Frigid morning air whipped into Fluttershy’s nostrils and tickled her lungs, making each breath sting as sharp as the biting north winds against her exposed ears. Daylight had barely crept above the horizon as she stood beside Twilight in hock-deep snow waiting. Waiting did not bother her. The unseasonable cold on the other hoof . . . She shuddered, trying not to imagine what her unsheltered animal friends must be enduring right now.
Her eyes fell to her still-silent companion. Just like yesterday, a steely gaze had replaced the usual enthusiastic smile. Every so often, Twilight would raise her head to taste the wind, then return to staring straight ahead towards Canterlot. Subconscious actions, but they still left her nervous.
After all, Sombra himself would be moved to Ponyville. What if something went wrong and he escaped? Fluttershy shook her head. Stop it! They’ll be fine. They moved Discord all the way here before, remember?
Yes, but despite his propensities towards “experimentation,” Discord’s mayhem had been relatively harmless. Sombra’s? Nopony could even fathom what that stallion was capable of. Stallion . . . Her gut churned, and for a moment, she felt like falling to the snow. That thing they faced so many months ago could not be a living, feeling being. A wraith perhaps—a shadow made of nightmares and fear—the farthest creature from a “friend” this world had.
Yet, here she stood preparing to take him in like a stray puppy or bunny. A part of her screamed in protest to the very thought, knowing what he had done to the Crystal Empire in the name of power. But another, still rational piece of her knew she had to try and glean from him what she honestly did know existed. Compassion. Loyalty. Kindness. Love. Friendship. Were these so far removed from Sombra to be unattainable? Whatever the answer, it would be her and her alone to find it. Such had been the case with Discord and such would be the case now.
A vicious blast of wind whipped a sizeable portion of mane into her eyes. She squeaked at the occlusion. Just as suddenly, Twilight’s magic brushed it back to neutral. “Thanks, Twi-twilight,” she said, trying her best not to knock her teeth together like a chattering squirrel.
“Sure thing.” Twilight returned to watching the horizon, unengaged with either the snow tickling her hooves or the breeze sending her tail rising like a kite. “Sorry about making you wait, Fluttershy.” The comment came out so suddenly, she nearly missed it.
“It’s okay, Twilight. I know this is terribly, terribly important.” She did not have to add “for all of Equestria.”
Twilight sent a spray of snow skyward with a hoof. “It’s just . . . I felt more comfortable meeting them out here. You know?”
Fluttershy raised an eyebrow. More comfortable here? As embarrassing as it was to admit, she really had no idea where Twilight’s mind had wandered to this time. “Sure . . .”
Her reply must not have been convincing enough, because Twilight turned to her with a torn expression. “I don’t want him to worry.” Either the wind or embarrassment had turned her cheeks bright red. “You know Discord doesn’t approve of this whole mess. And—”
“—you don’t want to ruin his trust by letting Sombra in the castle?” Fluttershy supplied.
“Yes,” Twilight squeaked, returning to position once more. “I’m so glad I don’t have to explain myself to you, Fluttershy.”
Fluttershy did not add that most of Twilight’s actions required explaining on some level. Though she often got confused on the lead up, she could generally deduce the root emotional cause of her friend’s anxiety. That served her well to a point, but in situations like these, she craved more. What had been going on between Twilight and Discord lately?
Just this summer, Twilight would not have concerned herself with Discord’s feelings on letting Sombra into the castle. Now she acted as if she were stepping on eggshells. Maybe their chaos lessons had started to scare her. That made sense. After all, chaos was hardly comforting. However, that did not explain the “nervous tick” that had progressively grown into a veritable time bomb.
Patience, Fluttershy. She’ll tell you when she’s ready. Fluttershy forced her mind back to the present. How would she get him to adjust? His problems were nothing like Discord’s. What if she couldn’t find their source and he only grew worse? Over and over again, the thoughts came seeping in with the cold around her.
Thankfully, she was spared any more self-induced dread when Twilight gasped beside her. Fluttershy looked up, watching several figures materialize in the distance. As they advanced, she noted the familiar royal carriage, and . . . Discord? Sure enough, when they landed, Discord led a hobbled Sombra out into the snow. The sullen expression and police uniform the draconequus wore gave no room for doubt as to his purpose there.
Celestia and Luna exchanged thoughtful glances before striding over to them. True to her nature, Celestia shot Fluttershy an encouraging smile. “Thank you for agreeing to this, Fluttershy.”
“Of course, Princess.” Her eyes fell to Sombra. Despite the cool weather, his coat was as thin as if they were in the middle of summer. Understandably, he was shivering and let out an occasional cough as he looked intently at the snow beneath his hooves. An instinctual urge to help led her to approach him. Discord stopped her advance with a paw. “Ah ah ah. Careful, Dear. He’s not exactly safe.”
“He’s freezing. Didn’t you give him a coat or blanket?”
Discord patted her head in a fatherly fashion. “Don’t you worry, Flutterbuddy.” He lowered his head to Sombra’s eye level. “I hear evil keeps itself warm.”
Sombra rolled his eyes. Then, in a barely audible, yet surprisingly urbane voice, he added, “You would know . . .”
Discord snarled, tensing until Twilight strode over to him. Her eyes fell to the raw patch of skin on Sombra’s forehead right where a horn would be. “It’s really gone,” she whispered softly.
Luna jerked a nod. “Aye. Tis a strange phenomenon, no?”
“Yes. I'd love to do some research on it. For a horn to simply fall off like that . . .”
