A Bluebird’s Song
Manic with vision
We are the drivers
Yet we feel driven
The Centre Of The Web
Seven days before the Record Attempt.
Down here, the air felt heavy and stifling, as if crushed beneath the pressure of the rocks above. Unlike the rest of the City of Canterlot, this room was not built to impress, merely to contain.
Celestia’s hoof-falls were sharp and ringing as she passed through the entrance hall of the castle dungeon, the sound echoing of the blank marble walls. The white pegasus guards, stationed on either side of the door to the cells, stood to attention at the approach of the princess. Their faces were cast into sharp relief by the naked flames dancing in the wall-mounted torch brackets.
“I’m here to see Dusk Tempest,” Celestia said, quietly. The guards saluted tersely, faces immobile, and the one on the left held out a brass key, which the Princess clasped with her magic. She deftly inserted it into the lock, and turned it with a spark from her horn. The door swung open, revealing a smooth, stone staircase leading down to the cells.
As soon as the Princess had begun her descent on the dimly-lit steps, the door swung closed behind her, with a hollow thud. She looked around at the rows of empty stone cells, their metal doors locked tightly shut.
“Hello again,” came a voice from the shadows. Only one of the cells in this section was occupied. Frost and the new arrivals were in the next block along, separated from their leader.
Celestia walked slowly down the aisle of doors, and approached Dusk’s cell. The unicorn was lying on the floor, his eyes lidded from inadequate sleep, his horn wrapped up in a magic suppression cone. The cell was spartan and windowless, a simple bed in one corner, and a bucket in the other.
“You know,” he said, as the Princess approached, “as dungeons go, this isn’t so bad. You should have seen solitary back in my old place.” He laughed, bitterly. There was silence for a few moments, and he glanced up. “What? Not in a joking mood today?”
“The guards picked up three of your associates earlier this week,” Celestia said. “I have yet to speak to them, but maybe you could tell me a little about them.”
Dusk shook his head, calmly. “You know where we stand. I’ve told you how Sunset survived, and I’ve told you our history. But I’m not saying one word about who our leaders are, or where they are.” He smiled, suddenly, the brightness of his expression a bizarre contrast to his surroundings and situation. “So, these associates?” He made the last word sound mockingly condescending. “Don’t tell me, it’s the potioneer, isn’t it? Him and his two assistants?”
Celestia nodded, outwardly unperturbed. “Frost was not so inflexible as you. He told me about the apartment in Canterlot, right down to the address. He said that he had only met your leader on a few occasions, and had never seen their faces. I believed him about that part, at least.”
With a flare of her magic, Celestia opened the cell door and stepped inside. The Alicorn naturally had nothing to fear from even an accomplished unicorn such as Dusk, particularly with his magic negated. She gave him a look that was appraising, and almost sad. “You still have that spark,” she said, quietly. “That flair that set you apart. It was a pity that your shine blinded me to your faults.”
“Your greatest mistake, wasn’t I, Princess?” Dusk asked, meeting her eyes.
“One of them,” replied Celestia.
For a few moments, there was silence. The flickering torches cast the lengthened shadows of the Princess and her prisoner across the grey stone wall.
“You knew all along, didn’t you?” Dusk asked, suddenly.
Celestia nodded, sadly. “That the Canterlot apartment was a ruse? Naturally. I sent the guards just in case, but I never expected to find your leaders there.”
“The Potioneer was useful, but like all temporary assets he became a liability. We had to get rid of him, so we always planned to give him to you.” Dusk looked up almost sharply at Celestia, still sitting on the floor. “Why did you go after him if you knew? I heard the guards talking when they brought them down here, you’d told them to expect to find our leaders. Instead, you find our waste.”
The Princess ignored the question. “Root Blacksap. The Potioneer. Why was he involved in your operation in the first place?” There was a hint of pain in her eyes.
Dusk shook his head. “Sorry. You can do what you like to me, I’m not saying anything.”
“You know who your leaders are.”
“Yes.” The unicorn said the word quietly, without either triumph or fear.
“Then you leave me with an impossible choice.” Celestia sighed, and Dusk looked at her for a few seconds, seemingly a little confused by her words.
Suddenly, his eyes widened. “Oh.” He smirked, but was unable to keep a little fear from entering his eyes. “And I thought I could be manipulative. That’s cold, Princess. Even for you, that’s cold.”
Celestia looked at the floor. “Your organization must be stopped. I remember your founding, I remember the things you have done.”
“But to use the pegasus as bait…” Dusk muttered.
