“...and that's why I promised Celestia I'd never use Tarragon's Temporal Travel Trick again. It could have caused a paradox and torn the fabric of spacetime apart! Time travel is definitely best left to the experts.”
Her point made, Twilight Sparkle paused to sip the last bit of tea in her cup. It had cooled during her impromptu lecture and tasted like warm grass on her tongue. She gave the cup a little frown and set it back on the table.
Her partner hadn't touched his tea yet. Throughout Twilight's entire recounting of her adventures with time travel, he had barely budged, his eyes wide as he listened with a degree of rapt attention she had not encountered since she herself was a student learning at Celestia's knee. He had only moved his head to nod, only opened his mouth to beg her for more details, prodding her to recall the oddest snippets from her few seconds unstuck from time.
It was the most attention she had ever received from a stallion other than her father and brother, Twilight realized. The thought brought a slight blush to her face, and she almost missed his next words.
“That is simply remarkable, Twilight.” His voice was as earnest as any she had ever heard, completely without guile or the slightest trace of sarcasm (and she knew a thing or two about sarcasm). He spoke with an odd, cultured accent, as though he hailed from somewhere overseas, familiar but just foreign enough to be exotic. His brown mane was stylishly unkempt, spiked and tousled in a way that practically screamed “I'm too cool to care about my hair.”
She wondered what his mane felt like. Would it be wrong to ask if she could touch it? Pinkie Pie was always touching other ponies, and Rarity could barely go five minutes without fussing over somepony's clothing or hair. It didn't seem fair that they could get away with such familiarity, but boring, bookish Twilight Sparkle could barely—
Pay attention you idiot he's talking again.
“...honestly surprised that it ended as well as it did. I take it your eye has healed completely?”
She jerked her thoughts away from his mane and back into the present. She tried to rewind the conversation in her head, to see what she had missed, but her normally eidetic memory was apparently on the fritz. Her eye. Her eye! What about it? Was there something in it? Oh, right, the telescope.The memory of staring through it at the sun set her blinking involuntarily.
“It's fine now. Not the first time I've been injured by a telescope,” she said smoothly. That was how cool ponies talked, right? Smoothly? Smooth. Smooooooth. She stretched the word out in her head. Yeah, smooth, just like that. “Just a bit of a flash burn. I had the patch off a few days later.”
He seemed suitably impressed. “Oh, an eyepatch? Sounds rakish. I would've liked to have seen that.”
I would've liked to have shown you that. Where had she put that thing, anyway? It was probably still on her dresser, assuming Spike hadn't thrown it away. It wouldn't be odd to show up in town wearing an eyepatch, would it? She could claim another accident, and after all, he had just said he wanted to--
Attention! You! Idiot!
She snapped back to the present, again, in time to see the waitress approaching their table. The pale blue earth pony had a platter balanced expertly on her back and trotted up to them without spilling a single drop or leaf from their plates.
“Order for...” She glanced down at an order slip taped to her hoof. “...The Doctor? Is that right?”
“Yes, that's me,” Doctor Whooves said. “I had the arugula salad, extra croutons, light vinegar. Did you remember the vinegar?”
“I'm sure the chef did, sweetie,” the waitress said. She grabbed the salad and set it on the table before him. It was conspicuously over-croutoned, to the point that the little cubes of dried bread practically spilled over the edge and onto the placemat.
He looked down at the plate, a vaguely disappointed expression on his face. His lips moved, and Twilight thought she heard him mumble something about more croutons.
“And a daisy sandwich for the lady.” The waitress set Twilight's order in front of her. It looked fine. No missing croutons, anyway. Its crouton quotient was a perfect zero.
“Anyway,” Twilight said once the waitress left. “I forgot to thank you. For, uh, lunch, I mean.”
“Oh, it's my pleasure. When I heard a fetching young filly from Ponyville had an adventure with time travel, I just knew I had to hear it from her first-hoof. The science of time dilation and contraction has always been a source of fascination for me, Twilight, but I always thought I was alone with that little peculiarity.”
Twilight blinked. There had been a compliment in there somewhere, she was sure. “Fetching” was a compliment, right? But he'd called her young, too. Did he mean young, as in foalish-young, or young, as in fresh-and-nubile-young? And science! He said he liked science! She liked science. They both liked science! She'd never run into another pony who—Oh Celestia he's staring at you quick say something!
“I like your mane,” she blurted. It slipped out before her brain had a chance to process the thought and its consequences. The compliment – harmless enough, under most circumstances – hung between in the silence that followed. She froze, her mouth still open, then tried to shrink back into her chair. In a rush, she snatched up the empty teacup and held it in front of her lips, pretending to drink from it. Anything was better than direct eye contact.
He stared at her, half a leaf of arugula sticking out of his mouth. After a long, fraught moment, he pulled it the rest of the way in, chewed slowly, and swallowed. It was the loudest sound in the cafe.
“Er, thank you,” he said. He looked up, as though trying to see his own mane, then back at her. “I like yours too?”
“Haha, yes, we both have nice manes.” She smiled as wide as she could. “But enough about me. You said you, uh... science! You said you like science!”
“Oh.” He blinked again, and his expression brightened. “Well yes, temporal physics has always been my first love. Back in my university days I spent years researching the relationship between space and time, trying to prove a causal relationship at various levels of... oh, but you don't want to hear about that, I'm sure.”
A goofy smile spread across Twilight’s face. “No, no, I do! None of my friends ever want to talk about science.” It was a tragedy – despite her best efforts to interest the other girls in rigorous scientific study, they never seemed to share her enthusiasm. She had even tried tailoring specific lines of inquiry to each of her friends: atmospheric physics for Rainbow Dash, textile science for Rarity, animal physiology for Fluttershy. But alas, each time they rebuffed her offers to experiment, sometimes within seconds of hearing them. Fluttershy hadn't even let her finish describing the frog dissection exercise before flying away. It was disheartening. Was she the only pony who cared about adiabatic lapse rates? Sometimes, she thought so.
The smile melted away, and she heard herself sigh. Just in time she realized the Doctor had responded while she was idling. She didn't bother disguising her lost train of thought. “Er, sorry, say that again?” she asked.
“I said, maybe they would be more interested if you tried to involve them without making the science too obvious?”
Twilight blinked. That sounded... sly. Very sneaky. She leaned forward over the table. “What do you mean?”
“Well, to use one of my favorite tools, why not ask your friends to make a time capsule with you?”
“A time capsule?” She blinked rapidly. “You mean, like they put in museums? I don't think we'll live that long.”
“Oh, no.” He waved a hoof. “Personal time capsules, like families create for their foals, can be for very short periods. Maybe just one year? You and your friends could all put something meaningful in one, and a year later get back together to open it. A good time capsule is as much a study in how ponies change as it is a study in the artifacts of the past.”
Hm. Twilight scratched her chin with a hoof. “That... that might just work. I am studying friendship, and a time capsule would be a great way to see how friends change over time. It's... it's brilliant!” She slammed her hoof onto the table, shaking their cups and plates and sending a loud report through the cafe. Dozens of eyes turned toward them, and she blushed. “Er, sorry,” she added.
He seemed taken aback by her sudden enthusiasm, but recovered with the quick ease she always envied in more-socialized ponies. “Well, yes, it is brilliant I suppose. No surprise there, ha ha! Why, if you're that interested, I'd be happy to build you a small time capsule. Good for one year.”
“You mean, actually make one? I was just going to use a coffee can or something like—”
He cut her off with a wave of his hoof. “Absolutely not, Twilight. A proper time capsule is a work of craftsmanship, as much art as engineering. I could never allow a fellow scientist to make do with a... a coffee can...” He made a face as he said the words, “...when I could very easily provide you with a real capsule.”
A fellow scientist! She stiffled a squeal of joy, but couldn't help clapping her hooves together. “That's so nice of you, Doctor. The girls will love it, and I'll be able to write an essay on our experience! Perhaps even a thesis!” Well, maybe not a thesis, but a filly could dream, couldn't she? For a few moments, she did just that.
Fortunately, he let her daydream in silence this time, instead polishing off the remains of his salad. The quiet crunch of croutons accompanied her flights of fancy, and when she drifted back from the clouds of imagination, he was ready for her.
