Hello? Is... is this thing on? The red light means it's on, right? Or do I... I have to push a button, don't I? Well, which one? There's like ten! The black one? They're all black!
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Note: First off, I want to apologize for the obscenely long wait. I could make excuses about how I had things to do, but in reality, it was purely down to laziness on my part. Also, for those of you returning to the story, I've made some modifications to the last few scenes in the first chapter. It might be a good idea to give the last bit a once-over to avoid any confusion.
As always, thanks to Bronius Maximus for the pre-read. Now let's get on with this already. I've certainly kept you waiting long enough.
It would be nice to say that all was quiet in the halls of Canterlot Castle: specifically, the halls directly outside Princess Celestia’s private chambers. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case, as the current Acting-Captain of the Guard was paying the solar princess a not-so-clandestine visit.
And so, the guards outside their princess’ chambers had to stand at attention, fighting to maintain neutral expressions, as the admittedly distracting sounds of the unofficial “meeting” drifted out from behind the doors. In all honesty, just the fact that the two pegasi managed to remain at their posts as the all-too-familiar grunting and slapping sounds echoed through the halls could be considered an accomplishment.
The one on the right was trying especially hard to ignore the sounds and focus on just about anything else. At the moment, he was unsuccessfully trying to distract himself by counting the tiles in the floor’s mosaic pattern. At the very moment that he completed one of the arcs of flame branching out from the stylized sun, a scroll appeared in front of him in a gout of green flame, making him lose his count.
Both guards stared at the scroll for a moment, then looked at each other. Then at the doors to Celestia’s chambers.
“Your turn,” the one on the right said.
“I did it last time!” the other snapped. “Get your facts straight!”
“What about that time I had to deliver that missive while you were conveniently out with the feather flu?”
“I was actually sick!”
After a moment, the guard on the right sighed heavily. “Fine. I can see there’s only one way to settle this.”
“No, you idiot,” the right-hand guard snapped, fishing a single bit out of his pocket.
“Oh,” the other replied, as the guard flipped the coin in the air and caught it deftly on his ankle, covering it with his other foreleg.
“Bull. Let me see that.”
The guard snatched the coin from his comrade, and studied it intently for a moment. Finally, he swore, tossed the coin back and snatched the scroll off the ground. “If I get mooned, I’m blaming you,” he said, before raising a hoof and knocking on the door.
A brief scuffle could be heard from inside the room, before a male voice called, “This better be important!”
“Letter for the princess,” the guard responded. After a brief pause, the door opened, revealing a sweaty and flushed Princess Celestia.
“I’ll take that,” she said, wrapping the letter in her magic and levitating it somewhere inside her chambers.
The guard peeked around her, noticing Aspis, the Acting Captain while Shining Armor was on his honeymoon, standing in a corner, as flushed as the princess. “I hope you weren’t too busy,” the guard said dryly.
“Not at all,” Celestia responded. “We were just about to finish our second round.”
The guard made a face, and snuck a pleading glance at his comrade.
“You can watch if you want,” Celestia continued warmly.
“I’ll pass,” the guard replied, his voice shaking.
The alicorn shrugged. “Have it your way,” she said, turning back to the ping-pong table in the center of the room. “What was the score again?” she called to Aspis.
“Ten billion to one, my favor,” the unicorn replied.
“It is not.”
“Then keep track.”
Celestia was just about to launch into a fierce rebuttal, but her Acting Captain cut her off. “What’s the letter?”
The alicorn frowned. In all honesty, she hadn’t even looked at it. It was likely some notice from a noble, demanding an audience or something equally tiresome. With a heavy sigh, she retrieved the scroll from where she’d flung it carelessly into a corner, loathe to spend even a moment away from her game.
However, the moment she took a closer look at the parchment and noticed the slight charring around the edges that was indicative of dragon fire, her yearning for a good game of ping-pong was driven from her head.
“Another one?” she said, puzzled. “Why would she-“
Aspis moved toward the door, recognizing the expression on Celestia’s face. “Shall I take my leave, then?” he asked, all stiff formality once again.
