by Radiant Dawn

First published

When two universes collide in a not-so-hypothetical scenario, what will happen to the people within them? Will mankind perish, or will new friends and allies emerge amongst the chaos?

For the longest time, I'd considered the word "universe" to be accurate when describing mankind's plane of existence. While I was under no delusions about us being the only sentient race in the cosmos, I, like many others, believed that the way our universe worked and the way physics behaved were the only way things could be done; after all, we had never experienced anything else, and everything we knew about the way our universe worked and the laws of reality revolved around our specific set of physical laws.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), we were very wrong about our choice of how to name our reality: "universe" was largely inaccurate, since there appeared to be more than one...and both forces and creatures considered to be of myth and legend existed in another plane of existence, too far away to ever touch until now.

Rated T for adult language, use of alcohol, and implied sexual situations and mild sexual descriptions.

A/N: Obviously, I do not own the image used. Source can be reached by clicking on the button in the bottom right corner.

Chapter 1

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What do you do when life gives you lemons? To anyone who’s familiar with the beaten-to-death adage, obviously, you make lemonade. I’ve lived my life by that lesson, and it’s brought me through quite a few tight spots. It’s now at the point where I can take those lemons, squeeze the hell out of them, and make apple juice...and then laugh at the completely confused faces of everyone else; in essence, I make the impossible possible, and laugh in the faces of everyone who says, “it can’t be done.”

What then, do you do, when said lemons come in the form of starry-eyed ponies that find everything about your world amazing? The answer for those of you too slow to think of it is this: you make pony-ade.

Life was pretty normal for me before I met up with my kinda-sorta-roommates, and often consisted of me going to work, grinding away for nine hours while trying to keep my dear underlings from dicking about, taking a jog through the park, and then coming back home for some well-deserved R&R. I wasn’t rich by any means, but a good work history and a few run-of-the-mill business degrees had allowed me to live rather comfortably on my own. My parents were always a phone call away and I had friends to spend time with on my off-days, so I had everything I could want.

That didn’t mean I didn’t want more out of my life, though. Beyond the fact that I was absolutely terrified of dying alone one day, my house, cozy as it was, felt very empty most days. My dog Bailey kept me company of course, but she could only comfort me so much before things got a little weird.

I wasn’t all that worried about that particular problem, though. After all, I was only twenty-five, so I had my whole life ahead of me; “the world is my oyster” and all that...whatever that meant. The point is, I wasn’t particularly anxious when I thought of what I didn’t have, since I was leagues ahead of most people my age -- which, I’ll admit, was a little sad (for them, not me), but I wasn’t going to waste my time trying to help people who didn’t want help; a lot of people call it being insensitive to those in need, but I prefer to refer to my particular views as “efficient humanity”, meaning that I only devoted my time and efforts toward those who needed my assistance, and wanted it. People only change when they’re ready to, after all.

Aside from that strange mental tangent of mine, I consider myself to be a pretty likable guy, all things considered. I was rather common when it came to my physical attributes -- hair and eye color among them -- but made up for my shortcomings by fostering positive relationships whenever possible, with whoever was available. Many people overlooked the wallflowers and mice of the world, but I gravitated toward those people; more often than not, the quiet ones usually had the best stories to tell, and had learned far more by observing instead of talking. Because of that, my friends and I were often considered an odd bunch, but I loved them all the same.

It goes without saying that I tended to be more interested in the “weird and wonderful” things of the world, but some instances were a little too strange even for me.


Chapter 1

Casper, Wyoming was a pretty quiet place compared to what I was used to, but then again the whole state was pretty quiet. Not many people would willingly move to a place that was quite literally the least populated state in the US, but when you're looking for work in a recovering economy, you’ll move anywhere if it appears to be more stable. Snow and rolling plains were nothing new for me since I was raised in Kansas, but I will admit the amount of snow surprised me sometimes. Seriously, it’s like cartoon-amounts of snow, and it happens every winter. If nothing else, Wyoming was pretty predictable.

I was a hotel assistant manager for...well, a hotel -- the name of which I will refrain from using, in case they somehow try to sue me for using their name without proper citing or some bull. Don’t let anyone tell you that managers have any more rights than a peon when it comes to legal actions...but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, my job allowed me to meet many different people as they passed through, most heading toward Yellowstone, or some rather idiotic individuals who wanted to brave the freezing waters for our unofficial ice-swimming competitions, or to do the “polar plunge” on New Year’s Day. Personally, I preferred my nads to stay outside of my stomach, but apparently that was just me.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, the people...right.

As I said, I had the opportunity to meet many different people as they passed through or visited our city for various reasons, and I was privileged enough to shake hands with some very important men and women. While (like the hotel) I won’t disclose their names, some of them had Secret Service agents following them around. A very sadistic part of me constantly wanted to point wildly to no one shouting, “he’s got a gun,” just to see what would happen. Ah, the opportunities never explored, eh?

Now, along with the comparatively normal people were a rather large collection of who I generously refer to as “overdeveloped drunken escapades”, and their completely legitimate concerns and requests (as stated in our hotel’s guidelines) often crossed the line into the realm of ridiculous. For example: a customer -- a nice old lady from Iowa -- was visiting her son while he went to school in Casper, wishing to spend the holidays with him. Of course, campus housing didn’t allow company, so the elderly woman booked a room with our hotel. Upon arrival, the customer took one look at the room before requesting that every electronic device not manufactured before 1980 be removed from the room; her reason? She didn’t want “big brother” watching her sleep.

Make no mistake, we do laugh at those people; if you’re one of them, we laugh at you...loudly and often.

It’s pointless to deny the fact that I was rather well acclimated to dealing with odd people, and had learned to simply go with the flow when life -- and people -- decided that my life had become too boring. Some of those people I ended up thanking -- like my best friends Kyle and Jenna, for example -- but for the most part I did my best to bend instead of break, if only to be ready for the day when man decides certain unnamed celebrities should be sterilized.

*cough, mumble* WAYNE *cough, cough*

Don’t read too much into that…~”You’re so vain…”~

Anyway, before my ravenous ADD took me away, I was explaining just how prepared for strangeness my life had made me. Suffice to say I was at the point where should a dragon suddenly pop up and start rampaging through the city, I would probably glance up, sigh, and then begin prewriting an incident report for my hotel. Okay, perhaps that was a bad comparison, but you get the point; I wasn’t surprised by much nowadays, and in many ways, it worked to my advantage. Basically, for something to actually surprise me, the impossible would have to happen.

Praise be to thee, O mighty ‘verses, for slapping me in the face with the giant phallus known as “fuck you, that’s why”.

It was a snowy Friday six days before Christmas, and it appeared the sky was doing its best to force everyone in town into hibernation. The snow fences worked quite well in corralling the white stuff into more manageable areas, but such a thing meant that while we would walk through three- to five-foot corridors of snow, we would randomly come across eight- to ten-foot mounds that were imposing at the best of times. Travel had slowed to a crawl with the blizzard being as it was, and I did my best to keep our guests happy and safe (which honestly wasn’t that hard, but try telling that to a hotel packed with vacationers from warmer states). I was currently in charge of the establishment since my direct supervisor -- the hotel general manager -- was out sick with the flu; personally I believed he was just too lazy to come in on such a clusterfuck of a day, but if I had the ability to pass my duties off on someone else, I guess I would probably do the same.

It was nearing four in the afternoon and the sun was beginning to fall, but anyone who’s been to a snowy state will tell you that when enough snow is on the ground, it’s possible to see just fine even in the middle of the night if there’s enough artificial light, or a full moon. It was during this time that I decided a short smoke break would be in order, so I made my way to the front desk to advise the supervisor underneath me.

Kyle was reorganizing the front desk for probably the tenth time in the past month, trying his best to figure out a way to find things quicker; I’d told him that if he didn’t move things so much he’d be able to remember where they are, but my advice often fell on deaf ears. One of the things I’d always heard when I was first entering the workforce at fifteen was that friends shouldn’t work together if one of them was of a higher station than the other, since it could easily breed preferential treatment, but Kyle and I had set out to prove that wasn’t always the case: when he and I were working, it was completely professional; when we were off the clock, we were best friends -- nothing more, nothing less. And no, before you suspect it, it wasn’t me who promoted Kyle; my direct supervisor did that with no input from me whatsoever, so as to ensure there wasn’t any personal bias on my end.

Kyle glanced up at me as I approached, his surfer-swept blonde hair nearly hiding his blue eyes completely. “Hey boss; what’s up?”

I jerked my head toward the door. “I’m going out for a smoke. Hold down the fort.”

He nodded and turned his attention back to the folders he was currently going through. “You got it. Don’t forget to put on a coat; it’s pretty crisp outside.”

“Crisp” was an understatement, but I nodded all the same as I held up my phone, though he wasn’t looking. “Text me if you need me.” My answer was a silent nod, so I grabbed the thick hooded coat hanging next to the desk and zipped it before heading outside.

The wind had died down some as night had fallen, but that didn’t mean I had any easier of a time lighting up. A small alcove that had been built into the wall of the building for the explicit purpose of smoking gave me some sort of buffer from the chill winds, but I still felt quite a bit of shrinkage due to the temperature. The gloves I was wearing also didn’t help much, being fabric and all, but they made it possible to handle a cigarette without crushing it between giant gloved sausages, like proper snow gloves would give me.

The weather was cold even by the state’s average at eighteen degrees, having dropped to just above zero, which meant room temperature water would begin to crystallize on contact with the air. The weather didn’t do much good for my whiskers either, as they quickly became frosted on my chin. To avoid freezing my ass off any longer than completely necessary, I did my best to take long drags on my stick-o’-death so I could hurry up and get back inside.

Taking one last drag on my cigarette, I flicked the smoking butt into the small depository reserved for spent smokes. I then prepared to walk around the corner and briefly brave the windy assault before lights in the sky caught my attention.

Anyone who has ever lived far out in the countryside (or knows someone who did/does) is familiar with the summertime phenomena of viewing the Milky Way, or at least part of it. However, because of the amount of light pollution that reflected light from the snow caused, it was never supposed to be visible during winter, much less during the day. Much to my surprise though, there the cloudy band was in the sky, twinkling much brighter than I ever thought possible.

And I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

I glanced about as shapes began to emerge out of the corner of my eyes, and I saw a few dozen people standing in front of buildings, on balconies, and even just outside of their stopped cars, just staring up at the sky above us.

“Dude,” quavered Kyle’s voice beside me, “what the hell is going on?”

I shrugged, unable to take my eyes off the sight before us. “No idea, man; I’m a gamer, not an astronomer.” I then glanced around at our guests, who were beginning to mill about out in the cold, and inclined my head toward them. “We need to keep things under control though, so c’mon and let’s-”

I was cut off as a deep rumbling began to ripple through the ground beneath my feet, followed by a pulsing of the beautiful light show above. The stars in the sky seemed to almost shudder as the light intensified, nearly turning night into day again, but the cloudy band of our own galaxy remained visible, oddly enough. Though “odd” was a meaningless word at the moment, since something incredibly strange (and probably impossible) was happening.

Suddenly, before I could properly adapt to the insane situation, the ground just seemed to tremble beneath my feet. Following the small shudder came a much stronger shift of earth, as if the planet had decided to flex a previously unused muscle, and accompanying that was a subsequent shattering of nearly all the windows I could see, and killing every light in the entire city.

Obviously, every person I could see -- including myself -- was knocked off their feet and into the snow. Thankfully none of the more foolish guests to our hotel had fallen over the balconies, but with a whole mess of broken glass and no power, we were now in emergency mode.

“Kyle!” I shouted, the deep rumbles making it difficult to make myself heard.

A few grunts came from beside me before Kyle collapsed to my left with a dull thud. “Y-yeah?”

I looked to my friend and pointed to the hotel. “As of now, we’re enacting disaster protocol: go find our emergency maps and flashlights, blankets, and make sure the water pipes are undamaged. I’ll herd up all the guests and check to see if anyone’s injured; go!” Kyle nodded before dashing away to do as I asked, grabbing a few other nameless (in my mind, anyway) employees that were on duty to execute disaster protocol objectives.

Yes it sounds a little more important than it probably is, but it was a part of my job, so I was going to do it.

As I made my way inside the hotel and began ordering the guests into the main lobby, I checked my cell from time to time, just for the hell of it. Of course, the cell network was down, but I hoped that for safety’s sake, it would be back up soon; no updates on the situation -- or exactly how much of the state was affected -- could negatively impact things as they were.

The basement of the hotel was well-insulated and windowless, so it was where we currently had all sixty-three of our guests camped for the night. It was a bit of a tight fit, but no one was going to be freezing to death as they slept, and it allowed the other workers and I to more easily keep an eye on things.

Kyle had gotten an old radio working a little over an hour ago, and what we heard wasn’t promising.

I had vastly underestimated the severity of the situation; it was not merely only our city or even the state that had been affected. Instead of that easily manageable possibility, the truth of the matter was far more dire:

Every state north of Kansas was without power.

Simply because of the amount of people affected by the strange happening, the federal government -- who were currently the only ones on the airwaves -- was calling this the worst disaster in recorded history, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The sick and elderly were particularly at risk during winter, so without adequate heating, they would suffer and quite possibly die. This would be the first time I was glad my grandparents were already dead.

Without a working cell network I couldn’t call my parents, nor would we be able to contact emergency services in case one of the guests had an existing condition we didn’t know about, or something like that. I was no stranger to having to take charge of a situation, but let’s just say that keeping nearly a hundred people safe with no power was a little beyond my pay grade. I was getting quickly frustrated by the “just wait it out” orders by the officials on the radio, and after over four hours of doing damage control, needed another smoke break.

Kyle and six other employees that were unable to make it home were wearing thick coats and sweeping up all the broken glass they could in the lobby, trying to keep it clean seeing as how it would be where anyone looking for shelter would most likely enter from. The blizzard was still in full effect, which meant that snow was beginning to collect on the ground and around the windows and doors. Soon it would be unsafe to spend any length of time anywhere but the basement, but for now we needed to make it look habitable so that we could offer refuge to anyone caught out in the storm with nowhere to go...and honestly, I think it was that possibility that scared me the most. After all, I wasn’t a doctor, and other than minor first aid, I would have no idea what to do if someone were seriously injured.

God, I really need that smoke…

“Kyle!” I called, causing my friend’s head to snap up at the sound of my voice. I motioned to the now-broken glass doors that led outside and said, “I’m going out for a smoke, so keep things under control until I get back.”

He just raised an eyebrow at me, as if I had spontaneously grown two more heads. “Dude, most of the windows are broken out, and there’s a pretty nice breeze in here; why exactly do you have to go outside?”

I was about to fire off a smart remark before realizing I had nothing even halfway intelligent to say in response to that, so with a sigh, I pulled the pack of cigarettes out of my pocket and flipped open my lighter. “Whatever; it’s been a stressful day for all of us, so I think I’m owed a few passes on stupid ideas.” Kyle just smirked as I lit up and sucked in the nicotine-laden smoke, continuing to clean up the floor of glass shards.

Though I ultimately decided to stay inside the rather drafty building, I still stood by the front doors and looked out at the snowed-in landscape, catching sight of a few cars here and there -- mostly larger trucks -- that were powerful enough to brave the snowstorm to get the occupants to wherever they were headed. Unfortunately, my little compact car wasn’t going to be moving anywhere, and I was not going to be walking twelve miles just to get home. The storm didn’t show any sign of letting up anytime soon, and making sure so many people were kept safe and warm was going to be a chore.

C’est la vie, and on we go.

It was two minutes before midnight, and the light show in the sky had finally began to dim. A disaster of such epic proportions had set our government into overdrive it seems, and I could see lights in the distance as power was slowly returned to Casper. Whereas a disaster like Katrina had shut down New Orleans for over a month, it seemed that restoring power was much easier -- or, at least more important than saving several thousand stranded people because of flooding.

Thankfully, the National Guard had showed up shortly after the strange event had taken place, and worked to restore order. They set up emergency shelters for people who couldn’t make it home, and evacuated anyone that was injured. Luckily, the hospitals had backup generators in case of power loss, so many of the frail that were affected by the cold or by injuries would live. Television, internet, and telephones were apparently going to take longer to bring back up, but radio broadcasts told us that the Army and National Guard were doing all in their power to restore order and ensure the safety of everyone before less-important things were addressed.

After the hotel was evacuated by the Guard members and we were given the okay, Kyle and I went our separate ways and headed to our respective homes. A few of the nearby members of service helpfully offered to dig out cars that were buried under mounds of snow, which allowed me and the other employees to leave once we were given the all-clear.

The drive home was thankfully quite a bit calmer than the rest of the day (if snow-filled streets filled with humvees could be considered calm), but it took me a bit to make my way home, as the streets were writhing with activity. Granted that the people of Wyoming were generally more lively during winter than, say, somewhere like Alabama, but the cold months always slowed things down no matter where you were; it was strange then for me to see the town so alive with activity, though it was because of such a negative thing happening. Pretty perhaps, and exciting, but still rather negative, considering it knocked out the power and broke things.

Still, as I rounded a hill of snow and saw my house appear a few blocks away, I wasn’t all that worried.

A few of my front windows were cracked and my mailbox had fallen over, but nothing significant seemed to have happened. I had paid extra for high-quality insulated windows to save on heating costs, and it seemed the glass-block windows I had used for most of my home had held up well to the stress of the short quake. I’d need to replace them at some point, sure, but I would be able to use my home without fear of turning into a very large, very morbid popsicle.

I unlocked my door and made my way to the kennel next to the second-level stairs, unlocking it and letting Bailey out of her cage so she could do her business outside. As always my dog was overjoyed to see me, and her cute butt-wagging was even more comical, given her size -- a rottweiler acting like a little puppy is hilarious, no matter how you spin it. As she bounded out into the snow, acting like a fool as she played in the fluffy white stuff, I looked on and pulled out another smoke.

The large black dog trotted over to the part of the yard I had trained her to do her business in as I kept an eye out for people walking around; I wasn’t particularly worried about her attacking someone -- and my neighbors knew she was far more friendly than such a large and imposing figure had any right to be -- rather, I was keeping alert for anyone that might not have anywhere to go to escape the cold. I truly was worried that someone might be freezing to death when I could do something about it, but worrying about things beyond my control was going to drive me crazy, so I just opted to handle what I could.

To my eternal shame, I was unbelievably happy when Bailey finished and trotted back to me so that we could head inside, and I could hide from my fear.

I ushered my dog inside the house and closed the door, locking the deadbolt as I kicked off my boots. Saying the day had been strange would be an understatement, and to be honest, I simply didn’t have it in me to attempt and decipher just what had happened. So, instead of doing what I would normally do and stay up all night trying to figure out the puzzle, I opted to sleep off the day’s stress and deal with it all tomorrow.

The exhaustion hit me full force as soon as I opened my bedroom door, and I didn’t even get my pants off before collapsing onto the bed. I decided to be lazy and sleep in my clothes since the hotel was going to be closed for repairs, and thus, I wouldn’t have work the next day. I took a moment to quickly reset my clock (since the power had killed the alarm I would normally set) before closing my eyes and groaning in elation at the softness of my bed. Bailey hopped up and nosed my face affectionately before plopping down to my side and joining me in sweet, sweet slumber.


“Ugh,” I groaned to myself, swatting at Bailey sleepily, “shut up and go back to sleep, girl.” The barking did not abate, which meant I would not be getting back to sleep anytime soon. I cracked one eye open and glanced at my clock to see that my well-trained, lovable companion had for some unknown reason thought it prudent to bark at something at 2:34. With a slew of grumbled curses, I sat up and swung my legs over the side of my bed before standing and beckoning my faithful, annoying dog toward the front door.

The wind had all but stopped when I looked outside, which left the weather to be a heavy, but steady snow. The band of stars in the sky had faded completely by now, but I did my best not to think about it. I was sure the media would be releasing all sorts of stories and hypotheses about what had happened the day previous, which meant an influx to our state and any others that were affected...and that meant a hectic work week. Knowing my manager, he would have new glass put in within a few days, and the hotel would be cleaned out within a week, but until then my job would be to oversee the repairs and lock up any records we might have, the latter of which I had already done.

Thinking ahead, for the win.

I waited patiently on my front doorstep for Bailey to return after doing whatever it was she felt she needed to wake me up for, other than to make me stand outside in the cold while she dossed about doing who-knows-what. That wasn’t to say that I didn’t love the big girl, but let’s just say there’s a reason why humans rule and not dogs. However, if you really think about it: dogs don’t have to work, they get fed without paying for it, and we even feel worse as a species when one of them dies than one of our own kind. I suppose, in a bit of an abstract way, dogs kinda do rule the world.

Wait, where was I even going with that...dogs...oh, right.

So anyway, I waited patiently out in the freezing, snowy weather for Bailey to finish her business, when suddenly, she started barking again. This time, however, she appears at the top of the hill next to my house, dancing in a small, agitated circle as she keeps glancing to me and back the way she came.

“Found something, girl?” I called, grumbling as I began trudging through the corridors of snow (bear in mind that I don’t have my boots on at the moment) to placate this man’s best friend by telling her she was a good girl for finding a stick or something. Maybe I’d throw it around and tire her out before-

Oh fuck, that’s a body!

Forsaking all decorum and throwing away my own discomfort, I made my way toward a partially-crumbled portion of the road-plow snow wall that Bailey was anxiously circling, where a still, gloved hand could be seen laying just over the curb. I rushed over to the snowy barrier and began digging as fast as I could, chuckling despite myself as Bailey lended her own skills to the endeavor.

The form was shivering faintly, fully-covered in what looked like a thick full-length hooded jacket, the hood so large I couldn’t get a good look at the face. Regardless, this person needed my help, so I quickly picked them up and fireman-carried them back toward my house, Bailey on my heels.

A faint cough ushered forth from the person’s mouth followed by a stuttered whisper of, “I-I-I w-wasn-n’t th-the only w-one; sh-sh-she’s s-still o-out th-th-there…”

The quiet yet worried words pushed my adrenal glands into overdrive, and I rushed as quickly as I could into my home, hurriedly placing the victim on my couch and wrapping all three throws (sofa-draping blankets) I had nearby over them before quickly forcing on my boots and dashing back out the door.

“Where is she, girl?” I called to Bailey, who barked and bounded off toward where we found the first person. I followed at a dead sprint, knowing that anyone caught out in this weather without adequate protection would freeze to death in a matter of minutes. It appeared my greatest fear from before I’d gone to bed had materialized as if called from my very thoughts, but I was going to do all within my power to keep my other greatest fear from being realized: being responsible for not saving someone when I could have.

Bailey was barking madly and digging through the same patch of disturbed snow I had found the first person in, so I slid across a patch of ice to my knees and began frantically digging with my hands to free whoever was trapped inside; while it was true the wind was kept away by the snow, the victim would still freeze to death if not given shelter soon.

It luckily only took a few seconds to find the second victim, though this one was considerably larger in size, and I grunted as I struggled to lift her. Finally, after settling her weight securely, I began my quick trek back to my house, hoping that these unlucky souls would survive.

A few moments later Bailey and I arrived back home with our new guest. Before doing anything else, I quickly dusted my current burden off so that the snow wouldn’t melt and dampen the clothing “she” wore, whoever she was. I then lifted up the blankets of my first save, who was thankfully shivering violently (a sign her body was still functional enough to warm itself) and placed the larger form next to the smaller, covering the two of them back up; the two seemed to instinctively reach out for one another, so I assumed they knew each other.

Confident that the two would be fine for a moment, I made my way to the kitchen and filled up the kettle before placing it on its base to boil, and then went about pulling out a couple hot water bottles I had on hand. This wouldn’t be the first time I had needed to treat someone for hypothermia (it wasn’t exactly a rare condition around here, especially for those who weren’t prepared for it), so I hoped my basic (and rather limited, I’ll admit) first-aid training would let me save the two poor souls in my living area.

It was just then that it all hit me: I was now responsible for two lives, neither of which I recognized.

Debilitating fear threatened to overtake me, but it was chased away by the alarm on the kettle. Wringing my cold hands and grabbing the two hot water bottles, I made my way over and began pouring the boiling water into each one, doing my best to focus on the mundane task and settle my nerves. I pressed the extra air out of the two bottles and sealed them shut before making my way back to my living room, where a bundle of several blankets was still shivering.

I lifted up the blankets and pressed the two hot water bottles into the space between them. “These should warm you up. Just stay covered and you’ll be fine within a few hours.” After covering the two up, I tried to get a look at either of them, but the hoods -- and clothing in general -- seemed to do a very good job at obscuring all details, save for the fact that they were humans and clearly female. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more shapely pair of behinds-

‘Alexander Victorsson, you will STOP ogling the two freezing women until they are able to choose whether or not to slap you for doing so!’ I mentally shouted to myself, tearing my eyes away from the pair as I sat down on the chair across from the sofa. And yes, I use my full name when I’m chastising myself.

Bailey made her way over and sat down just in front of me, eyeing our two guests with what I could only imagine was worry, since she kept whining softly every now and then. I tried my best to stay awake, but eventually the adrenaline crash overtook me and I nodded off with my elbows on my knees.

“Um, s-sir?” called an unfamiliar voice with an unfamiliar accent, rousing me from my exhaustion-induced slumber.

I threw my head back and released an epic yawn -- and by epic, I mean high-pitched and scratchy -- before opening my eyes to see one of the figures in front of me. She was the larger one, and was still wearing that bulky concealing clothing, but other than some slight wobbling, she seemed to be alright.

“Yes?” I answered with a question (is that an oxymoron or something?), raising my eyebrow curiously.

Normally I would have a perfect view of this person’s face from where I sat, but for some reason her face was still shadowed as if she were wearing a shadow. Nonetheless, her voice and stance told me all that I needed to know about her: that she was alive, and strong enough to speak and walk on her own. The fact that she was still alive was, of course, more relieving than anything I could imagine not pertaining to a sexual nature, so I did my best to keep from jumping up and fawning over her like a worried parent.

I didn’t have to, because after a moment of quiet sniffles, she launched herself at me and hugged tight around my neck. Stifled sobs escaped her mouth as she continued to embrace me, followed by the odd sensation of her rubbing her covered cheek against mine. It was nice, in a way.

“Th-thank you so m-mu-much!” she cried helplessly, unable to speak any further due to sobs of what I could imagine were from facing her own death. I could understand that feeling, and did my best to hold her firmly yet comfortingly to let her know that it was going to be alright, and she was safe.

After a few minutes of allowing her to cry against me, I asked, “How’s your friend? A-at least I assume she’s your friend because-”

She pulled back and looked directly at me, though I couldn’t see her eyes due to that infuriatingly concealing hood. “She’s fine; we both are, thanks to you.”

I nodded before looking past her at the sofa, seeing the other form’s chest rising and falling as she continued to sleep. “Has she been awake yet?”

A soft giggle sounded from the woman on my lap. “She never wakes before noon, no matter what. I do, however, know one way to wake her. You have coffee, don’t you?”

I nodded dumbly as she lifted herself off of me and sauntered off toward my kitchen, her hips swaying ever so slightly as she did so. I had apparently been right about her rather generous assets, and even though I’m not what one would consider an “ass-man”, I couldn’t help but stare for a moment before following.

And screw you for your judgemental glare; I’d like to see you resist.

“Uh, yeah.” I answered dumbly before leading her to a cabinet and opening it, displaying its contents. “I’ve got a few different types in here; what do you think she’ll like the most?”

The woman seemed to consider my question for a moment before answering, “Whatever you have that’s strongest.”

I smirked before reaching further back into the cabinet and pulling out a small black bag of coffee beans with a skull and crossbones on the front. “I think this should be strong enough.”

She reached a hand out and grasped the bag in her hands before bringing it close and reading it to herself, mumbling as she did so. After reading the name and warnings on the bag, she snorted a laugh and nodded. “I think this will do quite nicely, sir.”

I nodded as well before taking the bag and tearing it open -- it had been a gift, and I never had need of 660mg of caffeine all at once -- reaching into the cabinet and pulling out my handheld grinder. One whiff of the beans themselves almost sent me stumbling; the strength of the scent alone almost woke me up as much as drinking a cup of regular coffee. I poured a generous amount into the grinder and began turning the winch, preparing the beans for brewing.

“So,” I began, opting to make a bit of small talk as we waited, “I never got your name last night, since I think we were all more focused on your survival at that point. My name’s Alex; what should I call you?”

She seemed to hesitate for a moment before answering, “ can call me Octavia.”

I nodded, figuring that I’d had a few odd nicknames in my past as well. “And your friend?”

Octavia now looked toward the door leading out of the kitchen and shifted on her covered feet -- the wide-bottomed pants she wore completely concealed everything. “Her name is Vinyl.”

Hmm...two strange nicknames in a row, it seems.

“You two must have been friends a long time.” I commented, reaching into the cabinet and pulling out the filters as I prepared to start the coffee brewing.

A slow nod was my response to be followed by, “Yes...a very long time. We have known each other for over twenty years now.” I could only assume she was smiling as her tone turned brighter, but I couldn’t see anything with that DAMN HOOD IN THE WAY! “It hasn’t all been rainbows and sunshine as they say, but there is no one else I can think of who I would trust more than her. She is truly a friend without equal, and I owe my good fortune and my life to her.”

I nodded. “Wow, that’s heavy. I have a couple friends like that, and I can attest to the value of a friend like that.” I then changed the subject as I began filling up the carafe with water, pointing to her hands. “How are your fingers and toes? Any pain or numbness in your extremities?”

She seemed to hesitate for a moment before flexing her fingers a few times. “They’re fine; a little sore, but apparently that means proper blood flow has been restored and I’m healing.”

I nodded once again. “That it does. However, your body needs fluids to heal, so you should try drinking as much water as you can so that you don’t get dehydrated.”

Octavia said nothing, but made her way over to the paned cupboard where glasses could be seen, and retrieved one for herself before making her way to the sink and filling it. After taking a few sips she leaned back against the counter and went strangely silent for a few minutes. She had just been through a rather traumatic experience the night previous though, so I left her to her thoughts as I started the coffee brewing.

It was nearly five minutes later when I finally heard a soft, “Thank you again, Alex.” I glanced up at her and even though I couldn’t see it, I had the distinct impression she was smiling at me. “I know it must be very inconvenient to take two po…” She paused oddly for a moment before continuing; what had she been about to say? “It must be inconvenient to provide shelter to two people who you do not know, so I feel I must thank you profusely for doing so. Without you, Vinyl and I would be lost.”

I waved a hand at her dismissively. “Seriously, think nothing of it. I certainly wasn’t going to leave the two of you out there to freeze to death, because besides the fact it was simply the right thing to do, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself otherwise.”

“Perhaps that’s true,” she began, sipping her glass of water once again, “but I am still thankful that you were one who chose to intervene instead of proclaiming us as ‘not your problem’. It is a sad truth that not everyone would have helped us, given similar circumstances.”

I took a deep breath of the scent of brewing coffee and let it out with a sigh. “Well, you’re welcome then. I can understand the importance of my intervention, but believe me when I say that you don’t have to keep thanking me. If you want me to feel like my actions were worth it, then make sure the two of you stay healthy.” I then moved toward her and extended a hand. “Speaking of, we should probably get you out of these clothes as soon as we can. They were laden with snow, so I’m sure they’re wet in places and-”

Her hand shot out faster than I expected and caught me firmly by the wrist, keeping me from pulling down her hood. After a moment of tense silence she politely stated, “I can remove my own clothes, Alex. Might I inquire as to the location of your washroom though?”

She released my hand and I rubbed my wrist -- Christ, she has a strong grip… “Y-yeah; head down the hall directly across from the kitchen entryway and down the hall. The door at the end of the hall is the master bedroom, and the door directly to your left from there is the master bathroom. The guest bathroom hasn’t been cleaned in awhile, so you can use mine. Shower is stocked too, so if you feel up to it, you can wash up as well.”

Octavia nodded briefly before answering, “I think I will take you up on that offer, Alex.” She then paused and added, “And...I am sorry, but Vinyl and I have a shared...condition, shall we say, that we would rather keep to ourselves.”

I frowned and furrowed my brow. “You don’t have Ebola or something like that do you? That disease has been going around lately, and I’d rather not die.”

“Ebo-w-what?” she stammered before shaking her head vigorously. “N-no, we aren’t ill or anything! It’s...umm...cosmetic, is all. I apologize that I can’t say more, but it’s just a bit embarrassing.”

I shook my head with a smile. “No, it’s fine. So long as I’m not in danger of catching a deadly disease, you can keep it to yourself. It’s not my business really; I was just curious.”

Octavia was silent for a moment before she spoke again. “Perhaps we will show you some other time, but for now it is something we would rather keep under wraps, as it were.”

“Hah,” I retorted with a grin, “very punny.”


“Anyway,” I said with my smile still present, “you go ahead and get washed then. I’ll present the sleeper with her highly-caffeinated nectar when it’s ready.”

Octavia nodded once again. “Thank you, Alex. Vinyl takes it with no cream, but a large amount of sugar. ‘Don’t be shy’, as she says. I will return in a bit, when you and Vinyl have gotten properly acquainted.” Aaaand once again with the hip-popping walk. How am I not supposed to stare?

I sighed and shook my head, mentally scolding myself once again. It took a few more minutes before the coffee was ready; once it finished, I prepared a cup with plenty of sugar and walked out to my living area, setting the cup on the coffee table in front of the sofa. I then placed a hand on what I assumed was the shoulder of this “Vinyl” and proceeded to shake her...only to feel the “shoulder” give quite a bit more than a shoulder should have, accompanied by a soft moan and shifting of the body. I snatched my hand away as if I had just grabbed a hot coal and cursed myself for not just calling her name. Seriously, why hadn’t I thought of that before?

The body moved a few more times before a boy-like voice grumbled, “Just five more minutes, Tavi…”

I sighed again and rubbed the bridge of my nose -- more upset with myself than anything else -- and answered, “Coffee’s ready.”

A few more grumbles and shifting were my answer before Vinyl sat up, reaching a hand up into the hood to presumably rub her eyes. As with Octavia, the solid black clothing that covered her entire body gave no indication as to what she looked like, so I just did my best to imagine her smiling gratefully at me.

“Your friend went to go wash up, so I made you some coffee to start the day.” I stated blandly, motioning to the steaming cup on the coffee table. “You can shower next if you want; I’ve not got work today, so I’ll be here and can take the two of you home whenever.”

Vinyl was silent for a few moments before mumbling, “Home...y-yeah that umm...that sounds great.”

I was a little confused from her less than enthusiastic response, but passed it off as mere shock from almost dying just a day before. After tentatively sniffing the mug in front of her though, she seemed to nearly launch herself voraciously at the coffee, sipping and humming loudly before sighing in contentment, having drained the mug of steaming coffee in less than thirty seconds.

She wrapped her arms around herself and giggled happily. “That was ah-maze-ing! I’ve never had a cup of coffee that strong before, dude! Got anymore?”

I pointed toward the kitchen. “There’s a whole pot in there if you want it. Just don’t-” I was interrupted by Vinyl nearly bowling me over as she rushed to the kitchen, followed by a clattering of dishes and at least one cringe-worthy shattering of ceramic. “...break anything.”

“Sorry!” she called back, and I just shook my head while snapping my fingers, calling my faithful canine friend to my side as I stood to let her outside.

I had found it strange that Bailey had been so calm all morning -- she wasn’t in any way aggressive, but could be more than a little excitable around strangers. Instead of barking or wanting to play, my dog had been quiet and...well, not Bailey. It was a little odd, yes, but all things considered it was a minor bother. After all (and I did feel rather pleased with myself about this) I had saved the lives of not one, but two people last night. While I didn’t do it for praise or anything of the sort, it did make me feel more than a little proud of myself...and Bailey, since she woke me up. Most people vastly underestimate the value of a good dog.

Currently though, I had more important things to worry about. First off, I needed to get the two women in my house to a hospital, and then to wherever they lived. Now that I actually stopped to think about it, why would someone be out in the middle of a blizzard anyway? I’d ask them later and hopefully I could help them get home, but that would come later.

For now, I just needed to let them stay warm and safe.

Speaking of, I knew that if I had just survived hypothermia, I would likely be pretty hungry. Luckily I was indeed quite famished myself, so I called Bailey in and shut the door behind me as I headed to the kitchen. I caught sight of what looked like a short bristle brush left on the coffee table, full of what looked like…

White fur?

I raised an eyebrow at the sight but continued my walk to the kitchen.

“Look out!”

That was my only warning before I walked into the smaller form of Vinyl as she exited the kitchen area, and some unknown object stabbed me in the cheek. The unknown object luckily didn’t puncture my face, but as I tried to pull away it dragged across the left side of my face, drawing a long line of blood. I hissed and stumbled back, shooting my hands to my cheek as I growled in pain.

“W-what the fuck was that?” I yelled loudly, and more than a little angrily. “Do you make it a habit of walking around with knives held in the air?” I prepared to continue my tirade of pain and confusion before looking to my assaulter with wide eyes and a dropped jaw.

Before me stood a mass of messy two-toned blue hair, and out of said hair was sticking two very realistic animal-like ears. The face in front of me was covered in snow-white fur, and two large ruby-irised eyes stared back at me in shock. Now I would like to consider myself rather accepting of many things, but of all the people that I could have saved the night previous, it had to be thrice-damned furries? What the hell, man? I mean, not that I didn’t have a few odd hobbies of my own (past-tense there...for the most part), but people dressing up as animals still kinda topped my weird scale.

“Oh geez, are you alright?” Vinyl asked...while the mouth moved. As far as I knew, personal animatronics like that didn’t exist yet. The two of us stood in silence until I slowly reached a hand up to touch the flattened equine-like face of this strange bipedal being, convinced it was a dream, as Vinyl just stared at me in confusion. “Um...that’s my nose, bro.”

I chuckled weakly and smiled with more than a little mania present before mumbling, “Hehe...cute little pony.”

Black began to ring the edges of my vision before everything fell away, and I felt my head quite firmly hitting my hardwood floor.

Chapter 2

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"Tavs, he's been out for hours; poke him or something."

"Vinyl I am not poking our savior simply because you're impatient!"

*growl* "But I'm hungry...oh wait, come here girl! Get him!"

The warm, wet tongue of my faithful companion proceeded to attempt a forced entry into my mouth, causing me to bolt upright and sputter, trying to keep dog saliva from getting into my mouth.

"*BWLAGH* Bailey, get! Bad girl!" I shouted, wiping my forearm furiously over my mouth. After a few minutes of this I opened my eyes to see two familiar hooded figures in front of me, and I sighed in defeat. "I wasn't dreaming, was I?"

They both hesitated for a moment before the smaller one removed the hood, revealing a messy head of two-tone blue hair, a spiraled white horn, and white fur. I tried my best to keep from staring, but I'm not all that confident I wasn't.

"No," Vinyl stated solemnly, "you weren't."

Octavia pulled her hood down next, revealing a more subtle coloration of a solid black mane against gray fur, but her shining amethyst eyes stood out like glittering jewels. "We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused."

I reflexively brought my hand to my face, though I was still a bit in shock because of the fact there were two real-life aliens standing in front of me, and Bailey seemed oddly unconcerned. Still, it was clear by the condition I found them in that there was some sort of trouble involved, so I kept calm so that I could handle the issues with a clear head.

"So where are the two of you from, exactly?" I asked, addressing the elephant in the room.

"Equestria." the two of them answered plainly.

I stared, uncomprehendingly. "Where is 'Equestria' and how did you get here, exactly?"

Octavia looked about to answer before turning to her friend and smiling sheepishly. "Would you mind answering that Vinyl? You always explain these things so much better."

Vinyl nodded before turning her ruby gaze back to me. "Alright, so here's what's up: we're not from your dimension -- we're actually from an entirely different reality with different rules."

"Figured that, what with the whole pony-thing going on." I snarked.

Vinyl glared at me for a moment before continuing. "Anyway, how much do you understand about how the universe works?"

I shrugged. "I know that gravity controls pretty much everything; matter from nebulae is pulled together by gravity to create stars, planets, and planetary systems. In the same way, those systems group together to become galaxies, and galaxies group together to become galactic clusters."

Vinyl nodded understandingly. "Good, and what happens when galaxies collide?"

I shrugged again. "They merge into one larger galaxy, more often than not."

"Yes," Vinyl agreed, "that's pretty much the gist of it. What your kind doesn't seem to know is that there are also multiple separate realities floating around in a sort of meta-cloud, and even though they aren't ruled by gravity in the same way, collisions do happen, exceedingly rare though they are."

Realizing where she was going with this I queried, "Wait, so our dimensions are merging?"

Vinyl nodded with a somber expression. "Yeah, and that's how we got here. When our two bubbles of reality collided, so did the parallels; Equestria is a mirror for your world, and a bunch of the people that live on them got swapped in the process." She then sighed as her expression fell. "But what bad thing can happen during galactic merging?"

I thought about what I knew from my astronomy hobby and replied, "Well, each galaxy is full of trillions of stars and planets, but not all of them will...survive...oh."

Vinyl nodded with a sorrowful sigh. "Not everyone's going to survive this process, Alex. Beyond the shock to the body the transition would cause, a lot of those that are affected could end up in space where there's no air, or miles below the surface of the sea, or even buried under a million tons of rock and soil. While our worlds are relative mirrors to each other as far as cosmic location within our respective realities, there are enough variables that casualties are going to be high for both sides."

I nodded slowly, my mouth hanging open in shock as I struggled to process what I had just heard. "So..."

"Even for those that are lucky or strong enough to survive being forcibly relocated to a different reality," she began, keeping her eyes focused on me to visually pass on just how serious this was, "our worlds are very different places and present very different dangers, I imagine. From what I can tell, your world doesn't have any magic in it, but neither does it have dragons and things."

Coming out of my shock fro the mention of fire-breathing beings of doom I squeaked, "D-d-dragons? Equestria has dragons?"