“So, shall I drop it off at the library? I can have it ready in a few days' time.”
The library? Was it too soon for him to visit her at home? The dating guide Rarity had reluctantly let her borrow, Courtship and the Modern Mare, had advised young mares to go slow and only meet in public places with potential suitors. On the other hoof, that guide hadn't been written with scientists in mind. Scientists could naturally move faster than other ponies... not physically, of course, but emotionally. She knew the risks. She was ready for this.
She took a breath. “That would be wonderful, Doctor. I can't wait.”
Twilight Sparkle saw the Doctor coming from a mile away.
Literally. Her telescope was trained on the road leading from the library to the western half of Ponyville, where he lived. As soon as she saw the tan-and-brown dot moving at the edge of her vision, she focused the spyglass on his position and adjusted its dials and lenses until she could see him clear as crystal in the eyepiece. His mane, still stylishly spiked, bounced with each step, and she could just barely make out the hourglass mark on his flank as he turned to avoid a small crowd gathered around a cabbage stand. A large blue package about the size of a breadbox sat on his back. The time capsule, no doubt. Her heart began to beat faster.
She raced back in the balcony door and leaned over the railing separating her room from the rest of the tree. Looking down into the library's foyer, she shouted, “Spike! He's coming! Remember the plan!”
“Aw jeez, Twilight, can't you just meet him at the door like every other—”
“Spike! We only get one chance at this.” She frowned down at him.
He stared back up at her, then sighed. “Fine, fine.”
Excellent. All was going according to plan. She spun around and ducked back into her room, closing the door all but a crack. With the lights out, she crouched by the seam of light spilling in from the hallway and waited. Her ears flicked back and forth with nervous energy; her tail swished around absently, brushing dust across the wood floor, unnoticed by her galloping mind.
One-hundred and forty-seven seconds later, there was a faint knock from the library door below. Her ears swiveled forward, and she heard the scratch of Spike's clawed feet on the wood floor, then the creak of the front door opening, followed by a wash of sounds drifting in from the world outside. The gentle buzz of the town drowned out the conversation below.
“Twilight!” She heard Spike's voice from the base of the stairs. “There's a pony here to--”
No no no! She stomped her front hooves and shouted through the crack in the door. “Spike! That's not what we rehearsed!”
There was a moment of silence, followed by another long-suffering sigh. Finally, his voice returned. “Lady Twilight, there's a gentlecolt caller for you.”
Yes! She bounded out the door and dashed down the steps, barely avoiding Spike as he dove to the side with a yelp. The Doctor was waiting in the doorway, a startled expression on his face as she galloped toward him. She managed to slow herself in time to avoid a collision.
“Why, Doctor!” she said. She paused to take a breath; running down the stairs had taken more energy than she'd thought. “What a pleasant surprise.”
He blinked at her, apparently a bit surprised himself. “Ah, good day, Twilight!” He recovered quickly and gave her a winning smile. “It's done! I have your time capsule.”
“That's wonderful, Doctor,” she said. “I don't know how to thank you!” Actually, she had a few ideas, several of which promptly shoved their way into her mind for a few heady seconds until she could beat them back to her subconscious. Her research into the library's romance collection had provided her with a catalog of untested insights into the ways of mares and stallions, none of which were appropriate, however, at this stage in their relationship. If they even had a relationship – she wasn't really sure. Rarity would probably know. She made a mental note to speak with her friend in private, later.
“Oh, the look on your face is the only thanks I need.” He trotted past her into the library, a bounce in his step. With the fluid grace that earth ponies were born with and unicorns envied, he slung the package off his back and onto her reading desk. “Ta da!”
She walked up beside him – right beside him – and peered down at the capsule. It was a simple polished box made of some blue metal or plastic. The corners had been gently rounded, and the top third swung upward on hidden hinges, revealing a felt-lined interior large enough to comfortably hold several knick-knacks, documents, keepsakes and anything else a pony wanted to hide away in the earth for a year. She could already imagine her friends gathered around, each putting some personal treasure in it. Laughing. Sharing. Being friends. A warm feeling rose up within her chest, reminiscent of the joy she felt after receiving her cutie mark. Such a wonderful memory...
“I'm sorry?” The Doctor's voice broke into her reverie. “Did you say something?”
She realized she'd been mouthing the word “yes” to herself. A blush colored her face, invisible beneath her dark coat, and she turned to face him.
“Sorry, just thinking out loud.” She shut the capsule and ran a hoof slowly across its polished surface. “This is exquisite craftsmanship, Doctor. You said this was a hobby?”
“Something like that.” He waved a hoof dismissively. “Anyway, you know how they work. Just put in whatever items you want to keep safe, seal the lid, and open it one year later! Exactly on the hour, of course.”
On the hour! How very precise of him. She felt a smile appearing on her face and did her best to suppress it. No point in looking like a love-struck filly.
“Sounds simple enough,” she said. “I'm having a picnic with the girls this weekend, and I asked them to all bring something special to put in it.” She paused and glanced over at Spike, who was watching them curiously from the kitchen door. Her voice fell to a whisper as she continued. “Maybe afterward we can get together and... compare notes.”
His ears perked up. “Why, Twilight, that sounds like a lovely idea.” A pause. “But I won't have any notes.”
Oh, right. Hm. “Well, um, we can just review my notes, maybe?” she asked.
“Ah, that will do. Splendid! I like how you think, young lady.”
She beamed. “It's a date, then!” The words escaped her lips before she could stop them. The silence that followed was broken only by a quiet gasp from the kitchen door. She froze in place, shocked at what her traitorous mouth had wrought.
He started, his ears flicking back and forth. After a moment a smile broke out on his face, and he laughed. “A date! That's a good one, Twilight. Very well, we can meet over dinner to discuss your notes.”
She dared to breath again. “Haha, yes, ahem...” She followed at his side as he trotted to the door. “That sounds lovely. Shall I meet you at your place?”
“I'll be waiting! Cheerio, Twilight.” He gave her a jaunty wave and trotted out into the busy street.
Cheerio! She nearly swooned. A time capsule, her friends and a date! Everything was perfect. Just perfect. She turned, still lost in happy thoughts, and nearly shrieked when she bumped into Spike.
He quirked an eyebrow. Eye... ridge. Whatever it was dragons had. She made a mental note to look it up.
“Not a word,” she warned him.
“I wasn't going to say anything.”
“Good.” She gave him a look, then trotted past him to the stairs. About halfway up she heard his quiet voice raised in song.
“Twilight and the Doctor, sitting in a tree...”
“Spike!” She bounded back down the steps, but he was too fast. His high-pitched laughter faded into the morning buzz as he escaped out the door. She snorted in annoyance, but the feeling didn't last. Everything was going her way. Everything was coming up Twilight.
Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Twilight Sparkle was a happy pony.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Ponyville. School had not yet let out for the summer, and so the park around her was filled with dozens of fillies and colts making the most of their weekend by frolicking in the high grass, mostly ignored by their parents. Occasionally a mother's voice would break through the tumult, scolding a colt for pulling his sister's mane or some other minor misconduct. One small group of foals was attempting to fly colorful kites in the light breeze, though they didn't seem to be having much luck – the kites kept crashing.
Actually, now that she looked closer, one of the kites appeared to be Scootaloo, desperately flapping her wings with a thin twine rope tied around her waist. Some fifty feet away, the other end of the rope was gripped in Apple Bloom's mouth. As Twilight watched, Apple Bloom took off running through the field, dragging Scootaloo behind her. She didn't make it off the ground.
Was that how pegasi learned to fly? She would have to ask Rainbow Dash later. It seemed very inefficient. And painful. She was idly imagining new, better ways to teach pegasi when Applejack trotted up and lay down beside her in the shade of a large oak.
“Howdy, Twilight,” she said, breaking into Twilight's reverie. She leaned over and bumped her head against Twilight's shoulder. “Whatcha reading?”
Twilight gave her a smile. “Oh, just jotting down some notes. I've been keeping a diary lately, to better document my research into the magic of friendship.”
“Aw, that's our Twilight.” Applejack reached out and mussed Twilight's mane. “Anyway, is that it?” She tilted her head toward the time capsule, which was sitting a few feet away next to a hole in the earth. A tiny shovel, with claw marks on its wooden handle, was stuck in a pile of dirt beside them both.
