Off The Trail

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Author: Bryan (with Bob Stein) </span>
This one is old. The first few segments of this story are probably the oldest written work I've posted anywhere, in fact. Initially I was just noodling around, tossing out a TF scene without much thought to a plot and then writing until I ran out of ideas. It sat almost forgotten in my archives for a while after that. Then one day I showed it to Bob Stein and he was inspired to add a bit more to it, which inspired me to add more after that, and so forth until it reached a point that actually seems like an ending. Neat! I wrote part 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7, and Bob wrote parts 2 and 6. Then I filed it away in my archives again and more years passed. :) It's loosely set in the Wild Cards universe though you don't really need to know anything about it beyond the fact that it's similar to the Blind Pig. The main villain-slash-deus ex machina, Fleshcrawler, originated in another of my ancient stories; Chickenhawk and the Shapeshifter.

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John jogged down the warehouse aisle, searching the shadows for Fleshcrawler's fleeing form. He spotted droplets of dark fluid still fresh on the floor and knew that he was near; shapeshifter or no, he had wounded him badly. Now he had to keep Fleshcrawler on the defensive, keep him too busy to counterattack or disguise himself and slip away. Then he saw a dark shape dodge into a pile of crates ahead, and knew that he had him cornered. "All right, you! Give up, or I'll shoot to kill!" John shouted, readying his pistol and creeping cautiously forward. He had no illusions about making a heroic capture; he knew that if he could get a shot at him, he would kill Fleshcrawler anyway. He was just too dangerous to give him a chance to escape.

Suddenly, he heard a deep chuckle. John looked around frantically, trying to localize it. Then came a harsh, whispering voice. "You're too late, man. I've got you, and you don't know it. Better run, man!" Fleshcrawler pronounced 'man' as if it were 'dog'. John paused, trying to decide what to do, when he felt a sudden wrench in his guts. He let out a strangled gasp of surprise, and then the panic hit. Fleshcrawler had obviously recovered somewhat from his wounds; he was back in control of the situation, and that meant John was in big trouble. He turned and ran.

John sprinted back down the corridor, bones aching and skin tingling with a weird sensation like intangible fingers being run through his body. He stumbled, pain suddenly stabbing through his feet. John sprawled to the floor, breaking his fall with his hands but losing his gun in the process. His shoes felt like they were shortening, crushing his toes, though he knew that in actuality it was probably his feet that were getting longer. He had no idea exactly what Fleshcrawler was doing to him, and no time right now to figure it out; he had to get away from him before it went to far and became irreversible. John fumbled with the laces. His hands were awkward and numb, his joints stiff, and it took considerable effort to finally kick them off. Struggling unsteadily to his feet, John tottered forward. He only got a few steps, then stumbled again; his balance was hopelessly off, he couldn't stand up straight. John scrambled clumsily onward, using his hands to keep from falling on his face.

He scrambled around a corner, hoping to get out of Fleshcrawler's line of sight and hence hopefully the influence of his power. He knew he was still in trouble, with his shirt and pants already constricting oddly and bursting seams, but perhaps if he got away before the change reached the critical point... Not even trying to stand upright any more, John ran as fast as he could on all fours through the darkened aisles. He found it easier than attempting to stand, and getting easier all the time. He wasn't even getting a sore neck from looking ahead. He realized that he had lost his way, but he was moving faster than he had ever run before and so kept going in case Fleshcrawler was still behind him. His footfalls clattering loudly on the cement floor, John rounded another corner at top speed. He took it too fast, and his numb toes and fingertips slipped from under him. With a whinnying scream of fear and surprise, John fell heavily against a stack of empty cardboard boxes. Several fell on top of him, and he was winded from the impact.

John lay on his side among the boxes, gasping heavily from the run, the fear, and the fall. It took him a gut-wrenching minute of terror to finally catch his breath, worrying that at any moment Fleshcrawler would catch up. Once he had finally calmed down, John listened carefully. He couldn't hear anything other than his own deep breathing, and the faint sound of cars somewhere in the distance. Since Fleshcrawler hadn't already caught up with him, or tracked him via the noise of his collision and fall, he decided that he was probably gone. John closed his eyes with a mixture of disappointment and relief, taking a moment longer to rest. Then he shifted, groaning as his sore and bruised muscles protested, and tried to get up. And immediately realized that something was very, very wrong.

He tried to push himself into a sitting position, but he found that he couldn't bend his arms properly to do it. His shoulders had trouble bending side-to-side, and he wasn't able to turn the palm of his hand sideways to place it flat on the floor like he should have. Very worried, John heaved and rolled onto his belly, legs folded under him. In that position he was able to raise his torso, pushing himself up into a squatting position with his arms. With great effort, John tried straightening his legs and stood upright for a moment, knees bent and arms folded like a begging dog's. His heels ground painfully on the hard floor as he put weight on them, and he reflexively shifted his weight onto his toes. Then he lost his balance and fell forward, straightening his arms to catch himself. His fingers met the ground far sooner than he expected, jarring him but supporting his weight easily. John stood comfortably on his fingertips and toes, torso parallel with the floor, head raised high. He froze, fully realizing what his problem was. Fleshcrawler had managed to finish transforming him into something not at all human.

With reluctance and a terrible sense of foreboding, John slowly bent his head down to looked at his hands. In the dim light he saw that his arms were long, oddly jointed, and ended in a pair of hooves. Bending his head further until his long neck was curved 180 degrees he looked back and saw that his legs, still shrouded in his torn pants, also ended in hooves. Shivering, John clenched his eyes and ran through a mantra to keep from panicking. Whatever had happened to him, he had to stay calm and think. When he had collected himself, John opened his eyes and tried to methodically take stock of his situation. He took a few clumsy experimental steps, trying to get the feel of his limbs. He shook his head and felt a strip of hair flapping on his scalp and neck, and his ears flopped back and forth. Crossing his eyes, he saw that he had a long, blunt muzzle. He felt muscles in his posterior that he hadn't had before, and upon twitching them decided that he had a short tail.

Taking a few more steps, gaining dexterity with each one, John walked out into the middle of the aisle and turned carefully in place. He tried to speak but his mouth was clumsy and all he managed was a deep mumble. Trying again, he managed to mutter "I'm a horse," with a mixture of horror and disbelief. Looking over his shoulder, he considered the scraps of clothing that hadn't completely burst from his body. More the size of a pony, he decided. Fleshcrawler appeared to have some limits on changing people's mass, after all. John felt furious at what had been done to him, both at his own stupidity for coming in here alone and at Fleshcrawler himself for having done it. On a deeper level, however, he was terrified. He refused to think about what would happen to him, what sort of future he might have now. The thought of losing his humanity forever was terrible, too terrible for him to face. So he denied it, ignored it, and protected his sanity by focusing on more immediate matters.

John decided that he should find a phone and call Sam for help. He remembered passing an office on the way in, and guessed that it would have the nearest convenient telephone. His ruined clothing useless and restrictive, so he decided that under the circumstances modesty wasn't his primary concern and managed to tear off his shirt with his teeth. Fortunately, his belt had burst and he was able to simply step out of his pants; they would have been nearly impossible to get off otherwise. He swished his tail a few times, figuring out how to work it properly, and took a couple of shaky steps to get the feel of his new legs. His hooves had poor traction on the bare cement. Walking very slowly and carefully, John made his way down the corridor in the general direction of the warehouse's front entrance. He had never felt so strange in his life, and it certainly wasn't helping that he was hungry and needed to go to the bathroom too. There were enough new sensations to get used to as it was.

By the time he found the door to the office, he had practised walking on all fours enough to move at a brisk trot. He still stumbled now and then, but he found that if he didn't pay attention to exactly what his legs were doing they seemed to handle the details by themselves. John tried pawing at the doorknob for a moment with a forehoof, but quickly realized that he wouldn't get very far that way. Not only was it hard to raise his arm that high, but he couldn't get a purchase on it. He snorted in annoyance, and began to fully realize the magnitude of handicap he now had. Despite his mobility, he didn't have the manipulative ability to do anything for himself anymore. His fears for the future began oozing back out into his mind.

But then an idea struck him, pushing such thoughts back underground again. The idea wasn't very appealing, but it seemed reasonable nonetheless; distastefully, John gripped the knob in his teeth and tried turning it with his jaws. It turned, and he quickly pushed the door open and let go. He grimaced at the oily metallic aftertaste in his mouth, tried to spit it out, and found that his mouth wasn't really built right for it. But despite that he felt a little better; perhaps he wasn't so helpless after all.

John's hooves were muffled by a carpet as he walked in. He had been growing annoyed by their clip-clopping as he had walked, the sound serving as a constant reminder of his situation. But then, virtually everything reminded him of his situation. "Hello?" he called out, not expecting a reply but wanting to make sure he could speak properly. His mouth felt thick and clumsy, and his voice was deep and hard to generate, but at least the word was recognizable to his ears. John looked around the office. It was furnished, but had clearly been unused in a long time. The filing cabinets were sitting open and empty, and a thin layer of dust covered everything. He flipped the light switch with his nose and a dim yellow bulb illuminated the room a little better, revealing that there was indeed a phone on the desk.

Immediately realizing that he couldn't dial with his tongue, John picked up a pen in his teeth with which to turn the dial. He knocked the receiver from the cradle, and started to carefully dial Sam's number. Then he suddenly realized that the phone hadn't made a dial tone, and tried clicking the cradle a few times. Nothing. John checked the cord, tried dialling again, and then stamped a hoof in annoyance. The power was still on, so why couldn't the phone company have left the place connected too? he spat out the pen and stood there thinking. He had no idea where he would look for another phone, and by the time he could get to one Fleshcrawler would be long gone from the area. With him would go his only ticket back to being human, and the FBI would be back to square one at catching him again. John grimaced unhappily. And on top of all that, he was still hungry and really needed to pee.

What the hell, John thought, on his way in he'd seen a bathroom just next to the office. He trotted over, and carefully backed up to the toilet until he was in position. He couldn't help thinking for a moment that his new horse-sized equipment made up for some of his other handicaps, but that brought to attention the fact that he couldn't exactly use it with anyone and he shoved the thought back down before despair could catch up with him. He let loose a stream of urine with reasonable accuracy, and then heaved a huge sigh. It felt great to relieve the nagging pressure. As he stepped out he glanced at the sink, wondering if he should wash or what, he caught sight of a horse in the mirror. He flicked his ears back and jumped slightly in surprise, but kept himself from bolting. Realizing an instant later that it was actually his reflection, he was overcome with a surge of both curiosity and dread. He stepped forward to examine himself.

At first he thought that he looked exactly like a pony, with a wiry mane and chestnut brown hair. Then he noticed that there were subtle differences, apparent even though he didn't see real horses that much. His muzzle was shorter, his body was leaner, he had a slightly pronounced forehead, and his eyes faced more forward than they normally did. He stared into those large brown eyes set in an animal's face. John recognized himself in those eyes, even a little in that face. It was a very spooky feeling. His introspective mood allowed some of his submerged emotion to surface, and his vision blurred with tears. Blinking rapidly and turning away, John pushed the emotion down again. First things first, he berated himself. Time for that later. Sniffing a few times and trying to wipe his eye on his shoulder, he walked back out of the bathroom. Busying himself by trying to remember where the nearest occupied building was, he trotted off in search of a working phone.

After considerable difficulty opening the outside door, more securely latched than the office's door had been, John squinted in the bright sunlight. His black mood lifted somewhat at sight of the brilliant blue sky and the smell of semi-fresh air. There was no one visible in the area, so John overcame his embarrassment and stepped outside. Across an empty lot he saw a building that held some promise of a phone; it was small and dumpy, but had a couple of cars in the parking lot. He couldn't make out the sign on the place from here. Heaving a sigh, he began walking toward it. As he walked through the empty lot he noticed that the green of the scraggly plants seemed to leap out at him, drawing his eye. When he examined the vegetation more closely his stomach growled and his mouth watered, but John tore his gaze away and again fixed it resolutely on his goal. Whatever his gut might say, he wasn't about to start eating weeds. He broke into a canter.

He arrived at the low building, and saw that it was called "Infoserver Link". He guessed it must be some sort of online computer service place, looking for low property value out here since no one would need to visit them physically. He walked up to the door, and after a moment's hesitation knocked lightly with a forehoof. "Hello? Anybody in there?"

He heard someone call out "The door's open," and then silence.

"Could you open it, please? I can't!" John replied after a moment.

He heard movement inside, and then a man pushed the door open from the inside. "What do you mean, you can't- Yow!" he jumped back at the sight of the pony on the doorstep. John jumped back at his exclamation too, both from surprise and from embarrassment. "Please, I need to use your phone," he managed to say before the door swung shut again, released from the man's grip.

John could hear the man talking excitedly to the others inside, saying "Hey, guys! there's a horse outside that wants in!" He heard several incredulous replies, and the first man insisted that they come to the door to see for themselves.

"I'm not a horse!" John shouted indignantly at the closed door. "I'm..." he trailed off for a moment. "Look, I'm a person, okay? I got changed! I need to use your phone, to get help!" there was a commotion inside, and then the door opened a crack. "Is this some sort of joke?" the man asked. "I wish it were," John replied. "I was zapped by an ace in the warehouse over there. I'm with the FBI, I've gotta call backup quick." He wished he still had his badge with him.

There was a brief exchange of words, and then the man opened the door. "All right, come in, but don't try anything." John thanked him and stepped inside.

There were three men inside, the same as the number of cars in the lot out front. John assumed that that was everyone present. They stood back and looked at him with fascination. John felt extreme embarrassment under their gaze, both due to his transformation and the fact that he wasn't wearing anything. He blushed, though it wasn't visible through his coat of hair. "Would you please stop staring?" he asked, and the others briefly glanced down in embarrassment of their own.

"Are you a Joker?" The man with the beard asked.

"Technically, no." John replied. "Practically, yes. Now can I use the phone?"

They looked at each other, and the one with glasses said "I don't see why not." he gestured to the cluttered desk, on which rested a telephone. "But I want to know what's going on afterward." John nodded, and walked over to the desk. He dialled with the help of another pen, and then held an ear next to the receiver waiting for Sam to answer. When he finally did John shifted his mouth to the receiver, since the phone was too short to reach both at once.

