The Mare In Black

by Stereo_Sub

Chapter 1: The Mare In Black

West Manehatten, Equestria
12 years post-Nightmare
1800 hours

Manehatten is an ugly city.

That’s not an insult. It’s just a fact.

The place was never designed for beauty. It’s all rough edges and hard angles, piled up on top of each other by decades of short-sighted architects and planning committees who valued cheapness and function over form. It doesn’t matter where you are, from the dirty, weathered brownstones by Hoof River to the shiny cookie-cutter penthouses in Bridle. It’s the same thing. Boxes and edges and too-narrow alleys. Cobblestone streets with holes big enough to stick a hoof through. Chipped-up walls. Grimy windows.

It’s a dirty, disorganized sprawl, creeping over the ground and choking the life out of the land with tendrils of steel and concrete, but we still do our damndest to keep it that way. To keep that ugly, pockmarked face from becoming any worse than it already has.

She’s not pretty, but she’s ours.

The setting summer sun is warm and sticky against my back, and I mentally curse protocol for the millionth time as I make my way up the fire escape, hooves clanging hollowly against the rusted metal. I didn’t know the pony who first suggested that all agents be in full uniform when out in the field, which was probably a good thing for both their well-being and my currently spotless assault record. You might say I’m overreacting, and I would reply by making you sit for a day or two in the height of a Manehatten heatwave wearing sunglasses and an extremely non-breathable black dress suit and tie.

I reach the top of the fire escape, glancing around for any unwanted observers before setting both my forehooves against the crumbling stone and hoisting myself up onto the old apartment building’s facade. It takes some clambering, but soon I’m on the roof, overlooking the patchwork sunwashed grid of stone and steel. In the distance, the orange light glitters off the smooth, slate-grey surface of the Hoof River, drawing a rippling line of fire down the center of the city.

I take a minute to look, admiring the closest thing to beautiful Manehatten ever gets, before putting a hoof to my ear. The tiny bud within registers the motion, instantly opening an encrypted channel to the Equestrian Interdimensional Containment Initiative and activating the whisper-sensitive microphone attached to my throat.

“Agent Corda reporting. In position,” I say quietly, taking another quick glance around. The streets below are just as deserted as they were before, but in this line of work, paranoia is never unfounded. As awful as this heat wave is, it at least has the convenient side effect of effectively emptying the city as everypony goes inside and basks in the glory of the industrial-strength air conditioning that’s become standard after the third year of record-breaking summer highs in a row.

There’s nothing on the com but the quiet hiss of static for a few seconds, then a cool, feminine voice answers back:

“Copy that, Agent. Stay alert, and I’ll let you know if and when we require your services.” There’s another hiss, and the line goes dead.

I roll my eyes, repressing an irritated sigh as I flop down on the roof’s edge, letting my hind legs dangle over the side. Commander Octavia had never much for small talk, a fact that I normally enjoyed. Too many ponies don’t understand that conversation is like a fine spice: a little can turn an otherwise bland encounter into an interesting one, but too much can just as easily ruin it. Octavia was a mare who understood that fact maybe a little too well, and though I appreciated her brevity for the most part, it could get a little wearing. Watch duty was lonely work, and I occasionally found myself wishing for a little casual banter just to break the silence. I knew better than to bother the commander, of course, but there was no harm in dreaming.

I put my head on my forehoof, staring out at the skyline, and wait.

Watch duty is lonely work.

Two hours later

I’m leaning against the stairblock, tapping a hoof against the stone and trying to keep from dozing off in the heat, when it happens. My earbud hisses again, and I snap to attention, sleepiness instantly forgotten in the face of a potential threat.

Octavia’s voice comes again, as cool and collected as always but this time thrumming with urgency:

“Agent Corda. We have a Class A2 materialisation inbound eight blocks north of your position. Touchdown estimated in approximately four minutes. Please intercept.” The line goes dead again, and I release my breath in a frustrated huff. Nothing for hours, then an A2 out of nowhere. Well, complaining won’t do any good.

