Starlight Glimmer was a pony of many facets: Charismatic leader, supportive friend, daring mage...
Right now, she was showing the facet best known as "nervous wreck," pacing behind the desk in what she still thought of as Twilight's office in the School of Friendship. "Come on, come on, where are they? Don't they know how important this is?" She glanced at the other being in the room. "And don't you even start."
Phyllis waved her leaves in a chiding yet conciliatory way. Or maybe that was just the air currents from Starlight's motion.
"Right. You're right. I'm headmare now. I need to be strong. Confident. The rock upon which the school can stand."
The door opened, and Starlight's gaze darted to it in a way almost entirely unlike a rock. "You wanted to see us, Starlight?" Sunburst said as he and Trixie entered the office.
"Finally!" Starlight cleared her throat and drew herself up to proper, rocky dignity. "I mean, yes. Yes I did. The rest of the faculty is retiring with Twilight. As much as they can retire when they're focusing on their other jobs, anyway. Do you realize what this means?"
Trixie gasped in delight. "We'll be running our own school! With blackjack! And snooker!"
Sunburst hummed to himself. "I've never played blackjack."
"Don't worry, Trixie has." Trixie extracted a deck of playing cards from the depths of her hat and began shuffling them in increasingly elaborate ways.
Sunburst moved to the opposite side of the desk from her, eyes bright with the chance to learn something new. "When?"
"Grandpa Greedy Pot always made Hearth's Warming fun." Trixie gave one last riffle shuffle, lifted her hooves to reveal nothing there, and pulled the entire deck out from behind Sunburst's ear. "Now, Trixie is the dealer, which allows her to draw two cards—"
"What did Greedy Pot do?" said Sunburst.
Trixie rolled her eyes. "Obviously, he—"
"Hey!" Both turned to see Starlight glaring at them. She magically grabbed Sunburst by his cape and all but threw him next to Trixie. "I called you two in here for a reason. Trixie, you can bilk Sunburst out of his dignity later."
"Trixie intends to." Trixie leered at Sunburst. "She likes her stallions naive and helpless before her."
Starlight raised an eyebrow. "I seem to recall your preferences running along different lines."
"Trixie repeats," Trixie repeated, expression unchanging, "she likes her stallions naive and helpless before her."
"Do I get a say in this?" said Sunburst, looking back and forth between the two mares.
"No," said both.
"Oh." He thought about that for a moment. "I probably shouldn't be okay with that."
Starlight rubbed her temples. "Sunburst, we can work through your thing for powerful mares later. Right now, we need to find replacements for literally every actual teacher on the staff or we're not going to have a school in the fall."
"Don't we have more faculty than that?" said Trixie. "Sweepy Belle, Scuttle Loom, and Apollo?"
Starlight gave her a flat look. "They are literal foals, Trixie."
"Bah. Trixie was younger than them when she first set out on her own. At a school, no less!"
Sunburst tilted his head back in thought. "Hang on, were you the one crying for her mother that first night in the dorms at CSGU? I heard the wails all the way from the next building."
"That might not have been Trixie."
"Guys? Again, we need options here." Don't mind control your friends, Starlight, she told herself. You wouldn't get any ideas you didn't give them first. And it would be wrong.
Trixie stepped forward, sweeping back her cape and holding her head high. "As you know—"
"Why say that if we already know?" said Sunburst.
That got him a glare that could peel paint. "As Starlight knows, Trixie has already acted as a Great and Knowledgeable teacher here when Twilight and her friends went on that bogus friendship mission. Why don't we bring in the other substitutes?"
"Well, Maud might work," said Starlight, "but Spitfire only came in because she owed Rainbow Dash a favor. And Discord's suggestions..." She shuddered. "No. Just no."
"You could call in the other candidates for vice headmare," said Sunburst. "They may have been poor fits for an administrative position, but they could still teach."
Starlight shook her head. "Octavia wants to focus on her own career, Spoiled Rich is Spoiled Rich, and Big Macintosh..." She winced. "I know they say they don't hold grudges, but I still indoctrinated Sugar Belle into a cult and I still hit Big Mac with Logorrhea Sesquipedalia."
Sunburst raised an eyebrow. "You mean Lengthy Lexicon's Enforced Erudition?"
"Spells sound cooler in Pony Latin!"
He rolled his eyes. "Maybe if you say them correctly. You sound like a Harriet Pinto book."
Starlight reared up and slammed her forehooves onto the desk. "Oh, you want to talk Harriet Pinto? Which one of us was living in a giant crystal wizard hat a moon ago?"
A sharp whistle made both turn to Trixie. "Hey. Nerds. You can nerd-flirt later. We're getting off-topic, and if Trixie has to be the one to get us back, you know it's bad."