“It is!” She closed her journal and set it aside. “Isn't it beautiful? It's unlike anything I've ever seen. I'm not even sure what it's made of, to be honest.”
“Well, shoot, it just has to hold stuff for a year. I'm sure it'll be fine.”
Of course it would be fine. The Doctor made it! She was about to say so when a high, cultured voice drifted to them on the wind. They turned to see Rarity and Fluttershy cresting a nearby hill, trotting toward them at a sedate pace. They appeared to be in deep conversation, though from what Twilight could see, Rarity was doing most of the talking. Fluttershy simply nodded her head from time to time.
“Rarity! Fluttershy! Over here!” Twilight called. She waved a hoof to grab their attention.
“Hello, girls!” Rarity said when she arrived, with Fluttershy trailing a few pony-lengths behind. “Isn't this just a lovely day? Oh how I love the middle of Spring. The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, little fillies and colts are... er, what is Apple Bloom doing?”
The four turned silently to the park below their hill. Apple Bloom was dragging Scootaloo through the grass again. Every few steps the pegasus filly would jump into the air, her wings a blur, only to crash back to the earth still moving at full speed until Apple Bloom ran out of grass to run through. Her orange pelt was streaked with grass and dirt stains, and her mane was well on its way to resembling a bird's nest.
“Oh my,” Fluttershy said. “That's not how you're supposed to learn to fly.”
“Darnit, I told those two to stop that,” Applejack said.
“Hey, they're playing kites! I wanna play!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. The others turned to her in surprise, but she was already a pink smear racing across the grass toward the fillies. They distantly heard faint cheers as she reached them.
“Wha... when did she...” Twilight glanced between the empty space Pinkie had occupied and the distant shapes of the foals.
“Don't think about it too hard,” Applejack said. She watched as Pinkie took the rope from Apple Bloom and began running through the grass, dragging Scootaloo behind her. The pegasus actually made it off the ground this time, soaring over a dozen feet before gravity reclaimed her. They faintly heard more cheers.
“...anyway, once Rainbow Dash gets here, we can begin!” Twilight continued. She clapped her hooves together in giddy anticipation. “Did everypony bring something special for the capsule?”
A chorus of affirmatives answered, from Fluttershy's meek bobbing of her head to a loud “You betcha!” from Applejack. Twilight was about to press them for more details when a faint *thump* sounded from the grass beside them. She turned to see Rainbow Dash strutting toward them, her wings flared out aggressively. Curiously, her pet tortoise, Tank, was perched on her back, his stubby forelegs gripping the roots of her wings with all the slow, steady strength he could muster. His head and the rest of his limbs were tucked securely in his shell, and only slowly emerged as Rainbow Dash stepped onto the ground.
“Hey girls!” she half-said, half-shouted to them. Her voice was high and raspy, as though she spent all of her time yelling. She paused to bump hooves with Applejack. “Hope I didn't keep anypony waiting.”
“Oh, you brought Tank!” Rarity said. She leaned forward, putting herself nose-to-nose with the tortoise. “Why, Rainbow, you should have told us you were bringing your pet! I could have brought Opal!”
“This isn't our scheduled pet play-date day, Rarity,” Twilight said, the smallest of frowns on her face. This was Twilight's get-everypony-interested-in-science day, which was vastly more important. “Anyway, you're just in time, Dash. Once Pinkie Pie gets back we can—”
“—get started,” Twilight finished smoothly. A glance at the kite-flying fillies revealed Scootaloo on the ground, rubbing her head with a hoof, the end of her string lying untouched in the grass. Apple Bloom had a confused look on her face as she stared at the empty spot where Pinkie had just stood.
There was another chorus of greetings as Pinkie reacquainted herself with others. Once she was done, Twilight pushed herself onto her hooves and trotted over to the time capsule. She paused to run a loving hoof over its polished surface, then popped it open with a thought. The lustrous blue surface gleamed in the dappled sunlight shining through the leaves above them.
“This is it, girls!” she said, spinning around to face them. “A real time capsule, specially made just for us. Over the next year we will grow, while the objects we put inside it remain the same. They will be a snapshot of this moment in time. Oh, just imagine us, next year, standing here and opening it back up!” She clapped her hooves in excitement.
“Now, who wants to go first?” she asked. “Fluttershy?”
“Eep!” Fluttershy ducked to the ground, her bangs falling across her eyes. “Um, I pass.”
Right. Of course. Twilight mentally kicked herself, and gave Fluttershy what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “That's fine. Let's see... Applejack?”
“Aw, shucks. Gonna put me on the spot, huh Twilight?” Applejack chuckled and stepped forward to lean over the capsule. “That's fine. I've got a good one!” She turned her head to open her saddlebag, reached in with her mouth, and pulled out a small paper packet that rattled quietly as she shook it. After a pause for everypony to see the mysterious item, she gently set it inside the capsule.
“Apple seeds! To show that no matter how much time passes underground, there's always life waiting to grow.” She stepped back and pushed her Stetson hat higher up on her mane, a proud smile on her face.
“Wow, Applejack,” Twilight said. “That's really poetic. I wasn't expecting anypony to put that much thought into--”
“And a jar of whiskey!” Applejack continued, pulling a clay jug out of her other saddlebag. She plopped it into the capsule with a solid thunk. “It should age pretty well down there.”
“Nice,” Rainbow Dash said. “I'll split it with you next year.” She and Applejack bumped hooves again.
Twilight blinked. “Er... that's good too! Let's see... Rarity?”
“Aha! Oh, I know you girls will just love this.” Rarity pranced up to the time capsule. Her horn glowed with its beautiful silver light, and six tiny pieces of paper floated out of her saddlebags. They swirled in the air like confetti, then settled into the capsule in a small pile.
“Gift certificates to the Lotus Luxury Spa!” she said. “After we open the capsule next year, we can all treat ourselves to their deluxe package! Full-body massages, horn-filings for you and me Twilight, preenings for Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy... oh, it will be delightful!”
Twilight leaned over the capsule to inspect the certificates. “Rarity, these expire next month.”
It was Rarity's turn to blink. “Oh, er, so they do.” She studied the certificates for a moment, then floated them back into her bags. “In that case, I have a, uh...” She shuffled through the contents of her saddlebag. “A... spool of thread! To signify the... threads... of friendship that tie us together!” As she spoke, a small spool of gray thread floated out of her bag and into the capsule.
“Wow, that's deep,” Rainbow Dash whispered. She seemed utterly sincere.
Through a profound exercise of self-control, Twilight managed not to roll her eyes. “That's very nice, Rarity. Pinkie, would you like to go next?”
There was a long pause. Nopony moved. Finally, Twilight sighed.
“Pinkie, would you please go next?”
“Sure, Twilight!” She bounced to her hooves, rooted through her saddlebags, and came out with a bright pink cupcake balanced expertly on the tip of her nose. It swayed slightly as she stepped over to the capsule and, with a skillful hop, sent it soaring into the box.
“Er, sug, won't that go bad in there?” Applejack asked.
“Nope!” Pinkie bounced in place. “It's a new recipe I'm trying, loaded with preservatives!” She settled down, a thoughtful look on her face. “Also, nopony should eat it. It has way too many preservatives. Half its wet weight is formaldehyde.”
“So, why'd you put it in there?” Twilight leaned over the capsule. Aside from the faint scent of whiskey, she could make out a sugary, chemical tang. Her eyes began to water.
“To see if it lasts a whole year, silly!”
Right. Twilight shook her head, trying unsuccessfully to clear the metallic sting from her nose and eyes. Celestia help anypony who ate that thing. “Okay. Rainbow Dash?”
“Finally!” Rainbow Dash trotted over to the capsule. “Whiskey and string are nice and all, but I thought of the perfect thing to put in there to remind us of friendship!” With that she reached down, carefully picked up Tank, and set the tortoise in the capsule. A moment later she put a tiny dish in the capsule next to him, and added a few leaves of lettuce from her saddlebags. “There you go, little guy,” she said, and patted him on the shell.
Silence stretched out for long seconds. Fluttershy looked like she was about to cry. The rest of them stared at Rainbow Dash in shock.
