Tainted Silver

Chapter One: An Uncertain Future

It was a typical day in the desert plains, the sun scorching who chose to make their way through the desert were as harsh and unrelenting as the heat itself. Most days in that sandy void were struggles, trials which only the hardest, most indomitable ponies could withstand.

Sterling Cross, former Crystal Guard and high-ranking double agent for the secret organization known as the Forefathers, was having one of those days.

Mere weeks ago, Sterling had abandoned his post just before the abysmal failure of one of his superiors' schemes, having grown tired of the brutality and bloodshed that he had paid witness to in the past several years, and tired of the company he kept. It wasn't an easy decision to make, all things considered, but the awful acts he had seen in Canterlot was what broke the camel's back for him.

In the weeks that followed, Sterling had been on the run, traveling from small town to small town, never staying in one place for very long, lest he face capture by the authorities or his former comrades. He deliberately kept away from large settlements, eventually making his way to the desert, acknowledging that no place was more out of the way than the there. After that, he had no clue where to go. He could only focus on the now.

Initially, he hadn't intended on hitchhiking, but a pair of local farmers by the names of Big Red and Cherry Jubilee had crossed his path. Big Red had practically insisted on giving Sterling a lift (though Cherry was less enthusiastic). Sterling had agreed hesitantly, if only to ease his sore hooves.

As of now, Sterling was sitting in the corner of the carriage with the two farmers, thinking to himself. Rubbing said sore hooves, he took the time to reflect on everything that had happened thus far: Project: Titanfall, Sunset Shimmer and Echo Alchemy, the ponies he had left behind at Infinity, the Ouroboros, Father…

'So... what now, Sterling?' He asked himself. 'This is a fine mess you got yourself into. You've ditched the Forefathers, you're a fugitive from the law, you've burned every bridge you had with your friends... and you have no idea where the buck you're going. I really should have thought this through…'

"Yer pretty quiet." Big Red said suddenly, snapping Sterling out of his thoughts. "Not much of a talker, huh?"

"You could say that." Sterling said curtly.

"That's a cryin' shame." Big Red shrugged. "Me, Ah love a good conversation."

"He does, trust me." Cherry grinned.

"Well, no offense, but I'm not really in the mood to converse right now." Sterling declared.

"None taken." Big Red shrugged. "You just relax, an' enjoy the ride."

'If only, old timer.' Sterling thought. 'If only...'

A short time after, they arrived at their destination: Dodge Junction.

"Here we are." Big Red smiled, as their carriage pulled in by the local saloon. "Dodge Junction. A little slice a' heaven, in the middle a' the desert."

"Yep." Sterling said flatly, noting the small town aesthetic. "Thanks for the lift."

"Think nothing of it." Cherry said curtly. "Just doing the decent thing."

"Still, thanks anyway." Sterling nodded. "Been awhile since I've seen ponies doing the decent thing..."

"If ya don't mind mah askin', what are ya gonna do now that yer here?" Big Red inquired.

"No clue." Sterling shrugged. "Maybe spend a couple of days getting my strength back, before going on my way..."

"On your way?" Cherry asked. "To where?"

"Just out there." Sterling declared. "I just... have to keep moving."

"So ya don't even know where yer goin'?" Big Red frowned. "That ain't no way to walk through life."

"It is when you've got nothing but regret behind you..." Sterling muttered.

"Excuse me?" Cherry raised an eyebrow.

"Nothing." Sterling grimaced. "Don't suppose either of you know of a decent place to stay for a while around here?"

"Sure do." Big Red smiled. "Ours."

"What?" Sterling said at the same time as Cherry.

"Ya don't expect us ta leave ya out in the open like that, do ya?" Big Red asked. "It just wouldn't be the neighborly thing ta do."

"I.. wouldn't want to impose." Sterling replied.

"Ain't no imposition." Big Red smiled. "Ah reckon we got enough room for one more up at the ol' homestead."

"Are you sure about that, Red?" Cherry frowned. "We barely even know this fellow, and you're inviting him to stay with us?"

"The lady makes a lot of sense." Sterling agreed. "Maybe you should listen to her."

"Shoot, ya seem like a decent fella ta me." Big Red declared. "And Ah pride myself on bein' a good judge a' character."