Starlight blinked. "That's both true and unusually self-aware of you."
"Trixie is aware of her faults. She just ignores them most of the time."
"That's more like it. Well, at minimum we can at least see if Dr. Whooves is willing to teach science. Anything else?"
Trixie winced. "Trixie hates to say it, but if we know what will happen if we don't at least consider Discord himself."
Uneasy as it made Starlight, she had to nod. "I'll ask Fluttershy to ask him, but I don't expect a yes. After the Battle of the Bell, he might at least try to keep the students sane, but I doubt he'd enjoy sticking to a regular schedule or predetermined syllabus."
"We could certainly lend a hoof in the classroom," said Sunburst, "paperwork permitting."
Starlight looked at her inbox. Sure, there wasn't much in there now, but it was late July. "That's a pretty big condition."
Silence fell on the office for a few moments, broken by a thoughtful hum. "You know," said Trixie, "it's not like Celestia and Luna are doing anything..."
"Luna's still watching over ponies' dreams," said Starlight. "Celestia... How about we give her more than a moon of retirement before bothering her?"
"Trixie doesn't consider an entire moon of doing nothing a very enjoyable retirement."
"I hope the mare who raised the sun and moon for a millennium is a bit more mature than that."
Sunset Shimmer fidgeted. "Um, Princess—"
Celestia held up a hand. "Not anymore, dear Sunset."
The scowl Sunset had been holding back broke out in full force. "Okay. Hey squatter, either go home or get a job. Either way, get off my couch and my GameStation."
Trixie sighed. "Well, Trixie's out of ideas."
Sunburst adjusted his glasses. "We could always ask the others."
"Oh. Huh." Starlight nodded. "Yeah, that is an option."
"It almost feels anticlimactic," said Trixie.
"Not everything needs to escalate to the brink of disaster before we learn a friendship lesson." Sunburst looked to each of the mares. "Really, as teachers at the School of Friendship, shouldn't we have moved past that sort of thing?"
Starlight sighed. "You'd think. Remind me to tell you about the time Rainbow Dash and Applejack competed with one another to be voted Teacher of the Moon. On a related note, I'm dropping the Teacher of the Moon vote."
"What!?" Trixie reared back, cape billowing. "How dare you deny the students a chance to voice their favor and shower the greatest and most powerful faculty members with the accolades they deserve?"
"Counselors aren't eligible."
"Oh." Trixie dropped back down on all fours and nodded. "Yeah, dropping the pointless popularity contest's a good call."
Sunburst looked back and forth between the two of them, looking as bemused as Starlight felt. "So, shall we go ask?"
Starlight nodded. "Let's."
Applejack was the perfect pony to start with, easy to find and close by. By this point late in the morning, it was just a matter of heading to Sweet Apple Acres and listening for the impacts of hooves on trunks and apples in baskets.
She'd smiled as they came to her, at least until they explained the situation. "Shoot. Didn't mean t' leave ya in th' lurch."
"It's entirely understandable," said Starlight.
"But it still means we're down a professor of Honesty." Trixie glared at Starlight after getting nudged. "Well it does."
Applejack nodded. "It does. No use sugarcoatin' it. I'm guessin' y'all came here 'cause ya want my picks for a replacement."
Starlight managed to keep her nod at sub-Pinkie speed. "It would be very helpful. We're... kind of out of ideas."
"And we should probably have more than half a dozen teachers anyway," added Sunburst. "Not the best ratio to students at the moment."
Applejack shrugged. "Well, it ain't like me or th' others short o' Twi are gonna be in Canterlot full-time. We'll be able t' lend a hoof if'n ya need us."
Starlight gave a sad smile. "Just not on a regular basis."
"True." Applejack heaved one of the baskets onto a waiting cart. "Walk with me, y'all. I do my best thinkin' while I'm workin'."
She didn't say anything for a few more trees. Further nudges ensured Trixie didn't interrupt her thought process, though Starlight had to admit she was growing impatient as well. Just as she was about to say something herself, Applejack spoke. "Ain't exactly easy t' pick who I'd want in my place. Couple names come t' mind, but I don't wanna impose on 'em."
One of Trixie's eyes started twitching. Before she could fully process her frustration, Starlight gave Applejack a wide smile and said, "Hey, we'll be the ones imposing. Just tell us who your picks are."
Applejack's mouth twisted in uncertainty, but her eyes widened when she looked in Trixie's direction. Starlight kept herself from looking through willpower alone. Whatever Applejack saw, it got her talking. "I know Rara will love th' chance to spend plenty o' time with schoolponies if she ain't busy recordin' some new album."
"Uh, who?" said Trixie.
