Author's note: Well, the overwhelming majority that responded said they prefer the double spaced paragraph format. I'm actually somewhat surprised by this, given that most fiction is published in indented single space format, with double spacing only used for scene breaks. I guess it says something about how much influence the Web and html formatting has had on our preferences. The readers have spoken, so I will stick with the original format. Thanks to all who gave their input. And now, onto Chapter 25. Hope you enjoy it!
Chapter 25: The Summer Sun Celebration - Day 1
James anxiously waited at the train station. According to the board, the train was on time and should be arriving in about five minutes. Shortly, he saw a light in the distance down the track, shimmering in the waves of the summer heat. Slowly, it grew brighter as the train approached. Steam from the locomotive's drive cylinder flooded the area around the track as the front of the train passed him, as if he had entered a cloud, the dense white vapor obscuring the rest of the train. Once the engine had passed, the cloud quickly dissipated and the train came to a stop, the cars gradually becoming visible through the steam. He was standing roughly in the middle of the train.
He looked up at the cars, trying to see through the windows and spot which car Twilight and the others were in. Eventually, he spotted Pinkie Pie bouncing towards the door of the fourth car. Quickly, he walked over to it, jogging slightly to get there before the door opened. Once it had opened, he politely extended a hand to help the girls down.
"Jamesey Wamesy!" Pinkie Pie called from the door of the car, ignoring his offered hand and jumping out of the car. She ignored the stairs as well, landing on the ground with her hind legs, her forelegs wrapped around him, nearly knocking him off his feet.
With a grunt, he wrapped his arms around her and smiled, laughing. "It's good to see you again too, Pinkie Pie."
Twilight was next to exit. Unlike the ever bounding Pinkie Pie, she accepted his offered hand, smiling as she leaped up on her hind legs as soon as her feet were on the ground, hugging him tightly. "It's so good to see you again, James. I've missed you."
He hugged her back just as tightly. "I've missed you too, Twilight, and been really looking forward to seeing you again."
He hugged the rest of them in turn, and then shook Spike's hand when he got off the train.
Then, AJ spoke up. "James? This is my cousin Braeburn. From Appleloosa on the Western frontier."
"Pleased to meet you", the western earth pony responded and extended a forehoof.
"Likewise," James responded, extending his hand and shaking. "Any family of Applejack's is a friend of mine."
"Looking rather sharp in that uniform, there," Rainbow Dash said.
"Well, that's cause Rarity designed it." He smiled. Rarity blushed slightly.
"Well, I … Thank you, James," she smiled.
Eventually the baggage handler ponies finished unloading all of their baggage onto a large cart. Even though they were only going to be in Canterlot for four days, it appeared that Rarity had packed enough for four weeks. Applejack started to tie a rope around it and he knew she intended to pull it.
"Oh no you don't, AJ. I got it." He smiled and unwrapped the rope from the cart's poll, tossing it back to her, then getting behind the cart and pushing.
"That's mighty nice of ya, sugarcube," she said, trotting along side of it. "We'll have to come back later today. All of the food we made is arriving on a different train. T'wernt enough room in the baggage car of this one for every pony to bring all their stuff."
"It's my honor, for the Elements of Harmony. And I'll come back with you later and help you get the rest of the stuff, AJ. So I believe you are staying at the castle as honored guests?" he asked, maneuvering the cart through the large crowd of ponies at the train station. It was turning out to be somewhat of a challenge, and he thought there was no way AJ could have maneuvered it through by towing it.
"Well, I don't know about honored," Twilight said modestly. "But yes, Princess Celestia has asked us to stay at the castle. Will you be joining us there?"
"I'm afraid not. I've got my own place to stay now in the Academy faculty dorm. But don't worry, we will be able to spend plenty of time together … So I imagine none of you have had breakfast yet? I know a good place. Theory Point showed me. We can unload all this stuff at the castle and then go get breakfast."
"Sounds great!" Spike said. "I'm starving!"
Twilight chuckled slightly. "You're always starving, Spike. But yes, breakfast sounds great. None of us did eat anything this morning before getting on the train."
The other ponies nodded in agreement.
"Breakfast it is then," he said as he kept pushing the cart towards the exit of the train station.
It took nearly twenty minutes to maneuver through all of the crowds from the arriving trains, but eventually, he made his way out of the station. Bright summer sun shown down on them, warming them as they stepped out from under the station's roof.
Braeburn looked around and gave a short whistle. "Ain't never seen so many ponies in ma life. All of 'em rushing around like their ain't no tomorrow."
"He's never been to Canterlot before," Applejack commented. "In fact, he's never been anywhere outside of Appleloosa."
"Ah. Well, welcome to Canterlot then," James smiled. "If I can be of any assistance, just let me know. Been here about seven months now and got a pretty good grasp of the city."
"Thank ya kindly," Braeburn responded.
Thirty minutes later, they had managed to maneuver their way through the downtown crowds and arrived at the gate to the castle courtyard. A pegasus guard stood on one side of the gate. On the other, a unicorn guard.