'Wanna bet?' Sterling thought, before saying "Look, it's a tempting offer, but I'm good. I can just get a room at the local inn, or something."

"Oh, yeah?" Big Red mused. "An' jest how much money ya got fer that?"

"...None." Sterling admitted.

"Then that settles it." Big Red grinned. "Yer comin' home with us."

"Red, do you really think taking a stranger into our home is the best idea?" Cherry whispered.

"'Course it is." Big Red smiled. "We can't turn our backs on a pony in need."

"It really isn't necessary-" Sterling started.

"Sure it is." Big Red interrupted. "Ya got no money for a roof over yer head, no money fer food..."

Sterling's stomach growled at the mention of food.

"What ya need is a place to stay a while, an a good, home-cooked meal." Big Red continued. "And we can provide that for ya. You gimme one good reason why ya shouldn't accept our kind offer."

Sterling fumbled around for a reason, but couldn't find one (at least, not one he was comfortable admitting).

"...Okay, fine." He sighed. "Since you're so insistent about it, I think I might be able to stay for a day or two..."

"That's the spirit." Big Red smiled. "Always room fer one more up at our place. Right, Cherry?"

"Right." Cherry nodded, agreeing with the sentiment (if not the target of said sentiment).

"Now, the homestead's a little ways away." Big Red noted. "Hope ya don't mind a little more walkin'."

"Yeah, no problem." Sterling shrugged.

They made their out of the town, and over to Big Red's cherry farm.

"This is all yours?" Sterling asked, taking in the sight of all the cherry trees in the orchard.

"Darn tootin'." Big Red nodded. "Biggest cherry grove this side a' Equestria."

"And you harvest all the cherries yourself?" Sterling marveled. He could tell Big Red was a physically capable stallion, but the idea that he could work that entire farm was nothing short of astounding.

"Sometimes our boys help out." Big Red admitted. "But most a' the time, it's just me, yeah."

"Impressive." Sterling noted. "Especially for a stallion of your... advanced years."

"Ah'm not that old, pardner." Big Red scoffed. "Ah'm barely on the wrong side a' fifty, Ah'll have ya know."

"And you're still so handsome, darling." Cherry nuzzled.

"Thanks, Cherry." Big Red smiled. "Ya always know how ta make me feel better..."

Sterling looked away from that touching moment, partially out of disgust, but mostly because seeing those two so in love reminded him of Echo and Sunset.

'I'm regretting this already.' He thought. 'Sure hope there aren't too many lovey-dovey moments like this during my stay...'

Soon after, they arrived at the homestead. It looked to Sterling like a quaint little place.

'Not exactly the Ritz.' He mused. 'But I guess it's better than nothing. And better yet, it's the last place the Forefathers would think to look for me...'

"Welcome ta our humble home." Big Red smiled.

"Nice place." Sterling declared. "Very... Quaint."

"Kids, we're home!" Cherry called.

"Kids?" Sterling frowned.

From within the sitting room, a Griffon, Unicorn and an Earth pony (all male and young) came to greet them.

"Welcome home!" The Unicorn smiled. "We missed you!"

"We missed you too, Globe." Cherry smiled warmly.

"How's the trip go?" The Earth Pony asked.

"Smoother than cherry jam." Big Red declared.

The Griffon laid his sharp eyes on Sterling.

"And who's this supposed to be?" He asked in a suspicious tone.

"Oh, where are mah manners?" Big Red grinned. "Kids, this here is Sterling Cross. He's gonna be stayin' with us fer a couple a' days." He indicated each youth in turn. "Sterling, these are our boys, Eclipse, Huckleberry, and Globe."

"Your boys, huh?" Sterling mused. "Adopted, I'm guessing?"

"Of course." Cherry nodded. "That's not a problem, is it?"

"Nah." Sterling shrugged. "I've seen weirder living arrangements in my time."

"Have you now?" Cherry frowned.

"Kids, why donchya come over an' say 'hi' ta our guest?" Big Red suggested, intending to defuse the tension.

"Nice to meet you, mister Cross." Globe said respectfully.

"You can just call me 'Sterling'." Sterling declared.

"Okay... Sterling." Globe nodded. "I hope you enjoy your stay."

"Thanks, kid." Sterling smiled. For a moment, he felt a twinge of familiarity with him.

"How do, big guy?" Huckleberry grinned. "How you're enjoying Dodge Junction so far."