Fluttershy felt an uncharacteristically strong surge of frustration at her friends. How could they be standing right in front of Sombra and talk like he was not even there? Fed up with the utter lack of tact, she leaned in to address the stallion directly. “It doesn't hurt, does it?”
His ears lay flat as he took a faulty step back to avoid her outstretched hoof. Fluttershy found herself drawn in by the defensive glare in his blue eyes.
“What security will you require?” Luna’s voice broke her trance in an instant.
Security? Fluttershy could not imagine living the next three months with guards outside her door. Besides the fact, without his magic, Sombra hardly posed much of a threat. “Oh, we won't need any security.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Are you certain, Fluttershy?”
Fluttershy cast one look at Sombra and knew. Right now he needed somepony, anypony to trust him. “He'll be fine, Princess.”
“Very well. If you insist, Fluttershy.” Celestia cleared her throat. “I expect you and Twilight to keep me updated.”
Fluttershy gave a small bow. “Of course.”
With that, Celestia and Luna set off towards the carriage. Discord grimaced, but said nothing as he released Sombra from the hobbles. He jerked a nod to Twilight and started walking to the castle.
Twilight gave her a quick hug. “Good luck. Let me know if you need anything.”
“I will. Thanks, Twilight.” Fluttershy watched her go after Discord, and felt her confidence ebb.
It took a moment to realize Sombra was watching her with a far more calculating expression. “The alicorn does not trust you.”
The statement cut at her heart like a knife. “What do you mean?”
Sombra turned to her, eyes as murky as his expression. “I wonder . . .”
Ignoring his nebulous comment, Fluttershy continued in as calm a voice as she could muster, “Why don’t we head on home?” Home . . . even using that word felt strange!
He gave a small nod of acknowledgement, walking slowly alongside her.
As they went along, Fluttershy could not stop a sense of dread from coming over her. How would she change somepony like him? And worse yet, what if he couldn’t be redeemed? How would she even begin to face her friends then?
Sombra proved to be as little concerned with conversation as he was with his surroundings. The entire walk back to the cabin consisted of his keeping silent step beside her while the snow fell lazily to the earth. Fluttershy stopped on occasion to check the squirrels’ nests or ensure the snow did not drift too close to her animal friend’s homes. Each time, he stood there patiently, eyes glazed over with that same disinterest he wore like a mask.
A sudden revelation came over her as they finally crossed the bridge to the house. What if Sombra could not express emotion? What if the force that had ripped away his magic had rendered him incapable of expressing himself? Oh, that would be horrible. Out of instinct rather than common sense, she proceeded to yank hard on his tail.
The reaction was a stiff kick straight to her gut that sent her flying into the nearest snow drift. Then, to her even greater surprise, the stallion’s eyes grew wide with genuine concern. “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” she squeaked gaining her breath back at last. “Sorry.”
He frowned. “About?”
“Pulling your tail.”
“Well, I suppose it had a purpose.” Sombra eyed her with all the air of a master appraising a particularly stupid servant. “Did it have a purpose?”
“Yes.” Fluttershy found herself too embarrassed to admit what that had been.
Sombra did not press, but instead looked away. “Did you find your answer?”
She stood, shaking off the snow like a dog. “I think so.”
“Then I see no problem. You have learned your lesson, I take it.”
“Excuse me?” Anger welled up inside her at the words. “You’re here to learn lessons from me, remember?”
Sombra shrugged noncommittally. “I do not see why you cannot learn from me as well.”
Fluttershy stamped her hoof, sending a small puff of powdery snow airborne. “That’s not how it works.”
“Urgh. Just . . . come inside.” She flew over to the door, holding it open for him. “And stamp off your hooves, I don’t want snow on the floorboards.”
To her relief, Sombra did as requested. After shaking off the snow, he stood in the entryway, ebony mane clinging to his dampened coat. Now that they were in the warmth of the cabin, she started to take in just how badly he was shaking. “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a nice warm bath? I’ll have some soup waiting for you when you’re done.”
“Thanks, Grandmama,” he quipped in that silken voice of his. He had made it halfway to the stairs when Angel Bunny hopped over, glowering at him defiantly. “Move.” Though said with a perfectly straight face, Sombra’s tone made it clear he would not be crossed.
Fluttershy trotted over. “Angel, we discussed this already. Sombra’s going to be staying with us this winter, remember?”
Angel stamped his feet, shaking his paws at Sombra.
Fluttershy sighed, knowing how hard it was for Angel to share her attention. Still, that did not give him the excuse. Her own tone became more firm, “Angel, as far as I’m concerned, Sombra is my guest for the next few months. You will be polite to him.”
Sombra turned to her, mouth slightly ajar. At first she thought he might say something about her defending him. However, that clearly would not be the case. “You are reasoning with it?”
“‘It’ is a dear friend of mine, Sombra,” she added in as dangerous tone as she could manage given the situation.
He slid Angel aside with a hoof, taking a few steps up the stairs before pausing. “Perhaps you should seek counsel with those worthy of your time, hmmm?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The Element of Kindness herself on the outskirts of town keeping company with pets instead of ponies. What a deplorable waste of talent.” With that, he climbed the stairs and disappeared.
Fluttershy never considered herself quick to anger nor to frustration. It, like most of her emotions lay under a thick blanket of manners and common sense. However, in the matter of seconds, Sombra had ripped away that blanket with with frosty indifference.
Her eyes tracked to the top of the stairs towards the bathroom where the source of her latest worry stood in her shower. Idly, she wondered if she had imagined his presence all together. Then again, somepony like him really couldn’t be conjured up from imagination. Besides, better to spend her imaginings on one of her woodland friends than that monster upstairs.