Twilight found her voice first. “Dash, you can't put him in there!”
“What? Why not?” She seemed genuinely surprised.
Twilight spluttered. “Why not? Why not?! It's a time capsule! We're going to bury it for a year. He'll never survive down there!”
“Whoa!” Dash jerked back in surprise. “I thought it was going to magically travel a year into the future. Like in Daring Do!”
“That's a time machine, Dash,” Twilight said. “Also, that was just a book. There's no such thing as time machines.”
“Oh...” Her wings drooped. “Sorry little guy. Maybe next time.” She reached in and pulled Tank out of the capsule. He seemed unfazed by his brush with death.
“Do you want to put anything else in?” Twilight offered.
“Uh...” She glanced inside her saddlebags, then in the capsule. “Eh, I'll just go halfsies with Applejack on the whiskey.”
The pegasus, who had been staring at Tank in concern, started at the sound of her name. “Oh, I'm sorry, is it my turn? I'm afraid I don't have anything special.” She trotted over to the capsule and set a small stack of letters inside.
“I couldn't think of anything, so I just wrote letters to each of you, saying what wonderful friends you are,” she finished.
That provoked a round of heartfelt sighs and sniffles. Rarity leaned over and hugged Fluttershy. Twilight felt her eyes beginning to water, not from the cupcake, and blinked furiously to clear them.
“Fluttershy, that's...” She paused to clear her throat. “That's beautiful. I can't wait to read it.”
Even Rainbow Dash seemed touched. She brushed the corner of her eye with a hoof. “Well, that just leaves you, Twilight. How you gonna top that?”
Indeed! Twilight grinned at her friends. “Oh, I think you girls will love this!” She focused her magic, and a small pile of papers floated out of her saddlebag, coming to rest in the air before her.
“Questionnaires! I put one together for everypony. We'll fill out one copy now, and next year we'll fill out another, and then compare our answers to see how they changed!”
Silence. Applejack broke first.
“Questionnaires? You want us to fill out a survey?”
“Really, darling, that seems a little... scientific.”
“Um, I'll fill it out, if you want me--”
“Boring! I didn't do homework in flight school, and I'm not going to start now!”
Twilight scowled at them. “Girls, we need hard data if we're going to learn anything from this experiment! This is seminal research into the magic of friendship, and it's important that we do it empirically.”
“Experiment? I thought this was for fun!” Pinkie said.
“Twilight, you don't need to turn everything into research,” Rarity added.
“Besides, none of us are stallions. How are we supposed to help with that?”
Everypony stopped and stared at Rainbow Dash. She blinked at them in return.
“...anyway,” Twilight said. “They only have a few questions each, and it would really help with my research if you--”
“Your dirty research!” Dash interrupted.
Celestia, give me patience. Twilight rubbed her forehead with a hoof. “Seminal, Dash. It means 'first of its kind,' among other things.”
“Oh. Ohhhh.” Rainbow Dash looked thoughtful. “Nevermind, then.”
With only a tiny bit more browbeating, Twilight managed to get the questionnaires filled out. The girls grumbled at first, but soon enough they were deep in thought as they answered her questions, and by the end were even laughing as they shared their answers with each other. While they worked, Twilight took notes in her journal, adding her own observations about each pony and the items they included – or tried to include – in the capsule. When everypony was done, she collected the questionnaires and set them in the box.
“That's it, then! One year from now we'll meet up and open this box!” Twilight grasped the lid with her magic and gently pressed it closed. There was a loud click from the capsule as some hidden mechanism engaged. Perhaps a lock of some kind? She blinked at it in surprise, then shrugged. They would find out in a year. She floated the box into the hole and started to reach for the shovel.
Applejack beat her to it. “I'll get this, Twilight. We don't have all day.” The others laughed.
Twilight chuckled as well. If Applejack wanted to shovel some dirt, that was fine by her. Besides, she had to get ready for her date with the Doctor. Her date, with the Doctor! She sighed quietly, already imagining them sitting at a table, going over her notes by candlelight.
The remains of their dinner rested on the table, unnoticed. They only had eyes for each other. And Twilight's notebook, of course. The Doctor pointed out an inconsistency in her methods, and she gently corrected him, showing him the offset formulas she had devised to account for Pinkie Pie's random answers. Amazed by her scientific prowess, he invited her somewhere more comfortable, to conduct some independent research. Some amazing research that happened to involve—
“Yoohoo, Twilight, are you there?” Rarity asked. She waved a hoof in Twilight's face.
“Yes! Sorry, sorry. I'm here.” She blushed. Hopefully they couldn't tell beneath her coat.
“You were just smiling and staring off into space,” Rarity continued. She gave Twilight a sidelong glance.
“Uh, I was just thinking about...” Twilight looked around. Don't say sex. Don't say sex. Don't say sex. “Science. I was thinking about science.”
“Aw, that's our Twilight!” Pinkie said. She reached out a hoof and ruffled Twilight's mane, just like Applejack had earlier. The others laughed at her embarrassed grin.
Twilight laughed with them. Why not? Everything was still going her way. Everything was still coming up Twilight.
“Spike! Spiiiiiike!” Twilight Sparkle didn't look up from her clothes chest as she called for her Number One Assistant.
“Coming!” There came the sound of clawed feet on wood as Spike ran up the stairs, followed by the creak of her door as he poked his head in. “Whatcha need?”
“I need help!” She turned around, floating a pair of saddles into the air between them. “Tan with pink lining, or this little black saddle?”
Spike glanced between them, then at Twilight. “I think you should ask Rarity,” he hedged.
“She went to the spa!” Twilight frowned at the saddles, then floated the tan and pink one back into the chest. It was more of a filly's saddle, anyway. The black one, now, was definitely not a filly's saddle. It had even come with a matching bridle, which she eyed thoughtfully. No, no, too soon. This was a first date.
“Are you really wearing that? It seems a bit, ah...” He actually blushed and looked briefly away. “You know. Grown up.”
Which was perfect! “Yes, Spike, I am. You heard the Doctor. This isn't just a chance for two scientists to compare research. This is a date.”
“He didn't seem to think it was a real date.”
“Well, I think it's a date. That makes it, like, half of a date. Point-five dates.”
He frowned. “Dates can't be expressed in non-natural numbers, Twilight.”
She looked up from trying to undo the buckles on the saddle to scowl at him. “Not everything can be quantified by math, Spike.” She felt her heart drop even as she said the words, and wished she could grab them out of the air and stuff them back into her mouth.
Spike let out a quiet gasp, then gave her a hurt look. He drew himself up straighter, as though preparing to leave.
“Oh, I'm sorry Spike,” she said, setting the saddle down. “I didn't mean that. Of course everything can be quantified using mathematics.”
He held his pose for a moment, then slowly deflated, mollified. “Well, as long as you're sorry.”
She busied herself with the saddle again, to give them both some time to calm down. It had a lot of buckles. Some of the straps bore more than one, which served absolutely no functional purpose that she could see. Decoration, maybe? “Anyway,” she continued. “Can you grab my journal from downstairs? It should be on the desk.” She turned back to the mirror and managed, with some difficulty, to squeeze into the saddle. Behind her, Spike's footsteps retreated down the stairs. A few seconds later he was back.
“I can't find it,” he said.
A cold frisson ran up her spine. “What? It's on the desk, by the door.”
“Sorry, Twilight. I checked all the desks. It's not there.”
The room suddenly felt colder. “It must be up here, then.” She turned in place, scanning her bedroom. Dresser, bedroom, bookshelves, bed. She mentally retraced her steps since returning to the library. A worried frown appeared on her face, and she trotted to the door.
“You must've missed it,” she said. “I always put it on that desk.” Together they walked down the stairs into the library foyer. Spike trailed a few steps behind, his claws clicking together nervously.
“See?” Spike said. Indeed, it was nowhere to be found. “It's not here. Where'd you see it last?”
She thought back again. “I was writing some notes with the girls. They had just finished the questionnaires, and I put them in the time capsule...” She trailed off. Her eyes grew wide in sudden, horrible comprehension. No, it was impossible. She clearly remembered collecting the questionnaires and jotting down some notes, but then the journal vanished from her memory. Had she put it down by her side? Surely one of the girls would've noticed if she left it in the grass. Granted, she could be absent-minded from time to time, but that was her journal! It had her notes! It had...
