What You Can Imagine

by darf

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The door to the place was nondescript. It was in a secluded part of town, one that a passerby wouldn't have looked twice at on walking past. There was a sign, but it was very plain: a simple carved wooden board with the words "Vis Copia". It was an old Equestrian script most ponies had forgotten, which meant the words were all the less interesting for most. Occasionally throughout the day the door would swing open and a single pony would exit quietly, walking swiftly away from the ornate wooden architecture.

There was a bell on the door, but it was one that could only be heard from the inside.

To know how to get there you had to know someone who already knew how. There was trust involved. Something about the place beckoned a very specific clientele, the kind that were reticent at even the suggestion of revealing the store's location to someone who wouldn't understand its purpose in the first place. The thought was in the back of everyone's mind: what if an errant ner-do-well or curious busybody happened to poke their nose inside, or reveal its location to the world? But the issue never arose, and so business continued as usual.

The grey colt standing outside looked nervous. He had been given the directions by a friend of a friend and had never been there before. He had heard stories. Standing at the door, he had waited for fifteen minutes and seen no one enter or leave. He was beginning to have second thoughts.

'Remember,' a voice prodded at him from the back of his head. He did. His throat was dry, and he swallowed loudly. The door yielded with a gentle nudge from his foreleg, and he stepped inside.

The tinkle of the bell rang in his ear as the door closed, a sound he hadn't caught wind of outside. He could feel his breathing quicken in a hint of nervousness. Everything was going to be fine, he assured himself. Stories were just stories; if what his friend had told him was the truth, then he didn't need to believe anything else.

There was a room to his right and he grasped its purpose immediately. There were telltale signs — colts sitting on chairs, the brims of their hats tucked low just over their muzzles. Watches ticking loudly, checked every other second. A stack of magazines on a coffee table. The store was just as popular as its reputation might have indicated.

There was a desk straight away from the main door. A pony with bright red hair done up in a bun was sitting behind it, and she smiled at the colt as he finished his once-over of the store's interior. There were no shelves lined with product. A hallway stretched out to his left, lined with doors.

"Hello dearie. I'm guessing it's your first time?"

She was very perceptive. Her voice felt like honey in his ears, gentle with something like motherly affection, but silky and soft in a way he was grateful his mother had never been. He felt himself walking forward to the desk, and he nodded slowly, unable to muster the use of his speech at present.

"It's always easy to tell. And how did you hear about us, sweetheart?" The mare leaned towards him as she spoke. She was done up in a masque of almost garish makeup with her eyelids covered in shadowy blue sparkles, and her eyelashes standing sharp and well-defined against her white cheeks. Well, 'white' was incorrect. It was more of a cream colour, a contrast with her fire-red hair that reminded the colt of a bowl of delicious vanilla ice cream with a cherry on top.

"Um... a friend," he managed to squeak out. He wasn't normally this nervous. It was a combination of several things; the way the mare was eyeing him made him feel like he was on display – or more accurately, like he was a lanky antelope on the fields of a far-away plain being stalked by a ferocious fiery tiger.

The mare smiled, not oblivious in the slightest to the colt's nervousness.

"Dear, you seem a tad anxious. Can I get you something to calm you down?"

The colt swallowed again, prompting a giggle from the pony behind the counter.

"I know what you're thinking dear, really, you don't need to be frightened."

How could she know what he was thinking when he didn't even know what he was thinking? There was something mulling at the back of his mind that might have qualified as a thought. When his friend had told him about the place he had said one thing, and what he was seeing now was making him think something very different.

"This is..." he started his sentence with a stumble, already tripping over his words. "I mean... this isn't... are all the other ponies... and... I was just—"

"Wondering if you'd stumbled into a house of ill-repute?"

The colt blushed and tucked his head in towards his chest.

The word colt was appropriate because nothing about him fit the word 'stallion'. He didn't look like an adult, nor did he look like a child. His stature gave every indication he was finished growing, but the aura surrounding him, along with his lanky limbs and bashful demeanour, gave the indication that the word 'colt' was for all intent the best word to describe him. He wasn't a boy, he told himself. Though, he didn't want to get into thinking that: what it meant to grow up, or why he might be here.

The cream-coloured mare giggled and placed her hoof to her mouth to muffle the already silken sound. Several of the ponies in the waiting room looked up from their magazines. All but one of them went back to their reading almost immediately, only a single pony keeping his eyes on the scene playing out at the reception desk.

"I apologize, sweetheart. I tend to find this is the easiest way to do things, based on common... understanding of our services. I take it, then, that you're not here for a roll in the hay with a nice filly?"

The colt blushed harder.

"Well, we'll leave that to consideration then. Yes, young man, your assumption is correct... this is not a run of the mill den of inequity. I hope you aren't disappointed?"

Head shake. No, that was what he had hoped. When his friend has told him... he'd thought it was a dream. Something that was too amazing to be real. Even in a world of fantastical happenings every day — a goddess that walked among common ponies and brought up the sun during the day, monsters that roamed the forest nearby and miracles occurring to save the world, borne from unicorn magic — he still couldn't have believed something like this existed.

Did he want to spend his visit on something he could pretend would push him off the precipice from boyhood into becoming a man?

He wasn't sure.

"No," he said simply.

The mare nodded. As she had evidenced on the colt's entry, perception was her strong suit.

"Well then dear, I'm guessing you have questions."

