back a few paces, resituating the pendant on his armor.
  2122. >A resounding clunk rings out from the door as it begins to slide backwards, filling the gaps that were there before.
  2123. >You take a step back yourself, even though you’re already far enough away.
  2124. >The surprisingly loud scraping of stone-on-stone fills the air as the wall slides open, revealing the dimly lit restricted area of the royal library.
  2125. >The air within rushes to fill the hallway, the familiar scent of old books wafting into your nostrils.
  2126. >Your jaw drops.
  2127. >You had always assumed the off-limits area was for forbidden tomes, dangerous literary artifacts, and the like.
  2128. >...okay, maybe that's still its primary purpose, but your point stands.
  2129. >How long has this passage /been/ here?
  2130. >Questions for later, you suppose, since the guard isn’t exactly one for stunning revelations.
  2131. >“Right this way.”
  2132. >He opts to let you and Spike pass through first, holding a hoof out toward the library as if to hurry you both along.
  2133. >You oblige, stepping through the threshold and gawking at the shelves around you, this being your first time in this all-but-fabled section of the library.
  2134. >Most of the books are nameless, but a few titles here and there catch your eye.
  2135. >On the Manipulation of Spirits, An Anarchist’s Elixirs, The Grimoire of Shadows…
  2136. >It’s about what you expected, honestly.
  2137. >Ah, but now’s no time to be distracted - not with things as they are.
  2138. >As the guard follows after you, the wall behind him begins to close once more, revealing a bookshelf on its inward face.
  2139. >Curiously enough, as it scrapes along just like before, it eerily makes no sound at all from this side.
  2140. >An aural cancellation spell for the library side of the entrance makes sense. It would probably wake up half of the castle, otherwise.
  2141. >A few moments later, the false wall settles back into its natural state, no visible trace of the doorway remaining.
  2142. >The guard continues on as you follow his lead.
  2143. >“The Princess is in her private study,” he informs you, voice low despite nopony else being around to overhear him. “I’ll escort you there.”
  2144. “Oh, you’re okay. We know our way around the castle.”
  2145. >He turns to you, his stern gaze leveling your confidence.
  2146. >“She ordered that I accompany you.”
  2147. >Okay, /that/ makes you nervous.
  2148. “O-Okay. Lead the way, then.”
  2149. >Your forced giggle comes out as more of an uneasy whine than anything.
  2150. >The three of you are silent as you begin your walk through the torchlit halls of the castle.
  2151. >You remember being afraid of these ornate passages at night when you were a filly.
  2152. >Something about the way the shadows lengthened whenever you weren’t looking, only to stop whenever you would hold them under your gaze.
  2153. >Tricks of your young mind, of course. Over time, the castle was a second home to you, irrespective of the state it was in.
  2154. >Tonight, as you move from hallway to hallway, that filly you used to be makes herself known quite strongly.
  2155. >The anxiety’s origin differs, but the end result is the same disquieting feeling from all those years ago.
  2156. >It’s one that you manage to quell, though, and as you draw nearer to your mentor’s dwelling, you can feel it fading.
  2157. >As if the mere knowledge of her presence is enough to assure you that everything will be okay, that things will be solved as soon as you join her side - that peace that she always seems to bathe the room in.
  2158. >It takes some time, but eventually, the three of you find yourselves outside of her office.
  2159. >The hallway it’s housed in has no torchlight to speak of; rather, the windows cast a sufficient amount of dim, blue moonlight inward, providing more than enough illumination to be able to see.
  2160. >From under the door adorned with her cutie mark, you can see the faint glow of candlelight, its glow just barely reaching through from what must be her desk.
  2161. >The guard makes his way to the door, his armor clunking softly as it shifts along his back.
  2162. >The three knocks of his hoof upon the wooden door reverberate a bit in the otherwise soundless hallway.
  2163. >“Your Majesty?” he calls out, his tone softening a tad when addressing her. “Miss Sparkle and her companion are here.”
  2164. >There’s no response at first, but after a few seconds, you hear the muffled, yet unmistakable swish of a horn coming alight with magic.
  2165. >It’s active for a few moments before the handle of the door is awash in her pastel yellow aura.
  2166. >The door is pulled open, and a wide grin - as bright as the situation allows - finds its way onto your face.
  2167. >Ever the image of grace, your mentor returns a smile that is untethered by circumstance; if you were to judge by appearances alone, you might say nothing has even happened.
  2168. >If you look closely, though, minor tells can be found.
  2169. >The ethereal wind in her hair isn’t quite as active, each wave passing by a fair bit slower than they usually do.
  2170. >Her posture is upright, but she’s leaning almost imperceptibly more to one side than the other; she’s been on her hooves all day.
  2171. >Even her expression, as perfectly constructed as it is, isn’t safe from your scrutiny.
  2172. >Her eyelids are just a bit too taut for this to be genuine, unabated happiness to see you - she’s stressed, and far more than usual at that.
  2173. >Had you known her for a day shorter than you do now, you suspect you would never have picked up on any of these.
  2174. >Those books on reading expressions from a few years back helped, too, but still.
  2175. >“Thank you,” she says warmly, bowing her head to him as he salutes her.
  2176. >“My pleasure, ma’am,” he replies, ending his salute. “Is there anything else you need from me?”
  2177. >“Not presently, no - I have everything taken care of from here. You may rest for tonight, Captain Vigil.”
  2178. >The captain ends his salute, flashing a quick, yet grateful smile at his commander.
  2179. >“Thank you, ma’am. Have a good rest of your night.”
  2180. >“You as well.”
  2181. >With one last nod from the captain, he turns and leaves the same way you arrived, armor clicking even as he moves out of your line of sight.
  2182. >“I can’t begin to tell you how good it is to have you both here,” Celestia says with an exhale. “Today has been eventful, to say the least.”
  2183. >She leans down to nuzzle you, which you wholeheartedly return.
  2184. “It’s good to see you too, Princess.”
  2185. >You retreat from the embrace, eager to get to the heart of the matter.
  2186. “What happened? S-sorry, not to jump right into business, it’s just - we’re really worried.”
  2187. >“There’s no need to apologize, Twilight,” she replies, her grin diminishing a bit. “I understand. I only wish your visit were under better circumstances.”
  2188. >She gestures to the inside of her study with a hoof.
  2189. >You and Spike oblige, heading in side by side.
  2190. >It looks like Celestia’s redecorated since the last time you’ve been here.
  2191. >The bookshelves line the left hoof side of the room now. Usually, there would be one or two missing due to your mentor’s nightly leisure reading, but they’re all present and accounted for tonight.
  2192. >She’s moved most of her knick-knacks and memorabilia to the right side, all placed on various shelves and displays, whereas before they were on pedestals.
  2193. >Immediately out in front of the desk are a few leisure cushions strewn about on the floor, no doubt for when she has time to take a break from whatever’s going on.
  2194. >Though undoubtedly spacious, the room in its current state seems much cozier than it used to; it’s certainly earned its name as a study, rather than an office masquerading as one.
  2195. >Apart from her desk, of course, which boasts a ridiculously high stack of scrolls in the intake basket, with comparatively little in the outgoing one.
  2196. >Her hot plate for tea is on the desk as well, a steaming cup on an elegantly designed coaster next to it.
  2197. >“Make yourselves at home,” she says as she closes the door behind her, making her way over to her desk. “I can pour you some tea, if either of you would enjoy it.”
  2198. >“Would you mind if I had some?” Spike asks, taking a seat on one of the cushions.
  2199. >“Of course not.”
  2200. >Her smile returns to its full force as she grabs the kettle atop of the plate with her magic, pulling a mug from one of the drawers of her desk as well.
  2201. >“Coincidentally, I just so happen to have brewed some chamomile, which I’m told you’ve acquired a particularly strong taste for.”
  2202. >“Heh, guilty as charged, Your Highness.”
  2203. >His tea poured, she hovers it over to him.
  2204. >He grabs it out of the air by the handle and blows on the steaming beverage.
  2205. >“Would you like some as well, Twilight?” Celestia asks, the kettle still held in her aura.
  2206. “I’m okay for now, but thank you. I don’t want to be /too/ reliant on tea to put me to sleep.”
  2207. >You remove your saddlebags with your magic, wresting a notepad and fountain pen from the depths of the leftmost one.
  2208. “I brought some scratch scrolls along with me so that I can visually map out the situation. W-Whenever you’re ready, of course! I don’t want to rush you.”
  2209. >Celestia doesn’t respond right away; nodding with a gentle hum, she departs from behind her desk and moves to sit on one of the cushions, directly across from you and Spike.
  2210. >You take a seat as well.
  2211. >“I apologize if it seems like I’m being dismissive of your concerns,” she begins. “Today has been extraordinarily stressful, so I try to lighten the mood whenever I can.”
  2212. >She breathes deeply.
  2213. >“But we can save that for another time. For now, we’ll attend to the situation at hoof. Are you ready to begin, Twilight?”
  2214. >You hover the pen over the parchment.
  2215. “I’m ready, Princess.”
  2216. >She nods, her smile disappearing.
  2217. >“A train - one of many under the Friendship Express railway company - was expected to arrive in Canterlot today around noon, with a leniency of five minutes of delay at the most.”
  2218. >That’s the train that Anon boarded - the timing matches up exactly.
  2219. >You scribble away, underlining important details.
  2220. >“At around ten minutes past its expected arrival, Canterlot Station sent out an inquiry to the station in Ponyville, formally asking if the train had departed later than scheduled. Ponyville replied that it had left as planned, and an investigation was launched roughly two hours after the first correspondence, thanks to their specialty mail services.”