“On my way.”

Time for some action.

I leap to my hooves, focusing my horn, and a second later, I’m surrounded by a skintight shield of shimmering, rippling air. To the casual observer, I’m now no more than a bit of heat haze or a ripple of smoke. The cloaking spell was just one of the numerous innovations EICI’s R&D department had developed over the years, and was definitely one of the most useful. Amazing what coffee, a relaxed work schedule, and obscene amounts of money could do for scientific innovation.

I break into a gallop, my hooves pounding over the rough stone of the apartment roof. Just as I reach the edge, I focus my magic again, and there’s a rush of air as the world around me seems to skip forward. A heartbeat later, reality comes back into focus, and I’m on the next rooftop, still running.

Blink was another brainchild of R&D, springing from the need for a quick, efficient way for agents to traverse the city on hoof. It wasn’t an actual teleportation spell, since those required much more magical power than the average unicorn could channel, but it got the job done just as well. Its one drawback was its limitation to line-of-sight: if you tried to Blink through a wall, you would end up an extremely bloody work of modern art instead.

Shoving the gristly thought out of my mind, I leap again, Blinking up to the next rooftop. I’m getting close now, and the thought fills me with a heady mix of excitement and dread. A Class A was a rare occurrence, and I’ve never had to deal with one personally until today. I've heard the stories, though, stories told in hushed, somber tones by the senior agents. They had filled me with the same strange cocktail of emotions I feel now: a kind of giddy, anxious joy.

I Blink again, stumbling over a protruding pipe on the roof of an old saddle factory, and check the clock readout on the lense of my sunglasses. Two minutes to go. This is the sixth block, and with any luck I’ll be able to make the site early.

The next building is a looming metal colossus, its hundreds of shiny glass windows gleaming in the fading sunlight. It’s a relatively new addition to the sprawl around me, one of the ‘skybreakers’ that the city planners claimed were ‘the future of ponykind’. The only thing I know is that they’re a massive pain in the flank to get around, Blink or no Blink.

I stop at the factory roof’s edge, staring up into the pink-and-orange sky above the building. The skybreaker doesn’t have an actual roof, just a huge metal spire that sticks up like a needle trying to pop the clouds. I sigh, gathering my magic, and focus on a point in the air over the building.

The world skips again, and I begin to fall. The needle rushes closer, its shiny metal tip aiming straight for my heart, and I tear my eyes away, searching for another target. There. A double-decker storefront. I focus, doing my best to ignore the wind howling in my ears, and a second later, I’m back against the stone, breathing hard and wiping away the tears that the wind has forced out of my eyes. I check the time again and nod in satisfaction. One minute early.

My satisfaction is short-lived. I realise I can hear the steady thump of music coming from the street and trot over to the roof’s edge, still cloaked.

I nearly groan in frustration as I see the scene below.

It’s a block party. At least a hundred ponies are gathered in the street, mostly centered around a fire hydrant that some enterprising tinkerer has managed to yank the cap off of. It’s spraying a steady deluge of water around the entire block, much to the joy of the partygoers. I hear yells, laughter, the joyful shrieks of fillies as they get too close to the hydrant and are shoved away by the pressure of the water jet. Somepony’s set up a boombox, the source of the music, and there’s even a couple tables of snacks around the edges of the flooded street.

I take a deep breath and put a hoof to my ear. “This is Agent Corda. I’m in position, but there’s a large civilian presence in the materialisation zone. Permission to activate fallback protocol Cool Blue?”

There’s a silence. I wait.

“Permission granted.”

Octavia’s voice doesn’t change. I can’t tell if she’s irritated or amused or even interested at all, but I just nod, telekinetically withdrawing something from the folds of my suit as I do so. It’s a small, dome-shaped object, made of pure white metal with a gently pulsing azure button at its top. I spin it a couple times in the air, looking for any scratches, blemishes, or other imperfections. There aren’t any, so I put it back inside its pocket and begin a mental countdown as my clock readout ticks ever closer to the four-minute mark.

Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. I glance back down at the party below, focusing on a young-looking earth pony mare with a golden coat and amber mane. She’s leaning against a snack table, eating an apple and wearing a happy, carefree smile. She’s completely content. Kept blissfully oblivious thanks to the efforts of me and all the others who work in the shadows of the city, the silent guardians of our fragile peace.

Fifteen. Fourteen. I look away from the mare, staring out at nothing. I keep thinking of her, though, her and all the other ponies below me. They’re all so cheerful, so completely at ease with each other. It doesn’t matter that their city is slowly falling apart and being literally ripped up by its roots around them. It doesn’t matter that if there’s a looming power crisis due to record summer heat and insufficient weather importing. It doesn’t matter, none of it matters, because they have each other.

Manehatten’s an ugly city, but most of the ponies in it are defiant in their decency.

I wonder how that would change if they knew.

Five. Four. I can see it now. A glittering, pulsating rift, starting in the center of the street and slowly growing wider as the air around it ripples and flexes. I tense, preparing myself. This is the most important part. Too early, and I’ll miss it. Too late, and an entire street full of ponies will get to witness an interdimensional materialisation firsthoof. That kind of unmitigated disaster has only happened once or twice in the history of the force, and I intend to keep it that way.

Three. The rift is still widening. I see a couple confused expressions from the ponies closest to it, but most of the street is still focused on the party.

Two. It starts to flash, throwing beams of white light that reflect brightly off the surrounding buildings and the water covering the street. The bubble of attention starts to expand, growing outward in a ripple of pointing hooves and confused yells. I levitate out the dome-shaped device again, pressing it against my side.

One. Almost the entire street’s attention is on the rift now, with only the youngest and most oblivious of foals not staring open-mouthed at the glowing tear in space. It bulges outward, sending a pulse through the air and a few screams from the partygoers, and I Blink down to the street below, deactivating the cloaking spell as I hit the ground.

There’s a brilliant flash of white light from the rift just as I smack the device onto the wet cobblestones and press the button. Perfect timing.

The effect is immediate. A semitransparent dome of bluish magic rapidly expands outward from the device, encompassing the entire block in seconds, and inside it, everything slowly grinds to a halt. Ponies stand utterly still, their mouths frozen in expressions of terror and awe. The water from the hydrant hangs in the air, a cascade of glittering drops reflecting the frozen light from the sun above. It’s eerily quiet. The only sound is the steady hum of the Cool Blue module and the clop of my hooves against the cobblestones...

“Ugh... my freakin’ head...”

And, of course, the main attraction. I walk over to the center of the street, taking care not to touch any of the frozen ponies around me. In the center of the loose circle they had formed lies a lanky, bipedal creature, its skin a pale pink and its short hair a dull shade of brown. It’s a male, and wearing a pair of blue denim pants, an apparently common choice for its demographic. The shirt it’s wearing is white and covered with unidentifiable symbols. Interdimensional written language had been an optional course in training, one that I had happily skipped. Knowing whatever inane slogan was on my target’s clothing didn’t help me do my job any better.

It slowly sits up, rubbing its head with a hand, and immediately stops as it sees me standing there. Its face brightens, and its mouth splits into a wide, toothy grin. I see the glint of metal wires running across its teeth, another common feature that the department still has no explanation for.

“Oh my fucking god! You’re Lyra! Lyra Heartstrings!” It leaps to its feet, the physical trauma of interdimensional travel apparently temporarily forgotten, and I step back, doing my best to keep my jaw from dropping in disbelief. My mind shoots back to the entry on Class A materialisations in the EICI handbook.

