A Colt Once Forgotten

by CptBrony

First published

After going through Hell in Southeast Asia, the boy must live with what he did and cope with the consequences.

The boy achieved his goal. He gave up everything; his friends, his possessions, his honor, to kill that man. But what did that leave him with? What did he gain?
Now, he must learn the true value of that which he abandoned back in the Hell of Southeast Asia.
Help can come from the most unsuspecting of places.

Prologue

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New Chances

There are two types of pain in this world; the temporary pain of discipline, or the permanent pain of regret.” (Unknown)

The weightlessness was replaced by a bizarre feeling of being pressed back into the earth. The pressure was suffocating; Ryan could barely breathe. When he opened his eyes and looked down, he saw that the hole was still there. That explained the asphyxiation feeling. Under him, he felt no water, only hard dirt, nothing like the kind in the Vietnamese jungles. Were it not for the terrible pain, he would be questioning where the hell he was.

Above him, Discord hovered, looking down at the boy. He wasn’t able to fully heal the boy, but he was able to put most of his lost blood back in his body, at least giving him more time before he died. That time could be the save-all or the end-all right now. Discord looked around, hoping for the best. Around them was an orchard. Ryan lay on dirt road, apple trees surrounding his position. Discord recognized this place, eliciting a smile from him. Maybe there was a chance for the boy. He looked down at him, hope glistening in his eyes.

Ryan eventually looked up and saw Discord above him. He tried to speak, but instead of words, he spattered out blood and fell back, keeping his eyes on Discord. Discord went back to the ground. “Hello, Ryan.” he said. “I know that you can’t speak, so just listen.” Ryan’s hands covered his chest wound, and he tried to stay silent. “I’ve taken you from your world.” Discord began to explain. “I have my reasons, which I will share with you if I feel like it. I’ve put your blood back, but I couldn’t close up the hole. Luckily for you,” Discord shot a gust of wind at a nearby tree, which bent much more than any tree ought to, but didn’t snap. “the physics of this world will give you a bit more time. I’d say that you have about fifteen to twenty minutes, as opposed to the five to ten back in your world.” Ryan hacked up blood, unable to control himself. Discord flinched at the sudden noise.

Off in the distance, several voices could be heard. Discord looked in that direction, feeling good about what was to come. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat,” He jumped up and curled into a ball. “but I have a garden to tend to.” With a twirl in the air and a bright flash, Discord was gone, leaving Ryan on the ground to bleed all alone.

************************************************************************************

The Cutie Mark Crusaders, or CMC, as is shorter, came to Sweet Apple Acres today looking for farming cutie marks. Applejack was away with her friends somewhere to the north, doing something for the princess, so the girls just bothered Big Macintosh about working.

“Come on!” Applebloom whined. “Ain’t there somethin’ we can do?” She looked at her older brother with big, puppy dog eyes, trying to force her older brother to give in. He was having no part of it, though.

“Ah don’t rightly think so.” He walked past them, dragging along a huge, heavy kart of apples.

“Could we carry stuff? Plant stuff? Anything at all!?” Sweetie Belle pleaded. She, too, joined in the puppy dog eye onslaught.

“No. Now go play.” Mac just kept on walking. It was getting harder to resist, and he was close to cracking.

Then, Scootaloo completed the trio. “Pleeeeeease?” It was too much; the three fillies were overwhelmingly cute. Mac tried to look away, but they just moved to stay in his line of vision. He sighed.

“Fine. Gimme a few minutes, Ah’ll try to think up somethin’.” The CMC jumped up to celebrate their glorious victory over Mount Macintosh.

“YAY! CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS, FARMERS!” they shouted in unison. Mac hid a smile under his usual stoic demeanor, always being feeling content when his little sister and her friends were enjoying themselves.

As they all walked back to the barn, Mac tried to think of something for them to do. They couldn’t buck apples off the trees, they were much too young. It wouldn’t go anywhere. Sure, it was the middle of the summer, but there wasn’t anything more to be planted; Applejack took care of that before leaving. They were much too little to drag carts of apples, and there was not a chance in this world that Mac would let them handle dangerous farm gear and tools. There wasn’t much. “Hmmm.” he said, chewing on the end of his signature piece of straw. He looked around, trying to think of something. All that was there was trees, the same as always.

Ah need to go on an adventure.” he thought.

A random gust of wind blew in from the east field, causing Mac to look that way. “Hmm.” he said again. The pegasi hadn’t warned them of inclement weather. Of course, if it came from the Everfree, that might explain it That forest was too creepy. His thoughts were put to another track when he looked to the field, though. “Ah suppose that you girls could water the trees out that way.” he said, pointing his muzzle at the east field. The girls all looked in that direction. “Jus’ let me get you a little wagon and some buckets of water.” The girls excitement exploded onto their faces like an exit wound. “YAY!!”

At the farmhouse, Mac got the buckets and and the wagon and brought them outside to the pump, where the CMC were waiting, bouncing up and down. “Maybe we’ll get our cutie marks from this!” Scootaloo expressed her excitement.

“Yeah! I’ll get to be like my older sister!” Applebloom affirmed. Mac smiled; she really looked up to Applejack a lot.

As he approached, Sweetie Belle was the first to notice him. “YAY!” she shouted. They shouted that a lot, it seemed. He couldn’t imagine the fun that Ms. Cheerilee had with them each day in the school year. Mac set the buckets down from his jaw and rolled it about a little bit.

“Alright, now, Ah want you girls to fill these buckets with water.” he said, indicating the pump and buckets. “Then, get’em on the wagon and head into the fields. If you any trees that look weak or withered, give’em some water. Good?” They all nodded vigorously. “Great. Ah’ll see y’all later than.” He turned and walked off, ready to get back to work.

The girls immediately went to work, putting the buckets on the wagon, then filling them under the pump. They chatted away as they worked, thinking up more ways to get their marks if this didn’t work. “We could try to work with Pinkie when she gets back on party cutie marks!” Scootaloo said excitedly.

“Ohh ohh!” Sweetie Belle had an idea. “Maybe we could help animals with Fluttershy!” Scootaloo looked at her with disinterest.

“Come on, how much excitement could that bring?” she asked rhetorically. Sweetie Belle answered anyway.

“We could help weird animals, or discover new ones.” she reasoned. The thought of discovering things changed Scootaloo’s attitude.

“Aw, yeah, that would be cool!”

Applebloom mostly listened to them, seeing as she wanted to try to stay working on her family’s farm. She hoped that her talent would enable her to stay here. She would take what she got, but she wanted to find a way to stay at home. “Alright girls,” she said as the second bucket finished filling up. “Let’s get to those fields!” With big smiles on their faces, the girls pulled the wagon of water out in the direction of the fields, completely unknowing of what exactly was out there.

The girls looked around, but they couldn’t find a single tree that may have needed water. They all looked perfectly fine. It looked like Mac had sent them on a wild goose chase.

Applebloom sighed as she swept the area, left to right, right to left. Everything was in tip top shape. But then she noticed something that stood out. “Over there!” she shouted, pointing her foreleg toward something. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo looked over; there was a dry patch underneath a tree. Anxious to get their cutie marks, they sped over to the patch. Once there, Scootaloo got up onto the wagon and dumped an entire bucket of water out of the wagon and onto the ground, soaking the area. Instantly, the girls put their flanks together and looked, waiting for a mark to appear. Sadly, no such event occurred. “Aww.” they all whined in unison. Nothing. “Alright, let’s get moving. Put the bucket back and let’s see if there’s a spot where we can dump the other bucket.”

Before they got the bucket back into the wagon, there was a bright flash not too far down the path, maybe one hundred and fifty feet. “What was that!?” Sweetie Belle screamed, startled by the sudden visual intrusion. Scootaloo was in flight mode, ready to sprint away at any sign of trouble. Only Applebloom, who was trying to discern what the shape down the road was, could decide on a course of action. “Let’s go see!” she announced, getting back in front of the wagon and pulling it behind her. The others quickly followed suit.

“I hope this isn’t a bad idea.” Sweetie Belle voiced, concern etched into her voice.

As the girls approached, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle noticed the shape. “What’s that!?” Sweetie Belle shouted, terrified by the unknown before them. The strange shape was making noise in front of them, like a gurgling noise, but with a hint of its voice.

“Ah’m not sure.” Applebloom admitted. Whatever it was, it coughed violently on the ground. “Ah think it needs help!” Applebloom shouted. She surged forward, her friends having trouble keeping up. The bucket tipped in the wagon, spilling the water in it. As the girls slowed down before the thing, it was clearly a creature, the wagon pushed them from behind, pushing them closer than they were comfortable with.

“Eeek!” They all froze when they found themselves not five feet from the creature. It was clutching a part of its chest with what appeared to be a hand, like spike had, but with five fingers. Its eyes were shut tight, and it looked like it was in pain.

“Ummm, c-can we help you?” Scootaloo asked timidly. The creature didn’t open its eyes, but turned its head. Scootaloo hadn’t really expected a response anyway.

“Get- *cough* - away... dying...”

The girls’ jaws dropped. The creature could speak! Come to think of it, it was wearing some weird clothes, too! They had discovered a new species! “AH!” Applebloom yelped. The creature didn’t speak again, just lay there, in pain.

“Wait, what did it mean... by...” Alarms started to go off in Sweetie Belle’s mind. The creature was in pain. It said the word “dying”. It wanted the girls to leave. “I think it’s hurt!” Sweetie Belle moved forward, forgetting about her trepidations, and got a closer look.

“Sweetie Belle!” The other girls ran over, shouting simultaneously. They all looked at the creature, right under them. Its hand was red. “How bad is it?” Sweetie Belle asked. No response, just coughing. That was enough answer though; blood came out of the creature’s mouth. Some of it landed on Applebloom’s leg, and she jumped back like it was acid.

“W-what do we do?!” she queried. When neither of her friends could come up with an answer, Applebloom looked back to the wagon. “Ah’ve got it!” she announced. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo watched as Applebloom brought the wagon forward. “Get’em in here! We’ll get it to the hospital”

They were all satisfied with this solution, seeing as it was the only viable option as of yet. The girls all got to putting the creature in the wagon, which was no easy task. It weighed a lot. “Dang, this thing’s heavy!” Scootaloo commented. As they lifted up the creature, they noticed a pool of blood underneath it. Double-timing their pace, the girls were just able to get the creature into the wagon. Mostly. Its arms and legs stuck out and touched the ground.

“Good enough.” Applebloom concluded. She and her friends got into the reins. “Let’s go!”

The girls pulled with all their might, and once they got the wagon moving, it wasn’t about to stop. Inertia at its best. They kept on going, not wanting to stop and risk the death of whatever their precious cargo was. Still, being tiny fillies, their energy reserves had to run dry eventually. They just weren’t expecting it to happen so soon.

“I-*huff*- wasn’t expecting- *huff*- this- *huff*- to be so... hard.” Sweetie Belle said, she and her friends finally making it to the farmhouse.

“Ah know- *huff*- what you mean.” Applebloom replied. They all stopped. There was no way that they were going to make it all the way to the hospital. They needed a new plan.

Enter, Big Macintosh, the tank of a stallion. He walked around the corner, hearing his sister responding to her friend about going to the hospital. None of them sounded hurt, but his concern forced him to check anyway. What he saw was unbelievable. “What’s goin’ on-” he wasn’t able to finish before his little sister cut him off.

“Big Mac!” she shouted. “This thing’s dyin’!” She panted, clearly exhausted. Mac took a look at the creature in the wagon; it was not a pretty sight, now that he understood. “We- *huff*- we need to get to the hospital!” Without another word, Mac ran over and took the reins from the girls.

“Eeyup.” Without giving any reassurance to the girls, he ran off towards the hospital, a dying animal in tow.


He ran through the town, uncaring of what other ponies around him might be thinking about this. He could hear something sloshing about in the wagon behind him; he hoped to Celestia that it was spilled water; as he ran. The creature’s hands and feet were dragging on the ground to either side of the wagon, scraping them up. At this point, though, that was probably irrelevant. The creature was injured enough that a scrape or seven wouldn’t make a difference.

As he ran, the other ponies in town looked on curiously at his cargo. They had no way of knowing that the creature was bleeding out in the wagon, so many tried to follow for a bit. It was only when some of the bloody water fell out that some of them decided not to keep following.

“Come on. Come on!” Mac said to himself. The creature probably didn’t have much time left. He would have preferred to bring it to Fluttershy if she was available, but she wasn’t. Off in the distance, he could see his goal. “Just a little bit more.” He had to save the creature; he couldn’t bear to imagine his sister’s face if the creature that she found died.

Before long, Mac burst through the doors of the lobby, terrifying everypony inside. They all looked at him, then at his wagon, then back at him. “This thing needs serious help, now!” Mac announced. A doctor came out from behind the desk.

“What’s the problem?” he asked, curious but urgent. Mad looked at the creature, then back at the doctor. The doctor looked horrified.

“Doc-” Again, he was interrupted.

“Get it to the operating room, now!” Using his magic, he was a unicorn, the doctor lifted the creature out of the wagon and onto a wheeled stretcher that was off to the side. “Move, move!” He and several nurses all rushed into the operating section of the hospital, leaving Mac alone with his ruined wagon and several spectators. They all looked at Mac expectantly, but when they got no answer, they all went back to their business. Mac just looked at his wagon. He hoped that the majority of the two inches of liquid in the wagon was water, but the color of it suggested otherwise. Satisfied that he did his duty, Mac left the hospital to clean the wagon and probably his sister. She would probably want to talk.

“Ah’ll come back tomorrow.” he concluded as he slowly made his way home, trying to make sense of what he just saw and did.

************************************************************************************

His eyes were closed. He breathed in slow and deep, but not by his own doing. his hands were strapped down, keeping him in his place. He was too weak to get up anyhow. He felt oddly dry, a sensation that seemed like it was brand new to his body. He could feel that there were no clothes on his body; just what felt like a hospital gown. The last time he wore one of these, he had been hit by a car.

He tried to open his eyes, and was met with success when he was able to get them half way there. Slowly, he blinked, blinded partially by the lights above him. How did he get here? He remembered hearing a little girl, speaking to him, asking him something. She spoke English, too. Strange. Wasn’t he in Vietnam? No, he couldn’t be. He had to be dead. Maybe this is what it would be like, dying? Just able to rest in a spot, no pain, just laying down. Though,Ryan was expecting something more like Hell, to be honest.

A number of wires were attached to his chest, especially around the spot that he would have sworn was a big hole. Focusing, he couldn’t feel anything missing, but then again, he couldn’t feel anything much at the moment. This hospital must have put him on fierce meds. He tried to raise his hands to get at the wires, but the straps kept them down.

Right.” he reminded himself. Deciding not to waste precious energy, Ryan just lay there, waiting for his doctor to return. The little heart monitor sped up with his consciousness, so he figured that the doctor would come back soon. To kill the time, he looked around the room. He noticed that all of his stuff, and Harris’ Automag, oddly, were sitting in the corner. His clothes hung on a hanger in an open closet before him, obviously having been cleaned, since there was no blood on them. He remembered that guy’s headless body had spilled a lot on him.

There was a series of knocks at his door. As much as Ryan wanted to answer, “Come in.”, he couldn’t. So, whoever it was just waited for a moment before coming in. When they did, Ryan’s mind came to a screeching halt at the sight.

Before him, there stood a horse. Though, it was maybe a bit short, so perhaps it was a pony. Even so, that didn’t match up to the fact that it had a horn. And a doctor’s outfit, stethoscope and all. It even held a clipboard. As it entered, it looked at Ryan, noticing that his eyes were open. It locked eyes with its patient, and slowly, it shut the door.

“Hello.” it said in a masculine voice. So it was a he. “Please stay calm.” he pleaded. When Ryan made no move, he relaxed a bit and came closer. Ryan’s heart rate raised a bit, and the doctor tried to calm him down. “Relax, relax.” he said in a hushed tone. “I’m doctor Laym.” Oh the irony of the name. “I fixed you up. You’re fine now.”

Ryan just kept looking at the doctor, eyes somewhat glazed over. He was tired, and would likely go back to sleep soon. “I just came in to check on you. I’m glad to see that you’re alright.” Ryan blinked twice, slow as a turtle. “I’ll stop by periodically to see you. And please, try to relax.” With those last words, the doctor left the room. Also with them, Ryan let his eyelids drift back down and slept.

************************************************************************************

Mac and the Cutie Mark Crusaders were all sitting in the waiting room. Scootaloo was on her own, but Sweetie Belle was brought here by her father, Magnum, who was watching her while Rarity was away. They all sat quietly in the waiting area, nervous about what news they might get. It had only been less than twenty-four hours, but they were told that some of the best doctors and surgeons were there to work on the creature.

Sweetie Belle had apparently not told her father about the creature yt, as he was cradling her, saying that her friends would be alright. “Don’t worry.” he said. “I’m sure that the doctors will help her out. They’re some of the best.” After a time, though, Sweetie Belle decided to correct her father.

“Actually, it’s not exactly my friend.” Magnum looked at her, confused.

“It?” His main concern was apparently that this was an “it”.

“Yeah. We found it over at Sweet Apple Acres.” she explained. “It was hurt really, really bad, so we brought it to the farmhouse, and Big Mac brought it here.”

Magnum put his hoof to his chin. “What is it?” he asked, now just curious. Sweetie Belle shook her head.

“We don’t know. But it could talk!” she exclaimed. “And it had hands, like Spike, Twilight’s assistant. And it had weird clothes and stuff with it.”

As she continued her explanation to her father, Mad remembered coming home the previous night. His sister was sitting in the center of the living room, being comforted by Granny Smith. When Mac walked in, he ran over to them. “Hey. You alright?” he had asked. Applebloom nodded.

“Yeah.” She was clearly shaken by the encounter. I mean, come on, this thing nearly bled to death in their wagon. Granny Smith wasn’t believing that any more than Mac.

“Now don’t you go lyin’ ta’ me, little missy!” she said. Mac smiled. “Ahhh, know that this is buggin’ ya’. Now, ya’ know what to do?” Applebloom looked up at her Granny. “Go’n take a shower, clean yerself up, an’ remember that you did a good job, gettin’ this thing to Macky boy here.” She looked to Big Mac.

“Ah got it to the hospital. It’ll be fine.” And with that reassurance, Applebloom had felt much better.

And now, here they were, waiting to hear if Big Mac was right. The girls all had an invested interest in this, being the ones who found the creature, and Big Mac had an invested interest in their well being, so he wanted the creature to be alright too. He made that pretty obvious when the doctor came back from the room where the creature was being kept.

“Well, doc?” he asked, getting up and walking over. “How is it?” The doctor put his clipboard in a pocket on his side and addressed the large work stallion before him.

“He’s fine. And I can confirm that it’s a he.” The girls all giggled behind him. The doctor pulled the clipboard back out. “The wound was like nothing I’ve ever seen.” As soon as he said that, Magnum and the girls came right over. Other ponies in the room also became quite interested. “It was like something went straight through its back and chest, but exploded halfway through. The entry wound was about 5.7 millimeters wide, but the exit wound was close to 2.8 centimeters wide. And it progressed in size as it went through. I don’t know what could have done this, but if it weren’t for you, this creature would be long dead.”

When the girls behind him shouted their glee together, Big Mac fell back a little bit, letting them get in to talk to the doctor. “So is he gonna be okay?” Scootaloo asked.

The doctor smiled a big, goofy smile, and replied, “All thanks to you girls.” The joy on their faces was enough to give somepony a heart attack, they were so adorable. They hopped around, celebrating. While they were busy doing that, the doctor came over to Mac and Magnum. “There are certain issues that we should probably discuss soon, in regards to all of this.” Mac understood; if a hospital didn’t get paid, it wouldn’t be there. But Magnum was to have no part of negotiations.

“Name your price. I’ll pay it.” Both Big Mac and the doctor looked at him, surprised. The doctors expression quickly changed to happiness.

“This will probably be around three thousand bits.” Magnum took out his wallet and checkbook.

“Here.” he said, handing the doctor a check. “Now just make sure he leaves this hospital better off than when we first encountered him.” The doctor took the check and walked off, ready to attend to other patients.

Magnum and Big Mac just stood where they were, watching the overjoys little fillies bounce around the room, disturbing everyone else. They didn’t care; they just wanted them to be happy. “So, Mr. Macintosh.” Mangum began. Big Mac shook his head.

“Just Big Mac is fine.” Magnum shrugged.

“Alright. So, Big Mac, from what you’ve seen of this creature, what do think of it? I mean, what it looks like or what it even is.” Big Mac hadn’t been thinking of this, since it didn’t seem that important. he thought about it now.

“Well, it reminds me of those monkeys that Ah learned about in school.” he replied. “Minus the tail, from what Ah saw.” Magnum seemed intrigued.

“Interesting.” They left the conversation there, Big Mac deciding that he would ask Twilight Sparkle about this when she returned from her trip.

Soon, they were all told that the creature wouldn’t be able to see visitors until at least two days later, so they all left, proud of their efforts and curious as to what this new creature had in store for them.

************************************************************************************

The Previous Day

Luna trudged up her stairs, her legs dragging behind her as she made her way up. They refused to be useful, just lagging behind, trying to keep her away from the surface world, where none would understand her sorrow. She had to go, though. She needed to address her subjects and she couldn’t bear to be near that world any more.

At the top of the stairs, she was finally able to quiet herself down. She didn’t want to disturb her guard with her problems, especially this one. Looking about, she confirmed that he was not in the library and exited the stairs, recreating the barrier behind her. She had no desire to go back down there. Quiet as a cat on the prowl, she tip-hoofed her way to her bed chambers. When she saw that Starstep was not there either, she ran to her bed and flopped down onto it. Into her pillow, she wailed, keeping it muffled and quiet so as to hide her sadness.

The pillow was not enough, though, to keep the sound from ultimately reaching her guard’s ears. He opened up the door and closed it quickly behind him in one fluid motion, remaining unnoticed by his princess. He saw her bawling into her pillow and immediately went over to her.

“Luna!” he shouted, forgetting formalities. Clearly, she had not expected him, as she yelped when she heard him. “Are you alright?” She lifted her head from her pillow and looked away from her guard.

“Yes, don’t concern yourself. Get back outside.” Starstep was somewhat hurt by her words. Couldn’t she share her troubles with him? He could shoulder the burden.

“Princess, please. What’s going on? What happened?” He knew that this involved the human from the pool.

Luna looked away from him, doing her best to control herself and avoid bursting back into tears in front of her guard. She knew that the only way to do that was to either make him leave, which wasn;t going to happen, or calmly explain everything to him. “Th-the human...” she tried to begin. Starstep waited patiently for his princess to gain enough composure to speak. “He’s... he’s dead!” Before her cries could escape into the afternoon breeze. She cried into her pillow. So much for keeping her composure for her guard.

Starstep moved forward and put his head all the way forward onto the bed, just reaching Luna’s. Her face was buried in a pillow, her tears soaking through all the way. “Shhh.” he said. Luna’s sobs slowed, but were still quite powerful. “Stop crying.” he gently ordered. Luna stuck her front right hoof out and reached out for Starstep. In response, he climbed up onto the bed. She grabbed him and held him close as a child holds a stuffed bear in a thunderstorm. As tight as she held him, he could tell that she was weakened by her sorrow. “Tell me what happened.”

She walked Starstep through the entire chain of events, all the way from the beginning, but spent extra time on any significant points. The events which she spent the most time on were his capture, his being held, the rescue of his friend, his finding of the family in the burnt out house, and then straight into his final assault on the compound. This one, she spent the most time on, having witnessed everything that occurred. Starstep listened quietly as day soon became evening. At the end, she described how Ryan had been killed.

“And I feel like it’s my fault.” she said guiltily. “If I had pushed him in another direction... if I hadn’t been so gullible, thinking that he was going to make Narendra face justice... maybe he would be alive and happy.” She was back on the verge of tears, and Starstep wasn’t going to let her cry any more.

“It’s not your fault.” he said. She didn’t seem to register his words, and her chest bobbed up and down. He put his hoof under her chin and held her face up to look at his. “Listen. Please.” Taking his hoof away, he was happy to see her hold her gaze with him.

He put his hoof over hers. “It’s not your fault, princess. Please, understand that.” She bit her lower lip. “Everyone and every pony has his and her problems. And we all have to deal with them.” He scooted closer to her, wanting her to feel less alone. “We all have our friends, and friends are there to help us. You helped him as much as you could.” He looked out the window, remembering his old friends. “As much as our friends are able to help us, and we our friends, it is up to that individual to decide on what they will do. We can try to push them in the right direction, but we can’t control what they do or think, and we all have to accept that. Sure, you can be sad that this happened. But you shouldn’t feel guilty. Unless you intended for harm to come to an individual, you have no reason to feel guilty about what happens in their life. If you did what you could to help them, then you should only at least acknowledge that you did.”

Luna strengthened her hold on Starstep’s hoof and leaned on him. “I guess. But... but what if I could have done more?” Starstep thought for a moment.

“Could you have, truly?” Luna was silent, and then shook her head. “Then don’t ask those questions.”

Luna remained quiet after that, and Starstep just hummed a slow tune, eventually lulling his princess into sleep. The sky was ready to go to night, orange streaks all over the sky with purple clouds lazily moving in the breeze.

“I’m certain that Celestia will take care of it.” And she did, leaving Starstep to keep Luna company throughout that night.

First Encounters

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First Encounters

One day, your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” (Unknown)

Ryan’s eyes shot open and rapidly jumped around, checking the room. He forgot where he was for a moment and began to panic, only remembering that he was dying in a Vietnamese river. Then he remembered that he was in a hospital and relaxed. But wasn’t there something weird about this hospital? Something... off? Ah, yes. Ryan was either dead or crazy, because a unicorn had walked into his room and insisted that it was his doctor. By speaking to him.

What on Earth is going on?” he wondered. His head was much clearer now than it was earlier. He could actually coherently think, now.

He sat up, remembering that he had been restrained earlier. It seemed that whoever it was that was taking care of him was confident enough that he was well that they removed his restraints. “Just as well.” he said to himself. The wires on his chest were still attached to the machine, and he opted to remove them, drawing a steady beeeeeeeeeeeep from the machine. Clearly, it was not happy with his decision.

“Alright, let’s see what we’ve got.” Ryan got off his bed and walked over to the corner with his stuff. Inspecting it, he found that everything was there; his gun, knife, hammer, clothes, Harris’ gun, and ammo were all present. His jacket and vest hung in the closet. “Looks like everything’s here.” he confirmed, not moving anything. He wasn’t about to leave the hospital, he was just checking to make sure he had his stuff. Happy that he did, he moved over to the window. Outside, the beautiful night sky stood in all its glory, even more stars present than in Vietnam.

“Definitely not in ‘Nam any more.” he said, taking in the sight. It wasn’t quite Galileo’s sky, but the stars were incredible. They shimmered in the sky like little candles, flickering in the wind.

Son, he moved away from the window, intent on figuring out just where he was. He remembered seeing the unicorn, but he figured that had to be a hallucination. Unicorns don’t exist. And if he did see one, clearly, he was not in his world any more, alive or not. Pushing those thoughts out of his mind, Ryan walked over to the door. He opened the door slowly, like he was back in Narendra’s home, anticipating someone outside. No one, no unicorns. Concluding its safety, Ryan walked out into the hall and took a look down both halls and shut the door. If any nurses passed by, he didn’t want them hearing the heart monitor in “He’s dead!” mode. After looking down both ends, he decided to go right, since he guessed that way led to the back of the hospital. Being a hospital, there was a good chance that he would encounter visitors if he went went to the front. Being practically naked, he it thought better to go where no one would likely be.

As he walked through the halls, he thought about the possibility of the unicorn doctor. “I suppose it could happen.” he thought. “I mean, if Discord exists, then he could... have...” That cinched it. The unicorn doctor probably was real, as real as Discord. He remembered now; Discord had been floating over him before he was found, and disappeared before the little girls took him away. Wherever Discord had brought him, it was certainly far from home.

Let’s just confirm.” Ryan figured, looking at a door. He quietly approached it, putting his hand on the oddly shaped handle. It looked like it was meant for something without digits. Upon pushing the door open, Ryan’s suspicions were confirmed; there was a horse, pony, or whatever, in the hospital bed. And it was awake, looking at Ryan. As quickly as he opened the door, he closed it again, not wanting to be noticed. Maybe the pony would think it was a dream.

Rather than continue through the hospital, Ryan went back to his room. He had gone a considerable distance, and he needed to get back anyway. Not knowing the layout of the hospital wasn’t very helpful, either.

As he got to be about thirty feet from his door, he heard voices from the room to his left. Panicking, Ryan whipped his head around, looking for anywhere to hide. When he saw nothing, he sprinted forward, hoping to get into his room in time. At his door, just before opening it, the door down the hall opened up, and Ryan froze. Staring down the hall, Ryan had trouble comprehending the sight of a pony in a nurse’s outfit leaving the room with an empty food tray. She took her sweet time, saying goodnight to whoever she was tending to. When she finished, she shut the door and turned away. Ryan took the opportunity and tore his door open, shutting it just as fast and rushing back to his bed, jumping in. He out all the wires back on his chest and shifted them until the noise came back, though it was faster than he would have liked. Oh, well. Nothing to be done about that.

His door creaked open and Ryan closed his eyes to feign sleep. He couldn’t see anything, obviously, but he could hear as the nurse entered his room and walked up to him, her hooves clip-clopping on the tile floor as she approached. Breathing slowly, Ryan tried to calm himself to slow his heart rate.

“Poor thing. Must be having a nightmare.” Ryan felt relief, but there were two things he found interesting about her statement. One; his life as of late was a nightmare. Two; that had to be one of the scarier moments of his recent life, being in a bizarre hospital and nearly being caught out of his room. After taking a couple of readings, the nurse left, allowing Ryan to let out a huge sigh of relief.

He opened his eyes again, checking if the door was closed. It was. Sitting back up and removing the wires, he moved back to the window. Looking outside, he noticed a big forest in the distance. That was something he knew. He also knew, now, that he was on the first floor. He took mental notes of everything.

“Tomorrow, I’m getting out of here.” He would head to the forest. He could probably survive, and if not, oh well. He was supposed to be dead anyway.

**********************************************************************************

Big Mac had gotten up early that morning. He didn;t know why, but something in the back of his head had awoken him. Or perhaps it was to the right of his head. “GAH!”

Applebloom was sitting right next to his head, her big eyes trained on his face, looking terribly excited. “Come on, big brother! Let’s get our work done now so we can see him!” Big Mac was a tad confused in his drowsy state.

“Who?” he asked grogilly. Applebloom rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh.

“The creature of course!” Big Mac remembered the creature that had been found dying on their farm. He had to wash the wagon, then throw it away because the stains were so bad, find the area where the girls found it, clean that, then wash himself off. It was a lot of hassle, even if it may not have been the creature’s fault.

“Alright, alright. Just let me get ready for the day, then we can get to work.” Applebloom squee’d and ran out of her brother’s room. He sighed. “It’s gonna be a long day.” he concluded.


The work went fast, much unlike Big Mac was expecting. He had been expecting his little sister to chatter nonstop about what she thought about the creature, and what she expected of it. Maybe what she didn’t know, or any fears she had about it. Nnnope. She just went through her chores, saying very little, intent on getting done as soon as possible. And when she continued after finishing her section of the chores, it became clear that she wanted Big Mac to be there for when they first interacted with the creature. Big Mac would go, of course; he had helped to save its life. But he didn’t share the enthusiasm of his sister.

Maybe the creature was dangerous. It could eat ponies. Or cows, like Bessie. His sister had said that it could talk, so it was clearly intelligent. What if it meant them harm? What sorts of things might it be able to come up with, in that area? Maybe it was nice, though. It could certainly be friendly, though with how they found it, it clearly hadn’t come from a nice place. Odds, were, the creature was not as friendly as they were.

He left those thoughts on the farm, though, as his sister dragged him away to go get her friends. “Good luck with yer new friend, little young’n!” Granny Smith yelled as they left. He hoped for the same.

His little sister finally started talking away about what she was expecting when they left. “Ah bet he’s got all kinds of stories and such from his home!” she started. “I wonder what the land he’s from his like? What if there aren’t any ponies there?” Big Mac actually started to think about that possibility for a moment. As far as he knew, no creature like this had ever been seen before, so it was a distinct possibility that this creature had never even laid eyes upon a pony before. How would it react to them if it had never seen them before? If Big Mac ever found himself in the custody of whatever this creature’s race was, he didn’t doubt that he would be freaking out.

Ah hope he don’t lash out.” As long as the creature hadn’t fully regained whatever potentially notable strength it had, they would be totally safe.

It didn’t take long to get to Carousel Boutique to get Sweetie Belle, who was just as excited as Applebloom to meet the human. On their walk, the two little fillies babbled away about the creature, throwing out all kinds of theories about it. Some were simple, like he was lost and hurt himself. Others were totally outlandish, like him being a spy in Equestria that was found out and attacked. Big Mac mostly just listened, all the while formulating his own theories and plans for the first encounter.

Soon, they were at the CMC clubhouse, where they retrieved Scootaloo. Big Mac would have sworn that she lived elsewhere, but he didn’t know enough about her to say so. When they got there, Scootaloo must have still been asleep. “SCOOTALOO!!” the girls both yelled. From inside the clubhouse, something that sounded like a skirmish could be heard from inside.

“Coming!” the filly shouted back. After more noise was heard, Scootaloo finally came out, looking exhausted.

“Y’all good to go now?” Applebloom asked impatiently. Scootaloo nodded vigorously.

“Yup! Let’s go!” And they went to the hospital.

As they walked through the town, the townsponies kept giving Big Mac funny looks, like he had some kind of disease. He hoped that he didn’t, because he had no idea what this creature may have had in its blood. But then again, they might just be reacting like they did when Zecora first showed up in town.

“Mornin’.” he said to passersbys. Some returned his gesture with a nod, others just kept on walking, even speeding up as they passed. Couldn’t say that he was shocked, but he couldn’t say that he was happy with this. “Ain’t like Ah did anything wrong.” he said to himself. The fillies were hopping about, being a little bit annoying to a few other ponies. “Unless you count not controlling them.” Other than that, the walk was uneventful.

They reached the hospital in a short time, Big Mac trailing behind a little bit as they went. He was less enthusiastic about the creature, as was already quite clear, and the only reason that he was going was because his little sister wanted him to. He wished that Applejack was there.

She’d be way more into this than me.” he thought, complaining to himself about going. Normally, he didn’t complain about anything, but when it was something strange like this, he let himself complain a little. “Maybe it won’t be awake. Maybe it’ll need more time to rest.” While he was lost in his mind, the girls were at the door of the hospital, urging Big Mac to hurry up.

They entered the waiting room, drawing looks from the only two other ponies who were there. Once they saw who had entered, they lost interest and went back to whatever it was that they had been doing. Just as well. Big Mac wasn’t the biggest fan of being the center of attention.

They all walked over to the front desk, where the nurse on duty had her head down on her desk, drooling. A light snore came from her. “Miss Redheart?” Sweetie Belle initiated the conversation. Nurse Redheart jumped up, eyes shooting out wide from the startling experience of a little filly’s voice sounding out unexpectedly. When she recovered, she put her head on her hoof and leaned her elbow joint on the table.

“Yes, how can I-*yawn*- help you?” Big Mac hid his snicker at her disheveled appearance. The three little fillies all got up onto the desk and started to bounce up and down, drawing a groan from the nurse.

“We’re here to see the creature!” they all yelled in unison. The nurse rubbed her temples.

“What?” The girls stopped bouncing.

“Y’know, that weird creature that came in before? Not exactly a pony?” Scootaloo tried to make it easier for the nurse. It didn’t work.

“What?” Maybe she didn’t know who they were speaking of.

The doctor walked out of the hall and into the waiting room, instantly spotting the little filles. A big smile crossed his face, and he walked over. “Ah, yes. I assume you’re here for the creature?” The girls nodded so fast that Big Mac would have sworn that their little heads would fly off. “Well, from his readings, I can say that he’s about ready for a little visit.”

The girls were elated. “YAY!” The doctor turned, signaling for them and Big Mac to follow.

**********************************************************************************

Ryan hadn’t slept well that night. Of course, one can’t blame him for that. He had been tortured, cut, beaten, burned, shot, and killed. He thought. Still, after all of that, it wasn’t the easiest thing to get back to sleep.

He had awoken at around six in the morning, partly because of how much light there was outside. Summer tended to bring that. “Today, I leave.” He was preparing a plan as soon as he was fully conscious. He couldn’t just walk out the front door, seeing as he wasn’t exactly a local. He didn’t know what these ponies wanted, and he had no way to get out of the room without being seen. When the doctor came in just half an hour earlier, he had left a note.

Today, you will likely get a visit from three very hyper little girls. Just a fair warning.”

Yeah. Only they weren’t going to get to meet him, since he wasn’t sticking around. He had searched the room for anything that he could use. Other than the one morphine syringe he had left, he had nothing to non-lethally take potential hostiles out of the game, and he might need it for himself later. As the sun peeked over the horizon, Ryan looked out the window.

The window, that was perfect. He was on the first floor, he remembered that from last night. As long as it wasn’t some kind of treated glass, he could just smash it and leave that way. Ryan moved his stuff over to the side of the bed and was about to don it when he heard a knock at his door. Rushing over to his bed, he jumped under the covers and lay still, pretending to sleep.

A nurse walked in, a light blue one with a lighter toned mane. No horn, so she was normal. Behind her she dragged a kart with several bits of food on it. She must have heard Ryan moving around, because she looked at him and said, “Come on, I can tell you aren’t asleep.” Ryan opened his eyes and looked at her, their eyes connecting. The nurse had gentle eyes, really big, like the others he had seen, and the held a lot of sympathy. As well as a nurse should have. To her, Ryan’s eyes just held mystery and confusion, drawing a little chuckle from her. “I have some food for you.” She pushed the cart forward.

What is this nonsense?” Ryan thought as he took in the sight of the food. Did they honestly think that he ate hay and grass? Looking on the underside shelf, he saw some veggies and oats. He grabbed them with fast hands, getting a startled yelp from the nurse. As he munched on them, she looked at him, awestruck.

“Well, just buzz if you need anything.” Ryan pretended not to understand as she left.

A few seconds after his door closed, Ryan looked over to make sure that she was gone. No noise, good. He was definitely alone. Still munching and crunching on the oats, he looked to the window. “Maybe a little bit longer, to get up my energy.” He would eat all the food in front of him, then he would leave. Maybe. Probably not. After lunch, when his strength would be at one hundred percent again. Yeah.

He got out of the bed and walked around his room. It was a nice hospital room, he had to admit. A lot like the ones he had back home, only this was clearly meant for ponies. There were anatomical drawings of ponies, posters about pony health, and other non-human things. Still, this hospital room was probably better equipped than that one he had gone to before. And upon leaving, he doubted that he would be met by Luna, to whom he would have to... explain his actions...

Ryan froze completely. Remembering Luna, he thought about her compared to these other creatures around him. She was a horse. They were ponies. Her coloring was in a similar style to theirs, and she had a horn and wings. Could this be her realm? Did she have something to do with his being brought here? Maybe Discord knew her, though he never mentioned that he did. Ideas swirled around in Ryan’s head. Maybe they were like devil and angel, always at odds, trying to influence people to do the right or wrong thing? Nah, not likely. Maybe they were just generally enemies? Maybe. Ryan decided to think about it later, and decided that he would focus on his escape.

He noticed a mirror in the room, toward the corner. He walked over to it. He hadn’t taken a good look at himself in ages, and he couldn’t help but be curious about what the mirror held in store for him. When he got there, what he saw was hardly the Ryan that he remembered. He had lost weight, and non an insignificant amount. He still had muscle, more than before, even, but his body fat had dropped dramatically. On his face, he had a growing survivalist beard, the hairs being a quarter of an inch long. Removing his gown, Ryan looked at his body unhindered. His necklace still hung on his neck, he hadn’t even noticed. Under it, he could see a huge scar where the 5.45mm bullet tore through his chest. Tenderly, he put his fingers on the scar. The skin had hardly any feeling any more. His arms still looked like they had been melted and then poured back into place with the burn scars. He was bruised from his various encounters with people and nature. His right leg had a plethora of tiny scars from the mine that he had stepped on. Turning around, he looked at his back in the mirror. The letters, USA, were still there, forever carved into his skin. Under them, he saw a spot where it looked like a buzzsaw had attacked him, having been slashed over a dozen times in that spot. He took it all in soberingly.

He had never been invincible, he knew that. He went out there expecting to die. But he had also been expecting to gain something. What it was, he wasn’t even sure any more. Closure? Satisfaction? Redemption? No, he had nothing. Killing Narendra didn’t make him feel better, it didn’t make the problems go away, and his quest certainly didn’t redeem his decision on the boat and in the compound. For a second, Catherine and Joey flashed by in the mirror, prompting Ryan to spin around. No one. No one had ever been there for him, except for Harris.

Ryan began to tremble, and fell against the mirror, cracking it. He had abandoned his best friend, the only one who could have helped him and tried to. Ryan had no redemption, he never would. Unsure of what to do with himself, Ryan went back to the bed and laid down. “I don’t even know what I’m doing.” he realized. He just lay there on the bed and waited for lunch to come.

Lunch came slowly, Ryan’s thoughts and memories haunting him the whole time. They threatened to make him do something. He was never sure what, but he had come close to doing it. The doctor walked in. “Hello, Mr...?” When Ryan didn’t respond, he nodded and brought the food over. This time, he had peanut butter, bread, and milk. “Here’s lunch.” Again, Ryan used fast hands to nab the food and scarfed it down. Unlike the nurse, the doctor just chuckled, non being startled. The nurse must have talked to him. “I’m sure that you got my note about visitors today.” he said. Ryan tore at his food and gulped down his milk. “Well, my guess is that they’ll be around soon, so be prepared. They’re going to be a bit excited.” Ryan looked up at the doctor, this time avoiding eye contact. The doctor took the hint and left the room.

Ryan wiped his mouth and looked around. If his “visitors” were coming soon, than now was the time to leave. He waltzed over to his things and donned everything. Keeping a check of everything, he donned the underwear, then the pants, then the shirt and jacket, then his vest and weapons and such. Once he had everything, he turned to leave. As he turned, he laid eyes on the mirror. He stared at it for a moment.

With a glacial expression, he pulled out Harris’ Automag and put a bullet in the mirror, aiming downward. The mirror exploded, bits crashing to the floor, spreading glass everywhere. He turned back around and looked to the window and got ready to run.

**********************************************************************************

Big Mac and the girls were standing with the doctor just fifteen feet from the door to the creature’s room when an incredibly loud BOOM sounded throughout the hall. They all dropped and covered their ears. “What was that?” Sweetie Belle screamed. The doctor was just as confused as her, and he was looking around frantically.

“Is everyone alright?” he yelled A chorus of “yes” and “Think so” was sang through the hall. The doctor stood up, panic seeming to strike his face like a mare’s hoof. “The creature!” he shouted. As he ran forward, Big Mac got up and ran after him.

They were at the door in a couple of seconds. Once there, they heard a loud crash from inside. Immediately, the doctor kicked the door open and rushed in. All that was there was an empty room, a shattered mirror, and a shattered window. Outside, they could see the creature running away from the hospital, towards the forest.

“Stop it!” the doctor yelled.

Big Mac took the initiative and leapt out the window, getting into a gallop to catch the creature. Behind him, he could hear the doctor yelling out orders at his employees to get ready to treat someone. Real confidence builder, him not knowing who to treat.

Big Mac was getting close to the creature. Clearly, it wasn’t a species that was built for running like ponies. For a two legged creature, it was running on two legs, it was fast, though. “Stop!” Big Mac yelled out. The creature looked back for a moment, then sped up just a little. Not enough though. When Big Mac got in range, he grabbed the creature’s clothes with his teeth and stopped. With both of their considerable momentums, they crashed into the ground.

Big Mac took a moment to recover from his fall. It had been a while since he fell down during a full sprint. He rolled over, catching his breath. “Well, that was-” He was cut off by a large weight tackling him to the ground. Looking up, he saw that the creature was pinning him down. Who would have guessed that it could recover so fast? “Ah don’t want to hurt you.” he said slowly, hoping that the creature would understand tone if not words. “Ah just want-” The creature leapt off of him and moved back, letting Big Mac stand up. He noticed that it was pointing a shiny thing at him. “Ah don’t know what that is,” Big Mac said. “but Ah’d appreciate it if you didn’t point it at me.” The creature kept its item trained on him, making him uncomfortable. “Just calm down.” he said.

The creature moved back, pointing the weapon down. “Stay away.” it said. Before Big Mac could register that it spoke to him, it turned around and fled into the forest.

Magic

View Online

Magic

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Big Mac just watched as the creature ran away. He couldn’t speak or even think. The girls were right; it was intelligent enough to be capable of speech. The really weird thing to Mac was the tone with which it spoke. It didn’t exactly sound like fear, or anger or aggression. It wasn’t sadness, either, like he needed to be alone. It was more of a calculated statement of his demands, like one would make in a business arrangement. It puzzled Big Mac.

He barely even registered that there were several ponies running his way, yelling, asking if he was alright. It didn’t seem that important, compared to what had just happened. “Mr. Macintosh!” the doctor yelled. Big Mac finally turned around to see what they wanted.

“What?” he said nonchalantly. The doctor stopped right before him to catch his breath.

“Are-*huff*- are you alright?” Big Mac just nodded curtly and turned back to face the forest.

“Ah’m fine.” He stood up and took a step towards the treeline, which was a good twenty-five meters away. “Ah wonder what he thinks he’s doin’.” Surely, the creature must know how dangerous the Everfree forest is, right? Everypony knows that. Could the creature have come from it? Maybe, though it didn’t seem like it did.

The Cutie Mark Crusaders ran up to Big Mac and hugged his legs. “When we saw you tackle it, we thought that you had it, but when it knocked you down, we got so scared!” Scootaloo wailed. Sweetie Belle was silent, and Applebloom was doing her best not to cry. After hearing that incredibly loud noise and finding a shattered mirror and window, they had no idea what the creature might have done.

“Ah was scared...” Applebloom muttered into Big Mac’s leg. Sensing her enormous distress, Big Mac took her and the other girls into an embrace in one fell swoop of his long leg.

“Shh.” he said, trying to keep them calm. “Ah’m fine, no need to worry.” Truth be told, he wasn’t entirely sure about that. The creature had threatened him with some sort of item, telling to “stay away”. That item could have been the noise maker. But then again, something so small couldn’t really make a noise like that, now could it?

The doctor, having recovered from his exertion, came over to the group before him and spoke hurriedly. “We need to find the creature before it potentially caused damage.” he said. “Where did it go, Mr. Macintosh?” Big Mac responded by pointing to the forest.

“Hold on there, doc.” he said, halting the doctor. “It don’t want to hurt us. It told me to ‘stay away’. Maybe it ain’t dangerous? Maybe we should leave it?” Much to Big Mac’s chagrin, the doctor energetically shook his head.

“No. It might be dangerous, and I don’t know if I got to all of its infections.” Oh. Well, that could be a problem. “Plus, it’s a new species. If I don’t try to find it now, Miss Sparkle will likely tear up the forest looking for it.” Thinking about it, Big Mac realized that it would actually be safer for Miss Sparkle if the creature was found before she arrived the next day. She wouldn’t be obliged to enter the Everfree forest. “I’ll send in some of the hospital security to find him.” Like magic, several security officers that Big Mac never knew existed popped up and stood at attention. “Find the creature, and bring him back to finish treatment.” the doctor ordered. His security personnel fanned out and went into the forest.

Big Mac put the fillies on his back. “Well, doc, Ah’m afraid that we’ve got nothing to do here, so I guess we’ll just be leaving.” The doctor nodded, not really paying attention.

“Alright. I’ll notify you if anything happens or develops.” With that, Big Mac left, carrying three very disappointed fillies on his back.

**********************************************************************************

Discord found himself laughing hard, and even he didn’t really know why. Meh, he didn’t need to make sense
.

The boy had just blasted out the hospital window and ran off, only to be chased by Big Mac, like a puppy chasing a rodent. Only that rodent was more like a tiger. Little dog syndrome, perhaps? Ah, well. Seeing Ryan tackle that behemoth of a pony to the ground like it was nothing made his day. Size really doesn’t always matter, does it?

Discord had told Ryan that he had a garden to attend, but he had lied. Plain and simple. Why on Equestria, thankfully he was back there, would Discord one; go back to being a statue, and two; give up a chance to see this story all the way through? Discord still felt guilty about what he had done before, but now that Ryan was in a much safer place, he could actually enjoy what he witnessed, rather than think of the deadly consequences. Those consequences no longer applied.

Discord had been weighing his options, though. He couldn’t make a fake statue to keep the royal sisters off his back. They would know that it was a fake. So that option was out the window. He could return to the garden, but he had already knocked that off. He would just have to try and find a way out again, and the way he got out before likely wasn’t goin to be available. But... if he PRETENDED to be a statue, then he could go back and the sisters would be none the wiser. They would be able to tell that he was, in fact, there, but not that he was fully conscious and influencing the world around them. He could send his mind out in small waves to check on the boy’s healing progress and maybe make it a little bit more fun along the way.

Discord thought of Harris when he thought of Ryan’s recovery. He truly did feel for the boy; all he had wanted was to bring his friend home and help him to get better. When he saw Harris sitting with Ryan as he died in that disgusting river, Discord himself almost cried. Unfortunately, while he was helping Ryan, he could only hope that Harris could deal with his own pain and suffering on his own, and only if he could escape Vietnam. To try to make up for it, Discord was taking on the challenge of helping Ryan to recover that which he lost in those jungles and cities. There was a lot to do; but the elements of harmony would no doubt be helpful for this.

Having decided on a course of action, and being satisfied with what he saw that day, Discord flew off towards the castle, where he would play statue and no one would ever know that he was helping a lost soul to find its way.

**********************************************************************************

Starstep awoke before Luna, not shockingly. She had her forelegs curled up tight around his torso, holding him close. She was snoozing away, and what she was dreaming about, Starstep had no idea. Whatever it was, he only hoped that it was peaceful, after hearing about what had been going on.

Starstep was happy to be this close to her. They didn’t share moments like this very often, but when they did, he always wanted them to last forever. Of course, he would never tell her that. It could ruin their friendship.

There was a loud rapping at the door, and someone on the other side was yelling. “Princess Luna, please, come quick!” That voice, it was too familiar. Starstep groaned.

Blueblood..." he thought as he got up, making sure not to disturb Luna. The loud rapping kept up as he approached the door. “I’m coming already!” he loudly whispered. Looking back, he saw that Luna still slept. “Now,” he said as he opened the door, laying his eyes on a distressed Blueblood. “What?” Blueblood took a moment to compose himself.

“There has been a... development, in the search for Discord.”

Starstep blinked. Then he blinked again. What? “What?” Blueblood nodded.

“Yes. We need Auntie Luna right away.” Starstep looked at Blueblood, then at Luna, then back at Blueblood.

“Right away.” With that, Blueblood nodded and ran off.

Closing the door gently, Starstep turned around to look at his princess. She was in no condition to be going around in public, but the nation needed her right now. She and her sister had to ensure that whatever this development was didn’t create any danger. He walked over to her and put his hoof on her side. “Princess.” he said flatly. She murmured and rolled over. Starstep jumped up stood with his front hooves on her side. “Luna!” She jolted awake from the sudden assault on her eardrums. Groggy and feeling sticky, she looked up at her guard.

“What?” she asked. Starstep jumped off the bed.

“You are needed.” He leaned in close and whispered. “There has been a development in the Discord situation.” Luna shot up and leapt off the bed.

“Where am I needed?” she asked frantically. Thinking back, Blueblood hadn’t told him where Luna was needed.

“I would guess that you need to head to the throne room.” She ran off, clearly panicking that something terrible had happened.

After she left, Starstep looked around and sighed. Life had been going fairly well for him. There was a little hiccup on the day of Discord’s escape, but other than that, not much happened. Then the boy died, a tragedy to be certain, from what Luna told him. Not only that, now, less than a week later, Discord was somehow involved with something.

“Why must life be so hard at times?” But then, he already knew the answer to that.


Luna sprinted through the halls as fast as she could, drawing looks of concern from guards and staff who were out of the loop. They had no way of knowing what was going on for some time, but for those who did, they wore grim expression. Though, as she drew closer to the throne room, the expressions became more neutral. “I wonder what has happened?” she thought. The ones who knew didn’t seem like they were that concerned. Some just looked confused.

When she entered the throne room, she spotted her sister sitting on her throne, reading some papers. They looked terribly boring. “I have arrived, sister.” Luna announced. Celestia looked up and smiled.

“Excellent. Come with me.” Luna followed as her sister got up and walked behind the throne. She normally had a tiny bit of small talk first, so this indicated to Luna that this development was something big.

“Sister, what has happened?” she asked. Celestia chuckled.

“Just wait. You’ll see.” Luna grumbled. She hated it when her sister did this.

They entered the garden, and upon inspection of the garden, Luna’s jaw dropped like a thousand pound bomb from a B-29. The noise that came from her maw was of confusion, like that of a community that was just unprovokedly bombed. There was zero coherence in her speech.

“Is that..?” he finally managed to ask. Celestia nodded.

“It is.”

Before them stood the statue of Discord, only this time, it was standing in a new position. Before, he had been standing with his hands outstretched and a look of terror on his face. Now, he sat on his hind end, with one leg over the other. His hand was under his chin, and he looked rather thoughtful.

“How did he get here?” Luna asked, astonished. Celestia walked forward and looked up at the statue.

“He just appeared here. After a groundskeeper alerted me to the statue’s presence, I came over and checked if it was him with my magic. And it is. He is back here, Luna, where he cannot cause chaos.” Celestia looked over at her sister. “One less thing to have on our minds, dear sister.”

Luna sat down, hardly able to stand up. If Discord was back, who put him there, and why? If it was the elements of harmony, they would have alerted the royal sisters to this. Of course, the bigger question was, where had he gone? Where did he spend so much time, only to wind up coming back to this garden where he had been imprisoned for so long? Questions swirled around Luna’s mind, like a cyclone over the pacific ocean.

“I am glad.” she said, deciding to ponder upon it later. With Ryan still on her mind, she didn’t want to think about Discord right now. Two unrelated things needed to be pondered at different times, she always believed. Dedicate all your time to one thing, then another. “What shall we do?” Luna asked. Celestia looked back to the statue and sighed.

“We just have to hope that whoever put him here this time did so in a way that won’t let him escape.” Not entirely satisfied, but still happy with this ending, Luna turned and left after giving a goodbye to her sister to go tell Starstep the good news.


The whole time, Discord had to do his absolute best not to laugh hysterically at the two regal sisters before him. Luna was just leaving, clearly she had fallen for it. Of course, she also looked like she was brooding on something. Discord noted that and would look into it later.

Celestia was still in the garden with Discord when her sister left. Discord silently ordered her to leave so that he could use his magic without being detected. Celestia’s presence made things hard because, while the spells to detect magic aren’t easy to do, if a powerful unicorn, or alicorn, is nearby, they can typically sense it.

Go away!” Discord mentally shouted at Celestia. he turned around for one last look.

“Don’t cause more trouble.” she said menacingly, then walked away. If he could blink at the time, Discord would have done so several times right there. Did she know that he was able to just leave? He told himself not to cause trouble. “I’ll just influence Ryan’s life.” If he did anything to other ponies, Celestia would surely bring down her full wrath upon him.

Bored, but not feeling like watching Ryan at the moment, Discord just felt like entertaining himself by observing the lives of the Canterlot nobles. “Ah, yes. Rich pony problems.” None of them knew the pain and suffering that Ryan knew. And he hoped that they never would.

**********************************************************************************

Ryan ran through the forest, trying to get as far in as possible to evade capture. These ponies wanted him? They would have to fight for him. “I’m not going back there.” Ryan told himself. He had no desire to be a part of civilization any more. He couldn’t properly function in society, not after everything He would always be looking over his shoulder, always be looking for bad guys to kill. At least out in nature, his behavior made more sense. Or he might die. Yeah.

Behind him, he could hear several of the ponies just entering the forest, calling out to him. “Creature!” they would yelled. Ha. He was the creature now, it seemed. Although, they were more right than they knew. Ryan had become a creature back in Sumatra. His mind wandered back to the island, then to continental Asia.

I should have just died out there.” he thought. “I should just die out here.” He had no goal any more. There was no reason for him to keep going. So, what drove him? Was he looking for something? He must have been, seeing as killing Narendra didn’t get him anything.

When the voices faded, Ryan figured that he had enough time to kill to stop and think. Why run? There was nothing to run to, nothing to go after. There wasn’t even anything to avoid, truthfully. He just knew that he would have nothing to gain from society, and nothing to gain from being alive. What did he have to lose from being dead? Nothing, really. Wherever he was, it was far from home. His family and friends would all think that he was dead by now. He had no one to return to, even if he wanted to. He couldn’t love people. Remembering his dream, he realized that he couldn’t be a SEAL any more. Even if he may have been a half decent one, he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t pass the psychological test. There was literally nothing for him to lose from dying.

He pulled out his M1911 and, seeing that it was empty, replaced the empty mag with one of his full ones, putting the empty one in his vest. He chambered the first round and looked down at his gun. “Why?” he asked. The one question he wanted an answer to, and it couldn’t be answered. He pulled the gun up and pointed it at his chin, aiming up. There, he stood for the better half of a minute He wanted to pull the trigger, but something wasn’t letting him. He thought about everything before he fired, especially Harris. They were best friends, maybe even brothers when you got down to it. Ryan put the gun down and holstered it again.

The voices were loud again, much closer than Ryan anticipated. He also hadn’t anticipated not shooting himself, though, so it evened out. “Stay away!” Ryan yelled, running further into the forest. There was a flurry of activity behind him as ponies yelled and gave chase, excitedly chattering about their pursuit. At one point, they were close enough for Ryan to hear. “I wonder what it is?” That was all that Ryan caught. “It’s not your fiend, that's for damn certain.” Ryan thought darkly to himself.

He ran deeper and deeper into the forest, carefully trying to listen to the ponies pursuing him. Eventually, he got his desired result.

“I am not going in any further!” he heard. Another spoke up, this time sounding farther away.

“Me neither, forget that!” It seemed that they were done following him. Until he heard the last one.

“I’m gonna get him before he puts himself in danger!” one yelled, sounding dangerously close. Before Ryan knew what to do, he was on the ground.

The pony that was chasing him was male, and very large. He had Ryan under him, with his hooves to either side of Ryan’s body. “Now hang on!” he said. Ryan looked up at the stallion resentfully. “We just want to help you-” He was cut off when a fist connected with his exposed belly, followed by a harsh roundhouse kick to his side, knocking him to the ground. Ryan leaped up and got into fighting stance, twitchy and having trouble not pulling one of his guns. The stallion stood. “Look,” he said, rubbing his side and coughing lightly. “All we want is to help you. Please, don’t do this. You may get hurt.” Ryan’s hand went for his knife and he gripped the handle. The stallion had seen the gesture and backed off a little.

“We don’t know if you have any infections.” he said. Ryan just stared at the stallion, not really listening. He was waiting for it to get up and attack. “And this forest is dangerous. You are in serious danger here.” In response, Ryan started to move back, where he knew there was some brush for him to run away through. “Please, let us help you...” Ryan put a foot into the bush behind him. “Leave me be.” he replied, spinning around and running away.

He was trying to keep the speech with these creatures to a minimum, in an effort to avoid letting his own guard down and avoid them letting theirs down. If neither side was in a mood for compromise, then e would be safe in this forest, never having to go back to society. He could live out his days in solitude here. That stallion had said that this place was dangerous, so none of them would go in any more to find him. Out here, he could live or die as he pleased.

After he escaped from the stallion, he just kept on walking through the forest, not even thinking about where his feet were taking him.

**********************************************************************************

Big Mac was taking the girls to the Sugarcube Corner, where they could get a tasty treat in exchange for missing a chance to interact with the creature. They were exceedingly disappointed that they didn’t get to speak with him. The whole way over, none of them spoke. They mostly just pouted.

Big Mac, on the other hand, was still in shock. He had taken that creature down while they were at a full sprint, yet it just got up and countered instantly. If it had wanted to do so, Big Mac would be in the hospital right now. He considered himself lucky.

That could have been a whole lot worse.” he thought. While his sister and her friends might think that the creature was aggressive and dangerous, Big Mac thought otherwise. It had a chance to really hurt him, but it chose not to take it. He had no intent to harm Big Mac, his sole concern was escape. Maybe it was from the forest, and it was just trying to go home. Or maybe its home was from far beyond the forest, ad it didn’t want to be followed. Either way, Big Mac thought positively of it.

They arrived at Sugarcube corner, and when the girls saw it, their countenances instantly lighted up. “YAY!” they all yelled. Big Mac smiled. He loved it when they were like that.

They walked in through the door and drew the attention of Mr. Cake, setting some treats in the display case. “Ah, welcome!” he said. “What can get for you?” he asked. Big Mac looked at the girls.

“Ah’ll have a chocolate cupcake!” Applebloom replied.

“Can I have a... vanilla milkshake?” Sweetie Belle asked. Mr. Cake nodded.

“And gimme a... big chocolate chip cookie!” Scootaloo finished it off. Mr. Cake nodded and got to work.

“Anything for you, Mac?” he yelled back from the kitchen.

“Naw, Ah’m good.” Big Mac replied. He took the girls over to a table and sat down. They all climbed off his back and took their seats.

While they were waiting, the girls were just staring at Big Mac, making him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t know why they were looking at him.

“What?” he finally asked. Mistake. He was barraged with questions.

“How did it get you down?” Sweetie Belle asked. She seemed really concerned about it.

“He fell at the same time as me and just as hard. Ah don’t know how he managed to get back up so fast. Then, he just tackled me.” Scootaloo came next.

“What was that thing in its hand?” Big Mac thought about that for a moment. Like the creature, he had never seen that item before.

“Ah don’t know. Whatever it was, he held it pretty threateningly. So Ah’m gonna assume it’s something dangerous.” Applebloom, like lightning, leapt over the table and hugged her brother.

“Are y’all alright?” she asked, mostly for herself. Big Mac patted her head.

“Ah’m fine.” He took her off and put her back in her seat.

“Did it talk to you?” Scootaloo asked, excited. Big Mac nodded. “What did it say?” she asked, impatient. Big Mac shrugged.

“He said, ‘stay away’. That was all.” Scootaloo’s smile turned into a scowl when she didn’t get anything else.

Their treats came soon after that last question, something Big Mac wa grateful for. If the girls were eating their treats, they couldn’t ask questions. Only Pinkie Pie was capable of that. Big Mac shuddered at the thought of her and Twilight Sparkle’s likely-to-come questions, most of which he would not likely be able to answer.

“There you go.” Mr. Cake said cheerfully. “Enjoy.” He gave a small bow as he left their table. Big Mac took the opportunity to rest while the girls ate and thought about what he knew. The creature could speak. He could certainly fight. He didn’t want to be found. All in all, he seemed like a lonely guy who wanted to stay that way.

Ah can relate to that.” Big Mac thought. He had never been that into making friends. He had a couple here and there, but he preferred being alone, most of the time.

When the girls finished, they paid Mr. Cake and exited Sugarcube Corner. Now on a sugar high, the girls were intent on running around trying to get their cutie marks. They left Big Mac, who opted to head home. “When they get back tomorrow, Ah’ll talk to them if they come to me.” Deciding on that, he went home and did his best to forget about the whole thing until his sister and her friends came back.

**********************************************************************************

Ryan had been walking through the forest for a long while now. He had no idea where he was, although being in the forest was a strange comfort for him. At this point, he preferred it to any town or city.He may have been shot and killed, at least he thought that he died. It didn’t matter now, anyway. He just had to walk.

Why? That question kept on popping into his head. Why did he have to walk? What would he get from it? There was no happiness to be found out here. There was no evil to confront, none other than his own. And he had no desire to confront that, for it would destroy him. He pretty much just had to walk until he could walk no more. So he decided to do that.

Eventually, he started to notice strange bits and pieces of rock laying on the ground. They were all a dark shade of blue, something that didn’t match up with the other bits of stone and dirt in the area. He must have been approaching some different area of the forest, or have been leaving it. “Let’s see what this has in store for me.” Ryan thought. Hell, why not? It would at least be a start in some direction. And this direction seemed as good as any other.

He followed the blue stones as they became more common, having to retrace his steps several times when the trail got cold. It was frustrating at first, but eventually, Ryan came across the last thing he had been expecting to find; an old, medieval style castle, with what seemed to be a bottomless trench for a moat. Cautiously, he walked over to the edge and looked over. Fog, and lots of it. He shuddered.

“I pity the one who falls down into the unknown abyss.” he said to himself. He looked around for something that he could use to cross the gap and check out the castle. Off to his left, he noticed an old, rickety rope bridge. “If it’ll get me across.” he decided. he tentatively walked over, thinking over what may await him on the other side. He had no way of knowing what there could be. There could be more of these ponies, doing archeological work. Or maybe just some old hermit, who wouldn’t be too happy about Ryan’s intrusion. Maybe there were loads of creatures in there. The stallion form earlier had said that the forest was a dangerous place.

I can handle whatever this place can throw at me.” Ryan thought. He had two guns, the Automag with a total of twelve rounds left and the M1911 with fourteen left. He also had his knife and hand to hand skills. Feeling overstocked in killing capability, Ryan began to cross the bridge.

Crossing the bridge wasn’t the worst experience of his life, but it was far from the best. Below him, he would swear that he heard the moans and groans of either suffering people or ghosts of people who had. Several voices in particular struck him. Joey was the loudest by far, like he was losing consciousness from heat exhaustion, while Nadine’s came next. Hers were relatively quiet screams and whimpers from only Ryan knew what. Hers were easily the worst, with Ryan knowing exactly what had happened. Then after her was the sound of Catherine, and the loud gunshot that took her life. Ryan did his best to ignore them, but they overpowered him, and he rushed to get across the bridge.

Once across, he gasped for air and fell to his knees, hands splayed out on the ground before him. Why were their voices down there? They couldn’t be here, only Harris had ever even seen Discord, other than Ryan. Discord didn’t bring anyone else here, and even if he did, he couldn’t have brought the others because Ryan had killed two of them and let the other die. They were gone forever, and no matter how hard anyone tried, they weren’t coming back. They couldn’t be in the gorge. Ryan turned around to look and took in a sharp breath from shock.

Before him stood the little girl from the house of the family that let them stay with them. Those kind people, who had been brutally murdered for helping some strangers. Ryan couldn’t look at the burned little girl before him. “It’s your fault you know.” The Girl said. Ryan shook his head.

“Please, I’m sorry.” he replied. “I... I didn’t want that for you. Please, don’t...” The girl walked forward, getting Ryan to scurry back towards the castle on the ground.

“You brought them there. You brought our deaths to us.” Ryan clapped his hands over his ears.

“No, I-”

“You did this to me!” The Girl screamed. Ryan’s eyes opened and looked at The Girl. He wanted to vomit.

“Please, I’m sorry... I tried...” Ryan started to sob on the ground. The Girl shook her head.

“You failed us. You failed your friends. You murdered all of them.” Ryan shook his head violently.

“NO!” The Girl stood over him.

“You caused so much suffering. Now you will know what it’s like to suffer for yourself.”

Ryan looked up, and The Girl was gone. Not wanting to encounter any more of the ghosts of his past, he turned tail and fled into the building.

Inside, it was pretty dark. he only lights came from suspicious candle-like things on the walls. When Ryan put his hand near one, there was no heat. Of course, with unicorns and such existing, magic probably existed here too. Other than the strange magical lights, the castle seemed like a regular old, abandoned ruin. Ryan could not determine that someone lived here, and he was fine with that. that meant that there was no one to potentially fight. The walls were mostly plain upon walking inside; he had come into a foyer. Inside it, there were several mildly decorated tables, with a few things adorning each one. On one, there were some cups. On another, there was a flower vase. Ryan walked over to the little table with the cups and dusted them off; silver.

“Well, I could sell it later.” Ryan decided to take a couple, stuffing them onto the back of his vest so that they would hang there. Gotta support himself somehow.

He walked through the foyer and found himself approaching a four way intersection of hallways. Looking down each one, he thought about the other times he had found himself trying to decide on which hallway to choose. Bad memories. He went left, sticking to his usual, hoping that it would bring him somewhere. All it brought him to was an old storage room, which he promptly exited. Nothing was there, so nothing would stay. He went to the hall that was to the right of his original position. Down that hall was a number of doors. Each time he passed one, he was sure to check inside. Either something valuable might make it worth checking or someone dangerous might be sleeping. If there was, he would get the drop on them. None of the rooms held up, though. They were all empty, except for dusty old beds and broken nightstands. At the end of the hallway, there was a larger door.

Before approaching, Ryan observed the door. It had a number of markings on it, like ancient symbols of a forgotten language. As he crept closer to the door, Ryan listened for anything that might be on the other side. When he heard nothing, he threw caution to the wind and waltzed to the door. On it were more than just symbols, there were pictures. Pictures that depicted two large horses, one larger than the other, both with wings and horns, doing something. To either side of them the sun and the moon, seemingly in harmony. Upon closer inspection, Ryan saw that the smaller of the two seemed to be interacting with the moon, while the larger had the sun. The smaller had a mane that, even through the ravages of time that afflicted the wall, was detailed enough for Ryan to make out twinkling lights on it. And they were actually twinkling, too. More magic.

“You must be Luna.” Ryan concluded. This cinched it; Luna lived in this world. Ryan got mixed emotions about this. Seeing as she had no way to contact him, she probably thought he was dead by now. If he were to find her, should he reveal himself? Would it be wise, considering how his actions may have affected her? He put those thoughts in mental storage. they were important, but at the moment, survival was more important.

Ryan opened up the door, slowly, and peered inside like a peeping tom. Nothing but a bunch of shelves. Ryan pushed the door all the way open and walked in. As he went towards the center of the room, he realized that this was a library of some kind. Books surrounded him on all sides, old tomes forgotten by those who abandoned them here. No longer were they forgotten, though.

“Interesting.” Ryan said to himself, removing his beret. he just remembered that he was wearing all of that stuff, he had been so preoccupied by his escape. He undid the scarf around his neck and wrapped it around the beret, then stuffed them under his vest where he wouldn’t lose them. “Let’s see what we have here.” Ryan went to a shelf and was stunned when the labels on it were in English. What the..? How? Ignoring that, Ryan picked out a book and, sure enough, it, too, was in English. He opened it up only to find dust coating every page. He blew on it, nearly choking when the dust flew toward him as well as away. When it all cleared, Ryan took a look at the first page of the book. Spells of the Ancient Dragons. He tossed it aside. He had no use for spells. He checked another book, going through the same process. This one was about spells made by some Starswirl the Bearded character. He tossed that aside as well. Noticing that this was clearly a magic section, Ryan moved onto another shelf. He needed history and bestiaries, not magical nonsense.

There was a movement behind him, and Ryan spun around, drawing his 1911. Nothing was there. Relieved, but still wary, Ryan holstered the weapon again and took a look through the books. This section was labeled history, so it likely had something, even if outdated. Ryan grabbed the first book off of the shelf. The Three Tribes. Interesting. He opened it up.

“At first, there were three tribes of ponies...” He got about thirty pages in when he decided that he’d had enough of ancient history. All that he got from the book that was useful was that there were also pegasi in this land, which, ridiculously, was called Equestria. “Well, ain’t that just the damndest thing.” Ryan said, putting the book back. Upon blowing away the dust and inspecting the book spines, he learned that all of the books were about ancient Equestrian history, so he moved on.

He went to several other shelves, looking for anything that might list the creatures that lived in the forest. Being in the forest for so long, the castle must have some sort of comprehensive listing, right? Ryan blew the dust away and began inspecting the book.

Thunk. Ryan spun around again, drawing his 1911. There was another noise. Ryan refused to believe it a coincidence. He scanned the room, but found nothing. Not wanting whatever it was to get the drop on him, Ryan moved around, checking his corners and looking in and around things to find the source of the noise. When he found nothing, he grew concerned.

“What’s going on in this place?” he asked no one.

The noise wasn’t coming back, and Ryan couldn’t figure out where it came from. Keeping his weapon out, he opted to exit the library and go down the lsat hall at the intersection. As he left the library, shadows seemed to try to dance around him and get through the door. Ryan shut it quickly.

“Nope.” he said, walking away from it. Behind him, the door grew darker.

Ryan went down the last hallway cautiously, letting his trepidations rule his actions for the time being. He was in an abandoned old castle, in a magical land, so it seemed like the way to go. To stay more prepared, Ryan drew his knife and held it in his left hand, under the gun, ready to go for a stab. Any time he passed a crevice in the wall or another set of halls, he took a look down to ensure that nothing was there. He never went down the halls; he figured that the most important room would be at the end of this long hall. Every time he heard a noise, he stopped and listened. More than once, it was just his feet on gravel or some little creature running past. Ryan swallowed hard.

I’ve always hated creepy places.” he thought to himself. This old castle was the king, too.

Eventually, Ryan reached the end of the hall and found a massive set of double doors. He stared at them for a moment, trying to discern the pictures on this door. They were more faded than those on the library door, and they also and more pictures of the larger pegasus-unicorn, thought this time, alone. She looked terribly sad in the pictures.

“Did you lose someone close to you?” Ryan asked indifferently. “Cuz’ I lost everything.” He went and opened the doors, only to find a mostly empty room. Walking in, he observed everything around him. There were lots of pillars and stained glass windows in this room, as well as a throne at the end. So, this was the center of the castle, where all the magic happened? Looked terrible. Of course, it was abandoned. Ryan walked forward, wary of whatever may have been around him. Mostly, he just thought it was squirrels. Little buggers couldn’t be more annoying.

As Ryan proceeded to the throne, he looked at the stained glass windows. hey all depicted those two horses again, only now, they were in color. The smaller one was blue and had a starry mane. Luna, no doubt about it. She was nice enough at first, but as the glass went on, she looked less and less happy, eventually physically changing into something much larger. She seemed to be fighting her sister at one point, but lost, and something involving the moon happened. Ryan also took note of the white horse. This one was the sun one, and while also nice at first, seemed to grow cautious of the other. When she did something to Luna involving the moon, she looked forlorn and sad, like Luna had died or something. Perhaps she had, the way that Ryan did.

Gleaning everything he could from the glass was easy enough, so he moved onto the throne. It was tall and made of stone, like everything else he had seen as of yet. There were no notable features about it, except for one. Something was carved into the back of the throne, and Ryan took a closer look.

“Evil lurks in every crevice.” Ryan read aloud. Something crashed behind him in the distance, eliciting Ryan to pull his weapons to the ready. Whatever was going on in the castle, he knew one thing.

He wasn’t alone.

**********************************************************************************

The train pulled into Canterlot Station, screeching to a halt. The steam billowed from its front, and ponies were already piling out. Porters lugged the luggage out and set it down, receiving tips from the less stingy passengers and scowling at those who were too stingy to tip. The girls tipped their porters well.

Rainbow Dash was the first off the train, followed by Pinkie Pie, then Fluttershy, then Applejack, then Twilight Sparkle, then Rarity and Spike, who was carrying all of Rarity’s luggage. Who needs a porter when someone adores you?

“Ah, it’s so good to be back where it’s nice and warm!” Rarity said, radiating in the sunlight. Spike just stared at her dumbly, getting Twilight to prod him with her horn.

“Yeah, now my wings won’t freeze up in the wind! I mean, the Crystal Empire was alright and stuff, but you can’t beat Equestrian air!” Rainbow did several flips in the air as she spoke.

Pinkie Pie was jumping up and down. “I can’t wait to see Pound and Pumpkin again! Well have so much fun playing hide and seek, ball, tag, diaper change-” She went off listing other things that weren’t games, and when she finally finished, Applejack was the first to speak after.

“Ah just can’t wait to get back to the farm. Ah’m sure Big Macintosh and Applebloom have had a lot to do without me.” Fluttershy nodded.

“Oh, I bet it’s not a problem. Big Mac is big and strong, he can handle things. And Applebloom has lots of energy. They were probably able to do their chores without incident.” If only they knew.

“Yeah.” Twilight concurred. “But before we do anything, we need to see the princess. Tell her how it all went.” While she talked, Spike handed off the heavy luggage to a porter and leapt up onto Twilight’s back.

“And how I saved the day, right?” he asked excitedly. Twilight nodded.

“Yes Spike, that too.” He gave her a big, toothy smile, and they all went to the castle.

**********************************************************************************

Ryan watched the area behind him with heedful eyes. That noise happened one too many times, there was clearly something else here, something that was well aware of Ryan’s presence. He scanned the room, moving about to get a look behind pillars, but found nothing. As far as physical evidence went, there was nothing else in the room.

Not taking chances, Ryan looked for a way out that wasn’t the way he came in. He found his way out behind the throne. “Please, take me somewhere good.” Ryan said as he moved to the archway. It was a large staircase that looked like it spiraled up into another room. Ryan began to scale it when he heard another noise, this one much closer. “Who’s there?” he finally asked. No answer. Crazy? Maybe, but Ryan wasn’t going to take chances.

He ran up the stairs so that he would be able to ambush whatever it was that was following him. At the top of the stairs, he looked around. The only thing of notability in the room was a pedestal at the far end of the room from the staircase. “Hmm.” Ryan said. There was nowhere to hide in here. He got up against the wall just to the right of the staircase and waited. From the staircase, very small, step-like noises sounded.

Gotcha.” he thought. As soon as they sounded like they were really close, Ryan jumped around the corner-

Nothing. Nothing was there. The noises still sounded, right in front of him, yet there was nothing. Dumbfounded, Ryan followed the noise with his eyes as it moved on behind him and toward the pedestal. As it advanced, Ran followed, staying fairly close behind. He was mesmerized by this anomaly; what was making the noise? And how? He kept on following it all the way to the pedestal, where it stopped in the center. Ryan came out of his semi-trance and shook his head. “That was odd.” He turned around and looked back to the stairs.

“This place is way too creepy.” He turned back around.

He gasped loudly and fell back. In the center of the pedestal, hanging from the ceiling, was a body. A human body. As soon as Ryan hit the floor, he scrambled back, trying to get away from the dead person. When he was fifteen feet away, he stopped and tried to regain his breath.

“What the fuck?!” he yelled. The body hung limply by its neck, slowly moving back and forth, as if it was a swing with a child on it. Ryan gulped and moved forward, pistol pointed at the body, and tried to see who it was. The site shook him; that was HIM hanging from the ceiling. Ryan was looking at Ryan, dead and apparently brutally beaten. Blood dripped from the body, coming out from what was likely various cuts and the mouth. There was also a big bloody patch on his shirt and jacket, where the hole had been. The arms looked freshly burned and there were bruises all over the exposed skin.

Ryan didn’t get less than ten feet from the body. It rocked his very foundations. What was this place? It tormented him in the worst possible ways. Ryan turned around to leave, to escape from this Hellish place.

“Where are you going?” a voice asked. Ryan spun around three hundred sixty degrees. Nothing.

“Where are you!?” he demanded. The voice laughed.

“I am in you.” it said. Ryan was about to shout at it, but it continued. “Though I certainly don’t wish to be.” Ryan pointed his gun forward, but at nothing.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” he yelled. This only drew more laughter from the voice.

“You are weak, Ryan. I have no intention of being a part of you. You are only half of what you once were.” Ryan ran toward the wall and took a defensive position at it. Suddenly, the rope supporting the body snapped, and the body crashed to the floor. Ryan’s attention was drawn to it.

“WHERE ARE YOU!?” he demanded once again. The voice didn’t care about Ryan, though.

“I know everything about you, Ryan.” It sounded from Ryan’s right, and he looked away from the body to find it. Still nothing. “I know what you’ve done.” It was behind him now. Ryan leapt away from the wall and turned to shoot, but there was still nothing. “You have no right to live. You are too weak to handle what you’ve done. Only the strong may survive.” Ryan moved back, then turned to aim at the stairs when he thought he heard something. He moved back.

“I’LL KILL YOU!” he shouted, his fear and anger taking control. He stopped cold when he felt a dark presence just behind him.

“No.” the voice said. “I will kill YOU.” Ryan spun around to fight the presence.

Something collided with his face as he turned, knocking Ryan unconscious. Ryan stood over him, looking down at him coldly. “But not today.”

**********************************************************************************

The girls left Canterlot, all of them happy about how the whole trip had gone. Spike was especially happy, he got a window in the castle with him on it! Overall, it was a good day.

They had an uneventful trip back to Ponyville, mostly just them sitting on the train, talking a bit or, in Rainbow’s case, taking a nap. All that they really wanted was to get home and enjoy some down time, time to relax. Rarity had said that she would spend the whole next day getting a spa treatment, and invited all of the girls to join. Twilight, Fluttershy, and Pinkie agreed, but Applejack had to get back to work, and spas weren’t really Rainbow’s thing. She was saying that she was going to use the trip for inspiration in making new aerial maneuvers. Anyhow, they were all happy to go back.

When they arrived in Ponyville, things seemed... off. Something was amiss, but the girls couldn’t quite place it. The townsponies were all going about their daily lives, but there was something in their expressions. Not fear, or nervousness. Though that was apparent in some. Mostly, they looked confused, thoughtful, or curious. Twilight was the first to notice.

“Do you girls notice anything odd going on?” she asked. Rainbow yawned as she exited the train.

“Nope. Nothing. Now, I’m gonna head home, take a nap. See you girls later.” Without another word, she flew off, leaving the other five to themselves. Applejack looked around.

“Ya know what? Ah think you’re right.” She pointed to a small colt with a camera walking around. Little Pip, if she recalled correctly. “Hey!” she yelled. Little Pip spun around, hope gleaming in his eyes. The excitement fell a little at seeing Applejack, but remained a little bit. He ran over.

“Yes?” he asked.

“Is something goin’ on around here?” she asked. Little Pip vigorously nodded his head.

“There sure is! There’s a new creature around! Never seen anything like it before!” Twilight’s interest was piqued. She walked over to listen. “I don’t know the details, you’ll have to ask the Cutie Mark Crusaders or Big Macintosh for more details. Well, gotta go, I want to get pictures of it!” With that, the little guy ran off.

Applejack looked to Twilight, who was deep in thought. She didn’t want to interrupt her thoughts, but then again, that’s what Pinkie is for. “Whatcha thinkin’ about!?” she yelled, getting right up on Twilight’s face. Twilight hardly even flinched.

“I think I need to speak to your brother and sister, Applejack.”

Applejack nodded. “Alright. Let’s head on over to the farm and find’em.” The group of five mares made their way to the farm.

Rarity had minor interest in whatever this creature was. She was all about fashion, and animals didn’t wear clothes, so they really held no interest to her. Pinkie Pie was continually explaining how she wanted to throw it a party, listing off hundreds of different reasons for it. Welcome, discovery, new-friend-making, the list went on. Fluttershy was an active part of Twilight’s and Applejack’s talk.

“I wonder what kind of animal it might be?” she wondered, in awe at all the possibilities. “I can’t wait to find out so I can help it. Maybe it needs a home?” Twilight interjected.

“I would agree, but we don’t know what it is yet. It could be dangerous.” Fluttershy shook her head.

“No, no. That can’t be. If it was, the townsponies would be afraid of it, not out trying to find it.” Twilight silently agreed with that, while Applejack voiced her agreement.

“Ah think Flutters’ right, sugarcube. Ain’t no sense in lookin’ for a dangerous animal that ain’t around.”

They were at the gate to the orchards before any of them realized it. Except Rarity. She wasn’t really a part of the conversation, so she pretty much led them all to the farm. “Well, I’d love to stay and learn about this creature, but I really should be going.” Twilight was about to tell Rarity that she could do what she wanted, but Pinkie kept her from speaking.

“Come on, Rarity!” she almost shouted. “Don’t you have even a bit of curiosity about it? What if it...” Pinkie thought for a moment. “What if it... makes... clothes?” She gave a sheepish smile. Rarity sighed.

“Fine, I suppose I can stay.” Pinkie Pie jumped up while putting Rarity in a bear hug.

“Yayzees!” After a few moments of the others laughing at the scene, Pinkie let go and they all went to the house on the farm.

At the door, the sounds of three familiar little girls giggling went right through the door. Upon opening it, Applejack couldn’t do much to keep from laughing; her brother was tied up in the center of the room, with Granny Smith and the girls dancing around him. He was covered in all sorts of things, from makeup, which they assumed Sweetie Belle brought, to pie, which Granny Smith likely made. The other girls walked in, and Big Mac just looked at them.

“Help.” he said. The girls and Granny Smith all turned to see their friends and sister/granddaughter return.

“They’re back!” Scootaloo announced. Applebloom ran over to Applejack and hugged her leg nice and tight. Sweetie Belle was lifted over to her sister by magic and eld close. Scootaloo just walked over and jumped up on Fluttershy’s back. “So where’s Rainbow?” she asked. Fluttershy went to the couch and laid down on it.

“She went home to sleep. It’s kind of late, after all.” It was around seven. Not exactly late for anyone over the age of four. Scootaloo’s wings drooped.

“Oh. Okay.”

Big Mac was still sitting in the center of the room, embarrassed and indignant. Why had he agreed to play with the girls? And why did he let Granny make a vanilla cream pie? She only ever threw them at ponies. “A-hem.” he said. The girls all looked over and giggled, except Fluttershy, who came over and untied him. “Thanks, Miss Fluttershy.” he said, giving her a bow of his head. She went back to the couch.

“No problem.” He got up and went into the kitchen, where he cleaned himself up to be presentable. While he was off doing that, Twilight figured that she would start with her questions.

“So girls.” she began. They all went silent. “Would you all mind sitting down for a bit? I have some questions.” The Cutie Mark Crusaders looked at each other, than complied with Twilight’s request.

Twilight and her friends sat on the floor, facing the little fillies. “I heard that you girls were the ones to ask about some new creature?” she asked. Straight up, no bulling around. That’s how Twilight does it.

“Yeah!” Scootaloo yelled. The others nodded.

“It was really weird!” Sweetie Belle added. Rarity was suddenly interested.

“You encountered it?” she asked disbelievingly. All three girls nodded.

“We found it!” Applebloom shouted. “It was in the east field when we found it, and it wasn’t in the best shape...” She trailed off, something that set off an alarm in Fluttershy’s head.

“Was it alright?” she asked hurriedly. “Was it injured?”

The fillies looked at eachother, then nodded slowly. Fluttershy turned a little bit pale. “How bad?” Her voice was a bit shaky, causing Rarity to pull her close. Applebloom took in a deep breath.

“He nearly died from a chest wound.” Fluttershy was about to faint. “But he survived! He’s alright now! We hope...” Fluttershy looked a little better, but still terrified.

“Hope so..?” Applebloom shook her head.

“We don’t know where he is now.”

Fluttershy looked even a little better, but Twilight was still concerned. “I still have a lot of questions.” she said. The girls all looked to her. “First of all; how do you know it’s a he?” Rarity looked like she was about to turn pale when she saw Sweetie Belle getting ready to respond.

“The doctor told us.” Rarity’s color (white, how could it have left in the first place?) returned, and she let out a breath that she didn’t know she was holding.

“Alright. Second; what was the nature of the injury?” The crusaders shifted uncomfortably.

“Well, it was bad.” Scootaloo said. “There was a... hole, in its chest. Back to front.” Fluttershy gasped and, again, almost fainted. “It was weird, though, is what the doctor said. It started really small on his back, then got huge in the front. As it went through, too, it got bigger, like a cone-shaped hole. We have no idea how it could have happened.”

Fluttershy leapt forward into the middle of the room. “What did you do when you found it?” she asked. Big Mac walked back into the room.

“We put him in our wagon and brought him back to the house, where Big Mac,” Scootaloo gestured to the lumbering form of Big Mac just entering the room. “took the wagon and ran him to the hospital.” All the girls looked to Big Mac, making him shift in his place. Prying eyes. Except for Fluttershy, of course.

“What?” he said. He didn’t like talking to large numbers of ponies; large numbers was anything above three little ones or two big ones.

“Well, what happened next?” Twilight asked. Big Mac looked around, then walked over and sat near the couch.

“Ah brought him to the hospital. He was bleeding pretty bad,” he paused to take in the assortment of reactions. Mostly all were shock, especially Pinkie and Rarity. “The wagon and mah coat were hard to wash after. But the trip was uneventful.” Twilight wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m sorry to pry, but... how bad was the bleeding?” She had to admit to herself, her questions were odd and slightly morbid, but any info she could garner was good.

“The wagon started with an inch of water in it. It went to two inches of red water.” Everyone in the room shuddered, and Granny Smith stood.

“Well, Ah’ve had enough of that. Ah’ll be heading’ to bed now. G’night, youngsters!” They all waved to Granny Smith as she left.

With the events of the discovery now known, Twilight was able to move onto lighter questions. “What can you tell us about the creature? Physically.” Big Mac thought for a moment. What had he seen of it?

“Well, Ah saw that it had some clothes.” Rarity’s eyes trained on Big Mac at hearing this strange yet exciting news. “It had a hat, a jacket, a vest, pants, and weird items on it. Ah didn’t get a good enough look at it, though.” He paused again, waiting for another question. Instead of that, Twilight just urged him to go on. “He had hair on his head, but from what Ah could see, nowhere else in particular. He walked on two legs and didn’t have a tail, and he had hands and feet, like Spike.”

Spike, who had been forgotten on Twilight’s back, jumped off and looked at his appendages. “Woah.”

Twilight was still unsatisfied. There must be something else that Big Mac needed to tell her. “Did you interact with it after it awoke?” she asked. Big Mac nodded.

“A bit. He broke a mirror and window in his room and ran off. Ah chased him and knocked him down, but both of us fell at full speed. He got up first and knocked me back down.” Applejack gasped. How could anypony manage to knock her brother down? “He told me to ‘stay away’ and pointed a little thing at me, which Ah assume is what he used to shatter the mirror. He used a stool to break the window.”

Twilight was about to ask about its speech when Pinkie beat her to it. “Ohmigosh what did it say? Does it want a PARTY!? Let’s throw a party! A ‘SPEECH IS GREAT PARTY’!” She bounced up and down, rambling on about a party.

“Miss Pie, please, Granny is trying to sleep.” Big Mac requested. Pinkie stopped, but trembled from excitement. “It doesn’t want to be found, Ah can tell that much. It ran off into the forest, and Ah ain’t seen it since then.” Twilight’s head fell at hearing that. She had wanted a lot more, but that would have to do.

Rarity had been waiting patiently with her sister in her grasp, like she thought something might take Sweetie Belle from her. “So, tell me good Macintosh.” she began. “What kinds of things could you garner from what the creature was wearing?”

Big Mac didn’t need to think. “All practical. No fashion. Sorry.” Rarity waved a dismissive hoof.

“Oh, no, I think this is a lovely opportunity! If we locate the creature, I can introduce it to fashion proper! I could make it all new clothes. Ooh!” Her face brightened. “Maybe I could become famous for being the first to design for this kind of creature!” Big Mac smiled. At least somepony was excited, even if it wasn’t him.

He left soon after that, saying goodnight to all the ponies. “Goodnight, Miss Fluttershy.” he finished. She nodded to him from the couch, and he went upstairs to get some rest.

Twilight was not going to sleep very much that night, though. She had too much to think about. “Tomorrow.” she thought. Tomorrow, she would search for this creature, even if she had to delve into the depths of the Everfree to find it.

**********************************************************************************

Ryan got up slowly, rubbing his face from where he felt it hit by something hard, like stony knuckles. Looking at his own, he remembered just how large they themselves were. Good weapons, they had served him well.

He looked around; nothing was there. There was no rope from the ceiling, no body, no signs of life other than him. On the left side of his face, he felt a nasty bruise poking at him, reminding him, “Hey! Getting smashed in the face sucks!” From the look of it, he may have hallucinated earlier and fallen, hitting himself on the edge of the pedestal.

No...” That had been too real, though. “I don’t know what’s going on,” He got up. “but I need to get out of here.” Achily, his whole body was reminded of the abuse it had been taking for so long, Ryan walked out of the large room. On his way out, he stepped on several stone fragments that he had missed earlier. “Meh.” He just kept going, not noticing the symbols on each one.

He took his time leaving the castle, listening for anything that might have been trouble. Not a sound came through the castle, not even the sound of wind. It was cold and ominous. Finally, Ryan got outside.

“I’ll just sit for a minute.” he told himself. While on the ground, he decided to take inventory again. After removing everything, he checked off his mental list; jacket, check; knife, check; hammer, check; necklace, kept it on his neck; scarf, check (to stay warm in the night); Colt M1911 and .44 Automag, fourteen and twelve rounds respectively, check; beret, check; and lastly, his watch and vest, still with a syringe of morphine on the back. He donned them all and looked around, focusing on the “pit of doom” as he just named it.

Don’t bug me.” he silently ordered. He went over to the rope bridge and tentatively looked around it. The fog had really rolled in, and with the new darkness; it must have been around midnight; it was impossible to see. he just hoped that the bridge would hold.

He started to cross, and the bridge creaked angrily at him for disturbing it. The wood groaned and the ropes could be heard, there was so much tension. Ryan sped up about half way across. “A bit more-” The world didn’t want to give him a bit more. The bridge collapsed under him when he was just five feet from the end. He held tight to the rope as he fell, snapping into the rock face when he stopped. He groaned. “Dammit.” he muttered. Carefully, he climbed back up and over the ledge. He sighed, looking back at the gorge. “Well, that was anticlimactic.” Just then, a roar sounded out through the forest. “But that wasn’t.” Ryan immediately took off, hoping to avoid whatever creature had released such a verbal assault from its likely deadly maw.

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Ryan got out of the forest unscathed. He had to be careful, in and out of it, though; on the one hand, he could die. On the other, the could live. Not his favorite options.

He looked around. Surrounding him were hundreds, nay, thousands, of apple trees. They were everywhere; It was like the forest just extended into the area and became shorter, food bearing trees. Ryan ran up to a tree and plucked an apple from it.

“I hope it’s edible.” When he took a bite from it, he discovered that, yes, oh yes indeed, it was edible. He hadn’t been a fan of apples, really, but these were good. “Maybe I’ll just live here.” he decided. There was lots of food, in the form of apples, and he could probably hunt for his meat. He had learned long ago at school how to make a fire with two sticks, so he could cook meat. Yeah, maybe this place was good.

Of course, it could be a farm, so Ryan had to be sure. It wasn’t that stealing bothered him; he just didn’t want to be found. So, in an effort to clear that up, Ryan decided to take a walk.

He walked for what felt like an hour through endless apple trees. He had never heard of a forest of fruit trees exclusively, but given where he was, he couldn’t exclude the possibility. As he walked, he looked up into the sky. There were stars aplenty, just like the previous night, but also like the previous night, the moon was in its minimal glory. Just a sliver in the sky.

“Hmm.” he said. He had been hoping for plenty of light to guide him, but the stars would have to do. He looked back down, only to find darkness. “Freakin’...” he went on like that to himself for the better half of a minute, cursing the darkness and the pain it had brought upon him. What right did it have?

After an actual hour of walking, Ryan finally spotted that which he had been afraid of; a house with lights on. He scowled. “Why the Hell does life have to be this way?” he asked no one. He never got answers, so he never expected any. he moved forward toward the house, slowing down as he approached, as any sniper would approach their target. When you are a mile away, crouch. At half a mile, crawl. At a quarter of a mile, be a slug. ryan ignored the second and third, though, and just slowed down and crouched. As he got closer, he could hear laughter and general giddiness from inside the house, like the family was having lots of guests over. They were pretty loud, but given that no one lived that close, it was okay. “Let’s see what I’m dealing with.” Ryan told himself. He spent the next few minutes approaching the window nearest him. When he arrived, he looked inside.

What he saw didn’t shock him, but it wasn’t what he was expecting. Inside was the big red stallion, saying goodnight to a large group of clearly female ponies. Mares. “Good ratio, bro.” Ryan thought. He took a good look at all the ponies in the room; there were three little ones, whose voices he recognized as those of the ones who saved him from death (he used “saved” lightly). They seemed like they were having a blast. There was a yellow pegasus on the couch, with a long, pink mane. There was an orange pony with a blonde mane and a violet unicorn with a dark mane with a light stripe sitting next to each other. There was also a white unicorn, hugging a littler white unicorn close.

Sisters.” Ryan thought. Other than that, there was just a pink pony with a poofy pink mane that was bouncing around, super hyper. “What an eccentric little group.” Ryan thought. He decided to listen to them for a bit.

“So what are y’all gonna do, Twilight?” a small yellow pony with a pink mane asked.

“Well I plan on going into the forest to find this creature tomorrow.” Ryan frowned.

Hmmm.” he thought. He had no desire to be found, wouldn’t the red guy have told her that?

“But Twilight!” the white unicorn shouted. “We were going to go to the spa tomorrow!” What? They had spas?

“I’m sorry, Rarity, but I need to find this creature. Call it scholarly intrigue that requires full attention.” Okay, so this Twilight was a scholar. And this Rarity was a diva or something.

“Oh, fine. I suppose that it is important.” So maybe not a diva, per say. “I wish you luck.”

Ryan listened to the rest of the conversations of the group until they all finally decided to leave. The first to go was the yellow pegasus, whom Ryan determined to be called Fluttershy. Next was Rarity, who took her little sister closely and waited at the door. The orange pony, Applejack, it seemed, lived here, and just went upstairs. Twilight exited with Rarity and the little one.

Options; scare them into staying away from me, or stay hidden.” Thinking back to Vietnam, Ryan remembered how well staying hidden had worked out. It didn’t. “Scaring it is.” He went over to the edge of the wall and watched as the trio of unicorns left the house. As they walked away, Ryan followed them in the darkest shadows he could find, keeping off the road and among the trees. When they were finally halfway from the house to the gate, as Ryan could see, he enacted his lack of a plan.

Briefly, but enough to be seen, Ryan stood halfway out from behind the tree he was hiding behind. The two larger unicorns, Rarity an Twilight, were talking and didn’t notice. The little one, though, saw Ryan fully and went bug-eyed.

“AAHHHHHH!” she screamed, freaking out the other two. Ryan moved behind the tree.

“What is it Sweetie Belle?” Rarity asked. Okay, so she was Sweetie Belle. What was up with the names?

“I-I-I-I saw it!” she said. It sounded like Ryan had scared her a bit too much with his creepy display. “The creature- he’s behind that tree!” Uh oh.

Time to high tail.” Ryan took off in a sprint to the next tre back from the road and got behind it. Just in time, too, since Twilight had just gotten to the tree.

“Nothing’s here.” she announced. “You probably just saw a shadow.” twilight reasoned. Sweetie Belle must have been pretty upset.

“No, I saw it! It was there, looking at us! It just... stared, like it wanted something. I-I just got startled.” She was sniffling. Dammit, even now, Ryan still hated seeing little kids cry. Now he felt like a REAL asshole.

While the other two were trying to comfort the little one, Ryan moved out from his new cover and, in the darkness, climbed a tree up ahead in the road. There he waited, hoping that this next move would have the full desired effect. The ponies finally got back on the move, in Ryan’s direction, and he once again enacted his lack of a plan.

He knocked an apple off the tree just when the mares and young one approached, eliciting a startled yelp from the older two. The white one looked at the apple, then picked it up and ate it. The other looked at her with a face of Meh. The one calle Twilight looked up at the tree to see where the apple fell from and froze. She found herself staring right at Ryan’s stone-cold face, looking down upon the girls.

“Twilight?” Sweetie Belle said trepidatiously. Twilight looked away for a moment, then looked back. Ryan had already moved away and was coming down from the other side of the tree.

“Don’t worry, Sweetie Belle.” Twilight reassured her. “It was nothing.” Ryan stood still, trying to listen to them leave, but they weren’t moving. “You girls go on ahead.” Twilight said. “I need to check something.” Well, it didn’t work out the way Ryan was hoping. But he could still get them to leave him alone, if he did the right things.

The two white unicorns walked off while Twilight walked over to the tree. Ryan was just on the other side, listening intently. “I don’t know what you are,” Twilight said, thinking that the creature was in the tree. “but we just want to help you. We mean you no harm.” When se received no response, she went on. “You aren’t dangerous, so we don’t want to do anything to you. Will you please come out, so we can be on good terms?” Ryan waited for a moment, but Twilight said nothing. “I’ll wait for a response all night.” Ryan sighed and climbed back up the tree quietly, getting above Twilight but still out of view.

“Stay away.” he ordered, then immediately moved away. Rapidly, he made his way to the other side of the tree.

Twilight wasn’t making a move, though, like Ryan had expected. When he dropped from the tree, Twilight just looked up at the tree and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” She walked away, and when she turned around, Ryan spun himself and sprinted away, with Twilight hearing each of his heavy footsteps as he ran off.


Ryan ran a good half mile before he stopped to look behind him. No, Twilight didn’t follow him. That was good; Ryan was growing weary, and he could use what little rest he would get. Looking around, Ryan found a suitable patch of soft dirt that he could sleep on. He laid down on it, eyes to the sky.

“What did I get myself into?” he asked. After two hours of laying there, he finally fell asleep, only to be assaulted with memories of the past.

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When Ryan awoke, it was probably close to six in the morning. He had fallen asleep somewhere around one in the morning, and now it was five til six. Not his best sleep ever, but far from his worst. His Black Belt testing had been twenty-four continuous hours of physical and mental stress and work.

He rolled around for a few minutes before getting up this morning. Beneath him, the dirt silently shifted to accommodate his weight, which had dropped since before his quest to kill Narendra. Slowly, he got up, looking around. Yeah, still in magic land. He stood, dusting himself off, and trudged over to an apple tree, picking an apple right off. Ripeness was irrelevant, as long as he survived eating it, it was good. He took a bite; ripe, certainly. He chowed down on the apple, getting the juices all over his face. Good apple.