"Ah, James. Good morning," the pegasus guard smiled.
"And good morning to you too, Storm Chaser. And you, Star Sword," he nodded at the two guards.
"Good morning, James," the unicorn responded. "And to you, Elements of Harmony. It is an honor and privilege." He nodded politely, the six ponies responding in kind.
"The Elements of Harmony, and their guests, will be staying in the castle as guests of Her Majesty," James said.
"Yes, of course," Star Sword said. "I'm afraid we must search all of their baggage before it can be allowed into the castle though. Captain's orders. Please don't take offense, my ladies. It's not that we don't trust you. It's that others could have tampered with your bags while they were in transit."
Twilight and the others nodded their consent and stepped to the side along with James to allow the guard ponies to do their work.
"This is going to take awhile," Rainbow Dash grumbled.
He nodded and went back over the guards.
"Good sirs, might I impose upon you to have the ladies things taken to their guest rooms when you are finished?"
"Not a problem, James. We'll take care of it," Storm Chaser responded.
"Thank you," he smiled and nodded, then walked back over to Twilight and the others. "Lets go get some breakfast. Your bags are in good hooves."
As they walked back toward the downtown area, he noticed Twilight giving him a strange look out of the corner of his eye.
"What?" he finally asked.
"Please tell me the reason you're on a first name basis with the Royal Guards isn't because you're getting in trouble with them a lot," she gave a short nervous laugh.
He chuckled and shook his head. "No. It's cause I bring them hot tea on cold winter mornings. And iced tea on hot summer afternoons. Well, when they are assigned to the Academy buildings I work at anyway."
"Oh," she laughed in relief now. "That's nice of you, James … I don't remember them wanting to search my things at last year's Summer Sun Celebration."
"There were … rumors of a nonspecific and non-credible threat, from what I hear. But I also hear that both Princess Celestia and Princess Luna don't think it is really anything to worry about. Probably just some teenagers trying to cause trouble. But you can never be too careful."
"Oh … Alright then," she smiled a bit and continued trotting along next to him. Thankfully, it seemed she had bought his explanation.
He hated lying to her. But what else could he do right now? It also didn't escape him that despite both princesses assuring him that what he had seen in his dreams could not harm either him or any of the ponies, they apparently thought the threat was serious enough to warrant extra security when it came to the Elements of Harmony.
They arrived at a small restaurant near the Academy campus—one where he and Theory Point often got breakfast in the morning. Tea, fresh bran muffins with melted butter, and pancakes were served while they exchanged the latest news from Ponyville and Canterlot.
After breakfast, he took them back the castle and a guard escorted all of them to their guest rooms. Their baggage had been searched and was waiting for them in their rooms, apparently with no suspicious items having been found.
"Oh, James," Twilight spoke up. "I got a present for you."
Her horn started to glow, as she removed something from one of her bags, floating it over to him.
"My iPhone? So you did manage to get it back together!" He took it out of the air and looked at it, turning it over and over in his hands as if he had never seen it before.
"I did. Well, I think I did. I haven't tried to turn it on."
"Thanks, Twilight," he smiled, but he was also apprehensive. There were a lot of pictures on that phone. Pictures from home. Pictures of Fermi Lab, of Eric, and other friends from the lab. Pictures that were going to drag up a lot of painful memories.
"Well, here's hoping the battery held a charge that long." He pushed the power button. To his amazement, the screen lit up as the phone came to life. "Wow! It actually turned on!" he smiled.
When the phone had finished booting, he made a note of the time on the clock. "Well, assuming the clock hasn't drifted too much, that's what time it is in Chicago right now." He walked over to the desk in the room, taking a piece of paper and the quill, writing down the time. Then, doing some quick math in his head, he figured out the time difference between Central Standard Time and Equestria time.
He also made a note of the battery level. Amazingly, it was nearly full. That should give several hours of use before the iPhone became a paperweight.
"Four hours difference. With Equestria being four hours ahead. Well, again, assuming the time on the iPhone didn't drift too much without having been able to contact a tower for the last ten months." He wasn't quite sure why it mattered. But it was an interesting fact to know. And just possibly, in case it ever did become possible for him to go home, it might be useful to know what time it was in Chicago before he left Equestria.
After he noted the time difference, he folded up the piece of paper and put it in his pocket. Then, he walked over to the middle of the floor.
And now came the part he wasn't sure he was looking forward to. The pictures from home. Could he get through them without crying? Well, I guess it'll be better to look at them when I have somepony around to cry on, he thought to himself.
"Alright … so who wants to see pictures of home?" he said in a nervous tone of voice.
All of the ponies immediately gathered around him. He started the camera mode on the phone and began to go through the pictures as the ponies looked on in wonder at the little electronic device.
The first picture, was of him and Eric at work, huddling over one of the computer consoles in the control room of Fermi Lab. "That's Eric … My friend I told you about. And that's the main control room for the particle accelerator at Fermi Lab, where I worked," he explained.
