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Chapter 21: Dimensional Spaces
Spike looked down from the balcony of the library towards the middle of the first floor. He took a deep breath and sighed, his eyes filled with concern for his unicorn friend. Below him, Twilight Sparkle sat in the middle of a circle of open books. As usual, the library was impeccably organized, as were the books around her. On her left, books on teleportation magic. On her right, books on dimensional theory. Behind her, books on physics. But for all the organization of the library, Twilight herself looked a disheveled mess. Her mane hung down around her face and neck in random directions, like twisting, creeping vines clinging to an abandoned house. Her tail didn't look much better. A thesis titled The Theoretical Applications of Fractal Pattern Energy Lines on Trans-Dimensional Teleportation - by Star Swirl The Bearded lay open in front of her. But right now, she simply stared blankly at it, not reading it.
“Twilight, are you Ok?” he finally called out. She blinked at him, shook her head up and down once, appearing to come out of whatever zone she had been off in.
“Yes, Spike. I'm perfectly fine. Thank you for asking.”
“Uh huh,” he responded, not believing her. “I'm worried about you, Twilight. You haven't left the library in over four days. Your mane is a mess. Your obsessing over a problem that Princess Celestia doesn't even think can be solved.”
“He hasn't even written yet. I wonder how he's doing in Canterlot? What he's doing …” she said, appearing as if she hadn't even heard his concerns.
“It hasn't even been a week, Twilight. I'm sure he's just busy getting settled in,” he responded.
“I'm just worried about him, Spike. Out there all on his own now. In a world he's still not all that familiar with.”
“Don't you think you're being a little overprotective, Twi?”
“He's my responsibility, Spike. The Princess charged me with taking care of him. And besides, I care about him. I don't want any harm to come to him.”
“He's not your responsibility anymore, Twilight. After all, it was Princess Celestia herself who wanted him to come live in Canterlot.”
“What if I screwed up, Spike? What if that's why she wanted him to leave Ponyville and come live in Canterlot? What if I was doing a bad job?”
He blinked and looked at her. Was that really what this was all about? She thought she had failed in some way? Or was it what he just said that made her feel that way? He immediately wished he hadn't pointed out that he wasn't her responsibility anymore because Princess Celestia had pulled him away to Canterlot. “Twilight … Is that what this is all about? You think you failed at the assignment Princess Celestia gave you?” he asked, worriedly?
“I don't know, Spike,” her ears laid back on her head. “What if I did? What if I wasn't a good enough teacher? Or a good enough caretaker?” Her ears laid back further on her head, her shoulders and muzzle drooped towards the ground.
Spike felt hurt rise in him for his unicorn friend, a wellspring of sorrow over what she was doing to herself. He walked towards the stairs, heading down them and over to her. She swung her head over slightly to look at him and he wrapped his small arms around her neck.
“You are an excellent caretaker, Twilight. And an excellent teacher. I should know. You raised me after all.” He continued to hug her gently.
“Thanks, Spike” she sniffed slightly, wrapping her forelegs back around him. A small and brief smile appeared on her muzzle. It seemed to cheer her up slightly. But he could tell she was still troubled.
“As far as any harm coming to him, I'm sure the princesses won't let that happen, Twi. I'm sure they are keeping a close eye on him,” he tried to comfort her.
“That's actually part of what I am worried about, Spike. His attitude about the princesses whenever I have spoken with him about them in private has been … less than respectful. Him getting himself in trouble with one of them is one of my biggest concerns.” She sighed again, Spike tried to think of something else to say to comfort her, but his mind drew a blank. And so he just stood there, keeping his arms around her in a warm embrace …
James shivered briefly as he began to wake up the next morning. “The maintenance pony must be asleep on the job and let the boiler go out,” he grumbled to himself in annoyance. He snuggled himself deeper under the quilt on his bed. As sleep continued to leave him, he became aware that the quilt he was snuggled under seemed to have a strange texture, and he felt something warm pressed against his side. He opened his eyes to find Princess Luna's wing still draped over him. She laid next to him, her warm furry body pressed against his, apparently still asleep. A fresh blanket of snow covered the top of her wing. Her wing had shielded him, and none of the snow had gotten on him. He looked around, aware now that he was still on the hill they had gone to last night. It suddenly occurred to him that he didn't remember ever going back to the dorm. He looked out in the distance. Bright light reflected off the freshly fallen blanket of snow. To the East, Celestia's sun was already well over the horizon.
“Shhhiiit …” he whispered to himself in a long, drawn out syllable, gently moving out from under her wing, the snow falling off of it like fine powder. He was careful not to wake her.
He stood up, looked around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He looked down at his uniform, brushing his hands over it, trying to smooth out the wrinkles that had accumulated from sleeping in it. “There is no way this can be at all appropriate,” he mumbled to himself, brushing out a few more wrinkles. He retrieved his cap, which had fallen off sometime in the night, from the quilt, brushing it off as well before placing it back on his head. Then looked down at Luna's still sleeping form and sighed. He knew he had to wake her up, but he wasn't looking forward to that. He looked at her as if she were a sleeping tigress, and that her instincts might cause her to destroy him with one simple spell before she even knew what she had done. Even with her attitude towards him, he didn't think she would intentionally hurt him unless he gave her a good reason to do so. But if he were to accidentally startle her and she reacted on instinct … indeed, her magical prowess made her far more dangerous than even a sleeping tigress. He took a deep breath and shuttered slightly.
“Princess … Your Majesty … ” he said gently, but loud enough to hopefully wake her. She stirred slightly, but then curled up further, flicking her tail up over her muzzle and immediately falling back asleep. He shook his head lightly. Despite her awesome power, he couldn't help but think how cute she looked lying there curled up like that. Nor could he suppress a small smile.
“Your Majesty … you need to wake up,” he said slightly louder, but still being careful not to startle her.
The alicorn stirred again, then opened her eyes, raising a forehoof to rub the sleep out of them. “What time is it, sister?” she asked.
“I'm not your sister, Your Majesty. As far as what time it is, I'm not sure. But the sun is already up. I … really need to get back to Canterlot.”
Luna blinked, pushed her forehooves under her and got to her feet rising in a way very much like an equine where he was from would have stood up. “Oh yes … I remember now,” she said, seemingly more to herself than to him.
“What … happened last night, Your Majesty?”
“You fell asleep. You looked so peaceful, I did not want to wake you,” the alicorn said simply. He listened for any hint of deception in her voice. He could detect none. Still, he wasn't entirely convinced she had not used a spell on him to make him fall asleep. But he had no evidence to suggest she did. Only the fact that it seemed unlikely to him that he would have fallen asleep on his own in that sort of situation. But then again, when Twilight had placed a sleeping spell on him, he remembered it after waking up from it. In this case, he recalled no such spell being placed on him.
“Your Majesty, I really must be get back to Canterlot. The morning faculty briefing at the Academy … I may have already missed it.”
She raised a forehoof, wiped the sleep out of her eyes one more time. Then motioned to her back. “Climb on,” she said, her voice taking on her more assertive tone again.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” He climbed gently onto her back and she leaped into the air, flying towards Canterlot. Again, the magical glow of her horn shielded him from the wind that would otherwise be whipping against him. The rate at which the trees were moving by underneath them told him she was flying faster than normal. He didn't know if it was for his benefit, or for her own.
She landed outside the gates of the courtyard. Then she brushed up against him and teleported them behind the Academy's conference building without warning. He would have fallen over from the dizziness and vertigo had her body not been leaning against his when they arrived. Once the building stopped seeming to spin around him, and the brief migraine dissipated, he turned to kneel before her, as protocol dictated, blinking to find she was already gone. She must have teleported herself away again as soon as we appeared here, he thought to himself.
He quickly checked over his uniform again, making sure it was presentable. Then he slipped in the back door of the building, walking to hurriedly to the briefing room. He arrived, just in time to see ponies flowing out of the room.
“Way to make a good first impression,” Theory Point commented as she trotted past him. He was about to respond, but she didn't stop to give him the chance to. Then, one of the unicorn colonels trotted out of the room.
“Ah, Doctor Peterson. I see you finally decided to join us after all. I will see you in my office.”
“Yes, sir,” he responded, wincing internally and preparing for what he knew was going to be a tail chewing. The unicorn turned on his hoof and started trotting, motioning for him to follow with his horn. He did so.
He led him down a hallway, turned a corner, coming to an office with a polished oak door. The door knob glowed as the unicorn magically unlocked it. He motioned with a forehoof for James to enter first. He did so, stopping in front of a cherry wood desk where he stood at attention. He heard the door close behind him, the tap of the unicorn's hoofsteps moving from left to right as he walked behind him, slowly coming into his peripheral vision as he moved around in front of him, eventually moving to stand behind the desk. His fur was a tan color. Almost that of sand. Age had turned his mane and tail a silver-gray, a few hints of dark brown in them giving away the fact that they were once a different color. The silver-gray color suited him well though, giving him an air of wisdom and authority. James guessed the unicorn was at least twice his senior, if not more.
The unicorn regarded him with deep green eyes for several long seconds. It unnerved him and he wanted to look away. He managed to keep his gaze directly forward though. When the unicorn spoke, it was with a deep authoritative tone.
“I don't know what kind of operation they ran back at this Fermi Lab you used to work at before you arrived here, Doctor Peterson. Maybe you could just show up whenever you wanted, and skip meetings whenever you felt like it. I don't know, and I don't care. But here, we maintain a military level of discipline. And you WILL show up for morning briefings. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir. Perfectly clear, sir.”