Class A travelers may claim to recognize you. They may act as if they know you personally and recite facts about your life. This is not an act, it is merely a product of ignorance. Their knowledge of you is based entirely around a collection of half-truths and misunderstandings gleaned from a form of entertainment in their world, and as such is mostly inaccurate and entirely incomplete. Do not respond to any questions they ask you, and instead treat them as an extremely high-threat version of any other class of traveler.

“My name is Agent Corda,” I say, regaining my nerve and stepping forward again. “Please stay where you are.”

The human looks at me, its comically-large brows knitting together in an expression I recognized as confusion. “Wha... what do you mean? You’re not Corda, you’re Lyra! Your cutie mark is a harp and you’re friends with Bon-Bon and...” I once again narrowly manage to avoid choking in shock at the human’s words. Recognition was one thing, but how in the name of the nine blazing hells did it know about Bon?!

I step forward once again, not letting the fact that I just barely come up to the human’s waist intimidate me. “Listen. I’m going to ask you some questions. It’s in everyone’s best interests for you to answer them quickly and truthfully. Understand?” I tap my throat, and the tiny mic embedded in it begins to record, sending a constant stream of sound back to HQ’s database. As soon as the interview is over, it’ll be catalogued, processed, and sealed away in some vault with all the other Class A records.

The human nods, now looking uncertain. I see its eyes flick around the timelocked street, and it gasps audibly. “What the hell? Why is everything frozen? What’s going on—”

“Question one.” I cut him off. “What is your name?”

“Uh... David. David Harfield.” It swallows, looking around again nervously. “But seriously, Lyra, what’s going on? Why am I in Equestria? How do you know what I am? I guess that whole human obsession thing was tru—”

“Question two,” I say pointedly. “How old are you?” The human looks fairly young, but it’s hard to tell with their species.

“Sixteen,” it replies. There’s nothing more after that. It seems to understand that I’m not going to give it any answers, something which I’m grateful for. I nod.

“All right. Final question.” I stare at him, my sunglasses hiding my amber eyes as they meet its brown ones. “What do you last remember doing before you appeared here?”

“I— I don’t even know!” it says, clearly flustered. “ I went to bed, and when I woke up, there was a flash and then I was here! In— It looks around, as if truly realizing the scene around it for the first time. I watch its face light up again, another smile slowly growing as it sees the timelocked ponies. “In Equestria.

I sigh and tap my throat again, shutting off the mic. “Thank you for answering,” I say, stepping back a couple paces and focusing my horn. “Now, please stand still and this will all be over in a few seconds.” I feel the familiar glow of magic as the extraction spell begins to charge.

“What are you doing?” The human asks, its confused tone now being overtaken by something closer to fear. “Is that a spell?”

“I’m sending you back,” I say, as the glow within my horn begins to build. Technically, I’ve already violated protocol just by answering its question, but I feel a simple courtesy won’t be frowned upon too heavily. “As soon as this spell completes, you’ll be back in your dimension with no memory of me or any of this.”

“What? Why?” It face shifts again, morphing into an expression I can’t quite understand. “That’s not fair! I just got here!”

I pause, regarding him impassively and letting the spell sputter out in a flicker of amber sparks. I’ve heard plenty of strange things from the humans, but ‘not fair’ is new. Going against my better judgement, I tap my throat, turning off the microphone, and look up at him.

“What do you mean, it’s not fair?” I try to shoot for the same calm, icy meter Octavia has gotten down to a science, and manage to hit reasonably close. The human looks at me, eyes widening as seems to realize I’m not about to fling it back through space-time just yet. Then its mouth curls downwards in a frown.

“Well, look at this!” it says, spinning around and gesturing around the street with its oddly-proportioned arms. “I’m here! I’m in Equestria! This is— this is a fuckin’ dream come true! You have no idea how many times I’ve sat in bed at night, wishing I could be here, wishing I could just get away from everything... and now you’re going to send me back?!” It looks back down at me, expression still unreadable. “Why? I don’t want to hurt anyb—anypony. I just want to stay here. I could find my own little corner of the wilderness somewhere and not talk to anyone and just live. Please.”