Now that he had food in him, he could think more clearly. The previous night, he had encountered the violet unicorn. Her name was... Twilight? Yeah. He thought about what to do about his new situation. “She clearly has no intention of leaving me be.” Ryan figured. “I have lots of options here. I could fight; but they have no intention to harm me. If I attack, they’ll probably call in their military to kill me. I could run; viable. I could hide. No, no, they would find me. But,” Ryan looked around. “There is all this food.” Odds were, there were lots of tiny critters that Ryan could kill and eat, too. So, he could run and try to survive in an unknown world, or he could stay put and survive in something that he knew. He already knew where the first one would land him; the same place as last time.

“I’ll just try to hide.”

Groggy and dirty, Ryan walked from his spot and explored the orchard, intent on knowing his new home like the back of his hand.

**********************************************************************************

Twilight got up slowly, yawning and stretching as she did so. She looked over to Spike; he had been asleep on her back the previous night, so he missed the whole exchange. Even when Sweetie Belle screamed, he stayed asleep. Biy, that dragon slept like the dead.

She wrote him a quick note to give him the day off; where she was going, he probably couldn’t help much. Today, she was going back to Sweet Apple Acres to find this creature.

After a short breakfast, she exited her library home and trotted on over to the farm. On er way, she encountered only a few ponies. The most notable was Pinkie, not surprisingly awake at seven thirty. “Heya Twily!” She shouted. Pinkie ran over to join Twilight on her walk. “So whatcha doin’?” she asked. Twilight was delighted to have the company of a friend.

“I’m heading over to Sweet Apple Acres.” she explained. “I think that the creature may be there.” Pinkie Pie gasped loudly.

“REALLY!?” she shouted. Twilight hushed her. “Are you gonna bring it here? Are you gonna experiment on it? ARE WE GONNA THROW IT A PARTY AND HAVE LOTS OF FUN AND BE BESTEST FRIENDS FOREVEEEEEER?” she whispered this as loudly as she could. Twilight smiled and rolled her eyes.

“Maybe. I can’t say for certain.” Pinkie gave a happy snort.

“Well, I’d love to help, but I have to work at Sugarcube Corner. Sorry, Twi.” Twilight waved a hoof.

“No worries. I can find it, I’m sure.” Pinkie smiled big, then hopped off to go to work. “You’ll be the first pony I bring him to!” she shouted. Pinkie exclaimed her excitement, but her words were lost in the distance. Turning around, Twilight thought about how she would go about this. “Guess I’ll just have to look around.” she figured.

She got to the farm in a small amount of time, only to find that the apples, minus Applebloom, were already up and at work. Farmers always get up early, Twilight knew that. “Applejack!” Twilight shouted. Big Mac and Applejack turned to see Twilight standing off in the distance.

“Howdy Twi!” Applejack shouted back. Twilight trotted over to her friend. “What bring y’all here today?” Applejack asked, curious as to why her friend showed up out of the blue.

Twilight looked around as if to make sure no ponies other than Mac were around. “I think the creature is on your farm.” she said. Applejack stopped in her tracks. “I came here to find it.” Applejack looked to her brother, who had heard the whole thing. He nodded.

“Yeah, Ah think that would be a good idea.” Applejack replied. “If’n it’s here, it’ll be out in one of the fields. I’d check the north field first; it’s closest to the Everfree Forest.” Twilight thanked her friend and her friend’s brother and ran off to the north field.

In the north field, she had already spent almost an hour searching. Considering that this creature was probably moving around, this frustrated her; who knew where it could be? How did she know that it hadn’t left the farm already? Sh sighed to herself.

“I don’t have any idea where to start.” she said to herself. She walked over to a tree and laid down in the shade, exhausted from the early morning summer heat and pondered. “I saw the creature here last night!” she told herself. “It spoke to me.” The shade was awfully welcoming. “I’ll sit here and plan.” she decided.

It was small and very quiet, but a noise came from behind Twilight’s tree. She froze; if this was a small critter, she would be mad. If it was the creature, she didn’t want to risk running it off. Using her magic to lift herself off the ground, Twilight got up and turned herself to face the tree. She dropped herself gently, and made her way around the tree.

What she saw was staggering, to say the least.

Before her stood the creature, in all its potentially-existent glory. It was incredibly dirty; it must have slept in the ground. On its head was a hat, some kind of beret, colored green with some small insignia on it. It had a nice scarf around its neck, and on its torso, was a large vest with all sorts of things hanging off of it. There was a hammer, a knife, a syringe, two strange metal instruments, and several long, rectangular metal things. It had a jacket on that concealed its arms, but short pants on. They looked like they had been cut up at one point. The creature was standing, looking the other way, eating an apple. Twilight was just a little bit peeved; stealing is wrong! He could at least try to repay the Apple family for eating their livelihood. Twilight quietly moved away from the cover of the tree, eyes trained on the creature. It was talking to itself.

“Fucking Narendra and his little minions...” Narendra? Who was that? And why the vulgar language? Twilight swallowed hard.

“Hello..?” she said, terrified. The creature froze, dropping the apple. Slowly, its hand went to the strange metal instrument on its right side, pulling it from its place. He turned around and looked at Twilight, their eyes locking. Twilight tried to learn what she could from the fhort contact; his eyes held very little. But that told Twilight a lot. “My name is-” The creature cut her off.

“Twilight.”

Twilight blinked twice. The creature had spoken to her. How exciting! “Umm, yes.” She wasn’t sure what to say now. Why hadn’t she planned for this? “I, umm, came to find you.” she explained. The creature hacked a lugee and spat it away.

“I figured.” Holy Celestia, a real conversation with another, undiscovered sentient species! Twilight would have squee’d if she wasn’t so nervous.

“Ummmm... okay.” she replied. The creature slowly turned to face Twilight, weird thing still in its hand.

“So what’re you gonna do now?” he asked. That was a good question. “I have no intent on going anywhere with bizarre strangers.” Twilight was slightly agawk. She was bizarre? Where was this guy from?

“I hate to break it to you,” she began. “but YOU’RE the weird one here.” The creature smirked at the realization.

Twilight moved forward, prompting the creature to move back. “Please, I just want to help.” she pleaded. The creature kept moving back, even when she stopped.

“I don’t want your help.” he replied. “I want to be left alone.” Twilight shook her head.

“That’s no way to live.” Damn, he knew just how right she was, even if she didn’t. He stopped to think, but Twilight kept on going. “Please, trust me.” Ryan scowled.

“Why?” he asked.

Twilight stopped dead. He had a lot of good questions. “Just have faith, please. I mean you no harm.” Faith. That was something that Ryan hadn’t thought about in some time. He had been concerned with logic, with living to kill that man. He hadn’t given faith its time in a while. Logic screamed at him not to trust her, but the tiny voice of faith in the back of his mind said to. He tried to distract himself.

“Why do you trust me? How do you know I won’t eat you?” Twilight was visibly disturbed, but pressed on.

“Because I have faith that you won’t.”

Ryan’s M1911 was pointed at her by now, but he was lowering it. Maybe she meant him no harm. Maybe she really could be good.

“...”

He holstered his weapon, and Twilight walked up to him. “Please, come with me.” she said, nosing his hand. “I think you may like the town.” Everything Ryan had screamed at him to just run, but something about this mare kept him from doing so. It was like her presence forced him to have faith.

“Fine.” he said gruffly.

Twilight smiled massively; slightly disconcerting, to be truthful. She hopped around, going, “YES, YES, YES, YES, YES!” It was adorable, actually. She grabbed his hand with her hoof (How?) and dragged Ryan away to the farm house.

On the way, she kept trying to get Ryan to talk, but to little avail. Eventually, she just started asking simple questions. “I totally forgot!” she yelled. “What’s your name, if you have one?” Ryan hadn’t anticipated this. he was willing to give her enough faith to go with her, but not enough to give her his name.

“Harkness.” Ryan replied without thinking. Harkness? What the hell?

“Harkness.” she repeated. “Hmm.”

They walked together in silence after that, Twilight clearly getting that Ryan wasn’t in the mood to talk. She kept on looking at him, though. In her eyes, Ryan could see a sparkle of excitement, like she was going to become his friend. In response, Ryan locked eyes with her each time. He had figured out that it drove her eyes away from him. Maybe it was because there was nothing to look at.

They approached the farm house from the previous night, and Twilight looked around. No one was there. “What are you doing?” Ryan asked. Twilight trotted forward a couple of steps and then turned.

“I’m looking for Applejack.” That was the orange pony, if Ryan remembered right.

“Why?” he asked, unhappy with the implications.

“So you can meet her!” she said happily. Her smile was balanced out by Ryan’s scowl. Nice and neutral. “I want to introduce you to all of my friends.” Ryan sighed. e should have seen this coming, but he hadn’t been thinking straight.

“Fine.” Twilight squee’d and galloped towards the farmhouse, leaving Ryan in the dust. He jogged after her, trying to stall for as long as possible before going into an awkward social situation. He had been in plenty of those; they were terrible.

Twilight waited for him at the door. When Ryan finally got there, she looked like she had just graduated from Harvard Medical with a one hundred percent on everything she did. Suffice it to say, she was excited. She knocked hard on the door, perhaps too hard. She smiled sheepishly, as there was now a dent in the door from her hoof.

“Just a minute!” an elderly voice called out. Ryan swallowed hard. Why, why did it have to be an elderly lady? He stood a bit farther back as the door opened. “Howdy there, Twilight!” the old mare announced. She spotted Ryan in an instant. “And who’s your... friend?” Twilight moved aside so the older mare could get a look at Ryan.

“Granny Smith, this is the creature the girls saw. His name’s Harkness.” Granny Smith moved toward Ryan surprisingly fast for one so old and scrutinized him. For a minute, all was silent.

“WELL HOWDY!” she shouted. putting her hoof around Ryan’s hand and shaking hard. “Good to see you’re alive!” She let go, and Ryan nursed his aching hand. Twilight giggled. “AJ, Macky, Applebloom! Come out here!”

Ryan stood back as he heard the sound of lots of hooves hitting hardwood flooring. Suddenly, three ponies burst outside, looking to their Granny. “What is it granny?” Applejack asked. Granny Smith pointed at Ryan. All three of the ponies jaws collapsed to the ground.

“This here’s Harkness. Twilight found him.” She went to go inside. “Ah’m sure y’all are gonna have a nice talk. He seems nice enough.” If only she knew.

When Granny Smith left, there was an awkward silence. Applejack stared in awe at Ryan, never having laid eyes on him before. The big red guy, “Macky”, he had been called, looked at him curiously while chewing at a piece of straw. He looked curious but generally uninterested. Ryan nodded to him, he nodded back. He was the kind of guy Ryan could relate to. The other, though, Applebloom, was wide-eyed and looked like she was about to burst.

“Well?” she said, still excited. Ryan raised an eyebrow. “Can’t y’all talk?”

Ryan scratched his head. “Yeah.”

Applebloom suddenly burst forward fast as a speeding bullet and ran around in circles around Ryan. “WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!” she shouted. Ryan wasn’t even trying to keep up, he would just fall over. “Ah can’t believe I finally get to talk to him!” it was like he wasn’t even there, the way she spoke. The other mare, Applejack, came forward and extended a nervous hoof.

“Ah’m Applejack. It’s, umm, nice to meet you.” She avoided locking eyes, which was just fine with him. “That there’s Big Macintosh.” Again, they nodded to each other. Men of few words. Applejack moved back, but Applebloom kept on running.

“Ah can’t wait to get the girls!” she shouted.

Oh God, there’s more?” Ryan dreaded.

Twilight saved his day, at least for the moment. “Well, while you go off to get them, I’ll show Harkness around, introduce him to the others. We’ll see you all later!” The Apple family waved their goodbyes and Ryan gave a salute as he left. One down, at least five to go. Fun.

The pair left the farm and went off toward a small town. From a distance, Ryan could see that there were lots more ponies there. “Are you sure I should just parade through there?” he asked, trepidatiously looking at the town.

“Don’t worry, ever since Zecora, the ponies of Ponyville are much more accepting.” Ponyville? Really? And who was Zecora?

“If you say so.” They were soon upon the town.

Around them, ponies stopped everything and looked at the pair in awe. This creature, wearing a strange set of clothes, just walked in with the resident genius like nothing was wrong. Well, not quite. When the townsponies looked closer, they saw the nervousness in the creature’s face. Being ever respectful, those who noticed looked away to try to make him more comfortable. Some had seen the events of days prior, so they didn’t want him to suffer more. Ryan was grateful for this.

Up above, there were several peasi in the clouds, seemingly moving them. Magic. Ryan looked back down only to find himself looking a the weirdest building; it was like something from Candyland. “Now you’ll meet Pinkie Pie!” Twilight announced. She sounded like an airport speaker. They approached the door, but as they neared it, it swung open for them. Instinctively, Ryan reached back for his knife, but when nothing flew out at him, he only drew it half way. Thankfully, Twilight didn’t notice.

“..?” Ryan looked at Twilight, who looked back at him, then ushered for him to go in. He walked forward through the door.

Confetti assaulted his face, making him close his eyes. Loud noises sounded everywhere. “SURPRISE!” a girly voice called out. Ryan opened his eyes, only to find a world of pink. “I’m Pinkie Pie!” Ryan moved back and took a look at the pony who had attacked him with fun. She was happy, energetic, and looked a little bit crazy.

“I figured as much.” Ryan replied. Twilight walked in.

“Pinkie, this is Harkness.” Ryan tentatively extended his hand, which Pinkie grabbed and shook reasonably.

“You must be that creature!” she shouted. “I’m so glad you’re okay! Now we can party and have lots of fun and play games and-” Ryan looked to Twilight for help, which she readily provided.

“Pinkie, how about you give him one of your signature cupcakes?” Ryan turned to look at the pink ball of energy as she gasped loudly.

“YOU’RE RIGHT!” She ran off, leaving a confused Ryan in her wake. When she returned moments later, she held a cupcake out to him. “Try it, you’ll love it!”

Not wanting to cause offense, Ryan took it. He hadn’t eaten anything like this in a while, but it couldn’t be that bad for him... right? he took a bite. It was one of the best cupcakes he had ever had.

“Good.” he replied, stuffing the rest down his gullet. He hadn’t eaten that many calories in a sitting since Australia. Pinkie smiled at him so big, he thought that it would tear a hole in reality.

“YAYZEES!” she yelled, putting him into a big hug. Ryan didn’t even bother resisting; affection probably wouldn’t kill him.

A stallion suddenly appeared behind the counter. He looked at Ryan, then at Pinkie on top of him, then back at Ryan. “I see you’ve met Pinkie.” he said. Ryan looked over. “I’m Mr. Cake. I and my wife own this shop.” Ryan nodded to the man, then turned his attention back to the pink globbus.

“You can let go now.” he said. Pinkie let him go and ran back to Mr. Cake.

“He’s really great!” No, he’s really not. Pinkie suddenly started telling Mr. Cake everything she knew about Ryan, which was a little bit more than he was expecting. When she finished, Mr. Cake looked to Ryan.

“Well, I’m glad to see that you’re alright now.” Ryan nodded.

“It’s good to not die.” he replied. Mr. Cake smiled nervously at him.

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I think I may be driving your customers away.”” Mr. Cake took the hint.

“Well, I’d hate to keep you anyhow. It was nice meeting you.” Ryan turned and nodded.

“Likewise.” But not really.

He and Twilight left the place, Sugarcube Corner, the sign read, and moved on down the street. The pegasi were still in the air doing their thing, but now, there was one very distinctive one in the air. It was light blue, like the sky, but its wane was a rainbow. “Joyous times.” Ryan thought. He recognized it from the previous night. Twilight noticed his gazing to the sky and followed where his eyes were going.

“Oh!” she said. “That’s Rainbow Dash!” Twilight took a few steps forward. “RAINBOW!” she shouted. The pegasus must have heard, for she swooped down and landed near them with quite a bit of gusto.

“Twilight! How’s it-” She stopped when she saw Ryan. “Is that..?” She pointed at Ryan. Twilight nodded.

“Yes.” she said, moving aside and pointing at Ryan. “His name’s Harkness.” Ryan nodded curtly. Rainbow moved forward.

“Hmm.” She circled him suspiciously.

Ryan was wishing that he hadn’t agreed to this by now. He should have stuck to being alone. He should have thrown faith out the window. “You’re not evil, are you?” Ryan shrugged.

“Depends on how you define ‘evil’.” Twilight’s smile faltered for a moment, then came back in a force. Rainbow’s suspicious gaze turned into a scowl.

“I have to go now.” Rainbow announced to Twilight. “But I’ll be watching you.” She took off, leaving Ryan to ponder their very brief encounter.

Twilight walked back over to Ryan and patted his arm. “Don’t worry, my philosophical new friend.” she said. “She’ll come around eventually.” With that bit of reassurance, Twilight grabbed Ryan’s arm and started dragging him away.

Before he knew where they were going, they stopped. Before him was a large, lavishly decorated building. Through the windows in the front, Ryan could see several mares sitting, reading magazines. “Why are we here?” he asked. “And where are we?” Twilight let go of Ryan’s arm and went to the door.

“This is the Ponyville Day Spa.” she explained “Rarity and Fluttershy are here.” Oh, boy. Rarity would probably have some choice words for him, for terrifying her little sister. More awkwardness.

“Alright.” he said as Twilight held the door open for her. Ryan walked inside.

All reading or writing ceased when Ryan came inside. All of the mares looked up from whatever they were doing and stared. He felt like someone was going to pull a gun and shoot at him. “Harkness?” Twilight said. Ryan was rigid as he stood, scanning the room. “You feel a bit tense.” she said, rubbing his arm.

“Yeah.” he said, pulling his arm away. Twilight looked around, then got it. She immediately went to the desk.

“Hello, are Rarity and Fluttershy in?” she asked. The desk mare looked at her, then at Ryan.

“Y-yes, madame. You may head on in.” Twilight nodded her thanks as she went in, followed not so closely by Ryan.

Inside this area, Ryan felt even more out of place. There were so many frills and cushions and relaxation things that Ryan felt like he would end up being killed if he stayed. He couldn’t let his guard down, even if it was to relax.

“Ah! Over there.” Twilight said, pointing to a couple of ud baths. The last time Ryan had any sort of mud bath was in a river in Vietnam. He shuddered at the memory as they approached the mares. “Rarity, Fluttershy!” Twilight exclaimed. The mares had cucumbers over their eyes, so they couldn’t see Ryan.

“Darling, how wonderful to see you!” Rarity replied. Irony. “I’m so glad you could come. Go on, join one of us. It’s really relaxing.” Twilight happily rolled her eyes.

“That’s not actually why I’m here.”

Rarity and Fluttershy both sat up a bit. “Really?” Fluttershy said. “Then what brings you here? If you don’t mind me asking.” She shrunk her form at the end of the statement like that would protect her from a monster.

“I found the creature!” she said giddily. “His name’s Harkness and he’s here to meet you.” Both spa mares shot upright and removed their cucumbers. Rarity looked at Ryan with a combination of glee and disapproval. Fluttershy looked at him like he was dying again.

“Dear, me, my manners have escaped me! I’m Rarity, darling, local clothing designer.” She put a hoof up. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Ryan nodded.

“I’m Fluttershy.” Fluttershy said quickly. She moved over to the edge of her bath and got closer to Ryan. “Mr. Harkness, are you alright?” she asked. Ryan nodded wordlessly. “You’re sure? No infections leftover or anything?” Well, he hadn’t thought of that. No matter.

“I’m sure I’m fine.” he said, causing Fluttershy to shrink back a bit and Rarity to look at him excitedly.

“Ooh, this is magnificent!” Rarity exclaimed. “I’ll have to make you all new clothes! Trust me, they will be the absolute best you will ever have.” Ryan nodded to her. He didn’t want to come off as an asshole; that would get him nowhere.

“Thank you, Miss Rarity, and Miss Fluttershy.” He paced backwards a few steps. “It’s been a pleasure.”

Without waiting for Twilight, Ryan made his way outside while she stayed to chat with her friends. “Well, he seems like a gentlecolt.” Rarity beamed. Fluttershy concurred.

“I do hope that he’s okay. It would be terrible if he wasn’t really okay.” Twilight waved a dismissive hoof.

“No worries; I’m sure he’s alright.”

While they were talking, Ryan made his way outside. The spa mares looked at him again, prompting him to go faster. He opened the door and-

He was knocked to the ground by what felt like three cannonballs, all screaming and shouting something. As soon as he hit the ground, Ryan rolled back up, ready for a fight. He held himself, though, at seeing the three little ones from the previous night.

“Sorry, mister- hey, it’s him!” The one who yelled that was Applebloom, and as soon as she did, the other two leapt up and ran over to Ryan, who towered over them. They circled him, asking him all kinds of questions. He answered one at a time.

“What’s your name?”

“Harkness.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“Where’s that?”

“Far away.”

He tried to keep nonspecific questions vaguely answered. Before he knew it, other little ones were coming around. “Wow, AB was telling the truth!” She apparently told them all that she met “the creature”. Ryan turned to see several little ones, one with a camera, staring at him as the three originals ran around him, shouting incoherently.

“What if it’s a monster?” one asked. Another tried to reassure it.

“Monsters only come out at night and in the Everfree, remember?”

Ryan didn’t want all this attention. “I came out of the Everfree.” he announced, causing their little jaws to go agape. He crouched and loudly whispered, “And the night is my domain.” The little ones looked like they wanted to run, but the three circling him must have convinced them not to.

“Aww, he ain’t no danger! He’s real nice, just gotta get to know him.” Ryan sighed and gave up.

He sat down, and as he did so, the young one with the camera came up to him. “Do you mind if I, maybe, get a picture?” the tiny Brit asked. “For the news?”

Ryan shrugged. “Why not?” The little Brit smiled as he brought up his camera. There was a bright flash, and the camera went back down.

“Thanks, Mister!” he said as he retreated back to the group.

Right as he did so, Twilight came back out. “You good... to... go?” She giggled as she looked at Ryan, still in a circle of fillies.

“As ready as I could be.” He stood up and leapt away from the fillies.

They all said their goodbyes and Ryan left with Twilight, heading in God knows what direction. “Where to now?” he asked fearfully. Twilight pointed forward at a big tree.

“The library. That’s where I work and live.” She started to trot forward. “Let’s go! I have lots of questions for you!” She ran off to her home, leaving Ryan in the dust once again. He ran after her.

I guess I should either be careful with my answers,” he thought. “Or I can be totally honest.

He was at the door, meeting back up with Twilight, who seemed unable to comprehend that his species was not built for running like hers.

“Here we go.” He walked inside when Twilight held the door open for him.

Thin Ice

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Thin Ice

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” (Stephen King)

Ryan scanned the room as soon as he was inside. She was telling the truth; it was a library. Bookshelves were built into all the walls, with what else than books everywhere. If this mare lived here, then she was probably something of a bookworm.

Twilight followed him inside, shutting the door quietly as she entered. She didn’t want to scare Harkness; after all, he was still new here and probably still less than trusting of everypony. His injury didn’t exactly indicate an accident, though that couldn’t be ruled out. She mostly just wanted him to be comfortable.

“My room is upstairs. I’ll get a pen and some paper, and I’ll meet you there.” Ryan nodded and made his way upstairs. He looked out a window; it was probably around eleven thirty or noon now. He sighed.

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.” Only he had a feeling that the dawn wasn’t coming.

He walked up the stairs and found himself in a big open room. There was another small set of stairs leading to what looked like a bed and nightstand. Close to that, there was a little pet basket, from which Ryan could hear snoring. He had no idea that pets snored.

Twilight came up, levitating a pen, some paper, a chair, and a small desk. When Ryan turned and saw this, he only stared. Twilight fidgeted. “What?” she asked. “Is there something on me?” Ryan shook himself out of his stupor.

“No, you’re good.” Confused, but still excited, Twilight set everything down and then ran up her stairs. Up there, she must have awoken her pet.

“What!?” a young male voice shouted. Ryan did a double take; he hadn’t expected Twilight to make her little brother sleep in a pet basket. What kind of world was this? “It’s alive? And here!?” the voice shouted. Before Twilight could respond, the most peculiar sight to hit Ryan’s eyes yet came rushing down the stairs. It was a short purple lizard with green frills on its head. Ryan and the lizard stared at each other. After a moment, Ryan decided that it would be in his best interest to end the silence.

“Sup?” he said. The lizard visibly calmed.

“Yo.” he replied. Twilight came back down with a cushion floating above her.

“I see you’ve met Harkness, Spike.” Spike, eh? Maybe he was a pet.

“Yup.” he said. He walked over to Ryan, who cocked an eyebrow at him. “We’re already bros.” Spike struck a pose next to Ryan. Ryan stayed silent.

Giggling, either from excitement or finding her lizard hilarious, Twilight walked on over. “Spike, why don’t take notes for me?” She pulled the chair over and used what Ryan assumed to be magic to set him in it. Smiling wide, Spike took up the pen and got ready to start taking notes on his desk. Twilight pulled the cushion over and pushed it to Ryan.

“You can have it.” Ryan said, putting his hand up. Twilight looked at him funny. “I prefer the wooden floor.” He wasn’t used to the feelings of cushions any more. It made him uncomfortable. Twilight took a moment, then shrugged, and put the cushion under herself.

“Suit yourself.” she said. She looked to Spike, who was already taking notes. “Are you ready?” she asked, looking back to Ryan. Ryan nodded.

“As ready as I can be.” Here he went.

Twilight looked contemplative as she decided what questions she was going to be asking. Looking at Ryan, she decided to start with easier questions. “What do YOU know about US, if I may ask?” she began. Ryan thought for a moment. It wasn’t much, but it was a little.

“Well, I know that you have two rulers, sun-mare and moon-mare, who I assume to be Luna.” Twilight’s eyes widened a bit and she cocked an eyebrow. Ryan continued. “I also know that before they came around, there were three tribes, pegasi, unicorns, and ponies. Some dude named Starswirl the Bearded did lots of stuff with magic, your land is Equestria, there’s some weird guy named Discord, and then what you’ve told me as of yet. Nothing else, really.” Twilight looked dumbfounded. How did this guy know so much?

“How do you know all of this?” she asked in disbelief. Spike had stopped his notes to look in awe. Thinking fast, Ryan thought to the only source of knowledge he had encountered as of yet.

“The library in some old, rundown castle in the forest.” For a moment, Twilight looked like everything was clear. Then it looked like she had seen a pony with seven legs.

“I thought that library was cleaned out!” she announced loudly. Ryan stuck a finger in his right ear.

“Apparently not, and please don’t yell don’t loud.” Twilight blushed a bit, covering her mouth.

“Sorry.” she said apologetically.

Now, it was on to the serious questions, the tougher ones for Ryan to answer. “What species are you?” Twilight asked.

“Human.” came Ryan’s reply, monotone and unwelcoming.

“Where are you from?” Ryan didn’t have to think about simple questions like these.

“The United States of America.” From there, Twilight asked questions about Ryan’s homeland, which he answered truthfully. For the most part. They spent easily an hour and a half on the subject.

“So, wait, you have a document that prevents the government from taking the rights of its own people? And it works?” Ryan nodded. The US Constitution in a nutshell, right there. “Wow. That’s gotta be some serious magic.” Ryan laughed. “What?” Twilight asked. Oh, this was gonna blow her bubble.

“We don’t have magic.”

Her bubble didn’t just blow; it had a nuclear meltdown. Her face rapidly changed from fear, to relief, to confusion, to all out terror, then to contemplativeness, then back to fear. It cycled like this at least four times in ten seconds. “What?” she finally replied.

“We have technology.” Ryan explained. “It’s like our version of magic, only not innate. We can do it, whereas apparently you can’t do it to our extent.” Twilight looked unhappy.

“I resent that comment!" she shouted. "We have steam powered trains!” Ryan laughed again, this time drawing a confused look from Twilight.

“We’ve sent machines flying through the air at over eight thousand miles an hour. On gas.” Twilight’s jaw fell to the floor. Off to the side, Ryan could hear Spike trying to stammer out a response.

“Oh.” was all she said. “I guess that you’re right.” Ryan laid down on the floor to stretch his back.

Thanks, NASA, for giving me something to impress these ponies with.” He sat back up, ready for another volley of questions. “More questions?” he asked. Twilight was still in a stupor. Ryan inched closer and waved a hand in front of her face, getting no response. He turned to Spike, who looked perfectly fine.

“Is she gonna be alright?” he asked. Spike wordlessly got up and walked over to Twilight. Once there, he used his claw to poke her flank.

“AH!” she shouted at the sudden pointy contact. “Spike!” she whined, getting him to chuckle.

“Sorry, but you weren’t asking him any questions!” He ran back to the desk and picked up his pen. Twilight sheepishly smiled at Ryan.

“Sorry, I guess it just distracted me. I just don’t see how it’s possible!”

Ryan went back to his spot. “Well, we can go over that another time. Societal questions?”

She had lots of questions about that, like law and order, court systems, social scenes and fads, and lots of other stuff. She even shared some of her society’s social structure. The Princesses held courts during their respective times of the day to hear out cases not settled by lower courts. “

Night court, then, for Luna.” Ryan figured. “That would be the time to visit.” He was still considering whether or not he should, but now he knew he could. Twilight’s questions eventually went to books and knowledge storage. “We have libraries, if that’s what you’re wondering.” Ryan said. Twilight shook her head.

“I know, but with all that knowledge, especially with that technology of yours, you must need a lot of space to store it.” Ryan thought about how to answer this for a moment. This would require an explanation of some technology, and a lot of it, he would be unable to provide.

Ryan decided that he would just explain this as best he could, then call it a day. The sky was getting ready to turn orange, he could tell. “Well, we have this piece of technology called a computer. We have millions of these things back home. On each one, a person can store knowledge as coded data, which can be accessed and viewed again later. Every computer has a storage limit, and every piece of data has its own, umm...” Ryan thought. Bytes would make no sense to her. “I’ll call it Data Mass. It’s isn’t real, but it takes up memory storage.” Twilight looked confused, but still followed. “This mass isn’t real; it can’t be touched. But, when in a micro chip, SD card, disk, or some other means of storage, it floats in that item as a memory, like in our brains.”

The analogy was perfect; Twilight shouted “Aha!” when she got it.

“Now, like I said, there’s millions of computers. Now, different computers hold different amounts of ‘Data Mass’, but most can hold thousands of pages of text.” Twilight gasped.

“That’s like, half of my library!” Ryan nodded.

“Now, let me explain the Internet. The Internet is not a thing; it’s the connection between all these computers, meaning that if one is on the Internet, people using other computers can view what’s on it. Now, when you have all these computers connected...” He didn’t need to finish; the look on Twilight’s face said everything.

“All collected knowledge could be viewed by anyone with a computer.” Ryan nodded; there was a much darker and much more illegal truth to that than she would ever understand.

“And THAT is how we store all of our knowledge. Or at least most of it.”

After finishing his severely lacking explanation, Ryan stood up and stretched. “Well, I’m glad I could answer your questions, but I think that your mind will have trouble handling any more.” He cracked his knuckles. “So I guess I’ll just head on out.” Ryan moved for the way downstairs.

“Alright. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Twilight replied. Ryan put his hand up as he left.

Spike had taken so many notes that his writ was hurting. “That was crazy.” he commented. Twilight nodded. “I mean, no wonder his species was able to advance so quickly, if they store knowledge so well.” Twilight looked to the staircase. She couldn’t ear any footsteps; he must have hurried out.

“I guess so.” She pondered exactly what implications this could have. Just how intelligent was this species, or more specifically, Ryan? “I’ll have to learn more about their history and technology tomorrow.” she thought. “This is too fascinating.” She went up her personal stairs and to her bed, where she laid down.

Spike got into his little basket not ten feet away when he had a startling realization. “Twilight, he’s got no place to stay!” he announced. Twilight shot up, a frantic frown on her face.

“Oh, my! You’re right!” She rushed out of bed and galloped downstairs to her front door. Upon inspecting the area outside in the dusk, she saw no sign of her friend Harkness. “Ponyfeathers.” she cursed. She closed her front door and went back to Spike upstairs. “We’ll just have to figure something out tomorrow. I don’t think we’ll find him, not in this darkness.” Spike sighed, then went to bed, Twilight guiltily following suit.

*********************************************************************************

Discord had been viewing the lives of various nobles for a while now. None of them were particularly interesting, but he needed something to do. Even though many called him evil, he wasn’t about to be spying on Ryan for every little moment of his life. He knew that the boy deserved at least a modicum of privacy.

Now, however, was his time to pry. He had designated two times of the day, one a little before noon, the other at night, to watch Ryan. He hadn’t looked earlier because Celestia sent a unicorn to check on him. She must have known about his fake imprisonment.

Using his magic, Discord turned a patch of air near Ryan into a pair of invisible eyes for himself. He had to look around for a moment before he located Ryan. The boy was wandering the town of Ponyville.

Well, now, this is new.” He hadn’t been expecting Ryan to let himself come back to an society. Maybe because this one was different, he had no connections to it? Or maybe he just had no other options to survive off of. Either way, here he was.

Where are you going?” Discord asked silently, moving his pair of eyes in the sky closer to Ryan. The boy wasn’t talking to himself like he had before, back in Cambodia. He just walked away in silence, no longer the boy he once was.

Ryan was glancing around, checking his six every so often. He had no desire to be followed, obviously. He wore his gross and worn clothes, with his weapons readily available at his side. Discord was surprised to see that he still had them. If the ponies of Ponyville knew what they were, Ryan would have been run out of town by now.

I wonder what’s happened?” Discord wished that he could tell what he been happening, but Celestia and her little pests had kept him from that.

At the edge of town, Ryan found himself in a little meadow, with a single tree nearby. Next to the tree was a ditch, about five and a half feet deep and four feet wide. After spotting it, Ryan walked over and jumped down into it.

What are you doing?” Discord wondered. Ran just laid down and stayed there in the ditch. He was going to sleep. “Ah.” Discord said, understanding. Ryan was trying to stay away from civilization, but also, he was now used to this. Sleeping anywhere else would be uncomfortable.

Seeing that this was not going to go anywhere, Discord figured that this would be a good time to do something. Ryan’s eyes were closed and he was deep in thought. To make him more comfortable, Discord softened the patch of dirt under him to be more like the water saturated grounds of Southeast Asia at the time in which he was there. Ryan’s mind didn’t notice, but his body seemed to. His muscles relaxed just a little bit, and he seemed like he would sleep less restlessly. Having done his job, Discord cancelled his spell and returned to himself.

He felt truly terrible for and about Ryan and his condition. Discord had so many chances to keep him from this fate, but he had allowed it to happen. He had considered bringing Ryan back to his home, but he knew that recovery would be impossible there. The only way that he was going to get better was if he did so far away from everything that he knew, so Discord provided that. He should have taken care of Narendra when he had the chance, but he didn’t. That was his greatest moral failure, something that Discord didn’t like to admit he had any of. Still, he had an opportunity here to make things right, so he was going to take it.

Ryan’s world and his world were going to remember that boy.

*********************************************************************************

Ryan shot up, yelling. He swung his head around, looking for anyone, everyone, who may be there. When he saw that there was no one there, he sighed and fell back.

The night sky was still in the sky, albeit not much. Ryan could tell that it was approaching six in the morning, with where the sun was. He forced himself to stand up and look around outside of the ditch. No one was there. He got out of the ditch and dusted himself off. No need to tell them all that he was sleeping in a World War One era trench. Thinking slowly, it dawned on Ryan that history may be a section of questioning from Twilight at some point.

“I’ll just tell her.” he decided. “Not like I had anything to do with the wars.” No, he had his own demons to hide. He didn’t care about the crimes of ages past. He was sure that this world had its own of that.

Ryan’s stomach growled loudly as he exited the vicinity of the tree. He hadn’t eaten since that apple and cupcake the previous day. And worse, whatever was in tht cupcake messed Ryan up in the gut. “Too much sugar after too much time without any.” he lamented. This day was already sucking. He pressed on, though, and got all the way to the town before he had to stop. By then, the sun had risen and it was at least quarter past. No ponies were out, but if Ryan was too loud, they would awaken. He had to hide himself as much as possible while he threw up. “Ugh.” He shuddered when he was done. Barfing is hardly fun, especially when you’re running on fumes.

He spent a few minutes recovering from his bout when he heard the door to his right open up. The pony must have heard him vomit and came out to check. “Hello?” It was a mare. “Is anypony there?” Ryan was moaning from the pain in his gut. “Are you alright?” She hadn’t quite seen him yet. He came out from the other side of the wall and looked over at her.

“Depends on how you define ‘okay’.” The mare looked like she would scream at seeing him, but she held her tongue well.

After a moment of silence, she breathed out slowly and said, “Are you ill?” Ryan shook his head.

“No.” Clenching his gut, he made his way past the mare. “Good day, ma’am.” He walked away, leaving a concerned pony behind. He didn’t need her sympathy.

He spotted a big, round building on his way back to the library that stood out quite a bit. Carousel Boutique, the big sign read. He wasn’t familiar with it, nor did he have any desire to be. He kept on walking. Also on the way, he saw Sugarcube Corner. In response, he took a longer route, trying to avoid sugary things like they were chemical weapons. For him, they might as well have been. Eventually, he made it to the library, where he spotted a bench. He just went over and sat on it, waiting for Twilight to awaken.

He pulled out his M1911 and took a good look at it. He wished that he knew how to do maintenance on it, but alas, he was unfamiliar with the intricacies of firearms management. Instead, he opted to remove the mag, unchamber the round, add the round back to the mag, then put the mag back in without chambering. He spent some time just pulling back the hammer and pulling the trigger. click. He thought about how he might explain these devices of his, especially if he had to explain the history. click. He could avoid going into detail about weapons. click. Or he could just lie and say that swords and crap like that were used. click. But then, how would he explain his knife? click. There was no easy way out of this. Maybe he should just wing it again? His life couldn’t get much worse.

He sat there for an hour contemplating, waiting for Twilight to awaken and come get him. She had given him no idea of where to go, nor had he told her where he was going. Now, he had a place to sleep, so he was good there. He would probably just keep stealing food or mooch off of Twilight and her friends. it was simple. He had to survive, so he stole to live. Not that he cared about the morality of it; he was Hell-bound for certain already. It was just a matter of convenience and survival.

He could hear the door to the library opening. “Alright, Spike. Let’s go find him.” Ryan stood up from his seat. He couldn’t see them form around the library and they couldn’t see him.

“I’m here.” he announced, sitting back down, facing the area where Twilight would be coming from. He heard a startled yelp from that general direction, and soon after, Twilight and Spike came around the corner.

“Oh. You’re here.” Ryan put his hands out to his sides.

“It would seem so.” Twilight rolled her eyes and walked over.

“Where did you stay last night? I’m sorry I hadn’t thought about that, I was just so distracted.” She looked at the ground.

“No worries. I found a place.” Twilight’s ears perked up.

“Oh. Where is it?” Ryan cocked an eyebrow. The last thing he wanted was an unwanted visitor, especially one who would try to make him stay in town.

“You tryin’ to make a move on me, inviting me into your home so soon? And then trying to get into mine right after?” Ryan said. In an effort to make it was weird for Twilight as possible, Ryan gave her a coy smile. Her face turned red; mission accomplished.

“No!” she shouted. Just then, Spike got it and burst into hysterics. He fell down onto his back, he was laughing so hard. “Spi~ike!” she whined, clearly flustered about Ryan’s words.

She turned back to Ryan, scowling at him. “Ha-ha. Not what I meant.” She turned around. “Now come on. I have more questions.” Mission accomplished: investigation into residency eliminated.

Twilight left Spike laughing on the ground, so Ryan picked him up and brought him inside. If he stayed outside like that, he would disturb the still sleeping neighbors. Once inside, he set Spike down on the ground. “Dude, that was too great.” Spike wiped away a tear. “I wish I could do that so fast.” Ryan shrugged; Twilight had gone upstairs, so they had time to chat.

“Comes with lots of practice.” Spike put his fist out for a bump. Not wanting to come off as rude, Ryan bumped it. Though there was little there, Spike could hardly tell.

“You gotta teach me, bro.” So they were bros now. Maybe trolling his sister was what made that to be.

“Maybe later. Right now, I have to answer her questions.” He looked to the stairs. “And I think you may have to leave for this. These questions might get kinda heavy.”

Spike looked up, confused, as Twilight returned from upstairs. Not wanting to take any risks, Spike went over to the stairs. “I think I’ll sit this one out, Twilight.” he said, rushing up the stairs. Before Twilight could ask, he was up there and away from her and Ryan. She looked to Ryan.

“I told him that there would maybe be things that he shouldn’t hear.” Twilight blinked. Alright, then, she could take her own notes. She moved forward and sat herself down at a table, probably where she checked out books.

“Come.” she said. Ryan would have done something with that, but the connotation was likely not the same here. He complied and sat on the other side of the table. “I’ll keep my questions simpler today, I think.” Her excitement resumed, as if the exchange before never happened.

“What are you going to ask me?” Ryan asked, wondering just how bad it could get.

“Human history.” Damn. That was tough. Not so much because of unpleasantness, but because Ryan wasn’t a historian. He knew a lot, sure, but he couldn’t go into detail on almost anything. School courses are hardly ever specific, you have to study that kind of stuff in college.

Twilight started with an impossible one; the beginning of civilization. Ryan gave her the roughly twenty facts and details that he knew about the Fertile Crescent, which Twilight found fascinating. One region’s perfection for agriculture sparked the beginning of an incredible series of societies and civilizations. After that, Ryan moved onto the early empires, like the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans. After giving what little info he had about them, he moved onto other empires of the old world, like the Mongols, the Mughals, and the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans. He couldn’t remember exactly which came when, something Twilight wasn’t too happy about.

“You don’t know your own species’ history?” she deadpanned. Ryan frowned.

“You’re asking me for thousands of years of history for over a dozen different empires. That’s well over twenty thousand collective years of history. Do you happen to know twenty thousand years of history on any level of detail?” Twilight looked at him, then sighed in defeat.

“Alright.” she conceded.

“Please continue with what you do know.” she requested. Ryan thought about where to start. He would stay off of the topic of religion; that was just way too complex for even him to understand at times. Instead, he kept on going with the empires. He went into the Ottoman Empire, the British, French, and Spanish Empires, and ultimately to the beginning of the United States. “So you’re country was a colony that rebelled against its owner?” Twilight asked, looking a tad concerned. Ryan nodded.

“Yeah. There were all kinds of reasons for it, from civil rights to government representation, and even down to economics. That last one was probably the more significant of the three.” Twilight nodded, scribbling on her little notepad. “And thus began a new era of the world.”

Twilight would have loved to continue, but Ryan’s stomach growled like a lion. He looked down at it, then back up at Twilight. “Are you hungry?” she asked. Ryan shrugged.

“Well, I haven’t eaten since yesterday, and that cupcake messed me up pretty bad.” Twilight gasped.

“What!?” she shouted. “I thought you said you had yourself taken care of.” She looked at him, worry spread out over her face.

“I said I had a place to sleep. I never said I had access to food.” Twilight looked appalled by Ryan’s casual stating of his hunger.

“Well, I guess that we’ll just break for lunch for now.” she said. Ryan stood up, stomach still angry at him for its emptiness. Twilight got up and grabbed a bag, slinging it over her shoulder. “Spike, I’m taking Harkness out for lunch!”

Spike replied with a big, “OK!”, and the two left the library.

Ryan had no idea what to expect of these ponies for their food. He knew that horses back home eat grass and hay, among other things, but what about here? Was he going to be forced to eat grass? “So what kind of food do you have here?” Ryan asked. He scratched his arm through his sleeve, not wanting to reveal his arm.

“Well, we have grass, hay, straw, assorted veggies, fruits, and lots of other stuff.” Ryan thought about the veggies. He had never been a big fruit guy, but he would eat whatever was put in front of him at this point.

“Alright then.” he responded.

Twilight brought him to a nice looking restaurant, one with big bay windows in the front and tables outside. The ponies at the outside tables stopped eating for a moment to look at Ryan, the new town anomaly, but quickly went back to eating. Whether it was fear or disinterest, Ryan didn’t care. As long as they were looking at someone else.

“This is one of my favorites.” Twilight commented, pointing to the restaurant. “They have awesome steamed vegetables and sandwiches.” That was an option; a good old fashioned PB and J.

“Let’s head on in then.” Ryan said, voracious for some food. When they entered the restaurant, though, they got a big surprise.

The waiter didn’t even wait for them to walk more than a few steps inside before he tried to send them away. “No animals in the restaurant.” he said. Twilight looked unhappy; Ryan was looking close to mad. Who’s the jackass who thought he could stop Ryan from eating.

“I don’t know about here,” he said. “But back home, YOU would be called a racist bigot right about now.” The waiter flinched, not just at the words, but at Ryan’s speech. He had no idea that this thing could talk.

“Sorry, sorry. I just didn’t know that...” The waiter couldn’t find the right words, obviously.

“As long as I get some food, I don’t even care.” The waiter looked relieved.

“Well, I know we have a couple of tables open. If you’ll follow me.” He picked up a couple of menus and led Twilight and Ryan to a table. He placed the menus on the table and bowed, letting the customers have time to decide on their food.

Ryan picked up his menu and started going through it. Steamed hay, veggie burgers, fruit cups, salads, tacos, assorted breads...

The whole time he was reading over the menu, he noticed that Twilight was staring at him. She wasn’t even glancing at her menu or trying to hide it.

“Where I’m from, staring is considered a lot of things.” Ryan said suddenly, startling Twilight. “It can be aggression, intrigue, suspicion, simple rudeness... desire for passion...” He looked up from his menu on that last one, happy to see that, once again, he managed to fluster her. She looked around frantically.

“No, no! Stop saying that!” she said. “I’m just curious about your eating habits.” Ryan stared back at her for a moment, sizing up the situation. In a quick movement, he pulled back his lips and showed Twilight his teeth.

“There.” he said. Twilight took the moment to move closer and inspect. There were crushing teeth in the back, but canines in the front. She moved back to her seat quickly.

“You eat meat.” she said, shuddering a bit. Ryan nodded.

“Yeah. Mostly beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and fish, but fish isn’t meat for some reason.” Twilight looked away. “It doesn’t have to scare you; I have no intention of eating anything other than the kinds of things on this menu and the occasional small animal.” Twilight cringed. The truth can be unpleasant sometimes.

Soon, the waiter returned and took their orders. Salad and tea for Twilight, a simple peanut butter sandwich and water for Ryan. He would give anything for some of that Macallen right about now.

As they ate, Twilight got back to asking history questions. There was a lot that she was asking that Ryan simply couldn’t answer, like the histories of all of the colonies of the previously mentioned empires and of the empires themselves. Eventually, it just got down to US history.

“So when would you say that you’re country really entered the global stage?” she asked. Ryan chewed on his food a moment.

Here we go.” he thought, partly with dread and partly with anticipation. He swallowed. “I’d say it happened when my country went into World War One.” Twilight stopped. Even around them, any pony who heard that phrase stopped all together. Everyone was looking at Ryan, who was just eating. Thankfully, he couldn’t see them.

“W-World War ONE?” Twilight asked. Ryan nodded. “I-I don’t quite understand...”

Ryan set his food down. “Well, those empires from before? They controlled most of the world at that time. And when they decided to duke it out, that meant that pretty much every corner of the world was involved in some way. Whether it was in fighting or providing for it, most people in the world were involved in some way shape or form.”

Twilight looked terrified, yet her curiosity seemed to override it. “What can you tell me about it?” she asked. Ryan took a sip of his water and looked her dead in the eye.

“Are you sure you want to hear about this?” he asked. There was a reason that the real stuff like this wasn’t taught until later. Twilight nodded. Ryan sighed. “Alright. I guess I’ll start at the beginning.” He started with the spread of Nationalism and how that increased international tensions. Twilight didn’t seem to react much to the secret alliances made by various countries and how that decided who would fight against who. Mostly, Ryan was talking about the belligerents, not the fighting itself. When he finished his explanation, Twilight knew that there was more.

“And what about the fighting?” she asked. Before he went on, Ryan had his own question.

“Why so interested in that?” he asked. Twilight looked around; she just noticed that this conversation was not private.

“We have war here too, you know. I just want to compare.” Ryan shrugged.

“Alright. Here’s the stats; over sixteen million men died, over twenty million were horribly wounded. The war was primarily fought in trenches, and the deadliest weapons were machine guns and gas bombs.” Twilight took a moment to comprehend what she was hearing. She had no idea what a gun was, but gas?

“What do you mean, ‘machine guns and gas bombs’?” Ryan looked around; now, he could see that they were being watched.

“Machine guns, or MGs, send little metal things called bullets really fast through the air, slicing or smashing through what they hit. As for the gas, it was chlorine.” Twilight swallowed hard, and behind him, Ryan could hear several ponies gasp. “It was made with the intent of being ‘a weapon that no one would use because of its power’, but clearly, that man was misguided.”

Twilight looked like her face might turn green. “I think I’m done eating.” she said. Instantly, Ryan grabbed her plate. He had eaten his food already.

“Alright. I’ll eat it.” She looked at him sadly and concerned as he ate.

“This doesn’t bother you?” she asked. Ryan swallowed a bit of the salad.

“Several things. One; it was almost a hundred years ago. I had nothing to do with it. Two; I grew up in this world, remember? This world of knowledge sharing? I know about lots of bad stuff. Three; If I let it get to me, then I would have probably lost my mind long ago.” He had lost his mind due to other things, not simple historical facts. “So I’m sorry if I sound like I don’t care, because I really don’t.” He finished the salad and stood up. “Well, I guess we should pay.” Ryan absentmindedly went for his wallet, which he remembered that he didn’t have. How did he forget that? It had been way too long. “Uhh...” He looked to Twilight.

“Oh! Right, sorry.” She left a bunch of gold coins on the table, and they left the restaurant.

As they walked back to the library, Twilight kept looking back at Ryan. She wasn’t sure how to feel about him now; he had all this knowledge of such terrible things, but he didn’t care? “I guess that he was right, though.” she thought. “If he were to let it get to him, he would be ruined.” Thinking that, she actually had to admire him for his strength. Twilight wasn’t even a human, yet she was having trouble accepting the information he had provided.

“Darling!” a posh voice called out. Ryan turned to his right to see the white unicorn, Rarity, approaching. Twilight hadn’t noticed, so Ryan nudged her to alert her. “Oh, it’s good to see you again!” Okay, so she was talking to Ryan. “How are you?” she asked. Ryan put his hands in his pockets.

“I’m doing well enough.” he replied. Rarity went over to Twilight, who was still a bit out of it.

“Are you alright, dear?” she asked. Twilight shook herself out of it.

“Yes, I’m fine. Just thinking about history.”

Rarity could tell that it wasn’t pony history. “Well, what of it?” Ryan quickly interjected.

“Unpleasant history.” Rarity took the hint.

“Ah, well, there’s a time and place for that.” she said. “But I’m sure that there are some interesting things about your history, Harkness. May I come and join you?”

Ryan wanted to say no, but like with Twilight before, there was something going on here. He felt like he should give her this. He had tried fighting it before, but to no avail. He sighed. “Alright, but I’m not liable if you get messed up by what you hear.” Rarity waved her hoof.

“Nonsense.” she said. “I assure you I can handle it.” She had no idea what to expect. Having gotten a new listener, they all went back to the library to continue with history.

At the library, Ryan was the first to approach the door. That was a mistake. “Rarity!” Spike came out yelling. When he opened the door flew open, the edge caught Ryan in the face, sending him sprawling onto the ground. Spike looked on with a pained expression. “Whoops.” he said. Ryan sat up; it looked like the mares were about to chastise the poor little guy.

“I’m good.” he said, standing up and dusting himself off. “Let’s head in.” He led the way, the ponies and lizard behind him simply looking on.

“Tough guy.” Spike commented, impressed. They all went in after Ryan.

Ryan found a nice place on the floor where he could sit and motioned for the others to sit around him. When they were all before him, Ryan cleared his throat. “I’d rather not rehash the information about World War One, so I’ll move onto World War Two.” Rarity and Spike blinked.

“Did you say WORLD war?” Rarity asked, looking uneasy. Ryan nodded.

“The first was almost a hundred years ago. The second ended a little over seventy years ago.” Spike was twiddling his fingers, clearly not very comfortable. “Anyone who doesn’t want to hear this doesn’t have to.” Surprisingly, none of the three before him moved. He shrugged. “Alright."

He began. "The stats are as such; over sixty million people killed, more than half being civilians. This was from a rather unpleasant even which I will absolutely not be talking about in the presence of ANYONE who hasn’t been exposed to true evil. Luckily, though, that evil was defeated, and such atrocities were not committed on the same scale ever again. They happen, sure, but not like THAT one.” The two ponies and lizard were watching him intently. “But after saying that, I have a question.” Ryan stated.

“What do you think of humanity, after hearing that?” This would be interesting.

Rarity was the first to speak, being the only one seemingly capable. “I find that to be absolutely abominable. Humanity sounds barbaric, no offense intended. How could such things happen?” Ryan put his hands on his knees as he sat cross-legged.

“Well, times were terrible for people. The world economy was essentially dead, so people were looking for a way out. One man and a few of his satanic little friends came forward offering a solution. At the point that the world was at, few of his country’s people opposed him, following this man because he was charismatic and offered them a way out. The rest of the world wasn’t able to stop him because they were in such bad shape economically that they didn’t have the ability or money to intervene. Most people aren’t bad, let me make that very clear. It’s the few who are truly evil and seek to control the world around them that are responsible. Humans on the whole are good; it’s this small number of truly terrible people who at first SEEM good who ruin it for everyone.” Ryan crossed his arms and scanned the expressions of his audience.

“I guess that makes sense.” Twilight said. “It reminds me of the leader of the Southern Griffon Colonies when they went to war with Equestria.” Ryan nodded.

“My point right there. Most of them aren’t bad, they just follow a bad man without realizing it.”

Having renewed humanity’s reputation after tearing it to shreds, Ryan felt like he was growing hot. He removed his beret and scarf and set them down next to him. “What is that?” Rarity asked, intrigued. Ryan looked at the items he just set down.

“That’s a scarf, and that’s a green beret.” Rarity shook her head.

“I know that. What’s the insignia?” She pointed at the beret. Ryan picked it up and looked at it; it was a blue, almost arrowhead-shaped backdrop with a yellow sword and lightning bolts. Above it was one word; “Airborne”. Narendra hadn’t been lying.

“This is the signature piece of clothing worn by my country’s Army Special Forces.” Rarity looked even more interested.

“Interesting. Does it have any special qualities?” Ryan shook his head.

Twilight, now recovered from her new stupor, looked at Ryan’s torso with interest equivalent to that of Rarity’s with the beret. “Why do you wear that?” she asked. Ryan looked down.

“My tac-” he stopped. No need to require more explanations. “My survival vest?” he asked. Twilight looked enlightened, but kept on questioning him.

“Yes. I guess you use it to survive?” Ryan nodded. Twilight, Rarity, and Spike were all looking at Ryan like they were trying to discern a puzzle. At first, he was confused. Then he got it.

My weapons.” he thought dreadfully.

As if on cue, Spike pointed to the M1911 and asked, “What’s that?” Ryan had to think fast. If he told them that he was carrying two very large handguns, they would probably freak out.

“I found it in the jungle some time ago.” Partial truth. “It looked cool (useful), so I kept it.” Spike pointed to the Automag, but before he could ask, Ryan repeated the answer for the 1911.

“And I see you have a hammer.” Twilight said. It was like they were taking turns. Maybe they were. “But what’s that on your back?” She pointed to the KaBar. This one was gonna be tough. Ryan slowly drew the knife and held it out for his audience to see. Twilight and Rarity swallowed, whereas Spike looked on in awe.

“Whoa.” he said.

Ryan put the knife back, saying, “I keep it for survival purposes. Cutting ropes, lines, vines, you know.” Complete lie. And he knew where this would go. “Any more questions?” he asked. Twilight looked uneasy, but held her hoof up. \

“Why did you need all of that?” she asked. Se new about his injury. Him needing all of this survival gear probably looked pretty sketchy.

“I lived in the jungle for a time.” he explained. Partial truth. “With no home or shelter most of the time, I had to make due. So I got my hands on some gear, and I set out to live.” He had really set out to kill and die, but they had no need to know that. He had to be careful now; if he said one thing wrong, they might figure him out and demand the truth, to which he would lie again, likely unsuccessfully. He was walking on thin ice, where in some places, there were little holes that he would have to be fished out of.

But he had little to worry about, it turned out. They seemed like they were done questioning him. Ryan would not have to go into the conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century and later, but at the same time, that meant not talking about the best aspects of humanity. But he knew that he had to take his victories where he could.

“Well, now that we know more about you, should we maybe discuss your life here?” Rarity asked politely. Ryan paused. He hadn’t even considered living here permanently, now that he was stuck where he was. He didn’t want to go home, but he couldn’t stay here. He considered his options.

I could stay here, start over.” he shook his head. “But that won’t work.” He had no need to explain to himself why that was. “I could just leave.” He kept that one on the table. “Or I could wait, maybe get some money. I could get myself some kind of home in the forest, where none of these ponies will bother me.” That one. That was the most viable option. Not returning home, and not staying here. It was perfect. “I was planning on saving up some money, then continuing my travels. Maybe settle somewhere quiet.” He sat back, picturing it. He could be left to his own devices, no longer having to deal with emotions, losing friends, or any kind of trouble that wouldn’t just kill him.

Spike walked over and nudged Ryan. “You know, Ponyville is usually pretty quiet.” he commented. “As long as you don’t...” he looked to Twilight. “'have too much fun', I’m sure you’ll love it here.” Twilight instantly went red and charged Spike, grabbing him and putting him in her lap back in her spot. Rarity initially didn’t understand, but at Twilight’s reaction, she started to laugh.

“Well, I’m not sure I understand the situation, but I do believe that Harkness would be a welcome addition to the town.” Twilight was flustered again, and began to explain to Rarity the whole thing. At the end; it was short; she looked to Ryan. “Ah, I see we have a yanker of legs here.” she said, smiling. Ryan cocked an eyebrow. “Well, I’m sure that your place will be quite magnificent in the community.” Ryan narrowed his eyes. It was time to see if his skills were still up to par.

“I can assure you, I will erect myself to the highest possible stature.” he replied. Rarity and Twilight both flushed red. “Of course, getting there will probably be hard, but with enough strength, I can probably push through any barrier that tries to get in the way.” Both girls turned completely red, drawing a smirk from Ryan. Spike was slowly beginning to get it.

“Oh, so you mean-”

Twilight put a hoof in his mouth. “Okay Spike, time to head on upstairs and start sorting my private collection!” she said. Spike groaned and complied.

Ryan called out after him, “Just be careful of this ‘private collection’, kiddo!” Twilight turned to Ryan, mortified. Ryan just sat there, looking on victoriously.

“Wow, Harkness. Wow.” Rarity looked scandalized.

He shrugged. “You should have seen me in my school days.” he said.

Any embarrassment was replaced with a look of curiosity in both mares. They looked at each other, then at Ryan, then back at each other. “How old are you, exactly?” they asked in unison. Ryan sat back up.

“I’m seventeen.” Both girls looked a little surprised.

“Oh.” Rarity said. “We didn’t know you were that young.” Ryan looked at them.

“How old are the adults of your nation?” he asked, curious.

“Sixteen.” Rarity replied. Inside himself, Ryan celebrated. At least he was an adult by age and not just experience any more.

“And you two?” he asked.

Rarity sat up tall. “I am Twenty-one.” she said.

Twilight looked to her friend, then back to Ryan. “Nineteen.”

Ryan wouldn't have expected this. “I guess that they probably live as long as any human could.

Twilight looked a bit relieved. “Well, since you’re an adult, you can be on your own.” she said. “If Spike were an adult dragon, he would be able to leave. I hope he doesn’t when the time comes, but if he does, I won’t be able to stop him.” Ryan stopped his mind for a few moments. He would have spit out his drink if he had one.

“A dragon? You have freaking dragons here?” he said. Both girls looked at him like he had three heads. “Well, that’s different.”

“Well, getting back on topic, what should we do? I assume you have a place to stay, since you returned to us today the same as yesterday.” Ryan sniffed himself; the jungles of Vietnam were not kind to his scent. “So what about money? You can’t possibly have any work.” Ryan shrugged.

“I’m sure I can get by.” Rarity huffed at him.

“I hope you don’t imply stealing. That simply won’t do. You will have a respectable job, and you will make honest money.” Ryan put his hands up.

“Alright. Fine. But where will I work?” he asked.

Twilight was quick to respond. “I could let you work here.” she said. “I would love to learn more about you and your culture.” Ryan looked at her, then around at the rest of the library.

“Seems reasonable.” he replied. Twilight wasn’t done, though.

“But I can only pay you for about two days of work. Sorry.” Ryan shrugged.

“I lived off of less.” Rarity hear this and made a sound like she was offended.

“Well, I simply won’t let you live on the edge of poverty! No pony should. You may work at my boutique the rest of the time.” Ryan thought over his new jobs. They seemed alright, but if he was going to do something, he wanted to do some physical labor. To live in the forest, he would have to be fit.

“That’s great, but are there any jobs that are a bit more... physical? I would do better as a laborer.” The mares thought and spoke for a moment, leaving Ryan to himself. When they returned, they both looked happy.

“We can probably get Applejack to hire you at her family farm. They could always use a hand.” Farm work sounded like the kind of thing Ryan wanted; less talking and more movement.

“Alright. If we can speak to her to arrange something, we can get you into a new lifestyle by tomorrow!” Twilight said. Ryan nodded, neutral about his current situation. He would get money, then leave. That was all.

“Let’s head to the farm and work something out with Applejack, then.” Rarity ordered. Ryan stood up and, followed by Twilight, the three made something resembling a convoy guarding a precious diplomat and headed on over to Sweet Apple Acres.

Silence Speaks

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Silence Speaks

The best kind of friend is the one you could sit on a porch with, never saying a word, and walk away feeling like that was the best conversation you’ve ever had.” (Unknown)

They made their way to Sweet Apple Acres, where, with any luck, Ryan would have a job. He hoped that the job would pay decently; odds were, he wouldn’t actually be paid that much for library work or whatever thing Rarity did. On the way, though, he found out what that was; clothing design. At the very least, he could get an employee discount for some clothes. If he asked for some.

On their way to the farm, the trio had some mild small talk. The mares had been trying to get Ryan to tell them more, but Ryan was interested in learning about this town that he would be staying in. They had lots to tell him.

“Well, we have pretty much every service you could need.” Twilight said. It already sounded like a real estate advertisement. “We have restaurants, our own farm, books, various travel services, all kinds of fun activities, and relaxation activities.”

Rarity jumped in on that last one. “Yes, those relaxation services are absolutely essential! Without the spa, I would be much too tense to do any work.” Ryan remembered that spa from the previous day. He had no interest in it; plus, it was all females there.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t know what else you could want." Rarity admonished. "Except the mane salon, the yoga and martial arts studios, or the bar if that kind of thing appeals to you.” Two things stood out to Ryan there; a bar and a martial arts studio.

“Well, I think I may have to look into some of this.” Ryan wanted to maintain his fighting skills if he was to survive in the woods.

Ryan took his beret off again, wrapping the scarf around it to keep them together. It was much too hot for them at the moment. “If you’re hot, you should take off that jacket.” Twilight recommended. “I mean, it can’t be helpful to wear it.” Ryan waved his hand up.

“No, I’m good.” Twilight was unconvinced.

“Well, I think you should at least take off that vest. You’re wearing way too much to be comfortable.”

Rarity joined in. “Or fashionable.” Again, Ryan waved his hand dismissively.

“No, I prefer to wear it. And I’d prefer to keep my reasons to myself.” The mares looked at each other, but accepted Ryan’s reluctance. He wasn’t intent on showing them his scars and explaining the true nature of his survival gear. Besides, it wasn’t that bad. The average soldier called this kind of setup “battle rattle”. If they could handle it, Ryan figured that he should try to be able to.

Wearing his own battle rattle, Ryan simply soldiered on after the mares, who were talking to each other about whatever it was that these ponies talked about. From what Ryan could hear, he figured that it must be about famous ponies or political figures.

“So, Fancy Pants said that he would love to have me up there and see my designs! It’s huge for me!” He guessed that this Fancy Pants character must be a designer too. Twilight smiled and congratulated her friend.

“I’m so happy for you!” she said. Ryan decided to ignore the rest of their conversation.

Not too far up ahead, there was the farm that he was found on. He hoped that all was about to go well.

*********************************************************************************

Discord watched on as Ryan walked with Rarity and Twilight Sparkle. He could determine now that Ryan was publicly in town, not hiding himself the way Discord had expected. He was also interacting with the ponies, something else totally new. Discord felt a bit of happiness, but also a bit of apprehension. This had the potential to explode in Ryan’s face, if he wasn’t careful. But still, Discord knew that he could always help out by giving Ryan a little push when necessary.

Discord let the pair of eyes fall lower and cast a hearing spell so that he could hear what the mares were saying without Ryan, who stood a bit behind them. Ryan clearly wasn’t paying attention. “So do you think she’ll be alright with him being around? I mean, she hardly knows him. We hardly even know him, really.” Rarity said. Twilight held her head up, looking to the coming farmhouse.

“I’m not worried. I’m sure that she’ll find that Harkness is trustworthy.” If Discord could have blinked, he would have done so. In his mind, he laughed at the mares’ ignorance.

Oh, wow! He didn’t tell them his real name!” he thought. “They have no idea if they can trust him. Oh, this will be interesting to watch.”

And he kept on watching, seeing no particular need to intervene in anything at the moment.

*********************************************************************************

They were at the farmhouse, and Ryan looked around. He couldn’t see the Apple family anywhere, not that he minded. They could take as much time as they needed. Off to either side, he saw hundreds of apple trees. They had passed the trees that Ryan had hidden in two nights before.

“Applejack!?” Twilight called out. The mares started to walk around, while Ryan opted to lean on the wall of the house and let them find his potential bosses.

“Applejack, are you around here?” Rarity called, putting on a pair of fancy sunglasses. Inside the house, Ryan could hear movement. He decided to just wait and see who it was.

“Big Macintosh?!” Twilight called. The sounds from inside were more clear; someone was approaching the door to his right. He got off the wall and waited. Meanwhile, Rarity and Twilight were still walking and calling.

The door opened, and Granny Smith walked out. “What’s all the ruckus?” she asked, looking for the sources of the yells. Ryan stepped out.

“Good day, Ma’am.” Ryan greeted. Granny Smith gave him a big, toothy smile.

“Well, howdy there pardner!” she said, walking forward and extending a hoof. Ruefully, Ryan extended his hand and got ready for a possible broken wrist. Sure enough, when Granny Smith got a hold of his hand, he was practically being lifted off of the ground. “How’re you today?” she asked. When she finished with her vigorous handshake, Ryan nursed his hand and tried his best to smile. It was fake, but he was pretty decent at that.

“I’m doing fine.” Granny Smith’s smile faltered; she could see that Ryan was not fine. Not pressing him, though, she asked,

“What brings y’all here, eh?” She walked over to a rocking chair on her porch. Ryan followed a bit and sat on the ground.

“Well, Rarity and Twilight brought me here in the hopes that your family might hire me as a farm hand.”

Granny Smith exhaled as she sat in her chair. “Well, I think that would be a fine idea.” she said. “But you’ll need to talk to Macky an’ Applejack about that. They handle the farm costs and work and whatnot.” Ryan nodded.

“Yes, Rarity and Twilight are looking for them now.” Granny Smith chuckled.

“An’ they’re in that direction?” she asked, pointing to the southern fields.

“Eeyup.” Ryan said. She chuckled again.

“You talk just like Macky, you know that?” Ryan gave another smile, but looked away. He knew that she knew. “But he don’t talk much.” Ryan shrugged.

“Well, I don’t really start conversations myself.” he said. Granny Smith kept on chuckling.

“Back to what we were sayin’, Macky an’ AJ are in the north fields.” Ryan looked in that direction.

“Well, then. I guess we’ll just wait for the mares to come back, then.” Granny Smith laughed, and they just sat in their place, waiting and talking a bit.

After about half an hour, the mares returned. “Well, we couldn’t find them. We’ll have to look in another field.” Ryan stood and stretched.

“They’re in the north fields.” he said. Twilight and Rarity looked at him for a moment, then frowned in perfect sync. “What?” Ryan asked.

“You could have found us and TOLD us that, you know.” Rarity reprimanded. Twilight looked frustrated.

“Well, that wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.” Granny Smith laughed at this, which also reduced the frowns on Rarity and Twilight. He took a mental note. “Score one for me.” The more popular he was with these ponies, the more he could make, and the more he could make, the sooner he could become a hermit. He would have to be careful though; too popular, and he might find himself having to be social. He couldn’t risk that.

He nodded to Granny Smith, who seemed to like him enough to have him around, and he and the mares went off to the north fields to get him a working job. Ryan had always liked labor jobs; he was intelligent, sure, but he liked to do mindless labor a lot. It gave him a good respite from his thoughts. Throughout his childhood, he had always been considering difficult questions. He started his Karate before he turned four, and as such, he had been learning to fight from the development stages of his brain’s growth. Even at age ten, he knew that he had the techniques to kill.

Now, he couldn’t have fought off most adults at the time, but he knew that he would be able to eventually. From an early age, he had considered the hardest of moral questions, and it took him years to come to certain conclusions about himself and morality, and acts that fit with either. Maybe that was part of what made it easier to do... some of what he did. Had he always been terrible then, or had he always been preparing himself for tragedy? He didn’t think about it much, nor did he wish to.

They approached the field, and already they could hear the sounds of trees being kicked and apples falling. Off in the distance, three little girls could be heard playing. “Oh, here we go again.” Ryan thought gloomily. He had no desire to be around children. Their innocence was heart shattering to him. Thankfully, though, they never came over.

“Let’s go, they should be just over there.” Twilight said. Ryan and Rarity followed as Twilight led them into past the treeline and towards the sounds. Naturally, passing a treeline, Ryan grew tense and scanned the area. The memory of the landmine almost taking his leg off was still fresh in his mind.

“Harkness, are you alright dear?” Rarity asked. Ryan looked around. He was visibly tense.

“Yeah.” he said casually. “Just checking for- things.” he caught himself.

Rarity was about to ask him about it when they heard, “Howdy, Twi! Rarity, and... uh, Harkness?” Ryan looked forward. Applejack was looking at him uneasily. Ryan put his beret under his left arm and raised his right hand.

“Hey.” Applejack hadn’t seen him with so little on, and took a moment to look at Ryan.

“Y’all look real... dirty.” Ryan shrugged.

“Applejack, please! Don’t be rude to our new friend.” Rarity responded. Applejack put her hoof to her hat.

“Sorry.”

Ryan didn’t care, seeing as that wasn’t what he was here for. he was about to try to get a job on a farm; he would be dirty most of the time anyway. That was, if he even found a way to clean himself.

Ryan extended his hand out. “No worries.” he said.

Applejack took his hand cautiously in her hoof. “Alrighty then.” They broke the contact. “So what brings y’all here?” Applejack asked. Ryan was going to respond, but Twilight beat him to it.

“We were hoping that you might be willing to hire Harkness as a farmhand.” Ryan looked back at Twilight, then back to Applejack. It looked like she was taken off guard. “He doesn’t have a job, so he has no money. We’re trying to work something out for him.” Applejack looked at him, then down at the ground. She was thinking hard about this.

“Well, shoot, Ah’d be glad to, but Ah don’t know about the farm funds. Y’all’re gonna have to ask Big Mac.” The mares looked delighted, but Ryan was watching Applejack’s face as she spoke. It spoke volumes.

“But are you alright with having me around?” he asked suddenly, drawing looks from everypony there. “That’s the main question.” Applejack looked like she had been slapped and didn’t understand why, while Twilight and Rarity were looking at Ryan, surprised.

Applejack took a moment to respond. “Well, Ah don’t rightly know you. So honestly, not really.” Ryan nodded. Rarity and Twilight, though, were not happy.

“Come now, Applejack! He’s trustworthy!” Rarity explained. “We’re already hiring him at the library and boutique. You won’t even have to hire him for that long.” Applejack’s expression changed from wary to contemplative in a moment after hearing that bit of news.

“Well, Ah guess that y’all’re just here for a little.” she said, mainly to herself. “Ah suppose y’all could work here. Just go find Big Mac to talk about the terms.” Twilight and Rarity made little celebratory noises while Ryan watched Applejack. She still didn’t seem too excited.

“Relax.” he told her. “I won’t cause trouble.” She looked up and into his eyes. Ryan could see mixed feelings in hers.

“Ah know you’re bein’ honest.” she said. “Ah just don’t know what Ah should think.” Ryan nodded.

“I understand, actually.” He turned around. “Guess I’ll see you around.”

Twilight and Rarity walked over to Ryan. “Well, I guess that we just need to find Big Macintosh now.” Twilight said. “Let’s go.”

While the group walked around, following the noises of applebucking, they talked about a work schedule for Ryan. “Well, I can hire you for two days.” Twilight explained. “And I’d love to learn more about you and your society.” Ryan looked at her funny. He hadn’t expected her to want to, but she seemed like she took Ryan’s words about humanity in general to heart.

“Alright, I guess that I can work in the library for a couple days a week.” he said. Twilight let out a big squee.

“Wonderful!” she exclaimed. Ryan turned to Rarity, letting Twilight celebrate the moment.

“And how about the boutique?” Ryan asked.

Rarity put her hoof to her chin. “Well, if you work in the library for two days, and I assume the farm for two days, you could just do one day at the boutique.” She seemed not gleeful, but not terribly unhappy. “It may be just one day, but all that means is that it’ll take more time to make you all new clothes!”

Ryan sighed inwardly. He was never into fashion at all; put on a random grouping of clothes and wear it, that's how he does it. “I don’t think that’s all that necessary.” he said. Rarity gasped, causing Twilight to turn to see what was wrong.

“Not necessary?” she asked in what sounded like offense. “New clothes are exactly what you need! Just look at your clothes!” Ryan looked down at himself, as did Twilight. His clothes now were covered in dirt, stained by mud, torn, and smelled horrifying. He had to admit, if he was to not let himself die, he would have to avoid becoming a disease center.

“...Maybe.” he conceded. Twilight chuckled in front of them.

“When Rarity offers you something, you won’t be able to refuse her generosity. She won’t let you not accept it.” Ryan cocked an eyebrow at Twilight, then looked at Rarity.

“She’s right, you know.” Ryan sighed again.

“So long as I don’t have to take off my current clothes.” The mares looked at each other, seemingly suspicious of their new friend. Again, they let it go, not wanting to press Ryan for information that he would not likely give up.

The sounds of the applebucking indicated that Big Mac was just a little bit further ahead. Ryan remembered him. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other when they first met. At least, when they first met on good terms. If only Ryan could have had it like that with all of these ponies. Then, everything would be so much easier.

They went around a tree and saw the looming form of Big Macintosh, leaning forward and getting ready to kick a tree behind him. When he released the massive amount of energy in his legs at the tree, his hooves shot out like cannonballs. Upon being struck, the tree vibrated more than any tree should be able to, and every apple fell out. It was an impressive display of power.

“Big Macintosh?” Twilight said somewhat timidly. He turned and looked over at the group. Ryan stood behind the two mares and nodded to Big Mac, who nodded back silently. They would get along just fine. “We spoke to Granny Smith and Applejack about your family maybe hiring Harkness as a farmhand for a couple days a week.” Twilight explained. “Granny Smith said to talk to AJ, and AJ said to ask you, since you would know more about being able to hire him.” Big Mac looked at the mares, then at Ryan, then at them. He already knew that Harkness was a good enough guy. He had figured that from their previous interactions.

“So, will you hire him?” Rarity asked, batting her eyelashes. Big Mac just looked at her flatly, making her blush. Her charms had never really worked on him.

“Eeyup.” he said, moving to another tree to buck.

The mares shouted, “Hooray!” and ran back to hug Ryan from both his sides, something he hadn’t seen coming. It was a good thing that they hugged him really tight; his arms were kept from his weapons. After he realized his hands were trying to reach for his weapons, he made them relax.

“Awesome.” he said, trying to squeeze out of the hug. Both mares suddenly let go and Ryan almost lost his balance. They walked over to Big Mac.

“So, what days can he work?” Twilight asked. Big Mac kicked another tree, then looked up to the sky in thought.

“Thursdays and Fridays.” he said. The mares looked to Ryan, who nodded his approval.

“Can he start tomorrow?” Rarity asked. Apparently, it was Wednesday. Big Mac nodded. The mares both turned to Ryan, big smiles on their faces. “Well, I think we have a work schedule for you!” Rarity announced gleefully. “You can work at my boutique on Mondays, the library on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and here on Thursdays and Fridays.” Ryan nodded again.

“Sound good.” he said.

The mares turned to Big Mac. “Thank you Big Mac. I think you’ll like having him around.” Twilight said. Big Mac looked at Ryan again. They looked at each other, sizing each other up. This Harkness character looked like he could be either strong or weak, Big Mac had nothing to compare him to. He already knew that he wasn’t going to hurt anypony, and he didn’t seem very talkative. He would be fine.

Big Mac was clearly a beast of a pony. If ponies didn’t only eat plants, RYan would think that this guy ate a pound of chicken a day. He was huge. Other than that, Ryan could tell that he wasn’t into talking, from how he spoke to the mares before him. He was willing to hire Ryan. That was good. He could tell from Mac’s eyes that he was a peaceful guy. Though from his expression when they looked at each other, he could tell that Big Mac could see something in Ryan that he wasn’t sure about. That was fine though. Ryan wasn’t sure about himself, either.

“Alright.” Ryan said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and walked off, the two mares saying their goodbyes to Big Mac and trotting off to catch up to their human friend.

*********************************************************************************

Luna hated having to hold her Lunar Court. Even after her angry tirade at the nobles for their petty squabbles, they came to her with the stupidest of problems. Right now, they were pestering Luna about what one of them was doing with his property. “What he is doing is abominable! It will ruin our home values!” the accusing one said. The other gave his rebuttal quickly.

“My home is valuable to people like me, yours is valuable to people like you! One won’t affect the other!” Okay, Luna had to admit that he was wrong there, but the whole thing was ridiculous. She had had enough.

“If I read the law right just before you came in here,” she said. “He may do what he wishes with his property, for that is his right. You are trying to infringe upon his right, and that is not to be allowed.” There was a groan and a “yay!” from before her. “And for wasting my time, you will also pay a fine of one hundred bits for harassing this stallion.” The accuser was about to protest, but Luna held up a hoof. “I care not for petty problems. And I am writing this into law as of now.”

She looked to the law keeper next to her, who already had a pen out and ready to go. “For any case that is petty or wastes the court’s time, the accuser shall pay a fine of one hundred and fifty bits.” As the law keeper wrote it down, Luna took in the expressions of her crowd. Most were shocked. A couple were outraged. All of the guards, though, wore triumphant smiles. Especially Starstep. “Consider yourself lucky that I am not giving you the full fine. Now, begone.” She waved them all out, expecting to see one or two stay for real cases that needed to be heard. None stayed. “Ugh.” she said disdainfully. She got up from her throne. “Let us depart.” She walked next to Starstep, two joined her as she went back to their shared quarters.

Once inside, Luna jumped over to her bed and groaned into her pillow. “Why must these nobles come to me with these pathetic problems of theirs?” she asked no one. “It’s ridiculous.” Starstep took a seat next to the bed and patted Luna’s head.

“I’m sure it is.” he said. “But at least they aren’t having real problems. That much is a plus.” Luna looked up from her pillow at her guard.

“I suppose so.” She hopped off of her bed and walked over to her window, looking into the night sky. Up there, she could clearly see the special star that she had made to remember Ryan by the previous night. “At least HIS problems aren’t here.”

Sensing her sadness, Starstep walked over and put his foreleg around his princess. “I’m sure he’s at peace now, Luna.” he said, forgetting about formalities for the moment. “You should try to move on.” He had been trying to encourage her to get away from this mindset since he learned about what happened. It wasn’t easy, and he wasn’t making notable progress. Luna shook her head.

“I can’t.” she said. “It’s my fault for not helping him to get home, and not trying to stop him from his pursuit.” She leaned into him. “It was my greatest mistake, even greater than a thousand years ago.” Starstep listened to her with a heavy heart. She had never been proud of herself for that first trouble, to say the absolute least. That this was worse to her meant a lot.

Starstep hugged her tight. “You did what you thought was right.” he said. “When a pony does their best, what else is there?” Luna looked at the ground.

“There’s living to continue doing their best.” Starstep was losing ground.

“Not always.” he said. He looked up to the sky. There were no stars for his old teammates. “My team did its best, and I was the only one to come away from that battle. There was nothing else to it. They didn’t live to keep doing their best.” A single tear came down from his eye. It moved slow as molasses, and at his chin, it hung for just a moment. While it hung, the moonlight shone and glimmered in it, like the souls of the fallen were inside it. When it fell, it continued to shine, until it hit the ground and exploded outward, losing the light of the night sky. “We did our best. There was nothing else for us to do. And there was nothing else for you to do, there isn’t now, and there never will be. You have to accept the past and move on.”

Luna looked up at Starstep. She could see that, while he was totally still like a statue, tears were flowing from his eyes like a drainage pipe. He hadn’t let go of what had happened to him. He didn’t want to see Luna like that. “Please.” he pleaded. Luna put her foreleg around him and squeezed tight.

“...I will try.” They sat like that for over an hour, until they finally went to sleep, still holding each other like a child holds a teddy bear during a thunderstorm.

*********************************************************************************

Ryan awoke slowly in his trench. He let his eyelids open and close a little bit before getting up and stretching himself out. As he got up, his spine cracked over a dozen times, providing some much needed relief from sleeping on the ground two nights in a row. It wasn’t a problem, though. When he made his hidden home in the Everfree, he might even dig a ditch to sleep in. Beds are unnecessary.

He climbed out of the ditch and looked off towards Ponyville, sighing heavily. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” That’s how the phrase goes. Never before had Ryan thought it such an apt phrase for himself. Still cracking in various places on his body, Ryan donned his beret and scarf and made his way to the farm. He didn’t need Big Mac to tell him to be there early. It was a farm, after all. Of course, also being a farm, the work would be long and arduous, so Ryan might be forced to shed some of his outfit. Preemptively acting, he removed the beret and scarf and wrapped the beret in the scarf like the previous day. He stuffed them in the back of his vest and walked on, the large lump giving him a Hunchback of Notre Dame look.

It was a little before five thirty, if the light in the sky was anything to go by. The previous night, he had been looking at the stars, seeking one that he would deem as his favorite. One in particular caught his eye. It was the strangest star he had ever seen. The star twinkled brighter than any around it, but then, it would fade, and become so black that one might still see its shape in the dark blue sky. No natural star appeared that way, as far as Ryan knew, but this was a world of magic. Someone may have created the star, and it just happened to match up with Ryan.

The stars were hardly visible now, though, as the sun would soon be rising. Using what little light was available, Ryan walked through the town and went to his workplace for the next two days. Around him, he could make out the various landmarks in the town; there was the obvious Town Hall, a large well, a hospital in the distance, and then the library. A quaint little town, and he was going to a quaint little farm.

“It shouldn’t be real.” Ryan said upon finishing his inspection. “How can a world without my atrocities even exist?” The concept was so alien to him, it didn’t even seem reasonable. These ponies had had their conflicts, to be certain, but it seemed very different from his home. They were much more peaceful.

Of course, Ryan had to think about the potential downsides to this. “Overcoming hardship is what makes humanity great.” he thought. “It is how we prove ourselves worthy to exist, how we know that we deserve to live.” These ponies, or at least the vast majority of them, had no such thing. Ryan knew the he didn’t deserve to live, but that was because he hadn’t overcome his difficulties. Harris deserved to live because he had maintained his morality against Narendra. He proved himself worthy of the life he had. What was it like, never knowing what you are really capable of, when there can’t be a way to prove it? Ryan actually felt a little sorry for the ponies, in a way.

He left his thoughts there, as he had done so much recently, and left the town, heading towards the farm. On his way, he spotted the farm early on, taking in its early morning appearance. It looked the same as it did during the day, only now, there were some lights on inside. They came from two rooms; presumably, they were Applejack’s and Big Mac’s rooms.

“I guess that I’m late.” Ryan said, stepping onto the property. Though the lights were on, the barn door was closed, as if no one was there yet. “Though maybe not.” He walked on down the little road and all the way to the barn.

He approached the barn as quietly as he could. New habits that saved one’s life tended to go away with difficulty. He sat down in front of the barn door and listened. “Ah’m guessin’ that he’ll be here in a couple of hours.” a female voice said. Applejack. “He don’t exactly come off as a farmer, so Ah can’t think of any reason for him to be gettin’ up early.” If she knew, she would see why he couldn’t sleep. She continued. “Ah’ll tell him his duties when- AH!”

She yelled loudly at the sight of Ryan crouched in front of the barn door. Big Mac ran around to see the ruckus; he relaxed when he saw it was just his new farm aid.

“I’m here.” Ryan said. Applejack was catching her breath, while Big Mac was just smiling at her. She looked at him.

“Y’all shut up.” Big Mac just chuckled and walked over to the barn. Ryan stood and got out of the way, letting Big Mac open the door.

Big Mac opened the door and entered, leaving Ryan with Applejack. “Well, I’m here. So, what’s my job?” he asked. Applejack looked at him, trying to size him up.

“Well, Ah’m guessin’ that y’all don’t exactly buck trees.” she commented. Ryan shrugged.

“Meh. I can do other stuff.” Applejack nudged him to head into the barn, going in ahead of him. He followed.

“Ah guess that y’all can drag carts.” she said, pointing to a decent sized cart.

Ryan looked at it, then deadpanned, “I’m not sure I can drag that if it’s full of apples.” She looked at him.

“Ah don’t know, you might be pretty strong. Ah don’t have anything to compare you to, so we’ll just figure it out as y’all go along.” Ryan shrugged. If he died doing work, that was just what would happen. She slapped him on the back. “Ah’m sure y’all’re gonna do fine. Now, since you’re here, Ah’ll be headin’ back to bed and then into town for a day of fun with my friends.” She looked past him. “Big Mac, y’all be sure to help him if he needs it.” Big Mac nodded, and Applejack left.

Ryan and Big Mac were left alone in silence. At first, they just looked at each other. Big Mac then pointed his muzzle to the cart, which Ryan looked at, then went over to. He picked up the front, which would normally be attached to a yoke, and pushed forward. It was surprisingly easy. He turned to look at Big Mac and nodded, and the two set out to get to work.

They went out to the north fields first. Big Mac and his sister had been there the previous day, so Ryan just figured that they were going to finish what they had started. While they walked, Big Mac kept looking to Ryan, or Harkness, as he thought, who didn’t notice. From how easily he handled the empty cart, Big Mac figured that he must be strong enough for that, but not enough to buck trees. His body type didn’t seem suited for that anyway. The way his body was laid out, Harkness looked like he was meant to be able to travel in any environment and use all sorts of different items. This was on account of his hands, mostly, as they were like Spike’s, only they had five fingers. Harkness’ legs were clearly more flexible than any pony’s, as were his arms as compared to forelegs. The hair on his face and head indicated that he was mostly hairless, given its distribution.

The clothing was interesting. He had a vest on with several pieces of equipment, the only ones Big Mac recognized being the hammer and knife. He couldn’t see the blade in the sheath, but the size of the handle made it clear that it was a large blade. The hammer looked like it had been very used, having a couple of rusty spots on it. The spots were very dark red. The other pieces of equipment were very odd. They were both L-shaped, as far as he could tell. The one he could see had a wooden short length and a silvery long length. The silvery one was a tube with a little lip at the end on what Big Mac assumed to be the top. On the other end, there was a hammer-shaped piece. The items fascinated Big Mac; he would have to be sure to research them, if he ever got to the library.

Once they were at the fields, Ryan realized that Big Mac was looking at him, and more specifically, his torso. He could see from the wonder in Big Mac’s face that he was trying to figure out his weapons. When they stopped to get to work, Ryan dropped his beret and scarf on the wagon handle and moved over to a tree. Big Mac followed.

“Hmm.” Ryan said, looking up at it. Big Mac came up next to him and pointed at a red apple and nodded. Then, he pointed at a nasty looking one and shook his head. Ryan responded by nodding and moved back. Big Mac looked at him curiously as Ryan seemed to take measurements or some such. Before Big Mac could ask what he was doing, Ryan ran up to the tree and ran up it, grabbing a branch. Once there, he started picking the apples that looked good and tossing them down. Big Mac smiled and nodded, and made his way to his own tree. He would have to knock off all the apples and then sort them with his mouth. Not very pleasant, but it had to be done.

Ryan looked over at Big Mac as he worked. He had already cleared his tree, but because he had to sort the apples and individually put them into the buckets, he was going to take a while on his own. Ryan looked at his hands. He was glad to have them.

After a while, Ryan managed to get all of the apples off of his tree. It only took about forty minutes, much faster than expected. On top of that, he had put the buckets under the tree so that he could drop the good apples into them. Once finished with the tree, he dropped down and started putting his buckets in his wagon. When he finished up doing that, he looked over to Big Mac, who was starting to put his own buckets in his cart. When Big Mac finished with his, he saw Ryan looking over at him. He looked surprised that Ryan was already good to go.

He looked over to the barn and jerked his neck in that direction to say, “Bring’em to the barn.” Ryan nodded and made to drag his apples to the barn. The cart was much heavier, but he could handle it, at least for now. He looked at his watch, which he just remembered he was wearing. It was about seven thirty, and he would be here for a while longer. This was the kind of work he could do, and this was definitely the kind of guy he could work with.

The stallion and boy went to the barn in silence, already having said all that needed to be said.

*********************************************************************************

Luna was already awake when Starstep got up. She had moved off of the bed and went into her library, it seemed. “Princess?” Starstep called.

She called back. “I’m in the shower!” Starstep nodded to himself for a moment. Even a princess needed to clean herself up every so often.

While he waited for her, he decided to look through his old things, for memory’s sake. He walked over to his little pile of things in the corner. He hadn’t thought it necessary to give them an actual place, so long as they were out of everypony’s way. Luna had protested him, though. “Why don’t we get you a chest that you can put everything in? I’m sure there are spares around.” Starstep had shaken his head to that.

“No, that’s not necessary. I’ll just leave it somewhere that’s out of the way.” She wasn’t pressing the issue, but Starstep could tell that Luna was looking for that spare chest. He appreciated the concern, really, but he didn’t think he deserved it.

He sat before the pile and started to rifle through it. He wasn’t looking for anything specific, just old things that caught his eye. The first of these things was his old weapon. It was a retractable blade that he wrapped around his leg, just above the hoof, that he would will to extend or retract. The weapon had served him very well. Back in Saddle Arabia and that general region, especially in “The Triangle”, he had taken down a lot of enemy combatants using that weapon. In the pile, he also found his old armor. That single piece of gear had saved his life more times than anything else. Other than that, he encountered his old spear, his helmet, and some documents, Nothing much other than that.

Except one thing that really stood out. It wasn’t a big thing, and it wasn’t heavy. It was an old picture. He pulled it out to get a look at it. As he looked down at it in his hooves, he felt his eyes growing warm and wet. It was a picture of his team back in The Triangle, before the Nighthawks. Meteor, Stratofortress, Falcon, Eagle, Blazer, and himself. They all got their call signs from different aspects about themselves, but since they were long gone, that wasn’t really important. Starstep held the picture close to his heart for a moment, like it would bring his fallen friends back to him. He hadn’t been there when Stratofortress kicked the bucket. He had been hit by an explosion and sent home. He was DOA.

Meteor had been killed in battle, right alongside Starstep. He was a hardass at times, but he did care for his team. Falcon and Eagle appropriately died together, having been fireteam buddies. They were killed after Starstep and Blazer left the 35th Joint Strike Force battalion and joined up with the Nighthawks. And lastly, Blazer, who wasn’t yet confirmed KIA. He was still considered MIA. Starstep knew he was gone.

When he heard hoofsteps coming from the library area, he quickly stuffed the old photo back in the pile and wiped off his face. “Are you ready to face the day, your highness?” he asked, looking away. He heard her walk up behind him.

“Only if you are.”

She knew what was wrong. She could always tell if he was feeling alright, and right now, he definitely was not. She put her hoof on his back and rubbed. “Are you?” she asked. Starstep looked up.

“Yes.” he responded, barely able to hide his sorrow and loss. Luna felt truly terrible for him. She had lost her friend recently, but he had lost all of his friends. To top it off, the “nobles’ of Canterlot treated him horribly.

“You are not.” she asserted. She moved up and sat next to him. “...Is it the past that bothers you?” Starstep just nodded, closing his eyes and trying to stay calm. “A wise guard told me to let go of the past. It’s something that I think you may need help with as much as me.” She stroked his neck with her hoof. “And we will always have each other.” Starstep actually smiled a little bit.

“I know.” he said. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

They sat there for a while, their presences comforting each other in their troubled lives. Luan knew that there was nothing she could do about Ryan being gone; she just had to move on. Starstep, though, could have something. Luna knew that Blazer was alive and being held captive. She wanted to see Starstep happy and free of his guilt, and she knew that the only way for him to let go of the past was if she could release his guilt. And the best way to do that was to get Blazer.

She looked out the window, hoping that some miracle would come along to show her the way.

OnThe Rocks

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On the Rocks

All the water in the world, however hard it tries, cannot sink the smallest ship unless it gets inside, and all the evil in the world, the blackest kind of sin, can never hurt you in the least, unless you let it in.” (Unknown)

Ryan was walking home to his trench at about half past six. The first day on the farm had been easy enough. He climbed trees, took the good apples, put them into a cart, and dragged the cart to the barn. It was mind numbing and repetitive; just what Ryan had hoped for. The day had gone uneventfully, just him and Big Mac doing their work. The second day was nice too, nothing happening. Now, Ryan was walking to his trench with a bag of seventy-five bits. He had no idea if that was the going rate for labor, but he trusted Mac to pay him what he was owed. And even if he didn’t, Ryan could just keep working. This job required absolutely minimal interaction with the ponies.

Ryan was wondering where exactly he would store his money. He would have to look for a bank over the weekend. For now, though, the bag of bits was getting heavy. His best bet was to spend it. His stomach growled. “I could always buy myself some dinner.” That would lighten the sack a bit. He looked around; there were only a few restaurants that served food he would eat in town. Deciding on which to attend wasn’t much of a problem. “I think I missed dinner yesterday.” he said to himself, thinking back. He still had to get into the swing of his plan.

Choosing to spend some of his money, he walked through town looking for a place to eat. Then he remembered that Rarity mentioned a bar. “The best way to forget is to be incapable of remembering things.” He looked around, eventually finding the booze house toward the end of the town. He looked at its sign. The Salt Lick: Whiskey, Rum, and More. It seemed good enough, so Ryan went up to the door. It was a classic, old west style push door that didn’t touch the ground. Before entering, Ryan listened inside to hear if anything was undesirable about this place. He heard nothing but the sounds of hooves on wood and mugs hitting tables. “Perfect.” he thought. He pushed through the door.

As soon as he entered, everypony in the room was staring at him silently. Most put their drinks down to get a look at him. Ryan tipped his beret to them and slowly walked in. When most of them went back to their drinks, he felt relieved.

Definitely perfect.” Around him, none of the stallions (there were no mares) seemed to care about his presence. They had probably already heard about him, anyway, so why should they care? There were a couple who were looking at him still, sure, but they were just curious. They wouldn’t approach him.

Ryan took a stool at the bar and sat himself down. The bartender, a unicorn, noticed him and immediately walked over. “What can I get you, stranger?” he asked, wiping off a glass with his magic. Ryan looked up at the rack, trying to decide on a drink. He had no idea what might be different about these compared to human drinks.

“How much is a shot of each thing on the bottom shelf?” Ryan asked. The bartender turned around to check.

“They’re all about two bits.” he said. As the bartender turned back around, Ryan looked past him to count the drinks; there were about twenty different bottles on the bottom shelf. Forty bits.

“Give me one shot of everything on the bottom.” he said, pulling his bit bag. He gave the bartender forty bits.

“Sampling, are we?” he asked.

Ryan nodded. “I’m new.” The bartender nodded knowingly as he retrieved five shot glasses and filled them up with different straight drinks.

“Ah.” He set the glasses in front of Ryan and moved away. “Drink slowly; you’ll be drinking a lot. And just call me over when you’re ready for the next five.” Ryan nodded, pulling up a glass and sniffing it.

“Hmm...” It didn’t smell fantastic, but he had never exactly been a connoisseur of alcoholic beverages. He had never even liked them. He just wanted to know which drink was the least bad to get drunk on and forget his past.

He downed the first shot instantly, and regretted it faster than he drank it. The stuff was truly abysmal. He practically convulsed in his seat, it was so nasty. Setting the glass down, he looked to where he had seen this drink come from; Budyonny Light Lime. “Augh.” he said, pushing the glass away. He thought that he knew how to drink, taking time between shots. He decided to be more careful about how quickly he drinks each shot.

“Next.” He looked at the drink warily. It was the same general color. Pulling the small glass up to his lips, he said, “Here we go.” He took a sip, and was less revolted than the first time. It was still bad, though. This one came from Budyonny Light Platinum. Somehow, this Budyonny group had figured out how to turn platinum into mercury. Ryan moved on, checking each one to avoid more Budyonny.

The next one came from a bottle labeled Kiger Mustang. “Sounds promising.” Ryan knew better than to trust advertisement promises. Or promises in general. He sipped the drink, and nearly spat it out. It was worse than Budyonny. He moved onto the next drink. Giara Lager, it was called. Ryan had never drank a lager before. “To new things.” He sipped the shot, expecting a terror of a drink. It was actually not that bad. “Hmm.” He would remember this, if he didn’t find himself liking a higher shelf drink better. Which was unlikely. Moving onto the last one, he looked at the label of its home bottle; Malopolski; Straight From Stalliongrad. He didn’t even touch that glass, except for pushing it away. He knew what to expect from a name like that; high alcohol content, and bottom shelf quality. It was on the bottom shelf, after all.

He called the bartender over. “Next round.” he said. The bartender looked at the drinks.

“You gonna drink this one?” he asked. Ryan shook his head. Shrugging, the bartender took the glasses away to be cleaned. While he did that, Ryan took a look at the next round. They were all the same brands.

“Yo, bartender.” Ryan called. he had just finished his cleaning of the glasses. “I still have thirty bits of drink left, right?” he asked.

The bartender nodded. “Yeah. And call me Oktoberfest.” Ryan nodded.

“Alright Oktoberfest. Mind if I move up a shelf?” Oktoberfest smiled.

“Sure. What’ll you have? Each drink is three bits a shot.” Ryan thought. He could get ten shots.

“What do you have?” he asked. Oktoberfest moved over.

“We got Samolaco Adams, Fouta’s, Applejack Daniel’s, Orlov’s, and Friesian’s.” Ryan looked over at the bottles. There were several variants of each.

“Give me two random shots of each.” he said. Oktoberfest nodded and filled up the five shot glasses.

“Here you go. One of each now, another of each next.” Ryan nodded his thanks and looked down at his drinks. These looked more suited for human consumption.

After finishing each one, Ryan concluded that his favorite of them was Samolaco Adams, followed closely by Applejack Daniel’s. The others could go drain into a ditch. “Yo.” Ryan slurred a bit. Oktoberfest heard this and immediately came over.

“You good?” he asked. Ryan nodded.

“Yeah.” Oktoberfest could clearly see that Ryan was exiting the stage of being buzzed.

“Next grouping.” Hesitantly, Oktoberfest got Ryan his next five shots, which Ryan finished quickly. Same conclusion as before.

Ryan sat on his barstool, silently trying to let his mind turn itself off. It wasn’t working too well, though. His thoughts kept on going to the past. The image of the burned little girl was carved into his mind. Catherine’s and Joey’s sobbing echoed in his ears like thunder in the mountains. Nadine’s screams pierced his heart like a bullet.

“Gimme more.” Ryan said, pulling out more bits. He still had thirty-five left. Oktoberfest looked at him.

”I think you’ve had enough.” Ryan looked up at the bartender.

Oktoberfest was no less than disturbed by what he saw in the human’s eyes. He had to take a step back to fully take it in. This colt had the eyes of someone who had lost everything. A lot like those soldiers who came back from the Southern Griffon Colonies. In his eyes, Oktoberfest saw nothing but pain, brought on by losing something dear to him. This colt had seen things that no pony should ever see.

“Oh.” Oktoberfest admitted. This colt was trying to forget. Against his better judgment, he went and got two more shots. “Here you go. Ten bits.” These came from just under the top shelf. Ryan pulled out the coins and tossed them onto the bar.

“Thanks, bfro.” he slurred. Oktoberfest walked away, keeping an eye on Ryan.

He downed the two shots in an instant, thus totally removing his coherence. He sat there for a minute to let it fully take effect.

Ryan tried to stand. When he got his feet on the ground, he had to use the stool to steady himself. Holding himself up on the stool, he blinked twice and looked to Oktoberfest. “Thhanks, Ahktahberfst.” he said. Oktoberfest looked at him, pity ruling over all his features.

“What’s your name, colt?” he asked. Ryan thought about it. What was his name?


“Hhhhhharknesh.” He turned around and moved away from the stool, teetering his way to the door. “Harkness. Right.” He was going to keep an eye on this guy. No doubt he would come back.

Ryan stumbled and fell his way out of the bar, only drawing a couple of looks from the other customers. They didn’t care; they all had their own problems. The only ones who were watching stopped caring as soon as Ryan was gone.

He looked around the street, trying to remember where exactly he was. He knew that he was in Ponyville. But in proximity to what? Ryan tried to get his bearings. “I shee that,” he said, pointing at a well. “And that.” He pointed at a normal looking home. “So I’ll go... this way.” He started to drag his feet and teeter on down the street. The whole way, he had to squint to keep the brightness of the street lamps from blinding him. “Damn lights.” He kept on going. The dust from the street was collecting on his boots, which were looking exceptionally dirty. Rarity would have his ass if she saw him like this. His hair was messy, as always, but his clothes smelled and looked like they were seven years old.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ryan saw movement in an alley to his left. He pulled his 1911. “Who’s thar?” he demanded. No one responded. Ryan stood in his spot for a moment, watching. When nothing happened, he started to move away, still watching. “Don’ follow me.” he ordered. Whatever may have been in the shadows obeyed, because Ryan didn’t see anything as he moved away. He calmed down. “Safe.” He kept walking.