Celestia took a moment to finish reading the letter before responding. “Yes. I’m sorry, Aspis, but I’m afraid I have to cut our match short. Shall we call it a draw?”
“Something wrong?” Aspis asked, stiffening. “I can deploy a contingent of heavy cavalry if you-“
“That won’t be necessary,” Celestia interjected. At least, I hope not. “My pupil just needs some… well, let’s say she needs some guidance."
Her acting Captain nodded in understanding. “Shall I prepare a carriage?”
Celestia smiled and flared her wings. “I do have these, Captain.”
Aspis sighed. “You know I can’t let you go without an escort, Your Highness.”
“I suppose I’ll just have to sneak out, then,” Celestia replied, launching off the ground and diving through an open window before her Acting Captain could even say a word. By the time he opened his mouth, all there was to chastise was a single white feather bobbing on the eddies of air.
Spike glanced up from his book as the door swung open. “The library’s closed,” he called out.
“It’s me,” Twilight said as she walked through the door.
The dragon frowned, glancing outside. The sun had barely moved. “Uh… you’re back already? It's been... what, five minutes?”
“Something wrong?” Twilight asked.
“No!” Spike replied. “It’s just… You said you needed to think. And I thought…”
Twilight smiled. “Oh, Spike. There’s nothing to think about! I just needed to clear my head. I barely even went around the block!”
Spike blinked, momentarily stymied. If he knew Twilight at all, a grammatical error from her mentor should have sent her into a state of complete panic. It had sent her into a state of barely restrained panic.
“I was getting myself all worked up over nothing,” Twilight continued, reshelving a biology textbook that Spike had missed, mainly due to it having slid under a table. “So, I decided to just take a quick walk to focus my thoughts, and I realized just how silly I was being.”
“So…” Spike ventured, “You’re okay with Celestia making a mistake?”
Twilight surprised him by chuckling. “Oh, Spike. She didn’t make a mistake! She never makes mistakes. Once I realized that, there was only one logical answer.”
Alarm bells immediately started ringing in Spike’s head. He knew she was being too calm. Any second now would come the wild, illogical assumption, and then the-
“She must have been in the middle of her weekly ping-pong match with Captain Aspis, and just dictated the letter to someone else. She didn’t make a mistake. Whoever transcribed the letter did!”
It took a moment for her words to register. “Uh…” Spike managed. That… actually made sense. In a bizarre, grasping-at-straws sort of way, but as long as she wasn’t convinced her fundamental understanding of grammar was incorrect…
“I’m just glad I realized what I was doing before I embarrassed myself,” Twilight finished, still grinning. “So… how about we keep this between us?”
Spike chuckled nervously. “Yeah… about that…”
Twilight ignored him and strode over to the window. “You know, I can’t even imagine what the Princess would think if she knew I freaked out about something as silly as that. Magic kindergarten might be a little far-fetched, but I can see a whole lot of annoying psychological evaluations coming out of that.”
A frown crossed her features at that last sentence. It seemed that wherever she went, there was some so-called professional yapping at her about “delusions,” or “obsessional behaviour,” or some other such nonsense. It was downright irritating at times.
Spike, meanwhile, swallowed nervously and wiped some sweat from his brow. “I guess,” he said, forcing a laugh.
The forced chuckle trailed off as he detected movement through one of the windows. Something large and white had just landed in front of the house. A moment later, there was a knock at the door.
“Oh! Now who could that be?” Twilight said, refusing to let anything disrupt her good mood.
Before Spike could even wince in anticipation, she’d opened the door. “Good after-“ she began. Then she saw her mentor standing before her, and her expression instantly flashed to horror as she made a dozen connections at once. To her credit, she managed something that sounded vaguely like “Gah!” which, depending on the language, could be interpreted as “One moment please,” before slamming the door and wheeling on her assistant.
“Spike,” she asked quietly. “Why is Princess Celestia at my door?”
Spike winced. “Well… I may have gotten a little worried, and sent a letter asking her to come down here…”
“I thought it was a good idea!” Spike protested. “You were acting funny again, and I thought it would be best not to take any chances!”
