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Broken Bluebird

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Oct 26th, 2015
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  1. Thread prompt: "Just pull the trigger, Anon. Just put an end to my misery once and for all." + Picture of Dash
  3. > "Just pull the trigger, Anon. Just put an end to my misery once and for all."
  4. > You lay panting, the sky-blue pegasus practically crushed beneath your weight.
  5. > Her wings splayed out, one bent at a painful angle.
  6. > The muzzle of your gun jammed beneath her jaw.
  7. > "Just fucking do it. I can't take this anymore."
  8. > She practically slams her jaw down onto the muzzle, tears pouring from her eyes.
  9. > Whether it's due to her emotions or the oozing bullet wound on her flank, you don't know.
  10. > "Come on!"
  11. > Her cries are tinged with frustration as your finger fails to tighten around the trigger.
  12. > "Just finish me off!"
  13. > You...
  14. > You laugh.
  15. > You break out in furious laughter, your head tilting back and eyes falling shut.
  16. "Oh, Dash."
  17. > You lean in again, sliding a finger beneath her chin.
  18. > The anger in her eyes has long since fled, replaced by a far more familiar fear.
  19. "Oh, you silly little pony, Dash. I'm not going to shoot you."
  20. > Your hand moves to grasp the steel collar fastened about her throat.
  21. > She tries to shrink back, but trapped underneath you there's barely any room for her to move.
  22. "You're far to valuable to me, Dash."
  23. > "F-fuck you-"
  24. > She actually tries to yank the gun from your hand, gripping it in her mouth to pull it away.
  25. > No idea how to she intends to shoot it, but she's becoming frantic now.
  26. > You pull the gun back with a painful screech of metal on teeth and haul her upright.
  27. > She's trying to flee now, hooves scrabbling uselessly on the floor.
  28. > At first she had tried to fly, but had quickly learned that a Pegasus with clipped feathers doesn't soar well.
  29. > "No! No, no, no! I won't go back to that! I can't!"
  30. "You will do whatever I order you to do, Dash."
  31. > You swat her across the wings, earning a delightful squeal.
  32. "Sooner or later you need to accept it: You are nothing but my slave now, and not even trying to get me to shoot you will change that."
  33. > She's full-on crying now as you drag her down the steps to her prison.
  34. > "N-no... I c-can't... can't live like this..."
  35. "That's because you still struggle, Dash. When you accept your place, this will become so much easier."
  36. > "I-I'm not a-"
  37. "Yes you are. You are mine, trapped and taken. Like it or not, that is the reality.
  38. > You are nearing a cage, the front open and waiting like the jaw of some monstrous beast.
  39. > It was barely large enough for Dash to be able to crawl in on her belly, and certainly gave no room for her wings to spread.
  40. > On the floor in front of it sat the heavy blindfold and earmuffs you would apply once she was secured in the cage.
  41. > Experience had taught of a certain natural reflex pegasi had when unable to find their way.
  42. > Almost instinctively their wings tried to open to find an air current on which they could ride.
  43. > When denied that ability and trapped in a tight, claustrophobic environment as well they went into a panic, thousands of years of instinct telling them they are about to crash.
  44. > Dash knows this too, also from experience with that cage.
  45. > It's why she's ceased all attempts to flee as you pull her to the opening, trembling heavily.
  46. > "N-no Anon, I'm sorry. Please don't put me in that again, Anon - please?"
  47. > She's mewling now, violet eyes begging you not to force her into the living hell that the cage will become.
  48. "No. You broke a lot of rules today, Dash; you can't just beg your way out of that any more than you can escape this by making me kill you."
  49. > Her pleading turns to sobs as you secure her in the cage and remove her senses of sight and sound.
  50. > Almost immediately you can see her wings reflexively open, then shut, then open again.
  51. > The first stage.
  52. > The second comes soon after: A sort of wiggling shuffle as she instinctively tries to blindly find her way to a nonexistant exit from this entrapment.
  53. > Soon her movements become frantic and fearful.
  54. > And then they cease entirely, except for a terrified shiver from time to time as a wing brushes against the bars.
  55. > Typically you didn't leave her in there for more than an hour or two.
  56. > But this had been an especially grievous violation of your rules.
  57. > Trying to escape in death was a desperate move on her part, but intelligent.
  58. > She knew how you'd react if ambushed.
  59. > think you'll leave her in there for 48 hours or so.
  60. > By the time she comes out, she should be more willing to listen to her master.
  61. > More able to accept her place.
  63. > Utlimately she stays in the cage for two and a half days.
  64. > Oh, you keep her watered and fed - though you aren't sure you could call the mush that you pour into her mouth to be 'food'.
  65. > Of course there is no set schedule to the feedings, or to when you hose her down to keep her sanitary.
  66. > No way for her to tell how much time had passed.
  67. > And of course blind and deaf as she was, there was no way for Dash to tell that you were coming.
  68. > The first hint she would get was the rough touch of your hand pulling her jaw open or the first splash of the hose against her coat.
  69. > You were like some kind of primitive god.
  70. > Rewarding with food and punishing with streams of icy water as you pleased, without any sense of logic or reason.
  71. > Most of the time she just spent trying to ignore the instinctual fear pressing down on her mind.
  72. > Sometimes she desperately threw herself against the bars of the cage, as if her body could break through the steel and out of the hell she had been placed in.
  73. > Sometimes she sobs and screams herself raw.
  74. > Sometimes she curled into a tiny ball and shivered in place until the next wave of fear hit her.
  75. > Any significant amount of sleep was rare.
  76. > Both because you interrupted her at entirely random hours and because any brush of her wings as she shifted unconsciously would trigger the deep-seated crashing reflex.
  77. > Every time she would jump awake, inevitably crashing into the close confines of the cage sending her mind into another spiral of instinct-driven dread of crashing.
  78. > Somewhere around the fifty-two hour hour mark she lost it entirely.
  79. > Huddled in on herself, she stopped responding entirely.
  80. > Even when you came to feed her, you practically had to hold her jaw up to keep her from choking.
  81. > The next morning you decide she's had enough.
  82. > Dash barely responds as you open the cage.
  83. > Even when you reach in to pull her out, she is limp against your hands.
  84. > Only when you lift her up into your arms does she respond at all.
  85. > "A-Anon? Is that r-really you?"
  86. > You've yet to return her senses of sight and sound, so all she can do is feel your hands on her sides.
  87. > You lift her onto your shoulder and she promptly latches tightly on to it.
  88. > "A-are you really here?"
  89. > Making a soft shushing noise even though you know she can't hear it, you reach up and gently rub the back of her head.
  90. > Dash leans in against you, pressing her cheek into your neck.
  91. > "I-I saw... I thought... I thought you were going to leave me there forever, Anonymous... I thought I was going to die..."
  92. > She's shivering again, her wings twitching furiously as she explores her newfound freedom once more.
  93. > Dash was always like this when she came out of her cage.
  94. > Docile, obedient.
  95. > Seeking any real physical contact,regardless of how humiliating she would find it later.
  96. > Anything to ward off that terrible feeling of perpetual falling she had suffered through.
  97. > Of course, usually you would have given her back her sight and hearing by then.
  98. > For now, though, the earmuffs and goggles remain in place as you carry her back up the stairway.
  99. > After two flights of stairs you arrive at your 'bedroom'.
  100. > It's a bit of an understatement:
  101. > For what hides beneath it, your home is a relatively modest, unobtrusive thing.
  102. > The bedroom, while not large or well-decorated, has ample room for a large bed and a desk for you to work at - all lit by several outsized windows to give plenty of light and air to the room.
  103. > You stop in front of the open door leading to a deck, pulling up a seat and settling in with a sigh.
  104. > On your shoulder, Dash twitches at the breeze flowing in through the open doorway.
  105. > She knows what that means:
  106. > She is close to open air, close to freedom.
  107. > But Dash also knows that she cannot fly - not with her feathers clipped.
  108. > You lean over, running a hand down her back.
  109. > As it passes between her wings they flex, unconsciously spreading as she drinks in the first real contact you have had in so long.
  110. > Pulling her down off your shoulder, you see that twin streaks have appeared from beneath the blindfold.
  111. > You reach up and gently brush the tears away.
  112. > Instantly Dash tenses again.
  113. > "I-I'm sorry, I know you said I shouldn't c-cry... I'm just... so h-happy to... to feel..."
  114. > You can see her struggling with the thought.
  115. > Wrestling with the idea that she was now so desirous of any physical contact that your mere touch could bring tears to her eyes.
  116. > That undeniable joy, weighed against the humiliation of knowing she was nuzzling her captor.
  117. > The one who had put her in that cage in the first place.
  118. > You brush her other cheek clean of tears and logic begins to catch up to instinct in her mind.
  119. > Logic that says she has just gone against your order again by crying.
  120. > Dash flinches back, wings snapping flat against her back as she curls her legs into herself.
  121. > "I-I'm sorry... I know you said not t-to cry... please, please, don't put me back in there..."
  122. > Without a word you pick her up, turning Dash so she rests across your lap.
  123. > You sharply rap your fingers across her snout.
  124. > It's a minor punishment you sometimes use for when she is only just out of line.
  125. > Without a pause, you reach down and start to rub her back.
  126. > You can feel the tension there, knots and strains built up from days spent huddles into a tiny ball.
  127. > The message to Dash is clear.
  128. > 'You are forgiven.'
  129. > She nuzzles her cheek into your arm again, tears beginning to flow unabashedly as she both laughs and cries in joy at not having to go back to the cage's hell.
  130. > "Thankyou, Thankyou, Thankyou, Thankyou!"
  131. > You pet her until her elation calms and she settles down into your lap.
  132. > Eventually, as the sun rises toward noon, you lift the earmuffs from her ears.
  133. > When the goggles do not follow, she lifts her head.
  134. > Blinded eyes searching as she tries to figure out what is going on.
  135. "Dash."
  136. > After so long hearing nothing - not even her own breathing - your voice is like a thunderclap to her.
  137. "Who am I, Dash?"
  138. > "Y-you're..."
  139. > Momentarily she hesitates.
  140. > Her stubborn prideful streak making one last desperate push.
  141. > It fails.
  142. > "You're my m-master. My owner."
  143. > A smile finds its way to your lips.
  144. "And who are you?"
  145. > "I-I'm... I'm Rainbow Dash... your obedient... slave... your bluebird."
  146. "So you are, my little broken bluebird. So you are."
  147. > You'd been told at first to take away her name.
  148. > That it would discourage her pride if she had her very identity taken away from her.
  149. > You disagreed.
  150. > Undoubtedly you could have worked your way into her mind more quickly if you had forced her to accept another name.
  151. > But making her to obey while still remembering who she was?
  152. > Ultimately it was far, far more humiliating for her to go through this like that.
  153. > It wasn't some other pony, some random slave of another name that was so desperate for attention she would cling to her captor as though her life depended on it.
  154. > It was Rainbow Dash, once the fastest pony in Equestria, Wonderbolts trainee, constant competitor, who never backed down.
  155. > That was who was soaking in your touch even as her mind screamed that you were responsible for the horror she had experienced.
  156. > And she could never forget it.
  157. "I'm going to leave the earmuffs off for now, Dash. You're going to stay here, in my room, waiting for me to return this evening. And when you do, you are going to greet me properly as a slave, do you understand?"
  158. > "Yes." A pause. "Yes, master."
  159. "Good..."
  160. > You give her a slight rub behind the ears - her head rocking back to press into it - and lift her off your lap.
  161. > The day ahead is barely out of routine for your activities.
  162. > Despite what some people - or ponies - might think, the daily life of a shipwrecked mastermind was not a a particularly exciting one.
  163. > You ate your breakfast.
  164. > You rechecked the security barriers for any anomalies - despite your very clear warnings on what further intrusions would mean, certain Alicorns had a frustrating tendency to try and penetrate your defenses.
  165. > You planned new extensions to your lair.
  166. > You designed new devices and contraptions to aid you.
  167. > You made sure the drone laborers were still functioning properly.
  168. > And, of course, you periodically watched your slave waiting in your room.
  169. > As expected, she has remained quite obedient - quietly waiting on your bed for your return.
  170. > Briefly she drifts off into a nap, catching up on the sleep she had missed so badly the past three nights.
  171. > But she soon awakens, and goes back to patiently waiting.
  172. > It's a statement on how much your punishment had affected her that the always-moving, notoriously impatient Rainbow Dash could make herself stay in one place for so long.
  173. > Amazingly, when you arrive from dinner that evening, she is still in place.
  174. > Empty plates from meals the drones had brought her sit off to the side, but Dash still sits on the center of your bed.
  175. > As she hears your boots on the wood, she springs up and faces what she assume to be the doorway.
  176. > She bows deeply, nose practically touching the bedding.
  177. > Her wings spread wide in a position of abject submission.
  178. "Good evening, Rainbow Dash. I'm pleased to see you followed my orders."
  179. > Her ears twitch at your voice, and she rises to face you again.
  180. > "Thank you, master."
  181. "Since you have been so obedient today, I think I will reward you.tonight. You will be sleeping inside with me."
  182. > She perks up excitedly.
  183. > "Thank you, master!"
  184. > On nights when she misbehaved, Dash was kept on a narrow ledge outside, her thick metal collar bolted securely to a ring in the outside wall.
  185. > So close to the freedom of the open air, yet the chain on her collar not long enough she could even throw herself off the ledge to her doom.
  186. > When she had been a good slave, however, you allowed her to join you in bed.
  187. > This time, however, there would be a catch.
  188. > As your slip into bed, pulling back the covers and sliding beneath, Dash cautiously creeps up beside you.
  189. > She's learned not to be so assuming about your intentions.
  190. > That your whims could turn cruel at a moment's notice.
  191. > It's a reasonable fear.
  192. > Dash tenses as she feels you grip her collar, coat rippling.
  193. > When the earmuffs again begin to slide over her head she begins to shiver in outright terror.
  194. > "Master? Anon?! I didn't - please d-don't - don't-"
  195. > You cut her off with one ear still uncovered.
  196. "Shhh. You won't be going back into the cage, Dash. You're just going to have to accept this overnight.
  197. > She trembles, but nods as you slip the earmuff down, again cutting off her only real sense of the outside world.
  198. > Of course, your reasons were somewhat different.
  199. > Deprived of her senses and snugly beneath the covers with you, Dash again begins to experience a minor form of the same panic the cage inspired.
  200. > This time, however, she can seek out some solid physical contact, some reassurance that she is safe.
  201. > That is, naturally, yourself.
  202. > Quickly Dash has locked herself around you in a tight embrace, slowly relaxing as your presence assures her mind.
  203. > Undoubtedly she cannot bear knowing you are the only thing keeping her sane.
  204. > But she cannot help clinging to you either.
  205. > You smile and embrace her in return as you drift off to sleep.
  206. > You know Dash is yours.
  207. > Your little broken bluebird.
  209. ------
  211. "Time to get up, Dash."
  212. > She stirs on your bed, yawning and rolling over.
  213. > One trait you never managed to work out of her system:
  214. > Dash is not a morning pony.
  215. "Last warning, Dash."
  216. > 'Warning' is a word she knows well.
  217. > It comes right before 'punishment.'
  218. > Instantly she's wide awake, pushing herself up.
  219. > "Okay, okay, I'm awake... good morning, master."
  220. > You reach over and calmly rub her between the ears.
  221. > As if you had not been threatening grievous harm moments earlier.
  222. "Good girl, Dash."
  223. > It's been a few days since the last incident.
  224. > Dash's punishment has stuck well, and she's been quite obedient.
  225. > As a result she's been increasingly sleeping inside with you.
  226. > After the third day you even let her keep her senses at night.
  227. > Surprisingly, she kept clinging to you.
  228. > The fear of being left alone again must have imprinted itself far more deeply on her mind than you had imagined.
  229. "Now, it's a very special day today. Do you know what it is?"
  230. > "No, master. What day is it?"
  231. > You lean in and whisper into her ear.
  232. "Today's the first of the month. That means you get to talk to your friends today!"
  233. > She rocks back away from you on the bed, eyes going wide.
  234. > Dash hates talking to her friends, because it means two things.
  235. > One, she has to be on her absolute best behavior.
  236. > Embarrassments will not be tolerated.
  237. > Two, she gets to be reminded of everything that you have taken from her.
  238. > Her friends, her town, her freedom.
  239. > Her flight.
  240. > This time, especially, it would be a particular test of how deeply her obedience ran.
  241. > "C-can I at least have breakfast first?"
  242. > You give her a warm smile.
  243. "Of course you can. I've never starved you, Dash. Go downstairs and get some food."
  244. > She trots off, looking glum.
  245. > You knew she wasn't that hungry, anyhow.
  246. > Just looking for some way to put off her appointment with memory.
  247. > An hour later finds you in one of the basement rooms.
  248. > Perfectly nondescript, and unused for any other purpose.
  249. > No chance of leaving out any sensitive information or helpful hints by accident.
  250. > Nothing except a large, plush chair set in the center of the room atop a thick carpet, a screen mounted to the opposite wall, and a camera above it.
  251. > Somewhere in Equestria there was a nearly identical setup, around with five other ponies would be gathering now.
  252. > You sink into the chair and pat your lap.
  253. "Come here, Dash."
  254. > She had slunk in behind you.
  255. > Every step dragged as she was inexorably draw towards the hated ritual.
  256. > You are becoming impatient.
  257. > A snap of your fingers, and she's instantly at your side, climbing into the chair.
  258. > You settle her down on your lap like a cat, facing the screen with you.
  259. > She takes a deep breath, trying to ready herself.
  260. > The screen comes on.
  261. > The room on the other side is likewise nondescript, except for the crystalline walls.
  262. > You never exactly did figure out exactly where in Twilight's castle it was.
  263. > Though you suspected it was, like yours, some otherwise useless room that served only this purpose.
  264. > That did not matter, though.
  265. > What did matter was the five ponies seated in the room, facing the screen on their end.
  266. > As their screen comes on, they all perk up.
  267. > Their reactions are varied.
  268. > Anger, sadness, joy at seeing their friend again -
  269. > All are evident on their faces.
  270. > Dash speaks first.
  271. > "H-hey, girls."
  272. > "Hey Rainbow." "Hallo, Dash." "Heya."
  273. > "H-how are you all doing?"
  274. > "We're fine, darling... we're... just fine. How are you faring?"
  275. > Dash hesitates for just a moment.
  276. > But her training runs deep.
  277. > "I'm okay... it's been better as of late..."
  278. > "He wasn't hurting you before, was he?!"
  279. > This time there's no hesitation in Dash's answer.
  280. > "No... no, he just wasn't being... as kind. Maybe he could have used to take a few lessons from Fluttershy, heheh?"
  281. > Her laugh is forced and awkward, as is the joke.
  282. > Despite Dash's words, she sounds nothing like the headstrong pegasus you had captured..
  283. > And nothing like the friend they once had.
  284. > They suspect, of course, but they cannot prove.
  285. > You just smile, quietly allowing your hand to rest on her back.
  286. > Her friends flinch at the casual contact.
  287. > One of them steps forward.
  288. > "Ya been eatin' okay out there, pardner?"
  289. > Dash nods more enthusiastically.
  290. > "Oh yeah. He's got lots of really cool baking things and sometimes he..."
  291. > That part, at least, she was not lying about.
  292. > Her diet had markedly improved once she started obeying again.
  293. > The conversation turns to more esoteric matters:
  294. > Lives of ponies you have never met.
  295. > The status of Dash's favorite performance team.
  296. > You can see her drink it up, the only real reminder she has of what her life once was.
  297. > But it's a bitter brew for Dash.
  298. > She can't help but enjoy it, even as she knows it is something she will not be going back to.
  299. > And even as she talks and talks, you can see her face dropping further and further as the memories of easier times come to the surface.
  300. > "Dashie...?"
  301. > The pink one steps forward.
  302. > "Just remember, please... whatever happens, don't forget to just... smile, sometimes, okay?"
  303. > Her own smile is pained and stretched.
  304. > You think she might be close to tears.
  305. > Dash nods, putting on her own strained smile.
  306. > "Yeah, Pinkie. I won't forget. Just smile."
  307. > "We'll... we'll always be here for you, Dash. Remember that."
  308. > "Uh-huh. Some of my birds are keeping your home all tidied up for when you get back..."
  309. > "And then we can throw you the biggest party ever!"
  310. > Dash's eyes start to water.
  311. > "I-I... thank y- uh, thank you, girls..."
  312. > The cause of her interruption was your hand.
  313. > It had slipped beneath her chin, running up to lift her head slightly.
  314. > To make sure her friends saw the metal collar still fixed around her neck.
  315. > To make sure they knew the 'welcome back' parties would remain just a dream.
  316. > They all flinch.
  317. "Well. This has been touching; however, we have business to get through with. Dash, if you would?"
  318. > "Of c-course, master."
  319. > She hops down from the chair, approaching the camera and then slowly walking in a long circle in front of it.
  320. "Princess Twilight. As you can see, she is physically unharmed and still quite sane. As such, I hope you are ready to accept that I have held to my end of the deal?"
  321. > Dash has stopped, and now spreads her wings one at a time to show them off.
  322. > Her yellow friend gasps softly at the sight of Dash's clipped feathers.
  323. > The princess, meanwhile was busy furiously staring at the screen on her end.
  324. > Probably searching for any excuse she could use to claim you had violated your end of the agreement.
  325. > At last she sighs.
  326. > "Yes, Anon, I accept that I can find no evidence of harm and that you have not injured Rainbow. As such, our deal is still in place, and we will not..."
  327. > It's hard for her to say.
  328. > "We will not attempt to attack your home."
  329. > We will not attempt to rescue our friend.
  330. > Dash's head is turned towards you, but it's only to hide her tightly squeezed eyes.
  331. > No doubt it was tearing her up inside to hear Twilight swear off any attempts to save her, on the basis of her own lies.
  332. > Of course you had other failsafes in place to prevent an attack
  333. > But this was the most powerful at keeping Twilight at bay.
  334. > She could not try to rescue Dash without forfeiting her friend's life.
  335. > Instead, you agreed to allow her enough access to be sure that you were causing no permanent physical harm to Dash or driving her insane.
  336. > And in return she agreed not to attack you.
  337. > In theory it was 'allow the situation to stabilize until we had both accepted each others' existence'.
  338. > In reality, you were having far to much fun with Dash to ever give her up.
  339. > By the time your agreement was ended, she would never think of leaving your side.
  340. "In that case, our business is concluded. I will leave you all to talk. You have a little over three hou-"
  341. > "Oh! Princess! You didn't tell me you were coming!"
  342. > You freeze.
  343. > There was only one princess that got Twilight so excited.
  344. > "Of course, Twilight. I didn't want to distract you while you were preparing to see your friend."
  345. > The warm, motherly voice flows from off-screen.
  346. > Your eyes narrow.
  347. > While Twilight was held at arm's length by your hostage and Luna far to direct to pose a threat to you, Celestia was another matter.
  348. > You held a healthy respect for the princess as a capable leader.
  349. > Holding a nation together alone for a thousand years was no small feat.
  350. > She was quite possibly the only creature on this planet capable of outmaneuvering you.
  351. > Even as her incandescent visage enters the frame, you straighten up and offer a small bow.
  352. "Princess Celestia. I had not realized you were to be attending."
  353. > Meaning, 'Why are you here?'
  354. > "Anonymous. I did not announce my intention."
  355. > 'I didn't want you to know.'
  356. "Ah, a surprise appearance - liking to keep your subjects on your toes, I see."
  357. > 'Your subjects. Not me.'
  358. > "Merely looking out for all of my subjects' well-being."
  359. > 'Including the ones you hold hostage.'
  360. "An honorable cause, when pursued properly."
  361. > 'Don't try anything, or you'll just be endangering her.'
  362. > "I am quite experienced in the task, of course."
  363. > 'I know. Don't test me either.'
  364. > Dash has backed off as the two of you exchange verbal barbs.
  365. "Well. Twilight has already accepted that our deal will remain in place; I presume you trust her judgement?"
  366. > "Indeed. I was merely hoping I could speak with Rainbow Dash myself?"
  367. "Of course! Please, do come and talk."
  368. > You give her a positively beatific smile and stand, walking over to Dash's side.
  369. "I'm going to head off for a bit now, Dash. You have a good chat with your friends, alright?"
  370. > You lean to whisper into her ear.
  371. "I'll be watching."
  372. > She manages to not shiver to badly at your threat, nodding.
  373. "O-okay, master."
  374. > On the screen, a brief grimace passes over Celestia's features.
  375. > Slavery, you understood, was one of her most hated things.
  376. > Unfortunate that your agreement was still in place, then.
  377. > Another overly-warm smile, and you are gone from the room.
  379. --------
  381. > Periodically you get visitors in your little home.
  382. > Mostly random ponies looking to beg a favor of some kind from the strange alien.
  383. > It's some kind of rule of the universe or something.
  384. > If you're going to be a reclusive, mysterious figure you're going to get pilgrims.
  385. > For the most part, you treat them fairly well.
  386. > You are barely tolerated by the princesses as it is; harming visitors would not be a smart choice.
  387. > Some of their requests are completely out of the realm of possibility, of course.
  388. > No, you can't bring back relatives from the dead or make someone fall in love.
  389. > But other, more minor ones?
  390. > Terms were negotiable.
  391. > Your guest today was already making her way up the mountainside towards you.
  392. > A griffon, you saw.
  393. > Interesting beasts; you didn't see a great number of those.
  394. > Probably because you'd crashed down in Equestria, across the sea from them.
  395. > This was one was determined, though, doggedly marching up the mountainside despite the harsh storm lashing the mountain range with rain.
  396. > She'd passed your outermost sensors around an hour ago, and was now turning up the final pass towards your home.
  397. > You had decided to invite her in for a meal.
  398. > You thumb down on the intercom.
  399. "Dash, I do hope dinner is quite ready?"
  400. > While the conversation with her friends had gone perfectly fine, it had set her in a foul mood.
  401. > A mood that eventually led to her shirking an order.
  402. > Of course she'd been quite apologetic when she realized, but you did not care to let it slip.
  403. > You'd been making her handle setting dinner, despite the drones being perfectly capable of handling it on their own.
  404. > Besides the obvious point of being forced to do something totally unnecessary, it had to balance the plates carefully between her wings.
  405. > Just another reminder that they would be used for everything but flying.
  406. > "Of course, master. Is there anything else you want...?"
  407. "No. When you are done, come up to our room while I do my business."
  408. > "Yes, master."
  409. > A pity.
  410. > She'd been doing so well as of late too.
  411. > Well.
  412. > Time to put on your show.
  413. > You slipped on a suit and headed for the door.
  414. > Still watching the camera feed from outside as the sodden griffon dragged itself up to your door.
  415. "Three, two, one..."
  416. > You throw the door open just as it had raised one taloned claw to knock.
  417. "Good evening. You've traveled quite far, and in such terrible weather. Won't you please come in?"
  418. > The griffon stared up at you from beneath her hood, beak half-open in surprise.
  419. > "I, er... uh... yeah. Yeah, I can."
  420. > You stepped aside to allow the griffon - a she, you had decided, based on the voice - step in.
  421. > A drone swoops down to take her cloak.
  422. > She regards it suspiciously with one golden-yellow eye, but hands the sodden garment over in the end.
  423. > Then she shakes herself furiously.
  424. > You had not been expecting that.
  425. > Leaning back to avoid the shower of drops, you can't help but hide a smirk as she stretches out.
  426. > "Aaaaah, that's much better."
  427. "Indeed. I'm sure you've come to me with some particular matters to discuss, but might I interest you in a meal at the same time?"
  428. > Now it is the griffon's turn to look caught off guard.
  429. > "Uh, yeah. I guess. Not to much of any of that green stuff, right?"
  430. "Of course not. You will find we share similar diets in that respect, Miss...?"
  431. > "Gilda. And good, that stuff is for losers."
  432. > You lead her through your home to the dining room.
  433. > On the surface it is relatively modest, although well-lit compared to the drenching night outside.
  434. > It's obviously thoroughly freaking 'Gilda' out.
  435. "So, Miss Gilda... were you expecting me to be... different, yes?"
  436. > "Uh, yeah, I guess... can ya quit it with the miss stuff, though? Makes me sound like some fancy-schmancy lame-o pony noble or something."
  437. "Of course. I can assure you I can be quite the host as well, and this night is not one for traveling."
  438. > She is slowly relaxing.
  439. "Ah, speaking of which, here we are..."
  440. > Dinner went surprisingly well.
  441. > Gilda had practically jumped the table the second she saw the freshly-cooked meat laid out on it.
  442. > While she had her fill, you paced yourself.
  443. > Best to keep your mind sharp for the business that would follow.
  444. "So, Gilda. No one comes out here for simple reasons. Everyone has a request. Since you've made it this far, I presume you've heard of my cost - so, why don't you tell me what you are looking for?"
  445. > "Uh, yeah...."
  446. > She was curled catlike on her seat now, eyes half-closed.
  447. > Propping herself back up, she looks away again as she starts to speak.
  448. > "So, I had this friend a long time back... she was sorta cool... and sorta dumb... but mostly cool. We had a big argument, and I ran away..."
  449. > "So, after thinking a while, I realized... I was kinda dumb back there, so I wanted... I wanted to go back and make it up to her, okay?"
  450. > She says it like just mentioning the idea of admitting wrong is some kind of deep personal failing.
  451. > Presumably she wants you to be the one to reconcile the two of them somehow.
  452. "I have to warn you, Gilda. I cannot change minds, especially without meeting this friend of yours."
  453. > "Huh? No, I ain't gonna ask you to go talkin' to her. That'd be lame anyhow... I just want to know where she is."
  454. > Oh.
  455. > This, you could work with.
  456. "Ah, well. I presume you tried to locate her own your own already?"
  457. > "Yeah... she wasn't there anymore. All her dumb friends were, but they wouldn't tell me where she'd vanished off to. Some of the others said she'd gotten into some trouble - but wouldn't tell me anything more."
  458. "I see. Well, in this case, I can help you."
  459. > You might not have magic, but what you did have were the computers salvaged from your vessel and a vast information gathering network.
  460. > Not even the Equestrian royal scribes could crunch data so fast, or gather it so widely.
  461. > You traded information, and were paid in favors.
  462. "Here is how this is going to work, Gilda. I will try and locate this friend of yours. Assuming I can reasonably find out where she is, I will tell you on one condition."
  463. > "Yeah?"
  464. "I will give you a package. It will be dropped off in a general area and left alone. You will not look inside it or take it anywhere else."
  465. > She is giving you a strange look now.
  466. > "What do I look like, an earth pony?"
  467. "You look like you have wings and enough strength to carry a package like this."
  468. > Her pride is suitably tickled, and perks back up again.
  469. > "Heck yeah, I can carry it!"
  470. "Good. Your friend. What's her name?"
  471. > "Rainbow Dash. She's, uh... a pony. Blue coat, real crazy mane, all kinds of colors. Last I knew she was living in a place called Ponyville. We went to flight camp together, back in, uh - hey, are you okay?"
  472. > You couldn't help it.
  473. > You had started to laugh.
  474. "Please excuse me, Gilda. This is... quite a surprise. Of all the things that someone would come to me for, this is not one I expected."
  475. > "You know her then?"
  476. > In response, you just tap the comm on.
  477. "Dash, do come down to the dining room. There's someone here who wants to see you."
  478. > Gilda jerks up in surprise.
  479. > "She's here?!"
  480. > Her answer comes in the form of hooves furiously pounding down the stairs.
  481. > Poor, sweet Dash.
  482. > She must think one of her circle of pony friends has come to visit.
  483. > All eyes turn to the door where Dash has just appeared and promptly frozen, her mouth half-open.
  484. > "G-Gilda?!"
  485. > "Dash?!"
  486. > Both are staring at each other in shock.
  487. > Dash recovers first, snapping out defensively.
  488. > "What the hay are you doing here?"
  489. > Gilda jerks back as if struck.
  490. > "What am I doing here?! I was looking for you! What the hay are you wearing?"
  491. > Dash flinches, her head sinking backwards to try and hide the collar.
  492. > "Don't wanna talk about it." she mutters unhappily, staring pointedly into the floor.
  493. "Come here, Dash."
  494. > She makes her way to your seat, staring up at you in apprehension.
  495. > You pat your lap, but receive only a subtle, pleading shake of Dash's head in reply.
  496. > She really doesn't want to be seen like this in front of her 'friend'.
  497. > You merely reach down and lift her into your lap with a grunt.
  498. > She goes stiff, no doubt in part because she knows that there is going to be a price to pay for failing to obey immediately.
  499. > Gilda, meanwhile, has actually managed to look even more shocked at the sight she is seeing.
  500. > "Wow, Dash, I mean I know we were friends and stuff, but you -really- like the exotic ones, don't you?"
  501. > Dash twists her head to stare at Gilda again, flushing bright red.
  502. > "And a collar too? I mean, wow - I would not have guessed you were one to like that."
  503. > "What?! What're you talking about, I'm not-"
  504. > She clams up, realizing that denying a relationship would force her to explain her actual state.
  505. "Actually, she did a very brave thing, Gilda."
  506. > The griffon looks up at you with a smirk.
  507. > "Finally admitted how she was feelin' inside, huh? I can see why her friends wouldn't want to tell me that."
  508. > "No! I'm not some kind of pervert, you little -"
  509. > "Seriously, Dash. It's not so bad. I mean, it's freaky, but that's not the worst thing I've-"
  510. > Rainbow wriggles uncomfortably in your arms, shaking her head.
  511. > "No, it's not that. I'm-"
  512. > "I even know a couple of griffons I'm fairly sure are doing some nasty things when nobody can see them."
  513. > "I'm a bucking prisoner, Gilda!"
  514. > The room is silent in the aftermath of Dash's outburst.
  515. > You frown. Bad Rainbow; you'd hoped to keep the joke running a little longer.
  516. > Gilda's been shocked into silence, her beak hanging half open.
  517. > "W-what? How - that's - but you can fly! You were the second fastest back at camp!"
  518. > Rainbow curls in on herself again; her clipped wings are a very painful point to her.
  519. > But she messed up the fun you'd been having.
  520. "Show her your wings, Dash."
  521. > Her head rocks back to again stare pleadingly up at you, begging you not to.
  522. "Show her your wings, Dash."
  523. > Her head rocks back to again stare pleadingly up at you, begging you not to.
  524. > Your gaze is hard and unrelenting, and Dash wilts beneath it.
  525. > Slowly, apprehensively, she spreads both wings and lets them hang half-open at her sides.
  526. > Not far, but enough to show the clean line of carefully-made cuts where the tips of her feathers ought to be.
  527. "As I said, she did a very brave thing. I would need to keep someone around to make sure nobody comes after me, and Dash left her friends so that they could be safe."
  528. > It was more that she was the only one dumb enough to charge you head-on without magic, but that wasn't important to tell.
  529. "Since then, she's been a most agreeable guest... and most obedient, after a few lessons."
  530. > Gilda's face is shifting from shock into horror.
  531. > "What have you done to her? She - Dash, are you - are you okay in there?"
  532. > Rainbow folds her wings back against herself, turning her head away from Gilda.
  533. > The griffon hops down from her chair, taking a few steps towards you.
  534. > "Dash, you don't have to hide from me... I'm not pissed, I..."
  535. > Her gaze locks on you, eyes narrowed.
  536. > "What the hell did you do to her?! She's... gone! She never acted like this."
  537. "I made her obedient. If I am going to bother keeping her around, I can't take the risk of having her act out or injure me."
  538. > "You..." Gilda snaps her beak shut, shaking her head. "You're fucking with me, right? This is... some kind of a joke! Why doesn't anyone-"
  539. "Because what I do to her now isn't really that bad. If I were attacked, though, her safety might seriously be at risk."
  540. > Gilda takes a moment to process what you are saying.
  541. "You're a nutjob, you know that? You can't deal with the consequences of what you've done, so you hide behind her? That's low."
  542. > Very honor-driven, the griffons.
  543. > But not dumb.
  544. "It keeps both of us safe."
  545. "It keeps both of us safe."
  546. > You run your hand through Dash's mane; she doesn't even bother moving beneath you despite how uncomfortable it must be making her.
  547. > Gilda's claws are squeezed into little balls, but she's doing an admirable job of keeping herself calm.
  548. > "Buck-"
  549. "Since you are obviously displeased with this result, and I did not have to expend any time or resources on your request, I will not demand your payment. However."
  550. > You stand up, Dash managing to catch herself on her hooves before she crashes to the floor.
  551. "If you are even thinking of trying any 'rescue' attempts - any plans forming in your head right now - do not think you are the first one to try and cross me for some reason. Do not think I cannot defend myself."
  552. > Gilda looks back to Dash, who has retreated to the farthest corner of the room.
  553. > "Rainbow, I..."
  554. > "Just go!" Dash's voice is shaky. "Just go. Don't do anything for me - he'll just hurt you."
  555. "Indeed. If you cannot keep yourself from doing something stupid, your best bet is to simply leave."
  556. > Gilda tenses herself, her wings flexing.
  557. > "Yeah. Maybe I better buckin' do that."
  558. > She turns and stalks out, tail lashing.
  559. > You stand, showing her to the door.
  560. > The storm outside has subsided somewhat, and Gilda pauses to give one last look back into your home before padding away into the night.
  561. > You'll have to keep an eye on that one.
  562. > Dash, on the other hand...
  563. > The moment you step back into your room, it's obvious she's in a bad state.
  564. > She's rolled herself into a ball and almost seems to be trying to cover her face with her tail.
  565. > Not even the chats with her friends affected her this badly.
  566. > Reaching down, you lift Dash up into your arms.
  567. > She immediately looks up, your contact having broken her out of whatever fugue she had been in.
  568. > "A-no- Master? Did I-"
  569. "Shhh."
  570. > You roll her on her back and start up a flight of stairs to your second floor, where your room resides.
  571. > Dash shifts uncomfortably, always having disliked being carried like that.
  572. > To babying, she said.
  573. > "Am I in trouble, master? I didn't follow your orders...."
  574. "No, you didn't - and you will have to be punished for this."
  575. > She shivers lightly.
  576. "But you did obey in the end, and so it will not be to bad."
  577. > She pauses, trying to work over how she should respond to this.
  578. > "Thank you, sir?"
  579. > Her tone is still unsure, but you approve.
  580. "Indeed."
  581. > You arrive in your room, setting her down on your bed.
  582. > Promptly she rolls right-side up again, looking up at your with nervous expectation.
  583. > You just take a seat beside her.
  584. "Show me your wing, Dash."
  585. > Cautiously she extends one sky-blue wing to you, allowing you to take it in hand and gently guide it out until it is fully extended.
  586. > Leaning in, you begin to work through her feathers - straightening each fully-grown one and checking it with a slight tug to make sure it is not loose.
  587. > As soon as she realizes what you are going to do, Dash gives an unusually high yelp and buries her face in her hooves.
  588. > You just smile and keep working.
  589. > This was one of your favorite things to do when you needed to have a talk with Dash.
  590. > She couldn't very easily pull away with her wing in your hand, and your preening efforts had quite an effect on her.
  591. > From what you understood, it was the equivalent of a highly sensual massage.
  592. > And to a pegasus, giving one without consent was quite a social breach.
  593. > You had simply forbidden her to preen except for having you do so.
  594. > Another way to make her reliant on you.
  595. "So, Dash. Tell me - why was talking to that griffon so hard for you?"
  596. > "...wasn't talking that was bad, master."
  597. > Her voice is muffled, as she's kept her face firmly planted between her forelegs to hide the effects of your efforts.
  598. "Oh? Being there, then. Obviously it hit you pretty hard."
  599. > "...she was an old friend. From before Ponyville. We, uh... we competed pretty hard. At flying."
  600. "Ah. I see... so you were embarrassed to let you see her flightless?"
  601. > "Yeah... that, and, well, back then I was always acting real tough. I mean, I still am real tough! But I acted a lot more back then."
  602. > You chuckle at her false bravado, moving on to the next row of feathers.
  603. > "So, uh... yeah. It wasn't cool at all, letting her see me- eep!"
  604. > Grinning, you set aside the loose feather you had pulled free and move on to the next.
  605. "Please, continue?"
  606. > "Well, uh, yeah. Was pretty lame to let her see me like this."
  607. "She said you had a big argument the last time you spoke."
  608. > Dash gives a slight groan of frustration.
  609. > "She told you all that, huh? Yeah, she came around me home - uh, my old home - and started acting real grumpy that I had made some new... friends..."
  610. > She trails off at those words.
  611. > You stand, shifting to her opposite side and taking the unchecked wing in hand.
  612. > Dash scoots away at you manhandling of her wing, but doesn't protest.
  613. "And yet she came to try and find you."
  614. > A brief silence holds, punctuated only by slight noises and involuntary wriggling from Dash every time you re-align or remove a twisted or loose feather.
  615. "Did you know, she didn't know you were here and wanted me to find you?"
  616. > "She did? Really?"
  617. "Indeed."
  618. > "Wow... that's... she must've really wanted to make up. That's... kind of cool of her, actually."
  619. "Well, I hope you understand that just acting tough - or even being tough - are not all that matters now."
  620. > "Oh yeah... my friends taught me that."
  621. "Good. Speaking of which."
  622. > You've reached the end of her wing, and now stretch out on the bed beside Dash.
  623. > One arm is raised, and Dash cautiously moves over to join you.
  624. > "Master?"
  625. "Yes, come here, Dash. You did disobey me, and I did have to punish you for that... but you also faced down a difficult situation, and managed to obey me - even if a bit slowly."
  626. > "Y-yes, master."
  627. "And that's worth a reward. So please do come over here."
  628. > She settles back down in the crook of your arm, eventually resting her head on the side of your chest.
  629. > "Thank you, master."
  630. "You earned it."
  631. > You rest your hand on her head, stroking slightly.
  632. > Unlike before, now that it is just the two of you and Dash is not so self-conscious, the gesture is somewhat comforting.
  633. > She ruffles her wings slightly, letting them settle somewhere more comfortable.
  634. > "Master?"
  635. > Some time had simply passed along silently, you absentmindedly stroking Dash's mane while staring out the widow into the forest beyond your home.
  636. "Yes, Dash?"
  637. > "Why do you do this?"
  638. " what, exactly?"
  639. > "Be... nice to me? Why not just... put me in a cell, if all I'm doing is keeping Twilight away from you? Why not just punish me if all you are doing is making me your... slave, or something?"
  640. > You sigh softly.
  641. "Because just appearing tough all the time is not the point, just like you said. Fact is, I care about you. Like you, even. Yes, I will keep you in line when you step out... but I can't do just that."
  642. > Running your hand down a bit, you start scratching her withers lightly, feeling the well-developed muscles there.
  643. > Even as your captive, Dash has not forgotten about her exercise.
  644. "If I just... brutalized you all the time, well. You might obey me, but never because you'd understand that I am caring for you as well."
  645. > "O-oh..."
  646. > You continue to stroke, working your way down to her flanks.
  647. > "Um... well, thanks, I guess. For not... just being mean all the time."
  648. > You grin, eyes sliding closed.
  649. "You're welcome, Dash."
  651. --------
  653. > Another day.
  654. > Seems you fell asleep in your clothes last night.
  655. > Considering the warm, softly breathing mass still curled against your side, it's not hard to imagine why.
  656. "Good morning, Dash."
  657. > She stirs slightly, rolling over and burying her head further beneath the covers.
  658. > Heh.
  659. > You reach down and rub between Dash's ears; she makes a soft little noise and starts to nudge her head back up into your hand.
  660. > Grinning slightly, you move on to lightly scratch one ear, running your fingertips through the velvety-soft fuzz covering it.
  661. > Dash offers a small flick of the ear in return, tilting her head to offer it to your hand.
  662. > "S'feels'oodom."
  663. > you have no idea what she just said.
  664. > But the face she is making is just to amusing to stop.
  665. > You continue scratching, using all your fingers.
  666. "What'd you say, Dash?"
  667. > Her response is still mumbled, but rather more coherent.
  668. > "Said, this feels good, Mo-"
  669. > Her eyes fly open as she realizes who she is speaking to.
  670. > Not her mother.
  671. > It takes a moment, but Dash soon stretches out and lays her head back down on you, closing her eyes again.
  672. > "It feels good."
  673. "...did you just call me your mother, Dash?"
  674. > She flushes bright red.
  675. > "...did n-"
  676. > Her mind catches up with her mouth, and she stops the lie before it can escape.
  677. > "-nyyyyeah. I did. She, um... she used to... do that sometimes for me whe I was a filly, to wake me up."
  678. > You laugh softly, resume the scratches.
  679. > If it upsets Dash that you've accidentally mimicked her parent's actions, she doesn't show it.
  680. > Instead her mouth settles into a happy little smile that lets you know you've done well.
  681. "You're in a good mood this morning, Dash."
  682. > "...I slept well."
  683. > She doesn't comment on why, but it isn't hard to guess.
  684. > She always sleeps soundly when granted actual contact with a living being.
  685. > Probably made her feel less alone.
  686. > "Anon? Master?"
  687. "What is it, Dash?"
  688. > "Um, I was thinking... about something after last night?"
  689. > Could be good, or bad depending on what she was thinking on.
  690. "Well, go ahead then."
  691. > "Um, I was just wondering... if you, um... well, you said you cared for me, right?"
  692. > She's obviously nervous, well aware she is treading on dangerous territory.
  693. "Yes?"
  694. > "So, um... look, I know you can't just let me go, but, um... could I maybe go outside some time?"
  695. "Outside?"
  696. > "Yeah! Not far or anything, but, um... like, just far enough to maybe jog around a bit? I'm, um, it gets kind of boring in here."
  697. > Occasionally you let Dash out on an upper balconies.
  698. > The threat of a fall she couldn't simply fly away from typically kept her suitably away from the edge, but she is asking for a lot more.
  699. "I will think about it, Dash. When I feel I can trust you, I might be willing to let you out. That's not a promise, though."
  700. > It doesn't have to be.
  701. > Even your vague offer is enough to send Dash into an excited little wriggle.
  702. > "Ooooh, yesyesyes! Thank you, master! Thank you!"
  703. > Laughing at her enthusiasm, you run a hand down to scratch at the back of her neck.
  704. > She rolls her head back into it, wings twitching in joy.
  705. "I expect your best behavior if you want to do that, though, Dash."
  706. > "Yeah, I can do that! Rainbow Dash does not back down from a challenge."
  707. > Especially one with a reward like that.
  708. "Well then. Why don't you start by going and bringing my breakfast back up while I take a shower, hrmmm?"
  709. > Dash hops down from the head, a slight spring in her step and flick in her tail as she trots out from your room.
  710. > ...well. This certainly could be a valuable reward from the way she is reacting to it.
  711. > You'd have to be extremely careful about security, make sure nobody was around.
  712. > But from the way she reacted?
  713. > This is something Dash wants very, very badly.
  714. > You resolve to think it over as you step into the shower.
  716. --------
  719. > Your head shoots up.
  720. > Proximity alarm. Someone is approaching your home.
  721. > You flip the alarm off, closing your current project and bringing the security net up on screen.
  722. > Staring heavily at the screen, you note the contact it displays.
  723. > One pony, berift of horn or wings.
  724. > Bringing several camera feeds up, you study the figure closely as it - he, from the heavier build - makes his way up the mountainside.
  725. > Something strikes you as wrong, though.
  726. > You strain your eyes, trying to figure out what it might be...
  727. > His saddlebags.
  728. > They're far to small for a pony who had trekked up the mountain on his own.
  729. > Most of your travelers - like Gilda, now a week back - opted to make camp somewhere nearby and approach you from there.
  730. > Some came to your door with everything they could carry, but that was rarer...
  731. > This one, though?
  732. > His pouches were tiny, barely enough to carry a full day's food.
  733. > Nowhere near enough for hiking up a mountain.
  734. > Squeezing down the map for a moment, you look for any other recent activity in the area.
  735. > Anything that would explain where he came from.
  736. > But there is nothing.
  737. > If he has made camp, it is well outside of the sensor clusters you had your drones lay.
  738. > Again looking back to the figure, you frown.
  739. > Something is quite odd here.
  740. > And honestly, it's making you curious.
  741. > With a flick of your fingers, you send a pair of drones to shadow him as he approaches.
  742. > Time to see what is going on here.
  743. "Dash!"
  744. > You find her upstairs, breathing heavily amid exercise machines you had brought up mostly for her.
  745. > "Master? Is something the matter?"
  746. "We're going to have another guest soon, Dash. When they come, you are to go down into the basement and let the door lock."
  747. > "Master?"
  748. > That got her attention.
  749. > Dash knows you only order her into the basement when you thought that there was a truly worrisome guest coming.
  750. > It kept her safe.
  751. > The basement was far more securely built than your 'public' house.
  752. > It would take a determined enemy indeed to dig Dash out of the basement.
  753. "You heard me. Same deal as normal - you go down there, I'll come get you when things are clear."
  754. > "Okay, Master. Um... if I can ask, who is it?"
  755. > She probably wanted to know if it was someone she knew.
  756. > Sorry, Dash. Your princess friends aren't the only ones who can make me nervous.
  757. > The look your give her adequately communicates that she will not be getting an answer.
  758. > Dash shrinks back. "Sorry, master!"
  759. "Just get down there."
  760. > She shoots off without question, launching herself down the stairs.
  761. > You wait until the basement door closes after her with a thud before returning to your screens.
  762. > The figure is still steadfastly making its way up the mountainside to your home.
  763. > ...strange...
  765. > By the time the visitor arrives, you have had plenty of time to observe them.
  766. > A reasonably well-built earth pony stallion, brown coat and blackish mane and tail.
  767. > Mark was just two hammers, a symbol that could mean anything.
  768. > Entirely unremarkable.
  769. > Which is why you are even more concerned.
  770. > He had marched doggedly up the slop while barely taking any moments to rest.
  771. > Pushing himself like that is not something the typical stallion did, or was capable of doing.
  772. > Not unless they had a history of mountain climbing or something.
  773. > Or military service.
  774. > Unlike with Gilda, you choose to make him come to you.
  775. > The front door slides open under the touch of his hoof, but you are not there to greet him.
  776. > Instead he makes his way slowly into your home, finding his way through the doors you have allowed to remain open.
  777. > When he enters the meeting room, you are waiting.
  778. > No meal has been set out this time; instead you sit alone at the end of the elongated table that dominates the room.
  779. "And who might you be, then?"
  780. > His head whips around to center on you.
  781. > "Forge Strike, sir."
  782. > He offers a clumsy half-bow.
  783. > You shake your head.
  784. "Don't do that. I'm not a prince or a king."
  785. > He straightens up, but shows no signs of embarassment.
  786. > "I've come to ask something of you."
  787. "I rather figured. Do please come sit down?"
  788. > All but one of the chairs in the room was built for a quadruped body, leaving no question as to which was yours.
  789. > He takes one of the two closest to you.
  790. "You've heard my cost?"
  791. > "Yes."
  792. > It's a simple answer, given unwaveringly.
  793. > He knows what he is dealing with.
  794. "Well then. What is your request?"
  795. > "I need to get in to Canterlot."
  796. > You raise one eyebrow.
  797. "That is it?"
  798. > He nods, once.
  799. > "There's someone there I need to see. She, um... they don't want me to be there. And none of the other smugglers will help."
  800. "If they're not helping, then you're not just merely someone with a restraining order from a filly you want to see."
  801. > He nods.
  802. "Are you going to give details?"
  803. > "I messed up rather badly the last time I was there."
  804. "That's not terribly helpful."
  805. > "...okay, look - someone rather powerful is angry at me, and I need to-"
  806. "So you hike up the mountainside to see if I can find a way to get you in?"
  807. > He nods.
  808. "I will help you..."
  809. > Forge Strike perks up.
  810. "...when you tell me the whole story."
  811. > Forge pauses, and hangs his head.
  812. > "Look, uh... it's kind of embarrassing, and I'm not going to hurt anyone-"
  813. > Except maybe for hurting the marriage of whoever he had been smooching.
  814. > "-so if you could just get me into the city to talk to her once, I'd really appreciate it."
  815. "All details, Forge. I don't do favors to people who won't tell me the truth.
  816. > "It was Stalwart Shield's wife."
  817. > Your eyebrows go up.
  818. > Stalwart Shield was the new marshal of Canterlot, since Shining Armor had run off to his little crystal city.
  819. > A dedicated soldier, and utterly impossible for you to get any favors out of.
  820. > "Here, um, take a look-"
  821. > Forge Strike fishes about in his meager saddlebags, withdrawing a pair of lockets that he dangles from his mouth to you.
  822. > Taking it, you pop it open to find the pictures within.
  823. > One is his, the other a mare.
  824. > Out of sight of Forge, you pull up the image of Stalwart's wife on a small screen before you.
  825. > Definitely her.
  826. > ...heh, if it rustles Stalwart a bit to do this, you might actually enjoy it.
  827. "Tell me your whole story, from the beginning, and I will agree."
  828. > "Is that your cost?"
  829. > You shake your head.
  830. "No. That will come later. I want to know if your story stands up."
  831. > Forge Strike seems to think it over carefully, but eventually gives in and nods.
  832. > "So, I was actually in the guard for a while - heh, look at me now - and that's when I met her. I was guarding a party one night that Stalwart was attending..."
  833. > You knit your fingers as he starts to tell his story, trying to spot any differences or inconsistencies in the tale he told.
  834. > There aren't any, though, and if he's a soldier he's also the world's best-acting soldier.
  835. > It definitely effects him to talk about what he'd had with Stalwart's wife.
  836. > " gave all the guards an unofficial order to keep me out of Canterlot. They know me from when I was in the guard; if even one of them see me, it'll all be over. I was just hoping you could help me get back in?"
  837. > Now reasonably certain his tale is honest, you set your mind on thinking of a way to get him past the guards.
  838. > It figured he'd been forced to come to you - smuggling small items in or out of Canterlot was one thing; smuggling in an entire pony, and one the guard was already angry with, is another.
  839. "I believe what you request will be possible. My cost will be this: While you are in Canterlot, you will drop off a package at a given address. Do you understand?"
  840. > "Yes."
  841. "Good. Go to the town of Croxton's Pass - it's not a three-day walk from here - and wait there for a train in four days' time. I will arrange for someone to have someone ready to take you in."
  842. > "You are certain it will work?"
  843. "I did not build this reputation by failing."
  844. > "Good. Then..."
  845. > Forge Strike stands. "I am to deliver the true message to you."
  846. > Instantly you are on guard.
  847. > You've made a few enemies in your business, and coming in lying to you didn't suggest he was that friendly.
  848. > But what had you missed? His story was perfect, and-
  849. > The hiss-crack of flame violently intrudes on your thoughts as Forge Strike immolates himself in a greenish ball of flame.
  850. "What the fu-"
  851. > Before you can finish sputtering the curse, the tongues of fire dye down.
  852. > But Forge Strike is not standing there anymore.
  853. > "My mistress, Queen Chrysalis of the hive, has sent me to relay this message to you."
  854. > Fucking. Changelings.
  855. > You finally get to meet one of them - the tales you'd been hearing for a while, were making you curious, to say the least - and you get played.
  856. > That's why he didn't need a bigger pack, you realize.
  857. > He'd probably flown to somewhere just beyond the edge of your security perimeter before putting on the disguise.
  858. > You grit your teeth and try to salvage what you can from the situation.
  859. "You're quite good."
  860. > The changeling's wings buzz in a whirring blur, a strangely dry noise.
  861. > "I am honored by your complement. What I spoke of was not a lie. This one had the honor of being a scout for the invasion of Canterlot."
  862. "Ah. Your experience was not entirely made up, then."
  863. > "Yes. I approached Stalwart's wife to try and get close to him."
  864. > He (it? You're not really sure about changeling physiology) pauses.
  865. > "...her love was also quite tasty."
  866. > Interesting.
  867. > Clearly this changeling isn't just some mere grunt if he's been sent on two of what you'd call fairly high-risk missions...
  868. > "And the reason for your faked offer."
  869. > Forge-changeling shifts in place.
  870. > "I cannot answer that. My queen has not chosen to reveal this to me."
  871. "Right. Well then, what has she told you to tell me?"
  872. > He perks up, standing perfectly straight - almost as if standing at attention.
  873. > "From the illustrious Queen Chrysalis, Queen of the Swarm and all it reaches, to the creature Anonymous. I find myself in need of your services; in a week's time I shall arrive to consult with you on how you may best be of service to my cause. I expect you to be adequately prepared and ready to serve an individual of my status and needs. If you are, your reward shall be considerate."
  874. > ...that is possibly the most circuitous route way you have ever heard someone ask for help.
  875. > It's like Chrysalis is doing everything she can to avoid outright acknowledging that she is the one asking for your assistance.
  876. > More importantly, though, this presents something of an issue.
  877. > While you weren't exactly friendly the princesses, you tried to keep your 'business' limited to things that didn't directly piss them off even further.
  878. > No need to give them another excuse to bump you up even further on their list of problems to be dealt with.
  879. > You're fairly sure that 'aiding the queen of the changelings' was somewhere in that group.
  880. > But to spurn her directly... well, you'd already been played once by a changeling, and it was a fair bet they could make a lot more trouble for you if Chrysalis was angered.
  881. > This is going to be a delicate balance.
  882. "Tell your queen that I look forward to her arrival, and am quite ready to discuss ways in which I might be of assistance to her."
  883. > Got to keep that royal ego stroked.
  884. "However, as with any client I cannot promise that I will be able to assist her without hearing what she is looking to get from me. I do hope that our negotiations will go well, and that we will be able to come to an adequate agreement. That is all."
  885. > The changeling nods.
  886. > "It will be delivered. With your permission, may I depart to deliver your message?"
  887. "Of course."
  888. > You motion to the doorway he had entered through.
  889. > The changeling offers you a slight bow - very slight, you notice - and turns to depart.
  890. > The second he is gone from your room, you are watching the changeling on the camera feeds.
  891. > This time he doesn't even bother disguising himself.
  892. > His wings whir into motion the second he is clear of your front door, lifting him up and off into the sky.
  893. > You watch until he vanishes from your perimeter, then lean back in the chair.
  894. > A changeling queen, coming to visit.
  895. > This could be problematic indeed.
  896. > Not in the least, because between what you'd heard and the contents of her message, you suspected this Chrysalis was egocentric to the point of instability.
  897. > You're not sure how a 'no' answer would go over with her.
  898. > Probably best to put Dash safely away in the basement when she comes too, maybe a couple of extra levels down for extra protection.
  899. > ...speaking of which, you should go let her out of there again.
  900. > Except for one, itty bitty little problem.
  901. > Dash isn't in the room you left her in.
