Simple Dreams [SPG] (Celestia)

Mar 15th, 2019 (edited)
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  1. >”Hello, can I help you with something?”
  2. >The contrast between the salesman's words and his gruff voice penetrated into Celestia's dream.
  3. >”I'm looking for some muscle to help me at work. Do you have anyone big and strong for sale?”
  4. >The other voice was neutral.
  5. >It belonged to a male human.
  6. >That was all she could tell.
  7. >”Yeah. They got us a new earth pony stallion the other day. I'll show you.”
  8. >Thick steel bars were the first thing Celestia saw as she cracked open her eyes.
  9. >Beyond the bars was the employee break room with its dirty microwave, sputtering coffee machine, and threadbare sofa.
  10. >”This one? He looks good but I'm searching for a strong pony, not a pretty pony.”
  11. >A dull pain radiated from her shoulders and hindquarters.
  12. >Those parts pressed against the bars of her cage despite how she'd tried to curled up.
  13. >At least she fit under the patched and scratchy blanket she had.
  14. >”Uh, well... There's another one. They said she's strong but her record is... bad. She's in the back room. Follow me.”
  15. >They were coming to see her?
  16. >That meant a chance they'd let her out of the cage.
  17. >Then she'd get to stretch the worst pain out of her muscles.
  19. >Beep!
  20. >Buzzzzz.
  21. >The door swung open and two men strode in.
  22. >The first was the thick, burly and strong-jawed shopkeeper, and the second was someone Celestia had never seen before.
  23. >He had an average build, was of average height, had a face that said nothing to her, and wore clothes that didn't stand out.
  24. >”Well she's big, all right. Looks delicate, though.”
  25. >She tried to meet his eyes.
  26. >He was only interested in her hooves, and studied her like she was a piece of furniture.
  27. >Her hooves, and her flank.
  28. >Hey, my eyes are up here.
  29. >Is what she wanted to say.
  30. >Or just anything, to make them treat her like a living being.
  31. >”Do you want a better look? I can let her out for a while.”
  32. >But she'd learned that loose lips led to punishment, so she pretended not to notice how he stole glances of how her butt was squished against the bars.
  33. >For a second, her collar felt like it was made of solid lead.
  34. >They'd shock her if she said something.
  35. >Or maybe they just wouldn't let her on her daily walk?
  36. >”Can you show me her papers first? I'm not paying any extra for the horn and wings combo, nor for the fancy mane, and you said she has a bad past. Let's have a look at that first.”
  37. >”Oh, yeah. I'll go get them. Just a minute.”
  38. >The burly salesman patted his pockets before rushing out of the room.
  40. >”That cage is too small for you.”
  41. >He looked at the sofa, gave it a try with his hand, then sat on it.
  42. >It creaked as he put his weight on it.
  43. >”It's no good for your spine. Do they ever let you out?”
  44. >He met her eyes this time.
  45. >His brow furrowed as he rubbed the stubble on his chin.
  46. “Yes. Every day. I heard them talk about ordering a bigger cage, but it'll take a while before it gets here.”
  47. >”How long have you been here?”
  48. “Four days, I think. They've let me out for 'a daily walk' four times now.”
  49. >Beep!
  50. >Buzzzzz.
  51. >The door swung open again.
  52. >”They weren't where I thought they were. Sorry for the delay.”
  54. >”Age: Unknown, Past: Classified, Training: Classified.”
  55. >Celestia's potential new owner tapped a finger on the stack of papers he'd got.
  56. >”That's a lot of red flags right there. Makes me feel like you're hiding something.”
  57. >The alicorn squeezed into one corner of her cage the best she could.
  58. >She stretched a rear hoof towards the opposite corner.
  59. >Age: over 1000, Past: Ruler of Equestria, Training: shown that misbehaving results in having to watch other ponies get beaten.
  60. >They were afraid other ponies would rally around her if they kept her in the same room.
  61. >Or so she'd heard.
  63. >”I said she has a bad past. That's why she's so cheap.”
  64. >Celestia switched hooves and stretched her other rear hoof.
  65. >The ache in her hindquarters started to fade.
  66. >”Hm. She's cheap, all right. Makes me think there's something wrong with her. But...”
  67. >There wasn't anything she could do about her shoulders.
  68. >Not while locked in her cage.
  69. >”...I'll take her. On one condition: full refund if I return her in seven days.”
  70. >Her head and her ears perked up.
  71. >And that made her horn knock on the ceiling of the cage.
  72. >She saw nothing but rippling colors for a second.
  73. “Ow.”
  74. >A sharp pain radiated from her horn, specifically from the ring on it.
  76. ***
  78. >”I know how to set up her collar so just hand me the keys and the remote. I'm supposed to open shop in 45 minutes and 30 of those will be driving.”
  79. >She was on a leash.
  80. >Like a dog.
  81. >”Uh, okay. Just remember that letting her outside without a collar is illegal. Have a nice day and enjoy your purchase!”
  82. >Not only that.
  83. >Every pony in the store was watching her.
  84. >They all recognized her.
  85. >They all thought her being there meant Equestria had fallen.
  86. >She couldn't tell them that Equestria – a little more than half of it, at least – was safe and mostly untouched.
  87. >All thanks to her and Luna.
  89. ***
  91. >The van's front seat was uncomfortable.
  92. >Her tail squished into the gap between the backrest and the part she sat on.
  93. >The seat belt strapped her hooves in place.
  94. >Her horn kept hitting the vehicle's ceiling.
  95. >At least it was padded so the blocker ring didn’t go crazy.
  96. >”Your name's Celestia, right?”
  97. >The human threw a glance at her before returning his eyes to the road.
  98. “Yes.”
  99. >”Well, Celestia, why are both your past and training classified? Did you do something stupid?”
  100. >She shifted a bit on her seat, trying to get her tail out of the hole.
  101. “I lived in Canterlot and worked in the castle. I guess they thought somepony could recognize me and remember their rulers.”
  102. >The seat belt held her in place.
  103. >Her attempt failed, but her tail slid to a slightly less uncomfortable position.
  104. “My 'training' was some sort of experiment, they had me lie in a machine that only buzzed and beeped as far as I could tell.”
  105. >They'd tried to find the source of her magic and why the horn ring only blocked the unicorn parts of it.
  106. >From what she knew, they failed.
  107. >They never said so, of course, but that'd explain why she was sold.
  109. >”A high ranking government pony who's had some sort of experiments ran on her?”
  110. >Celestia's new owner nodded his head.
  111. >”I guess I'll just believe you. For now.”
  112. >He stuck out a hand towards her.
  113. >“I'm Anon. You'll be working for me from now on.”
  114. >She managed to slip a hoof out and stick it in his hand.
  115. >He gripped it firmly and shook it before returning his hand to the steering wheel.
  116. >”I'll try to be a fair owner, but know that I work hard and will expect the same from you.”
  117. “I hope you don't expect me to do anything that requires precision.”
  118. >She glanced at her horn and the thick metallic ring on it.
  119. “I've used magic for that all my life and now it's gone.”
  120. >”Hah! No, I sell car parts and bought you to do the heavy lifting. You're going to carry the parts from my storage to the customers. You're also going to keep the shop open while I search scrapyards for more parts. Then you're going to...”
  122. ***
  124. >”Here we are.”
  125. >The seatbelts' locks clicked as both Anon and Celestia pushed the release buttons.
  126. >”I'll show you around real fast, then it's time to show you the ropes. I hope you're a fast learner.”
  127. >Celestia wedged her hoof between the handle and the door.
  128. >It was just enough, and the door swung open.
  129. >She swished her tail back and forth as soon as her hooves hit the parking lot's pavement.
  130. >Finally free of the tail trap.
  131. “I'm more of a teacher, but Starswirl did call me gifted back when I was his student.”
  132. >She glanced up at the blue sky and the gray clouds rolling overhead.
  133. >It'd been far too long since she'd had a chance to fly.
  134. >So long the massive flight muscles on her back twitched for action.
  135. >”My system isn't exactly complex. I'm sure you'll get it in no time.”
  137. >”We got about 20 minutes. Do you need to eat something, or can we get right into it?”
  138. >The lock rattled and clicked.
  139. >He pulled the door open.
  140. >Celestia stared at him for a split-second as her brain processed his words.
  141. “Uh, no thank you. I already had breakfast.”
  142. >”Did I say something I shouldn't have?”
  143. >Anon arched a brow at her.
  144. “It's been so long since anyone has asked what I want that I forgot what to do. That's all.”
  145. >”Okay then.”
  146. >Anon shrugged.
  147. >”You just look a bit bony.”
  148. >He cast one more glance at her and how her ribs were visible through her coat.
  149. “My previous owners insisted everyone gets an equal share, despite me never seeing another pony in that place. The shop fed us based on weight, though, so I'm fine.”
  151. >”Here's the kitchen. The tap water's good to drink, so don't go thirsty.”
  152. >Celestia peeked into the room and saw nothing out of the ordinary.
  153. >Fridge, oven and stove, cupboards, table, chairs.
  154. >And a folded newspaper on the table.
  155. “Mind if I take a look at that?”
  156. >She nodded at the paper.
  157. “I haven't got the slightest clue about what's been going on while I was experimented on.”
  158. >”I guess you can.”
  159. >Anon shrugged.
  160. >”Come downstairs in five minutes. I'll show you why I bought you.”
  162. >Celestia trotted closer to take a look at the front page – something she hadn't had a chance to do since her capture a few months ago.
  163. >Some local politician opposed the building of a new swimming hall, some team won in a sport she'd never heard of, and moderate wind and light rain was to be expected.
  164. >Nothing out of the ordinary, in other words.
  165. >It was dated-
  166. >The date.
  167. >August.
  168. >She'd been captured in November.
  169. >And kept captive for a month or two at most – she had lost track of time – but nine months?
  170. >Never.
  172. ***
  174. >”Celestia! Get down here!”
  175. >Anon's shout carried from downstairs.
  176. “Coming!”
  177. >Just as she'd found a comfortable position on his sofa.
  178. >She hoofed the remote next to her to turn off the TV before hopping off the couch.
  179. >Her hooves clattered on the bare concrete stairs, filling the ascetic stairwell with their noise.
  180. >Downstairs, where the shop was, was just as dull and no frills, only filled with parts and gizmos she knew little of.
  181. >Just that they made cars go.
  182. >But upstairs was completely different.
  183. >That was where Anon lived.
  184. >It was warm and cozy, if a little cluttered.
  185. >His apartment had a bathroom, kitchen, and two bedrooms.
  186. >One was his, the other now hers.
  187. >Her room was full of stuff, ranging from old TV's to ventilation pipes, but she wasn't about to complain.
  188. >She had a soft mattress, a warm blanket, a proper pillow, and she could go to the bathroom whenever she wanted.
  190. “What did you need me for?”
  191. >Anon stood behind the register, tapping at its screen.
  192. >An old female human stood on the other side of the counter.
  193. >”She needs a new cylinder for her Honda.”
  194. >Tap tap tap.
  195. >”Item 196. Go get one.”
  196. >Anon made a shooing motion with his hand while the old woman stared at her mane.
  197. >Celestia squeezed past her owner and pushed open a door with a “Staff Only” sign on it.
  198. >She pretended not to notice how he glanced her way.
  199. >She pretended not to notice how his eyes fixed on her hindquarters for a bit too long.
  200. >He'd owned her for three days now and kept looking at her like that.
  201. >He hadn't acted on his desires yet.
  202. >But it was a question of when, not if.
  203. >It was something she'd have to accept.
  204. >Or even push for.
  205. >She had no desire for him, but it could help her secure a more comfortable life.
  207. >The bare concrete floor amplified her hoofsteps as she trotted down a hallway between two rows of shelves spanning the entire height of the room.
  208. >The storeroom stank of oil, engine degreaser, and dust.
  209. >180... 183... 185...
  210. >She kept track of the tiny number plates on the shelves as she passed by.
  211. >190... 193... There.
  212. >She pinned the part that looked like a carpenter's mallet, made of metal, between her barrel and wing.
  213. >If only she could levitate it.
  214. >If only she could feel the magic flow through her horn.
  215. >It felt like the part of her mind used for magic was locked in tiny cage.
  216. >Just like she was, until three days ago.
  218. “Here you go.”
  219. >She let the part clunk on the counter.
  220. >”About time. Are you always this slow?”
  221. >”Thanks, Celestia. No, she's just new and barely knows her way around. I only got her the other day. Credit or debit?”
  222. >Anon had a salesman's smile, and his eyes didn't leave his customer's face.
  223. >He reached out behind himself, towards Celestia.
  224. >She ducked out of his hand's path and watched it pat at air.
  225. >He was her owner.
  226. >Not someone she had to like.
  228. >But...
  229. >It had been so long since somepony had touched her.
  230. >She had a burning desire to feel a friendly touch.
  231. >She stuck her head under his hand.
  232. >Five fingers pressed into her scalp.
  233. >Five soft and warm fingers made short back and forth motions.
  234. >Waves of relaxation rippled outwards, spreading to her entire body.
  235. >His hand stayed on her head as she leaned in and pressed her head on his side.
  236. >His overalls were made of rough cloth and were stained with oil, but his warmth flowed through them.
  238. >Ting-a-ling!
  239. >The bell attached to the shop's door drew Celestia back to reality.
  240. >She froze in place.
  241. >She realized she'd pressed her muzzle into the soft spot between Anon's hip and ribs.
  242. “Um...”
  243. >His hand had moved to scritch her ears.
  244. >”You remind me of my mother’s dog. He was huge but loved pets and cuddles more than anything.”
  245. >What'd she done?
  246. >”Just try not to do it in front of a customer, okay?”
  247. >Had she truly sunk low enough to throw herself at even the tiniest bit of affection?
  248. “I'm sorry. I won't do it again. It's just...”
  249. >Her flank bumped into a wall as she backed off.
  250. >”It's fine. Just save it for when it's quiet.”
  251. >He ran his hand over her ears and down the back of her neck.
  252. >”I trust I can leave you alone for a few hours. You still haven't cleaned the parts I got yesterday, have you?”
  253. >It's just that she missed Luna, Twilight, and the others.
  254. >The ponies who were her friends.
  256. ***
  258. >Celestia squeezed a droplet of oil onto a spot of rust on the part she was cleaning.
  259. >She held the oil bottle between her hooves, with the part on the floor.
  260. >If only she had her magic.
  261. >She let the rust dissolve for a moment, then scooped up a piece of steel wool and rubbed the spot.
  262. >It got smaller, but didn't disappear.
  263. >Oil. Wait. Rub.
  264. >Just a tiny speck remained.
  265. >Oil. Wait. Rub.
  266. >She lifted the part with her hooves and let light gleam off the spot.
  267. >Like new.
  268. >Anon would be happy.
  269. >And making others happy, even if it was her human owner, made Celestia happy.
  271. ***
  273. >”Hey. I'm back.”
  274. >Anon's knuckles rapped the the door as he pushed it open.
  275. >”Anything happen while I was gone?”
  276. >Celestia gave the part in front of her one last rub before turning to look at him.
  277. >He had his eyes fixed on her oil-stained hooves.
  278. >She even had some dark splotches on her chest.
  279. “The shop phone got an order as an email. From 'Sam's Garage.'”
  280. >The mail had a specific car model and a list of parts on it, but those were just strings of letters and numbers to her.
  281. >”Right. I'll check that out. You finish that part and clean up, we got some shopping to do. And not just for dinner.”
  282. >The door slammed shut behind him.
  283. >Celestia arched a brow, shrugged, and returned to scrubbing the part.
  284. >She had a feeling that he wasn't too happy with how oily she was, and that the shopping had something to do with preventing such messes.
  286. >Taptaptaptap. Tap. Ta-tap.
  287. >Anon sat behind the counter as his fingers danced on his tablet's screen.
  288. “I got most of them clean. It'll take me an hour or so to get the rest.”
  289. >Taptaptap.
  290. >Pause.
  291. >Tap.
  292. >He glanced at her, then pushed a button on the tablet's side.
  293. >Its screen turned black just before he set it down on the counter.
  294. >”Good. I expanded the allowed radius on your collar's satellite positioning system. It covers a few blocks in every direction now.”
  295. “Oh.”
  296. >Celestia touched the collar on her neck with a hoof.
  297. >It had an alarm that'd go off if she went too far, and he'd set it to minimum range at first – so low that the system's inaccuracy had sometimes caused the pre-alarm to beep even when she'd been in the shop.
  298. “Thank you?”
  299. >Anon reached out to rub the spot between her ears.
  300. >She flattened her ears and bowed her head to give him better access.
  301. >”You can do the groceries for us now. I'll even give you a bit of pocket change so you can get something nice for yourself. But it's time we get going now, the store I'm thinking of will close soon.”
  303. ***
  305. >Celestia's hooves pounded the footpath in a steady rhythm as she trotted beside Anon.
  306. “You sound like you know this place. I didn't think you were someone who frequents fashion stores.”
  307. >Anon had his hands in his pockets and his eyes set to the gray skies.
  308. >”I don't go there for the fashion.”
  309. >There was the tiniest hint of red on his cheeks.
  310. “Oh? Let me guess: it's the girl you're always texting with.”
  311. >A sly smile sneaked on her lips as Anon glared at her.
  312. >She hadn't spent a thousand years with gossiping nobles without developing a hair trigger for crushes.
  313. >”It is. She works in the store, but this time we're going there because she told me there's a talented pony seamstress there as well.”
  314. >Celestia's ears perked up.
  315. >Rarity...?
  316. >No.
  317. >It couldn't be.
  318. >Rarity and the other Elements were safe, in Equestria with Twilight.
  319. >The last, and ultimately unnecessary, line of defense against the humans.
  320. >”I bet you'll like the other pony who works there. A pegasus stallion, who I've heard is quite the looker.”
  321. >It was his turn to have a cheeky smile on his face.
  323. ***
  325. >Ding-a-ling!
  326. >”Hey, and welcome to- oh! Hi there.”
  327. >A human female, who looked about the same age as Anon, spun on her heels at the sound of the bell attached to the door.
  328. >She waved and smiled at the duo who'd just come in.
  329. >”Wow. You said she's big, but I didn't think she'd be *that* big. I've never seen a pony her size!”
  330. >The clothes rack she'd been arranging, one of the many that filled the shop, made metallic clinking sounds as the jeans on it slid back to place.
  331. >”She was a bit of a risky buy, but I think I won that gamble. Or are you going to let me down, Celestia?”
  332. “Why would I? You've treated me well so far.”
  333. >The woman had dug out her phone and had its camera pointed at Celestia.
  334. >”Anyways, Ann, about what I-”
  336. >”Celestia? Princess Celestia?”
  337. >Ta-ta-ta-thump. Ta-ta-ta-thump.
  338. >Somepony galloped out of the back room.
  339. >”Princess!”
  340. >A small earth pony mare, with a cream-colored coat, light cyan mane and tail, and a feathered hat for a cutie mark rushed at Celestia.
  341. >The little pony's eyes glimmered with hope.
  342. >”You're okay! I was-”
  343. >She thudded into Celestia's chest.
  344. >”-so worried, nopony heard anything of you for ages!”
  345. “Yes. I'm still alive.”
  346. >She wrapped a hoof around the earth pony's shoulders, pulling her into a hug.
  347. “But I'm no longer a princess. I'm just another pony now, someone's property, just like you.”
  348. >Both of the humans stared at the mares.
  349. >”Do you know anything about home? I've heard some rumors...”
  350. >The slightest bit of dampness seeped into Celestia's coat where the little pony's face was.
  351. “Equestria is safe. Luna and I closed the portal.”
  352. >She didn't have the heart to say that it meant they were trapped in the human world.
  354. >”You didn't tell me you bought a princess. Doesn't that make her, like, their queen or something?”
  355. >Ann, the woman who worked in the shop, sipped at her coffee.
  356. >Her, Anon, Celestia, and Coco Pommel, the earth pony mare who'd rushed out to hug the alicorn, were in the break room.
  357. >It was a small room, with just the barest of essentials like a microwave, a small table, and a coffee machine.
  358. >Celestia sat in the middle of the room, Coco zipped around her with a measuring tape to get her sizes, and Ann and Anon sat at the table with cups of coffee in hand.
  359. >”I didn't know who she was when I bought her, but found out as soon as I punched a description into my search bar. Turns out there's only four like her, and two of them are still ruling their magical horse kingdom.”
  360. “Equestria. That's our home.”
  361. >She saw no reason to hide her identity, even if she wasn't entirely comfortable with the secret being exposed.
  362. >Being just a nopony tempted her, but it wasn't like she didn't stand out.
  363. >It'd been just a question of time.
  364. >She stretched out her rear hoof as Coco tapped it.
  365. >The little mare measured it with her tape and jotted some numbers down in her notebook.
  366. “I was the ruler, together with my sister Luna. Twilight and Cadence now rule in our stead.”
  367. >Luna.
  368. >Celestia hadn't heard a word of her sister since the day of their capture.
  370. >”Hey Ann, I-”
  371. >A pegasus stallion, with a light blue coat, dark blue mane, and a cute mark depicting a lightning bolt splitting a cloud, trotted into the room.
  372. >There was something faintly familiar about him, like Celestia had seen him before.
  373. >”I-I...”
  374. >He stared at Celestia with his mouth left hanging open.
  375. >”Princess Celestia? I thought you were...”
  376. “I am still alive and well, or as well as I can be without Luna.”
  377. >She put on her warmest smile as she stood up to let Coco measure her hindquarters.
  378. >Both the pegasus' and Anon's eyes fixed on her twin suns.
  379. >The pegasus instantly averted his gaze as a hint of red appeared on his face.
  380. >Anon didn't bother hiding his stare.
  381. >”I- I hope that means the rumors about the portal are true, too? That it's gone and Equestria is safe?”
  382. >The stare earned Anon an angry glare from Ann.
  383. “Yes. The portal is closed.”
  385. >”Thank you for you patience, Pr- Celestia! I got your measurements. Your clothes will be done in a day or two.”
  386. >Coco jotted the last numbers on her notebook.
  387. >”Soarin will deliver them to your door so you don't have to come pick them up yourself.”
  388. >Oh.
  389. >Soarin of the Wonderbolts.
  390. >So that's why he'd looked familiar.
  391. >He'd already left the room, for another delivery if his word was to be believed.
  393. >Coco scurried off to pick up her notebook.
  394. >”You'll come visit some other time, right? I'd love to have someone other than Soarin and Ann to talk with.”
  395. “Sure.”
  396. >Celestia threw a glance at Anon.
  397. “If I have the time.”
  398. >Anon's chair scraped the floor as he pushed it back and stood up.
  399. >”As long as you do what I need you to do, I don't care what you do with the rest of your time. Visit her as much as you like or ask her to come over. You have a room for yourself.”
  400. >He lifted his hands over his heads and pushed his shoulders up until they made a quiet popping sound.
  401. >”Nn. I think it's time we go do the groceries. Maybe I'll even have you make dinner tonight.”
  403. >Ann patted her lap.
  404. >”Coco. C'mere.”
  405. >The little earth pony looked up from her notebook, then trotted to the woman and hopped on her lap.
  406. >”I was just trying to measure the fabric in my head. Her overalls are going to take a lot of cloth.”
  407. >Ann stroked the side of Coco's neck, then ran her fingers through the mare's mane.
  408. >”It's closing time. You can relax now.”
  409. >Celestia glanced at Anon.
  410. >A part of her wanted to trot up to him and nuzzle the back of his hand so he'd pet her, just like Ann was doing to Coco.
  411. “I'm not much of a cook, so don't go thinking I'll make anything good.”
  412. >She wouldn't let herself be reduced to a lap dog, though.
  413. >...which didn't mean she couldn't enjoy the occasional petting, of course.
  414. >She, like all other ponies, had always loved gentle affection and physical contact.
  415. >She didn't recall ever having such a craving for it, though.
  416. >Maybe it was because she hadn't had any for several months?
  418. ***
  420. >”I'm not sure about you, but I'm getting pretty hungry.”
  421. >Anon and Celestia headed down a hallway formed by two rows of shelves in the canned goods section of the neighborhood supermarket.
  422. “I'll be fine for a while, and so should you if you were serious about having me cook.”
  423. >Celestia wasn't quite sure why anyone would want to buy canned beef, but multiple sorts of it were for sale regardless.
  424. >”I was serious, but we're just getting something fast now.”
  425. >He swiped a can of pineapple crush and dropped it in the cart she was pushing.
  426. >”How would you feel about tortellini? The stuff they sell here is decent.”
  427. >Two cans of peeled tomatoes clunked on top of the pineapple crush.
  428. “Hm?”
  429. >Tortellini sounded familiar, but-
  430. >Ah, filled pasta.
  431. >That's what it is.
  433. “Sure, I'll eat it it if you want it.”
  434. >Why did he ask her about it, though?
  435. >She arched a brow and glanced at him, only to notice him staring at her barrel.
  436. >”Nope. That won't do.”
  437. >He piled another can of tomatoes on top of the others two.
  438. “What do you mean?”
  439. >”You said, and look like, you were underfed in the place you used to be in. I'm just getting you back in shape.”
  440. >It would've been fine if he'd said he'd shove a footlong dildo up her ponut, then have her suck his cock with a bullet vibe up her cooch.
  441. >But deciding that she's too thin?
  442. >She liked to think she could still decide on some aspects of herself.
  443. “I see.”
  444. >Not that she could do anything about it.
  445. >They said they would keep watching her, and take her back if she misbehaved.
  447. ***
  449. >Tok. Tok. Tok.
  450. >Anon's wooden spatula cut the tomatoes into pieces as they simmered on a pan.
  451. >”Right. All it has to do now is boil gently for about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and basil in 10, then turn the heat all the way down but not completely off.”
  452. >He set the spatula down next to the pan.
  453. >”Turn the heat on for the water when you add the seasoning. I'll be in my room; knock when the water boils.”
  454. >A few long strides and a slam left Celestia alone in the kitchen.
  455. >He'd chopped the garlic for her.
  456. >She glanced at the basil, still growing in its pot, and let out a sigh.
  457. >Which tool could she use to rip some leaves off?
  458. >Scissors weren't exactly compatible with hooves.
  459. >She could bite them off, but had a feeling that Anon wouldn't like that.
  460. >Even if they would get sterilized when mixed into the simmering tomato sauce.
  461. >Then again, what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
  462. >She stuck her muzzle in between the leaves.
  463. >Sniff.
  464. >Not as aromatic as what she'd had back in Equestria.
  465. >She did like how they sold whole plants, though.
  467. >A column of steam rose from the pot of boiling water.
  468. >”All you have to do is dump the pasta in there for a few minutes.”
  469. >Anon ripped open both of the plastic packages.
  470. >The bundles of filled pasta made little splashes as they fell in the water.
  471. >”Set the table for us.”
  472. >He pulled open a drawer, took out a fork, scooped up a tiny bit of tomato sauce, and stuck it in his mouth.
  473. >Celestia stuck her head into a cupboard and took hold a platter with her teeth just as he sprinkled some salt on the sauce.
  474. >”You really have no idea how to cook, do you? I didn't think I'd- Do you really have to do it like that? With your mouth?”
  475. >He stirred the sauce, then dipped his fork in it again.
  476. “Wi'oot m mahik?”
  477. >The table made a wooden clunk as she set the platter on it.
  478. “Yes. I'd be done in the swish of a tail if you took the ring off.”
  479. >She reached into the same cupboard again, and took out another platter.
  480. >”I've watched Coco sew clothes, and she definitely doesn't need magic for that.”
  481. “'e ish-”
  482. >Clunk.
  483. “She's an earth pony artisan and has lived her entire life without magic. I'll learn to live without, but it'll take years for me to get on her level.”
  484. >Celestia glanced up at the ring on her horn.
  485. >Such a tiny thing, yet it felt so heavy.
  486. >”I see.”
  487. >He returned to stirring the sauce.
  489. >Celestia blew at her steaming pile of pasta and tomato.
  490. >She had a fork and a knife waiting on the table, but how was she supposed to use them?
  491. >Besides, she was going to be a very messy eater.
  492. >Anon wasn't happy with her clumsiness.
  493. >Another nudge could make him remove her horn ring, though it probably wouldn't be the last straw.
  494. >But Celestia was patient.
  495. >She had time.
  496. >She'd keep up her antics for a few days to see if it'd change anything, then take another step.
  497. >Like sneaking into his bedroom at night, then complaining she can't really show him what she can do without her magic.
  498. >She knew how to take a stallion to heaven in seconds, and how to keep him there for minutes.
  499. >No magic needed.
  500. >Anon didn't have to know that, though.
  502. >The red tomato spatters were very visible on Celestia's pure white coat.
  503. >Anon watched her as she bent down to slurp in another delicious sun-dried tomato filled bundle of goodness.
  504. >She fumbled with it and let it fall back on the plate, splashing even more tiny droplets of red on herself.
  505. >Anon rolled his eyes and skewered one tortellini with his fork.
  506. “What?”
  507. >She'd had hundreds of years to perfect her poker face.
  508. >He'd never call her bluff.
  509. >”I wish you didn't always make such a mess when you eat.”
  510. >He popped the pasta in his mouth.
  511. “I can't help it. Besides, you don't seem too unhappy about having to scrub me clean, despite it being something I could do on my own.”
  512. >”Mmh.”
  513. >His fork drew circles in the air.
  514. >Gulp.
  515. >”I haven't heard you complain about it, either.”
  516. >...well.
  517. >She didn't exactly hate his soft fingertips or the massaging motions of his palms.
  519. >”You said you're as well as you can be without Luna earlier today. Luna is your sister, right?”
  520. >Celestia's ears perked up at Anon's words.
  521. >She looked up from her plate with streaks of red running down her chin.
  522. “Yes. Yes she is. Have you heard something?”
  523. >Adrenaline surged in her veins and made it feel like the silence lasted forever.
  524. >”No.”
  525. >The corners of Celestia's mouth drooped.
  526. >”Just curious. I read that she was gone for a very long time, then reappeared a couple of years before you both ended up here.”
  527. >Of course.
  528. >Of course he wouldn't know anything.
  529. >Why would he?
  530. >He was just a nobody, just some small time business owner.
  531. “I thought I'd lost her forever, but then a group of heroes did the unthinkable and returned her to me.”
  532. >Why'd she got so excited about it?
  533. “We promised we'd always be there for each other. And now I've lost her. Again.”
  534. >She let her posture slump as she stared at her mostly eaten pasta.
  535. >What wouldn't she give to be with Luna again?
  536. >”Sorry. I didn't know.”
  537. “It's-”
  538. >It was not fine.
  539. >She didn't have to act like it was; she was no longer the Princess.
  540. >Tears welled up in her eyes.
  541. “I miss her.”
  543. ***
  545. >The faintest of air currents tickled Celestia's muzzle as she flipped a page of the newspaper in front of her.
  546. >She'd pored through each and every one she got her hooves on – not that many, since Anon only subscribed to one – in hopes of finding any hint of what had happened to all the other ponies who were now in the human world with her.
  547. >Only thing she'd found so far were some ads for ponies being sold.
  548. >Were they being treated fine?
  549. >Were there laws in place to prevent abuse?
  550. >Or were her, Coco, and Soarin the exception, with most ponies slaving away in mines or on farms?
  551. >With their owners whipping them for the slightest failure, and raping the mares whenever they felt like?
  553. >She could ask her owner.
  554. >Could she trust him?
  555. >Did she have to care, even?
  556. >She'd sworn to protect Equestria and its inhabitants to the death if need be, but there was nothing she could do for her home world now.
  557. >Perhaps she should focus on that which she could change: her own life, and those of Soarin and Coco.
  558. >She'd never forget about Luna, of course, but what could she do for her sister?
  559. >Escape and somehow manage to avoid capture, only to never find her?
  560. >Celestia knew next to nothing about the world she was in, not even where she herself was.
  561. >How was she supposed to find Luna?
  563. >Knock, knock, knock.
  564. >The door to Celestia's room was pushed open before she could even turn to look at it.
  565. >”Hey. Sorry about earlier. I didn't mean to poke at an old wound.”
  566. >Anon had a hand behind his neck as he tread in.
  567. “It is fine. You couldn't have known.”
  568. >”I could if I'd looked in the right place. I just did that.”
  569. >He patted Celestia's withers with the same hand he'd scratched his neck with.
  570. >”If there was something I could do to find her, I would. Used to have two people working for me, couldn't hurt to have another pony.”
  571. >He rolled his eyes as he mentioned having people work for him.
  572. >”Couldn't find any trace of her on any of the sites I know, though. Sorry.”
  573. >His fingers dug into Celestia's mane and made little back and forth motions.
  574. “Mm. Thanks for looking.”
  575. >How would he react if she asked for more?
  576. >Go look, or laugh and tell her she should be happy he did the little he did because he'd felt sorry for her?
  578. “You used to have people working for you? What happened to them?”
  579. >The fingers on her neck stopped.
  580. >”Steve topped off his list of failures by showing up high off his ass one day. I sent him home and told him he doesn't have to come any longer. No big loss, that one.”
  581. >The hand moved on the top of her head.
  582. >”That was about a month ago. I'm actually surprised he lasted for the four months he did, and sometimes even did what I told him to. Should've told him to go earlier.”
  583. >Celestia squeezed her eyelids shut and shimmied closer to him.
  584. >”Kathy left last week. Her father's got cancer and she had to move across the country to take care of him for the year or two he has to live. I haven't got much done since then, she did most of the actual work while I took care of bureaucracy, sweet talking customers, and rummaging scrap yards.”
  585. >She held herself from nuzzling his side.
  586. >Despite how attractive the thought his soft and warm cloth-covered skin was.
  588. “So I'm the replacement?”
  589. >”Yep. You've done a decent job so far, and for a fraction of the cost. I expect record profits if this keeps up.”
  590. >That's all she was now?
  591. >Profit?
  592. “I see.”
  593. >”You sound disappointed.”
  594. >She hadn't meant to let it in her voice, but thinking about Luna so much must've left her in private mode instead of Princess mode.
  595. “I'd hoped to be something more than just profit, that's all.”
  596. >”Hey now.”
  597. >Celestia flinched as five fingers reached for her chin and gave it a light tug.
  598. >Anon had a very wide smile on his lips that was almost, but not entirely, honest.
  599. >”I also got you because you're fluffy and I can't really get a dog since I travel so much.”
  600. >And because he wanted to fuck her.
  601. >Money and sex.
  602. >The two things that ran the human world.
  603. >A highly exaggerated but not entirely untrue saying that was popular before the portal was closed.
  605. >”Anyways. I think it's time to get you clean.”
  606. >His fingers pinched at her coat and picked out a tiny speck of dried tomato sauce.
  607. >Celestia had got so focused on Luna that she'd forgot about the mess.
  608. “It is indeed time for a bath.”
  609. >So focused she talked like Luna, too.
  610. “I'll go take one. You can go back to what you were doing.”
  611. >”I'm still not convinced you can get yourself clean on your own.”
  612. >He sounded just as eager as before.
  613. >Celestia let a bit of a smirk on her face.
  614. “Sounds like you're never going to let me convince you, either.”
  615. >She earned herself a glare, and held her tongue.
  616. >A remark about how he paid extra attention to getting her rear half clean would've earned her more than just a glare.
  618. ***
  620. >Heat assaulted Celestia from all sides.
  621. >The water in the tub she lied in was hotter than she liked, but she wasn't about to complain.
  622. >Baths were far better than getting hosed and scrubbed like in the shop, or being given a bucket of cold water and a piece of soap like before the shop.
  623. >It wasn't the luxurious bath tub with constantly running water she and Luna had had in the castle, but it was a bath tub.
  624. >Plus Anon would do the washing for her.
  625. >He wasn't half bad at it, despite copping a feel here and there.
  627. >She sunk a little deeper into the tub and craned her neck to watch Anon.
  628. >He teetered on one foot as he tugged at the sock on the other.
  629. >She found herself smiling at the extremely human display.
  630. >It was a rather impressive display of balance, with one foot on the floor, the other lifted up to halfway between the first leg's knee and hip, one hand tugging at the sock, and the other hand stuck out for balance.
  631. >That didn't mean it didn't look like he was just flailing about.
  632. >Thump.
  633. >His now sockless foot returned to the floor as he chucked the piece of clothing that'd covered it into a laundry basket.
  634. >Then he repeated the procedure, only mirrored.
  636. >”What?”
  637. >His t-shirt fell on top of his socks in the basket.
  638. “Are you sure there isn't an easier way to take off your socks?”
  639. >Such as sitting down on the toilet seat, or leaning on a wall for support.
  640. >”Did I get them off or not?”
  641. >His underpants were the last addition to the laundry pile.
  642. “After nearly falling over? Yes.”
  643. >”Exactly. Now make some room.”
  645. >Anon's knees poked at Celestia's lower back as he spread shampoo in her mane.
  646. >”How did someone like you end up in the figurative bargain bin?”
  647. >His fingers ran through her mane as he marveled at its coloration and flow.
  648. >Celestia didn't give him an immediate answer.
  649. >What should she say?
  650. >Start from how the portal was discovered, or how they found out that it could only be closed from the human side, or how she and the few members of her Guard had decided to surrender after their way back to Equestria was sealed?
  652. “I wasn't the least problematic pony in training.”
  653. >Or she could tell him what they'd omitted from her papers.
  654. “At first, they were fine with something they called MRI – sticking me in some machine that just buzzed.”
  655. >Her vision became blurry as her eyes lost focus.
  656. >Vivid memories of nervousness in a white plastic tube so narrow she could barely move emerged in her mind.
  657. “Then they asked some questions about home. History, culture, sport, economy, you name it.”
  658. >The first crew, the people who'd taken care of her, had given her hope.
  660. “Then it all changed. A different group of people took over. I'm not sure why. They wanted answers to questions I didn't know the answers to.”
  661. >It hadn't been an instant change.
  662. “They were convinced I just didn't want to tell them, and...”
  663. >She didn't want to remember.
  664. >But she had to, if she wanted to put it past her.
  665. “And they beat me. Starved me. Abused me in any way they could think of.”
  666. >No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't describe what they did.
  667. >She couldn't describe sticks and whips, the gashes and wounds, the long days without food or water, the everything they shoved in her every hole.
  668. >Only the vast amounts of earth pony magic flowing through her had prevented any lasting injury.
  670. “That wasn't enough. They were still convinced I knew but resisted. So-”
  671. >No.
  672. >That was too much.
  673. >She couldn't tell.
  674. >She couldn't.
  675. >Not about Slipstream.
  676. “So they made me watch as they tortured somepony else.”
  677. >The little pegasus' eyes had lit up with hope when she'd seen Celestia.
  678. >'Princess! Thank goodness! You're here to take me back home!'
  679. >Celestia had had to look away.
  680. >But the screams.
  681. >The screams.
  682. ”They told me I would be sold when I woke up the next morning. I guess they finally believed I don't know how to return home.”
  684. >Two very wet arms wrapped around Celestia's chest.
  685. >Water sloshed around in the tub as Anon pulled her onto her back.
  686. >He shuffled back until he thumped against the tub, letting Celestia fall into the space created.
  687. >”I'll make sure that won't happen again.”
  688. >He grabbed a bar of soap and fished one of Celestia's hooves out of the tub, then slathered said hoof with soap.
  689. >It was a most pleasant moment, lying nearly submerged in very warm water with Anon's hands massaging her hoof.
  691. “I doubt you can stop them.”
  692. >Rather, it could've been a most pleasant moment, had her mind not been busy imagining how some men in black suits would take her back despite her owner's protests.
  693. >”I don't have to. The courts will do it for me for as long as I own you. Not even shady branches of the government can infringe on people's right to own.”
  694. >His voice remained steady even if his hands slowed down.
  695. “In that case I'll leave myself in your hands. And don't tell me you're done washing.”
  696. >She stuck out another hoof and wiggled her back – which rested on Anon's crotch.
  697. >His movements became very stiff.
  699. “There's still plenty of oil in my coat. Like that spot there.”
  700. >She nodded at a splotch of black on her forehoof.
  701. “Or do you want me to do it on my own? I'm not sure how good a job I can do without my magic.”
  702. >It wasn't yet the time to push that button, but it was a good time to remind him of its existence.
  703. >Celestia suppressed an urge to smile.
  704. >”S-Sorry. You distracted me.”
  705. >A hint of red rose to Anon's cheeks as he shook his head.
  706. >He resumed his scrubbing, but his touch was neither as intense nor as sensual as it'd been.
  707. “I did? Forgive me, Master.”
  708. >She drew out the last word as she craned her neck to nuzzle his chin.
  709. >She also wiggled her back again.
  710. >Detrimental, perhaps, but she couldn't stop herself.
  711. >Not when she could make his whole body go stiff with the slightest of movements.
  712. >Even if it was possible only because he didn't know she was egging him on.
  713. >”It's fine.”
  714. >She got a mouthful of soapy foam as he stroked her muzzle.
  715. “Bleh.”
  716. >She stuck out her tongue, which just happened to graze his neck as she shook her head.
  718. >”Since when have you called me Master anyways? I never told you to do so.”
  719. >Anon reached for a sponge, then used it to scrub one particularly black spot on Celestia's hoof.
  720. “I thought you'd like it.”
  721. >And because he was the perfect target for teasing.
  722. >Just like a new Guardspony at the castle: not sure how he should respond to it, so he pretended not to notice.
  723. >”I don't.”
  724. >He dipped the sponge in the tub, squeezed some foam on her hoof, and scrubbed so hard it burned a little.
  725. “Then I won't do it again.”
  727. >It was a good twenty seconds of scrubbing before the stain washed away completely.
  728. >”Gah. Those overalls can't come soon enough.”
  729. “I have a feeling they'll be done tomorrow. Ponies tend to rush my orders just for the prestige, and Coco seems to think I'm still something more than just an oily underling.”
  730. >Celestia let her hoof fall into the water, gave it a shake, then brought it back up, smiling at its whiteness.
  731. “You did a good job. I can't even tell I scrubbed all those parts clean today. Well, couldn't if my hooves weren't still sore.”
  732. >A temptation to stroke Anon's arm with her underhoof rose in her mind, but she'd already gone too far.
  733. >There was no way he hadn't picked up on how she'd played with him.
  734. >Or perhaps there was.
  735. >She definitely wasn't an expert on humans.
  736. >”Well, that's one hoof done. Now let's get the rest of you clean.”
  738. ***
  740. >”Hey, Celestia! Come here.”
  741. >Celestia's hooves thudded on the floor as she trotted out of her room.
  742. >She still hadn't managed to sort all the stuff in there.
  743. “Yes?”
  744. >She peeked into Anon's room – something she rarely got to do – and saw him lying on his bed.
  745. >His room was smaller than hers, only having the bed, some closets and a drawer, and a desk with a computer on it in it.
  746. >His window had a blackout curtain, so the only source of light was a lamp on the ceiling.
  747. >”Come on.”
  748. >He patted the sheets next to him, then looked back at the computer screen and the sports match on it.
  750. >Celestia's mind buzzed with questions as she tread closer to Anon's bed.
  751. >Had she gone too far?
  752. >Would he take her?
  753. >Would she mind if he did?
  754. >It wouldn't be exactly unpleasant, even if she didn't really want to.
  756. >Anon lifted his arm into the air without taking his eyes off the screen as Celestia put a hoof on his bed.
  757. >She hopped on and scooted right next to him.
  758. >His arm wrapped around her as she lied down.
  759. “What are you watching?”
  760. >The screen showed lots of humans kicking around a ball on a field of grass that had some white lines painted on it, and large nets at each end.
  761. >”Football.”
  762. >She glanced at him, expecting more.
  763. >He only responded by squeezing her into his side when the ball came close to one of the nets.
  764. >The screen showed the player who'd kicked the ball last shake his head and stomp his feet.
  765. >One of the commentators babbled about how the player had been very close.
  766. “Oh. Mind telling me how it's played?”
  767. >It seemed her fears had been unfounded.
  768. >“You don't-? I guess it makes sense that you don't know. Football is a game about getting the ball in the opposing team's goal, but you're not allowed to use your hands or...”
  770. ***
  772. >”She's waking up.”
  773. >A male voice.
  774. >One she didn't recognize.
  775. >”Hello? How are you feeling?”
  776. >Another male human she hadn't heard before.
  777. “Nnh...”
  778. >She couldn't speak.
  779. >Her limbs felt infinitely heavier than usual, so heavy she couldn't make them move.
  780. >But she could crack open her eyes.
  782. >White.
  783. >A white wall.
  784. >And a whitish-green coat.
  785. >Five fingers waved in front of her eyes.
  786. >”Can you hear me?”
  787. >Why was she there?
  788. >Wherever 'there' even was.
  789. “Yyyhn.”
  790. >Haah. Haah.
  791. >Trying to speak left her breathless.
  792. “Y--es.”
  793. >But why?
  794. >And why was the room spinning?
  795. >Why was darkness creeping in from the edges of her vision?
  796. >Threatening to cover her consciousness like a heavy blanket?
  797. >”Good. I was afraid we went too far.”
  798. >Something scribbled somewhere.
  799. >”You should sleep. The anesthetic will fade eventually.”
  800. >Sleep?
  801. >It was okay to let the darkness take over?
  803. >”How are we feeling today?”
  804. >The light was so bright it shone through her eyelids, filling her vision with redness.
  805. >She laid on something soft, and had something very warm draped over her.
  806. >The darkness receded, but remained at the very fringes of her mind, ready to take over if she stopped fighting.
  807. >”I'm going to wash you now, so don't be alarmed.”
  808. >The warm thing was thrown off her, and she was instantly assaulted by cold air.
  809. “Coh.”
  810. >Haah.
  811. >She shivered and drew her hooves closer to her body.
  812. >Haah. Haah.
  813. >”Yes, it's going to be cold for a little while. I'll give the blanket back as soon as I'm done, I promise.”
  814. >Just moving her hooves hadn't always left her exhausted.
  815. >Or had it?
  816. >She actually couldn't remember, but some part of her mind insisted this was wrong.
  818. >A very stark stench of ethanol filled her nostrils.
  819. >She wrenched open her eyelids to see why.
  820. >A very blurry image of a human with a washcloth in his hand floated in her mind.
  821. “Dr--Dry.”
  822. >Washing should involve water.
  823. >She couldn't remember how she knew that.
  824. >The human turned to face her.
  825. >”I know it's not comfortable, but we have to keep the wound both dry and clean until it can heal.”
  826. >Wound.
  827. >That word meant something bad.
  828. “Wo--nd?”
  829. >Something changed with the human's face.
  830. >He turned more serious.
  831. >Or that's how she felt.
  832. >”You don't remember? That's...”
  833. >Something changed with his face again.
  834. >She felt like he was suddenly very happy.
  835. >”That's fine. Let's just make sure the wound is clean.”
  836. >Something touched the back of her head.
  837. >She wasn't sure what.
  838. >The darkness was creeping in.
  840. ***
  842. >The dream remained crystal clear in Celestia's memory as she opened her eyes.
  843. >It was like the reek of alcohol still lingered in her snout.
  844. >Not the least bit of sleepiness remained in her.
  845. >Anon still had an arm slung around her, and was breathing steadily as he lied next to her.
  846. >A little bit of light peeked from beneath the blackout curtain, suggesting it's morning.
  847. >What had she dreamed of?
  848. >The months she couldn't remember?
  849. >But, there was no scar on her.
  850. >Anon had been very thorough with his washing, and neither he nor she had noticed one.
  852. >She let out a sigh.
  853. >It was a dream.
  854. >No need to get worked up because of it.
  855. >She wiggled out from beneath Anon's arm, hopped off the bed, and padded to his desk.
  856. >A poke at his phone revealed that it indeed was morning, and almost time for him to wake up.
  857. >Denying his alarm clock the chance to wake him was something she could do.
  858. >It'd probably be something he'd like.
  859. >She wanted him to like her.
  860. >Both because it'd lead to a more comfortable life, and because any sapient being wouldn't punish something they like too harshly.
  861. >She'd make a mistake at some point, even if she did her best to avoid it.
  862. >She padded back to the bed and stared at Anon.
  863. >How should she do it?
  865. >The stubble on Anon's cheek tickled Celestia's muzzle as she nudged him.
  866. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”
  867. >”Bluh.”
  868. >He stared at her with bleary, out-of-focus eyes.
  869. “Would you like me to find clean clothes for you? How about some breakfast? Tea?”
  870. >She offered him a hoof and a wide smile.
  871. >”Guh, tea?”
  872. >His fingers wrapped around her hoof, and she pulled him on his feet.
  873. “I'll put the kettle on while you get changed. Is there anything else you want?”
  874. >He glanced down at himself.
  875. >”Shouldn't have slept with my clothes on, but I didn't want to wake you up. You looked so peaceful.”
  876. >A hand cupped her cheek, then moved up to scratch between her ears.
  877. “Mm. You could've taken them off, I'm a heavy sleeper. Equestria had to be run even while I slept, so the castle was never quiet.”
  878. >She thought it better not to tell of the dream.
  879. >Why worry him with a product of her imagination?
  880. >A few prancing steps brought her around.
  881. >She flicked her tail so it touched the back of his hand before trotting out of the room.
  883. >She hummed a tune long forgotten by everypony else, one that got stuck in her head centuries ago and never left, as she rummaged through the cupboards in search of a small pot.
  884. >Whoever wrote the tune would probably be happy if they knew their work was still remembered.
  885. >Almost as happy as Celestia was as she pulled out a pot, set it on the stove, and poured a few cupfuls of water in it.