"Sam? It's John."

"John? what's with your voice?" he faintly heard Sam ask.

"Sorry, I'm a little hoarse." John let out a sharp laugh, mixed with a sob. He firmly told himself to get a grip, and tried to stick to the important issues at hand. "Look, I'm in trouble. I found Fleshcrawler's place, a warehouse at 3221 old harbor road, but when I checked it out he ambushed me. I shot him, but he got away and zapped me. You've gotta send the squad, quick, before he gets away."

"He zapped you? Are you all right?"

"Of course I'm not all right!" John nearly shouted. "I'm... I'm... Look, just get down here, okay? we might still catch him, and then I'll be fine. I'm in Infoserver Link, just across from the warehouse."

"Right, I'll get down there immediately. Hang in there, John, cavalry's coming." Sam hung up, and after a moment so did John.

There was a pregnant silence. "All right, then. what's all this about Fleshcrawler? who are you?" the first man demanded. John sighed and said "All right, I'll level with you, but don't leak this to the media yet. It'll come out soon, but if we can catch him first it won't cause a panic like typhoid Croyd did. I'm John Sulivan, FBI. I was tracking a criminal ace who calls himself Fleshcrawler, and like an idiot I chased him into his lair without backup. He's a shapechanger, but not like usual. He shapechanges other people. He got me when I tried to get away."

"He turned you into a horse?" The bearded man asked incredulously.

"Yeah." John paced, tail swishing. "He's done a few others, too. Not into horses though; he likes to be 'creative'. He's totally insane. He doesn't seem to work for anyone, just zapping people at random. We though it was just a local outbreak of wild card for a while, but nobody was drawing the black queen; everyone was turning into jokers. Then we found that the victims didn't have the xenovirus, and we figured it was being caused by someone like Sludge."

"Sludge?" the man with glasses asked, confused.

"Yeah, I remember that one," said the first man. "A crazy joker-ace, right? He would turn women into jokers like himself and rape them, then eat them. I heard about it in a magazine."

John nodded. "Like that, only versatile. He can zap anyone into anything, it seems. I think he may be empathic, too."

"So this psycho is in the old warehouse across the way?" demanded the bearded man. "What if he comes over here?"

John hadn't thought of that. "I, uh, guess he might. I don't think so, though. I think he's run off again, that would fit his hit-and-run pattern. Besides, if he was lurking around here he would have tried to stop me from reporting in, right?" It made sense, but John was still nervous. He felt like he wanted to get out in the open and run as fast and as far as he could. He forced himself to stop pacing, but his muscles kept twitching; he could smell the fear of the others and it made his own nervousness worse.

At last, the special forces squad pulled up in front of the building in two unmarked vans and a car. John watched through the blinds, not particularly wanting to be seen like this by people he knew. As Sam got out of the car and looked around expectantly, however, John realized that he was being irrational and forced himself to go out to meet him. Sam stared, obviously stunned at John's appearance. "Hi, Sam." John greeted him with a heavy sigh. "Let's please skip the formalities, okay? Fleshcrawler might still be catchable."

Sam shook off the shock and tried to comply. "Right, then, let's hurry. Can you come?"

"I'm not crippled, Sam, just a little hungry. Open this door, okay? I'll guide you through." John pawed at the car's back door.

"Uh, right." Sam opened the car and John crawled in on his knees and elbows, just able to fit across the back seat. Sam got back in and they drove the short distance down the road to the warehouse, with John indicating which entrance to go to. The convoy pulled up, and the squad poured out of the vans as John laboriously exited the car.

"I shot him as he ran up this way," John informed them as he trotted into the lead. He was starting to get excited at the prospect of the chase, and he was eager to get moving. "I followed a trail of blood inside, c'mon!" He stopped at the door, momentarily thwarted by the latch until one of the officers opened it for him. He was briefly upset at needing that assistance, and at how the officer had carefully avoided getting near him, but the door was open and there was no time to lose. he rushed in and then waited impatiently for the others to follow. They hurried in professionally, deploying to cover each other and keep the whole area in view. John felt less need for caution, since he couldn't think what else Fleshcrawler could do to him. Sam stuck near the center of the group, since he wasn't much of a field agent.

John led the group through familiar darkened corridors, the trail of blood droplets he followed still wet. He tried to keep his hooves from making too much noise, but on the cement floor it was next to impossible. Finally, they came to the spot where Fleshcrawler had turned on him. "This is where I... lost track of him." John muttered, remembering his terrified flight. Sam and the others spread out slightly, combing the floor for the trail of blood. John tried to help look, but it was very dark in the spot he was searching and he couldn't hold a flashlight to help him see. Suddenly he smelled a tangy metallic smell that made him feel very nervous. He realized that he'd found the trail by scent, and called for the others.

They followed it down a darker and narrower aisle than they had yet gone through, so narrow that they had to move double file. John had taken a position to the rear with Sam, his experience no longer useful. "Are you, uh..., sure you're up to this?" Sam asked him in a low voice. "Don't ask, Sam." John replied. "Maybe I'll think about being a pony if our chance at catching Fleshcrawler slips by. Until then, I've gotta keep sane, okay?" Sam nodded and backed off of the subject. John did likewise, pushing such thoughts out of his mind. He would deal with them later, if he couldn't get changed back. Then he put that thought out of his mind as well, hoping that that situation would never come up. He trotted on for a while in silence, thinking mainly about carrots and apples, and then the squad came to a halt. "What?" John whispered, but the officer ahead of him just made quieting hand motions. John got the distinct impression that he was more uncomfortable about him than about tracking Fleshcrawler.

After a moment, John heard the officers ahead discussing the situation. The trail had ended, and one of the large boxes on the right of the aisle had traces of blood as if Fleshcrawler had moved it. He caught snatches of them discussing how best to raid whatever room or space might be beyond it. They decided to go in quickly, without trying to find and cover alternate ways in. Sam and John backed off and waited for the squad to secure whatever lay beyond. readying their guns, the squad took position around the box. Then with a sudden lunge they heaved the box aside and rushed through the opening revealed. There were shouts of "nobody move!" and the sounds of the squad deploying inside, and then he heard Capt. Horroway ordering "Freeze, Fleshcrawler! twitch and you're toast."

There was a silence, and then John was amazed to hear faint sobbing from inside. "Room secure, sir. I don't think it's him, though." Horroway called out to Sam, who approached the hole in the wall. John followed right behind, eager to get to Fleshcrawler quickly. The scene inside quickly dashed his hopes. The room was warmly lit and had an armchair, a cot, a shelf of books, and a section walled off with chicken wire to form a makeshift cage. Huddled in the far corner of this section was a pair of shuddering pale white mounds of flesh. From these came the sobbing. "Oh, my God." Sam muttered. John examined them closely. They looked like two giant fat limbless grubs, about three feet long by one foot thick, with rings of pasty skin down their lengths. One was curled around the other, as much as its plumpness would allow, and the other peered out from under it. Its simple face had a slash-like mouth, a pair of nostrils, and two obsidian eyes.

"Who are you?" Sam demanded, recovering quickly. The curled one curled tighter, and the other squirmed around to get a better view. "Martin," he said in an almost-human voice, "help us, please, get us out of here!"

"Stay calm, we'll get you out as soon as it's safe. Where is Fleshcrawler?"

"He just left! he went up! Shannon, let go, we're rescued!" That last remark was directed at the other worm-thing curled around him. Her sobbing quieted and she relaxed slightly, sliding around to peer past Martin at the room.

John glanced up, and saw a possible trapdoor in the ceiling. The special forces squad immediately began organizing, boosting each other up to follow Fleshcrawler. Three would stay behind, as well as Sam. John knew he couldn't even consider getting up there himself, and stayed at the door.

"No, wait! don't go!" Shannon cried and humped forward to press against the chicken wire. Martin followed, starting to say something. The three officers immediately trained their weapons on them, however, and cut him off with a shouted "don't move!" They froze, and Shannon let out a fresh sob. Sam quickly raised his hand. "Cool it, guys. We're staying, in case Fleshcrawler doubles back." or in case one of you two is him, he didn't add. They didn't know the full extent of his abilities yet. "Now, we're going to let you out and take you to the clinic, but not until it's safe. I'll send for some stretchers, all right?" Martin bobbed his head slightly, and after a brief discussion Sam sent two of the men back to the van. Based on the theory that Fleshcrawler could only affect one person at a time, they had always planned to hunt him in pairs. It had been just John's luck to have dropped off his partner right before spotting him.

The two men left, and since the action seemed to be over John came the rest of the way into the room. The two worms stared at him, and once again John was embarrassed. Then he remembered that the two had just as much to be ashamed of and he shook it off. "Yeah?" he asked them. They started in surprise, and John realized that they had thought he was just a horse. "Who are you?" Martin asked. "Sergeant Hancock." John replied, but the name somehow felt wrong. "Call me John. I found Fleshcrawler, but he got the drop on me." They seemed eager to talk, but Sam broke in. "We need to get statements from them quick, J-John, before the squad runs into 'Crawler." John tipped his head slightly and stepped back, though he wanted to talk as well. Suddenly those two seemed to be the least alien people in the room.

Sam quickly questioned them about Fleshcrawler and his habits. This was apparently a hideout of his, but he didn't come frequently or stay long. They had each stumbled onto his hideout individually, Shannon first, about a month ago. He had transformed them and dumped them in here, to keep them from telling anyone. Sometimes many days would seem to pass between visits, though they had no way of tracking time. he would sometimes talk with them, but often he ignored them and napped or read. At those times he seemed to be in a private universe of his own. Soon, Sam realized that they didn't know much of importance to the chase. They were just innocent bystanders, caught up in all this. He thanked them and went to stand with the remaining special forces officer, obviously uncomfortable around them.

John approached again. "Are you guys feeling okay?" he asked. "I guess," Martin replied. "I'm not hungry, and I had almost given up hope of rescue. I mean being found." His tone indicated sudden depression. "We're still stuck like this." Shannon cuddled up to him. "At least we're stuck together," she said quietly. "There is that," John tried to sound supportive. "Better than being unique." "I don't know, I think you've got a better deal," Martin responded. "You've at least got legs. That's the thing I miss second-most, after hands." John hadn't really been talking about himself, but could see his point. "Jeeze, it must have been hell." he said. "If I hadn't had Martin to be with, I woulda gone crazy." Shannon stated. "I was a fat worm, eating garbage, shitting in the corner, all alone. I nearly did go nuts before he came." Martin nodded. "It was too much for me, too, and I was never alone. Crawling in this filth did it. Knowing I'll never walk or run, just inch around on my stomach." He trailed off, even more depressed. John murmured sympathetically, but actually felt a little better comparing his situation to theirs.

The two officers returned with the stretchers, and Sam joined us. "the rest of the team reports that they've lost him." he briefed. "He went out a vent and got outside, and seems to have gone to the river. They think he took a boat or something. They're coming back here, we'll call forensics and go over the scene. in the mean time, we'll get you guys to the Clinic. The van'll take you 'cause it's empty, and you're not urgent?" Martin's body briefly shortened and fattened, what John guessed was a shrug. "No, I'm fine. Just hungry." he said. The officers pulled up a corner of the wire, and one by one the two humped out and onto a stretcher. Shannon was reluctant, but followed Martin. They were strapped in, which Sam explained was to keep them from falling off. John knew they were still worried that one might be a disguised Fleshcrawler. He spent the trip lying in beside them in the van, feeling the need to be close to kindred spirits. His chance at a quick return to human form had escaped with Fleshcrawler, and he was beginning to realize that he might be a pony for a long time.

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John was led to a large examination room and asked to wait. He tried passing the time examining the charts on the wall, but quickly tired of them and paced the room. The clip-clop of his own hooves masked the sound of another set of hooves approaching from the hall, and so he was caught completely by surprise when the door opened and a centaur wearing a doctor's outfit entered. Then he remembered that this was Dr. Finn, head of the clinic while Tachyon was away, and was chagrined that he hadn't thought of him earlier.

"Well," Finn started. He seemed uncomfortable. "I'm told you aren't a wild card?" John snorted, partly confirmation and partly from residual surprise at seeing Finn's lower body. "Well, then. Uh, normal procedure is to take blood samples, and to do a bunch of tests to make sure there're no inherent problems with your body. But Fleshcrawler's pattern is well known, he doesn't do shoddy, uh, work. So we can take that leisurely. Are there any immediate problems?"

"I'm hungry and I'm tired, doc." John said. "I don't know how to deal with that." John felt pent up questions began slipping free. "I don't know what to do, anymore! I'm a horse, for God's sake, what do I do? What will happen to me? What?" His throat constricted with tension, reducing his voice to barely understandable whinnying. Panic rising, John felt the need to run as far and as fast as he could pressing on his mind. Sobbing and shuddering, he struggled to bring himself back under control. Finn stood back, uncertain what he should do but realizing that he would only cause problems trying to calm John down. An intern in the hall, hearing the ruckus, quietly asked Finn if he needed help. Finn just as quietly declined.

At last, John pushed his feelings back down and sniffed slightly. "Okay, I'm all right." he grunted. He folded his hind legs and sat, head hanging. "Hoo, boy. I'm in trouble, aren't I doc?"

Finn approached him carefully, and put his hand on John's neck. He flinched but didn't complain. "In a way, yes." Finn admitted. "your life is definitely going to change, that's for sure. Even for the slightest case of wild card, lives change. But life always changes, and you can survive this." Now it was Finn's turn to sigh. "I'm no psychologist, I've never had this happen to me." John raised his head and looked at him incredulously. Finn laughed. "I was born this way." he explained. "But considering where I work, I've talked with lots of people that have had their lives and bodies turned upside down by the Wild Card. It's about the most traumatic thing that can happen to a person, but even then I've seen plenty of people recover. Just take things slow, and be prepared to accept some changes. If you don't, you'll go nuts."

There was a moment's silence, and then John took a deep breath. "What the hell, it sounds reassuring. There's always hope." John decided to focus on more immediate concerns and leave the soul-searching for a more appropriate time. In retrospect, his outburst was embarrassing. "now, how about that food problem? Am I supposed to find some field and go grazing or something?"

