Trotford was just a normal little Equestrian village, very much like better-known Ponyville, but further away from Canterlot. It had the same stone streets, the same firefly lanterns, the same magnificently engineered multi-storied thatched-roof houses. They were also just as mutedly cosmopolitan, with a modest nightlife and all.
There were some differences as well. The gender balance was more even, with about as many stallions as mares. The stallions tended to be more rambunctious and closely-knit than the ones in Ponyville. They preferred the company of other stallions, drinking, singing off key, playing electronic and physical games, and generally hanging around.
The mares had their own tight-knit community. It had been loosely defined and mostly consisted of the mares getting together in somepony's house to drink wine and complain about how the stallions didn't want to date. They constantly dated, and sometimes even had romantic evenings. But no proposals ever came of the evenings. They simply didn't seem to have the inclination to marry.
Things carried on, limping along with few, if any, marriages and many dissatisfied mares, as well as a lot of cheerfully free-wheeling stallions. That persisted until after the royal wedding in Canterlot. The mares put their hooves down and resolved to get themselves wed. The figured they deserved some happiness. The informal gatherings became more regular, though no more organized.
One of the big hangout spots for stallions was The Arcade Academy, a combination bar, restaurant and arcade, exclusively made for adults. The bulk of the male population came to the place at some point during the day, to eat with friends, play video games and yell about their scores, or to have some drinks to cap the day.
Two friends sat at one of the smaller tables and clinked glasses of dark beer. One was a light green pegasus named Wind Catcher, the other a pale yellow unicorn named Gold Bug. They drank some of the beer and munched on a few hay fries.
“It's another beautiful evening in Trotford,” Gold said with a grin.
“Could be better. We could have some mares here,” Wind noted, looking out at the profusion of stallions. The only mare was the one behind the bar.
“This really isn't the kind of place mares go, especially not the mares in this town,” Gold said with a sigh. “They're all so... uptight. Serious. They just don't have any fun at all.”
“Oh they always say they have fun but... they never came back to my place to show me,” Wind said with a suggestive pop of his brows.
Gold laughed at the implication. “I had one do that. She got a little clingy. But, I told her how it was. I'm just trying to have a good time. Enjoy myself, like right now.”
The pair clinked glasses and had another sip. “I hear ya. Nothing wrong with that kinda thing. We can have fun and that's just our business. Nopony else's,” Wind said firmly.
“That's right. All these mares seem to want to do is, I dunno, settle down, have foals, that kinda thing. Well that can sure as buck wait,” Gold humphed.
Silence descended for a moment as they drank and munched on hay fries. Wind finally asked, “Speaking of settling down, have you talked to Bagel since the wedding?”
“Are you kidding? Sunshine keeps him jumping every minute, the poor bastard. They go shopping, they go on picnics, he takes her out to movies, they stay in and watch dumb movies. His days of fun are over,” Gold huffed.
“And he always has that smile on his face. It's weird. He just looks completely happy,” Wind said.
“Well, to his credit, he's getting Sunshine. That is one nice bit of earth pony. But I guess he wants to keep getting laid. He'd better keep on smiling. And then sneak out when she's not looking,” Gold said with a laugh.
Wind laughed as well and downed a long swallow of beer. A contemplative look crossed his face, and he tapped a hoof on the table. “You know... is it just me, or have there been a few marriages happening lately?”
“Well, what do you mean? They're pretty normal,” Gold said, giving his friend an odd look.
“I mean, used to be the mares always wanted to get married but there weren't many chances. They'd ask but they always wanted all the fun to stop. Now there's more weddings. And the guys don't want to party anymore,” Wind said.
“Their loss,” Gold quipped.
“I just thought about it. It's not just Bagel. Some other guys aren't going out like they used to. Party guys. Guys like us. It's just weird,” Wind said, his voice dropping, becoming conspiratorial.
“Well... what are you trying to say?” Gold asked, dropping his own voice.
Wind looked around a little, eyes lingering on the barmare. She almost looked to be watching him, but after a moment she turned away to draw another beer. “I don't know. Something just feels weird. It just hit me today how weird.”
“Watch it, guy. You're gonna end up wearing tinfoil on your head and going on television talking about how the spaceship came to take you for probing,” Gold laughed, voice back up to normal.
“I'm really serious about this. There has to be something going on here,” Wind insisted.
“There is. Guys are getting laid and liking it, and they want it with some regularity. So they give in, quit partying and settle down to be good little househusbands. What else is new?” Gold asked with a shrug.
“I... I don't know. You might be right...” Wind socked back another swallow of his beer and shook his head. “Anyway, let's get to the games. I'll totally kick your flank this week.”
