When do we know that we've lost something? Is it after we've spent all of our days trying to earn our keep, only to have all that's special to us taken away before our eyes? Or is it after we've claimed something, only to have somepony else steal it from us? Does a life of pride and hard work equate to pure agony when all of that effort is laid to ruin?
Or, perhaps, we stand to lose something that is essential to us, something that makes us who and what we are. Then, someday, that part of us crumbles away, and what choice do we have but to stand back and reevaluate ourselves, wondering if we were ever made up of the substance we used to value so heavily?
I thought I had lost everything when this curse happened. And, perhaps, I indeed had. But there's something worse than loss, and I've come to believe that it's the actual knowledge of loss.
Everything dies. Of this, I am convinced. Of this, I have no doubt. But, until now, nothing had ever made that palpable to me. Nothing had ever marched in on my life—cursed or uncursed—and showed me with the pale emotionless light of truth what it means to be part of something, and then to witness that something crumbling away.
After all, the best things in life could very well be those that have been collapsing for as long as we've been alive. Can a simple song restore the gaps of us that will forever remain empty? Or can some of us—some of us who are blessed—be capable of filling those gaps with new and promising things that even death itself will tarry to drown?
“Well, I'm certainly glad you came to me for practice, Miss Heartstrings,” Twilight Sparkle said. I heard her voice slowly orbiting me. It was difficult paying attention to both her and the field of energy I was summoning above myself, but I did the best that I could to multitask. “Though this mostly takes careful concentration to master, it's not something that a unicorn can so easily learn on her lonesome.”
“I'm beginning... to understand... just how difficult... this is...” I struggled to utter.
Her voice giggled. It should have been distracting, but it only made my heart jump. “You're straining too hard,” she said. “This isn't a telekinetic spell. Protection buffs are all about summoning magic fields to do the hard stuff for you. You don't need to put all of your strength into it. The key is to relax.”
“Relax?” I stammered, feeling all four knees wobbling beneath me. “Relax how?”
“Well, for one, you don't have to keep your eyes shut like that.”
I took a deep breath. Carefully, I opened my lids. A foggy library came into focus, in the center of which was Twilight's smiling face.
“There. Isn't that better?” My foalhood friend said with a pleasant tone as she stood before me. “There's no need for you to be inflicting so much stress on yourself. You've already opened the necessary channels to your leylines. Take slow breaths and allow your horn to do all the rest.”
I gulped and nodded shakily. “Okay, Miss Sparkle.”
“Heehee... Call me Twilight.”
“Okay, Twilight...” I managed a weak smile. My eyes twitched under the mint-green glow emanating directly out of my forehead. I couldn't help but feel nervous. My special talent was in music. Sheer magical strength just wasn't my forte, and yet here I was in the middle of Twilight's domain, attempting to cast a low grade protection spell.
As a matter of fact, much of my life since the curse began has consisted of me forcing myself to exercise magical feats that I would never have considered attempting before. Until I came to Ponyville, the most I ever used my horn for was floating small objects around the house or strumming my lyre. With each progressive month spent in that town, I've found myself lifting logs to build a cabin, casting light beams to illuminate the world at night, sparking flame to light a fireplace, and—of course—performing enchanted symphonies that flung my entire world upside down.
To say that I needed a magical tutor was an understatement. It's funny how I never once thought of asking for Twilight's help for more than just identifying the lunar elegies. I suppose I've always felt like I'd be troubling her unnecessarily, regardless of whether or not I was a stranger to the young mare. I soon realized, however, that I was treating my foalhood friend with kid's horseshoes. She was no longer the little filly that I used to hang out with in the streets of Canterlot. She was an adult—and much more than that, she was the most gifted magical unicorn in the entire town of Ponyville. Of course she'd be more than capable of helping a stranger such as myself learn new things, regardless of the impromptu nature of such imposing requests. I felt bad for underestimating her—not just for her gifts—but for her capacity for kindness and generosity.
“I can't tell if I'm doing it or not,” I murmured, still sweating a bit. “Can you tell if it's working?”
She smiled and merely pointed a hoof over my horn. “See for yourself.”
Gulping, I glanced upward. My eyes blinked upon registering a thin sheet of emerald energy stretched above me like a glowing tarp. It was as if a dome of pure light had been erected just above my figure. Every time my heart beat, I could see rivulets of magic surging through the luminescent structure.
“Huh...” I managed. “Well, if that isn't cute.”
“It's remarkably well maintained!” Twilight exclaimed, gazing at the translucent dome as she paced around me. “Especially now that you've decided to relax just like I told you.” She paused and gave me a sly glance. “Are you sure you haven't practiced this before, Miss Heartstrings?”
I smiled back at her, still trembling slightly with the concentrated effort. “Trust me, Twilight. If I knew I could learn so much from you in one go, I would have visited this library sooner.”
Truth is, I had visited her three times already, all in the same week. I had learned fifteen more chords to the Eighth Elegy, and it dawned upon me that I'd never be able to play it if the “Threnody of Night” would just knock me unconscious and teleport me somewhere at random. If I had any hope—any hope whatsoever—of performing all of Princess Luna's forgotten instrumentals, then I would have to master the art of magical buffs in order to protect myself from the many mysterious side effects that the symphony might afflict me with.
“I almost wish you would visit me more often.”
Twilight's comment there startled me. I almost broke concentration as I flashed her a surprised glance. “What...?”
“Well, what I mean is...” She rolled her eyes at herself and clarified, “I wish that unicorns in general would visit me more often so I could help them with their magical abilities. I used to be a tutor back in Canterlot, assisting younger students in Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. The look on so many ponies' faces when they gain control of their talents is absolutely priceless. Working here in Ponyville, I've been busy doing historical research and science experiments. I've not really had the chance to assist others with magic like I used to.”
“Well, I am... glad to have... given you an opportunity,” I managed to say, my knees shaking as I felt a sharp pain pulsing against the tip of my horn. “Nnnngh!”
“Shhh—Stay calm...” She rushed over and stood a breath’s distance from me. “Breathe in and breathe out. You're encountering mana feedback along your leylines. It'll pass. Just focus on the protection spell, and soon it'll maintain itself.”
I gulped, fought a few more waves of pain, and came through the brief storm with a relaxed breath. “Whew... It really is like stretching muscles, huh?” I gulped and produced a weak smile. “Invisible muscles...?”
“The more you practice it, the better you'll get, I promise.” She said. “You're already doing a lot better than most novice practitioners of magic. If I didn't know better, I'd say you have an untapped gift in navigating your horn's leylines.”
My eyes darted towards the sea of books lining the cases around us. I imagined the earthen walls of my cellar instead. My ears twitched with the twenty-five chords of the Eighth Elegy. I felt a wave of chills, but bravely fought them away as I spoke, “Well, the way I see it, it's never too late to learn things that just come to you naturally...” I gulped. “Or supernaturally.”
“Long ago, Princess Celestia taught me that there's an essential balance between the visible world and the invisible,” Twilight said. “The realm of magic is like a mirror to the realm of physicality. They both reflect the same image. The light of the universe shines on each realm evenly. After all, sorcery is all about equivalent exchange. The fact that we're here—in the flesh—means that we are just as capable of expressing ourselves through mana and energy. It's not a matter of whether or not unicorns can find their ethereal talents, but a matter of when.”
“When did you find that connection, Twilight?” I asked, though I felt I already knew the answer. “Was that how you got your cutie mark?”
She smiled gently, her eyes caught in a distant thought. “Long ago, my horn produced a spark, and I discovered my talents. But—no—I do not believe that is when I made the connection. Years later, when I came to Ponyville, I discovered a spark of a different kind, and that has mattered more to me than all my years of exercise and research combined. You see, Miss Heartstrings, being connected to the realm of magic means nothing when you're blind to the connections you can make in the plane that you're currently residing in. Such attachments are far more challenging to make or maintain, but they're a great deal more rewarding, I've come to believe.”
I took several deep breaths. I was just then starting to relax, or at least in the manner she had so desperately coached me to. “No wonder everything comes naturally to you, Twilight. You seem to really have it together.”
“Heehehee... Well, I try. But I'd much rather see you and other unicorns achieve that same harmony, which is why I'm starting this new project for Cheerilee's school.”
“Oh? Like what kind of a project?”
Before she could answer, a familiar purple figure waddled into the room. “Nnngh... Okay, I got the bucket of water, Twilight,” Spike grumbled, using all his might to maintain the weight of the wooden container in his scaled arms. “Would you care to remind me just why I fetched this from the well out back to begin with?”
“Spike? Didn't I explain it to you ten minutes ago?!” Twilight frowned and pointed towards a ladder leaning against the far wall of the library. “We need that water for Miss Heartstrings' protection spell lesson!”
“Miss who?” Spike made a face, glancing at the bucket in his grasp as if it was a sea mine.
“Hey there, handsome,” I said, struggling to add a wink.
“Oh! Uhm, hello. Dig the swell hoodie!”
“Ugh...” Twilight rolled her violet eyes. With a flick of telekinesis, she dragged the ladder over so that it stood beside me. “I swear, Spike, it must be something I feed you. Your ears are getting clogged up.”
“I've been staying away from the fatty diamonds! I swear!”
“Don't worry about it, Spike. Just climb up the ladder and wait for my signal.”
He awkwardly ascended the wooden rungs, balancing the bucket on one aching wrist. “I don't get it. What are we doing? Don't we need Rainbow Dash around to pull a prank on somepony?”
“Spike, we used to do this in Canterlot, remember? It's how I learned to master the protection spell myself.”
“Yeah, but at least the Princess was around to levitate the stupid bucket.”
“We can afford to live without Her Majesty's magical luxuries, don't you think?”
“Easy for you to say, Miss Horn-head.”
“What was that?”
“Erm... N-nothing!” He stood above me with the bucket of water. “Ready to pour!”
“Uhm...” I bit my lip and glanced—sweating—at Twilight. “Is this part of the plan? I swore I came here to do a magic lesson, not participate in a wet mane contest.”
“Just relax and focus on your spell, Miss Heartstrings.” As Twilight spoke, she smiled and effortlessly erected a lavender wall of energy in a circle around me, like the bottom to a telekinetic, cylindrical bathtub. The ease with which she shot her beams of magic filled me with instant awe... and envy. “Though this is just a low level buff, it should be more than enough to... well... keep you dry.”
“But what if I-I fail to maintain the energy field?”
She chuckled briefly. “Ohhhhh I seriously doubt you'll want to do that.” She cleared her voice and glanced up at her assistant. “Spike?”
“Yeah, okay. Here goes.” He tilted the bucket directly over my head.
I resisted the urge to wince. My eyes squinted instinctively, but to my delight the water did not splash into my face. Instead—as soon as the liquid made contact with the emerald dome—it went in all directions except down. A ceiling of levitating liquid collected in a magical pool above me. The protection spell was working. The energy from my horn resisted the trickling currents of well water. I couldn't help but exhale in wonder. This was a great deal easier than trying to push water away with telekinesis. All I had to do was maintain the shape of the dome, and the energy field did the rest of the work. I never once dreamed before coming to Twilight that I'd be anywhere near capable of performing a feat such as this. I immediately started wondering just what other elements this spell could ward off, and just how severe...
“You're doing it, Miss Heartstrings!” Twilight exclaimed in delight. She paced about as she watched the water trickling around me like rainwater cascading down the edges of a transparent umbrella. Her lavender telekinesis collected the water at my hooves and kept it from spreading to the valuable contents of the surrounding library. “I must say, your speed of mastery is amazing! Keep this up, and you can learn a mid-level protection spell in no time! You could go trotting along the bottom of a lake and not even get wet!”
I managed a breathy chuckle of my own, gazing in happy shock at the water sloshing just inches from my nose. “You don't say?” I gulped and uttered impulsively, “And what about a blizzard? Could I survive a plunge into a frozen lake?”
It was Spike, of course, who retorted at such absurdity. “Uhm... Lady? It's the middle of August. Why are you so concerned about a blizzard?”
I winced. Before I could manage a witty reply, there was a sharp knock on the door.
Twilight shouted over her shoulder, “Library's open! Come in!”
Bright light flooded the room as the front entrance flew open. A pale figure glided in, carried by the sheer melody of her joyous voice, “Well, batten down the hatches! Cuz things are about to get loud and crazy in here, girl!”
Every artery in my body pulsed with one single leap of my heart. My eyes twitched. The world blurred. And my protection field...
I could no longer feel it. As a matter of fact, I could no longer feel my horn. I could feel nothing but water. I was doused from mane to tail, soaked all the way through to the bone as my concentration shattered like an ice sculpture. The shock of the severance from my leylines and the force of my breath being shot out my freezing lungs were nothing compared to the waves of amazement surging through my mind. I collapsed in the middle of Twilight's telekinetic field, blinded by a mat of gray mane hair falling like a bathroom curtain over my eyes.
“Oh dear! Miss Heartstrings!” Twilight's voice exclaimed, though the breath had a trace of shameless amusement to it. “I'm so... so sorry...”
“Holy guacamole!” Spike exclaimed from somewhere above me.
“Oh shoot! I had no idea you were tutoring magicians, Twilight!” The familiar voice came closer. I smelled the scent of vanilla perfume. I saw the bright streets of Canterlot against my shivering eyelids. “I thought those days were long behind you!”
“Well, just because I'm not a teacher like you doesn't mean I can't lend my talents from time to time.”
“Seriously, Twilight, if you lent any unicorn your raw, unfiltered abilities, her head would explode. We're lucky this mare got doused with water and not her own brain fluids.”
“Oh please...” Twilight giggled awkwardly.
“Heehee... Hey there, uhm... I'm really sorry for that.” She was right in front of me. I reached a blind hoof out, and she caught it in a warm forelimb. Before I knew it, she was parting my mane hair with pale telekinesis. Through a wet world, the first thing I saw was her violet eyes, framing an alabaster smile. Every detail made my heart beat faster: her white coat, her violet-streaked red mane, her crescent moon cutie mark be-speckled with tiny stars. “I should know better than to walk in on Twilight Sparkle here without warning. This one time, she nearly set her parents' drapes on fire. Hey, Twi, you remember that? That was the week before you were taken to Celestia's palace, wasn't it?”
“H-hey! Stop it! I try my best to forget that!”
But I couldn't have forgotten that. I couldn't forget anything. And her face...
“Moondancer...?” I stammered.
She gave me a double glance, and then a smile. Her smile.
“I... I...” I wanted to hug her. I wanted to collapse. I wanted to faint and wake up all at once. Then came a shiver, and I remembered something that was far more real than this precious moment. “I... uhm...” I gulped. “I sat behind you in Canterlot Preparatory School, Fifth Grade.” It was the truth, for one of us, at least. “You went on to... to major in education and sociology.”
“Huh... Small Equestria, huh?” Moondancer smirked. There was an immortal glint of mischief and curiosity in her eyes. I felt like a foal once again and I wanted to melt in her smile. “I can't say your face rings a bell, Miss...”
