The sense of urgency didn’t help Twilight as she tapped on the door to Starlight’s bedroom. She’d done this every day for weeks, trying to get her to open up, and Twilight fully expected a repeat performance. Still, I have to try, she thought as she stood next to the door. A dejected sigh escaped her muzzle.
Twilight almost jumped at the sound of Starlight’s voice—it sounded as weak and underused as it had when the announcement was first made. Promptly, Twilight turned the handle with her magic and the door creaked open.
Starlight sat on her bed, which was neatly made and wrinkle-free beneath her. The rug in the middle of the room was just as clean and smooth, and her possessions were lined up on a small shelf on the far wall, ordered by size, shape and color. Evidently, habits picked up in her old Equality Village refused to die.
Twilight spoke as carefully and softly as possible, “It’s . . . it’s time. They’re . . . ratifying RARA today. The girls and I have to go to Canterlot to oversee it.”
Starlight nodded, sighing. Her head was pointed down and her eyes were closed. “Who else signed?” she asked hoarsely.
“Rarity,” Twilight recounted, “Applejack. Cadance.”
Starlight nodded, eyes still closed. “Spike?”
“He’s too young,” Twilight replied.
“Hasn’t decided yet.”
There was a pause as Starlight nodded again. Twilight kept her eyes fixed to her the whole time.
“I really messed up,” Starlight finally spoke. “I never meant to, but I did.”
“There’s still time,” Twilight spoke up, taking a tentative step forward. “You can come with us. Plead your case directly to Princess Celestia. They may be going through with this act, but it’s not ironclad.”
“No . . .” Starlight croaked. “I’d rather not watch them choose my fate for me.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way, Starlight. You can still fight this, if you really are ready to change.”
“Am I, though? I’m not very good at taking responsibility anyway . . . I mean, I should have been kicked out after brainwashing your friends—”
“Starlight, no, don’t do this. Don’t dwell on your mistakes. You’re better, now. You just need to prove yourself, but you won’t be able to if you don’t believe you can.”
Starlight finally turned her head up to face her mentor and opened her eyes—still full of color, but otherwise lifeless.
“After everything that’s happened,” she said, the shine completely gone from her eyes, “I think they might be right to do this.”
Twilight felt her heart drop, but kept her head. “I wish I could convince you,” she said, her own head lowering.
“I wish nopony would treat me like a criminal anymore. I just can’t . . .” Starlight paused, turning away and swallowing hard, “. . . I just can’t watch them do it, Twilight.”
The Alicorn started to speak, but stopped, then sighed. “I know,” she said quietly. “I guess I knew all along.”
“Then why are you here?”
Twilight softly shrugged at this question before looking up at Starlight. Her eyes wandered slightly as she tried to respond.
“I guess . . . I didn’t want you to feel alone.”
Starlight’s face twitched slightly, a vague yet pained grimace on display. Twilight saw the look and felt it stab her in the chest. Starlight closed her eyes tightly and resumed her inclined head pose—her body gave a slight tremble.
Twilight then finally abandoned pretense; she stepped forward, brought her forelegs around Starlight and hugged her. For a few minutes distended by the silence around them, Twilight held her pupil closely, and the latter did not even move the entire time.
* * *
The well-dressed crowds of Canterlot clashed bizarrely with reporters, diplomats and ponies from other parts of Equestria as Twilight and her five friends navigated their way through it. Locating Canterlot Palace hadn’t been difficult, but the throngs of ponies made the journey difficult nonetheless.
“I wish Starlight could have come with us,” Rainbow Dash spoke from above (various posh ponies scoffed at her for hovering). “This could have been the best place to fight for her rights!”
“Well, ‘fight’ may be taking things a bit too far, Dashie,” Rarity replied, “but I do agree that she could easily have appealed the decision.”
Twilight nodded, but did not speak. She’d been silent for much of the ride, only really replying when addressed. She glanced over to Fluttershy and saw much the same look in her features: the look of defeat.
“I’ll do my best for him,” Twilight told her, making her turn her teal eyes her way. “I’m a princess, remember? I’ll talk to Celestia and get her to see reason.”
“I very much doubt that.”
All six mares looked up, and subsequently frowned, at the voice as they saw its owner, Thunderbolt, standing at the base of the stairs to the palace with a high chin and half-lidded eyes. He was decked out in full armor, and the arrogance could have been wiped in gobs off his face.
“Aww, not you again!” Rainbow Dash snapped, setting down immediately and sitting on the stone ground of her own volition. “What, are you gonna gloat now? Or are you just here because you think you’re so cool?”