  2221. >“Sheesh,” interjects Spike. “Maybe the rail offices should’ve hired a letter-sending dragon.”
  2222. >“If only,” Celestia replies dryly, the ghost of a smirk on her lips.
  2223. >“The investigation itself was much quicker, however. Two Pegasi survey teams from both stations were sent out to comb the railway from their end onwards, both of them intending to meet in the middle and exchange any findings.”
  2224. >A short silence follows, in which Celestia takes a sip of her own tea.
  2225. “A-and that’s… not what happened?”
  2226. >She replies with a gentle shake of her head as she sets her cup back down.
  2227. >“Both teams convened about six miles before the railway started heading up the mountain. They found the wreckage of the train there, most of its cars derailed and strewn about the surrounding area.”
  2228. >Your pen stops; your fears weren’t misplaced.
  2229. “Was, um…”
  2230. >Your voice is meek as it leaves you.
  2231. >You swallow hard.
  2232. “Anon was on that train, right?”
  2233. >Your mentor nods solemnly.
  2234. >“He was among its list of passengers, yes.”
  2235. >You frown; the specificity of her wording piques your curiosity.
  2236. >Still, you let her continue, opting to have the full picture of events before firing off your myriad of questions.
  2237. >“Needless to say, both survey teams stayed with the survivors to assist in whatever way they could, save for two pegasi they sent back to each station to report what they had found.”
  2238. >She pauses; a deep sigh escapes her nostrils, accompanied by a deepening frown, gaze pointed at the floor.
  2239. >“There were a few casualties. Given the state that the train was in, though, I… suppose that was to be expected.”
  2240. >Your heart sinks.
  2241. >No, no, no, no, he can’t-
  2242. >You practically explode out of your seat, pen sent clattering to the floor as your aura’s grip on it releases.
  2243. >You’re on all four hooves before anypony can even blink.
  2244. “Is Anon okay!?”
  2245. >Spike recoils next to you, surprised by your outburst.
  2246. >Celestia appears surprised as well, but maintains her calm composure.
  2247. >“He wasn’t there.”
  2248. >…
  2249. >What?
  2250. “W-what do you mean?”
  2251. >She looks away for a second, more than likely contemplating how to proceed.
  2252. >“I suppose I should start with when I found out about the incident,” she began again, her attention fully on you.
  2253. >“When word of what happened reached me, I canceled the rest of today’s schedule and accompanied several relief teams to the crash site. Seeing what had happened to those innocent little ponies, it was…”
  2254. >Her face strains as she looks away for a brief second; an uneven sigh escapes her, and she focuses on you once more.
  2255. >“In any case, once I had found out that Anonymous was on the train, I scoured the wreckage for any sign of him, but he wasn’t there. A vastly expanded search with investigation teams yielded nothing, either; it was as if he was never there to begin with.”
  2256. >…That doesn’t-
  2257. >“As the last of the survivors were being transported to the nearest hospital, one approached me and told me his account of what had happened. According to him, the train had been wrenched from the tracks by something - he couldn’t see what - and bathed in a strange red light.”
  2258. >“After a few moments of being hoisted high into the air, the light suddenly vanished, and the train was dropped from its suspension. Eventually, he came to, and after checking himself and others for injuries, he noticed that the two cabins behind the one he was riding in had vanished - the first of which housed Anon, according to Ponyville Station’s passenger documents.”
  2259. >He vanished along with the train car…?
  2260. >“Hearing this, I traveled back to where the train had initially been lifted to see if I could find anything else of note.”
  2261. >“It took some time, but I eventually found an arcane circle, its etchings carved into the ground around the tracks, barely visible even to a trained eye.”
  2262. >Celestia stands and begins conjuring an image with her magic.
  2263. >In front of you, cast in her golden glow, lies her vivid recreation of the circle, scaled down to fit in the space in front of you.
  2264. >If memory serves you right, this looks like it’s geared for large-scale teleportation, which would align with that survivor’s testimony.
  2265. >The ringed inscriptions do form a complete band, but…
  2266. “There are some components missing.”
  2267. >Pride briefly colors your mentor’s features.
  2268. >“A keen observation, Twilight. Which components?”
  2269. >Let’s see here…
  2270. “It looks like the runic equation for distance, direction, and elevation are all absent. If I’m reading it correctly, it looks like the catalyst rune is missing, too.”
  2271. >Celestia nods her head, dispelling the projection.
  2272. >“Exactly. Everything that could have been used to identify the destination of the train or the source of the magic was expunged - only the circle’s basic construction remains.”
  2273. >A deaf pony could hear the gears turning in your head.
  2274. “S-so…”
  2275. >Celestia meets you in the middle with a steely, serious gaze.
  2276. >“The train was attacked by somepony.”
  2277. >Your mouth opens, but no words leave; they’re all caught by the lump in your throat.
  2278. >You were ready for bad news, but to think the situation surrounding him was this dire…
  2279. >“What’s more,” she continues, “I believe I know who their intended target was.”
  2280. “Who?” you manage to choke out, throat still tight.
  2281. >“Sitting one car behind him - the only other one that was taken - was the young heiress to the throne of Griffonia.”
  2282. >Bewilderment throws itself atop your already-boiling pot of emotions.
  2283. “What was she doing in Equestria…?”
  2284. >“We don’t know yet,” Celestia replies. “I sent word of what’s happened to the royal family of Griffonia, but haven’t gotten a reply. Given the distance between our nations, it might take a few days for us to receive one.”
  2285. >She walks around to the other side of her desk, taking a seat and pouring herself some more tea.
  2286. >“Hence why I chose to have you both enter through the hangar. Whoever did this, they conducted this skullduggery mere miles from the capital of Equestria; I cannot afford to risk your wellbeing. If their list of targets extends to you, I would much rather have you close by.”
  2287. >Y-You!?
  2288. “W-w-why would they target me?”
  2289. >Celestia looks confused for a moment, but realizes her misstep quickly.
  2290. >“I’m sorry,” she soothingly reassures you. “I didn’t mean to startle you - it’s simply a precaution. Right now, there are too many unknowns to draw any conclusions for certain. I would simply like to keep those I care about as close as possible.”
  2291. >Oh.
  2292. >Okay, you suppose that does make sense.
  2293. >Goodness… you were a few seconds from fainting, you think.
  2294. “In that case, can you bring my friends here, too? I know they’re probably not in danger, but with everything going on, I just… don’t feel good about leaving them in Ponyville.”
  2295. >“Of course, Twilight. I’ll send a carriage for them as soon as I raise the sun tomorrow.”
  2296. “Thank you, Princess.”
  2297. >Smiling, she nods at you with a gentle hum before continuing to rummage through her paperwork.
  2298. >And so, the room enters silence once more.
  2299. >Looking over at Spike, you can almost feel his dejected anxiety from where you’re standing.
  2300. >“W-what…” he stammers out, taking a few moments to compose himself before continuing. “What can we do to help? We can’t just sit around while he’s out there somewhere!”
  2301. >Is there even anything you /can/ do to help?
  2302. >You’ve faced down evil before, sure, but nothing like this.
  2303. >Discord, Nightmare Moon, Sombra… all boisterous, present, and easy to understand.
  2304. >These ponies? You don’t even know their name yet.
  2305. >“Actually,” Celestia replies, looking up from her paperwork. “That’s another reason why I’ve called you both here.”
  2306. >“Tomorrow, I’m going to be sending out the Arcane Board’s top magic scholars and analysts to study the teleportation circle we found earlier, myself and Luna accompanying. I’d like it if you joined us in the endeavor.”
  2307. >Had the circumstances been different, you’d be awed; no, /floored/ at the opportunity to collaborate with some of the greatest living minds in Equestria.
  2308. >Now, though, all you feel is cold, focused determination.
  2309. “I’ll go. I just hope that my input will be valuable to everypony.”
  2310. >“Don’t sell yourself short,” Celestia replies with a slight frown, “Your observations will hold just as much weight as theirs, I assure you.”
  2311. >Hearing that from her puts a smile on your face despite the circumstances.
  2312. >Still, though…
  2313. “Celestia?”
  2314. >“Yes?”
  2315. “He’s going to be okay, right?”
  2316. >The sentence leaves you as it would that little filly from so long ago; full of uncertainty, all hinging on the promise of an elder.
  2317. >Celestia doesn’t falter, not even for a second.
  2318. >“Of course, Twilight. No matter what, he’s coming home.”
  2319. >Even though the rational part of your mind knows that there’s no way she can guarantee that, your faith in her overcomes its foregone conclusion.
  2320. >It doesn’t assuage your fears fully, but it’s enough for you to finally be able to let your guard down.
  2321. >When you do, it becomes strikingly apparent just how exhausted you are; with one or two deep breaths, you’re already laying back down on the leisure pad.
  2322. >“Feeling tired?” Celestia asks, again focused fully on both you and Spike.
  2323. “More than I thought I was, evidently.”
  2324. >You trail into a yawn at the end of your sentence, one that Spike shares as he stretches out.
  2325. >“I’m getting there, but this is a lot to take in,” he chimes in once his yawn is over.
  2326. >“In that case,” Celestia replies, “why don’t you two get some rest? The investigation will start early tomorrow, so you’ll need as much sleep as you can get.”
  2327. >As much as your mind still races, your body demands its nightly stillness.
  2328. “That sounds…”
  2329. >Another yawn.
  2330. “…really nice right about now.”
  2331. >“Splendid. I’ve prepared the ambassador suite down the hall from my quarters for the both of you.”