Twilight took a deep breath, her mind racing. “Okay,” she said. “This might not be all bad. Maybe I can convince her you were just inviting her down for tea-“
“I specifically mentioned that it was because you were acting strangely,” Spike replied.
“Spike…” Twilight moaned, putting her hooves over her eyes.
A series of knocks sounded from the other side of the door. “Twilight?” Celestia’s voice called.
Dear Harmony, I just slammed the door in Princess Celestia's face! Twilight suddenly realized. Okay, focus. You can fix this. Maybe I can pretend nopony’s here? No, that’s ridiculous. She already saw me. And every second I wait just makes it worse… Maybe I can convince her that it was a mistake?
Twilight took another moment to plaster a smile on her face, and swung the door open. “Why, Princess Celestia!” she said warmly. “What a pleasant surprise! Can I get you anything?”
Celestia blinked, unamused. “Is there any reason you slammed the door in my face a moment ago?”
Twilight’s smile cracked. “I… uh… thought you were somepony else! There’s this door-to-door salespony who just doesn’t take a hint, and I… uh… thought you were him, and…”
To her immense relief, the Princess seemed to buy her pathetic explanation.
“So,” Twilight said shakily. “What brings you out here?”
Celestia looked past her into the library. “Spike sent me a letter saying you were getting worked up over something. He seemed to think it was serious enough to require my presence.”
“Did he?” Twilight said nervously, forcing a laugh. “Oh, that Spike. What a kidder. Ha ha…”
Celestia frowned. “I didn’t get the impression that he was joking.”
“Well, you know dragons,” Twilight replied, a bit too quickly. “Sometimes, when he’s had too much amethyst…”
“Is everything all right?” Celestia asked, cutting her off. “You look nervous.”
“Nervous? I’m not nervous!” Twilight scoffed, unaware that her right eye had begun twitching violently. “Well, you can see that there’s nothing wrong here, and I know you have important things to be working on-“
Twilight left her mouth on autopilot, her mind racing. She’s not buying it. This isn’t working. But I can’t back out now without looking like an idiot! I should have just explained what was going on. Stupid!
“Twilight,” Celestia said sternly. “I’ve known you for years. I can tell when there’s something bothering you.” An edge of steel entered her voice. “Or when you’re lying.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Twilight squeaked. “I wouldn’t lie to you! What a silly-“
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Spike howled. “Make it stop!”
Both Twilight and Celestia turned to him, the former frantically making “shut up” gestures, the latter frowning in consternation.
Spike took a breath. “All right. Yes, I sent you a letter because Twilight was acting strangely. No, there didn’t end up being a problem. And if she’s acting oddly now, it’s because you’ve showed up completely unannounced, and she's terrified of making a bad impression. Now can we please just forget about this and turn it into an ordinary visit?”
Silence reigned in the library for a brief moment. That's it, Twilight thought, cringing in anticipation. I'm dead.
Celestia turned to her. "Is this true?"
Twilight nodded shakily, not trusting herself to speak.
The alicorn was silent for a long, agonizing moment. Finally, she turned to her pupil. "Well, Twilight... you've left me no choice."
She paused for a moment longer, almost as if for dramatic effect. "We'll just have to pretend this is a scheduled visit."
"I'm sorry!" Twilight burst out. "I'll do anything you want! Just don't-" She cut herself off as Celestia's words registered. "Huh?"
"You're not in trouble," Celestia said, a hint of laughter in her voice. "You can relax now."
Celestia's words were the very definition of redundant. Twilight was, at that very moment, doing her best not to sink through the floor in relief. If such a thing were even physically possible, she was sure she would be doing that. But as it stood, she had to settle for a barely audible sigh.
"Now if I might ask," Celestia said, "what kind of behaviour was Spike so concerned about?"
Twilight blushed. “Oh, I don’t think we need to go into that…”
“Why not?” Spike said. “It’s actually pretty funny when you look back on it.”