"Eh, I've been in worse places." Sterling shrugged.

"Charming." Eclipse snorted. "So he's staying with us for awhile? You sure that's such a good idea?"

Cherry privately decided to give Eclipse a little extra food at dinner that evening.

"Why not?" Big Red asked. "Poor fella's got nowhere ta stay, no money... just a raggedy ol' cloak."

"So in other words, he's a bum." Eclipse smirked.

"Now, don't judge." Big Red smiled. "Didn't Ah first meet you boys when you were livin' out in the open, stealin' cherries jest to survive?"

"...Yeah." Eclipse conceded.

"An' Ah took you boys in, an' raised ya like mah own kin." Big Red grinned. "That's jest the kinda guy Ah am. If Ah didn't show sumthin' like that kindness to poor Sterling, Ah'd be a pretty poor excuse fer a stallion, wouldn't Ah?"

"I guess..." Eclipse sighed.

"Darn tootin'." Big Red smiled. "Now, what say we get ourselves ready fer dinner?"

"Sounds good to me." Globe nodded. "I'm famished."

"Big surprise." Huckleberry snorted, earning himself a jab in the side fom Eclipse. "What?"

"Run along now, boys." Cherry urged.

As the trio headed up to the washroom, Big Red turned to Sterling.

"We'd be happy fer ya ta join us." He offered. "There's plenty tah go around. Whattaya say?"

"Sure, why not?" Sterling nodded. "So, what are we having? Something to do with cherries, I'm guessing?"

"We're havin' cherry pie fer dessert, sure." Big Red nodded. "But we're gonna start off with some nice tumbleweed stew."

"Right now, I'd eat anything." Sterling admitted, his stomach growling once more.

"Then ya came ta the right place." Big Red smiled.

"Of course, you'll need to wash up too." Cherry added. "As our guest, you must show good manners."

"No worries, ma'am." Sterling nodded. "I need to get some sand out of my mane anyway."

On the way to the washroom, Sterling passed the trio, who had just finished washing up. Globe and Huckleberry smiled at him as they passed, but Eclipse threw a cold glare his way.

'Jeez, that kid's glare sure is sharp.' Sterling shuddered. 'Kinda reminds me of this other Griffon I know...'

Sterling entered the washroom and started cleaning himself. He took a moment to savor the sensation of the cool water on his sore hooves.

'Ah, that's the stuff.' He thought.

Once he was sufficiently clean, Sterling made his way to the kitchen, where Big Red and the boys were already waiting.

"Here we go." Cherry came in, carrying the tumbleweed stew bowls on a platter. "Dig in!"

The family quickly went to work on their meal. Sterling didn't think much of the taste, but the gnawing in his stomach made it easy to overlook.

"So... Where are you from, exactly?" Eclipse asked Sterling suddenly.

"Eek, don't badger our guest." Big Red frowned.

"It's okay." Sterling shrugged. "I was born near to Vanhoover." He lied. "But I've been moving around Equestria a lot since."

"What are ya, some kind of drifter?" Eclipse frowned.

"That would be pretty cool, actually." Globe admitted.

"It would." Sterling smiled. "But I'm more of a..."

"Maverick?" Huckleberry offered.

"Yes, exactly." Sterling smirked. "That describes me perfectly."

"Sure it does..." Eclipse sneered.

"Okay, that's enough talk." Cherry declared. "Time for dessert!"

Slices of cherry pie were brought to a table. Sterling took a bite, and was overwhelmed by the flavor.

"Mmm, this is great stuff." He admitted.

"Fresh cherries from our private orchard." Big Red grinned. "Best in Equestria."

"They really are." Globe said through a full mouth.

"A'course, it helps to have such a fantastic baker for a wife." Big Red indicated Cherry, who blushed.

"Nice work, ma'am." Sterling raised his fork in salute.

"Thank you, Mr Cross." Cherry said curtly.

"Suck-up..." Eclipse muttered under his breath.

Not long after dinner, it was time for bed.

"Hope ya don't mind sleepin' on the couch, Sterling." Big Red declared, placing a blanket and pillow on the piece of furniture.

"Hey, it beats sleeping on the cold hard ground." Sterling smiled. "Thanks for this. I really appreciate it."