All of the ponies seemed transfixed by the images on the electronic screen. Other then the family picture he had shown Twilight several months ago, this was their first glimpse into a different world—perhaps even a different universe, or different dimension.
The next picture, the outside of a tall building with many windows in it. "That's the apartment complex. Eric and I actually live in the same building."
It amazed him now to see that building again. By Chicago standards, they were very nice apartments. But the exterior of the building itself was so vastly different from the architecture in Equestria. It had neither the country charm of the warm cottage type construction with the thatched roofing that was common in Ponyville, nor the grand, imposing, and beautiful Roman / Gothic type construction of buildings in Canterlot. Instead, it was designed mostly with pure functionality and lower cost of construction in mind. Aesthetics, and coordination with other surrounding buildings had been an afterthought—if it had been a thought at all. Chicago was a city that had grown up piecemeal around a core. Unlike Canterlot, which seemed to be the result of planned construction—every building designed to give a certain visual impression, coordinated with the buildings around it to produce a mosaic of architectural art.
He continued flipping through the pictures on the iPhone. Rainbow Dash was particularly interested in a series of photos he had taken at a Blue Angels show when they had come to Chicago a year or so ago. There was also a photo of the Chicago skyline he had taken during sunset at one point. The ponies were fascinated by how large the city seemed to be. Even larger than Canterlot or Manehatten. He wasn't sure if they even believed him when he told them that there were other cities in America much larger than Chicago.
Then, he came to the hardest ones. Pictures of his family that he had taken on the rare occasions he actually visited them, or they visited him. As he stopped on each picture, he explained where the photo had been taken, what the occasion was, and so on. But he was having a hard time holding it together now. Shortly, Applejack spoke up.
"Ah hate to cut it short an all, but the train with the rest of our stuff should be getting to the station soon. We better go down there to pick it up." She looked at him with a compassionate look. There was more than enough time to get to the train station. He knew she had interrupted the photo sharing session for his benefit—so he wouldn't have to relive painful memories.
"She's probably right. Wouldn't want all that food you worked on to spoil in the hot sun," he said, turning the iPhone off to conserve the battery, his eyes going back over to Applejack and giving her a look he hoped conveyed his thanks.
"Rarity has some final alterations she needs to make for the outfits of some of the girls and for Big Mac and Braeburn. You'll come back to the station and help me, James? Then we can go set up the stands where we'll be selling tomorrow."
"Of course I will, AJ." He smiled "I'll see the rest of you whenever we get done then," he said, opening the door for Applejack and waving to the rest of the ponies in the room."
"I'll see you in a few hours then, James." Twilight smiled. "And thank you for showing this pictures to us."
"Oh … You're welcome," he forced a smile as he left with Applejack, closing the door behind them.
Once the door was closed, and he was sure they were out of earshot, he turned his head towards AJ as they walked down the corridor. "Thanks for … bailing me out there," he said, a hint of sadness in his voice.
"Well, Ah could tell it was gettin' to ya. Ya don't need t'be goin' through that when you're supposed to be enjoying the Celebration."
The two of them made idle smalltalk as they continued to the train station. As luck would have it, the freight train carrying the rest of their things was late, having been delayed because of excess passenger train traffic. They ended up waiting for about an hour for the train to show up. When it finally did, they loaded all of their packages onto a wagon and then went to set up the various stands where the Apple family and Sugarcube Corner would be offering samples and selling all sorts of baked goods.
By the time they were finished and arrived back at the castle, it was early evening. He walked Applejack back to the room the other girls were currently in.
"Sorry we're late gettin' back," Applejack apologized. "The train was late. I suppose we better be gettin' dressed for the Solar Ball, huh?"
"Well, I suppose I should probably leave you girls alone to get dressed," he smiled. "I'll see you tonight?"
"Take care James, I'll see you this evening," Twilight smiled. "I'll be arriving a little earlier than the others so I can meet my parents there. Why don't you come early so I can introduce you to them?"
"Your parents? Sure. I'd be honored. Alright, I'll get there early." He smiled.
The others added their own nods and see you's as well as he stepped backwards and closed the door. It was still almost three hours until the ball actually started. But he knew how Rarity would be with wanting to make sure each one of them looked absolutely perfect.
He left the castle, then the courtyard. He was already dressed in his class 1A uniform and didn't have much preparation of his own to do. But there was somewhere he wanted to stop before it closed.
He turned left and walked until he came to the area of town where The Underhoof was located, realizing this was actually the first time he'd been in this part of town while it was still daylight out. The contrast between the aristocratic high class mainstream Canterlot was stark and glaring. Here, buildings were more like the piecemeal uncoordinated construction in Chicago, without regard for visual appeal or matching architecture. Some of the buildings appeared abandoned, in various states of disrepair. The difference between here, and the other side of the tracks as Theory Point had called it, was like the difference between night and day.