I stare for a while, taking in every feature of the alien folds and crevasses of the human’s face before I realize what its expression is. It’s not anger or confusion. It’s longing.

“Why?” I ask, still staring from behind my sunglasses at the human’s eyes. They’re different from a pony’s: smaller but somehow even more expressive. “What’s so fantastic about Equestria that you would abandon everything you know and love to live here?” I try to keep my tone impassive, but niggling hint of curiosity still manages to worm its way into the question.

The human stops and stares at me in what I’m fairly sure is disbelief. “Are you serious?” it asks, throwing its arms wide. “What’s so fantastic about it? It’s freakin’ Equestria! It’s home of the ponies! Land of friendship and magic! You guys have so many incredible things here, stuff that we’ll never have. Pegasi, unicorns, mythological creatures, a stable government ruled by two loving, immortal princesses... what’s not to like?” The last few words in a sort of nervous half-giggle. “I mean, right?”

Now it’s my turn to stare in disbelief. Their knowledge of you is based entirely around a collection of half-truths and misunderstandings...

I sigh, putting a hoof against the human’s chest. I feel it start slightly at the contact, but it doesn’t resist, and its mouth slowly drops open as though it can’t believe the interaction is happening at all.

“Is that what you think?” I ask, forcing almost all of my willpower into keeping the question as unemotional as possible. “Is that what you see us as? Happy little pixies prancing around in a sunshiney candy-coated dream land?”

The human’s mouth drops farther, and it mumbles something I can’t hear. My professional demeanor is slipping away by the second, but I’m past the point of caring. The human’s words had sparked something in me, some kind of ancient, primal fire of loyalty to the land I loved.

“Look, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but that isn’t the truth. Not even close, in fact,” I say with a half-sigh. “Equestria isn’t perfect. Nowhere is perfect. I don’t know how we stack up against wherever you came from, but trust me. If you’re looking for paradise, you’re a long way off.”

“But... but what about this?” it stammers, jabbing a pointy finger at the frozen ponies around us. “I could’ve touched down anywhere in Equestria, and I land in the middle of a party? I mean, they don’t exactly look too miserable.”

“And why do you think that is?” I reply, poking my hoof into its chest. The flesh underneath its shirt is soft and spongy, like a balloon filled with something heavier than water. “Why do you think they’re happy?”


“Because they have each other,” I finish, cutting him off. “Equestria has nothing to do with it. It’s the same everywhere you go. Friendship and magic don’t spring up from the ground, they come from us. The ponies you see are happy because they’re with their friends, their children, their lovers and brothers and sisters. Their city’s crumbling around their hooves, but do they care?” I shake my head, a wry smile flickering on my face for a half a second before I force my lips to rearrange themselves into a more stoic expression. “No. They don’t. They’re happy. Not because of invisible friendship dust, but because they’re nice people who enjoy each other’s company. They have those where you’re from, don’t they?”

The human takes almost a full step back, like the words had carried a physical force it had just been slapped with. I almost feel a twinge of guilt, but quickly shove it away. It had had no right to make those assumptions about Equestria and ponykind, not when it had just crash-landed here by a freak of dimensional probability.

“I—” It sighs, putting its hands in the pockets of its odd blue pants. “I don’t really have any friends.” The words are said quietly, but I can feel the weight behind them. It’s not enough to quench the fire, though.

“And whose fault is that?” I reply, stepping back up to the human’s waist. “You’re not going to tell me that there isn’t a single friendly person in your dimension that you haven’t tried to interact with. What about your parents?”

The human shrugs. “They’re nice, I guess, but they’re not, really, ya know...” I nod. ‘Not, really, ya know,’ sums up my parents rather nicely as well, and I start to feel a small sliver of empathy towards this strange outcast. Lonely, unappreciated... I know how that feels.

The human sighs again. “I guess it is kinda my fault. I mean, I try to talk to people, but, I’m not really good at it. And where I’m from, liking, uh...” It looks at me. “Well, this kinda stuff... it’s not exactly an easy way to make friends.”