  902. > It's an unfinished storage room with a few stacks of various objects laying about, so not much room to hide.
  903. > And definitely no multicolored pegasi to be found.
  904. > Where, then?
  905. > Not upstairs, the door from the basement was locked.
  906. > Another door catches your eye, though.
  907. > The one leading further into the lower basement levels, and beyond.
  908. > It's half open.
  909. "She wouldn't have..."
  910. > Dash knows she isn't supposed to go down there, and normally the doors are all locked.
  911. > You must have forgotten to reset the locks when the changeling appeared marching up the mountain path so quickly.
  912. > And Dash took advantage of your sloppiness.
  913. > You grit your teeth, rubbing your forehead in frustration.
  914. "Oh, she is so going in the box for this."
  916. --------
  918. > The first basement level is what you might expect in a home.
  919. > Lots of storage, considering that you don't have an easy, nearby source of food between deliveries.
  920. > But past the heavily-built door and down another flight of stairs, things begin to change.
  921. > The brick-and-mortar wall facade vanishes, leaving the fused stone behind it in full view.
  922. > Warm, gentle lighting is replaced by extended strips of gently-humming panels.
  923. > Cables emerge from the floor and ceiling to run along both walls, feeding in and out of boxes in a dizzying network of metal spaghetti.
  924. > The changes only get starker another floor down.
  925. > Drones work freely here, floating and rolling in a complex ballet of near-misses as they perform whatever tasks the master computer system has assigned them.
  926. > It is into this elaborate dace that you intrude, plowing through the drones in search of Dash.
  927. > Motors whine and whir as they dance out of your way, machines never allowing themselves to touch their flesh-and-blood master.
  928. > Quickly making a search of the rooms, you still find no sign of the poly-chromatic pegasus.
  929. > Your anger only grows as there is still no sign of her.
  930. > The deeper Dash has gone into the depths of your home, the more she will uncover.
  931. > Certain things there, she was not yet meant to see.
  932. > Others, not to see at all.
  933. "DASH! Get out here, now!"
  934. > No response except the whirring of drones at work meets your ears.
  935. > It's getting to complex down here.
  936. > You've reached the limit of your ability to easily track Dash.
  937. > Drawing your comp-pad, you tap into the main computer network.
  938. > Fortunately tracking all activity down here is a practical neccessity, so it will be able to locate Dash.
  939. > When it does, your stomach drops.
  940. > Dash hasn't just gone down into the basement, she's headed straight through the access tunnels and into the main underworks.
  941. > Much to far for her own good.
  942. > Setting off at a swift pace, you keep one eye on the 'pad, watching Dash's location.
  943. > Fortunately she seems to have stopped in one of the main caverns temporarily.
  944. > When you emerge into it, it's easy to see why she stopped.
  945. > This cavern had long been turned over to fabrication, and Dash was standing awestruck banks of equipment beneath her.
  946. "DASH! Get over here!"
  947. > Your sharply-yelled order snaps her out of the reverie she had fallen into.
  948. > Her head whips around to stare at you - taking in your furious grimace, the angry tone of your yell, the aggressive pace of your steps.
  949. > And she does the only logical thing.
  950. > She panics.
  951. > Without even so much a word, Dash turns to sprint down another tunnel.
  952. > Unfortunately, you had ordered the doors closed.
  953. > Dash circles around, glancing back to your approaching figure and then to the doors again.
  954. > She looks off the side of the catwalk she stands on, her wings opening and closing as she tries to figure out if she could jump and land intact.
  955. > She can't.
  956. > Your pounding footsteps stop in front of her; Dash looks up at you.
  957. > She's to much in shock to try anything.
  958. > "A-Anon... please... I just wanted... the door was open?"
  959. > Her voice is trembling, but even through her fear you can hear the wonder in her voice at the drones surrounding her.
  960. > You don't want to hear it.
  961. > You reach down and seize her collar, dragging her up into a semi-bipedal stance.
  962. > High enough for you to lean over your head and get into her face.
  963. "I don't think there is a word for how badly you have screwed up right now."
  964. > She meets your angry gaze, the first tears beginning to spring from the corners of her eyes.
  965. > "I... I just wanted to explore... please Anon... I didn't..."
  966. "You know the rule, Dash. One of the first things I told you when you got here. You do not go below the first basement."
  967. > "But the door..."
  968. "Was unlocked."
  969. > You let her back down, her hooves coming down to the floor with a click.
  970. > Still holding her collar, you start walking her back up the path you came.
  971. > To her credit, Dash doesn't try and struggle.
  972. > She certainly does plead, though.
  973. > "I'm sorry, master. I wasn't trying to escape, I wanted to see..."
  974. "Shut up."
  975. > Her jaw slams shut, and the rest of the trip is made in silence.
  976. > You stop at the top of the last flight of stairs, turning to sit on the topmost step.
  977. > When you reach the uppermost basement - and the room you used to punish Dash - she balks at entering, but one sharp glance cows her into entering without further argument.
  978. > With the room's door safely locked, you find your way to a wall and slump down against it.
  979. > Dash stands next to you, unsure of what to do.
  980. > "Master? A-Anon...?"
  981. > Your silence is unnerving her.
  982. > She knows she's in for it, but you get the feeling a violent, frothing anger would have been less scary to her than this.
  983. > Truthfully, you're not sure what to do with her.
  984. > Rebellion is one thing, to be expected from her.
  985. > But she came dangerously close in those tunnels to something you consider far, far more valuable.
  986. > That line of thought is interrupted by Dash softly nuzzling your shoulder.
  987. > Her eyes are close, and she's slightly leaning against your leg as well.
  988. > "I-I'm sorry, master. I wasn't trying to disobey... I just... I was so curious about what was down there, and..."
  989. "I know."
  990. > She pauses as you slip a hand around her head, holding her in a light embrance.
  991. "I know you weren't deliberately trying to be disobedient. You weren't trying to hurt me."
  992. > Nodding, Dash remains silent as you continue speaking.
  993. "But you know what, Dash? That's still very bad. You broke a big, big rule by going down there. Even if you didn't do it to fight me, I have to be able to trust that you will not disobey for any reason.
  994. > Her head falls, ears flopping downwards as she realizes what is coming.
  995. "And that means you still have to be punished."
  996. > A shivery ripple runs through Dash's coat as that knowledge settles into her mind.
  997. > "Don't leave me in there again..."
  998. "Dash, considering the level of fuckup this has been... no. You're going in the cage again."
  999. > She falls to her belly, staring at the floor.
  1000. > It's interesting that she doesn't try to flee or fight.
  1001. > ...could it be that Dash actually feels some level of guilt for her mistake?
  1002. > Interesting.
  1003. > Standing again, you make your way to the cage.
  1004. "Come, Dash."
  1005. > You turn to watch an interesting internal struggle going on in Dash's head.
  1006. > Slowly, steadily she forces one hoof down in front of the last, the knowledge that disobedience now might provoke an even greater punishment.
  1007. > Her eyes looking everywhere but the cage she was approaching.
  1008. > Lips working furiously, repeating some phrase to softly for you to hear at first.
  1009. > Even when you begin fitting the blindfold goggles and earmuffs to her, she just keeps repeating the same thing over and over.
  1010. > "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry..."
  1011. > She barely responds when you force her into the cage, hunkering down to her normal position laying flat as she can against the floor.
  1012. > This time, though, you have another addition to her torments.
  1013. > Every once in a while, you will reach through the bars to gently stroke her with one or two fingers.
  1014. > Compared to the total absence of contact she otherwise experience hunched down like that, every brush might as well be a slap.
  1015. > She reacts immediately, shuffling over in the few inches or so of free space she has to try and reach further contact.
  1016. > Of course, she immediately crashes into whatever side of the cage you have reached through.
  1017. > The effect is immediate.
  1018. > Her instincts take over again, sending her into another spiral of terror, despair, and helplessness.
  1019. > Before you leave, you turn the thermostat far down.
  1020. > The cold won't harm Dash, considering the altitudes she used to fly at.
  1021. > But it will definitely make her miserable.
  1022. > By the second day, in addition to your typical feeding and washing, you often come down for a moment or two just to stroke one of her wings and set off another whimpering, wriggling episode of terror.
  1023. > Sleep, already a rare thing for Dash in this state, is often interrupted.
  1024. > She cries out desperate pleas for help - to her friends, to you, to her princesses.
  1025. > To her mother.
  1026. > Frequently they end in heavy sobs as none of them come to relieve her from the hell she is in.
  1027. > On the third day, you decide to add in a new factor.
  1028. > Reaching through the bars, you carefully remove the earmuffs from Dash's head.
  1029. > Instantly she perks up, believing her ordeal to be almost at an end.
  1030. > "Master? I-Is that you? Is it o-over?"
  1031. > You move back a bit, and... do nothing.
  1032. > Absolutely nothing.
  1033. > No movement, no speaking, nothing that might generate noise.
  1034. > In her cage, Dash become increasingly agitated.
  1035. > Everything she knows says that when her senses are given back, the punishment has ended.
  1036. > But it isn't ending, and now Dash is beginning to enter a new stage of panic.
  1037. > Her ears feel free, but she hears nothing.
  1038. > She calls, then cries, and eventually drifts off into the shallow sleep - the only rest she can find.
  1039. > It's in this state that she is awoken again to the earmuffs being replaced.
  1040. > "No... no, no, no! Anon, please! Please!"
  1041. > It's no use.
  1042. > You are already leaving the room.
  1043. > Four days on, you finally decide to let her free.
  1044. > As before, though, you do not return sight or hearing yet.
  1045. > You don't have to.
  1046. > The moment she feels your hands reaching in, pulling her from the cage, Dash wraps herself around you in the tightest embrace she can.
  1047. > "Anon! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Please don't put me back in there, Anon, please... I'm sorry..."
  1048. > You let her hold you for a few moments, and then carefully set her down on the floor.
  1049. > "M-master?"
  1050. > You silence her with a few strokes over her mane.
  1051. > Any words would still be pointless, given that she is still deaf.
  1052. > Instead you spread out the lengths of cord you brough with you, first using them to carefully pinion her wings to her sides and then her legs folded against her body.
  1053. > Now unable to move, there is little Dash can do except lay on the floor until you pick her up.
  1054. > Being carried on her back is normally something Dash hates, but this time she is simply to absorbed in the actual contact to care.
  1055. > She's pressing herself in against you, seeking out any kind of touch she can use to remind herself that her most recent experience is over.
  1056. > You proceed to your workroom, easily sliding into the cushioned chair and setting Dash down in your lap.
  1057. > She promptly lifts her head, turning it to try and gain any hints about what is to happen.
  1058. > "Master? Anon? I-"
  1059. > You interrupt her by closing your hand around her jaws.
  1060. > She quickly seems to understand what you want; rather than protesting, she seems to accept that now is not the time to talk.
  1061. > Dash's head drops to rest on your leg as she wriggles her bound form to a more comfortable position.
  1062. > Still somewhat chilled from the freezing temperature her punishment room had been set at, she has curled against you to soak in the warmth your body offers.
  1063. > You smile down at her, one hand idly stroking along her back before you resume your work.
  1064. > When you next look down, Dash has fallen into a deep sleep.
  1065. > Her first good rest in days.
  1066. > When it begins, you barely notice it at first.
  1067. > A few twitches, Dash's hooves wiggling slightly as her bound legs try to extend.
  1068. > It's only when she begins to whimper that you take notice.
  1069. > Even as you watch, the spasms become greater and more rapid.
  1070. > The whimpers, louder and more pained.
  1071. > Dash is having a nightmare.
  1072. > You slip an arm around her body, not wanting her to slip from your lap and crash to the floor.
  1073. > For a few minutes, she quiets.
  1074. > But then the nightmare returns, and in greater force.
  1075. > Her whimpers again rise and the twitches return, her head even jerking now.
  1076. > You briefly wonder what she could be dreaming about - what you did to her, or something else?
  1077. > Would it be best to wake her, or if coming back to this blind, deaf, and hobbled wakefulness would be just as terrifying.
  1078. > "Girls?"
  1079. > You look down in surprise. Had Dash finally woken up?
  1080. > "Noooo... girls... please don't leave me in there. Please? Please!"
  1081. > No, she isn't awake.
  1082. > Even as you watch the spasmodic movements continue, as do her words.
  1083. > "Twilight? AJ? Flutters? Anyone...? Please... don't leave me in there... it's so alone... so alone.... so alone."
  1084. > She actually manages to roll over entirely, and for a moment you think it is over.
  1085. > But then she continues, whimpering low between pained pleas.
  1086. > "What did I do? You're my friends, what did I do?! Don't leave me in there...."
  1087. > She can't hear anything you might say, but she can still feel you.
  1088. > And so you start to run your hand through Dash's mane in what you hope is a comforting gesture.
  1089. > It works.
  1090. > Ever so slowly, the mewling subsides - Dash sinking back into the depths of sleep.
  1091. > Her body again becomes still, but for her gentle breathing.
  1092. > It's a while before she speaks again.
  1093. > "Anon...?"
  1094. > This time the uncertainty in her voice is different.
  1095. > It isn't the uncertainty of a dreaming mind, but of one who is confused and seeks certainty.
  1096. > Your hand, which had fallen still once Dash quieted, travels up to lightly rub her cheek.
  1097. > She presses back into it, her voice shaky.
  1098. > "I had a nightmare, master..."
  1099. > It almost sounds as if it hurts her to admit this.
  1100. > Considering how headstrong she was before coming to you, it probably would have been.
  1101. > Admitting fear of something forced on her like the cage is one thing; admitting fear in one's own head can be quite another.
  1102. > "They... they had left me in there. In the cage... my friends left me there."
  1103. > She takes another deep breath, pausing to let you rub a bit more.
  1104. > "It was so cold, and so alone... and they just left me. They were all around me, I could see them... and they wouldn't help. I was so cold..."
  1105. > You other arm slips around her, the first one still rubbing her cheek lightly.
  1106. > Even though she is deaf and blind, the message is clear.
  1107. > I hear you.
  1108. > I am still here.
  1109. > You are not alone now.
  1110. > Dash curls into the embrace, laying her head down again on your arm.
  1111. > "T-Thank you, Anon... thank you."
  1112. > Soon enough she is breathing softly once again, having drifted once more off to sleep.
  1114. --------
  1116. > You do not finish until late at night.
  1117. > With Chrysalis' visit fast approaching, you are pouring over every bit of data you have on Changelings and their queen.
  1118. > Which is sadly little.
  1119. > Apart from a couple of copies of older texts from the Canterlot archives and the records of the attempted takeover some years ago, information is scarce.
  1120. > Instead, you have set to work trying to piece together what other data you can find.
  1121. > Where Changelings have been spotted, when, hiding in what positions.
  1122. > You plot them geographically, on charts and graphs, study each case in depth.
  1123. > Anything to give you a leg up when you end up meeting the queen.
  1124. > The presence of Dash asleep against your lap is both a distraction and quite welcome.
  1125. > While you probably aren't getting as much done as you might have otherwise, it's quite calming to be able to just reach down and stroke her as you please.
  1126. > Plus, she always wriggles adorably when you do.
  1127. > Nonetheless, somewhere around one in the morning you find it neccessary to turn in for the night.
  1128. > Again cradling the sleeping pegasus in your arms as you climb the stairs, a yawn forces its way from your throat as hours of work catch up with you.
  1129. > Gently you set Dash down on your bed; instantly she curls up again despite her still-bound limbs.
  1130. > You've only made it a few steps towards the bathroom when an unsteady voice calls out after you.
  1131. > "A-Anon? Are you still there?"
  1132. > Dash has woken, and is now 'looking' back and forth furiously to try and find where her only source of comfort has vanished to.
  1133. > No point in speaking, she still can't hear you.
  1134. > Instead you walk back over and lightly touch her back, just between the pinned wings.
  1135. > Immediately she relaxes, her head lowering back down again.
  1136. > "O-Oh. There you are."
  1137. > You'd love to stay with her, but you do need to prepare for bed.
  1138. > Unfortunately, the moment you step away again, Dash rapidly breaks down once again.
  1139. > Her increasingly desperate cries for you can easily be heard through the doorway as you finish up in the bathroom.
  1140. > By the time you return to the bedroom, it seems like she's fallen into the same terrified state the cage induces in her.
  1141. > She's shivering, pushed herself as flat against the bed as she can, and you can see her limbs flexing beneath the bindings as they struggle to spread.
  1142. > That is... not what you expected.
  1143. > Sure, the terror of being sent back to the cage often lingered with Dash for days afterward.
  1144. > But you've never seen her actually break down outside of it.
  1145. > Maybe you left her in there to long.
  1146. > After all, you didn't want her to be permanently damaged.
  1147. > A thought suddenly occurs to you.
  1148. > If she didn't recover from this soon, there could be a problem the next time you have to let Twilight see her.
  1149. > Considering the possible results of that, you change into your sleepwear and slide into the bed beside Dash.
  1150. > The moment the bedsheet moves from your weight, Dash perks up again.
  1151. > "Master! You're back!"
  1152. > She wriggles over while you watch, one eyebrow raised.
  1153. > It's kind of adorable to see her squirm up against you before relaxing with a soft sigh.
  1154. > "I'm sorry, master... I thought you'd gone away. I thought you had left me alone again."
  1155. > Well, you sort of had.
  1156. > But this reaction is both endearing and worrying.
  1157. > Right now, mostly endearing.
  1158. > You slip an arm around Dash, who shifts a bit more and lowers her head to the bed again.
  1159. > Minutes later, you are both asleep.
  1161. --------
  1163. > The remaining days are spent in furious planning.
  1164. > Somewhere around two days remaining until Chrysalis' visit, you give up trying to anticipate her demands.
  1165. > Instead you've turned to just researching anything that you might be able to surprise her with.
  1166. > Even there information is scarce.
  1167. > If any of the ponies know how changelings actually feed, they've never bothered to write it down.
  1168. > Or at least not in place you've ever been able to get your hands on.
  1169. > Moreover, except for her appearance in Canterlot, Chrysalis has rarely appeared.
  1170. > What you do know doesn't suggest the meeting will be terribly pleasant.
  1171. > Finally, at last something pulls your attention.
  1172. > You'd gotten desperate, and started looking over any major news stories.
  1173. > Disasters, announcements, projects, discoveries.
  1174. > And now you had a suspicion.
  1175. > The times all lined up.
  1176. > Chrysalis, you thought, wasn't coming to you out of her own choice.
  1177. > In a little over a day, you'd be sure.
  1179. --------
  1181. > The day arrives, and you awaken to the screaming of the proximity alarms.
  1182. > A quick look at the clock tells you it is far to early in the morning for Chrysalis to have arrived.
  1183. > Unless she was a fan of showing up at the crack of dawn.
  1184. > Images of Royal Guard clashing with the changeling queen around your home suddenly fill your head.
  1185. > Dash is looking around in confusion, then up to you for guidance.
  1186. > "Master? What's happening?"
  1187. "Something our expected guest did, would be my guess. Get ready; we'll be going to the basement in a moment."
  1188. > "Yes, master!"
  1189. > Dash must have heard the no-nonsense tone in your voice.
  1190. > She hops from the bed and is standing at the door in an instant.
  1191. > Her senses long since returned to her, she had only just begun to recover from her experience.
  1192. > You noticed she still clung unusually close to you, rarely staying away for long.
  1193. > Being alone, it seemed, had suddenly become far more of a worrisome prospect to her than it had been.
  1194. > Ignoring the need for a diversion to the bathroom, you quickly lead Dash down to the basement.
  1195. > The heavy, protective door slams shut behind you, locks snapping into place.
  1196. > Once in your office, you pull up the security readout to see what has set it off so badly.
  1197. > Dash isn't normally allowed into here without her blindfold, but right now you really need to know if your home is about to turn into a battleground.
  1198. > The second you lay eyes on the security feeds, your jaw drops.
  1199. "Holy..."
  1200. > Chrysalis hadn't just brought an entourage.
  1201. > She'd brought an army.
  1202. > The forests around your home are crawling with thousands, possibly tens of thousands of changelings.
  1203. > Several things that definitely look like pegasus chariot-carts are still circling in the air.
  1204. > YOu hiss sharply.
  1205. > Did Chrysalis think she could impress you by a show of force, or did she actually intend to try and attack if she didn't get what she wanted.
  1206. > Both reinforce your suspicion that she wasn't visiting you by choice.
  1207. > Dash hops up onto your lap, trying to look closer at the numerous screens around you.
  1208. > You push her down slightly.
  1209. "No, Dash, I need to be able to focus."
  1210. > "Sorry, master."
  1211. > She hops back down, and you focus back on the screens.
  1212. > The changelings don't seem to be approaching, or even encircling.
  1213. > More... settling in?
  1214. > The last few are definitely landing, and already you see the first few signs of what looks like shelters being put up.
  1215. > It's better than an immediate attack, you suppose, but having your mountainside suddenly resident to several thousand changelings wasn't something you really wanted.
  1216. > For one, it wasn't exactly encouraging to other guests to come visit.
  1217. > "Anon...? Are they going to attack us, master?"
  1218. > Now Dash is looking up at you for guidance.
  1219. > She almost looks... worried?
  1220. > It's understandable, you suppose.
  1221. > If it came to a fight, Dash's greatest advantage - her flight - had still been taken from her.
  1222. > You reach down to give her a reassuring rub between her ears.
  1223. "No, I don't think they are. And if they do... I think we can more than hold them off. I've got means of holding them off."
  1224. > Some of them the same means that held off the princesses.
  1225. > But if Chrysalis was that desperate, might she ignore the losses that would surely come...?
  1226. "When I go to talk to her, I want you to stay down here, Dash. I'm going to seal the doors; if they try anything, you'll be safe here."
  1227. > Dash nods, apparently still aware this is no time to argue.
  1228. > She still looks worried, despite your reassurance.
  1229. > "Thank you, master... um... master?"
  1230. "Yes, Dash?"
  1231. > "You... aren't going to help her... hurt my friends, are you?"
  1232. > That wasn't the main concern you had expected from her.
  1233. "...are you really sure that is something you ought to be concerned about now, Dash? Your friends are not here."
  1234. > She flinches at the rebuke, looking down.
  1235. > "No, but I don't want them to get hurt. Even if I stay here with you, I don't want them to get hurt. Gotta... be loyal to them, you know?"
  1236. > After a moment, you nod.
  1237. "I hadn't planned on helping them hurt your friends, Dash. In fact, I don't plan on helping them hurt Equestria - I don't care to play that game."
  1238. > "Thank you, master. Should I... go away now?"
  1239. > You pause, studying her.
  1240. > Despite the offer - Dash is clearly trying to do her best to anticipate your demands - the idea of being alone is not one she is looking forward to.
  1241. " can wait here a little bit longer. When their queen comes, then you will go."
  1242. > Dash smiles, nodding. "Cool! I've never seen you work here before either."
  1243. > Hrm, yes. You'd forgotten about that.
  1244. > Oh well, to late now.
  1245. > Not like Dash could really glean any truly valuable secrets from the displays without explanation anyhow.
  1246. "You can watch later, but for now - go upstairs and find my breakfast, and bring it down here. I intend to be fed and ready when she comes."
  1247. > Dash's hooves beat a heavy pitter-pat as she speeds out the door and up the stairs.
  1248. > Minutes later you are sipping a coffee to finally burn away the last few clouds of sleep from your mind.
  1249. > This meeting is going to require top condition; being tired would be no benefit at all.
  1250. > Another warbling alarm draws your attention to the feeds covering the pathway.
  1251. > Several figures are making their way up the main pathway, one of them far taller than the others.
  1252. > The queen is coming.
  1253. "Alright, Dash. Time to go wait now. I'll call for you when we're done."
  1254. > She nods, grabbing her own half-finished breakfast tray and departing.
  1255. > You quickly shave and make one last check-over of your preparations.
  1256. > All is ready.
  1257. > The meeting room has been cleaned and updated, a larger chair substituted at the far end of the room for one of your normal ones.
  1258. > Not quite a throne, but hopefully close enough to satisfy Chrysalis' whims.
  1259. > Food had been laid out as well.
  1260. > While you still had no idea how to satisfy the Changelings' need to 'eat love', you hoped a more normal spread would be appreciated as well.
  1261. > Settling into your seat, you call up a feed on the smaller screens at your end of the table.
  1262. > Chrysalis is almost there.
  1263. > As she crosses from the treeline to the front of your house, her escorts split - returning back to the cover of the trees.
  1264. > Alone, she approaches your front door.
  1265. > It has been left open, a drone ready to guide her in.
  1266. > Her clicking hoofsteps are audible long before the queen appears through the entranceway to the meeting room.
  1267. > You force your eyebrows not to rise.
  1268. > It's one thing to see her through a camera feed, quite another to see the changeling queen directly.
  1269. > She's huge, at least as tall as you are and easily twice your mass.
  1270. > You also find yourself wondering how her hair has holes in it.
  1271. > But her demeanor is just about what you'd expected.
  1272. > A slight smirk graces her lips, as if you already amused her somehow.
  1273. > Yet, her slitted eyes rove over everything in the room - you, your screens, the food, the seats and table.
  1274. > You get the feeling she is studying you with just as much intent as you are her.
  1275. > Both of you trying to find any clues about the other.
  1276. > You stand, offering her a bow.
  1277. > Time to play the smooth businessman.
  1278. 'Queen Chrysalis. A pleasure to meet you."
  1280. --------
  1282. > "Ah, Anonymous... so good to meet you at last."
  1283. > That was another thing nobody had warned you about.
  1284. > Her voice is weird, like somebody using a malfunctioning audio chip.
  1285. > Just hearing it makes goosebumps rise across your back.
  1286. > You rather hope she can't tell.
  1287. "Please, do come and have a seat. I hadn't expected you to travel with so many, Your Highness."
  1288. > "Oh? Surely you did not expect someone of my position to travel alone...?
  1289. > Bug-horse body language isn't exactly your specialization, but you're fairly sure she's trying to seduce you.
  1290. > Every step all but screams sensuality, and rather than sit on the provided seat Chrysalis languidly drapes herself across it.
  1291. "Hardly. This many, however... your entourage is certainly impressive."
  1292. > You motion to the spread of deserts you had laid out.
  1293. "I am afraid I was unable to find a great deal of information on how to prepare anything... suitable to your known diet, but I hope my efforts might at least make up for this."
  1294. > Her eyes flick dismissively along the fairly impressive variety, shortly followed by a dismissive shake of her head.
  1295. > "While we can consume such things, they offer us no energy and little taste."
  1296. > Well. Swing and a miss.
  1297. "I see... well, then before we begin our actual business, if there is anything I might be able to offer you?"
  1298. > She fixes you with a chilling smile, but this time you force your face to stay impassive.
  1299. > "Only your services, Anonymous."
  1300. > Aaaaaand she's straight back to sensual seductress.
  1301. > A lot of ponies had called the changeling queen insane, and now you're starting to wonder if they had something there.
  1302. "Well then, let us get down to business?"
  1303. > Chrysalis lets out an amused little giggle and you take a mental grimace at the double entendre about two seconds later.
  1304. > Has she got you off your game already?
  1305. > Going to have to take it up a notch, Anonymous.
  1306. > Time for a subject change.
  1307. "The line of questioning your... messenger pursued before was quite specific. May I presume your request will be similar?"
  1308. > In other words, 'are you about to ask me to help you invade Canterlot again.'
  1309. > Crysalis fixes you with a sultry smirk.
  1310. > "Oh, how you must think so little of me... I know the balance you want to keep, Anonymous. I know you won't take direct action against the princesses.
  1311. > Interesting.
  1312. > Unlike Celestia, who was more than willing to dance around with subtle meanings and indirect statements, Chrysalis got straight to the point.
  1313. > Not what you'd have expected out of the queen of a race that relied on subterfuge.
  1314. "Well, if not that, then... in what way may I be of assistance to you?"
  1315. > "I need a location for a new hive. A new place to call my home, to let those close to me... settle down."
  1316. > And there's the half-lidded eyes again.
  1317. > Her request isn't what you were expecting either.
  1318. > So the queen wants to expand her domain, does she...?
  1319. > Or maybe... your mind drifts back to what you had discovered the previous night.
  1320. "Surely you can find a location in time on your own without having to involve an outsider... may I presume you are seeking an immediate answer?"
  1321. > "I prefer all my results immediate."
  1322. > Again her personality seems to have been completely shifted.
  1323. > Now she is the demanding ruler, her eyes boring into you and strangely-toned voice sharp and commanding.
  1324. "Then that, I can help you with."
  1325. > You fold your fingers together, meeting her gaze evenly.
  1326. "You must realize, of course, that I will not be able to provide you any information about where the best... hunting grounds might be, but-"
  1327. > "Yes, yes. You had best be able to provide some results, though."
  1328. "Of course. Since I know little of your living conditions, though, you will have to tell me what is best for you."
  1329. > "We are adaptable, Anonymous. On the ground, beneath it, we will survive. We can easily convert existing structures to our needs."
  1330. > Chrysalis raises herself up somewhat, making herself taller than you.
  1331. > "All that we demand is that the place be safe. That we not be found by the ponies and their wretched princesses."
  1332. "Away from any major trade routes, then."
  1333. > "And the Everfree forests. We do not fear the beasts within there, but provoking them is something only a fool would do."
  1334. > She's gone back to 'bored mode' again, speaking as if this was something she'd had to explain a million times before.
  1335. > Turning back to the question at hand, you call up several maps on your screens.
  1336. > Commonly traveled roads, typical pegasi flight routes, and anything else that might threaten a hidden hive.
  1337. > Anything near a major population center.
  1338. > Bit by bit you rule out everything, until...
  1339. > You bring on one of the larger wall-mounted screens, opening the map you had marked up.
  1340. > nineteen locations are circled.
  1341. > You point to the first, a valley halfway between Hoofington and Cloudesdale.
  1342. "This one will have a good abundance of natural resources - trees, water, should be plenty to forage with..."
  1343. > Everything except prey, of course.
  1344. "It's well-sheltered from most weather patterns, although you should have to construct your own dwellings. Let me see if I have - ah, yes, here we go."
  1345. > Another report scrolls up on another screen, a copy of one in the Canterlot archives.
  1346. "Royal geographic survey reports suggest soil indicate reasonably good digging potential, if not particularly rich in resources..."
  1347. > Chrysalis is trying not to look particularly interested, but you can tell your screens have caught her attention.
  1348. > She's been staring fixedly at them since you brought up the map.
  1349. "...option number two, out in the San Palomino desert. Resources will be scarcer, but I doubt there's much of anyone who out there who will bother you."
  1350. > "No. To long, to distant. To difficult to build in..."
  1351. > Chrysalis even gives a dismissive wave of her hoof, as if your information barely meant anything to her.
  1352. > Maybe one of the other options, then...
  1353. > Thirteen options later, you're actually starting to get frustrated.
  1354. > Chrysalis has shown absolutely zero interest in any of your options.
  1355. > Oh, her attention has been absolutely rapt on the screens.
  1356. > But you get the feeling it's more like she is glued to the screens than to the information on them.
  1357. > Not one of the choices has evoked even any response beyond dismissal.
  1358. > You're trying not to let her get under your skin, but it is rather hard to keep your frustration from growing.
  1359. > Hopefully this next one might work, if your guess from earlier was anywhere close.
  1360. "Alright, next option, then. It's in another mountain range, north of Vanhoover. Resources will also be scarce, but there's some old abandoned mine works there - the ore turned out to be worth barely anything, and the local wildlife was a bit to hostile for easy-"
  1361. > "I'll take it."
  1362. > She's sat up, her gaze intent.
  1363. > Bingo.
  1364. > You were right.
  1365. "To warn you, it won't be an easy place to add to. Cold, and there's probably other things inhabiting the mines."
  1366. > "We are not a weak species, Anonymous. We have never had the chance to live life easy like the ponies do. To us, nowhere is an easy place to live, but these mines - these will do for us."
  1367. > Just as you suspected, she wanted a ready-made home - or something close to it - no matter how rough the land would turn out to be.
  1368. "Good... I will provide sufficient copies of maps for you."
  1369. > Chrysalis tears her vision away from the screens and locks eyes with you again.
  1370. > "And I am sure that I can trust you not to be leaking any of this information..."
  1371. > As she prowls alongside the table over towards you, you are reminded how large she actually is.
  1372. > "I'm wouldn't want to have to send another one of my soldiers to deliver another message if you did..."
  1373. > Did she just threaten you?
  1374. > Does she actually think threatening you on your own territory would gain her anything?
  1375. > Surely she realizes you've been under pressure befor-
  1376. > Ah.
  1377. > Pressure.
  1378. > That's why she'd been swapping between moods so rapidly.
  1379. > She'd been trying to see which persona affects you the most.
  1380. > Which she can squeeze you the hardest with.
  1381. > Immediately another question slips into your mind:
  1382. > This is an awfully crude method of figuring that out.
  1383. > Well, she was direct before...
  1384. > You lean forward.
  1385. "Chrysalis, my business relies on discretion. You, though are trying to get inside my head. I'll ask you to stop, because I really don't like it when guests push me."
  1386. > She sniffs disdainfully.
  1387. > "Fool! If I wished for you to be mine, I could have crushed your will the moment I entered this room."
  1388. "No you couldn't."
  1389. > That she genuinely looks shocked at your response tells you enough.
  1390. > "You dare to-"
  1391. "Look, Chrysalis - I know what happened in Canterlot. If you could take over someone's mind in moments, you wouldn't have tossed Celestia's pet student into a cave, you'd just have made her to stop questioning you."
  1392. > Now it is her turn to take a step back, and yours to take control of the situation.
  1393. "If I had to place a guess, I'd say it takes time and familiarity for you to overpower someone's mind... so you tried to pull the quick route with me."
  1394. > She makes a strange hiss-click noise in her throat, a sign that you probably ought to stop.
  1395. > You keep going anyway.
  1396. "You're short on time, Chrysalis. Something hurt you, and I rather suspect I know what. So, I don't need to know why you are bringing what looks like a good fraction of your hive to a new home-"
  1397. > "It is not 'a good fraction'."
  1398. > You're brought up short by her response.
  1399. "Excuse me."
  1400. > Chrysalis hisses again, shaking her head.
  1401. > "This is my hive. All of it. All that is left."
  1402. "Damn - the storm..."
  1403. > "Flash-flooded the hive tunnels. There was little time for us to escape. Not all did. How did you know?"
  1404. > You were right, then.
  1405. "When your messenger announced you were coming, I tried to figure out what you would want. Freak, fast-moving storm out of nowhere over the badlands, commonly thought to be the location of your hive..."
  1406. > You don't bother explaining how you got that information ahead of any possible pegasus.
  1407. > It's your secret, and she wouldn't believe you anyway.
  1408. > Chrysalis snarls softly, nods, slowly returning to her seat.
  1409. > "There. You have it now, Anonymous. Are you happy? Pleased to know why I have come to you?"
  1410. > What the hell did you start?
  1411. > Chrysalis just goes on talking.
  1412. > "Whatever those wretched ponies might say about me, I take care of my Changelings. They serve me, and I rule them - as it was meant to be."
  1413. > She laughs a sharp, bitter laugh.
  1414. > "We share the weight of our curse - look at us, Anonymous. Even a creature such as you can find a lover, and-"
  1415. "Wait... go back a bit. I can find a lover?"
  1416. > She fixes you with a glare.
  1417. > "Do not try to lie to me about such things, Anonymous. I can smell her love clinging to you."
  1418. "Yeah, no. You've lost me. Like, entirely. I definitely haven't found romance with any "
  1419. > "Oh, it may not be a romance yet.. but she adores you. I can tell."
  1420. > Adores you...?
  1421. > Dash?!
  1422. > She was sensing Dash?
  1423. > You knew you'd been getting to Dash, but to say she adores you?
  1424. > That was a step well, well beyond what you thought you had done.
  1425. > Holy shit.
  1426. > Had you broken Dash that hard already?
  1427. > You might have to start being careful about what you do to her.
  1428. > Work to fast, break her to hard, and you'd have a to answer a lot of questions from the princesses.
  1429. > Later, though.
  1430. > You cough politely.
  1431. "Well, that matter, yes."
  1432. > Her face regains its typical content smirk as the situation slides back to her control, wings buzzing softly in amusement.
  1433. > "So, you do have somepony..."
  1434. "That is not relevant to the matter at hand. Need I remind you we are here for business?"
  1435. > "Hmmm, yes, so we are... but perhaps I could stay a little longer."
  1436. "Uh, why?"
  1437. > Chrysalis leans forward, he tongue flicking out out like a snake.
  1438. > Thank god it's not forked.
  1439. > "It may not be true love, but it's still delicious... if a bit sickly sweet."
  1440. > Aaaand she's trying to freak you out again.
  1441. "Nope. Definitely not for that."
  1442. > Chrysalis lets out soft 'hmmm', as if thinking over that idea.
  1443. > "Not even if I am paying? It has been so long since I fed directly. Not since Canterlot..."
  1444. > You groan and rub your forehead.
  1445. "No. Especially not if you're hungry."
  1446. > She just lets out a delighted giggle at your reaction, and you realize she was messing with your head again.
  1447. "...okay, let's get back to business. You have your location, we need to discuss payment."
  1448. > "So we do."
  1449. > The tone of her voice suggests she'd prefer you be paying her.
  1450. "As I'm sure you know, I typically take payment in favors. You're in a position to help me: Fairly often I will need packages delivered - forgive the pun - anonymously."
  1451. > "Your machines cannot do this?"
  1452. > Noticed the drones, did she?
  1453. > "My machines are not exactly welcome in many places, and very hard to mistake. These need to be sent quietly. Who better than a changeling?"
  1454. > "My subjects are not your delivery workers."
  1455. "Then you can leave the deal. Do remember, that mine is not your home until you pay me."
  1456. > She makes that angry hiss-click noise again, eyes narrowing.
  1457. > It's a strange look when her eyes are larger than your hand to begin with.
  1458. > "I cannot give them up to often for your tasks, or risk my subjects. They are mine to rule, but also mine to care for."
  1459. "I understand. Say, perhaps, once per month - and no hazardous cargoes. I will grant you the right to refuse a delivery you feel to dangerous to the messenger."
  1460. > "For how long?"
  1461. > Here comes the bit she's going to hate.
  1462. "Indefinitely."
  1463. > Or at least as long as she chooses to inhabit that mine.
  1464. > It was the only good leverage you had over her, after all.
  1465. > "You would make us your servants forever?"
  1466. "Not my servants... my partners. It's that, or you can lose more of them forever."
  1467. > She is silent for a long time, thinking it over.
  1468. > "How will you get the message to us?"
  1469. > Ah.
  1470. > Now the interesting part...
  1471. "I have machine which I will give to you. A long-range communications device. Do not try and disassemble it or figure out how it works - just leave it somewhere close to the surface of the mine, and I should be able to reach you through it."
  1472. > Now you've got her attention again.
  1473. > "If you have such a machine, why do you need messengers?"
  1474. "Because I have a very limited number of them."
  1475. > You don't add your concern that some inventive pony might actually figure out how the transceiver stations work if you handed them out to willy-nilly.
  1476. > Celestia suddenly being able to listen to your messages would be very problematic.
  1477. > As would one of your drones falling into her hooves.
  1478. > "So, you will reach out to me, and...?"
  1479. "I will give the message, a pick-up location for the package, where it is to be delivered, and how soon."
  1480. > Chrysalis levers herself upright again, once again making her way to your side of the table.
  1481. > "You are a very interesting creature, Anonymous. I would very much like to know your secrets..."
  1482. > The ways he says it suggests that the process would leave you a drooling idiot.
  1483. "I prefer to keep them to myself, thank you very much. Do we have a deal, then?"
  1484. > After a moment, Chrysalis sticks out one chitin-covered hoof.
  1485. > "We have an agreement."
  1486. > You take it, half expecting to feel a tingle or something as she tries to feed from you.
  1487. > Instead there's just the firm, smooth surface of her leg.
  1488. > Your surprise must have been more noticeable than you expected, because she offers you another amused-looking smirk.
  1489. > "Did you expect a betrayal, Anonymous?"
  1490. "Frankly, you have a reputation."
  1491. > She hisses angrily at that.
  1492. > "I do not play games with the fate of my swarm, Anonymous. I hope you will do the same."
  1493. "I do not play games with any business-partner, ever."
  1494. > "Good. Then, I will return to my children. When will the maps be available?"
  1495. "Within the day. One of my drones will deliver them along with the communications device."
  1496. > "I will await them."
  1497. > With that she turns out, her walk again regal and proud.
  1498. > You watch her until she is out of sight.
  1499. > Rapid steps take you back down into the basement, back to your 'office'.
  1500. > The security perimeter feeds are already up, showing you numerous views of the rapidly-growing changeling encampment.
  1501. > In truth you probably could have had the maps printed right then and there, but why not take some time?
  1502. > After all, you had a clear chance to study them now.
  1503. > And information is every so valuable.
  1504. > So caught up are you in your work that you don't even notice when your typical dinner time passes.
  1505. > Not until your stomach begins to protest vociferously.
  1506. > With a sigh, you key the intercom.
  1507. "Dash? I need dinner brought down to my office again. The kitchen will have it in the normal place."
  1508. > Not five minutes later she is standing at your side, looking up expectantly with the dinner tray balanced on her back.
  1509. > You reach down, offering her a scratch on her head for her duty.
  1510. "Go ahead upstairs and get your food, then."
  1511. > She nods, but first leans over to nuzzle your leg a bit.
  1512. > You raise an eyebrow, remembering Chrysalis' words.
  1513. > Adoration, hmm?
  1514. > The light scratch turns to a full-on ear rub that leaves her all but curled around both legs.
  1515. > You chuckle, surprised at Dash's receptiveness, but can't shake the feeling you are missing something massively, obviously wrong about this.
  1516. > After a moment, you give her one last pat.
  1517. "Go on, then. I've got work to do."
  1518. > Wordlessly she trots away and leaves you to figuring out what that 'wrong' feeling was about.
  1519. > Moments later, you hear her hooves on the stairs back u-
  1520. > Stairs.
  1521. > You never let Dash upstairs from the basement after Chysalis left.
  1522. > Stifling a curse, you switch to internal security and quickly find Dash in the kitchen, dutifully taking her own dinner.
  1523. > This time, there is no question as to what should have been blatantly apparent.
  1524. > Dash has no collar on.
  1525. > But she does - at least, the Dash still asleep in the basement where you left her does.
  1526. > You look between the two feeds.
  1527. > On one, the clingy, affection-hungry, collarless Dash.
  1528. > On the other, the Dash you knew curled into a small, lonely ball in the windowless basement room.
  1529. "Fuck."
  1531. --------
  1533. > The first question that echoes through your head is 'how?'
  1534. > How had a changeling managed to get in past the security screens?
  1535. > The drones should have had it the moment it breached the closer security perimeter.
  1536. > It wasn't Chrysalis, you were sure - you'd seen her out the front door.
  1537. > Unless...
  1538. > Keeping one eye on the changeling still wandering about upstairs - it seemed to be keeping up the Dash act, eating the dinner meant for her - you quickly you scan back through the recorded security feeds.
  1539. > It isn't hard to spot when it enters - while you had been speaking to Chrysalis, a lone changeling had emerged from the treeline to approach your home.
  1540. > One of Chrysalis' entourage that had come with her, you supposed, hiding out in the treeline since she had entered.
  1541. > Not ten yards from your home it bursts into flame, and your eyebrows rise.
  1542. > Where once had stood a Changeling, otherwise indistinguishable from any of the others, a second Chrysalis now stood.
  1543. > That was something you had not been expecting.
  1544. > Frankly, it hadn't occured to you that a creature as proud as the changeling queen would tolerate anyone mimicing her form.
  1545. > But that was what had happened, and when 'Chrysalis' knocks at the door the drone dutifully opens it for what it sees as your guest.
  1546. > You groan in frustration at that; the security AI might be thorough, but truly intelligent it was not.
  1547. > Following a few minutes of aimless wandering, the changeling again immolates itself in emerald flame.
  1548. > In its place stands the duplicate Dash, who promptly begins to more actively explore the limits of the house - except, of course, for remaining clear of the room where you had been in negotiations.
  1549. > Yes, a protocol for handling apparently duplicate presences seems to be in order.
  1550. > You'd have to write that later.
  1551. > For now...
  1552. > You tap the intercom open to the storeroom Dash is resting in.
  1553. "Dash."
  1554. > She's awake instantly, looking around in confusion when she fails to spot you.
  1555. > "Master? Are you there?"
  1556. "I'm on the com. Listen to me very carefully, Dash - there is a changeling intruder in the house. I am go-"
  1557. > Dash's reaction is unexpected.
  1558. > She's standing instantly, wings half-spread despite their uselessness.
  1559. > "A changeling? Where? Lemme at them!"
  1560. "No, Dash; you could be hurt in a direct fight. I will handle it."
  1561. > She visibly droops at the denial, perhaps looking forward to the first time she would have been allowed to be in control of something again.
  1562. > "Awww, really? I could take it!"
  1563. "No, Dash. But, if it does somehow manage to reach you and I can't tell the difference - tell me your favorite Wonderbolt is Luna."
  1564. > "What? But Luna isn't even - oooooh."
  1565. > You grin as she gets it.
  1566. "Good girl. I'll let you out when it's under control."
  1567. > By the time you are marching up the stairs a quartet of bulky security drones have fallen into formation behind you.
  1568. > They spread out as you enter the kitchen, whirring gently.
  1569. > The changeling is just finishing the last remnants of dinner and looks up in surprise as you enter.
  1570. > Dash's crimson eyes going wide in surprise at the sight of the drones.
  1571. > "Master? Is something wrong?"
  1572. > You fold your arms.
  1573. "Do you remember Dash, when I first brought you here - I told you that if I caught you trying to fly away, I'd just pluck out your feathers?"
  1574. > You said no such thing, of course, but the changeling takes it in stride.
  1575. > It cringes back, twitching it's - Dash's - wings in apprehension.
  1576. > "Master? Did I do something wrong?"
  1577. "I'm just going to add another rule."
  1578. > "Yes, Master?"
  1579. > You squat down bringing your head more or less level with that of the changeling.
  1580. "If I so much as see your horn spark, there won't be a punishment. The security drones will just shoot you."
  1581. > To the changeling's credit, it doesn't panic or try to flee.
  1582. > The series of emotions that goes across its face is interesting to watch, though.
  1583. > "How did you know?"
  1584. > You shrug.
  1585. "I have wards set up inside my own home. You tripped them, despite your disguise."
  1586. > There is no way you are explaining sensors and security feed recordings to a changeling.
  1587. > Not after this.
  1588. > It nods, head drooping. "Then I have failed."
  1589. "Indeed, and quite badly."
  1590. > "May I at least retake my own form?"
  1591. > You retreat to what you thought to be a safe distance before raising a hand to ward off the drones and giving an affirmative nod.
  1592. "Yes, you may. Nothing more, though."
  1593. > The burst of flame comes rapidly, leaving a blackened and hole-eaten body in its place.
  1594. > The changeling quickly drops into a bow, pressing its belly against the floor.
  1595. > "What is to become of me now, sir?"
  1596. "I don't honestly know. For now, you will remain here."
  1597. > "A prisoner."
  1598. "Yes, a prisoner. What will happen after that depends on what your queen offers to get you back - she's broken her word and made me quite angry, so it had better be quite a bit.
  1599. > The changeling shifts slightly in place, hissing unhappily at that.
  1600. > "She will offer. But, I will need to feed if I am to remain here for any period of time."
  1601. "How long? Until you need to feed?"
  1602. > "A few days at most, if I ration myself carefully."
  1603. "Hmmm. I hope your queen is as concerned for you as you think she will be."
  1604. > "She is. She cares for us, in her way."
  1605. "Good."
  1606. > You put aside that concern for a moment, hoping that Chrysalis really will be as pliable as this changeling thinks she is.
  1607. > Another question drifts up to take its place.
  1608. "How did you know to take that form?"
  1609. > The Changeling shifts again, as if unsure what to say.
  1610. > "My queen knew. I do not know how."
  1611. "I see. Well, you are going to follow me downstairs. I am going to fit you with a collar and keep you here until your queen negotiates your release, do you understand?"
  1612. > "Yes."
  1613. > You raise one eyebrow.
  1614. "You're being awfully compliant right now. We are not going to have any problems down the line, are we?"
  1615. > "It is my duty to my queen to escape, but you have me at weapon-point."
  1616. "So I do. Come on, then."
  1617. > The changeling endures being fitted with a collar without protest, its face blank of any discernible emotions.
  1618. > You link a short chain to the collar and leave it secured in the corner of your room while you go to get Dash.
  1619. > She's waiting just behind the door when it opens, wings half-spread and in an aggressive stance.
  1620. > "Master? Did you deal with it?"
  1621. "Yes, Dash. Come now, I need to have a talk with someone."
  1622. > The room you use for your monthly 'calls' to Dash's friends sometimes sees other use as well.
  1623. > In this case, the screen is already lit when you step into it - the drone having been dispatched earlier to the changeling camp.
  1624. > While you settle into your seat, it spirals lower and lower down towards the familiar shape of the changeling queen.
  1625. > Dash climbs to your lap as usual, looking out at the screen.
  1626. > She gapes in surprise as Chrysalis comes into view, but you silence her with a hand on her neck.
  1627. > On the screen, the changeling queen approaches the drone - staring slightly off to the right of the camera it carries.
  1628. > "Hmm. This is odd. He said it would be a day, and I see no maps..."
  1629. "Matters have changed."
  1630. > She manages to conceal well her surprise at your voice being projected from the drone's speakers.
  1631. > "Anonymous. This is a surprise."
  1632. "No it isn't, you scheming nag."
  1633. > Chrysalis' eyes narrow angrily, her gossamer wings beginning to fan her.
  1634. > "You found her, then."
  1635. > So it's a her? You'll keep that in mind.
  1636. "Yes. 'I don't play games with the fate of my swarm' indeed."
  1637. > She hisses angrily. "What happened to her?"
  1638. "Your infiltrator is safe for now. I have secured her and prevented her from escaping, but she is unharmed."
  1639. > Chrysalis nods; you can easily see the gears in her head turning as she processes this information.
  1640. "See, you've done a very bad thing, Chrysalis, and made me very angry. I don't know what the point of that little attempt was, but all it's succeeded in doing is making me angry.
  1641. > "I am prepared to negotiate-"
  1642. "You had better damn be prepared to negotiate, because I am quite close to simply calling dear Celestia and telling her where you can be found."
  1643. > Of course the fact that you had just told her that makes the threat carry far less weight.
  1644. > But it's still plenty enough.
  1645. > "What would you have me do?"
  1646. > Well now, this is interesting.
  1647. "Right now?"
  1648. > You shrug, even though she can't see it on her end.
  1649. "Right now, nothing. I will be holding on to your infiltrator for the time being. Rest assured, she will be treated well... so long as you don't try anything more."
  1650. > Dash squirms uncomfortably in your lap at that revelation, while Chrysalis' gaze snaps up sharply.
  1651. > "I will do so. You need not harm my servant; she was merely following my orders."
  1652. "I'll take that into consideration. For now - the maps and communications device will be delivered shortly. You may stay the day, but I want you gone by sundown. Do you understand?"
  1653. > "I do."
  1654. "Then get out of my sight."
  1655. > The feed fades as you close it, leaving you and Dash sitting in relative darkness.
  1656. > She shifts on your lap, her voice cautious considering your obvious bad mood.
  1657. > "Master?"
  1658. "Yes, Dash?"
  1659. > "Do you... have to keep the changeling around?"
  1660. > You look down, raising an eyebrow.
  1661. "Scared, Dash?"
  1662. > Even in the dim light her flush is visible.
  1663. > "No, just... I really, really don't want one of those things in my - your - home."
  1664. "I doubt it will be for a long time, Dash."
  1665. > "I know, but..."
  1666. > She shifts again. "I really don't like them."
  1667. "Well, you will live with it now. It's in one of my workrooms anyhow, you barely ever go in there."
  1668. > "Alright, sir."
  1669. > She lays her head back down in a bit of a huff.
  1670. > Chrysalis' comment about Dash adoring you comes back.
  1671. > ...was she worried about the changeling stealing your affection?
  1672. > Another thing to keep an eye on.
  1673. > Dash spends the remainder of the day waiting in your bedroom.
  1674. > Every time you peek in, she had been quietly staring out one of the windows.
  1675. > Pining for her lost chance to go outside, you suspect.
  1676. > The changeling, by contrast, seems infinitely curious.
  1677. > Even when you are not in the room, she circles constantly - straining to the edge of her collar's chain to allow her to investigate anything and everything in the room.
  1678. > You spent some time watching both of them on the camera feeds before getting down to other work.
  1679. > Namely, tracking Chrysalis' departing swarm and figuring out what you could gain from giving back her agent.
  1680. > By the time you lay down in bed that night - Dash laying alongside you, her chin resting near your shoulder - you still don't have a good answer.
  1681. > Morning comes far too soon.
  1682. > You roll over as the blasted sun manages to drive its way into your eyes.
  1683. > Or, at least you try.
  1684. > There's something in your way, a warm mass curled up on your chest.
  1685. > You put up a hand to stroke Dash's mane back; she makes a soft, happy chittering noise as you do.
  1686. > It takes your brain several moments to process several facts.
  1687. > 1: Dash does not make that noise, even when she is actually happy.
  1688. > 2: Dash's coat is smooth, but not this smooth.
  1689. > 3: There is a changeling in your house.
  1690. > Eyes shoot open to be met by the muzzle of a still-sleeping changeling laying sprawled across your chest.
  1691. > Your first thought is, ' the HELL did it get loose?!'
  1692. > Your second is that it's... actually kind of cute while asleep.
  1693. > The changeling has an utterly content look on its face.
  1694. > From this position, you can get quite a close look at the bed-intruder.
  1695. > Cautiously resuming your hand's rubbing yields more of that gentle chittering, a noise which you see is accompanied by a slight movement of its hind legs.
  1696. > What, are they like crickets or something?
  1697. > Hmm.
  1698. > Somehow, when contently sleeping it's not nearly as alien as it was the first time around.
  1699. > The gentle peace that sleep prings is apparently universal among all creatures.
  1700. > Even bug-pony-intruders.
  1701. > But it's still broken free, and gotten into your bed.
  1702. > Your hand closes around the Changeling's neck as you lift it off of you.
  1703. > Instantly it's awake, blue eyes searching wildly for what has it trapped.
  1704. > "Gah! Hey! Wha - oh! Where-?!"
  1705. > You stare flatly at it.
  1706. "What were you doing in my bed?"
  1707. > On your opposite side, Dash stirs - her voice equally mumbled as she claws back to consciousness. "Master? Wha's goin' on?"
  1708. > The changeling stirs, actually looking... emberassed?
  1709. > "I... uh... I don't know what happened, I just-"
  1710. > Before you can reply, the changeling is torn from your grip by a flying blue blur.
  1711. > "GET AWAY FROM HIM!"
  1712. > You watch awestruck as Dash and the changeling disappear into a whirling, angry ball of blows and yells of pain.
  1713. "You two, enough!"
  1714. > They don't even hear you, not slowing down for a moment.
  1715. > Dash gives a particularly sharp yelp as the changeling's jaws close over one of her legs.
  1716. "I SAID ENOUGH!"
  1717. > That time they hear you.
  1718. > It helped that you'd stood up out of bed and were now looming over both of them at your full height.
  1719. > " it bad, when he gets this angry?"
  1720. > Dash even forgets her apparent enmity with the changeling long enough to answer.
  1721. > "Oh, yeah. Reaaally bad."
  1722. > You point a single finger at the pegasus.
  1723. "Get downstairs, now. Go wait near the door to the basement. I will handle you later."
  1724. > Dash nods nervously and slinks off, tail swishing unhappily as she goes.
  1725. "And you..."
  1726. > You turn to the changeling, who shrinks back instinctively.
  1727. "I don't even know where to begin with you. How the hell did you even end up in my bed?!"
  1728. > She has the good sense to look bashful.
  1729. > "That was kind of my mistake. You see-"
  1730. > You hold up a hand to pause her.
  1731. "Okay, first - do you have a name?"
  1732. > "Chissik, sir."
  1733. "Right then - Chissik. Go ahead."
  1734. > "I was... kind of trying to escape. But I ended up here, and the affection between the two of you was just so interesting, I had to investigate..."
  1735. > The Chissik trails off, looking away.
  1736. "And?"
  1737. > "And, I... kind of got distracted... and fell asleep..."
  1738. > THIS was Chrysalis' best infiltrator?
  1739. > Your disbelief must have been visible on your face, because she snaps out at you.
  1740. > "Hey, listen - we're starving, all of us. It's been a long way from home, and we've got a long way to go so we have to ration what we do have! It... tasted really good."
  1741. > You get the feeling the changeling would be blushing bright red if it could.
  1742. > Another thought pops into your head.
  1743. "Am I going to start feeling any affects of this?"
  1744. > Chissik shakes her head. "No, I didn't drain you. Just siphoned off what you were giving off..."
  1745. "If you're lying..."
  1746. > "I'm not, I'm not!"
  1747. "Well, your kind doesn't exactly have a good track record right now."
  1748. > A brief silence pervades between the two of you before she speaks up again.
  1749. > "I know... but it's not a choice we really have."
  1750. "I disagree, but that is a debate for another time."
  1751. > "...what is to become of me?"
  1752. "I'm tracking your queen and her swarm. When she comes to a rest, I will contact her and state the new terms of our agreement."
  1753. > "And for now?"
  1754. "For now, I'm putting you in the basement. I don't even know how you managed to get your collar free of the chain it was on, but that's not happening again."
  1755. > Chissik hangs her head, hissing gently.
  1756. "I... understand. I will survive."
  1757. > You start down the stairs, the changeling walking in front of you.
  1758. > She's still awful obedient - probably assumes there's an armed drone or something watching her every move.
  1759. > Not an incorrect assumption, actually.
  1760. > You consider briefly putting the her in the room you used to punish Dash.
  1761. > After all, you severely doubted even a changeling could morph out of a cage, or whatever.
  1762. > But you weren't planning to keep this one forever, unlike Dash, and undoubtedly she would bring word back to her queen.
  1763. > Another room, then.
  1764. > Doesn't mean you can't implement some other more... unusual methods of control, though.
  1765. > Chissik isn't particuarly happy about them, though.
  1766. > As you run the chain through her leg-holes, she shivers slightly.
  1767. "Not something you guys like, hmm?"
  1768. > "We have come to terms with our nature, but... I have never had my own body used against me in such a way before."
  1769. > She tugs at the length of chain unhappily, but it does not give.