The Underhoof was closed right now. He turned down a side street that went past it, looking left then right, he was sure it was down here somewhere. Then, he spotted what was he was looking for. A plain single story gray brick building with a single door on the front. The lawn outside was unkempt, grass growing tall as if it had not been cut since the snow melted. A sign across the top read DJ Pon-3 Audio Production and DJ Services. He turned, walked up the path to the door. A sign tacked to the surface read Please don't knock on this door. Recording may be in progress. Push button next to door instead. He did as the sign instructed, then backed up a few steps. Shortly, the door opened, the white furred, blue maned unicorn DJ from The Underhoof answering it.
"James, my man! Seen you at the club a bunch of times. What can I do you for?"
"Hi, DJ. I had a favor to ask of you." He pulled out his iPhone. "There's a bunch of music stored on here. I was wondering if you could … get it off of here and onto some kind of media that can actually be played on the music players you have here in Equestria."
"If I can't, nopony can." She waved towards the inside of her studio with her horn. "Bring it in here. Let's have a look at it."
"Thanks." He smiled and followed her inside. "The thing is … there's nothing here to charge the battery with. So once the battery is dead, this thing becomes a brick. So I was hoping to get at least some of the music off of it before then. It's mostly classical stuff. But Octavia is interested in it."
"Oh that's how it is," the DJ pony snickered. "Been cheating on us and hanging out with the snooty ponies over at the symphony have you?" she grinned.
"Well, I was—" he started to say defensively.
"It's cool, man," she chuckled. "I'm just jerkin' your chain. I like all types of music. Never know where inspiration can come from. Here, bring that thing over here." She motioned to her control room with her horn. Excuse my mess."
He nodded and followed her into her control room, stepping over various crumpled up pieces of paper that looked like music notes she had started working on, then abandoned in wadded up balls on the floor. On a table in the room, audio components were spread out in various states of assembly or disassembly. Boxes lay strewn about the floor filled with equipment, various cables and wiring, partially assembled speaker cabinets, and so on.
Finally making his way through the obstacle course, he set the iPhone down on the small desk next to her mixing board.
"Ooh … Futuristic looking. Space age and shiny," she remarked, lifting it with her magic and turning it in every direction in front of her eyes, marveling at it.
She quickly found the headphone jack and one of the boxes on the floor started to glow with magic. She seemed to know exactly which box to look in. He assumed the apparent mess was a type of organized chaos. "See if I got a patch cable that'll fit the jack," she said. "If I don't, I can splice one together easy enough."
He watched as a few cables floated out of the box over to her and passed in front of her face. "Too big," she said without trying to see if it would fit. "Too small," as the next one passed by. "Ah! I bet this is the one." The other two stopped glowing and simply fell to the floor as she took the one she was interested in and moved it to the jack on the iPhone, plugging it in. "Got it!" she grinned.
"So you can do it?"
"No prob, my man," she said, plugging the other end of the patch cable into one of the input jacks on her mixing board. "You'll have to show me how to run this thing and let me know which tracks are the ones you want the most. If you don't think the battery will last long enough to get all of 'em."
"You got a piece of paper? And a pen?"
She nodded and pointed to a spot on her desk with her horn that had some scratch paper and a quill on it. He went over and picked up the quill. Just as he was about to start writing down the names of the tracks he wanted the most in Equestrian script, it occurred to him that the iPhone's user interface might as well be in Japanese as far as the DJ pony was concerned. She wouldn't be able to read it at all.
"Right … That's a problem," he mumbled to himself.
"What's that?" she called over to him as she continued setting up mixing equipment.
"It just occurred to me … You aren't going to be able to read anything on this display. Or be able to read the track names. Different alphabet."
"Can you draw a diagram of the interface? With Equestrian labels? And then just write the track titles in your language?"
"I can try …" He started writing down the most important tracks, trying his best to write legibly in the Latin alphabet. A few times, he had to stop and remember what the characters looked like, and how to write them. Had it really been that long since he had written anything in his own alphabet? Between letters to Twilight, research notes in the lab, class material for his students, and papers he had worked on with Twilight, he had easily written over a thousand pages by hand since arriving in Equestria. But it was all in Equestrian script. After ten months, it had become natural for him to think in Equestrian, and write in Equestrian—as natural as writing in the Latin alphabet had been before he arrived here. He was amazed at how rusty it had gotten with ten months of complete disuse. It came back to him fairly quickly, of course. But still, he found that it took more effort now to write in Latin than it did in Equestrian.
Eventually, he was able to finish writing the track list. He made a note to himself to write down another translation table between Equestrian script and Latin alphabet, and give it to Princess Celestia to put in the Royal Archives. He didn't think he would ever completely forget the Latin characters. But even so, he wanted to make sure the knowledge was never lost to Equestria. Somehow it was comforting to him to think that even a thousand years from now, that little translation table would still exist in the Royal Archives as proof that he had been here.
He brought his mind back to the task at hand, taking another piece of paper and drawing crude diagrams of the iPhone's user interface from memory, labeling the buttons with Equestrian script.
"Got it. I think," he said, putting the quill away and taking the two pieces of paper over to her. "I'll verify I got the interface right from memory and make any needed changes once we turn it on."