It had much worse than that, she realized. It had her diary entries. Wednesday, April 4. Thursday, April 5. Thursday, April 5, addendum. Thursday, April 5, addendum continued. Thursday, April 5, final thoughts. She saw them flash through her mind like a slide show, all filled with idle fantasies. Fantasies that should never have been written down, she now decided. Fantasies that made her romance novels seem like pale, tasteless leaves of yellow grass in comparison. Fantasies that could never be allowed to see the light of day.
And they were in the time capsule. She must've put the journal in there with the questionnaires in a moment of distraction. And in one year, they would open the capsule. All of them. Together.
Applejack probably wouldn't notice it. Rarity would see it – her sharp eyes saw everything – but she knew what a journal looked like and wouldn't pry. Fluttershy she could overpower. Dash would ignore it. None of them worried her.
Pinke Pie worried her. Pinke Pie would see it, somehow. She would grab it before Twilight could, somehow. She would start reading it, out loud of course. That worried her — actually, it terrified her.
A lock of hair broke free from Twilight's normally smooth mane, poking out at an errant angle. Her ear gave a little twitch.
“Er, Twilight?” Spike leaned away from her. “Are... are you okay?”
“Spike!” she shouted, causing him to jump. “Get the shovel!”
“The shovel? You promised Princess Celestia we would never go back to the graveyard at—”
“We're not going to the graveyard!” she interrupted, stomping her hoof. “We're going to get that time capsule!”
The sun was nearing the horizon when Twilight Sparkle and Spike reached the park. The fillies and colts had all gone home for the day, leaving the wind-swept meadow empty and forlorn in the dim evening glow.
That was good. She didn't want any witnesses for this. Ponies already got nervous when they saw her with the shovel.
“Okay, it's right here,” she said as they came to a patch of disturbed earth beneath an old oak tree. The large circle of turf they had cut away and replaced earlier in the day glowed with her magic and lifted away in a single piece. The dirt beneath was rich, dark and wet, almost black in the fading light. It appeared to have settled slightly – a noticeable dip had formed in the hours they were gone.
“How far down is it?” Spike asked. He gripped the shovel in both claws and began scooping away at the earth. Large chunks of dirt flew in all directions as he worked, and the hole rapidly re-emerged.
“Just a few feet,” she said. “Try not to scratch it.”
“Hey, relax. I've never scratched any of Rarity's gems when we go digging. This'll be a piece of cake.”
It was. Spike tore through the dirt like a machine, and before five minutes had passed, he stood in a hole deeper than he was tall. There was no sign of the time capsule.
“Twilight...” he began.
“It must've sunk,” she said. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. “The earth here is very soft. Keep going.”
He shrugged and resumed digging. A minute later there was a loud clank as the tip of the spade hit something hard and unyielding.
She gasped. “Is that it? Did you scratch it?”
He bent down to see what he had found. In the dim light he seemed to vanish, his purple scales lost in the shadows. After a moment, he stood and began to climb out of the hole.
“No and no,” he said, once back on the grass. “It's bedrock.”
“That's impossible. It must be down there.”
“We buried it here just a few hours ago,” she continued. Another lock of her mane sprang free. “It can't have gone anywhere.”
He peered down in the hole, then back up at her. “It's not in there.”
“Yes, it is.”
They both stared into the hole. Long minutes passed as the sun slowly sank beneath the horizon. Crickets began to chirp in the gloaming darkness around them.
“Okay, it's not there,” she admitted. It was a bit of a relief, actually; by recognizing that the capsule was gone, she could begin making plans. The first step toward a solution is admitting the problem, she mentally recited the mantra, one of the dozens Celestia had drilled into her as a foal.
The second step was hyperventilating. She got to work on it immediately.
Several minutes later she was lying on her belly, hooves tucked beneath her as Spike held a paper bag over her muzzle. The crickets were silent, apparently having decided to find somewhere less panicky to sing their evening songs.
“Breathe, Twilight. Deep breaths.”
She pushed him and the bag away. “There's no time!” she wailed. “We've got to find it, Spike!”
“Just relax.” He pushed the bag back over her face. “It's not going anywhere. Else, I mean. Probably.”
That wasn't helping. “Somepony must have stolen it!” She could imagine it now: as soon as she and the girls left the park, laughing and talking innocently, some villain had snuck up behind them, uprooted the capsule and spirited away with it. All without being seen. And, apparently, they had taken the time to refill the hole before leaving. Perhaps it had been a team effort?
“It's around here somewhere,” he said. “It didn't just vanish.”
Of course not. Time capsules didn't just vanish. They stayed in the ground where they were supposed to, until you dug them back up. Besides, nopony knew about the capsule except for her, her friends and the Doctor.
“You're right, Spike.” Her voice sounded muffled inside the bag. She pushed him away, slowly this time, and rose to her hooves. “Get the shovel. We're going to see a pony about a time capsule.”
He gave her an appraising look. The kind she often gave to Rainbow Dash after a stunt went wrong and ended in the trees. “Are you going to be okay?”
“I'm fine. Just fine.” She tried to smooth her mane back down, but the rogue bangs insisted on poking out at odd angles. Whatever. There were more important things to worry about than her hair. “Where'd you get the paper bag, anyway?”
“I keep one in your saddlebags.”
“That's...” Disturbing, farsighted, worrisome? “...fine,” she said. He hopped on her back with the shovel, and together they took off for town, leaving the lonely park and empty hole behind them.
“Twilight! How good to see you. I trust everything went well today with... with your...” The Doctor trailed off as his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the porch outside his home. His gaze flicked between Twilight's face, her askew mane and the dirt-encrusted shovel floating beside her. Finally, he turned to Spike, who was still perched upon her back. The dragon shrugged.
“Doctor,” Twilight said. “It's very good to see you as well.” Every word was pronounced with military precision. She noted his widened eyes and concerned expression, and dialed back her volume just a smidge. She didn't want to come across as a hysterical filly desperately in need of help. Or crazy. For some reason ponies kept worrying about that. She wished her mane would behave.
“I'm fine,” she continued, preempting his next question. “However, there's a problem with the time capsule. It seems somepony has stolen it.”
“Stolen!” He reared back. “That's outrageous! Who would steal such an innocent mechanism?” He stopped, his face twisted in thought. “And why would anypony steal it?”
“I don't know.” Her head sank as she spoke, and she glanced into the room behind him. A snug, rustic-looking cottage fitted with wood furniture and countless knickknacks and antiques competed for space with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It was like a miniature version of her library, with just an odd hint of foreignness that she couldn't seem to nail down. Just a few feet past him, in what she assumed was his living room, she could see a round table set for two. Fine china plates glowed yellow in the flickering light of a candle. A notebook and inkwell finished the picture. She felt herself sigh. That was for their date! She should be sitting there, right now, quietly whispering her observations from the afternoon with her friends.
“Oh Doctor,” she said. “The questionnaires were just filled with data. It took hours, but I managed to quantify their responses and graph the results. Just think of the vectors we'll be able to plot when we get next year's data points!”
“Twilight, I've never encountered a mare so... so adept with figures! The numbers, the way you calculate and compensate for--”
“Twilight?” The Doctor said, interrupting her fantasy. “Are you alright? You were just staring off into space.”
“I'm fine!” she said. A little too loudly, to judge by the way he jumped in surprise. “Sorry, I'm just... really upset about the time capsule.”
“Oh, of course, of course. Well, when was the last time you saw it?”
“We had just finished putting our items inside it, and buried it out by the park. When I went back to check on it just now, for reasons that are immaterial to this conversation, it was already gone!”
“Ah, that explains the shovel, then.” He seemed a bit relieved. “Why did you bury it, though?
“Because... it's a time capsule? What were we supposed to do with it?” She followed his gaze to the shovel.
“Just close it, of course,” he said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “After a few minutes the magic takes effect, and poof! Off into the future it goes.”
There was a long silence.
“I'm sorry, say that again?” She must have misheard him. No surprise, really. It had been that kind of day.