“She will not be in any danger!” Celestia exclaimed. “Do you think I have any choice in this?”
“You’re desperate, Princess. You’re in the cells of your own dungeon talking to a pony you hate, because he’s the only one who might understand. You’re going to betray your only friend in the worst possible way, and it’s all because you can’t go back on your little moral code.”
"This had nothing to do with my moral code,” the Princess said, trying to keep her voice level.
Dusk got to his hooves, although Celestia still towered over him. “You’re just as trapped as I am,” he said, his voice low. “I might be the one in the cage, but right now we’re equals, so listen to me. With one spark from your horn you could cause me more pain than anypony could possibly endure. You could make me tell you the names, locations and biographies of everypony in our organization. You could walk out of here in sixty seconds with everything you want, and Sunset would be finished tomorrow. But you won’t.”
“An impossible choice,” replied Celestia. “I know your leaders. They have been beaten once, and they will be out for revenge. They wouldn’t dare go near Ponyville, but this record attempt would be the perfect chance to draw them out, and perhaps catch them. It’s a slim chance, but I must take it. I cannot simply stand by.” The Princess hung her head. “I told Twilight there was virtually no risk. Virtually no risk of an attack that I know will almost surely happen. I have already lied to my student about the safety of the pony she loves. I’m going to have to lie again. I’m going to have to put Rainbow Dash’s life at risk.”
She looked Dusk squarely in the eye. “Alternatively, I can extract the information from you by force.”
“Or I could just tell you,” Dusk noted, lying down on the narrow bed with an air of nonchalance.
“But you won’t. You want to see what I decide to do. You’re toying with me.”
A battle was raging inside Celestia’s head. Her history was a long one, and not without regret. She turned away from the unicorn, gazing into the torch’s flame, watching it dance. You’re clutching at straws, she told herself. The leaders themselves probably will not even show up. They’ll send subordinates, like they did to Fluttershy’s cottage. I might be able to get more information out of them, but what might the cost be?
She turned back to face Dusk. “I have power,” she stated. “I have absolute, unquestioned control over Equestria and its citizens, and I don’t for one moment trust myself with it. I cannot, for fear that I might slip. I shudder to think what would happen if I should ever decide to abuse the power I’ve been given. The moment I use that power to exert my will by force, I will put myself and my country at grave risk. I put myself in the path of temptation, and I do not know if I would yield.”
They’ll try to kill her. You know that, don’t you? said a nagging voice in her head. If one of the Elements falls, surely Equestria would be just as much at risk.
Dusk was smiling. “Remember, Princess? You could have defended me, but instead you took twelve years of my life from me, you and your pegasus friends. I never forgot that. Who do you think set up the operation within Sunset? Who do you think set things in motion?”
He got to his hooves again, the hatred in his eyes undisguised now. “Whatever happens next will haunt you for a very long time. Either you stand by and watch your only friend lose the most important pony in her life, or you can act, and pull the information out of me. Whatever your choice, it will be with you for years to come. Another regret to keep you company through the centuries.”
“We might catch them,” Celestia said, almost desperate. “The event will be guarded, they’ll never get close.”
“They’re Sunset. They won’t need to get close,” promised Dusk.
Celestia closed her eyes, her head pounding, pained at the truth that she knew was in his words. Is this Dusk’s revenge? All of this? Was this never even about pegasi? He said that Twilight was my only friend. He’s telling the truth, she is. How can I betray her like this? She’s like a daughter to me.
“Guessed, have you?” Came Dusk’s voice, worming its way into her head. “You never caught me. I’m here because I want to be here. Because I want to watch you fall, one way or the other.” He laughed, a sharp, victorious bark. “I was a good actor back then, too. Or did the years make you forget? I did my research on Sparkle a lot better than you thought. They never told me royalty was gonna get involved,” he mimicked his own, frightened voice. “Yeah, Princess, you scare me. You scare everypony. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel a bit scared yourself. You’re going to watch a pony you care about die, all because I know how you think.”
Celestia opened her eyes, suddenly calm, and looked at Dusk’s triumphant face. “No you don’t,” she said, quietly. She had made her decision. “Your family never cared much for you, did they? You can have no idea how I think, because you have no idea how far somepony will go to protect their family. The things that they are prepared to endure.”
“Your family?” scoffed Dusk. “You mean Luna? What does she have to do with this?”
“I wasn’t talking about Luna.” Celestia closed the cell door with a clang of metal on metal, turning to face the unicorn, who suddenly looked a little less sure of himself.
The Alicorn’s face was unreadable, her eyes full of a deep remorse, and Dusk backed fearfully away, until he could back no further and touched the cold stone of the wall.