"No problem." Cherry declared. "Like Red said, we're just doing the right thing."

"Hope ya have a good night's sleep." Big Red grinned, as he and Cherry headed upstairs.

Once they entered their bedroom, Cherry turned to Big Red.

"Red, I really don't think having this Sterling fellow stay here is such a good idea." She announced.

"And why not?" Big Red frowned. "Ain't like it's the first we took in some strays..."

"I know." Cherry nodded. "There's just... Something about this Sterling character that rubs me the wrong way... and Eclipse seems to feel the same way."

"We both know Eclipse doesn't take kindly ta strangers at first." Big Red shrugged. "Give 'im time. He'll grow on us all."

"I don't know if I want him around that long..." Cherry muttered.

"He seems like a decent sorta fella ta me." Big Red smiled. "There's no harm in lettin' 'im stay a couple days."

"So you say." Cherry mused. "But I can't shake this feeling that this Sterling is trouble."

"Well, Ah trust 'im." Big Red declared. "And you trust me, don't ya?"

"...Yes." Cherry nodded.

"Then trust me when Ah say we got nuthin' ta worry about." Big Red put a hoof to his wife's cheek.

"I do." Cherry placed her hoof on his.

"Atta girl." Big Red kissed her. "Now, let's get ta bed. It's bin a long day..."

Big Red and Cherry climbed into bed together, snuggling against each other as they drifted off to sleep.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Sterling pulled the blanket over his body, feeling the chill of the desert night. The couch was old and weathered, but Sterling had managed to sleep on far less comfortable surfaces.

'Compared to that Crystal Empire prison bed, this is a luxury.' He thought.

Sterling lay his head on the pillow, slowly drifting off to sleep. A short while later, as he slumbered, Sterling began tossing and turning, murmuring.

"Can't stay..." He muttered. "Gotta keep movin'..."

In his dream, Sterling found himself in what seemed to be a park, with colorful flower patches, trees, and a clear blue pond nearby.

"What the..." He frowned, confused. "What is this place? I don't recall ever being here…"

Sterling looked around, trying to make some sense of his surroundings... until he recognized a familiar (for lack of a better term) face. Sitting on a bench, looking at the pond, was none other than the leader of the organization he had just abandoned... Father.

"Aw, geez…" Sterling cringed. "Not here… not now…"

Father simply sat there, gazing out into the silent pool of water. As always, his body was shrouded in his pale-white cloak. It was as if he was a statue, standing still, not moving an inch from his spot.

"Okay, Sterling, just back away slowly…" Sterling murmured, as he began to slowly back up, "Just wake up, and he shouldn't-"

"Sterling." A deep voice echoed from Father, despite not even looking in Sterling's direction.

"Buck." Sterling cursed, as he was about to run away…

"Please... Sterling, I only wish to talk." Father politely requested, patting his hoof on an empty seat next to him. "Sit by me."

"Sure..." Sterling let out a sigh, as he joined Father.

The two stallion sat side by side on the bench, gazing at the lake. Sterling felt very uneasy, rarely having ever been this close to the cloaked pony.

"...How did you find me?" Sterling asked.

"I have the power to walk through the dream of ponies." Father revealed.

"Like Princess Luna?" Sterling frowned.

"Yes... except to a lesser degree." Father admitted. "I can only enter the dreams of one pony at a time, and it requires intense concentration. But I was able to locat you easily enough. Now, let us talk about what happened concerned Project: Titanfall."

"It was a disaster, that's what happened." Sterling scowled.

"That much I already know." Father noted.

"...Did everypony get out of Canterlot okay?" Sterling questioned.

"Not everypony." Father sighed, "We lost quite a couple of ponies."

"What about Loveless and the others?" Sterling questioned.

"Safe." Father declared. "They're all safe and sound."

"...And Solomon?" Sterling scowled.

"Dealt with." Father revealed. "He will no longer be any trouble to anypony ever again."

"Good. Serves that motherbucker right." Sterling snarled.

"Still, it is a shame." Father sighed. "Solomon had so much potential. But he squandered it."

"Glad we can agree on that." Sterling smirked.

"Unfortunately, Sterling, I did not come here to just chat." Father declared, "...I had come here to talk to you about your actions as of late..."

"Oh." Sterling's expression drooped, not liking the way his tone shifted.