Vinyl nodded helplessly. "Yeah, and in addition to them being a danger to any of your kind that might have survived the journey there, it's possible that some of them were transported here as well."

The thought of what would happen from not only millions of humans disappearing but from hundreds of thousands -- at least -- aliens suddenly appearing brought to mind a very disturbing thought.

"We have to get out of here." I stated, standing quickly and nearly knocking over the coffee table in front of me.

Vinyl and Octavia backed up in surprise and confusion, but allowed me to pass before the horn-less pony asked, "What are you talking about, Alex? What's happened?"

I gestured for them both to follow me as I made my way to my cellar. "Humans panic if the lights go off; how do you think my kind is going to react to a chunk of the world population disappearing, only to be replaced by magical, dangerous aliens?" I shook my head as I forced the door open, nearly jogging in the dark room and turning on the light. "We might not have magic, but we have enough hardware to make the Earth a burning cinder if we have to, and something of this magnitude is just the thing to send our military into overdrive. It's a safe assumption that at least one important person in my country's governmental infrastructure has disappeared, and along with everything else we're quickly going to be ass-deep in a land of anarchy. We need to get away from other people and find somewhere safe and secure where we can wait this out, however long that takes." The thought of my friends being in a similar situation but left behind scared the hell out of me, but I shook the thought away; these two ponies were depending on me now, and seeing as how they had little to no idea how to survive in our world, it was my responsibility to ensure their safety.

Without another word I began the process of unlocking my "panic safe" which contained a few useful pieces of equipment we would need for this very situation. After typing in my ten-digit code I unlocked the five-foot safe and pulled it open, immediately grabbing the pre-packed bag of survival gear that included, among other things, a survival manual, multi-use survival shovel and hatchet, first aid kit and Swedish firestarter (thanks!). I then grabbed the two empty hiking packs and tossed them to Vinyl and Octavia.

I pointed to the stairs and ordered, "Go upstairs and raid the kitchen. Anything non-perishable -- which includes canned food, pre-packaged food and sealed dry goods -- I want you to pack away. We're going to need the food on the drive, as it's going to take at least a few hours to get there, even taking the backroads."

Vinyl raised an eyebrow at me and asked, "Get where, exactly?"

"There's a cabin my family owns about four hours' drive north that's inaccessible by car and sits next to a river atop a cliff, so that'll be the safest place we'll be able to go right now." I explained to the both of them. "There's plenty of edible plants and animals there as well as clean water, so it'll sustain us for a long time if we need it to. Besides all that, only my close friends and family know how to get to it, so I'm fairly certain we'll not be bothered."

Both ponies looked unsure, but complied and ascended the stairs. I waited until I was sure they were gone before opening my bag and ensuring my set of self-defense blades were inside, then reached to the back of the safe and pulled out my locked weapon case. After rolling the spinners to the right combination I opened it, revealing my grip-customized G32 and two boxes of ammunition. I pulled out the holster and firearm and inserted the clip before securing the pistol to my thigh, then placed both boxes of bullets into the zipped front pocket of my heavy pack. I then grasped the pack, shutting the safe to lock it before heading for the stairs.

Upon entering the living room I set my pack down and headed to the kitchen, where Vinyl and Octavia were dutifully doing as I had asked while Bailey paced anxiously. I gently nudged Vinyl aside and entered my pantry, grabbing the three crates of bottled water and grunting as I lifted them. Upon reentering the living room I placed the water crates on the coffee table and sat down while I waited for my two guests to finish.

A few moments later they entered the living area with full packs, and I nodded with a smile. "Good. I have everything we should need in my pack, so we should get going as soon as possible; the longer we stay, the more dangerous things will become."

Octavia was staring at me for a few moments before suggesting, "Perhaps you should dress a little warmer, Alex. I assume it will get a bit drafty."

I looked down to see that I was still dressed in only a robe and underclothes, so I smiled sheepishly and turned toward my bedroom. "Right...I'll just be a few minutes then."

After ten minutes or so I found myself clean and clothed in something more fitting to travel in, with my hiking boots on and a warm coat as well. My pistol was once again strapped to my thigh and I left my bedroom -- for possibly the last time -- before making my way to the living room. The two ponies were waiting patiently there with my dog receiving an overload of love, so I silently approached and picked up my bag, motioning for them to do the same.

"Alright, we need to get going. Grab what we've got, and let's get on the road. Bailey, get your leash." I ordered, sending the three into motion as I retrieved the water and set toward the door. With a grunt and a heave, I lifted the crates and walked through the doorway (which Vinyl had been kind enough to open) before making my way to the garage.

Octavia and Vinyl stopped upon seeing my car, eyes widening as the shorter pony asked, "What the hay is that thing?"

"My car," I grunted, "but we're not taking this one." I set down the water on the hood of my small vehicle and sighed in relief before unlocking my garage and pulling the door open. I smirked when I saw the beauty that was waiting for me.

"What the hay is that thing? It looks like it could eat your other car!" Vinyl exclaimed when she caught sight of the much larger vehicle that waited.

I smirked and touched the remote, causing the car to chirp as the doors unlocked. "That, my dear, is an SUV, and it's what we'll need in case we come across any difficult terrain. The roads are snowy and can be rough where we're going, so my car would be too dangerous to drive. Alright," I began, pressing a button on the remote to open the hatch, "start packing everything in the back so we can get going."

The three of us quickly loaded the vehicle up before I unlocked the doors so we could get inside. Bailey bounded up and took her space in the front seat while the ponies sat in the back seat together. With a sigh I inserted my key and twisted, giving life to the vehicle and causing both ponies to jump in surprise. I chuckled before easing on the accelerator, taking us out of the driveway and onto the road.

"Alright, we're about to jump on the highway, and from there it should be smooth sailing, as no one really heads north this time of year." I stated, glad there weren't many people on the roads. "How are you two doing?"

"Sore and tired," Vinyl replied from just behind me, "but alright, all things considered."

I nodded to myself, turning onto the main road that led to the highway. "It'll be a long drive, so I would recommend getting some rest on the way. You body needs to heal after all, and there's not going to be much else to do in the meantime.

"What about your friends and family?" Octavia asked after a few minutes of silence.

I thought about the friends and family I had nearby. While it was true I wanted to reach out to them in an attempt to be sure they were okay, I knew it would be an unnecessary risk to both my safety and that of the two ponies in my care.

"As of now," I spoke with a heavy heart, "they're on their own. They know where I'll be going no doubt, so they'll no where to find me."

As I continued on the road I couldn't help but mentally add, "If they're still alive."

Chapter 3

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The eerily-clear highway I took gave me a quiet and easy ride, though I still had to pay attention to be sure I didn't lose control in the poor driving conditions since snow-tires could only do so much. Nonetheless the smooth ride allowed for the two exhausted ponies and dog to sleep while I continued the drive.

Because of some of the things I saw though, I was glad I was the only one awake.

There were abandoned cars on the side of the road (apparently I wasn't the only one to have the idea to get out of the city), and while many of them were simply left by the wayside for no discernible reason, a few of them were dented, burned, or even smashed completely. Fallen trees also littered the road and roadside, and I was forced to swerve around a few trunks that were cut down or even ripped out of the ground completely. There were no bodies visible, but even I knew this amount of damage couldn't have been done without casualties. Lastly, and more worrying than anything else, was the massive set of footprints in the snow, each as large as my vehicle. It seemed that some poor unfortunate souls had already come upon a massive beast from the ponies' world, and while a part of me felt pain for the victims, a much stronger part was glad it was not me and the two ponies in my care who were involved.

With a worried sigh, I continued to to drive through the snowfall, trying my best not to think about the fact I likely knew some of the people who might be injured...or dead.

A few hours passed since first coming across some of the more disturbing sights along the road, and while the road had cleared out quite a bit, the fact I was the only one I could see on the highway was worrying, to say the least. Nonetheless I continued on through the eerily empty interstate, playing soft music to keep myself calm. I was just glad I hadn't seen any body parts or smears of blood yet, and it was that alone that was keeping me from completely losing my head.

That, and the cuddling ponies in the rear seat.

It was clear to me that the two were quite close to one another, and while I hadn't seen any obvious PDA (public displays of affection, for those of you who aren't acronym-savvy), I couldn't help but assume I'd saved a loving couple. I was glad I hadn't been forced to tell one or the other that their girlfriend hadn't survived, because that was one situation I wanted no experience in. All the same, even though these ponies were quite obviously different in some ways, from what I could see, they were otherwise very similiar to humans. They were bipedal, for one, had fingers and expressive faces, and had many of the same behaviors that humans did. They also respired using the same air content we did, had to eat and drink water to survive, and required many other things that humans did.

All in all, we weren't very different, when it came right down to it...and besides all that, I have to admit that the whole pony look was cute, despite my initial assumption that I was dealing with "furries".

I was brought out of my thoughts by the sound of Bailey whining as she began to fidget, which meant I needed to pull over soon to avoid the car smelling like dog mess. With a quick glance around the surrounding area, I pulled off to the side of the road and exited my car before letting my dog out, being sure to do both quietly to avoid waking my passengers. If it weren't for the fact the world as I had known it was effectively ending, I would have thought the soft, snowy night to be quite beautiful.

Bailey bounded off toward the nearby treeline, playing in the snow for a few seconds before sniffing and doing her business, while I waited patiently. The night was unnervingly quiet, with no birds or animal sounds anywhere as the snow continued to fall. I tried my best to avoid letting the anxiety creep through me; I needed to stay calm and composed so that I could-

The snapping and subsequent falling of a tree not a hundred yards away brought me to full alert, and I watched warily as it fell and rolled down into the low shoulder beside the road. It was then that I noticed a gold, glowing scar at the point it had been cut, and knew immediately the tree hadn't been cut by human hands. Reluctant to stay any longer than strictly necessary, I whistled for my spooked dog to return and turned to reenter my vehicle.

A large body collided with my own, and I found myself flung against the hood of my SUV before a powerful hand whipped me around to face my attacker.

Golden armor covered it from head to...hooves; well, that makes sense, I suppose. The thick, plated armor obscured any bodily features from me, and the full helmet that covered the figure gave no indication as to who I was dealing with. Golden flames angrily licked around the back of the head instead of hair, but the shape of the helmet confirmed to me that I was dealing with another pony. Large white feathered wings were flared aggressively behind it, and a long spear-like horn protruded from its forehead. Lastly, I found both a gauntlet-clad hand and a shimmering, golden cross-spear pressed against my throat. I was sweating, more so because whoever this being was appeared to be radiating heat like an oven than because I was nearly pissing myself, though the latter was quite true as well.

"You have ponies in that carriage, human." a multi-layered, radiant (that's the only way to describe it) voice spat. "You will release them if you value your life." I choked from both asphyxiation and fear, nodding rapidly with terror-filled eyes as I banged loudly on the hood of my vehicle.

It took a few extremely tense seconds before the doors opened and out came my two charges, who immediately rushed to me when they saw the situation.

"No, he's okay! He saved us; let him go!" Vinyl shouted frantically. Octavia only nodded rapidly, her eyes showing concern for me as this new pony pressed the blade against my jugular.

The new pony seemed to consider the answer for a moment before releasing me and immediately stepping away. I gasped for breath as Vinyl and Octavia helped me to my feet, trying my best to appear as if I hadn't nearly shat myself. Upon receiving a wider view of the armored pony before me, I saw something very troubling: fresh blood was spattered over nearly all of the golden armor, some of it steadily trickling from this pony. The armor was also dented all along the torso, as if something had tried to crush or eat it.

Seemingly unfazed by its injuries, the pony set the butt of the spear on the ground before leaning it against a shoulder, reaching a hand up to press on the side of the helmet as the fiery trail began to solidify into a distinct, multicolored mane and tail. The helmet split down the middle with a click and began to fold out onto itself in tiny geometric patterns in a way that should have been physically impossible, as the mass simply seemed to collapse in on itself as the face was slowly revealed.

"P-Princess Celestia!" Octavia stammered, immediately dropping to a knee as she yanked her partner down with her.

Not wishing to tempt fate, I kneeled as well and waited quietly for what would happen next (whatever that would be). A few moments of silence passed before I felt one of those same armored hands touch my chin.

"Stand, human." the princess ordered, though her tone had taken a noticeably large drop in aggression and it no longer had a layered quality to it. I did as she ordered and found myself staring into glowing pink eyes and a brilliant white face, marred only by a thin cut under the right eye. "What is your name?"

I cleared my throat as I consciously focused to keep my knees from wobbling. "A-Alex, ma'am...uh, I-I mean y-your highness."

The pony -- this "princess" -- held an impassive expression for a few moments before glancing to Octavia and Vinyl, smiling ever so slightly. "Thank you for rescuing my subjects, Alex. They will require kindness and care more than ever in this trying time."

The calmer tone of voice settled my nerves a bit, but the armor and weapon alone kept me wary of her. Still, I nodded slowly as she released my chin. "N-no problem, your majest-"

"No title, please." she interrupted sternly, shaking her head with a frown. "My title is 'Princess of Equestria', and since this is not Equestria, I am simply a pony who wishes to protect her people, and nothing more." She looked to the sky and furrowed her brow with a shuddering sigh. "I cannot even move the sun any longer."

I raised my own eyebrow in confusion. "I'm sorry, did you just say 'move the sun'?"

The armored pony regarded me curiously for a moment before nodding. "I did indeed. I steward and control the sun on Equestria's side of reality, while my younger sister does the same with the moon."

I stared blankly for a few moments as I struggled to process what I had just been told. "Oookay...see I know what those words mean individually, but for some reason when you put them all together in a sentence, it's just not making sense."

"Day and night do not pass on their own in Equestria, Alex." the not-princess answered with a frown. "In our world, it must be brought forth and allowed to pass magically, which is a function my sister and I provide to the whole world."

"Move..." I muttered, somehow unable to quite grasp the idea, "the sun..."

The white armored pony (I just don't feel right using her name) rolled her pink eyes before moving beside me and grasping my hand in her own, causing me to briefly flinch away before she brought it above my head and pointed to the eastern horizon. "Using my pretty horn and magic -- yes, it's real -- I guide the sun in the morning to rise and let it fly all the way" she brought my hand across the sky in a wide arc until my pointed index finger was toward the west, "to there, at which point I magically push it beyond the horizon and my sister does the exact same process with her moon." My hand was released, which I snatched away in what was probably a very rude manner, and Miss Wingy-Horny (yes, that just happened) stared at me expectantly. "I cannot explain how magic works on short notice, but suffice to say that is the gist of how our power passes the days."

I blinked a few times, slowly coming to terms with the idea. "B-but the sun is like three hundred thousand times the size of-"

"Three hundred thirty-two thousand, nine hundred forty-six times the size of your planet, give or take a few Earth-masses depending on a number of different factors." she corrected with a neutral expression. "My sun is the same size. However," she interrupted, just as I opened my mouth to ask another question, "we can discuss all that later. I am weary and must tend to my wounds, so would you be so kind as to allow me to join the three of you on your journey?"

I glanced between the newcomer and the two ponies behind me, as well as my faithful dog, who was currently cowering behind Octavia (thanks, Bailey). "I-I don't know-"

"Of course you can!" Vinyl interrupted with a grin.

I glanced back at the unicorn and scowled. "Apparently you're forgetting that it's my cabin, not yours."

"Are you really going to deny haven to a refugee and royalty?" Octavia snarked, earning her a glare that would have been more impressive if I didn't suddenly feel extremely conflicted.

I looked to the three ponies and shook my head with a heavy sigh. "I suppose not. Still, I ask you don't just volunteer me for stuff like that. It's rude, regardless of the circumstances."

"I must agree." the...fuck it, Celestia added. "While your hearts are in the right place, you must not allow your desire to aid me overcome your manners. Alex seems willing to provide us with shelter and accommodations, but you must keep in mind that we are guests to this world; we will be outsiders until the merge is complete, when there will be no distinction between the worlds any longer. Do not forget that Alex is not in any way required to lend his support."

I couldn't help but raise my eyebrow skeptically at Celestia. "I'm not?"

Celestia brought her eyes to focus on me, and she smiled softly. "Of course not. I ask your forgiveness for my initial hostility; the merging has not been easy for any of us, but I have been trying my best to ensure the safety of my subjects as I find them. I sensed two of my people unconscious in your carriage-"

"Car." I corrected dryly.

Celestia stared at me for a moment before smirking. "Fine, car. Anyhow, I sensed two of my people within your car and immediately thought the worst." She then sighed and shook her head, her smile falling away. "However, this event is no excuse for mistreating those that extend a helping hand. I ask for your forgiveness for assuming you had malicious intent; it was wrong of me to immediately assume so, and I am ashamed that I have jumped to conclusions."

This ex-princess was apologizing to me, and yet I was standing there like an idiot for a few moments.

I mentally shook myself and gestured to my vehicle. "Well it's not getting any warmer out here, and neither is it all that safe. We'll talk more when we arrive at-"

I was interrupted as our new guest's eyes suddenly rolled back in her head and she toppled like a tree, her weapon clattering to the ground beside her. I scrambled to catch her as she fell, but tripped myself and only succeeded in faceplanting a foot away from the unconscious pony. Octavia and Vinyl both let out a gasp of shock and concern (likely for the princess instead of me) before rushing over to us. I pushed myself up and scrambled over to Celestia, thankful that she appeared to be breathing. Still, I had noticed earlier that she was bleeding, which meant the danger was still very real.

I shook my head with a sigh. "I can't treat her here; we need to get to the cabin." I glanced to Vinyl and Octavia. "Help me get this armor off of her. If we can't slow the bleeding, she might not make it there."

Luckily, although the helmet seemed to be very advanced as far as technology was concerned, the armor had four thick leather straps that held it closed along one side. I worked on quickly unbuckling the straps while trying my best to ignored the steadily dripping blood, and it seemed to take an eternity just to unbuckle the chestpiece. With a grunt I unbuckled the last strap and pulled the armor open to reveal a glimmering white chainmail shirt underneath. With Octavia's help I lifted the body and removed the chestguard, placing the armor to the side as I inspected the wound. A large, white spike was sticking out of it with what looked like blood along the end. It was almost like...

"A tooth?" I muttered in confusion, carefully pulling up the chainmail shirt to remove it as well.

Vinyl nodded from beside me. "That's a dragon's tooth, actually. Well, now we know why she's so worn out. I heard legends when I was just a filly that Celestia was actually a dragonslayer before she took the throne, but I never believed it." Vinyl then pointed to the weapon that lay just beside Celestia. "That wound and this weapon prove it, though."

I absently nodded as I pulled the feather-light chainmail shirt off, revealing pristine white fur, marred only by blood on one side. I would have gawked at the impressive bust of this woman -- pony, I meant pony -- any other time, but not only would it be exceedingly rude to do so without her awake, but she was currently in danger. So, I instead focused on doing what I could to try and curb the immediate danger while asking some questions.

"Octavia, put Bailey in the car and grab a towel out of my bag in the back." I ordered, trying to keep everyone calm while still letting them know the seriousness of the situation. I then turned my eyes to Vinyl, briefly glancing at the weapon off to the side. "What's so special about the spear?"

Vinyl smiled slightly, seemingly relieved to have her focus taken off of the bleeding pony before us. "That's the Solar Spear; it's a weapon only an alicorn can wield properly, and only Princess Celestia can bring out its full potential. No one knows where it came from, but it's been by Princess Celestia's side for as long as anypony can remember."

"Anypony." I repeated dryly, my eye twitching once.

Vinyl shrugged. "We use it instead of 'anyone' when speaking exclusively about ponies."

Octavia arrived a second later and presented the towel, which I tore a small hole in before wrapping it around Celestia, allowing the base of the tooth to protrude to keep from causing more harm. I then got to my knees and slid my arms under Celestia's back and knees before standing, glad that I had made it a point over the years to keep in shape.

"And 'alicorn'?" I queried, walking to the car as Octavia ran to open the back door. "What does that word mean exactly?"

Vinyl looked on with concern for her princess before answering. "Ponies of both wing and horn, like Princess Celestia. There's three others in all of Equestria: Princess Luna, Princess Cadence, and Princess Twilight. They're the epitome of pony prowess, being several magnitudes above all others in terms of strength, speed, magical power, and longevity." Before I could comment on the latter, Vinyl pointed to the pony in my arms and added, "Princess Celestia, for example, is over a thousand years old, though no pony really knows her age, and she's not keen on answering questions about the subject."

Which meant, if what Vinyl was telling me was accurate, I was holding a piece of ancient history...woah.

I climbed as gently as I could into the rear seating of my vehicle and placed the alicorn onto the seat, belting her in and pulling the strap to recline it. I then ushered the two other ponies inside and grabbed the armor outside, opening the hatch and placing it inside. I then raced around to the driver's seat, starting the car and glancing back at Vinyl and Octavia, neither of which seemed to be particularly calm at the moment.

Since Octavia was sitting beside the princess, I addressed her. "Keep that towel tight around her. We can't remove the tooth until we get to the cabin, because she'd bleed out. Keep an eye on her breathing and heart-rate and let me know if either start to fade noticeably."

"So long as we get there and get her taken care of within a day or so, Princess Celestia will be fine." Vinyl stated with confidence. "Like I said, they're a lot stronger than normal ponies, and that includes endurance."

I nodded before easing on the accelerator and glancing at Bailey, who also looked very stressed from the whole situation. Truth be told I wasn't all that calm either, but knew that I needed to keep a calm mind if I wanted to make sure we all survived this "merging" thing. By what we had all seen concerning the alicorn's wounds, it appeared that at least one dragon had already come over, and-

"Fuck." I swore, hitting the brakes and putting the car in park. I looked into the rearview mirror and muttered, "Forgot the spear."

I nearly kicked open the door before jogging back toward where I we had stopped, picking up the surprisingly-light spear and retreating the short distance back to the vehicle. I then looked to the spear and tried to think of how I would safely stow it in the vehicle, since it was nearly six feet tall.

Just as I the thought went through my mind, the spear flashed brightly before disappearing, and a new sensation settled onto my right wrist. I glanced to my wrist to see a golden bracelet wrapped around what was once my bare wrist. I recoiled out of instinct and attempted to remove the item, only to be blinded by another flash as the spear reappeared in my right hand. The whole process piqued my curiosity as I held the weapon in hand once again.

"Hmm..." I hummed to myself thoughtfully, experimentally repeating the thought of fitting the spear safely in my car. Once again the weapon flashed brightly before the bracelet reappeared on my arm. I brought my wrist to my face and inspected the new piece accessory, deducing that the spear was apparently reacting to my thoughts.

"Alex? Are you okay out there?" Octavia's voice called worriedly.

I nodded to myself before walking a few more steps and reentering the car. "Yeah, I'm fine." I then held my right arm up for the two conscious ponies to see, raising my eyebrow for good measure. "Apparently the spear decided to make itself easier to carry."

As I looked to Octavia and Vinyl in the rearview, Vinyl only smirked as she waggled her fingers at me. "~Maaagic!~"

I rolled my eyes before putting the car in gear once more, easing on the accelerator and continuing our journey. "This feels like something I'd see in a videogame, and with everything else going on, a weapon having malleable form and reacting to thought isn't that much of a stretch, I suppose." I glanced at the bracelet once more before sighing. "I'm still not entirely convinced I'm not just having a really intense trip right now. I swore I would never do 25I again, but damn if this isn't reminiscent of those times." I then glanced to the rearview once again and requested, "Reach back in the bags and grab one of those bottles of water and something to eat, will you? It's been too long since I've last eaten, and I know the two of you are probably hungry too."

Some faint shuffling of material issued forth from the rear for a few moments before a bottle of water was handed to me, followed by a package of beef jerky. I took the two items and nodded gratefully to Vinyl and proceeded to feed myself and Bailey as the drive continued.

We arrived a few hours later to a secluded spot where my vehicle could no longer proceed, so I quickly packed most of the gear into the sled tethered to a nearby tree that was left for just such an occasion (paranoid, huh? well who's laughing now?). I then placed Celestia down on top of the bags that we weren't carrying (which consisted of everything non-food oriented) and covered her in a thick wool blanket I had on hand, since she had begun shivering shortly before we arrived.

The hike lasted a mere ten minutes, but it seemed to drag on for an eternity as I was forced to listen to the alicorn behind me, teeth chattering and staccato hisses of air confirming her health was declining rapidly. Luckily the cabin soon loomed through the trees, and I pointed to it while tossing the keys to Vinyl.

"Vinyl, go open the door and get your bags set to the side, then go in the closet by the front door and gather as many blankets as you can." I commanded, spurring the white unicorn in motion. I then focused on the horn-less pony and ordered, "As soon as you set down your bag, take Vinyl behind the cabin and gather as much firewood as you can carry and bring it inside. This place is well-insulated, but it hasn't been in use for almost six months, so it's going to be cold until we can get a fire going." Octavia nodded before dashing off, her soreness and exhaustion seemingly forgotten as she and her partner focused on ensuring the safety and health of their princess.

Quite frankly, I was nearly shaking with worry myself, but I knew Vinyl and Octavia needed to be reassured, not frightened.

I dragged the sled inside the open door and lifted the shivering alicorn off of it, placing her on the sofa in front of the hearth and wrapping the woolen blanket tighter around her. Vinyl then dropped the blankets next to me before bounding outside with Octavia, so I worked on covering the princess with as many blankets as possible to help retain body heat. Luckily, in only a few minutes, Vinyl and Octavia returned with a sizable load of firewood, and proceeded to prepare and light the fire. It was slow going for a few moments, but the fire caught and flickered to life as the kindling began to burn underneath the fuel logs. Vinyl then slammed the door shut as I rummaged through my pack for the first aid kit, and I proceeded to unwrap Celestia from her fuzzy prison.

I stared warily at the exposed dragon tooth, sighing in worry from the amount of blood that had soaked the ruined towel. "Octavia, I need you to go find a large bowl in the kitchen and fill it with warm water with a drop of dish soap in it; this wound is going to bleed a lot, and I need to be able to clean it after I pull the tooth out." Octavia nodded before heading to the kitchen and returning a moment later with a bowl of warm, soapy water. I set out disinfectant and the suture kit and mentally prepared myself for what was about to happen. I looked to the two worried ponies and gestured to my patient. "I don't know exactly how unconscious she is, so I need you to hold her down while I do this." I shook my head as I looked back to the wound. "We just have to hope there wasn't anything internal that was damaged, because if there is, we're screwed. I'm not a surgeon and I don't know much about your kind, so I'm praying there isn't any internal injuries to vital organs."

With a deep, steadying breath, I sprayed hand sanitizer on my hands before grasping the tooth and pulling it out, eliciting a whimper from the alicorn as Octavia and Vinyl pressed their hands on her firmly to keep her from moving too much. A small stream of blood flowed out of the wound before slowing to a trickle, so I gently pulled the wound apart to take a look inside in the light. Nothing seemed immediately damaged, so I clipped the top off of the sealed saline solution and sprayed it in the wound to clean it out as much as possible. More pained whines answered me, but nothing more as I let the wound drain briefly.

I swallowed thickly as I prepared the needle and thread, then quickly began stitching the wound closed. What worried me the most was just how little Celestia moved each time I pierced her skin, so I hurried as much as possible without making careless mistakes. The wound was stitched together in only a few minutes, at which point I sprayed an antiseptic over it and unrolled gauze to begin wrapping her bare stomach in a few layers to protect the healing wound. It took a few more tense minutes before Celestia was out of immediate danger and the injury was now clean and closed, so I took a moment to breathe before cleaning and disinfecting the immediate area.

With Octavia and Vinyl's help I proceeded to clean off the sofa as well before tossing all of the soiled rags and towels. After that was done, I replaced Celestia upon the sofa and covered her up again with clean blankets.

It was a few minutes before anyone said anything.

"Is she going to be okay?" Vinyl murmured, her voice cracking noticeably.

I was silent for a few seconds as I considered how to answer. "I...I hope so. We've done all we can for her at the moment; even if we wanted to get her to a hospital, the closest one is back towards the city a few hours away. Besides the fact it would pose a health risk to move her anymore at this point, we don't know just how much has happened since we left, and I'm not going to risk our safety on the possibility that it's safe." I then shrugged. "Luckily, your kind seems to recover a lot faster than humans do, and if what you said about alicorns is true, Celestia here should recover even faster. We likely won't have to wait too long to know if she's going to improve or decline."

Vinyl nodded solemnly as Octavia reached an arm around to embrace her from their place on the floor in front of the sofa, their backs to the hearth.

"You should rest, Alex." Octavia suggested softly. "You've already done so much for us, but you haven't rested yet. Even I know it's only a matter of time before the adrenaline runs dry and you crash."

Truth be told I had felt the exhaustion creeping up for the last hour or so, so I nodded without resistance and sat heavily down on the chair that sat perpendicular to the sofa and fire. "I'll shut my eyes for a bit then. Ensure the front and back door are locked and wake me if anything happens, even if it's just to allow Bailey to go outside." At the mention of her name, my rottweiler settled herself next to my feet, groaning as she flopped onto the ground. I couldn't help but smile at the action, and reached down to scratch behind her ears before focusing my drooping gaze once more on Octavia and Vinyl. "Don't let anyone in without waking me first." They both nodded.

"Sleep well, Alex." Octavia softly replied with a warm smile. "And thank you so much for all that you've done for us."

I nodded but offered no further response as I closed my eyes. In only a few moments I felt myself slipping away, and fell into much-needed rest to the sound of crackling wood.

Chapter 4

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The recuperation I received from my short nap was much-needed, and I felt magnitudes better. True that I wasn't feeling as exhausted as the dimension-traveled ponies probably did, but rest was good for me all the same. The adrenaline crash had hit me extra hard once we arrived at the cabin, and it was all I could do to not collapse as soon as I opened the door. Still, I was pleased I managed to save yet another life. At this rate, I should have become a doctor.

Of course, with the way the world is headed at the moment, the pay probably isn't that great.

I stretched as I woke, groaning deeply and popping a few joints. My right foot met Bailey's warm body and I opened my eyes to quickly survey the room. Vinyl and Octavia were settled on the floor, with the former wide awake and the latter comfortably laying her head in the other's lap, while Celestia still slept to recover. I was pleased to see that the alicorn had stopped shivering, but reminded myself that the danger was not necessarily over yet. We would need to keep an eye on her for any possible complications, as I was unsure just how differently a pony's body would react to trauma.

Vinyl glanced to me as I woke up, and smiled. "Welcome back, Alex. Feel any better?"

I stood and arched my back before nodding with a yawn. "Much, thank you. How about you?"

Vinyl looked to her partner and smiled. "I'm okay at the moment. Tavi was exhausted, so I told her I'd take first watch." She shrugged before looking back to me. "I was a DJ back in Equestria, so I'm used to late nights."

I nodded, finding it pretty cool that I knew a real-life DJ. "That's alright I guess. Still, don't push yourself. You're still healing after all, and it won't do any good to let your health decline just because you're trying to be nice."

Vinyl shook her head, still smiling. "You don't know Tavi all that well yet, but she's a worrier. She's been wound tight the entire time we've been here, and probably for the previous few years as well. It seems only with our safety secured and finding Princess Celestia that she's finally allowed herself to relax a little."

I nodded absently, thinking about some of the things I'd heard the ponies say. It was then that I realized now would be a great time to get some questions answered, and Vinyl hadn't exactly seemed all that secretive.

"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, Vinyl?" I questioned softly, taking care not to wake the other two sleeping occupants. "I realize that I don't exactly know much about what's going on or about ponies in general, and as they say, 'knowledge is power'."

Vinyl smirked at the silly phrase. "And who are 'they'?"

I shrugged, returning the smirk. "Schoolhouse Rock." Vinyl nodded briefly before raising her hand for me to continue, so I did. "Well, you all seemed rather well-prepared for all this, so-"

"We've known this was going to happen for about five years now." Vinyl interrupted, answering my unfinished question. She glanced to the sleeping alicorn and sighed. "Each of the princesses have special abilities granted to them upon birth -- or ascension, in Princess Twilight's case -- that allows them to further guide Equestria to become prosperous; that's why all alicorns are automatically royalty, because honestly, it's like they were created to rule." She raised a finger to point at Celestia, whose nose wiggled briefly as she sneezed in her sleep. "Celestia is a weapon master that's able to use any weapon, no matter its origin or design, with amazing efficiency. Beyond that, she has the ability to evoke a calm feeling in others simply by being in the same room." Vinyl chuckled softly and shook her head. "And I know the two abilities seem to contradict each other, but think about it: if she can't maintain peace by diplomatic means, she's able to fight for her people's safety."

I nodded in understanding, despite how insane it all sounded. "That's...useful."

Vinyl nodded back to me before turning her attention to the pony resting in her lap and stroking her hair again. "Princess Luna has the advantage of what she calls 'dual sight', which allows her to simultaneously view a situation or problem two different ways, to literally have another point of view on hand at any time. It makes her a brilliant strategist, and it's that ability that allowed Equestria to stay at peace with itself and the other nations, since she's capable of not only seeing the obvious, but everything that's possible or veiled. She also has a natural aptitude for any magic that heals or helps others, allowing her to teach our doctors and nurses to better assist the ill." Vinyl sighed briefly, a pained expression crossing her face. "The only downside is that along with having another voice in her head, she's extremely empathetic, meaning that she's more strongly affected by the pain her people experience."

"Princess Luna sound like a good person, though." I commented, already liking the other princess.

Vinyl smiled to me before continuing her explanation. "Next is Princess Cadence of the Crystal Empire, and she's known far and wide as the undisputed Princess of Love. Her powers are focused not on warfare or saving lives, but rather in allowing others to find love, or rekindle love that's begun to fade. Families have come back together because of her, and more instances of 'true love' have happened with her assistance than anypony can count. Also," she began, chuckling once, "I don't know if it counts, but she's a really good fiction writer, too."

Vinyl then finally looked to me. "Last but certainly not least is Princess Twilight Sparkle, who was ascended from a unicorn to an alicorn only six or so years ago. She's not just talented, but gifted in all forms of magic and spellcraft, and many of the modern spells we have today were either written or improved by her." Her smile fell away as she looked back to the pony sleeping on her. "Princess Twilight has another ability though -- the ability of enhanced sight. I don't mean that in the normal sense, but rather she's able to catch glimpses of the past, possible futures, and even other realities."

I nodded in understanding as the pieces began to come together. "So it was because of this Princess Twilight that you ponies were able to see what was coming."

Vinyl nodded, sighing sadly as she did so. "Yeah. The first time she saw it, she was convinced her vision was a false premonition...but then she had it again, and again, and again..." She shook her head, glancing to me with sad eyes. "It was rough on her to say the least, but upon catching a glimpse of your world for the first time, her fears were confirmed. While the other princesses tried to convince her this whole event was only a possibility, Princess Twilight was adamant that it was an eventuality instead -- that it would happen. So, much to many ponies' worry, she spent the next four years preparing us for what was to come. We strengthened our bodies, our minds, and our hearts to be able to better survive in an unknown world."

"I doubt it was easy knowing what was coming, though." I muttered, the full enormity of the situation hitting me for the first time. "I'm sure there were mass panics, and ponies probably didn't take to well to being told they might never see their friends and family again."

Vinyl nodded, taking a deep, shaky breath to steady herself as the memories seemed to overcome her for a moment. "It was really hard, I'm not gonna lie. The worst part was that we had no idea who would be sent here and who would be staying, so Princess Twilight's advice was to say our goodbyes as if we weren't going to see each other again. Besides the obvious shock of the transition alone, a lot of ponies could have ended up in the middle of a desert or at the bottom of the ocean. Also," she pointed to her spiraled, white horn, "magic won't work for us for at least a few weeks, and then, only weak spells."

I snorted a laugh dryly and shook my head. "Still having some trouble grasping the whole 'magic' thing, but I guess that'll come with time."

"So you're not planning on kicking us out when we're all better?" Vinyl asked, and though it was clearly meant to be joking, I could detect a hint of worry in her voice.

I shook my head with a smile. "Of course not. We have to stick together in this, so you all are welcome to stay as long as you need or want to." I then glanced to the position of the two ponies and pointed to Octavia. "So how did you two meet?"

"Oh stars," Vinyl breathed out, rolling her crimson eyes to the ceiling as she thought, "I can't remember a time when I didn't know her. We grew up together as fillies, and we stayed friends all throughout our school years. When we moved away from home to pursue our music careers, we became roommates." My look of confusion prompted Vinyl to add, "Oh, Tavi's the first chair cellist of the Royal Symphony, and yes, that's just as important as it sounds."

I nodded, finding it oddly satisfying that the two seemed so close. "And you?"

Vinyl grinned. "I'm just your average DJ/nerd/gamer pony, nothing more." Her smile diminished as she looked to Octavia. "Tavi pulled me out of a really dark place in my life; I owe her everything." I didn't push further into personal questions, as I still didn't know my new guests all that well yet, so it would be impolite to ask. Still, it seemed the two ponies had bonded quite strongly over the years because of shared experiences, which was something I could definitely relate to.

Moaning off to the side caught our attention, and we looked to see Celestia shuffling underneath the blankets as a few beads of sweat began to appear on her forehead.

"I had a feeling she had caught an infection, but her fever's breaking, which is good." Vinyl whispered, gesturing with a hand to Celestia. "Get those blankets off of her; it's warm enough in here now that the fire should be enough."

I nodded before stepping over the extended legs of Octavia and pulling all the blankets off of the slumbering alicorn. Upon removal of the last covering, Celestia stopped fidgeting, and her face relaxed into a more peaceful expression. I did my best not to stare at the half-naked torso that was physically a very similar match for a human woman's, and tossed the blankets onto the chair I had slept in before making my way over to the equipment we had brought with us and beginning to unpack it.

The sun had risen, and I was pleased to find the solar panels on the roof of the cabin was still functional, which meant we had enough electricity to power a few minor things until the batteries charged, specifically, the coffee-maker.

I stood with a hot cup of black coffee out in front of the cabin, looking to the right to see the forest spread out before me over the cliffside a few hundred feet away. It was a truly beautiful sight, and it worked to all but eliminate the tension in my mind, body, and soul. There was still the stress about the fact I didn't know what to do other than the abstract idea of "survive", but I knew a stress-free life was impossible at this point. Things could have turned out much worse though, so I counted my blessings.

Bailey was barking and chasing some of the birds that were foraging in the morning, which I couldn't help but smile at. I suppose the small things were what was going to keep me going through all this. I just hoped that I wouldn't be the only one of my family or friends to show up at the cabin.

"Hey Alex, Octavia's awake now so...whoa." I heard Vinyl speak from behind me.

I remained looking out over the snowy landscape, smiling softly. "There's a whole lot that's going to be difficult in the coming months and years, but it's nice to know there still natural beauty out there." I turned to face the unicorn, nodding to her. "So what's up?"

Vinyl stared blankly for another moment or two before shaking her head and looking to me. "Um, r-right. Anyway, Octavia's awake now, so she's going to take watch over the princess while I shower and get some shuteye."

I nodded, but pointed to the dark-colored clothes I had found her in, which she was still wearing. "Do you have any other clothes though? Forgive me being direct, but those can't still be clean after you wearing them for two days straight."

Vinyl frowned and looked down at the stained clothing. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I created it before the merge began using magic, and I only had a choice between white or black." She shrugged, looking back to me. "Tavi brought a subbie with her, so I'll just get some of my clothes out so-"

"Subbie?" I snarked with a grin. "Look, I'm all for open expressions of love, but maybe you might want to keep some stuff private."

Vinyl mouthed the last word in my sentence before her eyes widened and her face began to flush. "N-no no, not like that! A 'subbie' is a subspace bag that's created using magic and spider's silk." She then shoved me and chuckled. "Perv."

I laughed for a few more moments before calling Bailey over and heading with Vinyl back inside. "So subspace, hm? I've seen that kind of stuff in movies; never imagined I'd live long enough to see it exist." I then shrugged. "Then again I never expected something like a reality-merge happening either."

"Life's crazy like that, yeah?" Vinyl quipped with a grin.

I nodded, closing the door behind me as the warmth of the cabin suffused me. I took another sip of my coffee before making my way to the kitchen...only to find a certain gray pony already there.

Octavia turned to me from the electric range (which was thankfully receiving enough power to work). "Good morning Vinyl, Alex. Would the two of you like some breakfast?"

I sniffed the air and raised an eyebrow. "Okay...I know I had some corned beef hash in the cupboard, but," I glanced at the pan on the stove, "why are yo cooking so much of it?"

Vinyl looked to me with a deadpan expression. "To eat it; what else?"

"Ponies are vegetarians." I pointed out, still not quite understanding.

Vinyl's eyebrow climbed up her face. "Says who?" Vinyl then opened her mouth extra wide, and for the first time, I saw very clearly that her dental structure -- while including a few extra rear teeth for her larger jaw structure -- was nearly an exact match for a human's, including canines. She then closed her mouth and smirked at me. "We're not from Earth, Alex. We might have evolved from herbivores, but we became omnivorous through time to allow us to better survive. After all, it's easier to find food to eat if you aren't limited to just plants." Vinyl shrugged, taking a seat at the table to one side of the kitchen area. "That said, we can't eat things like grass or hay, but then again we don't really need to, do we?"

"Any inherent biological allergies?" I asked, curious as to just how similar Equestrian ponies were to humans.

Vinyl cradled her chin in her hand for a moment. "Umm...not that I can think of off the top of my head. If it comes to a point where something that's edible to you is inedible to us, I'll let you know."

I still thought it was pretty strange that ponies -- an herbivorous race, at least on Earth -- were able to eat meat, but I guess in the grand scheme of things it was a minor issue. Besides, I had a feeling things were going to get a lot weirder before any sense of normality would settle in.

