The light was hazy when it first appeared, and brightened quickly in little time. He closed his eyes soon after they opened, then opened them again slowly. The bright lights refocused, and the world around him gained form. The bright light came from the crude bulb on the white painted ceiling above him, and a quick glance showed the same stark-white paint job all over the small room. A table stood to his left, and to his right, a heart monitor beeped with a slow, steady rhythm. On the other side of the room was a chair, and sitting in the chair was the last pony Captain Thunderbolt ever expected to see.
“I know you won’t believe this,” she said, her voice years older than he remembered and sounding withered and throaty by comparison, “but I was worried about you.”
“W- . . . Wind Chime?”
The pink Pegasus mare got up from her seat and limped slowly to his bedside, a light chuckle in her throat.“I was kinda hoping to go off on you for forgetting your ex-wife’s name. Bummer . . . .”She stopped next to him and ran a hoof over his face.“Are you all right?”
Thunderbolt tried to shift around in bed, not to move, but to assess that question.“Few spine fractures,” he muttered, “couple of broken ribs, a burn or two . . . pretty sure I have a concussion . . . other than that, I guess I’m fine.”
“I’m not surprised,” Wind Chime replied, her eyes sweeping his torn up, bandaged body.“I heard the spell carved through the entire palace. You weren’t even the only one to get hurt.”
“Well, shoot,” Thunderbolt grumbled, “there goes the notion of protecting everypony.”He paused as he turned his head, giving his next words more gravity: “Some royal guard I am, right?”
“Don’t do that,” Wind Chime said, frowning.“Not now.”
“You were thinking it, Windy. I know you were.”
“Well, you should have seen it coming,” she snapped back.“You and I both know you’re using what happened as an excuse to take away freedoms.”
“Oh, for cripes’ sake, you too?” Thunderbolt’s tone went up despite his hoarse voice.“I’m trying to make sure what happened to Sunbeam never happens again—”
“Don’t, Bolty! Don’t bring her name into this. I should think it would be enough to keep you from going after other ponies’ children. Princess Flurry Heart almost destroyed the Crystal Empire. Were you gonna register her, too?”
Thunderbolt made a noise that was a cross between a groan and a scoff.“I lost my daughter, so I’m gonna take away someone else’s? What kind of monster do you think I am?”
“Enough of one to force someone to do this!”
“Anypony who goes out of their way to attack Canterlot was always a criminal.”
“Bolty, open your eyes!” Wind Chime had almost reached the top of her voice, and was quieter from that point on.“The world isn’t split between good ponies and bad. Everypony makes mistakes.”
“Mistakes get ponies killed, Windy.”Thunderbolt’s voice also wound down, and his next words made it break slightly.
“Mine did . . . .”
He released a deep sigh and closed his eyes. He struggled to move his forelimbs, but both wore heavy casts. He leaned back on his pillow and squeezed his eyes shut tighter as a single tear trickled down his face. His subsequent breaths were quicker and harsher as he tried to hide them.
Wind Chime climbed into the bed and sat next to him, stroking his singed mane.“Don’t do this again, Bolty,” she soothed.“Don’t do this to yourself. This isn’t who you used to be. The pony who thought solving conflict with diplomacy and reason? What happened to him?”
“Him?” Thunderbolt scoffed again through his tears.“That altruistic fool died in the invasion . . . along with his daughter . . . .”
“Thunderbolt, no. Stop blaming yourself. I never did. I got out with a spine injury that gave me a limp for the rest of my life, and I still don’t blame you. And what happened to Sunbeam wasn’t your fault, either. You have to accept that—”
“I should have known Changelings don’t listen to reason. I tried reasoning with those monsters, and they killed her. I could have destroyed the lot of them if I wanted to, but I didn’t. And they were able to destroy Canterlot and take her away from me. Take everything away from me . . . .”More tears fell, and his unsteady breathing became harder to cover up.
“You know that’s not true,” Wind Chime spoke up over his sobs.“You didn’t lose me.”
“You left me, remember? Who wants to be with a stallion who couldn’t even save his own daughter?”