"Sterling… what is it that you think you are doing?" Father asked. "I understand that you and Solomon had your differences… but never would I have imagined you would just leave like that, abandoning your comrades to fend for themselves while Solomon's plan imploded upon itself. Never I had imagined you a deserter."

"With the deepest respect, I'm not a deserter." Sterling growled, angered by the accusation. "And Solomon's plan was going to implode no matter what I did. Seriously, it was an atrocity beyond imagining. All the innocents hurt, the destruction brought about... I couldn't just stand there and watch."

"But all of those atrocities were Solomon's doing… where do the Forefathers, or I for that matter, fit into this?" Father asked.

"I think you know the answer." Sterling huffed.

"Perhaps I do..." Father frowned. "But I would like to hear it from you..."

Sterling grunted… as he let out a sigh.

"Look, sir… it's nothing personal." Sterling told him. "It's just... I don't have it in me any more. I can't be a part of the Forefathers the way I once was. I thought I could, but I can't. Not after everything I've been through. Everything I've experienced..."

"We have all experienced much, Sterling." Father pointed out.

"Well, what I experienced got me thinking about a lot of things." Sterling continued, "...I just don't see how what we're doing is for the greater good any more."

"What do you mean?" Father asked. "Our goal is to make Equestria a better place. That hasn't changed."

"Are you sure?" Sterling scowled. "Because lately, it seems like we've done nothing but bring pain and suffering to others. I joined this organization to make a mark on the world, to make a difference… but… all I have done is hurt ponies…"

"Sterling…" Father whispered.

"I'm sorry, Father… but I can't be a part of your world anymore…" Sterling shook his head.

"I'm sorry to hear you say that." Father admitted. "I will not lie… mistakes have been made. On both my and others' parts. Believe it or not, this isn't the first time I've seen this happen. The trials and burdens of a lifetime weigh down upon a stallion, until he can no longer find the strength to perform his duty. It is a sad moment, yet one I have seen far too often."

"I'm sorry you have to see it again." Sterling sighed.

"As am I." Father declared. "We have known each other for a very long time, haven't we, Sterling?"

"Yeah, we have." Sterling admitted. "Decades, actually."

"I've watched you grow from an inexperienced young agent to a capable soldier." Father smiled. "You've served the cause well these many years. You have operated with honor and loyalty. It is truly a shame that things have come to this, but I suppose it cannot be helped..."

"I hate to do this, sir." Sterling declared, as he got up, and made to walk away. "But I'm glad you understand… I wish you the best with your endeavors."

Sterling turned around, preparing to leave... then suddenly, the ground cracked open, a large crevice blocking Sterling's path. In shock, Sterling turned back.

"Father…" Sterling frowned, facing the cloaked stallion as he rose from his seat. "I don't understand… I thought…"

"I'm sorry, Sterling." Father apologized. "I truly do sympathize with your plight… however, that does not change the fact that you made an oath to serve me for as long as you live… and you will make good on that oath."

"W-what?! Father, I-" Sterling started, his body slightly cowering as Father approached him.

"Normally, all who desert the Forefathers would be punished with death." Father interrupted, a cold edge to his voice, before softening "...But you are no normal pony. And I am not beyond forgiveness. If you were to suddenly have a change of heart and wish to return to the Forefathers, that will be the end of it. All will be forgiven."

"...And if I don't?" Sterling hesitantly challenged.

"Well if that is the case, I will have no choice but to call upon somepony to find you." Father declared, "And deliver upon you the fate that all deserters deserved."

"You would have me killed?" Sterling frowned.

"Regrettably, yes." Father nodded. "I cannot risk the secrets you possess falling into enemy hooves. And I will be damned if the Taskforce manages to get their hooves onto you."

"Father, please, I'm not going to tell anypony." Sterling pledged. "No matter what. I may have deserted you, but I am no traitor..."

"I know you're not…" Father admitted. "But I'm afraid I simply cannot take that chance. And since you do not wish to return, I am left with no choice…"

"I'll keep my mouth shut, I promise." Sterling tried to reason with him. "You don't have to do... whatever it is you're planning to do..."

"I'm afraid my mind is set, Sterling." Father shook his head. "When you wake up, you will find a mirror in your left coat pocket. I will give you one month to change your mind. When you do, just give the word and things will be as it was. But once that month is up, it's over. No matter where you go, or how far you run, you will meet your end, the same as others before you."