“I said, you close the lid, and a few minutes later it takes off through time and space! One year into the future, to be exact. In fact, that's why you couldn't find it.” He chortled quietly; even his laughter had that faintly exotic accent. Under other circumstances she could have listened to it for hours. “Oh Twilight, it wasn't stolen! It's waiting for you in the future.”
The silence returned. The amused look on his face slowly faded.
“Oh, you... you didn't know that, did you,” he finally said. He glanced down at his hooves, then off to the side. “Instructions! Must remember to include instructions.”
“You... built a time capsule... that travels into the future...” It sounded reasonable when she said it slowly. Logical, even.
“So wait,” Spike said. “Rainbow Dash was right?”
“No,” she said. “Well, yes. That's not important! What's important is that we get it back. Now.”
“You can't,” the Doctor pointed out. “It's already in the future. Besides, we have a date, remember?”
Hm, there was that. She cast a longing glance into the room behind him. Thin runnels of wax had formed tiny lines down the side of the candle. It only had an hour or two left to burn, probably. An hour or two she could be spending with the Doctor, whispering sweet hypotheses into his ear.
But not without her notes! Not with her journal unmoored from spacetime, waiting to be snatched up and read aloud by Pinkie Pie. This crisis had to be solved first.
“Doctor,” she said. “I can't wait for our date. Let me go... get cleaned up, and I'll be right back. In an hour, let's say?”
“Well, I guess the bangers and mash can stay warm that long.” He turned to glance into the kitchen. “Shall I set a third place for your dragon friend?”
There was no answer. When he turned back to the door, Twilight was already gone.
* * *
“Uh, Twilight?” Spike watched her from the center of the room, his claws clicking together nervously.
“Yes, Spike?” She considered herself in the mirror. The black pajamas she had borrowed from Rainbow Dash to sneak into Canterlot, all those months ago, were molded tightly around her tiny form. Her not-so-athletic form, she decided with a grumble. The damned thing was snug in all the wrong places, and loose in all the rest. It didn't look nearly as striking as when Rainbow Dash wore it.
And where the hell was her damn eyepatch?
“Why are you wearing a ninja suit?” Spike asked.
“Because I have to get that time capsule back.” She wrapped a purple bandana around her mane and tightened it behind her head. Her frazzled hair was neatly hidden behind the cloth. Ha! Who looks crazy, now?
“I didn't say you looked crazy,” Spike said. His eyes were wide as she turned around. “And anyway, the time capsule is gone. You can't get it back.”
Dammit, thinking out loud again. She frowned and shook her head. “It's not gone, Spike. It's in the future! You're not thinking four-dimensionally.”
“No, I am thinking four-dimensionally,” he countered. “It's gone from our frame of reference. It won't return to our frame of reference for another year.”
So he had paid attention during her lectures. She resisted the urge to pat him on the spines. “Very good, Spike! Now, how do we retrieve an item from the future?”
He raised a claw and started to speak, but paused with his mouth open. A look of worry appeared on his face, followed by resignation. The claw sank back to his side. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes!” She beamed at him, her eye twitching just once. “We're going into the future!”
“Twilight, it's just a journal. You probably have everything in it memorized. It's not worth all this trouble.”
“That's where you're wrong, Spike.” She leaned forward as she spoke, tapping him on the head with her horn for emphasis. “And I do have it memorized. That's the problem. We can't let anypony see what's written in it.”
“Why, what's in it? You didn't write another love story, did you?” He made a face.
She blushed so hard the bandana nearly caught on fire. “Haha, no, no, nothing like that.” Nothing much like that, anyway. “It's just some personal observations that can't be allowed to fall into the wrong hooves. Which is anypony's hooves.”
“So you're just going to travel into the future and steal it from yourself? I think you might notice.”
“That's the beauty of it, Spike.” She felt herself slipping into lecture mode. “My future self will know I'm coming, so she'll arrange a distraction to buy us enough time to snatch it before the other girls notice. With two of me working together, we can't possibly fail!”
“Isn't time travel a bit too dangerous to be using for something this... well, silly?”
“Oh, Spike.” She smiled at him, then turned deathly serious, her lips pursing into a line and her eyes boring into his soul in the space of a heartbeat. “No.”
He sighed. “And I have to come?”
She grinned at him. One of her eyelids twitched, in spite of her best efforts to keep them in line. Stupid eyelids.
“Fine.” He turned and walked into the kitchen. “Let me get another paper bag, first.”
* * *
“Shh.” She held a hoof up to his lips. “Yes?”
“Why... why are we doing this in your closet?” he whispered.
“Because even though future me knows I'm coming, she may not know the exact instant I'll arrive,” Twilight whispered back. The glow of her horn was the only light in the closet. There was little space for the two of them between hangars filled with dresses, spare saddles, a horseshoe stand and a hat rack. “This way we won't appear right in front of everypony.”
“Okay.” He paused for a moment. “Why are we whispering if we haven't gone into the future yet?”
That was a good question. She struggled for a few seconds to find a plausible answer. “We're... practicing.”
“I think I've practiced enough.”
She bit back a retort. “Good. Now remember, even with this improved version of the spell, we'll only have an hour or so in the future. We have to make every minute count. If you feel like your molecules are beginning to vibrate asynchronously, it means the spell is about to wear off.”
He was quiet for a few more moments. “Twilight?”
“Shh, we're still practicing. Yes?”
“Do I really have to come?”
“Yes.” She allowed a hint of annoyance to creep into her voice. As usual, it didn't affect him. “Okay, here goes. Again, you might feel a slight stinging sensation.”
He opened his mouth, perhaps to object, but it was too late. With an exertion of her will, a shining purple sphere appeared around them, almost blinding them with its light. She felt the fabric of spacetime unfold before her like a map, with dozens of tiny glowing lines indicating all the possible pasts and all the possible futures, every one of which intersected at the precise moment they were standing in. With a slight nudge of her mind, she moved their position further down the brightest of the lines, the one she and Spike were situated upon, and let the spell unravel. Unlike the real maps in the library, the mental map folded neatly back up without her having to yell at Spike for assistance.
Twilight looked around. The closet hadn't changed much. Apparently her sense of style didn't evolve over the course of the next year. A few of the hats and dresses were new, but she still hadn't upgraded her saddle collection, and the horseshoes were identical. In fact, the set she was wearing at that moment was on the stand. She leaned forward to inspect them.
Oh, right, Spike. She spun around, looking for her little brother. He was sitting on the floor of the closet with a dazed expression, though aside from a few tendrils of smoke rising from the tips of his spines, he seemed fine.
“Spike!” she hissed as quietly as she could. “Are you okay?”
“Uh, I think my molecules hurt. How can you stand that?”
Actually, she felt fine. Apparently time travel was like teleportation – easier on the caster than anyone they brought with them. She puzzled over the mechanics of the spell in her head, looking for a solution, then set it aside. It could wait.
“Iron will,” she said. “Anyway, let's see what's out there.”
Spike climbed onto her back with a quiet grunt, leaving little streaks of soot on her ninja suit. Poor little guy. She made a mental note to give him a more complete inspection later.
Twilight's room was empty when they emerged, but the faint sound of voices drifted up from the library below. Sunlight streamed through her windows at a slight angle, just right for early afternoon. She tiptoed across the wood floor and crouched near the balcony overlooking the foyer.
“Why don't you girls head to the park now?” she heard a mare's voice call from below. It was vaguely, naggingly familiar, and after a moment's thought she realized it was hers. “I'll catch up with you. Spike and I need to chat for a moment.”
As stealthily as she could, Twilight crept toward the edge of the balcony and peered over the ledge. The library foyer was unchanged from her memories of it, only a few minutes old, even though nearly a full year of real time had passed. The desks were all in the same places, the bookshelves were unchanged, even the books themselves looked hardly any different from when she had sorted them that morning.
But it was the ponies below that grabbed her attention. She recognized her friends instantly, though each of them bore some subtle change that teased her eyes, taunting her to identify what was different about them.
Some were obvious. Fluttershy stood straight instead of hunching, her mane pulled back over her ears and no longer shielding her face. She had found new confidence in the past year, it seemed; each glance was sharp and direct, focused on her friend's faces rather than the floor. She smiled as Rarity passed...