“Lyra,” I breathed. I realized that it must have sounded like a whimper. So I gulped and forced my soaked lips into a smile. “Call me Lyra, Moondancer.”
“Well, Lyra, I apologize for not recognizing you.” She rolled her violet eyes. “But even Twilight here can tell you that I was never really all that much there in my school years. If it weren't for my extra-curricular points, I swear, I don't know how I would have made it to tenth grade without trotting off a sheer cliff!”
“I recall things pretty well, Moondancer.” Twilight smiled as she gathered the spilled water and levitated the liquid globe back into Spike's bucket. “Funny that you decided to become a teacher, huh?”
“Grrrr!” Moondancer spun and galloped straight towards her. “C'mere, you!”
“Eeep! Heeheehee!” Twilight flinched, only to be engulfed in a hug instead of a tackle. She and Moondancer happily nuzzled each other before sharing a friendly gaze. “It's so nice to see you again, Moondancer. I'm frankly surprised you responded to my letter as quickly as you did.”
“And just why is that? Huh?” Moondancer stuck her tongue out. “For Luna’s sake, Twi! I’m a teacher now! I know the value of getting to papers on time! I treat letters all the same!”
“Yeah, well,” Twilight said with a chuckle. “You still surprised me” She briefly hardened her gaze. “And don't use Princess Luna's name in vain like that. Nightmare Moon has been driven out of her spirit now. She deserves more respect.”
“Heh. Less than two minutes in, and I’m already getting grilled.” Moondancer winked playfully. “Oh Twilight... You're still the same adorable little historian I loved hanging out with.”
“Yeah, well, I'm trying to loosen up these days.”
“Try harder! Heck, I'll help ya, girl! Where does a couple of old filly-friends go to party around here?”
“Hahaha—Moondancer!” Twilight protested, all the while giving me an embarrassed side-glance. “That wasn't why I asked you to come to Ponyville!”
“Yeah, yeah. We can get to the project later. I just arrived, Twi!” Moondancer groaned and slumped her saddlebags off her back, tossing them like a sack of bones in the middle of the floor. “My hooves are positively aching!”
“I thought you took the train here.”
“And then I had to trot clear across Ponyvania!”
“Ponyville!” Twilight smirked. “And if you so much as plan to spend one week here, much less three, then the first thing you're gonna have to lose is the Canterlot affinity for little exercise. Trust me. I've been here a year and a half and still I'm struggling to flex my muscles.”
“Hey, if there’s anything I do best on my vacations off, it’s stretch muscles that haven’t been stretched in a while.” Moondancer trotted over to a bench and slumped down. Her eyebrows wagged as she said, “If Ponyville is anything like Las Pegasus, I should have no problem whatsoever, catch my drift?”
“Heeheehee... I don’t know if I want to,” Twilight replied with a wink. She turned around. “Spike? Would you mind grabbing Moondancer's bags?”
“Yeah yeah, this is sure bringing back memories,” the dragon muttered as he placed the water bucket down and marched over towards the discarded saddlebag. “I thought my bellhop days were over.”
“And what a cute little waddle you have when you play butler, green-spines.”
“Ugh! Moondancer, don't call me that!”
“Heehee... C'mere, Spike. Give Auntie Moonie a hug. That's what you used to call me when you were an infant. Remember?”
“Ew! I did not!”
Twilight giggled. “Yes you did, Spike. I was there...”
“Whatever. Enough of this mush. Let's just get this hug over with so that I can get back to my chores.”
“Awwww, Spike...” Moondancer nuzzled him as they joined briefly in a close embrace. “Is Twi still working your scales off?”
“No more than usual. At least there are more gems to chew on around here than in Canterlot. I swear, Ponyville was built on top of a diamond mine.”
“Then I guess you won't be wanting any of the mountain sapphires I brought with me.”
“C-Canterlot Mountain S-Sapphires?!” Spike exclaimed, wide-eyed. He regarded the bags in his grasp with sudden excitement. “The ones with quartz sprinkles?! Did you really bring some?!”
Lavender energy encased the saddlebag and lifted it from his suddenly greedy grasp. Twilight cleared her throat and produced something halfway between a smile and a frown. “Dessert can wait, Spike. Aren't you forgetting something?”
Twilight opened a nearby cabinet and floated a white towel out. She hoofed it to him and motioned towards me with a smirk.
Spike bit his lip. “Oh, right.” He marched towards me, making a face. “How come I'm suddenly the one who's 'forgetting' about our guest?”
“Moondancer's here. At least I have an excuse.”
“Whoahhhh-Girl!” Moondancer giggled and nuzzled Twilight again. “Maybe you have changed after all.”
“Heh... I'm just really glad to see you, Moondancer.” Twilight nuzzled her back, smiling warmly. “It feels like an eternity.”
“And how! Yeesh... Twilight Sparkle: vanquisher of Endless Night and Dragon Slayer! Just how do you manage?”
“I haven't slayed any dragons! That one that I wrote you about, the dragon who was perched up above Ponyville: he was talked into leaving, and that was all my friend Fluttershy's work.”
“You friend, huh? I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but you should tell me all about these friends of yours, Twi. I swear, this is like visiting a distant cousin only to discover she's got the pony pox.”
“Haha—What? I think it's really spectacular, girl! Next thing I know, you'll have sprouted wings and begun moving mountains! I always suspected you were secretly an alicorn beneath that gorgeous lavender coat. It would certainly explain a lot, wouldn't it?”
“Yeesh, Moondancer. Do you ever switch off your insanity?”
“Only when I'm failing my students' papers.”
“Heheheh—Ohhhh I forgot what it felt like to have you around.”
“If you ask me, you could do with a few more doses. But let's talk about something else. I think we're scaring your guest mute. Heeheehee—Ahem. Sorry to just drop in like this Miss... Lyra, was it?”
I was beside myself. I felt like a numb shell of a pony. This whole time, I didn't care how soaked I was. I could have stood and listened to this scene forever. When Spike came to me with the towel, it was like a ghost was handing me a shroud from beyond a bizarre dream. I took the article and eagerly dried my face. It was more than bucket water that I had to contend with. Several seconds passed since I last heard Moondancer's voice. I sniffled once, twice, and made sure my face was good and dry before gazing at her with the bravest of smiles.
“Please. Don't... uhm... Don't mind me.” I bit my lip and fought to keep my voice from cracking. “By all means, you two should catch up.”
“And I know just the place to do it too!” Moondancer beamed, glancing at Twilight. “The mare next to me on the train spoke of this delightful little place called Sugarcut Quarter.”
“Sugarcube Corner,” Twilight corrected. “And I'd be more than happy to take you there.”
“Oh, please!” Spike chuckled. “I have to wait on eating delicious sapphires, and you two get to go gorge yourselves at the local cupcake repository?!”
“Give us a break, Spike!” Moondancer chuckled. “Us girls have a lot of work cut out for us over the next three weeks!”
Twilight added, “You can enjoy Moondancer's gift whenever. She and I, though, will be racking our brains on this project until it's finished. So, it's Sugarcube Corner or bust!”
Moondancer once again interjected, “Plus, sexy fillies can never run out of sugar and spice!”
Twilight face-hoofed and groaned. “I swear, I don't know how I'm gonna survive you for more than five days.”
“Heehee! It only hurts cuz you miss me, girl!” Moondancer jumped back up to her hooves. “So, are we going or—?”
“We have to stop by the Ponyville bank first.”
“Ew. Boring. What for?”
“Because!” Twilight gestured wildly. “I thought you wouldn't get here until tomorrow morning! I just bought a gift for my friend Applejack yesterday.” She gnawed on her lip in embarrassment. “I'm currently empty-saddlebag'd!”
“Hah! Why do I get the feeling that I'm going to have to hoof out bits for you... again?”
“What do you mean 'again?'”
“You remember all of those trips to Doughnut Joe's as a kid...”
“Hey! You volunteered them!”
“Only because you looked so adorably famished in those days! All the books you were reading—I'm surprised you got time to stuff anything edible down your throat!”
“You make it sound worse than it ever was...”
“Do I? When was the last time you ate today?”
“Egads, Twilight! I'll be forcing you to munch on stuff all week, aren't I? Haha—If I had known ahead of time, I would have brought a queen's fortune!”
“Moondancer, for goodness' sake—”
Both mares looked at me, blinking. “Huh?”
My lips quivered. I swallowed a dry lump down my throat and smiled. My muscles shook inside my suddenly frail frame. “I'll treat you. Both of you,” I said in a warm little voice. “Let's... Let's go to Sugarcube Corner together. We can talk about... about...” I gritted my teeth, struggled, then produced, “About this project that you two are working on. I'm... uhm... I-I'm really, really intrigued. I wanna hear all about it.”
“Miss Heartstrings, I feel so terribly rude as it is,” Twilight said, blushing slightly as she glanced between her friend and a phantom stranger. “I was just so excited that you came to me asking for a magic lesson, I didn't even think to consider that my friend might be arriving a day early. I can't possibly ask you to do something like that, especially after... eheh... our little experiment got all wet...”
“Pssst...” Moondancer pretended to whisper aside at me. “Do it, filly! She needs more cinnamon sticks in her belly!”
“Will you cut it out?!”
“No... Really...” I trotted towards them, afraid I would collapse on the razor edge of their bright gazes. “I mean it. I'd like to treat you. Who cares if I got a little wet behind the ears or not?” I smiled brightly. The image of the two fogged briefly, then returned to clarity in a blink. “Trust me. This... This has been the highlight of my day.” I gulped. I wanted to say “week,” “month,” “year,” even “life.” But I couldn't do anything drastic. This bubble of a moment was a million times more fragile than a protection sphere, and I was terribly afraid of bursting it. “Let's go eat and chat somewhere... like fr-friends do.” I winced slightly at the last utterance, for it sounded to me like a mewling kitten's. I was horrified that they wouldn't look past it.
Twenty minutes later, we walked into Sugarcube Corner together. I felt like I was gliding on a cloud. Moondancer didn't stop talking. Twilight didn't stop nodding. I had both a headache and a heartache all at once.
I didn't want it to end. Ever.
“Whew, look at this décor!” Moondancer rolled her eyes over every bright, pastel shape of the eatery's interior. “It looks like Sapphire Shores turned diabetic and vomited all over an architect's drawing table.”
“Shhh!” Twilight hissed, blushing furiously. “Mrs. and Mr. Cake are just over there! They might hear you!”
“Mrs. and Mr. ‘Cake?’ Seriously? Is the post office managed by a pony named ‘Stamp Licker?’”
Twilight started growling. I found myself interjecting almost naturally. “You haven't been around many earth ponies, have you, Ms. Moondancer?” I smiled.
She sighed as we found a table in the front to sit at. “I've met my fair share in Fillydelphia. But don't get me started on the rural names there. They'd make a sailor blush... heheh...”
“You'll find that most earth ponies around here have simple titles, but their hearts and minds are as complex as any Canterlot soul's,” I said proudly.
“Why, Miss Heartstrings, that intrigues me,” Twilight remarked. “Today's the first time I saw you. Do you mean to say you're a resident of Ponyville?”
“I gotta say, I love the name 'Heartstrings,'” Moondancer said with a grin. “Tell me, girl, do you play music or do you teach?”
“Heh. I could never learn enough to feel comfortable as an instructor,” I replied to her. I gulped and then gazed at Twilight. “Nor have I mastered my talents enough to be anything famous, which is probably why you've never heard of me.” I sat directly in the middle of the two. It felt as natural as natural could be. This miraculous moment was threatening to slip away, gathering speed with each concrete-shattering heartbeat. All the scents of foalhood wafted up to me at once. I wanted to savor it as best as I could. “But let's not talk about me. You two obviously haven't seen each other in a while. Feel free to chat as much as you like.”
“Oh, girl, don't tempt me!” Moondancer grinned wide while Twilight giggled. “If I get started about Fillydelphia and my students and all the crazy city morons I have to deal with, you'll yawn that golden cutie mark of yours clean off!”
“Heehee...” Twilight Sparkle caught her breath and said, “Is it true that you foiled the fourth attempt in a row by your class to pull a practical joke on you?”
“Students pulling pranks on a teacher?!” I made a face. “That sounds horrible.”
“For them, maybe!” Moondancer winked. “Just a few days ago, before I boarded the train, they plastered transparent paste over my chalkboard. Well, I always come into class early, and I saw their attempt to trap me the first moment I wrote on the board. So I got some adhesive of my own and I applied it to their seats before roll call.”
Twilight snorted, covering her face with a hoof as her eyes went wide. “Good grief!” her voice came out muffled. “What became of that?”
“Hmmm... Let's just say that it took more than a slip of paper to keep them sitting in class for detention.”
Twilight giggled. “I don't know how you can stand such delinquents! I'd lose my temper in a day!”
“I don't see it as a matter of disrespect,” Moondancer said with a devilish grin. “If anything, I'm helping them be creative. They're always inventing new and crazier tactics. It’s quite amazing, really. I always out-smart them, of course. I think they just do it to see how I'll best them next.”
“But does it ever go too far?”
“You gotta ask them. Last I checked, three of the colts had to wear trunks.”
“In the middle of urban Fillydelphia? What for?”
“Cuz they got stripped of all coat hairs on their rumps! Why else?! The wrath of Moondancer knows no boundaries!”
Our laughter was a delightful chorus, an encore to years that I thought would forever be lost to me. When Mrs. Cake shuffled over, I was so light-hearted I felt I would faint before making my order.
“Well, if this isn't a merry bunch!” Mrs. Cake beamed. “Good afternoon, Miss Sparkle! Are we having ourselves a little reunion here?”
“You can say that again!” I heard myself speaking up. But before I could add anything else—
“This is my good friend from my foalhood, Moondancer,” Twilight remarked. “She's come to visit and help me with the curriculum I have planned for Mrs. Cheerilee's after-school program.”
“Yessirree!” Moondancer wrapped her forward limb around Twilight and Twilight alone. “It's the two mistresses of mana, galloping together again! Hey Twi-girl, you remember those days we used to pretend to be Celestia and Luna going on adventures?”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “How could I forget. You kept pretending that the moon could swallow the sun.”
“Hah! And wasn't that fun?”
“It was also scientifically inaccurate! I spent an entire week trying to convince you that eclipses become visible as a matter of light projection and depth perception—”
“Needless to say, she needs me here to get her to loosen up a bit,” Moondancer said. “But so far all we've managed to do is tease Spike and get Lyra's mane wet here.”
“Seriously, it’s all... in the past,” I said in a soft breath, feeling like the lone satellite that I was. Clearing my throat, I summoned a smile once again and looked Mrs. Cake's way. “I'd like to order me and these delightful mares some of your finest sundaes.”
“Oh, that is more than doable, hun!” Mrs. Cake sat on her haunches and used her front hooves and teeth to sketch on a notepad. “Mmmff—Ahem. And what flavors would they be?”
“Chocolate,” Twilight said.
“Vanilla!” Moondancer chirped like the foal she once was.