"Hmm." Dr. Finn looked at him critically. "Can I see your teeth?" John obligingly pulled back his lips and opened his jaws as wide as he could. "Looks a lot like that's what Fleshcrawler had in mind." John wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Don't worry just yet, though." Finn said and put on his stethoscope. "Let me check out your stomach a bit more. I eat human food, hard to say what you can handle just from your teeth." John neglected to point out that Dr. Finn's mouth seemed designed for human food, instead standing back up to allow him to listen.

After a few minutes of tapping and listening to his belly and chest, Finn straightened and took the stethoscope out of his ears. "Your heart and lungs sound great, by the way. Quite strong. It's hard to say, but your stomach could be segmented. Like a horse's, but also like mine. I'd advise we start with a light salad and maybe Jell-O. Standard hospital food, I can get some right away. from there, we'll see what else you can take. And remember, your sense of taste might be different."

"Humph. It'd have to be changed before I'll eat grass." John hadn't thought of that, however, and he was just now starting to realize that his entire species had changed. Who knew what grass would taste like to him? He shuddered. What if he had to chew cud? Did horses do that? "In that case, doc, if you would be so kind as to bring on the food? I'm starving." Finn nodded and went to arrange it.

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John was in bed, after a very difficult time getting up onto it. He lay on his belly, legs carefully folded under him, watching TV. He finally had a full stomach after about a half hour of steady eating, emptying four huge salad bowls filled with lettuce and other assorted vegetables and five pitchers of water. It had been very tasty, John hadn't realized before how good simple uncooked vegetables could be. Or perhaps it was his new tastebuds, he mused. He idly wondered if grass would actually be bearable fare after all, but decided not to go out of his way to find out.

An agent knocked and peeked in the door. "Visitor on the way up," he informed. "Thanks," John replied and carefully picked up the TV remote control in his mouth. He bit down delicately, and the channel changed. "Ah, crap." he muttered through the mouthful, repositioned the remote with his tongue, and tried again. The TV turned off, and he grinned slightly in satisfaction (yet another thing he could do that a normal pony couldn't) and spat out the remote. "So there," he told his folded forelegs. he had resolved to work around his disabilities at every opportunity, squashing counterproductive emotions until he could determine exactly how much they were warranted.

he heard the agent outside directing someone to his room, and then the door opened and his partner Carl came in. "John?" he asked in amazement. "that's me," John sighed in his most human-sounding voice. "Oh, my god..." Carl breathed. "They told me you'd been turned into a horse..." He seemed at a loss for words, standing uncertainly in the doorway. "More like a pony," John corrected. "Don't worry, I'm all right. Pull up a chair, I could use a little company right now. how's the hunt for Fleshcrawler?" Carl walked up to John's bed in a daze, and looked intently into John's face. John looked intently back, wondering if his buddy was going to take it all right. "It is you, isn't it?" He exclaimed with shock. "I can see it in the eyes, the hair." shaking his head and breaking out of the shock, he drew a chair over and sat down. "Your hair always did sort of poof up in the middle. Uh, right. The Fleshcrawler." He paused, considering how to proceed.

"Just come out with it," John asked. "I doubt the news will upset me."

"Well, he's not caught yet. He seems to have swum for it, we got an eyewitness seeing a seal-like creature leaving the river up near 150th street that doesn't match any known jokers. We're combing the area, hopefully we'll find him before he finds some clothes and blends in. but it's up in the air; we don't know what to look for."

John frowned. "150th street is pretty close to my apartment. I wonder if that's got something to do with it."

"We already have someone on that angle," Carl confirmed. "but I think you should stay at my place, anyways."

"I've been released?" John inquired hopefully.

"Yep. the blood tests show you, uh, wild card free, so you can't be Fleshcrawler. I signed for you, they said you needed an assistant."

"Great!" John struggled to his feet, climbing off the bed and onto the floor. Carl stepped back, giving him lots of room.

"Woah, now. Hold your... uh, I mean don't rush. I brought my mini, I don't think you'll fit in there. Besides, the situation isn't resolved yet, they just think you're not in any danger of dying on us."

Sighing, John tossed his head in acquiescence. "You're right. I'm just going a little stir-crazy in here, I need to move." he paced, hooves clopping on the linoleum. Then he noticed Carl glance at his hindquarters and quickly look away. He was again glad that his short chestnut hair hid his blush, and he reoriented himself relative to Carl. Even though it felt obvious when he thought about it, he kept forgetting that he wasn't wearing anything. He was pleased to note, though, that when Carl had noticed that he had responded as if he were human rather than horse. He felt like thanking him, but instead stopped and grinned. "I wonder what sort of insurance benefits this will get me. 'Crippled in the line of duty?' that's a lot of money."

Carl grinned too, hesitating slightly to determine whether John was joking. He was. "And since you don't need a wheelchair, you're laughing!" he added. John obligingly laughed, a deep horsey laugh. Deep down a part of him cringed, considering his joking statement seriously. But the rest of him was able to let go, for a while at least, and chat with his friend for a long time.

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Damn rooster. John tried to shut out the bird's infernal crowing, but realized that he was fully awake. There was the momentary disorientation that still plagued him even after almost a month. Then thoughts cleared, and he remembered that he was a horse.

Pony. His mind automatically corrected itself. It was a good thing that Fleshcrawler did have his limits. Though this new form had increased John's size and weight, he could still move pretty well even inside human rooms. If the bastard shape changer had made him a full-sized horse, he'd have been much more limited.

John eyed the pull rope by the door, debating on whether or not he wanted to go out. Carl had rigged the latch of this stall, as well as some other things, so that John could easily handle it himself. His friend's efforts made staying in a stable much more bearable.

Even though it still rankled him, even John had to admit his current quarters were the best solution to many problems. Most importantly, it was a good place to hide his altered body from prying eyes and loose lips. After all, who would notice one more pony among the dozen or so that occupied the other stalls here? Besides that, human furniture and buildings no longer fit him. Floors were slick and dangerous for his hooves, and he had to have someone with him all the time to open doors, move things out of his way, and generally interface with the human world for him.

Not that he hadn't tried. John absently dropped his head and pulled some hay into his mouth with his lips as he thought about those frustrating first days in his new body. The impact of what had been done to him hadn't hit home until after Fleshcrawler's escape was confirmed. Up to then, he had managed to avoid admitting to himself that he was no longer human. That foolishness was followed by an equally stupid effort to prove that he could still function as he always had.

Refusing help from anyone, John had battered and bruised his mouth until it bled from repeated attempts to open doors and drawers, and manipulate pens and sticks to push buttons and flip pages. The ultimate folly had been forcing down steak and beer in a desperate denial of his body's restructuring. Fortunately, he'd only gotten a few bites down before his equine digestive tract erupted in an impressive display that would have the cleaning staff talking, and bitterly complaining, for years.

It was the steak incident that had eventually brought him here. Dr. Finn didn't even wait for the nausea to fade before blasting John for his stupidity. "I thought you were smart enough not to try anything like this, John, so I didn't push the issue. But you don't give me any choice." The centaur had grabbed John's mane and jerked it painfully. "This is a mane. You are standing on four hooves. I don't know why, but Fleshcrawler chose to turn you into a horse. Not just a human who looks like one. For all intents and purposes, you are an animal. For God's sake, I know how hard it is to accept. But you can't keep pretending that things are still normal. You are a horse, and you very well may spend the rest of your life as one."

John shivered at the memory. Even now, Finn's pronouncement still tore at his soul. At the time, still reeling from violent stomach spasms, he had thought the doctor was a sick, sadistic bastard. It wasn't until later that he recalled the tears which had run down the centaur's face as he spoke.

As brutal as the experience was, it had actually helped John accept his situation a little more realistically. He hadn't given up, not by a long shot. It was more an adjustment, accepting his limitations and learning to work with his body instead of fighting it.

This stall, for example. Sleep had been awkward and fitful when he tried sprawling over a human bed, and eating or drinking had required assistance from a human. Toilet facilities were an even bigger problem, excusing the pun. Here, everything was set up for his new form.

He slept standing up now, like the ponies who shared the stable. The first night had been unnerving, constantly afraid he would fall over. By the second, he was too tired to stay awake, and woke the next morning still on all fours. Since then, he hadn't given it a second thought.

Eating and drinking were equally simplified. Once he got over the mental block of eating 'horse' food, he found that the oats and hay provided to the other ponies not only satisfied his hunger, they tasted pretty good as well. And water from a bucket in the corner was as satisfying a beverage as he could remember.

Toilet facilities had been one of Carl's most appreciated efforts. The stall next to John's had been vacated, and a pull rope installed on that gate as well. Though the odor was present throughout the stable, it helped John immensely not to have to soil his 'bedroom' as the other animals did.

With at least a semblance of self-sufficiency, and friends who were still able to deal with him, John had gotten off pretty easily. Considering the monstrosities that Fleshcrawler created from Shannon and Martin, the shape change had been almost kind. That aspect of John's transformation still bothered him. Fleshcrawler was not known for kindness. Yet he had given the agent a form which was mostly normal, if bestial, and even provided basic instincts and altered perceptions to make that form comfortable. Given the Wild Card's talent, he could just have easily made John's required diet taste horrible, or left him unable to coordinate four legs.

John moved over to the bucket and washed down the hay with a few swallows. He didn't even notice the bits of dirt and straw floating on the surface. All in all, he felt very comfortable here. It was easy to relax in the darkness, surrounded by familiar smells and sounds.

A slap on his rump startled John out of his reverie, and he twisted his head around to see Carl grinning at him. The stall was much brighter, and he was disturbed to realize that it was at least mid-morning. What had happened to the past few hours?

"This ain't no vacation, partner!" Carl opened the gate and made an elaborate bow. "If his majesty would care to step outside, I have some interesting news." John snorted and trotted out, his concern forgotten for the moment.

"Vacation, huh? Well, I got a..." John stopped, searching for the word. "A..." Damn! It had jumped out of his head.

"Complaint?" Carl offered.

John nodded. "Yeah, a complaint. What happened to my cable TV?"

Carl grinned again and started to shut the gate. "Why? You want to pick up some pointers from Mister Ed? Next thing you'll be wanting is a hot tu.." His voice broke off, and John twisted his head around to see his friend staring down into the vacated stall.

"Something wrong?" Carl shook his head and hastily closed the gate. Brushing off his hands, he strode past John and pushed open the stable door. "This way, your majesty!" Something about his friend's cheerfulness suddenly seemed forced, but John dismissed it.

Although the people who ran this ranch knew the truth about trier guest, John and Carl made it a point to walk down one of the many riding trails when they wanted to talk. There was much less chance of them being overheard, not only for privacy, but to prevent the reporting of a talking horse to the newspapers.

John waited until they were just out of sight of the stable before prompting his friend. "So, spill it! Have you got a new lead on Fleshcrawler?"

The agent shook his head. "No, not yet. Seems to have gone underground for now. Haven't had a report of a transformation since.. since you shot him. Who knows? Maybe the bastard bled to death." Carl stopped suddenly, turning red. "Oh, shit, John. I didn't mean that. We know he changed form to swim away, so he couldn't have been hurt too bad."

John sighed and nodded, though his friend's casual remark had sent a chill through him. Fleshcrawler was the only person in the world who could change John back to a human. If anything happened to him, there would be no hope at all of ever being anything but an animal.

Still a little flustered, Carl started walking again as he collected his thoughts. "Look, John. I know how much you want to get back on the job, and I think I found a way." Seeing the pony's ears perk up, he shook his head again. "Not on the Fleshcrawler case, at least not yet. We think he's somewhere in the city still, and you just aren't right for that kind of work."

John snorted in disgust. "What, then? Giving pony rides for the boss's kids? Or playing pack mule?"

Carl gave him an amused look. "You aren't far off on the last guess." John stopped dead and turned to look at the agent. "You gotta be kidding."

They resumed the walk as Carl explained his idea. While John's new body made normal activity impossible, it also made him pretty much invisible in the right circumstances. And while he no longer had hands, he did have a perfectly good set of ears.

The agency had discovered a drug running operation which used the cover of a legitimate mountain tour outfit. Drugs were brought in by 'tourists,' and deposited at predetermined sites along the trail. The problem was that the agency needed more information to catch the leader of the group. They didn't want to risk electronic bugs, and the smugglers were too careful to risk planting an operative. At least, a human operative.

"They use ponies." Carl stopped to watch John's expression, but the equine features did not betray anything. "I already talked it over with the boss. It's a perfect arrangement. They hire out the animals for each trip. It would be nothing to slip you in as a ringer. All you'd have to do is listen, and report back what you heard. And you're the only one who can do it."

There wasn't much to think over. John was disappointed that he couldn't work on the Fleshcrawler case, but the chance to do anything at all was wonderful. "You got yourself a pack mule, Carl. Ready, wil.., wul.." He shook his head.

"Ready, willing, and able?" Carl's voice was a little strained this time. Clearing his throat, he started walking ahead of John a bit. They had almost finished the trail, and the stable was visible through the trees again.

John trotted after him. "Wait up! I'm the one who's supposed to be hot to trot!" Carl slowed at the pun, but did not turn around.

"How are you feeling, John?" The man's head dropped and he stared at the ground. "I mean, really?"

The question was puzzling. "Fine, I guess. Healthy as a horse?" John made another attempt at a joke, only to have his friend spin around angrily.

"Dammit, John! It's not funny!" Carl's eyes were red, and tears were welling up. John was shocked and confused by the sudden change of his friend's attitude. Jokes were normally Carl's stock in trade.

The agent clenched his eyes, and then forced a smile. "Oh, shit. Sorry about that. I just..." His voice tailed off, and then he turned and continued to the stable. John followed silently, trying to understand what was going on.

They went back to John's stall, which Carl opened for him. The human gave him a sad, strange, look, as if expecting something bad. John stopped halfway in and looked at him. "What the hell is the matter, Carl? You've never kept anything from me before. And I sure ain't got anything to hide from you."

Carl simply pointed toward the middle of the stall, and John followed the gesture with his eyes. There were fresh, greenish lumps on the straw, along with the heavy odor of urine. For a moment, John thought they had gone to the wrong stall. And then the awful truth hit him.