  2332. >Your eyebrows shoot up despite your fatigue.
  2333. “The ambassador suite? Princess, you didn’t have to do that just for us.”
  2334. >“I insist. Like I said - the closer, the better.”
  2335. >You giggle to yourself.
  2336. “In that case, I think I’m going to go lie down. Today was… a lot.”
  2337. >Celestia nods. She flicks her eyes across you, more than likely judging her fatigue for herself as you wearily rise to your hooves.
  2338. >“I’m afraid it’s only going to get more complicated as we proceed, my dear pupil.”
  2339. >She catches herself before she can make you further anxious.
  2340. >“Ah, but we have more than enough time for that in the morning. For now, you needn’t worry; I’ve instructed for there to be a posting of guards outside the door to your room at all times, so that you may rest unburdened.”
  2341. >Your smile spreads from ear to ear.
  2342. >The amount of gratitude that you feel for her is immense.
  2343. >“Aren’t you going to bed, too?” Spike asks.
  2344. >“Not yet, I’m afraid,” Celestia replies, sifting through a heft stack of paper before plucking one out of the middle. “I still have some paperwork to finish. By all accounts, don’t wait on me - I hope you have a wonderful night’s rest.”
  2345. >“I’ll give it my best,” Spike jokes, to which both of them giggle.
  2346. >She grins at you two, and you return your beaming smile right back.
  2347. “Goodnight, Princess.”
  2348. >“Sweet dreams, Twilight.”
  2349. >You resituate your saddlebags across your shoulders, and with a final wave, you and Spike depart for your bedroom.
  2350. >You may have only just arrived, but at least for tonight, rest will come easy.
  2352. ...
  2354. >The waking world stirs in a blurry mess of dark blues and grays.
  2355. >Fingers - more than likely yours - reach up to your eyes and break them free from the accumulated gunk of an extended sleep.
  2356. >Your body cries out against the decidedly simple motion, soreness and pain rocketing down your arm as you lower it from your face.
  2357. >The surface you’re lying on is cloth, but whatever lies underneath is horrendously solid. It does no favors for your back, which is just as sore as the rest of you.
  2358. >Your vision unblurred, you’re met with a stone ceiling, blue light from somewhere in front of you casting shadows into every crack and crevice.
  2359. >Odd. You don’t remember having a stone ceiling or blue house lamps.
  2360. >Or the worst bed in the world, for that matter.
  2361. >A frown overtakes your features as the events from earlier come back to you in perfect detail.
  2362. >You shoot up from wherever it is you’re laying, wincing in pain as your body decries your sudden actions.
  2363. >The cell is decidedly cramped; obviously, it wasn’t built for a being of your stature.
  2364. >Cold gray cobblestone closes you in from all directions, the only exception being a miniscule window to the outside, frosted over and barred by iron so that you can’t see through it.
  2365. >The dim light it casts is drowned out by the much stronger cyan light from the hallway, which you can now see is cast by wall-mounted torches emitting similarly colored fire.
  2366. >You heard Twilight mention those once. Something about magical catalysts, but right now, you’re a bit more worried about the predicament in front of you.
  2367. >That being the jail cell you’re in.
  2368. >The sight of an iron cell door a few inches from your feet makes your stomach drop from its perch in your midsection.
  2369. >The bars scream something out at you, something only you can hear:
  2370. >You’re in deep shit, Anon.
  2371. >Slowly, you rise to your feet, unaccustomed to the aches and pains cavorting throughout your body.
  2372. >You stumble over to the barred door, rattling it a bit as you wrap your hands around the ice cold iron and lean your head against it to see the rest of the room.
  2373. >A long hallway stretches out in either direction, lined with cells much like your own.
  2374. >In most, you can see occupants pressed up against the bars, looking around with the same breathless confusion that you harbor.
  2375. >A quiet murmur lilts through the dank passageway, trembling voices decorated with the occasional flicker of the torchlight.
  2376. >“Hey!” a male voice whisper-yells from somewhere close, accompanied with the telltale rattling of weight against an iron door.
  2377. >“Hey, you! Big guy!”
  2378. >You keep quiet. If he’s this friendly, he’s probably not talking to-
  2379. >“Aw, come on, I know ya can hear me. Saw ‘em draggin ya in, lookin all fancy and whatnot.”
  2380. >…Is that a Bostonian accent?
  2381. >You catch yourself as you’re about to reply - his demeanor is oddly alluring, more than likely a side effect of the dire straits you’ve found yourself in.
  2382. >Stay silent, Anon. He could be a plant, trying to make you talk or-
  2383. >“Alright, alright, fine, I get it. Stoic silent type and all that. I tried that, too, ya know. Got real boring after the first few months here.”
  2384. “For you, maybe.”
  2385. >The sass passes your lips before you can register the words in your head.
  2386. >Fucking Canterlot reflex.
  2387. >A gasp rings out.
  2388. >“So you /do/ speak!”
  2389. >His bellowing laughter is weighed down by the oppressively cold, dank air.
  2390. >“An’ here I thought I’d be bored.”
  2391. “Could still happen.”
  2392. >“I highly doubt that now,” he replies almost cheerily, not put off at all by your brevity. “What’s your name?”
  2393. >Yeah, no thanks.
  2394. >You’ve seen a version of this with some of your former coworkers; some guy acts all friendly, gets all the info he needs, and then boom, you’re up shit creek without a paddle.
  2395. “Look, if you’re some kinda informant for the people that did this, this isn’t gonna go the way you think it is.”
  2396. >“You really think they’d stick one-a their own in these nasty ass cells?”
  2397. “I don’t know.”
  2398. >“Exactly - ya don’t know. For your information, they’d sooner have a roll in the hay with a manticore.”
  2399. >Definitely not something you wanted to imagine.
  2400. “Why?”
  2401. >“They think they’re from some ‘holy lineage’ or whatever. Head honcho refuses to talk to anybody but her highest ranking officers most a’ the time. S’buncha garbage, if ya ask me.”
  2402. “So they’re a cult?”
  2403. >“They’d prefer ‘organized religion,’ but yeah.”
  2404. >So you’ve been captured by religious fanatics.
  2405. >Wonderful.
  2406. >You remove your hands from the frigid bars of your cell and stumble to the side, slamming your back up against the wall and sliding downward.
  2407. >Propping your elbows up on your knees, you hold your head in your hands and shut your eyes.
  2408. >The gravity of the situation slips its icy grasp around your throat.
  2409. >You take a few moments to have your inner panic surge before rubbing your temples.
  2410. >No use dwelling on it; that won’t help you at all.
  2411. >Sure, this isn’t exactly crunch time at the office, but it’s not difficult to apply the same three-step stress management principles.
  2412. >Focus.
  2413. >You breathe deep, and gather your mind; you feel the hot breath leaving your nostrils and cascading over your clothes.
  2414. >When your thoughts reach stillness, you open your eyes once more, the chill of the cell stinging them slightly.
  2415. >Plan.
  2416. >You look around the cell for any kind of opportunity that might’ve been hidden to you before; a sharp stone, a crack in the wall, an improvised weapon…
  2417. >The only thing you can take stock of is the dirty sheet on the floor.
  2418. >You’re no survivalist by any stretch of the word, but you can easily see how a plain sheet could be handy in some situations.
  2419. >In the relative quiet of these desolate cells, given enough time, you might be able to think of-
  2420. >“You, uh… you good, big guy? Gettin’ kinda quiet all of a sudden.”
  2421. >Guy’s a real fucking chatterbox, isn’t he?
  2422. >…
  2423. >Still, he’s a voice to talk to, at least.
  2424. >You can’t imagine it would be a bad thing, having a friend in prison…
  2425. “I’m good.”
  2426. >You pick your head up, eyeing the opposite wall of your cell as if it were your new acquaintance.
  2427. “I mean, as good as I can be in cult-jail.”
  2428. >“Good is relative here,” he says with a sigh, the first hint of downturn in his voice since he first started speaking. “I’m just glad I got someone to talk to now.”
  2429. >That’s been confusing you.
  2430. “You seem pretty chipper, despite the circumstances.”
  2431. >“One’a us down here’s gotta be. Ain’t much use to be a downer, ya know? I don’t wanna see the sunlight again without a big ass smile on my face. ”
  2432. >You shift slightly.
  2433. “You have a plan to get out of here, then?”
  2434. >The bars of his cell rattle ever so slightly.
  2435. >“Nothin’ concrete yet. One of these days, though, something’ll give. I know it.”
  2436. “How long have you been in here?”
  2437. >“Truth be told?” he muses curiously. “I stopped counting after a week or two.”
  2438. “Ballpark it.”
  2439. >“Gotta be at least a few months now.”
  2440. >Fuck’s sake, that’s a while. Way longer than you’re intent on staying, at least.
  2441. >For all you know, Cel and Lulu probably already have a squadron of guards on the way here as you sit and converse.
  2442. >Or better yet, a princess or two. Who knows?
  2443. >Wishful thinking, perhaps, but taking a page from your new friend is helping keep you level.
  2444. “So… what’s got you so sure you’ll break outta here?”
  2445. >“I’ve been eavesdroppin’,” he replies, a fair bit quieter than his usual tone.
  2446. >“Occasionally, I’ll hear some’a the guards chattin’ to themselves about what’s goin’ on outside. Earlier today, after they brought everybody in, I didn’t hear nearly as much as I usually do.”
  2447. “And?”
  2448. >“And that means it’s tense right now. Guys like these, they get loose lips when everything’s goin’ smooth. They’d usually be hootin’ and hollerin’ about all the outsiders they snagged.”