I took my seat at the other end of the small table just as Octavia began dishing up and waited patiently as the breakfast was brought to the table. I was pleased to see a nice meal of corned beef hash, powdered eggs (no longer dried, of course), and some toast. Although I hadn't thought to bring the loaf of bread I'd had in my pantry, it appeared one of the ponies had, which I was now thankful for.

"So," Octavia began as she took her own place beside Vinyl, "what are the plans for today?"

I took a few bites of the steaming breakfast before clearing my mouth and answering, "Well, we're going to need more wood to keep this place warm, and the food we have isn't going to last forever either, so we'll have to set up traps and hunt if we want to survive the winter. I'll show you both how to do that since there isn't much we're going to be able to grow for at least another few months." I glanced at the cupboards, which were now full with food brought from my home. "If we're careful the food we have could last the entire winter, but I don't want to rely on that."

"So what are we gonna do then?" Vinyl asked, her ears perking (that's going to take some getting used to).

I pointed toward the back door, which neither of them had been curious enough to explore yet. "Out back is an insulated greenhouse that'll allow me to grow us food. I have seeds stowed away in my bag, so we'll start growing after I'm sure our injured friend is better. If we do things right, we can continue to grow some small plants repeatedly to feed us until I can get a good rotation of crops going."

Vinyl raised an eyebrow at me, unconvinced. "Not to rain on your parade or anything Alex, but we didn't bring that much food with us. I'm not sure-"

"Did you check the storeroom yet?" I replied with a smile. I motioned toward the far wall of the cabin, which had another door the others hadn't checked yet. "I restock all dry goods here every three months, just in case something like this were to happen. We'll have plenty; trust me."

Vinyl stared at me for a few moments before commenting, "Y'know, in any other situation I'd say you were really paranoid."

"Well then," I began, doing my best not to shovel the surprisingly-tasty food in my mouth like a savage, "I suppose it's a good thing this merge is happening, otherwise I'd just be another crazy guy."

"You still are," Vinyl replied smugly, "you just happen to be right this time."

I nodded with pursed lips. "Okay, okay. Don't worry, I'll get you soon." Vinyl only grinned mischievously back at me, so we went back to silently eating. After a few seconds of no talking, I felt the need to attempt to bond once again with the two ponies at the table, so I randomly threw out, "So how long have you two been together?"

Both ponies had the exact same reaction, which consisted of them inhaling, and thus choking on their food. Almost simultaneously, they reached behind each other's backs and gave a few slaps to dislodge the food they had attempted to breathe, which only left me confused, but also laughing.

After a few moments of sputtering and coughing up food, Octavia composed herself enough to squeak out, "W-we're not-- I mean, it's not like-- she's not..."

"We're not special someponies with each other!" Vinyl answered loudly, wheezing at the end as she continued coughing.

I furrowed my brow, but stood to give both ponies a firm slap on the back to further assist the process of them coughing up a lung or two. "Well, besides the fact that 'special someponies' is just about the cutsie-est word I've ever heard, do you mean to say that the two of you aren't dating?"

Both mares nodded rapidly and simultaneously squeaked out, "Yes!"

I stepped away from them, holding my hands up in a helpless gesture and shrugging. "Sorry. I just thought because of how close the two of you were..."

The two eventually got their breathing under control and Vinyl answered, "W-well we're not! She's like my sister, dude; that's weird!"

Octavia's breathing had slowed to a more manageable level, and she glanced to me briefly before adding, "It's true we're much closer than most friends would be, but that is only because of how long we have known each other and how much we have endured together." She then glanced her "just friend" (I'm still not entirely convinced, at this point) and shrugged. "To Alex's credit though, we are quite affectionate; I can understand how he would assume we were more than close friends."

Vinyl's face began to slowly color pink as she mumbled, "W-we're just...comfortable with each other. There's nothing wrong with that."

Octavia reached over to her friend and rubbed Vinyl's shoulder affectionately. "Of course there isn't Vinyl -- it's one of the things I love the most about us -- but you must admit that from an outside observer, certain conclusions can be drawn, regardless of how inaccurate they are." She then glanced to me with a smile. "Vinyl and I are as close as the most loving platonic sisters, but nothing more."

I nodded with a click of my tongue. "Ah, well that explains things a bit better. Sorry if I offended."

Vinyl composed herself and waved a hand weakly at me. "Nah, it's cool. It's not the first time someone has gotten the wrong idea about us, and it won't be the last. At least you didn't ask if you could watch or something."

It was then that my mouth worked faster than my head.

"Well, if you're offering..." I blurted, literally facepalming the exact second after the words left my mouth. A few moments of awkward silence followed until I amended with, "Can we all forget I just said that exceedingly stupid thing?"

I still hadn't removed the palm-'o-shame from my face, so I was quite surprised when I heard snorts of laughter and giggles coming from the two ponies at the table, and I opened my eyes to see that instead of scowling, the two were laughing. It's true that faint blushes were visible on their cheeks, but both Octavia and Vinyl were laughing, which was both worrying and comforting at the same time...somehow.

"Ah-Ale-l-lex," Vinyl choppily wheezed out as her laughter tapered off, "i-it's cool, really."

Octavia had reigned in her giggles much quicker, and was looking at me with an amused, but calm smile. "It's also not the first time such a thing has been said to us, and yet again, it will not be the last." Her warm smile then morphed into something a little more mischievous as she added, "Besides, being flirted with by an entirely new species is an accomplishment, I think."

"Buck yeah! What else ya got, Alex? Lay it on thick and creamy!" Vinyl injected with a batting of her long eyelashes.

I could only assume that for whatever reason "buck" was being used in lieu of "fuck". Her latter comment almost had me in stitches, but I kept from laughing somehow, instead suddenly feeling like my head would explode...but in a good way.

"Thick and creamy." I repeated, my smile twitching from the desire to erupt into guffaws. "Nice." Just as Vinyl was about to respond, we all heard a pained moan from the family room, so we quickly rose from the table and made our way to the injured cabin occupant.

Celestia was wrapped in her own wings as she held her face in a pained grimace, as if she were...

"She's having a nightmare." Octavia muttered with a frown.

I nodded as we watched Celestia carefully to be sure she didn't hurt herself. Luckily she seemed incapable or unwilling to move very much, but the random mutterings of "Luna" and "Twilight" tore at all our hearts, I think. Even without having the alicorn's life story, it was clear to me just by her feverish cries that the two other princesses meant a lot to her, and it was a safe assumption she had been separated from them, since she had been alone when we met.

Suddenly -- and I'm still not sure why -- I had an idea. I brought my right hand up to my face and marveled at the golden, scintillating band around my arm. After a moment's thought, I reached a hand out to the white, spiraled horn of the princess and closed my eyes as the band began glowing even brighter. A brief flash of intense light and a faint *fwoosh* sound accompanied the feeling of the bracelet leaving my wrist, and when I opened my eyes I noticed a small golden ring now resided at the base of the white horn.

"Whoa..." Vinyl whispered from beside me. The three of us watched as Celestia's grimace settled into a far more peaceful expression, and she let out a soft sigh of what could only be relief as her body ceased its movement.

"It appears what we've heard is at least partly true: the Solar Spear is literally a part of Princess Celestia." Octavia murmured before turning her gaze my way. "How did you know to do that?"

I could see the amethyst eyes focused on me, but kept my sight on the calmly sleeping alicorn before us. "I don't know, exactly. Suddenly I just felt a pull toward her, and I reacted."

"The spear was calling to her." Vinyl cryptically explained (as much of an oxymoron as that is). Suddenly a loud grumble issued forth from Celestia's stomach, causing Vinyl to giggle briefly as the alicorn's eyes began to twitch.

A few more moments of tension passed before Celestia's tongue darted out to wet her lips, and she fluttered her eyes open. For a brief moment fear washed over her face when she saw me, but upon noticing Octavia and Vinyl, her features calmed and she released a soft breath.

"Water." Celestia whispered before raising her armored arms. "And help me get this gear off."

Vinyl left the room before I could offer to get the water, which left Octavia and me to shrug to each other before reaching forward to begin unbuckling and removing the rest of the armor.

"I didn't want to undress you more than necessary." I uttered, trying to explain the reason why Celestia found herself still clad in armor.

The alicorn shook her head weakly and smiled in an almost mischievous manner as her eyes closed again. "You will not be the first or last to see my bare fur, and a doctor does not apologize for treating a patient. Besides, if you truly wished for me to rest comfortably, you would have removed it anyway."

"I'm not a doctor," I answered with an embarrassed chuckle, "and I just didn't want to disrespect royalty by accidentally catching sight of something intimate and private." I caught sight of a bright shape out of the corner of my eye as I began to pull off the cuisse and added, "A tattoo, for example."

Celestia's eyes opened and she again weakly shook her head. "It's called a 'life mark', and all ponies of age have one on each hip." She grimaced as her left arm movement stretched the stitching on her side, but tapped her other hip. "There's an exact match on this side as well, and while it is considered intimate for most ponies, I have lived long enough that modesty is merely something I practice for the comfort of others."

"Here's your water, princess." Vinyl called from just behind me, so I shifted to allow her room to get closer.

Celestia lifted her arms in a silent plead for help, so Octavia and I gently and slowly pulled her to a more elevated position so that she could grasp the cup in her hands. She pulled the gauntlets she still wore off of her hands before taking the cup with a nod of thanks and drinking greedily, releasing a sigh of relief afterward.

"How does my chestguard look?" Celestia croaked out, coughing with a wince.

I glanced to the corner of the room where the dented armor lay. "It's a little banged up, but it's still in one piece."

She nodded before looking where I had gestured. "I see...throw it in the fire, if you please."

I raised an eyebrow as I looked to the armor in the corner. "You want me to toss that armor in the fire? Why?"

Celestia rolled her eyes, though I could tell the motion was half-hearted. "It's an alloy of solar obsidian and lunar steel over dragon scales, and it's enchanted to self-maintain in the presence of extreme heat by using the energy to replicate the armor molecules and return to its original shape." At my confused expression Celestia added, "And I realize you don't have any of those naturally-occurring on Earth, but just trust me and do as I say."

I shrugged before leaving Octavia to finish removing the leg armor and fetching the chest armor in the corner of the room. With a moment's consideration, I strode over to the fire and tossed the armor right on top of the crackling logs, placing my trust in the assumption that the alicorn knew what she was talking about concerning her own armor.

"Now," Celestia began, her voice a bit stronger and smoother now that she'd had some water and was more aware, "who tended to my wound?"

I raised my hand as I approached the princess again, attempting (and failing) not to stare at the first nearly-nude pony body I'd seen thus far, since Celestia was currently only clothed in modest underwear. Vinyl and Octavia were still dressed in their dark, concealing clothes, so I hadn't gotten a good look at what a pony's body looked like. N-not that I'd purposefully been trying to catch a glimpse of naked ponies...who were strangely humanoid...

I'll shut up now.

Celestia nodded to me and smiled faintly. "Thank you for your assistance, Alex. I will be on the mend and under the weather for a short time, but due to your quick thinking and assistance, I am safe and sheltered, and for that I am grateful." She then crossed her eyes as he tried to look up to the horn on her forehead. "And thank you for returning Karyll'a to me; I apologize if she was a bit clingy."

It didn't take much thought to determine who "Karyll'a" was, so I nodded as I glanced to the gold ring at the base of Celestia's horn. "You're welcome. I'll admit that I was a little surprised when it-"

"She." Celestia corrected.

I stared at the alicorn for a moment before nodding slowly. "O-kay, I was surprised when she jumped onto my wrist, but I knew I couldn't leave her behind."

Celestia nodded once again, her smile growing as she reached a finger up to touch the shining ring. "And I thank you for that. Her and I have been together for quite some time, so I would deeply mourn the loss."

I nodded absently before taking a seat on the far arm of the sofa. "Well, I'm glad I could assist. Still, I'm a little surprised to see you awake so soon; I was expecting another day, at least."

"And deny you the chance to undress royalty? Perish the thought, Alex." Celestia commented with a grin. Vinyl raised an eyebrow at her which prompted a curious, "What?"

Vinyl fidgeted for a moment before answering, "You're not really what I expected, princess. We met at the wedding of Cadence and Shining Armor, and you were...different."

Celestia nodded. "I was indeed. You see, I was a princess then, and a ruler of all of Equestria. Now, I am just Celestia -- nothing more. I know you and Octavia will likely continue to call me princess merely on principle, but that is not who I am anymore, and I may never be that again." She then smiled faintly, and I watched as her entire body seemed to relax just a hair. "It's liberating, in a way, to know that I no longer need to do things or act in ways that are contrary to my nature. I get to be me again, and I can't tell you how good that feels."

Octavia took the empty cup from Celestia, shaking her head rapidly. "No, you're still our princess and when this is all over you'll-"

"I'll what?" Celestia spat with a glare. "I'll just shrug my shoulders, put the crown back on and again spend my life, day in day out, listening to whiny nobles complain all day?" She shook her head, the motion strong enough to fling her multicolored locks around. "No, I will not. The only reason I ever took up the crown was because Luna was too young, and then I kept it because Luna was banished after our battle. Luna was always the nurturing and loving one, and I've already spoken to her about this before the merge. She is more than capable of guiding our people with Twilight's help because that's who she is. I am a warrior, not a princess -- I never was -- and I'll be damned if I will chain myself yet again simply because other ponies think that's what I should do." Again she shook her head. "There are many I love and many I have nurtured, but having to hide and beat down who I am every day makes me die a little more each time I must do it. When the gryphons rose to conquer Equestria, I signed a treaty when I should have instead removed the head of their pompous warlord and mounted it on a spear. When Chrysalis attempted to overtake Canterlot, I held back to keep from killing her when I should have vaporized her on the spot."

"P-princess..." Octavia breathed in surprise, while I simply let the alicorn vent her frustration.

Celestia pushed herself to sit up straighter, wincing as she did so but completing the action nonetheless. "The stories foals tell about me are nearly completely accurate. I was a champion for my people who was so mighty even dragons dared not set foot in Equestria beyond the mountains. I took up the crown because ponies needed a leader -- they needed somepony who could guide them as what would become Equestria began to grow -- but they have great ponies to lead them now, and I refuse to live a lie any longer."

"B-but Equestria has been at peace for hundreds of years because of you!" Octavia countered, tears collecting in the corners of her eyes.

Celestia nodded firmly. "Indeed it has, but at what cost? Do you have any idea what it was like to tell the thousands of families that lost loved ones to the gryphons that 'it's okay now; this won't happen again'? Can you imagine the betrayal in the eyes of those ponies when they learned that I valued safety more than justice?" Realizing that she had raised her voice to a near-shout, Celestia settled herself and sighed as she slumped and closed her eyes. "I love Equestria and the ponies in it, and I love what it has become thanks to my leadership, but I cannot and will not overlook injustices ever again simply because I wish to keep from upsetting small, influential groups." She then opened her eyes and looked toward the window that overlooked the wilderness. "The horrifying beasts that seek to destroy and kill humans and ponies will not be offered quarter. I will order them to cease their actions, and if they do not comply, they will die; it is that simple. I was forced to do this same act for Equestria so long ago, and I will do it once again for our two races as the worlds merge."

I raised an eyebrow at her final few statements. "We might not have wings or magic, but I'm pretty sure Earth's collective military has enough firepower to-"

"And at what cost, Alex?" Celestia questioned, staring back at me. "How many innocents would be caught in the crossfire, and what amount of useful natural resources would be expended?" Celestia held out her right had and the ring on her horn flashed brightly before the Solar Spear (or Karyll'a, as she calls it) appeared in her hand. "With one well-placed strike I can end a full-grown dragon, regardless of how powerful they are. Explain to me how your military would plan to destroy a monster that is immune to the hottest fire and is covered in scales that can be stronger than diamonds. You tell me how your military would deal with a threat that is so great, their strongest conventional weapons would only anger it."

"Nukes." I muttered without thinking, realizing afterward that I was right.

Celestia nodded solemnly. "Yes, your most destructive weapons ever created. While these 'nuclear bombs' of yours could hold the ability to end the life of a dragon, they also pollute the environment, instantly kill everything within a half-mile, and are most likely notoriously difficult and expensive to produce." She then frowned at me with a stern stare. "Face it, Alex: your kind is ill-prepared to handle the threats that Equestria poses to it. Our great beasts make yours look like common house pets."

I nodded, understanding the full severity of the situation. "But you can't do that all on your own. There's probably hundreds or thousands of exotic beasts on Earth now, and you might be pretty epic, but even you can only do so much."

Celestia nodded. "You are correct, but I do not expect to destroy all of them, and neither would I want to. Not all dragons are greedy tyrants after all," she then smirked and added, "and I'm not the only dragonslayer on this world."

I laughed and shook my head. "I don't know what you believe, but there can't be dragonslayers in a place where there have never been any dragons."

Once again, Celestia nodded, her grin widening. "True, but at least one of my elite knights has made it to Earth alive, and they can share the burden. Long ago I began training a specialized wing of the Solar Guard to combat threats to Equestria in case all other plans failed, and there are simply too many of them for none of them to arrive on Earth safely." Before I could speak further the princess said, "But we can talk more later. First, I need a good meal and then I must bathe; Octavia and Vinyl, I could use your help with the latter if you're willing."

I immediately shot down the thought of what Celestia would look like completely- DAMN IT!

"You alright over there Alex?" Vinyl asked with a bit of concern in her tone. "You just kinda...left us just now."

I nodded rapidly while clearing my throat. "Y-yeah, just fine. You all go and get Celestia some food; I'm going to take a quick shower while you do that." The two ponies nodded before making their way to the kitchen, which left Celestia and I alone.

It was quiet for a few moments before, "Some sexual release can relieve that tension, Alex." I whipped my gaze to the alicorn on the sofa, and she just stared at me expectantly. "What? It's just a suggestion."

I closed my eyes briefly before taking a deep, steady breath. "I'll be out in a bit; hold down the fort."

I really hoped no one found my stash of liquor I kept in the bedroom, otherwise this is going to be a long day.

Chapter 5

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There's always been a sort of calming effect of hot water as it cascades down my body, allowing me to momentarily forget the troubles of the world and just relax. My ideal day of utter fuck off-ery would involve a good comedy movie, a hot tub, two or three scantily-clad female guests, and maybe some good head to go along with it. I could die a happy man in a hot tub or hot shower most days, though that might simply be because of the utter ball-biting cold walking outside unprepared would bring me.

This specific shower, however, was different.

After leaving the three ponies to their devices, I set forth a quick mental plan for the next twenty minutes that consisted of only five satisfying things that any self-respecting honest guy can relate to: drop a deuce, step into a steaming hot shower, maybe rub one out, wash everything twice (just to be sure), and then dress down into some comfortable clothes. Steps one and two went pretty well, but I never even made it to step three since as I relaxed out of "survival mode", the full weight of what had happened in the past two days came crashing down on me all at once. I spent the next ten minutes quietly sobbing on the bottom of the shower stall as the fear for my friends and family overcame me, and I mourned the world I had come to know as home, which no longer existed.

The life I knew had effectively ended, and everything I had worked toward was likely for naught.

Needless to say what was originally only going to take fifteen or twenty minutes took closer to forty-five, but I had clean and comfortable clothes and a clean-shaven face to show for it as I walked to the door and opened to reenter the living area adjacent.

Celestia was waiting placidly on the sofa, laying across it with her eyes closed, but the other two were nowhere to be seen as far as I could tell. That being the case, I thought it prudent to ask, "Where are Vinyl and Octavia?"

"I sent them to gather more firewood." Celestia answered, eyes still closed and otherwise unchanged...and still minimally clothed as well.

The sight of such a humanoid body basically laid on open display caused me to blush and look away respectfully as I asked, "Why?"

A soft groan was heard and some shuffling, so I assumed Celestia was shifting her position. "To give them something constructive to do so that they were not forced to sit around and think about what has befallen all of us." A few moments of silence floated in the air afterward, followed shortly by, "Why do you refuse to look at me, Alex?"

"Because if I do, I'm going to stare, and that would be rude." I answered plainly, not seeing the need to beat around the bush.

"Why would you stare, Alex?" Celestia questioned in an obviously coy tone. "Do you find me attractive?"

I kept my eyes averted, but felt my way to the chair next to the sofa and sat down on it. "We're both adults here Celestia, so please don't play games with me; I can't take it right now."

"Why would you -- or humans in general -- find looking upon a freely-displayed female form rude?" Celestia asked in a tone that sounded more like a teacher giving a lesson. "Do your people not have art or two-piece bathing suits? Surely your kind has pornography as well; much of the clothing we've seen is far too risque for there not to be a pornography industry."

Had I been standing, I would have fallen over in shock.

"W-what?" I sputtered, unable to say much else in response.

"You won't offend me, Alex." Celestia stated with a gentle tone, one that calmed me immediately for some reason. "If you had burst in on me while showering or something similarly private, that would be different, but I am quite obviously not bothered by my current state; truthfully, I would consider it a personal failure if you didn't look."

I sighed and shook my head, closing my eyes and sinking into the chair. "I feel it's rude, regardless of whether you're sitting there on purpose or not. The only time I would feel okay seeing you or anyone else clothed as you are would be at a beach or under extenuating circumstances, such as tending to wounds."

Celestia snorted a laugh before asking, "So having sand beneath my hooves would make it okay? Yes, because that makes plenty of sense."

I rolled my eyes beneath the lids and sighed heavily. "I don't see why you're so interested in this; can't we just say that I feel weird about it and leave it at that?"

"Well," Celestia began, grunting as she shifted once again, "besides the fact this conversation is acting as a distraction, I have become quite comfortable in my body over the centuries. If I am to be staying here, we must deal with this issue now, lest it cause problems in the future."

Again I sighed, in frustration this time. "Can't you just put something on? It's really not that big of a deal."

Celestia was silent for a few moments as she apparently thought of what to say. "Well, what if -- hypothetically speaking of course -- a woman were to give you formal permission to look upon her form at any time; what would you do then?"

I shrugged, still refusing to open my eyes. "Abuse the hell out of that privilege, probably."

Celestia cleared her throat loudly before announcing, "I, Celestia Solis, sun incarnate and former diarch of Equestria and its territories, do hereby bestow upon Alexander the right to look upon the royal flesh. If he does not accept such an honor, Alexander's title will henceforth be 'Pansy-boy' and he may be mercilessly teased for being a homosexual."

Finally, my eyes shot open from the shock of what I'd just heard, though my gaze stayed glued to the ceiling. "What. The. Fuck. I refuse to believe you were in charge of an entire nation."

"If you don't look at me, you're gay." Celestia deadpanned, completely ignoring my comment.

I swallowed thickly as both nervousness and subtle excitement began to course through me, which is an odd combination for such a situation. "Are you positive? I'm not entirely sure you know what you're getting into; you're basically giving a kid the keys to the candy shop."

Celestia huffed in what I could only discern as frustration. "Do you know what I find rude? I find it offensive when someone refuses to look at me when I'm speaking with them. LOOK. AT. ME."

The last three words were spoken with that powerful multi-layered voice I'd heard when the two of us first met, and it was far more intimidating than I'd like to admit. With a final deep breath through my nose, I turned my gaze to the alicorn not ten feet away from me.

I had completely ignored what I saw when I was bandaging Celestia's wounds, as well as when I removed the armor, but now that I was actually allowed -- ordered, even -- to look, I couldn't help but notice a few things about her. First of all, her vivid blue undergarments were not frilly or complex, which made it easier imagine them as a bathing suit...which in turn helped keep me calmer. Other than the ugly discolored and bandaged side, the rest of her was pristine white fur over a toned feminine frame. I then glanced briefly to her chest (don't judge me) and held up a hand for comparison.

"They are nice, aren't they?" Celestia commented with a grin.

I heard her speak, but was focused solely on one thing at the moment. "A perfect handful."

"Come again?" Celestia asked with an even wider smile.

I shook my head and coughed as I glanced away again, my cheeks on fire. "N-nothing." After a few moments of silence between us I asked, "Is it strange that just by looking at you, I think your fur would be very soft?"

Celestia was silent for another few moments before I heard her patting the cushion next to her. "Come and sit. There is something I wish to show you."

I gulped nervously before making my way next to the alicorn ex-princess. As soon as I sat down, she grasped my hand and moved it to her bare fur, just below her right breast. I was about to ask what the hell she was doing before I felt a thickened stripe of flesh at least two inches wide, hidden beneath the ivory fur.

I looked with true concern to Celestia, and she smiled sadly at me. "That was from a spear during my battle with Nightmare Moon, a great foe that I will delve more into later." She then moved my hand to a spot in the center of her chest, and I felt my body heat up when I felt the soft orbs that surrounded my digits. I felt another scar, this one circular and while small, still quite noticeable. "This," she began, sighing sadly as she remembered the circumstances of its creation, "is from a charged alicorn's horn, and is from the same battle. It nearly ended my life, but that is not what hurt me the most about that battle."

"Why are you showing me all this?" I asked curiously, but not unkindly.

Celestia smiled faintly to me, moving my hand once more until it rested just over the top of the blue bottom panties she had on. "So that you can understand who I am beyond just me giving you words." She looked down to where my hand had moved, and along with deceptively hidden abdominal muscles was a long, diagonal scar that ran across her stomach area. "This ended the life of what would have been my first -- and only -- child."

I gasped in surprise as my eyes shot to hers. "You were pregnant?"

Celestia nodded. "I was. It was during the Warlord Campaign of the minotaurs that this happened, and while magic and my own healing ability completely healed the wound, I haven't been able to conceive since. My medical staff could never figure out what is preventing pregnancy, and after awhile I simply stopped trying."

I barely knew Celestia, and yet hearing about such a life-changing event tore at my heart. I hurt for her, and without thinking, I placed my free hand on her shoulder with a sad expression. "I'm so sorry, Celestia."

For a few tense moments of silence she kept her eyes down and breathed deeply. Finally, after what felt like a mini-eternity, Celestia brought her gaze back to me, and I could see shining tears in the corners of her eyes. "It's alright, Alex. It happened a long time ago, and I've accepted it." After I removed my hand from her shoulder and she released the one pressed to her body, Celestia wiped the gathering tears away with her thumbs before smiling at me. "You see, a princess must be infallible and show no weakness, and for centuries that was what I became. A simple pony protecting her people can have flaws though, and she is allowed to want things for herself." She then reached a hand up to cup my cheek as she quietly spoke. "It is why I wish for you to be comfortable with me in every way possible, because now I want to be treated like a regular pony by you."

I raised my eyebrow at her latter statement. "Why me?"

Celestia smiled softly as the ring on her horn flashed, and a long-handled sword-like blade materialized in her right hand. She twirled the weapon around with her fingers as if the weight was inconsequential before holding the blade out to me. I took the weapon in my hands and watched as it changed back to the cross-spear I had first seen it appear as. It seemed there was far more to this Karyll'a than I initially assumed.

"Karyll'a has marked you as a friend, Alex." Celestia explained plainly as I grasped the surprisingly-light weapon in my left hand. "She has rarely chosen another for as long as I have had her by my side; you are one of very few she has had any interest in besides me, and I forged her myself." I mutely nodded before handing the weapon back to Celestia, watching as she changed it to a straight-bladed sword and rested the blade against the floor as she focused her eyes on me. "Karyll'a is a magical weapon forged of stardust and a piece of my own soul, so in essence, she is me."

"I gotta say," began before I could think about it, "this sounds an awful lot like some video game weapon of epicness."

A light, airy close-mouthed titter issued forth from Celestia as she shook her head. "While I can understand the sentiment, I assure you this is quite real." The weapon flashed, and once again a gold ring rested at the base of the alicorn's horn. "Karyll'a trusts you, and thus, I trust you; I hope that you can accept that, as there isn't much else to it all."

Well, what could I do otherwise?

"Alright," I answered, nodding firmly as I did so, "I guess I can go with that. So what now?"

Celestia placed a finger on her chin as she theatrically thought. "Hmm, I don't know. Do you want to find out how flexible ponies are?"

Serious moment was there...aaaaand it's gone.

I was about fed up with the teasing, so I decided to send a little back this time. "That depends, do you mind not being able to walk for the next few hours?"

Celestia stared at me with widened eyes for a moment before a smirk slowly crossed her face. "You're okay, Alex. I think we'll get along just fine." While I was pleased Celestia seemed to have accepted me, one question still stuck around: was the blatant teasing and flirting just messing around, or was she serious? Sure she was a pony, but I'm ashamed to admit I was a little curious.

"We're back!" Vinyl's voice carried through the cabin as the door opened, permitting she and Octavia to enter. The two of them stood there oddly for a few moments as they looked Celestia and I over before Vinyl asked, "Are we interrupting something? I'm sure we can leave you two alone for another hour or so if you-"

"No, we're fine! Nothing happened!" I shouted louder than strictly necessary as it felt like all the blood in my body began to congregate in my face.

Celestia smirked as she answered, "Alex here was just showing me how humans engage in pleasurable activities. Before the two of you walked in he was just about to demonstrate-"

"Shut up! No I wasn't!" I yelled again, waving my hands wildly in front of me. "Sh-she's lying! I swear, we were just talking!"

"You had your hands all over me, Alex." Celestia pointed out.

I shot her a glare as I retorted, "You put them there!"

"You liked it." she shot back with a smug grin.

I opened my mouth to deny it, but found myself unable to think of anything worthwhile to say in the negative. With a sigh, I slumped my shoulders and leaned back against the sofa. "Fine, maybe I did. So what." I glanced back to Celestia before noticing something as I looked over her abdomen. "Wait, why can't I see them?"

"Illusionary magic woven into the healed flesh conceals them from sight, which is why I had to show you by touch." Celestia explained with a soft smile.

Vinyl and Octavia both looked utterly confused, even as they moved to drop several large fuel logs by the hearth. Vinyl moved to stand in front of us as she asked, "Show him what exactly, Princess?"

Celestia merely shook her head with that same infuriatingly gentle smile. "Just some old war wounds, dear." She then arched her back to pop a few of the vertebrae before waving the two ponies closer. "Now that we're all gathered, I think it's time a few questions be answered for all of you regarding what's happened and where we go from here."

Before any of the rest of us could even settle themselves, Vinyl blurted, "Why can't you move the sun anymore?"

Celestia continued smiling, but looked a little melancholy just by the question alone. "Going straight for the difficult question, eh? Very well, I suppose this is the most complicated question, and it will explain quite a few things that have happened." She glanced to Vinyl directly as she explained, "As you know, the magic of ponies is going to be disabled for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the internal magical strength of the individual, so part of the reason I am no longer able to steward the sun is because though the spell is an entirely different type of magic than any unicorns can use, it is still a magical act to move the sun."

I chuckled softly, drawing all the attention before I coughed and stuttered out, "I-I'm still just coming to terms with that -- the whole 'move the sun' thing."

Celestia smiled at me once again, and I couldn't help but feel more calm and relaxed by the gesture. "It is fine, Alex. I understand that real magic is an entirely new concept to your people, so do not be afraid to ask questions." She then sighed as her smile dropped away. "However, a more prudent reason for why my magic in particular will be disabled is because I sacrificed it for the good of Equestria. In a cooperative spell with Discord, I used every ounce of magical might I have to anchor Luna, Twilight, and the Element-bearers in Equestria, so as to keep the land safely looked after."

Vinyl raised an eyebrow at this, while I silently tried to come to terms with the concept of real magic. "Wait, what about Princess Mi Amore Cadenza?"

Celestia was silent for a few moments (she apparently has a habit of that) before softly answering, "I don't know -- I did not have enough magic available to anchor her as well. She is too powerful to have perished during this event, but I do not know where she is or the situation she now finds herself in." She let out a long, pained breath before continuing. "I only hope that she is safe and someone is looking after her as Alex has me."

"So," Octavia began, licking her lips nervously, "your magic will regenerate, correct?"

Celestia shook her head sadly. "Not for a long while, Octavia. Until the merger is complete and I am in direct contact with the magical leylines of the new world created, I will be unable to do much more than raise a teacup with levitation; it will take a few months before I am even able to do that."

Vinyl was quiet as she gained a very thoughtful expression, but she finally brought forth her own query: "So what's the plan then? I know you and the other princesses didn't just throw this to the winds in hope that everything would turn out alright; you must have come up with some sort of plan of action."

Celestia looked impressed, and nodded. "Very true, Vinyl Scratch. It is my job to fell the great beasts that cause trouble, and it is Cadence's to find someone high up in the world's governmental infrastructure to explain the situation and hopefully provide to the world an idea of what has and is happening, and what we must do to safeguard the future." She then glanced to me and asked, "You wouldn't happen to have a radio of some sort, would you? It is likely at some point her message will broadcast, and I would like to hear it."

"I was actually planning to get a radio running after getting out of the shower." I said with a chuckle. "But then I got all caught up with a certain princess, and she distracted me."

Thankfully, Celestia seemed content with how much she'd already poked at me, so she simply allowed me to retrieve the radio from the storeroom. I did so quickly so as to not leave the three ponies waiting long, and silently set up the radio on a small end table next to the sofa. Seeing as how I wanted the solar batteries to charge, I opted to instead use the crank-dynamo to power the radio, and soon radio static filled the room. The ponies waited with bated breath as I turned the knob to try and find a working frequency while cranking the power source every now and then to keep it going. It took a few moments to find something that was broadcasting, but after some careful tuning, I stepped aside so that all present could clearly hear it:

"...inction-level event. The world as we know it has ended, and we have been invaded by alien organisms that are both terrifying and powerful. Mankind has little to no defense against our invaders, and in many cases even our greatest weapons appear insufficient. Do not, I repeat do not attempt to find or contact friends or family; at this point the safest thing for those listening to do is to find somewhere isolated -- preferably underground -- to wait out the worst until the military can restore some sort of security for us.

The United States Federal Government has been in limited contact with allies, and it is confirmed this invasion is a worldwide event. From what we have gathered, in addition to an influx of foreign and dangerous beings, a staggering amount of people from across the world have seemingly vanished without a trace. Numbers are still being calculated, but estimations are reaching the hundreds of millions. Many of the important services provided -- electricity and plumbing, among them -- have become vastly understaffed, and government authorities are working 'round the clock to restore them.

As stated before, it is recommended to isolate yourself and stay safe any way possible. Make no attempts to make contact with the alien beings, and stay near a radio for updates. This is Daniel Karoll wishing safety to all of you. Good luck everyone, and God bless.

After a few more seconds I switched the radio off, and sat silently for a few moments as I contemplated what we had heard. People thought this was an invasion? I mean, I guess it kinda is, but not in the malicious sense. Equestrians and all the others from their world didn't come to Earth by choice, and from speaking with Celestia, it was clear they had lost just as much as we had. I could only hope that the people that came upon Equestrian ponies would be able to advocate for these guests to Earth, so that they would be welcomed instead of shunned. It wasn't fair to them, and if I had a say in things, I was going to help change it.

"They..." Octavia began, her voice cracking as she struggled to control herself, "they think we're here to hurt them..."

"Fear makes for bad interpretation, Octavia." Celestia sagely commented. "I expected this. Unlike Equestrians, humans had no idea this would happen. They are frightened and ignorant, which makes for a bad experience altogether. Many on this planet are in mourning right now from losing friends and loved ones, so all we as ponies can do is show that they are wrong about us, and weather the storm."

Vinyl stomped her hoof angrily (hooves...I'm still processing that). "It's not fair though! We didn't do anything to deserve this fear!"

Celestia shook her head with a heartbroken smile. "You are correct, but we are one of many unknowns to this world, and so we are going to be lumped in with any others that do deserve it." She looked to me next, that same sad smile in place. "Ponies need help more than ever now, but after that broadcast, I think said help is going to be very difficult to come by." Her hand moved and took mine, holding it firmly as she focused her gaze on my own eyes with a smile. "It is because of this that I feel I must thank you for all that you have already accomplished on our behalf. Not just anyone would have done all that you have for us, and I am eternally grateful."

I was surprised at the firm, yet comforting grip of Celestia, but smiled as I felt her gratitude in her smile and her gentle touch. "You are very welcome, and I promise to do all within my power to assist in this trying time. You all are welcome to stay indefinitely, and I'm more than willing to help in any way I can."

A gentle squeeze of my hand accompanied Celestia answering, "And I thank you for that. Now," she held up her arms, and which Vinyl and I used to help her stand, "I believe I could use some assistance bathing. Would you two please help, Octavia and Vinyl?" She then threw a smoky look my way. "Unless of course you would like to wash me, slowly and sensually."

While Octavia and Vinyl both shot me a look of both shock and utter confusion, I just shook my head as I replied, "Maybe later. You're already wounded, and I would prefer to let you heal first before we get to that."

Celestia said nothing, but nodded to me with a grin; by all that's holy, I still don't believe this flirty, playful pony ruled an entire kingdom for however long -- I think it was a thousand years or something like that. All I know for sure is that if things keep going the way they have, I'm going to need some kind of release soon to keep my sanity. Sometimes I miss college...

"Alex," Octavia's silky voice called from the door to my bedroom, "I have forgotten to ask where the towels are."

I pointed to a closet about midway between the bedroom door and the kitchen. "All linens and extra towels are in there. With fur involved, I would grab three or four just to be safe. You and Vinyl should probably clean up too while you're at it." I then gestured to the front door. "I'll be out doing some scouting with Bailey while you all are busy." Octavia nodded to me as I stood to get dressed to go outside. When I looked to Bailey sleeping peacefully and quietly near the fireplace, I couldn't help but murmur a quiet, "Such a good dog..."

With a snap of my fingers she jumped to her paws immediately, and I slung my coat around my shoulders before opening the door and heading out into the winter wonderland around us, subtly proud of myself for keeping cool despite the situation. Things were likely to get harder before they got easier after all, so I prepared myself for some serious trials. However, I had a feeling that with the help of the three ponies I had taken in, things would somehow turn out alright. It also helped that the ex-princess was far from uptight and proper.

I saw the potential for some great friendships to form here, and couldn't stop a smile from planting itself on my face as I trudged out into the snowy forest.

Chapter 6

View Online

There’s a strange sort of peace and serenity to a quiet snow-laden forest, as the white powder offers a sense of purity to everything around it and seems to bring out the true beauty of the landscape somehow. I’ve always enjoyed winter because of the way it made the world look, even with the often-cumbersome cold involved. It was because of this that I felt myself relaxing quite easily as I walked with Bailey around the surrounding area, scouting the land out to see if anyone was lost, or if there were any signs of unseen dangers nearby. Sure on the outside it looked like I was a hardened man ready for anything, but the truth is I was dreading that I would find something or someone besides the odd bird or small animal.

I’m definitely not some apocalyptic badass, and I make no excuses.

On the other hand, I had a badass currently staying with me -- one that slayed dragons for crissakes. Celestia was every man’s fantasy warrior princess (for those that fantasized about such things) -- or ex-princess as the case may be -- who fluidly combined a great personality with a stunning body, and the instincts of a battle-hardened elite soldier. I mean let’s face it, even though Earth’s new pony guests were technically aliens, they were similar enough in form to be attractive to the human eye, and there was a lot to stare at. Shamefully, I found myself wondering what Octavia and Vinyl looked like under all that concealing clothing.

I’m a warm-blooded man through and through, so don’t judge me.

All of that could wait for later though, as I had a job to do, no matter how unimportant it may seem to the casual observer. Knowing who and what is in your immediate area can mean the difference between life and death after all, and I had not only my own life to consider, but that of Bailey and the three ponies that were depending on me. Sure, I could complain about the pressure being forced upon me, but it wouldn’t solve anything and would only make me sound whiny.

To my immense relief, Bailey didn’t find anything or anyone nearby, but I knew that any tracks would have been covered quickly with the amount of snow that was still falling. I would have to set up a schedule to scout things out every day so that I could keep up to date with the situation of the area surrounding my new home. I didn’t mind the fact that my days would be filled with something other than work and video games since it gave me a stronger sense of accomplishment to actually be doing something important for a change, but I won’t lie and say I didn’t miss what was now officially my past life.

More worrying though was the fact that I only had half a pack of smokes left before I ran out, and it wasn’t like I was going to find any out here in the wilderness. I could readily admit that I was addicted to nicotine, and knew for a fact that I was going to be a nightmare to be around until the withdrawal ran through my system...which I knew by previous attempts could take awhile. I’d have to let my new roommates in on what was going to happen and hope they were understanding and patient enough to put up with me until it was over. I tried my hardest not to think about how much of an asshole I was going to become until the whole thing was over and done with.

With a heavy sigh, I lit up one of the few cigarettes I had left and began to make my way back to the cabin.

A good ten or so minutes later I stomped my boots before reentering the stone-and-wood home, finding the three ponies sitting around the main area of the living room. Bailey happily greeted the three with licks and happy vocalizations, and I struggled to contain my laughter at seeing Celestia receive a face full of dog tongue.

Speaking of the princess, she looked much better after a shower, not that she had looked bad before, but being clean had seemed to lift her spirits, and left her with an apparent glow about her that was very noticeable. If nothing else, the fact that these ponies were in such high spirits despite everything made me feel better.

“Welcome back, Alex.” Celestia greeted brightly, which caused the other two to look my way with equally bright smiles on their faces. “How is everything outside looking?”

“Snowy.” I deadpanned, removing my coat and boots before making my way to the sofa and slumping down in the free place that wasn’t occupied by Celestia’s hooves (it was an obnoxiously large sofa, but now its size made sense to me). “I didn’t find any evidence that there’s anyone else outside right now, but that could be just because the snowfall covered up any tracks. The good thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of devastation caused by large predators, so it appears we’ll be perfectly safe here.” I shrugged, laying my head back and closing my eyes. “I’ll need to scout the area every day just to be sure, but I think it’s clear we couldn’t have picked a better spot to be.”

“The fact that there’s a drake’s carcass left out where any nearby can see it also acts as a deterrent.” Celestia commented smugly, and I didn’t have to look at her to know she was smirking confidently. “Savage though many of the beasts of Equestria are, they are aware enough to know that anything that can take down a mature dragon is to be avoided.”

