Twilight and Rarity sat beside each other on Twilight's door stoop, catching their respective breaths. Twilight was… well. She wasn't fit, that was for certain. Little crystaline clouds formed from her breath with each little puff.
“Well, that was ghastly business.” Rarity lamented, levitating a new cigarette. She held it between her lips, giving Twilight's horn a meaningful look.
Twilight lit the cigarette with a spark, and enjoyed the grateful look she received for it. She had a feeling Rarity didn't have cause to give one often. “Which part?” Twilight panted as Rarity puffed, “The part where the Princess banished you from court, or the part where you burned it down?”
“Oh, don't be so dramatic, dear, I didn't burn it down. I just gave them a distraction, so that we might leave with a certain memorable panache.” She took a deep drag. “I meant all that running. This lovely dress is not to be, eugh, sweat in.”
“You can still see plumes of smoke from here.” Twilight pointed out between heaving breaths, “How are you not as winded as I am? You're practically eating those cigarettes!”
“That may be, but do you know how much cardio one must perform to keep a figure this sumptuous? No, no, of course you don't, look at you, you’re like the little engine that couldn’t.” Rarity afforded the palace a glance over her shoulder. Her face held host to a small, satisfied smile. “Oh, dear, you really can still see smoke. How awful.”
“I hope nopony got hurt...”
The Lady snorted. “The only things truly flammable in that room were the tapestries. I think. Everypony should be fine.”
“Well, if you're sure-”
“Besides,” her eyes lit up, “this will be wonderful for business.”
Twilight took one last, deep gulp of air. She doubted her thudding, shuddering heart would slow down for quite a few minutes yet. “How? How will this be wonderful for business?”
“I'm taboo, now, my naive little waif! My name will touch upon everypony's lips in whispered and hushed tones! My designs shall be treated as the luxury commodity they always were. No longer shall I have to reside at court to cultivate my image! Now, it is cultivated by my absence,” the white pony declared grandly, her eyes all but sparkling. She rested against the stoop with one hoof as she balanced the cigarette with the tip of the other, subtle nicotine stains on the gloves that had reappeared for just the occasion.
“What happens when the Princess bans your works, though?” Twilight wondered aloud, watching for The Lady's reaction carefully.
Rarity blinked. “Beg your pardon?”
“Well, if your designs are distinctive, Celestia is going to catch on. She's not stupid.”
“In fact, I'd be surprised if she hasn't done so already. I guess you could sell your designs under a pseudonym but-”
“But I'd have to build my reputation from scratch,” Rarity finished for her, numbly, “out of whole cloth, as it were.”
“I thought you were taking this awfully well...” Twilight admitted.
“Oh, dear. I'm ruined, aren't I?” Rarity asked this in the tone of voice one might use to discuss the weather, or the time. The only tell was in her eyes, and the faintest trembling that now afflicted the hoof holding the cigarette.
Twilight looked at the door behind them. The coffee machine was just on the other side. She could make a rather nice hot chocolate with it. Hot chocolate eased all wounds. “Would you like to come inside for a hot drink, Lady Rarity?”
Rarity just nodded numbly. She'd fallen back on her supporting hoof a bit harder, and her drags on the cigarette had the ache of desperation to them.
“You'll… you'll have to put the cigarette out first, though. It's a bit of a fire hazard.”
The haunted look in Rarity's eyes was answer enough. “No. No, I shan't do that, not right now, no.”
“Would you like me to bring a mug out here for you, then?”
The raging storm and lashing waves behind the Lady's eyes abated, somewhat. Small-craft warnings were still in effect, though. “That would be lovely, dear, thank you.”
Twilight nodded. She opened the door, feeling relieved when the hot air of inside pushed back against the cold. Had it been the other way around, it might have drawn an ember from the cigarette inside, and… highly unlikely, yes, but a horrible thought nonetheless. She pulled a lever on the coffee engine. Hot chocolate soon, fresh from the colonies.
“Well, look at that.” Rarity breathed. Twilight turned back in surprise to find the Lady staring deep into the labyrinth of bookshelves. “I suppose if anypony in Equestria were to have a book that shouldn't be, well, it might just well be here.”
“Oh, no, that was a blatant lie,” Twilight admitted. The coffee engine whistled; time to slide the mug under the correct nozzle.
“Again, I must beg your pardon?”
“The Mare on the moon told me herself, in a dream.”
Rarity stared at Twilight. Her left eye twitched visibly, once. “What?”
“I wasn't going to tell her the truth! You saw how she reacted! For all I know, it could have been the Princess that put her there!” Twilight felt the muscles in her withers bunch, and she stared fixedly at the coffee engine. Drip, drip, drip. Nice, soothing, monotonous and repetitive.
Rarity stood up suddenly. She was trembling like a fault line. “You destroyed my life for a dream you had!”
Twilight's face felt sore. Was she frowning? It was tight, she knew that much. “All I did was ask! I had no idea she'd react like that!” Why was her voice so loud?
“Of course you'd believe a dream, you're a stupid little filly with a crush!”
Twilight froze. Oh, no, that's not to say she was suddenly still. In fact, the speed she turned away from the machine and to stare down Rarity was downright supernal. No, she felt cold, her heart was pumping liquid nitrogen and she had a terrible ice-cream headache all of a sudden. And her face still felt too tight. “A crush?! It's not a crush, it's-”
Rarity's pale white cheeks were a brilliant red hue, now. “You are infatuated with her, yes. That is genuine. From what I gather, it might even be mutual! But it is only a crush that you have destroyed my life for!”
“You made me say I loved her!” Great, now her face felt hot and wet. It must have been starting to rain. Rarity should… should come inside... talk about this inside...
“Because you wanted to believe it!” Rarity snapped. “Just saying something does not make it true, however! For instance; The sky is purple! The working classes deserve to be ruled by the nobility! My life is not tattered threads!” Rarity tossed her cigarette to the ground and stomped on it, grinding it into the poured cement of the doorstep, just narrowly avoiding the 'welcome' mat.
The hot chocolate was ready, Twilight could see that now. She grabbed it with her magic. It wobbled only slightly as she offered it to Rarity. The Lady looked like she was about to swat it furiously from the air for a moment, but stopped herself. Stopped. She seemed to look back and forth from the mug to Twilight's face, uneasily.
Could she see why it was tight? A raindrop fell to the corner of Twilight's lip. She sucked it in a bit, flicked her tongue at the annoyance. It tasted salty for some reason. Air pollution, probably.
Rarity was looking at her oddly. It was definitely a look Twilight had seen before, but never directed at her.
It was pity. Unmistakably so.
“I'm sorry, Ms Sparkle. I didn't mean that.”
“Yes, you did.” Of course you did. Some things couldn't be taken back. The truth least of all.
The Lady sighed and plucked the mug from the air before it could rattle any more precious liquid onto the harsh and unforgiving pavement below, where it would be wasted.
“I suppose I did.” A delicate sip for a delicate pause to consider how to phrase her next question as delicately as possible. Stranger still for coming from somepony as hard as Rarity seemed. “Tell me, what do you know of her?”
Twilight gulped at the dry and heavy nothingness filling her throat. “Well-”
Rarity held up a silencing hoof. “Besides that she is achingly beautiful, yes, that she is on the moon, obviously, and that she is interested in you. That last one is the real kick to the teeth, I'm afraid.”