The unicorn paced behind the desk now. First right, then left. “I am going cut you some slack this time because you are new. You may think you are something special—that you have some sort of diplomat status as an ambassador from another world.” He stopped pacing, glaring directly at him now. “You're not!” he said in a louder more commanding voice.
“No, sir. I'm not special, sir.”
“Keep that in mind, Doctor Peterson. The only reason I am cutting you any slack here is because you are new. But you are just like any other pony here. And if you lose site of that fact, you will be trading your faculty uniform for a janitor's uniform. Do I make myself crystal clear?”
“Yes, sir. Crystal clear, sir.”
“Thank you, sir.” He took one step backwards, turning on his heal and exiting the office, closing the door behind him.
“Damn it,” he cursed under his breath. Then he started to make his way out of the building and towards the lab.
“What do you mean, she's no where to be found?” Celestia glared at one of her royal guards. She didn't get angry easily, but it appeared that she was now. The guard tried to maintain his composure. Still, he wilted slightly under her gaze, like a desert flower under the heat of the sun on a scorching summer day.
“We've … searched the entire castle, Your Majesty. Including the courtyard. She's not here.”
“Find her,” Celestia ordered in a commanding, and somewhat angry tone of voice. “And don't come back here until you do.” She stomped her forehoof once. It was all the royal guard could do not to jump backwards.
“Yes, Your Majesty. Right away.” He made a quick bow to his princess, then turned, cantering towards the doors of the throne room at a fast pace. He opened them, and stopped, almost running into the Princess of the Night who had been about to step in from the other side. The two of them stared at each other for a few moments, the guard even forgetting his manners and failing to bow. Neither princess said anything though. It was Celestia that finally broke the silence.
“Leave us.” She waved the guard out of the grand throne room with her forehoof.
“Of course, Your Majesty.” The guard made a hasty bow now and quickly left, closing the giant doors behind him. When they were shut, Luna walked further into the room, not even bothering to acknowledge her sister. Again, it was Celestia who had to break the silence.
“I had to lower the moon for you this morning, sister. Do you have any idea how worried I have been?”
The Night Princess walked past her sister, not bothering to look at her. “Stop, it Tia. You will worry yourself into a supernova at this rate.”
Celestia recoiled at the response. “Luna! … what has gotten into you?”
Luna turned and locked eyes with her sister now. “I may be your younger sister, but I am not a child anymore, Tia!”
“You're right sister, you're not! You're not a child anymore. And you have responsibilities around here. You are far too important to Equestria to be wandering off alone like that. To be staying out all night with no escort.”
Luna still appeared to be ignoring her, and just continued walking towards the other end of the room, not bothering to turn and look at her.
“Are you listening to me, Luna? You will not do this again!” Celestia stated in an assertive voice. The dark alicorn spun around to face her now.
“It seems you can do my job just fine, sister. You proved it again this morning. You proved it for a thousand years. I fail to see how I am so important to Equestria when you can do everything I can do and more. So if I choose to stay out all night, then that is what I will do!” She stomped a forehoof angrily.
Celestia took a step backwards in surprise. “Sister! What are you saying? You are acting like a child!”
“Except, I'm not a child, am I Tia. I was forced to grow up a lot sooner than I should have had to. You made sure of that a thousand years ago, didn't you sister.” The dark alicorn spat venomously.
Celestia recoiled backwards in shock at those words. They may as well have been a barbed harpoon, piercing her straight to her heart, for such was the hurt they caused her. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came. She closed her mouth again, and just looked at her sister now, the hurt no doubt evident in her eyes.
Luna turned her head away, dug at the floor nervously with her forehoof twice. Then she spun away from her sister, and galloped towards the large double doors leaving the throne room.
On the other side of the double doors, two royal guards, including the one that Celestia had been questioning earlier, quickly scattered, removing their prying ears from the face of the door as they heard her approaching. Luna barged out through the doors, paying them no attention at all as she turned and galloped down the hall. The first window she came to, she turned again, spreading her wings and leaping through it, flying off into the distance.
One of the guards blinked, turned to look at his companion. “Well, it seems all is not harmony between the two royal sisters, hmm?” he remarked.
“I saw and heard nothing. And neither did you,” the other guard responded flatly.
“Of course not. Nothing heard, nothing seen.” the first guard responded. Then the two of them went back to their posts on either side of the large doors.
James arrived at the lab, stopping briefly to greet the guards standing outside before heading downstairs, entering the secure lab area and closing the door, sighing to himself.
“I hope he wasn't too hard on you,” Theory Point commented, setting down the clipboard and quill she had been magically writing with.
“No … He let me off the hook this time because I'm new here. That's the reason he gave anyway.”
She nodded slightly and tilted her head at him. “What in the name of Celestia possessed you to decide to skip the briefing this morning anyway?”
He simply looked up at her. He didn't need to say anything. His eyes pretty much told the story.
“Princess Luna had you out the entire night?”
He simply nodded once in response.
“James, you should have told the colonel that's why you missed the briefing this morning. The princesses trump everything else here. If you missed the briefing because of one of them, it's entirely justified. He would not have come down on you at all.”
“So where are we at?” He nodded at her clipboard, changing the subject.
“Well, I thought we might do some criticality testing on it,” she responded, her eyes shifting nervously.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Not with so little shielding between us and the device we aren't.”
“We are going to have to do it sooner rather than later if we are going to do it at all. At the rate this thing is decaying. After three months … maybe four tops … this thing is going to be nothing but a heavy paperweight.”
He shook his head slightly. “I'm almost certain there is no way we will get this thing near critical anyway. There just aren't enough free neutrons. Not even if we used a moderator or neutron reflector. Maybe if we had some kind of auxiliary neutron source. But even then, it'd have to be an awfully powerful one.”
“The reflectors are easy enough. But where do you think we can find a neutron source?”
He shook his head slightly again. “I'm not so sure it's worth conducting an experiment that dangerous, Theory. I'm virtually certain this thing was not intended for creating any kind of nuclear bomb, or fission type nuclear reactor. The notes we were able to recover just don't support it. If that's truly what they were trying to do, then they are so far off the right track that they would have to be grossly incompetent as scientists. There's no way they could ever make it work based on the direction they were headed.”
The rest of the day passed quickly as the two of them worked. But they seemed to be getting no closer to the answers. He lost track of time, and it was only when Theory Point spoke up that he realized how late it was getting.
“Lets wrap it up here. We got dinner tonight that is NOT a date, remember?”
“Ah yes. I almost forgot. I do have a date with a certain scientist unicorn tonight. It was hard to say no to her because she's rather pushy.” He snickered, earning a glare from her in response.
“Alright, I'll see you in the common room back at the dorm then,” she responded. “Make sure you are on time. I've heard that in addition to being a little pushy, this unicorn doesn't like it when ponies are late.” She grinned at him.
“Yeah, yeah. Don't worry. I'll be on time,” he said, holding the door open for her. He followed her out, locking the door behind him.
That night found James and Theory Point sitting across a small table from each other. A large floor to ceiling window provided a panoramic view of the royal gardens and lighted waterfalls around the castle. Expensive looking crimson tapestries decorated the walls of the restaurant as tuxedo wearing unicorns waited on tables. The two of them had just finished dining on an exquisitely delicious vegetarian dish that James couldn't identify. They were sipping on sparkling water with a bit of mint twist in it now.
“Well, you couldn't have spent all your time at this Fermi Lab. What did you do for fun? When you weren't working?” she asked him.
“Well, I didn't have very much of a social life. I guess I basically went home, watched some TV, and then went to bed. And then repeated the same routine the next day.” He shrugged.
“What a boring life that must have been,” she commented.
“Where I am from … you'd be surprised how for many people, that's all they want. A steady boring routine that never changes. Change is something to fear. Most of them want a wife, a couple of kids. Dinner to come home to around five-o-clock, a television to watch, and a bed to climb into. Wash, rinse, repeat the next day.”
“And what did you want out of life?” She sipped her sparkling water again.
He paused. That was a very good question. One he didn't really have the answer to. “I don't know that I ever figured out what I really wanted in life,” he responded finally.
“You must have wanted something. What were you living for at the time?”
He shrugged. “Name recognition among my peers, I suppose. To be the best in my field.”
“That's all?” she cocked her head at him slightly.
“That's about it I think … Yes.” He nodded.
“… What about now? Now that you are here?”
“I don't know …” He said in a drawn out tone, looking down at the table, then shrugged his shoulders. “Everything's different here. Getting back home is probably not in the cards. I don't know what I want here. I'm not sure anything I want here matters in the end. After all, there's nothing for me here. Sometimes I feel like I just sort of … exist … with no real purpose in life here.” He clammed up as soon as he said that. He wasn't one to talk about his deep emotions—especially not with a pony he barely knew. No. He wasn't going to let her draw them out. He was becoming good friends with her, yes. But not that good yet. Not where he was going to talk about his deepest pains and vulnerabilities to her. He looked back up at her now, changing the subject. “What about you, Theory? What do you want?”
“In the long run? I want what most ponies want. To have a family, and colt or filly or two. But that's a ways off yet. I'm still young and don't want to be saddled with that responsibility just yet.”