He took the phone again, showed her the power button, then turned it on. Like the other ponies, she stared in wonder at the screen as it booted up. When it had finished, he briefly showed her how to operate it and use the music player.
Interestingly enough to both of them, the touchscreen did not respond at all to attempts to operate it by magic.
"Well, I guess we'll just do this the old fashioned way then," she said after trying a couple of times. Then she used the tip of her horn to activate the various buttons on the touchscreen. That worked as well as a finger. Better, in fact, because the pointed tip of her horn was more like a stylus, and more accurate than a wider tipped finger.
It made sense when he thought about it. The touchscreen wasn't pressure sensitive like a normal keyboard. So using magic that tried to operate it with pressure wouldn't work. He supposed if she had more time to try, she could figure out a way to operate it with magic. But touching it with her horn worked just as well.
"How much I owe you for all this?" he asked.
"We'll talk about that later. Don't sweat it. I'll give you a good deal. So you coming to the club tonight? Gonna be one heck of a party with the Summer Sun Celebration and all. Party's gonna go all night. We have outdoor tents set up to handle the overflow crowd. Place 'll be packed with tourist ponies."
He shook his head slightly. "I can't. Attendance at the Solar Ball is required for all Academy faculty. And Twilight Sparkle is gonna be there."
"Aw. I feel for you man. Way too formal for my tastes. Well, maybe you can stop by later tonight? Bring your friends from Ponyville with you?"
"I'll consider it," he said, imagining the reactions of the six. Twilight would be analyzing the properties of the laser beams. Pinkie Pie would be thrilled and bouncing off the walls. Rarity would be horrified at the place and its patrons. Fluttershy would be too afraid to enter the building once she heard the pounding bass outside, and saw the flashing strobe lights through the windows. Applejack would determine that whatever was coming out of those speakers was not music, but rather, was noise pollution. And Rainbow Dash would probably get into a fight and they would all get thrown out by the bouncer ponies. He shuttered internally. "But I have to be up really early tomorrow and I don't do all nighters nearly as well these days as I did in my early college years," he added.
"It's cool man. If you can't make it," she said, using her magic to pick up something that looked like a DAT tape and load it into one of her decks.
"There's no rush on this, by the way. Don't start working on it until the Summer Sun Celebration is over. I probably better get going. Have to stop back at my place, and don't want to keep the ladies waiting."
"No problem, James. Take care of yourself. I should have this done by next weekend. I'll bring it to the club with me and you can pick it up there."
"Thanks again for doing this. I'll see you next weekend if I don't see you sooner," he said, making his way towards the door and leaving.
Arriving back at the Academy dorm, he still had about a half hour before he had to leave and meet Twilight at the ball.
He climbed the stairs, entered his room, closed the door. Then he opened his closet door and stood in front of the full length mirror on the inside. Nervousness returned to him, although now it was over the ball. Never in his life had he even dreamed he would be at an event as formal as a royal ball in honor of the ruler of a country, much less be expected to dance with the ruler's protege student.
He made a stylish bow, the way Octavia had taught him. "Lady Twilight, may I have this dance? … Cliche and corny," he shook his head and grumbled to himself.
He did the bow again. "Lady Sparkle. May I have the honor of a dance? … No, that still sounds corny … Is it Lady Sparkle? or Lady Twilight? Been here almost ten months and I don't even know if they really have a concept of first or last names."
He repeated this process several more times, trying different combinations of words, proper address forms, and so on, not quite finding one he was completely comfortable with. He glanced at the clock again. Time to go.
The sun was setting as he left the dorm. Brilliant pink hues mixed with blue and cotton white clouds floating lazily along the horizon to the west as he made his way to the castle. The setting sun lit up the golden spires on the castle's towers, causing each one to shine as if they themselves were miniature suns. Passing through the courtyard, he arrived at the entrance to the grand ball room, where he waited outside, for Twilight to arrive. As he waited, he continued going over various forms of asking her to dance in his mind. He wished now, he'd asked Octavia for the proper words to use.
As the minutes ticked down on the clock, he became more nervous. He waited about five minutes, then he saw Twilight on the white stone path leading to the ball room entrance. His eyes widened slightly as they fell on her.
Her dress flowed behind her like fine silk, its dark purple color matching her namesake. Silver highlights reflected the setting sun, like stars twinkling on a clear crisp night. On her hooves, crystal shoes reflected the light like water sparkling in a clear mountain stream. He never thought the word beautiful was what he would use to describe any pony. But that's exactly what she was.
He walked down to meet her. "You look … absolutely beautiful, Twilight." He smiled, getting a blush from her. "Shall we go inside?"
She nodded, and the two of them went inside the ball room. A string quartet played on a stage at the front for ambiance, but there was no dancing yet. In the middle of the high ceiling, a large crystal chandelier gave light to the place, its golden rays shining like the sun itself. On the walls, crimson tapestries depicting the golden sun—symbol of Princess Celestia, along with tapestries depicting unicorns pegasi, and earth ponies in various regal poses, others depicting battle scenes with victorious ponies defeating Discord and other various enemies. Three large statues of ponies, made from solid crystal, stood over banquet tables containing hors d'oeuvres, most of which he couldn't identify, and various drink refreshments.