"I saw it this morning, John." His friend moved to stand next to him, and placed a hand gently on his neck. "When I closed the gate. And since you didn't mention it, I figured you didn't even know. It must have happened just before I slapped you. You were just looking off into space, like.."

"A pony." John finished the sentence, still staring at the soiled straw. For the first time, he began to put together little things that had been bothering him. Struggling for words, occasional attraction to some of the mares, even this general contentment which he had stupidly embraced. "Oh, God."

Carl nodded sadly. "I don't think Fleshcrawler is through with you yet. Dr. Finn suspected something like this would happen after he got the tests and scans back. Said your brain had been physically changed in a way that wasn't necessary, and that you had some basic equine motor skills that you shouldn't have had if you were fully human mentally."

The conclusion was both obvious and terrifying. "I'm gonna turn into a real horse. Nothing of me left at all, just some dumb animal." John tried to be matter-of-fact, but his voice broke.

In a way, the realization was a relief. He'd thought this transformation was an odd choice for Fleshcrawler, and had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. He just hadn't expected it to be a horseshoe.

"Makes sense." He fought back tears and tried to steady his voice. "We both knew this was too nice a change to be all that Fleshcrawler had in mind. Hell, he turns innocent bystanders into monsters, and he hates agents!" He swallowed hard. "In a way, you gotta admire the artistry that went into this. He turned me into a pony, and even made it comfortable. Then he fixed it so I'll start thinking like a horse. But not all at once." A sob broke from his throat with a harsh whinnying sound that made them both cringe. "Oh, God. I'm gonna know. Right up to the end. I'm gonna know."

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John plodded down the dusty trail, working hard to keep his mind occupied and focused. It wasn't easy, but he had to try.

He had been undercover in the tour business for over two weeks now, carrying people and/or supplies on a day-long trek around a mountain. John remembered how nervous he had been during the first few days. Going undercover was normally dangerous, especially for long periods in a major drug-running operation, but that wasn't actually his primary concern. He had been more worried about being alone, isolated from the only people who knew he was human inside and treated him as such.

He could easily pull out at any time, even in normal operations of this sort that option was a given. But John feared pulling out even more; if he didn't go out and do something, the only other option was to stay at the ranch and wait. To placidly accept that the only life he was fit for was that of a dumb animal, standing in his stall or wandering around in the pasture outside. There was no way he was going to do that.

Of course, there was also the worry of screwing up; this masked his other concerns at first. Though his disguise was about as perfect as could be imagined, and he wouldn't exactly be challenged to prove he had no FBI ties, he still had to pretend to be a normal pony. He'd never done that before, and had no idea what would be involved.

When he had tried it, though, he had found it all too easy.

Sure, for the first few days he was deliberate and self-conscious about his role; learning to carry a load or a person on rough terrain was taxing and humiliating, there were command words to remember and habits to form. But after a short while, far shorter than he felt it should have taken, John was very good at the role. It almost felt natural, and that was what scared him.

But by then he felt committed. Despite his worries, and the worries of Carl and the others, he had insisted to follow through and was duly rented out to the drug-runner's tour company. He remembered the transaction distastefully, the runner's stable manager impersonally examining him and haggling over his price. He was acutely embarrassed by the process, though he later had to admit to himself that he took a slight guilty pleasure over the amount he settled for. Apparently, he was at least a well-built pony.

But once those first few days had passed and the fear of discovery with them, John began to realize his worse fear. The daily trips along the trail were long and monotonous; John caught himself 'zoning out' with increasing frequency and plodding along without more than basic thoughts. He always snapped out of it, usually after only a few minutes when something would catch his attention, but it was still enough to keep him aware of his degradation. There were other things as well. He had almost given up trying to control his bowels and bladder, for instance; they now emptied whenever they felt like it. It seemed no different from the other ponies so John assumed it was normal, but that was hardly a condolence.

A strong smell pulled John out of his reverie, bringing his attention back to his surroundings. He shivered slightly, realizing that he had been slipping away again, but then he focused on the smell that had brought him out of it; it was cocaine. John briefly grinned his unponylike grin. At last, some action!

He had scented the cocaine earlier that morning, faintly; one of his new advantages was an improved sense of smell, and he had learned to recognize the scent before coming out here. But now it had been taken out of whatever package it had been carried in, and it was clear who had it. The guide on his back tugged lightly on his reins, signalling a stop, and John watched discretely as one of the 'tourists' dismounted and walked a short distance off the trail carrying a large backpack.

He went out of sight among the scrub at the bottom of the hill, and John heard faint snatches of speech. He swivelled his large ears to catch it, and listened in on the deal. Whoever had met the 'tourist' down there had apparently come into the park from the west border somewhere, within a day's travel. That was just the sort of information he was after. John glanced around, trying to memorize the location. This far out in the wilderness there were only the rocks and trees to witness the transaction. And now, him.

The 'tourist' came back, still carrying the backpack but noticeably lighter on the climb back up. He remounted, and a nudge from John's rider's heels spurred him back into motion. He was glad there was no one in front of him to see his grin.

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The rest of the day's trip passed without incident, and John was led eagerly back to the stables. They had stopped to water him and the other ponies at a stream during the day, but by now he was parched again and hungry too. The sparse mountain vegetation was hardly filling. John ate greedily and relaxed while the groom gave him a brief brush-down. He had stopped feeling self-conscious about being groomed after the first few trips; it was hard, tiring work carrying people and packs all day, and he found that he really appreciated the care.

Feeling better now that his needs had been met, John stood quietly in his stall and thought. This was normally one of the times when his fear of drifting off into mindlessness was greatest, but today he had more than enough to keep his mind occupied.

Originally, the FBI had planned to try to get an agent into a job where he could meet with John every night for a report. John was distressed that they hadn't been able to; not only would it allow faster followup on his information, but he hadn't spoken to anyone for several days now and he was getting very lonely. He occasionally whispered to himself when he was sure that no one was around, just to make sure he still could, but it was a poor substitute for conversation. It was the breaks of the game, John knew; if it had been easy to get someone in this close to the operation, they wouldn't have had to resort to using him in the first place.

The backup plan was less satisfying; every week or so an agent would pose as a tourist on one of the smuggler's regular tourist runs. Hopefully, he would have an opportunity to talk with John unnoticed at some point. It had worked twice already, but there had been little to report so the agents had quickly dropped contact. The smugglers were being a lot more careful than they had expected, almost pathologically so; John had smelled cocaine before, and had described the ones who had carried it to the drop-off points, but had never overheard a transaction until now. The smugglers rarely talked, even when only the ponies were around to hear. John had lost track of the passage of time, but it felt about time for another visit. He could hardly wait to talk with someone again; he would insist on conversation this time.

Eventually fatigue overpowered John's excitement, and he drifted off into sleep.

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No one tried to contact John the next day. The smugglers were apparently relaxing after yesterday's transaction; the tour was quick and afterwards everyone left early. John had kept himself alert all day by looking for an attempt at contact, but had been disappointed; he had been so sure it would be today. Left alone again in his stall, John was forced to deal with an extended period of boredom. He just couldn't fall asleep; perhaps it was the hope of contact with someone, or the day's relatively light work, but he was full of restless energy. He wished he could pace, but he was tied on too short a lead for that. Some of the other ponies seemed restless as well; perhaps they were picking up on his mood.

John found himself thinking back to his run-in with Fleshcrawler, almost two months ago now. Had it really been that long? he wondered. He didn't know whether that time seemed too long or too short, but it certainly didn't feel right. After all this time his body still felt foreign and wrong, yet here he was, flawlessly pretending to be exactly what he now looked like. Pretending, hell; sometimes he actually was exactly what he appeared. Not just his little fugues, but conscious things like enjoying a rub-down and no longer worrying when he took a dump while he was walking.

John tugged at the lead that held him, feeling annoyed and anxious. He didn't want to go far, just pace a little, yet he was tied up as if they thought he might wander off like some dumb animal. So what if he'd worked hard to cultivate that image, or even that he just might do so if he lost his focus again for a few minutes; it was still intolerable to him right now. Whatever happened he was still John Hancock, human. He decided that he would allow himself a little midnight walk, and focused on the knot that was the source of his frustration.

Keeping calm through force of will alone, he carefully picked at it with his teeth and lips. It was tightly tied, but after an interminable period of meticulous work he succeeded in loosening it and then finally in pulling it open. The lead slipped free.

"Ha! Yesss!" he virtually jumped out of the stall, muscles twitching with tension wanting to be released. Then he froze and strained his ears, abruptly realizing how loud he had been. Fortunately, all that his sharp senses could detect were the disturbed shuffling of the other ponies. He struggled to regain his self-restraint, and then took a few light steps with as much dignity as he could muster. He didn't know exactly where he was going, but he was just glad to be free to go where he felt like for a change. It had been a long time. It hadn't really been that bad until now, being constantly controlled and constrained that is, but now it suddenly seemed intolerable. He would be back in the stall long before risking discovery, he promised himself, but he would walk around a little first.

He walked down the short length of the stable, head held high as he passed the other ponies. He was in a rather euphoric mood, and he inhaled their horsey scents deeply. He may be a pony too, he thought, but he was still better than them. And as he reached the end of the row his mood grew and his restraint was stretched; he felt an urge to... "Oh, god." John's euphoria came crashing back to earth as he felt a stirring in his loins. His penis pushed out of its sheath, fully erect; he suddenly realized that he was powerfully aroused. There was a female pony in the stall next to him, and he could plainly smell the attraction.

She must be going into heat, he realized shakily. He certainly hadn't expected this, and he suddenly felt nervous again. John glanced around the stables. All the other ponies were tied up; there was no one nearby. John stepped closer to the mare, sniffing tentatively; the scent washed over him and left him mentally gasping. No doubt about it, he thought. Obviously, this was the unknown source of his agitation. Uh... oh god. Breathing heavily, he brushed his chin lightly over her back. He couldn't quite believe what he was doing, but he was doing it anyway. She shifted slightly, raising her tail, and John groaned. Well, here I go...

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Some time later, John numbly returned to his stall. The restless energy was gone and he was quite tired now, but he still couldn't fall asleep so easily.

He had just had passionate, primal sex with a pony.

At first he tried to convince himself that his body had simply betrayed him again; that it had been as involuntary as going to the bathroom had become, that he had slipped off into animal-level thought again. But he couldn't fool himself; He knew that he hadn't lost control. He had mounted her, had whinnied and snorted like an animal as he thrust, but through it all he had been there. It was he who had done it, not his body acting on its own. John had always been raised to believe that bestiality was bad. It had seemed to be the proper attitude, at least, and by most definitions that was what he had done. But on another level, it was hard to think of it that way. John was simply too confused and tired to work it out, all he knew was that he was intensely disturbed about the whole thing.

And, he realized, there was something else he had to take care of. Wrenching his mind off of the topic of what had just happened, John delicately picked up the end of his lead in his teeth. He really hadn't been thinking ahead when he had undone this, but now he needed to tie it up again. There was no way he could possibly manage to redo the knot he had undone, but perhaps something simpler...

It took a long, hard effort to tie that simple knot, and when he was done John scoffed at its apparent effectiveness, but since he wasn't going to try undoing it it would hold until morning. No one would suspect his little infraction, anyways. Having thus distracted himself from his guilt and confusion, John was finally able to yield to fatigue and fall asleep.

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He woke the next morning when the groom arrived to get the ponies ready for that day's tour. John groaned and shook his head as he remembered what had happened last night, wishing it had been a dream. But his nose clearly told him otherwise, even though the evidence wasn't visually apparent. He avoided looking at the mare from the end of the row as he was led out of the stable, even though she probably didn't think anything was out of order herself. Grimly, John focused on his job.

John and the other ponies that would be plying the trails today were led down to the tour's gathering place to wait for today's customers. He was saddled, but not with saddlebags, indicating that he would be carrying a tourist. He sighed; he preferred carrying one of his drug-smuggling 'owners', at least they didn't keep shifting around on his back or yanking his reins too hard like the inexperienced tourists often did. And there was a certain sense of irony in the fact that they were riding an FBI agent and didn't even know it. John wasn't sure whether it was good irony in the sense that he had penetrated their organization, or bad irony in the sense that he was a beast of burden within that organization.

The guides for today approached, leading the three tourists that would be coming on today's tour. John's ears perked, suddenly picking up a familiar voice; "...he looks good, how about that one?" It was Carl! John looked in their direction, careful not to appear as excited as he felt. Carl was pointing him out to a tour guide, obviously requesting him as a mount. The guide acquiesced, and Carl walked over to him. He winked, and John gave a slight nod back. They would have to wait until later for more than that.

Carl climbed awkwardly into John's saddle. John realized that although he had carried trainers back at the ranch before coming on this assignment, this was the first time that someone he actually knew closely would ride him; he wasn't too sure what to make of that. "What's his name?" Carl asked one of the guides, and John cringed slightly in anticipated embarrassment.

"Daffodil," the guide replied. Carl chuckled, and John blushed fiercely under his fur. He'll pay for that, he resolved, and then almost chuckled as well. Carl certainly had a way of lifting his spirits whenever he showed up. The tour started and John easily arranged to be in the rear of the column. Carl politely refrained from giving him any riding commands, both in deference to John's humanity and to John's intimate knowledge of the tour and trail they were on. Finally, they entered a twisty section of switchbacks that put them fairly well out of the guides' vision.

"Okay, John," Carl whispered into his ear. "Good to see you. Let's get business out of the way first, though. Any leads?"

"Yeth, t... two dayth ago," he muttered under his breath, his bit slurring his speech. Carl nodded, indicating that he could understand John's quiet voice. "They, uh, there wath a, a," John hesitated, trying to collect the necessary words. He had practised reciting his report in his mind the day after he had witnessed the transaction, but intervening events had caused him to forget most of what he had planned and the difficult terrain was diverting his attention from rebuilding it. "A man met a touritht," he continued at last. "Off the trail. The touritht gave him c-cocaine, I could thmell it. I heard them talk. He came from wetht bor... border, uh, one day'th travel."

Carl nodded again, thoughtful. "That narrows the possibilities down, alright. Did you catch exactly where he came from?"