  2449. >…
  2450. >Oh, fuck, you didn’t even think about that.
  2451. >How many others were on the train with you?
  2452. >Families, innocent ponies, people just trying to get wherever they were going.
  2453. >All plucked out of thin air and dropped into this hellhole.
  2454. >Just like you, dozens of times over.
  2455. >Your sense of urgency rises into your throat.
  2456. “Fuck… How many did they get?”
  2457. >“Dunno for sure, but they filled up a good bit of the cells.”
  2458. >You rise to your feet again, taking a good look up and down the hallway through the bars.
  2459. >Sure enough, you can still hear the murmuring from earlier if you really focus.
  2460. >Whispers on the stale wind.
  2461. “Hey!”
  2462. >You call out to them, hoping one of them says something back.
  2463. >None of them do.
  2464. >“‘Ey, keep it down!” your new friend whisper-shouts back at you. “You tryna get us all punished again or somethin’?”
  2465. >You just barely stave off your need to keep yelling out.
  2466. >“They’re /fine/, just shook up a bit. They were all chatty before ya woke up, but that yuppie new guy stopped it real quick.”
  2467. “What the /fuck/ happened?”
  2468. >Your answer comes in the form of a far-off door being opened, its metal hinges emitting an unbearable, grinding screech.
  2469. >Footsteps…
  2470. >No, hoofsteps. Two sets of them.
  2471. >Quiet sniffling, stifled sobs.
  2472. >And…
  2473. >Humming?
  2474. >Two shadows are cast across the walls in front of your cage, broken up by the cell in front of you.
  2475. >As they approach, the shadows grow more and more misshapen.
  2476. >“Be cool,” you hear from your left, naught more than a barely audible breath now.
  2477. >Closer, still, draws the twin gaits.
  2478. >You back up from the bars a bit, content to stand in the middle of the cell as the strangers make their approach.
  2479. >Two figures follow their silhouettes - one earth pony, one unicorn.
  2480. >The earth pony, with gray mane and burnt orange coat, is being led by a chain that the unicorn holds in his mana.
  2481. >He holds it far out in front of her, with much of the chain’s length bunched into his magical grasp, leaving almost none for the poor, sobbing mare.
  2482. >She makes no attempt to fight it, yet finds her neck strained by the force anyways.
  2483. >The unicorn leading her on is the source of the eerily chipper humming you heard as they approached.
  2484. >His light, blonde mane is styled into a tightly kept coif, standing out strongly against his light blue coat.
  2485. >Your eyes instinctively look for a cutie mark, but it’s obscured by dark purple ceremonial robes that reach all the way to his hind legs.
  2486. >The robes are adorned with gold trimmings and other such decorations, outwardly opulent even in the pale blue light.
  2487. >It takes you a few seconds, but it finally hits you.
  2488. >This is the same unicorn that put you to sleep after the train derailment.
  2489. >He seems content - ecstatic, even - to be leading this battered and bruised mare to her cell.
  2490. >Without even turning to look at you, he levitates a key out of a pocket in his robe.
  2491. >He slips it into the lock of the cell opposite to you, humming as he turns it and opens the door with an overpoweringly loud metallic screech.
  2492. >He ushers her in with an outstretched hoof, and she quickly obeys, robbed of any sense of defiance she might have previously had.
  2493. >As he closes the cell door behind her, your mind races to conclusions about what he might have done to her, none of them pleasant.
  2494. >Fuck being silent, you need answers and this little cunt is going to give them to you.
  2495. “What happened to her?”
  2496. >Your voice leaves you with a raspy overtone, and you fight the urge to clear your throat.
  2497. >The cultist jumps, and it looks like it’s all he can do to keep from yelling out.
  2498. >“Mother above!” he shouts, hushing himself immediately after.
  2499. >“You sure are quiet for a creature of your size,” he comments, turning in your direction. His voice is light and airy, almost as if he’s pleased to be speaking with you.
  2500. >Uh-uh, nope. He’s not deflecting you that easily.
  2501. “What the fuck did you do to her?”
  2502. >“You misunderstand. She did this to herself, stranger.”
  2503. >The carelessness of his smile catches you off guard; he really believes that.
  2504. >You bite back your scathing remarks for now, and focus on trying to get as much information as possible.
  2505. “Where the hell are we?”
  2506. >His features lift into elation; other than his appearance, there’s no sign of the shit-scared waterboy you heard earlier.
  2507. >“We have the fortune of being in the Great Basin,” he says, almost vibrating with genuine joy. “The most sacred of lands, where the Holy Mother was brought forth into existence!”
  2508. >…Alright, so you’re dealing with a fanatic.
  2509. >Great.
  2510. >Maybe try appealing to reason?
  2511. “Look, I don’t know why you people did what you did to the train, but I can bet that none of us are part of it. Please, I just want to go home.”
  2512. >“Your presence may not have been intentional on our part,” he responds, “but the Holy Mother has guided your pilgrimage here regardless. You should be proud, stranger; few can claim that honor.”
  2513. >Alright, so reason has flown out the window.
  2514. >You can feel your temper knocking at your throat.
  2515. >You gesture to the cell in front of you, the earth pony within eyeing your exchange nervously.
  2516. “Doesn’t seem very fucking honorable to me.”
  2517. >The unicorn, still jubilant, closes his eyes and shakes his head.
  2518. >“I don’t expect you to understand right away,” he replies, a tinge of disappointment in his voice. “You are an outsider, after all.”
  2519. >He adopts a more serious tone, his smile faltering a bit as he looks at you once more.
  2520. >“Know this, stranger - our wish isn’t to harm any of you. We simply desire to see you find your true purpose under the Holy Mother.”
  2521. “Or else, right?”
  2522. >Again, you gesture to the broken mare, who is now pressing herself firmly into the back corner of her cell.
  2523. >The unicorn seems pensive for a moment, as if pondering what to say next.
  2524. >“You’ll see in time. I’ll be back for you when Her Grace is ready. All will be explained then.”
  2525. >He turns to leave, but you’re not having it.
  2526. You thrust your arms against the door to your cell, rattling it heavily.
  2527. “Uh-uh, we’re not done here.”
  2528. >Your rage boils over as he starts walking back the way he came, humming the same tune from earlier to himself.
  2529. “You little fucking bastard! Get back here or-”
  2530. >Untold amounts of colorful expletives are hurled his way, but not once does he turn back around.
  2531. >You only stop when you hear the faint sound of a metal door shutting over your frantic shit fit.
  2532. >You feel your built-up anger slowly leaving with each raggedy breath that passes from your chapped lips.
  2533. >“Not what I meant by ‘be cool’,” your new friend chimes in.
  2534. >You ignore his comment and fix your gaze upon the mare in the cell in front of you, taking a closer look at her injuries.
  2535. >Her bruising is so bad that you can see the discolored skin under her fur.
  2536. >What’s more, it’s all over - there’s not a spot on her body that doesn’t have at least a few. That you can see, that is.
  2537. >Dotted here and there are tiny lacerations as well. Far less numerous than her bruises, sure, but plenty all the same.
  2538. >Tiny, strained sobs wrack her already shaking form, and if you squint, you can see tears running down her matted cheeks.
  2539. >For a few moments, you think about asking what happened to her.
  2540. >What that godless runt could have done to her to leave her like this.
  2541. >If she saw any exits or weapons anywhere.
  2542. >Instead, the words form in your mouth, and die there.
  2543. >You silently observe her diminutive form melding into the corner, every sob dragging her further in.
  2544. >Her mouth hangs open in a cry that you can’t hear, snot and drool mixing as it drips from her snout.
  2545. >…
  2546. >“You, uh… you alright, miss?”
  2547. >Your neighbor’s tone is far gentler now.
  2548. >She, however, is unresponsive; if anything, she shrinks further back into her prison.
  2549. “What…?”
  2550. >You mean to ask what they did to her, but only the first word ever leaves your mouth in a croak.
  2551. >Thankfully, he understands what you meant to say.
  2552. >“They call it ‘enlightenment'. It’s a punishment meant for the ‘specially defiant. First time’s, uh, always the worst. They don’t do anything weird or nothin’, but… it’s not pretty. ”
  2553. >They tortured her.
  2554. >You knew the world outside of Equestria wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and sure, it’s tame compared to home, but…
  2555. >…
  2556. >After a few silent moments, you finally manage to tear your eyes off of her, looking in the direction of your friend’s voice.
  2557. “We have to get them out of here.”
  2558. >“Been tryin’. No luck yet, but ain’t nothin’ wrong with havin' two skulls, ‘stead’a one.”
  2559. >Despite the uncertainty of the future hanging over your head, you feel a faint relief that you aren’t alone in your efforts.
  2560. >A few moments pass before he speaks up again.
  2561. >“Name’s Pal. Short for Palatìn, if you care. You?”
  2562. >You breathe deep, resting your back against the wall once more.
  2563. “Anon.”
  2565. ...
  2567. >“…were this not the case, Bright Eyes’s theorem might have held far less credence with the Arcana Communitas. Thankfully, though, his steadfast dedication to the truth ensured that he…”
  2568. >The golden threads of early sunlight lilting through the curtains make your book’s passages seem far more grand than they actually are.
  2569. >Though you’ve read these specific words time and time again in your pursuit of knowledge, today, they’re nothing more than fitting distractions, pulling your attention away from the heady task you’ve been entrusted with.
  2570. >You wipe the sleep dust from your eyes with an unsteady hoof, taking a deep breath to gather whatever energy you’re hanging onto right now.
