Cuddly Doom (Chapter 8)

Aug 21st, 2017
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  1. >With a crisp snap of nitrile rubber, I retrieved two pairs of gloves from my EMT pouch, handing one pair to Peter before ensuring that my own fingers were armored against nearby ponies
  2. >A pair of nods from myself and Peter signified that we had reached the juncture from which it was crucial to maintain silence, lest the ponies hear us upon opening the door
  3. >Peter’s flashlight swung toward the door leading out of the side room, and before I knew it, his hand was rolling the door’s handle and beginning to gently nudge it open
  4. >Intermittent shots of adrenaline surged through my bloodstream and my grip tightened around the pistol as a slender vertical crack of darkness came into view
  5. >Shit, he DID say that this door went to a lab room, right? Not that hallway with all the ponies?
  6. >Despite my frayed nerves tensing up, the prospect of such a ruinous misunderstanding soon subsided as the dim engineering laboratory came into view
  7. >Its tables were well-stocked with bins and strange machines of obscure purpose, but as white light spilled over the menagerie, thankfully, no shapes featured eagerly twitching tails
  8. >Near the room’s far corner, a low metallic din rang out as several addled voices pierced through a door, the dense barricade afforded by soundly locked steel
  9. >My breath caught in my throat as a pair of sharp, hooved knocks echoed from the door, followed by the disembodied voices of a mare and stallion somewhere beyond
  10. >“Come out, James… We know you’re in there… We’ve got some carrots out here just for y-”
  11. >“Emerald, are you an idiot? He’s not a pony yet, he’s not gonna want-”
  12. >“Well, hayseed, what should I say, then? Bacon, ham?”
  13. >“Yeah, we’ll try ‘bacon’ on the next one”
  14. >A slow rhythm of hoofbeats broadcast their voyage to another door a bit further down the corridor, the journey finally demarcated by a distantly muted pair of knocks
  15. >“James, come on out… We know you’re in there… If you’re hungry, we’ve got some bacon out here just for you…”
  16. >I let out a soft, anxious exhale as Peter’s hand tenderly rubbed my shoulders, trying to subdue my concerns about the fact that certain doom was only twenty feet away
  17. >The ponies didn’t know exactly which room we were in… but they were on the right track to narrowing it down…
  18. >As all but one of Peter’s fingers folded into a firmly pointing gesture, my gaze followed his direction and landed on an unassuming door a few feet away along the room’s rear wall
  19. >Upon approaching it and lowering my hand toward the knob, I drew in a long, deep breath, considering Peter himself didn’t know where this infernal postern led
  20. >It could be a hallway full of ponies, it could be a portal to a dimension where humanity turns ponies into people by hugging them – there was only one way to know my ultimate fate for sure
  21. >The pistol was the first thing through the aperture as the door slid open with a faint, traitorous squeak, the flashlight’s radiance cascading into what appeared to be an unfurnished office
  22. >As my feet landed softly on the bed of tightly knit carpet underfoot, the circle of artificial light illuminating the room’s barren walls wavered wildly with Peter’s insistent gestures
  23. >After taking the flashlight from his outstretched hand, the last I saw of him was a thumbs-up bracketed by his remarkably sanguine expression, the door’s latch soon clicking behind me
  24. >A second soft click announced the moment at which I was effectively locked out with the ponies, and without any backup to save me from the vengeful likes of Clementine Breeze
  25. >Still, it was a necessary risk if it meant Peter wouldn’t hurt, or for that matter, know about, my half-transformed friend…
  26. >Light danced in the empty room, illuminating a second door ahead of me as it mingled with feeble yellow daylight, the weak glare slithering along the floor through cracks in the doorframe
  27. >When I pressed my ear against the fine veneer adorning the exit, my optimism faltered as a pair of stallion’s voices bounced down the length of what I presumed to be another hallway
  28. >“-ust need to try something else!”
  29. >“Melody, get back here, we’re supposed to be watching this hallway! Daisy said-”
  30. >“Daisy said this, Daisy said that! Daisy said we were doing this to make sure nopony else got hurt!”
  31. >“She’s doing her best with what she thought she knew! James himself said to Cobalt that he didn’t have any weapons – you never know when humans are lying!”
  32. >“Whatever, just don’t ever trust those buzzards! Now, given how good she was at befriending them, let’s wake up Clementine and get on with this”
  33. >“Melody, she’s… she’s not…”
  34. >“Don’t say it! She’s just… she’s… stop saying that! I don’t want to hear it!”
  35. >I held my breath as I unlocked the hallway door and cracked it open just enough to stick my head out, flinching as the ponies’ harried voices resonated with renewed volume
  36. >Thankfully, as the pistol nervously wavered in the lower corner of my vision, it found no targets cognizant of my presence, as each of the voices’ owners was thoroughly preoccupied
  37. >An imposing arrangement of marble steps came into focus at the corridor’s end, immediately adjacent to an open utility door from which a few strands of a short, blue tail protruded
  38. >“Don’t be silly, why shouldn’t we be doing what Daisy told us to?! She’s been a pony far longer than any of us have!”
  39. >“Well maybe so, but her plan hasn’t been working!”
  40. >As I stealthily crept onto the tile lining the hall, I gently shut the office door behind me and took note of its number among the banks of office doors that had come rushing back to memory
  41. >This was the formerly vacant hallway that had shielded me from rain and assured ponydom last night, and as I thought back, my attention swung to the machine shop door a few yards away
  42. >I’m coming back, Snowfall… I said I would…
  43. >Closing the distance to the machine shop’s door seemed to take an eternity, but as the stallion’s mournful, yet angry, arguing bounced around the corner, I found my footfalls well-covered
  44. >With a pair of clicks, a firm yank, and a few hasty, metallic footsteps, my contribution to the symphony was complete
  45. >I smiled and slowed my breathing, much as an accomplished solo trumpeter would do upon setting down his horn and reflecting on how he, and he alone, had completed an arduous piece
  46. >Moreover, as I slumped against the machine shop’s door and peered out over the rows of abandoned machines, I acknowledged that I was in once piece… I’d made it…
  47. >Snowfall, despite having been asleep in a dim corner, flicked her ears at the new visitor as her eyelids fluttered open, revealing a pair of groggy, pale blue irises
  48. >After giving her head a couple of vigorous shakes, she sat up on her thoroughly ponified haunches and peered up at me, a few fleeting rays of daylight glimmering off her cheery grin
  49. >Her hands – or rather, the appendages that were visibly well on their way to becoming forehooves – eagerly tapped the concrete floor as she sat in place, her tail wagging enthusiastically
  50. >“James!”
  51. “Hi Snowfall. Glad to see you’re still in good spirits”
  52. >“I missed you! Oh, I’m so happy you came back…”
  53. >I presented the most genuine smile I could summon, but as Snowfall’s ears drooped slightly, almost imperceptibly, I couldn’t tell whether she saw through to my inner turmoil
  54. >She craned her neck to get a better look at the shimmering metal of the pistol and flashlight, but I tucked them into the back of my waistband and pocket before her perusal bore fruit
  55. >Once I paced toward the top of the ladder-stairs hybrid that had precipitated our time apart, I sank into a seated position on the top step and shot Snowfall an amicable smile
  56. >As she awkwardly rose to her feet and stood upright in a corner of the machine shop, an abrupt shift in balance prompted her to steady herself against a modest stack of nearby boxes
  57. >Instinctive twitches of her tail sought to steady her, but considering the recently formed appendage was still as much bone and muscle as it was hair, its full effect remained unrealized
  58. >Her creaking vestiges of what could barely be described as feet shuddered under her weight, and despite attempts to keep them tucked neatly into her shoes, the rubber soles floundered
  59. >Within a few seconds, one shoe had slid off of its own volition, before the other was emphatically kicked away and disappeared into the shadowy void beneath a forsaken table saw
  60. >Snowfall’s blissful, primal sighs echoed through the tranquil room as she lifted and flexed her newly forming hooves, the thick bands of keratin gilded with dainty fetlocks of turquoise fur
  61. >While she continued to steady herself against the various machines lining the aisle, her hooves heralded her shaky but steady approach to the base of the stairs
  62. >I wasn’t surprised by the fact that she was happily taking a seat before me, but as she flicked her well-formed tail out of the way and rested on her haunches, I felt unsettled by the sight
  63. >She was… she was even sitting like a pony now…
  64. >“James, I… I know it looks like I’m further along than I was when you left… I haven’t cuddled with anypony else… It just kept progressing on its own… I… I-I’m sorry…”
  65. >She was still faintly smiling, but as she averted her shimmering eyes to the floor, I could perceive quite clearly that her smile was quivering with dismay
  66. “I was about to ask about that… but it’s just you here?”
  67. >“Yes… Oh, James, please believe me… I’ve been trying to stay perfectly still – maybe it’s fast blood flow that speeds up the infection but I… I don’t know how to stop it…”
  68. “Snowfall, you didn’t do anything wrong, nothing at all… please don’t think I’m mad at you…”
  69. >Mad? Definitely not…
  70. >She was doing everything in her power to hold off the infection, and was dealing with her missing feet and newfound tail and hooves like a champ
  71. >Worried? Absolutely, and then some…
  72. >When I realized that the infection was pretty much spread by direct contact with the ponies, I’d arrived at the conclusion that if you could escape the ponies, you were home free…
  73. >I’d desperately wanted to believe, unless you were in contact with a pony or half-transformed pony, things wouldn’t get any worse…
  74. >But I guess, if you ARE a half-transformed pony, you’re ‘always in contact with yourself,’ even if it may not be as fast and pronounced as it is when two ponies cuddle…
  75. >The more I peered over Snowfall’s rapidly devolving body, the more I became intimately aware of the grim reality of her situation
  76. >Her pants sagged around her waist, allowing her short – yet steadily, almost noticeably, growing – tail to spill over what would’ve previously been a thick denim barrier
  77. >Long strands of coarse white mane lay siege to the final pieces of darkly-colored hair atop her head, rendering years of haircuts inconsequential as it cascaded around her long, sharp horn
  78. >Even Snowfall’s lukewarm expression had begun falling prey to the changes as a muted turquoise tone bathed her markedly feminine features, a muzzle just beginning to form
  79. >“I’m still me in my head. I know my name was Alexander, and I was a student with you at Carmine, and that we’ve been best friends. I just hope ponydom never takes away that last part”
  80. “I hope so too, Snowfall… You’ve always been my best friend, always and forever”
  81. >She smiled, but with a distant gaze angled toward the floor, her middle finger idly poking at a small crack in the concrete using a chunk of turquoise keratin that had once been a fingernail
  82. >“James, do you think, when it comes down to it, maybe you and I could still get along even if I can’t stop this infection?”
  83. “Of course, Snowfall. I… I’d like to think you’re no different than the person I befriended years ago… That you’ll never change even in this new body…”
  84. >Snowfall, with her mouth buried in her chest and all the fluffy fur that had begun to adorn it, softly mumbled something under her breath
  85. “What was that? I couldn’t quite hear you”
  86. >I raised a couple fingers to my ear, turning my head slightly in hopes of catching her words more clearly
  87. >“S… hmm… wa… hmm hmm… frai… me…”
  88. “Snowfall, I…”
  89. >After my voice faded into the calm air of the machine shop, I stood up on the steps, gently rolled my head with a slight sigh, and descended to the floor, a couple feet to the side of Snowfall
  90. >As she wiped one of her eyes with the base of a slightly furry palm, I reached forward with one of my gloves and tenderly turned her head toward me
  91. “Whatever it is, you can talk to me about it. It’s okay, and I’m here for you. What did you want to ask me?”
  92. >After a quick sniffle, she endeavored to speak up for her poor listener who had not been endowed with the metaphorical radar dishes of equine ears
  93. >“I’m just wondering… James… why are you afraid of me?”
  94. >I recoiled with a furrowed brow as Snowfall’s accusation sent my thoughts in a thousand directions, but I worked hard to extinguish any that sought to paint me as a haplessly innocent victim
  95. “Afraid of you? Snowfall, did I do something to make you think I was afraid of you?”
  96. >“You were sitting on that top step for an awful long time… I don’t know… I thought you were going to, like, throw food down at me like I were some common animal at the zoo…”
  97. “Snowfall… come on, I would never do anything like that… You’re a kind, gentle pony and you deserve so much better than even what meager helpings I have to offer!”
  98. >As if on cue, her stomach meekly grumbled, a startlingly calm sound considering this pony had mostly been without food for the better part of a day, and then some
  99. >Taking a seat next to her, I unzipped my EMT pouch and retrieved the source of the sizable bulge that had been poking into my thigh, the red apple glistening as it caught the dim daylight
  100. >In the two or three seconds it had taken me to retrieve it, Snowfall’s mouth had begun absentmindedly hanging open, with a slender line of drool spilling down her cheek and wetting her fur
  101. >When the apple drifted nearer, her ears perked to attention and she licked her lips hungrily, a brief moment of lucidness returning long enough for her vigilantly sniff the air
  102. >As I loosely gripped the apple in an outstretched hand, Snowfall leaned forward with a voracious desire to grip it in her teeth, and came within inches before pulling back
  103. >The apple had brought the mental battle against her equine tendencies to a head, and, at least in this moment, human manners and a desire to appear ‘proper’ had won
  104. >Not by much, but humanity had won… for now
  105. >With methodical sluggishness, Snowfall steadied herself on her haunches and reached forward with one hand, quickly abandoning the plan as her other hand intently joined
  106. >Once the notably undexterous fingers clamped the apple in their grip, her stomach issued forth another rumble of hunger, voicing its disapproval of her painstaking methods
  107. >A moment later, the apple floated toward her mouth and became clasped between her teeth, the juicy fruit crunching tremendously as Snowfall took a bite and rolled onto her back
  108. >With a gleeful and unabatedly equine whinny, Snowfall voiced her bliss, the delicious treat causing her to fidget with expressed pleasure as she rolled animatedly
  109. >Her hind hooves kicked joyously in the air, their full movement impeded only slightly by the ill-fitting pants that sagged over her legs and rump, nearly demanding their own removal
  110. >Another bite into the apple’s hearty red skin elicited a new gleeful nicker, with the mostly-transformed mare slowing her chewing as she savored the food and turned toward me
  111. >“James, I hope you got one of these for yourself! Oh my stars, these taste amazing as a pony, but even as a human I bet they taste pretty good too! Where’d you find it?”
  112. “That good, huh? Well, I’ll have to keep that in mind. I wish I’d asked him where he got them”
  113. >“Hmph hmph”
  114. >Snowfall’s eyes became wide and inquisitive and she plucked the apple from her mouth before attempting to speak again
  115. >“Who’s this ‘him?’ There’s no way you would’ve gotten a stallion to barter with you… I don’t believe that for half a second…”
  116. >I couldn’t stifle my chuckle, as the very notion of doing business with any pony except Snowfall – and maybe Sky Meadows – would’ve been mired by far too much perceived criminality
  117. “No, there’s another human out there, if you would believe it”
  118. >Even though Snowfall was licking her lips almost constantly to stave off saliva and thoughts of the apple beside her, she sat up in a state of shock
  119. >“No way… That’s almost less believable… he’s fully human? No hooves, ears, tail? Not an equine hair on his head?”
  120. “Not a single one. I was as amazed by him as you are now”
  121. >Snowfall stared forward, blinking rapidly as she processed the ramifications of having someone else who would understand her best friend’s plight and desire to not be ponified
  122. >“James, that’s… astonishing… I thought I heard a few ponies mulling about upstairs, but if you mentioned I’m down here and could bring him here, by all means, I’d like to meet this guy”
  123. “You’re just saying that because you want him to give you more apples”
  124. >“Hey, don’t be silly, that’s a plus, but it’s not the only reason!”
  125. “Ah, well, all the same, it’d probably be a rather bad idea. He’s got particular qualms about half-transformed humans”
  126. >Snowfall kept a straight face, but it was doublecrossed by a subtle, anxious twitch of her tail
  127. >“Ah, maybe it’s for the best, then. If he went his own, separate way, then I guess we’re back to it being you and me, which isn’t a bad team at all!”
  128. >She grinned, but as she accelerated into the end of her sentence, it was clear that her thoughts weren’t settling well
  129. “Snowfall, I wouldn’t let him hurt you. I made sure he wouldn’t follow me here”
  130. >“Okay… but… what did he… what did he say?”
  131. “He said a lot of things, Snowfall”
  132. >“James, come on! What did he say about half-transformed humans? What did he say about me?”
  133. >With an exasperated sigh, I scratched the back of my neck and tried to clear the errant thoughts from my mind
  134. “Okay, he didn’t say this about YOU specifically, but he said half-transformed humans are… a risk… if you’re still fully human… they can… have a propensity to turn you without them realizing”
  135. >Snowfall forcefully released a long, irritated exhale, feebly flicking the apple away with a turquoise protohoof, as it was apparent that her appetite abruptly eluded her
  136. >The long pauses interrupting my phrasing hadn’t satisfied her, and my idle fidgeting with a fold in my jeans did considerably little to quell her concerns that I was disguising the truth
  137. >“What did he really say, James?”
  138. >I briefly drew in a breath and shut my eyes before responding
  139. “He likened half-transformed humans to… hand grenades that ponies already pulled the pin on. He said a lot, but that was, like, his thesis statement. His bottom line”
  140. >“Surely you don’t believe that though. He sounds like a crazy man by your standards”
  141. “Okay, well, maybe a little bit, but he saved me from a swarm of ponies that would’ve certainly put me through a fate worse than death”
  142. >Snowfall groaned with annoyance and crossed her arms, burying the turquoise of her protohooves in the muscular recesses provided by her armpits
  143. >“Ah… so… becoming a pony is a ‘fate worse than death?’ That’s definitely what your half-transformed, and continuing to transform with each passing minute, ‘best friend’ wants to hear”
  144. “Snowfall, it’s not just about becoming a pony. The herd thinks I killed one of their own – this little Pegasus named Clementine Breeze – and I don’t think they’re just going to let that slide”
  145. >Snowfall’s spine stiffened and she sat up straight as her tail continued its dance of anxious flicks
  146. >“Did you?”
  147. >I ran my fingers through my hair and buried my head in my hands, trying my best not to act too rashly in response to the audacity Snowfall must’ve conjured to simply ask such a question
  148. “Snowfall, you know we’re bounded by a code of doing no harm, and I do my best to always live up to it”
  149. >“Okay, I know, but that wasn’t what I asked. Did you, or did you not, ki-”
  150. “I didn’t kill her! For fuck’s sake, I didn’t kill her! Maybe she had it coming, but I was never, NEVER going to be the one to pull the trigger!”
  151. >Snowfall’s ears twitched with agitation and concern at the sudden outburst, while I became worried that my shouts would pierce through a door that was designed to hold in a din of band saws
  152. >“I’m sorry… I just wanted to know for sure…”
  153. “Snowfall, I didn’t kill her… and I know I’m going to lose sleep over the cries of the ponies that are relearning, in the worst way, what death is…”
  154. >I released a tortured sigh and wiped my brow, chasing away a couple drops of cool sweat
  155. >Snowfall’s pony instincts drove her to hug me the moment a tear commenced its winding path down my cheek, but she halted herself before getting too close
  156. >Still, while such a gesture may have usually been marked by an expression silently denoting compassion, this time it was tainted by a slight tinge of another emotion… fear… worry…
  157. >“I’m sure you did everything you could to save her”
  158. “I haven’t seen her body… I just hope she didn’t have to die in pain…”
  159. >“James, it’s all behind us. You’re not a killer – you’ve never even hurt one… Say it with me. ‘I’ve never hurt a pony’”
  160. >I let out a tremulous exhale before my throat opened enough to comply
  161. “I’ve never… I’ve never hurt a pony”
  162. >“Say it again”
  163. “I’ve never hurt a pony”
  164. >“That’s right. So we’re going to put the memory of this guy behind us, just like a bad dream, and the two of us are going to move forward”
  165. >I wiped my mouth and lower face apprehensively, brushing off a few specks of dried blood that had lingered from when Peter knocked me to the ground rather violently
  166. >As I pushed myself to my feet, I noticed just how sweaty my palms had become, prompting me to attempt cooling myself by rolling up the hoodie’s sleeve, unzipping it, and fanning myself
  167. >Snowfall looked on curiously as my aimless pacing carried me over the concrete floor, my footfalls echoing with irregular, unsteady rhythm as each report resonated among the machinery
  168. >After a few moments, I spied a band saw with a red blade guard and my pacing subsequently became more regular, more directed, more… purposefully determined
  169. >“James, is there something wrong?”
  170. >Peter had been true to his word – nestled in a dimly lit shadow to the machine’s side was a spool of white wire a bit more than a foot in diameter
  171. >Hoisting it from its resting place and brushing away only a few cobwebs, I could tell it was in good condition, and its modest heft of a few pounds suggested a gauge of respectable quality
  172. >“James, what’s over there? What did you find?”
  173. >Snowfall warily rose to an upright standing position, struggling to stay there as her hooves repeatedly buckled under her unsupported weight
  174. >The only saving grace she found proved to be the railing to the side of the stairs, followed by a nearby lathe, then the next closest machine, then the next, then the next as she approached
  175. >“What’s that wire for?”
  176. >I tenderly ran my fingers over the wooden spool, momentarily lost in a sea of thought as Snowfall’s hooves continued drawing nearer
  177. “I needed to get this wire. I just… Hopefully you understand”
  178. >“I’m confused… We’re practically starving down here, but you’re enamored by this… wire?”
  179. “Yeah, that’s… that’s right”
  180. >“But why?”
  181. “It’s… It’s not for me… I need to bring it back… to someone else”
  182. >Snowfall hung her head, her long curtain of colorless mane spilling over an expression that must’ve been an epitome of broken dejection
  183. >“Just because he saved you from those ponies doesn’t mean you owe him a damn thing”
  184. “It’s not a feeling of obligation… I just want to make the right choices going forward, and I think he can be helpful. For… for all of us”
  185. >Snowfall leveled her gaze at me, brushing her mane away from the slightly formed pony muzzle protruding from her face, just a bit further than I’d last noticed
  186. >“Can we talk about what you’re doing? And what exactly it is that you have in mind?”
  187. “Yeah, Snowfall, of course we can”
  188. >She shot me a toothy smile, and while social custom prompted me to respond in kind, I couldn’t help but feel unsettled by it
  189. >“Oh, thank you so very much”
  190. >I set the spool on top of the band saw’s table and gave Snowfall my full attention, the diminutive partially-transformed mare standing considerably shorter than me as her clothing sagged
  191. >Despite her small stature, she made herself more imposing not only with the fuzzy ears and fully formed horn protruding from the top of her head, but also with her general demeanor
  192. >As she crossed her arms and leaned unmovingly against a band saw a few yards away, she swiftly converted the lowly abandoned machine shop into an atmosphere of heavy discussion
  193. >“Oh, actually, first, if it isn’t too much of a hassle, could I see your pocketknife real quick? I think it’d be easier to cut that apple you gave me into slices”
  194. >I furrowed my brow for a moment, but it was a harmless request, and after a few moments of fumbling, I drew the folded knife from my waistband and presented it in an outstretched palm
  195. >Snowfall didn’t have much dexterity remaining to pick it up with one hand, but as the patchy turquoise fur of her fingers curled around the cold metal, she at least kept it from dropping
  196. >I could probably have just cut up the apple for her, right? Why wouldn’t she just ask… Wait, hold on, wait... at least I still have…
  197. >Trying to feign a few quick scratches on the small of my back didn’t elude Snowfall, and suddenly, she seemed to know as well as I did that there was a distinct lack of steel at my waistband
  198. >Her muzzle curled into a sickening grin before she tossed the pocketknife through the air, the sides of its handle glinting as it spun and caught a few rays of wandering daylight
  199. >It sailed to the far end of the machine shop, clattering loudly among a heap of unseen metal as it came to rest somewhere in the mechanical void
  200. >Before the clamor had even come to settle, a shimmering noise caught my attention and Snowfall’s horn brilliantly glowed, casting icy blue light over the floor, machines, and my terrified face
  201. >A moment later, my pistol hovered into view from behind her, the former promise of steel salvation rendered as useless as if I’d never had it in the first place
  202. >Snowfall’s eyes had practically glazed over with apathy by the time she telekinetically launched the pistol in a graceful arc toward the room’s stairs
  203. >A cold shiver ran up my spine as it skipped once… twice… three times… and came to rest next to the half-eaten apple at the base of the room’s only exit
  204. >Standing between me and any reasonable hope of escape was Snowfall’s casual smirk
  205. >“Don’t worry, James. I’m just trying to keep you honest”
  207. “Snowfall, wait, wait! Can’t we at least talk this over?”
  208. >“James, isn’t… isn’t that what we’re already doing?”
  209. >Snowfall wasn’t moving an inch from her well-composed stance against the band saw, but the posture sharply contrasted with her visibly racing thoughts, signaled by flicking ears and eyes
  210. >She hadn’t braced herself in preparation to pounce, but considering she’d already had more than a few seconds to size me up, she could spring into action any time she wanted
  211. >Every moment I permitted her to study my severely curtailed defenses was another moment I slipped closer to sealing my own fate through inaction
  212. >At this point, I probably wouldn’t even know what hit me by the time we were both rolling on the ground, giggling in a flurry of turquoise and who-knows-what colored fur
  213. >A fleeting gasp rushed into my throat when Snowfall’s tail twitched, but as the mostly-transformed mare continued leaning with her arms crossed, my adrenaline dissipated, if only slightly
  214. >“Just breathe, James. You’ll be alright. Now… uh… where were we?”
  215. >My gaze darted about the room, rapidly trying to differentiate the daylight glimmers of useless machinery from those of any handheld tool I could find resting upon a table
  216. >Please, at least give me something… a hammer, an axe, hell, I’d take a dull screwdriver if it at least represented something for me to hold on to…
  217. >No level of fear-addled scrutiny was enough to find as much so a rusty nail, and as my breathing quickened, I silently cursed the security priorities of whoever locked up for the weekend
  218. >The building had hallways with a half dozen unlocked doors, but not a single tool was amiss
  219. >I was a moment away from pinching my eyes shut and curling up to accept my fate when I remembered the EMT pouch at my waist, and in particular, the scalpels and syringes inside
  220. >“James, please have a seat, you look pale as a ghost…”
  221. >She spoke in a voice dripping with calm tenderness, but it carried a tone of intentional pacification, as though she expected me to be neutralized sitting down, literally and figuratively
  222. >My hand flew toward the side of my thigh, but as a shimmering sound erupted from the zipper’s tab and it jerked forward, I realized a moment too late that I’d been a bit slow on the draw
  223. >There was hardly enough time to mentally process what I was seeing before my hand shifted to snag it, snuffing out an icy blue glow that had enveloped the brilliant metallic target
  224. >My muscles faltered and failed to pull the shimmering zipper as I suddenly felt dizzy, the reason for the zipper’s strange action hitting me like a ton of bricks
  225. >“Why are-”
  226. “Oh, fuck…”
  227. >“Please calm d-”
  228. “Oh, fuck!”
  229. >It… She… Levitation magic wasn’t, in some convoluted way, an extension of Snowfall’s being, was it? She… she couldn’t infect me with it, could she?
  230. >My hand briskly recoiled, lurching in tandem with my body’s abrupt collapse as the strength in my legs gave way, dropping me to my knees
  231. >Shallow, labored breaths echoed through the machine shop as I feebly clamped a few fingers around my wrist, my hands weakly trembling as my thoughts swirled around the consequences
  232. >Worst-case visions of Snowfall telekinetically pinning me to the ground flashed through my mind, my hands and feet bound by a peculiarly lurid glow as they morphed into hooves
  233. >Or, maybe after having just barely impinged my fingers with ponydom, I was a perfect ninety-nine percent human candidate to spread it to unsuspecting victims
  234. >At first, something about the glow’s appearance had led me to believe it’d have a certain warmth, as though the mental activity of a unicorn’s exertion were activated in her levitational target
  235. >Reality was much further from this idealized scenario, as the aura had a… bizarre feeling… not characterized by familiar feelings of heat or electricity or magnetism, but something… bizarre…
  236. >The best I could do was hope and pray… oh… don’t let pony magic be infectious too… please don’t tell me these bastards had a ranged attack… please, for the love of God…
  237. >“Oh ponyfeathers, I’m so sorry! See, I’m telling you, you just need to ignore your silly thoughts and stop grappling for things”
  238. “Snowfall, please… I… I need… Ineedsomethingtohelp…”
  239. >She tugged herself away from the machine that had supported her and sunk down on to her hands & knees, meeting me at eye level with an expression of deeply heartfelt concern
  240. >There were still a few yards between us, but the distance was no barrier to Snowfall as her magical glow wrapped around the EMT pouch’s zipper and pressed it shut
  241. >I wanted to shoo her aura away as though it were a frail swarm of pestilent gnats, but the fear of testing fate – not to mention, Snowfall’s temper – swiftly quashed my intrigue
  242. >My eyes became misty as the shimmering crescendoed, enveloping the entire pouch with blue radiance before Snowfall undid the straps securing it to my belt and claimed it as her own
  243. >Aside from a faint whimper, she found no resistance from me as the robust pouch floated through the air and came to rest beside her, leaving my thigh feeling naked in its absence
  244. >“You’re hurt, and you need to calm down. I want to help you, but the first thing to do is to take some deep breaths and just relax. I’ll give this back to you in a minute”
  245. “Can I have it n-now? P-Please… I… I n-need to look over myself”
  246. >My words floated through the serene air with pitiful weakness, as one would expect from a child seeking favor in the wake of a tantrum
  247. >Snowfall, having burned her fuse of patience to its final inches, gently shushed me before the capricious dynamite at her wit’s end exploded
  248. >“You’ll get it back in a moment. You can trust me to take care of you. You trust me to look out for you, right?”
  249. >Tarrying to immediately answer, I averted my eyes toward the tightly clenched fists idly resting on my jeans, my knuckles having long since turned white with dread
  250. >Snowfall took notice of my distracting jitters, and a moment later, the fists were wrapped in an icy blue glow as she did her best to loosen them
  251. “Snowfall, stop!”
  252. >“I’m just trying to he-”
  253. “Stop, stop! I don’t know if getting touched by magic will turn me into a pony, and I don’t want to find out; just stop it! Now!”
  254. >As she culpably flattened her ears against her head and complied, I extended my fingers and slowly rubbed my sweating palms against my jeans
  255. >My nerves were still undeniably frazzled, but as I gently swayed with the motions, I rocked myself into a calmer mental state, my curt gasps now giving way to deep, rhythmic breaths
  256. >Snowfall had averted her eyes, but continued to watch me through her peripheral vision as she sank into a seated position on her haunches
  257. >“James, I’m quite sure it doesn’t… Maybe there are specific spells like that, but, as a unicorn, I just… kind of… know. Not only did levitation come innately, but so did knowing its limits”
  258. >She waited for a response, but when none came from me, the silence was broken solely by the zipper’s pull tab, gripped between a couple groups of her stiff – rather hooved – fingers
  259. >Her awkward attempts to open the pouch were repeatedly fraught with stiff fumbling, while the prospect of surrendering her fine motor skills to telekinesis rapidly gained favor
  260. >I raised my own hands into view for a quick inspection, and was satisfied to find that neither the color nor texture of my palms bore anything out of the ordinary, much unlike my friend’s
  261. >However, in practical terms, all that really meant was that Snowfall would need to physically tackle me if she were to accomplish what she may’ve seemed reticently intent on doing
  262. >“Well I guess now’s as good a time as any to ask again… do you trust me to look out for you?”
  263. >Snowfall plucked a wipe from the EMT pouch and eyed the spot on my face from which blood had once been trickling, hesitating only briefly as she moved to telekinetically wipe it away
  264. >I scratched my neck with a trembling hand, concurrently meeting the heavy-hearted gaze of my best friend who was, by all accounts, rapidly turning to a mare – if I didn’t call her one already
  265. >The physical changes painted her as an enemy if I were to use so broad a brush, but Snowfall’s seemingly unmanipulated mental state left me with tenuous hope that I could still trust her
  266. >She’d fought off her animalistically social tendencies once before, all because of how worried she was about me…
  267. >Although…
  268. >To what extent was that because she simply didn’t want to be in a herd without me, and intended on bringing me into the fold before moving on with our lives?
  269. >And was her divergence from the rest of the herd really a testament to our friendship, or had they let her escape knowing fully well she’d lead them – and me – to witnessing my demise?
  270. “Do I trust you to look out for me? That’s a… hard question for me to answer”
  271. >Snowfall slowed her motions until they stopped altogether
  272. >“Y-You’re joking… We’ve… We’ve known each other for years… We’ve been through so much together…”
  273. >She sniffled and adjusted her seated posture, flicking her tail free from where a few newly grown strands had snagged on her pants
  274. “Snowfall, there’s no coming back from this… I don’t want to be a pony if… even if it takes everything in my power to avoid it…”
  275. >“I didn’t think you’d be nearly so upset by me taking away your weapons… Weapons you’d never even use… Would… W-Would you really do ANYTHING?”
  276. >I wiped an eye with the base of my palm, stealing a glance down the aisle of the machine shop as I pulled my hand away
  277. >One of Snowfall’s ears unconsciously spun toward the object of my focus, but she didn’t follow my gaze as I continued peering at the pistol, its steel lying apathetically in the faint daylight
  278. >With a long, forceful exhale, my eyes took a wandering path across the machine shop’s nearest row of machinery and the floor before greeting Snowfall’s gaze again
  279. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you”
  280. >Snowfall pressed her lips together and nodded slowly, the motion appearing almost as difficult to discern as her subtle disapproval of my response
  281. >“But if that were really true, why did you get so upset about losing your weapons? If you weren’t going to use them in the first place…”
  282. “They… They make me feel like I have just a little bit of control, okay? Whenever I see a pony with that sickening smile, I can’t help but worry exactly what’s going on in their twisted mind!”
  283. >As I averted my eyes, I noticed Snowfall recoiling slightly after my implication that she was lumped in with the ‘sickeningly smiling ponies,’ as though it were a hateful slur
  284. >“James, surely you know I’m always looking out for you, that I would never let anything horrid happen to you…”
  285. “But you’re not talking about ponification when you say that…”
  286. >“Okay, I’ll rephrase: I’d never let anything happen to hurt you. And it’s not like I’m in pain on account of these changes…”
  287. >Snowfall brushed a few errant strands of mane to the side of her face, which was ultimately for naught as she began to sway her head in a lackadaisical circle
  288. >Her snowy white curtain of hair, which spilled from its origins on her scalp and the entire back of her neck, rolled and flowed in waves as a few faint pops and clicks resonated from her neck
  289. >As if that alone weren’t enough to emphasize the tangible reality that her bones were still in the process of actively shifting – without pain – she mimicked the motion with her wrist
  290. >To be fair, the elongated mass of turquoise fur couldn’t be called a wrist without taking some liberties, but whatever it was becoming, it too clicked and popped without a peep of discomfort
  291. “Still, Snowfall, you have to understand, if I can manage to remain human, that’s absolutely what I’m going to do”
  292. >“Oh, I know. And for as long as we’re living together, I’d never force that on you if you weren’t ready to join this newfound species. I’m not socially incompetent the way Sky Meadows was”
  293. >Snowfall sported a faint smile following her privy wisecrack, but it faded to a neutral expression when it went up against my stare of confusion
  294. “Uh… Sky Meadows, the one who infected you?”
  295. >“Yeah, she really thought she was doing the right thing and that it was crazy to not want to be a pony. Granted, I didn’t help my case when I said I’d do ‘anything’ to get rid of my hangover”
  296. “She took that just a bit too literally, eh?”
  297. >“Well, that, plus my lack of flashing neon signs saying ‘fuck no, get away, you stupid horse’”
  298. >Her humor and extant application of profanity gradually had elicited my smile, and it didn’t take long for her own grin to become noticeable, even audibly so in the way she spoke
  299. >As I found myself idly running my hands along the thigh of my jeans, the scratch of denim was backed up by a melody of faint, snickering laughter from Snowfall
  300. “Ah, you know, this whole apocalypse all just one big misunderstanding. Let’s just ask the ponies upstairs to undo the changes they’ve already done to you, and we’ll be on our merry way”
  301. >“Hmmm. I don’t think it’d work quite like that, James. Let’s just shelf that idea for now”
  302. >After a few seconds, Snowfall’s laughter gave way to a brief bout of coughing, causing me to wonder whether pony lungs were slightly stronger, or weaker, than her initial set
  303. >Nevertheless, after my trivial thoughts dissipated, a hurricane of contemplation swirled
  304. >In spite of the silence otherwise filling the machine shop as the last chuckles faded, several serious thoughts whipped through my mind as though they were roaring gusts
  305. “Snowfall, you… you know how you mentioned ‘if I were ready’ to be ponified? If… This is actually kind of hard to ask… Would you be willing… happy… to do so if I wanted you to?”
  306. >“That’d be a hell of a change of heart by you. But yeah, if it means that we could get on with our lives, link up with herds without animosity… It… It certainly has its benefits”
  307. “Cool, just thought I’d ask”
  308. >I coughed weakly and uneasily – a vain attempt to put the topic to bed – and ended up being wildly unsuccessful
  309. >“Have you thought about this before?”
  310. >While shifting my weight, I scratched thoughtfully at the side of my head, not so much concerned with the answer as much as how I worded it
  311. “Sky Meadows asked and gave me the chance to be… peaceably converted… I guess her social skills have improved a bit since yesterday, if she didn’t go all gung-ho right out the gate”
  312. >Snowfall cocked her head to the side and furrowed her brow in slight confusion
  313. >“Doesn’t she know that you and I are, like, a thing?”
  314. “Oh, come on, it’s not like you’re losing your virginity here. She thought-”
  315. >“To be fair, I haven’t lost it as a MARE, so fingers crossed you end up as a ravishing stallion”
  316. >I paused, torn between so many possible responses, the least of which was the fact that Snowfall barely had fingers to cross any more
  317. “Okay, uh, duly noted. So, she thought she needed to return a favor after I tidied up her wounds, and she thought, much as I did, that I might not even make it past the others back here”
  318. >“And you put some serious consideration into her offer?”