I nodded lazily. “Thanks for that. I don’t know what I would have done in the face of a dragon.”

“You would have been eaten, likely.” Celestia answered dryly.

I nodded again, finding it useless to deny that fact. I mean, dragons? I could only imagine how many other not-so-mythological creatures were very real. I only hoped some of the more dangerous aspects of mythology hadn’t come to Earth, otherwise the seas could now be infested with sea monsters the size of New York City, or mountains that could uproot and attack at will.

...I’m a gamer; I’ve seen some shit, man.

Just as the worry began to rise in my chest, I felt feathers on my forearm that brought my sight to the large white wing that was attempting to comfort me. Celestia’s pink eyes bored into me as she determinedly stated, “You watch our backs, and we’ll watch yours. Together we will all protect each other, no matter what we come across.”

I then thought it prudent to bring up something that had taken up shop in the back of my mind, uncomfortable though it may be. “But you aren’t going to stay here, are you?”

Silence invaded the room, and caused the two non-alicorns to look to the winged pony hopefully. With a slow sigh and a soft shake of her head Celestia answered, “I cannot, I am sorry. There are still many out in the world who require help, and it is my duty to do all I can to safeguard our mutual futures.”

I nodded slowly, though I couldn’t restrain the disappointed frown that found its way on my face. “I expected that, I guess.” It was at that moment that I started to question just why I wanted her to stay, exactly. Sure she was good company -- and, I’ll admit, beautiful -- but I had known her for only a very short time. I had matured past petty middle-school crushes...right?

Just as Celestia opened her mouth to attempt to placate me and the other two -- who now had expressions akin to scolded puppies -- a loud and clear knock echoed from the front door, instantly putting all of us on edge. Before Bailey could bark I shushed her with a hand motion and faint hiss, unholstering my pistol and slowly approaching the door as another three knocks sounded out. With the curtains closed I had no way of knowing just who or what was knocking, so I approached cautiously as Octavia and Vinyl flanked me, muscles tense.

With a few deep breaths, I yanked the door open and brandished my pistol...only to be bowled over as a sobbing person wrapped arms around me and blinded me with silky red locks of hair.

Her scent and body structure was enough for me to answer the action with a surprised, “J-Jenna?”

Unbeknownst to me, Celestia had quietly advanced with Karyll’a drawn in the form of a golden greataxe, holding it above her head as she prepared to sweep my “attacker” aside. Instead she lowered the weapon and raised an eyebrow at me. “You know this person?”

Jenna’s head shot up in shock and terror as her jade eyes took in the ponies before her, and the massive bladed weapon that was trained on her. “O-oh no, they’re here! Alex, we need to-”

“Jenna, chill!” I shouted, stopping her terrified outburst before it began. I tightened my arms protectively around her before sitting the two of us up. “They’re cool, I promise. No one’s going to hurt you.”

Jenna still gazed warily at the ponies, only slightly comforted by my words. “B-but the radio said-”

Once again, I interrupted her with fingers to her lips and a shake of my head. “I know what the radio said, but it’s wrong. Now,” I stood, pulling her firmly up with me, “let’s get this door closed and get some hot food in you; there’s some breakfast left that I can heat up, and I’m sure that and an explanation will ease your mind.” Her fearful, skeptical gaze made it clear to me she was still unsure, so I said the one thing I knew would get her attention. “Jenna...just trust me.”

Because of the sincerity in my voice and some mutual trials we had been through together (which I won’t delve into at the moment), she immediately locked eyes with me and searched my face for any sign of deception. After a few seconds, she reluctantly nodded and made her way toward the kitchen as I closed the door behind us. I still had faith that given some time to calm down and come to terms with what was happening, Jenna would come around.

“’re not going to kill us?”

Okay, so maybe I was a little disappointed in her.

Vinyl rolled her eyes with a frustrated sigh. “No, we’re not in any way going to hurt you! We didn’t want this whole thing to happen any more than you did; we’re victims just as much as all of your people are!”

“Vinyl calm down.” Octavia admonished loudly, causing the unicorn to wince and shrink away. Octavia then turned her gaze to Jenna as she explained, “We had forewarning about this event, but we are in as dire straits as your people are. We have no malicious intent; we just want to survive this and help build a new home for our people.”

Jenna stared at the three ponies for a few moments before turning to me and sighing. “This is one big clusterfuck, Alex. What the hell are we gonna do now?”

I shrugged. “Survive -- beyond that, I don’t have a clue. We’re just going to have to take this whole thing one step at a time and hope nothing completely horrendous happens.”

“Murphey’s Law.” Jenna reminded me dryly.

“Whose law?” Celestia asked in confusion.

I rubbed the bridge of my nose between my index finger and thumb as I explained, “Murphey’s Law is an unofficial and unproven universal law that states, ‘anything than can go wrong will go wrong’. Basically in this situation it means that since I’m hoping something really bad won’t happen, chances are it will.”

Celestia stared at me for a few moments. “...that’s a rather bleak outlook on life.”

I shook my head as Jenna replied, “It’s been proven time and time again that right when you’re not expecting the worst to happen is when it usually does. We just figure it’s easier to expect it and be flexible to allow for a much quicker response to negative stimuli.”

Celestia again stared at me before shrugging. “So long as it keeps you alive and happy, I suppose that’s fine then.”

While we had all said our parts to Jenna to explain the real situation, we seemed to have only briefly touched on a few things, and she found it prudent to make her desire to be educated known.

“So…” Jenna began, gesturing to the alicorn currently sat across from her at the small dining table, “you were royalty?”

Celestia shrugged, wincing as she readjusted herself to more properly address the question. “Technically speaking I still am, but I do not see it that way. I have renounced my title and crown in my own mind, and will do so formally when I can.”

Jenna, to her credit, only nodded understandingly. “I guess the royal life isn’t for everyone.”

“No,” Celestia added dryly, “it certainly is not. It has its perks to be sure -- royal consort harems, for example -- but the boring monotony far outweighs the positives. I prefer a more hands-on approach to protecting my people.”

I nodded absently as I took in what she was saying, but it seemed that all at once, my mind processed what had been said. “Wait wait wait, did you say harems?” Jenna’s eyes widened before she silently asked the same question, but with a look.

Celestia nodded to me, and just before she answered I noticed that neither Octavia nor Vinyl seemed surprised by my question, or Celestia’s words in the first place. “I am sure many a male in your world would be in heaven in a world where women outnumbered men anywhere from four- to ten-to-one, depending on the race and location. The only race in Equestria that is equal in numbers is that of dragons, and only because they can use temperature control to accurately decide the gender of a whelp growing within an egg. That being said, ponies and many others in the world have chosen to openly embrace polyamory to ensure the population remains stable and more are satisfied physically and emotionally.”

Physically satisfied...yeah, I caught that.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “I wonder how humans are going to react to that.” Jenna’s wide-eyed look of shock prompted me to explain further. “Well, it stands to reason that, given some time, we’re gonna start seeing humans with ponies-”

“Or gryphons, or thestrals, or any number of others…” Vinyl added with a smirk.

I raised an eyebrow at her, but continued nonetheless. “I predict we’re going to see a lot of people walking in Captain Kirk’s footsteps and getting some alien poon.”

Celestia erupted into laughter for a few seconds before chuckling out, “I-I don’t know who this ‘Captain K-Kirk’ is, but I like him already!”

I shrugged. “Fictional character, but there are quite a few people out in the world that won’t mind the small differences between us. In fact, quite a few of them will find it even more attractive due to the novelty of it all.”

Jenna’s slap to my shoulder brought me away from my explanation to find her narrowed eyes trained on me. “Focus, Alex.” She then glanced over the three ponies before asking, “So what exactly can we expect to happen?”

Celestia chose to answer, seeing as how she likely already had plans put in place before she was brought to Earth. “Until some sort of stability is established, not much. It is likely the many creatures of Equestria are either wreaking havoc on whatever cities they happen to be near, or are attempting to find safe havens where they can. No matter which, the bottom line is that control must be reestablished for any sort of civilized progression to begin.”

I sighed and shook my head. “People are panicking right now -- it could take weeks or even months for things to come back to some semblance of stability.”

“Only if your world’s leaders are adamant on doing everything on their own.” Celestia smugly replied. “After all, forgive any implied arrogance you might sense, but ponies are far more capable of establishing order against creatures we’ve had millennia to become acquainted with. We’ve battled tooth and nail in a hostile world to survive, and were successful in doing so against the worst Equestria and the other territories had to offer.” She then glanced to me and softened her expression, though her tone carried a more stern feel to it. “Your people need us Alex, and the sooner they learn that, the better.” With a long sigh and a wincing shift of her body Celestia added, “I can only hope that Cadence can speak to someone important to help lubricate the whole process.”

“Hehe...lube.” Vinyl chuckled out, causing Octavia to bring a hand to her mouth to stifle giggles, while I bit my lip as staccato breaths of air left my nose. Both Jenna and Celestia simply stared at the three of us until we stopped. I can tell already that Vinyl and I will get along great.

Celestia waited until our quiet laughter petered out before quipping, “Clearly I’m surrounded by children. Nonetheless, we are currently halted at the moment, as until some sort of order is restored we cannot progress with rebuilding much of anything. For the time being, we should stay together and survive as best we can.”

I looked to Jenna and nodded, a smile still adorning my face. “You’re welcome to say, Jen.”

Jenna nodded to me with a grateful smile of her own. “I’d appreciate it. I wasn’t able to check up on Kyle before I left, but his house was intact.”

“That puts my mind at ease.” I muttered, realizing I hadn’t had time to worry about Kyle since I was making sure my new guests were all settled in. “I didn’t have time to go get him before we left the city, so I only hope he’s okay.” Before Jenna could apologize, I preempted her with, “You live on the other side of town Jenna, so don’t worry about it. If you or I had gone to find him, we might not be alive right now.”

“If you’re speaking of the town back the way you came on the road we met upon, it was surrounded by all manner of undesirables.” Celestia chimed, her lips set in a tense line. “At least four dragons and an entire pride of manticores was what I met upon my arrival, and it’s only going to get worse as the beasties realize how helpless you all are.”

“For we are crunchy and good with ketchup.” I quipped, the line making its way out of my mouth before I could think about it. After a moment of the three ponies staring at me like I was an idiot I explained, “I have thoughts…”

After a few more moments of awkward silence Vinyl announced, “Well, I need a shower. Joining me Tavi?”

Jumping to her hooves behind Vinyl, Octavia nodded as she fished a small brown sack from out of her voluminous clothing. “Coming Vinyl!”

As the two ponies left Jenna queried, “Are they…?”

I shook my head. “They both denied it, but I still have my doubts. Nonetheless it’s none of my business, so until they break something by having crazy lesbian pony sex, I’ll leave them to it.”

Jenna was silent for a few moments before snarking, “You’d watch, wouldn’t you?”

“I would so watch…” I muttered honestly, completely forgetting Celestia was in the room with me. A glance at the alicorn revealed a smirk and shaking of her body as she tried to hold in her laughter, though a snort did escape here and there. “Oh shut up; I’m allowed to think pervy thoughts so long as I don’t make pervy actions. My mind is my sanctuary, and it has no laws.”

Celestia held up her hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. I was simply going to say that I myself have been both the target and perpetrator of some rather lewd actions myself, so you need not fear censoring yourself around me. In fact, I prefer an unfiltered Alex to the one who would attempt to keep from offending me.”

“So you don’t want any filtering between us?” I questioned, readying a response that would either get me killed or praised. Either way, the next few minutes would be a first for me and humanity, likely.

Celestia nodded. “That is exactly what I’m saying, Alex.”

Jenna’s wide eyes pleaded with me to stop, but I turned away from her and locked my gaze on Celestia. “Okay, here goes: I find myself both confused and excited whenever I’m around you, and I’m not sure whether to worship your awesome or dat ass. Oh and by the way, don’t ever place my hand near your tits again because I’ll probably squeeze them and motorboat for a good five minutes or as long as it takes you to pry me away.”

To my utter surprise, Celestia was not enraged or upset at all. Other than a brief look of surprise, she smiled at me and answered, “There, now was that so difficult?”

Jenna’s head turned back to me comically slow as her eye twitched madly “Alex...WHAT THE FUCK?!”

I shrugged in a manner that contradicted just how loudly my brain was cursing at me right now. “What? She asked for it, and I delivered the goods.”

“I apologize, Jenna was it?” Celestia asked, and Jenna slowly nodded to her before she continued. “I have been placed on a pedestal both physically and metaphorically for thousands of years. Now that I have the chance to be treated as just another person, I choose so. I am so tired of always being told what others believe I wish to hear instead of the truth, so much so that I wish for complete truth in all forms.” She gestured to me, while I threw a surprised yet cocky smile Jenna’s way. “Alex has just said what I am sure many have thought, but very few have ever allowed to cross their lips. Though it may seem petty, his honesty even in something somewhat lewd is appreciated. Besides,” she threw a wink my way, “it’s always nice for a girl to hear she still has it after a few millennia.” Celestia then frowned. “I haven’t overstepped any bounds, have I? Are you two…?”

Jenna vehemently shook her head. “No...God no.”

“Well fuck you too, then.” I quipped, shoving her with a grin. I then turned back to Celestia and explained, “Jenna likes clams.” Yes, I realize that’s not the kind of thing you would normally say about someone’s sexual orientation, but Jenna was one of those precious few who didn’t care who knew.

Celestia shrugged, and I could tell by her expression that the true meaning of my words were lost on her. “I too enjoy meals of the sea from time to time.”

I snickered to myself, fighting hard to keep from outright grinning like an idiot. “D-do you? So you like clams too?”

Jenna’s mouth hung open in horrified shock, as if she were watching a plane full of children crash into a kitten-only animal shelter. Celestia, on the other hand, either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “Well...I suppose I do, yes.”

Immediately I stood up laughing, shaking my head as I wheezed out, “Oh shit, I can’t! Hahahaha!”

Though I couldn’t see her because of the tears in my eyes, I could hear the confusion in Celestia’s tone as she asked, “Clearly I’m missing something; what exactly is a clam here?”

Jenna’s face pinkened ever so slightly in embarrassment, but she explained, “Well it’s also a sort of mollusk here as well, but it’s also slang for a girl’s bits.”

“Her…” Celestia muttered before, “Oh. Oh! Oh…” I then felt her surprisingly soft hand shove me hard as she chuckled mirthfully. “Very nice, Alex. I’m impressed. Wait,” she glanced to Jenna, “so you mean you’re-”

“Gay, yes.” Jenna answered with a nod. “I hope that’s not a problem, ma’am.”

Celestia glanced to me before shaking her head. “Not at all. If I were to find issue with your sexual orientation, I would find myself quite the hypocrite. I think the term the young nowadays use is, ‘I bat for both teams.’”

With how relaxed and open the ex-princess had been thus far, I was not the least bit surprised...which was surprising. Here I was talking to an eons-old alien who was not only a goddess of sorts -- akin to Horus or Ra of Egyptian mythology -- but also a magic-wielding warrior of epicness that happened to have a great figure. I was glad that my mind appeared to be so malleable when it came to the acceptance of everything that was happening, for I knew in another timeline, I was probably curled up in a corner carving happy faces into my arm and humming “I’m a Little Teapot…” repeatedly.

Thank the stars for small mercies, eh?

I randomly thought about a multitude of things at that moment, somehow arriving at band-aids, and then the bandage on Celestia’s side. I leaned ever so slightly to the side and checked it, noticing that it needed to be changed to avoid an infection, or even sepsis.

“Celestia,” I announced, garnering the attention of the tall pony, “we need to change your wound dressings. It’s a large wound and if we don’t keep a clean bandage on it, it’s going to end up infected.”

Celestia nodded and stood, wobbling briefly as she held a hand to her head. A worried look from me prompted a reassuring smile and nod from her before she allowed me to lead her to the family room once more. I methodically fetched the first-aid kit and brought out the scissors, cutting away the bandage and inspecting the wound. It was mildly inflamed and warm to the touch, but it didn’t appear to be massively infected, which was good considering the size of the wound itself. I found myself subtly proud of the stitching job I’d done, but shook the thought away as I focused on my task. Wetting a cotton ball with alcohol, I offered Celestia my hand to squeeze as I prepared to clean the outside of the gash, which she took with a thankful nod before bracing herself. Luckily for me, she lacked superhuman strength at the moment since she was recovering (I was convinced she must have such an edge to take down a dragon) which meant that while uncomfortable, her squeezing didn’t break any of my fingers as I dabbed the cut. After that, I unrolled a fresh dressing and set about wrapping the pad in a fresh length of bandage before tying it off and breathing a sigh of relief.

Jenna had been silent the whole time thankfully, so as not to break my concentration, but thought it prudent to suddenly ask, “What the hell did that to you?”

Celestia looked to my normally-quiet friend and smirked triumphantly. “A dragon that felt overconfident. It believed it would be able to eat an alicorn; I proved it mistaken. Its likely still-smoldering corpse serves as a warning to any that would attempt the same.”

Jenna nodded silently for a moment before leaning in close to me and whispering, “Did we just end up in some sort of epic rpg or something?”

I shrugged helplessly as I went about gathering up the soiled materials. “I guess so. The only difference is that we’re definitely not the heroes of said game. Something tells me that if I held a sword at a dragon, it wouldn’t wait its turn to attack, and I wouldn’t be able to run away. It would be Dark S-”

“Don’t say that name!” Jenna hissed conspiratorily, glancing around in mock nervousness. “It can smell fear!”

I glanced to my patient to see she was staring at the two of us in the way one would a potentially volatile drunk. “O-kay...while I am sure there is a story behind that little exchange, I feel it prudent to mention that night will be falling within the next few hours. Also, we should keep someone on radio duty to be sure we don’t miss any important announcements.”

“I’ll do it.” Jenna volunteered quickly, glancing to me with a pleading expression. “I need my alone time; you know how I get.” At Celestia’s questioning look she explained, “I have a bit of social anxiety. I get uncomfortable if I spend too much time around others without being able to go off and be by myself for a bit.” She shrugged. “The only reason I’m talking so much right now is because I’m still kinda in shock over everything that’s happened. Give me a day or two and save for there being an extra body around the cabin, you won’t even know I’m here.” She then stood from her kneeled position and added, “Oh, by the way…”

Jenna walked to the front door and opened it, heading out into the moderate snowfall -- in nothing but a pair of cargo shorts and a tee, might I add -- before returning with a military surplus rucksack that was nearly as large as she was. She grunted as she carried it in before dropping it on the floor, pulling open the top flap so that I could see what was inside.

“Whoa…” I breathed out, awestricken by the sheer amount of dry goods inside.

“I figured if I was going to be staying here, I should bring something to help out.” Jenna explained with a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders.

“Shower’s free!” Vinyl’s familiar voice announced to the room as she and her totally-not-girlfriend followed behind silently...but I wasn’t focused on that at the moment. For the first time since I had met them, I had a clear view of what Vinyl and Octavia looked like, and I was not disappointed.

While I already knew Vinyl was petite, seeing her without such bulky clothing on only confirmed it. She had shining white fur -- brighter than Celestia’s, honestly -- and a two-toned blue tail to go with her mane. She was dressed in snug jeans and a tank top that showed off her toned body, and it gave her an air of relaxed nonchalance about her appearance.

Now, how do I explain Octavia nicely? Well, she was built like an amazon warrior, and was tall with broad shoulders. I found myself surprised that other than her size though, she had a delicate feminine form with pronounced curves and DEAR LORD SHE’S STACKED!

*cleared throat*

Anyhow, it seemed that Octavia had taken to fashionable yet functional clothing consisting of a black knitted sweater and a matching skirt, along with black tights with violet accents. She looked like the type of high-class girl who was both sophisticated yet approachable, and I-

“Alex, you’re staring.” Celestia commented from off to the side.

Octavia nodded as she smiled softly. “Use your words, Alex.”

For a few moments I honestly couldn’t get my mouth to work. After that, all that escaped was a rather unintelligent, “Wow.” I shook my head as Octavia coughed nervously as her cheeks pinkened. “I-I mean I just...didn’t expect you two to look so…”

“Human?” Celestia offered, her tone alone smirking.

I cleared my throat loudly, glancing away. “Y-yeah. I just figured the first aliens would be a little...I don’t know, alien.”

I caught sight out of the corner of my eye of Celestia grinning like a loon and subtly inching her thumb underneath the hem of her modest bottoms. “Should you so wish, I can prove to you just how similar we are.”

Reaching over, I did something that surprised both my tormentor and myself: I grabbed the hem of the blue underpants and held it tightly, so that I wouldn’t accidentally see anything that I shouldn’t but kinda did want to see and…


“M-maybe another time.” I mumbled as I tried to diffuse the awkward feeling that was crawling just under my skin, feeling like I had an entire colony of ants in my body now. Had I really just purposefully grabbed a woman’s underwear to keep them on? What the hell was wrong with me? I mean, with just one yank down I could-


I wrenched my hand away as if I had been holding a hot coal and, on autopilot, reached in my pocket, pulled out a smoke, and popped it in my mouth. “I-I’m going out for a minute. Don’t wait up.” Without turning around or waiting for a response, I grabbed my coat and walked outside into the cold.

One left.

I’d just chain-smoked three cigarettes, and now I only had one left, all because of three attractive aliens that I now found myself living with, one of which seemed to take the opportunity to tease me at every turn. Teasing in such a way was not something I was unfamiliar with, but I wouldn’t say it was common either. After all, save for a few parties that Kyle would invite me to, I wasn’t exactly a social butterfly, nor was I a charismatic hunk who could get whatever he wanted with a word and a gesture. I was glad that I got along with Celestia -- more than glad, actually -- but I wasn’t sure if she was just teasing, or if she was serious.

A part of me wanted her to be serious, while another was terrified.

Then there were the other two: Vinyl and Octavia. While they weren’t quite as forward as Celestia -- or at all, for that matter -- the fact that I now had three decidedly-attractive females in my house that depended on me brought to mind all sorts of random fantasies, such as my guests showing their appreciation for what I’ve done for them, or thanking me with far more than just words. Not to say I was hoping for that, but I admit it was a nice scenario -- a fictional scenario, because in what world would that ever happen? This was real life, not a porno.

The sound of the front door closing brought me out of my silent musings, and though I didn’t turn my head to look, I heard the familiar gait of Jenna as she plodded over to me. After a moment of silence she asked, “You alright there, Alex? You look a little...frayed.”

“She’s been flirting with me like that since she woke up after I first brought her here.” I muttered, sucking in another drag and exhaling with a sigh. “I don’t know what to make of it, really. I mean, I know I should take it in good humor -- or even as a compliment -- but...well, you know how I am.”

“You get nervous around girls.” she observed. “You always have, though I don’t know why exactly. You’ve had girlfriends before, nothing spectacularly traumatic has happened in your love life, so it just doesn’t really make sense to me...but whatever. We all have our own demons.” She then placed her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t worry about it for right now. At the moment, there’s no time for any fooling around or alien sex-fests. We’ve just gotten somewhere safe, and we need to work together if we’re going to survive. Focus on that for now, because it’s the most important and it’ll keep your mind off of it.” She then released me and stepped away, back toward the door. “I’ll be in your room with the radio if you need me. Chin up, Alex.”

As I listened to the door close behind me, I looked out once again to the frozen landscape.

Jenna always seemed to know the right thing to say to me that would both calm me down and appeal to my common sense. She was right: I didn’t have time to be worrying about any romance or things of the sort. While it was true we had shelter, we wouldn’t be truly safe for awhile, and I still had things to do to prepare us. As long as I focused on that, I would be able to power through everything else.

Still, I would have to address what was or wasn’t going on between me and the ex-princess. It was clear she found herself quite comfortable with me for whatever reason, which meant that things would either turn out awesome or awkward in the end. Time will tell I suppose, but until then I see the potential for a powerful friendship between us.

That body though...mmm…

“She’s right, you know…” the strangely melodic voice of Celestia chimed in, and it took me a few moments of head-swiveling to find her clothed in a long white furry jacket and perched on a pile of firewood beside the house, “and wrong.”

I gulped as I felt blood rush to my face. “ much of that did you hear?”

She tilted her head slightly and shrugged. “I followed your friend outside, so everything. Strange how she didn’t notice me coming out from the back.”

My face was on fire, and I found myself unable to hold her gaze as I looked away. “I see...what did you mean?”

“She’s right that we all need to focus on surviving and looking after each other.” Celestia explained softly, the sound of her hooves crunching in the snow as she approached. Her hands then grasped my shoulders as she settled just behind me. “However, what would be the point in surviving if you shut yourself off from others?”

While I didn’t pull away like an asshole, I didn’t turn around to look at her either. “If you have something you’re trying to say, I suggest you just say it. I can handle the truth.”

For a few moments of silence, neither of us moved or spoke. Then, slowly, Celestia adjusted until her arms were crossed behind my head and her elbows rested on my shoulders. She then rested her head beside mine and let out a sigh.

“I have the distinct impression that what I explained to you about Karyll’a and I was not necessarily clear, and for that I apologize.” she began, face just beside mine, but not touching. “When I say that Karyll’a has accepted you as a friend, and that you are one of only a few she has ever accepted, I don’t believe you understand just how few that is. For your sake, I’ll tell you: you are one of only fifteen in three thousand years that have been marked by Karyll’a, and considering that seven of them are alive in this time, that is saying something.”

“What does that mean for me?” I questioned, the gravity of what she was saying slowly sinking in.

I felt Celestia gently shake her head, her locks of multicolored hair meshing with my own briefly. “You’re not stupid Alex, so I know you’ve easily picked up on just how comfortable I am with you. While it’s true this is who I am as a pony, I don’t feel comfortable sharing this part of me with just anyone.” I then felt a smile take over her face. “When you touched Karyll’a, you touched a part of me that was pure and untainted by culture or society -- a part of me that is who I am at the base level. No matter what fronts I may put up for my people or anyone else, the core of who I am found kinship with you, and that is something so rare that I treasure it more highly than all of the jewels in both of our worlds. When Karyll’a marked you, however briefly, my connection to her showed me that not only are you one that can be trusted, but that you will both understand and accept who I truly am, where others would not.”

While it’s true she initially sounded very professional in her explanation, halfway through I couldn’t help but notice just how lonely she seemed. If what she had told me was accurate, she was likely a few thousand years old at least, and only a handful of people in her life had allowed her to let go of the crown and just be herself. Having to hide yourself from nearly everyone you came in contact with seemed impossible for someone like me, so I could understand just how important it would be for Celestia to find someone she could confide and trust in. Exactly how or why this connection with Karyll’a worked -- or how she had “seen” me through just a touch -- I wasn’t sure, but if Celestia was adamant that I was important because of that, then…

“I understand.” I answered softly, just loud enough so that Celestia could hear me. “Not all of it of course, but if you feel that I’m someone you can trust, then I’m fine with that. I’m here for you if you need me.”

Celestia’s head moved almost imperceptibly to the right until our cheeks were touching, and I felt her smile against me. “Thank you, Alex. I cannot tell you how much this means to me.” She then sighed softly in silent thought for a few moments before, “There are some things I wish to discuss with and reveal to you tonight, if you would be willing. Nothing incredibly imperative, just…” she then seemed to slump a bit against me, and I was glad I was strong enough not to crumple like paper underneath her as she whispered, “I have been isolated for so long, and I could really use someone to talk to.”

The playful and confident pony I had known so far -- brief though it’s been -- was gone, replaced by someone who was tired and utterly pleading for me to be there for her. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t unnerving, but I will also admit it was nice to see that there was more to Celestia than flirting and teasing. I liked to know that under all the badassery and playing, she was still just a person that felt the same things the rest of us did, even though she was thousands of years older than I was.

Still processing that last part.

“Okay.” I said with conviction, smiling as well. “After dinner tonight and after we’re all cleaned up and I’ve changed your bandages, we’ll go to my room and If that’s what you need, I can do that.” Before she could speak, I reached over and placed two fingers on her lips to silence her response. “But, uh...I kinda need you to be decent at the same time. If you’re hanging around me half-naked in my bedroom, my mind’s going to be only one place. I know my limits, so I know I won’t be able to focus and give you the listening ear you deserve if my head’s in the gutter.”

“I think I can do that.” Celestia answered after I removed my fingers, smiling in a gentle way that I hadn’t seen before. She then cleared her throat and added, “I’m also sorry if I make you uncomfortable. It wasn’t meant to be malicious; I was just having some fun.”

I shrugged, shaking my head slightly so as not to head-check the alicorn currently draped over me. “I have an attractive pseudo-goddess that likes to wear next to nothing flirting with me. Dear God, how will I cope?” I smirked and turned slightly to look at Celestia. “The discomfort is worth the show, I assure you.” Before she could fire off what was sure to be a flirty comment, I added, “And no, that’s not an invitation for you to ‘give me a show’. We can’t go from ‘heavy talk’ to ‘striptease’ without a sense of impending wrong invading my entire body.”

“Perhaps your sense of discomfort is from lack of experience.” Celestia noted, seemingly to herself. She then placed her lips right next to my ear as she whispered, “Maybe you just need some hands on study with a willing subject.”

“Aaand Molestia is back.” I quipped with a sigh, but couldn’t keep a grin from crossing my lips.

“And my mission: to diddle the humans! Muahahahaha!” Celestia exclaimed in the way one would expect a comic book villain to do. It was remarkably spot-on.

We lapsed into silence after her chuckle-inducing proclamation echoed around the landscape. A part of me just wanted to be direct and ask what I was thinking, but coming right out and asking if a millennia-old alien was attracted to you could make things really awkward, and I wasn’t quite ready for that just yet anyway. It was already clear that she saw something special in me to make her so comfortable in my presence, but I wasn’t going to push the bounds of that new trust and familiarity.

And suddenly, I felt two rigid tips of flesh pressing into my back.

“Oh my, it’s a little cold out here it seems.” Celestia commented off-handedly.

I rolled my eyes, though she couldn’t see it. “It’s only snowing; who would have thought, hm?” I then raised my eyebrow and turned, forcing her to relinquish her grasp on me as she took a step back. “Wait a minute, you’re still healing and you…” I pressed my hand to her forehead, “you still have a fever. What are you even doing out here?”

Don’t look at her chest, don’t look at her chest, don’t look at her chest.

Celestia rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. “I have survived over fifty wars, eight major plagues, famine, and innumerable natural disasters. If a mere fever and some cold could kill me, I would not be here right now.”

I shook my head and pointed to the door. “Well as of now, you’re in my care. Get your ass inside and rest. Once you’re healed up, you can be as obstinate about this as you want.” Without waiting for a response, I proceeded to shove her toward the door.

“You’re acting like a mother hen, Alex. I’m fine.” Celestia assured, though she didn’t do much to fight me.

I grunted as I opened the door and pushed her inside. “And you’re acting like a child, so sit down and rest. I don’t care if you sleep, but you’re not going to be straining yourself or standing out in the cold.” I pulled off my jacket and hung it on the hook on the back of the door, then pulled off Celestia’s coat to reveal… “Of course. What sane person would actually wear clothes outside when it’s snowing? That’s just crazy.”

Celestia, in nothing but her skivvies, stood quite shamelessly in front of me with her hands on her hips. “I had a coat on. I’ll be fine, Alex.”

I glared and pointed to the sofa in front of the fire. “Sit, and don’t get up again unless you have to use the restroom, or dinner’s ready. I’d spank you if I wasn’t sure you’d enjoy it.” I glanced around the room briefly before making my way to the master bedroom. “Is Jenna in the bedroom?”

Vinyl nodded as she continued to move her hands around in a strange rhythm -- gloving, I think it’s called. “Yeah. She took the radio and has been in there ever since she came back in.”

I nodded before making my way toward the bedroom, opening the door to enter and shutting it quickly and quietly behind me. Jenna was sitting in the middle of the bed, slowly winding the dynamo of the radio to keep it going. Upon noticing me entering the room, she sat up straighter and set the radio aside, patting the spot next to her.

“Sit down, Alex. We need to talk.” she asserted, though not unkindly or accusingly. I did as she asked and waited for only a second before she launched into an explanation. “Things are getting bad out there, Alex. There’s talk all over the radio of entire cities and nations having fallen apart, and it’s only been a few days. The military’s been mobilized, but Celestia’s right: we can’t handle this alone. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’re pretty helpless against these things.” She shook her head with a grimace. “Planes are being brought out of the sky by fucking dragons, ships are being sunk by sea monsters, and anything on land is susceptible to things like hydras -- hydras! What the fuck are we going to do, Alex? This is like every disaster movie ever made combined with a garnish of ‘fuck-you’ on top!”

I had nothing to deny what she was saying, so I just sat back against the headboard and nodded as she fell on my lap. “I know Jenna, but there’s not much we can do at the moment. We need to try and weather the storm, so we’ll figure out what to do next after everything’s calmed down. Once this ‘Cadence’ person is able to do her job, some form of order will probably be established once Celestia’s people are no longer on the radar as the bad guys. Until then, we just have to wait.”

I sighed as Jenna did the same. Yeah...we just have to wait.

Chapter 7

View Online

“So wait, this whole thing runs on lightning?”

I bobbed my head from side to side. “...kinda. I wish we had a way to harness bolts of lightning; besides being epic, it would be immensely green energy. Unfortunately, we use physics and chemistry to create artificial electricity instead of using the free energy flying through the air whenever thunderclouds roll by.” I waved my hands to the air around Vinyl and Octavia, who were both listening to me as if I were revealing the secrets of the universe to them. “Anytime there’s a thunderstorm, that’s at least a few hundred billion volts going unharnessed!” I pointed to the spare radio nearby -- the one Jenna wasn’t using. “That thing there only uses not even a thousandth of that amount of electricity.”

“So lemme get this straight:” Vinyl began, rubbing her chin thoughtfully, “you have a nationwide system that provides electricity to every home, everywhere?”

I shrugged. “Well, we have more than five thousand power plants supplying that power, but yeah, that’s pretty much what I’m saying. Most of those plants burn coal or use water to create that electricity, but a few use wind or even nuclear energy.” I scratched my own chin now, trying to recall what I’d heard. “I don’t think we have any that use geothermal energy, but that’s also a resource we could use for power generation.” Turning my attention back to the two intensely-focused ponies in front of me, I smiled and pointed toward the ceiling. “There’s also solar-generated electricity that uses solar panels, like the ones on the roof. They use sunlight to create electricity, and I personally think they’re a largely-underrated method to generate the power we use from day-to-day.”

Octavia seemed just as excited as Vinyl was, which was an odd demeanor from her. Still, I’ll admit she looked cute, kneeled before me with amethyst eyes shining in wonder, like a small child being told a fantastic story. “So you don’t use magic for anything here?”

I frowned and shook my head. “Here -- well, until recently, at least -- magic was a force only for fantasy and fiction. Real magic didn’t exist on Earth until you all came here, and what humans refer to as magic is really just optical illusions, or sleight of hand.” I pointed to the deceptively-mundane brown bag that rested at Octavia’s hip. “The subspace technology in that is something we would have to use completely non-magical means to attain, and so far we’ve been unsuccessful. We have movies all about things like that though, so the idea’s there, but we just haven’t advanced far enough yet to have it. But we do have some things that you ponies don’t have though, like rocket-powered flight crafts that can fly at seven times the speed of sound, and trains that float above the track on magnetic rails that move faster than the fastest steam locomotive.” I then shrugged helplessly. “Then again, with wings and magic, there are a lot of things humans have that ponies have no need for, since you can bypass it with natural ability.”

“Still,” Vinyl pushed forward, “you have telephones and personal data devices that are decades ahead of anything we have! Your stuff is amazing!”

I shrugged with a grin, finding it nearly impossible to ignore her exuberance. “Yeah, I guess human technology is pretty cool. All we need is to come up with lightsabers, and my life would be complete.”

Vinyl raised her brow curiously. “Lightsabers?”

I chuckled and nodded. “It’s a fictional weapon from a movie series called Star Wars, and I think every person that’s seen the movie has wanted one. It’s an energy-blade weapon made up of a metal hilt that contains the crystals and energy generator, and the ‘blade’, which is actually pure plasma held together by a force barrier.” I then sighed as my smiled faded to a more wistful expression. “Unfortunately, the technology doesn’t exist to make that possible. For now at least, it’s just a fantasy.”

“What about these ‘cars’ you can drive around; how do they work?” Vinyl asked eagerly, scrambling to sit beside me on the sofa.

I shrugged. “You know about as much as I do, really. I’m not an engineer, so all I know about them is that they use small, controlled explosions from combustion to run a motor, and the motor turns the wheels and makes the vehicle move. A battery and alternator runs the electronic components in the car, but other than that I know very little -- I just know that it works.” Just then, a bottle of water was dropped on my lap (thankfully avoiding my jewels) and I took it and unscrewed the cap, muttering a thank-you as Jenna silently made her way back to my bedroom. The two ponies stared at me in confusion, and I simply offered, “We’ve known each other a long time.”

Seemingly brought away from her excitement over human technology, Vinyl glanced to Jenna as she closed the bedroom door, and asked, “How long, exactly?”

“Oh shit,” I began, letting my head fall back against the cushion behind me, “years. Her and I met way back when we were little, and we’ve been friends ever since; both of us were quiet introverts, and found a sort of kinship in each other when everyone was starting to care about ‘she says she likes him, but he doesn’t know yet’. Y’know, silly middle-school stuff like that.”

I took a long drink of the bottle of water provided to me before continuing my walk down memory lane. “When we got into high school, we tried to date each other since we’d been friends for so long, but we ended up not working out that way. Later on, Jenna admitted to me that she thought she might be gay, which made me the first person she told. Her parents didn’t accept it and ostracized her, so when they kicked her out, I asked my parents if she could live with us. Since then, she’s been like the sister I never had.” I glanced with a smile to the closed bedroom door. “We’re family.”

I couldn’t help but grin as Octavia and Vinyl glanced at each other before subtle entwining the fingers of one of their hands with each other. While I still couldn’t effectively put a pin on just what kind of relationship they had with each other, it was clear to me that they were very close. Yet again I found myself extremely pleased that I was able to save both of them.

“So Alex,” Vinyl called, garnering my undivided attention, “how does this work exactly?” Vinyl was holding my unloaded pistol in her hand, looking over it in the way one would a sedated lion -- with both awe and cautiousness.

I reached out and took the weapon from her and set it beside me before holding up the magazine and ejecting a single round. I then held the bullet up and explained, “The front part of the bullet is the actual projectile, while the rear part is the casing that holds the propellant that will cause it to fire out of the barrel.” I replaced the round and inserted the magazine into my weapon, releasing the slide catch and causing the slide to snap back with a satisfying *CLICK*. I held up the pistol and pointed to the back. “The hammer here moves when the trigger is pulled, and will hit the rear of the bullet when fired, which causes the propellant to ignite and propel the projectile out of the barrel. The recoil works with the firearm itself to eject the spent casing and load another round into the chamber, which allows for what’s called semi-automatic fire, meaning that one doesn’t have to manually load a new round between each shot.”

Vinyl nodded with a dumbstruck expression, while Octavia decided to ask the difficult question. “How much damage could this weapon do?”

I sighed and lowered my head. “Not much in comparison to larger weapons, but enough to drop an unarmored target fairly easily. As a handgun, its purpose is concealed protection for whoever carries it, not waging wars or anything of the sort.” I then shrugged helplessly as I heard the clip-clop of a third pony approaching. “In the wrong hands and proper situation, this small weapon can still do quite a bit of damage, very quickly.”

“It would be useless against a dragon or any other armored monstrosity from Equestria.” Celestia quipped as she flopped down onto the empty space on the sofa, her splayed wings tickling my arm. “Against a pony or gryphon though, I imagine it would be quite deadly.”

I shifted away from the tickling appendage and shook my head. “I’m not so worried about your people, but rather my own. Humans aren’t as peaceful as ponies are, and tend to take advantage of situations such as this one to loot and pillage wherever they can. Whether it be because of fear or outright maliciousness, history on Earth has shown that during the breakdown of society, some will panic, while others will use that panic to take advantage of the panicking masses. That’s why I got us out of the city as fast as I could, because most of the people there I couldn’t trust to stay calm and help each other out.”

Celestia nodded with a grin. “Ah yes, and how humans seem to leak chaos from their very pores sometimes. That must be why Discord was so excited to meet some of you.” She then pivoted her rear and spun around before laying her head across my lap. “I imagine the humans who made it to Equestria are having quite the time dealing with him; I almost wish I had pictures of the event.”

I glared down at the alicorn in my lap. “Comfy?”

“Very, thank you.” she returned smugly, stretching her arms over her head and thrusting her chest up toward me in the process. Her wing also caressed my arm in a way that could easily be considered as teasing, though I couldn’t be sure whether it was on purpose or not.

One part of me wanted to fire a shot into the air to scare the hell out of her, while another wanted to be smooth-slash-creepy and start tantalizingly rubbing my hands over her body. I didn’t have the balls to do either, so I just sat there awkwardly for a few moments before letting my arms rest over the back of the sofa. While I hadn’t actually broken out the stash of liquor that was kept hidden away, I knew that Celestia was going to drive me to drink soon. Either that, or we were going to somehow enter into a severely awkward situation with one another -- one that soon devolves into sloppy, passionate lovemaking.

So yeah, drinking or sex; either way works for me. Though ponies they may be, their bodies were familiar enough that I would not pass if offered a good lay, and I won’t apologize for that. Not that I hoped even in a million years I would ever get to bed a veritable goddess, but-

“Alex, you all right there?” Vinyl’s voice called off from the side, bringing me out of my thoughts and bringing attention to the fact that I had been staring blankly into space for around thirty seconds.

Now I know thirty seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but start from zero and count out the seconds aloud for a few moments.