The answers that should have come easily died in Twilight's throat, strangled by the nothingness and subsumed by it. “I know that she likes poetry?”
“Likes, or is skilled at? Those are not the same thing, you're aware?”
“What is her full name?”
“Are you sure there isn't a second?”
“How old is she?”
“Centuries, millennia or aeons?”
“What is her favourite colour?” Silence. “What is her favourite food?” Silence. “What is she like around others?” Silence. “What is she like when she is alone? What-”
“Lonely,” Twilight stated, plainly. Well, she attempted to. For some strange reason, it came out as a whispered rasp. The rain was beginning to annoy her.
“Beg your pardon?”
“You asked what she is like when she is alone. She is lonely. Painfully so. Pain I can't even imagine.” A lie. She didn't need to imagine.
Rarity opened her mouth. She closed it again. She opened it again. It hung open. All that came from it was-
“Oh,” Rarity finally managed. “Dear.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” Not an accusation, a question. A plaintive cry from the drowning for a life preserver.
“Is it perhaps, then, not you she cares for, but the notion of company of any kind? Who you are is irrelevant insofar as long as you are there?”
Rarity seemed insistent on tossing an anchor instead.
“No. No, it's me-”
“What if it had been anypony else.”
“But it wasn't,” Twilight rasped again through the nothingness in her throat, angry at… not at Rarity, but at her own ineloquence. She was smart damn it. She wasn't allowed to feel so stupid. The nothingness felt tight.
She felt so stupid.
“But what if it was?”
“But it wasn't,” Twilight insisted, louder. The nothingness strained. Chipped. Felt hot.
Rarity raised an eyebrow. “But what if it was?”
“Well, what if it was?!” Twilight snapped, the nothingness bursting like a dam. “So what if it was first come, first served? I was first, and I want this! Nopony else cared enough to find her, but I did. Nopony else tried to communicate with her, but I did. I have spent months and endless bits now trying to… to… I don't know! Talk to her!”
“Because of a crush?” Rarity asked in disbelief.
“Fine! Maybe?” Twilight fumed, then paused. That wasn't right. “Wait, no. Not because of a crush. At least, not at first.”
There was a glimmer of recognition in The Lady's eye, and the annoyance replaced with fascination. What she had recognised in Twilight she could only guess, but she was thinking of far more important things right now to wonder. The rain had cleared, and Twilight felt new clarity with it. Rarity prodded at that clearness. “Why, then?”
“Because she was alone. Because she needed somebody, and that somebody was me. No one else in the entire world could help, so it couldn't have been anyone else. Because it never could have been anyone else. It's only been me. It could only ever have been me.”
Twilight gestured for Rarity to follow her inside. With concealed strain, the hot chocolate lifted, and soon too did the rose-like dress, not a chocolate or ash stain to be seen on it. As soon as she had followed, the door closed behind her, firmly. The lock, deadbolt, chain and latch all slid into place. Twilight could not afford another eye seeing this right now.
Twilight began removing her own dress. Rarity watched curiously for a moment before a blush illuminated her cheeks to incandescent levels, and she looked away.
“Dear, please, I apologise for my accusations, but this is no time to be immodest.”
Twilight stared at her cutie mark. “No, Rarity, look!”
The Lady, true to her title, threw a foreleg in front of my eyes. “I rather think I shan't, thank you.”
“It's not what you think!”
“Is it your bare, unconcealed cutie mark you are proudly displaying?”
Twilight rolled her eyes, hard enough to hurt. “Well, yes-”
“Then it is exactly what I think, and a Lady doesn't peek.”
“A Lady doesn't set fire to her nation's throne room either, but here we are.” Twilight wriggled her rump insistently.
“No! I shall not!”
“Oooh!” Pinkie trilled from a ladder above them. Both unicorns turned to see Pinkie mooning them from above, a flap open in the bright red feetie-pajamas she was wearing, flashing them both a look at her own cutie mark. “Are we comparing butt-pictures? 'Cuz mine's balloons! Like static! Zzap! Yours is really nice, too, Twilight. Super pretty! I heard yelling, was it about butts?”
Twilight blushed herself, now, almost as much as Rarity. She turned to see that a Lady apparently does peek, when adequately surprised by Pinkie.
“Stars.” Rarity murmured. “You know what that means, don't you?”
“Yes!” Twilight announced proudly, hiking her dress back up, “It means it was destined to be me. The stars will aid in her escape!”
Rarity sighed. “Well, probably, that. More importantly it means you are fated lovers. You have officially ticked off the last criteria on a very, very long checklist to be the single most cliché romance for me to ever deal with.” Rarity paused for emphasis. “Assuming, once more, you didn't just dream this. Or imagine it.”
“I'm an expert on imagining things!” Pinkie declared from above. She gripped the sides of a nearby ladder and slid down, ignoring the laws of friction that inconvenienced her. “What did Twilight imagine?”
“The phrase, 'The Stars Shall Aid In Her Escape', possibly.”
Pinkie blinked. “Didn't she just read that on the moon? That's not very imaginative, Twilight, and I'm pretty sure it's plagiarism. Is that why the blue pony is so sad? Did you make her sad with plagiarism!” Pinkie looked hurt, betrayed, mad, “I thought you were a good pony!”
Aww. She thought Twilight was a good pony. Wait-
“Twilight wasn't plagiarising. She was quoting. Though-”
“When did you look through the Telescope?” Twilight blurted.
“-yes. That. Well, not exactly that, but that shall suffice.” Rarity finished lamely, looking at Pinkie with… what Twilight imagined her own first look at Pinkie must have been.
“Last night. When you went back to bed. You looked super sad, so I wanted to see. I mean I helped make it, I'm allowed to look, right?” From anyone else, it would have been insistence. From Pinkie it was an apology. Forgiveness where permission hadn't. “And she looked super sad too! And there was poetry everywhere, just, vroom! I don't think she noticed me looking, though. She was too busy trying to get rid of one. Silly thing to do with a tongue or something. Why would a mare put her tongue there? It wouldn't-”
Twilight blushed furiously. So, Pinkie had seen the canzone. That's… ecchem.
Was Rarity noticing?
She was. Disbelief, yes, but no small amount of amusement, either.
Twilight blushed harder.
There was a loud, hammering knock at the door behind them.
“I see you're becoming rather the popular sort, then.”
A kneejerk denial touched upon Twilight’s tongue, but died before it reached her lips. There was a kernel of truth to the flippant remark. It rather made her smile, actually.
“That would be Applejack. A farmer friend of mine.”
Pinkie sounded a bit disappointed. “Are you sure it's not Rainbow?”
Twilight snorted, almost amused. Almost. “Rainbow would find a window, or make one. Spike would use the doorbell.”
Rarity gave her a curious look. For the moment, the names meant nothing to her. Twilight shrugged, since she couldn't do much better. Better to just show her.
Twilight began the laborious process of opening the door, and security measures clicked and clacked and clattered. She downed the last of her hot chocolate, scorching her throat a little in her haste to destroy the chocolatey evidence.
She had been right, and wrong. Applejack was on the other side, yes. But so was Spike, which was unexpected. He was being distracted by – even more unexpected – a grubby little yellow filly with a faded and frayed red bow in her hair.