  1770. > You wish you could restrain her wings somehow as well, but this will have to work for now.
  1771. "Well, get used to it. Until I can deal with your queen, at least."
  1772. > She lays her head down, staring off at the wall.
  1773. > You think, anyway. It was never totally possible to tell where she was looking with those blue eyes unless you stared very hard.
  1774. > "And what do you intend to ask of her?"
  1775. > In truth, a thought had only just begun to form in your mind.
  1776. > Bouncing your idea off this changeling couldn't be to bad - even if she escaped, you were going to have to tell Chrysalis your plans soon anyhow.
  1777. "I'm going to humble her. She double-crossed me, so I'm going to force her to do something she won't ever want to do."
  1778. > "Which is?"
  1779. "Beg. To Celestia, or one of the other princesses."
  1780. > Chissik looks up sharply at that.
  1781. > "She is a proud queen, Anonymous. Caring, but proud. She will not beg easily."
  1782. "She all but did for a new home."
  1783. > Minus the bit where she was trying to mess with your head half the time, of course.
  1784. > "That was for a new home. For us. She will not do so easily otherwise."
  1785. "Then she should not forget I am well aware of her knew home."
  1786. > A slight amount of venom enters Chissik's voice for the first time.
  1787. > "You would play games with our lives? Our queen may not be gentle, but not even she does this."
  1788. "Hardly. In fact, if she sees sense, this may turn out the best for everyone - myself, the princesses, and your kin."
  1789. > "You will have to convince her of this. She will not want to be seen as weak."
  1790. "Then she shouldn't have tried to betray me."
  1791. > You stand, turning for the door.
  1792. "I think she's halfway to what I was planning anyhow; I am merely going to take it to its logical conclusion and make her grovel a bit in the process."
  1793. > With that you step out of the room, locking the door behind you.
  1794. > You still had a long talk to have with Dash, after all.
  1796. --------
  1798. > Dash is waiting for you.
  1799. > She's curled up in the corner of the room, her tail wrapped around her form.
  1800. > When you enter, her head perks up.
  1801. > "Master... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be bad! Please don't put me back-"
  1802. > Her voice is rapid and panicky.
  1803. "Relax, Dash. You're not going to be caged for this."
  1804. > The relief that washes through her is instantaneous and obvious.
  1805. > "Oh, thankyou, thankyou, thankyou!"
  1806. > You crack a small grin at Dash's display, kneeling down in front of her.
  1807. "Chissik wasn't supposed to be up there at all, and I cannot blame you for reacting badly to that - only for not stopping when I said to, and that's not worth boxing you."
  1808. > "Chissik? Is that...?"
  1809. > She makes a face that suggests the word changeling is physically unpleasant to say.
  1810. "Yes, it is. And no, she will not be leaving any time soon - although she has already been adequately restrained to prevent a repeat of that incident."
  1811. > You still needed to check the security feed and see how Chissik had managed to detach her collar in the first place.
  1812. > Dash looks surpremely uncomfortable at this pronouncement.
  1813. "For now, she is locked in the basement and won't be roaming freely any time soon."
  1814. > She nods slowly, just enough to indicate she won't contest your choice.
  1815. "There is, however, something else I am wondering about that needs to be answered."
  1816. > "Master?"
  1817. "You reacted very badly to seeing her up there. Admittedly, not without reason..."
  1818. > Dash nods slowly.
  1819. > "I... really don't like Changelings, you know? They hurt my friends, they kidnapped Scoots - they never go anywhere without causing problems."
  1820. > Somehow you doubt this, if Changelings have managed to survive this long.
  1821. > Attention is not something an infiltrator-race wants to attract.
  1822. > "Seeing it in there... I'm still Rainbow Dash, y'know? I don't back down from a fight, and it started it."
  1823. "Which is a very good explanation, Dash, except for one thing."
  1824. > She tenses, knowing you've caught her lie.
  1825. "You didn't tell it to get out of the house, or go die, or anything like that. You told it to get away from me."
  1826. > You reach down, slipping a finger beneath Dash's chin to tilt her head up to face you.
  1827. > She stares at you with her large, crimson eyes.
  1828. > Eyes filled with increasing worry as you delve into what is obviously an unwelcome topic.
  1829. "That's a very interesting thing to say, Dash. You just told me you didn't like Changelings because they hurt friends of yours."
  1830. > She tries to shink back, knowing exactly where you are going.
  1831. > Unfortunately, she can not go far.
  1832. "Were you worried for me, Dash?"
  1833. > She shifts in place, hooves doing a funny little dance.
  1834. > "I... didn't..."
  1835. "Awww..."
  1836. > You lift Dash up into your lap and start to scratch between her wings.
  1837. "That's adorable. You actually care for me."
  1838. > "Shut up!'
  1839. > The outburst is unusual for Dash, who surely knows how dangerous it is to say something like that to you.
  1840. > "You took me away from my friends, you hurt me and put me in that box... I don't care for you! I hate you! I hate what you're doing to me!"
  1841. > You raise one eyebrow, but don't stop Dash's rant - this is something she is going to have to confront at some point.
  1842. > Instead, you continue to stroke her back, listening to her angry words.
  1843. > "I- I hate that when I come out of that box I can't help but love your touch. I hate that I can't stop loving it. I hate that you're the only one who actually bucking cares anymore!"
  1844. > With that last comment she actually wriggles free of your arms and bursts off, running.
  1845. "You still stop, Dash!"
  1846. > Your voice carries just enough to reach her, and Dash freezes in place.
  1847. > Upset she may be, but an order is still an order.
  1848. "Come back here."
  1849. > Her eyes squeezed tight to keep the tears from flowing, Dash slowly turns and makes her way back to your side.
  1850. > "May I go please, master?"
  1851. "No. I want to talk about this, Dash. You're clearly not telling me everything."
  1852. > She grits her teeth, tail lashing.
  1853. > But she knows that there's no way out of this.
  1854. > "I... sometimes feel... like you're the only one caring for me, okay?!"
  1855. > Hrmm.
  1856. > If you had more time to work on this, you would push further.
  1857. > It's really not a good idea to let her keep secrets.
  1858. > But other matters demand your attention.
  1859. > You don't have the luxury of being able to carefully dig this out, and bludgeoning your way through Dash's thoughts until she reveals it could do more damage than help.
  1860. "Alright, Dash. You're off the hook for now."
  1861. > The relief is immediate, her muscles untensing.
  1862. > "Thank you, master."
  1863. "For now. We will have to come back to this again."
  1864. > "I get it, yeah."
  1865. > She sighs heavily.
  1866. > "Hey, um, master? Where's the... changeling?"
  1867. > You raise one eyebrow.
  1868. > That's an unusual request.
  1869. > Dash notices your questioning look and squirms.
  1870. > "I... want to see it. Someone close to me once was told that they had to face their fears. I want to face it."
  1871. > More than that, you suspect, she wished to regain some modicum of self-respect.
  1872. > Especially after the admission you had just wrung out of her, she was probably searching for any way to raise her self-esteem.
  1873. > And if she couldn't face down you, then she might try to at least face your prisoner.
  1874. "It's in the storeroom where you normally stay I will have to unlock the door if you want to see Chissik."
  1875. > Dash grimaces at your use of the changeling's name.
  1876. > "I'll behave, I promise. Please?"
  1877. "I know you will... later, though. I need to have a talk with someone now."
  1878. > "Alright, master."
  1879. > Unfortunately, contacting Chrysalis proves to be impossible.
  1880. > The swarm had scattered soon after leaving your home, it seems, to make the trip without being noticed.
  1881. > And the changeling tasked with carrying your communicator had taken a different route than Chrysalis.
  1882. > You wondered if that reflected Chrysalis' opinion of the value of your communicator.
  1883. > If she 'lost' it, you would be tempted to just outright turn their swarm over.
  1884. > Based on the courier's estimation of where he was, you suspected they would arrive at their new home within eight days.
  1885. > Not as soon as you would like, but not much that can be done about it.
  1886. > Besides, it would give time for you to reach out to another courier to do a favor for you...
  1888. --------
  1890. > Interestingly, Chrysalis is the one to contact you.
  1891. > Evidently she still holds some respect for your demands.
  1892. > Her reaction to your plan, though?
  1893. > About what you expected.
  1894. > In other words, raging anger.
  1895. > "NO! I completely and utterly refuse! I will never grovel for mercy before Celestia and her ilk!"
  1896. "I'm not asking you to grovel, Chrysalis."
  1897. > "That is exactly what you are telling me to do! I am the Queen of the Changelings! I do not beg for sustenance!"
  1898. "Bullshit. I know what you're going to do up there, Chrysalis."
  1899. > "You know nothin-"
  1900. "You're so close to the Crystal Empire you can probably smell it already. You couldn't ignore that kind of love if you wanted to. I'm just proposing a method that will avoid further confl-"
  1901. > "By making us beg for what we have always taken!"
  1902. > Your frustration is growing.
  1903. > That Chrysalis would not be pleased with your choice, you had expected.
  1904. > That she would totally fail to see the benefit in acceding to your demands, you had not.
  1905. > She was obviously a calculating ruler; you'd presumed that she would agree, even if just to try and pull a fast one later.
  1906. "Chrysalis... shut your ego off for a second and think about this. Your swarm is starving. You can kidnap a few ponies from the Crystal Empire, maybe, before you're noticed and caught on to."
  1907. > You lean forward towards the camera, frowning.
  1908. "What then, Chrysalis? Will you buy another home from me?"
  1909. > "There are other settlements-"
  1910. "Who will be warned. Your home in the badlands was safe because no ponies patrolled out there. You don't have that same margin of safety now. Besides..."
  1911. > You lean back and play your trump card.
  1912. "Think about your swarm, Chrysalis. You're pushing them to the limit already. I doubt they will survive another trip like this. My plan offers them time to recover."
  1913. > Chrysalis grimaces, making a face as though you were forcing a particularly disgusting-tasting food down her throat.
  1914. > "Celestia despises me. She will never consent to it unless I surrender-"
  1915. "Celestia will not be involved in the negotiations - not at first."
  1916. > She's grasping at straws now, trying to find any reason not to.
  1917. > "You mean to go directly to the pink wretch? She hates me too."
  1918. > Not without reason, you scheming roach.
  1919. "She hates you, but she is also the princess of love -"
  1920. > God that title still sounds wierd to you.
  1921. "-and she will undoubtedly find room in her heart to spare some of that love for the starving."
  1922. > "You haven't even talked to her yet, and you try to pressure me into this?!"
  1923. > Urgh, Chrysalis is back on one of her righteous anger sprees.
  1924. "If I cannot negotiate the other side of the deal, then you are off the hook as well."
  1925. > And will probably gloat to me about it until the sun burns out, too.
  1926. > Chrysalis makes that unhappy hiss-click noise, but slowly nods.
  1927. > "Then... in that case... I accept your terms, Anonymous. I will do as you bid, if you will not harm my swarm."
  1928. "Of course, I will make sure that they agree to leave you unmolested so long as you hold to your end of the agreement..."
  1929. > You lean forward, narrowing your eyes.
  1930. "And, it shouldn't need to be said, but you are on quite clear in that respect now, Chrysalis. You're getting one more chance now, but if I see you trying anything - at all - I will let Celestia burn you to the ground. Help her, even."
  1931. > "I get it, I get it."
  1932. "You'd better."
  1933. > "Speaking of which, my agent - is she still safe?"
  1934. "Chissik is quite safe, yes. And will remain so as long as you remain true to your word."
  1935. > "Good..."
  1936. > For just a moment, you think you might see a ripple of tenderness flash across the changeling queen's face.
  1937. > But then it is gone again.
  1938. "I will contact you again when the other half of my negotiations are complete."
  1939. > A soon as the connection closes, you are immediately connecting to another one of your communicators.
  1940. > Fortunately Chrysalis' delay had given your delivery-pony plenty of time to quietly drop this device off in the night to the Crystal Palace.
  1941. > As soon as the video feed opens, though, you know you have a problem.
  1942. "Shining Armor. What an unexpected surprise."
  1943. > "Anonymous."
  1944. > The stallion glares daggers at your face on the screen on his end.
  1945. > Internally you are cursing.
  1946. > Unlike Cadence, who you suspected to be soft at heart, Shining Armor was a military stallion first and foremost.
  1947. > And he did not like your activites, not one bit.
  1948. "I need to speak to Princess Cadence."
  1949. > "Oh? Planning on pulling her into one of your plots, Anonymous? I'll not have my wife mixed up up in your business."
  1950. > You grit your teeth angrily.
  1951. > All your planning, and this one idiot was going to stand in your way.
  1952. "How about we let her decide that, hmm?"
  1953. > "How about you turn yourself in for proper judgement by the princesses."
  1954. > How about you go bite rocks, you thickheaded grunt.
  1955. "This message is for Cadence only. What she chooses to do with it is her choice."
  1956. > "That's Princess Cadence to you, and if it's important enough for her it's enough for me."
  1957. > Okay so he may have a point there, being her husband and all.
  1958. > But there's no way Shining would agree to your plan straight off the bat.
  1959. > You doubted he would even hear it out.
  1960. > Time for another tactic.
  1961. "How about you go get Princess Cadence, bring her here, and then we can talk?"
  1962. > "How about you stop trying to pull her into your schemes!"
  1963. "There's no scheming here, Shining. Just a diplomatic message."
  1964. > "Then you can send it via the normal channels, instead of having one of the poor fools who you enslave with that lieing tongue of yours drop this thing off on our doorstep."
  1965. > Before you can reply, Shining cuts the communications link.
  1966. > Damn!
  1967. > You doubted he would even mention your call to Cadence.
  1968. > No way to get her attention with the comm unit.
  1969. > And Chrysalis was still waiting on your reply...
  1970. > What are you going to do now?
  1972. --------
  1974. > The answer comes to you a few moments later.
  1975. > In fact, you realize, Shining himself had given it to you.
  1976. > Go through the normal channels.
  1977. > Heh, he didn't think you'd actually do it, did he?
  1978. > Oh, did you have a surprise for him...
  1979. > With a chuckle, you switch over the connection and begin the first of several calls you are going to need to place.
  1980. > She responds quickly: "Well? Do you have something to report."
  1981. "I'm not a minion of yours, Chrysalis. But I'm going to need one of your changelings - preferably one with a great deal of experience acting..."
  1982. > It takes longer than you might think to get a response.
  1983. > But by late afternoon the next day, another incoming message pops up on your display.
  1984. > This time, instead of the blue-maned stallion you had encountered the previous day, it is a strikingly pink alicorn staring back at you.
  1985. "Your Highness. Good to speak with you at last. I hope my messenger wasn't to much trouble?"
  1986. > "A changeling revealing itself while I was holding court and pleading for my mercy did cause a fair amount of shock, Anonymous."
  1987. "My apologies, Your Highness. I found it neccessary to make a scene in order to get through. Your husband did not wish for us to talk."
  1988. > Cadence grimaces. "Yes, we had a... talk about it."
  1989. "Ah."
  1990. > Hopefully she wouldn't blame you for interrupting her perfect marital bliss.
  1991. > But having a Changeling plead her case in front of the entire court served to both alert the crystal princess and - hopefully - curry sympathy from the population.
  1992. "I hope my messenger is being treated respectfully?"
  1993. > "She has been imprisoned, but is being treated well and is safe."
  1994. "I will hold you to that. I have promised her safe return."
  1995. > "That is better than can be said for the prisoners you hold."
  1996. > Ouch.
  1997. > You frown.
  1998. "Not being very diplomatic there, Your Highness."
  1999. > "I will listen to your idea, Anonymous, but you are a criminal and a kidnapper. You're hurting one of Twily's friends; I'm not under any obligation to like you."
  2000. > Well then.
  2001. > About what you had expected, but at least she's talking to you.
  2002. "Then let us get down to business."
  2003. > "Is what she said, true, then? They are starving?"
  2004. "Absolutely. I admit to not knowing a great deal about your Crystal Heart, but from what I do know, it should be able to provide them some stability."
  2005. > "I won't just allow them inside the city. Not after what they did."
  2006. "I don't expect you to."
  2007. > "How, then?"
  2008. "A small group of Changelings will be allowed to visit each week and absorb as much love energy as they can. Your guards will accompany them."
  2009. > Cadence's eyes narrow as you explain.
  2010. > "I won't just let them drain my ponies."
  2011. > YOu mightily resist the urge to roll your eyes.
  2012. "Do you think me a fool, Your Highness? The Changelings should be able to absorb the 'love' directly."
  2013. > "How can you be so certain?"
  2014. > You grin, finally back on more stable territory.
  2015. "Let us say that I have had an experimental subject to test that theory on."
  2016. > Chissik had been providing you a wealth of knowledge on Changelings, actually.
  2017. > For instance, that she had been apparently feeding off of you enough to survive comfortably without draining you.
  2018. > You'd made absolutely certain that your behavior hadn't been affected, repeating the test with Dash just to be sure.
  2019. > Heh, Dash would probably hate you if she ever found out about that.
  2020. > "And the Changelings, Anonymous - what do they pay?"
  2021. "For one, no more kidnappings. No more imprisonments. Any victims they still hold will be released."
  2022. > Cadence's eyebrows rise.
  2023. > "They agreed to this?"
  2024. "If it makes you feel better about it, Chrysalis is absolutely furious about this. She hates the idea, but has little choice."
  2025. > "That... parasite would hate anything less than total domination."
  2026. "Indeed. But I have a degree of leverage over her, and she over her changelings. Enough to enforce this deal, at least on their end."
  2027. > "And what do you get out of this, Anonymous? You never do anything that does not benefit you either."
  2028. > Her tone is accusatory.
  2029. > Then again, she isn't wrong.
  2030. "My cost to Chrysalis is her obedience in this agreement - repayment for a mistake she made. But that's not what you're asking, is it?"
  2031. > "No, it isn't. What do you want from me?"
  2032. > You un-knit your fingers and lean forward towards the camera.
  2033. "The answer, Your Higness, is respect. I want to show that whatever measures I took to defend myself, I am not a maniac. I am reasonable, and can be worked with rather than fought."
  2034. > "You want to escape punishment for your crimes."
  2035. > That she would view you with the same distaste as the other princesses is something you'd entirely expected.
  2036. > But it is still frustrating to hear Cadence clinging to their absolute, black-and-white view.
  2037. "Call it what you want - but you're saving lives, Your Higness. Don't forget that."
  2038. > "And if I refuse, you will smear me by making sure it is known that I denied the Changelings a chance at peace. You already started it with that stunt at court."
  2039. > She's good; you might have underestimated her experience in these matters.
  2040. > Your hesitation is the only confirmation Cadence needs.
  2041. > "You're scum, Anonymous. What happens if they betray you? I will not put my ponies at risk."
  2042. "If they betray you..."
  2043. > You let a small smile slip on to your face - a cold, grim smirk.
  2044. "If they renege this agreement, Your Highness, I will remind them that while I try not to be a monster I am capable of playing the role when need be."
  2045. > Cadence shudders at that, her wings twitching slightly.
  2046. > A sign of nervousness - you've seen the same in Dash often enough.
  2047. > Probably left over from her time before her ascension; unlike Twilight, the crystal princess had always had her wings.
  2048. > "I will... take it under consideration. Assuming you can keep the Changelings under control."
  2049. "Good."
  2050. > "On two conditions."
  2051. > One eyebrow is raised as you wait for her to enumerate them.
  2052. > "One, I want to know how you got that Changeling into court. There are guards, wards on the palace. How did it evade them?"
  2053. "It didn't. One of your guards owed me a favor - a big one."
  2054. > Cadence sputters wordlessly.
  2055. "Convincing him that your guest didn't pose a threat was not easy. I presume she will be released, by the way?"
  2056. > "IF the deal you propose is agreed to."
  2057. "I would advise you to do so sooner. Perhaps use her to send back word to the rest that you are interested in negotiating."
  2058. > "I can make my own decisions, thank you very much."
  2059. "Merely a suggestion. What's the second condition?"
  2060. > "I want to talk to Rainbow Dash."
  2061. > Your eyebrows rise.
  2062. > Of all the various conditions she could have set, that was not one you expected.
  2063. "I believe that could be arranged. She has monthly conversations with Twilight and the other elements via a screen like this one-"
  2064. > Cadence shakes her head, mouth set in a grim line.
  2065. > "No. I want to meet her face-to-face."
  2066. > Hrm.
  2067. > None of Dash's other friends had never even suggested an in-person meeting - except for that griffon.
  2068. > Likely, you think, because she doesn't trust you to keep your word.
  2069. > Does Cadence?
  2070. > Or is she playing a longer game?
  2071. > Celestia you knew to be wary of, Luna was no immediate threat, and Twilight was held at bay by her friend's captivity.
  2072. > But Cadence was an enigma.
  2073. > You simply didn't have enough information to get a solid judge of her character.
  2074. > "Well, Anonymous?"
  2075. > You force your face back into a careful mask of pointed neutrality.
  2076. "I propose a compromise. You will talk to her remotely now, and our deal regarding the Changelings will go through. Once that is in place you will be allowed to visit in the future, when your presence is not demanded."
  2077. > She studies you long and hard, both of you looking for any hint to the other's intentions.
  2078. "Come now, Your Highness. We both clearly distrust each other, but a first step has to be taken somewhere."
  2079. > "I agree, then."
  2080. > You allow the first honest smile in a while to slip on to your face."
  2081. "Excellent. If you will wait, Your Highness, I will call Dash down here."
  2082. > She does wait.
  2083. > Dash, though is hesitant.
  2084. > After all, the last time you told her that someone 'wanted to speak to her', it ended up being a former friend she had barely seen.
  2085. > Eventually, though, her multicolored-mane-topped-head pokes through the doorway.
  2086. > "You wanted to see me, master?"
  2087. > You hear a sharp intake of breath from the screen as Cadence hears Dash refer to you as her master.
  2088. > Had she not been told anything about what your relationship with Dash was?
  2089. > Dash, in turn, looks at the screen and promptly gasps before falling into a bow.
  2090. > "Your Highness!"
  2091. > You feel a twinge of jealousy within your chest.
  2092. > In time, you know, you will command that sort of automatic devotion from Dash.
  2093. > She catches your eye and almost imperceptibly flinches, knowing she has made a mistake.
  2094. "It seems Her Highness wishes to speak to you, Dash. I will be leaving you to your conversation, as normal."
  2095. > And as normal, you should be very wary what you say, Dash.
  2096. > She nods slowly, moving to stand before the camera.
  2097. > "H-Hey, Your Highness."
  2098. > "Rainbow, please. You may just call me Cadence."
  2099. > "Oka-"
  2100. > And then the door shuts behind you, cutting off all sound.
  2101. > It is not the last you hear, though.
  2102. > Mere moments later you have an audio feed up from within the room.
  2103. > "-ainbow, please, talk to me?"
  2104. > "Dunno what t'say."
  2105. > "Anything you would like me to pass on to Twilight?"
  2106. > Dash's voice is sharper, more pained.
  2107. > "No."
  2108. > "What in Tartarus did he do to you?!"
  2109. > There are some rustling noises before Dash answers back, far more quiet than before.
  2110. > "Sorry, Yo- Cadence. He... he's not all that bad, honestly."
  2111. > One of your eyebrows rises.
  2112. > Was she betting on your listening in and trying to earn brownie points?
  2113. > "I heard he clipped your feathers, Rainbow Dash. That's... beyond unacceptable."
  2114. > A pained bark of laughter prefaces Dash's response.
  2115. > "Been talking to princess egghead, have you?"
  2116. > There's a sharp gasp from Cadence - Dash must've opened her wings to show her.
  2117. > "Yeah, he did."
  2118. > "Rainbow, I-"
  2119. > "He says it's so he wouldn't have to hurt me if I tried to fly, or keep me locked up all the time."
  2120. > "He cut your bucking feathers, Rainbow Dash. That's... nobody does that! Not even pirates or griffon raiders!"
  2121. > Coming from a princess, the swear sounds out of place - a testament to how much this must be getting to her.
  2122. > She pauses, before continuing in a softer voice.
  2123. > "I was a pegasus before I earned my crown, Rainbow Dash. I can't even imagine what being like that must be doing to you."
  2124. > Damn!
  2125. > One hand tightens around the comp-pad.
  2126. > "I... wouldn't be flying anyway. It's not that bad..."
  2127. > Now Dash is outright lying; you know how much she hates being clipped.
  2128. > "Does Twilight know?"
  2129. > "She knows."
  2130. > A quiet sob follows. Out of your presence, Dash is finally allowing herself to cry.
  2131. > "S-she knows. They all do. They won't do anything."
  2132. > "Won't, or can't?"
  2133. > "Won't. They're... to afraid to try. B-besides, he's not bad all the time."
  2134. > "Really?" The question is tinged with a sarcastic tone; Cadence doesn't sound like she believes that.
  2135. > You know you wouldn't.
  2136. > "Y-yeah. I mean, he k-keeps me in line, but never hurts me bad. And he..."
  2137. > Dash goes quiet.
  2138. > "He what, Rainbow? He isn't... forcing himself on you, is he?"
  2139. > "Celestia, no! Urgh!"
  2140. > "What, then?"
  2141. > "He... always remembers me. Twilight, Flutters, Pinkie, AJ - they haven't come, even to visit, even though they know I'm not okay. But he never forgets me..."
  2142. > A long silence follows.
  2143. > "You're.... not thinking right, Rainbow."
  2144. > "No. No! I'm serious! He always thinks about me, even if it's... not good. When I've done something wrong."
  2145. > Cadence's voice rises in response.
  2146. > "I mean it. Your friends were one thing, but what you're saying, this is really wrong."
  2147. > "You haven't seen him when he's in a good mood! He's..."
  2148. > She seems to have trouble saying it.
  2149. > "He can be nice, Princess. He can."
  2150. > You've paused what you were doing, now listening intently.
  2151. > It was obvious that Dash had come to rely on you in some respects, in certain situations you planned out.
  2152. > But this was entirely different.
  2153. > This was progress.
  2154. > "I know it sounds all wrong, Princess, but seriously! He... he can be okay."
  2155. > "Rainbow, I... I need to go. I'll... I'll get Twilight to come, alright? Please, just hold on a bit longer..."
  2156. > "Just trust me, please! You don't have to do that!"
  2157. > "No, Rainbow. I have to go."
  2158. > "Princess, don't-"
  2159. > The sound of rapidly fading hoofbeats comes through the feed; as Dash was still locked in the room, it seemed a safe bet that Cadence must have fled.
  2160. > Hrm.
  2161. > Seeing Dash had obviously deeply affected her.
  2162. > Agreeing to that conversation may have been a mistake.
  2163. > Either way, you will leave Dash be for a bit longer; no need to let her know you were listening by barging in as soon as she finished.
  2164. > When you do go to open the door, though, it's obvious things have progressed in your absence.
  2165. > Namely, Dash has gone from sitting on your chair to curled up in a corner, her multihued tail wrapped around herself and one wing extended to form a feathery barrier against the rest of the world.
  2166. > As your footsteps approach, it lowers itself a bit - just enough for you to see one eye peering through at you.
  2167. > Your gaze locks with hers, and immediately the barrier raises itself again - shortened feathers spreading to cover as much of her head as she can.
  2168. > Kneeling beside her, you hear a soft sniffle issues from beyond the feathery wall.
  2169. > Ah.
  2170. > She's been crying, then.
  2171. "Dash."
  2172. > "Go the buck away."
  2173. > Her voice is hoarse and even scratchier than normal, but it's the pain and venom in it that really strikes you.
  2174. > In response, your own voice is hard and forceful.
  2175. "You know not to talk to me like that, Dash."
  2176. > "I don't care... I'm nothing anymore anyway."
  2177. "Now, that's not true, Dash."
  2178. > "Buck yeah it is! I'm supposed to be the element of loyalty! Sticking with my friends through the worst storms! I can't believe I told Princess Cadence that..."
  2179. "What did you tell her?"
  2180. > She looks up in surprise, obviously having anticipated your listening in.
  2181. > Quickly her gaze falls away though, her tail flicking nervously.
  2182. > "Can I... can I not say, master? I don't want to talk about it..."
  2183. "I'm afraid not, Dash. If you told her something important, I need to know."
  2184. > "I... I said that I sometimes feel like my friends don't even care about me anymore, and that you're the only one who thinks of me..."
  2185. > She actually buries her muzzle into the carpeted floor in front of her, leaving you straining to hear the next few words.
  2186. > "I was just... just so angry. I betrayed all my friends. I'm not even me anymore..."
  2187. "Shhh..."
  2188. > Dash stiffens as you lift her up and against your shoulder, both arms wrapping tight around her.
  2189. "You didn't say anything wrong, Dash. You're just admitting what you've been seeing for a long time now. I know it hurts, but that's the truth."
  2190. > "But... it isn't! You're a monster, Anonymous. You kidnapped me, you're making me feel all wrong like this... I just didn't want her to do anything that might make trouble."
  2191. "Am I the only one forcing you to do that, Dash? Can you look at me and honestly say that?"
  2192. > "No... but I'm not honesty. That's AJ's gig. If she - if they all - could see me now, they would probably-"
  2193. > Abruptly Dash pulls back from your shoulder, staring at you with a newfound look of horror.
  2194. > "Oh, Celestia! Cadence said she was still going to get Twilight to come; I hope she doesn't do try any fancy magic or anything! Master, please don't hurt them if they come - let me talk to them, I'm sure I can keep them from-"
  2195. > You put a finger to her lips, stopping her.
  2196. "If they come, I will give them the same chance I give any other visitor: They will be allowed to speak their piece, and I will consider it. I can't promise anything if they attack me from the start, though."
  2197. > It's a lie, of course.
  2198. > There's no way you're giving up Dash, no matter how hard Twilight argues.
  2199. > "Please, master! I don't want to see them hurt... I'll be yours, I'll obey anything if you promise not to hurt them."
  2200. "What you do will have little bearing then. They know the risks of trying to harm me; if they try it anyhow, then... well, I think any loyalty they had for you is long since gone."
  2201. > Is gone.
  2202. > Not would be.
  2203. > You wonder if Dash notices the difference, but she just nods slowly, resting her head back on your shoulder again.
  2204. > "Even if they aren't loyal to me, I need to be loyalty to them. I have to be loyal."
  2205. > You feel a cold wetness run down your neck, though she has not audibly begun to cry again.
  2206. > Silently you leave the room, carrying the both of you back to your office now that her conversation is over.
  2207. "Don't worry, Dash. Even if your friends abandon you, even if they try and hurt me knowing the cost to you, even if you aren't the element of loyalty anymore... you'll still be my little bluebird."
  2208. > "T-Thank you, master... I... I feel sick."
  2209. "That's your emotions hitting you, Dash. Let them out, and you'll feel better."
  2210. > "But you told me not to-"
  2211. "I'm making an exception. You can let yourself cry in front of me this time."
  2212. > And cry she does.
  2213. > You simply sit there, calmly resting one hand on the back of her head, allowing her to cry until her sobs peter out into soft sniffles.
  2214. > At some point you look down and find that Dash has fallen asleep, the tracks of tears drying on her cheeks.
  2215. > A gentle smile graces your lips as you allow your hand to come to rest over one wing.
  2216. > It takes a while, but Dash eventually stirs in your lap.
  2217. > She still doesn't talk for a while longer, but finally speaks again with a small, cautious voice.
  2218. > "You're going to have to punish me for snapping at you, aren't you?"
  2219. "Yes, Dash. I am."
  2220. > "I won't fight you... just please, please don't hurt my friends if they come while I'm in there."
  2221. "Oh, Dash..."
  2222. > You slips a hand beneath her chin, tilting her head back until her crimson eyes meet yours.
  2223. "I'm not going to put you in the cage, Dash. That is for far, far worse things than merely talking back to me... but you will have to be punished."
  2224. > She nuzzles into your chest anyhow, eyes closed and relief obviously flooding through her.
  2225. > "Thank you, master. Thank you so much..."
  2226. "No, there'll be no cage for this."
  2227. > You slip a hand around her neck, scratching lightly.
  2228. "Instead, you get to help me feed the changeling."
  2230. --------
  2232. > Dash shudders heavily.
  2233. > For all the time Chissik had been here so far, Dash had never done more than observe her at a distance on the rare occasions you let Chissik out of her impromptu cell.
  2234. > It didn't seem like hatred to you, merely discomfort.
  2235. > "I... I'll do it, master."
  2236. "I know you will, Dash."
  2237. > You scratch lightly behind one ear, her head unconsciously rocking back to seek out your fingers.
  2238. "And remember, if she harms you I will not hesitate to punish her either."
  2239. > Though you doubted she would try anything on Dash at this moment.
  2240. > Ever since you had seized her she had been the very model of obedience.
  2241. > Which was, of course, why you did not trust her one bit.
  2242. > But if Chissik was playing a long game, you doubted she would leap at such a poor opportunity.
  2243. > "Master? When do we have to go?"
  2244. "Not quite yet. Bring both our dinners to the dining room; we'll eat and then see to my prisoner."
  2245. > Dash nods, hopping down from your lap.
  2246. > Being used as a maid or servant was up there on her list of disliked activities as well, but it certainly ranked above being used as a walking food source.
  2247. > Dinner is a silent affair - Dash's increasing discomfort as her upcoming task approaches stifling any possible conversation.
  2248. > By the time she finishes her last mouthfuls, you have summoned a quartet of drones to handle the remaining dishes.
  2249. "Come, Dash. You've made us late already.
  2250. > She follows behind you, maintaining a steady distance from your even as you return back downstairs to the former storage room that had become Chissik's residence.
  2251. > Guess she isn't really that scared, or she would probably be sticking closer to you.
  2252. > The door unlocks with a soft beep-click, sliding aside to reveal the slightly altered room beyond.
  2253. > After Chissik had started regurgitating some kind of goo that rapidly cured into a strong, yet stretchy substance to form her own sleeping area, a bed had been a necessary inclusion.
  2254. > While you were intrigued by the properties samples had shown in your lab, you preferred your rooms un-slimed.
  2255. > She spent much of her time on the mattress you had provided now; apparently Changelings were capable of sleeping for extended periods when necessary.
  2256. > Nevertheless, she never failed to meet you when you arrived - a useful skill when dealing with a ruler as temperamental as Chrysalis, you supposed.
  2257. > Even as the door slides open, Chissik was already leaping down from the bed.
  2258. > As you step in, she falls into one of her typical deep bows.
  2259. > "Master, a very good evening to you."
  2260. "Chissik."
  2261. > Her head tilts up slightly, just in time to catch Dash cautiously stepping into the room behind you.
  2262. > "Oh! You've brought company!"
  2263. > Her voice stretches the last 'Y' out, leaving it hanging in a slightly disconcerting tone.
  2264. > You move to the chairs you left in the room, motion Dash over to your side.
  2265. > She follows, but never once looks away from Chissik.
  2266. > Her remains a rigid mask of dislike as she regards the Changeling.
  2267. > When she is close enough you casually reach out and take hold of Dash's collar.
  2268. "Sit."
  2269. > She does, but continues to lock eyes with Chissik.
  2270. > The Changeling, by contrast, looks up hopefully to you.
  2271. > "May I...?"
  2272. "Of course."
  2273. > Chissik carefully steps over, each step producing a soft clink-clink as she pulled her chain with her.
  2274. > You had not removed the chain hobble run through the odd holes in her forelegs, nor did you particularly intend to.
  2275. > It had been lengthened, however, both to allow her to explore the extents of her room and to serve as a functional leash on the occasion you allowed her out.
  2276. > With short, rapid steps Chissik closes the distance between herself and Dash, leaning in to cautiously sniff at Dash's face.
  2277. > Your bluebird's head rears back in response to the sniffing and her wings half-spread.
  2278. > A slight jerk on the collar reminds her of her place, but it doesn't stop her from tilting her head away from Chissik's inquisitive muzzle, ears flat back.
  2279. > At last Chissik rears back full, nodding almost in satisfaction.
  2280. > "Rainbow Dash... I am pleased to meet you face-to-face at last. I am Chissik, but I think our master has already told you this?"
  2281. > "Yeah, he did."
  2282. > Dash looks up at you, her eyes pleading with you to let this be over with already.
  2283. "Now, now, Dash. Be nice to our guest."
  2284. > She huffs gently and tries to squat down away from Chissik.
  2285. > It doesn't help much.
  2286. > Chissik, on the other hand, is looking quite pleased - like a cat that has just caught the biggest mouse ever.
  2287. > Stepping forward, she raises one hoof - shaking it briefly to make sure enough length is available on the chain running through it - and inquisitively prods at one of Dash's wings.
  2288. > Instantly Dash's head is back up again, eyes narrowed.
  2289. > "Hey! Hooves off!"
  2290. "Now, now, Chissik - don't forget your place."
  2291. > "Apologies, master..."
  2292. > She dips her head to you in a small bow.
  2293. > Turning again to Dash, she tilts her head.
  2294. > "You are Rainbow Dash, yes? It is very good to meet you face-to-face."
  2295. > The question is rhetorical, you are sure.
  2296. > After all, if she knew how to respond when pretending to be Dash...
  2297. > "Yeah, I am. So what?"
  2298. > Your bluebird's tone suggests she wishes for nothing more than this conversation to end, as soon as possible.
  2299. > Preferable immediately.
  2300. > Chissik's voice, on the other hand, conveys nothing but a carefully-controlled respect.
  2301. > "I mean no offense, element of loyalty."
  2302. > "You know who I am?"
  2303. > "Indeed; you are known, even to us. we Changelings hold great respect for the tenets you embody."
  2304. > Dash snorts gently.
  2305. > "Oh yeah? I kinda doubt that."
  2306. > "Though we may find ourselves at odds with each other, it is the truth. We know the necessity of loyalty."
  2307. > Dash narrows her eyes and looks away, obviously having trouble matching the idea of changelings and loyalty.
  2308. > "Loyalty to hive, to our kin, to those who rule and provide for us, to our Mother-Queen - these are things we demand of each other, yes."
  2309. > A noncommittal grunt is the only response.
  2310. > The true interest of the conversation for you is watching Chissik's actions.
  2311. > For instance, the barely noticeable glance towards you as she mentioned 'those who rule and provide for us'.
  2312. > Compared to her loss of control when you had first seized her, the former infiltrator has become increasingly adept at choosing her words and actions.
  2313. > Often you found yourself having to be exceedingly careful of what words she spoke when conversing with her yourself.
  2314. > "So, uh... what did you hear about me, then? I mean, do other Changelings bring back news, or what?"
  2315. > "Great things! We have heard of the time you put yourself at risk or gave up a personal gain to protect those you are loyal to. Such things are very honorable."
  2316. > And now she is openly playing Dash right in front of you.
  2317. > A subtle assertion that she can be just as dominant as you, or an honest attempt to engage the captive pegasus in the only way an infiltrator knows to?
  2318. > Dash, though, is just looking confused.
  2319. > "You think what I did was... honorable?"
  2320. > "Yes..."
  2321. > Chissik stretches out the 's' with a soft hiss-clicking noise.
  2322. > Chrysalis had done something similar, but while hers had sounded angry or aggressive, Chissik's is softer.
  2323. > Almost like a cat purring, especially with the almost imperceptible tremble you see run through her body.
  2324. > "Loyalty to the hive, Rainbow Dash - this is something we all must give. Even the task that brought me here, I accepted without complaint."
  2325. > Her wings ruffling unhappily, Dash shakes her head.
  2326. > "But you - loyalty is about doing what's right, and you just hurt ponies!"
  2327. > "I act so that my brothers and sisters of the hive may survive. Is this wrong?"
  2328. > She lifts one hoof, the chain running through it clinking softly.
  2329. > "I chose to accept that task, even at the cost of my freedom. Is that disloyal, Rainbow Dash?"
  2330. > Dash glances down to the chain, her eyebrows furrowing.
  2331. > It's as if she is realizing for the first time that Chissik is just as much a prisoner as she.
  2332. > "I... don't know..."
  2333. > Time for you to step in.
  2334. "I think you've done plenty well for now, Dash. You may go."
  2335. > She rises unsteadily, giving a nod to you.
  2336. > "O-okay, master. I, um... I'll be upstairs?"
  2337. "I'll be there soon, Dash."
  2338. > Her tail swishes nervously as she retreats through the door, leaving you alone with the captive Changeling.
  2339. "I hope you enjoyed that, Chissik?"
  2340. > The changeling nods, eyes half-closed.
  2341. > "Her adoration... is quite filling."
  2342. > Adoration, not love.
  2343. > Chrysalis had used that word for what Dash felt for you as well.
  2344. "I am glad you enjoyed it. I did promise you to find a way to reward your obedience, and you've done very well."
  2345. > "Thank you again, master. I... think I could last few several days on that."
  2346. > She gives another happy little shudder and leans her head over on your leg.
  2347. > You chuckle softly, reaching down to rub at the fin-like crest that rises along the back of her neck.
  2348. "Though I have to admit, putting on that level of a show was... unexpected."
  2349. > She looks up at you, blinking her solid-blue eyes curiously.
  2350. > "It was not a show, master. We do honor loyalty and its bearer, even if we must take from the ponies."
  2351. > You search her face, but can find no hint of a lie...
  2352. > ...though that doesn't mean one isn't being told.
  2353. > Your gaze bores in on Chissik, and after a moment she looks away self-consciously.
  2354. > "It was easier to feed once she was not so angry with me, though."
  2355. "Ah, I see."
  2356. > You let a small smirk cross your face, glad that you were right.
  2357. > "She is proud, master. But she looks to you now, I can taste it. It is... not unlike what we feel for the mother-Queen."
  2358. "Oh? Not unlike, but not like either?"
  2359. > "No. Not the same."
  2360. > Interesting.
  2361. > You run your hand
  2362. "And tell me, Chissik. If she feels what you do for the mother queen, do I need to worry about your loyalties."
  2363. > She pauses, wings whirring slightly.
  2364. > "Master... I know who I serve now. I will not harm you."
  2365. "And why should I believe that, Chissik?"
  2366. > Careful to avoid the protruding fangs, your hand slips beneath her chin and tilts her head back to look at you.
  2367. "You were, after all, sent to infiltrate and attempted escape once before. Why should I at all believe you to be telling the truth?"
  2368. > "Were I to turn on you now, you would undoubtedly take your anger out on my brothers and sisters. I do not wish for them to be harmed."
  2369. > One eyebrow rises; Chissik did have a point there.
  2370. > "My Queen has not ordered me to attempt escape regardless of the consequences, and... I find myself content here."
  2371. > You chuckle softly, a hand beginning to scratch along the back of her neck again.
  2372. "At least you care to admit it."
  2373. > Chissik has leaned herself back into your fingers, both for the physical affection and, you suspect, the emotional affection she absorbs from them.
  2374. > "Rainbow Dash is as much a hostage here as I, and I as much as she. Sbe will not harm me, and
  2375. > "I will not hide things from you, Master. I am yours for now."
  2376. > You give her an extra scratch for that.
  2377. > It might be feeding your ego a bit, but you can find no inconsistencies in what Chissik has said.
  2378. "Very well, then."
  2379. > You stand; Chissik brushes herself against your leg again, wings buzzing happily.
  2380. > Another soft chuckle, and you turn to leave the room.
  2381. > As you are about to head for the door, however, a sudden burst of noise erupts from just beyond it.
  2382. > Your head emerges into the hall just in time to see the tips of a multicolored tail disappearing upstairs.
  2383. > Dash had been listening to all that?
  2384. > Hmm.
  2385. > It takes little time to secure the room again, it is not nearly fast enough for you.
  2386. > You call out as you reach the first floor again, head swiveling for any sign of her.
  2387. "Dash! Where are you? I need to talk to you."
  2388. > Unfortunately, there is no response.
  2389. > There are only so many places for her to hide, though, and you manage to locate Dash soon enough.
  2390. > You had brought some exercise machines up to one of the rooms a while back as a means to keeping Dash in shape.
  2391. > She also started to use them as a means to blow off steam and clear her mind when angry - a substitute, however poor, for her old exercise.
  2392. > It is in this room you find her - furiously galloping all-out on a treadmill.
  2393. > You consider stepping in and immediately demanding her attention, but decide not to.
  2394. > For a delicate moment like this, a softer touch is required.
  2395. > Instead you simply lean against the doorway, watching Dash pound on the rubber belt.
  2396. > She is charging all out, eyes narrow and breathing heavily.
  2397. > She even keeps her wings beating in time with her pace, as if she could simply soar away from all this.
  2398. > Finally the treadmill is brought to a halt, Dash's sides heaving and coat running with sweat.
  2399. > She stands there for a minute more, eyes closed, before she speaks.
  2400. > "I know you've been watching me, Master. What is it?"
  2401. > You chuckle softly.
  2402. "You were listening in on us."
  2403. > She nods slowly.
  2404. > "I wanted to know what you were going to talk about with... that bug."
  2405. " 'That bug' has more in common with you than you care to admit."
  2406. > "I know."
  2407. > Dash's voice has fallen to a frustrated growl, and she her head hangs - her damp mane falling around her face.
  2408. > "I know, and I don't get it! That thing is the evil one, and the bad guys aren't supposed to do things like give themselves up! That's not..."
  2409. > She sinks down onto her belly, staring off into one wall.
  2410. > You wander over to the treadmill's side, resting one elbow on it.
  2411. "Some day, Dash, you're going to have to confront the fact that not everything is clear-cut good and evil... and almost never just exactly as your princess tells you it is."
  2412. > For a moment, she seems to be ready to snap back a reply, but instead just lays her head down again.
  2413. > You lean over and snuff lightly, grinning.
  2414. "...also, Dash? You kind of need a shower."
  2415. > Dash twists her head to sniff under one wing.
  2416. > "Yeah. I guess I kind of do."
  2417. > She hops off the treadmill, plodding to her bathroom.
  2418. > A separate one had been found to be absolutely necessary soon after you brought her in.
  2419. > That shedding, seriously.
  2420. > You follow behind, leaning against the doorframe as she heads for the tub.
  2421. > Dash gives a quick look over her shoulder, as if to question whether you really meant to stay for this.
  2422. > Fortunately ponies didn't seem to have such a powerful privacy instinct as humans, probably something relating to how they walked around naked nearly all the time.
  2423. > And you had made it clear early on that Dash could expect to be watched at all times.
  2424. > So the look she gives you is more one of resigned annoyance than true anger.
  2425. > The bathroom fills with the rush of running water as she showerhead opens up, and soon heavy clouds of rising steam follow.
  2426. > "Master?"
  2427. > Dash's voice is cautious, as if she still fears your wrath.
  2428. > "Do you... like the Changeling?"
  2429. "The Changeling? Chissik, you mean."
  2430. > "Yeah..."
  2431. > She is busy using her wings to try and rub a lather of shampoo into her coat, but still talks.
  2432. > "I mean... she tried to break in, right? I know you'd be really, really angry if I tried anything like that."
  2433. > You give a soft hum, considering how to answer Dash.
  2434. "Two parts to this answer, Dash."
  2435. > Wandering over, you sit down near the edge of the tub.
  2436. "I admit some sympathy for the Changelings, if not for their queen. I know what it feels like to be hunted for merely doing what one must to survive. They need my help."
  2437. > "And the other part?"
  2438. "Chissik is a playing piece in a far more immediate game. She understands that her position affords her some safety, but I will punish her if pushed... so she does not push."
  2439. > Dash shoves her head directly under the heated spray of water, eyes shut and mouth locked into a small frown.
  2440. > It isn't hard to guess her concern.
  2441. "No, Dash, you are not being treated any worse. Admittedly the princesses' hostility is not helping, but I do not punish you simply because I can."
  2442. > She pulls her head out again, nodding.
  2443. > "I know, Master... she isn't even free to walk around the house. But, sometimes it feels like you're giving her the foal treatment."
  2444. > You nod slightly as the water shuts off, Dash's sodden form climbing out again.
  2445. "Meet me in my room when you are done drying off."
  2446. > It doesn't take long.
  2447. > Dash, from what you can tell, had never been one to particularly care about personal appearances.
  2448. > Previously you suspect she would have forgone a towel entirely in favor of simply air-drying in mid-flight.
  2449. > Even with the assistance of one, she is still fairly damp when she arrives in your room.
  2450. > You are already waiting, stretched out on the bed.
  2451. > A quick pat beside you indicates where you want her, and Dash obliges shortly with a short leap that brings her up to stand beside you.
  2452. > "What did you want, Master?"
  2453. > A firm hand on her withers brings Dash down on her belly, her crimson eyes studying you.
  2454. > Her coat is still damp from the shower, but the bed will dry out quickly enough.
  2455. > Sitting up and crossing your legs, you reach out with one hand to gently spread each of her wings in turn.
  2456. > They extend fully, feathers fanning out over the mattress.
  2457. "Hmmm..."
  2458. > You lightly run your fingers along one of her elongated primary feathers, individual barbs scraping over your fingertips.
  2459. > Dash shifts away lightly at the light touch, frowning.
  2460. > "C'mon, A-Master, you know I hate that. Please don't?"
  2461. > You simply raise an eyebrow, continuing to run your fingers between each feather - feeling them loosely.
  2462. > She shifts away again, the wing starting to curl in.
  2463. "Stay here, Dash."
  2464. > Your finger stabs down at the bed.
  2465. > "Am I being punished, Master?"
  2466. > Her eyes flicker with worry now - wondering if she did something wrong?
  2467. > You sigh gently.
  2468. "You still need to learn to follow orders without question, Dash."
  2469. > "But I hate-"
  2470. "You may hate some orders, yes."
  2471. > Your voice has risen just enough to override Dash's own, and she pipes down.
  2472. > At least she's smart enough to know that raising her voice against you would be a bad idea.
  2473. "You should really know by now, Dash."
  2474. > "I do know..."
  2475. > Her head falls back down again, ears low.
  2476. > "But, I really hate it when you do that.. I want to know, am I being punished?"
  2477. "Now you are. Sit down, Dash."
  2478. > The sudden severity of your voice drives her flanks straight back down to the bed, a wince crossing her face.
  2479. > "Master, please don't make it to bad, I-'
  2480. "Shhh. Stop pleading and just obey; it will make things much, much easier."
  2481. > It doesn't take you long to find the lengths of cord you had left in your room some nights prior.
  2482. > With practiced motions the cord makes its way around each of Dash's legs, folding them in half and keeping her from rising again.
  2483. > She wriggles unhappily, but does not say anything further.
  2484. "Now, then..."
  2485. > Again you hand gently opens one wing, your fingers beginning to stroke their way through her feathers.
  2486. > Over and over you run your fingers travel over them - and then, along the dense muscled ridge at the leading edge of her wing.
  2487. > It's covered in a dense line of tiny feathers - almost thick like her coat, but definitely not fur.
  2488. > Nor can it hide the strong cords of muscle beneath that outer softness.
  2489. > Even in her captivity, Dash has not let her body go to waste.
  2490. > Steadily your hands travel further inward, until you are rubbing the shoulder of her wing where it emerges from her barrel.
  2491. > There is not nearly as much resistance when you carefully spread her opposite wing and begin to pay the same attention to it.
  2492. > With her legs tightly bound beneath her, there's really little Dash can do to resist - but she doesn't even seem to be trying.
  2493. > In fact, considering how she has buried her muzzle in bedding...
  2494. > You are by no means a good masseuse.
  2495. > You're probably barely passable.
  2496. > But the effect is undeniable.
  2497. "You're enjoying this, are't you, Dash?"
  2498. > Her reply is muffled, but clearly audible.
  2499. > "It... feels really good, okay? Especially after how hard I was exercising earlier. Normally I'd do some stretches afterward, but this..."
  2500. "And why are you hiding your face then, hmmm?"
  2501. > "Because it shouldn't feel good!"
  2502. > Dash groans heavily, lifting her head up to glare you.
  2503. > "This is... it's supposed to be something private, okay? Wing care isn't just something you let anyone do, unless you're going to one of those frou-frou spa places."
  2504. "But it does feel good, doesn't it?"
  2505. > Her face colors, voice dropping to a far lower volume.
  2506. > "...yeah."
  2507. > You chuckle softly.
  2508. "And yet you often seem to have enjoy when I hold you in my lap."
  2509. > Dash opens her mouth to respond, but shuts it quickly again - probably afraid of what was going to come out.
  2510. > "That's... that's different, okay? This is supposed to be private."
  2511. "Dash... did I not say I would take care of you, so long as you obey?"
  2512. > She looks away, frowning.
  2513. > "Well... yeah..."
  2514. "And I meant take care of entirely - especially with how much you are enjoying this."
  2515. > Another flush makes its way across Dash's face.
  2516. > "I'm..."
  2517. "You're my little Bluebird."
  2518. > She wriggles a bit, but lays her head back down on the bed as you start to rub again.
  2519. > "I'm... your little bluebird, Master. And I... am... enjoying this."
  2520. > You simply smile, moving on to work at the muscles stretched along her withers.
  2521. > At some point you simply end up stroking along Dash's back, her wings again tucked in against her sides.
  2522. > You're not sure when it happens, but surprisingly you seem to be the first one to fall asleep this time.
  2523. > The sun has set when you climb back to wakefulness, the temperature in the room dropping to the point you feel the lack of a blanket.
  2524. > Except for the warm, soft thing resting against your shoulder and lightly tickling against your cheek.
  2525. > Dash, it seems, has despite her legs still being bound somehow managed to scoot up against you after you fell asleep - and possibly after she did as well.
  2526. > A slight turn of your head finds your vision filled with multi-colored mane.
  2527. > One sky-blue ear flicks, tickling across your nose.
  2528. > You resist the urge to laugh, reaching over instead to lightly scratch behind the flicking ear.
  2529. > Dash shifts under the touch, squirming against your side again.
  2530. > "Mmmmyourewarmmmm."
  2531. > Her sleepy proclamation is accompanied by another flick.
  2532. > One thing you had discovered about Dash:
  2533. > She would sleep like a rock unless physically moved.
  2534. > You do your best to avoid that as you reach down to lift the blankets and slip beneath them.
  2535. > Again she slides against you when the covers are drawn up over the both of you.
  2536. > Deciding to leave her legs bound until morning, you slip an arm about her and close your eyes again.
  2538. --------
  2540. > Cadance's answer takes longer than you had expected.
  2541. > You pass the time managing your network and handling the requests of another two guests that arrive to beg favors from you.
  2542. > Their requests seem simplistic in comparison, though, and fail to distract your mind from the larger matters at hand.
  2543. > Finally, eight days on a reply comes in over your network.
  2544. > Cadance wants to talk.
  2545. > The surprise comes when you finally open a video feed to her end.
  2546. > While the impressively pink princess fills the majority of the screen, another face can be seen close over her shoulder scowling darkly at your image.
  2547. > Shining Armor must have demanded to be part of this, you think.
  2548. > Given the way he is looking at you, the odds of him actually contributing something useful?
  2549. > Not. High.
  2550. > Well. Time to play the game again.
  2551. > You put on your best business face and get started.
  2552. "Your Highnesses, it is quite good to hear back from you again."
  2553. > She nods fractionally, but you can see the hesitance in her action.
  2554. > Shining Armor barely acknowledges you comment.
  2555. > "Anonymous. We have considered your offer, and after interrogating your messenger and reviewing some new information... we tentatively agree to your suggestion."
  2556. > Excellent.
  2557. > You restrain your smile to a slight show of approval.
  2558. > Can't show to much here, after all.
  2559. "I will contact Chryalis to relay the news. Additionally, a formal document will be delivered to both of you outlining the terms of the deal, so that there can be no confusion."
  2560. > So that Chrysalis cannot claim ignorance or try to change the terms when it suits her, more realistically.
  2561. > Cadance nods, her eyes still hard and mouth set in a small line.
  2562. > Work with you she may, but this mare does not like you one bit.
  2563. "Might I ask what new information came to your attention?"
  2564. > "More bugs."
  2565. > Shining's voice is low and angry, but Cadance does not react to it - only giving her own answer to your question.
  2566. > "Additional Changelings have arrived in the Crystal Empire, all starving. Some came to us, others seemingly were found by accident. They corroborate the stories you and your messenger gave."
  2567. > Interesting.
  2568. > You wonder how much of this is actually the Changelings' starving state, and how much is Chryalis playing her own games.
  2569. > After your conversations with Chissik on loyalty to hive and Queen, you have no doubt a loyal infiltrator would starve itself to play the role properly.
  2570. > Another thing to discuss when you speak to Chrysalis again.
  2571. > "I hope, Anonymous, that you have not forgotten the other part of your deal."
  2572. "Your trust in me has not been misplaced, Your Highness. How soon do you want to plan your visit?"
  2573. > "We will be visiting at the soonest possible time. I believe the trip should only take a few days?"
  2574. " 'We', Your Highness?"
  2575. > Unlike Luna, Cadance had never been one for the archaic speak.
  2576. > If anything you had heard she still occasionally slipped into less formal phrases, especially in moments of emotional turmoil.
  2577. > So if she meant 'we', then she probably meant 'we'.
  2578. > As expected, Cadance nods.
  2579. > "We. Shining Armor will accompany me in any visit I take to your residence."
  2580. > Your eyes narrow.
  2581. "That was not part of the deal, Your Highness."
  2582. > "He will be accompanying me, or I will not be visiting at all."
  2583. > Is she trying to see how far she can push, or is there something else going on here?
  2584. > A quick glance back to Shining Armor leaves you wondering whether this is payback on his part for Cadance's decision to go around him by contacting you before.
  2585. "Nothing I do comes free, Your Highness. If you wish for me to trust you considering such a sudden change of plan, you are going to have to give me a reason to."
  2586. > Now it is her turn to frown.
  2587. > "Were you willing to accede to this, Anonymous, I think it would greatly benefit our ability to recognize you as a reasonable being."
  2588. > A significant offer... but also an intangible one.
  2589. > But then again, it was the same intangible demand you had made of her for agreeing to the deal in the first place.
  2590. > A worthy gamble, in you opinion.
  2591. "I accept, Your Highness. I do hope that my willingness to be a flexible party in these negotiations will not be forgotten."
  2592. > "It will not, Anonymous. How do you intend for the meeting proceed?"
  2593. > Your fingertips press together, fingers forming arches as you talk.
  2594. "My home has several private rooms available. You will be allowed to stay for a day, or longer if you care to negotiate for that. Food will be provided, unless you prefer to bring your own."
  2595. > In other words, unless you do not trust me enough to eat what I provide.
  2596. "The first floor of my home will be open to you. The second floor is negotiable. The basement is off-limits to guests."
  2597. > "And will our retinue be allowed to accompany us?"
  2598. "Any guards or servants will have to wait in designated areas. I advise against bringing a significant number of them."
  2599. > Having all of Chryaslis' attendants flooding the surrounding hills was more than enough of that.