Long time to be staring at something, wasn’t it?

I nodded to Vinyl and shook myself, both mentally and physically. “Yeah, I was just thinking.”

“About what?” Celestia chimed in, her tone telling me she was actually interested...which was somewhat awkward for some reason.

“About whether liquor is better than sex.” I answered. Not technically a lie, but true enough for me to not feel like I was lying to Celestia, whom had asked me to be truthful with her no matter what.

Celestia smiled up at me coyly and winked. “I sense there is more to your thoughts than that. Remember: no censorship between us, Alex.”

Shitting shit-fuck shitbag…

I gulped before preparing for what might be either the best or worst thing I’ll ever say, but steeled myself and decided to power through. Either way, the conclusion would be quick. “Well-”

Praise God and the pony version of Him if they have one, since by apparent divine intervention, I was interrupted by the sound of an explosion outside. The entire cabin shook gently from the shockwave and I heard Jenna scream loudly from the bedroom, so I took that opportunity to urgently shove Celestia off of me and stand, making my way to the window that overlooked the cliffside.

A massive fiery ash cloud was rising from the west, and I could only breathe out one terrified word: “Yellowstone…”

Celestia appeared at my side, my worry bleeding into her as she asked, “What’s ‘Yellowstone’?”

I swallowed hard, but was unable to pull my eyes away from the worrying sight. Geologists had been warning mankind for decades that something like this could happen, but I hadn’t thought I would live to see it, or at least had hoped not. With a grave expression, I turned to Celestia and explained, “Yellowstone National Park is an area of land situated in a caldera, and because of it there are hundreds of natural hot springs and geysers caused by superheated water pushed toward the surface from the magma roiling just beneath the Earth’s crust.”

“Caldera…” Celestia mused aloud, nodding her head. “I know that word; it’s a dormant massive volcano, isn’t it?”

“We call them supervolcanoes,” I corrected, “but yes, that’s what it is. Scientists have been telling us for years now that calderas like Yellowstone were due to erupt again, but because of the devastation it would produce, I think most people tried not to think about it.” I sighed, feeling soul-crushing defeat wash over me. “It’s a little over two-hundred miles away from here, but that won’t matter in the end.”

Vinyl took her place by my side next, and shook her head with a smile. “That’s not an eruption, Alex.” My look of disbelief and desire for explanation urged her on as she continued. “Dragons aren’t cold-blooded like reptiles are, but they still don’t do well in cold environments. Because of that, they tend to take up residence near open pools of lava or natural hot springs, where they can stay warm. Dragons can bathe in boiling lava Alex, so a volcano isn’t a danger to them at all.” She then pointed to the rising plume of ash and smoke that was much smaller than I envisioned. “That’s the result of them digging deep to relieve the pressure and opening up the magma chamber; the eruption of a supervolcano would have been much more catastrophic, and it’s likely we’d already be dead from the blast wave.”

I looked to Vinyl with hope in my eyes, praying that she was right. “So we’re not going to die?”

“Not from that, we’re not.” she explained, jerking her head to the event in the distance. “Towns and cities for a couple miles are going to have some ashfall, but if there’s one thing dragons are good at, it’s knowing how to safely expose geothermal sites for them to use. Trust me, we’ll be fine.”

I sighed, shaking my head. “Well the good news is that a supervolcano eruption isn’t going to kill us. The bad news is that a national landmark that was founded over a century ago is now taken over by giant, firebreathing dragons.”

I felt the deceptively svelte hand of Celestia settle on my shoulder as she explained, “The world is going to change, Alex -- there is nothing you can do to stop that. What I can assure you is that not all the other races coming to your world are ‘out to get’ you or your kind. There are quite a few clans of dragons and even a few lupine nations that want nothing more than peace and harmony, so while it is true that we must be ready to deal with undesirables, I can assure you that not all of Earth’s new inhabitants are enemies. In fact,” Celestia then continued in a purr, stroking my shoulder as she did so, “some of us can be very welcoming.”

A question had been burning in me since I had first gotten to know the real Celestia, and I thought the time was right for me to finally ask. Along with getting an answer that I had desired for a while now, it would allow us to change to a lighter subject. “When was the last time you got laid?”

Vinyl and Octavia stared at me as if I had just committed a heinous crime against nature (which, given different circumstances, I would have), but Celestia simply laughed that attractive, tinkling bell-like laugh before answering, “Oh, years before the Unification of the Three Tribes.”

“B-but that was like,” Vinyl began, turning her eyes toward the ceiling for a moment as she thought, “three thousand years ago! Are you telling me you’ve been celibate since then?!”

Celestia sighed heavily and nodded, leaning against me as she settled herself. “I never had time for any sort of personal needs before Luna returned, and after that, I was so very busy with assuring Twilight would become the princess she was meant to be. To put it simply, there was simply never a time for it, and beyond that, I couldn’t trust anypony to keep their mouth shut about bedding ‘Her Royal Highness and Sun Incarnate, Princess Celestia’.”

“Jesus,” I muttered under my breath, “I think I’d go insane going that long without something.”

Celestia sighed once again, this time in exasperation. “And the sheer number of nobles asking for my hand in marriage every year didn’t help matters; sometimes I fantasized about taking one to my chambers and using him or her before erasing their memory.” She then shook her head. “But the sneaky power-grabs that the nobility was always attempting made such a thing too great of a risk, besides the fact that, as silly as it sounds, I seek more than someone to simply warm my bed and help me ruffle my sheets.”

I guess I should have been more like Vinyl and Octavia at the moment -- completely mortified beyond belief -- but the “trial by fire” the past few days had caused me to become somewhat jaded to the blatant flirting of an attractive woman...pony (all right fine, Celestia is totally doable, and if she came out and made an offer, I would do everything to her; there, I said it). With that being the case, I could only shrug my shoulders in empathy.

“I completely understand, Tia -- do you mind if I call you Tia? -- and I look for something similar, to be honest.” I answered truthfully. To know that there was an actual desire for true companionship in the alicorn made it easier to relate to her, flirty thing though she was.

At my use of an on-the-fly nickname Celestia’s face lit up with a brilliant smile, and she nodded. “It appears there is some depth to you after all, Alex.”

I rolled my eyes before turning my attention toward the cloud of ash and flame rising in the distance. “What are we going to do about that, then?”

“There’s nothing we can do, Alex.” Celestia answered grimly. “Dragons are here to stay now, and even the more amicable ones need a place to call their own. Morbid though it may sound, quite a bit of room has cleared up because of humans vacating Earth against their will, so there is room. Beyond that, dragons are able to live inside of volcanoes, while humans are not; there are quite a few areas of your world that I imagine are uninhabitable to humans because of such things.”

With a confused raise of my eyebrow I asked, “Aren’t you a dragonslayer or something? I thought taking care of the dragons was your job.”

Celestia shook her head. “I will not go out and murder innocents, Alex. Any that pose a threat to the new world, yes, I will ‘take care of’. Until or unless one is a threat, they will be left to make their own life.” She turned her head to look directly at me before adding, “Ponies are not the only innocents who have been thrust into this world, Alex. I imagine there are thousands or even millions of gryphons, minotaurs, deer-folk, dragons, and even diamond dogs who wish no harm to others, and simply want to pick up their shattered lives and try to survive.” Boring her gaze into my own, Celestia continued in a low and sombre tone. “Children have lost their mothers and fathers, parents their beloved offspring, and in many situations, those that have been lost will never be seen or heard from again. This is a time of great sorrow for all, so keep that in mind before ostracizing an entire race because of the actions or behavior of a small number.”

“A single dragon could devastate an entire city.” I pointed out glumly.

“Which is why I have a few trusted individuals who have trained their entire lives to overcome the ferocity of dragons and their kin.” Celestia shot back with a frown. “Trust me Alex, we have been preparing for years for this to happen, and we will not fail. It will be difficult and things will not resolve themselves for quite some time, but together we can rise above the ashes of our two shattered worlds.”

I snorted derisively. “You make it sound so ominous when you say it like that. I’m no stranger to having to make do with less than the norm, nor am I new to having to fight my way through difficult situations; while I admit I’ve never had to deal with dragons before, I don’t have to worry about that, because apparently you and this ‘elite team’ have it covered, right?”

“Alex!” Octavia admonished in shock.

I shook my head. “No, I’m not going to sit here and make things out to be worse than they need to be -- I’m not going to spend the whole time thinking about all those poor refugees that are without homes or shelter. Right now, there are only six that I care about, and they’re all in this cabin. Soon,” I gestured to Celestia angrily, “one of those six will be leaving; after that, I have no idea what I’m going to do because I have nothing that can be used as currency, and I certainly can’t protect us from a fucking dragon!”

Celestia’s blank expression brought my anger to a new high for some reason, and before I knew it, I was fuming as the absolute terror I had been holding off since the beginning of this whole merge began happening.

Again I shook my head, with a dry, humorless chuckle. “You’re lucky -- you’re so fucking lucky. This ‘Luna’ and ‘Twilight’ that you were calling to in your sleep are safe and sound in Equestria, as are all of these ‘Elements’. Me? I have no one besides my best friends and my parents, and the only one who I know is all right is Jenna. For all I know they could be dead, all because I got the hell out of the city once I realized what was going to happen, instead of going to see if they were all right.” I gestured to all three ponies in front of me, two of which were staring in shocked silence while the third looked...hollow. “The next time you try and give me the ‘it’s going to be all right’ speech, keep in mind that I may have sacrificed my own family to save the three of you. It’s not all right, and it may never be all right again because of this dimension-merge-thing.”

Celestia’s blank stare continued for a few moments after I finished until she finally muttered, “I was forced to banish my own sister -- the only blood-related family I have left in the world -- to the moon for a thousand years.” Her gaze turned incredibly sharp, and her very tone dripped venom as she continued her explanation to me, every word making me feel worse and worse. “I have lost more than you could ever imagine, and some days I wonder whether it is all worth it -- some days, I wish for death. I had my one chance at being a mother stolen from me because I cared more about others than my own wellbeing, and I sent my sister away because it was the right thing to do.” Her shining magenta eyes had tears gathering at the corners, and quite suddenly, I felt like the worst person ever. “Do not presume to educate me on the fear of loss when you have not experienced even a hundredth of what I have. I cannot count how many loved ones I have had to hold and watch slip away, only to know that I would never be able to stop loving, and so would one day know that pain again. So consider yourself fortunate to experience only a few years of loss; I have endured five millennia of it.”

Realizing that I’d crossed a line without thinking about it, I swallowed hard as I prepared to fire off a long and sincere apology. “Celestia, I’m sorry about-”

She shook her head and raised her hand, cutting me off. “Save it -- I don’t need your apologies. Just make sure to keep in mind that you aren’t the only one affected by this, and we need you as much as you need us. Don’t make the mistake of taking your pain and sorrow out on those that didn’t cause it.” Her scathing glare then softened to a look of understanding and warmth. “I am more than willing to offer my support, but you must refrain from becoming selfish. Thinking only of oneself in these trying times will eventually end with you alone.”

“That’s what I’m most afraid of: being alone.” I stated honestly. “I’m afraid that after this is all over and done with, everyone I know will be gone, and it’ll just be me. I may not exactly be Charismatica McPeopleperson, but I value my friends and family.”

Octavia nodded to me as she wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “We all do, Alex; it’s only by sheer dumb luck that Vinyl and I were not separated, but many were not so fortunate.”

I raised my eyebrow curiously. “Family?”

Vinyl stepped up on my other side, pressing herself between me and Celestia. “Tavi and I are orphans -- we never knew our birth parents. It’s just us against the world, so maybe now you understand just how important we are to each other.”

“Oh…” I mumbled in realization, “that makes a lot more sense now. I figured you two were lying about the whole ‘not together’ thing, but this makes sense of that.”

Vinyl’s white face began to slowly flush pink at my words, but she held enough of her vocal faculties to stammer, “W-well we’re not, okay? There’s literally no chance of you accidentally stumbling upon the two of us ‘doing things’, so forget about it!”

I held up my hands in surrender, pressing my back to the window as I stepped away. “All right all right, no need to get testy. I didn’t proposition you or even mention any of that-”

“Yeah, but you were thinkin’ it.” Vinyl growled.

I stared drably at the shorter pony, frowning slightly. “I’ll not apologize for my thoughts, since I can’t control them most of the time and they’re my thoughts. The day you tell me you’ve never had an uncontrollable thought pop into your head is the day I call you a liar, so let’s skip past that and move on like this:” I took a steadying breath as I stated, “I swear to never bring the idea of you and your best friend ‘together’ up again if you promise to get over the fact that I have fantasies just like everyone does, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I shrugged helplessly. “At least I’m not hiding them, so you know where we stand, which is simply this: I find you attractive -- which I find somewhat odd, considering you’re all aliens -- and it’s quite easy for me to swap out the human body with a pony’s in my head. Having such things running through my head doesn’t make me a pervert -- it just makes me normal. We’re all adults here, and I’m the only male in a cabin full of females; you have to give me a little leeway here, Vinyl.” I then glanced to Celestia and quipped, “Hey, this full-honesty thing is pretty useful.”

Vinyl stood silently for a few moments, doing her best to keep from blushing or making eye contact with me. With a deep sigh she finally looked to me and answered, “All right, I guess that’s fair. Just know that if you do get all pervy, I’m going to kick you.” She then lifted her leg and stomped the floor with a smirk. “In case you’ve forgotten, ponies have hooves, so it’s going to hurt.”

I raised my eyebrow. “Besides the fact that I wasn’t planning on becoming a hormonal teenage boy, even I know it would be incredibly stupid to rile up a house full of women when I have no backup.” Extending my hand to Vinyl, I offered her a smile. “If this will help us live together and keep from killing each other in spite of the world going to hell, I’ll take that deal, though.”

Vinyl stared at me for a moment before briefly shaking my hand. “Right, before we went off on that little tangent, the biggest question was:” she pointed outside, “what are we going to do now? It’s clear some crazy stuff is happening out there, and I’m not exactly dragon-slaying material.”

Celestia frowned slightly, which unnerved me more than I would like. “Hmm...that is a conundrum, isn’t it?” She walked away from the window and gently sat down on the sofa again, just as Jenna emerged from the bedroom across the way.

“I can’t protect us against things like dragons, Celestia.” I confessed, though I knew such a fact was already known by all. “Hell, I’ve never actually shot anyone before; I’ve only ever practiced on paper targets.”

Celestia frowned at me, and suddenly I felt like a child looking into the faces of my disappointed parents. “You’ve never used your weapon on anyone?”

I shrugged. “Never had to.”

The lounging pony sighed heavily before splaying over the furniture haphazardly. “That may change soon, Alex. It is highly likely that a life-or-death situation may come up when I’m no longer around to look out for the three of you, and it is at that point that you’ll be forced to make a choice: you, or them? And not just your life will be in your hands,” she pointed to Vinyl and Octavia, “but theirs as well. My people can defend themselves if necessary, but the majority of them aren’t soldiers.”

“Neither am I.” I pointed out dryly. “I’m just a guy that managed a hotel and likes to play video games. The closest I’ve ever come to actually harming someone is playing Call of Duty, and even then I just end up cursing loudly through the microphone, calling the other guy’s mother a scabby cum-dumpster, or something similarly upsetting.”

Vinyl barked out a single laugh before shaking her head and commenting, “‘Scabby cum-dumpster’; I’ll have to remember that one.”

“Charming.” Octavia chimed dryly, shaking her head in disappointment.

I shrugged. “Just telling the truth. It seems online games tends to bring out the worst in people, seeing as how they don’t have to look at the other person when they’re screaming obscenities. It’s sad really, what’s become of things.”

“Yet you still play them.” Jenna quipped from the kitchen.

I shrugged once again. “I never said I wasn’t a hypocrite.”

“Getting back on subject,” Celestia announced, causing all of us to turn back to her, “we really only have two choices in the matter: either we can wait until one of my elite guards stumbles across this place, or I can train all of you to be able to defend yourself against undesirables.”

I shuffled uncomfortably at the thought. “I’m not too sure how you’re going to train some average dude to be a monster-slayer, so why don’t we-”

“The first option is incredibly unlikely -- miraculous, even. The chance of one of my guard actually finding us is slim to none.” she explained blandly. “So, the choice becomes rather obvious, I think.”

I stared at Celestia blankly for a few moments. “The only fight I’ve ever been in was when I was five, and that was just a shove before the other kid cried and I got in trouble.”

“Just trust me, Alex.” Celestia pressed, smiling gently. “I will not be able to turn you into a monster-slayer, but at the least I will be able to teach you to defend yourself properly. Your greatest asset, however, will be stealth and the ability to survive in such a harsh environment.”

“Hide and stay alive?” I questioned with a stupid grin, “Now that I can do! Time to put that level 100 Sneaking skill to use!”

Jenna just stared at me before blandly arguing, “Really?”

I nodded. “Yes, really. If society has to fall, I’m going to keep some of it alive.” At the blank, uncomprehending stares of the three ponies, I just shrugged. “I’ll explain later. For now,” I glanced out the window at the falling sun, awed at just how fast the day had passed, “we should fix some dinner and then head to bed. I’d like to get an early start tomorrow and do some more scouting to stay current on the surrounding area.”

The other four nodded before following me to the kitchen, where I began gathering some of the less-preserved foodstuffs and began making something for us to eat.

Dinner was a bit bland by comparison to breakfast, but then again, it was also going to become the norm for quite some time. I expected that with the state of the world, restaurants and fresh food was going to be difficult to come by, so we were going to have to stick to things that were nutritious, even if they didn’t necessarily taste like a great meal. Luckily, I knew how to cook rather well, but I could only do so much with freeze-dried foods and limited seasonings.

I had taken Bailey out once more and pulled out what mats and blankets I could find, making a comfortable little nest out in the living room for everyone, and I was pleased to see that Jenna, albeit quietly and with few words, was getting to know Vinyl and Octavia as she settled down for the night. Celestia was in the washroom using the last of the day’s warm water to get washed up again, so I waited patiently for her in the bedroom, since I would have to redress her wound.

A knock on the master bathroom door drew my attention, and I heard Celestia’s muffled voice call, “Alex? Are you there?”

I nodded, only to realize that she couldn’t see me. “Yes. Are you decent?”

A moment of silence followed, then, “...yes, but...I need some help.”

I raised my eyebrow as I stood from the bed. “With?”

The bathroom door opened with a bit of steam, to reveal the silhouetted figure of a tall pony, standing awkwardly. After the mist cleared, I could see her holding a brush with a crooked smile, wearing my robe. “I know it wasn’t part of the deal, but I could really use some help brushing my mane and tail; I can’t bend too much, or I’d risk tearing the stitches open.”

I looked to the multihued masses of hair and sighed, holding out my hand. “All right then, give it here.”

Celestia nodded and placed the brush in my hand. “I thank you for this, Alex. If I could do it myself I wouldn’t have asked, but-”

“I can imagine how knotted hair of this length can get, so don’t worry about it.” I assured, though I’ll admit that it was a little strange for me to brush someone else’s hair. I simultaneously felt like the “gay friend” and a nurse at once, but forced the feeling away for the time being. Instead, I patted an empty space on the bed and moved aside, allowing Celestia to take a seat before I did the same behind her.

I’d had long hair when I was younger, as I went through a bit of a phase where I was into having it, so I had a general idea of the amount of care that went into long hair. Still, it had been awhile, so I could only hope I wouldn't yank the follicles out of her scalp as I tended to the long strands.

I brought the bristles to her head and began running them through the head of hair, almost immediately feeling it catch a bit in the damp strands. With a mechanical skill tempered by my own experiences, I gathered as much into my hand as I could close to the scalp, and instead of pulling the brush through the hair, I pulled the hair through the bristles, so as to keep from yanking Celestia’s head around as I got the tangles out. It worked, but like I’d figured, it was going to take a long while, so I settled myself and continued my work.

“You’re actually doing rather well, Alex.” Celestia quipped as I worked. “Had some practice, have you?”

I nodded from behind her. “I had long hair for a bit, so yeah. Not this long of course, but long enough to know the hell that is tangles and split-ends.”

“I see.” she replied, humming to herself. “I think I prefer you with short hair.”

“What a coincidence, me too.” I snarked, continuing my work. After a few moments of quiet brushing, I warned, “This isn’t going to be a regular thing, you know. Once you’re healed enough, you’re doing this yourself; I’m not a hair stylist.”

“Of course, Alex.” she replied, but said nothing more as she silently enjoyed what I was doing for her.

For nearly ten minutes, I worked on getting as many tangles and knots out of her hair as I could, trying my best to prolong it so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the other end of her -- it just felt...wrong, somehow. Instead, I focused on the long, billowing head of hair as I ran the bristles of the brush and my fingers through it.

As I was doing so, I was unable to stop myself from blurting out, “Wait, I remember this being on fire when I met you; how did that happen?”

Celestia turned to face me briefly before laying down on her stomach slowly, wincing a bit from the tenderness of her wound. Her large wings spread out over the bedspread, throwing off the robe as she ordered, “Tail now, please.” I rolled my eyes and rolled up the robe, tossing it to the side before reaching out for the base of her tail. Just as my hand was within grasp of it, the appendage flicked away as Celestia turned her head slightly to look at me. “ gentle, please.”

I raised my brow again as I smirked. “I’ll go slow until I work up a rhythm. Try and call only my name, please.”

Celestia barked out a sharp laugh before grimacing. “O-ow, ow. No more laughing -- I’m sore.” I nodded though she couldn’t see me, and began my work by gently grasping the actual tail itself to start with. I felt a shiver go through Celestia at my touch, but she said nothing as I slowly and methodically began brushing and detangling the long hairs of her tail.

“So,” I reminded gently, “the whole ‘hair of fire’, thing…”

“Oh, right.” she agreed, laying her head on her crossed arms as she let out a long breath. “Well, the answer is quite simple, but I would prefer if you didn’t tell my ponies this -- it would irrevocably change the way they approach me, and though I do not wish for the crown any longer, I don’t want to be feared.”

I rolled my eyes. “What could be that serious, Celestia? You’ve already shown them that you’re a pervy warrior.”

She snorted, but otherwise said nothing for a few moments as I continued to brush. After a minute or two of silence, she began with, “To my ponies, I am the steward of the sun, while Luna is the same for the moon -- night and day do not pass normally in the world I came from, and it must be brought forth by our combined efforts. We have played our parts for millennia, but now it is time for someone to know the truth.” She took a deep breath, and I had to fight to keep from flinching as her wings gave a single, strong flap before fanning out again. “I do not control the sun, I am the sun.”

I paused in my work, taking a moment to think about what I had just been told before continuing. “Um...I’m pretty sure the sun isn’t made of fur and flesh.” I then hummed theatrically. “Although, it would be pretty entertaining to be a giant set of fiery boobs in the sky.”

“I created this body from a desire to be among the ponies Luna and I watched over every day.” Celestia explained plainly, letting out hum as I pulled a bit on her tail to move it into a position that would allow me to more easily get the hairs closer to the base. “This body is flesh and blood, but the creature residing in it is not.”

“The sun has a pretty hot body. *badum, tss*” I snarked out, letting the dork in me see the light of day unfettered.

Celestia went quiet again as I continued to brush the tail, and off-handedly, I found myself enjoying the fact that the tails of these ponies apparently were situated further away from the ass, which I suppose was how they could wear underwear and such. It was also important to me because it meant when I lifted Celestia’s tail, I didn’t see a brown-eye.

“I’m being serious, you know.” Celestia finally replied, turning her head to the side to look at me over her shoulder. “That massive ball of energy in the sky is me, and I am it. We are one in the same, and what you felt when we initially met was some of that power escaping because of my anger. It isn’t magic as ponies understand it, but rather more of a naturally-occurring energy within me. It’s instinctual, a bit like the camouflage of a chameleon.”

“Could it have burned me? You felt like an oven when that happened.” I asked, keeping my eyes focused on my work.

Celestia chuckled to herself softly. “No, it couldn’t have. That heat that you felt is about as bad as it can ever get, since I created this body with certain limiters in it; it would do little good to cause a firestorm every time I became upset or was threatened, after all.”

I shrugged, ending my brushing with the very end of the now silky-smooth tail. “It looked pretty cool, though. Can you do it at will?”

“Instinctual.” she repeated, tucking her wings and rolling herself onto her back as I finished. “It just...happens, and I have no inherent control over it. Still, I can understand how that could be a frightening sight, so I tend to keep as calm as possible unless otherwise needed.”

I walked over and set the brush on my dresser before turning back around...and gulping at the sight I saw.

Whether it had been purposeful or not, Celestia had placed one arm above her head and one on her stomach in a perfect representation of a pinup model. Her vibrant, quad-hued hair was billowed around her head as her wings spread out on either side of her, and even with just a modest set of crimson undergarments, she still looked very classy somehow. A thick curl of her hair had fallen over one side of her face, and her eyes were closed as she gently smiled in relaxation.

She reminded me very much of an angel.

I shook the thought away forcefully and grabbed the equipment on the dresser, then made my way back to the bed. “Sit up, please -- I need to check your wound.”

Celestia opened her eyes and grunted as she sat up, the previously unseen muscles in her stomach flexing visibly as she did so. She nodded to me as she moved her arm and wing out of the way. “Go on, then.”

I took a seat next to her, quite easily feeling the warmth that radiated off of Celestia, and leaned in to put my hands against her side. As I leaned in and positioned her so that I could see it in the light, I frowned at what I saw: the wound was already beginning to scar up.

“That’s not normal…” I muttered to myself, continuing my inspection.

Celestia was silent as I continued looking over the large wound, amazed that an injury that had happened only a short while ago had healed to look as if it were over a week old. I remembered Vinyl or Octavia saying something about the healing potential of alicorns compared to normal ponies, but this was ridiculous.

“Is everything all right?” Celestia asked, her voice low but still audible in the quiet room.

I nodded before pulling away. “Yeah, it’s just...weird. I know you all are different species from humans, but I had expected you guys to heal on the same scale as us.” I pointed to her side and frowned as I looked at her. “That looks like it’s over a week into the healing process.”

Celestia nodded to me with that gentle smile I saw her wearing so often. “My sister and I heal faster than normal ponies, Alex.”

I shrugged before pulling out a strip of gauze and the roll of bandages. I then sprayed disinfectant on the wound itself before wrapping it up once again, trying my best to be gentle while still making it tight enough to stay. After I was finished, I put all the first aid equipment away before joining Celestia back on the bed.

“So,” I began, figuring a direct approach would be best, “you wanted to talk?”

Celestia grabbed the robe from off to the side and pulled it over her body again before scooting back slowly towards the head of the bed. A few scoots and grimaces later, she leaned back against the headboard and beckoned me to follow, so I took my place on the other side of the headboard and waited for her to begin.

It was quiet for a long few moments before Celestia finally began with, “I’m afraid, Alex.”

I raised my eyebrows as I looked at her. “Of what?”

“Many things, but the safety of my niece and my ponies is at the forefront.” she answered, settling more of her weight against the support. “I have no delusions about being a superhero of any sort, but I pride myself on being a protector for those who are in danger.” She then snorted almost angrily, and shook her head. “Without my magic, I am crippled; I cannot even fly.” Celestia flexed the wing that was on the side opposite me, and the impressive wingspan fanned out. “The wings of myself and my ponies aren’t large enough to overcome physics on their own; we require magic to fly. For now, they are simply dead weight.”

“At least you’ll get that back.” I reassured with awe. “I mean, if a human was granted a single wish, a massive amount of people would want to be able to fly. I don’t see my people evolving to have wings, though, so that’s going to remain a fantasy for us. We have airplanes, true, but I imagine it’s very different to use your own wings to fly.”

At that, Celestia smirked as her left eye rolled to look at me. “I suppose natural flight has its perks.”

“And who says you’re crippled?” I continued, frowning a bit. “If you’re crippled, what does that make humans? We can’t take down dragons on our own, and I’m pretty sure there aren’t many ponies that can either. Whether it be because of natural ability or training, you are capable of things that others aren’t, and those skills of yours are going to save quite a few people.”

She nodded slowly. “I suppose, but the here and now is not something I can change, and right now, there may be ponies out there that need my help.”

“Hey,” I broke in, nudging her and shaking my head, “don’t do this to yourself. You just said that you don’t think of yourself as some superhero or something, but right now, it’s almost like you expect yourself to be one. You can’t be everywhere at once, and you can’t save everyone.”

“But I cannot play favorites, Alex.” Celestia replied sullenly, her posture drooping even further. “For better or worse, I have been the strong leader my ponies needed for over a thousand years now, and though I don’t like it, that persona has become a large part of who I am. I owe my sanity to those same ponies, and I promised that I would look after them. It is the entire reason why Luna and I descended to Equestria in the first place.”

“Part of being flesh and blood is accepting your limitations, though.” I argued in what I hoped was a reassuring tone. “There’s only one of you, so as long as you save the ones you are able to -- as long as you don’t willingly turn your back on them -- that will be enough, and that’s all anyone can rightly ask of you.”

Celestia said nothing in response to that, and once again silence washed over us. Save for the faint sound of the other three talking in the main room, all was quiet in the house for quite some time -- ten minutes at least. While the silence was starting to become a little awkward even for me, I knew that this time wasn’t about what I felt or what I wanted, and that if Celestia needed to think quietly to herself, then that was her prerogative.

“A thousand years is a long time to be alone, Alex.” Celestia began once again, very softly and with a noticeable waver in her voice. “When my sister refused to let night pass all those years ago, I was forced to do what needed to be done in order to ensure all the creatures that lived on our planet continued to flourish. I wielded the Elements of Harmony against my own sister -- mad, though she was at the time -- and sent her away to be imprisoned on her own moon. The few that I have let get close enough to me have constantly assured that I made the right choice, but…” she sniffled a bit, bringing a hand up to wipe at her nose, which was the only thing I could see protruding from the curtain of her hair, “knowing what I do now about just how impossibly agonizing it was to live on my own all those years, I am not confident I would make the same decision again. I would choose myself and my sister over the masses, and that is one of the many reasons I know I am not cut out to be a ruler. And yet,” she gestured non-specifically to the air around us, “here I am again, separated from my sister for years.”

Celestia sat silently for another few moments before she drew her knees up and hugged them to her chest...just before beginning to sob quietly to herself.

I just stared at her for a bit, unsure of what to do. I didn’t know Celestia all that well -- not really -- but at the same time, did I really need to know someone to comfort them in their time of need? What I did know was this: if Celestia was truly as old as she claimed, her sister had been the one constant her entire life, and being separated from that reassuring presence was likely agony for her, no matter how long the instance was. She had already been forced to endure a thousand years of it, and now -- though for a much shorter amount of time -- that support had been removed from her life once more. Much as she was a powerful warrior, she had a weak spot in that armor, and it was one that had been exploited against her will yet again.

After mentally debating what I should do, I shook my head thoroughly before scooting over closer to the weeping alicorn. Slowly, and tentatively, I extended my arm around her, waiting for her to flinch away. Instead, she leaned in, accepting the embrace wholeheartedly as her sobs increased and she truly let go.

What I was seeing -- who I was holding -- was not the playful, pervy pony that I had come to know in the short time we had been around each other. Instead, by her words and what I was experiencing, I was beginning to see a much deeper and far more complex being than I ever could have imagined. I wondered if the whole schpiel all this time had just been an act, with all this pain and loneliness roiling beneath the surface of a mask. Underneath all the play and flirting was someone that was afraid, and alone, and didn’t have anyone but me that she felt she could turn to. Whatever the true reason (as I knew there had to be more to her and Karyll’a than she told me), this ancient being felt safe enough around me to let down her guards and be weak, for once.

And so, I held the sun in my arms as she cried.

After hours of sobbing that was from days, months or even years of repressed emotions, Celestia simply lay against me for support, not asleep and yet not quite awake. Regardless of her previous station or age, it appeared even Celestia couldn’t remain dignified during a good, hard cry, as was evidenced by the drying pony snot on the sleeve of the robe she had been using. I didn’t care about the robe at the moment, though.

During her burst of emotion, both arms and a wing had wrapped around me as Celestia held me as close as she could, desperate for whatever comfort she could get, and I was only all too happy to provide it. I had known when she asked for us to be alone that things were going to get intense in one way or another, and while I was happy it had been serious instead of pervy or something along those lines, I felt better that I was able to offer my help with something I was good at: being a good listener.

Sometimes, when someone says they need to talk, they just need you to listen, and nothing more.

Celestia was not relaxed, however: tiny tremors could be felt all along her body, so I did my best to offer what help I could in the form of simply a comforting presence. I kept a tight grip on her, tucking her head beneath my chin (avoiding the foot-long spear of a horn in the process) and silently hoping I was doing a good job. After all, similar though we were, ponies were still a completely different species apart from humans -- for all I knew, what I was currently doing for her could be something that was done only between lovers, or maybe I’d just proposed marriage to her and she accepted.

You see enough movies and you come up with some odd thoughts…

“Thank you, Alex.”

I looked down at Celestia, who seemed quite a bit smaller than she was at the moment. She was looking up at me, her bright eyes glassy with all the tears that had been shed, but a smile was on her face -- a small one, and it was tinged with regret and lingering fear, but it was a smile nonetheless. In this way, she reminded me quite a bit of Jenna when we were younger, and the memory itself caused a grin to plaster itself over my lips.

“You’re most welcome, Celestia. I’m here anytime you need me.” I assured, my smile never faltering. “I might not be the one you want right now-”

“But you’re the one I need.” she interrupted, shaking her head and bringing one of her hands up to poke me in the chest. “Right now, you and what you offer me are what I need to keep going,” her expression then fell, and her ears splayed in what I had come to recognize as a pony’s distressed body language, “and I thank you for that, even though I don’t deserve it. I have caused so much trouble for you already -- my people have destroyed the world you know, though it was not purposeful -- and I know taking care of an invalid was not in your plans.”

“With how fast you’re healing, you’re hardly an invalid.” I countered, poking her side with a finger. She squeaked adorably in a way that didn’t quite fit her stature, which only made me chuckle and smile.

It was like I was getting to know an entirely different pony now, and I have to admit...I liked it. The Celestia that I had come to know was fun to banter with, true, but it was also nice to know that there was a different person inside that it was likely few others knew was there. Was the flirting and brashness a mask that she threw on to protect herself, then?

Now Celestia and I were in very close proximity -- about as close as two people could get with their clothes on and tongues still in their mouths -- so I believed that personal space wasn’t an issue at this point. Unfortunately, I was quite wrong.

“Umm, Celestia?”

“Yes, Alex?”

“...why are you rubbing my chest?”

Celestia turned her eyes down, as if just realizing it for the first time. She hummed to herself for a moment before turning her eyes back to mine. “In my defence, you’re very smooth, and it feels nice.”

I don’t have any chest hair, and as a guy whose entire paternal side of the family is a bunch of hairy guys, it’s always been a bit of a sensitive spot for me. However, this was an odd moment for me, since someone was saying they liked that about me. At the same time though, I still had some pervy pony princess rubbing my chest, and that was...distracting, to say the least. Add in the fact that mere moments ago said pony was sobbing loudly against me, and it felt like several different kinds of wrong. I swear this pony is bipolar.

“Are you going to be stopping anytime soon?” I asked, trying my best to hold a neutral look as Celestia continued what she was doing.

Celestia just looked back at me, her gaze unflinching. She shrugged gently and offered, “You can always make it even.”

“Don’t do that, please.” I immediately replied, looking away as Celestia purposefully lifted her chest and purposefully presented it to me as if she were doing nothing more than showing me a new outfit.

“Go ahead Alex,” she taunted, and I felt her body press closer to me, “you know you want to.”

While I should have been trying to figure out how we had gone from “serious talk” to “anime cliche-sville”, I was trying my best to keep from fainting as all the blood in my body rushed out of my brain to fill my face, and...another place. So instead, I simply kept silent and tried to pull away, only to feel as one of Celestia’s hands grabbed mine and moved it to-

Aaand there it is, and it’s nice and warm, too.

“Why is my hand fondling your tit, Celestia?” I questioned, utterly shocked at how calm I sounded despite the fact that my mind was screaming, “IT’S A TIT, IT’S A TIT, IT’S A TIT, TITTIES!”

“Well,” she began, and I felt quite clearly as she pressed my hand a little firmer against her, “you’re so tense around me, and I want you to see that you don’t need to be. It’s my body, and you don’t need to feel like you’re disrespecting me by looking or wanting to touch.”

“I think I need an adult.” I yelped out at the fact that she was basically forcing me to mash her boob, focusing with all my might to try and think of things as unsexy as possible.

“We are adults, Alex.” Celestia replied with what I could only describe as a purr. “Don’t try and tell me you aren’t enjoying this.”

“That’s not the point.” I whimpered as I felt a feathered appendage turning my head back to look at her. “This isn’t right on a fundamental level; what would Octavia and Vinyl think about all this? They’re here too!”

Celestia shook her head with a smirk. “This isn’t about them, this is about me and you.”

I stared into Celestia’s eyes, one of her hands still rubbing my clothed chest, and the other holding my hand against one of her R-rated parts. It was then, with the teasing having crossed into gravely uncomfortable territory, something in my mind snapped. I knew this because the next thought I had was, “I wonder how far she’s willing to push this? Well, two can play the teasing game.”

While my sane self was screaming at me for what was about to happen, the vengeful part of me seemed content to force my hand to contract all my digits at once, causing my fingertips to sink deeper into the soft mound of flesh. I was rather pleased to hear a surprised squeak escape from Celestia as I well and truly groped her, so I pressed my advantage and lifted my other hand to the unoccupied breast. I copied my actions on the new target, causing Celestia to almost succeed in stifling a moan, at which point she cleared her throat loudly at me.

“O-okay okay, you win!” she practically squealed out, firmly pressing me away and retreating from me. I released her as she did so, both proud and horrified at the same time because of what I’d just done.

My face was practically on fire now, and I was rather sure I was shaking in both fear, mostly fear. Maybe a little bit of pride. Maybe. Dear lord, what had I done?

“Well,” Celestia’s voice cut into my self-berating after a few moments of quiet, “that was unexpected. I must commend you for besting me at my own game.”

My head whipped to her, and I just stared in shock for a few moments. “W-what? Celestia, how the fuck do we go from you crying and me trying to be a good friend, to you basically goading me into giving you a manual mammogram?!”

The smirk on her face despite her blush was quite clear even in the darkened room. “Admit it, you dreamed about doing-”

“ENOUGH!” I shouted, practically roaring at her. I was completely confused, and a part of me felt a bit like a whore for some reason, since she’d basically used me for her own amusement.

My outburst caused Celestia’s mouth to snap shut suddenly, and she had the good decency to look ashamed as I stalked over to her.

“I barely fucking know you, and you’re messing with me as if you’ve known me your whole life.” I spat, more confused than angry, to be honest. I pointed to the golden ring on Celestia’s horn. “Maybe you saw me, but I know nothing about you other than what you told me. That whole ‘seeing the inside’ thing only went one way, since Karyll’a speaks to you, not me.”

Celestia cocked her eyebrow at me when I said that, and I noticed a familiar cross-spear materialize with a flash in her hand. She then threw it at me like a javelin -- impressive, seeing as how she was sitting on a bed -- and I had only a second to blink in surprise before raising my hand up over my face, for all the good it would do against a sharp spear.

What happened was not what I expected, however.

Another bright flash accompanied by the unexplainable sound that went with it alerted me to the fact that Karyll’a had changed into a large kite shield...and was now held in my raised hand. I had only a moment to take in what had happened before my vision suddenly went completely white, and the world fell away.

Images began to pass so quickly that I wasn’t able to keep up with them all, but I was able to pick out important ones here and there.

A warm, radiant light in the blackness of space, accompanied by a rocky satellite.

A blue and green planet, not unlike Earth, floating in the vast expanse, cradled in the magic of the Sun and Moon.

Ponies -- millions of them -- playing in the life-giving sunlight, and resting peacefully under the watchful gaze of the Moon.

A feeling of immense yearning that seemed to come from all around.

A young, navy blue pony smiling lovingly at me as she reached out and grasped my hand.

The same navy blue pony -- older now, and coming into her own as a woman -- standing beside me, dressed in striking silver armor, and releasing a furious battle cry as she charged ahead toward feathered creatures that had the rear-half of a lion.

Looking at the moon and the mark of a pony upon its surface, and feeling utter sorrow and guilt course through me as I struggled to keep from crying any more tears.

My sister, returned to me after a thousand years, smiling at me as if she had never left.

My sister, now an adult once again, with tears running in rivers from her eyes as we said goodbye to each other, possibly for the final time.

A snowy, alien city bordered by trees and mountains, where screaming and shouting could be heard.

The next thing I knew, I found myself on the ground, sobbing openly as someone held me from behind, the great white wings holding me tightly.

“I-I miss her so much!” I choked out, unable to stop myself from crying even harder at the thought that yet again, I was alone and without my sister.


No, not my sister.

Slowly, ever so slowly, reality and my own consciousness began to claw back from the depths of wherever it had gone, and I began to remember things. My name was Alex, and I most certainly did not have a sister that was a blue pony. I was a human, and the closest thing I even had to a sister was Jenna.

It was then that I realized what had happened.

I sniffled a few times, wiping my eyes and my nose on the sleeves of my shirt as I tried to compose myself to some semblance of normality. What had just happened to me shouldn’t have been possible...but it had happened, and the lingering emotions and scraps of memories were proof of that. Karyll’a had spoken to me.

“Now do you see?” Celestia questioned softly from behind me, still holding me tightly as lingering sniffles and shudders worked through my body.

Unable to do much else, I just nodded and relished the warm embrace of Celestia as I just let the sorrow, the loss, slowly flow out of me. I had seen things that I didn’t think possible -- things that broke me -- and they weren’t even my story. While I didn’t know everything, I knew enough of who and what Celestia truly was to know that she hadn’t been lying when she said she needed me.