  2571. >A deep, arcing yawn arises from the depths of your chest, a shiver running through your body as it reaches its zenith.
  2572. >Rest came easy last night, but it had a hard time staying easy.
  2573. >You woke up several times throughout the night, sleep becoming harder to return to with every stint of consciousness.
  2574. >It didn’t help that, every time you would wake up, you’d think about everything that was happening.
  2575. >Eventually, you gave up at around five in the morning, settling for a cup of coffee instead.
  2576. >Its miniscule boost of energy is very welcomed, but you can’t imagine it will carry you very far into the day.
  2577. >To lunch at best, you surmise.
  2578. >A sigh escapes from deep within your lungs as you use your magic to slot a bookmark into your textbook.
  2579. >You can’t believe it, but reading is actually making your nerves worse.
  2580. >The sudden opening of the bathroom door mercifully distracts you from the pit in your stomach.
  2581. >Turning your head in its direction, you see Spike meandering out into the room you’re in, followed by an almost comical amount of steam trailing behind him, the edges of which curl around him as he struts outward.
  2582. >Despite him having no hair to speak of, there’s a bright pink towel around his head, curled perfectly into the shape of a cone.
  2583. >The odd sight makes you smile for the first time since waking up.
  2584. “Good shower?”
  2585. >He nods, placing one of his claws on the towel cone so it doesn’t tip over.
  2586. >“Try amazing,” he replies with a contented sigh. “We need one of these water heaters back home.”
  2587. >That gets you to giggle.
  2588. “On a librarian’s salary? I don’t think so, Spike.”
  2589. >“Aw, come on! I’ll bet if I went gem hunting with Rarity for a week or two and saved up, we could totally afford it.”
  2590. “You’d have to bring home an awfully rare batch.”
  2591. >It’s true - you had a glimpse at the castle’s expenses once when you were still a filly.
  2592. >Even without a solid grasp of finance at the time, you nearly fainted.
  2593. >Nevertheless, Spike appears undeterred.
  2594. >“Okay, so gem hunting for a few months.”
  2595. “Miiiight be a year or two…”
  2596. >His eyebrows shoot up.
  2597. >“They’re really that expensive?”
  2598. “More than likely. This is Canterlot Castle we’re talking about, after all.”
  2599. >The sentence leaves you a bit more dismissive in tone than you would’ve liked it to.
  2600. >Thankfully, Spike either doesn’t notice, or takes it in stride.
  2601. >“I guess you’re right. I mean, the shower at home /is/ more comfy than this one, so…”
  2602. >You hum in agreement, your mind elsewhere as you turn to look out the window.
  2603. >“So, uh… are you ready for today?” Spike asks, his tone a great deal more subdued.
  2604. >Your gaze remains affixed to some undefined point beyond the window, golden light painting your face in a hue of apprehension.
  2605. “I guess so. I didn’t get much sleep, so that’s going to be difficult to deal with…”
  2606. >As if to accentuate your statement, you can almost feel the bags under your eyes become heavier.
  2607. >“I can get some coffee going if you want?”
  2608. >You shake your head, turning to look at him.
  2609. “I’m okay. If anything, being tired is… actually helping me keep it together, surprisingly.”
  2610. >He nods - although he can’t relate, he seems to understand where you’re coming from.
  2611. >“Well, that’s good, at least. You think we’ll be able to make some headway on figuring out where all those ponies were taken?”
  2612. >Before you can cobble together what you think he might want to hear, three gentle knocks ring out from the front door of the room.
  2613. >Both you and Spike’s heads whip around to face the noise.
  2614. >You’re inwardly thankful for the intrusion - difficult conversations have never been your forte.
  2615. “Coming!”
  2616. >You hop off of the bed and onto your hooves, walking over to the door and peering through the peephole.
  2617. >The fish-eyed visage of your mentor greets you, and in spite of the circumstances, you have to suppress a giggle.
  2618. >With a flourish of your magic, you twist the handle and gently guide the door open, smiles worn happily as the barrier between the two of you glides away.
  2619. “Good morning, Princess.”
  2620. >She bows her head slightly for a brief moment, as do you.
  2621. >“Good morning, Twilight. Did the two of you sleep well?”
  2622. >It was difficult to even put your head on the pillow.
  2623. “As well as we could, with what’s going on.”
  2624. >Her expression, colored by ever-so-subtle dark circles, cracks just a tad upon hearing that, but it’s mostly unnoticeable.
  2625. >“I suppose that’s all anypony can hope for right now,” she responds, accompanied with a sigh.
  2626. >“As always, if there’s anything I can do to alleviate some of your stress, let me know.”
  2627. >At this point, internally, it feels like nothing may be able to do that.
  2628. >Hearing that from her, though…
  2629. >You close the distance between the two of you and wrap her in a tight embrace - a gesture she seems to have planned for, going by how tightly she squeezes you in return.
  2630. >You sigh into her, releasing as much anxiety as you can into her embrace.
  2631. “Hugs are a good starting point.”
  2632. >You feel her giggle against you as you both step down from each other.
  2633. >“That they are, Twilight,” she responds with a renewed smile, her voice falling back into its soothing neutral.
  2634. >Did she need that as much as you did…?
  2635. >Regardless, you’ve got a good guess as to why she’s here, and you’d rather not put it off.
  2636. “I’m guessing it’s almost time?”
  2637. >She nods, her outwardly soothing demeanor making way for something more focused.
  2638. >“That it is. Most members are already present in the conference hall, but the meeting won’t officially begin until I ordain it.”
  2639. >Oh, shoot! You didn’t even realize you were running-
  2640. >“Not to worry, though - you aren’t late by any stretch of the word.”
  2641. >You release a breath that you didn’t know you were holding in.
  2642. >Judging from Celestia’s quick smirk, you must have worn your reactionary terror all over your face.
  2643. >“That being said, the meeting does need to start soon, so that we can reserve most of the day for the investigation.”
  2644. >You nod, using your magic to grab your saddlebags full of scratch paper from the coffee table where you had left it the night before.
  2645. “I think we’re ready. Right, Spike?”
  2646. >As your bags come to rest over your withers, you cast your gaze backwards at him, and you catch him in the middle of throwing his head towel aside.
  2647. >It hits the floor before you can catch it in your aura, and your inner sense of cleanliness shrieks at the offense.
  2648. >You staunch it for now.
  2649. >“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he proclaims confidently. “Let’s do this.”
  2650. >Celestia’s focused smile returns as she steps aside, allowing the two of you to exit the room.
  2651. >As you both cross the threshold, she shuts the door behind you, making sure to lock it.
  2652. >She begins making headway toward the conference hall, and you and Spike file in beside her for the brief trek.
  2653. >“So, what can we expect when we get there?” Spike asks, looking up at her as he walks.
  2654. >“Well, everypony is understandably a bit on edge. Some of them have been doing their own work outside of…”
  2655. >Her account fades into dull noise.
  2656. >On any other day, under any other circumstances, you would’ve been the most attentive pony in the room.
  2657. >Now, though, Celestia’s voice has become the backdrop for reflection.
  2658. >No, reflection isn’t right…
  2659. >Inner turmoil is far more fitting, if you’re being honest with yourself.
  2660. >Where was Anon taken?
  2661. >Is he hurt?
  2662. >They better not have hurt him.
  2663. >Was he able to get away from whoever took him?
  2664. >Who’s behind all of this?
  2665. >How could they do this to all of those innocent ponies?
  2666. >You half-heartedly attempt to stop the storm of questions before it can spiral out of control, but nothing staunches the flow.
  2667. >Impatience gnaws at you, propelling you forward.
  2668. >Even now, in the middle of the short walk over to the meeting, you find yourself wishing that you could just teleport in and get things going already.
  2669. >Every second that’s spent idling is critical to everypony that was on board those cars, and that’s without even factoring in that the heiress to Griffonia is one of the victims.
  2670. >And Anon…
  2671. >…
  2672. >It’s just…
  2673. >It’s not fair.
  2674. >You had him back home for all of a day, and then all this happened.
  2675. >Your mind keeps trying to draw foregone conclusions, and you keep barely reigning yourself in before launching down the path of self-destruction.
  2676. >You could have gone with him. Tartarus, you almost /did/.
  2677. >Part of you wishes you had, in spite of how dangerous it may have been.
  2678. >Maybe, if you had been there, you could’ve-
  2679. >“Twilight?”
  2680. >Your mentor’s voice stops you in your tracks, your head swiftly turning to the left to address her, only to find nopony there.
  2681. >With a frown, you look around, only to find that she and Spike are a good seven hooves behind you, confused and waiting at a set of closed double doors.
  2682. >Embarrassment quickly flushes your cheeks, a sheepish smile on your face.
  2683. “Oh! Um… s-sorry.”
  2684. >You quickly rejoin them, a conversation from within the room audible even from the miniscule space between the door and the marble tile.
  2685. >Celestia hesitates for a moment, looking you over with a hint of concern in her otherwise neutral expression.
  2686. >“Were you listening?” she asks, an eyebrow raised slightly.
  2687. >For a moment, you’re struck by the compulsion to save face, but…
  2688. “…No. I’m sorry, Princess.”
  2689. >The heat of shame burns your face as your eyes meet her hooves.
  2690. >It isn’t there for too long before one of them reaches out to your chin and gently raises it to meet her gaze.
  2691. >“Twilight, if this is too much for you right now, I understand. You don’t have to push yourself, not for this.”
  2692. >Her hoof finds ground once more, but you hold her worried stare.