He continued to look around, marveling at the opulence of it all. So this is what a royal ball looks like, he thought to himself. He felt a gentle nudge in his side, looked over at Twilight.
"Over there. My parents," she pointed with her horn, then started trotting over to them. They spotted her at almost the same time and started trotting towards her. "Mom! Dad!" She said excitedly when they came together, hugging both of them at the same time.
"Twilight!" they both said in unison. After a long hug, they finally let go and Twilight backed up a few steps.
"Mom, Dad, this is James. Dr. James Peterson."
He made a respectful bow to them. "It is an honor to finally meet the parents of the one who has done so much for me."
Before he could even straighten back up from the bow, Twilight's mother was hugging him.
"It's nice to finally meet you too, Dr. Peterson. Twilight has told us a lot about you."
"Please, just call me James," he said, hugging her back. Then he extended his hand and shook her father's forehoof. "You have a very remarkable daughter, sir."
Twilight's parents beamed with pride at his compliments, while Twilight herself blushed again.
"So, how has life in Canterlot been treating you?" her father asked.
"Very well, actually. I work with a great group at the Academy."
The four of them made smalltalk for a few more minutes.
"I'm going to let you three catch up for awhile," James eventually said. "If you'll excuse me."
They nodded and he left Twilight with her parents, looking around the ball room a bit more. More ponies were starting to arrive, some in various official uniforms, others in dresses and tuxedos. Some he recognized from the Academy, others he had never seen before. Finally, he spotted Theory Point and walked over to her. See trotted towards him when she saw him.
"Hi, Theory. Glad to see you made it."
"Hi, James. Trust me, if it weren't required that I be here? I wouldn't be. I despise these formal functions."
"Oh come on, it's not that bad."
"It's different for you. It's your first one. It's a new experience for you. After you've done it for several years? Trust me, you'll grow to loathe coming to these things too. And after this, we have the Grand Galloping Gala to look forward to. It's even worse as far as being a bore because only the elite ponies are invited. But as Academy faculty, we're required to attend that one too. By orders of Princess Celestia herself. I think she does it just to make it look like ponies actually go to that thing. Force Academy staff to attend, so at least somepony actually shows up."
"Well, at least there's free food," he said, trying to find something she might actually like about it.
"The food here is amazing. I'll give it that much. Still, I'd much rather be at The Underhoof, eating mediocre food but having a fun time doing it."
"I talked to DJ Pon-3 earlier today. She said the party there will be going all night. You can still hit it after you get done here."
"Yeah, I think I might do that. But not until I get to see you dance with Twilight," she grinned.
"You're just hoping to see me crash and burn, aren't you."
"I'll be here to lend you moral support afterward," she giggled slightly.
"Thanks a lot for the vote of confidence," he shook his head.
"I'm just giving you a hard time, James. You'll do fine. So is she here yet?"
He nodded. "She's with her parents. I'm letting them catch up."
"Ah. Well, I wouldn't want to interrupt. You can introduce me to her later."
"You seen the others yet? Ele, Delta, or Autumn?"
She shook her head. "They're the smart ones. They'll show up just in time to avoid having the colonel chew their tail off about being late, making the whole Academy look bad, and so on. And then they will leave just as soon as they know they won't get their tail chewed off for leaving too early."
He looked around again, noting that still more ponies had arrived. In addition, there was some activity starting on the dance floor. He watched the ponies that were dancing, refreshing his memory with the things Octavia had taught him.
"So what are you waiting for?" Theory Point nudged him in the side with her muzzle.
"For it to get a little busier. Protection of the herd, you know? If I screw up, fewer ponies will notice if there's a lot of activity on the floor."
"I'm sure you'll do fine," she reassured him again. "Oh, there they come." She pointed with her horn.
He looked and saw Ele, Delta, and Autumn coming over to them. He exchanged greetings with them, talked with them for a few minutes, then looked out at the dance floor again. The quartet was getting ready to start their next piece.
"Well, I guess I better get to it," he said more to himself then to the four ponies near him "If you'll excuse me." Then he started walking to the other side of the room, his heart beating faster as he got closer.
He stopped a few paces away, made the stylish formal bow the way Octavia had shown him. "Lady, Twilight. Would you do me the honor, of dancing with me?"
She smiled and nodded her head. He led her out towards the dance floor, stepping out onto it, extending his arm. She raised her forehoof, placing it gently in his hand. Carefully, he led her out onto the dance floor.
As the music started playing, he made a formal bow to her, then placed his hands as Octavia had shown him. To his relief, he felt her take the lead, allowing him to follow. And together, they danced, his nervousness fading away under her lead. He remembered the steps better then he thought he would, responding nearly automatically to her guiding movements. She led him into an outside turn. Everything else seemed to fade into the distance and all he saw was her. An inside turn. Her dress flowed and rippled behind her as she turned, like fine silk in a warm summer breeze. Time seemed to have no meaning as they danced. Had it been two minutes? Or had it been twenty? He wasn't sure. But he found himself not wanting the moment to end. Vaguely, he thought that should be disturbing to him. But it wasn't. And even if it was … he didn't care.