The mare sat back in her chair and shifted slightly. The light from the lamp overhead blurred the dust in the air.The colt blinked. His vision was blurry for a second. The dryness of his throat caught a sprig of errant dust, and he coughed. When he opened his eyes the receptionist leaned towards him again.

Her hair was still in a bun, but it was neater and more rigidly kept, held very close against her head. The colour had changed too, from bright red to a dark, quiet blue. It was a mellow contrast against her coat, from white to brown, like aged amber or polished oak. The colt blinked.

It had been true then.

"If you please, then," the mare said. Her voice was ink on dry library paper, folded and catalogued in rows.

"How... how does it work?"

"The process is very simple," began the mare, taking a larch parchment notebook from below the counter and laying it atop the wood of the reception desk. The ledger was filled with curly handwriting, with columns of notes packed so densely they were unreadable to the colt, even from only a few feet away.

"We discuss nothing more than the most rudimentary transaction of your visit. You let me know if you're here for business, or simply passing by. If it's the latter, I'd ask that you take care not to bother our other clients, and leave at your soonest convenience, though we have no problems with potential customers. If the former, simply give us your signature on the sign-in sheet, and take your place in the waiting room until your number is called. Then make your way to the corresponding door, enjoy your session, and pay us another visit as soon as you please."

There were parts of the equation missing.

"What about—"


The receptionist took a long, slow breath, and adjusted the glasses now propped on the bridge of her muzzle. She peered low through them at the colt in front of her.

"The type of service we offer here... conventional payment won't be necessary. If you want, you can think of it as a universal gratuity. If you need to dig deeper... well. I suggest you simply enjoy yourself instead."

The third nervous swallow, this time the loudest.

The mare placed a hoof on either side of the sign-in ledger. A pen floated upward from a small container by the corner of the desk and hovered in the air above the notebook.

"Well then?"

He wasn't sure if the businesslike approach was more to his liking, but it left his decision making process unclouded. Not that hesitation had been a concern in the first place. Purpose was a beam of light, spearing through the grey mass of fog that too much thought produced.

"Yes... please, I mean."

The mare nodded as the colt took the pen into his mouth and scrawled his name illegibly onto the right side of the book. The pen floated out of his mouth as he scribbled the last letter and landed back in its holding cup as receptionist close the book with a loud smack.

"Very good. Have a seat in the waiting room if you please, and make your way down the hall when your number is called."

The receptionist shoved a slip of paper across the desk towards the colt which he picked up between his two front hooves. Wanting to avoid what now felt like the cold glare of the mare behind the counter, the colt dashed off to the waiting room with the piece of paper clutched tightly against his body. A likely looking chair leapt out at him immediately, on the far wall in the center of the semicircle of chairs surrounding the room. He hazarded one glance back at the reception desk before he sat down. The light caught in his eyes again and he blinked. A flash of pink and a bright smile jumped in his head. When he opened his eyes the receptionist was there, busying herself with some paperwork.

The colt held his piece of paper close like a passport, telling the other ponies in the room that he belonged — that he was meant to be there. Despite his worry, they couldn't have seemed less interested in his presence. Only one of them, the same stallion that had looked up during his conversation with the receptionist, seemed to notice him.

The colt wiped a hoof across his brow in hopes to clear the sweat from his forehead. His hoof came away dry. He turned his head to the side, catching sight of the pony in the chair next to him.

He looked to be older, and the same colour as the colt, though a much darker shade of grey. The other visitor was wearing a faded brown suit, and a bowler hat that was pulled low over his eyes. His ears flopped onto the side of his head, and though he looked like he could be peacefully asleep, the colt noticed there was no snoring — only a soft and steady breathing. To the colt's surprise, the grey pony peeked one eye open, catching him mid-stare.

"Um... sorry. Hello."

The old pony blinked, but said nothing, and closed his eyes again, leaning further back in his chair.

"Um." The colt rubbed his piece of paper absentmindedly. He glanced down at it. Number thirty-seven. "Uh. Have you um... sorry, it's my first time here. Have you... you've been here before?"

The old pony cocked an eyebrow, peeking one eye open, and his mouth twisted into a kind of grimace before he tilted himself to the side, taking up a position facing the side wall before letting his eyes fall closed again. Apparently he wasn't interested in conversation.


It was like a whispered shout in his ears coming suddenly from across the room. It managed to fit sizable impact in a single word at such a muttered volume. The colt's eyes widened and he looked around for the source of the voice.

"Over here!" The urgent whisper insisted. The colt caught sight of what must surely be the voice's owner — the pony who had paid attention during the earlier discussion. He was sitting several seats away, waving a hoof and beckoning like a flag holder signalling at the races. The colt gave a look to the ponies on either side of them, but neither of them moved a muscle. He rose from his seat, still grasping his paper tight, and trotted his way over to the pony waving at him. The beckoner's face brightened with a mile-wide grin when the colt approached the empty seat at his side.

"You're a newbie, huh? I can spot 'em a mile away!"

The pony's voice was thick with an accent the colt couldn't quite place. It sounded not too far away, but foreign all the same — not in the way a camel from the Far East sands might struggle with everyday words, but slick and greasy, like someone who had picked up the Equestrian language in a mail-away catalogue he had stolen the subscription for. His eyes glimmered when he spoke, a bright clover green, and like many of the other ponies in the waiting room, he was wearing a hat. It was a garish top-hat, affixed between his ears. He grinned as the colt took his seat, and tipped it, revealing a glimpse of a pointed orange horn underneath, matching the rest of his coat.