  2693. “No, no, I can…”
  2694. >You can do this.
  2695. “I can do this.”
  2696. >You /have/ to do this.
  2697. >You can’t just leave them out there!
  2698. >You can’t just leave /him/ out there!
  2699. >Her eyes pierce right through yours, looking somewhere deeper.
  2700. >In a twitch, you see several different ineffable emotions fighting for dominance just underneath her brow.
  2701. >“I know you can,” she reassuringly responds.
  2702. >Sympathy colors her expression as her wing pulls you in for a light embrace, which you readily sink into as she continues.
  2703. >“I want nothing less than his safe return, too, Twilight. And with you among our ranks, I genuinely believe that outcome is well within reach…”
  2704. >She pulls back from the embrace but still holds you close, locking eyes with you again.
  2705. >The room is bathed in her resolve.
  2706. >“…So I need you at your very best. Nothing less will do.”
  2707. >Her call to action finds itself planted deeply within you, and from some indescribable place, you begin to shift, a single domino starting its top-heavy descent.
  2708. >You nod, focus renewed.
  2709. >You begin to inwardly kick yourself for not getting control of yourself sooner, but even this self-criticism is staunched before it can fully form.
  2710. >You are bathed in her resolve.
  2711. “I won’t let you down.”
  2712. >She smiles down at you, stepping away from the embrace once more.
  2713. >“I believe you, my dear student.”
  2714. >Spike walks up to you and pats you on the side, giving you a wink.
  2715. >“Plus, you’ve got me! You need some scales to lean on, I’ve got ya.”
  2716. >You giggle a bit at that. How could you ever forget your little brother?
  2717. >“Count myself and Luna among your support group as well,” Celestia adds, shuffling her wings a bit. “You’ll be accompanying us for most of the day as we oversee each team. If you ever need anything, we’ll be a wing away.”
  2718. >Your heart warms at the confidence they have in you.
  2719. >While you’re still undoubtedly riddled with uncertainty, for now, your focus feels unclouded and directed.
  2720. “…One last hug? A group one, preferably.”
  2721. >They laugh as you reach out to both of them, and they happily reciprocate.
  2722. >After you all step down from one another for the final time, you take a deep breath.
  2723. >As Celestia opens the door to the meeting room, your thoughts fall back to something that Anon used to repeat to himself when he was stressed, or had a lot of work.
  2724. >Focus, plan, execute.
  2725. >…You can do that.
  2726. >The cold of the room rushes out into the hall to meet you, moving the bangs of your mane just a tad to the left.
  2727. >A quick puff of air upward fixes it. Can’t look odd in front of Equestria’s highest officials on magic, can you?
  2728. >You’re actually quite put off by just how chilly it seems to be in the meeting room.
  2729. >Not in the traditional sense, either - the chills you’re experiencing seem to be magically induced, if your intuition is correct.
  2730. >Spike picks up on it, too, crossing his arms and making himself small against the sudden thermal change.
  2731. >Celestia, if she notices it at all, doesn’t show it.
  2732. >The three of you file into the room, and most discussion falls silent, or at the very least becomes hushed.
  2733. >A generous amount of ponies surround an imposingly large circular table, the face of which is adorned by the conjoined cutie marks of Celestia and Luna.
  2734. >They’re mostly unicorns, but you spot a few pegasi and an earth pony or two as well.
  2735. >At the farthest end of the table from you is a refreshingly familiar face, as well as the source of the cold permeating the room.
  2736. >Princess Luna looks to be wrapping up a conversation with a stallion to her left, her horn idly casting a sizable projection of what looks like a sequence of runes onto the table in front of her.
  2737. >The magic she cast always did make the room a bit nippy - funnily enough, the inverse of Celestia’s magic.
  2738. >The sudden silence of the room catches her attention as she casts her gaze around the table, quickly settling on the three of you.
  2739. >She perks up ever so slightly, excusing herself from her conversation and heading over to join your group.
  2740. >“Impeccable timing as always, sister,” she says as she closes the distance. “Everypony is present and accounted for.”
  2741. >“Just as well, it’s a pleasure to see the both of you again,” she greets you and Spike, a tired smile directed at you. “I only wish it were under more pleasant circumstances.”
  2742. “Likewise, Princess.”
  2743. >She nods at your reply and takes her place next to Spike, the princesses effectively sandwiching the two of you in between them.
  2744. >You’d be lying if you said you didn’t feel like the safest pony in the room right now.
  2745. >“If I may have your attention, everypony,” Celestia calls out.
  2746. >It’s only now that you begin scanning the various faces at the table. Most remain relatively stoic, but a few look either neutral or optimistic about the task they’ve been entrusted with.
  2747. >You actually recognize a few of them from your studies, if you’re not mistaken.
  2748. >Before you can inwardly harp on the history of the ponies gathered around the table, however, Celestia continues her announcement.
  2749. >“Since we’re all present, we can now formally begin. I trust that you’ve all been briefed about our intended method of approach prior to your arrival?”
  2750. >Her tone is even and weighty, as are everypony’s silent nods in response.
  2751. >“Good. In that case, we will begin shortly. I’ve arranged carriages for each of the four teams that comprise this operation. Does anypony have any questions before we depart for the crash site?”
  2752. >A moment or two passes before an older, surly looking stallion to the far right raises his hoof.
  2753. >Gray beard, wide-brimmed hat, and even a robe to boot… You’re not quite sure who this is, but it looks like he’s emulating Starswirl.
  2754. >“Is that your pupil, Your Majesty?” he asks gruffly, eyeing you up and down.
  2755. >A smile rests upon Celestia’s face as she answers.
  2756. >“She is. I’ve invited her along to assist with the investigation.”
  2757. >The stallion, along with a few others in the crowd, seem perturbed by this decision, turning to their neighbors and whispering under the idle noise of the group.
  2758. >Celestia seems to notice this, clearing her throat to dispel the murmurs.
  2759. >“I believe you’ll find that her input will be invaluable to our efforts. If there are no further questions or comments, then I believe it would be best to leave at once.”
  2760. >That seems to quell all but a stoic few of the members, who simply look a bit off-put by your presence.
  2761. >It wears on your confidence a bit, but remembrance of Celestia’s words of affirmation keeps you centered.
  2762. >Everypony makes their way to a door at the opposite end of the room, which, if your memory serves you correctly, leads in the direction of the castle’s main landing pad.
  2763. >Your entourage begins making their way out as well, but before you can all make much headway, one of the disgruntled looking unicorns from earlier interrupts the lot of you.
  2764. >“Your Majesty?” she beseeches, directed at no one else but Celestia. “A word, if you would?”
  2765. >“Of course, Ruby Seeker,” she replies before turning to you, Spike, and Luna. “Go on ahead, you three. I’ll be with you shortly.”
  2766. >Now /that/ name rings a bell - she’s one of the senior members of the board, with decades worth of experience to boot.
  2767. >You can’t help but feel that she might not be all too thrilled by your presence, what with you not being a member of the community, but you take it on the chin and head into the adjacent hallway anyways, Luna leading you out.
  2768. >Her metal shoes reverberate across the largely marble hallway, joining the cacophony of the crowd of Arcana Communitas members in front of you.
  2769. >“Well, some of ‘em sure seemed uptight, huh?” Spike interjects, just quiet enough so that none of them you can hear.
  2770. >Luna sighs deeply in agreement.
  2771. >“Most of the board’s members are tolerable, if not pleasant,” she says, uncaring of who might hear.
  2772. >“But the senior representatives are… uniquely difficult at times. Most of the time, if I’m honest.”
  2773. >“How come?”
  2774. >“They’re all about their little rules and regulations,” Luna spits. “Even if it costs us precious time that we don’t have. They’re the ones that wanted to meet in the castle, rather than in the field.”
  2775. >You didn’t even think about that.
  2776. >How much time have you lost now?
  2777. >Minutes? Hours?
  2778. >More?
  2779. >The thought alone makes you angrier than you’d care to admit.
  2780. >“Why didn’t you just order them to meet at the crash site?” Spike asks, genuinely confused. “They’re under you and Princess Celestia at the end of the day, right?”
  2781. >“We could,” she begins, “but it would invoke mountains of paperwork that would ultimately take up more time than if we were to just abide by their silly rituals.”
  2782. >You’d rather not focus on them for now - their old-fashioned processes are already starting to exasperate you, and all that will do is make your task more difficult.
  2783. “Have you been able to see anypony from the crash in the dream realm?”
  2784. >Luna’s tone evens out as you bring her back to the matter at hand.
  2785. >“Merely flashes and whispers. Some of the victims’ dream bubbles fully formed, but only for a few moments before fading away.”
  2786. “Was Anon’s one of them?”
  2787. >Luna’s expression deepens, colored by worry as opposed to anger - you can see it in the lines that form on her face, and the way her frown sits lighter on her brow as she turns to look at you.
  2788. >“No. I searched for most of the night, but I couldn’t find him.”
  2789. >She isn’t lying - the dark circles under her eyes become more noticeable the longer you hold her gaze, even against her midnight fur.
  2790. >Her eyes move to her front once more as you both approach the entranceway to the landing strip.
  2791. >“I was able to find a great many of the passengers in his cabin, though, which means there’s a good chance that he’s alright. Relatively speaking, that is.”
  2792. >You release a breath that you didn’t know you were holding.
  2793. >‘Relatively’ doesn’t exactly assuage your anxieties surrounding his circumstances, but it does its job of stringing you along.
  2794. “Do you have any idea where they could be?”