I frown. “But there are plenty of you, aren’t there? I mean, you obviously can’t be that much of an anomaly if we’ve got you in your own classification.” At this point, I’m thoroughly past the point of violating protocol and am now dancing on its mutilated body while singing folktunes. A few more kicks to its head won’t make a difference.

I see a flash of confusion on the human’s face, followed quickly by the light of comprehension. “Oh, you mean bronies?”

Seriously? I struggle to keep from smirking at the ridiculous term, but eventually manage to pull my mouth back into its customary grim line. Thank the Goddess my sunglasses hide most of my face.

“Yeah, there’s a decent amount of us, but none where I live,” it says, shrugging. “I’m all on my own. I don’t have anybody. And I don’t care what you say, living here would still be better than anywhere I came from. My life sucks right now, and it's not going to get better any time soon. Please, just me stay. Please.” It turns its head away, but not before I see the glint of tears in the corners of its eyes.

I sigh. I had expected to deal with plenty of things today: boredom, the unbearable summer heat, maybe an easy Class C interception or two. Depressed humans begging to be left in the same dimension they had just been pulled into had not been on the list.

There’s a long silence, with nothing but the hum of the timelock field to disturb it.

Eventually, I speak.

“Look,” I say. “I know what it feels like to not have anyone you can talk to. I’ve been lonely.” Another smile creeps its way onto my lips, and this time, I let it linger. “Hell, ‘lonely’ is practically my job description, more or less. And I know what it feels like to be a dreamer, to believe in things other poni— people call you crazy for.”

“You do?” The human asks, sniffling slightly. It wipes its eyes with the back of its lanky hand and turns back toward me. “For real?”

“For real,” I reply, my smile growing slightly despite myself. “I mean, officially, you don’t even exist here. None of your kind do. The only ponies who know about it aren’t allowed to tell anypony else: not their families or lovers or anyone. It’s all a complete secret, and for good reason.”

Its eyes widen, a few stray teardrops wiggling their way down its face. “You mean there’s more? Other humans besides me? They’ve been here?” I see a spark in its eyes: simultaneously incredulous and hopeful. I give myself a mental smack to the head with my hoof, and hesitate for only a moment before nodding. It’s not like protocol is salvageable now anyway.

“Plenty. Most of them absolutely no idea what’s going on or who we are, but every once and a while we get a few Class As like you. We send them all back, of course.”

“But why?” it asks. “You never answered my question. Why can’t we stay? Like I said, I’m not gonna hurt anyone. If you let me go now, you’ll never see me again.”

I shake my head. “I’m sorry. If I let you stay, I wouldn’t just be going against my values, I’d be screwing over an entire department full of ponies I’ve spent years gaining the friendship and trust of. I can’t do that.” I step back, channeling the extraction spell again. I can feel the hum of the Cool Blue field gradually rising, growing from a quiet murmur to a keening whine. The field will be dissipating soon. It’s time for me to make my exit.

“And to answer your question...” It takes a few seconds, but I eventually find a response.

“Equestria has its own problems. Maybe not many, but enough. Enough that we have to work to fix them before it’s too late. Enough that we don’t need any interdimensional travelers adding their own to the mix. Besides, I’m sure your world has plenty of problems too. Instead of begging to just be magicked away and go and live in your own personal dream land, how about you go and try to fix some of them?” The keening is becoming higher-pitched now, and I see the frozen drops of water to my left start to move, albeit infinitesimally slowly. The spell is almost finished, sending a warm glow radiating through my horn.

“Like I said, I know what’s it like to be lonely. I know what it’s like to believe. But I also know that it sure as hell doesn’t have to stay that way. Your life as it is isn’t set in stone. You can change things. We all can. I would know,” I say, gesturing at my suit and sunglasses. “I did.”