"That's right, don't be shy, sit down. Sorry about Ashes over there, most folks here don't take kindly to conversation while they're waiting."

"Um, sorry."

The stranger laughed and gave the colt a forceful pat on the back which jarred him forward. It almost knocked his precious paper askew, but he held it tight, managing to escape from the overly familial assault with only a small cough.

"No need to be sorry, kid. It's not your fault most of the men here are crotchety old bastards!"

The laugh was loud, still carrying trails of the slimy city accent. Surprisingly, only one or two heads turned as it bounced off the walls. After a few seconds, a soft 'hush' carried across the reception desk, and the stranger quelled his guffaws, wiping a hoof across his cheek as though drying them from the tears of his laughter. The colt held his paper close like a sacred text.

"What's your name, kid?"

The colt pondered the option of lying for a moment. Something about the pony sitting next to him made his skin crawl — not in a repulsed or disgusted manner, but as an accompaniment to the nagging warning in his head that if he sat nearby for too long, he'd find the fillings in his back teeth missing after a long blink.

"Grey," he said. "It's Grey."

"Grey? What kind of name is that? Might as well call you "Mister Boring"!"

Grey hunched his shoulders to try and subtly shield his ears from another grating laugh.

"Well, welcome to the Vis Copia, Grey. My name's Sticky Hooves. Pleasure ta' make your acquaintance." Sticky said the name of the store like he was reading it clumsily off the wrapper of an imported candy bar he'd found on an outdoor movie theatre floor.

Against his better judgement, Grey returned the hoofshake. He was pleased to discover the other pony's name was evidently a partial misnomer — though, he did feel something as he pulled his grip away. It was more grimy than sticky.

"So," Sticky Hooves started, adjusting the brim of his top hat. "I'm guessing you've got a lot of questions about how things work here."

Grey flittered his eyes towards the reception desk, a gesture which Sticky noticed thanks to Grey's lack of subtlety.

"Ah, the gal's nice, make no mistake, but there's a lot she doesn't tell ya'. Anything else you wanna know, you just ask me, okay?"

"Are you... um.... are you an employee, or—"

Grey coughed again as Sticky slapped him on the back, chuckling softly.

"Haha, 'fraid not kid. I'm just a pony who's been here enough to feel bad for poor schmucks like you who wander in here not knowing what's what. Plus, I'm a better talker than most of the cranky grumps in this room; I guess I feel like doin' you a favour."

Sticky paused and adjusted his hat superfluously, tilting it unevenly to the side over one ear.

"You do at least know the basics, don't 'cha?"

Grey wasn't sure. He'd heard... even before his friend had told him where, he'd heard stories. Grey wasn't sure what to believe — or if there was enough substance in anything he'd heard to have something to believe in at all. His expectations were on uneven footing, and rapidly falling out of view amidst the reality that he was here, holding his number between his hooves and waiting. Thirty-seven.

What did he know?

It was certainly not a house of ill-repute.

"Fantasies," Grey blurted out.

Sticky smiled, and nodded.

"Ah, that's a good way of putting it. 's what we're all here for, I suppose you could say." Sticky leaned in conspiratorially and wrapped one of his forelegs around Grey's shoulders — though the volume his speech remained at made the gesture largely pointless.

"Me... I like a girl who's well endowed." Sticky smirked, and Grey spotted a glimmer of gold among his teeth. "Built nice in all the right places, loaded in more way than one, if you catch my drift?"

Grey blinked.

"I tell ya, there's nothing better than lying on top 'a some tarted up pretty princess and swimming her daddy's inheritance. May as well just shoot and bury me each time! If it'd last, I'd never leave the place. 's why you'll see me so much, capiche?"

The conversation had rapidly gone from 'baby bird under slightly greasy wing' to 'lecherous uncle telling his startled nephew about the birds and the bees, and what he liked to do with them while rolling in piles of money’. The tonal shift made Grey want to pull himself away as fast as possible, but Sticky Hooves' elaboration meant something very important — that this was real, and Grey's number would come up before he left. Thirty-seven.

Grey managed to extricate himself from the faux-affectionate shoulder grab. Sticky laughed at him, slapping himself on the knee.

"Not your cup of tea, kid?"

Grey shook his head back and forth rapidly, getting a nod of approval from Sticky.

"Good, tea's for the buckets of wet hay from Trottingham. Don't need none of 'em in here."

Sticky's boisterous yelling and casual racism were catching a few glances from the ponies in the waiting room, but he ignored them, leaning towards Grey for further exposition.

"What's your type then, eh? You got a look about you that says you've got somepony in mind... one of the lovely ladies of Ponyville keepin' you up at night?"

If Grey had shaken his head any faster it would have fallen off his neck.

"Not a stallion then? I ain't the judgemental type, seein' what I've seen, you don't need to keep your mouth shut on my account—"

"Um." Grey wasn't sure if that qualified as an interruption. Something nagged at him. A question that he answered each time it came up — why was here sitting here, listening to a colt in a top-hat who looked as though he hadn't bathed in days? Why was he here in the first place? There was a very particular answer for that question, though Grey wasn't certain what it might be. But, he could answer the first one for now: because he had more questions.

"I'm not really here for... that. I don't think."