I glanced at them, took a warm breath, and gazed at Mrs. Cake again. “A little bit of both.”
“Done, done and... done! You three just sit and relax and I'll be back with your orders. Nice as always to see you, Miss Twilight!”
“Same with you, Mrs. Cake. How's Mr. Cake doing by the way?”
“He finally got out of bed this morning. He's no longer dizzy. So, that's a good sign, at least. I'm sure his head will stop aching soon. Anywho, I'll be back shortly!” She trotted off.
Moondancer blinked at Twilight. “What's wrong with her husband?”
“Oh, uhm. He slipped and fell a few weeks back. Turns out Pinkie Pie accidentally left a mess of spilled cake frosting on the kitchen floor while trying to make Applejack a birthday treat.”
“Oh jeez, I can't even imagine the two of you meeting!” Twilight practically gasped. “I'm not sure the world could contain that much energy in one place at once!”
“Hey, I'll accept that as a challenge!” Moondancer's eyes grew thin and mischievous. “'Pinkie Pie', huh? I bet she's never almost burned her family’s apartment down by baking fireworks, thinking they were candy canes.”
“Oh my heavens, I forgot all about that!” Twilight snickered. “I could hear the explosion from my house two blocks away!”
“My father almost rung my neck!” Moondancer exclaimed.
“Yeah!” I giggled helplessly. “He made you repair the damage at age ten. Heeheehee! But you made a game out of it by pretending the holes in the wall were secretly a tunnel being dug to Foal Knox!”
Moondancer and Twilight both blinked at me. Their smiles faded under a suspicious squint.
“How in the heck would you know about that?”
I gnawed on my lip. I fidgeted with my hoodie's sleeves, gulped, and pointed over my shoulder with a shivering hoof. “Twilight's... uhm... Twilight's dragon assistant! On the way out, he... uh... he mentioned it. You girls must not have heard him...”
“I thought you said you were gonna do something about his penchant for gossip,” Moondancer smiled at Twilight.
“He's still a baby dragon, Moondancer. You can't expect him to learn everything overnight.”
“But you can expect to teach him everything, huh? Which is why you hauled his purple scaly butt all the way to Ponyville.”
“Who else does he have to hang out with in Canterlot?”
“The same could be said about you, girl. Just how did you go about your metamorphosis?”
“Five new friends in a year! You're suddenly Miss Socialite! You kind of have me jealous!”
“I wrote you all about it over the last few months!. Why's it such a big surprise?”
“On top of all the letters you write to Celestia, I'm surprised your hoof doesn't fall off.”
“What? I'm happy for you, girl!” She grinned. “Doesn't my face just drip with joy?”
“It's dripping with something, alright.”
“Oh hush.” She stuck her tongue out. “It's enough that I have to force myself to forget that we'll be muzzle-deep in boring planning and outlining this time tomorrow.”
“Your help will be priceless, Moondancer. I can't thank you enough...”
“Then don't. You'll make my ears bleed.”
“Just what is this project you're both working on?” I asked, happy to be out of firing range from their inquisitive stares. “I keep hearing about it...”
“Well, Miss Heartstrings, we have a one-room school on the edge of town, managed by a very kind and giving teacher named Cheerilee,” Twilight explained. “There aren't that many children in Ponyville. Still, that doesn't make her job here any easier. She's having to juggle several different ages and intelligence levels all at once, while still giving the same curriculum.”
“No easy feat, lemme tell you.” Moondancer rolled her eyes. “I had to teach a one-room school for two years outside the city limits of Oatslando. That was not fun. If the students there played practical jokes—heck—it'd involve alligators and a crapload of pine cones.”
“Ahem,” Twilight regained control of the conversation. “Well, ever since Nightmare Moon was defeated, there's been a renaissance of sorts in the quest for magical knowledge across Equestria. Many unicorns such as myself have moved from the major cities to the outlying villages to perform studies and experiments. As a result, there're twice as many unicorn children in Ponyville this year than there were last year. Magical ponies aren't as scarce a minority around here anymore, and it seems a shame to me that there isn't a special class of magical instruction catering to their gifts.”
“I hear this 'Cheerilee' is an earth pony,” Moondancer said. “As horrible as it sounds, when it comes to teaching magic, she could use a little bit of a helping hoof from those with horns that do more than honking.”
“I imagine she's tried her hardest to teach unicorns on her own,” I remarked. I had, in fact, met Cheerilee on several occasions. I couldn't fault Moondancer for not knowing how intelligent and resourceful the local teacher was up close. Still, Cheerilee was only one pony, and she had no horn to perform magical experiments with. “Where exactly do you two come in?”
Moondancer smiled. “It was Twi's bright idea here to set up a study course of our own, but one that could be as equally informative to earth ponies and pegasi as it is involving with unicorns. There's no reason ponies of all trots of life can't learn about magic. Most of all, we can make it fun for the little scamps!”
“Well, yes,” Twilight murmured, “But most of all we have to find a way to be as informative in as few lessons as possible, while at the same time not confusing the young minds—”
“So we make it fun.” Moondancer leaned over the table and spoke above her friend. “That way it'll stick in the foals' minds and they can take the knowledge with them to schools of magical arts, if they so choose. Every institution should promise opportunity, no matter how small or surrounded by ponies named after dessert trays.”
“Ungh...” Twilight rolled her eyes and chuckled.
I cleared my throat, drawing their gazes to me. “Well, I think it's a great idea, and I'm proud of the two of you tackling it together. I'm guessing you'll be using the library nonstop over the next few days.”
“Erm... As a matter of fact, yes.” Twilight Sparkle fidgeted somewhat guiltily, avoiding my gaze. “I fear that it's only safe to say that our lessons in casting protection spells will have to wait for a while, Miss Heartstrings—”
“Nonsense, Twi!” Moondancer leaned back and rested a hoof atop the table. “If Lyra here wants to continue her magical lessons of avoiding bucket water with you, then who am I to trample all over that? The more the merrier! That’s my philosophy!”
“Moondancer, we can’t afford to allow too many distractions,” Twilight began, but was suddenly distracted by something glittering beneath the three of us. She glanced down at Moondancer's limb and gasped. “Oh, Moondancer! That's beautiful!”
“Hmm? What is? My philosophy? You must be getting me mixed up with Aristrotle.”
“No, that hooflet! Are those real ingots of silver?”
Moondancer blinked, glanced down at the shiny band around her hoof, then rolled her eyes above a pair of rosy cheeks. “Mmmmmm-yeah. Spared no expense. Pretty stuff, huh?”
“Wherever did you get that?”
“A more pertinent question would be whoever gave it to me.”
Twilight did a double take, then grinned slyly. “Moondancerrrr...”
“What's his name? Is it Starflare? The astronomy professor from your same building?”
“How long have you two been going out?”
“Long enough to start going in.”
Twilight Sparkle almost choked on her own tongue.
“Heeheehee...” Moondancer hugged herself, losing oxygen from laughter. She leaned over and patted a blushing Twilight on the shoulder. “How I always forget that you're attached to the hip of a princess...”
“I... I had no idea, Moondancer...”
“Now you've got a pretty good idea. Perhaps it makes sense where I get the wherewithal to deal with so many delinquents in my class. I'm in a pretty happy place these days, Twi. Silver hooflets aren't enough to convey what a daily romantic stroll by the campus lake feels like.”
“I'm very happy for you, Moondancer. If Starflare is as handsome as he is intelligent in the letters you've written back to me...”
“You know what they say about stallions with big brains.”
“No?” Twilight blinked.
Moondancer blinked for a few spaces in time, then groaned. She decided to smile and lean across the table. “Soooooo, what about you? Has the radiant and aloof apprentice to the Princess met her very special somepony yet?”
Twilight's cheeks went red as she ran a hoof through her bangs. “Moondancer, how many times have I told you to knock that off?”
“Whaaaat?” Her eyes fluttered. “You've made a bunch of friends to write home about.”
“I hoped you’d have met a stallion to write a novel about!” She winked. “A steamy one at that!”
“Moondancer! We're...” Twilight clenched her teeth, ducked her head low to the table, and hissed. “This isn't the time nor the place!”
“You still don't get out enough, Twi! Otherwise you'd know it is always the time and the place!” She smirked my way. “Let this be a lesson to you, Miss Heartstrings. Never let magic be your mate, or else you'll always be having dinner alone.”
I chuckled. “To each their own, Ms. Moondancer.”
“Pfft. Did I drop in on Sugarcube Convent?! It's still summer, in my book! Love's in the air! Take a good whiff, girls!”
“I'm just not ready for that kind of a life, Moondancer,” Twilight said. “I've got research to do, books to translate, spells to harness...”
“And why do them all alone, Twi-girl?”
Twilight sighed. She smiled happily into the shadows of the place. “Still, the thought is certainly... appealing.” She gulped. “I doubt I'll ever meet a 'Mister Perfect'. But a 'Mister Polite' sounds manageable.”
“Who would do the managing, I wonder?” Moondancer remarked, and merely giggled when Twilight blushed again. She looked my way. “How about you? Got a knight in shining armor with a thing for mares getting doused with buckets of water?”
I couldn't contain my laughter, though it was a dry, breathless thing. Here I was, sitting with two shades from my childhood. They were right in front of me, and yet so far away. My heart leaped to tell them of so many impossible things, things that I had let go to waste in the years that I could afford to bridge the distances between us. And then there were new things, some glorious, some horrifying, and how I wished so terribly that they would be there to hold me, to listen to me, to become one with my sobbing, laughing, screaming, giggling spirit. I thought of the elegies, I thought of the cabin, I thought of my music, I thought of Morning Dew...
“I've not been here in Ponyville long enough to... to make anything of it,” I finally said in a wavering tone. I cleared my throat and uttered more strongly, “But if I could live here, I'd make as many friends and family as I could.” I gazed lovingly at them. “And I'd never let them go.”
“Awwww...” Twilight Sparkle hugged herself as she stared back at me. “Why don't you consider doing that, Miss Heartstrings? You'd be a lovely addition to this town.”
My first impulse was to shoot that comment down—as I had trained myself over a year of cursed conversations to dismiss such personal remarks. What came out of my lips, however, was empowered by the foal who used to play the role of Starswirl the Bearded with these two fillies.
“You really think so...?”
“If anything, you could give the farm air around here something nice to dance to,” Moondancer said. “Tell me, do you actually play any instruments or do you just write compositions?
“Oh! I play!” I said with a bright expression. “I'm not exactly a prodigy, but I like to think I carry a tune pretty well.”
“Well, if there’s anything I respect, it’s a mare who holds her own.” Moondancer smiled, her dazzling teeth showing. “You got a sample for us?”
“Heehee...” I felt bubbly inside, to say the least. “I never thought you'd ask, Moondancer! As a matter of fact...” My horn glowed as I pivoted my head to gaze down at my saddlebag. I opened the pouch and lifted the golden lyre out. “I have this tune that I've been working on lately. I was actually hoping to share it with Miss Sparkle, but since the two of you are both here for this little 'reunion,' I don't see why I can't...” My voice came to a stop. My eyes twitched, as if navigating a fog. But it was only a series of cold vapors billowing out from my lips. “I... I... uhh...”
“Oh, hey! Look at this, Twi-girl!” Moondancer giggled and pointed across the table. “Dessert and a performance! I take everything I said back! Supercute Court is a lot cooler than I thought!”
“Sugarcube Corner,” Twilight corrected, rubbing her head as if coming out of a stormy migraine. “Nnngh...” She gave me one glance, and tiredly smiled. “Well, hello there. Is Mrs. Cake hiring minstrels now?”
“Uhm...” I gazed at her, at the dullness in her eyes, and the trace amounts of joy that was spilling out, only to be absorbed by the pale pony next to her. I looked at Moondancer, who was as bright and enthusiastic as when she first arrived. Her face was still a snapshot from my childhood, a photograph I could no longer afford to share space in. “I was just about to... to...”
Twilight and Moondancer smiled. They could just as well have been looking straight down a deep, dark well. With each blink, I felt like they were shrinking away a mile per second. I was afraid the next twitch of the eye would cast them into blackness forever.
So I turned away. “I was just leaving. I... I-I didn't mean to take this seat. I thought it was unoccupied.”
“It's alright,” Twilight said softly. “It's not like it's reserved or anything—”
“Well, actually, we kind of have some catching up to do and stuff,” Moondancer interjected. “Still, that's a wicked-awesome instrument you got there, girl. You should let us hear it sometime!”
“Maybe... Maybe someday you can—erm... will hear it...” I shuddered, bagged the lyre away, and sniffled. “Uhm... If you'll b-both excuse me.” I made sure that my exit wasn't a gallop, but that's the least I could say about my grace. I nearly bumped into Mrs. Cake along the way. She carried three sundaes atop a tray positioned on her spine.
“Here we go, girls!” She placed the tray down, then paused with a nervous double-take. “Oh dear. There are only two of you. How'd I mess that up...?”
“Hey, who’s complaining?! I can live on one and a half sundaes! What about you, Twi?”
“Heh, sure, Moondancer. But...”
“Funny. I... uh, I don't know how to say this but—I don't have any bits on me.”
“Ughhh—Should have known, girl! Heehee... If your head wasn't attached to your neck—”
“Hey! What's that supposed to mean?”
“Hehehehe—No matter. Mrs Cake, was it?”
“Mmmhmm.” The old mare nodded.
“Right.” Moondancer smiled and slapped the golden coins atop the table. “Here you go, all my bits. I hope it makes up for Twilight's stinginess as well.”
“Grrrr...” Twilight steamed.
“Egads, you're so cute when you're steaming.”
“What am I going to do with you?” Twilight's expression was halfway between a glare and a smile.
“Tell me all about your plans for the Grand Galloping Gala.”
“Oh yes! But... Uhm... Didn’t I write you about that? No? Ahem. Well, as you know the Gala is in four weeks. But it so happens that over a year ago, right after arriving in Ponyville, I received an advanced ticket. But I wasn’t the only one. It’s actually kind of an interesting story. You see, I was originally given two tickets, and I happened to be harvesting fruit with Applejack on the afternoon when I physically got Celestia’s invitation...”
When I stumbled into the cabin an hour later, I remembered what my home was. I remembered the lonesome shadows of countless musical instruments dangling off the walls above me. I remembered the layers of dust collecting on my journal and music sheets. I remembered the ashes of the fireplace and how they would sing to me.
I dropped my saddlebag unceremoniously to the floor, took two hoofsteps, and utterly collapsed into my cot. There, I buried my face into the sheets. My eyes were clenched shut. I didn't want to be awake. I didn't want to see any light, for fear that my mind would form the shapes of Moondancer's grinning teeth or Twilight's blushing face. I could still hear their voices—their giggles and their teasing tones—haunting me between the shuddering breaths that echoed against the claustrophobic wooden walls.
I think that every ghost that haunts a place is too busy frightening her own self, for what is more horrifying than the vacant spaces of her past? What she's lost only reminds her that there are so many more things to lose grip of, until she loses grip of herself.