Thunderbolt’s eyes narrowed, now out of malice instead of arrogance. “Are you the pot of the kettle?” he snapped back. “Not that you can preach to me about ego after the cowardly move you pulled to avoid signing the act. I’d charge you with obstructing royal orders if I could.”
“Captain!” Twilight barked, seizing her courage. “If you’re here just to bully my friends, then you can turn around and walk away this instant!”
“Neither of which is happening, ‘Your Highness’,” Thunderbolt smirked. “Besides, don’t embarrass yourself trying to convince me that your word means anything all of the sudden.” He pointed at the group with one gold-plated hoof. “I need to borrow her.”
The girls turned to the direction indicated, and six pairs of eyes widened.
“M-m-me?” Fluttershy squeaked, shaking on the spot.
“Yes, you, young lady,” Thunderbolt replied. “Now that the draconequus is in custody, I need someone to keep watch over it.” Twilight noticed his choice of pronoun. “I’m told you’re the one responsible for its consistent amnesty, so I’m appointing you as its guard.”
“Are you serious?!” Dash squawked, airborne again. “If you think Fluttershy will just ‘come quietly’ after you just up and jailed her friend without a trial, you’ve got another thi—OUCH!” Dash shut up after Thunderbolt’s magic pulled her back down to earth, her rump making harsh contact with the ground.
“Exaggerated claims, to be sure,” he responded sternly. “Contrary to what you lot might think, and despite my desire to do so, I did not simply take military action against enemies of the state. I approached Discord and told him that this is the way things are now, and he surrendered willingly. We only took the measures we took to make sure he remained complicit. Although, I doubt he knew those measures ahead of time, otherwise, he wouldn’t have surrendered so easily. A potential practical joke avoided.”
“He . . . gave up all by himself?” Fluttershy half-whispered.
“Indeed. And our current security measures will only be barely enough to contain him. That’s where you come in. Come with me.”
“Absolutely not!” Twilight yelled, now drawing attention from passersby. “As Princess of Equestria, I will not allow you to coerce Fluttershy into such a blatant disregard for rights—”
“By the authority vested in me by Princess Celestia herself,” Thunderbolt shouted over her, “I am ordering you to shut your mouth and give her to me!!”
Twilight felt herself instinctively recoil. She glanced at her friends, and saw them do roughly the same. Applejack and Rainbow Dash both wore defiant grimaces, Rarity looked as though she’d just been slapped, and Pinkie Pie looked on the verge of tears.
Fluttershy too looked as though sobbing were imminent, but at the same time, traces of Applejack’s and Rainbow Dash’s defiance could be seen, as well. Something about the look in her eyes told Twilight that she, Twilight, wasn’t the only one trying to stay staunch in the face of Thunderbolt’s blustering.
“Take me to him,” Fluttershy said, quietly but resolutely. “I want to make sure you didn’t hurt him.”
“His behavior makes it hard not to want to,” Thunderbolt quipped. “But the bottom line is, young lady, you were asked to take responsibility for this thing. It’s time you delivered on that promise. This way.” He gestured with a hoof toward a side entrance to the castle. Fluttershy took a deep breath and stepped forward, walking behind Thunderbolt as he turned and cantered toward the palace.
“Your authority doesn’t keep me from speaking my mind, Captain!” Twilight shouted after them. “This will not stand! Taking away rights doesn’t save Equestria!”
Thunderbolt stopped, making Fluttershy stumble to avoid crashing into him. Without turning his head, he answered Twilight in an acidic tone:
“Giving rights doesn’t save it, either. The good taking rights is better than the evil taking lives.”
And with that, Thunderbolt proceeded, and Fluttershy scurried along behind him, careful not to trip.
Twilight felt white-hot rage thundering through her blood, and her hooves trembled beneath her. She could feel her teeth grinding in her mouth, and felt as helpless to stop as she felt in trying to stop Moon Dancer’s dangerous agenda from keeping this foothold. Thunderbolt was just a pawn—it was her actions that really mattered.
Why . . . why are you doing this?
“Twilight,” Rarity coaxed, “darling, it’s time. Don’t worry. Fluttershy will be fine.” She then glanced at Rainbow Dash as the latter growled and massaged a particularly nasty bruise on her backside, and bit her lip. “I . . . hope so.”
* * *
Moments later, Fluttershy stood next to Thunderbolt in a slow-moving lift (controlled by a Unicorn attendant) that led downwards, to the Canterlot dungeons. The Pegasus glanced up at the Unicorn captain, gulped, and returned her gaze downwards. Thunderbolt glanced down at her without turning, then continued to stare at the door of the elevator. The silence was almost oppressive.