"I wasn't aware Rarity recorded music," added Sunburst.
"Rarity? No, I meant—" Applejack shook her head. "Right, that was a mite bit before Starlight turned over a new leaf. Y'all ever heard o' Countess Coloratura?"
Trixie made several noises that sounded more like a choking ferret than anything a pony might make.
Sunburst frowned in thought. "Is she famous?"
Starlight considered her own patchy knowledge of Equestrian popular culture. "The name does sound familiar."
"You. Know Countess Coloratura," said Trixie, disbelieving eyes on Applejack. "You."
Applejack grinned. "Know 'er? Filly, for a while she was my best friend. Trust me, if I ask, she'll come if she can. She loves workin' with young'uns, and she's got plenty o' experience being true to 'erself and what happens when she ain't."
Starlight smiled in kind. "That's wonderful!"
"That's unbelievable," said Trixie. "What's next, Sapphire Shores walks your dog?"
"Nah, you'll wanna talk t' Rarity 'bout Sapphire."
Trixie all but vibrated with repressed anger at that. As she stuffed her hat in to her mouth to muffle the screams, Sunburst said, "What happens if Coloratura can't come?"
"Good point." Applejack tapped her chin as she thought. A few moments later, she nodded to herself and said, "Tell ya what, make Plan B Autumn Blaze."
Starlight looked to Sunburst, who shook his head. "Uh, which pop singer is that?" she asked.
Applejack's muzzle crinkled in amusement. "Nah, Autumn's more musical theater."
"If you're seriously telling Trixie that you have Bridleway connections, she's not going to muffle the next one."
"Nah, that's Rarity again."
"Foal of a—!" Starlight shoved the hat back in.
"Autumn's more off-off..." Applejack stomped a hoof half a dozen times before settling on "Way off-Bridleway. She's a kirin, only one what had th' guts t' be true to 'erself when all th' others sealed away their emotions."
"That sounds... disturbingly familiar," Starlight said as she tried to ignore the new pit in her stomach. "I think we'll want to contact her first. Plus, it'll be good to have some nonpony representation in the faculty as well as the student body."
"It's good t' see y'all out gettin' fresh air." Applejack swept a glare from Starlight to Sunburst. "You two've been cooped up in that school fer weeks. Don't be strangers now; y' know we're here t' help with more 'n pickin' out substitutes."
Starlight nodded. "We will. Thanks, Applejack."
"Wouldn't hurt t' get out fer th' sake o' gettin' out neither." Applejack nodded to Trixie. "One thing Trixie gets right is usin' th' legs she was born with."
"Trixie chooses to interpret that as a compliment," said Trixie, who'd finally managed to extract her hat.
"Besides, all y'all could stand t' get closer with most folks in Ponyville. Yer runnin' a School o' Friendship; go make some friends!"
After taking the scenic route—which was to say actually traversing the physical distance involved rather than simply teleporting—the trio found themselves at Fluttershy's cottage just in time for lunch.
"We wouldn't want to impose," Starlight had said.
And so the three of them told Fluttershy what they were dealing with over sandwiches and tea in her living room.
"Oh." Fluttershy looked into her teacup for a few moments. "I'm terribly sorry, but between Twilight and the sanctuary and—"
"We understand why you're doing this, Fluttershy," Starlight said soothingly. "We just wanted to see if you had any suggestions for a replacement professor of Kindness."
"Well..." Fluttershy bit her lip. "You have asked Discord, right?"
A bite got stuck in Starlight's throat at that question. She choked it down and gasped out, "We're getting to it. Eventually."
"Don't do me any favors."
Starlight blinked, then very slowly looked down into her teacup. Trixie sometimes read tea leaves, but even Starlight could tell where this was going. Which was why she went slowly.
Still, she eventually looked into...
"What are we looking at?" Discord said from right behind her.
He wafted about the table like a silk scarf in a breeze. "In any case, don't worry, I've had my fill of academia for the century, heroic or otherwise." There was no doubt a reason for the baggy, green jumpsuit he'd conjured onto himself, but Starlight knew better than to ask.
"Well, the question's open to both of you," said Sunburst, bless his heart. "Any ideas for who can fill Fluttershy's position?"
Discord vanished and reappeared next to Fluttershy, knitting something out of Sunburst's suddenly elongated goatee. "Well, the Smooze could... Wait, no, the vacant crystal eyesore is right there. He'd probably consume the place, and then it's Dream Valley all over again." He considered the scarf he'd made, depicting a castle with pink walls, blue-topped towers, and purple slime everywhere. "He always swore he'd never end up like his father, but there's no need to rub the temptation in his face." The scarf vanished, leaving Sunburst desperately feeling his chin.