"Ah, well, all the same. That's the beauty of this place — ain't gotta come in looking to get your carrot wet to have a good time. 'Vis copia', they say, 'where your dreams come true'!"

"Right. Um. About that. What do—"

"You want a story, kid? I'll answer for you and say that you do, on account of this one's worth listening to, unlike most of what I've got to say. Lean in so my gabbin' don't upset the rest of the room."

Contrary to Sticky Hooves' self-admonition, half the room was listening at least out of the corner of their ears, and one or two eager looking ponies had visibly taken interest, apparently content to awaken from their naps or magazines to pay attention to what seemed to be some sort of inner local attraction.

Nonetheless, Grey obliged, leaning in despite his better judgement to catch an earful of something he hoped would answer some of his questions.

"So, you've heard stories then, about what goes on here? Everyone has, before they show up. Ain't no one walks through that door thinking they're just gonna spend an hour with a pretty girl."

Grey nodded, and Sticky returned the gesture knowingly.

"Right. So the thing about this place, is that it ain't no run of the mill 'hey-ho howdy-do-me 'ave a look at these lovely ladies' type of operation. You met Miss Reception already-" Sticky gave a wave to the front desk, which to Grey's surprise, the mare behind the counter returned. "-and might I say, it'd be a right treat if she'd do herself up like that for us regulars. But, you saw 'er different when you came in afore you started asking questions, didn't you?"

Grey nodded again.

"And that's the trick of it, y'see. Ain't no normal pony in Ponyville, or Equestria for that matter, that can do that kinda thing. Lookin' any way they want! That alone'd be enough to get every stallion in town fighting over each other to get in here. So what makes this place so special past that?"

Grey wasn't sure he knew the answer. He wanted to hazard a guess but wasn't sure if this was meant to be a conversation or a monologue.

"The answer," Sticky began before Grey could decide on whether or not to attempt an interjection "is that what goes on in here is a lot more exciting than fixing up a filly that fits your fancy and ruttin' her for your hour's worth of bits."

"See... most folk go through life with somethin' in their heads. For some, it is that pretty girl that got away, the one they spend their nights pinin' over until the rest o' their life falls apart... but for others, it's something a little bit more than that."

Sticky pointed a hoof towards the old dusky stallion with the bowler hat that Grey had mistakenly sat down beside when he first entered the waiting room.

"Ashes over there, he's a chimney sweep, or he was. Say as I want about 'em, and I do it partly on his account… he's from Trottingham, where they ain't got such nice and tidy jobs as we do here. Instead of spending his days on farm waterin' carrots, Ashes was climbin' flues and clearing dust and soot for ponies who threw out in a day more than he was worth. Eventually, he saved up enough to move here — started a family, bought a house, and lived the new Equestrian dream." Sticky paused and lowered his voice, low enough that the ponies interested in the conversation couldn't hear — even Grey had to strain to make out the hushed whisper.

"His house burned to the ground five years ago — somethin' in the fireplace wasn't installed right, went wrong, caught a gas line or somethin' like that; the whole place lit and turned to dust on the ground of Ponyville. His family was home when it happened. Wife and two kids, neither of them made it out but for the bits of 'em that looked like charcoal when they carried 'em away."

Grey's face turned a noticeable shade of green.

"So what do you suppose he's here for then?"

After taking a moment to quell the vomit stirring in the back of his throat, Grey coughed and licked the dry feeling from his lips.

"Family?" he asked quietly.

"Bingo. Now, granted, maybe there's a part of him shaking in his old haunches that convinces him to let the kids to bed and have a go round with his wife — but I doubt it's often, if ever. Ashes is here every other day, and it don't take a Canterlot magic type to figure out what he does behind his door. You hear him say goodbye to them, when he leaves."

"But... how—"

"Ah, you're jumping ahead. Take another look around."

Grey did as directed, sweeping his gaze over the room of ponies, most of whom had realized the conversation they were eager to listen in to was going to be conducted well below hearing level. Grey felt a tap on his shoulder as his eyes settled on a pegasus holding a newspaper. He was scanning the words behind half-moon spectacles, and looked a good deal more composed and patient than most of the ponies in the room.

"That's Quiet Blue. Don't know none of his history 'bout jobs or migration, but he's a Cloudsdale native as far as I can figure. And he shares something in common with ol Ashes, but in a mite less disturbing way."

Grey braced himself for another dose of storytelling ichor regardless.

"Blue's wife up and left him two years ago, which ain't a nice spot to be in in the first place. The kicker is, the bitch (as I calls 'em, and I don't imagine he don't do the same) took their kid with 'em — little filly by the name of Moonglow. You could hear 'im screaming through town when they left, and they ain't been back since. He ain't by as often, but every other week he's waitin' here, and you can hear him laughin' and playing catch with his daughter if you listen real hard."

There weren't words enough to compose Grey's stunned reaction, so he kept silent. Sticky leaned back knowingly against his chair and lifted his hooves behind his head.

"That answer any of your questions, kid?"

"...maybe. I think. It... I... I'm still wondering some things."

"Shoot." Sticky Hooves adjusted his top-hat again.

"Is everyone here this... are they sad?"

"Now, that is a question of debate for the ages. I'm here right now, and I don't seem like such a sad sack to you, now do I?"

Grey shook his head, and Sticky grinned.