He nodded slightly, then lost himself in his own thoughts. The idea of being married and having children was something he had never seen himself doing. It just didn't appeal to him. Maybe when he got older it would have seemed like a good idea. But in any case, it seemed like that option was no longer in the cards now that he was stuck here. He was interrupted when a tuxedo clad white unicorn showed up with their bill.
“Thank you, sir.” He nodded and took the bill, then noticed Theory Point magically taking some bits out of her pocket. “Oh no you don't, Theory. I got this.”
“Really, you don't have to pay for me,” she protested.
“Trust me, I want to. The Academy gave me a salary advance. This is the first time since arriving in Equestria that I've actually been able to pay for something out of bits I earned myself instead of relying on stipends from the Royal Treasury, or the generosity of ponies in Ponyville.”
“Oh … Well, I suppose congratulations are in order then.” She smiled. “I guess if you want to pay for me, I won't stop you. Thank you for dinner.”
“You are quite welcome. And believe me, I do. You'd be surprised how relieving it feels to be able to pay for something out of bits you earned yourself after relying on the charity of others for more than three months.” He finished getting out the bits and placed them in the sleeve with the bill, setting it back down on the table for the waiter.
“Well, thank you for dinner then.” She smiled. “Did you ever talk to the colonel about why you missed the briefing this morning?”
He shook his head. “What's done is done. I don't want to reopen it.”
She frowned momentarily, looked squarely at him. “You need to learn to be more assertive, James. You can't be such a pushover all the time.”
“More assertive like you, you mean,” he quipped.
“Well, maybe not quite that assertive … But do you want ponies trampling all over you all the time? Yes, most ponies try to live by the whole harmony thing. But not all of them do. You need to stand up for yourself once in awhile.”
“In a place like this, I would think the line between standing up for oneself, and being insubordinate is very thin.”
She nodded. “It is. But you don't have to stand for being chewed out when you haven't done anything wrong. Especially when the one chewing you out isn't even aware of the circumstances that caused you to miss the briefing.”
He nodded slightly in understanding, looked straight at her. “But you … You're a risk taker … The way you were so quick to want to do criticality testing on the device today … We could have both received a lethal dose of radiation if I'd let you go through with that.”
“You can't always play it safe, James,” she responded simply, flicking her tail up and down once.
“I know a pegasus in Ponyville like you. She's a risk taker too. But she only takes risks that endanger herself. You take risks that put everypony in the same room in danger.”
“All of life is a game of risk, James.” She stood up. “It's the only way we move forward.” She raised her right forehoof, patted him on the shoulder twice with it. Then, she turned, and trotted out of the restaurant, leaving him sitting at the table alone.
He watched as she left, her tail flicking back and forth a few times. He inhaled deeply, letting the air out slowly. “Well, that was an awkward end to the evening …” he said quietly to himself. He got up from the table, put his coat back on, and headed for the exit as well. Stepping outside, he put his cap on, adjusted it, and then started back towards the dorm.
The next morning, he made sure to arrive in plenty of time for the staff briefing. Mostly, it consisted of notification about any upcoming special events, news that affected the various departments, any class changes, and so on. He was about to leave the room as the meeting let out.
“Doctor Peterson, if you would remain here for a moment.”
He turned to see the same unicorn colonel that had chewed him out the day before. Now what did I do? he thought to himself. “Yes, sir?” he responded, standing at attention again.
“At ease. I wanted to apologize for ripping into you the other day. Next time you miss a briefing because of one of the princesses, you should tell me. That is always an acceptable reason. You did nothing wrong.”
“Thank you, sir … Sir, if I may ask, who told you?”
“Her Majesty, Princess Luna herself told me.” the colonel responded before leaving the room.
James remained behind for a moment, his eyebrow raised to no pony in particular. He scratched his chin for a moment, then left the briefing room.
Leaving the building, he jogged for a moment to catch up with Theory Point.
“Thank you for dinner last night. It was fun getting the chance to talk with you on a more personal level,” she commented, turning her head over her shoulder to look at him.
“You're welcome”. He fell in beside her, walking next to her now. “The ending seemed a little awkward though.”
“What? Were you expecting me to ask you if you wanted to come back to my place?” she grinned at him.
“Noooo … ” he said, drawing it out and shaking his head a bit. “I just wasn't expecting you to leave so suddenly like that.”
“I didn't want to ruin the moment.”
“So you left? I don't understand.”
“I left you with something to think about.” She turned her head to look at him briefly, then faced forward again, continuing her trot to the lab. He remained silent contemplating what she had said. When they arrived at the lab, he opened the door for her and the two proceeded downstairs.
As had become habit for him, he worked late into the evening again, staying after Theory Point had left. He was half expecting to get another unannounced visit from Princess Luna. But even well after dark, she had not yet appeared. Eventually, he secured all of the materials in the lab, wrote down some final notes for the evening and left the lab. He stopped in the kitchen and made some fresh tea for the royal guards outside. He felt for them, having to stand out there keeping watch over the entrance to what was basically a hole in the ground on such a cold night. There were four different pairs of guards that rotated in and out of this station it seemed. He had met them all, and become friends with all of them. Each of them greatly appreciated the tea he would being them on the cold nights and frozen mornings. He spoke with the two that were on duty right now for a short while, then started to make his way back to the dorm. He arrived to find the doors had already been locked, so he fumbled in his pocket, fishing for his key. Eventually, he found it, unlocked the door, and went inside. A few ponies sat in the common area, drinking late night tea, but none that he recognized. He nodded politely to them before heading up to his room. He spent the rest of the evening putting together lesson plans and a syllabus for the class he would be teaching next week. Finally, he closed the book he was writing in, placed the quill back into the inkwell. He looked out the window at the still nearly full moon, which had just risen in the last few minutes and was shining through his window, its pale light reflecting off his own skin.
“Princess Luna …” he spoke to himself sadly and quietly. “What must I do to get you to trust me?” Then he stood up from the desk, undressed, and climbed into bed. Once again, his sleep was peaceful and refreshing, his dreams pleasant and free of nightmares.
On the other side of Canterlot, outside of the city, a lone dark alicorn sat on a hill overlooking the city and the night sky. This time, she sat alone. She had just finished her nightly duty of raising the moon. Her appearance was a shambles, her ethereal mane hung down unkempt over both sides of her muzzle, her tail snarled and un-brushed. She had not been back to the castle since the morning prior and the argument with her sister. She looked at the ground once she had completed her task, her ears drooping. A tear rolled off of her eye, down her muzzle, and splashed onto the ground …
James started teaching his class three days later. He had more students then he thought he would—about seventy— but it was still a manageable size. His students, of course, were fascinated by him and the examples he would sometimes use from his own experiences before he arrived in Equestria. As the days turned in to weeks, he and Theory Point had become best of friends, and he had also developed a strong friendship with Delta Streak, whom he had met at the club, and Ele Matrix, the electrical engineer unicorn. He continued to become more comfortable with Academy routine, and found himself settling into the Canterlot lifestyle better than he thought he would. Even the aristocratic customs among the high-class ponies became routine enough to the point where they no longer bothered him. Indeed, he found himself actually beginning to like some of the routines and customs as they gave a sense of normalcy and structure to his life that he found comforting. When he wasn't teaching class, reading student essays, talking with his students informally about various other topics, correcting exams, or doing research in the lab, there were a few leisure pursuits that he found he enjoyed quite a bit.
One was Her Majesty's Royal Equestrian Symphony Orchestra. It was particularly fascinating to him since it was like a whole new catalog of undiscovered classical music and symphonies never before heard by another human being. And there were even brand new styles of classical music he had never heard before … that no one from his world had ever heard before. There was a gray earth pony with long black mane and tail who played several string instruments that he thought was particularly talented, and he had quickly become a big fan of her and her work. Octavia, he had learned her name was from one of the program flyers. He had also read about her history in one of the flyers, all the way from her days as a prodigy cello and violin student at the Royal Canterlot Music Conservatory.
Sometimes, on weekends, he found himself heading out to the old airfield just outside of Canterlot. The Wonderbolts often practiced there, and it was a way for the ponies of Canterlot to catch a free airshow. He recalled the interview he had read of Spitfire the captain of the Wonderbolts. She was an extremely talented flier, as was the rest of her team. The daredevil stunts, knife-edge turns, head on passes where they would break off a split second before they would have had a midair collision, were amazing to watch.
He also had occasional updates with both princesses. His relationship with Princess Celestia was solid, as it always had been. In some ways, she was almost like a great, yet mysterious mother figure to him, providing guidance and advice on various aspects of life based on thousands of years of experience. Princess Luna, however, was still an enigma to him. She had not given him any more nightmares since the one on that first night when she tried to intimidate him, nor had she made any more threats to him. But she was still demanding and controlling towards him, as if she felt the constant need to remind him that she was in charge. There were occasional moments where they would both let their guard down and actually make a strong emotional connection to each other. But it never seemed to last. He wanted her to like him, and he wished he knew how to get her to trust him. the uneasy tension that seemed to exist between him and Princess Luna was the only thing wrong with life in Canterlot really.
And then, of course, there were the nights out at The Underhoof with Theory Point and other faculty staff from the science department. They had accepted him completely as one of their own and couldn't have made him feel more welcome and more a “part of the herd” as it were if they had tried. A night out with them, and all his concerns and worries would disappear. He had never had friends like them in Chicago. And he had not lived life to such a full extent since at least his early college days.