She was so lonely without her sister.

“You really love your sister.” I stated as a simple observation. “I…” I began, only to be forced to swallow the lingering sadness within me as I tried to voice my thoughts, “I didn’t know it was possible to love someone that much.” I shook my head ruefully, now knowing first hand just how much it hurt for Celestia to be here, away from her only family. “How do you do it? I’s fucking debilitating, that feeling. It’s like all the happiness in the world was just sucked out, and it felt like the mere idea of smiles and laughter didn’t exist anymore.”

I felt Celestia hug me a little tighter, and felt her nod against my back. “It...isn’t easy. Keeping myself occupied with ensuring the survival of my people helps, which is why sitting here doing nothing is so much harder for me.”

“That’s why you needed me.” I voiced, knowing it was true before I even said it. “I distract you from all that pain you feel, even if only for a little bit.”

I felt her nod once again against me. “I am ashamed to say that you make a great distraction, but do not think you don’t have your own merits, either. Karyll’a knew that while you may not be able to live my life, you have the ability to understand in a way few others can.”

I chuckled dryly, despite the blanket of sorrow that had settled over us. “I’d say that you’re pretty damn lucky, then.”

“I’d say we’re both lucky,” Celestia shot back, “considering there was a bronze dragon headed straight for you that night. You’re welcome, by the way.”

I nodded to her, but said nothing for a few moments as we just sat together again, enjoying the support we lent to each other.

After five minutes or so, I thought it prudent to mention, “I’m going through this little session in my head right now, and I have come to a conclusion that you’re fucking bipolar.” Ignoring the snort of derision from her, I brought a hand up and began to count off. “We started off with a serious talk, then you jumped straight to molesting me, and now we’re back to crying, except that I’m the one that’s crying. This is bullshit.”

Again Celestia snorted, but this time it was a stifled laugh at my remark. “Five thousand years of memories tends to breed a few quirks, Alex. I’ll have to ask you to deal with them, please.”

I shrugged with a growing smile. “Makes things interesting, that’s for sure.” I sniffled loudly and wiped my eyes before pulling away and standing, pulling Celestia up with me by the hand and leading her to the bed. “All right, I’d say we’ve earned a good sleep. You got the bed tonight, Your Highness.” I jumped slightly at the feeling of a tail whipping me in the ass, which only caused Celestia to grin as she passed me and settled herself on the bed.

Of course, just as I had been expecting, her grin turned into a smirk as she offered, “Are you sure you don’t want to join me, Alex? We could cuddle and see where that takes us.”

I rolled my eyes even as heat entered my cheeks once again. “I think I’ve had my fill of fondling you for today, thank you.” My expression then softened as I nodded to her. “Get some sleep, Celestia. I’ll make you breakfast tomorrow, and we’ll talk about what we’re going to do for the next couple weeks.”

It took a few moments for Celestia to completely settle, what with her wings and all, but after pulling the covers up to her neck, she nodded at me with a smile. “Very well, Alex.” I reached out to her horn, and the golden band that was settled on my wrist flashed, returning itself to the horn of its true bearer. As I turned to leave, she added, “And thank you...truly. I needed your support tonight more than I thought I did, and I feel immensely better for it.”

I turned on my heel to gaze down at her, nodding firmly again with a smile across my face. “Anytime, Celestia -- I mean that.” Without another word, I left the bedroom and closed the door behind me.

I arrived in the family room to see Jenna and Vinyl both sleeping soundly, former draped over the lounge chair, while the latter was wrapped in blankets on the sofa. Octavia was nowhere to be seen, but the sound of Bailey’s nails on the ground alerted me that both of them were in the kitchen. I made my way to the kitchen to see Octavia leaned against the countertop, sipping a glass of water as she stared at the wall, apparently deep in thought.

I reached down and gave Bailey a good scratch behind her ears before settling myself next to Octavia, at which point her violet eyes rolled to me and she smiled in greeting. I returned the smile, but the two of us kept silent and simply stood there in the kitchen in silence, doing nothing else except enjoying the peaceful atmosphere for once.

Without my knowledge, my eyes had closed during the quiet time we shared, which was only brought to my attention when Octavia asked, “Are you okay, Alex?”

I opened my eyes and swiveled my head to Octavia, who was quite visibly concerned. She pointed at my face and explained, “You look as if you’ve been crying.”

I wiped my face again, feeling a few lingering bits of wetness as I nonchalantly replied, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just had a really intense talk with Celestia is all, and I’m still recovering a bit from it.” I then chuckled softly and shook my head. “That pony’s a stronger person than I could have ever imagined.”

“I hope you took good care of her, Alex.” Octavia half-warned, her smile falling a bit. “Regardless of what she may want, I will possibly always see her as my princess, and I care about her wellbeing.”

“I think…” I began, truly thinking about what had happened tonight, “I think she’s going to be all right. It won’t be easy, but with some help from friends and family, she’ll be just fine.”

I turned my head down to between us as I felt something furry grasping my hand, only to see that Octavia’s fingers were now holding my hand. I brought my eyes back to her face with an unspoken question in my eyes, and she simply smiled at me.

“Thank you, Alex. You have done so much for us, and I cannot thank you enough.” she praised with a gentle, yet powerful, smile.

I shrugged, but didn’t pull my hand away. “I won’t say it’s been easy or comfortable the whole time, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d just left you all to your fates.” I gave the hand in my own a gentle squeeze before adding, “I haven’t regretted it yet, and I don’t think I will anytime soon, so you don’t need to keep thanking me.” Finally, I pulled my hand away and walked toward the doorway to the living room. “C’mon, let’s get some sleep. We’ve got a lot to do tomorrow, and I want to get an early start.”

Octavia followed me to the living room, her hooves making far less noise than I expected them to. When we arrived in front of the merrily crackling fire, she pulled the blankets off of Vinyl -- who, to my embarrassment, did not seem to like wearing anything on her torso to bed -- before settling herself behind her pseudo-sister and covering them both. As for me, I practically fell back into the free lounge chair and stretched myself out, yawning long and strongly before settling more comfortably.

It only took a few minutes of silently watching over the three girls around the room before I began to feel my eyelids drooping, and I didn’t fight it as I finally shut them and the world began to fade away. Before the dream realm could draw me into its embrace, I had one, final thought that I felt would set the course for what was my new life.

The world I grew up in was finished, and things were never going to be the same...but maybe, just maybe, we’d be all right.

Chapter 8

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Because I was getting into a more regular sleeping pattern than I had been dealing with the past few days, I woke with the sun on the day after my deep heart-to-heart with Celestia. Bailey was already shifting around at my feet, which helped to bring me back to the world of the living, and I groaned slightly as I stretched. Let it be said that a lounge chair wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to sleep, but it sure beat the floor.

In the quiet of dawn, I rose to my feet and wiggled different parts of my body, eliciting multiple pops from joints that were stiff from sleeping completely still for hours. After a final trio of pops from my spine, I released a relaxed sigh and shuffled toward the kitchen. True to my word, I began to get out different ingredients to prepare breakfast for the house, simultaneously taking stock of how our food stores were holding up so far. True that supplies were going to go faster than I originally planned for, but so long as my greenhouse allowed us to grow things, we would be fine. Besides, I would find a way to make this all work -- for better or worse, I had four other people and a dog relying on me, and I wasn’t going to let them down.

I tried to be as quiet as possible, but the clatter of the skillet against the stove caused someone to wake, and I soon heard the soft padding of non-equine feet behind me, and sans canine claws.

“Morning, Jenna.” I greeted quietly, just before I felt her embrace me from behind and yawn loudly. I just chuckled at her, reaching behind and giving a little playful tickle of her ribs as I asked, “Sleep well?”

I felt her nod against my back before stepping away, yawning once again. “...yeah, pretty well. Forgot how nice it was to sleep in front of the fire in this place. It’s been years since I’ve been up here.”

I poured the remainder of the corned beef hash into the pan and began to warm it up as I picked out a bowl from the cabinet and poured some of the powdered eggs into it along with a dash of water, stirring it vigorously with a spoon as I turned around to face Jenna. “Do me a favor and let Bailey out?”

Jenna’s eyes were still half-closed, but she nodded her assent as she walked back toward the living room, snapping her fingers once and leading my dog to the front door. I went back to preparing breakfast for the house, losing myself in the monotonous task and just letting my mind wander. The obvious thoughts came to mind of course, such as the state of the world at large and my personal situation, but oddly enough, I found my mind drifting to Celestia and just how much I had learned about her in only an hour or so.

The prior night, I hadn’t come to know Celestia by her telling me in length about her life, but rather I experienced her thoughts, feelings, and emotions from some of the most powerful memories in her long life. That alone was enough to give me an accurate idea of who she was as a person -- or pony, as the case was -- which only brought one main question to my mind: how could someone so confident, who spoke casually about “royal harems”, suddenly become so flustered when I became the assertive one? Was she truly not used to others treating her like another person; was she that lonely? I can’t say that it was going to be easy being seen as the go-to for someone that had seen hundreds of lifetimes, but I guess there were worse friendships I could be a part of.

I had to admit, though: she had some nice tits for an ancient alien-pony-person.

“Alex, what the hay’s wrong with you?”

I whipped my head toward the voice, finding Vinyl staring at me with her mouth slightly agape. Though I knew mind-reading would be impossible for her, I couldn’t help but feel guilty as I replied, “W-what do you mean?”

“Dude,” she shot back, pointing to me with an odd look, “you were standing there, stirring the bowl, and licking your lips like crazy. Are you getting sick or something?”

I stopped what I was doing, looking down at the yellow goop that would become scrambled eggs, and brought a finger to my lips. Sure enough, they were slimy and wet, as if I had...well, like I had just been licking them excessively. I felt both ashamed at my thoughts -- which, as far as I knew, were still private -- and a little ashamed with how stupid I looked in front of one of my guests. With a hard shake of my head, I threw the thoughts away and focused back on the task at hand, instead.

“I’m fine. I was just thinking, is all.” I answered with a helpless shrug, hoping she would buy it.

“About what, food?”

“Yeah,” I breathed out, snorting a soft laugh, “food.”

“Are you lying?”

I couldn’t really deny it, and neither did I find reason to. “...probably.”

“...are you thinking lewd things?”

“It’s Celestia’s fault.” I answered plainly. “She’s a perv.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed as Vinyl came up beside me and leaned against the counter, her loose shirt just draping over her as haphazardly as her hair. There was something oddly attractive about the look, and her ruby-red eyes only added to the whole thing. Not that I’d outright tell her that, but I’m pretty sure she’d find out at some point anyway.

“Y’know,” she began, moving her head around to pop her neck vertebrae with a groan, “if you’d told me that just four days ago, I’d have never believed you. The princess has proven otherwise though, I think.” She then nudged me with her elbow, smirking. “So for now, I’ll let you off the hook.”

I smiled wryly and turned my attention to the sizzling pan, using a spatula to move the hash around. “Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll do or say something at some point that you can get pissed at me for. I have a habit of sticking my foot in my mouth.” Turning my head to catch her eye, I added, “To be honest though, I don’t really think like that all that much. I just like to rile you up; you’re cute when you’re flustered.”

My eyes had turned back to the pan in front of me, but I knew Vinyl was blushing when she stammered out, “...s-shut up.”

I leaned into her, nudging her shoulder with my own. “Aw, you know I only tease ya because I care.”

I didn’t have to look at her to know her face had colored further, and it took Vinyl a few awkward moments to force out, “So, um...what are we doing today?”

“Well,” I began, pulling the hash off of the range and pouring it into a bowl, “I’m going to teach all of you how to lay some traps for some of these little animals around here that we can eat, as well as a few tracking tips so that we can all keep an eye on what animals -- or people -- are in the area with us. More alert ears and eyes means a better chance for us to detect danger before it gets too close.”

“Yeah,” she replied, reaching into the hash bowl and picking out a morsel to pop into her mouth, “Octavia and I aren’t really the outdoorsy type, so I guess some pointers couldn’t hurt.”

“Then,” I continued, “assuming nothing exceedingly bad happens, I thought we could do a little scouting further out to check for anyone lost out here. It’s unlikely we’ll find anyone, but it couldn’t hurt to look.”

I dropped a bit of oil into the pan again, and spread it around before pouring the mixture of eggs in. With a spatula, I whipped it around quickly to make the eggs nice and fluffy as they cooked, doing my best not to think about what was likely the same thing on Vinyl’s mind.

Unfortunately, she thought it prudent to make her thoughts known, and in doing so, bring my mind to the issue as well. “What if we do find someone?”

I continued my work, but sighed near-silently as I did so. “I don’t want to get your hopes up about that, Vinyl. With the shock of what’s happened as well as the cold and anything else that may have happened to them, it’s unlikely anyone we find will still be alive. It’s below freezing outside, and anyone left out in that for longer than a few minutes without adequate shielding or shelter will die.” I glanced to Vinyl and nodded solemnly. “I’m lucky to have found you and Octavia when I did. If you had been outside much longer, I wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything to revive either of you. Now,” I brought the now-cooked eggs off of the range and poured them into a second bowl, bringing the two to the table, “on the off-chance we do find someone, we’ll need to bring them here, of course -- until they’re well enough to travel again, at the very least.”

Vinyl took a seat at the table in front of me, her eyes wide. “You would really just let them go?”

I shrugged helplessly. “It’s not my right to make them stay. Many people who might be travelling right now are looking for family, and that’s their right to do so. Right now, I have four people and a dog to look out for, so I can’t force anyone to stay against their will, even if I wanted to.”

Vinly looked down at the table, though not at the food. Her expression morphed into something slightly upset as she voiced, “I don’t like the idea of people being stuck out there, cold and alone, while we’re safe here.”

I walked around and placed a hand on her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze as I passed. “We can’t save everyone Vinyl. With things being the way they are, and with winter being in full swing, we need to focus on keeping what we already have safe. I won’t turn people away if they come looking for help, but neither am I going to put us in danger to try and save the world.” As I started pulling out a pitcher of cold water from the fridge, I pointed her toward the other room. “Do me a favor and let everyone else know it’s time for breakfast.”

Vinyl stood from her seat with mumbled assent, but I could see that her posture alone was quite a bit more morose now. I didn’t like the idea of leaving others to the elements any more than she did, but I knew that our survival trumped theirs. Maybe later on, years after all this had blown over, I would hate and curse myself for my choices, but at least we would be alive for me to do so.

For now, we could only focus on survival, and that would have to be enough.

Fingertips along my back gave me shivers, and I looked to see a smirking Celestia pass behind me as I set out the plates and silverware. She was only wearing her underclothes again, but by now I was a bit more desensitized to it. That’s not to say that I didn’t have to fight to keep from staring, but I didn’t feel like my face was going to catch fire, either.

“Morning, Princess. Fancy some hot food?” I questioned rhetorically before spooning some food on a plate and pulling a chair out for her.

She took her seat with surprising grace, and then looked up at me with a smile. “It smells wonderful, Alex. Thank you.”

“Just doing my part to keep dat ass from disappearing.” I quipped with my own smug grin, propping myself against the counter as I waited for everyone else to arrive. A few moments later, Vinyl and Octavia entered and took their own seats, but Jenna remained curiously absent. With a glance to the two other ponies I asked, “Jenna hasn’t come back yet?”

Octavia shook her head as she washed down a bite with a swig of water. “No, she hasn’t returned.”

I felt myself frown unconsciously, and I made my way to the living room. I sat down and slid my feet into my boots and laced them up, then grabbed my coat and pistol before shouting “stay here” to everyone else in the cabin.

I made my way outside and found Jenna’s tracks rather quickly, following them through the field in front of the cabin. My concern grew as I noticed where her tracks lengthened, indicating she had begun running at some point, though the reason remained unclear. I picked up my own pace, readying my pistol and keeping my head on a swivel for any danger.

Faint coughing and sobs caught my attention, and I followed them around a hilly bend before seeing something that set off alarms in my head: felled trees and blood-smeared snow. I slowed and brandished my weapon as I approached silently, reticent to announce my presence in case the area was still dangerous. Finally, when I crested the hill, I arrived on the site of what was clearly a battle of some sort. Blood was smeared or splashed over much of the snow-covered ground in the area, and the bodies of five or six giant, furred creatures could be seen, all missing their heads. Bat-like wings were visible on their backs, and what looked like a scorpion tail came out of their behinds.

I surveyed the scene further, still following the hiccuping sobs I heard, and made my way around one of the bodies to find a sight that both saddened and relieved me.

Jenna was kneeled on the ground, Bailey next to her, as she looked down at the body of an armored, winged pony woman in ornate, stark white armor. A large puncture in the abdomen of the armor was clearly visible, as well as strange, black veins that ran over the face of the yellow-furred pony. The eyes were closed and the chest still, which led me to conclude the pony was obviously dead.

I approached and took a knee next to Jenna, seeing a small puddle of vomit next to the body, where she had probably been sick because of the sight before her. I slung my arm around her shoulders, and Jenna turned and clung to me as if I were her only lifeline in the entire world at that moment. I couldn’t do anything else, so I simply held her as she wept.

I had been forced to swallow hard a few times because of my own nausea, but I had decided that we would return the body of the deceased pony to Celestia, along with its weapons. True, it took awhile, and the body was heavy, but I had a feeling Celestia would want everything returned to her, if only for some sort of closure.

Jenna hadn’t spoken the entire way back, only staring straight ahead with a glazed expression. I wasn’t doing so well myself either, but living five years with an uncle that was a mortician had helped me handle dead bodies a little easier than most.

Finally, after the long trudge, we made it back to the cabin, and Jenna went inside without a word. I set the body down in the snow before calling for Celestia, then waited patiently for the alicorn to arrive. I knew the situation wasn’t going to be easy for anyone to deal with, but I knew that I would rather show Celestia outright than try and hide it from her.

Truth in all things, after all.

Celestia emerged from the cabin, wearing that same fuzzy coat and a worried frown, before spotting the body I stood next to. The frown fell away as she slowly plodded over, then took a knee next to the body. I could only wait patiently as she did so, unsure of what else I could do.

“Barricade: one of my finest.” Celestia muttered with a deep sigh. “The half-sister of one of my other, closest friends.” She brought her face close to that of the pony, and shook her head. “Manticore venom…” Celestia stood and looked to me with a frown. “How many?”

I cleared my throat and answered, “I counted at least five. Big, hairy things with a scorpion tail, right?”

Celestia nodded gravely, looking back to the body silently for many minutes. After those minutes of silence, Karyll’a flashed into her hand in the form of a straight sword, and she plunged it into the neck of the body without a word. My un-manly squeak couldn’t be stopped, but I knew Celestia better than to think she would be doing something like this without a reason, so I remained silent otherwise. As I watched, the body began to smolder before bursting into flames, which I was forced to look away from as the smell of burning flesh and the heat overwhelmed me. In only seconds, the heat died down, and when I looked again, it was to see only a set of armor laying in the snow, which Celestia retrieved with a wince of pain from her wound. I reached to help her, but she shook her head and waved me away. I grabbed a crystalline sickle-like weapon and the exotic pistol nearby before following Celestia into the house.

Celestia carefully set the armor in the corner of the room, stacking it the best she could before placing the helmet on top of the pile and stepping away, allowing me to place the weapons I gathered. I could see Octavia and Vinyl watching from the kitchen, but they didn’t interrupt as we all just watched Celestia stare at the damaged armor.

A nearly-silent sob was soon followed by another as Celestia’s shoulders began to shake, and sniffles escaped even as she tried to hold in her cries. Only a few moments passed before she bowed her head and flared her wings.

“In life, you were one of Equestria’s most diligent protectors. You chased the shadows away, wherever they lurked, and were my sword and shield time and time again. You served without question, content only to protect the weak and defend against the wicked; a nobler cause, there is not.” Celestia’s composure broke briefly as she let out a strangled cry, and her next words were broken and hoarse. “But to me, you were my friend and confidant. You were my light when darkness threatened to swallow me before Luna returned, and you offered a listening ear whenever I needed, even if you did not always agree or understand. You were a loyal and loving friend, and I will never forget you for all of my days.” At this, Celestia placed her palm on her chest and bowed shallowly. “Elysium will know a great warrior and pony, one whose place none can ever fill. I pray that I see you again, one day.”

She then walked to the hearth, reaching into it without so much as a blink of hesitation, and rummaged around a bit before pulling out her own armor, which was covered in ash. Before I could remark on her apparent immunity to the fire, she grabbed the damaged chestguard of her fallen friend and placed it atop the burning logs. She then cleaned her own armor off with the brush by the fireplace, then swept up the ash and made her way to the sofa, slowly and carefully sitting down upon it.

We all simply watched silently, unwilling to break said silence with our own words of attempted comfort.

“This is why I cannot stay, Alex.” Celestia muttered sadly, rubbing the golden armor reverently. “This is why I fight: to protect deaths like that from happening.”

“You can’t save everyone, Celestia.” I retorted, repeating my words from earlier in the day.

“,” she answered after a moment, “but I can save as many as I can. I have no other purpose, in my heart. This sun does not heed my call, and Equestria has the leaders it was meant to have from the beginning -- the leaders it deserves.” She sniffled a bit, letting out a long breath. “I am nothing else, at heart. This is who I was meant to be, and I must answer my spirit’s call.”

I felt my expression harden unconsciously at her words, and I took a seat next to her. “You’re not going to do anyone any good by killing yourself, though. You’re still healing, and until you’re in tip-top shape, you’re staying with us.”

Celestia glared at me out of the corner of her eye. “I’m not stupid, Alex.”

“Could have fooled me.” I shot back, ignoring the gasps of shock that came from the ponies behind us. “It looks to me like you’re blaming yourself for something beyond your control. That, in its simplest form, is stupid.” I thrust my index finger in the corner of the room, which still held the armor and arms of the fallen warrior. “Do you think she was blaming you in the last moments of her life?”

“Alex-” Celestia attempted.

Do you?” I growled out, holding her gaze firmly, and unflinchingly. Even as I said it, faint memories about the pony in question surfaced in my mind, and it only added more fuel to my frustration. “You know as well as I do that she considered you family -- she loved you -- and we both know she would slap you in the back of the head for thinking the way you are now, Sunbutt.” At any other time, I would be furiously questioning where the words and thoughts were coming from, but I couldn’t stop them as they flowed through me, the memories becoming clearer and sharper. “What did she say to you a week ago, when you said your goodbyes?”

Celestia’s mouth snapped shut before she could interrupt me, and her ears flattened against her head as she glanced away. The room was completely silent as we all waited for her to respond, until she finally uttered, “If I should learn anything from her, it should be that my life is just as important as everyone else’s, and that it’s okay to live for myself. I should let myself have fun, relax a little, and maybe even…” She stopped herself before she could finish the sentence, though I (somehow) knew what she was going to say. For her own privacy, I didn’t mention it, but we both knew what she had been about to voice aloud.

I nodded before moving and taking a seat next to her, sitting silently for a few moments to let her think for a bit. Then, choosing my moment, I pressed forward. “The dead don’t give two shits about vengeance for their death, and the good ones don’t want those they care about to destroy themselves because of their loss. Barricade would want you to remember what she taught you, and the moments you shared together, not let her loss destroy who you are. Honor her by living your life to the fullest, not by throwing your own life away because of grief; that’s not what she’d want, and you know it.”

I was a little surprised that, after a minute or two of complete silence, I felt Celestia’s gentle hand grasp my own as she finally turned her eyes to me. She stared at me for a few moments before a faint, upturning of her lips preceded a simple, yet heartfelt, “Thank you, Alex.” We held each other’s gaze for a few more moments -- just before it became awkward -- then Celestia urged, “You should check on Jenna.”

I rubbed my thumb along the soft-as-angels fur of her hand and nodded, silently standing and making my way to the bedroom.

Jenna was easy to notice, even in the dim light of the room: she was sitting plainly at the head of the bed, holding the radio in her hands and cranking it every now and then to keep the battery charged. She glanced up at me on my entrance, but said nothing as she turned her eyes back to the device with glassy eyes.

“I always thought I’d be able to handle it, you know.” she near-whispered, her voice just barely carrying across the room to me. “I always thought, ‘It’s just a dead body; what’s there to freak out about,’ but then you see one and everything just…” Jenna shuddered briefly, just barely keeping her composure as she continued to stare at the static-y radio. “After the initial shock of, ‘Holy shit, a dead body,’ you start to really think about it. That…” she swallowed hard as her emotions bubbled up within, and much as I wanted to offer a hug, I knew it would be the wrong thing to do for Jenna in particular, “that was a person not too long ago, with hopes and dreams, and emotions. She wasn’t just ‘a body’, she had a name and people who love her and will miss her now that she’s gone.”

Much as they confused me, the memories that had arisen during my words with Celestia were still clear as day to me, and they gave me the ability to give my friend insight into the one she had found.

“She had a sister, a husband, and a little girl that had to say goodbye to her.” I confirmed, walking over and taking a seat a respectful distance from Jenna. Her confused glance to me prompted me to elaborate, so I dug deep and remembered all I could. “Her name was Barricade, and she knew what she was getting into before this all happened. She knew the chances of her getting through this alive were slim -- just as it was for everyone -- and she had prepared herself for that months in advance.” I shook my head ruefully as a thought occurred to me. “One of her greatest fears was dying alone, you know, but more than that, she feared her loved ones sharing her fate.” I pointed to the door. “Celestia was one of them, and we saved her; God-willing, the rest of them are okay, too.”

Jenna’s mouth had dropped open in shock at my words, and after a few moments of gaping like a fish, she squeaked out, “H-how could you…?”

I just shook my head and leaned back against the headboard. “I don’t know, but it’s probably something to do with Karyll’a and what happened last night.”

Her eyebrow raised as she stared skeptically at me. “What happened last night?” She looked around the bed, pulling her free hand away from the topsheet. “Should I take a shower after sitting in this bed?”

I rolled my eyes despite the situation, and shook my head. “No, not like that. It’s…” I thought hard for a moment on how to explain it to Jenna in a way that she’d easily understand, “using Karyll’a, Celestia showed me who she was; I didn’t have to talk to her about her life, because for a few minutes, I lived it.” I shook my head again at Jenna’s dumbstruck expression. “She has a sister, and I don’t know if it’s ponies in general or just her, but the love she feels for her sister…” I let out a deep sigh even as a deep warmth spread throughout me from a love that wasn’t my own, “I mean fuck, I didn’t even know it was possible to love someone that much. Humans like to talk about ‘true love’ or ‘all-consuming love’, but we really have no idea what that’s actually like. The love that Celestia feels for her sister is on a completely different level from anything any of us have likely ever felt; frankly, I don’t think humans are emotionally capable of feeling love the way Celestia can.” I snorted a mirthless laugh at the thought. “She really cared about that pony we found, too. Knowing and having felt what she does, even if only for a moment, I don’t even know how she survives losing someone; I literally can’t fathom it. That sort of agony would destroy a human being, but she’s been dealing with loss for thousands of years, and yet she still presses on.”

“I don’t mean to sound like an asshole here,” Jenna jumped in, “but what does any of that have to do with us dealing with what we saw?”

I glanced to Jenna, smiling a little sadly. “Because it never gets any easier, even for her. What we’re feeling right now about that whole thing, she would feel the same way about someone she didn’t know. It’s still a loss of life, and even if we don’t know the person, it’s still a tragedy.” I slowly reached out and placed my hand on Jenna’s shoulder, relieved when she didn’t pull away. “It’s going to be hard to get through, but we will get through it.” I gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, and smiled a little more brightly. “We just have to stick together, and I don’t have any intention of leaving you alone to deal with it on your own.”

Jenna nodded slowly before frowning and looking to the door. “Well, what about Celestia then?”

I followed her gaze and let out a long breath. “She is hurting, and will be for awhile, but she’s also had a lot of practice with the grieving process. She’s had to learn to deal with it on her own for centuries, so she tends to be a little more closed-off than normal.” Again I smiled, this time a bit more genuinely. “She knows she can talk to me if she needs to, though; that’ll be enough, I think.”

“What’s with that?”

I turned to Jenna and raised my eyebrow. “What’s with what?”

“That:” she pointed at me accusingly, “you smiled dreamily and sighed wistfully.”

I scoffed and turned away, since I felt my face warming against my will. “I did not.”

“Dude, you so did.” she teased, elbowing me in the ribs. While I wanted to immediately deny it, I knew doing so would only add fuel to the fire. Unfortunately, my silence did more harm than good as she crowed, “I knew it, you’ve got the hots for the alien princess!”

I elbowed her back harder, and growled, “Shut up! I do not!” I held her gaze for a moment or two, my glare burning into her grinning face, before sighing and slumping against the bedframe. “All right fine, I think she’s hot, but you know as well as I do that doesn’t mean I like her like that. I’m not Captain James T Kirk here, and besides that, she’s…” I deflated even further, if it was possible, “...she’s leaving.”

“Have you tried…” Jenna began, only to stop as she thought for a few moments, “...have you tried just asking her to stay?”

I shook my head at the mere thought. “I can’t. Besides the fact that she innately feels like she needs to go out and ‘fight the good fight’, we barely know each other. I don’t believe in ‘destined love’ or any of that bullshit, and you know that; why would I ask a near-stranger to stay with me when I already know she has prior engagements? It’s not fair to her, and I know she’d say no anyway.”

Jenna sat silently next to me for a long few minutes before asking, “Could you see yourself with someone like her?” As I turned my head to look at her, Jenna shook her head with a frown. “Forget that she’s an alien or royalty: if you met a girl like her, could you see yourself being with said girl?”

I wanted to deny it out of principle -- I wanted to argue that the fact she was a fucking pervert was a problem -- but then, I really thought about it.

Celestia was a very complex soul, which was to be expected, but she was also kind and welcoming despite her age. She was intelligent, witty, and -- dare I say it -- charming despite her overly-flirtatious attitude. Just from what little I had come to know about her, she experienced emotions in a way that I could only guess at, and though she was open about who she was and how she felt about things, her past was still a mystery to me. Regardless, I believed she was a genuinely good person with only her people’s best interests at heart. She was easy to get along with and while wise on a level humans will likely never know, she had a youthful spark within that was as radiant as the sun itself.

And let’s not forget that body...mmm…

“And now you’re ‘mmm-ing’ to yourself.” Jenna pointed out, a smirk curling her lips when I turned to look at her.

I turned away and thought on my mental findings for a moment longer before shrugging weakly. “Yeah, I guess I could see myself with someone like her. Yet again, though: she’s leaving.”

“Yeah,” Jenna muttered as she shifted, eventually laying her head against my thigh, “but what if she comes back?”

I turned my eyes to Jenna, frowning gently. “I’m not sure I like what you’re getting at, Jen.”

She shrugged, closing her eyes and stretching her hands above her head. She groaned out, “So, be someone for her to come back to.” As she opened her eyes, my look of disbelief must have been clear, since she saw fit to explain. “For chrissakes, the last girl you took out was me, on a ‘friend date’, two years ago. I’ve even been busier than that, so you have no excuse.”

I rolled my eyes at her words. “You’re awfully concerned about my love life, Jen. Sure you don’t want to give it another go?”

Jenna chuckled and shook her head. “Don’t flatter yourself, Mr. Viking. Besides...I can do better than you.”

“Ouch.” I shot back, shoving her playfully away before letting out my own soft laugh.

We settled into companionable silence for a long few minutes, simply enjoying the strong bond we had forged over years, unwilling to break the tranquil silence.

“I worry about you, you know.” she whispered, reaching up and bringing my hand to her face, manipulating my digits with her own. “I know that you’re good at being the decision-maker in shitstorms, but I also know that you’re not invincible. Your mental and emotional wellbeing is just as important as your physical state, and you know as well as I do that burdens are best shared instead of kept to oneself.”

“That’s what I have you for.” I countered gently, patting her shoulder with my free hand.

Jenna frowned briefly as she continued playing with my hand. “That’s not the same, Alex. A platonic gay friend isn’t a substitute for a real connection with someone you care about romantically. I mean, you miss out on kisses, entire days spent in bed together, and let’s not forget make-up sex.” At my rolling eyes, she chuckled before her expression sobered a bit. “But really, you miss out on someone that’s willing to build a life with you, maybe even have kids and...I don’t know, married shit. All I’m saying is that you’re missing out on a lot because you’re reluctant to commit.”

“So I should commit to a sun-goddess who’s going to leave on some world tour of badassery -- because of which I might never see her again?” I questioned rhetorically. “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea; let’s do that.”

“So,” Jenna began, tapping me in the chest with the back of her fingertips, “give her a reason to come back. Something tells me the girl probably doesn’t have too many people she’s close to, and everyone could use a little love.”

I shook my head, tapping Jenna’s breastbone right back. “I said I think she’s hot; I never said anything about love.”

“You just said you could see yourself with someone like her,” she started counting off on her fingers, “you admit that she’s physically attractive, and the two of you understand one another. If that’s not a good, strong foundation for something more, I don’t know what is. Most regular people go off of liking the same music, or having similar hobbies, but you two actually get each other on a deeper level.” She let my hand go and bored her gaze into my eyes. “Don’t pass something good up just because you’re afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” I shot back with more force than necessary, immediately pulling back at the realization, “just cautious. It just wouldn’t make sense for me to devote time and energy to someone that I might never see again. That’s wasted effort, and you know I’m all about efficiency.”

She then sat up and pivoted, shoving me away forcefully. “Then you’re wasting time. That ‘Barricade’ pony wasn’t my friend, and you can bet that with as much love as you claim Celestia feels for those she cares about, she’s in agony right now. I got to deal with my own issues about all this, but Miss Sunbutt needs you more than me.” At my glance back to her, Jenna shooed me away with her hands. “Go on; I’ll be fine.”

I stared at her for a moment before nodding slowly, moving to the door and opening it...only to find a certain pair of ponies poised and ready to knock.

Vinyl looked up at me and smiled sheepishly. “You were in there awhile, so we just wanted to make sure you were both okay.”

Octavia nodded in agreement before looking into the dim room. “Do you mind if we talk to her a bit?”

I glanced back into the room to Jenna, who was looking up at me curiously. “Two pony-ladies want to give you some pleasurable company. You up for it?” It was only then that I’d realized the way my words could be twisted, but it was too late.

Jenna’s lips slowly curled into a grin as she replied, “I don’t know; do they mind calling me ‘Mistress’?”

Vinyl’s hand met her face as she groaned out, “Dear Celestia, there’s two of them!”

Jenna chuckled softly and shook her head. “I’m sorry, I’m just kidding...mostly. Truthfully though, yeah, some company would be nice since Alex is leaving me all alone now.”

As I turned back to the two ponies, I noticed Octavia’s borderline-accusing gaze rest on me, which I only was able to respond with a, “What?”

She lifted her gray-furred hand to the room. “Jenna needs you as well, Alex.”

I shook my head. “She’ll be okay -- her words, not mine. Also, someone else needs my company more, right now.”

The two ponies glanced back at their princess, who was silently staring into the corner of the room, nothing but her twitching ears moving. They then glanced back to me and let me pass before stepping into the room and closing the door, leaving me to make my way down the short hallway and back into the living room.

Celestia was seated -- upright, for once -- on the sofa, her elbows resting on her knees. Her wings were brought around and draped over her body like a large, feathery blanket as she stared at the gear of her fallen friend, silent as a cemetery. Other than a subtle ear flick, she didn’t otherwise acknowledge my presence as I rounded behind the sofa and took a seat adjacent to her. Instead of initiating a conversation, I simply offered silent support with my presence alone. Save for the crackling of the fire and the occasional sounds of Bailey moving around the room, all was completely silent for quite a long time. After a good stint of time -- which could have been over an hour, for all I knew -- I felt Celestia’s velvet-soft hand inch into the grasp of my own, and I offered a gentle squeeze as a silent acknowledgement that I was there for her.

“It’s always difficult.” she breathed out, so silently that it was easy to imagine she was talking to herself, until she looked at me from the corner of her eyes. “Normal people like to imagine that after experiencing so much loss, I become somewhat numb to the experience…” she then retracted her wings and scooted closer until our shoulders were touching, breathing deeply before she continued,” ...but no, you and I both know that’s not the truth.”

“I know because of your memories.” I pointed out, pulling my hand away from hers, only to sling it around her shoulders as I offered what physical support I could. “Honestly, before you came along and showed me different, I believed the same thing...but you just get better at dealing with the grief over the years, I suppose. It never hurts any less, but I guess to keep your sanity, you have to become an expert at mourning.” Again, we sat silently for a long while, simply enjoying the presence of another understanding soul.

“Does it bother you -- all these memories of mine cropping up?” Celestia voiced, asking the question that preempted the question I was going to ask.

I shrugged slightly, not relinquishing my grip on her. “Not really. It’s weird, yes, but there’s a definite break between your memories and mine, so as long as I keep track of who I am, I know which are which. What I’m curious of is why it’s happening in the first place; I thought that memory-thingy was only for last night.”

Celestia shook her head before leaning it against mine, her silky hair draping over my back and shoulder. “I can’t pick and choose which memories you received other than limiting it to the strongest ones, so as your mind works through all the new information, you’ll find you have at least a century or so worth of memories that aren’t your own. Thankfully, as evidenced by your continued life, the human mind is far more malleable than that of a pony’s.” My rebuke was stopped as she raised her free hand and placed it on my lips. “Your attunement to Karyll’a proved that before last night, so I was confident you would be fine; Karyll’a searches for very specific things in the people she calls friend, and a flexible psyche is one of them. A flexible mind assures your values and morals are relaxed enough that you can know me without worshiping me...or going insane.”

“Modest, aren’t we?” I needled, gently elbowing her.

She shrugged. “I’m speaking from experience, unfortunately. About seven hundred years ago, there was actually a group of ponies that started praying to me; do you have any idea how embarrassing that is? I mean yes, I am the Sun incarnate, but I am not omnipotent, and I don’t like it when people assume I am. Omnipotence is something I simply cannot live up to, so those who believe in me for it will be disappointed.”

“I don’t.” I replied firmly, in what she likely believed was a comforting manner. Unfortunately for her, I continued and shattered the illusion. “You’re just as jacked up and perverted as anyone else, so you’re definitely not what most humans would consider a goddess. You’re more like a fallen angel, in that respect.”

I felt more than heard as she let out a soft laugh, smiling at the knowledge that she was still able to do so, so soon after saying farewell to another friend. Still, rather than instantly fire back with a witty response, Celestia sat quietly after my words. Because I was quite comfortable with silences, I simply held her close and waited for her to speak, if/when she was going to do so. The seconds ticked away, eventually fading into at least fifteen minutes, before she finally spoke.

“Alex…” she spoke, just above a whisper, “if it would make you more comfortable, I would wear my full armor and put a barrier of a blanket between us, but I ask that you stay with me tonight.” Her request surprised me a bit, as it wasn’t the playful flirting that she would normally use with me. Instead, she sounded just as vulnerable as I already knew she was...and she was asking me to be there for her. I didn’t feel like this was a trap, nor that I was going to be teased all night long, so I could only ask one question:

“Are you sure you want me there?” I prodded, turning my face to her. “I’m not the best at comforting people; you know that.”

She hummed softly. “True, you aren’t an expert...but I know you’ll understand. When the nightmares come like I know they will, I want patience and understanding over platitudes and heartfelt, yet empty promises of safety.”

I shook my head sullenly. “Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that you’re the ‘safe-maker’ here, not me.”

I felt a tickle along my back before the feeling of Celestia’s massive wing extended around my shoulder, pulling me tighter to her, with her arm sliding around my back and under my arm to hug me. She let out a long breath as she completed the actions, her hair obscuring her eyes. “I may be a warrior at heart, but even I desire someplace comfortable to lay my head. You, Alex, comfort me, and so I desire your presence more than I do a protector.”

Despite the situation, I found myself smiling. “I’m glad to have been of service, Tia.”

“My sister calls me that.” Celestia giggled out, and just by her tone, I could tell she was not as morose as she could be, considering the events of the day thus far.

My smile widened at the words. “I’d like to meet her, one day. She’s adorable as a little pony, and has the cutest blush when she gets embarrassed.”

“That’s my Luna: cute, sensitive and kind, almost to a fault.” Celestia answered, letting out a long sigh following her statement while simultaneously resting her head on my shoulder. I’ll admit, I briefly thought about just how intimate this position was, only to throw the thought away -- Celestia had just been through something severely distressing, and needed support. If this was what made her feel better, then I would offer what I could -- within reason -- to help her heal.

Already, the day seemed to have bled into weeks and months, just from what we had all experienced in just the morning. However, I knew that work still had to be done, and I would need to pass on some of my knowledge about survival to the ponies that needed it.

But...maybe a few more minutes beneath the beautiful wing of a pretty pony princess could be accepted.

Chapter 9

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All things considered, I suppose we could have been worse off. As it was, teaching Vinyl and Octavia how to set traps for small animals did wonders to take both my mind and theirs off of what had happened not too long ago, and it was a practical learning experience for all involved -- it had in fact been six years since I had put my skills to any use, but it would now keep us alive, so I needed to be sure we all knew how to do our part to work together and survive.

All of that having been said, finding a dead body and evidence of dangerous predators in the area didn’t do much to raise our confidence.

I knew how to survive in the wilderness of Earth -- even with other large predators in the area -- but the addition of Equestrian fauna had thrown a wrench in the whole thing. The fact of the matter was, I found myself very unsure of how I would need to work and live around things like wyverns, manticores, popping cats, and chimaerae; for those, I relied on Vinyl’s surprisingly extensive knowledge of Equestrian wild animals to be sure I wasn’t unknowingly drawing undue attention to ourselves, and Octavia’s uncommon physical strength and agility to help protect us from anything that might catch us unawares. We hadn’t come across anything yet, but truthfully, it was only a matter of time.