"Which shows about how much a young kid like you knows about the world, because I'm the most bitter miserable fucker that walks through the door on a consistent basis. But, you could call that 'world-weariness'. Frankly, we might just call it level, because everytime I'm out that door I'm skipping all the way home."

"There's plenty here who ain't got kids they miss or family's that ain't around no more — some folks, like I said, just want a good time with the girl they're never gonna get. Dunno if that makes 'em sad, but I'll let you be the judge."

Grey considered his own state of mind for a moment. Was sad the right word? He hadn't put a great deal of thought into what he might describe his mental state of affairs as. What was he looking for? Was he on the same level as the distraught family man clinging to semblances of memories in the closest way he could feel them anew? Saying yes felt like too much stock in his own worth... how could anyone sit in a room and compare tragedies and state of mind? Injury was personal, and ranking it felt like a crude algebra best left alone. But, did it mean he was sad? He had asked, was everyone here sad? He wasn't sure about the answer.

A cough interrupted his reverie. It came from a side opposite the gruff drawl to his right. Grey turned his head and caught sight of another entry in the rapidly expanding cast of characters the waiting room was quickly becoming host to — or had been host to all along, now making headway in the cast list compiled in the back of Grey's head.

"That old crank telling you grim tales about our lovely regulars?"

The new voice belonged to a slender white pegasus with a pair of bottle-wide glasses perched on his snout. His eyes were sparkling with what seemed like entirely out of place enthusiasm, considering the tone of conversation he was interrupting. A sort of deranged smile beamed from his face and he tilted his head to the side, waiting for a response and letting his spiky brown hair fall over one of his ears.

"Mind your own business, you disgusting horsepile. Ain't your job to scare away the newbies." Sticky's voice was the grimmest Grey had heard it since meeting him, and the way he emphasized his insult dripped with particular malice.

"Of course, that's your job, isn't it? I'm not here to scare anyone. Just thought I'd say hello... always happy to meet the new blood."

Grey's skin crawled when the pegasus' lips traced over their final word. No particular annunciation provoked the response — it was more of a mental trigger, an intent sparked through the air in a form that was hard to place in any direct sort of way. The pegasus grinned.

"You expecting me to introduce you? Get the fuck out the lad's face if you know what's good for you."

"Why so hostile? Isn’t another friendly visitor allowed to say hello?"

Sticky narrowed his brows and glared as the pegasus extended his hoof.

"Squeaky Clean, pleased to meet you."

Grey took the colt's extended foreleg nervously, still clutching his slip of paper to his body with the other. The shake felt surprisingly genuine, like the kind he might get upon meeting his new physician at a doctor's office. Squeaky Clean tilted his head to the other side and grinned wider.

"This is your first time here then? Got anything special in mind? First times are always fun, wish I could have that feeling again."

"Are you done? The kid here ain't the type to want to know anything about the things you like to do behind that door—"

"Again, you do me a disservice. I'm no more guilty of indulgent depravity than anyone else here, and I think you'll find it difficult to reach a consensus that says otherwise." The pegasus leaned close to Grey's face and gave him a sideways smile, his eye sparkling.

"Sticky here likes to give me a hard time, but I don’t see the point in it, really. He knows I’m here only for the most wholesome of reasons—“

Sticky stood up from his seat and narrowed his eyes into an expression that looked as though Squeaky Clean had spit on his mother's grave.

"Don't. Don't suggest for even a second that you’re not the most miserable pile of dung to walk through that door. Go head off to your little corner, wait your turn, and crawl back to whatever bucket of vomit you congeal in when you go home."

The pegasus with the blithely innocent name simply smiled. After a moment of awkward pause he glided backwards, turning his attention elsewhere but keeping himself within earshot of the pair. Sticky Hooves shot him a dagger glare, which he returned with a grin.

"Is there something I should know—"

"There's nothing you should know about that one. Worst example of a pony I've met. Gives this whole place a bad name."

Burning questions demanding answers arose from that sort of abstract description, and despite the horror stories he'd been subject to already, Grey couldn't stem his curiosity. He didn't ask further, but the look in his eyes and the way he tried to avert his gaze prompted a drawn out sigh from Sticky.

"Look. You get the short version, on account of talking about it longer than a minute makes me sick to my stomach."

Grey nodded, tucking himself towards the huddled conversation in a conspiratorial manner. Sticky gave a glance around the room, which was in part useless — none of the other colts in the waiting room seemed even mildly interested any more, despite the yelling between the pegasus and Sticky Hooves.

" So you askin' if everyone here is sad — that's one thing, it's up for debate, and I frankly don't see much point in discussing something we ain't about to nail down. But there's another word I'd use to describe someone like that piece of work over there, and it’s nothing I can say without apologizing to my late mother and the Princess besides."

Grey blanched. Sticky let out another sigh, it being imminently apparent that the question wasn't going to be sated without a direct response.

"Things are special here, it being the case that you can't walk up to any pony on the street and ask 'em for even half of what you can expect to get behind those doors — which, yes, I aim to get to. But there's different amounts to ask of something that works that way, and my approach — as well as most others — is to consider what we liked to call 'moral sensibilities'. Mr. Stained Washing Sink over there ain't got no such thing."

Grey couldn't help but cast a glance over his shoulder, where he found Squeaky Clean still smiling at him unnervingly. Grey felt a tingle go up his spine.