Seeing Moondancer and Twilight Sparkle in one room, hearing their combined giggles and voices...
I didn't think there were any parts of me left to be destroyed. The very moment my curse kicked in at Sugarcube Corner, it was an act of deliverance. If I had stayed in that library any longer, serenaded by their melodic cheers, there would have soon been no single thread left of me.
Then why was it that—as hard as I tried—I couldn't cry?
I took a deep breath and turned over in my bed, my dry eyes following the wooden crossbeams of the cabin ceiling. I was smiling. I had to have been insane. What pony in my position, who's gone through what she's gone through, comes out of a meeting like that with only a grin?
I've been through a great deal of trials and tribulation, yes. But to think that not one but two of my best friends from foalhood would be in the same room as me, if even for a single day...
I just couldn't imagine how lucky I was. In the midst of so much loneliness and bleak desperation, an estranged soul from the past had bridged an impossible gap and blessed my life. I had forgotten how much I adored Moondancer, how much I cherished her lively demeanor, how much I enjoyed being challenged by her brazen speech and unorthodox sensibilities. Where Twilight Sparkle was a rock of emotional and intellectual support, Moondancer was a living spark, a burst of energy that reminded me of the joys of existence in such a cold, cold world. And to have both of them once again in the same place...
Finally, the tears came, and they were some of the warmest I've had the pleasure of being scalded with in months. I reached over and hugged my pillow to my chest and hummed into a delicious cloud that had engulfed me.
I had been blessed.
Yes, in the middle of such misery, I had been blessed to re-experience a piece of my past, a piece of myself. It felt as if parts of me were coming together again. I didn't care if they wouldn't remember me; I remembered them.
I loved them. They were both alive and well. So long as I had a chance to witness their happiness—even as a complete stranger—I knew that all was right in the world, a world that belonged to them though it was mine no longer.
Perhaps I had been looking at Nightmare Moon's curse and Princess Luna's elegies in the wrong light. What if there was indeed a purpose to my being there? What if I was the one soul in all of history meant to perform some sort of sacred journey? It was as if the cosmos had appointed me a lonesome monk, destined to uncover some holy orchestra. I had been so faithful for so long—was I finally being rewarded? I had paid my respects to Caramel. I had even used one of the elegies to save Scootaloo from certain death. Was Moondancer's visit payment for being a good servant to forces unseen?
It hardly made sense, but I hardly cared. And what was more, Moondancer was going to be there for three weeks. Three weeks. I had every opportunity to repeat the events of that day, no matter how bleak. There was bliss to be had.
A giggle escaped my lips, like an immortal club of three foals I had once been proud to partake in. I hugged the pillow to my chest as I clutched those memories, buffered by the delightful events of the day.
I was happy.
“'And so I, Princess Celestia, hereby decree,'” Twilight says, her high-pitched voice echoing across the lengths of a colorful blanket tent lit up with rose-colored flashlights, “'That the building of thinking machines shall be expressively forbidden in Equestria, or else they might grow smart enough to mimic pony ambition and try to take over the world!'”
“'How wise of you, fair princess!'” I exclaim while performing a heroic bow with my stubby legs. “'As Sorceror Supreme of the Bearded Guild, I shall uphold your wise and holy law!'”
“Can't we at least have one robot around?” Moondancer suddenly speaks out of place, poking her head in from outside the tent. Bright violet eyes reflect the flashlight as she smiles and chirps, “That way we'd have somepony around to polish our tiaras! Somepony made of metal!”
“Moondancerrrr—” Twilight protests in a whining voice.
“Shhhhhh! I'm Luna, remember?”
“Ahem. 'Princess Luna! It is daytime! Shouldn't you, dearest sister, be in hibernation until it's time to raise the moon?'”
“Hey, it's my royal palace too!” Moondancer frowns and folds her forelimbs in a pout. As she does so, the star-lit lengths of my bedroom stretch behind her, illuminated in remote places by nightlights shaped like musical notes. “How come Starswirl gets to be in all the meetings with you!”
“Becaussssse...” Twilight makes a face as she explains the obvious, “He's a mortal unicorn, and unicorns do everything in the daytime just like earth ponies and pegasi!”
“Well no wonder I rebelled against you!”
“Shhhhhh! We haven't gotten to that part yet!”
“Why don't I get ponies to serve me in the nighttime?”
“You get your royal guard! That's fun, right?”
“Ew! But they got icky bat-wings!” Moondancer's eyes light up. “Why can't I have some robots!”
“You can't have robots! Didn't you just hear us?”
“Uhhh... I'm 'asleep,' remember?”
“Nnngh—I'm outlawing thinking machines!”
“Because they're dangerous!”
“Because ponies should be wise enough to rely on their own magic and strength—”
“Boooooorinnnnng!” Moondancer rolls her eyes, then hops in place, shaking the whole tent. “I know! I'll make an army of robots and we'll build a bridge to the moon so ponies can go there and serve me whenever I like cuz there's no day or night on the moon!”
“You can't do that!” Twilight gasps as if a mortal sin has just been committed. “That isn't historically accurate!”
“So what?!” Twilight rummages through a pile of stuffed animals to display a book checked out from the Canterlot Library this very evening. “It's written right here in the Chronicles of the Neo-Classical Era that robots were lawfully forbidden immediately following the tragic events of the Coltlerian Jihad—”
“I want my robots to come with mana-lasers!” Moondancer trots gaily around us in a military march. “'Onward, our mechanical friends! Princess Luna doth commandeth thee to pew-pew in the moon's name! For we hath given thee license to maketh things explode for our glory!'”
“There will be no explosions! Come on, Moondanc—”
“You're supposed to be a princess!”
“And it's my duty as princess to protect this land with our robot army! 'Come with us, sister! Our minions shalt help us fight back the evil Smooze!'”
“There's no such thing as Smooze!”
“Nuh uh! You just made that up!”
“Heehee! And so what? We're playing pretend, remember?”
“But we're supposed to be the princesses! The royal sisters would never blow stuff up at random!”
“They would if they were fighting off horrible, soul-eating Smooze!”
“Nuh uh!” Twilight glares at Moondancer.
“Uh huh!” Moondancer smirks back at Twilight.
“Nuh uh!” Twilight snarls.
“Uh huh!” Moondancer growls.
“'Your royal highnesses!'” I jump between them, fighting to keep my fake, furry beard hanging around my neck as I plant a hoof into each of their chests. “'This is most unbecoming of you! You're royal sisters! You're all that remains of the Cosmic Matriarch's glorious legacy! Tell me, is this how she would have her daughters govern Equestria in her absence?'”
“Hmmmph...” Moondancer folds her limbs and blows air out of the corner of her muzzle. “No...”
“She'd want us to get along,” Twilight mutters.
“'Then let me declare today a holiday!'” I say with a smile. “'As leader of the Bearded Guild, I've been granted authority to rename days of the year. I shall call this day 'Happy Sisters Day'. And from this day forth, it will be the day that sisters remember how much they love each other and decide to get along!'”
Moondancer and Twilight shift awkwardly.
“That sounds stupid,” Moondancer says.
“Besides, September is the month for family appreciation, not July,” Twilight explains. “Everypony knows that.”
“'Then we'll change it when next year comes around!'” I say with a smirk. I look towards Twilight. “'Your Highness, if I may be so bold as to suggest, could a robot be made of steam? Surely a machine of such simple build would be capable of menial tasks without becoming smart enough to turn on its owners.'”
“Hmmm...” Twilight leans back with a scholarly smirk and eventually nods. “'Yes, I do believe that would be acceptable,'” she says in an authoritarian voice.
I glance Moondancer's way. “'And Princess Luna, could fighting the Smooze wait until after your robots help Princess Celestia finish building Canterlot Castle?'”
She gasps with a bright grin. “Could they use their lasers to carve the moat?!”
“Heeheehee...” Twilight leans forward excitedly. “I'll even show them where to aim the mana-crystals!”
“Yaaaay! Let's blow up some dirt!”
“Ahem.” Twilight points a sparkling baton in my direction. “'Starswirl the Bearded, for your infinite wisdom and calmness of mind, I appoint thee head of the robot committee.'”
“Yeah, Starswirl,” Moondancer winks. “Way to use your whiskers. 'Our moon shineth on thou'... erm... and stuff.”
I smile proudly while bowing low. “'It is my honor, your highnesses, to serve you until the end of my days.'”
“Yeah, whatever.” Moondancer rubs her hooves toether “Let's build us a robot castle!”
“I'll show you where the moat goes!” Twilight hops about.
“Hey, what about torches? It'd look really cool if we lit the place up at night.”
“We'd need to fetch some coal first.”
“'Use your horn, little sister, it's what the Cosmic Matriarch gave you to sculpt the moon with.'”
“Ah yes, but of course. 'We thanketh thee, wise and beloved Celestia.'”
I sit in my corner of the tent as they scramble around my bedroom, “grabbing supplies.” Outside, the stars are a galaxy away, but I swear the cosmos are glittering right in front of me. I smile, for I do not want this sleepover to end.
Two days had passed. I could barely keep myself in my cabin. I had to know more about Moondancer's and Twilight's project. I had to see them again. I had to hear them again.
I woke up each morning with my mind clear. I couldn't even hear the elegies in my head if I tried. The world was no longer cold; I almost considered stripping clean of my hoodie. Instead, I decided to express my cheer in a different way. I donned Rarity's fantastic red sweater and made my way into town. Ponies smiled and waved at this exuberant, brightly dressed stranger as she trotted energetically through the streets. I smiled back at them. I hummed a tune. I smiled as I heard Morning Dew's voice.
Finally, I made it to the front door of Twilight's library. I had already formulated a plan in my head. I would pretend that I had been sent there on the promise of a scheduled appointment with Twilight for practicing magic. Then, in her usual pensiveness and self-doubt, Twilight would opt to help me regardless of having never met me before. In a way, it felt like a dirty trick on my part, but I couldn't help it. I wanted to see her. I needed to see her. And, if Celestia was my witness, I would make sure she only became happier from the meeting.
I knocked on the door. There was a muffled sound from within. For better or for worse, I assumed it was an invitation, and I opened the door. “Excuse me?” I leaned in with a smile. “Sorry to bother you, but is Miss Twilight Sparkle around? It's approaching one o'clock, and I do believe the Canterlot Magic Commission has sent a note about my—”
“How many times do I have to say it, Moondancer?!” Twilight Sparkle was barking, her mane tussled and frayed at the edges. She sat across a table strewn with a disheveled sea of papers and notes and reference sheets. “You can't assign four field trips! Two is pushing it enough!”
“Pfft!” Moondancer rolled her eyes from where she was lying, reclined lackadaisically, on a bench across from Twilight. “I was about to say that four is too few.”
“You've got to be pulling my tail...”
“I'm only saying that we should promote first-hoof experience with magic!” Moondancer smiled tiredly at her quivering companion. “That's why we send the little scamps on exciting trips! A tour of Whinniepeg's Museum of Lunar Incantation is the best way I can think of opening their eyes to the field of sorcery!”
“Moondancer! Honestly!” Twilight tossed her hooves. “We're setting up a study course here! Not a vacation! Never mind the fact that we couldn't even fund so many field trips! Just how is one pony like Cheerilee even remotely capable of managing that many trips with all the lesson plans she already has on her plate?”
“You're not thinking outside of the box, Twilight. Pfft... as usual!” Moondancer sat up and smiled foalishly at her friend. “Cheerilee's biggest problem is that she's stuck in one place: Ponyville. Have you taken a single look outside this library of yours, girl? Things ain't exactly magical.”
“I don't see your point—”
“The point is, the little foals of this place aren't gonna learn crap about magic so long as they're imprisoned in a one-room school here!” Moondancer stood up and paced about the library. “They need to stretch their legs, explore, get to see the exciting sights of the world, feel what it means to be alive! Trust me! There's no better way to learn!”
“Am I the only one who sees the problem here, Moondancer?” Twilight’s face paled with worry, her eyes soft and pleading. “I can't see how any of these young unicorns' parents could—for one single second—consider signing their kids up for so many trips—”
“Heeheehee... Use your rich noggin', Twi!” Moondancer grinned aside at her. “I'm not suggesting we send the kids off to war or some crud! I'm just thinking that they should get plenty of opportunities to leave the confining walls of a school building and see up close and personal what magical things there are in Equestria!”
“It's too ambitious and too expensive, Moondancer,” Twilight said with a frown. “The sheer days spent in the backs of wagons, trudging from town to town, would be much better spent in the newest printed textbooks on magical enchantment and conjuration.”
“Unnnngh... Give me a break, Twilight!” Moondancer ran a hoof over her face and spun to gawk at her friend. “You think that's gonna change anything?! They're already stuffing their eyeballs with mountains of text! We're trying to get them to learn, not fall asleep!”
“We mustn't lose focus of the goal of this program! Don’t you think?” Twilight exclaimed. “We're trying to provide much-needed information to young fillies—unicorns or otherwise—who've been deprived of magical education for years!”
“And a billion books aren't gonna solve all of that, Twi!” Moondancer paced towards her. “Well, sure, mountains of books worked for you. But you've got a deep mind that's always been a major receptacle for that sort of sheer data-clunkage! I mean—heck—that's why Princess Celestia appointed you as her apprentice and stuff! But these kids? Heh, no offense or anything, Twi, but many of them would rather lay an egg than wear one in place of their head!”
“Well, forgive me for trying to be considerate of their futures!” Twilight said with a frown. “Out there in the competitive world, the demand for magical knowledge is increasing by tenfold every year! These kids are going to grow up as strangers in a world that's far too advanced for them—”
“Okay, now you're just being dramatic—”
“AND—” Twilight continued, pointing firmly with her hoof. “They're not going to be anywhere near competent after spending all of their study time prancing around old historical landmarks! Moondancer, I appreciate your value in history and exposing these foals to it. But let’s be reasonable, okay? Look, I’ll concede: one field trip is fine. One! We can assign them to Whinniepeg! But I really think we should stick to the outline I made yesterday of three reading assignments per week framed around twenty-question homework exercises and graded by a regular series of pop quizzes—”
“Ugh!” Moondancer tossed her mane with a groan. “Twilight, stop thinking like a machine and try to get down to the kids' level!” She smiled and leaned in with an emphatic grin. “The biggest thing I learned after my first five years of being a teacher is that trying to shove a textbook's worth of information into a kid's head is like shoving a round peg into a square hole. And I mean that in the least sexy way possible.”
“Moondancer...” Twilight sighed.
Moondancer's voice rose, “You gotta amaze the kids! You gotta show them how magic is alive and real in this world, and you can't do all of that from a chalkboard! That's why I think—no—that's why I know that we should turn this program into an opportunity to give the kids a time in their lives that they'll never forget! Learning can't be forced, but it sure as heck can be encouraged! What are we doing with each day of our lives if not living and learning at the same time, Twi?”