“Umm . . . y-you know . . .” Fluttershy mumbled, the effects of the silence reaching her, “M-Mister . . . Thunderbolt, sir . . . I think . . . well, I think maybe, if you were a bit . . . nicer sometimes, then maybe Twilight would be more willing to listen—” She saw Thunderbolt turn his head and clammed up instantly with a soft “Eep!”
“You intend to appeal to me with kindness?” Thunderbolt snapped as he slowly faced front again. “The real world doesn’t work that way, young lady. Your friends need to realize that.”
“I . . . I know you believe that . . . Mister Thunderb—”
“Captain, to you.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry . . . um, Captain, sir . . . b-but Twilight does do good work. She’s saved Equestria so many times—”
“Many of those times would be unnecessary if she’d done her job right to begin with,” Thunderbolt snapped. “Starlight, Chrysalis, and your friend the lizard would all be Tirek’s cell mates in Tartarus if she’d done what she should have done.”
Fluttershy glanced back up at him, her eyes and mouth wide at the thought of Starlight and Discord locked up in the pits of Equestria’s Hell. The image conjured a sudden spark of anger.
“You mean done what you would have done?”
It came out with quiet, but no less potent sass. Fluttershy gasped and sucked her lips in, her eyes wide and her face flushed at what she’d just uttered. She did everything she could to avoid Thunderbolt’s subsequent gaze, but could still feel the white-hotness of his stare.
“Don’t you be smart with me, missy,” the Captain shot back. “I have enough intel on you and all your friends to put you in these dungeons for life. Or have you forgotten the Parasprite infestation a few years back?”
If it was possible for a pony heart to burst, Fluttershy’s came close after those words. She slowly looked up to Thunderbolt’s glowering look.
“It’s my job to know everything about you,” Thunderbolt growled. “What you’ve done, what you’re capable of, and what measures are necessary to take you down.”
Fluttershy’s heart dropped, feeling as though she’d just been sentenced to prison herself. Her gaze fell back to the floor of the lift.
“We’re not criminals,” she muttered, with all the strength of her last snappy remark.
“According to Celestia, you’re not,” Thunderbolt corrected, “unfortunately.” At this point, the lift finally stopped, Thunderbolt lifted a pair of bits from inside his armor with his magic and dropped them into the lift attendant’s breast pocket. The door opened, and Thunderbolt and Fluttershy stepped out.
“But Celestia can’t protect everypony,” Thunderbolt finished as Fluttershy gazed around the Canterlot dungeons.
The greyish stone halls were well lit by ornate torches placed every five feet against the dry walls. The large stones making up the floors bore huge gaps filled by cement that was cracked in many places. The far wall, directly opposite the lift, was a series of cells, all empty save for one in the center. Instead of bars, the cell’s front barrier was made entirely out of humming yellow light. Its occupant:
Fluttershy raced up to the bizarrely constructed cell, her heart flooded with relief at seeing him unharmed, only to be stopped by two full-armored Pegasus guards crossing their wings before her.
“That’s far enough, miss,” the guard on the left said.
“You must keep your distance from high-security prisoners,” the guard on the right added. “Captain’s orders.”
Fluttershy glanced between the guards and their prisoner, and it was at this point that she realized, if Discord had not been such a unique-looking creature, she would barely have recognized him. He sat on the floor of his cell, his head hanging in shame, leaning against the wall of his cell. He looked weak, tired, not even a husk of his former lively, mischievous self. He wore a heavy, metallic brace that covered his chest and shoulders and bound his arms to his back. He slowly turned his head towards Fluttershy and opened his eyes—and even through the yellow screen separating them, she could tell they were normal, colorless eyes now.
“Fluttershy . . . .”
The yellow mare rounded on Thunderbolt as he approached with a stony, superior glare. “How could you?!” she squealed.
“Simple, really,” Thunderbolt replied as though Fluttershy had spoken calmly, “the brace is powered by a certain magical object that grants the wearer near-omnipotence. We’ve learned to channel its full power into that brace. Not only can it withstand a magical blast from a full-grown Alicorn as well as a stampede of a hundred Earth ponies, but it retards the abilities of any magical creature it holds.”
Fluttershy gaped at him the whole time, then turned back to Discord’s melancholic stare. There, centered on the chest of the brace and generating a blood-red sheen all over the slick metallic surface, was the Alicorn Amulet.