  886. >She did a little twirl after turning the dial to switch the stove on.
  887. >”You're awfully happy this morning.”
  888. >Anon, now wearing a different pair of jeans and a clean shirt, arched a brow as he tread to the kitchen.
  889. “Can't I be? It's been more than a year since I've had a peaceful morning.”
  890. >She yanked open a drawer with cutlery in it.
  891. “I could barely sleep in the months leading to the portal's closure, knowing my little ponies were being taken. I think I can let myself enjoy what little I have, now that Equestria is safe.”
  892. >The metal of the spoons felt cold on her lips as she took two of them out.
  893. >She was worried about Luna, of course, but what could she do for her?
  894. >”Whatever floats your boat.”
  895. >A chair scraped the floor as he pulled it back, then creaked as he sat on it.
  897. >”Looks like it's going to be a quiet day.”
  898. >His fingertips tapped the screen of his phone as he wrote something.
  899. >”Just some orders to take care of.”
  900. >He lifted his cup to his lips and took a sip.
  901. “So I'll finish cleaning the set of parts I started yesterday?”
  902. >Celestia had to bow down to the table and purse her lips to get to her tea.
  903. >”You won't be doing any of that before your overalls are done. Getting you clean is as much work as getting the parts clean.”
  904. >They glanced at each other, then his gaze crept upwards to her horn and the ring on it.
  905. >Celestia suppressed an urge to smile.
  906. >She didn't even need to mention it any longer.
  907. “What will I be doing, then?”
  908. >”It's time I showed you how to work the register.”
  909. >He took a bite of his toast.
  911. ***
  913. >”First, you have to scan the barcode like this.”
  914. >Anon stuck their example part, a new sparkplug still in its cardboard box, under a scanner.
  915. >Beep.
  916. >”See how the part appeared on the screen along with its price.”
  917. >He pointed at the register's screen, and the line that appeared on it.
  918. >”The little red X removes the part from the list. Use it if you scan something twice, or otherwise get something wrong.”
  919. >Beep.
  920. >He flashed the part at the scanner again.
  921. >A second identical line appeared on the screen.
  922. >”Try removing the second line.”
  923. >Celestia stepped closer to the screen, then poked at it with the edge of a hoof.
  924. >Tok. Tok.
  925. >Nothing happened.
  926. “Uhm. Hold on.”
  927. >Tok.
  928. >The listing disappeared.
  929. “Oh. So it doesn't work if I do it like this...”
  930. >She tilted her hoof so the sharp edge was towards the screen.
  931. “...but it's okay with this.”
  932. >She moved her hoof slightly, so a flatter part touched the screen.
  933. >”As long as it works. Now let's go over the payment. You'll be taking cards only. Call me if they want to pay with cash. Tap that button.”
  934. >He pointed at the payment button in the corner.
  936. ***
  938. >Celestia was bored.
  939. >She ran out of newspaper to read more than an hour ago, despite scouring even the sports pages she understood nothing of.
  940. >They'd had just a single customer – handled by Anon since he'd happened to be there – and it was already noon.
  941. >Why had he even bought her if there was nothing for her to do?
  942. >He could've handled the shop himself: all she did was stand behind the counter and wait.
  943. >The clock at the corner of the register's screen told that it was almost time for lunch, so she angled her hoof just right and tapped the “call owner” button.
  944. >Though she could neither see nor hear it, she knew Anon's phone beeped and buzzed somewhere in the back room.
  946. >The back room door's door pump hissed as Anon forced it open.
  947. >”Yeah, what is it?”
  948. >He had some small doohickey in his hand and an oil-stained rag in the other.
  949. “It's lunch time.”
  950. >He set the part on the counter, wiped his fingers with the rag, dug out his phone, and checked the time.
  951. >”You're right. How about we go get something at my usual place now that I've increased the radius on your collar?”
  953. ***
  955. >Celestia's steamed vegetables were overcooked.
  956. >The spinach crêpes were excellent, though.
  957. >Just the right ratio of egg, flour, and milk to make them silky smooth, and the spices were on point.
  958. >Not as good as those of the Royal Kitchen, of course, but very tasty nevertheless.
  959. “I didn't think I'd ever get good food in here, with you humans' lacking sense of taste, but you keep amazing me. These are excellent. Well, not the vegetables. They're bland.”
  960. >None of the humans in the restaurant seemed to mind her getting her cheeks dirty as she ate directly off the plate, either.
  961. >They didn't care about her at all.
  962. >A few had stared at her mane for a bit when she'd come in, but they'd since grown bored with it.
  963. >”I cherry picked the good foods for you. For every decent lunch joint there's a dozen bad ones. I tried at least ten before finding this one.”
  964. >Anon glanced up from his portion.
  965. >He had the same crêpes, but with mashed potatoes.
  966. >”And you can't find good steamed veggies anywhere, unless you go to a fancy place that makes them to order. Ann tried to, but failed.”
  967. >He drew a circle in the air with his fork before skewering a bit of crêpe and popping it in his mouth.
  969. “Is it always as quiet as it's been today? We only got that one customer.”
  970. >They'd moved on to the dessert fruit salad.
  971. >It was a little sour and definitely not fresh, but a canned dessert was better than no dessert.
  972. >”Most of the time. Most of the orders are made online. Why?”
  973. >Anon leaned back on his chair and dug his phone out of his pocket.
  974. “I'm just wondering why you bought me, if all I do is sit behind the counter and wait.”
  975. >Celestia stared intensely at a piece of pineapple in her bowl so she wouldn't have to look at him.
  976. >It wasn't her place to question him.
  977. >”It's got something to do with queuing theory, binomial distributions, and Markov chains. Ann explained it to me once. Basically, it's better to be a bit overstaffed than risk having customers leave because they don't want to wait.”
  978. >He tapped his phone, paying no attention to how Celestia stopped chewing.
  979. >She'd thought Ann wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed.
  980. >But, if she knew about queuing theory – something even Celestia had only heard of – she had to be well educated.
  981. >It wasn't often that Celestia's first impressions failed her.
  982. >Oh well.
  983. >She resumed chewing the slightly sour piece of pineapple.
  984. >Not that it mattered.
  985. >Smart or not, Ann had been nice to her, and that wasn't likely to change.
  986. “Oh. Yeah, that makes sense.”
  987. >Anon gave his phone a few more taps, then stuck it back in his pocket.
  988. >”Anyhow. Finish your bowl. It's time we get back to work.”
  990. ***
  992. >Celestia had long since mastered the art of appearing entertained, something crucial in long-winded diplomatic and political events she'd had to attend.
  993. >If looks mattered, she'd be the least bored pony in the world.
  994. >The shop tablet had beeped a few times after they'd returned from lunch, which meant new orders.
  995. >That should've meant a break in the monotony, as she could've searched for and packed the parts for each order, but Anon told her to not touch dirty parts before she got her overalls
  996. >So all she could do was wait for closing time.
  997. >Fortunately, most of the day had already passed.
  999. >Ding-a-ling!
  1000. >Celestia looked up from the crossword puzzle and at the front door.
  1001. >”I've got a delivery that I need a hand- I mean, a hoof- with.”
  1002. “Sure.”
  1003. >Celestia pulled open the drawer beneath the counter, took out a sign saying 'We'll be right back! Ring the bell if you need something,' and placed it next to a button on the counter.
  1004. >The button would make both his phone and her collar beep when pressed.
  1006. >”So what we're going to do is move that gearbox in the back of my van.”
  1007. >He pointed at a complicated hunk of metal sitting in a wooden crate on the floor in the back room.
  1008. >”Go get a pallet for it. I'll move the van closer.”
  1009. >He spun on his heels, patted his pockets, then nodded.
  1010. “Did we get a rush order? You said you like to do the deliveries early when we have the least customers.”
  1011. >Celestia trotted past him to push the shop's back doors open.
  1012. >”Yeah. Someone's paying a lot to have their car fixed by tomorrow, and we're the only ones with this specific model's box in stock.”
  1013. >He fished out the keys to his van while Celestia hooked both of the doors so they'd stay open.
  1014. >”I could pay of my loans in a month if we got orders like this every day.”
  1015. >All of the van's locks clicked as he pushed a button on the keys.
  1016. >She trotted towards a pile of wooden pallets in the corner of the yard as he climbed in the driver's seat.
  1018. >Celestia bent her rear hooves to let the pallet slide off her back and onto the van's floor.
  1019. >”Push it all the way to the back.”
  1020. >A grating sound filled the vehicle as she did as told.
  1021. >She hopped out as soon as she was done, relieved that she no longer had to keep her neck bent to prevent her horn from hitting the ceiling.
  1022. >”And now the hard part: getting the gearbox in there.”
  1023. >He crossed his arms over his chest and nodded at said part.
  1024. >”I was told you're strong. Go ahead, prove it.”
  1025. >He gave her a skeptical look as he leaned against a wall.
  1026. >Celestia cast a sideways glance at him as she trotted past.
  1027. >Setting her to fail?
  1028. >That was odd of him.
  1029. >He had been a little weird, like he was mad about something, since the morning.
  1030. >No, since last evening, since the bath.
  1031. >She really did go too far.
  1032. >Nevertheless, she wasn't about to fail, despite how showing off would make him more wary around her and harder to influence.
  1033. >She had time and experience, and he had plenty of buttons to press.
  1034. >Losing a few wouldn't make much of a difference.
  1035. >What she wasn't sure about was how much earth pony magic she should tap into.
  1036. >As much as she could, so she could toss it around like it was made of styrofoam?
  1037. >Or only just enough to lift and haul it?
  1039. “Hup.”
  1040. >Celestia lifted one side of the wooden box with a hoof, then wedged it between her head and that hoof.
  1041. “Ngh.”
  1042. >The rough wood nearly ripped her skin when she lifted it, but she did get it over her shoulder.
  1043. “Ow. It's been too long since I've used earth pony magic. I've gotten rusty.”
  1044. >She shimmied around to face the van, making sure to not let the box fall off her back.
  1045. “So you just want me to drop it on the pallet?”
  1046. >Anon's hands hung at his sides again as his face twisted in shocked grimace, and his eyes were as wide open as could be.
  1047. >”Uhh... Yeah.”
  1048. >He took a shaky step backwards.
  1049. >Celestia arched a brow at him as she trotted by, quite certain that she managed to keep herself from smiling.
  1050. “What?”
  1051. >”I... How? That thing's heavier than me.”
  1052. >He stared at the hunk of metal on her back.
  1053. “Magic.”
  1054. >She would've shrugged if she wasn't afraid of dropping the gearbox.
  1055. >”But you keep pestering me because you can't use magic.”
  1056. >His fingers fiddled with his cuffs.
  1057. >The van's suspension creaked as Celestia stepped in.
  1058. >She bent her elbow, let the box fall into it, and set it down on the pallet.
  1060. “My favorite and the most useful part of my magic is blocked by the ring. Not all of it.”
  1061. >Her hooves thudded on the pavement as she hopped back out of the van.
  1062. “I don't blame you for not knowing. Magic, especially earth pony magic, is poorly understood, even in Equestria.”
  1063. >Extra waves traveled down her mane as she shook her neck and head.
  1064. >She gave the van's rear door a push with her rear hoof, making it slam shut.
  1065. >Celestia glanced at Anon.
  1066. >He stared back blankly.
  1067. “Isn't this supposed to be a rush delivery? That they're paying double for?”
  1068. >She nodded at the vehicle next to her.
  1069. >”Oh! Yeah.”
  1070. >Metal jingled as he dug his keys from his pocket.
  1071. >He scrambled to the van's front door, pulled it open, and climbed in.
  1072. >”I'll be back in about an hour. Close the shop when it's time, and do the dishes if you can.”
  1073. >Slam.
  1074. >She waved at him as he started the engine and drove off.
  1076. ***
  1078. >Ding-a-ling!
  1079. “Welcome!”
  1080. >Celestia looked up from her broom and at the door.
  1081. >A cream-colored earth pony mare trotted in with a small paper bag held in her mouth.
  1082. “Oh. Coco! Good to see you!”
  1083. >”Mm!”
  1084. >Coco's hooves clip-clopped on the floor.
  1085. >She set her bag down right in front of Celestia, then stood up on her rear hooves to give the alicorn a hug.
  1086. >”Hi, Pr- Celestia. Ann thought you'd be bored so she let me come here. Soarin should be here soon with your clothes.”
  1087. >The alicorn returned the hug by wrapping a single hoof around the earth pony's back.
  1088. “It has been a dreadfully dull day. Would you like some tea?”
  1089. >The two ponies let go of each other, but not before touching cheeks.
  1090. >”Sure. But have a look at what I got you first.”
  1091. >The paper bag rustled as Coco stuck her muzzle in it and pulled out a soft pink scarf.
  1092. >It was a perfect match to the alicorn's eyes.
  1093. “Oh! You didn't have to.”
  1094. >Celestia nuzzled the earth pony's cheek, and bowed her head so Coco could wrap the scarf around her neck.
  1095. >”It's to hide that ugly collar. You deserve your regalia, not something like that.”
  1096. >It was very soft and warm.
  1097. “You're making me blush.”
  1098. >Her lips curled to a smile as soft as her new scarf.
  1099. “Let me just close shop, then we can go upstairs for some tea.”
  1100. >Celestia trotted to the door and flipped the sign on it so 'open' was towards her.
  1101. “There. I'll leave it unlocked for Soarin.”
  1103. “So, how is it with Soarin? How's life for you?”
  1104. >Celestia bit the kettle's handle and lifted it off the stove, mindful about spilling boiling water on herself.
  1105. >”We're doing fine. I've become a bit of a social media star, so everything I make sells fast. It keeps both of us busy.”
  1106. >Coco flashed a smile and nodded as Celestia filled their cups with hot water.
  1107. “Mm-hmm.”
  1108. >”I'm really happy that you're here now. There hasn't really been anypony to talk with. Soarin isn't really somepony I can chat with.”
  1109. >The mare glanced around the kitchen, like she thought there could be somepony eavesdropping.
  1110. >Then she leaned in to whisper in Celestia's ear.
  1111. >”I think he's got something going with Ann. They really like their long walks together, and often come back only after I've gone to bed.”
  1112. >She stifled a giggle by putting a hoof over her mouth.
  1113. >”Don't tell him I told you. He goes all red when I hint at it.”
  1114. >Celestia set the kettle down on the stove, then popped the stove off.
  1115. “Oh. And I thought he and you were an item.”
  1116. >She squeezed onto her seat and sipped at her tea.
  1117. >”Well, we tried but it didn't really work out.”
  1119. >”So, how did you end up here? I heard about your surrender, but nothing since.”
  1120. >Coco glanced at Celestia as she sipped the last of her tea out of her cup.
  1121. “I was held at this facility that examined and experimented on me. I'm not sure what they tried to do, but I don't think they were successful since they sold me in the end.”
  1122. >Celestia turned her hooves so the undersides faced the ceiling, then shrugged.
  1123. “It's a long, dark period of my life that I'd rather forget. What matters is that they sold me and Anon bought me. And that's why I'm here.”
  1124. >Memories of the dreadful facility and how she'd been forced to watch other ponies get tortured surfaced.
  1125. >She pushed them out and got on her hooves.
  1126. “More tea?”
  1127. >Bleeep!
  1128. >Celestia's collar beeped before Coco had a chance to respond.
  1129. “Oh. That has to be Soarin. I'll fetch him, just a moment.”
  1130. >Coco nodded and smiled as the alicorn trotted out of the room.
  1132. >A light blue pegasus stallion with a cardboard box strapped to his back stood in front of the counter.
  1133. “Hello, Soarin!”
  1134. >Celestia's echoes echoed in the bare concrete stairwell to create a cacophony of noise.
  1135. “Coco and I are having some tea upstairs; would you like to join us?”
  1136. >The echoing all but ceased as she stepped into the far more open room of the shop proper.
  1137. >”Coco's here? I guess that explains why Ann told me to deliver this package last. And sure, I wouldn't mind some tea.”
  1138. >He trotted to Celestia as she pointed a hoof at the stairs.
  1139. “You'll have to thank her for me. She's the one who told Coco to come here.”
  1140. >He didn't even glance at her new scarf as he trotted by her.
  1141. >She'd hoped he would.
  1142. >Then again, if what Coco said about him and Ann was true...
  1143. >She found herself biting her lip as she glanced at the backside in front of her.
  1144. >Soarin had kept himself in top shape.
  1145. >A shame he was taken.
  1147. >”Hi Soarin! Did you stop by for a while to see Celestia try it on?”
  1148. >The corners of Coco's mouth twitched as she noticed the alicorn stealing a glance of Soarin.
  1149. >”Yeah, sure. It's the last delivery of today, so I have a moment.”
  1150. “Let's have some tea before it gets cold. Have a seat. I'll get you a cup.”
  1151. >Celestia nodded at the table before pulling open the cupboard that had cups in it.
  1152. >”You don't have to do that for me, Princess, I can-”
  1153. “Hush.”
  1154. >She stretched out a rear hoof and set it on Soarin's lips.
  1155. “I'm not a princess. Just Celestia, and Celestia always serves her guests herself.”
  1156. >A hint of red rose to the stallion's cheeks as he wrenched his eyes off the sight before him.
  1157. “I never liked having all that staff around me in the castle, serving my guests and solving their problems.”
  1158. >She heard Coco whisper something as she pulled a cup out of the cupboard.
  1159. >She couldn't make out what, though.
  1160. “But I could only do so many things in a day.”
  1161. >The earth pony mare had a mellow smile on her face as Celestia spun around to set a cup in front of Soarin.
  1163. “So. How have you two been? How are all the other ponies? I've been in the dark since our surrender.”
  1164. >Celestia squeezed onto her seat and poked at her cup in an attempt to contain her nervousness.
  1165. >How much work did she have ahead of her?
  1166. >Were the chains she'd have to break literal or figurative?
  1167. >”Ann's told me that most of the ponies she knows either work as replacement to unskilled labor like me and Soarin, or are kept as little more than pets by some rich humans. The few who have visited our shop were doing well – as well as they can in this world, anyways. But why don't you tell her what you've seen on your travels, Soarin?”
  1168. >”Huh?”
  1169. >The pegasus looked up from his tea and glanced at Coco.
  1170. >”Well, there's this one earth pony, Carrot Top, who's owned by some lady in her fifties who's a regular customer. They live some two hours' flight away, and I always stop for a break there since the lady always offers me a cup of coffee.”
  1171. >He let out a short sigh.
  1172. >His lips curled into an amused smile.
  1173. >”Carrot isn't too happy about getting new clothes that often. She says her owner never stops talking about her son and daughters and what they used to do when they still lived with her. She's not too unhappy, though, since her owner let her turn the apartment's back yard into a carrot plot. I think she's lonely, just like her owner, but otherwise has it pretty good.”
  1174. “Are ponies like Carrot the exception or the rule? I mean, ponies who are more or less happy with their lives? I imagined they'd be used on farms or mines to work long hours in grueling conditions.”
  1175. >Being a glorified pet wasn't what Celestia imagined her little ponies would be used for.
  1176. >”I've seen some farms on my travels. They don't really need ponies there, it's just a few huge machines taking care of it. I saw one farm do plowing and it's just one tractor pulling something for a few days.”
  1178. >”...so that's what I've seen. There's the few who aren't doing so well, but most ponies are fine. ”
  1179. >A silence followed Soarin's rambling.
  1180. >It left Celestia deep in thought.
  1181. >Why'd her experience been so different from those of other ponies?
  1182. >Were most humans moral creatures who couldn't bear to see another being suffer, or was there some other reason?
  1183. >Had they already set laws?
  1184. >”How about we go for a walk in the park? There's one just a short walk from here.”
  1185. >Celestia's ears perked up when she heard Coco's voice.
  1186. “That's a fine idea. You'll have to show me the way, though. I haven't been there yet.”
  1187. >Her wings twitched at the thought of open skies.
  1188. “It's definitely been too long since I got to fly.”
  1189. >”What about your clothes?”
  1190. >Soarin waved a hoof at the still packaged overalls sitting on the kitchen counter.
  1191. “They can wait here until Anon gets back. Or will you be sad if you don't get to see them on me?”
  1192. >Celestia made sure to keep her voice steady and face innocent.
  1193. >”Uh, it's fine. We can leave it here, no problem.”
  1194. >He sounded more than a little flustered, to Celestia's satisfaction.
  1195. >Maybe she had a shot after all.
  1197. ***
  1199. >A heavy wind blew and dark grey clouds hung low in the sky.
  1200. >The rustling leaves were music to Celestia's ears.
  1201. >She took a deep breath of damp air that carried the scent of freshly mown grass and the stench of exhaust.
  1202. >It would rain soon.
  1203. >The pegasus in her knew that.
  1204. >It'd be a light drizzle that'd turn into a heavy shower, then die out for a bit until returning as a thunderstorm.
  1205. >She and Soarin could change that, of course, but the results would be unpredictable.
  1206. >The Equestrian atmosphere was largely dead, and would do little without pegasi helping it.
  1207. >Here, though?
  1208. >Celestia felt the intricate chaos connecting the entire atmosphere.
  1209. >Massive amounts of water evaporating from the oceans, the enormous mass of air rotating with the planet, mountains forcing air up...
  1210. >Discord would be very happy to see such a system – assuming he hadn't disappeared for good.
  1212. >”We should head back soon. It's going to rain.”
  1213. >Celestia looked down from the clouds and at Soarin.
  1214. “I know. We've got a while before then. Besides, I don't mind a bit of a drizzle.”
  1215. >”I didn't know you could control the weather, Celestia. I thought we had weather patrols for that.”
  1216. >Coco watched a bunch of children playing at the base of a tree, a mellow smile on her face.
  1217. “I'm no good at it. That was one thing Starswirl couldn't teach me and Luna, and we never really had time to take lessons, but I do have a weather sense.”
  1218. >A few of the kids pointed fingers at the three ponies.
  1219. “Do you know them?”
  1220. >Celestia fanned out her wings and glanced at Coco.
  1221. >”I come here quite often and see them every now and then. They really like me. Will you mind if I go say hi to them while you two say hi to the clouds?”
  1222. >The little mare's eyes lit up in anticipation.
  1223. >”Of course not. Have fun!”
  1224. >Soarin bent his hooves and spread his wings, then shot upwards in a blur of blue.
  1225. >Celestia threw one last glance at Coco, who was prancing towards the kids, before leaping into the air with a massive flap of her wings.
  1227. >Her flight muscles radiated pure joy through her as she pushed upwards as fast as she could.
  1228. >The park and the city around it shrunk beneath her as the clouds rushed towards her.
  1229. >It was freedom.
  1230. >Freedom of gravity, of earth, and-
  1231. >Beep! Beep!
  1232. >Well, not of her collar.
  1233. >She angled her wings and swung downwards.
  1234. >The beeping ceased.
  1235. “Hey, I can't go any higher than this.”
  1236. >Celestia combed the clouds with her gaze until Soarin's head popped out.
  1237. >”Ah. I'd hoped to play a few games in the clouds, but I guess we can still fly laps around the park.”
  1238. >A little poof of gray erupted from where he pushed through the clouds.
  1239. >He glided down to her, matched her velocity, and set to a steady flight right next to her.
  1240. >”You haven't flown in a while, right?”
  1241. >Their wingtips nearly touched each other as they both dived towards the ground.
  1242. “Not since I left Equestria.”
  1243. >They leveled their flight a little above the tops of the park's highest trees.
  1244. >”Then we better take it slow. Best not push yourself before you're sure how much you can take.”
  1245. >Celestia threw him an annoyed glance, but kept her mouth shut.
  1246. >She may have been faster than most pegasi, but Soarin was a Wonderbolt – and correct about her being out of shape.
  1248. >Her wings soon felt like they were on fire, despite their leisurely pace.
  1249. >She glanced downwards, looking for a spot to land.
  1250. >Quite a few humans had stopped to watch.
  1251. >A few even had their phones out and pointed at her and Soarin.
  1252. “Hey Soa-”
  1253. >BEEEEEEEP!
  1254. >Her collar vibrated and made a loud beep.
  1255. “Oh. Looks like it's time to go. That's Anon calling for me.”
  1256. >A slight change to the angle of her wings turned her horizontal flight into a sharp ascent.
  1257. >A single wing beat brought her around in the instant of weightlessness between rising and falling.
  1258. >”You better go, then.”
  1259. >The stallion flashed a smile, then waved a hoof at her.
  1260. >”See you later! Maybe we'll get to play in the clouds soon, I'm sure you'd love it.”
  1261. >Oh, she'd definitely love to play with him.
  1262. >In so many ways.
  1263. >She kept herself from biting her lip as she waved back.
  1264. “I hope that'll be soon! Tell Coco I really love this scarf!”
  1265. >A few strong beats brought her over the rooftops as she flew towards Anon's place.
  1267. ***
  1269. >Lactic acid burned in Celestia's wings and back as she angled her feathers for the last glide to the shop's back yard.
  1270. >Anon stood on the pavement next to his van, phone in hand.
  1271. >He glanced up just as Celestia's hooves thudded on the ground.
  1272. >The sound made him twitch.
  1273. >His gaze bolted to her.
  1274. >”Good! You're here. Did you have your fun?”
  1275. >He rubbed his forehead with a knuckle and squeezed his eyes shut for a second.
  1276. >”Whatever. We need to talk.”
  1277. >Celestia arched a brow and cocked her head.
  1278. >He'd thought up something to say and it hadn't come out the way he wanted?
  1279. “If you say so. We should go inside, though: it's starting to rain.”
  1280. >The first droplets would fall within the minute.
  1282. ***
  1284. >The rain drummed a steady rhythm on the window of Anon's room as Celestia trotted in behind him.
  1285. >”I thought you were a fancy unicorn”
  1286. >He pulled back the wheeled chair in front of his computer desk, sat on it, and spun around to face the alicorn.
  1287. >”But most of the earth ponies I've met could not have lifted that gearbox like that, and you even made it look easy. So tell me: what exactly are you. The lists I've seen only had three kinds of ponies.”
  1288. >A nod and a downward sweep of his hand told Celestia he wanted her to sit.
  1289. >She did just that.
  1290. “Luna and I are the last members of the fourth tribe: alicorns. The tribe ceased to exist shortly after our birth; we are the last surviving examples. Alicorns are a combination of the three other tribes, with the powers of them all.”
  1291. >He didn't need to know about Twilight, Cadence, and Flurry Heart.
  1292. >They may as well not exists anyways, since there was no way to contact them.
  1293. “Our tutor was a unicorn, so we can't use our earth pony and pegasus powers too well. I've got no hope of, say, stopping this rain – unlike Soarin who could do it in the flick of a tail.”
  1294. >She flicked her tail for emphasis, and in case he was unfamiliar with the saying.
  1295. “Changing the weather of this world wouldn't be a good idea, though. There's so many variables that predicting just the medium term result would be impossible.”
  1297. >Anon lifted his hand to silence Celestia.
  1298. >”Why didn't you tell me earlier?”
  1299. >He put his elbow on his knee, clenched his hand into a fist, and rested his chin on top.
  1300. >His lips were a straight line and his face blank as Celestia stared at him.
  1301. >As far as she could tell, anyways.
  1302. “I wasn't sure if you could be trusted. I'm still not sure.”
  1303. >That, and she didn't like how he lusted for her.
  1304. >”Trust can't be bought, true...”
  1305. >He unclenched his fist to rub his chin.
  1306. >”You don't have to trust me, but I'd prefer you did. Is there something I can do to earn your trust?”
  1307. >Celestia glanced up at her horn before she could stop herself.
  1308. “Be honest and kind, and you'll earn it before long.”
  1309. >Anon's lips curled into an amused smile.
  1310. >”You're going to escape the second I take that off, aren't you?”
  1311. >Celestia shuffled her wings as he pointed at the inhibitor ring.
  1312. >How'd she let herself be so blatant?
  1313. “I have nothing to gain by running. There's no way home, and nowhere for me to go in this world.”
  1314. >Honesty was a two way street, and wouldn't make the road any longer.
  1315. >She had a way to go to gain his trust now, after the reveal.
  1317. >”Coco gave you that scarf, right? I think it suits you. Looks better than that cheap collar anyways. What did you do with her and Soarin, by the way?”
  1318. >Anon spun around with his chair again, then pushed a button on his computer.
  1319. >The machine whirred and beeped to life.
  1320. “Oh?”
  1321. >The scarf's marvelously soft cloth tickled the underside of Celestia's hoof as she stroked it.
  1322. “Coco gave it to me, yes. What do you think she would like in return? And we had tea here, then went to the park. Soarin and I went for a flight since I haven't flown in so long, and Coco met some human children she was familiar with.”
  1323. >Anon's fingers tapped the keyboard as the screen flashed from one color to another.
  1324. >His eyes scanned line after line of text that was too small for Celestia to read.
  1325. >”Hm. Yes, flying. You can fly if you want. I don't mind as long as you don't go too far.”
  1326. >His voice was but a quiet mumble as he scrolled on.
  1327. >The scrolling stopped for a while, before he craned his neck to glance at her.
  1328. >”Uh, what did you say? I was kinda...”
  1329. >Celestia flashed a smile and repeated what she'd said.
  1330. “You can just tell me to go if you don't want me here. I understand my position.”
  1331. >She lifted her behind off the mat and turned around in spot.
  1332. >”No, no, I didn't- Wait here. I'll be right back.”
  1333. >His chair rattled as he hopped off it and jogged past Celestia and out of the room.
  1335. >Had she misjudged him?
  1336. >Even if she had, he didn't need to know of her plan – especially since it wasn't much of a plan yet, and large parts of it relied on things out of her control.
  1337. >She may have been a little harsh on him, but the one thing she couldn't stand was getting ignored.
  1338. >Luna had taught her that ignoring somepony never ended well.
  1339. >Perhaps she had been needlessly cruel with him, treating him like a tool to be manipulated so she could achieve her own goals.
  1340. >She'd have to make up for it.
  1341. >The question was how.
  1342. >So far, he only seemed to be interested in her body; he desired it both for physical contact and to fulfill his own needs.
  1343. >Pushing for the former would embolden him to pursue the latter.
  1345. >”Right. I'm going to take a leap of faith here.”
  1346. >Anon strode back into the room with a screwdriver in hand.
  1347. >”You've given the impression that you are extremely skilled at using your horn. I want to see those skills in use.”
  1348. >He stuck an upturned palm out towards Celestia.
  1349. >She gave him a long look with her brows furrowed and mouth agape.
  1350. >Was he going to do what she thought he was going to do?
  1351. >She bowed her head slowly, inching her horn towards his palm.
  1352. >And flinched as he suddenly reached up to grab it.
  1353. “Hey! It's sensitive!”
  1354. >A shiver traveled down her neck as he slid his fingers up to the inhibitor ring.
  1355. >Metal clicked on metal.
  1356. >Jolts of pain shot from her horn through her cranium.
  1357. >Lights flashed in her eyes.
  1359. >A bright light hung above her.
  1360. >Her vision was little more than a blur, but she could tell that someone waved a gloved hand between her face and the light.
  1361. >”I think she's coming to.”
  1362. >A male voice spoke.
  1363. >She drew a deep breath of air that stank of alcohol-based sterilizer.
  1364. “N—h.”
  1365. >The world spun.
  1366. >Darkness pushed in.
  1367. >She focused on the light to make it recede.
  1368. >”Good.”
  1369. >It was a different voice, a little deeper and more confident.
  1370. >”Wash her. Then make her look good. Make-up, clothes, paint, whatever it takes. As long as she looks like we haven't touched her. And hurry up!”
  1371. >The hand over her face disappeared, and the sound of hard wheels rolling on a tiled floor filled her ears.
  1373. >”I'm sorry I have to treat you like this, but the boss' word is the law. Can't risk getting fired.”
  1374. >Two arms wormed their way under her.
  1375. “Yah nii—c.”
  1376. >The man had a familiar scent.
  1377. >It was the same one who always washed her, fed her, and took care of her.
  1378. >She tried her hardest to get up on her hooves.
  1379. >Her body trembled with exertion.
  1380. >”Just relax. I can handle this.”
  1381. >Something very soft and warm pressed on the back of her neck for a second.
  1382. >Then she got lifted off the bed.
  1383. >”Ngh. There we go.”
  1384. >A hard, bony shoulder dug into her stomach.
  1385. “Owh.”
  1386. >She got moved a little, so she was a tiny bit less uncomfortable.
  1387. >Then he placed her on the floor.
  1388. >The ceramic tiling felt very cold.
  1389. “Coh.”
  1390. >A hand stroked her neck.
  1391. >”I know. You'll be cold for a few days, but it'll get better. I promise. Now, I'm going to have to hose you down. There's no time for anything else. I'll make the water as warm as I can.”
  1392. >Something squeaked.
  1393. >A stream of water hit something hard.
  1394. >Tiny droplets of cold water spattered on her.
  1395. >Then a torrent of freezing water washed over her.
  1396. “Aa-”
  1397. >Cold.
  1398. >So cold.
  1400. ***
  1402. >”Hey, Celestia!”
  1403. >A soft, warm hand gave Celestia's withers a firm shake.
  1404. >Anon loomed over her.
  1405. “Wuh? What happened?”
  1406. >She shook her head and blinked a few times in rapid succession.
  1407. >The mugginess disappeared from both her thoughts and vision.
  1408. >She was still in Anon's room, right where she'd been when he grabbed her horn.
  1409. >”I don't know. I just unscrewed this-”
  1410. >He showed his other hand, the one that wasn't on Celestia's withers, and that it had the inhibitor ring in it.
  1411. >”-and you went out like a light.”
  1413. >The alicorn shook her head again before scrambling back to her hooves.
  1414. >All of a sudden the whole world spun around her.
  1415. >Her barrel hit something warm and soft, yet solid enough to keep her upright.
  1416. >”You okay there?”
  1417. >Concern laced Anon's voice.
  1418. >A hand squeezed the other side of Celestia's barrel, pinning her to him.
  1419. >She drew a deep breath.
  1420. >The room spun slower, then settled.
  1421. >She let the breath out.
  1422. “Yes. I am.”
  1423. >That was unusual, but probably no cause for caution.
  1424. >Unless it happened again, of course.
  1425. >Anyhow, she could worry about it later.
  1426. >She had something more important to do.
  1428. >She pictured magic in front of her and ordered it to lift Anon's keyboard.
  1429. >A warm feeling spread outwards from her forehead.
  1430. >A golden glow surrounded the keyboard as it floated off the desk.
  1431. >Her magic worked.
  1432. >She felt like a boulder rolled off her back.
  1433. >”Can't say I've seen anything like that before.”
  1434. >Anon lifted his hand off her barrel.
  1435. >Something touched her horn.
  1436. >Celestia flinched, causing the keyboard to clatter back down on the desk.
  1437. >”Oh! Sorry.”
  1438. >He withdrew his hand to his chest as she craned her neck to look.
  1439. “It's okay. Just tell me if you're going to do that so I can adjust for it. It's like-”
  1440. >How could she explain it to someone who'd never wielded any kind of magic?
  1441. “-like someone pushed you all of a sudden. You'll stay upright if you know it's coming.”
  1442. >It didn't quite explain the intricacies of focusing and molding raw magic into what one wished of it.
  1443. >She'd have to teach him about it later – if he ever asked, that is.
  1444. >It'd be better to not lecture her owner.
  1446. >”So: I'm glad you're okay, but there's still a few things we need to go over. Such as, who exactly are you?”
  1447. >He nodded and pointed at his bed, then grabbed his chair by its backrest, pulled it to him, and sat.
  1448. >”You said you worked in the castle, and the profile I found by searching for your name supports this. It also said that you were the ruler of Equestria, about 1200 years old, have saved that world multiple times, and control the sun itself, among other such claims. How much of it is true?”
  1449. >His eyes narrowed as he glared at Celestia as she hopped on the bed and laid down.
  1450. >Some other pony may have been unnerved by him.
  1451. “All of it.”
  1452. >Good thing she wasn't just some pony.
  1453. >She flashed a smile at Anon.
  1454. “Some of it is a little exaggerated, though. Like the story about Grimhoof the Fallen. We really weren't the heroes who saved the day, but more of a fire department who rushed in to prevent him from causing too much devastation.”
  1455. >Just remembering that day made her shudder, despite how long ago it happened.
  1456. >Some forms of magic were not meant to be pursued.
  1458. >”If you really are the ruler of the pony nation and have saved the world multiple times, then why are you here? Why were you being sold as a discount pony in that shop?”
  1459. >His face was that of disbelief, complete with a raised brow and a bit of a smirk.
  1460. >Celestia let out a sigh before drawing a deep breath.
  1461. >She didn't want to lie, but would he believe the truth?
  1462. “Sometimes saving Equestria requires sacrifices. Luna and I, along with the vanguard, crossed into this world knowing full well it'd be a one-way trip. After we closed the portal it was a question of numbers. It was a lot of humans against nowhere near as many ponies. We had no desire for needless 'heroism' and bloodshed, so we surrendered. From a princess to slave with one signature.”
  1463. >She looked down at her hooves.
  1464. “Beyond that, I don't know. I was experimented on, then abused, then they just sold me without any explanation.”
  1465. >There was also the thing about several months that she couldn't remember at all.
  1466. >But, he didn't need to worry about that.
  1467. “So that's how I ended up in the shop. I'm not sure why they sold me at a discount, but I'd wager it has something to do with how unique my past is.”
  1468. >The only thing she could do was smile as Anon thumbed his chin in silence.
  1469. >”I guess I'll just believe you.”
  1470. >He pursed his lips and blew some air out of his nose.
  1471. >“Anyhow, now that that's out of the way, I'm anxious to see what you can do with that magic of yours. Why don't you show me?”
  1473. ***
  1475. “The simplest yet perhaps the most useful thing you can do with magic, something that every single unicorn can do, is levitation.”
  1476. >Some of the kitchen's cupboard handles lit up in a golden glow at the same time as Celestia's horn.
  1477. >She pulled the cupboards open and levitated out what she'd need – a pan, a large bowl, a whisk, measuring cups, flour, sugar, and everything else she'd need for pancakes.
  1478. >Anon sucked in some air through the gap between his teeth.
  1479. >”Just how many things can you float at once?”
  1480. >He watched in amazement as the various utensils and ingredients set themselves in neat rows on the dinner table.
  1481. “Many. Most can only levitate a few at a time, but I've had a lot of practice. How do you like your pancakes, by the way? With a little less sugar? Maybe an extra egg?”
  1482. >Luna always wanted hers with less sugar, while Celestia added some extra to her own.
  1483. >”I don't know how you make them, so just do what you usually do. I'll know what to ask the next time.”
  1484. >He poked the bag of flour as it floated off the table and poured some of its contents into a measuring cup.
  1485. “Then I will make it the usual way.”
  1486. >A golden glow enveloped his finger.
  1487. >Celestia gave it a light tug, which made him flinch.
  1488. “No touching before it's done.”
  1489. >A warm smile accompanied her scolding.
  1490. >Anon cast an annoyed glance at her.
  1491. >”Is there some limit to what you can levitate? Could you lift my van?”
  1492. “I'm not sure, but I doubt I could.”
  1493. >She measured some milk and poured it into the bowl.
  1494. “Magic in this world isn't as dense as it is in Equestria. I haven't had a chance to test how it affects my abilities.”
  1495. >There was enough for earth pony and pegasus magic, but those were far more efficient than unicorn magic.
  1497. >Celestia whisked a bowl of soon-to-be-whipped cream as Anon sat next to her, occasionally stroking her back.
  1498. >The whole room was heavy with the wonderful scent of fresh pancakes, and the hissing of one more being made completed the soundscape of Celestia's whisking.
  1499. >”You know, there's amazingly few unicorns for sale now that I look into it. Plenty of earth ponies and pegasi, but unicorns are rare.”
  1500. >He tapped at the screen of his phone, then returned his hand to Celestia's back.
  1501. >”Now that I think of it, I don't remember Ann or Soarin mentioning seeing one either.”
  1502. >The alicorn added a little sugar into her bowl, then glanced at the phone screen.
  1503. >Pony Auctions Online.
  1504. “Unicorns are the least numerous of the three, but the difference shouldn't be that big. Maybe unicorns are more desirable than the others and sell faster?”
  1505. >She looked at the pan, and poked at the pancake in the making with a spatula.
  1506. >Tok, tok. Flip. Hiss.
  1507. >”Could be. Not that it matters. You done soon, by the way?”
  1508. >He thumbed a button on the side of his phone, turning its screen off before shoving the thing in his pocket.
  1509. “Almost. There's enough batter for one more.”
  1510. >She returned to whipping the cream.
  1512. >Clink. Clink.
  1513. >Anon cut a piece of his pancake, put some whipped cream on top with his knife, and shoved it in his mouth.
  1514. >”Mm.”
  1515. >He nodded.
  1516. >”This is pretty damn good. Like grandma used to make, but better. Why'd you say you're not much of a cook if you can make pancakes as good as this?”
  1517. >He cut a bigger piece and gobbled it down.
  1518. >Celestia let out a quiet giggle at the sight.
  1519. “I once had a cook who just couldn't wake up early enough to make breakfast, so I had to come up with something. It turned into a habit over the years, and I kept doing it even after he retired.”
  1520. >She popped a piece in her own mouth.
  1521. >As good as always, if not quite as sweet as she liked.
  1522. “He was a most excellent cook otherwise and made some of the best lunches and dinners I've ever had, so pancakes is all I'm good at.”
  1523. >Her sweet tooth was know through all of Equestria, so she knew to cut back on sugar if she had guests for breakfast.
  1524. >”I guess I should have known you'd have a cook. Not a big deal. I kinda like cooking. Mama didn't, though, so I had to learn to do it myself if I wanted decent food.”
  1525. >He glanced down at his lap for a second.
  1526. >”I kind of want to tell her about you, but she wouldn't forgive me. Not too hot on the slave thing, that woman.”
  1527. >A sigh escaped his lips.
  1528. >”If only it wasn't so hard to find decent employees.”
  1530. >Celestia threw a sideways glance at Anon.
  1531. “Is there something on your mind?”
  1532. >She slathered some extra whipped cream on her piece of pancake before popping it in her mouth.
  1533. >A little bit of the fluffy white goodness dribbled down her chin.
  1534. >She swiped it with the side of her hoof, then licked that hoof clean with great eagerness.
  1535. >Anon stared at her with a blank expression on his face.
  1536. >”You don't exactly act like royalty.”
  1537. >He had to wait for an answer while Celestia's knife clinked on her platter as she cut another piece of pancake.
  1538. “What is royalty without a country?”
  1539. >The piece, along with a sizeable dollop of cream, disappeared in her mouth.
  1540. >Her tongue peeked from between her lips and licked them clean.
  1541. “So why not drop the act and be the pony I haven't had a chance to be for centuries?”
  1542. >A little bit of cream stubbornly clung on to her upper lip as she flashed a smile at Anon.
  1543. >He let out a tired sigh and rolled his eyes.
  1544. >”Fine, whatever. As long as you clean up after yourself.”
  1546. >A bright dinging sound, like that of a triangle, drew Celestia's attention to Anon's pocket.
  1547. >He pulled his phone out and glanced at its screen.
  1548. >His chair scraped on the floor as he pushed it back and got up.
  1549. >Not even glancing at his slave, he tread out of the kitchen and into his room.
  1550. >He pulled the door shut behind him.
  1552. >Celestia stared at that door, her brow furrowed in deep though.
  1553. >She knew she was making progress.
  1554. >She didn't mind it being slow, but was she steering him in the correct direction?
  1555. >Humans weren't as open with their feelings and thoughts as ponies were.
  1556. >He lusted for her, but kept it in check.
  1557. >What she wasn't sure about was why.
  1558. >All he had to do was give the order.
  1559. >Did he do it because of Ann?
  1560. >Or because he considered himself above ponies?
  1561. >And how did he feel about Celestia otherwise?
  1562. >Was he as indifferent as he wanted to appear?
  1563. >Celestia shook her head and looked at the last pancake on her plate.
  1564. >She'd get her answers eventually.
  1565. >Time was the one thing she was not short on.
  1567. >Her ears perked up and swiveled around to scan the room as she heard something change.
  1568. >It was dead quiet.
  1569. >The steady hum of rain had disappeared.
  1570. >The feathers on her wings felt all tingly and the hair on the back of her neck stood up.
  1571. >That would be the incoming thunderstorm, but it was not all: her horn went all pins and needles.
  1572. >An aftereffect of the inhibitor, most likely, but she couldn't help getting an ominous feeling.
  1573. >She couldn't help glancing at the window, either.
  1574. >It was like something important was about to happen.
  1576. >She just couldn't sit still.
  1577. >Shoving the last bit of pancake in her mouth, she hopped off her chair and trotted out of the room.
  1578. >She leaped down the stairs in one go, slowing down with a single flap of her wings before thumping down on the mat at the bottom.
  1579. >The tiny bell on the shop's door rung out a bright note as Celestia pulled the door open and rushed out.
  1581. >Her hooves split-splatted on the drenched asphalt.
  1582. >There was nothing outside.
  1583. >Nothing apart from the low-lying gray clouds.
  1584. >Not even rain.
  1585. >The thick clouds turned the day so dark she wanted to turn the lights on.
  1586. >Yet there was nothing unusual about them – as far as she could tell, at least.
  1587. >If only she could go have a closer look.
  1588. >The collar around her neck felt as heavy as lead while she stared up at the mass of gray.
  1589. >She suddenly saw the shape of Tirek in the roiling clouds.
  1590. >It was gone the moment she noticed at it, but Chrysalis appeared in another spot, only to fade away as she tried to get a better look.
  1592. >Ting-a-ling!
  1593. >Celestia flinched and almost fell over.
  1594. >Her heart felt like it'd jumped up her throat.
  1595. >”Oh. Sorry, I didn't mean to spook you.”
  1596. >Anon stood at the door, the key to his van in hand.
  1597. “No, no. It's fine. I just can't shake the feeling that there's something wrong with this storm, even though there isn't.”
  1598. >She would've looked more convincing if she didn't have a hoof on her chest and wasn't breathing deep breaths to calm herself.
  1599. >”Uh, okay?”
  1600. >He stared at her in silence for a second.
  1601. >”Anyways, I got something to take care of. Not sure when I'll be back. You don't have to wait for me if you get tired and want to sleep.”
  1602. >His shoes splashed on the sopping wet pavement as he jogged towards his van.
  1604. “You shouldn't go out tonight.”
  1605. >She couldn't help it.
  1606. >Though she couldn't stop him, she had to warn him.
  1607. >There was something in the air, and that something was not good.
  1608. >Anon stopped and turned to look at her, then spread out his hands and shrugged.
  1609. >”Why? A little rain won't stop me.”
  1610. >Celestia had to avert her gaze, and chose to look at a puddle next to her instead.
  1611. “I... Never mind. Have a good trip.”
  1612. >She should've stayed quiet.
  1613. >There was no reason to be worried.
  1614. >Human weather was different from that of Equestria.
  1615. >”Uh, okay then.”
  1616. >Celestia wished him gone during the short silence.
  1617. >”Well, take care.”
  1618. >Clunk. Thud!
  1619. >Click.
  1620. >The engine rumbled to life.
  1621. >A few raindrops fell down from the sky as Anon drove off.
  1623. ***
  1625. >Wind howled in the corners of the house as Celestia shifted around her bed.
  1626. >Neither the tingling of her feathers nor the pins and needles in her horn showed any signs of letting up.
  1627. >She wasn't used of having her warnings ignored.
  1628. >Then again, why wouldn't Anon ignore her?
  1629. >She was just a tool to him.
  1630. >Not a centuries old leader who'd experienced more history than some countries.
  1631. >...but what had gotten her so worried in the first place?
  1633. >Torrential rain pounded the window as Celestia sat in the kitchen with the shop tablet in front of her.
  1634. >Anon sometimes used it to look up stuff, including the weather.
  1635. >Celestia had no clue which of the icons she had to tap to do that, though.
  1636. >The letter icon was email and the white telephone receiver in a green circle was something she could use to call Anon, but that was all she knew.
  1637. >She tapped at one of the dozen of unknown icons on the tablet's screen.
  1638. >It went black, then displayed a stylized text logo, which then turned into the farming game she'd occasionally seen Anon play.
  1639. >It wouldn't help her with the weather, so she swiped it off.
  1640. >She managed to record her own frustrated sigh with the next app.
  1641. >The one after that was a map – useful, but not what she was looking for.
  1642. >A few minutes and some annoyed taps and swipes later she managed to find a box labeled “search” with a magnifying glass in it.
  1643. >The on-screen keyboard was tiny for her hooves, but she managed to type 'weather' and hit enter.
  1644. >The screen went light gray, then showed a dark cloud with a thunderbolt coming out of it along with the current temperature and wind conditions.
  1645. >A bit of poking around told her what she already knew: it was a major thunderstorm that would last for a good while.
  1646. >That was all there was to it, though.
  1647. >Nothing unusual.
  1648. >No warnings about it taking an abnormal path, nor about tornadoes or downbursts.
  1650. >She let out another frustrated sigh, hit a switch to turn of the screen, squeezed her eyelids shut, and focused her mind on the loud hum of rain.
  1651. >Yes, it rained.
  1652. >There would be thunder.
  1653. >That was no reason to worry.
  1654. >Storms happened.
  1655. >Flash.
  1656. >Her vision turned pure white.
  1657. >KRA-BOOM!