Trixie cleared her throat, which she'd kept occupied with lunch up until now. "O... kay. Disturbing allusions to the Paleopony Period aside, any other ideas?"
Discord shrugged. "I'm afraid most of my address book is either in this room or specializes in other Elements of Harming Me. The rest consists of beings who'd be better suited to attending those classes than teaching them, assuming they didn't try to atomize the place."
"Tree Hugger might work," said Fluttershy, "but I don't think she'd like a structured, academic setting very much. She's more about personal, one-on-one exploration of the soul."
"That's certainly one way of describing her," Discord said with a snort.
A memory came to mind. "Don't you have a brother?" said Starlight.
"Absolutely not," Discord and Fluttershy chorused, and her tone was even harsher than his. She went on to add, "Letting Chrysalis out of the statue and hiring her would be a better idea than making Zephyr a teacher."
More thoughts came together. Starlight brought a hoof to her chin. "Hmm..."
"Um, I wasn't actually suggesting—"
"I know. But you've given me an idea." Starlight got out of her seat and made for the door, Sunburst and Trixie scrambling to follow her. "I'll need to write to Thorax. We can bring the feelings forum to the School of Friendship."
"Oh." Fluttershy gave an uncertain smile. "I'm not entirely sure what that is, but it does sound nice."
"It will be. It will be."
As Starlight left, she couldn't help but hear Discord grumble, "Now why can't I get away with that kind of casual menace anymore?"
"Hmm..." Rarity hmmed.
Starlight didn't say anything. She'd learned it was best not to interrupt the intricate engine that was Rarity's thought process, lest the whole thing collapse into ice cream-fueled melodrama mourning lost inspiration.
Also, she was wearing a half-assembled dress, which meant she was surrounded by pins held in Rarity's magic less than an inch from her skin. She wasn't entirely sure how she'd gone from knocking on the Boutique's door to serving as a living ponnequin, though she suspected some form of time magic. Regardless, one wrong word and Rarity's concentration wouldn't be the only thing that suffered as a result.
Finally, after several adjustments that presumably made a difference in Rarity's eyes, the designer said, "This is tricky, isn't it?"
Trixie looked up from the hoofball magazine she'd been reading in the boutique's waiting room. "The dress?"
Rarity gave Starlight a look that spoke volumes of both praise and commiseration. "No, that's going quite well."
"If you say so," said Trixie, muzzle already back in the issue of Tackling Up.
The next look spoke more of eventual pain and suffering before mellowing out. "I am referring to the position we've put you in, Starlight, and for that I apologize. But the fact remains that Twilight has expressly asked us to lend our aid. Not that we wouldn't offer it in a heartbeat, of course, but one does not simply deny a royal request."
Starlight nodded. "Totally understandable, like I've been telling the others. But that still leaves us without a professor of Generosity."
"Indeed, and most if not all of my contacts are so thoroughly enmeshed in the fashion industry that they wouldn't be much help themselves." Rarity sighed. "Even the local up-and-comers I helped push into the business are all occupied. If not in my stores then in Hoity Toity's. Or, well, Rarity's."
Sunburst frowned from next to Starlight, where he was similarly trapped in a partially made tuxedo. "Um..."
"The human Rarity," said the pony Rarity as she turned her attention to him, or at least microadjusting his outfit. "Technically, she's still working for that world's Prim Hemline, but we're working on that. And Coco, why, you can barely even say her name without feeling exhausted yourself. That mare must cover half of Manehattan on a daily basis."
"Can—" Starlight eeped as a pin grazed her and tried not to flinch into six more. "Can you think of anypony who isn't occupied?"
Rarity hmmed again, looking up at nothing as she thought. "I am a bit overspecialized, aren't I?" She jutted out her lower lip in a way that Starlight had learned to never point out. "Although..."
"Prior to Twilight opening the school, Big Macintosh and I were part of this delightful little a capella group, the Ponytones. I can't guarantee they'll go along with the idea, but I can certainly get in touch with Torch Song and Toe-Tapper. They know a thing or two about harmony in every sense of the word." Rarity gave a rueful grin. "And goodness knows they put up with a great deal from a member of the group who had to keep gallivanting off to answer the call to adventure."
"That'd be a huge help, Rarity," said Starlight. "Thank you."
"On the contrary, darling, thank you. I'd been letting them drift away until now; most unforgivable of me." Rarity snagged a dozen more tiny metal skewers and started moving them into position. "Now hold still, this is the dress's tricky bit."
The sun was going down by the time the garments were fitted to Rarity's satisfaction and the trio was able to leave the Boutique.
"It's a lot smoother today," Sunburst said, watching the shadows move without any of the jerkiness from earlier in the week.
"Twilight is a quick learner."