“But what—”

“But nothing,” I say, poking a hoof into his chest a little harder than necessary.“You’re just as alive as any of us. You don’t have an excuse. Now go and make some friends. Do something new. Maybe you’ll fail horribly. Maybe you’ll love it. I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t spend your life wishing for something you’ll never have when your own path is right out there in front of you. I’m not the smartest pony, but even I know that’s a waste.” I look up at him, sliding my sunglasses down with a hoof and blinking slightly as the slowly-unfreezing sunlight hits my eyes. He looks back, not saying anything, but I then I realize he’s crying again, but smiling too.

“Come on,” I say, leaning in closer. “Get out of here. There’s a world waiting.” The whine from the Cool Blue field is almost high enough to hurt my ears, and I see the ponies around us begin to move, looking like they’re swimming through a field of thick molasses.

“Goodbye, Lyra,” he says, smiling through his tears and giving me a tentative pat on the head. “Thanks. For everything.” His hand jerks back as he touches the warmth of my horn, now almost painfully hot, and I giggle.

“Goodbye, David.” I look up at him again, my amber eyes locking with his chocolate-brown ones for a fleeting second. “Good luck.”

There’s a flash of yellow-orange as the spell activates, but not before I make a small alteration to the net of magic humming in my horn. It’s not much, just a few extra arcane strands in the metaphorical web, but it’s enough. The memory-wipe component of the spell will lay dormant for around a month and a half before it activates, hopefully enough time for him to realize his life is something that he should try to make something of. It isn’t much, but I don’t feel right going all the way behind the EICI’s back, especially with all I’ve already done.

I throw up my cloaking spell just as the CB field dissipates entirely, scooping up the device and sliding it back into the pocket of my suit. Blinking into a nearby alley, I double-tap my throat mic, reactivating my com system just in time to hear the blood-chillingly calm voice of the Commander directly in my ear. I have to fight down the urge to jump.

“Agent Corda. Systems indicate your com suite went offline approximately five minutes ago. Please explain.”

I swallow, hoping the mic doesn’t pick it up then realizing exactly how stupid I am. “Uh, I’m not sure,” I reply. “Must’ve been an equipment malfunction.”

“I see.” As usual, I have no idea what Octavia is thinking, but this time I hope it’s something along the lines of ‘oh, that seems plausible enough.’ “What about the interception?”

“Completed. Cool Blue field deployed and collected successfully. No exterior breaches or other errors to report.”

“Good.” Octavia’s voice seems to relax ever so slightly, and so do I. “Congratulations, Agent. Your first Class A was a success. You’re relieved from watch duty for the rest of the day.”

I pump a cloaked hoof in the air. “Thanks, Commander.”

“Don’t mention it. I do want you to visit R&D to check your com before you leave, though. We wouldn’t want any more... malfunctions.” I feel myself grow slightly red despite the fact that Octavia is at almost a hundred miles away.

“Of course.”

I don’t release the breath I’m holding until I hear the click of the line going dead. Then I begin to walk, going further into the alley, away from the joyful noise of the party behind me. As my body moves forward, my mind begins to drift in the opposite direction, back to David and all his strangeness. Back to how hopeless he had seemed, and how he had looked when he realized we weren’t as alien to each other as we had first thought. Back to his final look of bittersweet joy.

There’ll be others, of course. Other watches, other interceptions, maybe even other Class As. I know that. But somehow, I also know that I’ll never experience anything like what had happened today again. I’ll never get the chance to change someone’s life like I did today, and I’m fine with that.

Because as long as I’m alive, I’ll be here, protecting my city, and protecting the unwitting dreamers who fall into it. Human, pony, it doesn’t matter. We’re united in our flaws. I see that now.

Equestria has its own problems. Problems that are too big for me or anypony else to solve by themselves. But I’m fine with that too.

Because if I can convince one person, just one, to get up and try to fix their world instead of spending their life finding some way to escape it...

If I can change something for the better, no matter how small...

For now, that’s enough.

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