“Nothing…” Rainbow Dash grimaced as she looked over the Empire, the swiftly setting sun painting the world in various shades of orange and yellow. Chrysalis was setting it almost an hour earlier than it should be for this time of the year, and that alone was enough to throw Rainbow’s mind for a serious loop. Still in the skies above the Empire, she looked down into the snowflake pattern of the streets one last time, hoping for something she might have missed, some tiny detail that slipped past her eyes. And, just like every other time, nothing presented itself.
Their search was a dud, then. Fluttershy and Thorax were flying towards her from different directions, both wearing equally disheartened looks on their faces. They hadn’t had any better luck. Thorax was opting to be disguised as Squall again, if only for the comfort of the locals. It was Fluttershy to speak first, fidgeting with her hooves over her chest. “Um… I’m sorry, Rainbow. I didn’t see anything…”
“Me neither,” Thorax spoke, revealing that his voice was not disguised. He gave his head a slow shake and let out a heavy sigh. “We’ve been at this for hours… my wings are getting exhausted.”
Rainbow slowly nodded, her posture sagging. They weren’t going to find the Crystal Heart; not today, at least. She gave herself a quick shake and gestured towards the palace in resignation. “Alright, okay, let’s head back. We could all use a bit of rest. Plus, you still need to fill me in about Changeling battle strategies, Thorax.”
The changeling nodded as the group turned and made their way back to the Crystal Palace. The flight was made mostly in silence, all of them thinking about something or other while they went. For Rainbow Dash, she was trying to think of anywhere she hadn’t looked or anything she might have overlooked when she shouldn’t have. Nothing sprang to mind, sadly, and she let out another puff of air.
The three, after a minute or so, touched down safely on one of the balconies overlooking the Empire, having seen Pinkie Pie waving at them from it before darting back inside. The glass door was standing wide open upon their arrival, allowing them to gaze inside without any hindrances. Inside the room, what looked to be a sizable lounge packed with comfy chairs and couches, Wind Whisper could be seen playing some manner of a board game with Spike in the middle of the floor. While they did that, Twilight, Starlight, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity were all sat in chairs or couches around the room, watching on with interest. They all looked tired and frustrated, probably due to a similarly fruitless search.
Wind looked up the moment the three fliers touched down, and she beamed when Thorax’s disguise was swiftly dispelled in a swirl of green fire. “Thorax!” she squealed happily, standing up and cantering up to him. She beamed enormously once she was right in front of him, looking up into his eyes. “You’re back.”
He gave a nod and small smile, leaning down towards her. “Yeah, I am. How have things been up here?” he asked, then chuckling under his breath when Wind tightly hugged him around the neck.
Applejack gave a grumpy snort and adjusted her hat on her head. “Nothin’. We didn’t find nothin’. This Crystal Heart thing is hid better than one of Pinkie’s ‘emergency’ items back home.”
Pinkie looked over and Applejack as if she were horrifically offended. “Hey, it’s not my fault I hid them so well!” she whined, placing a hoof on her chest.
“It kind of is,” Twilight retorted with a playful smirk before rising from her seat and trotting up to Rainbow Dash. As soon as she reached her, the two wrapped their forelegs around each other in a warm, loving hug.
Rainbow buried her face into Twilight’s shoulder, taking in a deep breath through her nose, catching a whiff of Twilight’s scent. Unsurprisingly, as none of them had had a proper bath in days, Twilight didn’t exactly smell great right now. She filed that piece of information away as potential teasing material before leaning back. “We didn’t find it, either,” she said simply, looking down at the floor and wilting in defeat. “We pretty much wasted our whole day.”
“Oh, don’t speak such nonsense,” Rarity softly chastised, getting back to her own hooves and trotting over. “We may not have found what we were looking for, but the fact remains that we got plenty done today.”
“I ripped Discord’s spell out of your skull,” Starlight commented with a small smile of her own from the couch she was on. She shifted slightly so she was laying on her side, a cheeky little grin in full display. “You smashed Discord’s spell, and then we learned that the Crystal Heart is a thing. Unless none of that counts for anything?”