  2600. > "A single chariot and four guards, however, would be agreeable to you?"
  2601. "Yes, it would. Do you find these terms acceptable then, Your Highness?"
  2602. > The use of the singular does not go unnoticed by Shining Armor
  2603. > Cadance glances back to him, waiting for his nod first before her gaze returns to you.
  2604. > "We do. When will this take place?"
  2605. "As soon as you can visit. I believe it is a roughly three-day trip to the Crystal Empire from the nearest train station; if you launch your chariot from there and fly out to me... say, add another half-day."
  2606. > It will be longer, of course - Cadance will undoubtedly depart the train before the final station, lest someone figure out where she is coming.
  2607. > "In a week's time, then? We should arrive in the late morning."
  2608. "Acceptable. My home will remain open to you until that night, or longer if the situation demands."
  2609. > Another concession, but a minor one.
  2610. > "We accept as well."
  2611. Good. Then, if we may, let us discuss the details of the treaty with the Changelings. First, there is the matter of the messenger I sent to you, and the other captive Changelings."
  2612. > "They will not be released until the treaty is signed and sealed. Until then, they are enemies of the Crystal Empire."
  2613. > Shining's declaration comes swiftly and firmly, and Cadance does not visibly contest it.
  2614. > Defense and Justice are his departments, then.
  2615. "Understandably... however, I would request that you at least consider the release of my messenger, who entered your territory at my request, in good faith, and to bring this proposal to your attention."
  2616. > Shining grimaces visibly at the reminder of the intrusion you had engineered into their court.
  2617. > You meet his eyes easily, letting a small smirk appear on your lips.
  2618. > A reminder that you could and had penetrated their security if the situation called for it.
  2619. "Perhaps, to deliver news of this agreement to the rest of her kin?"
  2620. > "We will consider this, yes."
  2621. > Cadance nods in reply.
  2622. > "But, it would also go a long way to furthering the negotiations to see the Changelings begin releasing their prisoners."
  2623. > Tit for tat, then.
  2624. "I agree. I will bring the matter up when I converse with Chrysalis next."
  2625. > "Speaking of which, she will not be allowed in this city. Ever. Not until she pays personally for her crimes."
  2626. > Again you lock gazes with Shining, not giving any hint at how interesting you find his obvious anger overriding his formality.
  2627. > "She inflicted great harm on me, my wife and sister, and her friends. I do not forgive such things easily."
  2628. > The last in that list - 'her friends' - is spoken a bit slower.
  2629. > As if you needed the hint.
  2630. > Yes, Shining, I understand that you really do dislike me.
  2631. "I understand. Perhaps this can be the first step in healing over such wounds."
  2632. > You hope he can take the message as well as you can.
  2634. --------
  2636. > You were wrong about one thing.
  2637. > Cadance and Shining Armor would take the train all the way.
  2638. > Nor would they hide whatsoever.
  2639. > What they would do was far less welcome, though..
  2640. > Fingers rap irritably on the table as you reread the message again.
  2641. > 'Princess Cadance and Shining Armor here, saying she is visiting because of hostage you hold.'
  2642. > What was she playing at?
  2643. > What could she gain by tarnishing your reputation?
  2644. > Was this Shining's doing?
  2645. > A hiss of annoyance escapes your lips; unexpected developments like this were always frustrating to deal with.
  2646. > "Master?"
  2647. > Dash is currently draped half-over the side of a nearby desk, her eyes blindfolded.
  2648. > She had grown increasingly nervous as Cadance's visit neared, eventually resorting to spending nearly all her time in the exercise room as a means of taking her mind off the matter.
  2649. > Running herself ragged wasn't something you could afford before the visit.
  2650. > An order to remain still, though, was one you suspected she would not merely find difficult but actually unable to comply with.
  2651. > She simply was to active of a mare to follow an order like that without heavy reinforcement, and tossing her in the punishment cage right before Cadance's visit wasn't an option either.
  2652. > In the end you had to compromise.
  2653. > She remained with you, blindfolded to keep her from accidentally reading any of the secrets you still cared to keep but the distraction of your presence still enough to keep her calm.
  2654. > You even suspected the loss of her sight might have helped, as it put her on alert and focused her around her remaining senses.
  2655. > Just another distraction.
  2656. "What is it, Dash?"
  2657. > You lean back to gently run a hand through her mane.
  2658. > Dash shudders softly, but allows it.
  2659. > She's gotten a lot better at tolerating your touch.
  2660. > "You're angry, master. I can tell... you're rapping your fingers again."
  2661. > Has she really been around long enough to notice things like that?
  2662. "No, not angry... though I will admit to being displeased."
  2663. > She shifts again, and you finally realize why she's suddenly become so fidgety.
  2664. "No, Dash, it isn't your fault. Cadance and Shining are... making some questionable choices."
  2665. > A little sigh is produced as she lets out a breath she had been holding.
  2666. > "O-Okay, master. They're still coming, right?"
  2667. "Of course. Still nervous, aren't you?"
  2668. > "Yes, sir."
  2669. > She doesn't even stutter saying at - in fact, Dash almost sounds relieved to admit it.
  2670. "Don't be. If anything, I'll just have to have a bit of a conversation with them after they see you."
  2671. > She tenses slightly, obviously understanding the meaning of 'a little conversation'.
  2672. > More worryingly, it does not go away as time passes.
  2673. > "Master..."
  2674. > Her voice is unusually low and carries tones of obvious concern and fear.
  2675. > "What should I do, if they... tell me I should..."
  2676. "Disobey me?"
  2677. > She nods slowly.
  2678. > "You won't... punish me for that, will you? They will think they're helping, they might-"
  2679. "Be honest with them. You know why you are here, and you can tell them that. If they still insist on it... no, you will not be punished - nor if they force you to do anything."
  2680. > Dash lays her head back down over her folded forelegs, tail flicking nervously.
  2681. > "I... I just want my friends to be safe. I don't want them to be hurt. If I have to stay here, then... I... will be loyal to them."
  2682. > Ah, loyalty.
  2683. > Still clinging to the idea that her friends matter to her anymore.
  2684. > But at least she is concerned about being able to follow your orders.
  2685. "I'm sure you'll do fine, Dash."
  2687. --------
  2689. > The crystal royals ultimately take even less time than you had expected to arrive - their chariot-ponies must have really pushed themselves to their limits.
  2690. > Nonetheless you are standing at the door in your finest clothes when the chariot sets down in the clearing before your home.
  2691. > An attendant drone hovers out to direct the guards to the area you had picked out for them to wait in while Cadance and Shining Armor make their way towards you.
  2692. > Even before you greet them you can see the stallion is on edge - his eyes sweeping over everything repeatedly for a sign of anything remotely wrong.
  2693. > Cadance is looking none to relaxed either, but she at least tries to hide it.
  2694. > You?
  2695. > You put on your finest smile and bow in greeting.
  2696. "Your Highnesses, welcome. Please, do come inside - I've been waiting for you."
  2697. > It goes without saying, of course, but it's just another reminder that this is your territory - not theirs.
  2698. > Both nod in greeting as well, although Shining's nod is significantly more perfunctory than Cadance's.
  2699. > "Anonymous, thank you for having us. I hope you will understand if we do not spend to much time on empty pleasantries?"
  2700. > You'd come to the conclusion that Cadance's own nature worked against her in some respects.
  2701. > As the princess of love, she could not avoid being somewhat emotional - or, perhaps, unlike Celestia she simply had not had untold years to train herself in suppressing her emotions.
  2702. > She was learning fast, though, if the perfectly diplomatic mask her face still held was anything to judge by.
  2703. "Of course, Your Highness. Come this way, if you would? She is waiting for you."
  2704. > Doors slide silently open before you while drones hover alongside as you lead them into the main meeting room.
  2705. > As had been the case with Chrysalis, you had set out a significant spread in preparation for their arrival.
  2706. > This time, at least, you thought they would appreciate it more than the emotion-eating queen had.
  2707. > Both look around the meeting room when they enter, albeit for different reasons.
  2708. > Cadance, you can see, is merely taking it in - perhaps considering how the architecture compares with what she knew of.
  2709. > Shining Armor, on the other hand, is sweeping the room in the distinctive manner of a trained professional.
  2710. > Nothing escapes his attention - not the seats, not the drones you dismiss from the room with a wave of your hand, not even the plates of food - each of which is sniffed at briefly when he thinks you aren't looking.
  2711. > If you were a betting man, you would bet he was trying to sniff out anything wrong with it.
  2712. > Spinning in place, you clap your hands together and put on a frown.
  2713. "Truly, Your Highness? You think I would poison you? You slight me."
  2714. > Shining only silently narrows his eyes, but doesn't test any more plates.
  2715. "I remind you that I am quite aware of the repercussions should I harm you in any fashion... and that my entire line of business relies on me being trustworthy. So please, a little trust now would go a long way."
  2716. > Cadance steps in to save her husband any further trouble, bowing her head slightly.
  2717. > "My deepest apologies, Anonymous. My husband loves me dearly and spares no action in ensuring my safety; I assure you he meant no personal slight by it."
  2718. > So then you were right - he was trying to sniff something out.
  2719. > You gracefully bow your head.
  2720. "Apology accepted, Your Highness. I presume you would like be to call Dash now?"
  2721. > "Yes, if you could."
  2722. > It takes just a few motions to access the intercomm and call Dash down.
  2723. "Dash, our guests are here. If you would come in now?"
  2724. > She arrives soon enough - her coat still smooth and wing unruffled from her last preening.
  2725. > Good. It seemed even Dash realized how important appearances were here.
  2726. > "Rainbow!"
  2727. > Even your continued presence can't restrain Cadance from stepping forward, her mouth opening in a smile.
  2728. > It is a smile that soon fades as she sees the metal collar still fixed about Dash's throat.
  2729. "I will leave you both here to enjoy your time. As agreed, the first floor is open to you entirely. Dash knows where to find me if you wish to see the second, or for anything else."
  2730. > With that you turn from the room, still able to easily feel Shining's gaze boring into your back.
  2731. > You've no doubt that, given the chance, he would charge and pin you - or worse - in a second.
  2732. > But it does not come.
  2733. > If nothing else, the military has given him self-discipline.
  2734. > Even before the door shuts behind you sounds are flooding in through your carefully-concealed earpiece, piped in through several equally well-concealed cameras and microphones.
  2735. > "Rainbow... it's really good to see you at last. Well... directly, I mean?"
  2736. > "Yeah, thanks, princess. I'm... kinda honored you'd come out all this way just for me?"
  2737. > You snort softly.
  2738. > Dash was trying to sound like she was normal, but had only succeeded in appearing nervous and overly-formal.
  2739. > By the time you reach the work room downstairs and sit down before your computer, you're just in time to catch the last of several pulses from Shining's horn on the video feed.
  2740. > Some sort of magical search, you presume - though apparently what he finds is as agreeable, as he merely takes a place behind Cadance and listens quietly as she talks to Dash.
  2741. > Unfortunately, they seem to be utterly uninterested in speaking except on the most inane topics.
  2742. > Wonderbolts races, weather teams, reminiscing about games Shining used to play.
  2743. > When Shining produces several copies of a book series Dash likes, some action-adventure tale, you briefly zoom the camera in.
  2744. > Perhaps Shining expected to be overheard, and had instructions written in the book?
  2745. > But no.
  2746. > The books, as best you can tell, are the genuine thing.
  2747. > It seems the only thing Shining intended was to get Dash to loosen up some - and that, at least, he has managed to succeed at.
  2748. > She was talking far more animatedly, gesturing with her words again.
  2749. > Even Shining was starting to relax a bit.
  2750. > Enough to take some of the food you had laid out, an action soon echoed by the other two.
  2751. > Amusingly it was Cadance now who was most uncomfortable - every time Dash spread her wings, she would wince at the sight of her clipped feathers.
  2752. > Almost unconsciously you begin to tune their chatter out, only half-listening.
  2753. > At least, until Twilight's name caught your attention.
  2754. > "...been really worried about you, especially with winter setting in so soon."
  2755. > Dash shuffles awkwardly, looking away from the half-demolished plate of food before her.
  2756. > "I'm, uh... I'm sure she is..."
  2757. > "Rainbow..."
  2758. > Cadance steps up, one hoof raised slightly.
  2759. > "She does. She really does care - Twilight's worried sick about you. She's just... she doesn't know what do?"
  2760. > "Well, she could have at least tried actually pushing to see me."
  2761. > Dash folds her hooves beneath her chin, staring off to the side.
  2762. > "Rainbow, she's just afraid if she pushes to hard, Anonymous will hurt you."
  2763. > Leave it to Shining to go straight to the point.
  2764. > Seems he's gotten tired of the smalltalk at last.
  2765. > Dash's head jerks up in surprise, obvious shock written across her face.
  2766. > "He wouldn't do that! He wouldn't!"
  2767. > Obviously unprepared for her sudden out burst, Shining takes a step back.
  2768. > His retort comes just as quickly, though.
  2769. > "Rainbow, listen to yourself! You're defending the one who foalnapped you! That's not-"
  2770. > "Stop! Just, stop! I don't - I can't -"
  2771. > A slight grin finds its way onto your face.
  2772. > Time to see just how deeply Dash's loyalty runs.
  2773. > She's squeezed her eyes shut now - not to keep herself from crying, you don't think.
  2774. > Her voice hasn't yet reached the hoarse, cracking point that she always reaches before getting there.
  2775. > More likely, she simply doesn't want to see Shining.
  2776. > "I... you don't understand everything, okay?"
  2777. > "What don't Cadance and I understand, Dash? Will you listen to yourself? What became of the friend of Twily's I met? The pegasus who would never give up, never back down!"
  2778. > "Anonymous, he... showed me..."
  2779. > Shining's voice is rising, tones of true anger beginning to enter into it.
  2780. > "He pulled the wool over your eyes! He's using you!"
  2781. > "That's wrong; he just doesn't want to-"
  2782. > "He's holding you prisoner inside your own head, Rainbow Dash! wake up, and-"
  2783. > "Stop trying to make me choose! You haven't been here, you don't get it, you-"
  2784. > "There isn't a choice, Rainbow! There's right and wrong, and you need to know the difference!"
  2785. > And then Shining Armor makes a critical error.
  2786. > He reaches out to touch Dash.
  2787. > The second his hoof touches her coat, the tension that had been building up in Dash finally breaks free.
  2788. > She spins around with a wild cry, one hoof flying out to swing towards Shining's muzzle.
  2789. > "SHUT UP!"
  2790. > For all her speed, he is still faster; a field of magic springs up around her hoof in a moment, holding it still.
  2791. > A second passes with the two of them locked together before Cadance speaks up.
  2792. > "Shining Armor! Enough!"
  2793. > As if her voice was a hammer striking a pane of glass; the aggression both sides had been channeling shatters into nothing as both realize what they had been doing.
  2794. > Shining rocks back, one hoof stretching out and then retreating just as quickly - as if he isn't sure what to do.
  2795. > "Rainbow, I... I..."
  2796. > It's to late.
  2797. > Dash hurls herself away with a wretched, hoars cry, wings opening to try and catch the air.
  2798. > Clipped as they are, however, she only manages to crash down bellyfirst onto the floor.
  2799. > Quickly scrabbling to her hooves again she promptly flees from the room; grimacing, you track her on the other camera feeds - ready to open the door if she comes down to you.
  2800. > Interestingly, she does not; instead she flees upstairs to your bedroom and flings herself onto the bed.
  2801. > Back in the meeting room, Cadance has thrown an exceedingly annoyed glare in Shining's direction.
  2802. > Though their voices are soft and words whispered, you can still hear the exchange between the two rulers.
  2803. > "Shining Armor! What part of you thought it would be a good idea to browbeat the poor mare like that?"
  2804. > "She needs to wake up, Cadance! He's wrapped her up in so many layers of lies she can't see what's real anymore!"
  2805. > "And is yelling at her like a drill sergeant supposed to be the way to fix her? We will talk more about this later, Shining Armor."
  2806. > He flinches sharply at the biting tone in her words.
  2807. > For a moment you feel a slight pang of sympathy for the stallion; he had only done what he knew best, which was to always pressure his guards to do better for themselves.
  2808. > Instead it had failed spectacularly, even angering his wife.
  2809. > But that sympathy quickly fades, replaced with cold logic as you watch the situation unfold.
  2810. > Turning from Shining, Cadance cautiously follows Dash upstairs.
  2811. > "Rainbow? I'm sorry about that... Shining can get very... emotional about some things."
  2812. > For a moment you think to reach from the intercom and warn her off - but no.
  2813. > Let her make what choices she may, and face the consequences later.
  2814. > Dash, however, does not respond - leaving Cadance to wander the upper floor until she chances on your room (and Dash) by accident.
  2815. > "Rainbow? Can I come in?"
  2816. > "...come in, Princess."
  2817. > Cadance flinches; you suspect it is less because of Dash's use of her title and more the tone it is spoken with.
  2818. > Her wings half-spread lightly, drooping dejectedly.
  2819. > Dash looks up just long enough to spot the twin fans of pink feathers and promptly buries her face back in the bedding again.
  2820. > Wings slamming shut, Cadance steps over to the side of the bed.
  2821. > "Oh, Rainbow, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to remind you..."
  2822. > "No, it's... I shouldn't have tried to punch him..."
  2823. > Cadance seems about to stay something, but pauses.
  2824. > "...may I come up on to the bed, Rainbow?"
  2825. > Taking a moment to consider, Dash shrugs.
  2826. > "Sure. Don't think he'd mind - he didn't say not to."
  2827. > Leaping up on to the bed, you note that Cadance relies entirely on the strength of her legs to push herself up - not even spreading her wings for balance.
  2828. > Doing everything she can to avoid rubbing Dash's lack of flight further in her face.
  2829. > Ironically, she's trying so hard that it is exactly what Dash notices.
  2830. > "You don't have to hide it from me, Princess."
  2831. > Extending one wing, she cranes her neck around to study the clipped-short feathers.
  2832. > "Really. You... don't have to hold back for me."
  2833. > Cadance doesn't seem to take the hint, though.
  2834. > "I don't mind, Rainbow Dash. It wouldn't be right for me to just wave it in your face all the time..."
  2835. > "No!"
  2836. > Dash freezes when she realizes her voice has climbed again.
  2837. > "...sorry. Look - I'm... I was pretty awesome, okay? And I didn't hold back for anything. And I don't want anypony else to treat me like... like..."
  2838. > Like a cripple.
  2839. > Because that would force her to think about what you had done to her.
  2840. > Folding her legs beneath her, Cadance lays down on the bed opposite Rainbow.
  2841. > "May I see it?"
  2842. > "Huh?"
  2843. > "Your wing... may I see it?"
  2844. > "Oh. Yeah. Just, uh, don't freak out or anything again, 'kay?"
  2845. > "Of course."
  2846. > Dash extends her wing once more, allowing Cadance to study it.
  2847. > Quite a few of the trimmed primaries had since fallen out, new full-length feathers taking their place.
  2848. > You can see Cadance's sides expand under a sudden intake of breath, but she manages to keep her reaction under control.
  2849. > "Does it hurt?"
  2850. > "Nah. Not... when he does it, anyhow. Everything feels wrong afterward, though."
  2851. > Wrenching her eyes from the mangled wings before her, Cadance turns her gaze back to Dash's face.
  2852. > "Wrong? How do you mean... if you care to talk on it?"
  2853. > Surprisingly, Dash agrees.
  2854. > "Yeah, wrong. Like, they're long enough for me to sort of glide with a good drop, but my airflow is all off.
  2855. > Frowning, Dash examines her wing again.
  2856. > "Actually, he's probably gonna trim 'em again soon. A lot of new primaries have come in."
  2857. > Cadance visibly shivers at the prospect, her own wings tucking tight against her barrel as if the very thought could cut through her own plumage.
  2858. > "And, uh, of course then there's the preening..."
  2859. > "Preening?"
  2860. > Ensconced in your workroom, you grimace sharply.
  2861. > That particular bit of information had not been intended to be made public, but you had never thought to explicitly tell Dash she was forbidden to mention it either.
  2862. > For a second your finger strays toward the intercomm key, ready to step in and warn Dash.
  2863. > But the pause while you consider the implications of that action delays you just a moment to long.
  2864. > "Yeah. Anonymous, uh.. he does it."
  2865. > Well, so much for keeping that secret.
  2866. > Cadance rears her head back, eyes wide and mouth open.
  2867. > "You let him?!"
  2868. > "Well... uh, yeah, I mean..."
  2869. > The hesitation in Dash's voice provides the answer for her.
  2870. > "Oh, Rainbow Dash - what has he done to you?"
  2871. > "Cadance - look, don't. I know you want to do something, and I know you think it sucks... er, sorry. Shouldn't say that to you."
  2872. > For the first time in a while, Cadance actually smiles.
  2873. > "I may be a princess, Rainbow Dash, but I can tolerate a bit of foul language. Please, go on?"
  2874. > "Okay. Well, look - I know it probably sounds like it sucks, and yeah - there is some bad bits. But, life's like that, right? Gotta feel a little burn when you're training to be faster."
  2875. > "What he is doing to you is not merely 'a little burn', Rainbow."
  2876. > "But I can tolerate it. I can! And he's not bad all the time; he... he really does think about me too. He takes care of me when I'm... feeling real down."
  2877. > At least Dash has the presence of mind not to say 'when he is done punishing me'.
  2878. > "And... I think I can change him, too."
  2879. > ...what?"
  2880. > "Please explain, Rainbow?"
  2881. > "Look - I, uh... I spend a lot of time with him, okay? And... I think he's been getting softer around the edges. Because of me."
  2882. > "You believe you are convincing Anonymous to give up his evil ways?"
  2883. > "Well, uh... I dunno about that yet, but... I think he was a lot harder on me in the beginning. If I have more time... then maybe yeah."
  2884. > Oh, Dash.
  2885. > Poor, sweet, Dash.
  2886. > If not for how well you knew her by now, you might be tempted to think she was lying to Cadance, to try and add weight to her argument.
  2887. > But no - Dash had a penchant for brutal honesty to rival the bearer of that particular element, and besides.
  2888. > You knew that tone of voice.
  2889. > It was the same one she used with you when she was desperately trying to convince you of something.
  2890. > She actually thought her fairer treatment was because of some change in you, and not her own obedience.
  2891. > ...wasn't it?
  2892. > Hrm.
  2893. > Perhaps you had been getting a bit soft on her lately.
  2894. > But still, the affect it was having on her was undeniable.
  2895. > Regardless, her words have had a definite effect on Cadance.
  2896. > "If... you truly believe this to be the truth, Rainbow Dash, I will not press Anonymous... but please, be mindful of your own strength as well. Do not let him turn you against your friends."
  2897. > Dash sighs, laying her head back down on the bed.
  2898. > "I'll be good, Princess. I'll be okay. Can we... stop talking about this?"
  2899. > Cadance hesitates, but nods.
  2900. > "Yes. We may."
  2902. --------
  2904. > In the end, they talk until well into the evening.
  2905. > Dash even allows Shining Armor to return, although he doesn't say much.
  2906. > At a certain point you realize they are rehashing topics long since covered - but neither side cares.
  2907. > Dash is simply too glad to have someone else around to even think of tossing them out, and Cadance too sympathetic to Dash's plight to even think of leaving before she has to.
  2908. > Eventually, though, you have to step in.
  2909. > Taking the status of your visitors into consideration, you decide to visit them in person rather than merely using the intercom.
  2910. > Of course, this means that you have to be in the same room as Shining and Cadance again, a fact that neither of them are particularly pleased about.
  2911. > A reaction they do not even bother to hide the second you enter the room.
  2912. > "Anonymous."
  2913. "Your Highnesses. I am afraid the time available for your visit is coming to an end; before you would go, I would like to speak privately?"
  2914. > Cadance's eyes narrow; after having spent the past several hours with Dash's hobbles - both physical and mental - thrown in her face, her disposotion towards you seems to have taken a turn for the worse.
  2915. > That does not stop her from playing the diplomatic part required of her.
  2916. > If nothing else, Celestia's lessons have taught her to be a good little chess piece when needed - the played as well as the player.
  2917. > "Of course, we would be most willing to speak. In here, or...?"
  2918. "In the meeting room, downstairs. If you will follow me, your highnesses?"
  2919. > Dash rises to follow them, but a quick glance and a subtle shake of your head dissuade her.
  2920. > That's okay.
  2921. > You'll have a talk with her later.
  2922. > The remnants of the dinner you provided has long since been cleared away, as had lunch before them.
  2923. > What remains is the open table, twin packets of documents left on them.
  2924. > Taking a seat in your chair at the head of the table, you offer them a beatific smile.
  2925. "Well. I do hope you enjoyed your visit?"
  2926. > Shining does not speak a word; his eyes say enough.
  2927. > Cadance just lifts several pages, her eyes skimming over them.
  2928. > "These are documentation regarding your plan for peace with the Changelings."
  2929. "Yes, Your Higness."
  2930. > "We may take them, I presume? For examination in depth?"
  2931. "Of course; you may contact me with your assent to the terms, or should you be unhappy with them any changes you wish to suggest for inclusion."
  2932. > "We certainly will. You have done your agreed part; when you attain agreement from our counterpart in this, we will agree."
  2933. "Excellent. I hope there will not be any repercussions, by the way, from the little incident between Dash and yourself."
  2934. > "I do not intend to push the matter, no."
  2935. > Cadance's eyes narrow as she speaks her next words.
  2936. > "Her outburst was not her fault, merely the symptom of a larger problem."
  2937. > Meaning, of course, she holds you responsible for it.
  2938. "Good; I do not intend to let it become an obstruction to our negotiations."
  2939. > Both their eyes narrow now, undoubtedly having noted that you pointedly left out any absolution of blame on their part.
  2940. > At this, an awkward silence forms.
  2941. > It stretches on, growing thicker and tenser all the time.
  2942. > Cadance and Shining know they are not truly welcome, but will not leave without being dismissed - determined, you think, to make you be the one to throw them out.
  2943. > In tne end, you break the tension first.
  2944. "If I may ask one thing for next time, Your Highnesses?"
  2945. > Both ponies meet your look evenly, neither saying anything.
  2946. " need not act so hostile. I am on your side, and have your interests at heart here."
  2947. > Shining looks as though he is about to say something, but Cadance halts him.
  2948. > "We will be sure to take it under consideration."
  2949. > How helpful.
  2950. "Please do. I can only allow this matter to stand waiting for so long..."
  2951. > "We understand."
  2952. > Do they?
  2953. "Until next time, then. I will look forward to hearing from either of you, Your Highnesses."
  2954. > That is apparently sufficient cue for them to turn and leave; doors glide open to indicate their path out.
  2955. > You follow them, rising to watch until they vanish into the distance in the elaborate chariot they had arrived in.
  2956. > Well, it could certainly have gone better... but certainly could have been worse as well.
  2957. > Now, to tie up the only loose end...
  2958. > Dash is still curled up atop your bed when you enter, staring out the window.
  2959. > Most likely she was watching the crystal royals leave as well.
  2960. "Dash."
  2961. > She practically leaps into the air when you speak, twisting around to face you.
  2962. > "Master! Did you see? I didn't let them... I left when he tried to make me turn on you. Was that right, Master?"
  2963. > Reaching out, you ruffle her prismatic mane - letting your fingers sink into the hair.
  2964. > Dash makes a little happy noise, apparently relieved that you weren't upset with her for what she'd done.
  2965. > It almost makes what happens next painful to do.
  2966. > Fingers dig in tight, your touch turning from a gentle reassurance to an iron grip on her mane.
  2967. > Dash yelps and tries to rise up to relieve the strain.
  2968. > "Master?!"
  2969. "You did do very well in rejecting their attempts at turning you from me, Dash... but you also struck Shining Armor. That was a very, very big mistake - I can't have you attacking my guests."
  2970. > "I'm sorry, Master! I didn't mean to; he was trying to grab me, I-"
  2971. "Be silent."
  2972. > Dash slams her mouth shut, recognizing at least when it is just time to stop talking.
  2973. "My entire operation here is built on the assumption that ponies who come to me are safe provided they obey my rules, Dash."
  2974. > Squatting down to eye level, you lock eyes with her; Dash's crimson irises have dropped to pinpricks, but she still seems to be listening.
  2975. "That includes both guests, and you. The problem here is, Shining - despite how much he dislikes me - followed my rules, but you still struck him. You undermined the very basis of my safety here."
  2976. > "He... he was trying to make me leave you. Isn't that wrong, master? Didn't you tell me-"
  2977. "Whether or not it is wrong, I did not forbid him from doing so. I told you to come to me if they tried anything, but you tried to hit him instead."
  2978. > Several shuddering breaths are drawn into Dash's lungs as she tries to settle herself.
  2979. > At last she speaks, her voice trembling softly in the quiet room.
  2980. > "I'm gonna go is the cage for this, aren't I?"
  2981. "Yes, you are."
  2982. > The first sob works is way free of her throat.
  2983. > "I'm s-sorry..."
  2984. "I'm sure you are, Dash, but 'sorry' is not sufficient anymore. I trusted you to control yourself when I left you alone, and you failed."
  2985. > Ah, there it is.
  2986. > At the very mention of the word 'failed', Dash seems to sink down.
  2987. > Even more than the threat of the punishment, this will be what hits her the hardest.
  2988. "I really have to wonder, Dash... are you even yourself anymore? I trusted that you could be loyal to me in return for the trust I gave you, and you failed."
  2989. > She flinches sharply, eyes falling shut.
  2990. > A brief moment of sympathy flickers through you, but Dash's own words echo through your head.
  2991. > She thought she could change you.
  2992. > She thought she could make you different.
  2993. > She thought she was the one in control here.
  2994. > No.
  2995. > You couldn't let her off the hook for this.
  2996. > But you could give her a chance to prove herself again.
  2997. "Go and wait downstairs while I cool off a bit, Dash."
  2998. > "D-Downstairs, master?"
  2999. "Downstairs. In front of your box."
  3000. > Another shudder runs its way through her body, wings twitching in horrified anticipation of what is to come.
  3001. > "I... I'll..."
  3002. "Don't speak, Dash. Go."
  3003. > Your grip on her mane relents and she hesitatingly rises, leaping from the bed to trot to the door.
  3004. > Watching the last colorful wisps of her tail vanish around the corner, you release a long breath.
  3005. > Strictly speaking, of course, it was not entirely her fault.
  3006. > And you had allowed Shining Armor to escape without consequence.
  3007. > It would not be an entirely unfair criticism to say that politics was stepping into your dealings with her...
  3008. > But he was not going to be the last trying visitor by any means, and Dash needed to learn.
  3009. > Striking a guest in anger was well beyond any limits of what you could tolerate.
  3010. > Pushing yourself up from the bed, you rise to follow Dash.
  3011. > Unexpectedly, you find her further on down that you'd expected.
  3012. > She's taken the steps down into the basement and now stands, nervous and tail flicking, at the entrance to what you'd come to think of as the 'punishment room'.
  3013. > Pausing a ways back, you watch her take one shaking step after another towards the cage, the thing that will soon imprison her within a labyrinth of her own fears.
  3014. > With each touch of a hoof to the floor, her wings half-extend, as if urging Dash to take to the air and escape.
  3015. > And each time, she forces them back down against her sides.
  3016. > Her eyes, locked on the box as though it was some monster that might consume her whole.
  3017. > Yet, Dash does not stop.
  3018. > On and on, inexorably closer she steps until she is standing at the edge, peering into the cage.
  3019. > Does she hope to convince herself it is not to be feared?
  3020. > It would be a very Dash-like thing, to try and face the her fear directly and defeat it through raw determination.
  3021. > But ultimately hopeless.
  3022. > As much as tried, she could not deny her basest instincts.
  3023. > Your clearing throat breaks Dash from her delicate stupor, sending her leaping into the air in shock.
  3024. > "M-Master!"
  3025. > You stride forward to kneel before her.
  3026. > Her eyes shimmer with a toxic concoction of terror and hate.
  3027. > Not towards you, but self-hatred now.
  3028. > Hatred at her own failure.
  3029. > It's obvious she'll do anything at all to avoid this punishment - or, perhaps even more valuabley, to be told that her suffering will not be in vain.
  3030. > No such relief comes.
  3031. > Only the goggles and earmuffs that restrict her senses.
  3032. > But this time they are not the end.
  3033. > A heavy mask settles over Dash's muzzle, twin straps wrapping around her head and tightening to secure it in place.
  3034. > Her head twists in obvious confusion, unused to this new sensation.
  3035. > Were her eyes visible, you're sure they would be wide in terror and confusion; were her ears free to turn, you're sure they would be twitching for any hint of what is to come.
  3036. > But as it is, she can only wonder as you use the hose leading from the mask to guide her into the cage that she will face her punishment within.
  3037. > That effect alone is enough to send her tail - the only truly free part of her remaining - swishing wildly as the first twinges of fear set in.
  3038. > As the cage is shut behind her, leaving Dash alone with her thoughts, you move around to the front again.
  3039. > Taking the end of the hose in hand, you consider the small, metallic valve fixed to the end of it.
  3040. > It periodically hisses softly as Dash takes slow, steady breaths in a desperate attempt to ward off the oncoming panic.
  3041. > Inside the mask, you know, another port opens to release each spent breath.
  3042. > But only to release them; the hose in your hand is the only way she may draw in fresh air.
  3043. > You hold it a moment longer, considering the thing in your hand.
  3044. > And then, almost casually, you twist the hose's valve shut.
  3045. > The effect is almost immediate.
  3046. > Dash finds herself unable to draw fresh air; the mask is cinched tight against her muzzle, biting into her coat.
  3047. > A little leaks around the edges, but nowhere near enough to feed her straining lungs.
  3048. > Surely, she must think, she is suffocating.
  3049. > Choking.
  3050. > That you intend to end her.
  3051. > The cage rattles as Dash loses her carefully-kept control, wings instinctively unfurling to try and aid her escape.
  3052. > Of course they immediately collide with the walls of the cage, adding a new dimension to Dash's terror as her mind becomes convinced she is not only suffocating but also crashing now.
  3053. > A short, choked scream issues from her throat - but all too quickly it runs out of air as well.
  3054. > Only then do you thumb the valve open, again allowing her to draw desperate, panicked breath.
  3055. > But by then it's already too late for her carefully-kept composure.
  3056. > Whatever control she had is gone, a full episode of wild panic developing in its place.
  3057. > If anything, the brief sensation of being unable to breathe seems to have pushed Dash far beyond her normal state of terror.
  3058. > Several heavy thuds issue from the cage as Dash bodily slams herself into various walls in a wild attempt to flee.
  3059. > For a moment you fear for her well-being, but something - perhaps the shock and pain of the collisions - has given her pause.
  3060. > A muffled mewling emerges from within the mask; had it not been on, you're fairly certain Dash would openly sobbing by now.
  3061. > It seems like the perfect moment to cut her air again; after all, she will surely be drawing deep breaths to support the pitiful noises she is making.
  3062. > There's the slightest twinge in your chest as the valve slides shut again, one that returns as Dash erupts into another round of wild, thudding escape attempts.
  3063. > It is squashed by the cold logic and grim satisfaction in seeing that Dash received her needed punishment.
  3064. > That she had broken one of the most fundamental rules you had.
  3065. > So instead you remain there, listening to Dash throw herself into the walls of the cage.
  3066. > Her struggles growing weaker as each use of her muscles draws precious oxygen from her blood.
  3067. > Even for a pony such as herself, used to being short on breath even in captivity, her lungs will surely be burning by now.
  3068. > A few seconds longer, and the valve is finally allowed to slide open again.
  3069. > Dash's muffled cries echo from the box, pitiful in their simple desperation.
  3070. > These are not the deep sobs of someone subject to an emotional pain, but the wrenching cries of a creature deprived of their most basic needs.
  3071. > A being caught in a hell she cannot escape, even her fundamental need to breathe taken from her control.
  3072. > That, in the end, is what this is about.
  3073. > Dash lost control of herself, even while she thought she could control you.
  3074. > So you have to truly take her control from her, down to every last bit.
  3075. > Once more her air is stolen by the mask fitted tight against her and the valve in your hand.
  3076. > And once more Dash's reaction is true to her nature:
  3077. > She tries to fight it, rather than peacefully giving in and calming herself to ride it out.
  3078. > This is not something that can be fought, though, and her attempts only push her deeper into the whirlpool of self-inflicted terror.
  3079. > A sharp, acrid scent hits your nose, driving it up into a wrinkle.
  3080. > Another sign of her control lost.
  3081. > Dash doesn't miss it either - as you reopen the valve there is a brief silence indicating her pause before another long, drawn-out moan issues from the cage.
  3082. > The moan of a pony who's realized she's lost even control of her most basic bodily functions.
  3083. > The drain in the floor of the cage would carry it away, of course, but you should wash her later anyhow.
  3084. > And that fact doesn't shield her from the humiliation she is feeling now.
  3085. > Squatting down, you snap the hose in to a remote-control rig.
  3086. > It would run the valve when you were not there, allowing you to steal her breath from a distance while ensuring there would be no accidents that might truly choke her.
  3087. > Another element of randomized horror for Dash to experience.
  3088. > Another way for her to be reminded of just how much you could take from her.
  3089. > You haven't even reached the exit when the first click sounds and Dash's cries once more rise from mere misery into true and complete terror.
  3090. > Returning to your 'office', you set the dozen or so screens surrounding the workstation alight and sink into the chair to begin your work.
  3091. > It's not as though you don't have plenty to do.
  3092. > Cadance and Shining's pronouncement on the nature of their visit had set more things in motion than they realized.
  3093. > The blow to your reputation and public relations was bad enough, but worse was that they had made their visit exceedingly visible.
  3094. > Though you hadn't told them to make it secret - you doubted they would have come, if you had - to make it that high-profile was equally unwelcome.
  3095. > The ten closest settlements to your home were no doubt crawling with Celestia's eyes and ears, and every pony at the Crystal Royals' stop on the rail line knew that they had come.
  3096. > There were no doubt messages both arcane and mundane on their way to the solar princess this very moment, and she would no doubt be quite displeased to know you'd gone about forging agreements with one of her subordinate princesses behind her back.
  3097. > Knuckles pop in a crack-crack-crack ripple, and you get down to work.
  3098. > The first order of business is a message sent to an agent in Canterlot.
  3099. > You needed to be kept advised of Celestia's actions; it wasn't likely she would make any moves in public, but it never hurt to check.
  3100. > And while you hadn't been able to get anyone close to her, a great deal could still be learned from the moves she did or did not make.
  3101. > Next: A full sweep of your perimeter sensor nets and defensive positions.
  3102. > No alarms had been tripped during the visit, but that didn't mean their guards hadn't been busy.
  3103. > Indeed, not thirty minutes later overflights have located no less than four gems, radiating the strange low-level electromagnetic interference enchanted items produce.
  3104. > All dropped or loosely buried in close proximity to where their guards had been waiting.
  3105. > Fingers drum nervously on the keypads as you consider what to do with them.
  3106. > In many ways your machines covered for your utter lack of any capability or even sense for magic, but the fact remained that you had no idea what these crystals were.
  3107. > They might be explosives, weapons... or more likely, some sort of observational device.
  3108. > But what kind?
  3109. > Would moving them disrupt their effect, or give them an even greater view.
  3110. > You settle for having the drones shift them a good half-mile away from the approach path and burying them.
  3111. > Now, what move to make next?
  3112. > A grimace finds its way to your lips as the obvious answer reasserts itself.
  3113. > Glancing at the nearest clock display, you confirm that - even if she is not yet asleep - it is far, far to late to be bothering Chrysalis tonight.
  3114. > Though you hold some power over her, provoking the temperamental Queen is not something you care to gamble with.
  3115. > Another twelve hours, then - it will have to wait.
  3116. > Working from there, you begin to address secondary issues and take further steps.
  3117. > In between - about once every hour or so - you switch over to a feed from Dash's punishment.
  3118. > Sometimes you leave her be.
  3119. > Mostly, you take the opportunity to momentarily cut her air again.
  3120. > She's rarely getting more than a few minutes of sleep.
  3121. > Turning your mind back to the larger issues at hand, you consider your next options.
  3122. > Only a handful of your transceivers are spread across Equestria, granted only to those you consider trustworthy agents rather than merely any creature that owes you a debt.
  3123. > While this protects you from the loss of even one such device, it also means they have to distribute orders to your other debtors individually.
  3124. > This takes time, and you cannot overload your loyal servants with work lest their work for you be discovered.
  3125. > What this ends up meaning is that your messages will take several days to get out.
  3126. > Though you know there's nothing you can do to make it go faster - short of directly sending drones to each, an unacceptable option - you also can't deny some uneasiness about leaving things to stew overnight.
  3127. > Celestia will not be so patient, you are sure.
  3128. > In the end, though, you force yourself to bed.
  3129. > No sense in denying yourself the sleep to work on it tomorrow.
  3130. > Somehow, the room seems emptier without Dash, though.
  3132. --------
  3134. > "Anonymous. How delightful to hear back from you at last..."
  3135. "Hello, Chrysalis."
  3136. > The Changeling Queen's visage leers at you from the screen, her eyes glittering with malign amusement.
  3137. > "A little buggy told me you have been quite busy as of late."
  3138. > Had the news already gotten that far so fast?
  3139. > Damn.
  3140. "I'm not one to allow my plans to sit and waste. You'll be pleased to know that your counterparts in our agreement seem to be on board for the treaty."
  3141. > "Truly?"
  3142. > The look of surprise on Chrysalis' face is genuine; you get the feeling she hadn't actually expected you to be able to leverage Cadance into it.
  3143. "It took some effort, but yes. They will do their part."
  3144. > A mixture of surprise, satisfaction, and annoyance radiates from the Changeling queen.
  3145. > Surely she was pleased to know that her remaining Changelings would not lack for food, but undoubtedly she hated being even further in your debt.
  3146. > Unsurprisingly, she finds something else to throw back at you.
  3147. > "What of the release of my subjects held from me? I will not idle while they remain prisoners."
  3148. "Those held in the Crystal Empire will be freed upon your agreeing to this deal."
  3149. > If she feels any anger at this proclamation, it isn't shown.
  3150. > Then again, the Changeling that had delivered your message was now merely one among many refugees in the Crystal Empire, if Cadance was to be believed.
  3151. > "Those are not all of my children held captive, Anonymous. I wish to see them all returned."
  3152. > Chissik.
  3153. > Frankly, you were increasingly unsure of what to do with the Changeling.
  3154. > But to give up a bargaining peace so easily...
  3155. "No. Chissik will remain with me, until I am certain there will be no further unpleasant surprises in our relationship."
  3156. > Which, given the Changeling QUeen's temperament, could be quite a while.
  3157. > As if to demonstrate, Chrysalis hisses sharply, snarling into the camera.
  3158. > Despite the fact she couldn't be directly influencing your emotions at such a range, you still feel a chill run down your spine.
  3159. > She was perhaps the first thing you'd met on this world who could be truly menacing, and even without her hooves in your mind the Changeling queen still had years of acting experience to draw on.
  3160. > "You dare to use my own subjects as hostages againt me, Anonymous?"
  3161. > Chissik's own words come back to you.
  3162. > 'She is a proud queen, Anonymous. Proud, but caring.'
  3163. "You would dare to try and spy on me in my own home? Do not forget, had you not pushed that your dear Chissik would be free still."
  3164. > Starving still, but free.
  3165. > Chrysalis clearly did not like the idea of any others ruling over her kin, no matter how comfortable they may be.
  3166. "The only question that then remains is, will you cooperate with the plan as a whole?"
  3167. > "You have left me little choice."
  3168. > A slight smirk grows on your lips.
  3169. "Merely ensuring there will be no further surprises from you, Chrysalis."
  3170. > "I will not play with the lives of my subjects."
  3171. "Good for you. I will communicate your final assent to the Crystal royals. They will release your kin that they hold, upon their return to you the agreement will be considered to be in effect."
  3172. > "You do not intend to force us to sign some treaty?"
  3173. > A derisive snort issues from your nostrils.
  3174. "If you were going to break your part of the agreement, a piece of paper would not stop you. And this will allow Cadance and Shining Armor to save face until the deal goes public."
  3175. > Until they have to face the wrath of their overlords from Canterlot for going about making deals with you.
  3176. > "Then we find ourselves in agreement. I will..."
  3177. > You can tell it us straining Chrysalis to say this.
  3178. > "I will release my prisoners when my changelings are returned to me."
  3179. "All of them."
  3180. > She snarls, emerald eyes flashing.
  3181. > "All of them, yes. I understand the position you have placed me in."
  3182. "Good. I hope you understand that if I can - and if need be, will - penetrate your new home to ensure you are not lying."
  3183. > Chrysalis tries to hide the flicker of surprise and anger in her eyes, but isn't entirely successful.
  3184. "Just remember, you caused this - and the best way to get out of it is to work with me."
  3185. > "I'm aware of your opinion on the matter."
  3186. "Good. Then I look forward to hearing of the prisoners' exchange."
  3187. > As the connection shuts off, you allow yourself a relieved breath at last.
  3188. > Against all odds and the egos of two powerful rulers, it seemed as if this plan would come together.
  3189. > Hopefully Chrysalis would never discover your bluff regarding her home.
  3190. > Now you only had to-
  3191. > "Alert. Unexpected incoming call. Identity: Sparkle."
  3192. > Twilight?
  3193. > Even as the computer repeats the warning into your ears, your lips fall from the smile they had held into a deep scowl.
  3194. > What did she want now?
  3195. > Shoving her muzzle into business that did not involve her, undoubtedly.
  3196. > Forcing your face back into something resembling neutrality, you open the video feed but do not let her do the same.
  3197. > Instantly it becomes considerably more difficult to hold that carefully-tailored mask of nonhostility.
  3198. > Unfortunate that this had come now; you'd expected a bit more time before it happened.
  3199. > No way to avoid it, though.
  3200. > The call is opened to both ways.
  3201. "Your Highness, how... unexpected."
  3202. > The alabaster alicorn centered in the camera feed regards you evenly.
  3203. > Celestia's looks is considerably more practiced; though she undoubtedly was against you, Celestia held the experience of centuries in keeping her composure.
  3204. "I take it you have heard news of my newest arrangement, then?"
  3205. > "I have. I do not know how you have bent the Changelings to your will, but it does not matter now. Is this a signal that you are open to further negotiations?"
  3206. > Meaning, would you submit to her demands.
  3207. "At this time, my opinions on my position remain firm."
  3208. > "I see... you understand, of course, that I remain concerned about your insistence on excluding Equestria as a whole from your negotiations."
  3209. > Meaning, of course, she was displeased by your having gone behind her back to her subordinate princess.
  3210. "I approached those most relevant to the agreement in question, Your Highness. Those most willing to see the matter for what it was... not for past actions."
  3211. > If Celestia notices the point that she was not 'relevant', she does not react to it.
  3212. > Instead she simply sighs and shakes her head.
  3213. > "I truly do wish that you would stop regarding us as your enemies, Anonymous. We are not; merely... concerned about your activities."
  3214. "Need I remind you, Your Highness, that it was you who set your pet elements against me rather than negotiate for-"
  3215. > "Your demands were untenable in Equestria. That is the truth, and you know it."
  3216. "Untenable, and yet here I am still."
  3217. > "All but imprisoned within your own home, and only safe by holding an innocent mare hostage and threatening the lives of how many more?"
  3218. > An answer forms on your lips, but you halt it - and hold up a hand to pause before responding.
  3219. "...this is getting us nowhere. We are both reasonable minds, yes? Why can this treaty I have arranged not be taken in the manner it was meant to be - as a sign that I have the interests of peace and security at heart?"
  3220. > "Perhaps because you continue to unjustly inflict your crimes upon Rainbow Dash?"
  3221. "A situation, again, that you created."
  3222. > "I gave you my word, Anonymous. You would not have been hurt if you had surrendered."
  3223. > A grim, thin smile climbs onto your lips.
  3224. "I think, Your Highness, that this is where our opinions diverge. What you insisted upon would have very much hurt me; I could not have agreed to give up what you demanded any more than I could have given up one of my limbs."
  3225. > "Then I hope you will understand I did what I did only to protect my little ponies."
  3226. > She truly believes it, of course.
  3227. > Or at least, as best as you can tell.
  3228. > Celestia may be many things, but in your estimation she truly thought her actions were for the best.
  3229. > Even as she played her beloved ponies like puppets.
  3230. "...then I am afraid we continue to find ourselves at a standoff, Your Highness."
  3231. > "Then I will ask - plead, even: Return Rainbow Dash. Allow her to go free. We will remain in negotiations, and not assault your home - you have my word."
  3232. > This was one of the reasons you found Celestia to be honest in her morals, if misguided.
  3233. > She did not hesitate to lower herself in the eyes of others, if it would do good for her ponies.
  3234. > But that did not translate to true safety.
  3235. > "Please, Anonymous. If you truly do seek peace, let this go and work with us."
  3236. "No. I am sorry, Celestia, but once bitten, twice shy - I cannot rely on a word alone to ensure that I will not be turned on again."
  3237. > She sighs softly, nodding.
  3238. > "Then we will have to remain facing each other across the divide, Anonymous. In this case, I should inform you that per Equestrian law, you are a fugitive from justice in Equestria."
  3239. > A cold ball begins to form in your stomach as you guess where she is going with this.
  3240. > "And that Equestria does not engage in negotiations with such, no matter what you might do behind the scenes."
  3241. > You remain deeply glad she cannot see how white your knuckles are turning as you grip the arms of your seat.
  3242. "...I see. Thank you for the notification, Your Highness."
  3243. > There was, of course, no reason to actually notify you.
  3244. > It was the status quo you had lived with since she had set the elements on you:
  3245. > She could not stop ponies from doing business with you nor attack you directly, but you could not openly expand your operations.
  3246. > But then, it was what she had not said that was most important.
  3247. "Until we speak again, then, Your Highness."
  3248. > "Yes. Until then. I will remain hopeful that you will choose to correct your ways."
  3249. > Not until the image is long faded and the connection closed do you allow the scream to bubble forth.
  3250. > How dare she?
  3251. > In one swoop, Celestia had erased all your estimates of where this agreement could go.
  3252. > As a fugitive - a step short of a full enemy of Equestria - you could never be publicly acknowledged as the source of this agreement.
  3253. > For even Cadance to do so would effectively openly pit her against Canterlot, a step she was surely not ready to take.
  3254. > Beautiful.
  3255. > A stark, ham-fisted move... but an effective one.
  3256. > Sweeping your eyes across the console, another video feed catches your eyes.
  3257. > Dash.
  3258. > She suffers still in her cage, wriggling against the confinement.
  3259. > In a fury, your fingers dance across the keyboard - triggering the remote valve.
  3260. > Instantly her writhing takes on a new element of terror.
  3261. > Blood pounds in your ears as you keep the button depressed, withholding air from her for what was probably far too long.
  3262. > And then you do it again.
  3263. > And again.
  3264. > And again.
  3265. > Sealed in her cage without sight, hearing, or even now smell Dash cannot know what drives you to suddenly torment her further.
  3266. > Nor can she know how long it will last.
  3267. > In a strange way, neither do you.
  3268. > How long do you toy with her; up and down, on and off, until the fury has burned itself out within you?
  3269. > Long enough.
  3270. > When at last reason returns to your brain, you sit staring at the feed in silence once more.
  3271. > Even though Dash's air is no longer stolen from her, the heights of terror it has driven her to cannot be so easily dismounted from.
  3272. > It is a long time before her screaming, sobbing terror subsides.
  3273. > With a sigh you close your eyes and mentally punish yourself.
  3274. > How foolish that had been.
  3275. > Dash had not brought this on you.
  3276. > Your actions were at fault here.
  3277. > With a sigh, you heft yourself from the chair and start over towards her punishment room.
  3278. > Perhaps you could afford to let her out a little early.
  3280. --------
  3282. > Dash is still shaking terribly when you extricate her from the cage.
  3283. > As had become your habit, you leave the earmuffs and blindfold on, reintroducing her senses to their freedom a bit at a time instead of deluging her with fresh sensations all at once.
  3284. > Just the touch of your hands is more than enough to induce another round of muffled sobbing.
  3285. > This time, as you at last release the mask that had bound her muzzle for the past twenty-four hours, the tears reveal themselves to be of relief rather than fear or terror.
  3286. > The moment it falls away Dash begins to take huge, deep breaths - as if trying to make up for the times you had stolen her air away.
  3287. > She doesn't even try to speak to you, nor even allow sobs to break from her throat.
  3288. > Just sucks down gulps of air like someone drinking from an oasis found suddenly in the desert.
  3289. > Even as you cradle her in your lap, hands stroking softly, Dash continues to gasp deeply.
  3290. > Hyperventilation starts to become a concern; a light hand rested on her cheek helps to calm her - for a moment.
  3291. > The second your touch leaves her coat she starts to again draw breath deeply once more, her chest heaving with each load of air pulled in.
  3292. > A firm hand around Dash's muzzle puts an end to that, making it abundantly clear that you want her to stop.
  3293. > Unfortunately, it brings on a new problem.
  3294. > Aware that she has evidently displeased you, Dash curls up on herself and begins to whimpers softly.
  3295. > Wings extend to curl around herself, forming a blue-colored shell to hide within.
  3296. > Does she think you would return her to the cage, just for that?
  3297. > Seeking to halt this, you slip one arm around Dash's chest and another beneath her legs to lift her against you, wings resting on your chest.
  3298. > It is a position that despite its implications - utterly helpless, carried like a foal in her mother's legs - Dash has come to associate with safety.
  3299. > You never hold her like this when you are angry with her.
  3300. > Lift her by the scruff of her neck, drag her by her collar, pull her by her mane - but never touch her like this.
  3301. > After a while her position starts to bleed through the terror-spawned fog still clouding Dash's mind, and she starts to relax.
  3302. > Wings reaching out to lay a fan of feathers over the arm circling her belly.
  3303. > Like she could hold it there forever, and never have you be angry with her again.
  3304. > Standing with a grunt, you carry Dash from the basement and up to your room
  3305. > Given her state, reintroducing her to all her senses doesn't seem like the best idea right now.
  3306. > Best to get her comfortable with what she has first.
  3307. > A quick sniff reveals another result of being kept for a day in a near-constant state of fearful trembling and motion.
  3308. > Though you'd washed her down, the hose's stream hadn't truly done anything for the sweat.
  3309. > Perhaps a proper bath was in order, then?
  3310. > Yes, that sounds good.
  3311. > Diverting from your bed, you turn around and head for the bathroom that had become Dash's.
  3312. > The in-floor shower springs to life, water quickly warming to a warm but not yet steaming temperature.
  3313. > Rolling up your sleeves, you kneel by the stream and guide Dash beneath the downpoaring water.
  3314. > Instantly your pants become soaked, but what does it matter?
  3315. > Though she stiffens at first in response to the unexpected sensation, not a moment later she relaxes again
  3316. > It's the final sign Dash had needed, that her punishment was truly over.
  3317. > Tension seems to flow out of her like the water cascading down off her coat.
  3318. > Though you are fairly certain that her blindfold is dampened by more than bathwater, it isn't something you care to take up.
  3319. > Dash has truly earned her rest - both by accepting her punishment, and being the subject of your anger.
  3320. > You are caught by surprise when she turns her thread, the soft warmth of her cheek pressing into your palm.
  3321. > Though still remains blind and deaf, she knows these hands will not harm her now - and so she takes comfort in the only source she has.
  3322. > Unexpectedly you find yourself stroking the cheek softly.
  3323. > Then lightly scratching around her sable-coated ear, then running a hand down her neck, and then feeling your fingers pass over the ridges of muscles in her back...
  3324. > There's tension in those muscles, but it quickly melts away under your touch.
  3325. > Did she earn this reward?
  3326. > Not exactly, no.
  3327. > But she had suffered through enough, you think, to it to be not out of place.
  3328. > A shudder runs through Dash as you carefully extend each wing and work the stress from the strong bands of muscle supporting them, letting the soothing magic of hot water run itself over them.
  3329. > The slightest blush tinges her muzzle as you flex each wing, bringing it to full extension before carefully folding it against her side again.
  3330. > They begin to extend again anyhow as you add in a significant dollop of shampoo, starting to lather down her coat.
  3331. > It's a sight that draws a small chuckle from you; you hadn't meant it have that effect on her.
  3332. > Keeping your hands moving quickly, you rinse Dash clean and cut the shower.
  3333. > A quick, rough toweling cleans most of the moisture from her, leaving her damp coat to dry out on its own.
  3334. > Lifting her again, you heft Dash up again and turn for your room.
  3335. > The drying pegasus is deposited in a patch of light by one of the windows while you swap out of your own soaked clothes.
  3336. > When you return another involuntary laugh comes bubbling up.
  3337. > In your absence, despite being still blind and deaf Dash had rolled over onto her side to expose herself to the maximum of the sun's warming rays.
  3338. > Taking a seat cross-legged beside her, you reach over and begin to remove the blindfold from her eyes.
  3339. > The second the strap comes loose from around her head, Dash sits up sharply - twisting to look at you.
  3340. > Her eyes are filled with not a look of relief, as you had expected, but fear.
  3341. "Dash? It's over now, Dash. You aren't going to be punished any more."
  3342. > Of course she cannot hear you yet; you nearly slap your face in annoyance when you realize this.
  3343. > A moment later the earmuffs fall to the floor as well - but Dash's ears quickly fall flat, as if she were trying to close them out.
  3344. > Dash does not seem relieved, curling into a small ball once more.
  3345. > If anything, she seems even more perturbed - her eyes squeezing tightly shut and ears still pinned as far down as they will go.
  3346. > You remain with her for some time, sometimes gently reaching out and stroking her sleek coat.
  3347. > What had brought on this sudden change?
  3348. > She had been so relaxed in the shower.
  3349. > Even when she'd rolled over to sun herself...
  3350. > Had you overstimulated Dash too quickly?
  3351. "...alright, Dash. I want you to remain in here. I'll come up and get you in a little bit for dinner."
  3352. > Several firm requests are necessary before she mumbles a tiny assent, still remaining curled in on herself in the patch of sunlight.
  3353. > Frowning, you head downstairs to handle a last few bit of work for the day.
  3354. > When you next take a look into your room - not even an hour later - your heart practically jumps into your throat.
  3355. > Dash was... rolling, it seemed, in a pile of straps and cord presumably dug out of one drawer.
  3356. > Was she trying to pin her wings?
  3357. > To throw herself through the window and from the second floor?
  3358. > It might not kill her, but the injuries would almost certainly be severe...
  3359. > ...unless she was planning to hook something to her collar before she went.