Trixie snickered. "Or she asked Celestia to take it over again."
Starlight swatted her with her tail. "Be nice."
"Trixie is merely proposing logical scenarios based on the evidence before her."
By the time the trio got to Sugarcube Corner, Mrs. Cake was replacing the pastries in the display case with fresh ones for the small but growing Ponyville night shift. "Why, hello!" she said. "What brings you all in so late?"
"Is Pinkie in?" said Starlight. "We need to talk to her about filling her position at the school."
"She said she'd be expecting company. You can just go up to her room."
Starlight had seen Pinkie's cupcake penthouse before. She knew to expect decorative touches that took Sugarcube Corner's gingerbread house aesthetic to its logical conclusion. She knew that the staircase occassionally went down, doors came and went, the place was bigger on the inside, and investigating any of that was a good way to drive herself insane.
She didn't know it came with blackout curtains and a spotlight, and yet when she opened the door, Pinkie sat at a low table in a circle of light surrounded by impenetrable darkness. At least, that was probably Pinkie in the fedora and trenchcoat. "Glimmer. I've been expecting you."
"Uh..." Starlight stepped inside. She heard the others follow... and the door slam shut behind them. An orange light began to build, presumably from Sunburst's horn, but it cut out with a pained gasp. Starlight swallowed against the lump in her throat, doing little against it. "Good evening, Pinkie."
Pinkie gave a neutral grunt and pulled a silver cigarette case out of her trenchcoat. "If you say so." She opened it with a flick of her hoof, selected a lollipop, and stuck it in her mouth with no sign of enjoyment.
"Is all of this really necessary?"
"You're trying to get me back in the game, Glimmer." Pinkie leaned back, forelegs behind her head in a way that hurt to even look at. "I told you I wanted out. If you want to drag me back in, we've gotta play by my rules."
Starlight sighed. "I'm not asking you back, I just wanted your input on who would make a good professor of Laughter."
"Oh!" The curtains on every window snapped up even as the unseen spotlight switched off, bathing the room in the late sunlight. "Why didn't you say so?"
"Was it really necessary to flick my horn?" said Sunburst.
"Trixie may not like the pink one, but that doesn't mean she'll let some rube ruin a good bit."
"Yes, but was it necessary to flick my horn?"
Starlight rolled her eyes. "So if you have any suggestions—"
Pinkie produced a passel of personnel packets. "I may have a few ideas."
"Remind Trixie again why we didn't just ask the pink one to help with all the staffing issues?"
"That would have been too easy, silly! You're already skipping the part where you panic until you learn the friendship lesson." Pinkie punctuated that with a glare at Sunburst.
She shrugged. "Eh, your way probably works better when no one's watching."
Starlight knew That Which Pony Was Not Meant To Know when she heard it. "So! About those staffing suggestions!"
"Certainly!" Pinkie flipped open the first folder to a dreadfully familiar blue stallion. "The first one that comes to mind is Party Fa—"
Starlight snapped the folder shut with her magic. "Not Party Favor."
"Are you sure? He's already your friend."
"Pinkie, I'm barely comfortable with going to Sweet Apple Acres since the wedding. I'd really rather not have a former Ourtowner as a direct subordinate."
"Okay, if you're sure. But if you want to keep a party pony presence in the school, then there's really only one option." Pinkie opened a different folder and smiled as wide as the photo therein. "Cheese Sandwich!"
Trixie gasped in horror, rushing to Starlight's side. "Cheese Sandwich? The Cheese Sandwich?"
"Well, definitely not a cheese sandwich." After a moment, Pinkie added, "Unless Discord made it; that might work."
Sunburst moved to Starlight's other flank. "What's wrong with Cheese Sandwich, whoever he is?"
"Whoever he..." Trixie's mouth moved silently for a few moments. "Cheese Sandwich is a legend among traveling entertainers! He makes Ponyacci look like Mudbriar!" She turned back to Pinkie. "You can't force that sort of free spirit to settle down. It'd be like pinning an exotic butterfly to a display case."
Starlight nudged her. "You turned out alright."
"Trixie did not settle down. Her show is merely on indefinite hiatus."
"Don't you worry your Great and Powerful head," said Pinkie. "Cheese and I have plenty of experience with keeping his spirits up. Besides, new classes every period will be like the different towns are coming to him! You know, unless Cheesy Sense triggers." She shrugged. "But hey, field trips!"
One of the dossier folders that had gotten jostled to the edge of the table in all the excitement chose that moment to fall onto the floor. That might not have been a big deal had a golden hoofband with a diamond the size of a peach pit not slipped out of it in the process, clanking against the floor like a poorly thrown horseshoe.