  319. >I bit my lip and motioned animatedly with my hands as though I were comparing the weights of a pair of invisible apples
  320. “At the time, I had to think long and hard about it before saying no. I really don’t want a transformation fraught with pain, and man, I’ve seen ponies ruthlessly fixated on their conversions”
  321. >“Well, if that was before Clementine Breeze got whacked, I seriously doubt they’re going to show you any more kindness now. Your situation hasn’t gotten any better…”
  322. >I gently sighed and wiped my forehead, in spite of the lack of sweat that I’d expected to accumulate among the slight warmth wafting through the room
  323. “Things are looking up a little bit. There has been… one… one point of light amid all the darkness…”
  324. >Snowfall smiled, jovially baring her teeth that had morphed and flattened to become nearly useless at meat-eating, but maintained their ability to convey jubilation
  325. >“You know I’m always here for you”
  326. >My eyes widened slightly and my spine stiffened
  327. >I… I was talking about Peter in this… in this particular context…
  328. >Snowfall’s ears flicked and drooped slightly, the mare’s grin rapidly fading with each moment of silence as she slowly realized that my commendation hadn’t been targeted at her
  329. >I chanced a quick look at her stern eyes, although doing so accomplished nothing, aside from all but confirming my guilt of having praised an absent entity
  330. >After drawing in a long breath, I precariously questioned whether my words would dig me deeper into the hole in which I’d already found myself
  331. “Well, the way I see it, Peter’s offering me an opportunity to reach a point where my ponification won’t be a concern. Plus, he’s pretty well armed if the fight comes to the herd’s doorstep”
  332. >Snowfall parted her lips and shifted uneasily on her haunches, pausing for a few moments as she analyzed my words
  333. >“Who’s… Peter? Wait, that’s… that’s not the guy who killed Clementine Breeze, is it? James, what the hell?! You’re finding hope from a… a pony killer?!”
  334. “Snowfall, relax! He’s it’s not like he’s proud of what he needed to do to her, and if we could get the ponies off our backs by any other means, no one else would need to die!”
  335. >“’Need to die,’ oh, that’s rich! You act like Clementine Breeze put the barrel to her own head and squeezed the trigger! Who else ‘needs to die’ in his plan? Sky Meadows? Storm Cloud? Me?”
  336. “The plan doesn’t involve killing anyone!”
  337. >Snowfall gesticulated wildly as she continued her high-energy tirade
  338. >“Bullshit! When your only tool’s a hammer, every problem looks like a nail! What else are you going to do, hunker down until you run out of supplies? Because THAT totally worked at my place”
  339. “I’m not going to take this sitting down, twiddling my thumbs until the herd converges! We’re going to get the school’s radio online, and… I… I don’t know what he… has planned from there…”
  340. >Snowfall broke eye contact with me and glanced at spool of wire overhanging the band saw’s table by a few inches, her gaze full of dull contempt for the inanimate object
  341. >“All this is going to do is lead to more death! If they send in the military to take the town, so many ponies will die, even if the blood isn’t on your hands… Or worse, they’ll just glass the place…”
  342. “They don’t need to fight for the whole town if they’re just trying to get us out of here!”
  343. >Her mouth hung unconsciously open for a couple of seconds as her piercing stare snapped back to me
  344. >After a few moments, her formerly locked eyes began to wander, darting back and forth as they provided a glimpse into the thoughts bouncing through the fraught mare’s mind
  345. >“James, there’s no way they’d take a half-transformed human like me to a safe zone… They’d be afraid a helicopter ride like that would end with a unicorn at the controls…”
  346. >I bit my lip and pinched my eyes shut, apparently doing everything I could to avoid Snowfall’s realization as my head slumped toward the floor
  347. >“Wait… you weren’t even planning on bringing me along, were you?!”
  348. >With a long inhale, I brought my head back to level with hers
  349. “I haven’t thought through the plan all that much! I’m just doing what Peter tells me he needs us to do. I mean, I can always back out la-”
  350. >“What Peter says he ‘needs to do?’ Did he tell you that killing ponies is something you’ll ‘need to do’ too if the time comes? What about leaving me to the herd?! You’re just abandoning me?!”
  351. >My breathing came in long, sharp gasps, as though the weight of my decisions were finally catching up to me and had taken a seat squarely on my chest
  352. >Aside from Snowfall’s own quickening breathing, it was the only sound to fill the room for a few seemingly eternal seconds
  353. >“You can deny either one of those points if I’m wrong on either front. So, what, he’s intent on making you a pony killer AND an exile?”
  354. >I couldn’t bring myself to answer Snowfall’s expression, an expression that I knew would be saddled with the heartbreaking reality of impending abandonment
  355. >“We’ve known each other for years, James… YEARS… And you’d sooner leave me in the dust for someone you met hours ago because you’re so scared of ponies…”
  356. “If there were any other path, I’d take it! You know that! But the way I see it, your ponydom’s firmly set in and only gets worse from here, and I’m just trying to avoid that happening to me!”
  357. >Both Snowfall’s eyes and mine were glimmering pleadingly, but, as though I needed further reason to question whether I’d made a wrong choice, hers transmitted undertones of accusation
  358. >“Fine! Just take your stupid wire back to Peter and build the damn radio…”
  359. >Her horn began to glow brightly as a shimmering sound filled the room, followed by a sharp crash a moment later as the spool of wire tipped from the band saw and tumbled to the floor
  360. >The wooden circle forming its base sang a brief, hollow song before coming a rest a couple of feet away from me, and I carefully picked up the object that had so thoroughly hurt our friendship
  361. >I hugged it against my stomach as I rose to my feet, while Snowfall steadied herself against the band saw and rose to her hind hooves, glaring up at me as she silently ushered my departure
  362. “Snowfall, I don’t want to leave like this! I know… I’ll be back for you one day… It might be weeks… months even, but I know I’ll be back…”
  363. >“And why would you ever come back to a place like this, when every room, basement, and attic is crawling with us ponies, the vile cretins?”
  364. “Humanity’s developed a vaccine for practically every other disease under the sun… Those of us who still have hands might still be able to turn this around…”
  365. >Snowfall flared her nostrils and released a long, pensive breath
  366. >“You don’t know that for sure… What if this really is the end?”
  367. >I opened my mouth in hopes of responding, but none of my thoughts made it from my mind’s staging area to my voicebox
  368. >“I should’ve never tried to follow you… I should’ve just accepted Sky Meadows’ friendship and joined their herd sooner… They actually loved me… They cared for me…”
  369. “Snowfall, I DO care for you… and you’ll see, just like you did for me, I’ll be back one day… with… with a cure for this hell the ponies put us through…”
  370. >Any hopes of appearing stoic were brusquely foiled as I shifted my weight uneasily between my feet, seemingly prompting Snowfall to question anew every truthful thing I’d ever said
  371. >She wiped a tear from her eyes as her horn glimmered, levitating my EMT pouch onto the spool that I had clamped against my torso
  372. >“Just… go… I can’t… I can’t believe this is what we’ve come to, and I can’t bear to look at you like this any longer… Get away from me… Just walk away…”
  373. >With reckless abandon for what the wobbling, cross-armed mare might do, I took a few steps toward her, planting myself defiantly at her side
  374. >She refused to make eye contact with me, instead taking a vested interest in the faint spots of rust dotting the saw, even after I tried to speak
  375. “Snowfall, please don’t be like this…”
  376. >“Don’t forget your gun on the way out for all the heroic killings you ‘need to do.’”
  377. >I supported my belongings in one hand as my other tenderly reached for her forming muzzle, gently turning her gaze a few degrees to face my own
  378. “Snowfall…”
  379. >She tore her head away from my fingers just before a blue glow enveloped them, throwing my hand down to my side with insistent telekinetic force
  380. >“GO”
  381. >After a few seconds that seemed to drag on for an eternity, my feet finally began to diffidently carry me toward the steep stairs that would lead me out of the room
  382. >And away from Snowfall… for… for who knows how long…
  383. >Glancing down at the spool of wire, I couldn’t help but find myself wondering whether it was remotely worth it
  384. >What if Peter was wrong about getting the radio to work? What if the room he was hiding in had already been overrun, and I was back to living the lone survivor lifestyle?
  385. >There were too many what ifs, and they all circled back t-
  386. >I was still a few yards away from the stairs when a gentle, almost intentionally muted, rustle of fabric behind me caught my attention
  387. >Furrowing my brow proved to be much quicker and easier than investigating the disturbance, and it took a couple seconds for me to turn around and identify the noise’s source
  388. >Immediately, I flinched to side, throwing myself against the thick steel housing of a lathe as a flurry of turquoise rushed past my knees, coming within inches of me as it slid to a stop
  389. “Snowfall, what’s gotten into you?!”
  390. >All I could register was a blur of color as the mare rushed at me again, prompting me to throw the wire and pouch to the ground amid my attempts to dodge her
  391. >With a din of heavy breaths, she came to a halt on the concrete in the aisle’s center, thankfully, not between me and the exit
  392. >“I’m sorry, James, I tried… Honestly, I… I really tried to fight it…”
  393. >I stared down at the strikingly animalistic profile of my best friend, standing about three feet tall as she balanced her weight among her hind hooves and her mostly-formed forehooves
  394. >With this angle and four-legged posture, her swiftly fusing forehooves bore only a slight resemblance to her unchanged hands from a few hours ago, marked by faint bends in her joints
  395. >Her clothes had been removed and lay in a heap at the aisle’s far end, rendering her naked, save for the sea of turquoise fur that bathed modest swathes of her body from head to hoof
  396. >While her ears twitched and she shifted combatively on her hooves, her tail worked double time to counter her swaying and flick aggressively
  397. >There was no denying that by this point in her transformation she was better suited to life on four legs… and she was fucking fast at it, too
  398. “Snowfall, what the hell are you doing?!”
  399. >Snowfall flicked her mane to the side and flared her nostrils as she drew in a deep breath
  400. >“Bipedalism doesn’t work for me! I was only doing that to humor you because I thought you’d be upset to see your best friend walking around on four legs like she belonged in a barn!”
  401. >“I should’ve done away with my clothes a long time ago, too! You’re lucky I’m not a Pegasus, otherwise my flighty instincts would’ve ridden me of those long before you returned!”
  402. >“But hey, I guess none of that matters, since you were never planning on staying with your doomed-to-ponydom friend in the first place! So what if I’m embracing my new species?”
  403. >“I hope it doesn’t bother you too much James, because you’re going to be seeing me like this a lot when I’m through with you!”
  404. >I planted my feet and raised my fists menacingly as Snowfall lurched into action again, barreling down on me with lightning-quick speed that had eluded her the entirety of her bipedal life
  405. >Confidence in my ‘armor’ against the ponies rapidly crumbled as her horn shot off sparks of blue light, swiftly raising the ankle of my jeans and exposing several inches of skin
  406. >I yanked the targeted leg out of the way before Snowfall could establish solid contact, but as she crashed into me, we both fell to the concrete
  407. >Her hooves flailed for a few moments amid a flurry of turquoise fur and white hair as she struggled to reestablish her stance, granting me a half second’s head start in righting myself
  408. >As soon as I had my bearings about me, I backed up a couple yards from her, staying light on my feet as I prepared for another onslaught
  409. “Snowfall, stop, I thought you said you respected my wishes to not be a pony! You said you wanted me to just go away, not even ten seconds ago!”
  410. >As the mare planted her hooves, her horn shimmered back to life, casting an eerie glow over the dimly lit floor and her enraged expression
  411. >“You never NEEDED to be a pony, James, but I draw the line at you abandoning me! I’d hoped to catch you off guard and make this a bit easier, but you’re not winning a fight against a unicorn!”
  412. >The worst part was, she was absolutely right about that
  413. >I wasn’t going to win in a hand-to-hoof fight with her, and as much as I had told myself I would never actually resort to using Peter’s gun, that had been b-
  414. >With a sharp tug, the front of my shirt was nearly yanked out of my hoodie as it became enveloped in a blue glow, dragging me forward in the direction of Snowfall
  415. >She hardly moved as I stumbled toward her, rolling to the side as I extended my arms and pushed her away before sliding to the ground a few feet away
  416. >I tried to kick myself to my feet, but was terrified to find that my shoes had been pinned to the concrete, sparking with icy blue intensity as Snowfall focused on keeping me exactly where I was
  417. >She was using a considerable amount of her fledgling magic to hold me in place with such unassailable force, but it was definitely working thus far
  418. >As I felt my shirt collar tightening and the glow filling the lower corners of my vision, I noticed her telekinesis waver only slightly when I tried to probe her magic’s strength with one of my feet
  419. “Snowfall, this isn’t you! The virus is fucking with your head and making you more aggressive than I know you naturally are! You have to fight it!”
  420. >My hands, still unrestrained by her thinly stretched magical resources, grappled with my collar in a desperate attempt to keep myself in control of my own throat
  421. >“Oh, no, that’s where you’re wrong, James. I’m totally in control. This is entirely me doing the fighting, and it’s entirely you who’s to blame”
  422. >As the unicorn’s hooves clicked nearer against the concrete, her strength intensified and I could begin to discern the beads of sweat that had formed on her brow amid the strenuous effort
  423. >She didn’t appear to be enjoying it nearly as much as Storm Cloud had, but knowing the kind of person she once was, becoming abruptly endowed with magic would elicit a small power trip
  424. >Her face, having morphed about halfway into a muzzle with a strained expression of exertion, was nearly unrecognizable as that of a former human male, let alone that of Alexander
  425. >Still, I needed to know whether he was still somewhere in there, if only for morbid curiosity granting me permission to turn the page on his chapter
  426. “The fencing team, sophomore year! Do you remember what we were arguing about after that event?”
  427. >If it were true that fully converted ponies lose their bad memories… Surely Snowfall wouldn’t remember the specifics of that fight…
  428. >“Oh yeah, even that broken foil would really come in handy right now, wouldn’t it?”
  429. >Well, fuck, I must’ve really pissed you off if this isn’t the virus doing the fighting…
  430. >“Alas, life isn’t fair, James, and sometimes it takes a beatdown by a pastel pony to remind you of that…”
  431. >I briefly gagged as her telekinetic grip tightened around the sensitive muscles of my throat, but as the otherwise judicious unicorn came a bit closer, she realized her mistake a moment too late
  432. >The fleeting force of her magic around my arm had little effect, and in a single quick, committed blow, my fist met the underside of her jaw with a sickening crash, followed by a cry of agony
  433. >As Snowfall stumbled backwards, I felt the external forces around my body dissipate, allowing me to scramble away from her while she remained dazed
  434. >She continued reeling and rubbing her muzzle for a precious few seconds, and as I dove to the base of the stairs, I thrust my hand forward until I felt it wrap around the cool steel of the pistol
  435. >By the time I glanced back at my attacker, she’d become well aware of my intentions, and let out a bestial snarl I could’ve never expected from an equine
  436. >At the same time, my plan to appear more daunting by rising to my feet and looming over her provided fleetingly little intimidation, her horn flickering to life again after its brief downtime
  437. >My vision still remained slightly foggy from my time spent brawling, but as Snowfall appeared in the general vicinity of the pistol’s sights, my message hit its target even if the bullet wouldn’t
  438. >Both of my hands gripped the pistol tightly in anticipation of Snowfall trying to yank it from me, but to my surprise, as the pistol became enveloped in blue, all I noticed was a faint click
  439. >My questions and fears were answered less than half a second later as a sharp clattering rang out from the floor a few inches in front of my feet
  440. >Snowfall’s expression twisted into a pompous smile, proud of herself for having found the pistol’s magazine release in record time
  441. >“You dropped something”
  442. “Turn your horn off, however you do that. I’m not messing around”
  443. >My knuckles turned white as the stippled texture of the grip dug into my palms, the adrenaline of the situation driving me to clasp the gun with excessive tension
  444. >“James, I’m not sure you know how a pistol works, and I don’t think you’re in a position to be demanding things. See, the bullets go in the clip, which, when you drop-”
  445. >My hands slid up slightly on the grip, firming cupping the back of the pistol’s slide
  446. “I know how this thing works, Snowfall. What YOU mean are ‘rounds’ and ‘magazines.’ And I’ve still got one round left in the chamber that you didn’t clear, but that one round is all I need”
  447. >She furrowed her brow and craned her neck, peering at the pistol from whatever angle might grant her insight or the ability to clear the purported final round she couldn’t see
  448. >Her expression conveyed that she was visibly perplexed, but not turned away from what would prove to be a curious mechanical puzzle, if not for the high stakes
  449. “If you try to use your magic again, bad things are going to happen”
  450. >“You’re not going to kill me. You’re into that ‘do no harm’ stuff like it’s prime jerk off material”
  451. >Snowfall’s lip twitched, but she managed to stifle a faint chuckle amid the gallows humor playing through her mind
  452. >While her tail flicked and she shifted her weight on her hooves, I noticed a familiar glimmer in her eye… the look of a pony sizing me up while she weighs the risks of making a move
  453. “Every second that passes, I find it harder to condemn Peter for what he did to a pony like Clementine Breeze. This is serious, and you being smug has no place here”
  454. >“What, would you honestly kill ME? Your best friend? I helped carry you through years at… at Carmine…”
  455. >In lieu of responding, I took a moment to carefully realign the sights with Snowfall’s sinking expression, hopeful that it would ultimately be a pointless task, done purely for show
  456. >“C-Come on, James, I’m not one of those senseless horse monsters out there… It… It’s me! I remembered that fight we had after the fencing event, didn’t I? I’m… I’m still myself!”
  457. “But you might not be for long…”
  458. >Snowfall’s eyes shrunk to pinpricks as her ears, perked to full attention, caught my every word with brutal, unmistakable clarity
  459. >“No, wait, I’m sorry! James, please! I was scared that you’d leave forever, that I’d never get to see the only true friend I’ve had for the past decade! But you’re yourself, and that’s okay!”
  460. “I’m… myself?”
  461. >Snowfall lowered her stance by a nearly indistinguishable degree, sinking on her hind hooves in a fruitless attempt to appear smaller… less threatening… not worth the cost of a cartridge…
  462. >“Yes, you’re free to do your own thing, to live your life the way you want! Please, James, I can respect that! Just give me a chance to make friends with new herds… I-I just need a chance!”
  463. “Snowfall, I might not leave if I knew I’d never be back. I wouldn’t be gone forever”
  464. >“L-Leave, s-stay, that’s all up to you! I-It’s not for me to say! I can see that now – it was wrong for me to try to tell you what to do, and I’m sorry! You can go away, a-and I mean it this time!”
  465. >Her misty eyes shimmered as she stared down the barrel of the gun, occasionally vacillating her gaze back up to me to make a silent appeal
  466. >She opened her mouth to verbalize the mental rehearsals that were undoubtedly bouncing about her mind, but as I spied my possessions against the aisle’s edge, I figured I’d heard enough
  467. “Pass me the wire and EMT pouch. Peter’s probably worried sick about where I’ve been all this time”
  468. >Snowfall might’ve had yet more to say, but instead she nodded vigorously before walking up to the spool of wire and EMT pouch
  469. >Her horn shimmered momentarily with its familiar blue, but was extinguished almost as quickly as it started
  470. >With a sharp gasp, her eyes went wide and she collapsed to the ground before covering her head with her forelimbs
  471. >“No, no! Wait! I didn’t mean to use my magic! Please, it was an accident! Please! Oooh, I can’t do anything right! At this rate, I wouldn’t even be able to find a herd to take me in! Oh, hayseed!”
  472. >Snowfall stayed where she had fallen, trembling with tightly shut eyes as her tears formed a small puddle on the concrete
  473. >Her ears had flattened against her head, but they registered the clicks of me picking up the pistol’s magazine, re-inserting it into the grip, and double-checking the breech
  474. >I hadn’t been bluffing about there being a round there, and I breathed a sigh a relief that it hadn’t been necessary to demonstrate
  475. >I was apprehensive to approach Snowfall after she’d already deceived me once, but each approaching footstep caused her to shudder and turn away from her potentially foreboding fate
  476. >By the time I stood where she had once been, she’d meekly kicked herself another ten feet down the aisle and was facing away from me, like a troublesome dissident awaiting execution
  477. >Her forelimbs remained wrapped around her head as I picked up my possessions, strapping the pouch around my belt before I slung the wire over my shoulder
  478. >With a tremulous croak, she spoke up softly through a muzzle that remained pressed into the concrete
  479. >“James, I-I-I can’t s-see you, so I can’t use my… my magic… I’m going to keep my head here until I hear the door shut behind you… J-Just please tell me… Am I going to be alright?”
  480. >I couldn’t help but crack a weak smile, even if there wasn’t anyone to see it
  481. “Well, I’M certainly not going to hurt you… And you’re a smart, medically inclined unicorn with a big heart. Your… Your herd will be lucky to have you”
  482. >She didn’t verbally acknowledge me, but as her head rocked in what I presumed to be a nod of affirmation, I found evidence that she’d at least heard me
  483. >I was more than a little upset about the looming inevitability of giving up my best friend to ponydom, but if she and I had truly reached an impasse, it was something I’d need to accept
  484. >When I reached the base of the stairs, I dropped to a knee and unzipped my EMT pouch, retrieving a generous array of basic essentials including bandages, gauze, and cleaning pads
  485. >After collecting them into a small heap where I knew Snowfall would see them, I double-checked this pile that represented about a third of the supplies I’d once carried with me
  486. >Climbing the metal steps to the door leading out of the room, my right leg was discernably a bit lighter, but I knew that I was leaving the absent supplies in good hands… er, hooves
  487. >Go show ‘em what you can do, Snowfall… I just hope you don’t get too many patients as a result of what Peter and I are bound to do…
  489. >The scaffolding in front of the hallway door gently creaked when I kneeled beneath the door handle, studiously pressing my ear against the cool steel as I prepared to exit the machine shop
  490. >While I couldn’t delude myself out of the fact that the hallway would likely contain at least a couple of ponies, I needed to know whether they were attentive, and more importantly, nearby
  491. >Unfortunately, with the door presenting an unforgiving lack of windows, it didn’t give up that knowledge quite so readily while I continually adjusted my hearing
  492. >The door vibrated gently from a pair of unseen, muted voices that seemed far-flung, but given the auditory insulation, the best I could do was guess their distance
  493. >Surely if they heard our shouting match, they’d have rushed in and saved their friend from staring down the barrel of a gun, rather than simply setting an ambush on the door’s other side…
  494. >As I glanced back at the turquoise mare trembling a few feet below, I shook my head in censure upon recalling just how close she’d come to the brink of death
  495. >Whether it was Clementine Breeze, Storm Cloud, or even Snowfall to some extent, these ponies zealously perpetrated their idea of friendship to a fault
  496. >If they thought another herd member was in trouble or there were another human to convert in the area, they’d unceasingly spring to action, and they weren’t overcome by fear of harm
  497. >Snowfall pressed her tightly shut eyes against the concrete and softly whimpered as she continued to wonder why I wasn’t leaving the room, and whether my gun was still trained on her
  498. >Okay, well, they weren’t overcome by fear of harm unless it got really, really dire…
  499. >As I thumbed the pistol’s safety to ensure it was ready to fire, I prayed that my reasoning was correct and the door would swing open without happening upon any fur-lined obstacles
  500. >A moment later, vile curses ran through my mind as the handle clicked and the hinges creaked noisily with my nudging, opening a slender portal into the dim hallway
  501. >With my pistol trained on the vertical bar of darkness, I was momentarily relieved by its unchanged appearance from how I remembered it in hours and days past
  502. >However, the brief respite didn’t last for long as a pair of dimly shimmering orbs came into view and bounced a few wandering rays of daylight that had snuck in at the corridor’s distant end
  503. >“Melody… I thought the humans were in the other hallway…”
  504. >Each of the orbs gazed widely, flickering with each blink between long, tense bouts of staring
  505. >The dark silhouettes of their owners stood unremittingly straight, flicking their tails with almost as much annoyance as there was fear, like my appearance had interrupted their conversation
  506. >It took every fiber of my being to stifle the instinct to run, shifting the spool of cable securely onto my shoulder lest I abruptly jettison my odyssey’s motive, cumbersome as it may’ve been
  507. >A game of strategy was afoot, considering it was fairly ambiguous as to who was the hunter, and who was the prey in the current scenario
  508. >Essentially, whoever took off running was making a solid case for themselves as being the latter, and I’d already spent more than enough time playing the role of hapless prey this weekend
  509. >I tightened my grip around the pistol and lined up one of the stallions in the background of its sights, the steel gently shifting as I committed to an appeal of aggression
  510. >As one of the two stallions softly whispered to the confidante at his side, it appeared as though their exchange was meant to remain intimate between them… for now…
  511. >“Shouldn’t… Should there be two humans?”
  512. >“I thought there would be, but maybe they befriended the other…”
  513. >“Ponyfeathers, could they have snuck out?”
  514. >“I dunno… Want me to go grab Daisy and the others?”
  515. >Daisy…
  516. >While the name of that torturous progenitor bounced ominously through my mind, I realized that the ponies had passed the ball into my court, and if I didn’t act fast, my time would run out
  517. >Shifting on the soles of my shoes, I pressed forward into the hallway, shutting the machine shop’s door behind me as the pair of ponies remained stationary in my vision’s far reach
  518. >At first it had been difficult to determine whether they understood the purpose of the pistol wrapped in my grip, but as one stallion furrowed his brow, his naiveté became apparent
  519. >His friend, by contrast, lowered himself into an increasingly quarrelsome posture with each of my approaching footfalls
  520. >As the pistol rattled softly in my trembling hands, I adjusted my aim in case one of the stallions decided to charge in a sudden fit of misplaced valor
  521. >But… If I could just make it back to Peter first…
  522. >“Melody… if… if he comes too close… RUN…”
  523. >The unicorn horn atop one of the pony’s heads flared to life, casting a menacing orange glow over his faint, self-assured smile and the dreadful expression of his friend
  524. >“We can do this, Spark… there’s only one of him and two of us… and he doesn’t even have a club, or baseball bat, or-”
  525. >“Melody… Daisy warned you about guns… Stand down…”
  526. >The oblivious unicorn stallion narrowed his eyes and shifted his weight pensively
  527. >“Daisy’s been wrong before…”
  528. >My shoes fell silent as I halted next to the unfurnished office’s door, slowly bringing one hand to rest on the doorknob
  529. >The lone aggressor’s tail flicked in accompaniment with each methodical hoofstep toward me, while his friend’s pupils shrunk and his head shook in terror
  531. >BANG
  532. >With a sharp crash and a trickling cloud of crushed marble, a bullet lodged itself in the far wall a few feet over the ponies’ heads, sending them lurching to the ground as their ears flinched
  533. >I plainly told myself that it had been intended as a warning shot – that its high trajectory had been more than just frayed nerves and poor aim at play – and I wanted to believe that reality
  534. >Regardless, it had gotten the unicorn to stop in his tracks, if only at the cost of alerting every pony that hadn’t already heard the hair-raising cry to action
  535. >The stallions’ hooves skidded on the tile as they twisted back toward the cover of the hallway’s corner, presumably where they’d also find the rest of their herd, just beyond my view
  536. >In that same moment, the doorknob was suddenly twisted in my grip, harshly rubbing my palm and irritating the skin, even through the nitrile rubber of the gloves
  537. >I swung the pistol around in expectation of finding a dexterous unicorn at my feet, but froze as the door flew open to reveal a terrified Peter breathing in short, shallow gasps
  538. >Man, we spent so much time coming up with our secret two knock, two snap passcode, only to never use it…
  539. >“Fuck dude, they’re swarming us! What took you so long?!”
  540. >A clamoring mix of both masculine and feminine shouts could be heard around the corner, followed by a growing thunder of unseen hooves
  541. “Peter, I’ve come too damn far to go down now!”
  542. >“Well, what the hell are we supposed to do?!”
  543. >I hysterically clutched the front of his shirt, dragging him into the hallway as a din of unseen voices spoke up behind him, calling for a unicorn’s help to deal with a fumbling knob
  544. >Thinking quickly, or not thinking much at all, I brought us staggering toward the office in which I’d slept the previous night, full of conviction that at least we wouldn’t need to deal with a lock
  545. >Thankfully, my instincts were proven correct as we tumbled inside, reeling against the desk with just enough composure to slam the door shut
  546. >Peter and I collapsed to the floor of the cramped room just as a roar of hooves rumbled into the hallway, drowning out the sound of my shaky hand clicking the lock
  547. >“Oh, iced tea, it’s like a bad cartoon! Which door did they go in?!”
  548. >“I don’t give a flying feather! Kick them down until you find them!”
  549. >With little hesitation, several deafening reports of crunching wood echoed through the hallway, sending splinters audibly careening through the air and chiming against some distant walls
  550. >Peter was momentarily drawn to the promising light filtering through the window blinds, like a moth to a brilliantly luminescent flame, but peered only briefly toward the freedom of outdoors
  551. >After letting the blinds snap back and scowling, he hefted his rifle in front of himself, untangling its sling and sitting against the wall
  552. >He pessimistically met my gaze with a dejected sigh
  553. >“I’m sorry, James… I had hoped that our last moments would actually mean something… but I guess we’re destined to be a couple of… mindless animals… hell-bent on spreading our plight…”
  554. “W-What’s outside, man? How could it possibly be worse than our situation here?”
  555. >“Pegasi. Three or four Pegasi all over the damn roof across the quad. At least with this doorframe the ponies have to funnel in… and we at least get to see the one that finally overtakes us…”
  556. >Peter ran his gloves along a seam of the cap adorning his head, sighing gloomily as he tried to hold back a sniffle and an uncharacteristically despairing tear
  557. >I tensed my fists as the remote crashes of hooves continued to echo through the hallway
  558. “I can’t accept this, Peter… You don’t know how much I’ve given up just to get this wire back to you… This can’t be the end…”
  559. >Peter rubbed his temples and glared at the office’s floor before letting his arms limply drop
  560. >“We don’t have much of a say in the matter…”
  561. >Peter had barely finished speaking when the office’s door shuddered mightily, a firm crash of hooves sending a barrage of fine splinters and dust drifting to the floor
  562. >The compromised door hadn’t been breached, but if we needed confirmation of its weakness, a fierce grunt could be clearly heard through the warped wood before another hit struck
  563. >So this is really how it ends? With a bang, and then with a whinny?
  564. >My tightening grip around the pistol blanched my knuckles, and my breath caught fearfully in my throat for what felt like several seconds following the second impact
  565. >In truth, as I internalized a short prayer for my human soul, the comparative silence that had felt like several seconds… dragged on and on
  566. >Come on you furry bastards, I thought you were literally intent on kicking down doors to make friends…
  567. >Why would you stop when you were so close…
  568. >My ears insistently continuing to faintly ring in the gunshot’s wake, but nevertheless, I trusted my addled hearing enough to discern that the ponies in the hallway were mellowing
  569. >Where crashes and cries of fury had previously dominated, a stern murmur of confusion had begun to prevail while every pony kept their hooves to the floor
  570. >I cautiously planted a foot against the door’s base, and as it became increasingly apparent that the ponies had suddenly halted their siege, Peter chanced a soft whisper
  571. >“Why’d they stop? What’s going on?”
  572. “I can’t see any better than you can, I don’t know…”
  573. >The ponies outside the office continued their volleys of practically indiscernible words, and it took laser focus for me to decipher a few scattered conjunctions and prepositions
  574. >Maybe they somehow knew we were here… Maybe something else had blatantly given us away… What the hell did they know?
  575. >I wiped my brow nervously, slowly removing my foot from its position against the door amid fears that the combined force of several ponies was about to violently throw it open
  576. >The pain of several shattered bones would be only temporary as they enveloped me in a healing embrace, but it’ll have been unnecessary agony with negligible benefit
  577. >“James… the fuck is going on… the Pegasi flew away from their roost…”
  578. >As I glanced back at Peter’s rigid posture next to the window, he met my gaze with a comparable level of agitated bewilderment while rays of daylight streamed through the cracked blinds
  579. >With my eyes still mesmerized by the suddenly tranquil door, I rose to my feet
  580. “Peter, this is getting bizarre… You think they’re trying to trick us into thinking the coast is clear?”
  581. >“Maybe… But it’s no secret that they won’t let up until they’ve made another friend… they gotta know we’re not idiots…”
  582. >Until they’ve made another friend…
  583. >Another friend, not unlike the one I left behind in the machine shop…
  584. “Alright, we might only have a brief span of time to do this, but pop that window open”
  585. >Peter looked at me uneasily, shifted his weight between his feet as he drummed his fingers on the edge of the rifle’s receiver
  586. >“Open it? I-Isn’t that exactly what the ponies m-might want us to do?”
  587. “Trust me on this, I think they’re distracted right now”
  588. >“Come on, they don’t just find a shiny object and clamor around it like-”
  589. >I reached for Peter’s shoulder, causing him to brusquely flinch before realizing that grip was friendly and reassuring, albeit firm
  590. “Trust me. I’ll even go first if it’s got you that worried”
  591. >Peter drew in a long inhale, biting his lip for a couple seconds as his gaze wandered along the office’s carpet
  592. >“I seriously hope you’re right about this. Once the Pegasi start divebombing you, I can’t make any promises”
  593. >After glancing at the scene one final time through the reassuring safety of a glass pane, Peter sighed and shook out his muscles as though he were a weightlifter standing before a bar
  594. >Sure enough, he demanded a great deal of strength to draw up the blinds and open the stiff window, but his summons included more than just physical strength
  595. >After a few moments spent in preparatory eye-rubbing, I gently waved my fingers in the slightly foreign breeze of fresh, cool air drifting in from the outdoors
  596. >At the moment I realized I could no longer justify delay, I readjusted the spool of wire around my shoulder, tucked the pistol into my waistband, and threw my leg over the windowsill
  597. >I didn’t have terribly much time to get my bearings, but between the bricks and bushes lining my vantage, the vista into which I was stepping appeared to be a small garden of sorts
  598. >It didn’t offer the best cover, but there were only a few dozen feet of flowers, shrubs, and overgrown weeds separating the engineering building from the sciences building
  599. >A few feet to my side, a wall of shrubs and a short retaining wall demarcated the garden’s edge before the ground dropped down a hill, granting an open view of a large swath of the town
  600. >If not for the nigh-crippling fear of Pegasi dawdling overhead in light of the absent trees, it would’ve been a beautiful, calming garden
  601. >Thankfully, upon leaving the window, I wasn’t immediately assaulted by a flurry of soft fur and feathers, but rather, my shoes landed in a soft bed of mulch and flowers after a short drop
  602. >The impact was muffled, and as I warily glanced around, I noted a distinctive lack of lurid pastel fur in the campus scenery’s color palette
  603. >My tranquility was abruptly interrupted by an alarming crash of metal from an unseen clamor down the hill, somewhere along the engineering building’s wall
  604. >While I was curious to know what had caused such a worrying report, my concerns were superseded by a fear of the sound’s probable origin, and the fact that it was likely equine in nature
  605. >Keeping my head low to elude any ponies happening to glance up the hill, I flippantly trampled a few patches of dandelions near the garden’s center, en route to the wall of the sciences building
  606. >I shuddered with dread as a pair of heavy thumps heralded something striking the soil directly behind me, but as I pivoted and the idle barrel of Peter’s rifle swung into view, my breathing calmed
  607. >Following his short fall to the light footprints I’d already left behind in the soil, his gaze meticulously surveyed our surroundings
  608. >Though the grip of his rifle remained tightly clamped in his hand, he visibly showed no intention to use it against the strange crashing noises still resonating a few dozen yards down the slope
  609. >Nevertheless, his furrowed brow and gently parted lips silently proclaimed his own puzzlement
  610. >I closed the final few yards separating me from the magnanimous concealment of the sciences building, taking interest in a window that had already been narrowly cracked open
  611. >It took a short series of flailing jumps to push the rickety frame open and clamber inside, but as I rolled to the floor of a dim classroom, a brief wave of relief washed over me
  612. >Upon rising to my feet, I found the stock of Peter’s rifle waving emphatically through the open window, and after adjusting my footing, I helped hoist both it, and its owner, inside
  613. >Melodies of birdsong and the sharp metallic crashes all fell silent when the window slid shut, but for several lingering moments, I remained transfixed by the world outside
  614. >This floor of the sciences building was situated only a few feet higher than the garden just beneath its dirty window panes, but the height made an enormous difference in terms of visibility
  615. >As I peered down the hill toward the neighboring building, I caught a glimpse of a large garage door along its side, its appearance closely resembling the machine shops’ garage door I saw earlier
  616. >The garage door that… well, frankly I didn’t know where it went, at the time…
  617. >A small crowd of Pegasi had formed a half circle around it, recoiling and flicking their ears with each muted report emanating from the door’s far side
  618. >They glanced at each other curiously, first in bewilderment from what was causing the racket, then from a similar bout of confusion as silence reigned from whoever had been inside
  619. >As the rhythm of muffled crashes continually refused to start anew, an uneasy breath stalled in my throat
  620. >I pressed a hand longingly against the glass as a multicolored glow enveloped the door, and after a short battle with a lock and some rust, it jerked open to reveal a fully ponified Snowfall
  621. >She was already surrounded by a herd of her new species’ companions of every type and color, and as sunlight began streaming through the door’s opening, the Pegasi joined the fray
  622. >Unfamiliar and familiar smiles alike beamed around her, from the likes of Sky Meadows, Cobalt, Typhoon Twist, and many others whose names I couldn’t put to their faces
  623. >Snowfall needed to turn some of her newfound friends away simply to find enough space to breathe, but as a pair of nuzzling ponies flanked her sides, she joined in with her own grin
  624. >I knew it was going to happen, hell, I’d even given her those supplies she was levitating in front of her as a parting gift… but as a tear rolled from my eye, I realized that didn’t make it any easier
  625. >Every last person I knew from my life a mere forty-eight hours ago had been converted into what would’ve previously been unthinkable, and I didn’t know whether they’d ever return
  626. >If not for my circumstances and choices that had led to so much anguish and pain, I may have been seen as a saint to them, a man who had lived without quarrel
  627. >While it was a twisted view of the person I was before this, it was… it was something… How much longer would the true memory of my human self persist, if only in one or two minds?
  628. >“James, you might not want to stand so close to the window. The ponies could see you over there”
  629. >I shook my head and turned toward Peter, who had taken a seat on one of classroom’s desks, and was scrupulously buffing his rifle as though it were a fine work of silverware
  630. “Sorry, I… I don’t know what I was thinking”
  631. >Peter sighed to himself, gently folding the cloth in his hand into a neat square before indiscriminately stuffing it into a small mesh pouch on the side of his backpack
  632. >“You seem to be a bit… I don’t know, is there something on your mind right now?”
  633. >Peter crossed his arms and peered at me thoughtfully as I approached
  634. >It was awkward to walk through his piercing gaze, but with a few hollow footsteps over the room’s wooden floor, I paced to a desk at his side and took a seat
  635. >The growing pain in my shoulder was relieved as the somewhat heavy spool of wire came to rest on ground, but with a heavy mental weight now pressing on me instead, I drew in a deep inhale
  636. “Peter, is it wrong to leave behind a friend to the ponies? To just abandon them when they have no one else who would save them?”
  637. >“What kind of question is that? Of course it’s wrong, that’s, like, a major dick move”
  638. >I slowly rubbed a finger over the desk’s surface, feeling where years of boredom had driven students to etch designs into the flat slate
  639. “Y-Yeah, I… I figured… Yeah, you’re right… And… that’s still true even in situations where using them as a distraction is what allows one of you to escape?”