“Forgive me, Twilight,” Celestia whispered, a tear rolling silently down her cheek.
A yawn on her lips, Twilight meandered down the stairs into the warm kitchen. She felt as contented as she could these days, the day of Dash’s attempt only a week away now. Yesterday she had brought her velocity measurement equipment down to the meadow outside Ponyville, as they had each day for the last four days, ever since Dash’s first wingless Rainboom. Yesterday, for the first time in her life, Dash had exceeded a thousand miles per hour, to much celebration. The inhabitants of Ponyville were beginning to come to terms with the daily Rainbooms, despite a few initial complaints to the mayor, who had requested that they move their practicing area further out of town.
They had told their friends of Dash’s upcoming record, and all had reacted with excitement, each one pledging to accompany them to Cloudsdale in order to watch and offer support. Indeed, the news of the record attempt had been made public some days beforehand, and considerable interest had developed from the media as well as the citizens of Ponyville. Dash had even been stopped on the way home the previous day by an effervescent young filly, eagerly clutching an autograph book.
Twilight smiled as she looked sleepily around at the somewhat-redecorated room. Dash had persuaded her to allow for a couple of her posters to be tacked onto the kitchen wall, and her amusingly extensive collection of Wonderbolt-themed magnets resided proudly on the fridge door, making the white metal a considerably more interesting, if anarchic, sight.
There was a rattle at the door, and a small pile of envelopes tumbled through the letterbox onto the doormat. Confused, Twilight trotted across the room and opened the front door, catching the mailmare just as she was leaving. “It’s not my birthday, is it?” She asked, half-jokingly, secretly hoping that she had not actually forgotten it. Again.
“Um, not that I know of,” shrugged the pegasus, attempting with some difficulty to focus on the unicorn in front of her. “Happy birthday if it is, though! Oh, if Rainbow Dash’s in, tell her I’m covering her shifts while she’s training.”
“Okay,” Twilight turned away, but was called back with an afterthought.
“Oh, and if anypony asks, the fires were nothing to do with me.”
Twilight decided it was better not to ask. “Okay… See you later then, Derpy.”
Ditzy smiled at the affectionate nickname, waving as she flew away. “Bye, then! Don’t book too hard!”
Closing the door with a slightly confused grin, Twilight fell to examining the letters on the doormat. Several appeared to have been addressed by young foals, in bright colours. The majority were for Dash, but a couple bore Twilight’s name. With an inkling of what this might be about, she scooped up the letters with her magic, and trotted back up the stairs to their bedroom, where the cyan pegasus was snoring, contentedly.
Twilight leaned down, kissing the pegasus on the nose. “Hey,” she said, “you’ve got fan-mail!”
Dash mumbled something, blearily opening her eyes. “Why? What’d I do this time?”
“You might want to get the Cloudsdale Bugle today,” Twilight giggled. “All this attention had to come from somewhere.”
“Uh-oh,” Dash was suddenly alert. “I never cancelled the subscription… It’ll still be goin’ to my house.” She shook her head. “I’ll go an’ pick up the back issues later.”
“Anyway,” Twilight indicated the letters which now lay in a pile at the foot of the bed. “I’d better be on opening duty.”
“Sounds good,” Dash grinned. Twilight magically slit open the first envelope, which was yellow and addressed by what was clearly a foal. They looked down it together.
Dear Rainbo Dash
I saw that yoo were going to
go really really fast in the
I like going really really fast too!
I cant wait to be able to fly just like yoo
hope yoo do well and go really really fast!
Love from Fizzle
Dash and Twilight simultaneously burst out laughing, both amused and touched in equal measure.
“You know, Rainbow,” Twilight choked out, “I... I think she might just think... you’re going to go fast.”
Dash’s mouth fell open in mock surprise. “No, really?” Then she laughed again. “What an awesome kid, have we got an address? I’m totally replying to that.”
“Yeah, on the back of the envelope,” confirmed Twilight, still smiling. “Let’s get the rest read first, though.” The next envelope that she picked up was addressed to her, evidently written by an adult pony. She pulled out the letter within, with some curiosity.
Dear Twilight Sparkle,
I gather you are Rainbow Dash’s trainer,
and I thought that you deserved some
recognition of your own, given that I confidently
expect Rainbow Dash herself to receive a significant
amount of attention. I had the pleasure
of attending the Best Young Flyers Competition
last year, and I look forward to another
wonderful performance from your friend.
An admirer of your work.