Not fifteen feet later, he heard scuffling feet behind him. Nothing in Ponyville that would be out this late had feet. He spun around, bringing up his gun again. “I said don’t follow me!” he shouted. Before he could look for the source of the noise, a light turned on in the house next to him. “Shit!” Ryan ran, not wanting to be caught drunk this late at night. About thirty feet away, he stopped and hid behind a crate, looking behind him. A mare came out of the house, looking around tiredly. After a short moment, she went back inside, and a few more moments later, the lights turned off.

Ryan got up and looked back in the area. Still nothing. He holstered his weapon. “I’m watching... you.” He turned and walked away, forgetting to watch behind him.

He soon forgot about whatever may have been stalking him and found himself approaching a large, circular building. He tried to read the sign. No good. “Mmm... Bou-tique?” He tried to remember something about this place. He recognized it, but from where, he couldn’t remember. Then it hit him. “Rarity.” he said. He took off, not wanting to risk her seeing him, but tripped on nothing and hit his face on the ground. “Ow!” he yelped. He sat up on his rear. Putting his hand to his nose, he felt hot blood flowing from it. “Damn.” he said. At least he didn’t have to go to work tomorrow.

He stood up, a little more alert after potentially breaking his nose, and looked around. Off in the distance, he could see a familiar tree. “Trench.” he said single-mindedly. he just needed to get to the trench. Then, he could sleep, and forget everything.

Before he even knew it, he was at his trench. There was the tree, the grass, the familiar sky, and the trench itself. He looked down. “How do I get down from here?” he asked. “Meh.” he stepped off his little ledge and into the trench, letting himself fall to the ground. It was farther than he thought, and when he hit, he landed hard on his side. “Ahgh.” It hurt a lot. But at least he was in his trench.

Not feeling up to anything else, Ryan let himself slip away into the torment that was his night’s sleep.

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Ryan woke up with the worst headache. Sitting up, he went to rub his temples. He had never prided himself on being anything other than a lightweight.

Head throbbing and body aching, Ryan got up out of his trench. He fell back down. “Uhhgh.” he said. He moved to sit against the wall of his trench. “What did I drink last night?” he wondered. He could hardly remember. Something like Samolaco something or whatever. He would have to remember that. He hadn’t slept so long in a while. Six and a half hours of sleep was nice, even if brought on by comatose.

Ryan looked at his watch. It read seven o’ six. It was still early. “Maybe I’ll just sit here for a while.” And that he did.

*********************************************************************************

Discord looked down on the boy with a heavy heart. It hurt him to see this kid like this. From what he had garnered before, he wasn’t a drinker in any sense of the word. Now, the boy was already deciding to get wasted, just to try to forget everything the had happened. Only a few ponies had ever suffered like that.

Discord sent his invisible eyes down to be next to Ryan and took in the sight before him. Ryan had dried drool on the side of his face, hidden only by all the dirt that was covering his face. His breathing seemed labored, not from sickness, but just from being tired. His clothes were somehow looking worse now than they had before. Out of nowhere, Ryan rolled up his sleeves.

Must be hot.” Discord thought. He looked at the boy’s arms. Yup, still scarred and horrible. Ryan was just looking down at them, silent and seemingly objectively.

The boy reached to his side for his 1911. He had one empty magazine for it and two full, one of the latter being loaded. Discord watched worriedly as Ryan pulled it from its worn out holster and looked down at it. For a minute, he just sat there, looking at it.

What are you doing?” Disord wondered. Ryan ran his fingers across the top of the gun.

“I’ve done a lot of terrible things.” he said to himself. Tears rimmed his eyes. “There’s not a thing I can do to fix it.” He pulled the gun up and stared down the barrel. Discord panicked.

NO!” he mentally shouted. He wanted to move forward to stop him, but there were two things in the way; one, he couldn’t use too much magic, or he would be discovered. Two, he wasn’t actually present. He could only observe as the boy stared down the barrel of the .45. But he didn’t pull the trigger. “What?” Discord was relieved, but confused. The boy was pointing the gun at himself, but not pulling the trigger.

He wanted to. He wanted to so bad. Pulling that trigger would end his suffering, at least for the time being. A few moments of peace was worth an eternity of suffering to him in that moment. But he couldn’t pull the trigger. He tried to force his finger back, but it refused to go. There was something stopping him.

Promise me you won’t let yourself die.

That was what Harris made him promise, and he had given him that promise. He said to his best friend in their shared time of greatest need that he would never do it. But why was that stopping him? If he was dead, then his promise would be just as meaningless as it was now. Ryan cried in his trench, letting the gun and his hand fall to the ground.

“Goddammit.” he said.

Discord was relieved. He was relieved to the point where he would have gone up to Celestia and bowed down to her for intervening, even though he knew that she hadn’t. He looked back at the boy. “Maybe there is hope.” With that, he ended his prying, letting Ryan have some time to himself.

*********************************************************************************

The morning had been uneventful for Celestia. There were few nobles coming to her with their ridiculous cases, something she was grateful for. She had heard from her guards that Luna wrote up a law that fined ponies who brought forth petty cases. She would have to thank her for that later.

Still, though, now she was just sitting on her throne, waiting for something to come by. She had no political or international business today, so she was totally free. But she had to sit on her throne waiting for a case to be brought forth for at least one hour, unless something else important happened to come by. She sighed. “It’s times like these that I wish something interesting would happen.”

Like she had pressed a button, a scroll suddenly appeared before her. She recognized the seal; it was from her faithful student, Twilight Sparkle. Celestia looked at the room’s clock before opening the scroll. It was half past seven. “What are you doing up so early on a weekend?” she wondered. Maybe it was some kind of emergency? That would be exciting! Something urgent must have occurred, there could be no other reason for this. Celestia opened the letter.

Dear Princess Celestia,
Something interesting has occurred here in Ponyville. Celestia felt childish excitement in her veins. “Seems promising.” she said to herself. We have a new resident here. He’s really interesting. He’s not a pony, and when he told me his species, I couldn’t find any records of it. I would have sent you my notes on him, but they’re long and, at times, not easy to read. Wait. Was she referring to a male? I would love for you and Princess Luna to come down and met him. He’s pretty nice, kind of shy though. He’s reluctant to tell us about himself, though that will come with time. I already sent an invitation to Shining Armor and Cadance, and my parents. And no, before you ask yourself, it isn’t like that. Celestia smiled sheepishly to herself. She was thinking exactly that. So if you can come down Tuesday or Wednesday, that would be perfect. Any time is great, but I just thought it would be nice to have the whole family down together :). I think you would be interested in him.
Your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle

When Celestia finished the letter, she put her hoof to her chin. Tuesday wouldn’t work, she had an actual case planned to be heard that day. The next day would be fine, though. She pulled up a paper and quill and wrote up a letter.

I would be happy to meet this new friend of yours. He sounds interesting. And yes, I did think exactly what you thought I was thinking. I can’t wait to meet him. Your teacher, Princess Celestia.

She read over the short letter. “This will be interesting.” she said to herself. With a wave of her horn, she sent the letter away to be belched out by Spike.

Sine something significant had occurred, she could officially leave the throne room and be off to her chambers to do her own thing. What that thing was, she had yet to figure out. Maybe she could prank her guards or something. “I have nothing else to do.” it would be fun, so why not? She had to think hard about what to do. She could mess with their physical appearance, or have fun messing with their minds. “What would Luna do?” she wondered. She could always ask. Her sister was something of a prankster. “Yeah. I’ll go ask her.” Plus, she had to check her sister. She had been gloomy as of late.

Celestia went off to Luna’s chambers, taking her slow, flowing pace as usual. The guards would always salute when she passed, and he staff bowed to her. “I wish this place wasn’t so stuffy all the time.” she thought. Her sister had the right idea, and knew how to go about it. Her return had been good for the castle. “It’s good to have you back, Lulu.” She felt a warm, fuzzy feeling in her chest as she approached the doors to her sister’s chambers. “So very good.” There were no guards outside her doors. Odd.

“Luna?” Celestia whispered. Putting her ears to the door, she could hear snoring from inside. She smiled to herself, using her magic to conjure up a camera. Luna was always flustered when Celestia got a picture of her sleeping. Slowly, Celestia opened the door.

When she saw her sister and her sister’s private guard sleeping on the bed together, she blinked twice and poofed the camera away. She wasn’t expecting this. “It seems Lulu has found somepony very special.” Starstep was certainly special to her, but not necessarily in THAT way. Still, Celestia felt more warmness and fuzziness. “They’re so cute.” she whispered. The guard was draped over Luna, like he was still protecting her from harm, even in his sleep. Celestia watched as Luna rolled over, putting the guard next to her.

Then, Celestia got an idea. Smirking mischievously, she tip-hooved her way over to the bed. Using her magic, she lifted herself onto the bed, on the other side of Starstep, and laid down. Barely stifling her laughter, she poked Luna and Starstep firmly on their noses, waking them.

Luna wasn’t really conscious enough to register what was happening, but Starstep was already swiveling around to confront his enemy. He froze when he saw that it was his other princess. Mouth agape, he tried to make sense of what was happening. Before he could speak, Celestia pulled Luna, on the other side of him, really tight and close, jolting her awake.

“Starstep, what are you-” She stopped when she saw her sister, looking at her with a devilish grin. Starstep, in between them, was trying to stammer out some sort of coherent response to his sandwich situation. Looking at him, then her sister, Luna also donned an evil grin. She pulled on Starstep, squeezing him between her and her sister. “But Tiaaa~!” she said. “He’s MY guard!” Starstep blushed furiously.

“But I gave him to you! Can’t I have him back for just a bit?”

Starstep frantically looked at his princesses, trying to figure out what was happening. “What’s going to happen to me?!” was his biggest fear. He felt the two princesses hug him tighter.

“I know!” Luna announced. “Why don’t we share him? We have time.” Starstep’s jaw exploded open, not a sound escaping from his shocked maw.

“Sounds great.” Celestia replied.

Starstep heard a bit of a barely stifled giggle fit from both princesses. He knew now. “Three can play at this game.” he thought, trying to think of something to say. He got it!

“Well, I hope you two have serious stamina. Those years in the guard have made me really... stout.” The two princesses looked down at him, their faces turning read. They looked at each other. It was two on one; they should have this in the bag.

“Well, let’s hope that your horn is as magical as either of ours.” Celestia responded. Luna blinked; she had to admit, she wouldn’t have thought of that.

“Well, I do have this magic wand that I’ve been practicing with.” The implication alone turned both princesses a deep shade of red. “And I’d love to test out my skills. Maybe experiment-” Luna jumped up, followed shortly by her sister. Starstep laughed hard. “I think I win this round, your highnesses.” he victoriously proclaimed. The two princesses looked at each other. No, they weren’t about to lose.

Starstep got up and hopped off the bed. “I think I’ll go take a shower.” he said, still laughing.

Luna hopped up next to him. “I’ll join you.” Celestia went to the other side.

“Me too.” Hmm. Starstep wasn’t going to win without a fight, it seemed.

“Well, so long as you don’t mind my ‘magazines’.” Celestia waved a dismissive hoof.

“Oh, you won’t be needing those.” she said. “I heard about my sister’s little dance.” Luna blushed, and Starstep did a double take. How had she heard about that? “I’m sure we can do something... together.” Starstep felt himself go hot in the face, and, in a panic, ran for the bathroom. He shut the door behind him as he entered. No need for his bosses to see THIS.

Luna and Celestia were in hysterics on the ground in the library where Starstep left them. They had won the battle; now, the rest of the campaign could be under way. Luna got up and unsteadily approached the now locked bathroom door.

“Would you really leave us hanging, Starstep?” she asked. “I mean, I guess that we aren’t the only ones left hanging, but still. We deserve just as much attention!” Inside, Luna could hear Starstep’s flustering about. At least, that’s what she told herself it was.

She walked back to her sister, who was just recovering from their shared bout of laughter. She sat before her sister, who was just getting up. “That was fun.” she said excitedly. “Do you do this often?” Luna nodded.

“All the time. Sometimes, he wins, though.” Celestia nodded.

“And are you two..?” she cocked her head sideways, smiling. Luna knew what she was implying.

“No, we aren’t. He’s my best friend, and we’re comfortable with each other.” Celestia nodded knowingly. She could have some fun with her sister, this time.

“Well, I think he would be wonderful anyhow. He’s sharp, witty, and can clearly hold out for quite a while.” She watched her little sister’s face slowly change as she realized what Celestia just said. It went from innocent thoughts, to dirty mind in no time at all.

“Eww!” she said, squirming. Celestia chuckled.

“And from the looks of it when he ran off, I’d say-”

Luna cut her off. “I saw it too!” she said.

“So you already know what he’s capable of!” Luna flailed her forelegs about.

“NO!” she shouted, making Celestia laugh.

“Besides, when we were on either side of him, one could clearly tell that he’s in good shape. In EVERY way.” Her little sister tried to become tiny, like that would save her from her elder sister’s torment. It didn’t work, though. “And he seemed eager enough.”

Luna was putting her hooves over her ears to escape her sister’s awkward words. Starstep was her guard and best friend. This was too weird for her to think about. “I assure you, Tia, I am not currently looking for that.” she said. “And he can... ‘take care’ of himself for now.” Celestia nodded.

“For now.” she repeated. Luna realized what she said and buried herself in her legs again. Celestia patted her head. “We all have needs, little sister. Be they deep or... ‘deep’.” Her sister whimpered. “And you can deal with them now or later. Whenever.” Celestia got up to go to her own chambers. It would be fun to do that with a guard less experienced in it.

“Oh, before I leave.” she said, getting her sister to look up. “Twilight met a new friend in Ponyville, and she would like us to meet him. Her parents and Shining Armor and Cadance will be there. Are you free on Wednesday?” she asked. Luna thought. A normal question was a welcome respite.

“I don’t believe so.” she said. “I need to take care of something the needs my full attention, and it will take some time. I wish I would go, but alas, I cannot.” Celestia nodded.

“I understand.” She turned to walk away, but not before getting her sister to squirm one last time. “And remember: Guards are there to provide protection!” She took off, several pillows flying out of the room after her.

*********************************************************************************

Ryan was still in his ditch at around nine when he heard several young girls’ voices just over the edge of his home. “Not now.” he whined to himself.

“We can get our cutie marks digging for buried treasure!” one yelled. She had a distinct southern twang.

“As opposed to what?” another asked. She sounded impatient and fast-paced. “Digging for non-buried treasure?” They argued for a minute after that, giving Ryan a few moments to figure out what to do.

He started to crawl away, hoping that he would get away from the children. It wasn’t that he hated kids. He just couldn’t handle them and had no desire to ever be around them on his own. “Hey, Harkness!” Applebloom shouted. Ryan winced at the sound of his fake name. He had been caught.

“Heey.” he said slowly, turning around in fear. He thought they would cannonball him again. Instead, though, the three fillies hopped into the trench.

“What’re y’all doin’ in here?” Applebloom asked. The other two looked at him curiously.

“I was, umm...” He tried to think fast. “... looking for stuff to sell?” He remembered that he spent forty bits the previous night. “I only have thirty-five bits left for the weekend, so I was hoping to find something valuable.” He wore a perfect poker face as he spoke. He had the fillies fooled.

They each walked up to him, getting around him, inspecting him. He felt uncomfortable with this. “What do you want, exactly?” They all stared at him silently. The little white one spoke up. Sweetie Belle, he believed.

“So, you’re, like, from really far away, right?” she asked. Ryan nodded. “So you know about a lot of stuff and... stuff.” Ryan thought about this for a moment. He did know plenty, but it was, perhaps, not all meant for ones so young.

“Yeah.” he replied.

His wariness quickly turned to terror as he watched the pupils of each of the fillies grow increasingly large. “So can you help us get our cutie marks?” Scootaloo asked excitedly. Ryan looked at them.

“What’s a cutie mark?” he asked, unfamiliar with the term. The little fillies gasped.

“They’re the marks on our flanks that show what our special talent is!” Scootaloo explained. “We’ve been trying to get ours for the longest time! Don’t you have one?” Ryan shook his head.

“No. I just figured that they were brands.” He had seen the marks, but never questioned them. It wasn’t his place to question their culture. Applebloom looked at him, cocking her head to the side.

“What’s a brand?”

Ryan changed the subject. “Well, I’d love to help you, but I have certain matters that I need to attend to.” As he got up and climbed out of the trench, the fillies followed him.

“Can we come?” they asked. Ryan turned around.

“No. I-” He stopped and looked down at them. They were all giving him massive puppy eyes, any sunlight touching their eyes being swallowed by the black of their pupils. They were pouting their lips, making them quiver ever so slightly. Ryan couldn’t tell if they would cry or not; he wasn’t about to risk it. He sighed loudly. “Fine.” The fillies leapt into the air.

“YAY!”

Ryan walked off, three little fillies in tow, towards the town, hoping to find whatever he would look for. Rarity had mentioned Martial Arts. He could find something like that.

They got to the town in relative silence, something Ryan was thankful for. He was never very good at working with kids, unless there was an experienced person nearby to guide him a bit. These three were being respectful, though. “Now where is a dojo?” Ryan wondered. He wandered pretty much aimlessly, hoping to just stumble across what he was looking for. Eventually, the fillies grew bored with this.

“What’re you looking for?” Applebloom asked.

Ryan kept his reply short and curt. “A dojo.”

Applebloom’s eyes widened, and she took on an awe filled expression. “You do Karate?” she asked.

Ryan stopped. “Yes.” he replied, surprised. He had never thought that this place would specifically have Karate; that seemed like the kind of thing that would just come from Humans and Okinawa. “I have for a while.” He walked on, causing the fillies to hurry to catch up.

“How long have you been doing it?” Sweetie Belle asked. Ryan looked left and right; no dojo yet.

“Around thirteen years.” He made it sound like nothing.

“No way!” Scootaloo shouted disbelievingly. “That’s longer than we’ve been alive!” Ryan nodded.

“Yah. I’m a dangerous fellow.” he said, looking back at the girls. They weren’t even fazed by his last sentence.

“There it is!” Scootaloo announced, getting Ryan to look forward. Sure enough, there was a classic, old style dojo before him. From inside, little could be heard, save for the sound of scuffling hooves on padded flooring.

“Alright, I’m heading in to check it out.” he said, walking forward in an effort to leave the fillies behind.

It didn’t work, though, and they just followed him in. He stopped just after the door, noticing that there was a class going on. He didn’t want to interrupt, so he sat down and watched on from the side. “Let us begin.” the teacher in the front said. Ryan watched the class for a time. After about ten minutes, he stood back up.

Another less than legit dojo.” He had encountered them before. You can always tell if a dojo is really legitimate about its teaching of whatever Martial Art it does by watching a class. If there are kids under the age of ten who are black belts, the dojo isn’t legit. If there are weapons in the hands of little kids, the dojo isn’t legit. If the instructor has a terrible air of arrogance, the dojo, even if legit in its teaching of a style, should not be attended. This dojo had all of those things. “Nnope.” Ryan said, exiting the illegitimate dojo. The fillies followed, confused.

“Why did y’all leave?” Applebloom asked. “That’s the only Karate dojo we’ve got.” Ryan stopped at a bench and sat down, disappointed in his finding.

“That wasn’t a legit dojo.” he began to explain. “That guy is more about money then the Art. Those little ones? They should not have had freakin’ BLADES in their hands. That’s some dangerous shi- stuff.” He barely caught himself. “The guy came off as a... jerk. And those kids weren’t studying long enough to have black belts. I studied for nine years before I earned mine. And I still had to pass my Test.” The fillies were about to explode from the number of questions they had. “And I’m not going to take the time to explain all of that to you. There isn’t enough time. And Black Belt Testing is secretive anyhow.”

“Secretive, huh?” a raspy voice suddenly said from behind. Ryan spun around; it was the rainbow-manes, cyan pegasus.

“Rainbow Dash, right?” Ryan asked. She puffed her chest out.

“The one and only.” She was way too confident.

“Put that chest away; you don’t have anything to show on it.” Rainbow furrowed her brow at Ryan instantly, not really understanding what he was saying.

“Well, you’re new. I’ll let that pass.” She floated over the bench and sat next to Ryan. “So, what’s this about your ‘Secret Black Belt Testing’?” she asked. Ryan closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Not telling you.”

Scootaloo, and then her friends, also got up onto the bench, on the other side of Ryan. “Can’t you tell us a little?” they asked. They tried the faces again; not this time.

“Nope. I’m not moving on this. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he stood up. “I need to figure out how to eat this weekend on thirty-five bits. Where’s the supermarket?” he asked. The mare and fillies looked at him strangely.

“Supermarket? There’s a food mart, but supermarkets are usually only in big cities.” Ryan nodded, satisfied with the answer.

“Good enough.” He turned around and walked away.

But not without being followed. “So, you’re from a city?” Rainbow asked, trotting up next to him.

“No, actually. A suburb, not too far from... gosh, three cities? I don’t know. I know of two, though.” Rainbow nodded slowly.

“Hmm.” They walked together in silence for a moment, the fillies just catching up. “So... have you ever heard of the wonderbolts?” Rainbow asked. Ryan shook his head.

“Can’t say I have.” Behind him, Ryan heard the three fillies all gasp. Rainbow didn’t seem surprised though.

“They’re the best fliers in Equestria!” she shouted, making Ryan cover his ear. “And I’m gonna be one of them!” Ryan looked at Rainbow Dash, trying to determine if it was arrogance or real potential. There was a little of both.

“Well, that’s makes two of us hoping to be the best.” he said, drawing an interested look from all present.

“And what do you want to be?” Rainbow asked.

Ryan looked at her, then to the fillies. That was a stupid mistake on his part. They were all looking at him expectantly, like he was going to share some earth shattering secret with them. Sure, it might be just that, but he wasn’t about to tell them. “I aim to be a guy who won’t tell you.” he said. The girls all blinked twice and stopped, letting Ryan have a moment to himself. That, however, was not worth what he got.

“What d’ya mean, not tell us?” Rainbow asked, getting in front of him and up in his face. “What, you don’t trust us?” she asked. Ryan stopped and furrowed his own brow; this was not something he felt like dealing with.

“My life, my choice. And honestly? Why should I?” Rainbow looked like she was hit with a brick; she floated down to the ground, angrily trying to respond. The fillies looked up at him; Sweetie Belle was on the verge of tears. “In my recent past, I have learned not to make attachments and not to trust strangers. That’s just it. And I aim to keep to those lessons.” He pushed his way past Rainbow, who was looking on from behind as he left.

The fillies encircled Rainbow. “Wait, what could have taught him that?” Sweetie Belle asked, her question getting Rainbow to calm down a bit. Applebloom put a hoof to her mouth.

“Remember how we found him?” she asked. Rainbow seemed to be the only pony who didn’t get the implication.

“What?” she asked. Scootaloo looked up at her idol.

“We think he may have been ATTACKED, and that’s what hurt him.” Rainbow let the possibility sink in for a second.

If he was attacked...” She didn’t need to finish her thought. She turned around and flew down the road, looking for Ryan.

She saw him not a second after takeoff and flew towards him. “HARKNESS!” she shouted. Ryan turned; he knew the voice, but what surprised him was that she remembered his “name”. What surprised him more, though, was the body slam she did to him as soon as he turned around. He lay on the ground under her, groaning.

“Ow.” he said. Rainbow looked down at him.

“Were you attacked? Is that how you nearly died?” It took a moment for Ryan to register the question, but when he did, alarms started going off in his head. he didn’t want that information out there.

“No?” he replied, trying to sound confused. It seemed like it was working. “Where did you get that idea? And please get off.” Ryan put his hands on either side of Rainbow and lifted her off of him, causing her to yelp as he did. She hadn’t expected him to be that strong.

Rainbow shrunk a little; she hated being handled. “Come on, you must know. And you’ve gotta admit, it makes sense.” Ryan gave her that, but that wouldn’t stop him from making them feel ridiculous about it.

“Yeah, it does make sense, but it’s not what happened. I hurt myself by accident through means that you won’t get because you don’t have technology.” Rainbow frowned. “And now, I’m going to go. Please, leave me be.” He turned and walked off again, leaving a very curious Rainbow Dash behind in his wake.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Ryan went back to the bar that night. He had only a little money left, so he would just have to pick the highest content drink he could find.

Before heading over to the bar, he decided to stop and at least try to think. He went out to the park and searched for a bench or spot on the ground he could sit on. He found no bench to sit on, but he saw a little pond, which he sat beside. Before him, the small pond was still as death, perfectly reflecting the shining moon and twinkling stars in all their astonishing glory. The night sky was flawless in the reflection on the water, only the light from the stars and moon and the blackness of the eternity of space accompanied Ryan tonight. Around him, no creatures of the night frollicked and no wind whistled through the air. The cold grass tingled Ryan’s hands as he steadied himself to sit down in the wet ground near the water. He stared forlornly off in the distance, thinking.

What am I doing?” he wondered. “Why am I staying here? I could just steal what I need and disappear forever.” He had the option, for sure. But why didn’t he do it? What was there to stop him? Maybe it was their innocence. He had failed to protect such innocence before, and he wouldn’t fail now. “Why did I do the things I did? What do I have now that I didn’t before?” He had nothing now, save for the instruments and symbols of his darkness and murderous past. He had gotten no closure from anything. He lost his best friend, told him, crying, to leave him to die in a shit-filled river in the middle of the jungle. He gave up his life. He had everything a guy could want, too. He had a loving family, great friends, a promising future. And he threw it all away.

And for what, exactly? Nothing. The worst thing, though, was that he gave up his code. His moral code that every man and woman follows, because that is what they believe is right. A person’s code defines them, it explains who they are. And Ryan tossed it aside in favor of everything it stood against.

“You’re a bad guy, Ryan.” a male voice said from behind him. Ryan shot up into the air, hand going for his pistol. he didn’t know this voice, but it seemed to know him. And no pony knew him at all.

When he turned around, hand on the handle of his gun, he halted his movement and stared. Before him was him. Ryan was right there in front of him. He was wearing different clothes, though. He wore a black T-shirt, scars overwhelming on his arms. His pants were long and black cargo pants, with a pair of simple sneakers on his feet. The darkness of his outfit contrasted with the paleness of his skin. But the eyes were the most perturbing. They weren’t hazel like Ryan’s; no, they were a dark, steel gray. They looked cold and soulless on a serious looking, hard face.

“You’re a very bad guy.” the other Ryan said.

Ryan stepped back and stepped right into the water. “What the..?” He could hardly believe it. He had thought that the events of the castle in the forest were hallucinations.

“And I know that you know that.” Ryan pulled up his 1911 and pointed it at his clone.

“What the hell?” he said, shaky. “Who are you?” The clone chuckled and stepped to the side, letting Ryan get back onto land. Ryan accepted the offer, keeping his weapon trained on the not-so-stranger while he moved.

“You can call me the Wraith.” Ryan swallowed hard. This was not something he had been expecting, even in a world of magic. “And I think I’ll call you... Umbra.” Ryan furrowed his brow deep.

“I’d rather be Harkness.” The Wraith laughed, his voice booming throughout the small park.

“So that’s what you’re calling yourself now.” he said, sounding like it was the most entertaining thing in the world. “How cute.”

Ryan pulled the hammer back on his pistol. “I don’t care about cute. I care about getting out of here.” The Wraith walked around Ryan, hands behind his back, looking to the sky.

“I know. But you know what?” he asked, turning his head to face Ryan. “You’ll never get away from this life. You’ll always be a killer of men, a taker of life. And they’ll find out. And when they do, hoo boy, will they be scared.” Ryan got his other hand on his Automag.

“Then I’ll just have to leave.” The Wraith clicked his tongue and waved his finger, looking disappointed.

“And what? You think they’ll just let you? No, you’ll be imprisoned. You’re best bet is to deal with them, and then leave.” Ryan really wanted to pull the trigger of his gun in that moment. “It’s not like you haven’t killed people who don’t deserve it before.”

“Shut up.” Ryan ordered. The Wraith chuckled some more.

“Oh, did I strike a nerve there?” he asked smugly.

“Shut up.” Ryan ordered again. “I didn’t choose to. I had no say in the-”

“You had every say! Wasn’t your code to protect the innocent at any cost?” Ryan honestly couldn’t remember that; but it sounded like the old him. “And you just didn’t. You could have died and ended your suffering and prevented their deaths. But your hubris prevented that.” Ryan stepped back.

“No.” he said distraught. He had to get away from himself. “No, I didn’t. I just-”

“You chose your life over theirs, you coward!” the Wraith yelled. “You have no honor! You have no morals! YOU ARE ME!”

Ryan turned and ran away. “You can’t escape yourself Ryan! You will always be Ryan!” Ryan shut his eyes and holstered his weapon as he ran away, running hard to liberate himself from the shackles of the Wraith’s truths.


Ryan stopped and looked back; no Wraith. He was afraid that the Wraith would follow him. God only knew how it must have been following him so far without him noticing. It could have had him any time it wanted. Ryan shook his head. “I need a drink.” he said to himself. He stood tall and scanned the area. “Now where is the bar?” he thought, trying to get his bearings. He was close to Town Hall; that meant that the bar shouldn’t be too far.

He got his bearings and moved in the general direction of the bar, intent on forgetting the events of the night and the dark truth of his own history.

Superficial Cleansing

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Superficial Cleansing

Great acts are made up of small deeds.” (Lao Tzu)

Ryan wasn’t looking forward to this day. He was actually hoping that something, anything, would keep this day from happening. Violence, injury, escape, opportunity, anything would have worked. He really didn’t want to work at Rarity’s boutique today.

His main concern was how she had said that she wanted to make him clothes. That would mean that he would have to remove what he was already wearing. “I can’t let her see the scars.” he thought as he got up out of his trench. Once he was out, he stretched his back, hearing several satisfying cracks and pops as he did so, and donned his beret and scarf. With his hand back there, he felt around for anything that may have fallen off. His knife was there on the back in its place. He was also surprised to feel the morphine syringe. He pulled it out and held it in front of himself. “Hmm...” He looked hard at it, trying to figure out what to do with it. He had no real need for it now, and neither did these ponies, with their magic. He twirled it around in his hands.

“I’ll keep it.” You never know, after all.

He started towards the town. It was early in the morning, around half past five. The birds weren’t even chirping yet. Insects of the night still buzzed about in the remaining darkness of the night before, forcing Ryan to swat at them when they drew near. The wind had picked up a little in the night, and a gentle breeze was kissing the land as it went along its merry way. There were a few clouds up above, but only barely visible in the darkness. The sky was a calm shade of dark blue, slowing getting lighter as the day began to progress. Ryan stopped in the middle of the field between his trench and the town.

This is how the world should be.” he thought. His world would be like this soon enough; no people, or ponies, no conflict, nothing to remind him any more of his crimes then he already had. He could be left to his misery.

He started up for the town again, but at a slower pace. He might as well take his time since Rarity would still be asleep. Hopefully, her little sister, Sweetie Belle, wouldn’t bother him today like she had on Saturday.

Sunday had been alright for Ryan, though. he had managed to have about ten bits left on Saturday night, so he was able to buy cheap, edible snacks for himself. He had managed to avoid being found by any of the ponies with whom he had interacted with so far, though they had searched for him. He knew that because they had very nearly found him several times. Once, he was back in his trench, sitting quietly with his gun in his hand, when he heard several feminine voices approaching. Three were certainly of the little fillies, as they were called. Ryan just thought of them as little girls.

The other two voices were clearly of Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle. The fillies must have told Twilight and Rainbow about where they had found Ryan the previous day, so they looked for him there. In order to escape, Ryan had to run down the trench as fast as he could and jump out and into a bush. Luckily, they hadn’t found him. This was in the morning, after Ryan woke up from a hangover that knocked him out for about six hours.

The next to escapes of his day were in close proximity to each other. Apparently, the girls had decided to keep looking for Ryan throughout the rest of the day, and they figured that they would search the outskirts of the town. That meant the whole line of the trench. Luckily for Ryan, they started by going in the opposite direction that he had, so he had time to run off. When he was far enough away, he decided to go into the town. Surely there would be no ponies there who would look for him; but there were. Pinkie, Ryan recalled her name with ease, was excited to see him. She had actually managed to get a clean look at him at one point.

“HARKNESS!” she had yelled. Ryan’s face took on a frustrated scowl, and he ran. Pinkie followed for a time, getting right next to Ryan. “Whatcha doin’?” she had asked. Ryan stopped.

“Trying to avoid ponies.” Before Pinkie could stop and turn, Ryan ran down an alley and turned left as soon as he was out. Pinkie must have lost interest or not noticed, because she didn’t follow him.

While Ryan ran, he tried to think of places where he could hide. He could always hide on the apple farm. “I’ll head there.” he told himself. But he wasn’t going to go there without some trouble; he nearly bowled over Rarity on the way. He had to leap into the air to avoid a collision, ruffling her hair as he shot over her.

“Darling, do be careful!” she said, using her magic and a comb to fix her hair. “What’s got you in such a rush now?” She sounded half annoyed and half interested.

“Umm...” Ryan had to think quickly of a response. before he could, though, he heard five familiar voices again.

“Are y’all sure that he ain’t out there?” Applebloom asked someone. Ryan flew into a mental panic.

“I’m escaping from Pinkie!” he announced, then ran away in the direction of the farm. Rarity didn’t have time to respond.


Other than that, Ryan’s Sunday had been fine. He stayed on the farm mostly, careful to avoid the family that lived there, and just sat around. Once, he went out to buy cheap food. But now, he was going back to the ponies to get money. “Freakin’ lack of money.” he thought. He had no money left any more and if he was to leave any time soon, he would need money. Hopefully, Rarity would pay him well for whatever job she gave him.

He soon found himself in the town, and the sun was beginning to rise. It had taken him around forty minutes to get to town, so it was probably around quarter past six. The ponies would likely be getting up soon. Ryan already knew that the Apple family would be up. Though he wasn’t sure if anyone else would be.

Rarity’s probably still asleep.” he figured. She didn’t seem like an early bird, being less of a physical worker and more of an artist. In Ryan’s experience, artists tended to get however much sleep they could. He always just thought that they used their dreams as inspiration.

He went to Carousel Boutique and looked around. There was nothing particular, except for a small tree off to the side. Ryan went over and sat under it, not having any desire to be out when the sun came up. It was hot enough already.

He sat there for close to two hours before he decided to stand up. Sitting was fine, but lack of movement tends to lead to thoughts and memories, neither of which Ryan was particularly interested in. “I wonder if she’s up yet.” he said as he stood up. He walked over to the building and inspected it absentmindedly. He searched for any less than overt ways inside, but quickly corrected himself when he realized what he was planning. Instead, he looked around for anything that would let him view the inside. Off to his left was a window next to the door.

Good enough.” he thought. He walked over to the window and took a look inside.

Inside, he saw what must have been a dozen mannequins spaced about around the room, each with its own little outfit. Most looked like they were covered in fillies and tactically suicidal glam. “Ugh.” Ryan thought. He looked elsewhere in the room. There was a little stage off on one end of the room with mirrors surrounding it. On the other end was a pair of changing rooms where he assumed ponies would change.

Weird.” Ryan thought. Aren’t the ponies usually naked? Lastly, there was a staircase and an opening into a room that looked like a kitchen. Inside the kitchen, there was Rarity and Sweetie Belle, eating breakfast. Sweetie Belle had a backpack on. “I guess that school starts at around the same time here.” he said to himself.

Ryan decided to wait for Rarity to finish her meal and time with her sister before knocking, and so leaned up against the wall of the building while he waited. he tried to guess what Rarity would ask him once inside. “She’ll probably want to know about fashion and stuff.” he concluded rather quickly. She was a fashion designer after all; that was her trade. She would surely be interested in Ryan’s old homeworld. Wracking his brain, Ryan tried to think of anything fashionable from home. He remembered Uggs and rain boots for girls, yoga pants, Under Armor for guys, and nothing else. He at least had something to go off of.

The door opened, and Sweetie Belle came running out. “Later Rarity!” she yelled without looking back. She hadn’t even noticed Ryan as she ran off. He looked into the Boutique as she ran past; Rarity was still in the kitchen. Not wanting to miss a chance to enter quietly, Ryan snuck in through the rapidly closing door, just slipping past the hinge as it shut.
He maneuvered himself over to the stage and waited there for Rarity to walk through the door and see him. He could hear her doing the dishes in the kitchen.

She was humming a little tune. As Ryan listened to it, he glanced around the room. Nothing was different from what he had seen from the outside, save that there were a couple more mannequins. He crossed his legs on the stage and watched the archway to the kitchen. “Any minute now.” he thought.

Rarity walked through the archway, still humming her tune to herself. Her eyes were closed and she was waving her hoof about as she walked along, not seeing Ryan on her little stage. He observed her as a hawk observes its prey, keen on taking in every detail. Her coat was clearly very clean, she probably washed it every morning and probably at night. The mark, her cutie mark, was three diamonds and nothing else. Ryan had no idea what that could mean exactly.

Weird.” he thought. The closest thing he had was the big USA carved into his back, and that wasn’t exactly obtained willingly. In fact, his cutie mark of sorts could just be all of his scars put together. His special talent was having the living shit kicked out of him. “And living.” he concluded. At least, slightly. He had died, as far as he was concerned. Discord just brought him back.

Rarity walked through the room and over to her door, flipping the closed sign to open. When she turned around, she had her eyes open and she screamed at the top of her lungs. Ryan covered his ears and let his eyelids close. When he opened them again, Rarity had her hoof over her heart and was gasping for air.

“Not so loud, please.” Ryan requested.

Rarity swallowed hard and tried to calm herself. It only worked a little. “W-w-why... how?” She couldn’t coherently speak. So Ryan waited for her to be ready. “What are you doing here?” she asked, now with all hooves on the ground and stepping forward toward Ryan.

“Remember that I work here now on Mondays?” he reminded her. “I’m here to do whatever my job is.” Rarity was now in front of him.

“Well, Harkness, I suppose that we can start.” She sniffed the air. “But not until you’re clean and decent.”

Ryan crossed his arms and looked at Rarity. “Rarity, men like me can never be clean OR decent. No reason to try.” She waved a dismissive hoof right in Ryan’s face.

“Nonsense. All you need is a bath and for your clothes to be washed.” Ryan opened his mouth to speak. “And no, you can’t wear those in the bathtub. I will take them and wash them.” Ryan shut his mouth and scowled.

How am I to go about this?” he wondered. He swung his legs off of the stage and stood up. “Alright.” he said. “But here’s my rules; I take my clothes off in the bathroom and leave them outside the door. After you’ve cleaned them, you leave them right outside the door. When I come out, I’ll be wearing them again.” Rarity looked at him curiously. “Clear?” Ryan asked. Rarity nodded.

“Sure, darling, sure. But if I may ask?” Ryan looked at her; he knew what question was coming. “Why are you so resistant to be in the nude? All of us are.” Ryan looked away for a moment, formulating a response.

“Back home, nudity isn’t exactly welcome. Also, human parts tend to hang free.” Rarity blushed, realizing the implication. “So yeah.”

She nodded and began to lead Ryan over to the stairs. Before they got there, a cat came down and looked at them. “Opal, this is Harkness. Please, don’t bother him. He’s a friend.” The cat looked at Ryan with narrowed eyes as if to say, I don’t trust you. Ryan shrugged.

You shouldn’t.” he said with the motion. The cat stood up and walked away.

“Sorry. Opal is just a cranky kitty sometimes.” Rarity explained.

Ryan shrugged again. “Meh. I’ve dealt with worse.” he replied. Rarity gave him a weak smile and led him up the stairs.

Once upstairs, Rarity pointed down a small hallway to a room at the end. “That’s the bathroom. Inside there’s a bath. I trust that you can operate sinks and faucets.” Ryan nodded. Why would she have any reason to believe that he could? “Good! I’ll just wait outside for you to toss out your clothes.” Ryan walked down the hall to the bath.

“Alright.” he said.

He cracked the door open and looked inside before entering. The bathroom was extremely lavish; the floor tiles were white marble with what looked like Amethyst encrusted into them in large, flower-like patterns. The walls had white marble tiling and what could have been blue sapphire or blue topaz squares in each tile. The towel racks were brilliantly shiny brass, and had swirling ends like funnel clouds. The sink was short and made of porcelain with patterns etched into the side deep enough that Ryan could see them from the door. They were vines with dragon’s tongue flowers on the ends. The sink faucet was brass like the towel racks. The bathtub was porcelain like the sink, but had no patterns etched into it. Its faucet, too, was brass. There was also a large mirror on the wall, like something out of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

“Whoa.” Ryan said. He had never seen a bathroom this ridiculous before.

“Yes, it’s quite impressive, hmm?” Rarity replied from behind. Using her horn, she nudged Ryan on his behind to enter the room.

“Rarity, I’m not exactly into having long and stiff instruments poking my rear.” Without waiting for a reply, Ryan entered the bathroom and shut the door.

“I assure you, Harkness, that I am not that kind of lady.” he heard Rarity reply from behind the door. Ryan started to take off his clothes.

“Right.” he replied. As he took off his clothes, he remembered that he wouldn’t want her to have his weapons in case she got too curious. He removed his guns, knife, hammer, and morphine from the vest and set them off to the side. “Can’t let things like that into the hands of those who don’t understand.” he thought. He also removed his necklace and watch and set them with everything else.

He took his time removing his clothes, partly because they were sticking to him from all the sweat and grime that they had accumulated. Even he had to admit that that was perhaps not the healthiest way to live. “Even so.” Ryan said to himself. “It doesn’t matter.” He would probably be living like that in the future anyhow. Once he had all of his clothes off, he cracked the door open and tossed them out.

“Ah!” He had startled Rarity, it seemed. He let his arm hang outside the door for a moment.

“Just leave them here,” He pointed at the ground. “when you bring them back.” His arm retreated back behind the door and shut it.

Rarity used her magic to pick up the clothes. There was no chance under Celestia’s magnificent sun that she was going to actually touch them. Ryan had handed her a short-sleeved shirt, a jacket, a pair of shorts, a vest with lots of places to put things, a scarf, a beret, a pair of socks, worn boots, and underwear. It all smelled terrible. But that wasn’t what shocked Rarity when Ryan’s arm came out.

“I wonder what happened to him...” she thought aloud, looking back at the bathroom door. What had surprised her when the arm came out was the skin on it. It looked like somepony had melted it and poured it back on. Rarity knew that this wasn’t exactly something that happened randomly. “I hope he’s okay.” She went downstairs to the washer, where she continued to contemplate the significance of this new development.

Ryan started the water in the tub and sat on the ground, the cold marble floor welcoming to him. It was actually the first time he had sat on something hard and stable in quite some time. He didn’t feel like thinking at the moment, so he just sat there in the room. Absentmindedly, he got up and went into the tub, letting the hot water embrace him in its fluid grasp. Then he started thinking.

This is Rarity’s tub...” He suddenly felt a little awkward using the tub, but he was already in it, so he might as well stay. If only she had a shower. “Eesh.” He was looking down into the water. It was turning green and brown around him as it carried away all the dirt and grime. There was also a lot of red. “Guess I did need a bath.” He didn’t care about the dirt, but he wasn’t fond of the idea of having dried blood on himself all the time. Deciding to let the tub do its work, Ryan leaned back and looked at the ceiling, trying not to let his mind wander to the river in Vietnam.

Rarity inspected each piece of clothing before she put it in the bucket for washing. She had to make sure there were no tears in each one, or she might make the damage worse. She started with the jacket. It had a lot of grime on it, but the most prominent of all was the amount of red stains on it. They were especially bad around a hole that Rarity quickly found in it. “Must be from when the girls found him.” she figured. Using her magic and sewing kit, she fixed up the hole in no time and set to washing the jacket. It wasn’t easy to get the blood stains out with the washboard.

Get out, filthy stains!” she commanded. Her horn began to glow, and she started using her magic to attempt to actually pry off the blood. It worked marvelously, and the jacket was nice and clean in just a few minutes. Rarity examined it. “This is actually quite nice.” she commented, taking in the jacket’s features. The material felt very comfortable, and the camouflage pattern was done perfectly. “I should make something like this for stallions.” She set the jacket down and moved on.

Next came the shorts. The only thing about these was that there was more dried blood on them. But that came off as odd to Rarity. “Why would there be blood on his pants if his chest was where he was wounded?” she wondered. She quickly dismissed the thought when she remembered how he had been transported when he was found. Next, she cleaned the underwear, which was in the same condition as the pants. She then moved onto the socks, which just had dirt on them, and the boots, which she shined and cleaned with great intensity. The shirt was in the same condition as the jacket; blood, dirt, and a hole all the way through. The last items were the beret, scarf, and vest. The beret was clean enough that she just soaked it in the soapy water and rinsed it. The scarf was harder. It was a very nice silk, so Rarity would have to use her magic to clean it.

“What a lovely scarf.” It was really out of place, though.

When she finished with that, she moved onto the vest, which really piqued her interest. It was obviously not a “social” garment. It had a lot of pockets where things could be stored, and two things that looked like they sheathed very specific items. One would hold something shaped like an “L” and the other was a knife sheath.

“Odd.” She couldn’t use the roller on this, so she just put it in the water and used her magic to clean it. She had been so busy watching the clothes that she hadn’t even noticed the change in the water; it was a dark reddish-brown now. When she looked down at it after removing the vest, she turned away and nearly threw up.

Oh my.” she reeled. She had forgotten where all the blood would go. She quickly took everything and rinsed each item in fresh water and hung them outside to dry.

Rarity looked at the blood filled bucket and wondered what she would do about it. She couldn’t just leave it there, her sister would be coming home in a few hours. It wasn’t sanitary. “Maybe Harkness will have an idea.” She turned and trotted out the washroom arch and up the stairs.

Ryan was sitting quietly in the tub when he heard several hard knocks at the door. “Harkness, I need your help.” he heard Rarity say. He looked over in the direction of the door.

“What is it?” There was a moment of silence.

“What should I do with the bucket of, umm, blood?” Ryan blinked. He had forgotten that there would be something like that when the clothes were washed.

“Umm, I guess you can dump it outside or something?” he replied. “I’m not sure what you ponies do with medical waste here.” Another pause.

“Alright. I just wasn’t sure what you would want to do. They’re your body fluids after all.” The sound of hooves clopping away told Ryan that Rarity was about to dispose of the blood.

While she was washing away, Ryan drained the tub and refilled it to have clean water to bathe in. It was amazing how much more freedom of movement he felt like he had now. With all the dried grime and whatnot, his skin tended to feel tight under it. He felt much better.

I should put my forest home next to a river.” he thought. When he moved somewhere else, he would have to be near a source of water for drinking and bathing.


He drained the tub again and walked over to the door. “Rarity, you out there?” he asked. He got no response. “Alright.” he said, putting his hand on the door handle. As he turned the knob, the door creaked open. He looked down; there were all of his clothes, clean and ready to go. He shot his hand out and grabbed ahold of them. When his arm came back inside, Ryan walked over to his other pile of things and sat down. He took his time putting everything on, taking in the feel of each item. It was all wonderful.

“Also I need to have a washboard.” he concluded. Once his clothes were on, he donned his other items; his watch, necklace, guns, knife, hammer, and morphine, and left the bathroom.

He exited the bathroom and went downstairs. Down there, Rarity was waiting for him in the middle of the room. “Ah, good. How do you feel?” she asked. Inside, Ryan still felt dead. Outside, he was feeling nice.

“It’s certainly better.” he replied. Rarity flashed a genuine smile.

“Good. Now, let’s work on getting the rest of you back in shape.” Ryan cocked an eyebrow.

“What?” he asked.

She pointed at his head. “I will hardly believe that THAT’S your usual hairdo.” she said. Ryan felt his head. It was a little long for his liking. “And I’m sure there are other parts of you that need tending to.” Ryan put his hands in his pockets.

“I can tend to my parts myself.” Rarity flushed.

“As sure as I am that you can, I’m referencing cleanliness.” Ryan shrugged.

“Alright.” Rarity grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the boutique.

She dragged him through the town, much to his displeasure. They were being looked at by every pony that they passed. “Rarity, how much farther is it?” he asked.

“Just over there.” she responded excitedly. He looked; it was a salon. When they were right up to it, the sign read The Main Mane. Ryan deadpanned his gaze at it.

Clever.” he thought. Rarity tugged on his hand.

“Come on, let’s go!” She practically kicked the door open and ran in, Ryan in tow behind her.

“This young... stallion, I guess? He needs to have his mane taken care of.” Rarity explained to the deskmare. Ryan looked around. There were several mares attending to the manes of other mares. There were no stallions in the room. He leaned down to whisper to Rarity.

“Why did you bring me to a mane place for mares and not stallions?” Rarity waved her hoof.

“No worries. Stallions come here at other times.” Ryan took her word for it.

A green mare with a big mane walked up to them. “We would be happy to serve you, Mr...?” Ryan stood uncomfortably behind Rarity.

“...Harkness.” The mare nodded.

“Mr. Harkness. Please, come with me and have a seat.” He followed the mare, glancing back at Rarity. She was being led behind Ryan by another mare. “Here.” his mare said. Ryan at down, the chair sinking under his much greater weight. The mare got behind him. “So, how do you usually like it?” she asked. Ryan thought.

“Well, I like it buzzed on the sides and back and just short on top.”

The mare nodded. “One Air Guard cut, coming up.”

As she did her work, Rarity took the seat next to Ryan. “So, Harkness, what exactly did you do before you came to Ponyville?” she asked. The two mares doing their hair and mane silently worked along, listening to the conversation. Ryan hesitated before answering.

“Mostly just survived. Found myself really far from home, in the wilderness and in countries that don’t speak my language. So I just kind of survived.” He shrugged like it was nothing. None of the mares around him thought that, though.

“How? What did you do for food? Or water?” his mare asked.

“I stole from people when I encountered them, mostly. Not like beating them up, though, I took from stores. Gotta live.” The mares were silent.

“I suppose so.” Rarity’s mare replied. “But don’t they suffer from that?” Ran just shrugged again.

“Either they lose a small sum of money or I die. I figure it’s the lesser- less evil of the two.” Him dying wasn’t bad enough for the metaphor.

Rarity looked at him. “So you committed crimes to live?” she asked seriously. Ryan shrugged.

“Sure. But I don’t any more. No need to. I will only do illegal or immoral things if I think I need to.” It was true, but whether or not he needed to do those things was left to question.

“Okay.” Rarity said, clearly relieved. “I wouldn’t want a kleptomaniac near my home.”

Ryan nodded. “Me neither.” There was a moment of silence.

“How did you find yourself so far from home?” his mare asked. The question seemed to pique the interest of the other mares as well. They all looked at Ryan intently, waiting for an interesting story. He thought about it for a minute.

I don’t want to go into it.” He looked back at his mare. “A series of unfortunate circumstances.” he explained. When he didn’t go on, they let the subject drop.

“So, what kinds of things did you do in your country?” Rarity asked. “It must be a lot different from here.” Ryan thought about how to answer her question.

“Well, I was a student. You see, all kids are required to attend public school until they turn sixteen. Then, they can drop out, or finish high school. Then , if you’re smart, you go to college. I was still in high school when I found myself elsewhere.” Rarity wasn’t satisfied with his answer.

“Sure, but what were your hobbies? What did you like to do?” Ryan was fine with questions like these, so long as they never pertained to his time in Asia.

“I did Karate and SCUBA diving. Those were my favorite activities.” The salon mares “ooh’d” at him.

“So you know how to fight?” one asked. Ryan nodded. “Have you ever used your skills?”

Ryan paused. Should he answer that? Sure, he had used them outside of Asia for fighting purposes, but this could lead to Asia if he wasn’t careful. He decided to answer. “Yes.” Rarity looked at him disapprovingly.

“Really, Harkness? I thought you were a gentleman.” Ryan put his hands up defensively, though only mockingly.

“I was defending my friends, who happen to have been a boy and a girl who was being harassed by some dude. I was trying to be chivalrous and defend the lady.” Rarity’s disapproving look became one of elated glee.

“Oh! Well, that’s nice. It’s good to see that there are a few knights in shining armor still out there.” Ryan didn't respond. He was no “knight in shining armor”.

“All done.” his mare announced. Ryan looked in the mirror. His hair was just like the way he used to like it; crisp and clean cut, very much within SOP.

“Thank you.” he replied. Before he got up, though, Rarity stared him right in the eyes. She wasn’t backing down, either. “What?” he asked.

“You’re beard.” she said. “It has to go.” Ryan rubbed his chin. The hair was getting long and would be annoying to deal with.

“Alright then.” He sat back into the chair again. “Could you shave off this facial hair for me?” he asked his mare. She nodded and pulled out an old razor kit. Ryan eyed it nervously. It wasn’t exactly a Bic razor; this was a straight up blade that you dragged across your skin. He turned to Rarity, concern playing itself out in his eyes.

“Relax.” Rarity said. “She’s good at this.” Ryan sighed and sat back.

“Just hold still.” the mare ordered.


They walked out of the salon with Ryan looking fresh and new. “Wow. I wouldn’t even guess that you’re Harkness if I hadn’t been here for this.” Rarity commented. Ryan snorted.

I’m not.”

They walked on back to Rarity’s boutique. “So how much do I owe you for all this?” Ryan asked. Rarity waved her hoof right in his face.

“Nothing, darling! I couldn’t bear to see you walk around so filthy and... umm... bloody.” She drawled out that last word.

“Well, thanks I guess. It feels good to be clean.” Rarity smiled at him and they walked together in silence.

*********************************************************************************

Discord was watching with great interest as Ryan left the salon. “I never figured him to be willing to do that.” he thought. And he also found it interesting that Ryan had let the mare close to his neck with a sharp blade. “I guess that no one tried to cut his throat with a blade, so he wasn’t too uncomfortable with it.” Ryan had certainly cut throats with his blade. The memory would have made Discord shudder if he was in his body. “No pony or human deserves to suffer such a fate.”

Ryan and Rarity were walking in silence while Discord watched. He quickly grew bored. “I wish they would do something.” He gave them another minute. Still nothing but walking. “I’ll come back later.” Discord returned to his body.

*********************************************************************************

Ryan closed the door behind him as he walked back into Rarity’s home and store. He took a look at the clock up on the wall; it was about five past three. They had been out for a lot longer than Ryan thought. “Whoa.” It amazed him that he could so easily lose track of time.

“Harkness, would you be a dear and help me fold my fabric in my studio?” Rarity called from the stairs. Ryan moved in that direction.

“Sure.” He was being paid for just this, right?

They ascended the steps and went to her studio. It was a big studio, with lots of mannequins around and several shelves of fabric and sewing tools. There were a couple of sewing machines, and the room in general was a bit of a mess.

“Where should I start?” Ryan asked. Rarity pointed to a corner where fabric lay in an unorganized heap.

“Start by organizing that and putting it on a shelf.” Ryan nodded.

“Yes ma’am.” He walked over and started separating the fabric into piles according to color. “You want it by color?” he asked. Behind him, a sewing machine started up.

“Certainly.” she replied.

The doorbell rang. “I wonder who that could be?” Rarity wondered, stopping her machine. She got up and walked out of the room.

“Probably Sweetie Belle.” Ryan thought aloud. He just kept on separating the fabrics.

Rarity trotted down her steps and looked to the door. Outside, three familiar looking ponies sat waiting at her door. She rushed over. “Hello!” she said to her friends as she opened the door. Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy had all showed up. “What brings you all here?” She eyed Rainbow Dash. “Finally going to be a more refined lady, I hope?” Rainbow blew a raspberry at Rarity.

“As if! I’m here, for... I don’t know. I’m just here.” Rarity smiled and nodded.

“Well, it’s good to see that you’ve all stopped by.”

She let her friends in and shut the door. “I can always take a minute to spend time with my friends, especially with Harkness doing some work upstairs.” Pinkie gasped and spun around to face Rarity.

“You have him working here?!” she asked. “This is great! We can throw him a ‘Congrats-on-getting-a-job party’!” She was bouncing up and down excitedly at the prospect of throwing Harkness a party.

“Now, now, settle down Pinkie. I’m sure that we’ll throw him a party soon enough.” She kept on bouncing.

Fluttershy walked timidly up to Rarity and got close to her ear. “Umm, is he doing alright? He’s not sick or hurt or anything, right?” Her voice picked up some urgency toward the end. Rarity put her hoof on her friends back.

“He’s fine, dear. He can certainly take care of himself. In fact, I learned today that the boy knows how to fight, and has done so in the past to defend his friends.” Fluttershy’s pupils shrunk. “Relax, I’m sure that-” Rainbow jumped in and cut her off.

“Whoa, he’s actually FOUGHT ponies before!?” she asked ecstatically. Rarity huffed at her.

“Well, yes, but I don’t see how-”

Again, she was cut off. “That’s awesome! So, what, he’s like, a hero or something?” Rarity thought back. Perhaps he was a hero of sorts.

“Well, I suppose so.” she said.

Rainbow’s head whipped back and forth. “Where is he?” Rarity used her magic to pull her friend closer.

“Please, Rainbow Dash. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about it. Most ponies who have to fight or do things they wouldn’t otherwise do rarely ever want to talk about it. So please don’t bother him about it.” Rainbow looked to Fluttershy for help, but she had a stern gaze on Rainbow as well.

“She’s right.” was all she said. Rainbow crossed her forelegs and sat on the ground, pouting.

Rarity looked to the stairs, and when she saw no sign of Harkness, she urged her friends to get close and huddle. “Just between us, I don’t think that his fights were exactly ‘willy-nilly’. I think they were serious.” Fluttershy was stunned by the idea, but Pinkie had the most severe reaction. Sort of.

“Really? Why?” Her reaction was normal. Not exactly Pinkie Pie. Rainbow had gone silent, waiting for an explanation.

“Well, when I saw his arm earlier...” She glanced back at the stairs. “The skin was... abnormal.” Fluttershy put a hoof to her mouth.

“How?” she asked. Rarity took in a deep breath; Fluttershy wouldn’t like hearing this.

“Well, it looked like somepony... melted his skin, and then poured it back on.” All of the mares completely stopped moving. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I know it wasn’t normal, but I didn’t ask him about it. I figure that it isn’t a pleasant memory.” Rainbow looked over to the stairs.

“I... wow. Just... wow. I wouldn’t have thought about that.” Rarity nodded.

“Yes, so let’s try not to mention it to him.” They all nodded in agreement and went up the stairs.

Ryan had just finished organizing the fabrics onto the shelves when he heard several sets of hooves approaching the door from the hallway. “Ah, crap.” he thought. He had no desire to deal with the ponies. “I can’t wait ‘til I can make a home in the forest.” He just kept on working when somepony knocked on the door. he didn’t answer.

In came Rarity, followed by Fluttershy, who ran over to Ryan and stared at him, Rainbow, who looked curiously from afar, and Pinkie Pie, who bounced around the room for the moment. “Can I help?” Ryan asked Fluttershy, who was just a little too close for comfort. She poked his arm, causing him to recoil a bit. “Please don’t violate me.” Fluttershy flushed and moved away. In the background, Rarity giggled and put a hoof on her friend’s back when she was close enough.

“Don’t worry; he’s gotten me several times already.” Fluttershy hid under her mane as if to hide.

Pinkie Pie bounced up to him, putting her hooves on either of his shoulders. “So when do you think we’ll have that welcome party?” she asked. Ryan looked at her eyes; they were filled with fun and excitement and blissful ignorance. “Huh? Huh? Huh? Huh? Huh? Huh? Huh? Huh?” Ryan shook his head and put his hands around her waist.

“Whenever you feel like surprising me is my best guess.” As he lifted her and placed her aside, she squirmed in his grasp, giggling uncontrollably.

“That tickles!” she shouted. Ryan turned around and got back to work.

“Now, is there anything I can do for you?” he asked curtly. At first, there was only silence.

“Well, umm, I would like to get a... I don’t know what it’s called. I’d like to catalogue you, I guess? For the bestiary, with the sentient races, like Ponies and Griffons.” Fluttershy asked nervously. Ryan stopped himself for a moment.

“Sure. When can we do this?”

Fluttershy shifted behind him. “This weekend, maybe?”

Ryan nodded. “Seems good.”

Rainbow floated up next to him, urged on by Rarity. It was her turn now to talk to the human. “So, umm... I don’t know. You ever flown before?” She sounded like she really wasn’t comfortable being next to Ryan. Of course, he wouldn’t be comfortable being next to a man who’s armed to the teeth either.

“Yeah.” he replied. It took Rainbow, and the others, to register his response.

“Wait, what?” Rainbow replied. “Really?” Ryan nodded again.

“Yeah. A bunch of times.” Rainbow looked to her friends, who were just as shocked as her.

“How?” she asked.

“I usually found myself on either a Boeing 737 or 767. Planes.” Rainbow looked skeptical next to Ryan, who did his best to ignore her stare.

“What’s a plane?” she asked. Ryan finished the last piece of fabric for this shelf and turned to her.

“Tomorrow, I’ll be telling Twilight about my species’ technology. Feel free to drop by.” He walked past her and over to his next set of fabric. It was gone. “What?” he quietly asked himself. He looked around; there was a purple aura on everything.

“No worries, Harkness. I can finish this. You may be done.” She floated over a sack of bits. “For your work.” Ryan took the bag; if she was going to be generous, he might as well let her. There were about thirty bits in the bag.

“Thanks.” he said. He walked out of the room and went downstairs, leaving the mares to gossip about him as they likely would. “Women.”

When he got downstairs, three familiar little fillies were there to greet him. “Hey Harkness!” they shouted in unison. Ryan looked down at them.

“Hey.”

Scootaloo ran up to him and looked up. “Can you help us to get our cutie marks?” she asked. Ryan shook his head.

“Not today.” he said. He walked out, leaving three very disappointed fillies.

“Maybe tomorrow?” Applebloom said hopefully. Ryan just kept on walking to his trench, where he could be alone and not have to worry about facing his past.

But little did he know, there was still one piece of his past that wasn’t about to leave him be.

That Awkward Moment

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That Awkward Moment

You cut up a thing that’s alive and beautiful to find out how it’s alive and why it’s beautiful, and before you know it, it’s neither of those things, and you’re standing there with blood on your face and tears in your sight and only the terrible ache of guilt to show for it.” (Clive Berker)

Ryan was walking into town, towards the library. He had been under scrutiny the day before about his past, but hopefully today, the questions would be primarily about technology. Odds were, if Rainbow Dash showed up, he would go into planes and jets and other flying contraptions. Twilight would no doubt want to hear more about computers. He would likely tell her about communications equipment, like smartphones.

It was about half past six while he walked through the town. The previous night, he had mostly just laid in the dirt and stared at the sky, mesmerized by the one star. It took his mind off of everything that had been happening, made him feel like the world wasn’t real. The star turned his past into a wisp of smoke, one that he could clear away with a wave of his hand. But the trouble was, the source of that smoke was an inextinguishable fire beneath him, so the smoke just kept on coming back and choking him.

He found himself at the library by seven. Inside, he could hear Twilight moving about. “I thought she had Spike do stuff in the morning.” She was probably just doing it herself because she wanted to prepare for Ryan without waking Spike. He knocked on the door. Inside, something crashed, and there was a big clamor. The door swung open, barely missing Ryan’s nose. He cocked an eyebrow at Twilight in the doorway.

“Hey!” she said, out of breath. “I wasn’t expecting you so early.”

Ryan shrugged. “I’m an early riser.” Twilight swallowed and moved aside.

“Please, come in.” He walked inside, and Twilight shut the door behind him.

He looked around. It looked like she had been setting up some sitting areas in the library itself, but looking in the kitchen, he saw what she was really doing. There was a big table with numerous spots around it for ponies to sit. “You having a party?” he asked, pointing at the kitchen. Twilight smiled suspiciously.

“Promise you won’t be upset?” Ryan halted all movement. Whenever someone said that, they knew that the person wouldn’t be very happy.

“... Okay. What?” Twilight walked around, inspecting the shelves.

“My family will be visiting tomorrow, including those I’m related to due to my brother’s marriage. I told them about you, and they want to meet you.” Ryan turned around. In his mind, he was ablaze. But outside, he kept a cool demeanor. He calmed the raging seas in his head.

“It’s fine.” he lied. “What did you tell them?” Twilight breathed a sigh of relief.

“I told them about how you’re new here and you’re really interesting. I didn’t go into detail, since it was kind of short notice.” Ryan silently breathed hi sown sigh of relief. He didn’t want to have to deal with the spread of information about him.

“Alright. I guess I can do it.”

Twilight stood on her hind hooves and clopped her front hooves together. “Eeee! Oh, thank you!” Her smile was massive and excited; it actually made Ryan forgive her a little bit. He went and sat down in a chair in the corner.

After that, Twilight didn’t bother him for a while; she was too busy getting things ready for the next day. Ryan just watched as she did so. “Crazy girl.” he thought. She didn’t have to get up early the previous day to prepare. Of course, he didn’t know anything about her family or how she was raised. This could, in fact, be necessary. “I wonder who this family will be? What will they be like?” He just sat there, wondering.

About an hour and a half after Twilight broke the news, Spike came down, rubbing his eyes and yawning. “Morning, trooper.” Ryan greeted, not looking up. Spike yelped. “Harkness!” he shouted. “I wasn’t expecting you. Twilight said you wouldn’t likely be here ‘til later.” Ryan shrugged.

“Well, clearly, she was incorrect.” Spike chuckled and came all the way down the stairs.

“Yeah, well, she’s usually right, so I’ll let it pass this time.”

Ryan scratched his knee. “You’re all heart.” Spike sat down next to him, joining in his observation of Twilight’s craziness.

“She’s like my big sister. So yeah.” Ryan felt a little twitch in his cheek. He decided to remember that for later.

They sat in relative silence until about half past ten. Then, Spike’s stomach growled, like a cat that’s very annoyed about being poked that’s about to lash out. “You getting hungry?” Ryan asked, hoping it would prompt Spike to leave him. Spike nodded.

“Yeah. Let’s go get some lunch.” He stood up and walked over to the kitchen. Sighing over his inability to risk being rude, Ryan got up and followed. While they moved, Twilight shot around the room, checking everything for the umpteenth time.

“She always like this?” Ryan asked. Spike waved a dismissive hand.

“Only when the Princess is coming.” Ryan blinked. Then he blinked again.

“Princess?” he asked, all of a sudden very nervous.

“Yeah. Her brother married Princess Cadance, who is the niece of Princess Celestia. Her parents, brother, and the princesses will all be here. Unfortunately, Princess Luna couldn’t make it.”

Ryan paused again, this time, not moving. So Luna did live here. He would definitely have to think over a visit. “Well then.” he said. He started moving again, catching up to Spike.

“You two better not ruin my setup in there!” Twilight shouted.

“We won’t!” Spike shouted back.

“Speak for yourself.” Ryan said, loud enough for Twilight to hear. She suddenly burst into the kitchen, just behind Ryan.

“Harkness!” she yelled.

Ryan turned around. “Yes?”

She looked up at his face. “...hmph.” She turned back around and walked off. Spike, meanwhile, was already at the counter.

“What was that?” he asked.

Ryan shrugged. “You know, I’m not sure. I say and do things that SHOULD get me slapped, yet no one ever does. I’m just not a slappable guy.” Spike snorted.

“If only every guy was as lucky as you.” Ryan nodded.

Yeah, right. If only.”

Spike was pulling bread from the pantry. “So what’ll you have?” he asked. Ryan leaned on the counter next to the baby dragon.

“Gimme a PB and J.” Simple, yet edible. Spike obliged and made him the sandwich. “Good stuff.” Ryan said, taking a bite.

“Thanks. The stuff is made fresh every day.”

They exited the kitchen with their food and sat back down in their spots. Not a minute after they sat, there were several knocks on the door. “I got it!” Spike shouted, running to the door. Inwardly, Ryan groaned when he saw who was there. “Oh, hey Rainbow! And Pinkie, and Fluttershy... and Rarity!” He really seemed to lose his footing on Rarity. Ryan took a note of that.

“Hello Spike.” Rarity replied. “Is Harkness around?” Spike pointed behind him, right at Ryan.

“He’s in here.” The mares all thanked him and filed in. Behind them, the Cutie Mark Crusaders stumbled in in a little pony ball.

“What..?” Ryan said to himself as he watched the girls get up. They were wearing a bunch of little capes. He shook his head; he didn’t care enough to ask.

“Hello, Harkness.” Rarity started. Ryan nodded back, but didn’t speak.

The mares all sat around him, cornering him against the wall as if to prevent his escape. Twilight walked in and saw her friends surrounding the newcomer. “Oh! Hey girls! What brings you here?” Her urgency suddenly died.

“We’re here to hear about his crazy technology!” Scootaloo answered. Twilight looked to Ryan.

“Oh! Well, I think I’ll join you.” Twilight ran up the stairs for a moment, then came back with a notepad and quill with ink. Ryan scanned the audience before him. There were certainly quite a few ponies here.

“Well, it’s hardly a complete crowd without Applejack, wouldn’t you say?” Ryan was trying to stall. Applebloom stood up.

“She’ll be here in a minute, she just had to close up the stand.” Ryan cursed in his head.

Rainbow was quickly growing impatient. “Well, come on! Let’s hear it!” she demanded. Ryan cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Hear what? Technology isn’t exactly a specific field. Where should I begin?” Suddenly, every mare and filly except Fluttershy was shouting and asking for something different. He couldn’t even tell who was saying what.

“One at a time, please.” he requested. They all went quiet. He pointed all the way to the left, at little Sweetie Belle. “What do you want to hear?” he asked. She pondered it for a moment.

“Music!” she announced. Ryan nodded, and looked to the next one in line, Applebloom.

“Farm gear.” He went in order from there; Scootaloo, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Twilight, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and then to Spike.

“Flying stuff!”

“What she said!”

“Fashion and transportation.”

“Computers!”

“Umm, medicine? If that’s okay?”

“Cooking!”

“Entertainment.” He decided to address them in order.

“For music, we have these things called MP3’s. You jack a pair of earbuds in them and then put the tiny speakers in your ears. The tiny speakers take data from the MP3 and play a song of your choosing. There’s also electronic music, like Dubstep and eighties synthesized. Those are popular for big events.”

There was a knock at the door, and Applejack waltzed in and took a seat next to her sister. “He’s gonna tell us about farm gear.” Applejack nodded, sweating hard in her spot. Ryan cleared his throat.

“For farm gear, we use combustion engines to power large machines that do the work for us, like ploughing and seeding. There’s also weather machines that tell us when the weather may be bad for crops.” He kept going into what little he knew about farm equipment for a while.

Eventually, he finished. Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo were elated. “Finally! Let’s hear about flying stuff!” Rainbow said. Ryan looked at them.

“Sure.” They both leaned in close to hear. “We have a bunch of things for flying. The first of them was the airplane. Also using a combustion engine, the first planes would spin a rotor fast enough that it’s angled blades would carry it forward and into the air. Now, though, we have jet engines. These work by burning fuel and shooting the exhaust out the back with massive force. The plane is propelled forward incredibly fast.” Rainbow was vibrating in her seat.

“How fast?”

Ryan looked at her and smiled. “Well, the fastest plane that comes to mind for me is the F-22 Raptor. It could go up to Mach Three.” Rainbow stopped vibrating and looked forward, mouth agape. Looking around, Ryan saw that the others were also looking quite shocked. “Some unmanned aircraft have gone up to seven THOUSAND miles an hour.” If a cricket were there, it too, had been silenced. Rainow sat back.

“Whoa.”

Ryan nodded. “Whoa indeed.”

She stood up. “Why would a plane need to be that fast?” she asked. Ryan couldn’t answer that, and even if he could, he probably wouldn’t.

“No idea. Experiments?” She stepped forward.

“Have you ever flown in one of those fast ones before?” she asked. Ryan shook his head.

“Those are single seat fighter aircraft, so no. I fly in commercial aircraft, usually Boeing. They can get to around six hundred miles per hour.” Rainbow shook her head.

“That’s crazy.” she said. Ryan shrugged.

“That’s human ingenuity.”

He continued when Rainbow sat back down. “For transportation, we use planes, boats, and cars. All use some form of engine, but different kinds use different fuels. Navy ships use Nuclear power a lot to power aircraft carriers and destroyers.” Instantly, he regretted saying that.

“What?” Rarity said. “Destroyers? Fighter Aircraft?” She looked suspicious. Ryan had to be fast in his thoughts.

“Military technology. Easily the most advanced of all. A lot isn’t even known to the public, for obvious reasons.” Rarity looked unsatisfied, but compared to Applejack, she couldn’t care less.

“Can y’all be honest with us? Are you a military boy?” Ryan thought hard about it. He had planned on joining the SEALs, but he certainly couldn’t now.

“No.” he replied. “I’m not.” He continued, though Applejack wasn’t convinced. “We transport things on massive ships, sometimes referred to as ‘cities on the water’. Other times, we use massive planes, like the C5 Galaxy. Some of these planes can go up to Eight Thousand miles without having to refuel.”

Rarity raised her eyebrows. “That’s quite impressive.” Ryan nodded.

“Like I said, military tech is the most advanced.”

He quickly moved onto the computers. “Well, I already explained this to my best knowledge, but that was just one type. There are also systems that do other things. Some are for art, others are for making music, some are for entertainment, and there are thousands of others. I can’t possibly go into all of them. But the entertainment are some of the most popular. Using them, you can project images onto a screen. Using a controller, you can make the things in the image do what you command them to, whether it be flying a virtual plane or having a character run down a virtual hill. It’s like movies, but you control what happens. To an extent.” Spike was wide-eyed.

“Wow.” he said. “That’s cool.” Ryan smiled a little bit; he had the same reaction to the Nintendo 64 when he first got it.

“Yeah.” He kept on. “Other computers do math for you, while some are just for communicating. Using computers, you can talk to a person on the other side of the planet.” Twilight’s eyes went wide this time.

“It’s the ultimate tool of sharing collected knowledge...” she said.

Ryan nodded again. “Eeyup.”

“Our medicine is pretty astonishing. We can treat cancer, albeit not always successfully, we can cure diseases, and we have amazing injury healing practices.” Fluttershy seemed to lose some of her shyness and had a gleam in her eye.

“What kinds of injury healing processes do you have?” she asked.

“Well, we can cut someone open and fix them like that. Or, we can use tiny cameras and bots to deal with a problem. The most popular, though, is straight up meds. Using certain chemical formulas, we can make pills that speed up healing or reduce pain.” Fluttershy looked excited.

“What else?” she asked. The others looked repulsed by how Ryan had worded surgery.

“Well, we can make mechanical limbs for people who lost theirs. Those are really close to being ready for issuing. Someone is even close to making a bio-electric eye. It’s pretty astonishing.”

Fluttershy nodded. “It certainly is.”

After going a little more into medicine, he finally turned to Pinkie Pie. “Well, we don’t exactly have super advanced cooking stuff. Mostly, thanks to knowledge sharing, we just have good recipes. Sorry.” Pinkie wasn’t disappointed though.

“That’s awesome! You can share your recipes with people around the WORLD!? That’s amazing!!” She jumped up and ran around, much to Ryan’s disinterest. “Calm down.” Ryan said, grabbing her as she ran by and holding her up like a cat. She giggled.

“That tickles!” He set her down.

“I bet you enjoy that, don’t you?” he said. Pinkie Pie nodded.

“It’s fun!” Ryan shook his head and sat back down.

They talked a little bit from then on, mostly about the ponies and their adventures. The ponies’ brains couldn’t handle much more tech talk anyhow. Eventually, they got to the Elements of Harmony. “The what?” Ryan asked. They all blinked.

“Oh, right, you’re not from here.” Twilight reminded herself. “Well, the Elements of Harmony are represented and only usable by us. They are extremely powerful magical objects that are used to keep the land balanced and peaceful.” Ryan whistled.

“Wow. I wish my world had something like that.” The girls smiled at him, but their eyes were clearly sorry for him.

“Yes, it did sound like your world could use something like that.” Ryan nodded slowly, thoughtfully. It really could.

The talking brought them to late in the evening, almost to the darkened sky. “Whoa! Ah guess we’d better get goin’.” Applejack said. Her sister whined. “Now, now. Ah’m sure that y’all can talk to Harkness another time.” She looked to Ryan.

“Sure, I suppose. Next time I’m free.” Applejack smiled half-heartedly and took her sister away.

“I suppose we should go too. Sweetie Belle has school tomorrow.” Without waiting for a complaint, Rarity picked up her sister in her magic and left.

“Yeah, I should get going too. Later!” Rainbow sped off.

“Wait for me, Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo yelled, getting on her scooter and speeding away.

Pinkie Pie was the next to leave. “Later!” she said. Suddenly, she disappeared.

“What the..?” Ryan looked around; no sign of her. He looked to Twilight and Fluttershy.

“It’s just Pinkie being Pinkie.” they both said. Ryan scratched his head.

“I guess that physics don’t apply here.” he said to himself. Twilight heard that comment, but let it go. Fluttershy walked up to Ryan and touched his hand.

“I should go to. And remember; if you’re ever hurt, I’ll be able to help you.” She turned around and left, looking back at Ryan as she walked away. While he was questioning her demeanor, Twilight walked over.

“She’s still worried about you.” she explained. “I’m sure it will pass.”

Ryan stuck his hands in his pockets. “I guess.”

Ryan walked over to his spot from earlier and sat back down. “Well, that was an... interesting day. For you girls, I mean.” Twilight trotted over and sat before him, trailed by Spike, who Ryan had forgotten about. No need to tell him that.

“It certainly was. Maybe it will be as interesting for my family tomorrow.” Ryan nodded thoughtfully.

“What should I be expecting, questions or otherwise?” Twilight looked up at the ceiling in ponderance.

“Well, my brother is a captain of the Royal Guard. He’ll be interested in your personal history, since you are unknown to him.” Ryan breathed in deep and let it out slow. “As for the others... they’ll just want to learn a little about you. My brother, though, will practically want to interrogate you.” Ryan looked at her.

“Wow, it must be a nightmare for you to get a boyfriend.” Twilight blushed a little, and Spike chuckled.

“No. I’m not looking for one anyhow.”

Ryan put his hands up. “Alright.”

His goal was achieved; she wasn’t about to let it go. “What does that mean?” she asked. He looked at Spike; he got the cue.

“Nothing.” he said, getting up. Twilight pushed him back down with her magic.

“No, it means something. Now tell me.” She looked mad.

“I didn’t consent to this!” Ryan shouted. Twilight turned deep red, but kept him down.

“Tell me!” She lifted him up into the air. Meanwhile, Spike was in hysterics behind her. He, too, found himself in the air. “Tell me!” Ryan flailed about in the air; there was no escape.

“My bubble has been violated!” Twilight dropped both males to the ground. Spike just kept laughing.

“He’s laughing! You must mean something!” She held Ryan down with a hoof.

“So, you’re the kind who prefers to be dominant?” Ryan asked. Twilight tried to open her mouth to respond, but no words came. By now, she was totally flushed. “I’m more of a ‘go with the flow’ kind of guy myself. How about you, Spike?” Twilight’s eyes went wide and her head whipped around to look at Spike.

“Well-” She cut him off.

“Enough of this conversation!” she said. She clearly was not interested in hearing what was essentially her little brother’s fantsasies.

Ryan looked at Spike, who was out of it, he was laughing so hard. He looked at Twilight; she had figured out what was happening. “You just did all of that to embarrass me, didn’t you?” Ryan nodded, with a small smile; he hadn’t particularly enjoyed it, but it was kind of fun. Mostly, it was about getting the ponies to like him enough to respect his privacy. His methods were unorthodox, sure, but they might work.

“Yes.” His answer was short and to the point. Twilight shook her head.

“Please just don’t do it tomorrow.” Ryan sat up, knocking Twilight back.

“No promises.”

*********************************************************************************

Luna walked back to her chambers after raising the moon in a neutral mood. She wasn’t happy, but she was on her way to getting over Ryan’s death. It wasn’t easy, and it was entirely possible for her to backtrack, but she was on the road to recovery. She only wished that Ryan was somehow alive; that way, she could apologize and try to make things right for him.

She entered her chambers, where Starstep was waiting for her. He had set up a chess table while she was gone. “Good evening, Starstep.” she greeted. He nodded.

“Hello. I was thinking that we might play a round of chess.” She had figured that out, and rolled her eyes as she walked forward. She sat down at the small table.

“Why not?” She took the white side, so she went first. “I could use something to distract myself.” Her guard nodded.

“I know what you mean.” he replied. After Luna made her move, he went. “Sometimes, I just like to lose myself in the game.”

They played for over an hour, silently trying to outdo and outlast the other. Eventually, at the climax of the game, Starstep took Luna’s King. “Agh!” she cried out in mild frustration. It had been a good game. Starstep snickered across from her.

“I win.” he said, earning a glare from his princess. “It was a good game.” Luna nodded and looked down at the board. Starstep’s pieces were much more abundant than hers.

“You have certainly dominated me.” she said. She stood up and walked over to her fireplace and took a seat. “Quite a show of talent.” Starstep joined her.

“Thank you.” He sat.

The two sat in relative silence for a time, simply content to be there. Starstep periodically looked over at Luna; her face had a worn appearance. “You look exhausted.” he commented, hoping to get something out of her. “Is everything alright?” Luna looked down for a moment, contemplating. She shook her head, her long, ethereal mane gently wafting about.

“No, I’m afraid not.” Starstep frowned sadly, his brow lowering in sympathy. “I can’t get it out of my head.” Luna explained. “It’s like he’s still here somehow, not letting me forget. I know he wouldn’t do such a thing to me, but still. I feel like, maybe, I’m holding him here against his will.” She sniffed loudly. “I don’t know what to do. I keep having nightmares...”

Starstep got up and sat next to her, wrapping a foreleg around her and pulling her close. “Shh.” he said. “Come now... you must know how to move on. You need to move past it. If you don’t, you can never be happy. And neither can I.” He hugged her tightly. She leaned into him. “Remember, you’ll always have me and Princess Celestia, and any of your subjects. We’re all here to help you.” Luna sniveled, and a tear came from her eye onto Starstep’s chest. He held her close.

Eventually, she stood taller and looked away, out the window. “I wish I could have said goodbye to him. At least have extended that courtesy to him.” Starstep nodded, understanding perfectly.

“Come on,” he said. “You should sleep.” Luna nodded, and the two walked back over to the bed and slept.

*********************************************************************************

Ryan looked around at all the preparations that were made. Everything was spotless, reorganized, and in perfect order. Twilight had way overdone it.

He looked at the clock; it was about half past ten in the morning. The ponies that he was about to be questioned by would be there in about half an hour. Ryan ran through how he was going to dodge certain questions one more time. “Past; stick to my days in America. Martial Arts; my favorite activity. Dreams; navy career, no elaboration on it.” He went through the rest of it as fast as he could. He wasn’t even sure if he would need any of these, but he wasn’t about to take chances. He looked down at his leg; the scars from the land mine were mostly hidden by dirt. He had his sleeves down, even though it was really hot, so those were fine. The scarf and beret were on the coat rack by the door, so hopefully they would go unnoticed. Lastly, he had his vest on under his jacket, so nothing would seem particularly out of place besides him being a human. “Good to go.” he thought doubtfully.

Twilight was frantically running around, with a flustered Spike trying to keep up. Ryan just watched as they sprinted about, checking everything AGAIN. Whoever this princess was, she must be really into having places made perfect for her.

Seems like a real diva of a ruler.” Ryan thought. He was silently loathing having to meet such a being.

“Harkness, would you mind helping me?” Twilight asked. Ryan looked up. She had brought a little round table out with a bunch of sitting pillows and set it in the study area. “Would you go and get the tea and biscuits and dinnerware?” Ryan nodded and walked into the kitchen. There was a much larger table in there, but it wasn’t nearly as made up as the one in the library.

“Must not be using this.” Ryan concluded quickly. He looked around for the dinnerware and food. There was an obvious pantry, but the only dinnerware was what looked like fine china. He shrugged and grabbed it. “China coming out, watch where you’re going.” he announced as he exited the kitchen. Twilight must have run upstairs, because she was missing. Ryan shrugged again and put everything on the table, then went back for the food.

When he came back out with the food, Twilight had returned from her excursion to the upstairs area. She had a long list; it went all the way up the stairs; and she was checking things off. “I didn’t think those even existed...” Ryan thought as he looked at the list. Twilight checked off one last thing and sighed contently.

“There. Everything’s taken care of.” Ryan walked over to the table and set the food down.

“Well, not EVERYTHING.” he said. Twilight looked at him, then shook her head, smirking.

“Oh, Harkness. I know your game.” Ryan shrugged. She had forgotten something for him to sit on, but that wasn’t important.

He looked back at the clock. It was only five ‘til. “What the heck?” he thought. That didn’t really take that long, did it?

“Oh, wow! We just made it! They should start arriving any minute.” Ryan took in a deep breath and let it out nice and slow. This was going to be the ultimate moment of truth; if the leader felt one way or another about him, it would seal his fate in what would likely not be good regardless of how it was sealed.

“Here we begin.” he said quietly to himself. He walked over to a shelf and pulled out a book to pretend to read. No reason to stand awkwardly in the middle of the room when someone entered.

Sure enough, at around nine after eleven, there was a series of knocks on the door. “Here they are!” Twilight announced. She looked at Ryan with a mock scowl. “Behave yourself.” she ordered half seriously. Ryan put his hands in the air, then put them back down.

“When do I ever not?” he replied. Twilight didn’t hear and went and opened the door.

“Twilight!” a male voice sang out.

“Dad!” Ryan peeked up from the book; a blue stallion was putting Twilight in a massive bear hug. A very light purple mare followed soon after.

“Ooh, little Twilight! I’ve been waiting to see you! How are you?” Small talk ensued at the door. After a few minutes, Twilight invited what was likely her parents to come in.

“Please, make yourselves at home.” Ryan looked at the ponies; they hadn’t even noticed Ryan yet. They may have thought he was a decoration, he was so still. Ryan shifted in his spot, ready but not ready.

“So, where is this stallion you mentioned?” her father asked. Twilight looked, then pointed at Ryan.

“Yo.”

Both ponies turned around and yelped at the sudden noise from what they hadn’t thought to be alive. Ryan took a hand off the book and gave them a small wave. The ponies were wide-eyed and agape of mouth.

“What- what- huh?” the male one said. Ryan cocked an eyebrow. It must have intimidated them a bit.

“Mom, dad, this is Harkness.” Ryan snorted, drawing strange looks. “He’s the new... stallion. He’s a human.” Ryan shut the book and stepped away from the wall, extending a hand. He was tentative, but had to appear not so.

“Hi.” The stallion put his hoof in Ryan’s hand and shook.

“Hello... I’m, uhh, Nightlight.” The mare walked up and extended a hoof. Ryan released Nightlight and took it.

“I’m Twilight Velvet.” Ryan nodded.

“Good to make your acquaintance.” He released Twilight Velvet’s hoof and stepped back a bit.

The two parties took in each other’s sights for a moment. The ponies were clearly Twilight Sparkle’s parents; there were too many similarities. The ponies, though, could determine nothing from Ryan’s physical appearance. They had never even heard of a human before. He had five fingers and body that looked like it was probably mostly hairless. He looked bulky under whatever clothes he was wearing.

“You’re... not what we were expecting.” Nightlight said sheepishly. Ryan shrugged again; by the end of his stay, his shoulders would be massive.

“I would imagine not.” Twilight Sparkle walked forward, sensing the awkwardness.

“Well, I’m glad to see that you got here in peace. Why don’t we catch up while we wait for the others?” Ryan nodded to that; he didn’t want to say anything more than once. If he screwed up his story, he would be in serious trouble.

Ryan picked up the book again and actually started reading it while the family of ponies before him talked happily, occasionally looking his way. Nightlight seemed especially interested in him. “I wonder what he’s thinking?” Ryan met his Nightlight’s gaze and nodded. Nightlight smiled a bit and nodded back. Whatever Ryan just did for him, it was clearly good.

About fifteen minutes after Twilight Sparkle’s parents arrived, a carriage could be heard outside. Several ponies neighed and kicked at the ground, causing a massive ruckus. Ryan swallowed hard. “Sounds like a royal carriage.” This would be the toughest unwanted social moment of all.

Knock knock knock. Ryan kept the book in hand, his hands growing sweaty and trembling. He had no idea why he was so nervous; was it that he was meeting the leader of another nation who could do whatever she felt like to him? No, probably not. Maybe it was just the implications that this would mean for him in public from this moment on. Twilight answered the door. When she bowed, Ryan knew that he was about to jump into the fray.

“Here we go.” he whispered. Twilight backed up after bowing followed by a large white horse with wings and a horn. Her mane was multihued and she had a cutie mark of the sun. This was Luna’s sister.

“I’m glad to have come, Twilight.” Twilight’s parents bowed to the large being coming through the doorway.

The large white alicorn looked around and spotted Ryan quickly. “Oh.” she said, raising her eyebrows and opening her eyes a bit wider. “I wasn’t aware that he wasn’t a stallion.” Twilight smiled sheepishly, almost nervously.

“I might have forgotten to mention that.” Ryan walked forward to meet this princess. Her appearance immediately shot down his preconceived notion of her.

“Hello.” he said, extending a hand. “I’m Harkness.” He could feel a bead of sweat on his forehead. The princess smiled and put her hoof in his sweaty hand.

“Greetings. I’m Princess Celestia.” She put her hoof back on the ground. “And you have no need to be nervous.” Something about her tone made Ryan relax a bit. Just a bit.

She looked to the table. “I see Twilight has set up a nice table for us.” Her smile was incredibly disarming. When Ryan realized this, he put his guard up and decided to keep it up.

“Yes, Princess. Would you like to sit down?” Twilight Sparkle asked. Celestia nodded.

“I’m sure we would all love to sit while we wait for Shining Armor and Cadance.” Celestia started walking toward the table, followed by Twilight’s parents, Twilight, and then Ryan.

They all sat the the relatively small round table. Spike ran to the kitchen. “So, Harkness.” Princess Celestia began. “What is your species exactly?” Ryan sat down on the wooden floor, leaving the remaining two pillows for the final guests.

“We’re called humans.” he answered simply. He crossed his legs under the table, bumping it and vibrating everything.

“Ah. And might I ask where you are from?” Ryan leaned on the table in an effort to look more comfortable. Whether it worked or not, he could not say.

“I’m from a country called the United States of America. But most people just call it either America or the US.” Princess Celestia nodded.

“Interesting.”

She studied the human for a moment. She was curious as to why the human looked to strangely bulky and misshapen, and why he averted his gaze when she tried to look at his eyes.

“Well, as I’m sure you already know, this is Equestria. My sister Luna and I rule together. She moves the moon, and I move the sun. It’s too bad she couldn’t come here to meet you.”

Ryan’s mind raced as soon as she finished the statement. He did know her, and he could very easily tell them all that. But, what kinds of questions might follow? Would he be able to answer them safely? Or, more importantly, would they tell Luna about him? “It’s an unnecessary risk.” he concluded. Maybe some other time.

“Interesting. I always just thought that the sun and moon moved on their own.” Celestia smiled again, clearly trying to disarm Ryan. Though he was having no part of it.

“Nope. Me and my sister.” She went on. “Equestria is a large nation, with many races and species living in it. You’ve already encountered the different ponies, but we also have Zebras, Griffons, Dragons, and others.” Ryan widened his eyes in surprise.

“Wow. We only have one sentient race back home; us. We pretty much own whatever place we live in because of that.” Celestia nodded, intrigued by the information. The other ponies were listening intently.

“Interesting.” Celestia replied.

Spike came back, and as he did, there were more knocks on the door. He quickly set up everything at the table and went to answer the door. “Shining! Cadance! Great, you’ve arrived! Everyone else is at the table.” Ryan looked to the door and saw, first, a white stallion with a blue mane and a large chest walk in. He wore a casual uniform, definitely a guard. Behind him came his presumed wife, a pink mare like Celestia with wings and a horn who had a three-colored mane. Shining had a shield for his cutie mark and Cadance had a heart.

“Great to be here Spike.” Shining replied. Cadance smiled. Spotting the group at the table, they walked over.

“Hey every... one...” Shining’s and Cadance’s shared words slowed to a stop when they looked at Ryan sitting at the table. “Is that, uhh, Harkness?” Cadance asked. Ryan slid back and stood and walked over.

“Indeed I am.” He extended a hand to the princess. She took it and shook.

“Umm, hello.” She was clearly shocked to see this creature. Her husband was looking at him with his head cocked to the side. “It’s good to meet you.” Ryan extended his hand to Shining Armor, who took it firmly. They locked eyes.

“Likewise.” Shining replied. There was a hint of malicious suspicion in his voice. A warrior can always recognize another warrior from a mile away.

They all sat around the table, the ponies all interested in Ryan. “So, Harkness.” Nightlight started. “What, uhh, kinds of things do you like to do?” Ryan clasped his hands together on the table before him.

“Well, I like to SCUBA dive and I practice Karate.” Nightlight’s and Shinging’s ears perked at the word Karate.

“Interesting.” Shining muttered. Why was everything interesting to them? Ryan kept an eye in his direction; he had no idea what to expect from this guy.

The mares, though, were more interested in the SCUBA diving. “Wow, SCUBA diving? Most ponies only dream of that, the sport is so expensive! What’s it like?” Twilight Velvet asked. Ryan was about to answer when more questions flew at him. “How deep have you gone?” Twilight Sparkle asked. Ryan waited just a moment, then answered.

“Well, the deepest I’ve ever gone was about one hundred and sixteen feet down. It was dark and cold, but really cool. I’ve seen sharks, manta rays, skates, exotic fish, sea lions, and various crustaceans.” The mares eyes lit up, except for Celestia’s. She looked impressed, though.

“So, what kinds of certifications do you have?” Shining asked out of nowhere. He was apparently more interested in Ryan’s skill set than anything else. Ryan answered honestly to this question.

“Advanced open water, Nitrox, Dry suit, and Rescue Diver.” The last one raised Shining’s eyebrows. His father was looking very impressed.

“So, do you rescue people when they’re under the water?” he asked. Ryan gave a small chuckle; it was only slightly genuine.

“No, never had to. I’m still a student, so I don’t have a job in this field yet.” Nor would he, any more.

Twilight Sparkle looked like she was going to explode. “So you’re still a student.” she said. “What do you study?” Ryan shrugged.

“In public school, we study a bunch of stuff. We do math, science, history, foreign language, literature, grammar, health, technology, finances, and tons of other stuff. It’s a lot, but we manage.”

Twilight leaned back a bit. “Very nice.” Of course, he hadn’t told them that he was from a fairly privileged town; most don’t have so many options.

“So, if I may ask, what is Equestria like?” Ryan asked. He was trying to get the topic off of him. It worked; the conversation went to the inner workings of Equestria for about two hours. Spike had joined them and sat next to Ryan, claiming that they were already “brothers from other mothers”. Ryan didn’t want to come off as an asshole, so he went with it. But, the whole time, Shining was scrutinizing him, trying to discern something about him. He was trying to puzzle something together about the human before him, Ryan could tell. Locking eyes with him had not gone over well.

Another thing Ryan noticed during the conversation was Shining’s wife, Cadance. At one point, she had looked straight at him, intensely. Her horn had a very light blue aura around it, barely visible. She seemed to be focusing hard on something. When Ryan saw that she noticed him looking at her, he cocked an eyebrow. Quickly and ashamedly, she released the aura and looked to whoever was talking.

“So, that’s how we saved Equestria from Nightmare Moon.” Thankfully, Ryan had developed a way to pay attention to multiple things at once. Give one hundred percent to something for one moment, then quickly switch to something else the next. If you change rapidly enough, you catch just enough of each to fill in the blanks, and you can effectively have two, or if you’re good, three conversations at once. It’s not easy.

“Very cool. I can’t say that I’m much of a hero back home.” So very true.

Shining had evidently been waiting long enough. “So, that’s our homeland. But, back to you.” he said. Ryan turned to face him. “You say you do Karate.” Ryan nodded.

“For over thirteen years.” Shining nodded. The boy had been raised knowing how to fight.

“Are you a warrior?” The room went silent for a moment, all eyes focusing on Ryan. Even Celestia looked at him, anxious for a response.

“Yes, in a way, I suppose. I wasn’t a soldier, if that’s what you’re getting at.” Shining leaned forward.

“But I can see it in your eyes. You’ve seen combat.” Everypony’s eyes went a little wider, except for Nightlight’s. Celestia seemed a bit surprised herself.

“... Yes.”

Twilight’s mouth fell a little bit. He had not planned on her finding this out. Her brother had just single-handedly shredded his plan to keep his past hidden. “It wasn’t pleasant, and I would rather not talk about it.” Ryan looked down and took a sip of tea as he said it. The table was completely silent.

“That’s fine.” Celestia broke the silence. Ryan looked back up; Shining was getting a scolding look from his wife, who looked back at Ryan with sad eyes.

“Alright.” Shining said. “Sorry to bring it up.”

Ryan shook his head. “You had no way of knowing.” With his acceptance of the apology, a collective breath was let out at the table.

Small talk started breaking out at the table. Mostly, it was between Twilight and her family. They talked about a Crystal Empire, which apparently Shining Armor and Cadance ruled over together. Twilight talked about her experiments. Her parents talked about parent things, and trolled their kids with innuendos a couple of times.

While they spoke, and Celestia was looking at them, Ryan slipped away and into the kitchen with his dinnerware. He looked around; no dishwasher. He walked over to the sink and started cleaning. “Trying to take my job?” Spike asked mockingly from behind. Ryan wasn’t startled.

“Of course. My current jobs aren’t paying me enough to get what I want soon enough, so I’ll be taking yours.” Spike laughed.

“Well, I hope you’re ready to be abused by Twilight.” Ryan looked at Spike and cocked an eyebrow.

“I’m sure she would LOVE to.” Spike got it in a moment of awkwardly putting the pieces together.

“Eww!” Ryan shook his head and got back to washing. “Nasty, dude, she’s like my sister!”

Ryan nodded. “Exactly.”

Ryan finished washing. “Alright, back into the fray.” Ryan said. He walked out of the kitchen. Celestia noticed him and stood. The others were busy being extremely into whatever conversation they were having, laughing and slapping the table, and didn’t notice.

“Hello, Harkness.” Celestia greeted. Spike bowed, but Ryan stood tall.

“Hello.”

Celestia looked back to her family and extended family. “I’ve been hoping to talk to you one on one. Do you think that we might?” She smiled at him again, trying to get him to relax. No such thing would occur.

“Sure.” Ryan patted Spike on the back to go to the table, and walked into the kitchen, followed by the princess.

“Soooo... what’s on your mind?” he asked, curious as to why the leader of a nation was taking interest in him. She sat at the table in the kitchen.

“I was just hoping to get to know you a little more. When Twilight sent me a letter inviting me here, I thought she had met a very special somepony.” It took Ryan a moment to process that.

“No, I can assure you, she has no such interest in me.”

Celestia nodded. “She told me in her letter. But no more of that.” She gestured for Ryan to sit at the table with her. He did so. “I’ve noticed that you seem to be rather tense.” she said, her face looking more concerned now. “Are you alright?” Ryan shrugged.

“Well, having a hole blown through my chest cavity couldn’t have helped. But to answer, yes, right now, I am alright.” Celestia must not have been satisfied with the answer.

“I think you noticed that I’ve been trying to make you feel safer and trying to get you to relax.” Ryan nodded. “So why aren’t you?” Ryan took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“The last stranger that I met did some bad things to me and my friends. I’m sorry if I’m a bit apprehensive.”

Celestia looked at him, even more concerned. “Who is this stranger, if I may ask? I don’t want you to feel threatened.” Ryan chuckled.

“Would you arrest him if you found him?” he asked. Celestia nodded. “I’m sorry, but you can’t. He’s dead.” Celestia blinked twice, then shook her head.

“I’m sorry?” she asked. Ryan repeated himself. “How did he die?” she asked. Ryan shook his head.

“Like I told Shining Armor, that’s not something I want to talk about.”

Celestia moved over and sat next to Ryan. Her disarming presence proved too much, and he allowed her to move. “I understand.” she said. Ryan had a feeling that she really did. Though not fully. “Are your friends alright?” she asked. Ryan shrugged.

“As far as I know, one is still alive.” Celestia’s brow lowered sadly. She put a wing around Ryan.

“I’m sorry.” Ryan used his hand to take her wing off.

“Yeah, well. I was sorry too. That didn’t help.” He stood up and moved away, leaning against the counter. “They’re gone, and they aren’t coming back.” He had no idea why he was telling her any of this; then he realized that he was TELLING her these things. “I’m not going to say more.”

There was a short silence. Then, Celestia stood up and moved a little closer to Ryan. “Is Harkness your name?” she asked. Ryan looked up at the wall.

“... No.” Behind him, she nodded.

“Why wouldn’t you tell us your name?” Ryan turned around to face the princess.

“Because I’m trying to leave it behind. Now, please, let’s not talk about that.”

She nodded. “Okay. But remember, if you need help, you have friends here now who will give it to you.” Ryan nodded. He knew that they would try their damndest, but they wouldn’t get anywhere.

Celestia changed the subject. “So how are you liking Equestria so far?” she asked.

“Good enough. It’s better then my world, I think. In some ways.” Celestia smiled.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it.” She looked back into the room, where the others were laughing away. “It’s good to have things and ponies you care about.” Ryan thought that over. He concluded that it was, in fact, good. “Did you have any family back home?” Ryan thought back on his home and smiled, despite himself.

“Yeah. They were great. We did all sorts of fun stuff together.” His smile faltered. “I miss them.” He had been selfish in pursuing Narendra. His family was never going to see him again, and he wouldn’t see them either. Celestia sat in front of him.