Gold snorted and rose up. “In your dreams!” The two of them ran off to the video games, not noticing the barmare slipping away to the back room.
The weekend passed into the working week. It was still normal to hang out during the week but most didn't. They tended to focus on making the money they could waste on some fun times. Wind saw Gold out on the streets most days and they usually had a little chat. The third day of the week there was a surprise.
“You won't believe it. Oat Sheaf says she wants to go out,” Gold said with some excitement, getting a high hoof at the news.
“Awesome! Talk about a nice earth pony. How long before you get some?” Wind asked.
“I'll lay some charm on her and go from there,” Gold said confidently.
“So... a year from now?” Wind joked, getting a magical thump on the head for his trouble.
“Seriously... it's weird. I didn't know she was so into me. But she came on to me at work, and she was all shy and talking about how she wanted to see me. We actually used up some time talking,” Gold said.
“Ugh, talking with a mare for hours. It's happened. They got you too,” Wind said with mock seriousness.
Gold used his magic to playfully shove Wind. “Come on... no, it's true. She was telling me about her family and her friends and all the stuff she likes. So, I figured I'd be a good guy and tell her about me. Thought I'd impress her.”
“Didn't work, did it?” Wind asked.
“Oh shut up. She actually really paid attention. She was just so into me I know I can make this work,” Gold said confidently.
“You're a lucky stallion, Gold. None of the mares at work even look at me twice. I just don't get it,” Wind said.
“I'm not lucky yet, but I'll get there,” Gold said with a wink, the two friends sharing a laugh before they parted.
The week passed by with more short talks, about how Oat was being a bit shy and reserved, talking more, asking questions, getting close but not intimate. The pattern continued over the course of two weeks, Gold strung along without resolution.
“I think she's trying to drive me crazy,” Gold said, again meeting with Wind at The Arcade Academy on the weekend. “We talk, and talk and talk and...”
“Alright, I get it. Crazy. These things happen,” Wind said, rolling his eyes. “What's so bad about talking, besides being boring?”
“Because it's... it's like she wants to do more. She shows off a lot of flank on purpose, she gives me a lot of looks, she nudges me, touches my hoof but... then we get to her place, she makes me a drink and we talk. A while later she gets me to the door, kisses my cheek and we're done,” Gold said.
“Wow. There's teasing and then there's... I'm not even sure what that would be,” Wind said with a shake of his head.
“She's also dropping some hints about particular things,” Gold said.
“Seriously? You too?” Wind asked, incredulously.
“Can't be helped. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm just reading too much into it. Maybe my head's a little wobbly from all the slapping-off I have to do to deal with this relationship,” Gold sighed.
“Give it another week. She's totally into you. She keeps coming around, she seems interested. I'm sure she'll finally let you get to her. It can't hurt, right?” Wind asked.
“I guess so. She's really hot, and she seems like she'll let it happen if I play along. I guess we'll see,” Gold said.
The next week, Gold came to the meeting with Wind wearing a ring on his horn. “Come on, man... you have got to be kidding me. After all that complaining,” Wind groaned with a shake of his head.
“She is really, really, really hot. Plus she has a good job and makes some decent bits,” Gold said with a slightly insincere laugh. “Seriously though, it might not be so bad. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?”
“You end up like Bagel. I mean... I actually tried to talk to him. And it was weird,” Wind said, voice dropping.
“Here we go again. Okay, where did the aliens touch you?” Gold asked with a roll of his eyes.
“I'm serious! So, I talked to him. He knew stuff. Knew all the stuff I expected him to know. He didn't even get tripped up by the lying questions I asked trying to confirm he knew what he had and had not done,” Wind said.
“'Lying questions'? 'Confirm' stuff? What are you, a spook? This isn't a Con Mane movie, it's a small town in Equestria,” Gold said. “This can't be healthy.”
“Listen!” Win demanded, hitting the table with his hooves. “I know this sounds weird. It's weird to me too. But this is what I know. He said all the right things. He knew all the details, he sounded exactly like Bagel. But it wasn't him. I know it wasn't him. He knew it all but he didn't sound like he had lived it, he was just giving me answers, like a student on a test.”
Gold shook his head. “You need to find a mare like Oat. Or go on vacation. Get a hobby. Figure something out. This used to be hilarious but it's getting sad.”
Wind sighed and slowly rubbed his temples, wings twitching on his back. “I don't know why I can't let it go. It's like... when you see a little hidden image in a picture. It's impossible not not see it anymore. It's just fixed there.”
“I get it. Life is changing. And that's not cool. Marriages, settling, responsibilities. But come on, try to cool it,' Gold said, placing a hoof on Wind's shoulder.