Rarity, who was taller, who was nearly the same height now as Applejack. Either her horn had grown or she'd redone her mane to emphasize it, to expert effect. Her eyes too were sharper, lined with kohl rather than her old aquamarine eyeshadow. When she smiled it was innocent, with just the faintest hint of a sleek, sultry predator's grin beneath.
Twilight blinked in spite of herself. Wow, she's... grown up, or something. One year didn't seem long enough for such a change.
Rainbow Dash looked the same, until she spread her wings. Her primaries, already long when Twilight had first met her, now stretched several more inches to each side. She was probably longer from wingtip to wingtip than nose to tail at this point. Faint cords of muscles were visible beneath her coat, even from the balcony. She said something quiet to Applejack, then shot out the door, leaving a swirl of wind behind her.
Whatever Dash had said provoked an eye roll from Applejack. Of all Twilight's friends, she appeared to have changed the least. But then, she was already the most mature of us, wasn't she? Nothing seemed different about Applejack in the few seconds Twilight saw her, before she too trotted out the door.
Pinkie Pie was, well, Pinkie Pie. She bounced out the door, her mane and tail as bushy as ever. A little taller, maybe? A tad softer as well? An inevitable result of another year spent in a bakery. Twilight made a note to ask Pinkie about her diet when she returned to her own timeline. After her date, of course.
As the last of her friends filed out the library, the doors glowed with a faint purple light and swung shut. There was a click that echoed through the foyer – the lock engaging. Twilight peered further over the edge, looking for the one pony left.
There, next to the kitchen door. Her other self looked up at the balcony with an excited smile.
“You can come down, now,” her future self called.
Perfect. Everything was perfect. With a flash, Twilight vanished from the balcony and reappeared on the ground floor. Even from this angle, the foyer appeared unchanged. Spike was apparently still in charge of keeping the place clean.
“Am I on time?” she asked. The sun was at the right angle, but for all she knew the time capsule wasn't perfectly set to one year. If it had already reappeared, this whole exercise might be for naught.
“Exactly on time,” Future Twilight said. “And don't worry, the time capsule will appear on time too. I've done this before, remember?”
Twilight grinned at... herself? Her twin? There was no terminology in the manuals to describe meeting yourself from another time frame. There had been some vaguely worded warnings about such intersections, but her last adventure with time travel had proven to be harmless. The warnings hadn't even been underlined. That made them more like recommendations.
She found she had to tilt her head up slightly to look herself in the eyes. Future Twilight was taller by a respectable margin, nearly as tall as her mother. More than that, she was leaner, slimmed down with none of the pudge that still clung stubbornly to Twilight's frame. Looking at her, at this real mare, Twilight suddenly found herself feeling insecure and foalish. What could the Doctor possibly see in her?
Future Twilight conducted her own inspection, her eyes tracing up and down Twilight's body. “Amazing,” she breathed. “Hard to believe it's only been a year. Ponies change so slowly, we almost forget that we ever once looked so different. But here you... here I am, right in front of me, looking more youthful and full of energy than I ever remembered.”
That wasn't how Twilight felt now. “No, you... you look good. We look good!” She couldn't help the stammer in her voice.
Future Twilight blushed. “Well, thank you. I wonder if it counts as fishing for compliments if you do it to yourself.” Her eyes grew distant for a moment. “That would make a good subject for a metaphysical thesis, actually.”
There was a shuffle in the kitchen behind Future Twilight. Twilight leaned around her to see Spike – Future Spike – standing in the doorway, his eyes wide as he took in the pair of Twilight Sparkles. He had grown as well: taller, sleeker, with a high crest of spines that nearly brushed the lintel above him. Shadows of the dragon he would one day become were starting to take shape.
Future Twilight turned. “Spike, you remember this, don't you? Twilight and I are going to run a quick errand. We'll be right back.”
“Uh, sure,” he said, his eyes darting back and forth between them. “This is weird. You said it worked, but I never thought I'd actually see you both at the same time.”
“Of course it worked, Spike.” Future Twilight gave him an indulgent smile. Was that how her smile always looked? A bit patronizing, now that she saw it from this angle. “It's me, remember? Come on, Twilight. We need to keep a move on.”
“Right,” Twilight started trotting after her future self toward the door, when a nagging thought caught up with her. “Wait. Spike's never seen us together?”
“No. Why would he?” Future Twilight unlocked the door and turned.
“Well, he came with me,” Twilight said. She pointed a hoof to the stairs, where her Spike was slowly descending to the ground floor. He jumped as their attention shifted to him, and started working his claws nervously. “He's seeing us together right now.”
Future Twilight blinked at the younger Spike as if she had never seen him before. A look of confusion overtook her face, her eyes darting back and forth between the two dragons. She started to speak, paused, then gasped as whatever troubled thought she had been incubating finally burst in her brain.
“You can't have brought Spike!” she cried. “I didn't bring Spike!”
“Huh? But you said you'd done all this before.” Twilight felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. “You said everything was on time!”
“I was on time.” Future Twilight tapped herself on the chest with a hoof. “And you, you were on time too.” Now she pointed at the younger Twilight. “But I came alone! Spike said his molecules were too sensitive for time travel!”
“Yeah, that sounded really painful, the way you described it,” Future Spike said.
“You have no idea,” the younger Spike said. “I hope it doesn't hurt when they vibrate asynchronously.”
“But if I brought Spike, and you didn't bring Spike, how can you be the future me?” Twilight asked. “Everything I'm doing, you did a year ago!”
“Well you were, until this!” Future Twilight fell to her knees. “This is terrible! Do you know what this means? What we've done?”
Yes, she did know, but it was almost too frightening to contemplate. If the Future Twilight she was speaking to hadn't brought Spike with her one year ago when she had gone through this exact same adventure, then she wasn't speaking to her future self after all. She was speaking to a different Twilight Sparkle.
“We fractured the timeline,” she mumbled. “We bifurcated it somehow. I made a decision you didn't make, and now there's two potential futures in the... future.” She trailed off lamely. The enormity of their situation hadn't yet sunk in.
Future Twilight was apparently faster on the uptake. “Worse!” she cried. “If you're not the same as the past me, there's no guarantee you'll really get that journal back. Which means there's no guarantee Pinkie won't get it today, and I'll be humiliated! Again!” She clutched at her mane with her hooves, her breath coming faster and faster in short, uncontrolled gasps.
“And if you're not the same future me, there's no guarantee that anything I do here will have any effect on my own future!” Twilight said. “This is all meaningless!” She felt her own knees grow wobbly and came down hard on the floor. Her chest tightened uncontrollably as she began to gasp for air.
The two Spikes watched the two Twilights hyperventilate. They sighed at the same time.
“Are the paper bags still in the kitchen? I only brought one,” the younger Spike said.
* * *
“Okay,” Twilight said some minutes later. The paper bag muffled her words, but she was feeling much better with it in place. “What do we do?”
“We need to get to the park,” Future Twilight said. She had already recovered and was pacing around the foyer nervously. “The girls are probably already wondering where I am.”
“Then what? How did you get the journal back last time?”
Future Twilight sucked in her lower lip, chewing on it in thought. “Future Twilight distracted them with a walk around the park to enjoy the weather, while I dug the capsule up. I grabbed the journal and ran back to the Library.”
Twilight considered that option, realizing after a few seconds that she was chewing on her lip too. “Can't we just try that? Just because we're not necessarily the same pony doesn't mean it won't work twice.”
They looked at each other in silence, then turned to the older and younger Spikes. Both dragons shrugged.
“Okay,” Future Twilight said. “We'll try it.”
* * *
Getting to the park was a simple matter. Twilight waited five minutes after Future Twilight left, then followed behind her. She ditched the black pajamas at the tree house – apparently no sneaking was going to be necessary.
Spike wanted to ride on her back. A quick glance at Future Spike convinced Twilight that it would be a poor idea. The older Spike had clearly given up riding his Twilight some time ago, and if any nosy ponies saw the younger Spike riding her, suspicions would be aroused. This wasn't a time for aroused suspicions. Or aroused anythings. There would be time for that later, with the journal safely in hoof and back in her own time frame.