“I left you because we’d just lost our only daughter! We had nothing left between us. I told you then and I’m telling you now. It wasn’t because of you.”
Thunderbolt didn’t answer for a while; his sobs died down and his breaths slowed at last. Wind Chime’s hoof continued caressing his mane.
“Diplomacy doesn’t change ponies,” Thunderbolt’s voice was back to being steady and cold.“Reason doesn’t save lives. And villains never change, no matter how much they want to.”
Wind Chime’s hoof stopped moving, and after a pause, she slipped off the side of the bed. She looked at Thunderbolt with the same cold glare.“But you don’t have the right to make sure they can’t try,” she said with a similar coldness in her tone.
Thunderbolt glanced at her, his stone face returning to its usual resolute state.“If you’re not going to help me, then get me a nurse. I need to send a message.”
“A message?” Wind Chime asked.“To whom?”
“To a Unicorn girl named Moon Dancer,” Thunderbolt replied sternly. “She started this campaign. And she hates that little Starlight criminal as much as I do.”
Wind Chime sighed.“Why not just let one of the princesses handle this whole RARA thing?”
“Celestia’s not fit for the job,” said Thunderbolt without flinching, “and Luna’s been a criminal before. If I had a reason to think she’d relapse, I’d keep an eye on her too, but the whole Tantabus incident proves she’s as self-castigating as I . . . .”He cleared his throat and resumed, “Besides, Moon Dancer is the one pony I trust to handle this.”
Wind Chime’s eyes widened a bit.“A young mare is the only pony you trust?”She gave her own scoff.“Your interest sounds a bit . . . more than professional.”
Thunderbolt’s eyes narrowed.“Not at all what I meant.”
“Okay, so just to recap: nineteen ponies are in critical condition after the incident at the palace. Three Earth ponies, five Pegasi, and eleven Unicorns, including Captain Thunderbolt. Another fifty-seven were injured, but not as badly. The attacker was clearly a Unicorn, and used a highly advanced Light Destruction spell, so it was clearly a high-grade spellcaster, so we need to look at all possible education facilities that teach and allow usage of the spell. That will include the Royal Guard and Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns—ooh, I hope Princess Celestia understands. The royal guards had traces of the spell analyzed and concluded that the spell was of pony origin, so we can rule out magical creatures or Changelings—thank goodness, I don’t know how Spike would take it if Thorax were somehow involved. The attacker was a Unicorn, a high-level magic user, and was able to get into Canterlot easily without attracting attention. That narrows it down at least a little bit. I’ll have to make a list of all possible Unicorn citizens from every town that visited Canterlot today, and cross-reference them with all the places that instruct high-level magic . . . .”
Twilight had gone on like this from the moment they’d got on the train home to now, when they exited and set hoof in Ponyville again. The whole train was abuzz with talk of the attack, so her friends understood. It didn’t stop Rainbow Dash from groaning every time she started a new sentence or Rarity from putting on a royal blue lace sleep mask and pretending to nap for the whole trip. Pinkie Pie didn’t speak the whole time, and Applejack simply paced back and forth. Somehow, everyone was coping.
Except for Fluttershy.
Her heartbreak over Discord’s incarceration notwithstanding, she’d been waging war with herself for hours over whether Twilight should know what the two posh ponies in Canterlot told her, and what Bon-Bon had told her shortly after. The eyewitness accounts seemed impossible to misplace—they knew exactly who was behind this, and had a pretty good idea why. Fluttershy had tried to justify that it couldn’t have been her, but she fit Twilight’s own description perfectly: a powerful Unicorn who could get in and out of Canterlot without attracting attention.
She has to know, she’d thought as they boarded the train back home.
No, you don’t know it was her, she’d rebutted as the train started moving.
They know, though.
They made a mistake.
They couldn’t have. They saw her. They know who she is.
Starlight wouldn’t do this. Whoever did must just look like her, that’s all.
They described her perfectly. The only thing that could look that much like her is a Changeling, and they just said it couldn’t have been a Changeling.