  3360. > And she had tried to get you to shoot her once before...
  3361. > Your legs are pumping even before that thought finishes processing, each step thundering on the floor.
  3362. > Dash is looking up, eyes wide in shock when you come pounding through the door into your room.
  3363. > One and a half eyes, anyway; she's somehow managed to pull the heavy blinding goggles up onto her head and halfway down over one eye.
  3364. "What are you doing, Dash?"
  3365. > Hard, accusing tones are layered in your voice.
  3366. > Hadn't you taught her it wasn't acceptable to try this?!
  3367. > The only response she has to your sudden appearance is to doubly hasten her attempts.
  3368. > As if she could somehow finish the act before you could cross the room.
  3369. > "Dash, stop. Now."
  3370. > If there's one thing she's learned it is never to disobey a direct order.
  3371. > The sharp tone in your voice is more than enough to halt her further efforts.
  3372. > Instead shame fills her eyes, wings - wings covered in multiple lines of cord - drooping sharply.
  3373. "Dash. What. Are. You. Doing."
  3374. > Head falling to the floor, tears spring to Dash's eyes.
  3375. > "I'm trying... trying to..."
  3376. > Damn it, she was-
  3377. > "...trying to tie myself up."
  3378. "...well, I can see that, Dash. But I punished you once already for thinking that you could escape from me by killing yourself and-"
  3379. > "What?! No, I..."
  3380. > Her cheeks flush red again - humiliation radiating from her entire body.
  3381. > "...I'm trying to tie myself up so you won't have to punish me because I won't fuck up again, damn it!"
  3382. > Your entire thought process grinds to a halt.
  3383. > Dash is panting heavily, as though those rapidly-spat words had the weight of flying a race.
  3384. > Perhaps they had, with the weight they carried.
  3385. "What?
  3386. > "I..."
  3387. > Her head falls even further, one wing pulling free of the cord and rising to cover her face.
  3388. > "You... I don't want to screw up again. I don't want to be punished. I don't want to make you..."
  3389. > Even from here, a good fifteen feet away, you can see the shudder run through her limbs.
  3390. > "...I don't want to go back in the cage. I don't want to have to wear that mask again."
  3391. "So you thought to tie yourself up."
  3392. > A slight, uncertain nod rocks her head.
  3393. "Explain."
  3394. > "You don't punish me when I'm like this... when I can't move. Well, sometimes you do, but it's not that bad and maybe I thought if I put them on you wouldn't have to punish me any more and I just thought-"
  3395. > There is a point in her rambling, you realize.
  3396. > Increasingly you had come to rely on the goggles, earmuffs and perhaps a bit of restraint alone as a means of keeping her calm or lightly punishing her.
  3397. > Compared to the unceasing hell that Dash experienced inside the box, it must have seemed almost pleasant.
  3398. > And she was right about one other thing.
  3399. > So long as she was experiencing a lighter punishment, you never had inflicted a harsher one on her.
  3400. > Indeed, sometimes you had even kept her close and reassured her during those lesser inflictions.
  3401. > Was it so shocking that Dash would eventually come to associate the lesser, tolerable punishment with safety from her true hell?
  3402. > No, but it wasn't an acceptable state of affairs either.
  3403. "They need to come off, Dash. This isn't how you should behave when you aren't being-"
  3404. > Again a terrible flinch runs through body, eyes squeezed shut and legs curled protectively around herself as if Dash expected you to strike her down then and there.
  3405. "...I'm not going to punish you for this, Dash."
  3406. > "I'm sorry.'
  3407. > Small, fearful tones still tinge her voice.
  3408. > "I... I don't know anymore. I thought I was doing right, but then I hit Shining Armor and you put me in there and now I was just trying to help you but I-"
  3409. > A flicker of annoyance runs through your head.
  3410. > It was, after all, your own loss of control that had made that last visit so unbearable for her.
  3411. > But this...
  3412. > This was beyond what you can tolerate.
  3413. > Hell, it's not to long until you would have to grant Twilight and the rest of her gaggle of elements another moment with Dash - a little over a week.
  3414. > And neither of the two options you saw right now - Dash as a terrified wreck or bound hoof and wing - seemed like presentable states.
  3415. "This is not acceptable, Dash. Just because I-"
  3416. > Her eyes lift to lock with yours again, silently pleading.
  3417. > And a subtle switch within you ticks over.
  3418. "...but I think we could find a middle ground. For now."
  3419. > You're nearly bowled over by the impact that follows; Dash had tackled you dead-center.
  3420. > For a moment you fear she is trying something again - trying to provoke you, perhaps, as she had done once before.
  3421. > But no; as Dash's forelegs lock tight around you and her head is buried in your stomach the realization comes that she is only deeply thankful for restoring some measure of safety to her existence.
  3422. "I'm willing to give you some time. But you will have to start learning how to actually follow the rules, not just keep yourself from doing anything - do you understand?"
  3423. > Dash just nods, apparently not even trusting herself to reply aloud.
  3424. > Pulling her away, you gently lower the goggles into place over her eyes.
  3425. > Even so, Dash does not calm until you have wound the cord around her limbs, pinning both leg and wing to her barrel.
  3426. "There, now. Better?"
  3427. > Dash nods slowly, a single tear streaking from beneath her mask.
  3428. "You're crying still, Dash. I thought this is what you wanted?"
  3429. > Lowering her head to 'face' the floor, she mumbles something beneath her breath.
  3430. "What was that, Dash?"
  3431. > "I said, you shouldn't call me that anymore. I'm... I'm not Rainbow Dash anymore. Rainbow Dash wouldn't have hid like this; she would have faced her fear..."
  3432. > A choked laugh escapes from Dash's throat.
  3433. > "I helped a friend of mine with that once, you know? Facing her fears... but here I am, hiding away like a foal scared of thunder."
  3434. > Arguing with her would be the choice you would pick, as simply accepting this state wasn't a viable choice.
  3435. > Except for that you don't see any particularly good arguments to make.
  3436. > It was clear that right now telling her to face up to those fears would not generate any particularly helpful results.
  3437. > The next possible choice of course, would be to simply order her to - but orders relied on the stick as well as the carrot to enforce, and right now Dash was to afraid of the former to see the latter.
  3438. > In a roundabout way, your own method had become too effective for its own good.
  3439. > The irony would be hilarious, if not so frustrating.
  3440. > So instead you do the only thing that comes to mind:
  3441. > Lifting Dash to the bed, you sit down beside her and simply begin quietly stroking her mane back.
  3442. > Perhaps not the absolute best thing to do, but it certainly isn't the wrong thing either.
  3443. > And as a little voice in the back of your head seems to enjoy reminding you, she kind of deserves it after your error brought her here.
  3444. > Some hours later when Dash finally speaks again, it is with a small, nervous voice.
  3445. > "...I wish you wouldn't do that."
  3446. "Do what, Dash? Pet you?"
  3447. > Her head bobs in a trembling nod.
  3448. > "Be nice to me. I... I could hate you then. I could use that, I could stay focused... I would still be... be..."
  3449. "Yourself?"
  3450. > Another shaky little nod.
  3451. > "It'd still be bad, but - I could understand that. I could deal with it, fight against it. Instead..."
  3452. > Drawing a shuddering breath, she wriggles up against your leg - relishing the direct physical contact.
  3453. > "You said it yourself. You... like me. You care about me. You help me when I need help... even if I hate you when you punish me, hate what you're turning me into... I can't hate you do that. I can't."
  3454. > As pleased as you were with that particular turn of logic, that it had left you in this spot was still a major problem.
  3455. "If you don't hate me, then why don't you simply try and do better to obey me?"
  3456. > "I can't!"
  3457. > Rising abruptly, Dash's voice is rich with pain drawn not from your actions but from her own inner struggle.
  3458. > "I want to do better, I want to! But I'm not strong enough... all that training, all that pushing myself and I'm not strong enough to help you."
  3459. "Help me, Dash?"
  3460. > There's no immediate response, though you don't still you hand.
  3461. > Punishing her would do no good here; instead, you just wait for Dash to - despite her words - find the strength to explain herself.
  3462. > "I... If I don't disobey you... then you won't have to punish me. If you don't have to punish me, then you can reward me... and then maybe... maybe some day you won't have to hide here. You won't have to fight Twilight and Celestia and my friends, and you can come out and actually live your life again."
  3463. > There's a hesitant pause before she adds, almost silently:
  3464. > "And... maybe I could too..."
  3465. > Ah.
  3466. > So this is what it all came back to.
  3467. > Nevermind that Dash doesn't see the glaring flaw in her plan, that you cannot reward her while she is merely not failing on account of being blind and bound.
  3468. > But that she still desperately hoped you would come to the conclusion that your disagreements with Celestia were meaningless...
  3469. "Do you really think that is a possibility, Dash?"
  3470. > "I... I don't know. But... if Discord could be made good and stuff, couldn't you? Princess Celestia listened to Fluttershy about him, maybe he could listen to me if I stood up for you?"
  3471. > A delightful idea... but unlikely to happen.
  3472. > Whatever had driven the former prince of chaos to abandon his ways were unlikely to apply to you.
  3473. "Dash, do you even know why Celestia sent you the other elements after me?"
  3474. > "Because... you're evil. But... you're not. I don't know..."
  3475. "Because I threatened her, Dash, when she tried to take something from me. Does that make me evil?"
  3476. > To that, Dash doesn't have an answer.
  3477. > A gentle chuckle escapes your lips; even if Dash had said yes, you could have simply educated her on the details.
  3478. > To explain that no pleading from her, even if she was an element of harmony, would change Celestia's mind.
  3479. > No, that would take actual actions to prove that you were not as vile as she thought.
  3480. > Like he deal with the Changelings... had Celestia not torpedoed that development herself with her little proclamation.
  3481. "Tell me Dash... do you think that you can convince her that I am not entirely evil if I only present you bound and blindfolded?"
  3482. > Much hard thinking passes as Dash tries to find any way to circumvent the obvious answer.
  3483. > "I... I don't know... maybe I could just take them off then, but..."
  3484. > Her head falls to the floor despite not being able to see.
  3485. > "If you are angry with me, if you have to punish me, I won't be able to do anything at all. Please... please, just let me stay like this for a little while."
  3486. > And so you do, allowing Dash to remain quietly nuzzling your hand when it suits her.
  3487. > It had been your hope that reminding her of her 'mission' - however fruitless that might ultimately be - would be a means to crack Dash out of this state.
  3488. > A hope that was now rapidly fading.
  3489. > Persistant and stubborn Dash may have been, but that stubborn nature was now fixated on the idea that it was safest to reside in a shell of false safety.
  3490. > You were going to have to find another way to work out how to unlock Dash's mind from the chains it had bound itself in.
  3491. > Fortunately, an expert makes herself available to you.
  3493. --------
  3495. > It is another two days - days which in contrast to her normally active, constantly-in-motion attitude Dash does little but remain buried in the covers and restrained as much as possible - before you decide to simply leave her be.
  3496. > Perhaps time would work its healing magic and allow the immediate pain to fade.
  3497. > In the meantime, you have another guest to look after.
  3498. > "Hello, master."
  3499. > Chissik bows deeply on your entrance, putting aside the latest book she had buried her nose in.
  3500. > The moment you take a seat the room is filled with the clinking of her chain.
  3501. > In a second she is at your side, breathing deeply - likely absorbing whatever remnants of Dash's adoration have come to linger on you.
  3502. "Hello, Chissik. I hope you've been enjoying your rewards?"
  3503. > You motion about to her now-furnished impromptu cell.
  3504. > As a result of Chissik's generally good behavior - even if you suspected she was at times trying excessively to please you - her cell had been provided with modest furnishings.
  3505. > Several books had been printed for her reading enjoyment - oddly enough the infiltrator had proved to deeply enjoy naturalist and travel literature.
  3506. > "Considerably, master. I do admit I would never have had the chance to perform this much reading in my life. However..."
  3507. > She paces in a steady circle around your seat, then back again to unwind the chain - sniffing all the while.
  3508. > "...I must ask, master, is everything quite alright?"
  3509. > Snorting softly, you let a sarcastic tone slip into your voice.
  3510. "Whyever do you ask?"
  3511. > "I can still taste her on you. Rainbow Dash - fear and terror, fresh and sour. Things not there before... yet, adoration all the same."
  3512. > Twisting her head up, Chissik peers at you through wide blue-sheened eyes.
  3513. > "I can taste that something has gone wrong with her. Is everything alright, master?"
  3514. > You don't respond immediately.
  3515. > When had Chissik become that accurate with her emotion-sensing?
  3516. > That she had sensed your worry, that she could understand.
  3517. > But this...
  3518. "I thought you only eat love. Affection, whatever."
  3519. > "We may only consume some, but we sense all."
  3520. > So Chissik had been hiding things from you.
  3521. > How illuminating... and yet, at this point, there was little loss to be found in offering more information.
  3522. > You lean forward, knowing the next few words are going to be significant.
  3523. "I need your help."
  3524. > "Of course, master. How may I be of service?"
  3525. > There it was again.
  3526. > You weren't sure if it was a front Chissik was putting up, her actual emotions and desire to please at work, or if joyful obedience towards a superior was hard-coded into every Changeling's mind.
  3527. > Whatever it was, the depths of Chissik's willingness to aid you without question was always slightly offputting.
  3528. > Especially in light of her unmentioned skill at detecting emotions.
  3529. > But if this could help, even at all...
  3530. "I need advice regarding Dash."
  3531. > "I... do not know how much aid I may be, master. She still feels hostility towards me."
  3532. "I'm aware. Your direct intervention may not be needed."
  3533. > You tent your fingers, well aware how dangerous this information could be once Chissik inevitably left.
  3534. "Dash has fallen into a deep depression. She seeks to... enclose herself, iwthin a bubble of her own creation, to avoid punishment."
  3535. > "And this is not desirable."
  3536. > It is not a question.
  3537. "It is not. Aside from the precarious position it places me in, I have no desire to reduce Dash to a trembling wreck."
  3538. > "What has brought this on, my master?"
  3539. > One single eyebrow cocks itself upwards in response to her question.
  3540. "You're awfully curious. Tell me first, little changeling - why are you so suddenly insistent on helping me? Why do you aid me so willfully?"
  3541. > Promptly dropping her head to rest against your leg in a gesture of complete and utter devotion, Chissik's voice nonetheless remains steady and calm.
  3542. > "Forgive me, my master. I did not intend to overstep my bounds; merely... I seek your goodwill. I do not think I can attain this through half-measures."
  3543. "You want to buy your way out of here."
  3544. > Her answer comes without any hesitation.
  3545. > "Yes. Forgive me, master, but I do not enjoy imprisonment any more than another would."
  3546. "I won't hold that against you. So, then - what would you reccomend I do about Dash?"
  3547. > Rather than reply, Chissik raises one hole-ridden hoof to rest on your knee; her eyes search your face pleadingly.
  3548. "...yes, you can come up."
  3549. > With a joyful little chitter she lofts herself up, chain dragging across your legs as Chissik drapes herself on the opposite arm of the chair.
  3550. > A moment later she nuzzles your arm softly.
  3551. > Hah.
  3552. > Skillful little manipulator that she was, Chissik had fiugred out exactly how to hit you for maximum gratefulness.
  3553. > With Dash locked in her own self-built prison, the affection was... deeply appreciated.
  3554. > Almost unconsciously you find yourself scratching around the ridged little fin that travelled down the back of her neck in place of a mane.
  3555. > Her wings ripple lightly with pleasure as your fingers work their magic over her tough, almost chitin-like skin.
  3556. > No doubt she was having a feast from this as well.
  3557. > Well, perhaps you could afford a little laxity every once in a while.
  3558. > "May I ask, master, what the nature of your difficulties with Dash are?"
  3559. > You chuckle softly at Chissik's oh-so-formal language, but tell her in detail.
  3560. > She listens, hole-ridden ears flicking back and forth.
  3561. > At the end, she hisses gently and nods.
  3562. > "You have brought too many rules into play for her at once. She cannot manage them all, and so feels doomed to fail."
  3563. "I understand that much, Chissik, but the rules are not that difficult: Do not leave the areas she is allowed, take actions whih emperil my position, or-"
  3564. > "That last one... have you told her that much?"
  3565. "Of course I-"
  3566. > Your hand halts its regular motions across Chissik's head.
  3567. > Had you told Dash as much?
  3568. > No; you had been giving her a great many simpler orders instead.
  3569. > "You are expecting her to think on her own - to understand what you want her to do. But at the same time you give her so many orders that she struggles to manage them all and fears taking the leap of acting on her own."
  3570. > Chissik rises slightly, twisting to look at you.
  3571. "You... are surprisingly good at this, Chissik."
  3572. > "It is not all that different to what an infiltrator must learn: Certain rules must be followed, but rules change with the mission."
  3573. > Grinning, you resume stroking her head; the changeling's eyes are quickly reduced to pleased, aquamarine slits.
  3574. "If you are going to be this helpful, I may regret eventually giving you up even more than I do now."
  3575. > "It is a risk I shall have to take."
  3576. "So, then... you think I should change how I govern Dash."
  3577. > "Reduce your strict rules to as few as possible. Allow her to think on her own. Reward her for her successes."
  3578. > Reward.
  3579. > Hmm.
  3580. > Truly, you had been falling down on that some as well.
  3581. > Bolstering Dash when she had seemed to need support, yes, but truly rewarding her for good behavior...?
  3582. "I think I know just what I am going to do."
  3584. --------
  3586. > Dash's ears are twitching and swiveling nervously as your shoes scuff against the patio bricks beneath them.
  3587. > Though you had agreed to allow the blindfold to remain on and her wings were tightly bound against her body, she still radiated nervousness.
  3588. > Was it the noises, the unusual sounds she had not heard in so long?
  3589. > Or the scents that her nostrils had not met in what must have seeemed like an eternity - fresh grass, old wood, pollen and flowers.
  3590. > She realizes where she is, no doubt, and still she fears - at least, until you allow her to join you up in an enormous, soft chair placed outdoors for you.
  3591. > "Master... are we...
  3592. "Outside?"
  3593. > "Yes, master."
  3594. "Yes, we are."
  3595. > "Why are we...?"
  3596. "Because I've realized I've been somewhat unfair to you, Dash."
  3597. > That drives her ears up, head tilting questioningly as she settles into the seat.
  3598. > Using the familiar (if not always wanted) sensation of being close to you as a bulwark against the now-unknown.
  3599. "We are out here, in short, because I screwed up."
  3600. > Dash all but rears up, surprise radiating from her entire body.
  3601. "Because I realized that you had in fact been doing very well in obeying my orders, and while I punished your failures I had failed to reward your successes."
  3602. > "I..."
  3603. > Dash honestly doesn't seem to know how to respond to that.
  3604. > Has it truly been so long since you actually rewarded her?
  3605. "And... while I may be a strict master, I also try to be a fair one. I dislike people going unrewarded for their successes - especially after overcoming barriers as large as yours."
  3606. > Gentle weight and warmth settles against your upper arm as Dash leans into you, ears still perked to listen to your words.
  3607. > After a moment, your hand rises to stroke her head almost instinctively.
  3608. > Almost certainly she could feel how hard the words are for you as well.
  3609. > An admission of your own inadequacies, even as you insisted you were right to rule her.
  3610. "I remember, Dash, that some time ago you asked me if you could go outside again - even just to play, run, whatever?"
  3611. > "Master, I... that's like... I didn't even know you remembered that!"
  3612. "I did, Dash. And since I failed to reward you properly when I should have, I believe you are due for an extra-special reward."
  3613. > Now understanding flows through her, and Dash raises her head to sniff at the scents and perk her ears towards the sounds with new understanding.
  3614. > Slipping your fingers through her mane, you continue speaking:
  3615. "I also realized that I've been giving you too many rules. There's no doubt that it's been confusing for you, trying to remember them all."
  3616. > Though she cannot see even a crack of light, Dash's head twists around as though her eyes might peer up at you - intent and focused, like you were an instructor on her favorite sport.
  3617. "As long as you are out here, there will only be three rules that you need to follow: One, be back when I say you are to be back. Not a moment later."
  3618. > A sharp nod jerks her head; though Dash was known procrastinate - especially when it came to sleeping - you had no doubt she would be spot-on-time now.
  3619. "Two, do not attempt to leave the security area around the home, and three, if you meet any others out there, return here immediately without speaking to them."
  3620. > "Um... how do I know where the security thingy is?"
  3621. > You grin slightly at the question; though she had interrupted, the fact that Dash was thinking on her own still was a very good sign.
  3622. "I've attached something to your collar. If it begins to vibrate, you're going to far."
  3623. > "Okay."
  3624. > It would do a lot more than that if she failed to turn back, but Dash doesn't need to know that.
  3625. > There's no need to intimidate her further at this point; she'd no doubt realized on her own you wouldn't let her roam entirely free.
  3626. "But beyond those three rules, you are free to do exactly as you wish."
  3627. > "I told you that you weren't all bad, master."
  3628. > Even though her tone reeks of 'I told you so', you cannot help but crack a slight smile at her proclamation.
  3629. "You did, Dash."
  3630. > Careful fingers undo the clips holding the cords about her wings and gently lift the goggles from her eyes.
  3631. > Dash blinks twice before they adjust to the sudden light after being blocked away for so long.
  3632. > A trembling hoof drops from the seat to the bricks below, as though she couldn't honestly believe this was happening.
  3633. > "C-Can I really..."
  3634. "Yes, Dash."
  3635. > You give her a warm smile, at last removing your hand from her head.
  3636. "You can go out for a while. Until sundown."
  3637. > The pressure on your lap drops away as she leaps down, hooves contacting bricks with a click-click.
  3638. > Dash's ears rise, swiveling furiously.
  3639. > He wings fidget and muscles ripple beneath her coat.
  3640. > And then, ever so hesitantly, she takes a first step out into the grass.
  3641. > And then another.
  3642. > And yet one more.
  3643. > Her pace begins to pick up at last, individual steps turning into a trot and then to a triumphant gallop-
  3644. > You rise, a small smile touching your lips-
  3645. > Dash's head rolls back, her prismatic mane flowing freely in the wind-
  3646. > -and she lets out a bitter cry as she comes stumbling to a halt.
  3647. > The comp-pad you'd been holding nearly falls from your fingers.
  3648. > What was that?!
  3649. > You'd been sure Dash would have taken the opportunity to be free - or as close as she could come - again.
  3650. > Instead she is taken a long, dejected walk back towards you.
  3651. > Ears, mane, and tale all hang limply while Dash's eyes are firmly set on the ground before you.
  3652. > Only she your shoes enter her vision does her head rise, peering up at you with such pain in her eyes it's another unexpected shock.
  3653. > "What... what did you do to me...?"
  3654. > It's not an accusation, but a begging question.
  3655. "Dash..."
  3656. > "Can I... just please... stay with you a little bit..."
  3657. > Returning to your seat - mind racing - you nod in agreement.
  3658. "Of course you may."
  3659. > Instead Dash scoots close against you, pressing her cheek into your side.
  3660. > Your hand returns to her head, scratching lightly at one perked-up ear; wriggling slightly under your touch, Dash settles down again.
  3661. > And yet, she doesn't seem pleased.
  3662. > Flickers of worry cross her face, yet she doesn't tell you what is wrong.
  3663. "Dash, don't you want to go out and enjoy this?"
  3664. > "I... I do, but... I'm not sure..."
  3665. > She shudders gently.
  3666. > "I"m scared, master. I... I'm having trouble remembering what it felt like to be... this free, but I'm scared."
  3667. > No, no, no!
  3668. > You'd bet on simplifying the rules and rewarding her with something so huge would be enough to restore some shadow Dash's personality!
  3669. > Why did she have to be afraid now?
  3670. > Evidently your frustration must have been noticeable; Dash tenses under your fingers.
  3671. > "Master did I... screw up again?"
  3672. "No, Dash. You didn't; you were honest with me and I appreciate that."
  3673. > "Could I just... y'know... stay here with you instead?"
  3674. > Sighing softly - an action which Dash's ears no doubt pick up - you accede.
  3675. "Yes, Dash. You can."
  3676. > She sinks back down again, once more relaxing and simply relishing in the fresh sensations.
  3677. > And yet, that alone is illustrative enough.
  3678. > Not afraid anymore of the concept of the beyond, yet still seeking comfort in the known.
  3679. "Talk to me, Dash."
  3680. > Obviously something was troubling her still.
  3681. > "When did I get so lame..? I used to be good with anything, ready to face the world. All I can think about now is how... good this feels? Safe?"
  3682. > Cutting her off before she can sink into another spiral of self-hatred, you lean down to speak softly to her:
  3683. "Well, there was something else I wanted to tell you to do... but I didn't want to give you too much at once."
  3684. > "What's that, master?"
  3685. > Let her think that you were offering her a challenge - one she could succeed at.
  3686. > If there was one thing you had learned was simply anathema to Dash, it was disregarding a challenge.
  3687. "You've been thinking on your own - making your own plans, figuring out what I want from you without my constant input."
  3688. > Scrunching her muzzle up in thought, Dash wiggles her nose slightly.
  3689. > It's... surprisingly cute.
  3690. "The truth is, I've been waiting for you to start doing that. It's very good that you are... and it was my mistake to not notice and reward you when you did."
  3691. > Her tail flicks again, tossing lightly against your side.
  3692. > In truth, while your words were aimed at healing her shattered psyche there was truth in them for you as well.
  3693. > Dash had played by your rules; you had only been too perfectionist to notice it.
  3694. "So long as you don't push things too far, I won't be punishing you for thinking on your own."
  3695. > "So... you won't punish me if I screw up...?"
  3696. "I won't be punishing you if you think about it and come to the wrong conclusion. But I don't want you to be going around and thinking ways around the few rules I am going to give you, understand?"
  3697. > "Yeah... I got that."
  3698. > Dash nods once, then again more confidently.
  3699. > "I can do that."
  3700. "Excellent. Do you want to go now, Dash?"
  3701. > "Um..."
  3702. > Hesitatingly, Dash's words come out one at a time.
  3703. > "Maybe... I could... save that for another time?"
  3704. > What?!
  3705. > Even with the concept of a challenge added in, she wouldn't-
  3706. > "It's, um... not like I don't appreciate it or anything, but... you... um... can I just, say what I want here? Without being punished?"
  3707. "Of course, Dash. "
  3708. > "So, um, can I ask for one other little thing...?"
  3709. "Go ahead?"
  3710. > "If I'm going to just be waiting here... can I... have the goggles back and my wings down again?"
  3711. > A slight frown touches your lips.
  3712. "I thought we were through with that, Dash."
  3713. > "I'm not hiding! It's just... look, please don't tell anypony, okay? I'd rather lose all my feathers again than let anypony know this..."
  3714. "Tell me, Dash."
  3715. > Whether she regards your order as an accession to her request or the veiled reprimand that it was, Dash explains.
  3716. > "I... I'm not hiding, since I'm not going to be going anywhere, but - it still feels... safe. Like, even when I'm out here I have to keep thinking so I don't screw up."
  3717. > Her face is steadily developing a particularly strong blush.
  3718. > "As long as I'm... you know... I'm still safe. It's... a nice feeling..."
  3719. > With a sigh, you reach for the goggles.
  3720. "I suppose so."
  3721. > Perhaps you were wrong to feed this particular vice of hers, but in the end was it that destructive of a distraction?
  3722. > She was, by her own admission, no longer hiding from a more fearful duty.
  3723. > But how much of that was the truth?
  3724. > What portion of her refusal to go enjoy herself outside was due to an honest desire to please you, and what fraction out of simple lingering fear?
  3725. > And, at the same time as Dash had clearly begun to think of you not merely as a tormentor but a superior counterpart - a friend, even - how much of her action were driven by other motives?
  3726. > How deeply did Dash still cling to the hopeless wish that she could transform you into a paragon of pony morality?
  3727. > Most of all, what would come of those conflicting urges when Dash came face-to-face with an inescapable conflict?
  3728. > As you lower the goggles back over her eyes, you decide these are questions that would have to be answered another day.
  3729. > For now, Dash is seemingly on the path to reassembling herself into something useful.
  3730. > Interrupting that process with a demand she give up all her vices seemed ill-advised.
  3731. "So, I think you were going to tell me something else...?"
  3732. > "Oh, right..."
  3733. > Even under her goggles, Dash flushes slightly.
  3734. > "Well, um... I can tell, you're kind of making a big admission here too, right? You kinda like being right, and you're admitting you weren't..."
  3735. > She halts, gathering her words a moment.
  3736. > "And, uh... I kinda know how hard that can be, to admit you screwed up. So, um... I guess, I'd rather stick with you, right? To show that, I, uh, really do like it too."
  3737. > A true, genuinely warm smile spreads across your lips; a pity that Dash cannot see it.
  3738. > This is it!
  3739. > What you had been striving for all this time!
  3740. > Dash had actually begun to not only sympathize with you, but actively care for you!
  3741. "Well... I think I could live quite well with that."
  3742. > "Plus, um... I know you said that I should think on my own, and I know you kinda do like it when I hang around... and there's nopony here to see it, so..."
  3743. "...I suppose this is true as well."
  3744. > "Um, are you going to.. tie my wings back again?"
  3745. "Not quite."
  3746. > Moving Dash to sit on one side of you - pressed between the arm of the thick, strong arm of the chair and your own body - you extend one wing across your lap.
  3747. > Unlike previous times you had done this, Dash doesn't object or attempt to squirm out of the way.
  3748. > Perhaps sensed that this time, you weren't doing it to claim ownership or dominance over her but as a true attempt at comforting her.
  3749. > Or, perhaps, she was simply finally becoming used to being available for your attentions whenever you desired.
  3750. > Even as you begin to work, tracing each of the long primary feathers in turn, her head sinks to rest on your leg.
  3751. > There's no need to ask what is going through her mind; by this time, you have a fairly good idea.
  3752. > A violent, cruel clash between diametrically opposed demands.
  3753. > Independence versus comfort, anger versus safety, desire for freedom against the uncertainty it would bring.
  3754. > Intervening here, you suspect, would only destabilize her further.
  3755. > So instead you carefully work your way down the bright-blue feathers that erupt from it.
  3756. > First the primaries, mangled by your clippings but still strong.
  3757. > Then the shorter, rounded secondaries and ranks of covert feathers covering the strong, muscled flesh of her wing.
  3758. > It is there that you look down and find Dash all at once both considerably flushed and more relaxed than she had been.
  3759. "Enjoying?"
  3760. > "Yeah, uh... kinda..."
  3761. > Chuckling softly, you shift her across you to sit on your opposite side.
  3762. > This time Dash extends her wing on her own, laying it across your lap.
  3763. > Even if she could not accept the reward you had intended for her, it seems, she had accepted your apologies.
  3764. > And so the two of you sit; at a certain point you retrieve one of your own comp-pads to begin some light work as Dash half-snoozes, half-bathes in your presence and her 'safety'.
  3765. > Not going out to romp about in the fields proves to be a reasonable choice, as within a short time an impressive rainstorm rolls in from beyond the next ridge of mountains.
  3766. > Such random weather patterns weren't at all unheard of; out this far, there were few patrolling weather teams and most villages only bothered to keep their own airspace clear.
  3767. > You didn't particularly mind.
  3768. > After all, both you and Dash are safely tucked away beneath the patio's sloped plastiglass roof.
  3769. > And there's something vaguely soothing about being sheltered from the storm yet exposed to it.
  3770. > At first Dash's wings twitched, individual cut-down primaries subtly spreading and folding against each other repeatedly.
  3771. > Most likely her instincts as a pegasus and a weatherpony telling her to do something about the unplanned storm.
  3772. > Soon enough she relaxes even further with the soothing noise of the rain, though.
  3773. > Yet another familiar sense of the outside, without the risk of venturing out into it.
  3774. > In time, you look down and are surprised to see twin streaks of tears flowing from beneath her soaked goggles.
  3775. "You're crying, Dash."
  3776. > "I-I know, I... I just can't stand it... I should hate this, being all bound up. It shouldn't feel so right, but..."
  3777. > Another silent tremor runs the length of her body, multihued tail - the only portion of her free to express her displeasure - swishing erratically.
  3778. > "I-I really am just a broken little bluebird, huh?"
  3779. > Your hand returns to her head, briefly slipping down to wipe at either cheek free of the moisture that stained it.
  3780. "You may be a broken bluebird, but you're my broken bluebird, Dash. And I look out for what is mine."
  3781. > Shudders again wrack her body; whether it is out of disgust, relief, fear, or some brew of all three you cannot tell.
  3782. > Without knowing how to respond, you settle for taking an ear between fingers and thumb and rubbing both through the soft fuzz covering it.
  3783. > Distantly you remember Dash once saying her parents had done this and seeming to take comfort in it.
  3784. > Comfort would be a thing she is sorely in need of now.
  3785. > Distantly, rain spatters off the ground.
  3786. > For just a moment, all seems to be at peace.
  3788. --------
  3790. > Alas, peace never lasts.
  3791. > Dash is deposited - quiet, but no longer morose - back in your room while you return to work.
  3792. > Polychromatic pegasus problems aside, you still had a great deal to be concerned about.
  3793. > Should knowledge of Celestia's outright move against you become public, it would be a serious threat to your business.
  3794. > As helpful as you could be, few law-abiding ponies would dare go against their beloved ruler's whims.
  3795. > The most obvious solution would be to perform the same trick you had with Cadance:
  3796. > To ensure your name would be attached to something beneficial; preferably, something so high-profile that it couldn't be denied or hidden.
  3797. > That had been your mistake in dealing with Chrysalis and Cadance:
  3798. > The deal was so low-profile that it was far too easy for Celestia to simply squelch all news of it in the end.
  3799. > Swooping in to the rescue of a larger, more dramatic situation would be far more better situation for you.
  3800. > But also more likely to arouse Celestia's suspicion, to say nothing of her sister.
  3801. > As best as you had heard, Luna was opposed to even speaking to you.
  3802. > No doubt any move you made to clear your name would not be taken at face value by her - not unless you could leverage her elder sister to convince her.
  3803. > So, then, the trick would be to be high-profile, yet not too obvious.
  3804. > A small grin flickers across your lips.
  3805. > Of course it would be such a paradoxical demand.
  3806. > The most obvious solution, of course, would be to provide early warning of a very natural disaster.
  3807. > But that would be problematic on its own; ponies were nothing if deliberate about their rule of the 'natural' world.
  3808. > Any disaster large enough to threaten a city would be noticed and brought under control... or well out of your capability to manifest on demand.
  3809. > So, no sudden forest fires, despite being easy enough to get started.
  3810. > Fires...
  3811. > A dragon would be easy enough to provoke and lead to a city where it could be 'defeated', but who could lead it there?
  3812. > Chrysalis would not risk one of her changelings on a suicide mission, and your drones would be recognized at a glance.
  3813. > No, then.
  3814. > A more indirect option - a plague or poisoning - might work.
  3815. > You could sweep in and provide the antidote...
  3816. > But the prospect of harming random ponies in your little duel left you with an unpleasant feeling in your own stomach.
  3817. > Unlike those who came to seek your assistance, they had not chosen to play this game or to take the role of your pawns.
  3818. > To exploit them to your benefit - or even worse, set them up to be harmed for your benefit...
  3819. > No; that was what you had risen from.
  3820. > And not something you could go back to - by your own hand, or Celestia's hoof.
  3821. > Something more subtle than that, then.
  3822. > Perhaps to stir up some dramatics in Canterlot, then?
  3823. > If nothing else, the noble houses could always be relied to scheme against each other.
  3824. > Fingers rap against the tabletop as you grimly skim through the latest gossip reports from Equestria's capitol.
  3825. > To involve the nobles openly would be to widen the field of play.
  3826. > Celestia might very well perceive it as an assault on her authority - accurately, of course - and be moved to accelerate action against you.
  3827. > Not direct assault - for she could not yet afford the rivers of blood that victory would cost - but action nontheless.
  3828. > It was a subtle balance you faced now.
  3829. > Perhaps even more delicate than Dash's mind.
  3830. > Mind...
  3831. > Perhaps you'd been looking at this the wrong way.
  3832. > You did not need the ponies to actually be at risk, after all.
  3833. > Merely think they were.
  3834. > And while you could only work the minds of ponies on a one-by-one basis, that wasn't the truth for others.
  3835. > The changelings, of course, had something of that ability.
  3836. > But their control was to heavy-handed.
  3837. > Something lighter then.
  3838. > Perhaps not control...?
  3839. > Illusion?
  3840. > Let their minds fill in what they could not see, and undermine the alicorns' authority...?
  3841. > Cracking your knuckles, you get down to work.
  3842. > You had an illusionist to find, after all.
  3844. --------
  3846. > "The great and powerful Trixie is not quite sure why you would need of her services; it seems that you are already most skilled in illusions."
  3847. > At least that had been one advantage you hadn't expected.
  3848. > Simple computer screens and displays had quite impressed the illusionist mare.
  3849. > Now if only they had kept her ego surpressed as well.
  3850. > Rumors abounded, of course, of the mare's... past misadventures.
  3851. > Involvement with a certain amulet of considerable magic power, and the penalty she'd faced in the aftermath.
  3852. > Although they might have done something for her attitude towards other ponies, little had changed in Trixie's estimation of her own abilities.
  3853. > And of course, she was perfectly right.
  3854. > That was why you needed her, grating as she could be.
  3855. "My screens are highly accurate, Trixie. They are, however, extremely limited in size. What I need now, is... grandeur."
  3856. > "You hope to impress many?"
  3857. "Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands. As many as possible."
  3858. > "Well..."
  3859. > Leaning back in her seat, Trixie studies you through lidded eyes.
  3860. > "Trixie can, of course, produce an illusion to suit your needs, but Trixie wonders whether you are capable of paying for such a performance."
  3861. "Absolutely... if indirectly. There is a catch to this deal, after all."
  3862. > "Explain."
  3863. > And here would come the hardest part of the sell.
  3864. > The part that would run directly contrary to Trixie's over-inflated ego.
  3865. "The entire performance - everything about it - must be done in secret. You will arrive in secret. You will construct the illusion in secret. You will depart in secret. No one must know you are there, period."
  3866. > Her reaction catches you; rather than being dismissive of the lack of glory, she is instantly on guard.
  3867. > "Trixie wonders what you would need such a performance for. Trixie is not interested in pursuing any more vendettas, you know."
  3868. "I'm quite aware. Your past is not unknown with me."
  3869. > It was the reason Dash had quietly retreated to your room for this meeting.
  3870. > Powerful she may have been, Trixie was still an unknown at best.
  3871. > A less corteous person might have said 'unreliable'.
  3872. > Who knew how she would respond to the fact that you were holding an element of harmony hostage?
  3873. > But no other pony on the planet that you could find had the skill to pull off what you intended.
  3874. "No, Trixie. There will be no... vendettas here. I merely need you to make a particularly impressive performance."
  3875. > "A particularly impressive, secret performance."
  3876. > Keeping your face a carefully-kept zero, you nod.
  3877. "Yes, a particularly impressive, secret performance."
  3878. > "And what do you think you could provide in payment that would make worth it the indignity of having Trixie's greatest efforts go unknown?"
  3879. > Leaning back in your seat, you allow the slightest touch of a smile to grace your lips.
  3880. "Directly? No payment would be enough, I'm sure - not in Bits, anyhow. But, what if I could arrange a high-profile show for you? Call it... an equal payoff, for having your efforts here go unseen."
  3881. > It didn't take a genius to see the light flick on in Trixie's eyes.
  3882. > "Trixie is now... considerably more interested in your offer."
  3883. > Of course she would be.
  3884. > She was, really, not a hard pony to work out.
  3885. > And arranging a theater-owner happy to promote her would be the simplest of your concerns.
  3886. > A bag of bits dropped here, a few words there - it wasn't even true bribery, nothing about the transation illegal.
  3887. > Merely providing part of the cost for her performance up front.
  3888. "But indirectly? Trixie, you've been accused of a lot - done a lot even."
  3889. > You raise a hand to halt her before she can spit out an angry response.
  3890. "I'm not judging you. You're a smart mare; you can surely figure out that there are some ponies who have a less than pleasant opinion of myself. But the point is... you want to do something to set that straight?"
  3891. > Dropping your hand, you lean forward.
  3892. "Help me do this. The results will be most welcome, I am sure."
  3893. > "...Trixie wonders what you are planning, exactly."
  3894. "Ah, details."
  3895. > You've got her.
  3896. "Well, for starters... I'm going to need you to make me a dragon. Then I'm going to kill it."
  3897. > Trixie narrows her eyes.
  3898. > "It doesn't actually make you any fiercer to defeat an illusion. Trixie would know - and somepony will find out."
  3899. "Oh, they will."
  3900. > For the first time, you allow a truly open smirk to slip onto your lips.
  3901. > Shrinking back slightly, Trixie goes wide-eyed.
  3902. "They will realize exactly what it is. But not fast enough."
  3904. --------
  3906. > While Trixie was en route to Fillydelphia to prepare for your 'performance', you had other calls to place and resources to marshal.
  3907. > The other actors would have to be put in place, after all.
  3908. > Those were the easy part, though; they could be expected to play their roles.
  3909. > The actual success of this operating hinged on the performance and cooperation of one particular player.
  3910. > If she failed to come through, you would have greater problems.
  3911. > Even that was not the foremost issue on your mind, however.
  3912. > That particular spot was reserved for Dash.
  3913. > Or, perhaps more accurately, the upcoming meeting with her friends.
  3914. > Four days, and you'd have to present her - or something close to her, anyhow.
  3915. > Having Chissik mimic her had crossed your mind, but ultimately the idea seemed shortsighted.
  3916. > When they inevitably discovered the switch, any tolerance for you would evaporate in a moment.
  3917. > And besides, they had held up on their end of the agreement.
  3918. > No, you'd have to risk bringing Dash.
  3919. > They were already aware you'd clipped the pegasus' feathers.
  3920. > Perhaps they wouldn't react so badly if they saw Dash with her wings bound if they already knew her flight was restricted?
  3921. > No; just seeing their one-time friend in seeming distress would probably be more than enough to set them off.
  3922. > Not to mention, Dash might want her goggles.
  3923. > Speaking of which, where is she right now?
  3924. > You find your bluebird curled up on a spot of late-afternoon sunlight in your room, staring out into the clearing around your home and the wooded hillside stretching out beyond that.
  3925. "Thinking of going out again?"
  3926. > Though her limbs were bound her eyes and ears were uncovered, and Dash shakes her head at your question.
  3927. > "Nah. Just... thinking about whether I could, even if I was allowed..."
  3928. > Ah.
  3929. > This again.
  3930. > Taking a seat at her side, you fold your legs together and place a hand on her back - halfway between the two shortened spans of feathers tucked to either side.
  3931. > "You don't have any idea what it's like, y'know. Not really. Flying, flying up there... it's still the greatest thing ever."
  3932. > A second later, Dash looks up to give you an aggrieved look.
  3933. > "Hey! You don't have to laugh, you know..."
  3934. > Quieting your laughter, you shake your head.
  3935. "It's not you, Dash. Just - I think I know the joys of flying better than you know."
  3936. > Now you've got her attention, but you shake your head.
  3937. "Another time. Right now, I need to talk to you about something else?"
  3938. > "It's the meeting with the rest of the girls, isn't it?"
  3939. > Your eyebrows rise, and Dash flinches back.
  3940. > "I-I was counting the days... on a calendar I saw laid out once..."
  3941. > Again your hand gives a slow, reassuring rub - the gentle touch easing her down off of the sudden spike of fear.
  3942. "Easy, Dash. I'm not upset with you. But yes, that's what it is."
  3943. > "O-Oh. I... I..."
  3944. "Do you think you're up for it, Dash? You don't have to show them too much, but it would be good if you could at least be there for some of it."
  3945. > You were understating, and Dash knew it.
  3946. > She was quite aware of how much Twilight - among others - valued those sessions.
  3947. > "I'm not sure. I can't... I don't want to disappoint you, master..."
  3948. "I know."
  3949. > You give her a warm smile - one that hopefully reminds her she wasn't going to be punished for doing the best she could.
  3950. > "I'll try it. I can do that... I can."
  3951. > She seems to be talking to herself as much as you, trying to reinforce her own confidence.
  3952. > As pitiful a sight as it is, you're happy in one respect.
  3953. > She'd understood what you wanted and guided herself towards it without being told.
  3954. > That was progress in rebuilding her from her ruined state.
  3955. "All you have to do is show that I've not severely injured you - not hacked off any limbs or anything - and speak a few words."
  3956. > Rather than flinch or tremble, Dash shoots a flat look up at you.
  3957. > "Even I know you don't do that, master."
  3958. > Chuckling softly, you nod.
  3959. "No, I don't. Not to my slaves, anyhow."
  3960. > Dash does flinch at that term, but pushes it down.
  3961. "But I think you are strong enough to do what you need to, Dash. So long as Celestia doesn't stick her damn nose into that business again, anyhow..."
  3962. > That last part had come out more growled than you'd intended.
  3963. > Dash flinches back at your tone, then speaks up softly.
  3964. > "Master? Can I ask you something?"
  3965. "Well, that depends what it is, Dash. Ask away, though."
  3966. > After several false starts, she manages to spit out something resembling a question:
  3967. > "What... exactly happened between you and Celestia? I mean... she told us you were a threat and needed to be stopped before you could harm anypony, but..."
  3968. > Gently snorting, you shake your head.
  3969. "Of course she didn't say anything more."
  3970. > You glance over to meet Dash's crimson, expectant eyes.
  3971. "Tell me, Dash - do you think she was right?"
  3972. > The words spill from your lips before you can think about the weight they would carry for Dash.
  3973. > It's a hefty question, and Dash knows it.
  3974. > She freezes in place, thinking hard before she answers - but she does answer.
  3975. > "Well... I, uh..."
  3976. > Staying quiet, you let her figure out her words.
  3977. > She'd have to learn to face this some time, after all.
  3978. > Better now than in front of her friends.
  3979. > "You're not... you're not always real nice, Master. You... you take care of me, but it's sometimes... rough..."
  3980. > Dash is deliberately understating, and you know it.
  3981. > She knows that you know it, too.
  3982. > "'re not always... not kind. And you're not generous, exactly - not that I've seen anyway. But... that doesn't mean we should've tried to use our magic against you. You're not... not like Tirek, or Sombra."
  3983. "A fair enough assessment, I suppose. I won't deny I'm not a perfect example of the model Equestrian citizen; I have to be authoritative sometimes."
  3984. > Running your hand up slightly, you begin to stroke along her cheek.
  3985. "Getting back to your question: Celestia tried to take something from me. Something I earned - I reached out and took with my own effort, my own sweat and blood."
  3986. > Dash screws up her eyes, looking confused.
  3987. > "Why would she do that? Princess Celestia doesn't steal from ponies! Er, ponies or anything else."
  3988. "She thought that my holding it was a threat to her - a threat to Equestria. That if I chose, I could destroy Equestria with it."
  3989. > "But... you haven't."
  3990. "Exactly. I have not - but she seemed to think it was too great a risk anyhow, for me alone to hold these things. Instead she sent you and the other elements after me."
  3991. > "What exactly is it? The... thing you have?"
  3992. > The reason you hadn't wanted Dash in the sub-levels, for one.
  3993. > "Is it some kind of artifact? Like, an ancient bit of pony history? Or-"
  3994. "No, Dash."
  3995. > You actually chuckle at her suggestions, shaking your head.
  3996. "Nothing like that. She's only... only about thirty years old, not really ancient at all."
  3997. > "She?!"
  3998. ""
  3999. > A small grin at that mistake seems unavoidable.
  4000. "If you show me I can trust you enough, I might even take you to see it. The point is, though, it's the same thing that keeps Celestia from attacking me right now."
  4001. > "Oh..."
  4002. > That seems to have given Dash pause for thought.
  4003. > "So... it's like one of your machines, isn't it?"
  4004. "Yes. We already disagreed on other matters, and evidently Celestia thought my holding it was too much power out of her han- hooves."
  4005. > Your hands pause for just a moment, as you try to think of how to explain it to the turquoise pony beside you.
  4006. "Imagine, Dash. Imagine you've worked towards something all your life, and finally gotten hold of it. Life seems good; you're getting somewhere for once. And then..."
  4007. > Standing, you begin to pace about furiously.
  4008. "And then, fate throws you a loop. Something you never expected, taking away your success. But it's not all bad - you've still got your trophy, your winnings from all the work you did. But someone wants to take even that away from you. Can you imagine what that feels like, Dash?"
  4009. > "...I already know."
  4010. > Her voice is small and soft, but there's no mistaking those words.
  4011. > Spinning about, your gaze snaps to Dash's; she flinches back under the pressure of the look you give her, but doesn't look away.
  4012. > "Yeah... I know. You're not... not evil. But... I'm still a slave. So yeah, I know what it feels like to have your life taken away."
  4013. > Again, everything seems to rest on a hair trigger - as if the room itself were waiting with baited breath to see whether the tension would snap.
  4014. > It does not.
  4015. "I suppose you do, Dash."
  4016. > Again taking a seat beside her, your hand again takes its place on her back.
  4017. "The difference, of course, is that I did not strike at Celestia first. She simply... assumed I would."
  4018. > "Yeah..."
  4019. > Dash looks down; you're fairly certain that she's having a lot of second thoughts about coming after you now.
  4020. "It's not your fault really, Dash. The princesses... they just think of you as tools. As an element. Something to be thrown at a problem and solve it..."
  4021. > Now Dash does look away, shifting uncomfortably and clearly unhappy with that realization.
  4022. "But you can be certain of one thing, Dash: As long as you stand with me, you can be sure I'll always be looking out for you."
  4024. --------
  4026. > The room is windowless, and lights fall to a dim as you settle into your seat.
  4027. > It leaves most of the room in darkness, except for the chair you sit in and the screen before it.
  4028. > Even before the screen goes on, Dash is becoming nervous.
  4029. > Her heart is thudding against the hand circled about her chest, breaths coming short and shallow.
  4030. "Easy, Dash..."
  4031. > Your arm circles tighter around her; after much talk you'd convinced her she could face her friends unbound and unmasked, but only if you would keep a hand on her to quickly signal her before she made any missteps.
  4032. "You're doing good, Dash. Slow breaths and focus - just like a race. You're doing good."
  4033. > The words do help a little to calm her, but you can still feel the rapid pace of her heartbeat and what might be the first prickles of sweat forming.
  4034. > It was better than presenting her blind, deaf, and hobbled but also made hiding how nervous you were considerably harder.
  4035. > After all, your planning would be meaningless if Dash provoked them into doing something rash.
  4036. > With a low pop the connection opens, screen flickering to life and the image on it resolving into five widely-colored mares.
  4037. > Good, no Celestia so far.
  4038. > Four of them hold a typical stoically sad look, except for the yellow pegasus who isn't even bothering to hide how upset she is.
  4039. > It is the princess who speaks first - her voice hinting at just the barest note of what she must feel.
  4040. > "H-Hey, Rainbow..."
  4041. > "Hey girls. How's... how's everypony?"
  4042. > "We're doing alright, sugarcube. How about you? You holding up?"
  4043. > Rainbow takes a deep, shaky breath.
  4044. > "I'm... holding up, yeah."
  4045. > It's obvious that so much is being left unsaid; tension is rapidly thickening in the air.
  4046. > "He, um... I'm not hurt. It's... kind of boring here, but that's not too bad, right?"
  4047. > You wince internally; even in the short time you'd known her before things had turned bad, Dash obviously equated boredom with something akin to a living death.
  4048. > They see it too.
  4049. > But too late now.
  4050. > "Dashie? He didn't hurt you for when you got super-duper mad with Shining Armor, did he?"
  4051. > Ice creeps down your spine; of all the ponies to ask that, it had to be the riotously pink one - the one who had been one of Dash's oldest friends.
  4052. > It made sense she would, but still.
  4053. > Dash freezes - only for a second, but long enough.
  4054. > They see it.
  4055. > "He... he just locked me up for a couple days. Wouldn't let me out. Um, I was bored out of my skull, but I'm okay now."
  4056. > Well, you suppose it wasn't entirely untrue.
  4057. > Except for the obviously forced smile on Dash's face and the increasingly nervous twitching of her wings.
  4058. > Twice your fingers stroke down the length of her chest - calming, silently telling her she had done right.
  4059. > "He's been letting you keep yourself in good shape, right? Not been keeping you cooped up for too long?"
  4060. > "Yeah. Don't worry about that, Applejack."
  4061. > For once something closer to an honest smile reaches Dash's face; you issue a mental note of thanks to the farmer-mare for turning things to a topic that Dash is more comfortable with.
  4062. > "I'm willing to bet not even the Wonderbolts have some of the exercise gear he does."
  4063. > "Well, uh, I guess that's good news, sugarcube."
  4064. > "Rainbow, we're all still thinking of you all the time, dear. We really wish we could see more of you."
  4065. > Dash rolls her head back to look up at you, questioningly.
  4066. > "Um, I'm not sure..."
  4067. "It would be dependent on relations becoming... less strained. I'm afraid under current conditions, that simply isn't possible."
  4068. > In other words, if they wanted their Dash back, they'd better stop pushing you.
  4069. > Twilight, however, proves not so agreeable.
  4070. > "That's not true at all; you could do this any day you want. Why don't you take the first step-"
  4071. > Damn, why did this princess have to be the one you were required to deal with?
  4072. > Celestia may have been more dangerous, but there was still danger in dealing with individuals so clearly out of their depth.
  4073. > She, at least, you could rely on to not allow her emotions to rule her mind.
  4074. > And Cadance was downright pleasant by comparison.
  4075. "Princess Twilight Sparkle, I would remind you that considering the forces which are arrayed against me I have already been quite lenient."
  4076. > Your hand had stopped mid-stroke while your gaze was not fixed on the image of the alicorn.
  4077. "I have allowed Princess Cadance to visit her. I have not punished her when my role in negotiating an unheard-of peace was flatly denied for no other reason than who I am."
  4078. > Leaning forward your seat, you narrow your eyes and drop the tone of your voice:
  4079. "So let me ask you: Why should I have to be the one to give everything? Now that I've made the first move, why don't you make yours?"
  4080. > "Because you haven't really done anything!"
  4081. > Surprisingly it isn't the princess, or even the farmer-pony who contradicts you but the normally-quiet yellow pegasus.
  4082. > "Just... just letting somepony see her? That's not a first step! That's just showing us how badly you're hurting her."
  4083. > The white-coated unicorn - the only one who seemed to recognize what this was and knew to be tactful - is desperately trying to shush her.
  4084. > You'd have to keep an eye on her; Rarity came closest of any of them to playing the game on your level.
  4085. > Likely her experience in Canterlot's cut-throat world of politics and business had taught her that.
  4086. > Unfortunately for her, the effort completely fails here; her butter-coated pegasus friend goes on.
  4087. > "I've known Rainbow Dash since I was a filly, and this - I don't know what you're doing to her, but it's making her..."
  4088. > She struggles for the right words, unspent tears glittering in her eyes.
  4089. > "It's making her... wrong! Not Dashie! And just letting somepony see her doesn't make it any more right!"
  4090. > The little hoof-stomp she does would be downright adorable if it weren't for how serious the issue is.
  4091. > "Flutters..."
  4092. > Dash speaks up unexpectedly, her voice low and uncertain.
  4093. > "Don't do this. Not now... I know it isn't cool, but I can take this, okay? And maybe this won't have to go on for too much longer."
  4094. > Her friend looks shaken to the core that Dash would suggest this; she rocks back onto her hind legs, one forehoof lifted in surprise and ears falling to either side.
  4095. > "But Rainbow... aren't you... didn't you used to always stand up for me? Didn't you always say I should... I should stand up for what I think?"
  4096. > "Yeah, but - this just -"
  4097. > Dash pauses, grimacing; you run your fingers through the smooth, sleek coat on her chest in another reassuring move.
  4098. > "It's just because ponies keep coming after him that he's having to be such a loner!"
  4099. > "Rainbow, dear!"
  4100. > Finally her farmer-pony friend explodes in anger, pent-up emotions vomiting out in a torrent of loud, angry words.
  4101. > "Ponies like who? Like us? Just what are you suggesting? That we are the problem?"
  4102. > Of course that's what she was are implying.
  4103. > But that can't be said here if this conversation is going to go anywhere.
  4104. "I don't think that's it at all. Merely that if the situation between us as approached more calmly, I might not have to maintain such a tight hold on Dash."
  4105. > "You! You ain't done anything but been trouble since you first showed up. What's to make us think it'd be any different if we just let you have her!"
  4106. > "AJ, don't."
  4107. > "Don't?! Don't what, Rainbow? Don't fight for you? Don't try and save you?"
  4108. > Desperation cracks in the farmer-pony's voice, her eyes shimmering.
  4109. > "You're slipping away, Rainbow! And I... I just can't bear to see you being... played with by him!"
  4110. > Ah, now you see.
  4111. > You'd been mistaken about what was driving the farmer-pony.
  4112. > Not anger.
  4113. > Fear.
  4114. > She's afraid of losing her friend.
  4115. > That's what's driving her to become so emotional.
  4116. > Unfortunate that you'd had to agree to this arrangement; emotionally charged situations were never the most diplomatic ones.
  4117. > Dash flinches sharply your arms at her friend's description of what you were doing to her.
  4118. > Because she knows it is right.
  4119. > "AJ, I know it's... beyond not cool. But just - just, don't push this now, please?"
  4120. > Yes, please.
  4121. > Anything to defuse this and get it back on track to simply being a reaffirmation of your agreement until the next time!
  4122. "You should listen to your friend's advice. It's good-"
  4123. > "Like hay I should! How about you take your paws off her and then we'll see how she really thinks!"
  4124. > "Yeah! You're not any kind of friend! You're just... just some meanie-pants who wants to do whatever you want!"
  4125. > Now her friends are going to gang up on you too?!
  4126. > Something snaps inside you.
  4127. > Your hand does drop from Dash's chest, though it's only to ball it into a fist.
  4128. "I am protecting my right to be free. If that is too much to ask for-"
  4129. > "You're protecting your ability to hide away and keep hurting Rainbow Dash to make her say whatever you put in her mouth!"
  4130. "Then why don't you come out and see her?"
  4131. > Applejack tosses her head, snorting wildly.
  4132. > "And let you hold me prisoner too? No-way, uh-uh!"
  4133. > "AJ, he's not - he don't hurt ponies who come here. He let princess Cadance-"
  4134. > "She's an alicorn, dear. She's different."
  4135. > Thank you, Rarity.
  4136. > You might have to look in to simply dealing with her in the future; even if there was murder in her eyes she was at least keeping it under control.
  4137. > "Then what about Twilight?!"