All four ponies stared at the jewelry for a moment. "Pinkie?" Starlight said gently. "Do you have any ulterior motives in suggesting Cheese Sandwich?"
Pinkie's grin took on an air of desperation. "Maaaaybe?"
Starlight patted her hoof and smiled. "Well, we can use all the help we can get. Good luck."
The tension released so fast that Starlight could almost hear it. "Thanks! You too."
"Yeah, tracking down Rainbow Dash is going to be a bit complicated."
"Oh yeah, and that."
Starlight might have asked what else Pinkie had meant, but she was getting dangerously close to her maximum daily Pinkie exposure and felt it best to end the conversation there.
As the three unicorns left Sugarcube Corner, Trixie said, "Trixie envies the pink one and is not sure how to feel about that."
Starlight nodded. "I know how you feel."
Getting in touch with Rainbow Dash was tricky, not least because of all the duties that had made her resign from her professorial position in the first place: Practice, Wonderbolts shows, the occassional bit of volunteer weather-work, tortoise care, and what she cryptically referred to as "fan club duties."
Even when Dash wasn't busy, she still usually wasn't at ground level, whether that meant in her house or just napping on a cloud somewhere. Starlight was only able to spot her doing the latter the next day at lunch, and only Trixie was with her, Sunburst having stayed at the School to contact all of the prospective new teachers.
Nothing. Starlight turned to Trixie, who was still focused on what she called a salad and what most ponies called an ocean of peanut dressing with the occassional bit of greenery poking out. She was the only mare Starlight knew who ate salads with a spoon. A nudge and a nod towards the cloud got a smirk in return, along with a magical firework launched directly over Rainbow.
"Gah!" Dash thrashed, reducing her napping cloud to shreds of mist before realizing she was in public. She then proceeded to hover and wave like that had been her plan the whole time. "Hey girls, what's up?"
Starlight wrapped herself in her magic and pushed against the planet. Autolevitation came into play a lot when dealing with Rainbow Dash, even when the goal wasn't trying to ruin her destiny. Once Starlight was at Dash's eye level, she said, "Right now? You. Care to join the rest of us?"
"Ugh, fine," Dash said, rolling her eyes. "But only so you don't cast that dumb butterfly wing spell on Trixie again." She spiralled down to their table at Le Pâturage.
Trixie turned up her nose at the landing mare. "You're just jealous that Trixie performed feats of aerial dexterity that made your precious Wonderbolts look like a bunch of spandex-wearing chickens."
Dash changed course so she could sneer at Trixie from point-blank range. "More like I don't want you clinging to my tail and crying for your mom again."
Starlight sighed as she got back into her seat and telekinetically pulled apart the giant blue egos, all but tossing Dash into a vacant seat. "Trixie, behave."
"Trixie makes a point of treating ponies how they deserve to be treated."
"The only reason Rainbow Dash isn't a princess is because she doesn't have a horn."
"Not yet, anyway," added Dash.
Starlight gave her a look half as nasty as the one she then directed at Trixie. "Behave."
Trixie just rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to slurping up her salad.
"So I'm guessing you called me down for the whole 'professor of Loyalty' thing?" said Dash, leaning back in her chair.
Starlight blinked. "You heard?"
"Yeah, AJ brought it up last night at dinner."
Trixie smirked over her bowl. "Oh really?"
"Oh, you're one to talk." Dash tilted her head towards Starlight.
"Trixie won't even pretend she doesn't know what you're talking about." She draped a foreleg over Starlight's withers.
After a beat, Dash shrugged her wings. "So, you want my picks for who should take my place?"
"Precisely," said Starlight. "Though we actually did have a few promising ideas for your position. Do you think Spitfire will be available?"
"Well... She'd definitely be willing. She's gotten a lot more comfortable working with foals since that time in Cloudsdale." Dash's uncertainty gave way to wide-eyed excitement. "I didn't even need to whip up any distraction tornadoes for her last time!"
Starlight tried to make sense of that and, as with most Wonderbolt-related concepts, completely failed. "I have several concerns."
"It's a long story. Point is, the captain's willing, but not able. 'Cause she's, you know, the captain."
Trixie nodded. "Your precious jumped-up bluebirds may not impress Trixie, but she can still recognize the amount of work that goes into all that choreography. Especially in three dimensions."
"You're telling me. I have to do that choreography."
"Trixie wishes to reinforce the point that she isn't impressed."
Dash groaned and turned back to Starlight. "Point is, Spitfire's not going anywhere for the next few years at minimum. Plenty of life left in those wings. Even if there weren't, I'm pretty sure she's waiting for somepony to get between her and Soarin' in the chain of command. He's a good stallion and a great flier, but nopony wants him leading the 'Bolts, him included. Though if you ask me, I think you should just stick with the Crusaders."