John shook his head. "Th-thorry," he mumbled, "didn't thay." There was another short pause as John negotiated a tight turn in the trail and then glanced furtively at the other ponies. Then he continued. "Now tell me, tell me, uh... news. Pleathe."

Carl glanced around as well before replying. "Fleshcrawler isn't dead," he whispered quickly. "He's done at least one more attack in the past week. We aren't too close to catching him either, though we're closer than ever before. We think we're finding a pattern of sorts. But never mind that, how are you? Can you keep this up okay?"

John was silent for a long time, partly due to a period of unfavorable cover from the other tourists but mostly because he had to think hard about the answer. "Y-yeth. But it's too, too easy." John choked on emotions he had kept suppressed. "I can, can, be a pony too easy. Easily. It'th too natural, I just do it, and..." John was surprised as tears flooded his eyes.

"Hey, hey, careful," Carl whispered and leaned forward to wipe his cheek dry. "They're too near, they'll see." Indeed, though the sob that forced its way out of John's throat had sounded more like a normal cough, the man on the pony ahead glanced back at them with a puzzled expression. Carl nudged John's flanks with his heels and John reflexively hurried to catch up with the tour. He blinked rapidly, trying to regain control and straighten out his thoughts. It was another ten minutes before they were comfortably far back from the other riders, and the delay gave him time to do so.

"Okay, sorry." Carl resumed whispering. "Obviously, there are a few problems. What are they?"

John sniffed and cleared his throat. "I'm sorry too, Carl. you came at... jutht exactly the wrong time, I'm all con... confuthed. But don't worry, I can handle thith for a while longer I think."

"Come on, now, John. This is important, both for you and for the investigation. Don't hold anything back on me, I gotta know."

This was exactly what John would have killed for yesterday; someone to talk to, to share his problems with. But he couldn't bring himself to talk about what had happened last night, not even to someone as close as Carl. Or perhaps he couldn't tell Carl because he was so close; he didn't want anyone who knew him from before to know what he'd done. This felt more awkward than if he'd slept with Carl's sister or something. He decided to stick to generalities. "Okay. I've been acting like a pony so well it'th not acting any more. I... uh, I thometimes go blank when I'm bored, but that'th not what I mean; I mean I want to do pony stuff. It feelth too right, and there'th no one to talk to, to, remind me it thhouldn't."

Carl patted John reassuringly on the side of the neck, quieting his plaintive concern. "It's okay, John. I came here to check for just this sort of problem; after I got the report of the last agent who was here I could tell you were in trouble. I think we should bring you back in, we've got enough-" Carl cut off abruptly, noticing that in their inattention a few of the riders ahead seemed to have noticed him speaking. They glanced back at him and he grinned nervously, giving a little shrug as if to say "yeah, I talk to horses... so?" They rode on in silence for a while, and the others' attention began to drift elsewhere.

John remained silent easily through that time, lost in thought. He really did want to go home, but 'home' was just another stable; out here at least he was accomplishing something. He didn't want to leave his job half- done. He was so close, he thought, if he could hang on for just another few weeks he might be able to... to... ah yes, find out the name of the big boss, John remembered triumphantly. But the decision was Carl's, and John wasn't going to lie to him about his state of mind.

The tour came to a rest stop, and Carl dismounted with the rest of the tourists. John briefly snagged his shirt in his teeth, and Carl leaned close; "the drop point wath in the next bit. I'll point it out ath we path." Carl nodded briefly and turned to join the others, but John tugged at his shirt again. "Are you thure I can't stay on for another week, they might-" Carl cut him off with a hand over his lips.

"The others are too near," he whispered. "We'll talk again later." John realized that he hadn't been paying attention again, and shut up. Damn, maybe I am losing enough brainpower to become a risk, he wondered miserably. He resolved to let Carl do the talking whenever possible from here on, despite his personal concerns. Closing his eyes for a moment to settle himself, John quietly nibbled at the mountain foliage with the rest of the ponies while Carl ate his lunch in the company of the other humans.

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After the restful hiatus was over, Carl and John set off again with the tour in silence. There was nothing for John to say beyond the million or so personal things he had resolved to hold back, an besides, he had absentmindedly taken up a position in the tour nearer to the middle of the line than before. This time he wished Carl had been a little more willing to control his course, as there was no way to easily get out of earshot now. But that couldn't be helped now, and with the possibility of conversation cut off John found that he could relax more easily. He could be just a normal pony again, following his route and reflexively obeying his rider's subtle nonverbal directions.

Snort! John blinked sharply; he had zoned out again, this time even with Carl on his back. It took a moment to realize what had caught his attention; the faint smell of cocaine was still present on this part of the trail from two days ago. He had almost missed the drop-off point! "Over there," he said and tossed his head in the direction of the bushes, "The, uh-" John was cut off by a sharp tug on his reins. He abruptly remembered that he was in the middle of a tour. Oops! Oh, shit...

A few of the others, including one of the guides, were all staring at Carl. "The, uh, valley out that way," Carl continued John's sentence, attempting to cover for him. "Does it have a river in it?" Carl winced slightly at his hastily-constructed question.

"Nah, more of a stream, really." The guide called back. "Why?"

"Oh, nothing. Thought I saw something glint. Heh." The guide nodded and returned his attention to the trail, but John could tell he was suspicious now. He guessed that Carl could tell, too, and silently berated himself for his impulsive exclamation. After all these weeks of successfully pretending to be a dumb animal, he had finally slipped up at the worst possible moment. At least Carl had done a good job recovering, he thought with some small relief. It was unlikely that the guide's first thought would be that John had been the one speaking.

He stayed on his toes for the rest of that leg of the tour, though. There was one more rest break ahead, and then the final stretch of the tour; he had to make sure there were no more of these slip-ups so close to the end of his assignment. It had been a somewhat successful assignment, he tried to reassure himself. he hadn't discovered much, but it was more than any normal human could have done. He had been useful.

They finally reached the next rest point a few hours later, a flat clearing halfway up a tall hill. Carl dismounted, and John headed over to a patch of particularly green vegetation; by this point in the tour he was starting to get quite hungry and thirsty, and while there was no water available he would certainly settle for a little food. But a few minutes after he began eating, a nagging sense of wrongness managed to drag some of his attention back to the tourists wandering around at the far edge of the clearing. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; they were just taking pictures and nibbling on their own little snacks. After a few more moments, though, John realized what it was. Where was Carl? One of the guides was missing too, he realized, and a cold lump suddenly formed in his belly. Forcing himself to remain calm, John nonchalantly wandered in their direction while keeping an eye on the remaining guide and straining his large ears to their limit.

There. He heard distant speech; he could identify both Carl's and the missing guide's voices. They were down the hill and through some trees, out of sight and beyond human earshot, and though he couldn't make out the words he heard a definite tension in their tone. John calmly walked back to the other ponies, keeping a careful eye on the people still in the clearing. As soon as he felt that no one was watching, he slipped out of sight and began circling through the dense brush toward the voices. He hoped his absence would take at least a few minutes to be noticed, not an unreasonable period of time in his opinion; the tourists would likely only notice if their own mounts went missing, and the remaining guide was probably watching the other tourists.

As John snuck through the brush as quietly as his bulk would allow, getting nearer to Carl and the guide, he began to make out snatches of what they were saying. His heart sank as he realized the guide was interrogating Carl; he had obviously blown it when he had pointed out the drug drop-off site, after all. On the other hand, Carl was maintaining his cover story and the guide wasn't asking anything about John himself. He seemed to know that Carl was an agent, but not that the pony he had been riding also was.

Not that it really mattered, John realized as he peered over an embankment and saw them in a small clearing. The guide had Carl at gunpoint, and the gun had a silencer; he could kill him at any time, and Carl was clearly worried that he might. John decided that he had to act and began to virtually tip-toe down the slope. The guide had his back to him, and John was by far the nimblest pony he knew of; he had speculated, in his long nightly fights with boredom and mindlessness, that this was due to leftover human reflexes and learned dexterity. But the behind it was hardly important right now. Instead he used that hidden aptitude to its maximum, climbing as quietly as possible down the slope while the smuggler continued to interrogate Carl. He saw Carl very subtly catch his eye and nod toward the smuggler; If he could just sneak within kicking distance...

But saw that he wasn't quite going to make it on time. The smuggler had obviously decided that whether Carl knew about the drugs or not, by interrogating him like this he had given away too much. "There's just the mountains to see this," he concluded as he took careful aim. "Just the rocks and the trees."

John whinnied and lunged over the final stretch between them, stealth abandoned. The smuggler turned, startled, and Carl lunged as well. Though he only had a few yards to cover, the smuggler was quick; he whipped the gun back toward Carl just as Carl jumped at him. The gun went off and Carl stumbled, gasping in pain.

John whinnied again, more like a human scream this time, and slammed into the smuggler. He literally went flying from the impact, landing with a solid thud and sliding several feet to lie motionless in the dirt. John didn't pay any more attention to him, however; he skidded to a halt and turned to Carl. He had fallen to his knees, and John's flaring nostrils picked up the coppery smell of blood through the sharp tang of gun smoke and oil. "C-Carl," he choked, restraining himself from nosing him too hard lest he knock him over.

"Shit, he shot me!" Carl grabbed John's halter to pull himself back to his feet. "Ah! Oh, right in the shin! Damn!" Then, catching his attention despite his intense concern for Carl, John saw motion out of the corner of his eye. The smuggler was no longer stunned; he was struggling to sit up and inhale, pawing desperately for the gun that he had dropped.

"Get on!" John blurted, and nudged Carl hard with his head. Carl clumsily hopped into John's saddle with another sharp gasp of pain. John didn't wait to see if he was secure; he leaped into motion, galloping off into the low trees as fast as he dared trust his footing. Carl clung tightly to his neck, hoping that John knew what he was doing.

John didn't actually know where he was going, but he got there just in time; as John scrambled around a large boulder he heard a muffled gunshot and the cursing of the still-winded smuggler they'd left behind in the dust. John kept running. The smuggler may have been too slow to catch up with him on foot in the best of times, let alone immediately after being tackled by a pony, but all he had to do was get back in line of sight for his gun to be a danger. Besides, John was scared and when he was scared instinct said to run. He ran for nonstop for somewhere between five and ten minutes, putting lots of distance between them and the tour group.

Finally, Carl had had enough. "Woah, John, woah!" he called and tugged on John's reins.

John's gallop broke into a canter. "Wh... wow," he gasped at last, still breathing heavily from his exertion. "What a rush! Oh, man!" With that he slowed to a more sedate walk.

"A rush?" Carl demanded, almost as breathless. "We nearly got killed, and the operation's in ruins!"

"Yeah," John replied, "but I haven't run in, in, weeks! I got tho thick of walking the thame... over and over, I just... oh. Carl, you hurt?" the adrenalin buzz was already starting to fade, and the situation was sinking back in.

"Maybe if you'd stop for a minute, I could check," Carl retorted. John obligingly stopped, and Carl slid carefully off of the saddle. "Ah, oh, shit that hurts!" Carl pulled up his pant leg to examine the wound, leaning on John for support. John looked at it too, wincing in sympathy and at the sharp smell of blood. "Might've chipped the bone," Carl commented unhappily. "But it looks like there isn't much bleeding. No arteries hit." He pulled out a small knife and cut some strips of cloth for a crude bandage, tying it tightly to stop what bleeding there was. "Okay," he said through clenched teeth. "That should hold me for now. What next?"

John blinked, not expecting the sudden question. "Uh, what do you mean?"

Carl waved vaguely at the landscape. "I assume you know this area fairly well, any suggestions on which way to get back to civilization?"

John hesitated. "I didn't... go off the trail much," he admitted at last. "The tour... well..."

"Swell." There was an uncomfortable silence, and then John suddenly perked up his ears. "Well," Carl continued, "if we loop back-"

"Shh!" John cocked his head slightly, swivelling his ears and straining to hear. "There's... thomeone following," he reported. "A pony, with a thaddle and thtuff."

"Oh, great." Carl struggled back into John's saddle. "The guide must've gone back for a mount, we gotta keep moving. Hya! Hya!" He flicked his reins and nudged John's flank with his uninjured leg, and John reflexively broke into motion in the indicated direction. It took him a few moments to realize his well-trained response to Carl's command and feel a slight surge of resentment, but by then he was already well under way. Carl probably hadn't been thinking, he rationalized, and now was no time to worry about politeness.

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Carl rode John for several more hours, keeping ahead of pursuit but getting even farther from civilization. They weren't able to shake him, either. Despite the danger John still had the same problems with zoning out that he had carrying riders on the tour; apparently it wasn't just monotony that caused it, after all. Carl learned to regularly check if John was paying attention, and snap him out of his daze when he didn't respond. Finally John felt he was far enough ahead of the smuggler following them to suggest doubling back and faking their trail. They struck off down a different route, down into a valley, and after another hour John reported that he was pretty sure they weren't being followed. And that he was very hungry, thirsty, and tired.

"Some pack-pony you turned out to be," Carl quipped as John eagerly trotted to the edge of a stream for a very long drink.

"You try carrying thomeone on a chathe through the mountainth after a hard day'th work!" John retorted between swallows. "And you're lucky he isn't riding me, I could thmell your blood and find your trail again easy."

Carl patted John's neck. "Police pony, all the way," he said with amusement. "FBI training and the nose of a tracking dog too."

John stepped back from the stream, his thirst satiated. That leaves only hunger and fatigue, he thought. "Could you get off me now?" he asked Carl, "I think we thhould rest." Carl agreed, and painfully climbed off. John walked beside him as he hopped over to a flat rock near by, so that he could lean on him for support. Carl sat down with a groan. John hesitated, wanting to ask for one more favor but not feeling it worthy of more inconvenience to Carl.

"Do you want me to get that stuff off of you?" Carl asked, gesturing to John's riding tack. John sighed, glad he didn't have to ask, and nodded exuberantly. "Yeth, pleathe!" Carl was clumsy from his bad leg, and not exactly experienced, but it didn't take much skill to undo buckles; just fingers. He pulled off his harness and saddle, piling them to the side, and John jogged a short distance away to graze by some bushes. Behind the bushes, actually; John realized with some embarrassment and surprise that he felt quite naked without his tack. The grooms back at the stable hadn't evoked that feeling, they were professionals after all, but around Carl...