“I still think you’re going off the deep-end with this, Moondancer. Just be rational! That's all I ask!” Twilight slapped her hoof over a pile of notes. “We've been entrusted with creating a program that is well-structured and easily repeatable for several generations of students to follow! This is no excuse for you to be exercising some radical educational theory! We need something practical—”
“Radical educational theory?!” Moondancer giggled helplessly. “Boy, you have been tutored by a princess! It's cute what words you come up with to describe things you just simply don't agree with.”
“Twilight, I've been teaching for over five years.” Moondancer's violet eyes briefly hardened. Her usual smile was nowhere to be seen in her features. “'Radical' or not, what I'm giving you is the crux of my wisdom and experience. Colorful as it may seem, it's what I know has helped kids in Fillydelphia, and it would certainly help kids here in Ponyville.”
“Does this look like Fillydelphia?” Twilight retorted. “The same rules don't apply here, Moondancer. And if you asked me, I'd say that you weren't taking this program very seriously.”
“Heheheheheh...” Moondancer shook her head and smirked towards the floor.
Twilight frowned. “What is it now?”
“You've really been in this town too long.” Moondancer straightened her mane and gave Twilight a flippant stare. “I think the boring walls of this place have jaded you.”
For a brief moment, Twilight's teeth shone. She slowly rose from her seat. “Now just a minute—”
I cleared my throat.
Both mares turned to look my way. The heat instantly left their faces as they blinked in confusion.
“Can we help you, ma'am?”
I shifted nervously in the doorway. I wished I hadn't brought Rarity's sweater, for suddenly I was feeling like I was being cooked alive. “Uhm...” I smiled under a tiny trickle of sweat. “I'm sorry. I was looking for somepony named Twilight Sparkle to help me with a research project. Did I come at a bad time?”
“Uhm... Yes,” Twilight stammered. “I'm afraid so.”
“Nah, come on in!” Moondancer waved.
Twilight flashed her a look of shock. “Moondancer!” she loudly whispered.
“What?!” Moondancer shrugged.
“Uhhh—We're kind of busy with this project, are we not?”
“And lemme guess, you stopped believing in breaks since you kicked Nightmare Moon's flank? It's already past noon, Twi-girl, we could use a distraction.” She once again motioned towards me. “Seriously. Come on in and introduce yourself—”
“Excuse me? Hello? Is this your library now?”
“No, as a matter of fact...” Moondancer glared at Twilight. “It's the town's library. If I'm not mistaken, you're assigned here to—jee, I dunno—be its librarian? Surely you can afford to help a random pony who needs to check something out.”
Twilight tossed her hooves. A book slapped ineffectually before her pouting figure. “Fine. You're right.” Her voice was curt, unmelodious. “This is a library. Let's treat it as such.”
“Don't take that tone with me, Twilight.” Moondancer's brow furrowed. “Just because I'm the one pony here trying to be nice.”
“You just can't focus on a single thing for any longer than an hour.” Twilight chuckled airily while shaking her head. “There's a reason why I have Spike around. He can take care of the library duties while we work on this program. You're only here for so long—”
“Is that always your solution? Make Spike do all the hard work? I swear—ever since you became an apprentice to Her Majesty, he's been doing overtime!”
“I don't ask him to do anything that he doesn't want to do—”
“And just how can he say 'no' to you? Heck, Twilight, I remember the day you first got him. I never thought he'd become a servant. As a matter of fact, I always thought he was kind of your adopted s—”
“Okay, enough of bringing Spike into this!” Twilight suddenly snapped, her face red.
“And just what is 'this', huh?” Moondancer growled back. “And for your information, I didn't bring Spike into the conversation. You did.”
“I only said that he'd be in charge of library duties so that you and I could maybe—just maybe—focus on this assignment that I invited you over here to begin with—”
“I uhm...” I bit my lip. My whole body was shaking at this point.
Moondancer cleared her voice and expertly tossed a practiced grin at me. “Seriously. I apologize. This library's always opened to the public, even if its librarian has a closed mind. Come on in, ma'am. I'm sure I can look up something for you in this place's catalogue. I mean, that doesn't take too much brainpower, does it?”
Twilight's stool rattled to the floor as she jumped to her hooves and stormed off towards the far end of the treehouse.
Moondancer blinked after her. “And just where are you going?”
“You're right,” Twilight grunted. “We need a break.”
“For crying out loud, I was only—”
“Just be quiet for a little while. Please, Moondancer. I mean it.”
“Twi-girl! Come onnnn...” Moondancer glanced at her, at me, at her... then ultimately decided to scamper after her friend. “What's going on here?! Just loosen up—”
“Oh, you've loosened me up enough as it is. Moondancer—seriously—I just need to... I dunno... do some reading or something.”
“Reading? About what?”
“I don't know! Just reading! It's what I'm good at, remember?”
“Twilight, please, you're making a mountain out of a mole-hill...”
“Am I? This is important to Cheerilee! This is important to the mayor! It may even be important to the Princess—”
“What would Celestia care?! How the heck do you even start connecting those dots?!”
“There's a reason I take things so seriously, Moondancer.”
“Oh really? Tell me! Cuz I'd love to know!”
“Because, if we don't educate these young unicorns, then they stand to risk—”
My friends' words were lost to me, because by then I had stealthily shut the door to the library. I rested against the outside frame, my heart beating. I felt like a worthless scrap of flesh, wrapped in a ridiculously ornate sweater, bathed in sweat and sunlight. Each little vibration that shook through the doorframe only made my heart drop deeper and deeper. If I stayed there any longer, I knew I would just die.
So, trembling, I trotted off, my head hanging by the sheer weight of a lump in the back of my throat.
What was happening to my friends? Was some horrible spell cast on them? Did they start experimenting in some mind-altering enchantment only to have it backfire?
No, I was the only one cursed in Ponyville. At least, that was the one truth I had full assurance of.
But, seriously, what was that just then? I felt as though it all started at some horrible moment, but tragically I hadn't been around to witness the beginning of such a collapse. I felt so utterly clueless. How could I even begin to salvage it?
My only hope—or so I told myself—was to collect my nerves, trot straight around, and find ways to eavesdrop on them. After all, my two friends had reunited for a reason. Why would all three of us be together once again if it weren't for my being able to fatefully save them?
Only, as I would discover, such salvation would not come easily. Day after day, I shadowed them. At the library, pretending to be studying books, I witnessed their haphazard attempt to draft a study plan. In the center of Ponyville, strumming half-heartedly on my lyre, I overheard their voices viciously breaking the tranquil air. On the edges of town hall, when my figure was obscured by a crimson sunset, I saw their faces burning even hotter.
It was a vicious loop; there was no better way to describe it. Moondancer would say something brash. Twilight would attack her for it. Moondancer would go on the defensive while slapping Twilight's good nature with a snide comment. Then Twilight would cross yet another boundary, growing more and more frustrated until she saturated Moondancer with her ire.
To say that this sort of bickering was unbecoming these two would be a lie. But somehow, this was different. This was a place far away from our bedrooms, from our foalhood's side streets, from the courtyards and patios of Canterlot. This was Ponyville, and these two mares were adults. When they got angry, they didn't whine or squeal, they filled the air with a frightening tempest.
“An eighteen page research project?!” Moondancer barked as she stared incredulously at the notes she was flipping through her hooves. Her violet eyes twitched. “You... You...” She almost retched before giving Twilight a terrified look. “Twilight, you can't be serious!”
“I am,” Twilight said without looking back. She flipped through a book of outlines as she sat beside Moondancer on a park bench just twenty feet away from where I was plucking my lyre. “Just as serious as I was when I drafted the plan last night.”
“You wrote all of these notes overnight?!” Moondancer rummaged incredulously through the mountain of sheets. “You mean—like—after our dinner with Rarity in downtown?”
“Twilight, that was ten o'clock at night! Did you get any sleep?!”
“Enough.” Twilight hummed, squinting at her notes as if Moondancer was only half there. “It doesn't matter. I got done what needed to be done.”
“Twilight, I thought we were going to work on this stuff together!”
“Were we?” Twilight's jaw tightened slightly, but still she didn't look Moondancer's way. “It's already three o'clock in the afternoon and we're just now meeting.”
“What's your point?” Moondancer asked, then shook her head and growled, “Twilight, I thought the idea was for us to work on these assignments together. Y'know? You and me? As a team? How else am I to stop you from going off the deep end!”
“I think I made a very competent research plan.”
“Twilight...” Moondancer waved the infernal sheets of paper for emphasis. “You're asking eight-year-olds to write an eighteen page draft! You... nngh... you gotta think simpler than that.”
“I think I compressed the assignment pretty well, considering...” Twilight's voice trailed off as coldly as her tone.
Moondancer glared. “Considering what? That you were alone all night? Twilight, don't even pretend to guilt trip me over stuff you set upon doing on your own.”
“What choice did I have?”
“If you wanted to work so badly after dinner with Rarity, then you should have just told me—”
“Moondancer, I did tell you!” Twilight finally gave her a look, and it wasn't a happy one. “I told you five times in one day! 'Moondancer, we need to sit down and come up with an adequate research assignment.'”
“Five times, huh? So are we keeping score now?”
“I wish I didn't have to!” Twilight growled. “I wish that when I asked my friend over to work on preparing an important educational program, she wouldn't have disrupted the flow of our concentration by making us have dinner with every pony she sees!”
“Twilight, correct me if I'm wrong, but Rarity is your friend! She made you dresses for this Gala you’re hopping off to in a few weeks! She sounded to me like a very fabulous pony! And if there was one thing I wanted to do when I came here, it was getting acquainted with Rarity and the rest of your new companions!”
“And that's why I set a schedule for that!” Twilight exclaimed. “I told you over a dozen times that I was more than willing to have dinner with Rarity and Fluttershy this Friday! But look at our progress now! It's not even Thursday and already we're insanely behind because you just can't be patient enough! Now we only have two and a half weeks before you have to go back to Fillydelphia!”
“Two and a half weeks—Snkkt—Twi, girl, aren't you jumping the gun just a tad bit?”
“Do you forget who you're talking to?!” Twilight made a face. “I was Princess Celestia's personal scheduler of events two years in a row for a reason!”
“Heheheheh...” Moondancer giggled bitterly.
Twilight frowned. “Now what's so funny?”
“I find it interesting that you want me to rely so much on your experience as a royal scheduler...” She frowned. “When you hardly give a flying feather about my experience as a teacher.”
“Unnngh...” Twilight face-hoofed. “Moondancer...”
“No, really!” Moondancer slapped her hoof across the bundle of notes. “This is gonna be like sending the little foals to the gallows! Maybe if they were in secondary school, sure! But last time I checked, the thickest assignment Cheerilee's ever given them was was a two-page essay for Family Appreciation Day!”
“We're attempting to broaden their minds, Moondancer! If they wish to learn about proper magic, they'll need to learn to work harder!”
“Are we trying to educate them or bludgeon their brains to death?!” Moondancer exclaimed. “I say we make the final project a five-page essay.”
“Do I hear an echo?”
“That's hardly what I call research!”
“And this is what just kills me!” Moondancer barked as she flaunted the papers in disgust. “You think research is going to teach them proper magic! Magic is about creativity and exploring the ethereal nature of our world—”
“It is not!”
“Lemme guess...” Moondancer groaned as her eyes rolled back in their sockets. “Because you're the expert on magic.”
“I am!” Twilight frowned. “Magic is all about careful study, planning, and—most of all—research! If we make children think—if even for a second—that magic is about unchecked exercise of ethereal leylines, then we don't promote proper mana-practice, we're instead planting the dangerous seeds of ambitious sorcery!”
“Oh come off it...”
“I'm serious, Moondancer!” Twilight’s eyes were bright and earnest. “We can't afford to be so flippant about magical arts! Especially with such young and impressionable minds!”
“Heh, when you were their ages, nothing stopped you from experimenting.”
“I learned to properly control my magic after reading extensively on the subject! You think a fifteen page essay is asking a lot? I was writing fifty-page reports at age eight! I didn't discover my talents for magic by cutting corners and being careless!”
“Oh please, Twi-girl, come off your high... your high... you know what! Heh! You've zapped your parents into potted plants at least once or twice—”
“How is that even remotely making a point?” Twilight barked back. “And just what were you doing at that exact same time, Moondancer? If you had researched magic even half as often as I did at that time, you'd be—”
“I'd be what?” Moondancer flashed her a pathetic smirk. “A close-minded, book-hungry, uptight, workaholic insomniac like you? I don't know what kind of future Ponyville has, but I'm not here to turn these kids into marching doppelgangers of you. I've been a teacher long enough to know it's really, really stupid to extend one's ego into the curriculum.”
“How... H-how...” Twilight's jaw dropped in shock. “How could you even possibly think that that's what I'm...?” She blinked and turned her head to follow Moondancer’s moving body. “And just where are you going?”
“Anywhere. I do my best thinking while walking,” Moondancer grumbled. “Maybe I'll come up with my own final project idea. Why not? You did so wonderfully by your lonesome.”
Twilight sighed long and hard. “Moondancer, please. I’m sorry. Really. Let’s... Let’s just talk about this...”
But she was already gone. Twilight groaned and hung her face in her hooves. Several yards behind her, I did my futile best to keep a steady melody going.
The next day, in Sugarcube Corner, Moondancer was sitting at a table by herself. With a gentle glow of telekinesis, she was scribbling careful calligraphy onto a sheet of paper. Her eyes were thin, bored, and devoid of excitement. She yawned once or twice, then rubbed the back of her head while her ears tried flicking loose the noise of so many patrons seated all around her.
The place was quiet, save for a gentle murmur of calm, happy conversations. All of this shattered in an instant, though, as soon as the front doors to the place flew open and a noticeably angry Twilight Sparkle stomped directly to the table, slapping down a notepad in front of her foalhood friend.
“Moondancer, what in the hay is this?!” Twilight demanded, pointing offensively at the notepad.
Moondancer sighed. Then, with monumental strength, she tossed a grin up at Twilight. It cut the air with razor-sharp sarcasm, as did her voice, “This is a table for one, but I'm guessing that just rocks your boat all the same.”
“Don't be coy. I meant this!” Twilight shoved her hoof towards the notepad. “A plan to hire three assistant teachers from Trottingham—are you joking?”
“If I was joking,” Moondancer muttered, “I would have thrown in more references to flanks and hoof-tacks.” She blinked. She then lethargically chuckled for what it was worth.
That only enraged Twilight all the more. “Moondancer, there's no way Cheerilee could afford to hire that much outside help!”
“It's a heck of a lot more affordable than the field trips, and everypony knows how much you hated those.”
“Moondancer, are you even trying anymore?!” Twilight Sparkle breathlessly exclaimed. “How many times do I have to tell you that we've got to get the lesson plan finalized before we can even talk about additions to the faculty—” She stopped in mid-speech, her eyes fixated suddenly on the letter half-written in front of her friend. “What's this?”