  4138. > Immediately all of them fall silent at Dash's retort.
  4139. > She stands, spreading her wings in an angry gesture.
  4140. > "Why don't you come, huh? You're a princess now, aren't you?"
  4141. > No reply comes; instead they look among each other to avert their eyes from Dash's angry, accusing stare.
  4142. > You can tell why she hasn't come, though.
  4143. > A princess Twilight may be, but she is still subordinate to Celestia and the elder alicorn's influence is quite evident here.
  4144. > For a pony in her position - ruler and friend of your alleged victim - to visit you might be seen as legitimizing you despite your hostage.
  4145. > As a show that they thought of you as something other than an enemy.
  4146. > Likely the only reason Celestia hadn't thought to nail down Cadance as well was she never imagined your reach would extend to the Crystal Empire..
  4147. > "Rainbow..."
  4148. > Twilight hangs her head.
  4149. > "I... I can't. I'm sorry."
  4150. > Yes, definitely Celestia's hoof in this.
  4151. > "And, I don't know what he's doing to you, but I swear we're never going to give up. We're not going to let this go on. We're always thinking of you, and-"
  4152. > "Are you even thinking of me?!"
  4153. > Now it's Dash's turn to explode, crimson eyes narrowed into slits and wings pumping a few times despite their feathers' shortened state.
  4154. > It's the wrong move; all their eyes are drawn to the mutilated feathers - to the reminder of what you'd done to her.
  4155. > You can see their emotions growing stronger by the minute, questioning how Dash accuses them even as she bears the signs of your 'brutality'.
  4156. > "You keep pushing on him, but are you even thinking about me? Or are you just doing what Princess Celestia told you to do!"
  4157. > Your eyebrows shoot up; that connection you hadn't been expecting Dash to see.
  4158. > She wasn't always the most observant pony; this time, though, the barb flies true and burrows deep.
  4159. > Especially for Twilight; you can see her eyes flicker with pain.
  4160. > "Rainbow Dash! How dare you-"
  4161. > "You're the ones who haven't done anything! Not even visited - even Cadance was cooler than you about this!"
  4162. > "Rainbow, please - I would come, but-"
  4163. > "Do you even care about me anymore, Twilight? Am I even still your friend?"
  4164. > This is rapidly descending into a schoolyard argument.
  4165. > "Stop it Rainbow, please! You're scaring Fl-"
  4166. > "Then try and listen to me for once! I'm still me! I'm going to be okay, got it?"
  4167. > She's lying.
  4168. > You can tell, and they can tell.
  4169. > But that doesn't stop Dash from going on, desperately charging ahead in the blind hope that she could somehow convince her friends otherwise.
  4170. > "Rainbow, we can't just leave you to-"
  4171. > "Why don't you, huh? If this is all you're going to do - why don't you just leave me be?!"
  4172. > In the shocked silence that follows you come to a decision.
  4173. > This had already gone on too far.
  4174. "Enough, Dash."
  4175. > You'd kept your voice low, not wanting to raise it for a number of reasons.
  4176. > For one, appearing blatantly domineering over Dash was probably the last thing you wanted in this situation.
  4177. > And, of course, the very real risk of throwing her into another panic state.
  4178. > Even so, she visibly flinches back at your admonition - and her friends take notice.
  4179. > Time to wrap this up before it descends any further.
  4180. "I've upheld my end of our agreement. Dash is physically unharmed and in go-"
  4181. > Twilight spreads her wings in an angry, instinctive show.
  4182. > "Just because I can't see exactly what you've done to her, doesn't mean you aren't hurting her! And don't you dare say she's mentally sound!"
  4183. > Any hope of Dash presenting herself well has passed now; the fear has taken hold of her again.
  4184. > She huddles low in your lap, afraid of the sharp tones flying from both you and her friends.
  4185. > "Look at her! You've... I don't even want to think of what you did to bring her to this state!"
  4186. > Anger flares within you; this has already slipped so far out of control that controlling yourself didn't even seem to matter anymore.
  4187. > Damn Twilight, damn her stupid friends, and damn Celestia for not letting you rule yourself!
  4188. "Nothing here happened because I wanted it to! If you and your princess had not pushed me from the moment I arrived-"
  4189. > "How dare you try and blame us for what you've done?"
  4190. > Unbidden, your voice had risen as well - risen to a full roar, your eyes squinted in a savage, infuriated grimace.
  4191. > You'd reached your limit in dealing with this princess and her friends.
  4192. "How dare I?! How about you trying to steal from me what is mine to begin with?!"
  4193. > "Our friend is not yours - not now, not ever!"
  4194. > Evidently her pegasus friend has regained enough emotional drive to raise her voice again.
  4195. > "Look at her! I've seen animals behave like that! She's terrified! You're-"
  4196. "Enough!"
  4197. > Your fist comes down with a slam on the edge of the seat, Dash flinching again and her friends sympathetically doing so in turn.
  4198. "Consider this meeting concluded. I have demonstrated my end of the agreement; I expect you to uphold to your side now as well."
  4199. > "Now hold on just an apple-picking minute-"
  4200. "While I am more than willing to allow you to see Dash at additional times, I expect you to keep yourselves under control and not to allow repeats of this... display. You may contact me when you feel capable of doing this."
  4201. > Twilight's still opening her mouth when the screen flicks to black, doubtless to unleash a new barrage of accusations.
  4202. > For just a minute the room sits in total silence and near-darkness, as if a bomb had gone off within its confines.
  4203. > And then Dash lets out a low, wretched moan.
  4204. > "No, no, no! I totally screwed that up!"
  4205. "Dash..."
  4206. > She hides her head in her hooves, wings rising as if they could form some kind of barrier between her and the outside world.
  4207. > "I was supposed to... I shouldn't have... auuugh!"
  4208. > Rearing her head back, Dash bring it forward against the chair's arm.
  4209. > Fortunately it was padded, preventing her from inflicting any greater injury against herself.
  4210. > For a long time she just remains there, head buried against the side of the chair.
  4211. "Dash..."
  4212. > "Don't - don't even call me that. Rainbow Dash was loyalty; I'm... I'm nothing."
  4213. > Her voice is muffled and heavy with despondent tones.
  4214. > "Rainbow Dash had good friends. Friends that wouldn't have... have... auugh! Why did they do that?! Don't the care about what I think anymore?!"
  4215. > Again slipping your arm about her, you rub lightly at the thin coat just beneath one fallen ear.
  4216. > Dash doesn't say anything at first, but after a moment she does roll her head against your fingers.
  4217. > All four legs were held limply, allowed to drape wherever they had fallen, as if she'd just fallen from some great height and couldn't bear to lift herself again.
  4218. > Unspent tears crowded in the corners of her eyes where Dash desperately tried to hold them back.
  4219. > This was a pain reached deep into Dash's soul, you could tell - the despondancy practically seemed to roll of her in waves.
  4220. > The pain of failure.
  4221. > Failure that had cost Dash, in her mind, both her relationships with her friends and the subtle bond she craved with you.
  4222. > "Master... if you have to punish me, I... I accept it."
  4223. > Dash takes another shuddering breath once the statement is out.
  4224. > Ripples of fear run through her coat, but she keep speaking nonetheless.
  4225. > "I'm nothing but a feathering screwup. I should've known better."
  4226. "Shhh..."
  4227. > Your fingers again run through her mane, fingers sinking in between strands of hair.
  4228. "You remember our new rules, right?"
  4229. > "Don't go beneath the first basement. Don't damage the drones, no matter how angry I am. Don't touch a weapon. Don't try and - and leave."
  4230. > Good; if you can keep her focused on this you can keep her from spiraling further away into her own despair.
  4231. "And beyond those?"
  4232. > "Think about what you would want me to do. Remember that if I act out, it makes it harder for you to trust me in the future. Remember that trust leads to freedom."
  4233. "Very good, Dash. I know I haven't always been the best to you, Dash, but you've honestly tried to help me nonetheless. You aren't going to be punished - not for this. This wasn't your doing."
  4234. > Now, at last, the tears begin to flow as a heaving sob is wrenched from her lips.
  4235. > "I guess. I just don't understand why they wouldn't..."
  4236. > Her words trail off into barely-audible mumbles before bursting out again in another pained exclamation.
  4237. > "Why don't they understand? I'm not the best at explaining things but... argh! How hard can it be? Were they even listening to me?"
  4238. > Because, you think, they could see what Dash could not.
  4239. > They could understand what you were molding her into.
  4240. > Unfortunately.
  4241. "It's because they're only thinking of you in terms of being my prisoner, Dash. They can't see this in any way except with me as the total villain."
  4242. > No doubt because Celestia was carefully nudging them towards such a vision.
  4243. > This time Dash doesn't respond, struggling to reconcile the memories of ponies she had been so close with compared to what she saw now.
  4244. > It's a distinctly dangerous position for you, but if played right you might be able to sever the last of Dash's old loyalties.
  4245. > But at the same time, no doubt Twilight was running to tattle on all the terrible things you must have done to Dash to make her say the things she had.
  4246. > You'll have to advance your plans.
  4247. > Having some time to build a network in Fillydelphia and allow Trixie time to practice.
  4248. > But after this...
  4249. > You'd have to advance your plans.
  4250. > Recruiting and proving a trustworthy leader there wouldn't be possible.
  4251. > You'd have to make do with what you already had.
  4252. > Time to do a little trusting of your own, then.
  4254. --------
  4256. "Hello, Chissik."
  4257. > "Good evening, Master."
  4258. > The changeling is promptly snaking herself catlike around your legs, peering upwards with her attentive aquamarine eyes.
  4259. > "Is there something you need from me?"
  4260. "As a matter of fact, yes."
  4261. > But certainly she'd already been able to taste that.
  4262. > Again you slip into a seat, allowing Chissik to hop up on your lap.
  4263. > It was an allowance that would give you an unhindered look at her body - a better chance to seek out any clues she might release her hold on, however unlikely that might be.
  4264. "Let me ask, Chissik - would you say you're a fairly competent infiltrator?"
  4265. > "I do not wish to exxagerate my skills, Master."
  4266. > Humility - always a good cover for hiding the extent of one's resources.
  4267. "Yet Chrysalis chose you to attempt breaking into my home. That speaks to a certain degree of skill with such things, no? Or is she in the habit of selecting rookies for such valuable operations?"
  4268. > Unlike Dash, Chissik gives few hints as to her true emotions even in her true form.
  4269. > A fact, you suspect, that points towards her being an infiltrator of some skill.
  4270. > "I... have served my Queen in this respect before, yes. I would say I am a veteran, but not the best."
  4271. > Interesting.
  4272. "Tell me - what kinds of operations have you served your queen on before?"
  4273. > "I have aided in the infiltration of major targets without detection, for observation and watching. I am... not a soldier, master."
  4274. > No more or less than any other changeling, you suppose.
  4275. > Despite your long interviews with her, any insight towards what amounted to their social structure remained frustratingly few and far between.
  4276. "Ah - but you said you wished to travel, didn't you?"
  4277. > "My roles - they have rarely taken me beyond the cities and towns nearest the hive. I was to monitor and observe, no more and no less."
  4278. > Ducking her head slightly, Chissik continues - you get the feeling she would be blushing if she could.
  4279. > "I will not shirk my duty to hive and queen, but... yes, I do wish I could see more."
  4280. "You seem embarrassed by this."
  4281. > "It is not our way to shirk our duty. To even become distracted may mean loss of many."
  4282. > Was this the truth, or was she merely trying to portray herself as dutiful?
  4283. > Certainly it seemed accurate considering the changelings' condition, but they were also masters of misdirection.
  4284. "I see... but you do have experience watching ponies. Figuring out who is who."
  4285. > "Absolutely, master."
  4286. > Her chitinous, smooth skin feels cool under your own touch.
  4287. > How much of this, you wonder, is the truth?
  4288. > Or was she gently guiding you in the same way your were taking hold of Dash?
  4289. "You also said you were hoping to earn your freedom through service."
  4290. > "I do, master."
  4291. "Then I believe I have a job for you. One big one... and then you'll be free to go."
  4292. > Again her head swivels to focus on you, the changeling's nostrils flaring as she speaks.
  4293. > "I am listening."
  4294. "Fillydelphia - I'm planning something big there. I need an expert on-site to help me run things... one that won't be found afterwards."
  4295. > Black eyelids fall and rise in a slow blink as Chissik listens attentively.
  4296. > She's either hanging on to every word you speak... or mastered the art of pretending to look like she is.
  4297. > Considering her ruler, quite possibly both.
  4298. "There are, of course, ponies in that city who will help me if offered a reward - but at the same time, they cannot be trusted. You've proven capable of thinking on your feet. I want you to be my lead in there."
  4299. > "You trust me?"
  4300. > Ah, the one factor you had pointedly not mentioned.
  4301. > Lying here would be futile, you suspect.
  4302. "In a word?"
  4303. > A slight grin cracks our lips.
  4304. "No. But I do trust that you won't do something so incredibly stupid that it might jeopardize the safety of the other changelings. Remember, my safety is their safety now."
  4305. > "I understand."
  4306. > Chissik bows her head slightly, a gesture you suspect she's long practiced.
  4307. > "What exactly is your plan, master?"
  4308. "For starters, you're going to need to become one of the Fillydelphia guard... without using your magic."
  4309. > "Not use my magic, master?"
  4310. > Your grin spreads, growing until it splits your face from cheek to cheek.
  4311. > Wide and toothy.
  4312. > Predatory.
  4313. "That, we're saving until later."
  4315. --------
  4317. "The first thing you're going to have to do, Chissik, is recruit some local muscle."
  4318. > "Finding trusting ones on such short notice will not be easy."
  4319. > Well, she would know about trust - or lack thereof - wouldn't she?
  4320. "I'm sure you can find a few ponies ambitious enough. Besides - they don't have to be smart, just understand what they're supposed to do. In fact, the dumber the better - I don't need them guessing at my real game."
  4321. > "I won't be using... this form, I presume."
  4322. "No. You'll be taking the form of an earth pony con-mare with a specialization in makeup and acting."
  4323. > "You want me to become a guardpony with just makeup?"
  4324. "Makeup, and your natural talent for being able to take switch to new personalities on a whim. We'll be holding the guardpony disguise - and your more unique abilities - in reserve for a bit later."
  4325. > "At first, then?"
  4326. "At first, you're going to become one of the curators of the Fillydelphia history museum."
  4327. ~~~~
  4328. > "Control? This is Dress Rehersal. We're ready and waiting."
  4329. > Chissik's choice of name had been left up to her.
  4330. > She was the expert in this, after all.
  4331. "Copy you, Dress Rehersal. The first part of our show should begin momentarily."
  4332. > Her voice seemed calm and steady from the hideout where she was waiting with the rest of her newly-recruited crew.
  4333. > In contrast, even sitting in your control room with the lights off except for the screens before you, sweat was already beginning to form on your skin.
  4334. > This was, by far, the most ambitious single thing you had ever attempted.
  4335. > It ran against every method you'd used so far, a high-risk operation in contrast to your typical background manipulation.
  4336. > But it would have to work.
  4337. > Switching to another channel, you mouth the first words to get things started.
  4338. "Trixie? You're on."
  4339. ~~~~
  4340. "Once Trixie begins to form the illusion of the dragon, you'll still have some time to wait. The panic is instrumental in this; we need to give it time to build."
  4341. > "Ponies panicking can be relied on. But what is the point of this illusionist?"
  4342. "First, distraction. The museum is hosting an exhibition on early Equestrian history. Dozens of artifacts, irreplaceable and priceless - and heavily guarded."
  4343. > New understanding fills Chissik's voice.
  4344. > "Unless their attention is on something far more important."
  4345. "Indeed. And with panic in the streets, there will be little question as to why a curator might need to suddenly get in with a bunch of ponies and remove some pieces for 'safekeeping'."
  4346. > "I see... though I do not understand why these objects are so valuable to you."
  4347. "They aren't. They're just exceedingly visible."
  4348. ~~~~
  4349. > No doubt there would be ponies scrambling to report it as soon as the illusion was visible, but even before Trixie had begun her task your third agent was already in motion.
  4350. > "Excuse me? Excuse me! I really must be through - yes, it is urgent! I must see mayor Red Tape! Excuse me-"
  4351. > The stallion had been a faithful worker of yours for some time.
  4352. > Which made you feel slightly bad about not letting him in on the rest of the plan, but his fear had to be as realistic as possible.
  4353. > And judging by the voice coming through your comm channel, fear was exactly how you'd describe him at the moment.
  4354. > "Mayor? Mayor! I must speak with you, it's an emer-"
  4355. > Of course, the mayor wasn't who you'd have preferred he go see - but it would do well enough.
  4356. > Pops and hisses fill your ears as your stallion passes over the communication device.
  4357. > Now a new voice comes through the system - aggrieved, almost insulted at having been so interrupted.
  4358. > "Yes? Who is this? What is the meaning of-"
  4359. "Mayor. I suggest you mobilize every guard in your city, right now."
  4360. > "Who are you? What do you mean, mobilize-"
  4361. "My name is Anonymous. You may have heard of me; what you've been told thus far is not important. What is, is that I am currently tracking a full-grown male dragon on a direct approach towards your city right this very moment."
  4362. > The silence that followed could only leave you imagining the mayor's silently-moving jaw and bulging eyes as he tried to process the danger Fillydelphia was in.
  4363. > Dragons were not known for their reserve once enraged - and rarely approached pony settlements unless already provoked.
  4364. > When his voice comes through next, it is without the imperiousness and self-confident tones that had filled it before.
  4365. > "How soon will it reach us?"
  4366. "At current speeds? A little under fifteen minutes."
  4367. ~~~~
  4368. > "I do not understand, master. If you tell them what is coming, will the element of panic not be decreased?"
  4369. "Perhaps."
  4370. > You lightly shrug, one hand again coming to rest atop the changeling's crest.
  4371. "But it will also help spread it more rapidly - the city will not be able to avoid word getting out if they have to mobilize the guard that quickly."
  4372. > Pausing for just a second, you utterly fail at preventing a grin from slipping onto your lips.
  4373. "And, being in contact with the mayor is critical to the second half of this plan."
  4374. > "And that is?"
  4375. "Killing the dragon."
  4376. ~~~~
  4377. > "How far out is it now?"
  4378. > Fingers dance over keys, pulling up a real-time image of the illusion.
  4379. > Despite her ego, Trixie's reputation for skill with showmanship was well-founded.
  4380. > The dragon hadn't appeared immediately, not in full view.
  4381. > Instead it first manifested as a dark form in a cloud - circling ominously above the Fillydelphia bay.
  4382. "Still over the water, Mayor. I think it caught an airship and is spending some time chewing on that."
  4383. > "Still not enough time..."
  4384. > No doubt the poor mayor was growing increasing frustrated.
  4385. > Ponies were, by nature, sensitive to the flow of emotions in their communities - and panic had spread in Fillydelphia like a flood from a breached dam.
  4386. > Not only was it spreading general chaos in the streets, but any attempts to form up the city guard in a timely manner had been thoroughly stymied.
  4387. > Which was just fine by you.
  4388. > Less fine for the mayor, whose voice was becoming layered in increasingly desperate tones as he realized his city simply was not prepared to face such a creature.
  4389. > "We can't do this. They... they won't be able to stop it in time."
  4390. > Still you hold your voice, waiting for the despair to set in for the poor mayor.
  4391. > "We must send a messenger to Canterlot. The princesses-"
  4392. > "Mayor, even our fastest pegasi would not arrive in time."
  4393. > That was, you'd realized, the voice of the city's guard captain; you'd never heard him before.
  4394. > "Even so, they could... they could get to Baltimare, to-"
  4395. > "And how long for them to mobilize their guard as well? How long to come back here? We must begin evacuating-"
  4396. > "No!"
  4397. > Your eyebrows jump in surprise; there was real fire in the mayor's voice yet - he wasn't ready to give up his city entirely.
  4398. > "If they leave the city, ponies will be even more defenseless than here!"
  4399. > Time to make your offer.
  4400. "Mayor."
  4401. > "And so you ask me to stop it before-"
  4402. "Mayor!"
  4403. > Silence falls suddenly, shortly followed by the mayor's shaky voice.
  4404. > "Is it coming now?"
  4405. "Mayor, I formally request permission by your authority to allow my combat drones to engage the dragon."
  4406. ~~~~
  4407. > Understanding dawns in Chissik's eyes.
  4408. > "You seek to cast yourself as the city's savior. A complicated ruse, even by our standards - but an impressive one."
  4409. "After a fashion. While my drones could 'kill' the dragon, some enterprising pony will eventually see through the illusion."
  4410. > "Which means, master?"
  4411. "Which means, once the drones go you to time your task perfectly. To fast, they won't believe it. To slow, and they realize the game is up."
  4412. ~~~~
  4413. > With a few keystrokes you set the quartet of drones on their way.
  4414. > Not the light drones that patrolled the interior of your home, but large fusion-driven things that hurtled along at well past the speed of sound.
  4415. > A costly but worthy investment, those.
  4416. > You'd expected to call them out if anyone ever made a move against you.
  4417. > Now they served another purpose: To be large, noticeable, and recognizably inequine in construction.
  4418. > No pony would ever doubt what they had seen that day.
  4419. > Again the comms channel is switched, leaving you in contact with Trixie.
  4420. "How are you doing? Is it holding up?"
  4421. > "Trixie finds maintaining an illusion of this size most trying... but Trixie can keep it going."
  4422. "Excellent. The hunters are on their way."
  4423. > Switching to yet a third channel, you draw a breath to speak the last few words of control you would have over this.
  4424. > From this point forward, everything would be in the hands of fate and planning until the final payoff.
  4425. > There was no doubt that your stomach was roiling and churning.
  4426. > In a moment, this entire plan could fall to pieces and leave you without anything to show for it.
  4427. > But hesitation would not help either.
  4428. > Keying the microphone button down, your lips part once more.
  4429. "Chissik? Time to go."
  4430. > From then on, it is only a matter of watching closely and hoping everything goes right.
  4431. > Unlike with the drones, you could not have a live feed of her operation.
  4432. > Nor even have Chissik talk to you - nothing that could arouse suspicion of a presence directing from beyond.
  4433. > Once she left the safehouse, the most you could do is give her commands through the one tiny comm-unit firmly embedded in her ear.
  4434. > At least it afforded a general audio feed of the goings-on around her.
  4435. > And judging by that, the operation was going fairly well.
  4436. > Only a handful of panicked voices call out as 'Dress Rehearsal' and her team move in, and they quickly back off as the local muscle make themselves felt.
  4437. > Probably a few museum caretakers trying to protect their priceless charges from the panic and the impending 'dragon attack' alike.
  4438. > Even so, inability to know exactly what is going on is a form of helplessness that leaves you deeply uncomfortable.
  4439. > You much preferred to be in full command of a situation; to essentially be relegated to listening and guessing from scattered bits of information was not a feeling you liked.
  4440. > Sweat is beading freely on your skin now despite the still chilly air in the room.
  4441. > Seeking something to keep yourself busy, your eyes again turn to the drones.
  4442. > They were making their way over the nearest mountain ranges, whipping past startled pegasi and airships alike.
  4443. > No doubt Celestia would be receiving word of their passage any minute now.
  4444. > By then it would already be too late, though.
  4445. "Trixie? The drones are about here. Two minutes, no more."
  4446. > The showmare was putting on a good show, having produced an excellent facsimile of a goodly-sized airship for the dragon to tear its way through in the meantime.
  4447. > Despite the danger of it, ponies were paused stock-still on the Fillydelphia docks to watch the spectacle.
  4448. > Now your drones finally entered the stage, ripping in low over the water and climbing to engage the 'dragon'.
  4449. > Not an optimal engagement profile by any means, but then the point of this wasn't to be a perfectly by-the-book fight.
  4450. > It was to be seen.
  4451. > And seen you undoubtedly are - the drones tumbling and whirling, guns cracking in a steady stacatto as they spit penatrators into their target.
  4452. > Were it a solid being, no doubt the dragon would be feeling the hail of shells shredding through its armored hide.
  4453. > Even though it is not, Trixie continues to make every effort to have it appear though it is.
  4454. > Agonized roars echo through the air as the 'dragon' seems to struggle under the relentless attacks.
  4455. > It 'fights' back too, claws reaching out to grasp at the drones and fire roiling from its mouth.
  4456. "Chissik, stall them a little longer. The kill is going to happen soon."
  4457. > She doesn't react, but barks out new orders - her voice taking an authortative tone of command.
  4458. > Time to wrap things up.
  4459. > Another channel switch, and you're back with Trixie.
  4460. "Alright, it's time. Make the 'kill' happen."
  4461. > "Trixie... understands!"
  4462. > Her voice is filled with strain and you suspect her teeth are gritted, but still the showmare puts up an admirable showing.
  4463. > Bleeding from innumerable 'wounds', the illusory dragon begins to loose flight; within seconds, its failing wingbeats turn into a hopeless tumble that bring it splashing down into the bay in a thunderous crash and explosion of water.
  4464. ~~~~
  4465. "Once the illusion is 'dead', we set the final act in play."
  4466. > "You are going to turn on the recruited crew."
  4467. > She had figured it out fairly quickly, hadn't she?
  4468. > Chissik shifts subtly, apparently having noticed some change in your demeanor.
  4469. > "It is the obvious choice, master. If the items are not of use to you, then there is no further need for muscle."
  4470. "Indeed; letting them go to be turned in later is too much of a risk. Doing it now makes it look like the leader grabbed a cut and ran when they are 'discovered'."
  4471. > "So, then I will need to vanish."
  4472. "Yes. Remember how I said your more exotic abilities were going to be held in reserve?"
  4473. ~~~~
  4474. > "I don't believe it! You - you did it! You stopped-"
  4475. "Don't thank me so quickly, Mayor. Something isn't right about that. One moment, let me..."
  4476. > Your fingers dance across keys, pulling up feeds from each of the drones now circling over the edge of the city.
  4477. > Hundreds of faces stared back at you, mouths open in surprise and shock.
  4478. > Excellent.
  4479. "Got it. That was no dragon, Mayor - it was some kind of optical illusion, probably magic. You've been had - we both have been had."
  4480. > "I... I don't understand why-"
  4481. "If I had to guess? Somebody wanted your city in chaos."
  4482. > Again the guard captain's voice crackles through, more distant this time though:
  4483. > "I'll get my ponies out on the streets and restore order!"
  4484. > No point in objecting.
  4485. > After all, guards in the streets is just what you want.
  4486. ~~~~
  4487. "Obviously changing in the middle of the streets isn't going to work. You'll need to make absolutely sure you're the first one moving out."
  4488. > "I can do that. Persuasion is something we must learn in my role."
  4489. "Good. The trickier bit is going to be timing it right: You'll need to wait until there are enough guards on the streets, so be ready to burn time until you do."
  4490. ~~~~
  4491. > The sound of a door creaking open heralds by 'Dress Rehearsal's' voice.
  4492. > "Wait. Something isn't right here."
  4493. > "You sure? I can't-"
  4494. > Her suave, calm tone again interrupts the inevitable questioning by the none-too-bright henchmen (henchponies?) she had hired.
  4495. > "Then I will go in first, and you can wait back here. Watch my share of the loot."
  4496. > Any concerns about their leader running off with their share of the proceeds now assuaged, none of them protest as Chisik slips a bit further in.
  4497. > "Boss? You okay in there-"
  4498. > Silence is shattered by the sudden, sharp pop-snap of magic followed by an angry, surprised cry.
  4499. > "Hey! Who are you?!"
  4500. > Again there's the brush of canvas over the microphone as she steps back through the doorway.
  4501. > Except, of course, this time 'she' is not a she at all.
  4502. > Instead the little troop of thieves would suddenly be faced with a stallion in the uniform of the Fillydelphia guard.
  4503. > "Thieves, stop! They're up here - you there, stop!"
  4504. ~~~~
  4505. "You don't need to actually stop them, just herd them out into the open. With their leader gone and more guards coming, they won't want to stick around."
  4506. > "And when I have done so?"
  4507. "Then you wrap up the last loose end."
  4508. > "Trixie."
  4509. > Chissik shifts uncomfortably, for the first time showing any true reaction to your instructons.
  4510. "Not willing to deal with her?"
  4511. > "She is... powerful. I may not be able to face her alone. We are creatures of surprise and deceit, Master."
  4512. "Ah, well..."
  4513. > Once more a grin touches your lips.
  4514. > "That won't be a concern. You aren't to hurt her - just get her to go with you."
  4515. ~~~~
  4516. > Rustling reaches your ears as Chissik pushes her way through the last few bushes to the small hollow you'd directed her to.
  4517. > Some time in the past a monster of a tree had clearly dominated this place, crowding out all attempts at intrusion beneath its boughs.
  4518. > That ancient's fall had left a crater in the ground and a hole in the canopy where light streamed down.
  4519. > More open than other areas of the forest, but also imprisoning.
  4520. > There was nowhere to easily flee from clearing.
  4521. > Currently the pool of illumination it allowed through was focused on the pale-blue mare taking a brief rest after her monumental effort earlier.
  4522. > As soon as Chissik breaks from the treeline, having taken on yet a new form, Trixie's gaze snaps up.
  4523. > Despite her obvious exhaustion, her horn is immediately alight and voice cautious.
  4524. > "Who's there?"
  4525. > Entering the illumination, Chissik's voice adopts a more cautious, nervous tone no doubt mirrored by her body.
  4526. > "I'm not going to hurt you. Anonymous sent me; I'm supposed to bring you with me for, um, your reward?"
  4527. > Everything about Trixie's reaction was critical.
  4528. > An escort to her reward had never been part of her plan; in fact, you'd specifically told her that you no one else was to know she was there.
  4529. > Should she show faith in you, trust that you were being fair and honest with her, that would be enough.
  4530. > But if she was distrusting, if she seemed to have plans of her own - you would know exactly where she stood.
  4531. > And be able to deal with her then and there.
  4532. > Your finger hovers over a button; should Trixie prove problematic, it is not likely she would get more than a few steps before the drones got to her.
  4533. > Not even Chissik had been informed of this, nor would she have been able to see the combat drone circling high above.
  4534. > The killing bolt would be just as much a shock to her as to the showmare it would strike down.
  4535. > Leaning her head back, Trixie tosses her mane and puts on a considerable show of thought.
  4536. > "You're alone?"
  4537. > Chissik replies immediately, with a more confident voice.
  4538. > "Of course."
  4539. > From the drone hovering far overhead, you can see Trixie's horn flare; your finger nearly stabs the key to end her life out of instinct.
  4540. > But logic halts that response, thankfully.
  4541. > A burst of light might have distracted or disoriented a living pursuer, but the drones are not so affected and their imagers let you see through the flare.
  4542. > And when it is done, you can see Trixie nodding an affirmative.
  4543. > "Trixie cannot sense anypony else; it seems you are truthful after all."
  4544. > "Then we should move."
  4545. > Indeed they should.
  4546. > For a second longer you consider ending Trixie anyhow.
  4547. > Her mere existence was a security risk.
  4548. > But the same was true of every pony who struck deals with you.
  4549. > And while she obviously did not trust Chissik, faith in you seemed a little more forthcoming.
  4550. > Besides, she had performed exceptionally well with the illusion.
  4551. > That, you suppose, is about as good as you could expect.
  4552. > At last you lean back in your seat; for the first time since you had ordered Trixie to begin the illusion, you could relax.
  4553. > The sweat still drying on your arms was a testament to the nervousness that had been coursing through you.
  4554. > Against the odds, though, the operation had gone off.
  4555. > Your eyes close, beating down the headache that had begun to build as the operation had gone on.
  4556. > Never again, if you could help it.
  4557. > This sort of thing was simply too risky for someone in your position.
  4558. > For now it was done, and waiting for the inevitable call your only task.
  4559. > It doesn't take long to come; again the system indicates it comes from Twilight, but you know that isn't who you'll be speaking to.
  4560. > A suspicion that proves to be correct as the sun princess' radiant visage fills a screen before you.
  4561. > In fact it's that she seems so neutral that sets you on edge; you'd expected Celestia to be rather more upset about your alleged trespass.
  4562. > "Anonymous. I have just received some most worrying reports from Fillydelphia. Worrying reports."
  4563. > Well, that was unusual as well.
  4564. > She hadn't outright accused you of anything, though she obviously knew you were involved.
  4565. > Was she trying to be diplomatic about it, after the disaster that the last meeting with Twilight had been?
  4566. > Well, two could play at that game.
  4567. "Of course. I'm glad you reached out to me yourself, Your Highness; it certainly spare me the trouble of having to go through more... problematic intermediaries."
  4568. > Like Twilight Sparkle.
  4569. > Celestia catches the jibe; her muzzle twitches, but remains neutral.
  4570. > She probably assumed that you were being facetious, not at all really pleased to see her.
  4571. > In fact, for once, you were glad to; Twlight or Luna could not be relied on to handle these matters.
  4572. > "And about these reports?"
  4573. "Well..."
  4574. > You let a slight smile develop on your face.
  4575. "I admit everything. I directly deployed armed drones into Fillydelphia, and I ordered them to engage in combat actions."
  4576. > This time Celestia can't entirely hide her shock; she clearly hadn't been expecting you to take that tactic.
  4577. "However, on investigation you will find that I did so only with the explicit permission of the city's mayor and captain of its guard."
  4578. > No immediate response comes; you can all but see the gears turning in her head.
  4579. > "Without coercion."
  4580. > Of course without coercion; did she think you were a fool?
  4581. > No, she must be stalling for time to figure out what game you were playing at.
  4582. "Naturally, Your Highness. The good mayor was quite distressed to find that his city guard wasn't going to be able to mobilize in sufficient time; I offered an alternative to protect the city."
  4583. > Once more the solar alicorn flinches.
  4584. > Let her.
  4585. > The news that you hadn't just operated with the mayor's consent but had actively played the hero?
  4586. > Yes, that would leave her squirming.
  4587. > And you can't deny the enjoyment you feel at seeing it.
  4588. > "I... see."
  4589. > Celestia's eyes narrow suddenly, as if something had occurred to her.
  4590. > "Yet, I also have to wonder how you were able to know of the dragon so quickly..."
  4591. "Monitoring possible threats is something of a requirement when one is placed in such a precarious position."
  4592. > A position, you do not need to say, that she had created.
  4593. > Nor that the threats might not all be covered in scales.
  4594. > You weren't honestly sure if she would believe the bluff; while identifying the major storm that had destroyed Chrysalis' hive was one matter, constantly tracking every flying thing was not an ability you could stretch across all of Equestria.
  4595. "Whatever disagreements we may have, Celestia, you can be quite sure I did not violate our agreements. I would also hope..."
  4596. > Again the grin flickers across your face.
  4597. "...that this dispels any concerns that you might have about my intents towards ponies."
  4598. > It won't, of course.
  4599. > Celestia's far too smart for that.
  4600. > "The safety of my all my subjects is deeply important to me."
  4601. > Again, the emphasis on the 'all'.
  4602. > As in, including Dash.
  4603. "Your thoughtfulness is well-known of course, Your Highness. I would hope that thoughtfulness doesn't preclude other concerns, however."
  4604. > If Celestia was going to remind you that she hadn't forgotten your prisoner, you could remind her there were other costs to be paid here.
  4605. > "I am quite aware. But in my years of ruling, I've sometimes found that it is better to pay a hard price once, than to let a problem fester."
  4606. > A frown touches your lips; was that a threat, or a suggestion she might be willing to 'pay the hard price' of letting you exist free of her strangling control?
  4607. > Or even, both?
  4608. "In my years of surviving, I've found there's more than one route to attaining what you hope to achieve."
  4609. > "I agree. But neither can I completely dismiss my fears for the safety of my little ponies."
  4610. "And here I'd have hoped that my actions today would have demonstrated those fears unnecessary."
  4611. > "It would do far more to calm my fears if you would release Rainbow Dash from your captivity."
  4612. > Back to being direct, then?
  4613. > Perhaps Celestia had finally had her fill of talking around the most important points.
  4614. > Well, if she wanted to then...
  4615. > Folding your fingers, you settle your gaze directly on her.
  4616. "Your Highness, may I be frank?"
  4617. > No wait for an answer is given before you go on.
  4618. "You and I both know we stand at a stalemate now. Nothing will ever develop at this rate; Dash will not see her freedom so long as you hound me."
  4619. > There's a subtle flex of muscle in her jaw; Celestia is gritting her teeth, though it barely shows.
  4620. "Fate has given us both an opportunity here. You can either deny the truth to your ponies - a truth they all saw - or you can take a step towards repairing the rift that has grown here."
  4621. > Amethyst eyes flick over your face, looking for any hints as to your intent or what lies you may tell.
  4622. > When your eyes lock again you meet them equally, pushing back with as much force as she directs as you.
  4623. > "Am I supposed to ignore that the 'hero' I would be recognizing holds a subject of mine hostage?"
  4624. > The slightest crack appears in your composure.
  4625. "Don't you think of the future at all? Of what will become of all this-"
  4626. > "It is exactly because I think of the future that I cannot excuse what you have done. You are not a creature of kindness, Anonymous - and while I do not blame you for what you have become, neither can I just accept you as you are."
  4627. > Well.
  4628. > The forces that forged you were not gentle ones, admittedly.
  4629. > But they have left you stronger for it.
  4630. "Then we stand at an impasse. I will not alter myself by submitting to the whims of an authoritarian ruler."
  4631. > "Yet you are the one who holds an innocent mare enslaved."
  4632. > This is going nowhere; you can't let yourself be sucked into another argument.
  4633. "I believe we're being distracted from the issue at hand. May I assume that my actions in defense of your city will not have, repercussion for our relationship, nor will my agent there face any repercussions?"
  4634. > Celestia's gaze is hard, but eventually her head bobs singly.
  4635. > "Yes. Providing what you have indicated proves to be the truth, there will be no repercussions."
  4636. "Excellent!"
  4637. > The smile that touches your lips is quite real, though you do not let is spread as wide as you would want.
  4638. > With that assurance made, your gambit had paid itself off.
  4639. > Not even Celestia could order her ponies to forget what they had seen; the most she could have done is warn that you were a dangerous being and not to be approached.
  4640. > But even that would be troublesome now, and evidently she recognized that.
  4641. "Thank you for being so reasonable, Your Highness."
  4642. > "But neither can I simply forget all the other things you do as well."
  4643. > The pleasure dies at her addendum.
  4644. > She just couldn't let go of it, could she?
  4645. > Time to be blunt again, then.
  4646. "Celestia, I am not going to simply cave to your wishes on account of repetition. If you want any chance of this being resolved peacefully, I suggest you start by letting this incident go."
  4647. > Fingers begin to strum a regular pattern on your desk as you go on.
  4648. "Better yet would be to revoke your ridiculous order denying my involvement with the Changeling peace deal. You are hobbling your own efforts to spite me."
  4649. > "This will be considered when you show that you can be trusted to not merely take advantage of a situation to your benefit."
  4650. > In other words, what you had done here.
  4651. "Considering that I very much risked you declaring me in violation of our agreement for saving your city, do you think that I really only ever think of myself?"
  4652. > "Anonymous..."
  4653. > For just a second there's a flicker in her eyes, and you're allowed a brief glimpse of something deeper - something older.
  4654. > Tired, perhaps, with a hint of the pain that came with a millennium of ruling - of lives that could not be saved.
  4655. > But also all at once as solid and unyielding as the continent she ruled over and as sharp as any blade ever made.
  4656. > "Anonymous, do not think I've never seen one like you before. I am quite certain if you thought there was real risk to yourself, you would not have ordered your drones to attack. You knew exactly how this would play out."
  4657. > Again you force your face to remain neutral; while Celestia didn't yet realize your deceit, she had effectively called the bluff of your entire operation.
  4658. > It was too much to expect her to be fooled, you supposed.
  4659. > But at least she seemed to understand she couldn't deny you this victory entirely.
  4660. "...I am sorry to hear you feel this way, Celestia."
  4661. > "However. I am not against giving you this chance to demonstrate the intentions that you claim."
  4662. > A slightest hint of a smile touches Celestia's lips now as a worried feeling develops in your stomach.
  4663. > "I hope that recognition of your actions in this incident will do as the sign you've been hoping for that I am willing to negotiate - and lead to similar moves on your part as well."
  4664. "It is very deeply appreciated, Your Highness. Thank you."
  4665. > The lie rolls off your lips easily, but you've no doubt Celestia sees straight through it.
  4666. > Damn her!
  4667. > You'd given her a very specific opening, and she'd gone and ran with it further than you'd wanted or expected.
  4668. > Rather than just giving you some breathing room, now she'd gone and set expectations for what you'd do as well.
  4669. > Given that you did not intend to set Dash free - at least, not until she was capable of refusing any offers to escape without you watching over her shoulder - you'd have to find something else to offer up to Celestia.
  4670. > But it was Dash she wanted, and anything less than that...
  4671. > How long could you put her off before Celestia started being able to argue you were not holding your end of the agreement, and started tightening down on you again?
  4672. "...very well, Your Highness. I'll look forward to more positive developments in the future, then."
  4673. > "As will I, Anonymous."
  4674. > You're sure she will.
  4676. --------
  4678. > While Celestia would continue to be a looming obstacle, for the moment at least you had some breathing room.
  4679. > Enough to wait for events elsewhere to finish playing out; no doubt you would be hearing from the mayor of Fillydelphia soon.
  4680. > Enough to spend some time with Dash, who you had been forced by the sudden turn of events to leave untended when she needed it most.
  4681. > The pony in question is currently curled against your side, eyes fallen closed and mane spread out even more messily than usual.
  4682. > Though Dash's muzzle occasionally twitched or ears flicked in erratic fashion, her soft breathing suggested she'd found at least temporary measure of peace in her sleep.
  4683. > One of your arms rested across her barrel, snaking over to alternate between playing with the comp-pad held in the other hand and stroking Dash's mane whenever her sleep became particularly perturbed.
  4684. > Briefly you wonder how much actual sympathy is guiding your hands.
  4685. > Slave or not, Dash's world was being slowly eaten away.
  4686. > She'd sunk into a quieter sort of depression in the aftermath of the disastrous meeting with Twilight and her one-time friends.
  4687. > While you'd seen fear, self-loathing, and despair before - mostly as a result of your punishments - this was something else entirely.
  4688. > This was true depression.
  4689. > Even as she'd come to accept her place before you and even sympathize with you, Dash had always held on to a certain hope in the back of her mind.
  4690. > A hope that one day it would be over, and everything could go back to being the way it had been before.
  4691. > Now that hope is wavering.
  4692. > Another twitch, and another brush of your fingers through her multihued mane.
  4693. > This time, though, Dash stretches all her limbs out in turn before yawning a terrifically wide yawn.
  4694. > " 'non...?"
  4695. "Master, Dash. I'm your master."
  4696. > Your voice is gentle even as you correct her, fingers still sweeping through her mane to show you are not angered by her mistake.
  4697. > Even so Dash deflates a little - as though some portion of her subconscious had been hoping that you'd allow her the comfort of not being reminded of her position.
  4698. > "Wha' time izzit, master?"
  4699. "Almost ten. We should both be turning in soon."
  4700. > Instead of rising or pulling herself away, Dash nudges herself even closer against you - lifting her head to rest on your shoulder.
  4701. > After a few moments you set the pad down, reaching over with the now-free hand to lightly run fingers over the velveteen fuzz covering her ears.
  4702. > A poorly-muffled noise of pleasure drifts up from where she'd buried her muzzle into your shirt.
  4703. "Something's on your mind, Dash."
  4704. > It isn't a question; even as she'd become considerably more tolerant of your touch she'd never quite learned to enjoy it while awake.
  4705. > Except when something was eating at her.
  4706. > Then she would take any comfort she could get.
  4707. > Dash's response was typically surly, though - instead of answering, she merely rolled over with a groan to present her back to you.
  4708. > Well, if that's how she was going to be...
  4709. > Your hands unfold one wing, tracing along the ridges of muscle that support it.
  4710. > The unwanted touch yields another groan from Dash.
  4711. > "Can we... not do this right now master? Please?"
  4712. "Not in the mood to talk about it?"
  4713. > "Yeah, I-"
  4714. > A shudder runs through her as your fingers dance over a particularly sensitive joint.
  4715. > "-I just want to forget about all that right now."
  4716. > Well, she had been good enough to ask about it.
  4717. > And you could always press her about it later.
  4718. "Fair enough, I suppose."
  4719. > A relieved sigh escapes Dash as you remove the dread that had been hanging over her.
  4720. "Though we will have to speak about it at some point."
  4721. > "Yeah, yeah. I get it..."
  4722. > Then she goes quiet again - though not back to sleep.
  4723. > When you don't respond immediately, Dash's eyes again crack open - and now the fear in them is plain to see.
  4724. > It's a fear every bit as sharp as that the cage had brought over her.
  4725. > Fear of losing the world around her.
  4726. > Then it had been realm of terror that the cage had forced her into, replacing all other thoughts of the outside world, but here?
  4727. > Here it was something different.
  4728. > Something far more permanent.
  4729. > Even as you mull the situation over, Dash goes on.
  4730. > The words spill out, as though a dam had finally broken within her and she could no longer stop the flow:
  4731. > "I'm scared, but - but I -"
  4732. > Another ragged breath is drawn in.
  4733. > "I don't want to stay angry with them. I know they wouldn't do that to me - but they did do it! I don't know... is this my fault?!"
  4734. > Dash's hooves again pound into the bed, wings spread wide in an impotent gesture of rage.
  4735. > "What did I say? What was I supposed to do?! I didn't want them..."
  4736. > Once more her hooves come down, but this time Dash's legs collapse beneath her.
  4737. > Sides heaving, Dash shudders softly as the first tears run down her cheeks.
  4738. > "I know... I'm kinda bad at losing, but I don't even know how to try and win this!"
  4739. "Shhhh."
  4740. > Reaching down, you again pick up Dash - holding her in your arms and pinning her against your body.
  4741. > Almost immediate she relaxes in your tight grip, the same way she relaxes when you kept her bound - seeming to relish in the feeling of being squeezed down.
  4742. > The irony, considering the trauma being imprisoned in a small space had wrought on her, is not missed.
  4743. > Your hand runs down her spine, sending her wings twitching.
  4744. "I understand it's scary, to have lost everything you knew. It's okay to admit that."
  4745. > "Yeah, right..."
  4746. > You shoot her what you hope is a reassuring smile.
  4747. "Trust me, Dash. I understand better than you know how this feels."
  4748. > "What do you mean?"
  4749. > Her eyes stare up at you, wide and pleading, desperate for some answer.
  4750. > Despite her alleged self-sufficiency - even before you'd captured her - you'd come to realize Dash truly was reliant on her friends.
  4751. > Or, had been.
  4752. > Now she would just have to find someone else.
  4753. "You know I didn't exactly come here by choice?"
  4754. > "Uh-huh..."
  4755. "I think the best way to describe it is an accident - though I increasingly question exactly how much of an accident it could have been. But..."
  4756. > Fingers slip beneath the metal band circling Dash's throat, pressing at the muscles trapped beneath and drawing a small coo from the mare as you massage them.
  4757. "...but it left me in much a similar situation. Most of what I had known was gone - unreachable. So, yes - I understand how you are feeling."
  4758. > It wasn't a lie.
  4759. > The first days had left you in a daze of depression you'd barely escaped.
  4760. > Only by focusing on a plan - one that would not unfold quickly, but a solid, cohesive plan nonetheless - had you managed to drag yourself out of it.
  4761. > You couldn't give Dash time to do the same; she was already dangerously close with her claims of trying to 'reform' you.
  4762. > Best to keep her distracted before she might come to the same conclusion you had and develop some foolish plan to try and work against you.
  4763. "So yes, Dash - I do understand how you feel. And because of that, I hope you'll trust me when I say that I'm not just going to just... drop you one day."
  4764. > No response is forthcoming - which, with Dash, is as good as a denial; she wasn't always good about using her words.
  4765. ", Dash. Have I ever lied to you?"
  4766. > You hadn't; of all the things you'd done to her, you'd made sure to be studiously truthful - never directly lying to Dash's face.
  4767. > Or at least, never in any way she could ever discover.
  4768. > Fear, respect, honor - all of those could be bought and sold as easily as gold, but trust was a commodity in its own class.
  4769. > That which Dash held for you, the most valuable thing you held.
  4770. > "But, maybe... maybe you won't lie, but you'll have to give me up anyhow?"
  4771. "What do you mean, Dash?"
  4772. > Her crimson eyes fall shut again, though you suspect she's seeing something in the past - likely the quite recent past.
  4773. > "I thought the girls - Pinkie, Fluttershy, all of them - I thought they'd never go either. And... I was loyalty, the element itself. Now I'm just..."
  4774. > Just a broken bluebird.
  4775. > "If this is how things are now, despite what we had... I can't know you won't have to change either. That you won't have to send me away."
  4776. > There is a bitter truth in Dash's words, and her tone is one that speaks to painful experience.
  4777. > Truthfully, she had a point - when loyalty had broken and its comrades turned against it, how was it to judge if others still held the same strength?
  4778. "Stay here a moment. I've got something for you."
  4779. > Rising from the bed, you slip out of the room - returning with a small golen disk flat against the palm of one hand.
  4780. > "What's that?"
  4781. "Here, look."
  4782. > Seating yourself cross-legged on the bed, you hold the disk out into a beam of moonlight allowed in through one of the bedroom windows.
  4783. > Dash rises, taking a place beside you on her haunches to peer at the item in your hands.
  4784. > A slow frown develops on her face as she studies the three hands, one steadily ticking its way around the face.
  4785. > "It's... a watch?"
  4786. "Sort of."
  4787. > A finger finds the concealed button, and you press.
  4788. > Immediately the hands halt - vanishing for a second before they reappear.
  4789. > This time, they all point in wildly different directions; moreover, the hands have gained strikingly different colors.
  4790. > So too has the watch's face changed, simple numbers now being replaced by four single letters for the cardinal directions bracketed by smaller pips.
  4791. > "What-?"
  4792. "The watch face is an illusion - one of my screens."
  4793. > "What's it showing now, then?"
  4794. "The yellow hand points in the direction the watch is facing. Red hand points to a beacon here. Blue hand points to me - look."
  4795. > Setting the device on the bed, you stand and take a few steps around the room.
  4796. > From the way Dash's eyes widen, you're sure she's seen the line shift.
  4797. > "How?!"
  4798. "Another beacon, of sorts. The best part is, this thing runs on light itself - as long it gets some good light every day or two, it will keep working for a long, long time."
  4799. > You pause for a fraction of a second before adding:
  4800. "It's yours, Dash."
  4801. > "That's..."
  4802. > Dash looks up, her eyes wide and slightly-tearful and ragged wings spread in excitement.
  4803. > "That's so cool!"
  4804. "Isn't it? Let me show you one more thing."
  4805. > Leaning over, you take the watch and draw metal clasp from its top - a thin line of wire linking the ring and larger body.
  4806. > Said clasp is mated a ring on Dash's collar yet you continue to hold the guide-watch out in front of her, well within her vision.
  4807. "You can pull it out and look at it any time you want; the wire will pull it back when you're done. If you want to change the face, just hold it flat between your hooves - like this, see?"
  4808. > Your hands withdraw from Dash's hooves, leaving the metal disk slowly warming between them until they cautiously peel apart once more.
  4809. > As if Dash was afraid the gift - minute as it was - would somehow vanish or cease to be real if left out of her sight for too long.
  4810. > "It's really - mine?"
  4811. "Yes. Yours to keep."
  4812. > "And it won't just - just turn off, if you don't want to be found?"
  4813. > It could, of course.
  4814. > But she didn't need to know that.
  4815. "Not at all."
  4816. > Her lips open in wordless joy as the face again reveals its compass.
  4817. > Dash had not seen things many times more incredible in her time with you, but they all had one great difference.
  4818. > They were not hers.
  4819. > This was - the first thing she could say she had since you'd locked that collar about her throat.
  4820. > She doesn't see the true implication of what you'd given her.
  4821. > The collar made her your prisoner, your slave - a symbol of her captivity.
  4822. > It bound her to you irregardless of her will, marking her even in the rare moments away from your presence.
  4823. > The guide-watch, though - it did not demand, but offered.
  4824. > Its hands only led in one direction, though:
  4825. > Back to you and yours.
  4826. > Some irony, you thought, was present in the 'offer' being clipped to the 'demand' that still sat around her throat - a mating of the two, telling how little difference there really was between them.
  4827. > Yet she would cherish it all the same, for it was something that was undeniably hers.
  4828. > Almost like a medallion hanging from a ribbon of victory rather than a band of cold steel - a sign you trusted her enough to give her something of yours.
  4829. "So... you don't have to just take my word that I won't give you up, Dash. You can take this, and with it always have a way back home no matter where I am."
  4830. > Releasing the guide-watch, Dash leaps against you with unusual fervor.
  4831. > "Thanks! Thanks a ton - I mean it. This is... is... augh, I don't even have words for how cool this is!"
  4832. > A genuine, warm smile touches your lips as her cheek presses against your chest - a strange bursting feeling thudding in your chest.
  4833. > Were you spoiling Dash?
  4834. > Undoubtedly.
  4835. > It would do good to reminder of her place later on.
  4836. > But for now - for now you can afford to give Dash a moment of undiminished joy.
  4837. "A little better now?"
  4838. > "Yeah. Yeah, it is."
  4839. "Good. Then come on - let's get some rest, for real."
  4841. --------
  4843. > If that night was unusually peaceful, then the following day seemed to be making up for it.
  4844. > The first bit of bad news came with the morning's breaking - a warbling tone when you log in to your computer in the morning that alerts you someone had attempted to reach you.
  4845. > Given how few had access to your comm units the pool of possibilities was never large to begin with.
  4846. > Even so, it's with some annoyance that you note Crhysalis' tag on the message.
  4847. > The Changeling Queen was not your preferred conversation partner.
  4848. > But you had a deal with her, and were the one who'd demanded a means to contact her in the first place.
  4849. > So, best not to ignore her.
  4850. > Dash is with you when the connection opens - draped over the side of a chair, her eyes blindfolded by limbs free.
  4851. > No risk in that, you thought - obviously Chryaslis already knew who you held when she sent Chissik in.
  4852. "Your Highness. A pleasure to see you again under better terms."
  4853. > A soft, malignant giggle is her first answer.
  4854. > "No, it is not. I can hear your anger still, Anonymous."
  4855. "A fair point."
  4856. > Her tone is taunting, teasing - and truthful
  4857. > It had probably been stupid to lie to a changeling, even if the lie was only a perfunctory one of greeting.
  4858. > Under your arm, Dash stirs.
  4859. > Despite her blindfold, her ears have slid back and multihued tail is lashing angrily against the side of the chair.
  4860. > Clearly her opinion of Chrysalis was the same, if not lower, than yours.
  4861. "You wanted to speak to me, though?"
  4862. > "Indeed."
  4863. > Chrysalis lays back, revealing herself to be reclining on a mountain of plush cushions.
  4864. > Where a race that was so recently on the edge of destruction had time to acquire that many cushions, you don't know.
  4865. > It serves as an adequate display of Chrysalis' opinion of herself, though.
  4866. "I hope our negotiated agreement is still holding satisfactorily?"
  4867. > "Oh, it certainly has. A glut of love such as this, with no pesky captives to look after - we find ourselves most comfortable."
  4868. > Lowering her head to rest on her forelegs, the Changeling Queen delivers a tooth-ridden smile to the camera.
  4869. > Now it she who is putting on a show to disguise a lie to you.
  4870. > By your estimates, Chrysalis would never be happy while her existence was tethered to the good will of another.
  4871. "Good. I had hoped Celestia would not have been so foolish as to outright deny a treaty another princess had written."
  4872. > Technically she had, only to deny your role in the creation of it.
  4873. > After all, Cadance - and by extension, Celestia - now held the leash to the changelings' good behavior and Celestia was too smart not to see that.
  4874. > Thus far, at least, she'd left the agreement intact.
  4875. > "Celestia has not, though she still confines us to this miserable spit of land. But I now find myself with another growing concern, Anonymous. You know what I speak of."
  4876. "Chissik."
  4877. > "Yes."
  4878. > Green eyes narrow as the last consonant was drawn out.
  4879. > "What has become of my subject, Anonymous?"
  4880. "She is safe. A continued assurance that there will be no surprises in our relationship."
  4881. > "No surprises? The only surprise here is that I have not seen hoof nor tail of my subject, when she is with someone who claims to be on my side!"
  4882. > And therein there was a bit of a problem.
  4883. > Currently, at least, Chissik was some where between Fillydelphia and Manehattan, escorting Trixie to her intended reward.
  4884. > And the tiny ear-bud comm she carried was nowhere near powerful enough for you to reach her without a more potent relay nearby.
  4885. > Those relays, of course, were only handed to your major associates - like Chrysalis, or your agents in larger cities.
  4886. > If Chrysalis should demand to see Chissik...
  4887. > "I question, Anonymous, if she is truly as safe as you claim she is. After all, your reward for dealing with me has been denied. I might think you would be inclined to dispose of her and avoid the trouble of holding a prisoner of her skill."
  4888. "I do not violate my agreements, Chrysalis. Ever."
  4889. > "You'll excuse one of my status and experience for not placing faith in promises. I want to see her, Anonymous."
  4890. > God fucking damn it.
  4891. > Well, best not to lie again - especially with this.
  4892. "I don't know how Chissik is at this particular moment. She's on business for me - I needed a messenger."
  4893. > Not exactly, but a lie masked in truth is safer than a totally invented one.
  4894. > Unfortunately, Chrysalis does not take it so well.
  4895. > "Chissik is MY subject - mine, and mine alone. I have tolerated your imprisonment of her-"
  4896. > Tolerated, as though she hadn't been the one responsible for the situation in the first place.
  4897. > "-but I will not have you treat her as yours to command!"
  4898. > You wonder how she would react if she knew that Chissik had chosen to do your work for you.
  4899. > Probably not well, if this was anything to judge by.
  4900. "While she is here, Chissik is my responsibility. You agreed to allow me to use your changelings as messengers if I needed; she was not excluded. If you want her back so badly, you might want to consider offering me something to make the loss worth it."
  4901. > Chrysalis makes an infuriated hiss-click noise that reminds you of nothing so much as a giant, angered wasp, her jagged teeth on full display.
  4902. > It's a pointed reminder; best not to provoke her more than necessary.
  4903. > Though she was weakened, the Changeling queen could likely still sting.
  4904. "Your Highness, do remember that we exist in a delicate balance. Given the previous... intrusion into my home, I cannot give up what insurance I have without getting something similar in return."
  4905. > "And what would you wish for?"