Probably why Applejack managed to knock before he could stop her.
“Howdy, hope'n you don't mind I brought Spike with me. Or Apple Bloom back. Seems good for 'em to have friends their own age, but I'd hate to be an imposition on y'all.”
Twilight was about to comment on the usage of “y'all” being a plural, but quickly remembered the ponies behind her. It wasn't a situation she was used to having. In fact, before Pinkie, she'd probably have been rather uncomfortable having ponies in her sanctum. As it was, she was only mildly disconcerted, at least enough to have issues with the grammar regarding the situation.
She should probably say something now. She'd been staring dumbfounded at Applejack for a solid few seconds now, thinking about grammar.
“It's not an imposition at all. I'm sure Spike would love to give… Apple Bloom, was it?” The little filly nodded eagerly, and Twilight felt a warm bubble of pride for the minor social accomplishment, “I'm sure he'd love to give her the grand tour.”
Spike pushed past her and waddled off excitedly with Apple Bloom in tow., “I'll show you where the chemistry books are, they can teach you how to make explosives with jars of pee!”
“Spike!” Twilight snapped.
“Gross!” Apple Bloom chirped in delight.
“Apple Bloom!” Applejack snapped.
But they were both already off, leaving their respective guardians in their dust, which the library did have an awful lot of.
“They can't really do that, can they?” Applejack side-eyed Twilight as she stepped into the house proper.
A world-weary sigh was answer enough, but she still felt compelled to explain it. “There's a component in urine that can make for one of the primary components of gunpowder.” A beat. “Nice to have friends their own age, huh?”
“Least yours is fireproof.”
It was at this point that Twilight became aware of a high pitched squeal, gradually rising in intensity. A cursory look at the coffee engine confirmed that wasn't the source. She turned to ask the others-
Rarity brushed her aside, rather brusquely, and came to a rather alarmingly sudden stop at Applejack, practically drooling. Wait, no, scratch that, the 'practically' was no longer needed. Applejack looked thoroughly unamused.
“Look at you! An honest-to-goodness, salt-of-the-earth farm girl. Oh, look at the muscles on you… a proper workhorse's build...”
“And such a beautiful daughter! Oh, I'd have thought you a bit young, of course, but-”
Applejack's eyes shot open in alarm. Twilight could practically hear the klaxon whirring in her head. “Woah, nelly, no! Ah'm not a… Apple Bloom's my sister! Haven't found the right pony yet.”
“Really?” Rarity trilled, rolling the l's for as long as she could, savouring the feel of it, sucking every bit of flavour she could out of what would otherwise be a perfectly innocent word. In her mouth it had become an implication. “Pony, then? Not, dare I say, stallion, but pony?”
“What about a beautiful white Lady, sweeping you off your hooves from such rustic beginnings, and showing you a life of grandeur and splendour? The Lady and the Farmgirl, oh, it would be a story for the ages… and those applebucking thighs...” She said this last snippet with the inflection a starved gryphon might use to say 'rare steak'.
Twilight looked up to check Pinkie, as if wondering what the appropriate thing to do would be, and found that Pinkie had found herself a bag of roasted peanuts from somewhere and was crunching them delightedly, transfixed. Well, alright then.
“Woah, there, Cassy-nova, gettin' a little ahead of ourselves, aren't we? You're movin' faster than a greased-up rattlesnake.”
“Mmm… such delightfully quaint countryisms.” Was it Twilight's imagination, or was The Lady licking her lips at this point? She was? Ah, good, wasn't just her imagination.
“Look, even if my barn door swung that way – which it don't – how'd you handle farm life?” Applejack raised an eyebrow so high that Twilight wondered how it managed to stay on her head at all. It even pushed the brim of her ever-present Stetson hat up a bit with it.
Pinkie continued to crunch delightedly above them all.
“What? Oh, no, no, I'd be saving your from it! Whisked away to high-society, of-”
“Yeah, no, that ain't gonna work for me. Been there, done that.” Wait, what? At least Rarity looked as surprised by that as Twilight felt. “Ah love my farm. Love farmlife, most days, too. Ain't gonna change that. Brother needs me, at the very least. Reckon Ah need a stallion – pony, whatever — that can help come harvest time. Don't exactly see you getting your hooves muddy. Gettin' up at dawn.”
Rarity sighed blissfully, and her eyelashes fluttered audibly. How did she even do that? “Ooh, so principled and hardworking.” She swooned as shamelessly as it was possible for a mare to swoon, which was apparently quite shameless indeed. Applejack was looking distinctly uncomfortable, if a little flattered. Twilight had no idea what to do. “I must have you! I must- wait, did you say brother? Is he as imposing and muscular as you yourself are?”
“Big Macintosh? He's about half again my size, if that's-” Applejack paused as realisation struck her. Struck being the appropriate word, she looked like she'd been slapped. The vaguely flattered tinge to her was gone. Her voice instead took on a note of indignant terror, which was a rather unique combination. “Nope! Nope, that ain't gunna happen. You are not comin' within a mile of mah big brother, come heck or high water.” Applejack sent Twilight a helpless look. She all but blinked out an S.O.S.
Help came from an unlikely source. “Well, why doesn't she talk about her littler sister?” Pinkie asked, sending an explosion of crumbs flying from her mouth in the process. “Maybe they have something in common.”
The remark seemed to have deeply disturbed Rarity. “How…?”
“Well, if the question is “How did you know I had a younger sister”, it's because you obviously got used to being an only child for a while. I had lots of sisters, so I don't know what it's like to be one, but apparently you do. If the question is “How did you know I had a sister”, it's because you're way too femin-emin-ine to have a brother.”
Rarity mulled that over for a moment, though she looked no less perturbed. “How did you know I have a sibling at all, though? Both of those are adequately explained by me remaining an only child, after all.”
The Lady turned back to Twilight with a delicate mask of deadpan. “What is she?”
“It's Pinkie Pie. You get used to it.”
Twilight sighed. “No. But it makes things infinitely easier if you try to believe that.”
“Ah.” The unicorns turned back to find an empty space where Applejack had been. “Now, where did that delectable farmpony go? She and I are going to have more words, I think...”
Pinkie interjected again, obviously incredibly amused. “Oh, she snuck off while I distracted you. I think she's upladders with the Telescope.”
Twilight raised an amused eyebrow at The Lady. “You know, she really doesn't seem interested? If you keep… I don't know, if you keep at it, she really will make you do farm labour, I think.”
“I know she's not interested. She rejected me. Spurned my advances, at that.” A wicked smile tugged at those beautiful lips, and Twilight's heart fluttered a little, “Do you know how rare that is? It's exciting! A challenge! She could be everything that oaf Prince was supposed to be...”
“Isn't that a bit… again, I don't know, a bit arrogant? It can't be that rare for someone to not be interested in you?”
“That's twice now in two statements you've fumbled for words a bit. Such a well-read mare? Hardly a coincidence. Was that a hint of jealousy, too?” Rarity cooed. “Now, are you jealous of me, perhaps? Or that you might have to share me?”
“You- but?! - I! - What?!”