“I know how you feel. I have seen many friends leave me in my many years alive.” She stood. “But we cannot let the things we lose dominate our lives; we have to focus on what we have. Otherwise, we have nothing.” Ryan looked up at her; she was nice. “Let’s rejoin the others.” Ryan nodded, and they went back into the study area.

While they returned to the table, the other ponies noticed that they had been gone. “Where were you?” Cadance asked, curious.

“We were just talking one on one.” She looked around, making sure Shining Armor and Twilight Sparkle noticed that she was looking at their parents, and smiled. “He’s a fine young stallion.” That one sentence was enough to turn Twilight’s face red, raise one of Ryan’s eyebrows, stop the parents’ movements, and freeze Shining Armor in place. Cadance giggled.

“Twilight, can we talk?” Twilight Velvet said. Still red and glaring at Ryan, not her teacher, Twilight went with her parents into the kitchen.

When they were gone, Celestia and Cadance shared a laugh, all while Shining Armor and Ryan stood there, confused. Then, they got it.

“Not funny...” Shining Armor muttered to himself. He looked at Ryan. “You better not have any ideas.” his glare said. Ryan responded with a look of his own.

I don’t know what the hell is going on.

Shining Armor relaxed his gaze, then turned to his wife. “Nice.” he said. Ryan had a feeling that he was about to become the center of a very strange conversation.

“Oh, come on, honey. You of all ponies should enjoy messing with your little sister.” Celestia smiled a trollish little smile. Shining Armor sighed. “It’s just because he can’t stand the idea of some stallion whisking his little sister away to romance and wonder.” Cadance commented.

Ryan suddenly got it all. “Run! Run! Run!” his brain shouted. But he just sat there. “No. I just... I mean, I don’t...” He was caught.

Ryan tried to shrink away, but Shining walked over and poked his chest. He thought that he was about to be assaulted. “You know what I’m saying, right?” he asked. Ryan blinked. Not expected, but not bad.

“I don’t have a little sister, but I can understand why you feel this way. It makes sense to me.” Shining grinned wide and put his foreleg around Ryan.

“See? He gets it.” Celestia and Cadance just looked at each other.

“Stallions.” they concluded simultaneously.

“Psh.” Shining looked at Ryan. “Mares.” Ryan agreed.

Soon, a flustered looking Twilight Sparkle walked out with relieved looking parents. “Now that that is settled, I say we send the stallions away.” Cadance suggested. Ryan, Shining Armor, and Nightlight all looked at her with stunned expressions.

“What?” they all asked.

Spike came down. “What?” he asked. He was tossed by magic over to Ryan, who caught him with some difficulty.

“Yeah. Mares night!” Twilight Velvet shouted. Twilight Sparkle smiled wide, excited to have a girls’ night, it seemed. The stallions, dragon, and man looked to Celestia.

“You heard her.” she said, still trollishly smiling. Before they could respond, the combined magic of the mares sent them out the front door.

The stallions all stood up and dusted themselves off. “Well, that happened.” Ryan stated. They all looked at each other. “What now?” he asked.

Nightlight looked off in the distance. “I say we hit a bar.” Shining Armor agreed, as did Ryan.

“Hey!” Spike yelled. he wore a mean looking scowl. “I’m not old enough.” Ryan thought for a moment.

“We’ll drop you at Rarity’s.” His scowl disappeared, replaced with a look of childish excitement.

“Let’s go!” he shouted. The stallions walked off to find a good bar.

In the library, the mares were telling stories about their respective stallions or stallions of the past. “And when Nightlight proposed, he knelt down to ask, but when he did, he slipped and fell right on his face!” They all laughed. Once they were calmed down, they all looked at the door.

“Alright. So, what do you ladies think of Harkness?” Twilight Velvet asked.

“He seems nice.” Celestia confirmed. “He’s had his share of troubles, but I think he is good deep down. Though I’m not sure about how happy he is.”

Twilight Sparkle looked at her teacher. “I don’t think he is either.” They turned to Cadance, who was silent. “What do you think?”

She looked around, sadly recalling what her spell had told of him. “He’s definitely not happy. At all.” She paused. The other mares didn’t speak. “I used my magic to see if Celestia’s suspicions were correct about you and him.” Twilight blushed. “But the thing is... there was no love in him.”

The reactions varied. Celestia nodded knowingly, like she had already determined that. Twilight Velvet looked horrified at the prospect, and her daughter looked disbelieving. “Whatever he’s experienced, it took away whatever love he had. When I searched, the only things I found were anger, and hate, sadness, loss... the list goes on. I don’t think he was being truthful with us half the time he spoke, and probably for good reasons.” Twilight Sparkle looked at her step-sister displeasingly, but when she saw the genuine sadness in her eyes, she shared the feeling.

“How? How could anything do that to someone?”

Cadance shook her head. “I can partly answer that.” Celestia said suddenly. “I spoke to him privately in the kitchen. His experiences were quite bad. I got no detail, but he said that as far as he knows, ONE of his friends is still ALIVE.” The other mares let out a collective gasp. “Taken by a very bad being.” She didn’t mention how that being was dead.

The conversation had lost all of its giddiness. “I wish I knew how to help him.” Twilight Sparkle said. Cadance turned her head in her direction.

“You did, actually. There was one thing that I found in him that might be a sign of that.” Twilight’s head shot to her step-sister. “He has some level of hope. For what, I’m not sure, but I know it’s there because of you. I don’t think he’s even aware of it; but it’s there. All you can do now is try to make that hope grow into more.”

Twilight nodded determinedly. “Than that’s what I’ll do.”

And they left the topic at that and had a fun night of gossip while the stallions were out just drinking.

Honesty

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Honesty

Every one of us lives life just once; if we are honest, to live once is enough.” (Greta Grabo)

Ryan was leaning against the wall of his trench, just trying his best to keep his mind clear. The previous night had been difficult. Shining Armor had been trying to get Ryan to drink more then he should, presumably because he knew it would mess up his inhibitions. Shining clearly knew that Ryan wasn’t telling the truth. It was especially highlighted when Shining questioned Ryan’s wartime history. The only reason he had to stop was because Nightlight had told him to. He was pretty cool, Nightlight. He didn’t press Ryan for information.

Ryan learned some interesting things about the two stallions he had to drink with. Shining Armor was a prince, thanks to his marriage to Cadance. He was previously a captain of the guard in Equestria and had fought the Changeling invasion. Ryan had to have it explained to him what a changeling was. It certainly explained why Shining Armor was so interested in Ryan’s secretive past; he naturally didn’t trust Ryan. Nightlight, too, had been a guard, though not as highly ranked as Shining Armor. He seemed more reserved, like he had seen more legitimate combat then Shining Armor.

All, in all, Ryan was just glad to have gotten out with his secrets intact.

From what he had determined from the way they acted and spoke, they would all be here for at least another day. Thankfully, Ryan had to work at Sweet Apple Acres today. They wouldn’t be able to question him so incessantly.

Unless they really want to pester me.” He remembered his conversation with Celestia; no doubt she had told the mares about what she learned. Ryan groaned. “This day is gonna suck.” He looked to either side of himself. He was all alone.

“Hey Ryan.” Or maybe not. Ryan looked up; it was him.

“What the hell do you want?” he asked.

The Wraith jumped down into the trench and took the opposite side of Ryan. “I just came to chat. Is that so wrong?” Ryan grunted, drawing a chuckle from the Wraith.

“Yes.” The Wraith just kept on laughing and shook his head.

“Come now, Harkness. You know, that was a terrible name choice. You know what I’m here for.” Ryan glared at him.

“No. Enlighten me.” The Wraith stopped smiling for a moment, but it quickly came back.

“I’m here to tell you that you have to leave this place. You can’t possibly stay any more.” Ryan sat up and put his hand to the Automag at his side.

“What makes you say that?”

The Wraith walked around the trench. “They know that something is up with you. You can’t deny that. And by now, odds are, all of them know. Isn’t that just what you were avoiding?” Ryan stood. “They’re going to run you out of town. Now, if they tried to do that to me, I’d just shoot ’em. And you would too. But that’s the thing; isn’t that what you’re trying to escape from?” Ryan stood on his guard.

“I won’t kill any of them unless I have to.” The Wraith laughed loudly.

“And what defines ‘have to’?” Ryan could feel sweat on his brow, beading and dropping along his face in tiny droplets. “You can’t. And so you’ll just kill, like you always have.” Ryan pulled the Automag.

“Shut up.”

“Oh ho ho! Did I strike a nerve?” Ryan stepped forward.

“I didn’t have a choice. I-” The Wraith took on a sinister tone.

“YOU HAD EVERY CHOICE!” Ryan fell back. “You made your decisions because you’re a selfish pile of trash! You can’t accept that; but you know it to be true.”

Ryan pointed the gun forward. “Oh, what, are you going to shoot me?” The Wraith asked. “Please, by all means. I’ll at least be rid of you.”

Ryan snarled. “Gladly.”

He fired the gun, an ear-cracking boom slamming its way through the landscape. The bullet slammed into the dirt behind the Wraith and exploded out of the ground behind him. The smoke from the gun trailed slowly into the air. Behind it, Ryan’s face contorted with anger and confusion.

“Surprised?” the Wraith asked. Ryan fired again. “Please, don’t waste more ammo. You might need it.” the Wraith said with a smirk.

“How- why- I shot you!”

The Wraith bellowed out in laughter. “You honestly thought that would work?” he asked. Ryan scowled. “You can’t shoot me any more then you can shoot yourself. I’m unkillable.” Ryan spun around and leapt out of the trench. “You can’t run forever!” the Wraith shouted after him as he ran. “I will always find you!” Ryan just kept running, the sounds of evil laughter following him like an echo in the darkest cave.

*******************************************************************************

Luna woke with a start. She had just had the strangest dream, almost real. She hadn’t been dream traveling that night; she saw no need. But something had awoken her.

She looked over at Starstep, who was snoring and drooling all over Luna’s nice pillows. She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Ah, Starstep.” she whispered. With the grace of a feline, Luna jumped off the bed silently and walked over to the window. Outside, the night was looking fantastic, even if getting ready to come to a close. She could still see her moon and stars all over the sky, especially the special one she made to commemorate her fallen friend. “I wish I could do more.” she thought solemnly. She sat her rump down on the ground and watched the sky.

“You’re up early.” she heard her guard say from behind.

“I could say the same for you.”

He chuckled. “I always wake up early. It’s just that in here, I can go back to sleep.” He sat down next to Luna.

“I can imagine why.” She leaned into him playfully.

He leaned back. “So what got you up so early?” he asked.

Luna looked down toward the ground. “I had an unusual dream.” Starstep looked at her, cocked eyebrow and widened eyes.

“An unusual dream? For you?” He was honestly surprised. Luan nodded.

“Yes. It was about Ryan.” Starstep deflated a bit inside. “But it wasn’t bad. I dreamed that he was here, in Equestria. And he was with several stallions, drinking happily.” She turned and looked up at her guard. “Does it mean something?” Starstep looked outside at the glory of the near dawn.

“I think it does.”

They were silent for a moment, then Luna began to hum a gentle tune. “You know you’re killing that lullaby, right?” She used her magic to yank on his tail, earning a yelp from him.

“Don’t ruin the moment.” Starstep chuckled, and they went back to looking out the window and into the eternal bounty that is the night sky.

*******************************************************************************

Ryan looked back; the Wraith was nowhere to be seen. He seemed to have gotten away. “Just what is he?” he wondered. He looked at the pistol in his hand; he had wasted two shots. “Dammit.” He thought back on how much he had left; that left a total of ten for the Automag and fourteen for the Colt. “Gotta conserve it better.” He holstered the gun and walked around the still dark town.

It was odd, really, to walk around a population center and have NOTHING happening. There were no ponies around in the dark, no fillies or colts playing. It was a pure, dead silence. He walked around tentatively, not wanting to risk waking any of the residents.

“Probably already woke a bunch with the Automag.” Ryan said to himself. Silently, he cursed the extraordinary loudness of the .44 magnum round.

Ryan still had about two hours before he had to be at the orchards, so he walked around aimlessly. He looked around, saw what might be called the sights. There was town hall, dark and ominous in the black of the night. It stood tall, trying its best to block away the light of the moon. There was a bridge, over the river reflecting all the stars of the endless night. Even the special star shone brightly in it. There was the library, built into a tree, and there was also the boutique, the only other particularly notable building.

Ryan stopped at the boutique, seeing a bench on the other side of the road. He sat down and let out a long, exhausted breath. He hadn’t slept that night; without the alcohol totally taking him over, it only made it easier for him to think of the past. That was why he just sat in his trench, blankly staring into the dirt.

“I have to figure things out.” he said to himself. He was buzzed; otherwise, he wouldn't have admitted that.

He heard a rustle of movement behind him. Time froze while he sat at the bench. It was four in the morning; no pony should be out. Ryan got his hand on his Automag. There was a tiny voice behind him. “You shouldn’t be up at this hour, kiddos.” Ryan holstered the gun.

“Aww!”

Three little fillies came out from behind the bench and under a bush. “How’d you know we were there?” Applebloom asked in a very whiny little voice. Ryan turned and looked at the kids.

“You aren’t that stealthy. Don’t try to get special forces cutie marks.” The fillies looked at him confused, but Ryan quickly dismissed them with more words. “Why are you up at this ungodly hour?”

Still looking at him strangely, the girls replied, “Cutie Mark Crusaders Ninjas!” Ryan looked at them; they weren’t even wearing any outfits.

“Alright, then.” He looked to the boutique. His guess was that they were having a sleepover there. “Now, get back inside and go to bed. You’ll need your energy for school.”

They all looked up at him defiantly. “Not until you tell us why you’re here so early!”

Ryan deadpanned at them, “I know you’re sisters and Rainbow Dash. I don’t think they’ll like you three being out so late.” The fillies looked at each other, then sighed in defeat.

“Fine.” Applebloom said. “But we’re gonna bug you about this later.” Ryan waved them off, and they went inside the boutique.

Ryan sat on the bench for another hour before deciding to get up and walk to the orchards. He kept finding himself teetering through the streets, though. Twice, he had to stop himself and get his bearings and correct his course. He rubbed his eyes as he walked, trying to get the sand and dirt out of them so he could see. Before he even realized, he was walking into Sweet Apple Acres.

“Well, I guess I’m here.” he said to himself. He dragged his feet along as he entered the farm property.

Ryan took his time walking to the barn house where he was to meet Macintosh to start working. His sister didn’t work when Ryan did, probably because she was either heading the stand or hanging out with her friends. Mac wasn’t into that stuff, Ryan could tell; and he was totally fine with that.

“Speak of the devil.” he said as he approached the barn. Big Mac was standing there, waiting for Ryan. They nodded to each other before entering and beginning their work.

*********************************************************************************

Shining Armor woke up slowly, taking in deep breaths as he got ready to move about. He had just woken up a few minutes before, as usual, next to his fantastic wife Cadance. Her chest rose slowly in her sleep, seemingly in perfect harmony with the chirping birds of the morning. The sunlight shone gloriously through the window of the guest room that Twilight had set aside for them. Inside, the room had a nice, rustic feel; much different from the palace of the Crystal Empire.

He got out of bed, careful not to wake his wife, and looked back. After the previous night, she was most definitely tired. “Such an angel.” he said. Unable to help himself, he walked over to her side of the bed and kissed her on the forehead. He would do anything to protect her.

That brought his thoughts to the human he had met the previous day, Harkness. At least, that was what he called himself. As Celestia had revealed, that was not even his real name. He had refused to share his reasons for the fake name, and had refused to elaborate on what was clearly a violent and complex past. With all this new information, Shining Armor wasn’t sure how he felt about him. He seemed good enough; not a troublemaker. But looks can be deceiving.

I’ll have to confront him today.” he concluded. Cadance would have his head for it, or more likely NOT, but he had to make sure the this family and home country were safe from any harm.

Shining left his room , having decided to talk to Harkness today, and went downstairs, yawning all the way. He, too, had been tired out by the last night, starting with the friendly drinking. That was where his suspicions about Harkness started; he had been evading questions about a specific segment of his past, specifically how he came to Equestria, and hadn’t drank much. Shining tried to loosen up his defenses, but Harkness had seen that very clearly.

“He’s hiding something.” Shining said in a loud yawn. If anyone heard it, it was incomprehensible. “And I’m gonna find out what.”

He walked into the kitchen, expecting it to be empty, but instead walked in on Spike and Nightlight having a conversation. “Ah, Shining!” his father said. “I wasn’t expecting you to be awake. Please, join us.” Shining inwardly groaned; he had someone to speak to. But nonetheless, he sat down at the table with his male family members. “So, son, the trick to the heart of any mare is to be honest, kind, generous, but not too generous! Being funny, loyal, VERY important, and being there for them when they need you.”

Shining Armor smirked, despite himself. “I remember this talk.” He had gotten it when he was just a colt too.

“So, like, the elements of harmony?” Spike responded. Nightlight winked and clicked his tongue.

“There you go kiddo.”

That conversation was apparently over, so they turned to Shining. “So, what got you up so early?” Spike asked. “I thought that you would enjoy sleeping in.” Shining looked at his father; he already seemed to know.

“I was just thinking about the new guy.”

Spike smiled. “He’s practically a brother from another mother. We’re tight.” Nightlight smiled; Shining didn’t.

“I’m gonna try to get closer to him, you know? Talk to him.”

Spike nodded. “Cool. I think you’ll like him.”

Shining scratched his face. “I hope so.” He turned around and walked out of the kitchen.

“Son, you forgot your coffee!” Nightlight shouted after him. Shining turned around and took the coffee from his approaching father with his magic.

“Thanks.” he said, grateful for his father’s reminder.

Nightlight got up close, right to Shining’s ear. “Be careful where you tread, Shining.” he warned. “Sometimes, it’s best not to wake a sleeping bear.” Shining nodded, taking a sip of the coffee.

“Don’t I know.” He walked out of the library and went into the town. It was only seven forty-five.

********************************************************************************

Cadance woke with a big yawn and reached over to put her hoof to her husband’s chest. To her surprise, he wasn’t there. “Shining?” she said, scanning the room. He had this thing he liked to do where he would hide if he woke up first, he would ambush her and they would wrestle on the bed. They never declared a winner, though.

She got up out of bed, not happy with her husband’s absence, but not unhappy for the obvious respite. She was exhausted; the previous night, she had been playing all sorts of games with her family members.

That was really fun.” They had played word games, gossipped about “noble ponies”, and reminisced on the old days. She had recounted how she met Shining Armor, his various blunders, and the great times they were having. Twilight Velvet had recalled her first time meeting Nightlight when he was a guard in the Royal Equestrian UniCorps. That had been a most interesting tale.

As she approached her door, she heard somepony leaving the library down below. She ignored it, and instead moved outside her door and looked around. She felt like she had rolled around in the dirt and mud, like it was clinging to her coat. She felt like a bubble bath.

“Now where is the bathroom?” she wondered. She walked about the floor, looking for the bathroom, until she finally found it about as far from her room as it got. “Ah, finally!”

After finishing her shower, she looked at the bathroom clock. It read ten after eight. The extra sleep had been nice. “I love this life.” She had no idea what Harkness’ life had been like.

She went downstairs in the search for his husband. “Hello?” she said. She heard the voices of Spike and Nightlight from the stairs. “Is Shining Armor here?” she asked as she came to the bottom. Nightlight ran out of the kitchen.

“No, he just left.” He smiled oddly, but in her tired state, it flew right over Cadance.

“Where did he go?” She was curious; Shining never left without word unless it was important.

“No idea. He just said good morning and went out.” Cadance looked to the door and shrugged. He would come back later anyway.

She went into the study area to read while she waited. For whatever reason, she felt like reading an epic about an anti hero this morning.

********************************************************************************

Ryan was hard at work with Big Mac in the orchard. Swea coated his brow and was already staining his clothes; luckily, though, he had forgotten his scarf and beret at Twilight’s library the previous night, so he wasn’t wearing those. Those would have made this especially hard.

Still, he would have to try to get them back in the least noticeable manner possible later. He had no desire to continue speaking to any of Twilight’s relatives, particularly Celestia. She could read him like an open book; it made him feel exposed and vulnerable. Twilight’s father, Nightlight, had been respectful of his privacy, but his son was certainly a contrary. He had been trying to get Ryan to divulge information all night. His wife seemed alright, but he had thankfully not had to speak with her.

It was about five after eight. Ryan and Macintosh had been working hard, trying to get as much done that day as possible. They never said a word, as it was neither’s prerogative to do so. They could both appreciate a good bout of silence. It’s good for the mind sometimes.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that an outside source can’t ruin the silence seemingly out of the blue. “Harkness!” A male voice called. Ryan turned; it was Shining Armor. He looked to Macintosh, who had also looked to the source of the voice. After a quick locking of eyes, Macintosh knew that he should probably leave. This wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.

“What?” Ryan replied, not looking back, but instead watching Macintosh leave. He was respectful; Ryan liked that.

Shining Armor walked over. His steps, while attempting to be gentle, were sinking into the ground under him from the force of his body. Ryan could see the tenseness in his neck, the veins and tendons ever so slightly bulging, like silver ore in a rock bed. His tail was swishing back and forth in short, quick motions. As he got closer, Ryan got a better look at his face. There was nothing friendly about it. His eyes were tensed up, slightly closed as if ready to have something flung at them. The muscles around his mouth twitched. His brow was furrowed. In his eyes, there was a single warning.

“Can I help you?” Ryan asked bluntly. He turned around and started working on the next tree, climbing up and putting distance between himself and the guard captain.

“I came to be direct with you.” Ryan was up in the tree, and loosened the gun in the holster.

“I’m listening if you feel like starting.” Shining Armor harumphed; few ponies had spoken to him disrespectfully. It wasn’t that it bothered him so much; it was the blatant disregard for common decency.

“I want to ask you a few questions.” Ryan picked away at the apples, letting them fall down. One landed on Shining Armor’s horn, getting him to violently shake his head to extract it from his person.

“I’m all ears.”

Ryan was bounding through the tree. Shining Armor had to circle the tree to follow him. “ You have the eyes of a stallion who’s seen things he shouldn’t have had to.”

Ryan tossed down an apple, missing Shining this time around. “And you have the eyes of a man who just got laid. But I don’t broadcast things that aren’t my business.” Shining frowned at the boy in the tree.

Ryan let himself fall from the tree, landing on his feet and sending a jarring sensation through him. He took a note not to do that again. “You’re not getting anything out of me. So please, just leave it.” Ryan started collecting the apples from around the tree.

“I’m afraid I can’t.” Shining replied. “You said you were a part of a war.” he stated. “What war?” Ryan stood up.

“I’m not talking to you about it. Not you or anyone.” Ryan was growing annoyed. This guy just wouldn’t leave him be.

“I’m not asking for your side.” Shining explained, hoping that it would get Ryan to open up. “Just which war.” Ryan sighed. It was already probably public that he had been in a conflict; might as well say which one, if it would get this guy out of here.

“The war on terror. Now no more.”

Shining Armor couldn’t leave it there, though. If this guy had been on the wrong side, he couldn’t just let him roam through Equestria. It was too risky. “Now I’m curious.” Shining commented, ready to keep questioning. Ryan scowled at him and out his hand to his side.

“Curiosity killed the cat.” he said. “With a .44 magnum.” Shining Armor cocked an eyebrow. He was unfamiliar with the term, so he ignored it.

“Sorry, but now I have to ask. Whose side were you on?” Ryan didn’t answer. He had finished picking up the apples, and was picking up the buckets. Shining put his hoof on the one Ryan was picking up. “Whose side were you on?” He was growing angry.

Ryan frowned. “Mine. Now. Piss. Off.” Ryan lifted up the bucket, throwing Shining Armor off of it.

Tensions were tight. So tight that Pinkie could probably cut them with a butter knife. Shining Armor moved to intercept Ryan as he walked away. “And what did that side entail?” he asked aggressively. Ryan dropped the buckets and moved his hand behind his back.

“My own goals.” Neither moved. “Shining, we can do this two ways.” He didn’t elaborate. When two warriors are about to go at it, words aren’t necessary. Shining knew that it was either leave him alone or fight it out. He moved aside; no need to get in trouble for beating up the new guy in town.

“...”

Ryan walked past him, keeping an eye on him. Neither spoke. Shining let him go for a moment, then followed.

He wasn’t going to let this go without a good risk assessment. It was just too dangerous. “You do understand that I can’t just let you walk away without some kind of all clear.” he said. Ryan stopped. He turned, eyes filled with the anger and sadness of before. It perturbed Shining Armor to see such eyes.

“Shining Armor, if you truly believe me to be a threat to your country,” he began. He turned to face Shining all the way. “than you had better kill me now.”

Shining blinked and shook his head. Had he heard this guy right? “I have no intention of harming any of yours, loved ones or not. I have no reason. As soon as I can, I’ll be out of here forever, never to be seen again.” He stepped toward Shining Armor, eliciting a step back from the stallion. “But if you plan on coming after me after this day, for any reason, I promise you, I will see it coming. And I will take as many of you down with me as I can.”

Shining looked into the eyes of the human now two feet in front of him. They were soulless, the eyes of a stallion who had seen bloodshed far beyond the comprehension of almost any pony in this world. “When I turn around, if you don’t snap my neck, we will be perfectly square. But if I detect any confrontation, any bit of a coming fight, you will be dead before you can utter a word.” His words carried more weight than any Shining had ever heard before. He swallowed hard; he was failing to stand his ground.

“How many have you killed?” he asked. He didn’t really want to hear the answer. Ryan got less than an inch from Shining’s face.

“I count forty.”

He turned and walked away.

Shining Armor’s knees finally failed him, and he dropped to the ground like a brass shell casing, his head bobbing and bouncing while he tried to maintain some measure of control over his body. It was an encounter unlike any before. He watched as the human walked away.

I should be stopping him.” Shining Armor charged his horn and took aim. He pointed it and held it steady. And held it. And held it. And held it. He dropped his horn. He couldn’t do it. He wanted for nothing more than to take away this danger to society. But Harkness’ words rang in his ears like a gunshot through mountains. You will be dead before you can utter a word. Shining Armor wanted to vomit. He had actually been intimidated into submission by this unknown creature, something no guard is allowed to do. Harkness just kept on walking. “What the hell happened to him?” he wondered. Harkness was definitely not the guy he had met at dinner.

There was the sounds of hoofsteps from behind. Shining Armor half expected it to be Cadance, here to find him and chew him out for bothering Harkness. If she didn’t see any of that, he would have to explain it to her.

But when he turned around, there was not the sleek, beautiful form of his wife. Instead, he was greeted by a massive, barrel-chested, red pony wearing a yoke. The obvious workhorse was looking down at Shining Armor, a nearly blank, yet calculating, look in his eyes. Shining Armor looked up at him and rose himself. Ponies, he had no trouble maintaining his composure for. “Ah don’t think y’all can understand him very well.” That was all the workhorse said before he walked past Shining Armor carrying his own buckets of apples.

Shining Armor looked to the ground, thinking about what had just gone down. He felt strange; he had assumed bad things about Harkness. Albeit, they may have been true, but the farm pony’s words stuck in his mind like Harkness’ had. He looked up at the pony and human in the distance. If anypony clearly knew this guy, it was that one. Shining Armor decided to take the farm pony’s word for it, and he turned around and walked back to the library.

********************************************************************************

Cadance was reading a sad epic of a pony named Mustang who had fought in the last war against the griffons. It was a piece of historical fiction; as far as she could tell, there was no Nighthawk named Mustang who beat the baddies and got the mare in the end.

It was about eight thirty-five when she heard a series of knocks on the door. Nightlight had taken Spike out to teach him about mares, so that was Cadance’s first thought. “I told Spike that I was the one to ask.” She looked around; none of the others, even Celestia, were up yet. She stood and walked over to the door. “Who is it?” she called as she approached. The response surprised her.

“It’s Shining.” She recognized her husband’s voice instantly and flung the door open, rushing through to give him a big hug.

“Oh, I didn’t know you would be back so soon!” she said.

Shining returned the hug, though not as strongly as usual, and replied, “I didn’t think you would awaken so soon.” He sounded almost a little nervous. Cadance broke the embrace and studied her husband’s face. It looked like something had gotten to him.

“Come on inside.” she said, not hiding the concern in her voice.

They walked in and sat in the study area, Shining looking away from Cadance or toward the ground. She put a hoof on his shoulder. “Is something bothering you?” she asked. Shining knew that there was no point in lying.

“Well, I just went and had a talk with Harkness.”

Cadance blinked. “What?” she asked. Shining lowered his head. “Why does that bother you? What did you two talk about?”

Shining rubbed his foreleg guiltily and looked away from Cadance. “Well, I pressed him for information that... may not have what he was hoping to share.” Cadance frowned. She knew he would do this, she just knew. So she wasn’t as mad as she could have been.

“You should’ve understood that there are reasons why he wouldn’t want to share.” she criticized. “Why would you-”

“He’s killed.”

Cadance stopped. She had trouble realizing what she had just heard. “What?”

Shining looked her in the eyes. “He’s taken lives, Cadance. He said that he fought in the War on Terror, or something. I couldn’t figure out what side he was on.” Cadance shook her head.

“Why would-”

“He killed forty.” Cadance swallowed hard. “I was going to... I don’t know. I’m not sure how to advance from here.” Cadance looked at her husband. This was the only time she had ever seen him in a position where he had no idea what to do.

“Maybe you should let him be.” she suggested. “He won’t hurt anypony.” Shining chuckled, throwing Cadance off a bit.

“Yeah. He said that he plans on leaving forever as soon as he can.” She listened to this unhappily. This man, Harkness, was suffering. He had done terrible things, obviously. He had seen terrible things, that had to be true. And he seemed to seek to separate himself from society.

“That’s no way to live.” Both knew that Harkness would be leaving to live alone. “And I don’t think we should let him.”

Shining looked to his wife. “Why not? He won’t be a risk to us.”

Cadance deadpanned at her husband, “You never abandoned your own stallions. Don’t abandon this one.”

She stood up and stretched. “Are you going to talk to him?” Shining asked. Cadance looked to the door.

“Well, somepony has to.” She walked out, grabbing a green beret and a nice scarf on her way.

********************************************************************************

Ryan was walking back to the fields with Mac when he saw the pink alicorn on the horizon. “Frickin’ dammit!” he thought. Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone?

Ryan looked at Macintosh, who nodded and walked away. Ryan turned around to face the oncoming pink alicorn. “Can I help you?” Ryan asked in his most polite possible voice. He did a piss poor job of it.

“I have some things for you.” Cadance said on her approach. As she got closer, Ryan could see that she had his beret and scarf neatly tucked onto her back. She levitated them over to him.

“Thank you.” Ryan said. Now, he didn’t have to go back to the library. “But you didn’t come here to do that.” He was looking straight at Cadance, and she shuffled her hooves under his unmoving gaze.

“...No.”

She walked up next to Ryan, who moved away to grab his buckets to bring to the fields. “I came to apologize about my husband.” Ryan sighed. He had told her about the encounter, then.

“You don’t need to.” Ryan replied. “I don’t require any apologies. I just want to be left alone.” He started walking towards the fields. Cadance followed.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’ll be happening either.” Ryan looked at her, a flash of anger present for just a single moment. That moment was enough to make Cadance take a step back. “Please, Harkness.” she pleaded. She stepped forward and reached out. “We can help you...” Ryan laughed, and Cadance pulled her hoof back.

“If you really think you can help me, then you have more problems with your mind than I do with mine.” He walked away. Now, Cadance was offended.

She stormed on after him. “Why won’t you let anypony help you?” she asked. Ryan ignored her. “How can you just allow yourself to be this unhappy? This scarred? How-”

“Because some of us deserve it.”

Cadance stopped. So did Ryan. “What?” she asked. Ryan turned around.

“Some people deserve to be happy. You do. Your husband does.” He looked off toward the horizon on the mountain. “Some of us don’t. And you have to accept that.” Cadance shook her head.

“Everypony deserves to be happy.” Ryan took in a deep breath and let it out steadily, monotonously.

He turned; his eyes were again soulless and gray, an eternal void of emotions. “Even those who take the lives of innocents?”

Cadance tried to respond, but her jaw was failing her. She wanted to give him a response, something that would get him to allow them to help, but nothing came to her. Neither in words nor in mind, she had nothing. Ryan’s eyes were boring into her, like drills going into a chunk of wood, tearing away and splintering. Cadance closed her mouth and tried to think of a response.

“We can all at least try to be decent.” she said, half-heartedly. “You can become good again.” Ryan shook his head.

“I can’t.” he replied. “Because I don’t want to be forgiven.” He walked away and left Cadance on her own.

She looked on as he walked away, toward the field. She couldn’t accept that he was evil; if he was, then he would be causing ungodly amounts of trouble right now. But here he was, explaining WHY he was evil. Cadance could only think of one reason to try to help him; he could still be saved. She turned around and trudged away, barely clinging to hope for this human who had been a part of so many terrible things.

********************************************************************************

Ryan walked away from Sweet Apple Acres with his sack of bits and his standard setup. The sack had about one hundred bits in it after having worked in other places this week, and Ryan would be getting a bit more tomorrow from Applejack for his farm work. He was doing well on the farm. He could pick faster than most, seeing as he could specify which apples he wanted, and didn’t have to sort them after they were on the ground. He was getting a good setup; as long as he could try not to spend too much on alcohol, he might be going into the forest sooner rather than later. He just had to scope out the forest to find a good enough spot.

It was beginning to grow dark out. Ryan had been doing mindless work ever since Cadance left him be, but he had been having trouble forgetting about his past for the day. It was stuck in his head. “I’ll go to the bar.” he decided.

He was walking through town when he looked up into the sky and saw something odd. There was a topless carriage flying toward the town, with two ponies on the front. “Must be getting someone.” Ryan figured. He just kept walking, but kept an eye on the carriage. It was coming slowly, like whoever had ordered it wasn’t in any particular rush.

“Harkness.” a motherly voice called out. Ryan groaned. He couldn’t seem to catch a break today.

“Yes, princess?” he asked as he turned around. Sure enough, the tall form of Princess Celestia was standing before him.

“I wish to speak to you.”

Ryan sighed. “Seems like everyone does.” He looked to his right and saw a bench. He sat. “What is it that you want to know?” he asked, not inviting Celestia to sit with him. Celestia walked over to him. Off in the distance, the carriage landed.

“I don’t wish to ask you anything.” she said. “Well, maybe I WISH to, but I will refrain from doing so.” Ryan breathed in and out steadily.

“Thank you.” He actually did appreciate that. “So what is it that you came to me to talk about?” He still didn't like talking to her though; she made him feel so exposed.

“I just want you to know that you will always be welcomed here.” she explained. “I care not for your past, though I would certainly like to know more about it. I know that you are not going to cause trouble here.” Ryan nodded. She already seemed much better than Shining Armor. “But please, understand. The ponies here are friendly, and they already consider you their friend. They wish to help you.” She leaned in. “And I know that you think you don’t deserve help. I can’t even say myself that you do. But these things are rarely ever for us to decide.” Ryan looked at her; she had soothing eyes, soft and kind. Ryan was disarmed. “Please let them help you, if not for yourself, for them. They couldn’t bear it if you were to suffer because they couldn’t help.”

Ryan sighed. “I get that.” he replied. “But why would they want to help me, if I tell them the truth? You already know part of it. With what I did, most places in my world would be screaming for me to get Capital Punishment.” Celestia raised her eyebrow. “Death sentence.” Her eyes widened for just a second, but she regained her control immediately.

“And what do you think of that?” she asked.

Ryan shrugged. “I think that there are some people who simply deserve to die.” He looked at her. “I’m not an exception to that.” Celestia inched closer. “I can’t say that another man who committed my crimes deserves to die, while I deserve to live. I had motives that were far from noble; I wanted revenge. Sure, they were bad people, but they were still human beings, with families and loved ones.” He looked into Celestia’s eyes; both sets were filled with sadness, though one also had sympathy. “How can I justify ending so many lives and potentially destroying hundreds of others?”

Celestia shook her head. “We cannot always justify such actions. We must learn from them, no matter what they are. I know that I have had such trouble.” She extended a wing to cover Ryan around his shoulders. “We must try to forgive ourselves and to redeem ourselves.”

Ryan brushed the wing off. “There is no redemption for the devil.” he said. “He is the one that makes people need redemption.” He sat back and looked to the aging daylit sky. “Have you ever been forced to make a decision? One that no matter what you chose to do, you would be responsible for horrible crimes?” Celestia stared at him; his eyes were closed now, tears forming at the edges. “Have you ever been made to decide who lives and who dies? Who gets to see their child the next day or who has to watch their child go away forever?” He opened his eyes, still aimed at the sky. They were red and bleary, with tears coming from them in droves now. “Have you ever been made to decide between your own life and the life of that child?” Celestia felt tears forming in her own eyes.

Two guards in Air Guard armor approached, but Celestia waved them off. “No, I can’t say that I have.” she responded. Ryan nodded; he knew that. “But I can say this; if you ever need to talk, or rant, or simply be with somepony, I or any of these humble ponies are readily available.” She stood up. “I will drop whatever I am doing, if you so need. My sister would even do so.”

Ryan chuckled, looking to the princess. “Yeah. I know that she would.” Celestia’s brow went up; clearly, he knew Luna somehow. She would have to mention that to her sister.

“Well, I must say goodbye for now. I wish you well, and please.” She leaned in. “At least let them try to help you.” He looked at her, but didn’t speak. Then, she turned around and got into her carriage and flew away.

Ryan got up and dredged to the bar, where he would have a good long drink with what was now one hundred bits.


Big Mac walked through the town, looking for his friend of no words. They had spoken ten words, if that, to each other, yet they had a mutual respect and understanding. But Big Mac was going to be going against his understanding. Celestia had asked him to check up on Harkness, so that was what he was going to do.

He had little trouble trying to find Harkness. The only trouble was finding out which bar stallions went to to forget their problems. That just meant the place with the strongest drinks. “The Salt Lick.” he repeated to himself again. He had never heard of this place but once when he was a colt. The hardest drinkers went there.

He stood before the building, taking in the sight. Whoever the owner was, he or she certaily didn’t care much about upkeep. Of course, the customers probably didn’t care either. So why bother? When he entered, Big Mac could see that the inside wasn’t much better. The tables were old, some with rotted legs. The stools were all cheap, metal chairs, some even rusted. The cushions for ponies were torn and taped together. Half of the lights didn't even work. The only part of it that looked even semi-decent was the bar itself.

Big Mac could clearly see Harkness at the bar, hunched over and clearly in a dangerously low state. He had a shot glass in his left hand with a dark liquid in it. Big Mac looked up at the bottles on the shelves; Harkness was drinking Applejack Daniel’s. This particular brew had an almost absurd percentage of alcohol. Big Mac walked forward through the bar to his coworker, careful to avoid bumping into ponies who might be a little too tipsy and depressed to be stable.

“Harkness.” he said. Harkness turned his head to look at the intruder; when he saw Big Mac, he just turned back around to tell him go away. Big Mac shook his head and took a cushion next to Harkness. They both looked at each other when Big Mac sat down; neither moved. Ryan sighed in defeat, and simply tried to ignore Macintosh’s presence.

Oktoberfest came over, wiping a glass as usual. “What’ll you have, big fella?” he asked. Big Mac looked at the shelf.

“Gimme a shot of Samaloco Adams.” Oktoberfest nodded and went to pour the shot. “Princess Celestia asked me to talk to ya.” Macintosh explained. Ryan stayed silent. “She said that y’all need somepony to help ya.” Big Mac waited for a moment while his shot was brought him, thanking the bartender. “But Ah don’t think she can get you.” Ryan looked over, surprised. “Ah don’t think any of us can. Ah will always be there to help, just like everypony else. But Ah ain’t gonna try to make you do anything.” He took a sip from his glass. Ryan did the same. They stayed silent for a time.

Oktoberfest returned, this time looking oddly at the two workers before him. “Anything else?” he asked. Ryan tossed him fifteen bits to pay for his drinks. Big Mac tossed him five.

“No.” Ryan said. He looked to Big Mac. He knew what Macintosh was hoping he would do. “I think I’m good.” Together, Macintosh and Ryan walked out and went their separate ways, one to a comfortable home, the other to a roadside ditch.

********************************************************************************

Ryan went to the farm the following morning with a splitting headache. It didn’t come from drinking, though. It came from his own head. The whole night, he had been wrestling with whether or not he would tell anypony anything. No matter how much Celestia or Macintosh wanted, though, Ryan could not find any way to share his history without being ostracized and ultimately end up dead in the forest somewhere.

He eventually gave up and decided that telling the ponies anything was strictly not going to happen. Twilight would no doubt freak out and toss him away with her magic. Applejack could kick him to death. Pinkie could stab him with one of her no doubt hundreds of cooking knives. Rarity would strangle him. Rainbow Dash would probably grab him and drop him from a mile up. The worst, though, was Fluttershy. From what Ryan understood, she could sick a group of bears on him to tear him to shreds. None of it was very helpful for what he wanted to do.


On their way out the previous night, Macintosh saw fit to tell Ryan that he had stand duty, and he would be working with Applejack today. They hadn’t spoken another word after that, but Ryan could tell that he wanted Ryan to think that it would go well. Silently, Ryan had kept on insisting that it wouldn’t end well for him. When they parted ways, Ryan brooded on his luck, cursing Discord for not letting him die.

Discord hadn’t been happy about that. “Oh, so he’s going to be a jerk about being alive, eh?” he had thought. Discord evilly smirked. “Well, let’s see how he likes this.” Discord used his magic to knock over a tree on the way to Ryan’s ditch.

“What the hell!?” Ryan shouted. Discord chuckled. He was trying to force him to go the other way. Ryan sighed and went. But what he didn't know was that Discord was forcing him to go toward the exiting parties of Twilight’s parents and Shining Armor and Cadance.

When he passed by, there was the most awkward silence. Nightlight nodded curtly. Twilight Velvet smiled, but there was nothing but pity behind it. Cadance did the same, but she at least looked away. The worst was Shining Armor; he was glaring at Ryan with dagger eyes. He was promptly smacked by Twilight Sparkle, who then yelled at him. This prompted Cadance to smack him, and shortly thereafter, everyone was getting in on assaulting the Guard Captain and Prince. Ryan quickly ran away, eager to get out.

Of course, that wasn’t to be the end of Discord’s fun. He had already spent too much time not enjoying himself. “What else can I do?” he wondered. He watched Ryan as he walked. He was slightly buzzed, but not drunk enough to not notice massive changes in things. He gave it some thought. “That’s it!” He watched as Ryan walked over a bridge and slowed down on it to look at the passing water.

Discord created a small explosion in the water just below Ryan, totally soaking him and sending mud everywhere. Rather than freak out, though, Ryan just stood there. He wiped his eyes and looked around. Nothing could explain it.

“Damn magic.” he grumbled as he walked away. Discord just laughed away in his mind and left Ryan be, content with what he had accomplished.


That was how his night had gone. Suffice to to say, he was not in a good mood.

Of course, he had no idea that Discord was behind it. So, he was just angry at this world in general. “Damn magic and its damn weirdness.” he kept grumbling. He hadn’t slept much, stupid thinking getting in the way. Even so, it was better than what he would have seen sleeping, so maybe it wasn’t so bad. “I should just stop spending money and get out of here as soon as possible.” he told himself. “Or just buy supplies with what I have now and leave. But then I’d have more trouble living...” He didn't want to live. He hated living at this point. He wanted nothing more than to die. But he had made a promise. “I won’t betray my last friend again.” he thought.

He walked onto the farm in the fading darkness, a stark contrast to his mind. The birds had been chirping a little bit, but seemed to lose interest in noise as Ryan passed. He looked up at each tree, glowering and envious of their easy lives.

“Harkness!” He looked over; Applejack was walking towards him, her older brother in tow behind her. “Y’all ready to work?” she asked. When Ryan nodded, she spun around and waved for him to follow. “Let’s go!” Ryan looked to Macintosh; he just shrugged and left Ryan to work with his little sister.

Ryan caught up to the mare and remained silent as a mouse the whole way to the farm. During the walk, Applejack was constantly looking back at him, as if to ensure that he wasn’t lost or dead, which bothered him. Each time she looked, he would lock eyes with her, getting her to turn away from him. As comfortable as her older brother was around him, she seemed almost ashamed to be close by.

“Alright!” she announced when they reached the barn. “Ah’m gonna plow the fields ‘n you’re gonna plant seeds.” Ryan cocked an eyebrow; it didn’t seem like the time to be planting seeds. “Come on in.” She pushed the door open and sauntered through, and Ryan simply followed, slouching like a neanderthal.

He looked around. “Where are the seeds?” he asked.

“Off to the side, by the rakes.” she said, pointing over to the wall. “They should be behind the barrels.” Ryan walked over, unsure of why there were barrels in the barn. He didn’t bother questioning it, though.

He walked over to the barrels with his hands in his pockets. When he walked around the barrels, his head collided with a very low-lying wooden board. “Ow!” The beret fell off his head, making a soft pomf when it hit the floor, which was covered in hay. He picked it up, rubbing his head, and continued onto where Applejack told him the seed was. “Ah.” The sacks of seeds were in a heap on the ground. Mindful of his head, Ryan bent over and picked up two sacks. They were shockingly light, though, so he picked up two more.

“Why exactly are we planting things when we’re approaching the end of summer?” he asked as he walked out. According to his watch, it was now August Third. He didn’t think about what the date probably should have been. It wouldn’t end well.

“Because,” Applejack began, getting a smaller yoke than Macintosh’s around her neck. It was already connected to the plough. “These particular plants ain’t gonna be comin’ out of the ground until next year. They’re special.” Ryan nodded. “Now, let’s head on out there.” Applejack left the barn, evidently struggling against the plough.

Ryan followed her out of the barn and to the empty field where they would be planting. At the edge, Applejack stopped and took a moment to breathe. Ryan walked up next to her and looked out at the field. “You know, if you’re having trouble, I’m sure Mac would be happy to take the plough.” Applejack waved a hoof, dismissing Ryan’s suggestion.

“Ain’t no problem.” she said, huffing and puffing with the yoke dragging her head down. “Ah’m just as capable as Mac is. Y’all’re gonna see.” She didn't tell him the real reason for her insistence on this. “Trust me.” Ryan put his hands up and went back behind the plough.

Applejack sat on her hind for a moment and thought about what she had been told of him. Harkness had seen war, from what Twilight said. What he did in that war, nopony knew, but war is war. He had apparently called it a “War on Terror”, but none of the girls knew what that meant. It sounded really bad, though.

Twi said that he needs help.” she thought, craning her neck to look back at the human, who was fiddling with an L-shaped metal instrument. He had clearly seen things he should not have, maybe done things he should not have. But Applejack wasn’t one to judge. “So Ah’m gonna try my best.” He was her new friend; it was her obligation.

She stood up. “Alright, time to get moving!” She pushed forward without waiting for a reply. The plough resisted movement, though.

“You alright?” Harkness asked from way behind. Applejack strained against the plough.

“Yeah, Ah’m good!” The veins in her neck and haunches bulged. Then she ran out of steam. “Dang.” she thought. She looked at the plough, the huge metal contraption refusing to even budge. “Well, Ah don’t think this is happenin’!” she yelled back to Harkness.

He walked forward. “Should we go get Macintosh?” he asked. Applejack shook her head furiously.

“No!” she shouted, prompting Ryan to cover his ears. “We can get other things done today that ain’t so hard.” Ryan looked down at her.

“Like?” He was growing impatient; he just wanted to work in silence. Applejack could sense it.

“Painting and fixing the barn.” she said simply. Ryan breathed deep.

“Alright.” He looked back at the plough. “Need help moving it?” A weary Applejack looked up at him, then to the plough, then back.

“Sure.” Ryan nodded and went behind the plough. He wasn’t strong enough to move it or really lift it, but he could still reduce friction with the ground by lifting it up ever so slightly.

They got the plough back in the barn and took a moment to rest. Ryan went over to the side of the barn where he put the seed sacks back and sat down back there. He plopped onto the sacks, not from exhaustion, but simply from disappointment that his day was no doubt going to involve tip-toeing his way around his past. He could already tell that that was why Applejack had opted to work with him.

“Why?”

He found himself asking himself that more and more often lately. And still, he never came to an answer.

“Harkness?” Applejack called. He sighed loudly, apparently loud enough for Applejack to hear. She came around the barrels. “Come on, lazy bum! We got work to do!” Ryan looked at her; she was way too happy.

“Alright.” As he stood up, he noticed her mood deflate just a little bit at his nonchalance and she frowned. “What?” he asked.

Applejack shook her head. “Nothing.” Ryan watched as she walked away, then followed.

She walked to the middle of the barn and stopped, turning around to get a look at Harkness as he approached. “Well, Harkness, there’s a couple of options here.” he stopped and listened. “We can either paint the outside of the barn, or we can fix up the inside.” He looked around; now that he was paying attention, he noticed that there were a lot of loose boards and damaged spots around.

“Yeesh.” he commented. Applejack scowled.

“Well, Ah guess we’ll be fixing up the inside.” Ryan looked at her, uncaring of whether or not he offended her.

“I would say so as well.” He didn’t understand when she harmuphed at him and turned around, tail swishing about.

She grabbed a tool kit from a work area at one end of the room. “Here we go.” she said, the kit messing up her speech while it hung from her jaw. “We need to re-shingle the roof, which Ah can do. You, though, will have to stay inside and fix up the wooden structure of the barn.” Ryan nodded. “Y’all’re gonna take them boards,” she said, pointing at a pile of wooden boards at one end of the room. “and you’re gonna use them to replace old ones or cover up holes. Any questions?” Ryan shook his head. “Good. Ah won’t be long.” Applejack ran back to the work area, grabbed her own tools, and ran outside, leaving Ryan all alone in the barn.

Thankful for the respite, he immediately went about his work. But, rather than pull out a hammer from the toolbox, Ryan just pulled out his own. There were still bloodstains on the wooden handle from when he last used it. “Meh.” It wouldn’t affect his work.

He went and picked up a board and glanced around the barn. There were several holes in the walls, so he just figured he would start with those. One at a time.

He could hear Applejack up on the roof, moving about with heavy hooves. She stomped all over the place, the noise a constant strain on his concentration. When he got over to the wall, he set the board down and took a look at it. “Dammit.” He had forgotten nails. As he turned around, a shadow formed on a patch of light on the ground from a hole in the ceiling.

“Y’all good?” Applejack asked.

Ryan looked up at her and shouted, “Yeah.” He continued forward and retrieved the nails from the toolbox. The shadow came back. “What?” he asked loudly, frustration growing in his voice. He could sense the glowering stare coming from above.

“Ah’ll be down shortly to help out in there.” Ryan grunted in response and went back to work.

Now with the nails, he was able to get to work. At the wall, Ryan bent over and picked up his tools, hammer in hand, board in hand, and nails in mouth. He pressed the board against the hole and got it into a position where it would cover the entire hole. Once there, he used his elbow to keep it in place and pulled a nail from his mouth and raised the hammer. He started swinging away at the nail, getting it thoroughly into the wall. Before he realized what he was doing, he found himself completely engrossed in the task. He forgot about the blood on the hammer, the killing it had helped him to do. In that moment where he was lost in work, he was able to totally forget about the past.

He kept that up for almost half an hour, hammering away at the nails and mindlessly droning away. It was exactly what he had been hoping for that day. But then it was ruined. “Harkness!” Ryan was startled out of his stupor and dropped the hammer, which landed right on top of his foot.

“Goddammit!” He shouted, picking up his foot and cradling it like a child. He fell over, and once recovered, glared at Applejack for startling him. “A little warning next time?” he said.

Applejack smiled sheepishly and trotted over. “Are y’all alright?” she asked. “Ah didn’t mean to startle you.” Ryan stood up and waved his arm about.

“No, I’m fine. Now what did you come down for?” He picked up the hammer from its spot on the floor and tried to go back about working.

“Well, Ah came in to help out with the inside of the barn.” She looked around. “Though Ah guess that you pretty much have it taken care of.” Ryan looked around as well; he had taken care of all of the low-laying damages.

“Mostly.” he commented.

He took another board and more nails and went over to a ladder that led up into the rafters where there were more holes. “Be careful.” Applejack warned as he ascended. He shook his head, wishing she would just leave him be.

“I’ve been in more dangerous places than this.” He couldn’t see, but below him, Applejack puckered her lips, as if in deep thought.

Once again, he took the hammer and started fixing up the barn, an innocent enough job. Even with that innocence, though, it was still dangerous. The hammer could fall from his hands, or the board might fall. But that didn't concern him, and he finished quickly and descended back to the earth.

Applejack walked over to him, admiring his work on fixing the holes. “Nice work.” she complimented. Ryan hung the hammer back on his vest and looked up.

“Good enough. But these aren’t permanent fixes. You’ll need to get a pro in here to patch up the walls.” Applejack smiled at him; he seemed like he was totally absorbed by the work, like nothing could bother him. It seemed like an appropriate time.

“So, Harkness.” she began. He looked over at her, still not in grouch-mode. “Ah decided to work with you today because-”

“Because you want to learn more about me.”

Applejack blinked at Ryan completing her sentence. “Umm, yeah. So, let’s head on outside, since we still got time to work, and get some apples.” She smiled widely; Ryan did not return it.

“Alright.” They walked out and went to the fields.

They had been silent on the way, Ryan in a state of Mushin and Applejack trying to establish how she would go about starting the conversation. They were taking apples from the trees when she finally decided to wing it. “So, where exactly were you surviving before y’all came here?” she asked, getting ready to buck a tree. Ryan was up in a tree, throwing good apples down. “Y’all have a lot of stuff from it, it looks like.”

Ryan dropped from his tree, a cold, stoic expression on his face. “The jungle. Where things try to kill you.” Applejack faltered in her kick and missed the tree completely. “That’s about it, honestly.” Applejack looked at him. She knew that it was not “honestly”, but she let it go.

She decided a different approach. “So, what’s the purpose of each of them tools?” she asked. Ryan broke from picking up the apples and looked at his vest.

“The hammer is for breaking things. The knife is for eating and cutting vines.” The lies were awful. Applejack looked at the L-shapes instruments.

“How about them?” she asked, pointing at the guns.

“Those are secret.” Ryan replied quickly, as if letting the question linger would result in some terrible catastrophe. Applejack could sense that she was to get nowhere with this.

Ryan decided to ask some questions in order to get the attention off of him. “So, Applebloom is your little sister, right?” he asked. He already knew that, of course.

“Sure is!” Applejack beamed, evidently proud. “Ah love mah little sister, even if she and her friends are a bit prone to trouble.” She chuckled a bit.

“What’s so funny?” Ryan asked.

Applejack looked around. “If y’all wanna hear a fun little secret,” she began, approaching Ryan. “she and her friends were responsible for releasing Discord.”

Ryan would have spit if he was drinking, choked if he was eating, and run into something if he was walking. “What?” he asked.

Applejack nodded. “So, you already know about him, huh?” she asked understandingly.

Ryan sighed. “Better than I wish.” Her understanding vanished. “That must have been pretty bad.” Applejack nodded, then went back to bucking.

“Yeah. Ain’t no other pony but Rarity that knows about that.” she commented. Ryan’s interest was suddenly piqued. “We don’t want the town to be mad at them or anything.”

Ryan started climbing a tree to get more apples. “If that’s the case, then why tell me?” he asked. “I’m new here. You have no reason to trust me, or think that I won’t judge. Why tell me?” Applejack bucked her tree hard, then turned around, sweaty and nastified.

“Well, Ah trust you not to judge. Y’all don’t seem the type.” How’s that for guessing the truth? “And I got no reason not to trust you. Just because you’re a stranger don’t mean y’all can’t be good.”

Ryan stopped picking apples to digest her statement. She was right, at least partially. Not every stranger was evil or dangerous. Of course, with how many Ryan had encountered, he wasn’t willing to take risks. Still, though, it was something for him to think about.

Once he finished his tree, working in silence, he dropped down, only to be greeted from a foot away by Applejack. “GAH!” He fell back and landed on the trunk of the tree. “Don’t do that.” he demanded, Applejack snorting and chuckling the whole time. She stepped forward and extended a hoof, which Ryan took hesitantly.

“You know, you can tell us things about yourself that you ain’t proud of. We won’t judge.”

Ryan stood up, nearly pulling Applejack down on top of him. “You don’t know that. Trust me.” Applejack let it go, and they walked back to the barn.

They arrived at the barn in another bout of silence, Ryan not intent on talking, and Applejack feeling awkward about not having made the conversations last longer. They stopped outside the wall of the barn and looked at it. “Not too bad.” Applejack commented. “Ah think you could do pretty well with this.” A light bulb turned on in her head. “What’s your cutie mark?” she asked. Perfect conversation starter!

“Humans don’t have them.” Maybe it wasn’t. But she would be damned if she didn’t at least try to to keep this one going.

“What?” she asked, poorly faking surprise. “How do you know you’re special talent?” Ryan shrugged.

“We don’t. A lot of people never find what makes them happy.” Applejack’s jaw was agape from speaking, and did not close after she heard that. She blinked three times, trying to think of a response, but she was struck speechless. How could he be so nonchalant about that?

However, seeing that he thought of it as normal, she did not press the issue. It would probably just depress her, anyhow. She changed the subject, looking at Ryan’s tools for inspiration. “Nice hammer.” She mentally hoof-smacked herself for the stupid comment. Ryan looked down at his hammer.

It was a nice hammer, actually. The handle, minus the blood stains, was a polished hardwood, maybe Cocobolo. It was sleek in his hand, designed for extended use. The head was perfectly flat on the hammer side, and the wedge for removing nails was rounded just enough at the edges that it wouldn’t randomly pierce the skin, but wouldn’t have trouble getting under a nail. It was a good tool. But that wasn’t the primary detail that Ryan noticed. It was that it wasn’t this tool made for taking lives. Now, it was just this thing that people world-wide used for normal work, not the deadly weapon he had made it. It wasn’t some danger to society that he had to hold in order to prevent its evil from escaping. It was a hammer.

“Do you want it?” he asked, picking it out and holding it out to Applejack. She reeled back a little, surprised by the offer. “I have no use of it any more.”

Applejack looked at the hammer, then to Ryan, then back to the hammer. “Alright.” she said. She took the hammer in her mouth by the head. “Thanksh.” Ryan nodded.

“Don’t mention it.” Once the hammer was out of his hand, he could feel the lack of its weight there, like a person had come and relieved him of some of the crap he had been carrying with him. He looked at his watch, then to the darkening, orange sky. “Guess work’s over.” he said. Without waiting for a response, he turned around and walked off, leaving Applejack alone and ponderous by that big red barn.

********************************************************************************

It was Friday night, and all the ponies seemed to be out tonight. Little ones were over at friends’ homes, playing games, occasionally running through the streets, chased by adults. Older ponies were walking about in the moonlight, some on romantic dates, others just because it was a nice night. Other ponies, like Twilight Sparkle, were just outside reading in the dim moonlight, using magic or lamps to aid in their task. The night sky was gorgeous; the stars twinkled bright, the moon shone brilliantly, and the constellations were extraordinary. Everyone was enjoying themselves that night.

Except for those ponies, and one huan, at The Salt Lick. As per their norm, they were all just wallowing in the pools of their misery, even on such a beautiful night. If Luna saw them this way, she would no doubt have their heads. And there was one in particular that she would no doubt want to keep.

“Give me another Samolaco Adams.” Ryan ordered from the new waitress. Oktoberfest had hired her because he was growing old and tired, and needed some other pony to be walking around taking orders. The waitress jotted down Ryan’s order and nodded.

“Yes sir, right away.” She walked off, swinging her hind like a human girl would who’s trying to show off. No doubt, the reason why she was hired was because all of the stallions in the bar were looking her way all the time. She had a light charcoal coat and a dark orange mane and tail, which she swished around any chance she got. Ryan still had yet to get her name.

Oh well.”

She wasn’t a bad waitress; she always got him his drinks to him quickly. Her attitude wasn’t too perky, but just barely fit in with the atmosphere of the place. She also kept referring to him as “sir”, which bothered him. He wasn’t worthy of that title; he was no one’s superior, and never would be. When he asked her about it, she said that she refers to all soldiers with “sir”. Twilight had apparently told everyone about what she unfortunately overheard.

He just sat in his booth, trying to stay out of sight in case anyone came looking for him this night. He had had a long day. Not because of ponies, mind. He had been having trouble with his past. The previous night, he was having more nightmares, which kept getting more aggressive and difficult to deal with. They haunted him for the whole day, and now, here he was, drinking away the night.

There was a series of clop clop clop noises coming from off to his behind, where the door was. He listened intently to them; they were much too heavy to be the new waitress’, and Oktoberfest wasn’t about to come out. They sounded like they were coming from a large body, one that could generate great power with little effort. After a few minutes, they approached Ryan from behind.

“Hello Mac.”

Big Macintosh stopped behind Ryan, surprised that he could tell who was coming from behind him. Of course, with the few things that Mac did know about him, it wasn’t terribly surprising. Without speaking, Mac went to the other side of the booth and sat. Ryan, who was nursing his current drink, which was nearly gone, merely looked up with dying eyes for a moment, then let them fall back to the table. The waitress returned.

“Oh.” She hadn’t expected company. “Umm, what will you have?” she asked. Big Mac pointed his muzzle at Ryan’s drink. The waitress nodded. “Alright, babe.” She winked. “Coming right up.” She walked away, with even more swagger and swishing than before.

Ryan took in a deep breath and looked up at Big Mac. His coworker was looking in the direction of the waitress, eyes just under being wide, his nostrils moving very slightly. Eventually, when he turned around to look back at Ryan, Ryan raised an eyebrow and tilted his head toward the bar. Big Mac shook his head and put his hooves on the table, a small smile crossing his lips. Ryan shrugged and raised his glass to down the remainder of his drink.

Soon, both workers had their full drinks, this one being Ryan’s third, and they sat in silence once again. For a time, neither seemed interested on any kind of actual contact with one another, but that changed fairly quickly. Big Mac stared at Ryan while he looked down, and Ryan could sense it on his scalp, like the tingle of an itch. He looked up; Big Mac looked serious. Ryan shook his head and sat back, drink in hand. The beer sloshed around in the glass, nearly spilling over, like angry waves attacking the shoreline. Big Mac motioned at the drink, than at Ryan. Ryan sighed, defeated, knowing that it was true. He downed the drink, then looked at his coworker, becoming somewhat resentful of his presence. He looked straight into Mac’s eyes, boring through them to find out why he had come. Big Mac stood his ground, only showing sympathy for Ryan in his state of misery.

Ryan gave up on his endeavor. “Waitress?” he said, shaky in voice, mind, and body. His troubles weren’t going to be hidden by alcohol; only forgotten in the morning. She came over.

“What can I get you, hon?” she asked, a worried expression on her face. Ryan swallowed hard, trying to think of whether or not he wanted more or something stronger.

“I’ll have another.”

The waitress nodded, not hiding her worry in her face. Big Mac looked at her hard; when she noticed, she met his gaze, and he revealed his intentions for the human. “And my name is Cinny.” Cinny walked away to get more drinks.

Ryan glanced at Mac, who was quietly sipping away at his drink, looking innocent enough. Ryan knew that he was, too. His eyes said that he had never known anything but life in Ponyville. He never knew true suffering. He never saw the horrors that life had to offer. He had never been forced to make impossible decisions, watch his kind die... take the lives of his fellow ponies. He could never understand. But then again, he wasn’t trying to. He was just sitting in front of Ryan silently, a presence, not interfering with what Ryan was doing or trying to change how he was living. And Ryan was perfectly fine with that.

********************************************************************************

Luna walked heavy-hoffedly to the throne room that night. She had no desire to be dealing with all the nobles and their pathetic problems; not one ever came to her with a real problem. Although, they might have; she couldn’t tell any more. She thought of almost all problems as petty now.

Starstep walked behind her, his usual guard’s stoic expression on his face. His armor clacked a bit as he walked. Each time it did, it struck a very quiet cord in Luna’s mind. The clacking was like the ticking of a stopwatch. Once it stopped, she knew that it meant that she would have to do something.

But she got lucky that night. “Lulu!” She turned around; her sister walked over to her, a soft smile on her face. Her aloof demeanor and happy attitude served to alleviate some of Luna’s foul mood. Her sister typically managed to do that.

“Ah, Celestia. Good to see you.” Her sister came up next to her, and they walked together down the hall, followed by a now much larger contingent of guards. “I wish I could chat, but I must attend the Lunar Court.” She said it with evident disgust.

Celestia giggled. “You know, I might be able to help.” Luna looked at her, brow raised. “Maybe you could join me for an important talk in my chambers?” Luna smiled wide and nodded.

“Guards!” she shouted as she spun around, all but Starstep coming to attention. “Tell the court that it is dismissed. If there are any serious cases, they may return tomorrow night.” The guards saluted and marched off.

The two princesses and one guard walked away from the scene, the ladies giggling like they had done something naughty. Starstep had let a little smirk creep onto his face, and he chuckled just a bit. Once they were far enough from the court and nopony would hear, the princesses laughed loudly into the nighttime air, releasing their pent up humor.

By the time they had gotten to Celestia’s chambers, they had calmed down considerably and were quiet once more. Celestia opened the door tentatively, as if she thought there might be a sleeping stallion inside. Once the door was open, and they clearly saw that they were alone, the three ponies entered and shut the door.

Celestia went over to her little coffee table, followed by her sister, but not Starstep, who hung back. They both looked at him, curious, but when they saw his look of wariness, they simply chuckled and let him be. As much of a confession as one could get.

“So, how was your trip to Ponyville?” Luna asked. Celestia used her magic to lift up two cups of tea and the pot and poured them each a drink.

“Very nice, though not at all what I was expecting.” Luna “ooh”d at this as she took her tea, her childish nature of curiosity and wonder taking over.

“What was so interesting, if I may ask?”

Both princesses took a sip of their tea, smacking their lips in satisfaction. “The new friend Twilight mentioned was... different than expected.” As soon as she said that, Starstep took interest in the conversation and stepped forward, trying to discern whatever he could about the conversation.

“What was so interesting?” Luna asked.

Celestia took another sip of her tea. “Well, first thing is that her friend is male. That shocked me, but that was in the letter. At first, I thought she found a nice stallion for herself.” She looked at Luna’s expression, which looked doubtful, eliciting a chuckle from the ruler of the sun. “Well, when I saw that he isn’t a pony, I figured out why that wasn’t it.”

Luna had been sipping her tea, but stopped when she heard that. “What?” she asked.

Celestia nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid what exactly he is had escaped my memory, but it was interesting.” Her smile faltered, fading rapidly like a sped up sunset. “He has suffered, this much I can tell. He saw things that nopony should see, much like you, Starstep.” she said, switching to Starstep mid-speech. He looked sad at the comment. “I hope that my student and her friends can help him, but I do not know. But, back to a lighter note, he seems quite fine, not at all undesirable for a resident. Except for the potential for alcoholism.”

Luna took it all in, finding herself going back to her memories of Ryan. The description matched him well, except for the alcoholism. From what she had seen early on, he wasn’t that kind of person. Of course, he wasn’t the kind of person he had once been at all around the time he died anyway.

“What is his name?” she asked, curious but hopeful. Her hopes were destined to be dashed for the time being.

“He said his name is Harkness.” Luna’s ears fell flat, her face sagging like a sad old mare. “But he was certainly lying. I managed to get that out of him.” Luna’s ears remained down. She shouldn’t have let her hopes get up. Ryan died, and there was no getting away from that.

“I see.” Her mood was ruined now, all thanks to her inability to keep the colt out of her head.

Celestia, sensing the change in mood but not questioning it, stood and stretched. “Well, I believe that it is time for us to go to bed now.”

Luna stood up and turned around, hyper-extending her legs to pop the joints around. “Indeed.” She started to walk away, but her sister had one last thing to say.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Luna turned around. “He knows you personally.” Luna blinked. She had never met this stallion or whatever. How could he know her? Maybe it was a griffon-pony combo; those existed as far as she could tell. Or it could be something entirely different.

“Interesting.” she said. Starstep walked up next to her and poked her side, sensing that Luna might start thinking about Ryan. “Well, good night.” Celestia returned the gesture and shut her doors once Luna left.

She walked down the hallway in a sullen, but not terribly unhappy silence. She hoped that she might get to meet this guy some time.

********************************************************************************

It was half past eight, Saturday morning. The birds were chirping head-bangingly, the grass was moist with glistening dew, and all the morning animals and ponies were on their little routines.

Ryan was walking to Fluttershy’s cottage to do that cataloguing thing with her. Being the only human, it was his job to let her get an idea of what humans are like physically. If he ever needed a nurse for a specific problem, she would end up being the one to go to.

He was on the trail to her cottage, a strange place built into a big, twisted tree on top of a hill. Animals were everywhere; in the tree, on the ground, in the air, in the water, in his face, clinging to his pants, looking up at him from underneath.

“No view for you.” he said, kicking at the animals, which responded by angrily waving limbs at him. He cocked his brow at them; they were actually intelligent. “Great. This’ll be fun.” He walked past the animals to the cottage house.

On the way there, the door opened up and a familiar workhorse walked out. He had two empty baskets attached to his sides. “Thank you again, Big Mac.” Fluttershy said, coming out from behind the massive stallion.

He nodded his head. “No problem.” he replied. They stood there for a moment, silent, awkwardly looking around.

Fluttershy almost immediately saw Ryan. “Oh!” she announced, drawing Mac’s attention to Ryan. He would swear that he saw the stallion’s face go dark, but he couldn’t really tell. “I’m glad you made it, Harkness.” she said, turning around and waving her hoof. “Please, come in.” She walked inside. Ryan walked past Mac, giving him a sneer as he passed him. Mac grumped at him. Shut up. Ryan just chuckled and walked inside.

The inside was no better than the outside; it might have been worse. There were bird houses EVERYWHERE, hanging from the ceiling just high enough that Ryan wasn’t banging into them. There were dozens of mouseholes in the walls, each one with a mouse looking out of it. Each one that saw Ryan ran inside and shut a tiny door. Looking around, Ran also noted some raccoon nests, squirrels, chipmunks, and a bear.

“Is that a bear?” he asked, pointing to the behemoth in the corner. It growled at him.

“Mr. Bear, you should be nicer to our guests!” she said, staring at Mr. Bear. He submitted much faster than any self-respecting bear should have.

So it is.” Ryan concluded thoughtfully. He would have to be careful; that bear, like all animals, could obviously see into Ryan like a clear lake.

Fluttershy pointed at a large, lush couch by the wall. “Please, lie down.” she said. Ryan walked over suspiciously. It looked like a therapy couch, but he wasn’t to judge their fashion. He laid down slowly, keeping an eye on that bear in the corner. “Great. I’m going to start by asking you questions about your anatomy, then we can move onto the next step.” Ryan breathed slowly; he would have to prevent that next stage.

She started with simple questions, like “What are your limbs called?” and “what major organs do you know you have?” He answered them with ease; there were only a few organs he couldn’t remember from health class. Bone and nerve structure were simple, as was the immune system. It got awkward around the reproductive system. “Umm...” She was pretty hesitant. “Where are your, umm, genitals?” she asked quietly. It was a good thing Ryan was listening; he wasn’t sure she would repeat that.

“Between my legs.” Fluttershy grew red.

“O-okay. And umm, how do they,umm...” Ryan took over to keep her from being too embarrassed.

“They hang free, and they’re just like what I assume most of the stallions around here have. One, then two.” Fluttershy wasn’t spared the embarrassment, though. She hid behind her mane.

A thought popped into Ryan’s head, and he just couldn’t resist. “Is this about Big Mac?” he asked, giving her a “Oh, you!” kind of look. The mare’s pupils became almost microscopic; her face wasn’t even remotely yellow any more; she breathed so shallow, you couldn’t see it.

“No!” she yelled, getting all of the animals to look at them. Ryan chuckled. He would stop there; he was still at least part gentleman when it came to shy girls.

“Okay then.”

Fluttershy stared at him, her pupils getting really big. Her timidness had disappeared without a moment’s notice, and she almost seemed mad. Ryan was confused. “I did not do that.” They locked eyes; in Fluttershy’s, he could see strength that he hadn’t thought to be there. There was an inferno of passion of the soul, born from a pilot light from her mind.

Fluttershy had trouble maintaining The Stare for long. She couldn’t bear what she was seeing in this human’s soul; pain, anguish, anger, hatred, suffering. She had never even heard of anything like it before, save for the veterans of the last war with the Griffons. She broke her gaze.

“Please, don’t think that of me.”

She looked less powerful now, but she still held unexpected confidence. Still perplexed, Ryan looked sideways at her. “Allllriiight, then?” He had no clue what had just happened. Of course, he did not know that no pony had ever resisted The Stare before.

They broke away from that little event and continued cataloguing. Ryan told her a little about the history of humans and their evolution, their dominance of the world, and their adaptations. But then, the tough part came.

“I need you to remove your clothes so I can get a good sketch of you.” Ryan gulped hard; he had to steer away from this.

“Well, Fluttershy, like how you're not that kind of mare, I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t do pornos.” Fluttershy flushed a little, but did her best to maintain her composure.

“It’s not that. And yes, I do understand about... that.” She pointed at Ryan’s crotch. “But I have to catalogue all animals that haven’t been catalogued. So I’m used to that, especially as a vet.”

Ryan inched away, into the wall. “Well, I don’t want to do that. I’m not comfortable.”

Fluttershy moved closer, trying to make him more comfortable. Never, EVER move closer to a cornered animal if it’s scared. “Please, just do it. I promise I won’t laugh.” Ryan opened his mouth to respond, but just blinked when he realized what she said. He decided to get serious, since joking wasn’t working.

“Sorry, Fluttershy, but I don’t want to. I think that you would be a little disturbed by what you saw.”

Fluttershy frowned. “I don’t-”

“And you probably won’t understand. If you saw, trust me, you would get it. But you won’t see. So that’s that.” He stood up and went for the exit. When Fluttershy followed, he turned around and looked down at her, being as tall as possible.

“Please. It’s for your good, not mine.” That was so solidly true it would make a better weapon than a brick.

She stopped. She was a vet, but she was also compassionate about the animals’ and ponies’ problems. She wasn’t going to force him to do anything. “Alright. You can go.” Ryan nodded.

“Thanks. And I was glad to help.” No, he wasn’t. Not at all.


He left and walked through town, looking for that tiny river so he could get a good look at himself. When he got there, he was indifferent about what he saw; he looked like hammered shit, with several distinct marks from each of the places where he had gone, namely Vietnam. His face looked like it was naturally dirty, coarse, and smelly. His clothes, while clean of blood, had once again become disgusting and smelled like garbage. Overall; not too bad.

Rarity would never say that, though. “Harkness!” she said, posh and proper. Ryan started, and nearly fell into the water. How had he allowed anypony to sneak up on him?

“Hello, Rarity.” He turned. “And Applejack.”

The two mares were smiling and walking together, a stark contrast to one another. One was clean and and purple, walked with regal posture, wore a fashionable scarf. The other was dirty, a rusty orange, wearing no clothes at all and had a workers’ poise. “Howdy!” Applejack greeted giddily. “How are y’all today?” The two mares were way too happy; something was up.

“I’m good enough. Just finished with Fluttershy.” The mares did not seem to care, except that it meant that Ryan was free to talk to them.

“Well, since you’re done, why not join us for a walk?” Ryan considered the option. They wanted something, he could tell. But he would be taking a big risk if he said no.

“Alright.”

He stood up and walked with the mares around town, not joining in on their conversation as they walked. They were talking about stallions. “Ah’d like a good, hard working stallion for me. Ain’t no other gonna work.”

Rarity nodded. “I want a handsome, noble stallion. And one who’s of good stature, of course.” She gave Applejack a sly smile, drawing a frustrated look from the farm mare.

“Well, Ah can’t say that Ah think Big Mac would.”

Rarity looked around. “Well, who ever said I meant Big Mac?” she said in mock offense. “What if I meant Harkness?”

Ryan turned around at the sound of his fake name. “What?” he said in mild surprise.

Rarity nodded. “Yes. I mean, just look at you!” He did; he saw very little. “I see a strong... human? Who works hard and is rather impressive.” She was trying to get to Ryan, but it was doomed to fail.

“Well, I AM rather large.” He shrugged. “But I bet you already saw that while I was showering.”

Applejack looked at her friend, barely containing her hysteric laughter. Rarity was turning red. “Well, I can assure you, that if I wanted such a thing, I would have taken it.”

Ryan threw out his hands in the air. “Well, I guess that you would love to just take advantage of me, then.” Applejack couldn’t hold it any more, and she dropped, bellowing out her laughter. Passing ponies looked on with interest.

Rarity used her magic to toss dirt at Applejack. “Well, I suppose that you would be rather afraid to hear our plans for tomorrow.” she said in mock disappointment. Now he actually was afraid.

“What are you planning?” His fear was evident in his voice, making Rarity wince at having actually scared him.

“We’re taking you to the SPA!”

He blinked several times, unable to understand why he was going to a spa. “Spas aren’t really my thing...” he tried. Applejack looked at him, not happy with the response one bit.

“We already told the gals that you would be there, Harkness.” Ryan actually felt like he had been slapped across the face. “Fluttershy said that it would be good for you, so we agreed and told ‘em.”

Fluttershy, of course. She had gone around the rules to get this. He would have to keep an eye on her in the future. “Now, you’re gonna join us cuz’ it’ll be nice, and you’ll feel great.” Ryan looked between the two mares, trying to find a way out. Regrettably, thanks to Rarity’s dangerous, potentially sexual-assault nducing magic, there was no way. He sighed loudly.

“Fine.” The mares smiled big and ran up to him and bear hugged him.

“You’ll love it, we swear!” Ryan shook his head. Why was he letting these things happen to him?

When the mares let go, Ryan nodded to them and took his leave, feeling the taste of defeat manifesting itself in his mouth as he considered how to explain the distinct scars in a way that would fail to indicate what he had done to get them and everything after.

********************************************************************************

He walked around the town in the dark of the predawn, still wondering what to say. Nothing had come to mind during the night, which he had spent mostly drunk and barely conscious. That was the trouble with forgetting; he couldn’t think either.

He was stuck. He had agreed to go with them to the spa, but he had no story to go off of. “I’ll wing it.” he decided. He could probably come up with something pretty good on the spot. He had done it before; he could do it again.

Rarity had told him before he left to be at her home early, around eight, for a whole day at the spa. So, that was where Ryan headed. He found his bench from before, when the Cutie Mark Crusaders had tried to attack him, and simply sat for hours until well after the sun rose from its spot below the horizon. Ryan’s star still twinkled a little into the early morning, fading at times, but always coming back strong, until its light was blocked by the sun. It seemed like it had a connection to him, though he couldn’t see how. Even in a world of magic, he hadn’t earned his own star.

It was about quarter after seven when he came back. “Well, Ryan, I see that you’re in something of a tight spot.” The Wraith commented. Ryan grunted, putting his hand to the Automag. “You remember how that went last time, right?” Ryan looked at the pistol which had been so ineffective before and took his hand away from it. “Good.” The Wraith said.

The Wraith sat down beside Ryan on the bench and crossed his legs, whistling a little tune. “What do you want?” Ryan asked. He was looking angrily at The Wraith, his resentment for his past dominating his features. The Wraith put his hands up into the air.

“What, I can’t spend time with my brother, whom I connect to so very much?” He struck a cord in Ryan with that one.

“No, you can’t. Now piss off.” Ryan stood up and went to walk away, but was quickly stopped when he heard several noises from inside the boutique.

“Whoops. Can’t just ditch her, now can you? That’s what I’d do.” Ryan scowled. He only had a short wait until Rarity came out to get him, and there was no way that The Wraith was to leave him until that time came. So he might as well just wait.

“Tell me something, Wraith.” He turned around and looked at The Wraith, who had his arms open and out wide.

“All ears.”

Ryan took several steps forward, trying to be intimidating. It didn’t work. “Why are you pestering me?” he asked. “What have you got to gain from this?”

The Wraith put his hand to his chin, deep in thought. “I suppose it makes for an interesting story.” he said. Ryan shook his head, confused.

“What?”

The Wraith suddenly pulled out a book with a strange binding to it and odd symbols on the front. “You see this book?” he asked. Ryan nodded. “This book is the story of your life. Everything that happens gets recorded in here, all thanks to the magic of this land.” He waved the book around, then flipped it open. “Says here that you went and got a dance back in Australia, had a good time.” He looked at Ryan, whose face revealed no reaction. The Wraith shrugged and put the book away.

“Unfortunately, it can’t see the future.” The Wraith smiled and lightly looked at Ryan. “But I don’t think I’ll need it to see your future.” Ryan sharply took in a deep breath and put his hand back on the gun.

“Fuck yourself.” The Wraith stood up, cracking his joints as he did so and let out a long sigh.

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m afraid that I have to go. Things to do, places to go, ponies to see.” Ryan blinked, and The Wraith was gone. He sighed loudly, resentful of the being’s presence, and went and knocked on the door of the boutique.

He knocked three times, then heard a big clamor inside the store. Rather than go inside and investigate, though, he waited at the door, not eager to get involved in any of the potential craziness inside. After a few minutes, the door opened, revealing the tiny form of Sweetie Belle.

“Harkness!” she shouted, a silly grin splaying out on her face. “You’re going to the spa today!” Ryan nodded, unsure of why she felt the need to announce that. Kids.

“Yeah. Where’s Rarity?” Sweetie Belle waved him in and walked him to the stage of the room.

Upstairs, there was a ton of noise and the sound of a panic. “Is everything alright?” Ryan asked. Sweetie Belle dismissed it with a wave of her hoof and a shake of her head.

“She’s just working on an order. She does this alot.” Ryan nodded, sitting down on the stage, and was ready to let his mind wander when Sweetie Belle wasn’t letting him do so. “Harkness?” she said. Ryan looked down; she wore a sad face for some reason.

“What?” he asked, taken off guard.

“Can I ask you to do something?” She pouted and blinked three times, looking tiny and weak on the floor. Ryan didn’t even try, sighing in defeat.

“Sure.”

Her smile returned instantly, practically illuminating the room. “Next week we have to bring in somepony we know for a project at school!” she began. “Most kids are bringing family, but mine is too busy. Would you come with me?” She looked at him with such hope that even Ryan didn’t have the lack of heart to deny her. It was too much like Joey.

“Depends.” he stalled. “What would I be doing?” He secretly wished that Rarity would hurry it up up there.

“Well, we have to bring in somepony to tell us about their job and life, and answer questions for the class. That’s why most ponies are bringing family. Scootaloo’s bringing in Rainbow Dash.”

Well, shit.” He had just basically agreed to revealing himself to a bunch of little children. At this point, he could hardly say no. But he could make excuses. “Well, I never had a job, I was just a student. I can’t-”

“Then how did you get so badly hurt?”

Ryan didn’t continue with his sentence. Through the power of observation, something Ryan thought to generally be missing among the intelligent life he had spent the most time around, she had figured out that he did some very different things from most people. He had to think fast.

“A series of events that I don’t think children should hear.” Sweetie Belle looked up at him in total awe. He was just digging his hole that much deeper every time he opened his mouth.

Then, his saving grace came. “Rarity!” he shouted in an attempt to get Sweetie Belle to look that way. It worked. “Ready to get going?” He smiled as big as possible to indicate that the little sister was pestering him ferociously. She took notice immediately.

“Sure, darling, just let me get a few things in order. I will be but a moment.” That moment was all Sweetie Belle needed.

“So, can you do it?” Straight forward, no way around it.

Ryan clenched his teeth under his lips for a moment, then replied calmly, “Sure.” The tiny filly leapt into the air, legs splayed out wide and horn slightly aglow.

“YAY!”

Rarity came back and looked hurriedly at the clock. “Oh, dear, we’ll be late!” She used her magic to grab a small bag and then Ryan by the neck of his jacket, dragging him along the floor to the door. It was a highly unpleasant experience for the human, who grunted loudly as he was pulled along.

“Later Harkness!” Sweetie Belle shouted. Ryan saluted her as he was dragged away along the unpolished marble floor.

Once outside, Rarity released Ryan form her overly invasive magic and he fell like a boulder to the ground, creating a big thud. He just got back up. “Thanks for the save, but it was a little bit late.” Ryan said. Rarity nodded rapidly at him, prancing about.

“Yes, yes, you’re welcome, but we must hurry!” She turned around and started running, and Ryan ran after her, much slower due to his lack of horse anatomy. Humans aren’t built for that kind of powerful running.

What time is it?” Ryan looked at his watch; it was quarter ‘til. They had plenty of time. Rarity just hated the idea of being late, it seemed.

Rarity arrived about twenty seconds before Ryan did, looking rather distasteful when she sniffed the air upon Ryan’s arrival. He was sweaty and gross already. “Egad, you really could use a spa treatment.”

Ryan stopped before her, panting like a dog, and held up his index finger. Then, he said, “Well, if you weren’t trying to weaken me so much to the point of defenselessness, maybe I would be looking better.” They had run there incredibly fast; faster than Ryan had ever run before. Rarity turned mildly red, and flung her mane to the side with a whisk of her head.

“Well, I assure you, I am strong enough already.” Ryan just glanced up at her, finally starting to recover from his exertion.

“Well,” he said, standing up as tall as possible. “I think that you’ll find me to be more durable than you in the end. And at the climax of the battle, isn’t the ability to take it and give it back what really counts?” Rarity looked flustered, but let out a fit of giggles.

“Oh, my. I can’t seem to win.” She then looked like she had some kind of revelation. “Oh, I nearly forgot!” She pulled out a pair of shorts that Ryan would wear from her small bag. “I made this for you for today.”

She gave Ryan a pair of swim trunks that would fit snugly over his waist. “Oh. Thanks.” he said. Once that was done, they went inside and looked around the waiting room. Sure enough, all of the mares, Twilight, Applejack, Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Rainbow were there. Rainbow, though, looked around like she had stolen something. “Yo.” Ryan greeted, taking the chance from Rarity to extend it and start more of a conversation. The mares all looked over at the pair as it entered.

“Hey!” Pinkie yelled back. She bounced out of her seat and straight at Ryan. “So, are you ready for your super relaxing awesome wonderful super duper day at the spa!?”

Ryan blinked. “Yes?” Pinkie stood on her hind legs, like a human, and extended her forelegs out to the sides. Ryan rolled his eyes and picked her up, getting giggles from her and her friends. Except Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash; they looked nervous, both, and shameful, too.

Ryan walked over and took a seat that looked toward the door and the group of mares before him. To his right, Fluttershy was trying to hide behind her mane and Rainbow Dash, while Rainbow Dash was looking around like she had committed a crime.

“What’s with you two?” Ryan asked.

Fluttershy squeaked some response out, but it was incoherent, and Rainbow Dash said, “I’m not into this stuff. I’m just here because Fluttershy asked me.” Ryan looked around Rainbow at the timid pegasus, who gave her best effort to remain hidden. She knew that Ryan wasn’t happy with this.

A very foreign accent came from the desk. “The large appointment for Miss Rarity?” It sounded like a combo of Swedish and German accents to Ryan.

“Yes, that’s us!” Rarity said back, going up to the desk. Ryan and the others all stood up and walked up to the desk behind Rarity.

“Oh.” the desk mare said at Ryan’s unexpected form. “You’re tall.” Ryan raised an eyebrow and stuck his hands in his pockets.

“Okay.”

While she was looking at Ryan, Rarity also turned to him to speak. “Harkness, you didn’t have to carry all of those things with you, you know.” Ryan didn’t respond quickly.

“I do, actually.”

Rarity gave him a mildly concerned look, then turned back to the desk mare. “Do you have anywhere that he can put his things?” The mare nodded.

“Yes, we have lockers where you can store your things for the day. Please, follow me.” The desk mare came from the other side of the desk and walked over to a door at the side of the room.

“You girls go ahead.” Ryan said, not intent on being followed. “I’ll be in there once I’ve stored my things.” The mares all nodded and went to the spa area.

The desk mare led Ryan through a serie of halls that were lavishly decorated and very clean and white. Purple curtains hung from the windows and ceiling, and there were assorted potted plants and little statues around the hall. Eventually, they came upon a room that had a “Stallions” sign on it. “Here you are. Come out when you’re ready.” She left Ryan to enter the room, which he did as slowly as possible.

The room was small, as to be expected. Most stallions probably didn’t find themselves here very often. Looking around, Ryan picked a locker, number seven, and stored his things in it. They fit in very tightly, only barely fitting. He then put on his new set of trunks, which fit excellently, if a bit snug at the waistline. He shut the locker and looked around.

“There’s gotta be a towel in here somewhere.” he said to himself. When he spotted the basket, he grabbed a large one and put it around his chest and walked out.

He just followed the signs to the spa room, and found himself there rather quickly. Inside, there was a large inground hot tub that could easily fit two dozen, with six mares inside talking and laughing. His entrance would surely end that laughter.

“Harkness!” Rarity poshed. “So glad to see you didn’t run off.” She looked smugly at Applejack, who grumbled something. They seemed to have bet on his showing up. “Please, join us.” Ryan breathed in deep; now was the moment of truth, and he still had no story.

He removed the towel and hung it on the wall, the steam of the room preventing the mares from seeing his scars. He took a quick glance at them before proceeding; the hole in his chest, the chemical burns on his arms, the cuts on his leg, and the big USA and slash marks carved into his back. He would have trouble explaining these things.

He walked toward the pool, and as he got closer, close enough to be seen, he could hear at least two of the mares gasp. He looked to Fluttershy; she looked like she might faint. He might have to catch her if she did, seeing as it would be his fault. He stepped down into the hot water, about one hundred and two degrees, and eased himself in. It was certainly a hell of a lot better than sixty degree water in Vietnam.

Next to him, he wasn’t sure when it happened, was Fluttershy when he was fully in. She had moved stealthily through the water and was taking a look at his back. “What are you doing?” Ryan asked, already knowing.

“I’m checking for that... hole... wound...” She blinked several times when she saw the letters in his back. “W-what happened?” Ryan moved away. With no story, he would just have to refuse.

“I prefer not to talk about it.”

The others suddenly took a great deal of interest in Ryan’s physique with that. Rainbow was the most aggressive. “What? Lemme see!” Before Ryan could react, he was yanked into the middle of the pool and thrown face down into the water. He could still hear, since his ears were above the water. “USA?” Rainbow said, confused. Ryan forced his way back up.

“Yeah, my country of origin. United States of America. Now let me go.” He walked away from her, not happy with the sudden intrusion of his space.

When he sat down on one end of the group, the others were all looking at him. “What?” he asked. Again, he knew exactly what.

“Harkness, Ah think it’s time for you to tell us the truth.” Applejack stated matter-of-factly. “Ah know you’ve been lying and trying to hide. But we can’t let you do that; it ain’t good for you.” Ryan was about to respond angrily when Twilight piped in.

“She’s right, you know. You shouldn’t suffer alone.” Ryan sighed loudly, choking a bit on the spa water fumes. “Trust me. This won’t be good for anyone.”

The mares were suddenly much closer. “Please, tell us the truth. I don’t like seeing ponies unhappy.” Pinkie had big pupils and a pouty lip that quivered like a whimpering dog.

Ryan put his head down. There was no way out of it. “You want the truth?” he asked. The mares all nodded. He nodded as well. “Alright.”

“My name isn’t Harkness. It’s Ryan. That’s the first bit of news.” The reaction was minimal; it wouldn’t stay that way. “Let me start with how the whole thing started. I went to another country, Australia, to visit my friend. When he, I, and some others were driving to a city for a concert, we were attacked by men who aimed to kidnap us. They succeeded with everyone but Jackson.”

Rainbow was already confused, and made it well known to everyone. “Who’s Jackson, and why were you kidnapped?”

Ryan addressed her question quickly and curtly. “Jackson was a friend of mine. And the men kidnapped us to sell us as slaves.”

Twilight swallowed hard. “So what happened to Jackson? Did he get away?”

Ryan shook his head gravely. “Nope. Died in the initial attack. Shot twice in the head, several times in the body. His jaw hung like a broken branch from his face.” Ryan gauged the reactions; all looked sick, but Fluttershy was about to faint. Ryan moved forward and held her up. “And the rest of the story is a lot like that. So I’ll let you recover before I keep going.”

They spent the next few minutes in silence, Ryan trying to see what the mares all thought of him. Mostly, they looked like they pitied him, but there was something else. Some kind of fear of him, like he had been expecting from the start.

He was about to continue when the spa mare came in. “Ready for massages?” she asked in her foreign voice. Ryan stood up in the water.

“Certainly.” He walked away, Fluttershy still getting better in his arms, and was followed closely by the mares. The spa mare looked at him funny, but made no mention of what she was seeing. She just led them to the massage room.

Ryan looked at the tables; they were pretty small. His arms and legs would be hanging off the sides. “Please, lay down. We shall begin shortly.” There were only two mares doing massages; the others were doing various other things in the room.

Ryan got onto the table, joined by Rarity at the other, and waited. No one spoke. “I think you can keep going, Harkness.”

Ryan cleared his throat. “Ryan.”

“After we were taken, save for Jackson, we were transported through various islands, all of which make up a country called Indonesia. We were kept in a series of shitty little compounds in the country.” He couldn’t see it, but everypony in the room winced at the use of his foul language. “That was where things went pretty bad.”

Rarity blinked next to him. “How could it get worse?” she asked.

Ryan grunted as the spa mare started rubbing his back. “Just wait. You’ll know.”

“On the boat on the way to one compound, I was given a choice. Shoot my best friend or this girl named Catherine. I shot Catherine.” The room went completely silent. “Yes, I killed an innocent. And yes, I know that I’m going to Hell. But this is what you wanted to hear, so this is what you got.” The spa mare on his back slowed down, clearly disturbed, but kept going. The silence was broken when Twilight finally spoke up.

“What would have happened if you hadn’t done that?” she asked.

“We all would have died. But that doesn’t make it any better.”

He continued. “After that, they brought us north to another compound. It was there that I made my escape. When I got away, though, I had to go and get my friend, Harris. So, I went to the next compound and I got him.”

Rarity, who had been perturbed, actually seemed almost fascinated by the story now. “How did you do it?” she asked.

Ryan thought for a moment. “I killed about seven guards there. They... I don’t know what I was going to say. But I killed them because they had my friend.”

Pinkie Pie had a revelation over in the mud bath. “Wait, how did you get the scars?” she asked. Ryan hesitated. There was a reason he left that out.

“I was given another decision. Shoot a kid in the head or everyone got Anthrax and was sent home. I shot the kid in the head. But right before that, I was tortured.” There was a collection of gasps. “The burned my arms with chemicals and cut up my back, the big USA and grouping under that. I don’t like to recall it.”

He decided that this was more than enough for the mares, so he left them with one more thing. “And because of what they did to me, I decided to hunt down the man responsible and kill him.” Rainbow Dash left her spot in her own mud bath and walked over to Ryan.

“Did you?” she asked.

Ryan nodded. “I killed them. Forty lives, I took, three of which did not deserve it. And those are the details of the story that you will be getting.”

There was no talking after that. The revelation of Ryan’s true history was too much for the mares to handle. They spent the next two hours in total silence, a concept very welcomed by Ryan. Once the visit was done, Ryan got his stuff and left and sat in his ditch for the rest of the day, tears silently streaming from his eyes and knowing that life was about to go off the road for him again.

Innocence Observed

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Innocence Observed

I may be revered or defamed or decried; but I tried to live my life right.” (Tracy Chapman)

It had about a week since Ryan told the mares the truth about himself. They had reacted exactly as he had been expecting; shock and a bit of terror, maybe some disgust. They had been doing their best not to show it, but it was still quite certainly there. He could see it in their eyes, though only in the couple of glances he got at them. They did their best not to look into his; they were too scared of what they would see.

They hadn’t spoken to him almost at all in that time, either. The only communication he got from any of them was a quick sentence or request at work. Twilight had him moving books around, and had refrained from asking him any questions since the spa. Rarity had him moving fabric around, and Applejack had left Ryan to work with her older brother. When he passed any of them on the street, except for Rainbow Dash, they would look at him with the most disgusting pity in their eyes.

Rainbow Dash, though, had no pity for Ryan. When she passed him, she gave him a look of aggression, anger flashing across her face with each passing. She had been keeping an eye on him in her spare time, Ryan could tell; she wasn’t very good at hiding. Her shadow would dominate the ground whenever she flew overhead. “Have you nothing better to do?” he had asked her once.

As soon as he finished his question, though, she flew down and landed right in front of him. “I’m watching you.” Then she just flew off, a rainbow that, to Ryan, looked anything but beautiful.

Other than that, he had done a few things in the last few days that would make his life more livable. He had found that carrying all his bits around was getting tiresome, so he went and found a bank that he could keep his money in for the time being. He had been forced to take Twilight there, though, to get the bank teller to take him seriously, which was terribly awkward.

“Twilight,” Ryan had said as he entered the library. “I need some help establishing a bank account for myself.”

Twilight had been taking out various books and flipping through them, evidently trying to distract herself from something. “Oh, Har- Ryan. I wasn’t, umm, expecting you.” She tossed the books to the ground uncharacteristically. “Sure, let’s go.”

On the way to the bank, she had tried to start a conversation with Ryan and failed. She told him about how she sent a letter to Celestia regarding what Ryan had told her, about his real name and the various other things he had explained. Silently, Ryan reprimanded himself for revealing such information, but was glad that he didn’t explain how Luna had been involved in ALL of it. That could have ended very negatively for her.

But now, he had about three hundred-forty-one bits in the bank. He was actually getting along, as far as he knew, and would, with any luck, be able to get out of this world and into a solitary one. Having a bank account would make everything easier.

He also found a gym where he could work out like he used to. After all, wouldn’t physical fitness be helpful for living in the deadliest forest around? The membership had cost him fifteen bits to start, and would be another ten every month he had it. But it was fine, since he could use it however much he wanted. The machines were all wrong, but the free weights would work fine. It was lucky that they were shaped right for him to hold, since most of the stallions there used them to work out their neck muscles by holding them in their mouths.

Now, though, he was getting up on a damp Monday morning, dreading having to go to Rarity’s boutique for another awkward day of moving fabrics around and taking short, curt orders. “I hate life.” Ryan said to himself as he climbed out of his muddy trench. He looked around, noting how the countryside was shrouded in mist and everything was nearly invisible within it. “I really do.” He stood up and cracked his joints, and walked off into town at half past six.

As he approached the boutique, he started thinking about what he should do about living in the forest. He couldn’t well just walk in there one day, to do so would be fatal. He had to go in there first to check which areas would be the best for settling. He would have to map out the forest as best he could, if he couldn’t obtain a map, and take into account what he might encounter. He had promised Harris that he wouldn’t allow himself to die, a promise that he regretted almost as much as everything he had done. It would be awhile before he could actually go in and not come out, and he would unfortunately have to live around here in order to get enough money to be able to set himself up to move on.

It was six forty-five when he knocked on the door three times as firmly as he could. After a minute of nothing, he knocked three more times and waited. This time, the door swung open, but nopony was there.

“Hey Ryan!” a small voice called from below. Ryan looked down; it was Sweetie Belle, Rarity’s little sister. “Are you ready for today?” she asked.

Ryan cocked an eyebrow and looked down at her, confused. “For work?” he asked.

She cocked her head sideways. “No, for school! Today is the day I get to bring you in to talk to my class!”

As she spoke those words, Ryan’s blood ran cold. He had both forgotten that he would have to do that, and he also never found out what day it would be. “Oh.” he replied. “I didn’t know that was today.” He looked past her into the boutique, looking for Rarity, but she was nowhere to be seen. “Is Rarity here?”

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “She’s busy working upstairs. I already told her that I was taking you today, so you don’t have to work. She has a really big order to fill out, so she probably won’t come down.” She turned around and went back inside. “Come on in! I made breakfast!” Ryan sighed and obliged.

They went into the kitchen and sat at the small table, which Ryan’s legs barely made it under without flipping it over. He looked down at the plate before him; there was strange looking oatmeal in front of him and a glass of milk on the side. “Thanks.” he said, picking up a spoon and beginning to eat. As soon as the substance hit his lips, he felt like there was a super-magnet trying to remove it from his mouth, but he was able to fight it and swallow. “Ugh, umm, wow.” he said, on the verge of retching. “What is it?” he asked, trying to be polite.

Sweetie Belle didn’t sense his disgust, thankfully. “It’s applesauce!” she shouted excitedly, a big, toothy smile on her face. Ryan blinked twice, and then looked down. Sure enough, there were chunks of SOMETHING in the bowl before him. “Do you like it?”

Ryan took a swig of the milk, which was a great savior from the horrible apple sauce. “Sure.” he lied, though not very well. “It’s far from the worst thing I’ve had in my mouth.” Blood will always taste worse than anything else, especially your own.

Sweetie Belle smiled and ate her own breakfast, a bowl of cereal and milk and a glass of juice. They ate in silence, no longer having anything in particular to say. But Sweetie Belle would have none of that.

“So what exactly did you do before you came here?” she asked. “You said you were a student. What did you study?”

Ryan took a big swig of his milk and answered, “I was a student at a public school, so I didn’t study anything specific. We did science, history, literature, foreign language, math, various other optional subjects, and did physical education. We didn’t do a ton.” He shrugged with his last statement and pushed the bowl of breakfast slop away. “Just the standard stuff with higher level courses sometimes.”

Sweetie Belle finished her food and put her dishes in the sink, something Ryan doubted Rarity appreciated. She left the kitchen for a minute, leaving Ryan to take care of his own dishes quickly before she saw that he wasn’t going to eat what she made. While at the sink, Ryan decided to wash the dishes in the short time he had. “Ready to go?!” Sweetie Belle asked excitedly. Ryan turned and saw her, backpack on and full of energy. “Let’s go!” She ran off, Ryan sighing and walking after her.