“Uhm, it's nothing. I was just—”
“I mean it! Who're you writing to?” Twilight forcibly yanked the letter across the table with telekinesis.
“Hey!” Moondancer gawked, frowning. “Miss Grabby Hooves! What gives?”
“This...” Twilight's eyes squinted over the paper. “This is addressed to the Whinniepeg Community Organizer...” The more she read, the more her jaw dropped in shock. “'...I humbly request an audience with the director of the Whinniepeg Education Commission in regards to scheduling a function at the Museum for Lunar Incantation...'” Her eyes slowly tilted back up and her brow furrowed. “You... You're trying to set up the field trip...”
“Nnngh...” Moondancer rolled her eyes. “Look, Twilight...”
Twilight frowned. “You were about to go over my head!”
“I was simply trying to open communication...” Moondancer blushed and glanced around the room. “You know... mmmm... in the event that you might end up considering my proposal—”
“We're supposed to be working on this—deciding on this—as a team!” Twilight's voice cracked as it grew louder, gathering the nervous attention of many seated patrons around the eatery. “How could you possibly think that we'd both be in agreement over this!”
“I'd had hoped you would keep an open mind!”
“About you going over my head?!” Twilight tossed the letter onto the table in front of her. “Moondancer, how could you?”
Something twitched in Moondancer's eyes. She slowly crumpled the paper up. Tossing it aside, she rose her voice like a growling cat’s. “No, I wasn't going over your head, Twilight.” Fuming, she icily stood up and glared at her friend from across the table. There might as well have been an ocean between them. “You know why? Because there's no friggin' way anypony in the history of Equestria could possibly fathom scaling a head as big and full as yours!”
“Please!” Twilight rolled her eyes. “Spare me—”
“Spare yourself!” Moondancer snarled. “You need to hear this!” Her eyes narrowed as she pointed an accusatory hoof. “Ever since I came here, you've been nothing but an overbearing pain in the butt! Which shouldn't come as a surprise, since you've always had something of a pathetic chip on your shoulder.”
“Oh great,” Twilight laughed bitterly. “I'm being preached to by the class jester.”
“At least when I went to school, I was living it up!” Moondancer grinned just as plastically. “Sure, I wasn't earning perfect grades all the time like you! But I wasn't chaining my brain to some goddess-forsaken books twenty-four-seven either! You know why?”
“Oh, I will!” Moondancer gnashed her teeth and pointed at herself, “Because I knew that there was more in life than reading and studying! Growing older doesn't mean you gotta stop having fun! I earned my cutie mark because I realized that teaching means dazzling your kids just as much as it means informing them!”
“Is that why you're stuck teaching general history and intermediary economics at a low tier campus in central Fillydelphia?”
“Hey! At least I'm earning my teacher's desk! With each passing year, I'm climbing higher!”
“You could have had it so much better, Moondancer! If only you were more serious and studious from the get go!”
“Oh, that's some rich advice right there!” Moondancer cackled. “Coming from the one mare in all of Equestria who's had everything hoofed to her from royalty!”
Twilight's eyes flared. “And what's that supposed to mean?”
By this time, Mrs. Cake had quietly strolled across the tense room of blinking faces. “Ahem... uhm...” She paused, gnawing on her lip to nervously entreat Twilight in a whispering voice. “Miss Sparkle? If... uhm... if you and your friend wouldn't mind taking this conversation outside of m-my establishment...”
That seemed to calm Twilight somewhat. With a sigh, she nodded towards her. “I'm so sorry, Mrs. Cake,” she said in a low voice. “You're right. We shouldn't be—”
“No! Please!” Moondancer grinned devilishly. The tips of her pale ears were burning red as she pointed a shaking hoof at her friend before folding her forelimbs. “She likes berating my teaching career in public! Let's let her finish it, shall we? Go on and tell all your lovely neighbors of Ponyville just what you think of me, Twi!”
Twilight fumed, struggling to keep everything behind an icy glare. “I apologize, Moodancer. I shouldn't have made a scene. Let's just go back to the library and—”
“And what? Guilt trip me over and over again with your pathetic attempts at moral pretense?”
“Ladies, please,” Mrs. Cake nervously interjected. “If you could just—”
Moondancer spoke louder, glaring steadily at Twilight. “So what if I was going over your head?! I would have gotten a heck of a lot more done on this project on my lonesome without having to be roadblocked by all of your redundant little needs to double-check and overanalyze everything!”
“You just never grew up, did you, Moondancer?” Twilight gave her a look of pity. “Even when we were little foals, you could never wait for a single second without doing something impulsively and deciding later to call it a 'wise choice.' Just how high do your students score in their aptitude tests these days, Moondancer? Don't bother answering. I've checked.”
“Oh did you now—?”
“And if you think that is the kind of result you're proud of achieving, then I feel almost as sorry for them as I do for you—”
I wasn't entirely sure what Moondancer's response to that was. The growling tone in her voice made the words difficult to discern, as did the rattling of the wooden table she bumped into while literally jumping towards her accuser. Soon, the two mares were practically hissing in each other’s muzzles. Mrs. Cake found herself awkwardly sandwiched in the middle of them. The entire room was awash in blank faces, wide eyes, and even a few trembling foals. And I...
I had stopped playing my lyre five minutes ago. My hooves were pressed so tight to the surface of the table, I was certain cracks would form. My shoulders quivered. My knees shook. I tried my hardest to stay there, to remain a pointless piece of the background's detritus, but I couldn't. I knew my role. I knew my place, and it certainly wasn't sitting there, facing away from my friends.
The world spun around my numb body. I realized I was getting up and trotting towards them. With more courage than a Canterlot guard, I planted myself firmly between the two enraged ponies.
“Look—Look!” I raised my voice, surprised at how silent the room became as soon as my echoes danced off the walls. I gulped, glanced at the two mares, and uttered, “You two obviously have a lot of rough edges that are bumping into each other. But, if I may be so bold, I imagine you two have a lot of history. Is your mutual past so frivolous that you can ignore it by turning into utter brutes in front of everypony?”
“Ma'am, you don't need to get yourself involved with this—” Twilight quietly began.
“Mind your own beeswax, lady!” Moondancer was Moondancer.
Twilight frowned over my shoulder at her. “Hey! Just because you're angry with me doesn't mean you have to be rude to her—”
“This is Ponyville, huh?!” Moondancer laughed coldly over my other side. “Odds are that she's on your side—”
“I'm not on anypony's side, Moondancer!” I snapped at her.
She blinked and gave me a double-take. “How do you know my—?”
I spun and frowned at Twilight. “And you, Miss Sparkle: haven't you learned enough lessons in your fourteen-plus months of living here to know the value of patience and compromise?”
“I... it...” Twilight's face was more scrunched in confusion than in anger. “How could you possibly know what I've learned or haven't learned? Just who are you?”
“A know-it-all who makes assumptions of what's right or wrong?” Moondancer chuckled. “Hahaha—If I didn't know better, Twilight, I'd say she takes after you!”
“All I know is this!” I flashed Moondancer a furious look. “Somepony should grow up!” I gave Twilight an equally sharp glance. “And another pony should loosen up!” I raised my forelimbs harmlessly between us. “It's that easy! Isn't it?”
“Dear Luna, I've marched right into a stage-play...” Moondancer groaned.
“Isn't it?!” I growled.
“What have I said about saying Princess Luna's name in vain!” Twilight snapped past me.
“Will you ever stop being my mother for just once?!” Moondancer returned just as venomously.
“I remember your mother very well! She practically spoiled you!”
“And yours smothered you!”
“I was taught what it means to become a disciplined scholar!”
“I was shown what it means to embrace life!”
“Girls... please...” I gulped. I shivered, and yet this heated debacle was slipping faster and faster from my trembling hooves... from my breaking heart. “Just... Just calm down. We are.... You are such good friends...”
“Ma'am...” Mrs. Cake leaned in and hushedly whispered to me. “I really don't think you're helping this any...”
I sweated. I convulsed. I glanced out the corner of my eyes. Everypony in the room was looking past me, through me, their eyes locked on the only two souls that mattered, the souls that were just about ready to tear each other to bits.
And it was then that I realized, like a cold blanket of ice being draped over my insides, far more chilling than any curse could have afflicted me...
I realized that Twilight, Moondancer, and I were the best of friends in our foalhood. We had our ups and our downs, but somehow our bond kept going strong. Twilight's seriousness was an opposite balance to Moondancer's carefree spirit. But that balance had a fulcrum. Whenever fillies dressed as Celestia or Luna would come to odds, Starswirl the Bearded was always magically there with his well-placed wisdom to talk some sense back into the royal sisters.
But this was different. This was Ponyville. These friends of mine were mere shadows of a brilliant childhood, cast by a glowing innocence that was now as mysterious and incorporeal as the forgotten night-lights that had once lined my bedroom in another lifetime, in another world, in another universe.
This was Ponyville. And I was not there.
I was not there....
Oh dear Celestia...
“Pl-please...” I stammered, my lips fighting to remain as steady as my lungs. “Twilight... Moondancer... listen to me...”
They didn't. How could they? Who was I?
“You never grew up!” Twilight shouted. “You're just the same silly foal who always wanted her way! I don't know how I ever tolerated your craziness when I was little, but I sure as hay don't need it now!”
“And you're still the stuck-up smarty-pants who always got her way!” Moondancer howled back. Sugarcube Corner shook as with a million earthquakes, and I was the only one who felt like collapsing. “Quite frankly, I pity you! All those years you could have enjoyed yourself, and instead you enslaved yourself to books and ancient magic tricks and all the dusty tomes of ponies long dead!”
“At least I was making something of myself! What were you doing in your time?”
“I was doing what you should have done long ago!” Moondancer exclaimed. “I was going outside! I was making friends!”
“Hey! I have friends too! It may have taken me longer, but I learned how to open up!”
“At least I found my friends the hard way!” Moondancer said, her face briefly quivering as if from a labor pain. “I went out into the world! I took risks! I made mistakes, sure, but I'm a better pony because of it! Can you say the same?”
“Can you?!” Moondancer glared. “You're so big on learning! So tell me how come you can get wonderful things so easily and then pretend to tell yourself you're smarter from it!”
“What are you even going on about?” Twilight exclaimed breathlessly.
“Oh please, not all of us make friends cuz of some magical connection to the Elements of Heaven!”
“Whatever! If I were you, Twilight, I wouldn't even begin to judge others on friendship after receiving my companions as a consolation prize from the fates!”
There was a thunderous sound. Twilight's nostrils flared as she slapped both hooves atop the table, rattling Moondancer's letters to the floor. “That's it! Leave!”
“Excuse me?” Moondancer chuckled incredulously.
“You heard me! G-get out of here!” Twilight was shaking all over. Her voice was cracking as moisture collected in the corners of her eyes. “I don't want you anywhere near my friends!”
“Oh ho hoooo!” Moondancer paced coldly around the table, dramatically tossing her mane. “How dare I trounce upon Twilight's holy stomping grounds, the sacred soil of Ponyville! Did you earn this place as easily as you earned your friends! If so, then no wonder this town needs a study course in sorcery so badly! Who would have thought that the Element of Magic had such a hollow spark to it?!”
“Just... just...” Twilight was hyperventilating, her face pale as she stared blankly through the table. “Pl-please leave...”
“Come on, Twilight!” Moondancer growled. Her eyes were aflame. “You're smarter than this! Look at the big picture!” She gestured wildly towards the surroundings. “Over a year spent practicing the same old magic and the same old incantations in the center of some stuffy library in Ponyville?!” Her face briefly retched before she hissed, “You haven't learned didley squat about friendship! The only reason Princess Celestia accepts all of the inane letters you send to her is because she coddles you! She always has! Equestria's most gifted magician, my flank! You silly... misguided... child!”
Bright lavender light flared in the center of the eatery. Ponies gasped and flinched. Twilight was glaring at Moondancer, and her eyes were glowing hotly as she jerked towards her.
Moondancer likewise dashed forward—
“Stop!” I bellowed, suddenly in between them, planting a hoof against the napes of both mares' necks. “I mean it!” I glared daggers before deflating with a sad sigh. “Just... stop it, both of you.” I gulped, entreating whatever was left of my friends. “Stop.”
Twilight slowly panted. Her eyes stopped glowing, revealing twin rivers of tears rolling down her cheeks.
I turned to look at Moondancer. All the anger was gone in her eyes. She looked suddenly as if she had taken a bullet to the chest, but couldn't determine if the projectile had entered or exited.
Maybe it had done both. Twilight slumped to a stool, staring at the floor. Moondancer shuffled about, before running a hoof through her mane, turning around, and trotting defeatedly out the exit of Sugarcube Corner. Everypony was quiet. You could hear the heartbeats like crickets in the distance, becoming one with every wall that was gradually shrinking away from me and where I stood.
I wondered if this is how the end of every battle feels, when the violence is over and every side realizes that nothing could ever have been won, because their can never be victory in collapse: only heartache. I tried to ignore the ghostly sounds of Moondancer's shuffling hooves as she left. I even did my best to ignore the choking gasps of Twilight's quiet sobs as she hung her face in a pair of hooves.
The only thing that shook me out of my stupor was the sound of Mrs. Cake's hooftrots, as the noble mare walked silently away from the eye of the dissipated storm, reminding me just how lonely and ineffectual I was...
And how I would forever be.
Then, the shivers returned.
The cold chills dragged me out of Ponyville, down dirt paths through the woods, and into the rattling shell of my wooden cabin. As soon as the door shut behind me, I couldn't stop moving. I couldn't stop pacing. I couldn't stop panting.
I spun circles in the room. I felt like my beating heart was going to leap out of my eyes. I gnashed my teeth and paused before the hearth, leaning my horn against the brick-laid fireplace. The whole world shook, wobbled, and then bowled.
Somepony was screaming. I watched in a lurched gasp as my saddlebag was tossed against the wall. Musical instruments fell in a rain of noise and chaotic crescendo. A flute shattered in half and a violin splashed in a spray of wooden splinters. I trounced through it, I kicked the pieces everywhere, the pieces of me, the parts that could still make noise—and all of it yelling.
The air tasted of blood, sweat, and phlegm. There is no scent sweet enough to mask the decay of childhood. I hurled myself into the bloodless wound of some forsaken corpse, and I found my cot waiting for me beneath it all. I curled up on it, hugging my limbs to my chest so that I would stop destroying everything left in the cabin that was still beautiful. A shower of dust and music sheets was raining down on me, sprinkled with the flavorless notes of ice-cold elegies, the only things that bothered to be my companions anymore.
I didn't realize the truth until the tenth heavy blink of my eyes. Yet again, the tears would not come when I wanted them to. There was nothing left to warm me. That's how I knew that I was as cursed as I always imagined myself to be. It wasn't until then that Luna's dagger truly started digging into my back.
It was enough to see a strange town like Ponyville live and die around me. What I didn't need, what I had never asked for, was for Moondancer to arrive and show me just how much of my legacy had died, just how so much of it would stay dead, and just how much everything I had once treasured would never be so pristine again, and all because of one pathetic, missing factor.