Yes, Princess Celestia had been right. He was finding a lot to like about life in Canterlot. And life in Canterlot was turning out to be pretty good for him. He was getting paid extremely well. He had made a lot of really good friends. He didn't have a lot of free time because he was spending so much time in the lab, but what little free time he did have, he had no trouble finding things to fill it with. Canterlot life was full of culture and things to experience—art museums, symphony orchestras, live theater, fine dining, vibrant night life, and many other pursuits he was greatly enjoying as he became absorbed in Canterlot's cosmopolitan lifestyle. He had a very prestigious job with access to the top research facilities in this world, and access to the most brilliant intellectual pony minds in all of Equestria. No, life was more than pretty good. It was great. Chicago and life before Equestria had started to become a distant memory, as if it had never even happened. He started to find himself going for days without ever thinking about it even once. Even life in Ponyville, just a short two months ago, became more and more forgotten.
“And that concludes our last lesson before the break” James said as he finished up his class before the end of the semester. “You all have a wonderful Hearth's Warming, and I will see you all back here for the start of the new semester.”
The ponies in his class started filing out of the lecture hall, some stopping by to wish him a happy holiday as well, some asking questions about the lecture, and some just making brief smalltalk. Eventually, they had all left. James packed up his notes and other lecture materials and left as well, turning off the lights and locking the door behind him. Then he headed over to the lab, where he put in a few hours of research until well after sun down. Leaving the lab finally, he locked it up as well and headed back to the dorm.
He awoke the next morning to a light snowfall and cloudy skies outside his window. He showered, put his uniform on, and went down to the common area, finding he was the only one there. He made himself a light breakfast of oatmeal and tea, then left. Arriving at the lab he brushed a light dusting of snow off his cap and jacket and coat, chatted with the guard ponies for a bit before going inside. Theory Point wasn't here, but he hadn't expected she would be. He took out his clipboard and started reviewing some notes from the day before, then went behind the shield to unlatch the locks on the shielded compartment that contained the object. Coming back to the other side of the shield, he picked up the clipboard and wrote down a few notes when he began to sense another presence in the room again.
He put the clipboard down and turned, expecting to find Princess Luna making one of her unannounced visits. She didn't make many of them anymore, but once in awhile she did. Instead, he was surprised to find Princess Celestia standing in the doorway.
“Princess Celestia. Your Majesty” he went to one knee and bowed.
“Please, stand.” she responded. “I was afraid I would find you here, James.”
“Your Majesty?” he raised an eyebrow, standing.
“When I said I wanted you to make this your number one priority, I didn't mean you should kill yourself working on it. Tomorrow is Hearth's Warming Eve. Almost all of the staff have already left for the holiday. Take some time off, James. Go back to Ponyville and visit Twilight Sparkle and your other friends for the holiday,” she said, her voice soothingly calm, but with a hint of concern over what he assumed was his well being.
“I'm fine, Your Majesty. I really have a lot of work to get done. Calculations on—”
He stopped, her raised forehoof signaling for him to be silent. “It's not a request or a suggestion, James. I will send Twilight Sparkle a message letting her know you are coming.”
He nodded slightly. “Yes, Your Majesty … And thank you, Your Majesty.” He smiled a bit now. It would be good to See Twilight and the rest of the gang from Ponyville again after all.
She smiled back and stepped forward, nuzzling his cheek gently with her muzzle. “Have a good Hearth's Warming, James. You still have time to catch today's train to Ponyville.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. And you have a good Hearth's Warming as well.” He knelt and bowed respectfully again. She smiled gently at him and turned to leave, trotting out of the lab.
He stood back up once she had left and smiled, excited now about the chance to see his friends in Ponyville again. He re-secured the object in its shielded housing, closing and locking the latches. Then he left the lab, making sure it was securely locked, wished the guard ponies outside a happy Hearth's Warming before heading back to the dorm to pack. Once he had packed a few things in Twilight's saddle bag, he left the dorm and walked towards the train station. But there was one stop he wanted to make first …
“You sent him back to Ponyville for Hearth's Warming, sister?” the Night Princess asked as Celestia returned to the castle.
“I did,” she nodded. “You could stand not to be so cruel to him, Luna.” the white alicorn commented, casting her sister a sideways glance.
“Did he complain to you?” Luna raised an eyebrow.
“No. But he didn't have to,” she responded flatly.
Luna looked at the floor, scraping her forehoof against it nervously for a few seconds. “He does not like me, Tia …” she said without looking up from the floor, a hint of sadness in her voice.
“One could hardly blame him for not liking you, sister. If that were the case,” Celestia deadpanned. “But it isn't the case.”
“It's not?” The dark alicorn looked up at her sister now, her ears perking up slightly.
“No, sister. It isn't. He adores you, Luna. And he wants to serve you. He wants to please you, and he wants you to like him.” Celestia looked right at her sister now. “Don't try to intimidate him into serving you. Don't try to force him to serve you. Let him serve you because he wants to serve you.”
Luna scraped her forehoof along the floor once more, cocking her head slightly. Then she looked at the floor again. “I do like him … I just don't trust him … And besides, how do you know this, Tia?”
“Because that part, he did tell me, sister.” Celestia responded. She glanced at her sister again, then turned and started walking towards her private quarters.
“The Ponyville Express? That will be forty bits, sir” the ticket agent at the train station informed James. He nodded and paid the agent. “Thank you, sir.” He stowed the money in a drawer behind the counter, then pulled a ticket stub off a roll of tickets, using magic to give it to James. “That train will be leaving from track number eight West. Take a right, go up the stairs, cross the bridge, go back downstairs and take another right. You can't miss it. The cars are labeled Ponyville Express and have a logo of a flying green pegasus on them.”
“Thank you, sir.” James smiled. “You have a wonderful Hearth's Warming”
“Thank you. You too, sir,” the ticket agent pony responded as James left the counter, following the directions he had been given. Canterlot Station was a very busy place, especially now when ponies were traveling for the holidays. He looked around as ponies came and went in all directions. Tracks entered and left the station in all directions like spokes leaving the hub of a wheel, sometimes double or even triple track in directions towards the larger cities such as Manehatten and Fillydelphia. Only single track went towards the smaller towns like Ponyville though. Several trains arrived and departed at the same time, while dozens of trains sat on tracks, loading and unloading passengers, mail, and various parcels.
Coming to track number eight West, he found the train as the ticket agent had indicated, Ponyville Express was written on the sides of the passenger cars next to an artistic rendering of a flying green pegasus in a pose that would have made even Rainbow Dash jealous. He boarded one of the cars, remembering to take his cap off once he was inside. A few ponies cast him odd glances. But despite his human appearance, the Academy uniform seemed to win him instant respect and they simply smiled at him once they had gotten over the initial surprise of seeing a human on the train. He smiled back politely, finding a seat and settling in for the trip to Ponyville. He had student essays to read and grade, so he pulled one of those out of the saddle bag he carried with him and started to occupy himself with it, writing comments in the margin as he read.
The door at the front of the train car opened and an earth pony wearing a navy blue conductor's uniform trotted in.
“All aboard for Ponyville! On behalf of all of us at Her Majesty's Royal Equestria Transportation Agency, I'd like to welcome you all aboard the Ponyville Express. Since this is the express train we will not be stopping en route until we reach Ponyville. If Ponyville is not your intended destination, this is your last chance to get off this train. We will be departing the station in two minutes.”
He went back to reading the essays his students had written. A couple of minutes later, the sound of hissing air as the brakes on the train cars released, There was a small jolt as the slack went out on the couplers and the train started to roll, slowly at first, then gaining speed. The tall stone construction of Canterlot gradually thinned out, giving way to the forests and rolling hills of the countryside between the bustling seat of world power in Canterlot, and the small quiet town of Ponyville.
Spike suddenly jumped into the air, a small green flame erupting from his mouth as a rolled and sealed scroll popped out and onto the floor. “Twilight? I got a letter from The Princess.”
“Please read it out loud, Spike,” Twilight responded without looking up from the book she was reading.
The young dragon unrolled the scroll, cleared his throat, and began to read.
To my faithful student, Twilight Sparkle,
First of all, I want to apologize for the short notice of this message. I hope this Hearth's Warming holiday
season finds you well. Please prepare a guest room in the library, as your student, Dr. James
Peterson will be arriving there today for Hearth's Warming. He will be—
“He's coming today?” the unicorn interrupted, her ears perking up as she finally looked up from her reading.
“That's what the letter says. I'll finally get to meet him!” the small dragon smiled.
“I have to get all this stuff cleaned up before he gets here!” Twilight said in almost a panic mode. “Did it say what time he was coming?”
“Well, I was getting to that part,” he said, slightly annoyed that she had interrupted him.
“Oh … right … Sorry …”
He cleared his throat again, then continued:
He will be arriving on the next train from Canterlot. Keep in mind that the trains are on their
express schedules because of the holiday. Please meet him at Ponyville Station.
The unicorn continued to smile as all the books in the circle around her floated now, surrounded by magic from her horn. She placed each book back on the shelf in its proper location. Then she went into the guest room James had been staying in and began to prepare it. When she had finished, she started trotting to the door, a happy look still on her face.
“Yes, Spike?” she stopped, looking over her shoulder at him.
“Even with the train on the express schedule, you are gonna be several hours early if you leave already. And besides … You really might want to clean yourself up a little bit before you go out.”