The journey to the schoolhouse was short and mildly irritating. Ryan had caught up to Sweetie Belle and had her slow down, which she did, only it meant more questions. “What kinds of things did you learn in school? Why can’t you tell me about other parts of your life? Where are you from? What brought you here?” Ryan didn’t answer any of the questions, partly out of a lack of desire to answer, and partly because they came so fast, he couldn’t answer. When he saw the schoolhouse, he felt like he had been saved by the devil, who would no doubt make him pay for it soon.

They approached casually, although Ryan kept his eyes darting around to see what there was to see. The little fillies and colts, the same size as Sweetie Belle, were all talking to their friends, their adult companions having their own conversations. None had noticed Ryan yet. “Let’s go find the girls!” Sweetie Belle ordered, running off into the crowd of ponies. Ryan sighed and followed.

When he was close enough that he was noticed, a lot of conversation stopped or became extremely hushed. All adult eyes were on him, scrutinizing him, judging whether or not it was safe for him to be near their kids. He passed one in particular wearing a tie and suit-like vest. “Morning.” he greeted, not waiting for a response. As soon as he was past, the conversations gained volume again. It seemed that he did something right.

“Ryan!” Sweetie Belle called. He looked forward; before him, there were the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash.

For the love of God...” Ryan thought. He had no desire to see Rainbow Dash right now. “Hello.” he said as he approached. “I trust everything is going good?” He tried to seem like he cared, but the Element of Honesty wasn’t one to lie to.

“Good, good.” she answered. “Umm, how’re you?”

Ryan shrugged. “Good enough. I’m alive.” He had made that his standard, and yet, he only barely met it. “Got a bank account and a gym membership. Not much else happened.” He turned to Rainbow Dash. “And how are you?” He barely hid the suspicion in his voice, and the two mares could tell that he was using an accusing tone. “Seen anything interesting lately?” he asked.

Rainbow Dash huffed, not even trying to hide her distaste for the human. “No, I haven’t. But I bet I will eventually.” Scootaloo looked up at her surprised, then back at Ryan with an apologetic look.

“Who knows? Maybe you will.” He stuck his hands in his pocket. “The world is full of all sorts of mysterious and crazy things. You never know when you’ll see them.”

The bell rang, ending their accusatory conversation and drawing a relieved sigh from Applejack. Rainbow Dash was about to say something to Ryan, but he ignored it and walked inside with Sweetie Belle. Inside, he took his place at the back of the room, where he stood among the adult ponies, who all looked at him in either wonder or mild fear. He did his best not to notice.

“Good morning class!” A light purple mare came into the room with a small saddlebag, yet no saddle. Magic. “I’m sure we all have our ponies-” She noticed Ryan, who raised a hand and gave a half wave. “and others, I suppose?” The little ones all turned and saw Ryan, leaning on the wall with his arms crossed, looking tough. They turned back quickly. They all replied with a single, “Yes Miss Cheerilee.”, and so the class began.

“Who wants to go first?” Cheerilee asked. Half a dozen hooves went up instantly, the rest following close behind. “Hmm... how about you, Diamond Tiara?”

Ryan blinked twice to himself. “What?” he wondered? “What kind of stupid name is that?” Then he remembered how his name probably sounded pretty ridiculous to them. It’s all about perspective.

“Certainly!” she shouted. She turned and looked to the back of the room. “Daddy?” Ryan turned and saw that stallion with the tie and suit from earlier get up and walk to the front of the classroom, a content look on his face. “Tell them all about yourself.” There was a hint of stubborn pride and arrogance in the little filly’s voice.

“Sure.” Her father stood in the front of the room and pulled a chart paper from his suit, something Ryan hadn’t thought about doing. He should have brought something other than...

OH SHIT!” He had completely forgotten that he had his arms on him, guns and knife. He wasn’t thinking about it earlier when he left with Sweetie Belle. “Why? Why did I forget?” How he had forgotten something so important was beyond him. He just had to hope that none of the kids noticed anything.

“My name is Filthy Rich.” the stallion stated. Ryan snorted at the joke of his name. “I buy and sell stocks in various companies, which has done very well for me. My job mostly consists of...” And he went on, losing Ryan’s attention completely. Ryan was busy reprimanding himself for foolishly bringing a GUN into a room full of small children.

The stallion finished fairly quickly, the kids not even coming close to understanding what he was saying. Mostly, it seemed like he was talking to the parents, trying to show them how well they could do if they invested a small amount of money into his system and career choice. Cheerilee got right back in front. “Who’s next?”

Sweetie Belle’s hoof was the first one up, causing Ryan to groan inwardly to himself. “Ooh, ooh!” she said. Cheerilee chuckled. “Me!”

The schoolteacher stood aside and looked to the back. “Sure. Who did you bring Sweetie Belle?” Sweetie Belle pointed right at Ryan, a huge grin that said “fuck yourself” or some variant of the phrase pointed right at Diamond Tiara. “Alright... come on up, mister..?”

Ryan got off the wall and stepped forward. “Ryan.” He walked forward toward the front of the room and a teacher who looked like she was expecting more.

“Ryan..?”

He blinked three times at her. “Just Ryan.” She nodded and stepped away from the front, leaving Ryan to battle the onslaught of questions on his own.

He looked out to the crowd, which was totally silent and staring intently at him. They were all curious about this new, intelligent creature, and their curiosity tried to bore into Ryan like a drill. He was denying it like with a shell of diamond, making sure that no one saw the rather unpleasant truth underneath the surface. “Alright. Guess I’ll tell you about myself. I’ve never done this before, so be gentle.” He drew some chuckles from the adults in the back, except for Rainbow and Applejack.

“I’m actually only seventeen, though my appearance would never suggest that.” The reactions he got from his first sentence were all of surprise, like they had expected him to be in his mid thirties. “I was a student at a public school, one of the best in the nation, even better than a lot of private schools. I studied the standard course load: Math, English, Foreign Language, Science, and History. I went into a few advanced level classes, but not many. I had my friends, with whom I had some adventures that I might tell you when you’re older.” The adults chuckled again, some even laughing.

“I had only two hobbies, but I dedicated my life to them. I did SCUBA Diving, the deepest I ever went being about one hundred and ten feet. I’ve seen some cool stuff. My other hobby was Karate. I’ve been practicing for about thirteen years, and got my Second Degree Black Belt.”

The little kids were all staring at him, mouths agape, and the adults were either wide-eyed or giving approving looks. They were impressed, and the fillies and colts were looking at him with eyes that were filled with questions. “That’s all I have, really. Questions, I guess?”

The whole of the class before him raised its hooves, all the little ones making noises in an effort to be called on. Ryan was taken aback by the sudden interest in him, and looked to Cheerilee for guidance. She was laughing away off on the side, barely noticing Ryan’s predicament. When she finished, she looked to Ryan and motioned for him to go on. “Alright.” he said hastily. He looked around; his eyes fell on a gray filly with a silver spoon for a mark. “You.” he said, pointing at her.

The class hushed, something most classes in Ryan’s school couldn’t do for their lives. “Do you have a cutie mark?” she asked, sounding slightly snobbish. Ryan raised an eyebrow at her question, trying to indicate that it wasn’t very good. Don’t listen to people who say that there aren’t any stupid questions.

“No. Humans don’t get them. Ever.” The whole class, including the spoon filly, gasped loudly, as if he had uttered some terrible curse in front of them. “What?” he asked honestly. “We don’t, it shouldn’t be that strange. We get tattoos, but nothing magically appears on our as- flanks.” He barely caught himself. “It’s not that bad.”

There was hushed muttering among the little ones, and they slowly began to raise their hooves again. “You.” Ryan said, pointing at a light blue one with a darker blue mane.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I come from the United States of America. It’s a country that’s very, VERY far away. You’ll never see it, unfortunately. Or fortunately. Hard to say at times.” The kids looked at him, confused, so he continued; “All depends on your idea of fun, really. Most people who live there under appreciate it, but it’s pretty good.” In an effort to get away from a certain line of questioning, he looked around for more hooves. One colt, very skinny, had his raised. “You.”

He stood up tall. “What gave you the injury that you first came here with?”

Ryan’s blood ran cold, and his face paled a little bit, but not noticeably so. His fingers gripped the desk he was sitting on hard, giving him white knuckles, and he chewed on his inner lip trying to think of an answer. Lying had failed him, so he would have to be forward with them. But he could still zig-zag.

“The events that injured me in such a way are of a nature too malapropos for me to divulge upon to ears so pubescent. I cannot, in reputable mentality, explicate upon that area of my history.” Glancing around, he saw that he had successfully fried the brains of the kids in the room. “I might be able to give you a censored, heavily abridged version, with the parent’s permission, though I personally find that unlikely.”

Before he even finished that sentence, Filthy Rich stepped forward and into the center of the room. “I think that the censored version would be fine, don’t you all?” He turned around to see the nodding heads, then turned back to see Ryan silently brooding. “Care to share?”

Ryan swallowed, hoping that he wouldn’t find himself elaborating too much on everything. “Very well.” He sat all the way on the desk and took in a deep breath, closing his eyes. When he opened them, he prepared himself for the worst. “Before I came here, I found myself in the middle of a war of a very different nature than most think of when they think of war.” He hopped off the desk and moved to the chalkboard, picking up a piece of chalk, and started drawing something. “It was a war between the world, slave traders, and myself.” He wrote SLAVERS on one side of the board and WORLD on the other. “I was here.” He put his name in the middle.

When he turned around, he could see a lot of questions in the eyes of the little ones, and horror in the faces of the adults. Well, they got what they asked for, and if they didn’t like it, well, it sucks to suck. “Any questions?”

Sweetie Belle was the first to raise her hoof, and the only one. “Why were you in the middle? Why weren’t you on the side of the world?” She sounded a bit concerned.

“Well, I fought in this war, but not for either side. I fought mostly against the slavers, and once or twice against the world when it tried to stop me. But I only sought to take down the slavers.” True, but he wasn’t explaining his motives.

“Why?” Sweetie Belle asked, forcing him to explain his motives.

Ryan sighed. “Well, they did a lot of terrible things to a lot of people, myself being among those people. So I fought back.” He set the chalk down and went to walk to the back of the room. He was stopped by a question that he wasn’t expecting.

“Did you win?” The light blue one with the dark mane asked him that.

“What?”

“Did you win, beat the slavers?” Ryan blinked. He had never thought about that before, really.

“Well, my goal of taking down their leader was achieved. So yes, I guess that of them and me, I did win.”

The eyes of the colt looked like stars, glittering and bright. “So, you’re like, a war hero, right? You beat the bad guys and saved the day!” The little ones all looked up at Ryan, awestruck by the colt’s inference. Ryan chuckled to himself. This time, though, they all noticed. “What?” the colt asked.

Ryan stopped chuckling, realizing that it wouldn’t be very funny to them. “There are few heroes in war, and they are rarely those who fight. And on another note,” He turned to face the colt. The nametag on his desk read RUMBLE. “I’m one of the farthest things from a hero that you’ll ever meet.” He walked to the back of the room. “And so that’s all about me.” The students started clapping their hooves together, making a lot of clop noises rather than clap noises.

Cheerilee went back to the front. “Well, that took longer than expected. We’ll break for lunch now, but we’ll resume when we come back and finish up. I guess you kids don’t have to go through my lesson plan today.” She mocked disappointment, drawing lots of laughs of joy from the students. “Dismissed!”

The little ones all ran outside, leaving the adults and Ryan in the schoolhouse to chat amongst themselves and catch up. In Ryan’s case, it unfortunately meant meeting new ponies.

They all stood around, mostly, just talking amongst friends. Applejack and Rainbow Dash were talking off to the side, and there were other little groups of friends around the room. “I wish my life had been this simple.” Ryan thought. His life had been much worse than he had always hoped.

“Hello!” a voice called. Ryan turned around to see that guy, Filthy Rich, walking towards him. “It’s good to meet you. I’m Filthy Rich.” He extended his hoof, which Ryan took hesitantly. “So you’re the creature that everypony’s been talking about.”

Ryan cocked an eyebrow at still being called a creature, but let it slide. “I wasn’t aware that I was the talk of the town.” he replied. “But I guess that comes with being the only human.”

Filthy nodded. “Ah, yes. While my case was not so... unique, as your, I remember being the only one who was different for a time. It wasn’t easy for me, but, well, look at me now.” He raised his chin proudly. “I own my own stocks business and have made myself my own success.”

“Very impressive. I wish I could say the same for myself.”

“Ah, I’m sure you could. You said that you fought evil ponies, those despicable slave traders. You can do anything you want, I’m quite certain of that.”

Ryan chuckled. “I wish that were true. But the past is the past; I tend to focus more on the future.”

Filthy smiled a big, excited, business smile. “Well, if you ever find yourself in need of money, I’m sure I could help you invest. You did great things for the world; I can only try my best to repay you for that.”

Ryan liked this guy. He was friendly right off the bat and wasn’t asking him any prodding questions. “That would be great, but I don’t think I’ll be sticking around. I might be here awhile, but long term wealth isn’t that important to me. I plan to leave eventually.”

Filthy’s smile became sad, but persisted to live on. “Oh. Well, I wish you the absolute best, and hope you live the peaceful life that you’ve earned.”

Ryan thanked him, and their conversation ended. Filthy walked back to his group of fellow investors and money handlers, where it sounded like they were all wishing Ryan would let them handle his money. Ryan had a bank for that, so he didn’t need them, but they were still nice people. How Diamond Tiara was apparently such a bitch was beyond him.

He was about to walk outside to get going when he suddenly found himself before Applejack and Rainbow Dash. The two ponies were looking up at him, surprise and suspicion on their faces, and neither seemed very friendly at the moment. There was a moment of silence before anyone spoke.

“Can I help you?” Ryan asked, putting his hands in his pockets.

“Yeah.” Rainbow said aggressively. “What do you mean, you plan on taking off?

Where do you think you’re going, huh? Trying to run away from us so you can go hurt more ponies?”

“Rainbow!” Applejack shouted. It was a good thing she shouted, too, because Ryan was about to ream at her. “That ain’t okay!” Rainbow Dash grumbled and stepped back, lowering her head. Ryan, jaw clenched and fists tight, looked at Applejack, who turned back to him. “Ah’m sorry about that.” she said. “But what DO you mean about leaving?”

Ryan snorted. “What I do is my business. But if you must know, I have no intention of staying here. First chance I get to move out of here that I can take, I plan on doing that.”

“Where are you gonna go?” she asked, curious.

“Hell if I know. But I won’t be sticking around here anymore.”

Rainbow looked up at Ryan from behind Applejack and grumbled, “We don’t want murderers here anyhow.”

Ryan snarled at her, causing Applejack to move back in fear. “Fuck you.” he said, shoving his way past Rainbow Dash. He pushed her hard enough that she landed on the floor, drawing looks from everypony else. “I don’t have to take your shit.”

Applejack helped Rainbow up under the watchful eyes of the other adults, trying her best not to make a scene. “Rainbow, why in tarnation did you say that?” she asked. Rainbow didn’t answer. “Augh.” Applejack looked out to the angry, hurt form of Ryan that was walking away. “Ah don’t want you causing him any trouble any more, understand?” Rainbow Dash nodded ruefully, and they went outside for some fresh air.

Ryan was about to get on the road when he heard a tiny voice from his left. “Halt!” it said. “If ye want to gain passage by the road, ye have to pay the toll.”

Ryan looked to his left, then down. There was a tiny guy playing like a pirate next to him, a young Brit, by the sound. “I have no money.” Ryan explained, going along with it. “What would the pirate take from a man who has nothing?”

The young pirate looked thoughtful, but in the end, had nothing. “How about you give me-”

He was cut off by three fillies tackling him to the ground and rolling away. “CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS COAST GUARD PONIES!” they shouted. They all rolled away, tumbling across the grass, wrestling the whole way. In the end, the three fillies had him pinned on the ground. “Hah! We got you!” Sweetie Belle announced. “Do you submit?”

Ryan walked over, laughing to himself very lightly as he approached. “I submit.” the pirate said regretfully. The fillies extricated themselves from the boy and stood proudly next to Ryan. “They have rescued you from my pillaging.” Ryan blinked and tried to ignore what he heard.

“No fear, little man.” Ryan said, going over and extending his hand to the young pillager. “It was a good wrestle.”

The young one took his hand and stood. “But I had to wrestle girls!” he whined, drawing eye rolls from the fillies. “It was gross!”

Ryan laughed and patted the boy’s head. “Someday; trust me; you won’t think that. You’ll WANT to wrestle with them.” He just looked at Ryan like Seriously?, and then looked to the fillies, who were pretend gagging behind Ryan. “Now run along and play.” The pirate boy ran off to play with his friends.

Ryan turned around to leave again, but before he could get going, his legs were tackled by the three young fillies. They almost knocked him over, grabbing onto him like little vice grips. “What?” he asked.

Sweetie Belle looked up at him with a sad face. “Where are you going?” she asked, giving him her best pouty face. “Aren’t you going to stay?”

Ryan extricated the fillies from his legs and set them before him. “Sorry, but I don’t think I should. There are certain ponies here who might not be in favor of that.” He looked back to the schoolhouse, silently resenting that Rainbow Dash had learned about his past. The others were fine; it was her that seemed to be the most troublesome. “I should probably just go.”

All three fillies looked up at him and tried their darndest to stop his heart. They widened their eyes to unnatural lengths and sizes, and they pouted their lips to the point of quivering. Unfortunately for them, Ryan wasn’t going to let them get him now. “Please stay?” they asked.

Ryan sighed. Really thinking about it, it would be pretty rude to leave. But then again, to stay might mean another little scene, and that would no doubt embarrass both Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, their guests both being assholes. Maybe he should stay. “Alright.” he conceded. “I’ll stay.” The girls cheered their victory and ran off.

As they ran off, Ryan could feel some horrible presence close by. He could tell that something was watching him, scrutinizing him, waiting for him to screw up. Its eyes felt like they were right on him, like they were grazing the back of his neck. As he watched the fillies and colts run about, he suddenly felt a fear the likes of which he had never known before. He looked behind him and around the schoolyard, scanning like a machine for anything that was not meant to be there.

“Ryan!” a scratchy voice called out, shocking him out of his stupor. He practically jumped into the air at the sudden noise. “I gotta talk to you.”

He looked over; it was Rainbow Dash walking over, looking regretful and very unhappy. She slouched her neck and slightly dragged her hooves, keeping her eyes to the ground. When she was in front of him, she looked up very slowly, and when she saw his face, a flash of distaste came across her face.

“What?” Ryan asked, already knowing that whatever she said, there would be something else under it. He hated it when people talked to him like that at home.

She kicked at the ground a little with her front hoof, reluctant to speak. “I’m... sorry, for what I said in there. It was uncalled for.” she said. Ryan kept a neutral expression, one that she couldn’t see. “I shouldn’t have said it and I’m sorry.”

Ryan leaned back and took in the mare before him. It was almost comical, the way she was trying to apologize. But still. “I know what’s going on.” he said. “Applejack sent you here.” When he said that, Rainbow visibly flinched, her cover completely blown. “You aren’t sorry. You hate me. You want to see me gone, where I won’t hurt anyone.” He ruffled her mane, getting a confused expression from her. “But I get why.”

He was about to go past her and walk toward a table to sit down when she put her hoof up to his chest and stopped him. “What?” she asked. “What the heck do you mean? Why aren’t you... why not... what?”

He sighed and removed the hoof from his chest. “You hate me. I know why. You fear me because I’m dangerous. I represent everything that you ponies fear.” He looked up to the sky. “I killed people. A lot. Not all of them evil, either. I’m not asking for forgiveness or any such crap. When I die, I won’t be going anywhere nice. Nor should I. So if you hate me, it doesn’t matter. You can hate me all you want, because I’ll still go to Hell, and you’re hate will still just be here, pointless and bitter.” He stepped past her. “Now I am going to sit down.”

He walked past the cyan mare and went over to the table. As he did so, Rainbow Dash looked on, wondering about what she just heard and quietly wishing that he would just leave so that life could be normal for Ponyville again.


*********************************************************************************


Discord watched in with express interest in what was going on between Ryan and Rainbow Dash. He could tell that this was going to play a pivotal role in coming events in Ryan’s life, and likely Rainbow’s too. It would be fun to watch.

But there were other matters that would need tending to as well. For one, there was the Wraith. Discord had no idea where he had come from or how. The Wraith simply showed up one day, tormenting Ryan and causing trouble. Discord had tried to use his magic on the Wraith, but to no avail. Something about him made him immune to magic, but he couldn’t tell what. And he dared not tell Celestia, or she might do something drastic to save her subjects. She had done it before.

Discord let the matters drift to the back of his mind, where they would remain for the time being while he enjoyed watching Ryan. He had skillfully tiptoed past the issues raised by his going to the school with Sweetie Belle, but he still had Rainbow Dash to deal with. Applejack was clearly trying to help him, but Ryan was little interested in that. It had been most fun to watch.

Now, though, he was just sitting at a table, mind adrift, not doing anything in particular. The fillies and colts played around him, never approaching him. They thought he was a hero; to Discord, they were right. He thought that Ryan was a hero, because he fought the evil to the best of his ability. Sure, he had fallen, but even the best of us do at times. Through it all, he had tried his best to do what was right. It was only when he went criminally insane that he stopped that.

Ryan was sitting quietly at the table, minding his own business, when a little colt ran up to him. “Hey!” he shouted in a tiny voice. The colt was small, light blue, and had a swept back blue mane. “Can you help us?”

Discord watched with wariness as Ryan looked down. He had been thinking about something, something important, when the colt interrupted. It was hard to say if he would react well.

“Depends.” Ryan said, drawing a mental sigh of relief from Discord. “What is it that you need?”

“Can you help us to think of a game? We need a bad team and a good team, but we don’t know what to do.”

“Well, what’s the theme?” Ryan asked patiently. Discord thought that he was doing a good job of dealing with kids.

“Umm, we aren’t sure. But we want to have battles!” the colt said excitedly.

Ryan chuckled. “What’s your name, kiddo?” he asked.

“Rumble!”

“Alright Rumble. Here’s my idea: you have two teams, OpFor and Task Force Delta. OpFor has hostages, how many, you can choose. Task Force Delta’s job is to rescue them by whatever means they can.” Ryan seemed to be enjoying Rumble’s look of total awe. “Sounds good?”

The colt smiled big and shouted, “Yeah!” He turned around to run off, but stopped only a few feet away. He turned around, sheepish and silly, and asked, “Can you help us set up our game?” Ryan smiled and agreed.

Discord smiled too, as he watched Ryan walk off to give the kids a game that they had no idea was very real where Ryan was from. While Ryan’s game was maybe a bit mature, e had no doubt that the kids would enjoy themselves. He was making a decent name for himself, despite his hopes not to have a name at all.

Which was even more surprising, considering that he had said that he didn’t want to make any connections at all. He seemed to be more conflicted than Discord had thought...


*******************************************************************************


Luna was staring at her calendar, trying to decide on what she was going to be doing for the next week. She hadn’t planned anything; she was still trying to deal with Ryan’s death. As much as she knew that it would help her, and Starstep, to get that off her mind, she couldn’t keep it away. Frustrated, she scoffed and turned away from her calendar and walked out of her library.

Starstep was doing some exercises in the middle of the floor, sweating up the carpet. As Luna entered, she used her magic to pinch her nose and commented, “Can you be any nastier?”

Starstep looked her way and stood. He shook himself, getting sweat everywhere, and said, “Well, I’m sure that you would LOVE to be the first to know that.” He had a sly grin on his face, one that Luna couldn’t fight and caused her to blush. “But I suppose the only way for you to know that would be to join me in my extreme physical exertion.”

Luna responded quickly. “Hah! I can assure you, you may be a highly trained guard, but I can outlast you with my magic tricks.” She grinned as she approached her guard. “I know tricks that you can’t even begin to imagine.”

“I bet you do. But knowing you, I doubt you’ve ever tested them. If you ever need a crash test dummy, be sure to tell me.”

Luna shot back, “What makes you think I haven’t tested them? You sleep here, you know.”

Starstep stopped, taken off guard by the indication of being violated in his sleep. He tried to think of something to respond with, but nothing came out; he was empty. He released a spent sigh and sat down. Luna cheered on her victory as she came forward.

“Great, great. You win this round, princess.” he said.

Luna sat down next to him and playfully leaned on his side. “And I shall win the war.” she proclaimed. “You shall be defeated.”

Starstep chuckled. “Please, princess. If either of us will be on top, it’ll be me.” Luna blinked. When she didn’t respond, Starstep added, “I guess I got the last word this time.”

“This time.” she replied.

They sat together in silence for a time, unmoving, eyes going lazy. Starstep glanced outside; it was approaching the evening. The sun was getting a little lower in the sky, casting an orange glow over the landscape. The light bounced off of the ground and shot into the room, casting daggers into Starstep’s eyes and shutting them. He turned his head in Luna’s direction and reopened them to see her head on his shoulder, humming a silent tune.

“Whatcha’ singing?” he asked, breaking the silence.

Luna stopped for a moment and shifted her head, eyes closed. “A lullaby, from the olden days, when ponies still struggled to survive. It gave them courage and hope in their hardest of days, courage and hope that we only ever see in a select few ponies.” She nuzzled him hard to push her point.

“It sounds... interesting.”

Luna nodded. “Yes, it certainly was. It is said that the song can connect to those who need it the most, those who wish to serve others, and give them the strength they need. It is a silly tale, though; something you tell the young when you sing it to them.”

“I’d love to hear it, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Of course.” She cleared her throat and raised her head back up. In her softest voice, she began:

They come for us now,
they wish us away.
They come in the shadows,
wish to take away the day.
We cower, we hide,
we run in great stride.
They chase us all night,
these creatures of fright.

But we have something,
even they do not know.
They defend us all hours,
their courage they show.
They bring forth the light,
they go to the fight!
They keep them at bay,
out in the fray.

They are the bravest,
their hearts are of gold.
They give us our freedom
at the cost of their own.
They give up their lives,
for ours they will strive!
But if we remember them,
they never shall die.

The Nighthawks, the Nighthawks,
protectors of old.
Their lives are of legend,
their stories are told.
They fend off all those,
who have sold their souls!
Forever they stand,
their lines they shall hold.

The Nighthawks, the Nighthawks,
The safeguard the ark.
Guides in the cold,
sentries in the dark.
Brothers and husbands,
freedom’s patriarch!
They fight for what’s right,
our courage they spark.

Oh Nighthawks, oh Nighthawks,
defenders of dames.
We ask your protection,
we ask for your names.
You don’t ask support,
you don’t ask for fame!
You always arise
to the call for your aid.

Oh Nighthawks, oh Nighthawks,
keep evil away.
Keep us within
the light of the day.
We pray for you now,
so you return safely.
Your strength and your courage,
your endless brave’ry.

The Nighthawks, the Nighthawks,
protectors of old.
Their lives are of legend,
their stories are told.
Forever they stand,
their lines they will hold!
Defending our young,
until they grow old.

Sleep, now, child,
for the darkness has passed.
In the new light,
their shadows are cast.
Rest now, child,
fears no longer vast.
The Nighthawks, the Nighthawks,
forever shall last.

Starstep listened to the song of his unit, swaying lightly to the rhythm, and, without either pony saying another word, he wondered if Ryan could hear the song, wherever he was.


********************************************************************************


Ryan was entering the boutique after retrieving some fabrics for Rarity from the mailmare’s office. It had been a strange experience, talking to the mailmare. Derpy, she said her name was. She had eyes that pointed in different directions and she apparently loved muffins; she tried to get Ryan to pay her with them. It turned out to e a joke, but she did say; “I LOVE MUFFINS.”

When he came in and the door began to close, he announced, “I’m back. Got the stuff, I’ll leave it by the stage.” He walked over and set everything down, then sat himself on the stage.

His day had gone just fine after teaching the kids how to play a new game that bordered on military training. They all loved it, and as such, him. And as a result of that, the parents seemed to like him. From there, it was a mess of trying to get out of conversations that predominantly were about his past.

Walking home with Sweetie Belle wasn’t too bad, other than the fact that her ENTIRE class followed. They kept asking him questions about where he came up with the game, to which he only gave the vaguest of answers. The crusaders had been persistent, but Ryan explained that it was “something they might learn when they got older”, and they gave up.

The little colts were more interested in him than the fillies, and they kept asking him all kinds of questions about his masculinity. “Do you even lift?” “How much do you lift?” “Have you ever rescued a damsel?” “How many dudes have you fought?” It got annoying after a while, so Ryan started asking them questions instead. It didn’t work.

The girls ran off with the boys and they played their game somewhere, so Ryan was alone in the boutique with Rarity. He looked at his watch. “I wonder when Sweetie Belle will get home...”

Almost as if on cue, the door opened up and three little fillies ran inside, escorted by some colts. They were all shouting, the fillies running for cover. The colts shut the door and, without noticing Ryan, all the little ones ran to the basement.

Ryan stood up and walked to the door; they had locked it, and there were several colts running this way. Ryan unlocked and opened the door, stepping aside so as not to be seen. The colts ran inside and started looking around, eventually splitting up and searching. Rarity screeched from upstairs, and one of the colts sprinted away, face red, and ordered; “RUN!”

Rarity came running down, soaking wet, and looking quite mad. The water on her was steaming. Not wanting to see any little colts splattered against the wall, Ryan held the door open so that they could run.

Rarity came down. “You know, I would APPRECIATE it if you would let me handle things when they get so out of hoof.” she said, opening the door and stepping outside.

Ryan walked out after her and let the door shut behind him, shaking his head slowly, saying, “If I did, you would be trying to use them as slave labor.” Rarity looked back at him, half offended, half admitting that to be true.

“Fine.” she said, walking back to the house. “But next time, please, just let me take care of it.” She opened the door and went back inside.

Ryan simply stood where he was, thinking about nothing particular. He glanced around, taking in his surroundings, and-

There he was. The Wraith, the evil twin brother, the twisted antagonist, the little bastard, standing under a nearby tree. He wasn’t doing anything really, just standing there. He wasn’t even looking at Ryan; he was staring at some book. Eventually, he looked up from his book and sneered at Ryan.

Ryan was about to take a step forward, but something stopped him. He abandoned focus on the Wraith and listened. Around him, he could hear leaves rolling on the ground, ponies off playing somewhere, and the wind, rustling the trees and bushes.

In that wind, there was something else. Something familiar, something he couldn’t seem to place. It was the voice of a woman, but not the Woman. It was soft and tender, like a harp playing for a newborn babe. The Wraith noticed too, for he had turned to look in the direction of the wind, a frown of concern across his face.

Ryan faced the wind and listened more, trying to discern what it was. He could tell, he knew, it was the voice of a woman. But what was it saying? What did it want to say? Who was it?

He turned back to face the Wraith, but he was gone. He and his mysterious new book disappeared into that wind, dispelled by some strange magic. At first, it seemed that he had simply left Ryan, that he had decided to spend his time with his book. Maybe he was no longer interested.

But Ryan knew better than that. He would be back; he would always be back.

Interpersonal Relations

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Interpersonal Relations

Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life.” (Elie Wiesel)

It was Friday night. Nothing particular had happened through the week after going to school with Sweetie Belle. Ryan went to work each day, and like before, the ponies weren’t too intent on talking to him. Which was perfectly fine by him; he had no desire to talk. At least that was being respected, in some way.


That night, he had decided to spend some money on trying to forget the past and went to the Salt Lick. He had enough that he could buy strong stuff that wouldn’t taste like absolute shit, and he could get as wasted as he needed off of that. His recent days had bothered him only in that his sleep wasn’t coming very easily. During the day, he could lose himself on work; at night, he was haunted.


When he walked into the bar on that Friday night, he was about to walk over to the bar and take a stool when he remembered seeing the Wraith. Odds were, the Wraith wanted to speak to him, but something had sent him away, and he likely wouldn’t be too happy about that. To ensure that he didn’t get snuck up on, he sat in a booth away from the door and facing it.


The bartender, Cinny, instantly saw him when he sat and trotted on over. “Hey.” she greeted nicely. She had a pleasant voice, one that helped the many stallions who came here to forget their problems. “What can I get you tonight?”


Ryan looked into the small bag that was serving as his wallet and counted out his bits. He had about forty with him. “Samaloco Adams, the stronger kind.” Cinny nodded and turned to walk away.


Before she did, though, she asked Ryan one thing. “To nurse, or down?” Her face had a bit of sadness in it, like she knew what the patrons of this establishment were here for. She probably did.


“Nurse.” Ryan replied. “I’ll switch to downing them at some point.” Cinny didn’t smile, which seemed odd, and walked over to the bar to retrieve Ryan’s drinks.


Nopony other than Macintosh and the other miserable patrons knew about Ryan’s coming here so often. The only nights where he didn’t come were the ones where he was paranoid that he was being followed or when he knew that going would get him in trouble. If he went too often, somepony would no doubt notice and send him to rehab or something, which could only explode. Ryan was grateful that it wasn’t like that.


Cinny returned with Ryan’s drink, a nice, tall glass with amber drink in it and foam on top. She set the glass down before him and asked, “Anything else?”


Ryan shook his head as he took up the glass. “No, I think I’m good.”


Cinny went back to the bar and got behind the counter to continue her job. While she was pouring drinks for the often rude and sad stallions that sat before her, she kept her eyes on Ryan more than her work. He was so odd to her; first, he wasn’t a pony. Then there was the fact that he had just showed up randomly, after it was rumored that something crazy happened in Canterlot. And he had that strange outfit; the green beret with “Airborne” written on it, the jacket, the knife and “L” shaped things, the necklace, the scarf. She had only caught a glimpse, but she would swear that there were some nasty scars on his arms. All together, it made for someone who went to Hell and came back to tell the tale.


Oktoberfest, at the other end of the bar, noticed that her attention was always on Ryan, and that she barely noticed the lewd remarks about her from the customers. As much as he wanted her to pay more attention to the other customers, he could see why she was looking at Ryan. As she thought, he wasn’t exactly a typical customer.


He took a moment from his own work to go over to Cinny. “Cinny,” he began. He managed to get her attention, making her turn her head. “We aren’t too busy tonight.” Truth be told, they were never too busy on any night. Blessing or curse, see it as you would. “Why don’t you take the rest of the night off?”


Cinny was about to object, but when Oktoberfest locked eyes with her, she understood. He was giving her the okay to go talk to Ryan. Before responding, she looked over at Ryan, who was halfway done with his drink. He just kind of stared at the glass, his dark, hazel eyes lost and sad. Whether or not they were sad because they would never find their way or because they might find their way was hard to say.


“Sure thing Fest.” She went to the back of the building and put away her small uniform and came back out to the tables.


When she returned, she noticed that Ryan wasn’t looking around for her, even though his glass was empty. He was still just sitting there, silent as death, cold and alone. She walked over slowly, trying to emphasize her steps to make him notice her approach, but he didn’t seem to. Or maybe he didn’t care.


She stopped a few feet from the table. “Hey.” she greeted. Ryan didn’t respond; he didn’t even look up. Cinny just stood awkwardly for a minute, waiting for him to speak. When he still didn’t, she took the initiative. “I’ve seen you here a lot.”


Ryan kept his eyes on his glass. “Yeah.” he replied. It was monotone and low. Thanks to the weakening of his inhibitions by alcohol, his real feelings were coming out. “Cinny.” It took him awhile to remember her name.


She stepped forward a little closer, just enough to have her head over the edge of his table. “Mind if I sit?”


Ryan shrugged. “It’s a free country.” Cinny smiled awkwardly, not really understanding where that phrase came from, and sat down.


They went silent for a moment. Cinny was beholding Ryan before her, this being her first time getting a really good look at him. His clothes were ragged, torn, and looked extremely old. His hands shook, almost violently, when he held his glass, but he was trying to gain control over that. Before, he was fine; his grip was strong. Now, it was faltering, weakening.


Cinny wanted to break the silence. “So, where are you from?” she asked, getting her front hooves onto the table to lean her head on them. Whenever she did that, the stallions always looked at her head on.


Ryan didn’t, though. He wasn’t exactly a stallion like the rest. “I’m from the United States.” he replied mechanically. “But that’s not... never mind.” He looked up and saw Oktoberfest walking around, called him over, and ordered another drink. “I don’t... Meh.” Cinny didn’t continue until Ryan’s next drink arrived.


While he drank his next glass, Cinny kept on asking questions. “What was life like there?” she asked.


Ryan grunted and pulled his face from the glass. “Good enough.” He downed the rest of it and set the glass back down. “It treated me well. Good friends, family, stuff.” He didn’t continue on the point.


Cinny was genuinely curious now. What had driven him here if his life had been ‘good enough’? “What happened?” she asked. “How did you find yourself here?”


Ryan ceased all motion. His shaking hands stopped, his breathing slowed almost to a halt, and he didn’t blink. From there, he slowly looked up and into Cinny’s eyes. “I died.”


His words brought Cinny’s mental train to a screeching halt. She had never expected to hear anything like this, let alone so seriously. But when she looked into his eyes, she knew it was the truth. She saw it all there; the suffering. The misery, the loss. He knew death; he saw it, experienced it... caused it. His eyes went from their dark, mysterious hazel to a sickening, decaying gray. It was like looking into a solitary confinement cell, where all the worst possible emotions and experiences were left to plague the air, while all the good emotions and memories were sent away and never seen by the warden of the mind ever again.


It perturbed her, like it had everypony else who had seen it. But where everypony else had feared it and not been brave enough to delve deeper, Cinny was willing to go in. She had to.


Still, she had no idea how to respond. “Oh.” she said, her smile already having waned and disappeared. “Well. That’s not a common experience.” Ryan nodded and went back to his silence.


Around them, the other patrons were starting to take interest in the conversation. The two at the table hadn’t noticed, but Oktoberfest had. It was why he was walking around. He was keeping them away from the table. When it became too much, though, he walked over to Cinny. “I think this might be a conversation for somewhere else.” he suggested.


Cinny looked around and nodded to her boss. “Alright.” she replied. “Ryan?” she asked, turning back to him. “Would you care to go for a walk with me?”


Ryan looked up at her and considered the proposition. He knew that they were being watched; by the patrons and likely the Wraith. He had known the whole time. To stay could be risky, but to go would mean remembering. But then again, if she kept asking her questions, staying would mean remembering anyway. “Sure.” he said. He stood up from the table and exited the booth.


Cinny followed suit, eager to get out of the bar and away from prying eyes. She couldn’t quite see why, but there was something about Ryan that she felt she had an obligation to. It was odd; she wanted to help him, but she really couldn’t care much less for the other patrons of the Salt Lick. She decided to think on it another time as she and Ryan exited the building.


Ryan made a motion for her to lead the way, seeing as she was the one who asked him to go for a walk. She took the lead and they went off. Neither spoke during the walk; Ryan lost himself in his mind, and Cinny scanned the area non-stop for anything that might make her uncomfortable about being near Ryan. Wanting to avoid being seen alone with him late at night, it was close to midnight, she lead him to the park, where there was a bench next to the pond for them to sit on.


Once there, after an uneasy ten minutes of walking in the dark, she invited him to sit, which he did obediently. Cinny took the spot next to him and lay down on the bench, her head towards Ryan.


She wasn’t sure how to start, but she didn’t have to worry about that. “I’m not the kind of guy you want to be seen with you know.” Ryan stated suddenly. It had taken Cinny off guard. “I’m not known for being... trustworthy. Or safe. Or particularly friendly.”


Cinny replied without really thinking, like it was a normal conversation. “But you aren’t known for being mean. Or super dangerous; you haven’t hurt anypony. And you haven’t betrayed anypony. So why tell me that?”


Ryan hesitated. “Because my friends don’t tend to end up happy with me.”


Cinny wanted him to continue, but he didn’t. She wasn’t going to let him sit here moping about his life. “Why wouldn’t they? You seem nice, deep down.” She wasn’t going to let him be alone.


“Because being my friend hasn’t ended well for them.” Ryan said. He was breathing a bit faster than normal, and his whole body had a very small tremor throughout. “My friends recently have almost all ended up dead. The one who lived watched me bleed out in a shit river. Any others that I had never found out what happened to me.” He let his head fall. “And I let it all happen; it was my choice.”


He began to sob next to Cinny on the bench. It hadn’t taken much for it to be too difficult for him to continue. Next to him, clueless and in unknown territory, Cinny just watched him cry. She had no idea of the suffering that the boy before her had gone through. She could never know the kind of pain that was inflicted upon him, the loss of everything that made him a human. She could never understand him.


It hit her, right there. She wanted to help him by telling him that everything was fine, that everything was okay. But she knew, and he knew, that she had no way of knowing that. The only being in Ponyville who could know was sobbing his eyes out on a bench in the middle of the night, alone, broken, and frightened. She understood that she couldn’t help him by trying to understand.

So what she did was she just scooted closer and rested her head under his chin and let him lean on her. He was drunk, in pain, and disgusted with himself. And he thought he had no one that he could ask for help, that he had to brave the storm alone. And he also knew that trying that would mean death. But Cinny just let him lean on her head, telling him in her own way that he wasn’t going to have to go it alone. That he would never have to go it alone.


Ryan opened his eyes slowly, body still bobbing from the sobs that escaped his lungs. He could feel his weight bearing down on the bartending mare under his head, and as much as he wanted to remove himself from her, he couldn’t seem to find the strength. He may have been a monster, some kind of demon, but one thing he would never do was drag the good down to hell with him.


His eyes snapped forward when they spotted the one thing he really hoped not to see here. On the other side of the path, leaning on a tree, was the Wraith. He held his book under his arm and looked expectantly at Ryan. In the dark, his eyes glowed a dark gray, nearly black, but still glowed. He flashed a toothy smile Ryan’s way, then turned and walked away into the darkness.


Ryan’s heart practically doubled when he saw the Wraith, and Cinny could feel it. Her head was on his chest, so she could sense that something was amiss. “Ryan?” she said, looking up. She noticed how intensely he was starting at the other side of the path. When she turned and looked, she saw nothing. “Ryan, what’s wrong?”


Ryan swallowed air as he tried to contemplate what to do. The Wraith had walked away, but that could still mean that he would come back. “Nothing.” he lied poorly. “Let’s get out of here.” Cinny looked sadly upon the human as he stood up and away from her and moved away.


She got up and followed after him. “Where are you going?” she asked. She hadn’t even heard anything about him having a place to live.


Ryan walked on. “To sleep.”


She was hoping for more than that. “Where do you live? I’ll escort you there.”


“Yes, I’m sure that you would love to be my escort home. I can assure you, I don’t require any escort services.” Cinny flushed deep red at hearing his blunt twisting of her words, but rather than be offended, she looked at his face. He wanted her to leave him. “I can find my trench on my own.”


Cinny frowned. “Trench?” she asked. “You live in that ditch to the side of town?” Ryan nodded. “You can’t live there! It’s unsanitary!”


Ryan stopped. “I trekked through miles of dangerous jungle and forest. I shot, stabbed, and beat people to death and got blood all over myself. I nearly got my leg blown off. I got shot in the chest and bled out in a shit river. Sanitation means nothing to me.”


Cinny stopped as well and found herself incapable of responding. She hadn’t known any of that; and she wished that it had remained that way. Still, she couldn’t let him be on his own. “Well, your safety matters to the rest of us here. You’re coming with me.” She ran up to him and bit down on his jacket sleeve, trying to ignore the taste. “We’ll stay at my place!” she shouted through her teeth.


Ryan looked down at the mare biting down on his sleeve. He really didn’t have enough energy left to fight her; so he let it go. “Fine.” he said. “I’ll go.”


Cinny let go of his sleeve and looked up at him with a sad smile. “Good.” She turned around and swished her hind end; as if that would even work. “Let’s go.” And they went to her home for the night, the drunken, broken human and the kind, somewhat naive mare.



*********************************************************************




The next morning, Ryan awoke with a mild headache that wanted to keep him from getting up. He pressed on, though, unhappy with himself as he was. The previous night was a bit fuzzed, but he did remember leaving the bar with the barmaid, Cinny. He also remembered being outside a lot and talking about something, albeit not remembering what.


He sat up and looked around; he was in somepony’s house. Frozen in place, he scanned the room to try and find out who’s home it was. There were a few pictures around him, but of no one he recognized particularly well. The home was well kept, a bit on the small side. Just enough for one or two people or ponies to live comfortably in. Whoever had brought him home must not live with anypony else.


He swung his feet around and set them on the ground and stood. His back didn’t crack so much this time when he stood, and he felt a lot less stiff. He felt much less groggy than usual, and for once, he didn’t hate the idea of getting up.


A smell wafted from a room to his rear and tickled his nose, getting him to turn around. Behind him was the kitchen of the house, and from where he was, he could see somepony sitting inside, waiting for something. The pony wasn’t facing him.


He took a few tentative steps forward, not wanting to get the pony to turn around just yet. Why that was, he didn’t even know. Instinct at this point, maybe? He got nice and close, crossing the threshold of the kitchen archway and getting right behind the pony. As he stood there, he listened to her voice and concluded that it was a mare, humming in her seat before the stalker-esque human. Gently, like a hammer on a nail, he set his hand on her shoulder.


“Yo.”


She screeched and flew forward, landing on the ground on a display of great speed and lack of grace. Her head spun around to see her potential attacker, but when she saw Ryan, she calmed down and stood back up.


“Don’t scare me like that.” It was Cinny; she had brought him home the previous night. “It’s really not cool.”


Ryan looked at her, puzzled, then answered, “Okay.” Cinny sat back down and picked up a newspaper.


Ryan walked into the kitchen, figuring that he didn’t need an invitation at this point, and just looked around. The pantry didn’t exactly have a massive amount of food, but it was enough. The small fridge had some water bottles and an ice tray up top, plus some cold foods. Some was already bitten into, other stuff was still in containers. Ryan grabbed a piece of bread from inside and went to Cinny’s table.


She watched him the whole time, newspaper in hoof and a cup of steaming coffee on the table. Ryan sat on his behind at the table and started eating the bread casually, unsure of how to proceed.


“You know, in the future, you should probably ask if you can take something from a pony’s fridge.” Cinny commented. “It’s not that polite to just take something.”


Ryan swallowed a bit of bread and looked at his unexpected host. “Well, I have no intention of being in this position again, so the lesson is irrelevant.”


Cinny frowned. “What?” she asked. “You don’t plan on staying at anypony’s house until you get one of your own?” Ryan shook his head in response, enthralled by the bread. “Why not? You have no place to live.”


Ryan finished the bread and scraped up the crumbs to eat. “Well, I don’t plan on staying. I never intended to make friends either. As far as I’m concerned, I still don’t have any friends. They all died a while ago.” Cinny looked sadly at Ryan as he spoke. “I desire no attachments to anyone here. Attachments caused me the worst kind of pain; I have no desire to experience that again.”


Cinny huffed. “Even so. You can always pay to live somewhere. There’s an inn on the other side of town.”


Ryan shook his head. “I’m used to sleeping outside. I don’t care one way or the other. In fact, it’s more comfortable for me to sleep on the ground now. More secure.” Usually.


A belle dinged, and Cinny stood up and walked over to her microwave to pull out her breakfast. “Well, I hope that you get that nopony is going to let you stay outside. We don’t do that to our own.”


Ryan chuckled. “Well, you’ll soon understand that in my world, we can do that to our own just fine. We do it a lot, actually. So forgive me if I don’t care about whether or not you actually care for each other.”


Cinny was mixed; she was frustrated, angry, sad, and hopeful at the same time. “Well,” she began. “We do. Everypony cares for everypony here. We love our own.”


Ryan shook his head. “That’s great for your world; you can actually have peace. My world?” He looked out the window. “There are over seven billion people in my world. I gave a damn about around thirty, maybe less. I don’t come from a particularly caring world.”


“How can you say that?” she asked. “Where is the morality, the love?”


Ryan didn’t give her a chance to continue. “I come from a world where everything fights everything to survive. Plants compete for sunlight and water. Animals fight over water supplies. Humans kill each other for precious resources. I come from a world that’s always been trying to kill everything that isn’t fit to survive, that’s been continually trying to snuff out life the life within it. So I’m sorry if I come across as not caring about the lives of those I don’t know when I’m trying not to die myself.”


Cinny didn’t have an answer to that one. She just looked down at her food and moved it around with her fork. She took a bite, trying to contemplate what Ryan just told her. It’s true, when your life is on the line, you aren’t to be expected to help others. And Ryan came from a world where there was a never ending war for survival with too many factions for there to be a winner. Maybe he was right.


Ryan stood up and walked back out of the kitchen. “Where are you going?” Cinny asked.


“I’m not staying here, if that’s what you’re asking. As much as I appreciate the help, I don’t really need it nor do I want it. Good day.” He walked out of the house and shut the door about as gently as a printer falls to the floor.


Cinny came out of that conversation much more unhappy than she had predicted. She had thought that Ryan would like having a home to go to, but he hated the idea of that. Why? She couldn’t answer that right now. Right now, she had to make sure that Ryan would have somewhere safe to live. But who would be generous enough to take in a dangerous, possibly suicidal alien that was prone to self-destructive behavior and be a potential threat to the safety of the house?


Cinny smiled and left her home. She knew exactly who to talk to.


****************************************************************************


Discord watched Ryan as he walked around the town that day. The previous night, he had seen him walking around with that... popular barmaid, Cinny. She didn't do anything with anypony, but she certainly swung her hips and walked with a magnetic swagger. But he had seen more than just that. He saw how Ryan stared at the Wraith, and the evil, black eyes of the creature as it stared on from the dark.


Discord was going to cast some magic to catch it; he could explain to Celestia after; but it had gotten away. When that happened, Discord scowled and cursed himself. How had he let that happen?


But something else happened after that really spooked him;


I wouldn’t try anything if I were you.


That was all he heard, but that was all he needed to hear. He wasn’t too familiar with the voice, but he already knew who it was. How he contacted him, he wasn’t too sure, but he knew that he didn’t want to be contacted again. The Wraith was a being beyond the understanding of Discord; it scared him.


He kept the being in the back of his mind so that he could ponder on it later, but right now, he was more interested in Ryan’s activities.


Ryan walked to the park, where he decided to simply sit on one of the benches off to the side where few might see him. When he sat, he dropped onto the bench like a brick; he looked dejected. His head hung low and he mumbled to himself, looking depressed about something. It didn’t exactly shock Discord, though. It was nothing new.


Suddenly, seemingly out of thin air, Pinkie Pie appeared behind him. Discord blinked; that pink pony was the only one who could come close to making less sense than him. She stood behind him with her front hooves held high, like she was a predator getting ready to pounce. Discord watched on, holding his breath.



Ryan slowly turned around and put his hands on her forelegs, gripping them firmly and not letting go. Without opening his eyes, he said, “You wanted me to catch you, didn’t you?”


Pinkie Pie snorted happily. “No, silly po- person. I wanted to surprise you!”

Ryan opened his eyes and cocked his brow at her. “And did you learn to step on every twig and branch possible while you sneak up on people?” he asked in partial seriousness. “That’s not how I did it.”


Pinkie leapt over the bench, somehow free of Ryan’s grasp, and sat down next to her. “Well, how did you do it?” she asked. This would be interesting.


Ryan took in a deep breath and thought. “Well, when I had to sneak, my life depended on it. So I guess that it isn’t quite the same.”


“Nonetheless, I wanna hear alllll about it!” She smiled brightly at Ryan, a smile that he returned not with another smile, but with a look of uncertainty.


“Alright.” He cleared his throat. “When I snuck up on people, I had to use everything at my disposal. I swam across a river in the heavy rain so I wouldn’t be seen or heard. Then I entered a building through a sewage pipe.” Ryan grinned a bit while Pinkie gagged at the thought. “Then I kept my pace even and my steps light as I made my way through the building. That’s about it.”


Pinkie got over her gag fit and considered the information. “But what if you were caught?” she asked.


Ryan looked up to the sky; it was a gorgeous day. Kind of like the day Catherine died. “I was.”


Pinkie waited for him to go on, but he didn’t. Sensing that this was what he had been so unwilling to talk about for so long, she decided to let it go and not pursue it. Discord couldn’t help but be impressed with this mare; she knew when it was okay and not okay to talk about things. It was more than Discord had. Not that he wanted it.


He waited for a good twenty minutes, but nothing else was said. The two just sat there, not moving, Pinkie looking at Ryan sadly. Discord figured he would leave now, since nothing seemed to be happening. He wouldn’t miss much, of that, he was sure.


****************************************************************************


Ryan kept his mind clear by trying to establish what he was going to do about moving into the forest. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to get building materials in there; he would have to build it with what was at his disposal. On top of that, while building it, he would still have to live here to avoid dying, like he promised Harris. Somehow, he would have to make sure he kept it secret while he did it. That might grow to be a problem.


His thoughts were totally derailed, though, when a loud, high-pitched yawn sounded out next to him. “Gah!” he shouted, startled. He looked at Pinkie, who was calmly sitting next to him. “What are you doing?” he asked.


Pinkie looked at him, confused. “I’m just sitting here with my good buddy Ryan. What are you doing?”


The question struck him like that brick he had taken to the face in the compound before he was taken into the forest and shot. Not so much the question, though, as the statement that preceded it. She barely knew him, and at that, she knew the worst part about him, yet she called him “her good buddy”. Why? Rainbow Dash hated him, and the others were clearly afraid of him. The Crusaders were fond of him, but they didn’t know about his past. Macintosh was cool; that was just who he was. So why did Pinkie call him “her good buddy”?


“Oh.” He didn’t say anything else. He was too confused to. “Okay.”


The two just continued sitting, both confused, both unsure, and both wishing for something to break the awkwardness.


****************************************************************************


Cinny wasn’t too familiar with the mare, but she did know about her from all the papers. She ran a store here in Ponyville, and she was actually already familiar with Ryan. More than Cinny, in fact. She felt a bit jealous of her for that, but kept it in check. She needed to help Ryan.


Rarity’s boutique was as big as the pictures had made it out to be. The spire on top and all the lavish decorations would be a striking contrast to Cinny’s home, a simple one floor house with five rooms; bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, living room, store room. This house probably had three of each, if not more.


Cinny walked up and knocked on the door. “Coming!” a voice sang from inside. There was a loud shuffling from inside, and suddenly, the door swung open. “Hello!” the alabaster mare announced to her guest. “How can I help you today?”


Cinny was unsure of how to proceed. “Hello. Do you mind if I come in? I need to talk to you about something really important.”


Rarity looked at her curiously, then smiled and shrugged. “Alright. Come on in.” She turned around and walked in, leading Cinny.


Cinny looked around; it was overly decorated, frankly. But being a store, that was basically necessary. There were frillies everywhere, and everything was some shade of purple. Fancy. There were loads of mirrors, and a spiral staircase leading upstairs. In the center of the room, a big red stallion stood on a pedestal with a suit on him. He was that one she had seen with Ryan that night.


Rarity took a quick look at him. “I Does it fit alright?” she asked. The red one nodded. “Great! Then you’re all set.” The big one stepped down from his place and bowed to Rarity, thanking her. “Oh, think nothing of it.” she said. “I hope that it helps, but knowing you, I doubt that you would need a nice outfit to impress her.” He smiled and thanked her again, then walked out.


Rarity pulled up two cushions to sit on, one for her, and one for Cinny. “Please, sit.” she said. Cinny obliged. “Now, I have a feeling as to why you are here.”


“Oh?”

“Yes; you want advice on a stallion, correct?” Half correct. “Well, I need to know a few things about him first, so tell me about him.”


Cinny figured that this was a good time to ask. “Well, it’s not for me. It’s for him.” Rarity looked intrigued. “You know Ryan.”


Rarity’s eyes widened like a diamond dog hole. “Yes.” She sounded nervous.


“Well, you don’t know that he’s homeless, do you?”


Rarity gasped, her eyes unable to get any wider. “No!”


“Yes.”

“But however could that be? He has jobs, he makes money. Why wouldn’t he have any place to call home?

Cinny shrugged. “Well, I offered for him to stay with me, but he refused. I think there’s a lot more going on in him than we know.”


Rarity looked a bit sick. “Trust me, there is. I know about some of... it.” She shook her head. “But why would that prevent him from finding a home?” Cinny shook her head, unsure herself. “I wonder what’s wrong...” Rarity trailed off, her mind taking the train from her mouth.


Cinny waited for a moment, but grew impatient, and spoke again. “I came here because I know that you’re the element of generosity. No one is even able to refuse your gifts or help.” Rarity came out of her stupor and beamed at the compliment. “I came to ask you to give him a place to stay.”


Rarity took in a deep breath and thought it over. If she took him in, he could very easily pay for himself; she knew that no matter how hard she tried, even she couldn’t get him to take free housing. She just knew it. But there were ways around that. The other problems revolved around Sweetie Belle and living space. How would Sweetie Belle react? She didn’t know, but if he stayed here, she might find out. Then she may have to send Ryan away, which was just cruel. But she knew ways to avoid that. The living space that would be available to him would unfortunately be the basement. He would certainly find that acceptable, but she did not know if that was a great idea. There was nothing down there but an old mattress, an iron bedpost, and some old sheets. She could easily replace those, though.


How might the town react? The scandal of bringing an alien stallion into her home would be interesting, but not likely that hurtful. It wouldn’t make sense.


But Rainbow Dash was a factor, too. She hated Ryan for clear and present reasons, albeit only partly reasonable. She was afraid of Ryan; he represented something that had taken Rainbow’s best friend from her, a stallion who had died fighting the Griffons. Rainbow denied having feelings for that stallion, but that was questionable. Still, she couldn’t tell Rarity who to allow into her home. And she would get over it eventually.


Rarity took everything into consideration and found no good reason to deny housing to Ryan. She looked at Cinny across from her; she was looking on nervously, hoping that Rarity would agree. Rarity felt a little smile creep across her face, and she leaned forward.


“I would be happy to help him.”

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

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Dead Men Do Tell Tales

Stop stranger as you pass by; for you are now so once was I; as I am now so you shall be; so be prepared to follow me.” (English Gravestone)

Days passed, and it wound up being Wednesday pretty quickly. He didn’t work on Monday because Rarity had to go out of town to talk design with some other ponies. She left him a note, though.

Dear Ryan,

I am afraid that I can’t be home today; I am busy in Trottingham with Photo Finish, doing some special designs. You won’t be working today, I’m afraid; the boutique is all in order and won’t need any tending to. You could certainly go to that gym, or find any assortment of things to do while I’m away. Maybe Twilight would like to learn more from you?

Anyway, I wish I could talk to you now. I have something important to talk to you about. It will simply have to wait until I return.

With love,
Rarity

He wasn’t sure what she meant by “something important”, but he was sure that it wouldn’t amount to much. Rarity tended to exaggerate things a lot.

He decided to spend that Monday figuring out some things about the Everfree. The first place he went ended up being the library to talk to Twilight. When he showed up, she was surprised at his visit. “Ryan! What, uh, brings you here?” She was still uncomfortable around him, evidently. To keep it short, Ryan just asked her about the Everfree and the dangers that might lurk within. What she told him was almost comical: The ancient Greeks would have a field day trying to hunt the stuff out there. The general conclusion for Ryan was that he should bring his firearms out there if he decided to explore.

He left soon after to go and look for supplies for the trip he knew he would have to take. The first thing he looked for was a map. After two hours of searching, he finally found an intensely sketchy store that sold maps to more than just the center of a forest. Ignoring the other features of the store, Ryan purchased the map and went to leave.

“Beware of the forest. The dangers within are great, even to one such as yourself.” the shopkeeper told him. Ryan just looked at him one more time and left.

He knew that he would need a better jacket before he went out there, and made a note to have Rarity make one. Plus better pants. And maybe shoes, and socks. He would need a good forester outfit. He might also need a hat or mosquito net. Though from what Twilight told him, Ryan wasn’t too sure he would be safe if he had a cargo net to stop those things.

From there, he went back to his ditch and just sat, counting his items and making a mental list of what he would need.

And now, it was Wednesday, and he was sitting in Twilight’s library, moving books around. Twilight hadn’t asked him much; she was still scared of him. Just as well. Ryan didn’t want to answer anything anyway.

He used Spike’s magical fax abilities to send a note to Rarity about the clothes that morning, which Spike seemed all too happy to do. “Anything for my bro.” he had said. Just then, Twilight walked into the room, reading something.

“Well,” Ryan began mischievously. “I’m glad to hear that. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get to talk to your crush.” Spike’s eyes shot wide, getting Ryan to smile. “Maybe she’ll fall for you. I’ve seen stranger things happen.”

Spike looked around, distressed by Ryan’s knowledge of his crush. “I only ever told a few ponies about my crush! Who told you that I have a crush on Rarity?” he asked. Ryan blinked twice; he was implying Sweetie Belle.

“You did. Just now.” Ryan said evilly. Spike’s pupils became pin pricks, and he looked up with great fear. “No worries.” Ryan assured him. “Your secret’s safe with me.”

Just then, Twilight appeared on the staircase, looking at the boys with great interest. “What secret?” she asked. The two males looked at each other, then back to Twilight. “Well?”

Ryan smirked, and Spike saw it and couldn’t help but snicker. “Well, we certainly can’t tell YOU. Trust me, you are the last pony we want knowing this secret.”

“What?” she said. “What’s so secret that my number one assistant can’t tell me?” Ryan made a zipper pulling movement over his lips. “Oh, so you think that I won’t know eventually?” she asked with an evil grin. “I have ways of making you talk.”

“I’m sure that you have ways of making me SING, but I’d rather you not say them in front of the little one here.”

Twilight blushed furiously, and Spike lost it, falling to the ground laughing. She looked resentfully at him, then contemplatively back at Ryan. “Well, I bet that you would have a soothing instrumental section with it.” The attempt was weak, to be honest. Ryan cocked an eyebrow at her, thinking about how easy this would be.

“Oh, it might have some soothing sections to it. But most of it will be fast-paced, action packed, and unlike anything anypony has ever heard or seen!” He threw his arms out. “It would be an epic poem, a powerful song; it would have gusto, speed, and it would be the loudest piece of primarily vocal and drum music ever heard!” He ran and jumped up onto a table. “The drum beats would be rapid and powerful, the sticks pounding that thin barrier, it barely holding against them.”

Twilight looked shocked; Spike was down for the count. Twilight tried to think of something to counter with, but alas, she was too slow.

“The drums would be flipped; both sides need to get a good pounding. The vocalists would shout out their song, screaming it to the heavens. Or Celestia. Whatever you use for that metaphor here.” That was it. He finished, and hopped off the table.

Twilight was stricken with a case of speechlessness. She had no way to counter; she was stuck. Her left eye was twitching, and one would swear that she had always been a red-coated pony, not purple. “I think I broke her.” Ryan commented, approaching her. He poked her head twice and snapped his fingers, but she didn’t move.

Spike finally got up. “Yeah, I bet you did!” And then he fell back over.

Twilight finally moved in the form of shaking her head and leaving her dazed state and starting at Ryan. There was a mix of anger, embarrassment, entertainment, confusion, and horror in her expression. She moved her hooves one at a time, being very deliberate in her movements, and walked right up to Ryan.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a pony anything like you.” she stated.

“Trust me, girl. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

From that moment, things got a little more normal. But Twilight was intent on learning the secret. “So, what is that secret that you don’t want to tell me?” she asked. “I can’t imagine what it would be that Spike wouldn’t tell me.”

Ryan looked at Spike. Odds were, he had told Twilight about his crush, but this was all purely to mess with her mind. “Well, I can give you a hint.” Ryan said. He gave a quick glance to Spike that told him, Pretend to be distressed about this. “It’s an incredibly personal matter that Spike can really only tell other males. Females simply wouldn’t understand.”

Spike did exactly as he was silently told and pretended to freak out. It was pretty good, too. “Dude!” he shouted. “That is NOT COOL.”

Twilight looked back at Spike, then back at Ryan. Ryan shrugged and looked away. She turned back to Spike. “Spike, if this is a ‘special problem’, I can definitely help you a lot more than him. I’ve studied anatomy and related medicine...”

She caught herself too late. “I bet you have studied anatomy extensively.” Ryan said, hanging on the word “extensively”. “In fact, I would bet that you know even more about it than either of us does.”

Twilight shot a glare at Ryan, who put his hands up and walked aside to evade her wrath. “Spike,” she began. “Please, trust me. I can help you, if you need it.” She sounded one fifth sad, four fifths annoyed that she couldn’t hear the secret. “What kind of troubles are you having?”

Spike looked to Ryan, begging silently for help. The prank was in jeopardy; Spike wasn’t capable of saving it. Ryan glanced at him and noticed his pleading eyes, then chose it as the time to deal the final blow.

“Fine, I guess you can know.” Ryan said. Twilight turned to him, looking excited. “He wanted to ask me about the best stuff for jerking around and having fun.”

“He asked you for pranking advice?” Twilight asked. She was totally oblivious; Spike looked nervous. It was hard to say where this would go.

“No, no.” Ryan replied. “He wanted my advice on whacking meat.” Twilight was more confused; Spike looked all out scared. “Hmmm... He wanted to know how to choke a chicken.” Twilight looked terrified, then shot a very poisonous glare at Spike. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I meant that he needed words of wisdom on yanking his chain.”

Twilight still didn’t get all the phrases coming from Ryan’s mouth. She just looked at him, terribly confused. Spike took this moment to run away and hide upstairs to hide from the proverbial shitstorm that could very well become the library.

Ryan deadpanned, “He asked me about masturbating.”

Twilight’s eyes shot super wide, and her pupils outright vanished, leaving almost purely white eyes in their absence. Her face turned red again, and she started taking some steps back. “Ummm...” She looked around; Spike was nowhere to be seen. “I’ll just leave you to that.” With that, she ran out of the library, unsure of how to proceed.

Ryan watched after her, waiting until she was out of earshot completely. “Yo, Spike!” Ryan shouted. “She ran off, it’s safe!”

Spike trudged down the stairs, clearly feeling lost with the whole situation. “Do you even know how awkward it’s gonna be while I try to explain that this whole thing was a joke? As soon as she sees me, she’s gonna be all like, ‘Now Spike, It’s perfectly natural. Just make sure that no one catches you and blah blah blah and always clean up after yourself and blah blah blah and for the love of Celestia never let Rarity find out.’” He walked over to Ryan and looked up at him. “It’ll be even worse when I explain that it was all just a joke.”

Ryan smirked at his draconian friend. “And that’s why you live with her, not me. So I don’t have to explain awkward things to her.” He ruffled Spike’s head-spine thingies and went to the kitchen.

Spike remained in the library, doing whatever, and Ryan raided the fridge for a snack or two. He was able to find milk, so he went and made himself a sandwich to go with it. Rather than eat in the kitchen, though, he took his food into the library and set it on a table. He had to find a specific book. “Now, where is...” He was looking for a book about more than just the creatures of the Everfree. He needed to know about the magics within the forest.

After a bit of searching, he finally found his book and sat down with it next to the table with his food. He took a bite of the sandwich and a swig of milk and got to reading. “The magics of the forest are vastly unknown to ponykind as of yet.” Ryan read in his head. “They are very different from any other natural magic in the world, likely because the princesses used to live in the castle there and that was where they fought just before Nightmare Moon was banished to the moon.” Ryan wasn’t reading for a history lesson, so he skipped to the table of contents and looked for the chapters he would need.

The first chapter was chapter four, The Magic in the Soil. That would no doubt be important. “The very ground in the Everfree Forest is magical and unpredictable. One such example is the Poison Joke, a blue flower that has the magical effect of disrupting other magics and everyday life. When encountered, it is like one is being pranked excessively and maliciously by little fillies and colts.” He read on, being sure to note anything that might be important, like that Poison Joke stuff. He read up on which plants were safe to eat and which might kill him. Only a few were edible, but at least one had beneficial magical effects.

Toward the end of the chapter, though, he read something odd. “Timberwolves are among the most dangerous things one might encounter in the forest.” it read. “No one is sure of where they come from or even how, but they are wolves made of wood that eat like normal wolves. If you encounter a group of them, it is recommended that you climb a tree or get into water as soon as possible. Little is known other than that they are dangerous and deadly, so stay away from them as much as possible.

It was certainly odd, to say the least. Wolves that were considered plants? At first, Ryan almost didn’t believe what he was reading, but then he remembered. “Magic.” he groaned. He wasn’t a very big fan of not understanding things that might be relevant in the near future. He could see Twilight now: “It’s magic; I ain’t gotta explain shit.” Though she would probably not use such language as that.

He skipped through some other parts of the book to get to the creatures of the forest. The Timberwolves made another appearance, but there were some other things that caught his attention too. Namely, the Manticore, the Shadow Hornet, a huge black hornet that might impale him, and something only named Spirits. The description read, “Spirits are amorphous balls of light that can take any form they need in order to survive. Nothing is known about them, even less than the Timberwolves. Some are friendly, some are NOT. They do not seem to be able to speak in different forms, but this has yet to be confirmed or studied. Few have seen them in their natural form, a ball of dim yellow light, and those who have been in direct contact have been either positively affected or irreparable altered in the mind.

Overall, it sounded like a fine place for Ryan to be staying. In that hellish forest, few if any ponies would ever come by to pest him, and he could live out his days in silent misery where he might eventually forget everything. Or die. Either and or both.

Ryan continued reading for a bit, then finished his food and drink and put the book back. After bringing the glass back to the kitchen to clean it, he grabbed his things and set out to find anything else he might need.

“Ryan!” Spike called. Ryan sighed and turned around to face his scaly acquaintance. “Where are you going?” he asked.

Ryan took out his map and took a look at it, trying to discern where a good starting point might be to explore. “Since Twilight seems to have left, I’m going to head out into the forest to explore a bit, see what and where I can find.”

Spike blinked once, then twice. “WHAT!?!?” he shouted, prompting Ryan to stick a finger in his ear. At this rate, he would get Tinnitus from these ponies and friends. “Why would you go out there? Don’t you know how dangerous it is? How will you even find your way back-”

“Relax, dude. I know what I’m doing, and I know what’s in there. I need to go in, though.” He thought hard about something he could use for an excuse to go. “Whatever brought me into this world is somewhere in there. I aim to find it and ask it why.”

“But why does that matter?” Spike asked. “You’re here, and you can live peacefully. Doesn’t that count for something?”

“It does. But that doesn’t change the fact that I did some things that don’t quite align with this gift. I need answers.” Truthfully, he did hope that Discord was in there somewhere. He could actually get some answers from him if he were.

Spike sighed, then went over to a coat rack and grabbed a little jacket. “Fine, but you aren’t going alone.” Ryan was about to protest, but Spike had a reason. “I need to get something from Zecora anyway. It’s for a gift for Twilight, since her birthday is in a couple of weeks.”

Ryan thought a little. He could protect Spike if necessary, guns and knife ready to kill. He looked at his weapons, figuring he could just chamber a round in each before they went in. “Alright.” he relented. “We’ll go together. But when we get there, you talk with this Zecora for a while so I can explore.” Apparently, he was going to meet Zecora.

The two went off, deciding to get a move on so that they didn’t burn too much daylight on the way. Nopony questioned them as they left, though Ryan could tell that they wondered why Spike was out with him and not Twilight. Thinking about it, Ryan wondered where she had run off to. “Where could she even go where she wouldn’t end up talking to somepony about that?

They were on the edge of town, toward Fluttershy’s cottage, when Ryan heard the last thing he wanted to hear. “CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS ANIMAL HELPERS!” He groaned loudly, wishing that this wasn’t about to happen. He could run or hide, but these girls would find him and probably want to go too. And he was right.

Scootaloo was the first to spot him from Fluttershy’s window. Throwing it open, she shouted, “Hey Ryan!” He waved. “Whatcha up to?”

Before he knew it, all three were jumping out of that window and running down to him to greet him. Up in the cottage, the door opened, revealing a curious Fluttershy. She came down, too.

“I’m escorting Spike to Zecora’s.” he explained. “He needs to talk to her about something relating to Twilight.”

The girls all looked at him wide-eyed, and were joined in their awe and fear by Fluttershy. “What?” she asked, distressed. “B-b-but you don’t have experience in there! You might get hurt, or-”

“Imma cut you off there. I’ve been in forests as dangerous if not more so than this one, and... sort of lived through it. Plus,” he tapped his weapons, even though he was the only one who knew about them. “I’m more dangerous in a fight than anything in there.”

The girls looked astonished, but Fluttershy looked terrified. “Can we go?” Applebloom asked. Ryan shook his head vigorously. “Pleeeease?”

“I’ll go along too.” Fluttershy interjected quickly. “I can’t let you all go in there all on your own.”

Ryan sighed. His escort job just became much larger... but Fluttershy could probably take them all back if Ryan didn’t come back before dark. He considered this. “Alright. But Fluttershy, it might be up to you to bring them all back.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I’m gonna be doing some stuff in there, looking for something important. It might take a while.”

Fluttershy looked worried, but she let it go and agreed. The Crusaders would also be coming along, doing God knows what. But that wasn’t Ryan’s concern. “Ready?” Ryan asked. “Let’s go.” And they entered the forest, an unknown landscape of unknown dangers.




In the forest, Fluttershy took the lead, and Ryan took the rear. He explained that he had to do that in order to cover the rear, prevent an attack from that direction. He chambered a round in each of his guns and kept the safeties off, ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.

The walk to this Zecora’s home was actually pretty short, maybe half an hour. The whole way there, the fillies and dragon and mare were scanning about, fearfully checking for dangers lurking in the shadows. Ryan was scanning, too, but he wasn’t nearly as scared. He was more afraid of tripping and falling on landmines, something he had already had the misfortune of doing.

Fluttershy stopped and heaved a massive sigh. “We’re here!” she announced. Before the group was a hut, carved into a tree like Twilight’s and Fluttershy’s homes, with a bunch of very Central African decorations around it. There were large decorative masks, gnarled bark shaped into strange items, and lots of leaves used on the windows for shutters.

Smart.” Ryan thought. He might have to ask her for help later.

Fluttershy approached the door with the little ones and knocked several times. “Zecora? It’s Fluttershy! I have Applebloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Spike with me! Oh, and a new friend.”

The door opened, and out from it walked a Zebra wearing those funky metal rings from that group of people somewhere in Africa. “Ah, yes, it is good to see you!” she greeted as she looked around at the little ones. “And as for this friend, might I ask who?”

Fluttershy pointed back at Ryan, who walked forward out of some shadows and extended his hand out. “Ryan. Good to meet you.” This time, he was actually a little bit genuine.

Zecora looked intrigued, but stayed her tongue and put her hoof in Ryan’s hand. “Please, now, the pleasure is mine. Few ponies have met one who walks with a straight-up spine.” Those rhymes might get annoying. “Please, come in, make yourselves at home. For your trouble, I am sure that I have treasures shiny like Chrome.”

Everyone entered, Ryan going in last, and sat around. Ryan took in the room; there was a big boiling pot in the middle with some freaky blue colored liquid bubbling in it. Around the room were more masks, and there were all sorts of plants around. Bookshelves were in a few scattered areas, probably with recipes for stuff like what she was cooking now.

Ryan sat off to the side and listened in, deciding to wait to leave. “Zecora, I need your help.” Spike said. The crusaders were walking around, looking at some things, not really paying attention. Fluttershy had found herself a cup of tea. “I need some old tomes that are really rare to give Twilight for her birthday.”

Ryan lost interest and decided that he would look around for a bit, then leave. He stood up and walked around quietly, observing each plant, trying to figure out what looked dangerous. It only took him about twenty-five minutes to finish.

He looked to Zecora and Spike; they were still talking, Spike trying to get something from her. Fluttershy was watching Ryan, and when he noticed, she quickly spun her head another way. The crusaders were still looking around.

Ryan walked over to Zecora. “Well, I wish I could stick around, but I have to go look for something.” he said. Spike and Zecora turned to him. “It’s somewhere out here, and I’m gonna find it. So I guess I’ll see you later.”

Ryan turned to leave, but Zecora rhymed at him before he could. “One should not travel alone in the forest, new one. If one does, they could be done.” The zebra went into another room and grabbed a bag. “If you are to explore, I shall come along. That way, less is likely to go wrong.”

Fluttershy stood as well. “Umm, I guess that I can take the girls and Spike back then.”

They all groaned loudly and with a very whiney tone, then looked pleadingly to Fluttershy. “Please, can we all go too?” Sweetie Belle asked with a pouty face. “If Ryan and you and Zecora are around, it can hardly be so dangerous.”

Fluttershy looked to Zecora, who shrugged, then to Ryan, who also shrugged. “Okay.” she relented. “But you CANNOT leave our sides! Oh, if that happened...” And she went off quietly listing all the things that might go wrong, which Ryan paid no mind to.

Zecora went to the door. “Spike, if it is old tomes you seek, the old castle will be hard to beat. We can go there first, for it will take some time. But not long to stay, for night is the creatures’ prime.” Ryan decided not to argue that, since that was a great place to start for everything. He needed a place to call home; maybe that castle wasn’t so bad.

They all left the hut and went off the path into the forest, Fluttershy trembling the whole time and falling in next to Ryan as Zecora took the lead. The little ones all stayed in a tightly packed group in between Ryan and Zecora, with only a foot or two of space on either side. Ryan was constantly scanning the area; what gave him some pause was the eyes. Everywhere he looked, pairs of yellow, catlike eyes were staring at them, watching their every movement. None were big enough to be Manticore eyes, but still.

Rather than wait for something to happen, Ryan pulled out the Automag and held it in his hand and pointing at the ground. Fluttershy saw him pull it out and found herself distracted by its presence. “What is that?” she asked.

Ryan didn’t stop scanning. “Insurance.” he said. “Something to keep safe with.”

Fluttershy was satisfied with that answer, and she huddled closer to Ryan’s leg. She must have felt safer with his words or something. “Eww.” he heard one of the girls whisper. He noticed that they were all looking at the two adults in the back and making faces. As much as Ryan wanted to do to them what he did to Twilight, he couldn’t violate the minds of children. Or Fluttershy. It would simply be an uncool thing to do.

After thirty-five more minutes of walking, Zecora finally announced, “Here we are, at this old scar.” The castle was just like Ryan remembered it, only the bridge had broken when he left. There was no way across.

Scootaloo was the first to notice this. “Aw man!” she complained. “How are we gonna get across now?”

Ryan stepped forward and walked over to the abyss trench thing. Swallowing hard he took a glance over the edge, hopefully prepared for whatever torment it had for him this time. Nothing came. “Phew.” he said. Nopony knew why, though. He turned to them. “Fluttershy, can you fly across?”

Zecora answered for her. “No, it is dangerous to go over the abyss as a pegasus. Ever since Rainbow Dash flew in and out, it has decided that it doesn’t like us. The only way to get across would be to go and get the bridge back and retie it. And I do believe to this it did commit. ”

Ryan looked back at the bridge and thought about his options. If he were to get in there ever again, and do it multiple times, he would have to fix the bridge. Or he could leave it and try his luck elsewhere. “Why the hell not?” he thought. He turned back to the group. “I’ll just climb down, go across, and then climb back up. You can gather up the bridge and toss it to me from this side.”

Fluttershy and the little ones all looked horrified, but Zecora actually seemed to be considering it. “What are you?” she asked. Ryan answered with his species’ name. “Hmmm...” She walked up to him and scrutinized him from top to bottom. “Yes, that might work. Just be careful, for creatures down there do lurk.”

Ryan stepped away and looked at the rest of the group, gauging their expressions. None looked too excited. “I’ll be fine.” he said. “It might take a while, since we don’t know what’s down there, so don’t fret.” He turned around and walked over to the broken bridge. Thankfully, it had come off completely at the other end, so it was still intact. “See you on the other side.” And he put his hands and feet on the boards and climbed down the bridge like a ladder.


As soon as Ryan’s feet hit the ground; he had to fall the last eight feet, he spun around and pointed in all directions with the Automag. Nothing was there. “Hmmm...” He kept his gun up and ready for anything.

The gorge hadn’t seemed that big from up top, but from down here, he could only barely tell that there was more to it than met the eye. There were random pools of green gunk and strangely colored plants, oddly hued rocks and metals jutting from the ground. Bones were strewn about, and some rotting Timberwolf carcasses lay nearby. It reminded him of Dagobah in Star Wars.

Ryan tread lightly, unsure of how stable the ground might be or what might hear him walking by. One of the pools had a little black tentacle coming out of it that was swishing about, looking for something. To test it, Ryan tossed a bone its way. When it found the bone, the tentacle disappeared into its hole with the bone. “Avoid the puddles.

He continued along, prepared for the worst, keeping an eye on everything. No sounds came from up above; none from where he was either. It was an eerie silence that reminded Ryan of when he made his way through Narendra’s personal home in Vietnam.

The fog was fierce; toward the middle, he couldn’t see in any direction for more than five feet. The only saving grace he had was that he had been leaving footprints in the soggy ground.

Snap

Ryan spun around, hearing the sound from off to the side, gun aimed forward. The fog was blocking whatever it was that made the sound.

“Show yourself.” Ryan ordered. There was a deep, throaty noise from the fog. “Show yourself or I will open fire.”

“Oh, but we remember how well that worked last time, don’t we?”

Ryan turned again to face his original direction; there, before him once again, was the Wraith. “Well well. Look what the cat threw up.” Ryan greeted. “Tell me, what’s it like, living in a bog?”

The Wraith smiled, closed his eyes and shrugged. “It treats me as well as it did you.” he responded casually. “How’s society working out?” Ryan did not respond. “Come on, you can at least pretend to be happy that this is happening down here, not up there?” Ryan grunted. “Good.”

He lowered his weapon. “Well?” Ryan asked. “Why are you here?”

The Wraith stuck his hands in his pockets. “I’m just traveling, learning. I’ve been reading this incredible book while I travel around Equestria; It’s fascinating. You know what it’s titled?”

“No. What?”

The Wraith responded by stating Ryan’s full name, turning his blood cold. “At first, I thought it was a blank book, ready to be written in. But I should have known better; I got it from the library in that very castle right after I knocked you out there.” Ryan growled. “You see,” The Wraith began, smirking widely. “This book is magical, like most in there. It was totally blank when I found it, yet had hundreds of pages. No matter how many times I turned the pages, it never ended. I decided that I would write your name on the cover so I could write your story. But when I did,” He reached behind himself and pulled out the book in question. “It wrote itself. Everything, from your early childhood to whatever is happening right now.”

“Bullshit.” Ryan replied angrily.

“Oh, but it does.” The Wraith opened up the book and flipped to a recent page. “Earlier today, you were making a certain lavender unicorn feel very uncomfortable by talking openly about sexual topics. And you know I wasn’t there for that.”

“I also know that you never needed to be.”

The Wraith shrugged. “I’ve always had this book, you know. Ever since I was born. So no, I never needed to be present.”

Ryan scowled and looked past the Wraith. The fog was clearing, and the wall was visible. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I have some things to do.”

The Wraith stepped aside. “Alright. I can take care of you another time.”

Ryan walked past the smiling Wraith uneasily, eying the book and the Wraith’s face as he passed. It was unsettling, how calm he was. And that book... that book was dangerous in his possession.

As soon as Ryan was past the Wraith, he ran to the wall and looked back, bringing the gun back up. The Wraith was gone. “What the hell is he?” Ryan tried to forget it as he scaled the rocky cliffside back up to the world aboveground.

He did not take too much time getting back up, and when he finally got all the way, he heard great rejoicing from the other side of the cliff. “Woohoo!” “Yay!” “I knew he would do it!” “Excellent.”

He turned back to them. “Yo, send over that bridge!” They had gathered it up while Ryan was in the gorge and had it piled up. Fluttershy picked up one end in her mouth and flew up high and back. When she was ready, she flew forward, faster than Ryan would have thought she could, and dropped the bridge like a dive bomber. Ryan had to lean over the edge to catch it, but he did get it, and he made to tying it back to the posts. “We’re good!” he shouted when he finished.

Everypony walked across confidently, even Fluttershy, over to Ryan. “That was awesome!” Scootaloo shouted. “I had no idea you were so fearless!”

Ryan chuckled and ruffled her mane. “Well, when you’ve stared death in the face more than once, it tends to lose its shocking effect.” He turned back to the castle. “Let’s get inside.” And they all entered the great castle of olden times.

They waltzed in like they owned the place, with Ryan taking the lead. He had seen most of this place before, he just had to be sure it was structurally sound. He got his answer when Zecora shut the door behind them a bit too hard and a brick came falling from the ceiling. “Well that took no time at all.” he thought.

Scratch this place, he would have to look elsewhere another day, probably on a weekend. In the meantime, he could stick with these ponies, get strength in numbers. He also had no idea how to get back to Ponyville.

“Where’s the library?” Spike asked. No one seemed to know the answer, but Ryan remembered where he had gone to find that information on the lands and Luna.

“I can show you the way.” he said. He took the lead again and led everypony through the corridors and to the library.

They approached the big doors, the intricate drawings seeming much brighter than the least time Ryan was here. The mares, Celestia and Luna, he now knew, were much more brightly colored, and the other features of the door were more prominent as well. The contrast was much greater, and the carving lines seemed much deeper than before. The door was also slightly ajar.

“Hold on.” Ryan ordered as he took several cautious steps forward, Automag at the ready. Slowly, he approached and opened the door, checking for anything on the other side, waiting for them. The Wraith was the last guy he wanted the ponies to meet right now. But there was nothing. “Clear.” he said, throwing the door open and strutting in. The ponies followed behind him as he walked in.

Ryan putzed around the library while Spike and the others looked for books to nab. Fluttershy timidly removed each book from the shelf, seemingly expecting something to jump out every time. Once, she saw a book with a picture of a freakish bird on the cover. Interested by the cover, she removed it, and out from the other side, came a certain orange pegasus filly. “BOO!” Fluttershy fell back, nearly petrified.

Ryan sighed and walked over to help her up. “You know,” he started at Scootaloo. “It really isn’t wise to terrify your escort out of the forest.” Scootaloo smiled sheepishly and ran off, apologizing. “You alright?”

Fluttershy nodded and went back to looking around for more books, probably on animals. Ryan decided that he might as well join in and explored the library. As he often did back home, he found himself gravitating to a very military oriented section. There were books on very ancient battles and weapons, old unit and army tactics, and the roles of different ponies. One book caught his attention; Nighthawks; Protectors of Old. He pulled it off the shelf and decided he would read it later.

The ponies were still looking around, but the books that they wanted were already in hand by the looks of it. When Ryan returned to them, The fillies looked tuckered out and Spike had to try hard to stifle a yawn.

“Ah, yes, you have come back. Are you ready to leave so that we don’t become a creature’s snack?” Ryan had to do his best not to be annoyed by Zecora’s constant rhyming.

“Yep. Let’s get moving.”

The fillies stood up and huddled close again, but this time, they stuck really close to Fluttershy. Spike decided to walk by Ryan’s side, and Zecora took the front. As they left the library and the castle proper, they all became alert once again. No one wanted to be eaten tonight.

It was clearly nighttime because the sun had gone down; they had spent more time in there than expected. “Be careful in the forest at night.” Zecora warned. “For this is the time of the creatures of fright.”

She took the lead across the bridge, followed by Fluttershy and the fillies, then Spike, and then Ryan. He made it halfway across the bridge before the gorge came back. “Failed us... killed us... murderer...” He had to stop to collect himself in the middle of the bridge before he could continue. Closing his eyes and focusing hard on the feel of the rope of the bridge in his hand, he was able to drown out some of the voices.

“Dude, you alright?”

Ryan opened his eyes again and looked down at Spike. He looked worried. “Yeah, fine.” Ryan listened; the voices were all gone. “Just a bit uncomfortable on this bridge. I was on it when it collapsed that time recently.” Spike nodded his understanding and kept on moving. Ryan followed close behind, eager to get off the bridge.

Once across, and back behind the tree line, everything became very dark again. Spike actually had to pick up a stick and light it with his breath in order for everyone to have enough light to see. He lit several, giving one to Zecora, one to Fluttershy , one to Ryan, and one for himself. The fire was green, and illuminated the area as such, but like green glow sticks, it burned the brightest. It was great for seeing in the dark.

The problem, though, with making light to be able to see? Other things can see you better than you can see them.

“Zecora, how much longer until we get back to your hut?” Ryan asked, an uneasy feeling suddenly taking him over. He felt the same way that he did right before Narendra’s men shot up and totaled his friend’s car in Australia.

“We will be there in less than twenty minutes, but do not hold your breath. We must go slow and quiet in the dark, or we may risk death.” The fillies all gulped hard when they heard that, but Fluttershy comforted them to the best of her extensive ability.

Spike tugged on Ryan’s pants, eliciting him to bend down to hear the dragon’s words. “Hey.” he started, sounding scared. “You, uh... you ever get that feeling that you’re being watched?” he asked.

“Spike, I know exactly what it feels like to be watched and for that feeling to be correct. It’s different from when you think you’re being watched, but you aren’t.” Ryan looked around, but still only saw all the yellow eyes. “And I’ll tell you; we’re being stalked.” He straightened his back and kept his eyes roaming. “Scan your sectors and keep a close watch on everything.”

Spike started frantically looking around, desperately hoping that nothing was there. Ryan stayed much more calm than his walking partner and pushed Spike forward a bit so that if they were attacked, he would be out of harm’s way. Spike decided to get in close to the fillies and be a part of that group, next to Fluttershy.

Ryan kept his eyes moving nonstop, and his finger was growing itchy on the trigger of his gun. He was tense; it took every ounce of discipline he had not to raise the gun and start shouting for the creatures to come out and show themselves. Thank everything that he had done Karate since he was four.

It grew quiet after a couple of minutes. The nighttime birds weren’t chirping, the crickets had stopped, and the rodents seemed to disappear. Nothing moved, nor made a sound. And regardless of where you live, that only means one thing.

And that one thing was made very clear by a low rumble behind Ryan.

“Don’t. Move.” he ordered in a loud whisper to everyone in front of him. They all stopped dead in their tracks. No one even blinked. Slowly, Ryan began to turn, already planning out what he was going to do. If it was a Manticore, he would have to distract it since he could never fight something like that. If it was a Spirit, they were all fucked if it wasn’t friendly. If it was a Shadow Hornet, he would just shoot it.

When he turned and saw it, it wound up being none of those things. There, not ten feet behind him, was a Timberwolf, growling and snarling at him, sap that served as drool oozing from its maw. The teeth were wooden, as was everything else on its body. The wolf looked like it was constructed by a ten-year old child. The ears were just longer sticks, and they had eyebrows made of leaves. The eyes glowed a bright yellow in the night.

Ryan only saw the one, though. And according to that book, they always travelled in packs. “Guys,” he said, no longer whispering. “Keep an eye on your sides.” Behind him, he could hear the ponies huddling together and moving. They were probably getting up against a tree. On the way, they dropped their torches, which extinguished in the dirt. Ryan dropped his as well.

Barely able to see, Ryan got into a low crouch and kept his pistol down, hoping not to agitate the wolf. “You want a piece of me?” he asked. “Bring it, bitch.”

The timberwolf lunged forward, faster than Ryan would have thought, and extended its claws at him. He was barely able to dodge it, but he wasn’t able to get his pistol around before it came at him again. As it closed in on him, he thought back to something a police officer once told him when he learned about Ryan’s Martial Arts background.

At the police academy, we learn to avoid getting within twenty feet of suspects without our weapons out. It’s been studied that if someone is trained, they can close the twenty feet before an officer can pull out his gun and fire.

He wished he had remembered that and pointed his gun at the wolf, but it was too late now. The wolf was right next to him, bringing its head down to clamp down on Ryan’s throat. Before it could, Ryan brought the Automag around and whipped the wolf across the face, splintering the wood. The wolf fell back to recover, but Ryan wouldn’t give it the time.

He pointed the .44 Magnum at the wolf and let a bullet rip out of the barrel and into the wolf’s head. It had been standing perpendicular to him, so when the bullet slammed through the wooden head, it kept on going through the entire thing, and exploded out the other side, creating a mess of sap and wooden body sections all over the ground behind. The muzzle flash had almost blinded him and likely everything else around, and the loud boom drew a scream of terror from the fillies and Spike.

Ryan squinted in the dark to see his kill, which was sprawling out on the ground in several pieces. Unphased by the almost comical nature of the dead creature, he turned around to address the ponies in his care. “You good?” he asked.

He got his answer in the form of more growls from the darkness, right around the ponies’ tree. They all flipped out and sprinted from it, getting behind Ryan for safety. He kept his gun up and ready to fire. “Come on out, little doggies. Papa’s got a toy for you.” he said darkly.

Three wolves came out of the darkness, low and bearing their splintery teeth. They advanced in an even line, preventing Ryan from being able to fire. If he fired his gun, the recoil would take away his ability to get a quick follow-up shot, and he would almost certainly be taken down.

The wolves suddenly stopped about twelve feet away and glanced at each other. All was still. Ryan could hear his own heart beating, the breathing of the ponies behind him. He took in a long breath, then released it slowly, getting into a state of Mushin. His heart rate slowed down, his breathing calmed, and his muscles relaxed. The wolves took notice and hesitated.

Then, it all happened at once. Two of the wolves lunged at Ryan, leaving one to go after the ponies.

As the two tried to close in on Ryan, he brought the gun around and shot one square in the face, sending it spiraling back into the earth from whence it came in pieces and sap. The other was on top of Ryan before he could bring the gun around and it bit his gun-toting arm hard. He dropped the pistol as he fell to the ground.

The wolf was trying to rip apart Ryan’s arm by thrashing its head wildly with his flesh in its mouth, but Ryan was to have no part of that. He grabbed its head with his other arm and brought it closer to his own center of mass, enabling him to flip over and be on top of the wolf. As the wolf cried out under Ryan’s much greater mass, Ryan tore his arm out of its maw and elbowed it in the neck, several loud cracks being produced.

He looked up to the ponies to see them being cornered by the third wolf against a large rock. Fluttershy and Zecora stood in between the wolf and the little ones, ready for a fight.

They would get no such fight, though. Ryan rolled off of his opponent and grabbed his gun off the ground, pulling it up and taking aim at the attacking firewood. With a carefully placed shot, he sent a bullet ripping through the top of the wolf’s back toward where its spine hopefully existed. He got a lot more than he asked for from the shot; the entire top of the timberwolf was shorn off by the force of the bullet, sending it spinning and rolling off to the side, very much dead.

Ryan turned his attention back to the last wolf and found it standing about eight feet from him. He brought up the gun. “Goodnight, Fido.”

Click.

“Well, shit.”

The Automag was out, and as soon as the click was heard by the wolf, it leapt up at Ryan to kill him. Ryan dropped the gun on purpose this time as he prepared to grapple.

The wolf grabbed Ryan by his left arm this time, but failed to bring him to the ground. Ryan had allowed it to get him this time, seeing it as an opportunity to end the battle. “You think you can take me down!?” he shouted. Ryan reared his right arm back and shot it forward in a punch, right in the wolf’s gut area. His arm smashed through, going all the way in and touching the other side.

He gripped something that felt long and knobby. “I’m more dangerous than anything in this damn forest!”

He got a strong grip on whatever he was holding and tore his arm out of the wolf. Out with his arm came a long stick resembling a spine, with all the little wooden vertebra and sinews coming off of it. As Ryan’s arm exited the body of the wolf, the glow in its eyes vanished, and he dropped the timberwolf, a muffled thud emanating from it as it hit the ground.

Ryan took a look at his forearms; they were bleeding. The bites had been pretty deep, but nothing terribly dangerous. “Hurts like a bitch, though.” he said to himself. He turned around to see the ponies huddling together in fear, but safety. “You good?”

Fluttershy shot forward and wrapped herself around Ryan’s legs, crying and shaking. “I was so scared!” she said. The fillies ran forward and hugged him as well, all of them crying away their fears and anxieties of the short battle. Spike walked forward and looked up at Ryan in awe.

“That was intense.” he commented, almost unable to speak.

Ryan looked at all the bodies. “Trust me, boyo. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

As Ryan removed the mare and fillies from his legs, Zecora walked over to him as well and grabbed his forearm. “Eventually,” he said as he removed the last filly. “You guys need to tell me how that works.”

Zecora ignored him. “Your wound is deep and bleeds quite a bit. Maybe you should learn to fight more with wit.” She looked up and smiled at Ryan. “But alas, it matters not. You need bandages after a battle well fought.” She turned around and picked up a stick, then had Spike light it. “Come home with me, all of you. I will treat your friend, then home you will go to.”

Zecora led the way again, this time moving much faster in order to avoid another encounter. It took very little time for them to arrive at her home, and when they did, they shut the door and locked it.

“Thank Celestia that we were able to get outta that!” Applebloom commented. “Ah was sure we were goners.”

Ryan was lead by Zecora to a little table and instructed to put his forearms on it. “Yeah, I thought we were wolf chow for sure.” Scootaloo said. Ryan listened in as they all talked about their harrowing experience. “Good thing we had Ryan to save us.”

Zecora disappeared for a moment, then came back with some white bandages and tweezers. She also brought a bottle of disinfectant, by the looks of it. Zecora got to work with the tweezers, removing splinters and setting the bloody bits of wood to the side. Ryan twitched a few times with the removal of the wood, but kept his composure for the little ones.

They all went on talking, with Fluttershy sitting next to them very close. Except Sweetie Belle. She was sitting away from them, huddled up in a ball, shaking violently. “Hey.” Ryan said, catching her attention. No one else noticed. “You alright?” he asked.

Zecora stood up to go and get another pair of tweezers. The current pair was too small for one of the splinters; it was about an inch long and really lodge din there. “Y-yeah.” Sweetie Belle responded in a lie.

“I can tell you’re lying to me.” Ryan replied. “What’s on your mind?” He always hated seeing little kids cry, even now. It was something that would never change about him. But when he finally left this place, he would never see anyone else cry ever again.

“I-I-I was really scared.” she said. Ryan stood up and walked over, picked her up, then sat back down. He was careful not to bleed on her. “I thought they- they would get us.”

Ryan shook his head. He had never been good at consoling kids, but he always tried. “Well, they didn’t get you. You know why?” Sweetie Belle shook her head. “Because I was there to protect you. And if you ever go in here again, I’ll come along to protect you. You’re safe with me, and if you ask, I’ll stick with you.”

Sweetie Belle sniffled, then looked at Ryan with a smile. “Really?” she asked with hopeful eyes.

“Really.”

She huddled a little in Ryan’s lap as Zecora came back with her mega-tweezers. “Mother of God.” Ryan said upon seeing them. Zecora ordered him to put his arms back on the table, and he obliged.

Sweetie Belle fell asleep in his lap, and when he looked to the other little ones, he noticed that they were asleep, too. Fluttershy had them all in a basket; not sure though how she did that. She walked over to Ryan and went to take Sweetie Belle. “I’ll take her.” he said.

“Oh. Okay.” Fluttershy watched as Zecora finished the last splinter, the table actually covered in blood from Ryan’s arms. It did not bother her, though. “Well, I guess we can head back once you’re done.” she said. Ryan nodded. “But umm...”

“Yeah?”

“What was that thing that made the flash and noise?”

Ryan hesitated. “It was what I used to save you.” Nothing more was said on the matter.

Once Ryan’s arms were bandaged up and cleaned, and he helped to clean the table, he and Fluttershy said their goodbyes to Zecora and left for Ponyville, leaving behind more than one bit of darkness in that forest.

Just Another Day

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Just Another Day

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” (John F. Kennedy)

Rarity got up with a loud yawn and a big stretch on Thursday morning, the way a cat lazily wakes up in the sunshine on a windowsill. She moved sluggishly as she dropped out of bed and made her way across her room and through the halls to her bathroom. She took a nice, long, hot shower, and wrapped herself nice and cozy in her towel when she was done. Once adequately dry, she went downstairs and made herself some coffee and breakfast.

While she was living comfortably, doing her own thing, Ryan was off in the fields at Sweet Apple Acres. She knew that he had gotten up early, but she also knew that he got up early every single day. He did not sleep much, by the sound of what Cinny had told her, and he also slept in a dirty ditch. Rarity had agreed to take him in because she not only wanted to see his suffering come to an end, but also because she felt guilty that she had so much, and him so little.

For the moment, she let her thoughts slide to the side. It was too early to think about things. Instead, she just finished her breakfast and coffee, and then made her way back to her room. She put on her blush, fake eyelashes, eyeliner, shadow, and took care of her mane in there.

Again, though, her thoughts went to Ryan. He had no personal grooming materials. In fact, he probably didn’t have any other clothes to wear, as strange as the practice was to some ponies who weren’t in the know. Another thing that she had that Ryan did not.

Once she was all ready for her day to start, she set the sign of her shop to “Open” and went about her business. Being Thursday at eight o’clock, there probably wouldn’t be that many customers around, so she started thinking about how she was going to get Ryan to stay with her.

“Well, he certainly doesn’t seem to want help. He rejects it.” She opted to think aloud. “How does one make another get assistance when another clearly wants none?” She remembered when Twilight had to get Applejack to accept help with her harvest. Maybe Ryan’s behavior was harming other ponies? “No, no. If it was, he would have been sent away by now.”

“Maybe if I play it as him doing me a favor?” It could work, right? “Yes, maybe. I do need to start designing for his body, in case more humans come this way.” It didn’t seem like a promising prospect, though.

While Rarity tried to think more about it, Sweetie Belle came roaring down the stairs. “I’m gonna be late!” she shouted. Rarity was kicked out of her stupor of thought by the sudden introduction of her sister’s voice. “Where’s my backpack?!” she wondered aloud.

Rarity levitated it over to her. “There you are, darling.” she said. But she didn’t give it to her just yet. “But first; where did you go last night? Ryan and Fluttershy came by with you and your friends on their backs. I was worried sick!”

Sweetie Belle danced around, eager to get out of the room. “We followed Ryan into the forest cuz’ he wanted to explore! It got late, so they took us home!” Rarity’s eye twitched at hearing this. “Can I go now?”

Rarity gave her sister her bag. “We’ll talk about this when you come home.” she said. Sweetie Belle ignored the foreshadowing warning and ran out.

Rarity stood in her place for a moment. Ryan actually let three young fillies, plus Spike; she had seen him on Ryan’s back; follow him into the forest. Unfortunately, her sister and her friends were off at school, so they were out of reach. “I need to find Spike.” she decided. She gathered some things and went out, flipping the store sign to “out for the moment” as she left for the library.