John shook himself and focused on his meal; he had just gotten used to wearing the stuff, he reasoned. Just as he had gotten used to a rather personal rub-down after a hard day's work, so much so that he found himself missing it now. That would really feel good right now, he thought wistfully. Oh, well. On the other hand, he had been wishing for two weeks now to have someone to talk to during the evening boredom; now was his chance. John found it odd that he had zoned out more frequently during the chase when he could have talked freely than during even the most boring evening he'd spent in the stable.

"So," John asked between mouthfuls of grass, "I guess I blew the operation, huh?"

Carl was eating a meal of his own, a granola bar from his pack. "A little, I think," he replied. "But I think we might be able to salvage some of it if we get back quickly. We know that their pickup man is well-entrenched, but that also means he can't disappear instantly. We know he comes from the west, that narrows it down considerably..."

John finished chewing and swallowing another fibrous wad. "Not enough," he said somberly at last. "He's going to get away, isn't he?"

"Probably." They ate silently for a while. "But," Carl continued at last, "we can finally nail these guys at least. We've got a direct witness to their pickups now, we can take 'em to court and make it stick."

"Me! In the witness stand?" He whinnied with laughter and stomped a hoof. "'Please- please stand on the bible, do you swear to tell, to tell-' heh heh..." Carl had once again lightened his mood, he realized.

"No, seriously," Carl told him. "Legally you're just an ordinary Joker, remember. Wild Card victims are people too, even if they sometimes look just like animals. You wouldn't believe the paperwork we went through to get you a proper pedigree and rent you out and, usually undercover officers just need a fake job or something like that."

"So will I, will I need witness pro- protection?" John asked, still chuckling horsily. "Change my name from 'Daffodil' to, to... heh."

"How about 'Rosebud'?" Carl asked, grinning widely. "I like Rosebud, and it fits. Fits the flower motif, I mean."

They continued talking while John ate, Carl having finished his granola bar quickly. John felt a little bad about that, Carl hadn't packed much more since the tour was supposed to be over by now, and he could hardly offer to share what he was eating. The forage wasn't nearly as good as the grain he got back at the stable, though better than the hay.

At last it started to get dark, and Carl begged off further conversation to try to get a little sleep. Though they hadn't travelled all that far in their escape today, they didn't know exactly where they were and the nearest civilization they knew of was about half a day's travel to the west by ponyback. John felt confident of that estimate, and Carl admitted that he was the expert in that field. Carl didn't have any camping gear with him, but fortunately it was warm at this time of year so a fire wouldn't be necessary. There was also still some possibility of pursuit, so a fire would be a bad idea anyway. They found a soft, open patch of ground and Carl lay down and got comfortable; John stood next to him, keeping watch but soon drifting toward sleep himself.

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John woke suddenly, alert and nervous. It was very dark out under the stars, but he thought he heard something moving out there. He strained his large ears, trying to pick up more detail before waking Carl just in case it was nothing.

It wasn't nothing. A dark figure stepped out of the shadows right on the edge of the clearing itself, causing John to start in instant terror. It was Fleshcrawler! John was frozen in place, shaking and breathing harshly but unable to move or even call out to Carl no matter how hard he tried. He was paralyzed. His bowels voided themselves out of fear.

Fleshcrawler smiled and approached John's paralysed form. "Hello, man." he whispered. "I have caught up with you again." John's eyes rolled in panic as Fleshcrawler reached out and softly touched his nose, gently running his fingers up his forehead, stroking his muzzle. All John could do was shiver mutely. "It's okay, man," Fleshcrawler said soothingly, "I will not follow you forever. You hurt me, but I have other things to do. I wish to finish this."

At first John was too terrified to listen, desperately wanting to run with every fiber of his being but unable to get his body to move. But as Fleshcrawler stroked him an inexplicable calm began to force out the fear, and John's quivering body slowly relaxed. He still couldn't pay attention to what Fleshcrawler was saying, but now it was because of the warm fog that filled him. Fleshcrawler's touch tingled and John was filled with a sense of well- being and contentment. He eventually fell back asleep.

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John woke with a start, this time to the sound of Carl moving about and the rays of the rising sun. He was unsettled by the hazy memory of what had happened last night, but decided it was a dream and tried to ignore it until he'd finished stretching and waking up. "'Morning, John." Carl said as he rose to his feet and patted his rumpled clothing. "Sorry I woke you."

"S'okay," John replied with a yawn. "I had the oddest dream..." John trailed off noticing that Carl was staring at him with surprise. "What?"

"Your face," Carl replied. "It's different. You've got a white patch on your forehead now."

John's heart was suddenly pounding with foreboding. "Oh god," he muttered. "It wasn't a dream. Carl, quick, does anything else look different?" John stood restlessly as Carl walked around and examined him.

"No, that's the only white patch. The rest of you is still brown. Why? Do you know what happened?"

"Fleshcrawler was here last night!" John hissed urgently, on the edge of bolting. "He touched me on my face, right there. I thought it was a dream. We've got to get out of here!"

"Oh shit," Carl muttered, looking around fearfully. "What did he do?"

"I don't know, I... I can't remember," John said hesitantly. "He must have changed my markings to let me know he wasn't a dream, though. Could you get me into my saddle? We've got to go!"

Still hobbled by his injury but spurred by fear, Carl gathered John's tack and with his expert guidance quickly strapped it on him. Though the tack wouldn't exactly be modest or concealing on a human, it was be more like some sort of bizarre S&M gear in fact, right now it felt like he had just put on a fresh suit. Despite the potential danger lurking around them, when Carl climbed onto his back John suddenly felt reassured and confident again. Carl nudged his flanks with his heels, and John unhesitatingly set off at a brisk pace.

They continued for a long while at a fast but not reckless speed, Carl constantly searching for any signs of pursuit. Finally they had put enough distance between themselves and the camp site for Carl to calm down and focus on what to do next. "Okay. Where are we going?" He asked.

John snorted in surprise; he hadn't thought about that at all, he'd just started moving when Carl was ready. "I thought you were guiding me," he said.

"And I thought... never mind. Which way should we go?"

John flicked his ears, puzzled. "I don't know, it's up to you isn't it?" Something felt wrong about how he felt, he realized. "It's not my job... not my place to decide."

Carl seemed to feel something wrong with that response too and tugged John's reins, bringing him to a stop. "John... what do you mean? I want you to decide."

John stood there in confusion, trying to sort out what he'd said. "I... I can't. It doesn't feel right. Oh my god, what did he do to me?"

"I finished you," a harsh voice answered from behind them. Both Carl and John jumped and spun, to see Fleshcrawler standing behind them breathing heavily. "Do not run!" He commanded threateningly, and John felt paralysing fear briefly grip him. He realised Fleshcrawler could freeze him again like he did last night even if he tried.

"Fleshcrawler," Carl spat venomously. "What are you doing here?" John could tell he was afraid, though, and that made him very nervous.

"I followed you to find him, but you are not why I'm here. I came to... polish his punishment for what he did to me. I was distracted when I first applied it, and was sloppy." Fleshcrawler turned his attention to John himself. "You are a fucking pain, you know that? When I look for you, you've gone on a hidden stakeout somewhere. After I follow your friend until he visits you, I wait at the stable for you to return, and instead you've run off into the wilderness. I follow the other smugglers as they search to find you, but you evade them and so you evade me as well. And now you run off so quickly after waking I must chase you again, and all I want to do is to gloat now! You are fortunate I worked off my frustration on those incompetent smugglers before I found you!"

John felt flushed with anger, wondering if Fleshcrawler wanted an apology or something. But he kept his sharp retort to himself, as he didn't know how Carl wanted to handle this situation.

"Okay, so you've found him," Carl said cautiously. "What did you do to him?"

Fleshcrawler grinned evilly. "He knows. He knows that he is feeling wrong, but he feels that way all the same; he wants to be defiant, but he is subjugated and controlled. He must do what his rider wants, he lives to be a servant. He cannot control himself."

"Oh god," John whispered. "It's true..."

"John?" Carl asked him with sudden concern. "What do you mean? What's wrong?"

John looked back at him helplessly. "I... I... can't take the initiative with you up there. I can't make myself do anything!"

Carl looked uncertain for a moment, and then experimentally pulled John's reins to the right. John obediently turned in place, making a complete rotation and stopping the instant Carl let up on the reins. A tear of frustration dripped from John's eye; he hadn't wanted to do that, but what he wanted hadn't mattered. He couldn't control himself.

A look of sudden inspiration crossed Carl's features, and he dismounted. John suddenly felt nervous and incomplete; he didn't have a rider directing him. He glanced at Carl for reassurance or directives. Carl just watched him. "It's not working," John said reluctantly. "I don't like this. Please..." John choked slightly, hating himself for what he was saying "...please get back on."

Carl shook his head. "No, I want you to be able to say what you really want. Fleshcrawler!" He turned his attention away from John, leaving him to struggle with himself. "Fleshcrawler, let's discuss this a little if we can."

Fleshcrawler's grin widened. "No deals... but the illusion of hope is good punishment, too. What did you have in mind, FBI man?"

Carl swallowed nervously, thinking on his feet. "Uh, you're charged with a lot of assaults. I can't exactly offer you anything official, but... uh, if you restore John... then at least you won't have crippled a law officer. If we catch you, we'd be less likely to want to shoot you in the process..."

Fleshcrawler laughed. "You try to shoot me already, that's why he's in such bad shape! Though I did want to practice mind tricks anyways, at the time... never mind. You have nothing to offer me."

"Okay! Okay! Um... How about if I pay a ransom for his old body? Nothing official, just from me."

"No, Carl!" John objected, knowing that the offer would probably get him in deep trouble. "I can't ask you to do that..." Carl made shushing motions, and John shut up.

"So you are a close friend to offer things for him," Fleshcrawler mused. "Hm... I have an idea. Man, you are a close friend of him too?" John nodded mutely. "Perfect. Oh, I love it! You have something to offer after all, FBI man. Hope and torment! Moral dilemmas! Ha!" Fleshcrawler hopped excitedly and rubbed his hands together gleefully, almost a self-parody of a psychopath. Carl and John suddenly had sinking feelings; this didn't sound good.

"Okay, man, you will have an opportunity to be human again. You will need to make a decision; let me make sure you can..." Fleshcrawler concentrated for a moment, and John imagined he could feel a tingle in his mind. "What did you do!?" he demanded fearfully, backing a few steps away. Then he realized that although he still felt incomplete and nervous without a rider, he felt like he could actually function independently again.

"It is an incomplete respite," Fleshcrawler warned. "You are still compulsively well-trained, an obedient mount when so desired by others. But you're also capable of independent action again, at least while nobody calls upon you to fulfil your role as a riding animal. And now..." he turned to face Carl, who swallowed nervously. Then he gasped, and John watched helplessly as his body began to flow and inflate within his clothes. "N-no!" Carl grunted, doubling over to clutch his stomach, then continuing the motion as he fell to all fours. His hands reformed into hooves, his face and neck stretched forward, and short brown hair faded in all over his skin. There was the sound of tearing seams as he burst his clothes, and then Carl was a pony too. He stood there shivering and staring at himself, draped in shreds of cloth and scared out of his wits.

"Why?" John demanded angrily. "What did he do?"

By now John was sure Fleshcrawler must be having to change his own mouth structure in order to be able to grin that widely. "He has the same set of changes you do, with only one difference. I will return here in exactly one day, and then I will undo one set of changes and one only. I will try to undo the FBI man's changes first... but I will not make two ponies into humans. That gives you a way to make me not change him back, and do you instead." Fleshcrawler laughed. "Oh, I'm trying to be too enigmatic in my exposition for my own good! I'll get to the point." He walked over to Carl, who remained frozen in fear, and tore off that remained of his pants. John gasped; Carl was a female pony. And he detected a familiar scent...

"Uh oh," he muttered and gritted his teeth as he began to get aroused. Carl was in heat.

"Here's the deal," Fleshcrawler said. "If you screw her she'll get pregnant, and I'll change you back and leave her as she is. Otherwise, I'll change her back and leave you. Work it out among yourselves, if you can even control yourselves that is. I assume you know how to... implement your decision." He giggled insanely. "Don't wander off too far, I won't bother to look for you when I come back. If you're not here you both stay." Then he turned and vanished into the underbrush. John wondered if he should try following, but instead turned to check on Carl.

He... she was staring wide-eyed at John's growing erection, causing him to shift in embarrassment. She snapped out of it and spoke in a dazed voice, "My god, John. What... what's happened to me? What do we do now?"

"We wait," John said grimly. "Just stay calm and wait."

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It was a reasonable plan, but it became increasingly impractical as the time began to pass. John could control himself for now, and Carl could too, but boredom made it hard to get their minds off of each other and their arousal made conversation on other topics difficult to focus on. Fortunately they had other basic drives that also needed attention; John kept his mind focused through grazing, and tried to convince Carl to do the same. Although she was much hungrier than him, having had only a single granola bar to eat yesterday, she was understandably reluctant to eat grass. It took much coaxing on John's part but she finally gave in, but once she started it was easy to continue without thinking about it much.

But they could only eat so much, and eventually they were full. "I can't believe grass could taste so good," Carl mused as they walked together toward the nearest stream for a drink, shaking her head. "This all feels so weird. How did you learn?"

"Well, I had the Jokertown Clinic to help when I changed. But I can help too, I have experience, and you've only got to put up with it for the rest of the day. God, I'm horny." John bit his lip in embarrassment as that last bit slipped out; though he was keeping a tight grip on himself, it was hard to think of anything else.

"Me too," Carl muttered under her breath, also apparently embarrassed. They stood by the stream for a while longer. "Maybe..."

"You'd better get back to the meeting place," John cut her off. "The last thing we need is for you to miss your return ticket."

"Dammit, at least consider...!" Carl shouted, then hesitated in embarrassment. "Uh, I mean, we should discuss... the options Fleshcrawler gave."

"What are you getting at?" John asked, though he knew full well. He just didn't want to believe it.

"I mean, I did offer... to make you human..." Carl fumbled. "I don't want you to be stuck this way forever."

John was stunned by what Carl was suggesting, and more than a little unsettled. "No way. I've lived with this for months; no way am I sticking anyone else with my problem."