Twilight looked over the letter again, a little uncertainly. “Why the anonymity? I’m not sure if that’s flattering or creepy…”
“That’s fan-mail for you,” Dash nodded, sagely. “I had some last year too, just after the record went official. Half of them were anonymous.”
“So, I’m your ‘trainer’, am I?” Twilight asked, with a small smirk.
Dash winked at her. “You could say that, I guess.”
They spent an enjoyable half hour trawling through the various envelopes, finding that they were mostly wishes of good luck, and lighthearted requests for a performance like last year’s. Some were a little strange, for instance one was an urgent request for them not to proceed on the grounds that the writer of the letter had a fifty bit bet with a friend that Lightning Flare’s record would stand for at least a year. Another was a marriage proposal for Dash, and yet another was an order for three batches of cinnamon buns that both Twilight and Dash concluded was most likely a delivery mistake.
“Whew,” Twilight let out a sigh of relief as the final letter fell onto the bed, and the final envelope plopped into the bin. “I’m glad that’s the last one, my horn hurts.”
Dash’s eyes seemed a little shiny. “That was really nice,” she said, quietly. “It’s great to know ponies are behind me for doin’ this.”
“We’re all behind you. You’re going to be magnificent,” Twilight said, then she smiled warmly at Dash. “You know, a couple of weeks ago you’d have had so much of an ego by now you’d never have fitted through the door.”
Dash nodded. “I know.” She looked at Twilight. “A couple of weeks ago I couldn’t trust anypony to accept me for who I was, so I had to make myself seem better. Now I’ve got you.” Leaning over, she nuzzled Twilight’s cheek. “You’ve done so much for me. I really mean that.”
Twilight pulled the pegasus into an embrace, pressing her cheek against Dash’s neck. “You don’t need to keep thanking me,” she whispered. “You’ve done just as much for me. Thanks to you, I can wake up every morning and know that a pony like you loves me. I couldn’t ask for more.”
They held each other like that, in silence, for a few minutes. Neither of them wanted to be the first to pull away.
Then, from downstairs, there was a knock at the front door.
“Ugh, why now?” murmured Twilight, reluctantly pulling away from Dash. They both stood, heading for the stairs.
“I’ve got this!” Spike called from below, heading towards the door.
The two ponies walked downstairs again, side-by-side. Spike jogged across the room and opened the door, just as Twilight and Dash reached the foot of the stairs. Standing in the doorway was a somewhat awkward-looking Applejack.
“Oh, hey AJ!” Twilight said with a smile.
“Hey,” Dash added, in a tone that was friendly but still a little wary. They had seen Applejack on a few occasions since their unexpected meeting at sugarcube corner, and she had wished Dash luck with just as much fervour as the others when told of the upcoming record attempt. However, she had not mentioned the subject of Twilight and Dash’s relationship on any of their recent meetings, and always seemed a little anxious to get away.
“Hey, ya’ll,” Applejack smiled, slightly nervously. “Mind if Ah come in for a minute?”
“Sure,” said Twilight, motioning her inside. The farm pony stepped over the threshold, looking a little relieved. She paused in front of the two of them for a moment, looking from one to the other, and taking a deep breath.
“Ah’ve been thinking, an’ it’s time to come clean. Ah owe you guys an apology,” she said, quietly. Dash opened her mouth to say something, but Applejack held up a hoof to silence her, continuing with her explanation. “Ah thought ya’ll were just foolin’ around, havin’ a bit of fun, ‘cos that’s all I thought it could amount to, with two mares an’ all. But Ah’ve seen you around town, Ah heard you in Sugarcube Corner. Heck, Ah’ve seen the way you look at each other. No matter what mah head tells me, Ah can’t bring myself to believe that it’s wrong for ya’ll to be together.” She blushed a little. “If Ah may say, I’m mighty happy for you both.”
Twilight broke into a wide smile, but Applejack’s eyes sought Dash’s, whose face was unreadable. For a few moments, they stared at each other. Then, Dash walked forwards and hugged the surprised orange mare, who tentatively hugged her back, her expression one of relief. “Thanks, AJ,” she said, her voice breaking a little as she released Applejack. “I’m sorry I yelled at ya back in Sugarcube Corner.”
“Don’t you worry about that none,” Applejack smiled at the pegasus. Then, a thought occurred to her, and she leaned forwards conspiratorially, evidently trying not to laugh. “Just one thing, Ah wouldn’t go an’ tell Granny Smith about all this, if ya’ll don’t mind.”
“Aw, shoot,” Dash stamped a forehoof on the floor in mock-frustration, smirking. “There go my plans for this morning…”