“Why, Twilight, I had no idea you might feel that way...” Rarity breathed, “Though I must admit, you are quite an attractive young lady yourself, and intelligence is very becoming. Beautiful in your own right.” The Lady was leaning closer now, too close, Twilight could almost feel her breath on her neck, but she wasn't backing away, why wasn't she backing away? Did she want this? Okay, yes, she did, but did she want to want this?
“Oh, Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight's eyes fluttered shut. Her lips pursed, she leaned forward slightly, bracing herself for the resistance that didn't come.
She started falling forwards.
Her eyes shot open again as she lurched back, overbalanced and fell flat on her rump, looking perhaps as mystified as she felt.
“What just happened? What did you do?”
Rarity's perfectly styled and coiled purple mane was flicked back, more for the effect than any real need. Need implied a hair fell out of place on The Lady's head, and that didn't seem likely, or perhaps even possible. “Magic, darling, you aren't the only one who has it.”
Panic. “Mind control? Hypnotism?”
The reaction seemed to annoy Rarity more than anything. She put on a big show of not looking annoyed, but made sure Twilight knew she was putting in a lot of effort. “Nothing so gauche, dear, it's just an expression. I'm far too splendid to need something so underhoof.”
Relief. Panic again. “That's not fair! I'm supposed to be feeling this way about Luna! I mean, I already do, but just her! You're supposed to be helping me with that!”
Rarity smirked a genuine, honest-to-goodness smirk as she sent a waft of tail flicking Twilight's nose, turning as coquettishly as possible, the roll of her hips like liquid smoke. “Why else would I have stopped myself, hrm? I require myself to remain strictly professional, so long as I cling to what profession I still have. You would have made a delightful little conquest, otherwise, I think. An eager little student, dripping with inexperience, begging to learn? I'm sure together we could have been… magical.” Twilight had darn near melted into the floor, either from the heat of her blush or the trembling of her weak knees or both, and Rarity wasn't even looking at her. The Lady continued, regardless.
“I'm afraid, though, I must satisfy myself with the thrill of the chase regarding that delightful farmpony you have in your employ. I wonder if she'd clean up well. Imagine her in a garter belt, perhaps...” Twilight couldn't see, since Rarity had turned, but she could hear her licking her lips again, “Succulent. Or perhaps her brother? Ooh, both at once, how deliciously scandalous…”
Twilight was rather suddenly left alone at the entrance, blushing furiously, rooted to the spot. No, not rooted, unfortunate possible secondary meanings of the word, given the circumstances. Oh dear. That thought just made everything worse!
She was snapped out of her reverie by a peanut bouncing off her head. She looked up, a bit adaze.
“I like her!” Pinkie declared grandly. “She's very friendly, isn't she?”
Twilight didn't answer. She just stared blankly at Pinkie, waiting for the excess blood to drain back from her face and into her brain again. The pink pony seemed to enjoy the show. Twilight passed the short time by wondering how Pinkie hadn't run out of peanuts just yet from such a comparatively small bag.
Then she'd probably have to go rescue Applejack.
“Hey, Twilight, why were you crying before?”
Now, that earned the pink pony a very confused look indeed. “When? I don't think I was. I'm fairly sure I wasn't.”
“Huh. Must have been my imagination, then. It does that a lot, sometimes. And it does it a some quite a lot times.”
Of course that was all it was.
Somepony else's imagination.
Twilight took a moment to reflect on the events that led to this situation. It was insufficient. She instead took a longer moment to dwell on what the current situation, exactly, was, and possibly divine some deeper meaning from it.
Several books were gone from their shelves. In their place were potted plants with the missing book's titles printed on them in heavy black ink. Rarity's little sister was shrieking from a precarious pile of prose, at least four meters high. Spike had in his claws a fire ax, riding Apple Bloom – Applejack's little sister – like a knight errant, as Apple Bloom hollered up to Sweetie Belle that everything was alright, she had a plan.
Now that she had dwelled on the situation, it might be easier to reflect on the events that led up to it.
Applejack had been backed into a proverbial and literal corner upstairs by Rarity. Rarity was flirting outrageously and appeared to be in her proverbial and figurative zone. Twilight had intervened by following up on Pinkie's educated guess from before, suggesting quietly that if their sisters were friends, it might make Applejack more inclined to be more inclined.
This was a blatant lie, or at least an act of desperation. It was an inoffensive way to get Rarity out and away from Applejack for long enough for Twilight to apologize and explain the situation.
Applejack, for her part, seemed more confused than annoyed. So long as her brother didn't get involved, she said, all was well.
That was a relief.
There was a question as to how bad Twilight's poetry was that assistance was required. Twilight had provided an example of her work. Applejack made a quiet little 'Ah' of understanding.
That was less than relieving.
The unfortunate part of this plan was that it resulted in aftermath of a sort. The nature of the aftermath was implicit in nature; that Rarity would return with her little sister.
That was an outright disaster.
Then… then there was a blank. She had absolutely no idea what had occurred between Sweetie Belle's arrival and now that had caused the girl to have become stuck on a swaying tower of books, nor what had prompted Spike and Apple Bloom to attempt to hide – she felt safe assuming this point at least – their disappearance with potted plants.
Where they had gotten potted plants from however, was another mystery entirely, and one that local law enforcement would probably be taking up with her sometime soon.
She did not want the guards taking her in over some ferns she didn't even want.
“Pinkie Pie, how are the mathematics coming along?”
“Done! Just cut here, please.” Pinkie guided Twilight's shears with a laser pointer. The oiled canvas Rarity had provided – leftovers from the time that raincoats were all the rage, only to be ousted again once umbrellas came back into fashion – carved out into a neat almost-sphere. Rarity sewed as Twilight cut, and threaded some fire-retardant rope through the bottom of the opening.
Pinkie, being the lightest of the three and the most immune to the laws of common sense, tied herself in. Twilight strapped the fuel tank and burner to her back, thick insulation held fast between the burner and the pink mare's back so as not to let the burner burn her.
“Yupperoonies. Just let that baby burn, baby, burn!”
“If by 'baby' you mean 'hydrogen', then yes, that is the plan. We will be burning no actual babies.”
Pinkie giggled. They were all set, but for their lighter.
Twilight side-eyed Rarity. “How's Applejack doing?”
The fire-axe thunked heavily on the table in front of them, thankfully flat-on rather than blade-down. Twilight looked back to see Applejack with two guilty-looking assistants flanking her.
Applejack grunted. “Cutting down Twilight's books is not a plan. Wouldn't have worked. Not your books to cut, anyway.”
Twilight took a moment to remember that she was dealing with children, and the horrible, horrible things she was thinking in the name of defending literature were entirely and wholly inappropriate.
She sighed, instead, and put on her Grownup voice; the one her mother always used when she had nearly done something catastrophically wrong. Like if she had been proofreading a letter to the Princess that might have been a little too blunt. That voice.
“Your plan was to cut my books down?”
“Well, we had to get her down somehow! Getting a ladder up there woulda just knocked it over anyway!”
Twilight looked at Spike. Really looked at him. It was not a happy look. Spike sighed. “We panicked,” he admitted.
Well, at least he was honest. Even if it didn't explain how she got up there in the first place. Probably better not to ask. “Could you please light this burner, Spike? We have a plan as well.” She did not need to tell him it was better. That was implied by the fact that their plan did not involve cutting books down with an axe.
Spike stared at Pinkie a moment, who was practically vibrating with excitement. With a shrug, Spike lit the burner on Pinkie's back.