“Of course, Discord is still just barely powerful enough to override the Amulet’s magic,” Thunderbolt continued, “but that’s what the walls are for. All four walls and ceiling are made of a similar magic that negates the powers of the prisoner inside. He’d get out of them easily without the brace, though, so that’s why we’ve used both—to make sure that thing doesn’t get out, no matter what tricks he pulls.”
Fluttershy could only stare inside the glowing, humming cell, while Discord stared back with the same blank gaze of defeat that had adorned Starlight Glimmer’s face for weeks.
“You didn’t tell him you’d do this when he gave himself up, did you?!” Fluttershy yelled as she turned back to Thunderbolt.
“Of course not!” the Captain snarled. “If I had, he wouldn’t have bothered surrendering in the first place! As I said, he would only have come with us if he knew he could escape!”
“But that’s not right!” Fluttershy snapped back. “It’s dishonest and wrong!”
“You expect me to play by the rules against a god?! You’re just as delusional as Twilight!”
“But this isn’t right! Look at him, he miserable!”
“HE SHOULD HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT THAT!!”
By now, their shouting match was echoing between the walls of the dungeons, creating a deafening effect that even the lift attendant had to cover his ears from. The two guards in front of Discord’s cage glanced awkwardly at each other.
“He should have thought about the consequences before he acted!” Thunderbolt kept bellowing. “He should have known betraying Equestria would carry severe punishment! He should have known endangering lives for laughs would have consequences! He has the power to wipe out all of Equestria, destroy families, murder children, and he plays with that power like a toy!”
Fluttershy shook where she stood and gritted her teeth, eying Thunderbolt with all the ire her body could muster. And even with that effect, tears were still streaming down her face.
“So now, he’s getting his,” Thunderbolt said with finality. “And you’re gonna guard him. Like it or not, you’re on the side of RARA, young lady. I suggest you get used to it.”
“And what if I don’t?” Fluttershy spoke low. “What if I decide to set him free?”
“I suggest you watch what you say around the Captain of the Guard,” Thunderbolt growled. “It’s not even possible for you to free him, anyway. Those magical barriers prevent exit and entry, and those braces only react to authorized Canterlot personnel. Namely, me. So I’m the only pony who can free him.” He stepped up close to her, looking her directly in her quivering, tear-stained eyes.
“And even if you did, I’d have the entire law of the land of Equestria come down so hard on your little behind, not even Tirek would be able to see where I lock you up!”
With Fluttershy fixed to the floor, almost as immovable as the stone beneath her, and Thunderbolt towering over her, his face as hard and stony as the walls, the guards and lift attendant seemed to be witnessing the staring match of the century. Thunderbolt’s gaze was almost lethal, and Fluttershy’s eyes cascaded with tears, but still they stared, as if one blink would spell certain doom.
“This is the final word on the matter, young lady,” Thunderbolt snarled. “You ponies will learn the difference between leniency and stupidity.”
“Just as soon as you learn the difference between evil intentions and honest mistakes,” Fluttershy bit back.
“Don’t give me that. Starting the next Equestrian apocalypse is no ‘mistake’. I’m making sure actions like his don’t split up any more families.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
Thunderbolt blinked in response to Fluttershy’s question.
“You can’t pretend you’re saving anypony from someone who won’t cause harm.” She gestured to Discord as she spoke. “This isn’t safety. This is revenge. Somepony did something to you, or your family, and I know it wasn’t Discord. He never hurt anypony and meant it. This is about something else, isn’t it?”
The silence was more piercing than the echoes from earlier. Glances from the guards showed that they may have just missed the screaming more.
Thunderbolt’s face was an unreadable slate. But the slightest of twitches gave him away, and he spoke a split-second after:
“My reasons are irrelevant. I’m doing what’s best for Equestria.”
And with that, he turned and made his way back to the elevator, head held high and bushy tail swinging slowly behind him.
“You’re doing what’s best for yourself!” Fluttershy called after him. Instead of rounding on her to get the last word, as expected, Thunderbolt’s gait merely slowed on his way to the lift, but he neither turned nor spoke. He walked on—slower, but still going.
After what seemed like hours, the captain was spirited away on the lift leading to the ground floor, and Fluttershy felt the dam collapse. The tears came down in torrents, and Fluttershy’s sobs echoed throughout the dungeons as though she herself were a prisoner. She sat down on the stone floor and sobbed in front of the guards—whether she remembered they were there or cared at all was unclear to those observing.
Fluttershy sniffed and wiped her eyes with a hoof. She turned back to the cell and saw its prisoner, staring at her—or perhaps, through her—with that same glaze over his eyes. It seemed as though he could transfer feelings through eye contact; all the melancholy and defeat on his face suddenly spread all over Fluttershy, overcoming her like a shadow on an already-dark night.