"But you want me, don't you?" Carl demanded.

John stared at her in shock for a moment. "The answer is no!" he nearly yelled, though during the course of the conversation he had indeed become quite strongly aroused. "And that's final. Now... now go, go up to the meeting place. I'll be up later..." Carl seemed to realize that she'd gone over the edge, in more ways than one, and reluctantly walked away from the stream. John resisted the powerful urge to follow as she slowly went out of sight, staring at her hind end as her tail kept flicking enticingly to the side...

As soon as she was gone he shook his head, uprooted his hooves from where he had dug them into the dirt, and waded into the cold mountain stream. "Ahh!" he whinnied in relief, and stood in the water for several minutes until he couldn't stand it any more. He didn't believe that Carl was actively trying to entice him, but that didn't lessen the impact any. He wondered if Fleshcrawler had jacked her sex drive up even higher than his own, but he had no way to tell for sure. All that was really important was that he had to resist for the next twenty hours or so, and that he was already on the verge of losing control.

"John? I'm sorry, I couldn't wait alone. Are you coming up now?" Carl called, walking back into view. John sighed; it looked like he'd have to stay with Carl to make sure she would be there when Fleshcrawler came back. It would be a very long day.

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There were now about sixteen hours to go, according to Carl's watch. The two had spent the last four hours repeatedly drifting closer to each other, suddenly realizing what they were doing, and forcing themselves to back off again. John had discovered himself unconsciously courting Carl several times, and Carl responding; there were apparently more subtleties to equine sex in the wild than he had experienced back in the stables. He intended to read up on the subject when he got back home.

For now, he was discovering far more about it than he wanted to. The tension was unbearable, but every time he'd tried to walk away he had been drawn back here by Carl's pheromones. Carl wasn't feeling much better herself. They tried to keep their minds on other things through conversation and mind games, but with the way the topic kept drifting John eventually let slip that he had had sex as a pony before.

Carl was surprised, but fortunately not disgusted as John had feared. He supposed that now that she was seeing things from his perspective, it was understandable. But almost as disturbing was Carl's intense curiosity. Once the subject was brought up, Carl couldn't seem to stop asking questions about it. It forced him to remember how much he'd enjoyed it, something he definitely didn't want to think about. Not now, or ever.

John's embarrassment finally managed to grind that conversation into silence, and after a while they went through another bout of unintentional courting. This time John almost mounted Carl before he realized what was happening, but fortunately when he reared up he let out a startled yell that snapped Carl out of it and sent her skittering out from under him. "Sorry," John panted, forcing himself to stand rigidly in place, "wasn't thinking."

"Me neither," Carl said, and then after a pause retracted "...actually, yes. I think I was letting it happen this time..."

John looked at him sternly. "Carl, if we... do that, you'll be stuck. I made my decision; I don't want you to let me."

Carl sighed. "I know, I wasn't thinking about that... it's just so seductive, like forbidden fruit. I could find out what it's like for a pony, and for a woman at the same time. And... I really, really want it, in my gut. It's hard to remember what the consequences would be sometimes."

John sighed, understanding somewhat. That was part of what drove him to have sex with the pony the first time, after all. Perhaps it was a good thing he had; without that curiosity now, it made this easier to resist. He'd also have lots of chances with the fillies over the rest of his life if he held back now, he thought bitterly...

John clamped down on that thought shamefully, not wanting to admit that a small part of him really wanted to simply rape Carl for his humanity. All it would take is a moment's moral weakness... that was the torment Fleshcrawler had planned, he realized; if he did it he'd spend the rest of his life knowing he'd trapped Carl in that form, and if he didn't he'd always have the nagging knowledge that he'd chosen his fate. He definitely preferred the latter, of course; regret was much easier to handle than guilt.

"You're still wearing your tack and saddle," Carl suddenly noted as if to change the subject. "Isn't it uncomfortable?"

John shook his head. "Not really. Well, the bit is a bit." He chuckled weakly at the unintentional pun. "I'd prefer to have a harness without one, I don't need it..." his humor dissipated as he realized how he sounded. He shouldn't prefer to wear a harness at all, and not just because he didn't need it to understand his rider's commands as he had been about to say. Fleshcrawler's interference with his thoughts again...

"Here, let me try..." Carl walked over to John and nipped experimentally at one of the harness' buckles with his teeth. John held still, resisting the urge to shy away; considering everything else going on, it felt too much like a kiss for comfort. "Tricky..." Carl continued worrying at the buckle for a while, and after an interminable wait finally managed to pull the strap loose. The entire harness could then be pulled off over his head.

"Whew! Thanks!" John said as he worked his jaw and tongue. "Good to have that out of there... what are you doing?" Carl had lowered her front to her 'knees', which were actually her wrists, and stuck her nose under his belly.

"Trying the saddle now," she replied. "Trust me." John reluctantly held still; his saddle felt just fine, but at least the effort to get it off helped pass the time.

As Carl nuzzled the large buckle, her mandibular dexterity reduced by the uncomfortable angle she was forced to hold her head at, John twitched nervously. His penis pushed out of its sheath again, and he realized he had to call Carl off; not only was he already too aroused to think straight, but this was terribly embarrassing. "Uh, Carl, I..."

Carl cut him off with a sudden motion, wrapping her lips around the head of his cock. "Whee-uhn!" John whinnied in surprise, and reflexively thrust into Carl's mouth; Carl's long equine jaw allowed a remarkable length to enter. Carl clamped down gently, squeezing it.

John had been caught completely off-guard, and before he could even manage to think the words what the hell!? He was already hunching over Carl's head and rapidly thrusting his way toward a climax. "Uhn! Uhn! Oh!" He grunted as it came, nearly knocking Carl over with his urgency. "Ahhh... shit!" gasping heavily, John pulled away and backed up, staring and Carl with an utterly stunned expression. "What the hell was that!?"

Carl struggled back to her feet, also breathing hard. She coughed to clear the semen from her mouth, producing a spray that went to join the large puddle John had made on the ground. "...didn't think... I had that... in me," she panted, then paused to clear her throat and lick her lips before continuing. "Sorry I tricked you."

"But why!?" John was appalled almost beyond words.

"Would you have agreed?" Carl asked. "I had to do it, I couldn't control myself much longer and you were losing it too. The tension was too much; something had to give. Do you feel any better?"

"No! What are you talking about?"

Carl sighed. "You should be less horny now, hopefully. I tried to give you some relief. Excuse me." Then she retched for a few seconds, trying to clean out her mouth. "Bleah. And some women are supposed to like this. Please tell me I didn't just do that for nothing."

John kept staring at her for a moment longer, and then said "No, I feel a little better. Jesus!"

"Well, I'm glad you liked it," Carl said irascibly. "Though I think I might be feeling a little better too. This smell...!" She bent her nose to the puddle and inhaled deeply, sighing slightly. John flushed with excruciating embarrassment. "The taste leaves something to be desired, though. I've got to get to the stream for a drink.

"Jesus!" John repeated. "You weren't gay, were you?"

Carl shook her head. "Nope, straight as an arrow. Though I'm a little confused right now, you understand..."

"Jesus... What am I supposed to do about this?"

"How about thanking me?"

"...thanks?"

"And I could use a little oral action in my nethers too, while you're at it. I feel really wet back there; that's supposed to be a good sign, for humans at least."

"I'm not going to... to..." John sputtered, flustered.

Carl laughed light-heartedly at John's discomfort, and he realized she was joking. "No reciprocation, huh? Men!" Then she turned slightly serious again. "I guess it's for the best, if you lost control back there I probably wouldn't realize until it was too late..."

John shuddered. "Yeah, I guess. Man, you are..." he shook his head, completely at a loss for words. Carl was still plain old Carl, facing the situation head on and still making jokes despite all the incredible degradation Fleshcrawler was forcing on them. She was amazing.

There were still fourteen hours to go.

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Night made things a little better. Even if the aching desire continued, it was somehow easier when you couldn't see the object of that desire. A less welcome ally came in the form of animal instincts, which were more concerned about possible predators in the unfamiliar open territory than Carl's rut. Every movement of brush or small animal startled him, making it easier to avoid zoning out. At this point, he was afraid even a short relapse into the horse's mindset would result in a pregnant Carl. John shivered, though he wasn't sure if it was with revulsion or desire.

It had been about two hours since the female had tricked him into release. The relief was short-lived, however. Either ponies were remarkable virile, or Fleshcrawler had taken steps to make sure John stayed fully charged. Standing in the cold water helped some, but became increasingly uncomfortable as his legs and hooves chilled. Remembering the euphoria he'd experienced during the chase, he had tried running around the area where they had been grazing. It was too small for him to really reach more than a fast trot, but he discovered a valuable bit of equine physiology in the process.

Horses could masturbate. The heavy sheath and foreskin around his penis provided enough friction to arouse him if he shook his hindquarters enough. Experimenting, he found that kicking out with his hind legs or rearing up pulled the coverings back along the shaft. Intense, exhausting gyrations finally brought another release of seminal fluids, and a precious hour of lessened desire. However, the exertion required couldn't be repeated much.

Poor Carl had no such relief. She (John was faintly uncomfortable how easily he had come to accept the new gender reference) had been rubbing her rump against trees, shaking herself, and even trying to twist around far enough to reach the hot opening with her tongue. More than once, John had found himself wanting to relieve her suffering. Only to push the thought away, for it wasn't the human part of his mind that was providing it.

Speaking of which... He caught her scent close by, and had to struggle against rising urges. "Carl! You're getting too close." Turning his head, he saw the female approaching him, tail up and ears forward. "Cut it out, Carl!" She halted just behind him, and then spun around to present herself. Despite himself, John caught her scent and breathed in deeply. His nose found its way to the source of the heavenly odor, and he whinnied as her vulva winked at him. John felt control slipping fast, and in desperation, clamped his teeth on the base of Carl's tail and bit down hard.

"Shit!" Carl yelled and lashed out with his hind legs, narrowly missing John's nose. "What the hell..." Her voice trailed off as she turned and saw his still-obvious response to her courting. "Oh, God. I didn't quite understand how being a horse could feel right to you. Now I know." She shook herself, and moved away from him. "I knew what I was doing, John. I didn't care about the consequences, I didn't care that it was you. It felt so normal."

John had to force back his own equine nature back before he could reply, even then forcing the words through clenched teeth. "Fleshcrawler must have regressed your mind to match mine. At least I've had some time to get used to it. You haven't had a chance to learn."

They moved apart for a while, and John tried to push the mare out of his mind by thinking about what to do next. If they could keep from succumbing to these growing needs for another half-day, Fleshcrawler would restore Carl to human form. What then? He could hardly count on Fleshcrawler's honor. And the bastard would hardly leave either one of the agents still able to come after him.

Assuming Fleshcrawler was sincere in his offer. He said he'd remove one set of changes. Of course, nothing would prevent him from using his abilities to do something worse to the 'winner.' And there was a simpler out that sent a cold chill through John's spine. Fleshcrawler could restore human form, while finishing the mental transformation to pure horse's thoughts and instincts. That would leave one of them physically an animal, and incapable of decision or action. The other would be a beast trapped in a human body.

"We can't stay here." Carl's voice made him jump. She had almost shouted from the far side of the clearing, doing her best to maintain distance. "He can't let either of us go."

What was the saying? Oh, yeah. Great minds think alike. Well, they had worked as partners for a long time. John nodded his head. "I was just thinking the same thing. All of this is just more torture for me. It really doesn't matter what choice we made. When he comes back, he'll make sure we are both out of action, permanently."

Carl snorted in disgust, and then looked at him. "Well, there's no point in waiting any longer, is there?"

Hating to give up even false hope, John sighed and nodded again. "If we leave now, we can get a good head start. I expect he'll show up early, but not until morning." He started toward the ridge where the trails met. "We've got at least 7 or 8 hours."

"That's not what I meant." Carl trotted up to suddenly, pressing her sweaty flank against John's. "I agree that we should leave, but we won't be able to focus properly until we end this."

Good old practical Carl. John wanted to argue with him, to find a way of cheating Fleshcrawler of that much of his revenge. But he was too busy convulsing over the rump of his new mate.

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Despite their urgency John and Carl kept up their efforts for a long time. Eventually, though, they managed to expend themselves very thoroughly and were left standing in an exhausted daze. On a basic level John was left with a euphoric buzz; it had been wonderful, pure and overpowering pleasure. Better even than his first time with the pony back at the stables. Perhaps it had been the long period of restraint, or the release of all his built-up stress over the decision, or the fact that it had been Carl...

John shook his head. On a higher level, he was left utterly confused. Carl was supposed to be his best friend, not his lover. John had heard many warnings about sex ruining friendships, and not only that but Carl had been male! Even though he was now a she, and John couldn't stop thinking of her as such, he somehow doubted she felt that way about herself already. John didn't even know what he himself was feeling any more, about anything.

One thing was certain, though; they were committed. Fleshcrawler had promised that Carl would stay a pony if this happened, so now she had no reason to hang around waiting for the psychopath to return. And even if Fleshcrawler really intended to keep his word about restoring John, he had decided not to try to collect his 'prize'. He just couldn't do that to Carl, to regain his humanity and leave her trapped like that. Lost in his deep and troubled thoughts, John absently rubbed his chin on Carl's back.

"John..." Carl broke into his train of thought, sounding just as thoughtful. "What're you thinking?"

"I'm thinking," John replied after a long pause, "That we'd better get moving."

"I'm exhausted."

"I know. But we can't waste our lead on Fleshcrawler, we've only got..." John leaned over and checked the watch that was still strapped to Carl's foreleg. "About 7 hours' safety margin. Woah, we wasted a lot of time..."

"I wouldn't call it wasted," Carl said. John couldn't decide whether she was joking or not, so he said nothing. Carl sighed. "All right, come on then. Let's go."

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It was too dark now to move very quickly, and besides that they were too tired to maintain a fast pace, so John found himself once again plodding through the mountains much as he had done while on the tours. There were several important differences this time, though; he didn't have anyone guiding him, the night felt alive with imagined dangers that kept his ears twitching and his senses alert, and he had a lot to occupy his mind. As a result, he found it impossible to zone out and run on autopilot despite his fatigue. For once he would probably have preferred it.