The park was as crowded as it had been a year before, with dozens of families and their foals out enjoying the beautiful afternoon sun. She caught a few worried looks as she trotted down the main path with the shovel floating behind her. Apparently they hadn't forgotten that little incident yet. Seriously, I'm not even near a graveyard! Sometimes, Twilight didn't understand other ponies at all.
“Okay, Spike. You're up.” She floated the shovel over to him as they reached the tall oak tree overlooking the park. He spit on his hands, grabbed the shovel out of the air, and began to dig.
Even though she knew the plan would work – Future Twilight had already done it once, after all – she still felt the clammy grip of dread on her heart as Spike dug. What if it still wasn't there? What if the capsule was there, but the journal wasn't inside it? The splintering of the timeline meant she couldn't really rely on anything Future Twilight had experienced as a guide. There was no way to be certain--
Her thoughts cut off as Spike hit something solid with the tip of the shovel, only a few feet into the earth. He blinked in surprise, then tossed the shovel to the side and began scraping dirt away with his claws, revealing the beautiful blue lid on the time capsule. It looked as shining and perfect as if it had just been buried a few minutes ago.
Which, in a sense, it had been. She marveled at the magical device, then gripped it with her magic and yanked it out of the ground, sending a shower of dirt falling to the grass around her.
“Spike! We did it!” The urge to bounce around in a circle shouting “Yes!” at the top of her lungs nearly overpowered her. Instead she rapped her hoof against the latch, producing a loud click from within the box, followed a moment later by the lid popping open. She shoved her head into the capsule as soon as the lid was clear.
Her haste very nearly caused her to pass out. The stench of formaldehyde was overpowering and burned her throat and eyes. She gagged and stumbled away until the fumes from Pinkie's cupcake experiment could clear.
“Er, are you okay, Twilight?” Spike took a step forward, then stumbled back when the cloud of vapors smacked his nose.
“I'm fine, just... wow, you know?” She took a few deep breaths to clear out the last of the chemical sting. “I'm amazed the Cakes allow her near their foals, sometimes.”
She peered into the capsule. The cupcake was as unchanged, though no thanks to the preservatives. It had only been in the box for a few hours, subjectively. Pinkie would have to find some other methodology for her longevity test.
None of that mattered, though. What mattered was her journal, lodged between the jar of whiskey and the wall of the capsule. She snatched it out of the box with a triumphant cry and spun around to face Spike.
“It's here! Spike, our plans actually worked! For once! Now we can... can...” She trailed off as she noticed the expression on his face. He was staring, wide-eyed, at something behind her.
“Heya, Twilight.” The voice, sudden and unexpected and sugary sweet, came from behind her as well. She froze, her mouth still open in her happy cry, as Pinkie trotted around the box to stand in front of her.
“Whatcha doin'?” Pinkie asked. The question, so common she must've heard it from Pinkie's lips a hundred times, drove Twilight into a silent panic.
Twilight stared at Pinkie. Pinkie stared at Twilight. Spike stared at them both, then slowly began to edge away.
“Me? Doing? N-nothing,” Twilight stammered. “Uh, what are you doing?”
“Oh, I'm glad you asked!” Pinkie beamed at her. “I was walking with you and the girls when I got the craaaaziest feeling, like somepony was trying something sneaky! And I said to myself, 'Silly Pinkie, everypony is already here with you! How could they be doing something sneaky?' And while I was thinking about that, I got another feeling! This one was like somepony was trying to open a birthday present too early! But nopony's birthday's today, cause otherwise I'd be tossing them a birthday party! And then I remembered the time capsule, which we weren't supposed to open until later today, and I said to myself, 'Pinkie, what if the birthday present is really the time capsule?' And then I realized, gasp! Somepony must be trying to open the capsule early! So I ran and ran and ran and ran and here I am!” She stopped for a moment, then gulped in a huge breath of air, looking faintly winded.
There was a long pause. Slowly, both their gazes migrated to the journal, which was enveloped in a faint purple glow and floating between them.
“And then I saw you get that out of the capsule,” Pinkie finished. “Which was odd, you know, because you were with the rest of us when I left.”
“Yes, that is... odd.” Twilight felt her way slowly, choosing each word one at a time. “You should go back to the girls and tell them about this... this crazy, crazy hallucination you've been having.”
“And you look different,” Pinkie continued, as though Twilight hadn't helpfully explained what she should be doing. “And Spike looks a lot different!”
They both turned to the dragon. He had made it about ten feet away and broke into a run as they watched. Slowly, he waddled his way across the park and vanished into the thick brush at its edge.
Traitor! Twilight scowled after him. I hope your molecules vibrate extra hard!
“So,” Pinkie said, once Spike had made good his escape. “What's this? It looks like a diary!”
“Oh, it's just...” Twilight turned to look at the journal, but it was already gone. Pinkie sat with it in the shade of the tree, propping it between her forelegs, already nosing through the first few pages.
Alarms went off in Twilight's head. She dove forward with uncharacteristic speed and grabbed it from Pinkie's hooves with her teeth.
“It's nothing!” she mumbled around the book. “I mean, it's, uh, a secret!”
The sudden silence between them was shocking in its fullness. The rustle of the leaves overhead died. The wind faded away to nothing. The cries of foals and parents in the distance receded even further, until they were lost as well. It was as quiet as a moonless night in the Ponyville graveyard before they installed those dratted alarms and floodlights.
“A secret?” Pinkie spoke so quietly Twilight could barely hear her. “You're keeping secrets from me? From your friend?”
The alarms were back. Louder. They grew louder still as Pinkie rose to her hooves and stepped forward, a deadly serious look on her face.
Twilight stumbled back. “What? No, no, I wouldn't do that. That would be silly!”
Pinkie continued her advance. What was it Rainbow Dash had said about Pinkie and secrets? Something about going crazy? Twilight took another step back and stumbled as she bumped into the time capsule. Its contents rattled as she fell to her haunches.
“Ponies shouldn't keep secrets,” Pinkie said. “Secrets and lies, Twilight.”
Twilight dropped the journal. “No, I promise! It's not a journal, just a book I found!”
“You promise?” Pinkie stopped just feet away. “Do you Pinkie Swear?”
Twilight bobbed her head nervously. “Yes! Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!” She pantomimed the gestures as she spoke, careful to close her eye before jabbing it with her hoof.
Pinkie's expression didn't improve. If anything, Twilight thought nervously, it grew sharper. The pink pony leaned forward, her eyes narrowing dangerously...
The time travel spell vanished with a flash of purple light, followed by the relative darkness of Twilight's closet. She could hear Spike, her cowardly, traitorous assistant, shivering as his molecules returned to their normal state.
“Whoa,” he said. “We're back. I think the spell wore off, Twilight.”
“Yes, Spike. It did.” She sat beside him, her legs trembling slightly. She managed to keep her voice calm and collected, to her own surprise.
“And you got the journal!” He grabbed it off the floor and held it up proudly. “Mission accomplished! Now you can... you can...” He paused as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “Twilight, is that a cupcake on your face?”
“No, Spike.” Her voice was still amazingly calm. Compensated shock, perhaps? She filed that away for later. “It's actually in my eye. In, my eye.”
They were both quiet for a moment as he processed that information. To be fair, she was having trouble accepting it as well. Eventually, he sniffed at the air.
“Is it the formaldehyde cupcake?”
“Yes, Spike, it is. I can taste the formaldehyde with my eyeball. I did not realize that was physically possible. Truly, I have learned something today.”
They were quiet again. There were no words, really.
And yet, Spike somehow found some. “I bet that stings.”
“Yes, Spike. It stings.” She paused. “Spike, would you be a good little assistant and get me a pail of warm water, a towel, and some codeine from the laboratory? It will be in a tiny vial marked 'Opiates-C,' near the back. Be sure to sign it out on the sheet.”
“Uh, are you sure that's a good--”
“Yes, Spike. I'm very sure.”
“Uh, okay.” He set the journal down and slowly stepped away. He had almost made it out of her room when she stopped him again.
“Oh, and Spike?” She set a gentle hoof down atop the journal. “Get my eyepatch, too. I have a date!”
[Author's note: As always, my deepest thanks to my reviewers: Drakmire, Corejo, AestheticB and Cassius. Cover image, "Back to the Past," by Tsitra360.]