And that missing factor was me.
I ran my hooves over my head. The cold was once more unbearable. As always, I wished it would take every waking nerve from me. And yet again, my wish remained unfulfilled.
No single pony is insignificant. Every life is a cornerstone to some unimaginably epic monument. When a pony dies, the entire foundation collapses with her. There are beautiful tragedies happening everyday, gigantic masterpieces of love and beauty that collapse between every waking blink. Very few ponies are cursed to bear witness to such holocausts.
I was one of the few, in fact, the only one. I had been hopeless for so long. But now—and only now—I had become friendless.
I shuddered and buried my face into my sheets as I tried to remember what their laughter sounded like.
No. This was not a blessing.
“It's a good thing you came to me for practice, Miss Heartstrings,” Twilight Sparkle said, her voice droning. She paced slowly around me in a silent shuffle. “A protection spell takes careful concentration to master. It's not something that a unicorn can so easily learn... on her lonesome.”
I had no problem concentrating. I stood in the center of the library, easily erecting the green dome of translucent energy above me. As I performed the buffer, I preoccupied myself with another problem entirely, the true reason for my coming there.
"You look like a pony who's learned many things on her own, Miss Sparkle," I very carefully murmured from where I meditated.
"Hmmm..." Her nostrils flared slightly. Her face was cold, deadpan, and heavy. Her eyes swam across the floor as she trotted towards a convergence of soft shadows. "I suppose I've always had... a singular gift for sorcery." She gulped and continued, "But I've always believed that one's connection to the realm of magic means nothing if one doesn't maintain attachments in this plane..." She came to a stop, her hooves scratching against the wood as she blinked into space. "Such attachments are a worthy challenge." She gnawed on her lip.
I almost ignored my protection field entirely as I stared across the dim library at her. She appeared as one with the streams of dust dancing in the afternoon light from the nearby windows.
"If I may be so bold, Miss Sparkle." I tried to smile. I swore I looked sadder than her. "I know I'm just a student here and now, but you appear as though you've had enough challenges as of late."
Twilight blinked. Slowly, she glanced aside at me. "One doesn't master magic without struggle, Miss Heartstrings."
"Yes," I said with a nod. "But is magic everything?"
She opened her mouth to respond. She lingered, fidgeting. Finally, she blurted, "It's easier. Magic, that is. I used to think it was everything." She stifled a weak sound coming from her throat. "There was... something blissful, and simple about those days that I spent alone, studying, pouring my way through tome after tome of enchantment theory. I don't know if you can understand, but, lonesomeness isn't all that bad if lonesomeness is all you know."
I couldn't help it. My protection field dissolved right then and there. I no longer feared the eighth elegy. "Oh Twilight..." I began with a pained murmur. But before this "stranger" could so much as trot towards her...
There was a knock on the door.
Without thinking about it, Twilight spoke to the air, "Come in."
When she came into the library, I was just as shocked as Twilight was. It had been two days since the incident at Sugarcube Corner, and yet there Moondancer was in the flesh. She didn't give Twilight the opportunity to utter any protest.
"I couldn't leave. Not yet. I... I just needed to..." She stopped, blinked, then gazed my way. There wasn't a single hint of a smirk on Moondancer's lips. I was finally looking into the face of a perfect stranger. "Oh. Uhm... Excuse me."
“No... I... uhm...” I jolted. I had learned by now the true value of being more invisible than a shadow. This whole visit felt like a mistake waiting to happen. I think I needed to be around Twilight more than she needed to be around me. But now? With Moondancer here? “I'm the one who needs to be excused.”
Twilight turned to squint at me. “Miss Heartstrings...?”
“I should have mentioned it earlier!” I said with a hollow chuckle while sliding my body through my saddlebag. “But I have a music lesson scheduled in two hours. Miss Hooves' kid. Uhm...whatshername, 'Disney?'”
“Yes, her. Child prodigy, that foal. But I gotta teach her the fine art of... uhm... solo flute blowing. Thank you for your time, Miss Sparkle.” I was already sliding myself away, but I was well out of range of Twilight's or Moondancer's view. Their gazes were locked on each other. I was as confused as I was relieved to see their eyes devoid of malice, instead full of something grand, mysterious, and vacant. I knew that something amazing or horrible or both was about to unfold all at once. So—as stealthily as I could—I cracked the side window to the library open with my telekinesis before slipping out through the front entrance.
Once outside, I flattened myself against the exterior of the treehouse building. Making sure no Ponyvilleans were watching from the street, I slid along the building until I squatted—perfectly hidden—behind a patch of bushes beneath the window that I had just left open.
From there, I could very easily hear every word being murmured between the two. I listened with quiet, lonely shivers.
“Moondancer, I thought... uhm...”
“That I'd be gone by now?”
“So did I. I got a train taking me to Fillydelphia in the next hour. But, like I was trying to say, I needed to stop by before I left. After all, it's only the polite thing to do...”
“You wanted to tell me, face to face, that you're no longer on board for designing the study program.”
“Wowsers, you really do know everything, don't you, Twilight?”
“I know! And I'm sorry! I... I just...”
There was a deathly pause.
Finally, Moondancer started over, “No. I'm not sorry. That's just the thing, Twilight. I'm not sorry. I can't even pretend to be. I look at you, I listen to you, and all I hear is a know-it-all. And you know what's the sad thing? I've always felt that way. I know I've always felt that way. Because as far back as I can remember, even as far back as my foalhood, there's always been your higher-than-thou attitude, your incessant need to correct my mistakes, your moralistic obligation to point out how wrong I am about everything I choose to say or do, and—”
“And you can't imagine why, for the life of you, you tolerate such a filly? You don't know why you put up with her, why you hung out with her, why you would play games or go to school with her?”
“I... I guess you just saved me from spilling a lot of hot air.”
“Would you like to do me the same favor, Moondancer?”
“Heh... Like how? By repeating everything you've ever said to my face? Berating me publicly when we're supposed to be having a good time? About how you can't stand how childish I am. About how you think I'm a big baby? About how you think I'm too lazy and goofy and carefree and—”
“Do you even know the way you come across at times, Moondancer? Do you realize how much the things you say can hurt a pony?”
“Do you realize how much you set yourself up to be hurt, Twilight?”
Again, there was silence. After a while, I heard the minute scratching of their hooves. Judging from the echoes, I could tell they were a universe's length from each other.
“Coming to Ponyville was a mistake, Twi. I only have myself to blame. It's yet another lesson I have to learn from doing stupid things, over and over again, and I know you would only agree with me.”
“Moondancer, stop saying—”
“And don't you flippin' try to placate me! Just what are you going to do? Are you going to try to talk some sense into me? Try and save something that's too much of a pain for us to even bother dealing with? Twilight, when we're in the same room together, it's like I'm walking on eggshells, and every little cracking noise bleeds my ears out. I feel like throwing up just thinking about how what I say may or may not flip you off your rocker.”
“Do I really come across as that controlling? Moondancer, if half the ponies I knew around town could somehow get away with being as wild and unpredictable as you—”
“But at least you can hang out with half the ponies around town, Twilight!” Moondancer's voice cracked. “So how come you can't stand to be in the s-same place as m-me?”
The next air of silence was bitter, like salt in the wound.
Moondancer sniffled, and finally bled forth in a wavering voice, “I can't lie, Twilight. You've made me want to snap my horn off in frustration more times than I can count, but at least I have the guts to... to admit when something needs to be b-buried! Something that was so unbelievably cr-crazy to begin with...”
Her voice sniffled a bit more, cast alone in the great void of white noise, until Twilight's breath limped forth for her:
“It's... It's always been this way, hasn't it?” I could almost imagine the gulping motion of her sore throat. “Even as foals, we couldn't stand each other. How did we manage, Moondancer? How did we make it alive into grade school?”
I heard Moondancer chuckle. It was a wet thing, like an arrow wound. “Well, Twilight... I guess children just bounce back to their hooves a lot more easily, huh?” She sniffed one last time and said in a firm voice, “But I can't bounce up from this. Not anymore. It's just... it's just stupid. I know it's stupid. You know it's stupid.”
“We can't stand each other. We never could. I don't know... I don't even want to know what made us think that we could.”
Twilight took a long breath. Her hooves shuffled, and I realized she was sliding away from the other mare. “So, this is it, then?”
“Yeah, Twi. Pretty much.”
“I... We could... That is...” Twilight's voice fumbled like her face must have been. “I'll send letters, Moondancer. I'll send letters and... and we can keep track. We can at least know where our lives take us—”
“And what makes you think that I'll want to read them any more than you'll want to write them, Twilight?”
Moondancer's next breath took as long to come out as she took to open the exit to the library. She stopped in the middle of the frame, and I heard her voice from both outside and inside. It had a ghostly quality, so that I almost understood what was slipping from Twilight's life forever.
“I'm glad, Twilight, that you're not alone here. I'm glad that you have friends in Ponyville who can tolerate you, at least with a lot more strength and conviction than I ever bothered to. You deserve that much. I mean it. I just hope you make the best of it.”
“And I just hope you don't make the worst of it.”
Moondancer jolted. For a moment there, she sounded ready to say something else, until she realized—as I did—that words would forever be useless to a chorus that had long lost its song. She left Twilight in a blink, positively scampering across town. When the door to the library closed behind her, I imagined Twilight's voice shuddering. But I wouldn't know for sure, for I had broken across Ponyville in a brisk trot after Moondancer.
Twenty minutes, I found her, sitting on a bench at the central train station. A saddlebag was resting beside Moondancer's folded legs. She gazed forlornly towards the east, where the inbound train was soon to arrive and take her to a home away from home.
I wasn't sure how I was going to go about doing this, only that I had to. Life is full of last chances, and none of them deserve to be ruined. As always, I worked my mind on the go, so that by the time I arrived at her side, I was uttering, “So you're headed to Fillydelphia?”
She blinked. She gazed up, and the smile that graced her face was familiar, but hollow. “Yup. City of Brotherly Lope, as in 'Oh brother am I tired of loping around this town.'” She sighed heavily and ran her hooves over her face. “Eh, do forgive me, I usually have much better material than this.”
“Not like anypony's throwing bits at you.” I shrugged, then squatted down on the bench at a liberal distance from her. “I'm headed to... uhm... Manehattan, myself. I always wanted to find out if the Big Apple was edible.”
“I’ve been there myself. That city's full of something, alright,” Moondancer muttered, staring off towards the eastern horizon. “But I assure you it's not applesauce.”
I ran a hoof through my mane as I stared in the same direction as her. My heart pulsed painfully, fearful that her train would show up at any moment. “I envy you. I've got several hours to wait. Good thing the Fillydelphia-bound train is almost here.”
“Oh yeah? Why?”
“You look as though you could collapse any second. I had no idea Ponyville was that exhausting.”
“Heh... I should have predicted that myself...” She looked as if she was going to say more, but her lips lingered on a painful thought.
I gazed softly at her, at her white coat, at her lavender eyes and scarlet mane. I remembered braiding her gorgeous hair to the music of Marezart while Twilight read us old mare's tales from a family tome that had been passed down the Sparkle family line for generations.
“I came to Ponyville to meet a friend,” I said. Moondancer was always herself. I decided, for my last time with her, to be myself as well. “I got something more than I had bargained for.”
“Heh...” She cast me a chilling smile. “You too, huh? Well, it's a small world, Miss...”
“Please...” I murmured. My grin was as painful as the breath I was forcing to say, “Call me Lyra.”
“I came here to see a friend too, Lyra. A foalhood friend,” Moondancer said to me. Her eyes were as distant as the east, to which she faced, to which she murmured, “Her name is Twilight Sparkle. She's a very famous filly around town. You've probably heard of her.”
“What one hears is what one hears from the pony speaking to her.”
“Heh... You almost sound like her...” Moondancer took a deep breath. “Only you don't sound quite so haughty.”
“Nnngh... It's not even that...” She ran a hoof over her face and groaned. “I came here to help her with something, after it had been so many, many years since we last met. What I discovered was that those years meant something. They erased the memories I had...”
“What memories, pray tell?”
She gulped hard. “Memories of annoyance. Memories of frustration. Memories of constant head-butting and agony between fillies who'd do much better fighting a war than trying to have a sleepover.”
I squirmed where I sat, murmuring, “Don't all children... have problems clicking, from time to time?”
“Yes, but that fades with the years that go by. At least, normally it should. But with Twilight and I...” She paused, bit her lip, then looked at me. “I think it's that she grew up too fast. There's nothing wrong with that, really. She just became uber smart and uber studious at a really young age. And I...” She gazed past me, towards the horizon once more, as her violet eyes locked onto a terrible truth, and it moistened them. “She's right.”
“Twilight's right...” Moondancer's voice shuddered. She remained her composure with remarkable maturity right there before me. “I am like a child nowadays. But...” Her voice grew as firm as her eyes as she sniffled a painful breath away and frowned into the dying afternoon. “What she doesn't know is that—at one time—I had no choice but to grow up. She never went out into the world like I did, or as early as I did. Where she stayed under a royal tutor's wing and learned about the secrets of magic from books, I explored Equestria and caught glimpses of real life up close and personal. I had to do things the hard way, and it made me grow up way faster than I ever wanted to at the time. So now...” She chuckled breathily and looked down at her hooves fiddling with one another. “So now, I can't help it. I like to be a big kid. I like to have fun and be goofy and live life from under a loose saddle. It's because I understand... I know how quickly life can blur by if we don't stop to treasure it.”
She gulped and fought away a wince. She looked at me.
“That's why I became a teacher, I think,” Moondancer said. “I wanted to surround myself with youth. I wanted to witness life blossoming around me each and everyday. Do you think that's a shallow reason for making such a career choice?”
I slowly shook my head and said, “No. Not at all.”
“And now Twilight...” Moondancer stared towards the distant haze of Ponyville beyond the wooden structure of the train station. Slowly, her lips quivered and her eyes watered. “N-now Twilight's in such a good place, surrounded by so many amazing things, and does she even know it? I mean does she really, really know it?” She gulped as her voice cracked, “I don't think she does. I don't think she realizes that she's grown so old in so little time that she has no chance of stepping back and recapturing that joy... that bliss of what it means to relax, to be alive. She won't take her nose out of a book—she won't pull her mind out of her high seat long enough to realize that this... all of this... is not worth sweating so much over. And it's just so painful to watch...”
“Perhaps...” I bravely said “...somepony could help her find that joy?”
Moondancer clenched her eyes shut. “I can't.”
I didn't bother asking why.
She answered me anyways. “Because...” She sniffled and glanced painfully at me. “I've been there before. And though it was only a short time, I don't ever want to be there again. I've grown old and I know it. So much as staying in the same room as Twilight: I'm brought back there, and I feel all that much closer to death, and she's hung around an immortal royal alicorn for so long that... that I don't think she'll ever know it when it hits her, and by then it will be too late for her and those that she's close to.” She shuddered and ran a hoof over her eyes, drying them. “Sometimes, I think, it's best to lose things when they're less painful to be ripped away, especially when we have the strength to do away with it.”