Round and round they danced. Everything else in the ball room was a million miles away—distant objects in space that didn't exist in his world. There was only one thing in his world: Her. She was all there was. And she was everything. To be cherished and protected at all costs. For without her, he would have nothing.
The band finished playing, and with it, the rest of the room reentered the atmosphere of his world, in a sort of dull roar closing in on him—like the sensation of sound returning after surfacing from under water. He stepped off the dance floor, leading her off of it gently.
"I didn't even know you knew how to dance," she smiled at him.
"It's another thing I learned how to do here in Canterlot," he said, his heart still beating slightly faster than normal.
Now that he was no longer on the dance floor, and the moment had passed, it was starting to disturb him. He had a very close friendship with Twilight, yes. But on the dance floor, he had felt something more for her. Was it love in a romantic sense? Or did it just have something to do with this intertwined fate that Luna spoke of? He wasn't sure. Perhaps the very fact that Luna had told him their fates were intertwined had caused the feeling? He hoped she hadn't picked up on it, and he wondered if she felt the same way.
Really, he still didn't believe in fate. The idea that he was not in control of his own life and some mysterious thing called fate had already determined what his life meant, and where it would go, was not a comforting idea for him to ponder. Nevertheless, the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy was well established in modern psychology—the idea that simply knowing something is supposed to happen can ultimately cause it to happen through subconscious actions on the part of the one who knows.
Even though he rejected the idea of fate, was it possible, that somewhere in his subconscious, he hadn't entirely convinced himself that Luna was wrong? Or that she had just been trying to manipulate him by claiming his fate dictated certain inevitable paths that his life must follow?
"There they are," Twilight said, interrupting his thoughts and pointing with her horn. He looked to see the rest of the ponies from Ponyville, along with Spike, on the other side of the floor. The two of them started walking towards them, and he was glad for the distraction.
All the other ponies looked stunningly beautiful in their custom dresses that Rarity had made as well.
"You all look beautiful," he smiled. "You really outdid yourself, Rarity."
"Oh, thank you," Rarity responded, blushing and fidgeting, as if not sure what to say.
"So I was gonna introduce you all to Theory Point, but it seems she already took off, along with the rest of the ponies from the Academy."
"Where do you think she went?" Twilight asked.
"Well, she said these types of formal parties weren't her thing. No doubt she left with the others and went to The Underhoof. That's a trance club in a different part of town … There's always tomorrow I guess." He looked at Twilight. "So, Twilight, I need to pick your brain for a little bit."
"Sure, what's up?" she smiled and motioned with her horn to a quieter area of the room, started trotting towards it. He followed, stopping by the refreshment table first and getting two glasses of sparkling water for them. Then, the two of them sat down at an empty table.
"So what's on your mind?" she asked, sipping her water.
"Well, I'm working on this paper with Theory Point. I can't say exactly what it is, of course, but I'll make sure to credit you for helping. You know how the journals are about keeping a lid on everything until they publish the paper … But I have some questions about how magic interacts with physics."
"Oh, I understand," she nodded. "So what can I help you with?"
"Well … is it possible, using magic, to bend, or even break, mass-energy conservation?"
"That's a little non-specific," she gave him a strange look. "I'm afraid I'm going to need a little bit more detail than that to go on."
"Alright … Is it possible using magic, for an object to gain mass, even though there doesn't appear to be any outside energy or matter input?"
"Well … I'm going to give you a qualified no. The qualification being that Star Swirl the Bearded claims in one of his papers that he did it once. But … well, all the modern science scholars here reject the paper as fabricated. Most magic scholars won't go that far, but they think he didn't understand, or wasn't aware of the energy-momentum relation. So the majority of both schools of thought believe that he didn't really break mass-energy conservation. There's also … well …"
He waited several moments for her to continue, when she didn't, he prompted her.
"Well, I don't really like to say it. Cause he's kind of one of my main inspirations … But a lot of scholars think that by the time he wrote that paper, he was starting to get a little bit senile in his old age." Her eyes shifted a bit nervously.
He nodded. "And what do you think?"
"Well, Star Swirl lived during the time when Discord ruled Equestria. The Pre-Classical Era. I think there was a smear campaign to discredit him and pass him off as the writings and rantings of an insane pony during that time because he was seen as a threat. Much of his work didn't survive. Much of it that did survive was altered by Discord. And much of it, he never even published—both because he feared for his safety, as well as feared that his work could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hooves."
He nodded. "Alright. I think that should be all I need. I'll let you know tomorrow if I think of anything else. Thanks, Twilight."
"You're welcome. Shall we rejoin the others?"
He nodded, picked up his drink, and walked back with her to where the rest of the ponies from Ponyville were waiting.
Later that evening, they said their goodnights. The ponies went to their guest rooms in the castle, and he left to return to the Academy dorm.