She stopped and turned, trotting back into the room and stopping in front of a mirror, blinking at her disheveled appearance, unkempt mane and tail. “Oh wow … I guess I did let myself go pretty bad, huh?” She let out an embarrassed giggle. “It's a good thing Rarity didn't see me.” Then she magically floated her brush over to her, running it through her mane as she tried to undo nearly five days of neglect. Given the shape she had let it get into, that took up a significant amount of time. Finally she put down the brush and trotted towards the door, still smiling.
“You coming, Spike?”
“Actually, I thought I would let you have your reunion in private. I can meet him when he gets back here.”
“Are you sure, Spike? You can come along if you want.”
“Yep. I'm sure. This dragon is perfectly fine staying in here where it is nice and toasty warm instead of walking all the way to the train station in the snow.”
“Ah. Now your true motives for staying behind come out,” the unicorn chuckled as she left and closed the door behind her.
James finished commenting on another student essay as the door in the front of the train car opened again, the conductor pony coming through once more.
“If I may have your attention all. We will be arriving at Ponyville Station in approximately ten minutes. Please make sure you have collected all your belongings from under the seats as well as in any overhead compartments. Checked baggage will be available at train side shortly after we have arrived. Thank you for riding the Ponyville Express. On behalf of the entire train crew and all of us at Her Majesty's Royal Equestria Transportation Agency, I'd like to wish you all a Happy Hearth's Warming.”
The pony left through the door on the other end of the train car, entering the next car, stopping and repeating the same announcement. James packed everything he was working on back in the saddle bag except for the one essay he was currently reading.
He put the essay away when he felt the air brakes apply on the train and it gradually began to slow down. Looking out the window now, the train began to pass some of the simple thatched room buildings on the outskirts of Ponyville. It had also started to snow, a fact he had not noticed until now since he had been absorbed in reading and grading his student essays. He anxiously awaited for the train to arrive at the station. He hoped somepony would be there to meet him, but he knew Twilight had gotten very short notice that he would be coming. If not, he thought he could find the library from the train station on his own. At least he hoped he could.
He was excited, yet also nervous about seeing Twilight again. He thought about what Princess Luna had told him, about his fate being tied together with Twilight's fate. Again, he found himself wishing The Princess hadn't told him anything. It was going to make being around Twilight awkward. The fact that he couldn't talk to Twilight about it was going to make it even worse. He tried to focus on other things. For one, Twilight didn't even know he was a member of the Academy now. He hoped she would be proud of him. She had put a lot of effort into teaching him about Equestria and their ways. And just as if she were some respected professor he looked up to, he truly did want to make her proud of him.
The train continued to slow down gradually, eventually coming to a full stop in front of the station. So far, he couldn't see her out the window, but that didn't really mean anything. After all, she had no way of knowing which car he would be in. She could be anywhere along the entire length of the train.
He stood up when the conductor arrived back in the car and opened the door, gathering his saddle bag … actually Twilight's saddle bag he had been using the entire time, he got in line with the rest of the ponies making their way to the exit. Finally arriving at the door, the conductor pony smiled.
“Thank you for riding Her Majesty's Ponyville Express, sir. Have a happy Hearth's Warming.”
He smiled back. “Thank you for the excellent service, good sir. And happy Hearth's Warming to you as well.”
He stepped off the train, making sure to get out of the way so ponies behind him could get off. He stopped, put his cap on, looked left, then right to find that the purple unicorn had spotted him already and was charging towards him at a fast canter. He bowed slightly to her as she approached, although not as low as he would have bowed for either princess—for it was Academy protocol to bow slightly to a pony that was your mentor. Then he smiled and spread his arms as she leaped up on her hind legs, wrapping her forelegs around his shoulders and neck, hugging him.
“Hello again, Twilight. I've missed you,” he said happily as he hugged her close.
“I've missed you too James. It's so good to see you again. And happy Hearth's Warming,” she responded, squeezing him a bit tighter with her forelegs.
She finally released her grip on him and got back down to all four legs. She looked at him with a look of confusion on her face, one forehoof raised into the air slightly.
“… You wear the uniform of the Academy now,” she stated in a tone that was half way between a question, and half way between a confused statement of fact that she wanted explained.
“I do,” he stated simply.
“… But what about all that talk earlier? I thought you hated the Academy and everything you believed it stood for?”
“Well … people's beliefs and attitudes can change. Just like a pony's can.”
“True … I suppose they can …” she hesitated for a moment, but then smiled again, seemingly satisfied with his answer. “Well, congratulations then, James. I'm so proud of you!”
“Thank you,” he smiled back at her as the two of them started walking, James having packed lightly so he wouldn't have to check any baggage.
“I see you've managed to maintain your physical shape as well. Rainbow Dash will be proud of you too,” she commented.
“Well, I figured she'd chew me out pretty badly if I let that slip. Considering how hard she worked to get me in this kind of shape.”
She nodded and was silent for several moments before speaking again.
“So why did you bow to me back there?” she finally asked, trotting next to him.
“It's academy protocol to bow to a mentor. And given you taught me virtually everything I know about Equestria, and I would never have made it into the Academy without you, you definitely qualify as a mentor to me.”
She blushed at that. “I'm sure you could have made it in without my help.”
“No, Twilight. I couldn't have. You don't always have to be so modest. It's okay for you to take credit when you have done a good job. And you did a good job, Twilight. I owe you a debt I will never be able to fully repay.”
That only caused the unicorn to blush deeper. “Well … you are welcome then. But you aren't in debt to me. I learned a lot from you too, and enjoyed the conversations we had. Even the ones where we argued were fun in their own way.” She chuckled slightly again, turning her head to glance at him for a moment before looking forward again.
“Either way, you are still a mentor to me. So you better get used to me bowing to you like that.”
“Well, if you insist I suppose. … The other ponies will probably never let me live it down though.” There was a long pause before she spoke again, with a more serious tone, looking at him now with a look of concern and what James thought was a hurt expression.
“James, how come you never wrote to me? It's been two months since you started living in Canterlot and I didn't get even one letter from you. Not even one telling me that you joined the Academy.”
He sighed, looking at the ground. “I am very sorry for that Twilight,” he answered sincerely. “I was just so busy getting settled in with all the Academy protocol to learn, preparing lesson plans for my classes, helping my students, and so on.” His explanation was only half true. Yes, he had been very busy in Canterlot. But he could have found time to write to Twilight if he'd looked for it. There were other factors at work. For one, the revelation that Luna had given him about his fate being mixed up with Twilight's fate had made the idea of writing to her feel awkward. Of course, by not writing to her, he was doing exactly what Luna and he had discussed the other night: Attempting to run away from his problems. But there was still one more reason. One that was the worst excuse he could possibly make. He had simply gotten so caught up in the Canterlot lifestyle and his new friends from the Academy, that he barely even took the time to think about his friends in Ponyville, much less take enough time to write to them. Now, of course, he felt awful about it.
“Alright. But when you go back to Canterlot again, please try not to be such a stranger this time.” She smiled slightly.
“I'll definitely try not to.” A sense of relief washed over him. At least she had believed his explanation. He felt bad about being dishonest with her. But in this case, the lie was better than the truth right? The lie would not harm her. But the truth would. The unicorn smiled slightly at him and seemed to perk up a little now, although he thought he could still sense that deep inside, something was still troubling her.
As they arrived in the downtown area of Ponyville, the buildings and sites started to look more familiar to him. Shortly after, they came to the library / converted tree. They both stepped inside and Twilight magically closed the door behind them.
“I'm not very good with introductions," she said. "So I will just keep this simple. Spike? This is James. James? Spike.”
James took his cap off, then stopped and stared at the small dragon for a few moments. The dragon just stared back him. He broke his gaze away from the dragon and looked at Twilight again.
“You know … when you used to tell me you had a dragon assistant, part of me honestly thought you were just pulling my leg,” he said a bit nervously. “He doesn't breath fire, does he?”
“Only when I sneeze,” the young dragon responded before Twilight could answer.
“Uh huh. Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Spike. You're very fortunate to have Twilight as a caretaker and teacher.” James extended his hand towards the dragon now.
“Nice meeting you too,” the young dragon extended his hand and the two of them shook. “And yes, I know I am very fortunate to have her as my caretaker and teacher.” The dragon smiled. James expected Twilight to interject but she was too busy blushing from the compliments.
“Thanks for helping Twilight out while I was gone by the way,” Spike said as the two of them finished their handshake.
“You don't need to thank me for that. It was nothing really. The least I could do given everything that she did for me.”
“Ok then!” Twilight interjected. James thought that if she blushed any worse from the praises he and Spike were heaping on her, she might almost be able to pass for Pinkie Pie. “Either of you have anything in mind that you want to do tonight? Tomorrow we are going to Pinkie Pie's Hearth's Warming Eve party at Sugercube Corner. But tonight is free.”
“We could go visit Rarity,” Spike suggested. “I'm sure she'd like to see James in his spiffy new uniform”
Twilight chuckled and shook her head, then looked at James. “He's got a bit of a crush on Rarity.”
“Twiiiilight …” the young dragon whined, blushing almost as bad as Twilight had been.
“It's alright, Spike,” he snickered slightly. “Your secret is safe with me. I hope she won't be offended that I'm not wearing the clothes she made for me. But Academy policy says I have to wear this now.”
Twilight shook her head. “Don't worry. She won't be. And besides, she designed those Academy uniforms. The Academy switched to a new uniform about four years ago. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna commissioned Rarity for those designs. She'll be flattered to see you wearing it.”