Then they made a mistake.
Maybe they didn’t make a mistake? Maybe Twilight did . . . ?
This mental exchange was roughly the same every few minutes until the train stopped at Ponyville. She stole frequent glances at Twilight as she babbled on about the details of the attack, and thankfully, the latter seemed not to notice. Now, as the six ambled back to Twilight’s palace, Fluttershy arrived at a firm conclusion.
Bon-Bon clearly said she would take the law into her own hooves. Twilight needs to know that. Even if it means . . . .
“I’ll write to the royal guard every day to keep up with the inves—oh!” Twilight snapped herself out of her panicked analysis and looked at her.“What’s up, Fluttershy?”
“I . . . well, I’ve been thinking, and I think you ought to know that . . . well . . . see, I don’t know if I believe it, but . . . before we left . . . .”
“Oh, come on, Fluttershy! Spit it out!” Rainbow Dash snapped from above them.“Anypony’s voice is better than Twilight’s after this!!”
“Rainbow Dash!” Rarity cried.“What in heavens has gotten into you?!”
Dash stared back at Rarity, eyes wide in shock as though she’d been yelled at for daydreaming. She glanced at Fluttershy, then set down with a sigh.“Sorry about that,” she muttered, “I guess I’m still on edge after what happened at the palace.”
“I understand,” Fluttershy replied, patting her on the shoulder, “but this really is important. I just . . . don’t know how to say it . . . .”
“Fluttershy, after the crazy few weeks we’ve all had, nothin’ll surprise us right now,” Applejack spoke up as they finally approached the door and Twilight slowly pushed it open.“I mean, you told us how you feel about Discord bein’ in jail, so you got the right to be upset, too.”
“It’s not just about being upset. It’s about . . . well . . . Starlight.”
“What about Starlight?” Rarity asked. Twilight broke from the group and went upstairs as the rest of them took a seat at the cutie map, and Fluttershy instantly felt at ease; sitting down seemed to make things at least a bit easier.
“Well . . . back in Canterlot . . . with the Act getting so much attention . . . and they already took Discord, so anypony else could go after our friends if they really felt threatened by them . . . anypony at all, really—”
“Come on, Fluttershy!” Dash replied from above them as she set down into her seat.“Have you seen this place? This palace could repel the whole royal guard if it came down to it! They can’t just take Starlight whenever they want! She’s fine. She’s totally safe!”
“She’s not here.”
Twilight had returned with a furrowed brow and a distressed gleam in her eye. The others looked at her, mercifully taking away attention from Fluttershy.
“Whattaya mean, she ain’t here?” Applejack replied.“Wasn’t she holed up in her room for days?”
“Weeks,” Twilight corrected.“This doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t she be in her room? Why now?”
“Now, let’s not panic,” said Rarity, “I’m sure she’s still here. It is a big palace, after all.”
Applejack nodded.“Good point. Let’s split up, y’all. If she’s still in here, we’ll find her quicker that way.”
And with that, six ponies left the room, each for a different destination. Rainbow Dash sped out first, heading to the upper levels and bashing open every door she saw. Twilight, Rarity, and Applejack ran through hallway after hallway, not finding anypony but each other and losing their way just as often. Pinkie Pie, still in a muted, limp state, ambled out with no trace of the usual spring in her step.
Fluttershy searched as many rooms as she could find on the ground floor, but the longer the search went on, the more times somepony called out Starlight’s name, the more it occurred to her that they would not find her in the palace—or in Ponyville at all.
And you know why, don’t you?
You know the only reason she’d have to leave.
She’s guilty. She has to be.
No, she’s not!
The mental battle resumed in her head, taking up more effort than the search, so that by the time Rainbow Dash had gone through four floors and come up with nothing, Fluttershy was barely finished with half of the ground floor.
The six reunited in Starlight’s room, almost as if a collective subconscious thought urged them to catch Starlight there on their way back. Dash and Twilight arrived first, and Fluttershy was even slower than Pinkie Pie in returning to the group.
“Nothing in the upper floors,” Rainbow Dash said, shrugging.