Wind smiled lopsidedly, and nodded a little. “I'm sure that's it. Sorry I've been such an idiot.”
Gold waved a hoof dismissively. “Just relax, it's cool.”
Two nights later, Wind was placidly sleeping in his bedroom. He had kicked his sheets off in the night, the light of the moon falling across his body. A dark shape moved in the room, carefully stepping to avoid making any noise. It slowly approached Wind, looming over him and standing in the light. A hoof came up slowly, and suddenly planted itself on Wind's mouth.
Wind's eyes shot open and he started to thrash. His wings flared and flapped, lifting him a bit before a magical field pressed him down. “Wind! Wind! It's me,” Gold hissed, turning his face to the soft moonlight.
Wind settled down as soon as he saw his friend's face. The hoof came off his mouth and he whispered, “Gold? Wh-what the buck? You scared the...”
“Listen, I have to be fast about this. I made a few promises but I... well... I had to tell you, if no one else,” Gold said with a shifty glance.
“What is it? What's going on? Are you in trouble?” Wind asked.
“No... kinda... no... it's complicated. Look, I may feel... strange about this, but I'm still going to go along with what's happening. But I had to at least say, you're not crazy,” Gold said, looking around again.
“I'm not crazy... wait, you mean about Bagel?” Wind asked, looking a little desperate.
“About... look, I can't say. But you're not crazy. And just because I don't want you to drive yourself nuts, when you talk to me later on, after the wedding... just keep in mind that it's not going to be the same,” Gold said, more frequently looking around.
“What do you mean? What's happening?” Wind asked, starting to get out of bed.
Gold used his magic to push Wind back down. “Look... just... accept things as they are. And... the mares are really, really looking to get us to be less... crazy.”
“The mares? What, all of them?” Wind asked, pushing against the magic.
“See you around. I'll put the key back into the fake rock when I leave. You really need a better fake rock, the paint is chipping,” Gold said, his magic dropping. He slipped back out of the room.
Wind stumbled out of bed and watched as Gold left the room. He stood there, thinking about things for a time, turning to look out the window to see if he could see Gold.
The silent street was still and shadowed, no one stirring. Then he saw a shaded figure, too slight to be Gold. It had to be a mare. She looked around shiftily then motioned to another figure. They were harder to see, but looked male. He dashed along with the mare, the both of them turning a corner and vanishing down an alley.
Wind fell down on his bed, staring up at the ceiling in the low light, his thoughts swirling with confusion and the deepening mystery. Gold knew something. He was part of something. Something to do with mares. He knew about what was up with Bagel, and that something like it was going to happen to him. What was it? What was going on in his town? It had just been a normal Equestrian town. The stallions had fun and the mares... the mares...
The mares wanted to have more than just what they had had. They wanted to settle down, to have their own Equestrian dream. Trotford was the kind of town that usually made for the right site for that. But... stallions just wanted to have fun. They did everywhere. There was nothing wrong with that.
He knew there was something wrong. And he'd figure out what. Gold would be his source. He had come to talk to him. He would spill the secret eventually, after marriage. It would all be resolved. With that comforting thought in mind he drifted off to sleep.
The wedding followed in short order, after only a week of preparation. Gold remained skittish and evasive during conversations, and flatly denied ever saying anything about mares and some kind of conspiracy regarding anything happening in town. He remained so evasive right to the day.
Wind was Gold's best man, and looked out into the crowd during the ceremony. The majority of the mares were on Oat's side, including the married ones and their husbands. On Gold's side the group was smaller, the few other stallions who knew Gold well and could be bothered to go to something as unstallionly as a wedding.
The silhouette from the darkness gave him no indication of who he had seen, even looking over the mares from every angle. And the mysterious male had been even more indistinct. None of the stallions in the crowd was acting especially shifty or suspicious. Nothing gave any real indication of anything but a normal wedding. He wanted to just think it was, but Gold shot him a strange look after saying his vows. As though he was resigning himself to something unpleasant.
Wind suffered a great deal on the honeymoon night. He left the reception early, since it seemed to be mostly the mares standing around complimenting Oat, and the stallions drinking and talking to Gold. Wind wanted the day and night to be over. He wanted to talk to Gold after his experience with Oat, to start the process of prying the truth out of him. He had to wait it out and it wasn't easy.
The next day he was at Oat's house, bright and early. Gold had moved into her place because her place was larger and more comfortable. It made sense. He knocked on the door and waited around for the response.
The door slowly opened with a waver of magic and revealed Gold. He was smiling brightly and looked like he was pleased with the world. Wind was a bit taken aback. “Uh... h-hey there, Gold.”