Rainbow rolled her eyes at the lilac mare’s snark and jabbed a hoof at her. “You shaddap,” she shot in a playful tone before slowly backing out of the hug with Twilight. “But you’ve got a point. We got some stuff done. We could have done a lot more, though…”
“Don’t beat yerself up over it,” Applejack chimed in with a friendly smile, leaning back in her seat. “We’ll manage. We always do.”
Rainbow managed a small smile and did her best to take the encouragement to heart. She then looked down at Spike, and her smile widened. “What about you, Spike? What are you doing?” she questioned, glancing at the game board in question. A spark of nostalgia lit up in her heart when she saw that it was the same game she had played with Twilight and Fluttershy in Cloudsdale so many years ago…
The one she lost every single time.
Spike crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Wind Whisper with an impatient frown, while the filly in question was still dangling from Thorax’s neck even though he had stood back up to his full height. This led to her swinging back and forth in the air and putting a strained look on the drone’s face. Spike grunted and pointed at the duo. “Oh, you know, waiting for Wind Whisper to make her move. It’s your turn!” he called to her while throwing his arms open in irritation, causing the thestral to look back at him sheepishly.
“Oops!” she sang back at him before releasing Thorax’s neck (much to his relief), dropping to the floor and scampering over to the board again. She slid to a halt by her hand, plucked it back up off the floor and studied it for several seconds while Thorax cantered over to sit by her side, looking at the board curiously.
Spike gave him a warning glare. “No helping her, now. That’s cheating,” he said, his tone threatening.
Thorax recoiled and let a hoof fly up to his chest in mock shock. “Me? cheat?” he then waved dismissively at Spike with a small laugh. “Heh. Don’t worry. I don’t even know the rules of the game. I’m just gonna watch, if it’s all the same to you.”
Wind picked up the dice and gave them a quick roll. Two 3’s. With all eyes now curiously trained on the board, Wind picked up her piece and moved it ahead six spaces, only three behind Spike’s piece. She frowned when she saw the space she landed on. “Aaw… red.”
“That means you lose resources,” Spike declared with an evil little cackle, looking over at Twilight with a big grin. She just smiled and waved at him. He then looked at Wind expectantly. “Well? Cough ‘em up.”
Wind looked at him, then at the small assortment of cards she had clutched in her hooves. Then she shook her head. “Nuh-uh.”
Spike blinked. “I… I beg your pardon?”
Wind, with an evil look of her own now in her eyes, and a fang-filled grin splitting her face, pulled up one of her cards in a very theatrical manner. “Nuh-uh! ‘Cause I got this!” she then slapped the card down, and Spike’s face was quickly drained of all of its colors.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me...” he choked out before raising his eyes from the board to look into Wind’s triumphantly smug stare. “Please don’t! I just wanna win one time!” he all but begged, dropping his cards and clasping his claws together.
Wind, still looking really evil, just shook her head. “Nuh-uh. Lemme see here,” she looked down at the card, her grin widening. “So I get to move all the way…” she dragged the words out while moving her piece along the spots, well past Spike’s piece, all the way to the end, where she then set it down. “Here! And now, I get three resource cards.”
Rainbow winced with sympathy at the look of utter devastation on Spike’s face. She knew how the little guy felt. It was so frustrating to feel like you had victory in your clutches, only to have it be snatched away by a sneaky move. She slowly slinked over and leaned down to whisper in his ear. “Hey, uh, Spike? Don’t feel too bad… I never won this game either.”
Twilight, having followed closely behind out of curiosity, overheard those words. With an evil little grin of her own, she nonchalantly sauntered up and bumped her flank against Rainbow’s in passing, shooting her a teasing grin over her shoulder. “Only because I think before I play, Rainbow.”
Rainbow’s face turned a brilliant shade of tomato from that little action. “Wha- but- Oh, C'mon! Did you think about the fact that there are other ponies in the room with us?!”
Twilight nodded ‘innocently’. “Uh-huh. Why do you think I did it?”
Rarity covered her muzzle with a hoof, barely able to stifle her delighted giggles. Applejack and Pinkie Pie, however, had no such reservations. The two of them burst out into hysterical laughs at the heavily flustered pegasus. Fluttershy just smiled happily at the two while Starlight looked away slightly, seemingly uncomfortable with the open displays of affection. Nevertheless, she did smile, finding the mirth of the situation.