  2795. >“Not a clue, unfortunately,” she replies, frustration mounting once more.
  2796. >“Ordinarily, I might dreamwalk with one of them to start ascertaining clues, but their dreams were cut short - every single one of them. Not naturally, either.”
  2797. >That’s far too convenient to be a coincidence…
  2798. >Somepony really doesn’t want them to be found.
  2799. “Some kind of obscuring spell, maybe?”
  2800. >Luna nods in agreement.
  2801. >“Given my current findings, that is what I’m inclined to believe. Most other alternatives don’t fit what happened.”
  2802. >…You’d rather not explore any other possibilities at this point, for your own sake.
  2803. >The three of you cross into the ringed courtyard, the space bustling with ponies as your group and the members of the board file out onto the patterned, laminated concrete.
  2804. >Just as Celestia promised, four high-capacity roofless carriages sit among landing platforms around the platform’s edges, all complete with their own flying squads.
  2805. >A fifth sits in the middle of the open rotunda, its carriage closed to the air - Celestia’s personal method of transportation.
  2806. >What’s more, you even spot a familiar face among its crew in the captain that headed the flight team that brought you here yesterday.
  2807. >You suppose he must be the leader of Celestia’s personal flight squadron. Who else would she have entrusted to bring you here in one piece?
  2808. >“Everything appears to be in order,” Luna muses, surveying the crowd filing into their respective carriages. “Come - let us board.”
  2809. >The three of you waste no time in making for Celestia’s carriage, Luna sitting across from you and Spike.
  2810. >As she shuts the door with a flourish of her magic, the dull roar of the courtyard comes to a close, and a comfortable, boxy silence settles in.
  2811. >“My apologies if I‘ve given you a negative impression of the board’s leadership,” Luna apologizes, sighing deeply. “They really are quite effective at their duties, I’m just… rather stirred right now, is all.”
  2812. “No need to apologize, Princess. I know how you’re feeling.”
  2813. >Possibly the most underexaggerated thing you’ve said in the past few months.
  2814. >“Was he well? Before he left, I mean. It’s been a spell since we’ve been able to visit with him.”
  2815. >Memories of the two nights he had spent in Ponyville come flooding back, his genuine happiness at the forefront of the torrent.
  2816. >The moment where he stood in front of all six of you at the park firmly plants itself in your brain and refuses to leave, inciting a genuine smile that you didn’t think you could pull off right now.
  2817. “He seemed a lot happier, even just in the two days we had with him.”
  2818. >Luna adopts your mirth at this news.
  2819. >“Good,” she remarks, mood slightly improved. “I read the letter that he sent to my sister. It brings me great joy to see that he’s finally come to his senses.”
  2820. >You giggle at that.
  2821. “That makes two of us.”
  2822. >“Three, if you wanna get technical,” Spike interrupts. “But hey, sentence clarity, I get it.”
  2823. >All three of you openly laugh, and a tentative silence takes hold for some time. You opt to watch the carriage flight teams get ready as you wait for Celestia to return.
  2824. >It’s not too long, though, before a question bubbles forth before you can so much as run it by yourself.
  2825. “Do you think he’s okay, Luna?”
  2826. >She looks tentative for a moment before turning to you.
  2827. >“That colt is more stubborn than he has any right to be,” she says with a crooked smile, almost as if she’s boasting about it. “He’ll be okay.”
  2828. >“They all will. Even if We have to move the very heavens above to make sure of it, they'll be alright.”
  2829. >Her sheer confidence surprises you - even with the innumerable number of unknowns, she unflinchingly marches toward her singular goal, undeterred even in the slightest.
  2830. >You sense the same steadfast resolve in her that radiated from Celestia.
  2831. >She even let slip a royal ‘We’, which has steadily been growing rarer since you’ve come to know her.
  2832. >“Besides, he owes me fifty bits.”
  2833. “…Huh?”
  2834. >You briefly glance at Spike, who shares your confusion.
  2835. >“We made a bet of sorts,” Luna explains, a brief chuckle coloring her words. “When he first started his job in Canterlot, I wagered that he would find his way back to Ponyville within five years, and he insisted otherwise. I intend to collect, naturally.”
  2836. >“Yeah, that sounds like him,” Spike replies. “Why were you so sure he’d come back, though?”
  2837. >She faces him, the ghost of pride still playing upon her face.
  2838. >“Simply a matter of belonging, young Spike.”
  2839. >…You couldn’t agree more.
  2840. >Before you can continue to ponder the nature of her phrasing, though, the carriage door opens once more, revealing an exasperated-looking Celestia as she steps inside.
  2841. >“I apologize for the delay,” she apologizes as she shuts the door behind her and shuffles in next to Luna. “Hopefully, that’s the last bit of bureaucracy we have to deal with for now.”
  2842. >“I’m shocked to see your ears haven’t fallen off,” Luna jests, her gaze jokingly flitting between the two appendages.
  2843. >Celestia chuffs amusedly, throwing her sister a sideways glance.
  2844. >“Were it so easy.”
  2845. >You feel the carriage jerk forward, and as such, you’re compelled to take a look out of your window.
  2846. >Yours is the final carriage to take off - the others are already in the air, heading off on their descent down the mountain.
  2847. >With a lurch, your party is airborne, joining the tail end of the formation as the rotunda disappears from view.
  2849. ...
  2851. >“I’m just sayin’, that sounds like a load’a crud.”
  2852. “Is it really that unbelievable?”
  2853. >Palatìn chortles, and it echoes slightly, reverberating to and fro in your slightly musty cell.
  2854. >“Six girlies, galavantin’ all over th’place and beatin’ baddies with the power o’ friendship? I don’t even know how you’re sittin’ here tellin’ me all that with a straight face.”
  2855. >You hear his sheets shuffle briefly as you sit leaning against the cell wall adjacent to his.
  2856. >“Actually, ya know what? I can’t even see your face, you probably got a shit-eatin’ grin or somethin’ plastered all over it.”
  2857. >A laugh rises from your gut, and you hang your head as it rocks you in waves.
  2858. “Pal, why would I lie to you about shit that happens in a country you hadn’t even heard of until three hours ago?”
  2859. >“Iunno, but I jus’ can’t bring myself to believe it. I mean, /really/?”
  2860. >Aside from the quiet chuckle of your new friend, a silence hangs in the air after your exchange, interrupted only by the hushed sound of wind coming from just outside your barred, opaque window.
  2861. >For the past…
  2862. >How long has it been? A few hours, maybe more?
  2863. >In any case, Pal’s been keeping you sane with idle conversation.
  2864. >That creepily chipper cultist keeps coming back every hour or so to grab a new prisoner, taking them god knows where.
  2865. >Most of them are ponies, presumably from the train, but a few are from other species, more than likely native to wherever you are right now. A couple of them, you can’t quite place what they even are.
  2866. >They always come back with varying degrees of abuse over most of their bodies. True to Pal’s word, the feistier ones are covered in marks, sometimes bleeding from lacerations or orifices on their face.
  2867. >All of them return in quietude, complacent or defeated in stature and expression.
  2868. >It still shakes you a bit, but the frequency of it has dulled the initial shock.
  2869. >You’re anticipating your turn anytime now - it feels like he’s combed the entire block except for you and Pal.
  2870. >“He’s, um…”
  2871. >The soft, almost frail voice coming from beyond the entrance of your cell catches you off guard.
  2872. >Your head jolts to face it, and for a second, you can’t quite place that the voice belongs to the sobbing mare from earlier, now neutral and leaning against the bars of her own cell, sage-green shaded coat matted against them.
  2873. >“He’s not lying. I live in the same town they’re all in,” she says, voice just barely over a whisper.
  2874. >“No kidding?” Pal responds, sounding genuinely surprised. “They really did allat stuff with the moon mare and that chaos guy and all?”
  2875. >She looks your way for a brief second, befuddled by Pal’s lack of world history, before turning back to him.
  2876. >“T-They did. You noticed the nighttime lasting longer than usual a few years ago, right?”
  2877. >Pal grunts in realization - that seems to have jogged his memory.
  2878. >“Oooohhhh!” he exclaims, though careful of his overall volume. “That’s what that was? The eggheads ‘ere chalked it up to some kinda 'event foretold by prophecy.’”
  2879. >You perk up a bit at the mention of ‘prophecy.’
  2880. >So far, you don’t really know much about your captors other than that they’re some kind of religious cult, which was kind of obvious after you met that unicorn earlier.
  2881. >Beyond that, though, you’re flying blind here.
  2882. “Who are they, anyway?”
  2883. >Your new friend seems interested in this too; she perks up at your question, listening intently for Pal’s reply.
  2884. >“Their name’s in some language I can’t get the grasp of, but I heard ‘em say it in Dunetongue once - Her Children.”
  2885. >…A name like that doesn’t exactly bode well.
  2886. >But hold on a second, isn’t-
  2887. >“Dunetongue?” the earth pony asks, clearly on the same wavelength as you. “I’ve never heard of that before.”
  2888. >“You’re speakin’ it right now, miss,” Pal responds humorously, not missing a beat. “Maybe we all got a different word for it? It’s just th’ universal language ‘round these parts, is all. Lotta different folk from a buncha different places live ‘ere, we gotta have somethin’ we can all speak.”
  2889. >You have a great many questions about that, but you’ve got more pressing matters to inquire about for now.
  2890. “What’re they about? The cult, I mean.”
  2891. >“Officially? Spreadin’ the ‘good word’ o’ the Holy Mother, their patron deity.”
  2892. “And unofficially?”