Since it was the nearest civilization they knew of, and since Carl was now in a perfect disguise, they were heading back the way they had come. From the tour trails it would be simple for John to find the way to a phone. Carl had fallen in behind John since she hadn't become as familiar with the route as he had on the way out here. At least that meant he wouldn't have to stare at her rump for the entire trip, he reflected. Every time he saw Carl, or smelled their mingled scent, he thought of what he had done and it evoked those confusing conflicting emotions...

Hours passed as they plodded silently through the brush, and John failed to lose himself even once.

Finally, as they reached a section of their route that had wider, flatter terrain, Carl briefly broke into a trot and pulled up alongside him. They continued to plod onward as Carl broke the silence and spoke.

"We've got to talk, John." She said. When John didn't immediately respond, a concerned expression crossed her face. "John? John, snap out of it!"

"I'm fine, I'm fine, I was just thinking," John quickly replied. "Sorry."

"Thank god," Carl sighed in relief. "I've been imagining what could happen if we both lost it at the same time..."

John realized that Carl sounded rather strained, she'd probably been doing a lot of worrying in silence back there. "Don't worry," he tried to assure her, "something always snaps me out of it before long, or I just drift back on my own. I imagine it's the same for you."

Carl nodded hastily. "Yeah, sorry. I'm just feeling a little insecure right now. It... it looks like..." She drew a shuddering breath and continued. "It looks like I'm going to be stuck like this for a long time. I need to know the ropes."

"Well... I've covered a lot already,"

"Yeah, but it was supposed to be just for a little while back then, and you were trying to keep it that way. I need to hear something good about this."

"I haven't really thought of things like that," John demurred. "I've endured okay so far."

"Just enduring isn't going to be sufficient forever. What are we going to do now? What if we stay like this for the rest of our lives?"

There wasn't much John could say to that, he'd tried to live one day at a time in order to avoid thinking about exactly that sort of question. Hell, he'd grabbed the disastrous undercover assignment to avoid it. But Carl had been there for him when he'd first been changed, and now it was time for him to try to return the favor if he could.

"Well, I don't really know. But I do know I probably would have gone nuts long ago if you hadn't hung around and been my friend, and I'm going to be there for you now. If you need me, of course. What I mean is..." John paused for a moment, flustered. The words seemed to be tangling in his mind even worse than they usually did. He glanced over at Carl, looking for something to break the awkward silence, and saw moonlight glistening on the moisture running down her face. John halted, deeply concerned. "Carl? What's... I mean, uh,"

Grimacing, Carl quickly shook her head and tried to shrug it off. "Nothing, nothing. Dust. Really, I'm okay," she protested, her voice sounding very strained. "Just a little tired, it's making me on edge. I'll be just fine." She sniffed and blinked rapidly for a moment, then miserably muttered "...can't wipe my eyes. Damn. You aren't buying it, are you?"

John gently shook his head, trying to appear sympathetic and calm. Inside, however, he was in a fair degree of little shock; the invulnerable, unfazeable Carl was actually on the verge of crumbling. He frantically tried to straighten out his thoughts. Carl needed his support for a change, and the last thing he wanted to do was let her down by going to pieces too. But he couldn't think of anything to say or do, and so ended up just standing there looking lost.

Carl smiled weakly at him for a second, and then shuddered and closed her eyes as a wracking sob finally forced its way past her throat. "Carl! Carl, please..." John floundered helplessly for a moment. "Please, I'm no good at this! What should I do?" Carl tried to say something, but by now it was impossible for John to make out what she meant. He tried to place a forehoof on her shoulder, and managed well enough to hold it there. Carl gratefully laid her head against his foreleg, and John stood self-consciously trying to mutter reassurances while Carl cried herself out.

At last, Carl finally spoke again. "If I hear any comments about female emotions," she said, "I'll bite your ears off." John laughed explosively as the tension was instantly released, and Carl smiled slightly. Then she sighed. "Thanks, John. I..." She trailed off uncertainly.

"It's okay. Don't worry about it; everyone has a limit somewhere. If you want to talk about it..."

Carl nodded and took a deep breath. "Yes, I think we should. Assuming Fleshcrawler wasn't lying, which is a bit of a leap but... well, assuming that's the case, then I'm probably pregnant."

"Preg-... ah, yeah." John was shaken; he hadn't thought about that at all until now, and now that he did the implications began dawning rapidly. "Holy shit, yeah..." I'm going to be a father? And Carl's the mother!?

Carl continued, her words coming in a rush; "I don't know, it's probably too early to be worrying about these sort of things, I mean, we're still stuck out in the mountains and I might not even really be pregnant, but... I don't know the first thing about being a mother." She laughed, a short bark. "I didn't know the first thing about being a father, either. I've never even babysat for anyone, and I was an only child, and now I'm a goddamned pony for crying out loud! What am I going to do?"

John thought fast, trying to think of the right thing to say. "You mean what are we going to do," he said. Carl smiled, and John sighed slightly in relief. He was quickly getting the hang of this mutual support stuff. "If you really are, uh, pregnant," he continued, "then I guess the kid's mine, too. I... well, I don't know the first thing about being a father either. But I'll do the best I can with what I've got..."

Carl looked very grateful. "You're a... good friend, John," she told him. "Thanks."

The two lapsed into silence for a moment, and John knew they were both thinking about the same thing. If we do end up having a kid together... we'll be a family. Maybe we'll even have to get married, for legal reasons at least. John shook his head. This subject felt even weirder to ponder than his transformation into a pony had; just what were the two of them now?

"Friends," he said at last.

"Mates," Carl added.

"Not lovers."

"No, not that."

They nodded solemnly in agreement. "We can work out the details when we're finally back in civilization," John said. "I'm sure there's going to be a ton of paperwork too, worse even than when I wanted to go on this assignment."

Carl sighed dramatically. "Perhaps life would be simpler all around if we didn't go back," she mused.

John looked at her askance for a moment. "Surely you don't mean that. What if we got hurt, or sick? Wild ponies have problems too."

"I wasn't serious. Sure, the idea may sound a bit romantic at first, but I'm sure it would get mind-meltingly boring out here after a while." Then she laughed. "Except for all the drug runners and psychotic supervillains running around out here, of course."

John remained serious. "I'm really sorry I got you into this," he apologized.

"I offered to make Fleshcrawler a deal, remember?" Carl responded. "That was pretty dumb."

"But I blew our cover and got us stuck out here alone with him."

"Fleshcrawler followed me to find you."

"If I hadn't gone under cover... I decided to come on this assignment in the first place."

"After I suggested it,"

"Which was only possible after I went and got myself transformed by Fleshcrawler."

"Which wouldn't have happened if he wasn't such a psychopath!"

By the final accusations, John couldn't help but chuckle despite all the fears and worries; Carl was doing it again. "...So I guess this is all Fleshcrawler's fault," John concluded. "Silly me, I never would have guessed."

"It's okay, we've both been a little distracted," Carl replied, and nuzzled John's neck.

John flinched and went rigid, the good cheer momentarily overridden.

Carl pulled back instantly. "Sorry, I didn't mean to push anything," she said worriedly. "I'm just... I guess I'm still scared. And I don't have hands."

John forced himself to relax. After all, what was a little friendly touching after what they had already gone through? "It's okay, I was just... unprepared." John said. "I understand. I've been a horse for a long time now, and I'm scared too." Carl smiled and brushed briefly against his flank, like a thankful squeeze of his shoulder. John returned the gesture. The physical contact felt reassuring.

No further words were necessary as they resumed their journey together.

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It was a few hours later that John began to feel more nervous again, increasingly uneasy and frightened of the deepening shadows. Carl also seemed skittish, he noticed. He could sense that something wasn't right, something ahead of them was vaguely threatening...

"Wait," he whispered to Carl as he came to a quiet stop. "I hear something." They flicked their ears about, trying to focus on the noise coming from the gully just ahead of them. There was a faint rasping, like something smooth sliding over the dirt, and even fainter breathing. John couldn't identify what sort of animal it might be.

"Should we go around?" Carl whispered back.

John glanced around; the terrain looked too rough for a detour to be at all easy. "Looks difficult, it'll slow us down a lot. How much time until Fleshcrawler finds out we won't be showing?"

"A few hours." From the tone of her voice, Carl seemed to prefer trying to forge on at least a little farther down this route. John was inclined to agree; if there was a predator of some sort out there, it could easily follow them. And it would probably be easier to deal with than Fleshcrawler, too.

They continued warily down the path, keeping a careful watch on their surroundings and skirting as distantly as possible any possible concealment. Then the source of the sporadic sound suddenly came into view, lying coiled in a niche at the base of a small cliff; a giant snake, at least a foot thick and with a massive head. It spotted them at the same instant, and thrashed explosively.

John reared and whinnied in fear, reflexively lashing the air with his forehooves as he backed away; Carl's whinny was somewhat more restrained, but she jumped back too. Then they got a grip as they realized the snake wasn't attacking, and in fact appeared to be in a state of panic itself too. The two of them watched, confused.

The giant snake lashed around clumsily for a while, apparently unable to propel itself effectively and giving the impression of a total lack of coordination. Then it gave up and stared balefully at the two ponies, silently working its jaw and breathing heavily. "It's trying to speak," Carl muttered once her own panting had died down enough. The snake nodded frantically, but was unable to make more than a meaningless hiss. John and Carl slowly backed away, keeping their distance.

"One of the smugglers that was following us," John said, horrified. "My god, look what Fleshcrawler did to him. It's worse than what he did to us, maybe even worse than those two grubs I found in his lair..."

Carl shook her head. "Fleshcrawler's a total lunatic, who knows what his priorities of nastiness are? Let's get out of here." John didn't argue; taking care not to let his guard down for an instant, they circled around the snake and then hurried past him and onward down the trail. The snake hissed and struggled to slither after them, but he had apparently not practised moving around much and in its desperation it became hopelessly tangled in its own coils. John tried to ignore the pleading expression the snake somehow managed to put on its reptilian face, the guy had come out here after them to kill Carl after all. Unlike most of Fleshcrawler's other victims he probably deserved this. But it was still hard.

Once they had hurried far enough past the snake that its hissing and thrashing were no longer audible even to their enhanced hearing, Carl breathlessly called for John to stop. "Woah, John, please!" she said, "I'm getting tired. I can't keep up this pace for much longer."

John himself was still feeling in reasonably good condition, even though he and Carl had both been awake and under significant stress for almost 24 hours straight now; but then, he had had a lot of exercise in his job with the tour. Carl had had a harder time of things, she must be on the verge of collapse. "Okay," he agreed, "We'll take a break in a little while. Just a little further, though; I think we should get away from that snake..." Carl nodded wearily, and they continued plodding onward at a slower pace.

Finally they reached a small brook by some bushes, and John stopped to drink and let Carl rest. John really wasn't going to object to a break himself, either. He yawned and checked the watch that still clung stubbornly to Carl's foreleg. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking, he thought to himself. His own saddle was still strapped firmly to his back, too... John shook his head, focusing his thoughts. "It's about an hour until Fleshcrawler's deadline," he reported, "it should be almost dawn soon." A glance toward the east confirmed that.

"Wow. We've been moving all day, and I'm just a little bushed. I never knew I had it in me. We're tough little ponies, all right."

John grinned, although he could tell Carl was really more than just a little bushed. "Just try it while carrying some fat, obnoxious tourist and his pack on your back," he told her. "I swear, I've never been more fit in my life."

"I guess you could say you're healthy as a..."

"Argh! No, don't say it!" John nickered with laughter. "It's your turn now to be on the receiving end of the bad horse jokes for a while."

Carl grinned back at him tiredly. "I guess it's only fair," she said. They lapsed into silence again.

"Why don't you rest a little," John said at last. "I'll climb the hill and have a look around; I think I recognize the terrain, I might be able to see the trail from here. There might even be search parties near here by now."

Carl nodded, and John started up the slope. They were hopefully getting closer to civilization now, and although he wasn't optimistic about it he wondered if they could contact an FBI patrol in time to catch Fleshcrawler when he went back to check the clearing he and Carl were supposed to be waiting in. He was supposed to be off the Fleshcrawler case now, but he certainly didn't want to pass up this opportunity. That, and it would mean he would finally be brought back into the comforts of civilization.

It disturbed John when he realized that he was primarily looking forward to was a good grooming, some high-quality fodder, and a warm, safe stall to sleep in. Even after all he had been through, he knew he should want more than that; he was a human inside, he should have more human needs. How badly had his time undercover broken him, and how much of his mindset was Fleshcrawler directly responsible for? But at that moment he reached the top of the hill and put such thoughts aside for later. He surveyed the landscape before him.

In the faint light just beginning to spill over the horizon, he recognized enough landmarks to allow himself to be reasonably confident of where they were. They were further from the trail than he'd hoped; it would take a few more hours' walk yet before they reached it, and then there was the rest of the trip back to the trailhead after that. There wouldn't be nearly enough time to reach a phone and call in an Ace Squad to deal with Fleshcrawler before the deadline. But at least the end was in sight, at least the end of this particular adventure...

John shook his head. It was nowhere near over. He was still stuck as a horse, Carl was too, and now Carl might even be pregnant with his child. He had a hard time imagining what new problems they'd have to deal with now. He didn't have any close surviving relatives that he had to deal with himself, but poor Carl... he snorted at the image of himself going to meet Carl's parents, explaining what he'd done with their 'daughter'. Carl had often spoken fondly of them, he wondered how they'd accept what had happened to him...

Sighing, John turned and trotted back down the slope. It could still all be temporary, he thought to himself; when Fleshcrawler is finally caught, we could both be back to normal. He had no way of knowing how likely that outcome was, but at least it was hope. It could keep him going. He arrived back at the base of the hill, treading more softly as he realized that Carl was already asleep. He wondered if he should wake her with his meagre scouting information, but quickly decided not to; it had been an especially tiring day for Carl, and he didn't want to disturb her. Keen senses alert to potential threats out in the lightening wilderness, John stood nearby and quickly dozed off himself.

Carl's watch beeped quietly to itself as both the deadline and the dawn passed unnoticed by the sleeping ponies.

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