Meanwhile, Thorax’s eye twitched, as did his lips. “Guys, Rainbow has a point. I’m right here,” he said at about the same time his stomach growled quite audibly.
Wind Whisper nodded along with that sentiment, pointing at herself. “Me, too! Stop being all mushy around me!” she complained indignantly before sticking out her tongue in childish revulsion towards romance.
Thorax frowned at her, raising an eyebrow. “Wind, you don’t eat love,” he pointed out flatly, drawing a puffy-cheeked glare from her.
“I know! But it’s weird!”
Spike managed to lift himself from his pit of misery and suffering long enough to lean over and nudge Wind in the ribs. “Oh, trust me. This is nothin’. Just wait until all this is over and they get to go home. The amount of flirting they did before they were like this was-”
“Spike!” Rainbow snapped all-too-quickly, her blush getting even worse. She shot over and smacked him in the back of the head with a hoof, eliciting a loud, echoing clop sound. “Shut!”
Everypony got another merry laugh out of that, much to Rainbow’s displeasure. The agitated pegasus puffed up her cheeks, glared at each of them in turn, then let out a deflated sigh. “Heh... I gotta get used to this, don’t I?”
Twilight nodded with a happy ‘mhmm’ before trotting over and sitting back down on the couch she had been lounging on. She then patted the space next to her. “Come on, you should sit down. You’ve been in the air all day, Rainbow. You could use the rest,” she offered in a far gentler voice, her eyes showing genuine concern.
Rainbow rolled her shoulders as if it were no big deal, but had to relent that sitting down seemed like a great idea. With the grace of a drunk giraffe on stilts, she turned around and flopped into a sitting position next to Twilight, draping a foreleg over her shoulders. While those two cuddled up, the rest of the room went back to the positions they had been in previously, with Spike demanding a rematch from Wind Whisper. The filly accepted with great enthusiasm, and Fluttershy and Thorax took up positions behind Spike and Wind respectively.
As time carried on, in spite of the swarm slowly working its way towards them from the south, nopony felt the need to break the mood just then. Watching the two young ones play their silly game, boasting and gloating, taunting and snarking, and all in all just enjoying some friendly competition while everypony watched… it was nice.
And for Rainbow, it reminded her of what they were trying to save.
Rainbow looked to each of her friends, one at a time. Fluttershy, Spike, Wind Whisper, Thorax, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Starlight… her gaze lingered on the unicorn in question, and she half expected to hear those three words in her head, or feel that fire burning in her skull again. But, much to her relief, there was nothing. No echoes of Discord telling her to make her pay, no uncontrollable rage breaking down her self-control… she took a second, then, to really look at Starlight. Up until that morning, every time she had looked at Starlight, she had been ‘distracted’, after all.
Despite the fact that she was the exact same mare from the flashes, the same mare who had, in another life, completely undone the world around them, ending an entire version of history, she managed to look...peaceful. Nice. Like a mare that Rainbow would not mind getting to know. Maybe it was how she held herself, the soft, charmed smile on her face, or the look in her eyes… it was hard to tell.
Rainbow’s eyes then left Starlight and rested on the mare right next to her, discovering that Twilight was staring right back at her. Both mare’s blushed just a little bit when their noses brushed together, although Rainbow was quick to capitalize on the closeness to steal a quick kiss of her own from Twilight. The other mare blinked and blushed even more heavily when Rainbow pulled back, drawing a quiet giggle from the pegasus.
“See? Not so fun on the receiving end, is it?” she whispered teasingly, pulling Twilight a little closer with her foreleg.
Twilight smiled gently, her eyes shimmering somewhat. “Actually… that was really nice…” she replied in an equally quiet tone. She shifted slightly and rested her head on Rainbow’s shoulder, watching Spike and Wind play their game, even as it became clear that Wind had, once again, gained the upper hoof.
Rainbow slowly nodded and went back to watching the game, as well, her smile softening as well. “Heh. Killjoy.”
“That’s my nickname…” Twilight murmured, glancing back with a teasing look in her eyes. “Don’t wear it out.”
Rainbow opted to remain silent, though she did give Twilight an affectionate squeeze. Soon enough, their attention returned fully to the game, just enjoying the easy atmosphere. Every now and then, one of them (usually Twilight) would mutter to the other about how Spike could turn it around, then giggle to themselves when he messed it up.