  640. >I bit my lip and looked at Peter, but he had averted his eyes to the floor while his thumbs spun around each other, twiddling like dancers in a ballroom waltz
  641. >“I mean, you have to cut your losses somewhere, but I’d still feel pretty shitty about it if I found myself in that situation”
  642. “Right, right… Yeah…”
  643. >“Of course, James, I’d never leave you to the herd, and I hope you’d never do that to one of your fellow humans”
  644. >I cleared my throat with a fleeting guise of a cough
  645. “No… I-I wouldn’t want to… but what if they were halfway gone already… what if… they were actively trying to make noise to get the ponies’ attention so their new friends can… finish the job?”
  646. >Peter threw the rifle’s sling over his head and let the mass of steel hang limply from his neck, the somberly meditative man devoting no energy to something as trivial as holding a gun
  647. >“I guess the best thing to do is… make sure they never have to live a life on hooves… There aren’t a lot of people who would choose that over humanity, and you ought to respect their wishes”
  648. “Yeah, I just wanted to bounce ideas off of you, but that seems about right… Let’s… Let’s get a move-on before the ponies realize we escaped the other building…”
  649. >Snowfall probably hadn’t PLANNED to distract the ponies long enough for us to escape, but it had made for a convenient window in which there weren’t any Pegasus eyes on us…
  650. >No, she was just… letting them know about her location because she’d had enough of her time as a half-transformed human with… with no… true friends…
  651. >I wasn’t taking advantage of her conversion by sneaking out the window while the ponies rushed to comfort her… I was… It… I hadn’t…
  652. >“James, you coming? Let me show you my lab where I’ve been putting together this radio”
  653. >I shook away my overflowing stream of thoughts and wiped my eyes
  654. “Uh, yeah, right, let’s… let’s go”
  655. >Peter crossed the front of the classroom with a series of heavy, commanding footsteps as he peered through his rifle’s sights and nudged the door open
  656. >After picking the spool of wire back up, I plucked the pistol from my waistband and followed behind him, aiming my weapon into the dim corridor behind where Peter was leading us
  657. >The building seemed quiet, and I didn’t think there were any ponies lurking about, but such a thought seemed like famous last words for a scavenger that had failed to remain discreet
  658. >The span of time between remarkable tranquility and a cacophony of screams and giggles could be less than a second, so it was crucial to remain vigilant
  659. >Our feet echoed ominously through the hallways and stairwells, adding to a symphony that was remarkably soft except for the whistling breeze that wandered past a few drafty windows
  660. >As I kept my pistol’s aim fixed toward our previously trodden path, this rear guard soldier barely even noticed when the leader halted, until I kept toeing backwards and bumped into him
  661. >As I spun about with slight apprehension, Peter did his best to calm me, sporting a lopsided smile and a weak nod toward the door at the end of the hall
  662. >We had arrived…
  663. >This was the room we’d fought so hard to get back to… In classic Great War style, it had taken us a few hours to traverse less than a couple hundred yards, but here we were…
  664. >As I examined my surroundings more closely, I noticed that the doors in the hallway featured slender windows at eye level, but many had been covered with pieces of construction paper
  665. >The furnishings called back to the days of lockdown drills at my former high school, but the comparison was easy to justify, as Peter and I were essentially locking ourselves in his lab
  666. >Beyond my range of well-resolved focus, the hallway yawned into a stretch of darkness spanning twenty… thirty yards?
  667. >It featured few adornments on its plain brick walls, and while it would be an ideally defensible position with Peter’s lab at the end – a practical shooting range – I hoped it never came to that
  668. >Peter’s keys briefly jingled in his hand as he drew them from his pocket, casually flicking through them until he came upon a brass one of interest and unlocked the door
  669. >I filed into the room ahead of Peter, and as he shut the door behind us, the utterly windowless room was briefly submerged in a flood of blackness
  670. >However, with the systematic efficiency of someone who had made the voyage hundreds of times, Peter’s footsteps thumped through the darkness until he reached a small lamp
  671. >With a click, it flickered to life, bathing the humble room in a white glow, presumably thanks to the diligence of some unseen batteries
  672. >“Welcome to my ‘home away from home,’ James”
  673. >The lab was only a few yards in any direction, and much of the wall space was peppered with tarnished cabinetry, drawers, and even an album poster that provided a touch of personality
  674. >Despite its general clutter, however, Peter appeared proud to show it off, and for our post-apocalyptic purposes, it was more than enough space
  675. >He found particular passion in presenting a large desk in the rear of the room, standing next it as he waved an arm over what appeared to be a breeding ground for soldering irons
  676. >“I’ve got a fair deal of the work done on the radio already, and we should have all the necessary parts for it now – every last one of them”
  677. >After he rolled the backpack from his shoulders and set it on the ground, Peter looked like a kid in a candy store as he shoveled scavenged electrical components onto his desk
  678. >I couldn’t determine the purposes behind many of the hunks of metal, plastic, and ceramic cluttering the desk, but as they joined some neatly soldered comrades, they looked right at home
  679. >I took it as a cue to deliver my own payload, sliding the wire onto the desk where the least clutter resided, and then dropping Peter’s flashlight into the spool’s center
  680. >Following a bout of careful consideration, I drew the pistol that had been stowed at my waist, reasoning that I didn’t need it right now as I unceremoniously set it atop the heap
  681. >Peter slowly rose to his feet, momentarily hefting the weapon’s mass before setting it back on the desk
  682. >“Safety’s on, and there’s still a round in the chamber?”
  683. “Yes and yes”
  684. >“So… what, do you just not want it anymore?”
  685. >I shrugged, slightly off put by the fact that Peter needed so much justification when it was, after all, HIS weapon
  686. “I’ll take it if I need it, y’know, it’s right there, and this way I won’t have a metal block digging into my side”
  687. >Peter raised his brow and restlessly drummed his fingers as his considered my rationale
  688. >“James, I think that’s more than a worthy price to pay, but hey, if you end up with a pink curly horse mane because of your choice, that’s on you”
  689. >All I felt I could do was shrug, especially considering my confidence in the security of Peter’s lab
  690. “Trust me, I got a lot to lose if I don’t make it out of this. Hell, when I was in the machine shop, I told m…”
  691. >I trailed off as it abruptly hit me that Peter didn’t know anything about Snowfall, and I had intended to keep it that way, for both her safety and mine
  692. >That’s… That’s what I had intended…
  693. >“You were talking to someone in the machine shop?”
  694. “I didn’t say that, I misspoke, I, uh…”
  695. >My eyes darted back and forth betrayingly, and by the time they finally came to settle a moment later, my gaze was fixated on the end of Peter’s rifle, now pointed squarely at my head
  696. >“Back up to the corner, near the door”
  697. >I raised my trembling hands and complied, but as tunnel vision led me to see only the shimmering steel of the rifle, I likely would’ve done exactly that even without the command
  698. “P-Peter, stop… What the fuck, I-I-I… I didn’t do anything!”
  699. >“It’s okay James, I just don’t want you to grab for your gun. We’re on the same side, right?”
  700. “Y-yeah! So you shouldn’t be p-pointing a… a gun at ME!”
  701. >Peter readjusted his stance slightly, the gun’s moving parts faintly shifting as his voice dripped with irritation
  702. >“And you shouldn’t be lying to me if you were talking to someone. I should say, ‘somepony…’ I’m not that optimistic that there are any other humans on this campus at this stage”
  703. >I bit my lip tensely, letting off the pressure a moment too late as I perceived a faint, coppery taste of blood
  704. “Fuck it, what if I WERE talking to a pony or something like that?”
  705. >“Okay, say you did – you’re sure there’s no way they could have infected you, right?”
  706. >I was breathing quickly and shallowly, and it began to hamper my speaking abilities until I got a grip on my senses
  707. “I… I-I don’t… I don’t think they did!”
  708. >“You don’t think? Well, did they touch you?”
  709. “I think it was only on spots where I was wearing clothes – Peter, please, I-I’m clean!”
  710. >My heart continued to race as I pressed myself against the wall, reticently hopeful that my efforts would cause the brick to crumble and that I’d escape into the next room
  711. >Was I quick enough yanking my leg out of the way of Snowfall’s charge? Were the gloves thick enough when I was touching her? Was I careful enough avoiding contamination?
  712. >“We’ll see – strip them off. I pray to God that those clothes really were good enough at stopping the infection”
  713. >I swallowed, my mouth feeling drier than sand beneath a hot desert sun
  714. “W-what if they weren’t?”
  715. >Peter paused, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he refocused on the rifle’s front sight
  716. >“Don’t worry, James, I’m not going to shoot you. Remember, even if you are that unfortunate, the ponies don’t know we’re here, and I don’t want to give my position away so easily”
  717. >His words carried an unshakable degree of blunt honesty, seemingly as though what he said was the convincing truth
  718. >However, he was more honest than he was secretive, and failed to conceal the moment at which he glanced intently toward the heavy steel hammer on his desk
  719. >James, I’m not going to shoot you…
  720. >Of course not… Guns are noisy… and why waste a bullet?
  721. >Sweat doused my hoodie and shirt, making it hard to remove them, but after a bit of jittery fumbling at the business end of a gun, my torso came free
  722. >Steam from my back wafted into the stale air as I gave the same treatment to my gloves, EMT pouch, socks, and shoes, neatly piling them in a small lump against the wall
  723. >I glanced back at Peter, who had barely moved his rigid posture while I, by contrast, animatedly brushed my sweating palms
  724. >I was practically holding my breath by the time I undid my jeans and kicked them to the side, followed soon thereafter by my underwear until I found myself standing stark naked
  725. >“Alright, you’ve done this before, give me a little twirl”
  726. >I felt humiliated, but I would’ve dealt with such indignation a thousand times if it pleased the guy who held my life in his hands
  727. >“Alright James, you’re good”
  728. >I tried to detect any illusion in his voice in case he were planning to unexpectedly bash my skull in, but I couldn’t detect any
  729. “Peter, is… is that all? I… Could you at least stop pointing that rifle at me?”
  730. >With a faintly rosy flush of embarrassment, he lowered the weapon that had been leveled in my direction, letting it sway momentarily on the sling before apathetically coming to rest
  731. >“Actually, James, let me ask you something. Did you notice the door in the back of the lab when you walked in?”
  732. >In that moment I was considerably more focused on donning my underwear, but as I followed Peter’s outstretched finger, I noticed the unassuming door in the room’s opposite corner
  733. “I guess I did, but I didn’t think much of it. Some kind of storage room for your supplies?”
  734. >Peter ardently set his hands on his hips and took a few steps backward to the door, never breaking eye contact with me
  735. >“Pretty much, but come on, I’ll show you!”
  736. “Alright, just let me put my pants on here…”
  737. >A din of jingling metal filled the small room, partly from my jeans as I studiously lifted them and the belt rattled, but mostly as a result of Peter navigating through his keyring
  738. >“Nah, you don’t need pants for this. Pants are overrated”
  739. >With a soft click, Peter pressed one of the keys into the lock on the storage room’s door, prompting me to furrow my brow
  740. “Peter, why’d you bother to lock a door that’s inside your lab?”
  741. >I was momentarily distracted by my jeans as I held them in front of me, taking care to determine which side was the front before I could put them on my otherwise mostly naked body
  742. >What I failed to notice was the growing patch of light spilling through the doorframe as the door creaked open
  743. >“Oh, you know, for the same reasons you’d lock any door in the midst of the pony apocalypse. To help keep the ponies out…”
  744. >My blood went cold and I dropped the jeans dreadfully to the ground as the door swung open, revealing a stout figure of grey fur standing about three feet tall
  745. >The pony flicked its tail and blinked a couple times, letting out a soft, short gasp upon locking eyes with me
  746. >To the side of the doorframe, Peter sported an unafraid smile
  747. >“…or in…”
  749. >The pony in the storage closet flattened its ears against its head as my riotous, nonsensical outcries filled the room, causing even Peter to flinch while he stood aside the doorframe
  750. >I had backed up as far as I could reasonably go, but the unforgiving reality remained that I was almost buck naked against a wall, and only a few yards from a pony with plenty of opportunity
  751. “Stop! Cut it out! Close the fucking door, Peter!”
  752. >“I’m sorry James, I’m afraid I can’t do that”
  753. >The pony cocked its head to the side and ruffled a few of its feathers, flaring its wings outwards a few inches with a sickening sort of cautious benevolence
  754. >My eyes were darting wildly back and forth between the pony’s alert blue eyes and the peremptory gaze of Peter, standing with arms crossed as he watched me
  755. “What’re you doing?! We’re supposed to be helping each other, dude! I don’t want to end up as one of them!”
  756. >“That’s your choice, James!”
  757. >The pony maintained its unwavering eye contact with me, craning its neck high and low as it sized me up, before judiciously lifting a forehoof and tamping it back down
  758. >Peter raised the back of a nonchalantly clenched fist to his mouth, as though he were stifling a yawn, as though this were nothing special, as though this were how he appeared in total control
  759. “I got you your fucking wire – you can’t just throw me to wolves!”
  760. >“And if I am, what then, huh?”
  761. “Please, Peter…”
  762. >With a meek sniffle, the strength in my legs finally gave out and I slumped to the floor, burying my head in my hands as tears welled up in the corners of my eyes
  763. >The pony, now at my eye level, looked at me compassionately, full of a visible desire to free me from my anguish in the most efficient, friendliest way it knew how
  764. “Please… I’ll do anything… I don’t want to be a pony…”
  765. >The only person I thought I could trust… He was either in cahoots with the herd the whole time, or he was prepared to let me fall to them at the drop of a hat…
  766. >I opened my eyes just wide enough to see Peter grasp the storage closet’s doorknob and pull it shut, plunging the pony within back into darkness as its expression faded into disappointment
  767. >At first I thought the door was squeaking with Peter’s tug, but as the door clicked into position, the faint whine persisted for a few moments as the pony within bemoaned its missed chance
  768. >I stared up at the perpetrator behind this twisted game of peekaboo, the man sternly moving his hand to grasp the pistol I’d set atop the desk’s heap
  769. >“If you’d really do anything, James, why didn’t you do the obvious? Why is this gun still sitting here with its safety on?”
  770. >Peter stared down at the softly glistening steel, clicking the safety off and then back on again as though he knew I was carefully looking on and required a refreshing demonstration
  771. >Shifting restlessly to relieve the strain that the hard floor had put on my muscles, I could at least take solace in the fact that my soreness wasn’t due to a sudden tail jammed against the wall
  772. >I found it difficult to reprimand myself for weakly trembling as Peter glared at me with authoritative strictness, the pistol still weakly wrapped in his hands
  773. >“James. Look at me. Why didn’t you go for the gun?”
  774. >A long, tremulous exhale issued forth before I responded, giving me just enough time to piece together a slow yet coherent sentence
  775. “I thought that you would… shoot me…”
  776. >Peter passively tossed the pistol back onto the desk, creating a small clamor and sending an errant capacitor rolling to the floor
  777. >“And you were just going to accept that? Thirty seconds after I tell you you’re clean, you’re ready to slump down and accept defeat? For what, because you’re… afraid of my reaction?”
  778. >With my heart still hammering mightily, I braced a hand against the wall behind me, only for it to briefly slip under the deluge of sweat bathing my palms
  779. “You were controlling that whole encounter! I figured you were, like, working alongside the ponies or something!”
  780. >“And if that really were the case, why wouldn’t you fight back?! You’ve got nothing to lose at that point, and if you don’t, you get a name change to Flower Berries or some shit like that!”
  781. >I planted my feet & hands with a renewed grip and hoisted myself into a standing position, meeting Peter at his own eye level with a stare of glaring accusation toward his unwinnable dilemma
  782. >Neither of us wanted to enflame our conflict further than it already had, and as Peter let out a long, seething exhale through his nose, he tried to remind himself that I wasn’t his enemy
  783. >Still, he looked less than pleased about whatever tentative response I was going to give
  784. “Grab for a gun to shoot up the room? What, and risk getting killed, instead?”
  785. >I was still naked save for my underwear, but force of habit drove me to brush my sweat-soaked hands against my unclothed thighs, drawing my gaze briefly downwards as I did so
  786. >In the corner of my vision, Peter slid his shoe across the floor with a tinge of thoughtful turbulence
  787. >“James. Stop looking away from me – this is important. Very. Important. It’s the exact same thing – even though it doesn’t seem like you’d be dying in a traditional sense”
  788. >I crossed my arms and lolled my gaze upwards until it tersely came to rest in Peter’s vision, leaning forward with as much aggression as I could appropriately muster
  789. “Seriously? Are you serious? Maybe you want your blaze of glory, but I’m not ready to die, even if it does mean living in a cuddly apocalypse!”
  790. >“For fuck’s sake! At least that way your corpse isn’t going around smiling at every person they see, trying to infect them with the same virus that killed you in the first place!”
  791. “Hey, I’ve talked to these ponies, and they’re not-”
  792. >“Shut the hell up, James! This isn’t sunshine and rainbows! There will inevitably come a day where it’ll be either you or them, and I’m TRYING to get your ready for when it arrives!”
  793. >Each of us was pointing a condemning finger at the other, with a steady stream of contempt and vitriol flowing unceasingly from our impassioned hearts
  794. “You’re not helping by opening the door between me and a harbinger of my hooved fate! What the hell were you thinking?! What if it charged me?!”
  795. >“He’s on a leash, you’d have been fine! You need to burn it into your instincts, in one way or another, that when you see a pony, you had better have a gun, and be ready to use it!”
  796. >After a few tense moments, I ceded my accusatory stance to Peter with a long, irritated sigh, letting my hand and gaze sink to the floor as I prioritized the search for my mislaid pants
  797. >Both of us were still breathing heavily, the sounds of our breaths being outdone only by the distinct jingling of my belt as I grabbed for the denim heap that represented my forsaken jeans
  798. “Come on, Peter… you think you’re real tough just because you’ve got a gun?”
  799. >“It isn’t about being tough, James! It’s about being prepared for when the ponies show up in force!”
  800. “Yeah, well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’ve already got a pony locked up about three feet away! God, how the hell does something like that even happen?!”
  801. >As soon as my routine of resentful arm-waving and gesturing was complete, I turned my attention back to the jeans, finally donning them after what felt like an eternity and a half
  802. >Simple nakedness had always been uncomfortable even before afternoons in the high school locker room showers, but at least in those days, being naked didn’t carry a risk of growing fur…
  803. >As my belt clicked back into its native position around my waist, I began scouring the floor, scrutinizing it in the dim light amid my search for the rest of my dispersed clothing
  804. >Peter simply watched from his spot to the side of the doorframe, rolling his head against the wall and stifling a faint chuckle as he watched me retrieve my shoes
  805. >“Yeah, well, I’m definitely not cooperating with the ponies if that’s what you’re getting at – you think that colt in the storage closet just wandered in there because I let him?”
  806. >With a soft sigh, I threw my hoodie’s sleeves over my arms, the grey fabric catching slightly against the sweat-soaked cotton of my T-shirt
  807. “Sorry, Peter, I guess I’m just… more than a little skeptical about this all. Please tell me, how does a guy like you end up with a pony there?”
  808. >For a few tranquil seconds, silence filled the air, broken only by a few faint rustles of fabric as I took a seat on the floor, my socks and shoes waiting patiently beside me
  809. >While I readjusted the straps of the EMT pouch at my side and unfurled a rolled-up sock, Peter drew in a long, contemplative breath, his eyes bouncing while his mind strung words together
  810. >“Alright, since you asked so nicely. When I first woke up to my roommates’ screams and hoofbeats, you know, in that order… I got out of our building pretty fast”
  811. >“Shoes, backpack, hit up the poor guy next door to get some guns… not exactly a typical Friday night for me, but it was certainly more exciting than another evening of video games”
  812. >“As I’m making my way out of the neighborhoods where most of the ponies seem to be concentrated, I notice that this little Pegasus is still following me, and it’s starting to worry me”
  813. >“Sure, he’s young, but I cut through an abandoned warehouse where I think I can break line of sight, I go through a culvert, I doubled back at one point, and he’s just… relentlessly on my tail”
  814. >“Meanwhile, well, I can tell the brink of humanity has basically pushed to the edge of town, and… geez, hundreds of ponies are filling the skies – and of course, that’s only the Pegasi in flight”
  815. >“By the time I’m at the edge of the campus, this one’s easily within firing range, but with most of the human resistance converted, I’m terrified about the crack of a gunshot drawing them in”
  816. >“I’m trying to close and lock the doors behind me, but he’s just breaking them down one by one and telling me, you know, ‘stop, wait, you’re going the wrong way!’”
  817. >“Of course, the whole time, I’d been inadvertently leading him right to my lab, so I don’t have many options at this point”
  818. >“By the time I finally turn tail to shoot him, he’s staring blankly at the gun like an idiot, as though he doesn’t know what it is, and guess what he says to me in his final moment”
  819. >“He says, ‘Mister, the rest of the herd is on the other side of town. If you wanted to catch up to anypony else in particular to cuddle with, they’re probably not here!’”
  820. >“No crazy last words, no battle cry. So he’s standing there with his wings jittering, and I ask him, ‘Does anyone else know you’re here?’ and he’s naïve enough to tell me he came alone”
  821. >“Well, I basically tell him, ‘Yeah, I totally have a friend here who’s this fun-loving Pegasus; I’ll introduce you to her and then we can have a snuggle party together”
  822. >“The fact that it was enough to convince him to step inside the lab closet with all my ‘transformative potions’ while I ‘went to get my friend’… It… It almost felt wrong. Almost…”
  823. >“But maybe it’s a good thing I got him away from his herd. Hell, at least in here, he won’t turn anyone else, and for his sake, he’s not going to get shot by a human defending themself”
  824. >“A colt like him? He’s just not cut out for the world his 'friends' are doing too much to create…”
  825. >As I brought the rabbit through the hole and pulled my shoelaces tight, I glanced up at a monologuing Peter, his hand idly scratching at his face as he stared forward
  826. >With a curt barrage of rapid blinks, he brought himself out of deep thought and reestablished a focus on his listener
  827. >“After maybe a couple hours, I think he realized something was up, but by then I’d made a simple chain leash and some basic amenities so he wouldn’t be… as prone to breaking out”
  828. >He nodded slowly and methodically, as though his own words he were hearing belonged to those of a unfamiliar subordinate
  829. >With a reassuring pat to on my thigh, I rose to my feet with a newly reestablished feeling of clothed security, one which would elicit at least a weak smile under any better circumstances
  830. >The only thing that still felt amiss was the stale laboratory air kissing the space between my fingers, so with a couple of sharp zips and a snap of nitrile rubber, I donned a fresh pair of gloves
  831. >Peter bit his lip as he regarded my resumption to normal clothing, raising his brow in a form of silent confirmation once my second glove slid into place
  832. >Once I appeared unoccupied, his expression softened into one of neutral benevolence while he reached out toward the storage closet’s knob and began to turn it
  833. >Following a faint click, he slowly rolled the door open, illuminating some cramped shelves of boxes, bottles… and the Pegasus colt in the middle of the floor
  834. >As light poured over his soft grey fur and struck the glassy surface of his eyes, his eyelids narrowed in an effort to filter out the excessive light to which he hadn’t quite adjusted
  835. >Peter’s interrogative impatience knew that in spite of the light, the pony’s gently flicking ears were working just fine
  836. >They were working fine now, and presumably, given the door’s imperfect construction, they had been working well enough previously to hear the conversation just outside the closet
  837. >“Did I forget any part of our story, you and me? Did that sound about right to you?”
  838. >The pony blinked rapidly, trying to resolve the pair of figures standing before him in an effort to determine which was Peter, and thus, the voice’s source
  839. >“Y-Yes… Mister… Peter… That s-sounds right…”
  840. >As his muzzle sunk toward the floor, the Pegasus’ lips faintly trembling as he awaited another command or question from the man who had locked him in the room
  841. >When I glanced back at Peter, his eyes were aimlessly wandering as though swimming in a sea of thoughts, dancing in the waves instead of shutting the pony back into darkness
  842. >I lowered myself to a squatting position, drawing the attention of the young colt as he peered at me with his deep rust-colored irises and slightly shrunken, timid pupils
  843. >Feathers ruffled at his side and his short, supple fur bristled, its grey hue tinged with flecks of red in many places, but primarily in a slender ring running around his neck
  844. >As my attention drifted away from the unforgiving chain clasped about his throat, it wandered behind him toward the shallow bin that had been established in a rear corner of the closet
  845. >It was at that moment that I abruptly noticed the strong odors wafting from the room, namely the scents of ammonia drifting from the bin, and those of the apple cores piled neatly nearby
  846. >The unfortunate captive had technically been given a proper place to relieve himself and took care to tidy his quarters, but only in the barest of senses
  847. >Upon glancing back at him, his remarkably expressive muzzle betrayed the perception that he was only as reasonably dignifiable as a common pet or a soulless prisoner
  848. >With a remarkable expressiveness, the corners of his mouth were turned downwards, his brow angled up woefully, and his eyes glimmered with a pleading light
  849. >While he was doing his best with quell his trembling bottom lip, it was only made more apparent when he parted his lips slightly, his eyes conveying the unasked question, ‘are you a friend?’
  850. >His ears were considerably pressed against his head, but not to an extent that they didn’t pick up my warmly spoken compassion
  851. “You don’t need to be afraid of me, little guy…”
  852. >He balked slightly as I fished into my pocket, returning a moment later with a bag containing the slightly crushed remnants of what had once been a few well-formed sugar cubes
  853. >I was still a few moments away from opening the bag when Peter wrapped a reproachful hand around my shoulder, silently commanding me to not get too friendly
  854. >While I couldn’t see his rationale, I slowly obliged and slid the sugar cubes back into my pocket, settling a hopeful reckoning that they would return soon enough as a heartwarming treat
  855. >The Pegasus flattened his ears in visible disappointment, but the wordless exchange apparently hadn’t been enough to extinguish his complete willingness to converse
  856. “I-I’m sorry… I… I didn’t know whether you were going… going to hit me… Earlier… there w-was… so much shouting… And that usually…”
  857. >His words trailed off as he made a conscious effort to avoid eye contact with Peter, his eyes instead darting over every shred of my humbled profile
  858. “It’s alright. My name’s James”
  859. >“Mine’s Iron Bell. Although, before yesterday, all my friends called me Steven McAverlee and-”
  860. >From just over my shoulder, a harsh, gruff voice spoke up
  861. >“Iron. What did we talk about, what, less than six hours ago? Tell James what I told you”
  862. >While I attempted to remain visibly friendly for Iron Bell, I didn’t turn to face Peter even as the wide, gawking pony eyes before me vacillated between the two humans in the doorframe
  863. >Iron Bell flared his nostrils and released a terse exhale as he glanced at the looming figure whose shadow dominated my field of view
  864. >“Peter, I’m not-”
  865. >“What did we talk about?”
  866. >“Come on, I don’t think-”
  867. >“Tell him what I told you. Don’t make me ask again”
  868. >The pony pursed his lips and grumbled a few indiscernible minced oaths in his throat before his gaze sunk glumly to the floor
  869. >“My name’s Iron Bell. Just… Iron Bell. I’m not allowed to go by any other names because it’s disrespectful to people who are now gone…”
  870. >“Thank you, Iron Bell”
  871. >Peter spoke with an audibly contented grin, voicing pleasure to Iron Bell’s response that was in sharp contrast with the irked pony’s averted gaze
  872. >Damn it… Steven McAverlee… Why do I feel like I’ve heard the name Steven McAverlee before?
  873. >I think I was told about how that last name appeared a few times in the local newspaper because it was a… local cop… but I don’t remember all the specifics from that conversation with…
  874. >Cobalt…
  875. >Who was looking for his lost son…
  876. >“James, what’re you doing here? Did… Do you want to cuddle with me? I don’t think Peter has any Pegasus friends like he thought he did, but we could be really good friends!”
  877. >Iron Bell sported a soft, jovial smile, but it rapidly evaporated as Peter broke into the conversation
  878. >“He doesn’t want to get anywhere near you, Iron… Same reasons I won’t”
  879. >“Oh, come on! Being a pony’s great! I can fly and-”
  880. >“And get yourself locked up while you’re at it! He doesn’t want to be a pony!”
  881. >Iron sighed, staring at me auspiciously as though my opinion could be swayed, if only by finding the right set of clues hidden in my expression
  882. >“Are… are you here to take me away? Do I get to go back to my dad? And… And whoever else is in his herd?”
  883. “Actually, I’m just-”
  884. >“Iron Bell, you’ll get to leave when I say you can. Until then, you’ll just stay in there, got it?”
  885. >Not only was I gradually growing irritated by Peter’s interruptions, but as Iron’s expression twisted into one of abject anger, the cap holding in his stewing emotions popped free
  886. >“Oh, ponyfeathers! Peter, I want to see my herd again!”
  887. >“I told you loud and clear, that th-”
  888. >“I don’t care! I miss them and I wa-”
  889. >“IRON!”
  890. >Peter raised a fist and stamped his foot against the floor, sending Iron Bell scrambling into the room’s back corner against the shelves, his eyes wide with automatic fear
  891. >As he tensely cowered in the shadowy darkness, his unfurled wings twitched in a useless effort to take flight, intermittently sending a salvo of small plastic bottles tumbling to the ground
  892. >Through his quickened breaths, the former part of ‘fight or flight’ found its meager voice with the restrained Pegasus even as his chains dug ruthlessly into his throat
  893. >“My dad was a police officer in town… If he finds out what you did you’re going to be in big trouble…”
  894. >“He WAS a police officer, you dense imbecile. But his new mantra of gumdrops and candy canes isn’t conducive to finding you. I’ll let you free when this is all over, but for now, stay put”
  895. >Peter wrapped a glove around the storage closet’s doorknob, idly fidgeting with the clicking metal as he turned to me
  896. >“James, let me show you the way out of this building in case, God forbid, something happens to me. You’d need to let Iron Bell go free, y’know, at some point before he starves”
  897. >With his free hand, Peter grabbed a small discolored carrot that had been resting upon his desk, tossing it to the floor in the closet’s center before yanking the door shut
  898. >Rather than a contented munching of the pithy morsel, or even the audible hoofbeats of Iron approaching it, only a din of gentle sobbing pierced the door
  899. >As Peter led the way through the exiguous steps that comprised a trip across the lab, a beckoning hand drew my attention to the pistol on the desk, silently restating its necessity
  900. >By the time I’d snatched the weapon from its resting place and tucked it into my waistband, Peter had unlocked the lab’s main door and pulled it open, letting some meek daylight spill in
  901. >While Peter was no fan of spending time outside the lab, he and I both knew that the sooner he showed me the ropes outside the labs, the sooner we could return
  902. >Each of us was visibly uneasy as we stepped in the hallway that certainly represented more danger, accompanied by a chill running down my spine the moment that Peter shut the door
  903. >The hallway felt discernibly colder, and not simply in a physical sense on account of how it hadn’t been trapping body heat in the same way as Peter’s small, enclosed lab
  904. >Ahead of us, the narrow corridor’s brick walls stretched out for a few dozen yards, framing a large, dirty window at the hall’s far end, through which natural daylight struggled to flow
  905. >As the wandering yellow rays caught many lingering specks of thick dust floating through the air, they offered a sobering reminder of the musty building’s sheer age
  906. >The sciences building may not have been quite as decorated as the greying Roman monuments to resilience that dotted southern Europe, but it had seen its fair share of history
  907. >Newspapers heralding the arrival of two world wars had once landed on its doorstep, and now it was apathetically observing the arrival of a new conflict
  908. >However, this marked the first time the battle had been physically brought to the building’s doorstep with such visible ferocity
  909. >With a low sigh, Peter stared down the length of the hallway before us and leaned against his lab’s door, slowly sinking to the floor until he’d taken a seated position
  910. >A weak change of posture caused his rifle to resettle in his lap, the sling half-heartedly restricting its tilting as a few pieces of the glimmering steel shifted slightly in the dim corridor’s light
  911. >I furrowed my brow in confusion and my mouth hung slightly ajar, but Peter failed to take notice as he rubbed his eyes anxiously
  912. >Let’s go, Peter… The journey out of the building couldn’t possibly be that long… and of all the times to be taking a rest break, this seems like the least useful…
  913. >Peter pressed his lips together and let out a long, tortured sigh through his nostrils, apparently saving his mouth for a difficult conversation to come
  914. >“Damn it all, this is difficult enough for ME”
  915. “W-What is? I thought you were showing me… the…”
  916. >It’d become quite apparent that Peter harbored few intentions of showing me the best way out of the building at this exact moment, and even less so for the purpose of freeing Iron Bell
  917. >On the contrary, his intentions to remain anchored at the hallway’s terminus was confirmed by a calm hand gesture signaling me to join him on the floor
  918. >“No… No, I just needed some time to talk. I mean… does it bother you as much as it bothers me… that they went after kids, too?”
  919. >One of my hands idly ran a long, serpentine path through my hair once I’d settled into my seat
  920. “The… The ponies? I guess in some ways… but then again, I have the impression that younger crowds would be, like, the happiest of all about becoming ponies”
  921. >“Yeah, but now I have to live with putting a bullet in his head or sticking a knife through his throat, because a pony out there was heartless enough to convert a kid”
  922. >My heart skipped a beat, and not only because of the passive menace posed by Peter’s words, but also given the utterly nonchalant manner in which he’d calmly pronounced it
  923. “Wait, you said you were going to let him go…”
  924. >Still refusing to make direct eye contact, Peter sniffled and moved his head in an indiscernibly small arc, a faint nod of denial
  925. >“I don’t like coming out into this hallway, I guess for rather obvious reasons, but at least I KNOW he won’t hear us. I just… I need to get over my emotions when it comes to things I need to do”
  926. “Come on, Peter, no one’s forcing you to do that… No one’s f-forcing you to kill Iron…”
  927. >His head rolled upwards to meet my gaze
  928. >“But you have to consider… at this point, he doesn’t just know about my lab, he knows a ton about me, you, our plans… Even if we made it to the radio tower and were awaiting rescue…”
  929. “Come on, you didn’t kill him the moment you found him. I’m not saying you don’t have balls, or anything… but why keep him alive so long just to kill him in the end?”
  930. >A tense serenity filled the air for a couple seconds as Peter pursed his lips and sought the answer to what was, all around, a poor situation
  931. >“I’m not going to work, eat, and sleep a few feet from a rotting corpse, whose blood probably carries that fucking virus. And I’m not going to leave a body for the ponies to sniff me out”
  932. “That’s your contingency for keeping him alive? You just waxed the floors and don’t want to get them dirty?”
  933. >I tapped the floor a couple times, sending a pair of hollow knocks echoing through the hallway, but it did nothing to draw Peter’s attention away from his staring contest
  934. >“Look. Once the radio’s up and help’s en route, I don’t give a damn who or what, is or isn’t, left behind. Obviously I’m hoping to get you out as well, so, you know, just stay human”
  935. >Just stay human…
  936. >Peter very nearly grinned at his own absurd comment regarding what we’d spent the past two days relentlessly trying to do, at the cost of broken families, broken bones, and even death
  937. >‘Just stay human, James…’ I figured I’d remind you of the reason we’re doing this, in case it’d slipped your mind!
  938. >My gaze was stern and unrelentingly serious, sporting an expression overflowing with contempt
  939. “You can’t kill Iron Bell. Nothing about it is v-valiant, or righteous, or just, or-”
  940. >“James, I didn’t hesitate or stutter, because I don’t have any reason to second-guess my decision”
  941. >Peter glared at me amidst the pause, a creeping self-assuredness overtaking his expression as his argumentative adversary not only hesitated, but also stuttered
  942. “Th-This is a life you’re talking about… a young colt, too, with so many years ahead of him…”
  943. >“And knowing these ponies, those years would just be spent bringing down humanity. I’m doing all of us a favor…”
  944. >With a sharp grunt, Peter rose to his feet and turned back toward the door to the lab, habitually retrieving his keys from his pocket
  945. >“…Actually, that’s not a bad way to look at it. I’m doing it as a favor…”
  946. >With a soft click, Peter opened his lab’s door and strolled inside, and after a few contemplative seconds, I also ducked back into the artificial glow of his room’s lamp
  947. >No sooner had I shut the door behind us did Peter take a seat at his desk, rigorously studying his own schematics and shepherding his electrical components that had fallen out of line
  948. >Without further ado, his hands tugged at his sleeves and rolled them out of the way, freeing him up to reach for his tools with a soft symphony of rattles and clicks
  949. >A pervasive sense of comfort radiated from every action he undertook, and he was visibly quite gratified so long as a soldering iron was in his hand and he was making progress
  950. >Remarkably absent, however, was even a hint of fleeting dread about the dead pony that would sully his former workspace following the radio’s completion
  951. >Where there were now clean floors, there would soon be puddles of blood…
  952. >Where there were now clean, well-maintained shelves stocked with an expensive plethora of academic supplies, there would soon be creeping maggots…
  953. >And where there were now a pair of young humans who had never known the blessings of fatherhood, soon there would be the wailing sobs of a heartbroken family…
  954. >If I didn’t do something…
  955. >For several minutes, I simply watched Peter as he calmly toiled, attaching a resistor here and a capacitor there, filling the air with brief puffs of smoke as the soldering iron did its work
  956. >His movements were mechanical, unfeeling, and, much as I prayed for him to encounter setbacks, at the very least to give me more time to think, he didn’t make mistakes
  957. >Oh, how I wanted to hear him utter a curse or two as a few errant blobs of silver dripped to the floor, or glance back at his schematic only for his cheeks to flush red with embarrassment
  958. >Nevertheless, as the circuit board grew heavier and the pile of electrical components in the corner of his desk gradually started to dwindle, I knew Iron Bell’s time was numbered
  959. >Please… I want to get out of here… I need to, really… but there has be something I can say, something I can do…
  960. >I already broke Cobalt’s heart once by making him think a loved one was going to die… If that fate truly comes to pass because I didn’t step in, I’d never forgive myself…
  961. >Peter didn’t take his eyes off the growing transmitter as I let out a long sigh and settled into a corner of the room, burying my head in my hands as I slumped to the floor
  962. >Surely I can do something, anything to talk him out of this…
  963. >What if I smashed the transmitter and undid his work, or… or hid some of the components he needed to finish it?
  964. >Would it be wrong to attack Peter if it meant saving Iron’s life? Or even somehow getting him to touch Iron Bell with…
  965. >Touch Iron Bell with a patch…
  966. >With a patch of exposed…
  967. >I found it difficult to think as a gentle, indistinct murmur filled the corner of the room, and I was moments away from inquiring about Peter’s mumblings when he let out a soft, melodic whistle
  968. >But after ruling out Peter as the voice’s source and tuning my ears to the storage closet, I couldn’t conclude that Iron’s voice was the origin, and my intrigue grew
  969. >What the hell?
  970. >Was I losing my mind? Is this how it starts, and Peter’s going to shoot me anyways on suspicion of being mentally compromised by the ponies?
  971. >While my ally went about his work with a passive indifference to the voices occupying my vicinity, my eyes wandered along the walls and ultimately bore fruit, manifested in a small vent
  972. >As I pressed my ear to the grate’s cool brass, a pair of oddly familiar voices filtered through the stuffy ductwork
  973. >“-ink he would be here?”