"Maybe after they've grown up a little. Without using the last petals of a wishblossom."
"Hey, Scoots is more responsible than both her parents combined."
Starlight gave Dash a flat look. "I was there during the whole Crusader Appreciation Festival thing. That really isn't saying much."
"Your loss. Still, I'd hate to leave you hanging like this. Let's see..." Dash tapped her hooves against the table as she thought. "Who else would work... Gilda's still doing her best to drag Griffonstone out of a dark age single-taloned, and Lightning..." She winced. "Yeah, half of our letters are swears, and that's going in both directions."
Trixie nodded. "Trixie is familiar with that sort of friendship."
"I got it!" Dash leapt into the air and stayed there. "Spitfire's not available, but I can still get you a Wonderbolt. Thunderlane's more disaster relief than demonstration; they won't miss him too much. Plus, he's already knocked some sense into his little brother."
Starlight blinked. "Sorry, Thunderlane?"
"Dark grey stallion, not the brightest scarf in the string, seven out of ten," said Trixie.
Starlight turned to her. "How do you know that?"
"Audience participation. Trixie never forgets a volunteer."
Dash crossed her forelegs. "You forgot he's a pro athlete and can cook."
"Eight out of ten, then. Trixie still prefers unicorns."
"Well, he'll be there to teach, not to date," said Dash.
Trixie smirked at Starlight. "The two aren't mutually exclusive."
Starlight just rolled her eyes. "Thanks, Rainbow."
Twilight was at once the easiest and the hardest member of the faculty to contact. There was no doubt as to her whereabouts, but actually getting to her...
"This is highly irregular," said the royal seneschal, scowling at her clipboard.
"It's a scholastic emergency, Ms. Inkwell." It took all Starlight had not to trot in place, especially after she'd already restrained herself from teleporting directly into the throne room. Of course, the last time she'd tried that, she'd gotten dogpiled by a dozen guards. Still, so close, and yet... "I'm sure Her Highness will want to know about it immediately."
Raven adjusted her glasses with the air of loosening a sword in its scabbard. "Knowing Princess Twilight, you are likely correct, but what she wants and what she needs are two very different things."
Starlight sighed and, not for the first time, wished she'd brought Sunburst and Trixie for this one. But somepony had to help the new teachers acclimate to the school as they came in. "Please, I just need the one question answered and I'll be out of your mane."
"There are many things in my mane at the moment, Miss Glimmer. Right now, I would appreciate it if you could pick a different day to tangle yourself in it."
"I keep offering to help you optimize the schedule," said a third voice.
"And I keep telling you, Your Highness, I..." Raven trailed off and turned to see Twilight poking her head out of the throne room, smiling at her. On anypony who hadn't saved the world a moon ago, it might have been a smirk. "Your Highness."
"We're in the middle of a court session."
"We seem to be in a bit of a lull." Twilight nodded at the notable absence of other ponies in the entrance hall. "I was going to see if we could get something else done with the time, but I couldn't help but notice one of my friends had come to see me. During court hours." World saved or not, that was definitely a glare. "When I gave explicit, written instructions that they be given priority."
Raven met her gaze unflinchingly. "Putting the Princess of Friendship on the throne has already sparked countless rumors of nepotism running rampant, Your Highness. I simply wanted Miss Glimmer to follow the proper channels to keep those rumors from worsening."
"Raven, those rumors were sparked when I got my wings. Pardon my bluntness, but they're going to persist for as long as Celestia's reign remains in living memory. Ponies fear change; it's equine nature. Right now, Equestria has lost the symbol of stability and continuity it has known for over a millennium. I realize this has meant a great deal of work for you, especially given Kibbitz's choice to retire with Celestia and Luna." The glare reached levels Starlight had only seen after shooting herself in the hoof with an especially bad idea. "And your refusal to appoint an assistant."
"Your Highness, I am more than capable of—"
Twilight held up a forehoof. "We can continue that argument later, Raven. The point is that neither you nor I nor Starlight needs you venting your frustration on her. And that's what you're doing."
After a moment, Raven coughed into a fetlock and said, "May I speak frankly, Your Highness?"
The frown melted away into a serene smile that Celestia had definitely taught Twilight. "Always."
"I prefer Celestia's method of providing vague bits of wisdom that I only understand a few weeks later at the earliest."
"I see. And how often would she provide you with them?"
Raven tilted her head in confusion. "Every two or three moons. Why?"
"Imagine a decade-long lesson plan consisting of nothing but."
"That explains so much," said Starlight.
Twilight nodded. "Come on in, Starlight."