  1658. >The delay-
  1659. >Dizziness overwhelmed her.
  1661. >Small hard wheels clacked rhythmically on seams between tiles.
  1662. >An endless row of blurry fluorescent tubes whizzed past overhead.
  1663. >Her coat was still a little damp, thanks to the very rough and quick toweling, but the two blankets piled on her kept her warm.
  1664. “Weah go-n?”
  1665. >The man pushing her bed glanced down at her.
  1666. >His lips were pursed.
  1667. >Her vision was too blurry to make out anything else.
  1668. >”Yes, we're going. I don't know where. Just away for now.”
  1669. >Clack, clack, clack, clack...
  1670. >”Don't worry. I won't leave you alone. Got to keep you safe since you can't do it yourself.”
  1671. >He stretched out his hand and slipped it under the blankets to ruffle the coat on her chest.
  1672. “Nn!”
  1673. >It reminded her of... something.
  1674. >She wasn't sure what, but it was something very pleasant and desirable.
  1676. >”You really aren't pretending, are you?”
  1677. >His tone turned more serious.
  1678. >The clacking of wheels stopped and blurry lamps came to a standstill.
  1679. >His face appeared above hers.
  1680. “Peh-end?”
  1681. >She felt like there was something off with the face looking down at her.
  1682. >What was it, though?
  1683. >”They really screwed you bad, didn't they? And now you're- you're like that.”
  1684. >He had a frown on his face.
  1685. >That's what it was.
  1686. >The corners of her mouth twitched as she smiled.
  1687. “Is 'ood!”
  1688. >Her voice was very weak and quiet despite her trying to be chipper and joyful.
  1690. >It had the desired effect, though.
  1691. >His frown turned upside down.
  1692. >Like... like somepony used to say.
  1693. >She felt like she should remember the name.
  1694. >The hand on her chest moved to cup her cheek.
  1695. >”Thanks.”
  1696. >He drew a deep breath before letting out an equally deep sigh.
  1697. >”Yeah. It's time for this to end. You deserve better. Property or not, you're a living thing.”
  1698. >The lights above her spun as the man pushed the bed around.
  1699. >Clack, clack, clack, clack...
  1700. >They were going the other way, back to where they'd come from.
  1701. >That was probably important for some reason.
  1702. >He looked different.
  1703. >Determined.
  1704. “Is 'ood?”
  1705. >The look made her concerned.
  1706. >If only she knew why.
  1707. >”Yes, I'm all good.”
  1708. >He reached down to stroke her cheek.
  1709. >”Better than I've been for a long time. Just wait. I'll make it better for you too.”
  1711. ***
  1713. >Thump!
  1714. >”You could've gone to bed if you were tired.”
  1715. >Celestia flinched awake as something made her head bounce off the hard surface it rested on.
  1716. “Bwuh?”
  1717. >Her head laid on the kitchen table and Anon just slammed a heavy bag of groceries on one end of said table.
  1718. >She blinked a few times in rapid succession and glanced around.
  1719. >The only thing out of the ordinary was that the microwave's clock showed 00:00 and was flashing.
  1720. >A steady rain, no longer the torrential downpour it was earlier, filled the room with its hum.
  1721. “Huh. I guess I fell asleep.”
  1722. >She could've sworn she remembered a stroke of thunder making her go under.
  1723. >Yet even if it did happen, he didn't need to know about it.
  1724. >It had to be magic related so he wouldn't understand it even if she told him.
  1725. >”Actually, why don't you take care of this? I'm going to go check if the thunder did anything other than reset the clock on that thing.”
  1726. >He nodded at the groceries, then at the microwave, then turned on his heels and headed out of the kitchen.
  1728. >A stream of stuff from the bag floated to Celestia and parted ways, each item going to its own destination.
  1729. >Canned tomatoes to the cupboard, cheese and lettuce to the fridge, rice in another cupboard.
  1730. >The glow of her magic enveloped everything in turn.
  1731. >It was something to do, but not enough to wholly hold her attention.
  1732. >The buzz of her magic blended in with the hum of rain and the occasional distant roar of thunder.
  1733. >Her horn felt like it always did and her feathers no longer tingled.
  1734. >The thunder moving away explained her feathers, but her horn?
  1735. >If only she could talk with Twilight about it.
  1736. >Celestia may have been old, wise, and intelligent.
  1737. >Yet she still didn't hold a candle to her former pupil's raw genius.
  1739. >Should she try to contact her?
  1740. >Send a scroll to Spike?
  1741. >There was a chance it could work.
  1742. >She hadn't tried that, and specifically forbade Twilight from even thinking about it.
  1743. >It would be risky.
  1744. >If magic could traverse the worlds, Twilight would find a way to do so herself.
  1745. >She wasn't the embodiment of magic for nothing.
  1746. >No.
  1747. >Even trying to contact Equestria would be too risky.
  1748. >A funny feeling in Celestia's horn wasn't enough of a reason.
  1750. >”Celestia! Come here!”
  1751. >Anon's voice carried from the stairwell.
  1752. “Just a second!”
  1753. >The last thing in the grocery bag, the bread, floated into a cupboard.
  1754. >Her hooves thudded on the mat as she trotted to the hall and peeked down the stairs.
  1755. >Anon stood at the bottom with a flashlight in hand, looking up at a small metal door that was on the wall above him.
  1756. >It was just high enough so he couldn't reach it.
  1757. >”Get me the stepladder from the storeroom. We got a blown fuse.”
  1758. >He showed the piece of porcelain he had in his other hand, then looked up at the door again.
  1760. >A smile crept on Celestia's lips as an idea crossed her mind.
  1761. “Oh, but we won't need a ladder for that.”
  1762. >The tingling of magic enveloped both her horn and her owner.
  1763. >”W-w-wha?”
  1764. >His arms flailed like he was about to fall over and both the fuse and the flashlight fell to the floor.
  1765. >Or, would've fallen to the floor if Celestia's magic didn't catch them.
  1766. “Just tell me how high.”
  1767. >Anon stared at his slave with his mouth left hanging open as he floated up to the fuse box.
  1768. >”E- Buh. Just, okay. Holy hell this feels funky.”
  1769. >He glanced down at his legs and tugged at his pants in an attempt to touch the magic.
  1770. “Aren't you forgetting something.”
  1771. >The fuse floated close to his hand.
  1772. >He stared at it for a second, his face blank, before snatching it.
  1773. >”Right. This thing.”
  1775. >Thump.
  1776. >The fall was only from knee height, but Anon fell over regardless.
  1777. >”I'm so never getting used to that.”
  1778. >He patted the mat at the bottom of the stairs.
  1779. >”It felt like the air around my legs just suddenly became solid.”
  1780. >Celestia's hooves clip-clopped on the bare concrete stairs as she climbed down.
  1781. “I should probably have told you about it. Ponies get used to it early on, either because their parents are unicorns or because they have some unicorn friends who do it to them.”
  1782. >She kept her gleefulness out of her voice with the expertise of a hardened politician.
  1783. >”Yeah, I guess that's everyday stuff for you...”
  1784. >His gaze fixed on her horn as his brow furrowed.
  1785. >Celestia offered him a hoof, but he didn't react to the gesture in any way.
  1786. >Not before she nudged him.
  1787. “Here. Or would you like me to carry you up?”
  1788. >”Uhm.”
  1789. >He glanced at her hoof, then at her horn again.
  1790. >”No thanks. I kinda like having something beneath my feet.”
  1791. >His fingers wrapped around Celestia's hoof.
  1792. >A quick pull brought him back to his feet.
  1793. >”But thanks anyways. That was... not something I thought I would ever experience.”
  1794. >Five fingers dug into the mane on top of Celestia's head.
  1795. >She bowed her neck and flattened her ears.
  1797. >”Right.”
  1798. >Celestia's ear flicked as he scritched its base.
  1799. >”Let's go make sure nothing besides that fuse broke. There's a game of footy starting soon and I don't want to miss it.”
  1800. >He grabbed a handful of mane, let it flow out from between his fingers, then headed up the stairs.
  1801. “Footy? Is that the sports we watched last night?”
  1802. >The stairwell echoed with Celestia's hoofsteps as she followed him.
  1803. >”Yeah. Football, footy, whatever. Just don't call it soccer. That's a travesty.”
  1804. >He did a sweeping, denying motion with his hand to accompany the last parts.
  1805. “Okay. Whatever you say.”
  1806. >She though it better not to ask.
  1807. >Mostly because she didn't care about human sport.
  1808. >This football was something she found acceptable fun, but it was largely an excuse to curl up next to him.
  1809. >Maybe one day she could fulfill her needs with Soarin, even those she couldn't with Anon...
  1810. >Celestia found herself biting her lip at the thought.
  1812. >Click.
  1813. >The light turned on as Anon flicked the switch.
  1814. >Click.
  1815. >Wrrrr beep!
  1816. >His computer whirred to life.
  1817. >”I think we're all good here.”
  1818. >He glanced at his phone and tapped its screen.
  1819. >”There's just enough time for one thing before the match. Go get that package of yours. I want to see you put it on.”
  1820. >He didn't bother looking at Celestia.
  1821. >The only thing she got out of him was a wave of his hand at the door.
  1822. >She rolled her eyes, knowing full well he couldn't see it, then slipped out of the room.
  1824. “Here.”
  1825. >She made the cardboard box full of cloth float next to Anon.
  1826. >”Let me have a look first. I'm curious to see what Coco has done with just her hooves.”
  1827. >He snagged it out of the air, ripped it open, and pulled out a whole bunch of blue denim.
  1828. >He tugged at the cloth to find out it had a little stretch to it.
  1829. >A quick inspection of a seam from the inside had him raise his brow.
  1830. >”I definitely didn't pay enough for this. This is some amazing work, I don't think I've ever seen anything like this before. How did she even do this?”
  1831. >A mellow smile formed on Celestia's lips as he turned the piece of clothing in his hand to check its other seams and features.
  1832. “She got a little help from her magic, but it's mostly years of practice.”
  1833. >Her hooves thudded on the carpet as she tread closer and peeked over Anon's shoulder.
  1835. “I tried to make ponies treat me like anypony else, but it was all for nothing so I gave up on it... And that was before Luna and I came to blows.”
  1836. >She let out a sigh.
  1837. >If only she hadn't been so stupid.
  1838. “One of the many small things I was blind to that made her do what she did.”
  1839. >Her voice was low and quiet as memories of that time flooded her mind.
  1840. >Anon glanced up from the piece of clothing in his hands.
  1841. >”Everyone fights with their siblings at times. That's just a part of having some. No need to make a big deal out of it.”
  1842. >He reached up to stroke her cheek and neck.
  1843. “We had our fair share of squabbles, that's not what I'm talking about. It's-”
  1844. >She drew a long, deep breath.
  1845. “Let me tell you the 'legend' of Nightmare Moon.”
  1847. >Anon stared at Celestia with his brow furrowed and lips cracked open.
  1848. >”So when you said you banished her to the Moon for a thousand years, you mean...”
  1849. >He drew circles in the air with a finger.
  1850. “I mean she had to spend exactly one thousand years on the Moon. Alone. With nothing to look at but moon rocks and Equestria up in the sky.”
  1851. >A silence filled the room.
  1853. “So how about I try on the overalls? You wanted to see that, right?”
  1854. >She lifted said clothing out of Anon's lap with her magic.
  1855. >He drew a sudden, sharp breath as his hand shot off the now-glowing fabric.
  1856. >”Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I did. Go ahead.”
  1857. >His gaze followed Celestia's magic as it unraveled the bunch.
  1858. “It doesn't look half as bad as I thought, though the color clashes a little with my coat and mane. I hope she did something so the tail hole won't chafe.”
  1859. >Zzzzzip.
  1860. >The zipper running along the back, all the way from the tail hole to the neck, opened.
  1861. “Oh, there's some padding there so it should be fine.”
  1862. >A bit of shuffling later, she had one hoof in.
  1863. >Some more and she had all four.
  1864. >She pulled the overalls up and glanced back to make sure she got her tail in the hole.
  1866. >Zzzzzzip.
  1867. >It was surprisingly comfortable and soft as she did a few twirls and trotted in place.
  1868. >Coco had added some softer cloth as padding in all the right spots, such as between her front hooves and on her withers.
  1869. >”Doesn't look half bad. How's it feel? Can you work in it?”
  1870. >Celestia paced back and forth in front of Anon.
  1871. “It feels like I'm wearing nothing at all.”
  1872. >She batted her eyelids in a slow and deliberate manner and did an extra twirl.
  1873. >Her tail just happened to swish out of the way as she did it to make sure he caught a glimpse of her dock and the smooth featureless denim beneath.
  1874. “How do I look?”
  1875. >Anon had his gaze fixed at her chest, at the spot where the white fluff on her chest peeked out of her new uniform, just below where her tail would be if she faced the other way.
  1876. >”Nice.”
  1877. >He tore his eyes from the spot and looked up at her face and the happy smile on it.
  1878. “Really? Do you think Soarin would like it?”
  1879. >Celestia made her voice as excited and bright as she could, doing her best to sound like a young mare with a crush.
  1880. >She even lifted a hoof off the floor and swung it back and forth.
  1881. >”Yeah, I think he would. Though I don't know what you ponies are into so I can't be sure.”
  1883. >A burst of adrenaline surged in her veins as the corners of his mouth twitched and he looked down at her hooves.
  1884. >He hadn't seen through it.
  1885. >Now she just had to play her cards right.
  1886. “Oh, you think?”
  1887. >Celestia kept up the excited front, tone included.
  1888. “Do you think he'd like it if I visited him tomorrow? Or asked him to come over? Would you mind that?”
  1889. >She switched the hoof she held up in air.
  1890. >Genuine excitement mixed with her act as she wondered if she was pushing him too hard.
  1891. >”You can go visit him if you want when we're done with work. There's another game of footy on tomorrow and I want to watch it in peace.”
  1892. >He was quiet and his words slurred together, like he didn't want to say what he did.
  1893. >”Speaking of, today's game is starting. You can take that off and go to sleep.”
  1894. >A single push with his foot brought him around on his seat so he faced his computer instead of Celestia.
  1895. >She felt a sting in her heart for being so manipulative and making him feel dejected.
  1896. >It was necessary, though.
  1897. >And she'd make up for it later.
  1899. >She nudged the back of his neck with her muzzle, then rested her chin on his shoulder.
  1900. “I thought you wanted to watch it with me. Was I wrong?”
  1901. >Her heart beat a little faster.
  1902. >Had she gone too far?
  1903. >”I'm not going to force you to.”
  1904. >He took his hand off the mouse to stroke her snout.
  1905. >”You can stay if you want of course. I won't order you to leave.”
  1906. >The hint of a stubble he had on his cheek scratched her as she nuzzled him.
  1907. “I think you misunderstood me.”
  1908. >She lifted her chin off his shoulder.
  1909. >Zzzzzip.
  1910. >Her overalls shuffled on the floor as she lifted each hoof out of the legs.
  1911. “We ponies are very physical with each other.”
  1912. >Anon had turned to look at her again, so she nudged his arm with her muzzle.
  1913. “Hugs and touches are how we show we care.”
  1914. >She stepped closer, wrapped a front hoof around his shoulders, and pinned him to her.
  1915. >”Yeah, I read too much into that. Sorry. I won't let it happen again.”
  1916. >He did not return the hug, but did reach up to mess with the mane on her head.
  1918. >That was the groundwork laid and the air cleared.
  1919. >With one last squeeze, she let go of him.
  1920. “So, want to put the match on? Which teams was it again?”
  1921. >Now she could get started with him for real.
  1922. >She'd get her nuzzles and wouldn't have to worry about untoward advances.
  1923. >And she still had the opportunity to compare human males to stallions if she wished.
  1924. >She had to admit she was a little curious.
  1925. >That was something for later, though.
  1926. >She hopped on his bed, laid down, and patted a spot next to her with a hoof.
  1927. >”Fine. Since you insist.”
  1928. >A few clicks and button presses later, the game was on and he was on the bed with her.
  1929. >It'd been a long day, and he was very warm and soft.
  1930. >The voices of the commentators turned into a steady droning in the background...
  1932. >Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
  1933. >She chose not to open her eyes despite knowing she couldn't sleep.
  1934. >Click click. Click click.
  1935. >It wasn't because the nice man played with a- a-
  1936. >The thing he scribbled on paper with.
  1937. >The thing had a name, she knew that.
  1938. >She felt like she should know that name.
  1939. >Some part of her mind told her that there was a whole lot she should know.
  1941. >Click. Click. Click. Click.
  1942. >She had it pretty good.
  1943. >Her blankets weren't the softest, but they did keep her warm and cozy.
  1944. >Cli-click. Cli-click.
  1945. >Perhaps too warm and cozy.
  1946. >Her throat felt a little dry.
  1947. >She cracked open her eyelids and did her best to focus her gaze on the nice man.
  1948. >His blurry figure paced back and forth in the middle of the room.
  1949. >Click. Click. Click. Click.
  1950. “Nnnh?”
  1951. >Click. Click. Cli-
  1952. >”Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you up.”
  1953. >His shoes thudded on the floor as he walked to the side of her bed and reached out to stroke her cheek.
  1954. >”It's fine. I'll be quiet now so you can sleep.”
  1955. >It felt nice.
  1956. >But wasn't why she'd called him.
  1957. “Wah-e?”
  1958. >She swallowed a bit of saliva.
  1959. >”Wah...?”
  1960. >He stared at her for a moment.
  1961. >Then something about his face changed.
  1962. >”You're thirsty? Just a second.”
  1964. >Craning her head so she could see the door left her strained.
  1965. >She heard some footsteps from outside.
  1966. >It had to be him.
  1967. >She wasn't quite sure why the nice man had left, but he had to have his reasons.
  1968. >Click, clack.
  1969. >The door swung inwards.
  1970. >”Here we go. I got your favorite mug.”
  1971. >He had something dark in his hand as he strode in.
  1972. >”Why was I told there are no ponies here when there is a pony in here?”
  1973. >An unusual voice.
  1974. >Female, and full of authority.
  1975. >”Well, you see-”
  1976. >Yet another voice.
  1977. >This one she knew.
  1978. >It was the man she didn't like.
  1979. >”I was supposed to take her away and hide her. Now if you'd excuse me for a moment: she's thirsty.”
  1981. >The nice man held a beaker to her mouth.
  1982. >She suckled lukewarm water through a tiny hole on the mug's cover.
  1983. >Just a little bit, though.
  1984. >Then she had to gulp it down and lean back to rest for a bit.
  1985. >”Explain.”
  1986. >The woman with an authoritative voice crossed her arms and glared at the nasty man.
  1987. >Suckle, suckle.
  1988. >The water made her realize how dry her mouth was.
  1989. >Just like the ground had to get a little damp before it could absorb water, so did she have to drink a little before realizing how parched she was.
  1990. >Yet she still had to let up after a short while, and lean back to rest.
  1991. >The humans talked, but their words were nothing but meaningless noise in the background for her.
  1992. >She had to focus.
  1993. >Suckle.
  1994. >Swallow.
  1995. >Lean back, breathe.
  1997. >”So we're just going to let him go?”
  1998. >She leaned in and wrapped her lips around the beak once again.
  1999. >”He may try something stupid if we don't.”
  2000. >This time, nothing came out when she suckled.
  2001. >There was just air wheezing through the hole.
  2002. “Aa. Mo-a?”
  2003. >Both of the humans turned to look at her.
  2004. >She had a feeling that a third one was supposed to be there, too.
  2005. >Though she couldn't remember why.
  2006. >”Oh. You want more? Just a second.”
  2007. >The nice man glanced at the woman, then headed out of the room.
  2009. >”What in the world did he do to you?”
  2010. >The woman sounded worried as she tread closer.
  2011. “In 'oold?”
  2012. >She didn't like it when anyone was worried, so she put a smile on her face.
  2013. >It made her cheeks tire.
  2014. >”At least it sound like you don't know about it.”
  2015. >The woman reached out and stroked her cheek, then leaned in close to look at the top of her head.
  2016. >...there was something she should know.
  2017. >Something wasn't right.
  2018. >She wasn't right.
  2019. >But-
  2021. >Soft fingers grazed the wound on her head.
  2022. “Aan.”
  2023. >It stung.
  2024. “No nii-c.”
  2025. >The woman did not react to her protests: she poked further.
  2026. >Her squirming didn't help.
  2027. >”Stay still. I'm going to need some evidence if he's to be charged with animal abuse.”
  2028. >”Be nice to her. I got a copy of her files on my phone.”
  2029. >Only the voice of the nice man made the woman stop and step away.
  2030. >”He's definitely done enough for gross animal abuse. I'll show you when she's done drinking.”
  2031. >The man strode to her and lifted the mug to her lips again.
  2032. >The water was cold this time, but she suckled and drank all the same.
  2034. ***
  2036. >Celestia didn't remember waking up.
  2037. >She just suddenly realized she was staring at a dimly lit wall.
  2038. >Some soft and warm part of Anon touched her back, and his slow and steady breathing told her he was sound asleep.
  2039. >The memory of her dream swirled in her mind.
  2040. >There was no chance that it'd ever happened.
  2041. >It had to be just a dream.
  2043. >The reassurances didn't banish the doubt gnawing at her.
  2044. >What if?
  2045. >She shuffled out of bed and got on her hooves.
  2046. >Anon didn't react to her departure in any way.
  2047. >Good.
  2048. >He didn't have to wake up.
  2050. >Pok.
  2051. >The bathroom's fluorescent tube flickered for a second before lighting up.
  2052. >Celestia made sure to tread lightly so her hooves made as little noise as possible on the tiling.
  2053. >She stopped in front of the mirror, bowed her head, and used her magic to part her mane to get a look at her scalp.
  2054. >Nothing.
  2055. >She looked at another spot.
  2056. >Still nothing.
  2057. >She tried a dozen spots, but only found smooth, scarless skin.
  2058. >Either the scar had healed so perfectly it was entirely invisible – impossible since she hadn't raised the sun since leaving Equestria – or there never was a scar in the first place and her dream was just a dream.
  2059. >She let go of her mane and took a good look at herself.
  2060. >The white alicorn staring back at her looked just the same as ever.
  2061. >Anon had taken her collar off, no doubt to charge it overnight, so she had absolutely nothing on her.
  2062. >It made her feel a little odd.
  2063. >She'd grown fond of her regalia over the centuries.
  2064. >The collar was a substitute of sorts, something to remind her of what she was.
  2066. >She tapped the light switch with a hoof as she left the bathroom.
  2067. >Both the room and the corridor plunged into near total darkness.
  2068. >She had to slow down and tap the floor with her hoof to find her way.
  2069. >A faint green glow lit the kitchen as she passed by: the microwave's clock.
  2070. >Small hours, still quite a while to sunrise.
  2071. >Too early to stay up.
  2072. >She inched into Anon's room, careful to minimize the noise of her hooves, and lied down in his bed.
  2073. >He slept like she hadn't even left, blessed with the sleep of the innocent.
  2074. >...he really didn't deserve what she did last night.
  2075. >Celestia fanned out a wing, draped it over him, and squeezed her eyelids shut.
  2077. >A little bird chirped somewhere outside.
  2078. >Sunlight peeked through the narrow gap between the blackout curtain and the wall.
  2079. >Her wing rested on the mattress instead of a warm mound of human.
  2080. >She rubbed her eyes with a forehoof before lifting her head off the pillow.
  2081. >He wasn't in bed, or even in the room.
  2082. >Celestia let out a groan, gave her wings a few flaps to get rid of the stiffness, and hopped out of bed.
  2084. >Her collar laid on Anon's desk, next to Coco's scarf, with a power cord attached to it.
  2085. >The battery light flashed green, indicating it was fully charged.
  2086. >Celestia lit up her horn, floated the collar off the desk and gave the cord a yank to detach it.
  2087. >It wasn't much to look at.
  2088. >Just a steel band with a sturdy black plastic box attached to the outside, with a little bit of padding on the inside.
  2089. >Anon didn't care whether she wore it while in the shop or not, but a law required her to wear it if she left his lot.
  2090. >She really didn't mind wearing it, though.
  2091. >She floated it to herself, put it on her neck, and twisted the knob on it until the lock clicked.
  2092. >The scarf remained on his desk.
  2093. >Perhaps she'd put it on when she was done with work.
  2094. >That way it wouldn't get dirty.
  2096. >The kitchen was deserted and silent save for the thuds of Celestia's hooves on the carpet.
  2097. >The clock on the microwave told her it was still an hour and a half until the time to open shop – which made Anon's absence all the more unusual.
  2098. >Then again, he was the owner and had no obligation to keep his slave informed of his whereabouts.
  2099. >Still, she couldn't help her curiosity and trotted to the window to have a look at the back yard.
  2100. >His van was missing.
  2101. >Oh well.
  2102. >He'd come back at some point.
  2103. >Celestia could open shop without him in case he didn't return in time.
  2104. >But, that wasn't an immediate concern.
  2105. >Her grumbling tummy, on the other hoof, was.
  2107. ***
  2109. >Thump.
  2110. >A car door slammed shut somewhere outside.
  2111. >Celestia's ears perked up at the sound.
  2112. >The urge to hop off her chair and glance out of the window filled her.
  2113. >She would've heeded it if not for the fluffiest and sweetest pancakes on her plate.
  2114. >This time she'd made them precisely as she liked: with (more than) a little extra sugar.
  2115. >They were positively scrumptious, and still warm too.
  2116. >Every little bit she ate was like a little bundle of happiness.
  2118. >His footsteps stopped as he was halfway up the stairs.
  2119. >Sniff, sniff.
  2120. >”Did you make pancakes again?”
  2121. >Anon's voice was slightly distorted by the stairwell's bare concrete walls.
  2122. “Yes. I made some for you too and they're still warm, so come get some if you want.”
  2123. >She'd made the extras for lunch, but a little white lie for a good purpose never hurt anypony.
  2124. >Thump, thump, thump.
  2125. >He peeked into the kitchen.
  2126. >”I guess a few can't hurt.”
  2127. >Dark bags under his eyes and a stubble on his chin told of an early and hasty morning, but he looked fine otherwise.
  2128. “Splendid.”
  2129. >Celestia's horn lit up, and a plate along with cutlery and a glass floated out of the cupboards and drawers.
  2131. “So how was your morning?”
  2132. >Anon sat opposite her and poured orange juice for himself.
  2133. >He glanced up at her for a second, but said nothing until his glass was full.
  2134. >”Worse than it could have been. Means I'll be away tomorrow. But that's not important right now.”
  2135. >He set down the juice carton and turned to stare at Celestia with a very serious look on him.
  2136. >”Should I be afraid of you?”
  2137. >The alicorn stared at him, frozen mid-bite.
  2138. >That was certainly an unexpected question.
  2139. >Gulp.
  2140. “Uh, why should you be?”
  2141. >Anon set his elbows on the table, put his hands together, and rested his chin on top.
  2142. >”You proved yesterday that you can lift me with no effort, and told that you can do some pretty snazzy magic.”
  2143. >Ah.
  2144. >She hadn't thought of it that way.
  2145. “I'd never do anything to you. There's nothing I hate more than hurting somepony – someone. I never did that if there was any other option.”
  2146. >”So if I were to hurt you? Maybe I'll have to punish you for something, and that makes you mad.”
  2147. >The pitch of his voice rose ever so slightly, as did the tempo of his speech.
  2148. >Celestia stared at him in silence for a second, then looked down at the pile of pancakes between them.
  2149. “What they did to me back then wasn't enough to make me mad. You won't be able to match what they did, no matter how hard you try.”
  2150. >She felt it back then, though.
  2151. >The thing in her mind she'd always kept locked away.
  2152. >It wanted revenge.
  2154. >The backrest of Anon's chair creaked as he leaned back.
  2155. >”I guess I'll trust you then. Not that I really have a choice.”
  2156. >Somepony less experienced would've missed the slightest of waver in his voice.
  2157. >Not Celestia, though.
  2158. >She only pretended not to notice as she watched him grab his knife and fork and cut a piece of his pancake.
  2159. “It always comes down to trust, doesn't it?”
  2160. >He glanced at her from under his brows.
  2161. >”I suppose it does.”
  2162. >Only the clinking of his knife broke the silence.
  2163. >Celestia took it as a sign he was done talking and returned to her wonderfully sweet treat.
  2165. ***
  2167. “So what are we looking at today?”
  2168. >Anon reached into his closet and pulled out his overalls.
  2169. >Celestia already had hers on.
  2170. >”Today you are going to take apart an engine. I will sit behind the counter, serve customers, and fill tax reports. Mostly fill tax reports.”
  2171. >He sat on his bed and shoved a leg in.
  2172. “Then why wear that if you won't be getting dirty?”
  2173. >A bit of a wiggle got his arms in.
  2174. >”For the looks. They expect overalls, so overalls they get. I read somewhere that helps sales.”
  2175. >Zzzzip.
  2176. “Can't say marketing was close to my heart, but I guess looks do sometimes sell.”
  2177. >A little tug at the collar was all that was left.
  2179. >”So, there it is. Can you move it?”
  2180. >Anon pointed at a large wooden crate sitting in the corner of the storeroom.
  2181. >Celestia lit up her horn, and a golden glow engulfed the crate.
  2182. >It didn't move.
  2183. “Hold on. I need to focus.”
  2184. >She shut her eyes, spread her front hooves wider, and bowed her head.
  2185. >A deep breath filled her lungs with air.
  2186. >Her mind pushed into her horn and felt the space around her for the strands of raw magic.
  2187. >How rare they were in this world.
  2188. >But they did exist.
  2189. >She attached every one she could find to herself.
  2190. >Some power flowed into her.
  2191. >It was far from the nigh overwhelming rush it would've been in Equestria.
  2192. >She molded it and commanded it.
  2194. >Anon sucked in some air through the gap between his front teeth.
  2195. >The crate floated up to his knee height.
  2196. “Where should I – hah – put it?”
  2197. >The magical strain buzzed in Celestia's head.
  2198. >She felt like the world spun ever so slowly.
  2199. >”Right there.”
  2200. >Her owner pointed at a spot near the back doors where there was some empty floor space.
  2201. “OK.”
  2202. >She took a few staggering steps towards the spot.
  2203. >”I'll go get the crate jack. Just leave it there.”
  2204. >His shoes thudded on the floor as he headed off somewhere.
  2205. “No – haah – I got this.”
  2206. >So heavy.
  2207. >So important.
  2208. >If only to prove it to herself.
  2209. >In what felt like an eternity, the crate and its contents floated to the appointed spot.
  2210. >Thump.
  2211. >It wasn't the perfect landing she intended it to be, but not one hard enough to break anything.
  2212. >Celestia planted her rear on the floor to avoid falling over from the dizziness.
  2213. >However heavy that thing was, it was her limit.
  2215. >Click clack.
  2216. >The door swung open, pushed by Anon's foot.
  2217. >”Here we- Oh, you got it. You really don't need to push yourself like that, by the way. I got this thing for a reason.”
  2218. >He reversed in, pulling a crate jack with him.
  2219. >Celestia gave him a weak smile.
  2220. “I wanted to find out how much I can do in this world. That'd be nothing back home.”
  2221. >Anon stopped in his tracks for a second and stared at her.
  2222. >He blinked twice in rapid succession.
  2223. >”Just how much could you do in your home world?”
  2224. >One little pull brought the crate jack completely inside.
  2225. >The door slammed shut behind it.
  2226. “Well, let's just say creating a huge mess with a magic experiment gone wrong is quite easy. Cleaning it up, on the other hoof? That was my job.”
  2227. >The dizziness was gone, so she stood up and trotted to the crate.
  2228. “So I'll just take this thing apart? Do you want the parts somewhere specific? Cleaned?”
  2229. >”Yep. Take off everything you can, clean it all, and then find a box to put all the parts in. Just call me if you need any help.”
  2231. >Celestia lied on the floor, peering at the underside of an engine.
  2232. >She had her mane tied in a bun and her hoof stuck into a gap in the pallet the engine stood on.
  2233. >The something-or-other she could just barely reach wiggled.
  2234. >She had to reach through the pallet and beneath the engine, and then bend her hoof upwards to touch the part.
  2235. >It felt like it was coated in a thick layer of muck and grease, and judging by all the brown goop on her overalls, was indeed caked in rust and old oil.
  2236. >She had to get it off and clean it regardless, and then let Anon decide whether it would be sold as scrap or as a replacement part.
  2237. >But it was all meaningless if she couldn't get it off, and wiggling it back and forth wasn't cutting it.
  2238. >She needed some leverage or a better position so she could see it and use her magic.
  2240. >She pushed herself off the hard and dusty floor and wiggled her neck and shoulder to relieve the tension in them.
  2241. >As she trotted back and forth to get the blood flowing in her limbs, her eyes happened upon the crate jack Anon left behind.
  2242. >It gave her an idea.
  2243. >She could use the jack to lift the engine and then stick her head beneath it.
  2244. >Of course, there was the risk that whole thing would fall on top of her.
  2245. >It'd hurt, but should cause no lasting damage – she was far tougher than the ponies health and safety rules were made for.
  2247. ***
  2249. >Clunk.
  2250. >Yet another part fell on the pile of clean shiny metal.
  2251. >Celestia let out a sigh and floated one more thingamajig off the dirty pile.
  2252. >She shouldn't complain.
  2253. >But it was so boring.
  2254. >Like those countless meetings where the same ponies argued about the same things with the same arguments over and over again.
  2255. >They called it politics and doing what the citizens want, but what they really did was take turns doing what they themselves wanted.
  2256. >None of them stayed in power, or alive, long enough to affect anything in the long run anyways.
  2258. >Scrub, scrub, scrub.
  2259. >Oily goop covered the rag she cleaned the parts with.
  2260. >Oily goop mixed with flecks of rust covered her hooves and the sleeves of her overalls.
  2261. >Some of the parts turned out to be nothing but oily goop and rust.
  2262. >She wasn't sure she'd ever get the stench of filthy oil and rust out of her snout.
  2264. ***
  2266. >”Good. You're far faster than I thought you would be.”
  2267. >Anon sunk his fingers into Celestia's mane and scratched her neck, rapping the front desk with his other hand.
  2268. >”Clean up the floor, throw the dirt and used rags in the oil waste bin, and go wash up a bit. I'll close shop.”
  2269. >The fingers skittered upwards until they scritched the spot between her ears.
  2270. “Nnn.”
  2271. >She pushed her head backwards and towards him.
  2272. “Are you sure you don't want to help me clean up? A bath sounds really good right now.”
  2273. >All that warm water to soothe her stiff body and foamy goodness to wash her clean...
  2274. >”I still need you for something so just go clean the oil off the floor so it doesn't spread and then get the worst of it off yourself. Come back downstairs when you're done.”
  2275. >He waved his hand at the stairs and looked back at the tablet on the desk in front of him.
  2276. “Fine. I'll be back in a bit.”
  2277. >Celestia made sure to only let a frown on her face after the store room door slammed shut behind her and Anon was out of sight.
  2279. ***
  2281. >A white mare with brown oil stains on her face stared back from the mirror.
  2282. >She twisted the tap to maximum heat, popped it open, and listened to the rush of water for a short while.
  2283. >Her mind felt slow and sluggish from all the scrubbing and dismantling.
  2284. >She'd have to learn how to have breaks.
  2285. >That used to be her secretary's problem – Raven was most adept at making sure she never spent more than a few hours without a break.
  2286. >It'd take a while to get used to doing it herself.
  2287. >She shook her head and glanced down at her hooves.
  2288. >They were covered in rust brown stains.
  2289. >Letting out a sigh, she lit up her horn and floated a piece of soap off the sink.
  2291. >The air downstairs felt cool without her overalls.
  2292. “I think I got most of it off. Does it please you?”
  2293. >She shuffled her wings and spread their feathers to cover more of her barrel as she crossed into the shop proper from the stairs.
  2294. >Anon glanced at her, then pushed a button on the side of his tablet to make its screen turn off.
  2295. >“Yeah, it's good.”
  2296. >He stuck his hand in his pocket, dug out his keys, and nodded at the door.
  2297. >“Let's go. I need to buy something and you need to carry it.”
  2298. >The human headed for the door.
  2299. >Celestia hesitated for a second.
  2300. “Would it be fine if I wore the scarf?”
  2301. >She'd get used to the coolness, but the scarf reminded her that she wasn't the only pony in this world.
  2302. >On top of looking good, of course.
  2303. >Anon stared at her for a second, his eyes fixing on the collar.
  2304. >”Yeah, sure, if you want to.”
  2306. ***
  2308. >Slam.
  2309. >Anon reached over from his seat as soon as the door on Celestia's side slammed shut.
  2310. “I could get it myself.”
  2311. >She smiled at him as he grabbed the buckle of the seat belt on her side, pulled it across her, and pushed it into its slot until it clicked.
  2312. >He only looked at her when she gave his finger a light tug with her magic.
  2313. >”I guess you can. Anyhow, remember that rush order we had yesterday?”
  2314. >Celestia nodded at him as he pulled at his own seat belt and clicked it in place.
  2315. >”The owner really liked how fast we were and ordered another gearbox. Sadly not a rush order this time, but he pays well enough regardless.”
  2316. >His hand reached for the key in the ignition and turned it.
  2317. >The engine rumbled to life.
  2318. >”I found what he ordered, so we'll pick that up from a scarpyard and then go shopping.”
  2319. >He set the stick between them to 'R', whatever that meant, and looked up at the rear view mirror.
  2321. ***
  2323. >Bip!
  2324. >Celestia's collar made a beep, making her twitch as the sudden noise broke her train of thought.
  2325. >The light on it flashed red as a prewarning as she looked at it.
  2326. >She thought he'd taken care of it!
  2327. “Uh, we've gone too far. The alarm's going off.”
  2328. >Bip!
  2329. >Anon glanced her way, then returned his eyes to the road ahead.
  2330. >”Should have remembered to anchor that to my phone.”
  2331. >Beep!
  2332. >”Okay, okay, just-”
  2333. >He reached for her collar with one hand, keeping the other on the wheel, and fondled the box on it until his forefinger found the slight impression on it.
  2334. >The light stopped blinking.
  2335. >”-shut up. Remind me to change your anchor point when we get there.”
  2336. >His fingers gave her neck a single stroke before returning to the wheel.
  2337. “Oh. So you can do that. Did that turn it off?”
  2338. >Her ears swiveled back and fort, searching for beeps in the middle of the hum of wheels.
  2339. >There were none to be heard.
  2340. >”Nah, that just mutes it for a while. Handy for situations like this.”
  2341. >The deceleration pushed them against their seat belts as he pulled to a stop in front of a red light.
  2343. ***
  2345. >Rust.
  2346. >That was the best word to describe what was around Celestia as she hopped out of the van.
  2347. >Rusty cars filled the lot.
  2348. >Most without license plates, some without windows, a few without tires.
  2349. “So this is where you get your used parts?”
  2350. >Slam.
  2351. >The van's doors clicked as Anon pushed a button on his key.
  2352. >”Most of them. There's a few other places I go to, but this is both the closest and the biggest.”
  2353. >He pointed and nodded at a gray brick building in the corner of the lot, then headed towards it.
  2354. >”I don't usually come here this late, but someone else wanted something out of this particular car so all that's left for us to do is haul the gearbox into the back. Usually I have to detach what I need myself.”
  2355. >Celestia trotted to his side, her hooves treading the hot asphalt.
  2356. >The sun shone from a cloudless sky and the day had been very warm – not that she'd had a chance to enjoy it.
  2357. “So that's what you do? Take working parts out of these piles of rust, clean them, and sell them?”
  2358. >His hand stroked the side of her neck, then massaged the top of her head.
  2359. >”It may not be glamorous but it pays the bills.”
  2361. >Anon pushed a button on the door.
  2362. >Ding-dong!
  2363. >A bell rung somewhere inside the gray brick building.
  2364. >The sound of heavy footsteps followed.
  2365. >An overweight middle-aged man pulled the door open.
  2366. >”Anon! I got your mail, the b-”
  2367. >He went silent as soon as he noticed Celestia.
  2368. >“Oh. Can't say I've seen one like that before. Yours?”
  2369. >Anon nodded.
  2370. >”Yep. Had her for about a week now. Very handy. Just wait until you see what she can do.”
  2371. >The fat man stepped outside and circled her.
  2372. >It would've made her feel uncomfortable had she not been so used to being the odd one out.
  2373. >”Not bad, not bad.”
  2374. >He pursed his lips and nodded in approval.
  2375. >”Quite the looker, she is. Anyhow.”
  2376. >Celestia wasn't too happy with how he talked about her, but kept her mouth shut.
  2377. >”Your box is in the back, you've already paid, and you know where the jack is. Knock yourself out.”
  2378. >The man still stared at her, eyeing her from hoof to horn like she was some display mannequin.
  2379. >”Why not come have a look at what I got her for? She won't disappoint.”
  2381. >Anon nodded at the gearbox.
  2382. >”Go ahead. Show him.”
  2383. >It was smaller than the last.
  2384. >Had a bit of rust on it too.
  2385. >Nothing that wouldn't come off, though.
  2386. “You make it sound it like it's something out of the ordinary.”
  2387. >Celestia's horn lit up in a golden glow.
  2388. >The hunk of metal and the pallet it rested on floated off the floor.
  2389. “I suppose it's just a matter of getting used to it.”
  2390. >She glared at the fat man for a second before heading for the door.
  2391. >His eyes were round with amazement.
  2392. >”Now that ain't something you see every day.”
  2393. >”I bought her to get some muscle, but this works just as well. Makes less of a mess, too.”
  2394. >Anon's shoes thudded on the floor, mixing with the sound of Celestia's hooves.
  2395. >”Well, see ya. We got some shopping to do.”
  2397. ***
  2399. >The van's brakes screeched as Anon pulled to a stop in front of yet another red light.
  2400. >”You're awfully quiet.”
  2401. >He rapped the steering wheel with his fingers as he stared at the intersection ahead.
  2402. “Am I just a piece of furniture?”
  2403. >The words came out far snappier than she intended and earned her a glance.
  2404. “I mean, I'm used to being stared at since I don't exactly blend in, but that was something else.”
  2405. >Anon reached over to pet her mane.
  2406. >”You'll just have to get used to that. Some of us prefer to keep believing in the lies we were told rather than admit being wrong.”
  2408. >The light turned green.
  2409. >The engine growled as Anon put his foot down.
  2410. “I know.”
  2411. >Celestia turned to face the side window like she was looking out of it.
  2412. >She didn't see the sidewalk whizzing past, though.
  2413. >She saw herself knocking on the door to Luna's room a very, very long time ago.
  2414. >Luna never answered, and she was oh so busy with oh so important business.
  2415. >If only she'd been strong enough to admit she was wrong.
  2416. “I know more than anypony else.”
  2417. >And now Luna was gone.
  2418. >Again.
  2420. ***
  2422. >”Would you feel better if I got you a little something?”
  2423. >Anon's voice drew Celestia back to the present.
  2424. >They were inching their way through a parking lot near a huge building that was plastered with logos.
  2425. >His head swiveled from side to side in search of a free spot.
  2426. “Uhm, I guess it wouldn't hurt. What'd you have in mind?”
  2427. >A bit of a smile found its way on her face.
  2428. >Maybe he'd get her some grapes?
  2429. >Some plump, juicy, sweet grapes.
  2430. >”I'll see if I run into something nice.”
  2431. >He slammed the brakes and pushed the stick between them to 'R' – which apparently stood for 'Reverse', as he then reversed into an open spot.
  2432. >”But first, there's a few things we need to get. You are going to buy a bed for yourself, and I will get the groceries plus a handful of other small things.”
  2434. “So turn left when we go in and then go straight until I run into the big furniture store with a yellow and blue logo? Got it.”
  2435. >The pavement under Celestia's hooves was warm from the sun, despite how the hottest time of the day was long past, as they crossed the parking lot.
  2436. “How am I supposed to pay for it, though?”
  2437. >Anon tapped at his phone as he walked beside her.
  2438. >”I activated your collar's prepaid debit feature and gave you a fifty, enough for their basic models. They'll know how it works.”
  2439. >He reached over and tapped her collar just as the mall's automated doors opened in front of them.
  2440. >”I'm not expecting any of that back by the way, so spend whatever's left over however you like. Your collar's got tracking so I'll find you when I'm done. Till then!”
  2441. >A smile and wave was all she got from him before he headed the other way, leaving Celestia all alone in a crowded shopping mall.
  2443. >They didn't just give her the passing glance.
  2444. >No, many stopped and turned to stare as she trotted by.
  2445. >Those who weren't alone whispered to each other:
  2446. >That pony, never heard of, odd, so big, the tail.
  2447. >Celestia paid little attention to the humans.
  2448. >She found the glimpses of pony far more interesting.
  2449. >There, in that pet store as a clerk, talking to some man and waving a hoof at bags of cat food.
  2450. >An earth pony stallion.
  2451. >Somepony Celestia didn't remember seeing before.
  2452. >He was clean, looked well fed with how shiny and smooth his coat was, and even had his mane neatly combed to one side.
  2453. >She would've loved to go in for a chat, but she had an errand to run and his collar bore the name of the store he was in.
  2454. >So, she had to settle with knowing he was safe, if not free.
  2456. >The furniture store was, with a word, enormous.
  2457. >It sold everything a furniture store could possibly sell.
  2458. >All she could see from the entrance were couches, stools, dinner tables, bookshelves, TV tables, office chairs, kitchen sets, shower curtains, picture frames, lamps...
  2459. >The map next to her told her it had departments for every room a pony could possibly have.
  2460. >Well, apart from throne rooms and dungeons.
  2461. >But everything a normal pony could have.
  2462. >It even had its own in-store restaurant.
  2463. >It made Celestia feel a little lost.
  2464. >Furnishing the caste had always been somepony else's job.
  2465. >She shook her head, thought about the kind of bed she wanted, and trotted towards the recliners, sofas, and coffee tables.
  2467. >”Mommy, can I pet that pony? She has a funny mane.”
  2468. >A bright voice drew Celestia's attention as she was looking at a bed frame (beech, single person, barebones model – exactly what she was looking for).
  2469. >The source was a young boy, standing next to his mother and pointing at Celestia.
  2470. >The woman didn't even look at her son, instead searching for something in a bargain bin.
  2471. >”You know you can't pet working ponies, dear.”
  2472. >He looked very disheartened by this and made a quiet 'aww' sound.
  2473. “It's fine. I'm off duty.”
  2474. >Seeing the boy's face light up was enough of a reward to her.
  2475. >”Can I?”
  2476. >The mother finally looked away from her rummaging, and at Celestia.
  2477. >”Well, if she's fine with it then I'm fine with it.”
  2478. >Her brow furrowed as she studied the alicorn's features.
  2479. >Then she shrugged and went back to looking for whatever she was trying to find.
  2481. >The boy stopped about a step from her, teetering back and forth on the balls of his feet like he wasn't sure if it was okay to take the last step.
  2482. >”Hey miss pony. What's your name?”
  2483. >He put his hands behind his back and crossed his fingers as Celestia bent down to his level.
  2484. “I'm Celestia.”
  2485. >His mother, now holding a pillow, nodded at him as he glanced back.
  2486. >”Can I touch your mane? It looks so weird.”
  2487. >Celestia let a wide smile on her face and bowed her head.
  2488. >A little hand reached for her mane.
  2489. >”It's-”
  2490. >His mouth turned into an O as he tried and failed to grasp the magic-infused strands.
  2491. “It's magic.”
  2492. >The intricacies of how the magic leaking out of her turned her mane into another form of matter entirely would be beyond the little boy.
  2493. >Instead of trying to explain it, she lit up her horn, ruffled the boy's hair, and put a wide smile on her face.
  2494. >”Oo! Hee!”
  2495. >He let out a short, bright giggle and grabbed an armful of mane.
  2497. >”Are you sure it's not too much trouble?”
  2498. >The boy's mother had her phone out and pointed at Celestia.
  2499. “No, no. Not at all.”
  2500. >The alicorn made sure to keep her gait steady as she walked beside the middle-aged woman.
  2501. >Two small legs, shaking with excitement, clamped at her barrel and two hands grasped her neck.
  2502. “He reminds me of the earth pony and unicorn fillies and colts I used to take for short flights. School visits on slow days were my favorite.”
  2503. >”Oo! Can you fly now? I wanna fly!”
  2504. >The weight on Celestia's back bobbed up and down.
  2505. >She shuffled her wings, but kept them folded.
  2506. “Not indoors, and not without somepony to catch you if you fall.”
  2507. >Nopony ever fell, of course, but she always had a guard ready just in case.
  2508. >”Aww.”
  2509. >He slumped against her neck, until Celestia took one hop of a step to make him all giddy again.
  2511. >Extremely tall industrial shelves stacked with numbered cardboard boxes stood on both sides of them.
  2512. “What was the shelf slot again?”
  2513. >”Oh.”
  2514. >The boy's mother, Shelly, tapped at her phone a few times.
  2515. >”G-92.”
  2516. >”There's G!”
  2517. >They boy's legs squeezed Celestia's barrel harder than usual as he took one hand off her neck to point.
  2518. “It is indeed! Now can you find spot 92 on that shelf?”
  2519. >She took to a light canter in the barely populated corridor between the shelves, making the boy glue himself to her neck.
  2520. >Shelly lifted her phone again to take a picture.
  2522. >The man working at the cashier hesitated for a second before grabbing the levitating cardboard box that Celestia presented.