Gold tilted his head and stared for a moment, as though thinking about what to say. Recognition flashed in his oddly wide eyes. “Hello there, Wind. Did you come to see Oat?”
“Uh, no, I came to see you,” Wind said, peering at Gold's face. It was him alright. But he had never smiled like that before.
“Oh yes. Well, you are my best friend. But it's very early. We barely had breakfast,” Gold said.
“Who's at the door, dear?” Oat called from inside the house.
“It's Wind! He came to see me,” Gold replied.
“That was nice of him. But be quick about it and come finish your breakfast, you don't want to be late for work,” Oat called back.
“Alright, dear,” Gold called into the house. He then turned his smiling face on Wind. “What did you need? I have to eat breakfast and get to work.”
“Gold... it's me,” Wind said, with some bit of pleading. “We're friends. We talk all the time.”
“I'm married now. I have new responsibilities. And right now two are eat breakfast and go to work,” Gold said.
“I know that. Okay. How about... could you at least tell me... you know...” Wind said, leaning in conspiratorially.
“I... know?” Gold asked, his smile slipping a little bit as his head tilted.
“Come on... you dodged the questions before you were married but come on. What were you talking about when you told me about how you would be and how the...” Wind cut off his own ramble as his intellect caught up to his passion. “Well, you remember. That speech you gave me... at The Arcade Academy. About... your attitude.”
Gold tilted his head again, as though thinking. “Oh yes, yes. I'm sorry. But, you know. The honeymoon night. I'm a little forgetful.” He popped his brows and smiled wider.
“Right... honeymoon...” Wind said, smiling nervously. Gold had laughed at his deceptive questions, but they worked. He stepped back, stumbling a little bit. “I'll... see you later. At The Arcade Academy?”
“Oh no, I can't make it. Oat and I are choosing dish patterns and repainting the living room,” Gold said.
“Oh. Alright. Marriage. I get it...” Wind turned quickly and galloped off. Gold was... not acting like himself. Just like he said. And he didn't even remember saying it.
Wind didn't go in to work that day. He locked his door, after taking the fake rock from by door, barred his windows and closed all the curtains. He huddled in his self-imposed darkness, gripped by something much worse than simple fear. The dark claws of the unknown tore at his guts, and pierced his mind. He knew something was wrong, but couldn't begin to pinpoint what it was that was actually happening. He had only the mystery with not a clue to follow.
Gold had told him something was going on. He had come along to tell him that things were going to change, that he wasn't crazy. Yet he was going crazier than ever. Without the full scoop he could feel nothing else. He wasn't helping his image either, skipping work and huddling in his house, but it was all he could manage.
He remained there, not eating, or moving, all day. All he could do was wait for the blind terror to leave him. The night found him with his eyes closed, almost in a doze. He snapped them open when he heard some soft clattering around the window. It was hooves on the stones outside. He chanced a small peek, the smallest lifting of the curtain and a look.
He saw Oat standing there, looking in the window. She was a normal earth pony, a pale grayish color, like boiled oats, with a golden mane and tail. She was looking in another direction when he peeked out. In the split-second that he viewed her Wind could see she was not alone. Gold was standing just away from her, looking as he had before, with the large strange smile on his face.
Wind dropped the curtain and dropped back down, stifling a surprised cry. Somehow, Gold had figured out the questioning was unusual, and told Oat. And of course Oat needed to snoop around to see what Wind knew. It all made sense. There was something serious going on and Gold had become a part of it. He had almost said he might, yet he had been free enough to give a warning. It was confusing. A deeper level of not-knowing.
He slowly crawled his way to his front door, sliding his hooves to avoid making too much noise as he scooted along. He wasn't sure what to do, except open the door slowly and quietly, and leap up to his hooves. He dashed out into the night, aware of a sudden movement all around him.
He saw others all around, pointing in his direction and approaching. He didn't bother trying to see who was after his. With the last of his rational mind he spread his wings and leaped into the air. He beat them hard and surged upwards, banking in a tight spiral. He needed to shake any potential pursuers, even if he couldn't see any. He just had to flee, with all he could muster.
He looked down briefly over Trotford. Shadowy figures seemed to be looking up at him, but none had taken wing yet. He zipped off swiftly, body aimed towards Canterlot. He needed to inform somepony of his suspicions, of his idea regarding what it was that was going on. Something had happened to Bagel, and Gold, and other stallions who had been roped into marriage.
He stuck his forelegs out and pulled himself into a tight, aerodynamic shape. The silhouette of Canterlot was highlighted by the moon, showing him where he had to go. “Don't worry, Gold! I can fix this! I won't let this go without a fight! I promise you I'll get someone involved here and put an end to whatever this is!”