“Fine,” Twilight said, stifling a chuckle. Now that she thought about it, it was a little funny. Of course, she had no way of anticipating what was about to happen. If she had, she likely would have clapped both hooves over her ears and begun loudly singing “Waltzing Matilda,” regardless of what immediate consequences that would have resulted in. In reality, every instinct was screaming at her to change the topic and move on. Unfortunately, her brain was so drowned in relief that everything seemed to have been resolved that her instincts were little more than a distant fly buzzing in her ear.
“I thought you’d made a mistake in the letter you sent me a little while ago,” she said, giggling. “Which was ridiculous, because you never make mistakes. Funny, huh?”
Celestia cocked her head. “Which one? You mean that letter I penned about an hour ago?”
Twilight nodded. “Yes! That one! Which was about a mistake Spike made, in fact. Isn’t that iron...” Her voice trailed off as Celestia’s words sunk in. “You penned that letter yourself?”
“Of course I did,” Celestia replied, puzzled. “You’re my pupil, after all. Having one of my scribes pen a letter to you would be downright insulting.”
“But…” Twilight sputtered. “That means…”
“That means what?” Celestia asked, frowning. “Is there something wrong? You’re starting to sweat again.”
Twilight shook her head, forcing her features to remain neutral. “Oh, nothing. Just… one of those hot summer breezes. Heh heh…”
“Tell you what,” Celestia said. “How about you show me this letter? We can lay both our concerns to rest.”
Spike was already there with the scroll in his claws, eyes flicking nervously toward Twilight. “It’s here,” he said cautiously.
“Ah,” Celestia said, unrolling the scroll. Her eyes quickly scanned it for a heart-stopping period, at the end of which she shrugged. “I see nothing wrong.”
Twilight’s jaw dropped. “But… look here!” She thumped her hoof down on that infernal ‘it’s.’ “The apostrophe shouldn’t be there!”
Celestia peered closely at it for a moment. Then she laughed. “What do you know? You’re right. I didn’t even think about that.”
“But…” Twilight sputtered. “But…”
“You never make mistakes!” The unicorn protested, staring at the glaring error in the letter. “How could you…”
Celestia laughed musically. "Twilight, I penned that letter immediately after a very intense round of table tennis. I think I can be forgiven for an apostrophe in the wrong place."
"I guess," Twilight mumbled.
"If it makes you feel better," Celestia continued, "I was losing the game you interrupted quite badly. I had some difficulty focusing."
Twilight's ears went flat as a surge of guilt swept through her. "I interrupted your weekly match with Aspis? I-if I'd known, I wouldn't have–"
"Don't worry," Celestia replied. "I said I was losing, didn't I? Now, was there anything else you wanted to talk about?"
"Not really," Twilight said without really paying attention. For some reason, she couldn't quite shake the nagging suspicion that something was off.
"Well, then," Celestia said. "If you'll excuse me, I have a match to get back to." Her expression soured for an instant. "And a thirty-point stretch to make up."
She paused for a moment, noting that Twilight still seemed distracted. "If there's anything you need to talk about, I'm here for you. Just remember that."
"Sure," Twilight replied, holding the door open. "Don't let me keep you."
After the Princess had left, Twilight turned to Spike. "Well... that went better that I thought it would."
The dragon folded his arms. "What were you worried about? The town's in one piece, both of us are in one piece, and the issue that had you worked up wasn't an issue at all."
"That about covers it," Twilight admitted. "And you're right. I had nothing to worry about." Her light expression dissolved into a frown. "I just can't shake the feeling that something's not right."
"Relax, Twilight," Spike replied. "You're overreactinating. Or whatever that word is."
"Overreacting," Twilight corrected offhandedly. She turned and peered closely at her assistant. "Are you all right? You've been looking odd ever since I got back."
"It's nothing," Spike replied. "Just a bit of fog in my head. I might take a nap later on, actually."
"Do that," Twilight said. Once again, she had the overwhelming feeling that something was wrong.
She shook her head. Look at me. Getting stressed out over nothing again.
And so a unicorn continued with her life, putting aside her concerns. A princess returned to her nation's capital, satisfied.
And a force, dormant for so many years and only now stirring, reconsidered its plans. Reconsidered, and resolved to watch closely. To see what the lavender unicorn would do next.
End of Part 2
To be continued...