  2523. >Beep!
  2524. >”That's 39.99.”
  2525. >He let go of the box and shook his hand like there was something disgusting stuck to it.
  2526. “There should be enough on my collar.”
  2527. >Tap tap tap.
  2528. >”Yeah, yeah, just touch this thing with it.”
  2529. >The spot he tapped had a credit card sticker on it, and was at the height an average pony's collar would be.
  2530. >Celestia had to bend down to reach it.
  2531. >Beep.
  2532. >”Thank you for your business. You got 10.01 left, is there anything else you'd like?”
  2533. “No, this is everything I need.”
  2534. >She waved a hoof at the cashier before trotting to Shelly, the boxed bedframe floating beside her and a little boy riding on her.
  2536. >”It's time to get off now, dear. Celestia still has errands to run and we need to get home. Daddy's waiting.”
  2537. >Celestia bent her hooves and laid down on the floor on her stomach to let the boy off.
  2538. >He hugged her neck and pet her mane.
  2539. >”Aww.”
  2540. >The weight on her back shifted and disappeared as he swung his feet to the same side and hopped off.
  2541. >Celestia craned her neck and nuzzled his cheek.
  2542. >It was as soft as the fuzz of a filly.
  2543. “We can have another go if we meet again. But as your mother said, I have errands to run.”
  2544. >She let the boy stroke her cheeks for a little while longer before flashing a smile at him and trotting off, boxed bed in tow.
  2546. ***
  2548. >Muffled whispers followed her as she wandered through the mall.
  2549. >It was very different from before.
  2550. >It was no longer about her mane and how she looked.
  2551. >The tone was not one of amazement and wonder.
  2552. >That young man did not earn an angry look from his girlfriend after checking out Celestia's flank.
  2553. >No, he got a worried glance after pointing out how effortlessly she levitated a large box full of wood.
  2554. >She paid little attention to the stores she passed by as her ears swiveled from side to side.
  2555. >”That looks heavy and-” “Is it okay for her to do that?” “Can't say I've seen that before.” “I was never told they could-”
  2556. >Those who paid some attention to where they were going, instead of just their phones, made sure to swerve before they got too close to her.
  2557. >Why were they so wary of her?
  2558. >Yes, she was big.
  2559. >She'd also sworn to never harm another human as long as they kept their part of the surrender treaty.
  2560. >Maybe they'd relax once the pictures of her letting a young child ride her started circulating?
  2562. >The scent of freshly ground coffee beans reminded her she had money to spend.
  2563. >Her snout told they had some quality stuff, but she'd always been more of a tea mare.
  2564. >Maybe there was a tea store somewhere?
  2565. >The sort Anon had was...
  2566. >It wasn't bad, but she'd grown too used to the best Equestria had to offer over the years.
  2567. >Just the thought of some of her favorite sencha made her mouth water.
  2569. >Coffee, clothes, clothes, clothes, candy, clothes, clothes, electronics.
  2570. >Almost every store near her sported mannequins in their display windows, each with slightly different styles.
  2571. >What did the humans need so many clothing stores for?
  2572. >Sure, they wore some every day, but clothes lasted for a good while even in daily use.
  2573. >Why didn't they have tea stores instead?
  2574. >Tea leaves and bags were single use, and needed constant resupply since they did lose some of their taste if left unused for too long.
  2575. >Or confectioneries.
  2576. >Her mouth watered once again as she thought of the blissful sweetness of creamy strawberry cake.
  2577. >She lifted her snout up in the air.
  2578. >Sniff, sniff...
  2579. >It stank of human, but there was a hint of pastries in the background.
  2580. >But where was it coming from?
  2581. >It was impossible to tell.
  2583. >Celestia found herself in the atrium at the main entrance once again.
  2584. >Humans of all ages swarmed around her, babbling about this and that in addition to the whispers about her.
  2585. >There were no stores selling cake in sight, not on the ground floor at least.
  2586. >There was a cafe with plenty of people sitting at its tables, though.
  2587. >She trotted towards it, the crowd of humans parting before her like she was a shark in a school of fish.
  2588. >Every step made her less reluctant to get anything from the cafe.
  2589. >It was only when she reached the closest table and got a good whiff of one of their coffees that she realized why.
  2590. >The cafe was one of those trendy ones that sold average coffee at high prices.
  2591. >She wouldn't find any good cake there.
  2592. >Maybe some middling cake that was frozen somewhere along the way and thawed yesterday.
  2593. >It would be better than none at all, but she wasn't desperate enough just yet.
  2595. >She fanned out her wings and leaped into the air.
  2596. >The act elected quite a few gasps from the crowd around her.
  2597. >Fwap, fwap, fwap.
  2598. >She cared little of those below as she ascended, her wings beating the air despite their stiffness.
  2599. >It only took a second to rise up to the balcony that circled the entire atrium.
  2600. >The balcony was a walkway to even more stores, and while not as packed as the floor below, had a lot of people on it nevertheless.
  2601. >Most of whom stopped to stare at Celestia as she flew by.
  2603. >The second floor had smaller stores than the first.
  2604. >Shops without hyperstylized logos and names that hadn't gone through seventeen marketing experts.
  2605. >Celestia liked it far more.
  2606. >Most of the stores had personality and charm to them, not just generic layouts made to maximize sales.
  2607. >Like that electronics store that advertised repairs instead of a sale.
  2608. >It was a tiny shop, with just some shelves full of stuff lining the walls and a counter at the back.
  2609. >It was also the kind of store that could sell what you need instead of what you want.
  2611. >Sniff, sniff.
  2612. >The scent of pastries was definitely getting more intense.
  2613. >She had to be close.
  2614. “A little space, if you don't mind.”
  2615. >She gave her friendliest smile to the old man who took a step back to let her over the fence and onto the balcony.
  2616. >Th-thump!
  2617. >Her wings ached as she folded them into place.
  2618. >She gave them an extra shuffle to ease the worst of it.
  2619. >”You sure you're a pony? 'cause I sure haven't seen one as big as you before. You could pass for one of the horses pa had at his farm back in the day.”
  2620. >The man, whose hair had long since gone gray and skin all wrinkly, tapped the floor with his walking stick as he took a few steps toward her.
  2621. “There used to be more like me, but now the alicorn tribe is extinct save for me and my sister. Alicorns grew larger than other ponies.”
  2622. >She glanced backwards to make sure the cardboard box she still levitated made it over the railing.
  2624. >”Alicorn, eh?”
  2625. >He rubbed his chin with the hand that wasn't holding his stick as he studied Celestia.
  2626. >She was about to head off in search of cake, but curiosity got the best of her.
  2627. >With a hoof held in air, she watched him nod as he took in each of her features, from horn to hoof.
  2628. >”You're a pretty one, aren't you? Too thin, but otherwise pretty much perfect on all counts.”
  2629. >Celestia's brow furrowed as the man glanced at her wings and horn.
  2630. >”I've seen more than a few equines in my time and I'm not exactly young any more. You're the best I've seen, pony or not. Might you give me your owner's number so I may inquire if you're for sale?”
  2631. >He had a gentle smile on his face as he dug out not a phone but a worn notebook with a pen clipped to it.
  2632. “Uhm.”
  2633. >She'd lived for longer than many nations, yet nothing she'd seen could quite prepare her for this.
  2634. “Uh, sure.”
  2635. >Regardless of all that, she was property now.
  2636. >Whether she got sold or not was not her decision to make.
  2637. >She recited the shop number Anon had had her memorize and watched the old man jot it down in his notebook.
  2639. “Now, may I ask something? I'm new here and could use some directions.”
  2640. >The old man kept smiling.
  2641. >His notebook made a slap as he closed it and nodded.
  2642. “I'm looking for a confectionery. I love nothing more than some good cake. Would you happen to know where to find one?”
  2643. >He stuck the notebook back in his pocket and rubbed his chin again.
  2644. >”Hmm. That'd have to be Hilda's. She's now retired but her daughter is just as good. Go that way-”
  2645. >He waved his free hand towards the back of the mall.
  2646. >”-and turn left when you pass by a sports store. Hilda's is at the very back of that corridor. You'll know it by the sign.”
  2647. >Celestia bowed her head and trotted in place to turn.
  2648. >Her hooves made a little more noise than usual since the thought of lavish cake had her excited.
  2649. “Thank you! See you later!”
  2650. >The old man waved at her as she trotted off.
  2652. ***
  2654. >It was everything she imagined it would be.
  2655. >The air was heavy with the scent of fresh whipped cream, berries, jams, tarts, and all the other fresh treats the boutique had on display.
  2656. >A few tables with chairs were squeezed into the tiny space, and Celestia left her crate on one of them to hold it free as she tried to decide.
  2657. >The strawberry cake, covered with white fluffy cream and topped with fresh berries, looked delicious.
  2658. >But so did the raspberry tart with its load of jelly in a crispy and flaky crust.
  2659. >She bit her lip.
  2660. >Why did they all have to look so good?
  2662. “Nnn!”
  2663. >Her ear flicked as she got her first bite of raspberry cake.
  2664. >The whipped cream was so fluffy and exactly as sweet as it should be, and the insides were perfectly moistened.
  2665. >”You really do love your sweet treats, don't you?”
  2666. >It was so good even hearing Anon's voice all of a sudden didn't shock her.
  2667. >She simply cut another piece with her spoon and popped it in her mouth.
  2668. >Flick.
  2669. “Mm!”
  2670. >She turned to look at her owner.
  2671. >He had his phone in hand and pointed at her, with a heavy-looking bag hanging by his elbow.
  2672. >A little bit of redness rose to her cheek as she realized he'd filmed her.
  2673. “It's just so good.”
  2674. >The bag made a thud as he set it down next to her seat.
  2675. >”How about I get some for myself before we head home, then?”
  2677. >”Hey, come give me a han- Whatever, just come here.”
  2678. >Celestia gave the remaining half slice of raspberry cake a longing look before hopping off her chair.
  2679. >She gave it another quick glance just before reaching Anon at the counter.
  2680. >”No-one's going to steal a half eaten slice of cake, don't worry.”
  2681. >He reached for her head and ruffled her mane before nodding at a rack of teabags in front of him.
  2682. >”Anyhow, what sort would you like?”
  2683. >A faint tingle of magic filled the air as a bag of plain green tea floated off the rack and fell into one of the two cups on the tray in front of him.
  2684. >Anon had chosen the strawberry cake that Celestia thought of getting herself.
  2685. >Maybe she'd get to taste both just like she wanted to.
  2686. “Want to trade a piece of that for a piece of mine?”
  2687. >He picked some lemon tea for himself and ruffled her mane again.
  2688. >”Only if you let me take a video of you eating it and send it to Ann.”
  2690. ***
  2692. >Ting-a-ling!
  2693. >A tiny bell rung out a bright note as Anon pushed open his door.
  2694. >He held it open as Celestia squeezed past him, with both her bed and his groceries floating behind her.
  2695. >She took care to knock neither herself nor anything she carried into a shelf full of xenon lamps (whatever those were) as she trotted past it.
  2696. “I'll go put the groceries in the fridge.”
  2697. >Anon pulled the door closed behind him, then gave it an extra yank to make the lock click.
  2698. >”Just leave the bag on the table and go assemble your bed.”
  2699. >She arched a brow and threw a backwards glance at him.
  2700. “Sure.”
  2701. >He had his hand covering his mouth as he let out a yawn.
  2703. ***
  2705. >There were three different kinds of bolts in the bag.
  2706. >They all looked identical in the instructions.
  2707. >The longest ones should probably hold the frame together since there were eight of them and each corner had two holes.
  2708. >At least she could assemble the whole thing and hold it together with her magic as she tried to figure out what went where.
  2709. >How the humans, who it was designed for and by, did it she had no clue.
  2711. >Tap tap tap.
  2712. >”How's it going?”
  2713. >She gave the screw one last twist with the alarmingly low quality hex iron that'd been in the package and turned to look at Anon.
  2714. >He leaned on the door frame and watched her.
  2715. >The bags under his eyes looked far darker now than they had in the mall.
  2716. “I got the frame built in what I think is the right way, but now I'm trying to figure out which of these bolts I'm supposed to use to get the legs on.”
  2717. >”Mm. I need a nap so you watch the oven for the next fifty minutes. My phone has a timer set so no need to worry about that.”
  2718. >He pushed at the door frame to get himself standing straight and headed to his room.
  2719. >His steps had a little bit of a stagger to them.
  2720. “Sleep well. You look like you really do need it.”
  2721. >Some kind of a mumble was all he responded with.
  2723. >Out like a light as soon as he hit the bed.
  2724. >Celestia thought she'd ask what he had in the oven, but didn't dare to wake him.
  2725. >She reversed out of the room, taking slow steps to avoid making noise, and pulled the door shut behind her.
  2727. >Clink!
  2728. >The sound of metal on metal when she tightened one of the bolts felt as loud as somepony hammering a nail.
  2729. >She made the hex iron float to the floor and let go of it.
  2730. >Anon really looked like he needed his nap.
  2731. >The bolts wouldn't even be the loudest part.
  2732. >That'd be when she had to bang the pegs in.
  2734. >Very soft thuds were the only sound she made as she padded to the kitchen.
  2735. >She glanced into the oven to ensure the pan was still there with its contents.
  2736. >It had diced potatoes, carrots and onions in some whitish liquid that was starting to turn solid as it heated up, but that was all she could tell.
  2737. >A quick glance around found her the day's paper.
  2738. >She sat at the table and pored over the front page.
  2739. >Traffic chaos in the city as a water main bursts and floods a street.
  2740. >In other words, nothing happened.
  2742. >This time, there was an entire article on a pony.
  2743. >Granite Grain, an earth pony stallion, earned praise for reducing explosive use by up to 25% on construction sites he worked at.
  2744. >The picture showed him in a hard hat tapping bedrock with a hoof.
  2745. >'I can't really explain it. I just have to get a feel of the stone, and then I know.'
  2746. >Earth pony magic in a nutshell.
  2747. >Nopony really knew how it worked, least of all the ponies who used it, but work it did.
  2749. ***
  2751. >Anon stared dead ahead with his face blank as he chewed on a piece of carrot.
  2752. >If anything, the nap made him look even more tired.
  2753. >His moves were sluggish and he kept spacing out.
  2754. “Just how early did you wake up today?”
  2755. >Chew, chew, chew.
  2756. >”Huh?”
  2757. >Chew, chew.
  2758. >His eyes snapped to focus all of a sudden.
  2759. >”Oh. Very early. I thought you knew since you also woke up when my phone rang and asked the time. Guess you weren't awake enough to remember.”
  2760. >He scooped up another forkful of casserole and stuck it in his mouth.
  2761. >Celestia popped a single piece of potato in her mouth and twirled her tongue on it.
  2762. >It definitely had some honey, salt, and pepper in it.
  2763. >Also a little tarragon and maybe sage.
  2764. >That, and plenty of olive oil of course.
  2766. “All I remember is the dream I had, and that you said something about tomorrow once you got back.”
  2767. >He glanced at her and drew circles in the air with his fork before gulping down what he had in his mouth.
  2768. >”Yeah. I'll leave tomorrow morning and won't be back until the day after. You should have everything you need: there's enough of this-”
  2769. >He pointed his fork at the pan, which was still more than half full.
  2770. >”-for you to eat, and I'll load a bit of money into your collar in case you need something else.”
  2771. >A silence took over as Celestia shoved some more casserole in her mouth.
  2772. >It was quite tasty.
  2773. >The egg and pepper went well together.
  2774. “So what should I do then? Should I open shop and sell what I can?”
  2775. >”Mm.”
  2776. >Anon shook his head before swallowing his mouthful.
  2777. >”No. You don't have to do anything. Call Ann and Coco and go over or something. Just pass the time the best you can.”
  2778. >Another silence took over for the short second Celestia stared at him.
  2779. >A day off?
  2780. >She'd had one every now and then, but never one when she truly had nothing to do.
  2781. >It'd always been either something like a spa trip with Luna or a visit to Ponyville to see Twilight.
  2782. >Or at least a day on the beach with a good book.
  2783. >Even then she was always ready to drop it at a moment's notice should trouble arise.
  2784. “Ah. I'm sure I can think of something. I hope your trip will be as relaxing as my day.”
  2785. >The hint of a smile on Anon's lips turned into the slightest of frowns as he stared at her.
  2786. >”Scant hope of that, but thanks.”
  2787. >Celestia arched a brow and tilted her head.
  2788. “Want to talk about it?”
  2789. >He glanced at her, lifted a forkful of casserole to his lips, and shook his head.
  2790. >”It doesn't concern you, so don't worry about it.”
  2791. >The silence that followed wasn't one that she felt a slave should break.
  2793. ***
  2795. “You better work now, you-”
  2796. >Celestia muttered a dire curse in the long-forgotten language of alicorns.
  2797. >One even she knew only a few words of.
  2798. >She'd assembled her bed thrice now, only to notice she got something crucial wrong when she was done each time.
  2799. >Tiredness weighed on her like a heavy blanket.
  2800. >Anon went to bed quite a while ago, and she hadn't heard anything from his room since.
  2801. >No doubt he was fast asleep by now.
  2802. >Just like Celestia wished she was.
  2804. >She gave her bed a poke.
  2805. >It didn't wobble like it had the first time.
  2806. >She sat on it.
  2807. >It didn't make a disturbing creak like the second time.
  2808. >She wiggled around to rock the bed back and forth a little.
  2809. >It moved a bit, but made very little sound and nothing felt out of place.
  2810. >She hopped off and rounded the bed.
  2811. >Everything looked like it should.
  2812. >Good enough.
  2813. >Magic tingled in the air as she lifted her mattress onto the bed frame.
  2814. >It didn't look like much, but she had a bed now.
  2815. >A cheap one, but infinitely better than nothing.
  2816. >She swung her head and horn at the now useless hex iron.
  2817. >The tool glowed in her gold aura for a split second before vanishing.
  2818. “Hmph.”
  2819. >Such a useless thing deserved that.
  2820. >And she deserved sleep.
  2822. >”Now try touching my hand.”
  2823. >Beads of sweat formed on her brow as she strained her hoof.
  2824. >It rose off the sheets, shaking and swaying.
  2825. >After a second that seemed to last for an eternity, it pressed into the nice man's soft and warm palm.
  2826. >His hand grabbed her hoof and his other hand stroked it.
  2827. >”Very good.”
  2828. >She felt a sense of accomplishment well up inside her as she let her hoof rest in his hands.
  2829. “Is 'ood?”
  2830. >The hand stroking her hoof moved to caress her cheek.
  2831. >”Yes. You're doing good. Now let's try the other hoof.”
  2833. >The door swung open without a sound.
  2834. >A human woman marched in, waving a hand as a greeting.
  2835. >”How is she?”
  2836. >The man, gently pulling on her rear hooves to stretch some of their muscles, glanced at the woman.
  2837. >”Making progress, but it's slow.”
  2838. >She didn't like it when he stretched her like that.
  2839. >It didn't hurt, but it did make her feel uncomfortable – mostly because a part of her mind screamed at her when he did so.
  2840. >If only she knew what it screamed about.
  2842. >She pulled the rear hoof out of his hands.
  2843. “Ennof.”
  2844. >The man stared at her for a second.
  2845. >”We can move on, sure. Here, push against my hand.”
  2846. >He placed his hand on the sole of her hoof.
  2847. >”I went through her record, but there's nothing there that explains this. Apart from one mention of 'an operation'.”
  2848. >Her muscles strained as she pushed as hard as she could.
  2849. >Yet she still couldn't make his hand even move.
  2850. >”Yeah. That was an off the records thing. I don't know what they did, but she's been like this ever since.”
  2851. >She pushed and pushed until her hoof felt like it was on fire.
  2852. >Her breathing turned into panting as she finally let her hoof fall back on the bed.
  2853. >Soft fingers grasped her other rear hoof and gave it a gentle pull to stretch it.
  2855. >”Will she recover?”
  2856. >The man stretching her rear hoof turned to look at the woman.
  2857. >The looked down at the floor between them for a second, then back at the other human.
  2858. >Then he shook his head.
  2859. >”She'll get better, but she probably won't walk again. Hard to tell since I don't know what they did. Only thing I can say is that whatever recovery there is won't be fast.”
  2860. >She didn't like the silence that followed.
  2861. >It made the base of her mane tingle.
  2862. >”Given how how your boss fled like he did and how some records are conveniently missing, I have a feeling he did the one thing he was explicitly forbidden from doing.”
  2863. >She squirmed during the second silence.
  2864. >”I have to tell my superiors about this at some point and they won't keep it under wraps. Her sister is out there somewhere. What do you think she'll do when she finds out?”
  2865. >The man stroked the side of her neck during the third silence, but his fingers dug into her skin, in contrast to their usual soft as silk touch.
  2866. >The woman crossed her arms.
  2867. >”She has to recover. One way or another.”
  2869. ***
  2871. >A little bird's bright and cheerful chirping woke Celestia up.
  2872. >It came from just outside her window, accompanied by the clatter of tiny claws on the windowsill.
  2873. >It made her smile as she threw the blanket off of herself and hopped out of bed.
  2874. >The curtain drew open with a little help from her magic.
  2875. >She and the sparrow stared at each other for a short second.
  2876. >Chirp.
  2877. >Then it flew off.
  2879. >”Morning.”
  2880. >Anon greeted her as soon as she trotted into the kitchen.
  2881. >He had the paper open in front of him on the table with a bowl of cereal next to it.
  2882. >”Sleep well?”
  2883. >His spoon clinked in the bowl as he leaned down to it to eat some.
  2884. “As soon as I got the bed together on the third attempt.”
  2885. >That hex iron truly did not deserve an atmosphere around it.
  2886. “Seriously. How do you assemble something like that without magic? I could barely do it myself.”
  2887. >Paper rustled as Anon turned a page.
  2888. >”With time and patience. They're the cheapest chain for a reason.”
  2889. >Celestia threw him a sideways glance as her horn lit up in a golden glow.
  2890. >A few cupboards flew open.
  2891. >Eggs, flour, sugar, and milk floated out, along with a large bowl.
  2892. >Anon looked up from his paper and followed the stream of ingredients as they settled on the kitchen counter.
  2893. >”Again? Didn't you have enough yesterday?”
  2894. >One of the drawers flew open and measuring cups floated out.
  2895. “I do it every morning if I have the time. You said there's no rush today.”
  2896. >She shrugged and cracked an egg into the bowl.
  2897. “Would you like some?”
  2898. >He glanced at the microwave's clock, shrugged, and returned to reading the paper.
  2899. >”I guess I could have one or two since you're offering.”
  2901. ***
  2903. >Anon jogged into the kitchen with a backpack on his back.
  2904. >He grabbed his phone off the table and shoved it in his pocket, then turned and reached out to rub Celestia's ear.
  2905. >”Thanks for the pancakes.”
  2906. >Her ear flicked out from between his fingers.
  2907. “You're leaving now?”
  2908. >His hand clambered upwards to the spot between her ears.
  2909. >”Yep. You be good while I'm gone, and remember to relax and have fun.”
  2910. >Those circular massaging motions in five spots at once were simply heavenly.
  2911. “Nn. Have a good trip.”
  2912. >And then it was over.
  2913. >He took his hand off.
  2914. >”I'll do my best. See you tomorrow.”
  2915. >One last rub, then he walked away.
  2916. “Bye.”
  2918. >An engine rumbled outside as Anon started his van and drove off.
  2919. >Celestia was alone.
  2920. >She wasn't used to being alone.
  2921. >There was always somepony around in the castle.
  2922. >Now, though?
  2923. >Maybe she could call Ann, Coco and Soarin over.
  2924. >Especially Soarin.
  2925. >She bit her lip as she recalled his cute butt.
  2926. >Some flying was definitely on the menu and she'd come up with some way to have him stay.
  2927. >Preferably for the night, without the other two.
  2928. >She could call the trio over, hang out for a few hours, then head to the park again and end with some flying exercises.
  2929. >And then she could suggest they come over for a dinner since Anon's place was far closer to the park than Ann's and there was enough casserole for three.
  2930. >Beyond that?
  2931. >She'd have to come up with something.
  2933. >She had the day to get through first, though.
  2934. >Soarin had packages to deliver, Coco clothes to make, and Ann customers to serve.
  2935. >Celestia had a few chores to take care of.
  2936. >First, she had to clean the mess she made making pancakes.
  2937. >Then she had to throw out all the cardboard that came with her bed.
  2938. >And finally, she could clean her own room.
  2939. >And the rest of the house while she was at it because why not.
  2940. >Maybe she'd get some extra pets for it.
  2941. >Or maybe she'd just be a little bit happier because the house was clean.
  2943. >She had a paper to read before anything else, though.
  2944. >The sugar bag rattled as she reached into it for a spoonful and sprinkled it on her last pancake.
  2945. >The last one always got cold before she got to it.
  2946. >One of the downsides of making so many.
  2947. >Anon always gave her pile a shocked look since it was stacked so high.
  2948. >He didn't ask anything, though, since he knew she was twice his weight – despite the earlier mistreatment that had had her lose some.
  2949. >So she had to eat not only to keep herself going, but also to make up for what was lost.
  2951. >'Illegal pony experiment uncovered by government watchdog.'
  2952. >A front page headline made her fork clatter on the table.
  2953. >An unnamed pony held in some facility subjected to shocking abuse.
  2954. >Including physical abuse-
  2955. >The since healed scars on Celestia's barrel ached like the masked man still beat on her.
  2956. >-isolation and psychological abuse-
  2957. >She felt like a piece got stuck in her throat as the same masked man told her she was the only pony left alive, then didn't return for what felt like a week.
  2958. >-and undocumented medical experiments.
  2959. >An unknown machine of white plastic clicked, beeped and whirred around her as she was stuck in a narrow tube.
  2960. >That...
  2961. >Illegal experiments?
  2962. >But why?
  2963. >And by whom?
  2965. >She leafed through pages to the news proper.
  2966. >The image of a middle-aged woman with a stern and commanding expression on her face gave her nasty premonitions.
  2967. >Like she'd seen her before, even if she was fairly certain they'd never met.
  2968. >Celestia read on.
  2969. >There was very little real information.
  2970. >All of it came from an official publication that stated what happened and that the prime suspect was at large, wanted for at least abuse of authority and gross animal abuse.
  2971. >She stared at the page, both her face and mind blank.
  2972. >The little it told matched her memories.
  2973. >That was illegal, and whoever ordered it had not only their contract terminated, but was also a wanted man?
  2974. >Had she misjudged humanity?
  2975. >Was it common?
  2976. >Could she do something to find out more?
  2977. >She shook her head to clear her mind.
  2978. >Now she had even more of a reason to call Ann over.
  2979. >She was the kind of a person who'd know what there was to know.
  2981. ***
  2983. >The stovetop shone like never before.
  2984. >The floor didn't have a single speck of dust on it.
  2985. >Anon's room was the only place that wasn't squeaky clean, and that was because Celestia wasn't quite sure what she could and couldn't touch there.
  2986. >His keyboard, for example, had some dirt in it.
  2987. >The keys looked like they would come off to make cleaning it possible, but she didn't want to risk it.
  2988. >What if she did something wrong and ended up breaking it?
  2990. >She looked at the pile of laundry in the bathroom and then at the washing machine.
  2991. >Could she risk it?
  2992. >Should she risk it?
  2993. >The pile was high and Anon's drawers were nearly empty.
  2994. >There was reason enough, but he didn't exactly leave instructions.
  2995. >She knew the machine needed water and detergent.
  2996. >The water came in through a tube attached to the machine.
  2997. >The detergent was in a closet beneath the sink.
  2998. >Celestia pulled open the closet and floated the box of detergent to her.
  2999. >It had instructions printed on it.
  3001. ***
  3003. >Beep. Beep. Beep.
  3004. >Celestia paced back and forth while waiting for Ann to pick up.
  3005. >She had too many questions to ask.
  3006. >Beep. Beep.
  3007. >Could Ann be busy?
  3008. >Should she tap the red X to cancel so the woman could finish whatever held her?
  3010. >The tablet made a short buzz.
  3011. >”Hey Celestia! Anon told me you'd probably call today. How's it going?”
  3012. >Celestia's mind was a mess all of a sudden.
  3013. >She wanted to ask about the washing machine and the news headline and for them to come over first.
  3014. “Hello. I'm doing fine but there's a few things I could use a little help with.”
  3015. >Ann chuckled on the other end of the line.
  3016. >”A few things? Sure, I'll help the best I can. What's it about?”
  3017. >Celestia shook her head and forced her thoughts to order.
  3018. “First, we really need to talk so could you come over as soon as you can? Second, which setting should I use to wash Anon's underwear? And how hard is the water in here?”
  3019. >A short silence made her realize she'd used a far more commanding tone than she meant to.
  3020. >”Oh. That does sound important. Uh, I can't close quite yet so how about I send Coco over so you can sort the laundry problem? I'll get there as soon as I can.”
  3021. >The hint of playfulness Ann had in her voice vanished.
  3022. >”Is it about him or...?”
  3023. “It's about me and a piece of news that-”
  3024. >Celestia shook her head again.
  3025. >She forgot.
  3026. “Anyhow, it's not that important. I'm just curious about some things.”
  3027. >She should never forget.
  3028. >”Okay. Well, see you soon!”
  3029. >Bloop.
  3030. >The tablet's screen went black.
  3032. ***
  3034. “Coco! How are you?”
  3035. >The cream-colored mare squeezed in as soon as Celestia pushed the door open.
  3036. >The little earth pony reared up and threw her front hooves around the alicorn's neck.
  3037. >”I'm fine. Just wish you ordered more clothes. It was fun to make something for a pony for a change.”
  3038. >Celestia wrapped a single hoof around Coco's back as she gave the door handle an extra yank to make the lock click.
  3039. >She buried her muzzle in the little mare's withers, taking in both the scent and warmth of a pony, both of which she'd so missed.
  3040. >Her lips curled to a mellow smile as the mares let go of each other.
  3041. “Not too busy I take it?”
  3042. >”You could say so. I finished the sole order I had earlier.”
  3043. >Celestia trotted towards the stairs and waved a hoof to beckon Coco to follow.
  3044. “Good to hear you're doing well. Would you like some tea? Or should we take a look at the laundry first?”
  3046. >Coco shuddered at the sight of the laundry pile.
  3047. >”I see he doesn't care too much about the colors, or even the cloth itself.”
  3048. >She leaned closer to a t-shirt on top of the pile for a better look.
  3049. >”Then again, these are disposable so I shouldn't feel so bad for the abuse they have to go through. You can wash these with the standard setting.”
  3050. >She reached out with a hoof, picked up the shirt, and chucked it in the washing machine.
  3051. >The rest of the pile lit up in gold and followed suit.
  3052. “That was fairly simple. So where does the detergent go? There's three slots in there.”
  3053. >A handle near the top of the machine glowed with Celestia's magic.
  3054. >A gentle pull drew out a tray that was divided into three compartments.
  3055. >”Here.”
  3056. >Coco tapped one of the three.
  3057. >”The water here is soft, so one spoonful is enough.”
  3058. >She waited for Celestia to measure the appropriate amount of powder into the box, then pushed the tray back in.
  3059. >”Now all we have to do is open the tap-”
  3060. >Coco reached for a tiny lever at the base of the tap and turned it.
  3061. >”-and hit the power switch.”
  3062. >She pushed the button that said 'on/off'.
  3063. >The machine rumbled into life.
  3065. ***
  3067. >Water sloshed inside the pot as Celestia set it on the stove and flipped it to the highest setting.
  3068. >She slid onto her chair, glanced at the rolled up newspaper at the edge of the table, then shifted to a more comfortable position.
  3069. >Maybe Coco knew something?
  3070. >It was probably best wait for Ann, though.
  3071. “You mentioned you had an order today. What kind of orders do you usually get?”
  3072. >Coco also glanced at the paper.
  3073. >She arched a brow before looking back at Celestia.
  3074. >”It's usually tailor suits for men with more than a little money to spend. The last one was a gown for a ball, though. I don't get that kind of orders nearly often enough.”
  3075. >Her eyes glimmered with excitement as she drew breath.
  3076. >”It was for an older woman who really needed something that'd stand out. So I really went all out and made her the best thing Equestrian fashion can offer!”
  3077. >A second later her ears drooped as she looked down at the cup in front of her.
  3078. >”I just wish I'd got to see her wear it.”
  3080. >”So what does Anon have you do? Were the overalls useful?”
  3081. >Celestia's spoon clinked in her cup as she stirred her tea.
  3082. “I spent all day yesterday scrubbing rust off parts. Only, some of them turned out to be nothing but rust.”
  3083. >She looked down at her hooves.
  3084. >They still had barely visible stains of brown on them.
  3085. “I'm afraid I'll wear through your masterpiece sooner or later if that keeps up. Oil and flakes of rust can't do it any good.”
  3086. >Coco moved a hoof to cover her mouth as she let out a quiet giggle.
  3087. >”That's okay. It's a working uniform. Better it wears out than your coat. I'll fix it if it tears, or make a new one if it breaks entirely.”
  3088. >Celestia blew at her tea, then lifted the cup to her lips and took a sip.
  3089. >It tasted very mediocre.
  3091. >She shuffled her wings and glanced at the paper again.
  3092. “How's Soarin by the way? Busy with deliveries?”
  3093. >Coco's cup stopped just short of her lips for a second before she sipped some tea.
  3094. >”Quite.”
  3095. >The moment of silence was broken by Coco setting her cup back on her platter.
  3096. >”I think he is a bit lonely. And I think you wish to help him with that, hm?”
  3097. >She managed to keep her face neutral, but Celestia noticed that the corners of her mouth twitched ever so slightly.
  3098. “It would be a lie to claim I haven't been lonely. You were the first ponies I talked to since our surrender.”
  3099. >Celestia was no yesterday's mare and was more than capable of keeping her feelings off her face.
  3100. >Coco wasn't somepony she needed to deceive, though.
  3101. >So she let a shy smile on her lips.
  3102. “Do you think he likes me?”
  3103. >The earth pony grinned.
  3104. >”Oh, does he ever. He's far too bashful to admit it, though. 'She'll never even consider me, I'm just a nopony compared to her.'”
  3105. >She covered her mouth with a hoof again and let out another giggle.
  3106. >”So. What do you have planned? He loves flying; another practice session? Or maybe take him out for some pie?”
  3108. >Celestia found her cup depressingly empty as she lifted it for another sip.
  3109. “Did he actually say that, by the way? That I won't even consider him?”
  3110. >She floated the hot water over and poured herself another cup, then floated the pot towards Coco.
  3111. >”Thank you.”
  3112. >The earth pony pushed her equally empty cup towards the alicorn.
  3113. >”He did. I overheard him talking with Ann one day, and that's what he said.”
  3114. “Oh. I'll have to tease him about that.”
  3115. >A carelessly chosen word here and a poorly timed flick of tail there.
  3116. >She'd have to contain herself while watching him squirm, but it'd be oh so worth it.
  3117. >Not for long, though.
  3118. >A butt that cute wasn't made to be just watched.
  3120. ***
  3122. >Coco snatched a pair of socks off the pile of clean but wet laundry, then chucked them on the line near the ceiling to dry.
  3123. >”So what is it with you and pegasi? All the rumors I heard were about you with a pegasus.”
  3124. >Celestia's magic pulled on the socks to straighten them.
  3125. >They were then joined by a pair of underpants.
  3126. “Luna and I used to take care of each other's wings. When she was... gone, I was left with an urge and nopony to satisfy it with.”
  3127. >The ponies settled into a rhythm of Coco throwing something on the line and Celestia arranging it.
  3128. “Wing care isn't something earth ponies or unicorns excel at. It also needs you to be very close up and intimate with whoever you're doing it with, and I do have certain other desires that tend to arise when close up and personal with a stallion.”
  3129. >Their teamwork made the laundry pile shrink very fast.
  3130. “Repeat that with a bunch of different pegasi over a few decades and you'll soon realize you find them far more appealing than earth ponies or unicorns.”
  3132. >The next piece of clothing didn't fly up to the line.
  3133. >Celestia craned her neck to look at Coco.
  3134. >The little mare had a t-shirt in her hooves and was ready to throw, but stared at Celestia with a tiny gap between her lips.
  3135. >”I- I heard the rumors but hearing you of all ponies say it like that...”
  3136. “I am a mare, just like you. Why should I not enjoy that part of myself to the fullest?”
  3137. >A slight hint of red rose to the earth pony's cheeks.
  3138. >”Of course you should. I just hadn't thought of you like that.”
  3139. >Celestia's lips curled into a smile.
  3140. “Weren't you excited to help me get it on with Soarin just a few minutes ago?”
  3141. >Coco's face turned into a brighter shade as she looked down at the floor tiles between them.
  3142. >”It's not the same! He's just one pony and you just said you've been doing it since Luna's banishment. I'm trying not to think how many you've been with.”
  3143. >She...
  3144. >She scratched her chin as she racked her memory.
  3145. >It really had been a long time.
  3146. “I'd have to check my diaries to get a number. But have no fear: I was always faithful to the one I had at the time.”
  3147. >Well, apart the time when she'd felt especially adventurous and tried doing it with a few at the same time.
  3148. >The wing care part went fine, but what came after was... awkward, to say the least.
  3149. >But nopony needed to know what happened in her bedchamber centuries ago.
  3151. ***
  3153. >Ding-Dong!
  3154. >Celestia's ears perked up at the faint sound of the doorbell.
  3155. “That's probably Ann. I'll go let her in.”
  3156. >She trotted out of the bathroom just as Coco chucked one of the last pieces of clothing onto the line.
  3158. >”Hey, sorry I'm a bit late. Boss called and told me to make arrangements for an upcoming sale before leaving.”
  3159. >Ann yanked the door fully open and stepped out of the way to let Soarin in.
  3160. >”Hi.”
  3161. >His moves were a bit sluggish and one of his wings twitched slightly.
  3162. >Celestia lit up her horn and pulled on a feather that was a little off.
  3163. “Long day? How abo-”
  3164. >Ann thudded into her and wrapped her arms around the mare's neck.
  3165. >”Mm.”
  3166. >The woman buried her face in Celesia's coat.
  3167. >”You're even smoother than Coco. And yes, Soarin just came back from a four hour delivery.”
  3168. >The alicorn wasn't quite sure how she felt about a human hugging her.
  3169. >On one hoof, she was warm and it felt nice, but on the other she also was one of them.
  3170. “Oh, you must be quite beat. How about we all have some dinner?”
  3171. >Ann finally let go and headed to the stairs, giving Soarin's ear a rub as she passed by him.
  3172. >”Fine by me, as long as you tell me why you called.”
  3173. >The stallion followed behind his master.
  3174. >”Yeah, some food sounds excellent right now.”
  3175. >He sounded a little out of it.
  3177. ***
  3179. >Celestia and Coco trotted into the kitchen just as Ann slid a plate of casserole into the microwave.
  3180. >”Soarin, you're the most hungry of us this this one's yours. Who's next?”
  3181. >The machine beeped and whirred to life as she tapped on some buttons.
  3182. “How about you?”
  3183. >The newspaper still lied at the corner of the dining table.
  3184. >Celestia floated it to Ann.
  3185. “Here. Page 7.”
  3186. >The woman cast her a curious glance, then grabbed the paper and leafed to the correct page.
  3187. >Her brows raised as she read the headline.
  3188. >”I guess a tiger can't get rid of its stripes.”
  3190. >Soaring stared at the steaming plate on the table in front of him and swallowed audibly.
  3191. >”Do you mind if I...?”
  3192. “Go ahead.”
  3193. >He dug in.
  3194. >”Mm. 's good.”
  3196. >The microwave hummed in the background as Ann read the remaining bits of the news article before sliding the paper in front of Coco.
  3197. >”So you're worried that this is common and your former subjects are now used as guinea pigs?”
  3198. >Celestia felt a little unsure.
  3199. >Could she tell everything?
  3200. >Would that pose a risk?
  3201. “Yes and no. I'm quite sure that I am the pony rescued from the facility in the article. The descriptions are very general but match what I remember.”
  3203. >Ding!
  3204. >The microwave provided a welcome break.
  3205. >Long enough for her to decide she needed to tell the whole truth.
  3206. “What I'm truly worried about is the chance there's another one of those facilities somewhere, one that won't be found. One where they could be exploring how to use magic.”
  3207. >Ann pulled open the microwave, took out the steaming plate, placed it in front of Coco, and slid in the next bit of cold food.
  3208. >”I get why you're not too happy about the treatment, or that someone else may be subjected to it, but why are you so worried about magic? You use it all the time, and you said Coco and Soarin do so too.”
  3209. “All ponies are born with an affinity to benevolent magic. It's difficult for us to use anything else.”
  3210. >The spell burned in her mind as the prepared it.
  3211. >Green and black flashed at the edges of her vision as a beam of darkness shot out of her horn.
  3212. >The beam hit Coco square in the chest.
  3213. “But there is another side to magic. One that you humans would no doubt stumble upon.”
  3214. >The earth pony's face went blank.
  3215. >Her eyes gained a faint green glow and her irises and pupils faded out of existence.
  3216. >”What do you wish of me, my queen?”
  3217. >Her voice was dull and monotone.
  3218. “Mind control is one of the more benign dark spells.”
  3219. >The greens and blacks of darkness clawed at Celestia's mind.
  3220. >She made her horn flash in pure gold, bright enough to burn away the darkness, even inside her own mind.
  3222. >Thump.
  3223. >Coco fell off her chair.
  3224. >It was utterly silent for a second.
  3225. >”Eh? What happened?”
  3226. >The little mare scrambled to her hooves and clambered back on her chair.
  3227. >”There was something green and then-”
  3228. >She left her mouth hanging open as she stared at Celestia.
  3229. >The alicorn bowed her head.
  3230. “I am truly sorry. I promise to never do that again.”
  3231. >”I can see why you're worried. There are certainly parties in the world who would do anything to get their hands on that.”
  3232. >Ann finally remembered the food and yanked open the microwave once again.
  3233. >”Are you just sharing this with me because it'll make you feel better, or is there something I can help with?”
  3234. “I would like you to find out everything you can about this. My memory has a months-long gap in it and I'm now worried about the cause.”
  3235. >Coco remembered nothing of the brief time she was under Celestia's spell.
  3236. >It was a stretch, but not something that could be ruled out.
  3237. “Dark magic isn't even the only issue. There's a chance that there is a way to reopen the rift between realities that linked this world to Equestria.”
  3239. >”So what are you going to do if your hunch proves to be correct?”
  3240. >Ann slid a plate of steaming casserole in front of Celestia, then put the last bit of food in the microwave.
  3241. >”You can do some fancy magic, but you're also alone.”
  3242. >The alicorn sunk her fork into the goodness and stirred it to make the heat distribute evenly.
  3243. “I will uphold the condition in the surrender treaty and plunge this half of the world into eternal night.”
  3244. >She popped a forkful into her mouth.
  3245. >It tasted just as good as yesterday.
  3246. >She chewed, swallowed, and sunk her fork in for some more – only to realize the clinking of her fork was the only sound in the room.
  3247. >Ann's shock she understood, but why were Coco and Soarin staring at her like that?
  3248. “I've controlled the sun for more than a thousand years. I most certainly have not forgotten how to do so.”
  3249. >”You can do that here?”
  3250. >Soarin was the first to recover.
  3251. >His voice was full of disbelief.
  3252. >”Why didn't you free us? Threaten them with an apocalypse and demand all ponies be freed. We could have our own nation!”
  3253. >Celestia let out a deep breath, then drew an equally deep one.
  3254. “Humanity has rid itself of slavery in the past. I have every belief that they will do so again, take it five years or five decades.”
  3255. >She lifted a hoof to silence Soarin as he opened his mouth.
  3256. “Do we even have the right to claim a piece of the humans' own world from them? And what kind of relations would we have with them if the only thing we have going for us is that we can cause the world to end if they do something to us? Do you even know how long it takes to build a nation?”
  3257. >She shook her head.
  3258. “We would be outcasts in a foreign world and you would see none of the comforts of Equestria – or those in this room – in your lifetime. I admit it is possible that me and Luna chose wrong, but it's too late to change it now even if we did.”
  3260. >”Well now. I can't say I thought this would be the kind of dinner talk we'd end up having.”
  3261. >Ann pulled back the last free chair around the table and sat down.
  3262. >She forced a very wide smile on her face.
  3263. >”Nothing to cheer me up after work like the threat of an apocalypse.”
  3264. “My apologies if I made you feel down. It was not my intent.”
  3265. >The woman wagged a finger and let her smile turn into a tired one.
  3266. >It looked far more genuine.
  3267. >”No, no. You did what you had to. I just can't stop thinking about how terrifying mind control magic is.”
  3268. >Soarin had his face turned at his food, but his eyes were fixed on something only he saw.
  3269. >Celestia was about to ask if he wanted to talk about it when Coco piped up.
  3270. >”I think you did the right thing. Look on the bright side: we're alive, Equestria is safe and surely hasn't forgotten about us. Maybe they're already hard at work on finding a safe way to get us back home.”
  3271. >The alicorn put a mellow smile on her face.
  3272. >She didn't have the heart to tell the truth about her final orders to Twilight and Cadence: that they mustn't do any research on reopening the rift.
  3273. “We mustn't give up hope, however slim the chance of ever seeing home again is.”
  3275. ***
  3277. >Celestia hummed a tune as she lifted a drinking glass out of the foamy, soapy water and gave it a good scrubbing with her brush.
  3278. >”Hey.”
  3279. >Soarin had his ears put back and his head held a little lower than usual as he trotted in.
  3280. >”Do you have a minute?”
  3281. >His voice was neither as loud nor as vibrant as usual.
  3282. “Of course.”
  3283. >Coco and Ann's muffled voices carried down the hall as Soarin shimmied to the alicorn's side.
  3284. >He glanced up at her, then at the doorway.
  3285. >”We're not going to see Equestria again, are we?”
  3286. >His voice was a quiet whisper.
  3287. “No.”
  3288. >Celestia dropped hers to be as quiet.
  3289. >She weaved her words between the sloshes of water and clinks of dishes.
  3290. “Trying to return would put Equestria and everything in there at risk. I don't like it either, but their safety is more important than our comfort.”
  3291. >Soarin looked down at Celestia's hooves and fell silent for a second.
  3292. >”Then... what are we supposed to do?”
  3293. >The mare set down her brush and turned to face him.
  3294. >She lifted a hoof off the floor and used it to push his chin up so their eyes met.
  3295. “Make the best of what we have.”
  3296. >Then she bent her neck to plant her lips on his.
  3298. >Soarin's ears perked up and his eyes went wide with surprise.
  3299. >”I did not think you felt that way, Pr- Celestia.”
  3300. >He even forgot to keep his voice down.
  3301. >The former princess felt a slight bit of heat rise to her cheeks.
  3302. >She made no effort to hide it.
  3303. “You're quite the attractive stallion, Soarin. Did you think I'm above falling for somepony like you?”
  3304. >A quiet chuckle escaped her lips as she let go of the pegasus' chin.
  3305. “What would you think of a flying practice session once I'm done washing? I still need to get back in shape and you're the best pony to help me with that.”
  3306. >She gave him a half-lidded glance before lighting up her horn again to pick up the brush.
  3307. >The stallion shuffled his wings and glanced around.
  3308. >”That does sound nice. How about I show you the Wonderbolt warmup and post-workout routines? They focus on your wings, back, and rear hooves, and are designed to speed recovery.”
  3309. >That his gaze happened upon Celestia's behind at that very moment was surely but a mistake.
  3310. >The mare gave her tail a bit of a swish.
  3311. >Not quite enough to show what it hid, but more than enough to make him blink a few times in rapid succession and avert his eyes as a hint of red rose to his cheeks.
  3312. “That would be most... pleasant, I'm sure.”
  3313. >She dropped the tone of her voice to a sultry purr for the last part.
  3314. >It made Soarin's face turn deep red.
  3316. >”I see you two don't beat around the bush too much.”
  3317. >Ann's voice made Celestia's ears swivel towards the doorway.
  3318. >The woman stared at the alicorn for a second, then at the stallion for another.
  3319. >”You do make a cute couple, though, so you have my blessing.”
  3320. >Celestia managed to keep a straight face while washing the few dishes she had left.
  3321. >Soarin, on the other hoof, kept glancing at the window and at the doorway as Ann approached him.
  3322. >She bent down and stroked the pegasus' mane.
  3323. >”Now we still have to ask Anon about this so don't go knocking her up just yet.”
  3324. >The stallion finally found his tongue and wits.
  3325. >He scooted closer to Ann and flared his wings.
  3326. >”I don't think I can do that, I mean she's-”
  3327. >Two fingers pressed on his muzzle.
  3328. >”Now, now. You've proven yourself plenty virile; the only reason you haven't put a baby in me is because we're of different species. Celestia and you, on the other hand, are not.”
  3329. “You misunderstood him.”
  3330. >The alicorn set down the last plate and yanked the plug out of the sink with a flash of magic.
  3331. >Soapy water gurgled as it rushed down to circle around the drain.
  3332. “He means that I have been barren ever since the day I first raised the sun.”
  3333. >”Oh. And I was so looking forward to seeing cute little baby ponies.”
  3335. >Ann craned her neck to look at Celestia while stroking Soarin's neck and back.
  3336. >”Well. I'll just have you do something else to make up for that disappointment.”
  3337. >She drew a deep breath.
  3338. >”Coco! Come help Soarin dry and shelve the dishes!”