"Some folk ask for what I wouldn't necessarily call right, and that's me being one of them. Girls they like that won't give 'em the time of day, all manner of strange stuff with zebras and griffons and things from the Everfree that no pony in his right mind would think about putting anything in, and that’s a matter of personal preference which I ain’t about to judge. But this being a place where whatever goes through your head turns into something you can have for real when you get behind that door… it means some folk take advantage. Doing things there’s no place for, no matter which path of thought you happen to walk down. I personally don’t see the harm in a big round girl with golden hooves swimming around in her father’s money with me, and maybe that’s my natural tendencies speakin’, but it’s not hurting anyone, so I think you’d be hard pressed to make a case for it being wrong. Some ponies, on the other hand—“

Sticky jerked upright in his chair as a hoof tapped him on the shoulder. A cast glance over Grey’s shoulder let him know that the pony watching the pair had relocated, which meant the voice that came next was easy to place.

“Is that my cue to cut in again?”

Something about the way he said that word.

“I told you already, I don’t want one minute of your digusting—“

“Really, that’s quite enough, Taffy Hooves. The boy’s curious, and I dare say I’d give a better explanation of my personal proclivities than you’d care to manage.”

Sticky smoldered in a cross between anger and revulsion, but he held his tongue as the white pegasus snaked his way between the two chairs and locked eyes with Grey. Grey felt a bead of sweat roll across his forehead, reminding him of his nervousness since the conversation had stolen his attention. The way Squeaky Clean’s gaze was so solid and unwavering made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. And Squeaky Clean just smiled. When he spoke, his words were barely above a whisper.

“Take a look at my cutie mark, would you?”

Grey swallowed and did as directed, his eyes wandering over of their own accord before it was necessary to will them. The mark emblazoned on Squeaky Clean’s flank was a pristine white rag, shimmering slightly with a glow that suggested it had finished the final round of polish on a dirty surface.

“Suits me well, no harm in saying. But what does it mean when you have to clean something?”

Grey felt the air in his lungs chill ever so slightly.

“It means it was dirty at one point. And dirt comes in all sorts of forms, whether it’s mud or dust you track in from outside, or something you spill on a countertop. Sometimes it’s intentional, an error or necessity on your part that needs to be wiped away, so everything can go back to being perfectly clean again.”

“Get to the point before I change my mind about letting you talk for more than a minute,” Sticky’s voice hissed from behind.

Squeaky Clean smiled even wider, revealing a beaming set of pearly white teeth, and nodded with a subtle glance over his shoulder.

“I won’t make a guess as to what you’re here for… it takes all types, and this is a very special place, where a pony can have whatever he wants. It’s a beautiful sort of magic – and I say magic because that’s more or less what it is. But it’s something even more powerful than a spell to change the way somepony looks, or to put thoughts in your head about being somewhere else. It’s an exchange… they take from you a piece of your imagination, and your expectations, and merge it with that need or desire for it to be real. The result is a perfect harmony of ideals and substance, where the one thing you yearn for the most becomes real.”

“I like things to be clean. But there’s a certain satisfaction in bringing something filthy to cleanliness. There are spills, and there are messes, and there unkempt households strewn with filth… but there’s something that’s deeper than that. The dirt on somepony’s soul, so dark you can feel it without needing to look. It’s there on ponies who lie, and on ponies who steal. And it’s there especially, on ponies who stain their conscience with the deepest acts of depravation that can be mustered.”

Squeaky Clean had been stepping closer during his monologue, and Grey could feel the pegasus’ steely blue eyes burning a hole through the air, only inches away from his own face. He couldn’t tell if the room had gone silent or if his ears had blocked out every other sound to focus on the horrifying rabbit hole of an explanation he was being led down.

“When something is that dirty, so intrinsically filthy, there’s not much in the act of cleaning that can be done… in the same way we might discard a ruined garment or demolish a dilapidated building into nothingness, sometimes it’s best to cut our losses and dispose of the thing we have which is beyond preservation. And performing that action… cutting that thing from its final tether to existence… it’s beyond description.”

Grey felt like a dark cloud was blurring the edges of his vision. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be here, in the middle of this explanation, or in this place at all.

“Most dirt can’t let you know that it’s gone… it’s a hoofswipe and it vanishes from sight, out of your vision and out of mind. But hearing something so filthy tell you in every way it can that it resents your cleanliness… hearing what amounts to nothing more than animate dirt beg for mercy as you cut it away from life… every one of them struggles to leave a stain on the world behind as they vanish, but at that point, the deed is done, and the cleanup is auxiliary enjoyment. It does create a need in the self to stain the soul… but nopony is perfect, and pursuit of a loftier goal is excuse enough for what might be seen as ‘unclean’ behaviour in other circumstance. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Grey didn’t feel he could respond. His throat was dry, and the words that had swirled through his head as every sentence of what might amount to an explanation became more deranged had now vanished from his mind completely. The only reassurance of grounded reality was the scrap of paper clutched to his chest. He swallowed, devoid of moisture, his eyes trapped in the ice cold gaze of the white pegasus in front of him.

“That’s enough! The kid gets the idea, so step back and leave him to wash the stink of your disgusting story off later.”

Squeaky Clean blinked, and looked back at Sticky Hooves in feigned surprise.

“I’m hurt that you suggest for even a moment that my explanation could be anything less than utterly wholesome. There are elements to my enjoyment here that may seem unsavoury to others… but that would change if they understood my point of view, I’m sure.”


Squeaky shrugged, and tilted his head back to Grey.