Slowly, the impromptu weather balloon began to inflate. Slowly, yes, but not quietly. It sounded
Pinkie checked over the scrawled equations one last time. “What if the weight difference is too much? You'll catch me, right?”
Twilight nodded. “Of course we will, Pinkie. It's perfectly safe.”
There was a pause that was aggressively filled by Applejack's silence. A lack of words emanated from her in waves, each wave with its own unique inflection of; “I'm not upset with you, but I want you to know I'm very disappointed” timbre to it.
Rarity lost her patience first. “What, dear, what? I swear, if you hold back a moment longer, I would be able to burst you with the press of a pin.”
“Well, thing is, if we can catch Pinkie if she's fallin', doesn't it make sense to get Sweetie there to jump and just to catch her?”
Twilight stared first at the inflating balloon, then at Sweetie, and finally back to the balloon again, slower. Finally, back to Applejack. “But, we already made the balloon.”
Applejack snorted as she wandered off with a rather chastised Spike and Apple Bloom in tow. “Muckin' about with academics, this is what'll getcha, I swear...”
“Where are you-”
“Ah.” Twilight finished. Reasonable enough.
Pinkie's balloon continued to inflate with the roar of burning gasses, in spite of common sense and practicality. Gas doesn't care about that. Gas just burns. Twilight didn't much care, either, really. A mare who dedicated herself to firing death beams at the moon had no room for such things in her life. Pinkie, at least, seemed emboldened by the reassurances and now looked genuinely excited.
Then, it happened.
Pinkie's hooves finally left the ground. She wiggled them a little bit under her, like she was grabbing at her last chance to hold on, but the ground had already left her reach. With a faintly nervous chuckle, she rose past the first few books. By the time she was halfway up the stack she was openly giggling like a filly, which seemed to reassure the actual filly waiting for her at the top.
Back on the ground, Rarity was looking at the blueprints.
“Now, begging your pardon, oh great and wise scholar,” she intoned, eyes not once leaving the page, “but what would these numbers be?”
“Oh, well, Eureka!'s constant for buoyancy, except using atmospheric pressure instead of water.”
“I see. And this?”
“Pinkie's weight, with the burner attached.”
“Reasonable enough. This, then, under 'ballast'?”
“Well, it's Sweetie's guesstimated weight – technical term, that, guesstimate – so that, when Pinkie reaches that height and grabs her, the added weight will counteract the buoyancy and bring them both slowly back to the ground, if the maths are correct.”
“I see, I see,” Rarity nodded, “I thought so. Tell me, where did you get that number from?”
“Well, I figured a filly can't weigh much more than a large dog, right?”
“Mm. Mm. I figured you two might have some inexperience with the ethereal concept of 'children'. So, if the number were instead to be, say–“ Rarity crossed out the number and wrote in another, rather larger one, “– this instead, that would be a cause for concern, yes?”
“That's not a hypothetical question, is it?” Twilight murmured, quickly doing the math for just how concerned she should be. It was another, rather larger amount of concern than she had felt a moment ago.
“Unfortunately not, my dear, unfortunately not.” Rarity chewed faintly at nothingness, a distant and thoughtful look crossing her features, like that of a chess grandmaster scanning a board that existed behind their eyes. “Should we panic, now?”
“I don't suppose it would help much. Couldn't hurt, though?”
“Mm. Might cause Pinkie to drop my dear little sister, however. We'll warn her and then panic.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Twilight agreed, panicking internally. “Pinkie might want to panic with us, after all.”
“Without dropping my sister, though,” Rarity amended.
“Oh, yes,” Twilight agreed, “that'd just result in more panic.”
“Can't have that, no.”
Twilight cupped her hooves around her mouth and bellowed to Pinkie, easily heard from her almost-four-stories up but, again, still not a fun height to fall from for anypony involved. Least of all Pinkie.
“Pinkie, Sweetie Belle weighs significantly more than anticipated. Correct for a double in ballast!”
Pinkie's eyes glazed over for a brief moment, tongue pressing to the side of her mouth even as lips silently mouthed out new numbers and – oh! There it was.
“So, panicking?” Pinkie called cheerfully down.
“Not yet, you have to grab Sweetie Belle first, and not drop her. Then we can panic.”
“Okie dokie lokie!” Pinkie had levelled off now with Sweetie Belle, the filly's confusion now vastly outweighing her fear. At least for the moment. Pink hooves enveloped her and- “Gotcha!” Pinkie cried.
The balloon stopped rising with Sweetie as an anchor, Pinkie pivoting around and above her. The books below lost their natural counterweight and, seemingly all at once, decided that the laws of physics might be a fun thing to try, so let's see if we can't try them all at once?
Inertia, gravity, the pendulum effect, and various other forces all knocked the stack out from under Pinkie and Sweetie. They began plummeting at a slightly-but-not-less-enough less rapid rate, wind whipping their manes and tails upwards towards the balloon like cotton-candy streamers.
“Rarity, catch me!” Pinkie cried.
Rarity... caught Pinkie Pie. However, this is not to say Rarity deliberately caught Pinkie like a baseball outfielder, no. She caught Pinkie like the baseball mitt.
Fortunately for all involved, Rarity's corset boning acted at once as a spring to absorb the blow of the landing, and as armour plating to preserve the integrity of the lady's internals. It was still less than ideal, except for Sweetie, apparently.
“That was so fun!” she squeaked, “Can I do that again? But with a bigger stack of books, oh, oh, and a bigger balloon?”
“If we ever make a hot air balloon to get to the moon,” Pinkie gasped, “we gotta work out the weight first.”
“Hot air balloons don't work in the aether,” Twilight stared at the twitching pile of equinity, pink limbs tangled with white, both sets occasionally twitching, “so we don't have to worry about that.”
“So how are you going to save Luna, then?”
Twilight stared at the twitchy pile, or rather stared past it. Stasis. That was a very good question.
She jumped when somepony tapped her on the shoulder.
“Science later. Friendship now,” Applejack declared.
“I think I would like,” Rarity groaned as Twilight helped untangle her from Pinkie, “a very nice, soothing cup of tea, yes.”
Pinkie was Applejack's job. From what Twilight could overhear, they were working out the best way to toast marshmallows off the burners on her back.
It was a pleasant distraction from the cleanup. There were a lot of books to pick up, even for four ponies, and the kids weren't going to be much help. They had been relegated to time-out in the basement anyway.
Twilight had just finished reshelving a thick and heavy set of tomes written by Iverywell Kant when she heard the doorbell ring.
She beamed with joy. Rainbow Dash had finally given in! Had taken her instructions to heart! Had thought about something rather than just rushing headfirst into it and hoping for the best and-
Okay, yeah, so, that wasn't Rainbow at the door.
Excitement turned cold and heavy in her gut. A cursory glance at Pinkie confirmed. Pinkie was confused, not excited. If it was Rainbow, she of all ponies would know.
So, it wasn't Rainbow.
“Everypony, hide. Or at least get out of sight of the entrance foyer.”
They obeyed, Applejack immediately, and with her went Rarity closely behind. But not too close, that would spoil the view Rarity whispered. Pinkie stood there a long moment, studying Twilight carefully, before finally tearing herself away to hide in her basement dwellings. The young'ins were down there, at the very least; Applejack had them shoveling coal from one pile of the room into the other pile of the room. Pinkie could supervise, make sure they kept their heads down.