The throne room was... well, still under reconstruction. Even after Twilight had delayed her coronation, the millennium-old majesty of the place wasn't easily restored. Few of the stained-glass windows had been replaced, the throne was currently one of Twilight's favorite reading chairs borrowed from Namepending Castle, and flaws in the shadows on the back wall made Starlight suspect it was actually an illusion cast over plywood.
Still, Twilight settled into her makeshift seat of power with all the grace and dignity of Celestia on her best day. "I believe your exact words were 'scholastic emergency'?"
Starlight nodded. "Everypony left the School of Friendship along with you. We need a professor of Magic, and I don't think I can handle it and headmare duties at the same time. Frankly, I have no idea how you managed both."
"With support from you and the others. Still, you're making a wiser decision. Any ideas?"
That got a helpless shrug. "I wouldn't be coming to you if I didn't need your help."
"Much wiser." The royal mask slipped a little, enough for Twilight to give a sheepish smile. "Looking back, it's a miracle we didn't run the place into the ground."
Starlight chuckled. "I wasn't going to say anything, but..."
"I do have a few potential candidates in mind. Just a second." Twilight lit her horn, and a vast spherical array of lines in all manner of colors and thicknesses popped into being, layers upon layers moving within one another like Discord's orrery. It vanished just as quickly, and Twilight gave a satisfied nod. "Moondancer has studied pretty much everything under the sun, including friendship. It's about time that she puts it all to use."
"What spell was that?" said Starlight.
"A compatibility matrix Cadence taught me. Just..." Twilight's ears folded back as she looked away. "You know, checking on something."
"Really, now? I'm not terribly familiar with Princess Cadence's spellwork, but I can make some guesses..." Starlight let the sentence trail off and left the rest to Twilight's imagination.
Scant moments later, she broke. "Okay, look, Moondancer is a case of 'There but for the grace of Celestia go I.' Literally. If Celestia hadn't sent me to Ponyville, I could've easily become as much of a shut-in as she did for a while."
Starlight tilted her head. This wasn't what she'd expected. "Okay, so?"
"So, if she ended up in a relationship with Sunburst, odds are they'd end up in a marathon study-cuddle session until at least one of them died of starvation. It's a big part of why I never made any advances on him." After a moment, Twilight added, "That and your unresolved feelings towards him."
Yikes. Even Twilight can tell. Out loud, Starlight said, "Can you even starve to death?"
"He can, and I don't want that on my conscience." Twilight looked away and muttered, "No matter how impressive his study skills are."
"So we're clear with Moondancer?"
"In theory, though you may want to pop the question sooner rather than later."
Starlight blinked. "I'll... get back to you on that."
Starlight sat in a chair that was finally starting to feel like hers, deep in thought.
Sunburst poked his head into the office, a look of concern on his face and several sheets of paper in his magic. "Uh, Starlight?"
"Sunburst! I was just thinking about you. Remind me, when did we schedule the wedding?"
He blinked, the paper bobbing in the air as his concentration wavered. "I, uh, believe your exact words were 'a week after we get our collective horse apples in order.'"
She slumped down onto the desk. The desk still felt like Twilight's. "Right, so never."
Sunburst walked up to her and kissed her on the cheek. "Personally, I estimate the end of the next semester."
"That's a nice thought."
"And..." Sunburst cleared his throat. "Well, Trixie's offer of just going to the mayor's office and filling out the group marriage certificate stands. She even offered to have her mother come down from Canterlot to witness it."
Starlight shook her head, a bemused grin on her muzzle. "I still can't believe Trixie is in favor of the option with the least spectacle."
"She's also planning a ceremony with enough fireworks to count as military action, but that's for everypony else."
"Mostly our parents."
Sunburst nodded. "Mostly our parents." He gave a warm smile. "Knowing we're with you officially is for us."
"I may just take her up on it." Starlight took a deep breath and let it out as one long sigh. "Sorry, Twilight left me with more to think about than she realized. Anything wrong with the new teachers?"
"Not... exactly." All of the tension that had drained out of Sunburst came flooding back in. "They're all fitting in quite nicely, and there aren't any immediately apparent interpersonal issues."
Starlight frowned. "I'm sensing a 'but.'"
"Well, part of the way the School of Friendship was able to open and operate before the EEA assessed it was through some... creative accounting." He shuffled the papers, sprinkling the floor with confetti. "Very creative accounting. See, Twilight and the others all had alternate income, and even you've been drawing from a 'royal student' stipend."
The frown deepened, as did the pit in Starlight's stomach. "What are you saying?"
"Nopony's ever gotten paid to teach here. We don't actually have a payroll."
"Ah. Well. I see." Starlight slammed her face into Twilight's desk and did her best not to collapse the building.
She settled for screaming.