"One month?" Sterling trembled. "No, you don't have to do this. Father, please!"

Father walked straight past Sterling, seemingly deaf to his protests.

"...Sterling…" Father let out a soft sigh. "For all it is worth, I do hope that you make the right decision… not just for your sake…" He glanced back at him, "...But for Loveless.'"

Sterling glanced up at the mention of Loveless' name, only for Father's body to be enveloped in a flash of light.

"GAH!" Sterling gasped, bolting upright, panting heavily.

He looked around, finding himself back in the living room of Big Red's homestead. It was still the dead of night, Sterling's eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom.

"Lauren Faust…" Sterling slouched back down, placing a hoof over his eyes. "Talk about your rude awakenings..."

He then gazed at his coat, the old ratty thing he had stolen from a lost-and-found box in a church near the Foal Mountains, recalling what Father said. Silently praying that the talk he just had with him was only a bad dream, he pulled it over to him and reached into the left coat pocket.

To his dismay, he pulled out a small pocket mirror, with the Forefather's emblem on the top, the black eagle and the two Fs staring back at him, as if it was mocking him.

'Oh, great...' He thought to himself, dropping the mirror back in the coat pocket. 'Not only do you not know where you're going or have any way of getting there, you now have a death sentence on your head…' He then let out a harrowing sigh. 'How did I ever end up in this mess?'

Suddenly, Sterling's face turned to a deadpan frown.

'Oh, right…' Sterling realized. '...Faust damn it… it's times like these make me wonder why I accepted Loveless's offer in the first place.'

Flashback...

Many year back, in a small juvenile detention center somewhere in Haygypt, a teenage Sterling lay on the bed of a cell, draped in dark red prison clothes, absent-mindedly tapping the wall with his hoof.

He had only been there for a few months, having been involved in a very serious crime.

"Lousy, stinkin' dump." He muttered to himself. "It's hot, it's dark, and it stinks like camel dung!"

A guard walked up to his cell door.

"Up and at 'em, Cross." He said gruffly. "You've got a visitor."

"Can't be." Sterling snorted. "Ain't nopony who cares enough to visit me."

"Well, somepony does... for some reason." The guard opened the door. "Best not to keep them waiting."

"Whatever." Sterling grunted, climbing out of bed. "Beats lyin' around in here all day..."

Sterling followed the guard to the visitor's area. A small number of other prisoners were there. Most of them glared hatefully at Sterling, making him uncomfortable.

The guard stopped by a table.

"Wait here." He ordered.

Sterling petulantly sat down as the guard went to fetch his visitor.

'This had better be worth it...' He thought.

Suddenly, the sounds of wheels squeaking made his ears perk as he glanced up, and frown in confusion at whom he was seeing. An middle-aged peach-colored stallion, wearing an old-fashioned dark blue jacket over a black waistcoat, a metal spider pin on one lapel, with a messy black mane, a slightly curly black moustache and a oddly trimmed goatee. What was even more odd was the lower half of his body was missing, as the stallion rode in on a wheelchair.

Wheeling over to him, the stallion parked himself in front of Sterling's table.

"Sterling Cross, I presume?" The old stallion asked.

"Who wants to know?" Sterling scowled.

"Now, that ain't polite, boy." The wheeled stallion frowned. "I came all this way just to see you, I would appreciate a bit of hospitality."

"Well, I'm in juvie. Forgive me for not rolling out the red carpet." Sterling glared.

"Hmm, got a bit of a mouth on ya." The old stallion frowned disapprovingly. "You must be a real holler at get-togethers."

"You don't wanna know what I'm like at 'get-togethers'." Sterling retorted. "Now, why don't tell me why you're here?"

"Right." The old stallion nodded. "My name is Loveless Irons. I happened to have made the acquaintance of the Quarter-Master at your former military school in Deerbai. Told me about a really peeved young cadet with off-the-charts hoof/eye co-ordination, went AWOL, and hitch-hiked over five hundred miles home, only to burn the place down. I must say, I find a young stallion like that rather... intriguing."

Sterling kept his expression impassive, still glaring at him suspiciously.

"I'm curious." Loveless declared. "According to the case report, your brother was in the house when you set the place aflame… did you know he was in the house when you set the fire?"