“We checked the second floor,” Rarity spoke and nodded toward Applejack.“Utterly devoid.”
“Basement’s empty . . .” Pinkie mumbled.
“This just doesn’t make sense!” Twilight shrieked again, now pacing the room.“Why would Starlight leave now? Why today? She knew how bad this would look! It’s obvious she knew what would happen today! The vote! The Act! She knew if she left today, it would make her look guilty! So why leave now?!”
“Twilight,” Fluttershy spoke up, “maybe she left because she—”
“What is all that racket?!”
All six mares jumped at the sound of a new voice, and turned toward its source—a bunched-up sheet on Starlight’s bed had suddenly reared up and started yelling.
“Can’t a great and powerful sorceress get any sleep around here?!”
There was a brief pause, and Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. She ignited her horn, and the sheet was swept off the bed, revealing a groggy, baggy-eyed blue Unicorn with a dire case of bed mane.
“Trixie, what are you doing in here?” Twilight snapped.“This is Starlight’s room.”
“The Great and Powerful Trixie sleeps wherever she desires!” Trixie snapped back with a glowering look. The look soon softened as reality set in inside her mind.“Hmm . . . come to think of it, the Great and Powerful Trixie doesn’t quite recall ever falling asleep . . . .”
“Well, that’s just dumb!” Dash spat, setting down.“How could you not remember falling asleep?”
“Silence, plebian!” Trixie barked.“Even Trixie has been known to display common absent-mindedness on the rarest of occasions!”She then put a pensive hoof to her mouth.“Hmm . . . I think the last thing I remember was listening to the radio with Starlight. We were staying up to date on the RARA situation in Canterlot. I don’t think they’d even started the vote yet. Then everything just went black . . . .”
Twilight glanced at her friends, and they returned it to her and to each other. Fluttershy felt her heart speed up when she saw the skeptical looks in their eyes—each if them had it, in varying degrees of duration.
Fluttershy had to consciously restrain a sigh when her thoughts were spoken for her, by Rarity:
“You . . . don’t suppose she—”
“Stop,” Twilight said, staring daggers at her.“I know what this looks like, but it can’t be true.”
“Well, ya gotta admit, sugarcube, it does look suspicious—”
“I don’t care how suspicious it looks, Applejack! Starlight is not that pony anymore! She would never even think about doing something like this! Not after she learned her lesson after the time travel incident!”
“Darling, there’s no need to be defensive. We know how it looks, but surely you don’t think we’d believe—”
“It was the first thing you thought, and you know it, Rarity! Starlight is on our side! She’s not evil anymore! She would never, ever attack the palace!”
“Twilight, she did!”
Twilight, Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and even Trixie turned toward Fluttershy with wide eyes. The resulting silence made Fluttershy squirm in place.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” Twilight almost whispered it, as if in defeat.“My own friends . . . .”
“Twilight, I’ve been trying to tell you all along,” Fluttershy continued, pushing away the horror of the attention.“Some ponies in Canterlot saw who attacked the palace. They described Starlight perfectly, and Bon-Bon even said she’d go after her personally. If that’s true, Starlight will be in danger, whether she did it or not!”
There was another, even longer silence, and Fluttershy nearly collapsed in relief when more eyes swapped glances (and strayed away from her). Even Pinkie Pie seemed to be perking up beyond her seemingly impermeable depression, if only to be just as puzzled and worried as her friends.
“I think you all know what we have to do,” Twilight said, finally breaking the silence.
“Darling!” Rarity yelped.“You don’t mean . . . you’re not seriously suggesting that we—”
“I’m not suggesting it, Rarity,” Twilight bit back.“We’re going after her. We have to.”
“Well, I ain’t sure if ya recall,” Applejack said with a critical gaze, “but Canterlot passed that Act as soon as we left. They ain’t gonna let ya do this without an okay from the Princesses and their newfangled panel.”
“And that could take days!” Dash interjected, taking to the air.“We gotta find her, like, yesterday!”
“Which means going over their heads,” Rarity sighed.