He made a brief detour, heading towards The Underhoof. Several blocks away, he could already hear the thumping bass of DJ Pon-3's set. Laser beams lit up the sky, and strobe lights lit up the night like lightning during a thunderstorm. The pounding bass was occasionally drowned out only by a firework streaking into the sky and exploding.
As DJ Pon-3 had predicted, the club was packed when he arrived. Almost all of the activity was outdoors. At the front of the large crowd, he could see the DJ pony on stage behind her gear, hard at work churning out thundering bass, and electronic beats.
After a fair amount of scouting, he finally spotted Theory Point and the others, walking over to them.
"You left before I could introduce you to my friends from Ponyville," he commented. "What? Once you saw I wasn't going to crash and burn at dancing you decided it was no fun anymore?" he teased.
She chuckled. "I blame these three. They were anxious to get out of there and come over here. Glad you could make it though. Why didn't you bring them?"
"They were tired, after the long trip from Ponyville. And they have to be up very early tomorrow," he lied, not wanting to tell them that he was afraid of how some of them would behave at a place like this. "I'm probably not going to stay real long myself."
"Well, you can introduce me to her tomorrow. I'm looking forward to meeting Twilight."
"Don't worry, I will. Oh, and Delta," he said looking at the aeronautical pegasus, "I think Rainbow Dash would really love to meet you."
"Sounds like fun," he smiled and sipped his drink.
He stayed at The Underhoof for a few more minutes, before deciding to call it a night.
Back in his room at the dorm, he undressed. He'd been on his feet in the most formal of uniforms all day, and it felt good to get out of it.
Flopping down on his bed, he exhaled a sigh of relief. He could still hear the dull thunder of fireworks throughout the city. Occasionally, brief flashes lit up the night sky as one went off not far from the dorm.
Lying in bed, he began to think about his conversation with Twilight earlier. But when he did, the time he had spent dancing with her came back to him. He tried to force that out of his mind and focus on the conversation. So, it's unlikely the object is gaining mass from its own energy … Unless Star Swirl was right. At least now he had a starting point. The only problem was that most of Star Swirl's writings were not in the Academy library. Instead, they were locked away inside of the Royal Archives deep underneath the castle. He'd need permission from either Princess Celestia or Princess Luna to get in there. He wasn't sure they'd grant it. But hopefully, at least they would allow the Royal Archivist to talk to him and get the requested papers for him.
Within a few minutes, he had started to drift off to sleep, the sound of exploding fireworks serenading him like a Fourth of July night back home …
Spike looked at Twilight as the six ponies and one dragon sat at a table in one of the castle guest rooms, sipping on evening drinks of sparkled water flavored with lemon. He could detect a hint of a sour look on her face—sour like the lemon itself in the drink.
"Is there too much lemon in the drink?" he finally asked.
"The drink is perfectly fine," she snapped back rapidly.
"Come on, Twi. It's obvious something's a buggin' ya," Applejack added.
"Nothing is bugging me," the unicorn responded unconvincingly and in a slightly aggressive tone. "I'm perfectly fine."
Applejack raised an eyebrow, looking at her dubiously, pausing a few moments before responding.
"Look, Twi … I know ya ain't the type to get romantically involved an all. But is it possible that you're a little bit jealous of Theory Point?"
"Jealous? Why would I possibly be jealous of her," she said dismissively.
"Well, you're obviously a tad bit upset."
"Just because I'm supposed to be the one he's writing those papers with? Like the two astronomy papers we published when he was still in Ponyville? But instead, he's writing papers with her now. And he has the nerve to ask me for magical advice that he can use in the paper. The nerve! 'I'll make sure to credit you,' he says." She slammed her glass down on the table. "What could I possibly be upset about?" she said, her voice laced with sarcasm.
"Yep … She's upset," Spike said, getting strange glances from all six ponies that he thought said learn when to keep your mouth shut.
"… Right," he said sheepishly. "… I'm gonna go … See how Big Mac and Braeburn are doing," turning towards the door and leaving the girls to deal with Twilight.
As James slept, he vaguely became aware of a pounding sound, as if somepony were using a hammer. In that strange state between being fully asleep and fully awake, he first took it to be more fireworks going off outside. That is, until he heard his door open, and saw light through his closed eyelids.
"Sir? Their majesties require your presence at the castle," a royal guard unicorn stated, standing in the doorway.
He opened his eyes, sitting up. Glanced at the clock on the wall: just after one o'clock in the morning.
"Princess Luna?" he said, assuming it must be Luna in the middle of the night, rubbing the sleep out his eyes with the back of his hands.
"Both of them," the unicorn guard responded. "Make haste. Your field uniform will be fine. Do not keep the princesses waiting any longer than necessary."
He nodded and climbed out of bed, quickly throwing on his field uniform. "Did they say what it was about?"
"I'm not at liberty to say, sir," the guard pony responded.
He blinked, but finished dressing quickly. Then, the royal guard unicorn led him downstairs, outside, and toward the castle …