Eventually, though, the orange glow from outside dwindled and faded away, the world outside slowly descending into the darkness of the night. Reluctantly, the gathered ponies, dragon and changeling had to agree that the time had come to put the games away and get some sleep. They all piled out, heading off to find the rooms they had used the previous night. All the while, Twilight, and Rainbow stayed close to each other, too comfortable in each other’s presence to separate.
When they finally made it back to their room, they didn’t go for the bed straight away. It was still early, relatively speaking, so they contented themselves with sitting down on the balcony and looking out onto the world below. The moon was conspicuously absent, Rainbow noticed when she glanced up at the sky. Chrysalis probably decided she didn’t want it casting any light on her or her drones while they rested. Luckily, the stars provided plenty of illumination.
And that wasn’t to mention the gentle aetherial glow the Empire itself emitted.
It was beautiful.
But with the moon conspicuously absent, the night sky only served to remind Rainbow of their situation. She found her thoughts drifting to Princess Luna and, by association, Princess Celestia. Her relaxed smile slowly began to drift away, replaced by a worried, almost sad expression. One which Twilight was quick to notice.
“You okay?” she asked in a quiet voice, nudging Rainbow in the shoulder with a hoof.
Rainbow nodded. “I’m fine. Just thinking about Aunt Luna… and mom…”
Twilight hesitated, then leaned over to pull Rainbow against her side in a comforting hug. “We’ll save them. They’ll be alright,” she whispered, giving Rainbow a loving nuzzle.
“I know, Twi…” Rainbow mumbled, returning the nuzzle with a grateful hum. “But I’m still worried about them, you know? They’re… they are my family… I miss them...”
“Mhmm,” Twilight hummed, reaching a hoof up to pat Rainbow on the back of the head. “I miss my parents and Shining Armor… I know how you feel.”
“The others are all worried about their families, too,” Rainbow pointed out, leaning forward and resting her hooves on the balcony rail, momentarily leaving Twilight’s hoof behind. “Applejack’s folks and Rarity’s sister in Manehattan... Fluttershy’s parents and little brother up in Cloudsdale... Pinkie Pie’s family… uh, wherever they are…”
“We’ve all got plenty we’re trying to save,” Twilight said in a soft but firm voice. “We won’t fail. We can’t. There’s too much riding on it…”
Rainbow let out a quiet snort, her eyes narrowing with residual frustration. “Well, we can’t very well protect them if we can’t save ourselves. If we can’t find that Heart, we’re done for.”
“No, we’re not,” Twilight quickly countered, her own voice hardening significantly. “If we can’t find it, we’ll think of something else.”
Rainbow shifted and looked back, studying Twilight carefully. She was so sure of what she had just said, the resolve burning behind her eyes and in her face, as well as in her posture. Rainbow found the energy and enthusiasm to be contagious, a small swell of confidence building in her chest. “Heh. Alright, sure, let’s roll with that,” she replied before leaning back again. “Still, our odds will be better if we can find the Heart. I just have no idea where to look…”
Twilight hummed in response, her brow furrowing with thought. “Well… we can figure it out in the morning, I think. I’m getting kinda…” her voice trailed off, disrupted by an enormous yawn. When her jaw clamped itself closed, she blinked and looked at Rainbow indignantly. “Shut up.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Rainbow laughed, raising a hoof to block an oncoming smack from Twilight.
“You were thinking it,” Twilight muttered under her breath. She then sighed and got back to her hooves, giving a languid stretch. “I’m going to bed. Come on in whenever you’re ready,” she called back while trotting into the room, shooting Rainbow another smile. “I’ll be waiting.”
Rainbow nodded at her before turning her eyes back to the night sky again. There were several seconds of silence, with her just sitting there and watching everything. Then, with a languid stretch and a satisfied groan of her own, she stood back up and returned to the bedroom, about ready to get some sleep.
Of course, in the back of her mind, she was hoping that Princess Luna could find an opportunity to contact her and offer some advice on finding the Crystal Heart. Right now, they could use all the help they could get. Luckily, those worries were smothered a few moments later when she climbed into bed with Twilight, the two of them snuggling close together and basking in the warmth of their embrace.