“There really is no other feeling like it. Do some cleaning for yourself if you come back.”


Squeaky Clean rolled his eyes and lifted just off the ground with a flutter of his wings, returning to his original seat in the corner. He took up one of the many communal magazines between his hooves, but Grey caught him smiling over the cover in his direction. His legs suddenly felt very unstable.

“Sit down, kid. Don’t let his horse manure get to you… that one’s a bad seed. Probably ain’t got no family that taught him right from wrong growing up.”

“Did he… did he say that…”

Sticky guided Grey to the chair with a hoof on his shoulder.

“I suspect he said it in his jumble of fancy words that don’t paint the whole picture you were looking for… but chances are, yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinkin’.”

“How?! I mean… how does he… do they… even with magic—“

“And that is the part where my understanding ain’t the best. Gettin’ to the point, you bein’ most curious as to how this place works, I gotta tell you that no one here’s really sure. You show up, take your number, walk in the door, and leave when you’re done. As I say, most folks have a pretty good grasp on what goes on in their own heads, and make sense of it when it comes out in front of ‘em… but that one, I ain’t so sure about. The screams are loud enough to hear down the hall. You don’t see anyone ‘side the pony that goes in come out again, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s anyone that could when he’s done.”

“I’m not sure if I want to be here anymore,” Grey blurted, his thoughts outpouring at a high enough volume that one or two of the other patrons looked over, raising an eyebrow or smirking. Grey clutched his piece of paper tighter. It was against his sudden confession, but now the number felt like a lifeline, the only thing reminding him that he could walk back outside to Ponyville and forget he was ever invited. His number: Thirty-seven.


The voice from the counter of the bespectacled pony burst into the waiting room. To his horror, Grey saw Squeaky Clean stand from his chair and walk towards the reception desk. He placed his slip of paper on the counter, and strolled down the hall, his grin never leaving his face. Grey caught the blue of his eye in a glance towards the waiting room before Squeaky Clean opened the door in front of him, walking inside without a word. The door shut quietly behind him.

“I should go.”

Grey stood from his chair and shook his head, trying to clear the mental cobwebs that aimed to stay for a while after he left. Sticky’s hoof on his shoulder gave him pause, and he turned his head to what he imagined was a look of genuine concern.

“Kid. Look, just sit down, okay? This is why I don’t think scum like him should be allowed in here… but he’s one in a very small group. Real small, maybe just him, as I like to imagine. This place is… it ain’t conventional, and maybe ain’t happy or healthy, but it’s something special, and you don’t have to let one conversation with the worst it’s got to offer scare you off.”

The nervous anticipation welling in Grey’s mind when he had first opened the door had been dwindling through every explanation of the occupants around him, and now Grey wasn’t sure if any of it was left. So far, he’d learned he was waiting alongside a widower, a father mourning the less concrete loss of his child, what appeared to be a Manehatten con artist with a fetish for possibly underage and overweight fillies swimming in inheritance, and the most frightening pony he’d ever had the displeasure of meeting who’d admitted to what essentially amounted to murder.

Was he like any of them? What was he doing here?”


“Oh boy! Princess Celestia, here I come!”

A pudgy looking unicorn with a mane of greasy looking black hair sprung from his seat and dashed towards the counter, dropping his ticket before sprinting down the hall. His tail wagged excitedly as he tore one of the doors open and jumped inside, the wooden portal slamming closed of its own accord.

“Princess Celestia?”

“Well, that’s one of the more common one’s you hear… some ponies get a little excited. Can’t say I’d pass up a chance to be with our royal lady, if she happened to be willing.”

“But she doesn’t have to be willing. She just has to be what someone’s thinking about when they get their slip…”

“And here we step into the conundrum which I mentioned earlier. I’m sure you can do the thinking for yourself… but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t land on one side of the fence in regards to the issue. You might ask yourself the question that led me to that conclusion though… is it any different than having the thought there in the first place?”

Somewhere, in the back corner of his mind, Grey remembered vaguely why he had accepted his invitation.

“Ain’t no harm done in having thoughts like that without acting on them… and what goes on here, strictly speaking, doesn’t happen for the most part. What goes is between you and whoever else is inside that room… no real world repercussions involved.”

“But how is that possible?! You can’t do some of the things people dream about with another pony without some series complications arising… You can’t murder someone and have everything stay nice and proper!”

“Would you keep your voice down?” Sticky grabbed Grey with a foreleg around his neck and pulled his head down, muffling the aura of conversation to its previously hushed tone.

“Listen. I already told you I don’t know the ins and outs of how all this works… all I know is, it’s a system that ain’t got no problems as far as I can see. Better that people like Washrag take their fantasies and play ‘em out where nopony’s gonna get hurt.”

“But they will get hurt!” Grey managed to push the urgency of a yell into a sort of exasperated whisper. “There’s no magic that exists that brings somepony back from death—“

“That you know of. Did you ever think about one pony changing into another just from magic before you showed up today?”

The way the receptionist had shifted from buxom pleasure house operator to all business cataloguing appointment maker had certainly surprised him.

“Well… no.”

“That ain’t no normal magic. It’s no secret there’s types of creatures out there that can shift from one shape to the other, and there’s all manner of magic that goes on in private labs in Canterlot we can’t hope to understand, so scenes and memories playing out in front of you don’t seem out of the question to me either. So who’s to say there ain’t a magic to keep you breathing when your throat’s slit?”