  3339. >A thud and rapid hoofsteps followed the shout.
  3340. >Coco, with a slight hint of red on her, scrambled in to the kitchen.
  3341. >Ann smiled at the ponies, stood up, and hopped to Celestia.
  3342. >She sunk her fingers into the base of the mare's flowy mane.
  3343. >”I've been wondering if your coat feels as exquisite as it looks ever since I first saw you. Come on.”
  3344. >She beckoned the alicorn to follow.
  3346. >Celestia had to admit she wasn't quite sure what was in store for her as she lied down on her bed.
  3347. >She doubted it would be anything sexual, but had to admit she was a little curious about human females.
  3348. >While she vastly preferred stallions over mares, she'd found both genders pleasing in their own ways.
  3349. “Is there anything specific you'd like me to do?”
  3350. >The mattress depressed on the spot Ann sat on, though nowhere near as much as it did around Celestia.
  3351. >”Roll onto your side, if you would. Soarin and Coco's coats are the softest on their bellies and I want to find out if you're an exception to the rule.”
  3352. >Ann's soft touch caressed Celestia's back while the alicorn wiggled around.
  3353. >The fingers moved to her flank, tracing the shape of the sun on it.
  3354. >”Moving the sun, eh?”
  3355. >For a moment the only sound was the clinking of dishes coming from the kitchen.
  3356. “Equestria is not like this world. Legend, told when I was but a filly and since forgotten, has it that it used to be. Whether there is any truth to that legend we may never know, but there would be no night and day if not for ponies.”
  3357. >Celestia squeezed her eyes shut as Ann made the mattress bob a little by shifting her weight around.
  3358. >The woman's other hand stroked her withers.
  3359. ”We were quite surprised to find that this was a world where day follows night and seasons one another like clockwork, with no input from your kind.”
  3360. >Ann's touch was ever so gentle and her hands warm as she moved them in large circles on Celestia's side.
  3361. >”And here I have the being that controls the sun, enjoying a belly rub just like a dog would.”
  3362. >The princess of the sun rolled on her back and wiggled her hooves in the air.
  3363. “I cannot help the situation I am in, so why not enjoy it?”
  3364. >Ann let out a short chuckle as her hands moved to Celestia's sensitive stomach.
  3365. >”Ooh, it's exactly as soft and smooth as I imagined it. We could make a fortune if we figured out a way to make cloth like this.”
  3367. >”Is there anything else you want us to do? We're done with... the...”
  3368. >Soarin's voice trailed off as the sound of his hoofsteps stopped.
  3369. >Ann's hands stopped for a short second, then continued their oh so wonderful dance on Celestia's belly.
  3370. >”Now, now Soarin. You know it's rude to stare, especially at what you're looking at.”
  3371. >The alicorn's tail twitched on the sheets.
  3372. >She found she didn't actually care if he saw what was usually hidden beneath her tail, not while she had two hands dedicated to massaging her underside.
  3373. “Don't tell me she hasn't done this to you. You're really missing out.”
  3374. >Her voice came out as slow and dreamy as she felt.
  3375. >Pat, pat.
  3376. >The mattress jittered ever so slightly as one hand disappeared off her for a moment.
  3377. >”Coco, come feel how soft she is.”
  3378. >A lighter sound of hoofsteps came closer and closer.
  3379. >”Hup!”
  3380. >Another, smaller depression appeared on the mattress.
  3381. >”Are you sure you're okay with this? Celestia?”
  3382. >Coco's voice was a little shaky.
  3383. >Celestia shuffled a little closer to the small depression and swung her hoof out of the way.
  3384. “Mmm.”
  3385. >A warm foreleg joined Ann's hands on her belly.
  3386. >Then it turned into an underhoof, and finally a muzzle.
  3387. >It was soft and warm and wonderful all the same.
  3389. >Celestia's rear hooves wiggled back and forth in the same pattern as Ann's hands stroked her.
  3390. >Coco had both an underhoof and her muzzle dedicated to it.
  3391. >Soarin shuffled his wings and scuffed the floor with a hoof.
  3392. >”Sooo... Is there anything I should do?”
  3393. >The hands moved a little towards where the alicorn's rear hooves met than they had before.
  3394. >”Mmh, I don't know. There's something only you can do with her that I think she looks pretty ready for.”
  3395. >...her voice was far too even for that to mean the first thing that came to mind.
  3396. >The clip-clop of Soarin taking a step back suggested he didn't realize that.
  3397. >”W-w-w-what do you mean? Right now?”
  3398. >Celestia let out a chuckle.
  3399. “No, you airhead. In the park, a few minutes from now once we get there. The practice, remember?”
  3400. >She cracked her eyelids open just in time to see Soarin's rapid blinking and his gaze shooting back and forth between her and Ann.
  3402. >”Well then.”
  3403. >Ann's hands ceased their blissful rubs.
  3404. >The corners of Celestia's mouth drooped as she craned her neck to look at the woman.
  3405. >”Now don't look so sad. You said it yourself – you need some practice.”
  3406. >The human reached over, gave Celestia's chest one last fluffing, and put on her best smile.
  3407. >”We'll do it some more once we get back. Deal?”
  3408. >The alicorn's lips trembled as she looked at Ann for one last second.
  3409. “I consent to this mutually binding agreement.”
  3410. >She bobbed up and down a little bit as both depressions next to her sprang up and Coco thudded on the floor.
  3411. >A hint of sadness washed over her as she rolled onto her hooves.
  3412. >That short session didn't sate the need in her that'd gone unfulfilled for far too long.
  3413. >But she'd get more.
  3414. >First from Ann, then from Soarin, and then she'd find some way to make Anon do it.
  3416. >Soarin had his tail tucked securely between his hind legs, in addition to walking a bit funny, as Celestia followed him to the stairs.
  3417. “What are you and Coco planning on doing while we practice?”
  3418. >Ann, right next to the alicorn, had a smirk on her face as she kept glancing at Soarin's rear.
  3419. >”I'm going to take a video of you two. Maybe I can sell Soarin's coaching to other ponies, assuming the owner's fine with it of course.”
  3420. >Celestia's gaze shot from the booty to the human.
  3421. “You don't own them?”
  3422. >”Oh no.”
  3423. >The woman shook her head.
  3424. >”I could never afford two ponies, much less a talented artisan and a stunt flier. They're owned by the store and I'm just their caretaker.”
  3425. >Hoofsteps and footsteps echoed in the stairwell as the group scaled downstairs.
  3426. “Anon did mention that I was cheap when he got me. Now that I think back to it, I never had a chance to show what I can do so maybe that explains it.”
  3427. >Or maybe there was something more sinister behind it.
  3428. >Such as an under the table deal that somepony else was found in her stead to remove the risk of Luna doing something.
  3429. >”I'm not sure how much exactly he paid for you, but he did have to take a loan. You're technically owned by the bank.”
  3431. ***
  3433. >The ponies' hooves beat three separate rhythms on the sidewalk.
  3434. >Celestia's was the slowest and Coco's the fastest.
  3435. “Now forgive me for asking, but what exactly is a caretaker?”
  3436. >The question earned her an angry glance from both of the other ponies.
  3437. >They didn't like the reminder, but Celestia had to know.
  3438. >She'd spearhead the emancipation fight herself if nopony else would step up.
  3439. >Once the time was right, of course.
  3440. >No point in fighting that fight as things stood.
  3441. >She hadn't seen a single word supporting it in any of the newspapers she'd read.
  3442. >”It means that the owner pays me to take care of their needs and to take legal responsibility for what they do, in the same way Anon does for you.”
  3443. “Wait, so I'm not legally responsible for myself?”
  3444. >There'd definitely be some way to abuse that – if she ever wanted to get on Anon's bad side, that is.
  3445. >But why would she?
  3446. >Earning his favor would lead to a far more comfortable life.
  3447. >”You're not legally responsible for anything your owner can reasonably prevent you from doing.”
  3448. >She dared not ask how use of magic was classified.
  3449. >He removed the ring willingly and could put it back at any time.
  3450. >There should be a precedent.
  3451. “Well that's certainly a change. From being the law to being below the law.”
  3452. >She would obviously have submitted to the judgment of any Equestrian court back home even if she technically didn't have to.
  3454. >Coco slowed down from trot to walk to let Celestia catch up to her.
  3455. >”You didn't go through training, did you?”
  3456. >The alicorn's brow furrowed.
  3457. “ I-”
  3458. >They certainly didn't call it training and it didn't teach anything.
  3459. >Other than that she didn't want to go through it again.
  3460. “What was yours like?”
  3461. >Her voice came out very quiet, which prompted Coco to nuzzle her shoulder.
  3462. >”It was quite a short training. All they did was show us how to use the most common human tools, told us the few rights and responsibilities we have, and demonstrated legal forms of punishment on those who weren't compliant.”
  3463. >The little mare winced at the last part.
  3465. >Celestia remained quiet for a second.
  3466. >What she went through certainly wasn't legal punishment and training to use human tools.
  3467. “No. I did not go through training.”
  3468. >She looked down at the pavement beneath her hooves.
  3469. >All the questions and nopony to ask them from.
  3470. >”Do you want to talk about it?”
  3471. >Coco's voice remained calm and genuine.
  3472. >Celestia looked up and felt her eyes go wide.
  3473. >She drew breath to turn down the proposal...
  3474. >...but not a word left her mouth.
  3475. >She stared at the little cream-colored earth pony next to her.
  3476. >There was a warm, mellow smile on Coco's face.
  3477. >Like she didn't know what she'd have to listen to.
  3478. >Or because she knew, but cared enough that it didn't matter.
  3479. >The former ruler of Equestria forgot one of the lessons she was so keen to teach to others: that she wasn't alone.
  3480. “If you feel like it's too much for you, just ask me to stop and I will.”
  3481. >She heard Ann's footsteps from right behind her.
  3482. >Inconvenient, but if Coco trusted the woman, then so would Celestia.
  3483. >Not that there was much to hide now that she'd asked for help.
  3485. ***
  3487. >When Celestia finished, the silence was only broken by the wind rustling grass near the bench they sat on.
  3488. >Even the children playing hide and seek at the other end of the park were silent for that short moment.
  3489. >The alicorn herself glared down at the gravel beneath the bench.
  3490. >The one thing she didn't say a word about were her dreams.
  3491. >Dreams were not real, and the only pony who could say what they meant was missing.
  3492. “And then I found out that all this happened six months ago. I have not the foggiest memory of what happened between then and the night I heard I'd be sold.”
  3493. >One of the children screamed 'Found you!'
  3494. >It was followed by a short silence and lots of giggling.
  3496. >”I can see why you're worried.”
  3497. >Ann was the first one to speak up.
  3498. >She reached over and pulled Celestia in for a warm hug.
  3499. >”But it won't happen again. Anon may be a little distant at times, but he has a heart of gold.”
  3500. >Coco hopped up on the other side of the bench and pressed her soft and warm self against the alicorn's other side.
  3501. >”I had no idea you had it that bad. But talking about it made you feel better, no?”
  3502. >Celestia spread her wings and draped one over both of the females hugging her.
  3503. >She did indeed feel a little bit lighter in some weird way.
  3504. “Yes. Thank you.”
  3505. >Feathers rustled nearby as she felt an air current on her back.
  3506. >Celestia's horn lit up.
  3507. “There's space right here.”
  3508. >”Eep!”
  3509. >Soarin, with a sheepish grin on his face, floated right into the alicorn's lap.
  3510. >She wrapped her hooves around the stallion, squeezed him against her chest, and stuck her muzzle in his mane.
  3511. >He had that wonderful scent of clouds all pegasi carried with them.
  3512. >Thunderclouds in his case.
  3513. >The kind that developed on a hot summer's day, not the kind that was shepherded in for autumn storms.
  3515. >For a moment, the warmth of the ponies and the human around her seeped straight into her heart.
  3516. >A single tear rolled down her cheek and into Soarin's mane.
  3517. >She was no longer alone.
  3518. >She'd survive anything as long as she wasn't alone – even another round of experiments and abuse.
  3520. >Ann wiggled a little.
  3521. >”Hold that pose.”
  3522. >Both Soarin and Coco tensed up.
  3523. >The woman gave Celestia's wing a gentle push and slipped out from beneath it.
  3524. >Gravel rattled beneath her shoes as she took two steps away from them.
  3525. >”Aww. See how cute you are!”
  3526. >All three ponies looked at the woman and the phone she had in her hands.
  3527. >There was a picture of them on its screen.
  3528. >Coco with a white wing around her and Soarin in Celestia's hooves.
  3529. >Only Ann was missing.
  3530. “We'll have to come back here tomorrow and ask Anon to take a picture with you in it too.”
  3531. >The alicorn lifted and folded her wings, then released Soarin.
  3532. >The stallion didn't leap off the bench quite the instant he could.
  3533. >Ann noticed that too and hopped over to ruffle his mane.
  3534. >”You can do another hug if you want, but there is that practice to get to. That coaching service isn't going to market itself.”
  3535. >Celestia watched Soarin give Ann an angry glance.
  3536. >She wasn't alone, but she also wasn't free.
  3537. >But even that was better than being alone and free.
  3538. >She hopped off the bench.
  3540. “So, how should we start?”
  3541. >Celestia shuffled her wings and shook each of her hooves in turn.
  3542. >Soarin glanced at Ann and the phone camera pointed at him, then waved his hoof to beckon the alicorn to follow.
  3543. >”We'll start with some stretches, but we'll need some space once we're done with those.”
  3544. >He led the group towards an open grassy spot.
  3545. >”Now unlike many earth ponies and unicorns think, flying is whole-body exercise. We'll go through all major muscle groups to make sure you won't sprain anything.”
  3546. >Soarin's tone and tempo felt very familiar.
  3547. >They reminded Celestia of how she taught her students.
  3548. >He had to have his fair share of experience coaching rookies.
  3549. “It has been a very, very long time since I last had someone show me how to do stretches. It had to be...”
  3550. >She rubbed her chin with a hoof as she racked her mind.
  3551. >”...the name escapes me, but Luna and I joined the very first practice session of the Royal Guard's airborne division after we founded it. The commander was a most excellent teacher.”
  3552. >The commander's name was just on the tip of her tongue but she couldn't quite remember it.
  3553. >”I wonder if your routine is similar to what his was.”
  3555. ***
  3557. >”Now hold...”
  3558. >Soarin was most professional.
  3559. >He barely stole any glances at the alicorn, even when she stretched her glutes.
  3560. >”...a little longer...”
  3561. >And now that they were doing abs he had his eyes squeezed shut.
  3562. >A pity.
  3563. >”...and release.”
  3564. >Both of them flapped their wings to get back on their hooves, then shook themselves.
  3565. >A rush of warm blood surged through Celestia's body.
  3566. “That does make one feel ready.”
  3567. >She fanned out her wings and gave them a few flaps.
  3568. >”That is a pleasant side effect. Now, for the actual exercises, we're going to start with a few warm-up laps around the park.”
  3569. >He sprung into a gallop, leaped into the air and shot upwards.
  3570. >Only to come to a sudden halt, plummet towards the ground like a rock, and spread his wings just in time to touch the grass with his hooves and shoot back up.
  3571. >The display put a smile on Celestia's face as she fanned out her wings.
  3573. ***
  3575. >”Hey.”
  3576. >Soarin's wings rustled as he dropped to Celestia's side from above.
  3577. >”You up for some fun?”
  3578. >She glanced down at Ann, who now watched Coco play with children, then at the stallion.
  3579. “What do you have in mind?”
  3580. >His lips curled into a mischievous smile as he folded his wings and fell down.
  3581. >He twirled and twisted and looped and reversed his dive into a soar right at Celestia.
  3582. >At the very last second, just as the alicorn flapped her wings to swing out of the way, he spun upside down.
  3583. >Clop!
  3584. >And bumped her hoof.
  3585. >”Try to stop me.”
  3586. >Celstia arched a brow.
  3587. >Was that supposed to be challenging?
  3588. >She banked for a hard turn and did a corkscrew while at it.
  3589. >Clop!
  3590. >Only for Soarin to bump her hoof halfway through.
  3591. “Oh, it's on now.”
  3593. >Celestia angled her wings to put herself into a dive, but turned that into an ascent as soon as it began.
  3594. >A feather rustled below her and the airflow around her changed ever so slightly.
  3595. >She swung her hoof out of the way.
  3596. “Nuh-uh. Not this time.”
  3597. >Soarin's hoof didn't find anything to bump against.
  3598. >”Oh, not bad.”
  3599. >He matched Celestia's path and spun around to face her.
  3600. >”But how about this?”
  3601. >The alicorn swung her hoof out of the way again, only to find his lips pressing on hers.
  3602. >Clop!
  3603. >He did not end the kiss immediately, but kept the perfect sync for half a second longer before pulling back.
  3604. >”Care to take it a step further?”
  3605. >He had a wide smile on his face as they stared at each other for a second.
  3606. “I like the way you think.”
  3607. >She reached for the spark of magic inside her and pushed it towards her wings.
  3609. ***
  3611. >Thump!
  3612. >Celestia hit the grass harder than she wanted to.
  3613. >She wobbled on her hooves for a bit before letting herself collapse on her side.
  3614. >Her wings, her whole back, felt like they were on fire.
  3615. >Every panting breath she took brought the taste of iron to her mouth.
  3616. “Okay. I concede. You win.”
  3617. >She flopped over to see Soarin come down one hoof at a time.
  3618. >He made no noise and barely even bent the grass.
  3619. >He was all sweaty and breathing heavy, though.
  3620. >”You are a most excellent flier. A little practice would make a Wonderbolt out of you. Well, would have.”
  3621. >His hooves thudded on the grass and sent tiny bits of dirt flying as he trotted to her.
  3622. >The thuds came to a halt as he stopped right beside her to stare at her heaving chest.
  3623. >”Are you sure you didn't push yourself too hard?”
  3624. “It's really been. Too long. Since I had fun. Like that.”
  3625. >Her words were cut up by her gasping for breath.
  3626. “So maybe.”
  3627. >The last time she was as beat was when Luna found an ancient book on alicorn games.
  3628. >Of course, being the last two of that tribe, the sisters took on the of burden of upholding tradition.
  3629. >It was a less than usual week at the castle.
  3630. >But how was her sister doing now?
  3631. >Had she found as good a life for herself?
  3633. >Ann, with Coco at her side and phone in hand, jogged up to the two fliers.
  3634. >”Well, you certainly didn't hold back with that 'practice' session. Not exactly what I was looking for but I can piece something out of the clips I got.”
  3635. >She sniffed at the air.
  3636. >”Bleh. You two need a shower. There is one last bit of footage I need, though: aftercare. You know some of that, right?”
  3637. >Her hand swung in the air as she waved it at Soarin.
  3638. >The stallion dodged her gaze and stared at the rooftops for a second, then found his tongue.
  3639. >”Uh, we didn't usually... Oh. How about the Wonderbolts' special wing and back massage?”
  3640. >His lips curled to a smile as he turned to face Celestia.
  3641. >She rolled onto her stomach and fanned out her wings.
  3642. >The grass tickled her belly and felt wonderfully cool under her coat and feathers.
  3643. “Please.”
  3645. >Soarin's hooves squeezed and kneaded and caressed Celestia's back.
  3646. >”You both look and feel like you really need this.”
  3647. >She lied there in bliss, enjoying how he used the hard edges of his hooves to tease out the knots deep in her.
  3648. >He'd then stroke the spot with a soft underhoof to banish the discomfort.
  3649. “Mmmh.”
  3650. >Knead, squeeze, push.
  3651. >He moved to the joint between her wing and back.
  3652. >Pure relaxation rippled out from his hooves.
  3653. >Celestia's eyelids drooped.
  3654. “Nnn.”
  3655. >She really lucked out with Soarin.
  3657. >”Fweee.”
  3658. >Ann whistled quietly as Soarin gave Celestia's back the final stroke.
  3659. >”I could upload that to a porn site with all the moaning.”
  3660. >The pegasus' hooves thumped on the ground as he circled Celestia.
  3661. >”You should've heard what Spitfire could do. Even Rainbow Dash couldn't keep it together in her hooves.”
  3662. >”Rainbow Dash and Spitfire?”
  3663. >Tap tap tap.
  3664. >Celestia cracked open her eyelids to see Ann tapping away at her phone.
  3665. “You won't find them. They're safe back home.”
  3666. >The others turned to stare at her as she pushed herself on her hooves and wiggled herself around.
  3667. >Moving felt so light and effortless she wanted to break into a gallop.
  3668. >But she had a shower to take.
  3669. >Ann, Coco, and Soarin still stared at her.
  3670. “I made sure Twilight and all her friends remain safe, and Luna gave orders to Spitfire a few minutes before crossing into this world with me.”
  3671. >She fanned out her left wing, folded it, then fanned out her right wing and folded it as well.
  3672. >And gave both wings a shuffle just because they felt so nice and fluid.
  3673. >”Ah, well.”
  3674. >Ann shrugged and pocketed her phone.
  3675. >”Not that I could've afforded 'em anyways.”
  3677. >”So Rarity is safe? Thank goodness.”
  3678. >Coco rushed to Celestia, then reared up and threw her hooves around the alicorn's withers.
  3679. >”I was so concerned.”
  3680. >Celestia, well aware of how awful the smell of sweat had to be, did not wrap a hoof around the little mare.
  3681. “She is. Safe and sound, probably designing her spring lineup as we speak.”
  3682. >The earth pony didn't make the hug any longer than it had to be.
  3683. >Her front hooves thumped on the grass as she spun around in spot and hopped over to Soarin.
  3684. >”Oh, isn't it wonderful? I won't have to worry about her!”
  3685. >She bumped the stallion's neck with her forehead.
  3686. >Soarin rustled Coco's mane with a hoof, a mellow smile on his face.
  3687. >”So this Rarity is the friend you've had nightmares about?”
  3688. >”Mm-hmm!”
  3689. >Coco did one last twirl before trotting back towards Ann with a little extra spring in her step.
  3690. “I would've told you about her when we first met if I'd only known.”
  3691. >If only Luna was there.
  3692. >The tips of Coco's ears gained a hint of red.
  3693. >”I... thought you were busy with something more important. Like you used to be.”
  3694. >Celestia tilted her head a little as Ann reached down to rub Coco's ears.
  3695. ”I have never been and never will be too busy to help my friends.”
  3697. >Soarin shuffled his wings and trotted to Ann as well.
  3698. >”Should we go take a shower back home or at Anon's place?”
  3699. >The woman reached down with her other hand and rubbed his ear as well.
  3700. >She glanced at Celestia with a smug look on her.
  3701. >”Do you think Anon would mind if you used his shower?”
  3702. >That look she knew.
  3703. >Even if she'd never seen it on a human before.
  3704. “He definitely wouldn't.”
  3705. >Ann let go of Soarin's ear.
  3706. >”Well, there you go. You two go on and get rid of that smell.”
  3707. >She squatted and cupped Coco's cheek as the pegasus trotted to Celestia.
  3708. >The alicorn nuzzled his neck as he went by, then followed behind him.
  3709. >”Oh, and Soarin?”
  3710. >They both stopped and looked back at his caretaker.
  3711. >”I'm expecting you to get back before I open shop in the morning.”
  3713. ***
  3715. >”I always thought I'd become just another weather pony, like dad. I didn't think I was a good flier at all until mom signed me up for one of those junior flier competitions.”
  3716. >Soarin trotted beside Celestia, occasionally swerving to make way for humans passing by.
  3717. >Nobody paid much attention to the two ponies.
  3718. >”She never even asked me about it! 'Oh, by the way, you're in that competition next week.'”
  3719. >He made his voice as high-pitched as he could for the imitation.
  3720. >”And then I won the whole thing. With no practice or preparation.”
  3721. >Celestia nodded whenever he glanced her way.
  3722. “Was that when you earned your mark?”
  3723. >”No, that happened a bit later. There was this one out of control stormcloud and I thought it would be a good idea to...”
  3725. “She always tried to keep it a secret from everypony, but Luna has a huge soft spot for mushy romance. Plays, operas, books – anything.”
  3726. >Celestia hopped over the narrow strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from Anon's yard.
  3727. “I wish I knew why she hides it. I tried bringing it up a few times, but that gets her so defensive I just let it be.”
  3728. >She let out a sigh as she reached for the door handle.
  3729. >She only wanted to help Luna be who she wants to be, instead of trying to hold up a public image of something she isn't.
  3730. >Clack, clack.
  3731. “Oh. I forgot it's locked. Just a minute.”
  3732. >”Ann got one of those electronic locks that we can open with out collars. Maybe Anon should get something similar? I heard they're quite cheap.”
  3733. >Celestia glanced at Soarin's smiling face, then looked at the corner of the building where the driveway to the backyard was.
  3734. >She was supposed to use the spare key, but...
  3735. “We'll have to talk about it. Not that it'd change much.”
  3736. >Her horn lit up in gold as she bowed her head and stuck the very tip of her horn in the keyhole.
  3737. >Click!
  3739. >Celestia nuzzled Soarin's shoulder as he trotted past her.
  3740. >She slipped in behind him and let the door slam shut.
  3741. “I know we talked about a shower, but how about a bath instead?”
  3742. >Soarin hopped past the shelf full of xenon lamps and glanced back at her.
  3743. >”That actually sounds very nice. Ann's place doesn't have a tub so I haven't had a chance to soak for quite a while.”
  3744. >He glanced up at the ceiling with a dreamy look on his face.
  3745. >His tail flicked to the side.
  3746. >...nice.
  3747. >Celestia bit her lip as she felt an expectant tingle in her nethers.
  3749. >Celestia glanced at the microwave's clock as she passed by the kitchen.
  3750. >It was early evening.
  3751. >A weird, nagging feeling told her she'd forgot something.
  3752. >A hoof nudged her, making her realized she'd stopped to stare at the clock and its green digits.
  3753. >Soarin nodded at the bathroom.
  3754. >”So what were you saying about Luna?”
  3755. >His words echoed in Celestia's head as meaningless noise.
  3756. >She found her gaze drawn to his flank, and the mark that depicted a thunderbolt splitting a cloud.
  3757. >”Uh...”
  3758. >A hint of red rose to his cheeks as he turned around to face her.
  3759. “Say, Soarin.”
  3760. >It finally clicked in her head.
  3761. “Have you noticed any odd weather lately? I thought the storm the other day was magically charged.”
  3763. >The corners of Soarin's mouth, curled into a coy smile, drooped.
  3764. >”Ah.”
  3765. >He lifted a hoof off the floor and rubbed his neck.
  3766. >”It made my feathers all tingly. Coco felt nothing so I didn't think it worth mentioning.”
  3767. >Celestia stared straight into his eyes for a second, then down at the floor between them.
  3768. >That suggested it was magical in nature, as earth ponies were by far the least receptive to magical disruptances.
  3769. “Hm. So it wasn't just me.”
  3770. >The question was what exactly was it.
  3771. >Back in Equestria there were multiple possible causes.
  3772. >Magical storms sometimes occurred when the world's natural magic happened to coalesce into one.
  3773. >Those were always shepherded out to the ocean by weather ponies so few knew of its existence.
  3774. >That couldn't happen in the human world, though.
  3775. >The latent magic wasn't dense enough to cause one spontaneously and the few beings who could cause one were in Equestria – apart Luna and Celestia.
  3776. >If only she knew a unicorn.
  3777. >She shook her head.
  3778. >She'd have time to worry later.
  3779. “Anyways. What kind of a bath would you prefer? Foamy or not?”
  3781. ***
  3783. >Soarin fluttered above the bathwater.
  3784. >The airflow from his wings drove all the foam to the opposite end of the tub and made the water ripple.
  3785. >He reached down and dipped a hoof in.
  3786. >”Perfect. Come on.”
  3787. >He swung the hoof to invite Celestia in, spattering her with a few droplets as he did so.
  3788. “You seem awfully eager.”
  3789. >She stepped over the edge and into the tub.
  3790. >Water sloshed around her and the pile of foam broke up as she sunk through it.
  3791. >Soarin's wing beats became a little less frequent, and the water surface rose a little soon after.
  3792. >”I liked my baths back home. Nothing to recover from practice like a good, long soak.”
  3793. >He squeezed his eyes shut and sunk deeper and deeper until just his snout was above water.
  3794. >Celestia's lips curled to a smile as she watched him.
  3795. >She reached over and booped his cute snoot.
  3797. >Celestia ran the sponge in large, slow circles on Soarin's back.
  3798. >It was a convenient excuse to feel his toned body.
  3799. >Especially his flight muscles.
  3800. >She gave those an extra circling as she traced their shape.
  3801. >It had a pleasant side effect of matting his coat and making it all shiny to make them even more visible.
  3802. >He really kept himself in shape.
  3803. >Celestia's nethers tingled again.
  3804. “Why did I get the feeling that you're not too happy with Ann? Does she abuse you?”
  3805. >She couldn't help her voice being a little huskier than usual.
  3806. >”She doesn't abuse me, but... How should I put it?”
  3807. >He shifted a little, pushing himself a tiny bit closer to Celestia.
  3808. >”She just does what she wants with me. Like when I'm resting after a long flight she'll just pick me up and plop me in her lap so she can mess with my mane.”
  3809. >His neck craned to the side and then to the other like he was looking for something.
  3810. >”It's not exactly uncomfortable, on the contrary, but she just assumes I always want to. And I can't do anything about it.”
  3811. >He fanned out his wing as Celestia tapped it.
  3812. >The sensitive skin beneath only got a light washing with the gentlest of touches.
  3813. “Have you talked about it with her?”
  3814. >She ran the sponge underneath his other wing as he fanned that out as well.
  3815. >”I don't think she'd listen.”
  3816. >He let out a short yelp as the alicorn lit up her horn and pulled him to her.
  3817. “Try it. What's the worst that could happen?”
  3819. >Soarin's back was pinned to Celestia's chest.
  3820. >The sponge left behind foamy trails on his chest and stomach as the mare reached lower and lower.
  3821. >A part of him reached higher and higher as she nibbled on his ear and scrubbed his belly.
  3822. >”I just didn't feel that was something I should do. I was once late because of bad weather and she left me without dessert. I don't want that to happen again.”
  3823. >Celestia let out a short giggle.
  3824. “Uh-huh. Just because she won't let you have dessert? Now stand up, I need to wash your rear hooves.”
  3825. >Water sloshed around in the tub as he did as told.
  3826. >He stuck a hoof back so he stood on three and had one touching Celestia's cheek.
  3827. >She had a perfect view of him as she lathered the hoof next to her head.
  3828. >The tingling in her parts became hard to bear.
  3829. >Keeping her mind off of how hard he was and what she wanted to do with it was equally difficult.
  3830. >”Well, there's also how it sometimes leads to, you know.”
  3831. >He twitched.
  3832. >”Which I don't mind at all.”
  3833. >The hoof next to Celestia's head sunk back in and the other one rose out of it.
  3834. >She scooped the foam that stuck on to the hoof with the sponge and gave it a good scrubbing.
  3835. “You know what I wouldn't mind at all.”
  3836. >Her horn lit up.
  3837. >A band of gold encircled Soarin's tip.
  3838. >He spun around and pressed his front hooves on Celestia's chest.
  3839. >Water sloshed around them.
  3840. >A little bit splashed on the floor.
  3841. >She resisted his push and remained upright.
  3842. “Do me, big boy. I'm sooo dirty.”
  3843. >Splat.
  3844. >The sponge oozed foam as Celestia slapped it onto Soarin's chest.
  3846. “So Ann doesn't really listen to you. Do you know how it is for other ponies? You mentioned you met some while doing your deliveries.”
  3847. >Soarin's hooves kneaded shampoo into Celestia's mane.
  3848. >He also poked against her lower back.
  3849. >”She does listen to me. Like, we had a chat about you the other day and she gave some excellent advice.”
  3850. >There was a lot of mane to go around, so Celestia lit up her horn and bunched it all up for him.
  3851. >A soft nuzzle on the back of her neck was her reward.
  3852. “Oh? Do tell what she said.”
  3853. >He sunk his hooves into her mane again, making sure every last strand was as clean as can be.
  3854. >”She suggested I take charge and do something so clear it leaves no questions. I never had the chance to try before you did just that to me.”
  3855. >He took his hooves off and Celestia sunk herself into the tub.
  3856. >Her mane formed an iridescent cloud around her.
  3857. >Only Soarin saw that, though.
  3858. >Celestia had her eyes closed to make sure no shampoo got in them as she rinsed it off.
  3860. >She pushed her head out of the water right next to Soarin with a loud splash and lots of dripping as water dribbled out of her mane.
  3861. “I've certainly learned to leave nothing to be guessed if I want some... attention.”
  3862. >She moaned the last word as she reached out and stroked Soarin under the water.
  3863. “You'd never guess how many don't even try because they think I'm above them.”
  3864. >Her lips curled to a smirk as Soarin let out a low moan.
  3865. >He let himself slump deeper into the water.
  3866. >”Mmmh... I guess those who did try weren't the sort you like.”
  3867. >Celestia chuckled.
  3868. “You think? A few snotty, selfish nobles and some narcissistic upshots who thought themselves perfect.”
  3869. >She licked her lips as she glanced down into the water at what she stroked.
  3870. “I never wanted to be treated different than any other mare, but circumstances were what they were and some compromises had to be made.”
  3871. >Soarin let out another moan as Celestia's other hoof joined the first.
  3872. >Her plan was to have them preen each other before going at it, but the tingling in her parts was intolerable.
  3873. >She needed it.
  3874. “Soarin. I have an important question.”
  3875. >She let go of him.
  3876. >The stallion heaved his head out of the water to look at her.
  3877. >His brow furrowed and his lips cracked open a little before he said anything.
  3878. >”What is it?”
  3879. >Celestia let a grin on her face.
  3880. “Can you go twice?”
  3882. ***
  3884. >Celestia set the covers down on herself and Soarin.
  3885. >A most wonderful glow of satisfaction radiated form her nethers, reaching every nook of her body.
  3886. >The pillow made a quiet rustling sound as she slid her head on it to plant a little peck on Soarin's lips.
  3887. “Mmmh. Did you ever dream of me?”
  3888. >She kept her voice down as she purred in his ear.
  3889. >The stallion lied between her front hooves with his back pressed to her stomach.
  3890. >He had his eyelids squeezed shut, but shifted a bit every now and then.
  3891. >”Everypony does.”
  3892. >A soft chuckle escaped her lips.
  3893. “So? Which was better?”
  3894. >She reached down to rub his pelvis with the frog of her hoof.
  3895. >”The dreams don't even begin to compare.”
  3896. “Mmmh.”
  3897. >She nuzzled the top of his head.
  3898. “Dream of me again and we'll see if I can compare in the morning.”
  3899. >The light switched as her horn flashed gold.
  3900. >”We went three times and you still didn't have enough?”
  3901. >Another quiet chuckle escaped her as she bowed her neck to smooch Soarin's muzzle again.
  3902. “You seemed quite happy to fill me. It did make me tired, though.”
  3903. >He shifted around a little, seeking a better position between Celestia's hooves.
  3904. >”You and me both.”
  3906. >Perhaps her new life wasn't so bad.
  3907. >She had a stallion to spoon with and what Anon had her do wasn't as taxing as her duties as Equestria's ruler.
  3908. >Of course Anon himself was a little distant.
  3909. >But she had time to break his shell and make friends with him, or at least get in his good books.
  3910. >Sure, there was also the slavery issue, but she couldn't do anything about it for at least the next few years.
  3911. >So why not make the best of what she had?
  3912. >She gave Soarin one last squeeze and copped a feel of his parts before drifting off to sleep.
  3914. ***
  3916. >Something metallic beat on Celestia's door.
  3917. >She only had time to draw breath before the door flew open.
  3918. >Her horn lit up and a protective barrier erupted around her before she could even process what happened.
  3919. >”Am I that scary, sister?”
  3920. >Luna had a bemused smirk on her face as she trotted in.
  3921. >Celestia tapped her temple as she let the barrier shatter and disappear.
  3922. “I'm sorry. I read my diary from back when Chrysalis first set her eyes on Equestria and some of the reflexes I learned came back.”
  3923. >Blue magic flashed on the desk in front of her and two slips of paper appeared with a crack.
  3924. >”Perhaps it's good that you have your mind stuck in the past, because so do I. I remembered you used to be quite the fan of spa trips so I went and booked us one.”
  3925. >Celestia stared at the two tickets on her desk.
  3926. >Whole-day royal treatment for two.
  3927. “Ah. It has been quite a while since I last did that.”
  3928. >Luna tread towards her as she cocked her head and arched a brow.
  3929. >”You grew out of the habit? I thought you looked so tired that I...”
  3930. >She let her head hang low as her magic enveloped the tickets and she turned to leave.
  3931. >Her gaze swept the carpet beneath her hooves.
  3932. >”I see. I'll ask Cadence or Twilight.”
  3933. >Her voice lost every last bit of enthusiasm it had and became low and quiet.
  3934. “No! I just stopped going because you were the only one I ever went with and it didn't feel the same alone.”
  3935. >Celestia hopped off her stool and took a few galloping steps to reach Luna.
  3936. >She wrapped a hoof around her sister and pulled her in for a hug.
  3937. “You're absolutely right about me being tired. A full day at the spa sounds exactly what we need.”
  3938. >The frown on Luna's face turned into a smile as the sisters embraced each other.
  3939. >”When would be a good time for you?”
  3940. >The contagious smile spread onto the elder sister as well.
  3941. “How about tomorrow? I'll make time for it – and you.”
  3943. >Luna let go of her sister.
  3944. >Her hoof thumped on the plush carpet a little harder than it had to.
  3945. >”Are you sure about that? I asked about your schedule and it's stacked to the brim.”
  3946. >Celestia put on her warmest smile.
  3947. “You are the only family I will ever have. I'll always have time for you.”
  3948. >Luna stared at her for a second in silence.
  3949. >She blinked once, then twice before looking away and wiping the corners of her eyes with a fetlock.
  3950. >”That was not something I expected to hear.”
  3951. >The elder sister stuck her muzzle on her younger sibling's withers and nuzzled the back of her neck.
  3952. “One doesn't realize how important some things are until they lose those things. I swear I will never lose you again.”
  3953. >She stuck her snout in Luna's mane and breathed in the scent.
  3954. >Back then she couldn't place it, but a thousand years changed that.
  3955. >Luna's mane had the scent of noctilucent clouds.
  3956. “Do you know how I coped with losing you?”
  3957. >The younger sister didn't respond, but stuck her head on Celestia's withers.
  3958. “By painting the night sky the best I could. I told pegasi to bring in clouds as high as they could, and then set the sun slightly below the horizon so it only lit the very uppermost reaches of the atmosphere and the thin, wispy clouds of ice crystals in there.”
  3959. >Neither of them said anything for quite a while.
  3960. >They were content to relish in what they thought they'd lost forever: each other.
  3962. ***
  3964. >Celestia woke up to tears running down her cheeks.
  3965. >The scent of thunderclouds filled her nostrils.
  3966. >Soarin's chest rose and fell in a calm, steady rhythm between her front hooves.
  3967. >She pulled him closer and buried her face in his mane.
  3968. >It didn't fill the gaping hole in her heart.
  3970. ***
  3972. >Sunlight filtered through the curtain, coloring the room the same shade as the cloth was.
  3973. >Celestia stared at the streak of colored light on the floor.
  3974. >Why did it make her feel like it was an unusual thing?
  3975. >Why did she feel like she shouldn't be in her bed but somewhere else entirely?
  3976. >Why did she have a distinct memory of getting tossed around?
  3977. >But most of all, why was she so surprised to find Soarin sleeping with her?
  3979. >She had a vivid memory of waking up in the middle of the night.
  3980. >She hadn't forgot of the dream preceding that.
  3981. >She definitely remembered what she and Soarin did the night before.
  3982. >They had their practice, walked home, and shared a bath.
  3983. >And had fun.
  3984. >So why why did she feel... odd?
  3986. >Celestia stuck her muzzle in Soarin's mane and breathed in the scent of thunderclouds.
  3987. >Whatever just happened was nothing more than a dream.
  3988. >The stallion she had her hooves around was not.
  3989. >She lied still for a moment, marveling how smooth the hair of his mane felt on her snout and how toned his back was where it pressed on her chest.
  3990. >Heavy sleeper, he was.
  3991. >Didn't react to the snuggles in any way.
  3992. >Even the tingle of magic didn't wake him up as Celestia lifted the covers off them.
  3993. >She really wanted to stay there, in the toasty warmth of her bed with him, but Ann wouldn't wait forever and Anon wouldn't be gone forever.
  3994. >They had a while yet, though.
  3996. >The sheet's coarse fabric rubbed on Celestia's coat as she shuffled to move.
  3997. >The coarseness was relative, of course.
  3998. >Smooth compared to what she had before Anon, but nothing compared to the finest silks of her bedchamber in Canterlot.
  3999. >But the bed did have something to make up for its low quality.
  4000. >She poked Soarin's back with her snout.
  4001. >It was all soft and smooth now that it was relaxed.
  4002. >She gave it one more nuzzle, then stuck her snout beneath his wing, just beside the joint.
  4003. >The underside was very warm, almost hot, and his natural scent was mixed with sweat.
  4004. >A second passed with her simply marveling at it.
  4005. >Then she pushed her snout upwards so it pressed on the joint between his wing and his body.
  4006. >The result was precisely what she expected: Soarin's wing shot open.
  4007. >”Bweh?”
  4008. >Celestia had her muzzle buried in his fluffy down.
  4009. >She nipped out the loose ones and licked the rest until they were nice and tidy and pointing in the same direction.
  4010. >Soarin stared at her over his shoulder.
  4011. >”I have to admit this is one of the least expected wake ups I've ever had.”
  4013. ***
  4015. >Soarin's glazed-over eyes stared straight up at the ceiling and his mouth hung open in a voiceless moan as Celestia rose off him.
  4016. >He popped out of her and slapped on his belly.
  4017. >A bit of him dribbled out of the mare as she glanced at the mess they'd made on the bed.
  4018. >She'd have to change the sheets.
  4019. “Told you. Better than the dream.”
  4020. >She let herself collapse on the mattress next to him and stroked the side of his neck.
  4021. >”A-ah.”
  4022. >Air wheezed into his lungs as he remembered he had to breathe.
  4023. >”How?”
  4024. >His face was full of amazement as he craned his neck to meet her gaze.
  4025. >Celestia let her lips curled into a warm smile.
  4026. “A little bit of magic and a lot of experience.”
  4027. >”No, I mean how was it so different from last night?”
  4028. >A familiar and pleasant drowsiness lurked at the edges of her mind and threatened to push in.
  4029. >She would've loved to let it, but they definitely didn't have time to snooze now.
  4030. “This time I made it as good as possible for you instead of doing what feels best to me.”
  4031. >Soarin's brow furrowed for a second as he stared at her.
  4032. >”But what about you?”
  4033. >She pressed her forehead to his.
  4034. “It was very pleasant. We can try it the other way around the next time you come over for a night. But right now I believe we need a shower and some breakfast.”
  4036. ***
  4038. >Soarin sprinkled some sugar on his fourth pancake.
  4039. >He'd already wolfed down three and showed no signs of slowing down.
  4040. >”I heard rumors that you made these every morning, but didn't think they were actually true.”
  4041. >He took a huge bite and let out a happy moan.
  4042. >Celestia glanced at the rapidly depleting pile and hoped it'd be enough.
  4043. “I've come to quite enjoy these slow starts to the day since picking up the habit. Besides, nopony else makes pancakes exactly the way I like them.”
  4044. >She floated the bag of sugar over and sprinkled some on her third one.
  4045. >They'd run out of cream, sadly, so sugar was all they had.
  4047. >Soarin glanced at the clock on the microwave and its green digits.
  4048. >”I think I better get going. Ann won't open for a bit yet, but she won't like it too much if I only show up at the very last minute.”
  4049. >He hopped off his chair and trotted over to Celestia to nuzzle her thigh.
  4050. >Human chairs were more than a little bit too high for ponies.
  4051. “I guess it can't be helped. Have a nice day, and do try to talk Ann into letting you come over again.”
  4052. >She leaned down and planted a quick kiss on the top of his muzzle.
  4053. “You know the rumors of what I can do that you mentioned? The one I did this morning wasn't the only one of them that's true.”
  4054. >Her voice dropped down to a purr as she whispered in his ear and stroked his mane.
  4055. >A hint of red spread on his face.
  4056. >”Ah... I'll see what I can do.”
  4057. >He didn't bother trying to hide how stiff he was as he trotted out of the kitchen.
  4059. ***
  4061. >Celestia stared at the sheets on her bed.
  4062. >She'd got the worst of it off, but it'd leave a spot.
  4063. >And a... scent.
  4064. >Well, to ponies.
  4065. >Whether a human could tell was another question.
  4066. >Should she leave it there or change and wash them?
  4068. >The rattle of tires on the loose gravel of the driveway cut her dilemma short.
  4069. >She rushed to the kitchen window to confirm that it indeed was Anon's van.
  4070. >A checklist appeared in her mind.
  4071. >Cleaning? Done.
  4072. >Dishes? Done.
  4073. >No damage caused? Done.
  4074. >Yep, that was everything.
  4075. >She pranced as she headed downstairs.
  4076. >He'd praise her for how shiny the kitchen was, right?
  4078. >”Celestia! Come here! There's someone you need to meet.”
  4079. >Anon called out for her as soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs.
  4080. >She slipped through the employees only door to the storage room and pushed open the back door.
  4081. >Anon stood next to his van, but he wasn't alone.
  4082. >A middle-aged woman with a stern expression on her face was with him.
  4083. >Another man, one who looked like he'd just barely left his teenage years, stood near them with a stack of papers in his hands.
  4084. >They all stared at Celestia as she let the door slam shut behind her.
  4085. “Welcome back. Did you need me for something?”
  4086. >She put a polite smile on her lips as she crossed the pavement of the back yard.
  4087. >For some reason she couldn't keep herself from stealing glances at the young man and the older woman.
  4088. >She'd never seen them but they felt familiar in the weirdest way.
  4090. >”Ah. You must be...”
  4091. >The older woman had a very authoritative voice.
  4092. >She stuck her hand out towards the young man.
  4093. >He handed the stack of papers to her.
  4094. >”Celestia. Age 68, question mark, species alicorn, question mark, talent moving the sun.”
  4095. >She leafed through a few pages filled with text.
  4096. >Celestia acted coy and looked away.
  4097. “You flatter me. I haven't been that young since I first raised the sun, and that was more than 1000 years ago.”
  4098. >How did she know that, though?
  4099. >”Yes, I heard you're far more long lived than your biological age suggests. Whatever magic you use has stopped the growth of your teeth.”
  4100. >The woman focused on the papers, making her speech quiet and slow.
  4101. >A peculiar silence took over as she leafed through some more pages.
  4102. >It lasted until the tapped the stack in her hands and the corners of her mouth curled into the slightest of smiles.
  4103. >”There. You're probably curious about why we're here.”
  4104. >She finally looked Celestia straight in the eyes.
  4105. >The alicorn froze in spot for a split-second.
  4106. >She definitely knew this woman.
  4107. >But how?
  4108. “Yes, I have to admit I am a little confused.”
  4110. >”I am here to investigate a series of illegal experiments on certain ponies. You are one of the subjects.”
  4111. >The woman's voice didn't waver in the slightest.
  4112. >Anon fiddled with the hem of his shirt and both he and the other man stared at their own feet.
  4113. >”I have to ascertain that these documents are correct and they did to you nothing more than these state. If you would come over here, please. This won't take but a moment.”
  4114. >She beckoned the pony closer.
  4115. >Celestia glanced at Anon.
  4116. >He looked... a little sad, with a bit of a frown on his face?
  4117. >He nodded and waved his hand as a gesture for her to comply.
  4118. >Though countless questions floated in her mind, Celestia kept her face neutral as she tread to the woman.
  4119. “I trust this is an isolated case and you will make sure it will not happen again. I have no desire to bring any harm to this world, but will enforce the terms of our treaty if need be.”
  4120. >The woman reached out and cupped Celestia's chin.
  4121. >”But of course. Though we do not yet know the motive, it was all the work of a lone research facility overseer who turned the permitted study of pony biology into something far more sinister.”
  4122. >Her fingers ran up the alicorn's cheek and temple.
  4123. >She forced Celestia's head closer to her own and combed the rainbow mane with her fingers for a moment.
  4124. >Her hand massaged the pony's scalp.
  4125. >”Yes, you are indeed untouched. Relieving news, for the both of us.”
  4127. >Celestia took a step back.
  4128. “Is that all you're here for?”
  4129. >She glanced at Anon and the other man, slow enough to make sure the woman noticed.
  4130. >”Ah.”
  4131. >She let out a sigh, closed her eyes for a second and shook her head.
  4132. >”It's best you see for yourself. Come.”
  4133. >A few steps brought her to the back of the van.
  4134. >Celestia followed behind her.
  4136. >The woman had her hand on the handle of the van's rear doors.
  4137. >Though it was nigh unnoticeable, she shook.
  4138. >Her breathing became a little heavier than usual.
  4139. >She mouthed a few voiceless words and traced some kind of symbol over her chest before pulling the door open.
  4141. >A bed with wheels and a frame of shiny metallic tubes lied at the back of the van.
  4142. >On the bed slept a pony with a mane of twinkling stars and flowing shadows.
  4143. “Luna!”
  4144. >Everything else vanished from Celestia's mind as she rushed to the back of the van.