Sure she had some stolen pots, but she hadn't stolen them.
Well, she was the acting guardian, of sorts, to the children who had stolen them, and the stolen property was still in her house, and they might have been very nice plants...
Oh dear, she was going to jail, wasn't she?
At door now.
Open door with hopeful smile.
Guards. Royal guards at that.
Oh dear oh dear oh dear oh-
Three of them. Two sergeants and a captain. All in scarlet red uniforms, all with the sparkling white helmets of Her Majesty's forces. The captain had a polished ceremonial cuirass, the same bright brass as the sergeant's buttons. All had long firearms levelled not at her, but in such a way as to suggest that could be changed in a thought.
“What seems to be the problem, officers?” she oozed co-operativeness out of every pore. “I'm sorry about the potted plants, and I promise I'll return them, and it'll never happen again.”
The captain took his helmet off, looking at her quizzically through a shock of electric blue hair. “We have reports that some girls in your house took some potted plants, yes, but you also messed with the Princess again, and you're harbouring the fugitive that tried to burn Court to the ground. Why is it that my little sister, smartest darn filly this side of anywhere, thinks I'm here about the potted plants?”
“Shining!” Twilight shouted – because squealing in delight was very unbecoming and not something she absolutely just did – all-but-flinging herself at his armoured chest with a clang. She looked up to see two breech-loaded rifles levelled at her. Specialists.
Her brother pushed her away. The cliché would be that he did it gently-but-firmly, but that wouldn't do justice to the moment; he might have used a delicate amount of force to it, but there is no gentle way to push your beloved sister away under threat of death.
He looked just as miserable as she did.
“Twily… you really ticked off the Princess this time.” He paused for a moment to let that sink in, and then, “Really.”
“I do that all the time, though.”
When Twilight took a step forward to nuzzle her brother, he took a step back, pressing a hoof to his face and dragging it down in… exasperation? The others' muskets held a steady bead just below the base of Twilight's horn.
“This time things are… different.” Shining muttered. “I don't know what you did, but they pulled me off another continent and way back to the capital for this. My men weren't exactly in the best shape when I left, either.” Then, far more bitterly, “So it must have been serious, or they'd have used someone else. You're under house arrest, Twily, effective immediately.”
Twilight dove into the recesses of her brain, scrambling for an appropriate response to that from one of many possible filing cabinets; Familiar troubles? Legal troubles? Family-in-law troubles? No, that was different altogether.
It was from an unlikely cabinet that she drew her response, then.
“What about my friends?”
Shining beamed, bright as the noonday sun. “You have friends, now? Aw, wow, little sis, good for you! That's fantastic!” And here it was that he flung himself at his little sister, scooping her up into a big, crushing hug. It was Twilight who didn't return it, this time, wedging a hoof up and between them and pushing him away, at least a little bit. She didn’t have the strength to do much more than that, and there’s only so much you can do against an armoured breast plate.
“What about them, Shiny?” she choked into his ear, not able to do much more with his hooves around her ribs.
Shining dropped her, stepping back. The other guards hadn't flinched, hadn't moved, and their expressions were unreadable underneath the low-tipped pith helms.
“Well, the Princess is under the impression that you don't have friends. So, I don’t have any specific instructions about that. And since they're not in my orders, they can come and go as they please, I guess.” He looked at the other two guards, as if daring them to correct him. Neither did.
Even now, her brother was looking out for her. Well, especially now, she supposed.
“Do you want to come in? I imagine you've come a long way to get here...”
Shining stared at the other two. They finally stood at ease. Apparently a silent conversation had gone on between them, and resulted in Shining following her past the threshold.
“So, when did you expect your friends to show up? This might be difficult to explain.”
“Oh, they're already here. They're just hiding. Except Rainbow Dash, she'll show up eventually. I think she'd really like you.”
Shining seemed a bit confused. “Oh. Well, that's… nice?”
“Yes. Yes it is.” Twilight agreed wholeheartedly. Then, louder, “Girls! Come out and meet my brother. He's not going to shoot anyone!”
Shining closed his mouth.
They'd gotten past the foyer by now, and found themselves around a copse amongst the forest of books towering around and above them. Well, and some potted plants. There was a long reading table here, the same one Pinkie and Rainbow had taken to holding hostage so often now, and Twilight offered Shining a seat. He graciously accepted as they waited for her friends to gain the courage to come out… just in case.
He took his cuirass off as well, a show of good faith, of vulnerability. It was placed on a bookshelf behind him alongside his helmet, and the newly anointed Captain Potted Fern began an illustrious career guarding literature.
Pinkie Pie was the first to appear. Of course, she'd be the most trusting. Her pink head had appeared above the recess into the basement like foam cresting a wave, all puff and eyes. When nopony immediately shot or electrocuted or yelled at her, the rest of her body came dragging up after it, tentatively, like a child would if they weren't quite sure they'd done something wrong or not yet.
Shining smiled at the mare, and that seemed to make everything alright again. The approval seemed to transform Pinkie from anxious child to eager puppy, if not in posture than at least in expression. The slight wagging of her tail was obviously just a trick of the light.
“Hello, little lady. You must be one of—” A glance at Twilight for confirmation of a plurality, a nod, right, continue, “— Twilight's friends? Well, it's an honour to meet you. My name's Shining Armor.” He smiled, his tone of voice indicating that he meant it, but he didn't mean to mean it. Like the formality was genuine, but it was also a joke just between the two of them.
How a pony who had racked up almost, or even possibly at least, a triple digit body count over the last few years could appear so absolutely non-threatening was a mystery, but still Shining managed it with his usual aura of inner peace and calm.
It was enough for Pinkie. She walked a little faster, each step quickening in excitement, so that by the time she reached their tranquil table she was skipping, taking deeper breaths. She was a pot bubbling over.
“Hi, my name's Pinkie Pie! What's yours? Oh, right, you already said. So what's it like to have a big brother? No, wait, what's it like to have a little sister? So you're a soldier, did you ever shoot anyone? No, wait, did you ever take a bullet for someone else? Are you a captain? Because you have the captain shoulder thingies! What are they called, anyway? What's it like in the zebra colonies? What's your favourite colour? Uh, that's it for now, I think.”
Pinkie inhaled explosively, collapsing into a chair beside Shining, leaning into him with fluttering eyelashes.
Shining's eyes, however, were closed, lips moving silently for a few seconds. Then;
“In order: Ask Twilight, a heavy responsibility but totally worth it, unfortunately I have shot a lot of horses and zebras but I've also been in charge of executions if a pony in the regiment has committed a serious enough crime, I've never taken a literal bullet but I have pardoned a few ponies for… reasons that I'm sure I'm not actually allowed to talk about if that counts, I am a captain, they're called chevrons, the colonies are hot and uncivilized but there are a lot of really cool animals, and my favourite colour is pink. You're actually the only pony I've seen pinker than my fiance, which is impressive.”
Pinkie 'ooohed' in appreciation, then giggled, poking Shining's chevrons now that she knew what they were called. He just smiled warmly back.