She trotted off to the library at a brisk pace, not wanting to exert herself, but still wanting to get there sooner rather than later. She had hoped to pass Ryan on the way there, but alas, this was not to happen. He was busy at work, likely, and would be unable to speak with her, unless she actually went to Sweet Apple Acres. She hadn’t the time for this, nor the will, when the library was so close, so she opted for Spike’s perspective. It might be better to get the perspective of a follower, too.

She arrived at the library in about ten minutes and immediately went and knocked on the door. She waited for a minute, then knocked again. Usually Twilight was up by this time. But knowing her, she might have woken Spike just to lecture him until the crack of dawn anyway.

The door creaked open slowly. “Hello?” a tired Twilight greeted. She yawned. “Who is it?” Rarity took in her appearance as Twilight realized it was her; she looked disheveled and exhausted. “Oh, Rarity! What brings you here this morning?” She yawned again.

Rarity smiled awkwardly. “I need to talk to Spike.”

Twilight groaned. “That makes two of us.” Rarity cocked an eyebrow. “Please, come in.” The alabaster mare obliged and entered the library with her friend.

Twilight brought her friend to the kitchen where there was coffee and food waiting. Rarity thanked her, though having already eaten, she declined the food. Twilight shrugged and dropped onto a cushion that served as her seat. Both mares sat in silence, trying to think about how to start a conversation that they both knew they wanted to have.

“So what are you here to talk to Spike about?” Twilight asked. She was too tired to beat around the bush.

“Well, when Sweetie Belle went to school this morning, she explained to me why she and her friends and SPIKE were out so late last night.”

Twilight’s ears shot up. “Oh?”

Rarity nodded. “Oh, yes. And I don’t think you’ll like it.”

Twilight sighed expectantly. “I never thought I would.”

Rarity took in a deep breath. “Ryan went into the Everfree Forest to explore, and the girls and Spike thought it would be fun to tag along.” She watched as the tired look on her unicorn friend’s face changed to a mixture of total fear and rage. “They took some time out there and came home late.”

Twilight looked like she was absolutely fuming. “Okay.” she said. She tried to calm herself, and it worked to some extent. But not fully. “That at least explains a few things, though there are certainly more that need explaining.”

Rarity furrowed her brow. “What kinds of things might those be?” she asked.

Twilight looked at her friend, eager to share. “When Fluttershy and Ryan came by last night and dropped off Spike, Ryan, as expected, wouldn’t share anything. What was odd was that Fluttershy was so tight lipped about it that she didn’t even open her mouth. Maybe she was afraid of me being mad, but she ought to know that I wouldn’t be mad if she was there.”

Rarity leaned back a bit. Maybe Fluttershy was hiding something? “Well, when Spike wakes up, we’ll just have to ask him about the events of alt night, won’t we?” Twilight nodded. Both mares were quiet for a time. “Is there anything else you need to talk to him about?”

Twilight shifted uncomfortably. “Well...” she began. “Apparently, yesterday, Spike asked Ryan about some... male subjects. Things that mares don’t exactly want to hear.”

Rarity found herself much more interested than she should have been. The little dragon with a crush on her sister talking to another male about special things? Too much.

“What kinds of male things?” she asked.

Twilight shut her eyes and took in a deep breath. She let it out. “I can’t say. So I’ll go get a book.” She left Rarity alone in the kitchen for a few minutes to ponder, then returned with a very unique book: Anatomy and Sexuality; The Drive That Makes Us Crazy. Twilight flipped it open to a specific page; Self Pleasuring. “This is it.”

Rarity’s face turned completely red. Was this what Spike was..? Did he want..? “WHAT IN THE WORLD?!” she shouted unceremoniously. She was taking it in the worst possible way.

“What’s all the racket?”

The mares turned around to see Spike standing in the kitchen archway, rubbing his eyes and looking very tired. It took all of Rarity’s self control not to strangle him. “Spike, we need to speak.” Rarity said aggressively.

Spike walked in suspiciously, but when he saw the book that Twilight and Rarity were standing around, he went into panic mode. “Uh oh.”

“Uh oh indeed, mister.” Twilight said. “Now for ‘The Talk’.”

Rarity was about to rail at him when he spoke up. “Look, all that yesterday, Twilight? That was a joke that Ryan decided to play on you. I just went along with it. Until he started making those innuendos, I had no idea where he was going with it. ThatwaswhyIwentwithhimtotheforest, so I wouldn’t get lectured!”

Rarity looked to Twilight, who had an indiscernible mixture of emotions swirling through her countenance. But she seemed to believe him. Truth be told, so did Rarity, which gave her huge relief.

“Okay then.” Twilight said. “But why did you follow him into the Everfree Forest?”

Spike froze. “Uhh...” His eyes switched rapidly between Rarity and Twilight, both mares expecting to get an answer out of him that wouldn’t be adequate. “Well, I didn’t want to have ‘The Talk’, so I thought I would just go with him. He can take care of himself, so I just figured it would be safe enough. Which it was.”

Rarity was more curious now. “Well, how do you know that?” she asked. “What could he have done that convinced you that he could make it safe?”

“He lived in a jungle for a little while before, remember? He said it was way more dangerous than the Everfree. I believe him, even if you don’t.” Spike paused for a moment, expecting to be asked something else, then continued. “Well, he’s also fearless. That was a plus.”

“Really?” Rarity and Twilight asked at the same time. Rarity continued. “What makes you say that?”

“You know that big mote, the one that had the bridge to the old castle?” Spike asked. The mares nodded. “Well, we were going there, but the last time Ryan was apparently there, the bridge collapsed. So you know what he did?”

Rarity was finding herself more intrigued by Spike’s excited look, but also more worried. “What did he do?” she asked.

“Ryan climbed down the cliffside into the mote, walked across, and climbed back up. Then he had Fluttershy dive-bomb the bridge over so he could hook it up. He almost had to dive off the cliff to catch it.”

The mares’ jaws dropped. The only other pony who had done that was Rainbow Dash, and she had only been down for a moment, since she could fly. Then there was also the fact that the magics of the forest were more aggressive after Rainbow’s stunt.

Twilight finally managed to speak up. “Well. I guess that he is fearless.” Then a thought crossed her mind. “Why were you going to the old castle anyway?”

Spike panicked for a moment. He couldn’t tell her about her birthday present; Ryan had helped get it in secretly last night. He went through his options in his head. “He was looking for a place to do human things, so Zecora led him to the castle to inspect it. It wasn’t structurally sound, though.” Twilight seemed to believe him, and Spike let out a sigh of relief that went unnoticed.

“Okay, so we know he’s fearless.” Rarity interjected. “But how did he make it so safe for you all?”

Spike thought about how he was going to go about this one. They really wouldn’t like this; Ryan was the ONLY reason they came out of that forest last night. But when it came to important things, Spike knew better than to lie.

“We were attacked by Timberwolves.” he began, eliciting a gasp from the mares. “Ryan fought them off.”

“How did he manage to do that?” Twilight asked, astonished. Rarity was at a loss for words.

Spike began his story. “Well, we were walking down an unmarked path. The pack had surrounded us; I think there were like four. The first one attacked him, but Ryan used that weird thing that he always has on him to... uhh, kill it.”

“He killed a timberwolf?” Rarity more stated than asked, still at a loss for words.

Spike nodded. “Yeah. The thing made a really, really loud boom, and it made this blinding flash. When we looked, the timberwolf’s body was, well... wrecked. Wooden bits everywhere. The head was all out missing.”

Twilight swallowed hard, hoping that the sight didn’t affect the kids too much. “Three more came out. One went after us, two after him. Ryan used the thing to kill one of his two, but the other attacked him. He threw it off and then used the thing one more time to blow up the wolf that had us cornered. After that, he grabbed the last one, punched through it, and ripped out some big branch from inside it.”

Twilight and Rarity were feeling physically ill from hearing this. It wasn’t just the violence; it was the fact that the only thing that saved their loved ones was a human of very questionable morality. Rarity tried to distract herself.

“And he did all of this unscathed?” she asked, trying to forget her ill feeling.

Spike rubbed the back of his head. “Not exactly.” he said. The mares listened closely, terrified of what might have happened. “The first wolf bit down on Ryan’s one arm. The one that he punched through... He kind of had to let it bite his other arm to get close enough. He got pretty torn up by it, but he’s alright, I think. Zecora treated his arms.”

The mares sat in silence for a bit, processing the story they just heard. Ryan, the human who seemed resentful of everything in life, who seemed to have a lack of care for anyone, even himself, who had committed terrible acts and had worse acts committed against him, had saved the ones they loved. It made no sense at all.

“That might explain why Fluttershy was so reluctant to talk. And Ryan’s bandages.” Twilight said. She thought for a moment. “I should talk to Fluttershy, make sure she’s alright.”

Rarity nodded her agreement. “Yes. And I must speak with Ryan about giving him a place to live other than that ditch. And thank him for saving Sweetie Belle.”

Twilight chuckled. “Yeah, me too. Maybe Pinkie will throw him a party?”

Rarity thought about it for a minute; she probably would, but he wasn’t too into parties. Maybe if he had time...

“Idea!” she shouted, startling those present. “I have to go to Canterlot for a bit tomorrow, as I told you some time ago. I should bring him along and see if Fancy Pants will design clothes for him!”

Twilight pondered this. But not for long. “Yeah, that seems like a nice idea! I’m sure he could use some new clothes, and it might help him to see Canterlot and maybe the princesses. I’m sure you can get him to agree to come along.”

The group left the library and split up, saying their goodbyes. Twilight and Spike went to talk to Fluttershy, while Rarity started making her way over to Sweet Apple Acres. Before she could talk to Ryan about going to Canterlot, she would have to make sure Applejack was okay with letting Ryan off of a day of work. Twilight said before leaving that Ryan could miss Tuesday, since they would be returning that day. She had no doubt that Applejack would agree.

She trotted on over to the farm at her own pace. She wasn’t worried about anything at the moment. She knew Ryan would be there, she had several ways that she could convince him to stay with her, and she just had a feeling like everything would be fine. She hummed to herself the whole way there, through the streets, and then onward through the paths that led to the Apple household. She put herself in a delightful mood.

At the door of the house, she knocked three times. She knew that Applejack wouldn’t be in at the moment, and neither would Big Mac. She was looking for Granny Smith. When the door finally opened, Rarity did a little curtsey to show her elder mare respect.

“Ah, Rarity!” Rarity was surprised that Granny Smith remembered her name. “What brings y’all here this fine afternoon?”

Rarity smiled gently. “I’m here looking for Ryan, actually. And Applejack, I actually need to find her first. Can you tell me which field she’s in right now?”

“Well, sure!” Granny Smith pointed toward the east field. “She’s right over yonder, little lady. Ah’m sure she’ll be glad to see you; those fields’re tougher than a bolt in a steel door!” Rarity chuckled at the analogy and thanked Granny Smith, then sauntered off to find her friend.

She looked around at the trees as she entered the field in order to get a decent idea of which way to go. Applejack tended to work fast, so as long as Rarity followed the trail of apple less trees, she figured she would locate her friend eventually. And she did. Applejack seemed to be frustratedly attacking a tree ahead of her.

Rarity giggled a bit to herself as she watched Applejack work. A few apples tended to fall at a time, so it was perfect. Rarity waited for a few to fall again, only this time, they were stopped mid air by her magic and held there. Applejack just looked at them, partly in disbelief, partly in anger. She leapt up to try to grab them, but Rarity pulled them up just before to keep her from getting them. Right when Applejack was about to give up, she let them go.

“Having trouble?” she asked trollishly. Applejack spun around to meet her unexpected guest.

“Y’all might say that, little prankster.” Rarity laughed as she approached. “What brings y’all here? Ah never thought ya were the farm workin’ kind.”

Rarity nodded her affirmation. “Applejack, I came here to ask a big favor of you.”

“Oh?”

Rarity recounted the story that Spike had told her and her plans to have Ryan stay with her. Applejack listened intently, clearly very interested in seeing Ryan in a better situation than he was already in. She had balked when Rarity told her he was living in a ditch.

“And so, I need to ask you if he can miss work tomorrow to come with me to Canterlot to meet Fancy Pants and spend some time there relaxing. The best spas in the world, wondrous restaurants, and all the relaxation he’s certainly earned with his life.” Rarity finished. She had a lot to do herself, but she knew that she could get Ryan to at least try to enjoy himself.

Applejack thought about it for a moment. “Alright, Ah ain’t got anything against him going. Ah’ll let him off tomorrow. But Ah don’t know how he’ll respond to being in a big city. He’s a real private guy, we all know.” Rarity beamed. “Just be careful where you bring him.”

“Thank you Applejack.” Rarity replied. “I promise, I’ll make sure nothing bad happens while he’s there. If he agrees...” That was the one variable still unaccounted for. “Can you tell me where he is?” Applejack pointed her to the south field. “Thank you.”

Rarity left the east field in a semi-rush, eager to talk to Ryan about going to Canterlot. She knew that she could get him to stay in her basement; she had cleaned it up already; but this was the hard part. Just thinking about how it might go was getting her blood pumping.

She found herself in the south field before she even knew it, and then, before she knew this either, she spotted Big Mac and Ryan working on some trees. Before approaching, she decided to just watch for a bit and admire- no, observe their interactions.

Big Mac was a beast of a pony; she could see the appeal, though not to one so timid as Fluttershy. He was shiny with sweat, and even from a distance of about a hundred feet, she could see the veins and muscles rippling as they worked. He had to flick his mane away to get the sweat out of his eyes and see where he was kicking.

Ryan was different, yet somehow similar. He had taken his clothes, except for his pants, off and thrown them onto the wagon. He was a bit odd, really; his forearms, as Spike described them, her bandages on them and were looking fairly, but not concerningly, red. His upper arms were well toned, certainly, and had several veins bulging. She couldn’t judge his musculature because she had never seen humans in action before. He shone with sweat, which made the fact that he had very little body fat very clear. He had gained some since the spa day, but now, he looked very athletic rather than skinny. And the scars were very prevalent.

Rarity stopped herself from looking and walked forward. Neither the stallion nor the human seemed to notice her approach. Ryan climbed up into a tree and started picking apples. “Hello~!” Rarity sang. The stallion and human both looked calmly her way.

“Howdy.” “Hey” came the replies.

Rarity nodded to Big Mac, then walked over to Ryan’s tree. “Ryan, I was wondering if I might be able to speak with you?” she asked. Ryan looked down. “It’s a bit important.”

Ryan dropped down from the tree and walked over to the wagon with his clothes. “Yeah?” he asked. “What brings a fancy lady here, wanting to talk to me?”

“Well, Last night, you brought Sweetie Belle home.”

“Yeah.”

“And she told me that she followed you into the forest.”

“I had nothing to do with that.” Ryan quickly replied. “I was going exploring for answers and stuff and she and her friends followed me. Fluttershy came with too.”

“I know. Spike told me everything, and Twilight is going to talk to Fluttershy.” Big Mac’s ears perked up. “She seemed a bit startled by the... events of last night, but she should be fine.” Big Mac relaxed, but continued to listen.

“Good to hear.” Ryan said, referring covertly to Big Mac. “But what does this have to do with me?”

Rarity blinked. “What does it NOT have to do with you? You saved the lives of our sisters and friends! You seem to have no concept of just how much you’ve done for us!”

Ryan shrugged and started putting his clothes back on. “Just another day, really.”

Rarity blinked again. “Maybe for you, but not for us. We are in your debt, you know.” Ryan remained silent. “And I, at least, plan to repay you.” Ryan cocked an eyebrow. “I want you to come live with me. I have an extra room and a basement.” Ryan tried to protest. “Now, now, none of that! I owe you for saving my little sister’s life. You’re going to live in a civilized manner, even if it means not living all lonely.”

Ryan sighed. “Fine, I guess if you really think you need to pay me back.” For some reason, he couldn’t seem to resist her generosity. “I have all my things here, I guess, but this is my outfit. I’ll keep wearing it.” Rarity smiled at him. “I’ll go there tonight, then?”

Ryan nodded and sat on the wagon, ready for a load of apple buckets to put in. “But, umm, there’s one more thing.”

Ryan looked at her suspiciously. “What is it?”

“Well, the girls and I thought it might be a good idea to get you out a bit, see some sights maybe. I’ll be going to Canterlot, the capital, to see a business associate and friend for a few days tomorrow. I talked to Applejack; she said you can go.”

Ryan hopped off the cart. “I... don’t really know.”

“Come on, I know you’ll enjoy yourself. Canterlot has the best spas and restaurants! The shopping is amazing, and I WILL bring you along. Since you seem to be into it, there are some very famous pubs and whatnot there.” Ryan’s attention was taken now. “You can see the princesses and the courts, meet guards and see their methods and things that I know little about. There are all sorts of things that you can do there.”

Ryan thought a bit longer. If Canterlot was the capital, Luna would certainly be there. So would Celestia, and bureaucrats and stuff. They weren’t a problem, and he did need to see Luna. Pubs, that was good.

“And I’ll get Fancy Pants to make you new clothes! The best designer in Equestria will help you out for certain.”

Fancy Pants, really? Who the hell names their child that? “I don’t know if I want more ponies seeing me in any kind of light.” Ryan said.

“Well, you were shirtless when you were working with Big Mac here.”

“Well, he can’t get enough of it.” Big Mac stopped working, walked over, and bucked Ryan in the shoulder. Kinda hard, too. “Sorry, couldn’t help myself.” Ryan returned his attention to Rarity. “He doesn’t try to talk about them.”

“And neither will Fancy Pants. I promise.” She walked right up to him and rested her chin on his chest, looking straight up at him. “Pleeeease?”

Ryan sighed loudly. “If you seriously want to pay me back for helping your sister and her friends, and you’ll stop leaning on me, fine. I’ll go. I have things I might need to do there anyway.”

Rarity ignored his reasoning and smiled gleefully. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” she said, hugging him tightly. When she extricated herself from him, she did not even notice the nasty sweat all over her. “I just know you’ll enjoy yourself!” Ryan did not think it would suck, but he somehow doubted her words.

Rarity left soon after, saying goodbye to Mac, and left the two males alone. “So what exactly happened in the forest?” Big Mac asked. Ryan told him the story, and the two agreed to go out for drinks that night.


**************************************************************************


Luna had had a long day. It wasn’t nobles that she had to deal with, though. It wasn’t petty squabbles or pointless arguments. She didn’t care about Discord any more, since he had returned. No, she had to deal with a much more pressing matter. The Southern Griffon Colonies were still having trouble with the old government that had turned to terrorism. With Celestia dealing with Equestria during the day, that left it to Luna during that time.

It had to be the most annoying, hopeless situation that she had ever had to deal with. The current government of the colonies was always demanding Equestrian military aid, which was constantly being denied. The Colonial Government was dumping all of the information they had on Luna during the day, then Celestia at night. The worst part; they had to actually go over it.

Luna had dropped hints that they might be willing to provide some form of aid if they could find the stallion Blazer and tell them where he was. She never directly said it, as that would generate a deal to be honored, but she tried to make it very clear. Either the Colonial Governor was too feather-brained to notice, or he didn’t give half a damn about Blazer.

Luna looked at the clock; it was finally time to lower the sun and put the moon in the sky. She looked back at the enormous stack of papers before her and smiled evilly. Horn aglow, she used her magic to blast away all the papers she had read already and burned them to a crisp. She laughed victoriously as she stood up and exited the room.

Starstep watched the whole thing unfold from the corner, slightly disturbed by Luna’s seemingly maddened countenance. He had watched the whole time, but Luna forbade him to look at any of the information. He had told her that, having fought these guys before, he could help. But she still said that there might be some sensitive information that he oughtn’t see.

“Well, that was quite the show.” he commented as he followed his princess out of the room. “I must admit, I did get some joy in seeing the paperwork burn. Always hated that stuff, even as an enlisted guy.”

“Yes, it certainly is tedious.” Luna replied, letting out a sigh of relief. Celestia could start dealing with this stuff now. “And what’s worse, I know that we aren’t even going to do anything, since what we hope for probably isn’t even in there.”

“And what are you hoping for?”

Luna paused in her words. “Information regarding kidnappings of ponies, or something else that would force our involvement.” It was at least half true.

Starstep nodded understandingly. He had no desire to get back into a war down there. When he fought there, the deserts and mountains, plus a few forested regions, had made fighting incredibly difficult, even with magic. Of which the Air Guard had almost none.

They continued on in silence, Luna just wanting to get the moon up so she could ease her mind into relaxation, however hard that might be. She knew that she would still have the Southern Griffon Colonies on her mind. There was also the more specific issue of getting Blazer, Starstep’s old team mate. Then there was an odd nagging feeling that something important was to come soon. She had no idea what, and the official calendar had nothing, so she let it go for the moment.

They arrived at the balcony to a lively Celestia, who was humming a little tune to herself. One of her personal guards was nearby, to whom Starstep nodded, and who nodded back. The guards stood behind in silence as the sisters met up.

“Good evening, sister.” Luna greeted.

“Evening.” Celestia replied. “Lovely day, I would say. I bet it will be a lovely night, too.”

“Glad to see you had a pleasant day.” Luna said with mock annoyance. “I got to sift through paperwork all day that probably doesn’t mean anything. But there’s still half left for you.”

Celestia looked at her sister surprised. “Wow, you got through half? Impressive. I’ll try to get the rest done tonight or tomorrow. And I bet you’re right.”

They sat in silence as they set the sun below the horizon and brought the moon up from below. The land before them looked glorious in the changing light, a true treasure to be had. It was definitely not the Southern Griffon Colonies.

As the moon came up, Luna looked around for her special star. Sure enough, she found it, twinkling in its unique way. But something was different about it tonight; it glowed much brighter than normal. It wasn’t fading and returning, either. It just kept a constant, bright glow, blocking out nearby stars. Luna hadn’t seen it do that before.

“Dear Tia, do you see that star there?” she asked as she pointed up.

Celestia looked up at it. “Yes, the one that you made?”

Luna nodded, ignoring that she didn’t know how Celestia knew that she had made it recently. “Yes. Did you do anything to make it glow this way? I simply wonder.”

Celestia furrowed her brow, not unhappily, but intrigued. “No, I did not. I thought you did that for your guard.” She whispered this to prevent the guards behind from hearing it. “Has anything recently happened that might make this so?”

Luna shook her head. “I don’t know what. But I didn’t design it to do this, or fade and return the way it usually does. There is something odd about this star.”

“Hmm. You might want to look into that sometime.”

Luna nodded and bid her sister good night, then took Starstep and returned to her chambers. Starstep matched her steps perfectly on the way there, making it seem like only one pony was walking through the hallway. Luna had to look back once or twice to make sure her guard was still there. Once back in her chambers, she shut the door and leaped onto her bed.

“Oh, dear, this feels so good!” she announced, rolling around on her bed. “Finally, some time to relax.”

Starstep walked around the room casually, thinking about what he would do for the moment. He had talked to some of the other guards today, and they all decided that they would go out for drinks on Sunday night. Luna would be alone, but she had said that it was fine, as long as Starstep enjoyed himself. But for now, he could still spend time with her.

“Starstep?” Luna said. He turned around and saw that she was lying on her back. “Would you rub my tummy?” He shook his head, amused by his princess’ antics, and obliged. Her belly was quite soft. “Don’t let those eyes wander.”

“My eyes aren’t what you need to tell that to.”

Luna giggled. “What if those are the only things that I’m concerned about?” Time for the game again, and Starstep was determined to win.

“Well, then, I would say that you should be glad that I rub myself all the time; I’ve become quite skilled.”

Luna blushed, but didn’t give up. “I bet you do. In fact, I’ve seen you in action. Most impressive.”

“Oh, I had a feeling that you’ve seen me rubbing myself before. You needed to make sure that my hooves are gentle enough for your delicate body, after all.”

“Yes, I did. And might I say, that you certainly do have magic hooves. You- hey!”

Starstep had moved one of his hooves to Luna’s outer thigh and very slightly moved it back. “What?” he asked innocently. “I thought that you might want a full body massage, get that nice feeling in every possible crevice.”

He would have said more, but he was interrupted by Luna quickly flipping over and tackling him onto the floor. She didn’t seem mad at all, just flustered. She was trying to distract him from speaking. This game wasn’t over yet.

But he wasn’t about to lose this one. “Is it my turn?” he asked. “Make sure you get firm and strong motions, consistent, too, or else my body won’t relax and become as loose as spaghetti.”

Luna tried really hard to think of something to say, but nothing came to mind. When words fail, actions tend to speak louder.

She let herself fall onto him. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to get some oils from my bathroom to get this done right, won’t I?” She pressed herself into him, but kept her face away. “Gotta do it right, right?”

Starstep was about to respond, but the door shot open and a guard ran in. He stopped when he saw the two ponies on the floor, staring back at him. No one moved or spoke. “I’ll leave this here.” he said, dropping an envelope on the floor.

When the door closed again, Luna resumed her attack. “I bet-” But she was interrupted by Starstep licking her nose. She reeled her head back and looked down at her guard, who had a strange look on his face. “What..?” Then she realized. “Ew ew ew ew ew ew ew!” She flew off of him and looked down at her guard, who was chuckling like a mad stallion.

“I guess that your rub will have to wait for now, huh?” He stood up and walked into the library, then to the bathroom. “I’ll return short and shortly.” He had won this game.

Luna went over to her window and looked outside, trying to forget what had just happened. Her thoughts, though, kept drifting to it, and over time, she was less perturbed by it. She was close to her guard, after all.

He returned in no time, but since he did not take a shower, he stank like a monster. “You should have showered.” Luna commented. “You smell.”

“And I bet you’ll always keep this smell in mind.” he replied. “But sure, I guess I’ll go clean myself up.” He left again to take a shower.

While he was busy doing that, Luna decided to look up at her star and ponder. What was making it act so strangely? She should be able to control it, but it was acting on its own. She tried to make it move in the sky, but by the time Starstep returned, it had not budged. She tried to change its color, but to no avail. She couldn’t change its brightness either.

Starstep sat beside her as she went along, watching in silent content. He could always do this; watch her play with her night sky, take in her fantastic nights. It was pleasant. Exactly what he had always wanted after leaving the Nighthawks. And when he was assigned to be her personal guard, he was overjoyed by the prospect.

Luna gave up and sat back, falling in next to her guard. “It really is beautiful.” he commented. “The night sky. I’ve always loved watching the stars.”

Luna smiled, despite her frustration with the star. “Thank you.” They were silent for a moment. “You know, I always make sure to add a star for every pony that moves on. The ponies that fell in battle defending others get special stars.”

Starstep tried to hide it, but the pain of his old memories came back for just a moment. “I’m glad.” He barely didn’t croak out. “I can still see my squad mates up there.”

Luna instantly regretted saying what she said, but it was too late now. “They will always be beside you.”

Starstep nodded, tears beginning to form in his eyes. “Do you know where Serene might be?” he asked. “She was a mechanic for my team before and after the Nighthawks. I... I want to know which star is hers.”

Luna, curious but unwilling to pursue it, used her magic to find the star of this Serene mare. “There.” she said, pointing to a blue one straight above them. “That is hers.”

Starstep looked up at it. “It’s nice.” he said. Luna looked at him; tears flowed freely, and his jaw quivered. “It’s nice.” He whispered it that time.

Luna extended her wing and wrapped it around him, pulling him close. She had no idea who this Serene was, nor what made her so special. She knew that the rest of his squad mates were dead, but he asked for a mechanic mare. She had an idea, one that saddened her in more than one way, but let it be.

The two sat quietly for a time, then went to sleep, neither one wanting to be awake and in the real, harsh world at the moment.



***************************************************************************



Ryan and Macintosh sat in their usual booth, Ryan facing the doorway. Lately, they had been drinking together more often, not speaking, yet not exactly silent. Ryan could drink with him because Mac respected his desire to be quiet. When one wanted to communicate something, they could easily just look at each other and it would come out.

Cinny walked over and dropped off the drinks. “Here you go, handsome.” she said to Mac. “And here’s to you, Mr. Man.” She gave Ryan a wink and turned around to get back to work, walking the way she usually did.

Ryan picked up his drink and took a sip. Mac had silently encouraged him to drink less hard stuff and get drinks that were actually half decent for once. Ryan decided to try it, and it was actually pretty good. He was already buzzed, after two glasses, and he could certainly afford more.

“Canterlot.” Mac said out of the blue. One word was all it took for them to have an entire conversation.

Ryan shrugged. Yeah, I know she’ll bug the hell out of me if I don’t. And for some reason I can’t seem to ignore her generosity, even if I don’t want it. Like when Twilight asked me to show a little faith.

Big Mac nodded. Yeah, I get what you mean. Mah sister gets on me about stuff all the time. Socializing, mostly.

Ryan looked up from his drink. Mares, making life difficult for us males. No different than usual, amIright?

Big Mac chuckled. Yeah.

Ryan sipped his drink. I wish they would just leave me be. I really want to avoid interacting with too many of these ponies. I don’t want them to be exposed to what I am and what I come from. He set his glass down with a thud.

Big Mac grunted. You might be from there, but you ain’t what “there” is. Ryan looked at him. Ah know what you did. Ah don’t feel any different. Big Mac was looking intently at Ryan.

The human sighed. No, you don’t. But others will. And while I am what I am, I won’t put innocents through pain again. I never wanted to before, and I don't now.

Both were silent, as always when they drank and worked, and the conversation ended. They sipped their drinks quietly. When both were out, Cinny seemed to magically come out of nowhere to refill them. “Same.” Both said. Cinny smiled, mostly at Ryan, then left.

“You know she told Rarity to take you in.” Mac said. It was the longest sentence they had exchanged at the table.

“Yeah.”

Ryan watched Cinny as she walked away, flirting with customers, getting extra tips and phone numbers. Ryan chuckled when he saw her grind the papers with the numbers into dust, then put them in that very stallion’s drinks. She only did that to the ones that tried to get all touchy-feely, though. He figured he would have to get to know her better sometime.

He decided not to think any more for the night and just let his mind be still. It seemed that having company was perhaps one of the better ways to keep his demons away...

But not all demons find friendship repulsive.

Generosity

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Generosity

What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” (Albert Pine)

Ryan stood impatiently beside Rarity at the train station, wind blowing his hair around and ponies constantly bumping into him. He looked around, checking, scanning for enemies. The Wraith could very easily be somewhere here, even if he was taller than most of the ponies. This was why Ryan hated being in crowds; too unpredictable.

The train rolled closer to the station, gradually reducing its speed as it approached. The steam poured out of the stack, filling the sky with white clouds. The cow catcher, which was clearly more for decoration, glistened in the light in all its brass glory.

The human and mare stood silently waiting for the train. At least, they had been. “Well, Ryan, this is your first trip to Canterlot. Excited?”

Ryan breathed deeply. “Anxious, really.” He wasn’t about to share his real concerns with her. It would weigh too much on her mind. “What exactly are we going to do?”

Rarity urged him closer. “Well, I’ll be seeing Fancy Pants today, and you’ll come with me to lunch with him tomorrow. I’ll see if I can’t get him to make some clothes for you., After that, you’ll come with me to shop for fun. Then, I guess you’ll be free to do as you will.”

“Alright.”

The train stopped before them, and the doors opened, letting ponies of all sizes and colors pour out. Ryan grabbed Rarity’s shoulder, urging her to wait rather than be crushed by the ingoing and outgoing groups. She realized his point, and decided to wait with him. During the wait, they got quite a surprise in the form of the other Elements of Harmony coming to see them off. Even Rainbow came.

“Hey!” they all shouted.

Rarity turned around and squee’d at the sight of her friends, running over to hug them. “Oh, you girls. Come to see us off?”

“Yeah, we came.” Rainbow said impatiently. Scootaloo bounced up and down on her back. The little filly nudged her hero, getting her to land before Ryan while the other girls talked. “Hey, I want to talk.”

Ryan looked at Scootaloo, who hopped off and went over to the group. “What do you need?”

“I... wanted to thank you. You know, for saving Scootaloo. Just... I don’t know. Thanks?”

“Alright.” Ran replied nonchalantly. “I’ll let her go; she’s probably under enough stress as it is.” He didn’t keep speaking.

“Well?” Rainbow said impatiently.

“Well, what?”

“Aren’t you going to tell me how you can tell that I’m not gracious or whatever? Aren’t you going to keep thinking that I’m some jerk without really getting to know me? I wanna hear it.”

Ryan frowned. “No, I’m not. I can tell that you’re grateful; it’s pretty obvious. Your number one fan is still alive; if you weren’t grateful for that, you would be a terrible pony. What I can tell is that you still don’t trust me at the least, and that odds are, you still don’t like me. And like I said before, I get it. You really think that I like me?”

Rainbow blinked, and Ryan continued. “I’ll let you in on a secret; there’s something out there, out to kill me.” Rainbow’s eyes widened. “You know why I can tell you that? Because I know that you care about as much as I do if that thing gets me. I know that you’ll keep this secret to yourself, either out of a hope that I’ll die or a respect for the fact that I don’t want the others to know. So yes, I know that you’re grateful. No, I don’t think you like me or care about me.”

“Oh.” Rainbow replied.

“And another thing.” Ryan added. “What you said, about not getting to know you? Well, I’m not the one who’s showing overt hate and keeping away from you when possible. That’s all you, little missy.”

Rainbow furrowed her brow, but stayed her tongue. “...Right.”

Ryan paused, and looked over to the group. They were still talking. “I don’t need you to like me. I just need you to get used to the fact that there is a killer in your midst. One who doesn’t hesitate.”

Rainbow Dash swallowed hard and stepped away, her previous fear of him taking over her countenance. She quickly made her way back to the group and instated herself into their conversation. Soon, though, it ended, and all the mares turned their attention to Ryan.

“What?” he asked nervously. They were all staring at him.

Applejack and Twilight stepped forward. “We wanted to thank you for saving Spike and the girls. Not to mention Fluttershy and Zecora.” Twilight began. “Your actions speak louder than any of the words that you have spoken to us.” That actually meant something, too. “We just want you to know that you’ll always have a place in Ponyville.”

Ryan blinked. He hadn’t really thought of that concept in a while. He was a part of their community now, whether that was a good thing or not. “Oh. Umm, thanks.” He couldn’t find any other words.

Pinkie bounced forward and reached up at his face. “AND WE’LL THROW YOU A BIG PARTY FOR SAVING THE DAY!” Ryan picked her up, since that was undoubtedly what she wanted. “IT’LL BE SO MUCH FUN!”

Ryan shook his head with a ghost of a smile. “I bet it will be.” He set her back down and tapped Rarity. “Train’s gonna leave soon.”

“Yes, we must hurry. Ta-ta, ladies!”

“Adios.” The girls all waved at them as they got on the train and made way for Canterlot.


Ryan and Rarity sat quietly on the train as it departed, watching the others wave at them as they rolled away. Rarity waved back, but Ryan just watched silently, pondering. What he was pondering cannot be said, but it was definitely something important. Probably. Maybe.

Once out of view, Rarity turned to Ryan and looked him over. He looked relatively disinterested, even indifferent about going to Canterlot. Though upon closer inspection, she could see that there was something on his mind that he was deeply considering. She opted not to pursue that and instead look over what he was wearing. She had told him to put that silly beret and jacket and other stuff in a bag. He did, but he refused to put away his vest or the items it held. Under the vest, he had a simple T-shirt, though there were still some spots where the blood from before couldn’t be washed away.

His arms grabbed her attention the most. The bandages, more specifically. They were distinctly red now; he clearly hadn’t changed them since she last saw him. She wanted to simply take them off and replace them with some extra fabric, but she honestly didn’t want to see the wounds underneath. From how Fluttershy described the fight to Twilight the previous day, they were rather deep.

Trying to get her mind away from it, she decided to try and start conversation. “So, this is the closest major city we live near.” she said. “What about your home? What kinds of cities did you live near?” She really hoped that she wasn’t overstepping any lines here.

She wasn’t. “The first that comes to mind is New York. A bustling city of over eleven million people, all doing their own things in their own ways.” Rarity ooh’d, and RYan continued. “People from all over the world live and travel there. It’s one of the world’s financial hubs, along with Paris, Hong Kong, and London. I’m sure there are others, but I don’t know them.”

“Wow, that’s really something. Is it a nice city?”

Ryan laughed, getting a confused look from his travel companion. “Well, that depends on where you go. The Bronx is nice in some areas, but not so nice in others. As in, you will be shanked in some areas. Upper West side is really nice, but that’s because all the rich people live there. Then there’s Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. All depends on where you are in each one; but you can still get murdered or saved in any of them.”

“Umm.... wow?”

“Wow indeed.” Ryan concluded.

Rarity sniffed the air; something was amiss. “Do you smell something?” she asked. “It smells like...”

“Blood?” Ryan finished. He lifted his arm. “Yeah, I couldn’t find a replacement, and I wasn’t going to take any of your fabric, so it’s still the same bandage.” He had gone back to Rarity’s the previous night to sleep. He stayed in the basement. “Sorry for the smell.”

Rarity waved her hoof dismissively. “No, no. No need to be sorry. We’ll just take care of that as soon as we arrive.”

Ryan nodded. Then a question came to mind. “Where are we staying again, exactly?”

Rarity gasped. “I never told you, did I? How forgetful of me.” She looked around, then whispered, “We’ll be staying in a hotel near the castle. The princesses have guests from the griffon colonies, or they’re about to, so the castle guest rooms are taken. Celestia paid for the nicest room in the hotel for us.”

“Room?” Ryan asked. Rarity nodded. “Rarity, I think you should know,” he spoke up. “I don’t think it would look very classy if it was discovered that you and I are getting a room.” He didn’t say it loudly, just at about normal tone. It still got some heads to turn. “I mean, we haven’t even gone out to dinner yet.”

Rarity matched his move, though. “Oh, but we will. And I know just what the main course will be.” She looked at him with half-lidded eyes and a dubious smile.

“Hay fries and an oat shake?”

All motion paused. Then, out of seemingly nowhere to the casual observer, Rarity burst into a giggle fit. “Oh, Ryan. You really do know how to make a mare laugh.”

“I just happen to know which buttons to press.” he replied casually.

Rarity let her gigglefit die and watched the land pass by. The train ride to Canterlot was about forty-five minutes long, so they still had about forty minutes to kill. She thought about some things that she could talk to Ryan about. The stuff she wanted to know the most, though, was pretty much off limits. The jacket that he liked to wear was one, as was his beret. The vest was off. But there was something she could ask him.

“So, what are those two things on your vest?” she asked. He had used at least one to save her friends. “What are they for?” She was curious.

Ryan looked down at his Automag, then back to Rarity. “Are you really sure you want to know what these are?” he asked. Rarity nodded. “Alright.” He took the Automag out and released the magazine, then unchambered the remaining round. “This is an Automag.”

“What’s an Automag?” Rarity interrupted.

“I was getting to that.” Rarity blushed and let him go on. “It’s one model of a type of firearm, or gun, used back in my world.”

Rarity blinked, looked at the gun before her, and leaned back a bit. “You... have a gun?”

Ryan nodded. “I needed it to survive in the woods where I was hunting and being hunted. But back to the point...” He paused so that Rarity could get over her shock. “It’s chambered for the .44 Magnum round, one of the most powerful handgun rounds available. It can blow its way through a lot of things. Like Timberwolves.”

“And it was designed for this.” Ryan nodded to her. “I see. Go on.”

“The pistol operates off of a short recoil, rotary bolt with locking lugs, similar to some assault rifles. You don’t know what those are, but they would require another lecture.” So now she was being lectured on firearms. “Fewer than three thousand of this pistol model were made.”

“So it’s rare, I take it? It must be valuable.”

“Only to collectors. Other than that, I really have nothing else to say on it.”

“What about that one?” Rarity asked, pointing to the 1911. “Is it different?”

“Yeah.” Ryan put the unchambered .44 Magnum round back in the magazine, then stuck the magazine in the gun without chambering a round. “It’s the classic 1911 model, manufactured by Colt Firearms. Kind of an ironic name here, considering you wouldn’t want your colts running around with it.”

“What makes it different?” Rarity asked.

“Well, it has different mechanisms, and it’s chambered for the .45 ACP round. Overall, though, both function in pretty much the same way for the same purpose.” Rarity waited for him to continue, then urged him with a motion of her head. “They chamber a round, the hammer hits the back of it, it fires, and the bullet kills something.”

Rarity looked around; they had lost the attention of the other passengers. “Ah. Well, that is... interesting.”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah.” He paused. “You know, the Automag has never killed anyone. This one, at least.” Rarity was confused. “It used to belong to my friend Harris.”

Her eyes softened, and she sunk a little. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Ryan felt ashamed at his memories. “I nearly killed him. So I sent him away. But he was a stubborn son of a bitch; he followed me into Vietnam. If he hadn’t come along, I would never have killed Narendra. Didn’t stop Narendra from getting me, though.” He put his hand on his chest.

“What happened to Harris?” Rarity asked, hoping to console him.

Ryan shrugged. “Not sure. Last I saw him, and the last time he saw me, I told him to leave me behind in the river. He walked off into the jungle. I can only hope he made it home.”

Rarity put her hoof on Ryan’s hand. “I’m sure he did.”

“Yeah.”

They were quiet for a time. Rarity removed her hoof from Ryan’s hand and stretched out, Ryan looked around at the other passengers. At some point, most had started looking at him and Rarity. He shuffled uncomfortably in his seat.

Rarity noticed this and stood up. “I’m going to get something from my bag. Do you want any food while I’m up?”

“No, I’m good.”

Rarity nodded and went into the overhead compartment. She pulled her bag out and dropped it onto the table she and Ryan had. “I’m going to get myself a snack.” Ryan grunted and nodded, and she walked away.

But she didn’t go to get a snack. She went to talk to some of the other passengers. “Excuse me.” she said in a slight whisper. The well dressed mare and stallion looked at her. “I’m sorry, but I noticed you staring at my friend and I. I have no problem with it, but it makes him very uncomfortable.”

“I can imagine.” the stallion said.

Rarity let that slide. “Yes. Please, try not to stare over there any more. He’s new to Equestria, so it would be better not to startle him. He comes from... another kind of place.”
The mare and stallion nodded, and Rarity went to give the same routine to the other passengers.

When she came back, she noticed that Ryan was looking out the window at the passing scenery. They were on the mountain with about twenty minutes to go, one of the most extraordinary parts of the ride. Below them, the whole of the Everfree Forest was laid out, with Ponyville at the edge. The trees didn’t look menacing from here, and the mountains in the distance, especially in the forest, were incredibly beautiful.

But Ryan wasn’t really looking out at them. Rarity positioned herself so that she could get a good look at his face. He seemed to be spaced out, contemplating something again. His eyes were glazed, and they seemed to be farther away from their usual grayish-hazel tone. They were much more lively, more pony or humanlike. His breathing was slow, and he seemed calm and still as the morning dew.

“What are you thinking about?” Rarity asked as she sat back in her seat.

Without looking back or even moving, Ryan responded, “Not sure.” He turned back to her, and his eyes resumed their depressed tone from prior times. “It can wait.”

“Oh, uh, I wasn’t going to ask you anything else. You can keep thinking.”

Naw, I’m good for now.” Rarity nodded, and they spent the remaining fifteen minutes in silence.


The train screeched to a stop at the Canterlot station. Ryan had to brace himself against his table to keep from moving, while most of the ponies simply allowed themselves to sway with the train’s previous motion. Ryan took a look outside the window; before him, there was a sprawling city of white and blue, primarily, and it looked way overdone. It could only be the capital.

Rarity stood up and used her magic to gather her bags. “Come, Ryan, let us make our way into the city!” She grabbed Ryan with her magic and dragged him out of the train ahead of the rest of the passengers.

She released him as soon as they were out of the train and on the platform. Ryan stood tall, stretching his back, and grunting. He got some looks from some nearby ponies.

Great. Already, I seem to be attracting more than my share of attention.” Some were whispering, others were blatantly pointing at him. They were sizing him up, though most seemed more interested in his vest and weapons than him himself. “Note to self; find a way to be less tall.” It could at least make him harder to notice.

“Let’s go, Ryan. We need to check in with security.” Ryan followed Rarity to a small building with a stallion wearing some weird costume. “Hello, Jockey.”

“Hello Rarity. Here for Fancy Pants?”

“I’m surprised that you remembered! How sweet.”

Jockey smiled. “Yeah.” He looked at Ryan, and his smile faltered. “Who’s your... friend?”

Rarity moved aside. “Jockey, this is Ryan. Ryan, this is Jockey, lieutenant of transportation in the Canterlot Royal Guard.” The costume wasn’t a costume, apparently.

Ryan rested his forearms on the counter, making his bandages the first thing the guard saw. “What’s up?”

The guards reeled a bit, but pulled himself back. “Not much. What happened to you?”

“Got into a scuffle in the forest. Nothing huge.”

The guard nodded, but Rarity was shocked and cut in. “Nothing huge!? You fought off four timberwolves and saved my little sister and her friends! And Fluttershy and Zecora!”

Ryan closed his eyes and groaned as the guard stared at him slack-jawed. “Wow. Humble, much?” He chuckled. “Well, that makes you a hero. You’re welcome here anytime.” The hero comment bit at Ryan’s mind, but he kept it well hidden.

The guard let them go past and they made their way to the city. Rarity took the lead, but kept Ryan close behind on the way to keep him from getting lost.

They were right at the edge of the city. The white buildings towered over them, confining Ryan to the streets and close quarters. It made him uncomfortable, especially when Rarity called a taxi over.

“Oh, yoohoo! Taxi!” One immediately came by. Rarity leaned in the window and batted her eyelashes at the puller. “Would you be a dear and bring us to the Hanoverian Hotel?” The driver nodded enthusiastically. “Great!” Rarity turned to Ryan. “Let’s go!” Ryan got in after her and they rode off.

While they rode through the city, Ryan took a look out the windows. It was a bustling city, alright; comparable to New York in ponies moving about their lives. Criers shouted at passing ponies, stores had dozens of customers, kids ran through the streets. It brought Ryan home for a minute.

He was jerked back into “reality” when the taxi halted suddenly and threw RYan face first into the wall. Rarity had used her magic to keep herself from the same fate.

“Oh, my! Are you alright?” she asked. Ryan grunted in response, and looked out the window. Some dude was trying to get into the cab, but the puller was yelling at him to get lost. The stallion was ratehr aggressive.

Ryan got up and leaned into the window, pulling out his Automag. Without chambering a round, he pointed it right at the stallion’s forehead. “You wanna die? Try me. I don’t feel like dealing with assholes right now.” The stallion backed off. and they went on their way. When Ryan got back in, Rarity looked at him, freaked out. “There’s no round chambered.” She let out a sigh of relief.

They arrived at the hotel in no time, and Rarity paid the cab driver by giving him his fair and a fake mailing address. He took both gleefully and went on his merry way.

“You’re all heart.” Ryan commented as they approached the doors of the Hanoverian Hotel.

Inside, the ponies of the front lobby looked at the new duo with awe. They had never seen a human before, and he was coming in with Rarity, who had become pretty famous in her own right. While he and Rarity made their way to the front desk, Ryan kept his hand on his Automag, ready to pull in case something happened. He didn’t expect something to happen. Then again, he hadn’t expected to be kidnapped by terrorist human traffickers either.

At the desk, Rarity greeted the deskmare with some familiarity. They had a little conversation, and, thankfully, this time, Rarity didn’t introduce Ryan. “Will there be a colt to bring our things to our room?” Rarity asked. The mare nodded, and Rarity dropped her bags. “Wonderful!” She turned to Ryan. “Let’s go out and do something!”

Ryan quickly picked up the bag with his things. “Alright. Where to?”

“Well, first we need to visit the hospital to get those bandages changed. They look and smell terrible.” Ryan looked around; the ponies’ noses were twitching.

“Lead the way, then.”

Rarity lead Ryan through the city to the hospital. As soon as they were out the door of the hotel, she started telling him about the place. “Canterlot really is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, cities in Equestria. The hospital we’re going to is among the best for all types of care; broken bones, cuts, or worse. The shopping is truly glorious, so many choices!” She went on.

They were walking through the streets, surrounded by all sorts of ponies and even griffons. Most of them haughtily ignored the two, though all of them dared a look at the new species in their midst. It made Ryan uncomfortable; it was exactly like his first time in Ponyville, minus the haughtiness.

The hospital was in view. “There’s the hospital, Ryan. Once we’re done, what say we-”

“Stuff your mouth and give me all your bits!” Rarity gasped in shock and fell back as a mugger wearing a mask appeared before them. “I ain’t playing!” He had a knife in his mouth.

“Knife!” “Mugger!” “Guards, guards!” the crowd yelled.

Ryan took one look at the mugger. “You know that there are two ways out of this.” he said.

“What?” The mugger was confused.

“Let me ask you a question.” Ryan said, pulling out his Automag and chambering a round. “What do I and my friend here look like?”

The mugger shook his head. “What?”

Ryan, annoyed about a bunch of things, shook his head. “What country you from?!”

“What?”

“What ain’t no country I ever heard of. They speak Equish in What?” The crowd watched in horrified awe. Rarity cowered behind Ryan.

“What?”

“EQUISH, MOTHER FUCKER! Do you speak it!?”

The mugger’s eyes were wide and he stepped back. “Yes?”

“Then you understand what I’m telling you.” The mugger nodded, trying to steel himself. “The let me say again; there are two ways out of this. You can; One: Leave my friend and I alone. Or Two:” Ryan pulled up the Automag. “This can get really ugly.”

The mugger, knife in teeth, thought it over. He was just challenged in front of hundreds of ponies, and the guards had yet to arrive. He locked eyes with Ryan; the cold rage in the human’s eyes told him Come at me. So he did.

He ran at Ryan, swinging the knife with his neck. But Ryan caught his neck with his hand. “Wrong choice.” The human whipped the pistol around, pointed it at the stallion’s hind, pressed the barrel in, and pulled the trigger. The loud BOOM roared from the gun and echoed through the streets, silencing any and all activity. The recoil sent it flying back into the air, and the would-be mugger fell to the ground, screaming.

Ryan put the Automag back in its place. Six shots left. “Come, Rarity. I’m sure someone will take care of this.” Rarity swallowed hard and complied, looking back at the screaming stallion as they went to the hospital.

Rarity spoke up when they were halfway there. “Was that really necessary?” she asked. “I mean, he may never walk again.”

“Well, if he’s not going to rob anypony else, why does that matter? People turn to theft because there is nothing else. Not being able to walk won’t change that for him.” Rarity couldn’t help but to see the logic in Ryan’s words as they made their way to the place where the stallion was likely to be soon anyway.

Once inside the hospital, Rarity hurriedly dragged Ryan to a doctor who could switch out the bandages. The two were brought to a room and had to wait for almost half an hour before they got the doctor.

“Alright, what- oh.” The doctor said as he walked in. “Well, it’s simpler than the nurse made it out to be.” Ryan cocked an eyebrow at the doctor. “Just let me remove the bandages, and I’ll get started.”

Ryan shrugged and let the doctor do his thing. He let his mind wander while the bandages were coming off, mostly to the last time he was in a hospital. Last time, he was there for this same reason, plus to steal medical supplies. That also brought his mind to that remaining morphine syringe, which he seemed to have lost. Oh well.

When the bandages were all the way off, the doctor sucked in his breath through his teeth. “Oh. Maybe the nurse was right.” He looked at Ryan’s face. “This will take about fifteen minutes, and it might feel odd. Just try to relax.”

Ryan didn’t get it until the doctor started. He was using magic, being a unicorn, to fix the torn flesh of his forearms. Ryan found himself fascinated and had to watch as the bits of flesh were burned away and new flesh came seemingly out of nowhere to stitch itself back together. The blood receded back into his arm, and before he knew it, he looked good as new. Only his old scars were still left.

“Alright, all done. Now, that’ll be about sixty bits.” Ryan had no money on him, so he turned to Rarity.

“No worries; I’m treating you on this trip. I’ll get it.” Rarity paid the doctor upfront; not common back home; and the two left the hospital together, ready to face the city.

They walked out of the hospital only to be greeted by a group of royal guards, wearing their ridiculous uniforms of brass armor and helmets with that funky blue fuzz on them. “Halt.” One said. Ryan and Rarity stopped in their tracks.

“Can I help you, sir?” Rarity asked politely. “If this is about that colt in the mask, I can explain my friend’s actions.”

The guards put a hoof up and shook his head. “No need. We just need to get a testimony from him really quick, then we’ll be on our way.”

Rarity turned to Ryan. “Well?”

Ryan shrugged. “Alright. What are your questions, officer?”

“I’m not an officer.” the guard replied, seemingly feeling complemented.

“You could be. Anyway, questions?”

“Right.” The guard pulled up a pad. He, too, was a unicorn, though it was hidden by that stupid helmet. “Questions are; Why? Where? With what did you defend yourself?”

“Why; we were being attacked with a knife. Where; over there. With what; My Automag pistol. Can’t explain that one; national security risk.” The guard went wide-eyed, then just jotted down the notes. “Anything else?”

“No, sir. Have a good day.” Ryan replied in the same manner, and the guards let the duo go.

Rarity did not comment on Ryan’s words to the guards as they left. She walked beside him, looking up at him with a mixture of curiosity and confusion. Ryan tried to ignore it and keep walking, but the look seemed contagious to the ponies around them. In an effort to lose the looks, Ryan took a number of sharp turns, but the constant starting was born from Rarity.

“Rarity, I need you to stop staring at me. I understand that I my body is hard for you not to look at...”

Rarity scoffed and shook her head. “Well, I never. I can assure you, that is not why I was looking.” Ryan nodded, satisfied that he had gotten her to stop starting.

Rarity took the lead again and led him around the nicer areas of the city. She started by taking him to the major shopping center, which wasn’t a mall, but a large collection of buildings with stores. Mostly, it was fashion stores, with pony dresses and crowns and girly things that Ryan had no interest in. Other stores sold gourmet food, and there were some nice restaurants, too. Ryan even spotted a couple of pubs and bars.

Remember that for later.” he told himself.

Rarity took him back to the hotel, which Ryan had decided to affectionately change the name of from the Hanoverian Hotel to the Hanoi Hilton. He felt like he was a prisoner in this snooty city.

“Well, Ryan, I need to go talk to Fancy Pants now. I trust that you can make your way around?” Rarity asked.

Ryan nodded. “Yeah, I think I can make my way around. I’ll try to avoid trouble.” Rarity nodded happily, handed Ryan a bag of three hundred bits, and then left Ryan to his own devices, waving at him from a taxi she called over. Ryan waved back until she was out of sight.

As soon as she was gone, Ryan walked away from the Hanoi Hilton and went out into the fray in the city. He had absolutely nothing to do right now, something that hadn’t truly plagued him since he first arrived in Equestria. It reminded him of home.

Ryan made his way to the shopping center with the sack of money, wondering what he would even do with it. If they had it available, he would definitely have bought some ammo for his guns, but there was nothing like that. He doubted that weapons were sold here, and armor that would fit him was out of the question. Having crossed all of those things off of the list of possible items to purchase, Ryan figured he would look for tactical gear. Maybe a flashlight he could strap onto his 1911.

With no clue as to where to start looking, he just wandered into the collection of buildings and looked around for any stores that might have what he wanted. Few stores even came close, but that was due to the fashion theme he noticed before. He actually decided to walk into the fourth one he saw.

When he walked in, he got all kinds of ponies looking at him. Most were looking incredibly confused at Ryan, probably due to his vest and still stained shirt. He was an oddity in every possible way to them, and they didn’t bother trying to hide it. Ryan gauged the faces he could see; some were shocked, others looked scared. One he recognized from the streets near where he shot the mugger.

A store clerk trotted on over, unphased by Ryan’s not being a pony. Business is business. “Hello, and welcome. I’m Jack.” First pony with a normal name. Wow. “What can I do for you today?”

Ryan thought for a moment. “Do you sell cloaks? Like the kind with hoods, maybe to protect against rain or something?”

The clerk looked intrigued. “Why, yes. Please, follow me.” Ryan followed the clerk to a back section of the store. As he walked, the other customers actually stopped looking at him, probably because he seemed much more normal now that he was buying stuff. The clerk stopped at a row. “These are our cloaks.”

Before even looking at any, Ryan took a gander at the price tag; none were under two hundred bits. “Hmmm.”

“If these are too expensive, as in you want a bit more practicality, we have others right over here.” The clerk walked on over to another row. “These don’t get more expensive than one hundred bits.”

Ryan nodded. “Nice.” He walked over and took a look at the cloaks before him. There weren’t any cloaks in a camouflage tone, but most were a nice jet black. Ryan pulled one of the larger ones off of the rack. “May I?” The clerk made a motion for him to try it on. When Ryan swung it around, it rested nicely on his shoulders and managed to go down to just above his feet. He walked a few steps in each direction. “I like it.”

“I had a feeling you might. This one is only seventy bits, and its good quality and it’ll last you a long time.” The clerk smiled at his near commission.

Ryan thought. The black cloak could be extremely useful in the forest for avoiding being seen at night. “Alright. I’m sold. Ring’er up.” The clerk got an excited look as he lead Ryan to the counter to buy the hooded cloak.

He didn’t don it when he went outside; it was too hot, the start of September. He thought. He had no idea how the seasons actually worked here. Thinking about it, this was about the time that he would normally be getting ready to go back to school. It would have been his senior year. What were his friends back home doing right now? Or his family? They had no idea where he was...

Ryan threw the cloak over his shoulder and let it go, trying his best not to think about it. He strolled on through the streets, getting fewer looks of awe, but more looks of curiosity and even admiration. One stallion who passed by told gave Ryan a thank you for stopping the mugger. Word travels fast here.

He kept on walking, browsing the windows and shop names to see if anything might come up that he might be able to use. The cloak was useful for stealth, but was there anything else he might be able to use to stay alive in the forest? He could probably use some kind of under armor, and something like leather would be best. But he doubted that there would be any leather around here.

But he did find a store that might have something. The sign above the street was in its fancy letters, but its name suggested anything other than fanciness; Hard Work for Hard Play. Curious, Ryan walked in.

He found himself in a maintenance shop of some kind. All around him, there were parts of varying size, shape, and functionality. Gears, pistons, all sorts of things. In another area of the shop, there were things that a mechanic might wear, like hoof covers, vests, helmets, and... gloves?

Ryan was soon approached by a store clerk. “Hey.” Ryan turned to greet him. “I never saw you before. You new?” Ryan confirmed. “Yeah, thought so. What brings you into my shop? Most of the ponies around here don’t do their own work, so I sell to the ponies who do their work or ponies who do their own work. But you aren’t a pony.”

“That, I am not.” Ryan replied. He looked over the rack of safety wear. “I just came in to browse, but now I’m curious. Why do you have gloves for fingers like these?” Ryan flexed his digits for the store clerk.

“Well, we get all sorts of customers. Young griffons from other lands, ponies, horses from Saddle Arabia, occasionally dragons, albeit small ones, and other creatures with hands. But you’re new to me.”

“I get that alot.” Ryan picked out a pair of gloves that might fit him. “What can you tell me about these?”

The clerk smiled. “Ah, those. Those are light mechanics gloves, mostly used when working with sharp things. They’re made of this new fabric that’s super cut and heat resistant. The name escapes me for some reason...”

“Kevlar?” Ryan responded hopefully.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

At this point in his life, nothing was capable of making Ryan leap with joy. But if something were to, this would certainly have been it.” How much for them?”

“Twenty bits.” Ryan pulled out the money and handed to him, pocketing the gloves. “Thank you.”

The human looked back at the rack, specifically, at the vests. “Mind if I try one of those on?” he asked. The store clerk motioned for him to go for it. Ryan put several vests on until he found one that worked alright. “Same material?” he asked. The clerk nodded. Ryan hopped up and down a little, finding it to be a bit loose. He could fix that later. But there was something else. “What’s this space in here?” There was a series of little pockets inside the vest, front and back.

“Oh, those?” The clerk pulled another vest off. “Well, these vests are meant primarily for ponies designing carriages, which requires a lot of flat pieces. Those pockets just help for carrying the smaller ones.”

Ryan could hardly believe his ears. If he could get some ceramic plates, or even steel, he could get used to it, he would have alight armor vest. It would be perfect for traveling in the Everfree; light, cut resistant and strong protection, plus the stealth of the cloak. While he was at it, Ryan pulled a helmet that looked strong off the rack.

“How much for this, too?” The store clerk asked for one hundred bits, which Ryan eagerly gave him. Then, the human was on his way.

He still had one hundred-ten bits left, so Ryan figured that he might as well try to find those ceramic plates. He carried all of his new things with him, slung over his shoulder, thinking about the forest. With a new vest, he would need new holsters for his guns and a better way to carry his KaBar. That was doable. He would need to have camping supplies to carry out there so he could figure out how he would spend his nights while building an actual home to live in. Then again, why was he even doing that? He could just keep living in tent. In fact, why was he doing any of this? Was this the only thing that kept him going? Could he really be-

His thought were derailed when he ran smack dab into another pony in the street, knocking the both of them over. Ryan dropped his stuff and instinctively, his hands went straight to his weapons. Taking a look down, he saw that there was no attacker, just some random mare that had a couple of bags.

He leaned down and put his own things in a pile before organizing the mare’s things. “Shit, sorry.” he said. “Didn’t see you there.”

“No worries; I know what it’s like to have my head in the clouds.” she replied.

Ryan looked at her; she had a sun yellow coat and wings. Her mane was two toned, a fiery orange theme, brighter on the inside, darker on the outside. Her mane was swept back, like it was windblown, and her tail looked relatively unkempt. Much like his own hair. Her irises were a deep shade of bronze, and she looked pretty casual about getting bowled over by some random creature.

“I take it you fly a lot.” Ryan replied, gathering up her bags and handing them to her. She hung them on her open wings, then closed them. Clever way to carry stuff.

“You never heard of me? That’s a first.” Ryan shrugged. “It’s actually nice not to be stared at uncomfortably.”

“Yeah, I know that feeling.” He looked around; they were being watched by EVERYPONY present. “But not at the moment, I don’t.”

The mare looked around, then scowled. “Alright, I guess we’ll have to move.” Apparently, they were having a conversation. Ryan just shrugged and followed as the mare silently led the way out of the area.

The mare led them to a small park with a bench, then sat down. “I’ve never seen your kind before. What brings you to Equestria?”

Ryan sat beside her. “Magic. And dying, I think.” She blinked incredulously. “Don’t ask; it’s hard enough to think about, and I went through it.” Ryan paused. “The reason I’m in Canterlot, though, is that Rarity brought me here.”

“Rarity?” Spitfire asked. “As in, Element of Generosity Rarity? Famous fashion designer Rarity?” Ryan nodded. “Wow, you’re way up there already in knowing significant ponies.”

Ryan nodded. Yeah, I guess so. Am I to guess that you are also significant, by your rather aloof demeanor towards our encounter? Important people rarely get mad about that, since they already KNOW they’re important.”

The mare made a face, then smacked her forehead. That must have hurt, actually, with hooves and all. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you my name. I’m Spitfire Captain of the Wonderbolts.”

Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Oh. Wow.” He had no idea what to think about that. “Rainbow talks about you guys a lot.”

“Yeah. She’s got potential, but she’s too hot headed, too arrogant.” Ouch. If Rainbow heard that. “She could be great, if she just got over herself a little.”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah, I could see that.”

They spent some time talking, mostly about the other elements and what the Wonderbolts do in Equestria. They sounded a lot like the USAF Pararescuemen and Combat Control Teams. Turns out, they had actually been a branch of Special Forces of Equestria back in the day, but more as Recon Birds, so to speak. They were the 71st Strategic Recon (SR) Battalion. Spitfire regaled him with stories of heroism and bravery from the days of war and the loss of some very talented operators. Ryan actually felt interested in the stories.

Twas not to last. “Well, I have to get back to HQ. My team did a good job in the last performance, so I’m treating them with good beer and a night off.”

Ryan smiled at her. “Well, I wish you a pleasant evening.” Spitfire smiled back and went off.

Ryan looked at his watch; it was almost seven. He didn’t realize he had been out so long, and figured that it was a good time to head back to the Hanoi Hilton. He had already forgotten the actual name. When he got there and walked in with all his stuff, the desk mare instantly recognized him (how could one of them forget?) and greeted him by giving him a key. Ryan thanked her and went on up to his room.

Inside, he threw his new clothes to the side and just waited for Rarity to come back. That was his first plan, at least. His stomach growled, reminding him that he had yet to eat something since she left. He left his room and decided that he would find a little food court eventually if he just walked around on the first floor.

After a bit of time walking around, he did find a small restaurant near the front lobby. When he walked in, the waiter looked at him funny.

“Well, someone needs to control their pets.” the waiter said to himself. Ryan frowned. “You lose your master?” Ryan did not respond. “I really hope this thing is neutered.

“You’re the one who’s gonna end up castrated if you don’t shut the hell up.” The waiter reeled back, startled by Ryan’s sudden threatening speech. “Now are you gonna serve me, or am I gonna have to serve you?”

The waiter looked snootily at him. “Well, I can assure you that we don’t appreciate being spoken to as such here.”

“And I can assure you that I don’t appreciate being called an animal by snobby bitches. Didn’t seem to stop you, though.” Ryan crossed his arms.

“We don’t serve your kind here.”

Ryan laughed. “Oh, so now its racism. I see how it is. I’ll be notifying your manager.” Ryan started to walk away.

“Wait, wait! Is that necessary?” The waiter gave him an awkward smile, to which Ryan gave a leveled stare.

“Apparently.”

Just then, the door behind him opened up. “Ryan, I was wondering where you were!” Ryan turned around; Rarity had come back. “How was your day?”

Ryan shrugged. “Decent. Got some useful stuff. But then I encountered this racist.” Ryan pointed at the waiter casually. “Gonna report him to the hotel manager.”

“Please, don’t! I- I’ll pay for your meals personally, just don’t tell him! I’ll lose the only job I can get!”

Ryan and Rarity exchanged looks, and Rarity smiled. “I think that sounds fair.” she replied. The waiter let out a sigh of relief, and he led them to a table.

They sat down on some cushions, and the waiter left them be. “Oh, waiter, before you go.” The waiter turned. “We’ll be joined by Fancy Pants soon.” The waiter’s eyes bugged out and he nodded excitedly, then left.

Ryan started looking at the menu. he was shocked and glad to see that there was actually meat on it. Probably to serve Griffons. Rarity looked at her own menu, probably just trying to pass the time while they waited for their final guest to arrive. He arrived only minutes later.

“Fancy!” Rarity shouted, getting up to greet her friend and business partner. That kind of thing rarely works back home. “Glad to see you could come.”

Ryan stood up and looked over to note the stallion’s appearance. He was tall, even taller than Big Mac. The guy was alabaster white, much like Rarity, and had a horn to match. He wore a nice suit and a monocle, and he held himself with very regal posture. But he seemed decent right off the bat.

Ryan stepped towards the two friends. “Oh, and Fancy, I would love for you to meet Ryan.” She introduced Ryan. “He’s quite the hero where he comes from.” So he was a hero now? “And here as well.” Maybe.

Ryan extended his hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Fancy took it. “The pleasure is mine, old sport.” They all sat down. “So I understand that you have had quite the exploits.” Fancy began.

“I have.” Ryan replied. “None of which too pleasant, I’ll add.” Fancy nodded and didn’t continue with his questions. Ryan already liked him.

Rarity decided to answer instead, though. “Ryan recently fought off four timberwolves and saved my little sister’s life.” Fancy raised his eyebrows, impressed. “He also saved her friends, and my two friends Fluttershy and Zecora.”

“Good show, sir!” Fancy said. “I say, old sport, that really is something. The wonderbolts would be impressed with you.”

Ryan shrugged. “Maybe. Spitfire seemed like a reasonable mare.” His dinnermates raised their brows. “I met her today when I walked right into her and knocked her stuff to the ground. We had a nice conversation after that.”

“My, my. You seem to be meeting all the most influential ponies lately.” Rarity commented. “Before you know it, Ryan will be the one everypony is trying to impress.” She and Fancy laughed.

They ordered their food, and it came pretty quickly. Blackmail will do that. “So, Rarity tells me that you need new clothes.” Fancy started. “I can certainly do that for you if you come to my home tomorrow. It would be interesting to design for a new species such as yourself.”

“That sounds good.” Ryan replied as he ate. WIth that bit of business, done, they all continued eating and chatting about whatever came to mind.

When they finished, Fancy had to go to meet his wife. Before he left, Ryan had one thing to say. “Are you stuck in a... rut?” He added a coy smile at the end.

“I must say that if I don’t find myself in one, I might actually be disappointed.” The two males nodded to each other, Rarity none the wiser. At least, they hoped for that.

They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways, thinking about what awaited them the next day.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Rarity hadn’t questioned about what Ryan bought the day before when he handed her the bag of one hundred-ten remaining bits. She was too busy thinking about what she would do while Fancy Pants took care of Ryan’s measurements and made his clothes. Odds were that she would just spend some time with Fancy’s wife, Fleur. Girl talk while the men were at work.

The cab ride was short to Fancy’s place, a large mansion on the outskirts of the city, where it would actually fit. In the front, there was a big fountain of somepony sitting like The Thinker, pondering some great question. He might have been wondering what the obsession with white in this city was all about.

The lawn was neatly trimmed and dark green , attended by seemingly dozens of workers, all of whom whistled or hummed happy tunes. Shrubberies lined up in the front of the yard, with several rows going back further, almost like a system of trenches in World War I. In between one pair was actually a tiny moat, only about four feet wide.

As they approached, they had to go through a big brass gate with the letters FP on it. A gate guard let them through upon seeing who was inside. Once past him, Ryan took another look; it was very different inside. Inside, there was a pool with two waterslides and a group of ponies playing in it. There was a croquet field, as expected, but there also seemed to be a bunch of ponies playing rugby in another area. They were covered in mud and bruises.

Well. That’s certainly something.” It was a pleasant surprise to see that this guy wasn’t your average rich boy.

The cab dropped them at the entrance, and Rarity gave him his fare and he went off. Ryan and Rarity watched him go, and while their backs were turned, the doors to the mansion swung open.

“Ah, Rarity and Ryan! Glad to see you again.” Rarity greeted him, and Ryan simply nodded. Fancy returned the gesture. “Come, come, let’s not waste any time. I would love to see you enjoy yourselves in my abode.” At least he didn’t say it was humble.

Fancy Pants led them through several hallways to the room where he and Ryan would respectively work and wait. The halls were interesting; shields and swords hung in various spots, each with a plaque for its story. Portraits of dozens of ponies, including Princess Celestia, hung over doors.

The thing that really caught his attention, though, was the portrait over the room at the end of the hall. “There’s our place.” Fancy said. Ryan looked up at the portrait, his gaze affixed to it. It was of Princess Luna, sitting by a fireplace, looking sad. She had a book in between her forelegs, though the title was indiscernible. Her face said that she lost something dear to her.

Fancy noticed Ryan’s gaze. “I see you are interested in the Princess of the Moon. Are you two acquainted?”

Rarity opened her mouth, but Ryan spoke. “You could say that.” She looked to him, surprised. “We go back a bit.” Back to Indonesia.

Fancy chuckled. “Well, you are full of surprises.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

Fancy nodded. “Well, I hope to get to know it. Rarity, I’m sure that Fleur would love to see you again. If you want to talk to her, she’s out by the pool watching the kids play.” Rarity nodded, taking the hint to leave. Once she was off, Ryan and Fancy went into the room. “Let us begin.”

Inside the room, Fancy had Ryan stand on a little stage. “I’m not the biggest fan of stages.” Ryan said, remembering the Cambodian compound.

“No worries, it’s just a stand.” Fancy assured him. “Now, if you would remove your clothes, old sport, I can take your measurements.”

Ryan hesitated. “Well, I’m not that kind of guy. At the least, you have to buy me dinner.” Fancy chuckled. “I don’t think you’ll like what you see. Plus, my junk isn’t hidden like yours.”

Fancy nodded. “Well, leave your underwear on. And I promise you I won’t judge or ask.” Ryan relented and removed his shirt and pants.

Fancy had to hold in his gasp, but he managed it fairly easily. The bullet scar on the front of Ryan’s chest dominated his bodily features. Looking at the undamaged skin, he also realized that his forearms probably WEREN’T supposed to look that way. When Fancy moved around him, he saw that the scar on his chest was also on the other side, giving him the chills. He saw the slash marks on his lower back. But the last thing he saw, and the most disturbing, was the big USA carved into his upper back.

Trying to distract himself from the clearly inflicted injuries, Fancy saw that Ryan had a thin rope around his neck. On it, there was a silver pendant in an interesting shape. “What is that?” he asked.

Ryan looked down and lifted it up. “That’s my Shen necklace. Shen means Spirit in Japanese, and God in Chinese.” Fancy had no idea what either of those were, but he let it take his mind from the scars. “I got it after earning my Black Belt.”

Fancy was impressed; few can boast that. “What did you study?” he asked, getting his tools to get started.

“Isshinryu Karate.” Fancy nodded as he began to work.

He kept mostly silent while he worked, speaking mostly to have Ryan move some part of himself so he could get a measurement. Ryan was appreciative of the silence; he could easily tell that Fancy Pants was curious about the scars, but had enough respect for Ryan and self restraint that he stayed his tongue. Him and Mac were good dudes.

Fancy finished taking measurements and let Ryan step off the stand. “Well, now I can start making you some new clothes.” he said. “What exactly do you want me to make?”

Ryan hadn’t expected to be able to choose. He thought. “Well, I could use a couple of good tank tops and denim pants for farm work. After that, I’ll need some casual clothes to wear around, ideally in black, white, or gray tones. I’m a simple guy.” Fancy nodded and used his magic to take supplies from the drawers off to the side of the room. “Other than that, I shall defer to your judgment.”

Fancy nodded some more. “Sounds good to me.”

Ryan sat off to the side and watched as Fancy’s magic did its work putting together Ryan’s new clothes. He had been cool enough to start off with the farm outfits, the only ones Ryan had any real need for. They went by quickly, so Fancy tossed them over to Ryan to try on, since he was still pretty much naked. Ryan put them on and was very much satisfied with what he got, noting how the back of the tops seemed to do a good job of covering the letters carved into his back. They were white and felt pretty durable.

Fancy moved onto normal clothes for the human, making a few simple white T-shirts and a few black ones. He made a few pairs of shorts and more pairs of long pants, all of which were light brown Khakis. He then moved onto making a number of long-sleeved shirts for the human, most of which were black and some gray. None of them, thankfully, were turtlenecks. Turtlenecks are ridiculous.

Once the regular clothes were done, Fancy Pants stopped for a tea break. Not one to be rude to a cool dude, Ryan joined him, leaving for the dining room. They were quiet on the way there.

Once there and sitting at a table, though, Fancy Pants decided to start a conversation. “So, Ryan. If I might ask, where are you from?”

Ryan gave him the whole story on how he was from the United States and explained the nature of the letters on his back. He knew that that would ultimately be the question he would want to have answer to, not how he got them, but what the letters were. He could respect a bit of curiosity in that.

“So yeah. That’s my country.”

“Wow.” Fancy replied. He sipped some tea. “That sounds like quite a place.” Ryan nodded. “What exactly did you plan to do there, if you don’t mind my asking? What did you plan to do with your life?”

Ryan hesitated. Did it even matter if he told him? “I planned on joining my nation’s navy and going into Naval Special Warfare. I wanted to serve my country.”

Fancy smiled. “Ah, a noble path to follow. Is there a symbol attached to this?” Ryan affirmed and briefly explained the symbol of the SEALS and the American Flag; the whole time, Fancy Pants seemed to be concentrating on something, but still listening.

Ryan finished, and a few seconds later, Fancy’s horn glowed again. “You mean like this?” he asked, panting slightly. An image popped into Ryan’s head; it was exactly like the SEAL Trident.

“Yeah, that’s exactly it.”

“And how about this?” He showed Ryan the image of the American Flag.

“Also perfect. Why curious?

The designer shook his head. “Just something for my last bit of clothing for you.” He stood up. “Come, let us finish up.” Ryan followed him back to the Luna room.

In the room, Fancy sat right back down and started working on the last piece. While he did that, he and Ryan talked about random things in their lives; dealing with paparazzi jackasses, living with the Elements of Harmony, dangers that each of their jobs held, and a few things about Ryan’s past. He tried to explain to Fancy that he was no hero, but Fancy Pants countered by saying that he was an Antihero; a hero who is questionable in his morality. It actually made sense.

Ryan had been so distracted that he didn’t notice what Fancy had made. “Done.” the designer said suddenly. He floated the item over to Ryan so he could look at it; it was a black jacket with no hood. On the front, there was a small SEAL Trident put into it. On the back, there was a big American Flag. “What do you think?”

Ryan put it on; it fit perfectly. “Very nice.” He actually did like it, too. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Fancy got up and walked over to Ryan to pat him on the back. Might I ask where you’re staying?”

“Well, Rarity is storing me in her basement for now, though I do plan to move pretty far away eventually.” The forest wasn’t that far, but conceptually, it was as far as he would get.

“Well, until then, I was hoping that I might be able to come by every so often and visit. You’re an interesting stallion-”

“Man.”

“You’re an interesting man, Ryan. Maybe sometime next weekend we could go for drinks together in Ponyville? I can’t go out here because they know me too well and I’ll be harassed.”

Ryan thought for a moment. “Alright.” he said, nodding. “That sounds good.” They bumped hoof to fist together to solidify the deal. “Guess I should find Rarity. She said she wanted me to see more of Canterlot.”

The two males left the Luna room and went outside to find the ladies. They found them sunbathing (why? they have fur coats.) by the pool, using their magic to avoid getting wet. As they came up behind them, they heard the ladies talking about something. Never one to pass up on a chance to hear ladies talk privately, the males stopped to listen.

“So do you plan on showing him the Muff?” Fleur asked. The males’ ears perked up.

Rarity hmm’d. “Well, it seems a bit early, but I think I can trust him not to rough up the Muff. Ryan seems like he can control himself pretty well.” Ryan and Fancy looked at each other, traumatized and scandalized respectively. “He shouldn’t be so tough that he makes it seem like a dry, barren old unit.”

Ryan decided to stop listening. “Hey ladies.” Fancy didn’t object. “We just finished.”

Rarity smile at Ryan, and he shied away, drawing a confused look from Rarity. “Ah, we were just talking about you Ryan. I was just telling Fleur how I might show you the Mobile Underground Fighting Flight.” MUFF. Get your mind out of the gutter. “They’re a small section of the Air Guard that deals with covert battles against criminal groups.”

Ryan sighed in relief. “Sounds interesting.” Ryan replied. The ladies were terribly confused at the looks they saw on the males’ faces, but opted to forget about it.

Rarity took up Fleur’s hoof. “It was great to see you again, but I suppose Ryan wants to see the MUFF.” Damn it was weird to hear a mare say that. “I’ll chat with you again sometime!” They waved at each other as Ryan and Rarity left the property, Ryan trying to keep his mind off muff and keep it on track.




They had seen the MUFF, and Ryan was pretty impressed. It was an impressive unit with lots of capabilities. It could hide things very well, it always had special armor and protection, and it was always ready for action. The best part; it wasn’t used that often.

That night, Rarity decided to hit the hay early, being tuckered out from a day of not doing anything but laying in the sun. It’s funny how that always manages to tire people out. Ryan wasn’t sleepy, so he said goodnight and went out into the town to look for a pub or bar he could drink alone in.

The first one he went to refused to serve him because they had no idea what to do about the drinking age. Ryan wasn’t mad; it was a smart business practice. The second turned out to be a gay bar, so Ryan hightailed it outta there pretty fast. He just felt like he didn’t belong, and he would hate to crash their parties.

The third one, though, was exactly what he was looking for. The grizzled looking bouncer didn’t question him, just let him in. Ryan got a table nice and quick, and his server didn’t try anything funny. He wouldn’t mind if she tried to be like Cinny, but right now, he did want his alcohol faster. The day had brought on memories that he wanted to leave behind.

He went through his usual drink, Samaloco Adams, and got somewhat buzzed pretty fast. He was definitely feeling the effects of the stuff on his mind; mostly in that he could hardly feel his mind. The stuff he was drinking was decent and he couldn’t seem to recall his troubles any more, so it was turning out to be a nice night.

Until he was told to leave. “I can tell when someone is drunk and can’t have more. You are; so you gotta go. And don’t try any other places tonight; we’re all connected.” Ryan glared at the waiter, but let it soften since he understood. He was good for now anyway.

“Well, thangks fer the drinks anyway.” He tossed the waiter his money and left, not even noticing how scared the waiter was of the death glare he had just gotten.

Ryan looked at his watch; it was about half past eleven. Seemed like a decent time to be heading back to the Hanoverian Hanoi. Hilton Hotel? No, the Hanoiverian Hotilton. Yeah.

He started to make his way back.The street lights were bright and painful as he passed under them, and the ground seemed to be trying to pull him down with all its might. Ryan had to fight just to stay up.

“Had a bit too much?”

Ryan sighed and turned around. “Fuck off, Wraith. I don’t feel like dealing with you right now.”

The Wraith stepped out of the shadows of an alley. “Maybe so, but I still have to deal with you.” Ryan raised an eyebrow. “And I won’t stop until I’ve dealt with you.”

Ryan raised his arms out to his sides. “Come at me, bro.” He tried to take a seiunchin fighting guard, but it was hard for him at the moment. “I can take you.”

The Wraith shook his head. “I don’t want to fight. Not right now.” He walked over to Ryan and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Come with me.” Suspicious, but not quite in his right mind, Ryan obliged.

They walked down the street in the darkness, yin and yang, different but the same. The Wraith led his counterpart to that same little park where Ryan talked to Spitfire and leaned against a tree. Ryan stood across from him, leaning on the bench from that day.

“What do you want?” Ryan asked. “It better be good.”

The Wraith put his hands together in front of him and stood tall. “I want to know what you’re doing, Ryan.” Ryan sniffed. “I want to know why you’re out getting wasted, trying to forget all about me.” He meant it in more ways than Ryan knew. “I don’t want to be forgotten, Ryan. You need me.”

Ryan laughed. “Need you? You compromised everything I thought I knew was right. You tore my mind to shreds and didn’t even put the pieces back together right. Why the living Hell would I want to remember you?”

The Wraith sighed. “Because I represent more about you than you even know. I represent more than just you; I represent everything that used to be you. I AM you.”

Ryan spat. “Fuck yourself, you self righteous ass. You weren’t me; you aren’t me. And you never will be me.” Ryan stepped forward. “I will fight you until my dying breath. I will put an end to you, and everything you actually represent. I will kill you.”

The Wraith smiled a bit to himself. “Well, the dragon has fangs. But tell me,” He put a hand to his chin. “Why do you want to kill me? You know that you have nothing to gain from it.”

Ryan tried to think about it. He knew that he wanted to, needed to, end the Wraith. The Wraith was what had made him shoot Catherine and Joey. The Wraith was what made him open fire on that room, killing over a dozen people, one of whom was an innocent. The Wraith had made him kill all those people he never knew, those people who had families to take care of.

But he couldn’t find it. “I don’t know. But I will kill you.”

The Wraith shook his head. “Come now, Ryan. You and I both know why you want to get rid of me.” Ryan put his hand to his knife. “It’s because I’m dangerous, to you. But not in the way that you think I am.”

“Bullshit. I know exactly how you're dangerous.”

The Wraith shrugged, and began to walk around Ryan. “Think about it some; you did on the train.” Ryan made a questioning look. “The book?” He seemed clarified now. The Wraith chuckled. He was standing in the middle of the path, with Ryan looking toward the city. “See you around.” Ryan blinked, and he disappeared.

Ryan felt angry. He couldn’t figure out why, just that he was mad. He ran in the direction the Wraith had been in; he had to find him. He had to find him and stab him; a gun failed before. He sprinted out of the park and looked around; nothing.

Nothing of the Wraith, that was.

Off in the distance, Ryan heard a scream. It wasn’t like a scream of, “I’m hurt, call an ambulance!” or “There’s a fire!” It was a scream of, “Help me I’m being attacked!” As soon as the scream hit his ears, Ryan ran in that direction.

The screams were getting lesser and lesser as Ryan ran toward the source, and when he got close to a corner, he could hear the sound of a struggle. He rounded the corner and saw what was happening; there was some stallion, big guy trying to pull a mare somewhere. The mare was light blue with a white, swept back mane. She was a slender pegasus, no match for the hulking Unicorn yanking on her tail.

Time froze; Ryan could see everything. The stallion was trying to pull the mare into an alley, a very dark alley that no one would be able to see into. The mare had several bruises on her side and face, and had a bloody nose. The stallion behind her had a shiner, but it didn’t stop him, or wipe the smirk off his face.

There was a flash; not a real flash, but that was what Ryan saw. In an instant, he was back in Sumatra, Joey behind his back and Nadine helpless against her attackers. Ryan saw the man trying to pull her away by her pant leg; she looked terrified. The man had a sickening smile on his face.

The flash disappeared, and when Ryan looked forward, the struggle had moved into the alley.

He bolted forward; The Wraith disappeared from his mind entirely. A Flaming rage replaced the frozen anger from before. The human’s breathing was deep and rapid, and his veins bulged in his arms, neck, and head. He turned the corner into the alley.

The stallion looked up to see who was coming. “Look bro, go and mind your own-” He stopped mid sentence. The guy he was looking at was no pony. It smelled like rage; its eyes, the only thing he could see in the low light, were blood red. “What the hell-”

AUURGH!” Ryan let out a guttural roar as he sprinted forward.

The stallion had been on top of the mare, but he was trying his best to extricate himself from her to defend against the coming onslaught. He was too slow, though, and the human was on him.

Ryan shot his fist forward like a cannon, smashing it into the face of the stallion, knocking him way back onto the ground. The mare scrambled off to the side, too scared to move much more. Ryan didn’t miss a beat as he ran forward. The stallion had managed to roll back up and attempted to buck at him. Ryan slid in between the two rocket legs and shot an elbow into the stallion’s groin, taking him down for a moment. He followed up with three punches to the stallion’s side.

The stallion was down, but it wasn’t about to be over. Ryan leaned over and made him stand, then proceeded to beat on the stallion’s face with his elbow and fist. The whole time, the stallion kept saying, “Mercy, mercy!”, but Ryan was to give none of it. He continued his onslaught for another full minute, beating the stallion senseless and smashing his bones and out for blood.

He released the stallion and dropped him to the ground, calming down a little. Ryan turned to speak to the mare. “Are you-”

The stallion, though, was not to let himself lose. He tried to use his magic to push Ryan to the ground, but was too weak to. Ryan spun around, rage refilling his eyes, and roared again as he charged. The stallion was caught in the throat as Ryan brought his forearm forward and slammed it into him. While the stallion tried to regain his breath on the ground, Ryan barraged him with a brutal series of drop elbows and punches. He heard numerous cracks from the stallion’s side as he went, but continued like he didn’t notice them.

The mare watched in absolute terror as Ryan picked the stallion up again. “So you think you can just take whatever you want, huh?” he said. The stallion whimpered. “Only the strongest can live without fear?” Ryan wrapped his fingers around the unicorn stallion’s horn.

“Well, I want this.”

He threw the stallion down and lifted the horn up, and a loud snap filled the alley away, followed by a bloodcurdling scream.

Ryan looked at the horn in his hand, then threw it away, disgusted by it. When he looked back at the stallion, he saw that he had gotten back up; he should have taken out his legs.

The stallion looked at him, a mix of the purest of fear and the hottest of anger in his eyes. The stallion would not give up, not this night. He was the king of this section of town, and the king could take anything he wanted. And now, he wanted the creature’s life. And his horn.

He charged Ryan, but in his weakened state, he was stopped easily by Ryan backhanding him upside the chin. He recovered slightly, just enough to look forward, but he didn’t look forward for long.

Ryan’s hand shot out from behind him and came around in a long arc. In his hand, he gripped his KaBar like it was his lifeline, and he plunged it into the neck of the stallion before he had a chance to move out of the way. Blood poured out of the wound in his neck, and just before he fell to the ground, he looked once into Ryan’s eyes. Then, with a gurgle and spatter of blood coming from his mouth, he fell to the ground.

Ryan looked at his handiwork; he felt strange. He lost his anger all of a sudden, all his passion; he felt like an empty husk now. He knew that he went overboard, he didn’t have to kill the stallion, but he knew that this guy would have just done it again. He felt confused and scared.

He turned tail and fled the scene. The mare yelled after him, “Wait!”, but he didn’t stop. He wanted to get away from this, as far away as possible. He ran and ran, leaving the mare yelling after him behind to deal with the body he had just created. He wished he didn’t have to leave her there, but he did. It was his only chance.

He ran until he was back at the Hanoverian. Once there, he stopped, panting, and looked around. No one was around. At least, that was what he thought.

Up on the rooftop across from the hotel, the Wraith watched him go back into the hotel with a smile on his face. “You’re getting to where I want you, Ryan.” he said. And he disappeared into the night, a fog that blocked all light, and prevented complete darkness.


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Ryan walked beside Rarity in the massive shopping center, scanning the area for any signs of the Wraith. He hadn’t seen him since the previous night, but he had come to a conclusion; he would kill him. However hard it might be, however long it would take, he would send the Wraith away.

He also had to keep his mind off of that stallion who had tried to rape the mare in the alley. He was still mixed about how to feel about that; on the one hand, he had no qualms about killing him. On the other hand, he had no qualms about killing him. It was enough to hurt his head the previous night, so he left it out to die.

Now, he was with Rarity, perusing the various stores, her trying to splurge and spend exorbitant amounts of bits on him in thank you for everything. He had gotten pretty much everything he wanted on the first day, so he tried to keep the spending down. But Rarity was to have none of that; she insisted that she treat him.

“First, we should go to a spa.” she suggested. Boy oh boy. “If Aloe and Lotus are great, then these ponies make them look like amateurs.” Ryan was sure that Aloe and Lotus would love hearing her say that.

Rarity brought him to the spa, a big, fancy, almost Roma-themed building. She had them start off with the mud bath ordeal, then moved onto sitting in a hot bath. Ryan got some weird looks thanks to the scars on his back and chest, but he was able to ignore them fairly easily. After that, they moved onto the massages, which were, in their own right, pretty good. Lastly, Rarity had the massage mares clean up Ryan’s skin while they worked on her horn.

That was pretty much the morning that day. After the spa treatment, Rarity took him out and window shopped. She was mostly fawning over all the dresses and looking for inspiration for her own works, whereas Ryan looked for practical things. Rarity loved shiny gemstones; Ryan preferred matte black suits.

She brought him into an optical store. “I could use some new sunglasses.” she said. Her old ones were way out of style, and, being a designer, she had to stay in style. Few men can ever truly begin to understand the complex world of designer clothes and shit.

Rarity walked around, leaving Ryan to wander on his own in the store. He figured he might as well look at some new sunglasses, seeing as he had none of his own. He recognized a lot of styles in the store; there were Wayfarers, Club Masters, Teashades, and others. But there was one pair that caught his attention.

“Yo.” he shouted. A clerk came by. “What do you call this style?”

The clerk looked at the pair of sunglasses Ryan was pointing at. “Ah, those are the Air Guardians. They were issued to stallions of the Air Guard back in the day. Really good, sturdy. Not as fashionable, though.”

Ryan looked back at them; they looked exactly like Aviators Sunglasses, with golden frames. He tried them on; they fit surprisingly well, if a bit loose. He could get Twilight or Rarity to fix that, though. “How much?” he asked.

“For you, since they seem to work so well?” The clerk put his hoof to his chin. “Fifteen bits.”

“I’m sold.” The clerk smiled as Ryan pulled out an empty pocket. “Sorry, my friend has all the money.”

The clerk shook his head. “Not a problem. I’ll just wait for her to finish.”

Ryan chuckled. “That could be a while.”

Rarity finished looking around some time later and came back with several new pairs of sunglasses. She dropped them onto the counter delicately, and Ryan his on there without her noticing. She paid a total of like three hundred bits for it all, then stuffed it all into a bag to carry out. Ryan had to finagle his hand into the bag in order to get his pair.

He put his new Aviators on right as they left. “Ryan, where would you like to go next?” She turned and saw his new shades. “Oh. I didn’t see you get those.” She scrutinized him. “They look good on you.” Ryan nodded and they went on shopping.

While they walked, something dawned on Rarity, something terrifying her enough to make her flip the hell out. “What’s wrong Rarity?” Ryan asked, alert but doubtful.

“You need bed sheets!” she shouted. “And pillows, and decorations!” Well, he was right to be doubtful.

She grabbed him with her magic and dragged him to what was basically a Bed, Bath & Beyond, only pony style. As soon as they were inside, she let him go and talked to a clerk.

“My friend here needs sleeping quarters items.” she explained. “I will fund him.”

The clerk looked to Ryan. “Well, alrighty then. Let’s go and shop.” Ryan followed the store clerk around.

Ryan was a simple guy; he didn’t want anything too showy. He would have been fine with simple black or white bed sheets, the material didn’t matter, and he couldn’t care less about ambiance. But that was not the attitude of the ponies on either side of him.

“Ooh, how about this?” Rarity asked, levitating a pillowcase with flowers on it. Ryan passed. “Alright.” She pondered. “How about this?” She brought over a simple white case, to which Ryan nodded.

“Seems good enough.” Rarity beamed and threw it at Ryan to carry. “It is mine, I guess.” he said to himself.

While they did that, the clerk was pulling out some themes for Ryan to look at. It wasn’t shocking to either pony when Ryan took the white sheets. The clerk rang up the purchases and Ryan and Rarity left the store. It would all be shipped to Ponyville the next day, where Sweetie Belle and Fluttershy, who was babysitting, would take care of it.

As they left the store, Rarity looked even more excited than before. “Come, Ryan! The culture of the city is just now coming into full swing!”

Ryan groaned as she dragged him through a sea of ponies to continue their shopping spree.



The day had been easy enough, though navigating through the sea of ponies was hard. He had been bumped into and had his feet stepped on more times than he could count. It was worse than New York; he got the blame when he was stepped on. One guy, who was a particular dick, had to get his lights punched out when he insulted Rarity’s purity. No one batted an eyelash at his beatdown.

Now, he could finally relax and sit down to drink himself into a stupor. He had to go into another section of the city to drink tonight; his little exploit from before was probably all over the neighborhood where he drank the previous night. It had actually been pretty hard to find a good pub; most of them were selling those fancy drinks that all end in “ini”. Ultimately, Ryan came across a pub that looked more than adequate.

When he walked in, he realized that he was exactly where he would either want to be or despise being. He had entered a royal guard hub, where off duty guards went to drink with friends, not get plastered. They were all sharing stories and laughing, playing darts, just generally having a good time. Most of the tables were taken by groups, probably units, and the few that weren’t were getting cleaned up.

Ryan walked in and went to sit at the bar, getting few if any looks on the way there. None of the guards seemed to care; they all must have seen weirder stuff in their lifetimes anyway. When Ryan sat down, it took a minute for the busy bartender to get to him.

“What’ll you have?” he asked, wiping the signature glass of the bartender.

“Samaloco Adams.” Ryan tossed some bits onto the counter; he snagged them off of Rarity earlier so he could drink tonight.

The bartender nodded and retrieved the drink for his new customer. While he waited, Ryan munched on some free pretzels and looked around. The guards present mostly wore nothing, though some had either uniforms or civilian clothes on. The uniformed ones probably just got off duty, and the others may have come from some event.

Ryan got his drink, but the bartender didn’t leave. “So, stranger. What brings you here? Never seen one like you before.” He was referring to guards, of course.

Ryan took a swig. “Well, I’m not a guard, but I didn some similar things in my life. What brings me here? Confusion.”

The bartender nodded and leaned on the bar. “Home troubles, wife..?”

Ryan shook his head. “Nah, some problems with the stuff I did. Contrary to what people in the sixties used to believe, the stuff that happens in Vietnam does follow men home.”

The bartender nodded, but noticed that a stallion at a nearby table’s ears perked up. “Vietnam?”

Ryan finished off his drink in an instant. “Yeah. Had to kill some terrorists and slavers. Still not sure about it all...”

The stallion at the table was looking back at them, seemingly intrigued in whatever this place was called. None of the other guards seemed to hear him, but the bartender knew that if they had, they would all be interested in hearing this. They had all fought terrorists at some point.

The bartender got back up. “Well, I’m sure you did the right thing. I’ll grab you a refill.”

The bartender was gone for a longer time than he should have been. When he came back, he gave Ryan a bottle and a mug. “Here.” Ryan said, going into his pocket.

“No need.” the stallion explained. “It’s been paid for.”

“By who?”

The stallion pointed at a table behind Ryan. “That guard right there. Said you earned it.” The bartender left Ryan to his drink after that.

Ryan looked behind him at a group of guards around a big table. They all wore purple armor, looked like painted steel, and had lunar crests on their flanks. The guard that the bartender had pointed at was looking right at Ryan; his eyes said a lot about him. He had suffered similarly to Ryan. The two males raised their mugs to each other, then went back to drinking.

Ryan sat in silence “Well,” he said as he heard hoofsteps approaching. “Luna told me a lot about you, Starstep.”

Starstep took the cushion next to the human and sat. “I see she has.” He ordered a drink. “What gave me away?”

Ryan refilled his mug and took another swig. “No other guard would look at me with that kind of recognition in his eyes.”

They were silent for a minute. “We thought you were dead.”

“I’m evidently not that easy to kill. You see, I’m like a roach,” Ryan looked forlornly into his mug. “You don’t want me around because of what it means for your home, but here I am.”

Starstep didn’t respond, just sipped his drink. “You’re different.” he said. “Different than I expected, that is.”

“What did you expect?”

Starstep shrugged. “Don’t know. Though I do know that you didn’t used to drink.” Ryan laughed. “But then again, that changes for most everybody.”

Ryan sighed. “Yeah. So how’s Luna?” he asked. “You have any escapades that I should hear?”

Starstep regaled him with the story of how the two princesses double teamed him, and his most recent story of how he got a boner with Luna right on top of him. Ryan chuckled at the stories.

“That sounds like the two of you.”

They were silent again. “You know,” Starstep began. “She really misses you. And she blames herself for your death. Well... seemingly death.”

Ryan took in a deep breath. “It’s not her fault.” It was his. And Discord’s. But at least he was trying to make things right. “She shouldn’t think that.”

Starstep shook his head. “I’ve tried to tell her that, but she won’t listen. It’s just been eating away at her; she cries in her sleep.” It hurt Ryan to hear these things. “I don’t know what to do.”

Ryan finished off his current mug, then set it down with a loud thud. “Well, I should explain to her why she’s wrong, shouldn’t I?”

Starstep grinned next to the human. “I suppose that might help.”

Ryan stood up and dusted himself off. “Thanks for the drinks.” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

Starstep raised his glass to the human, and Ryan left the pub with one last thing he had to do before he left Canterlot.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The next day went by quickly. Rarity let him roam freely, as she had some other engagement she needed to attend. Some kind of fashion thing with some business partners or something. He hadn’t done anything, really. He just walked around, seeing whatever sights there were, seeing if he could find Spitfire again. He doubted that he would, seeing as she likely had a busy schedule, so he gave up after a time.

When Rarity returned at around four in the afternoon, she asked him about his day. As stated, he didn’t do anything, but he did tell her that he needed to see Princess Luna. She wanted to know how he knew her, but he refused to elaborate, saying that if it became clear, it would be when she saw him.

So now, they were on their way to the castle to do just that. Ryan decided to wear his old outfit rather than his new clothes. Rarity was all giggly the whole way; apparently, going into the castle unannounced to see royalty was uncommon at best. Ryan felt a bit nervous; he had no idea how Luna might react. She might be ecstatic to see him. Or she might beat the living crap out of him.

The castle was a glorious piece of militarily intriguing architecture. It was situated above the city and on the side of the mountain; not an easy target for anything that couldn’t fly. The walls had turrets with guards holding spears and crossbows, plus some other odd contraption Ryan was unfamiliar with. It wrapped around their forelegs right above the hoof and seemed to have a number of small bolts that would launch from it.

The guards didn’t hesitate to let them in; Starstep must have told them to expect a unique visitor. They eyed Ryan semi-suspiciously as they let him through the front gate, ever vigilant, as that was their job. These guards came off as more capable than those jokers from the train station; their armor looked more legit.

The sun was getting a bit lower in the sky. “Let’s move in.” Ryan said. “The sooner the better.”

They approached the massive double doors of the castle and were stopped by two guards getting in their way. “Halt.” one ordered. “What business do you have here?”

“I’m here to see Luna. Did Starstep tell you to expect me?” The two door guards glanced at each other. “I think she’ll want to see me.”

“Very well.” The guards moved aside and let the mare and human through. “You might have to wait, though. She’s beginning the Lunar Court.” Ryan held back a scoff; he had heard her talk about that.

The pair entered and wandered about for a bit, taking in the sights as they tried to find the courtroom without help. Rarity insisted that they get directions, but as a man, Ryan refused. He would find his own way. They got lost more than once, even ending up on the wrong floor a couple of times. Still, Ryan refused to get help.

Eventually, they found a set of large, golden double doors. This had to be it. “In we go.” Ryan said. He opened the doors slowly; wrong room.

At the end of the large room that was almost more of a hall, Celestia sat upon her big throne, looking bored. “Ryan!” she shouted, sounding excited. She stood up and teleported over to him. “How are you today?” She leaned in close; she must have been really bored.

Ryan shrugged. “Better than the last time you saw me, probably. Can’t honestly tell at this point.” Celestia nodded, half sad but half happy. “Rarity brought me up here for a bit of R&R, and before we leave tomorrow, I hope to see Luna.”

Celestia smiled. “Ah, yes. She wasn’t able to meet you before. Come, I shall take you to her.” Celestia walked past the two and went down the hall.

Rarity smirked at Ryan. “Say nothing.” He wasn’t getting directions; he was being led.