  4145. “Luna, where have you been?”
  4146. >She threw her hooves around her sister and pulled her in for a tight hug.
  4147. “You have no idea how much I've missed you!”
  4148. >She rubbed their cheeks together.
  4149. >Luna's coat was still the softest and smoothest she'd ever felt.
  4151. >Luna finally stirred from her sleep.
  4152. >”Mmh?”
  4153. >She shifted a little in Celestia's hooves and sniffed at the air.
  4154. >But she did not wrap her hooves around her elder sister.
  4155. >A terrible doubt filled Celestia's mind.
  4156. >She relaxed her hug and let her sister fall back on the bed.
  4157. >”Luna, are you hurt?”
  4159. >Her large cyan eyes fixed at Celestia's.
  4160. >She remained quiet for a second as her brow furrowed.
  4161. >”Sis'er?”
  4162. >Luna's lips curled into a weak, shaky smile.
  4163. >She heaved her head off the pillow.
  4164. >The effort made her shake all over, but she managed to nuzzle Celestia's cheek once.
  4165. >Then she thumped back on the pillow, drawing heavy, panting breaths.
  4166. >”Sis- er. Is- ood. 'appy.”
  4167. >Her eyelids squeezed shut once again.
  4169. >Celestia's gaze shot around her sister's body.
  4170. “What-”
  4171. >Nothing on her chest.
  4172. “What have they done?”
  4173. >Nothing on her hooves.
  4174. “Luna, what's happened to you?”
  4175. >Nothing on her neck.
  4176. “Tell me, please.”
  4177. >Then she found it.
  4178. “No.”
  4179. >A massive surgical scar encircled the top of Luna's head.
  4180. “No.”
  4181. >Thump.
  4182. >Celestia's behind fell on the floor as she stared at it.
  4183. “No.”
  4185. ~~~
  4187. >Soarin found it odd that Ann stood on the tiny paved square that was the store's back lot, watching him spiral down for a landing.
  4188. >He folded his wings for a final dive, then gave them one strong beat that both stopped him and blew up a cloud of dust around him.
  4189. >”Pfft.”
  4190. >Ann waved her hand in front of her nose to clear the air.
  4191. >”Remind me to tell you to wash the back yard.”
  4192. >Soarin arched a brow, pushed a little magic in his wings and gave them one last flap.
  4193. >A rush of air blew into the yard and took the dust with it.
  4194. “Will that do?”
  4195. >Ann's fingers swept a strand of loose hair off her face as the stallion folded his wings.
  4196. >”You know you're not supposed to do that.”
  4197. >She pursed her lips and tried to look stern.
  4198. >Soarin flashed a smile and trotted to her to nuzzle her thigh.
  4199. “And you know that a tiny gust like that affects the weather about as much as you turning on a fan would.”
  4200. >A hand reached down to rub the top of his head.
  4201. >”Just make sure nobody ever sees you do that.”
  4203. “Were you just impatient to see me or was there something for me to do?”
  4204. >Coco's sewing machine droned on in the background as Ann led Soarin towards the break room.
  4205. >”A bit of both. Coco's too busy with the order and it's been a very quiet day. So I've been all alone all day.”
  4206. >Soarin rolled his eyes when she glanced the other way.
  4207. >That could only mean one thing.
  4208. “And what do you want me to do?”
  4209. >Ann let out a chuckle as she stuck her fingers in his mane and combed through it.
  4210. >”I'll tell you after.”
  4212. >Soarin hopped on the break room's couch as Ann patted the spot next to her.
  4213. >The worn fabric itched his stomach as he lied down and set his head on her lap.
  4214. >She slumped against the backrest, shut her eyes, and stuck a hand on his chest.
  4215. >”Mmmh.”
  4216. >Her fingers traced tiny circles between his front legs.
  4217. >”Do you have any idea how many times I had to explain that our return policy doesn't cover underwear? That one bitch marched in as you left and wouldn't take no for an answer?”
  4218. >Her words slurred a little as she ranted at nopony in particular.
  4219. >”When I pointed out the sign at the underwear section, she simply claimed it wasn't there when she bought it.”
  4220. >Her fingers wandered upwards to twirl in and play with his mane.
  4221. >”She didn't even believe I'm the manager and threatened to call the owner.”
  4222. >Soarin's rear hooves found the armrest and pushed him further into her lap.
  4223. “I'm sure she'll be thrilled to get that call.”
  4224. >Ann's other hand, just as warm and soft as the first, stroked his barrel.
  4225. >”Hah. That bitch is definitely too retarded to find the number on our webpage.”
  4227. >Soarin lied on Ann's lap on his back, tracing the same shapes in the air with his hooves as the woman's hands made on his stomach.
  4228. “So what was it that you want me to do?”
  4229. >She had a mellow smile on her face as her fingers glid through the silky coat of his belly.
  4230. >”Anon asked if I could send you over. Something about Celestia needing something you're better equipped to provide than him.”
  4231. >The stallion's hooves went stiff, as did another part of him.
  4232. >A sudden heat flushed on his face.
  4233. “R-really? Um, sure, I'll go over. Now?”
  4234. >Ann's lips curled into a mischievous smile.
  4235. >”Yep.”
  4236. >Her hand crept downwards and took a firm hold of him.
  4237. >”But remember that this is mine and mine only tonight.”
  4238. >She gave it a few strokes, then let go while flashing an innocent smile.
  4240. ***
  4242. >Anon's van was parked at its regular spot.
  4243. >That was the only difference from three days ago, from when Soarin left after his night with Celestia.
  4244. >His hooves thumped on the front yard's pavement as he came down.
  4245. >The sign on the door said 'open'.
  4246. >A tiny bell rung above the door as he slipped in.
  4248. >Soarin found himself alone in the room full of shelves stacked with weird parts.
  4249. >Anon was nowhere to be seen.
  4250. >That wasn't unusual of him, though.
  4251. >The stallion trotted to the counter and slammed a hoof on the button on it.
  4252. >Ding-dong.
  4254. >”Hi, can I- Oh. Soarin.”
  4255. >Anon's overalls were stained with oil and he had a dirty rag slung over his shoulder as he came in through the back room door.
  4256. >He tapped the register's screen as he glanced at it.
  4257. >”Good that you're here. Did Ann say anything about why I asked for you?”
  4258. >Soarin shook his head.
  4259. “No. She had a bad customer and wanted to just relax before telling me to come here.”
  4260. >Anon thumbed his chin and pursed his lips for a second.
  4261. >Then he let out a deep sigh and glared down at his feet.
  4262. >”I wish awful customers were the worst of my troubles.”
  4263. >The words were just a whisper, but not one so quiet Soarin couldn't hear.
  4264. >”I thought I bought a reliable employee and maybe even a friend, and for a while it looked like I got just that.”
  4265. >He had dark bags under his eyes as he looked back at Soarin.
  4266. >”Go talk to her. Just... Even if just to get her to eat something. It hurts to see her like this.”
  4267. >The stallion studied Anon's face for a short while, but only found exhaustion.
  4268. “Huh? Did something happen? Is she sick?”
  4269. >The human waved his hand at the stairs.
  4270. >”It's best if you go see for yourself. She's in her room.”
  4272. ***
  4274. >Knock, knock, knock.
  4275. “Hello? Celestia?”
  4276. >Soarin knew something was very wrong.
  4277. >A faint tingle of magic stuck to the door to her room.
  4278. >It wasn't a sound, but a feeling when he stood close.
  4279. >”Soarin?”
  4280. >The door swung open.
  4281. >The room was very much like it was three days ago.
  4282. >With one major difference: Luna was there, sleeping on a metal-framed bed.
  4283. >Celestia sat next to the bed, with her magic holding a wooden brush to her sister's mane.
  4284. >”Come in.”
  4285. >Soarin's mouth hung open, his mind blank and unable to find any words, but he did as told and tread into the room.
  4286. >Celestia's horn flashed with magic and the door slammed shut behind him.
  4287. >The tingle of magic returned, stronger than before.
  4289. >”Luna. Luna, wake up.”
  4290. >Celestia leaned in and whispered in her sister's ear.
  4291. >The elder of the two looked...
  4292. >Soarin didn't quite have the words for it.
  4293. >A certain spark in her eyes was gone.
  4294. >They used to have that tiny bit of mischief hiding in a deep well of knowledge and experience.
  4295. >Now all of that was gone.
  4296. >And that wasn't all.
  4297. >Her ribs stuck out even more than before.
  4298. >Her wings missed feathers.
  4299. >Her pure white coat had a faint shade of yellow to it.
  4300. >Three days.
  4301. >Just three days.
  4303. >Luna stirred and cracked open her eyelids.
  4304. >”Sis'ee!”
  4305. >A warm smile spread to both sibling's lips as Celestia bent down to rub the tips of their snouts together.
  4306. >”Look, sister. We have a guest.”
  4307. >An almost white hoof pointed at Soarin.
  4308. >”'oost?”
  4309. >Luna craned her neck, with great effort, to face Soarin.
  4310. >Her cyan eyes looked in his direction, but did not fix on him.
  4311. >Her brow furrowed for a second, then her face lit up with joy.
  4312. >”'ony! 'assus! E-assus!”
  4313. >She stuck a dark hoof out at him.
  4314. >Well, the best she could.
  4315. >Which meant the hoof only just made it over the metal frame before falling limp.
  4316. >”Come, Soarin. She wants a closer look.”
  4317. >The stallion's mouth still hung open as his brain tried to process the scene before him.
  4319. >Soarin's hooves thumped on the carpet, but the sound they made didn't register in his brain.
  4320. >Why?
  4321. >Why was Luna like that?
  4322. >What happened to her?
  4323. >Why was she so overjoyed to see him?
  4325. >Luna's hoof twitched as he got within its reach.
  4326. >”Aa.”
  4327. >Soarin glanced at Celestia.
  4328. >She gave him a reassuring nod.
  4329. “Uh, hello. I'm Soarin, one of- was one of the Wonderbolts.”
  4330. >He took Luna's hoof into his own and nuzzled it.
  4331. >It was just as warm as any other, but as limp as a steamed carrot.
  4332. “You probably don't remember it since I was just one of many guests, but we've met at the Grand Galloping Gala.”
  4333. >A wide smile spread on Luna's lips.
  4334. >She squeezed her eyelids shut for a second.
  4335. >”Mm! 'om up!”
  4336. >Sheets shuffled as she wiggled away from Soarin.
  4337. >Even that tiny movement left her panting.
  4338. “Uh...?”
  4339. >The stallion's brow furrowed as she glanced at Celestia.
  4340. >”She wants you to hop up on the bed with her. Contact makes her feel at ease.”
  4341. >The elder sister gave him another reassuring nod and waved a hoof at the bed.
  4342. >”Go ahead. She deserves every comfort we can give her.”
  4344. >”Nii-c 'ony.”
  4345. >Soarin wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to do.
  4346. >Luna had her snout pressed against his neck as he lied next to her on the bed.
  4347. “So... do you want to talk about it?”
  4348. >The only response he got was a delighted little squeal.
  4349. >Why was she so... so... happy and innocent?
  4350. >”She can't. That's as communicative as she gets.”
  4351. >Celestia's voice was low and quiet.
  4352. >”But she's happy now. That's- that's all that matters. R-right?”
  4353. >She drew a shaky breath as she whipped her neck to look away.
  4354. >”It's all right as long as she's happy.”
  4355. >Sniffle.
  4356. >It was like a jolt of pain in Soarin's ears.
  4357. >He had to do something, but...
  4358. >But what?
  4360. >”No 'ood? 'orry?”
  4361. >Two jets of warm air brushed Soarin's neck where Luna's snout was.
  4362. >The tip of her muzzle sunk into his coat.
  4363. >”'assus. Aaks. E-aaks. Ss-eep.”
  4364. >She fanned out a wing and draped it over him.
  4365. >Soarin couldn't help but notice how well it was preened.
  4366. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to alarm you. It's all good.”
  4367. >He reached out and stroked her barrel with the underside of his hoof.
  4368. >Her coat was just as silky and immaculate as that of her sister's.
  4370. >”Soarin?”
  4371. >Celestia stood near the door, a mellow smile on her face.
  4372. >”Can you stay there for a while? It won't be but a moment, and all you have to do is make sure nobody comes in before I'm back.”
  4373. >It could've been just his imagination, but Soarin thought her voice wavered the tiniest bit.
  4374. “I think she likes me here, so sure.”
  4375. >He didn't dare to get up now anyways, not with Luna's wing draped over him.
  4376. >It was a very comforting gesture, but considering her current state?
  4377. >She could barely talk or move, yet she still did what she could to make those around her feel better.
  4378. >Soarin felt a sting of guilt in his heart.
  4379. >He would never be as selfless as her.
  4381. >The faint tingle of magic faded as Celestia slipped out of the room.
  4382. >”Mm? Siss-ee?”
  4383. >Luna stirred and pushed her head on top of Soarin's neck.
  4384. >He stroked her side some more.
  4385. “She'll be back soon. I'll keep you safe.”
  4386. >Her eyelashes swatted him a few times.
  4387. >Then her head slumped back on the mattress.
  4388. >”'oon. 'ee seep. S'eep 'ood.”
  4389. >Soarin's lips curled into a smile.
  4390. >Her state was terrible, but adorable at the same time.
  4391. >Such innocence.
  4393. >”Soarin.”
  4394. >Luna's voice pierced into his consciousness.
  4395. >He shuddered awake and cracked open his eyelids.
  4396. “Huh? Sorry, I think I fell asleep.”
  4397. >He was alone in bed, with Luna nowhere in sight.
  4398. >How...?
  4399. >”Thank you, Soarin. You are a good pony.”
  4400. >He rolled over to see Luna standing next to the bed.
  4401. >”I have a- a- a-”
  4402. >She lifted a hoof off the floor and tapped her temple.
  4403. >A second later, her hoof fell back down as she shook her head.
  4404. >”Must ask you something.”
  4405. >Soarin's brow furrowed.
  4406. >He was still asleep, wasn't he?
  4407. >No way Luna had faked her condition.
  4408. >Why would she do that?
  4409. “What do you- I'm listening.”
  4410. >It was probably best not ask too many questions.
  4412. >”Sister not good. Sister need help.”
  4413. >There was something more than a little off with Luna.
  4414. >The way each of her hooves pointed in a slightly different direction, how the tone of her voice shifted with each word, and how she held her tail stock still.
  4415. >”Human tried to help. Sister yelled. Human went away.”
  4416. >She shook her head.
  4417. >”Sister needs human. This human not a bad human.”
  4418. >Her eyes fixed on Soarin's as she tapped her temple again.
  4419. >”Humans did this. I know. Sister thinks it means all humans are bad.”
  4420. >”Soarin?”
  4421. >Celestia's voice penetrated into the dream.
  4422. >”Help sister realize. She needs help.”
  4424. >A hoof shook Soarin by the withers.
  4425. >”Soarin. Wake up.”
  4426. >The scent of oranges wafted in his nostrils.
  4427. “Bweh?”
  4428. >Luna lied in front of him, just as she had before.
  4429. >Only she'd folded her wing.
  4430. >”She's dragged me into sleep with her a few times. I think she's lost control of some of her abilities.”
  4431. >Soarin rolled onto his back to see Celestia's face hovering over him.
  4432. >A peeled orange, wreathed in gold, floated over her.
  4433. >The tingle of magic had also returned.
  4434. “I don't think she's lost it. Not completely, at least. She-”
  4435. >How would he tell Celestia?
  4436. >If she let herself get as bad as she was, with how she was missing feathers and how her coat was all yellow, her hatred had to run deep.
  4437. “-she asked me to help you in the dream. Has she talked to you before, like that?”
  4439. >Celestia's large, pink eyes set themselves on Soarin.
  4440. >Her face went blank.
  4441. >”She-”
  4442. >She squeezed her eyelids shut for a second and let out a short sigh.
  4443. >Droplets seeped out of the corners of her eyes.
  4444. >She wiped the tears away with a fetlock and tread to the other side of the bed.
  4445. >”Even like this, you're still concerned for others before yourself.”
  4446. >She stuck her muzzle deep in Luna's mane and nuzzled the back of her neck.
  4447. >”What did I do to deserve a sister like you?”
  4448. >The younger sister did not even stir in her sleep.
  4450. >Soarin hopped off the bed and flapped his wings to soften the impact.
  4451. >His hooves made soft thuds on the carpet.
  4452. >There was a huge bag of oranges on the floor, along with large cans of fruit salad, two whole loaves of bread, a large pot full of water, and assorted cutlery from Anon's cupboards.
  4453. ”So you raided his fridge?”
  4454. >Celestia nuzzled her sister's neck one last time before stepping away from the bed.
  4455. >”That's for Luna. I sneak out to scavenge what I can off the streets for myself while he's asleep.”
  4456. >She popped a slice of orange in her mouth, chewed on it, and gulped it down.
  4457. >”These just looked so delicious that I couldn't help myself. The rest of them are for her, though.”
  4458. >The tiniest hint of red rose to her cheeks as Soarin arched a brow.
  4459. >A silence took over for a moment.
  4460. “Have you tried asking him to buy something for you, too? He said he wants you to eat better when I ran into him on the way in.”
  4461. >Celestia glared down at the floor as she peeled off another slice of orange.
  4462. >”I know I can't keep this up forever. But Luna deserves everything I can give her, even if it's just for a little while.”
  4463. >Should he push it?
  4464. >She sounded like she was ready to listen, and Luna wanted him to.
  4465. “I'm sure he can make it even better for her. He'd help if you'd just ask, I'm sure.”
  4466. >Thump!
  4467. >Celestia drove her hoof to the floor with as much force as she could.
  4468. >”No.”
  4469. >Her eyes narrowed as a hint of rage shone through her face.
  4470. >”You go talk to him if you so want to. I'm not leaving Luna for any longer than I must.”
  4472. ***
  4474. >Anon threw a quick glance at Soarin as his hooves hit the bare concrete at the bottom of the stairwell.
  4475. >”How is she?”
  4476. >The stallion held his gaze on the floor as he trotted towards the human.
  4477. “Bad. She's completely ignoring herself so Luna can have it a little better.”
  4478. >He let out a long sigh.
  4479. “She knows she needs help, but isn't ready to accept any. I don't think she listens to even her sister right now; Luna asked me to help you help Celestia. I'd imagine she's-”
  4480. >Anon's eyes lit up with hope.
  4481. >”Has Luna recovered enough to talk? I... was told she likely wouldn't.”
  4482. >Whatever bubbled up in him drained away as soon as Soarin shook his head.
  4483. >”No. Well, kind of. She dragged me into her dream and we talked a little. She's a little better in her realm.”
  4485. >”Hold on.”
  4486. >Anon's brow furrowed as he stared at Soarin for a second with one of his fingers tapping a slow rhythm on the counter.
  4487. >”She dragged you into her dream? Does that make dreams her realm? Because I have dreamed of her, but didn't think anything of it.”
  4488. “Uh, that's-”
  4489. >The stallion stare turned blank for a second as his mind tread upon nigh-forgotten pathways.
  4490. >Luna was the Princess of the Night and the...
  4491. >...the watchmare of Equestria's dreams?
  4492. “Yeah, that's basically it. If a pony had a nightmare, Luna would enter their dream and banish it.”
  4493. >Why did he feel like he forgot something?
  4494. >T... Tan... k?
  4495. >It felt like his mind tried to catch a wet piece of soap.
  4496. >”I see.”
  4497. >Anon let out a long, drawn-out sigh.
  4498. >The dark bags under his eyes seemed to get even darker and heavier.
  4499. >”How about I make us dinner and we talk about how to help them? If nothing else she should at least let you bring them a warm meal.”
  4500. “I wish I knew what to do. If she rejects even food, I'm not sure how to even begin convincing her you're just helping.”
  4501. >Soarin spun around and took a few steps towards the stairs again before realizing he couldn't hear Anon moving.
  4502. >He glanced backwards to see the man staring at his feet, looking defeated.
  4503. >”What have I got myself into?”
  4504. >Anon's voice was a low whisper, too quiet for a human to hear.
  4505. >He drew a deep breath, shook his head, and flashed a smile at Soarin.
  4506. >”Let me show you what she's done.”
  4508. ***
  4510. >”It's somewhere around here.”
  4511. >Anon stood in the main corridor of his apartment with a hand stuck out towards the end of it, where the door to Celestia's room was.
  4512. >Soarin was a little behind him, watching him in confusion.
  4513. “The what now? There's nothing here.”
  4514. >The human hand groped at nothing a few times.
  4515. >Then it hit something invisible and pressed flat against it.
  4516. >”There.”
  4517. >He patted his hand at empty air like an expert mime.
  4518. >”To me this is a solid wall. I can't get past no matter what I do.”
  4519. >To prove his words, he placed both hands on the barrier of nothing and leaned heavily on it.
  4520. >”I just want to talk, but no. Or even make sure she eats well, but no. She doesn't even touch the food I leave in the fridge for her.”
  4521. >His feet skidded on the floor as he pushed against the wall of what had to be magic.
  4522. >”I know she's not too fond of me and wants to keep her distance, but it hurts to know she's like this.”
  4523. He rested his head against the barrier.
  4524. >”So I asked if you could come over. She doesn't have to be my friend, but I had to take a loan to buy her and won't be able to keep up with the installments if she doesn't help.”
  4525. >A weak, tired smile found its way to his lips.
  4526. >”Anyways. You're probably getting hungry, so let's make that dinner.”
  4527. >Soarin wasn't quite sure what to think as he spun around and trotted into the kitchen.
  4529. >Anon's hands worked the knife like a skilled unicorn's magic would as he chopped tomatoes into pieces.
  4530. >Soarin was nowhere near as fast or precise with the eggplant on the cutting board in front of him.
  4531. "I really don't know how to help Celestia. She said she knows she can't keep this up forever, so maybe she just needs a bit longer to come to terms with what happened.”
  4532. >The steady, rhythmic chops of tomatoes getting cut stopped.
  4533. >”Yeah.”
  4534. >Anon drew a shaky breath.
  4535. >”I'm sure that's it.”
  4536. >The pegasus glanced his way, but only saw his back.
  4537. >He was a little hunched over, but Soarin couldn't tell whether that was due to the stance being optimal for cutting or because of something else.
  4538. “But I promise to do everything I can. If you think something will help, I'll try it.”
  4539. >”Well.”
  4540. >Chop, chop, chop.
  4541. >”Right now we should finish this. Then you can take some of it to her since you can get to the door.”
  4542. >His knife scraped his cutting board as he swiped the pieces into a kettle.
  4543. >A violent hiss filled the room and tiny droplets of oil and water flew all over the stove until he slammed the lid on.
  4544. >”Oop. A little too hot. Soup, soap, soul, as they say. First we make sure she eats, then we make sure she's clean, and only then we can talk about the future.”
  4545. >He turned around a flashed a smile at Soarin.
  4546. “It sure won't hurt to give her something warm to eat.”
  4547. >There was definitely something Anon wasn't saying, but he had to have his reasons for that.
  4548. >The stallion was only there to do what he was told to, so he bit into his knife's handle once more and sunk the blade into the eggplant instead of asking questions.
  4550. ***
  4552. >Soarin spread his wings to form a flat plane on his back.
  4553. “Just put it there. Don't worry, I definitely won't spill it.”
  4554. >Anon arched a brow and glanced at the bowls of steaming hot soups on the tray he held.
  4555. >”Okay. Just keep in mind that getting tomato stains out of the carpets isn't too easy.”
  4556. >He set the tray down on the pegasus' back.
  4557. >Soarin had to prop up his wings and arch his back to divide the weight better.
  4558. >And to make sure the searing hot spots under the bowls didn't burn him.
  4559. “Don't worry. I'm – was a Wonderbolt. We practiced doing stunts with water bowls on our backs.”
  4560. >It wasn't so bad once you got a feel for it and learned to predict how the water would react to turns.
  4561. >”One day you'll have to explain what the Wonderbolts are. But for now, just make sure Celestia gets to eat.”
  4562. >Anon put on a tired smile and waved at the corridor.
  4564. >Soarin's wings moved in rhythm with his steps, balancing out the swaying of his back as he tread down the corridor.
  4565. >His feathers tingled once again as he reached the spot that Anon couldn't pass.
  4566. >Whatever magic was there did nothing to him apart the weird feeling, though.
  4567. >Most likely cast to ward off humans, the spell was.
  4568. >Then again, with how little Soarin knew about magic, it could also be that only those from Equestria could pass.
  4569. >Or those with some sort of magic in them.
  4570. >Either way, he could hardly tell it's there while it was an impassable barrier for Anon.
  4572. >The soup swayed a bit in its bowls as Soarin lifted a hoof off the floor.
  4573. >Knock, knock, knock.
  4574. “Hey, Celestia? I brought something to eat for the three of us.”
  4575. >He figured it was best to play into her us versus them mentality a little.
  4576. >”Trying to bribe me with food, is he?”
  4577. >The door shimmered in gold and flew open, despite the defiance in her tone.
  4578. >Luna was just as asleep as she was when Soarin left.
  4579. >The only difference was that Celestia had found a newspaper from somewhere and had it spread open on the floor.
  4580. >It was dated from yesterday and was crumpled and dirty, like it'd been in a trash can.
  4581. >Perfectly legible nonetheless.
  4582. “He made the recipe up on the spot, but we tasted it and it's good. Tomato, eggplant and onion, with two eggs for each of us.”
  4583. >He balanced the tray on his wings and lifted it.
  4584. >Celestia sniffed at the air and stared at the three large bowls.
  4585. >Her tongue peeked out from between her lips and licked them.
  4586. >”It has been a while since I've had anything warm.”
  4588. >”Luna, wake up. It's time to eat.”
  4589. >Despite how ravenous she looked, she didn't pounce on her food.
  4590. >No, she floated a bowl to herself – and went to nuzzle Luna's cheek.
  4591. >”Mmh?”
  4592. >The younger sibling let out a short yawn and licked her lips before looking at Soarin.
  4593. >”S'ooi-n. Assus. 'ood e-assus.”
  4594. >The smile that her lips curled into was sweet enough to melt steel.
  4595. >It made Soarin feel all warm inside.
  4596. >Apart that one corner of his mind that kept reminding him of what she used to be like.
  4597. “Hello, Luna. I got you something to eat. See?”
  4598. >He nodded at Celestia and the bowl near her.
  4599. >”Yes! He got you warm food! I know you've missed it. So, here!”
  4600. >A spoonful of deep red soup with chunks of onion and eggplant in it, wreathed in an aura of gold magic, floated close to Luna's mouth.
  4601. >The younger alicorn sniffed at it, then opened her mouth.
  4602. >It... felt very wrong to see the eternal ruler of Equestria feeding her equally eternal sister like that.
  4603. >”Is 'ood!”
  4604. >Soarin turned around to look at his own bowl and the two peeled eggs floating in it.
  4605. >There was a void inside him and patches of dampness at the corners of his eyes.
  4606. >It was so wrong.
  4608. ***
  4610. >Soarin stuck his muzzle in his bowl and licked the last bits of onion off the bottom.
  4611. >It was tasty, as unusual as the combination of ingredients was.
  4612. >Filling too, thanks to the eggs.
  4613. >The void in his heart was still there, though.
  4614. >Luna's satisfied little hums as she gulped down spoonfuls of soup didn't help.
  4615. >But, no matter how much he wanted to just sink into the ground, he had to share what Anon told him.
  4616. “So, what's our plan?”
  4617. >He didn't dare look their way.
  4618. >Not that he had to.
  4619. >”Aa?”
  4620. >The pause in Luna's delighted squeals told him Celestia heard.
  4621. >”For now we'll make sure nothing happens to her and that she has everything she wants.”
  4622. >Her voice wavered the slightest bit.
  4623. >”Then we can start thinking about how to make life better for the rest of us.”
  4624. “Well, I have a suggestion.”
  4625. >Soarin gulped down the last bit of onion he found stuck between his teeth.
  4626. “How about we go take a bath once you've eaten?”
  4627. >Celestia cast him a sharp glance.
  4628. >”I'm not leaving Luna alone.”
  4629. “You don't have to.”
  4630. >He waved a hoof at the door.
  4631. “She can join us, and the bathroom door has a lock so you don't need to worry about that either.”
  4632. >The elder sister's brow furrowed as her pink eyes studied Soarin.
  4633. >”Fine.”
  4634. >She drew breath again, but only blinked twice and nodded without saying anything.
  4636. >Celestia devoured her soup in a way quite unfitting to royalty.
  4637. >Soarin tried to keep himself occupied by reading the newspaper, but she was too noisy.
  4638. >Some politician said something they shouldn't have and that apparently made a lot of people very mad.
  4639. >That was all he could make of the text he read.
  4640. >The rest of his mind was full of Celestia's slurps and noms.
  4641. >That she let him see her like that was a sign of trust, perhaps, but not the most pleasant one.
  4642. >”You weren't lying, this is delicious.”
  4643. >Glorp, nom, slurp.
  4644. >”Shame there was so little of it.
  4645. >Soarin arched a brow and glanced over.
  4646. >She had indeed finished her soup and now had her muzzle deep in the bowl to lick the bottom.
  4647. “Uh, glad you liked it. I'm sure he'll make more some day if you just ask.”
  4648. >Celestia had a stripe of red soup on her snout as she shot him a glance that almost succeeded at being angry.
  4650. >Celestia brushed the side of Luna's snout with her own.
  4651. >”Luna, dearest. Would you like to take a bath with us?”
  4652. >The younger sibling drew a sharp breath as she shuddered awake.
  4653. >A hint of a smile found its way on her face as she looked at her sister.
  4654. >”He ha. S'oop s'oot.”
  4655. >She pushed herself up a little bit, stuck her tongue out, and licked Celestia's snout where it had the red stripe.
  4656. >”B-aat 'ood. Sis-ee b-aat. Sis-ee 'eed b-aat.”
  4657. >She collapsed back on the bed, drew a few deep breaths, and turned to look at Soarin with a warm smile on her lips.
  4658. >”'oorin 'ood. Sis-ee 'ood. Is n-iic.”
  4659. >Soarin's brow furrowed as he tried to piece together what Luna meant.
  4660. “I... don't think she objects?”
  4661. >Either way, she looked happy and that was the best they could do for her.
  4663. ***
  4665. “Could you lift your end a little? I can't get the wheels over the doorstep.”
  4666. >Soarin had himself wedged between the wall and Luna's bed, trying to push it into the bathroom.
  4667. >Luna had her cyan eyes fixed on his face as she studied him.
  4668. >”'oorin.”
  4669. >He looked down at her – and nearly fell over as the bed suddenly lurched forwards.
  4670. “Eep!”
  4671. >A few flaps of his wings brought him to a steady hover as he guided the bed through the doorway.
  4672. “Sorry about that. Did you have something to say, Luna?”
  4673. >The crippled mare beamed a wide smile at him as he lifted his end to get the other set of wheels in.
  4674. >”Sis-ee b-aat. B-aat 'ood. F'oo sis-ee.”
  4675. >Soarin reached down to stroke the side of her neck with the frog of his hoof.
  4676. “A bath is going to do good for all of us.”
  4677. >He spun around in the air, fluttered to the door, slammed it shut and turned the lock.
  4678. >His hooves made quiet clicks on the tiling as he set himself down on the floor.
  4679. >”You have to come over more often. She's really taken a liking of you.”
  4680. >Celestia, with a soft smile on her face, glanced his way.
  4681. >Her horn lit up in gold and a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo, and a sponge floated off a shelf.
  4683. >Celestia's magic enveloped the tap and turned it on to full blast.
  4684. >The sound turned into spatter of droplets as she turned it down and stuck a hoof under the stream.
  4685. >”As much as she'd like to, I don't think it's a good idea for Luna to take a bath. I'll shower her and then you and I can take one.”
  4686. >Soarin yanked open a cabinet and fluttered to the top shelf to get a clean towel for Luna.
  4687. “You don't think we'd fit?”
  4688. >He glanced over his shoulder at the tub.
  4689. “It'll be a tight fit, but I think we'd manage.”
  4690. >He pinned the soft roll of cloth to his chest.
  4691. >A few strong wing beats brought him to Luna's bed.
  4692. >She made a calm cooing sound as he set the towel next to her.
  4693. >”It's not about that. I'm not sure if she can keep herself on the surface.”
  4694. “Ah.”
  4695. >Soarin set his front hooves on the metal frame of Luna's bed and hovered closer.
  4696. >Once the equal of Celestia, as wise and eternal, but now?
  4697. “I... see. That's probably for the best. Sorry, but you'll have to wait until you're better to bathe.”
  4698. >He leaned in to nuzzle the side of her neck.
  4699. >Luna squealed and cooed again, then shifted her head to nudge Soarin's muzzle with her own.
  4700. >At least she was happy.
  4702. ***
  4704. >Soarin dipped a hoof in the tub, testing the water before hopping in.
  4705. >Luna watched him with half-lidded eyes, not quite ready to give in to sleepiness as she pulled her covers up to her chin.
  4706. “We'll be right here. You don't have to worry a bit.”
  4707. >A few droplets sprinkled into the tub as he shook his hoof to dry it.
  4708. >Two steps brought him to Luna's side.
  4709. “Relax. Sleep if you can. We won't be but a moment.”
  4710. >He reached out and stroked her soft cheek.
  4711. >It was still the slightest bit damp.
  4712. >”'Aaks. Sis-ee.”
  4713. >Her voice was a sleepy mumble.
  4714. >She barely managed to keep her eyelids open as she looked at Celestia.
  4715. >”Sis-ee e-aaks. B-aat.”
  4716. >Her lips curled into a soft, weak smile.
  4717. >”E-aaks 'ood. F'oo sis-ee.”
  4718. >That was her limit.
  4719. >Her eyelids fluttered for a second before closing.
  4720. >The bit of tension in her neck vanished and she fell limp on the bed.
  4722. >Soarin and Celestia watched Luna's chest rise and fall with her breathing.
  4723. >The stallion said nothing as she turned to look at the elder sister.
  4724. >Her face was blank as she looked down at herself.
  4725. >”I...”
  4726. >She lit up her horn to pull open a cabinet and slung Luna's towel on top of its door to dry.
  4727. >”I suppose she has a point.”
  4728. >Soarin's ears perked up as he spread his wings and gave them a flap to propel himself over the tub's edge and into the water.
  4729. “Come in, then. The water's not getting any warmer.”
  4730. >Maybe she was ready to talk.
  4731. >It was probably best take it slow, though.
  4733. >Celestia slipped into the tub one hoof at a time, careful to not cause much noise.
  4734. >”Mmh. I forgot how nice this is.”
  4735. >Soarin pushed off the end of the tub with his rear hooves to propel himself closer to her.
  4736. “Let's start by getting you clean. Or would you like to do me first?”
  4737. >”Heh!”
  4738. >Celestia sunk deeper into the tub until just her head was above the water.
  4739. >A wide smile overtook her lips as she brought a rear hoof to the surface and booped Soarin with it.
  4740. >”I'll 'do' you again some other time. Now turn around and let me wash your back.”
  4741. >Her horn lit up again and a bar of soap and a sponge floated to her.
  4742. >A sudden heat rushed onto Soarin's face.
  4744. >”So, how have you been these past few days?”
  4745. >Celestia's magic enveloped Soarin as she pulled him closer.
  4746. >”Has Ann treated you and Coco well?”
  4747. >The sponge slapped on his upper back as the alicorn put her hooves to work.
  4748. “She treats us the same as always. She's always very gentle, but also doesn't care if we want to do something or not.”
  4749. >Soarin stood up in the tub to get his behind and lower back out of the water.
  4750. “Like just before she sent me here. She'd had a difficult customer, so she dragged me to the break room and had me lie in her lap so she could relax by rubbing my belly and molesting me.”
  4751. >The sponge stopped moving as he lifted one rear hoof to the surface.
  4752. >”She molests you? I mean, you told you did get it on every now and then, but I thought...”
  4753. >Her shocked tone made Soarin glance back at her.
  4754. >He couldn't quite tell if it was amazement or anger on her face.
  4755. “Yes. Uses me like a toy.”
  4756. >She blinked twice as she stared at him in silence for a second.
  4757. >”And you're fine with it?”
  4758. >Soarin tapped her chest with the upheld rear hoof.
  4759. >She shook her head and returned to scrubbing him.
  4760. “I can't do anything about it. Besides, it's not exactly unpleasant. I just wish she asked me first.”
  4761. >Water sloshed around them as Celestia leaned in and wrapped her hooves around Soarin's chest.
  4762. >”I'm sorry.”
  4763. >She pulled him into a tight and sopping wet hug.
  4764. >”I'm sorry you have to suffer because of a choice I made.”
  4765. >Her face pressed into the back of his neck.
  4767. “Don't be.”
  4768. >He reached behind himself and stroked her side with the underside of his hoof.
  4769. “We have a roof over our heads, beds to sleep in, and plenty to eat.”
  4770. >Celestia relaxed her grip enough for him to turn around and wrap his hooves around her.
  4771. “As you said yourself, it was the least bad of terrible options.”
  4772. >The coat on the side of her neck wasn't quite as exquisite as he remembered, but was very soft nevertheless as he nuzzled it.
  4773. “Don't blame yourself for it. What happened to Luna wasn't your fault, either.”
  4774. >He had to prop his front hooves on the edge of the tub to reach high enough, but he managed to plant a quick smooch on Celestia's cheek.
  4775. “We're all alive thanks to you. Our home is safe thanks to you. We can make the best of what we have with each other thanks to you.”
  4776. >His hoof slipped.
  4777. “Oop!”
  4778. >Splash!
  4779. >”Snrk.”
  4780. >A golden glow enveloped him and pulled him out of the water.
  4781. >Celestia had an amused smile on her lips.
  4782. >”I get it. I'm too harsh on myself. You don't have to clown around any more.”
  4783. >Soarin felt a little silly as she held him in the air with his hooves pointing up at the ceiling.
  4784. >Then the sponge floated to his belly, followed by Celestia's hoof.
  4785. >”And you're right. Everything's better than could be expected. Even Luna will recover in time.”
  4787. >Soarin wiggled his hooves in the air as Celestia ran her soapy sponge all over him.
  4788. >”You're quite dusty. Did you have a delivery to somewhere dry and sandy?”
  4789. “Uh.”
  4790. >He let his head hang free so he faced Celestia.
  4791. >The tips of his ears touched the water.
  4792. “No. I got home and Ann remarked that the back yard was dirty since my landing made quite a dust cloud. She wanted me to hose it down later, so I conjured a gust of wind to blow off the worst of it.”
  4793. >His primaries sunk halfway into the water as he spread his wings.
  4794. >A shiver passed through him as Celestia slathered what usually hid beneath the feathers with foam.
  4795. >She had a sly, knowing smile on her lips.
  4796. >”You wanted to summon a tiny storm to clean it up for you, didn't you?”
  4797. >Soarin's head felt all flush from being held upside down and a nagging headache threatened to creep in.
  4798. >A warm spark of magic formed in his flight muscles.
  4799. >The impending headache faded away.
  4800. “That's what I would've done back home, but we're not allowed to do that here. It creates 'unpredictable' consequences down the line.”
  4801. >He stuck his front hooves out towards Celestia as she moved on to make sure they were as soapy as the rest of him.
  4802. >”That law is for humans who'd force their ponies to do something stupid. You're an expert; the very best Equestria had.”
  4803. >The former princess made him spin around in the air and gave his flank a soft stroke with the sponge.
  4804. >”But I suppose it's best pretend the treaty still holds. For now, at least.”
  4805. >Soarin, still held upside down by magic, lifted his head up and stared at Celestia from between his hooves.
  4806. >She had a stern expression on her as her hooves ran the sponge all over his rear end.
  4807. “What do you mean pretend?”
  4809. >Celestia's hoof stopped on his inner thigh.
  4810. >Her eyes snapped at his.
  4811. >Flared nostrils, gritted teeth and a glare as sharp as daggers.
  4812. >Was that... anger boiling in her?
  4813. >”Look at her.”
  4814. >She pointed a hoof at Luna.
  4815. >”See the scar on her head?”
  4816. >The younger sister slept in her bed, entirely unaware of everything around her.
  4817. >The scar circling the top of her head was mostly hidden by her mane, but it was there.
  4818. >”I move her to the window every night and make sure she sees the moon. She's fascinated by it and I can feel her trying, but...”
  4819. >Celestia closed her eyes as she shook her head.
  4820. >”They didn't cut her open just to have a look. They did it to steal something.”
  4821. >A barely-contained rage definitely boiled in her as she looked back at Soarin.
  4823. >She took a few deep, heavy breaths.
  4824. >Her expression turned into a neutral one with a forced smile.
  4825. >”But look at me laying my problems onto you.”
  4826. “Hey!”
  4827. >Soarin, still held updside down in the air by magic, did what he could and nudged Celetsia's chest with a rear hoof.
  4828. “Didn't we just talk about this?”
  4829. >She froze in place for a second.
  4830. >Then she blinked twice with a blank look on her as she stared at him.
  4831. >”I- Sorry. Old habits die hard.”
  4832. >Her gaze shifted downwards until it settled on Soarin's crotch.
  4833. >Her hoof, and the sponge, soon followed to give his bits a very gentle treatment.
  4834. >All the while her eyes were glazed over like she was looking at something distant.
  4836. >”So.”
  4837. >She made Soarin flip the right way up and then let him fall into the water, slowing him down enough to not cause a splash.
  4838. >”There's someone out there with the internal parts of Luna's horn. She can't tap into the Moon's power without those. The Moon would help her recover faster, maybe even instantly.”
  4839. >The pegasus fluttered his wings in and out of the water, filling the room with splashes as he rinsed the dust off them.
  4840. >”The problem is that I have no idea where to even start looking. I believe I know who has it, but they have the whole world to hide in.”
  4841. >Soarin gulped down a bit of saliva and got the distinct feeling that he was in over his head.
  4842. >”Even if I knew where to go, I'd still have to leave Luna alone. The only other option that I can think of is to stop the Sun and extort the humans into finding him for me - but there's a lot of ponies like you who would suffer as a result.”
  4843. >He had to somehow convince her to talk to Anon, but how was he supposed to do that if her concerns were severe enough for her to consider ending the world?
  4844. “Uh, well. I didn't mean exactly that, but...”
  4845. >His gaze wandered down from her eyes and found her collar.
  4846. >The droplets hanging on its rim fell off as he reached out and tapped it.
  4847. “It's that you're no longer the one on the top who has to solve all the problems nopony else can. You're now on the bottom and can pass them on to your superiors.”
  4848. >His heart hammered in his chest as he hoped he said the right thing.
  4849. >She wouldn't get mad at him, would she?
  4851. >”So.”
  4852. >Celestia's tone was chilly as she broke the silence a few seconds later.
  4853. >”You're suggesting I let the humans take care of it.”
  4854. >Soarin's lower lip trembled the slightest bit.
  4855. “Well, I mean, it wouldn't hurt to give them a chance. The collar means your problems are your owner's problems. He'll help you because he needs you.”
  4856. >He had to stop for breath just as she arched a brow and tilted her head a little bit.
  4857. ”He's in debt from buying you and can't repay it without your help. He can't keep you if he can't keep up with the payments.”
  4858. >The pegasus held his breath as his wings spread halfway.
  4859. >”And why would he help me instead of just letting me help him and doing nothing for me in return?”
  4860. >She stuck her muzzle up in the air, but kept looking at Soarin.
  4861. >”He's just like the rest of them. Motivated solely by greed, lust, and selfishness.”
  4862. >Maybe she just wasn't ready yet.
  4863. >A day or two of being supplied by Anon should make cracks appear in the shell she'd built around her.
  4864. “I think he just wants the most out of his investment and he'd get that if you were happy. Helping you wouldn't even trouble him: as a citizen, he won't be laughed out of law enforcement and other agencies. He can escalate it up the pyramid until it reaches someone who can solve it.”
  4865. >The only smile he could manage was a very forced one.
  4867. >Celestia studied Soarin for a while with narrowed eyes.
  4868. >The stallion sunk deeper into the tub until it was just his head on the surface.
  4869. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It's a stupid idea.”
  4870. >Celestia's lips curled into a smile, much to his surprise.
  4871. >She reached out with a sopping wet hoof and stroked the top of his head.
  4872. >”You know. Now that I am on the very bottom instead of the very top, perhaps I should at least try using the few opportunities it provides.”
  4873. >Her horn lit up again and the sponge, floating forgotten behind the pegasus, levitated to him.
  4874. >”I'm kind of curious to see what they can do. And it's not like I can't change my approach later if nothing happens.”
  4876. >Soarin stared at Celestia with his lips parted.
  4877. “Eh?”
  4878. >She nodded as her smile turned from a polite one to an amused one.
  4879. >”You promised to wash me, did you not?”
  4880. >Her magic faded and the sponge fell on top of Soarin's head with a soft splat.
  4881. >His ears flicked as tiny bits of foam stuck to them.
  4882. “I mean- I mean, sure, I'll do that.”
  4883. >Water sloshed around them as he rose up and grabbed the sponge with his hooves.
  4884. “You just changed your mind so suddenly.”
  4885. >He kept his touch as gentle as he could as Celestia stuck out a hoof for him to wash.
  4886. “You were so insistent on having nothing to do with humans and now you just...”
  4887. >She let out a short sigh.
  4888. >”Soarin.”
  4889. >The hoof she'd stuck out stroked his cheek, leaving behind a trail of foam.
  4890. >”One of the many things I've learned in my time is that sometimes it's best listen to others. Mostly in politics, but also in personal issues.”
  4891. >Her horn lit up again.
  4892. >Soarin found himself pulled to her chest.
  4893. >She wrapped her front hooves around his back and pulled him into a wet but warm embrace.
  4894. >”I am wise, but not omniscient. If you think humans deserve a second chance, then I will trust you and give them one.”
  4895. >Her lips pressed onto the top of his snout for a quick smooch before she relaxed the grip of her hooves.
  4896. >”Now, it really is about time to get me clean. It won't do for me to be all dirty like this.”
  4897. >She stuck out another hoof as Soarin pushed himself away from her to have space to work in.
  4899. >Celestia fanned out a wing to let Soarin soap her side.
  4900. >She shivered as he ran the sponge over what was revealed.
  4901. >Apparently alicorns were just as sensitive there as pegasi.
  4902. “I have to admit I was afraid I made a terrible mistake and went too far with what I said. I'm still not sure you're not just saying you'll believe me just to make me feel better.”
  4903. >His body was very fluid and flexible and he felt extremely awake as the adrenaline from the close call still surged in his veins.
  4904. “...you're not doing that, are you?”
  4905. >The mare shifted a little, sending ripples around the tub and giving him better access to her back.
  4906. >”I would never lie to you.”
  4907. >The waves from her movement lapped on Soarin's stomach.
  4908. “I'd already given up hope of you changing your mind.”
  4909. >Maybe she'd even learn to trust some human enough to leave Luna with them.
  4910. >He ran his hooves over her flight muscles and couldn't help but notice how soft and weak they felt.
  4911. >She really needed some more practice.
  4912. >But he didn't dare say anything about it.
  4913. >It was best not push his luck.
  4914. >”It certainly helps that I have a plan B and can blackmail them at any time. But, for now, it'll be fun to watch them – even if I have little faith in their ability to actually solve the problem.”
  4915. >She squirmed under his touch despite doing her best to stay still.
  4916. >”Maybe I can even learn something about them. Like how they solve problems; is violence truly their first resort?”
  4917. >He had to be rougher than he liked to get all of the dirt out.
  4918. >It'd really set deep into her coat and clung on tight.
  4919. “It is for a few of them. We've had a few customers like that. Most of them are a lot like us, though. Like Ann: she's not once laid a finger on us to hurt us.”
  4920. >He shoveled some water onto her back with a wing.
  4921. >A beautiful clean white coat was the reward of his scrubbing.
  4923. >Celestia shifted again, presenting the other side of her barrel to Soarin.
  4924. >Small waves lapped on him, raised by her motion.
  4925. >”She's never laid a finger on you, but she does molest you.”
  4926. >His hooves ceased their motion at her remark.
  4927. >He stared at her ribs and how her wet coat clung to the depressions between them.
  4928. “Well, yes. I let her since I thought it better not find out what she'd do if I didn't.”
  4929. >Foam oozed out of the sponge as he pressed it into her shoulder.
  4930. >”I guess you don't have it too bad. There's bound to be a mare out there who has to serve some smelly obese guy.”
  4931. >A shiver passed through her as her face twisted in disgust.
  4932. “Someone like that won't be able to afford a pony, don't worry.”
  4933. >He set to work again, scrubbing her shoulder clean before tapping her wing.
  4934. >A spritz of water hit his face as she fanned out her feathers.
  4936. >The alicorn sunk herself into the tub and waggled her wings to push water past her sides.
  4937. >The foam washed away, along with whatever made her coat yellow.
  4938. >She surfaced with a splash, one just small enough to not cause the tub to overflow.
  4939. >”Haah! Feels good to be clean again. Well, mostly clean.”
  4940. >She swung her mane off her face, sending sprinkles of water everywhere, and glanced at her sides.
  4941. >They were their normal lovely white again.
  4942. >Her lips curled into a smile.
  4943. >A sly one.
  4944. >”That leaves just one place for you to wash.”
  4945. >She pushed her twin suns to the surface and flicked her tail onto her back.
  4946. >A burning heat flushed on Soarin's face so fast he was a little surprised the spray of water from her tail didn't hiss and turn to steam as it hit him.