Shining got all the memory of the siblings. Twilight kept up by making lists of absolutely everything, because life isn't a closed book exam darn it, but she was always jealous of his—
“Fiance? Did you say…?”
Shining's pupils shrank fast, and his turning to look at Twilight was conspicuous only for its absence.
“I'm holding you to that. Cadance didn't say anything, either.”
“What? Really? I never mentioned… later.”
That seemed to draw Rarity from her own shadows, like a spectre. It said a lot that the Lady could even skulk with ethereal grace. “Ah. Of course, how could I possibly forget? The years have been kind to you, Sir Armor. Your poetry, at least, is truly memorable.” She walked around the pair to sit at the table opposite.
Shining twisted in his seat as Rarity slid on liquid muscles around them, not even trying to suppress a bubbling, beaming, goofy grin. “Lady Rarity! Uh, my poetry got better, if that helps?”
“No it didn't,” Rarity chided, shaking her head.
“No, it didn't,” Shining agreed, nodding.
“Cadance doesn't mind?”
“Cadance doesn't mind.”
Rarity poured herself into a seat opposite Shining and Pinkie, next to Twilight. “Wonderful. You two are sickeningly adorable. It does my heart good.”
Right. These two had met. So, just Applejack left, then.
“Nope,” came the country twang from some vaguely upward direction, “ain't doin it. Ain't talkin’ to some pompous officer with some cushy desk job. Can't do it. Don't care if'n he's your brother or not.”
Pinkie looked confused by this. Rarity swooned, though, and because Twilight was so close she could faintly hear the whispered words, “Such principles,” but Shining himself just looked thoughtful.
Shining's voice went into professional, practiced and calm mode. “Someone close to you get drafted?”
“Enlisted freely, you pardon your tongue.”
“Gotcha. Kin?” Kin definitely wasn't a word Shining would use normally. He was definitely trying to talk to Applejack on her terms. The fact that he was doing it by yelling approximately at the ceiling, since one couldn't quite pinpoint where a voice was coming from in the strange combination of echo-chamber and sound-dampener the library created, did little to lessen his attempt.
“Zebra colonist or Saddle Arabian campaign?”
“Did fine in Saddle Arabia, 'til they took him down to the zebra lands, that's what got him killed. Decision made by some high falutin' officer like you, safe here in the capital, never fired a gun or had one fired at you or nuthin'.”
“Applejack!” Rarity chided. Seems rose-tinted glasses only did so much.
Shining gave her an I got this look, and Rarity bit her tongue. Quite literally. Pinkie giggled, not sure what was going on but quite enjoying the silly, frustrated, expression.
“That's not true. I just got pulled from the zebra frontlines to keep Twily here… guarded.”
Applejack finally revealed herself, head peeking up from a bookshelf almost exactly where Shining had been aiming his head. What had seemed a random direction… Twilight shuddered. That was just creepy.
“Oh yeah? Why's that? You get, whatsit called, nepotistic privilege to get you sent home?”
Shining winced. He watched Twilight carefully for a few moments, even as Applejack glared daggers at him from above.
“Sort of. The Princess believes I'm the only pony that Twilight wouldn't dare attack. She knows Twilight's dangerous.”
That was… unpleasant to know.
Shining would never hurt her though, would he? He was still watching her far too carefully for her to take that for granted.
Applejack seemed to consider that, though. “Yeah, alright, I'd buy that. Bettin' the Princess hurts that fiance of yours, maybe your parents if they're still around, if you don't?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Shining sighed.
Pinkie looked as rocked as Twilight herself, but Rarity just appeared to have taken the information in stride, almost as much for granted as Applejack herself. Twilight found herself feeling hopelessly naive as a result.
Shining offered a hoof across the table, laid on its surface, holding eye contact. The implied statement: “I'm sorry, Twilight,” pressed into it, firmly. The implied reassurance: “Forgiven.”
They just held the touch for a few seconds.
Applejack started working her way to the nearest ladder down the towering bookshelf, down to the table. “Alright. So you're not just a pencil pusher playing with your tin soldiers.”
“Oh, I play tin soldiers,” Shining replied, effortlessly, withdrawing his hoof from Twilight again and folding his arms in front of him, cautiously watching Applejack as she made her way down the ladder, “but I give them names, and I remember them.”
There seemed to be an unspoken challenge there, one Applejack picked up on even as Twilight and Pinkie were left in the proverbial dust. Rarity, however, looked faintly curious. Even if she didn't understand what was being said, she did seem to appreciate where it was going. Again, Twilight felt hopelessly out of her depth.
“Oh yeah? Where were you, Battle of Isandlwana?”
“Leading the One Twenty Fourth hoof regiment,” Shining answered brusquely.
This was a part of Shining's life that Twilight never asked about. Never thought about. Pushed from her mind. She felt herself grow cold and static, preparing for what was about to be asked. Pinkie looked like she was about to hear a great tale of derring do, but it was Rarity's and Applejack’s – fresh down from the ladder – expressions that told the true story of what happened that day.
“Oh,” Applejack said simply. There was an awkward pause, or at least a pause Twilight considered awkward until; “Wouldn't happen to know a corporal by the name of Braeburn, would you?”
“Ha!” Shining laughed, actually laughed at that, which didn't seem to impress Applejack in the slightest, “I'm guessing he was your cousin, then? You've got a similar enough accent, but I reckon he was a bit further across the tree than a brother.”
Applejack, for her part, didn't know whether she was supposed to be offended, impressed or just plain surprised yet. All possible expressions warred for primacy on her face, flickering shadows of emotion across her eyes. “Oh, er, yeah, that's right. Mother's sister's son.”
“That'd do it. Oh, wow, he was a good lad. Not just a good soldier, but a good stallion too. Ridiculous looking muttonchops though. Never failed a uniform inspection, either, never worked out how he kept everything so clean.”
Applejack snorted at that. Looked like impressed had won out the day. “Yeah, that'd be Aunt Honeycrisp for you, that mare was an absolute fiend at the spic and the span, and goodness forbid if her son wouldn't be too. Figure the facial fuzz was just his way of rebelling.”
“Ah, that explains it. I would have been honoured to— wait, hang on a sec; Twilight, there were one thousand, eight hundred and thirty seven soldiers on our side that day. Four hundred and two were in my regiment. What are the odds Braeburn was in my regiment? To the nearest single digit fraction, what are the odds that her cousin was in the same regiment as me?”
“Four oh two divided by one eight three seven, naught point two two rounding up, multiplied by one hundred is twenty two percent, rounding down to the nearest whole fraction being one fifth,” Twilight answered robotically, unblinking. She’d sort of been compartmentalizing, and being so rudely pulled back to reality for a moment was aggravating, to say the least.
Rarity and Applejack stared at Twilight, agog. Agog was a good word, Twilight thought, and she would have to use it more. Pinkie, meanwhile, had checked off the math counting on her hooves somehow, and nodded her own agreement.
Shining turned apologetically back to Applejack, who had chosen to stand leaning on the table, resting her weight firmly on her front hooves. “Sorry about that, she doesn't like hearing about my military career much, these days. You need to throw some equations or trivia every now and again or she zonks out completely.”
Applejack watched Twilight carefully now, but Twilight barely noticed. Rarity did as well, but Twilight was completely unaware of anything outside her narrowed peripheral vision right now.