The pair caught up to Celestia and walked on either side of her, watching as passing ponies bowed to their kind ruler as she passed. “You know, I never did like being treated so differently.” Celestia commented in a whisper to Ryan. “It’s like they think I created the world or something.” Ryan nodded, understanding, but in a different sense.

At last, they were before a new set of double doors, this one, a dark shade of blue that bordered on black. Two guards wearing their purple armor stood outside and saluted Celestia as she came up. They gave questioning glances to Ryan and Rarity, but Celestia’s presence indicated that they were alright.

“The court should be starting.” Celestia said. “So try to be on your best behavior.” Ryan nodded as the princess went up to the door.

It opened with a noticeable creak, and when Ryan walked through, he found all eyes on him, including Luna’s.

“Hello Luna.”

****************************************************************************

Luna sighed as she entered the courtroom. She was only holding this court tonight because she had been told that there was a legitimate case to be heard. Somehow, she doubted that. She hadn’t once heard of a legitimate case being brought forth, even in Celestia’s courtroom. It pissed her off at times.

“All rise.” The ponies in the room all rose up as Luna entered the room, showing their respect for her judgement and fairness. Almost immediately after, they all sat right back down. Luna never understood the need for a bailiff to tell them to rise; they always did it anywhere else.

She walked forward, Starstep by her side, and went and sat upon her courtroom seat. It wasn’t quite the throne she sat ton at times, but it was more comfortable thanks to the cushioning on the seat. One had to be comfortable when hearing out the problems of others in order to see their perspectives.

She plopped onto her seat with a sigh. “Let us begin.” The two parties came forward; they laid out their reasons for suing and for defending. The lawsuit was over the sale of alcohol to a minor, who then proceeded to hurt himself. The defendant was saying that he didn’t know, because the minor had a fake I.D., something that could be damning to the plaintiff. It was the first real case Luna had ever had.

The opening statements were made, and the proceedings began. But they were not to last for very long. “Princess, my client’s colt was sold hard liquor by a ruthless business stallion who was more concerned about selling his product than the safety of minors.” Behind them, in the back, the door began to open, making a loud creaking noise. “He chowed clear and present-”

Several ponies gasped in the back. Having been interrupted by the noise, the law pony turned around to see the commotion, as did his opponent. Luna looked to starstep, who had a funny smile on his face, looking to the door. Luna followed his eyes with her own.

What she saw was perhaps the most shocking thing the court could possibly ever see.

“Hello Luna.”

Ryan, her close human friend, the one she had followed through the depths of hell, who had lost himself and tried to protect his friend and her, who had been tortured, beaten, and shot in the chest, who had died in a shitty river in Vietnam, was standing there, alive. Luna’s jaw was loose, hanging like a vine. Her eyes were wide, growing bleary from her tears. She found herself trembling in her seat, unsure of what to think.

The ponies in the room looked back to her, wondering how this creature knew her. She noticed her sister and the Element of Generosity, Rarity, looked to her as well, dumbfounded. They had no idea that she knew him; she never thought that they would meet him.

Luna coughed and regained her composure. “This case is to be kept on hold until further notice.” she ordered. Nopony complained, nopony argued. “This night court is dismissed.” They all left. Except for those who knew to stay.

Once all the nonessential ponies left, Luna left her seat and shakily started to make her way over to Ryan. He just stood in his spot, not knowing what to do. Celestia and Rarity watched in shocked intrigue, anxious to see what would happen. Starstep stayed right next to Luna the whole way, at times helping her to stay standing. Her hooves clopped loudly in the nearly empty room on the tile floor as she slowly walked forward.

She stood before the human, starting into his eyes. She saw exactly what she remembered; pain, anger, sadness. But there was something new, something she couldn’t place. It was enough to make her doubt; she tentatively extended her hoof out to touch him. When she was halfway there, he met her hoof and held it in his hand, silently telling her that he was, in fact, alive, and standing before her. Tears began to flow from her eyes, and his as well.

“Luna-”

She retracted her hoof and then threw it right back at him, striking him across the face. The hoof on the end of her foreleg was hard and could have broken Ryan’s jaw, had she been at full strength. Ryan didn’t move at the obvious assault on his person; he deserved it. He probably deserved more. Behind him, Rarity and Celestia gasped. Starstep looked surprised, but did nothing.

Celestia looked scandalized. “Luna, why would you-”

Before she could finish, Luna threw her forelegs around Ryan, and he returned the gesture by hugging her and holding her tightly. She cried into his shoulder, silencing her sister with the joy and sadness that echoed out with each escaping sob. Behind her, Starstep had an unsure smile on his face, like he didn’t know what to expect from Ryan in Luna’s moment of weakness.

Eventually, by virtue of the silence of the room, the was able to recover enough to speak. “I... I thought that you... I saw you... Narendra... He... How?” she finally asked. She swallowed hard. “I saw him shoot you in the river. How are you alive?”

Ryan took in a deep breath. It was time.

He pushed her away slightly, but kept his hands on her. “I think it’s time you all heard the real story.” he said. Luna wiped away a tear. “But I think that it can probably wait until another time. When can you come to Ponyville?”

Luna nodded happily, ready to answer, and went back to holding Ryan. But Celestia looked unsure. “I don’t know...”

“Discord was involved.”

Both the royal princess’ eyes shot wide and locked onto Ryan. “If that is the case, I will return with you tomorrow to hear it all. I’m sure the other elements will want to hear it as well.”

Ryan nodded, then turned back to Luna. “I want you to rest easy tonight, Luna. Sleep well, get some rest. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”

Luna sniffed loudly, and wiped her face with her foreleg. “Okay.” She felt so relieved that he was alive; now, she could... she didn’t know. But she knew that she could. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Ryan smiled at her, then turned around to Rarity. “Let’s head out.” he said. “I’ll see you ladies and colt tomorrow.” They all said their goodbyes, and Ryan and Rarity went back to the Hanoverian for the night.

Luna sat in her place, unable to make herself move. She was so overcome with joy, so distracted by Ryan’s return that she couldn’t move. She had an unkillable smile on her face, one that made Starstep feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

He patted his princess on her side. “I think you should go get some rest, Princess.”

She nodded. “Yes, I think I should.”

Celestia moved aside to let them pass, happy about her sister’s joy, but still curious as to what made her so happy. She knew Ryan, that much was obvious. But how? Where had she met him? And did this explain her little bout of recent depression? Celestia figured the questions would be answered tomorrow and went to her own quarters to rest. The next day could be a long one.

*************************************************************************************

Ryan and Rarity made their way back to their hotel by cab, and once there, they walked through as casually as possible to avoid arousing suspicion. Ryan had little trouble with it, but Rarity seemed to struggle. Not shocking, considering how many questions she must have had and how excited she was to take the train with the princesses.

As soon as they were in their room and the door was closed, Rarity exploded. “Ryan, what have you not been telling us!?” she shouted, not angrily, but not happily. “How do you know Discord, and why would you withhold further information about yourself from us?”

Ryan sighed. He didn’t want to answer, but she had done a lot for him over the last few days, and would continue so. “Well, you never asked about him.” he replied. “And I never thought that he was that significant here. When he brought me here-”

“He brought you here?!”

Ryan stuck a finger in his ear. “Yes, he did. Please, don’t yell.” Rarity blushed a little and let him go on. “Thank you. When he brought me here, he did so because he felt guilty.”

“Why would he feel guilty? How does one such as him feel guilty?”

Ryan sighed. “The long version of the story will wait until tomorrow, but the short version is that he was heavily involved with everything that happened. And he’s really not that bad.” Rarity looked incredulously at him. “Anyway, can all this just wait until tomorrow?”

Rarity huffed and jumped onto her bed. “I suppose so. But you better have a good explanation.”

Ryan nodded and headed to the bathroom. “I think I do, but that’s irrelevant, isn’t it?” He walked in and turned on the water to the shower. “I’ll be out soon enough to sleep.”

He closed the door relatively gently and Rarity just waited until he was done. While she waited, she decided to take a look at his new jacket. She used her magic to finagle it from the bathroom under the door and held it up side-by-side with the old camo jacket. Both were surprisingly nice, though it was clear that Fancy’s was better made. The camo jacket had obvious fixes on it from the holes Rarity had to repair, something that she was actually rather proud of doing.

She decided to feel the jackets. The one Fancy made for him was very comfortable feeling, high end fabric. Ryan’s old one was rough to the touch, clearly meant for some sort of outdoor work. It was well made, considering what it had gone through and survived. Rarity actually felt like she should learn to make fabric this sturdy for guard clients.

Rarity failed to notice, but Ryan was done and stepped out of the bathroom without his jacket. “Rarity, why did you take my jacket?” he asked.

Rarity jumped at the sudden intrusion of noise and looked like a dog caught going into the cabinet with the treats. “I- I’m sorry, I just had to compare. I wanted to see your old jacket compared to your new one, just to see. I like both, but I like the old one more than expected. Not as much as Fancy’s, but that is to be expected.”

“I guess the fashionista side of you got to you, huh?” Ryan asked. Rarity nodded. “Well, I guess that’s alright. I won’t wear that one anyway.”

Rarity nodded. “Yes, I can see why. I suppose you’ll want to find a frame to hang it up in, though. It represents a big part of your life.”

Ryan looked at his old jacket. “Maybe.”

Rarity nodded again. “Yes, though I may want to occasionally look at it, just in case I need to make you new clothes myself. And there’s a lot I can learn from this, too. I can see it all now...” And she went off.

Ryan thought about everything for a minute. He knew what that jacket represented, or at least had represented. Now he looked at it and saw a piece of cloth with a camo pattern on it. Maybe that was because he had a much nicer one now, courtesy of Rarity and Fancy. They had been very generous; Fancy gave him free clothes, and Rarity treated him to a day of relaxation (albeit difficult) and fresh, new things. If it wasn’t for her, Ryan would still be living in the dirt with nothing but dirty old clothes and sweaty underwear.

She was clearly interested in the jacket. “You know what?” he said, attracting Rarity’s attention and pulling her out of her of her monologue. “Why don’t you keep that old thing?”

Rarity gasped, a huge smile appearing on her face. “Really?!” she shouted. Ryan nodded. “Oh, thank you! I just know that it will be great to have!” She ran up to him and gave him a big hug. “I can do so much with it. Thank you!”

Ryan nodded and patted her head, a little smirk creeping across his face.

“Don’t mention it.”

What Was Once Lost

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What Was Once Lost

The fire burns brightest when lit in the dark.” (Unknown)

Luna woke up quickly; she was especially excited for today.

She jumped out of her bed and ran through her library to her shower. She turned the water on to hot, steaming up the room, and thought about what was going to happen today. Ryan had come back, he was alive! Sure, he wasn’t exactly what he was before Asia, but he was alive! He could get better, he could find a new life, he could stay with Luna and Starstep for the rest of his days! She was overcome with joy at his return.

But there was one issue that needed to be discussed; the issue with Discord. Luna hadn’t been aware that Discord was somehow involved with him. How could he have remained hidden from Luna when they were both right next to each other, trying to influence the same person? And what was Discord doing there? Was that how he had escaped from them before, and if so, why did he come back? Was he maybe responsible for Ryan being here?

Luna felt her cheeks grow hot, though not from the hot water. “Was Discord the one who put that idea in Ryan’s head to go after Narendra?” she wondered angrily. “Was he the one who thwarted my attempts to get Ryan to go home, to escape that terrible place?”

She began to grow even more angry. “Why didn’t Ryan find it necessary to tell me that there was another being helping him? Did he not think I would be able to help him enough, did he think I was useless?” Questions began to swirl around her mind, creating a tornado of negativity. “And why wouldn’t he listen to me over Discord?”

That last question. That last one was enough to make her blood boil. “Why did he choose to listen to Discord!?” she shouted.

A moment later, there was a knock on her door. “Princess?” Starstep called. “Are you alright?”

She shook her head. “Yes, Starstep. I am fine.” She took in a deep breath and let it out through clenched teeth. “Though I think Ryan may find himself in a tight spot when I get to him.”

Outside the bathroom, Starstep blinked when he heard that. He had seen the emotional response that she had to Ryan’s return, and how happy she was. He also saw her bitch-slap him across the face for getting himself killed. Maybe she was mad at him; back in the Eighteenth Battalion, when he saw his buds go home, they were often smacked by angry wives or marefriends, who would just as often pull them close right after. It was a fairly common response to seeing a loved one come home from the war.

He swallowed hard; hell hath no fury like a mare’s scorn, especially when that mare can magically tear your balls off. “Luna...” he said trepidatiously. “What are you thinking of about riding the train to Ponyville with Ryan today?”

“I am going to beat him so hard for being so thick-skulled.” she said. “He won’t be able to sit down until Thursday!”

Starstep grimaced at the thought. “Well, then. I guess that I’ll meet you at the station!” He sprinted to the open window and flew out into the sky, eager to get to Ryan to tell him to expect pain.

“Starstep?” Luna asked. She got out of the shower and stuck her head out the door. “Starstep.” Nowhere was he to be found. Luna looked to the window, frustrated, and said, “Oh, you’ll get it too, little stallion. You will.” And she went back in to finish her morning shower.

*************************************************************************************

Ryan and Rarity were sitting at the train station, waiting for the princesses to arrive. They weren’t sure how they felt about taking the train, but neither seemed to object to it. It didn’t leave for some time, so the princesses could wait in the castle, but Rarity and Ryan had been checked out of the Hanoverian already. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, they went to the station and just sat there, waiting.

Rarity yawned, tired from getting up relatively early, but Ryan was fine. As getting up early had always been his prerogative, he was awake and alert, watching for anything that might signify something dangerous. As of yet, there was nothing, though. The sky was its usual shade of light blue, the clouds were being managed by pegasi, ponies waited quietly on benches around the tracks. Birds chirped, luggage was moved around, and no one spoke. It was a perfect picture of peace.

“Ryan!”

Or it had been. “Huh?” he said, looking in the direction of the voice. It was Starstep, flying at a breakneck speed toward him and Rarity. “Starstep?”

The pegasus stallion flared his wings and came to a stop a few feet away from Ryan. “Ryan! I came to warn you about Luna.”

“What about her?” Ryan asked, alarms going off. “Is something wrong with her?”

“Well...” Starstep began, but hesitated continuing. “She’s fine, mostly. She’s really mad, though. Like, blazingly angry.”

Hmmm. “And why would that be? Did you forget to pull out or something?”

Starstep’s face flushed, and he quickly scanned the area. Nopony heard the comment. “No, it’s-”

“So you didn’t pull out. Nice going.”

“Dammit, human, this is serious! She’s angry at you!”

Ryan blinked. This was not the first thing he was expecting to have happen today. He thought that she might get mad at him later for what he was to say, or that she and her sister might see fit to punish him. He was also expecting the girls to be really upset with him, but again, that was supposed to be later. Ryan was taken by surprise; he hated being taken by surprise.

“Why?” Ryan asked tentatively. “What reason could she have right now for being angry at me?”

Starstep shook his head. “I don’t know, really. All I know is that she said she’ll beat you so hard that you won’t be able to sit until Thursday.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “Well.” he said. “That... that doesn’t sound too good.”

“Ya think?”

Ryan turned around and walked back over to the bench he and Rarity had been sitting on, motioning for Starstep to follow him. Together, they say down on either side of Rarity, who was taking up space like a cat on a bed, and each thought about who to proceed. Ryan put his hand to his unshaven chin, pondering his options. Starstep mostly wondered how he would be punished for warning his human friend.

Ryan remembered how Celestia had promised him help back in Ponyville. “Starstep.” he said, catching his companion’s ears. “I bet Celestia will help. And I bet that Luna won’t be too happy knowing that you warned me, so maybe she can save our sorry asses.”

Starstep sighed and shook his head. “No, no, that won’t work. Luna and Celestia are tight; if Luna is reasonably mad about something, Celestia, even if not angry, will join her in whatever quest she had for justice. No, if we ask Celestia for help, we’re more liable to be tied up and given to Luna naked on a silver platter.”

Ryan blinked. “That, was, umm... specific.”

Starstep shrugged like it was nothing. “They’ve done it before. They’ll do it again.”

Now it was Ryan’s turn to sigh. “I see now what it’s like to live under the rule of trolls.”

“What?” He didn’t get it.

“Trolls, you know. People, or I guess ponies, who make it their goal to mess with other people, be it by annoying, embarrassing, or harassing them for the sole purpose of the laughs. I do it to Rarity and the rest of the girls.”

Starstep nodded thoughtfully. “Princess Trollestia and Lusty Luna.”

Again, Ryan blinked at the unexpected phrase. “I’m really not sure that i even want to begin to know where that name came from.” he said. “So please try not to tell me.” Starstep laughed at Ryan’s being perturbed and both just sat on, waiting for whatever was destined to come their way.

**************************************************************************************

Discord was still shocked.

There were no words to describe his lack of understanding.

Luna? Luna had been there, in Asia, trying to help Ryan? Trying to bring him home? It was her that was making it harder for everything to happen how Discord wanted?

He would have been mad, but he knew what his course of action had gotten the boys. Luna was in the right the entire time, and Discord was in the wrong. He couldn’t deny that. But of course, it still didn’t make him feel any better. He hadn’t thought that Luna was actually going into that world. If he had, he would never have gone there. If he had known of her presence, maybe everything would have gone differently.

Luna was in the shower, so to respect her privacy, he didn’t peer inside, as much as he would have liked to. He was eager to see exactly what she and her sister would do when Ryan finally told them the whole truth. He could hear Luna now, grumbling angrily to herself about the boy, so he could tell that she might slap him around for being an ass and following Discord’s way. Though he had no idea how Celestia would react.

He floated his mind’s eye out of Luna’s chambers and went straight for her sister’s room. The nonexistent eye flew right past all the guards and through the doors to her room and looked around. The room was nice, of course, but Celestia was the real beauty in the room. She was off toward the window, looking out thoughtfully.

Discord’s mind’s eye was remaining still behind her, watching to see if it could glean any hint of Celestia’s mindset from its spot. The elder princess stood still at her window, like an abandoned library, starting out in Ponyville’s direction. Was she thinking about how Ryan’s revelation might affect the others? How he might be a danger to the town? How-

“Enjoying the view Discord?” Celestia asked without turning. Discord was taken slightly by surprise. “I hear my guards talking about my behind behind my back. I’m flattered at what they say, but I do have to punish them for taking such a gander every chance they get.”

If Discord could blush, he would have. Dat flank. “I must say that I’m curious to hear what exactly you were doing in Ryan’s world and how you were involved with the deaths of forty humans.” Discord actually killed three, but that wasn’t important to his survival right now. “And I must say that if I find Ryan’s story unsatisfactory, I might have to punish you by actually locking you in stone.”

Alright, Discord had an idea of what she was thinking about it all. She was fine with Ryan and anything he might say. It was Discord that would be in trouble; if Ryan’s story was less than adequate, he would be totally screwed. In a rush, Discord cancelled out his magic and brought his mind’s eye back.

“Hmph. Coward.”

Discord heard that last one, but didn’t pursue it. He valued his family jewels too much to risk an encounter with her.

Instead, he reactivated his mind’s eye on another type of spell and decided to simply watch what was going to happen from the safety of his stone armor.

************************************************************************************

Ryan and Starstep were still sitting on either side of Rarity when there was a flurry of activity coming from about three hundred meters away from the platform. Both man and stallion stood up, already figuring out what was about to come. In between them, Rarity stirred and looked up at both of them, confused.

“What..?”

Ryan smirked. “Well, after last night, we figured you needed some rest, so we left you in between us.” Rarity didn’t catch the meaning and simply nodded, trying to wake herself up.

The man and stallion watched the platform light up at the two regal, taller forms of the princesses began to come into view. Celestia walked at a calm, deliberate pace, smiling at ponies as she walked by them. She giggled at all the attempts to please her, as they were totally unnecessary. Beside her, Luna wore an aggressive scowl that made the two targets of her death glare squirm in fear. They moved back and put Rarity in between them and the angry princess.

They were calmly standing behind the clueless alabaster unicorn mare as the princesses finally reached them. “Ah, Ryan and Starstep. It is good to see you.” Celestia greeted. The males nodded.

Luna was less than friendly. “You.” She said, pointing right at Ryan. “I wish to speak with you.”

Ryan looked to Starstep and then Celestia, both of whom looked elsewhere. Real nice. “Yes, Luna?” Ryan asked, trying to sound calm. “What can I-”

“Why were you listening to Discord?!” she shouted, causing several grovelling ponies to run away. “What, on that terrifying planet you call home, could possibly have made you feel more inclined to listen to him than to me?!”

“I-”

“And why didn’t you listen to anything I said to you? Was I not helpful to you? Did you think I was going to lead you astray? Huh? Well?”

Ryan swallowed hard, trying to formulate a response. “Umm...” He couldn’t think very fast right now. “I don’t-”

“You don’t know? You don’t know! Well, I for one think that what you did was selfish and stupid and reckless and...” And she went on. And on. And on.

At last, the train arrived. “Well, I guess we better-” Starstep tried to say. he stopped, though, for no one could hear him.

“And you didn’t even bother thinking about how much I would miss you! What do you have to say for yourself?”

Ryan looked at her, stunned, then to the others. No one was willing to help him. The train was there and ponies were boarding it. He looked to Starstep again; they both knew that they would have to escape the tirade. The train was their only hope.

“Well... Umm... I guess that... I don’t know?” Luna’s eyes pinched and looked like they would shoot lasers at him. “I would have to say that holyshitlookadistraction!”

Ryan’s hand shot out and went right past Luna’s face. As she turned around to see what his commotion was about, the hand retreated back to its owner and went out of sight. All mares present looked for what had caused the alarm; if Ryan was freaked out by it, it must have been bad. But nothing seemed to be there, except for the usual guard station. Luna looked to the sky, but the pegasi were simply doing their jobs. There was nothing out of the ordinary.

“Ryan, I don’t see-”

The mares all looked around; the males were gone, high-tailed it outta there. Luna frowned, not at them, but that she allowed herself to be tricked like that. Thinking about it, he said “holyshitlookadistraction!” He even said distraction in the sentence, and it went right by all the mares. Now, they were hiding somewhere, likely on the train.

Luna sighed. “Let’s go find them, I suppose.”

The other two nodded. “Let’s.”

On the train, Starstep was looking out the window at the approaching mares. “Not good, man, not good! They’re coming now, we gotta hide!”

Ryan frantically looked around for anything. None of the luggage could take him, though it was big enough for Starstep. That wouldn’t be adequate because odds were that none of the snobby rich ponies would be willing to let some random guy hide in their stuff. Under the seats was too small, neither guy would fit. Their only hope was the luggage compartment up top.

“Up top, move!” Ryan said, climbing up there. Starstep flew up to one and got inside, and as Ryan squirmed his way into his, he couldn’t help but notice the strange looks they were both getting. Just as well. It’s not everyday you see another species climbing into the luggage compartment.

Ryan shut the door to his compartment just as the doors opened to allow the princesses and Rarity to come in. Ryan could hear the shock of the other passengers as they entered, some dropping right to the floor to bow. He couldn’t see anything, of course; it was pitch black in the luggage compartment.

“Hath any of thou seen a human and my guard?” Luna asked in some weird way. “I needeth them to be present.”

No one spoke, so Ryan had no idea what was going on. What he did hear was a large number of ponies getting up and walking around, seemingly leaving and going to another car. The doors opened up, indicating that they were leaving, at least for the time being. Once they were all gone, Ryan could hear the hoofsteps of the three mares advancing slowly through the car. They were slow and deliberate, and with each passing moment, Ryan’s heart rate just got faster. He feared that he might be caught; what made it worse was that he could feel that he was among special ladies’ items.

Off at the other end of the car, Ryan could hear the luggage compartments being opened. From the sounds of the voices that mumbled something each time, it was Rarity and Celestia that were checking. There was a large amount of time between each section being opened, so Ryan thought he might have some time. If he had the time, he could no doubt think up something to-

“AAAAHHHHHHHH!”

Ryan jolted upward and slammed his head into the roof like a rocket. He groaned as he felt his head, checking for bleeding or bumps. Once his head was confirmed alright, he considered what he just heard. It had definitely been Starstep; someone caught him and did something awful to him. Ryan already knew that all three of the mares had the will and ability to cause them extreme pain if the occasion arose; it was enough to bring his breathing to a rapid pace.

He felt scared; he didn’t know where Starstep had hidden, so he had no idea how long he had until massive amounts of pain. He had to think fast; if he could counter them by scaring them when his door opened, he might be saved. He could-

Something was behind him. He could feel it shifting as the train began to move, but this was no bag. His eyes went wide, uselessly in the dark. Slowly, slowly, he turned around. In the dark, he couldn’t see anything; it could be any one of them. WHen he was all the way around, he looked straight forward.

“You can’t get me.” he whispered. He shot his hand forward and met with-

A pile of ladies undergarments, if that even makes sense. Ponies don’t wear clothes, right? No matter. He extricated his hand from the pile and breathed a sigh of relief. There was nopony there, nopony to cause him pain. He let himself fall onto his back and breath freely once again. After a moment, he listened once again for anything of the mares outside; they stopped looking. They must have interrogated Starstep, who in turn must have told them Ryan was elsewhere. What a beast.

Ryan felt victorious. He just had to stay in here until they hit Ponyville. Feeling calm and secure, he cracked the door to his compartment open to get some fresh air. WIth that, there also came light, and he got to see the decorations inside the compartment. Unnecessary, but they looked nice. There were lots of intricate carvings in the wood and interesting pictures painted into them. There were pictures of galaxies, with twinkling stars and everything. Ryan put his hand to it; it was masterfully done. The paint was interesting; it felt like it was somehow wet, yet none of it came off. Ryan traced the painting back to the wall.

The wall was also incredible; it had this massive, glassy looking oval that served as the center of another galaxy, with the big black hole allegedly in the center. Around it, there was a pictogram of a horse’s head, painted into the wall with standard paint. Ryan got closer to it; it looked like it was supposed to be Luna, but it was 2D, so it could have been anyone. he noticed that the top of it was where the majority of the starry wet paint stuff came off of. He gently traced his hands on it, appreciating the artwork to the best of his almost nonexistent ability.




“Boo.”

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The guard and human sat indignantly across from the princesses and Rarity.

When Starstep was bagged, Luna had gone in and wrapped her ethereal form around his waist and started to engulf him completely. She had gone places that no man ever wants a woman to go. When she caught Ryan, he flipped a shit, and flailed about inside the compartment, hitting himself on the sides and roof non stop. Ultimately, he fell out and landed on his back, groaning, and when he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by three mares, all of whom looked down at him with looks of grim satisfaction.

Ryan and Starstep were facing away from each other, looking in either direction to the left or right of the princesses. They weren’t mad at each other; far from it. That was just how they were tied up.

The train had just began really going at a better speed and it was rolling along on its way to Ponyville. Outside the window, all could see the passing scenery. it was gorgeous out there. The sun shone, the breeze blew, and nature sang its peaceful tune. Inside the car, it was pretty quiet. The five inhabitants of the car were sitting in two groups, trying to think of ways to defeat the other.

“So what should we do with them?” Rarity asked. They had been talking like this since the males were tied up. “I think it’s something of a waste to simply have them like this and do nothing.”

“I second that.” Luna said. “But only if I exclusively get Starstep. You two can have Ryan.”

The males tried to ignore it. “Come now, sister. They’re both yours; you have to treat them equally, and you’ve given Starstep enough attention lately.” Celestia admonished. “We can take him while you ensure fairness.”

“If I might interject,” Ryan said, ready to counter. “I think I can handle all of you. I was able to push through the brush of Vietnam and Cambodia; I think I can push through the brush of Equestria just as easily.” Ryan was ready to sacrifice himself to rescue his fellow warrior.

The mares paused, but then continued. “I bet Starstep would love some playtime.” Rarity said. “That’s why he shouldn’t get anything. Torment him by making him watch.”

“If you want to torment me,” Starstep interrupted. “You’ll have to leave Ryan alone while you get me. I will make the sacrifice.”

“As will I.” Ryan added. “Nothing you can do will be able to break us. Nothing!” He sounded confident.

Celestia looked at her sister and Rarity, and all three mares nodded. They began to advance upon the males. Silently accepting their fates, Ryan and Starstep held their chins up high and awaited what was destined to come.

“I know what to do.” Luna said.

Ryan shut his eyes. He was afraid of what they were about to do, but he also knew that it would be worse for Starstep, so he decided not to watch.

“Oh no.” he heard Starstep say behind him. Seemingly out of nowhere, the two were shoved in Ryan’s direction toward the wall, crushing Ryan against it. He grunted, but took the brunt of it, knowing that Starstep’s fate was sealed. And what a fate it was.

“Prepare for blueness, my faithful guard.” Ryan could only listen as he heard the motions and the whimpering from behind him.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The train ride was over; everyone got off in a single file line. The princesses and Element of Generosity got of the train with smug looks on their faces, and trotted triumphantly off the platform to where there was a carriage waiting.

Ryan and Starstep got off the train together. Because Starstep had yet to calm down from his harrowing experience, Ryan had to lend him his jacket in an effort to hide all the excitement of the train ride from passersby. He knew that he would wash it when he got back to Rarity’s, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to use chemicals or not.

Silently, they followed the mares to the carriage, already in agreement not to talk about the train ride ever again ever forever. When they got in the carriage and all the luggage was on board, they set off to put everything away. After that was taken care of, Ryan could tell the real story of his life to everypony. He just hoped that he could have time to scout more of the forest before they sent him away.

The mares were sharing stories and laughing during the carriage ride, but the males remained silent. Starstep was trying to hide himself as best he could, though he wasn’t doing a very good job. You never, EVER want to sit next to a guy who can’t seem to hide his excitement when in the presence of females.

They arrived at Rarity’s boutique soon enough, and said mare and Ryan hopped off. “Well, I guess that we’ll all try to meet up at the library. I don’t know where the other ladies are, but I bet we can find them.”

Luna nodded. “Starstep!” He whimpered. Not very guardly. “Go find the other Elements of Harmony.” Her guard nodded and, after tossing Ryan’s jacket to him, which he caught with pinched fingers, flew off as quickly as possible to avoid being seen.

Ryan watched him go. “Man, I am so glad that no one back home could keep up with me. Or that girls ever tried. I don’t think I can beat any of them.” A sad truth, guys.

The carriage went off to the library, leaving Ryan and Rarity with all the bags. The clothes from Fancy Pants were there, which took up most of the space, but thanks to her magic, Rarity was able to pull most of it inside. Ryan took several bags on his arms because, like most of us, he hated making multiple trips. Why go again when you can get it all now?

Once inside, they dropped all of the bags on the floor. “Phew!” Rarity announced dramatically. She never exerted herself; she had magic. “Well, now. I suppose that we’ll bring all this downstairs and I’ll show you your new living quarters.” Ryan was about to become the monster that lives in the basement.

Rarity used her magic to carry Ryan’s things to a door off to the side of the circular room and opened a plain-looking door. “So what have you got for me?” Ryan asked. He hoped that she didn’t go too out of her way for this. Of course, she was the element of generosity. Naturally, that was what she would do.

“I prepared my basement for you.” she said casually. “I didn’t have much time, as it was rather short-notice, and I was quite busy, but I hope it’s to your liking.”

“I’m sure it will be.”

They went down the stairs and into what was to become Ryan’s lair. No doubt he would have to show it to the others, in which case, he would need to label it the Mac Cave. If they didn’t understand, he would explain the concept to them, and when they understood, none of them would be too terribly inclined to go down there for anything that isn’t important. Spike might, and Mac probably wouldn’t care, but those two were fine. They didn’t bug him about stuff.

They hit the bottom of the stairs and Ryan walked out into the middle of the room. There was a nicely made bed on the side opposite the stairs, with a basic metal bed stand. Already, Rarity was setting the sheets on it, giving it a further plain appearance. The walls were bare, but clean, and there was a simple nightstand not too far from the bed. Rarity had placed a small chair over by the corner with a little reading light over it. Overall, and that was all there was, it was a simple, straightforward room.

Ryan took it in quickly. “It’s nice.” he said simply. It would serve his purposes and do no more. That made it perfect.

Rarity smiled as she finished furnishing the bed. “I’m glad you like it. Soon, though, I will need to get you a wardrobe. Can’t just leave all these clothes on the ground, now can we?” Well, Ryan could have, but he feared what Rarity would do to him. He couldn’t imagine what she and the princesses did to Starstep earlier. Or rather, he didn’t want to.

Ryan walked over and sat experimentally on the bed. “Not too soft.” he thought. He could sleep on this easily enough. “That sounds fine.” he said to Rarity. “Whatever you think works best.”

Rarity nodded. “Great. Though since you are living in my home, I might decide to check your room for things that shouldn’t be there every so often.” she said jokingly.

Ryan scratched his chin. “Well, I was wondering how long it would take you to decide that you want to spend some extra time in my bedroom. Of course, with your magic, you might wind up finding yourself cleaning up some stained fabrics, but I’m sure you would find it to be worth it.”

Rarity blushed. “Well, I suppose that you tend to be rather messy.” she said. “Though I guess I shouldn’t be very surprised. You never came off as quick and clean.”

“Well, I’m neither of those things, I can assure you. I tend to spend quite a bit of time messing up my room before I’m done and decide it needs to be cleaned.”

Both of them just looked at each other, then Rarity just shook her head and sighed. Ryan sat back, victorious, and let an awkward silence ensue. Rarity was unsure of how to proceed, and Ryan was happy to sit back and wait. He wasn’t much of a talker anyhow.

“I suppose that we might as well go upstairs since we’re done here for now.” Rarity said. “Luna’s guard will probably come get us, so we can just wait up there.” Ryan nodded to her and followed her up the steps.

Rarity decided that it would be easier if they just sat in the shop area so that Starstep could see them, so they sat around there. Rarity immediately went to work on some outfit, and Ryan just watched as she went about her business.

While Ryan watched, somepony began knocking on the door. It didn’t stop after a minute, and Rarity was distracted with her work, so Ryan got up and opened the door. When he opened it, he scanned the area, searching for whoever knocked on the door. In the air, no one flew, so Starstep wasn’t the one. Eventually, something tugged on Ryan’s leg.

“Hey Ryan!” Sweetie Belle shouted from underneath him. Inwardly, Ryan groaned. “I guess you and Rarity came back today.”

“No.” Ryan said casually. “I left her up in Canterlot. She’s gonna have to walk home.”

Sweetie Belle gasped. Desired effect? “Does that mean I can have ice cream before dinner!?” Evidently, no.

Ryan chuckled and shook his head. “No, I lied. She’s here, and actually, she wants to talk to you about what you did while we were away.”

Sweetie Belle trotted in, confused, and dropped her bag. With a glance at Rarity, she asked, “What do you mean?”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “Oh, come now. We know exactly what you did. And I must say, Rarity was pretty shocked. I had no idea you had it in you, myself.”

Sweetie Belle swallowed hard. “Please, I didn’t mean to! It’s just that Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were bullying me, and Rumble came by and told them off, and he helped me up and gave me his cookie, and I hugged him and toldhimthankyouandkissedhischeek!”

Ryan blinked twice. Then he blinked some more. “Wat.” Sweetie Belle looked up at him with fear in her eyes.

“Who told you?” the little filly asked.

“You did. Just now.” When Sweetie Belle realized what he meant, and it took a minute, she groaned and fell to the floor. “No worries. Your secret’s safe with me.”

Sweetie Belle sighed, relieved. “Thanks. If I told Rarity, she would probably tell me to go hide in a dungeon so he could rescue me or something.” Ryan smiled and shook his head, then turned his attention Rarity’s way.

She was running about, doing her thing. “Rarity.” he said. She didn’t notice. “Rarity!”

“Huh? What?” She had been in the zone. Now, she was in the Ryan zone. Nothing gets done in the old Ryan zone. Ask any of his friends.

“Sweetie Belle is skipping school.” he said quickly, running away to the kitchen.

“Am not! We got out early!”

Ryan couldn’t see it, but there seemed to be an explanation and/or argument brewing in the other room. Since they were distracted, Ryan decided to roam the fridge and find something to eat. When he opened the fridge, he could see that there wasn’t much he would be good for; a whole lot of different types of grass. At the bottom, though, he did find normal food; peanut butter, jelly, bread, eggs (baking?), butter, protein substitute, and a number of other things. He grabbed the bread and peanut butter and made himself a sandwich.

A few moments after he finished making it, the talking in the other room stopped. “Ryan.” Rarity said with a tone that made Ryan suspicious. “Could you come here?”

He got up and left the kitchen, sandwich in hand. “Yeah.” he said. “Whaddya need?”

Turns out, nothing was out of the ordinary. Rarity was standing by the door, big hat on her head, waiting. “Starstep is here. Time to explain everything.”

Ryan looked outside. Sure enough, Luna’s personal guard was there. “Alright. Here we go.”

They left the boutique and met up with Starstep, who escorted them silently to the library, where all would be revealed.

Ryan just hoped that it didn’t get him thrown in a dungeon.

Fear of the Unknown

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Fear of the Unknown

I’m selfish, impatient, and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as Hell don’t deserve me at my best.” (Marilyn Monroe)

Ryan and the two ponies by his side walked silently up to the library door. Starstep approached and, before opening, gave a look back to Ryan. Ryan nodded to him, and the stallion opened the door and proceeded in.

Ryan hesitated. He was unsure of how exactly he should go about this. He knew that Discord was considered evil here. According to the way his world worked, Discord would be called a prankster and little more, maybe annoying or obnoxious. Ryan would be forced to find a way to explain the nature of Discord’s role in a way that didn’t also label him as a villain, or portrayed his world as worse than it really was. It was a great place, but Equestria seemed to have unreasonable high standards of public behavior. Then again, why did he care? Shouldn’t he just leave or-

“SURPRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISE!” came an incredibly loud shout from inside as Ryan walked in. He yelped and fell back to the wall, heart pounding and mind racing. Before he could act, a pink fluff ball invaded his space and pinned him against the wooden wall.

Pinkie Pie; she had said she would throw him a party. “Hey Ryan! So do you like your party? We made it a special surprise, just for you, since we knew that Celestia and Luna would bring you here and that it would be fun to party in the library since it’s ironic and we all want to hear about how Discord is actually good and helped you out to not get killed in your world!”

Ryan blinked, mouth agape, completely stunned. How? How had she heard about the involvement of Discord? She hadn’t been there. The princesses wouldn’t have told her. Rarity had been with Ryan the whole time. Starstep would never reveal top secret information or even mildly secretive information without express permission. So how? HOW?

“Uhh... wut.” It was the most unintelligible response he had ever made. After regaining himself from the loss of his understanding of reality (it was pretty much gone now anyway), he gave her a more coherent response. “Yes? I guess?” This pony could violate every law of physics there was, as the stories had told him. Somehow, she was weirder than Discord himself. Maybe she should chat him up?

“Yayzees!” she replied enthusiastically. She didn’t move; Pinkie just kept Ryan pinned against the wall. With a roll of his eyes, Ryan put his hands on her sides and lifted her up to move her. “Wheeeee!” she yelled, snorting laughter as she went through the air. Ryan carried her over to the middle of the room and set her down.

He took a look around to see who had come by; it wasn’t a massive party. There were the elements, Big Mac, Cinny, a couple of random ponies, the princesses, and that mailmare Ryan had seen around, the one with the wall eyes. She just smiled innocently in the corner, looking at two books at a time.

Pinkie was back by his side. “I didn’t invite too many, since you seem pretty private, but next time, I’ll invite tons of ponies and you’ll make lots of friends, and then we’ll have fun and play games and eat snacks and bake foods and test weapons and tie you down and tickle you and play pranks on unsuspecting ponies and go swimming!”

Ryan hadn’t caught even half of her two second flood of words, so he just replied, “Sure.” He had no idea what he might be getting into.

The princesses walked over to him, Luna getting right up next to him and Celestia watching with a grin while Ryan shifted away a little but, suspecting the worst. “Well, seeing as my little pony has set up such a nice little event, I suppose that we should enjoy it before we get to the story of your life.”

“The story of the end of my life. The old one, at least.”

Luna smiled. “Yes, you have a new life. Try to enjoy it as much as you can. Few ponies or humans ever get a second life to enjoy.”

Ryan agreed with the sentiment, then went and sat down in a chair off to the side. He didn’t need to talk to anypony right now; the train ride had been taxing. If they wanted to speak to him, he would oblige, but he wasn’t going to look for conversation.

Before he even set himself down, there were three ponies sitting by him; Big Mac, Cinny, and Luna. All three nodded to him as he sat down, getting comfortable in what would no doubt be his storytelling chair, giving him time to think. He had a chance to think about how to explain Discord’s good nature, about how he might be able to bring Narendra into it to give a contrast. A sharp contrast.

His thinking time didn’t last, though. “So, Ryan.” Luna said, dragging him by the feet out of his own mind. “How did you enjoy Canterlot? Was it all that you thought it would be?”

Ryan considered. “Well, it was nice. Some guy tried to mug me and Rarity, so I pulled this on him,” Ryan tapped his Automag. “And I shot him in the ass.”

Luna’s eyes went wide, and she became totally silent for a moment. “Well. I trust he had a weapon?” When Ryan nodded and motioned that it as a knife, Luna visibly relaxed. “Good, then. I suppose that it was justified.”

“Was he a Miami gun thug?” Ryan asked jokingly. No one got it, so he waved it off. No matter; it was Justified.

Luna nodded, though she was looking at Ryan like he was crazy. At this point, he probably was, though. “What did you do in the city?” she asked.

Ryan shrugged. “Rarity took me out shopping. Alone, I went out to some pubs, where I saw Starstep. He asked me to stop by, though I’ll admit, I had planned on it anyway.” Luna turned around and looked at Starstep, who was having a pleasant conversation with Twilight. “I also had a nice conversation with Spitfire, the... uhh... something of the whos. I forget.” He smiled sheepishly.

“Wait, you talked to the captain of the Wonderbolts?” Cinny interrupted suddenly. Ryan nodded to her. “Wow. That’s really something.” When Ryan looked at her curiously, she went on. “Well, I am a pegasus, so they mean alot to me. I always wanted to meet them, just to see if they’re as cool in person as on stage.”

Ryan took a good look at her; sure enough, there were wings. He supposed that the last time he saw her without her uniform, he was drunk enough not to notice. “Well, you never know when you’ll meet them. And Spitfire was nice enough; pleasant to talk to.”

Ryan was already growing tired of recounting his relatively uneventful first days in Canterlot, so he turned it around on them. “Well, Mac, you’ve been silent. How are things?”

“What things?”

Ryan smiled at him devilishly. “You know. Things.” Mac steadfastly maintained his ignorance, so Ryan upped his game. “Things about the mixture of red and yellow paints? How they often make pink, with a little yellow left over? I’m asking you if you’ve painted any canvasses or walls lately.”

Big Mac blushed furiously, though his red coat did a good job of hiding it. Some guys have all the luck, don’t they? “No, Ah ain’t painted anything recently.”

“You paint, Macintosh Apple?” Luna asked, curious.

Ryan answered. “Oh, sure. He isn’t that great now, but by the time he’s learned; with some aid of course; he’ll be a master with his brush. I don’t know what kind he uses, though; wide or thin, long or short. They all have different effects, but the bigger ones tend to get better results faster for bigger projects.”

Big Mac sucked in a breath, thankful that neither mare present understood. “I like to use the long, wide brush. Get the job done fast.”

“Oh, so you’re saying that you’re really quick, then?” Mac frowned. “Remember, long, deliberate strokes are the key. Don’t just slap at the wall; that’s what the brush flick is for, but only artists tend to splatter the wall, so I wouldn’t expect that of you.”

Big Mac didn’t speak at all. He didn’t respond with words; just a glare that said Shut the fuck up already, do you want them to get it?

Ryan responded with his own look. Of course I do. Imagine what you’re sister would say if she found out you talked like this in front of the princess?

Big Mac sighed in defeat. Just don’t outright say it, please.

Alright, fine.

The females present were just looking at the two as they made their nonverbal exchange, wondering what they were doing that so raptly had their attention. They had just been sitting in their places, doing nothing, starting at each other. Luna looked to Cinny, who simply shrugged to convey her lack of understanding of what was happening.

Cinny coughed. “Well, I suppose that Mr. Macintosh has had a good weekend.” she stated, getting Mac to lower himself in his spot. “But there’s a bit more I want to hear about your time, Ryan.”

Ryan looked to her. “Shoot.”

“What were you expecting from Luna when you went to see her?” she asked. “I can’t even begin to imagine what happened between the two of you that separated you in such an emotional way, at least from what I heard from Rarity.”

Ryan was confused. “When did she tell you about it?” he asked.

Cinny waved her hoof. “A few minutes ago, but that’s not important. What did you think would happen?”

Ryan sighed and thought. “Well, I didn’t expect to get bitchslapped, that’s for sure.” Luna smiled sheepishly. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I deserved to get smacked, I guess, but the closest I got to imagining her reaction was her saying ‘Hi’. I didn’t have any idea how she would react to seeing me.”

Luna piped in. “Yes, I likely reacted in the manner in which any would if they saw a dead friend come back to life.” She looked over to Starstep. “And I must say, I wish Starstep had told me about your visit. Maybe I wouldn’t have hit you.”

Ryan laughed. “If that train ride was anything to go off of, you would have done much worse than hit me.” Cinny was about to ask what happened, but Luna frantically tried to change the subject.

The party went on from there, with Ryan being forced up by Cinny and brought around to talk to everypony there. He had little conversations with the mares who made up his friends, and introduced himself to the two ponies he didn’t know. Their names were Caramel and Roseluck. It was odd, because Ryan had yet to actually speak to any ponies other than those he was already familiar with. They were nice enough, though.

They left together not long after, presumably to have a party of two. Once all the goodbyes were said, Ryan went back to his seat and plopped himself down. The others, including the princesses, all sat around him on the floor, looking expectant.

Celestia broke the silence. “Well, Ryan. We all came here to hear your story; I do hope that you feel like telling it to us.”

Ryan looked around at the group before him. They all wanted to hear his story so desperately, he thought they might explode. Rainbow looked like she was contemplating whether or not she would stab him on his way back to the boutique. Applejack seemed to know that this was coming from the start. Rarity and Luna looked like they might fall forward, as was the same with Twilight. Fluttershy looked terrified, and Pinkie was holding her close to comfort her.

“Alright.” Ryan said. “Here it is. It all began with Discord when he found the compound in Jakarta...”


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


“...And after he left me on the ground, that was when the fillies found me.”

As Ryan finished telling his story, he took in a deep breath and took a sip of water that Spike had retrieved for him while he spoke. Other than that, no one actually did anything but listen to him for the whole three hours it took him to retell the story, leaving out gruesome, unnecessary details and occasionally justifying what was happening. He hadn’t looked anypony in the eyes while he told his tale, careful to avoid having to break his concentration to say something else.

Once he set his glass back down, he took the moment to look at the ponies around him. All looked incredibly serious, especially the princesses. They had hard looks on their faces, like they were trying to figure out what to do about Ryan and Discord’s partnership. The elements were all silent, some looking unconvinced, other, confused. Twilight seemed to have the most trouble wrapping her head around it all.

“Wait. So... Discord actually helped you?” she asked. Ryan nodded. “But... he’s evil... why would he help anypony?”

“Evidently, he’s not as evil as you thought. Or, he’s just as evil, and you seem to have trouble understanding that he is much better than I. For you to call him evil is to call me a monster.”

“Whoa, whoa, there, sugarcube.” Applejack interjected. “Y’all ain’t evil. Ya didn’t do... what ya did... for the fun of it. Discord likes to ruin lives just because he enjoys it. Y’all’re much better than him.”

“Am I?” Ryan asked. “Did you ever at least try to see it his way, even if his way is wrong?” No one spoke. “Didn’t think so. Well, I’ll tell you this; he does what he does because, through all his flaws and his general lack of care for what you think of him, he’s always done his thing because he wants life to be more fun for you.”

“True, but we live peacefully and happily. He can see that, so why would he want to take that from us?” Celestia asked, thinking that she had a win. She didn’t.

“I’m not saying he’s right, or even that he’s sane on any level. Yes, he’s wrong, but it’s possible that his perception of reality is messed up. I always figured it was. If that is the case, and I bet it is, he doesn’t know that all your ponies are happy, and he seeks to give them a more enjoyable life, because he’s doing what he thinks would be fun for them.”

Celestia paused. “So what you are telling me is that Discord, ruler of Chaos and Spirit of Mayhem, isn’t evil? That he’s just a crazy old fart who thinks he’s doing the world a favor?”

Ryan raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but I think that you have the general idea. He’s not evil; he just needs help.”

Celestia furrowed her brow, deep in thought. When she didn’t continue speaking, Luna decided to hop in. “Well, Ryan, I must say that I am glad that you had Discord there to help you.” The elements all gasped. “If he hadn’t been there, bad things may have occurred while I was absent.”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah, ‘bad things’ would have occurred. I would be dead, and Harris would be too. A lot of people would be slaves, also.” Luna smiled weakly. “Not to say that you weren’t important. If not for you, I would never have gotten out of Sumatra. You and Discord both saved me and Harris.”

Luna smiled a little bit. Just enough so that Ryan could see. “Thank you.” she whispered. This had clearly been bothering her for some time. Not about Discord, but about whether or not her help had been effective.

“I thank you.” Ryan replied. He paused. “There is one matter I would like to have looked into, if it could happen.” he said.

Celestia was still occupied, so Luna kept on answering. “Certainly. Depending on what it is, we will certainly try.”

“Discord is a part of this world.” Ryan began. “He brought me here to keep me alive. He actually failed Harris and I to some extent; if he had done what he could, we would have survived. To make up for that, he brought me here, and hopefully, he brought Harris home.”

***********************************************************************************

Discord mentally face-palmed

“How could I forget?” he asked himself angrily. “I hope he’s alright...”

***********************************************************************************

“I want to find him.”

Luna looked unsure of how to answer. “Well, I’m sure we could help. But I must ask why you wish to find him.”

Ryan leaned forward. “When I fought Narendra, one of the most important things to me was to find out why he did what he did. When I did, I was unhappy with his answer. I want to know why Discord brought me here. I have a feeling of what his answer will be, though I need to hear it from him. I don’t really know if I’ll be happy with it.”

Luna looked to her sister, who had listened to that particular part of the conversation, and both exchanged a hurried series of mental addresses. They were in conflict as to whether or not they should tell him. Discord was in stone for a reason, but now, that reason was in deep questioning. Was Discord reformable? Or would he create chaos and pandemonium again? And what would he and Ryan do together? They were clearly on at least partially friendly terms.

The exchange was short enough that no one noticed, not even Ryan. “Well,” Celestia began. It was her call. “I’m sure we can find him eventually. When we do, then we will try to get him to talk to you.”

The mares all gasped, it not having hit them as of yet that Discord was free again, while Ryan simply nodded. “Very well. I will wait until he is back.”

************************************************************************************

Discord could see the logic in what they were doing. But then, logic was never his favorite thing in the world.

He could very easily trigger something in Ryan. It had happened to ponies before; they see something related to old trauma, then they flip out and go crazy again. But Discord didn’t want to see Ryan hurt. As Ryan said, and it hurt a little to hear it, Discord was partly responsible for everything that happened. Nothing would mean more to him than to see Ryan back to where he was meant to be.

That brought up another issue, though, one that the princesses weren’t aware of. The Wraith was also trying to get Ryan somewhere. They had no idea that the Wraith existed, but Discord could see the problems that would come with it.

The Wraith was unlike anything he had ever encountered. It somehow knew that Discord was watching, even though he had all manner of magical protection to prevent being found. When it spoke to him, Discord caught a glimpse of its mind; a vast, unending expanse, with all kinds of knowledge, from basic spells, to the darkest of magics meant for pure evil the likes of which hadn’t been seen in millenia. He shuddered at the thought of it being used.

What frightened him the most? The fact that he couldn’t see or locate the Wraith at any point if it didn’t want to be seen. The Wraith could be watching Ryan right now, waiting to kill the princesses and all present. It could ambush Ryan on his way to the boutique. This being wanted something of Ryan, and Discord could see that it was willing to go to great lengths to get it.

He had tried to discern what it was, but there was something odd. The being, while its words were harsh and its actions tormenting, had no alignment. When Discord tried to determine its moral standing, it seemed out of place. Like it couldn’t have a moral standing. It was as if it WAS a moral standing; it defined its own ways. The creature was too much for anyone to handle, and Ryan would be fucked if it decided to do something to him.

Discord wanted to tell Ryan these things, but to do so would spit in the faces of the princesses and the rules Celestia gave him. If he did that, he would be permanently locked in stone, and that was a fate that few deserved (Narendra being a prime example). He did want to help, but as Ryan would say, he needed to look after himself first, or he wouldn’t be around to help anyone in the future.

Overall, Discord thought it a great idea not to be revealed to Ryan for a time. He would remain hidden in the castle garden, away from the world save for his magical eye, and be content to watch and maybe throw a spell here or there. And who knew? After all this was said and done, the princesses might allow him out for a bit, or at least to reform him (Ha! They could try.). Maybe it would all work out.

Of course, that was only if the Elements of Harmony didn’t lock him away against the princesses’ orders.

************************************************************************************

“Discord is free?!?!” Twilight shouted, prompting Ryan to stick a finger in his ear once again.

“Not so loud, please. I’ll get tinnitus at this rate...” Twilight apologized shortly. “No worries, I’m sure I’ll be alright.”

She nodded. “Alright. Anyhow, you never told us that Discord is free! We need to find him and stop him, before he does something bad!”

Before anyone could respond, Ryan jumped in. “Hold on. Do you intend to lock him in stone again?” Ryan asked cautiously.

“Of course!” Twilight replied. “He’s dangerous, and he poses a real threat to us all. If he’s out, he might do something!”

Ryan sighed. “First thing; you keep saying ‘something’. You have nothing to substitute for that ’something’, so don’t be so paranoid. Second,” He looked her dead in the eyes. “You say that a dangerous guy should be locked in stone.”

Twilight was unsure of where this would go. “Yes?” she responded, careful of what she would say next.

“Then why have you not locked me up?” Ryan asked, drawing gasps from all present. “I still have flashbacks, at night and during the day. You’ve noticed them, Applejack, I know this. As have you, Twilight, and you, Rarity. Some are only a second, others, several minutes. One was almost half an hour.”

Rainbow trotted into the fray. “Why is that important?” she asked. “What does that have to do with your danger factor?”

Ignoring that phrase, Ryan answered her coldly. “More than once, I’ve pulled my gun out, and more than once, I nearly fired it. When I shot that stallion in the ass in Canterlot, I saw him as someone else. One night, I saw a stallion try to force himself on a mare; when I saw it, I flashed back to Jakarta. Do you know what happened?”

Rainbow took a tentative step back. “N-no?” She sounded nervous; the others all looked nervous.

Ryan’s voice took on a dark tone. “I stabbed him in his fucking neck.”

All was silent. The mares, minus the princesses, looked at Ryan in horror. Starstep seemed to give him an unpleased, yet very understanding look, like he knew that it had to be done. Celestia had to hold herself in to keep from gaping at the human, while Luna just looked at him sadly. Ryan’s killing had been justified, but he still had to hope that he wasn’t in trouble for it. He wasn’t about to go around killing people who raped and murdered; that could stay with Blood Analyst Morgan in Miami.

He went on. “I killed him because I thought he was another man, one I know committed the same crime. If you really want to lock Discord away, you have to lock me away too. Even I can’t quite tell when something will set me off.”

Cinny walked forward and put her hoof on Ryan’s shoulder. “Ryan, I know that you think you’re a monster. We all know that.” She had decided on a more aggressive approach. “But these flashbacks aren’t in your control; they don’t make you evil. So far, the only violent one you’ve had was triggered by a violent crime.” She didn’t know that, but she was right. “We can work on this. And we don’t have to lock you up, or Discord, if we can help him too.”

Ryan turned his head to Celestia and Luna. Celestia spoke. “I suppose that we can try to reform him. I was considering that anyway, after what Ryan told us here. But I am not sure how well it will go. Once we find him, that is.”

Ryan nodded. “I think that should work. But what of me?” he asked. He wanted an answer to that one. “I’m more dangerous. What will you do with me?”

Luna looked sadly at him while Celestia answered. “Well, we have ponies who can help you to get over what happened.”

Ryan sighed and shook his head. “Sister, it isn’t that simple.” Luna replied for the human. “No pony has experienced what he has, nor at such an age. I saw it, and even I cannot help him. I do not believe that we have anypony to help him to get over it.”

“You can never ‘get over’ something like this, princess.” Ryan added. “People like to think that they’re better, that they can function the way they used to. But the thing is that when you experience trauma, it leaves a scar.” He rolled up his sleeves. “A scar that never heals, never goes away. It’s always there, reminding you of what you did or saw. The only people who can ‘get over it’ are complete psychopaths and sociopaths, and those people tend to end up in prison for their entire lives.”

No one spoke. They couldn’t argue what Ryan had said; they could never understand his pain and suffering. They could never even begin to imagine what it was like. But that wouldn’t stop them from trying to help.

Except Rainbow. “You sound pretty lame right now.” she said casually.

Everyone in the room spun around; except Ryan. He knew it was coming.

“WHAT!?!?” they all shouted, including the princesses. Rainbow was practically knocked back by the force, which included the Royal Canterlot Voice.

Ryan stood up. “ENOUGH!” he shouted before anything else went wrong. All present went completely silent. “I will speak.”

He walked over to Rainbow, who was crouched low, ready to fly away. “I know your type.” Ryan stated flatly. “You think that people can just forget these things, like a scrape on the knee or a bruise on the hand. But you don’t get it. I used to be like you.” He turned around. “I would look at returning soldiers and think, ‘I know they can recover. They just need a little push from us civilians to show them what life is like back home.’ That doesn’t work.”

“When a soldier came home, he was often scarred by what he saw, in a way we couldn’t understand. He woke up at night, had trouble doing everyday activities. Every time he saw a person, he would wonder, ‘Could they get killed as pointlessly as my friend in a random explosion?’ IED’s tend to change your perspective. I know a normal land mine got me.”

He breathed in deep. “When you see things in battle that you never see elsewhere, they don’t scar you just because they don’t happen that often. They scar you because you realize that THAT is what your species is; warriors who kill each other until one side is gone. We try to change that part of our nature, but it’s always there. And when you get home, when you look at yourself in the mirror, or people on the streets, you wonder; ‘Who among us is like that? All of us? A few of us?’”

Rainbow was frozen in place by now. “Every night when I go to sleep, when I see my own reflection, when I get up in the morning, I see Narendra and his men. I saw what they did to my friends; unspeakable things. And every time I do something, anything; from carrying shit to sitting down, I wonder. I wonder, am I so terrible? I killed forty people, and now one pony. I feel no remorse for their deaths. Am I like Narendra? Am I a monster in my own right?”

Luna tried to interrupt. “Ryan, you aren’t-”

“I’ve seen social Darwinism at its worst, yet I am still here. Does that mean that, in order to win, I had to drop down to their level? What kind of human being am I, that I was willing to fall to such a terrible place to get my pointless revenge? I didn’t even get to live to tell the families that I avenged their loved ones. So what was the fucking point!?”

Ryan placed himself right in front of Rainbow Dash. “You can never understand, because you have yet to see the true horrors of the world. I hope to God that you never have to experience it. That you never have to wonder if that piece of your kind is in you.”

Ryan didn’t say anything else. He just walked over to the coat hanger, grabbed his jacket, and left. Behind him, he could hear the beginnings of a conversation, not an argument, but he didn’t care enough to think about what it what it could be. Reprimanding or revelling, it didn’t matter to him. He just wanted to find that ditch and avoid having to see anypony again for the night.

As he walked down the street, he noticed how it was beginning to get cooler at night. It was probably right around sixty degrees fahrenheit right now, pretty standard for this time of the year. The wind was blowing gently in the night, carrying with it nothing but the emptiness of the broken soul who lonely wandered through the streets.

He walked until he was out of the town, where he decided to just sit down under a tree and look to the sky. It was really something, this night sky; so many stars, so much to see. Back home, you had to be out on the ocean in order to see anything like it. It didn’t remind him of home at all, something he definitely liked about this night sky. He could just sit there all night if he felt like it.

But someone else didn’t feel like it. “Ryan?” a young, feminine voice called from afar. Somehow, it wasn’t yelling. “Ryan?”

The boy turned around to see Luna walking along, looking about to find her human friend. She seemed to take her time examining the area, yet hurrying so that she couldn’t lose him. Her expression displayed immense concern, and her body language told the world how upset she was. When her eyes landed on Ryan, she seemed to practically melt from the loss of tension in her body.

“Ryan.” she said.

“That would be me.” he replied, turning his gaze back to the starry sky.

She sat down next to him and rolled onto her side, then to her back. “I don’t get how this can be comfortable for your spine.” she complained.

“Maybe because I’m not a pampered princess?” the boy joked back, earning a biting glance from the princess.

She calmed herself quickly after catching the joke. “Ha ha.’ she said in monotone. “You humans and your anatomy.”

“Yeah, I bet you know all about it.” Ryan replied, remembering Australia and the club. “Though I would think that you are better with equine anatomy, what with Starstep as your helper.”

Luna blushed just a tad. “Very funny.” she replied, unable to come up with a comeback. Both pony and person went silent for a moment.

Luna looked at her friend with a face etched with concern and sadness. She knew that everything Ryan had said in there was likely true, or close enough to the truth. She knew that he was unsure of himself or of the safety of those around him. Rainbow’s words were harsh and cruel; but they didn’t hurt Ryan the way the others thought they did.

“You know that she’s just being her.” Luna said, hoping to draw Ryan out. “She fears you. She doesn’t really know how she feels about you, so she wants to drive you out.”

“Well, she managed to do that.” Ryan said bitingly.

“No, she didn’t.” Luna responded. “You left because you felt exactly the way you just described. You just want to be alone.”

“Then why do you pester me, Luna?” Ryan asked, clearly unhappy. “I want to be alone. Is that so terrible?”

“Yes, it is.” Luna said back. “No one should ever have to be alone.”

“But I am, Luna. I am alone. You saw everything that happened out there, but you didn’t experience it. You don’t know what it’s like; waking up in the morning and wondering if you’ll let yourself make it through lunch. No one can understand me, and without anyone to talk to, I’m stuck in a hole with no way in or out. I am alone; none of you can reach me.”

Luna yearned to just grab him and hold him tightly, tight enough that he could never get away. She wanted to grab him and carry him back to the library, where they would all just hold him close and never let him be on his own. But that wouldn’t help. He would still be trapped in his mind, unable to find the way out to them. He would be hurting until the day he died, and they couldn’t help him.

It pained her more than a thousand years on the moon. “I suppose that you are right.” she said, feeling somewhat defeated. “But we can still try.”

Ryan sat up and looked down at the lunar princess. “You really aren’t going to give up on me, are you?” he asked.

She sat up. “I told you before; you are my friend. I will never abandon my friends.”

Both stood up. “I suppose I have to let you keep trying then, don’t I?” Luna smiled at him.

“Come.” she ordered, turning back to Ponyville. “Let us go back and partake in festivities.”

Ryan followed behind her, silent in the night, doing his best not to leave any imprints on the ground as he went. He didn’t want to leave any marks on this world. Not right now.

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Credit When Credit is Due

If you’re alone, I’ll be your shadow. If you want to cry, I’ll be your shoulder. If you want a hug, I’ll be your pillow. If you need to be happy, I’ll be your smile. But any time you need a friend, I’ll just be me.

The rest of the party had gone fine; Rainbow gave a half-assed apology that had little meaning behind it, so the drama was gone. Ryan talked about his time with Fancy Pants and how they had planned to have drinks together with Macintosh, something that surprised them all. Rainbow pouted intensely and stared jealously at Ryan when he told the group about talking with Spitfire, something that gave Ryan more pleasure than he was sure it should have.

The whole thing died down at around eight, so everyone went home. Celestia excused herself most elegantly, while her sister remained, insistent on walking home with Ryan. Starstep knew that he wouldn’t be needed, so he went off with Celestia to give his princess some privacy. Rarity simply left before Ryan, saying how Sweetie Belle needed attendance, to which Applejack and Rainbow agreed to in regards to the other crusaders. Fluttershy and Pinkie just walked out together after a short goodbye, leaving Twilight, Ryan, and Luna.

Ryan excused himself so that Twilight could tuck Spike in, something the little dragon hated her saying in front of Luna and Ryan. Luna followed him out, eager to talk.

Ryan took the lead out the door into the darkened town, about ready to go to sleep. As Luna exited, she shut the door behind her and trotted up to catch up to her human friend, paranoid of leaving him alone. Ryan tried to pretend not to notice.

She walked next to him, trying to think of something to say. “So...” she began.

“So.”

Luna opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came at first. “So. You... are... living here.”

“I find your powerful observation skills intimidating.”

Luna frowned at him. “Ha ha. Funny.” Ryan smirked, but it faded quickly. “What do they all think of you living in Rarity’s basement?”

Ryan shrugged. “Well, Rainbow is the only one who thinks it’s bad. But she’s kind of annoying, so I don’t really care. Sweetie Belle has yet to learn, so my bet is that it’ll be crazy when she finds out. She and her friends seem to cause all sorts of Hell when they want to have fun.”

Luna giggled. “Yes, I had heard that.” She and Ryan were silent for a minute. “You have no idea how much it means to me that you’re back.”

Ryan’s expression was motionless, like the Thinker; trapped in a state of eternal contemplation. “I’m... glad you’re happy.”

“You seem sad.” Luna pinpointed. “Will you tell me why?”

Ryan looked forward, then to the sky. It was beautiful, much more than he had ever seen back in the United States. Even Australia and Indonesia, and shockingly Vietnam, didn’t have skies like this at night. This land was a perfect escape from the modern troubles and hassles of his world. But it was missing something.

“I don’t know that I would say I’m back.” he replied.

Luna was saddened by his words, but understood. “I understand, I suppose.”

Luna let it go, and Ryan opted to do the same. There is a time and a place for certain kinds of thinking, and this was certainly not one of them. He took his eyes off of the heavens above and looked around at his surroundings at his new world. He was living with Rarity right now, but as soon as he could, he would be out. He still had to find a place in the forest, though, so it might be a while.

They spent the rest of the walk in silence, Luna simply happy to be with Ryan, Ryan trying not to think about anything. All he knew was that right now, there was no Wraith, no people trying to kill him, no bitches tripping at him, and no nice ponies trying to help him. It was all that mattered.

They reached the Carousel Boutique in a good enough time and simply stood in front of the entrance, starting at it.

“I guess that this is goodbye.” Luna said. She sounded sad.

“For now.” Ryan replied, getting a small smile off of her. It was enough to make him feel less shitty for the time being. “I’m sure we’ll get to see each other often enough. Not like I have any bad guys to chase after.”

Luna paused, a look suddenly appearing on her face. It wasn’t a look of shock or anger or surprise, though. It was more of a look that came from having an idea. Like if you needed to climb a broken ladder, then noticed that the wall behind had grooves on it. There was a way around the rough situation.

“Yes... you don’t.”

“Grammar.” Luna used her magic to knock out his knee, then caught him with it before he hit the ground. “Sorry.”

She put him back up. “That’s fine.” she said. Luna made circles in the ground with her hoof. “I guess I should head home now.”

As she spread her wings, Ryan got one last word in. “Yeah, Starstep must be pretty lonely right now.” She must not have noticed, for she simply raised herself into the air and flew away toward the mountain city of snobbery known as Canterlot.

Ryan watched her as she left, then went inside and made his way to the basement, where he removed his clothes and plopped onto the bed bare naked, uncaring of whether or not somepony walked in on him. Unless it was Sweetie Belle. That would be bad.


*****************************************************************************


The next few days passed like nothing happened. Probably because nothing did happen. Ryan went to work, he ate food, slept, drank alcohol and a little water. He hadn’t gone for drinks with Macintosh because he was busy doing the numbers for the farm. Besides, they were going to have drinks with Fancy Pants on Saturday, so missing a round this week wasn’t so bad.

And today was Saturday. Ryan sat up in his bed in Rarity’s basement and let out a longwinded yawn, filling the room with his early morning noises. He swung his legs around and planted his feet firmly on the floor, rubbing his eyes, and stood. As he straightened his back, it made a long series of pressure-easing pops and cracks.

Ryan grabbed his necklace and gingerly put it on, keeping his hands on the Shen pendant the whole while. Once it wa son, he pulled the pendant a little ways away from his body and just looked at it. Spirit, is what it translated to. Kind of like in the sense of a soul, of being human. He had gotten the necklace from his sensei after passing his Black Belt testing; it represented a big part of him. At the same time, though, it didn’t any more. It was there, and yet, it was not.

Letting himself drift off into a state of no thought, he simply went about getting the rest of his clothes on. He put his pants on one leg at a time, then his shirt, and then his new jacket. He felt a little odd, wearing the symbol of the Navy SEALs, but he tried to let it pass. It was no weirder than wearing the Green Beret on his head. Though now that he thought about it, it was a little inappropriate. Not that that mattered to him any more.

It was the weekend, and that meant it was a perfect time for him to go out into the forest and look around a little. He didn’t have supplies to go camping and test out a night there or spend more than a day going through, but he knew that he could get decently far in in one day. Farther than most ponies were willing to go.

Ryan went over to the little closet Rarity had gotten for him to store his new clothes in, as well as what he was going to make his expeditionary outfit. He had managed to get his hands on ceramic plates to put into the work vest, so he had a light piece of armor for his chest and abdomen, which was nice. He also had that helmet, which he had poured green paint all over and then painted on dark splotches to make it camouflaged. Then, there was the cloak, which turned out to be great for retaining heat and keeping dry. All this, plus his makeshift tactical vest, sat at the bottom of the drawer, waiting to be used.

He didn’t take it just yet, though. It was only five thirty in the morning; he had woken up from another nightmare. As such, he had plenty of time to gather food and water for his journey out. Problem was, nothing would be open until around eight.

He sighed. “Well, I guess that I can just plan out my trip.”

Ryan went upstairs and, as quietly as he could, made his way to the kitchen, where there was a pad and a paper sitting on the counter. He ripped off a paper and took the pen and began to plan.

As soon as he sat down, he realized a few things. “I need a backpack for carrying crap.” he said, jotting it down. “Also gonna need to combine the vest and armor somehow.” He really just needed to get his knife and gun holsters on it. The rest was empty, since he had exactly been able to lug around an assault rifle or its ammo back in Vietnam. “Dammit, I’ll also need emergency medical supplies.” If he was hurt out there, he would need bandages and medical tape to get back. Even if he didn’t want to, he had made a promise to Harris.

The ideas kept on coming, and Ryan steadily began to realize that he maybe wasn’t quite ready to head out into the forest on his own just yet. Today would have to be a planning day, and on Sunday, he would head out. He would have to make sure that nopony followed him out there, or else he could end up having to rescue them again. Last time, he was rewarded with shredded arms and splinters.

Once he felt like his list was long enough for the time being, he stuffed it into his jacket pocket and decided to raid the fridge. It was already six thirty, the normal time for his breakfast before heading to school back home. Who would have thought that he would get any level of normalcy here?

He grabbed two pieces of bread and threw them into the toaster next to the fridge, which was connected to nothing, frustratingly, and waited. When they were done, the machine let out an unnecessarily loud PING, and the bread shot out. He didn’t manage to catch it, but just picked it up off the floor, dusted it off, put some butter on it, and munched away. It was actually nice to have a quiet breakfast.

“Ryan?” Though not for long. “Ryan, is that you, darling?”

He sighed. “Yes, Rarity, it is me.” She walked into the kitchen, mane looking frazzled and with a tired smile on her face. “What got you up? I hope it wasn’t me.”

She shook her head. “No, darling. I get up around this time every morning to prepare the shop. I’ll be open until noon today, since it is Saturday.”

Ryan nodded. “Nice.” He continued munching on his toast.

Rarity walked over to the fridge and pulled out a premade salad, then sat down next to Ryan and went about eating her own breakfast. Having already finished, Ryan just sat there, feeling obligated to stay in case Rarity wanted to talk. He doubted that she did, but one never knows.

By the time she was done, it was half past seven. Pretty soon, the stores would start to open, and Ryan would be able to go out and get his gear and supplies for an excursion into the forest. “Well, Rarity, I guess I’ll leave the shop to you, then.” he said, getting up. “Have fun, I guess?”

Rarity giggled. “Yes, I will. Enjoy your day as well, Ryan.” Ryan waved at her as he left the kitchen.

He went back down to the basement and went under his bed for his sack of bits. He had an account at the local bank, but he always had liked to have a cash reserve for emergencies. In the sack, he had one hundred and fifty bits, more than enough for what he wanted to get. He would spend the money on what he needed, then replenish it once he was done.

With money in his hands, and a plan in his pocket, he walked up the stairs and then out the front door of the boutique, feeling ready to face the day. Mostly.


******************************************************************************


The nine o’clock train blew its horn to signify that it was going to be heading out soon. Outside, ponies were scrambling about, trying to get all their things in order, some saying heartfelt goodbyes, others just waving at their loved ones. She loved ponywatching; one could encounter all kinds of ponies just by watching them live their lives.

“Hey, Spits! Earth to Spits!”

Spitfire turned her head to look at her teammate and longtime friend. “What, Fleetfoot?”

Fleetfoot had insisted that they go to Ponyville for some reason. Spitfire suspected that it had something to do with not wanting to stay in Canterlot; that night in the alleyway scared the living Hell out of her, and now she seemed paranoid; but she hadn’t actually said that. Every time Spitfire asked, Fleetfoot would just shrug it off and opt not to answer.

“How long do you think this ride will be?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe an hour, forty minutes?”

Fleetfoot nodded. “Alright then.” She didn’t ask anything else after that.

The train started to move, rumbling and shaking as it started its journey. Passengers buckled in to some seats in an effort to avoid being thrown about. Spitfire and Fleetfoot just sat, though. Being Wonderbolts, they had an easy time keeping their balance and catching themselves before hitting the ground.

That explained why Soarin’ floated back to their little table, rather than walk like the rules said to. “Well, ladies, it looks like we’re moving.” he said as he took his seat next to Fleetfoot. She smiled at him and pressed herself close to him, eliciting a chuckle and a hug from him. They had been going out for over a year, so it wasn’t exactly a secret. All the mares were jealous of Fleetfoot. Except Spitfire, at least. And maybe some others.

“We sure are!” Fleetfoot replied excitedly. “I can't wait to get there!”

Spitfire looked at her two teammates, but neither noticed. Well, now was as good a time as any.

“Fleetfoot, you seem awfully excited about this.” She nodded in reply. “What’s in Ponyville that makes you so excited? I know we’ve been there; it hasn’t changed that much.”

Now, Soarin’ had taken up interest. “Yeah, what’s there? I know the Elements of Harmony live there, but you’ve met them. Maybe you have a secret place there?” He raised his eyebrows suggestively at that, getting a groan from both mares.

“Soarin’ pie always seem to be on your mind.” Spitfire said.

“Yeah!” Fleetfoot agreed. “Besides, you’ll get pie later; it always tastes better when you’re hungry.” Spitfire physically gagged. “What? It’s an old family recipe. Apple Cinnamon with mountaintop grass.”

Spitfire shook her head. “Sure. Anyway, you still have to answer the question.”

Fleetfoot looked at her captain, then to her coltfriend, and sighed. “Alright fine.” Both ponies leaned in to listen. “In the alley, when... things were happening, I didn’t kick him into a dumpster corner. I was rescued.”

Soarin’s eyes shot wide. “Really?!” he said loudly. A few ponies looked over, but none paid him any mind. “By who?”

Fleetfoot looked a bit uncomfortable. “I don’t know his name. I just know that he looks weird, and I heard that something like him is living in Ponyville.”

Spitfire was suspicious now. “Hmm. What can you tell me?”

“Well, he was tall, like, really tall. He walked on two legs and had hands and a short mane, and he was wearing casual clothes when he ran in to save me. He ripped the stallion off of me, and when I finally looked back, he had stuck a really big knife in his neck. Before I could talk, he ran off, too fast for me to catch.”

Soarin’ wrapped his foreleg around his mare. “Wow. That was lucky.”

Spitfire could hardly believe he rears. “Luck my ass! I had spoken to him earlier!”

Her friends looked at her in shock. “Really!?”

She nodded. “Yeah, we bumped into each other and then walked to the park to get away from the attention all the ponies were giving us. We had a pleasant conversation, he’s nice.”

“Well, what can you tell us?” Soarin’ asked. “I have to thank him for saving my lady here.” He hugged Fleetfoot tight, getting her to squirm from the closeness.

“He’s living with Rarity, in her store, I think. And he just got a bunch of clothes from Fancy Pants, I think. His name is Ryan.”

Fleetfoot looked thoughtful. “Ryan...”

Soarin’ gazed out the window at Ponyville in the distance. “Well, I think I need to see this Ryan. He already seems like an interesting guy.”

Spitfire nodded to herself, agreeing with Soarin’, suddenly feeling eager to arrive in Ponyville as soon as possible.


******************************************************************************


Pinkie Pie was just walking around, milling about and making the day fun for everypony. It was no different than usual; the nine o’clock train had whistled its way in, dropping ponies off and picking up more. Ponies went about their days, doing work, shopping, and just having a pleasant Saturday. Pinkie was glad to see them all having a nice day.

“I wonder how Ryan is doing?” she thought aloud. She thought that she might want to go and check on him soon.

Until she heard three ponies behind her. “Well, where should we start? He probably isn’t there now, he would be doing something.”

“I don’t know. Find out who might know?” She recognized that as Spitfire, captain of the Wonderbolts!

“Maybe.” This was a male voice, Soarin’. “It’s a safe bet that Rarity won’t know, though.”

Pinkie turned around, excited, and ran up to the three pegasi without warning them. “HI! I’M PINKIE PIE!”

They all reeled at her sudden pinkness, startled, nearly falling over. Pinkie hadn't seemed to notice.

“Yes, the Element of Laughter.” The white-maned one, Fleetfoot, said. “Hey, do you by any chance know a being named Ryan?”

Pinkie gasped loudly and floated into the air a little. “Do I?! He’s one of my bestest friends! Of course, everypony is my bestest friend, but he’s special, since he’s always so patient with me and nice to me even though I know I bother him and he feels so sad all the time and-”

“Whoa, whoa! Slow down there!” Soarin’ said. “Can you just tell us where he is?”

“Nope.” A moment of silence. “But I can take you to my friends, one of them can probably tell you.”

“Great.” Spitfire replied, eager to get moving.

Pinkie turned around and started to lead the three Wonderbolts through the town. The nice thing about not wearing their uniforms was that they didn’t attract much attention. It seemed odd to them that there was a being who commanded more attention than them just by existing.

Pinkie Pie bounced along before them, humming a little tune, seemingly oblivious to everything around her. She wasn’t even looking at anything, her eyes were closed. How could she be looking for anypony if she couldn’t see?

She suddenly started to talk again. “We’re gonna see Flutters first. She likes to make sure Ryan is alright, so she has the most reason to know where he is.”

Fleetfoot nodded eagerly. “Sounds good!”

Soon enough, they were walking up to a cottage on a hill that had all manner of animals surrounding it. Chickens, birds, snakes, rodents, and even a bear sleeping next to the path. Pinkie Pie was unphased when she passed it, so the Wonderbolts tried to keep their cool as they passed. And Pinkie further proved her lack of care for the bear’s presence.

“FLUTTERSHY!” she screamed, waking the bear. The Wonderbolts crouched, ready to launch if necessary, but the bear just looked in their direction and then went back to sleep.

A few moments after Pinkie’s bellow, the door opened slowly to reveal a yellow pegasus with a pink mane. Spitfire recognized her as the mare who saved the day when Cloudsdale needed the water from the Ponyville reservoir.

“Yes?” she asked. She was reluctant to leave her home.

“Have you seen Ryan?” Pinkie asked innocently. The way Fluttershy reacted, though, you would think she asked if Ryan was alive.

“What? No, I haven’t. Is something wrong? Is he in the forest? Is somepony after him to hurt him? What’s wrong!?” She was in a panic.

“No, the Wonderbolts just want to-”

A rainbow blur shot out of the cottage, bringing with it a gust of wind almost strong enough to blow the Wonderbolts off their hooves and move Pinkie an inch in pace. “What!?”

ignored her friend and kept on talking. “They want to know where-”

“Here I am!” Rainbow said, rushing forward and saluting the pegasi. “Rainbow Dash reporting for duty!”

The pegasi looked at each other, then to Rainbow, then back to each other. “Sorry, Dashie, they’re not here for you. You still have to wait.”

Rainbow looked surprised. “What? What else would bring them here?” She turned to the Wonderbolts. “What brings you to Ponyville?”

Soarin’ answered. “We’re here to find Ryan. He saved Fleety’s life in Canterlot, so we wanted to say thanks.”

Fleetfoot poked his side. “I’m not sure about my life, but he saved me from being... well. Something unpleasant.”

Soarin’ pulled her in and kissed her cheek. “He might as well have saved your life. I can’t bear to think what it would have done to you.”

Spitfire had been watching Rainbow’s face while the lovebirds talked. It was a mixture of confusion, aggression, and shock. Rainbow Dash seemed to have trouble believing that this Ryan had saved Fleetfoot. What did that say about him? Or maybe say about her? One of them was different than they thought.

Fleetfoot shared her story with Rainbow, Fluttershy, and Pinkie, all of whom were horrified at what nearly happened. “Wow.” Rainbow said at the end. “I never thought Ryan would be one to just go in and save somepony.”

“Why not?” Spitfire asked. Moment of truth.

Rainbow was about to answer when Fluttershy, the shy, timid pegasus who never spoke out of turn, interrupted her. “He has a complicated past.” She gave a death glare at Rainbow for a moment, and once her point was had, she softened again and stepped back. “He’s a good guy, but he suffered a lot of pain and loss. It... did things to him.”

Spitfire could sense that this wasn’t a public topic, so she let it go. “Alright then. But where can we find him?”

Rainbow went into the air. “I saw him in town on the way here at the outdoors store. I think he wanted a tent and some other camping stuff. I didn’t press him for details.” Fluttershy nodded approvingly, further adding to Spitfire’s suspiciousness. “He doesn’t have work today, so he’s probably just going around town or getting ready to go into the Everfree.”

The Wonderbolts all blinked simultaneously. “What.”

“Yeah, he does that. No idea why.” Rainbow paused and put a hoof to her chin. “He did go in there when he first got out of the hospital...”

In all three Wonderbolts’ heads, questions were spinning. Where had Ryan come from? What was his past? Why the forest, and why had he been in the hospital? What in Equestria was going on in the world they were living in?

“Well, let’s go see if we can find him!” Pinkie announced. She started to bounce away, and all the ponies opted to just follow her since she had an inexplicable way of finding anypony anytime.


******************************************************************************


Ryan didn’t take long with his shopping; he never was one to spend a lot of time doing that. He just found an outdoors store, where he encountered Rainbow Dash, and grabbed what he wanted.

He just dropped it off in the boutique for tomorrow, giving a quick hello to Rarity, and decided that he would go investigate the treeline into the forest. There might be multiple ways in that were safe, and if so, he wanted to make sure he got to all of them. They could all lead to different areas if they existed, and that would mean possibilities for more places to make his home.

He started off in the direction of the forest, happy to make his way out of town. When Rainbow approached him earlier, she had been pretty clear in telling him that she wanted life to go back to normal, meaning that she wanted Ryan gone. He reassured her that he wasn’t there to stay, and that eventually, he would be well out of her frizzy mane. She just huffed at him and flew off.

As usual, he kept his eyes scanning the area as he walked along. He was always watching for people who wanted to attack him, even though he knew that he was the only person around. Now, though, he was also watching for ponies who wanted to talk to him. Over the last couple of days, word of his ass-shooting in Canterlot had gotten out, and ponies suddenly had a more curious interest in him. Especially that mint green one; she was awful about it.

Thankfully, word hadn’t gotten out about him stabbing the one guy in the neck and also talking to Spitfire, so he was in the clear. He desperately hoped that nothing big would be happening today. He just wanted to mindlessly look around and see what his prospects were.

His eyes continued to scan, checking every possible area. Except the sky, he soon realized. Looking up, he noticed a familiar rainbow blur up in the air, speeding about. Probably just Rainbow practicing her tricks again.

Ryan paid it no heed and kept on walking. Rainbow never wanted to talk to him, and he knew that she wouldn’t be that inclined to help him explore the Everfree forest, so he had no reason to call to her. At least he had that much from her; she wouldn’t talk to him unless she felt it necessary. That was more than he got from a lot of other ponies.

Wind started rushing toward the ground, getting Ryan to sigh and stop walking. “What do you want now?” he asked impatiently.

Rainbow landed on the ground next to him, looking excited and strangely happy. She was never happy around Ryan.

“Wait here!” she ordered, then flew off. Ryan blinked once, then shrugged and decided that he might as well. If it put her into a good mood, he might as well see what it was. He walked to the side of the road and leaned against a small tree and waited.

A few minutes later, he spotted a total of four pegasi flying in his direction, one being Rainbow Dash. The other three were unfamiliar; a blue one with a navy mane, a blue one with a white mane, and a yellow one with an orange mane. She was familiar for some reason.

It all made sense when they landed in front of him. “Here he is.” Rainbow said, pointing at Ryan excitedly. “Ryan... uh...” She took a moment. “I guess that we don’t know his full name.”

“And odds are, you never will.” He stepped forward off of the tree. “I am Ryan, and I only know one of you. It’s good to see you again, Spitfire, though I wasn’t expecting it.”

Spitfire smiled. “Me neither.”

“So what brings you all down here?” Ryan asked, already knowing the answer.

The white-maned pegasus stepped forward, accompanied by what was likely her boyfriend. “You saved me in Canterlot, but I never got your name.” she explained. “I wanted to come down here and thank you.”

Ryan tugged his Beret down a little. “Don’t mention it.”

“I have to mention it.” the male said. Ryan looked at him. “I’m Soarin’, Fleetfoot’s coltfriend.” Coltfriend? “You saved her from that bastard in the alleyway. I owe you more than I can ever repay.”

“No one owes me anything.” Ryan said. “I did that because I saw it happening, and because I know how terrible it was. I wasn’t going to allow it to happen.”

Suddenly, Fleetfoot ran up to him and gave him a crushing hug. “Even so... thank you.”

At this point, Ryan knew that his day was totally shot. He wasn’t going to be able to check the forest or treeline, it would all have to wait until tomorrow. Other than that, though, he really had nothing that he had to do today, at least until tonight when he was going to have drinks with Mac and Fancy.

“Alright.” Ryan said, returning the hug. “I can see that this meant a lot to all of you.”

Fleetfoot let go and went back to Soarin’, who was eager to get her back in his forelegs again, and planted a kiss on his face. Ryan turned his head to give them some respect, whereas Rainbow felt uncomfortable and simply excused herself and flew off. Spitfire shook her head as the two pegasi got more intense.

She walked over to Ryan, looking away from them. “So do you have anypony special in your life?” she asked.

“Nah, I got no one, the way I think it probably should be.” Spitfire gave him a look. “I can explain later.” She just nodded at him; it was obvious that she and her friends wanted to hear his story. “So Spitfire. Do you have a stallion in your life?”

She laughed. “You’re pushing on a pull door, buddy.”

Ryan looked her over. “Well, I guess you are flaming.” They shared a smirk as the oblivious lovebirds finished up their moment.

They turned back to Spitfire and Ryan. “Uh, sorry, I get a little carried away.” Soarin’ said sheepishly.

“Sometimes, he carries me away.” Fleetfoot nuzzled her coltfriend’s neck affectionately, making Spitfire feel lonely and Ryan feel like he wanted to sit in his ditch and just stay there, because he may have ruined relationships like this. He kept it hidden very well, though.

He tried to get his mind off of it. “Well, I have nothing to do today. I can hang out, if you would be so inclined.” He knew that he would have to tell at least part of his story, but he could gloss over parts of it to avoid the emotion. He was starting to get pretty good at that.

“Awesome!” Soarin’ replied, smiling a big, toothy smile. “We can check out the local bakery!”

Ryan raised his eyebrow at him, but before he could ask, Fleetfoot said, “He’s really into pie.”

Looking back and forth between them, Ryan deadpanned, “I bet he eats it for dessert every night.” Thankfully, no one got it, or if they did, they didn’t show it at all. If they had gotten it, Ryan would have been rightfully smacked or bucked for it.

They made their way to Sugarcube Corner, and along the way, Ryan told them about his homeland. They were fascinated with what he told them; technology, world cultures, global trade, sports, and all kinds of different hobbies people got. He refrained from telling them about military technology and conflict, though. No need to get into a discussion on that.

When they arrived at Sugarcube Corner, Pinkie was inside with Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, the three of them talking about the presence of the Wonderbolts in town.

“Isn’t it awesome that they came here?” Rainbow asked rhetorically. “They’re so cool, it just makes everything seem so much more awesome!”

Ryan shook his head at how little sense her actual statement made as he and the Wonderbolts silently listened.

“Yes, I guess it is pretty great. I hope it doesn’t get too noisy though...” Fluttershy was hiding behind her mane as she spoke, probably because she did not like how loud Rainbow had a tendency of being. “I suppose that we can thank Ryan for it.”

“Huh?” Rainbow replied.

“Well, if he wasn’t so willing to run in and help, they wouldn’t have a reason to be here right now. They would be up in Canterlot, doing whatever they would be doing, I guess.”

“Flutters’ right, Dashie! You should be nicer to him.” She looked behind her. “And now’s your chance.”

Rainbow whipped around, startled at the appearance of her heroes and Ryan. “Oh,hey. Didn’t know you were there.” She smiled nervously.

Spitfire just looked at her with a deadpan expression. “You really should be nicer to him, you know.” Rainbow’s nervous smile became a shameful frown.

“Trust me,” Ryan interjected. “Her jerkiness is nothing compared to some of the other people I’ve met. She could be called nice by them.”

“Really?” Fleetfoot asked. “Pray tell, who were these ‘people’?”

Ryan didn’t answer and looked at the other two before him. They were expecting an answer as well, probably the answer that Ryan was generally reluctant to give. Turning his head, he saw that Rainbow was looking at him expectantly as well, whereas Fluttershy and Pinkie looked like they were about ready to chew off the ends of their hooves.. He sighed, then walked over to a table and sat down.

“Well, I suppose I can tell you.” The Wonderbolts went over and sat with him. “But let me warn you, these people aren’t going to be pleasant to hear about.”

“We can take it.” Spitfire assured him.

“Alright then.” Ryan said. And once again, he began to tell his story, albeit much censored.


******************************************************************************


Luna was sipping her tea peacefully at a table on her balcony, watching the ponies below as they went about their daily lives. There were servants, carrying their trays and talking about castle business. Guards doing their rounds. That one guard who had the against-regulations relationship with a female server that was a big secret to the two of them. It was enough to make life feel good for the Princess of the Night.

Starstep sat across from her, not caring about the ponies below. He was watching her. She was so much happier now, now that she knew Ryan was alive and well. Her entire demeanor changed; she held her head higher, she had better posture, she spoke more assertively. He had never noticed the lack of these things before, but now that they were back, he could tell what Ryan’s “death” had done to her.

It made him happy to see her happy. His own demeanor had changed as well. Now, he found it easier to get out of bed (partly because she was up earlier and no longer waited for him to get up), easier to walk around, and felt hungry more often. It felt good.

“Starstep, what are you looking at?” Luna asked without looking at him.

“Just stargazing.” he said. He brought his hoof up and rested his chin on it. “In the middle of the day, there’s only one place to see the stars.”

Luna smiled. “Can’t get enough of the stars, can you?” she asked. “You seem to just bury yourself in them at night.”

Starstep chuckled. “Sorry about that, I’m usually asleep before that happens.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Luna replied, turning to look at her guard. “It’s good to know that somepony enjoys my night sky that much.”

Starstep smiled lazily. They weren’t having their usual banter, but this was still nice. It was less of the crazy kind of fun and more of simple relaxation, something neither of them had had in a long time. It was all so simple; no Discord, no worrying about Ryan getting killed, no griffons to worry about. It was like a slice of heaven.

“I could gaze into it forever.” he said. Luna smiled and it almost appeared that she blushed.

Their moment wasn’t meant to last. “Princess!” a guard shouted all the way from the door to her chambers. “Princess, your sister requires your presence!”

Luna sighed. “Alright, I shall get to her soon.” she replied in a speaking version of the Royal Canterlot Voice. She turned to Starstep. “I’m afraid that our relaxation cannot continue right now.”

Her guard nodded. “Well, I guess that I’ll just wait for you here.”

Luna stood and began to make her way out. “Yes. Meet me in my quarters tonight.” she said suggestively. Before Starstep could reply, she was gone.


Luna approached the entrance to her sister’s throne room with caution. Her sister normally did not call on her during the day unless she was either unhappy or simply needed her take on something. Luna could bet that her take wasn’t needed on something. Odds were that it was about Blazer and the griffons in the south.

She walked up to the door, which opened for her as she moved, and entered the room. Around her, there was nopony; not a single guard or server present. Celestia was a the other end of the room with a table before her. She stared intently at it, like she was trying to make a decision on how to proceed in a war. Which was exactly what she may have been planning.

“You wished to see me sister?” Luna said as the door shut behind her, locking her in with her sister. She walked up to the table and took a look at it.

“Yes, I did.” Celestia replied. “I need to speak with you about rescuing Blazer.”

Luna blinked. “What?” she replied. “Do you think we can do it?!” Luna was feeling excited now. If she could find a way to get Starstep’s friend back, it would make her guard’s life that much better.

Celestia took a moment to reply. “I do.” she said.

Silence. “Well?” Luna asked. “What is it?”

“Before I tell you...” Celestia said, drawing a frown from her sister. “I need you to know that there will be no obligations, no leverage used. Nothing will be underhanded or sleazy. It will all be of his own choice.”

Luna was growing worried. “Who is this that you speak of?” she asked. “I will tell you that Starstep is going nowhere. I won’t have his life put at risk by sending him down there.”

Celestia shook her head. “It is not him.” she said. She walked away from the table and looked up at one of the clear windows. It had yet to be filled with a stained-glass image. “I speak of Ryan.”

It was like a brick to the face. Luna felt like she was physically struck when she heard that. her sister wanted to send Ryan down south to fight in a war that was neither his nor theirs. She wanted him to fight griffons that were similar to the men he fought and died against; savages, monsters who kill because they can. She wanted to send Ryan out to fight another Narendra.

“No.” she said. “Absolutely not; I cannot allow this.”

Celestia sighed. “Sister-”

“No! I will not have him suffer at the hands of such beings ever again! I failed to save him once before, I will not fail again. He is not going.”

“Sister, do you understand what he is?” she asked. Luna scowled. “He is perfect for this. He knows how they operate, he knows how to fight them. He has never been seen or heard of by them, so they would never suspect him. He is the perfect warrior for this.”

“Do you think I have not thought about this?” she asked. “When I left him at the boutique, I thought about that. I quickly squashed those thoughts. How do we know it will work? Griffons have distinct advantages over him; claws, flying. Mountains are their home, not his. He will be in a position where he is more likely to fail.”

Celestia went back to the table. “Luna, I have looked over his past. He was never in familiar territory, he never knew what to do, he never knew how to do it. Yet he did. He accomplished his goal.”

“And what did he get from it?” Luna asked. “He would have died if not for Discord. His lack of experience got him killed in Vietnam.”

“And now, he does have experience.” Celestia walked up to her sister. “He isn’t the same as before, little sister. He’s more capable now; you know he can handle the griffons.”

Luna tried to argue, but nothing came. Her head hung low, she said, “I fear that he might not be able to handle the strain on his mind. What if he can't do it alone?”

Celestia softened her voice. “I know, Luna. But he will have to do that on his own.”

Luna thought about it all for a moment. Sure, Ryan could probably defeat the griffons. But where would that put him? In a position to take more lives? How would he handle that, after everything that has happened? He clearly didn’t want to kill any more. He only killed that stallion because he had a flashback, and he ran away from the scene. His mind was in a fragile state right now; could it take any more assaults?

Luna looked at her sister, tears brimming in her eyes. “I... I can’t ask him to do this, Tia. I just can’t.”

Celestia wrapped her wing around her dear sister. “I understand, Luna.” she said softly. “I won’t ask you to.”


******************************************************************************


Saturday night, and it was time to meet his companions to drink. Fancy Pants had arrived earlier and went to Rarity to discuss some fashion deal, leaving Ryan with Soarin’. Fleetfoot and Spitfire had left Ryan and Soarin’ together after meeting the other Elements of Harmony and agreeing to a day at the spa. With nothing else to do, Soarin’ asked to join Ryan and his friends to drink. Ryan decided that he might as well.

Now, the three stallions and human were sitting around the table, sipping at their drinks, sharing tales. Soarin’ had all sorts of stories from his job, from teaching at Flight Camps, to being on the Seventy-first Strategic Recon Battalion in the air guard some years ago in a war against the griffons in the south.

“So I was flying over these mountains with my zoom lenses when I spotted a camp in the valley. I had to fly a bit lower, which pissed off Fleetfoot something fierce when she found out, and I saw an enemy training camp. I called it in on my magic comms, and the Thirty-fifth Joint Strike Force came swooping in and took them out. I watched the whole thing happen; the action was non stop.”

“And what kind of intel did you get from the camp?” Ryan asked, pulling up his mug for a swig.

“Well, it was nighttime, so we found a whole lot. There was intel on planned attacks, developing plans, enemy movements, equipment, and all kinds of stuff. It was one of the biggest hauls we ever had. And I was the one who found it.” Soarin’ added that last statement with a puff of his chest.

“How did y’all get over them without being seen?” Mac asked. “I feel like you would stand out pretty bad, up there in the sky.”

“We of the Seventy-first had to wear black uniforms when we flew at night to avoid being seen. It’s how we got the nickname Blackbirds.”

“I say, I remember those! I was commissioned to make them for you fellows. I do hope that they served you well.” Fancy Pants said.

“Oh they did; never lost a single stallion. Or mare.”

Ryan wasn’t much of a part of the conversation from the start, but now he was looking for Cinny. He thought that she was working tonight, but he supposed that she might not be. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to see her, it was more that no one else served their group. When they got here, Mac’s and Ryan’s drinks were already out, so he thought she was here.

“Hey there, Ryan!” He turned around; there she was. Cinny walked up to the table, pad in hoof and pen in mouth. “What can I get you boys?” she asked.

Each guy ordered a drink, then went back to talking. Mac was being more talkative than usual, something that was fine with Ryan. It was all casual conversation, just guys talking about their respective lives. It was something Ryan hadn’t had in awhile.

Soarin’ and Fancy Pants had proven to be fine to drink with. They talked a little more than Ryan liked, but they didn’t ask him questions or pry at him for information. They all had a general idea of his history, but none of them would bring it up. They all showed him respect and had the integrity to continue doing so, and for that, Ryan had to admit to liking them.

However, he knew that he would have to be careful about how close he got to them, because eventually, he knew that he would leave forever. Be it by living in the forest or not.

Not a Walk in the Park

View Online

Not a Walk in the Park

A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.” (JFK)

The following day, Ryan still couldn’t go out into the forest, because the Wonderbolts had stayed in town that night instead of take a night time train home to Canterlot. Spitfire and Fleetfoot stayed with Rainbow Dash that Saturday, and as far as Ryan could tell, they had a fine time. Soarin’ stayed with the Apple family, where he ultimately had to sleep in the barn because Applebloom kept pestering him. Fancy Pants had a wife to get home to, so he left on the night time train after bidding his farewells.

As usual, Ryan had woken up early that Sunday and took the chance to go for a run. On his run, he ran by the edge of the forest, peeking in to check for prospects of paths to take. He found several in his passing and took note of them for later. He also ran by the farm, where he noticed Soarin’ was up and walking out of the barn, looking like he just came out of a pile of dust.

Ryan didn’t think he was noticed, and so kept running, but soon, he was joined by Soarin’. Soarin’ remained in the air as they moved, but they spoke as they went. It was a time to get to know his new drinking companion.

“So I guess that you must love flying.” Ryan said. Soarin’ nodded. “Is that why you joined the Air Guard?”

Soarin’ lowered himself to the ground and ran alongside Ryan. “I joined the Air Guard because I wanted to defend Equestria. During training, I proved that I can fly high, long, and fast, so they put me into the Seventy-first Strategic Recon Battalion. I liked getting that assignment; I was nice and safe up high, while I could relay information to my buddies on the ground that might save their lives.”

“Nice.” Ryan replied.

They kept on running, eventually getting back into town, just chatting away. They walked about their favorite drinks, foods, namely pie for Soarin’, their jobs, and mares and women. It was simple conversation, nothing heavy or complicated, nothing that required serious thought. It was a good way to start the day.

They hit the boutique and waited outside to cool down, not wanting to sweat up the place and be yelled at by Rarity. Thinking about it, Ryan realized that he had been stealthy in his returns at night as well, and Sweetie Belle probably still didn’t know he was living there. Maybe he should try to keep that going.

He and Soarin’ continued to chat for a bit, waiting for some activity to indicate that someone was awake inside. Throughout their conversation, both man and stallion looked into the window to see, and eventually, they were rewarded with several lights coming on. Taking that as the cue to go in, they got up and briskly walked to the door. As they opened it, they could hear someone rummaging through the kitchen.

They walked inside and were greeted by the sight of Rarity, not made up in the slightest and having just rolled out of bed. She gave them a tired greeting, mindlessly making her breakfast as she went along. Soarin’ and Ryan greeted her back, deciding that they should leave to let the lady have her own time.

They left, and soon enough, they ran into the other ponies who would be around town this early; namely, Spitfire, Fleetfoot, and because of them, Rainbow Dash. From there, they went around the town, checking the various stores and seeing what few sights there were. Rainbow had some new tricks to show the Wonderbolts, which Ryan had to admit were impressive. They liked them as well, hinting at a possibility of a career in stunt flying in the future.