  4947. “Ummh...”
  4948. >He stared at it, blinking.
  4949. >Then he shook his head and reached for the sponge he'd dropped.
  4950. “Of course.”
  4952. >He couldn't help but notice how soft she was there.
  4953. >Memories of their night together popped up in his mind, despite his best efforts to suppress them.
  4954. >It was neither the time nor the place for that.
  4955. >Nor was either of them in the mood.
  4956. >It was just a part of her that he had to clean.
  4957. >Nothing more, nothing less.
  4958. >...and now that he got a more objective look at it, a part that was quite filthy.
  4959. >He kept his touch as light as he could, but had to be far rougher than he liked to get it all off.
  4960. >That Celestia said nothing and didn't squirm probably meant that he wasn't too hard with it.
  4962. >Soarin let out a relieved sigh as he let the sponge splat onto the water.
  4963. >He fell backwards for a soft splashdown.
  4964. “Well, that does it.”
  4965. >Celestia was a lot of pony to wash.
  4966. >He let himself float on his back as she sunk most of the way into the tub and fluttered her wings to spatter water all over herself.
  4967. >”Thank you, Soarin. And my apologies for that last trick.”
  4968. >The waves from Celestia sloshing around made the pegasus bob up and down.
  4969. >“You're just so cute when you're all flustered and blushing that I couldn't help myself.”
  4970. >A soft golden glow reflected off the ceiling above Soarin as something intangible pulled on his hooves.
  4971. >Large hooves landed on his back, pulled him upright, and pinned him to Celestia's chest.
  4972. >She spread out her wings and wrapped them around him as well.
  4973. >”It's good to get a reminder I don't need to do everything alone every now and then.”
  4974. >Her soft and warm muzzle buried itself in his mane as she held him.
  4975. >He pressed his face on her chest and the little tuft of fur on it.
  4976. “I'm happy to be of any help to you.”
  4977. >The silky fluff on her chest caressed his snout as he shut his eyelids and let his head rest on her.
  4978. >For a moment he was living the dream in Canterlot Castle, the envy of every stallion in Equestria.
  4979. >It surprised him how easily he'd forgotten who she was and started to treat him like any other mare.
  4980. >Well, any other mare he'd been with.
  4981. >Becoming a Wonderbolt had made it difficult to find ponies who liked him for who he was instead of for his status.
  4982. >He rubbed his muzzle in her wondrous tuft.
  4983. >The scent of soap and that of Celestia herself, one that reminded him of a sunny summer's day after a rain when life bursts forth, filled his nostrils.
  4985. >Soarin had his ear pressed on her chest and heard air wheeze into her lungs as she drew breath.
  4986. >”I wish you could stay.”
  4987. >She stroked his back with her wings.
  4988. >The feathers tickled him.
  4989. “I wish I could stay.”
  4990. >Freedom to do as he wanted.
  4991. >The one thing he wanted the most was the one thing he couldn't have.
  4992. >”How long do you have? Luna would love to see you when she wakes up.”
  4993. “She just said I have to get back 'tonight.'”
  4994. >He cracked open his eyelids and glanced at Luna.
  4995. >She was fast asleep with a smile on her lips.
  4996. >The bathwater was starting to get cold, but...
  4997. “So I can stay for a bit longer.”
  4998. >...something about Celestia made the idea of getting out unattractive.
  4999. >It wasn't just because of the embrace and how they stroked each other's backs with their wings.
  5001. “I think it's time we get out.”
  5002. >Soarin gave Celestia's chest one last nuzzle before folding his wings.
  5003. >The mare let out a sad squeal.
  5004. >”I could reheat the water.”
  5005. >She squeezed the pegasus even tighter.
  5006. >The tingle of magic filled the air as her horn lit up.
  5007. “Celestia.”
  5008. >He looked up at her face and the theatrical frown on it.
  5009. >”Hmph!”
  5010. >She stuck her snout up in the air.
  5011. >”If you insist.”
  5012. >Her hooves released their grip and her wings stroked him one more time before folding up.
  5013. >Soarin rolled his eyes and let out a sigh.
  5015. ***
  5017. >Luna and her bed spun in place and rolled beside Celestia's bed as Soarin guided it.
  5018. “Right here?”
  5019. >He glanced back at Celestia.
  5020. >The alicorn stood at the door with her head bowed and horn aglow.
  5021. >A ripple of gold emanated from her horn as it touched the wood of the door.
  5022. >Soarin's wings tingled as the ripple spread onto the walls, traveled across the room, and finally vanished as it met itself on the opposite side.
  5023. >”Yes, that will do. Thank you again.”
  5024. >Celestia shuffled her wings and shook her head before turning to face the pegasus.
  5025. >”I'll go and- Oh! Sister! How was your nap?”
  5026. >She rushed to her sibling who, as Soarin noticed when he glanced down, was indeed awake.
  5027. >”Are you hungry? There's plenty to eat if you are.”
  5028. >The stallion arched a brow and gazed at Celestia's barrel and how her ribs were very visible through her coat.
  5029. >The elder sister didn't notice, but Luna looked up at him.
  5030. >A wide smile brightened her dark blue face as she let out a giggle.
  5031. >”Hi hi!”
  5032. >She shuffled over to the side and patted the empty spot with a hoof.
  5033. >”'oorin.”
  5034. >Pat, pat, pat.
  5035. >The stallion spread his wings, hopped into the air, and fluttered over.
  5036. >He tucked his hooves beneath himself as he set down on the bed.
  5038. >It was pretty nice lying there next to Luna as Celestia munched on an orange.
  5039. >Luna rested her chin on top of Soarin's back as she watched her sister eat.
  5040. >The younger sibling's head was heavy, but warm and her coat was even softer than Celestia's.
  5041. >Poor thing probably didn't even realize how intimate she was and just wanted to display affection in the only way she could.
  5042. >Soarin reached out to stroke the back of her neck.
  5043. “As much as I'd love to stay, I think it's time for me to get going. Ann did tell me to get home tonight after all.”
  5044. >Luna's ears perked up at his words.
  5045. >”Aa!”
  5046. >She pulled her head off his back and slid a hoof there instead.
  5047. >It hung limp over his wings for a second as he craned his neck to face her.
  5048. “Would you like it if Coco came to visit too the next time?”
  5049. >He couldn't help but give her the most genuine of smiles as he saw her face light up.
  5050. >”Oo! Is 'ood!”
  5051. >She heaved her head off the pillow and inched closer to rub the tips of their snouts together.
  5052. >Luna had the scent of soap to her, and something that reminded him of very high altitude clouds beneath it.
  5053. >”Hm-hm!”
  5054. >Celestia suppressed a chuckle and gulped down the slice of orange she chewed on.
  5055. >”That's an excellent idea. It'd really do good for her to see more ponies than just us.”
  5056. >She had an adoring smile on her as she watched the two on the bed.
  5057. >”Now, Luna, dearest. Would you let him go? It's time he went home.”
  5058. >”Aaw.”
  5059. >The younger sister let out a sad noise as she pulled her hoof off Soarin's back.
  5060. >He touched the tip of her snout with his one last time, spread his wings, and hopped off the bed.
  5062. ***
  5064. >Soarin circled far above Ann's apartment building for far longer than he had to.
  5065. >Not because he dreaded what awaited inside, but because he liked to watch the city at night from up high.
  5066. >Orderly rows of lights, arranged in a grid pattern, glowed right below him and in every direction but where the old town was.
  5067. >The old town, in contrast, was a mess of crisscrossing, thin and curving streets with no clear pattern to it.
  5068. >He took a deep breath, savored his final moment of relative freedom, and angled his wings to steer himself to a dive.
  5070. >He stretched his neck and took a step to the side to make his collar touch a black plastic box.
  5071. >The box, on the wall next to the front door, let out a beep.
  5072. >The lock buzzed and clicked, an electric engine whirred to life and the door swung open.
  5073. >Soarin trotted in, stepping as soft as he could since the plastic mat of the stairwell did little to dampen the sound of his hooves.
  5075. >Thump, thump, thump!
  5076. >He banged his hoof on the door to Ann's apartment, their home, before presenting his collar to the reader on the wall next to it.
  5077. >Beep, buzz, click, whirr.
  5078. “I'm back!”
  5079. >He hopped in and wiped his hooves on the doormat as the machinery closed the door behind him.
  5080. >”Your dinner's in the fridge. We already ate, so just heat it up when you feel like it.”
  5081. >Ann's voice carried from the living room.
  5082. >It was a small apartment with just three rooms and a bathroom, but enough for a woman and two ponies.
  5084. >Soarin sniffed at the air as he trotted past the kitchen.
  5085. >Convenience food.
  5086. “Long day?”
  5087. >Ann lied sideways on the sofa with Coco, arm wrapped around the mare's barrel, as they watched some show on TV.
  5088. >Both of them had half-lidded, bleary eyes and looked like they just woke up from a nap.
  5089. >”Coco here-”
  5090. >She stroked the mare's chest.
  5091. >”-insisted she finish the dress she worked on so I kept the shop open for longer than I had to. It was a very busy evening.”
  5092. >Ann rolled her eyes and let out a sigh.
  5093. >”I've got no clue where they all came from since we were supposed to be closed. Either way, I'm glad you're back. I could use a massage.”
  5094. >A massage, and a happy ending.
  5095. “Yeah, sure. Can I eat first?”
  5096. >The woman waved her hand in the general direction of the kitchen.
  5098. >A dull smell filled the kitchen as the microwave hummed and buzzed.
  5099. >It wasn't a bad smell, just a boring one that preceded tasteless food.
  5100. >Ann was no good at cooking and Coco was often too tired after work, so the chore fell to Soarin.
  5101. >And when he wasn't home?
  5102. >A plastic plate with an excuse of lasagna on it spun in the microwave and filled the apartment with a dull smell.
  5103. >Ding!
  5104. >Soarin slammed his hoof on the big button.
  5105. >The apparatus' door sprung open and a thin cloud of vapor billowed out and rose up to the ceiling.
  5107. >”Mmmh.”
  5108. >Soarin's ears perked up as Coco's voice carried into the kitchen.
  5109. >She sounded very relaxed.
  5110. >”A little lower. Right behind the ear.”
  5111. >He stared at the unappetizing meal in front of him and bent down to take a bite.
  5112. >It tasted just as bland as the smell suggested.
  5114. >He tread into the living room, spread his wings, and hopped into the air to peek over the couch's backrest.
  5115. >Both of the females still lay sideways, but Ann was far more awake now and had her hand buried in Coco's mane.
  5116. >The mare had a twitchy back hoof and made a little hint of a squeal each time she breathed out.
  5117. “You wanted a massage?”
  5118. >A hand rose from the pile of pony and human and grasped at air.
  5119. >Soarin fluttered closer, stuck a hoof out at it, and let her pull him down.
  5120. >”Why the rush?”
  5121. >Ann flopped onto her back and pulled both ponies onto her.
  5122. >Coco's side pinned into Soarin's before he could fold his wings so he had to leave one draped over her back.
  5123. >”You're always so uptight and hurried.”
  5124. >Ann's hand snaked up the back of his neck, pushed his head to her cheek, and found the spot behind his ear to scritch.
  5125. >A wave of relaxation spread through him.
  5126. “Mmmh.”
  5127. >Her cheek had a faint stench of sweat and stress to it, and beneath those was the scent of orchids that she so often wore.
  5128. >”See? It's good to relax every now and then. Coco gets it.”
  5129. >The mare shifted a little, probably nuzzling Ann's cheek.
  5130. >”Give him a break. He was a Wonderbolt, first and foremost. That means he'll do what he's told to before considering even himself.”
  5131. >The fingers behind his ear stopped for a short moment.
  5132. >”Well, in that case I'm telling you to relax.”
  5133. >Ann couldn't see it, but Soarin rolled his eyes.
  5134. >Relaxation wasn't proper relaxation when it could end any second.
  5136. >Ann's fingers moved slower and slower as their touch became softer and more erratic.
  5137. >Her breathing turned slow and deep.
  5138. >Eventually, her hand flopped down onto the couch and her head slumped against Soarin's.
  5139. “Huh.”
  5140. >He kept his voice as quiet as he could.
  5141. “She didn't look quite that tired.”
  5142. >Ann and the couch shifted as Coco rolled off.
  5143. >Her hooves barely made a sound as they hit the carpet.
  5144. >”Working those extra hours drained her completely. She's been dozing off ever since we got home.”
  5145. >Her whisper was just barely loud enough for Soarin to hear.
  5146. >”Should we let her sleep?”
  5147. >The stallion snaked his way from beneath Ann, hoping she wouldn't wake.
  5148. “Yeah. For about half an hour.”
  5149. >He spread his wings and took to the air, as silent as an owl.
  5150. >”Well then.”
  5151. >A coy smile spread to Coco's face as she lifted a hoof off the floor.
  5152. >”How about we have some fun?”
  5154. >Soaring yanked the cupboard open and fluttered up to the top shelf.
  5155. >He pulled out a packet of cookies.
  5156. >They were being good ponies so they deserved a treat.
  5157. >And besides, she hadn't said they couldn't.
  5158. >He softened the cupboard closing with a hoof and set himself down.
  5159. >Even though they were on a time limit, he walked slow to make sure his hooves didn't make too much noise.
  5160. >The door to Ann's bedroom opened with but a tiny creak.
  5161. >Coco's ears perked up and swiveled his way before she heaved her head off Ann's pillow.
  5162. >Her lips curled to a smile as she saw what Soarin had pinned beneath his wing.
  5163. >”Oo, you found it! I knew she had some hidden up there.”
  5164. >She patted the spot next to her and pushed the console in front of her towards him.
  5165. >”Come on, it's your turn.”
  5166. >The stallion hopped onto the bed, let go of the cookies, and hit a button to begin his moves.
  5167. >Both the console and the game were designed by humans for humans, so Coco and Soarin and their hooves were very slow.
  5168. >Fortunately, the game was turn based and had an undo command.
  5170. ***
  5172. >Soarin nudged Ann's cheek with the tip of his muzzle.
  5173. “Hey.”
  5174. >She jerked awake.
  5175. > “Hrrng?”
  5176. >Her first look at him was all bleary and a bit derpy.
  5177. >Then she shook her head and rubbed her eyes.
  5178. >”Oh. What time is it?”
  5179. >She set her hand on the handrest and pushed herself upright.
  5180. >Soarin took a step back to give her space.
  5181. “You slept for 35 minutes.”
  5182. >Some kind of a muffled groan came from deep in her throat as she stifled a yawn.
  5183. >”That's not too bad, I guess.”
  5184. >Her lips curled into a wide smile as she stuck her fingers into Soarin's mane and combed it.
  5185. >That was enough of a clue for him to know what she wanted next.
  5186. >”Sleeping on the couch left me a bit stiff, though. You'll help me with that, hm?”
  5187. >The stallion bowed his neck and flicked his tail.
  5188. “Of course. Your room?”
  5189. >Ann gave his ears one last rub before pushing herself up to her feet.
  5190. >”You know me too well.”
  5192. >Ann glanced at the empty pack of cookies before setting her gaze on Coco.
  5193. >She still lied on the bed with the game in her hooves.
  5194. >”I see you two had your fun while I was asleep.”
  5195. >A bit of red rose to the mare's cheeks as she hoofed the console in front of her.
  5196. >”Ah, sorry. I thought I'd have time for one more turn.”
  5197. >Soarin hopped onto the bed just as Ann shook her head.
  5198. >”Just take it with you. I won't need it tonight.”
  5199. >Coco took the console between her teeth, hopped off the bed, and scurried out of the room.
  5201. >The woman tread to the bed.
  5202. >The mattress depressed beneath her as she sat down, drawing Soarin to her side.
  5203. >She wrapped an arm around his withers and gave his chest a rub.
  5204. >”I should get you a massage someday, shouldn't I?”
  5205. >...what he really wanted was to be treated like something of equal capability.
  5206. “That would be lovely.”
  5207. >Ann let go of him, turned around, and laid down on her stomach.
  5208. >”I heard there's a pony-run place not too far from here. Maybe I'll book a time for you and Coco.”
  5209. >That'd be something, though he'd prefer a day off over it.
  5210. “I'm sure Coco will like it as much as I will.”
  5212. >Ann's back felt very different from Celestia's.
  5213. >Celestia was just skin and bone, but he could tell she was strong and toned despite the recent hard times.
  5214. >Ann, though?
  5215. >She wasn't overweight, but she was... soft.
  5216. >Someone who'd never pushed herself.
  5217. >”Oooh, I didn't even know that place can be so relaxed.”
  5218. >Yet still she had knots and cramps in her.
  5219. >Soarin stood on top of her with each of his four hooves working a different spot.
  5220. >He was a lot gentler than usual since he wasn't used of working with humans, but Ann didn't know the difference.
  5221. >She twitched every time he pushed the hard edge of his hoof to tease out some knot and moaned when he tapped and stroked her with the soft underside.
  5223. >The fishy scent of human arousal permeated her lower end.
  5224. >He wasn't looking forward to dealing with that, but it's not like he had a choice.
  5225. “You're not in a bad shape, but you'll need to train your core if you want to avoid getting as tied up in the future.”
  5226. >A gentle push on her lower back with his rear hoof was all it took to make her yelp.
  5227. >”Ah!”
  5228. >Soarin hopped off her.
  5229. “A bit of extra strength in there would mean you don't have to overexert your externals and make them all sore.”
  5230. >Ann gave him a confused look.
  5231. >”Uh...? Externals?”
  5232. >He tapped the large back muscles that ran on both sides of her spine.
  5233. >”Oh.”
  5234. >She rolled onto her back, grasped Soarin's hoof, and pulled him onto her.
  5235. >Her other hand found its way between his rear legs.
  5236. >A sharp breath wheezed in through his nostrils as she caressed his nethers.
  5237. >”That eager?”
  5238. >If only he could tell her.
  5240. ***
  5242. >A silver bell chimed somewhere, its quiet sound crystal clear despite the flutter of wings and thuds of hooves on the pillowy streets of Cloudsdale all around him.
  5243. >Was there a shop that had a bell on its door?
  5244. >It was the main shopping street, after all.
  5245. >He craned his neck to look all around, but nopony was going in or out of any of the stores.
  5246. >His brow furrowed in confusion.
  5247. >”Soarin.”
  5248. >Flap. Thump.
  5249. >He turned around and gasped in surprise.
  5250. “Pricess Luna!”
  5251. >And bowed before her.
  5252. >”Soarin, you... you sleep. We sleep.”
  5253. >Her words opened a door in his mind and the memories hit him like a bolt of lightning.
  5254. >”I came to thank you.”
  5255. >That oddly absent look in her eyes, how she didn't stand quite right...
  5256. >”Sister... sister better now. A bit better. It is a start.”
  5257. >Despite all that, she had a wide smile on her face and her voice was laced with joy.
  5258. >A hoof shod in silver pulled Soarin up by his chin.
  5259. “I forgot. Sorry.”
  5260. >He glanced around and noticed they were now alone.
  5261. “But it's good to hear she's better. Do you think there's anything else I can do for her?”
  5262. >Luna lifted a hoof to cover her mouth and let out a short, bright giggle.
  5263. >”You can be with her. Sister likes you. Sister likes you a lot.”
  5264. >The moon on her rear flashed with silver light.
  5265. >”She is quite en- en...”
  5266. >She squeezed her eyelids shut and shook her head.
  5267. >”Let me show you what she dreams of.”
  5268. >Her moon flashed in silver again.
  5269. >A sudden gust of wind blew through the street and took Luna with it like she was but a puff of smoke.
  5270. >Soarin felt himself slip deeper into the dream as darkness surrounded her.
  5271. >He also felt something touch his behind.
  5272. >It was a large, white hoof.
  5273. >Its caress was very soft and soothing.
  5275. ~~~
  5277. >Celestia stared into space somewhere behind the door of her room.
  5278. >She had a soft smile on her face.
  5279. “Isn't he just the most adorab- I mean, nice.”
  5280. >”Hi he!”
  5281. >Luna let out a quiet giggle.
  5282. >”Sis-ee in 'oov. L-oov.”
  5283. >She had a hoof covering her mouth as Celestia turned to her.
  5284. “Is it that obvious?”
  5285. >It's not like she could help herself.
  5286. >Alone and neglected for so long and then a stallion she clicked with came out of nowhere.
  5287. >That he was easy on the eyes didn't hurt either.
  5289. >Luna shuffled in her bed to get closer to her sister.
  5290. >”Sis-ee go to 'ooman. T-aak.”
  5291. >Celestia's brow furrowed as she tried to comprehend what she heard.
  5292. “You want me to go somewhere? Do you want something? I'll get you anything, just ask.”
  5293. >”Hh-uu-maan. Ann-on.”
  5294. >A wide smile spread onto Luna's lips as realization dawned on the elder sibling's face.
  5295. “Ah. I- I'd really rather not. Humans are no good.”
  5296. >Her words earned her a sharp glare from a pair of cyan eyes.
  5297. >”Sis-ee say to S-oorin. Say she t-aak. Sis-ee let 'im d-oon?”
  5298. >Celestia cast her gaze down at her own hooves.
  5299. >She did promise.
  5300. >And it'd make Luna happy.
  5301. “Fine. I'll go talk to him.”
  5303. >Celestia slipped out of her room and shut the door behind her.
  5304. >She didn't like leaving Luna alone like that, but she liked the thought of bringing a human to her even less.
  5305. >Either way, a promise was a promise so she had to go.
  5306. >Her hooves thumped on the carpet as she tread down the corridor.
  5307. >A peek into Anon's room revealed that he wasn't there.
  5308. >Neither was he in the kitchen.
  5309. >That only left downstairs.
  5311. >Anon stood behind the register.
  5312. >He had dark bags under his eyes and stared at something only he could see somewhere on the floor in front of him.
  5313. >He didn't register Celestia coming down the stairs at all.
  5314. “You wanted to talk?”
  5315. >A short moment passed in silence.
  5316. >Anon's head jerked upright and he looked at her.
  5317. >”Yes! Uh...”
  5318. >He rubbed the back of his neck.
  5319. >”I mean, yeah. But first, come here.”
  5320. >Pat pat pat.
  5321. >Celestia took a slow step towards him as he patted his thigh.
  5322. >What was it that he wanted?
  5323. >Would he chain her and put the horn ring back on?
  5324. >Pat pat pat.
  5325. >”Come on.”
  5326. >She didn't have an option, did she?
  5328. >She inched closer, step by step.
  5329. >Anon nodded at her and patted his thigh again.
  5330. >...what was she doing?
  5331. >She was no filly.
  5332. >Thump!
  5333. >Anon flinched as Celestia stomped a hoof.
  5334. >She lifted her head high and trotted to him.
  5335. >His lips curled to a tired smile as he reached for her head.
  5336. >”I've missed you.”
  5337. >Five fingers massaged the scalp between her ears.
  5338. >It felt... nice.
  5339. >She couldn't stop her ear from twitching.
  5340. >”Would you like some cake? I got one the day before yesterday and tried to give it to you, but you wouldn't listen.”
  5341. >He brought in his other hand to cup her cheek.
  5342. >”It's no longer at it's best, but I think it'll still be good.”
  5343. >How despicable of him to strike at her one weakness.
  5344. >Juicy, sweet cake after days of scraping by with whatever she could find...
  5345. >She gulped down the saliva that'd built up in her mouth.
  5346. “Give it to Luna. She needs it more than I do.”
  5347. >His brow arched as he stared at her.
  5348. >”Are you sure?”
  5349. >Gulp.
  5350. >A wave traveled the length of her flowy mane as she nodded.
  5351. >The response prompted Anon to smile.
  5352. >”You really care about her, don't you? But don't worry, I bought enough for all of us. Shall we go share it with her?”
  5354. “'We?'”?
  5355. >Celestia took a step back and stopped just short of rearing up.
  5356. “What do you mean 'we' share it with her?”
  5357. >She would not let a human near Luna.
  5358. >Not after what they did.
  5359. >...although, Anon himself never did anything bad to Celestia.
  5360. >The human in question blinked a few times and furrowed his brow
  5361. >”That both of us eat the cake with her. What I have to say concerns her and she deserves to hear it.”
  5362. >Air wheezed through her nostrils as she drew breath.
  5363. >But instead of shouting 'no', she held it in.
  5364. >She could decline.
  5365. >She also couldn't.
  5366. >Keeping Anon out was no problem, she could keep the spell up for centuries without breaking sweat.
  5367. >Was that what she wanted?
  5368. >To live locked up in a room for a human lifetime?
  5369. >...he never really did anything to her.
  5370. >Plus there was cake.
  5371. >Sweet, delicious, juicy cake.
  5372. >Her mouth flooded with saliva just at the thought of it.
  5373. >Despicable human, offering the one thing she couldn't resist.
  5374. “Fine. I'll let you in. But should you even try to hurt her...”
  5375. >She left the words hanging in the air.
  5377. >Anon came back from the back room with a large plastic box under his arm.
  5378. >It had a strap that ran over his shoulder and a power cord tailing behind him.
  5379. >”Here it is. I wanted to give it to you personally so I didn't put it in the fridge.”
  5380. >He squatted to pick up the cord and wrapped it around the box.
  5381. >”You said you liked strawberry better, so I went to the same place and got some of that.”
  5382. >Celestia's ears perked up.
  5383. >That perfect fluffy sweetness, with just the right amount of whipped cream?
  5384. >There was no way she could resist.
  5385. “I'll go get us some plates and spoons. Apple juice or tea?”
  5386. >She leaned in and stuck her snout to where the portable fridge had its opening.
  5387. >Sniff, sniff...
  5388. >Yep.
  5389. >That was the wonderful, sweet and creamy scent of the cake she had in that shopping mall.
  5390. >Heavy with strawberry and with a hint of vanilla, too.
  5391. >”Heh.”
  5392. >Celestia froze in place as Anon ruffled her mane.
  5393. >”I'm more than willing to get you some every now and then if it means you'll be back to normal.”
  5394. >She pursed her lips and looked away.
  5395. >She'd sworn to not let a human in with Luna, but... cake!
  5396. >Besides, Anon wasn't a bad person.
  5397. >And there was that perfect mix of fluffy whipped cream and sweet strawberry!
  5399. ***
  5401. >Three plates, spoons, glasses full of juice, and a knife floated behind Celestia as she trotted out of the kitchen.
  5402. “Are you sure these are the plates you want? They look a bit small.”
  5403. >Anon arched a brow and gave her a long, questioning look.
  5404. >”No, you can't eat the whole cake. We'll leave some for tomorrow.”
  5405. >The corners of her mouth drooped.
  5406. >His lips, on the other hoof, curled into a smile.
  5407. >Two fingers stroked Celestia's cheek.
  5408. >”You'll get more, don't worry about it. I'll buy you some every weekend if you work hard.”
  5409. >Work?
  5410. >That'd mean she won't be able to watch over Luna.
  5411. >But, she'd have cake...
  5412. “I don't have an option, do I?”
  5413. >His fingers moved up to rub her ear.
  5414. >”I'm not forcing you.”
  5415. >Celestia cast him a glance.
  5416. >Not forcing her?
  5417. “You better make sure you get the large cake or I'll slack off whenever I can.”
  5418. >She poked his side with her muzzle.
  5420. >Luna propped herself up against the end of her bed as soon as Celestia opened the door.
  5421. >”Ann-on! Sis-ee!”
  5422. >Her voice was all giddy and she had a wide smile on her face as her elder sister let their owner in.
  5423. “You sound happy. Did you take a nap and had a good dream?”
  5424. >Celestia set what she levitated down on Luna's nightstand and trotted over to the bed.
  5425. >She wrapped one of her hooves around her sister and leaned in for a hug.
  5426. >Thud.
  5427. >Anon set the fridge down on the floor and popped it open.
  5428. >”Hello, Luna. Good to see you again.”
  5429. >He peered inside and pulled out a whole, if small, cake that was covered in whipped cream and fresh strawberries.
  5430. >”Back then I didn't know it was actually you, but thanks for the tip. Your sister truly is into cake like nobody's business.”
  5431. >Celestia stared at him with her jaw left hanging open as he set the cake next to the plates and spoons.
  5432. “Wait, Luna, you...”
  5433. >The younger sister still had the wide smile on her face.
  5434. >”Hi hi hi!”
  5435. >She let out a short giggle, lifted up a hoof, and pressed it on the tip of Celestia's snoot.
  5436. >”Sis-ee need hee-lp. I g-eet heep.”
  5438. >Celestia brought a hoof to her forehead and shook her head.
  5439. “What am I going to do with you?”
  5440. >She let out a short sigh.
  5441. >Her hoof made a quiet clink as it hit the bed's railing.
  5442. >”Perhaps you should let her do what she wants.”
  5443. >Anon's voice made her ears perk up.
  5444. >”Well, the best she can anyways.”
  5445. >A metal knife clinked on a platter.
  5446. >”But how about some of this cake first?”
  5447. >”Hee!”
  5448. >Luna squealed with joy.
  5449. >”Don't worry, there's plenty for you too.”
  5450. >A most wonderful scent of moist and juicy strawberry cake wafted into Celestia's nostrils.
  5451. >She bit her lip as she watched Anon sink a knife into the cake and cut in half, and then one half into thirds.
  5452. “I meant that she needs to rest and recover instead of trying to push herself.”
  5453. >Anon's hands twitched.
  5454. >The piece of cake he was balancing on the knife tipped over and splatted down on the platter he was moving it to.
  5455. >He drew breath, but simply let his jaw hang open instead of saying anything.
  5456. “You were told she won't recover, weren't you?”
  5457. >His gaze flitted over to Luna for a second before he nodded.
  5459. “Well.”
  5460. >Her horn lit up in gold.
  5461. >The two remaining pieces of cake floated onto their platters.
  5462. “Look into my left eye. There's something wrong with it; can you tell what?”
  5463. >She stared straight at Anon.
  5464. >His brow furrowed and his lip twitched.
  5465. >He couldn't quite keep still under her unwavering gaze.
  5466. >”No, it looks just fine to me.”
  5467. >It was barely visible, but the slightest shiver or relief passed through him as he looked away.
  5468. “Would you believe me if I told you that Queen Chrysalis herself drove her horn through that very eye just before Luna banished her from Equestria after the first changeling invasion?”
  5469. >The feeling still hadn't quite left her – she would still occasionally wake up and be surprised she wasn't half blind.
  5470. “Because it's true.”
  5471. >Anon had a small spoon in his hand and held it above his slice of cake, ready to dig in.
  5472. >”So you're saying she'll be fine?”
  5473. >He cut off a piece and offered it to Luna.
  5474. >She opened her mouth for him.
  5475. >”Aan!”
  5476. >Celestia's lips curled to a mellow smile as she watched her sister bite in and squeal in delight.
  5477. “Yes, as long as she lets the Moon restore her. But I cannot say if it will take weeks, months, years, or decades.”
  5479. >It'd gone a little soggy and mushy, and didn't have the taste of freshness to it, but it was scrumptious nevertheless.
  5480. >Celestia let out a deep moan, then a short giggle as Anon tensed up.
  5481. “Thank you for the cake.”
  5482. >She leaned in and nuzzled the side of his neck.
  5483. >It made him tense up even more.
  5484. >She'd seen more than a few stallions do the exact same thing to know it wasn't just his muscles that had gone hard.
  5485. >”Does that mean you no longer hate me?”
  5486. “Hate you?”
  5487. >Her brow arched as she cast a glance at him.
  5488. “Ah, I guess that's the impression you got. No, no, I did not and do not hate you.”
  5489. >She stuck a spoonful of cake in her mouth just to buy some time.
  5490. >How could she say it?
  5491. >Of course, she knew how to be diplomatic and say nothing, but Anon preferred honesty.
  5492. “I simply made a misjudgment and thought you're a threat.”
  5493. >Her eyes narrowed as she watched Anon's fingers stroke Luna's cheeks.
  5494. >”Well, I'm not.”
  5495. >There was the tiniest shiver to his voice as he pulled his hand back.
  5496. >”But I'll stick back if you want.”
  5497. >”Naw!”
  5498. >Luna called out.
  5499. >She had a pout on her face.
  5500. >”Moo-a.”
  5501. >Celestia's lips curled to a soft smile.
  5502. “If she doesn't mind, I don't mind.”
  5503. >Anon blinked a few times as confusion crept to his face.
  5504. >His fingers returned to Luna, this time to caress the underside of her chin.
  5505. >”Mm.”
  5506. >She shuffled to the railing on his side of the bed.
  5508. >Celestia had her gaze set on Anon's cake.
  5509. >It sat forgotten on the desk as he fed Luna with one hand and rubbed her ear with the other.
  5510. “What was it that you wanted to talk about?”
  5511. >He glanced at Celestia, then at the empty platter that floated between them.
  5512. >”I- I'm not entirely sure what it's about, but the folks who brought Luna want to talk with you.”
  5513. >His fingers let go of the dark ear they rubbed.
  5514. >”She made it sound important, but wouldn't tell me anything apart that it's urgent.”
  5515. >Celestia rolled her eyes and let out a sigh.
  5516. >She really couldn't care less about receiving a not-so-heartfelt apology for what she and her sister had to live through.
  5517. “Well. What do you say? Will I listen to them? Or would you rather do it yourself?”
  5518. >”Uh...”
  5519. >A silence took over, during which he gave her a blank stare.
  5520. >”Yes. You will listen to them. I'll call her and tell her you'll hear what she has to say.”
  5521. >He didn't exactly sound convincing, but she wasn't about to argue.
  5522. “Whatever you say.”
  5523. >She found her eyes wandering to Anon's platter again.
  5524. “If you're not going to eat that, could I...?”
  5525. >All the response she got was a condescending glare from under his brows.
  5526. >...worth a shot.
  5528. >Luna's eyelids fluttered as she dozed off.
  5529. >She drew a sharp breath and shook her head after each time to keep herself awake.
  5530. >Anon had finally got to eating his cake, so Celestia had pulled out a hairbrush and stroked Luna's mane with it.
  5531. >It didn't really accomplish much, with how ethereal their manes were, but it gave her something to do apart watching someone else enjoy cake.
  5532. >”Mmh. You know, I should have you learn how to bake.”
  5533. >Both sisters ears' perked up.
  5534. ”Huh? I could, but I won't be able to match that cake. The owner of that place comes from a family of bakers and probably started when she was a little girl. It'll take years to match that.”
  5535. >”Hi hi!”
  5536. >Luna let out a short giggle and earned a glare from her elder sister.
  5537. >Anon's lips curled to a smile as he arched a brow.
  5538. >”Hm? I was just thinking it'd be nice to wake up to fresh bread, but do tell what's so funny.”
  5539. “Well...”
  5540. >Celestia looked down at her own hooves.
  5541. >A tiny bit of red rose to her cheeks.
  5542. “I may have thought I could use a fancy spell as a replacement for yeast. And splattered the whole kitchen with dough as a result.”
  5543. >Luna, who came to check out the commotion, had quite a laugh when she saw her sister covered in dough from hoof to horn.
  5544. >”You must've been quite the sight. But don't worry, I'll make sure you have yeast.”
  5546. >Anon scooped up the last dollop of cream off his plate with a finger.
  5547. >”Well. I'll have to get some more because that was fantastic.”
  5548. >He stuck the finger in his mouth, then licked his spoon clean.
  5549. >Luna, after falling asleep for a minute, shook her head again.
  5550. >”Is 'oon?”
  5551. >She glanced at Celestia first, but then noticed Anon still sitting next to her.
  5552. >Her ears flicked up with joy.
  5553. >”Naw!”
  5554. >Anon reached out to stroke her neck with the hand he hadn't licked.
  5555. >”Hi. Are you awake enough to listen?”
  5556. >Luna nodded and flashed a smile.
  5557. >”Mm-hm! Aww-ak.”
  5558. >After a few more strokes, Anon glanced at Celestia to ensure she was listening, then dug out his phone.
  5559. >He tapped it a few times before stopping to read something.
  5560. >”I was asked to read this to you two.”
  5561. >His free hand clenched to a fist, which he then moved to cover his mouth as he cleared his throat.
  5562. >”Ahem. As the city's appointed animal/pony rights inspector, I would like to inform the two ponies known as Luna and Celestia of their legal rights. As animals and/or ponies, they are guaranteed access to rehabilitation on the expense of whoever caused their injuries if said injuries were caused by gross negligence or gross abuse – and theirs certainly are. Please contact me through whichever means possible as soon as you can so we can plan your treatment. And then she lists her title and a number to call.”
  5563. >He punched a button on the side of his phone that made the screen turn off and then stuck the whole thing back in his pocket.
  5564. >”So, how's that sound? Should I call her right away?”
  5565. >Both him and Luna turned to look at Celestia.
  5566. >The elder sister arched a brow and gave them a questioning look.
  5567. “What? You already said I'd talk to her. If you want me to do it soon, then call her now. If not, call her later.”
  5568. >Whether she'd trust them enough to let them treat Luna was another question.
  5569. >But, that was something she'd decide once she'd let this 'animal rights inspector' have her say.
  5570. >Perhaps she was genuine and wanted to help.
  5571. >Or maybe she didn't really care, but wanted to do her job properly and follow the law to the letter.
  5573. ***
  5575. >Knock, knock.
  5576. >Luna shifted in her sleep as Anon slipped back into the room.
  5577. >”She'll come visit tomorrow or the day after. Apparently there's some other issues for her to take care of and the timing of those is out of her control.”
  5578. >Celestia glanced at him, then returned to reading the newspaper spread open in front of her.
  5579. “Sounds good.”
  5580. >No matter what they had to offer, it wouldn't do Luna much good.
  5581. >But, the atrocities she had to live through were unforgivable.
  5582. >Whoever did that had to learn.
  5583. >She didn't want her hunch to be correct, but she had a sneaking suspicion it was.
  5584. >Magic was not like other powers humanity had harnessed.
  5585. >Magic would charm the unprepared and drag them into using more than they could control.
  5586. >And that would make them desire even more, and more, and more, until they'd run headfirst into darkness.
  5587. >Whether that would be a single individual or a group didn't matter.
  5588. >Dark magic had a will of its own.
  5589. >It would spread like a plague, just like it did with King Sombra, and the human world was defenseless against a threat from within the mind.
  5591. >”You look tense.”
  5592. >Celestia's ears perked up.
  5593. >She'd got completely caught in her train of thought.
  5594. >”I'm going to have you relax whether you want or not. You need it. And then you're going to sleep.”
  5595. >Anon's strict tone confused her.
  5596. >Getting bossed around was still new to her.
  5597. “Well, of course. What did you have in mind?”
  5598. >He did a beckoning motion with his hand and pushed the door open.
  5599. >”There's another game of footy about to begin and I figured I'd have you watch it. It made you fall asleep last time, so maybe that'll happen again.”
  5600. >The newspaper crinkled as Celestia's magic folded it up.
  5601. “That was an intriguing game and I certainly won't mind watching some more of the same.”
  5602. >She stopped at Luna's side to give her one more nuzzle.
  5603. “Sleep well, sister.”
  5605. ***
  5607. >Shirts with names and numbers on them flashed on the screen to show some kind of formations, at least according to whoever they had talking on the broadcast.
  5608. >Celestia remembered most of the names on one team.
  5609. >She'd heard them the last time she watched a game.
  5610. >Anon hit some key on his keyboard that made the video window expand to cover the whole screen.
  5611. >”Just a second. I got something for us. Make yourself comfortable.”
  5612. >He waved a hand at his bed before swinging around in his chair and hopping off to head to the kitchen.
  5613. “Okay.”
  5614. >The fridge door popped open and he pulled out a few things.
  5615. >Something to eat sounded just fine.
  5616. >As much as she hated to admit it, she really hadn't eaten enough in the past few days.
  5617. >She wasn't sure why he'd go out of his way to make something for her.
  5618. >Shouldn't that be the other way around?
  5620. >Anon had a bowl of crisps and two sandwiches, a huge one and a medium one, with him as he
  5621. >”Aw, I missed kickoff.”
  5622. >Celestia lay on his bed on her side with her wings spread behind her.
  5623. “You didn't miss anything. All they've done is pass back and forth.”
  5624. >She scooted to one end of the bed to make room for him.
  5625. >”Yeah, nothing really ever happens in the first minutes of the game. This one's for you.”
  5626. >The sandwich he shoved at her had three layers with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and cucumber in it, among other things.
  5627. “Thank you. Looks delicious.”
  5628. >Anon sitting down next to her made her bob up and down a tiny bit with the mattress.
  5629. >He sunk into the mattress, but the dent beneath him nowhere near as deep as the one under her.
  5631. ***
  5633. >When did he fall asleep with his head resting on Celestia's chest?
  5634. >Not that she minded the fact, but it was odd she couldn't remember it happening at all.
  5635. >He'd even pulled one of her wings over himself.
  5636. >It was oddly endearing.
  5638. >”Sister.”
  5639. >Luna stood at the door.
  5640. >But...
  5641. >How?
  5642. >”You are stubborn. Like always.”
  5643. >The younger alicorn waved a hoof at Celestia.
  5644. >The entire room got blown away like it was nothing but smoke in the wind.
  5645. “Ah.”
  5646. >What replaced it was her very own room.
  5647. >The one in Canterlot.
  5648. “You had me confused for a moment. I didn't realize I'd fallen asleep.”
  5649. >The mattress, pillows, covers, sheets...
  5650. >Even the half-written letter on her desk.
  5651. >Everything was precisely as she left it.
  5652. >Anon still lay on top of her, but apart that it was like she'd woken up from a long, long bad dream.
  5653. “I'm very thankful for what you've done, sister. Despite being the one who needs help the most, you've gone out of your way to help me.”
  5654. >She phased clean through him like he wasn't even there as she hopped off her bed.
  5655. >A soft smile found its way to Luna's face.
  5656. >”You needed help. I helped. Of course.”
  5657. >Celestia trotted to her sister, threw both hooves around her withers and pulled her to a hug far tighter than she would've dared in the waking world.
  5658. >How long would they have to wait to do it for real?
  5659. >A dream just wasn't quite the same.
  5661. ***
  5663. >A dull ache in Celestia's head drew her out.
  5664. >It was like somepony beat the base of her horn with a stick.
  5665. >She tried to push it away, to return to his dark blue mane and how wondrous it felt to stick her muzzle in it, but it didn't budge.
  5666. >A groan escaped her as she cracked her eyelids open.
  5667. >Anon's room was dark.
  5668. >The only sources of light were the orange dots of his screen and computer.
  5669. >A steady hum of rain drowned out any other sounds.
  5670. >Anon's head had slipped off her chest and now lay on her foreleg instead.
  5671. >The hum of rain got more intense, as did her headache.
  5672. >At least it was just rain this time.
  5673. >She lifted Anon's head off herself, tucked a pillow under it, and crawled out of bed.
  5674. >There was something she had to know.
  5676. >Each one of her steps was as soft as she could make it.
  5677. >It had to be small hours of the night with how quiet it was.
  5678. >Even with the rain, she would've heard traffic from the street or the nearby highway if it wasn't.
  5679. >She stopped at the door to her own room, rubbed her forehead, and gulped down a bit of saliva.
  5680. >She didn't want to be right.
  5681. >But she had to know.
  5682. >The door swung open without a sound as her magic pushed it.
  5683. >It was even darker inside, but not too dark for her to see what she was afraid of.
  5684. >Luna lied in her bed and looked as peaceful as ever as she slept without a care in the world.
  5685. >She was even more sensitive to magical disturbances than Celestia.
  5686. >The untamed magic in the storm woke her up.
  5687. >That it didn't bother Luna in the slightest did not bode well.
  5688. >She hadn't even attempted magic of any kind and now couldn't feel the disturbance?
  5689. >Celestia dreaded where that train of thought led.
  5690. >But she couldn't do anything about it.
  5691. >Not right now.
  5692. >She let out a deep sigh, pulled the door shut, and sneaked into the bathroom.
  5694. >With an empty bladder and the very worst of the rain gone, Celestia faced a choice.
  5695. >Should she sleep the rest of the night in her own bed next to Luna, or worm her way back under Anon again?
  5696. >He hadn't ordered her to sleep with him, but maybe that was just because she fell asleep before he could.
  5697. >She really didn't want to get on his bad side more than she already had.
  5698. >Then again, Luna would be all alone if she were to wake up first.
  5699. >What if she needed something?
  5700. >Celestia rubbed her forehead again.
  5701. >Maybe she was being overbearing.
  5702. >Luna had shown herself to be far stronger than she looked and managed just fine on her own.
  5703. >Did she even want somepony hovering around her at all times?
  5704. >Celestia would sleep with her owner.
  5705. >Anon didn't seem like he was mad at her for the nuisance she'd been the past few days, but better safe than sorry.
  5706. >Besides, if she was nice to him, maybe he'd be nice to her.
  5708. ***
  5710. >Sunlight filtered through the curtains, drawing a pattern of their weave onto the wall of Anon's room.
  5711. >Celestia felt more refreshed than she had for days.
  5712. >She once again lifted Anon's head off her leg, then shook that leg to get the blood flowing.
  5713. >It was all pins and needles for a second.
  5714. >”Mmfh?”
  5715. >This time, he reacted to her movement.
  5716. >His shoulder poked her chest and his fingers felt her wing.
  5717. >”Weh?”
  5718. >He pushed his upper body off the bed and gave her a very confused and bleary-eyed look.
  5719. >”Oh. Right.”
  5720. >Celestia suppressed a chuckle.
  5721. >Clearly not a morning person, he was.
  5722. “Good morning. What would you like for breakfast? I remember seeing some oatmeal, so how about porridge?”
  5723. >The mattress beneath her shifted with Anon's weight as he stretched his arms up towards the ceiling and let out a massive yawn.
  5724. >”Sounds good to me. I'll go take a shower.”
  5725. >He swung his legs off the bed, stopped for a second to rub Celestia's ear, and got up.
  5727. >Water sloshed in the pot as Celestia plonked it onto the stove.
  5728. >She popped the dial to max and had a look at the instructions on the oatmeal box.
  5729. >The whoosh of the shower had likely woken Luna up, so she'd make enough for all three of them.
  5730. >That Celestia hadn't checked up on her sister yet left her feeling uneasy, but she'd promised oatmeal and even she knew enough about cooking to know that leaving a stove on max unattended wasn't a good idea.
  5731. >As such, it'd have to wait.
  5732. >Now, where was that jug with a volume measure on it?
  5733. >There were three of them, but only one of them was human.
  5734. >Luna was about the same weight while Celestia most definitely wasn't.
  5735. >Should she make enough for five or just four?
  5737. >The kettle had settled to a gentle boil when the bathroom door's lock clicked open.
  5738. >Anon, with just a towel wrapped around him, peeked into the kitchen.
  5739. >”There should be some apple jam somewhere in the fridge so we don't have to eat it plain. See if that's still good.”
  5740. >The door to his room slammed shut just as Celestia pulled the fridge open.
  5741. >She had to peek into a few jars until she found one filled with something that smelled and tasted like apple jam, even if it didn't quite look that way.
  5742. >It had too much sugar to it – a sure sign of poor quality – but would make do since they had nothing else.
  5743. >The food in this world was of considerably lower quality than even the everyday grub back home.
  5744. >Not just what they'd had in the castle, some of the best in Equestria, but even the most mundane food she'd ever got her hooves on.
  5745. >While she was the princess who ponies did their best to impress, she had her ways of getting what the average pony ate.
  5746. >Perhaps it was because of magic nurturing crops, perhaps because most ponies didn't care for getting every last bit of profit, but ponies ate far better than humans.
  5748. >Celestia searched for bowls and spoons as Anon strode back into the kitchen.
  5749. >This time he had his work overalls on.
  5750. >”How is it? Done already?”
  5751. “Yeah.”
  5752. >She pulled open another cupboard and peeked in.
  5753. >There, on the top shelf.
  5754. “The jam's good too.”
  5755. >Three bowls floated off the shelf and onto the counter next to the stove.
  5756. >A warm hand set itself on her back.
  5757. >Anon buried his fingers in her coat.
  5758. >”Great. Grab a tray and bring it all with you. We got enough time to wake up your sister before we have to open shop.”
  5759. >Celestia paused for just long enough to cast him a questioning glance.
  5760. >How odd of him to be concerned.
  5761. >Luna seemed to like him, so it wasn't a problem.
  5762. >He certainly didn't seem like a threat either with how he stroked Celestia's lower back.
  5763. >It felt soothing.
  5764. “Sure. Will it be okay if I check on her every now and then during the day? She'll get lonely and bored if I don't.”
  5765. >His hand moved up to her withers as she ladled porridge into bowls.
  5766. >”I'm expecting you to take some breaks. How you spend them is up to you.”
  5768. >Anon held the door open for Celestia as she edged into her and Luna's room.
  5769. “Did you have a good night?”
  5770. >Luna had a mellow smile on her face as she turned to look at the door.
  5771. >She still had that bleary, tired look on her.
  5772. >”Mmm. 'ood.”
  5773. >Celestia stared at her sister and blinked.
  5774. “Uh, yes, I brought food. You can eat right away if you're hungry.”
  5775. >She made the tray float to Luna's bed – only to realize her magic held nothing.
  5776. >She glanced around in confusion.
  5777. >Anon had the tray in his hands.
  5778. >A tiny bit of drool dribbled out of the corner of Luna's mouth as she watched him and the food.
  5779. >”You'll get some, don't worry one bit.”