“What did you think I was gonna do, ask permission?” Twilight growled.
“Twilight, no!” Fluttershy cried.“If you don’t talk to them first, you could be in a lot of trouble!”
“I have no time to play by Moon Dancer and Thunderbolt’s rules, Fluttershy! Starlight needs help, now! They won’t let her plead her case to clear her name, so it’s up to me!”
“We’re coming, too!” Rainbow Dash announced.“We’re friends, and friends stick together, right?”
Dash’s jaw hung open at Twilight’s response.
“Not this time,” she continued.“If those Canterlot nobles really intend to come down on me for going around their joke of an act, it’s best that only one of us get involved. The fewer of us breaking their rules, the better.”
“But we wanna help!” Pinkie squealed, her voice strongly above a whisper for the first time since leaving Canterlot. Even Trixie did a double-take.
“Now, now, Pinkie, I think Twilight may be right this time,” Rarity replied.“Besides, that Act was put in place for a reason. It was to stop us making foolish mistakes.”The last two words came out through slightly gritted teeth as Rarity’s eyes darted toward Twilight.
Applejack nodded.“I agree. Much as I like Starlight and wanna help her, it just ain’t our place right now.”She looked Twilight dead in the eye.“It shouldn’t be our place for any of us.”
“I don’t care,” Twilight snapped.“I was taught to learn friendship, and because of that, Equestria was saved more than once. I made a friend of Starlight instead of stopping her from ever being more than what she was, and I made the right decision. Just as I am now.”And with that, Twilight turned around and walked stoically out the door.
“Twilight! Let me come, too!”
Twilight turned to see Trixie walk up to her, her eyes narrow and her features stony.
Twilight shook her head.“I’m sorry, Trixie, but I can’t let you. This might be dangerous, even without the threat of the panel. I can’t let anypony else risk their freedom—”
“You assume this was a request rather than a command,” Trixie retorted.“The Great and Powerful Trixie regularly flirts with danger!”
“Like that Ursa Major you fought?” Applejack replied with a smirk. Trixie merely turned long enough to shoot her a dirty look before addressing Twilight again.
“In any case, I know Starlight. We’ve become close, remember? If anypony has a chance of helping her see reason, it’s me. You’d be crazy not to bring me with you.”
Twilight sighed, glanced at the floor, then to each of her friends before returning to the floor.“I just don’t know. We may not see eye-to-eye, but that doesn’t mean I want you to take unnecessary risks.”
“You said it yourself, Princess,” Trixie drawled, “this is entirely necessary. Besides,” her tone softened, as well as her face, “they expect criminal behavior from me. According to them, I have a record. You, not so much. I can take a risk because I have less to lose, and if we get caught, I can be your alibi. I can simply tell them I overpowered you and forced you to help me look for Starlight.”She leaned in close with an insinuating wideness in her eyes.“You know, my best friend that I’d do anything and everything to make sure is safe?”
Twilight stared into Trixie’s stony gaze, and seemed to realize as the rest of them did that she had a point. Another sigh escaped her lips, her eyes narrowed, and she spoke low and steadily:
“We’ll have to move quickly. If she left Ponyville, we’ll have to start at the train station.”She turned to each of her friends.“Stay in town, keep an eye on things. If something happens or if Starlight comes home, have Spike send me a letter. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“You got it, Twilight,” Applejack replied, tipping her hat. The rest of the group nodded, and Rainbow Dash grumbled to herself. Fluttershy felt a collapsing sense of relief tempered with a foreboding dread that threatened to knock her to the ground. Now, there was only to wait.
Even Fluttershy couldn’t stand feeling this helpless.
Twilight turned and left the bedroom, and Trixie followed, lightning her horn and sweeping her wizard’s hat and cape from a corner of the room first.“You know, Princess,” Trixie smirked on their way out, “False alibi notwithstanding, I figured you’d be too proud to admit you were a hostage of the Great and Powerful Trixie.”
“That’s because my ego isn’t as fragile as yours,” Twilight replied simply. Trixie merely harrumphed in reply.