In retrospect, I suppose I should have purchased a bigger gun, but, luckily for me, I had two strong pony ladies to back me up the whole time.

Vinyl was a walking knowledgebase, full of information both useful and entertaining. As she explained it, unicorns were best known for their magical prowess, as they tended to be physically inferior to the other two pony subspecies, so they often focused on gaining knowledge and mastery of the arcane. However, since Vinyl knew ahead of time that she would be deprived of her magic for some time to come, before the whole “event” had happened, she spent the preceding years learning and memorizing every bit of useful information she could; that would ensure that, even without her magic, she would be a force to be reckoned with. As it stood, she was well-versed in the arts of alchemy, astronomy, magitech engineering, electronics, acoustic physics, and even minor biology, just to name a few fields. Also, by the way her friend Octavia explained it, Vinyl was a musical prodigy (which was rare for a unicorn), and even her magic was sound-based.

By comparison, Octavia was affectionately dubbed “the muscle” by Vinyl, and the moniker stood true simply by observation. After only a few days to recover from a traumatic event, Octavia was physically stronger than I was, and her admittedly attractive curves belied a hidden strength that was part nature, and part nurture. I learned that earth ponies (the name for ponies without wings or a horn) were occasionally considered the lesser of the three subspecies (usually by unicorn nobles), but in truth, they made up for the lack of the ability to manipulate magic and fly by being uncommonly physically strong and resilient, as well as having better hearing and a denser bone-structure than the other two types of ponies. Historically, earth ponies were known for tilling the land and feeding the masses through farming and livestock, and to do so, they had to be strong. In general, earth ponies made the best farmers, musicians, dancers, and front-line soldiers, using their augmented physical strength, dexterity, agility, and creativity to overcome nearly all obstacles they came across.

Honestly, being in the presence of two specialized creatures, I felt rather mundane by comparison. Humans weren’t the strongest creature that walked the Earth, the quickest, nor the longest-lived, but we had somehow fought our way to the top of Earth’s food chain, through our intelligence and ingenuity. What humans lacked in the physical attributes, we made up for with endurance and cunning, being able to outlast or outwit all the other creatures we came across, using our technology to surmount our shortcomings. The problem was, these ponies outclassed us at nearly every avenue: they had their own technology, which in most ways was equal to our own, as well as being physically superior to us as a species; from what Vinyl had told me, a strong earth pony male guard in full armor could outrun a wolf, and was able to flip a car simply by ramming it with a sprinting shoulder. Unicorns could manipulate the world -- and the minds of people -- through magic, and pegasi had the ability to control meteorological events, or even completely stop them.

As I conversed with them, I came to realize that one of only a few things that humans did better than ponies was war, and I still don’t think that’s something any “civilized” race wants to be known for being the best at. In truth, humans didn’t have an excuse not to be good at war, as we had basically been finding reasons to kill one another since the dawn of our species, so it made sense we had learned better and more efficient ways to do so. I explained to Vinyl and Octavia about just a few of the methods of combat we used, and they were amazed at our ability to have more than one type -- guerilla warfare, for example, was an unknown concept to them, but they quickly recognized the usefulness of ambush tactics in unknown terrain by a smaller force to overcome a larger, stronger adversary. Then, just for fun, I told them about one of mankind’s most famous military moments in history, trying my best to keep Hollywood’s exaggerations out of it.

“So wait a minute,” Vinyl broke in, momentarily pausing in her setting of a simple snare, “a few hundred of these ‘Spartans’ held back, like, a million men?”

I shrugged idly. “History books say it was a million, but modern researchers recently found it was likely to be closer to a hundred to maybe 150,000 men, and the Spartans probably had somewhere in the number of six to seven hundred on their side. Still, you can see the vast difference in forces between them.” I nodded to Vinyl, motioning for her to continue her work as I spoke. “Anyway, those few hundred men held off a superior force for seven days before they were defeated, all because of the clever use of force multipliers and superior training per soldier. True that Spartans wouldn’t stand a chance against soldiers from this time period, but for their time, they were among the greatest warriors the world has ever seen.” At that time, Vinyl also finished setting the trap and I looked over her shoulder to inspect it. Finding it satisfactory, I nodded and patted her shoulder gently, handing her a plastic bag filled with bits of food. “Good, now bait it, and we’ll check it tomorrow. We’ll set up about five or six more out here before we head back, and that should be enough for the time being.”

“Where did you learn to do all of this?” Vinyl questioned, taking my hand as I helped her stand.

I shrugged and turned away, scanning the area for good trap placements. “I’m self-taught, mostly. I’ve always been one of those paranoid types of people that wondered ‘what if’, so I made sure to be prepared in case civilization collapsed. Me and…” I stopped short before I could say Kyle’s name, reminded of the fact that I didn’t know if he was even alive. Again, as if it were fresh, the entire situation crashed down on me, and I physically stumbled because of my momentary loss of focus. I mentally scolded myself: I didn’t have time to be worrying about other people, when I had three ponies, Jenna, and Bailey that were counting on me to be strong and pull my weight.

“Alex?” Octavia’s voice rang in, concern flowing strong in her tone. I felt her hand settle on my shoulder, and I resisted brushing it off rudely.

I still gently pulled away, shaking my head. “I’m fine...just got a headache. C’mon, let’s finish setting the rest of the traps before night falls.” I glanced over my shoulder to see Octavia’s shining violet eyes boring into me, but she nodded and walked past me as we began to tromp through the snowy forest.

As usual, Bailey took point, using her superior senses to sniff out or hear any threats before they could get to us, as well as identify anything of interest that the rest of us might miss. Being the only one of us that was significantly armed, I brought up the rear, which left Octavia and Vinyl in the middle of our little group. As of yet, we hadn’t come across any threats, but I knew that it would only be a matter of time before we did: it might not be today or tomorrow, but at some point, I was going to have to use my pistol to protect us.

I still didn’t know how I was going to deal with that, but that bridge had yet to be reached, so I did my best to put it to the back of my mind and focus on the present.

Much as I had planned, we spent the remaining hour or so of daylight setting up the remainder of our small traps, and I kept an eye out for obvious signs of any large predators nearby. Luckily, there was no sign of any ground-based predators that I could see, which set me somewhat at ease; however, even with that being the case, I had to remind myself that Equestria had large predators that could fly, so the lack of prints in the snow could mean nothing. I could only hope that the Equestrians’ specific knowledge would help, should we come across something I was ignorant about.

Even with the trap-laying and scouting to keep me busy, the troubling thoughts wouldn’t completely leave me alone, and I occasionally found myself having to nearly physically shake myself to get my head back in the game. At some point, I’d need to have a sit down with myself to come to terms with the unfortunate possibilities swimming around in my mind, but currently, I had to focus on making sure our safe haven remained as such, and that we wouldn’t starve to death. As I had been doing for the past few days, I reminded myself that I wasn’t the only person counting on me, so I had to be sure to stay focused, and keep a cool head.

We arrived back at the cabin just as the sun hit the horizon, turning the sky into a beautiful tapestry of red, orange, pink, and violet. I said nothing as I methodically brushed off and removed my winter gear, pleased that the remainder of the day had passed without incident. After such a long, tiring day, I was looking forward to some warm food and time spent in front of the fire with my new acquaintances.

“Hey guys,” Jenna called as she entered the main room with the radio in hand, “listen to this. It’s been playing for the past hour or so, and I’ve got no clue what it is.”

Jenna set the radio on the coffee table and turned up the volume, taking a seat next to a previously-napping Celestia as we all listened. For a few seconds, there was nothing but static, but that was followed by a series of short little blips followed by long tones in different combinations. It only took me a few seconds to recognize morse code -- which, like a dork, I had learned for just this type of situation -- so I quickly grabbed the pad of paper on the table and pulled a pen out of the small sleeve on the side of it, and began writing down the code as it came. The sequences only continued for another five minutes before it immediately dropped off, and there was only static. With obvious breaks in the code, it offered some semblance of a sentence or something, but when I looked at it, the code didn’t make any sense to me.


“What the hell…?” I mumbled, pivoting the page as I tried to figure out just what it all meant. It was clearly a code of some sort, but I wasn’t clever enough to decipher what it meant: it obviously couldn’t be binary, it wasn’t a numeric substitution code, and there weren’t any actual words in the sequence, which meant that it was a code for someone specific that only they would know. The first number might refer to the time on a 24-hour clock, but-

“Turn to AM1340.” Vinyl requested quietly, looking directly at me. “The first number’s a radio frequency, and the middle letters refer to the Equestrian Special Forces. Someone’s about to say something.”

“It’s Cadence.” Celestia voiced from beside me, quietly, as if speaking any louder would make it untrue. “The ‘R’ stands for ‘royal’, and the rest is the year 972PNN, which was the year Cadence was born.” Celestia then smirked at me. “I told you she was going to send a message sooner or later.”

I followed the request and tuned to the proper frequency, then turned the volume up and slowly cranked the dynamo to ensure we didn’t lose power. We waited patiently through the static for many minutes, but just as I was about to suggest that we may have made an incorrect assumption, the radio crackled and clicked, which was the telltale sign of an antique analogue radio coming on.

“...ESF4243, callsign ‘Fury4’, reporting. This is a message for Equestrians and friends of Equestrians...may this message find its way to them. Contact has been made with at least 40% of the ESF, and Alpha03 has been secured. Alpha03 will speak now.”

The previous female voice dropped away with a click, and with another click, another voice began speaking. Though the second voice had a gentler tone and a higher pitch, it sounded somehow more powerful than the previous person.

“This is Alpha03, callsign ‘Heartbreaker’. On behalf of Equestria, I extend my condolences to those who have been displaced because of this great event, as well as those that have lost loved ones. Know that you are not alone, and help will always be there for those who need it most, should they seek it. To our fellow Equestrians, do what you can to survive and locate allies among the locals; to the locals, please do what you can to work with us to overcome this time of great change. Know that we are not your enemies -- we are victims of this event every bit as much as you all are. Though some may fear this to be an invasion, I wish to stress that our people are victims of circumstance just as much as humans are: the majority of us do not seek to take advantage of any of you. Much has changed, and your world will never be the same, but all is not lost.

“Together, we can forge a greater future than any of us ever imagined, and I believe in the friendship and love of our new allies. The power of this friendship is evidenced by the fact that I am alive and well, and making this broadcast with the help of a new human friend. Lastly, for my aunt,” Celestia sat up a bit straighter at this, and her ears stood straight up, “know that I am safe and whole, despite a few close calls here and there. I hope you are also well and unharmed, and I hope to see you again soon. Until next time, my new friends and allies.”

The radio went back to static again, the message apparently finished, so we waited for another few moments before turning it off and sitting quietly to digest all we had just heard. If the information was accurate, Celestia’s niece and one of the Equestrian Special Forces soldiers had been taken in by a friendly human, and already a network was being formed among other Equestrians. If our world was indeed a parallel dimension to theirs, it meant that it was likely their radios functioned the same as ours, but to organize and broadcast a message within just a few days


Heartbreaker? Really?” I blurted out with a chuckle. “That’s the princess of love’s callsign? She’s a big ol’ dork.”

Despite the situation, giggles and soft laughter spread throughout the room, and I was glad that the tense atmosphere was smoothed over quickly. I’d like to think most of it was due to my well-placed teasing of the pony that gave the message, but I knew it was predominantly due to the fact that Celestia had confirmation that her niece was safe and sound, and one of Vinyl and Octavia’s beloved princesses was okay. And, somewhere inside, I was relieved as well -- whether it was because of my empathy for Celestia or some of her lingering memories and feelings, I wasn’t sure, but there was no doubt I was quite glad to find out that Cadence was all right. I’d sort through my feelings on the matter later. For now, I believe we’d all earned something nice for dinner as a bit of a celebration…

Only for the full situation to hit me again. Amidst words and likely looks of concern, I had to once again excuse myself to keep from breaking down in front of everyone.


After taking a lukewarm shower (to preserve energy) and putting on clean clothes, I ended up sitting on the ground, leaning up against the bathtub, and finally succumbing to weakness by breaking open my hidden stash of liquor. Sure, sitting by myself and knocking back drink after drink of 80 proof liquor probably wasn’t smart or healthy, but I felt I had kept up a strong front long enough to finally be a little weak, if only just on my own. Even in my moments of self-destruction, I still couldn’t bring myself to push the burden on the others, as they had enough to deal with already.

For probably the fifth or sixth time in the past hour, I heard a knock on the door, which I completely ignored as I had done with all the others. I knew everyone was worried about me, which only made me feel worse, but I needed time to worry about me for a little bit: I had to get myself to terms with the fact that all the work I had spent doing for the past fifteen years probably meant nothing now, the rest of my family and friends might be dead, but most terrifying of all, that I had no real idea what to do beyond “live from one day to the next”.

What about the future; what about my future? What the hell was I going to do after all this blew over, if it ever did? How many people that I expected to be there in my immediate life were now gone or dead? What about...Jesus, what about when they leave?

I was no fool, and I knew for a fact that Celestia was going to leave as soon as she was physically strong enough to do so without undue risk to her, and Vinyl and Octavia would probably follow, or at the very least start searching on their own for friends that may have made it to Earth alive. When that all happened it would just be Jenna and I, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but...I had become used to the ponies being in my life. Selfish and fast as it was, I felt connected to them, and I didn’t want it to end up with just Jenna and I. Did that make me a bad person? It felt like I was a bad person for feeling that way.

And, as much as I tried to avoid it -- for multiple reasons -- I wanted Celestia to stay most of all.

After taking another swig of honey-whiskey and finding it empty, I perked up as I found the sounds from the other side of the door had completely stopped -- momentarily, of course, because the next thing I heard was Vinyl’s voice. “Alex, if you don’t open this door, Octavia’s gonna rip if off the hinges!”

“Fuck off, go away!” I shouted in response, really wishing they’d just leave me alone to wallow for a bit.

“Count of three, Alex!” Vinyl’s voice warned, which I stubbornly answered with silence.



She’s not really gonna…


The final count was followed by momentary silence, only for what sounded like a sledgehammer slamming into the wall taking its place. The “hammer” hit twice more, and then the door was unceremoniously pulled away from the doorway as if it were the easiest thing in the world, accompanied by the sound of wood tearing away. Standing in the doorway were all three ponies and Jenna, the latter of which was staring at Octavia in shock and...was that…?

“Can I just say something?” Jenna queried, and when she was answered with silence continued with, “That was pretty, um...stimulating to watch. I mean, you just handled that door like it owed you money!”

Octavia glanced to Jenna with a faint blush beginning to appear over her cheeks. “I appreciate the compliment, but I am afraid you would be wasting time on me. Females do little to nothing for me.”


WHAT THE FUCK?!” I bellowed in surprise and anger, throwing the empty glass bottle away with a crash, and shooting to my feet -- a little unsteadily, I’ll admit.

Before I could shout anymore, Jenna looked back to me and interrupted with, “I told them to, Alex. The last time I found you locked in a bathroom was-”

“Seriously, can’t you just let that go?” I barked back irritably. “It was years ago, and I was a different person back then. Sitting down alone and processing everything with some drinks is hardly going to kill me.”

Unfortunately for me, Celestia decided to step in with a firm, “What is she referring to, Alex? Why was she so uncomfortable with leaving you alone that she would break down a door to get to you?” While she didn’t actually say it, I quite clearly picked up on Celestia’s silent plea of, “Please don’t lie to me.”

I held my ground for a few moments before releasing a drawn-out sigh and plopping down on the edge of the tub before rhetorically asking, “Did you all ever wonder why I wear long sleeves? It’s not because of the cold.” Without allowing tension to build or them to question it, I rolled up my sleeves and rolled my palms toward the ceiling. My “unveil” of two long, thick scars running over each forearm was followed by utter silence, and I had a feeling that sooner or later, one of them-

“Why?” Vinyl breathed out in a hushed tone, her word shaking slightly even so.

I shrugged nonchalantly, doing my best not to show just how much I didn’t want to talk about this. “Depression is the simplest answer, and it wasn’t even for a good reason: my family loved me and made sure I knew it, I had friends, I wasn’t going hungry or unsheltered, and I hadn’t lost anyone close to me. Even so, I felt that my situation was bad enough that I should just end it.” Despite it all, I chuckled at the idiocy of the act that almost cost me my life. “To this day -- whether because of the trauma or simply because it wasn’t important enough -- I can’t remember exactly why I thought it needed to be done...but if Jenna hadn’t found me, I wouldn’t be here today.”

YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT YOU WOULDN’T!” was my only warning before the world flashed white, and I found myself suddenly looking to the right, my opposite cheek stinging something fierce -- not enough to bruise, but definitely enough to let me know I'd fucked up. I looked back to my assailant to find Jenna sucking in angry breaths through gritted teeth, even as tears began to fall down her face. When she spoke again, however, her voice was low, and cold, which was somehow far more intimidating. “The last time you did the whole ‘go off on my own’ thing, I found you in a puddle of your own blood in your shower, and you do the same thing again? How the fuck did you think I was going to act?” To my surprise, Jenna’s next act was to sit down next to me and pull me into a bone-crushing hug, sniffling a bit as she whispered, “I already had to deal with one body today, so you’re the idiot for making me worry I might see yours.”

With no other forthcoming response, I could only hold Jenna close, muttering nearly-silent apologies as I realized just how terrified she must have been because of me. Within moments, I found myself surrounded by three ponies as well, and one of Celestia’s massive white wings had curled around me, Jenna, and Vinyl.

Octavia had taken the place in front of me, kneeling and grasping my free hand while stressing, “We are thankful for saving and caring for us, but you don’t need to shoulder burdens alone.” She patted my hand with her own as she smiled at me, her large, expressive eyes locked on mine. “Ponies work together to overcome, and that includes how each member of a group is feeling. I know that your culture is different -- and I can respect that -- but we are more than willing to help you with whatever is weighing heavily on you, Alex. Please, let us in.”

“You’re our friend, or at least I’d like to think you are.” Vinyl added quietly, her hand creeping up around my back to wrap around my unoccupied shoulder. “Princess Twilight taught us that, above all else, friends stand together, no matter what. I consider you my friend, so I don’t like it when you get all mopey and shut us out, because it makes me feel like you don’t like us or something.”

Reflexively, I looked at Celestia questioningly, but she simply offered a smile as she voiced, “I believe you can guess the gist of what I’m going to tell you, Alex.”

There were four people now, holding onto me in some way or another to let me know that they didn’t want me doing what I’d just done. They wanted in, and I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea to allow that, but one look at the concerned faces around me -- especially Celestia’s -- caused my resolve to crumble, and I would have literally fallen over had they not been holding me up.

“I don’t know what happened to Kyle, and I think that’s worse than just knowing he’s dead.” I muttered, starting with what first came to mind as far as my worries. “The last time I saw him was at the hotel, shortly after the event happened, but he hasn’t made it here, so I’m not sure what happened to him. At least if I knew he was dead I could mourn him and eventually move on, but I’m stuck in limbo, because I’m hoping that he’s okay.” I’d cried my tears for the day, so my voice just came out flat and emotionless instead...which somehow sounded worse, even to my own ears.

“Would you rather he be dead?” Jenna asked, with just a bit more bite than I would have liked.

I returned her statement with a glare as I shot back, “I would rather I knew what happened to him, no matter what that is. That way I could find a way to deal with it, instead of this ‘fear the worst, hope for the best’ perpetual vortex I’m stuck in.” That was enough for them to deal with, and an omission of the complete truth wasn’t necessarily lying, so-

“Is that all, Alex?”

Goddammit…I should have known Celestia wouldn’t give me a loophole like that.

I glanced at the alicorn at my side, mentally debating actually saying what I was really feeling. I knew it was probably a bad idea, but I wasn’t able to lie to Celestia, no matter how much I wanted to: I had seen her life through my own eyes -- lived it, temporarily -- and I somehow knew just how important honesty was to her. Besides the fact that I felt connected to her beyond what I had experienced through our temporary mind-meld, I had never been good at lying to a friend’s face, and Celestia was definitely a friend. At that moment I really hoped I wouldn’t come to regret not keeping my mouth shut, honesty be damned.

“No,” I began with a long breath of defeat, “it’s not all. It’s only been a few days here, but already I consider you three ponies my friends...and I don’t do too well with saying goodbye to friends.” At the questioning looks of Octavia and Vinyl, I sucked in another steadying breath as I explained, “Celestia has already told us that she can’t stay -- and while I don’t like it, I understand -- but when you two leave, it’ll just be me and Jenna. I just…” I let out the remainder of my breath through my nose and pulled my hands away from Octavia so that I could rest my head in my hands as I let them figure out what I was actually saying.

Unfortunately, my momentary peace was broken by Celestia’s firm request. “Alex, tell us exactly what you want.”

“I DON’T WANT YOU TO LEAVE!” I shouted desperately, bursting away from the group and causing Octavia to stumble away in shock. I found myself pacing before I knew it, trying my best to keep from exploding due to the hurricane inside of me as I growled, “I might never see one of my best friends again, and three new friends are going to be leaving, meaning they might be gone too. I don’t want that, but I can’t stop it, and I just feel so goddamn useless because of it!” I stopped my pacing and thrust a finger at a startled Celestia. “When you walk out that door in a few more days, I might never see you again, and that scares the ever-living shit out of me; you’ll just be another friend I lost because I couldn’t do anything to stop it.”

Celestia momentarily found her voice, “Alex, I told you that I-”

“I know,” I interrupted in a low tone, “and I get that you have to protect your people. I understand that this is who you are and it’s what you have to do, but a part of me doesn’t care. I know this isn’t a problem I can solve like I do other things, and I understand and approve of your desire -- your primal need -- to protect and look after your people, but…” I let my trailed-off sentence hang in the air as I took a seat on the counter, slumping in defeat. “This isn’t a problem I can solve, it’s not something I can fight off, and I can’t convince some stupid bureaucrat to change something to make it better. Instead, I’m stuck here waiting for the inevitable, questioning whether it might have better if we’d never even met. And,” I held up a hand, forestalling the argument that was sure to come from at least two of the ponies, “I know, I saved you from freezing to death in the snow, so how fucked-up do you think I feel saying that? It makes me hate myself a little more just thinking about it, and it just reminds me that there’s a reason I keep my number of friends to a bare minimum: because when they leave, there’s less of them to lose.”

With my piece said, I slumped as the fire that drove me sputtered out, and I found myself more exhausted than I had been before. And I knew that regardless of what I had said, it was going to be pointless anyway, as it wouldn’t change anything. So, instead of feeling some sort of relief on getting my worries out in the open, I just felt tired, and there was nothing I wanted more than to just go to bed to sleep off the liquor and the emotional tension that had taken hold of me.

“Alex,” Vinyl called, drawing my attention as she stood and made her way over to me, “where did you get this idea that Tavi and I are going to leave?”

I shrugged helplessly. “Well it would make sense, wouldn’t it? Your pony-leader will be leaving, and I’m sure you all have friends out there that you are worried about, so-”

“Alex,” Vinyl interrupted, now standing in front of me with her ruby-red eyes boring into me, “the princess is someone I respect and admire, but Tavi and I following along with her will just slow her down. Besides that, the best thing that Tavi and I can do for our friends is survive. I mean, if you want us to go, we’ll leave, but-”

I shook my head vehemently as hope rekindled in me. “N-no, I don’t want you to go. I just thought-”

“You let your fears and anxiety get the best of you, like you always do when you have too much time to think about things alone.” Jenna surmised accurately. “Your brain came up with this crazy notion that eventually you’re going to end up all alone, but that’s not gonna happen. This is what happens when you go off on your own and get yourself all worked-up instead of talking to people, Alex.”

I wanted to be indignant at what Jenna was saying, but she was completely correct, and we both knew it. Because of that, however, the self-destructive thoughts set in once again as I found myself muttering, “I don’t know why you’ve put up with me all these years, Jen. I’m a pain in the ass.”

Within only a few seconds, Jenna had pushed herself up on the counter next to me, and wrapped her arm around my shoulders as she held me close and tapped the side of my head. “Stop that. You’re an idiot sometimes, but you’re my idiot, so stop getting down on yourself.”

“It’s all right to feel overwhelmed, Alex.” Vinyl added warmly, putting her hand on my head and giving a little rub. “I’d be surprised if you were perfectly fine, because this whole thing is too much for someone to handle without cracking. What you need to remember is that we’re all here to help you through it, and we’ll overcome this as a group. Ponies are strong because we support one another, and now, we’ll show you how much that helps.”


And so, for the next hour or so, we just talked things out, and I can’t deny that I felt loads better. Holding everything in and just trying to deal with it on my own had led to me falling apart under all the pressure I had put on myself, so the only logical thing to do would be to try some other way to deal with my inner turmoil, which was why I was so open to doing things “the pony way”. I’ll admit, it felt good to get my fears and worries out in the open, to let everyone know what I was dealing with. A part of me still felt bad that I was burdening the others with my issues, but a much more thankful part enjoyed the care and support I had from my friends -- new and old.

It was surreal, in a way: here I was, surrounded by helpful friends that freely offered listening ears and strong shoulders to lean on, and I took their support, even though they weren’t humans. It seemed that ponies were innately more connected to each other, and were far more open with each other about what they thought or felt, which I suppose was why they were so adamant to get me to talk about what was bothering me. I’ll admit that it still felt odd to just open up to three people that had been complete strangers only a few days ago, but I can’t deny that actually talking about what I was feeling helped me cope with it.

Following the more heavy talk, we ended up moving to the more comfortable living room. Random chatter about a bunch of things -- ranging from human technology to Celestia’s well-known love of baked goods -- was next for the night. I found it odd that I’d never sat down and talked with friends so much before this whole event happened, but then I remembered that I’d had console- and PC-gaming to distract me; even with that being the case, I couldn’t deny that it was quite nice to just spend time with people who I could relate with. Now, granted that Celestia, Vinyl, Octavia and I were all very different people, but major traumatic experiences tend to have a way of bonding people together.

Through our sharing, I found out a bit about Vinyl and Octavia’s past life on Equestria, and the rather hilarious antics two musicians with initially different tastes got up to.

Like they’d originally said, Vinyl and Octavia met in an orphanage as young girls, just old enough to talk. However, just like Earth, it seemed even pony children tended to be cruel to those that stood out, and an almost-monochrome earth pony and a white unicorn with blood-red eyes were easy targets for the other children. And so, while the two ponies initially didn’t have that much in common, they banded together over the trials of being different from the rest of the children. Years later, though…

”Tavi got adopted...a-and I didn’t.” Vinyl explained morosely, a faint frown crossing her features as she remembered what was likely a rather painful memory for her. Octavia was immediately bringing her closest friend in for a strong embrace, and after a few moments, Vinyl agreed to continue her story. “They were real high-class ponies, and they thought Octavia looked like the kind of pony they’d want as a daughter. They taught her to be the perfect little noble princess, and I didn’t hear from her for almost t-ten years.” Vinyl’s voice broke near the end, and she went silent as Octavia whispered to her as she continued the embrace.

Octavia picked it up from there. “Unfortunately for us, young ponies have no right to decide things for themselves until they come of age, so we were forced to be apart until we were old enough to live our lives separate from the influence of adults.” An expression of pure shame crept onto Octavia’s face as she amended, “I’m ashamed to admit that, for some time, I forgot about Vinyl. Let it simply be said that the life of the upper-class is extraordinarily addicting, and it can blind one to the world outside of it.”

Vinyl had composed herself once again, and I was able to notice a rather radiant smile on her face now. “I had gone into the workforce straight out of the orphanage, with government assistance because of my lack of any other support, and my music career was just starting out. Because of that, I didn’t have much money, so I thought getting a roommate would be the best option. So,” she let out a soft giggle at the memory, “I was following up on an ad requesting a roommate at a flat downtown, not really paying attention to anything else besides the address in my hand. I found the place and knocked on the door, and imagine what my face looked like when Octavia was the one that answered the door.”

“It was something like this:” Octavia jumped in, and then proceeded to slowly let her mouth drop open as her eyes got wider and wider. Needless to say, it was quite the entertaining expression, and I found myself letting out a deep laugh at it. Vinyl’s cute blush just made us all laugh harder, until finally, Vinyl joined in the laughter as well.

As the laughter petered out, Vinyl continued. “I’ll admit, it was kinda tense at first -- ten years is a long time, and we’d changed a lot from how we’d been as fillies. On the one hand, Tavi was a prim, proper mare raised in Manehattan, only moving to Canterlot when she joined the Royal Symphony Orchestra. She was about as snooty as you’d imagine.”

“And Vinyl,” Octavia jumped in, shooting a smirk to her best friend, “was the epitome of what you’d imagine an unkempt ruffian to be, and a slob to top it all off. I can’t count the number of times I shouted at her for leaving food containers around the flat, or putting dirty dishes in the sink when an empty dishwasher was right there.”

I snorted a single laugh out before asking, “What about music? I imagine you two ground on each other, having such different tastes in music.”

“She attacked me with a cello!”

“Just the case, and-”

“Still! That thing’s huge!”

I couldn’t help but laugh at the two ponies, finding it oddly comforting that even among ponies, no friendship started out perfect. It reminded me of how Jenna and I met -- and drove each other up the walls, if I remember correctly -- before we grew closer and became the best friends we were today.

“So,” I interrupted their banter, drawing their attention back to me, “how did you two go from that to,” I then gestured to the two of them, “this?”

At this, both ponies’ faces lit up in blushes again, but Vinyl was the first to answer. “I, um...I know we said that us as an item is never going to be a thing, but we did try once, just to see if it would work.”

I refrained from shouting out a loud ‘I KNEW IT’, but smiled nonetheless.

Octavia picked up the explanation from there, clearing her throat loudly. “As it turns out, we misunderstood deep emotional attachment for actual romantic love, and things simply didn’t work out.” The mare looked to her companion and hugged her tightly, kissing her on the temple lightly with an amount of love that I could almost see before she clarified, “I love Vinyl more than anypony else in the world, but that love is the love from one sister to another, and nothing else.”

Despite it all, I couldn’t help but glance to Jenna and smile, which she returned before looking back to the two ponies and asking, “So, does that mean there’s a lucky guy or girl waiting for one or both of you back where you come from?”

Vinyl shrugged, looking to her friend. “You were dating Fred before all this happened, weren’t you?”

Octavia let out a frustrated sigh at that, rolling her eyes. “Why does everypony think we were an item? Frederick and I were only friends, Vinyl. I was focusing on my career too much for any sort of romantic inclinations, so no, there is no special somepony hoping I’m all least that I know of.” She paused before bringing a finger to her chin, thinking aloud. “The last romantic relationship I had was...well, you.”

Vinyl went silent as she mumbled, “That was…” and suddenly, her eyes shot open as she whipped her head to look at Octavia again, “Tavi that was, like, five years ago!”

Octavia shrugged helplessly as we all watched the exchange. “As I said: my career was my main focus, and then, the event was being prepared for. After things settle down for our worlds, perhaps I’ll find someone, but for now my primary need is to survive, so that is what I’ll be doing.”

“Yeah, I guess I can understand that.” Vinyl agreed with a bob of her head. She then glanced to me and added, “Sorry, Alex.”

With a raise of my eyebrow, I asked, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you likely won’t be getting any of this,” she gestured to Octavia and herself, making a point to run the tips of her fingers over her clothed chest, “anytime soon. Drag, bro.”

I’ll admit, it was a bit childish of me, but I grabbed hold of Celestia next to me and countered, “Yeah, well I got a princess, so nyah!” I punctuated the statement by sticking out my tongue like a five year-old, but it made me feel better nonetheless. And, I’ll admit, it was fun to watch Vinyl’s face turn pink again when Celestia wrapped her own arm around me, and stuck her tongue out as well. “So maybe I don’t get the cute little DJ or the stacked Amazon cellist, but I’d say a badass warrior princess is a pretty good win, for me.” Just to be more of a little shit (I was still drunk, so judge not), I blew a loud raspberry and held Celestia close like I was a toddler protecting my favorite toy.

Before any of us could speak further, my stomach let out a roar of anguish, and I reflexively looked outside to see how late in the day it was. To my surprise, it was completely pitch-black, which explained why my belly was complaining so loudly.

“Right,” I muttered, pulling away from Celestia -- reluctantly, I’ll admit, “we should probably pack it in for the night.” A chorus of muttered agreements answered me, so I stood to begin cooking us something for dinner.

An hour and a half later, I was methodically clipping my fingernails over the bathroom wastebin, trying to ignore the broken glass bottle that was underneath the clippings. Earlier in the day had certainly not been my proudest moment, and I just wanted to forget about it...but I couldn’t. As much as my behavior was negative and selfish, out of that, my friendships with the ponies seemed to have strengthened as I opened up to them a bit. So, in the end, I couldn’t write off the whole time as a completely negative thing.

And, it was pretty nice to find a legitimate reason to cuddle with the flirty alicorn.

Now though, I was following up on my promise to keep Celestia company, as she had told me she did not want to be alone when she went to sleep. Sure, there were some things about Celestia that I was still figuring out, but I knew she was telling the truth when she said she simply wanted someone she trusted next to her for when the nightmares came. I knew for a fact that simply as a person she was more of a badass than I’d ever be, but I also knew that everyone, no matter how strong, had to have a person to confide in, and time to emotionally deal with trauma.

After finishing my grooming, I looked in the mirror at myself, wondering if maybe I should do a quick shave before I went back to the master bedroom. Just to double-up (because why not), I brushed my teeth a second time, spending extra time on the tongue to make sure I had fresh breath. Then I realized what I was doing, and mentally kicked myself.

“You’re just being a comforting presence to her,” I audibly scolded myself with a scowl, “it’s not like you’re dating her. Man up, get your ass in there, and be a good friend.”

Taking a deep breath, I pivoted and walked to the door, noting that I’d have to get Octavia to fix it at some point, but for now I just moved it aside to walk through before placing it back in front of the doorway. Celestia was already waiting for me, clothed in nothing but a hot-pink underwear set, which honestly didn’t even bother me anymore. She looked up at me as I approached, and smiled gently in the moonlight, patting the place next to her in the bed. I returned her smile and kicked off my house shoes, sliding under the covers and into the bed.

After shifting around a bit to get comfortable, I frowned at the flannel top I wore, glancing a few times to Celestia before asking, “I know this is gonna seem a little strange for me, but do you mind if I take off the shirt? I’ll start sweating if I sleep in it.”

Celestia let out a soft giggle and shook her head. “I don’t mind at all.”

I shrugged and whipped the shirt over my head, foregoing the use of the buttons. Remembering who I had agreed to share a bed with, I mumbled, “I guess the real question is if you can keep your hands to yourself, because if I wake up and your hand is on my jewels, we’re going to have a problem.”

Celestia played the part of scandalized woman well, as she placed her hand on her chest and scoffed in mock-offense. “I am a lady Alex, and I would never molest a bedmate.” After a few moments of silence, she amended, “...much.”

I released a loud sigh turning onto my back to stare at the ceiling. However, after a few moments, I figured that since we were supposed to be completely honest with one another, I might as well get everything out in the open. “I don’t think it’s a secret to you that I find you very attractive, Celestia, and I’ll admit that I would probably not have any idea what to do if you actually came onto me.” I then turned my head to look at her again, and smirked. “You’ve got ‘it’, so you’re flaunting it, and I can respect that. Would I be correct in assuming that the attraction I feel is mutual?”

Celestia was still for a few moments before nodding, almost meekly. “Yes, it is. You are probably asking yourself why a ‘badass princess’ would be interested in an alien, but-”

“You’re more focused on who someone is instead of what they look like; I know.” I finished, tapping my temple with a finger. “It’s weird, but along with the memories, I got pieces of you in here now, and I feel like I’ve known you for years. It’s crazy, but it helps me know what’s going on in that noggin of yours.” Even so, not everything was answered by what I already knew, and so I asked, “Why, though?”

I didn’t have to elaborate, as Celestia picked up on exactly what I was asking. She smiled briefly before Karyll’a shot to her hands -- not in the form of a weapon or shield, but in the shape of an intricate, stylized sun. She handed the golden object over to me, and it kept its form even as I grasped it. As I looked over it, her voice floated in gently. “You know what I am, Alex, so think on this: when the sun has seen everything that walks, swims, flies or crawls, how important do you think physical form is to it? The sun is powerful, yes, but it is not omnipotent, and so it tends to see the big picture; in that big picture, it is difficult to pick out minute details in the form of a specific focus, but it becomes much easier to observe what that seemingly-insignificant point is doing. So instead of focusing on the what, the sun sees far more of the who, how, and why. That is who someone is, and that is what is important to me. Now, that isn’t to say that the physical form doesn’t have its merits,” Celestia’s gaze trailed over my bare chest for a moment, before her eyes settled on mine again, “but the who carries far more weight when it comes to attraction than the what ever will.”

I snorted a short laugh, pulling the blanket up around us before settling into the bed and turning toward her on my side. “Goodnight, you big flirt. I better have my pants on when I wake up.” With only a thought, I sent Karyll’a back to Celestia, who sighed softly as the ring settled onto her horn once more.

I felt as the tip of one of her wings reached back to tickle me, and she returned, “No promises, Alex. Goodnight, and sleep well.”

Luckily for us both, the day had been exhausting enough that we didn’t have to wait long before sleep began to take us, and only moments after Celestia’s soft snores began to fill the room, I followed her soon after into the realm of dreams.

Chapter 10

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Considering what I knew about how Celestia worked through emotions and loss, the overnight wasn’t that bad -- call me arrogant, but I’d like to think it was my presence there that helped. As opposed to having a nightmare every time she closed her eyes, Celestia only woke me up three times due to them, so the night was not too exhausting. Still, even if I hadn’t gotten any sleep, I would still have been glad to lend my assistance to a friend in need. It would only be my second time being in that specific situation -- and the first was with Jenna -- but I’d like to think I did pretty well. Morning showed itself after the third time waking up, so after soothing Celestia to sleep again, I figured it was as good a time as any to get up for the day. After shimmying my way out of the bed so as not to wake the pony that still slept, I quickly threw on some day clothes and strapped on my pistol before leaving the room.

The other four occupants were all still sound asleep in front of the smoldering coals of the hearth, so I snapped my fingers as I passed them to call Bailey, and stepped with her outside. As always in a snowy winter, morning was a wonder to behold, with beautiful white everywhere that could be seen. It had stopped actively snowing sometime during the night, so a clear blue sky greeted me as I walked Bailey and did a short scout of the surrounding area. Much to my relief, I didn’t find anything of interest other than some low-ground broken twigs and disturbed snow near the path leading to the river, which meant that while we were not alone, the rotting corpses of a dragon and a pack of manticores worked quite well as a deterrent. It made my early-morning scouting relatively worry-free, which was a good start to the day.

Bailey and I made our way back to the cabin just as the sun cleared the mountaintops, which meant it was likely just before 7:00am, and that was as good a time as any to get the day started. With that in mind, I decided to make a light breakfast of toast and eggs to get everyone energized for the day, knowing that I’d have to get started on growing us some food in the greenhouse. The fact of the matter was I had kept the cabin prepared for me and maybe one or two other people to survive; three was going to be pushing it, so I’d have to make sure we had enough food to survive for however long.

A pair of arms embraced me across my stomach from behind as I was cooking, but before I could greet who I thought was Jenna, two large white wings became visible out of my peripheral vision. While it hadn’t been who I was expecting -- and, I was going to have to ask her at some point how she was so quiet with hooves -- I reached to my shoulder and smoothed my hand over the cheek of the pony whose head was there. I felt Celestia smile against my hand at my action before I removed it and went back to cooking.

“G’morning, Tia.” I greeted with a grin, happy that she still seemed to be able to smile, despite the events of the previous day. She didn’t respond verbally, only nosing into my neck in the way that Bailey sometimes would when she was feeling particularly affectionate. Luckily, it was easy to mentally separate the two, as Celestia’s nose wasn’t wet, and she was far larger than a Rottweiler (I didn’t need random disturbing dreams involving my dog later on, thank you). Since she didn’t seem keen on releasing me at the moment, I just focused on making sure the eggs didn’t burn as I scrambled them absent-mindedly.

It took a few minutes, but she finally whispered out, “Thank you, Alex. Your presence overnight helped more than you know.”

“You needed support, and I have no problem doing that for a friend. You’re welcome to it anytime.” I replied, smiling again as she gave me a gentle squeeze.

The eggs finished cooking, so I removed them from the heat and turned around, freeing myself from Celestia’s grasp. I was unsurprised to see her wearing only her underwear again -- I was used to it by now, honestly -- so I didn’t hesitate as I brushed aside her arm and inspected the wound on her side again. I was surprised to see it was completely scarred over, and found myself wondering just what other physical differences ponies had with humans.

“Well,” I mumbled, frowning slightly, “it looks like you’re completely healed from the outside. You should be safe to start stretching and such to ensure you don’t lose any further muscle mass or range of movement.” Much as I hated to admit it, aloud or to myself, “It looks like you’ll be back on the road soon enough, if you continue to improve.”

Celestia’s lips set into a thin line, and she just nodded shallowly before announcing, “I’ll wake the others for breakfast. Thank you, Alex.” There was some sort of hidden emotion roiling in her tone that I couldn’t readily identify, but something told me she wanted to say far more than she actually did. Regardless, I couldn’t think about that at the moment, so I just went back to preparing breakfast.

A few minutes later, just as I set the last plate on the table, the other three entered the kitchen in various states of awareness and took the seats at the table. As we ate, I went over a brief version of what we would all be doing today, which would consist of setting up a more regular scouting pattern in the surrounding area, checking the traps and setting new ones, and beginning to plant some of the more hardy seeds so we could begin growing some vegetables. Then, we’d have to sharpen the axes and begin chopping new wood for the fire, since even though we had a good supply of usable firewood, it would take at least six months for newly-cut pine to be seasoned. It would mean a full day of work for all of us, which would actually work to our advantage to keep us focused on something other than only the bad things that had recently happened.