  2893. >“Same as any other group a’ crazies,” Pal sighs, his tone lowering into agitation. “Control.”
  2894. >You hear him shuffle slightly on his sheets, likely repositioning to convey his point more clearly.
  2895. >“Their head honcho showed up outta nowhere four or five years ago and started swayin’ fellas over to her cause like it was nothin’. Now, she and her cronies have their mitts in almost everything, all the way up to th’ governin’ body o’ the mecca and its townships.”
  2896. >You can’t hold the frown from appearing on your face.
  2897. “She just… wormed her way in? Just like that, with no resistance?”
  2898. >“There was some, here and there,” he responds. “But it was a quiet affair overall, that’s for sure. Some’a us still didn’t sing their tune, and, well… here we all are, I suppose.”
  2899. >“Are there others in town like you? Like us?” The earth pony asks, her expressing growing more dour with every sentence that leaves Pal’s mouth.
  2900. >“There are. I ain’t seen any of the ones I know ‘ere, so they’re prob’ly still meetin’ in secret on the outer fringes n’ all, tryna get some kinda foothold back.”
  2901. >“Listen, Anon…”
  2902. >Pal’s voice takes on a grave undertone as he addresses you directly.
  2903. >“I overheard that yuppie earlier sayin’ that his boss wanted to meet with ya personally. Just… don’t lean into whatever kinda shit she spews, alright? I don’t know what she’s got goin’ on, but it isn’t anything good.”
  2904. >You take a deep breath, the heat of which fans out in front of you as a light fog against the cold of the prison.
  2905. >The sense of anxiety that’s been nestled within your stomach is beginning to spread.
  2906. “What can I expect?”
  2907. >“Nothing pleasant,” the earth pony sullenly declares, a thousand-yard stare directed aimlessly at the floor as she no doubt recounts the events of earlier.
  2908. >As much as you’d like to know what’s going to happen to you, you keep your distance from that topic out of respect.
  2909. >Actually, come to think of it…
  2910. “What’s your name, by the way?”
  2911. >The earth pony perks up at your question, locking eyes with you and brushing her coffee-shaded hair out of her face.
  2912. >“Huh?” she asks, seemingly having just been pulled out of her stupor.
  2913. >The corners of your mouth creep up into your best attempt at a disarming smile.
  2914. “Your name.”
  2915. >She shifts slightly to better face you, but winces as a particularly bruised spot up on her hind leg comes into sudden contact with a rough patch in the floor.
  2916. >You can tell she’s still wary of everything, judging by how skittishly she reacts to your voice when directly addressed, but there’s an unmistakable smidge of warmth behind her eyes - you’ll have to thank Pal later for helping with that.
  2917. >“B-Blazing Hearth,” she stutters slightly.
  2918. >It’s only fitting to offer your own in return.
  2919. “Anon.”
  2920. >Suddenly, she squints at you, studying you up and down.
  2921. >“I think I’ve seen you before, actually,” she says. “Back in Ponyville, once or twice over the past few years.”
  2922. “Yeah, I came down every so often to visit. Lived up in Canterlot before… well, three days ago now, actually.”
  2923. >“Where’d you-”
  2924. >Hearth’s question is left nebulous, interrupted by the telltale screech of an iron door swinging open at the end of the hall.
  2925. >The three of you let silence overtake your discussion as a set of sprightly hoofsteps echo on from your right.
  2926. >Hearth instinctively shuffles away, fear overtaking her features as she shrinks back into the farthest corner of her cell.
  2927. >You relocate, too, standing up and taking your place in the center of yours.
  2928. >That’s what they usually tell prisoners to do, right? Stand back so they can open the door?
  2929. >Your knowledge of prison only extends to what you’ve seen in movies and read in fiction, so you don’t really know.
  2930. >Before long, the echoes shrink against the soundscape, making way for only the unfettered sound of hoofsteps drawing nearer to you.
  2931. >And then, he comes into view once more - that sky blue sadist.
  2932. >Instead of meandering past your cell like he’s done dozens of times since your awakening, he comes to rest just outside and locks eyes with you, flashing his trademark eerie grin with a hidden smidge of... /something/ beneath it.
  2933. >“Her Grace is ready for you now,” he says, brandishing with his magic a key ring from some hidden pocket in his robe.
  2934. >You try to take note of the appearance of the key, but the only thing you can properly register before he slots it into the door is that the head is vaguely round.
  2935. >A breath sits deeply in your lungs, releasing as the door is opened.
  2936. >As you leave your cell and join the sadist’s side, your new friends offer you no farewell - no verbal one, at least.
  2937. >You still can’t see Pal, but as the unicorn locks the door behind you, Hearth’s eyes meet yours.
  2938. >In them, beyond her ever-present fright, she pleads with you to be careful.
  2939. >You give a nod her way, hoping it’s sufficient enough to count as a reply.
  2940. >The unicorn pockets the key ring before turning to you and pulling a cloth out of another of his pockets.
  2941. >“I’ll need you to wear this,” he says matter-of-factly. “As requested by Her Grace until we reach her location.”
  2942. >A blindfold?
  2943. >Well, finding an escape route was never going to be easy, was it?
  2944. >Reluctantly, you slip it over your eyes, and an uncomfortable darkness takes hold.
  2945. >Interesting… you never saw him do this for any of the other victims he carted away.
  2946. >You feel something metallic slip over your left wrist and tighten, accompanied by the jingling of chain link.
  2947. >“Just follow me. We’ll be there in no time.”
  2948. >He sounds oddly dejected.
  2949. >Well, as dejected as someone as him can sound.
  2950. >In any case, you don’t give any sort of reply; you simply follow wherever the chain leads you when he starts walking.
  2951. >You hear the iron door open in front of you, and he leads you through into another quiet hallway.
  2952. >Before long, voices of all octaves and tones steadily fill the soundscape, and the echo-y hall gives way to what sounds like a much larger room.
  2953. >Some of them turn to whispers as you draw nearer, as if your presence as an outsider is enough to curtail even the most casual conversation.
  2954. >“Watch your step, we’re about to be on a staircase,” the unicorn warns you.
  2955. >He even reaches out to support your back with his magic in case of a fall.
  2956. >His treatment of you strikes you as odd - most of the other prisoners came back with bruises or worse.
  2957. >Shouldn’t this guy not give a shit what happens to you?
  2958. >Up the stairs you go, regardless, before the path you’re being led on winds to and fro - a left here, a right there, a curve, a hard angle, more stairs…
  2959. >Until the dull cacophony of voices tapers off, and you’re left with only the ringing of chains, the unicorn’s hoofsteps, and your own breath.
  2960. >After being led through an open door, he comes to a gradual stop, and you follow suit.
  2961. >Your cuff is unlocked and removed from your wrist, which you begin to rub unconsciously.
  2962. >You go to remove your blindfold, but the cold grip of the little sadist’s aura takes an uncomfortably firm hold on your forearm.
  2963. >“Not yet,” he explains plainly. “Tradition dictates that your blindfold remains on until Her Grace greets you verbally.”
  2964. >His magical grip loosens, and you let your arm fall to your side once more.
  2965. >Inwardly, you’re more than a bit irritated, but you think it’s best to play it cool for now.
  2966. >Huh.
  2967. >Maybe those four years of brown-nosing might finally benefit you.
  2968. >Who knew?
  2969. >“There’s a seat in front of you now. Wait there until Her Grace calls for you,” the unicorn instructs as you feel out for the seat, slipping into it when you do.
  2970. >“Behave yourself, creature. This is an honor that /few/ receive.”
  2971. >For the first time since you laid eyes on him, you can actually hear a bit of venom on his tongue.
  2972. >It’s not exactly threatening, but you’re wary all the same - he put you to sleep without much of an effort last time, and that’s to say nothing of his sudden change in disposition.
  2973. >A deep stirring in the pit of your stomach rises in severity, as if to signal incoming danger.
  2974. >You hear the unicorn leave, shutting the door behind him with a gentle click of the latch.
  2975. >The temptation to rip the insufferable piece of cloth off of your face is titanic, yet you hold steady in the face of your predicament.
  2976. >And what’s with this chair?
  2977. >You were expecting something akin to what you’d see (feel, in this case) in a torture chamber.
  2978. >Not… plush and comfortable. The back of your seat rises up to your head, cushioning and all, and is slightly leaned back for lounging.
  2979. >It doesn’t feel like cheap cloth, either - it caresses your skin like cashmere.
  2980. >If you were somewhere more accommodating, you might be tempted to fall asleep after everything you’ve been through.
  2981. >You let your hands rest upon the chair’s arms and wait as patiently as you can.
  2982. >Wherever you are, it’s certainly spacious - it echoes slightly, like the ground floor of Flair’s office building.
  2983. >Immediately under your feet, you feel a plush rug, and just a foot or two away, hard tile.
  2984. >You wrack your brain to try and figure out wherever you could be, but it comes up short no matter which avenue of reasoning you tread down.
  2985. >Your thoughts, however, are interrupted by the door behind you opening once more, though this time with no audible “swish” of aura to speak of.
  2986. >The door clicks back into place, this time with the audible latching of a lock.
  2987. >It must be her, right? Who else could it be?
  2988. >As calm as you’d like to be, your heart would love to beat right out of your chest.
  2989. >Would you be any better off without the blindfold, or would it be worse, you wonder?
  2990. >The unannounced presence draws nearer to you with a careful, drawn-out gait - hoofsteps, if your ears don’t deceive you.
  2991. >It reaches your left side and starts encircling you, not unlike a shark investigating its prey.