  974. >“Typhoon, please! I have to at least try!”
  975. >“I know, Cobalt, but if he w-”
  976. >Cobalt… Typhoon Twist…
  977. >No one else would be more committed to helping me through this than Iron Bell’s own family!
  978. >As I slowly pulled my head away from the grate, my mouth hung slightly ajar and my eyes grew wide and thoughtful
  979. >I braced a hand against the wall and hoisted myself to my feet, carefully studying the progress Peter had already made on the transmitter, and more importantly, the withering work left to do
  980. >In the desk’s corner, several dozen pieces of glossy metal and plastic caught the lamplight, glimmering as though they comprised a flashy sign telling me exactly what I needed to know
  981. >There was still time to act… but it wouldn’t last forever…
  982. “Hey, uh, Peter, what have you been using for a water source?”
  983. >Initially, Peter offered no indication that he’d even heard me, leaning over his work with unshakable fixation as a machinist would amid the din and sparking veil of an angle grinder
  984. >“I, uh, hold on a second, the solder’s just about to melt here… I just…”
  985. “Peter, this is important if you give a fuck about the ponies not getting you”
  986. >Following a sigh of irritation, the resistor Peter had been holding drooped to the desk, while its owner turned to me with half-lidded eyes
  987. >“All the water’s the same in this place. I get it from the tap in the bathroom, like, five yards down the hallway. If you’re thirsty, go there”
  988. “But what if the ponies get to the water supply? What… what if they already did?!”
  989. >I was certainly going over the top with my overtly hysterical showmanship, but given Peter’s yearning to return to the transmitter circuit board, he brusquely responded to my outcries
  990. >“They’re not going to get… How would they go about doing that? What’re you talking about?”
  991. “Do you not know how the water supply in this building works? I mean, I don’t either, but I don’t trust that the ponies would never be able to figure it out!”
  992. >I shrugged my shoulders animatedly and met Peter’s stare of awkward befuddlement with a raised brow
  993. >“James, I think you’re being paranoid…”
  994. “How about this… I think there’s a water cooler in one of the lounges out there. I’ll grab the canister off of it, and since it couldn’t be contaminated by the water supply, that’s perfect!”
  995. >My fabricated pitch received no opposition whatsoever as Peter waved a hand and turned back to his desk, focusing the bulk of his attention on not scalding himself with the soldering iron
  996. >“Whatever makes you happy. Just… Yeah, also, make sure you bring your gun with you”
  997. “Yeah, of course!”
  998. >Following a quick pat on the block of steel occupying its position at my waist, I briskly made my way to the lab’s door, exiting into the hallway with a pair of assuring clicks from the door
  999. >Before the boisterous veil of my footfalls dominated the hallway, it was possible to pick up the distinctive whispers of Cobalt and Typhoon Twist somewhere in the dim labyrinth ahead
  1000. >I just hope they came alone… And, in the same vein, that I’m right about Cobalt’s priorities…
  1001. >After making my way a few yards around a corner, I took a few paces before noticing a pair of expectantly twitching grey ears, the fuzzy profiles silhouetted in the threshold of a doorway
  1002. >Shadows loomed ahead of me as I squatted closer to his eye level and addressed a soft whisper to the pony
  1003. “Cobalt, can we talk? And I mean… just talk this time…”
  1004. >His ears flicked and and his brow furrowed thoughtfully before issuing a response
  1005. >“What’s there to talk about, James? We had time to talk when you were on the other side of that utility door, and you bailed on that… You’re quite good on bailing on me…”
  1006. “Look…”
  1007. >Cobalt jerked back slightly when I drew my pistol, but as I set it on the floor and pushed it in his direction, he cocked his head to the side and started to venture out into the corridor
  1008. >My metallic bargaining chip clattered to a stop a few feet away from him, and after a moment spent eyeing the weapon that, for all he knew, had killed Clementine Breeze, he glared at me
  1009. >“What’s your angle, James? You’re not an idiot but you sure are acting like one”
  1010. “I’m just trying to get some undeserved trust so that…”
  1011. >As a set of slow, methodical hoofbeats came to life only a few feet behind me, I trailed off and my blood went cold while a devious smirk crept across Cobalt’s face
  1012. >Though I didn’t turn to look at my newly arrived foe, her identity was anything but a mystery
  1013. “Cobalt… Typhoon Twist… Please… Please don’t be too quick to act here…”
  1014. >A series of eager flicks from Typhoon Twist’s ears were clearly discernible just behind me, the warm breath of the mare causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end as she spoke
  1015. >“What, like when you were too quick to act against the Pegasus that taught me so much of what I know?”
  1016. “I wish I could’ve done something to save her, but more ponies are going to die if we’re not careful… Please, don’t turn me into one of your herd members… N-Not now…”
  1017. >Typhoon’s tail flicked behind me, audibly annoyed, if not incensed, by my response
  1018. >“Of course you only care about yourself… I shouldn’t be surprised…”
  1019. “Okay, then I’m begging you… Don’t do it for me…”
  1020. >Cobalt glanced down at the pistol I’d willingly launched in his direction, his mental gears turning but ultimately failing to come up with an airtight conclusion that justified my approach
  1021. >“James… You… Huh?”
  1022. “Look, I know you want nothing more than for me to be a pony, but please, if that happens, your son will be in grave danger…”
  1023. >Time appeared to nearly stand still as Cobalt’s spine stiffened, his eyes intermittently shifting back and forth as he processed my words, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock
  1024. >“Grave danger?”
  1025. >A gentle series of clicks behind me broadcast Typhoon Twist’s attempts to move enough that she could make eye contact with her stallionfriend
  1026. >“Wait, he’s… alive?”
  1027. >My heart continued hammering, but by now I’d grown used to ignoring the bothersome rhythm as I recalled what I could from my brief encounter with Peter’s captive
  1028. “His name was Steven, right? Your son was Steven McAverlee? Grey Pegasus colt named Iron Bell?”
  1029. >Cobalt’s hardened expression completely crumbled as he heard the name of the son he’s been raising for who-knows-how-many years
  1030. >With a lack of pomp, his hind legs wavered and abruptly gave out, forcing him into a seated position as tears started to fill the corners of his eyes
  1031. >“Steven…”
  1032. >He choked back a sob as a tear trickled to the floor
  1033. >“My boy’s… okay? B-But… But how…”
  1034. >I spoke with as much warmth as I could manage, attempting to preserve Cobalt’s suddenly buoyant mood without ignoring the grim reality that his son still faced
  1035. “There’s a human in this building who’s got him locked up in a lab closet, with… pretty exhaustive defenses too. But believe me, I saw him for myself. He’s very much alive”
  1036. >Cobalt wiped away a tear with one of his fetlocks, and was momentarily joined by Typhoon Twist, who had abandoned her position behind me in order to nuzzle her companion
  1037. >“You’ve had the wrong read on me, James. I couldn’t give half a feather whether you’re human or pony. All… All I ever cared about was making sure my loved ones were safe…”
  1038. “I… I’m sorry… for so much, Cobalt… the herd might get me in the end, but at least let me stay human long enough to save him… I want to do this almost as much as I imagine you would”
  1039. >Though the flood of tears from Cobalt’s face persisted in its search for a expedited route to the floor, he at least managed to bring his gaze to meet mine while chewing on his lower lip
  1040. >“Please be telling the truth, James… If my son’s…”
  1041. >He let out a long, tremulous sigh that rocked his entire body, going so far as to unsettle the mare at his side
  1042. >“If he isn’t… you know… I’d be too heartbroken to chase you down anyways… There’s no pointing l-l-lying if… if… o-oh, for pony’s sake… I… I can’t even speak…”
  1043. >Cobalt briefly buried his face in the soft, comforting mane of the Pegasus at his side, letting out a trembling exhale that disturbed several of the pink strands
  1044. >I was distraught that I couldn’t do much to physically comfort Cobalt lest I risk gaining a pair of hooves, but with a long, pensive breath, I chose my words carefully
  1045. “Cobalt… I’m going to get your son out this building. Alive. I know how far you’d be willing to go as a loving father, and I owe you the same level of valor”
  1046. >“O-Okay…”
  1047. “Do you trust me?”
  1048. >Cobalt, again, lifted his eyes away from the puddle of tears that was gradually growing beneath him, meeting me gaze with a combination of faith and conviction
  1049. >“I do… You’re a good person, James… I wish I’d realized that a lot sooner. I know you’ll try to do the right thing, and by good graces you’ll be successful…”
  1050. “I have to at least try… I have to…”
  1051. >As Cobalt choked back a flurry of turbulent emotions, he gently tapped a hoof against the floor with soft-spoken determination
  1052. >“If there’s anything… anything at all that we can do to help, just say the word”
  1053. “Right. Iron Bell’s in a lab at the end of the hallway... I’m counting on you to know the way out, because I barely know it myself. Just be waiting around the corner here for when he’s free”
  1054. >I received a pair of nods from the Pegasi, each more than eager to be of service
  1055. >“We can do that. Also, James, do you have any bandaging or gauze I could see real quick?”
  1056. >I furrowed my brow at the seemingly random question, lowering my gaze to the EMT pouch at my side before looking back at the ponies
  1057. >Upon analyzing Cobalt and Typhoon Twist, I was reminded of my own shoddy medical work back at Carmine Corners, and the reality presented by Typhoon’s split, still wrapped about her leg
  1058. >It was no doubt effective and went a long way to ensure her bones would heal properly, but unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to properly adjust it so that she could move without restriction
  1059. >Alas, that was too much to address with simple bandaging and gauze, and even a procedure demanding such elementary supplies would raise alarm bells at this point
  1060. >Peter thought I was out getting a water jug… How long is that supposed to take, anyways?
  1061. “I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of time to give any medical help…”
  1062. >I entertained Cobalt’s request anyways and scoured my pouch, retrieving a small, tight roll of cloth bandaging that apparently satisfied his request
  1063. >“That’s more than enough, thank you”
  1064. >With Cobalt raising a hoof invitingly, I gently lobbed the bandages toward him, and concurrently provided him an opportunity to show off a dexterous trick for his marefriend
  1065. >Upon deftly catching the bandage at a low point in its arc, he set it on the floor and unrolled it, revealing a rectangular spread of fibrous material a few inches in either direction
  1066. >Cobalt quickly surveyed the bandage, and with a nod of approval to no one in particular, he turned to Typhoon Twist
  1067. >“Dear, could I take one of your feathers? It might sting a little…”
  1068. >“Of course, go right ahead”
  1069. >With her blessing to do so, Cobalt stepped to Typhoon’s side, carefully clamped his teeth around one of the feathers lining her wing, and gave a sharp tug
  1070. >The self-giving Pegasus winced and let out a faint yowl, but the noise spoke of sensational unfamiliarity and surprise, rather than something resembling a cry of pain
  1071. >Cobalt turned back to the bandage and meticulously placed the feather in its center as though it were a priceless artifact
  1072. >He briefly pulled his muzzle away from the object of intrigue for a few moments to address me, taking care that his breath didn’t cause it to flutter away
  1073. >“Just be careful about touching this… Maybe it’ll come in handy. I’m not saying you NEED to befriend the man that took Iron Bell, but… It’s another tool at your disposal”
  1074. >With that, Cobalt began to grasp each of the cloth bandage’s corners in his teeth and pulled them over the feather, swaddling the transformational artifact in a full protective layer
  1075. >As I caught a brief glimpse of it, the feather seemed… larger than life… even though it was nothing out of the ordinary and adorned the sides of hundreds, thousands of ponies in the region
  1076. >It was about four or five inches long, with a stiff shaft running through its center, and a sleek, aerodynamic vane of blue barbs that glistened like the blade of a polished sword
  1077. >Or, I suppose, more accurately, it was a lot like a dagger in both appearance and its symbolically back-stabbing nature
  1078. >The big question, though… was I really prepared to use it?
  1080. >As the last of Typhoon Twist’s plucked feather disappeared beneath a folded corner of the bandage, Cobalt gently patted down the package, taking care not to crush its contents
  1081. >The bandage roughly held in place as he nudged the seemingly innocuous parcel towards me, letting it slide through the final few inches of its journey across the tile
  1082. >Once I’d rebalanced myself on my feet, stepped forward, and picked up the feather, I could appreciate just how light the sleek plume truly was while I tenderly held it
  1083. >Ninety percent of the package’s physical weight was likely the bandage that served as the wrapping, and it seemed as though the feather would flutter away at the slightest breeze
  1084. >Much like the elusively microscopic virus that I had to assume was behind my current nightmare, Pegasi feathers seemed to be small, light, and easy to overlook… but had grim potential
  1085. >It was alarming to think how every soul that had been turned into a Pegasus now brimmed with these feathers
  1086. >If Storm Cloud – in the process of pinning me to the floor – was anything to go off of, every fully-grown Pegasus was at least a hundred pounds of fur, muscle, and feathers
  1087. >Thousands of feathers, continually molting and drifting downwards from every single bird-pony… and that was when they only tried to passively infect their star-crossed former friends below…
  1088. >After patting the parcel, I zipped open my EMT pouch and slid it into an unassuming spot between a few sealed gauze pads, tucking the adjacent supplies over in an effort to conceal it
  1089. >I could only hope that it wouldn’t garner undue attention if the full force of Peter’s suspicion were to catch up to him and he demanded to search my kit
  1090. >The last thing I needed was for Peter to think it was my goal to turn him into a pony, and that would play out with bullets in more heads than just my own
  1091. >The feather was an option if I couldn’t think up another plan to save Iron Bell, but it was still a shitty one that left me a few steps short of securing my own rescue
  1092. >“James, I’m sorry… I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I… I…”
  1093. >As a few placid words floated through the air, I looked up from my pouch to find a sniffling, red-eyed Cobalt being comforted by his similarly wistful marefriend
  1094. “Cobalt, for what?”
  1095. >“If not for the two of us, you would’ve n-never been f-forced into doing what you did... We don’t deserve you helping in the way that you are…”
  1096. >I leaned forward and dropped to a knee, taking care to remain clear of the small puddles of tears that had dotted the floor beneath Cobalt’s muzzle
  1097. “After seeing the emotional roller coaster you’ve been through over the past day, this is the very least I could do…”
  1098. >“I don’t have anything to repay you with, but I owe you so much for this…”
  1099. “How about this… Just don’t tell anyone where you found me, or Iron, or anything like that. It’ll be our secret, and then you can say we’re even. I’d… I’d still like to make it out… as a human…”
  1100. >Cobalt nodded and took in a long, deep breath, filling his lungs before releasing the warm air as a shivering exhale
  1101. >“P-Please be safe. Please. If this person is a danger to my boy Ste- Iron, he must be a danger to you, too… Please, James, good people like you don’t deserve to pay the ultimate price…”
  1102. >I nodded somberly, meeting Cobalt’s shimmering eyes as he resolutely ignored Typhoon’s consoling hoof gently brushing against his fur
  1103. “I’m not going to kick the bucket – not while there’s still work to do”
  1104. >“Land’s sake, I… I certainly hope not…”
  1105. >With a few soft clacks of metal, Cobalt set his hoof against the grip of the pistol that had come to rest a couple feet to his side, sliding the weapon until it lay before me
  1106. >Once I’d hefted the shimmering steel in my hand and checked the breech, I tucked it into my waistband before hoisting myself to my shoes
  1107. >I gave a determined head nod to the two Pegasi and turned back toward the hallway corner, leading a short parade in the general direction toward Cobalt’s captive son
  1108. >Upon rounding the corner into the daylight-bathed corridor in which Peter’s lab was located, the hooves behind me quieted to a halt as their owners took up a pair of patient positions
  1109. >While they remained out of sight from the door that punctuated the hallway’s end, I pressed forward, trying to keep my footsteps steady as I approached
  1110. >My heart raced, as merely two days ago I was a lowly student with his head down mid-lecture, and now I had no fewer than a couple lives directly riding on the outcome of my actions
  1111. >There was still a happy ending buried, somewhere, beneath the mire – one in which Iron Bell lived and Peter and I escaped as humans, ultimately going on to track down a cure for this horror
  1112. >That happy ending was just… going to require some luck…
  1113. >I planted my feet just outside the door and briefly peered at the piece of thick black paper covering its slender window, my attempts to peer into the lamplight within now thwarted
  1114. >After wiping a hand against the opposite sleeve of my hoodie, I raised it to the door and released a slow sigh
  1115. >Tap… Tap… Snap… Snap…
  1116. >A few moments passed before I heard the knob click and turn, broadcasting Peter’s approval of my use of our secret door entry technique
  1117. >I was soon greeted by Peter in a state of increasingly thorough confusion, but to be fair, that was far preferable to him shouting about some ponies behind me which hadn’t stayed out of view
  1118. >“I thought you were going to find water… Did that not work out?”
  1119. >I shrugged my shoulders and walked forward into the room, leaving Peter behind to shut the door before he could get a good look at my subtly traitorous expression
  1120. “Wish I had better news. I checked a couple of rooms that seemed like they should’ve had water coolers, but no dice”
  1121. >I stood over Peter’s desk, eyeing the transmitter than superficially looked nothing like its basis schematic, but nonetheless looked very far along towards being usable for its intended purpose
  1122. >As I scratched the scruff of my jaw that had inevitably resulted from a couple days without shaving, I judged the pile comprised of a dozen electrical components, resting in the desk’s corner
  1123. >I still had a bit of time to think through several contingencies before I needed to commit…
  1124. >“Sure took you long enough to search”
  1125. “I mean, it wasn’t just looking for the coolers, man. I figured, you know, maybe someone had some stashed water in, like, some cabinets. I did a bit of rummaging too”
  1126. >Peter returned to his desk, prompting my retreat toward the lab’s corner where I’d previously been considering my options
  1127. >“Mhmm, right, yeah…”
  1128. >As Peter settled back into his chair with the soft squeak of negligent lubrication, he shut out the world around himself until his full focus was, quite predictably, back on the circuit board
  1129. >Shadows from his desk lamp danced across the far walls, their originator now hunched over his work with an unwavering commitment befitting Quasimodo at Montfaucon
  1130. >A couple puffs of smoke filled the air as he tinned the tip of his soldering iron, the small flecks of solder dancing outwards as he picked up and studied a large component
  1131. >I leaned against the hard brick wall behind me, slowly sinking to the floor as my neurons sparked with wild frenzy and fear, trying to come up with the necessary solutions in the time I-
  1132. >“Don’t get too comfortable back there, James”
  1133. >After absentmindedly scratching at my head for a rather long time, I stammered my way to a response
  1134. “I-I-I… I d-don’t get what you mean”
  1135. >“Okay, sorry, I guess that could have a dual meaning. Definitely, always be on your toes, juuuust in case the ponies come, but what I mean is, I need your help with something up here”
  1136. “Uh, yeah, sure…”
  1137. >My brief stint seated in the dusty corner of Peter’s lab came to an end as I pushed myself to my feet and walked over to the desk, drawing Peter’s gaze
  1138. >“Alright, could you hold on to the edges of the board? Just keep it upright”
  1139. >My gaze waltzed about the board’s home upon the desk, carefully studying the cryptic bits of blues, greys, greens, and yellows that comprised its shiny, technologically-alluring construction
  1140. “I need to pick it up, right?”
  1141. >“Yeah, grab it in those two reinforced spots on the corner, and then carefully lift… yeah, you’ve got it”
  1142. “You mean like this? Just… and then what am I supposed to…”
  1143. >“Just hold it there, nice and steady”
  1144. >I held the circuit board at waist level, just to the side of the desk, while Peter turned back toward his pile of components and grabbed a large hunk of several strange pieces attached as one
  1145. >It seemed to have a vague face all its own, with previous hours’ of work in the forms of a pair of transistors for eyes, metal plating skin, and wires trailing off like pairs of waving arms
  1146. >The device was undoubtedly complex, and as Peter carefully rechecked his creation, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed with a sinister desire for him to drop it
  1147. >My thoughts filled with illustrative visions of the device tumbling into the shadows at our feet, a perverse apparition that I soon imagined happening to the board in my own hands
  1148. >One bumbling slip, whether accidental or intentional, would be the impetus to give gravity the reigns such that it could do what it’s been doing since the dawn of time…
  1149. >A single lapse in balance, a few loud curses, a crash of broken parts, and I could set back the construction of the radio by… a few… hours…
  1150. >I pinched my eyes shut and shook my head in an attempt to dislodge the thoughts, tightening my grip around the corners of the board
  1151. >Don’t do anything stupid… You want to save Iron Bell, but it doesn’t help to be an idiot… Especially if you still care about your own escape…
  1152. >I opened my eyes slowly with a soundless sigh just as Peter was turning back to face me
  1153. >“James, you see these wires here?”
  1154. >While feigning a state of mental tranquility, I followed Peter’s gesture until my eyes came to rest on two pairs of red and black wires in his hands
  1155. “What am I doing with them?”
  1156. >“Just keep the board there so I can work beneath it. We need to attach them topside, and a few other leads run up through the middle… I mean, just hold the board right there; you’re good”
  1157. >I gave a faint nod of understanding as Peter plunged beneath the board, carefully inspecting a few spots beneath it as he held up the hulking device in this hand next to it
  1158. >Through the next few minutes, the lab was filled with a cacophony of softly scraping metal, a few clinks of contact, and intermittent grunts of focused effort from the worker below
  1159. >With time, he abated his support of the device, which was now hanging securely beneath the cautiously held board, fixed in place by an array of unseen fasteners
  1160. >As the minutes dragged on and I came to appreciate how the transmitter had indeed grown heavier, I glanced back at the pile of components in the desk’s corner
  1161. >The heft of the transmitter, even in its unfinished state, signaled that it was a gadget not to be taken lightly, and could soon relay a message to Jupiter if that’s what it took
  1162. >After a few more minutes, a little bit more arm fatigue, and a few more flashes of solder sending their smoky plumes drifting around the board’s edges, Peter stood up from the darkness
  1163. >“Cool, just set it down on this spot on the desktop… Yeah, be gentle with it but you can rest it just like that… Perfect!”
  1164. >I shook out my arms, now that the desk had usurped my position, simultaneously lowering my head to get a better look at the gadget’s newly attached underbelly
  1165. >Various electric components studded the visible interior of the box beneath the main board, much as its topside had flickered with various components catching the lamplight
  1166. >When I straightened my spine again, Peter was diligently soldering a few wires on the top of the widget, a few touches that would presumably pave the way for the unattached pieces
  1167. “So how much long is it going to take you to attach all of those other… you know…”
  1168. >Peter barely even glanced at the desk corner to which I was directing his gaze as he pressed the soldering iron against a section of shimmering copper wire strands
  1169. >“Oh, James, you’re going to love me for this… because… we…”
  1170. >The silver torrent of solder flowed across the twisted strands, sending up a small puff of smoke just as Peter pulled the iron away, resolidifying the connection
  1171. >“…are done!”
  1172. >I froze and my eyes went wide, unbeknownst to Peter as he admired his creation
  1173. >Done? Done… like, right NOW?
  1174. “But you’ve still got, like, a dozen pieces you haven’t put on it”
  1175. >Peter gleefully plucked a modest diode from the heap, idly twisting its wires together before setting it back on the desk and flicking it to the floor with a metallic clattering
  1176. >“Nah, I scavenged these as extras, just in case. You never know when parts you find in the tech dumps are going to be fried. Diodes, transistors, stuff like that”
  1177. >I gave a weak nod and artificial smile
  1178. “Ah, yeah, that makes sense”
  1179. >“Give yourself a pat on the back, dude. I tried attaching that piece a few times while you were out and it wasn’t really working. I’m seriously not sure whether I could’ve done it without you!”
  1180. “Of course… what’re friends for, am I right?”
  1181. >“Check it out! I probably don’t need to tell you everything about this, but you get up to the tower… blue wires, orange, et cetera, control is done with this, bam bam, you’ve got radio contact!”
  1182. >He was animatedly pointing at several parts and calling out their enigmatic purposes, but if he were truly paying attention to his listener, my lack of mental presence would’ve been clear
  1183. >As I braced myself against the desk and felt my hands go clammy, my mind proceeded to crash turbulently among the rip tide steadily pulling me towards panic
  1184. >This was a good thing… A good thing! Peter’s progress was ahead of where I thought he was, and we were verily on the verge of being rescued! Be excited!
  1185. >Think of hearing the voices of other humans that are coming to rescue you, voices lacking the audible grins and cheery undertones that should have no place in the apocalypse!
  1186. >Imagine the helicopters cresting the horizon, staving off entire flocks of Pegasi as they serve deliverance to pair of humans that had held out so valiantly all this time!
  1187. >D-Don’t think of… of w-what Peter is g-going to… to do… when we…
  1188. >“James, are you feeling alright? Do you need to lie down?”
  1189. >After blinking rapidly and peering at Peter, I gave a feeble nod and leaned backwards against the storage closet’s door, easing myself to the ground with one hand on the doorknob
  1190. >Shit, so the door’s definitely locked, but at least if I brace myself here, he’ll need to get past me if he wants to get to Iron…
  1191. “I… I’m sorry…”
  1192. >“No need to be. Just overwhelmed about finally getting to safety?”
  1193. “Y-Yeah… Well, maybe. Maybe I ate something bad but considering how quickly it came on… Yeah, it was probably excitement… Yeah…”
  1194. >What the fuck was I supposed to do?!
  1195. >I thought by this point I’d have something else I could tell him to uphold Iron Bell’s life, but I don’t have anything else to add – nothing!
  1196. >I could attack him, shoot his kneecaps like a B-grade mobster, retrieve the feather and rub it in his face… but for fuck’s sake, I can’t put the radio together without him!
  1197. >My hand drifted to the pistol still tucked into my belt, the fingers trailing lightly over the smooth metal before transitioning to the coarse fabric of the EMT pouch
  1198. >I trembled as I clamped the zipper between my fingers and pulled, the tab rattling as I prepared myself for an opportunity in which it could become necessary to draw out the feather
  1199. >“James, are you having any difficulty getting into your supplies? I can get you something… Do you want me to grab you, like, a cool cloth or something?”
  1200. >I nodded weakly, failing to raise my eyes enough to meet Peter’s as I anxiously wrung a sweaty hand around my wrist
  1201. “Yeah… that would be… that would be nice”
  1202. >“And just to be clear, when you mentioned the ponies poisoning the water supply earlier… That was purely hypothetical, right? When you talked with them, did they actually mention that?”
  1203. “None of them ever… mentioned it… We should be okay…”
  1204. >Peter adjusted the rifle slung across his back and squatted next to me before giving a few calming taps to my upper arm
  1205. >“Alright, in that case, just stay put, and I’m going to get some wet cloths from the bathroom. Don’t, y’know, pass out and die on me now. We’ve gotten too far for that”
  1206. >He laughed on behalf of both of us, as my addled gaze was still expressionless and fixated on the floor in front of me
  1207. “Take your time… I’m not going anywhere”
  1208. >“It would’ve been great if you’d gotten some water from the lounge, but… ehhhh, it happens. I’m going to fill up my water bottle and take a leak while I’m there. Are you good to go after this?”
  1209. “Y-Yeah…”
  1210. >Peter stood up and eyed his nearby backpack, wordlessly deciding to leave most of his belongings behind as he snatched his mostly empty water bottle
  1211. >“Cool, because I’m just about ready to head to the radio tower and get out of this nightmare. We’ll just check our supplies and take care of any unfinished business before leaving”
  1212. >He gave a subtle nod toward the door against which I was resting, a grisly smirk spreading across his face as he provided further reminder of the pony locked hopelessly within
  1213. >His footsteps had carried him almost all the way to the door by the time I shakily called out to him
  1214. “P-Peter? H-Hold on just a second…”
  1215. >As he turned back toward me, he wrapped a hand calmly around the doorknob
  1216. >I swallowed what little spit filled my dry mouth, drawing in a slow breath as I peered up at the cheery, remorseless man who still imprisoned an innocent colt
  1217. “Leave your keys with me. Don’t bring them with you to the bathroom”
  1218. >Peter raised an eyebrow and briefly peered about the room, as though the words I’d just spoken were in an entirely foreign language
  1219. >“James, why… Why would I need to do that?”
  1220. “It’s all a matter of… security…”
  1221. >He softly chuckled and scratched his head
  1222. >“Security? What, are you exceptionally worried about ponies or something like that?”
  1223. >I bit my lip, trying to formulate an excuse for him to leave behind the keyring that would grant Iron Bell’s freedom
  1224. “Peter, what if you happen to come across a pony while you’re on the can? I can’t just… let you back in here that easily just so you can infect me too”
  1225. >He scratched his chin, and his grip around the water bottle tightened, a faint crinkle of thin plastic voicing his enmity
  1226. >“So, what you’re basically telling me is that you’d turn on me, just that quickly, if I were infected? That you’d shoot the pony version of me in a heartbeat?”
  1227. “I-I wouldn’t want to… but… yeah, I… I guess I wouldn’t have a choice in that case”
  1228. >I shifted uneasily in my seat, with Peter now looming much taller than I seemingly remembered as the lamplight cast his menacing shadow across the hallway door
  1229. >“Really, James? You’d shoot a pony, even when the person they claim to be… had worked so hard to secure your escape?”
  1230. >Peter paused, waiting for my response which manifested in a subtle yet steadfast nod of confirmation
  1231. >His glower softened as he unclipped and tossed his keyring, the shimmering metal arcing through the air before clinking to a halt against my leg
  1232. >“I think you’re finally starting to get the hang of this. That’s what I needed to hear. Two knocks, two snaps, right?”
  1233. “Right… take… take your time”
  1234. >With a lopsided smile, Peter rolled open the doorknob and clicked its lock in preparation, before resting his hand on his rifle’s grip and peering into the dim, naturally lit hallway ahead
  1235. >Cobalt and Typhoon Twist had apparently remained out of sight, and a moment later, he eased himself out of the lab and gently shut the door behind himself
  1236. >Clock’s ticking, James…
  1237. >With a swift, muted flurry of action, I reached for the keyring, hastily fumbling through the menagerie of brassy and silvery alloys until I could pick out a key that resembled my target
  1238. >I turned to the closet’s door and momentarily grappled with the stiff doorknob, promptly confirming what I pretty much already knew
  1239. >A trembling key rose into view and slid into the lock, but as I tried to torque it to the side, it refused to budge even a few degrees
  1240. >Oh, fuck, no, I thought that was the one! Come on… damn it… uh, this one looks kind of like it…
  1241. >The tip of another key scratched into lock’s face with a hair-raising cacophony of grinding metal, before finding its place among the knob’s tumblers
  1242. >With a single fluid motion, the door rolled open with the turned key still in its lock, spilling light into the dim living quarters of Iron Bell while the young Pegasus squinted his eyes
  1243. “Iron Bell, listen to me. There’s not a lot of time”
  1244. >“J-James? Where’s… Where’s Peter?”
  1245. >I dropped to my knees only a few reckless inches away from him, deftly shifting a few tufts of fur aside in an effort to study the chain around his neck
  1246. “He’s out of the room, but not for long. I’m getting you out. NOW”
  1247. >“I can wait a few minutes, James… Sure, it’s not comfy in here, but it sounded like Peter’s done with his radio and he said he was going to let me go… after...”
  1248. >Iron Bell trailed off as his eyes met my stern expression, my lips pursed tightly in a manner that told Iron all the necessary facts
  1249. >“B-But… But… He wouldn’t, would he? I didn’t do anything to… to…”
  1250. >The chain clicked and rattled as it slid free from his neck, the remanding knot crumbling under the swift scrutiny of my gloves
  1251. >Iron Bell took a few deeply refreshing breaths, rolled his faintly bloodied neck in a wide circle, and stifled his instinctive desire to wrap his liberator in a warm embrace
  1252. >Nevertheless, as his wings ruffled and his short tail wagged, sending currents of stale air drifting around the cramped room, his glee was still apparent via body language
  1253. “Iron, you need to get out of here, quickly. It won’t be long before Peter realizes you’re gone”
  1254. >“Okay, just… why are you doing this, James?”
  1255. “There’ll be time for questions later. Your dad will help you the rest of the way. Right now, go out into the hallway, and he’ll be there”
  1256. >Iron’s lips quavered and his ears flicked expressively
  1257. >“My dad…”
  1258. >A tear rolled off of his smiling muzzle, dripping to the floor with a soft splash
  1259. >I shifted backwards, allowing myself and the Pegasus before me to stand up, before both of us proceeded hastily toward the door
  1260. >We cringed each time his sharply clicking hoofbeats struck the floor, but short of me picking him up and carrying him across the room and down the hallway, there was no alternative available
  1261. >After resetting the lock, I opened the door, prompting both Iron Bell’s eyes, as well as my own, to light up upon seeing a blue mane bracketing an overjoyed pony muzzle just down the hall
  1262. >Iron Bell rustled his wings excitedly and gleefully galloped a few steps down the corridor, but shuddered to a slow walk as he suddenly remembered the criticality of stealth
  1263. >Unfortunately, as Typhoon and Cobalt popped around the corner with alerted ears that picked up the echoing reports of his hoofbeats, every soul present knew the damage had been done
  1264. >I remained fixed in the laboratory’s doorway at the end of the hall, my grip tightening around the doorframe as my knees started to tremble
  1265. >Iron paced swiftly and carefully, but was still a couple yards short of the hallway corner when one of the doors dotting the side of the corridor exploded open with a resounding crash
  1266. >Against the glow of the window from the far wall, I saw the profile of a man brace against the edge of his doorway and swiftly raise the barrel of rifle
  1267. >Chaos abruptly took to the air as Iron Bell dove, a number of ponies cried out, and an alarmed rustle of Pegasus feathers sought to make them more intimidating, but only made for larger targets
  1268. >“Let’s go! Iron, you’re going to be alright!”
  1269. >The initial cacophony, however, was nothing compared to the crack of a gunshot filling the hallway, sending me scrambling to cover my ears
  1270. >Peter flinched as well, throwing off his rifle’s aim as he shouted something at the ponies, which I could hardly hear over the high ringing that had overwhelmed my auditory senses
  1271. >When I glanced back up the length of the hallway with horrific expectations, I saw Cobalt and Iron grabbing Typhoon Twist, her wing reeling as specks of blood peppered a spot near its base
  1272. >The three Pegasi rapidly jerked around the corner, disappearing from sight as the clamor of the three pony’s hooves grew gradually quieter
  1273. >Six inches lower and it might’ve killed her, but for now, Typhoon would be okay…
  1274. >My heart was weighed down by fear when Peter stepped forward into the hallway, silhouetting his dark profile against the daylight with visible intent to chase down his impromptu prey
  1275. >That level of fear shot up to eleven when he glared back at me, gesturing ominously with the barrel of his rifle
  1276. >“I thought we talked about this, James! Now I gotta go chase down those three, and if you’re lucky, I won’t shoot you when I get back here!”
  1277. >His blunt shouts and the crashes of rubber on tile echoed loudly as Peter took off running
  1278. “Peter, stop! Can’t we talk about…”
  1279. >As Peter’s unfaltering pace took him around the corner and out of sight, I grabbed for my pistol so that it wouldn’t be digging into my waist and began to give chase
  1280. >With the rifle cradled in his arms, Peter’s running strides proved to be awkward and unnatural, allowing me to quickly catch up before he’d even made it to the end of the next hallway
  1281. >“James, I thought I could trust you! After all this time surviving, why the hell are you betraying our rescue attempt?!”
  1282. “You want to be rescued? Great! So do I! Let’s go back to the lab, grab your shit, and make it happen!”
  1283. >With the din of hooves suddenly becoming muffled by a stairwell door slamming shut, Peter kicked the offending obstacle back open with a hollow crash
  1284. >“I’m a little busy right now!”
  1285. >He and I peered over the edge of the stairs’ railing into the dim spiral below, with Peter attempting to line up a shot just as the Pegasi vanished into the building’s ground level
  1286. >Their harried breaths could be heard a few mere feet below, a startled gasp catching in one of the ponies’ throats as their glistening eyes briefly noticed the nosy barrel of Peter’s rifle
  1287. >A sharp, steady rhythm of footsteps announced the resumption of his pursuit
  1288. “Let them go, Peter! They just want to get their family back together!”
  1289. >“Fuck that, they know where we are! And the little one knows a LOT more than that, but our location alone is still too much!”
  1290. >Peter briefly checked his corners as he exited the stairwell, lining up the rifle’s sights with a couple flurries of blue and pink hair that swiftly jerked around a hallway corner
  1291. >I tried to set a reprobating hand on his shoulder as I gradually realized that the distance to the ponies was steadily decreasing, but Peter jerked away and did his best to ignore my loud protests
  1292. “All I want is to get out of this with as little loss of life as possible! And the colt was just a goddamn kid!”
  1293. >“They’re all the same to me, James! They’re senseless horse-zombies with a sole focus on growing their ranks! One day that kid’s going to grow up, and he’ll be even stronger as a stallion!”
  1294. >He wiped his brow and readjusted the rifle’s stock against his shoulder before swiftly walking toward the next corner, the path ahead speckled with sparse drops of blood
  1295. >I remained a step or two ahead of the fireteam’s muscle, my pace punctuated with glances backwards and an errant disregard for my surroundings as the pistol swayed in my sweaty palm
  1296. “Peter, please, this is absurd! We can grab the transmitter and make our escape! Just trust me on this, they won’t tell anyone about us!”
  1297. >All I received for a reply was a terse grunt before Peter blinked stiffly, refocusing his attention forward down the rifle’s sights, as though I were no longer present
  1298. >Finding us at an all-too-familiar impasse, I broke into a run toward the raucous clamor of hooves emanating from around the corner
  1299. >“If you’re not moving up to kill them, I won’t feel sorry about shooting you in the back!”