The day went by relatively fast, with the Wonderbolts leaving at one for Canterlot. They had a training session to attend, and being highly ranked on the team, they couldn’t afford to miss it. As the fliers boarded the train, all said their goodbyes, some wishing to be more noticeable than others.

“Hey, Ryan.” Soarin’ said. Ryan turned his eyes his way, away from Spitfire. “It was good drinking with you. Think we could do it again sometime?” he asked.

Ryan shrugged. “Sure. Next Sunday work for you?” He had already gotten Mac and Fancy to agree to next Sunday, since he would try to spend the Saturday night in the forest.

Soarin’ grinned. “Sounds good.” With that, he waved goodbye, got on the train, and was off.

The rest of the week was fine. Ryan would go and drink by himself each night, served by Cinny, who always refused him after a certain point. After that, Ryan would pay, head out, and buy beer from a store. It was never as good though.

He went to the gym a couple of times, keeping his mind as empty as possible. He went over his checklist of things he would need, each time finding something small that he would need, like bug spray or a backpack. He checked his armor and weapons, making sure everything fit; the weapons were pretty much a given. He went over his plan of approach; look back frequently to check for followers, take an obscure route, be quick once behind the treeline. It was all very simple.

Now, Saturday was upon him, and he felt ready to head out into the forest. Since he planned on staying overnight this time, he wasn’t too worried about leaving too late. It would just mean that he had to watch for anyone who might see him head out.

Rather than have to change later, Ryan just donned his gear when he awoke. He started with the jacket, then the armor vest, then the gear vest where his weapons hung. He stuck his helmet on and clipped it, getting a good feel for what it was like wearing it. As much as he knew it would draw some level of attention, he wanted to know what it was like to wear this for an entire day or two. He would end up like that in the future, so he should get it all under his belt now.

If I attract too much attention, I’ll just go early.” he concluded as he went out.

Thinking it a better idea not to exert himself too much now, he decided to just go somewhere and sit down for a time. The park was the best choice, as few ponies would be there at the moment, and it did have plenty of benches that were out of the way for him to sit on. It would be a nice place to just sit and do nothing.

As he walked to the park, there were few ponies around; most don’t want to be up and about at half past seven in the morning. Lights in homes were off, windows were closed, and doors were locked. Everything was strangely quiet for a bustling town, but that’s how nighttime and early morning work; a bustling residential area can become a ghost town. As spooky as it was, it didn’t seem to bother the human.

When he arrived at the park, he looked for a bench that was out of the way and sat down. He didn’t really know what he was doing or why, he was just running on autopilot. He might have been expecting to see the Wraith, or to see things that weren’t there. Even he wasn’t sure, as he sat there on a cold bench, alone, awaiting an unknown event of unknown consequences.

“Ryan.”

His ears perked up and he looked over in the direction of the voice; to his left, tiredly walking toward him, was Cinny.

“Cinny.” he replied mechanically.

She walked up to him, bags under her eyes and hooves dragging on the ground. “May I sit?” She looked like she could use a place to sit.

“I don’t see why not.” he replied, again, mechanically.

Cinny dredged over to the bench and pulled herself up, making little grunts as she made her way up. Ryan just watched her as she went along, not moving to provide any aid or encourage her. He was like a statue, emotionless and unmoving in mind and in body. When she was finally up, she lay herself down with her face toward Ryan, a tired and genuine smile across her face. Ryan had nothing to return it with.

He turned his head and looked forward, empty of thought and devoid of care. “What brings you out this early?” he asked.

“I saw you pass by outside my house.” Cinny replied. “I’m not normally up this early, but I got up to use the bathroom and saw you outside my window, all dressed up and ready for something. I just came out to ask you what was up.”

Ryan considered how he would answer. She might worry about him if he told her the truth. But then, why should he care? He wasn’t going to be around that much longer. If he was going to leave them, why bother caring about what they feel? The only pony that mattered in the slightest to him was Luna, and she would always be able to find him. What was the problem with her knowing?

“I intend to check the forest for a few things.” he said. “I want to find out if there is some kind of magic that I can use in the future in there.” He straight up lied to her.

Cinny frowned for a second, but her smiled returned quickly with a little nod. “I think I see.” she said. “I’m sure you can handle yourself out there. From what I heard, you already did once or twice.”

Ryan didn’t really respond, he just grunted to acknowledge that something was said. Cinny took the cue and decided to give him a minute to think. She could clearly tell that something was on his mind, though what it was, she could not say. He stared off into the distance, thoughts playing out in his eyes faster than she could keep up with. He was an unusual one, this human, but then, his life had been rather unusual.

He spoke after a time. “Where are you from?” he asked, still staring off at nothing.

“I came here from Las Pegasus; grew up there.” Ryan nodded, then waited for her to continue. She took the hint and went on, “It was weird, growing up next to such a huge city with so much money going around. Those of us in the suburbs never saw it, or rarely did, but we always got to see the poor souls who lost everthing. It became the duty of the town to help them get back on their hooves and get back home to where they were safe from the vices of The Strip.”

Ryan could easily picture Las Vegas from that, but he kept it to himself. “Yeah...” he replied. “I grew up in a well-to-do Jersey suburb, close to New York City. Your is probably Manehattan.” Twilight had told him about some of the cities. “One of the problems with growing up next to one of the biggest cities in the world is that when you see any city with less than a million people, it doesn’t seem as much like a city.”

Cinny tried to process a city of a million ponies, but failed to do so, and instead, continued with what they were talking about. “Yeah, Las Pegasus was big. Not a million ponies big, but a good size. We saw ponies of all stripes go there to make or break their lives; rich, almost poor, zebras, griffons, ponies, dragons were especially bad. I learned that no one is safe from the dangers within us. That was why I was so ready to help them after they lost everything in that deathtrap of a city.”

That must be why she was helping Ryan; she saw him as a victim. Well, as much as that could be true, he was much more the victimizer. There were ponies out there that really needed her help, yet she was here with Ryan, trying her damndest to make him human again. It wasn’t liable to work.

Ryan took the turn as an opportunity to keep the conversation away from himself for a while. “So what brought you out here?” he asked. “I can’t imagine why you would live here if you wanted to help ponies.”

Cinny gave him a look, the kind that asks really? “Did you not see the other stallions in the bar?” she asked. “Some found their wives cheating. Others lost a loved one to something well out of their control, or completely within it. They all have troubles, troubles that I can try to ease.”

“But not on the same scale as Las Pegasus.” Ryan replied. He finally turned to look at her.

“No.” she replied, sighing. “But they are on a much more managable scale. I can deal with simple problems, the kind that don’t involve potential life loss. But seeing so many fall and even die sometimes to the City of Tears... I couldn’t take it much longer. A lot of us couldn’t. So we left.”

It made sense to Ryan; the problem is too big for you to handle, so you step out of the way for more qualified or willing people to do it. Ryan should have done that in Southeast Asia, but he didn’t. He should have taken a page out of Cinny’s book and just gone off on his own and let someone like Interpol take care of it. They were more qualified... but then, they weren’t as willing. No, Ryan definitely had the most will to kill that son of a bitch.

“I see what you mean.” he replied after a time. “After a while, i just takes everything you have to give. Eventually, you need to move on, find new things, or it’ll take everything out of you.” He knew that way too well.

He couldn’t see Cinny’s sad look. “Yeah... I guess that it does.”

Ryan sat in silence for a minute, listening to the wind blow and the leaves rustle. It was so calm and quiet, like this was all just a dream. He would wake up in bed, no real memory of Narendra or the ponies in his mind. No pain, no scars, no new clothes. No plans to move into a dangerous forest, no nothing. Just life the way he was meant to live it. But he knew that this was no dream; it was a nightmare, a real one that would go on until the day he died and look like pleasant memories from the fiery pits of Hell.

“I think I should get ready to head out.” Ryan said, standing up. “I need to get out there in the in between time, when Hell goes to sleep and Shit is just getting up.”

Cinny winced at the harsh language, but didn’t make any mention of it. “Alright.” she replied. She looked at him longingly, wishing that she could talk to him more. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, see you around.” If he got out alive.




Ryan stood before the entrance to the forest, legs out wide and a scowl on his face. He figured that it was only one night, he wouldn’t need much. On his back, he organized a backpack with two canteens of water and some food, plus a sleeping bag for the night; no need to be scratching skeeter bites in the morning. He briefly considered taking the beret instead of the helmet, but decided that it would be foolish. He had his weapons and tiny sum of ammunition, a flashlight, and a flare gun he bought the previous day. All that over the armor and cloak, and he was set to go.

Without haste, he set off into the dark forest, opting to follow the path to the old castle for at least a time. Once he was far enough, he would deviate off the path and make his own way into the forest. He would try to break plants and branches on his way to mark his path, but with the magic of the forest, it was a safe bet that it wouldn’t work. Might as well try, though.

He walked about six miles into the forest before stopping and taking a look around. e had left Ponyville at eight, right around when everyone was coming out. Looking back and to the sky, he could see that nopony followed him out here. Deciding it was safe, he decided to start heading out into the forest.

The instant he crossed that treeline and left the path, he was plunged into darkness. He had to leave the trees, pull out his flashlight, and then continue on forward; the darkness was all encompassing. As he started to make his way through, he noticed that the noise was gone. Around him, nothing made any noise. He rarely encountered anything on the ground, roots, plants, or small animals. It was like he crossed into an empty zone, well beyond the darkness of the twilight one.

He kept the flashlight physically away from his body at arm’s length; if it was attacked, he would be fine. Mostly, anyway.

As he moved, the only thing that made any noise was the dirt crunching under his feet. That was the only thing reminding him that he wasn’t in a void or the vacuum of space. He looked up at the sky to see dense branches and leaves hanging from above, blocking any and all sunlight. Not even a single ray of light could get through that stuff.

He pointed the flashlight around him and was surprised to see that there were very few trees actually in the area. As he went on, they were beginning to become more frequent, but as of yet, there were still not that many. It was enough to make him wonder about the life in there.

But not for long. Off to his side, he heard something break a branch, creating a crash as said branch hit the ground. Ryan whipped out his Automag and spun around to greet his unwelcome visitor-

Nothing was there; not even a broken branch. Well, there was a tree trunk, actually. Though it was oddly bare, showing the wood underneath. Curious, Ryan walked over to it and investigated. The bark had been stripped, that much was clear. There were clear signs that something took the bark off this tree, and possibly just now. Walking around, Ryan followed a strange pattern carved into it.

Can’t run

Ryan read the message slowly, realizing that there was, in fact, something here. Hand growing sweaty, Ryan held his pistol tightly as he went back around the tree in the direction he had been going before. He didn’t know what the message meant, but he had an idea of who had put it there. He was not going to let that one win.

He continued on, and the trees began to grow thicker as he went. The trunks were getting bigger and the trees were more numerous, the branches got lower, and the roots became higher. Some of the trees looked fine; others had faces carved into them. they all had jagged looking teeth, like they wanted nothing more than to eat him. They had branches extending from their sides, right next to their faces, that looked like arms, with sharp fingers on the ends to grab at and rip apart anyone unfortunate enough to get too close.

Ryan nearly had a too close experience when he walked past a tree whose face was extra high. The branches shot down in an attempt to grab him, fingers trying to spear him and yank him off the ground to tear him in half. He ducked down and rolled away, splaying out across the ground in a heavy-breathing tussle.

He stood up and looked at the angry tree still trying to grab at him from its stationary position. “You think you can take me?” he said darkly, pulling up his pistol. “I’ll make you fucking firewood.”

The tree’s face suddenly contorted and closed up, dragging the deadly arms that nearly killed Ryan with it. As the face swirled away, Ryan only watched as it went, intrigued yet indifferent, and quickly lost interest in watching it. Unsure of why it went away, he decided to just keep moving.

As he continued, he noticed that the other trees like it were still moving, but made no move to touch him or attack. He got up close to them, investigating them to check if they were serious threats to him. He deemed that they were no threat to him, and so he could cross them off the list of things that made the area too dangerous. This place was looking half decent.

Can’t escape

The wind carried the words like a breath released from a dying man’s lips; soft and deadly, giving you more to worry about than you realize, signifying the end. Ryan stopped dead in his tracks, feeling a cold breeze go across the back of his neck. His grip on the pistol tightened even more, giving him white knuckles and generating pain in his palm. Slowly, he walked forward, looking for whatever made the wind.

He knew that there was nothing before him. In front of him, there was only more darkness until the end. There were no creatures around, and for a good reason. There was a predator here. More dangerous than anything else in the forest, more capable of killing. Whatever it was, it drove everything else away, and drove the trees to submission. Wherever it went, it could only bring death.

Ryan took in a deep breath and turned around slowly, waiting to see the Wraith. But as he turned, his eyes were graced with another of nature’s demons.

He had no idea what was before him. It looked like a pony, in body, at least. It’s hooves were a stark white again the black background, the light hitting, yet not really reflecting off of them. On its legs and torso, it wore a pitch black suit with a white undershirt, and it went all the way back to its rear, with a pair of pants to cover the hind legs. Its face was bare; no nostrils, no eyes, no mane. The pony before him was no pony at all; it was pure death.

Ryan stared it down for what felt like an eternity; it just stared back. Ryan could feel it tugging at his mind, trying to wrestle away his control over himself, trying to get him to go somewhere. He knew that it wanted to get him and do something to him; he was hopeful that he would never find out what. As it stared, the flashlight began to flicker. Each time it did, the pony-like creature got closer, inching its way up to him as he stood there, glued to the ground, starting at its eyeless sockets.

The flashlight went out for two full seconds. Ryan’s breath stopped, his heart rate increased rapidly. He could feel a tightness over his chest, a swelling in his head. His blood pumped in overdrive, making more noise than the rest of him. In the total blackness, he could feel it’s eye sockets boring into him, able to see what he could not. The temperature around him began to decrease, the air stiffening and going stale.

When the flashlight came back on, it was before him, staring at him with its expressionless face. It did not move, it did not make a sound. It just stood there, looking at him. Ryan stared back, raising the pistol to take aim at its forehead. The whole time, Ryan could feel it work its non-unicorn magic on him, trying to take control. Ryan’s arm twitched as he brought the pistol to point at the same thing that the light was.

It went out again, plunging the pair into darkness. When the light returned, Ryan blinked at the sight before him; nothing. It was gone. The pony had been replaced by a backdrop of trees and bits of grass, not the total blackness of before. He looked forward, spotting the beginning of the total darkness that he had just been in. Whatever that thing was, it didn’t want him around.

And he was fine with that. Ryan continued along his way, eager to get away from that area and stay in the lighted section of the forest. Now, he was in a less densely vegetated area, but he could at least see more than ten feet in front of him. There was a small river here, exactly the kind he would be needing in the future. Around him, there were plenty of small trees and bushes, good for building a house of some kind. Away from the river, he might be able to find some drier logs and whatnot for making fires. Of course, the safest place for that would be a cave.

Rather than continue and try to find a cave nearby, Ran decided to take a break and eat some lunch. Dropping his backpack, he fished around it for some food and a canteen to drink from. He had no idea if this water was actually drinkable, so he would down a canteen or dump it, then take some of this water into it. He would drink it back in town, and if he got sick, e would get to a hospital. Perfect plan.

He ate a protein bar and drank his water as slowly as he could. he felt exhausted after carrying so much stuff through that harrowing bit of forest, and he needed a chance to sit down. He needed his heart to slow back down and to regain control of his breathing. That thing may not have taken over his mind, but it sure as hell took control of his body. At least in some respect.

From his seat on the ground, he could hear the water running and little creatures moseying about. “I can tell you’re there.” he said, taking a swig of water.

The Wraith came out from behind a tree and leaned up against it, facing his longtime accomplice with an amused grin. “Well, aren’t you the observant one.”

“No.” Ryan replied, turning around to face his tormentor. “You just suck a sneaking around.”

The Wraith smiled. “I suppose that I’m not as good as some others.” A pause. “I see you’ve met the landlord of the forest.”

“I suppose that I have.”

The Wraith nodded slowly, gently closing his eyes. “Yes... he doesn’t like trespassers. But he always tends to listen to me, so I can come and go as I please.”

Ryan went to drink from his canteen, but noticed that it was empty. Now that it was, he got up and walked over to the little river and dunked it in the water, filling it up and capping it. When he came back to his spot, The Wraith was still just waiting for him there, only now, he had a book in his hands.

Ryan sat back down and looked at his watch; it was already half past three in the afternoon. He figured that he could spend another half hour resting here, then he would go up or downriver to see if e could find a cave or decent campsite where he was less likely to be killed in the night. He had his guns and knife, so as long as nothing huge came after him, he could handle anything that came his way.

The Wraith’s eyes were fixed firmly on his book as he spoke. “You know, this might not be the best place for you to go.” he commented casually.

“Why not?” Ryan replied from his spot on the ground. “It’s pretty far in; not many ponies would dare this journey.”

The Wraith didn’t speak for a second; he was enthralled with the book. “True; but that little area you just went through is too dangerous. If somepony were to follow you, they would certainly die in there. Not to mention,” His eyes shifted and he glanced at the river. “This river runs through the town. They might just follow it.”

Ryan cursed in his own head, but refrained from saying anything out loud. If that were true, then at least he had another way into this area of the forest. But at the same time, he would have to abandon the prospect of setting up here, for it was too risky for being found. All that trouble, and the area that he ended up liking was totally shot.

He would have to go upriver, since he knew that the river that ran through Ponyville didn’t come through the forest first. If he went that way, he might be able to find a little cave or open area where he could bed down for the night. The boy got up and decided not to wait any longer, and began to make his way upriver for better prospects.

Evidently, the Wraith had nothing better to do, so he followed. Initially, he didn’t speak, just kept his eyes glued to that book. Ryan tried to ignore him while they moved, but the quietness of his steps had a distinct loudness that Ryan could not hear, but knew was there. It was like incredibly deep bass; he couldn’t really hear it, but it resonated within his body.

Eventually, Ryan came upon a rocky area, which turned out to be the base of a mountain. He knew that the mountains were around nine miles away from Ponyville, so it was clear that he was extremely far into the forest. Farther than anypony would be willing to go to find him, and with enough... security, to prevent ponies from trying to travel through the forest. After looking around, Ryan could see that there was a series of caves in the mountain’s base, varying in size, shape, and even color. One of them emitted some kind of gas.

Stay out of that one.” Ryan concluded.

With one down and what looked like seven to go, Ryan set about checking the remainder of the caves for potential dangers. The first one turned out to be just an indentation in the rocks, so it was generally useless to him. It would provide no protection from the elements, and in the winter months, that would be key. There were two other caves that he could check left.

He began to walk into one as the Wraith spoke. “You know, this is hardly a good thing for you to be doing.” he said.

Ryan tried to ignore him; although it never went particularly well for him. He decided not to continue the effort. “Why would that be?” he asked, not really wanting an answer.

The Wraith shook his head. “You’re just going to leave them all behind?” he asked, sounding disappointed. “Those ponies who helped you so much, who care about you? That hardly seems like something a half decent person would do.”

“Who ever said that I am a half decent person?” Ryan asked back, growing frustrated. He tried to cool himself down by breathing slowly. “You remember Asia.”

The Wraith sighed. “What about Luna?” he asked, giving Ryan pause. “She’ll still be able to come to you; but you know that she won’t approve of this. She’ll want you someplace safe, like the town.”

Ryan didn’t speak for several tense minutes. “Should I really care?” he asked. “All I want is to live out my life without anything to remind me of what I did out there. Without any kind of reminder at all. Luna will understand; I know she will.”

Ryan walked into another cave as the Wraith started up again. “And what about the Cutie Mark Crusaders?” he asked. “Would you so readily leave them behind to wonder if their new friend is even alive, or if he was ripped apart by the monsters of the Everfree? What kind of person does that to children?”

“I’m sure they won’t wonder about that.” Ryan said defensively. “I wouldn’t do that to children; I know they will be fine.”

“No, Ryan! You’re just telling yourself that in order to justify what you’re doing!” the Wraith shouted, getting Ryan to turn around, a scowl on his face. “You did the same thing in Asia, and look what happened! You’re just going to cause pain and suffering with what you’re doing!” His voice took on a dark tone, and his mouth twisted into a devilish smile. “But then again, you would have no problem with that, would you?”

Ryan snarled angrily at the Wraith, hand tight on his gun. “You shut it. I never wanted for any of that. I never wanted for any of this. I’m doing the best with what I have-”

“You are doing the worst possible thing with what you have!” the Wraith accused. He dropped the book where he was and walked forward. “You’re a coward and a traitor! You run away from your problems instead of dealing with them, and you abandon everything that matters when you think it’ll get you what you want! YOU ARE A COWARD, YOU BASTARD!”

Ryan’s fist connected with the Wraith’s jaw in an explosive shot to the face, sending the Wraith backwards just a tad. He blinked twice, unsure of how exactly Ryan just struck him. Ryan didn’t seem to notice as he railed.

“Fuck you, you twisted son of a bitch!” he shouted, in an absolute rage. “I tried! I tried, and I failed! Is that what you want to hear, huh?! I know that I failed! That’s why I’m out here!” Ryan was staring angrily at the Wraith as the man looked back at him. The Wraith did something unexpected then; he sighed, shook his head, and turned around. “Is that what you want to hear?” Ryan asked, getting close to tears.

“No.” the Wraith said, turning around and beginning to walk away. “I want you to acknowledge what you are. But I don’t see that happening tonight.” He turned around before going past the treeline; his face looked hard and stoic. “Think on your past sins, Ryan. Think, and understand.” Wit the last word, the Wraith walked off past the treeline and disappeared into the forest, leaving Ryan behind in an angry cloud of hatred.

Ryan spat in the direction that the Wraith left in and looked around. The cave he had walked into was small, but just big enough to accommodate him and anything he might want to bring. Looking at the entrance, he concluded that he should be able to build himself a makeshift door when the time was right. The cave went back about thirty-five feet, plenty of room for him to live well enough in.

Something caught his eye on the floor; it was the book. The Wraith had dropped it when Ryan punched him, and never picked it back up. Ryan walked over and tentatively picked it up, unsure of the magic within it. Upon inspecting the cover, he felt a chill run down his spine when he read the title; it was his full name. Nothing else was on the cover or binding, just his name on the front cover. Opening it, he found that the pages did, in fact, contain a log of everything that had happened since he first arrived. He flipped through the pages, eventually coming to the end, where he read about himself reading about himself in the book.

He shut the book and stuck it into his backpack; he was sure he could do something with it later. For now, though, he just knew that he wanted to rest up and get ready to head back in the morning. He had drinks with Mac, Soarin’, and Fancy tomorrow night, and he didn’t want to miss it.

The Nightmare Goes On

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The Nightmare Goes On

All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win is for enough good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

Time went on, as it always has and always will. Ryan continued to work a the library and boutique, went to the gym, explored the forest a bit. He had pretty much found the spot where he planned to stay, that cave system from before, so he had little reason to explore any more. The days were growing shorter, the weather cooler. Now he actually needed to wear the jacket, and at night, the cloak. October tends to be that way.

Around the middle of the month, he learned about Nightmare Night, their version of Halloween. Walking around in silly and scary costumes, getting candy, then getting sick... it brought Ryan back to the good days, back home. Kids were ecstatic, preparing for the night of fun and crazy activities. Ryan had prepared himself by making a Ghillie suit out of some of Rarity’s extra cloth and by gathering plants to attach to the suit.

He got up on the Sunday morning of the day of the holiday, feeling extra tired. He did not really know why; nothing had happened lately. He hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the Wraith. Luna sent him some letters, checking up on him, that he replied to. Life was... normal, for the first time in a while. But as he had grown to be, he knew that it could never last.

Ignoring his body’s desire to sleep, he got up and got dressed, putting on a new pair of long pants Rarity made him and then his shirt and jacket. He left his exploratory gear inside, save for his tactical vest, of course, then donned the necklace and beret. Once he was certain that he was good to go, he went upstairs for food.

It was about seven-thirty, the usual time he would be going to school right now. His classmates were probably wondering where he was, unless the world news told everyone what happened. They all probably thought he was dead. What were they saying about him? Did they think he could have done all the damage to Haqqani, or would they accredit it to military forces? And what of his family, how were they coping? It pained him to think about these things, so he stopped doing so.

As he exited the basement and entered to the kitchen, he witnessed Rarity trying to put down some kind of gray ash from her bowl. Sweetie Belle was wearing a huge smile as Rarity ate, indicating that she was the one who made the food. Ryan chuckled as he walked by, patting Rarity on the head a he went.

“Sweetie Belle, I think you should cook more often.” he commented, going into the fridge for milk. Realizing that he had yet to pull out any cereal, he moved quickly to avoid warming the milk too much. “You might not be cutie mark-potential, but you certainly have a way with food.”

Sweetie Belle cheered and Rarity glared at Ryan for his comments. “Yes, Ryan.” Rarity said. “Why don’t you try some of this? It really is something.”

Ryan finished preparing his own food, set it down, and planted himself in a seat at the table. “Don’t mind if I do.” he said, pulling Rarity’s bowl over. Dipping his spoon in, he quickly pulled it back out and stuffed it into his mouth, chewed rapidly, and swallowed. “Good stuff.”

Rarity just stared at him for a second, shook her head, and sighed. “Yes I suppose that it is, if it pleases your palate.” Ryan smiled mischievously as Rarity was forced to keep eating.

Ryan blew through his own food quickly, trying his best to ignore the woody taste of the pony cereal, trying to hide his troubles for the day. It would be easy to mask and ignore them in all the festivities, helping his neighbors prepare, walking around the park. It would get his mind off the troubles of his life.

When he finished up, he cleaned his utensils and bowl and set out. “I’ll see you ladies later, I guess.” he said, using a well-faked casual tone. The mare and filly waved goodbye at him as he walked briskly out the front door.

Out in the open air, exposed to the elements of the world, Ryan pulled his jacket close to guard against the cool Autumn winds that tried to steal his warmth. He wasn’t a fan of the cold; never had been. Knowing that the trees would guard him against the gusts that buffeted the town, Ryan made his way to the park, where he could at least sit down in relative comfort.

As he walked along, he could see all the little kids preparing for a night of candy and fun, the parents setting up decorations. The pegasi were moving the clouds to allow for warmth during the day, but later would move them back to cover up most of the night sky, with the exception of the moon, of course. Clouds at night would help to keep heat on the ground, and make it easier for the kids to go around town.

There were all sorts of costumes being worn by the excited little ones; soldiers, doctors, monsters, and assorted plants and silly things. Just like back home, it seemed, many of the adults wore skimpy costumes that, were it not for their regular nudity, would have revealed quite a bit to any onlooker. It’s something that Ryan always looked for back home when he walked around with friends that night.

It didn’t take long for Ryan to reach the park, needing the temporary isolation it would provide him. He desperately needed to think right now, to clear some things out of his mind. They were too-

“Hi mister Ryan!” a British accent sang out. Ryan sighed, put on a smile, and turned around to see little Pip, the British kid. “What are you doing out here?”

Ryan thought fast. “Well, I have an idea to prank...” Who? “Rainbow Dash.” Yeah, great idea. “I just need to check a few areas for the prank.”

The little one looked up at him with awe-filled eyes. Something wasn’t right. “YOU want to prank HER?!” he shouted. That might not be good. “Wow, you sure are brave. Good luck!”

Ryan thought about what he may have just done for a moment, but passed it off and decided he would just say he was kidding later. “Yeah, thanks, kid. Run along and play.” And the colt ran off, leaving Ryan to his thoughts.

Ryan entered the empty park and found the bench he had adopted for himself as of late, dropping onto it and letting out a drawn-out sigh. He needed to sit down in a cool spot, away from noise and movement, just think about... something. It was hard to keep himself still.

The previous night had been rougher than usual; he still had his nightmares, they would likely never go away. Ordinarily, he just sees his old friends in his dreams, reliving moments of what happened. He would watch them die, sometimes from the first person, sometimes looking on as his body killed them. It was never pleasant, and he always felt troubled when he awoke, but he had gotten used to it. The last dream was different, though.

This time, he saw it from the perspective of those he failed. He watched himself kill Joey and Catherine from their eyes. He knew the fear that they experienced before he killed them both, how terrified they were, knowing that nothing was going to be okay. From Catherine, he felt a sickly loss of hope, lost his will to live. He knew that he was about to die, but hadn’t accepted that.

When he was killed in the dream, it was all black for a moment. When he opened his eyes, he had no idea where he was, or what was about to happen. He could feel someone embracing him, holding him tight, but didn’t really know who it was. The only thing he knew was that his mother would never come back, that her screams, though muffled by the hands of his protectors, could only signify her end. He didn’t understand what they did to her, but his protectors did. That they didn’t tell him made him want to cry.

“It’ll be okay.” his holder said. There was a small bit of comfort in those words, a faint glimmer of hope. The bad man had just talked about giving him Anthrax, then sending him home. Anthrax sounded like it hurt. “It’ll all be okay.”

A small smile crept onto his toddler face, holding his protector tighter. “Thank y-”

And all was black once again.

He felt nauseous, sitting there on that cold, lonely bench. The dreams weren’t ever going to stop, and nothing could ever alleviate the pain. The only companion he had to share hi spain was the endless passing of time, the stale winds that came and went through the world, forgotten forever once passed. The grass around his bench was brown, the leaves falling off the trees, the park fountain turned off. There was nothing for him anywhere, it seemed.

He sat there for an hour, letting the air chill his bones and take away his urge to vomit. He tried and tried to come to terms with what he did, what happened, but he couldn’t get the feelings out of his head. He knew their fear, he knew their pain; he knew that he inflicted it all upon them.

It was ironic, really. Tonight was Nightmare Night for the ponies. Every night was Nightmare Night for him. He let out a loud, cynical laugh into the still air, hoping that it might alleviate some of the pain in his head. Nothing.

Giving up, Ryan decided to stand up and walk around the park. As he stepped away from the bench, he could feel some kind of weird presence behind him, like something was watching him. He could tell who it was, though he didn’t know why it was back right now. It made sense, though, when he thought about it.

He walked over to the big pond in the park and parked himself before it, looking out at the water. It was so still, so serene, like it had already turned to a sheet of white ice. Below, he could still see signs of movement, but they never approached the surface of the water. Where did the fish go, anyway? Could they survive the frigidity of the ice above them during the winter, cut off from the world by that which sustained the world? He never did understand the whole thing.

The leaves on the ground crunched behind him as his tail approached. “So what brought you back today, of all days?” Ryan asked, sticking his hands in his pocket.

The Wraith shrugged, then did the same with his own hands. “Oh, nothing, really. Just thought I would come out for the celebration.” He walked over and stood right next to Ryan. “It always has been my favorite day, you know.”

“I can imagine why.”

The two Ryan’s stood in silence, watching the water, waiting for the other to make a move. Ryan wore a stoic frown on his face, completely still, while the Wraith had a simple smile on. Ryan never got why he had the smile on, but he wasn’t sure he cared to know. It wasn’t like he needed to.

Ryan broke the silence, agitated by the Wraith’s demeanor. “What do you want?” he asked. “I thought I made it clear last time that I don’t like you or being near you.”

The Wraith turned his head, smile still persisting. “Well, I was taken a bit off guard last time. This time, though, I’m ready.”

Before Ryan could respond, the Wraith brought his left fist around in a hook punch and slammed his fist into Ryan’s solar plexus, crumpling him to the ground. While Ryan tried to get his breath back, the Wraith grabbed his face and tossed him backwards, sending him sprawling on the ground. He followed up the takedown with a quick stomp on his solar plexus once more, then kicked him in the side, leaving him groaning in pain on the ground before him.

All this, he did with that same agitating smile. “I figured I should pay you back.”

Ryan coughed. “You dick.”

The Wraith shrugged. “Well, I just wanted you to know.” He leaned over Ryan’s face, voice taking on a dark tone. “I can do anything I want to you, anytime I want to. You have no control anymore, not like in Asia.” Ryan was in too much pain to argue that. “I own you; you can’t do anything without me allowing it. The only freedom is that which I give you.”

Ryan rolled away and stood. “Well fuck you.” he said, brushing himself off and getting into a deep Sanchin stance. “I can take you.”

The Wraith chuckled. “You really want to do this?” When Ryan didn’t move, he nodded. “Alright.”

The Wraith took his hands out of his pocket and looked Ryan over. Ryan waited in what felt like an interminable state of anxiety, following his opponent’s eyes to see where he was looking. The Wraith was watching his torso, by the looks of it, maybe trying to determine where he had hit him before to generate maximum pain. Ryan, meanwhile, was trying to keep himself safe while looking for weak points in the Wraith’s stance. It was full of perfect spots, but if the Wraith was him, none of that would matter. he knew how to counter every attack that came to mind. It put him in a tight spot.

The Wraith rushed forward suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, hands getting into position to put Ryan on the ground with whatever takedown he had planned. Ryan lowered his stance, setting his center of gravity as low as possible, and prepared himself for a eha don collision. It wasn’t the most ideal way to stop the attack, but he had to think outside the box for this, avoiding anything he was trained to do.

The Wraith had expected this, though, and when he was within grabbing distance, he shot his hands up between Ryan’s guard and grabbed him by the collar of his jacket. In a swift motion, he brought his right leg in between Ryan’s legs and set it behind his left leg, then went forward, putting his full bodyweight behind the motion.

As they fell, Ryan maneuvered his right leg to be in front of his chest, between him and the Wraith, and planted his foot firmly on the Wraith’s chest, creating as much distance as he could. As he smacked into the ground, sliding back just a little, he pushed up with his leg and then back, sending the Wraith backwards in a perfectly executed Tomoe Nagi.

As he spun around onto his belly and pushed himself up, the Wraith rolled forward and back up onto his feet, ready for another go. Ryan took the initiative this time, trying to get to his opponent before he could prepare himself for their next round, speeding forward with closed fists.

As he closed in, the Wraith pulled a fast one and dropped to the ground, shooting his right arm forward to get under Ryan’s groin for a throw. Ryan saw it, however, and jumped up a little, going right over the Wraith, catching him off guard, and landing on the other side. As soon as his right foot touched the ground, he spun himself around, sending a roundhouse kick powering through the Wraith’s face.

The Wraith went spinning away, but the kick didn’t stop him. He just hopped back up, smiling, sickening joy in his eyes. “Nice.” he commented. “I imagine that was kind of like what Harris felt when you punched him in the face.”

Ryan snarled and rushed at his enemy, losing some of his focus to anger at the lack of effect on the Wraith. As he approached, the Wraith sidestepped left and shot his hand out to grab Ryan’s oncoming punch. As Ryan’s fist came into contact with the Wraith’s hand, he let his arm collapse and from an elbow strike aimed at the Wraith’s head. The Wraith hadn't seen this coming, and promptly received an elbow to his nose.

Again, there was little to no effect. The Wraith just shrugged it off and resumed his cool demeanor. “I thought you would be something worth fighting.” he said. The Wraith lowered his head and closed his fists. “I suppose I was wrong.”

He lunged at Ryan, grabbing him by his collar, and threw him to the side, sending him stumbling toward the pond. As Ryan rolled up, he found himself face to face with the bottom of the Wraith’s shoe. The kick struck him in in the nose with the force of a phone book, sending him further back and smashing his nose. At the edge of the pond, he managed to stand up and face his enemy.

I can’t fight him.” Ryan realized. He didn’t stand a chance. Looking around, he searched for anything that might help him to escape. Behind him, there was the pond. To either side, there were small rocks, but he did spot a drainage pipe that might lead to the river not too far away. It was half-submerged and looked like a tight fit. Ahead, there was only the Wraith. He had to make a split-second decision.

And he made it a split-second too late. Before he could act, the Wraith moved in on him and grabbed him by the neck, raising him up into the air with strength he had no business having.

“I really don’t like you, you know. I wish you were the way you used to be.”

Ryan brought his own hands up to alleviate the pressure on his neck. “Sorry to disappoint.” he replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.

The Wraith sighed. “You were better before, that much I can tell. There was something in you, that extra drive. Now... now you’re just a pathetic excuse for a human being. A shell. There’s nothing inside you that’s worth fighting for, and you know it. The only reason you’re alive is that you cling to this small bit of honor you don’t even have. It’s just sad.”

Ryan swallowed, not an easy thing to do when you’re basically being choked. “Well, at least I can see.”

“What-?”

Ryan shot his right hand forward, fingers together and pointed, and shoved them right into the Wraith’s left eye, digging in. When he was deep into the Wraith’s socket, he hooked his fingers and ripped them out, tearing the eye out in a mess of stringy veins and nerves, blood coating his hand. The Wraith shouted, letting Ryan go, and put his hands to his eye, falling back.

Ryan took the chance and dove into the freezing water, smashing any bit of peace that had once been existent there, and made his way for the pipe. When he got there, he dared a quick look back and spotted the Wraith, looking coldly at him with his one eye, then darted into the small pipe, crawling his way to safety.

The Wraith sighed, and removed his hands from his eye. As he reopened it, he blinked a few times, regaining the sight in his eye. Using his reacquired sight, he found the eyeball on the ground, walked over, and kicked it away, over to a rock. He followed by using his own powers to lift the rock and stuff the eye underneath it, leaving it there to never be found.

“Clever.” he said, smirking. “You’re getting there, Ryan. You’re getting there.”

And with that, the park was empty once again, save for the waves created by the one human and the mark left by his battle with an undefined enemy.


**************************************************************************


Ryan found himself at the river at the end of the tunnel, cold and wet, and quickly ran out, eager to get to someplace warm.

As he came out of the river, getting scared looks and gasps from the ponies around him, he looked for anything familiar. The first thing he spotted was the library, where he knew Twilight would help him; her magic couldn’t possibly hurt. Deciding on what to do, he ran through the streets to the door and slammed his fist into it.

“Twilight, I could use some help.” he said, voice sounding funny from what was likely a broken nose.

He heard the clip-clop of hoofsteps from the door and the sound of Twilight talking to someone, liekly Spike. When she opened the door, she looked like she was taken aback by Ryan’s condition, like she didn’t know how to respond, but her look quickly turned to horror.

“Get inside, you’ll die of the cold out there!” she shouted, ripping Ryan inside with her magic and shutting the door. Ryan fell to the floor, just grateful for the warmth, but soon found himself floating over to a fireplace in the corner and saw sparks starting up inside. “What in Equestria were you doing out there?”

She set Ryan down in front of the fireplace and the flames began to burst into life, giving Ryan the sweetest relief he had ever had. He sighed contentedly, letting himself be consumed by the fire before him.

“Well?” she asked, reacquiring Ryan’s attention.

Ryan thought fast. “I was walking in the park and slipped and fell in the pond.”

Twilight looked doubtful. “Then why is your face covered in blood?” she asked, repulsion in her countenance.

Ryan felt his face, then pulled his finger away to investigate. Yeah, there was blood, all right. It had mostly been around his nose and mouth, but at some point, he must have maneuvered himself so that the blood came out toward his eyes. Or maybe the Wraith just kicked him that hard.

“Like I said. I fell.”

Twilight frowned at him, unconvinced, but turned around and opted not to pursue. “Fine. I’ll get you some hot chocolate.” Before she entered the kitchen, she had one last thing. “And take those clothes off; they’ll dry faster that way.”

Ryan waited for her to leave, then obeyed and stripped down to his underwear. The sheen of water and light of the fire seemed to accentuate his scars, like the fight had somehow made them that much more relevant. Looking at his chest, he traced his finger across his bullet wound, trying to feel for any change in texture. Sure enough, there was, and it felt odd to him to know that he had been shot. Most people don’t know that feeling.

“Woah.” a male voice said. It was clearly Spike. “What happened to you?” he asked.

Ryan looked back, seeing Spike already right behind him, then shrugged. “I fell in the pond, hit my face on a rock.”

“Ow.” Spike replied, cringing at the thought. “Well, I’m glad you’re okay.” he came over and sat down next to Ryan.

“Me too.” Ryan said.

A few minutes passed, and Twilight returned with the hot chocolate and some pads. Setting the drink down, she planted herself down in front of Ryan and said, “Stand still, I’ll clean you up.”

Ryan did as he was ordered and remained still, letting Twilight drag the cloth across his face, wiping away the blood, but leaving streak marks. She focused intently on his face, especially his broken nose, like she was trying to solve a puzzle. Problem was that this puzzle had some missing pieces.

“There, all clean.” she said, levitating the cloth over to the fire to burn. “Now, let’s fix that nose.”

Before Ryan could tell her no, her magic gripped his nose and shoved it back into place, making a loud snap as it shot into place. Ryan shouted from the pain, but felt an instant relief of pressure from his nose when it was all done.

“Thanks.” he said.

“Don’t mention it.” Twilight replied. She remained in front of him. “So what are you thinking of doing tonight?” she asked.

Ryan raised an eyebrow at her. “Interested?” Ryan asked. Twilight blushed just a bit. “I’m gonna be a plant; I made a Ghillie suit for it. I’m sure you’ll see it tonight.”

Twilight nodded, then, like a lightbulb went off in her head, she got a big smile. “You want me to see your bush?”

Ryan smiled right back. “I’d prefer that you see the wood that the leaves come off of.”

Twilight laughed uncontrollably at Ryan’s response, unable to come up with anything to beat him with. No one could beat him at this game. Not when it was played fair.

As she rolled on the ground before him, Ryan thought about when she first found him. She was the first pony he really had any communication with, the first to try to talk to him peacefully. At least, that was who he saw it. He had given his hammer to Applejack, and his old jacket to Rarity. They had been helpful to him, and he repaid them with something that meant something. Twilight had received nothing.

Well, he had something that he could give her later. “Twilight, why don’t I meet you here tonight at seven to get ready for the night?” he suggested.

Twilight was surprised by the suggestion, but her smile never faltered or became awkward. “I think that sounds fun. I’d like to see your costume too.”

Ryan stood up, still almost naked, but not caring. “Wonderful.” He started to move for the exit.

Twilight cleared her throat, getting Ryan to turn around. “Forgetting something?” she asked rhetorically, holding up Ryan’s now dry clothes.

Silently, Ryan walked over and put on his clothes, then walked out and said goodbye, an idea in his head as to what he would do that night.


******************************************************************************


Ryan decided to put his armor on under the ghillie suit, just in case he startled somepony and they went to kick him. There was no need to get another broken bone today.

Now, he was sitting next to the door to the library, a wrapped up, box-like object hidden under his outfit, waiting for Twilight to open the door. He had made sure to get into position when nopony was looking, hiding perfectly in plain sight. As of yet, the younger fillies and colts still had no idea he was there. He almost considered scaring them when they came to Twilight’s door for candy.

He was sitting there for a while before Twilight finally came out, wearing some elaborate wizard costume, complete with a beard and staff. When she came out, Spike on her back, she looked around, trying to find Ryan, who was a mere three feet to her left.

“TWILIGHT SPARKLE.”

“Ahh!” she yelped, shooting into the air and rocketing Spike off her back. When she calmed down enough to speak, she looked angrily at the Ryan bush and said, “That was unnecessary.”

“It was entirely necessary.” Ryan replied, standing up to reveal himself. Twilight scrutinized his costume/tactical garment, looking him over. Her eyes ran over the package, but didn’t stay there.

She growled to herself, not noticing Spike land on the ground next to her, and turned and walked out into town. Ryan picked up Spike and followed behind, wondering if he had made the wisest choice.

They walked through the town, noting good costumes, looking for their friends. Their friends... when did that happen?

They walked through the fair, where there were games and contests going on, ponies having a blast and enjoying the festivities. Ryan might actually have enjoyed himself if his day hadn’t already been wrecked by the Wraith. His mind kept turning to it, how he nearly got himself killed by that crazy son of a bitch. It was unpleasant to think about.

Spike and Twilight had been talking the whole time, arguing about candy consumption, and by the sound of it, Spike had lost. “Fine.” he finished. “Let’s head on over to the apple cart; the others are waiting for us there.”

Ryan figured this could be as decent a chance as any. “Why don't you go ahead, meet us there, Spike.” he said. “I need to talk to Twilight.”

Spike shrugged and went along, leaving his boss/mom/best friend with the human. Ryan watched him leave, wishing that the little kids back home were as cool as him. Most of them would be up in your business, trying to be grown up or cool. It annoyed the hell out of him when kids tried to get into things they didn’t understand.

Twilight watched as well, then broke the silence. “What do you want to talk about?” she asked, thinking that it was about his broken state from earlier.

Ryan breathed slowly and deliberately, feeling up the gift he had prepared. Really, he only wrapped it, but it was something. He would feel like an ass if he didn’t give her something.

“I have something for you.” he said, pulling out the gift.

Twilight blinked twice, looking at the gift, a bit surprised. “Oh.” she said, taking it in her magic. “Umm... thank you.” She looked it over and shook it, trying to discern what it might be. “May I open it?”

Ryan had thought hard about this part. He wasn’t sure he wanted her to have it just yet, at least, not in the sense of what it was. That could backfire on him easily.

“Actually, this gift has a special nature.” he began. He looked Twilight in the eyes. “I have to ask you not to open it, not until a specific day. Once that day comes, you can open it and enjoy it as much as you want.”

Twilight cocked he rhead, confused, and asked, “What day might that be?”

“You’ll know it when it comes. I can tell you, it will be a day where my life will take yet another turn for the unknown. Trust me; you’ll know it when it comes.”

Twilight was clearly not amused, but in keeping with respecting Ryan’s wishes, she agreed not to open it until “the day” came. “The day” was the day that Ryan would leave, and likely never be found again.

He felt comfortable giving the gift to her. He knew that she was responsible enough to possess it, and she could handle what she got from it. At least now, that damn book was in safe, trustworthy hands. Or hooves. Whatever.


******************************************************************************


They had met up with their friends at the apple cart, Ryan taking a gander at Mac drooling over Fluttershy’s “Rainbow Dash Approved” costume, a stage-magician’s outfit with some unexpectedly accentuating parts. Mac never even noticed that he was so obvious;Fluttershy, however, definitely did. She made sure to stay next to him, and if Ryan’s hunch was right, Mac would be totally crashed from all his sugar intake on this night.

From there, they all just walked around, making the best of the night. Ryan would sit on the side of the road, making noises at ponies who passed by. They mostly just looked at him oddly, resulting in howling laughter from the others off on the other side of the path. When the ponies looked away, RYan would get up and move right next to the ponies, then resume his noises. He scared one pony so bad they actually dropped their candy and ran.

Feeling like a dick, but still enjoying himself, Ryan and the others took the candy and looked for their victim to return it. As they walked around, Ryan began to notice the sky taking a dark turn, getting stormy. Nopony else seemed to care, in fact, they were all pretty excited, so he let it go. It must not be that bad.

Everyone seemed to converge on the town square at one point during the night, so Ryan decided to try there. Mac said that he had to go do something, sounding rather nervous, and ran off, followed by Fluttershy. The girls and Spike were confused, but Ryan just chuckled and told him, “Don’t eat all your candy in one sitting.”

With them gone, the rest of the group went to the center of town. When they got there, the mayor was up on the stage, talking about sacrificing their candy to someone named Nightmare Moon to prevent her from doing bad things to them in their sleep. The girls and Spike cheered as the group began to leave, and followed them out into the forest. Ryan had no idea what to do, so he went along as well.

The walk through the forest was short and easy, with big paths carved out for the mass to follow. The trees weren’t nearly as evil-looking, and there was no suited, blank-faced dude trying to steal their souls, so it wasn’t so bad. After the walk, they were in a clearing with a massive statue.

Upon inspection, Ryan found that it looked rather like Luna. “Okay, little ponies!” the mayor announced. “Let us offer our candies to the evil Nightmare Moon so that she might let us be this night!”

Ryan watched as the little ones started to file in and drop their candy onto the statue, one by one, giggling all the while. Ryan wasn’t sure he got it, but hey, ponies will be ponies.

Then, the unexpected happened. At least, to Ryan. The statue started to move, lightning splitting the air around it, and laughed. Sensing a potential trouble, Ryan crouched low and got next to the bushes on his right, hand on his pistol. The little ones were screaming... but they were also smiling. What?

The voice of the statue began to speak, and instantly, Ryan’s hand lightened up and came off his gun. “Foolish foals, did you believe that I would leave you be just because you gave me your candy?! AHAHAHAHAHA! Taste the wrath of my Nightmare Powers!”

The winds started to kick up and the kids screamed, enjoying themselves immensely. Ryan stood up, watching from the sidelines, a little smile coming onto his face. He would never have pictured Luna as being good with kids.

The kids soon ran off, parents and guardians in two, leaving only Luna, the elements minus Fluttershy,Spike, and Ryan in the clearing. The elements were all laughing and having a good time, alongside Luna, loving the little spectacle that must have been tradition. Ryan stepped out of the shadows and joined the ponies in their merriment.

Luna had changed back into her normal from while she laughed, and her eyes had resumed that innocent look they alway shad. “Ryan!” she exclaimed. She ran over and hugged him. “It is good to see you again!”

Ryan hugged back. “Yeah, good to see you too.”

She released him and stepped back, looking up into his eyes. “I suppose that life has been well for you?”

“Pretty well.”

“That is good to hear.” a more motherly tone replied. It took him a moment of looking around, but he was able to find Celestia, who came out from behind the statue. “I’m sure that life will continue to be good for you.” Luna seemed to step away, looking a little less giddy than before, like she was guilty of something akin to a cruel prank. Ryan took a note of that as suspicious. “Why don’t we head back to town?” Celestia suggested.

“That sounds great, princess.” Twilight replied for everyone, taking the lead and walking back along the path to the town.

Luna looked warily at Ryan as she took a place with the main body of the group, seemingly worried about Ryan. Ryan, in turn, waited for the group to get some ways ahead before following. He had a feeling that there was a reason that Celestia was also waiting.

He started to walk, and, as if synchronized, Celestia started after him. The forest was dark and the path hard to see, but Celestia’s presence seemed to brighten the area up just a little. Not as much as he would have expected, but still a little.

They walked for a time in silence, watching the group ahead to avoid losing pace with them. Ryan could feel Celestia looking at him, and eventually, gave into his curiosity. He looked up at the large mare, meeting her gaze, a look of terrible shame and fear in her eyes. What they were about, Ryan could only guess at.

“You seem troubled.” Ryan commented.

Celestia blinked slowly, then nodded. “Yes, I am afraid that I am.” she replied. “There is trouble in the south, in the Southern Gryphon Colonies.”

Ryan didn’t like the sound of that. “What kind of trouble?” he asked, still curious.

Celestia sighed. “What did you once tell my sister you wanted to be?” she asked. She already knew the answer.

“A SEAL.”

“Why?”

Ryan shrugged. “At the time, I wanted to protect people. I loved the idea of being able to go into a place with a team to rescue someone, bring them home, then disappear into the shadows to continue my work. I never liked getting credit for things or being famous.”

Celestia nodded. “I wish that we had some of your SEALs here.” she said, getting a surprised look from the human. “One of our soldiers is being held prisoner by a group of evil gryphons that wish to take control of the country. He fought them many years ago, and now, he is their prisoner. And we have no one to go in and rescue him.”

Ryan thought about what she was saying to him. She knew his past. She knew that he had fought unconventional enemies before, that he killed them and knew how they fought. She knew that he was a skilled fighter, along with having the most powerful weapon they had ever known. She knew that her guard was hopeless and that the only chance there was was in a human.

“That’s a damn shame.” Ryan said. “I don’t know how Discord brought me here, so I have no idea how to get SEALs or Deltas here.”

Celestia’s shine seemed to dim a bit, leaving the area dark again. “Yes...” she replied. “A shame.”

They kept on walking, no longer interested in conversation or interaction. The mood had died off and become depressed, a hopeless abyss in the darkness of the forest. That darkness extended deep into Ryan’s mind, blank and empty of emotion.

He thought about what he was just told. This guy, who fought for this benevolent ruler, probably for a good cause, was being held prisoner somewhere. He fought to defend the innocent, and now, he was suffering for it. What would the SEALs do? They would go in to rescue him, obviously. Ryan had always wanted to do that.

But now, he had no chance of being a SEAL. There was no reason for him to try any of that, no reason to stick his own neck out again and possibly get killed. Ryan, the original, was gone. Now, he just wanted to live in peace, alone with his misery and failings where no one would have to see him, be subjected to his appalling presence. Whoever this guy was, he was suffering. And Ryan could sympathize. But he couldn’t help him; that was simply impossible.

Feeling like he had been defeated in a battle for human dignity, Ryan walked back to town alongside Celestia with his head hung down, eternal shame pressed upon him by his irreversible decisions and the knowledge that he would never be capable of redeeming himself and deserving his life again.

Loyalty

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Loyalty

A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” (George William Curtis)

The days were becoming short and the air frigid.

The month of November went by pretty quickly. Nothing much happened. Ryan went out and saw the cave a few times, just to get the route there down. Whenever he went out there now, though, he went with his gear and weapons. He spotted multiple kinds of wildlife out there; some of which were more than a little dangerous; and he needed to be prepared.

Whenever he went out, he would always get on the search for Discord. He remembered Discord disappearing on him some time ago, and with the magical, crazy nature of the forest, it seemed like the most ironically logical place to search. He would head out to his cave, then, from there, branch out further into the forest to look. He was always careful to avoid the black sections of the forest.

He saw the Wraith more than once during the month, but they never got close to each other. The Wraith would just stand of fin the distance, looking. Whenever Ryan went out to the forest, the Wraith would be standing just behind the treeline, like he was waiting for Ryan to leave the safety of the town. Every time he left, though, he went through the forest mostly unhindered. But the Wraith never followed him into town.

With the end of the growing seasons, Ryan no longer had a job on the farm, either. Without anything to do on Thursdays and Fridays, he had to find other work, but unfortunately, no one would hire him unless he told his story. Ultimately, he had to just go to Twilight and Rarity for more work. His new schedule went to Mondays and Tuesdays at the Boutique and Wednesdays through Fridays at the library. Thankfully, Twilight’s questions were spaced out and easy to answer now.

Of course, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Ryan was still going out on Saturday nights to drink at The Salt Lick with Fancy, Mac, and Soarin’. They all met there at eight on the dot, every weekend where everyone was available. As of yet, all weekends had been pretty fair game. No one missed a day.

Until this weekend, on Saturday, the first of December. The trains weren’t running today and the majority of the pegasi were forbidden from flying because they planned a major snowstorm. The winds were whipping by, yanking on the plants, trying to rip them out of the ground by their roots. Any clouds underneath the stormclouds were blown away and disintegrated by the powerful gusts. From the dark gray overcast fell countless icy knives, each one tearing away at the skin and fur that it came into contact with.

It was on this weekend that Ryan decided to make another trip out. Donning all his gear and taking small sums of food and water, he silently set out of town in the morning while Rarity and Sweetie Belle slept. He left no note to explain his absence, nor any indication of where he was. He also wore the scarf under his cloak, around his neck, for added warmth.

As he fought against the gusts on his way to the forest, he thought about why he decided to head out on this particular day. “I need to know what it’s like in extreme weather.” he had reasoned. Well, he was regretting it now. The weather was outright dangerous. From the road, he could hear the branches of trees on the side of the road snapping and crashing to the ground, even over the howling winds.

Ryan could barely see fifteen feet in front of him, let alone see the treeline. He was forced to rely purely on the memory of which directions he went at what points along the path as he walked along, coat held close and hood tied tight around his head. As much as he would have liked to wear his aviators to keep the snow off, it was much too dark for them at the moment. It was a miracle he could see in front of himself at all.

After around half an hour, he found himself stepping onto a portion of the path that had more weeds growing on it. The only reason he could tell through the snow was that some of the weeds were actually roots that jutted out and threatened to send him stumbling to the ground to be buried in the snow. When he leaned over to investigate, with gloved hands, he found a root and ripped it out with all his might. Upon close inspection, he found that it matched the size of the roots of some of the plants of the forest.

He continued forward, laser-focused on making it through the storm and into the cover of the trees, where the snow would pelt him less severely and he would be granted a short respite. As he walked, he could tell that he was starting to enter the forest by the slowly dimming light around him, his visibility creeping closer and closer with each agonizingly long step.

His visibility didn’t die altogether, but it was close enough that the farthest thing he could see was the back of his hand. Deciding it was finally dark enough, he went into his cloak and pulled out a medium-sized wooden stick and a lighter he had recently bought (how ponies used it was beyond him). With a flick of his thumb just under the stick, the flame came to life and ignited the end of the stick, creating a controlled inferno on the end of the stick.

Ryan held it in place and placed the lighter back on the tac-vest and looked around briefly; there was nothing there. The snow fell in greatly reduced quantities, allowing for the light to dance around the area and illuminate the darkened forest. As he scanned the area, he checked for any potential threats, be they wildlife, freakish plants, or even the Wraith. Oddly, he didn’t see anything. The Wraith had been there every time he recently went into the forest. Maybe he felt like sleeping in today.

Ryan held the torch out to his side as he continued forward into the dark forest. He had to hold it out to his side, or he would be blinded by the light in front of him. He kept the torch moving to be able to look all around himself in the event of an attack by any unsavory creatures.

He made his way slowly through the forest, the snow crunching under his boots and his right sleeve wet from the heat of the torch melting the snow from earlier. His breath came out in a fog in front of him, the only sounds hitting his ears those of his own breathing and the wind above the trees. The leaves rustled seemingly peacefully, betraying the scene outside the forest. It was so isolated, so quiet. It was exactly what Ryan was looking for.

After a time, Ryan finally made it to his cave. Over the last month, he had added a door to the front with a makeshift fence of large branches he had gathered from around the site. The door itself was actually just a massive, partially rounded boulder that he rolled over from about fifty feet away over the span of two weeks. It was a genius contraption, really; all he had to do was push it forward to open, then push it back into place to close.

When he arrived at his soon-to-be home, he took it all in in a moment of objective observation. The door functioned. The fence kept animals out, he hoped. Inside, he had gathered firewood and such for warmth. He had no flintstones, so he would have to find a way to light the fire without a lighter; he didn’t want to have to go back to civilization just to light a damn fire.

He walked over to the entrance and leaned over the fence, checking the inside of the cave for bears or other dangerous animals. When he saw none; it was a fairly small cave; he went to the rock and shoved it forward to get inside.

Once inside, he opted to leave the door open and simply look around. He had the wood on the side, and a little circle of rocks in the center where he would put it to burn. On the other side, he had a pile of rocks, not too far from the fire pit, where he could leave clothes to dry if they became wet. There was nowhere to store food, but with how he planned on living, he wouldn’t need one. The only part he was unsatisfied with so far was the lack of a decent place to sleep.

He didn’t plan on staying in the cave for the moment, seeing as he had to experience the weather out there to know who to survive it and hunt in it. He had to figure out where the little animals hide, how to catch and kill them, what kinds of plants he might be able to take an deat. For that one, he would have to take samples back to town and ask about them. So once he got a decent look around, he turned right back around and walked out.

Outside, he looked back at the door with a contemplative look on his face. “Should I close it back up?” he wondered. “Nah, I’ll just come back. It shouldn’t lose much heat between now and then.” As much as he didn’t actually understand the physics of heat involving caves, he thought that it would be cold enough already that it wouldn’t make a difference. He could just use the lighter to light some logs later anyhow.

Torch still in hand, Ryan looked around for a direction to walk in. He had traveled far during November, usually coming up with nothing. But there was one thing he did find that was pretty huge; a lake, off to the north of his location. It was only about two kilometers off in that direction, easy walking distance. Figuring it was a good place to start, Ryan held his cloak close and his torch tight, trudging along through the frozen forest and silent darkness.

As he pushed through the inclement weather to get to the lake, the canopy above started to thin out in some places. He had noticed this the last time he came out, how as you go farther in, the forest gets to be less difficult to see in. Through the openings, he had a clear view of the tearing winds and freezing snow above.

He was only about halfway there when something in the sky caught his eye. Ryan dropped low to the ground and threw his hand into his cloak, placing it as gently as possible on the Automag. Eye up high, he moved his head left and right to see if he could spot the sight again.

Sure enough, he did. It was a blur, through all the snow, but it was definitely there. There were at least four colors trailing after an unseen object flying through the sky. The flight pattern was erratic at best, with the object going up and down, left and right, all over the place. Ryan took his hand off the Automag as he tried to discern exactly what it was.

That wound up becoming unnecessary; the object, in its uncontrolled, random path, dove right at the ground, not far from Ryan, and, right as it was about to slam into the snow, it pulled up and went straight back up. When it flew down so close, Ryan could clearly see the form of a pony, trying its best to keep stable in the howling winds. That could only be one pony. Ryan sat back as Rainbow Dash continued to try to fly, though he couldn’t help but worry that she was going to go down soon.

He saw the trail continue through the air, but now, it was accompanied by a hoarse voice. “Dammit dammit dammit dammit!” With nothing to do, Ryan could only watch as the trail went off. “AAAHHHHHHHHHHH!”

The trail made a straight line, seemingly out of nowhere, and made a beeline for the ground, just to the north of where Ryan was. Alarms went off in Ryan’s head, and, like an ambulance makes its way to an injured person, he hauled it in the direction of the trail.

In the distance, he heard a loud crash and the sound of massive branches snapping off of trees. He double-timed his pace as he moved through the forest, pushing aside any branches or bushes that got in his way. “Dammit Rainbow.” he thought unhappily.

He covered the second kilometer in half the time of the first, arriving at the frozen lake and finding the sight less than encouraging. To his right, he could clearly see where Rainbow had crashed through the trees, as there was a massive hole in the canopy and branches all over the ground and ice. Looking out, Ryan tried to find where the foolish little pony might have landed.

Oh no...

He could clearly find where she landed by following the broken ice with his eyes. In the lake, about twenty feet, lay Rainbow Dash, unconscious and at least half-submerged in the freezing water. On the ice next to her, Ryan could clearly see blood against the whiteness, and it looked like the amount was going to be increasing soon. She had a wing bent at an angle that was likely not normally possible, and he reyes were both closed like she was just taking one of her regular naps.

Ryan dropped his torch and stripped down, setting his cloak, scarf, and jacket out on the ground, laying them out to be easy to put on once he came back. He left everything else on as he walked out onto the ice.

Before he even out all his bodyweight on the ice, it crackled and crumbled under his foot. The shock of the freezing water engulfing his foot forced him to take in a sharp breath, trying to ignore the new sensation of pain in his foot. He could tell that if he didn’t do this quickly, his foot would be lost and maybe fall off due to Frostbite.

He looked down at the water; it was so cold, his foot actually felt warm. “Fuck.” he thought as he lifted his other foot and stuffed it under the water. If one foot was in, might as well just take the water route. It was safer anyway.

With both feet submerged up to the ankle, Ryan set out to wading over to Rainbow's position out on the ice. As he advanced through the ice-cold lake, the water steadily grew deeper, getting to just above his knees by the time he was halfway out. If it continued like this, Ryan wouldn’t be able to reach Rainbow Dash in time and they would both wind up freezing to death out here. Thankfully, the water didn’t get too much deeper; only to about his waist, freezing his groin; and he was able to get close enough to reach for the unconscious mare.

But the world had already made very clear its distaste for Ryan’s attempts at helping others. Suddenly, the ice that supported Rainbow and kept her from going under cracked and collapsed under her, sending her beneath the glass-like barrier.

“NO!”

Ryan lunged forward, going under himself, as he reached out for the rainbow-maned pony who hated him without personal reason. As his face went under, he could feel the sting of the cold as it sapped at the heat in his face, trying to stop him in his tracks. Ryan fought through it, though, and continued to reach out to Rainbow Dash, quickly finding her mane in his hand. With one strong pull, Ryan yanked her back and rose out of the water, dragging her with him.

With his face out of the water, Ryan was able to reopen his eyes and make a quick assessment of the situation. His hands continued doing their job, pulling Rainbow out and holding her up above the water in both arms in a one-person carry and keeping her as tight against his chest as possible. He could feel her, barely breathing, completely unknowing of what had just happened.

Pony in arms and rapidly losing body heat, Ryan started back towards dry land. As he walked through the unforgiving lake, his mind turned toward how he was going to get back to town in time. There was no chance. As he pushed his way out of the water, he realized that he had dropped the torch without keeping track of where. By now, it was covered with snow and would never be found.

Acting quickly, Ryan dropped the unconscious Rainbow Dash onto the jacket, which was in turn on the cloak, and went about wrapping her up in a bundle to keep her warm. Once he had the jacket zipped up around her and the cloak tightly wrapped around her body, he picked her right back up and held her close to his own core to keep as warm as possible. Unfortunately, he hadn’t thought that anything like this would happen, so he didn’t wear a long-sleeved shirt, and his arms were already feeling the numbness of the cold ebbing through the skin.

He looked along the ground for any hint of his previous footsteps, finding them in an instant thanks to the dragging nature of his walking through the snow. Once he spotted them, he rushed over and reentered the forest.

He trudged along, trying his best not to fall over or hit the mare on any branches around them. Ryan was growing worried; the biting breeze and cruel snow were driving a little too much warmth from his body. He might have to drop her and run...

Ryan stopped dead in his place. He could feel it, that sensation that there was something trained on you, ready to strike at you. He had seen what was out here; manticores, those freakish bee things, timberwolves. He hadn’t seen any spirits, but they could be just as dangerous. They were all prepared to come out and kill him, and they would no doubt all be ready to eat him since there was almost no food nearby.

A branch snapped to his left. Ryan whipped his head around to get a good look at whatever had failed to sneak up on him, prepared to drop the mare and pull out his Automag if he had to-

That smile. That fucking smile. The Wraith just smiled at Ryan, teeth bared and unusually sharp, malicious and deathly. He was standing there, just beyond the trees, watching Ryan as he carried the mare out. His arms were crossed and he had on short sleeves and shorts, like the cold didn’t mean anything to him. But of course it didn’t; when you’re born in it, it’s a part of you.

Ryan took the image with a dose of adrenaline and sped away along his chosen path. He wasn’t sure where he would go, but he did know that he had to get away from the Wraith. It had been the Wraith who had knocked Rainbow out of the sky. It had been the Wraith that tossed Rainbow into the lake. It was the Wraith who had used it as bait to catch Ryan off guard and unprepared.

The Wraith chuckled loudly at Ryan as he just stood there, holding the freezing pony in his arms and not moving. “Well, what are you doing?” he asked. “I think it would be safest for you to run.”

Without hesitation, the boy began to sprint through the forest, panting out visible breaths and taking dry air back in. The snow sandblasted his arms, tearing away at the skin and latching on like leeches. The water from earlier was already frozen on his arms and torso, and was freezing on his legs as he ran. In the cloak and jacket, Ryan could only hope that Rainbow wasn’t feeling the same way as him at the moment.

It took Ryan nine minutes of agonizing pain, running through branches, being lashed by wind, and blinded by snow to cover the two kilometers to his cave. Upon closing the distance and spotting the cave, he felt like an idiot for not having thought of it sooner. At least, not consciously thinking of it.

As he approached the entrance to the cave, which was wide open, he looked around for any sign of the Wraith having followed. When he spotted nothing, he spun back around and ran into the cave.

Inside, Ryan promptly went to work. He dropped Rainbow, still in the clothes, next to the fire pit and removed the protective layers. As he removed them, he could see the relieving sight of her chest moving up and down, signifying breathing, weak, but still there. With that bit of reassurance, he went over and pulled some firewood out of the pile and dropped it into the pit. Not wanting to take any risks, Ryan checked Rainbow again to make sure she was at least stable. He was able to confirm that she was stable, though still weak, and so went for the lighter on his vest.

But it wasn’t there. Eyes wide and hand trembling, Ryan realized that it must have fallen off his vest back in the lake. The torch was gone too, so there was no easy way to light a fire to get the wood burning.

“Shit!” Ryan cursed loudly, angry with himself for losing such a vital tool of survival.

He started to pace. If he didn’t get a fire lit soon, both Rainbow and he would freeze to death in that cave. There was no water in there, and without fire, they couldn’t access any safely. Ryan’s clothes, from himself and Rainbow, were still soaking wet, and there was little hope that they would provide much warmth any more. He had to think of something new. He had to be versatile, like a Navy SEAL.

Ryan set his hand son his hips and found that his right hand his his Automag. Still angry, he yanked it out of its holster and got ready to throw it across the cave.

But he didn’t. “Wait a minute...

The Automag is a pistol. Pistols area type of firearm. Firearm... fire...

Ryan ripped off his vest and threw it aside, keeping the Automag in hand. Leaning over the fire pit, Ryan released the magazine from the gun and emptied it. Five round, plus the one in the chamber. The powder inside the rounds was what propelled the bullets forward. If Ryan could use that ignition to make a good enough spark in the wood, he might be able to light a fire.

Ryan emptied all the rounds from the magazine and lined them up. He had to work fast. Opting for safety, Ryan unchambered the remaining round from the Automag and held it by the end of the barrel, like one would a hammer. Than, one by one, Ryan hammered away at three of the rounds before him on the ground, being very careful not to hit the primers on the end of each one.

He managed to knock the bullets loose from the three rounds, and, very carefully, he removed the lead and moved the empty casing into one of the logs. The one in the center had a perfect little hole in it; not too big to spread the flame everywhere but not so small as to not allow oxygen to get to the fire; and so Ryan dumped the powder from the three rounds into it.

Now, though, he had a new problem. How was he going to ignite the powder? His mind raced about, trying to think about how that would happen. He remembered the way that machine guns overheat if fired for too long and the muzzle flash that came out of the end. That muzzle flash was the explosion of the gunpowder! And it was hot enough to make a gun barrel overheat! If Ryan could maneuver the Automag so that the muzzle flash hit the powder, it might be enough to make it catch and light the wood.

Now down three more round, Ryan loaded up the other three into the gun’s magazine and loaded the magazine into the gun, but without pressing the button to release the slide and chamber the round. Before getting into position, he looked over at Rainbow one last time; she looked all right. Her breathing was still going. Then, turning back to the fire pit, he positioned himself just right so that the bullet would ricochet off the wall away from them.

“Not bad.”

Ryan’s heart rate spiked at the unexpected guest’s words. Now, really pissed off, he glared up at the Wraith, who was positioned at the door to the cave.

“I don’t know that I would say it’s a great idea, but I would never expect less of you than to fire a .44 Magnum in close proximity to a pony. But hey: No one ever said you had to care.”

The Wraith was still smiling, something that only fueled the rage in Ryan’s mind. “I am firing it.” he replied, voice seething with hatred. “But not at anything in the cave.”

The Wraith didn’t seem to understand as Ryan moved himself one last time until it was too late. Ryan placed himself directly behind the fire pit and positioned the Automag to be pointing right up at the entrance, straight into the Wraith’s center of mass. With a malicious smile of his own, Ryan clicked the little button and sent the slide forward, then fired off the massive bullet right at the Wraith.

The round hit home, slamming into the Wraith’s chest and sending him flying out the door in a mess of blood and force. The loud BOOM of the Automag’s .44 Magnum round reverberated through the cave, blasting into Ryan’s eardrums. Rainbow didn’t even flinch at the noise; at least she wouldn’t remember what that felt like,

The flame from the muzzle flash passed over the gunpowder, lighting it in its little cave and creating a small inferno inside. With nowhere to go, the heat had to spread anywhere it could, be it out the hole or into the wood and setting it on fire. Thankfully, probably at least partially due to the odd physics of this world, the log caught and went up in a blaze. After just a moment, the blaze spread to the other logs and set them up, throwing blissful warmth all over the cave.

With no Wraith in sight and no more cold eating away at him, Ryan was able to fall back on his ass and just take in a deep breath of relaxation. It felt good, really, what he just accomplished. He had carried that mare, who was heavier than she looked (though none would say that to her face), all the way from the lake to the cave, two kilometers. He managed to light a fire using just a gun. And he shot the Wraith right in the chest, sending him back outside where he belonged.

He figured he should probably go up there to make sure the Wraith was down, or to find out if he would have to put the other two rounds in the Wraith’s skull to get him down. it would be the best way to make sure he and Rainbow would be safe in the cave. After that, he could seal off the entrance and go about finding a way to get back to town.

Thinking about Rainbow subconsciously made him turn around to take a quick look at her. He didn’t feel too worried; she was sleeping peacefully, her eyes gently shut and her hooves still on the ground. her mane was still wet, but being so close to the fire, that would dry out soon. She still looked like a drowned rat, but Ryan would just let her know later. She looked so peaceful...

Too peaceful, Ryan thought. He moved closer to get a better look. He rside was bleeding, as he had seen before at the lake. That wasn’t so bad, though, so she shouldn’t be going into shock. No doubt the cold had something to do with it, and that probably gave her hypothermia, but the cloak and jacket should have kept her warm enough that it wouldn’t put her to sleep. And he was fairly certain that there was no sleep from hypothermia, only death. What was wrong?

But looking at her still body, he finally noticed what was wrong.

She wasn’t breathing.

“Oh no.” he said, moving next to her. “No no no no no no no no!”

He put his fingers on her neck, right around where he learned the pulse would be; it was extremely weak, if it was even really there. Her chest didn’t rise up and down, and her body was completely still. Everything wasn’t peaceful; everything was in shutdown mode.

Ryan acted fast, placing his hands just behind the haunch of her exposed foreleg. Going through the procedures he learned in his Rescue Diving course, he started to press away on her body, forcing the heart to start moving the blood around. After thirty compressions, he moved his mouth up and placed it directly into hers and let out a massive breath into her airway, filling her lungs to capacity.

He repeated the process more times than he can recall. The entire time he treated her, he had no idea how it was going to end up; CPR isn’t to restart the heart, it’s only for getting oxygen to the brain. If he was lucky, then restarting the brain and getting oxygen to her cerebellum would make her brain restart her breathing, but if that wasn’t the problem, or that part of her brain suffered damage from a lack of oxygen for a quite frankly unknown period of time, she was doomed to die.

Thirty compressions.

One massive breath.

Thirty compressions.

One massive breath.

It went on and on and on. Ryan was starting to feel lightheaded. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to keep it up much longer.

When he came up for a breath, exhausted and ready to pass out himself, the most beautiful sound at that moment, the greatest thing he could ever have heard, hit his ears. “Not now, AJ, I want to sleep.”

Rainbow Dash had just spoken. Albeit not exactly to Ryan, but she still spoke. She had no idea what was happening, and likely wouldn’t for a long time, but she was alive and well. She was drying off quickly and getting warmer, and her brain function had hopefully been fully preserved. Who knew how this world worked about that stuff.

Ryan fell back and sat down, gracious for the respite and a chance to just sit. Now, he knew that there was nothing wrong. He knew, for a fact, that Rainbow was good. he was already nice and dry, and his clothes were on a rock right next to the flame, drying off. At the moment, even though he was in a cave in the middle of a hazardous forest with a flying mare who hated his guts and a demonic beast potentially still outside, he felt like he was in heaven. All seemed like it would be all right.

But he knew better than to leave loose ends untied. Begrudgingly, he grabbed his Automag, two shots left, and made his way to the entrance to look outside. If the Wraith was there, he would shoot him. If not, he would just close up the entrance and wait the night out. His watch read five in the after noon; time flies when you’re busy.

Ryan poked his head out of the cave, Automag right under it, and looked around. He could see a pool of blood on the ground, but no body. The pool turned into a trail that led west, into the trees, and got thinner and thinner as it approached. The Wraith had already healed; he must have had some kind of spell for it. It would explain how he had two eyes.

Ryan walked away from the entrance to the cave, but kept it in sight, just in case the Wraith decided he would go in after the sleeping mare. It was cold, and it had already gotten pretty dark again, but he could handle it if he was only going to be out for a short time. It was nothing that a quarter of the world back home didn’t do every winter.

Ryan walked over to the edge of the trees and stood, looking out for any sign of his nemesis. There was a bush that had clearly been moved, as all the snow had come off of it. Behind it, Ryan could barely make out the form of footsteps in the snow. The Wraith must have run off. Deciding that it was safe, Ryan turned around and went back into the cave.


The Wraith watched from just above the entrance as Ryan went back inside, escaping the unpleasant cold air. Ryan had actually managed to shoot him this time, something he hadn’t really seen coming. It was no problem, though. The Automag would never be able to kill him. He wasn’t really sure anything could.

But this did signify something very different. Ryan was advancing, just as planned, even if a bit ahead of schedule. He had had a bit of a hiccup today, but the Wraith knew the real Ryan. He knew the Ryan who had died in Sumatra, and the Ryan who took his place. he knew that the last Ryan was never going to be able to live in a society of peace and prosperity. And he knew that that Ryan was the one who was weak enough for him to overpower.

“In due time.” The Wraith jumped off the ledge he was sitting on and landed silently on the ground, then walked off into the distance, eventually entering the dark section of the forest.


Ryan sat back down next to the fire, wondering what his next move should be. He hadn’t actually eaten since just before he left, so that was a priority. Taking a look at Rainbow, sleeping peacefully now on the ground by the fire, he went over to his vest where he kept the food and water and pulled some of each out. What he had was a simple bottle and a few candy bars, which he downed faster than he had expected.

Once he was done, he checked his clothes, finding them to be completely dried off. He wasted no time in getting them on and shaking them out to get back used to the feel of wearing them. With the vest on underneath and the now almost empty Automag back in its holster, Ryan threw on his cloak and jacket over it and started walking around the cave.

He looked down at Rainbow, wondering how she had gotten herself out here in the first place. Her side still bled, but it was slowly getting better. Nonetheless, it would be better if she received some kind of medical attention soon.

He sighed. “All right. Come on.” he said, not expecting a reply. He leaned down and picked her up in his arms and moved the cloak over. “Let’s head out.” Tossing her over his shoulder and then throwing the cloak over her, he carried her out of the cave and back into the wilderness. But this time, he didn’t forget to close the door.

With so much extra weight, the walk back to town took almost twice as long as the walk here in the morning had. The snow wasn’t even falling that heavily anymore, and it still took him that long. he had to be constantly on the watch for the Wraith, since he could be anywhere, any time. The crunch of the precipitate under his feet and the constant need to push the branches out of the way only added to the boy’s discomfort as he made his way back.

Eventually, he exited the forest and found the welcome sight of Ponyville in the distance, with hospitable lights in windows and young ponies heading inside after a day of playing in the snow. If only Ryan could have had such a good time in the snow today.

Deciding that it was safe now, Ryan moved his cloak over so that Rainbow was no longer underneath it. If anypony wanted to know why he was carrying her, he could easily make up a story to explain. He would have to make sure it didn’t implicate him of going into the forest, so it would probably have to be the kind of story that would require Rainbow to explain it later.

Alas, no one asked him any questions as he walked through the town. Ponies would stop and look, some growing wide-eyed, but none stopped. At first, Ryan was concerned, but as he went along, it was clear that no one suspected him of doing anything. That was all Ryan could have asked for.

Ryan stopped when he got to about two hundred feet into town. “Where am I going?” he realized. As always, he had no real plan for this, he just kind of went along with it. He thought about where he could drop Rainbow off to stay for the night. There was certainly Fluttershy’s, but she was all the way on the other side of town, and this mare was just getting too heavy. Rarity’s wouldn’t work, seeing as that was where he lived, and Rainbow probably wouldn’t remember what happened out there.

Should he try Pinkie’s? No, the Cakes owned that place, and they might not have room. Not worth the risk of having to walk all that way. There was no chance of bringing Rainbow home, for obvious reasons. Applejack might take her, but that walk was even longer than going to Fluttershy’s.

“Oh!” Ryan said loudly, mentally smacking himself. “I’ll head to the library.”

With a new objective in place and a reason to complete it, Ryan set off for the library, eager to dump his heavy cargo and get back to the boutique for some rest. As he walked along, he thought over the day that had tired him out so very much. Overall, it was pretty productive; he found his cave in really bad weather and navigated the forest in said weather. He proved himself to be very physically fit, which would be necessary for living out there. He had a fire, which he forgot to put out (it was in a cave, who cares anyway?). The only thing he missed was looking for food out there. Well, he could do that another time.

Before long, the Golden Oaks Library came into view in all its splendor and warm-looking glory. As soon as he laid his eyes upon it, the boy quickened his feet and ran to the door, but couldn’t stop himself. Instead of knocking, Ryan simply braced himself as he rammed right into the thick, oak door, being sure to keep Rainbow out of the way.

As he hit it and came off, Ryan pulled his hand over to his shoulder, straining against Rainbow’s body, and held it tight to try to cut off the pain. “Ow.” He took in three deep breaths, listening for any chance of the library’s door opening for him to enter.

Thankfully, it didn’t take long. “Hello?” a little boy’s voice said as it opened up. Spike stood in the doorway, looking at Ryan’s feet. When he looked up, his face instantly lightened up. “Hey bro!” He put out his fist for a fist-pump.

Ryan nodded. “Hey. Sorry, but my hands are kinda full.” He jerked his head at the unconscious Rainbow Dash. “Mind if I come in?”

Spike looked up at the mare and went into full panic mode. “Oh man, yeah, get inside!” Ryan walked right in and went over to the fireplace to drop Rainbow. “Twilight, we got an emergency! Come quick!”

Once Ryan dropped Rainbow down by the fire, he felt a burning need to leave and avoid being a part of explaining what had happened out in the forest. But he was doomed to have to explain, as Twilight ran down the stairs and stepped right in front of him.

“What is it Spi-”

“Shit!” Ryan couldn’t get out of the way, and bowled over the lavender mare in a mess of arms and legs. As he jumped up, he tried to run away, but to no avail.

“Hang on!” Twilight said, grabbing Ryan’s pant with her magic. “What’s going on?”

She held tight. “Are you that desperate to get into my pants?” Ryan asked, cocking an eyebrow at the mare. He caught the mare totally off guard, and she let go of him instantly.

“No!” she shouted. “But I do want you...” She paused, giving Ryan a look that made him uncomfortable. “TO EXPLAIN THIS TO ME!” She shoved a hoof in Rainbow’s direction.

Ryan sighed. “All right, fine. But don’t be so freaking loud.” Twilight ignored his request and sat herself down, eager for the whole story. The story didn’t take too long, though, and Ryan skipped over a number of parts, all including the Wraith and his irritating presence, plus the reason he was out there. When he finished, Twilight looked worriedly over at her friend.

“Oh my.” she said. She stood up and walked over, her magic poking and prodding at the Rainbow-maned mare, looking for her wound. When she found it, she immediately went to work. “I’m glad you were out there to help.”

“Yeah. Ironic, that I was the one to save her life.” Twilight cringed at the truth of the statement. Turning around and heading towards the door, Ryan went to leave her with, “Farewell.”

“Hold up.” Spike said out of the blue, all eyes going to him. “What were you doing out in the forest in that kind of weather anyway?”

Ryan desperately wanted to simply tell him that it was his own business, as Spike would respect that. But Twilight would never let him get away with it.

“I was out doing strategic recon.” he said half-truthfully. “I want to know what all weather is like out there if I want to keep looking for Discord.”

Spike bought it, but Twilight didn’t. She had never pursued him after his clear lies, though, and by the looks of it, she wasn’t about to now, either. “Alright.” Twilight said. “You can head on out if you need to.”

Ryan nodded and gave her a light bow just for giggles. “Of course, dear princess.” Twilight gave him a funny look as he left, unsure of whether that was a backhanded compliment or a front-handed insult.

Ryan shut the door behind him as he left the library, glad to be free of that burden. He took a look at his watch; it read eight o’ clock. It was pretty late already, and Rarity would be mad at him when he got back. But that’s what bars were there for; that way, you don’t have to go back to an angry woman until she’s asleep.



Twilight lay next to Rainbow, looking hard at her, willing her to wake up and talk. “Come on, Rainbow. Wake up!” She desperately needed to get Rainbow’s take on what happened, even if she had to explain to the athletic mare the nature of the events.

“You want some hot chocolate, Twi?” Spike asked as he walked toward the kitchen.

She thought. “Yes, I think I would. And make one for Rainbow.”

Spike nodded and went to work in the kitchen. He donned his little apron, which he had been ridiculed by Rainbow herself for wearing, and finished up the drinks in no time. Everyone knows that real men can wear aprons comfortably; ladies dig the aprons.

Spike brought he drinks back and set one down in front of each mare in the room, then sat himself down next to Twilight. “So how long do you think this is gonna be?”

“Right now.” Twilight responded with a big smile.

Spike looked at Rainbow confused, but soon saw that she was rolling off of her side and onto her belly. “Wha..?” she said, rubbing at her eyes with a hoof.

“Rainbow?” Twilight started, getting the mare to look in her direction. “Rainbow, it’s Twilight. Are you okay?”

Rainbow looked at Twilight like she had six heads. “Yeah, I feel fine, just a little tired. Why?”

“How about the fact that you nearly died!?” Twilight shouted, shocking Rainbow into full awareness and surprise. Twilight glared at the mare as she waited for a response.

It finally came. “What?”

“Yeah, you almost died out there in that storm! What were you thinking, flying out there? Why would you do it?”

Rainbow’s jaw was hanging low, like she didn’t even remember doing that. Although, she definitely did. “I was training, and I just got lost! I landed a little in the forest, I think, and I don't remember anything after that.” Twilight narrowed her eyes. “Look, I just wanted to strengthen my controlled flight capabilities. Besides, you were there to save me, so it wasn’t that bad, right?”

Twilight tried to respond, but her words failed her. No amount of berating would get through to her at the moment, no amount of possible other outcomes. But there was one thing that would get to her.

“I didn’t save you.” she said flatly. The truth would get through to her.

Rainbow’s face froze. “You... didn’t?” Twilight shook her head. “Wait... then who did?”

Twilight gave Rainbow a second to think about it, but didn’t want her to come to any wrong conclusions. “Ryan saved you.”

The words were like a whip across the face to Rainbow, causing her to physically reel back from the sound of them. Ryan? Ryan had saved her? The guy who killed forty of his own kind? The one who let himself die and killed his friends? The one who was more dangerous than any foe they had ever faced?

“You can’t be telling me the truth.”

“I am, Rainbow.” Twilight said authoritatively. “Ryan was the only one out there to save you. He pulled out of a frozen lake at the risk of his own life, wrapping you up in his clothes to keep you warm instead of him. He carried you back to a cave he saw on the way out there and made a fire to get the both of you warm. He fought off a bear to keep you safe.” That part was a lie, but hey? “He provided you CPR when you stopped breathing, and somehow managed to restart your heart. You would be dead and likely never found if it weren’t for him.”

Rainbow thought about the significance of what Ryan had done. What he did for her was beyond what anypony had ever done for her before, and she hated him. Didn’t he hate her, for hating him? Did he honestly not care about her hatred, or was able to forgive her and bring her back to town? He had little to gain from helping her, so why not let her die? Most importantly, would she have done the same for him?

Was he a better person than her?

“...” Rainbow thought. “I... I had no idea...”

Twilight crossed her forelegs. “Well, now you do.” She pushed the hot chocolate over to her friend, who, upon seeing it, greedily grabbed it and slurped it up. “You’ve treated him like garbage from early on, Rainbow. You’ve hated him without proper reason, refused to trust him. And now, here he goes, saving your life at the risk of losing his own. Doesn’t that say something about him?”

“Yeah...” Rainbow replied. She knew now; she knew that he was good inside, even if he didn’t let everypony know. “I guess he is a good guy after all.” Maybe it was time to start being nicer to him.

“Good.” Twilight concluded. “Tomorrow, I Think the two of you should talk.” Rainbow groaned. “None of that! You owe it to him, at least that much. I want you to find a way to make it up to him.”

“Can’t I just start talking nicer to him?” Rainbow responded. Twilight glared daggers at her. “All right, fine. I’ll find him tomorrow.”

A smile burst onto Twilight’s face. “Good! And I wish you luck.”

Rainbow Dash groaned from her spot on the floor, thinking about how awkward it would be while Twilight went off to do her own thing. How could she make it up to him? She didn’t really have anything to offer him. She could give him favors, but he was really, really independent. He wouldn’t take money, and that would be kind of weird anyway. Rarity would give him a kiss, but that wasn’t really Rainbow’s thing.

What did she have? A love of flying. Maybe she could give him a little show, do some tricks? “Not that kind of show.” she thought, knowing what Ryan would say to that. She could make it like a Wonderbolts show...

“Oh!” Rainbow said excitedly.

Spike, who was long forgotten by a random bookshelf, turned around at her exclamation. “What?” he asked.

Rainbow stood up and stretched. “I have two tickets for a Wonderbolts show on the fourth, this Tuesday! I can bring Ryan along.”

Spike blinked at her, understanding the sentiment. “Okay... but how are you going to get him up to Cloudsdale?”

Rainbow chuckled and shook her head. “No, it’s up in Canterlot this time. I think Prince Blueblood scheduled it to be up there or something.”

Spike gagged at the name. “Well, that’s convenient. And since you’re both pretty close to the Wonderbolts, you might even be able to get special treatment.”

Rainbow gasped and her countenance changed drastically from happy to ecstatic. “Ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh, ohmygosh! Yes, we totally could!” She flew over to Spike and picked him up in a big hug. “Thanks!”

Rainbow dropped the baby dragon and flew off, eager to have the next day come as soon as possible.


****************************************************************************


Ryan got up the next morning feeling sore and exhausted. Wasn’t sleep supposed to take care of that? He must have overexerted himself the day before.

He sat up in bed and swung his feet around, his heels striking the ground with more force than was comfortable. He could explain all the problems he was having at the moment; Carrying Rainbow required a lot of strength, so he was sore. His exhaustion, though, came from Rarity the previous night. He had gone to the bar until after eleven, but she was still waiting for him to come back. When he did get back, he was in for quite the earful.

“Where have you been!? Sweetie Belle and I were worried sick when we couldn’t find you this morning! And what’s this about you going into the Everfree Forest during the strongest snowstorm we’ve ever had made?” How did she even know that? “Explain yourself now!”

Ryan had to tell her exactly what he told Twilight, only with dozens more interruptions and a lot more submission to her anger. Rarity actually smacked him upside the head once during her verbal assault, shouting how stupid Ryan was. He would have sworn that Sweetie Belle could hear everything, but somehow, she never came down. And it went on until well after one in the morning.

Now, he was told, he would have to check with somepony before going someplace. However, he countered with the fact that he was an adult in Equestria, and could go where he pleased. The counter to that was that, if it was dangerous, he still had to tell somepony so that he could do whatever he planned on doing safely. Why him? Wasn’t Rainbow the dumbass who nearly got herself killed yesterday?

“Ah well.” Ryan concluded. He could cope with the circumstances.

He got dressed, though only in his pants, and went up the stairs and made his way to the kitchen. It was just after seven in the morning, and he was starving. He had only eaten twice the day before, and light meals at that, so he could feel the weakness in hi sleg as he made his way up.

When he entered the kitchen, he was greeted with the presence of three little fillies and one little colt with a camera, which flashed brightly as Ryan walked in. There were several cheers from the small group as Ryan blinked away the blindness now afflicting his eyes. Once he recovered, he looked over the group and tried to figure out what was happening.

He just asked. “What are you doing?”

“We were having a sleepover last night!” Scootaloo answered loudly. “We were hoping you would be here so we could go over strategy with you for that game you taught us, but YOU weren’t here.” Ryan silently groaned to himself; he wasn't going to live this down for a while.

“Sorry, but I had some things to do.”

Applebloom snickered. “Yeah, we heard.” Ryan sighed. “Rarity really laid you out last night!”

“Yes, yes she did.” Ryan replied. A moment of silence followed. “You.”

Ryan pointed at the colt, Featherweight, if he remembered right. “Me?”

“Yeah, you. Whatup with the picture, bud?”

The colt swallowed hard under the scary human’s scrutiny. “Well, the savior of Rainbow Dash can hardly go without being known, can he? I’m just letting the ponies know what happened.”

He was never going to get any privacy. Ever. This was why Special Operations appealed to him; no fame, no personal credit. Silent professional, completely private life.

“Fine.” Ryan said with a defeated sigh. The colt smiled wide and ran out, leaving Ryan alone with the fillies. Turning to them, he decided that he should get back at them. “So, I guess you had him over?”

Sweetie Belle looked at him, confused. “What?”

Ryan threw his hands up. “Hey, I won’t judge. I know that you girls are growing up, you want to get to know the boys.”

“EWWW!” they all shouted in unison.

Ryan continued. “Don’t worry, though! Soon, your interest in them will become uncontainable, and you’ll actually WANT to spend lots of time with them! There’ll be lots of movies, dinners, walks...” The fillies were getting a little too comfortable. “Hugs, kisses, odd sensations...”

“Ahg, stop! You’re weirding us out!” Scootaloo shouted.

“What is all that noise!?” Rarity shouted from upstairs. With that, Ryan immediately regretted his little joke. “I’m trying to sleep! I was up late last night with Ryan!”

“Yeah, she spent lots of energy on me!” Ryan included loud enough for Rarity to hear.

A pause.

“Girls, tell him that he had better watch what he says, or he may find himself unable to ‘expend energy’.”

Ryan gulped hard. “Okay!” he said with a clap of his hands, ready to change the subject. “So, uhh... what’s up?” With nothing else ready to distract them, he just gave them a nervous smile.

The fillies looked to each other, trying to figure out what they would do. “Well,” Sweetie Belle started. “We were gonna go and try to get our construction cutie marks!”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea!” Ryan replied, throwing his arms out to emphasize his statement. “I think you should go about that sooner rather than later; the sooner you get your marks, the better!”

“Yeah!” Applebloom shouted. “Come on, girls, let’s get movin’!” The southern filly ran off out the kitchen and out the front door, eager to start the day.

Sweetie Belle followed right behind, but Scootaloo waited for a moment before leaving. “Hey, what’re you waiting for?” Ryan asked.

Suddenly, she ran up to him and hugged his leg as tightly as her tiny body could manage. “Thanks for saving Rainbow Dash.” she said, nuzzling his leg.

Ryan leaned over, wearing a little smile on his face, and patted the filly on the head. “Don’t mention it.”

With that, she ran off after her friends, ready to face the future with more gusto and more certainty than Ryan could ever manage. He always had marveled at the child’s ability to rush into the future without hesitation, without any worries about failure. They seemed like an unstoppable force, one that, as they changed into adults, they simply lost to the wind, replacing wonder with treachery.

“I’m glad they like you.” Ryan turned around to see Rarity coming down the stairs. “It’s nice to see them look up to anypony with so much admiration.”

Ryan breathed in deep, unsure of how to respond. The truth never hurts. “Well, I kind of wish they wouldn’t. I’m not that great of a role-model.”

“Nonsense!” Rarity exclaimed. “You’ve only been helpful to us, and we’ve learned a good bit from you. I’m certain that you’re a fine role-model. It’s not like you’re telling them to go out and commit crimes.”

Ryan chuckled. “No, I suppose not.”

Rarity walked into the kitchen and went through her fridge, looking for food. She decided on a head of lettuce, and walked back to the table with it in her mouth. Ryan decided to follow her into the kitchen and leaned up against the wall, then remembered that he had yet to eat as well. Quietly, he walked over to the fridge and went through it, eventually settling on some kind of breakfast pastry that looked like a croissant.

He sat down and started chewing away. “So, Ryan. Plans for today?” Rarity asked.

Ryan wasn’t that into small talk, but he could manage it. “Not sure. I could go around and find stuff to do, but that hardly qualifies as a plan. Maybe I’ll head to the gym.”

“Ooh, that sounds great!” What? Rarity hated the idea of being sweaty and nasty. “Maybe you’ll run into Rainbow Dash. She’s going to be looking for you.”

Ryan’s ears perked at that. “What? Why? And how do you know that?”

“Twilight sent me a message last night that I read after chewing you out.” Spike’s message delivering ability must have been a really handy thing to have. “And I would bet that Rainbow wants to thank you. You know, for saving her life.”

“I’ve saved lives before, and I didn’t ask for thanks then either. Besides, she doesn’t exactly like me. I can’t say that I expect real gratitude.”

Rarity leveled her gaze at him. “Now, Ryan, just because she didn’t like you doesn’t mean that she can’t be genuinely gracious that you SAVED HER LIFE. Just listen to her when she finds you later; I’m sure it will be from her heart.”

Ryan stuffed the rest of the pastry in his mouth. “All right, fine. I guess I’ll head to the gym later, see if she finds me there.”

Rarity beamed at him. “Splendid! Now, you get going. I have work to do, and you’ll only be in the way.” Rarity used her magic to lift Ryan up and toss him to the basement door.

She hadn’t controlled the throw much at all, and Ryan went stumbling down the stairs through the door, grunting and groaning all the way. At the bottom, he hit with a loud and unceremonious thud, landing square on his chest. Once he was set to go again, he got up and got himself dressed.

He donned his usual outfit, which was everything minus the cloak and the armor vest, and set out into town. Outside, he could see that no one was around or about today, as it was cold and snowy. Where, then, were the fillies going to get their construction cutie marks? He ignored the question and opted to go to the park and just sit down for a time before going to the gym. In the park, he could sit quietly and be in a peaceful place.

The walk to the park was short and silent, with not a flake of snow coming from the sky. Today, it was completely clear, not a cloud in sight. It was quite the change from yesterday, when it was dark and forbidding, ready to step out and kill whoever crossed it.

Quite the transformation.” Ryan thought to himself.

In the park was exactly what he was expecting; his bench, the same trees, and total silence. It was all he could ask for, all he had been asking for. That was what he was preparing to live in the forest for. A place where he could be secluded, quiet, and alone with his crimes.

But, as always, things just wouldn’t go the way he wanted. “Ryan!”

Ryan sighed, knowing exactly who the loud, scratchy voice belonged to. He hadn’t expected to deal with this so early. “Hello, Rainbow.” he responded, going to his bench and taking a seat. “What brings you out so early?”

Rainbow had been flying about twenty feet off the ground and made a dive-bomb for where Ryan was just standing. “Hey.” she said as she landed.

After landing, she just sort of stood there, in her scarf, saddle, and boots, staring at the human in front of her, trying to formulate what she wanted to say. Meanwhile, Ryan simply waited, starting back at first, then looking away to take in the scenery as Rainbow thought. She couldn’t have been more thankful for that. The less he looked into her eyes while she talked, the easier it would be.

“So.” she started.

“So.”

Rainbow fiddled at the ground with the tips of her hooves, her eyes following suit. “So. I, uhh... Twilight told me... Uh, she said that you kinda... saved me.”

“Yeah.” Rainbow’s gaze shifted to Ryan’s face. He was so casual in his words, and it even showed on his face. How was he so cool about it?

“Umm... yeah. I wanted to thank you, for that. You know.”

“Okay.” Ryan replied, not sure if the mare was telling the truth.

“You think I’m lying.”

Well, she guessed it. “Honestly? Yes.”

“Why?”

Ryan gave her a flat look and crossed his arms. “Let’s see; you hate me, for one. You said how you want me to go away and never come back. You haven’t respected me in the slightest, and you’ve been outright afraid of me. I would bet that you’re only thanking me because you were told to.”

That last one hit Rainbow like a slap across the face. “Hey!” she said, losing her cool. “I’m trying to thank you here! You saved my life, I can be grateful for that, can’t I? Just because I was bad to you before doesn’t mean I can’t thank you and start being better, okay?”

Ryan blinked at the mare, who now stood huffing and angry before him, like she was ready to pounce on him and eat his face. “Hmm.” he said. She was angry. At him. For not believing her. Maybe she was genuine. “I believe you.”

“Well, I-” The anger came to an abrupt end. “What?”

“I believe you. I can see that you’re serious. I can also see that you’re swallowing a lot of pride by doing this.” Rainbow’s face turned slightly red and she turned away. “You’re a good pony for that.”

The red got a little deeper. “Thanks.”

“Yeah.” Ryan said with finality.

But Rainbow stuck around. “Yeah.” Curious, Ryan raised an eyebrow at her, though she didn’t seem to notice. “And, uhh, I wanted to really thank you for saving me. I’d be dead in a lake right now if it weren’t for you, after all.”

Before she had a chance to reach into her saddle and pull something out, Ryan had to get one word in. “Well, I can’t promise you that I’ll be very good, but I can certainly try my hardest.”

Rainbow’s face turned completely red and her hooves failed her for a moment, going completely astray and missing the intended target. “Hey!” she shouted.

Ryan couldn’t keep himself from laughing and smiling at her dismay, and very quickly, the laughter became contagious and spread to the mare. “Very funny.” she said between chuckles. “But seriously, I wanted to give you this.”

She pulled her hoof out, holding (How, for God’s sake?) a small slip of paper. “What is it?” Ryan asked as he took it from her. It read “WB 12/4”.

“It’s a ticket to the Wonderbolts show up in Canterlot this Tuesday. I thought you might want to go see them in action, and since I’ll be there, I can help you navigate the stadium.”

Ryan opened his eyes extra wide and looked at the ticket. Rainbow had given him something of actual value here, both monetary and sentimentally. This had significance.

“Wow, thanks.” he said, pocketing the ticket. “That means more than I think you know.”

Rainbow smiled at him, but not with her usual, cocky smile. It wa as gentle smile, one that displayed care and compassion, one that conveyed a feeling of friendship. Ryan hadn’t seen a smile like directed at him in a long time, really. And you know what? It felt pretty damn good.

“Don’t mention it.” she said. “Meet me at the station Tuesday morning at eight. Twilight and Rarity both know that you’ll be missing work on Tuesday and Wednesday, so don’t worry about them.”

Ryan stood up from his seat and stretched out his legs. “I’ll see you then.”

Rainbow hopped up into the air. “See you then!” And she sped off, clearly in a much better state than when she arrived.

With a ticket in his pocket and a schedule for the week, Ryan took off from his seat in the park. For some reason, he felt a need to go and work out. Right now, he had to go to the gym, get stronger. It would be useful for later.


****************************************************************************


Discord felt more than a little bit happy that Ryan accepted the ticket and the apology. In fact, he was so happy that he decided to play a little prank on Luna. Nothing huge, just pick up Starstep in his sleep and put him under her covers in a compromising position. Odds were pretty good that Ryan would have a name for it.

Other than that, he was having a ball, playing around with the residents of the castle. He hadn’t actually been watching Ryan as intently as he probably should lately, barely taking so much as a look at him during November. Ever since he shot down Celestia on Nightmare Night, he had pretty muc