I heard a whistle. I looked towards the distance, and it was my time to fight the urge to cry. I saw her train looming over the horizon. She was already standing. I wanted to memorialize this thing with a dirge, but my mouth was too numb.
“Well, I know what I stand to lose, and what I can't.” Moondancer hoisted her saddlebag over her spine and smiled with steely courage. “I have a bunch of students waiting for me. I have a career.” She briefly chuckled. “Heck, I even have one adorable hunk of a stallion to go on long walks with.” Her head hung briefly. “Those are things I can afford. More importantly, they're things that I wish to afford.”
By now, I was struggling not to sob. I cleared my throat, trying my best to avoid the sight of the hissing train rolling to a stop. I never imagined a moment like this would be so loud and obnoxious. Steam billowed between us like cold vapors as I shouted above the settling engines.
“I'm sure you'll have a great life ahead of you. And so will this Twilight.”
“The past is the past, Lyra. I choose to live in the future. I always have. Only now, I've got no reason to second-guess that.”
“I hope it's everything you've worked for, Miss...” I entreated, my eyesight blurring. I knew her name. I cherished her name. I only wanted with every fibre of my being to hear it one last time. To hear her say it.
And she did. With her wink and her smile and her everything. “Moondancer. And if someday you read in the papers about the whole of Fillydelpia crumbling to ashes, that will just have been the result of me giving a darn about something.”
Evening had fallen, pulling a dark shroud over Ponyville. Twilight Sparkle was sitting at a table in Sugarcube Corner. It was later than when she usually sat there, but she didn't seem to mind. Nor did any of the other ponies pay her any notice, in spite of a rather dramatic event that had transpired there two days before.
One pony, however, eventually trotted up to her table. I lingered before her for a few minutes, bothering myself over pretense, until I remembered the tone in the voice of a friend I had just lost and decided that pretense was absurd.
“Ahem. Uhm... Miss Sparkle?”
She slowly gazed up from a sheet of notes that she had been carefully reading. “Hmm?” She blinked, as if coming out of a stale dream. “Oh, I'm sorry. Can I help you, Miss...?”
“Heartstrings. I was wondering... erm...” I pretended to wince. “Oh, yeesh. You're off duty, aren't you? I really shouldn't be asking you any library-related questions...”
“No, please...” She smiled as softly as she could manage. “The way I see it, I'm always ready and willing to help Ponyville and its citizens with research. What do you need?”
“It's not so much an issue. I was just wondering if you... if you gave personal lessons in practicing magic.”
“Oh. Oh that... Eheh...” Twilight sighed long and hard. Her eyes fluttered limply to the tabletop before her. “I... I'm not all that qualified as a tutor.”
My heart sank. That was new. “What... uhm... What makes you say that, Miss Sparkle? Everypony in town says that you're the Element of Magic and—”
“I'm just... What I mean to say is, if you really want to learn about magic, I guess I could do my best to... g-give you a lesson...” She shuddered painfully through uttering that.
I swallowed slowly. I saw a train slowly rolling away in the back of my blinking eyelids. I murmured without looking at my friend. “Is this a bad time? You... you seem down.”
“I've had better days, I guess,” Twilight murmured. “But, you needn't worry about any of it...”
That was it. I smiled at her. I gave her a soft expression, entreating. “Who said I was worrying, Miss Sparkle?”
She gazed up at me. Her eyes twinkled with a foalish need, and then returned once more to an adult glaze. Nevertheless, something soft and genuine slipped through. “I just finished saying goodbye to the one best friend I had as a foal. I had asked her to come visit me and assist in putting together a local study program, and... and for the past few days, we spent every waking moment blowing up at one another. I was never so...” She shook her head as her pained eyes danced over the floor. “I don't remember ever rubbing her the wrong way so much... or anypony for that matter. It's as if all of those times we got along together as foals never happened.”
I slowly sat down across from her and folded my forelimbs atop the table. “Perhaps... Perhaps time changes us for the worst?”
Twilight gulped and shook her head. “I don't believe that for one second. I think that we are always essentially who we are, from start to finish, even if we have varying degrees of expressing it. This friend—or this mare that I thought was my friend—she must have always been my foil. I simply didn't realize it until now.” She gulped and hung her head with a sigh. “I just feel so foolish...”
I gave her a sympathetic look. “Bad breakups happen. I wish you wouldn't feel bad about it—”
“That's just it. I don't.”
She looked up at me. “I don't feel bad about it.” She gulped and her eyes darted aside. “That is, I don't feel bad about... about her being gone from my life, as much as I feel bad for having lost something so easily. It's as if...” She gnawed on her lip.
I stared at her. “What, Miss Sparkle?”
She murmured limply. “It's as if something is missing from my life. There's... there's a great hole, Miss Heartstrings. There's always been a great hole. And Moondancer—this mare—she and I somehow danced around it, somehow ignored how utterly and completely incompatible we were as best friends forever. And all these memories I have... all these happy memories: suddenly they mean absolutely nothing to me.” She choked briefly and her eyes twitched. “And I don't understand. In spite of all of my years of learning, in spite of all my practice in logic, I just... don't understand what went wrong...”
I fumbled with my hooves, tracing lazy circles beneath the cold lamplight in Sugarcube Corner's evening hours. The stars outside started to twinkle, just like they once did outside a bedroom when princesses and sorcerers once roamed the earth.
“I... I had these two friends once,” I said.
Twilight quietly looked at me.
“They were the best companions a little filly could ever ask for.” I smiled, my eyes becoming entranced in the memories afforded me by the swirling wood varnish of the table. “Neither of them were alike. One was creative, but bossy. The other was bubbly, but impulsive. If you put the two of them in a giant jar and rattled it, I'd have no doubt they'd come out with both of their heads bitten off. Heheh...” I gulped and ran a hoof over the back of my neck as I went on. “But I loved them all the same. I loved the way their voices sang in the air as we trotted through town. I loved how bizarre and dramatic our games of pretend would be because neither one of them would ever think of the same thing. Every day I spent with them was a moment to remember, to cherish, to carry with me into the minefields of adulthood.”
I took a deep breath and sat back in my seat, clutching my hoodie sleeves as I eyed the dusty ceiling beams of the eatery.
“And then...” I swallowed. “And then we grew up. And we spread apart. We each studied our own schools of unicorn arts, ultimately choosing separate careers. And one day—a long time after we were young enough to get away with putting on toy tiaras or braiding our manes while singing nursery rhymes—we attempted a reunion. Hmmmm... It was the worse thing we could have ever thought of doing. Too many years had gone by, and we had grown so old and so serious that whatever glued us together in the past was gone. My companions were as bright and remarkable and intelligent and witty and beautiful as ever. They were the same essential creatures of happiness that they were birthed into this world to be. But, sadly, our friendship just couldn't last. And do you know why, Miss Sparkle?”
“Why?” She leaned forward, her mouth agape. “Why couldn't it last?”
“Because friendship is like a song,” I said quietly. “Its disparate melodies and chorus can be the most enchanting things to ever light the air.” I slowly tilted my head down. I gazed into her eyes solemnly. “But even the most spectacular song means nothing without its bridge. It falls apart. It loses cohesion. It's anything but harmonic. Beautiful things will always be beautiful things, but they're not always destined to remain so together.”
Twilight's jaw tensed. She avoided my gaze. For a moment there, I felt she was drawing away faster than the train that had carried Moondancer.
I knew what needed to be said next. I leaned forward and rested my hoof on one of hers. “Look at me, Miss Sparkle.”
She did. Weakly so.
“Everything dies,” I said. “Everything. We have it within ourselves to delay it, at least, and to do so gracefully, if only we can take the things that are most precious to us and bridge the gaps between us before they grow any deeper. You're more than a smart pony, Miss Sparkle.” I smiled gently. “You are a blessed one. Don't let the end of something that has been collapsing all your life deter you from the joys and opportunities you have around you. Don't give into despair, or else something blessed will become something cursed.”
She looked at me, her face frail and vulnerable “All the time I've been in Ponyville, I've made it my task to write letters to Princess Celestia, teaching her what I've learned about friendship.” She paused as her lip quivered and a tear rolled down her face. “I never thought I'd be writing her about the end of one...” She wanted to say more, but couldn't. Her face cracked, scrunched up, and fell towards the table-top as the tears began flowing.
I enclosed her hoof with both of mine and squeezed it. “Listen to me, Miss Sparkle. Learn from this, feel from it, but don't dwell on it. You have friends now... here and now... in Ponyville. And you haven't lost them.”
“I... I don't w-want to lose them t-too...” She sniffled.
“Then seize the moment. Think of the future.” My eyes were dry, unlike hers, but I no longer felt angry over it. I smiled with the devilish charm of a teacher who would find wisdom in pranking students and fattening infant dragons. “Be alive while you can, with the friends you have to share it with, and maybe you won't have to worry over writing about the end of anything anymore—” My speech was interrupted by a breath of vapors. I gasped, leaning back and covering my mouth. With wide eyes, I looked out the window.
The moon was shining high in the fallen shroud of night.
My teeth chattered as I hugged myself. “No. Please, no. Not now...”
I heard a ringing sound behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. Rarity was marching into Sugarcube Corner. Her mane was frayed from a long day's worth of sewing unknowable lengths of fabric. She yawned, at least in as ladylike a manner as she could afford to, before telekinetically stringing a blue scarf around a coat wrack.
“Oh, good heavens! What a strenuous day! Ohhhhhh Mrs. Caaaaake! Please do tell me it's not too terribly late to order a mint souffle...”
I winced through layers of cold. I gnashed my teeth, shook my head, and desperately whimpered in Twilight's direction. “Miss Sparkle. Please, hear me out. Don't forget about—” I looked up. She was gone. “Tw-Twlight?” I stammered. I looked every which way. I sensed a shadow blindly gliding past me. I spun around once again. My heart skipped a beat.
Twilight was walking across Sugarcube Corner... and she was trotting directly towards a friend. “Uhm... G-good evening, Rarity.”
“Twilight! Oh, just the mare I wanted to see!” Rarity stifled a giggle as she leaned against the cake counter, fluttering her eyelashes. “You'll never believe this dress I was ordered to make for Sapphire Shores today! I mean, she's usually a pony of remarkable fashion, but lately she's developed something of a terribly garish taste and...” She stopped in mid speech. Her face paled twice over as she glanced with wide blue eyes at her companion. “Why... Twilight! You look positively awful! What ever is the matter?”
Twilight glanced up, trying to smile. Her cheeks were moist with fresh tears. “I was just... wondering... if... if you...”
“Twilight, darling...” Rarity rested a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. “Speak to me! Is everything alright?”
At that, Twilight caved. Twilight melted. Her legs buckled as she nearly sunk to the floor. “No. Everything’s not alright.” She hiccuped on a sob and covered her face with a shaking hoof. “I-I really need a friend to t-talk to right now...”
Before Twilight could fall, Rarity was there to catch her, to hold her. The two huddled together in the front of Sugarcube Corner. Rarity nuzzled her friend, absorbing every shake and whimper with a gentle hug and sweet smile. “Shhh... There there, darling. Let it out. Then you can tell me all about it...”
From across the room, I swiveled in my seat and clutched my forelimbs to my shivering chest. I felt happy and nauseous all at once. There's no simple way to describe what it means to give up something you've cherished all your life, but some things are best to tear away sooner than later. My smile was merely a practical thing. It carried me past Twilight's blissful release, out of Sugarcube Corner, and into the loyal embrace of night.
“My, my, Starswirl!” Twilight utters from where she sits on the edge of a patio chair. The sun-glinting rooftops of boundless Canterlot apartments loom in the distance. “What an amazing instrumental you have performed in our honor! I almost think of calling it Equestria's National Anthem!”
“Eh, it could have used more drums,” Moondancer manages to say before making a juvenile raspberry with her tongue.
“Luna!” Twilight gasps. “How unbecoming of a princess!”
“I thought we were gonna go hunting after dragons!”
“We will once we rid Equestria of the changeling plot!”
“Changelings are stupid! Let's go smack some dragons around!”
“Not until after Starswirl's done with our song—”
“Actually, girls,” I stop playing the xylephone briefly.
“Don't you mean 'your highnesses'?” Moondancer does a mock curtsey and rolls her eyes at Twilight.
“Lyraaaaa! You're supposed to stay in character!”
I clear my throat and twirl the xylephone sticks in between my hooves. “No, really. I kind of sort of made this song for the both of you.”
Moondancer blinks. “Really? You mean this isn't pretend?”
Twilight jumps down from her high seat. “A song? For us? Really?”
I giggle. “Why not? I feel like singing every time you're both around.”
“Heehee! You hear that, Twi? I make her want to sing!”
“Nuh uh! She says we make her want to sing!”
“Hey!” I squeal briefly, sitting up between them. “This isn't singing! Do you wanna hear the song or not?”
Moondancer fiddles with her hooves. “Did you... really make something this pretty just for us?”
I smile at her. “Yes.” I look at Twilight. “And yes. Cuz you're both fun and cool and stuff.”
Twilight's face scrunches in perplexion. “But you're always Starswirl the Bearded.”
“And you're always having to bark at us like a dog,” Moondancer says. At that, Twilight giggles, and she does too.
“Maybe I don't hate it?” I shrug. “Maybe I like being Starswirl the Bearded all the time.”
Both girls stare at me. Then at each other. Joined as one, they chirp, “You're weird!” They poke their hooves into me and lean against each other, laughing.
I giggle. I revel in the attention. I revel in them. “So, how about it? Wanna learn the words I wrote?”
“How does it start!”
“Well, like this...” I start plunking the xylophone keys, one after another, in charming awkwardness. “Best. Friends. Sing. Together. Forever—”
“BestFriendsSingTogetherForeverrrrr--” They both let loose in an purposeful, uncoordinated caterwaul.
“Guysss!” I pout. “You're not supposed to shout it!”
“Heheh...” I blush and smile. “But were are supposed to do it together.”
“Sure thing, Lyra.”
“Best. Friends. Sing. Together. Foreverrrrrr...”
We practice. We sing. We hit some notes. We miss some others. The day wears on from gold to red to purple, and no matter how many mistakes we make, we are harmonious.
We are together.
Under the stars, with the hushed breath of the forest as my cadence, I sat on the patio of my cabin. I had my lyre in my hooves. Without looking, I telekinetically toyed with the strings. The aged skin on my brow furrowed under a dim green glow as I sought the notes to a song a little filly had once composed so many years ago, when warmth was something that could be tasted.
As I performed the ancient tune, my melody reached into the future in a desperate bid to bridge the darkness around me, something that was engulfing my life thicker and thicker with each passing day.
I was performing the song alone. It occurred to me that, perhaps, I had always been from the beginning.
As long as I am alive, I shall do the remembering for all of us. Our friendship will never die.