  1300. >It took a while, but certainly not long enough, to traverse the corridor’s length and round the corner
  1301. >Upon doing so, I found myself about a dozen yards from the sluggishly progressing ponies their hoofbeats progressed with distressing lethargy as they approached the glow of daylight
  1302. >When I took a second to peruse the scene, my heart sank as I realized the condemning burden that had befallen their progress
  1303. >Typhoon Twist’s rear leg, though spared from gunshots, was shuddering through each laborious, short step as the rickety splint I’d poorly applied had finally caught up to her
  1304. >Her movement was punctuated by a rhythm of three normal hoofbeats, followed by a hesitant pause, then a half-hearted yelp as her fourth leg crashed tremulously to the floor
  1305. >She was exerting herself prodigiously to advance her family’s pace, but it was still barely enough to qualify as a trot
  1306. >After frantically glancing back at the corner from where Peter would soon be appearing, I halted a few yards from the ponies, lowered my pistol frailly to my side, and watched the scene unfold
  1307. >Hindsight was always clearer than any decision made in the heat of the moment, yet I couldn’t help but blame myself for never taking the time to fix my own shoddy work
  1308. >The harsh clack of the aluminum splint, the faint winces I noticed with each step… I should have taken better care before this, and now Typhoon Twist was paying the price for my haste…
  1309. >I couldn’t have known she would need to run on a splint that hardly even sufficed for walking, even in the best conditions…
  1310. >Flying to safety was clearly an untenable option for her, as blood from the gunshot spilled downward across her feathers, the crimson flood soaking into the blue with each distrait twitch
  1311. >Her healthy wing was strong enough to drape across Cobalt’s back as he tried to support her, but as he glanced back at me with fear in his eyes, the grim situation was silently acknowledged
  1312. >Iron Bell kept pace just ahead of his newly reunited family, holding himself to a moderate trot while he repeatedly glanced over his shoulder at the two Pegasi
  1313. >As daylight streamed in from a vestibule window a few yards ahead of the small herd, their evasion was painfully close, but so too were the approaching footfalls of Peter just behind the corner
  1314. >One doorway, ten feet of cool air, one more doorway, and then the freedom of the outdoors
  1315. >Iron Bell was still glancing back at me when he nearly bumped into the doorframe’s edge, subsequently swallowing as he refocused his attention back on Typhoon and Cobalt
  1316. >The young colt’s expression was full of unease as his perked ears picked up at Peter’s approaching footfalls, but he visibly attempted to snatch hope from the jaws of despair
  1317. >“D-Dad… We’re going to be okay, right?”
  1318. >“We’re going to fine, Iron. James back there is a good human… plus, we’re almost to freedom… things will be fine…”
  1319. >He gestured to his son, silently urging him to step into the vestibule where he’d be slightly safer once gunshots began ringing out through the hallway
  1320. >Cobalt and the mare at his side were still a few yards short of the doorway, hobbling forward with an increasingly sluggish rhythm of hoofbeats and stifled howls of agony
  1321. >Typhoon Twist retracted her wing from Cobalt’s back, upsetting the fine arrangement of his grey feathers, before shifting onto her healthy legs and peering into his shimmering eyes
  1322. >“Cobalt… please be a good father for Iron…”
  1323. >“We’re going to be fine, Typhoon! Don’t be so glum!”
  1324. >“Dear, even if we get outside, what then? I can’t run any further… I can’t fly…”
  1325. >Typhoon Twist sunk into a seated position a few feet from the door, wobbling in an apparent effort to lean against some absent supporting structure
  1326. >As a small pool of blood began to manifest beneath her steadily trickling wing, the tempo of her breathing ticked up slightly, outdone only by Cobalt’s frenetic gasps
  1327. >“The rest of the herd will help! We just have to keep going! The door’s right here!”
  1328. >Cobalt repositioned himself just a few feet in front of Typhoon, hoping that she would have no choice but to look at him rather than stare at the floor with a quiet, abandoned gaze
  1329. >It proved unsuccessful as sunlight spilled across her gently weeping face, the tears appearing fresh with each of Peter’s footsteps echoing around the corner behind her
  1330. >“Being outside doesn’t suddenly mean we’ve escaped… I… I can’t make it with you… You have to get Iron to safety – just run – run or fly across the quad as fast as you can… Please…”
  1331. >Cobalt trembled with no semblance of self-control, rattling the rickety floor boards than formed the barrier between the hallway and the room to the outdoors
  1332. >As he continued to peer inwards at the resigned mare in the hallway, he reached forward with a hoof and tried to bring her gaze to level with his
  1333. >“Typhoon… Typhoon! Look at me! I’m not going to let that bad man g-”
  1334. >He was abruptly cut off as his marefriend’s foreleg swiftly reached for the door’s edge and slammed it in his face
  1335. >Adrenaline surged through my blood but my feet may as well have been cemented in place as I watched, with Cobalt and Iron safely barricaded in the vestibule… but not Typhoon Twist…
  1336. >“Typhoon, sweetie, stop, stop! Openthedoor! Open the door for pony’s sake!”
  1337. >The unseen duo of Cobalt and Iron scratched their hooves frantically at the metal obstacle’s far side, their hooves occasionally catching on the knob with enough force to wiggle it
  1338. >Opening it proved far more elusive in their audibly terrified states, and within a few seconds, the scratching gave way to the tremendous booms of hooves crashing against the door
  1339. >As an inward-facing door with no lock, it might have readily given way… if only it reflected the age of the rest of the building, featuring a latch that hadn’t been replaced in the past year
  1340. >“Typhoon, I won’t lose you! I can’t!”
  1341. >When the thunder of hooves reached its peak, I suddenly became aware of the heavy footfalls behind me, abruptly growing to full volume once Peter turned the corner
  1342. >As I spun around with the expectation of meeting a rifle barrel, my rotation was urged to continue with the harsh crack of the rifle’s stock, swung like a baseball bat squarely into my jaw
  1343. >There wasn’t even time to shout obscenities as Peter’s blurry visage flew through my vision, and after a short trip towards the tile, I crashed unforgivingly without anything to cushion me
  1344. >Just out of reach ahead, my pistol clattered to the ground and came to rest with apathetic aim directed toward a random point on the hallway’s side wall
  1345. >Meanwhile, Peter spun the rifle back around into his grip, glowering at me and then at the mare down the hallway, his eyes bathed with fiery contempt
  1346. >Fuck… The number of human deaths in this town since the apocalypse’s arrival had probably, by some interpretations, been zero… Guess we have to start somewhere…
  1347. >“Looks like you didn’t finish the job, James… And is that the rest of them just beyond the door?”
  1348. >While teetering around on the ground, my vision sharpened just enough to see Typhoon standing with determination next to a display case that had been placed aside the doorway
  1349. >The furniture was likely decades old and fairly unassuming, sporting a wooden cabinet of books, plaques, trophies, and bronze busts, all supported on a few slender, flimsy-looking legs
  1350. >It was almost a miracle that after years of untold water damage, wear, and vandalism in this hallway, the toothpick-like legs could still support such an impressive collection
  1351. >Though I needed to squint and blink to chase the blood off of one of my eyelids, I could still clearly make out Typhoon planting her hooves near one of the case’s tacky pillars
  1352. >Oh… no…
  1353. >Time seemed to stand still as she winced and shifted her weight forward, subsequently kicking her hind legs backwards with as much might as one could expect from the bloodied mare
  1354. >A cry of unfettered torment mixed with a symphony of crashing and scraping as things broke loudly – be they Typhoon’s leg, the mangled splint, or the display case’s leg by itself
  1355. >She collapsed to the floor, stumbling forwards and still wailing loudly as the display case above her creaked
  1356. >Her muzzle was still pointed downwards with dismal acceptance when the case’s construction gave way, shuddering and toppling onto her backside with an almighty crash
  1357. >In that moment, Typhoon was thrown to the floor with suddenly wide eyes, collapsing with the uncontrolled poise befitting a sack of potatoes
  1358. >The display case ceased to resemble a clean, well-built box as it crumbled and splintered into hundreds of wood shards, the stray debris going airborne in just as many shallow trajectories
  1359. >The noise was tremendous, and it only added to the racket of Cobalt’s kicks and the despairing cries from every pony present
  1360. >She... she killed herself… Through my blurry, concussed vision, I… I just watched a pony die…
  1361. >At first I thought Typhoon had intended to take her own life rather than die at Peter’s hand, but as the dust settled and I detected new movement in the rubble, two things became clear
  1362. >For one, as the bulky mass subsided on top of Typhoon’s hind legs and tail, it was apparent that she was still very much alive beneath it all, groaning weakly in pain
  1363. >Additionally, as Cobalt and Iron finally blew the door open, the vestibule’s entry could budge no more than three or four inches before sharply butting up against the pile of hulking debris
  1364. >The scratching started anew as Cobalt pawed at the door, having barely managed to open it enough to poke his muzzle or a hoof through, let alone a full pony
  1365. >“Typhoon, the door’s stuck! We can’t get in!”
  1366. >The Pegasus mare coughed weakly, speaking with a trembling voice that may have been the result of either shock or unbridled fear
  1367. >I was at least thankful to see that, after all she’d been though, she wasn’t coughing up blood
  1368. >However, that was by no means something to celebrate, and as Typhoon momentarily glanced at her buried rear and her own harbinger looming over me, it certainly wasn’t time to cheer yet
  1369. >“I know… I know…”
  1370. >“What the hay do you mean you know?!”
  1371. >“I’d meant for the door to get stuck…”
  1372. >“Please dear, we can’t get in!”
  1373. >“Cobalt, at least now that horrible man can’t get out, either…”
  1374. >A pair of determined kicks from the far side of the door prompted a new assault on my ears, but did nothing to open it so much as another inch
  1375. >“James, please, you’re still in there! Please! I’ll do anything!”
  1376. >I sluggishly reached a hand forward for the pistol that seemed to be two… three… five… fifty feet in front of me, my fingers coming up just short every time I drew back and grappled for it
  1377. >Before I knew it, a pair of shoes planted themselves next to the shimmering steel and my breath caught in my throat with a sudden gasp
  1378. >“Is this a gift for me, James? Why, thank you”
  1379. >Without hesitation, a hand dropped into my field of view, wrapped around the pistol, and lifted it up into the studious view of its smirking former owner
  1380. >My breaths quickened, but aside from a few ragged gasps, I didn’t have any words with which to address Peter
  1381. >“Don’t worry James, you’ll get this back…”
  1382. >I pushed myself halfway into a seating position as the corridor around me tilted and swirled like the interior of a lava lamp
  1383. >Through a slow, aching blink, I saw Peter walk up toward the opening in the door, ignoring the weakly groaning mare a few feet away
  1384. >But of course, why would he pay her any attention?
  1385. >She wasn’t going anywhere, and the ponies that still had a chance to squeal on his location were elsewhere…
  1386. >“Peter… don’t…”
  1387. >After vaulting over the modest pile of debris, he thrusted the pistol through the slender opening of the doorframe and let loose four sharp gunshots, pointing the gun with blind aim
  1388. >BANG
  1390. >“Come on you stupid li- Ah, motherfucker!”
  1391. >As quickly as it had plunged into the vestibule, Peter’s hand recoiled back out of it, unintentionally tossing the pistol back onto the tile a few yards in front of me
  1392. >He bumbled over the display case’s remnants and dropped to his knees, shaking his hand wildly as he bit his lip and stifled a new tirade of curses
  1393. >A few seconds was apparently enough to sufficiently dull the pain before he raised his injured hand into view, carefully inspecting his wound while he pulled back his shirt sleeve
  1394. >At first, he was concerned around the thin trail of blood had begun to snake its way downwards, originating from where the unseen pony’s jaw had clamped around his wrist
  1395. >He grew more alarmed and started to shake when he saw the lurid fur that had pushed its way out of his skin, his fingernails now tinged a similarly violet hue
  1397. >Peter’s grip around his wrist loosened with his body’s horrified trembling, but even after a remarkably lengthy span of tranquility, he was still staring at the violet hairs gilding his hand
  1398. >His breathing had quickened into short gasps as the color spread, almost imperceptibly, alarming him further in what appeared to be a self-perpetuating cycle of increasing heartbeats
  1399. >Every second that ticked by, more of his human self would be falling away, and if that hadn’t been evident to him before, it was a harsh lesson he was rapidly learning
  1400. >He flexed his trigger finger as though he were imitating an inchworm, letting out a terse sigh of relief as he failed to immediately notice any debilitating stiffness
  1401. >But how long would that last, before that finger started to meld into a hoof? Before his ears traveled up the side of his head? Before he too was giggling about sugarplums and flowers?
  1402. >A trembling sigh accompanied him idly brushing the afflicted hand over his shirt, absentmindedly trying to wipe away the infection as though it were superficial, and not already in his blood
  1403. >Peter’s pupils had shrunken significantly as they unfocused into a thousand yard stare, their owner waiving the notion of putting them to use as he pensively detached himself from the world
  1404. >Cobalt’s frenetic kicks continued to send strident shockwaves through the air in his battle against the door and its barricade raged on, but to little effect
  1405. >“Don’t you dare hurt her! Don’t! Please, please don’t! Don’t let this happen!”
  1406. >Don’t let this happen…
  1407. >It was quite clear that the first segment of Cobalt’s echoing solicitations had been directed toward the ill-willing man beyond the door
  1408. >However, there was much more ambiguity to his plea about the seemingly inevitable timeline looming before us
  1409. >Through my concussion-addled thoughts, I turned over the words in my mind, while blood, sweat, and tears steadily dripped from the hands on Typhoon’s proverbial clock
  1410. >Was Typhoon Twist supposed to stop this, even though she currently found herself beneath a pile of rubble, likely with far more broken bones than when she’d begun the day?
  1411. >Was I supposed to stop this, even though Peter was my sole chance of getting to safety, OUR sole chance of getting to safety, OUR sole chance of obtaining a cure to end this nightmare?
  1412. >Was Peter supposed to simply give up now that he shared a bit more DNA with the mare entwined a few feet away from his feet?
  1413. >As if he were immediately posing a challenge to my question, Peter rose to his feet, audibly driving Cobalt and Iron away from the ajar door that had barely preserved their safety earlier
  1414. >Cobalt, in a fit of jittery terror, was far from ready to give up the fight as he momentarily attempted to project menacingly with a puffed-up voice
  1415. >“If you hurt a single f-feather on her, things are going to… to only get worse and worse and worse and worse for you, buddy!”
  1416. >With a distant, zombie-like stare that drifted across the floor, Peter traipsed towards the wreckage enveloping Typhoon Twist, spinning his rifle off his back as though it were second nature
  1417. >“Enough of this… We’ve… We’ve got things… to do…”
  1418. >A window into Peter’s inner turmoil manifested in his sluggish, inattentive motions, the man barely flinching as the metal vestibule door crashed again and my own groans pierced the air
  1419. >Son of a bitch, it really hurt to stand…
  1420. >Indeed, it hurt to stand, it hurt to move, and it hurt to shout after Peter served my jaw the same treatment of a Louisville Slugger
  1421. >Gasps of still-fading discomfort accompanied each of my steps as I stumbled toward him with plodding footfalls, clumsily bending down to pick up my forsaken pistol along the way
  1422. >Peter’s hand, swaddled in an increasingly vivid palette of violet, had already found its position around his rifle’s grip, and steadily guided the barrel into place at a slightly downwards angle
  1423. >“If there’s anything you need to say, do, pray, whatever… now… now would be the time to do so”
  1424. >As my gaze followed the weak shine of the gun’s stock… receiver… handguard… and barrel, it ultimately came to settle on the petrified mare entombed at the business end of the rifle
  1425. >With each resigned gasp for whatever air she could get, her chest rippled excruciatingly, as the unforgiving hardness of several maple slabs settled upon her haunches and a hind leg
  1426. >The careful braid of her formerly dazzling pink mane, which had once bordered her smiling face, was tinged grey by disturbed dust, its strands unsettled and knotted by the carnage
  1427. >The faded color seemed to prophesy the gradual departure of the light from Typhoon’s eyes, and as her head sunk slightly lower, the shabby braid followed
  1428. >Her eyes stole quick glances at the barrel tip pointed at her head, a cry of heavy dread escaping her lips every time her misty vision bounced back to the rest of the world she was leaving behind
  1429. >Never again would she need to spend another moment in the dim hallways of this post-apocalyptic town, their powerless expanses currently filled with little more than dread and heartache
  1430. >But then again, she’d never live to see the world following its return to peace, frolicking on sun-drenched days through the springtime meadows, their luscious beds dotted with wildflowers
  1431. >She would never have the opportunity to share just one more… just one more trot with the love of her life through a park in autumn, skipping as the orange sunset danced off the falling leaves
  1432. >She’d never get to curl up by a warm, softly crackling fireplace on a quiet winter night, nuzzled beneath a blanket with the stallion that meant the world to her
  1433. >And to never see the… son… the son she’d always wanted to be the mother figure for… grow up to be the love-struck stallion he could’ve always been, with a marefriend and a couple foals
  1434. >Maybe if things had gone differently… Maybe…
  1435. >But at least you and your father were safe…
  1436. >Her ears perked up at the opportunity to hear Cobalt’s voice one last time, but as his tender sobs fought to snake around the door, they were too feeble to overcome Typhoon’s pounding pulse
  1437. >Nevertheless, her eyes sought for the door where he was invariably stationed, and she softly echoed the same three word phrase
  1438. >“I love you…”
  1439. >Peter fanned out his fingers on the rifle’s grip and tightened all but one at about the same moment I noticed a shimmering figure rising in my field of view’s lower corner
  1440. >I could hardly remember my decision to do so, but after a tense second, my pistol came to level with Peter’s head, its metallic pieces faintly clattering as I fought to control my trembling
  1441. “Don’t… Peter, don’t do this…”
  1442. >After a few stern moments with his lips pressed together, it became apparent that Peter wasn’t planning to offer a verbal reply to my threats
  1443. >Instead, his simply released a long sigh, dripping with disappointment and annoyance rather than any semblance of genuine surprise
  1444. >I swallowed and blinked slowly, working to utilize the waves of adrenaline that rocked my body as a means of chasing away the last vestiges of my blurry daze
  1445. “Peter, you don’t need to kill her… and if you want to so badly, you’ll have to shoot me first”
  1446. >He shifted the weight between his feet, drawing back from Typhoon Twist by a few inches, while the gap between her head and the rifle’s tip grew infinitesimally
  1447. >His head seemed to creak as it turned to face me, a snarl written on his face that reminded me of a rapacious dog whose rag doll toy was being yanked away
  1448. >“James, this is exactly the kind of thing of thing I’ve been talking about… either I do this… or we’re pretty much fucked. Hell, I’m not even asking you to pull the trigger; just stand down”
  1449. >The pistol’s grip dug firmly into my palms, and as a bead of sweat rolled downwards past the corner of my eye, I sternly refused to allocate a hand to wipe it away
  1450. “What do you gain from shooting her, huh? What’s the point of doing so, when she’s already suffering under a heap of rubble?”
  1451. >“Maybe you just answered your own question, you worthless bleeding heart – I’m putting her out of her mi-”
  1452. “Damn it! Stop pretending like you care about the ponies’ well-being! If you didn’t think you had something to gain, it’d be nothing more than a wasted bullet to you!”
  1453. >Peter glanced back at my weapon as he anxiously tapped a fast-paced rhythm against the edge of his own trigger guard
  1454. >Despite his visible desire to assert victory by simply snatching away my gun, I remained just out of arm’s reach, a personal combination of good practice and fearful petrification
  1455. >Peter rested his weapon’s handguard upon an outstretched finger, pointing down in the direction of the rifle’s aim as he spoke
  1456. >“Not only is she another pony who won’t be chasing us down, shooting her is the difference between our location remaining a secret and giving the entire herd a map with a bright red X”
  1457. >Even though the subject of our argument remained only a few feet away beneath the collapsed display case, Typhoon Twist had effectively been an absent party
  1458. >After rallying herself to action, she broke her rhythm of punctuated gasps to look up at me for a couple seconds, her wet eyes glossed over with wordless pleading
  1459. “Peter… look at her… she’s got at least one broken leg and blood’s gushing from her wing. She’s a casualty in every sense of the word… Maybe not dead, but she certainly can’t fight…”
  1460. >Upon hearing mention of her wing, Typhoon unconsciously twitched the feathery appendage a few inches, giving a small pool of blood freedom to drip to the floor
  1461. >The warm stream prompted a visceral, uncomfortable reaction as she tried to squirm away from it, but with no means of moving, all she successfully did was slip a hoof along the floor
  1462. >Unprotected pages of a fallen book eagerly lapped up the growing crimson puddle, its edges made irregular by the errant brushes of Typhoon’s feathers and forelegs
  1463. >Every motion the Pegasus undertook was broadcast by a groan or a sharp yowl of discomfort, despite her attempts to stifle the sounds
  1464. >As she flicked her discolored braid out of the way, Typhoon’s attention weakly vacillated between the source of her pardon, and the source of her doom
  1465. >“She still knows far, far too much, James!”
  1466. “Maybe you’re right, and I want to escape just as much as you do… but if you kill her, Cobalt and Iron Bell are still just as capable of telling the herd anything she would have…”
  1467. >Peter lowered his rifle slightly, if only enough that he was now aiming it toward a deviant plaque that had fallen near Typhoon Twist’s hooves, rather than the Pegasus herself
  1468. >“’Cobalt?’ So I take it that’s your Pegasus stallion buddy? I should’ve known you were working with them… the herd knew where we were the whole time, right?”
  1469. >Somewhere through the rafters overheard, Peter and I were each momentarily distracted by a sharp crash, seemingly from a shattered window in an upstairs classroom
  1470. >Our fears were confirmed as the cacophony crescendoed into a thunder of two or three sets of hooves, their noisy rhythm expediently moving along the length of the hallway’s ceiling
  1471. >Somewhere on the same level of the cavernous building, the dull boom of a distant door announced another breach undertaken by the steadily arriving herd
  1472. “The rest of the herd had no fucking clue where we were – not until you started taking potshots – but it looks like that ship’s sailed”
  1473. >“I wouldn’t have needed to do so if y-”
  1474. “You didn’t need to in the first place! Now if you still want to get out of here, let’s get moving instead of revealing our location, AGAIN, with a bullet that’d do nothing to help our escape!”
  1475. >An agitated sigh of defeat heralded Peter’s complete abandonment of support for the rifle, the hunk of glimmering metal slowly lowering until in hung limply on the sling
  1476. >Amid an air of resignation, he glared at me with impatient, commanding eyes, as though I were the only one who knew the route by which we’d arrived at our current predicament
  1477. >Sure thing, Peter… I know I’ve already come too damn far to turn back now…
  1478. >With little hesitation, my own weapon sunk to my side, but remained firmly in my grip as I slowly turned away from Typhoon Twist, the pile of debris, and the vestibule just beyond
  1479. >Aptly, the pistol didn’t remain idle for long, rising back to readied position as I advanced towards the hallway corner, while another clamor of distantly shattering glass pierced the air
  1480. >I let out a relieved breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding once Peter’s footsteps started behind me, seemingly indicating that he neither intended to shoot Typhoon, nor abandon me
  1481. >All the same, with our mutual trust having worn thin, I repeatedly found myself focusing as much attention toward Peter as I was on the hallway ahead
  1482. >Upon rounding the corner and peering down the long hallway that led back to the stairwell, the low rumble of hooves in the building grew louder and mixed with shouts
  1483. >My finger tensed in the trigger guard, but as I checked and double-checked each of the corridors converging on my location, the only other lively being to be seen was Peter
  1484. >While my own journey over the past dozen yards or so had been too slow for our current threat level, my blood roiled with restless agitation as I noticed Peter pacing backwards toward me
  1485. >His rifle remained loosely balanced in the sling at his side, its aim haphazardly centered in the vicinity of Typhoon Twist as though magnetically drawn in her direction
  1486. >The standard of Peter’s marksmanship couldn’t be held in high regard from a rifle hanging listlessly at his side, but as he flexed his decreasingly dexterous violet hand, the rifle kept wavering
  1487. >I couldn’t see expression, but his body language divulged energetically clashing inner thoughts, an internal battle raging over his unshakable, yet unrealizable desire to pull the trigger
  1488. >Come on Peter, we have to go, NOW… We’ve already talked about this…
  1489. >When he got within arm’s reach at the hallway corner, I nonchalantly reached for the barrel of his rifle and spun it in the direction of my current hallway, sending Peter into a sudden frenzy
  1490. >He hastily flinched and his eyes went wide, relaxing only slightly upon seeing it wasn’t a pony who had grabbed his gun, his expression slowly twisting into one of anger
  1491. >I raised my brow and stared at him, silently restating our feverishness to get to safety, just before the crash of another door echoed somewhere overhead
  1492. >When I whirled around and raised my pistol down the vacant hallway, I was afforded less than two steps before a sharp jab from the rifle dug into my back
  1493. >“You’re a gutsy bastard, you know that? Why the sudden death wish – what makes you think I’m not going to shoot you right here, right now?”
  1494. >I tried to ignore Peter’s gesture as I continued my slow trek down the hall, my pistol clutched in a trembling, white-knuckled grip
  1495. “You wanna shoot the last full-blooded human in this entire town? That’s your choice. I thought we were working as a team to track down a cure for all of this”
  1496. >“A team? You seriously have the audacity to still call us a team? Forget that, what good are you at this point? You’re just dead weight to someone like me who can make the hard decisions”
  1497. “And you’re selfish as hell – don’t think I haven’t gotten that read on you. You know that you still need me alive, or else you’re going to spend the rest of your days on four hooves”
  1498. >As we shut out the gradually loudening tremors of hooves overhead and somewhere distantly behind us, we swiftly shrunk the distance between ourselves and the stairwell
  1499. >Peter and I were finally moving close together as a well consolidated fireteam – albeit with one member far more reluctant to pull the trigger – but the moment was sullied by our disdain
  1500. >When we were a couple yards from an exit sign that expressed the stairwell’s location, Peter roughly shoved my head with an open palm
  1501. >“Are you seriously high right now? I ‘NEED’ you alive – the hell are you talking about?”
  1502. >I reached toward the stairwell door, and upon determining that there weren’t any ponies immediately within the cramped concrete spiral, I yanked it open
  1503. >Every fiber of my being implored me to remain quiet as harbingers of my hooved doom loomed all around, but as we pressed into the stairwell and the door shut, instinct kicked in
  1504. >Peter had asked me a question, and if anatomy exams had taught me anything, it was that no question should be left unanswered
  1505. “Who’s going to get the cure, if not me? You aren’t gonna rope a pony into visiting any safe zone, and you said it yourself: half-transformed human are like hand grenades that-”
  1506. >Ow, FUCK…
  1507. >My first thought was that a pony had struck my face, but a half second later, I saw Peter’s tightly clenched fist hanging over me on my way to the floor
  1508. >I wasn’t alone on the concrete for long before Peter dropped to his knees on top of me, effectively pinning me, while a hand overwhelmed my defenses and wrapped around my neck
  1509. >Despite having never broken my nose, between the deluge of blood, the alien mix of agony and numbness, and Peter’s exasperated glower through gritted teeth, I knew it’d happened
  1510. >Peter’s fuzzy fingers dug into a sensitive region of my neck just below the jaw, seemingly pushing blood from my nose with the same ease by which ketchup would be squeezed from a bottle
  1511. “Fuck off! Get the fuck off… Get…”
  1512. >At first, his assault had overwhelmed my senses and terrified me, but the longer he held on, the more I found myself able to calm down, though my relaxation was far from absolute
  1513. >There was no need to overreact – after all, the bleeding was subsiding, and while the blow had hurt painfully for a few moments, the pain was giving way to… to relief, of all things
  1514. >Maybe Peter didn’t want to hurt me at all – sure, it’d definitely be an odd accident outright, but if he meant to hit me on the head and just misjudged his force, that was understandable
  1515. >I mean, Peter always wanted to do the right thing, and if not for him staying with me, this would probably hurt a lot more than it was
  1516. >Still, I wish he would hug me normally, because even though I’d got my mouth open as far as it can go, it’s still hard to get enough air through my muzzle so that… wait, muzzle?
  1517. >As I suddenly snapped back to my senses, I threw an elbow up into Peter’s ribs, prompting him to sputter and momentarily lose his grip while he clutched for where I’d struck
  1518. >Nevertheless, his fleeting expression of discomfort swiftly gave way to a self-satisfied grin, watching as I scrambled backwards against the base of the stairs and he subsided against the wall
  1519. >My heart raced and I slowly raised a shivering glove toward my face, but there little doubt about what I’d find there
  1520. >I whimpered pitifully as I brushed my fingertips against my cheek, the sleek fur lining it in a thick mat where previously there’d been only two days’ growth of fine stubble
  1521. “P-Peter, w-what the f-f-fuck?! What… Why did you do that?!”
  1522. >I traced forward across my face with an increasingly large portion of my fingers, the supple hairs’ roots poking slightly into my skin at every point in which they’d been embedded
  1523. >Even along the upper extents of my cheek, I could tell it would take hours, if not days, if I were to attempt plucking them, and even that was a futile effort necessitating dexterous hands
  1524. >Meanwhile, my breathing quickened as I traced the edges of my partially formed muzzle, causing a pair of notably equine nostrils to flare with each terrified exhale
  1525. >My jaw had begun to press outwards, and though my nose had once been content as a cute facial protrusion which my ex-girlfriend loved to poke, it was slowly melding into a flattened mass
  1526. >Though it was no longer broken and its gushing faucet of blood had been shut, the barely-recognizable form had adopted a new color, equally as vivid as the crimson it'd usurped
  1527. >I crossed my eyes in an attempt to determine the lurid palette that awaited in my future, taking note of a faint golden-yellow hue in the corner of my vision
  1528. >Grinding my teeth together, it was apparent that my canines, though mutilated into a semi-flattened state, were still present and ready to munch on some remarkably tasty-sounding salad
  1529. >Nervously, I traced a line with my glove all the way down my throat, the fur thickly brimming its surface all the way the border at which the infection dove beneath my hoodie
  1530. >As I fell into an aghast stare, my mouth hung slightly ajar, allowing me to truly appreciate the bit of extra weight that my gradually forming muzzle would come with
  1531. >Peter looked on with a sickeningly gleeful smile, waggling his fingers – and there were considerably less than five of them – on a hand… protohoof… now bathed in violet hairs
  1532. >Some of his fingernails had grown, thickened, and fused together into a semi-circular form that was on the cusp of being a hoof, its edges lined with the long, purple hair of his future fetlocks
  1533. >Peter twisted his protohoof at the wrist, the bones popping and clicking on their way to reshaping into a part of his equine foreleg
  1534. >And it looked as though he couldn’t be more satisfied with himself
  1535. >“Let me make one thing perfectly clear, James. I don’t like how these ponies think they’re better than me just because of their genes, and it pisses me off when a cocky human does the same”
  1536. >“After all the work I’ve done, after the tireless hours spent slaving away over my soldering iron, after all the risks I’ve taken in scavenging, I’m not gonna just hand that over to you”
  1537. >“No, because that involves putting trust in you to actually find a cure and get back here, and who knows, by then whatever’s left of me might be flying on Pegasus wings to some faraway land”
  1538. >“Not to mention, it’s getting hard to trust that you cared about getting rescued in the first place”
  1539. >“So let me tell you how this is going to work, and even though I know you don’t have those perky little pony ears yet, I want you to listen very, very carefully”
  1540. >“We’re going to get back to my lab and grab that transmitter, then make our way to the radio tower, and by God, on the way you’re going to use that pistol I was generous enough to give you”
  1541. >“Be thankful that your trigger finger isn’t on its way to becoming a hoof, at least not yet, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s really all you have going for you right now”
  1542. >“Once the radio’s online and help is on the way, we’re each going to be facing a choice”
  1543. >“I have to decide whether you’re even worth a bullet on the way out of here, and IF that goes in your favor, you have to decide who you want to take your chances with”
  1544. >“Do you trust whatever savior comes our way to not simply shoot you in the muzzle once they get a good look, or would you rather fall in line with the herd of what’s essentially ‘your own kind?’”
  1545. >“Maybe you’ll surprise me, but I think you’re secretly looking forward to being either a broodmare, or a stallion that impregnates every cute little mare he sees”
  1546. >“After all, you always were a pussy who enjoyed fucking over everyone around you”
  1547. >With a sniffle and a self-contained nod of approval, Peter rested his protohoof against the concrete and pushed himself to his feet, grabbing for the stairwell’s railing with his healthy hand
  1548. >Once he was satisfactorily looming over me, he checked the breech of his own weapon before kicking mine toward me from where it had fallen, the steel gently skittering to a stop at my foot
  1549. >I picked it up with one hand, using my other hand in an attempt to wipe away some of the sweat that had begun to douse my newly acquired fur
  1550. “Peter, you can’t do this! You said that partially transformed humans are just doomed disease vectors – the last place you should go is anywhere with humans!”
  1551. >“That’s what I said before you ruined me, James! Maybe you’re ready to be a pony, but I’m definitely not! I’ll move heaven and Earth to find a cure somewhere, and I know I can’t do it here!”
  1552. >Peter shifted his rifle into a lefty position, the challenge of fitting his protohoof into the trigger guard proving too difficult even if it meant he was ruining his already-deteriorating aim
  1553. >His light footsteps proceeded without pause up the stairwell toward his native laboratory, filling the concrete cavern with a soft echo underlying our incessant shouts
  1554. “But… But they’d never take someone like you on a helicopter! They’d be too afraid of the ride ending with a pony at the controls! Don’t you see that?!”
  1555. >“Oh, I figure I have a lot of options – cover it up in a cast, put on a sweater, amputate it if it comes down to that… You? You’re definitely between a rock and a hard place, my friend”
  1556. >I hoisted myself to my feet with a sigh that blended physical exertion with a heavy overtone of disappointed annoyance
  1557. “Congratulations, Peter, you’re playing right into the ponies’ hooves… I hope you’re happy…”
  1558. >The only thing to stop Peter was a door marking the next level within the stairwell, prompting him to adjust his hold on the rifle’s grip before resting his protohoof on the door’s handle
  1559. >I positioned myself right behind him, delicately checking the pistol’s breech before releasing a soft, exasperated sigh
  1560. >“Just shut up and make sure your safety’s off”
  1562. >Peter hadn’t even opened the door more than halfway before he and I both realized we were on our way to being overwhelmed
  1563. >As the barrel of his rifle swiftly wedged its way through the crack in the door, the thunder of hooves from the hallway cascaded into the stairwell and lay siege to our ears
  1564. >Any ponies on the this level whose steps weren’t contributing to the hooved clamor seemed to be either kicking ferociously at the doors, or barking orders and advice to their compeers
  1565. >Peter led his rifle unsteadily through the open doorway with quick, harried breaths, stealing only a quick glance back at me as he shouted a frenzy of gruff commands
  1566. >“Don’t get separated! Stay close! Cover our six – there’s a million of them!”
  1567. >I falteringly moved in step with Peter, giving the door one final shove before my shoes met the tiled floor of the hall
  1568. >The stairwell’s gloominess gave way to the corridor’s mangled hues of late afternoon daylight, causing a number of two-legged and four-legged shadows to waltz across the far wall
  1569. >Upon peering up and down the length of the hallway, my heart repeatedly skipped beats as I found myself staring down groups of no fewer than three ponies, each a measly ten yards away
  1570. >Those ahead of us swayed with in anticipation of Peter’s shaky aim, and those behind us shouted over their shoulders, refusing to break eye contact with me amidst their scheming
  1571. >After what felt like an eternity but was likely no more than a couple of seconds, the sharp thumps of Peter’s shoes pushed forward, drawing me along as I watched the ponies to our rear
  1572. >I didn’t dare look, for fear of giving the ponies a sudden advantage, but somewhere ahead of our group, the clicks of keratin on tile seemed to indicate that the ponies ahead were retreating
  1573. >It sounded as though it was a gradual, incomplete retreat devoid of panic, but if it meant the ponies were never less than ten yards from our distressingly exposed skin, it would have to do
  1574. >Although… Getting three ponies to clear the way for our advance was a drop in the bucket…
  1575. >Like a swarm of manic piranhas, the ponies had descended on the hallway with ravenous efficiency, previously assaulting every door in droves as though their own lives depended on it
  1576. >The fact that they’d been mistaken about the exact origins of the pistol shots downstairs was a temporary consolation prize, for now the humans were forced into their ruthless gauntlet
  1577. >With each passing moment, the ponies behind us stopped hammering the doors and their hoofbeats grew louder, swelling the ranks of the trailing herd to four… five… six…
  1578. >Two of the nondescript ponies in the center of the group, without horns or wings, stared longingly at me as they unconsciously licked their lips in patient expectation
  1579. >My shaky pistol pointed at them deterred any immediate attack, but the growing crowd of eagerly flicking ears and tails remained unshaken at a distance of only about ten yards
  1580. >“James, cover your ears”
  1581. “Cover my ears? Why d-”
  1582. >BANG
  1583. >An ear-splitting gunshot pierced the tranquil air only feet behind my back, causing me to yowl in agony as a high pitched ringing blanketed every other sound that fought to be heard
  1584. >I watched as the startled ponies of the trailing herd shuddered a few yards backwards, opening the gap between us by just a bit more as their eyes momentarily winced shut
  1585. >Thinking quickly, I yanked my own weapon’s trigger and embedded a bullet harmlessly into the floor in front of myself, the air briefly filled by a bright flash and the crack of gunpowder
  1586. >The increasingly alarmed ponies from the trail group scrambled as the echoes distantly faded, the piles of fur gently tumbling into each other as they pulled back a few yards further
  1587. >Taking the herd’s pause as a moment to survey the situation, I turned forward with an overwhelming sense of dread, just as Peter finished his struggle to lower and recenter the rifle
  1588. >“Fucking missed!”
  1589. >In spite of Peter’s exclamation, the first things I noticed upon refocusing were a mare’s harrowed wails, followed by her blood-soaked hoof on which she was whipping herself to stand
  1590. >I became momentarily fixated on the stream of crimson dripping into a small pool at her hooves, the puddle breaking and reforming as its source stumbled to the side
  1591. >With time, my gaze drifted upstream to find the river’s source, apparently manifesting in a small well buried in the edge of the pony’s furry purple foreleg
  1592. >Wandering even further, my stomach twisted into a knot as my sight encountered the chastising glower of Storm Cloud, the once-chipper Pegasus now wincing with every slight movement
  1593. >Just to her side, Sky Meadows was frantically trying to calm her and urging her to extend a wing across her friend’s back as a means of support
  1594. >I couldn’t make out the blue mare’s tender pleading, especially over the dull ringing that still enveloped my hearing, but something she said was ultimately enough to convince Storm Cloud
  1595. >Swiftly, the purple Pegasus flared out her wing, draped its feathers across the bed of blue, and the pair hobbled out of sight around a hallway corner, followed by the lead groups’ other ponies
  1596. >Holy fuck, Peter, why in God’s name would you call that a miss?
  1597. >One of my hands released from the pistol’s grip and lowered to the EMT pouch at my side, firmly grasping the zipper as I prepared to join the rest of my herd to help treat-
  1598. >Oh, wait, no… Stop, hold up! They’re… They’re not your herd – if these are some of the mental changes resulting from the transformation, shut them out and fight it for all it’s worth, James!
  1599. >I shook my head in an attempt to clear the wandering thoughts, the image of blood rolling down Storm Cloud’s foreleg remaining burned in memory even as my incessant desire to help faded
  1600. >I… I have a duty to help though, don’t I? Even if she and I aren’t herdmates… well, we’re… we’re kind of… actually, we… we’re not really herdmates, but I still have a duty to help, right?