“Well, in that case, I'm up for going over there, if you want,” he smiled.
“Alright,” Twilight's horn started to glow as she magically floated her scarf over to her and tied it around her. “I'm hoping we'll run into Rainbow Dash along the way. That way she can quickly make the rounds and let the other ponies know you are back in town. Then the three of them left and started walking towards Rarity's Boutique.”
It wasn't long before James was nearly knocked over when a certain cyan pegasus flew into him from above, wrapping her forelegs around him. “James! How come you didn't let us know you were coming back?” She glared at him.
He grunted slightly from the impact, but then smiled and wrapped his arms around her too. “Hi Rainbow. I apologize for that. It was short notice. Even Twilight only found out a few hours ago via a letter from The Princess.”
“Looking pretty 'dashing' there in that Academy uniform. And I see you seem to have kept yourself in shape. But appearances can be deceiving. What do you say? Up for a few sparing matches?” the always feisty pegasus asked, getting an eye-roll response from Twilight.
“Thanks Dash, but I think I'm going to have to take a rain check on the sparing. Dress uniform and all. The colonel at the Academy would chew my tail off if I had one. Then he'd hunt you down and chew yours off too.”
“Aww …” she looked disappointed. “Maybe next time then.”
“Actually, Rainbow, could you let AJ, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie that he's here?” Twilight asked. “We are going to stop at Rarity's for a moment, and then we will head over to Sugercube Corner. We can meet everypony there.”
“I'm on it!” the cyan pegasus responded, then darted off into the sky.
The three of them arrived at Rarity's a couple of minutes later, Twilight knocking on the door.
“Yes?” the white unicorn said as she came to open the door. “James! I didn't know you were going to be back in town! I see you joined the academy? That uniform looks quite nice on you, if I do say so myself.” She smiled at him.
“Hello, Lady Rarity.” He nodded politely. “And thank you.”
“Oh, and he's picked up such good manners in Canterlot!” The fashionista unicorn smiled. “I must admit I'm jealous of you living in there. The fashion, the excitement, the culture. Come darling, don't stand out in the snow and cold. You simply must tell me all about it.” She herded him, inside now, along with Twilight and Spike.
“You can't keep him here too long, Rarity. I told Rainbow Dash to round up the others. We are supposed to meet them at Sugarcube Corner,” Twilight spoke up.
“Yes, yes.” the purple maned unicorn waved a forehoof dismissively, then looked at James again. “Now come, darling. Tell me how life in Canterlot has been treating you.”
James looked over at Twilight for confirmation about whether they had any time to stay here and talk.
“Well … we can afford to spend a few minutes here. And besides, I have to admit, I'm anxious to hear how things have been for you too, since you never wrote to me.” The lavender unicorn glared at him again.
“Ok! Ok! You don't have to rub it in so much.” He raised his hands defensively. “Life in Canterlot has been pretty good. I've made a lot of friends at the Academy, and they are definitely keeping me busy. Been to the symphony several times. Get to see the Wonderbolts practice sometimes.”
“Oh, Rainbow Dash would definitely be jealous of you. Living so close to the airfield where the Wonderbolts practice,” Spike chimed in.
“And you are teaching at the Academy?” Twilight asked.
“Yep. Teaching an upper level course on particle physics. I've got about seventy students, so it's manageable for my first year. Very bright bunch of ponies. Always asking really intelligent questions. Just got done reading a bunch of very well written essays they wrote.”
He really wished he could mention the trip to Whitepony, and the strange device they had found and were studying. After all, Twilight was very intelligent and resourceful. She might have some good ideas and valuable input. But even Princess Celestia had admonished him not to talk to any pony. Not even Twilight. Still he hated keeping secrets from her. But disobeying Princess Celestia was not something he wanted to do either. He held his tongue and said nothing to Twilight. The two unicorns, dragon, and human talked for another five minutes or so.
“Well, I suppose we better get going,” Twilight finally said, standing up from the cushion she was seated on, magically putting her scarf back on and then bundling Spike up as well. He turned and looked at Rarity. It probably took her another three minutes or so for her to choose which scarf went best with the hat she wanted to wear. As bad as going clothes shopping with a girlfriend, he thought to himself. Finally, she decided on a color combination and the four of them left the boutique for Sugarcube Corner.
Arriving at Sugarcube Corner, James opened the door, holding it for the two unicorns and letting them enter first.
“Such a gentlecolt,” Rarity smiled, causing him to hide a blush, and get a dirty look from Spike.
He knelt down and whispered to the dragon as he walked past. “Don't worry, Spike. She's all yours.” He couldn't suppress a small giggle, which caused the two female unicorns to look back at him and Spike. He quickly put on a poker face, while the dragon started to blush.
“Jamesy! Wamesy!” a voice called out, thankfully before he had to explain himself. He looked up to see a bouncing ball of pink fur flying towards him. He braced himself for impact, but Pinkie Pie stopped just before slamming into him, then wrapped her forelegs around his shoulders and neck.
“Oh, it's so good to see you again How has Canterlot been treating you oh it must be treating you good because I see you are part of the Academy now and congratulations cause I've heard that's hard to get into but you probably didn't have any problem because you are really smart do you want some candy or some—”
“Hi, Pinkie Pie,” he chuckled, finally having to cut her off so she could take a breath for herself. “I'm very happy to see you again too.”
Twilight shook her head a bit. “Hi, Pinkie Pie. Are the others here yet?”
“Applejack is in the back helping me bake cookies and cakes and lots of other sweet things for the party tomorrow but Rainbow and Fluttershy aren't here yet and Apple Bloom is looking for somepony to help her with her homework for her Basics of Equestrian Government class but AJ can't cause she is busy helping me with baking and oh right I need go check on my cookies!”
As quick as she had come, the always vibrant pink pony bounded off into the back room again.
“Does she ever settle down?” he asked, only half joking, realizing he had literally never seen Pinkie Pie when she wasn't wound up like a spring.
“Only when she's asleep,” Twilight deadpanned. “And we think that's only for about three hours a night.” She chuckled.
“Twilight, Rarity, come back here please!” Pinkie Pie poked her head out from the back.
Twilight looked at Pinkie Pie, then back at James with a questioning look.
“It's alright. You two go back there and talk about me behind my back or whatever she wants to do.” He chuckled.
“Are you sure?” Twilight asked.
“Yes, I'll be fine.”
By the time Twilight, Rarity, and Applejack came out of the back room, Apple Bloom had found James. He was lying on his stomach on the floor across from her, pointing at something in her text book. The three ponies stopped, not wanting to interrupt him.
“So we have the Royal Equestrian Guard, more commonly just called the Royal Guard. As a whole, they are responsible for the general defense and security of Equestria.”
The yellow filly nodded. “Yep. That part I got.”
“And that's divided into several units. Including?” He looked at her waiting for the answer.
“The Pegasus Guard …”
“Good.” he nodded. “Also sometimes called The Pegasus Flying Corps. And they are responsible for?”
“Air defense, and patrolling the sky against threats like rogue dragons?”
“Very good,” he smiled. “And what are the other units?”
“The Unicorn Guard”
“Also known as, and responsible for?” he prompted.
“The Magical Defense Corps. Responsible for defensive magic and maintaining magical defense barriers that protect Equestria.”
“Good. And then there are the two very special elite units that are chosen from the very best. They are?” he prompted.
The little filly looked around for a moment. “I uh … forgot the name.”
“That's Ok. The Celestial Guard. Responsible for the security and protection of Her Majesty, Princess Celestia.”
“I suppose it's really important that Princess Celestia is protected,” the little filly commented.
“Indeed it is. Her Majesty provides the sun for us. And all living things depend on the sun, right?” James responded.
“Right,” Apple Bloom said.
“But there's one more special branch of the Royal Guard. They are?” he prompted.
“The Lunar Guard. Responsible for the security and protection of Her Majesty, Princess Luna.” The filly responded.
“Very good.” He smiled.
“And I'm done! Thanks! No more homework for two weeks! Yay! I'm gonna go find Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo!” the yellow filly cheered and packed up her text book and notes happily.
“You're welcome.” He smiled and stood up as she bounded outside to find her friends.
“Howdy, James!” He heard Applejack's voice from behind and turned around.
“Hey, AJ. Good to see ya again.” He smiled and walked towards her, the pony leaping up on her hind legs to hug him.
“That was mighty nice of ya, to help out my little sis with her homework like that.”
“Oh, it was nothing. I'm glad I was able to help. How've you been, AJ?”
“Doin' well. Was able to get some long standing projects done on account of you helping me get all those apples peeled earlier than normal. Thanks again for all that help before you left. And congratulations on the position at the Academy. Hope it's treatin' ya right.”
“Thank you. It's good. I work with some really great ponies.”
“Jamesy!” Pinkie Pie poked her head out from the door in the back of the room again. “Come back here and taste some of the stuff I am making for the party tomorrow!”
“Isn't that cheating? Don't I have to wait until tomorrow?”
“No, silly, that's just an old mare's tale or something. You can come back and try them now. And bring Twilight and Rarity with you.” The pink pony disappeared into the kitchen again.
“Well, I can hardly resist an invitation like that. Shall we?” he let the two unicorns go ahead of him.
In the kitchen area, he found Pinkie Pie scolding Scootaloo, who apparently had snuck in a back door and was stealing some of her cookie dough off of the counter. The little orange pegasus sat in the corner now, looking a bit like a scolded puppy. But she perked up when she saw him, darting over to him and leaping into his arms, which he quickly had to extend to catch her.