  4906. > Her eyes flick to Dash, whose muscles have grown tense as the exchange went on.
  4907. > "Another pet to toy with? I can certainly understand the urge to keep a few around for amusement."
  4908. > Even despite the distance, her giggle manages to still be slightly unnerving.
  4909. > Dash feels it too; a reflexive shudder runs through her body - her coat standing on end beneath her hand.
  4910. > Leaning forward into the camera, Chrysalis shoots a dark grin towards you.
  4911. > "I could have one of them... acquired for you, you know. I'm sure there's a pony out there who has annoyed you at some point or another."
  4912. > You suppress a snort; there was such a pony, but you rather doubted Chrysalis was in any shape for a second bout against the solar princess right now.
  4913. "I'd advise against testing your limits right now, Your Highness. It'd only take Celestia finding out about one of your little excursions to rip away what safety you have now."
  4914. > "You speak as if I do not know this."
  4915. "I only warn you for your own safety, Your Highness."
  4916. > A blatant lie, and though Chrysalis undoubtedly sees through it at least it tells her that you still bother trying to not appear hostile.
  4917. "If merely having annoyed me is enough for you to send your kidnappers after them, then I wonder what would happen to one who had annoyed you. Remember, just one discovery..."
  4918. > A discovery that might just come from you.
  4919. > "Hah! You toy with that trembling featherbag despite what Celestia might think, do you not? Face it, Anonymous - you and I are alike. We've much more to gain by working together than by you tying yourself to the wretched sun-whore."
  4920. > "Hey!"
  4921. > Dash has finally had enough; anger breaks through her fearfulness.
  4922. > She pushes herself upright against your hand; even with her eyes covered, she's a good idea of where Chrysalis' voice is coming from.
  4923. > "I"m not a - a toy!"
  4924. > Privately you wonder if she would object so strenuously if you were the one saying so.
  4925. > "Awww..."
  4926. > Chrysalis practically coos at Dash's display of aggression, a disdainful chuckle emerging from her throat.
  4927. > "Look at how adorable she is. You should really learn to control your pets under control, Anonymous."
  4928. > She's right, unfortunately.
  4929. "Down, Dash."
  4930. > The effect on her is instant and immediate; Dash collapses into a ball again - head twisting to 'look' up at you in terrified expectation of another, greater punishment.
  4931. > Instead you keep her in place with a firm palm pressed to her back, one that speaks of words which will be had later.
  4932. > Once Chrysalis is no longer leering in on your personal interactions; the queen's visage has turned downright predatory as she observed you discipline Dash.
  4933. > "Really, you should just let me take control of her mind. Perhaps you'd prefer if I did that, Anonymous?"
  4934. > The Queen's voice turns again, taking on tones layered in temptation:
  4935. > "I could make her perfect for you, you know. Obedient, unquestioning. She'd be the perfect little prisoner..."
  4936. "Could you now?"
  4937. > It takes a considerable amount of willpower to erase the disgust from your voice.
  4938. > Unfortunately the message is just as well disguised to Dash's ears as to those of the Queen, perhaps even moreso.
  4939. > She jerks back as if stung, wing shuffling fearfully and crouching low against the chair in an undignified position of supplication.
  4940. > If not for the fact that another was listening in, you've no doubt Dash would be begging shamelessly.
  4941. > "What do you think we when we need to control ponies? It's perfect... you can trust them with the most vital secrets, and they never even remember it."
  4942. "Your suggestion will be considered."
  4943. > And summarily discarded; you feel a slight amount of bile rise at the thought of lobotomizing Dash like that.
  4944. "For now, however, I will leave you with the reccomendation that you find some way to make it worth my time to release Chissik. If I should find the same, I will reach out to you."
  4945. > Seeing her ploy has failed, Chrysalis' temper immediately takes a turn for the worse.
  4946. > Already-slitted eyes narrow even further, her fags going on full display.
  4947. > "Do not treat me like some errand-filly, Anonymous. I am not to be denied; I will have my day!"
  4948. "Neither am I; think about the next time you try and double-cross me."
  4949. > Tattered wings rattle as they tremble, a merest sign of the rage boiling inside of her.
  4950. > "Fine. But if I hear you have been using Chissik as a tool of yours again-"
  4951. > Another hiss-click noise, another display of her fangs.
  4952. "I understand. If I have further tasks for her, they will be checked through you first."
  4953. > That assuages her some, and Chrysalis nods with the satisfaction of having at least wrung something out of you.
  4954. > "So it had best be."
  4955. > When the connection is closed, your eyes again fall to the pegasus still draped across the chair's edge.
  4956. > She'd actually begun to shiver slightly; her wings were wrapped tight against her barrel is if to protect her.
  4957. > Removing the blindfold reveals crimson eyes filled with unmitigated terror; they immediately lock with yours, pleading.
  4958. > "I'm sorry, master! Please, please, please don't-"
  4959. "Dash."
  4960. > "-let her take over my mind! Please, I'll-"
  4961. "Dash!"
  4962. > Your sharp tone cuts through her panic; Dash freezes, more unspent pleas on her lips.
  4963. > A heavy sigh escapes your own; snaking one hand around, you lay a palm firmly on her back - a gesture she's come to associate with a sort of disciplined safety.
  4964. "I'm not going to have Chrysalis brainwash you, Dash."
  4965. > "But, you said-"
  4966. "I know what I said."
  4967. > This time you're unable to keep your eyes from rolling, or the annoyance from your voice.
  4968. "Stroking her ego is a neccessary part of diplomacy with her."
  4969. > "So, you're not really thinking about it?"
  4970. "No."
  4971. > A firm shake of her head provokes a shuddering, thankful release of breath from Dash.
  4972. "No - understand this, Dash. I'm not interested in just having faithful servants. If that was all I cared about, I'd just turn out more drones..."
  4973. > Leaning back in your seat and stretching your legs out, you take a long look at the mare - hanging as she is on every word you speak.
  4974. "What matters is that it is you, Dash. If I let her just... mold you into whatever, is it even really you anymore?"
  4975. > "No! No, it wouldn't be!"
  4976. > In her terror, Dash immediately seizes on the opportunity you've given her.
  4977. > You wonder if she realizes that existing in a hypnotized haze would probably be far less injurious to her than being subjected to your punishments.
  4978. > For that matter, did she actually think you would have her mind wiped like that?
  4979. > Well, there's one easy way to find out...
  4980. "Why so terrified of this, Dash? I've only seen a few things that could make you this scared."
  4981. > It's a testament to her state that Dash doesn't even bother denying her fear.
  4982. > "I'm... look, I'm me, right? Even when I'm... y'know, doing something for you -"
  4983. > Something humiliating, judging by the tone of her voice.
  4984. > "- then I'm still me, right? I can still remember who I am. What I was. What I'm doing."
  4985. > How ironic.
  4986. > Though you'd never tell her, you'd made sure that Dash had never forgotten who she was even as you broke her down.
  4987. > Strange that she'd cherish the very same thing.
  4988. > "If I forget that, then..."
  4989. > Again Dash's eyes fall shut, a shudder again running along her coat and forcing hairs to stand on end.
  4990. > "...then I don't know who I am anymore. That's like... the worst thing I can imagine. Forgetting who I am. Can't... can't be awesome when you're not yourself anymore."
  4991. > Another pause, then she adds:
  4992. > "That's... kind of a reason why I hate that cage so much, you know? I'm... not myself inside there. Or when I come out... it's like having somepony else inside my head."
  4993. > Of course it was; the sheer effect the cage had on her was part of the reason you used it as a final, heavy punishment - a hammer when the metaphorical scalpel would no longer do.
  4994. "And that's why you once said you hate me, because you can't help but feel...
  4995. > Pausing briefly, you search for the right word.'
  4996. " with me?"
  4997. > "Yeah."
  4998. > She ducks her head slightly, cheeks showing just the slightest flush of tint.
  4999. > "I couldn't understand how I could feel so safe with you. It didn't make sense.
  5000. > Couldn't, didn't.
  5001. > Not can't or doesn't.
  5002. > A telling slip of her tongue.
  5003. "Well, Dash - it's just because I thought you could eventually reconcile those feelings that I didn't - that I won't have you wiped."
  5004. > It's a genuine smile that touches her face.
  5005. "And for that matter - though I will have to punish you for that little outburst with Chrysalis - I don't think anything particularly heavy will be neccessary."
  5006. > Happiness turns to outright joy as you issue what must seem like a total pardon for Dash.
  5007. > "I'll do better - I know I will."
  5008. "I know you will try. It's hard for you to back down from a challenge or insult, isn't it?"
  5009. > She doesn't even need to answer.
  5010. "...well then. It's nearly time for dinner; why don't you go down and set it up in our room."
  5011. > Wordlessly Dash hops from the chair and trots from the room, a happy flick in her tail.
  5012. > Once upon a time she'd have chafed at that commend, bristled at being used like a servant.
  5013. > Now, it was something she almost seemed to rejoice in - a simple command, degrading but not any more harmful than a mere insult.
  5014. > One unaware of her circumstances might assume Dash had just grown a thicker skin.
  5015. > You knew otherwise; she was honestly grateful for such "minor" punishments, and took them now as a sign of subtle approval that she had not made a greater mistake.
  5016. > As a sign that you, on some level, approved of her attempts even if they were still failing.
  5017. > It wasn't an incorrect interpretation.
  5018. > Quietly you wonder whether Dash realized - at the same time admitted to being terrified of being 'changed' she was not by any stretch the same headstrong, defiant mare who had come to you.
  5019. > That pony had died somewhere between the cage and your gentle touches that wiped away tears and comforted Dash in her most vulnerable moments.
  5020. > Chuckling softly, you push yourself up from the chair; no doubt she was done with getting dinner set up now.
  5021. > The noise reaches your ears just as you're reaching the stairs to the second floor.
  5022. > A thud-shatter-crash, the tinkle of a hundred glass fragments on the floor.
  5023. > Instantly you freeze, goosebumps rising on your skin as you seek any hint of what was going on.
  5024. > Had she...?
  5025. > No; an alarm would surely be sounding if Dash had tried to flee.
  5026. > Same for if someone had broken in.
  5027. > Even so, you divert to a side study, setting the drones to sweep the building as you go.
  5028. > A safe there contains a pistol, loaded and waiting; even so you call out cautiously before moving back out.
  5029. "Dash?"
  5030. > Silence.
  5031. "Are you here, Dash?"
  5032. > Still nothing.
  5033. > Odds are she was still upstairs; she might not have heard it.
  5034. > A quick check of the drones' reports finds nothing unusual.
  5035. > One human, one pony identified within the walls; three small animal contacts also found.
  5036. > Animals?
  5037. > The drones ought to have quietly removed any who had entered your home; had something found a way to evade them?
  5038. > A racoon knocking something over, maybe?
  5039. > Strange...
  5040. > Still, best to go find Dash, just in case.
  5041. > Pistol still raised, you step from the room -
  5042. > - and almost immediately all but trip over something short, colorful, and terrified.
  5043. > Two rapid steps back let you bring the pistol to bear on it, but before your finger can tighten on the trigger your mind catches up.
  5044. > Tiny, terrified, and frozen stock still, a white-coated purple-maned unicorn filly stares up at you.
  5045. > Her eyes have shrunk to pinpricks as she contemplates what she surely imagines to be her last moments.
  5046. " the hell did you ge in here?"
  5047. > "Window!"
  5048. > Her voice is a cracking squeak, barely able to answer you.
  5049. "You knocked it in?"
  5050. > "Rock!"
  5051. "Why?"
  5052. > "Didntwanttoknock!"
  5053. > Well, she's certainly afraid enough.
  5054. > With a sigh you lower the pistol as the adrenaline rush fades; while shocking, she didn't seem dangerous.
  5055. > But how had the drones not -
  5056. > And then, to the filly's confusion, you begin to laugh.
  5057. > It had all become clear to you.
  5058. > The drones' computer net - in its artificial, programmed stupidity - had simply never been configured to comprehend the possibility of a filly appearing in the house without adult escort.
  5059. > After all, what kind of child, human or pony, could make the arduous hike from the next town over without an adult escort - much less than have the bravery to break in to your home?
  5060. > Such a thing could "never" happen, and so you'd neglected to include a case for such in the computer's directives; directed to only assume that creatures travelling with adults might be pony young, it had simply flagged them as 'small animals'.
  5061. > At the same time, the drones themselves inside the home clearly had recognized her as a pony.
  5062. > Accordingly, she hadn't been removed by animal-control programming because of a standing protocol not to attack ponies unless a threat to you was detected.
  5063. > This filly had not been flagged as an intruder; therefore, she had not been a possible threat.
  5064. > It was the same flaw that had allowed Chissik to enter your home under Dash's disguise; so long as it wasn't an intruder, it wasn't killed.
  5065. > That was an oversight, one you really should fix.
  5066. > Lowering your pistol, you give the filly your best warm smile.
  5067. "Well, you could have knocked and it would have been fine."
  5068. > "You're Anonymous, right?"
  5069. "Uh-huh. What's your name? And where are your friends?"
  5070. > The noise of rope whipping through air gives you a fraction of a second of warning before your question is answered.
  5071. > It's not enough, the loops settles around your calves and pulls tight.
  5072. > Spinning to face the assailant, you try to raise the pistol again - but a field of sparking, sputtering magic pulls the firearm off-angle; the two shots you instinctively fire go wide.
  5073. > Shrill cries of an unknown title fill your ears as a buzzing maroon-and-orange form impacts your chest; with your lags already tangled, it's more than enough to send you toppling.
  5074. > As you fall, two questions spin about in your head.
  5075. > What the bloody fuck is a cutie mark crusader?
  5076. > And why were they recruiting foals?
  5077. > Then your head comes in contact with a hardwood bookcase, and the only thing going through it is pain.
  5079. --------
  5082. > When the pain finally drops from blindingly white-hot to mere throbbing agony, the first thing you become aware of is a weight on your chest.
  5083. > For a moment the terrifying thought bubbles up through your addled mind that your ribs had somehow broken and the weight was your lungs struggling to inflate.
  5084. > Then the weight shifts, and you realize no - it's something, probably one of the foals, perched on top of your chest like some kind of victorious gladiator.
  5085. > With a mighty gathering of mental fortitude, you try to twitch one arm.
  5086. > The attempt reveals that someone had tightly bound your wrists together; the same had apparently been done with your ankles.
  5087. > Unfortunately, these discoveries come at a price; each attempt sends a new wave of pain through your head.
  5088. > Squeaking, excited voices assault your ears, only adding to the maelstrom of misery resounding within your skull.
  5089. > Ringing - though it barely just fits that word, as it seems to be more of a deafening whine that fills your years - rises to distort any words that might be spoken.
  5090. > When the tide of agony subsides, though, you can just get the last of what they are saying.
  5091. > "...waking up! Make those ropes are tight, 'bloom!"
  5092. > "They are, they are! You just make sure he doesn't move to fast."
  5093. > "I got that!"
  5094. > The weight on your chest bounces once, yielding a sputtering cough from you.
  5095. > "See? He's - oh. Uh, Applebloom? Sweetie? Belle? I think he's definitely awake now..."
  5096. > At first only a blur greets your eyes when enough willpower is worked up to finally open them.
  5097. > Worse yet, doing so sends another agonizing jab through your skull.
  5098. > Finally, however, what had been merely an oddly-hued blob resolves itself into four massive lavender eyes peering right back down at you.
  5099. > No, wait - four, or just two still blurring?
  5100. > Thoughts whirl inside your head in a dizzying blend; you try and focus enough to get some words out, but all that comes is a spittle-laden blur of unintelligible consonants.
  5101. > The foal narrows her eyes, frowning.
  5102. > "I... mighta hit him a little too hard."
  5103. > Another face nudges into your vision - yellow coat, a huge pink bow practically seeming to grow from her head itself like a second pair of ears.
  5104. > "Yeah? So what! I've had harder landings, and we've got to find Rainbow still!"
  5105. > You'd been knocked over by foals.
  5106. > Foals!
  5107. > A certain part of your brain finds that enraging, infuriating - these little runts had dared to attack you when even princesses had known better than that!
  5108. > Mostly, however, you find it absolutely hilarious.
  5109. > Laughter bubbles up from somewhere, even as every movement sets off a new pulse of agony to ricochet through your brain.
  5110. "Hehe, hey - hey, p-pretty pony..."
  5111. > Raising your arms - why were your arms bound again?
  5112. > Racking your brain for answers, it seemed to hard to focus on anything.
  5113. > Like trying to swim through waves; the second you caught sight of anything a new crest would grab you and flip you over again.
  5114. > And through all of it, you keep laughing - arms reaching to grab for the filly on your chest, who edges out of the way in some combination of fear and anger.
  5115. > "Hey! It's not funny! You're hurting my friend, and I-"
  5116. > Again you try and reply, but when your lips part nothing seems ready to come to them.
  5117. > "Scootaloo, go find Dash! Sweetie and I can keep him here; I'll just clobber him if he tries anything!"
  5118. > "Alright!"
  5119. > Leaping from your chest with another buzz of her stubby wings, the filly - Scootaloo, your brain finally gets around to registering a name connected to her - turns for the stairs, a determined look on her muzzle.
  5120. > "I'll be right ba-"
  5121. > "SCOOTS?!"
  5122. > The shocked cry freezes everyone, even you - though that has more to do with the spiking wave of pain cresting at that particular moment.
  5123. > After a second though, you have the chance to look over at the source of the call:
  5124. > Dash stood at the top of the stairs, her eyes wide, pupils shrunk, and wings half-extended in shock.
  5125. > "Rainbow!"
  5126. > Furiously flapping wings briefly carry the filly aloft as she charges for the stairs; Dash leaps down to meet her, the two embracing tightly as they collide.
  5127. > "Scoots - what are you - why - what's going on?!"
  5128. > "We're here to get you out, Rainbow! Come on - we got him already!"
  5129. > "Got hi-"
  5130. > Finally seeming to register your appearance on the floor, Dash freezes in shock and horror.
  5131. > "Oh, no. Nonononono. This is bad - really, really -"
  5132. > Why's she so upset?
  5133. > You're not hurt that badly - yeah, your head hurts, but it could be a lot worse.
  5134. > You could have... have...
  5135. > Funny, you can't think of anything worse.
  5136. > It shouldn't be hard to, right?
  5137. > But you can't.
  5138. > "Rainbow? What's wrong?"
  5139. > "Squirt - what'd you do to him?"
  5140. > "Well, first Applebloom threw her lasso around his legs, and then I hit him right in the chest like, pow! Bam! You should have seen me, Rainbow, it was so cool! And then Sweetie-"
  5141. > "You hit him?!"
  5142. > A new look of terror dawns on Dash's face.
  5143. > Silly pony, she should't be feeling like that!
  5144. > Raising your bound hands awkwardly, you try and wave to her - slurred words tumbling from your mouth.
  5145. "H-hey Dash! I'm... I'm alrigh', m'just layin' down here for a bit..."
  5146. > "See? He's not going to-"
  5147. > Wordlessly Dash shoves past her, nearly bowling over the cream-coated unicorn filly as she charges to your side.
  5148. > "How many of me can you see?"
  5149. > That's not a fair question; the number keeps changing!
  5150. > Why does it matter, anyway?
  5151. > Dash is here, which means you were still safe from the princesses.
  5152. > You'd been angry before for some reason, but now you just can't remember why.
  5153. > Probably something dumb.
  5154. "...c'mere, Dash. You - y'wanna lay down with me?"
  5155. > "See! He's not going anywhere. Come on, Rainbow! We've got our cart to keep up and everything - we'll be back in Ponyville in no time, and - Rainbow?"
  5156. > She hadn't moved.
  5157. > Scootaloo turns around, her head cocked and face scrunched in confusion.
  5158. > "Rainbow?"
  5159. "Squirt, I..."
  5160. > Back and forth, back and forth - Dash's head twists, vision swinging between yourself and the pegasus.
  5161. > "Rainbow! Come on! We've gotta go before he can get up and make those thingies attack us!"
  5162. > "Don't you worry, Scootaloo! I'll tie him to that bookcase - he won't be doing anything. I can gag him too!"
  5163. > That filly has the funniest accent; where'd you heard it before?
  5164. > You're sure you have, but where it is just won't come to you.
  5165. > "Rainbow! Come on!"
  5166. > "Squirt, I..."
  5167. > Your slave's crimson eyes linger on you for a moment before sweeping across the three fillies - and then back to you.
  5168. > To what they'd done to you - restraining you, where she could not have - and then then to the golden disk hung from her collar.
  5169. > She's trembling now - tail twitching nervously and mouth working soundlessly as she tries to gather up the words she needs to say.
  5170. > Finally it seems to occur to Scootaloo that something isn't quite right - that Dash isn't merely surprised.
  5171. > Her face falls from the ecstasy of reunion to something more uncertain.
  5172. > "Rainbow...?"
  5173. > "I... can't. I can't go, Scoots."
  5174. > All of the fillies come to a total halt - even their hearts seeming to pause for a moment.
  5175. > Scootaloo speaks first, but the others soon join in.
  5176. > Talking over each other, they'd be hard for anyone to interpret; to your fuzzy mind, their words are downright indecipherable.
  5177. > "But, Rainbow - we came - we didn't tell anyone-"
  5178. > "Why can't you go? Is it because-"
  5179. > "I can kick him again if you think he needs to be knocked out-"
  5180. > "- hiked all the way up the mountain for you, Dash!"
  5181. > "-heard my sister talking with Fluttershy about all the things he was doing to you-"
  5182. > "Stop!"
  5183. > Dash's cry is followed by an immediate, total, shocked silence.
  5184. > Drawing a shuddery breath, she lowers her head - dipping it down until her muzzle nearly touches the floor, eyes scrunched tight.
  5185. > "Scootaloo... I'm sorry. I can't go - it - you don't understand what he can do..."
  5186. > "Oh yeah? Like what?"
  5187. > Now a new tone is present in the filly's voice: Anger.
  5188. > The anger of seeing an idol deposed.
  5189. > "What can he do that any of the other baddies you've beaten haven't? Huh?"
  5190. > "He-"
  5191. > "You kicked their butts just fine! Come on, Rainbow - we gotta go!"
  5192. > "No."
  5193. > This time, her voice is stronger - as if repetition had given her extra strength.
  5194. > "No, Scoots. I can't go. If I go, ponies are going to be hurt - other ponies who haven't done anything wrong."
  5195. > Another voice intrudes - the earth pony filly, questioning sharply.
  5196. > "Are you sayin' you did something wrong?!"
  5197. > "Rainbow, please-"
  5198. > The first tones of desperation leak in.
  5199. > "-please, come with us!"
  5200. > Instead your slave moves to your side, peering down at you.
  5201. > "Anon? Master?"
  5202. > Three tiny bodies flinch, hearing her call you that.
  5203. > "Can you understand me?"
  5204. > After a few moments of struggle to build a coherent answer, you are able to respond.
  5205. "Yeah, Dash. I can."
  5206. > "Uh, okay. Um, count down from twenty for me - even numbers only."
  5207. > A certain part of your mind questions why she's suddenly the one giving orders now, but it's not nearly enough to overcome the majority focusing on merely answering the question.
  5208. "Twenty. Uh, eighteen. Sixteen. Fifteen-"
  5209. > "Even numbers, master."
  5210. > Oh.
  5211. > Right.
  5212. "Fourteen. Uh, twelve. Ten"
  5213. > What came after ten?
  5214. > ...
  5215. > Eleven!
  5216. "Eleven. Twelve-"
  5217. > "Okay, that's enough. You need to relax and not push yourself - you've got a concussion, master."
  5218. > Concussion?
  5219. > The word sends thoughts spiraling through your brain - none of them good.
  5220. > You can't quite remember what the word means, but you remember enough to know it's not good at all.
  5221. > The word means hurt, injury.
  5222. > It suddenly occurs to your addled mind that this is possibly the most serious you've ever seen Dash, outside of occasional moments of desperation.
  5223. > "Okay, okay, okay, um..."
  5224. > Gritting her teeth, Dash's eyes land on the ropes about your ankles.
  5225. > With a low growl she attacks them - teeth tugging at the knots and hooves scrabbling at the cords to try and undo them.
  5226. > Three sets of eyes can only watch in silent horror as she undoes their hard work - until at last one can't hold back any longer.
  5227. > "Rainbow, stoppit!"
  5228. > Beatings wings propel the filly into a collision with your captive, sending her stumbling back in surprise.
  5229. > "What the heck, Scoots?!"
  5230. > "Applebloom, Sweetie, help me here! He's... done something to her head!"
  5231. > One of them takes a cautious step forward before pausing while the other does not move at all, halted by surprise and terror.
  5232. > "Scoots, I..."
  5233. > Dash lifts a hoof to gently push the filly back, her eyes squeezed tightly shut.
  5234. > "I'm not wrong in the head. I just - can't go now."
  5235. > "But - we came here! For you! For-"
  5236. > "I know, squirt. But, I just can't leave now, alright? Even if we could even get out of here, where would we go? How would we get there?"
  5237. > Lips work silently as Scootaloo tries to form a response.
  5238. > "How - how would you get - you're Rainbow Dash! You're the fastest pony in Equestria! You can run with us, and-"
  5239. > "Stop, Scootaloo. You remember how I taught you that sometimes we have to do not-cool things, because it's what's right?"
  5240. > "You also told me not to back down from bullies, ever! What about that, huh?"
  5241. > To this Dash has no response, merely hanging her head in shame and silence.
  5242. > "Why can't you go, huh? Is that any worse than what you told me about when the Changelings were attacking? When you went to get the elements and leave Princess Celestia-"
  5243. > "I just - I can't, okay? Not now. Not like this."
  5244. > The first tears run down the filly's cheeks as she recognized the insurmountable adult rationale of 'just because' - the answer given when the real reason can't be told.
  5245. > Shock turns to frustration and then to true anger as the drops truly begin to flow down her cheeks - seething now firmly set in her voice as well.
  5246. > "You're not even Rainbow Dash anymore! Rainbow Dash wouldn't ever have done this!"
  5247. > Now Rainbow reels as if physically struck, staggering back several steps.
  5248. > Even though the haze in your head, you understand why.
  5249. > What had she said just before?
  5250. > 'That's like... the worst thing I can imagine. Forgetting who I am.'
  5251. > "Scoots, you don't-"
  5252. > "Shut up! I don't even want to hear this!"
  5253. > She spins on her hooves, tiny wings spreading as if they could propel her up through the ceiling and away from this scene.
  5254. > Instead they only carry Scootaloo a foot or so off the ground, but it's enough to give her a good start as she flees from the room.
  5255. > Quickly her two compatriots follow, hooves clacking ont he floor as they run.
  5256. > Dash takes a single step to follow, then glances back to you - her eyes wide as she struggles with the conflicting urges within:
  5257. > Knowing she should stay with you and look after her master, but feeling she can't let that filly go like this.
  5258. > "Master, I... I need..."
  5259. > Considering how she was dominated by her more impulsive emotions when she first arrived here, that hesitation alone is a statement.
  5260. > But in this case, her emotions are correct.
  5261. > Reaching out, you manage to lay a hand on her hoof.
  5262. > It takes a considerable degree of focus to spit the words out, but you manage.
  5263. "Go. Don't let them... don't let them leave. They stay. Understand?"
  5264. > Her eyes widen - whether in surprise that you were freeing her of her obligation to stay here or something else, you aren't sure.
  5265. > You're still not sure of a lot of things; an overwhelming haze still remains blanketing much of your mind.
  5266. > "Master, please don't hurt them-"
  5267. "Not... slaves. Dangerous to leave. Go!"
  5268. > Her fears assuaged, Dash bursts into a gallop to follow them.
  5269. > With her gone, you try to retrieve the comp pad from your pocket.
  5270. > It takes a few tries, and even longer to correctly access the security drones to order them to prevent anyone - or, in light of the error that had let them in, anything - from leaving.
  5271. > But in the end, you manage - though not without again inducing a new wave of thudding, pounding headache.
  5272. > Getting back up to your room is much trickier.
  5273. > Merely standing blurs your vision again to the point where trying to navigate by sight is all but hopeless.
  5274. > In the end, you're forced to run a hand along the wall - the other grasping your head in a feeble attempt to ward off the pain.
  5275. > Stairs prove an obstacle so troublesome that you're reduced to crawling on all fours.
  5276. > Some corner of your mind is intensely thankful neither Dash nor those other ponies are around to see you in this state.
  5277. > It's a thought that largely evaporates into thin air as your body encounters the soft, welcoming mass of your bed.
  5278. > Despite the fact that you barely remember struggling down the hallway to your room, you must have managed.
  5279. > But any attempt at focusing on the trip proves utterly futile in comparison to the pull the bed exerts on your head, and soon enough you find yourself drifting away into darkness.
  5281. --------
  5283. > When you next awaken, the last rays of daylight had faded from the room.
  5284. > A few moments pass before it gets through that you are awake because someone is gently shaking your shoulder.
  5285. > "Master?"
  5286. "Dash?"
  5287. > Your voice comes out muddled still, from still-lingering remnants of sleep or the concussion.
  5288. > "Can you roll over and look at me, master?"
  5289. > It takes a moment, but you manage; partway through pain spikes in the back of your head, driving a hiss through your teeth.
  5290. > The sore bump on the back of your head had made itself known again as it was pressed against the mattress.
  5291. > Hovering above, Dash makes a face as she peers down at you.
  5292. > "Okay. Let's try this again - count down from twenty for me, even numbers only."
  5293. > This time, with a considerable amount of struggle to push the cobwebs from your mind, you appear to satisfy her test as Dash sighs a heavy sigh of relief.
  5294. > When you try and rise a moment later, however, a firm hoof on your shoulder pushes you right back down into the bed.
  5295. > "Uh-uh. No way. You're not ready to get up yet."
  5296. " house was broken into, Dash."
  5297. > "And you're still recovering from a concussion. No way you're getting up now, not until you've rested more."
  5298. > There's an unusual degree of force in her voice, a surprising conviction.
  5299. > Her mind must truly have been made up if she was willing to order you still.
  5300. > Maybe that was the reason you allow your body to slide back into the bed and stare at the ceiling.
  5301. "Ponies, who broke in... where are they?"
  5302. > "Downstairs. I, uh, got them not to leave."
  5303. "Safe?"
  5304. > "Yeah, uh... safe. I guess."
  5305. > Good.
  5306. > The alarm signal would have been troublesome if they had - not to mention if they'd tried to escape the drones.
  5307. > That would truly have been messy.
  5308. "Need to talk to them, Dash."
  5309. > "Not. Now."
  5310. > Again the degree of forcefulness in Dash's voice is shocking - not since before you'd taught her how to properly speak to you had she used a tone like this.
  5311. > "Look, I know it sucks, okay? I broke my wing once and had to stay in the hospital, when I really, really didn't want to... I know it's a really, really not cool feeling."
  5312. > Dash shuffles slightly, tucking her hooves beneath herself as she sits on her haunches.
  5313. > "I know you feel you've really got to get up and go do something now, otherwise it's going to slip away and you're never going to catch up... but you really, really need to rest. You're still hurt."
  5314. > Well.
  5315. > You weren't sure you'd ever heard Dash tell you that you 'needed' something - well, not totally true.
  5316. > She'd told you that you needed to do a fair number of things in the beginning, many incredibly rude and some physiologically impossible.
  5317. > But this was the first time you'd ever heard her honestly mean it for your sake.
  5318. > With a hefty sigh, a tiny smile creeps to your lips.
  5319. "You're not going to let me talk to them now, huh?"
  5320. > "No. You need time to rest, Master."
  5321. > She shakes her head, and you can see the fear in those crimson eyes even as she affirms her determination.
  5322. > Dash is well aware that if you put your mind to it, you could probably punish her now for being that forceful - and if not now, then certainly late.
  5323. > But no.
  5324. > She was - despite what you'd done to her - caring for you.
  5325. "Fine. I'll rest a bit longer."
  5326. > Dash settles down onto her side against you, nodding in obvious relief.
  5327. > "Thank you. I... I don't know, if you really hurt yourself, what I would do... I don't know what would happen, but it wouldn't be good, would it?"
  5328. "No. No, probably not. Those fillies, how are they all?"
  5329. > "They're... okay. Scootaloo still isn't talking to me."
  5330. > Scootaloo - the little pegasus filly?
  5331. > Judging by the hurt in Dash's voice when she says that name, the filly's opinion matters rather more than if she were just some random pony.
  5332. > "I... kinda had to give them some stuff from the kitchen. Um, I hope that isn't...?"
  5333. "No. Good. Keep them safe."
  5334. > Dash just nods quietly, her gaze drifting off somewhere silently.
  5335. > At some point you drift off into sleep again.
  5336. > It's a poor rest; Dash wakes you up repeatedly throughout the night to check on your situation and at least once you wake yourself by dropping your head's sore spot on the mattress.
  5337. > While lingering awake, your thoughts are inevitably consumed by what had happened.
  5338. > How humiliating it is.
  5339. > You'd held alicorns at bay, dealt with a changeling queen, and staved off the elements of harmony.
  5340. > And been taken down by three foals.
  5341. > If it weren't for the far more direct aches from the swollen bump on your head, the emberassment would be painful enough.
  5342. > By morning, you're still tired - but your head feels considerably better, and after a long shower the fog is almost entirely gone from it.
  5343. > Dash had not been with you that morning; instead, you find her guarding the doorway to the lounge by laying stretched across the width of it.
  5344. > Beyond, three lumpen forms lay quietly beneath a blanket stretched over the couch; they must have been equally exhausted from their hike.
  5345. > Waking Dash with a nudge to her shoulder, you bring a finger to your lips to silence her.
  5346. > Only when you've retreated to one of the adjacent rooms do you speak up.
  5347. "So, Dash. First of all, who are they?"
  5348. > "...friends. From Ponyville."
  5349. > Dash doesn't elaborate immediately, but after a moment of tense silence she goes on:
  5350. > "Two of them are sisters of... the other elements. Uh, and Scootaloo, she is..."
  5351. > Eyes fall to the floor as a new wave of anguish runs through her.
  5352. > "...was like a sister to me."
  5353. "Tell me."
  5354. > So she does.
  5355. > About trying to aid this little filly's quest to fly.
  5356. > About teaching her to overcome her struggles.
  5357. > About being there for her when she needed someone to lean on.
  5358. > About guiding her when she needed someone to lead.
  5359. > It's a fragment of Dash's old life she can remember without the reservations that now tarred thoughts of her one-time friends.
  5360. > As she talks, you find a slight irony in that what she is describing.
  5361. > It is, in some ways, a more innocent mirror of your relationship with Dash herself.
  5362. > This filly clearly lived for Dash, basing nearly her entire life around trying to follow in her mentor's foot (hoof?) steps.
  5363. > It was apparent from her stories that all she had to do was ask, and 'Scootaloo' would jump - no matter what Dash thought of that behavior.
  5364. > Yet then there is some discordant undercurrent surging just below the surface, something that you can't quite place properly.
  5365. > Dash is clearly trying to flee from it by diving from one story to another - but you can't quite fit it in right.
  5366. > Regret, or emberassment at being regarded this way?
  5367. > No.
  5368. > Shame, at having her would-be sister see her like this?
  5369. > Not quite, though that is present too.
  5370. > A hand held up interrupts Dash's latest tale of some scheme by the three gone deeply, terribly wrong.
  5371. "Something's up on your mind, Dash. I can see it, hanging over you."
  5372. > Again crimson eyes fall to the floor - your slave hesitating for just a moment before she dares to answer you.
  5373. > "Is - is it right? What Scoots said about me..."
  5374. > Now those crimson eyes open wide - seeking, begging, pleading for any answer.
  5375. > "Am I... not me anymore?"
  5376. > Ah.
  5377. > So that's it.
  5378. > Fear that the accusation hurled at her was real.
  5379. > That the fear which she had expressed - and you had placated - at the Changeling queen's suggestion was coming true anyhow.
  5380. > Dash peers up at you through trembling eyes, tears at the edges threatening to flow.
  5381. > "I don't want to be - somepony else. I don't..."
  5382. > She trails off, words again failing to reach her lips.
  5383. > What a troublesome question - for you.
  5384. > Speak the truth, and she might break further than you'd ever wanted to push her.
  5385. > Lie...
  5386. > Well, fears like these did not crop up on their own and Dash was neither blind nor deaf.
  5387. > Lie, and risk having her trust in you broken when Dash considered the evidence for herself.
  5388. > Neither option one you liked.
  5389. "You talked to them last night, didn't you? After I went upstairs."
  5390. > "Mostly talked at them."
  5391. > Her voice is a bare mumble - nearly inaudible.
  5392. > " 'splained why they couldn't go. Why it'd be dangerous. They didn't say much back. Scoots... didn't say anything at all."
  5393. > From her tone you wonder if, despite the ache it would certainly produce in her heart, Dash would have preferred if she'd been yelled at.
  5394. > After all, scolding was something she was well-used to by now; it was the least of any punishments you'd ever inflicted on her.
  5395. "Well... No, Dash. I don't think you've forgotten who you are, or become some other pony since you came to me. You're still my Dash. My bluebird."
  5396. > Her head falls in relief, breath that had been held still whooshing out from her lungs.
  5397. "Now we've got a number of things to speak to these fillies about, so why don't we go see about breakfast with them, hmm?"
  5398. > Though Dash nods in agreement and turns to trot off without further question, you can't help but feel that your answer had not been the right one.
  5399. > Yes, she had not further questioned her state for now.
  5400. > But in a rare moment of absolute foresight, you knew with absolute certainty you hadn't seen the end of this particular issue.
  5402. --------
  5404. > Breakfast is an awkward affair.
  5405. > The table had been made for only a handful of people - any larger, like the small groups you occasionally hosted, and they would instead find themselves seated in one of the rooms intended for such numbers.
  5406. > That particular option seemed like overkill here, however, and so you were instead left facing the three would-be intruders over a much smaller spread.
  5407. > Resultingly, they are painfully aware of your presence and you of their heavily-varied reactions to you.
  5408. > On the left, the unicorn Dash had identified as Sweetie Belle.
  5409. > Her gaze nervously flicks about from spot to spot, and her tail has wrapped itself cat-like protectively about her legs.
  5410. > The look of one who has been caught doing something absolutely, undeniably wrong and also knows that no excuse will accepted for their actions.
  5411. > If not for the fact that she had assaulted you so recently, the look would have been nearly irresistibly adorable.
  5412. > This pony, you are sure, has received punishments for such escapades before - and might be pliable in this situation.
  5413. > On the opposite side sat Applebloom - the one who'd pulled that excellent trick with the rope that had brought you down.
  5414. > She was the only one to directly acknowledge you, staring up with clear, focused eyes.
  5415. > There was fear in them, yes, but mostly anger - as if daring you to challenge her.
  5416. > Center of the three was Scootaloo; her gaze, too, fell away from you.
  5417. > Not out of fear, though, so much as a refusal to accept what she was seeing - like, if she did not look at it, then reality could not enforce itself upon her mind.
  5418. > So her vision was steadfastly locked on the still untouched plate of food picked out by her two friends, face mostly blank but occasionally rippling with something like disgust or revulsion.
  5419. > Despite what food Dash had gotten for them while you rested, two of the 'Crusaders' had eaten with the unmatchable hunger of children.
  5420. > Scootaloo had, despite the urging of the others, only regarded breakfast as though it might possibly be made of acid or some horrific poison.
  5421. > And then, of course, there was Dash.
  5422. > The mare sat perfectly frozen by your side - legs tucked neatly beneath her, wings forced into obedient stillness, and eyes firmly planted on the floor.
  5423. > Evidently your assurance that you did not mean to keep these foals as your slaves had been sufficient to quiet the worst of her fears, bot had done nothing for he worst of her other emotions.
  5424. > All these observations you take in with a bit more time than you'd normally have needed.
  5425. > Your mind was, although considerably better than even when you'd woken that morning, still hobbled by a mental fog and constant dull pain that periodically flared in sharper, distracting spikes.
  5426. > At last, however you feel ready to begin the meat of the conversation.
  5427. > Clearing your throat brings all eyes - even if some only briefly - to your face.
  5428. "I hope you enjoyed your breakfasts?"
  5429. > Sweetie Belle is the only one of the three to really respond, bobbing her head in a silent affirmative.
  5430. > Applebloom only narrows her eyes, while Scootaloo continues her deliberate un-acknowledgement of your existence.
  5431. "Good. We've got a great deal to talk about, and I'd like to think that - at least - we don't have to face them on empty stomachs."
  5432. > This time Sweetie is actually able to muster a small, nervous smile but it quickly fades with a shudder before your next words.
  5433. "You have all done something very, very foolish, you know."
  5434. > That phrase is one she seems to be familiar with.
  5435. "You're aware, I presume, that I have a truce with the princesses - and that until now, that truce has been upheld."
  5436. > None of them respond, though you can tell they aren't terribly surprised by this information - so your assumption of their knowledge is probably accurate, you suspect.
  5437. "With that in mind I would ask you think, for a moment, about what I would be rightly able to do to you now. You could be considered prisoners of war."
  5438. > At your foot, Dash stirs.
  5439. > It's little more than a small shift, the kind of thing someone does when their feet are tired.
  5440. > But right now, however, it speaks volumes about the emtions building in her.
  5441. "You have potentially set off a great deal more than your little minds realize. Right now, I hope you understand that there's a very great danger associated with what you've done."
  5442. > Despite your proclamations, none of the the three really change.
  5443. > Sweetie somehow manages to look even more terrified, Applebloom's glare grows even fiercer, and Scootaloo tries even harder to ignore what's happening.
  5444. "Not a danger to you but to me, your families - the element-bearers - and any other innocents who might be caught in a conflict. You've endangered a lot of lives. And, I hope you understand - that isn't something I want."
  5445. > Folding your arms, you lean forward on the table - allowing yourself to loom slightly over them.
  5446. "I don't want a war. I want to resolve this peacefully. But, I can't just... give you back, you understand."
  5447. > Briefly you pause here - not for dramatic emphasis, but to collect your thoughts from the fog again before going on.
  5448. "It would show weakness, a tolerance for being attacked in my home. Who knows what lessons someone might take from that? But keeping you prisoner here - well, that may not reflect too well either."
  5449. > Not to mention, you have neither the time nor the patience to look after these three - not if half the stories Dash had told were true.
  5450. > Reaching down, you casually stroke Dash's mane.
  5451. > Her ears drop pitifully, but there's little she can do but tolerate the display of dominance.
  5452. "Besides, I have spoken to your sisters before, and I doubt they will tolerate anything like our agreement regarding my bluebird here."
  5453. > "Damn right they ain't! My sister's gonna kick your sorry flank into next Tuesday!"
  5454. > You barely manage to cover a wince, the outburst having sent another disruptive lance through your skull.
  5455. > Well then.
  5456. > Now you know how Applebloom feels, you suppose.
  5457. > Gathering your thoughts again, you respond:
  5458. "Do you actually expect that? That one pony will be able to face me, where four princesses could not?"
  5459. > This time it is Sweetie who answers:
  5460. > "Applejack's... kinda protective sometimes. She once chased 'Bloom all the way into a bog in the Everfree. You should really let us go, before she hears about this."
  5461. "I see. And your sister, Sweetie Belle?"
  5462. > This time, there's no answer; her head dips as she struggles through the fear of responding.
  5463. > Instead, you provide your own reply:
  5464. "...please - as I've said I want this to be resolved peacefully. But, I need your help for this."
  5465. > And to make sure the correct message got across about any further attempts at heroics, by anyone.
  5466. "It is my honest belief that your sister is quite a reasonable business pony. I think she might be willing to negotiate for your lives."
  5467. > This time Dash's sudden shift at the words 'your lives' is rather more noticeable.
  5468. > A pity she wasn't more trusting; hadn't you told her that these fillies wouldn't be made to pay for their mistake?
  5469. > That didn't mean you couldn't put a little fear - a little respect for your position - into them to prevent any further incidences of this.
  5470. > Again your fingers run through Dash's mane, producing another more gentle movement from her.
  5471. "Your sister, Sweetie Belle?"
  5472. > "I... I guess she is? I mean... she talks all about the ponies she doesn't like, but she-"
  5473. > "Hey!"
  5474. > Scootaloo twists about to glare at her compatriot.
  5475. > "Don't tell him that, Sweetie! Don't tell him anything about Rarity!"
  5476. > Funny she hadn't felt like that when Applebloom was trying to threaten you with her family.
  5477. > Sweetie cringes, but finishes her answer.
  5478. > "...she probably would be willing to make a deal with you?"
  5479. > "Sweetie!"
  5480. > "Scoots, I've gotta tell him! What happens if I don't - we could be stuck here forever! He'd use those machine-thingies to keep us locked up!"
  5481. > "And so what? That doesn't mean we should be - helping him! We didn't tell Chrysalis whatever she wanted when she had us?"
  5482. > Chrysalis?
  5483. > The name cuts through the haze that had been building in your mind as their little argument ran away from you.
  5484. > "No, but - that was different! She didn't want to even talk friendly-like!"
  5485. > Had Chrysalis held them captive at one point?
  5486. > "He isn't either! Just - just look at what he did to Rainbow!"
  5487. > That hadn't ever come up in your knowledge of the Changeling Queen - you think, anyhow.
  5488. > It's a little bit hard to remember right now.
  5489. > Time to cut this off before it could get any more confusing.
  5490. "Sweetie Belle is right. You can't fight me - once..."
  5491. > Another flare of residual pain echoes through your skull as the memory bubbles up again.
  5492. " were lucky. Not something I will tolerate again. How did you even get here without being noticed, anyhow?"
  5493. > "We ran!"
  5494. > "Straight through the forest!"
  5495. > "Kept away from all the towns nearby here 'cause then they'd make us stop-'
  5496. > "-and tell our sisters and they'd just make us come back before we could do anything to help!"
  5497. > "But we had to get here, because they wouldn't do anything for Dash!"
  5498. > "Yeah! And that's not right, because they're supposed to be her friends!"
  5499. > "So we decided we'd go do something instead without telling our sisters!"
  5500. > "Like when we went and carried the flag to the Equestria Games!"
  5501. > Why did those two have to speak over each other like that?
  5502. > Following once line of conversation is hard enough, but when they're taking turns giving one long answer?
  5503. > Fortunately they don't seem to notice that you require an extra few moments to parse through the message.
  5504. > When it comes up, you're left to conclude that it was both lucky and worrisome that she they hadn't run into any of Celestia's agents in the nearest settlements.
  5505. > Lucky, because if they had and somehow made it to you regardless then the Solar Princess would surely have demanded their immediate and unconditional release if not approached herself.
  5506. > Unfortunate, because you would really have preferred someone else had caught them so you didn't have to deal with this yourself.
  5507. > Not to mention the elements would be even more frantic than expected if they'd been gone for as long as you'd thought they had with this new information.
  5508. "So, allow me to get this right... you ran, all the way from Ponyville, on your own, for - it must have taken you days!"
  5509. > "Uh-huh."
  5510. > "We have a cart."
  5511. > "And ponies would give us food if we asked real nice."
  5512. > "We told them we were going to see our families."
  5513. > "Sweetie made a note for us."
  5514. "That is..."
  5515. > Brave, you'd been about to say.
  5516. > On some level, some corner of your mind regards their achievement as impressive despite what it had brought you.
  5517. > It is overwhelmed, however, but the side that finds it infuriating that three foals had somehow managed to slip through both yours and Celestia's measures.
  5518. "...the most incredibly foolish thing I have ever heard. You could ha-"
  5519. > "Not more foolish than lettin' you keep Rainbow!"
  5520. > Scootaloo had apparently finally seen enough, her outcry draws your attention just long enough for the last of your thought to sink into the mental fog bubbling just beneath.
  5521. > "You - you've killed her! Yeah, she ain't cold, but - that's not Dash! Not the one who taught me, who'd fly tricks for me-"
  5522. "Evidently you haven't yet realized the how perilous your position is. I thought I'd made it clear enough, but apparently not."
  5523. > Now anger runs in your voice; it was becoming rather hard to speak to these fillies when they insisted on interrupting you.
  5524. > Not in the least because of how every interruption nearly resert your train of thought.
  5525. "I don't know exactly what's required to get this through to you, but evidently words are not enough."
  5526. > The last few words are spoken with a lower tone; even Apple Bloom shrinks back at force.
  5527. > Letting that sink in for a few seconds, you suddenly crack a congenial smile.
  5528. "Now! Fortunately for you, I happen to share Sweetie Belle's assessment of the situation. You are not going to be harmed, despite how incredibly stupid what you've done is."
  5529. > All three foals release a collective sigh of relief, no matter how brave they'd been trying to appear.
  5530. "But."
  5531. > And all three simultaneously freeze.
  5532. > You pause to rub your aching head before going on, trying to force the fog that had been creeping back up down just a little bit.
  5533. > Another wave of dizzying pain sweeps through your head; maybe you'd made a mistake of getting up so quickly.
  5534. "I'm not inclined to let assaults on me go without punishment."
  5535. > The fillies display varying levels of fear and confusion, though Scootaloo is the first to speak:
  5536. > "But... if you're not going to hurt us, then who-"
  5537. > "I will."
  5538. > Dash's tone is soft - but there's no hesitation in her words either.
  5539. > A strange from of pride fills your heart; had she become that used to her rule already?
  5540. > You hadn't even needed to say it first.
  5541. > "! Nonono! Don't you dare hurt Rainbow, she didn't do anything!"
  5542. "You're right. She hasn't done anything. In fact, she was a very good and looked after her master - which is why it honestly hurts me to order this."
  5543. > Dash trembles in fear, little ripples running through her coat as she desperately tries to ward off thoughts of what is coming.
  5544. "But that was my truce with your sisters, with the element-bearers - with the princesses. If they came after me - if anyone came after me - Dash would be the one to pay. And while I've been patient enough until now, it's apparent that I need to take more aggressive action to teach you what not to do."
  5545. > All three 'Crusaders' stare in awestruck horror, unable to quite believe what is about to happen.
  5546. > Some tiny portion of your mind, too, is cautioning that perhaps aggression isn't quite the right response here, that this time more than any you need to remain calm.
  5547. > It is subsumed by the frustration, the fury at this whole world - a world where it seemed like no one had any comprehension of how seriously to take a situation, except for those who were already plotting against you.
  5548. > A world where you were forced to negotiate with children - or ponies who acted like them - rather than reasonable minds.
  5549. > They wanted to treat this like some classical children's tale of good and evil?
  5550. > Fine.
  5551. > You'd be happy to demonstrate the perils of doing so.
  5552. "Dash."
  5553. > Your voice has taken on an icy tinge, and even beneath your normally-reassuring hand she trembles.
  5554. "You understand why this is happening, don't you?"
  5555. > "Yeah."
  5556. "Tell me. Tell them."
  5557. > "You are punishing me because... the broke the treaty you had with Celestia. And you gotta make... make sure no one else does."
  5558. "Do you deserve this, Dash?"
  5559. > Eyes squeezed shut, she bobs her head once before replying verbally:
  5560. > "Yeah. I do... I made a mistake, so I now I take the punishments so m-"
  5561. > She halts, stuttering - the words 'my friends' dying on her lips.
  5562. > " other ponies don't get hurt. So they can... see how what I did is wrong. I deserve it, yeah."
  5563. > Three pairs of eyes stare back in wide horror at the words flowing from her lips.
  5564. "Good girl, Dash. Now-"
  5565. > "Stop it! Just - stop it! You don't have to do this to her!"
  5566. > Sweetie Belle's cry is anguished; you get the feeling she truly hadn't comprehended the depth of her action or what might come of it.
  5567. > The anger flowing through you makes it a bit easier to think - forcing down the mental haze just enough to let you answer quickly.
  5568. > However, it also leaves nothing in its wake but a bubbling desire to make this filly pay for attacking you.
  5569. "Don't I? If I just wag my finger underneath your noses and tell you it's wrong, will you really get the point? Will I have made it just clear enough how badly you'd screwed up?"
  5570. > Tears begin to form in the filly's eyes, her muzzle twisted into a horrified grimace.
  5571. > "We get it, okay? You don't have to!"
  5572. > Glancing down, you see that Dash has avoided the choice of who to look at by keeping her eyes tightly squeezed shut.
  5573. "If you 'got it', you wouldn't have tried to attack me in my own home. You'd have thought about-"
  5574. > "Please..."
  5575. > At first you can't quite believe you've heard it, but then Scootaloo says the magic word again:
  5576. > "Please - just stop it."
  5577. > Her voice is cracked and broken and eyes are squeezed shut so that she doesn't need to see the wrenching sight before her, but Scootaloo still goes on:
  5578. > "I don't know what you did to Rainbow Dash. You took her away and put somepony else in her head - but, I'm still Scootaloo. I still care about Rainbow Dash. So... if that's what you wanted to hear, then you've got it."
  5579. > Scootaloo's eyes open at last, and even you are surprised by the fury in them - but she manages to force the words out anyhow:
  5580. > "We were wrong. I understand. I'm sorry. Happy now? Is that what you'd wanted to hear?"
  5581. > To your surprise, you find that was, in fact, what you'd hoped to hear.
  5582. > Would she ever not hate you?
  5583. > Probably not; but you'd successfully made it clear to the apparent ringleader that their actions had been a mistake.
  5584. > Another glance down reveals just how shaken Dash is by the words.
  5585. > Her eyes have cracked open at last, and tears have left dark tracks over her sky-blue cheeks.
  5586. > Of fear?
  5587. > No - after a moment's study to be sure, you realize they're tears of shock and self-loathing - that Scootaloo would still care for her after she'd refused to depart with the would-be rescuers.
  5588. > For the first time you notice that she is not so much trembling as she is shivering - why hadn't you seen that before?
  5589. > Had it been the anger distracting you, or the last cobwebs that you couldn't quite sweep out of your mind?
  5590. > You'd like to say it was the latter, but the truth of it was probably the former.
  5591. > Logical thinking hadn't exactly been your highest priority there for a few moments.
  5592. > Either way - this was not a good time for Dash to be here.
  5593. > Best to get her out before you could do something else to her you'd regret later on.
  5594. "Understood, Scootaloo."
  5595. > Dash jerks in surprise and shock, managing to tear her eyes up and away from Scootaloo to you.
  5596. "Go upstairs, Dash. I will talk to you later."
  5597. > Although Dash doesn't hesitate at your order, she still takes her time to leave - every step seeming to droop, wings held dejectedly half-open at her sides.
  5598. > Only once her hoofsteps have faded do you twist back to study the filly who'd convinced you to end this at last.
  5599. > While Applebloom's gaze had anger, yes, it was more one of challenge - daring you to lash out at her, safe in the knowledge that you could not.
  5600. > Scootaloo's, by contrast, is pure fury.
  5601. "It's good that you finally figured out your position regarding me. Letting you run around with those silly ideas of a rescue in your head... it might have been dangerous."
  5602. > "Oh, go bite a hydra!"
  5603. > Rising up onto her hind legs, Scootaloo rests her forehooves on the table to try and appear even slightly taller than you.
  5604. > "You're just sitting up here, pretending like you're always the victim. Well, guess what: I've seen ponies like you before: They're called bullies."
  5605. > Your eyebrows rise as her little tirade goes on, having not quite expected this.
  5606. > "So yeah. You were right - maybe this was a bad idea. But you're still just a big bully, hurting ponies because you can!"
  5607. > Calmly, you rise to your feet.
  5608. > That calmness is more than a little perturbed when when Scootaloo doesn't back down at your additional height.
  5609. " day, little filly, you're going to have to learn not to be so direct. Maybe that will also be when you finally learn that sometimes you have to make someone cry a bit to ensure your own safety."
  5610. > Any further replies are halted by a raised finger; this particular conversation seemed to have run its logical course.
  5611. > Besides, having to focus enough to get this all out was making your head hurt again.
  5612. "But, enough of this now. I'm going to keep putting you up in a guest room until an agreement can be found for your release."
  5613. > Only when the three would-be rescuers are safely away in a side room - behind a locked door and all possible exits monitored by drones, just in case - do you finally allow yourself to sink back into a seat.
  5614. > That had been quite a bit harder than you'd expected.
  5615. > In retrospect, you'd probably pushed yourself too hard to deal with this immediately.
  5616. > A bit more rest would have been a good idea beforehand - or even now.
  5617. > Yes, that sounds like a good idea.
  5618. > Dragging yourself up the stairs again, it crosses your mind as you are collapsing into bed that Dash is nowhere to be found.
  5619. > Hrm - that might be your fault as well; you'd told her to 'go upstairs' - not to your room.
  5620. > And frankly you could understand Dash not wanting to see you right now, after coming so close to another punishment for the sake of her ungrateful 'friends'.
  5621. > It was unfortunate that you'd had to be that forceful with them.
  5622. > No - not had to.
  5623. > That had, ultimately, been a choice.
  5624. > There wasn't any way those fillies could harm you now that they'd been caught.
  5625. > ...but the repercussions of allowing them free after violating the treaty like that, even if they were just children...
  5626. > Urgh.
  5627. > Rolling over, you shove your head down into the pillow as if it could muffle out the thoughts whirling in dizzying, endless circles.
  5628. > This really wasn't what you needed right now - your thoughts still weren't collected and you need more rest, not to be kept awake!
  5629. > The worst part was, you couldn't even coherently finish any of the thoughts.
  5630. > Every time you seemed to get a grasp on one, it would turn to oil in your mental grasp and slip away again - another falling in to replace it.
  5631. > In the end, you give up - simply trying to allow your mind to go utterly blank and hope that sleep will come with time.
  5632. > After some seemingly interminable time, it finally does and you drift into oblivion.
  5634. --------
  5636. > Dash has not reappeared when you wake again, and you are forced to use the nearest comppad you can find to locate her instead.
  5637. > You're surprised to find her not sleeping atop one of the chairs or a sofa as is normal for her, but curled on the hard floor of a bathroom - balled up in the corner, her head protectively tucked beneath a wing.
  5638. > No doubt also trying to work off the unpleasantness of her experience, the same as yourself.
  5639. > With the prior morning's events in mind, you resolve to let the concussion's effects fade entirely before pushing yourself again; no need to set yourself up for another line of mistakes.
  5640. > The remainder of the day finds you resting once again - or, trying to rest anyhow.
  5641. > It is not a peaceful one by any means - quite often you find yourself slipping in and out of short naps.
  5642. > At the end of one such nap, as your mind bubbles up to something like wakefulness, you become aware of a soft noise in the room with you.
  5643. > Brief panic flares through you at the thought of another intruder, but the next time you hear it your mind is able to somewhat better place the sound.
  5644. > A sort of short, sharp hiss - like someone nursing stinging wound not quite painful enough to warrant a cry.