  1601. >N-No… No… The… The best thing I can do now for the sake of my… no, THEIR herd… is to make sure nopony else gets hurt, and that Peter and I get our radio working…
  1602. >I can’t return to Snowfall empty-handed… I… I need a cure… I need to… we need to make amends, and we can only do that if our past lives return, and that doesn’t happen if we’re ponies…
  1603. >I c-can’t fail… not after how far I’ve already come… I can’t… I can’t… Please, I can’t…
  1604. >When I snapped back to reality, I realized that Peter had taken the opportunity presented by the retreating herd to press forward, nearly arriving at the hallway corner in the process
  1605. >It was initially a mesmerizing sight, my hopes rapidly consumed by the promise of a single corner and hallway’s distance to the lab, but my train of thought was derailed by a sharp click behind me
  1606. >Whirling around, my eyes went wide as they caught sight of an unassuming pony pacing forward, its prowling form at a distance of no more than five yards while it continued its slinking advance
  1607. >It had advanced a few yards forward from the thickening front of ponies, a lurid oasis of deep blue fur that stood out starkly from the desert of drab tan tile surrounding it
  1608. >Its ears rapidly pivoted from being pressed against its head to raising alertly, all the better to pick up the crack of another gunshot as my pistol jerked backwards with another bout of recoil
  1609. >A puff of dust and a small barrage of tile chips hurtled upwards from a spot just in front of its hooves, sending the terrified pony darting backwards into the herd
  1610. >The pony seemed to relax slightly amid the numerical advantage of the pastel multitude, the trailing herd’s population having swelled to eight
  1611. >Alarmingly more than my seven remaining cartridges…
  1612. >I seemed to mirror the pony’s movements amid my backwards stumbling toward the hallway corner, inadvertently bumping into Peter
  1613. >“Watch it, James!”
  1614. “I’m sorry! I just got freaked out”
  1615. >“Yeah, they’re getting a bit too brave if you ask me!”
  1616. >Peter spun on the balls of his feet while untangling the sling around his neck, levelling the rifle and suddenly filling the air with the sharp reports of two more gunshots
  1617. >With its fleeting support from Peter’s swiftly melding protohoof and the flimsy sling, the firearm reacted wildly, jerking about as each shot went far off target to either side
  1618. >Moreover, given the belabored effort it took the fingers of Peter’s left hand to simply pull the trigger, it was increasingly apparent that his body was failing to respond as a human’s should
  1619. >“I think my contact lenses are slipping around – I can’t aim straight for shit!”
  1620. >Curiously, I peered through his rapidly blinking eyes, taking note of the way one of his irises had lightened toward a bright pink tone
  1621. >Peter rested the rifle on what was once his wrist, a sea of violet fur swallowing up the handguard as he squeezed his trigger once more, sending a bullet sailing over the ponies’ heads
  1622. >Though everypony flinched at the deafening sound, which now resonated as a high pitched whine in my own ears, only some ponies seemed to acknowledge the weapon’s true threat
  1623. >My heart ached and a shiver raced up my spine as I feared for the well-being of the ponies whose blissful naiveté had left them without insight of the danger they faced in making friends
  1624. >Peter didn’t necessarily need to aim, if luck or a blissfully unaware close-range target came into the equation…
  1625. “You’re wasting bullets at any distance over a few yards! Let me take over watching our tail!”
  1626. >After peering at me with disdain for a few moments, Peter uttered a few terse directives and swiveled back toward the hallway corner
  1627. >“Alright, stay close, James! I think we’re clear up ahead!”
  1628. >I raised my pistol in front of me, fragilely holding back the flood of ponies that remained a few yards away in our wake, an arbitrary unicorn’s head appearing blurred just beyond my front sight
  1629. >Following a tense couple of seconds spent staring down the herd that had assimilated everyone I knew from my life at Carmine University, Peter’s methodical footsteps started up anew
  1630. >As each of us stepped into the rays of sunlight spilling through the dirty window to our side, we turned the corner and found the paths ahead nearly barren
  1631. >Down one corridor of the intersection’s confluences, a spotty path of trickled blood faded into darkness, the distant sobs of Sky Meadows and Storm Cloud echoing from far beyond
  1632. >I tightened my grip around my pistol, suppressing the urge to reach for my medical supplies amid the gentle weeping from my… from the injured Pegasus
  1633. >The other, familiar hallway seemed to shimmer with an angelic glow from the window, the walls to either side resembling a gilded frame around the entranceway to Peter’s lab and…
  1634. >Near the end of the otherwise vacant hall, Peter and I noticed the stirred profile of a unicorn backing up toward the laboratory’s open door
  1635. >As she whirled around, sunlight danced off her turquoise coat and white mane before she dove into the room at the hallway’s end in which Peter and I had once considered ourselves secure
  1636. >Snowfall…
  1637. >“Oh, fuck! That horse is going to mess up my transmitter!”
  1638. >Peter took off running down the hallway, leaving me a few yards behind such that I’d inevitably be facing the ponies without his backup
  1639. >Not to mention, such that he could get to a close enough range at which it’d be a cinch to shoot my best friend…
  1640. “P-Peter! Wait! If you go they’re all going to rush-”
  1641. >He stopped in his tracks and turned, partially on account of my plea, and partially due to the rumble of steadily advancing ponies that confirmed my unfinished hypothesis beyond a doubt
  1642. >I kept backing up toward Peter, but it did very little to quell the herd that had already swiftly advanced to the hallway corner, pinning us with a dozen ponies behind, one ahead, and no escape
  1643. >My frantic nods begging for space failed to change the ponies’ hardened expressions, their eyes all glimmering with hungry desire while they approached the bad men with the noisemakers
  1644. >Still quivering, my frayed nerves caused me to jump nearly a mile high when Peter grabbed my shoulder
  1645. >“James, they’ve got power in numbers, and they know it! You need to shoot at them if you ever want them to back off!”
  1646. >In spite of my racing heart, I let out a long, slow exhale and brought the gun to level with a spot on the hallway’s far end
  1647. >Promptly, one of my trembling hands covered an ear while the other pulled the trigger, sending a bullet crashing through the window, the steady plinks of glass mixing with the gunshot’s echo
  1648. >At first, the ponies flinched, with some dropping to the ground and covering their ears, though my skittish, nerve-rattled vision made it difficult to pick out specific ponies from the trailing herd
  1649. >Nevertheless, within a second of the gunpowder’s crack, some were advancing again, nearly unfettered
  1650. >Following the initial collective wince, the pastel mob quickly resumed their advance in furry groups of blues and whites and pinks, seemingly less fazed with each passing minute
  1651. >Come on James, do no harm, do no harm…
  1652. >I curled my finger around the trigger and let out a long, tremulous exhale as I aimed at an even lower spot near the windowsill
  1653. >“James, if you’re going to do this right, you need to actually shoot at th-”
  1654. >BANG
  1655. >Time seemed to stand still, the bullet verily hanging in the air while the gun’s muzzle flash bloomed and faded
  1656. >There wasn’t enough time to utter a curse as I felt Peter’s firmly struck hand on my wrist continue to drag the pistol’s aim further downwards, even well after the bullet had left the barrel
  1657. >My aim hadn’t been thrown off by much, but it had been enough, and as every soul present became a captive audience to the lead’s wrath, I watched the shot plunge through a pony’s flesh
  1658. >A fine aerosol of blood puffed outwards from the fresh wound, shooting off in two directions once the bullet left her skin, almost as quickly as it had entered
  1659. >As the injured appendage flicked to life, my tunnel vision gradually refocused enough for me to acknowledge that her battered body part had been nothing more than an ear
  1660. >However, my sense of relief was only short-lived, fading rapidly once the ponies around her began to cry out for help
  1661. >“Daisy!”
  1662. >“What happened, Daisy?!”
  1663. >“Daisy, are you alright?!”
  1664. >The unicorn mare pinched her eyes shut as she grappled with the human-inflicted agony, opening her narrowed vision only slightly in a louring attempt to stare at me and Peter
  1665. >She opened her mouth as though she were intent on speaking, but instead of words issuing forth, a grimace and a few slender drips of blood spread across her face
  1666. >Whereas Daisy had once exuded the qualities of a ‘proper’ mare, albeit a vile one, crimson war paint now steadily leaked menacingly from the top of her head, staining her pristine white fur
  1667. >She seemed nearly ready to utter a war cry when Peter’s curt prodding and shouts broke through my trance
  1668. >“James, we need to push forward to the lab!”
  1669. >He frenetically grabbed for my hoodie, the supple grey cotton slipping through the former fingers of his protohoof as he tried to brusquely coax me along
  1670. >The sudden jerk caused each of us to momentarily trip over our own feet as the finely tuned arches of my midfoot cramped up, seeming to scoff at their horizontal, un-equine alignment
  1671. >Peter fared far worse, stumbling against a locked door at the hallway’s edge and hastily kicking off his shoes, only to reveal misshaped socks under which his toes were visibly starting to fuse
  1672. “That’s still going to put us in a tight spot! I only have a few rounds left and I can’t imagine you have much more than twenty remaining in your rifle!”
  1673. >Peter briefly glanced back at the steadily advancing flood of ponies, its ranks swelling beyond the realm of discrete counting, but nonetheless numbering somewhere around a dozen
  1674. >I raised my pistol far over my head where its jarring report wouldn’t incite tinnitus with quite as much unabated ferocity, squeezing the trigger as another sharp gunshot rang out
  1675. >The relative serenity transformed into a symphony of high-pitched ringing, startled hoofbeats, and a gentle trickling of dust raining from a newly formed crater in the ceiling
  1676. >Most of the ponies now seemed cognizant of the link between the puffs of tile, blood, or ceiling fiberboard associated with each blast, and hesitated a few yards backwards
  1677. >Four rounds left…
  1678. >“Don’t worry about it, James! I’ve got three more magazines for each in my backpack! If we can just make it back to the lab, we can shoot out the door’s window and start the bloodbath…”
  1679. >My stomach dropped and I abruptly felt an urge to vomit, the visions of my dead herdmates, soaked in pools of… the visions of dead ponies, soaked in pools of red, consuming my thoughts
  1680. >The most alarming part was Peter’s nonchalance, the practically gleeful way the word ‘bloodbath’ rolled off his tongue in a pair of graceful syllables
  1681. >“…And I’m going to start with the unicorn pest that already got into my lab!”
  1682. >My eyes shrunk to pinpricks and my knees weakly trembled
  1683. >You can’t… No… Snowfall… the only reason I’ve still been carrying on…
  1684. “Peter, don’t! Don’t, please!”
  1685. >He levelled his rifle toward the lab’s door and pressed forward toward it, closing the distance by a few more feet with each agonizing step
  1686. >I clumsily moved backwards with him, keeping my eyes on the trailing herd as I softly begged whatever deity would listen for them to simply leave… leave and never come back…
  1687. “Please… Please, all of you… For your own safety… Please leave…”
  1688. >Some members of the herd flicked their ears in acknowledgment of my request, but none complied
  1689. >Their multicolored palette coalesced into one warily advancing mass, the leery wings of Pegasi ruffling alongside their friends’ twitching ears and the crimson-soaked fur lining Daisy’s muzzle
  1690. >Some seemed to be mares, some stallions, one even appeared to be a young filly huddled under her mother’s wing, but in startlingly little time, all would be simply lost souls on the River Styx
  1691. >Just as Snowfall would be…
  1692. >A haze hung over my thoughts, my hands moving mechanically without any prompt to do so as five fingers uncurled from the pistol’s grip, drifted upwards, and settled on the pistol’s slide
  1693. >With a firm tug, my knuckles flashed white and I perceived the faintly metallic gliding noise as the pistol’s slide went backwards, sending a cartridge airborne before it jerked forwards again
  1694. >The shimmering brass sailed through the air, tumbling to the floor where its impact was announced with a gentle plink that seemed to go unnoticed by everyone except myself
  1695. >Three rounds…
  1696. >I’m sorry, Peter… I… I know how badly you wanted to escape too, to preserve your own humanity and get out of this predicament with your hands completely intact, whatever it took…
  1697. >Plink…
  1698. >I wanted to find a cure too… for me… for you… for Snowfall… for everypony whose past lives had been grievously ripped from them in the dead of night… if only to bring back their humanity…
  1699. >Plink…
  1700. >But humanity’s supposed to be about more than just having fingers where others have hooves… it’s supposed to be altruism… compassion… benevolence…
  1701. >If this is the ‘humanity’ I’m fighting for… I… I don’t deserve the hero’s welcome that Daisy so proudly promised… I… I’m done being the villain…
  1702. >I yanked the pistol’s slide back with firm finality, but the pistol’s final cartridge refused to take flight, jamming in the breech where my sweat-soaked fingers had slipped a few inches
  1703. >As I lifted the confounding hand, daylight glistened off the sideways brass embedded in the aperture, the round jammed in a position where even a few sharp tugs failed to dislodge it
  1704. >Alright, that works…
  1705. “Peter, got a problem here! Gun’s jammed, give me yours!”
  1706. >“Fuck, it’s gotta happen now, of all times?! You want to be a bit louder about it too?!”
  1707. >Peter hastily rolled the rifle’s sling from his shoulder, jabbing the unforgiving metal stock into my ribs as he yanked the pistol from me in a single quick, fluid motion
  1708. >“Keep firing and hold the ponies back before they- Hey!”
  1709. >As Peter peered downwards and fumbled with the clacking steel of the jammed pistol, I took off sprinting toward his lab, rapidly leaving him in the dust along with the rest of the herd
  1710. >“James, you motherfucking backstabber, get back here!”
  1711. >After a short series of pounding footsteps, I dove into the lab and threw the door shut behind myself, turning the lock mere moments before I heard Peter slam against the metal
  1712. >He promptly entered into a panicked boxing match with its surface, pounding out a hair-raising rhythm of desperate thumps, jostling the door, but failing to open it
  1713. >“Let me in! For God’s sake, open the door, James!”
  1714. >I hurriedly untangled the sling from the rifle before tossing the steel and nylon mass to the floor, its harsh impact still clattering when I braced aside the shuddering door
  1715. >“James, we’re supposed to be working together! Don’t do this to me!”
  1716. >Tears began to fill the corners of my eyes as his muffled shouts pierced the door, lodging themselves firmly into my psyche
  1717. “I’m sorry Peter…”
  1718. >“I-I don’t w-want to die, not like this! J-James! Please! If you do this, you’ll never get the radio online! You’ll never escape!”
  1719. “I know… But if we’re both infected anyways w-”
  1720. >“Please! For pony’s sake, I don’t want to be a fucking horse tha- Get the hell away from me, you hooved fucks!”
  1721. >Peter’s steady beating against the door fell silent, giving way to a frenzied clatter of metal and strenuous grunts as he tried to unjam the final cartridge from the pistol’s breech
  1722. >A momentarily hopeful gasp relayed his success, followed by a metallic symphony as the round plinked against the floor and the pistol’s magazine slid free from within his grip
  1723. >Peter’s absentminded whimpering followed him as he lowered himself to the floor, the noise mingling with the approaching clicks of hooves while he desperately grappled for the round
  1724. >With shaky fingers, I grabbed a corner of the thick paper that had been covering the door’s slender window, yanking it away to reveal a portal through which beams of light cut into the room
  1725. >The radiance was overwhelmingly a golden-yellow hue of late afternoon daylight, but in some spots just outside the door, the rays danced off the multicolored fur and feathers of the ponies
  1726. >In a shallow ring, most of the herd now stood a few mere feet from Peter, stealing glances at each other while the once-terrifying human sobbed and fumbled the only cartridge he had left
  1727. >This was the man who’d been responsible for Iron Bell’s disappearance and Clementine Breeze’s death?
  1728. >Peter’s stiff fingers slipped against the brass, raising it and dropping it to have it fall only a few measly inches
  1729. >His breath caught in his throat as the cartridge appeared to take on a life of its own, shimmering with a brilliant glow as it floated up and accelerated into an arc over the ponies’ heads
  1730. >Somewhere, far beyond the scene before me, it audibly bounced a few times and rolled to a stop at the side of the corridor
  1731. >The sea of ponies parted slightly as Daisy stepped to the front of the herd, speaking authoritatively while the final glowing rays from her horn faded away
  1732. >“You poor soul… I think that’s quite enough of your antics”
  1733. >Peter’s whole body shivered and he lethargically rolled into a seated position, seemingly sapped of energy as his head slowly creaked toward the window behind which I watched
  1734. >“James… I… I d-don’t want t-to be one of them… I-If you’ve still got a heart… If you s-still want the best for me, you’ll do it…”
  1735. >A multicolored aura originating from several unicorns swiftly flickered to life, enveloping Peter’s clothing as the newly animated fabric started to lurch and waver
  1736. >Peter hardly had the presence of mind to resist the telekinetic onslaught, sitting limply as his socks slid away, revealing the faded violet beginnings of his hind hooves
  1737. >“Just shoot out the window, and then you’ll have a clear shot… It’s just two bullets…”
  1738. >He didn’t even react as a pattern of rough heaves pulled his pants downwards from the waist, the belt slithering out of its loops like a meandering snake
  1739. >Within moments, Peter’s legs and arms were left barren, the majority of his clothing having floated away
  1740. >Two young unicorns took it upon themselves to finally remove Peter’s undershirt and boxers, the fabric ripping slightly on its way toward leaving him completely naked
  1741. >Neither Peter nor I moved, our misty eyes still locked in a staring contest while they begged for the other’s understanding
  1742. >“James, just pick up the rifle… please…”
  1743. >He sat listlessly and failed to acknowledge his surroundings, even after several set of hooves approached him and tenderly wrapped around his chest and limbs
  1744. >“James… please…”
  1745. >Peter’s stare finally faltered when he lost his balance and rolled onto his back, a hind leg kicking into the air as a thick mat of violet hairs pushed out of the skin
  1746. >The bones in his legs steadily elongated, shifting and popping as the joint that had once been a cracked, rugged ankle swelled into a muscular hock
  1747. >Though the herd had descended on Peter in a relentless cuddle pile, a quartet of his swaying hooves could be seen poking into the air as they lurched and melded into their final forms
  1748. >The hooves started to buck joyously every few seconds, indicating each of the waves of bliss that rocked the rapidly transforming pony
  1749. >Every ecstatic kick was coupled with a soft moan that punctuated each quickened breath, the pitch of which steadily rose towards femininity with each passing moment
  1750. >The mare once known as Peter embraced her new gender and flicked her flowing tail over the crowd, the long, blond strands gently spilling back to the floor moments later
  1751. >With a final cry of pleasure from within the mob of cuddly equines, she swiftly gave up the last of her humanity, embracing her new herd after what must’ve been record time
  1752. >Peter was… He… She was a pony… and whether it took two minutes or two days, I was doomed to join her…
  1753. >There would be no escape… No salvation… No cure… No return to humanity, at least not from anypony currently living in this town, in any way I could see feasible…
  1754. >It… It was permanent… The ponies could declare their decisive victory...
  1755. >Finding my knees woefully ineffective at the task of simply keeping me standing, I finally succumbed to gravity and slumped against the door, my head buried in my hands
  1756. >It was over…
  1757. >I tried to wipe away the tears that soaked the gentle contours of my golden muzzle, but with my sobs producing a steady stream, it proved to be a futile effort
  1758. >In truth, all it accomplished was spreading the infection a bit further along my stiff, trembling wrists
  1759. >My ears twitched slightly on the side of my head, utilizing only a small portion of their future dexterity in order to catch the new mare’s gleeful exclamations, somewhere just outside the door
  1760. >“Oh, wait, are we going to play a game? I love games! I didn’t play very much jump rope when I was a filly because I grew up in a place where most foals didn’t…”
  1761. >“Wait, I don’t think that’s how you play… No, the rope’s not supposed to-”
  1762. >“Ow! Stop, stop! I think you’re doing it wrong! No, wait! No, where are we going?! Where are you taking me?!”
  1763. >“N-No, I c-c-can’t… Somepony, please! Mommy! Help me! I don’t know what’s going on!”
  1764. >Only a few yards behind me, on the other side of my impromptu barrier, the pony’s pleas faded with the increasingly distant clicks of several ponies’ hooves
  1765. >Every part of me was screaming to brace myself against the door before I met the same fate, or at least hoist myself to my feet so I could see what was happening and where she was going
  1766. >Alas, I sat still… like a coward…
  1767. >My breaths came quickly and disorderly, rapidly devolving back into sobs as I tried my damnedest to wipe away the tears that flowed anew from my eyes
  1768. >If that mare wasn’t getting a friend’s welcome to the herd, why would I? Would I ever be allowed to see the ponies I care most about ever… ever again?
  1769. >As I attempted one final brush against the sides of my furry, drenched face, I thought of the very reason I tipped over the edge toward condemning Peter in the first place
  1770. “S-Snowfall? Where are you? I-I’m sorry! Please, I was only doing what I did because I was scared we couldn’t be together!”
  1771. >I was met by a ruthless silence, my words bouncing through the gloom for several seconds before they finally faded away to nothingness
  1772. “Snowfall, I saw you run in here… Please… Please, I just want to talk…”
  1773. >I rose to my feet tremulously, walking over to the room’s storage closet where I peered inside, only to find its cramped quarters barren
  1774. >An overwhelming sense of dread consumed me as I peered around the room, frantically eyeing anything that could potentially be large enough to conceal the mare
  1775. >Large boxes, crates, furniture… not that any of those were present, but… come on, give me something!
  1776. >I pounded a fist on the desk and let out a shaky, infuriated sigh, yanking open a drawer that was hardly even large enough to hold a notebook
  1777. >With a sharp crash, the drawer slipped off its rails and tumbled to the floor, spillng much of its contents before I hastily grabbed for the rest of them and threw them across the floor
  1778. “Please, Snowfall! I just want to see you one last time…”
  1779. >I overturned several stacks of books, rampaging around the modest room as I checked… double checked… triple checked… every nook and cranny, even those far too small to conceal her
  1780. >I just want to see my friend one last time before they take me away! Please! Is that so much to ask?! Where the hay did you go, Snowfall?!
  1781. >She… She must have gone through the floor or ceiling! Yeah, that’s it!
  1782. >I dropped to my knees and clawed at the tiles lining the floor, my faintly golden-tinged fingernails growing dull and slightly bloodied as they scratched inexorably
  1783. “Come on, Snowfall, where are you?! Where?!”
  1784. >After a few minutes, the formerly dry floor became slightly wet, first from the undammed sweat I unconsciously spewed in my effort…
  1785. >Then from the flecks of blood soaking out of my ragged fingertips… then from my desperate tears
  1786. >Snowfall… Why didn’t I go with you when I had the chance… Now we may never get to be together again… Never…
  1787. >I slumped back against the hallway door to cry in resignation just a few seconds before my partially equine ears swiveled toward the sound of a…
  1788. >A faint buzz, not exactly a bug, but kind of like a bug zapper?
  1789. >My eyes narrowed toward the apparent source of the sound near the lab’s center, flinching a moment later as the room briefly filled with a bright flash
  1790. >Blinking rapidly, the dancing green afterimages faded into the familiar silhouette of a white unicorn, her purple mane settling to her side while strands swayed in front of her bloodied face
  1791. >Oh for pony’s sake, these bastards can teleport, too?!
  1792. >The newly appeared unicorn breathed a soft puff of air upwards to tease some of the hairs aside, settling herself before speaking up in a sweet voice
  1793. >“Hello there, Ja-”
  1794. “F-Fuck off, Daisy!”
  1795. >“Oh come now, there’s no need for a good little pony like you to use that kind of language…”
  1796. >Acting on instinct, I grabbed for the rifle that lay nearby, cradling the hefty steel in my grip as I levelled it toward Daisy’s muzzle, the unperturbed mare standing only a few yards away
  1797. >Bracketed against the slightly gloomy shadows, her face seemed to glow while it caught a few lazy spots of late afternoon sunlight – a warm sight, were it anypony else at all
  1798. “S-Stay back!”
  1799. >“James… You and I are safe now… There’s no need for that…”
  1800. >As she took a step forward, the soft impact of her hoof with the floor echoed menacingly
  1801. >Fighting to control my hammering heart, I swallowed and took in a short barrage of deep breaths
  1802. “I’ll blow your brains out – just stay away!”
  1803. >“James, you and I both know you’ll do nothing of the sort…”
  1804. >Before Daisy could even complete another step in my direction, I spun the rifle around at the grip, awkwardly resettling my finger in the trigger guard as I pressed the barrel tip against my head
  1805. “Please, Daisy… I… I can’t… I don’t…”
  1806. >“James, it’s okay, I’m here for you and I want to help you with-”
  1807. “Shut up! Just shut up! I never asked for… You never… Stop! Please…”
  1808. >I pressed the barrel into my temple until it started to hurt, the impending doom of five grams of lead waiting only a few inches away
  1809. >With my knuckles starting to turn white, I gritted my teeth and warm tears flowed down my face, effortlessly spilling to the floor as they raced over my wetted fur
  1810. >Daisy’s expression twisted into one of well-composed anxiety, showing a fearful side that had been oddly absent while the gun was levelled at her
  1811. >“James, you’re scaring me…”
  1812. >Daisy pressed her lips together as her horn sparked to life, and before I knew it, a pair of hasty clicks echoed in rapid succession a few inches to my side
  1813. >The rifle’s magazine struck the floor a fraction of a second before the previously chambered round, and each was quickly whisked away to a far corner of the room by Daisy’s magic
  1814. >I froze with wild, terrified eyes, and after a brief pause, the suddenly useless rifle tumbled out of my grip
  1815. >“Snowfall mentioned that I need to unchamber a round when I’m disabling a gun… Clementine Breeze never mentioned that – Oh, how I miss her already…”
  1816. >Daisy’s almost imperceptibly stern expression softened slightly, relaxing back to a neutral expression that revealed nothing of her inner thoughts
  1817. >“James, we need to talk…”
  1819. >I let out a long, shaky sigh, clasping my hands together and averting my eyes toward the floor
  1820. “A-Alright Daisy… I… We can talk…”
  1821. >“James, I don’t want you to feel like you should fear me… I’ve always looked out for my herd members… and in that line of thinking, I’ll try to ensure nothing bad ever happens to you…”
  1822. >Her voice softened further, punctuated by a somber, drawn-out sniffle
  1823. >“I’ll try… I just wish I could’ve done more for my ponies… Try as I might, some of our herd members have still had very… very bad days… and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again…”
  1824. >With a submissive nod, I tried to focus on her words and what I could say to appease her, to make a solid case that Peter and I didn’t deserve to a life in an equine gulag for our misdeeds
  1825. “Daisy, I’m sorry… I know you cared about them, but if you think it’s fair to take it out on…”
  1826. >As I raised my eyes and observed Daisy’s sternly flattened lips, my voice faded away to nothing and the room filled with a few tense seconds of silence
  1827. >This unicorn just led an army of horses to the brink of victory over an entire town’s population, and had stolen the final pieces of my weapon as a means of planting the flag
  1828. >At this exact moment, the last thing she probably wanted to hear was a desultory argument about why her final adversaries didn’t deserve to suffer…
  1829. “Uh… nevermind…”
  1830. >“We took Amethyst Harmony away to ask her some questions, but she… Well, ever since we taught her about friendship, her memories of the past couple days have been fuzzy”
  1831. >I scratched the back of my neck, intertwining my gloves with the soft hairs that not only seemed longer, but were growing from follicles much further down my spine than I’d remembered
  1832. “I take it ‘Amethyst Harmony’ is the mare that I used know as Peter? The one that was holding this the rifle while we were making our way down the corridor?”
  1833. >In lieu of verbalizing a response, Daisy simply offered a nod of affirmation
  1834. >I halfheartedly poked the rifle’s stock with my shoe, causing the metal to softly click against the tile as it spun and became further entangled in its sling
  1835. “Daisy, in that case, how much did she end up telling you? How much do you know about… everything that happened?”
  1836. >She sighed and introspectively brushed her mane with an idle forehoof, seemingly knocking a few strands out of alignment for every errant hair she straightened
  1837. >“At this point, I know next to nothing. And it’s beyond irritating after seeing all the damage I suspect she was the culprit behind, but I… I just can’t be sure…”
  1838. “So you think she’s guilty of something… something serious…”
  1839. >As Daisy continued to stare at some infinitely distant point somewhere beyond the lab’s wall, I shifted warily in my seat, nervous that she would see through my dredging for information
  1840. >What were Amethyst Harmony’s perceived crimes and punishment if it led to her being dragged away on the business end of a rope?
  1841. >And moreover, how would that penance get applied to me for what I did?
  1842. >“Yes, I’m led to believe that’s the case – she probably did something bad”
  1843. “But you don’t know for certain”
  1844. >Daisy’s eyes thoughtfully narrowed at nothing in particular as her tail twitched to the side
  1845. >“Well, as Cobalt might’ve said before we befriended him, ‘it’s an ongoing investigation’
  1846. “Daisy, did… did you see who shot you?”
  1847. >She furrowed her brow and looked at me incredulously, as though I were abruptly speaking another language
  1848. >Oh, she definitely knew… Well, that was a long shot…
  1849. >“Don’t be silly, James, you were right in front of me. I certainly know Amethyst Harmony wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger when I got this nasty little shiner”
  1850. >As she spoke, Daisy flicked her ear a couple of times, causing the crimson-soaked fur to sway as it caught a few currents of air – at least in spots that weren’t totally matted down with blood
  1851. >She didn’t appear to be wincing in pain with the movement, but I couldn’t shake my underlying feeling of dread, especially as her rigid attempts to smile failed to bear any fruit
  1852. >I uneasily traced a glove along the edge of my own ear, not only taking note of its slightly higher position and further spiked shape, but also its distinct lack of a hole
  1853. “I… I-I’m sorry… I didn’t mean for you or anypony to get hurt”
  1854. >“It didn’t hurt… It didn’t hurt bad”
  1855. >Daisy scratched a spot on the side of her muzzle, smearing a few spots of red as though their source atop her head were still flowing fresh
  1856. >‘It didn’t hurt’… Sure…
  1857. >“You know… I never got my ears pierced, but I imagine this only hurt a bit more than that kind of thing. And, you know, it’ll heal given enough time”
  1858. >Though Daisy’s slack-jawed, ajar smile had barely conveyed an ounce of happiness in the prior moments, she adopted an overwhelmingly serious tone as she slowly pressed her lips together
  1859. >“I… I could be worse off… A lot worse off. James… Did… Do you know…”
  1860. >She pinched her eyes shut for several seconds, drawing in a deep breath before opening her eyelids to reveal a pair of misty, shimmering orbs
  1861. >“What happened to Clementine Breeze? Who… Why… I-I need closure…”
  1862. >She bit her lip and her voice softened further
  1863. >“James, I figure it’s going to be hard to sleep tonight either way, but once I befriend you, I might never… never know the facts…”
  1864. >One of my hands made an absentmindedly nervous brush along the opposite sleeve, betraying my efforts to cast a veil over my inner turmoil even as my rigid face sunk towards the floor
  1865. >All Daisy seemed to know for certain was that Peter and I had been in the same room as Clementine Breeze when she took her final breaths…
  1866. >In classic detective fashion, that meant she could accurately conclude that one of us was responsible, but… beyond her search for clues, who made her judge, jury, and executioner?
  1867. >Even if Peter did kill her, Peter was… He’s now fundamentally different from the person who killed her! He’s a mare now, for God’s sake!
  1868. >And yet, Daisy was still fully intent on punishing him?
  1869. >I can’t…
  1870. >I can’t let her do that if the herd is SUPPOSED to be treating a completely mystified pony like Amethyst Harmony ‘fairly’…
  1871. >After years of working as an EMT, I’ve seen plenty of people at fragile points in their lives… some from the impairment of drugs and alcohol, or from emotional trauma, or simply from age…
  1872. >And I’m supposed to protect the meek, even if that means driving toward a place that could spell danger when you can’t account for every possible variable…
  1873. >I sighed, letting out a deep breath that was prolific enough to disturb several papers originally from the overturned desk drawer
  1874. >Maybe… Maybe Daisy would at least let me see Snowfall before… whatever awaited
  1875. “I… I killed her. It was me”
  1876. >My muscles tensed up and I clenched my fists, reticently prepared for the slim necessity of fighting back, just in case Daisy suddenly decided that ‘eye for an eye’ was appropriate
  1877. >Daisy remained stiff for five… ten seconds, imitating a statue – or more aptly, a fountain – as a couple of thin tears streaked down her fur
  1878. >Her vision appeared to be glossed over as it focused purposelessly on the floor, wavering with the gentle shivers that shook her from her tail to her muzzle
  1879. >A knotted part of my heart pressed for me to try consoling her, but I stopped myself upon realizing I wasn’t a source of comfort right now
  1880. >Maybe her ire would fade after I became a pony, but I couldn’t imagine her keenly seeking the inspiriting words of the current human who’d, purportedly, killed one of her friends
  1881. >After what felt like an eternity, Daisy blinked rapidly and met my gaze again, her eyes slightly reddened
  1882. >“And… And what about the disappearance of Iron Bell? I’m glad to hear the colt’s safe, but I guess I’m just… confused how everything happened”
  1883. >I lowered my head and swallowed, my dry mouth begging for water as my nerves caught up to me again
  1884. “That w-was my doing… Amethyst Harmony tried to stop me, and I wouldn’t listen. I should’ve taken her advice more often – she’s a good pony, you… you just need to give her a chance…”
  1885. >If you’re so intent on crucifying someone, it should at least be a human… and you don’t have a lot of other choices available in the town right now…
  1886. >If it’s not too late, please don’t punish a pony like Amethyst Harmony for what a human did…
  1887. >Daisy shifted on her hooves, sluggishly closing the distance between us before taking a seat on her haunches
  1888. >The mere twelve inches between our eyes ensured that I couldn’t avoid meeting her gaze, and a curt reminder of her proximity come with each warm exhale billowing from her nostrils
  1889. >“Why… Why-”
  1890. “Because I was scared, Daisy! I was scared then, and I’m s-scared now!
  1891. >I bit my tongue, silently cursing myself for stuttering as I stared in the veritable abyss of Daisy’s bottomless, expressive eyes
  1892. >“No, James… I mean… why are you… being dishonest with me?”
  1893. >Fuck…
  1894. >One of my hands wandered toward my gut, conducting a survey where it felt as though my stomach had dropped a thousand feet
  1895. >Maybe she didn’t know I was covering for Peter… Maybe she only knew a little bit, or maybe she was bluffing…
  1896. >While I proceeded to study her for any subtle tics, Daisy gritted her teeth, drawing her ears back slightly as I began to issue my response
  1897. “What do you think I’ve been saying that ha-”
  1898. >“Oh, ponyfeathers! I don’t want to play these flower-picking games! I’m distraught, James, one of my friends is… is… and you’re the only person who might know what happened! Please!”
  1899. >I released a terse exhale before catching my breath
  1900. “Peter killed her, okay? For pony’s sake, it was Peter – Peter, who shot Clementine Breeze! Peter, not Amethyst Harmony! You have no right to punish her when she doesn’t remember it!”
  1901. >“Punish her?! What… Why?! Why the hay would anypony deserve punishment for what they did in the time before they had any friends?!”
  1902. >I nudged an accusing finger into Daisy’s chest, causing the dainty mare to subside backwards a few inches
  1903. “You tell me! I heard you leading her away, tied off on a rope like a railroad gang criminal, and I can only imagine the smile you had plastered on your face all the while…”
  1904. >Daisy rolled with the direction of my brunt into a more balanced position, settling into a seat angled a few degrees off kilter
  1905. >Her head slowly rolled upwards to face the door, peering with a melancholy air toward the window through which the fading orange rays of late afternoon sunlight were easing away
  1906. >“I… should’ve told the ponies to be gentle to her sooner than I did… The truth is, for the first few moments, it felt… justified… And revenge can be a powerful thing, but… so is forgiveness…”
  1907. >I restlessly rubbed one of my wrists along the leg of my dirtied jeans, wetting the denim with a few drops of sweat that had been imprisoned in my gloves
  1908. “So she’s still alive, at least?”
  1909. >“Good heavens, what do you take us for?! She’s perfectly fine. I made sure some Pegasi were going to get some water and fresh vegetables that she could have while she calmed down”
  1910. “Then why put her through that lark with the rope anyways? Unless she’s no good on her hooves, just ask her to walk down the hallway. You needed to interrogate her elsewhere, right?”
  1911. >Daisy sighed and appeared to catch herself halfway through an eye roll
  1912. >“Well, yes, but… did you really not hear her through all your foalish sobbing? She wouldn’t leave you alone, no matter what we told her! She was practically ready to kick down the door!”
  1913. “Kick down the door?”
  1914. >“Almost literally, yes! She said you were a great friend… very helpful when building things… in her words, she wanted to show you the wonders of friendship that you were hiding from”
  1915. >I knitted my brow in confusion as I tried, unsuccessfully, to imagine those words coming from the very same guy who had called me a ‘motherfucking backstabber’ minutes earlier
  1916. “Why would you stop her, then? Instead, YOU wanted to convert me? YOU have to rack up those points in that stupid little game Storm Cloud and Clementine Breeze…”
  1917. >Daisy gasped and shot me an incensed glare, her sudden anger casting a thin shroud over the visibly pervasive sadness she still felt upon hearing her former herdmate’s name
  1918. >Her exhales were met with some soft, labored verbalization, somewhere between a mournful moan, and a growl directed at my blasphemous implications
  1919. “I apologize… that was crossing a line…”
  1920. >“It just… It still hurts so much to think that she’s gone… And I knew if you’d been befriended and lost a lot of your memories, I might never learn… what happened to her…”
  1921. >Daisy let out a forceful exhale before drawing in a placid breath, as though she were an exasperated swimmer surfacing on the beach of a boiling sea
  1922. >“Can you at least tell me… Did… did she die in pain? Her face when it was all over looked… It looked peaceful… calm…"
  1923. >I coughed weakly to clear my throat, but it made nearly no difference when my softly spoken voice had so little support behind it
  1924. “Daisy, I’m sorry… I… I was unconscious when Peter took the shot… The last thing I remember was Clementine Breeze and Peter arguing about who’d get to take me away… That’s all I know”
  1925. >She weakly nodded, letting her ears gently droop downwards to her head as they completed their role in listening to what little I could tell her
  1926. >As tranquility fell over the laboratory, she seemed to stiffen, her eyes appearing as immutable pools that occasionally send a barrage of tears rolling down her cheek to the floor
  1927. >Daisy remain stone solid for a minute or two… as solid as her friend’s forthcoming tombstone… as solid as the facts and events of the past hours that were metaphorically set in stone
  1928. >“It shouldn’t have ended like that… After seeing how much she cared for Morning Star and tirelessly pursued him… To think that her final moments were spent alone…”
  1929. >She sniffled and wiped her face with a fetlock
  1930. >“I don’t know what to say… but… I appreciate your honesty, James”
  1931. “It’s… It’s the least I can do. If I were alert at the time, I would’ve done something, anything for her. From the bottom of my heart, I’m… I’m dreadfully sorry…”
  1932. >“May the starry skies bless you, James… After seeing your heart around my friends… Even how you tried to protect Amethyst… You never deserved to go through so much these past days”
  1933. >Daisy cracked the faintest of smiles, her expression facing a sharp contrast as it became suspended between a show of equanimity and the tears of sadness still drying on her fur
  1934. >“And I know you didn’t have anything to do with Iron Bell’s disappearance. Even before I talked to Cobalt a moment ago, I could’ve told you that”
  1935. >I raised my brow and rubbed my forehead, taking note of a small, hard bump whose base was situated in a position that seemed to mirror Daisy’s horn
  1936. “Certainly, I think you’ll find out more about the ordeal from Iron Bell than from me. So… you talked to Cobalt and Iron Bell, and they’re okay? I… I need to ask… is… I know Typhoon… um…”
  1937. >“She’s going to be alright, James. I’m more worried about Cobalt to be honest – that stallion’s going to have a heart attack after the weekend he’s had. Thank goodness Snowfall was here w-”
  1938. >Snowfall?