“Please, let me in,” Fluttershy spoke to the guards, her voice still shaky. “Just this once. Please.”
The guards glanced at each other, each reflecting the other’s wrinkled brow and quivering mouth. They looked back at Fluttershy, unmoving, with the same faces.
“Please,” she spoke again, regaining her lost volume, “he needs me . . . and I’m all he has.”
The guards glanced at each other again, back at Fluttershy, then back to each other. One gestured toward the elevator, and the other shrugged. The first leaned toward Fluttershy with widened, imploring eyes, while the second closed his eyes and sighed. At last, the two looked at Fluttershy once more, and each took a long sidestep away from each other. At this, Fluttershy beamed.
“Thank you so much,” she said as she took a step forward. She hesitated, then kept on when the two guards didn’t move. She stopped in front of the humming yellow force-field, reached out a hoof, and carefully touched the surface. She quickly withdrew her hoof, then touched it again; she felt no pain. The wall, cool to the touch, might as well have been made of glass; the texture was the same. Feeling the weight of that shadow of defeat on her again, Fluttershy lowered her head and rested her forehead against the yellow wall. She closed her eyes to release more tears.
Unseen by her, Discord mirrored her gesture from inside, only unable to touch a paw to the wall due to the brace. His forehead touched the inside, exactly parallel to Fluttershy.
“I’m sorry . . .” she whispered to the wall, “. . . I’m so sorry.”
And from the other side of the wall, in an equally pained whisper: “Me too . . . .”
* * *
“Oh, my gosh, I am so excited!”
“I know! Today’s finally the day!”
Lyra and Bon-Bon trotted briskly through the thick crowds of Canterlot. Emotions ran high all around them for the upcoming ratification of RARA. But this was on neither of these two mares’ minds.
“After all these years, I can’t believe we’ll finally be official!” Lyra squealed, hopping as she walked.
“Oh, it’ll feel so good!” Bon-Bon grinned. “I mean, living together is one thing, but having that official document in our hooves? For once, we won’t feel like we’re sneaking around, you know? Like . . . it’ll be—”
“Validating?” Lyra finished for her. They both giggled warmly.
“Exactly . . . I mean, Ponyville has always accepted us, but it’ll mean so much more with that official Canterlot seal of approval!” Bon-Bon’s voice began to drop as the two slowed to a stop in front of Canterlot Palace. “I just hope Princess Celestia isn’t too busy today to give us her blessing.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Lyra replied, reaching her hoof out to Bon-Bon’s cheek. “You do good work for Equestria. You help keep us safe from . . . well, Bugbear attacks! You’re a hero, Bon-Bon, and Princess Celestia has every reason to do this for you—for us—in return.”
Bon-Bon merely smiled back and caressed the mint-green hoof on her face with her own. She gazed into Lyra’s eyes, ignoring the ponies bustling and babbling around them. For that moment, the rest of the world was gone, and all that existed were the two of them.
“I love you,” Bon-Bon spoke gently.
Lyra’s face seemed to illuminate. “I love you, too.” The Unicorn leaned forward and kissed the Earth pony on the nose, and the two came together for a hug. Each pressed herself close to the other, eyes closed and floating on air, for a good few minutes. Ponies dressed in their finest had to walk around them, many of them complaining at having to do so, but they didn’t care. This was all that mattered.
The two parted at last and faced each other again. The world began to come back into focus, and the ponies all around them seemed to reappear from thin air. Including one that looked familiar to Bon-Bon.
“Hey, isn’t that Starlight?”
Lyra saw Bon-Bon’s line of sight aimed over her shoulder and turned around. There, in the distance, partially obscured by the crowds, was a familiar lavender Unicorn with a ponytail and colorful spark of magic as a cutie mark. She stared up at the palace
“Hey, yeah,” Lyra replied as she looked. “What’s she doing here? Is she really going to watch them ratify that regulation act thing?”
“I don’t know. You’d think she’d be too freaked out just to leave home. I know I would be.”
“Hmmm . . . .” Lyra only contemplated this for a few seconds before giving a short gasp. “Hello? Come on, we have some important life-changing documents to sign!” She then raced up the steps of the palace, glancing back once to see if Bon-Bon would follow.
Bon-Bon pulled her gaze away from Starlight and laughed again as she gave chase. “Oh, come on, our lives won’t change that much! We’ll just have a marriage license framed on the mantle from now on!”