"No, 'sir', I did not." Sterling answered curtly.

"I see..." Loveless mused. "I suppose it slipped your mind to check beforehoof..."

"Yeah, it did." Sterling nodded.

"So... I hope you're not being treated too roughly in here?" Loveless asked.

"Please." Sterling smirked cockily. "I can take anything these losers try to throw at me."

"You're a tough one, aren't you?" Loveless grinned. "Hold on..."

A section of Loveless's wheelchair opened up, and a mechanical arm emerged, carrying a fresh cup of coffee.

"Care for some espresso?" Loveless offered his cup.

"No, thank you, I'd rather not drink something that came out of a wheelchair." Sterling cringed.

"Fair enough." Loveless nodded, as he sipped from his cup, before setting it down, "Now… let's discuss business."

"'Business'?" Sterling frowned.

"I have come here to make you a once in a lifetime offer, son." Loveless gave a grin. "You see, your family's lawyer is gonna be arrivin' here in about twenty-five minutes. Whether you knew your brother was in that burning building or not, your folks are hopping mad. They're gonna be pressing charges against you for arson and attempted murder. And that older brother of yours is petitioning the court to have you tried as an adult."

Sterling's brow furrowed.

'Wish I could say I was surprised… but how did he know...' He thought.

"Now, let me tell ya, boy, you really don't look the type that would fare well in prison." Loveless admitted. "You could take your chances with the cage, and spend Faust knows how long blaming your folks and your mean older brother for all your problems…" He then held up a hoof. "...Or, if you were to accept my offer, you can allow me to escort you out of this facility and I can teach you how to be a stallion."

Loveless shifted his eyes back and forth, before gesturing Sterling to lean in closer. While Sterling was rather dismissive of the old stallion's claims, he couldn't help but feel a bit of intrigue by his words. Sterling inched his head forward.

"You see, boy, I happen to work for a secret organization." Loveless explained, whispering silently. "An organization that's always looking to recruit young stallions like you."

"And why should I trust you?" Sterling asked, frowning deeply.

"You shouldn't." Loveless admitted. "After all, I'm just a stranger to you. You definitely shouldn't trust me at all."

'...What?' Sterling frowned. "Then why…"

"Because I can see great potential in you, my boy." Loveless smiled. "Potential that must not be squandered, but nurtured, made from a certainty to a possibility."

"Really?" Sterling gasped, surprised by the compliment.

"Really." Loveless nodded. "But it won't necessarily be an easy path. Nothing worth having is gained without struggle."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Sterling frowned, confused.

"Let me be clear: Going with me will be the hardest thing you've ever done." Loveless declared. "But on the other hoof, nopony will ever mess with you again."

Sterling leant back, pondering the decision.

'Hmm… go with some sawn-off whacko, or rot in here?' Sterling thought. 'Some choice...'

"Please say 'yes'." Loveless urged. "It'll be hard, but oh so fun."

Sterling was still unsure.

"Not to pressure you, but in ten seconds, I roll out that door." Loveless said suddenly. "Say it."

'Should I?' Sterling thought, frantically weighing his options. 'I don't know what this guy has in store for me. For all I know, he's some psycho who's going to kill me and dump me in an alley somewhere. But then again, if I stay put, that lousy family of mine will just leave me to rot in jail. Adult jail...'

The ten seconds were almost up. The wheels of Loveless's chair slowly started to turn...

"Yes." Sterling nodded firmly.

Suddenly, the doors burst open, and armed stallions charged in. They were wearing steel armored suits, each emblazoned with a symbol that looked like two "F's" back to back.

"Don't move!" One yelled, pointing a crossbow at the other ponies in the room. "Everypony, on the ground!"

"What the hell…" Sterling murmured.

"Ya see? Told you it was gonna be fun." Loveless grinned at the bemused Sterling. "Now, shall we?"

With a silent nod, Sterling stood up.

"Excellent." Loveless smiled. "Right this way, my boy."

Sterling and Loveless made their way out of the facility, flanked by the armed stallions, who brutally pummeled any guard who tried to stop them. As they reached the outside, Sterling looked forward, to what was to come.

'Whatever comes next, it's got to be better than what's behind me...' He thought.

To Be Continued...

(My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and all associated characters are the property of Hasbro.)