  1939. “W-Wait, Snowfall?! Where?! W-Where was she?! Daisy, you have to understand, I-I need to find her!”
  1940. >I rolled onto my hands and knees, poking my head squarely into Daisy’s field of view with relentless insistence as my heart started to hammer in my chest
  1941. “I thought I saw her go into this room, but she… she vanished into thin air!”
  1942. >A knot formed in my throat as I thought about all the times I’d said goodbye to Snowfall with a clearly-outlined, well-laid plan to return in due time
  1943. >But… ever since we went our separate ways at the end of Friday’s classes, none of those departures had ever followed plans… and there was no way to know which walkout would be our last
  1944. >The arrival of the apocalypse prompted me to do a lot of things that would otherwise be unthinkable, but the notion that it would tear my strongest friendship asunder… it made my skin crawl
  1945. >More so than fighting hand-to-hoof with a winged horse, more so than shooting bullets over a herd of pastel-colored ponies, more so than even walking around on four hooves…
  1946. >I couldn’t imagine living out the rest of my days without Snowfall…
  1947. >Daisy simply smiled as her eyes wandered in a daydreaming path along the ceiling, nearly prompting another outburst from me while she took more than a second to ponder before answering
  1948. >“She was probably trying to keep an eye on you and make sure you stayed safe. Yup, that sounds like Snowfall alright!”
  1949. “But where could she have gone?! I looked everywhere for… Wait… That teleporting thing – can all unicorns do that?”
  1950. >Daisy giggled as her horn shimmered to life, filling the room with a mesmerizing radiance even though she didn’t perform any actions with the fantastical protrusion
  1951. >“Snowfall picked it up pretty quickly and has been using it quite a bit since. First, she was using it to bounce between patients... I think at one point she went to restock her supplies”
  1952. >I leaned back until I was sitting on my feet and idly drummed my stiffening fingers on my EMT pouch, remembering how much less voluminous it was since the last time I left the machine shop
  1953. “Geez, and I gave her a lot of supplies. Although I guess I’m not terribly surprised…”
  1954. >“She’s been wonderful. Not only as a friend, but as a medic, too. Although, she keeps saying she couldn’t hold a candle to you – that she wishes you were in the herd with us”
  1955. >Raising a loosely clenched fist from my side and settling it in my lap, I took note of the faint pairs of pops and clicks that emanated from my wrist
  1956. “With the way this infection is spreading, I have a feeling that won’t be long. So where did Snowfall go?”
  1957. >“I’m not sure, but we can go find out!”
  1958. >Daisy bounced up animatedly before planting her hooves, the tile beneath her echoing sharply with each of her motions
  1959. >As she angled her head slightly downwards and her tongue stuck out of her mouth’s corner with inexorable focus, her horn sparked to life, its glossy surface enveloped in a radiant aura
  1960. >The same shimmering light soon consumed one of my shoes, effortlessly working to untie its knotted laces as an independent force tugged once... twice… and slipped it free
  1961. “Daisy, what are you doing?”
  1962. >“Well, you certainly don’t want to me to befriend you while you’re wearing all these silly clothes, do you?”
  1963. >Before the aura on my other shoe realized its full brilliance, I drew in the leg and clamped a hand firmly around the shimmering laces and sole
  1964. “I was hoping that Snowfall and I could… You know…”
  1965. >Daisy’s spine stiffened and she glanced around the room, a modest grin remaining plastered across her face even as the corners of her mouth twitched slightly in apparent disbelief
  1966. >She repeatedly vacillated her gaze between me and the walls to my side, as though a thesis were written there regarding my rationale for wanting to befriend a pony who I already trusted
  1967. >As Dasiy proceeded to glance at my unrestrained sock with subdued ambition, her unwavering insistence caused me to move my shoulders uncomfortably
  1968. >My well-tuned ears picked up the softly crescendoing noise of telekinetic shimmering, even before Daisy’s aura was yet visible around my uncovered sock
  1969. >“Oh, don’t be silly, James, you’re well on your way to being a good little pony already! I’m just going to finish-”
  1970. “Daisy! Stop!”
  1971. >I jerked away from the unicorn and rose to my feet, physically and metaphorically putting my foot down as my only remaining shoe slammed against the tile
  1972. >What the hell was Daisy’s reason for being so damn insistent?!
  1973. >When I wake up from my little two-decade-long trance known as humanity, why the hay would I want to do so in the embrace of a pony who I’d made amends with… ten minutes ago?!
  1974. >I could say with absolute certainty, Snowfall would take care of me! She’s always been looking out for me, on the brightest days and in the darkest!
  1975. >Whether it was within the hour during a tense standoff, or yesterday when I ran away in the rain, or years ago when I forgot a pencil on the first day of class and she was there for me…
  1976. >And what did it matter considering I was going to be the same pony regardless – practically the same person too, aside from the… mental changes…
  1977. >Just like those that Peter… Amethyst Harmony… had gone through… when she… did an about-face to the tune of eagerly embracing her new herd and the idea of converting another human…
  1978. >Oh God, what if… What if Daisy wants to make me… just another one of her minions – merely another cog in her ponification schemes?
  1979. >I’ve seen enough suffering ponies for a weekend… Enough for an entire lifetime! I’m no career medic! All I want to do is settle down with Snowfall and start the rest of our lives… together…
  1980. >I put my hands behind my back, wrapping my fingers around the lab’s doorknob as I continued to peer at the hard-nosed unicorn standing a few feet away, her lips tensely pressed together
  1981. “I’m not going, a-at least not with you”
  1982. >Daisy’s expression twisted into a repressed scowl, her muzzle scrunching up as she repeatedly turned over my denial in her thoughts
  1983. >“We need more medical ponies sooner rather than later, especially a unicorn such as yourself!”
  1984. “Please, I want to be with Snowfall!”
  1985. >As I twisted the lock to the hallway door, my stealthy intentions were rapidly betrayed by the soft click that was not only picked up clearly by my own ears, but caused Daisy’s to flick alertly
  1986. >Her horn flared up, casting a brilliantly menacing glow over her crimson-painted muzzle, its fur still bearing the ugly reminders of how incompletely transformed ponies could still be a hassle
  1987. >“James, you will be! But I’ve got big plans for you, and I don’t want to spend a long time waiting while you twiddle your continually stiffening thumbs!”
  1988. >With a newly vociferous bout of shimmering and a din of crackling sparks, Daisy’s telekinesis took hold of one of my legs and yanked away my other shoe, paying no heed to the laces
  1989. >I struggled to keep my balance, but as I clung to the door and moved amid the magical lurching with a sharp grunt, I pulled free, prompting the unicorn to falter as she reevaluated her stance
  1990. >Swiftly, I yanked the door open and took off running, more focused on creating distance between myself and Daisy than wondering where everypony else had gone off to
  1991. >As Daisy’s ragged breaths faded in the distance, my feet beat heavily against the hallway’s floor
  1992. >The echoes of each sock-muffled impact filled the cavernous corridor and mingled with a rush of wind, laying siege to its tranquility and Daisy’s attempts to shout after me
  1993. >“James, come on!”
  1994. >Thankfully, the only rhythm to be heard was the awkward, slightly clumsy one-two pattern of my own gradually melding feet, as Daisy apparently opted to stay exactly where she was
  1995. >After covering a few yards and rounding the corner, I hoped – nearly expected – to come across Amethyst Harmony and the herd members who’d kept her from fulfilling her dream
  1996. >Alas, though she would’ve been a great step up from Daisy, and I would’ve cheerfully accepted her embrace, the only life I could see ahead was an apathetic spider dangling from a small web
  1997. >Where the hell did everypony go?
  1998. >The new corridor yawned out ahead of me, its length speckled with doors, and illuminated by even less light than when Peter and I traversed it with our deafening guns at the ready
  1999. >Its appearance had since sunk to a motionless grey pallor, illuminated by what few red and purple tints of creeping twilight snuck into the hall
  2000. >Though it was tempting to call out for anypony who would heed my cries, the eerie horror movie setting ahead bid me pause before I continued toward the stairwell
  2001. >Just as I entered the stairwell and its door was shutting in my wake, the increasingly perceptive pony ears atop my head swiveled to pick up the distant begging of my own horror movie monster
  2002. >“James, I’m sorry I upset you! Please, can’t we be friends?”
  2003. >Yeah, that’s a no…
  2004. >I found myself alone for several moments longer as I descended the concrete spiral and made my way down the placid hallways, back to where Cobalt and Iron Bell would… surely, they’d…
  2005. >Where… Where did they go?
  2006. >As the mangled debris of what was once the hallway’s display case came into view, I stumbled to the edge of the heap where Typhoon Twist had once been buried
  2007. >After dropping to my knees, I anxiously started shifting the slabs of wood, as though there was a forlorn chance that the blue Pegasus mare was hiding underneath
  2008. >My efforts were rewarded with little more than a disquieting crunch of splintering wood and a clamor of shifting books, while the newly disrupted pile continued taking its time to fully subside
  2009. >If the lonely pools of drying blood and scattered bits of broken furniture were anything to go off of, the herd had long since tossed the remanding pieces aside and freed Typhoon Twist
  2010. >I rubbed an ailing hand against my fur-lined throat that scratched with each word, its vocal limits having been tested by the plethora of harrowing situations I’d faced today
  2011. “Cobalt? Iron? Typhoon? I… I-I need a favor!”
  2012. >Even though Cobalt had promised he would go to any length to help me, his word was still only as good as the distance the wind would carry it…
  2013. >As the echo of my pleading voice bounced off a far wall and returned to my gloomily drooping ears, a state of oppressive silence returned to the empty corridor
  2014. >I hoisted myself to my feet and peered out the vestibule door, expectant that at least a few Pegasi would be flitting across the sky, but all I saw were some darkening clouds’ silhouettes
  2015. >Leaning against the window, I tried to ignore the faint clattering caused by my frayed nerves as I scanned the barren emptiness of the quad… the buildings… the darkened athletics fields…
  2016. >They were gone… Everypony… Everypony was gone…
  2017. “C-Come on… I can’t be all… alone…”
  2018. >I sniffled and pounded a fist against the window with all the power that my sapped strength could muster, manifesting in a soft thump that barely rattled the glass
  2019. “Alone…”
  2020. >Wiping the tears from my blurred vision proved to be successful for all of five seconds, but my ducts swiftly replaced the symbols of my anguish as I breathed in short, strained gasps
  2021. >It… It couldn’t be… After spending two days running from a herd where it seemed every member was doing their damnedest to turn me into one of them… now they’re… gone?
  2022. >Every last one of them, having sufficiently flooded one of the hallways in the sciences building, was now content just… leaving me… ME… to wander, alone?
  2023. >Well, okay, maybe not one every last one of them, but was I being left to choose between a life as a… a brainwashed pawn with Daisy… or an outcast from the rest of the herd?
  2024. >N-No… The herd wouldn’t leave you… They wouldn’t do that… G-Get a hold of yourself James… Get a hold of yourself! You just need to find somepony…
  2025. >I drew in a long breath, throwing my head back as my mane hung down the length of my neck, its strands growing thicker and more elongated with each passing moment
  2026. “Isn’t anypony out there?!”
  2027. >After a few seconds, the final vestiges of my own resonating cries faded, soon replaced by a gentle refrain of despairing sobs
  2028. >For heaven’s sake, I’m ready to be a pony! I am! Just… please, I want to be with somepony I can trust! Oh, Snowfall, why didn’t I go with you when I had the chance?!
  2029. >All those ponies I tried to show kindness to, all for naught in the end… Snowfall… Cobalt… Iron Bell… Typhoon Twist… Sky Mead-
  2030. >Sky Meadows… She… Wait, she could help!
  2031. >As I tried to keep my mind off the growing nuisance that was beginning to present itself at the base of my spine, my gaze wandered to the directory posted on the wall, just inside the door
  2032. >When my eyes landed on the embossed letters spelling ‘DEANS OFFICE,’ I thought back to Sky Meadows’ invitation to visit her in the place at which she claimed to spend most of her time
  2033. >But no invitation can last forever…
  2034. >I said a silent prayer that Sky would be true to her word and provide me an outlet to join the herd in the warm, comforting hooves of somepony I trusted… She might be my last hope…
  2035. >As I pushed myself away from the wall and headed back toward the stairwell, my limbs wobbled uneasily, finding it difficult to remain on two legs, but not fully ready to walk on four
  2036. >After a few dozen steps, I braced against the corridor’s wall and threw off my socks, revealing a curled group of toes, their golden nails having thickened and begun to search for each other
  2037. >Shifting into an alien digitigrade stance that obligated me to trek forward on tiptoe, the strange arrangement may have been new, but at the same time, seemed… natural…
  2038. >Nevertheless, the ample time spent climbing the stairs was far more difficult than traversing flat ground, but with a deep sigh of exertion, I rolled through the door into the office’s hallway
  2039. >Oh hayseed, why did it have to be the top floor?
  2040. >I took a moment to get my bearings and refocus as I lay on my back, soon realizing that a few feet above me and just off to the side resided a sign marking the dean’s office
  2041. >The gilded trim of the sign would have undoubtedly been shimmering if it had anything more than the paltry light of the rising moon, but it was still impressive against the imposing door
  2042. >Rolling onto my hands and knees, I made my way to the side of the entryway, my heart pounding in my chest as I acknowledged how crucially valuable Sky Meadows’ welcome would be
  2043. >My weakly clenched fist seemed to hang in midair for a long time before finally beginning its arc forward
  2044. >Knock… Knock… Knock…
  2045. “Sky Meadows, it’s James… Please open the door… Please…”
  2046. >My ears stood on end, desperately listening for clues that could be as subtle as a simple rhythm of muted hoofbeats which managed to pierce the thick door
  2047. >After five… ten seconds, I pinched my eyes shut and gritted my teeth, trying to hold back tears as the weight of loneliness weighed on my anew, like a-
  2048. >“I thought Daisy was befriending you, James. What the hay did you do to her?”
  2049. >A stern, feminine voice spoke up from the expanse beyond the door, but its inflection was far removed from the nuances I’d come to expect from my conversations with Sky Meadows
  2050. “Storm Cloud, is that you? Where… Where’s Sky Meadows?”
  2051. >“I asked you a question, James. Why are you still walking around on two legs?”
  2052. >I furrowed my brow and shifted into a seated position at the dulled base of the door, employing taciturn curiosity in an attempt to discern how she could tell I was still a human
  2053. >I’m speaking at pony height… but maybe she heard my footsteps when I was coming, or maybe I’m going to be a mare and my voice went up a bit, or maybe she noticed…
  2054. >My thoughts gradually evaporated as I noticed a slender window fringing the full height of the door, its lowest corner punctuated by a purple muzzle just to the doorframe’s side
  2055. >As I shifted to get a better look, her rigid, magnetic gaze followed my every move without blinking
  2056. >I unconsciously rubbed a glove against my hoodie sleeve, trying to brush away my sweat just as much as I was trying to brush away my nervousness
  2057. “S-Storm Cloud, I know I am now… but I… I want to be a pony! I’m ready to d-”
  2058. >“Do you honestly expect me to believe that?! I have a hole in my leg because of how badly you wanted the exact opposite!”
  2059. >The irritated Pegasus thrust one of her forelegs close to the glass, unmistakably displaying a bandage wrap that had been stained deep red on one side
  2060. “Look, I’m sorry for what Peter did! I know y-”
  2061. >“You’re just lucky Snowfall was around to help all of us who were victims of the worst of your antics! It’ll be quite a day if she teleports off to treat the sick and injured elsewhere”
  2062. >Snowfall… teleporting off elsewhere?
  2063. >My eyes shrunk to pinpricks and I tried to stifle a terrified gasp as a trembling hand flew up to cover my gaping mouth
  2064. >Bunches of neurons all through my mind tried to cope with the appalling thought, sparking fiercely like an unrestrained fireworks show, and demonstrating about as much control
  2065. “W-Wait, teleport?! N-No! She wouldn’t leave! I-I said I was coming back for her! She has to stay here!”
  2066. >Storm Cloud simply flicked her mane to the side and offered the equine equivalent of a shrug
  2067. >“She’s a natural-born helper, and there are a lot of hurting ponies in this world – huh, funny coincidence how most always seem to be in the wake of humanity…”
  2068. “Storm Cloud, I’m begging you, do you know where Snowfall is? I-I need to f-find her, NOW!”
  2069. >“I know exactly where she went, and I’d sure as sugar be with her if Sky Meadows didn’t insist on hanging around here. I feel a need to protect my friends, and clearly that was the right call”
  2070. >My attempts to control my frenetic breathing only proved to be partially successful as I tried to formulate a response
  2071. “I’m not a threat, Storm! You can tell me where she went!”
  2072. >“You’re still a feather-fluttering human, so I’M not convinced! And besides, Snowfall said she’s not ready to see you until… well, until you can meet eye to eye…”
  2073. >She narrowed her eyes, apparently digging for a precise recollection
  2074. >“And by that, she meant that she just wants to be able to hug you again, with both of you standing three feet tall. Not six. I don’t know, those were her words, not mine”
  2075. >I ripped off my gloves and tossed them down the hallway, swiftly revealing a pair of stiffening hands that were covered in spotty tufts of golden fur
  2076. >With a dire plea, I pressed my morphed appendages against the glass a few inches in front of Storm Cloud, the hardened keratin of what would soon be my hooves clinking softly
  2077. “Storm, please listen! I’m already on my way toward becoming a pony, I just need somepony to finish it! I can’t wait overnight for the changes! Please!”
  2078. >She flicked her ear and ground her teeth together, while the muffled grating did a good job at permeating the window’s thick glass
  2079. >“Do you remember where you last saw Daisy? She’s still good and alive and all that?”
  2080. >I tried to control my breathing as I eased into what quickly became a frantic nod
  2081. “Y-Yeah…”
  2082. >“Great. Go ask her, and you can come back here when you’ve got four hooves. True to her word, Sky’s got some apples here waiting for you”
  2083. >With a few muted clicks, Storm Cloud vanished from her position in the window, ducking behind the door where she was swallowed up by the shadows of the dean’s office
  2084. “Storm Cloud? Storm Cloud! Please, no, open the door! I can’t go back to her! I need to talk to Sky! Please!”
  2085. >I ineffectually pounded out a rhythm of firm punches against the door, barely even causing it to shudder amid the sharp lances of pain befalling my hands
  2086. “Please…”
  2087. >After coming so painfully close to joining the herd, pretty much all that stood between me and my new life… my new friends… Snowfall… was this fucking door!
  2088. >My strength gave out and I rolled onto my back, still resolutely raising a fist in the air as I continually knocked on the wooden barrier
  2089. >I’m not a monster!
  2090. >Thump…
  2091. >Just because I don’t want to go along with Daisy’s scheme doesn’t mean I’m not ready to be a pony!
  2092. >Thump…
  2093. >I sobbed like an injured schoolyard foal through tightly shut eyes, and by the time I reopened them, deep pools of tears had collected in my thoroughly obscured vision
  2094. >Reaching into the EMT pouch at my side for a gauze pad to soak up my tears, my hand brushed against something that seemed… out of place…
  2095. >I didn’t think too much of it at first, but as I retrieved and unwrapped the strange parcel, I remembered what it was briefly before its profile became visible through the material
  2096. >With the dexterous care of a museum curator, I deftly held the base of Typhoon Twist’s feather in my grip, with only a few fractions of a millimeter separating it from my exposed fingers
  2097. >Slowly spinning the dainty blue barbs in the wandering currents of the corridor’s air, I disturbed the feather further with a drawn-out sigh
  2098. >So, this is how it ends for me…
  2099. >Plucking the full length of the feather with my opposite hand, I immediately found myself taken by a faint feeling of pleasure radiating from my fingertips
  2100. >Try as I might, through many paths, my story in the apocalypse ends with me… alone…
  2101. >The feather was just large enough to fit in my partially cupped hands, and as it disappeared behind the veil of my other hand’s fingers, I clutched the artifact close to my chest
  2102. >But maybe something good will happen when the dust settles…
  2103. >My anguished cries filled the hallway in an ode to my despair, but I had more important things to do than pay the echoes any heed
  2104. >The transformation came rapidly, causing my fingers to creak and pop as they fused together, the band of keratin that had once been my nails thickening into a golden-yellow hoof
  2105. >Similarly colored fur sprouted from the backs of my hands, radiating outwards until it formed a clean, well-kept fetlock, and then continued to where I felt it venture beneath my hoodie
  2106. >As I absentmindedly wiped my tearful eyes with the new tufts of fur, I received a brief reminder of just how much the culminating emotions of the weekend had caused me to sob
  2107. >My fetlock became drenched, and through my ragged gasps, I almost didn’t hear the hushed pair of female voices speaking behind the door a few inches to my side
  2108. >However, with a sharp, unmistakable click, my ears pivoted toward the door as it swung open, revealing the visibly concerned profile of Sky Meadows standing in the aperture
  2109. >Before I could come up with a salutation, the feather tumbled from my petrified hands, and the mare swiftly came to my side
  2110. >When I sat up, she wrapped her forehooves tenderly around the torso of my hoodie, gently caressing my shivering skin as she pressed the side of her muzzle warmly against my shoulder
  2111. >I found myself thoroughly confused, but by no means was I going to reject her embrace
  2112. “S-Sky… The t-transformation isn’t effective i-if I’m still wearing m-my clothes…”
  2113. >Her reply was dripping with sweetness, cooing softly as a mother might do for her terrified child
  2114. >“I know, little pony… After all you’ve been through these past few days, I figured you just needed a hug. You’re not going to hurt me. You’re not a bad person; you just had a rough day…”
  2115. >I sniffled and tried to bring myself under control
  2116. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I only wanted to do the right thing… and now I don’t have a single friend to welcome me to the herd now that my humanity’s on the ropes…”
  2117. >Sky Meadows continued to gently brush my back as she peered at me with her large, glassy eyes that overflowed with an intimate sense of peacefulness
  2118. >“Sshhh, it’s okay… I’m here… I’ll be your friend…”
  2119. >With her other forehoof, she poked at the zipper of my hoodie, nudging it down a few inches
  2120. >“…And then I’ll help make sure Snowfall will be, too”
  2122. >My breathing was marked by a quick rhythm of unceremoniously emotional gasps while I returned Sky Meadows’ embrace, clutching her closely as tears flowed anew
  2123. >She was fortunate that my fingers had already given way to a pair of vivid golden hooves, as I unconsciously dug the newfound appendages into her back the longer our hug persisted
  2124. >Previously, her soft, supple fur had been diligently brushed by her herdmates, the group’s best unicorns doing to best to make her feel pretty, even with a conspicuous stomach wound
  2125. >Her mane cascaded down her neck, pointing to long, well-groomed rows of brushed fur, the flawless hairs aligned as though they were ranks of crops in a field, if not for their blue pallor
  2126. >While my poignantly drifting forehooves carelessly brushed the tufts out of alignment in errant lines, she hardly seemed to mind, letting out a series of soft giggles
  2127. >Storm Cloud stood at attention a few feet to the side of Sky Meadows, diligently scanning my every move for motions that could pose a threat to her friend
  2128. >Repeatedly, one of her hooves would lift an inch or two off the ground with an abrupt impulse to rush to her aid, but after a few seconds, the plucky Pegasus started to settle
  2129. >How could I blame her, though…
  2130. >I wasn’t a good person… James, think back to the time you cheated on the final calculus exam in Mrs. Tanner’s class, and they made you meet with the principal about it…
  2131. >Think about the time Kevin wasn’t giving you a chance to play with the basketball, and everyone at recess started staring because you knocked him to the ground…
  2132. >What about all the times your mom told you to do your homework… To not be out so late… To stay away from slugging booze until you were old enough…
  2133. >And let’s not forget the time that the gun-wielding comrade at your back took a chunk out of that Pegasus’ leg…
  2134. >As a blurry tear rolled free from my eye, I caught another clear glimpse of the reddened bandage wrapped around Storm Cloud’s foreleg
  2135. >…and you did nothing to stop him, even when you could’ve… should’ve…
  2136. >Maybe Daisy was right… you should’ve been a pony long ago…
  2137. >I swallowed and struggled to choke out a few words from the depths of my lungs
  2138. “S-S-Sky… I-I-I…”
  2139. >“Sshhh… It’s okay, little pony… Just take some deep breaths. I’m right here… I’ve got you…”
  2140. >As Sky Meadows caressed my back, gently disturbing the hoodie while she brushed it and nuzzled against my shoulder, I focused my willpower on calming myself, leaning into her warmth
  2141. >A gently comforting sensation radiated from my hooves as they brushed her fur, but it still paled in comparison to the viscerally soothing hug of the compassionate pony
  2142. >Deep breath in… Deep breath out… Deep breath in…
  2143. >My heart was still hurrying a few beats ahead of Sky Meadows’, but she and I had both relaxed noticeably by the time I broke from the embrace enough to make eye contact
  2144. “Sky… I’m ready… I’m… I’m ready to be a pony…”
  2145. >After a few moments, she skootched back from me and cracked a slight smile, just enough that a slender line of the hallway’s dim light could glisten off her pearly teeth
  2146. >“I’m happy for you, James… Possibly the last time I’ll ever use that name…”
  2147. >I returned her smile and wiped a tear from my eye, bumping a hoof into my muzzle in the process, while my other hoof fished for the hoodie’s zipper
  2148. >After a few fraught moments of fumbling, I clamped the zipper tab between my hooves and pulled downwards, yanking through its full length until the sea of grey parted from the center
  2149. >Before I even had time to ponder my next step, a pair of mares to my sides and just behind me tenderly ushered my arms into a position that would guide the hoodie off my sleeves
  2150. >At first I was surprised by Storm Cloud’s participation, but the more I noticed her quick glances toward the blue pony at her side, the more her tether of trust visibly strengthened
  2151. >Wordlessly, Sky Meadows communicated that I was a now part of her herd – THEIR herd… I wasn’t a threat, or someone to fear, but rather… a friend…
  2152. >With a swift tug, the hoodie slipped off my sleeves, its motion announced by little more than a rustle of fabric and a faint jingling of the zipper’s metal
  2153. >As the thickening gradient of gold that enveloped my arms came into view, I wiped the last stray tears from my eyes, swiftly wetting a new patch of fur almost as quickly as it became available
  2154. >Simultaneously, I became aware of a hoof poking softly just to the side of my spine
  2155. >“Could you lie on your back and put your arms kinda over your head? This T-shirt’s going to be trickier to remove”
  2156. >I complied with Sky Meadows’ directives, but couldn’t help myself from flattening my lips for a moment
  2157. “You could just tear it or let it stretch out during the transformation – I don’t mind…”
  2158. >A little bit of help from my own hooves steered the T-shirt over my elongated muzzle, and with a few quick, careful jerks, the mares freed my torso from its blue cotton prison
  2159. >For a moment, they stood with the curtain clamped in their grinning muzzles, pausing before Sky Meadows spat out her corner and murmured softly at me
  2160. >“You deserve better… I don’t want you to get too claustrophobic”
  2161. >I furrowed my brow in slight dubiety, but Sky Meadows paid me little heed as she continued
  2162. >“Maybe you’re not usually claustrophobic, but it doesn’t hurt to take care. Storm Cloud was telling me about a filly who got spooked by her own shirt when she befriended her and tried-”
  2163. >“Okay, Sky, in my defense, she was a Pegasus who wanted to go be with her parents – I reckon we’re naturally a bit flighty, so of course she wasn’t going to be fond of that shirt”
  2164. >Sky Meadows mulled over the story for a few moments before raising her brow and nodding approvingly
  2165. >“Makes sense. I just wanted you to feel comforted and welcomed, James. Not to mention, you deserve a nice, unharmed reminder of the good you did before we were friends”
  2166. >The mares slowly paced toward the base of my jeans, but Sky Meadows’ motion was hampered by my hoof poking at her side once I’d risen to a seated position
  2167. “Sky, I thought getting rid of memories was part of becoming a pony, not… not preserving them”
  2168. >As I lowered my hoof back to my side, her gaze briefly followed it before floating back up to meet my eyes
  2169. >“James, I may be blue and lack a horn, but we’ll both be walking around on hooves, with perky ears and a muzzle. If not for the memories in which we differ, we’d be… boringly similar”
  2170. >As she drew in a long, pensive breath, Sky Meadows peered at the aforementioned hooves, first at my golden digits, then at her own hooves of light blue
  2171. >“I guess the same can be said of our bad memories, just as well as good… but there’s not much to be done about that aspect of it… Not that I necessarily want them back”
  2172. >Storm Cloud, who had been listening patiently to Sky Meadows aside one of my half-morphed feet, averted her eyes in order to acknowledge that the renouncing sentiment was mutual
  2173. >Her friend paused for a few seconds with an ajar jaw, her eyes slowly wandering back and forth like those of a bauble cuckoo clock
  2174. >“Our herd doesn’t want ponies just for the sake of having ponies. That’s not the case with me… not with Daisy, either. In their own way, everypony’s special… Everypony SHOULD be special…”
  2175. >Sky Meadows bit her lip, gently swaying as she pondered how to word a forthcoming question
  2176. >“So… You were proud of your time spent as an EMT?”
  2177. “It… It wasn’t exactly fun at times, but… it was helping pon- people…”
  2178. >I shrugged, finding myself reasonably satisfied with my response that was about as truthful as one could expect it to be
  2179. >If nothing else, being an EMT was a job fraught with a copious mix of highs and lows
  2180. >There were good days and bad – and even good or bad hours within the span of those days – that sometimes swayed my perspective on the life decisions I’d taken to arrive at that point
  2181. >Maybe it was reactionary in the moment, but that was bound to happen when you’re being hugged by an injured little girl’s father… or getting puked on by the second freshman in one night
  2182. >Nevertheless, as my mind landed on the conclusion that it was a considerable net gain, I presented a modest smile, which was briefly mirrored by Sky Meadows
  2183. >“Good, we… really need you... Every hour it seems to be something new… Ponies falling down stairs on their new hooves, Pegasi with hard landings, foals eating something they shouldn’t…”
  2184. >She sighed and let her ears droop, chasing away the last remnants of her frail levity
  2185. >“…Daisy was absolutely frantic to ensure that you were rushed back to help us… rather than a ‘honeymoon period’ since befriending everypony, it’s been a small-scale nightmare for her…”
  2186. >As my gaze sunk into a dour, afflicted expression, I felt a knot of guilt forming in my stomach, its foundations rooted in the dual territories of hurting ponies, and misjudging Daisy
  2187. >For fuck’s sake, she… she was only being insistent because she was watching members of her herd – which she helped create – encountering terrible injury, because of their changes…
  2188. >It could’ve been the steadily swelling elements of compassionate pony thought taking over, but for a few moments, I trembled at the notion
  2189. >Ponies just like Sky Meadows, supporting the broken wings of Pegasi just like Storm Cloud, while the two of them hobble in to find doctors already swamped with a dozen other poor fliers…
  2190. >Stallions resting anxiously by the bedsides of their young colts, clutching the tear-stained pages of a flower identification guide while their foals moan and mutter about their stomachaches…
  2191. >I let out a quick, trembling exhale, the distressing rhythm not going unnoticed by Sky Meadows as she tenderly brushed a hoof against my leg
  2192. >“James, you were special as an EMT. Please… Please, don’t give that up just because you think ponies are ‘supposed’ to prance around, eat carrots and make friends all day…”
  2193. >I drew in a deep inhale, filling my lungs in preparation for the strength I’d inevitably need to call upon
  2194. “Is it… is it a lot of ponies? The number sick… injured…”
  2195. >“Well, out of the thousands of ponies that made friends in this town, you have to figure it’s at least a dozen or two…”
  2196. >My sole acknowledgement of the pony’s words was a slight nod and an unwaveringly focused gaze, drawing Sky Meadows’ eyes along until she too was peering at my partially transformed foot
  2197. “Let’s finish up my transformation… There isn’t much time to waste…”
  2198. >With little hesitation, the two mares planted their hooves just beyond my ankles, gripped the base of my jeans between their teeth, and yanked
  2199. >The denim shuddered and stretched out before snapping back, and by the mares’ fourth flawlessly coordinated attempt to remove the pants, they gave up amid my increasingly fierce yowls
  2200. “Ow, that kinda smarts! I’ve got half a tail tucked in there; be mindful of that!”
  2201. >“Sorry, sorry! It’s just… It’s kind of tight around your waist... I don’t suppose you could help us out and undo your belt?”
  2202. >My urge to make a lewd comment was speedily outdone by a wave of pragmatic confusion
  2203. “Undo my… Sky, I don’t have any hands! And, well, if you haven’t noticed, neither do you or Storm Cloud!”
  2204. >With a slight smile and chuckle, Sky Meadows hung her head before abandoning her position at the base of my leg, pacing over to the side of my torso
  2205. >Amid an air of warm benevolence, she leaned forward toward my head, causing the plush fur adorning her chest to inadvertently brush against my shoulder with a tender tickling sensation
  2206. >It felt warm and cozy, but it was dwarfed by an enchanting feeling a moment later as she tenderly nuzzled her muzzle against mine, prompting a gasp of pleasure to escape from my lips
  2207. >The sudden bliss made me reel and nearly topple to my back, and the difficulty was compounded further when Sky Meadows stuck out her tongue and affectionately licked the side of my face
  2208. >Her motion had been quick and devoid of calculated sensuality, but as the final contact of her tongue slipped away, I shivered in a swiftly fading visage of paradise
  2209. “Ngghhh… S-Sky…”
  2210. >As I blinked slowly, my wits returned to me just enough to notice that the blue pony had taken a seat on her haunches a few inches off to my side
  2211. >“That ought to be enough. I believe in you. You can do it”
  2212. “Sky… How can…”
  2213. >As I peered down at my firmly clasped belt, my mental wheels spun but failed to generate any momentum as they did their best to understand how Sky Meadows’ affection changed things
  2214. >With my muzzle hanging slightly ajar and my brow knitted in confusion, my eyes darted back and forth in an apparent effort to rally the answer from every corner of my thoughts
  2215. >Did Sky Meadows think we were living in some kind of clichéd kid’s movie where all it takes to accomplish the impossible is a little belief and pixie dust?
  2216. >My train of thought rapidly dissipated as one of her hooves gently reached up and tapped the end of my unicorn horn, the length of the spiral having grown to a length of five or six inches
  2217. >“I believe in you”
  2218. >After briefly peering at Sky Meadows and then back at my belt’s confounding clasp, I narrowed my eyes and focused on the intricate pieces of metal that my clumsy hooves couldn’t handle
  2219. >A few moments passed in stupefied silence, but then my ears gradually took notice of a shimmering noise emanating from… almost… almost BETWEEN them?
  2220. >No sooner had I registered the noise did it become visually manifest, taking on a warm orange glow in the upper corners of my vision, and then around the glinting edges of the belt’s front
  2221. >Magic… I was doing magic… This shouldn’t be possible, and yet…
  2222. >With a gentle shifting of leather, the belt’s excess began to wind itself back through the last belt loop, apparently freeing itself with a life of its own until its orange glowing life force shifted
  2223. >Something about the telekinesis felt wild and fantastical, but at the same time… it felt as innately natural as speaking with a pony muzzle or flicking my ears
  2224. >I could only hope walking on four hooves would be so straightforward, and when that becomes tiresome, who knows?
  2225. >Maybe Snowfall could teach me her teleportation tricks…
  2226. >With a bit more careful manipulation, the belt’s clasp allowed the leather band to slide through, finally granting its freedom amid a clatter of metal
  2227. >My waistband relaxed as I let out a soft sigh of relief, its unforgiving leather enclosure no longer working so staunchly against the upper edge of my steadily, faintly thickening haunches
  2228. >I unconsciously stuck my tongue out of the corner of my mouth, focusing intently as I gave the same treatment to my EMT pouch’s straps
  2229. >After bracing myself against its heft, I was surprised by how effortlessly it floated through the air and resettled on the tile a few feet away, its orange glow swiftly evaporating to nothingness
  2230. >I undid the pants’ button and zipper a few moments before Sky Meadows and Storm Cloud reestablished their positions at my ankles, nodding to each other before clamping on to the denim
  2231. >With a firm succession of quick yanks, my pants slid past my haunches… my steadily morphing knees… my re-angled ankles… and finally left my legs bare as my protohooves returned to view
  2232. >Finally relieved from the pressure posed by an impenetrable wall of denim, a few short strands of slightly yellow-ish hair orange poked out through the base of my underwear
  2233. >I rolled into a seated position slightly on my side, gasping first from the sharp twinges of discomfort that had resulted from pressing the tail against the tile, but then from the very sight
  2234. >At first I was startled by it – the way the lurid hairs danced against the dull tile, every time I shifted the strange, swiftly forming muscles that had taken root at the base of my spine
  2235. >My shock rapidly faded to neutrality, then to a bubbly feeling of joy as I gradually became acclimated to the appendage, its length still pressing outwards hair by hair
  2236. >Goodness, it… it sure is quite lovely when you look at it…
  2237. >It was a tail, sure, but it was MY tail…
  2238. >My own to swish and flick, to dye or braid or put up in a bow… and nopony else would ever have one quite like mine…
  2239. >As I sat with most of my weight shifted onto a single haunch, my vision wandered about the palette of golds, oranges, and pale tan of what would soon be my former skin color
  2240. >However, a few moments of staring drew my attention toward the discordant blue of my underwear, the final piece of clothing separating me from an animalistic nakedness
  2241. >Developing a fixation with it seemed almost inevitable, especially as I took note of the obscured body parts beneath, which I very well might be giving up soon
  2242. >An absentminded whimper escaped into the air, prompting Sky Meadows to appear close by my side with her characteristically warm, comforting voice
  2243. >“It’ll be okay… You’re so much more than just that… I know it seems difficult, but Storm Cloud and I know what it’s like, and we can help you… you know, get used to the changes, if necessary”
  2244. >She reflexively flicked her tail to the side, and if she weren’t peering into my eyes, chances are, I would’ve received a visional reminder of her own gender change
  2245. >“I promise you, Snowfall’s going to love you either way... She loves you… Loves you... Mare, stallion, she just wants you to make the commitment that would render you two inseparable”
  2246. >With a long sigh conveying my acceptance of the terms, I bucked my hips into the air and telekinetically gripped the final garment, swiftly sliding it free from my tail and haunches
  2247. >After it drifted past my melding hind hooves and settled into an unorganized heap with my other clothing, I lay on my back, a thousand emotions swirling through my mind
  2248. >A little bit of fearful unease, a little bit of nervousness, but… but those were nothing compared to the joy, the excitement, the warmth I felt in my heart
  2249. >Just over my head and off to the side, Sky Meadows’ soothing voice filled the hallway
  2250. >“I’m going to be right at your side… Are you ready? Are you ready to be a part of your new herd?”