“Scootaloo!” Rarity scolded. “Where are you manners?”
“Oh, it's alright.” James chuckled. “Fillies will be fillies I guess. It's good to see you too Scootaloo.” He smiled, the young filly jumping out of his arms and back to the ground.
“Nice uniform!” she commented. “It looks all cool and military like!” Then she turned her attention back to Pinkie Pie. “Can I have some more cookie dough? Please …” she begged.
“You three have already had enough!” Pinkie Pie protested. “There won't be any left for the cookies, and you three fillies will be sick if you eat anymore!”
“Hey Scootaloo,” James interrupted before the little filly could protest again. “There's a few pieces of paper in my jacket pocket. The jacket I left out front. Could you go get them for me please?”
“Fine …” she pouted, then left the kitchen, dragging her hooves in disappointment as she walked slowly to the front of the store.
“So now that I got rid of them finally do you want to try my new cake recipe? I made it—”
She was interrupted by a shrill squeal from the front room. Twilight, Rarity, Pinkie, and Spike all jumped. Only James maintained his composure. The three ponies were about to go out to the front room to see what was wrong, when Scootaloo came galloping back in with something in her mouth, leaping at James' chest again. He quickly held out his arms to catch her.
“Scootaloo!” Rarity scolded again. But the little orange pegasus wasn't paying attention to her.
“Tickets to the Wonderbolts show in the Spring! For me, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom! thank you! thank you! thank you!” she wrapped her forelegs around James' neck.
“You're welcome.” He chuckled. “You keep your muzzle shut though. Don't go telling everypony at school. I can't afford to buy tickets for the entire class. The Academy pays well, but not that well. And the fourth ticket is for Rainbow Dash. You have to have an adult escort and I figured she'd enjoy it.”
“Don't worry, I won't tell anypony! I'm gonna go find Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom! Thank you! thank you! thank you!” She let go of his neck, pushing off him with her hind legs and landing on the floor. Then she darted out the back door.
He watched her dart out the door, then turned back to the other ponies.
“That was really sweet of you, James,” Twilight said, giving him a soft smile.
“Well, I figured I couldn't return from Canterlot without bearing gifts for the children.” He chuckled a bit.
“Rainbow Dash is probably going to have the same reaction Scootaloo did when she finds out you got her a ticket,” Rarity added.
“Yeah, well I don't need Rainbow leaping into my arms like that. I'm sure I couldn't hold her and she's just end up tackling me to the ground,” he quipped.
“What about me now?” As if on queue, the cyan pegasus came through the door along with Fluttershy, shaking some accumulated snow off her back and wings.
“Oh, hello James.” Fluttershy responded shyly. “I certainly hope you are having a wonderful time in Canterlot.”
“Hi Fluttershy.” He knelt down and she came over to him, the two of them hugging, her hug much more gentle than the others had been. “Canterlot has been great. And how have you been?”
“Oh, I've been doing well. Thank you. I've been keeping busy feeding the bunnies and such. It's harder for them to find things to eat in the snow so I have to take care of them more,” she said quietly.
“Alright!” Pinkie Pie interrupted suddenly, almost causing him to jump in surprise. “Now that we are all here … group photo!” she yelled happily, having produced a camera from he wasn't sure where.
“Oh no. I don't do group photos,” he started to back away, only to bump into Rainbow Dash behind him.
“Oh no! You aren't going anywhere!” the cyan pegasus stated aggressively, blocking his escape path. He turned another direction, only to find it blocked by a grinning Twilight. Turning once more, he found his path blocked by Applejack.
“Might as well face it, partner,” Applejack grinned. “Yer gettin your picture taken with us even if I gotta get my lasso and tie you in front of the camera.”
“Alright, I give!” he giggled, finding himself surrounded on all sides by the six ponies and one small dragon. “Let's get this over with then.”
“Who's gonna take the picture?” Pinkie asked.
“I will,” James responded.
“Nice try, James. But not gonna work.” Twilight snickered.
“I will,” Spike volunteered. Walking over to take the camera from Pinkie Pie.
“Are you sure you don't want to be in the picture, Spike?”
“I'm sure. There will be plenty of other pictures to be in. And besides, it's a special thing for you seven.”
“Alright. Thanks, Spike.” The unicorn smiled at her dragon assistant before gathering the ponies around James.
“We should do it over by the ice cream bar,” Rarity stated. “The backdrop is more aesthetically pleasing and the lighting is better.”
“Good idea,” Twilight responded, then herded them over to the ice cream counter, arranging James in the middle and the ponies gathered around hm before situating herself. “Ok, Spike! Ready!”
“Alright … In three … two … one …” A bright flash as the flash bulb went off.
“I'll take it back to the library tonight and develop it in the lab,” Twilight said as the ponies and humans relaxed into more comfortable positions now.
He continued to make smalltalk with the ponies for a few hours. That evening, they gathered for dinner in a private room at the back of Sugarcube Corner. Mr. and Ms. Cake used for private parties, Pinkie had told him. He updated them on the news from Canterlot. The parts he was allowed to talk about anyway, and they updated him on the latest news from Ponyville. As small as Ponyville was, that wasn't much news really, and it didn't take long to summarize the entire two months he had been gone. They laughed and told stories. But every once in a while, when he looked at Twilight, he couldn't help but get the feeling that something was bothering her. He couldn't put his finger on what caused him to feel that way. Maybe I'm just being overly sensitive, he tried to tell himself. But despite his efforts to try to convince himself of that, the nagging feeling remained.
“Well, ah sure hate to cut the evening short, but it's a hike back to the farm. And Apple Bloom and I gotta be up early tomorrow to be back here in town and help set the party up.” Applejack stood up. “It sure is nice seein' ya again though, James. And I'll see ya in the mornin'.”
“Good night, AJ.” He smiled. “See you in the morning.”
“I should go too,” Fluttershy said in a quiet voice. “It's a long walk back to the cottage, and it's going to be dark soon.”
“Do you want me to walk you back?” James offered.
“Oh … No thank you. That's very sweet of you. But you'd have to walk back to town in the dark.”
“Alright then. Good night Fluttershy. I'll see you in the morning.” He smiled.
“Good night, James.”
Within a few minutes, the rest of the ponies decided to call it a night as well, and he was on his way back to the library with Twilight and Spike. Lightly falling snow reflected off the street lamps, swirling around in a light breeze, like hundreds of lazy stars fluttering around in the sky. James tried not to think of home. But he couldn't avoid making connections to Christmas time back in Chicago. He didn't dwell on it though. It would do no good for him to focus on what he had in the past and could not get back. Instead, he focused on what he had in front of him right now. Good friends, a picture perfect winter evening the day before Hearth's Warming. It really couldn't get much better than this.
He awoke early the next morning before sunrise. Despite the cold and the snow, he put on his field uniform and went out on a brief run with Rainbow and Applejack for old times sake, as well as to prove to Rainbow that he could still keep up. After bathing and cleaning up from the run, he put his dress uniform back on and went over to Sugarcube Corner again, where he helped the ponies out with the party preparations. Cheerilee's class would also be presenting a play that evening, he learned. Getting ready for the party was quite a bit of work, but the time passed quickly with all the holiday conversation going on during the work, and Pinkie Pie's never-ending supply of treats and refreshments. By the time the sun started to set, they had put up a make-shift stage for the play to be performed on, and all the preparations for the party were complete.
“Then let the Hearth's Warming Eve party officially begin!” Pinkie Pie called out enthusiastically, launching a confetti blast from a party cannon.
Prior to the play there was music, dancing, and appetizers served.
“I developed the picture from last night,” Twilight said, taking it out of her saddle bag for the others to look at.
“That turned out mighty find. Spike's not a bad photographer,” Applejack said, looking at it. The rest of them agreed.
“What do you think we should do with it?” Twilight finally asked.
“I think you should keep it at the library, Twilight,” Fluttershy responded quietly. “It seems like an appropriate place to hang it where it will be safe and not get damaged.”
The other ponies all agreed, and James did too. So she put it back in her saddle bag for safe keeping. Then, the six ponies, one human, and one dragon got on with partying.
The play went off without a hitch, all of the colts and fillies being very well rehearsed. Pin the Tail on the Pony, along with various other games followed the play. Dinner was served afterward, followed by a seemingly never ending supply of deserts. Cookies and candies, cakes, pies and ice cream. At the end of the evening, all of them had eaten way too much.
“Ugh …” Rainbow Dash groaned. “I won't even be able to fly home. Maximum takeoff weight exceeded.”
James chuckled a bit. “Guess we will have to go for an extra long run in the morning to try to burn some of these calories off.”
“Well, at least Mr. and Ms. Cake told us cleanup can wait until tomorrow.” Applejack added.
Gradually, ponies began to leave the party and return to their houses. Eventually, Twilight, James, and Spike said good bye to the ponies that were left and returned to the library as well. They talked for a little while about the latest news from Canterlot before turning in for the night.
James spent the next two days in Ponyville, catching up with all the ponies he had become good friends with while he had been staying there. The time passed quicker then either he or they would have liked, and a cold clear morning found the purple unicorn sitting at the Ponyville train station with him. He wore his Academy dress uniform, which Rarity had just freshly pressed for him. Although he was always careful to keep it wrinkle free, it looked even nicer after Rarity got done with it. She truly did have a magic touch when it came to clothes.