When we all finished eating, I started delegating out jobs to keep the cabin in good working order and clean, which left me to walk with Jenna and Bailey to check the traps that had been set up the previous day. Jenna was, frankly, a little traumatized from finding a dead body, but I knew from experience that being with me would be the best thing for her, even if it was just to walk around in the snow. With our jobs for the midday underway, we all focused on our tasks in an attempt to keep from thinking about the unknowns.

As the day had meandered on and I finished my scouting, I had moved onto my next job: woodcutting. I wasn’t a lumberjack, and I tended to focus more on body definition than brute strength, but a sharp axe and practiced swings made short work of fallen trees and logs scattered around the area. Jenna took the job of gathering the chopped wood in the wheelbarrow and taking it back to the cabin, and I had given Vinyl and Octavia a quick rundown on what to plant in the greenhouse, as well as the seeds themselves. With everyone having something to do (even Celestia, who after cleaning the cabin, was going to start exercising to work back up to peak physical condition), the day passed very quickly and was productive enough to be considered a successful endeavor.

As the sun started its descent, I was back at the cabin, helping Jenna stack all the firewood I’d split. While I had done a lot on my own, we’d need to do the same every day for at least a week before I’d be happy with the amount to tide us over for another year. I also checked over Vinyl and Octavia’s planting work, pleased that the two had planted the entire greenhouse with plenty of turnips, potatoes, kale, parsnips, and onions. Along with whatever meat I was able to trap or hunt, it would ensure we could still stay relatively well-nourished despite civilization falling.

I’ll admit, the latter point was something I hadn’t completely come to terms with yet. Though I had “mourned” the losses, it was more out of a fear of the losses themselves, rather than an actual complete acceptance of them. In the back of my mind, I had a tiny, infinitesimal spark of hope that this was all a terrible dream, and I would wake up in my bed at home, and I could get up and play some video games before I went to work for the day. At the same time, though, a growing part of me hoped that Celestia, Vinyl and Octavia were the reality, catastrophe be damned. Besides the sheer wondrous fact that I was rooming with aliens, they held special places in my heart...especially Celestia. Still, I was torn: if someone were to ask me, at that moment, if I would choose my new life over the old, I honestly wouldn’t be able to answer...and that disturbed me. Through my life, I valued knowing exactly where I was on my journey and where I wanted to be, but now, I just didn’t know.

“The wood isn’t going to stack itself, Alex.” Jenna snarked as she continued organizing the firewood, which I should have been doing as well.

I grunted my acknowledgement before returning to stacking. In a way, the menial job was nice, as I could just let my mind go blank so that I didn’t have to think of anything. As a person whose mind is nearly always coming up with plans, theories, and random thoughts, it was nice to just...not think, once in awhile. It wouldn’t last long -- it never did, unfortunately -- but, for the twenty or so minutes until we finished for the day, I relished being able to just do something instead of analyzing every little thing.

A sudden loud crack in the distance, which I immediately recognized as a gunshot, violently brought me to full awareness, and I only glanced at Jenna for a second before rushing over and ushering her back into the cabin. After locking and barring the door, I sprinted to the bedroom and dove to the floor, reaching under the bed and pulling out the hidden Mossberg shotgun mounted by velcro straps under the frame. I then scurried over to the nightstand and yanked away the false bottom, causing two cans of shells to drop out. Quickly checking over the shotgun to assure the components were clean, I loaded six shells and brought the rest of the can with me to the living room. Celestia and Octavia arrived in the main room a moment later with Bailey, both ponies aware enough to realize something was wrong, and kept silent -- Bailey was well-trained enough that a simple gesture from me kept her quiet. I hurriedly handed my pistol to Jenna and took point on the door, using the small window in the door to keep an eye on things outside. Luckily, the front door faced the only path to the cabin, so it would be rather simple to see any threats approaching before they got close enough to do anything to us. The sound of a strange electric whirring drew my attention to Celestia, who was readying the strange pistol-like weapon the deceased Barricade had brought with her. I had questions, but I kept silent for the moment, as noise could give us away. That was, of course, until I realized something worrying…

Frantically looking around us and listening, I worriedly hissed out, “Where’s Vinyl?”

“She was going to see if she could gather some smaller pieces of fallen wood.” Octavia answered quietly, her face morphing into horrified realization.

I looked over those gathered around me, and let out a long sigh through my nose. I reached over and plucked my pistol from Jenna’s hands, replacing it with the shotgun and standing before grabbing my white parka and white ski mask. I didn’t give the others time to question before I rushed toward the back door...only to be stopped by the powerful grip of Celestia.

She spun me around by my wrist and brought me to face her. She scanned my face for a moment before reaching up and removing the ring from her horn, pushing it over my right ring finger. Before I could ask what she was doing, she simply explained, “Karyll’a will protect you. Good luck, Alex.”
While I had handled Karyll’a a few times before, the simple act of Celestia willingly lending a literal piece of her own soul to protect me was quite the powerful gesture. I caught her eyes, but was unable to force myself to say anything. Instead, I simply nodded to her with a ghost of a smile, spontaneously reaching up to briefly cup her cheek before rushing toward the back door and outside, snapping my fingers loudly for Bailey to follow. While visibly I was calm and collected, internally, I was struggling to keep from pissing myself in fear.

“Please be okay, please be okay, please be okay…”

While I kept my ears open as I tramped through the snow with Bailey, I was quietly trying to get Karyll’a to change forms to other objects, in case I might need to use her. Before this point, I had done so a few times by reflex, so I knew I could do it, but thus far, I wasn’t able to cause any change by force of will. I only hoped that I wouldn’t have to use Karyll’a at all, because I had no clue what I was doing. While I tried to convince myself that maybe Vinyl had just found something interesting out in the snow, I had a hard time imagining she wouldn’t rush back to the cabin if she heard a loud, unfamiliar noise in the forest.

It had begun snowing again as the day came to a close, which would work in my favor, since it would offer me some decent cover without affecting my hearing or visibility too much, just in case Vinyl wasn’t alone. An icy feeling began to build in my gut as Bailey and I continued our search, and I silently prayed to whoever was listening that I wouldn’t find another dead body today, let alone that of a friend.

“Please be okay, please be okay…”

I continued my mantra to myself, barely even whispering by this point, listening for anything out of the ordinary. The sound of branches snapping a few times in the distance had caught my attention since I began my search, and I hoped that by using them for orientation, I was heading in the right direction. I was no tracker, however, so when it came right down to it, I was still traipsing aimlessly in the snowy woods, looking for someone with fur as white as the snow around me.

Just as I started to lose hope, I saw a flattened patch of snow where something large had been laying -- at least the size of a human -- with clear boot-prints next to it. Because it had snowed the day before and none of us at the cabin had come out this far, I knew these were not any of our footprints. This in turn meant that at the very least, I was following the tracks of somebody, and the flattened area of snow could only be where someone or something had been laying. The sound of voices could now be heard, and while I had to motion for Bailey to stay silent, at least now I knew there was someone else out here besides me. Unfortunately, I could no longer keep my heart in check now that the situation was real and I knew someone else was out here, so I had to truly focus to keep from tripping over my own feet and revealing my position. As I got closer, I could start to make out individual words, and I didn’t recognize either of the two voices.

“ think we...and try to find the others?”

“Not one, and it...fetch a pretty good price...horned ones are always the favorites.”

“...awhile to get this one...bitch bites like...animal.”

The voices were moderately loud, so I knew their own voices would cover most of the sound I made. Following my ears, I approached a rocky outcropping near a frozen stream leading to the cliff, and stealthily peeked around one of the larger slabs of stone to get a look at what I was dealing with. I spotted two people, by the voices I assumed they were male, and they were dressed in heavy winter-wear. They had stopped in a small clearing between some trees, but it was what was on the ground that caught my attention: Vinyl, bound and gagged, with a sack over her head. I knew it was her by her “I’m a freq” hoodie she was wearing, and her struggling meant she was still alive, at the very least.

Now I just had to find a way to save her.

In my rush to find Vinyl, I had left the cabin quickly, only grabbing my pistol and Bailey. I had my boot knife, but the only other thing I had on my person was my phone, and I doubt it would be much good in a fight...but what if I could avoid a fight completely? As my mind raced, I began to formulate a plan that could get Vinyl away from her kidnappers, and hopefully without an outright fight. I had taken a few classes in self-defense, but a two-on-one fight was extremely risky, especially if they were armed (which I was still unsure about). I was confident I would be able to take at least one of them down, but that still left one more, and if he had a firearm, I would have virtually no cover for at least fifty feet once I got into the clearing.

“This would be so much easier if I didn’t care about murder.” I grumbled silently to myself. I couldn’t very well send Bailey in first, since they would easily see her black coat against the white snow, which only left me with the option of hoping I could drop two targets without killing them with my pistol, or trying to divert their attention and getting away with Vinyl before they could do anything about it. I took out my phone and turned it on -- I had shut it off, as until or unless cell service was restored, it was effectively useless -- waiting for it to go through its startup procedures. Once the lock screen appeared, I swiped it open and accessed the alarm option, and set an alarm for one minute from that moment, and turned the volume all the way up. With that done, I tossed my phone on a long, low arc into the snow, and shifted my way around my cover, with my nerves on edge.

Preempting Bailey’s barking, I held her muzzle and shushed her as the alarm went off, and like I planned, it easily caught the attention of the two people in the clearing. Unfortunately, only one of them decided to check it out, which left the other one with Vinyl. I couldn’t wait too long, however, or the other would return, so I ordered Bailey to stay as I crept as quietly as possible through the trees around the clearing. A few times the man’s head turned my way, and I had to lay flat against the snow to avoid being seen, but I was able to get within twenty feet of Vinyl and one of the kidnappers. Mentally psyching myself up, I waited until he was turned away from me before bursting through the trees and sprinting toward them.

The man turned around only a moment before I was upon him, but by that point it was too late: with my fist already cocked back, I lunged the last five feet to him and threw my best Sunday punch at his chin. My aim was (thankfully) true: the hit connected, his head snapped to the side, and he fell like a sack of bricks, unmoving. I watched him for a moment to be sure he was out before holstering my pistol and kneeling next to Vinyl, pulling the knife out of my boot. Hurriedly, I cut through the zip-ties on her wrists and ankles, at which point she reached up and tore the bag off her head.

Vinyl quickly pulled the line of tape off of her mouth, cursing under her breath from the fur that was likely ripped out as well. When she caught my eyes, I shushed her with a finger to my lips, only for her eyes to widen before a sharp, intense pain exploded from the back of my head. I vaguely felt the cold burn of snow on my closed eyes as I fell forward into it, accompanied by the muffled sound of a struggle somewhere nearby. This was followed by what I identified as Bailey’s barks and growls, then a sudden canine cry of pain, and the thump of a body landing some distance away from me. I tried my best to rouse myself, but it took me a few precious seconds to push myself up to my knees. What I saw when I finally looked over the area was not promising.

Bailey, poor girl, was unconscious, but had gotten a vicious bite on the man that hit me, if the shredded, bloodied arm of his coat was anything to go by. The man himself had Vinyl on her knees, a tight grip on her hair and two large welts on her cheek and forehead, where it was clear she had been struck. The weapon that had likely done me in, an old-fashioned billy-club, lay in the snow a short distance away from them. Still a bit out of it, I tried to rise to my feet, only for the very recognizable sound of a pistol cocking to make me freeze. I now noticed the silvery firearm in his right hand, pointed directly at me, and there was no way I was going to be able to brandish my own pistol before he fired a shot.

We stared at each other for a few moments before he announced, “Look, I’m sorry, but this,” he gave Vinyl a firm shake by the hair, causing her to grimace in pain, “is going to feed me and my family for the next three months. It’s nothing personal, but it’s coming with me.”

“She.” I croaked out, steadying myself and standing upright again. I pointed at Vinyl and explained, “She’s not some animal that you can hunt and sell, she’s a sapient creature that’s more similar to humans than you seem to believe. Would you kidnap and sell another human being?”

He didn’t even think about his answer: “If it was all that kept my little girl fed and warm, in a heartbeat.”

This was something I couldn’t reason away. This guy, at least, wasn’t some evil man that wanted to willingly cause pain and suffering to others, he was just a family man that was looking out for his loved ones the best way he knew how. True that me and the others weren’t exactly desperate yet -- I had ensured my cabin was prepared for survival, and I had quite a bit of knowledge, as well -- so I couldn’t say for sure I wouldn’t do something similar, if I had to. Still, in a situation like this, there wasn’t a right or wrong answer: it was simply between me and him. In simplest terms, Vinyl could be considered as “mine” since her kind had apparently become a commodity in the new world, and this man trying to take what was mine in order to survive. I felt for him -- I really did -- but I couldn’t let him leave with Vinyl.

“No matter the cost.” I mumbled to myself. I locked eyes with the man again -- likely not much older than thirty -- and shook my head. “I’m truly sorry, but I can’t let you take her. Your job is to protect you little girl,” I motioned to the pony in his grasp, which was looking back at me with wide, teary eyes, “but mine is to protect her.”

The man sighed and shook his head slightly. “Then I hope you can forgive me for this…”
The mind works in mysterious ways, when under pressure. I only had a moment to raise my arm to defend myself and start to jump out of the way before four shots rang out, and I could only vaguely feel a white-hot pain in my leg as I rolled and raised my own pistol. I took aim without thinking, and fired three shots at my target.

I hadn’t consciously thought about any of it, and it was all over in less than three seconds.

I was on my knee in the snow, so I quickly took stock of the situation. I was alive, which was definitely a plus, but my left leg was bleeding from a sizable gash on my outer thigh. Karyll’a was in the shape of a large round shield, flashing back to a ring a moment later, which was likely what had protected me from the other three shots. Other than some numbness in my free hand, I seemed to be otherwise unharmed, which I was very thankful for. I had fired my pistol, however, so with a deep, steadying breath, I turned my gaze to the other end of the clearing.

Other than the injuries that she already had, Vinyl was unharmed, but the same could not be said for her kidnapper. He was on the ground, writhing and holding his throat as a wet, sickening gurgling noise came from his mouth. The snow around him -- once a clean and pure white -- was quickly becoming a deep crimson color as more and more warm blood splashed onto it from a horrific throat wound. I had just wanted to protect Vinyl, but even with that in mind, only one thought kept repeating in my mind: I HAD JUST KILLED A MAN.

Dear God...what had I done?

My thoughts were interrupted by what sounded like the hum from a power line, followed by the sound of electric sparking. I looked over to see Vinyl hunched over, her face contorted in deep focus, as her horn sparked erratically with a bright, blue power. I watched in detached fascination as the power seemed to grow in strength before flowing down over her horn like a slow-moving sap, at which point the sound changed from what one would expect of a power main, to something more akin

“...even her magic is sound-based.”

Octavia’s words came back to me as I continued watching -- and listening -- to what was happening. The tones became more regular, more organized, into something resembling a gentle, trance-like song, complete with multiple “instruments”, including percussion. I would later feel bad about almost completely forgetting about the man I had just shot in the throat, but for that moment, I could only observe in complete awe as the strange, visible energy began to move around Vinyl to the rhythm. She extended her hands in front of her and began to bob her head to the beat, eyes closed, as she orchestrated the most amazing thing I had ever seen to date.

Arcs of the energy, now tinged an aqua-green, began to jump from her “electrified” fingers to the man on the ground, who I suddenly realized was still there. I wanted to ask Vinyl just what was happening, but the words completely died in my throat as I saw the profuse bleeding slow down, and then completely stop. Morbid curiosity of what was happening completely held my attention, and as I watched, the wound began to stitch itself closed, a small, mud-colored lump of metal being picked out before it sealed completely. The man’s eyes were open now, and while he wasn’t moving to get up or making any noise, his eyes were completely focused on the pony that, against all logic, was healing him with what could only be magic. The horrid gargle/choke noise had stopped, evening out quickly into normal breathing, and the man even began to cough as, I assume, his trachea was completely healed. I prided myself on being able to find ways to do things that people jokingly referred to as “impossible”, but I had just observed the negation of actual impossibility: Vinyl has brought a man back from the brink of death, and made him whole once again, with only a strange energy called “magic”.

Abruptly, Vinyl’s power cut out, and she collapsed onto her knees bonelessly. Her breathing was labored and I could see a sheen of sweat over her face, so my own concern for her wellbeing overcame me, and I limped over to her and rested my hand over her shoulders. She tiredly leaned into me, and while her breathing had not slowed yet, it made me feel better to know her heartbeat was strong, if rapid, and she wasn’t wheezing or coughing blood. I knew very little about magic and the ways it could be applied, but I assumed it made sense that performing a medical miracle would take a lot out of someone.

While still fighting to get as much fresh air into her lungs as possible, Vinyl was able to briefly pause and rasp out, “I'll...I'll be okay. Help me up.”

The adrenaline was beginning to wear off, which was causing the faint burning in my leg to graduate to complete fuck-off levels of pain, but I was able to grit my teeth and stay silent as I slung Vinyl’s arm around my shoulders and pulled her to stand. I holstered my pistol and picked up the one discarded by the previously-dying man. I then turned to the him, who was still laying in the bloody snow, staring up at us as if he had just seen God. I had nothing to say -- what could I say? “Oh, we tried to kill each other for survival, and my friend just performed a miracle to save your life. Have a good day.” Vinyl was a little better off, however, and was better able to organize her thoughts into words.

She motioned for me to get closer, so I limped us over to the man, and she looked down at him with a cold mix of anger and pity. Instead of screaming, however, she simply said, “Go home to your family. Please, don’t ever come back.” Her ears flicked back as we both heard Bailey begin to stir, so Vinyl added, “You should probably get going. I don’t think that dog is going to forgive you so readily for hurting her master.”

The man stood shakily, stumbling a few times, before quickly rousing his partner and making tracks. I didn’t have it in me to do anything further, so I tromped over to Bailey to ensure she was okay before leaving, grabbing my phone on the way back. I knew by experience that the smell of fresh blood would soon attract predators to investigate, so I did my best to hobble the three of us back to the cabin as quickly as possible.

“Luna’s moon…Alex, your leg!”

I shook my head with gritted teeth. “We have to get back to the cabin, first.” I was running on pure adrenaline at the moment, and I knew that as it wore off, walking was going to become nearly impossible, so I had to get us to safety before that happened. I didn’t want to be caught outside, bleeding, during a snowstorm, and I wasn’t about to let something else come and kill Vinyl and I after everything I had just been through.

It was when we were only a few dozen paces away from home that the shock hit me full-force, and I felt my muscles freeze as what had happened fully hit me: I had struck a mortal wound on another human being. He hadn’t died because of Vinyl, but if her magic hadn’t been available at that moment, I would have had person’s death on my head. Even while I convinced myself that I was in the right -- I was trying to protect Vinyl, after all -- my stomach twisted in knots at the very thought that I had it within me to murder another human being, regardless of the reason. I never thought I was the kind of person that would be able to kill someone, but apparently…

My stomach decided to empty itself at that moment, and after spraying the ground with breakfast, the world turned white as I fell headfirst into the snow.

I wasn’t exactly known for fainting, but neither was this a new occurrence. Contrary to normal unconsciousness (sleeping, for example), fainting offers no frame of reference upon awakening, which leads to quite a bit of disorientation. Assuming you’re out for longer than a minute or two, and you have caring people nearby, you tend wake up somewhere else, with no idea how much time had passed in the meantime, and, in some cases, with a few new bruises from headbutting the ground. Luckily for me, powdery snow was good at cushioning falls, so the only pain I felt was from the wounds I had already sustained before I lost consciousness.

I opened my eyes to find myself looking at the roof of the cabin, and though it took a moment for my fuzzy vision to correct, the sound of a fire crackling merrily from somewhere nearby calmed me. I concluded that I was in the living room, but the absence of my shirt and pants confused me further. Ignoring the pounding in my head, I reached down and felt at the faint burning on my thigh, only to find a rather sizable bandage in place. Even with my addled mind, I realized pretty quickly that Jenna didn’t know how to stitch and bandage a deep laceration, which meant one of the pony-ladies had done so. The thought brought a warmth to my cheeks, which only deepened when I realized I was wearing different underwear than I was before.

Moving slowly so as to not to puke from the wave of dizziness that nearly overcame me, I pivoted on the couch and sat up, looking around the cabin. There was no one around, which worried me, but the very fact that there was nothing seemingly missing, no signs of a struggle, and a well-tended fire burning away gave me some peace of mind. I saw Bailey moving to stand slowly from off to the right, my concern spiking when I saw her limping over to me with a bandage over her head. I was worried, but the fact that she was walking and coherent meant that, other than some bruises, she was okay. Bringing her close and giving her a loving kiss on the head, I ran my fingers down her side as I continued to try and locate some clue as to where everyone was.

My stationary investigation was cut short when the front door opened, and Jenna entered dressed in her full winter gear of a dark green parka and pants, along with heavy boots and the mask I had been wearing earlier. Upon seeing me, she seemingly could not get her gear off fast enough, and I believe the only thing that kept her from fully tackling me was the fact I was already injured. Regardless, I was subjected to a bone-creaking embrace from my best friend, followed up by a needlessly strong punch to the shoulder.

I reflexively jerked away and stared at her in shock and irritation. “What the fuck was that for?”

She grabbed my wrist and pulled my hand into view, pointing to the golden ring that still lay around my finger. “If it hadn’t been for this, you shoving a shotgun in my arms and telling me to stay here would have been the last time I ever saw you, dickhead.” She punched me again, in the same spot, and growled angrily. “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”

I groaned in pain at the forming bruise and glared at my faithful canine companion, who was doing nothing to stop this. ‘Traitor.’

I wanted to point out that I had saved Vinyl from slavery, torture, and/or death, but I instead only found myself mumbling an ashamed, “...I’m sorry.” Dipping my head, the words started tumbling out before I could stop them. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I didn’t do something, and taking any of you with me would have just increased the chance that something would happen to you. I care about the ponies, and I consider Vinyl a friend -- I couldn’t just leave her out there.” Having fully realized how Jenna had felt, I was thoroughly ashamed of what I’d done to her, but I still met her eyes and added, “I would have done the same for you too, Jen.”

Jenna held her fierce gaze for a few moments longer before her features softened, and she loosed a frustrated sigh. “That’s not the point Alex. I know how much friends and family mean to you, but that doesn’t mean I condone you going on a suicide mission. If it hadn’t been for this,” again, she pointed to the gold band on my finger, “you would be dead, and I would wonder for the rest of my life if there was something more I could have done to stop my best friend from getting himself killed.”

She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “I don’t think like you, Alex.” Her voice was low, and somber. “I can’t justify sacrificing myself for the good of everyone else -- I’m not strong enough for that. I’m afraid to die, and I’m afraid to lose you. You are all I have left.” She looked off to the side, and I followed her gaze to my pistol, which lay on the table in front of us. “If you go, I go, because I don’t have anything else keeping me together in this world. Next time you go on a ‘do-or-die’ mission, I’m coming with you.”

I frowned hard at the latter sentence. “Jenna, you can’t just-”

“I wasn’t asking.” she growled, glaring and challenging me to deny her.

I couldn’t say I was actually afraid of Jenna, but I knew how headstrong she was. If she said she was going to do something, there wasn’t a force on Earth that was going to stop her...and that included me. Much as I didn’t want to put Jenna in harm’s way, there wasn’t any way she was going to let me walk away on my own again, and we both knew it.

After a few moments, I let out a long, defeated sigh and nodded. “Fine, you win, but you’re learning how to handle a gun, then. The more trained individuals we have, the better.”

Jenna studied my face for a moment before nodding. “Good. So, how are you doing otherwise? Vinyl told us what happened.”

The name struck a chord within me, and I completely ignored my injury as I jolted off the sofa in concern. “Shit, is she okay? Did she-”

“Alex, chill.” Jenna ordered, pushing on my shoulders until I was seated again. After observing for a moment, likely to make sure I wasn’t going to try and stand again, Jenna soothed my concern with a gentle smile. “She’s okay, Alex. A little banged up, but better off than you are. Celestia checked her out and says she has a mild concussion, but she’s otherwise okay. We just need to keep an eye on her for any neurological symptoms, but Vinyl seems fine so far. Take a breath, Alex. Deep one; there you go.” I followed her request and took a few deep breaths to calm myself, and she spoke to me the way I had spoken to her a few times. “Everything’s okay, Alex. Everyone’s safe, and the area is secure. You can relax.”

I took a few more deep breaths, and my heart’s frantic beating began to slow to a more manageable level. The room seemed to brighten as my vision normalized again -- apparently, it had tunneled again during my mini-freak -- and I felt my nerves calm from Jenna’s words. It was okay, Vinyl was okay, and I was okay.

With a clearer head, I glanced around the room again. “Where is everyone?”

Jenna pointed to the door and explained, “They’re following Vinyl as she sets up detection wards around the area. Apparently, from what I understand, they work like an alarm system, so Vinyl will be able to tell us if something larger than a rabbit is approaching from the ground.” Forestalling my spiking worry again, Jenna shushed me with a hand to my lips. “They’re all armed, Celestia is fully armored, and I taught Octavia how to use the shotgun. They asked me to check back with you to be sure you were okay, so here I am. They’ll be back in a few minutes.”

I didn’t like the fact that they were outside without me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Taking one last deep breath and letting it out slowly, I nodded to Jenna. “All right, cool. How long was I out?”

“A few hours.” Jenna replied, glancing back to me with a frown. “Figures it took getting shot for you to actually relax for once.”

I ignored the poke at me and instead asked the question that was going to be embarrassing no matter what: “Who took care of my leg?”

“Celestia.” Jenna answered with a sheepish grin. “I would have done it myself, but...I’m not so good around blood.” I let out a groan of shame, which Jenna took as a sign to embarrass me further. “Dude, she’s thousands of years old. You really think yours is the first dick she’s ever seen?”

I hid my face in my hands and let out another groan. “NOT! HELPING!”

“Maybe she liked it.” Jenna teased, clearly feeling the need to torture me for making her worry.

While I tried my hardest to ignore the thought of it, I couldn’t help but wonder that very thing: did Celestia like what she saw?

“For the record,” a recognizable, regal voice chimed in, “I was quite impressed. While not the largest, it was certainly not the smallest. It is quite adequate, in my opinion.”

I decided at that moment that the darkness of my cupped hands would be a nice place to live now, so that I wouldn’t ever have to look at anyone ever again. Yep, sounds like a plan. Here lies Alex: he was impressively adequate. I just slowly shook my head and tried to will everyone away so that I could die from embarrassment in peace.

“Alex?” Octavia’s voice floated in.

“Alex isn’t here right now. Leave a message.” I mumbled, unwilling to be a part of the conversation any further. My leg had slowly graduated from a faint burning to a debilitating tightness and fire, so I couldn’t escape by quickly walking away, and hobbling would just draw even more attention to me. I could only hope that it would all end soon. However, before I could decide how to get myself out of the situation, I felt someone sit on the other side of me before two arms encircled my body, and my head was pressed against something soft and warm. Even through clothing, I could easily identify a very nice rack that I was being squeezed into, and since I didn’t feel any feathers, that only left one culprit.

I opened my eyes and saw short, fine gray fur along the arms, which meant Octavia was the one who was trying to make me one with her fun pillows. The flush that blossomed in my face also caused my headache to worsen, but I felt that death-by-tatas was a nice way to go, all things considered. I was released from my warm, soft prison a moment later -- to equal parts gratitude and disappointment from me -- only for the feeling of warm, soft lips pressed against my right cheek to cause me to become lightheaded as all the blood began to rush to my head and one other place.

Thank you, Alex.” Octavia breathed into my ear, sniffling once before pulling back, revealing a radiant, teary smile to me. “I can never thank you enough for bringing Vinyl back in one piece.” She let out a soft chuckle and shook her head. “At this rate, I may have to start keeping track of the debts I owe you.” Her glance off to the side drew my attention, and I looked to see Vinyl leaning against the wall, trying to look nonchalant about the whole thing. Octavia cleared her throat off to the side and announced, “Let’s give these two a moment, ladies. Bailey, come!”

The sound of Bailey and the other three leaving the room was mere background noise at the moment, as my full attention was on Vinyl as she slowly pushed off from the wall and walked over to me. Her eyes darted everywhere but to me, until she finally settled on staring at the floor, wringing her hands nervously. She opened her mouth a few times, doing a rather spot on impression of a fish, before closing it and swallowing audibly.

“...h-how are you feeling?” she stammered out, wincing at her own words. As a person that grew up having to learn the hard way not to be socially awkward, it was easy to recognize the sight of someone that knew something had to be said, but wasn’t sure what.

Knowing all that, I simply reached out and grasped her hand, and gently intoned, “Relax Vinyl. Take a breath, and take a seat.”
I felt her tighten her grip on my hand briefly before she took a deep breath in through her nose, letting it out through her mouth. Steadying herself, she nodded and took a seat beside me. Perhaps I should have been a little concerned about the fact I was shirtless in front of a cute pony-lady, but I was more worried about her, at the moment. Though it was clear she had cleaned herself up, her face was still swollen worryingly on one side, and she even had a pinkening of the fur near the corner of her mouth, where blood must have been.
“So…you have your magic back?” I broke the silence with something neutral, that I had a feeling she wouldn’t mind talking about.

Vinyl’s ears pricked and she looked up at me with a small smile. “Yeah. Took a chunk out of me when I used it outside to save that man, but only because I hadn’t had enough time to build up my reserves. Another day or two and I’ll be strong enough to show you what I can really do.”

“You saved a life with magic, Vinyl.” I whispered intensely with a wide grin. “To a human, that was incredible, regardless of the fact it left you exhausted. Speaking of,” I nodded to her, “how do you feel?”

Confidence returning, Vinyl loosed a long, relieved sigh. “Really good, thanks to you. Sure it left me tired, and I’m not going to be able to do much in terms of spells for the next day at least, but…” Her ruby gaze locked on me, and even without the fire reflected in her eyes, it seemed warm, and intense. “Alex, ponies have learned and evolved over thousands of years to become what we are now, and the one thing nearly every pony knows from the time they’re born is that we are stronger together. Trust is not just what we’re taught as foals, it’s a part of our culture; it’s who we are, Alex.” She pointed a finger at me and continued. “But Twilight told us that trust doesn’t come naturally to humans. It was one of the first things she learned about your race, and it was the one thing that worried us the most. After all: if humans couldn’t trust and help us, how were any of us going to survive? But you…” she shook her head and smiled again, “Alex, you took Tavi and I in when you didn’t have to. You didn’t know who we were or what we were capable of, and you still welcomed us and took care of us. I can’t even put into words how much that means to us; I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”

Understanding where she was going with this, I nodded to her. “I just thought of what it would be like had I been in your situation. I would hope someone cared enough about me to help me when I needed it, so I figured I would do the same for you and Octavia. Even if you didn’t return the favor, I would still do it anyway, because that’s just the kind of person I am. I can’t just look away from someone that needs help, and hope that someone else will step up.” I nudged Vinyl with my elbow. “If I had done that, you and Octavia would still be frozen outside back in the city, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, knowing that.” I shrugged, gesturing generally to the cabin, “But it’s not like I don’t get anything out of it. I got three new friends and allies that will help me survive in the new world, and it doesn’t hurt that one of them has a lot of pull with Earth’s new additions. And, I’ve never known a pro DJ personally. I think it’s pretty damn cool that I know someone that can not only make music, but can use music to work miracles. It’s amazing.” I released her hand and brought mine up to clasp around the back of her neck. “You’re amazing.”

I was privy to seeing Vinyl’s face slowly bloom into a full blush as she only stared at me blankly. Then, her shoulders began to shake. A smile grew on her face as faint sniggers began to be forced from between her lips, and then she graduated to a bout of full-on laughter. The laughter became hysterical and I watched as tears began to fall down her cheeks, unsure of what to do. I could only watch in concern as her laughter continued, but it slowly began to change as a sniffle was thrown in, and she finally graduated to deep sobs as she cradled her face in her hands. I moved my arm to hold her around the shoulders, and after a moment, she leaned into me and cried her eyes out.

It took a bit, but eventually, her weeping tapered off into hiccuping sniffles, and finally silence as she just leaned against me. I honestly wasn’t sure what to do, so I just held onto her until she was finished, hoping that I hadn’t done or said something that had made her cry like that -- it might have seemed silly to me, but I knew there were some differences between human and pony culture, and this might be one of them. Still, she didn’t seem angry with me, so I could only pray that she wouldn’t hit me in my arm like Jenna had; it was starting to bruise.

To my endless relief, Vinyl simply sat up and wiped her face on the sleeves of her hoodie. She said nothing more to me, but offered me a sincere, heartfelt smile before bringing me in for a tight hug. After releasing me, she promptly stood and walked out of the room, leaving me alone for the moment.
My isolation ended seconds later as a small tray was set on my lap from behind, with some toast and jam, and a cup of steaming tea. I brought the small mug to my nose and inhaled, enjoying the scent of lemon and honey and the thoughtfulness of whoever brought it to me. My silent question was answered as Celestia rounded the sofa and began to remove the armor she had been wearing, placing it in the corner of the room with that of her fallen soldier. Even though she had been walking around the cabin in her underwear for days now, it somehow seemed inappropriate to watch her get undressed, so I turned my attention back to the toast and tea and began to eat and drink. Truth be told, I was hungry, and lemon tea was one of my favorites when I felt sick or otherwise under the weather. I had a feeling Jenna had either made me the tea, or recommended it to Celestia, so I silently thanked her as I methodically munched on toast and washed it down with hot tea.

A few minutes later, Celestia took the spot next to me, her wings extended over the back of the couch, as normal. Realizing something, I held up my hand as I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, silently questioning why I still had Karyll’a.

“She became very...clingy.” Celestia explained with a grin in her tone. “She felt you needed her more than I did, and so refused to let go. With a spellgun from my late friend, along with backup, I was more than capable of accompanying Vinyl as she placed wards around the area, so I allowed Karyll’a to stay with you.”

I nodded in understanding. “I hope I’m not being a bother. I know she means a lot to you, and I don’t mean to deprive you of your weapon, even if I didn’t choose to.”

Celestia smiled and shook her head, reaching over and touching her finger to the golden band. With a flash, it rematerialized on her horn, and she just continued smiling at me. “There are things I can do that Karyll’a cannot. Though not truly sapient, she does have some form of self, but cannot travel without being moved. Karyll’a wanted to ensure your safety, as you were in far more dire straits than I, so she chose to stay with you until I returned.” She reached up and again tapped the band, now on her horn. “I told you that Karyll’a was formed from a piece of my own soul, so you can understand that, had I been in her position, I would have chosen the same. Vinyl and Octavia needed support, however, so I did what I could to ensure everyone was as safe as possible until we reconvened in the cabin.”

It was still strange to think that a shapeshifting weapon was essentially an extension of Celestia’s consciousness, but all things considered, it was par for the course. Even though I tried my best to go with the flow when it came to Earth’s new occupants and what they were capable of, it still sometimes caught me off guard when I thought of just how alien they were. Simply looking at a pony’s face would be enough to confirm they were not of Earth, with their equine ears, large eyes, and protruding face. When had “alien” become the new norm, for me? At some point, I had stopped thinking of them as “the visitors”, and more as just people, as if they’d always been on Earth. Truthfully, I would now consider it odd if I didn’t see ponies.

Nuts, right?

“I almost killed a guy today, Tia.” I muttered, the words and thought coming to me before I could properly process it. Still, I knew I could talk to Celestia about this type of thing, and she would understand just how guilty I felt about it.

Celestia took the empty tray from me and placed it on the table, along with the empty mug. “Do not let the guilt overcome you, Alex -- it was a bad situation, and you did what you had to in order to assure Vinyl’s survival. I don’t expect that to help you feel better, but it’s the truth.” I felt as she scooted over and slung her arm around my shoulders, offering a bit of physical comfort along with her wise words. “The truth of the matter is that there are only two types of people who are able to do what you did in that situation, yet feel nothing: the unfeeling, and the experienced. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on your perspective -- you are neither, so you will still feel guilty even though you made the right choice.” She then gave me a gentle shake and assured, “Make no mistake, Alex: you made the right choice. Even if the man had died, you acted with honor and in defense of a friend in need. You did not wish to hurt him, but desperate situations tend to create desperate people who are willing to steal and kill to survive. It is simply a reality of the world you now live in: there are those that would willingly kill you or any of us to take what we have, no matter what that may be. And so, the four of you must be prepared for that.”

The subtle reminder that Celestia would be leaving stung more than I thought it would.
I knew that it was highly unlikely, but I still had to ask, “There isn’t any chance I’d be able to convince you to stay, is there?”

Celestia was silent for a long while, causing me to turn my head to look at her. It was clear she was deep in thought, chewing on her lip with a thousand-yard stare. It took a few minutes, but she finally answered with a gentle, “You know, before I took the throne over a thousand years ago, I was just a soldier. True, I was never what ponies would consider ‘normal’, being an alicorn, but I lived simply to use hoof, steel, and magic to protect that which I held dear. What I valued was a very broad idea of ‘home’ that included Luna and the land we had settled for our ponies, and I was more than happy to step onto the field of battle time and time again to safeguard their futures.” She glanced at me briefly. “I have been alive for a long time, Alex -- a very long time. Even as a simple sphere of energy and magic that gave life to my planet, I do not recall my first memories. I have forgotten more than even the longest-lived beings of my world will ever know in their lives. But,” she hesitated, finally fully looking at me as she tightened her grip on me, “this is the very first time I can ever remember being called by my innate desire to protect my people, and yet not wanting to leave.” My eyes widened at her words, but she continued before I could formulate any sort of response. “Every other time when I made the decision to step out onto the field of battle, or to rescue those in need, both my heart and mind agreed on the course of action. In this instance, however,” she leaned in, pressing her soft, warm cheek against mine as she took a deep, steadying breath, “I know that I must go, and yet I do not want to.”

“But you still have to go…” I muttered in defeat, even though I had already known the answer well ahead of time.

“I still have to go.” Celestia agreed, the hand around my shoulders reaching up to stroke my hair for comfort -- hers or mine, though, I wasn’t sure. “But,” the single word caused my heart to leap into my throat, by the sheer conviction in the tone, “I now have a very compelling reason to return, one day.”

Even though I was well-versed in the art of dealing with serious, delicate situations, i was notably less so when handling matters of the heart -- specifically, when someone expressed interest in me. It had happened so rarely in my life that I simply didn't have enough experience to properly handle said event without sticking my foot in my mouth, and so, i would resort to silly, childish quips in an effort to lighten the mood. It was a coping mechanism, but more than that, I simply didn’t believe I could become someone’s reason for doing much of anything. Let it be said I didn’t have that high of an opinion of myself when it came to matters of the heart.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, “Vinyl and Octavia are pretty cool. I'm sure if you bring a cello with you, you could even get a show out of Octavia.”

Celestia was silent for a few moments before she spoke again, with an almost disbelieving tone. “Is it so hard to imagine that my reason might be you?”

I couldn’t help it as I glanced at Celestia, trying by my eyes alone to convey just how crazy that question was. “You can’t be serious -- of course it is. You are quite literally the sun incarnate, royalty, and a warrior of badassery, while I’m I have nothing to offer that you don’t already have or can get, so I have trouble believing there is anything in the wide world that I could give you that would be worthwhile.”

She let out a long, slow breath through her nostrils. “That sort of response,” she pointed at me, “right there, is exactly why I detest being a princess so much.” Celestia gestured to herself, her frown deepening as she explained, “I created this body because I wished to walk amongst those upon the world -- to live life with them -- but instead, I sometimes feel more alone than ever. Simply because of what I can do, I was revered and worshiped -- even feared, more often than not. I created a body not because I wanted to be praised and worshiped, but because I wanted friendship and love as a living creature of flesh and blood.” During her short rant, her voice had risen in volume, so she took a moment to calm herself before looking at me once again. “You have seen and experienced who I am on the inside, and I have done my best to let you experience that even without contact with Karyll’a. I had hoped you would have realized that I want to be treated as an equal, not a goddess. And for the record, you are something that I cannot get anywhere else. I have no desire for jewels and opulence -- I never have -- instead, I place immense value on those precious few that I can speak to as Celestia instead of ‘the princess’.” She reached out with her free hand and grasped one of my own, bringing it up and placing it on the center of her chest, where I imagine her heart would be. “From you, I can get all I need: care and support, companionship, a listening ear, and most important of all, understanding. That is all I desire, and you are more than capable of providing that. That is why you are important to me, and it is why I hope…” she took a moment to collect herself, though her last few words were spoken in a whisper, “I hope I can find my way back to you one day.”

While she hadn’t said anything overt, the way she had spoken seemed to go beyond mere friendship. “Celestia, are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Alex.” Celestia answered with a smirk, still refusing to relinquish her hold on me. “But, something further between us is definitely a possibility. Time will tell, I suppose.”

Her admission that I was a possible “interest” for her just made me want her to stay even more, but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to make her, no matter how hard I tried. And so, with a sigh of defeat, I nodded shallowly. “Then I guess you’d better stay alive, because I’m not going to accept a permanent goodbye from you.” Celestia’s only answer was to lay her head against mine again, giving my shoulder a comforting squeeze.

A younger me might have been frustrated and upset that I was being told to wait on a matter of the heart, but I knew why the two of us couldn’t explore anything beyond friendship at the moment. The fact of the matter was that the world was still in chaos, and Celestia would be leaving tomorrow, so deciding to commit to each other would be foolish. I didn’t like it, but I knew we both had important things to focus on, and we couldn’t afford to be distracted by romantic affection.

Nothing more needed to be said, so for the rest of the night, Celestia and I shared space on the sofa and silently watched the flickering flames of the hearth, simply enjoying the companionship we offered to each other for one last night.