  2251. >For a moment, I considered pausing a moment to reach into my EMT pouch, retrieve a pad & pencil, and leave a note behind, if only to remind myself of all the bad things I did as a human…
  2252. >But what was the point of penitence, if not an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and then serving as an avenue to steer away from that misbehavior?
  2253. >For every time that I’d told a parent, teacher, boss, friend, partner ‘it won’t happen again, and I’m sorry’ in my misdeeds… none had ever been so true as the sentiment would be now
  2254. >A chance to truly leave behind what made me a bad person, a chance to focus on what’ll make me a good pony… for me and Peter, this wasn’t just repentance… it was forgiveness…
  2255. >I peered up at Sky Meadows, her deep, charcoal pupils glistening as purely as the cleanly wiped slate I’d soon be adopting
  2256. “Ready, Sky… I’m ready…”
  2257. >She tried to control her gentle squeals of unabated happiness as she and Storm Cloud lowered themselves at my side, prompting their fur to mingle with the flecks of dust dotting the floor
  2258. >Storm Cloud tenderly draped a wing over my torso, covering it in a soft, warm bed of feathers whose barbs briefly tickled my torso’s skin, and then tickled my torso’s steadily growing fur
  2259. >Meanwhile, two pairs of hooves gently wrapped around my midsection, eliciting a sigh of bliss as I felt my torso rearranging and pushing outwards into a markedly equine barrel
  2260. >My stomach seemed to softly gurgle and churn, rearranging as it attuned itself to a diet of grass and hay, and raised a fleeting protest to the thought of another can of deli meat
  2261. >Tufts of golden fur poked out along my barrel’s full length, carpeting it in a plush layer that seemed to be in its natural state while snuggling up against the coats of my herdmates
  2262. >My fur mingled with Sky Meadows’, and even Storm Cloud pulled tightly into the embrace, her former standoffishness rapidly deteriorating
  2263. >As the changes progressed to my shoulders and arms, my limbs and their resident hooves lifted into the air
  2264. >A moment later, they locked into place with a series of painless clicks and pops
  2265. >As a frontier of fur advanced, working to establish a connection with the sea of gold already blanketing my fetlocks, my muscles bulged, reforming into strong supports for a quadruped stance
  2266. >They felt powerful… ready to run… and I couldn’t tell whether it was innate excitement or a result from the waves of pleasure rocking my body, but I couldn’t wait to try them out
  2267. >A few more clusters of gold poked out along my neck and cheeks, but my friends had already made quick work of much of my face and muzzle before the final bones popped into place
  2268. >My ears twitched and I momentarily scrunched up my muzzle, taking note of its expressiveness as the waves of ecstasy continued washing over me, causing my tongue to loll out
  2269. >I studied of the orange mane steadily spilling around my horn, and in particular, each hair’s short-cut, seemingly… masculine appearance
  2270. >In an effort to confirm my suspicions, I cleared my throat and spoke up to the two mares, all while their hooves continued to embrace and gently caress my barrel
  2271. “H-How am I doing?”
  2272. >“Wonderfully. And I must say, Snowfall’s going to appreciate such a ravishing stallion”
  2273. >Sky Meadows playfully poked at my swiftly morphing haunches, her nudge causing me to quickly gasp as I felt the larger, but moreover, still present, stallionhood between my legs
  2274. >As the frontier of fur raced along my haunches in an apparent dual competition, my legs elevated into the air, surrendering the area around the base of spine to my tail
  2275. >Steadily, a few strands of magnificently flowing orange hair grew outwards and splayed chaotically across the tile, reassembling into a single tress with a couple of terse flicks
  2276. >I could feel the bliss of the ponies’ friendship steadily reaching a peak, my vision starting to go blurry as I absentmindedly let out a few gasps of pleasure
  2277. >With the last of the fur overtaking my hind hooves’ fetlocks and expeditiously melding the final vestiges of my toes into a pair of firm hooves, my breathing quickened slightly
  2278. >As Sky Meadows and Storm Cloud clenched their hooves tightly around me and drew me into their hug, I ecstatically sighed and moaned with the warmth of their friendship
  2279. >Their friendship… OUR friendship…
  2280. >They were my herdmates, now and forever…
  2281. >I wrapped a hoof around each of them, embracing them closely and firmly with the strength of my newly acquired stallion forelegs
  2282. >With a final, resounding cry of pleasure, I loosened my grip on the last toxins that I’d held on to for so long as a human, letting them simply wash away amid the deluge of affection
  2283. >All the bad things I’d ever seen… done… said… come to regret after hours of tossing and turning in bed… all gone…
  2284. >They became as weightless and ineffective as a warm summer breeze, and with just as much rapidity, they took to the heavens and sailed out of view
  2285. >I drew in a deep, calm breath through my nostrils, my first of many as a pony
  2286. >Whether it was the crisp early evening air or the flowery scent of Sky Meadow’s mane, the air was refreshing, swiftly reviving my weary mind
  2287. >After a few tranquil moments still lying on the ground, Storm Cloud retracted her wing, rolling inelegantly away from me as Sky Meadows rose to her hooves and peered down at me
  2288. >“See? Wasn’t that just so wonderful? Making friends is the greatest”
  2289. >As the final twitches of bliss finally dissipated from my hind legs, I tried to straighten my thoughts enough to respond, with moderate success
  2290. “Sky, that was… That felt amazing… Thank you so, so much for welcoming me into your herd… I can’t ever thank you enough for this…”
  2291. >I rolled onto my stomach before planting my hooves on the hallway’s cool tile and shakily rising to my full height, comparatively towering a few inches over the mares
  2292. >Total balance remained fleeting for a few moments, and I was nearly knocked off-kilter as Sky Meadows nudged the side of my barrel
  2293. >“If it helps, think of it as… settling an old score. Come on, you have a lot more than two herdmates that’re eager to meet you! Iron Bell, Typhoon Twist, Cobalt, Daisy… Snowfaaaall…”
  2294. >Her teasing tone drew out the name for what seemed like an eternity, magnetically pulling my ears to attention as a chill concentrated at my tail and raced up my spine
  2295. >With a sharp gasp, my pupils’ sizes became suspended somewhere between affectionate yearning for the lovely mare, and stunned uneasiness about what she might think of me
  2296. >Years of classes together pretty much means next to nothing when one of you became a mare, and she’s never seen the other with golden fur, a muzzle, four hooves…
  2297. >Without conscious decision to do so, I lifted a hoof to my mane and commenced brushing it, knocking the strands about as I tried to observe my reflection in the tiles’ scattered reflection
  2298. “S-Snowfall! Oh my, does… Does my mane look okay? I mean, I’m sure it looks okay, but does… do you think-”
  2299. >With a smile that stretched to her cheerily shut eyes, Sky Meadows silenced my rambling by covering my muzzle with her hoof
  2300. >“You’re peachy keen. She’s going to be all over you, J- er, what name do you go by now?”
  2301. “Gilded Sunrise. You can call me Sunrise if you’d like. Y-You really think she’ll find me attractive?”
  2302. >I anxiously lifted each of my hooves in rapid succession, twitching my short tail side to side as I meticulously studied my appearance
  2303. >After a few thought-laden moments, my wandering gaze was reined in by Sky Meadows and her pleasant, reassuring grin
  2304. >“Brace yourself for when those mare instincts cause her to tackle you. Now let’s get a move-on!”
  2305. >Storm Cloud and Sky Meadows skipped the short distance to the stairwell’s doorframe, gently bumping into the wall as they amiably goaded me forward
  2306. >Thinking quickly, my horn sparked to life and I retrieved my belt from the pile of abandoned clothing, winding it around my barrel and securing it in place with a few soft clicks
  2307. >The leather didn’t want to stay perfectly in one place, and it was undoubtedly fulfilling a role for which it hadn’t been intended if the clasp’s location was any indication
  2308. >Nevertheless, as I enveloped my EMT pouch in a warm orange glow and levitated it to my side, its straps fitted into place around the belt with ease
  2309. >Amid a renewed level of comfort befitting a foal holding its favorite toy, I cracked a slight smile and trotted after the mares, the pouch jostling slightly at my side
  2310. >Even without hands, how could I justify forsaking this, after all it’s been through?
  2311. >Among several other tasks ahead of me, it was time to help some ponies…
  2312. “Right, right, let’s go!”
  2313. >Storm Cloud nudged the door open and her hooves clacked against the stairwell’s concrete, filling the cavernous expanse with a resonant melody with which we all joined in
  2314. “Say, Sky, I’m excited to meet everypony in the herd, but… have I met Daisy before? I only have a few faint memories of somepony with that name…”
  2315. >Sky Meadows’ descent slowed slightly at the question, but to be reasonable, aside from what little light from the moon spilled in, the steps ahead were quite dark and tricky to traverse
  2316. >Otherwise, I received no response aside from a quiet grunt of contemplation
  2317. >Once we stepped into the evening air of the outdoors, Storm Cloud led the way down the path to the edge of the university, peering about as moonlight glistened off her feathers
  2318. >The bounced light was among what little illumination could be seen, the lack of artificial radiance creating an atmosphere that was simultaneously eerie and romanticized
  2319. >A gentle breeze whistled in the tree branches far over our heads, and as we turned onto the asphalt of the road, the only other sounds to be heard were the echoes of our hooves
  2320. >With my eyes and ears momentarily alerted to their fullest potential, I studiously scanned the horizon, but to no avail
  2321. “Blooming apples, no wonder I couldn’t find anypony to befriend me… If not for you being where you said you’d be… Well, the streets are barren…”
  2322. >Sky Meadows angled her paces to converge with mine, taking up a stride a couple feet off to my side as she casually engaged my banter
  2323. >“I had a feeling you’d come visit. Everypony probably went off to spend time with their loved ones, at least those that can do so. At this hour, I imagine they’re at home, settling in for the night”
  2324. “But all the lights are out… Even with the moon shining, what the hay could they be doing on an evening like this if they can’t see?”
  2325. >My brow remained furrowed as I tried to imagine a card game illuminated by several unicorns’ telekinetic auras, not that it wouldn’t promptly end in accusations of magic-based deception
  2326. >No television, no Internet, no radio, not even some phone service if my morning yesterday was anything to go off of…
  2327. >What did people even do for fun in the evenings during the eighteenth century? Sit around and watch candles burn down?
  2328. >“They’re probably going to bed. Mares and stallions, tucking in their foals before curling up for a generous reprieve in the same beds where we befriended them, only a couple nights ago”
  2329. >The notion of bed sounded rather appealing, but it was verily sacrilege to an EMT who’d spent the wee hours of the morning treating a lot of patients, with a lot of patience
  2330. “It can’t be much past, what, eight on a Sunday evening? They don’t have work tomorrow or anything, right? Why go to bed so early?”
  2331. >“Well, you have to understand that everypony was… uneasy about the bogeyman – emphasis on ‘man’ – roaming the town yesterday evening. They’re catching up on their sleep”
  2332. >My ears flattened against my head, quietly accepting the guilt that Sky Meadows hadn’t intended to levy against me with such pitiless sinew
  2333. >She bit her lip and let her eyes wander elsewhere, but knowing that her point was valid albeit harsh, she didn’t offer a retraction
  2334. >As we continued to pass darkened house after darkened house, quite some time passed without any of the ponies present speaking up
  2335. >Nevertheless, Storm Cloud and Sky Meadows appeared to advance with unwavering determination through a wide canyon of forsaken brick walls
  2336. >I, on the other hoof, was just trying to follow their lead at a respectable pace despite my longer strides, seemingly taking the opportunity to trip over manhole covers with every chance I had
  2337. >After stifling another short barrage of curses in the midst of my fickle balance, confused curiosity finally got the best of me
  2338. “So… where are we going?”
  2339. >Sky Meadows thrust her head to the side a fraction of an inch, apparently pointing in lieu of raising a hoof
  2340. >“There’s a house a few blocks over – Seventeen Park Street – where some medical ponies are keeping an eye on… well… they’re watching over a lot of our close friends…”
  2341. >She paused, allowing herself time to readjust her voice into a slightly snarky tone
  2342. >“They’d be checking on Storm Cloud too if she weren’t so insistent on protecting me”
  2343. >The purple Pegasus spun around with a scorning fire in her eyes, keeping up her pace even as she repeatedly glanced at her bloodied bandage
  2344. >“Hey, I’m fine! Does this really look that bad?”
  2345. >“Just make sure it doesn’t get infected, yeah. Anyways, it’s one of the few houses in town with a generator, so they found a way to actually keep the lights on”
  2346. >I narrowed my eyes at the horizon, taking in the cold grey pallors that bounced off the houses, and noted the spectrum’s distinct lack of warm yellows and oranges
  2347. >Somewhere far beyond, a distant, muted voice caused my ears to perk up, but the din died as quickly as it had begun
  2348. “Then I guess it’ll be pretty clear which house it is when I see it…”
  2349. >After a few more minutes, Storm Cloud edged around the corner of a picket fence, bringing an indistinct street and its tapestry of potmarked asphalt into view
  2350. >Its edges were fringed with eternally parked cars now waiting for the descending forces of rust, their own natural desecration foreshadowed by flowers poking up through cracks in the street
  2351. >The scene was as gloomily lifeless as every other street before it in its own special way, with the exception of a large, brick house whose lively yellow light spilled onto the street
  2352. >At a distance of about fifty yards, it remained difficult to make out many details of the house or its occupants’ shadows shifting in the curtained windows, but I tried nonetheless
  2353. >As we cantered forward, more details came into view, from the building’s elaborate cornice, to the façade’s ornate windows, to a pair of ponies talking on the front porch
  2354. >Before they even acknowledged our presence, each jumped off the top step, landing a moment later on the lawn with a pair of firm impacts before trotting in our general direc…
  2355. “Amethyst Harmony? Holy smokes, is that you?!”
  2356. >The considerably shorter pony, who was evidently a mare with a distinctly purple coat – not to mention a distinctly familiar appearance – perked up her ears and smiled
  2357. >With little hesitation, she abandoned the stallion at her side and galloped toward me, her grin seeming to grow with each step
  2358. >For a moment I halted and feared that she was about to crash into me, but such a situation remained unrealized as she skidded to a stop and wrapped me in a tight hug
  2359. >“Ohmygoshyou’reokay!”
  2360. “Hrk!”
  2361. >A little bit of stolen oxygen was a small price to pay in return for confirmation that Amethyst Harmony was being treated as a welcomed member of our herd
  2362. >After a few moments, the group of four ponies standing in the middle of the street swelled to five with the nonchalant appearance of the red stallion that had been alongside her
  2363. >He already featured the muscular build I’d seen in many flightless ponies, and the grand presence was accentuated by a pair of heavy-laden saddlebags draped across his back
  2364. >With a chummy, unsurprised sigh, he disturbed a few strands of his grey mane and shrugged
  2365. >If not for the array of ponies present, he might’ve reproached his partner’s sudden emotion, but whatever demanded the attention of him and his esoteric tools could evidently wait
  2366. >His soft expression formed into a slight smile as Sky Meadows addressed him
  2367. >“Hey there, Morning Star! You’re looking busy as ever”
  2368. >“Oh, you know how it is, Sky. I’m sure Daisy will tell you all about it, but… that which can be broken, can be fixed. It just takes longer to do the latter”
  2369. >With a placid yet firm movement of his hoof, ‘Morning Star’ urged Amethyst Harmony off of me, prompting the mare to stand next to him with a sheepish grin
  2370. >Sky Meadows’ gaze swiftly vacillated between the hug’s perpetrators before levelling a question toward me
  2371. >“Say, Gilded Sunrise, how do you and this mare know each other, anyways?”
  2372. >I grinned and rubbed a foreleg with one of my hooves
  2373. “Oh, she and I were… very close earlier today. I helped her put together a radio transmitter, she got me lunch, stuff like that”
  2374. >Following a nod of understanding, Sky Meadows swung her head toward Morning Star
  2375. >“Radio transmitter? You know, that sounds like it’s right up YOUR alley”
  2376. >“Ah, we’ll get to it after the town has power again. Amethyst Harmony here did electrical engineering before we became her friend, so she’s pretty eager, and able, to lend a helping hoof”
  2377. >The mare in question leaned into Morning Star’s shoulder and secured the spotlight for herself
  2378. >“I mean, if I had my way, I’d want to see that radio in action. We had a Pegasus who flew a few hundred miles from central Brooklyn, and he wanted to call back to his friends there”
  2379. >Her mouth hung ajar for a few moments as she licked her lips, wordlessly contemplating the power of her assuredly impressive communications device
  2380. >“Of course, priorities are priorities”
  2381. >Storm Cloud raised her brow and finally chimed in
  2382. >“Goodness, the town’s power grid does sound like quite a project”
  2383. >“Yeah, it might take a couple days, but with a little help, we – the whole herd – will make the steady trot back toward normalcy and prosperity”
  2384. >Morning Star’s hoof momentarily drifted toward his saddlebags as though he were considering retrieving something, but abandoned the idea without much fanfare
  2385. >“Gonna start on a survey tonight, see what needs to be done, get some quick shuteye, and then we’ll be hard at work at the crack of dawn!”
  2386. >He brusquely bobbed his head in valediction before taking off at an excited, purposeful trot, while his partner lagged a few paces behind
  2387. “Best of luck, you two!”
  2388. >As Amethyst Harmony passed close to my ear, she momentarily halted, speaking with a steadily calming voice that faded to a tittering whisper
  2389. >“Oh, your marefriend Snowfall’s inside, worried sick about you, so make sure you go comfort her. And as for me… that Morning Star fellow… he’s kinda cute…”
  2390. >Her violet face was tinged just a bit red as she took off running after Morning Star, her hooves clicking against the street with defined intent
  2391. >As the pair vanished around the corner of a building, I caught a few flitting words from Amethyst Harmony, the mare evidently trying to make small talk about Morning Star
  2392. >She may not have been a Pegasus, but with the way her heart had been set aflutter, I nearly expected her to lift off the ground with each enthused, rearing step
  2393. >Turning back toward the building, I shook out the seemingly unavoidable thoughts of Amethyst Harmony returning in a couple days to ask the medical ponies what size condoms she needed
  2394. >Her relationship, whether she struck out swinging or found her special somepony, was her situation to deal with, and at most I could offer advice about the workings of a stallion’s mind
  2395. >While I climbed the steps leading up to the brilliantly illuminated house’s porch, I thought about my own relationship and mistook my restless sighs for those of squeaking floorboards
  2396. >Storm Cloud and Sky Meadows, sensing my trepidation but nonetheless encouraging me to take the lead, stepped aside as I advanced to the base of the imposing front door
  2397. >With a deep breath, I read the sign posted on the door for a second… third time
  2399. >With weakly gritted teeth, I enveloped the door’s handle in my magical aura, causing it to momentarily glisten before its latch came undone with a faint click
  2400. >Nudging the barrier of dense wood aside, light spilled from within the house’s front room onto the front porch, prompting everypony present to briefly squint their eyes
  2401. >With the intrepid grit of an adventurer exploring a cave for its glistening treasure, I led my herdmates into the otherwise vacant front room of the house
  2402. >I hadn’t even finished gawking at the fancy molding, intricate staircase, and hardwood floors by the time a yellow stallion with a baseball cap appeared in the doorway of a neighboring room
  2403. >“Hey, how are you three doing this evening? Is it just your Pegasus friend who’s hurt?”
  2404. >Storm Cloud ruffled her feathers in indignation, quietly grumbling to herself before answering the remarkably upbeat medical pony
  2405. >“Yes, it’s uh… it’s just me. A quick once-over should be enough, no worries”
  2406. >“Sure thing, ma’am. Anything else I can do for you all?”
  2407. >I opened my mouth to speak, but as a warm exhale billowed from my lungs, no words came out amid a sequence of strained whimpers
  2408. >As Sky Meadows took notice of the jitters that had gripped me, from my trembling muzzle to the tail tucked between my legs, she spoke up on behalf of the solitary goal for which I’d arrived
  2409. >“We’d greatly appreciate it if you could lead this young stallion to wherever Snowfall is… They’ve… I mean, you could say… She’s been, uh, expecting him…”
  2410. >The stallion adjusted his baseball cap with a warm smile as he glanced into the roomy expanses behind himself
  2411. >“Aahhh, certainly! Well, I’m not treating any patients at this exact moment, and she really should be free, so definitely, I reckon I can bring you to her. One moment!”
  2412. >With a slight spring in his step, the stallion faded into the darkness of a long, slender hallway, finally disappearing behind a door at its end
  2413. >My heart hammered in my chest, the sound of vigorously pulsing blood rapidly consuming the lion’s share of what my ears could discern
  2414. >I tried to remind myself that it’d present a poor impression to Snowfall if I were to pass out in front of her because I forgot to breathe… Although, at times, it remained difficult not to forget…
  2415. >Just breathe, Gilded Sunrise… You’ll be okay if you just breathe… She loves you and wants nothing more than to be with you…
  2416. >With neither Sky Meadows nor Storm Cloud striking up any conversation, an oppressive silence hung in the air for twenty, thirty seconds before my ears perceived anything new
  2417. >Surprisingly, even with many of the ponies in the house apparently relaxing on the verge of sleep, I noticed an unfamiliar clamor that seemed to be… somepony’s agitated voice?
  2418. >“I don’t want to scare anypony off – it broke my heart! H-He deserved a hero’s welcome for… for what h-he d-did!”
  2419. >The lamentations were thickly muffled by the house’s construction, but as I swiveled my ears toward the staircase, I could definitely discern a pair of female voices somewhere upstairs
  2420. >“Daisy, you were just terribly worried for your ponies, and I’m sure he’ll turn up soon enough”
  2421. >“I know… It’s just that, at this point, I might never be able to properly apologize to him for what I did…”
  2422. >“If he doesn’t remember how much you scared him, what’s the problem?”
  2423. >One of the mares seemed to be audibly weeping, her cries wrenching at my heartstrings with more emotion than I’d braced myself to handle
  2424. >“Oh hayseed, forgiveness is about the pony giving it as much as it is the one receiving it! I’m not saying I’ll spend the rest of my nights reliving that, but I want to get it off my chest!”
  2425. >A brief pause ensued before the other voice softly chimed in
  2426. >“You’re a good pony, Daisy… Don’t ever try to tell yourself otherwise”
  2427. >“I do my best not to, but when-”
  2428. “Sky Meadows, I feel like I know that pony’s voice…”
  2429. >With the same rapid dissipation as a nocturnal group of animals beneath a floodlight, the voices upstairs dropped out, returning the house to silence save for a few ponies’ beating hearts
  2430. >“Uh… whose voice now?”
  2431. >My ears remained at attention, but for several seconds, there was nothing out of the ordinary to be heard
  2432. “I… Never mind, I could’ve sworn…”
  2433. >Sky Meadows swiftly spun her head toward the staircase as the bulky click of a door’s latch signaled the imminent approach of a pony from upstairs, even before hoofsteps could be heard
  2434. >A few moments later, the hooves and muzzle of a dainty unicorn mare poked down from the next floor, peering into the house’s front room from the staircase with slight unease
  2435. >She was blanketed in a mostly pure white coat, the fur flecked in a few spots with the lingering stains of what might’ve been blood? Red paint? Ketchup?
  2436. >As she spoke up with a slightly timid voice, I had a difficult time imagining that a diffident mare such as herself earned any apparent wounds in the midst of battle
  2437. >“O-Oh! I didn’t r-realize we had a… a new visitor here! I don’t know whether we’ve m-met… uh…”
  2438. “Gilded Sunrise. Are you Daisy? I think we met briefly; I know you’re very caring about your… our… herd, and I look forward to being a part of it!”
  2439. >With palpable relief from some nebulous source of anxiety, Daisy descended the steps and glanced briefly at me before averting her eyes toward a small notebook in the corner
  2440. >For a spilt second, its spiral-bound pages and distinctly colored cover bore an uncanny resemblance to a similar journal I saw after uprooting the drawer of Peter’s desk…
  2441. >Daisy’s horn sparked to life, retrieving a pencil from within journal’s wire coils, and swiftly flipping through the pages before settling on a slightly smudged sheet filled with aimless scrawling
  2442. >She bit her lip before flipping to a fresh page, leaving me with a glimpse of a cryptic identifier in terms of the capitalized phrase ‘TEAL PEGASUS STALLION W/ BLONDE HAIR’ in the margin
  2443. >Her writing remained unseen to my wandering eyes, but as her levitation toiled away, I could distinctly perceive her silently mouthing a few words such as ‘yellow,’ ‘orange,’ and ‘unicorn’
  2444. >A renewed sense of focus visibly settled over her antsy mind while she expeditiously scratched a few final words into the journal, before shutting it again
  2445. >As the noted floated back to their position in the room’s corner, Daisy’s gaze returned to meet mine
  2446. >“That’s what you’ve heard? That’s… uh… all you know about me?”
  2447. “I mean, I guess so… I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude and eavesdrop, but I did hear bits and pieces of your conversation upstairs, if that has… any bearing…”
  2448. >Daisy’s gaze sunk to the floor and she slowly walked up to me, tenderly setting a hoof on my shoulder as fresh tears began to form in her misty eyes
  2449. >“Sunrise… I know this might not make a lot of sense right now, but I need to apologize… from the bottom of my heart… you’ve been through so much and have been a… a shining example…”
  2450. “I just try to do the right things for my friends; that’s basically it. If this is a house for medical ponies, is… is it okay if I stay here for a week or two?”
  2451. >I peered at my surroundings anew, taking in everything from the house’s well-kept, clean interior to the stout row of bed frames filling a neighboring room
  2452. >For something apparently set up as a makeshift hospital in the apocalypse’s wake, it was impressive, and as I patted a hoof against my EMT pouch, I felt inadequate in everything but knowledge
  2453. “I brought some supplies of my own, and I, uh… I worked as an EMT for a few years. I guess I might be able to lend a hoof if you… need any help…”
  2454. >Daisy wiped a tear with her fetlock, faintly smiling with her deeply reddened eyes, their vivid palette betraying any attempt to veil the unicorn’s previous bouts of sobbing
  2455. >“You’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like, and we’d be overjoyed to have you. Myself, especially. After all, it’s not always sunshine and roses when we make friends. T-Thank you, Sunrise”
  2456. >As Daisy finished her thought, we each took notice of a set of hooves approaching from the hallway, and a moment later, light cascaded onto the stallion who had appeared in the doorway
  2457. >“Sunrise, your marefriend’s still toiling away in the supply room. Goodness knows I can shoo her from the patients, but she’s unassailable. I’ll show you the way”
  2458. >As I tried to wrangle my feelings of anxiety, perceived insensitivity, and every emotion in between, I allowed my facial expression to finally settle with lukewarm friendliness
  2459. >Steadily, my vision wandered over the three mares before me, their faint smiles suggesting encouragement where words didn’t do them justice
  2460. “I have to go, Daisy. I look forward to getting to know all about you and your story!”
  2461. >As I turned and started trotting down the hallway, I could’ve sworn I heard Daisy say something along the lines of ‘I don’t’ over my shoulder, but it was probably just an errant echo I misheard
  2462. >The end of the hallway opened up into a dimly lit room lined with two rows of three beds each, the soft mattresses of which provided plush sleeping arrangements for just as many ponies
  2463. >Some bore bandages around their legs or barrels, and one of them appeared to be a filly with a slight cough in addition to a head injury, but all shared the common thread of being fast asleep
  2464. >I treaded lightly, gently setting each of my hooves on the carpet with an overwhelmingly present fear that any step could rouse the ponies from the comforted curls in which they slumbered
  2465. >Nevertheless, as my hooves met the tile of a small kitchen a few moments later, the yellow stallion shut the door behind us and I breathed a sigh of relief that we’d traversed the gauntlet
  2466. >As he wavered his eyebrows up and down, the brim of his cap pointed toward an ajar door, beyond which I could hear the faint mumbling of a mare speaking to herself
  2467. >My heart raced as I caught a glimpse of her turquoise fur through the slender aperture of the door, the repurposed room’s light bulb causing artificial radiance to dance dreamily off her mane
  2468. >The well-stocked pantry – now converted into a storage room for a menagerie of medical supplies – offered an unexpected backdrop to the actress, her tail gently swaying in clear view
  2469. >She appeared to be unceremoniously hunched over a crate of supplies, with a small box in each of her hooves, and a clipboard in her telekinetic grip a few inches to the side
  2470. >While she continued to mutter numbers that may or may not have added up, it dawned on me that she hadn’t the foggiest idea of my presence in the house
  2471. >Before I even knew whether I was truly ready to approach her, the stallion aside me pulled open the door and urged me onwards through the doorframe
  2472. >Without turning around, the unicorn mare acknowledged the door’s movement, but kept her eyes unwaveringly fixated on the boxes before her
  2473. >“Hey, Comet, I thought we only had three boxes of the pad bandages, but as it turns out, we actually-”
  2474. >The unicorn mare trailed off as her boxes settled to the ground, momentarily encompassed in a shimmering orange aura
  2475. “H-Hi… Snowfall…”
  2476. >For a moment, all she did was straighten her spine and begin to tremble at the sound of a… a peculiarly familiar voice…
  2477. “It’s me, Gilded Sunrise… I hope this isn’t a bad time…”
  2478. >Following a moment of stunned silence, she dropped the clipboard from her telekinetic grip and spun around to face me with wide, shimmering eyes
  2479. >Before she had even completed her pounce in an impassioned move to hug me, tears were already racing down her cheeks and preparing to splash against the tile
  2480. >Once her hooves locked around me in a tight embrace, we both tumbled to the ground, a slight wince of pain going ignored as I returned her hug
  2481. >She buried her muzzle in the crook of my neck, loudly sobbing as a flood of her restrained emotions suddenly ruptured her dam of medically diffident composure
  2482. >“I was so worried about you… I was worried you’d leave and never come back… Or about how that bad man could’ve hurt you…”
  2483. >I caressed her back in the midst of our embrace brushing my hooves along her soft, supple fur
  2484. “I’m here, Snowfall… I’m here, and I’m here to stay this time…”
  2485. >My own tears flowed ceaselessly over my muzzle, steadily wetting the golden fur in concert with my soft, happy whimpers
  2486. >The clock in the corner of the pantry became irrelevant and time stood still, for in that moment, the only other thing in the world was Snowfall, while seconds… minutes… hours lost meaning
  2487. >Snowfall gently rocked the two of us, a slow swaying that mimicked the stately pendulum of a grandfather clock and, if nothing else, gave some sense to the passage of time
  2488. >While it remained difficult to perceive the clock’s steady march without glancing up, the yellow stallion still standing sentinel in the doorway didn’t shy away from doing so
  2489. >Once Snowfall and I had calmed enough to be coherent, he waited a few more minutes, cleared his throat, and spoke up with a warm, inviting voice
  2490. >“Snowfall, I know you pretty staunchly refused around sunset, but we still have the empty bedroom down in the furnished basement. We can take over from here if you two… you know…”
  2491. >After a few more seconds of staring dreamily into my eyes, Snowfall regretfully broke her eye contact with me and rose to her hooves, leaving me to roll onto my stomach
  2492. >Her voice faltered slightly and she was still actively wiping tears of joy from her eyes, but she remained lucid enough to string her thoughts together
  2493. >“A-Are you sure? Everypony’s going to be alright? You have enough medical ponies to help take care of them?”
  2494. >The yellow stallion gave a nod of affirmation
  2495. >“As I mentioned, we’ll work in shifts, and the best thing you can do is get some rest while it’s dark out. You can get back to it as early as dawn if you really feel that strongly”
  2496. >“Okay, I figure… you know… I’m just… I can’t help but worry about everypony, Typhoon Twist and Iron Bell especially…”
  2497. >When Snowfall mentioned the names of the two Pegasi who I’d worked so hard and taken such risk to save, my ears perked up and I hoisted myself to my hooves with a bit of turmoil
  2498. >The stallion responding, however, did so with a placid sense of calm, not only the kind that medical professionals put on to maintain a neutral air in the midst of bad news, but a true one
  2499. >His soft, genuine smile said more about his confidence in their well-being than a thousand words ever could
  2500. >“Snowfall, they’re just getting bedrest at this point. Again, they’ve both been stable for a few hours and will make full recoveries. Might take a bit longer for Typhoon, but she’ll be fine”
  2501. >Snowfall let out a sigh of relief, apparently releasing a breath that she’d been holding on to for quite some time
  2502. >“Right… I just… I wanted to be sure…”
  2503. >The stallion stepped a few paces forward into the room, stealing a few glances at myself and Snowfall before tenderly setting a hoof on the mare’s shoulder
  2504. >“Go, Snowfall. After all you’ve been telling us about this fellow, I won’t keep you one second longer. Right down the basement stairs, and it’s the door on the left”
  2505. >She didn’t respond at first, instead, vacillating her gaze between me and the doorframe leading out of the pantry, and remained deep in thought as the yellow stallion added one final note
  2506. >“Oh, and for what it’s worth, that room’s practically soundproof in case you two want to talk, or… or do… something…”
  2507. >Without a hint of indecision, Snowfall jabbed her haunches playfully into the side of my barrel, prompting me to sway with the sudden impact while her tail continued swishing about
  2508. >She didn’t delay another moment, swiftly thanking the yellow stallion as she led the way out of the room
  2509. >He tipped his cap in kind, shooting me a coy, supportive smile as I followed Snowfall’s dashing tail through the doorway
  2510. >Following her through the labyrinthine house, we passed a couple more mattresses in what was once a dining room, the two beds occupied by a pair of comfortably curled up Pegasi
  2511. >In the darkness of the room, tricks of the light seemed to persistently outline a few persistent splinters from the display case, their profiles appearing fixed in one of the Pegasi’s silhouettes
  2512. >Of course, once the herd had freed her, they swiftly did away with those dreadful artifacts, and now they persisted as nothing more than bad memories in her mind
  2513. >She had her legs in a pair of casts, and her wing was thoroughly bandaged, the blue feathers carefully tucked at her side in an envelope of padding
  2514. >Nevertheless, as our hoofsteps passed by and she gently mumbled for the Pegasus stallion slumbering enduringly at the foot of her bed, her voice was devoid of discomfort
  2515. >Her recently washed pink braid spilled over the edge of the bed, pointing towards her lover, his grey ears gently flicking aside a few strands of blue mane as he dreamed of his family
  2516. >After so much fear and heartache, they were finally together, and as delicate as the calmly snoozing group appeared, nothing would ever break them asunder ever again
  2517. >As Snowfall and I walked past, the colt in the other bed appeared healthier and brighter than I could ever remember
  2518. >Everypony in the house had meticulously and caringly washed away the crimson spots that once dotted his neck, leaving a plush coat of well-groomed grey fur and a pair of shimmering wings
  2519. >He practically appeared to glow, and did so in a slightly more literal sense as Snowfall telekinetically draped a blanket over his dozing torso
  2520. >Without stirring, he unconsciously murmured his gratitude, the soft quilt slowly rising and falling with each of his calm, unhurried breaths
  2521. >Snowfall’s muzzle was plastered with a contented smile as she proceeded out of the room, leading me to an unassuming doorway once she’d shut the Pegasi back into serene darkness
  2522. >After opening the basement door, a few soft bumps of hooves on carpet announced her descent down the stairs, briefly affording me a view of the elegant curves of her haunches
  2523. >There were so many things to love about Snowfall, from her spirit to her laugh to the way she cared about everypony else… but having a gorgeous body certainly worked in her favor too
  2524. >As the basement door became enveloped in a glowing orange aura, I shut it behind myself and descended the stairs eagerly, following her lead to the previously mentioned bedroom
  2525. >Its romantic radiance had been set low by the unicorn with the help of a dimmer switch, the subtle lamplight offering a calming atmosphere as it streamed over the bed and walls
  2526. >Snowfall guided me through the doorframe with her best impression of bedroom eyes, while the bags that framed her lower eyelids only did a little to dampen the charming effect
  2527. >She leaped onto the bed, disturbing the meticulously laid out covers whose plush presence was like a cloud floating in the middle of the cozy room
  2528. >With her magic working double time, she shut the door and wrapped my forehooves in an inviting blue glow, fondly tugging me in her direction
  2529. >As I joined her amid the sea of silky white sheets, she and I pulled them aside before slipping beneath the covers
  2530. >Only our smiling heads poked out of the blankets, the cheery mare encapsulating my view as her horn coolly shimmered to life, casting a blue glow over the pristine sheets
  2531. >The remaining rays of light in the already-dim room finally faded away which a bit of magic from Snowfall, leaving us in an enchanting air of darkness
  2532. >A subtle rustle of fabric accompanied the movement of her hooves, gently wrapping around my back as she snuggled closer and pulled us together
  2533. >Her lips tenderly met mine, locking into a loving kiss as my darkened vision filled with fireworks of pleasure and I returned the embrace
  2534. >Despite the newfound protrusion of my large, masculine muzzle proving to be a bit cumbersome, I reveled in the kiss, enjoying every moment with profound happiness and soft moans
  2535. >Snowfall gently shifted her muzzle, allowing her tongue to explore for a few seconds while she drew in a long, sensual breath through her nostrils
  2536. >As I did the same, I leaned deeper into the kiss, taking in the scents of the mare’s alluring body, her mane, a faint scent of cinnamon from some captivating source
  2537. >A couple gasps of bliss rocked my body, soon mirrored by Snowfall as she gently pulled her muzzle away from the kiss a few moments later and rested her head on the pillow
  2538. >“I love you, Sunrise…”
  2539. “I love you too, Snowfall…”
  2540. >My voice faded away as my eyes steadily drooped shut, the gradual relaxation of Snowfall’s embrace signaling that she was doing the same
  2541. >Our breathing and pulses slowed from their aroused states, two hearts gently thumping in tandem amid the sea of sheets and the warmth of each other’s embrace
  2542. >It had been a long day for both of us, and even so, there were a lot of unanswered questions I could be turning over in my mind
  2543. >Who are all the medical ponies Snowfall and I would be working with in the coming days? What kinds of injuries are we helping ponies recover from?
  2544. >When will Snowfall and I next find an opportunity to go out, maybe for a trot in the park or to dinner somewhere? When will she and I… uh… take our relationship a step further?
  2545. >On any other night, I might’ve expected to toss and turn for at least a few minutes while I pondered these answers, but worrying about the future seemed… trivial… at the moment
  2546. >As I nuzzled against Snowfall and drifted off to sleep, I told myself that there was plenty of time to answer these questions...
  2547. >We would have plenty of time to do so while we spent the approaching days together… We’d have plenty of time to do so while we spent the rest of our lives together…
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