She'd seen photos of the battle, and the splashes of red – not just the cloth of the soldier's uniforms – burned behind her eyes. Of the fifty seven officers to fight that day only five had walked away. The odds of one of them being her brother was less than one in twelve.
“You remember all of 'em?”
“I carry them all with me,” Shining answered solemnly. Everypony in the room knew he wasn't just speaking figuratively.
Shining named all his tin soldiers. It was something the other officers had always mocked him for. Only some of his soldiers still fit in that desk drawer of his. The rest were in carefully laid out weatherproofed trunks. The battle had been very expensive to Shining personally, and some toy makers got the bulk benefit of that, but Shining himself hoofpainted each and every one of his new figurines.
And on the base of each and every one of those little tin soldiers was a name and a cutie mark.
“Anyway, I would have been honoured to have your cousin still with me at Roc's Drift.”
AJ's eyes widened. As did Rarity's. Pinkie just leaned closer at the mention of the funny words.
“What's a Roc's Drift?”
“One hundred fifty redcoats against three thousand plus zebras. What's that in ratios, sis?”
“Twenty to one”
“Sounds about right, yeah.”
Pinkie again. “Do you got any cool scars from it?”
Shining chuckled, actually chuckled. “I'm afraid not. Disappointing, don't have anything I can show off. Cadance won't say it, but I think she wanted a few rugged scars on me.”
It's a joke, Twilight thought, and a weak one at that. Cadance hated the idea of Shining being in danger as much as she did. Rarely was Shining truly in danger though: The scary thing was, Shining, her brother, he was the danger.
Shining continued on, though, fishing into the breast pocket of his red uniform. It unfolded, and a Celestial Cross dangled proudly from his chest.
“I did get this though. I mean, and a lot of others too,” he rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, “but if I wear 'em all, they kinda drag the uniform down and it chafes like crazy.”
“Oooh!” Pinkie cooed, “Shiny!”
“Why, yes, yes I am,” Shining laughed. Pinkie took a moment to get it but when she did, she darn right fell off her chair from giggle-snorting so hard and continued rolling on the floor laughing for a lot longer than any self-respecting pony aught to at a bad pun.
Applejack and Rarity, though stared at the medal, about a hoof in diameter and polished to a gleam. Rarity gulped. Applejack just nodded slowly.
“I reckon I take it all back. You're good folk, sir. I reckon if any pony's holding me here on threat of death, reckon it's glad it's someone who had Braeburn's back.”
“Nah, I'm just here for Twilight. The rest of you are free to come and go as you please, so long as you don't make a big deal of it. I'm just here in case anyone catches Twilight trying to escape.”
Twilight pricked her ears up at that.
Had she— Shining was a pony that picked his phrasing carefully, even if he used the individual words carelessly. There's an old chess expression that a master analyzes the board for half an hour before moving the right piece to the right square, but a grandmaster throws the piece into the air and it just so happens to land exactly where it needed to go. Shining was a bit like that with his words.
And what he had just said was don't get caught.
She stared at him. He winked back, smiling, but the smile had a cold twitch to it.
She could read it. She could read him. If you get caught, either you kill me, I kill you, or all of our loved ones are executed with us. So don't get caught.
She'd have to take that in. She'd have to—
Shining's head jerked up. From his pocket he drew his service revolver, and an electric-blue shield thrummed into life above him.
But Rainbow Dash wasn't slowing down.
The hammer drew back on the revolver, but Twilight blocked it with a shield of her own. Only a centimeter in area, but enough to block a hammer from setting off a primer.
Shining looked at her for only a fraction of a second in surprise, then realization. He didn't drop the revolver, but he did flip it around, the handle of it poised like a club. That was all it took for Rainbow Dash to close the distance and charge into the shield screaming a bloodcurdling battlecry.
Pinkie Pie, for her part, looked absolutely delighted by the spectacle, jumping out of her seat, both hooves raised in the air like a cheerleader.
Applejack and Rarity both dove under the table, like sane and rational ponies. Of course, Rarity took the chance to flirt outrageously in the dark confined space with her captive audience, so apparently she was only imitating the sane and rational.
Rainbow Dash… there was no other way to put it. She bounced. Shining's shield wavered but held strong, offering enough elasticity that Rainbow Dash wasn't too badly hurt, but it did send her careening back up with a very surprised and indignant yelp.
“I aimed away her from the books,” Shining announced, finally chancing a look back at Twilight. “Thought you'd appreciate that.”
“That was very thoughtful.”
“Sorry for nearly shooting her. Reflex.”
“It's fine. She probably deserved it a little.”
“You don't mean that, sis.”
“No, I don't, but my brain is still catching up to the absurdity that is my life. I'm just glad she didn't have the kukri on her.”
Rainbow Dash, pith helmet askew and many feathers ruffled, appeared atop a bookshelf much like Applejack had earlier. “H-hey, what gives? Vile fiend, have at thee! C'mon, I'll take you down, you and me, fisticuffs, what ho!”
“Rainbow Dash, this is my brother, Shining Armor. Shining Armor, this is my friend Rainbow Dash.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you!” Shining dropped his shield and called up to the blue head bobbing up high above them. He said this without a trace of sarcasm or irony.
“Oh. So, he's not here to shoot us all for crimes against the Princess and laying out Bright Spark?”
Shining Armor's head snapped back down to Twilight in shock. “You threw a punch at a captain of industry?”
“She did, I just helped her get away with it.”
Shining beamed like a goofus. “That's my Twily!”
Rarity and Applejack started crawling out from under the table, Applejack noticeably faster than the Lady, who seemed hesitant. Still, it would not do to linger, that would be… indecent.
Wonderfully, deliciously indecent, she would later remark to Twilight strictly in confidence.
“Wait, is that a medal?” Rainbow called down.
“Yeah! Wanna see?”
“Heck yeah! It's shiny!”
“So's he!” Pinkie laugh-shouted, falling back over.
And as Rainbow Dash circled down to join them, Twilight thought…
So this is how my house arrest starts. Not with gunshots and threats, but laughter and smiles.
And she knew that was why the Princess had sent her own brother to do this. The sergeants weren't here to watch her; they were here to watch him.
It wasn't because Twilight couldn't fight Shining. It was because he was the only soldier Twilight wouldn't.
The Princess fought dirty, and now she had declared war.
“Hey, Shining, if any of your ponies patrolling here are of the winged variety, tell them not to fly directly overhead.”
“Oh? If you're planning to sneak out over the rooftops—”
“No, no. We're just going to be firing a death ray at the moon, and it's kind of indiscriminate about things that get in the way.”
Shining stared at Twilight for a few long, infinitely long moments. Then; “Okay, yeah, I'll see what I can do.”
Then, turning to Rarity, he said “Okay, seriously, of the two of us, how am I the less terrifyingly dangerous one? Or is that dangerously terrifying?”
“It's both, dear, and it's because you live for love. I'm afraid your sister may be willing to die for it.”
Shining nodded, as if that made all the sense in the world. And then it didn't.
“Wait, my sister has… who's the lucky pony?” He said, looking directly at Applejack for some reason.
“Well.” Rarity coughed, as Twilight blushed furiously, screwing her eyes as firmly shut as she could, which was very shut indeed. “That's going to take some explaining. And, it seems, a very powerful telescope.”