  5645. "Dash?"
  5646. > Though you can't see all of her, a fringe of rainbow mane bobs above the edge of the bed - presumably she'd jerked her head up in surprise.
  5647. > Ah, good.
  5648. > You'd wanted to thank her anyhow.
  5649. "Hey, Dash. Come on up here."
  5650. > Moments later the mane reappears again - this time beside the head of the bed, her muzzle soon following it.
  5651. > The mattress shifts slightly as Dash adds her weight to it, taking a few cautious steps across the covers to approach you.
  5652. > Her wings are held at half-extension still, and something about them doesn't quite strike you as right.
  5653. > After a few moments' consideration, however, you can't see anything immediately wrong and so put the matter out of your mind for now.
  5654. > She's clearly just nervous, nothing more.
  5655. > Pushing yourself upright and back against the headboard, a quick pat of the bed beside you brings Dash within an easy arm's reach.
  5656. "Here. I wanted to say something to you, which I don't think I got to before."
  5657. > Settling on her haunches, Dash cocks her head slightly to silently listen to you.
  5658. > Though she doesn't say as much, there are plenty of hints she is still feeling the emotional pressure from earlier:
  5659. > Her ears, though not flattened all the way back, have not risen to their normal attentive stance either.
  5660. > And her eyes - while any tears are long since passed - are still pained as well.
  5661. > Her tail, too, flicks nervously and this close up you can see her coat is unkempt as well.
  5662. "Dash."
  5663. > Reaching up, you set a hand on the back of her neck to try and help her focus, just above the where the collar forms a furrow in her mane.
  5664. > Its cool metal pressing against your hand contrasts sharply with Dash's soft warmth.
  5665. "I didn't think about it earlier, but you did something I for me yesterday that I appreciate very much. When I was hurt - you went out of your way to take care of me. I didn't have to order you; you did it all on your own."
  5666. > Surprisingly, this seems to profoundly affect Dash.
  5667. > Her head dips - in shock or embarrassment, you think - eyes falling to the floor.
  5668. > "Master, I... I didn't... I thought if you got up while you were hurt, you might do... something without thinking."
  5669. > Does she think that somehow sounds selfish?
  5670. > Irregardless of the reason, her actions were in the right.
  5671. > After all, even with the resting time she'd forced on you the following morning had been littered with poor choices made under the concussion's lingering fog.
  5672. > Had she not stopped you from getting out of bed that much earlier...
  5673. "Either way. I think that's the first time I've ever seen you really look out for me."
  5674. > Starting to rub with the hand on her neck, you let your fingers dig in beneath the collar to massage at the muscles beneath.
  5675. > Dash seems to tremble slightly, presumably caught between the surprise of actually being thanked for what she'd done and the sensations your fingers were putting through her neck.
  5676. "I mean it, Dash. Taking the initiative like that - even pushing me back down when I tried to get up. You saw I wasn't thinking straight, and kept me safe. I could see you were scared, but you did it anyway."
  5677. > No longer can she keep her gaze locked with yours; Dash's head falls allowing her eyes to settle on the bedding below as the trembling grows.
  5678. > "I..."
  5679. "Dash - you did well. In fact, you did exactly what you thought I'd have wanted you to do."
  5680. > To your surprise, she doesn't seem pleased to hear this.
  5681. > Instead she blinks heavily, seemingly struggling to hold back tears.
  5682. > "But... I... I forced you-"
  5683. "You thought about me - took action for me. Did you expect me to punish you for that?"
  5684. > A sudden additional thought occurs to you:
  5685. > She hadn't tried, as best as you can tell, to bind yourself or pull her blindfold on.
  5686. > No fear, then - no need to seek the safety she'd found in them.
  5687. "No, nevermind. You weren't expecting me to punish you, were you?"
  5688. > At those words, however, Dash erupts into a explosion of tears.
  5689. > Ah, so that's what it was.
  5690. > She had expected a punishment after all, even though you'd accepted Scootaloo's apology.
  5691. > Probably had been trembling in fear from the moment you'd sent her up here.
  5692. "Shhh. It's okay, Dash. It's okay. I'm not going to-"
  5693. > Gently rubbing still, you're caught by surprise when - instead of taking refuge in your touch - Dash abruptly tears herself free and leaps from the bed, cheeks still streaked with tears.
  5694. > As before, her wings were held half-open, though they weren't likely to provide any serious lift.
  5695. > ...had you been wrong?
  5696. > The thought is worrying; being able to keep a mark on Dash's emotions was something you needed to be able to do.
  5697. > Pushing yourself up, you drop your feet to the floor and stand.
  5698. > Dash had curled defensively against a dresser, and spreads her wings shield herself as you rise to your full height.
  5699. "Dash. I need to know, what's wrong with you?"
  5700. > Instead of answering, Dash shakes her head and pushes out another hiccuping, raw sob.
  5701. "This isn't something to debate, Dash. Talk."
  5702. > When you drop to one knee by her side, she only squeezes into a tighter ball - hooves tucking in at her sides.
  5703. > Almost...
  5704. > ...protectively.
  5705. "Dash - is something underneath there?"
  5706. > "No..."
  5707. > Her voice is tiny - but you've heard it before.
  5708. > It was the same one she used when you'd moved to chain her outside for a night, or even threatened send her to a worse punishment.
  5709. > Denial of what is, not merely an answer.
  5710. "Get up, Dash."
  5711. > This time more force put into your voice, and with trembling wings Dash drags herself to her hooves -
  5712. > - and reveals a pile of cerulean feathers, full and pointed, beneath her belly.
  5713. > Instantly it all comes together in your mind:
  5714. > What had been off about her wings - the newly-grown-in feathers replacing the ones you'd originally cut mysteriously absent, disrupting wings' jagged and uneven appearance.
  5715. > The soft pained hisses you'd been hearing before you called out, produced as she took them out.
  5716. > Even the lack of fear - an expectation, you realize now, that she would be punished.
  5717. > No, not would be.
  5718. > Had been punished.
  5719. > Reaching out you brush your fingers through the miserable little pile, realizing that she'd apparently run out of un-clipped feathers and taken some of her clipped, useless ones as well.
  5720. > A punishment indeed.
  5721. > Seeing your investigation of the stack, Dash turns her head away in shame - little sniffles still emerging as she tries to stifle her tears.
  5722. "...why?"
  5723. > Anger flares through you as you reach out to again place your hand on her neck.
  5724. > This time, however, it was not in gentle reassurance but to grab her mane and use the leverage to sharply shake her.
  5725. "What possible reason could you dream up for thinking you were allowed to do this? To hurt yourself?!"
  5726. > Dash babbles wildly, unable to put words together.
  5727. > In the absence of an answer you angrily try to toss her aside; the gesture catches her by surprise and despite her bulk Dash strumbles a few paces before collapsing entirely.
  5728. > Quickly you seize her again, dragging her upright.
  5729. > Your anger isn't without reason; had she gone further, done something that might not have healed before her next meeting with her 'friends'...
  5730. > But more importantly - she had gone too far.
  5731. > Punishment was your domain, not hers; you were the sole agent of its delivery.
  5732. "Well, Dash? Do you even have an excuse for this?!"
  5733. > Squealing as your fingers dig in again, Dash only manages to howl for a moment before finally screaming out an answer:
  5734. > "I was going back!"
  5735. > That... gives you pause.
  5736. > Your voice drops to a hissed whisper.
  5737. "What?"
  5738. > "I was being too much... me."
  5739. "Too much you?"
  5740. > "Old me."
  5741. > Drawing a shuddering breath, Dash's wingtips twitch fearfully as words spill from her lips - neck still arched to try and relieve some of the pressure on her mane.
  5742. > "I tried to order you around. I pushed - I actually pushed you back down when you tried to sit up! I hit you!"
  5743. > At last Dash wrenches her head up again; your grip slackens as she does so, letting her lock eyes with you once more.
  5744. > This time, there is real pain flowing out of them - the true agony of seeing a conundrum with only one possible choice, and now finding that choice had displeased the only person she relied on anymore.
  5745. > "I talked out of turn back there, interrupted you. I gave you orders. I took things from your home - food, a blanket - without asking you..."
  5746. > In an impressive reminder of her acrobatic capacity even with ruined wings, Dash leaps to the bed again and then to the dresser to put herself at head height to you.
  5747. > Her eyes have grown wide and frantic as the words spill out, pupils shrinking to tightly-focused points and her entire body seeming to tremble with nervous energy.
  5748. > "I was... I am going back. Becoming the old me again. If I keep doing that, I... I would do something. I don't know when, but - I'd do something bad. Hurt you. Hurt me - get me put... down there again."
  5749. > There's no question what she means by 'down there'.
  5750. > Dash's last visit to the cage would undoubtedly stick with her for a long, long time.
  5751. "So you decided to punish-"
  5752. > "-myself. I though you would be... happy."
  5753. > Drawing another shallow breath, Dash squeezes her eyes shut.
  5754. > When she speaks again, her words come out in sputtered fragments, as though she couldn't pin down a path to what she wanted to say.
  5755. > "If I'm already going back to the way I was now - I was afraid - If I let them all grow out, I - I might try and fly away again."
  5756. "But you didn't. You refused when they offered-"
  5757. > "Now! Yeah, now! But - that's... not me. Not who I was. If I go back to that, if I see a chance, I might..."
  5758. > Words fading away, Dash draws another unsteady breath and issues a whimpered plea:
  5759. > "Please, don't make me. I hate what I am when I go in there - when I come out. I don't want to be that."
  5760. > Fingers slip beneath her chin, tilting her head back to rise and face you.
  5761. "Do you want to go back to the way you were Dash? If you could, without repercussion?"
  5762. > "No."
  5763. > Her answer is without even a moment of hesitation.
  5764. > Too fast.
  5765. "Now the answer for real, Dash."
  5766. > Finding herself unable to drop her head given the hand still beneath her chin, Dash instead opts to force her eyes closed again.
  5767. > "I don't... if I do that, you'll..."
  5768. "Answer the question. Do you want to back?"
  5769. > "I..."
  5770. > Again she chokes, fear freezing the words becoming frozen in her throat.
  5771. > It takes another hardening of your tone to un-stick them.
  5772. "Answer, Dash."
  5773. > "Yes! Yes, Celestia damn it! I want to be free! I want to go back! I want to be the fastest, awesomest pegasus ever! I want to be a Wonderbolt! I want to sleep on a cloud again! I want to laugh! But I don't..."
  5774. > Just abruptly as it had begun, her tirade ends.
  5775. > The next words come in a low, even scratchier tone than her normal voice, one that hints to tears barely held-back.
  5776. > "But I don't want to lose you, either."
  5777. > Raising a hoof, Dash rubs at her nose then snorts bitterly.
  5778. > "I should hate you - I think I sort of do - but I don't ever want to just leave you here. And it makes me sick, but it's... the truth."
  5779. > That much, in retrospect, is becoming clear.
  5780. > You had, after all, asked her to think on her own about what you'd have wanted and Dash had indeed done exactly that:
  5781. > Realized you would be upset if she had reverted to her old, resistant personality and taken steps to avoid that happening.
  5782. > And now you'd made it look like that was apparently somehow 'wrong', even struck her for doing so.
  5783. > No wonder she was upset.
  5784. "Dash."
  5785. > Reaching up, you brush her cheeks free of tears and then lift her head up once more.
  5786. "I'm not angry at you any more, Dash. I'm not going to add any more punishments for this. Just, in the future - tell me if you fear something like this? Before you punish yourself."
  5787. > With a hiccup she nods, eyes even more red than normal from the tears.
  5788. "...c'mere, Dash."
  5789. > Gathering up the mare into your arms, you lift her with a grunt and move to settle on the edge of the bed.
  5790. > Dash squirms, but eventually finds a comfortable spot sprawled across your legs.
  5791. > Reaching across, you extend one fanning span of blue feathers and examine them.
  5792. > Her attempts at self-punishment had left the remaining feathers ragged and disorganized, clearly out of shape.
  5793. > With gentle fingers you go to work on restoring them to something closer to their natural state:
  5794. > Brushing the coverts back down into alignment over muscle and tendon, smoothing the rows into alignment.
  5795. > Each of the remaining flight feathers is brought into line, adjusted individually for the worst ones.
  5796. "Remember, Dash. I'm your master; if you need something, to speak or anything... more, I can always listen."
  5797. > Glancing over midway through the process reveals the typical flush associated with being preened has returned to Dash's face.
  5798. > Though this time, whether it's due to just the contact or her emotional state in general you are not entirely sure, she does not seem ashamed of it.
  5799. "But, do not ever punish yourself without my knowledge - understand?"
  5800. > Nevermind the mental trouble it would cause - if she went overboard and you couldn't cover up the damage before her next meeting, it wouldn't bode well.
  5801. > "I... get it, yeah."
  5802. > Her voice is shaky, the words mumbled - but spoken clearly enough you're certain she gets the idea.
  5803. "I won't deny, though, I'm very proud of you for thinking on your own these past few days. So - as soon as I can deal with those fillies, I'll give you a reward for going through this."
  5804. > Her eyes rise, wide and wondering.
  5805. > "Really?"
  5806. "Really. I'm going to make you the fastest pegasus to ever live."
  5808. --------
  5810. > Inevitably, however, your self-imposed medical leave from business matters must first come to an end.
  5811. > Already you'd been incredibly lucky no petitioners had approached your home over the last few days.
  5812. > And that your drones could deliver pre-packaged food to the three would-be heroes still residing as 'guests' in your home.
  5813. > The first order of business is to deal with them - or, more accurately to see just how badly the elements would want their family back.
  5814. > Too much, and they'd be prone to lashing out without negotiating.
  5815. > Not enough, and you'd never be able to wrangle a suitable deal from them.
  5816. > A deal...
  5817. > It occurs to you that you do know one pony among them who might be able to help.
  5818. > Dialing Twilight yields another surprise, as the one who answers is not the youngest princess but her lizard assistant.
  5819. > His eyes go wide as your connection is established, real fear showing in them.
  5820. "Good afternoon - Spike, is it?"
  5821. > "Yeah. Uh, you're looking for Princess Twilight, right? She's out right now, so you might have to... y'know, try again another time."
  5822. > Ah, that was he was worried about - having to handle something he wasn't ready for.
  5823. > Interesting use of her title, though - from all you'd heard, his relationship was far too close for that kind of formal name.
  5824. "No, in fact. I'm looking for the element of generosity, Rarity."
  5825. > Eyes go narrow, but apparently he is smart enough to not snap out an emotional response.
  5826. > "...yeah, okay. Can I take a message to her or something?"
  5827. "Naturally, of course: Tell her I would like to speak to her, privately, at the soonest opportunity. Here is fine, of course."
  5828. > "Why?"
  5829. > Okay, maybe you'd overestimated his intelligence - or underestimated what his attachment to Rarity would do for his curiosity.
  5830. "That isn't part of the message. If it matters, though, you can tell her that my message is quite important for her, and she can safely let go of anything she is doing now to come and speak to me."
  5831. > No need to make any vaguely threatening statements about her family; that would only drive suspicion towards you.
  5832. > Spike shoots another intense glare in your direction, but relents.
  5833. > "Yeah, okay. I'll tell her."
  5834. "Now, if you would. I can assure you too, the longer this message waits the more upset she will be."
  5835. > That should hopefully get his little legs moving.
  5836. > Sure enough, it doesn't take long for Rarity's pale visage to appear in the camera's view.
  5837. > Yes, her sister's absence has absolutely affected the element of generosity; although her mane is carefully kept as always, there are a million little hints to her emotional state.
  5838. > A twitch here, a puffy eyelid there hinting to lost sleep...
  5839. > Folding your hands calmly, you shoot a friendly smile into the camera.
  5840. > Best to start this by keeping her off balance:
  5841. "Miss Rarity, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I'm sure you must be quite busy, with the search for your sister and all..."
  5842. > Her eyes briefly widen, as expected, but the businesspony quickly recovers.
  5843. > "...I quite have. I take it you have a reason for taking my time beyond your kindest thoughts?"
  5844. "Of course - I have a very specific reason for reaching out to you, not just any pony."
  5845. > "Besides that you have obviously been keeping tabs on us and are aware that my sister is missing."
  5846. "I tend to be aware of such disappearances-"
  5847. > "Anonymous, please. I am aware that you are watching us, no doubt, but-"
  5848. "-when said ponies assault me in my home."
  5849. > Rarity freezes in horrified shock, eyes growing wide and pupils small.
  5850. > "Assault - assault you in your -"
  5851. "In my home, yes."
  5852. > Mouth working soundlessly, Rarity tries to come to terms with your announcement.
  5853. > She sways like a pendulum, at times seeming near-ready to fall on her side - and for once you're honestly unsure if it is merely dramatics.
  5854. > "She - I - oh, I swear! I will - will - oh, Sweetie!"
  5855. > What follows is a striking display of alternating fury, anger, and frantic questioning.
  5856. > Patiently you wait until the histrionics subside; though you'd not dealt with her before, you had been forced to negotiate with her type in the past.
  5857. > When actual conversation resumes, you are careful to keep a dispassionate appearance about yourself as you respond.
  5858. > Careful not to show anything that might make her think you are seeking vengeance, or anything else that might imperil her willingness to be overwhelmed before she can negotiate.
  5859. > The fashionista could be a cunning, capable negotiator - provided she wasn't overcome by her own dramatic flares.
  5860. "...yes, assaulted me in my home. They are quite safe - I've made sure of that. No injuries or harm done."
  5861. > Briefly departing from the camera's view, Rarity returns with a handkerchief suspended in her magic which is sued to carefully dab at the corners of her eyes and clean away some imaginary makeup stains.
  5862. > "Well... well then. What, if I might ask, would you be demanding for their return?"
  5863. > And there it is: The flip from hysteria to logic.
  5864. > All of her type do it eventually, once they realize the tears get them nowhere.
  5865. "Demanding?"
  5866. > "You give nothing without a cost, Anonymous. And I know your ways - and I am prepared to pay what you ask."
  5867. "Hrm. Guilty as charged, I suppose. I'll ask two things of you. The first, for the safe return of the other two:"
  5868. > Folding your hands together - still maintaining the facade of absolute calmness - you go on.
  5869. "I need a voice in Canterlot, in the ear of the nobility and the princesses. Not for their sake; it's Celestia I need to back off from her position against me."
  5870. > "You want me to speak for you."
  5871. "Yes. If I could bribe a thousand nobles directly they would sing for years, but the princesses would know why and use that against me. But if you convince them..."
  5872. > To her credit, Rarity manages to keep her face impassive as well.
  5873. > Which only tells you how she must be feeling about this.
  5874. > "Their highnesses will not exactly be unaware of this, you realize. They will know why I am doing this."
  5875. "Your reason is solid, though. Nobody will speak ill of you for defending the one who returned your family safe and sound."
  5876. > "I would need to know what I would be arguing for."
  5877. "Firstly, to stop regarding me as an interminable enemy. I am not - and I do not want to be. More tangibly..."
  5878. > You glance aside at the message which had come in from Phillydelphia's mayor while you were resting.
  5879. "I want to be able to leave my house safely, without having to worry about being attacked."
  5880. > "Princess Celestia will not grant you carte blanche, Anonymous, no matter what I say. It's of little use for me to argue for what you'll never get."
  5881. > You grimace sharply; she had a point.
  5882. > Though, that she was actually improving on your suggestions at least meant you'd made the right choice by involving her; she was keen enough to get the fillies safe she'd take your side to do it.
  5883. "Fine. One trip, specifically. Not for business - for pleasure."
  5884. > "Where to?"
  5885. > To tell her was a risk, but an acceptable one; it wasn't like the trip would remain a secret for long.
  5886. "Fillydelphia - relating to my recent activities there. And I will need any statement of safety in writing."
  5887. > "I will do what I can."
  5888. "Good. Second, for the safe return of your sister: If, by some occurrence, the six of you should be reassembled and the powers you wield together return - you must agree not to wield your part against me."
  5889. > Rarity's breath catches sharply, her eyes going wide.
  5890. "I must keep myself safe, Miss Rarity. I'm not asking you to turn against your friends, but neither can I let them close around me."
  5891. > "That... is just too much, sir."
  5892. > Her voice is shaky, but unrelenting.
  5893. > "If you will not release Rainbow Dash - not doing my part to free her is very much turning against my friends! Would you have me this secret from them as well? Lie to them?"
  5894. > This, you suspect, Rarity will not give so easily on.
  5895. "It would be optimal, yes."
  5896. > "Mister Anonymous-"
  5897. > Her muzzle rising, Rarity regards you down its length with suspicious eyes.
  5898. > "-I do not know if you would understand this, but when you have close friends - they notice when such weighty secrets are kept."
  5899. > The implication - that you do not have such comrades - is not missed.
  5900. > Briefly you wonder how many of your secrets Dash notices, before focusing on the matter at hand.
  5901. > The unfortunate truth was that the powers those six ponies wielded were one of the few forces on this planet you had reason to fear.
  5902. > Without evidence to go on, you'd have dismissed tales of their world-altering powers - but abundant evidence there was; though perhaps exaggerated, there is no doubt the power there is very real.
  5903. > Any victories you achieved, could be undone by them; a pyrrhic victory for Twilight and her friends could be turned into an absolute one.
  5904. > You could not afford to let this opportunity pass.
  5905. > Time to squeeze a bit.
  5906. "Miss Rarity, while I understand your concern... I hope you can understand that at the same time, I must be certain I hold enough cards to secure my own safety."
  5907. > Leaning in slightly towards the camera, you let your eyes narrow somewhat.
  5908. "I have been attacked in my home. If others think they can do that..."
  5909. > "There is no reason for others to know!"
  5910. "Oh, well - you know how fillies talk. I'm sure they won't be able to keep from telling everyone willing to lend an ear..."
  5911. > Your tone, mocking and light, makes it clear that if they didn't talk you'd be quite able to find someone else who would.
  5912. "And while I do not want to see your sister or the other two fillies injured... I cannot afford to be seen as giving them up without some advantage gained. Not after something like that."
  5913. > "What do you mean?"
  5914. "I mean, if I am not able to ensure I am safe from the powers the six of you wield, I will have to find someone else to barter them to for some other advantage."
  5915. > Rarity draws herself up, tall and proud, nostrils flaring and eyes wide.
  5916. > Her voice is low and dangerous, with an iron edge to it.
  5917. > "You - do you threaten my sister, Anonymous?"
  5918. "I said no such thing. Merely, the terms of her safety would be outside of your control."
  5919. > A sharp flinch runs through her body; despite your claim there's little doubt as to the meaning of your words.
  5920. > It takes several moments, but eventually Rarity does breath again.
  5921. > This time her tone has grown soft and low again - but you quickly realize this does not mean she has given in by any means.
  5922. > "And suppose I should suffer an... emotional lapse at the thought of my sister being at risk."
  5923. > Instantly you are on guard.
  5924. "What do you mean?"
  5925. > "And, let us suppose that in my lapse I should run crying into the street, cursing you for threatening those fillies' safety if I did not turn on my friends..."
  5926. "'re talking about setting off a war."
  5927. > "And do you think it will come to anything less when they discover you have forced me to turn on them in secret?!"
  5928. > Again Rarity's voice has risen to a sharp crescendo - horn sparking reflexively as she yells.
  5929. > "Do you think they will not come for you then? Mark my words, Anonymous - this will start a war whether I give or take! I see no reason why I should destroy their trust at the same time!"
  5930. > Perhaps you had under-estimated her - made a mistake by bringing her into this equation.
  5931. > But she had you by the throat; telling the other elements that you had threatened fillies?
  5932. > They would be out for your head, as would the princesses when they heard of it.
  5933. > It was only your assurance that you would not work directly against them that had prevented any more foolhardy schemes thus far.
  5934. "I... see. May I suggest a - modification, then?"
  5935. > For a second Rarity hesitates, and you think she might be about to push for more.
  5936. > But then she nods, apparently recognizing that she had gotten all that could be expected.
  5937. > "Tell me more."
  5938. "If you are defending yourselves - the prohibition will not apply. But - no first strikes on me. No attacks out of the blue. I'm not interested in fighting you."
  5939. > After a moment's pause, you add:
  5940. "For that matter, if I should attack your family or your friends, then you are free to act as well. And you can tell the others; I won't have held any fillies hostage - it will simply be an agreement of detente between us."
  5941. > Now it is Rarity's turn to struggle - clearly unhappy, but at the same time realizing the terms you had offered were generous in the extreme.
  5942. "Come now - it's easy enough to explain to your friends. No need for secret 'agreements'; just that you've realized I am more than willing to be rational when treated fairly and don't believe striking first would be right."
  5943. > "...that would be lying to them once again. I may not be as forthright as Applejack, but even I will not hide something such as this from them!"
  5944. "So be truly honest with them, then. Whichever you feel is better - but what it comes down to, is you will not take part in any preemptive strikes against me."
  5945. > "I... that sounds... agreeable. We will not attack first, and neither will you. I must point out, though, that we could not use those powers without rescuing Rainbow anyhow."
  5946. "Or if I should release her."
  5947. > Rarity's eyes widen ever so slightly; she clearly hadn't been expecting you to be planning for that.
  5948. "As I've said, Miss Rarity - I do look forward to a time when... such measures aren't needed. That includes a hope that Dash will soon be able to see you in the flesh without any strife between us."
  5949. > Though not because she had deserted your side; that would never do.
  5950. > Only because you had maneuvered yourself into a position where you could stand in front of Equestria's 'defenders' safe in the knowledge they would not dare to attack you.
  5951. > "I... see. Well, if this will help reach that point - I will certainly not stand in its way!"
  5952. "You would if you could, Miss Rarity."
  5953. > A smirk touches your lips.
  5954. "Let's not stand on pretenses; I can tell you dislike dealing with me, and I can tell you I do not enjoy being threatened either. But, it is what it is."
  5955. > Her response is a tactful silence that draws a chuckle from you.
  5956. "I will admit though, it is quite nice to deal with someone who is willing to face the reality of a situation rather than pontificate on who is right or wrong."
  5957. > Mostly because, thankfully, she is not in a position to realize exactly how much you had done to Dash.
  5958. > "...when will they be returned, Anonymous? I want to see them safe."
  5959. > Not in the mood for banter, then - understandable enough.
  5960. "I believe it will take you a day or two to get to the nearest village with a train station? They will be waiting there in the care of the town guard - you will have no need to put yourself at my mercy."
  5961. > Rarity issues a curt nod, apparently pleased by the steps you were willing to take to appease her
  5962. > "I will come alone, and depart immediately - you have my word as a lady."
  5963. > Good - tit for tat comprises; you would not be there, and neither would the other elements.
  5964. > You could work with that kind of agreement.
  5965. "And mine as a bargainer - there will be no traps. Oh, and Rarity?"
  5966. > "Yes, Anonymous?"
  5967. "I hope I don't need to remind you that there would be a severe cost for either of us breaking our agreements here."
  5968. > Long after the feed closes, though, you wonder.
  5969. > How much could Rarity trust you to uphold your end of the deal?
  5970. > For that matter, how much could you trust her not to take the opportunity to strike you down if she could?
  5971. > The immediate answer is that you could not, and despite your track record of never breaking agreements neither would she.
  5972. > But Rarity obviously cares for her family, and considering her friendship with Equestria's youngest royalty she is undoubtedly aware the same cost that would be inflicted for any assault could be extracted from her should she betray you.
  5973. > Hopefully that would be enough to discourage her from any rescue attempts.
  5974. > Celestia and Luna could, in truth, probable take down your defenses with little risk to themselves - but not protect Equestria from the vengeance you would wreak.
  5975. > Only the elements were that much of a risk, and every step you took to making sure they wouldn't neuter your best options was a step worth taking.
  5977. --------
  5979. "Dash?"
  5980. > There's no immediate response; checking that the autopilot is set for the next few maneuvers, you twist over to try and lay eyes on your passenger.
  5981. "You can open your eyes now, Dash. The engines are off now; the worst is over."
  5982. > The mare had curled into the couch-like seat she had been strapped to - ears flat down against her head and eyes squeezed tightly shut.
  5983. > If not for the straps holding her limbs carefully folded against her sides, you rather suspect they'd be clutched around her helmet in an attempt shut out memories of the awesome acceleration she'd been experiencing moments earlier.
  5984. > Even with how stiff Dash was, you could see her sides heaving softly as she sucked in short, shallow breaths.
  5985. > While Rarity worked on gaining you the freedom you so desperately needed, you'd decided to give Dash the reward you'd promised her.
  5986. > Now you just had to ensure that the process of getting there did not cause Dash to panic so badly it ruined said reward.
  5987. > Gently, reassuringly you give her withers a squeeze around the harness that strapped her securely into the seat.
  5988. "Breath, Dash. It's over."
  5989. > "I..."
  5990. > Her voice cracks sharply; through the faceplate you can see Dash struggle to lick her lips and try again.
  5991. > "I don't feel so good."
  5992. "It's the weightlessness. Breath deeply and try to relax; you'll feel better soon enough."
  5993. > "Weight... lessness? Everything feels wrong. Everything's up! Why does it feel so wrong?!"
  5994. "Easy, Dash."
  5995. > Steadily you increase the pressure on her back, fingers digging in ever so slightly.
  5996. > You knew the signs of a familiar panic building in her - the irrationality of what her body was telling her dueling with what she thought she knew for certain.
  5997. > You'd forced such panics to occur often enough, after all.
  5998. > Now would not be a good time for her to suffer a breakdown, though.
  5999. "I'll show you, but you need to take some deep breaths first and calm down. Understand? Focus on me and slow down your breathing."
  6000. > At last - with a great deal more coaxing and reassurances - she manages to bring her breathing to a manageable rate.
  6001. > It's helped by when you finally remove the helmet fixed around her head.
  6002. > A bulky, constricting thing but absolutely necessary.
  6003. > No chance of getting a simple breathing mask like your own on her - not after what you'd done with the last such mask.
  6004. > Once the helmet is off and she can breathe freely again, though, Dash calms considerably.
  6005. > She's still clinging to the seat for dear life and her eyes are squeezed as tightly closed as they can be, but at least she is no longer at risk of hyperventilating.
  6006. "Alright. Can you be a little daring for me, Dash?"
  6007. > She swallows heavily, but you've never known Dash to back down from a challenge like that.
  6008. > Not without trying, anyhow.
  6009. > "Yeah, I - yeah."
  6010. "Then lift your head up a little bit and open your eyes."
  6011. > Twice her head bobs up only to slam back to the chair a moment later.
  6012. > On the third try she manages it, head stiffly rising to its normal, raised position.
  6013. > And then she opens her eyes, freezing once more but for an entirely new reason.
  6014. > For a moment you think that, in a sudden reversal, Dash had forgotten completely to breath at all as her mouth hangs open in awe of the sight before her.
  6015. > "That's..."
  6016. "Yeah. Equestria."
  6017. > Fully a third of the main screen was occupied by the mottled curve of the planet, seeming to hang impossibly above you.
  6018. > Blue, green, brown, and white roll by; clouds like wavy lines of sand meet the vast blue expanse of an ocean.
  6019. > Dash was transfixed, having completely forgotten her earlier motion sickness.
  6020. > For that matter she didn't even seem to think of questioning whether it was safe, though that was somewhat less surprising given her daredevil nature.
  6021. > She hadn't even been that perturbed when you'd first told her both of you were going to be taking a trip on a flying vessel.
  6022. > Perhaps it had been a mercy that the last time she'd been aboard one - after you were attacked by the Elements and fled from Canterlot - Dash had been utterly unconscious.
  6023. > That had saved her any traumatic memories of prior trips.
  6024. > Convincing her to come with you down into the sub-basement levels had been a different story.
  6025. > Memories of the punishment inflicted for her last expedition into those levels were still strong, and even with your assurances she hesitated sharply.
  6026. > How ironic it had been that this time, you were taking her to see the very thing you'd been terrified of her discovering before.
  6027. > When you had finally coaxed her into joining you, inquisitiveness rapidly overtook any concern.
  6028. > With an almost childlike curiosity Dash had paused to gape at the machines working ceaselessly away in the underworks you had ordered constructed.
  6029. > Leading her into the underground hangar - the shuttle already awaiting you, having been drawn out to the main door and prepared - threw her into a near-gallop as she raced to inspect it from every angle she could.
  6030. > Once aboard she'd pointedly pretended to be unimpressed with the transport's performance, pointedly shrugging off any mention of your speed or altitude.
  6031. > You weren't quite sure of why - some residual anger at her clipped wings, maybe, or just disliking being outperformed by a machine.
  6032. > But you'd caught her sneaking glances the viewscreens nonetheless, boggling at the shrinking forms of clouds passing beneath.
  6033. > It was plenty clear how she actually felt.
  6034. > That'd all changed when you kicked in the ascent engines, though; despite your warning the sudden, enormous acceleration hadn't sat well with Dash one bit.
  6035. > Another bit of instinct, maybe - a dislike for being under uncontrolled, sudden motion?
  6036. > Certainly understandable; to most pegasi, feeling something like that would be a sign that they were being tossed about in a storm.
  6037. > But now...
  6038. > Now, with the engines off again and the planet hanging above your heads, Dash's fear has vanished once more.
  6039. > In its place has come wonderment; she seems to drink in the sight of clouds scuttling by beneath her at what seems to be impossible speed.
  6040. > Long minutes pass before Dash gathers herself enough to speak again:
  6041. > "We're really that far up? No tricks? Not one of your screen things?"
  6042. > Despite her wonder, there's still a note of hesitance or suspicion in her voice.
  6043. > A disbelief that you could actually give her a experience like this.
  6044. "No tricks. We're reaching orbit around the planet now."
  6045. > Smiling, you reach up to scratch between her ears.
  6046. "Didn't I promise to make you the fastest pegasus ever alive? I guarantee you: No pony has ever flown like this before."
  6047. > "I... don't think this really counts. Kinda cheating. But, still - thank you."
  6048. > She actually means it, you can tell; the distant and thoughtful tone of her voice told you her words are not merely a pleasantry.
  6049. > A gentle silence holds in the wake of that statement.
  6050. > Within its grasp you are not a master, nor Dash your slave.
  6051. > Just two souls, mutually admiring the majesty before you as the planet seems to slip away.
  6052. > "Master?"
  6053. > Dash's questioning voice drags you from the reverie, but you can't quite be angry with her.
  6054. > "What's that little moving light? Right near the planet?"
  6055. "Ah, there she is. You'll be seeing soon enough, Dash."
  6056. > Said dot was growing now; Dash's mouth falls progressively further open as it begins to fill the screens, eclipsing much of the star-shot sky beyond.
  6057. > Increasing detail became visible, a never-ending torrent of wonder for Dash's eyes:
  6058. > The curving, pointed prow, trough-like heatshield plates behind it, the blocky segments of the cargo pods and angular, jagged radiator fins.
  6059. > Residual glow radiated from the engine tubes as they dumped the last of the energy from the maneuvers that had made to meet you here.
  6060. > Amazement touches Dash's voice.
  6061. > "Is that... where you...?"
  6062. "Yes, Dash. That's how I came here."
  6063. > A shudder runs through the shuttle as its own engines kick in with a muted, distant hum - slowing you to match orbits with the larger vessel as you pulled closest to it.
  6064. > Dash seems to have utterly forgotten her earlier sickness, craning her head all about to take in the sight.
  6065. > "That's so - so incredibly, unimaginably, amazingly cool!"
  6066. > Her eyes are alight with curiosity, vibrant and sharp in contrast to how dull and distant they'd seemed for so long; you can't help but chuckle softly.
  6067. > It crosses your mind what an unexpected change it was that you could show her this.
  6068. > Not a few months ago, she had thrown herself at you in the hope you would end her life with a pistol's shot.
  6069. > Now, you were entrusting her with your closest secrets.
  6070. > A voice in the back of your head is still warning of how terrible a mistake this would be, that Dash could accidentally reveal it in a moment of impetuousness.
  6071. > That is subsumed, however, by the memories of Dash helping you - not merely doing what had to be done, but pushing herself to go beyond that and aid you.
  6072. > No - this, you could show.
  6073. "My ship. She's called 'Obstinacy' - a rapid armed transport. Thirty years I slaved to buy her. Quit the Megacorps' shit right then, and got into my own business for my own good."
  6074. > "You were a slave?"
  6075. "Not exactly. I wasn't owned or forced to work, but the Megas will stomp you down and squeeze as hard they can, wring every bit of value from you if you let them. Leave you barely enough to buy anything with."
  6076. > After a second you add:
  6077. "I put my head down, hid away what little profit I could make working for them, and saved up for a hull of my own."
  6078. > Dash nods jerkily.
  6079. > "I... get that, yeah. You don't want somepo-one else to be taking away what you achieved."
  6080. > You grin internally; who'd have thought that you could get Dash to actually sympathize with you?
  6081. > Then again, this moment was so far out of the norm of her normal misery...
  6082. "Mmm. The 'Obstinance' helped with that a lot. Did high-value cargo runs, the kind of things where you want to be able to defend yourself. Hence the 'armed' freighter part."
  6083. > "Woah."
  6084. > Her gaze is transferred back to the starship floating beyond.
  6085. > "So. Cool."
  6086. "Yes. She really is 'cool'..."
  6087. > Out of the corner of your eye you can see Dash's head swivel, perhaps caught by something in the tone of your voice.
  6088. > After a moment of studying you, she speaks up more cautiously.
  6089. > "You're looking kind of... sad? I didn't say anything, did-"
  6090. "She's dying, Dash."
  6091. > Your statement drags the pegasus to a screeching halt, her face caught mid-expression as the idea is processed through her brain.
  6092. > "Dying? How?!"
  6093. > Considering for a moment on how to explain this, you decide to start at the beginning.
  6094. "When we use our FTL drives - our machines - to travel between planets, sometimes things go... wrong. Usually the ship arrives in the right place - in pieces. I arrived whole, in a very wrong place."
  6095. > Shrugging lightly you point to the rear section of the vessel, where a neat hole had been carved into the hull to expose the ragged machinery beyond it.
  6096. "FTL's slag, though, and it'd take millennia to crawl back home without it. The short-range unit on this shuttle just isn't up to the task."
  6097. > "Can your machines, y'know, just - rebuild it?"
  6098. "Absolutely."
  6099. > A pained grimace flickers across your face.
  6100. "If they had the resources to. They don't, though - I can re-fabricate the damaged systems, but I need additional raw materials. I've had to carve bits off of just to construct the machinery down on Equestria."
  6101. > "So buy-"
  6102. "Can't. Equestria only produces a fraction of what I need - I can't even get any high grade moly-steel, let alone some of the trickier elements like Tungsten or Tantalum. Ponies simply don't produce them in volume; I'd have to locate and refine the raw materials myself."
  6103. > Leaning back in your seat, you let another bitter touch caress your lips.
  6104. "And guess what your princesses are never, ever going to let me do. While they're 'protecting their ponies', 'Obstinance' is going longer and longer without repairs. Other things are going to start breaking down too; eventually no repairs I can do here will save her."
  6105. > Dash is quiet for a long time after that, her gaze is still fixed on the viewscreens - the hull having long since eclipsed the sky and much of the planet as well.
  6106. "I need somewhere on the surface to land her and do proper repairs. I couldn't get that before, though, and certainly not now."
  6107. > You can see the gears in her head turning silently as she turns the thought over in her mind.
  6108. > Not until the distant, grinding rumble of docking clamps engaging runs through the shuttle is she drawn back to reality - nervousness returning to her posture.
  6109. > A sharp, questioning glance up to you draws a shake of your head.
  6110. "It's okay; that's normal."
  6111. > Slapping to the center of your harness releases it; you drift up out of your seat and twist to face Dash again.
  6112. "Alright. We're mostly up here for supplies, but this is what I really wanted to do for you."
  6113. > "Master?"
  6114. "I'm going to release your harness. When I do, just relax your legs and push off slowly. The cockpit's shut down, but I don't want you bumping your head into anything."
  6115. > "Okay; I'm ready."
  6116. > Reaching out, you take a hold of her collar with one hand and undo the harness with the second.
  6117. > "Woooah!"
  6118. > Instantly Dash's eyes grow wide and ears flatten as she lifts free of the flight couch, but amazingly she manages to keep herself just calm enough to not lash out.
  6119. "Easy, Dash. Easy. Let me pull you to me."
  6120. > The moment you're within range, she latches onto your chest with all four legs around your torso in a tight grip.
  6121. > Pressed against you as she is, you're quite able to feel her heart hammering away.
  6122. "There, you're good now. Just keep holding on to me while I move us through."
  6123. > "Sorry! I - wasn't expecting it."
  6124. > She goes quiet as you push off again, drifting backwards through the shuttle's cabin.
  6125. > Navigating through the shuttle to the docking hatch has the opposite effect on Dash you'd have expected - she actually seems to calm somewhat.
  6126. > Each breath grows deeper, pupils returning to a more normal size and legs unlocking slightly from their deathgrip on you.
  6127. > You, on the other hand, are having a bit more trouble.
  6128. > Dash's weight had unbalanced your reflexes for moving without gravity's pull.
  6129. > As you make your way into 'Obstinance's hull and up towards the habitation section, more than once you arrive against a wall at the wrong angle or somewhat harder than you'd intended.
  6130. > In between grunted impacts, you look down to the pegasus - now peering around much more animatedly as you pass through corridors.
  6131. > Spotting your gaze, she ducks her head again and murmurs something.
  6132. "You were going to say something, Dash?"
  6133. > "Sorry, I... It..."
  6134. > Something inaudible is murmured into your shirt.
  6135. "Again, Dash?"
  6136. > " feels kinda like flying."
  6137. > The words are still spoken softly.
  6138. > Not out of fear or unpleasantness, but as if she was afraid you'd steal this one valuable thing from her if you knew of it.
  6139. > Instead all it does is draw a small laugh from your throat.
  6140. "I suspected it might. You're adapting to it much faster than I expected, though. Don't worry - we've got a while yet."
  6141. > "Really?!"
  6142. > Lifting her head from your shirt, Dash fixes you with wide, hopeful eyes.
  6143. "Absolutely. Remember, I've done this plenty of times before. I knew what would be coming."
  6144. > Hooking yourself on a passing hatchway, you peel Dash from your chest and turn her to face the long corridor.
  6145. "Here. Just use your wings to aim yourself - don't try beating them. I'll give you a push off."
  6146. > Twin spans of ruined feathers unfold and hold themselves stiff from her sides.
  6147. > Moments later Dash is coasting down the tube from your shove with a nervous cry that grows into a laugh.
  6148. > Her first landing is anything but graceful; despite your order, Dash tries to beat her wings and promptly ends in a head-over-tail tumble that collides her into the nearest tube wall.
  6149. > The second attempt is little better.
  6150. > By the tenth time, however, Dash seems to have gotten the basic hang of it.
  6151. > What feathers remain are spread and held loosely as though gliding; she also rapidly gets the hang of using her legs to turn herself.
  6152. > "Yeah - yeah, I get this! This is fun!"
  6153. > Reaching the far end, Dash manages a solid two-hoof landing against the wall.
  6154. > Rather than wait for you to reach her again, she instead pushes off again with an excited whoop to head down the next corridor.
  6155. > This time, she's able to use her wings to add a fanciful twirl to her motion in the gravity-less environment.
  6156. > "Look! See, I get it!"
  6157. "Dash, wait! That's into the habitation section, if you head that way, you'll hit-"
  6158. > The last of her multihued tail vanishes around the corner - and moments later, a thud and an awkward-sounding squawk issues from somewhere beyond.
  6159. > Turning the corner yourself, you carefully tuck your feet beneath you so that when the deck rises up to meet them, you land deftly and take another two steps forward to Dash's side.
  6160. > She had not landed so softly, and is rubbing her muzzle ruefully; kneeling beside her, you put a hand on her collar.
  6161. "...if you head this way, you'll hit the artificial gravity before you're ready. Don't run away from me in here, Dash; just because you're not on a leash doesn't mean it's perfectly safe."
  6162. > Rubbing the side of her head ruefully, Dash nods.
  6163. > "Got it, master."
  6165. --------
  6167. > Fortunately, Dash was content to experiment with 'flying' in the weightless segments while you oversaw the exchange of cargo between the 'Obstinance' and the shuttle.
  6168. > She seemed to be taking a reward of this scale with an appropriate degree of metaphorical weight.
  6169. > Undoubtedly some of it was due to an awareness of how quickly you could take such a gift away from her.
  6170. > But mostly, you thought, it was an honest awareness of how much trust you were placing in her and an equally honest attempt to display thanks for that.
  6171. > Certainly she was enjoying the experience - more than once you had checked in to find the mare happily drifting through the corridors, whooping and laughing as she'd gotten the hang of zero-G maneuvering.
  6172. > Even if it wasn't anywhere near the same as true flight, literally rebounding off the hallways in increasingly complex maneuvers seemed to be close enough to reawaken the mare's dormant love of flight.
  6173. > By the time you finish up the most of your duties and come to visit her again, however, it seemed quieter proclivities had taken over.
  6174. > Instead of soaring about, you find Dash positioned in front of a larger observation window.
  6175. > She'd apparently given up trying to keep herself hooked on one of the tube walls, instead just drifting quietly as her gaze held on the planet turning beneath you.
  6176. > Deafened by her own thoughts as much by the continuous, distant hum of circulation pumps Dash hadn't heard you approaching.
  6177. > You're able to watch her float in silence for some time before the mare catches a glimpse of you from the corner of her eye.
  6178. > "Oh! Hey, master."
  6179. > Wings and legs twitching, she struggles for a moment before righting herself to face you - the effort causing Dash to scrunch her face in concentration and you to grin at the sight.
  6180. "Thinking about something, Dash?"
  6181. > "Yeah."
  6182. > Kicking your legs out, you snag her with one hand and draw the mare in against your body.
  6183. > She struggles for a moment - at least until your arms tighten around her barrel and demonstrate that she was going nowhere.
  6184. "Tell me."
  6185. > Instead of protesting your hold or answering the question, Dash twists back around to look out the window again.
  6186. > "Can I ask you something, master?"
  6187. "Go ahead?"
  6188. > "If you had the materials and stuff to fix this... what would you do?"
  6189. "Leave. I would repair the drive, and go home."
  6190. > There's an iron certainty in your voice, a quickness in your answer that displays the surety of your reply.
  6191. > A small grin touches your lips as your answer meanders on.
  6192. "Take a few basic magical trinkets with me, just to sell and watch people tear their hair out trying to figure out. Come back, eventually - this place is a bounty waiting to be harvested, and I may as well get something out of it to make up for being stranded here. First go home, though."
  6193. > Pausing, you lightly shove off from a wall you'd glided into and halt yourself in front of the window again.
  6194. "But, that's not what you were asking, was it?"
  6195. > "No. I guess, I wanted to know..."
  6196. > Dash squirms a little bit, but eventually forces the words out.
  6197. > "...if you were going to go after my fr- ... after the others. If you could go home."
  6198. "No. I won't ever be friendly with them, but I'm not up for pursuing vengeance; there's no gain in violence like that. I'm content for the princesses to stop trying to put their noses into my life, my business, and my damn ship."
  6199. > "I didn't even know about the ship. When I came after you - Celestia just said you had turned from peaceful business, that you were driving the Griffons to war with new weapons. And we had to stop you."
  6200. > Tilting your head down, you finally meet Dash's gaze.
  6201. "You're seriously telling me that Celestia and Luna never told you what this is all about?"
  6202. > Screwing up her muzzle, Dash shrugs as best she's able to, still strapped into the couchlike seat.
  6203. > "Twilight mighta known, but... no, just that bit about that driving the griffons to war."
  6204. "They would have said that."
  6205. > You rub your forhead, sighing heavily.
  6206. "I was selling the griffons weapons, in return for access to ores within their territories. Nothing too destructive - a few artillery pieces, enough to give even dragon raiders pause."
  6207. > Dash makes a surprised noise, eyes going wide again.
  6208. > "That's 'not too destructive'? I couldn't even touch a dragon, and I was the awesomest pony ever!"
  6209. "Compared to what I have aboard this ship? No. They're nothing; the kind of thing my species used before we started living in space."
  6210. > A thin, cold grin touches your lips as you explain.
  6211. "The things I have up here are enough to put holes in cities, but I'm not selling those."
  6212. > Bitterness is rising in your voice again, your tone growing hard.
  6213. "Even so, Celestia and Luna decided it was 'too much', that I was encouraging the griffons to go to war. I did no such thing - what they do with them is their business. If they were already inclined to wards violence, my weapons would not change that."
  6214. > "So they sent us after you."
  6215. "Yes. Those two - they're like the big corporates back home: Perfectly happy with the status quo of being on top, and crushing anyone who threatens it. First they tried to tell me how to run my business, then told me I either had to give up my means to create the weapons - the same machines I use to repair 'Obstinance' - or be viewed as a threat. I'd have been perfectly willing to sell to them too, but they weren't interested."
  6216. > Again Dash's lips part, mouth holding soundlessly open as she gets her thought in line.
  6217. > "But - if you're not pushing vengeance, what about me?"
  6218. > The sheer bluntness of Dash's reply sends you hesitating for a few moments - long enough for her to go on.
  6219. > Her imprisonment wasn't a topic she liked to speak on.
  6220. > "I get it, you've told me before - I'm your... slave-"
  6221. > It takes a brief pause to get the word out of her mouth, but Dash manages.
  6222. > "-because I actually attacked you first. But... where does it end? If you go home - do I go too? Or can I... leave?"
  6223. > Your mind is in motion, but already you have hesitated too long.
  6224. > A simple reassuring answer that she could leave - a lie - would be obvious now.
  6225. > Desperate for a bit of time, you let a counter question spill from your lips:
  6226. "Would you want to go, Dash?"
  6227. > "Master - please."
  6228. > Pulling free of your grip with a sudden shove of her legs, Dash manages to twist about and float up to roughly face you.
  6229. > "Not - no games, master. Please, just give me an answer. If you are able to leave... what happens to me?"
  6230. > The distant hum and rumble of equipment seems to have grown impossibly loud in your ears.
  6231. > It's more than obvious that this was a critical moment for Dash - that your answer would have a great effect on her.
  6232. > In truth there'd been no real plans to let her go.
  6233. > Then again, the way repairs were going you had barely enough materials to bring replacement parts up on the shuttle and keep the larger vessel functional.
  6234. > 'Going back' had always been years, maybe decades down the line.
  6235. > No time to think of a clever escape.
  6236. > You'll just have to be honest.
  6237. "I don't know."
  6238. > Giving an answer - any answer at all - lifts a weight from your chest.
  6239. > The next words seem to spill from your lips, like air rushing out.
  6240. "I don't know. It would depend on how things played out - whether I wrench what I need from the princesses' grasp or if they back off. How long they wait, and how damaged the 'Obstinance' becomes as a result."
  6241. > After a thought you add:
  6242. "I won't be abandoning you, if you want to come - or leaving without something to make up for what they did to my ship. She means a lot to me."
  6243. > Dash's ears have fallen as you speak, and as you finish a sigh escapes her lips.
  6244. > "I... okay."
  6245. > How much of what you said is true, even you yourself are not quite certain of.
  6246. > To your surprise though, Dash suddenly propels herself back down to lock her limbs against your chest again.
  6247. > When she does not depart a few moments later, you slip your arms around her - still slightly shocked at her sudden embrace.
  6248. > Sure, Dash had become clingy before, but usually only after moments of stark emotional turmoil - like, when she had been severely punished.
  6249. "What's brought this on, Dash?"
  6250. > "Being up here. I..."
  6251. > She pauses, ears flicking as she tries to string together words.
  6252. > "...I get it. You... caring about this ship so much. Being so attached to it."
  6253. "Get it?"
  6254. > This time there is no immediate response, but you do not push her:
  6255. > The gears turning in Dash's brain are utterly obvious to anyone, let alone someone who's been observing her for as long as you have.
  6256. > "Yeah. So, I started thinking, we're going to have to head back down soon, right?"
  6257. "Yes. A couple more hours; come nightfall, the ship's going back to an orbit that will hide it from Equestria or it'll be visible at night. We leave before then."
  6258. > The way Dash nods you get the feeling she doesn't quite understand all of that - or how startlingly visible something the size of your vessel could be from the surface - but she goes on anyway.
  6259. > "So, I was thinking... it's going to suck going back to not being able to fly. But then I thought... every time you come up here, it's just like that for you."
  6260. > Wriggling around in your grip, she twists until her back is pressed against your belly.
  6261. > From that position, one blue-coated hoof extends to tap the window lightly.
  6262. > "Every time you come up here, you look back down and it's like being... /that/ close to going home again, but you still can't and you have to come back down too."
  6263. "That's... not entirely wrong, I admit."
  6264. > "So then I'm thinking... how uncool is that for you? And you know what - then I think, I know exactly how you gotta feel."
  6265. > Both wings extend again from her sides, pushing out from beneath your circling arms to extend to their full spans.
  6266. > "The way you talk about this ship, I can hear how much you love it. It's what makes you free from everything trying to hold you down. It's like your wings, right? And they've been clipped too."
  6267. > Again silence falls.
  6268. > For once, it's because you honestly are not certain of what to say.
  6269. > You knew that Dash had begun to... sympathize with you to some degree, but this?
  6270. > Never had you imagined she'd relate like this.
  6271. > Words forced from your lips seem unfitting.
  6272. "I admit, I hadn't thought of it that before."
  6273. > Dash stiffens briefly in surprise, but when she speaks next it is with a soft and uncertain voice.
  6274. > "Yeah, I... knew already."
  6275. "Oh?"
  6276. > "If you'd thought of me that way... you wouldn't take that from anypony else. You'd know how much it sucks to lose that freedom."
  6277. > Chuckling softly, you lift one hand to scratch beneath her chin.
  6278. "On the contrary, Dash. That only makes it poetic: Celestia tried to use you to take my wings permanently; it's only fair that I take your flight. At least it can grow back with your feathers; mine only rots away further."
  6279. > The wince and shudder that runs through Dash is easy to feel clutched against you as she is.
  6280. > But you do not comment further and neither does Dash, vision on the distant land passing beneath and mind apparently even farther away.
  6281. > Slowly you let go of all other thoughts, focusing down on yourself and the mare pressed against your chest.
  6282. > Everything else - the gentle hum, whirr, and rumble of equipment, the slight movements you use to keep both of you in front of the window - fall into the background.
  6283. > Eventually even the lighting shuts off, so little are you moving.
  6284. > You can feel Dash's heart beating, with your arms wrapped around your chest.
  6285. > It's slowed as yours has, fallen to a steady thud-thud that tells you she is fixated on the moment just as much as you are.
  6286. > As if her eyes didn't show enough - Dash is barely blinking, so transfixed is she on the planet passing below.
  6287. > Nevermind that her thoughts seemed to be somewhere even further afield
  6288. "It is beautiful, isn't it?"
  6289. > "Yeah. Not like /really/ flying, but yeah. Really, really cool."
  6290. > A little hesitation, then she gathers herself to push onward:
  6291. > "And - you're right. It's still not fair to you. My feathers can grow back - are growing back. Yours aren't."
  6292. > Witb the next words she seems to struggle even more, but eventually forces them out:
  6293. > "I'll... help. I know you can't really trust me, but I'll still try and help you go back."
  6294. "You say I can't trust you, but consider the degree of trust I am placing in you right now. The armament on this ship is what keeps Celestia from throwing me in a dungeon for long, long time, and I've shown you all of it."
  6295. > "I... guess."
  6296. > Rubbing one foreleg with the other's hoof, Dash grimaces.
  6297. > "I guess... I dunno. Yeah, I want to fly again, and even after all you did to me I shouldn't want to help you. But, if you fix this... maybe it'll set things right."
  6298. "Well. I will-"
  6299. > You pause, considering your next words carefully.
  6300. "-take it into consideration. Just remember, though, Dash:"
  6301. > A hand slips up beneath her chin, cupping her neck just behind the jaw and pressing down just enough to be very definitely felt.
  6302. "You belong to me entirely now. You don't get to negotiate - if you help, things might be fixed. But they might not, and either way the decision on what to do with you is mine."
  6303. > Her head has rolled back in a futile attempt to escape your grip, your opposite arm still holding her back pinned to your belly.
  6304. > Swallowing sharply, Dash still manages a tiny nod.
  6305. > "I understand... master."
  6306. "Good."
  6307. > With that said, your hand curls around from its place at her throat to stroke through her mane; a far less unpleasant display of dominance, but one Dash undoubtedly feels nonetheless.
  6308. > Any further conversation is preempted by a sharp, sudden buzzing that emanates from one of your pockets.
  6309. > That pattern - a call from one of your agents?
  6310. > Partially releasing Dash, you pull the comppad from your pocket and examine the screen for the identity of your caller.
  6311. > Lights flicker on as you do, bringing with them the return of all the little reminders of the outside world.
  6312. > Immediately your face darkens; Dash - who'd twisted around in the moment to fix one eye on you, flinches slightly.
  6313. > "What is it?"
  6314. > Instead of answering, you switch the audio feed open - and audio only.
  6315. > Before you can even speak, a sing-song yet jarringly-toned voice fills the cabin.
  6316. > "I know something you don't!"
  6317. "Hello, Chrysalis."
  6318. > The swarm-queen gives an annoyingly giddy giggle, a noise that sets your teeth on edge and causes Dash's ears to drop flat to her head.
  6319. "I'll have to apologize for being voice-only right now. I'm somewhat busy at the moment."
  6320. > "Oh, that's quite alright, Anonymous. I'll be happy to just talk with you."
  6321. > Perhaps it is a good thing she cannot see you - the scowl her tone brings to your face isn't one you'd let her see.
  6322. "Judging by that introduction - you're hoping to trade information for Chissik's return to your control, I expect?"
  6323. > "Well, if you're going to be so direct about it..."
  6324. > Now a slight smile does touch your lips instead - you'd managed to get under her skin (or carapace) after all.
  6325. "Alright. Lay it out."
  6326. > "Uh-uh-uh. I'm not letting you lead me around, Anonymous. I want your word - your oath - that Chissik will be mine again."
  6327. > Snorting gently, you shake your head despite Dash being the only one who could see it.
  6328. "I trust you about as much as you trust me, Chrysalis. The location of Celestia's secret cake stash has no value to me."
  6329. > "Oh, no. Not at all. This - this, you'll want to hear."
  6330. "Give me the hook, and I'll be the judge of how much it's worth."
  6331. > "Fine - if you're going to be that way."
  6332. > Her tone has taken on a self-righteous huff there, but it quickly sinks back to its old, amused timbre again:
  6333. > "Twilight Sparkle is missing."
  6335. --------
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