  5780. >He set the tray down on the nightstand next to her bed, pulled a paper handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed her cheek and lips to get the drool off.
  5781. >”Just tell me if it's too hot, mmkay?”
  5782. >...he seemed to have it in hoof – hand.
  5783. >One of the two bowls still on the tray lit up in gold and floated to Celestia.
  5784. >Neither the steaming hot porridge nor the apple jam in it tasted like anything to her.
  5785. >Luna had to like it, though, if the shuffling of her sheets and her happy squeals were of any indication.
  5787. ***
  5789. >Anon lifted a part off one of the storage room's tall shelves and turned it in his hands.
  5790. >”See, here.”
  5791. >He pointed at a dot of yellow paint on it.
  5792. >”Gather all parts that I've marked like this and pile them in the two boxes I got in the back yard.”
  5793. >A swift motion of his hand sent the part flying at Celestia.
  5794. >Her magic caught it and spun it so she got a closer look at the splotch of paint.
  5795. “Sure. Just, won't they rust if they're left outside in the rain?”
  5796. >He waved his hand in the air in a dismissive motion.
  5797. >”Naw, it doesn't matter. These will be sold as scrap. We'll gather every bit of junk metal we can find over the next few days and then we'll sell it to a junkyard. They'll take care of the sorting and then sell it on to a foundry or something. I don't know how it works beyond that point.”
  5798. >Scrap?
  5799. >Celestia looked at the part again.
  5800. >It wasn't new and shiny, but it was free of rust and had barely any signs of wear.
  5801. “Do you have a big load of parts coming in and need space or something?”
  5802. >She received a puzzled look.
  5803. >”I don't have anything planned yet, but these parts are for so old models that they're not really worth keeping in stock. I'll eventually replace them with parts for newer, more common models. Speaking of...”
  5804. >He nodded at the door, gave her a second for further questions, then slipped out of the backroom and into the shop.
  5805. >The door slammed shut behind him, leaving Celestia alone with the tall shelves full of parts.
  5806. >She looked at the part again, did her best to ignore the stench of oil and dust, and got to work.
  5808. ***
  5810. “Hey, I came to check on you. How are you doing? Bored?”
  5811. >Luna studied the overalls Celestia had on, before looking at how her elder sister had tied her mane into a bun.
  5812. >”Hi hi! Sis-ee h-aav smoodg.”
  5813. “Yes, I know. I forgot one part above my head for a while and a drop of oil fell off.”
  5814. >Celestia brought a greyish-white hoof to her face and touched the spot that now had a dark streak on it.
  5815. “I washed it off the best I could, but there's only so much I could do without taking a shower.”
  5816. >At least Luna was in a good mood, despite being all alone.
  5817. “So, how about you. Would you like, say, a radio so you have something to do? I bet he has one somewhere.”
  5818. >Her cyan eyes lit up as she gasped for breath.
  5819. >”Oo!”
  5820. >She clapped her hooves together – the best she could, anyways.
  5821. >Which was very arrhythmic and uneven.
  5822. >”Lissen. M-oosic. Taa-ll-k. Yass.”
  5823. >Celestia's lips curled into a wide smile.
  5824. >She leaned in and nuzzled her sister.
  5825. “I'll go ask him for one right away.”
  5826. >Luna went very quiet and brought a hoof to her face.
  5827. >She touched the cheek that got nuzzled.
  5828. >”Smoodg.”
  5829. “Oh!”
  5830. >It was Celestia's turn to let out a short giggle.
  5831. “I completely forgot. I guess that makes us the smudge sisters, hm?”
  5833. ***
  5835. >Celestia double checked the pile of parts in front of her to make sure each one of them had a dot of paint.
  5836. >The sun-scorched back yard with its dark pavement was enveloped in a baking heat.
  5837. >There wasn't even the slightest of breeze and not even a shred of cloud in the sky.
  5838. >Quite the contrast to the night's storm.
  5839. >”Oi, Celestia!”
  5840. >Anon's voice carried form the store room to the back yard.
  5841. >Celestia dropped the pile of parts she'd gathered into a crate, then trotted back inside.
  5842. “Yes?”
  5843. >He leaned on a shelf at the edge of the small workspace they had at the back door.
  5844. >He had his phone in his hand, but stuck it back in his pocket as soon as he saw her.
  5845. >”I got a message back from the whatever official who wanted to talk with you. She's coming over tomorrow morning.”
  5846. >A heavenly breeze from a fan eased the heat a bit as Celestia pulled down the zipper of her overalls.
  5847. “Okay. Sounds good.”
  5848. >She glanced around to find her water bottle.
  5849. >It wasn't quite where she'd left it, but was now full instead of nearly empty.
  5850. >”I think you've done enough for today. I got a few things to take care of in town, so you just man the register while I'm gone. You getting heat exhaustion won't do us any good.”
  5851. >He had a kind smile on his face as he dug the keys for his van from his pocket.
  5853. ***
  5855. >Celestia's head rested on the counter as she let out a bored sigh.
  5856. >Over two hours and zero customers or visitors.
  5857. >On the bright side, it was only 15 minutes until it was time to close shop.
  5858. >She let out another sigh and brought the car magazine she'd already read back onto the counter.
  5860. >So this model had an excellent thingamajig which, when combined with a whatchamacallit, provided excellent something-or-other.
  5861. >Fan-tastic.
  5862. >She flipped to the next page.
  5863. >At least the picture of a sleek red car driving in a remote, rocky river valley was pretty.
  5864. >Just looking at it made her feel how damp the rapids made the air, how the droopy trees growing on the bank provided a welcome respite from the scorching heat of the surrounding badlands.
  5865. >She would've loved to lie down beneath one of the trees on soft and cool moss, close her eyes and listen to the rushing water.
  5866. >There would probably even be fish in the river for her to watch if she couldn't fall asleep.
  5867. >Even rapids had some calm and still spots to them where those fish would rest before continuing on their way, be it upstream or downstream.
  5868. >And she could-
  5869. >A sudden shiver passed through her.
  5870. >Not from her horn, but from her wings.
  5871. >She bolted upright and rushed out.
  5872. >Only to see nothing.
  5873. >The sky was clear apart some clouds on the horizon and even those weren't moving towards her.
  5874. >Then why were her wings all tingly if there was nothing wrong with the weather?
  5875. >She stared at the clouds on the horizon for a bit.
  5876. >No, they were definitely not heading her way.
  5877. >They'd pass by, with their closest approach quite a ways to the south.
  5879. >Well, nothing she could do about it, especially when she had no clue what caused it.
  5880. >She turned back towards the shop, but something made her stop.
  5881. >Something was very wrong.
  5882. >It wasn't just the weather.
  5883. >She craned her neck to look up into the sky.
  5884. >There.
  5885. >Flames of unimaginable size arced off its surface.
  5886. >Thin streams of superheated plasma fanned in every direction.
  5887. >A few dark spots dotted the surface.
  5888. >The sun looked exactly like it should – which, Celestia had heard, was very different to her than anypony else.
  5889. >Apparently staring at the sun harmed anyone else's vision.
  5890. >But, despite it looking right, there was something very wrong with it.
  5891. >It was late.
  5892. >By a mere fraction of a second, but it very much was late.
  5893. >Concerning, but not her problem.
  5895. ***
  5897. >Celestia left the door open behind her.
  5898. >The radio was on low, on some talk channel.
  5899. “How are you doing? Nothing unus-”
  5900. >Luna shivered in bed and had the covers pulled up to her eyes.
  5901. ”What happened?”
  5902. >Celestia rushed to her sister's side and stuck her muzzle on Luna's forehead.
  5903. >Cold sweat.
  5904. >”W-oong. Is w-oong.”
  5905. >Even her voice shivered.
  5906. >Something rustled under the covers and she stuck one of her dark wings out.
  5907. >The first time Celestia had seen her do anything with her wings since they were reunited.
  5908. >”Is... is bad. Bad w-eer. Weh-er. W-oong. W-oong c-ood. Too c-ood.”
  5909. “But the weather's fine. I checked not five minutes ago. Yes, it's getting a bit cooler since it's afternoon now, but it's still very hot.”
  5910. >Luna shook her head ever so slightly.
  5911. >”Nyooo. Omm-ing. C-omming. C-ood Omm-ing.”
  5912. >The elder sibling's brow furrowed.
  5913. “I don't really see how it could get cold, but you've always been better at weather than me.”
  5914. >She was suddenly very, very worried.
  5915. “We'll see what happens. But, how would you feel about a bath? I definitely need one after working that long out in the heat.”
  5916. >A weak nod was all the response she got.
  5918. ***
  5920. >Celestia unfolded Anon's drying rack and hung their towels to dry.
  5921. >At least the bath stopped Luna's shivering.
  5922. >The tingling was gone, too.
  5923. >And her face was pure white again as she glanced at a mirror.
  5924. >Whatever, if anything, was to come could come.
  5925. >She knew how to stop it, but it was up to the humans to give her the means.
  5926. >It was up to them to hunt down the part of Luna that was leaking enormous amounts of magic.
  5927. >The point of no return hadn't been passed yet, but if enough unharnessed magic were to be released, the world that ran like a clockwork machine would grind to a halt.
  5928. >Were that to happen, the result would be much like Equestria – a world where dawn only came when somepony rose the sun, where rain only came down if somepony made the clouds, and where seasons only changed when somepony made both the leaves and snow fall.
  5930. >Luna glanced and flashed a smile at Celestia as she strode back into the room.
  5931. >”'ooman b-aak.”
  5932. “Huh? Did you hear the car? I sure didn't.”
  5933. >It could've been just because Celestia was in the bathroom.
  5934. “Let me go check.”
  5935. >She trotted out of the room and into the kitchen to get a look at the yard.
  5936. >The van was indeed there.
  5937. >Anon's head stuck out of the driver's window and Ann leaned on the side beside the open passenger's door.
  5938. >Soarin and Coco stood behind the van, listening to something Ann was saying.
  5939. >Celestia wanted to rush out there to say hi, but that'd be unfair to Luna since she couldn't.
  5941. “You were right. He's back, and Soarin and Coco are with him.”
  5942. >Luna's face lit up with joy.
  5943. >She even clapped her hooves again.
  5944. >Clap. Cp. Clap. Cp. Cp.
  5945. >”Oo! 'Oco! 'Oorin.”
  5946. >It stung.
  5947. >It stung Celestia's heart so much.
  5948. >She knew how to hold back the tears, but the pain didn't go away no matter how hard she tried.
  5949. “How about I go-”
  5950. >Both sibling's ears perked up.
  5951. >That was an engine rumbling.
  5952. >Did that mean they'd be-
  5953. >Click!
  5954. >Ting-a-ling!
  5955. >”Hello! We came to visit.”
  5956. >Coco's voice carried from downstairs.
  5957. >...Celestia realized she forgot to lock the door.
  5958. “I'll bring them here. Just a second.”
  5960. >”Oh, hi!”
  5961. >Coco rushed to Celestia as soon as she got down the stairs.
  5962. “Hello.”
  5963. >The alicorn wrapped a hoof around the earth pony's neck and pulled her in to a hug.
  5964. >”How have you been? I was worried, you know.”
  5965. >It was a very uneven hug, with Coco only reaching Celestia's chest.
  5966. “I'm better now. We shouldn't keep Luna waiting.”
  5967. >She flashed a smile at Soarin, let go of Coco, and pointed a hoof at the stairs.
  5968. “Did the humans have somewhere to be? And, uhm, excuse me for a second. I should lock the door.”
  5969. >The little mare stood up on her rear hooves, touched muzzles with the far taller Celestia, then headed for the stairs.
  5970. >”They wanted to go have dinner somewhere. Anon said there would be enough in the fridge for us to make something.”
  5972. “You felt it too, didn't you?”
  5973. >Soarin hovered beside Celestia, fluttering up the stairs.
  5974. >”Yeah. It was weird, I had no idea why it happened.”
  5975. >He rubbed his chin with a hoof.
  5976. >”I even flew up to see if there's anything there. It was a bit colder there than usual, but the air would warm up coming down so that won't explain why I felt so sure that a cold spell is coming.”
  5977. >She scaled the final step and stopped there to let Coco by.
  5978. “So you too think it's going to be cold.”
  5979. >Thud.
  5980. >Soarin let himself fall down and folded his wings.
  5981. >”Yes. I don't know how, but that's how I felt.”
  5982. >Celestia paused her steps for a second, staring at the floor.
  5983. >She didn't want to hide anything, but they'd be better off not knowing.
  5984. >They couldn't do anything about the sun so telling them would just make them stressed for no reason.
  5985. “Hm. Maybe you can figure it out with Luna? I only felt something was off, but she mentioned the cold.”
  5987. >“Hiii!”
  5988. >Luna lifted her hoof just enough to do a little wave.
  5989. >Soarin fluttered up to her and took a hold of her hoof.
  5990. >”Great to see you again. I trust you've been fine?”
  5991. >His speech was very clear and a bit slower than usual.
  5992. >Coco's gaze shot between the two siblings as she stood at the door, a look of confusion on her.
  5993. >”Uh, hi. I'm Coco Pommel. Nice to meet you.”
  5994. >Celestia nudged the little mare's barrel and nodded at Luna.
  5995. “Go on. Be careful with the top of her head, but otherwise she's as sturdy as always.”
  5996. >”'Ooco. C-ooco.”
  5997. >The younger sibling tapped the mattress beside her.
  5998. >Coco took half a step, then glanced back at the elder sister.
  5999. >Celestia nodded at her.
  6001. ***
  6003. >”Oh, what kind of clothes I like making?”
  6004. >Coco laid beside Luna on the bed, stroking the alicorn's shoulder as they chatted.
  6005. >”I've actually dreamed of making a dress for you. Do you have any preferences? I'd love to plan one, even if I never get to make it.”
  6006. >Luna shifted around more than usual, with a wide smile on her face, and nodded as Coco spoke.
  6007. >”Aa. D-ess? D-ess wiff b-loo owwer. Fll-ower. Lik-e b-loo bell.”
  6008. >Celestia and Soarin stood by the window, keeping their voices low to not bother the mares.
  6009. “You're right, I definitely do need more exercise. I don't like leaving her alone so I can't, really.”
  6010. >Celestia nodded at her sister.
  6011. >”I understand. I'm just concerned that you're hurting yourself trying to help her. She'll be fine for a while, right? Plus you've got Anon here. I'm sure he'll agree check on her every once in a while while you're gone.”
  6012. >Both of them fell quiet for a bit as both Luna and Coco giggled.
  6013. “I guess you're right. I'll ask him about it.”
  6014. >Celestia's stomach grumbled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten for a good while.
  6015. >Soarin glared at her as a mild heat rose to her cheeks.
  6016. >”Let's go have a look at what we have to cook with.”
  6017. >He didn't wait for an answer before trotting to the door.
  6018. >Celestia followed behind him, but stopped by the bed.
  6019. >She leaned in to nuzzle Luna's cheek.
  6020. “Hi. We're about to go make us something to eat. Would you like to come to the kitchen with us?”
  6021. >It'd be very cramped, but at least Luna could talk with them while they cooked.
  6022. >”Food?”
  6023. >She cast a longing look at the door before shaking her head.
  6024. >”Is 'ood. I stay.”
  6025. >Her smile looked a bit twitchy.
  6027. >”So, we got some...”
  6028. >Soarin fluttered in the air as he yanked the fridge open.
  6029. >”...potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, a large zucchini, mushrooms, and onions. Plus cream, cheese, juice, and some ground meat.”
  6030. >He pulled out a bag of onions and set it on the counter next to the fridge.
  6031. >”Yeah, I can make something out of this. If he's got some oil stashed somewhere.”
  6032. >He kept piling ingredients on the counter as Celestia's horn lit up.
  6033. >Two cutting boards and knives floated out of a drawer.
  6034. “There's a bottle of oil in the cupboard next to the stove. Bottom shelf.”
  6035. >Four small onions lit up and floated to her.
  6036. >They stopped to hover beside her as Soarin bent down to grab the oil.
  6037. >Celestia bit her lip.
  6038. >Toned and in top shape.
  6039. >So close, yet so far.
  6040. >”Canola oil. It's not good for this recipe, but we'll have to make- what?”
  6041. >He arched a brow and blinked.
  6042. >Then he glanced at his own behind.
  6043. >”Oh.”
  6044. >A red tint rose to his face as he fluttered off the floor to place the bottle next to the cutting boards.
  6045. >Celestia grabbed him out of the air and placed her lips on his.
  6046. >But she took it no further.
  6047. “Some day. For now, we all have to eat.”
  6049. >Celestia dipped one of the knives into the soapy water in the sink just as Soarin slammed the oven shut.
  6050. >”Whew. 30 minutes and it's done.”
  6051. >Soarin's wings shuffled as they beat the air.
  6052. >A soft muzzle nudged Celestia's neck.
  6053. “You go ahead. I'll set a timer and finish up washing.”
  6054. >She gave his cheek a gentle stroke with her underhoof.
  6055. “Thanks for the help. I couldn't have made anything near as good.”
  6056. >The wing beats grew rarer and four hooves thumped on the floor.
  6057. >”We should try some of Coco's cooking at some point. She knows far more recipes than I do and what she makes is excellent. It's a real shame she doesn't have time for it very often.”
  6058. >His hoofsteps headed away from Celestia as she slid Anon's spice rack out of the way to see the egg timer.
  6059. >It started ticking away after a golden glow cranked it up to 30.
  6060. “I'm sure we'll have another chance like this. I'll cook with her next time.”
  6061. >She looked back at the sink and its dirty dishes.
  6062. >The frying pan still needed some attention.
  6063. >She might've burnt some of the zucchinis a teeny tiny bit.
  6065. >Celestia padded to the door and peeked into her room.
  6066. >Both Soarin and Coco now sat on Luna's bed.
  6067. >It was a little tight, but a human sized bed could fit three ponies.
  6068. >Unless one of those ponies was Celestia, of course.
  6069. >She pushed the door fully open to ensure they'd hear the timer.
  6070. “I set the table for us so we can eat as soon as it's done.”
  6071. >Coco nuzzled Luna's cheek before glancing at Celestia.
  6072. >”I can't wait to see how you put it all together. The scent alone is irresistible.
  6073. >Snif, snif...
  6074. >The tip of elder sister's snout twitched.
  6075. “Huh, you're right. First I couldn't smell anything but the onions I cut and by the time that'd gone, I'd grown too used to it to notice.”
  6076. >”Hi hi.”
  6077. >Luna was positively beaming as she let out a giggle.
  6078. >”Sis-ee too buss-y. To s-oow, sll-oow d-oon. Foo-r litt-l t-ing.”
  6079. >She had to pause to gasp for breath.
  6080. >”L-iik all-ww ays.”
  6081. >Celestia rushed to her side and stuck an ear to her chest.
  6082. >No, nothing blocked her breathing.
  6083. “Don't push yourself like that. Take it slow, we're in no rush.”
  6084. >Luna twitched all of a sudden, to the shock of her elder sister.
  6085. >”Hi hi!”
  6086. >But it was just another giggle.
  6087. >”Ss-ays yoo.”
  6089. ***
  6091. >Soarin's spicing was on point, but no matter how much Celestia wanted to, she just couldn't like the tomatoes.
  6092. >The mushrooms were excellent, though, and the oil mixed with what juices had come out of the zucchinis and tomatoes only added to the flavor.
  6093. >”Is 'ood! Mmm!”
  6094. >Luna was, in the lack of a better word, over the moon.
  6095. >She had her hooves on her cheeks and her snoot scrunched for maximum smiles.
  6096. >It made even Coco drop the spoon she'd fed Luna with back on the plate.
  6097. >”He he. Sounds like you outdid yourself, Soarin'.”
  6098. >She nudged the stallion's shoulder before leaning to get a bite off her own plate.
  6099. >A mild blush spread to his face as he rubbed the back of his neck.
  6100. >”It's just a simple dish...”
  6102. ***
  6104. >Anon's fingers dug into Celestia's mane.
  6105. >His van snapped and popped as its engine cooled down.
  6106. >”I can give you a lift, no problem. Are you sure you want to walk?”
  6107. >The perfume that lingered around him and Ann tried emulate the scent of orchids – without much success.
  6108. >”It's fine. The place you picked was excellent, but the portions were on the large side. A short walk will make it settle.”
  6109. >The woman's ponies flanked her and she had a hand in both or their manes.
  6110. >Unlike Anon, she didn't have to lift her hands to shoulder height to reach.
  6111. >”Well, okay then.”
  6112. >Celestia pushed her head against his chest as his fingers found the spot behind her ear.
  6113. >The one she just couldn't reach on her own.
  6114. >”Night. See you tomorrow!”
  6115. >A set of footsteps and two of hoofsteps moved away from her.
  6116. >”See you!”
  6117. >His fingertips vanished and a soft hand stroked her neck.
  6118. >”Soarin, could you go ahead and prepare a bath for me?”
  6119. >Celestia cracked open her eyelids just in time to see the stallion shoot off into the air.
  6120. >Anon stroked her neck again, then patted her shoulder.
  6121. >”Looks like you had a good night.”
  6122. >His keys jingled as he dug them out.
  6123. “As good as it could be given... given the circumstances.”
  6124. >A deep sadness welled inside her as she glanced down at her hooves.
  6125. >Luna was brave and beyond strong, but...
  6127. >Anon pushed the door to Celestia's room open slow enough for the hinges to not creak.
  6128. >Luna's eyelids fluttered as she craned her neck to look at him.
  6129. >”Ann-on. Hii.”
  6130. >Her voice was deep and slow.
  6131. >Her lips curled to a tired smile as Anon strode to her.
  6132. >”Hello. You look beat; should I let you sleep?”
  6133. >Celestia got a single glance from her sister as she padded into the room.
  6134. >”Nyoo. Ssoon. Ssoon sll-ep.”
  6135. >Luna managed to sneak a hoof on the bed's railing.
  6136. >Anon took it in his hand and stroked it.
  6137. >He had a mellow, melancholic smile on him.
  6138. >”Just tell me again if you want something like that. I'll arrange what I can.”
  6139. >...of course.
  6140. >Celestia should've known.
  6141. >”T... t-hann-k. Yuoo 'ood.”
  6142. >The younger sibling's ears drooped as she dozed off.
  6143. >Her breathing slowed down and her hoof fell off the railing back onto the mattress.
  6144. >”Good night.”
  6145. >Anon reached down and tucked her hoof beneath the covers.
  6146. >He glanced at Celestia and pointed at the door.
  6148. >Anon set a kettle with water in it on the stove and popped it to max, then reached up to pull two mugs from the cupboard.
  6149. >”Is there anything she likes? For you it's cake, but for her? Pie? Muffins?”
  6150. >There was something off with his voice.
  6151. >It lacked... color.
  6152. “She's not into sweet treats like I am, but she does like her sharp cheeses.”
  6153. >Celestia sat at the table, watching him pop teabags into the mugs.
  6154. >”Cheese? Sure, I can get some for her. What's her favorite sort? And how about the crackers? Maybe some jam, too. Fig?”
  6155. >That... was unusual of him, but understandable.
  6156. >Just the sight of Luna was enough to break one's heart.
  6157. >Especially if she'd visited your dreams and you'd seen her... almost like she was.
  6158. “She likes rye the best, with cloudberry jam and some well-aged cheddar.”
  6159. >Celestia had pretended to not notice how the bills from Canterlot's Finest Cheeses skyrocketed with Luna's return.
  6160. >”Hm. Cloudberry jam is going to be tough to find, but I do know a shop that has a wide selection of cheeses.”
  6161. >His fingers stopped rapping the side of the counter as the water began to hiss.
  6163. >Anon set a mug full of steaming water in front of Celestia, then dropped a teabag in it.
  6164. >He didn't say a word and had some kind of a look on his face that she couldn't place.
  6165. >She really wished she knew more about how humans show their emotions.
  6166. “It hurts, doesn't it? Seeing her like that.”
  6167. >Celestia kept her voice low.
  6168. >Anon glanced at her, then looked back at his mug.
  6169. >He nodded, but said nothing.
  6170. “It's twice as bad when you know what... what she's lived through already.”
  6171. >The wisps of steam coming out of her mug had a scent of mint and tea to them.
  6172. “She had trouble fitting in after her return, and when she finally gets over that and accepts other ponies again...”
  6173. >Why did it always have to be Luna?
  6174. >”I can't change what she's been through, but...”
  6175. >Anon stared at his mug in silence.
  6177. >Tiny flecks of tea leaves swirled in what little remained in Celestia's mug.
  6178. >The taste was middling, but it was something.
  6179. “Would you mind if I went for a walk?”
  6180. >She glanced at the microwave and its clock.
  6181. “For about an hour or so.”
  6182. >It was dark already, but she felt like clearing her mind.
  6183. >Anon held his mug with both hands as he glanced at the window.
  6184. >”Sure. Go ahead.”
  6185. >He kept his gaze fixed at the building on the other side of the street.
  6186. >”Actually, wait a second.”
  6187. >A scraping sound filled the room as he pushed back his chair and stood up.
  6188. >He strode out for a bit before returning with bill in his hand.
  6189. >”Here. Get something nice for the two of you.”
  6190. >He tossed it onto the table in front of Celestia.
  6191. >She arched a brow and gave him a questioning look.
  6192. >”You've done well enough to earn it.”
  6193. >His voice remained dull and his gaze downcast.
  6195. ***
  6197. >Cool air rushed into Celestia's lungs as she drew breath.
  6198. >It stank of exhaust.
  6199. >She let the breath out, shook her head and shuffled her wings.
  6200. >The forecast predicted heavy gusts of wind, but the air was dead still.
  6201. >It was just anomalies for now, not a total collapse, but they were getting more common.
  6202. >It'd still fix itself if the source was removed, but Celestia was running out of time.
  6203. >She could of course take care of it herself, but that wouldn't teach them anything.
  6204. >But she'd have to be a little... heavy hoofed with the negotiations to speed the proceedings.
  6205. >Letting them ruin their world beyond recovery was a lesson too harsh for her to teach.
  6206. >Besides, they were doing a good job at ruining it themselves.
  6208. >Her hooves beat the pavement in a steady rhythm.
  6209. >She wasn't headed anywhere in particular.
  6210. >Buildings, streets, cars, and people passed by as a blur.
  6211. >Only the occasional honk of a horn or someone stopping to stare at her brought her out of her stupor.
  6212. >Would it all turn to a blistering wasteland, endlessly scorched by a sun that never sets?
  6213. >Or would it freeze and get buried under an ever-thickening blanket of snow and ice in an endless night?
  6214. >Perhaps it'd be one of the few places that'd luck out and remain in the twilight zone?
  6215. >Blip!
  6216. >Celestia's ears perked up.
  6217. >Blip!
  6218. >It was the pre-warning of her collar.
  6219. >She nudged it with a hoof, spread her wings, and jumped into the air.
  6221. >Celestia glid just over the rooftops.
  6222. >She scanned the streets below to find a store that was still open.
  6223. >Bakeries were a lost cause this late, of course, but she could get something from a grocery store.
  6224. >She'd get some cookies for herself, some sourdough and cheese for Luna, and whatever in-season fruit she could get with what was left.
  6225. >It was August, so there should be plenty to choose from.
  6226. >Quality was an issue, but not one she could do anything about.
  6227. >Well, she could, assuming Anon had enough land for her to farm in.
  6228. >Some care and love, even from a rookie like her, combined with earth pony magic would far outdo anything there was for sale in this world.
  6230. ***
  6232. >Anon peeked into the kitchen as Celestia shelved her purchases.
  6233. >”That's an unusual haul.”
  6234. >He caught the plum Celestia tossed at him.
  6235. >She herself munched on a chocolate coated but otherwise plain biscuit.
  6236. “For me, for her, and these were the only thing that didn't smell totally raw.”
  6237. >Her hoof nudged the cookies, the sourdough, and the plums in turn.
  6238. >Anon stared at her for a second.
  6239. >He then bit into his plum.
  6240. >”Mmh. This is good. Nice and ripe. I'll have to take you and your nose along for groceries next time.”
  6241. >A bit of juice dribbled down to his chin as he took another bite.
  6242. >Celestia chose to ignore it.
  6244. ***
  6246. >Celestia realized she was in the kitchen again.
  6247. >Odd, wasn't she just in bed in that good position where she was all nice and warm and...
  6248. >...of course.
  6249. >”Sister. You worry.”
  6250. >Luna sounded almost like her usual self.
  6251. >”The weather is off and I cause it. I know.”
  6252. >Celestia took a step back, gasped for breath, and blinked at a loss for words.
  6253. >She knew?
  6254. >Luna neither walked nor trotted, but simply moved closer in some undescribed manner.
  6255. >Her lips curled to a smile as she nuzzled her elder sister's cheek.
  6256. >”I know. I feel it. I know it is fine. Will solve itself.”
  6257. >The room around them changed.
  6258. >They now stood on a balcony, one that didn't actually exist, overlooking their throne room in Canterlot.
  6259. >A lone human with something dark in his hands stood at the base of their thrones.
  6260. >”He is too... too... dumb. Does not understand.”
  6261. >A stream of blue flowed out of the dark object and coiled around his hand and arm.
  6262. “I know. He's drawing out too much and doesn't know how to stop it. Almost all of it goes to waste and runs rampant as sand in this clockwork world's gears.”
  6263. >The blue magic untangled itself form the man's arm and turned into different shapes in the air in front of him.
  6264. >At the same time, unbeknownst to him, a mass of blue grew behind him.
  6265. >”Yes. But, no worry. He will not last. Too much greed.”
  6266. >A flash of purple appeared in the blue as the shapes grew ever larger.
  6267. >”He will...”
  6268. >Luna's words trailed out.
  6269. >But she needn't say anything.
  6270. >Below the sisters, the magic turned into a purple mist that enveloped the man like an enormous cocoon.
  6272. ***
  6274. >”Sis-ee. Sis-ee. W-aak.”
  6275. >Every part of Celestia felt as heavy as lead.
  6276. >”Sis-ee. M—oon. M-oorn-g. W-aak up.”
  6277. >Bright sunlight flooded her vision as soon as she cracked her eyelids.
  6278. ”Bweeh?”
  6279. >A wave of dizziness hit her as she forced herself upright.
  6280. “Wah?”
  6281. >She gave Luna a bleary-eyed look.
  6282. >”M-oorn-g.”
  6283. >Celestia's head began to clear.
  6284. >It was odd she wasn't the first to wake.
  6285. “Ah. Good morning. How was your night?”
  6286. >She levitated the covers off of herself and hopped out of bed.
  6287. >Judging by the angle of the sunlight, it was almost time to get to work.
  6288. >”'ood. Sis-ee 'orry. W-orry. No need.”
  6289. >Right, the dream.
  6290. “I'm still going to find him, even if it's just to stop him from getting consumed.”
  6291. >A bit of magic flicked the radio on.
  6292. >Some newscaster's quiet voice droned on about stocks.
  6293. >Luna's lips curled to a smile.
  6294. >”Sis-ee s-aam. Go. H-aav 'ood day.”
  6295. >Celestia stopped to nuzzle her sister's cheek before leaving the room.
  6297. >Anon sat in the kitchen with his phone and a cup of coffee on the table in front of him.
  6298. >He looked up at Celestia when he heard her.
  6299. >”Ah, good. Just as I was about to come wake you.”
  6300. >Waving his hand at the fridge, he returned his attention to the phone.
  6301. >”Help yourself to something and go open up.”
  6302. >She pulled out a plum for herself, then remembered Luna's cheese and bread.
  6303. “Is it fine if I eat with Luna?”
  6304. >They could both have some of each other's treats.
  6305. >It wasn't like Celestia hated cheese or Luna sweets.
  6306. >”Yeah, sure. Just don't spend too long. The inspector or whoever already sent a message and will be here before long.”
  6307. >His fingers swiped at the screen of his phone as Celestia stared at him.
  6308. >He paid her no heed whatsoever.
  6309. >”Try not to waste time with her either, though. We got a huge order overnight and some of this stuff isn't in stock so we have to go find it.”
  6310. >Well.
  6311. >They certainly had different priorities.
  6313. >Celestia strode back into her room with two breakfasts in tow.
  6314. “Here, I got this for you last night. I hope it's the sort you like.”
  6315. >She set one of the plates on Luna's nightstand and tore off a piece of the bread on it.
  6316. >Luna sniffed at the piece and the cheese on it as it floated to her, nodded, and let Celestia pop it in her mouth.
  6317. >”Mm! Is 'ood.”
  6319. >Luna shuffled to the very edge of her bed.
  6320. >Close enough that she pushed against the railing.
  6321. >“Sis-ee.”
  6322. >Celestia gulped down the last of her breakfast and turned to look.
  6323. >”Too-day. Yo meet. Big meet.”
  6324. >Luna had a very focused look on her as she stuck a hoof out.
  6325. >”Yo meet her. She 'ood. R-emm-emm-b. She 'ood. She hh-elp. Let her.”
  6326. >The sisters stared at each other for a second.
  6327. >Celestia took her sister's dark hoof into hers and stroked it.
  6328. “Of course. I'll get you any help she has to offer.”
  6329. >She flashed a warm smile at her younger sister before making their plates and glasses pile themselves.
  6330. >“Sis-ee. Be c-aar-ff-ul. 'emb—r. She hh-elp. She not bad.”
  6331. >Celestia's pure white coat clashed with Luna's dark blue as she nuzzled her sibling's hoof.
  6332. “I promise to accept any help she has to give, for the both of us. Does that sound good enough?”
  6333. >”Yaas.”
  6334. >Celestia's lips curled into a warm smile.
  6335. “Good. I wish I could stay, but it's going to be a busy day. I'll take a break to drop by as often as I can.”
  6336. >She pushed Luna's hoof back onto the bed, stroked her cheek, and trotted out of the room.
  6338. ***
  6340. >Celestia studied the label on the cardboard box she had with her and compared part codes with those on the shelf in front of her.
  6341. >They matched, so she floated one of the whatevers into her box.
  6342. >Now she only nee-
  6343. >Bzzzzt!
  6344. >Her collar vibrated.
  6345. >She set her box on the shelf and trotted towards the shop.
  6347. >There were two people with Anon, both of which Celestia remembered from when they brought Luna.
  6348. >A young man barely out of his teens and a middle-aged woman with a stern look on her.
  6349. >The latter looked at Celestia the moment she pushed storeroom door open.
  6350. >”Ah, the former princess Celestia. Good to see you out in the open again. ”
  6351. >Her voice still had its commanding backdrop, but wasn't strict in the slightest and had some warmth to it.
  6352. >”Now, I was told that you're quite busy today, so shall we go straight to business? Is there somewhere a little more private?”
  6353. >She glanced at Anon.
  6354. >He pointed at the stairs.
  6355. >”Yeah, upstairs. Help yourselves to some tea if you want.”
  6357. >Celestia's magic pulled back three chairs from around the dining table as soon as they got to the kitchen.
  6358. “Should I put the kettle on?”
  6359. >Only the woman sat down.
  6360. >She glanced around, then pulled a phone out of her pocket and placed it on the table in front of her.
  6361. >”Go ahead.”
  6362. >Fingers tapped on the screen of her phone, but the sound was masked by Celestia pulling out a pot.
  6363. >”Is your... sister awake?”
  6364. >The young man's voice was shaky.
  6365. >”She needs her exercise if she's to get better. Can I...?”
  6366. >Celestia cast a glance at him, studying him from head to toe.
  6367. >He looked more nervous than anything, and she'd promised to take any help they offered.
  6368. “She is. Down the hall, further door on the left. Be patient with her: she loves talking, but can be hard to understand.”
  6369. >His lips curled to a shaky smile.
  6370. >”Trust me, I know. I worked with her for months.”
  6371. >A golden aura plonked the pot onto the stove as he strode out of the room.
  6372. “Is it true?”
  6373. >Celestia poured two cups of water into the kettle, popped the stove on, then glanced at the woman.
  6374. >”Yes. He's the one who took care of her in there and did the report that led to her rescue.”
  6375. >She scrolled through some news site, scanning each piece and pointing a finger at each headline as she read it.
  6377. >”So. Your sister was easy, but you are not.”
  6378. >The woman, who'd introduced herself as Kathy, was reading something on the science page as Celestia reached for the cookies she bought.
  6379. >”How can I help you? Do you need some kind of physical therapy? Exercise? Or perhaps psychotherapy? I'd really prefer if you accepted something, even if it's just for the headlines.”
  6380. >Celestia arched a brow and shot a glare at the woman.
  6381. “Headlines? What are you planning?”
  6382. >Kathy's finger tapped on some headline just before she punched a button to turn the screen off.
  6383. >”I'm planning on making both ponies' lives and my job easier by showing that abuse has consequences.”
  6384. >She blew some air out of her nose.
  6385. >”There's only two inspectors in this city and we have to cover the countryside too. Most reports go straight into the trash simply because we don't have anywhere near enough time to check them.”
  6386. >Her gaze was downcast and the angle of light made the wrinkles on her face stand out so she looked far older than she was.
  6387. >The sigh she let out was laced with desperation and tiredness.
  6388. >”It's like we're a fire brigade who only have time to tackle the raging infernos while hoping the rain eventually puts out the smaller fires.”
  6389. >Celestia floated a cookie to her, then cranked the stove's dial back to zero as the water began to boil.
  6390. “Is it that bad?”
  6391. >”Hah! No.”
  6392. >The woman's lips curled to a smile as she snatched the cookie out of the air.
  6393. >”I just never see the well-treated ones, that's all. There's very few cases per capita, but even those add up to too much when the area we have to supervise is so massive. Anyhow...”
  6394. >She cracked off a piece of her cookie, tossed it in her mouth, and chewed away.
  6395. >”...back to you. You seem to be just fine physically, so how about some psychotherapy? A weekly session?”
  6396. >Celestia's golden aura guided two cups onto the table, then dropped a teabag in each.
  6397. “I'm pretty sure I've heard everything therapists have to say over the years, but why not if you think it helps others.”
  6399. >”So, to go over this once more.”
  6400. >Kathy lifted her cup to her lips and took a sip.
  6401. >”Someone will come over every other day to exercise with Luna for as long as it's needed. I'll do my best to make sure it's always the same person, but it's ultimately out of my control.”
  6402. >She tapped her phone's screen as she went over the notes she'd written.
  6403. >”Beyond that, a veterinarian will visit her monthly and she'll be provided with any services deemed necessary. For you, we'll arrange weekly cognitive psychotherapy. Hopefully starting next week, but I can't promise we'll find a suitable therapist in time. Sounds good?”
  6404. >Celestia swirled her cup in her magic and watched the tea flow back and forth.
  6405. >She felt all twitchy and pumped up, but had centuries of experience in how to keep it hidden.
  6406. >She'd promised to accept any help offered and she wouldn't let Luna down, no matter how important her issue was.
  6407. “It does.”
  6408. >”Right.”
  6409. >Kathy's fingers danced on the screen for a few seconds.
  6410. >”I'll get it all started as soon as I get back to the office. The paperwork will take a day or two to reach the right people, but past that it should be fast.”
  6411. >A quick sip and a gulp emptied Celestia's cup of its mediocre tea.
  6412. >She set her cup down.
  6413. “Was that all of it? I have some questions of my own.”
  6414. >The bottom of her stomach tingled and she had to consciously hold her voice down.
  6415. >”There's one more thing.”
  6416. >Few swipes and taps brought the news site from before back on the screen.
  6417. >Kathy spun her phone around and slid it to Celestia.
  6418. >'Planet's rotation slows inexplicably – changes in magma flows of the outer core suspected'
  6419. >”Do you know anything about that? I figured you might.”
  6421. >Celestia slid the phone back after reading the piece.
  6422. “Why yes, I do know something. I know you're running out of time to fix it before it's too late.”
  6423. >Her words came out loud and fast.
  6424. >Kathy blinked and her brow furrowed as she stared at the pony with her lips cracked open.
  6425. >”What do you mean? Explain yourself.”
  6426. “Your world is grinding to a halt because the man who butchered my sister doesn't know what he's doing.”
  6427. >Celestia's tone shifted from the usual friendliness to one of contained rage.
  6428. “This world will die if you don't find and stop him soon. Weather will cease to exist so your crops will wither and die of drought when the rivers run dry – if they're lucky enough to survive that far because day and night will stop their cycle and half the world will be in permanent darkness while the other half becomes a scorched desert.”
  6429. >Her chair scraped the floor as she pushed it back.
  6430. >The woman opposite to her scampered back the little she could as Celestia reared up.
  6431. >The cups clattered on their plates as two white hooves slammed down on the table.
  6432. “You WILL-”
  6433. >Slam.
  6434. >She whacked the table again for emphasis.
  6435. “-find him and return what he stole.”
  6436. >Her breathing was heavy as she sat down – a sign she'd got more into it than she intended.
  6437. >Fortunately, Kathy didn't look worse for the wear.
  6438. >”Simmer down. I'm doing all I can. You have to understand that law enforcement is entirely out of my control. He's wanted, but what he did wasn't severe enough for an active search – and there's nothing I can do to change that.”
  6439. >She kept her voice calm.
  6440. >The only sign of nervousness was that she had a hand in her pocket to fiddle with something that jingled like keys.
  6441. >”I'll talk about what you said with my superior and send it up the chain. I'm someone higher up is looking for the reasons for all the oddities, even if they don't say it out loud to prevent needless hysteria.”
  6442. “Well then.”
  6443. >Celestia stood up again and tread to the window.
  6444. >She looked up into the sky, straight at the sun.
  6445. “Let me lend a helping hoof.”
  6446. >Her horn lit up as she reached higher, and higher, and higher...
  6447. >At first, nothing happened.
  6448. >Then the world went dark.
  6449. >Up in the sky hung a patch of pure darkness surrounded by faint, wispy fans of superheated plasma.
  6450. >Kathy clambered onto her feet and stumbled to the window.
  6451. >Her jaw hung open as she stared up at the sky.
  6452. “You're welcome.”
  6454. >Kathy wrested her focus from the sky.
  6455. >”What... how? How's an eclipse going to help me?”
  6456. >Celestia floated another cookie out of the packet and took a crunchy bite.
  6457. >She was in no rush to chew or swallow.
  6458. “Mmh. I'm just giving an example of the magnitude of the forces you're playing with. It's up to you to figure out how to make use of it.”
  6459. >That earned her a confused glare as she munched on another piece of her cookie.
  6460. “Though, for now, I suggest you go outside and watch it. Regardless of what happens, you'll never see another one that's as long.”
  6461. >It wasn't strictly true: there would be another, even longer one, in about seven thousand years – obviously, Kathy wouldn't live to see it.
  6462. “I'll go ask Luna if she wants to watch it too.”
  6463. >She popped what little remained of her treat into her mouth.
  6464. >Kathy stared at the darkened sun, patted her pockets, looked down at her hands, then up at the sky again.
  6465. >”Uh, sure...”
  6467. >”Is okay. No worr-y.”
  6468. >Luna's voice carried into the corridor.
  6469. >”Will be fine.”
  6470. >A set of footsteps followed behind Celestia just as she pulled open the door to her room.
  6471. >The young man stood at the foot of Luna's bed, with her rear hoof in his hand, and twitched at the sudden sound.
  6472. >Luna's focus snapped to her elder sister.
  6473. >”Sis-ee.”
  6474. >Her voice was deadpan.
  6475. >”Yoo... rr-oosh. No 'ood.”
  6476. >Celestia stood at the door, only stepping to the side to let Kathy in.
  6477. “I had to. We're running out of time.”
  6478. >Luna shot her a sharp glare as the corners of her mouth twitched.
  6479. >”F-iin. Yo ss-oolv.”
  6480. >She pursed her lips and let out a 'hmph'.
  6481. >Celestia batted her eyelashes as she glanced down at her own hooves.
  6482. >But... She...?
  6483. “What do you mean? Was there something you wanted to do yourself?”
  6484. >”We taa-k. Latee-r. At night.”
  6486. >”Sooo... What's going on? It just went dark all of a sudden.”
  6487. >The young man's voice, of a higher pitch than usual, broke the short silence.
  6488. >Kathy, who'd managed to dig out her phone and poked at its screen, realized Celestia had tread to Luna and had no intention of answering.
  6489. >”An eclipse. And yes, I know: there wasn't one scheduled and it wasn't even new moon.”
  6490. >The woman threw a glance at the pony sisters.
  6491. >”If she's to be believed – and I don't see why we wouldn't – your former boss is trifling with something that really should be left alone and will tidally lock the planet with the sun or something if he isn't stopped.”
  6492. >He looked at the hoof in his hand for a second and bit his lip.
  6493. >”How do we stop it, then?”
  6494. >”I don't know, Juan! I don't know!”
  6495. >Both Luna's and Celestia's ears perked up and swiveled towards the sudden shout.
  6496. >Kathy glanced down at her phone and scanned its screen.
  6497. >”Though, I guess we can start by going outside to watch. Then I guess I'll try calling some people to ask if they know how.”
  6498. >Luna's hoof fell onto the mattress with a soft whump as Juan let go of it.
  6499. >”What should I do? How can I help?”
  6500. >”Well, I...”
  6501. >She lifted her hand to rub the back of her neck.
  6502. >”I think the best you can do is keep doing what you were doing and help her.”
  6504. >Celestia ignored the humans' babbling and hand waving.
  6505. >She leaned closer to Luna and nuzzled the side of her muzzle.
  6506. “Would you like to go out and watch?”
  6507. >Luna returned the favor, but softer and slower.
  6508. >”Yoo no mii-nd?”
  6509. >The elder sister's lips curled into a warm smile.
  6510. “Of course I don't mind. Here, hold on. I'll do it the fast way.”
  6511. >Her hoof snaked its way under the covers, found and took hold of one of Luna's.
  6512. >Celestia squeezed her eyelids shut and focused her mind.
  6513. >Magic gathered in her.
  6514. >Crack!
  6515. >Flash!
  6516. >Her hooves suddenly touched pavement and a gentle breeze tickled her barrel.
  6518. >A sudden wave of nausea and dizziness assaulted her.
  6519. “Bwehoa!”
  6520. >She staggered backwards and bumped into something soft.
  6521. >”The hell was that?”
  6522. >Anon's voice.
  6523. >A warm hands landed on her shoulder and held her against him.
  6524. >It was darker outside than it'd been inside with the light on.
  6525. >Luna had a touch of worry on her face as she peered over her bed's railing.
  6526. >”You okay there? Want to lay down?”
  6527. >Anon squeezed her between his arm and side.
  6528. “Yeah, yeah...”
  6529. >The world stabilized and the churning in her stomach settled.
  6530. “I'm fine. I just forgot I'm limited in this world and tried to move too much at once.”
  6531. >He let go of her, but kept his arm close for a second.
  6532. >”Well in that case, would you mind explaining what the fuck is going on? You just appeared out of thin air while there's an ongoing solar eclipse when it's impossible for one to happen.”
  6533. >His voice wavered, like he wasn't sure how to feel.
  6534. “Relax.”
  6535. >Celestia stroked the side of his thigh.
  6536. >It was as tense as a leaf spring.
  6537. “It was just a simple teleportation spell and the eclipse is a gentle reminder to your rulers about the conditions in out surrender treaty. It'll end in about 20 minutes.”
  6538. >She received a long look full of confusion from Anon.
  6539. >His leg twitched, but he didn't move.
  6540. >”Well, okay then.”
  6541. >Air hissed through his nose as he drew a deep breath.
  6542. >”What a-”
  6544. >Ting-a-ling!
  6545. >Three pairs of eyes focused on the front door.
  6546. >Kathy held it open behind her for Juan.
  6547. >”You could've told us what you're about to do instead of just vanishing all of a sudden.”
  6548. >She still had her phone in her hand and raised it to point its camera at the sky.
  6549. >”Though, after your first surprise, I should've expected something out of the ordinary.”
  6550. >Her fingers tapped the screen for a bit before she shook her head.
  6551. >”Nope, too dark. You don't happen to have a proper camera and a tripod, do you? Actually, never mind, I should be calling people instead of trying to get pretty pictures.”
  6553. >Kathy was on the phone behind a corner while everyone else stood in the front yard to watch the eclipse.
  6554. >Celestia left Luna's bedside, padded next to Anon and nudged his arm.
  6555. “There was something you wanted to say earlier.”
  6556. >She kept her voice low.
  6557. “I got the feeling it was something important.”
  6558. >Anon glanced at her and, after a bit of a pause, stroked her neck and shoulder.
  6559. >His soft touch made Celestia let out a satisfied hum.
  6560. >”I was about to ask if there's anything you can't do. Now I'm not sure if I even want to know.”
  6561. >She inched closer and leaned against his side to enjoy the warmth.
  6562. “I can do a lot, true. I prefer to teach others how to solve their problems rather than solving those problems myself, though.”
  6563. >The hand inched up towards her head.
  6564. >”Is that what all this is about? Teaching... us? to solve these kinds of problems?”
  6565. >He did a sweeping motion towards the darkened sun with his free hand.
  6566. “Yes and no. It's true that I could find the culprit and take care of him myself, but doing so would land me neck deep in trouble. It's not an option now that I have somepony to take care of.”
  6567. >Anon rolled his eyes as his fingers buried themselves deep in Celestia's mane.
  6568. >”You're the weirdest thing I've ever seen.”
  6569. >His chest was very warm under the rough cloth of his overalls as she rested her head against it.
  6570. >She noticed Luna watching them.
  6571. >The younger sister had a blank look on her face.
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