The Ponyville train station was much smaller than the one in Canterlot, of course. It was made up of one small wooden building. A single plank wood boarding platform hung off the back of the building in front of the only track that went through Ponyville.
“I wish you could stay longer, James. I really missed having you around. Even with Spike back,” Twilight said sadly.
“I'd like to stay longer too, Twilight. But unfortunately, there's work to be done. Even with classes on break, there's research work to be done in the labs and lesson plans to prepare for next semester. An Academy professor's work is never done, it seems.”
“Promise you will write this time, James. I at least want to keep up on how you are doing.”
“I promise, Twilight. I will make sure I find time to write to you.”
“You better. Or I'm going to ask Princess Celestia to yell at you,” she giggled. He didn't get a chance to respond as a uniformed train conductor stepped off one of the cars of the parked train.
“If I may have your attention please, the Ponyville Express is now boarding. Destination, Canterlot. All ticketed passengers should be boarding the train at this time. This train will be departing the station in five minutes.”
The conductor pony then started walking along the train cars, assisting some of the older ponies with their bags, as well as the ones that needed a little extra help boarding.
“Well, I guess that's my queue.” He looked at Twilight, spread his arms. She wrapped her forelegs around him and the two of them hugged. “I'm going to miss you, Twi.”
“I'll miss you too, James,” she said sadly.
“You're coming to Canterlot for the Summer Sun Celebration, right?”
“I'll definitely see you again then if I can't see you sooner.”
She nodded and hugged him a bit tighter for a moment before letting go. “Have a good trip back, James.”
“All aboard! This is the final boarding call for the Ponyville Express, departing for Canterlot.”
“Thanks, Twilight. You take care of yourself.”
He picked up the new bag that Rarity had sewn for him, having returned Twilight's saddle bag to her. Then he bowed slightly to Twilight again out of respect for a mentor, before turning and boarding one of the train cars. Taking his cap off and finding a seat, he looked out the window at her and waved. She raised a forehoof and waved back at him. The hissing sound of moving air as the air brakes on the train released. A small jolt as the slack went out, and the train started moving forward. He continued waving out the window, watching as the unicorn started to run along the side of the tracks, watching him. As the train gained speed, she could no longer keep up. He watched her fall behind, like a scene sliding off the side of a movie screen. Then, she was gone, having slipped out of the view port of his small window to the world.
He sighed, depression hitting him at having to leave his friends in Ponyville again. But he reminded himself of what he had waiting for him in Canterlot: Theory Point and a lot of other really good friends, and a whole boat load of challenging research to work on. His mind would be off of Ponyville again in no time, and he would be back into the Canterlot routine. He was sure of it. Then, he opened his bag, pulled out one of the student essays he had brought, and began to read.
“He's changed, Applejack,” a dejected looking Twilight Sparkle said later that day, sitting in the library with Applejack. Spike sat at the top of the stairs, listening in. He was supposed to be in bed, but concern for his unicorn friend had kept him up. He was fairly certain that the two ponies didn't know he was listening in.
“Well, I'm sure he has, sugarcube,” Applejack commented. “He's been living in Canterlot for two months, had a whole new set of experiences, and he's had more time to settle into life in Equestria.”
Twilight shook her head slightly once. “Did you see the way he was with Apple Bloom when he was helping her with her homework though?”
“Yeah? Ah thought it was mighty nice of him. What about it?” The farm pony raised an eyebrow.
“Two months ago he would have been complaining about the amount of power the princesses have, and how he thought Apple Bloom was being indoctrinated and such. But now … Her Majesty, Princess Celestia? and Her Majesty provides the sun for us? I can barely believe those words actually came out of his mouth.”
“Ah don't understand, Twi. He's finally showing the princesses some respect even when they're not standin' right in front of him. Ah'd think that'd make you happy.” the orange earth pony gave Twilight a confused look.
“Well, it does. But the way he talked to Apple Bloom … he said those things like now he just accepts them as indisupted fact. And then the fact that he actually joined the Academy … The few times I talked to him about the Academy, he pretty much hated everything he thought it stood for.”
“So, maybe he had a change ah heart? Maybe he's simply accepting the way things are around here?”
“That's just it, Applejack. I wanted him to respect our system and respect the princesses. But I didn't want him to abandon who he is. To lose himself. But that's what I'm afraid is happening. He's becoming culturally assimilated. He's losing his own culture. And his own culture is part of who he is.”
“Ah dunno, Twi … Even if he is, do ya really think it matters? He seems really happy. Ain't that all that matters?”
“Not if he is losing who he is, AJ. It used to be that he respected the princesses, even if he didn't like what they stood for. But now, joining the Academy and all … he's becoming a servant.”
The farm pony shrugged slightly. “Some ponies are happiest when they are servin' others, Twi. I reckon some humans are the same way. Maybe he's one of them. If servin' Princess Celestia and Princess Luna is what he wants to do and it makes him happy, then I see nothin' wrong with it. Not that I'm entirely sure what this whole cultural assimilation thing is. But again, if he's happy, I think that's what matters?”
“Maybe you are right AJ. Maybe I should stop worrying about it.” the unicorn smiled slightly. “I should let you get home. Thanks for staying late and talking with me about this.”
“No problem, Twi. Ya know Ah'm always here for ya. Ah wouldn't worry none too much about James. Ah'm sure he he'll be fine. Good night, Twilight.” The farm pony stood up and left turned, leaving the library. Twilight turned towards the stairs. Spike quickly jumped and silently hurried to his basket at the foot of Twilight's bed and curled up, pretending to be asleep.
Later that night, Spike lay asleep curled up in his basket with the covers snugly pulled over him. He dreamed abut bright red gems, and a certain white unicorn with purple mane and tail. Suddenly, his dream started to shift. He heard a pony scream out in fear. Recognizing it as Twilight's voice, began to wake up, quickly realizing it wasn't a dream. Another scream, and he was up, throwing the covers off of himself and racing to the door, He grabbed the handle, turned the knob, only to have the door yanked out his hand, as if a gust of wind had caught it and thrown it open. Racing down the stairs, he blinked at frightening scene before his eyes. Papers and books were swirling around the room. At the center, some time of swirling black vortex seemed to be opened up. Inside the vortex, he could see nothing except for streaks of lighting shooting back and forth and down into it. Occasionally, a piece of paper or a book would get sucked into the vortex, simply disappearing down it. And at other end of the room, Twilight dug all four of her hooves firmly into the ground, fighting desperately to avoid being sucked into the swirling tornado like menace as it fought to pull her closer. She looked around frantically, trying to find something to grab onto. But there was nothing within reach.
Desperately, the young dragon continued racing down the stairs and behind his unicorn friend, careful to give the vortex a wide berth, lest he get pulled in himself. He grabbed onto Twilight's tail, digging his own feet into the ground and desperately trying to stop both of them from being drug across the floor. Still, they were slowly, but surely being pulled closer and closer to the swirling, flashing opening. He stared in horror at the vortex. The vortex stared back like a giant dark mouth with lighting for teeth, waiting for its prey to fall in to be devoured.
Suddenly, the swirling vortex became unstable, collapsing inward on itself like a deflating balloon. Then, it was gone. The books and papers that had been swirling around it in the air fell to the floor. Twilight fell backwards and on top of Spike, causing him to grunt as the wind was knocked out of him. She quickly realized where she had fallen and rolled off of him, the two of them laying there breathing heavily for several long seconds. Finally, Spike broke the silence.
“What in the name of Celestia were you doing, Twilight?”
“I … I tried to open a portal to another dimension,” she responded in a shaky voice. “To … to see if I could find how to send James home.”
“Twilight, you have to stop this! I almost couldn't pull you back! You almost got dragged in there! Now maybe you see why Princess Celestia said it was too dangerous to try?”
“I … I'm sorry, Spike,” she said, still shaken up. “I have to get this mess cleaned up now.”
“I'll clean up this mess in the morning. For now, lets just get you to bed.” He helped the still shaking unicorn up to her bed and tucked her in. It took awhile, but eventually, she stopped shaking and fell asleep. He looked at her, sighed to himself and shook his head. Then he climbed back into his basket. Try as he might, he was not able to get back to sleep …
Dr. Eric Thompson stood outside staring at the partially collapsed and twisted chunks of metal that were the destroyed buildings of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. Another colleague who had worked at the lab stood next to him.
“They are finally going to get around to tearing these buildings down,” the colleague spoke. “They want you to take one last look through the building and see if there are any notes, logs, research data, and so on that should be removed before they completely destroy what's left of the buildings.”
Eric nodded and then walked to the lab, entering through the doorway, which was now simply covered in plastic construction flaps to try to at least keep the elements out of the building. He went back to the main research area, surveying the debris. Broken computers and display monitors, twisted metal support beams. It didn't look like the quake had left much of anything undamaged, or salvageable. Then a bound book on the floor caught his eye. He leaned down, picked it up. As he did so, something fell out of it and to the floor. Leaning down again, he picked up the object that had fallen out, turning it over in his hand. His eyes became wide, staring at it.
“What the hell? Is this someones idea of a cruel joke?” he said to himself.
The object was a photograph. In it, James stood wearing some kind of military like uniform with artistic designs of the sun and moon emblazoned on it, on the shoulder patch, a flag of some country he had never seen before. But the strangest part of the photo, were the six colorful ponies that surrounded James—including two pegasi, and two unicorns …