Grey felt the tickle in the back of his mouth urging him to vomit again.

“Er… sorry. But you get what I’m saying, don’t you?” Sticky asked.

“So how does any of this work then? Does anyone know?”

“Maybe someone brighter than me. Frankly, it’s good enough for me that it does. Best advice is not to think too much about it.”

Grey wished he had been encouraged to keep his questions to himself. Not knowing anything was better than knowing something and feeling the incompleteness of the explanation he’d been given. How it worked – or what worked in the first place – was something he could tell no one had sought to question, because asking too much would rob the ethereal fantasy from its manifestation… and that was the goal here. Why everypony waited so patiently for their turn, and why the only word spoken was selected, given to choice visitors. And Grey had been invited. He wasn’t sure what to think at the time, and now he was even less sure. He didn’t know if he belonged in a room with misery and debauchery and secret desires that could never be real.

But, said a voice in the back of his head, everyone belongs here in one way or another.

You remember, don’t you?

“Is there anyone here who wants something that isn’t miserable or horrifying, Sticky?”

“’course. I myself go for just a nice ice cream with a pretty gal every other week.” Sticky leaned back in his chair and adjusted his hat, evidently preparing himself for a long stretch of waiting. Whether he was content that his welcome greeting had reached its inevitable conclusion, or simply tired of trying to explain the unexplainable was not immediately evident.

“Do I… Does anyone know why, when they come here? Do they know what they’ll see when they open their door?”

“I suspect everyone does in some account. I was a bit surprised about the shape of the girl when I had my first go, but there ain’t nothing I objected to about having a roll in the hay while actually rolling in a big pile of bits.”

“I’m… not sure. I’m not sure if I should stay.”

Sticky tilted the brim of his hat over his eyes. For someone who had jostled back and forth between aloofness and sympathy throughout the whole conversation, Sticky seemed content that his interaction with the newcomer had played its course properly. Maybe there were certain thing you couldn’t just tell someone – they had to see for themselves.

“’s your choice. Tell our lovely receptionist and I’m sure she’ll let you reschedule… or you can walk outside and forget the place is here, if you please. Though… I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone manage to do that.”


Grey’s head jolted upward. He could see the receptionist staring at him over her glasses, looking like a librarian waiting for a late book return.

Grey’s legs felt like jelly as he stood up from his chair. He managed to hobble over to the welcome desk. The piece of paper with his number on it was stained with his perspiration, but the number stood bright and black against the crumbled white background. Shaking, he let it fall to the counter, and nudged it forward with one of his hooves.

“Third door on the left.”

Grey turned slowly. The hallway loomed at him, like a great dark tunnel stretching out to the horizon. He couldn’t count the doors, seeing more than he’d imagine could be there. But the third one on the left called out to him, shining like a beacon in a dark night. His legs moved on their own, pulling him forward.

He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure if he could be sure. There might be hesitation behind every movement in every occupant of this store, this building, no matter their enthusiasm. Could you walk through a door into nothingness and face the deepest darkest desires building in your mind, and not feel a pang of hesitation or regret?

When he had heard the words ‘unclean’ and ‘impure’ he had thought of desire. Fantasy was a beautiful word, meaning something you dreamed of as a child, a thing or a place you wanted in your purest imagination that you could never have. What he had seen here was different, horrible wishes and thoughts of things that should be left buried for no one ever to see — the kind of thoughts that looked back at you in the mirror and made you blink.

It wasn’t all horror though. There was longing, and love, and simple need or want that was innocent or oblivious. There was intent in every motivation, and maybe by virtue of its nature, there was no hope to understand, in the way Grey felt safe in knowing no one could understand what went on in his mind beyond the veil of his visible thoughts.

He was at the door, his hoof poised to push it open.

He had ridden a course from exuberance to uncertainty, with bumps along the path in his head glossed over and pronounced by what he had seen and heard. There was only more, if he put his mind to contemplation, whether for an instant or an eternity; there was more desire in collective consciousness than could ever be made concrete.

But it was his turn, and the door was there now. It opened with the softest touch, welcoming him inside.

What had he wanted? The flare of contemplation in an instant flashed across his thoughts. The way that decision making worked in the most critical of situations was to spin through an ingrained understanding of consequence and action, and land the roulette wheel of instinct on one of the most sensible choices. What was there to decide at the deepest level of desire? What had he wanted? What did anyone want, that could be made real? Now, anything could be.

So what did he want?

There were words that had followed him, carried in a parcel of incomplete understanding since he had first heard of this place, and built his expectations.

The most amazing thing he could imagine. Reverence in perfection, in happiness or understanding or indulgence, anything there was. Imagination was the boundary. Whatever he could think of, and it was real.

It was his and his alone to see. And perhaps there, in that flash of realization, came a semblance of understanding. That regardless of the product, of what happened or did not happen in whatever way it could manifest behind a closed door of reality and fantasy merged together: it was a wish made real. It was choice, and imagining, and the purest essence of whatever could be, but never had done so.

The light beamed from beyond the wooden frame as he swung the handle open. It invited him inside, and the door closed softly as he entered. His forelegs stretched out. Understanding, and realization: about himself, and about everything, condensed into what was there. What was there now, ushering him in to the real and unreal at once, limited only by his imagination.

Grey closed his eyes, and the light burned brighter, welcoming him to life.

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